Slaughter, slaughter everywhere ...

FILM

Nine films to cover, no fewer; we must needs be brisk. The Long Kiss Goodnight (18) is this week's big expensive American film in which a great many people are punched, kicked, stabbed, shot and immersed in cold water; in which vehicles and buildings are noisily blown up, acrobatic stunts of Newton-confounding intricacy are performed and harsh if inventive oaths are used. It's an action movie. The gimmick is that a mousey schoolteacher and single parent (Geena Davis), suffering from complete amnesia about anything that happened to her before she woke up on a beach in the late Eighties, starts to recover disconcerting memories and an unexplained facility with kitchen knives. Her first assumption is that she must have been a chef, but when perfect strangers show up to kill her, she thinks again.

With a low-rent, indeed sordid private detective (Samuel L Jackson) in tow, she sets off in search of her former self. Their first stop is Brian Cox, here playing his third CIA spook in little over a month (has his agent set up a deal with the boys in Virginia?). Bit by bit, they learn: (a) that she used to be a crack assassin for the US government, and (b) that rogue agency elements, plotting a fake terrorist attack to scare up government funding, are keen to see her dead again. The rest you may guess. It's directed by Ms Davis's husband, Renny Harlin, which may account for the fact that some of Mr Jackson's lines are slightly funnier than the genre average. I had other things to say, but I've mysteriously forgotten them.

Eerily, the most pleasurable of the week's offerings, Etienne Chatiliez's Le Bonheur (15), has one point of similarity with Harlin's film. Francis (Michael Serrault, sultan of grumpiness), a factory owner locked into a wretched marriage, has his life changed overnight when a popular television show identifies him as the long-lost husband of a farming family. This isn't so, but he plays along with the error, reverting to his supposedly true identity. Soon, everyone in sight is busting with rich food and erotic gratification. A fairly silly plot, true, but it's gleefully acted throughout (Eddy Mitchell is especially endearing in the role of the relentlessly vulgar Gerard, the Life Force in a cheap suit), and there's plenty of grubby taste to keep it the right side of The Darling Buds of May, including a car-sex joke so dodgy no American production would have risked it. Sports fans may care to know that M Eric Cantona plays the minor role of a rugby champion, perfectly adequately.

I Shot Andy Warhol (18) is Mary Harron's unconventional, often absorbing biopic of Valerie Solanas (1936-1989), psychology major, street hustler, unproduced playwright and author of the Scum Manifesto, an arresting amalgam of courageous insight, pottiness, wind-up, call for gendercide and yawn of dandyish contempt. (It begins memorably: "Life in this society being, at best, an utter bore...") It's a crusading enterprise - an attempt to extend Valerie Solanas's fame beyond its proverbial quarter of an hour, and to restore different meanings to a life now remembered, if at all, for the ambiguously motivated assassination attempt of the title. Some critics have complained that Solanas is too marginal a figure to justify a full-length feature, but there doesn't seem any reason why the cinema shouldn't be following literary biography down despised and neglected paths by now. For most of the film, the admirable Lili Taylor plays Solanas as an impish invader: a tricky, passionate spirit suddenly let loose in the land of the Ice King (Jared Harris is quietly funny as Warhol), far more sympathetic even in her paranoia than the smoothies (such as Maurice Girodias, sleek and mischievous in Lothaire Bluteau's performance) she regarded, perhaps rightly, as manipulators and sharks. Though I'm still not sure I'd go along with Harron's high opinion of the woman, I wasn't bored, utterly or otherwise, for a second.

The Van (15), directed by Stephen Frears from Roddy Doyle's own screenplay, is the final part of the Barrytown trilogy, with a plot echoing The Commitments (an escape attempt from everyday misery - there a soul band, here a burger van - succeeds for a while, breeds conflict, and sputters out), but a narrower focus: the deep but awkward friendship between Bimbo (Donal O'Kelly), whose redundo finances the scheme, and Larry (the endlessly likeable Colm Meaney). With the backdrop of Ireland's fortunes in the 1990 World Cup, it's mostly business as usual - major humiliations, minor triumphs, vivid similes (openly discussed as such: Larry's wife is taking evening classes), emotional outbursts fuelled by unfeasible quantities of stout. Despite a fair dose of knockabout, though, the mood is more conspicuously glum: the panic of middle age piled on the wretchedness of long-term unemployment. Hard to improve on Doyle's own characterisation of the film: "Thelma and Louise with chips".

