Thursday, August 20, 2015

1999 Film festival report, part six

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in November 1999)

This is the sixth and last of Jack Hughes’ reports from the 1999 Toronto International Film Festival

My Best Fiend (Werner Herzog)
Herzog directed actor Klaus Kinski five times in the 70s and 80s (most memorably in Aguirre: the Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo), with almost uniquely obsessive and fiery results: both megalomaniacs of sorts, they enjoyed perhaps the ultimate love-hate relationship. Herzog relives their collaborations in this memoir, much of which consists of fundamentally conventional straight-to-camera dialogue and archival footage, but which given the subject matter makes for rollicking weird and wonderful results. Kinski was capable both of fierce irrational rage and almost childish tenderness; he could be both courageous and cowardly, virtually simultaneously; he believed himself a genius, and sometimes seemed like it. Given the evidence presented, it’s not surprising that Kinski is no longer with us; looking at the astonishing clips from their films, one’s primary mourning is likely to be for Herzog’s apparently burnt-out fiction film career.

Happy Texas (Mark Illsley)
Two escaped convicts hide out in a small Texas town, masquerading as gay pageant organizers. The movie has been praised as something fresh and distinctive, but I can’t really see why – it’s a fragmented, flatly directed series of mainly familiar set-pieces and relationships. The film substantially dispenses with its “gay” theme pretty early on, and also underexploits the central pageant concept, limiting Steve Zahn’s transformation from rough-edged incompetent into inspirational leader to not much more than a few montages. Instead, it spends most of its time meandering through such unexceptional plot strands as Jeremy Northam’s falling in love with a woman who fixes on him as a confidante, while he simultaneously plans to rob her bank. There’s a rather touching performance by William H Macy as the local sheriff discovering his own homosexuality, but his character is fuzzy as everything else in the film; Zahn, although his work here has been widely acclaimed, relies entirely on a bizarre stream of senseless mannerisms.

The Limey (Steven Soderbergh)
In this triumphantly experimental film, Soderbergh sets out to evoke the elliptical existential style that flourished in the 60’s (in the work of Antonioni and Bertolucci and, more genre-specifically, in John Boorman’s Point Blank). The Limey casts two icons of the decade, Terence Stamp and Peter Fonda, in a sparsely plotted thriller about a hard-edged British criminal (Stamp, naturally) who comes to LA to investigate, and likely avenge, his daughter’s mysterious death. Fonda plays the high-living record producer who, as her lover, becomes the main object of Stamp’s suspicion.

Los Angeles as seen here is a strangely desolate, hazy, yet spatially engrossing environment, and lends itself ideally to the film’s temporal experiments. In virtually every scene, Soderbergh flashes forward to episodes yet to come or back to images from those already elapsed, or to fragments of memory (using footage from Poor Cow, which Stamp made in 1967), or to alternative possibilities. It’s an in-your-face technique, and at first it’s a little unsettling and not particularly productive: one realizes, with some sadness, how easily the radical experiments of 30 years ago led to stylistically hollow hyperactivity – what’s often called an MTV style. In its opening stretches, The Limey merely resembles an elegant application of a chaos theory to filmmaking.

But it quickly calms down and coalesces. Stamp is wonderful as the calmly focused limey Wilson, who’s spent most of his adult life behind bars, offering no concessions: no one can understand his Cockney-slang saturated talk. His considerable limitations, as an effective player in the seedy LA underworld, actually invest him with a serene sense of liberation: there’s one excellent scene, when Stamp cuts loose with a beautifully fluid but highly vernacular monologue, knowing that not a word he says will be understood by the cop who’s interrogating him. If such serenity is emblematic of a certain strand of sixties culture, then it’s as if Wilson’s long confinement has left him relatively unscathed by everything that’s happened since: in his morally gray way, he’s an ambassador of integrity and stability (exemplified by Stamp’s almost spooky failure to age very much).

