New films: reviews

JACKIE BROWN

(15) HHHH

Director: Quentin Tarantino

Starring: Pam Grier, Samuel L Jackson, Robert Forster, Bridget Fonda, Michael Keaton, Robert De Niro

It may be that that the ingredients which make Jackie Brown such a pleasurable and rewarding experience are those most likely to disappoint fans of Quentin Tarantino who have become hooked on the hip, adrenaline-fuelled brutality of his previous films, Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, and his screenplays for True Romance and Natural Born Killers. It may seem perverse to commend a film on its blandness, but following the stylistic overkill of Pulp Fiction, you're grateful that Jackie Brown seems to have been designed in the style of its locations - shopping malls and dim bars and carparks.

At times it almost resembles an episode of Hart to Hart. Violence is also conspicuous by its absence from Jackie Brown. It's true to say that Tarantino has always been more economical with depicting violence than his prematurely engorged myth would have it - his work is pregnant with the possibility of violence, or soiled with its aftermath; rarely are we confronted with actual violent acts in his work.

But in Jackie Brown, violence is relegated to the position of "noises off'": what killings the film does include take place either in long-shot or off-screen altogether, while two key confrontations between the main characters, the flight attendant Jackie (Pam Grier) and the mobster Ordell (Samuel L Jackson) whom she's moonlighting for, occur in completely darkened rooms.

The picture has a slow-burning tension characteristic of its source material - Elmore Leonard's novel Rum Punch - but its main focus is the desperation of each of its characters to make something of their lives, to do something impulsive and daring, before it's too late.

The story picks up speed gradually, and in typical Leonard style, it has you in its grasp before you've even noticed. The FBI are onto Jackie when she arrives home in Los Angeles, and after considering her position as a 44-year-old woman with prior convictions and little hope of advancing up the career ladder at this late stage, she agrees to help set up a sting operation in order to snare Ordell and halt his gun-running operations - at least that's what she leads the Feds to believe. And she dupes Ordell into thinking that she's double-crossing the FBI too, when in fact she is lining up a substantial cash bounty for herself, with the tentative help of the bail bondsman Max Cherry (Robert Forster), who may be falling in love with her. Also lining up for their slice of the pie are the shifty ex-con Louis (Robert De Niro), and Ordell's strung-out surfer girl, Melanie (Bridget Fonda), but Jackie hatches a plan that could bring them all down.

The picture is long at two-and-a-half hours, but this gives Tarantino a chance to wallow in his characters, as opposed to indulging their eccentricities, which was the mistake he made with Pulp Fiction. In Jackie Brown, you don't have to hack your way through self-conscious, rhythmic monologues to reach the core of a character - perhaps disciplined by the taut narrative demands of Leonard's careful plotting, Tarantino has largely stripped his own writing of its affectation.

What you're left with is a surprisingly generous drama which has its brushes with poignancy in the scenes between Jackie and Max, two laid- back middle-aged nobodies. Tarantino's affection for these characters manifests itself in the little digressions that he permits: like the short scene where Max goes into a record store, picks up a tape of the Delfonics, Jackie's favourite band, and smiles sweetly to himself.

GATTACA

(15) HHHH

Director: Andrew Niccol

Starring: Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman, Jude Law

Andrew Niccol's futuristic parable is driven by a bold concept - a world separated into valids, who have been created by geneticists in test-tubes to reduce the risk of imperfection, and in-valids, who are conceived naturally, and are thus prone to deficiencies.

The in-valids, like Vincent (Ethan Hawke) are guaranteed only one thing in life: they will be subjected to the prejudice of others. But Vincent has ambition, and when he sets his sights on joining the Gattaca space programme, he knows that he must find a way of passing himself off as a valid. He locates Jerome (Jude Law) - a valid disabled in an accident who is now willing to rent out his identity - and gets himself into Gattaca.

But every hair, every flake of skin on Vincent's body tells a different story to his identity card and his false thumbprint, and when his eyelash is found at the scene of a murder, it seems as though the truth is destined to be revealed.

If the film gets itself into a slight muddle with a plot that comes close to requiring on-screen annotation, then its atmosphere and performances carry it through. The design of the picture is sparse and chilling, stripped to flat, antiseptic structures and landscapes which echo early Cronenberg, while Niccol's screenplay introduces intelligent, ethical questions which are faithfully pursued to their logical conclusions.

HHHH excellent HHH good HH average H poor

THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK

(12) HHH

Director: Randall Wallace

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jeremy Irons, John Malkovich, Gerard Depardieu, Gabriel Byrne

Randall Wallace's jolly swashbuckler has as much historical authenticity as the Alexander Dumas novel from which it is adapted, but it's a hoot, largely because of the wild sense of abandon brought to it by a fine cast. Jeremy Irons, Gerard Depardieu and John Malkovich are the tatty, disbanded Musketeers appealing to their former colleague D'Artagnan (Gabriel Byrne), now the king's bodyguard, to help them in a scheme to right the wrongs of Louis XIV by swapping him for his twin brother, who has been clamped inside an iron mask for six years.

Playing both twins is Leonardo DiCaprio, who is far better given the opportunity to tap into his malicious side - as he is as the king - than he was as the dull goody-two-shoes in Titanic. The movie is frequently absurd, but isn't such absurdity at the heart of every swashbuckler worth its salt?

THE RIVER

(NC) HHH

Director: Tsai Ming-Liang

Starring: Lee Kang-Sheng

An atmospheric drama from Taiwan which demands incredible patience, but has its own unexpected rewards. The story is sparse, to say the least - a boy develops severe neck pains after playing a corpse in a movie, and his father, who favours casual encounters in gay saunas, escorts him to a healer - but Tsai Ming-Liang directs in a haunting, lyrical style.

LOVE ETC

(15) H

Director: Marion Vernoux

Starring: Yvan Attal, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Charles Berling

Based on Julian Barnes's novel Talking It Over, this meandering French drama stars Charlotte Gainsbourg as a woman torn between her husband and his best friend. The cast is fine, but the use of theatrical techniques is misguided, and the film suffers severely by comparison with its closest relation, Truffaut's Jules et Jim.

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