Shoestring screams beat big-budget ballyhoo

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Children can be very frightening. In a week of underachievement for big-budget or ballyhooed cinema, Them and The Lives of the Saints stand out for bargain-value inventiveness and spine-chilling flair. Watching this Franco-Romanian horror film and this British gangland frightener, we feel as theatre audiences must have done when, jaded by Tudor loftiness, they experienced the amphetamine-rush of Jacobean melodrama. Suddenly the world is young; boys not men rule it; nightmares are more fun than dreams.

Them is a beauty. Shot on less than a shoestring, it starts as unpromisingly as a shoeless hobgoblin. A car on a lonely road is ambushed by barely visible night creatures. The car’s lights are left full on – classic horror-movie tosh – while the driver chokes the failing ignition. The dialogue splutters. Fade out on screams and imagined horror. But as soon as a new and central couple appear, a schoolteacher (Olivia Bonamy) and her boyfriend (Michaël Cohen), and find themselves isolated and vulnerable one night in their big house outside Bucharest, it is time to start hiding under the seat.

There are skittering footsteps heard on the gravel drive, overlapping whispered voices, the sound of opening and closing doors. The man, woken by the girl, creeps down to find the TV on, which he had switched off. Window shutters start to bang shut, methodically pair by pair. This is the world of home invasion, its visuals distilled to jittery DV basics – the grainier-than-grainy photography would have you drummed out of the Carpathian Film Society – and the sounds to a musique concrète simple yet terrifying. What on earth are those cricket-like chirrups the evil creatures utter between their more vulpine shrieks? Are these beings human, or animal, or both? Am I giving away too much if I offer you the clue “Ceausescu’s children”? Not to be missed.

The Lives of the Saints, written by Tony Grisoni (In This World, Brothers of the Head) and co-directed by Rankin, the photographer/publisher, and Chris Cottam, is weirder and wordier. Yet this too has a helter-skelter compellingness. Gangsters in London’s multi-ethnic Green Lanes find their lives and minds spun in new directions – some towards salvation, some to damnation – by a foundling wild child. Imagine The Omen done as a Pinter drama, with additional dialogue by Quentin Tarantino. The film’s Catholic trappings extend to a priest (Marc Warren) who unclosets himself to moonlight as a nightclub drag singer. How’s that for a contribution to the church’s debate about gayness?

The bonus third film this week to feature alarming children is Blood Diamond. We don’t mean Leonardo DiCaprio, who still looks 16 in this megadollar adventure-sermon, playing a white African diamond smuggler won over to the view that “conflict gems” are wicked. No, we mean the militarised tots who wield guns and machetes on screen in a manner true to modern history. (There are 200,000 of these weaponised youngsters in Africa, states a caption.)

Little else chills the blood here, let alone stirs it. We are chased around Sierra Leone and environs for 140 minutes while DiCaprio’s moral waverings are worked upon by politically correct journalist Jennifer Connelly – her low-cut shirt designed to keep us interested during her droning pieties – and escaped black diamond-worker Djimon Hounsou, whose son has been press-ganged as a kiddy soldier. Lots of worthy subjects, but only one makes it to our imagination.

Elsewhere the world is going mad, or directors are, for multi-plot movies. Barely is Babel cold on the reviewing page before the critic confronts Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain and Emilio Estevez’s Bobby. Aronofsky’s jigsaw consists of three pieces that he, and we, labour to connect. Hugh Jackman plays a 16th-century Spanish conquistador, a present-day scientist seeking to cure cancer and a 26th-century astronaut gliding through space in a bubble. Rachel Weisz hangs on to the film by her fingernails – a queen here, a dying wife there – and the audience clings to memories of Pi, an Aronofsky film that was incomprehensible but cogent.

The search for life, its spring and source, is the theme of The Fountain. But the tenuously linked tales swing on squeaky hinges, portals into patchily imagined worlds, while Jackman (replacing the originally cast Brad Pitt, who decamped to Iñárritu’s rival overblown portmanteau) does one-note emoting as soldier, scientist and bubble boy. The special effects, often lovely, were cultured in miniature by organic means: swirly shapes or galactic patterns made in test-tubes or cloud tanks. They show how hypnotic this film might have been if living humans and story-organisms had been created alongside them.

“What if you could live for ever?” is, states Aronofsky, his film’s question. You feel you have qualified for eternity after watching Bobby, a multi-story drama constructed around the death of Bobby Kennedy. The filmmaker is Emilio Estevez, ex-Brat Pack actor, son of Lotusland liberal Martin Sheen. Perhaps Dad called in favours to furnish the cast. Swirling around the Los Angeles hotel on assassination night are Anthony Hopkins, Helen Hunt, Sharon Stone, Lindsay Lohan, Harry Belafonte . . . We could go on, but the film does enough of that on its own.

Estevez must have read the word “Altmanesque” somewhere. The several plots go upstairs (ritzy guests), downstairs (bickering staff), sideways (security goons) and into milady’s dressing chamber (Demi Moore as a drink-hazed singer). Few plots are discernibly connected to the framing, Kennedy-related sequences, which parenthesise the fiction with RFK soundbites and footage. Probably Estevez aimed to conjure a bygone epoch, when the overprivileged and underprivileged jostled to watch dawn break over a second Camelot. But the only magic he creates is wonderment at how he put all these stars into a scale-salaried hat before pulling them out, and how he squandered a fait célèbre that cinema had saved for 40 years, hoping surely for a worthier transfiguration.

Peter O’Toole in Venus gives the appearance of hanging together by a thread. If you pulled the thread he would elegantly come part, the silken voice followed by the ageing-Adonis features followed by the willowy limbs that seem, already, to be operated by invisible, unearthly strings. Apart from Leslie Phillips as his best pal – a Britcom character actor still in his guppy-gaping prime – the freshly Oscar-nominated actor is the sole reason to see this film. It is a winsome shambles written by Hanif Kureishi and directed by Roger Michell as if they felt compelled to do a companion piece to The Mother in which the May-December romance is role-reversed.

Now the oldie is a man, O’Toole’s twilight thespian, and the ensorcelling youth is a girl. Jodie Whittaker’s yattery chav and job-seeker secures a berth with great-uncle Leslie Phillips but agrees to be walked and dined and spoilt by lovelorn Peter. That’s it for plot. Cue a couple of funny scenes (tumble of the septuagenarian Peeping Tom as he peers through the art-room transom during nude studies) and a bit of Shakespeare for old time’s sake from our famous/infamous stage Macbeth. Then bring on Vanessa Redgrave in a fright wig. Lard pop songs over the montages. Coax a tear with a death scene. Wrap the thing, finally, in newspaper and serve with salt and vinegar, items that this flavourless film badly needs.

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