The Fonda character, by contrast, captivates his jailbait-aged girlfriends with indulgent memories and echoes of the sixties, while positioning himself on the cutting edge of the nineties – he’s an apparently perfect survivor and synthesis whom, we find out eventually, is actually just a sham: involved in a shady deal to keep himself afloat, hopelessly passive and dependent on his guns for hire. As the classic Easy Rider rebel who’s lately reinvented himself as ever-smiling, genial Oscar-nominated reincarnation of his father, Fonda is also perfectly cast here. So the film’s style, as it goes on, seems ever more eloquently questioning and disruptive as it wraps itself around these two enormously resonant antagonists, always emphasizing the fluidity of time, the echoes of moments just elapsed and premonitions of those yet to come.

In addition to all that, The Limey has a number of fine supporting performances, several truly exciting action sequences, some exquisitely funny lines. And at only 90 minutes, it has a concision that’s to be admired – in any decade.

That’s the last on this year’s film festival. To summarize, while acknowledging I could necessarily see only a small percentage of everything on offer (and am therefore no doubt grandiosely extrapolating on the basis of an unscientific sample), it was a pretty good festival – one with fewer truly high notes than some previous year, but with widely distributed, solid quality. I saw only a few movies that can’t be recommended in at least some respect (All the Rage may be the only one I’d actively urge people to avoid). My favourite – and I know I’m in a severe minority here – was L’humanite (the controversial Cannes award-winner which, sadly, seems unlikely to be commercially released here). Runners-up: The Limey, American Beauty, The Emperor and the Assassin, Dogma, The Wind Will Carry Us, Tumbleweeds, 8 ½ Women. The first two of those are already in release – see them now, and look out for the rest!

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Friday escape

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in June 2002)

Sometimes, if I can manage it, I try to take off a little early on Friday afternoons to catch a movie. It’s not much of a transgression because I usually come back into the office on the way home and end up just about making up the time. Even if that wasn’t the case, it still isn’t much of a transgression: colleagues know I do this and no one thinks anything of it. But the other week, sitting there by myself around 5 p.m., I started to feel distinctly guilty and uneasy. And this tells you about the success of the film I was watching – Unfaithful.


The movie is being positioned as an “adult” alternative to the big summer blockbusters, but it belongs there with them – it’s a theme park ride through the mythic landscape of adultery. It has the accidental meeting, the initial attraction, the deepening flirtation, the sudden capitulation, the enveloping passion, the public sex, the obsessiveness, the anger at catching him flirting with another woman, etc. Adrian Lyne directs with an atmospheric, composed eye; he never lets a plain shot pass through the camera.

In a nutshell, Diane Lane plays a seemingly happily married suburban wife, living prosperously and affectionately with husband Richard Gere. One day, struggling against a movie-strength wind, she literally bumps into a charismatic Frenchman (Olivier Martinez) outside his apartment. He invites her in to clean up. She comes back another day, then another, and they’re soon in the sack. After that she rapidly loses it, neglecting the kid, getting cold on Gere, and getting sloppy in her cover stories.

The film’s biggest asset by far is Lane’s performance. She perfectly conveys the character’s loss of control. It’s one of the best examples of sexual acting in memory – sometimes surpassing Halle Berry’s Oscar-winning work in Monster’s Ball – and she’s the primary reason why the film is often so unsettling. Actually, Lane must be an early favourite for this year’s award. The biggest problem is that her performance isn’t sustained – in the latter part of the film she recedes from us, becoming blander and more inscrutable.

But that’s the film’s fault – not hers. The film takes the logic of the affair to its nerve-wracking peak, in the process bringing Gere to the edge of a breakdown in what may be one of his own best scenes ever. Then it abruptly changes direction, and surrenders to much more mundane mechanics. Later on it coalesces somewhat, but Unfaithful runs distinctly out of steam. I liked the inconclusive climax more than many reviewers have, but there’s no doubt it’s rooted more in mild artistic desperation than in a coherent vision of where the movie’s going. I read that Lyne shot six different versions of the ending, which I suppose will be a selling point for the DVD around Christmas time.

