Mark Kermode - In need of therapy

Dysfunctional characters cause much pain and anguish, writes Mark Kermode

Tarnation (15)


It says something about the parlous state of mainstream cinema that this week's stand-out release is an experimental art-house offering knocked together for thruppence on an Apple Mac by an unknown film-maker blessed with budding talent and preening narcissism in equal measure. Jonathan Caouette's Tarnation is a portrait of a dysfunctional family that owes more to the noodly navel-gazing of Warhol's Factory films than to the savage investigations of Capturing the Friedmans.

Built around an elaborate collage of heavily processed images culled from endless hours of home movie footage (much of it of Caouette's own pouting, shrieking, posing phizog), this celluloid scrapbook juggles interviews, performances and answerphone messages with news and fleeting film clips (from Rosemary's Baby to The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas), played against an evo-catively eclectic soundtrack. The result is a moving account of the travails of Caouette's mother - a former belle who suffered institutionalisation and ECT that either cured or contributed to her recurrent depression - and a somewhat less engaging testimony to the artist's own pain and anguish, the validity of which is hard to judge and harder to embrace.

At its best, Tarnation boasts an eerie lyrical beauty and raw emotional honesty, blended with a ghoulish sense of humour to create something fresh and invigorating. At worst, it descends into a catalogue of "look at me" histrionics, characterised by a moment when Caouette films himself announcing "I can't do this right now" - as if even he has grown weary of his own drooling attentions. There's more than a touch of Tracey Emin in Caouette's self-indulgent preoccupations, a quality that presumably attracted executive producer Gus van Sant. Still, it's hard to take against anyone who spent their youth making underground gore films with titles such as The Ankle Slasher and staging school musical productions of David Lynch's Blue Velvet - not to mention obsessing about The Exorcist, which (as we all know) is the most noble of pastimes.

In stark contrast to the underground edginess of Tarnation, The Wedding Date is a sickeningly bland transatlantic romantic comedy that demands custodial sentences for all involved. Billed as being "in the tradition of" such matrimonial hits as Four Weddings and a Funeral, My Best Friend's Wedding and My Big Fat Greek Wedding, The Wedding Date owes more to the vomit-inducing horrors of Cannibal Holocaust as it spews out the regurgitated body parts of other mercilessly masticated movies.

Will and Grace's Debra Messing stars as Kat, an unfeasibly glamorous New York singleton who hires an upmarket gigolo to accompany her to her half-sister's nuptials in Blighty (you know the place - green fields, quaint churches, driving on the left) after being dumped by the best man. Despite her perfect hair, teeth and figure, and endless financial resources, Kat is a mess (just like the movie - ho ho!), and only the sensitive attentions of a highly paid male prostitute will put her right. "Oh God, I think I've just come," declares Kat's best friend when she first sets eyes on dullard Nick (Dermot Mulroney), who obligingly flashes his naked arse and glistening four-pack, and wanders around in a towel. Sadly, however, rib-tickling orgasms are off the menu for the rest of us, who have to make do with a string of flaccid comedy set pieces (embarrassing meeting with parents; awkward moments at a stag party; unfunny dance lesson; sex in a boat) before the inevitable showdown at the altar and "unexpected" happy ending for all. It's a shotgun wedding in the sense that you'll want to shoot yourself. I've been to funerals that were funnier.

On the subject of which, Around the Bend - which takes its title from a song by Creedence Clearwater Revival - features Michael Caine's ashes being carted around America by a dying Christopher Walken at the behest of an earnestly "quirky" film-maker who would rather bore us all to death with his own "personal issues" than pay up for some much-needed therapy sessions. "It was a way of working out my relationship with my own estranged father," says the writer/director Jordan Roberts, who describes Around the Bend as "a contemplation on grief". And yes, it's every bit as entertaining as that sounds.

On the plus side, Caine gets to deliver only a handful of lines in his crap American accent before dropping dead at a Kentucky Fried Chicken. After that, it's uphill all the way as the road-movie scenery mirrors the rocky terrain (geddit?) of the film's "emotional journey". Aaargh. By the end, I'd counted a quartet of stiffs, if you include the dog - four funerals, and no wedding.

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