Cinema: The Eighties revival starts here: and praise be, it's going to be funny

Maggie O'Farrell
Sunday 23 October 2011 08:12

THE BEST THING about retro is that it comes with built-in wisdom - you know, for instance, that this time round pedal pushers are OK, but leg warmers are not. We can laugh in a world-weary, Nineties way at the effusive octogenarian photographer in The Wedding Singer (12) who tells a couple, "you'll be one of those who stays together for ever and ever, like Donald and Ivana, Woody and Mia." While we in the real world live through this decade of retro trying to avoid the nightmare bits of the recent past, cinema revels in all their hideous glory.

The Wedding Singer, this year's surprise hit at the US box office, takes us back to 1985. Robbie Hart (stand-up comedian Adam Sandler, replete with blow-dried, gelled mullet) is "the best wedding singer in the world". He does a mean cover version of "You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)", gets everyone dancing, and shouts things like "I can feel all the happiness in here!" But when his fiancee jilts him at the altar, he metamorphoses into a vicious, bitter dervish, hoarsely belting out "Love Stinks" at unsuspecting guests.

Ang Lee's The Ice Storm revisited the Seventies with respect, but Frank Coraci's film pays no such gentle homage to the Eighties: this is pure, irresistibly gleeful piss-take. A woman tussles crossly with a Rubik's Cube: "No one will ever solve that." "It's called a CD player," a man explains. "Oh, you wanna play a record?" trills his girlfriend. And the clothes - taste-bypass explosions of spandex, lace and shimmery velour; zippy Thriller-style jackets with just one silver glove; bustiers; pastel eyeshadow. Did they actually wear that kind of thing? Did we? Did I?

The plot is incidental, really. Broken-hearted Robbie meets waitress Julia (a blue-mascara-ed, lipglossed Drew Barrymore), who's about to marry evil, philandering yuppie Glen, a Don Johnson prototype with fat fingers. As with all nuptial comedies, there's an obstacle-ridden chase to the altar, but The Wedding Singer has a crucial and unprecidented difference: an utterly gratuitous but fantastic cameo from a wrinkly Billy Idol.

The flaw is that the script restricts the energetic Barrymore to a fresh- faced, bobbed blonde so saccharine she'd make Doris Day look like a porn queen. See the movie instead for Sandler - all bruised charm, but with enough acerbic cynicism to save him and the film from becoming too cloying - and for the glimpse of Steve Buscemi as the drunken, screwed-up, hard-done-by brother of the groom. "The best man?" he rants, "The better man!" It's so tacky, it'll stick to you.

You know, in the first 10 minutes of Red Corner (15), when a sex scene is intercut with bubbling-over champagne glasses, that it's going to be downhill all the way.

American businessman Jack Moore (a more than usually smug Richard Gere, with George Clooney crop) is in Beijing to wrap up a satellite TV deal with the Chinese. He achieves, in the process, a different kind of closure with a glamorous model (Jessey Meng), but wakes up after their night of unbridled cork-popping to find she's been murdered, and he's prime suspect. Director Jon Avnet (Fried Green Tomatoes, Up Close and Personal) gives full rein to yet more cliches, this time about the dastardly Chinese - who bark aggressively in Mandarin, spray the Westerner with jets of water, crush his glasses under their nasty big boots, swill out his food bowl in the toilet and subject him to medical examinations with cattle prods. Meanwhile, Gere gets to raise those hangdog brown eyes and yell "I am innocent!". But there is hope: the beautiful yet damaged attorney (Bai Ling) naturally appears at first as an icy Oriental type, but will gradually be won over by Jack's sincerity and sensitivity, and offer to sacrifice her life and career to prove his innocence and the corruption of her country's legal system. It is truly terrible, anodyne tripe. Do not see this film.

