CINEMA / Amazing what you can do in a fortnight

Quentin Curtis
Sunday 27 November 1994 00:02 GMT

HOLLYWOOD is all for originality, so long as it's tried and tested. In a town of formula hits, Tim Burton is a one-off. There have been raised eyebrows about the title of his animated movie, Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas (PG) - especially since Burton only produced the film, and was present for little more than a fortnight of its meticulous two-year shoot. And yet you have only to look at the six-minute animated short that comes with it, Vincent (U), Burton's first film, to see that this Nightmare owes more to one man's bad dreams than to all Disney's fantasies. The story of a boy who wants to grow up to be Vincent Price (who provides the narration), Vincent spindily embodies every feature of Burton's Nightmare style - its spidery drawing, macabre humour and tongue-in-cheek horror. It is Charles Addams with a Poe face.

The Nightmare Before Christmas (based on a children's book by Burton, now in Puffin at pounds 4.99) has the simplicity of fairy tale - albeit with a shading of Grimm. Jack Skellington, the bat bow-tied lord of Hallowe'en Land, whose pin-striped limbs resemble elongated matchsticks, is lonesome and bored. A post-coital tristesse seems to have set in, as the film opens on the day after Hallowe'en - his most successful (ie. most horrible) ever. Moping around the forest, he stumbles upon a Christmas-tree-shaped door in a tree. A few skeletal steps later, after being sucked into a whirling blue vortex of twinkling stars, he is in Christmas-land. Not content with tourism, he usurps Santa Claus, making for a Christmas that is more macabre than merry.

The use of stop-motion animation (more often seen in special-effects extravaganzas) makes for a three-dimensional world, of puppets and sets, more expressive than cartoon drawings. In the film's beguiling opening scene, an introduction to the world of Hallowe'en set to song, director Henry Selick's camera swoops and swirls, as if it were on loan from Brian De Palma. There are grotesque wonders here: an expressionistically slanted graveyard of chilly-grey, crooked tombstones; a chorus of skeletons jiving in unison along the branches of a walking tree; the shadow of a bogeyman over the smooth gold disc of the moon, smiling, to allow his teeth, a flock of bats, to flutter away. This scene leads into Jack's lonely walk on a moon-drenched promontory (''O there's an empty place in my bones / That calls for something unknown''), which, along with his flight with emaciated reindeer over a patchwork quilt of snow-covered houses, provides the movie's most striking image.

All this is magical - but not quite pure magic. The charm is rather calculated. There is a scene where Jack does an experiment on a bauble to discover the secret of Christmas, and the film sometimes seems to have been created in the same suspect spirit, applying science to myth. Burton and screenwriter Caroline Thompson have flirted with this danger before, in Edward Scissorhands (with its references to Beauty and the Beast et al), but there they seduced us. The Nightmare Before Christmas doesn't have the same dramatic sweep, and its references are often more opportunistic than enlightening. The love interest is provided by Sally - a gorgeous doe-eyed doll, of the sewn-together, Frankenstein type. She pines for Jack, while languishing locked-up in the laboratory of the wicked professor who invented her. She clearly carries a lot of mythical baggage. But it is merely a fashion accessory.

There is also a scene in which Santa is tortured on a roulette table by a figure called Oogie Boogie, a great pea-green sack, voiced by the black actor Ken Page, which the PC may find offensive, and the rest of us plain crass. But these are quibbles in a film that by and large gives Hollywood craftsmanship a good name. It is beautifully detailed (worth seeing more than once), elegantly scored by Danny Elfman (who also sings Jack's numbers), and stamped throughout with the vision of Tim Burton.

To travel complacently rather than arrive at difficult conclusions seems

to be the motto of Nanni Moretti's three-part autobiographical essay, Dear Diary (15). It is a rambling film, in more ways than one, consisting largely of Moretti, maundering around Italy (Rome by Vespa in the first part; Lepari and Stromboli on foot in the second), mulling over contemporary mores, architecture and television. If there is a unifying theme, it is a plea for communication. That may be behind Moretti's yearning, in the first section, to be able to dance - a desire for the communality of the disco floor. He rhapsodises about the film Flashdance, and bumps into its star, Jennifer Beals. It is certainly the moral of the third and most compelling episode: the story of how, suffering from a skin complaint, Moretti did the rounds of Italy's dermatologists, who prescribed skin lotions to no effect, leaving it to the patient himself to work out that his ailment was a side-effect of lung

cancer. Moretti concludes that doctors are better at talking than listening.

That may be true, but it applies to Moretti too. For all his whimsy, he has a closed attitude to life. He confronts a film critic, reading aloud her pretentious reviews, in a scene which has been hailed as a comic coup. But it played to me like an advertisement for philistinism and an assault on free speech. To be as self-indulgent as Moretti (he shoots a long stretch of himself riding his Vespa to Pasolini's grave), you either have to be very witty, like Woody Allen, to whom Moretti is often compared, or have really sharp ideas. Here, Moretti fails on both counts. His film is little more than a doodle.

Sean Connery shows off his golf swing in A Good Man in Africa (15), as he did in Rising Sun. A pitch and putt must be written into the contract these days. He also delivers the line of the film, telling William Boyd's hapless hero (Colin Friels) he has more chance on the PGA tour than in the diplomatic service. But the film doesn't pursue the point, and Friels comes over as bland - a sit-com-poop, not a man who has tragically missed his chance in life. Boyd's novel was largely interior monologue, and it is fair enough that Boyd's own adaptation should go for something different - but not for banal dialogue and creaking-farce machinery. Oddly, the most enjoyable performance is by John Lithgow as the British High Commissioner. An American, he sharpens the traditional caricature of the British toff, and, in the process, looks a lot like Terry-Thomas.

The Cuban Strawberry and Chocolate (18) is a meandering account of the relationship between a naive young communist, who hopes to be a writer, and a flamboyantly cultured, proselytising homosexual. Though the movie is tenderly made, with a feel for the more bohemian reaches of Havana, its mincing hero may end up alienating homosexuals and heterosexuals alike.

Farewell to the 38th London Film Festival, a record earner ( pounds 384,000 net box office), and one of the most warmly received in memory. Many of the films will be released and reviewed in the New Year. One that might not is Hoop Dreams, an excellent three-hour documentary tracing the lives of two Chicago ghetto boys, from 14 to 18, as they seek basketball stardom. The film is a rare three-dimensional account of African-American lives and a stinging indictment of an educational system which, with its sports scholarships, institutionalises bribery. The BBC will show Hoop Dreams next summer. It deserves more. The grace and skill of the boys on court had the Festival audience cheering. I hope a British distributor will match the courage of the film-makers and their subjects.

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