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Culture: Trench horror on the dull side; Mike Davies reviews this week's new cinema releases.

Byline: Mike Davies

DEATHWATCH 15, 94 MINS War is hell and, in writerdirector Michael Bassett's debut feature, Purgatory too.

If all he'd set out to do was to create a set that captured the horrors of the World War I trenches, then he'd have succeeded admirably. Putrefying bodies lie half buried everywhere in the rat-infested, rain-sodden mud. There's a sickening moment when someone treads on one and their foot sinks into the corpse that might even prove too much for some stomachs. It's such a shocking moment, Bassett uses it twice.

And the film's opening scenes as a bunch of English soldiers wait, cold, wet and scared, in their trench to be sent over the top into what they know will be a night of slaughter among the mud and barbed wire, ending with the chaotic battle itself, evoke what it must have been like as effectively as if it was documentary footage.

Unfortunately Bassett's intentions aim further than simply Wilfred Owen tableaux. He wants the film to be nothing less than a fable about man's inhumanity to man dressed up in a haunted house uniform. All Quiet On The Western Front meets The Evil Dead. But subtlety was clearly not a word ever raised during discussion of his simple, formulaic script.

For his first role since Billy Elliot, Jamie Bell plays Private Charlie Shakespeare, a 16-year-old who lied about his age to sign up. But with any notions of glorious heroism now lining his trousers, he's so scared he has to be forced over the top at gunpoint. Seeing everyone being ripped to shreds, he tries to run.

Then comes the word 'gas'. During the confusion he and eight other members of Y Company become separated from the rest and stumble upon a trench in no-man's land, abandoned save for a couple of German soldiers, one of whom they kill taking the other prisoner. The plan's to wait for reinforcements, but as the hours tick past it soon becomes clear that they're not the only ones in the trench - something evil's lurking there, feeding off the madness of war and turning them against each other.

We've been to this territory before. With Michael Mann's The Keep and, most recently, The Bunker. But, while the look and the effect are striking for such a limited budget, Bassett has nothing new to add. Nor, unfortunately, does he manage to strike much by way of suspense. From the moment someone says 'never mind the gas, what happened to the night' as they emerge out of woods that weren't there a moment ago, it's obvious that they've passed over into the land of symbolism.

One can forgive anachronisms such as references to holiday camps, a concept that wouldn't be invented for another 30 or so years, but what's harder to overlook is such heavy-handed imagery as not only dressing the company's resident psycho (Andy Serkis going over the top in an entirely different sense) in a quarter-length Goth astrakhan waistcoat, but then having him stomp around wielding a nail-studded club. It's presumably to beat the audience over the head with the war is barbarism message.

Although in his first semi-adult role Bell seems overwhelmed by the demands of simultaneously combining dialogue and facial expression and carrying the film's pacifist moral, the cast - a stalwart collection of young Brit talent that also includes Laurence Fox, Hugo Speer and Matthew Rhys - generally acquit themselves decently enough given the stock nature of such emotionally uninvolving two dimensional characters as the tough but kindly sergeant, the ineffectual toff officer, token Scot, cynic, and the religious loon who eventually declares 'God is dead'.

The problem lies in the clumsily-written and all too slight screenplay that proves increasingly unable to balance the war and horror genres or bring new ideas to either, leaving it guaranteed to disappoint fans of both. There's also the fact that, with nowhere to go once the premise has been established, the film never regains its early atmospheric tension and winds up resorting to such desperation as a battlefield crucifixion, journey into the underworld and someone shouting 'I'm not dead, I'm not dead'. Maybe they should retitle it Dullwatch. HHTHE CURSE OF THE JADE SCORPION 12A, 101 MINS Where did it go wrong? There was a time when a new Woody Allen film was not only eagerly anticipated but was guaranteed to perform relatively well at the box office. But then, somewhere between Deconstructing Harry and Small Time Crooks there seems to have been a sea change. The latter wasn't one of his best, but that's no reason why it's taken two years for this to find a UK distributor willing to give it even a limited release or why his most recent, Hollywood Ending, seems unlikely to even manage that.

Admittedly, Curse isn't up there with, say, Hannah And Her Sisters, Bullets Over Broadway or the great Annie Hall, but even lightweight Woody is never less than enjoyable and will always attract a bigger audience than some of the comedic rot that does get released.

Unfolding on wonderfully inviting period sets and shot with burnished warmth by Zhao Fei, this finds him back in his favourite period, 40s New York, making specific nods to His Girl Friday and Double Indemnity - but more generally homaging the battle of the sexes office comedies that would usually star Spencer Tracy and Kathryn Hepburn and the gumshoe noir favoured by Bogart.

Shuffling about in raincoat and fedora, CW Briggs (Allen) is the top investigator for a Manhattan insurance company run by Magruder (Dan Aykroyd), but he's feeling threatened by the firm's new efficiency expert, Betty Ann Fitzgerald (Helen Hunt) who has no time for his whining, slack filing or reliance on instinct. She thinks he's a dinosaur, he thinks she's a harpy. Between his macho misogyny and her sharp-tongued humourlessness, the inventive, not to say bizarre, insults fly thick and fast.

So everyone reckons its hilarious when, during an office 50th birthday bash, The Mighty Voltan (David Ogden Stiers) hypnotises the two of them into believing they're desperately in love with each other. When they awake they remember nothing. Voltan, though has planted a post hypnotic suggestion which, when he speaks the word 'Constantinople' to him over the phone, will send CW out to rob the very millionaires for whom he's installed the security systems.

You can pretty much see where things go from here, as with CW baffled (he is, after all, unknowingly investigating by day the robberies he pulls by night) by what can only be an inside job, Fitz brings in a pair of bumbling outside private eyes who inevitably finger him as prime suspect. He in turn suspects Fitz, but she's also the only person he can turn to to clear himself. And, just to complicate the plot further she's having an affair with Magruder and has also been given a posthypnotic suggestion by Voltan. With Woody now 67, and looking it, it's pushing credibility to accept that weaselly CW would not only have Fitz harbouring repressed desires for his inner adorablenessbut also have sexy spoiled rich kid vamp Laura Kensington (Charlize Theron doing Lauren Bacall meets Veronica Lake) trying to jump his wizened skin and bones. But hey it's his film and he can indulge what fantasies he likes - and at least he fails to score with the tight-sweatered office secretary good girl (Elizabeth Berkley emerging from the Showgirls taint to display a gift for comic timing).

However, get past such narrative sticking points and a certain clumsiness to the robberies (did he learn nothing from Small Time Crooks) and you still have some great comic repartee between Hunt (wisecracking with a deadpan face) and Allen (finessing his usual self-deprecation), delivered at a clip and veined with just the right touch of screwball to ensure that while it may not have that vintage Woody spark, unlike Mighty Aphrodite, you won't have to be hypnotised into finding it fun. HHH
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Dec 6, 2002
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