Stone battles onwards


Any Given Sunday (15) General release

It is a man's world, as ever, in the testosterone-fuelled new movie from Oliver Stone, whose confrontational cinema habitually centres the drama in battle zones - Vietnam, El Salvador, Wall Street boardrooms, US politics, the backroads of marginalised society, and now in Any Given Sunday, the world of American professional football. In case we miss the point, Stone, never the most subtle of filmmakers, invokes frequent references to the players as warriors and gladiators - and even stages one scene against a backdrop of Ben-Hur playing on a vast, widescreen television.

He populates his picture with archetypes of the sports movie genre - the dedicated, hard-drinking coach (Al Pacino) who promotes the values of teamwork; his ambitious second-in-command (Aaron Eckhart) who advocates carefully worked out strategies over gut instinct; the veteran player (Dennis Quaid) whose body and career are cracking under the weight of years of accumulated injuries; and the cocky young quarterback (the very promising Jamie Foxx) who relishes his new place in the limelight and plays by his own rules.

The only women of substance in this scenario are the struggling team's hard-nosed new owner (Cameron Diaz), who is drawn entirely unsympathetically; her widowed mother (Ann-Margret) who is never without a drink in her hand; and the Quaid character's wife (Lauren Holly) who pushes him on, regardless of the pain and the risks involved.

However, astute casting and a punchy screenplay ensure that these creations rise above mere stock characters; the excellent cast also includes James Woods, Matthew Modine, L.L. Cool J, and in a cameo, Ben-Hur himself, Charlton Heston. And the ritualistic action on the field is charged with all the visceral energy summoned up by Stone's visual vocabulary, which involves split-screen, black-and-white, speeded-up shots, jump cuts and MTV pastiches, all underlaid with exaggerated sound effects which accentuate the bonecrunching nature of the game.

Even to those unfamiliar with the sport, the final game is orchestrated with such skill as to be comprehensible to any viewer, and it plays like a thriller, not least because unlike the Rocky movies, for example, the ending is open to all possible resolutions. Audiences may think it's all over when the closing credits start to roll, but stay seated - it isn't.

Holy Smoke (18) Screen at D'Olier Street, Dublin; Kino, Cork

After the severe disappointment engendered by her film of The Portrait of a Lady, Jane Campion appears to be back on form for much of her new movie, Holy Smoke. It opens intriguingly as Ruth Barron (Kate Winslet), a young Australian backpacker, travels to India and is drawn to a cult - before her mother (Julie Hamilton) flies out to Delhi and, on the pretext that the girl's father is dying, tries to persuade her to return home to Sydney.

The Barron family employs a highly paid American "exit counsellor", P.J. Waters (Harvey Keitel), for the task of deprogramming her. However, during their intense sessions in an outback hut, the tables are turned when he becomes sexually involved with Ruth and she sets about softening the arrogant male superiority of this much older man.

This scenario, written by the director and her sister Anna Campion, begins to crumble as it becomes more didactic and heavy-handed in its later stages, where its stylised treatment becomes at odds with the realism in which it has been grounded. It turns merely ludicrous when Ruth persuades P.J. to wear a little red cocktail dress with matching lipstick.

This overwrought approach seriously undermines an initially involving narrative which recalls Campion's earlier Sweetie in its dark, absurdist sense of humour - and the inventive visual style employed by cinematographer Dion Beebe. Keitel, reunited with Campion after his superb work in The Piano, appears distinctly illat-ease, and Pam Grier has a thankless and negligible cameo, which leaves it all to the excellent Winslet's luminous performance to sustain interest in the movie's poorly thought out diversions.

Love's Labour's Lost, IFC (members and guests)

Kenneth Branagh's eighth feature as a director, and his fourth adapted from Shakespeare, is a breezy, good-humoured transposition of the light romantic comedy to a late-1930s setting. The shadow of war looms over Europe, but the King of Navarre (Alessandro Nivola from Mansfield Park, see panel) and his three closest male friends are caught up in a pact which commits them to three years of study and disallows women in their lives. Enter the Princess of France (Alicia Silverstone) who just happens to be accompanied by three young women as her retinue . . .

Branagh's stripped-down adaptation jettisons whole chunks of the original play and replaces them with 10 - count 'em - elegantly staged song and dance numbers, which draw on classic tunes from George Gershwin, Cole Porter and Irving Berlin, and with faked, scratchy monochrome newsreels wittily narrated by a perfectly plummy Branagh.

The director-star looks altogether too old to be among this attractive young octet, it must be said, but he and his fellow players - who notably include Natascha McElhone, Adrian Lester, Nathan Lane and Geraldine McEwan - throw themselves into the spirit of things with enthusiasm and panache in this slight but entertaining souffle of a movie.

Joan of Arc (15) Selected cinemas

Lake Placid (15)

A knowing, broad-humoured spoof on monster movies, Steve Miner's Lake Placid is set in a tranquil area of Maine which is disrupted by the presence of a huge, hungry crocodile. A deadpan Brendan Gleeson plays the local sheriff who is joined on the case by a game warden (Bill Pullman), a mythology professor (Oliver Platt) and a New York palaeontologist (Bridget Fonda). In a supporting role Betty White steals all her scenes as a foulmouthed local resident.

The quirky screenplay is by David E. Kelley, who invests the Fonda character with many of the traits of his TV creation, Ally McBeal, making her nervy and squeamish. (Fonda, incidentally, was Kelley's first choice to play Ally before he cast Calista Flockhart.) The effects are satisfying in this quite lively romp, which is peppered with movie references and never overstays its welcome. At a time when so many movies are so long, perhaps it deserves an award of some kind for coming in at a trim 82 minutes.

Triskel Cinematek in Cork opens two notable foreign-language films next Wednesday. From Central Station director, Walter Salles, Midnight brings together two desperate people in Brazil on New Year's Eve 1999. Jia Zhang Ke's Chinese feature, Xiao Wu, made without official government approval, deals with a young pickpocket in a poverty-ridden small town. This will be the first Irish release for both films.

Frances O'Connor, wonderfully expressive as Fanny Price, in what is definitely not `another Jane Austen garden party', Mansfield Park