Taking the story of The Taming of the Shrew and setting it in a modern American high school is hardly a startling idea. We've already had Baz Luhrmann's Romeo and Juliet, in which Paris went to the ball dressed as Neil Armstrong and Juliet moved about in a cloud of joss-stick. And then there was Clueless - Emma in Beverly Hills - in which the heroine's mother died "during a routine liposuction". But the script for 10 Things I Hate About You, written by two young women and sold on spec to Disney, is particularly triumphant. It's also incredibly funny.
Kate Stratford (Julia Stiles) is the kind of teenager who might wear a T-shirt saying "Been There, Walked Out, Read It, Disagreed". Her sister Bianca (Larisa Oleynik) is a sweet, dumbish kid, and she is desperate to date the slimy Joey. But their father, an obstetric surgeon, will not let either girl date. He is obsessed with teenage pregnancy, and lives to "sleep the deep slumber of a father whose daughter's aren't out being impregnated". He cuts a deal. If Kate, who claims to hate all the boys at her school, agrees to date, then Bianca can too. Enter Patrick Verona (Heath Ledger), a sexy, caustic student. Rumour has it that he sold his own liver on the black market for a new pair of speakers. Perfect for Kate?
One of the delightful things about this film is its detail. Each non- speaking character has a purpose, whether explored through their dress or the roll of an eye. And the high-school setting is a fine idea. In many ways a school is a town, and precisely the kind of public place where self-exposure is always imminent. The writers clearly understand that the play is all about the way a relationship might develop from hate to love, but have thankfully taken offence at the fate of Shakespeare's Kate. In the play, she starts as a farcical bully, an unloved girl, a mad 10- year-old, a delinquent primed to be realigned. But in the film she is simply the antithesis of the American doll promoted in all teen movies and magazines - breasts on a shelf, hair thick with products, all heels and exposed belly and secret panic and contrivance.
Instead, this young woman is uncompromising and lucid. At worst she's a little lemon-lipped. We learn why she has wound up so unmalleable (her first lover was a dolt), and we rejoice that she isn't forced to sway, post-makeover, to Celine Dion at the prom. In the play, Kate is silent for nearly five acts, startled eyes everywhere, and by the close is literally brought to heel by the one man louder than she. It's one of the most unsavoury moments in Shakespeare's catalogue; I've never seen an actress carry it off. But the film's Kate compromises very little. Verona must and does love her for what she is - Valerie Solanas's dream, "a self confident, smart, independent, proud, thrill-seeking, freewheeling, arrogant babe".
So, in many ways, I suppose the film cheats. It's everything you wish the play was, free of its hoods and traps, its pandering to the status quo, its low expectations. It also has Dad (a long way from the play's ninny Baptista), who is one of the wittiest characters I've seen on screen in ages. Bianca: "Daddy! It's just a party!" Dad: "Yeah. And hell is just a sauna."
In the small British film, All the Little Animals, Christian Bale plays Bobby, who has been slow-witted since a childhood accident. He loves animals, especially Peter, his pet mouse, and strokes him, patiently, every cool-lilac dawn. Bobby's mother has recently died. She was "shouted to death" by "the Fat", Bobby's stepfather (Daniel Benzali). The Fat is certainly a horror, a vampire of a man, unkind and devious. He is determined to have Bobby sign over his considerable inheritance, but Bobby runs away to Cornwall.
Here, he meets Mr Summers (John Hurt), a misanthrope who spends his days burying road-kill victims - badgers, rabbits, foxes, toads - with all the grief and passion of a man seeking forgiveness for something wretched in his past. Mr Summers agrees to take Bobby as an assistant, and the two spend the summer living like Danny the Champion of the World and his Pa, but in a cottage in the woods. They are happy, quiet, cheese-and-bread- eating, committed, story-telling and story-listening - friends. But the Fat is closer than they think.
This strange little film, adapted from Walker Hamilton's novel, is superb in its preoccupation with nature, with wind, earth, shooting stars, caterpillars, mist, the full moon. I was reminded time and again of Ted Hughes and his Crow poems, of the purposefulness of animals with "a million miles knotted in their paws". It seems that Bobby longs to be something very small in a forest of tall grass, to hide, connect, feel the dirt, sniff the bright air, reject the tinted human mask, call the hour with the cuckoos. Bale, with his embarrassed lisp and straight, slim back, is perfectly curious, perfectly amazed, perfectly different. His performance is quite beautiful, and whenever he is on screen, the film is melancholy and innocent.
Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss is a low-budget indie that co-opts the rococo, theatrical stylings of post-war Hollywood. Its narrator and star (Sean P Hayes) offers the film up as "a story to the homos and heteros in the hope of bringing us closer". Billy, a photographer in Los Angeles, is in love with a seemingly straight, male model, and is working on a series that parodies Hollywood's classic screen kisses. Full of colourful film references and chat about show tunes, sometimes the whole thing feels like a musical, like someone might take the floor at any moment and do something loud and foolish and pretty. A surprise hit in the States, it's convivial, imaginative, and always cinematic.
Theo Angelopoulos's 230-minute The Travelling Players (1975 ) covers Greek history between 1939 and 1945, taking in Allied and German occupation, military dictatorship, and civil war. Using the posturing and experiences of a troupe of actors, the film is either a dream or a trial, depending on how keen you are on Angelopoulos's trademark lengthy, serene sequence shots. It's a technique that gives his actors more time to feel, imagine, react and be still than is sometimes, to my mind, either relevant or absorbing. Still, it works better in this one than in Angelopoulos's recent Eternity and a Day, which frequently tipped into the preposterously ponderous. It's certainly not for those with itchy feet.
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