All the young dudes: Film review

The Last of the High Kings David Keating (15) The Day of the Beast Alex de la Iglesia (18) A Chinese Ghost Story Ching Siu-Tung (NC) Feeling Minnesota Steven Baigelman (18)

Adam Mars-Jones
Thursday 05 December 1996 00:02
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The hero of The Last of the High Kings is leaving school as the film begins. To mark his release, he doesn't stuff the toilets with tissue paper or urinate up against the staff-room window like any normal boy. Instead, Frankie Griffin (Jared Leto) and his mates conduct a sacrifice on a hillside, burning first their ties, then their shirts and then their trousers, until they are hopping around the makeshift bonfire in their underpants like teenage Satanists. They think that leaving school is the beginning of their freedom. And the soundtrack, blasting out Thin Lizzy, appears to concur. But we've all seen enough rites-of-passage movies by now to realise that there are life lessons ahead waiting to clamp Frankie like mantraps.

The Last of the High Kings doesn't stray too much from that formula. There are weird and wacky parents - Catherine O'Hara as Frankie's explosive and passionate Ma, Gabriel Byrne (who also co-wrote the screenplay) as his flamboyant actor father - and much planning of parties, and staring at girls' thighs. There is the loss of virginity, and even a one-day-son- all-this-will-be-yours speech from father to son.

What saves the film is the director David Keating's light tone - he seems to be both indulging his audience's nostalgia and gently mocking it. The picture has a faded, yellowing look, and a distinct romanticism about its characters. But when Mott the Hoople's "All the Young Dudes" roars over the soundtrack as Frankie is swaggering away from his first sexual encounter, it makes you smile: Keating has chosen the song that must be playing in Frankie's head at that moment - he's celebrating the boy's sense of triumph, and also sending it up. It helps that the actor Jared Leto has a permanent twinkle in his eye which suggests that Frankie too realises both the gravity and the absurdity of his initiation into adulthood.

About halfway in, the film loses its sharp focus during an episode in which Frankie must entertain a family friend (Christina Ricci) visiting from America. But the cast hold things together even during that superfluous interruption. It's ironic that the camera should linger over a cinema showing Carrie - Catherine O'Hara appears to have been at least partly inspired by Piper Laurie's rabid performance in that film. O'Hara delivers some little land-mines of rage which disrupt the generally placid atmosphere nicely. And special mention must go to Colm Meaney as a lecherous politician whose drunken malapropisms provide the biggest laugh, and Stephen Rea, who pops up briefly as a name-dropping cabbie unashamed to wheel out the old "I had that James Joyce in the back of my cab once" routine.

Even before the opening credits of The Day of the Beast have rolled, a priest has been crushed by a gigantic stone cross. And, as you'd expect from Alex de la Iglesia, the director of the gruesome Accion Mutante, there's barely a frame of film here that is not dripping with blood and caked in gristle. No opportunity to depict a massive head wound, or a bone-shattering fall down several flights of stairs, is avoided. If as much attention had been paid to plot and tone as to make-up effects, this story of a theology professor, Angel Berriartua (Alex Angulo), who invokes the devil could have been a neat and nasty take on The Omen.

It still has plenty of spicy scenes to recommend it: Angel cruising record stores for Satanic messages in Iron Maiden albums, or a gun-fight which Iglesia has clearly staged around a Nativity play just so that we can see the Three Wise Men eat lead. At two hours, the gore is thick but the fun is spread thin. Gallows humour is the order of the day, though nobody seems to have realised that black comedy is still required to be funny.

A Chinese Ghost Story is far more successful at mixing up its genres. Is it a chiller? A fairy-tale? A martial-arts thriller? Or a comedy? Take your pick. Only one thing is certain: it's completely out to lunch. It concerns a travelling taxman (Leslie Cheung) who falls in love with a beautiful ghost (Joey Wong) and incurs the wrath of the spirits. Its Western influences - The Evil Dead, A Nightmare on Elm Street - are obvious, but its ingenuity and effervescent humour are all its own. There are charming performances, eerie effects somewhere between Ray Harryhausen and Jan Svanjkmajer, and delightful dialogue (sample - "I must get married in three days to an ancient devil"). All this and a side-splitting musical number which Evita will do well to match.

As the grubby thriller Feeling Minnesota proves, you should never trust the murder that's photographed in long-shot. When the sleazy accountant Sam (Vincent D'Onofrio) drives his bride Freddie (Cameron Diaz) into an alleyway and shoots her, you just know trouble's afoot by the way we're only allowed to see the incident from a distance. Sure enough, the body disappears, a blackmail plot heaves into action and, as Sam's brother Jjaks (a spelling mistake on his birth certificate in case you care), Keanu Reeves does his usual impression of a man trying to get to grips with some really difficult arithmetic. Like him, the movie is dim-witted, bland to the taste and, all in all, rather a waste of space.

Ryan Gilbey

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