The Critics: It's a bit of a con, this Kundun

CINEMA

THE FOURTEENTH Dalai Lama, the reincarnate Buddha of Compassion, has chosen Martin Scorsese to make his authorised biopic. What mystic divination, I wonder, made His Holiness pick a director like Marty? Perhaps it was the transcendental serenity of that moment in Casino when Joe Pesci puts a man's head in a vice and tightens it until his victim's ears bleed. Or maybe there's a little bit of Travis Bickle stirring under those saffron robes.

In Kundun (12), Scorsese uses a cast of Tibetan non-professional actors to dramatise the life of their exiled spiritual leader. When a group of passing lamas spend the night with a family in the remote province of Amdo, they decide that one of its inhabitants, a two-year-old peasant boy (played by Tenzin Yeshi Paichang), is "Kundun", the reincarnation of their last head of state. And do we believe it? In these early scenes, Scorsese's attitude is satisfyingly equivocal. This toddler may be a god, or he may have wowed a bunch of credulous monks with his dreadful pushiness: "Mine!" he exclaims, grabbing at a holy relic as if it was the last Tinky Winky in the Lhasa branch of Hamley's.

But as the film moves on, Scorsese becomes increasingly intoxicated by the possibility of his subject's divinity. The film loses its critical edge, retreating into a mixture of ethnographic love-letter and dewy-eyed hagiography. Melissa Mathison's script starts to allocate the adult Dalai Lama (Tenzin Thuthob Tsarong) quotable pearls of wisdom like "Non-violence takes a long time" (he should tell that to Joe Pesci). The Chinese - initially portrayed with refreshing even-handedness - become cartoonish monsters. Mao Zedong (Robert Lin) is little more than a pantomime villain, grinning from underneath a huge prosthetic forehead.

Dodgy latex aside, Kundun is an aesthetic triumph. Daniel Ferretti's costume and production design is exquisite (that's at least two Oscars that Titanic didn't deserve), Roger Deakins's photography looks like the work of a man who's reached nirvana, and even the yak-wrangling is irreproachably decorous. As Scorsese's conversion progresses, his film becomes grander, bigger, more thoroughly handsome. But I found myself wondering whether his current passion for Tibetan nationalism was anything more than a Californian fad, like an enthusiasm for macrobiotic salads or crystal- healing. Kundun looks lovely, but I'm not sure it's much more than an essay in spiritual tourism.

There are more pretty pictures on offer in Gillian Armstrong's Oscar and Lucinda (15), based on Peter Carey's 1988 novel about a doomed 19th-century romance between two inveterate gamblers, one a defrocked priest (Ralph Fiennes), and the other a glass manufacturer (Cate Blanchett). The relationship between these eccentrics is crystallised by their collaboration on an ambitious plan to construct a flatpacked glass church and transport it overland to a godless region of New South Wales. As the idiot-savant- ish Oscar, Fiennes gives a performance that's cluttered with jittery mannerisms: hand-wringing, coy half-smiling, giggling, hugging himself - he never lets up for a minute. Cate Blanchett's Lucinda is more delicately nuanced, and helped by the fact that her sapphire eyes already fit into Armstrong's colour-scheme. Beautifully photographed in lucent greens and blues, the film is a visual delight. But Armstrong has taken an over-literal approach to the script, which - to the detriment of its broader structure - attempts to preserve swathes of detail from the novel. For instance, Oscar's extraordinary journey through the bush (which might have been as wondrous as that of Fitzcarraldo) is the most naturally filmic part of the story. But Armstrong delays it until the 90th minute, and then allows it to take up only eight minutes of her movie. Despite the sores and sunburn Fiennes accumulates, it looks as easy as sending it by Datapost.

