THE CRITICS FILM
GUS VAN SANT'S media satire To Die For (15) opens in a flurry of snow and newspaper headlines. We are in the despairingly named town of Little Hope, New Hampshire. A scrimmage of reporters is stampeding across the snow to the graveside of a murdered young Italian barman (Matt Dillon). His wife, and suspected murderer, Suzanne (Nicole Kidman), a small-time but flintily aspiring TV weather-girl, stands by the graveside in her widow's weeds: designer suit, chic head scarf, and shades. (Not for the last time, the movie echoes the O J Simpson circus, though this Nicole is the survivor.) Van Sant intercuts to shrill headlines and media reportage of the case. The camera zooms into the newsprint until the screen resembles an abstract canvas of black and white dots.

It is a suggestive, cynical start - all human affairs being reduced by the press to a monotonous black and white. But like a lot of the film's satire, it has a facile, familiar ring. Television is a big target, but To Die For only lands glancing blows. "You're not anybody in America, if you're not on TV," asserts Suzanne, and she won't let anyone, including her home-bod husband, get in the way of her TV career. The movie dutifully illustrates television's insidious invasion of reality. Buck Henry's script heavily emphasises that Suzanne long ago crossed the border between the two. Her every reference point comes from the box. When her murder accomplices look like cracking, she snaps: "What's the matter? Don't you ever watch Mystery Theater?"

Consumed by a messianic belief in the importance of television (she even names her dog after Walter Cronkite), Suzanne is closely related to - maybe the daughter of - Faye Dunaway's amoral producer in 1976's Network. Like Network, To Die For makes an explicit link between television and psychosis. Network offered us a deranged, ranting Peter Finch, losing his head and finding his ratings. To Die For presents a woman who devotes herself to television with the fanaticism of a fundamentalist sect member. Leaving behind the media satire, we switch to Suzanne's relationship with a group of teenage down-and-outs, whom she films for a portentous documentary series. She ends up seducing one of them, Jimmy, played by Joaquin Phoenix (brother of River).

In these scenes, To Die For becomes another movie - and a much better one. Gus Van Sant's work is slickly enjoyable when it's tripping up the smoothies of the TV world. But it feels most at home among the rough youngsters of the street. In Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho, Van Sant showed his deep empathy for the disenfranchised. He also this year produced Larry Clark's controversial slice-of-teen-life, Kids. To Die For's best scenes are Van Sant's version of Kids. He is aided by an astounding performance from the gypsyish Phoenix. Whether by acting or simply "being", Phoenix catches the complete tangle of adolescence, its knotted-up bundle of leering libido, unworldly innocence and naive striving. On his first visit to Suzanne's house he does a weirdly uninhibited, solipsistic dance - a masterpiece of spontaneity and strangeness. Later, questioned about his relationship with Suzanne, he slurs in a manner that seems like insouciance - before a quiver betrays his emotion, switching him from slobbery to sobbing.

As Suzanne, Nicole Kidman gives the sort of bold performance that wins awards, even if she never truly surprises or shocks us. Suzanne's personality is a bright facade that fronts a dark corridor of craving. Kidman lets sourness seep through the perkiness. When Dillon suggests, patronisingly, that Suzanne's career is a dead end, Kidman's face drains of all liveliness, turning to stone. Suzanne is a study in stupidity, its deadening, literally murderous danger. She knows all the rules of etiquette, but her elaborate manners seem sinister because she is devoid of the sensitivity towards people that would make them work. She is charming but friendless, and unsexy. Her swaying walk is more purposeful than erotic, the stride of someone heading for the boss's office to ask for a rise.

There are many incidental pleasures. The screenwriter, Buck Henry, bristles with repressed savagery as Phoenix's teacher. The guys in the local station, who find Suzanne's pretensions somewhere between a hoot and a pain, have a hilarious smirking laddishness ("We called her gangbusters"). And Dillon's Mafia-linked dad (Dan Hedaya) twitches through the movie with unease about his flighty daughter-in-law, until, too late, he lets his misgivings out with a baseball bat in his dead son's bar. If the movie doesn't deliver on its sociological agenda, it's slick and enjoyable enough to prevent us from greatly caring. One to look out - if not to die - for.

Lewis Gilbert is the directors' director, the sort of reliable pro who could knock the ricketiest of scripts into shape. Now 75, he appeared in his first film, as an actor, in 1933 (Dick Turpin). In recent years his craft contributed much to the success of Educating Rita and Shirley Valentine; and a gung-ho friend of mine rates Gilbert's Who Dares Wins as the greatest film ever made. Gilbert's Haunted (PG), based on a James Herbert novel, is anything but a masterpiece, but the old pro has not lost his touch. The story is familiar: a rationalist scientist (Aidan Quinn) investigates a grand country house rumoured to be haunted. The cast is starry but erratic: Kate Beckinsale, as the daughter of the house, typecast as an English rose; Anthony Andrews, who co-produced, as her sinister brother; Anna Massey, with a taut, fish-like face and terrified eyes as their aged nanny; and John Gielgud, dropping in for a cameo as the local GP. The confused script is studded with cliches ("Isn't it funny how music makes memories vivid?"). And yet Gilbert turns out a respectable movie, with odd moments of distinction, such as the shuddering opening scene in which the child Quinn's twin sister is drowned.

The Czech Jiri Menzel is another veteran director, with less consistency than Gilbert, but greater peaks (such as 1980's Closely Observed Trains). You can see the intention of his The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin (15) - a picaresque comedy, set in the war-time Soviet Union, with a hint of black farce and political satire. Chonkin is a kind of inane innocent, deputed to a remote village to guard a crashed plane, and spending most of his time in sexual bliss with a sturdy local maid. A dark time, albeit one bathed in sunlight, is being delved into, and Menzel seems to be offering free love as his hippyish panacea. Yet the script is slack, and the movie never finds a rhythm. Freed from the restrictions of state control, Menzel has become a lesser director. A little licence can be a dangerous thing.

Aki Kaurismaki's Take Care of Your Scarf Tatjana (no cert) (the title is almost as long as the 65-minute film) is an immaculate miniature, shot in elegant chiaroscuro black and white. It's a deadpan road movie about two Finns driving through the country in the 1960s, indulging their respective passions for coffee and vodka, and chastely chatting up a couple of Russian women. With his usual eye for composition, dry wit and melancholy charm, Kaurismaki imposes a gentle order on the chaos of his characters' lives. Tatjana shows at London's ICA Cinema in a double-bill with Total Balalaika Show, Kaurismaki's film of the Leningrad Cowboys (they of the squirrel- tail quiffs) in concert. Self-styled as the worst band in the world, they prove dismayingly competent, even rousing.

Cinema details: Review, page 84.

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