Mark Kermode - Brief encounters

Film - A romantic gem, a no-strings affair and a true crime. By Mark Kermode

Before Sunset (15)

There's a triple bill of reunions with old acquaintances in cinemas this week: one nice, one nasty, and one with big red rockets on. First, the nice. Before Sunset is the sequel to Richard Linklater's 1995 gem Before Sunrise, in which the youthful strangers Jesse and Celine (Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy) met, fell in love and parted over the course of a single night in Vienna. Reunited nine years later in Paris, the now more "mature" couple (both attached, both unsatisfied) wonder how things would have turned out had they kept their promise to return to each other's arms six months after their all-too-brief encounter.

Having fallen hook, line and sinker for the romantic angst of Before Sunrise, I found it hard to resist catching up with this couple, even when their conversation (filmed in almost real time) descends into navel-gazing narcissism. Linklater, who recently scored a huge mainstream hit with The School of Rock, here reaffirms his "indie" roots, proving once again that he is the master of the small moment. Hawke and Delpy, meanwhile, seem once again to play themselves, the deceptively easy nature of their small talk suggesting an intimate encounter on which we are simply eavesdropping. Plaudits, too, to cinematographer Lee Daniel, who prowls the streets of Paris in excellently unobtrusive fashion even as the couple dawdle down alleyways, up stairwells and through leafy parks.

Whether audiences who missed out on Before Sunrise will find these strangers as interesting as I did is a moot point, because this sequel relies heavily on the deep well of goodwill fostered by its predecessor. But there is something genuinely admirable about the way that even this second instalment only hints at a resolution, with Linklater smartly concluding that much of the charm lies in letting the audience decide for themselves what becomes of these star-crossed lovers. Perhaps we'll find out in another nine years' time in something called Before Teatime? Watch this space.

While the long-awaited live-action Thunderbirds has drawn howls of protest from middle-aged fans of the Sixties TV series, there is at least one diehard Tracy Island devotee who was pleasantly surprised (not to say relieved) by this glossy update. Clearly taking its lead from the big-screen success of Spy Kids, Working Title's no-strings-attached affair aims itself squarely at the under-tens market, with three young rascals (Alan, Brains Jr and an "aged-down" Tin-Tin) being left to save the day when Jeff Tracy and his International Rescue brood are despatched to outer space by Ben Kingsley's fiendish Hood. Boasting excitingly sleek redesigned vehicles (the snub-assed T2 is especially splendid) rendered with uncharacteristically convincing computer-generated effects, Thunderbirds goes out of its way to hit all the target demographics, taking particular care to make sure that the girls have as much to gawp at as the boys with their toys. Thus the formerly sedate Lady Penelope is transformed into a butt-kicking vision in pink who gets all the best lines, while the formerly decorative Tin-Tin not only beats the boys at their own game, but also inherits a touch of her fiendish uncle's occult magic. It sounds horribly cynical (which it probably is), but the end result is surprisingly endearing, bringing a lump to my throat every time square-jawed Bill Paxton spat out another piece of chewy scenery and announced: "Thunderbirds are go!" Gerry Anderson may have had nothing to do with the movie, but speaking as someone who has already inflicted all 32 episodes of the original TV series on my offspring (not to mention the two "Supermarionated" feature films and numerous toys, records and books), I am happy to report that the predicted "Day of Disaster" has been averted, and all systems are indeed functional.

Finally, The Manson Family is the latest screen offering in-spired by the pint-sized neo-Nazi who achieved cult stardom via a string of grisly slayings in 1969. Director Jim Van Bebber worked on this project for a staggering 14 years, prompting one to wonder whether he couldn't have done something more useful with his time, such as learning to play the piano. Lacking the technical proficiency of Helter Skelter or the mondo-documentary charm of Manson, Van Bebber's film resembles a shoddy Seventies sexploitation shocker whose initially ambitious "multimedia" structure soon gives way to crass prurience. Scenes laboriously restaging the Tate/LaBianca murders would be offensive if they weren't so pathetically inept, leaving one unsure whether to laugh or cry. In the end, we can only rejoice that Charlie and his gang are still in jail, and wonder why certain film-makers aren't in there with them.