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Culture: Avoid the schmaltz - catch the original; Mike Davies reviews the week's new cinema releases.

Byline: Mike Davies

SON OF THE BRIDE CERT 15, 125 MINS SUBTITLED

I t seems inevitable that at some stage there will be a Hollywood remake of Juan Jose Campanella's hugelysuccessful bittersweet Argentinean comedy-drama about a forty-something man's mid-life crisis. You owe it to yourself to see the original before the likes of Robin Williams turn its affecting poignancy into sentimental mush.

Stressed out Buenos Aires businessman, Rafa Belvedere (Rocardo Darim, last seen in Nine Queens) runs the Italian restaurant his father (Hctor Alterio) founded.

But times are tough, he's compromising on quality and being pressured to sell. Divorced, too busy for his one day a week young daughter (Gimena Nbile), too hesitant about committing to younger girlfriend Nati (Natalia Verbeke), it's just something else to add to his list of failures. But he's still desperate to prove to his mother, Norma, who wanted him to become a lawyer, that he's not a wash out.

Unfortunately mom (Norma Aleandro) is suffering from Alzheimer's, drifting in and out of recognition. Rafa hasn't even visited her for a year. So when he has a heart attack, Rafa decides enough's enough.

He's going to sell up, drop out, go to Mexico and leave responsibility behind. However, his father's announcement that he wants to renew his marriage vows to give Norma the church wedding she never had and the return after 20 years of childhood best friend Juan Carlos (Eduardo Blanco), still upbeat despite his own family tragedy and failed acting career, conspire to make Rafa reconsider his priorities and rediscover of the importance of love, family and friendship.

You can see how easily this might get coated in mush, but Campanella gives it a light touch that never forces the humour (though to be fair there's a pinch of farce towards the end) and never trowels on the pathos. One of last year's Best Foreign Language Oscar nominees, it also veins its personal story with a subtle political commentary on the state of the Argentinean economy.

Confidently directed, it's stacked with assured performances, most luminously so from Aleandro whose wonderfully nuanced performance (one moment vulnerably fragile, the next spouting four-letter curses) ensures the issue of Alzheimer's gets a sensitive but never mawkish handling.

An affecting feel-good and funny film, make sure you stay on through the end credits to get the punchline to its running gag about Einstein, Bill Gates and Dick Watson. HHHH

ARARAT CERT 15, 115 MINS

In 1915, the Turks massacred a million Armenians. It's a genocide Turkey continues to deny but one which CanadianArmenian writer-director Atom Egoyan is determined to bring before the world.

But there must be better ways of raising awareness than this snail-paced, exposition-heavy convoluted film.

Toronto film director (Charles Aznavour) sets out to make a movie about the atrocities, prompting characters to deal with their own problems and to pose questions about fiddling with historical truth for the sake of dramatic impact.

Egoyan's wife and regular star Arsine Khanjian plays the art historian enlisted to advise on the portrayal of an artist whose mother's death in the holocaust when he was a young boy inspired his greatest work, and whose son by her first husband --executed as a terrorist - is having an affair with her stepdaughter who believes she killed her father.

Jumping back and forth in time, there's long scenes involving the son explaining the film's story to the custom's official (Christopher Plummer) who's suspicious about the cans off footage he's bringing into the country.

Every bit as labyrinthine and layered as it sounds, trying to keep up with the relationships between characters and stay tuned in to the lengthy history lessons that pass as dialogue articulating the themes, means you never really engage with the dramas unfolding on screen.

You can't deny the quality of the performances or the passions that drive its examination of the contextual relationships between truth, art and memory, but - given the power of the re-enacted scenes - you can't help but think that a Gandhi-style telling of the events of 1915 might have considerably more effect.

FULL FRONTAL CERT 18, 100 MINS

Knocked together in just 18 days - with the star cast having to rough it with no trailers or drivers, having to do their own make-up, provide their own wardrobe and be ready to improvise - this US box office bomb was Steven Soderbergh getting back to his experimental roots after winning an Oscar and enjoying mainstream success with Erin Brockovich, Traffic and Ocean's Eleven.

