Rough Crossing

 

"The Crossing Guard" (members and guests only) IFC, Dublin

After his intense and impressive directing debut with The Indian Runner, which went directly to video release in Ireland, Sean Penn's second film as a director, The Crossing Guard, achieves a cinema release, albeit only on a club basis. A brooding and compelling drama suffused with a deep sense of loss and grief, The Crossing Guard acutely observes the corrosive impact on a middle-aged man of his young daughter's death, the result of a drunken driver's accident.

The film opens on a group therapy session attended by the mother (Anjelica Huston) of the dead girl; therapy for the girl's father, Freddy Gale (Jack Nicholson) is nightly drinking binges in a strip club. It is six years on from the tragic accident and the drunken driver, John Booth (David Morse), riddled with guilt and remorse for his crime, is about to be released from prison.

The warm welcome home which Booth gets from his parents (Piper Laurie and Richard Bradford) contrasts sharply with the circumstances of the Gales, now divorced and their lives forever clouded by the consequences of Booth's gross irresponsibility. But Freddy Gale is determined to release some of his grief and frustration by taking a life for a life.

Heavily influenced by the work of John Cassavetes, The Crossing Guard relies too heavily on coincidence at times. Its symbolism can be heavy-handed and it loses some of its momentum by introducing a new woman in Booth's life - an underwritten, largely superfluous role played by Robin Wright. Nevertheless, there is a raw, unsettling power to Penn's film and it builds to a wrenching conclusion.

Penn elicits persuasive performances from the three leading players - Huston, Morse (who also starred in Penn's The Indian Runner) and, giving his finest performance in a long time, his face lined with sadness and bewilderment, Nicholson on vintage form. In an echo of the diner scene in Five Easy Pieces, there is one scene in which his character turns savagely on a patronising customer in his jewellery store, providing the movie with a rare and vital surge of light relief.

"Mulholland Falls" (18s) Savoy, Virgin, Omniplex, UCIs

With one of the best ensemble casts assembled in several years, the first American film from New Zealand director Lee (Once Were Warriors) Tamahori promises much but fails to deliver. Set in Los Angeles in the early 195Os, Mulholland Falls stars Nick Nolte as the leader of the Hat Squad, four LAPD detectives who operate well outside the law to keep undesirables out of the city. Protected by their superiors, they beat up (and, it is hinted, sometimes kill) gangsters who are trying to move into LA. Nolte becomes embroiled in an investigation into the murder of a beautiful young woman (Jennifer Connolly), with whom he had an affair. Trying to keep his wife (Melanie Griffith) ignorant of the facts, he discovers that Connolly was also involved in a relationship with an army general (John Malkovich) involved in top secret nuclear tests. With the other three members of the Squad (Chazz Palminteri, Michael Madsen and Chris Penn), Nolte sets out to discover what happened to Connolly, following a trail which leads to a sinister desert test site.

The shadow of Roman Polanski's Chinatown, with its sense of sexual betrayal, corruption and moral fog, hangs over all this, but Tamahori's film doesn't benefit from the comparison. The plotting is weak and confused, and the entire film looks as if it received some serious surgery in post-production. The fine cast does its best, but its presence only exacerbates the problem - you find yourself wishing that all this plot could be put on the backburner so that there would be more chance to see them act. There are some nicely bizarre - touches from Tamahori - the discovery of the body is gruesomely and effectively played, and Malkovich's character makes for a very peculiar US general - but they're brief flashes in a rather turgid film. Having set up the Hat Squad in its opening sequence, the film then largely ignores them in favour of Nolte's relationship with Griffith, with only Palminteri's character receiving any definition. Also, despite the handsome efforts of cinematographer Haskell Wexler and designer Richard Sylbert, there's little sense of the period or context. Mulholland Falls isn't a downright bad movie, just a disappointing one, although David Grusin's ridiculously intrusive score threatens at times to make it unwatchable.

"Dead Presidents" (185) Screen, D'Olier Street

African-Americans were disproportionately present in the US Army in Vietnam, and are similarly over-represented in murder statistics and prison populations. The second film from young whizz-kids Albert and Allen Hughes (see interview, below) brings these facts together in a story which attempts to provide an historical context for the inner-city problems depicted in their first film, Menace II Society, and in many other "hood" films of the 199Os.

Larenz Tate plays Anthony, a bright young teenager from the Bronx who, on graduating from high school in 1968, decides not to go to college but enlist in the Marine Corps instead. He spends three traumatic years in Vietnam, finding on his return that his military service Is not respected by anyone, that finding a job is well-nigh impossible, and that he can't support his girlfriend and child. Driven to desperation by poverty, he agrees to take part in a bank robbery, which goes badly wrong.

Dead Presidents (the title refers to the pictures on currency bills) is an ambitious attempt to recreate a crucial period in modern American history. Unfortunately, the Hughes Brothers end up biting off more than they can chew, trying to cram about three films into one. There's the portrait of changes in ghetto life at the start of the Seventies, then the black experience in Vietnam, and finally there's a truncated heist movie tacked on at the end. The result is a serious case of genre confusion - a shame, because the Hugheses are talented film-makers, with a strong visual sense, who get solid performances from all of their cast. They also take full advantage of the period with an excellent soul-funk soundtrack, including Aretha Franklin, Isaac Hayes and Curtis Mayfield.