THE CRITICS : Not waving, but drowning

CINEMA; WATERWORLD, BEFORE THE RAIN, SPANKING THE MONKEY, INTIMATE WITH A STRANGER
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AN AMERICAN network-news show recently reported that videotapes of Waterworld (12) were available on the black market in Moscow. The price was reasonable - about the equivalent of $5. The drawback was that the tapes had been mastered from a stolen copy of the film, before its completion. Sub-titles indicated edits to be made ("Special Effect Here", one suggested, rather desperately). The vendor, who had watched the tape, admitted it was very confusing. Scenes appeared to be missing. Nothing seemed to add up. It was hard to know quite what was going on. In other words, it turns out, just like the completed film.

Waterworld is a mess masquerading as a movie. Setting out to do something startlingly new, it ends up stunningly familiar. The movie opens with the lands on the Universal globe dissolving into water - a neat device for illustrating the film's post-apocalyptic world, where the polar ice- caps have melted, submerging most of the earth. Soon, though, the film itself is not waving but drowning, swamped by the creative juices of other movies, which run into it like tributaries. Like Jurassic Park, it has no opening credits and a gruff hero (Kevin Costner) who dislikes children. Soon Cost- ner is killing a giant shark (Jaws). The movie clings to its stealings from Spielberg, like lucky charms. But it also mixes in some Schwarzenegger-style machine-gun toting. It hasn't decided which type of blockbuster it wants to be, a heart-warmer or a gut-spiller.

Costner's character is equally fishy. He has gills and swims with an arching, dolphin-like motion. He is called "The Mariner", suggesting a mythological resonance, on which the film never delivers. Instead he is your average blockbuster hero - only with a good deal less grace. He is on a reluctant mission to bring a young woman (Jeanne Tripplehorn) and her small daughter (Tina Majorino) to dry land. The girl has a map of the route tattooed on her back. She is called Enola - a crassly ironic joke equating a saviour of humanity with one of its greatest destroyers. Costner contends with a group of villains called The Smokers, cigarette-puffing eco-terrorists, who seem to have sprung from a different film. The Smokers are led by Dennis Hopper, who might have sprung from any of his recent films. Snarlingly foul-mouthed, and with an oozing hole where his eye was, he benefits from the script's few spasms of wit. He refers to Costner as "the gentleman guppy".

An apt description. Costner's master Mariner wears stripy pantaloons and an old-fashioned walrus moustache, more resembling Ratty from Wind in the Willows than a creature of the future. Costner is tanned and muscular, but seems spent from the start, as if, at some level, resigned to the movie's disastrous fate. His is an unsympathetic hero: laconic, petty ("Don't ever touch anything on my boat again!") and brutal (he throws Enola, who can't swim, into the sea) - without threatening to become darkly fascinating. It is hard to root for this stubbly, narrow-eyed creature, with his webbed feet and pinched mind.

One underwater sequence, in which the swimming bodies of Costner and Tripplehorn become silhouettes on an azure backcloth, has a chilly beauty, showing something of the film's original conception (Mad Max meets The Blue Lagoon, maybe). But, for the most part, Waterworld is strikingly unmagical. It has a murky, dun-coloured look. Each of the growing number of lines around Costner's eyes is starkly visible, and Tripplehorn suffers from unflattering photography. The inventions of the movie's new world (the jet-skis and catamarans by which the inhabitants transport themselves), do not resemble evolutions of our own world so much as cheap prop improvisations. Even the explosions and conflagrations are too transparently grafted-in by computer. This world-embracing epic cannot get the first thing right. What aimed to be an elemental drama - involving earth, fire and water - ends up looking like an elementary error.

Milcho Manchevski's debut, Before the Rain (15), takes as an epigraph lines from a poet of the old Yugoslavia: "With a shriek birds flee across the black sky/ People are silent, my blood aches from waiting." The first and last of the film's three sections are set in a small Macedonian village. Here, as was the case in Bosnia, the inhabitants are in a purgatorial, in-between state: they are not at war, but nor are they at peace. There are skirmishes between villages, as former neighbours become divided by religion. As the film opens, the clouds lour. They presage - demand, almost - rain. Manchevski uses this climatic tension as a metaphor for the Balkan conflict - a storm that has brewed for centuries, awaiting its terrible release. For Manchevski, the conflict is an atavistic sea of blood whose tide has come in.

