Pointed politics, witless witchcraft

 

Political cliches don't come any more trite and hackneyed these days than those that tell us we stand at the doorstep/gateway/ dawn of a new millennium, and with 11 months to go to Y2K we are doomed to suffer its recycling ad nauseam. The fictional US senator, Jay Billington Bulworth, a Democrat played by Warren Beatty, trots out the line with all the conviction of a speak-your-weight machine in Beatty's caustic and immensely entertaining political satire, Bulworth - until its sheer shallowness finally registers with him.

It's the middle of March in 1996, towards the end of Bulworth's campaign to retain his California seat. He hasn't slept or eaten properly for days. He's four points down in the polls. His opponent derides him as "an old liberal wine trying to pour itself into a new conservative bottle". And Bulworth, world-weary and worn down from it all, is sinking deeper and deeper into disillusionment with the political system that has been his life and which he now recognises for what it has become: a cacophony of bland sound-bites and empty promises emanating from a morass of endemic corruption and kow-towing to corporate power. Bulworth cracks. In the middle of a nervous breakdown, he arranges his own suicide by hiring a hit man to assassinate him during the final weekend of campaigning - after making a deal with a corrupt lobbyist (Paul Sorvino) for a life insurance deal to benefit his daughter. Suddenly he is free, liberated from the shackles of "whatever you're having yourself" politics.

Like Jim Carrey's lawyer in Liar Liar - or, more pertinently in the context, Peter Finch's unhinged newscaster in Network - Bulworth finally, for the first time in his long political career, starts telling it like he sees it, and in the process profoundly offends Jews, blacks, the Hollywood film industry and various special interest groups, all in the course of a whirlwind 24 hours. And attracted by Nina (Halle Berry), a cynical young woman whose mother was a Black Panther, he takes off for a South Central LA rap club and begins to communicate in rap-speak in that awkward, embarrassing manner of people from another generation trying to sound hip. Warren Beatty, himself a long-time political activist on behalf of the Democrats, produced and directed this shrewd and timely satire, collaborated on its acute screenplay with Jeremy Pikser, and gives one of the richest, most alert and knowing performances of his career as the erratic Jay Bulworth. A clever film, it bristles with decades of accumulated cynicism released with torrents of energy from an impassioned liberal heart.

Halle Berry's Nina is the only under-defined character in Bulworth, which also features among a fine cast Oliver Platt as the senator's squirming spin doctor, Jack Warden as a political ally, Don Cheadle as a smooth-talking gang leader, and Christine Baranski as Bulworth's estranged wife who reluctantly and very briefly participates in a few phoney photo opportunities with him.

When it comes to resolving what it has raised, Bulworth proves to be one of those rare Hollywood studio pictures that has the courage of its convictions and refuses to pull punches even when most of the most idealistic movies would cop out.

54 (18) Selected cinemas

Picture this. A naive young stud is freed from a life of drudgery when his physical assets earn him work and a sexually active lifestyle in a decadent, ostensibly glamorous environment where he's taken under the wing of a seedy surrogate father. The period is the late 1970s, and his rites of passage are accompanied by an incessant jukebox of old disco hits on the soundtrack.

If that story-line sounds familiar, that may well be because you've seen Boogie Nights, Paul Thomas Anderson's incisive picture of a wide-eyed, sexually assured young man's initiation into the Los Angeles porn industry. In his first feature film, 54, writer-director Mark Christopher employs an uncannily similar scenario with altogether less satisfying results.

The title refers to the heavily hyped and garishly designed New York night-club, Studio 54, which was notorious for its hedonistic patrons and their decadent behaviour, attracted major and minor celebrities like a magnet - and was infamous for its fickle door policy of deciding who was granted entry or left standing on the wrong side of the velvet rope.

Ryan Phillippe, one of the teen stars of I Know What You Did Last Summer, plays Shane O'Shea, an impressionable New Jersey teenager who crosses the river into Manhattan and catches the eye of the West 54th Street club's flamboyant and sleazy real-life owner, Steve Rubell (Mike Myers), who makes a pass at him and hires him as a bare-chested bartender. Shane thrives in this vain, self-deluding and permanently stoned environment where one regular, a record producer played by Sela Ward, observes that he has "the body of David and the face of a Botticelli", before she beds him. He is befriended by a busboy (Breckin Meyer) who has his hand in the till and whose wife (Salma Hayek) is a coat-check attendant and wannabe disco singer. Neve Campbell plays Shane's role model, a New Jersey native who broke out and made it as a soap opera actress.

54 registers as blandly superficial, a pedestrian morality tale populated by cardboard characters with one exception - the drug-popping, self-destructive Steve Rubell - who's amusingly overplayed with a creepy grin and a high-camp sensibility by Mike Myers, the only cast member who treats the tacky screenplay as it ought to be treated, by going way over the top.

The film's fault may not lie entirely with Mark Christopher, who delivered a two-hour cut of his movie, from which about half an hour of footage was removed, apparently because its sexual content met with the disapproval of those US test preview audiences who now dictate more and more what cinema-goers around the world see - and don't see.

Class Trip/La Classe De Neige (members and guests only) IFC, Dublin

A former assistant to the great Francois Truffaut, Claude Miller made an auspicious directing debut in 1976 with La Meilleure Facon De Marcher (The Best Way To Walk), which dealt with the sexual tension between two young men working at a summer camp for boys. The setting for Miller's latest film, La Classe De Neige (Class Trip) is a winter camp for boys and girls, and the smouldering drama is fore-grounded in tension which may or may not be sexually rooted. Miller's elegantly composed film follows Nicolas, a nervy, insular boy on a school skiing trip while his over-protective - and strangely sinister - father hovers in the background. His father insists on driving Nicolas on the 100-mile journey to the Alpine school rather than allow the boy travel by bus with the other children. Meanwhile, Nicolas is tormented by horrific, violent nightmares which cause him to sleepwalk, and the tension is turned up when another boy disappears from the school.

La Classe De Neige is shot in a muted colour scheme against a wintry landscape which reflects its icy, chilling atmosphere. In Claude Miller's teasingly devised and executed scheme of things, the film plays with the assumptions and expectations of a viewing audience which has to distinguish between its cuts between reality to dreams and back again. Miller elicits an exceptional performance from the expressive young Clement Van Den Bergh in the demanding central role of the disturbed youngster, with Francois Roy aptly ambiguous as his father.

It is all the more disappointing, then, that Miller squanders so much of what he has established in such an initially intriguing and disquieting scenario by resorting to the shallow, feebly predictable resolution he offers here.

Practical Magic (15) General release

An agreeable actor best known for playing the persecuted yuppie in Martin Scorsese's After Hours, Griffin Dunne earns nul points for his efforts as director of the witless witchcraft yarn, Practical Magic. Its prologue, set in 1690s New England, features a pregnant unmarried woman, Maria Owens, who, accused of witchcraft and banished to a remote island, puts a death curse on any man who is ever loved by an Owens woman.

As the movie cuts to the recent past, that curse claims the life of the father of young Sally and Gillian Owens, who are sent to what's now known as Maria's Island to be raised by their eccentric aunts (Dianne Wiest and Stockard Channing) - and to be initiated into their witchly ways, not to mention their appalling hippie dress "sense".

The sisters grow up to be Nicole Kidman and Sandra Bullock, with Aidan Quinn in the thankless role of a detective who suspects they may be responsible for the disappearance of Kidman's sadistic Transylvanian lover (Goran Visnjic). By then, you, like me, may be well past caring about any of their fates in this inane and insipid effort beset by ponderous plotting.