What's in a name? Baz isn't bothered


Baz Luhrmann may have done our national poet the honour of including his name in the title of his new film, William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, but that's about as far as the spirit of reverence extends. His movie doesn't so much freely adapt the play as kick in its front door, pee on its living-room carpet, evict its tenants, burn the joint down and hold a drug-crazed rave among the smouldering iambs.

Attentiveness to nuance is not an urgent priority (though it's not wholly absent); for all that, the thing comes off pretty well, and if it's unlikely to seduce many of the rising generation away from their Play- stations or MTV - Luhrmann opens and closes with a shot of a television screen, and wins his first giggle with the spectacle of a CNN-style reporter solemnly intoning "Two households ... " it won't send many of them to sleep, either. For one thing, it's very, very LOUD. Automatic weapons yammer, the soundtrack thuds and wails with music by the likes of Garbage and the Butthole Surfers, and the first actors to speak deliver their lines in the spirit of an audition for a thrash metal band.

Like others before him - Leonard Bernstein, and those wacky guys at Troma Films who recently brought us Tromeo and Juliet - Luhrmann has duly noticed that there are some potentially amusing parallels between the Montague/Capulet feud and the grudge matches of 20th-century street gangs and Mafia bosses. Luhrmann distinguishes the factions sartorially, giving the Capulets Dolce & Gabbana togs, while the Montagues dress like Vietnam vets on a spree, in crew-cuts and Hawaiian shirts.

Luhrmann begins the film as he means to continue, with a disorienting barrage of crash zooms, zip pans, aerial shots (armed police in helicopters) and freeze-frames, the last serving to identify the principal antagonists. His setting is "Verona Beach", a modern Hispanic metropolis, every inch as imaginary as Shakespeare's Verona: he originally planned to shoot in Miami, but ended up in Mexico City and environs, which may be one reason why the carefully choreographed shoot-outs have a distinct tang of Robert Rodriguez to them, and is certainly why he lays on the gaudy Catholic iconography with a trowel. My, he's fond of those neon crucifixes.

Garish visions and savage acts apart, Luhrmann strives to keep the groundlings awake with big production numbers and insistent visual jokes and niggles. Mercutio, played by the black actor Harold Perrineau in a daring white dress and wig, struts and frets his way through the old disco hit "Young Hearts Run Free"; every other frame, it seems, has some sly allusion to Prospero Whiskey, the Shylock Bank, the Out Damned Spot cleaners or some such; and there are jokes that may actually warm the hearts of pedants, such as the sly lewdness that Pete Postlethwaite - immensely enjoyable as Father Lawrence -- gives to the lines, "Young men's love then lies/ Not truly in their hearts, but in their" - fractional suggestive pause - "eyes." (When he exclaims "Holy St Francis!", it's as if he were doing an imitation of Batman and Robin.)

What with all the fun and games, it's easy to lose sight of the fact that there's supposed to be a love story somewhere in the middle of all this, and when Luhrmann dares to take his finger off the machine-gun trigger for a minute or two, it can blossom nicely. Leonardo DiCaprio makes a clean-limbed and earnest young Romeo, and his still younger opposite number, Claire Danes, is ... well, if she continues to act with the combination of delicacy and rawness she shows here and showed in Little Women, she may just mature into one of the great actresses of the next century.

Too often, however, the film's greed for effect overwhelms her performance, just as the verse is swamped by all the sound and the fury, signifying the need to keep an unenchanted audience well goosed. As William Shakeapeare's Romeo and Juliet, it leaves you feeling fairly cool; as Baz Luhrmann's Romeo and Juliet, it's a bloody good (and a good bloody) night out.

First Shakespeare, now Dante; or at any rate Dante's Peak, a disaster movie which includes a dog. A few rules of thumb about such dogs. 1: The hero will be conspiciously nice to them, thus showing that despite being traumatised, unstable and unreliable in his judgments, he's really a warm- hearted homebody. 2: They will go missing, presumed dead, somewhere in the middle reels, often to the audible anguish of young children. 3: They will reappear, battered but unhurt, just in time for everyone to fall into each other's arms and establish a new family unit. Each of these observations applies well enough to Dante's Peak, which is scarcely remarkable, since this length of old rope about a volcano wiping out a small town dutifully ticks off every other item in the formula checklist.

This time, the hero (Pierce Brosnan) is a vulcanologist whose one true love is killed by flying debris during the opening credits, and thus is conveniently free, four years later, to fall for the single-parent mayor (Linda Hamilton) of the small town that's about to do a Pompeii. No one listens to his warnings; he commits various acts of heedless bravery, and wears chinos and open-necked workshirts very plausibly; big hugs all round. The title, at a guess, was dreamt up at a meeting where they remembered that Dante had something to do with Hell. Considerate la vostra semenza, dudes.

I may not know much about Art, but I have supped full enough on the critical prose of Robert Hughes, whom God preserve, to approach Julian Schnabel's debut feature Basquiat with my charlatan-ometer turned up full: Julian the broken-crocks man, a bubble reputation of the spendthrift Eighties, making myth of his late peer Jean-Michel the graffiti man? Pass the sick bag, Alice B. Toklas.

One of the more curious aspects of this vanity project is that though Schnabel must loathe the Hughes line on just about everything, at least one part of his film - the part which (inadvertently?) shows how vile and stupid Basquiat's crowd tended to be - endorses Hughes's verdict that he was quite literally a fashion victim. Where Mr H and Mr S part company is on the question of Basquiat's genius: Basquiat begins with the image of the artist as a little boy, going to look at Guernica and suddenly developing a glowing crown on his head.

Some of what follows is better than you might dread - David Bowie is on hilarious panto-dame form as Andy Warhol, and the soundtrack music is splendid - but it's deeply conventional and self-indulgent by turns, and would seem all the less compelling without Jeffrey Wright's sympathetic playing of the listless hero. At least one sequence of Basquiat at work summoned up naughty memories of Tony Hancock in The Rebel.

Ronan O'Leary's Driftwood, set on a remote part of the Irish coast, takes an intriguing premise from Stephen King's and/or Rob Reiner's Misery. A reclusive woman (here a sculptor, played by Anne Brochet) chances upon a man who has been rendered helpless by an accident (James Spader), takes him in, cares for him (a bit too keenly) and holds him prisoner. Then it sets slowly and meticulously about the task of shredding away everything which made the earlier film suspenseful and funny. The best feature is Brochet's subtle and persuasive rendition of an improbable role; the worst, a good deal of artsy symbol- mongering (and possibly myth-mongering) which does not bear too much scrutiny. It remains unclear why the madwoman is French, while her dead yet talkative mother (Anna Massey) is an English toff.

In Love Lessons, Bo Widerberg has produced a Swedish film which accords so perfectly with one received idea of that phenomenon - as it was in the days when Sweden meant either sex or angst - that it might have been hatched in a spirit of affectionate parody. It's a familiar coming-of- age story, set in 1943, about a young boy called Stig (played by the diractor's son Johan) who has an affair with his teacher Viola, becomes friendly with her alcoholic husband Frank and generally goes through puberty awkwardly. All right up to the 90-minute mark, after which it threatens to become interminable.

In Larger than Life, Bill Murray plays a motivational speaker who inherits an elephant which he has to transport across the country. All right if you like Bill Murray (a sensible taste, even when it comes to such contrived comedy) or, presumably, elephants.

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