The violence is not long arriving. A group of Macedonian peasants brutally search for an Albanian girl in a monastery. She escapes thanks to a young monk (the haunting Gregoire Colin). "I nearly took a vow of silence like you," recalls one of the elders, to the boy, "but this heavenly beauty merits words." This earthly ugliness, too, the film is saying. While the monks pray, children roast a live frog. In Before the Rain, the grotesque and the horrific have a way of hopping over the spiritual. The monastery itself is situated on a mountain-top, the Milky Way resting on its roof. It is as if Manchevski were arguing that this serene yet violent place is close to the centre of the universe's awful mystery.

His second - and worst - section takes the action away from Macedonia, to London. Here a Macedonian photographer (a stupendous performance from the rugged Rade Serbedzija, the Yugoslavian Olivier) is itching for home, after an affair with a picture editor (Katrin Cartlidge), who has just learnt she has become pregnant by her husband (Jay Villiers). Cartlidge and Villiers play out their marital drama in a restaurant, while a Yugoslavian waiter and a compatriot brawl fiercely. It is an astonishingly bold scene, intricately edited, with some devastating touches (the irate Slav contemptuously showers the waiter with bank notes, as if to accuse him of selling out). With both couples, Manchevski is exploring, in a scene of frantic non- communication, the fraught dependency of blood relationship. But the stand-off tips into melodrama and improbability. A Bosnian I saw the film with agreed: "The problem is that we imagine our war is everywhere."

The movie is back on a surer footing when it returns, with the photographer, to Macedonia. Here war is inescapable. We see the perilousness of the photographer's blithe neutrality, as he seeks out old friends, heedless of the barriers that have arisen in the 16 years since he knew them. This is a place where neutrality is suicidal. The photographer stands for the media's uncomprehending prurience. "D'you see what's happening to our people?" a relation asks him. "I see." "You just watch." The glancing contempt that is at the heart of photography is illustrated by the shots of Macedonia from the photographer's coach as he leaves the airport. "The world is watching," complains the same relation. "It's a circus." The film suggests there's a complicity in the media's voyeurism.

Manchevski ends the film with the same violence with which he began it, as if to refute the wisdom of an elderly monk at the beginning: "Time never dies. The circle is not round." History, for Manchevski, does have a savage circularity. The hatred will go on repeating itself, so long as the bad blood goes on coursing round human beings. To explain this further would be to give away some of the film's shocks. Suffice it to say that most of the key killings of the film are not religious, but take place within families: a brother murders his sister; a cousin shoots his cousin. Manchevski strikes to the bleeding heart of the civil war.

Praise must go to Manuel Teran's grimly beautiful photography and the music of Anastasia, a mixture of mournfully tribalist choral singing and pipes whose sprightliness seems doom-laden. This is a formidable debut for Manchevski, who wrote the film as well as directed it. But he has now left Yugoslavia for America. If all his films are as noble, beautiful and humane as his first, the American cinema will have a new master.

Just room to recommend Spanking the Monkey (18), a nightmare comedy of adolescence - or rather a comedy of a nightmare adolescence. Jeremy Davies plays a brilliant student forced by his selfish and self-righteous father to spend the summer looking after his mother (a wonderfully sassy and frisky Alberta Watson), who is recovering from a suicide attempt in which she broke her leg. Writer-director David O Russell's well-observed film captures the sullen defensiveness of adolescence, and finds humour and sensuality in strange places. It salvages laughter from attempted suicide and eroticism from incest.

There is nothing, except scornful laughter, to be got out of the gigolo tale, Intimate with a Stranger (18). Sexistly written and fetishistically shot, it's a waste of celluloid.

Cinema details: Review, page 68.

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