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Casualties of War

"...after New York's terrible disaster... the pain and anguish and fury will, over time, become distilled, sharpened and written as, among other things, poetry." - Frieda Hughes

One of the reasons I'm so interested in and write about films is that I think they can tell us a lot about ourselves. The silver screen is, if you will, a great big mirror reflecting a distorted but ultimately accurate image of who we are today. Watching the 'Red Scare' and 'atomic monster' B-movies of the 1950s tells you as much about the psychology of America in the period as any textbook. The same goes for all those 'Yuppies-in-peril' movies of the 80s.

The horrific events of September the 11th will eventually filter down into our collective consciousness in the same way, although it's far too soon to predict how. One can only hope it won't take the form of another spate of Rambo-whups-the-Ayatollah-style fantasies. But already Schwarzenegger's latest comeback vehicle has had its release postponed, Men in Black 2 is in suspension, looking for a new ending, and Spider-Man is undergoing extensive digital editing to reflect the changes to New York's skyline.

And there are, of course, all those films that have suddenly and irrevocably gained a new and grim significance. No-one will ever watch the 1976 remake of King Kong, with its WTC-located climax, in the same way again. And what of Die Hard, Godzilla 1998, Fight the Future, Independence Day, and all the other other apocalyptic fantasies of recent years? Suddenly they seem a lot less innocent. In the immediate aftermath of the attack, the thing I heard said so often was how it just didn't feel real, but more like something out of a movie. And Hollywood has taken a perverse delight in wrecking urban America for many years now. If the public really won't be able to accept that any more, then we're looking at a seismic shift in popular culture - but one entirely reflecting the seriousness of the current situation.

One further effect is to invest the current crop of Second World War themed movies and TV shows, such as Band of Brothers, with an unwelcome relevancy. Rather than simply being respectful paeans to heroes of an older generation, viewed from the safe perspective granted by history, they now seem like a challenge, or an ironic commentary - or at the very least, a reminder that history is never over, despite what we all may think.

A film projector and a screen

I'm Sorry I Havana Clue

All this preamble was supposed to lead into a review of the war drama Enigma (clever, eh?), but due to the impressive incompetency of the local multiplexes and some startlingly inaccurate listings, let's talk about Original Sin instead.

(One of the good things about being a critic, even an unpaid, vanishingly obscure one that about three people in the world read, is that you can excuse slumming it in potboilers like this one by telling yourself it's for the good of your readers.)

Original Sin is not, I suspect, going to be a blockbuster or even a sleeper hit. Until well into the 'Coming Soon' ads I was the only one in the theatre, a pleasure I've not had since going to a weekday matinee of Space Truckers back in 1997. Then three ladies of a certain age turned up and proceeded to give a running commentary on events on the screen to one another, which is always a bonus, I find.

Anyway, this is a full-on period literary adaptation, by far my least favourite cinematic genre. It's got a Caribbean setting, though, which at least makes the appearance of Prunella Scales on a Grand Tour of Venice rather less likely. Antonio Banderas, still smouldering manfully away outside Hollywood's A-list, plays Luis Vargas, a coffee tycoon in 1880s Cuba. Barely credibly, he can't find a wife, and so has recruited a mail-order bride. Her name is Julia Bennett, who's played by Mrs Billy Bob Thornton herself, Angelina Jolie (looking as usual like a couple of airbags have gone off in her mouth). Mrs Billy Bob comes across as all demure and proper to start with but five minutes with Antonio and it's a different story. (Yes, readers, they do. And for rather longer and in more detail than I thought was strictly necessary even in soft-core cobblers like this.) Antonio's wedded bliss comes a bit unstuck when his bride suddenly turns into a cigar-smoking, canary-strangling raver and then nicks off with the family fortune, he obligingly having signed her up for a joint account. Antonio discovers Mrs Billy Bob was an impostor and not the bride he ordered, and recruiting a convenient Yankee private detective (Thomas Jane), sets off to find her.

With a title like Original Sin and this sort of set-up you'd be forgiven for expecting a sort of high-quality late-night Channel 5 movie (or so what I'm told about Channel 5 leads me to believe...). And that's pretty much what you get, albeit with a lot less rumpy-pumpy. There's a faintly unsavoury feel most of the way through this movie, despite writer-director Michael Cristofer's obvious belief he's making a very serious drama about love and lust and identity. The direction is workmanlike at best, the script is crunchingly unsubtle and a little confused in parts, and it's at least fifteen minutes too long. There is a plot twist about half way through which you may find involving, but dodgy exposition earlier on confused me into guessing the surprise much too early.

There are things to enjoy here if you really look for them. The period setting is pretty good, but no cliche is left unturned - cheerful Creole servants round the hacienda, billowy white lace curtains, far too much flamenco guitar, sugar-cane fields (on a coffee plantation...?), etc, etc. There's only actually one intentional joke in the whole movie, and that's about a supporting character getting an eyeful of Antonio's *ahem*, but this is more than made up for by a hilarious card-sharping sequence where Mrs Billy Bob starts giving Antonio 'secret signs' revealing his opponents' hands - the 'secret signs' appear to be bookie's tick-tack, or possibly semaphore. And early on someone else says 'I can't stand cheap melodrama' which is only asking for trouble in a movie like this one. The epilogue is laughable too, and seems to have been half-inched from the far superior Revenge of Frankenstein.

Of the three leads, we can dispense with Mr Jane quite quickly; he has a duff part to play and makes a very average job of it. Antonio Banderas, though, simultaneously displays the electric screen presence that should have made him a superstar long ago, and also the dodgy quality control that's ensured he hasn't become one. He's never less than watchable, is certainly the best thing in the movie, and looks very comfortable in period costume. The same can't be said for Mrs Billy Bob, whom I still reckon is a weird looking kipper at the best of times. She comes across rather like a pneumatic version of Helena Bonham-Carter, even down to the voice, but just didn't convince me at all. She and Banderas don't have the incendiary screen chemistry you might expect, either: she just spends all her time giggling or looking torn or staring off into the middle distance.

Still, there are no bad movies, only boring ones, and this one just manages to avoid being a real chore to sit through. What can it tell us about ourselves? Well, probably just that movie producers have dirty minds. Sinful? Yes. Original? Not on your life.


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