In the abominably titled Up Close and Personal, Michelle Pfeiffer plays Sallyanne Atwater, a humble trailer- park dreamer who nurtures fantasies of TV stardom, despite the fact that she has the perfect hairdo for radio: a perm that looks like someone dumped a stack of vermicelli nests on her head. But she's plucky, and a prestigious reporter at a Miami news station spots this and hires her. His name is Warren Justice, so you expect him to sweep in with his underpants on over his trousers and a big "J" on his jersey. It's even stranger than that: he's played by Robert Redford, in slow-motion. Redford moves like he's in quicksand, and I don't think it's because he's getting on (though from some angles, he has the neck of a reasonably maintained pterodactyl). His 33rpm performance is closer to a misguided approximation of disinterest - an attempt at cool that comes across as mortuary-cold.
Sallyanne is caught in Warren's spell. So much so that she barely notices when he re-christens her "Tally", one of those silly TV names that means nothing but somehow suggests a diary full of parties and premieres. It's vaguely appropriate that she should want to work in television: when she's with Warren, she has the emptied eyes of a couch potato. Soon, the characters who want to nudge her off the air start crowding in. Through it all, Warren stands by her. Then he lays down with her. The screenplay never explicitly suggests that Tally is sleeping her way to the middle of her profession, but she's such a pathologically inept reporter that you can't help but draw your own rather salacious conclusions.
Although Up Close and Personal is set in the world of TV journalism, it doesn't use its location to tax its characters (like Broadcast News), or probe their morality (like Network), or explore the numbing effect of the medium (like To Die For). In fact, you soon come to realise that the plot could happily be relocated to a biscuit factory in Burnage without much call for rewrites. It's a love story; it doesn't strive for resonance beyond that, and the director Jon Avnet works hard to maintain what he believes is simplicity. But there's a difference between simplicity and simple-mindedness.
Even as a love story contained in a vacuum, drained of any political or even moral commentary which may rankle, the movie still manages to be pretty cheap. Warren Justice is, by all accounts, a ruthless womaniser ("It always ends in tears," Tally is warned by a colleague who has witnessed Warren's routine before). But the writers Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne nip in quick with a biographical nugget to forestall our prejudice: many years earlier, Warren fathered a child who died after just a week of life. It's cheap to use this as shorthand for Warren's nobility and sensitivity, though we shouldn't be surprised. Warren surreptitiously teaches Tally the very same thing: milk tragedy. When she learns to do this during live coverage of a prison riot, her education is complete - she has a swish new haircut and a slick mastery of tabloidese, and the old, honest Sallyanne has been buried. This supposed triumph has a fraudulent ring to it. The star is born, but the woman is gone.
For a brooding thriller that touches on suicide, betrayal, festering guilt and possible incest, Robert Lepage's thriller The Confessional is a lot of fun. Set in Quebec, it glides between two eras: 1952, when Hitchcock is using the city to shoot I Confess, and Rachel (Suzanne Clement), a pregnant 16-year-old, is confiding in her priest (Normand Daneau); and 1989, when Rachel's wayward son Marc (Patrick Goyette) enlists his adopted brother Pierre (Lothaire Bluteau) to help him trace his father.
Lepage's screenplay hasn't so much been written as tied into knots, and the unravelling process is tantalisingly protracted. If the final revelations lack the gravity of the brothers' search, then at least The Confessional functions as more than just a "who-fathered-it?". Lepage slips effortlessly through time and space with all the alluring elegance of Resnais, his minimalist methods of scene-switching belying his theatrical background. It's a sensual achievement, though, not an academic one: Alain Dostie's camera creeps around like a jackal, locating mirror-images of the confession booth in cavernous hotel rooms, seedy strip-joints and, most disconcertingly, a sauna, where the various comings-and-goings of the patrons plodding between each other's changing-rooms has the hypnotic rhythm of mice stalking a maze.
Like its older, more intelligent brother Stand By Me, Now and Then uses death as a way of getting its characters to grow up. Four 12-year-old girls (including the brilliant Christina Ricci) set about trying to solve the mystery of a local boy's death, in between wrestling with neighbourhood adversaries and doolally hormones. All the cliches of the rites-of-passage drama are embraced: the heartfelt declarations of everlasting friendship, the Jackson Five and "Free" on the soundtrack. As usual, the kids talk like adults, while the adults looking back on their childhood talk like the audience on Oprah. But then they're played by Demi Moore and Melanie Griffith, whose lines are barely audible for the sound of moths dancing around in their heads.
The fall of Eddie Murphy picks up speed with Vampire in Brooklyn, directed by Nightmare on Elm Street's Wes Craven, who spends most of his time in a tug-of-war with Murphy over whether the picture should be horror or comedy. It fails on both counts. A real nightmare.
Guiltrip is an intense Irish drama scrutinising the fascistic regime which an army corporal (Andrew Connolly) imposes on his wife (Jasmine Russell). Despite some powerful writing, it's a grim tale grimly told, with writer-director Gerard Stembridge winning no admiration for the torture he puts a young baby through during a scene depicting a violent marital spat.
All films on general release from Friday
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