Like Lucinda, Peter Fonda was cheated of an Oscar, beaten to it the other week by his fellow-Easy Rider, Jack Nicholson. Fonda's performance as an emotionally chilly beekeeper in Ulee's Gold (15) is easily his best since the 1969 movie that shot him to fame. The plot is a fairly routine slice of Americana, in which a dysfunctional family (a bitter, widowed grandfather, a jailed son, a junkie daughter-in-law, a pair of vulnerable grandchildren) learn to function again. Apiary, however, adds value to something that might have been ho-hum lachrymose, and the harmonious socialisation of Ulee's bees makes for a pleasing contrast with the disarray that affects his family. For me, the insects were the real stars of the show: when director Victor Nunez shows us the specifics of Ulee's trade, the film becomes hypnotic. We see Fonda shaking a bundle of swarming bees from a tree branch as if it were a ripe avocado; we see him squishing oozy combs out of their wooden frames; we see the refined honey pouring from a tap so smoothly that it looks like a static column of amber. I was entranced.

Adaptations of Michael Crichton's writings have proved so popular with cinema audiences that Hollywood has probably optioned his notes to the milkman. Maybe audiences find something reassuring about his reliance on other people's ideas. Jurassic Park was recycled Conan Doyle; Sphere (15) cherry-picks every sci-fi movie you've ever seen, from 2001 to The Abyss to Solaria. And anyone who saw last summer's Event Horizon will feel cosy with the plot, which concerns an abandoned spaceship whose occupants have been killed by a mishap in a black hole, and a mysterious alien object that gives life to the private paranoias of the team sent in to investigate it. Crichton's twist is to set the story underwater, thus allowing star Dustin Hoffman to satisfy his predilection for performances in which he can mumble inside a rubber suit (see The Graduate and Outbreak). Anyone expecting the wit of Wag the Dog (the project Hoffman and Levinson whipped off in the 29 days before shooting on Sphere began) will find themselves drowned in a sea of cliche.

The name of Joe Eszterhaz (writer of Basic Instinct) stands for a cinema posited upon the tedious carnal dilemmas of tacky middle-class men. But if he can produce scripts as disarming as Telling Lies in America (15), why has he marked out the territory of executive softcore sleaze like some nasty old tomcat? Directed by Guy Ferland, this latest Eszterhas work is a delicately written, well-structured rites-of-passage movie that draws on its author's adolescent experiences. It's the 1950s, and Ohio teenager Karchy (a buckish Brad Renfro) is developing an idolatrous relationship with slick- talking DJ Billy Magic (a sleazily cadaverous Kevin Bacon). There are neatly-turned scenes of Catholic-school comedy, an incompetent seduction (a bottle of Spanish Fly in the victim's chocolate milkshake), and all the chrome-and-red-leatherette glamour that the screen will accommodate. And instead of a bloke in a suit angsting over some floozy he's just bedded, there's a genuinely interesting moral conundrum, involving an R&B combo, George Washington's cherry tree and an envelope of used greenbacks. More like this, please.

Children who like bottom jokes will love Mousehunt (PG), a fast-moving, fast-thinking and delightfully violent kiddie-pleaser from director Gore Verbinski. The plot is about the Smuntz brothers (Lee Evans and Nathan Lane) who inherit their father's run-down string factory - and a crumbling mansion that is defended by a deadly rodent, a resourceful creature which they spend most of the film trying to execute. With CGI digital trickery, Verbinski can generate a Tom and Jerry-type furore without getting the American Humane Association on the phone. He can show us a cockroach emerging from a lobster mousse, an exploding Hoover-bag full of sewage, and a mouse rolling a whole Gruyere cheese across the floorboards. We also get to see Christopher Walken's magnificently barmy exterminator nibbling at rodent-droppings to test for calcium deficiency. But I expect Walken did this without the help of the special-effects department. (In fact, I'd believe he would do things like that in the privacy of his own home.) So if you've got any mimsy offspring who want to see Anastasia because it's got a princess in it, pack them off to this and tell them to get a life.

Cinema details: Going Out, page 8.

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