Cross-dressing has been a comedy staple for as long as comedy has existed, but in Siddiq Barmak's new drama, Osama (12A), it's a matter of life and death. The film, which won this year's Golden Globe for best foreign picture, is the first to be made in Afghanistan since the war, and it's set under the Taliban reign, when the slightest misdemeanour was punished by men armed with automatic rifles and religious fervour. Its heroine is a 12-year-old girl (Marina Golbahari), an only child whose father has been killed. As women aren't permitted to go outdoors unaccompanied, her mother disguises her as a boy, but her plan works too well when the girl, now re-named Osama, is forced to attend a fundamentalist school. If the traditional movie plot and directorial flourishes remind us that we're watching a work of fiction, the rawness of the amateur cast's acting and Barmak's stark depiction of cruelty and suffering never let us forget how real, and how recent, the setting is.
Osama would make most American movies look frivolous and commercial, but this week's American movies hardly need any help there. Cheaper By The Dozen (PG) is a family comedy that stars Steve Martin as a father of 12. (His name's Baker, and he's got a dozen children, get it?) The film could have explored what it's actually like to be surrounded by 11 siblings, but no, it just freewheels down the Daddy Day Care road that's signposted "Man In Charge, Kids Run Riot", as Martin tries to look after the brood and hold down his college coaching job while his wife's away. The screenplay has the usual reactionary, family-good-career-bad message, although it's undermined by all the shots of young children playing with darts, hatchets, ropes and snakes. The social services should have been called in several children ago.
Like Pirates of the Caribbean, The Haunted Mansion (PG) was inspired - if that's not too grand a word - by a Disneyland attraction, and the film-makers' tactic is to shoehorn in all of the spooks from the theme park ride and hope everything else falls into place. What's unexpected about the movie is its ratio of scares to laughs: while the comedy and action never get going, the zombies are genuinely frightening - and I speak as someone who's a tad older than the movie's target audience. Anyway, there's something very wrong with a film that gives Eddie Murphy fewer gags than the actors playing his two children.
The most bearable of the half-term pocket-money grabbers is Looney Tunes: Back in Action (PG), which boasts moments of sassy humour and fantastic animation. Like Who Framed Roger Rabbit, the film has real actors (including Steve Martin) playing opposite Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and other cartoon superstars. Unlike Who Framed Roger Rabbit, it doesn't have a proper story.
It seems the director, Joe Dante, cared less about getting the dumb adventure plot to hang together than he did about spiking it with film-buff in-jokes. But will young viewers get anything out of his nods to Roger Corman and Psycho? And is obtrusive product placement really acceptable just because you joke about how obtrusive it is?
Tooth (U) is a British children's fantasy about a tooth fairy who goes on a quest for Mrs Claus. It has some nice wisecracks and Gilliamesque production design, but any goodwill these engender is vaporised by a script that's as incoherent as the worst village panto. Every few seconds, another concept, storyline or character is thrown in until the cast has swollen to include Harry Enfield, Sally Phillips, Vinnie Jones, Phyllida Law, Stephen Fry, Richard E Grant and Jerry Hall. Somehow the film moves at breakneck speed and still seems to last for hours and hours.
The confusion continues in the scrappy People I Know (15), which stars Al Pacino as a publicity man on the verge of a nervous breakdown. He's what Tony Curtis's character in Sweet Smell of Success would have been after 40 more years of hustling: a pill-guzzling, chain-smoking wreck with only one profitable client left on his books. The film starts promisingly, but it soon loses track of whether it's a celebrity satire, a Jay McInerney-style plunge into Manhattan's nightlife inferno, or a 1970s political conspiracy thriller.
Silent Grace (15) is set in a Northern Irish women's jail in 1980, when IRA prisoners were conducting dirty protests and hunger strikes. By the end of it, we know so little about the women and their backgrounds that it seems as if some vital scenes were accidentally deleted. Meanwhile, on re-release this week is a double bill of Luis Buñuel's surrealist masterpieces, Un Chien Andalou and L'age d'or (nc). The former, a collaboration with Salvador Dali, is one of the best films ever made - and it's just 17 minutes long.
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