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Culture: Ugly despair in concrete hell; Mike Davies reviews this week's new cinema releases DOG DAYS CERT 18 132 MINS SUBTITLED.

Byline: Mike Davies

Best known - at least in Germany - as a shock documentary filmmaker, Austrian director Ulrich Seidl makes the move to feature with this fly-on-the-wall-style portmanteau collection of six intersecting tales set in the Vienna suburbs during one sweltering summer weekend.

Working with a mix of actors and nonprofessionals who play his catalogue of grotesques, Seidl unfurls a relentless portrait of despair, depression and rage shot to look as ugly as possible. Degradation, sexual humiliation and mental disturbance provide the lighter side of life on offer here. We have an alarm system salesman moonlighting as a detective trying to track down whoever's been vandalising the local cars. A teacher in masochistic sexual thrall to her abusive, sleazy boyfriend also becomes involved with his obsessively infatuated mate.

There's a divorced couple who continue to share the same house, both emotionally traumatised by the death of their daughter, and an elderly widow who has persuaded his aged housekeeper to help him celebrate his 50th wedding anniversary by indulging a sexual fantasy.

Connecting them is a mentallychallenged female serial hitchhiker who drives her lifts to distraction by singing TV commercials and reciting top-ten lists of Austrian pop culture.

And as the heat continues to bear down, as it did in Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing, so it brings out the worst in those trapped within their concrete hells.

And yet, as the widower says, it is all 'cold, cold, cold, cold, cold, cold'. It's a bleak, misanthropic, middle-class world of broken marriages, dysfunctional relationships, lack of purpose, emotional disconnection, social alienation and endless monotony populated by sad, pathetic, pale, corpulent, ugly, broken people in horrible clothes frying in the sun. An orgy scene pops up from nowhere, introducing real sex but devoid of any eroticism or human connection.

Someone is beaten. Someone ends up with a lit candle up his backside while being forced to sing the national anthem. A dog is killed. Humour is grim and mocking.

The only redemptive moment, the only hint of compassion and tenderness, involves a 60-year-old woman's striptease.

Seething with frustration, self-loathing, disgust and overwhelming nihilism, it's full of striking images and, while frequently as hard to watch as it is to stomach, if you had your eyelids sewn open you couldn't find it harder to look away. HHHSUPER TROOPERS CERT 15 101 MINS Broken lizards are an improvisational comedy troupe who got together while undergrads in 1989. This is their second film. Nobody saw their first one. Nobody should bother seeing this one, either. It seems to have been forged from the premise 'what if Cheech and Chong had written Police Academy?'.

Probably a very funny idea after a few beers and some funny cigarettes. Painfully not so in the cold light of celluloid.

Between the Farrelly gross-outs and homages to the old Animal House-style comedies, there is a plot of sorts. Inveterate pranksters who like nothing more than winding people up with Candid Camerastyle scenarios, the five Vermont State Troopers are faced with the threat of being shut down in a round of swingeing budget cuts because there's just not enough crime to justify funding both them and their city police rivals.

So when a dead body and pile of smuggled drugs turn up, it looks like the perfect opportunity to prove their worth by solving the case first.

And as this tale winds its laborious way to the end credits, so it involves the ongoing ritual initiation of their new rookie, a romance between a dim-witted Trooper and a femme fatale cop, several drawn-out sessions in the local diner, a turncoat fat, guncrazy Trooper who does the dirty on his colleagues, and a horny German couple. Brian Cox puts in appearance as the Troopers' avuncular chief but only to commit career suicide in a scene that requires him to urinate down the side of a car he's pulled over for speeding.

There's one genuinely amusing sketch as one of the Troopers messes with three teenage potheads, but this comes right at the start of the film and laughter never pays another visit for the next 100 minutes.

Painfully overlong, directed with slapdash carelessness and flatter than roadkill, it's not as bad as any Tom Green movie you care to mention but, while it's clear the cast are constantly on verge of collapsing with the giggles, rather like being the only straight in a party of stoners you'll wonder what on earth it is they find so funny. HMORVERN CALLAR (MOMENTUM) CERT 15 97 MINSWith the collapse of Film 4, budget changes and cutbacks in independent production levels almost halving the number of UK-driven movies that began filming this year, 2002 may come to be seen as the end of a brief golden-age revival for the British film industry.

Certainly, with contributions from the likes of Ken Loach, Mike Leigh, Marc Evans and Gurinder Chadha to name but a few, the year has produced a remarkable number of quality films after the previous deluge of Lock Stock wannabes.

To that list one can add Scottish directorLynne Ramsey's follow-up to her awardwinning debut, Ratcatcher, a work as beguiling as it is bleak. A faithful, almost Jane Campion-like adaptation of Alan Warner's 1995 novel, like the book's firstperson reverie it favours atmosphere over plot, the narrative entirely presented from the perspective of its titular character.

Played in another of her enigmatic minimalist turns by Samantha Morton, Callar is a young woman from a small town on the west coast of Scotland (Morton's lack of Scottish accent a deliberate choice by Ramsey to emphasise her otherness) who wakes up one Christmas morning to find her boyfriend dead on the floor beside her, his wrists slashed.

One might initially assume it is numbed grief or drugs that sees Morvern carry on as if nothing had happened, opening the presents, meeting mates down the pub, partying, leaving the body where it lies as she goes off to work in the supermarket, and telling people he's dumped her and gone off. Days pass. Eventually she digests the farewell note on the computer and something clicks. He's left her the manuscript for his novel, requesting she try to get it published posthumously. Tragic immortality guaranteed. He's also left her pounds 3,000 to pay for the funeral. Now we see this wasn't grief - this was disconnection. We feel Morvern has always been emotionally catatonic. But now his death offers her the possibility of a new life, of escape.

Pragmatism takes hold. She cuts up and disposes of the corpse, changes the name on the manuscript, pops it into the post, withdraws the cash and invites her friend Lanna (trainee hairdresser Kathleen McDermott) on holiday to Spain. They drink, they take drugs, they pick up blokes, they fall out as their horizons grow apart, Meanwhile, a publisher's offering Callar a fortune for the book.

There are long silences, unsettling surreal scenes, superbly textured use of image, colour and music (Morvern's rarely without her Walkman as we hear her life filtered through the tinny but telling sounds of the Mamas and Papas, the Velvet Underground and Can on the compilation tape the boyfriend assembled for her), all of which, in tandem with Morton's subtly nuanced expressive performance, serve to create an undertow of emotional resonance that transcends the need for plot coherence.

Just as you never fully engage with Morvern because neither Morton nor Ramsey allow any psychological clues to slip through the net, so you're never quite able to articulate the film's themes. Yet in the final moments, presented with the emptiness of a life where going clubbing is the answer to the eternal question, the weight is crushing. HHH
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Nov 15, 2002
Previous Article:Culture: Under the gun; Mike Davies goes bowling with Michael Moore and, below, he reviews his new documentary film.
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