What you see is what you get

FILM

AN EXTREME close-up on a human eye, a swift burst of technobabble, a whirling granular dissolve and we are pitched into one of the longest, loudest and most alarming subjective shots ever - an armed robber's view of a restaurant heist that is going horribly wrong. As the cops move in, we run upstairs and out onto the roof of the building, hesitate at the brink, look down, try to jump to the next rooftop, miss, fall ...

BLACKOUT, and CUT to the horrified, disgusted face of Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes), who has just been experiencing all this mayhem electronically, thanks to a neat gadget known as a Squid (that's Superconducting Quantum Interference Device, class), which can record raw chunks of experience and play them back directly into the brains of paying customers. "You know I hate the zap when they die!" Lenny gripes to his software dealer. "It brings down your whole day!" Ah, splendid, another film confronting the Voyeurism Implicit in Cinema Itself. We like those.

To this science-fictional conceit about the ethics of watching violent images, Kathryn Bigelow's Strange Days (18) adds a potent and rather more interesting sub-plot about the ethics of showing or suppressing them. We are in the last hours of 1999, and Los Angeles is gearing up for a huge party that, given the appropriate Rodney King-style trigger, could easily turn into a race riot that would make the 1992 tussles look genteel. Down these mean, blazing and tank-lined streets drives our Lenny, a former vice cop turned sleazy Squid hustler - "the Santa Claus of the subconscious" he calls himself - who is about to become the target of a police conspiracy, thanks to a piece of incriminating playback material that has fallen into his grimy hands: cerebral footage of a prostitute being raped, strangled and forced to participate in her own death via Squid circuitry.

Just to bring Lenny's day down a little further, he also has to deal with obsessive love for his ill-named former girlfriend Faith (Juliette Lewis), various unsavoury goons employed by Faith's new lover (Michael Wincott), and the suspicious death of an incendiary rap artist, Jeriko One (Glenn Plummer). Fortunately, Lenny still has a few useful friends, including "Mace" Mason (Angela Bassett), a one-time waitress turned Division One security guard. And so the madness continues.

Like Kathryn Bigelow's earlier hits Near Dark, Blue Steel and Point Break, Strange Days is an uneasy, often undiscriminating mixture of clever little ideas and great big dumb ones, of glossy professionalism and baffling silliness. That first protracted subjective shot is a bravura stunt, as queasily exciting as anything in Point Break, and Bigelow almost equals it in later action scenes. Moreover, the director and her writers (James Cameron, Jay Cocks) take real risks with their genre format, not least in their choice of hero. Since the movie flirts with notions about passivity and consumption, Lenny Nero is depicted as passive not only in his pleasures but as a hero. While Hollywood usually offers us tough-guy protagonists who will be assertive on our behalf, Lenny, for all his hustling skills, is an introverted victim and loser: thumped by bouncers, dumped by his girl, reduced to solitary Squid replays of happier times, like an infant sucking on a cybernetic teat. (There are other touches of infantilism in Lenny's make-up: he eats polychrome ice-lollies for breakfast, and at one point curls up on Angela Bassett's lap to fall into a rare contented sleep.)

Ralph Fiennes does remarkably well with this unbeguiling role, suggesting a dangerous intelligence secreted carefully deep within Lenny's skull, though he doesn't fully manage to make the man's contradictions appear like psychic complexity rather than lazy scripting. (Similarly, the marvellous Angela Bassett, who not only looks like a goddess and glides through Strange Days' over-populated scenes like a ballerina with handguns, but is obviously meant to provide the film's moral centre, can't quite make Mace seem more than a liberal's abstraction.) Forget Squid technology, the most far-fetched proposition in Strange Days is that an ace policeman should have suddenly mutated into a grubby fop - Lenny favours dark Armani frockcoats, half-Regency buck, half-biker - who lives in Young Ones squalor but lays out his clothes with American Gigolo fastidiousness, and has one of his purest intuitions of horror when he discovers that his tie clashes with his shirt.