The cheeky idea in Adrian Noble's A Midsummer Night's Dream (PG) is to reframe the familiar jewel with a fantasy about a scrubbed and rosy little boy (Osheen Jones). One night the tyke falls asleep and dreams a slimmed- down text of the Dream, scampering wordlessly in and out of the action in his blue jim-jams. This ploy gives Noble two obvious advantages: it appears to make the play kiddy-friendly (an improving treat for the hols), and it allows him to show most of the action happening as it would on the boards of a toy theatre - with a forest made of light bulbs, upturned brollies and Magrittish free-standing doors. Regrettably, though, the boy's slumbering imagination tends to the garish and the twee, and he has obviously watched the scene in ET where the bicycle crosses the moon several times too often. Some of it is all right - the idea of the mechanicals as Dad's Army extras is amusing - and Lindsay Duncan, swathed in fuschia feathers, is at once majestic and luscious as Titania. But the acting is, shall we say, variable, and there are moments when this Christopher Robin makes you feel (all hail, Mrs Parker) like fwoing up.

"You guys, as a gender, have to get a grip," opines the philosophical hairdresser Gina (Rosie O'Donnell) to a couple of testosterone-drunk losers in Beautiful Girls (15), a rambling ensemble piece with a mildly comic tone, somewhat in the manner of Diner. Its leading characters are a bunch of high prole guys, hovering around the age of 30, most of whom are failing to grip, commit, shape up and otherwise do right by their womenfolk. The lead guy is Willie (Timothy Hutton), a bar pianist who has come back to his snow-clotted home-town with the vague intention of getting an aforementioned grip on his relationship with his girlfriend (Annabeth Gish), and to bond again with his less-than-bright secondary-school chums (Matt Dillon et al). Willie's fingers stay on the wobbly side, thanks to fairly innocent encounters with an alluring 13-year-old (Natalie Portman) and with another visitor (Uma Thurman), literally from Chicago, figuratively from the guys' Penthouse-ridden dreams. Scripted by Scott Rosenbery and directed by Ted Demme, it's reasonably refreshing matter, if a shade inconsequential. It's also the second movie in a month to feature Jethro Tull: what's going on?

And so down to the chilly basement paragraphs, where we store the real turkeys. Mel Brooks's Dracula: Dead and Loving It (PG), a spoof of the swank Coppola production and, it seems, anything else that drifted through the old gagster's brain on the morning he wrote his script, is about the feeblest thing he's done, even with Leslie Nielsen as the Count and Anne Bancroft wobbling her vocal cords in homage to Maria Ouspenskaya. Let it lie, unless you're simply gagging for jokes about bat guano.

James Foley's Fear (18) is a tiresome psycho-thriller, remarkable only in possessing not a single twist. When her dad fails to take her to a James Taylor concert, 16-year-old Nicole (Reese Witherspoon) sets off for the Seattle version of a rave, where she meets a muscular if dopey- looking boy (Mark Whalberg). Initially charming, the boy proves a bad sort: he murders her best friend, saws the head off her dog and lays siege to her house with his drooling slacker chums in Straw Dogs fashion. Still, it could have been worse. At least she didn't have to sit through James Taylor.

Call me an idealist if you will, but the best thing about Crimetime (18) is its poster (eyeballs in an ice tray), and the best thing about the poster is its catchline, "To be seen is to exist", which must make it the first film since Samuel Beckett's Film to have nodded in the direction of Bishop Berkeley's esse est percipi. Otherwise, it's what Ms Solanas would have called an utter bore. Set in a dystopian London of the not too distant future - let's be frank, seldom a good idea - it's about a thwarted actor (Stephen Baldwin) whose career goes stratospheric when he is called in by a nightly Crimewatch-style television programme to re-enact the atrocities of - how very novel - a serial killer. Ere long, the actor becomes obsessed with the criminal (Pete Postlethwaite), a TV repairman with an ailing wife (Geraldine Chaplin) and poor dress sense, and the line between fiction and reality blah blah blah.

Brendan Somers's screenplay yokes puerile satire together with pubescent nastiness: the serial warpo specialises in cutting out his victims' eyes (ah yes: voyeurism! The ethics of vision! Peeping Tom!). After about half an hour of screen time, you feel like surrendering your own peepers, and throwing in a set of matching ears for good measure so as not to endure either the dialogue or David A Stewart's irritating score. Astonishing fact: this drivel was directed by George Sluizer, who made The Vanishing. Grimly predictable fact: National Lottery money has been squandered once again. Follow the good Bishop's philosophy: don't see it.

Cinema details: Going Out, page 14.

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