I’m not sure the conception of the lover works for the best either. Olivier Martinez is so alluring he could make straight men turn gay, but he’s barely realistic – he hangs round with supreme pouty self-confidence, always saying the right thing, pushing all the right buttons. And Lyne’s trademark soft-focus style too often blunts the material. Still, at its best I found the film more striking than, say, In the Bedroom.


Kirsten Dunst in Spider-Man (and by the way, I saw this one on my own time) is no Diane Lane, but she’s probably the most alluring challenge to a superhero’s fidelity to duty since Margot Kidder in Superman. This sums up the course of mainstream cinema over the intervening 24 years – Dunst now is ten years younger than Kidder was then. Everything about Spider-Man seems young – even the token old timers look artificially aged, and Willem Dafoe sheds all his gravity in his role as the villain. Dunst aside, the film’s greatest asset is probably Tobey Maguire, who keeps his performance nicely nuanced and grounded. Maybe too grounded, for the film always seems interesting rather than actually dramatic. That’s partly because Maguire’s plausibility has the effect of pitching everything at the same level of excitement as a slightly diverting homework assignment. Also, the plot about the Green Goblin is unspeakably lame.

To me, the best part of the movie was Danny Elfman’s opening theme music, accompanying an elegant title design. Elfman’s music was also the best part of Planet of the Apes, and probably of more other movies than I can remember. His Spider-Man theme has an insinuating power and drama that the film seems uninterested in matching. Maybe Elfman was actually a bad choice, and the film would have been better served by something lighter and jauntier. Some have found the film’s computer-generated effects a bit much – Roger Ebert for instance commented on how the scenes of Spiderman swinging from one skyscraper to the next didn’t evoke a real person. But I liked the idea of a man transformed into almost abstract energy and movement. If you’re going to watch something created on a computer screen, zip and panache help. Anyway, I think the ideal superhero movie has yet to be made, Maybe Ang Lee’s forthcoming Incredible Hulk film will be the one.

Son of the Bride

The day after watching Spider-Man (i.e. still on the weekend) I watched the Argentinean Son of the Bride, which was a surprisingly similar experience. It’s pleasant and diverting, but never deeply engages, and the main attraction is again the hero’s lively girlfriend. It’s another story of an early mid-life crisis, except this time it’s a man who gets tired of his cellphone-hugging life running the family restaurant, and tries to strike out in a new direction. The new direction looks little different from the old one, which would be a nice touch in a more subtle film. As it is, the movie meanders incredibly for two hours before reaching an utterly predictable outcome.

The movie was nominated this year for a foreign-language film Oscar which, given the submitted films that weren’t nominated, may be the best recent evidence that it’s true what they say about the Oscars. The character’s mother has Alzheimer’s, but her long-time husband remains devoted to her, accepting all her problems with serene equanimity. The film’s attitude on the condition seems much more lazy than it does liberal, but it’s consistent with how the movie avoids showing real pain or hardship (when he has a near-fatal heart attack, it’s glossed over so quickly that I’m not sure his condition gets mentioned by name). For that matter, I wonder how plausible it is that a film set in Argentina can so consistently turn its back on economic hardship? Assuming you want the film to which you sneak from work to be an easier experience than just remaining at your desk, Son of the Bride would have been a better candidate than Unfaithful for an early departure.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Artistic decisions

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in June 2002)

With hindsight, of course, we can identify all the major wrong moves of cinema history. Peter Bogdanovich has been profiled a lot lately, on account of making a modest comeback with The Cat’s Meow. It once seemed impossible a comeback would ever be necessary. In 1973, after The Last Picture Show, What’s Up Doc and Paper Moon, he ought to have been unstoppable. Three years, three bad films, and much obnoxious behaviour later, it was all but over. How much has he wondered since then about the road not taken?

