WIVES, WITCHES AND H.G. WELLS

 

"The First Wives' Club" (15) Savoy, Virgin, Omniplex, UCIs, Dublin

Based on the best selling novel by Olivia Goldsmith, Hugh Wilson's brash film of The First Wives' Club has been one of the most commercially successful movies of the autumn in the US, where it attracted a remarkably high majority of women viewers and acres of analytical column inches in the upmarket magazines.

Surprisingly, at a time when women screenrwiters and directors are in a stronger position than ever in Hollywood, Goldsmith's novel was entrusted to a male screenwriter to adapt it for the screen - Robert Harling, who wrote the slushy Steel Magnolias - and to a male director, Hugh Wilson, best known for co writing and directing the first movie in the wretched Police Academy series.

The First Wives' Club is a vengeance comedy which pivots on the coincidental meeting of three well heeled, middle aged Manhattan women at a time when each of them has been left by an ungrateful husband for a younger woman. Elise (Goldie Hawn with a mouthful of collagen) is an Oscar winning actress whose credits include Human Instinct and Animal Nature; Brenda (Bette Midler) is married to an electronics magnate (Dan Hedaya); and Annie (Diane Keaton, nervy and bespectacled) is an Upper East Side resident with a lesbian daughter.

Former schoolmates, the three women are reunited at the funeral of a friend who has committed suicide after being dropped by her husband, and they are encouraged by a letter from her to take care of each other. It's time for revenge on their spouses and to play the men at their own nasty, underhand games. It helps considerably that one of them, in particular, has loads of money to fund their enterprise.

Starting over the top and wildly working its way upwards, The First Wives' Club eschews subtlety at all costs and is dogged by a number of out of place syrupy songs on the soundtrack. The movie is fuelled by a sense of humour not dissimilar to that of Absolutely Fabulous - the later episodes, unfortunately - especially in Hawn's sprightly portrayal of the dizzy, boozy Elise, who regularly evokes comparisons with Joanna Lumley's Patsy character. This is certainly the liveliest performance from Hawn in a very long time.

The movie's funniest moments are the one liners which pepper the screenplay and are delivered with characteristic panache by Midler. However Keaton, whose flair is for much more restrained comedy, flounders hopelessly in her out of control performance. All three stars are upstaged every time the sparkling Maggie Smith appears, playing an influential and four times divorced socialite.

"The Eighth Day" (12), Screen

"Laugh, Harry, laugh," urges Georges (Pascal Duquenne), a loveable young man with Down's Syndrome, and in due course - Harry the repressed sales executive (Daniel Auteuil) learns how to laugh and cry, and lie on the grass looking at butterflies. Haven't we seen this before, you mutter; and, yes, there are strong overtones of Rain Man and Forest Gump, although this time the handicapped character is played by a handicapped actor.

The Belgian director Jaco Van Dormael has followed his imaginative but overpraised Toto The Hero with this more conventionally linear narrative, which uses artful fantasy sequences to bring some wacky touches to what is a winsome, and rather flimsy, art house variation on the idiot savant theme.

Through the blossoming of friendship between the two men, the film chronicles the emotional reawakening of Harry, whose obsession with his work has killed his marriage. Bourgeois social conventions and conformity are mildly satirised along the way, with scenes showing Georges in a shoe shop, Georges at a disco, Georges in a restaurant - successfully charming the waitress, until he removes his dark glasses and she recoils. The collision of the two men's worlds culminates in the invasion of a conference at Harry's bank by George and his fellow hospital inmates.

The rapport between the two actors is obvious, with Duquenne bringing a sometimes moving intensity to the relationship, as well as innocence, vulnerability, and a complete lack of guile. However, despite Auteuil's strong screen presence, the character of Harry remains a cardboard cut out and the entire premise of the film is irritatingly schematic: Georges, who has run away from one institution, enables Harry escape from another; Harry is afraid of love while Georges is always looking for it, etc.

In the end, the motif is taken to extremes, with Georges undergoing death by chocolate so that Harry may become a born again tree hugger - surely some kind of Belgian joke about pralines?