The American reviews were merciless. It's hard to explain the venom. Essentially a tragi-comedy about the gulf between movie romance and the real thing, certainly the film's a self-indulgent rambling mess. But it's also very funny and takes some sharp swipes at the Hollywood machine.

Adopting the film-within-film approach and a loose Altmanesque structure of interconnected characters and plot-lines, it all unfolds over the course of one day.

Julia Roberts in a shaggy wig plays actress Francesca playing journalist Catherine in the romantic comedy Rendezvous (the fictional movie is shot in 35mm, everything else on digital video).

She's interviewing cocky black actor Nicholas, played by Calvin played by Blair Underwood. In the fictional film Nicholas is off to shoot scenes for his new film, apotential big break directed by David Fincher and starring Brad Pitt, both of whom play themselves in the film-withinthe-film-within-the film.

Stop me if this is getting complicated. Meanwhile Rendezvous screenwriter Carl (David Hyde Pierce) is having a lousy day. He's been fired from his magazine job, his dog's OD'd on hash-laced brownies and, although he doesn't know it yet, his wife has left him a note saying the marriage is over.

She is high-strung exec Lee (Catherine Keener) who's gone into the office to do a hatchet job on the staff, but not before she's played humiliating mind games with those she's firing.

Elsewhere, Carl and Lee's egotistical self-absorbed neighbour (Nicky Katt) is throwing tantrums during rehearsals for The Sound and the Fuhrer which portrays Hitler as a sensitive new man trying to handle his control issues while the director, who co-wrote the play with Carl, has been going on-line to chat up Linda (Mary McCormack), a masseuse who happens to be bullying Lee's insecure sister.

The final character in this convoluted tale is Lee's latest client, Gus (David Duchovny), a film producer whose 40th birthday party that night will bring everyone together, though celebrations might prove the last thing on the agenda.

A variation on The Anniversary Party served up like a romp through the A-Z of filming styles with Terence Stamp making a couple of cameos reprising scenes from The Limey, if you approach it in the same playful state of mind Soderbergh and his cast did then there's a lot of fun to enjoy. And the punchline is just brilliant.

THE HOT CHICK CERT 12 A, 104 MINS

Last time round he was part animal, now Rob Schneider is all girl in this dumb but quite fun gender bender comedy that you might call Some Like It Hot Chick.

Having nicked the ancient magic earrings featured in the 50 AD set prologue, (memo to writers, Abyssinia was in the Middle East not Africa), bratty blonde teen cheerleader Jessica (Rachel McAdams) loses one when she's mugged by sleazebag thirtysomething thief Clive (Schneider). Next morning they awake to find they've swapped bodies.

Concentrating on Jessica-Clive (we don't discover what Clive-Jessica's been up to until the rowdy finale), it will come as no huge shock to learn that what follows relies heavily on having different naughty bits and a bloke acting effeminate.

Rather inevitably most of this is played for obvious laughs as, posing as the family's new Mexican handyman, Jessica finds herself hit on by her own mom and having embarrassing chats with dad about his sex life.

And it wouldn't be fair if I didn't warn you that Schneider's chum Adam Sandler cameos as a bongo-playing stoned white Rasta or that the running gag about a pidgin-speaking Korean mama constantly embarrassing her daughter seems reasonable justification for their nuclear programme.

But for all its crudity and non PC gags involving sexual and racial stereotypes, it's often very funny (Jessica getting lessons on how to urinate standing up from a men's room attendant) and also rather sweet in the scenes between Jess and her confused sensitive jock boyfriend.

Schneider, a sort of cross between Billy Crystal and Michael Keaton, has an engaging charm (even in frillies) and while the lessons about humility and tolerance as Jessica learns not to be so self-absorbed tend to soak things in fuzzy warm syrup, the moment where best friend April (a scenestealing Anna Faris) confesses herself attracted to the feminine side of her male self is quite touching rather than just a cheap lesbian joke. HHH

CAPTION(S):

Son of the Bride is an affecting feel-good and funny film which doesn't degenerate into mush; There's decent body-swapping comedy in The Hot Chick
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:May 23, 2003
Words:1489
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