What I really want to know is: how come it's all right for Richard Gere to schtup Jessey Meng, when it's not even an option for Mira Sorvino and Hong Kong action star Chow Yun-Fat in The Replacement Killers (18)? Don't get me wrong: it's not that I think every leading couple who share a screen should automatically share a bed, but in any other circumstances the romantic entanglement of a man and a woman on the run from both a Triad boss and the police would be central and inevitable. Can it really be that Hollywood cannot stomach a Chinese man with a white woman? He can reset Sorvino's dislocated knee, protect her from gunfire, stroke her cheek, say "I will miss you", but the mesmeric Chow must remain sexless and impassive, with only one thing on his mind - to get back to his family in China.

Otherwise, Antoine Fuqua's film is a slick action thriller with giddy, stylised cinematography: the gunfights are balletic, speedy, blasted with trancey music, and steeped in colour and neon. Sorvino's Meg is a feisty rock chick with henna tattoos and a sideline in passport forgery. There's no hint of Bond-girl wussiness: she doesn't once shriek or simper in deference to Chow's terrifying steeliness. The power-balance between these two is a shifting, poised tight-rope act - perfect, in every way but one.

"Are you well?" Mr Bindii in A Taste of Cherry (PG) asks everyone he comes across during a long and dusty drive around the outskirts of Tehran. You wonder, during these odd, inert conversations, if he means these people some harm, or if he's trying to pick them up. But no, he is looking for someone willing to bury him after his suicide.

Abbas Kiarostami's film won the Palme d'Or at Cannes, and no wonder. It is perplexing, addictive and - there's no other word for it - honest. He works entirely without sets, lighting, or even scripts. Throughout the journey, the noise of quarries and stone cutters often drowns out speech; you are not always allowed the luxury of seeing the person Bindii (Homayoun Ershadi) is talking to; and for the first 30-odd minutes, the camera doesn't leave the inside of a truck. These things aren't irksome, but rather intensify the sense of the protagonist's disaffection with the world. Anyone used to Hollywood pace or European emotion will have to be prepared to key their brains into a different way of apprehending the medium. That can only be a good thing.

Dad Savage (18) is a vest-and-pants film: most of the characters, at some point, strut about in a vest, and all of them pant. Panting is, apparently, the way you show fear, pain, cold, exhaustion, anger, grief - just about everything. The movie is a strange, mutant kind of western displaced to Lincolnshire, starring Patrick Stewart (the bald one from Star Trek: the Next Generation) as a line-dancing tulip farmer with a sideline in crime. Two of his acolytes - called, for reasons known only to the scriptwriter, Vic and Bob - hear he has a stash of cash buried somewhere in a wood, and torture his beloved son in order to find it. Cue boys running around in woods at night, digging and shouting; supposedly sexy shots of guns being loaded; some repulsive close-ups of arterial bleeding; lots more shouting, and a prolonged argument about whodunit, when that's been completely obvious all along to everyone bar those up on screen.

Morgan J Freeman's directorial debut Hurricane Streets (15) stars Brendan Sexton III (last seen as the loose cannon Brandon in Welcome to the Dollhouse) as an asthmatic 15-year-old who dreams of escaping from New York to the fresh air of New Mexico. While his mother's in prison for smuggling Mexicans over the border, Marcus leads his friends in small-time burglary, and meets the beautiful Latina, Melena. She, in turn, is trying to break free of her violent, abusive father. It's unambitious, sentient and bleak without being manipulative. Sexton is a real find: he manages to pull off that difficult mix of vulnerability and bravura peculiar to adolescence. It's hard to keep your eyes on his expression of ridigity and furious disbelief as his mother tells him how she killed his father because "he beat me".

The week's other teen flick, Gregg Araki's Nowhere (18) is tedious, overblown and too far up its own irony to be remotely interesting. Gorgeous, introspective teenagers have lots of sex, get abducted by aliens, throw up, get raped by Baywatch stars, and kill themselves. If you're into that kind of thing, on your head be it.

Cinema details: Going Out, page 11. Matthew Sweet returns next week.

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