The behind-the-scenes combination of director Jan De Bont, writer Michael Crichton, and executive producer Steven Spielberg is so watertight that Twister doesn't bother much with who's on screen. Helen Hunt, an actress who has seldom strayed from television, takes top billing alongside Bill Paxton, a steady bit-part man who could be written into Reservoir Dogs as Mr Bland. There isn't much of a story either; presumably the screenwriters, Crichton and his wife Anne-Marie Martin, didn't want the limelight deflected from the true stars: state-of-the-art computer- generated tornadoes. The film adopts the viewpoint of tornado experts, men and women who go out looking for bad weather, positioning themselves beneath the funnels of twisters so they can figure out what's inside.
Bill (Bill Paxton) is one such individual - or at least, he used to be. They called him the human barometer; in his prime, he could sniff out tornadoes by sniffing a handful of soil. But those days are behind him. He's now a TV weatherman, and has walked out on his fellow storm-chasing wife Jo (Hunt). He visits her one day to collect the divorce papers, but she and her entourage of indistinguishable nerd assistants are rushing off in hot pursuit of the tornado. Never one to say no to a roaring vortex, Bill joins in the chase, to the displeasure of his new fiancee, strait- laced shrink Melissa (Jami Gertz) - "When you told me you chased tornadoes, I thought you meant it metaphorically," she wails.
Melissa provides the layman's perspective, asking all the dumb questions that we want answered ("How do you get that in the tornado?" and "Is that bad?"); she is roundly ridiculed for her killjoy tendencies and for her feeble grasp of meteorological jargon. Her greatest faux pas is mentioning the f-word in tornadospeak - the unspeakable F-5. A deadly hush descends on the group. "The finger of God," someone whispers. From this reverential response, we surmise that an F-5 is an unequivocally big one, and indeed, its proportions prove to be well and truly godlike; a mile wide at its base, the F-5 sucks up everything in sight, catapulting houses, farm machinery and petrol tankers through the sky.
Jan De Bont's previous film, Speed, was supremely streamlined - no back story, no excess baggage - and Twister similarly prioritises nerve-jangling thrills over narrative exigencies. But while Speed was a lean, self- contained piece, Twister is a lurching succession of awesome set-pieces barely held together by limp characterisation. As well as the humdrum leads (Hunt comes off better than the insipid Paxton) and the one-note Melissa, there's the inchoate character of a rich rival scientist (Cary Elwes), evil because he represents corporate opportunism (as opposed to Bill, who does everything "for the science", and Jo, who's had a personal vendetta against tornadoes ever since her father was swallowed by an F-5). Twister delivers sensory assaults, systematically and efficiently, but the absence of a human dimension keeps the viewer at a distance. It's a procession of thrills, but it doesn't add up to any kind of suspense.
Rainbow (PG), Bob Hoskins' eco-friendly children's picture, is also a disaster movie, and it boasts disasters of a far grander scale than some lousy weather. It begins when four kids and a dog find the end of the rainbow in the unlikeliest location - near derelict rail-tracks in colourless New Jersey. It gets curiouser: lifted into the spectrum, they are dropped off in - wait for it - Kansas, but not before one of them pockets a few nuggets of gold. Consequently, the world begins to lose its colour, global temperatures rise, and riots break out. Short on ingenuity and verve but oozing undisguised preachiness, this well-meaning fable is unlikely to connect with its target audience; it underestimates its sophistication and overestimates its attention span. Hoskins plays the magician grandfather of the young hero and keeps his on-screen time to a minimum.
Hoskins is also present, at least in spirit, in the low-budget comedy Denise Calls Up (15). You keep expecting him to pop up in the corner of the frame in chirpy cor-blimey mode, the four most annoying words in the English language tripping off his tongue. After all, here is a film whose protagonists keep in touch exclusively by telephone. No event is momentous enough to separate these busy New York yuppies from their beloved handsets; the climactic childbirth episode takes place via a seven-way link-up and the piece de resistance is a disturbingly literal take on phone sex (the participants rub their respective receivers all over their bodies, wrap themselves in a tangle of cords, and then snuggle up to the phone in post-coital bliss).
Hal Salwen's gentle critique of the technological age, his first film, is about as cinematic as, well, an 80-minute conference call. There's a cute short somewhere in here, but across a full-length feature, the gimmicky premise is spread very thinly indeed. Salwen struggles to keep the laughs coming (he knows how to execute a gag, but often has trouble with the punchline). And, fatally, it's difficult to care about characters who burn up the telephone wires complaining that they don't have enough time for a social life. Stuff talking: on this evidence, it must be better to just shut up and get out more.
The Godfather, Part II (18), revived this week, will undoubtedly satisfy appetites whetted by the re-release of the first instalment three weeks ago. In discussing the definitive mob movie, words like "sequel" and "companion piece" seem inappropriate, and besides, it's difficult to conceive of the first two Godfather films as discrete entities (it's a different story altogether with the third). Francis Ford Coppola matches magnitude with scope, flashing backwards and forwards, shaping a context for the first film. Careful to avoid further accusations of romanticising the Mafia, Coppola depicts the ascendant Michael (Al Pacino) as morally bankrupt, ruthless and unfeeling, a man hollowed out by his actions. His father Vito (Robert De Niro) is less harshly condemned; when he chooses a life of crime in turn-of-the-century New York, it is seen as an uncomplicated matter of pride.
Coppola presents the rise and the rot of the empire in counterpoint, shifting between generations; the result is a riveting, richly nuanced masterpiece, and a showcase for flawless ensemble playing by, among others, Diane Keaton, Lee Strasberg, Robert Duvall, John Cazale and Talia Shire. So resounding, in fact, was the impact of this film and so enduring its aftermath that, 22 years on, the gangster movie is still reeling.
Cinema details: Going Out, page 14. Kevin Jackson returns next week.Reuse content