At the heart of the film is a puritan's ambition - to lure you into taking the traditional spectator's pleasure in transgressive, not to say vile, acts of sex and brutality, and then to punish you as a hypocrite voyeur. Nothing very new in this: it was Hitchcock's stock in trade (first you ogle Janet Leigh, then she gets slashed to shreds), and the whole burden of Michael Powell's Peeping Tom, a film to which Strange Days is in debt from its first frame onwards. But there's no sting to Strange Days' punishments because it doesn't greatly please: there's nothing enticing or sensual in its breakneck pacing and deafening soundtrack, nothing genuinely seductive about its characters, nothing erotic even in its few relatively humane sex scenes. It leaves you feeling neither shaken nor stirred, but bludgeoned - your cerebral cortex singed as if by a Squid overdose.

Those in need of a little quiet light relief might do worse than visit Josiane Balasko's French Twist (18), the pallid English translation for Gazon Maudit (approximately, "cursed turf" - a naughty idiom alluding to the female genital region), which was a major commercial hit on its home ground. There's not an awful lot to the comedy - a slimy, philandering husband (Alain Chabat) gets his come-uppance when a bulky lesbian DJ (played by the director) wins the heart and then the housekeys of his wife (Victoria Abril) - but the sunny Midi climate in which the triangle takes place seems to have warmed everyone's disposition, and a skilfully timed series of minor redemptions leads to a utopian happy ending which has amused almost everyone thus far except militant lesbians. The British distributors obviously have a lot of faith in Gazon's potential, since it is being released both in subtitled and dubbed versions.

This rare privilege is unlikely to await Spanish director Juanma Bajo Ulloa's Madre Muerta (18), a curious and ungainly confection of gothic sadism, Dickensian pathos and farcical thriller. It begins at a cracking enough pace with the psychotic anti-hero Ismael (Karra Elejalde) breaking and entering an artist's house, murdering her, pausing for a quick chocolate break and then confronting the dead woman's young daughter. After a teasing fade-out, the action recommences a few years later, when Ismael chances across the girl, now almost pubescent and beautiful but brain-damaged, and decides to kidnap and kill her - a plan which falls apart in his hands when he starts to feel an unexpected sympathy for the waif. Some of the individual sequences have a spooky wit to them - notably one in which Ismael attempts to kill a deaf old woman and bungles the task - and Ulloa certainly knows how to make an audience squirm. Gradually, though, his narrative slackens and seems ever more misconceived. When you learn that Madre Muerta has won fistfuls of awards, you can only assume that this was at festivals devoted to movies about sympathetic, chocolate-addicted psychopaths with unresolved paedophile tendencies.

As the kind of effete Southern jessie who would, on the whole, sooner undergo minor surgery than have to endure either watching football or - far worse - listening to the ghastly tedium of football-chat, I approached When Saturday Comes (15) with a leaden heart. Needless misgivings: there are few protracted scenes of chaps kicking the pill around, since Maria Giese's debut feature is essentially your routine aspirational drama about one Jimmy Muir (Sean Bean), a nice working-class lad from Sheffield who dreams that his fancy footwork will one day make him a key topic for the football-chatterers. In short, it's Rocky with muddy boots and a pint of Best.

In the opening scene, the careers teacher tells young Jimmy that he must either go down the pit (he doesn't quite say "down t' pit" but it's a close-run thing) or work in the factory. Instead of punching the miserable old fool in the teeth and holding out for a place in the Treasury, the boy meekly knuckles under to 10 years of drudgery, sugary beer, page 3 and colourful proletarian badinage until the soccer muse re-enters his life in the svelte form of Annie (Emily Lloyd), a spunky Irish Beatrice with plum lipstick. Though trials, sorrows and uplifting homilies about pit ponies now stand between Jimmy and stardom, at the end of the day it's all about pills in the back of the net. Being snotty about such an eerily innocent, sweet-natured film is like stamping on gerbils - so easy that the fun soon wears off - and after a while you simply wonder at how Giese has squandered her outstanding cast, including Pete Postlethwaite as Jimmy's coach. I understand the expression is "own goal".

Cinema details, Review page 76. Quentin Curtis returns next week.

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