Michael Ritchie is a less dramatic and perhaps more interesting example of how the course of a career can change. In 1978, James Monaco’s book American Film Now profiled him (along with Cassavetes, Altman, Coppola and Mazursky) as one of five leading contemporary directors. The Candidate, Downhill Racer and Smile had established him, but Monaco noted with mild concern that Ritchie’s most recent film, Semi-Tough, was blander and less stimulating. After that, Ritchie made a few films in which you could vaguely see thwarted ambition (The Island, Diggstown) and a whole bunch of pandering, silly work (The Golden Child, Cops and Robbersons, A Simple Wish). The decline appears inexplicable, and almost deliberate. To my knowledge, Ritchie never expressed regret over it.

Career Lows

On the other hand, it’s long forgotten how Steven Spielberg stumbled early on with 1941 and then recovered his footing within a couple of years with Raiders of the Lost Ark. For that matter, just about all the big directors have a flop in there somewhere, but they get over it.

I remember someone saying that it’s incredibly hard and soul-destroying to make any movie, even a bad one, and then just a relatively little bit harder to make a good one. I’ve often wondered what it must feel like to invest yourself into a film for a year or more, to traverse all the thousands of decisions that go into it, and then to have it rendered instantly dead by a few bad reviews. I bet you didn’t know that Johnny Depp directed a movie some years ago. Called The Brave One, it even had Marlon Brando in a starring role. The film premiered at the Cannes festival in 1998, but got a horrible reception and has barely been released anywhere. But if those initial viewers had reacted differently, then maybe Depp would have gone on to direct again; maybe he’d be known now as much for directing as for acting.

Of course, this kind of speculation applies as much in any walk of life – we can all pinpoint key moments of fate or choice where, with retrospect, the direction of our lives shifted. It’s just that cinema, even more than the other arts, seems to have a remarkable number of under-achieving careers festooned across its history. To me this reflects its collaborative nature, the logistical challenges in realizing a vision – compared with say writing novels, it’s much more likely that one might simply run out of energy, or suffer plain bad luck.

Behind the Sun

Which brings us to Woody Allen’s Hollywood Ending. Although it seems by now as if Allen has been in decline for as long as anyone can remember, it’s only this film and his last, Curse of the Jade Scorpion, that truly scrape the bottom of the barrel. Through his glory days in the late 70s and 80s, Allen communicated his dissatisfaction with mere comedy, letting it be known that his ambitions lay in greater things. He seems to have given that up now, but the flair’s all gone. It’s not just the movies – his recent humour pieces in The New Yorker struck me as unreadable, and his brief return to stand-up at the Oscars wasn’t much of anything.

One can stab at explanations – for example, he’s not working with the same creative team that sustained him for years. But you only need to look at Woody himself. He’s not even in touch with his own film. He gesticulates and stammers and does his shtick, but it’s sealed off in a vacuum. Hollywood Ending has the gimmick of Woody playing a director who goes suddenly blind, so he can’t look anyone in the eye. It’s appropriate in more ways than one.

That’s already enough on that. Walter Salles directed Central Station a few years ago – a Brazilian film about the relationship between an old woman and a little boy. The film was sensitive and well-handled, although somewhat soft-centered for all its grit (recent South American smashes Amores Perros and Y tu Mama Tambien have made this even clearer with hindsight). After that, I kept reading how Salles was going to make an English-language project, though nothing’s come of it yet.

His latest film Behind the Sun looks largely like marking time, although it also has a pandering quality about it that makes you wonder if it wasn’t conceived as a calling card for the studios. Two poor farming families carry out a deadly blood feud that gradually depletes their ranks. An eldest son is granted a month’s truce until the other family comes to kill him. He runs away and falls in love with a traveling circus performer, but then feels he must return. The film is baked in acrid yellow dust and glistening skin – it’s undoubtedly handsome.

