Film - Mark Kermode discovers new shallows and unexpected depths in screenwriting
There's a simple reason why computer games don't make good films: story, or rather the absence of it. Ever since Super Mario Brothers (five writers, no story) demonstrated that a bunch of Pac-Man set pieces do not a coherent movie make, producers have struggled to hack into the hard-drive obsessions of a million spotty computer nerds and wring a decent script from a series of digital video motifs that the audience are used to controlling for themselves. Catastrophic results have included Street Fighter, an abysmal effort by the writer/director Steven E de Souza, and Lara Croft: tomb raider, so beset by incoherence that I suspect not even the people who made it have any idea what happened in the end.
Sadly, although few could claim to have enjoyed the first Tomb Raider movie, "audience awareness" of its heroine, brought blankly to life by the perpetually pouty Angelina Jolie, ensured money-spinning attendances to the tune of $300m worldwide. Thus, we now have a sequel (or rather "franchise expansion"), Lara Croft Tomb Raider: the cradle of life, which is better than its predecessor in much the same way that drinking vomit is probably better than being flayed alive. The technically accomplished director Jan de Bont (Speed, Twister) throws everything and the kitchen sink at the screen (stunts, monsters, explosions, more pouting) in a desperate attempt to distract us from the fact that nothing is going on. But one glance at the bewildering - and oddly contradictory - array of hacks (including de Souza) variously given credit for "story" and "screenplay" tells us all we need to know about a movie invented by a computer and written by a committee. Noisy, vacuous and without merit; it will doubtless take millions.
Compared to such buffoonery, movies with even moderately well-wrought screenplays seem to attain near-Shakespearean heights of dramatic perfection. Confidence is a shamelessly derivative heist caper based on a twisty script by Doug Jung, who pilfers every con-trick movie from the 1970s Best Picture winner The Sting to the David Mamet-scripted House of Games and the acclaimed Jim Thompson adaptation The Grifters. From the Sunset Boulevard homage of the opening, which the conman Jake Vig (a laconic Ed Burns) narrates face down in the dirt, to the Reservoir Dogs-style flashbacks of the scam that brought him to this bloody end, Confidence borrows with stylish aplomb.
What gives it an original edge is the sure-handed direction of James Foley, the underrated helmsman of such dark gems as After Dark, My Sweet and Glengarry Glen Ross (Thompson and Mamet again), who runs the impressive ensemble cast through their paces with wit, vigour and style. Shot in seductive primary colours, and interspersed with abrupt double-crossing cuts, this hugely likeable nonsense provides intellect-teasing de-lights despite its flagrant insubstantiality. Rachel Weisz charms as Lily, the moll with a mind of her own, while Dustin Hoffman turns in a scenery-chewing cameo as "The King", a hyperactive crime lord with crazy eyes and teeth who fidgets around the set looking like an advert for Ritalin.
Equally playful, although far more substantial, is Swimming Pool, an austere erotic thriller from the European wunderkind Francois Ozon about "an uptight Englishwoman who writes about dirty things, but never does them" - this according to the pulchritudinous Julie (Ludivine Sagnier), shamelessly taunting the ageing Brit-crime writer Sarah Morton (Charlotte Rampling), whom Julie's publisher father has despatched to the south of France to knock off her latest Marple-esque bestseller. But just how uninvolved is Sarah in the catalogue of "dirty things" (seduction, sex, murder) playing out in Provence? And how much are Julie's increasingly outre exploits being laid on merely to dispel a bout of writer's block?
Working for the first time in the English language, the writer/director Ozon here teams up again with his "screenplay collaborator" for Under the Sand, Emmanuele Bernheim, reworking familiar pulp fiction themes recently botched in Hollywood fare such as Primal Fear and Identity to create a film of satirical, seductive power. With its repetitive use of visual reflection (Sarah is forever seen trapped within mirrors, windows and the waters of the pool itself) and deliberate narrative disavowals, Swimming Pool barely conceals the "secret" sting that is "revealed" in its final act. Yet the ease with which Ozon lures us into his eerie psychodrama lulls us into a false sense of security, ensuring that we float for a while in that blissful state between recognition and realisation.
Particular plaudits are due to Rampling, who was excellent in Under the Sand and is now especially engaging as the bastard daughter of Highsmith, Cornwell and James. Less overtly arch than some of Ozon's previous work - from his debut feature Sitcom (1998) to the recent hit Eight Women - but still racked with a profoundly postmodern sensibility, this is an intellectual treat with unexpected emotional depths.
Lara Croft Tomb Raider: the cradle of life (12a), Confidence (15) and Swimming Pool (15) open 22 August
Philip Kerr is away