The Craft (15s) Virgin, Omniplex, UCIs

It's rare enough in these days of studio megahype to be pleasantly surprised by a relatively unheralded movie, but such is the case with the second film from the director Andrew Davies, who made the engaging romantic comedy Threesome. The Craft is a clever, stylish supernatural drama which recalls films as diverse as Carrie and Clueless. Directed with great flair by Davies, it also benefits from excellent performances from its four young leading players.

Robin Tunney is the teenage girl who moves to Los Angeles with her father and stepmother. Feeling like a fish out of water at her new high school, she hooks up with three rebellious outsiders (Fairuza Balk, Neve Campbell and Rachel True) who are dabbling in witchcraft and the occult. It emerges that Tny has a real ability to cast spells, and the four friends start using their new found powers to achieve their hearts' desires, taking revenge on anyone who crosses them. The school jock who humiliates Tunney finds that he can't help himself worshipping her; Balk's abusive stepfather is killed in a car accident; the scars on Campbell's body miraculously disappear and the racist blonde who has been harassing True finds her hair falling out. When things start to get out of control, though, Tunney tries to put a stop to the witchcraft, with predictably apocalyptic results.

Despite the storyline, and some well achieved special effects, The Craft is hardly a horror movie in the conventional sense - it's much smarter than that. Its sharp and sympathetic depiction of female adolescence raises it well above the average, helped by the sexy, sassy presence of the four youthful witches, who clearly relish their roles, with Balk particularly good as the troubled product of a trailer trash background. Davies doesn't put a foot wrong with Peter Filardi's intelligent script, investing the magical scenes with a golden, languorous glow and never losing sympathy for his awkward, rebellious characters. It may not be saying much, but this is one of the best American movies of the year so far.

"The Island Of Doctor Moreau" (I5s) Savoy, Virgin, Omniplex, UCIs

Fairuza Balk shows up again in the latest version (the third in all, if you don't count Jurassic Park) of H.G. Wells's gothic cautionary tale, with Marlon Brando as the scientist who splices animals and humans together on a remote island, and David Thewlis as the innocent crash victim who strays into his domain. Also wandering around to no great purpose is Vat Kilmer as Moreau's drug addled sidekick, in a story updated from the late 19th century to the near future, with Wells's notion of surgical transplants replaced by the trendier concept of genetic splicing.

Whatever the technique, Moreau's monsters half animal, half man - remain the same as in previous versions. Brando turns in another of his highly priced cameo roles, camping it up with a lisping English accent the misguided Doctor, while Kilmer lurks in the background, sulkily smoking joints and going slowly insane. Thewlis, understandably, just looks terrified, and the creatures jump around and roar a lot.

The most interesting thing about the film's the story filtering out about the manner of its making. The original director, the maverick South African Richard Stanley, who wrote the script, was fired a few days into production, allegedly at the behest of Kilmer, and the veteran film maker John Frankenheimer was brought in to complete the film. It's impossible to know what Stanley would have produced, but it could hardly have been much worse than this ridiculous and unintentionally hilarious farrago.

"Fled" (18s) Virgin, Omniplex, UCIs

Hardly more impressive is the formulaic buddy movie, Fled, which opened last Friday. Directed by Kevin Hooks, who made the equally predictable but commercially successful Passenger 57, Fled just goes through the hoops set up by countless predecessors. Laurence Fishburne and Stephen Baldwin are two convicts who make a run for it when at gunfight breaks out on a labour detail. Manacled together, they are forced to tolerate each other despite their very different personalities - Fishburne is a taciturn con just doing: his time, while Baldwin is a brash young hacker guilty of computer fraud. When it becomes apparent that both the forces of the law and some nasty Mafia types are after Baldwin for a vital computer disk, the two agree to combine for the sake of survival.

With a terrible script, full of expository dialogue and unlikeable characters (you keep wishing that someone would just shoot. Baldwin and be done with it), Fled is the kind of dumb, raucous entertainment that could bet quite acceptable if done with a little wit and humour. There's very little of either on offer here, though.