Pull the plug?

But nothing in it really matters. The film attends to its grand mythic scheme at the cost of much immediate electricity. It has a distinctly flat quality, and lacks much of a pay-off. I’m not saying it’s a failure exactly – I think it’s possible that Salles achieved almost exactly what he was going for. Behind the Sun is substantially better than Hollywood Ending – it’s immaculately professional. But maybe, of the two, its failure leaves you the more somber. At least one can rationalize Allen’s film as coming at the tail-end of a career, after dozens of better memories gone before. Even if Hollywood pulled the plug on him now (and they haven’t – he has a new project shooting currently), we could be confident we’d had the best already.

And yet – it’s not that long since Deconstructing Harry and Sweet and Lowdown – not Allen’s best, but not disastrously far-off either. If Robert Altman can make Gosford Park at 76 and Manoel de Oliveira can make movies at 94, should we give up on Allen yet? True, he feels further gone than Altman ever did, but cinema is full of surprises.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Movie weekend

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in June 2002)

My wife knows a couple whose son is a movie producer, and he recently produced a family film called Virginia’s Run which had its Toronto premiere at the Sprockets film festival – that’s the annual kids-friendly offshoot of the Toronto film festival. They gave us a couple of tickets, so we went up to Canada Square on Saturday afternoon. Virtually everyone in the theatre seemed to be connected to someone in the movie, and this wasn’t entirely a good thing (the grandmother of one of the actors was sitting behind us, and she yapped away through the whole film) – on the other hand, it made the experience seem much more immediate and tangible than a conventional trip to the movies.

Virginia’s Run

That same week, Toronto also had a Jewish film festival, a documentary film festival and a black film festival, and in the past week or two there’d already been a minority images film festival and French film festival. There may have been others. When we saw Virginia’s Run, the theatre was vibrant and buzzing. There were signs in the lobby for some kind of animation display, and before the film, someone stood up and described where we should stand afterwards in the event of being parted from the people we came with (a practice the Scotiabank theatre might usefully adopt on Friday nights). Just like at the film festival proper, the movie was introduced by the producer and a “starlet” (that’s the term he used) from the film, but they seemed much more light-spirited and relaxed than the people who introduce the adult movies every September.

This was a great reminder of cinema’s effectiveness at forging communities and sub-cultures, even if they only exist for a few shining hours. Going to the Carlton for instance, the makeup of the audience doesn’t seem to vary much whether it’s a Taiwanese movie or an Iranian one or a French one. It’s an “art film” location, and that’s the audience it gets. I assume most festivals market themselves more strategically and get the word out to their target audiences. I’d love to visit all of the Toronto mini-festivals at some point, spend some time soaking up their different nuances and ambiences. At one or two a year, I’ll be through by 2060 or so.

Unfortunately, I don’t think Virginia’s Run itself did very much to galvanize the audience, not even the kids – it’s just too shapeless and shallow (horse lovers will like it more than others will). Anyway, that was that, and then (maybe feeling in need of something more adult) we spontaneously decided to go to Changing Lanes, the Ben Affleck-Samuel L Jackson urban thriller. I do the double bill thing relatively often, but my wife never does. It was so exciting to have her along – we even went to Taco Bell first.

Changing Lanes

There’s nothing too esoteric about the Varsity Saturday afternoon audience, and there’s nothing about the movie that would have required it to be. I don’t think Changing Lanes is quite as deep or as subtle as some reviews claim. The movie is about a rich lawyer (Affleck) and a struggling insurance salesman (Jackson) who get involved in a fender-bender, from which the lawyer bolts. Arriving at court, he finds he left a crucial file at the scene of the accident. Jackson has it, but won’t give it back. Affleck pays a crooked computer hacker to have Jackson declared bankrupt; Jackson retaliates by loosening one of the wheels on Affleck’s car.

When I describe the plot that way, it sounds like the tit-for-tat of a Laurel and Hardy duel, and the movie does have a blackly comic quality to it. It also has a rueful moral quality, as both men reassess their values and behaviour. But since the action is all confined to a single day, the picture can’t escape the feeling of contrivance and excessive compression. The portrayal of the business world is particularly superficial, such as the scene where a senior corporate lawyer, on hearing a crucial document may have gone missing, takes about ten seconds to blithely come out with a scheme to forge a replacement.

Changing Lanes is a fair-sized hit and it’s being viewed as a cut above the formulaic melodrama. I think that only illustrates how much standards have slipped. The film certainly evokes and refers in passing to a range of serious matters, but it hardly pauses for contemplation.

Atanarjuat: the Fast Runner

The following day I went alone to Atanarjuat: the Fast Runner. The film runs over three hours, and at one point I had to get up to go to the bathroom. I’d never noticed before, but the Cumberland 2 has an emergency exit right next to the main entrance, and I went out through the wrong door. I found myself in a corridor that clearly wasn’t the way I’d come in, but I had no idea how that could have happened. I felt more disorientated than I have for a long while, as though something fundamental had changed.

I think this speaks to the effect that the film was already having on me at that point. Arguably the most notable Canadian film in years (well, you can argue it’s the most notable ever made), it’s a tale of the Inuit, spanning generations. The film forges its own narrative and visual language so comprehensively and successfully that you feel it’s mere coincidence that something occasionally looks familiar (a shot outside a tent, capturing a silhouette of a couple making love, is the sole example that I registered as a potential cliché).

Yet we can recognize the rivalries and emotions and joys and frustrations, even if the culture within which they manifest themselves is governed by radically different expectations. These are nomadic people whose lives shift based on the movements of the caribou and the seal. Their destinies are inextricably linked to the environment, but the film seldom shows the animals – it sticks close to the people, rendering them vivid and detailed even as they’re perpetually dwarfed by the ice and snow. But Atanarjuat is forged as much in legend as in conventional narrative. It seems simultaneously both real and imagined.

When I went to see Atanarjuat, the audience was almost completely quiet, almost mesmerized. Maybe this is all one really needs to know about how cinema creates communities. You put something unprecedented, unimaginable on the screen, and the world will thereafter be divided forever between those who’ve experienced it and those who haven’t.


Sunday, August 2, 2015

Battle of the actresses

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in May 2002)

This week we have films featuring three of my favourite actresses, all in good form and making up to some extent for the flaws or limitations of the films themselves.

Human Nature

Being John Malkovich was greatly admired a few years ago, and I enjoyed watching it, but I always felt I was missing something. I didn’t write a review of it – couldn’t think of anything to say. Now the film’s writer, Charlie Kaufman, has written Human Nature, which has the same apparent disregard for conventional narrative bounds. Tim Robbins plays a scientist who marries Patricia Arquette, a social outcast because of a major body hair problem. Hiking in the woods, they encounter Rhys Ifans, who was taken into the woods as a child by his deranged father and has grown up ape-like. Robbins abandons his experiments with mice (he’s trying to teach them table manners) and sets out to civilize the wild man.

Human Nature, like Malkovich, is a film of enormous invention. Truth is, it would have been more effective with less invention. To the very end, it concocts twists and reversals and crazy concepts, which means it never gets close to dullness, but it’s like a girl who teases you to the point where you decide to transfer your affections to someone else. The film usually seems to be about the malevolent effects of civilization – how it quashes our better natures – but it also hints cynically that we may not have a better nature. You wish for a more consistent perspective, even if a more limited one.

The film’s funniest moments come from an inspired silliness. Robbins’ notion of civilization is about a hundred years out of date – he trains Ifans how to behave at the opera, how to sit by the fire like a country gentleman, and so forth (making for visual tableaux reminiscent of the best moments in Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums). But this just illustrates the film’s broader incoherence, since Robbins doesn’t generally behave in a way consistent with these anachronistic notions, and the vague depiction of “the real world” dulls our sense of the (presumed) injustice that’s being done to Ifans. There’s a certain flabbiness to the concept too – the Arquette and Ifans characters are both variations on the same narrow theme, and the fourth major character, a conniving woman who poses as a French seductress to win over Robbins, makes very little sense.

The movie couldn’t be as affecting as it is if not for its actors. Robbins is rather bland, but Ifans has a crazy grandeur about him. Readers may remember that I went to school with him in North Wales. I often find him a bit strained on the screen, but maybe I have too much of a sense of the man. On this occasion, his messy, abstracted persona is exactly what the character needs.

As for Patricia Arquette – she’s often very touching. She’s frequently naked in the film, and her sturdy voluptuousness has an appropriately primitive air about it. She strikes me as an actress who needs strong direction – when that’s lacking, she seems to drift and recede (see for example her work in Matthew Broderick’s Infinity). That almost happens here too from time to time, but in a film that’s purportedly about the quashing of instinct, it’s not such a bad thing.

Murder by Numbers

Murder by Numbers has a much more concentrated and in part familiar view of human nature. It’s the Leopold-Loeb story all over again – two smart-ass teenagers team up to commit the perfect murder, complete with a trail of clues that will lead the police to the wrong suspect. Except, of course, that the detective is smarter than they had any reason to expect.

She’s played by Sandra Bullock, which seems like proof of a soft centre. Surprisingly, Bullock is the primary savior of this largely conventional film. Her character is hard-edged, stubborn, cynical – none of that is new, but the movie takes her into territory that’s unusually raw and fragile and sexually explicit. At such times, it’s pleasingly reminiscent of Clint Eastwood vehicles like The Gauntlet or Tightrope, cranking the genre wheels while exploring the edges of its star image. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t take this half as far as it might have done, but it’s intriguing while it lasts.

The film’s director Barbet Schroeder last directed the low budget Our Lady of the Assassins, about a middle-aged writer observing a child assassin on the streets of Medellin, Colombia. That was an extremely bleak, nihilistic work, consisting for long stretches of little but desolate wandering punctuated by random killing. It sometimes seemed contrived, but you couldn’t easily shake it off. It’s a rather ridiculous distance from that chilling depiction of murderous youth to the teenage melodrama of Murder by Numbers. They say history occurs first as tragedy and then repeats itself as farce – maybe movie careers sometimes take the same form. But at least Schroeder is too much of a pro not to make a smooth film, although even that much seems in doubt during the rickety, cliff-hanging climax.

Triumph of Love

I suppose Triumph of Love, Claire Peploe’s adaptation of a 17th century play by Marivaux, is the most commercially marginal of these three projects. The film doesn’t really try to have it any other way. Set on a sumptuous country estate, it involves a princess who dresses as a male to win the heart of the man she loves – a man who views the princess as a mortal enemy. She also wins the heart of her beloved’s guardian, a famous philosopher who immediately sees through her disguise, and the guardian’s sister, who doesn’t.

The movie isn’t really ingratiating enough to be a popular success – it’s fairly repetitive and narrow, and Peploe follows her own idiosyncratic instincts, sometimes emphasizing the theatrical aspects, sometimes over-emphasizing the cinematic. But it’s an entertaining romp, and the final scenes are particularly sweet. In a cast that includes British heavyweights Ben Kingsley and Fiona Shaw, it’s especially commendable that Mira Sorvino as the princess is the film’s single greatest charm. Sorvino was hot for a couple of years after she won her slightly generous Oscar for Mighty Aphrodite, but a series of bad pictures put paid to that. She’s not the most technically compelling actress, but when she’s cast properly she has a combination of intelligence and winsomeness that I find very appealing (Lulu on the Bridge is probably my favourite of her performances).

This week’s winner – Mira Sorvino! Next time – battle of the movie caterers.