A girl who likes girls who like boys...

Hilary Swank shows why she won her Oscar for Boys Don't Cry, plus a cool Russian thriller and two star-studded turkeys

Boys Don't Cry (98 mins, 18) Directed by Kimberly Peirce; starring Hilary Swank, Chloë Sevigny, Peter Sarsgaard

Brother (95 mins, 15) Directed by Alexei Balabanov; starring Sergei Bodrov, Viktor Sukhorukov

Love, Honour and Obey (118 mins, 18) Directed by Dominic Anciano and Ray Burdis; starring Jude Law, Sadie Frost, Jonny Lee Miller, Ray Winstone, Rhys Ifans

Hurly Burly (117 mins, 18) Directed by Anthony Drazan; starring Sean Penn, Kevin Spacey, Garry Shandling, Meg Ryan, Chazz Palminteri

The Carriers Are Waiting (94 mins, 15) Directed by Benot Mariage; starring Benot Poelvoorde, Morgane Simon, Bouli Lanners

Cross-dressing has largely been a subject of humour in the movies, if at times of an erotic kind - Chaplin in Carmen, for instance, Dietrich in Morocco, Lemmon and Curtis in Some Like It Hot - and usually left to European directors. There are few mainstream precedents for its serious treatment in a lower-class milieu - off-hand only John Dexter's rarely screened 1972 I Want What I Want and Neil Jordan's The Crying Game come to mind.

So Kimberly Peirce's Boys Don't Cry, based quite closely on a real-life murder case of 1993, seems both brave and unusual. Looking like an attractive combination of Matt Damon and Leonardo DiCaprio, Hilary Swank plays Teena Brandon, a 20-year-old girl from a Nebraska trailer park who wishes to become a man.

She cuts off her hair, straps down her breasts, pads out her crotch and, equipped with false ID, goes to a roller-disco as Brandon Teena. The disguise works, though when her identity is twigged she's pursued back to the family trailer by angry boys, and warned by her brother of the dangers she's running. Paying no heed, she bumps into a single mother, Candace, in a bar, provokes a fight with a belligerent trucker, and is saved by Candace's roughneck friends, John and Tom.

She takes off with them for the run-down town of Falls City 75 miles away, where she's accepted for what she appears to be by the guys, and proves attractive to the girls. At a karaoke session in a garish bar, she's drawn to the sad teenage beauty, Lana (Chloë Sevigny), a factory worker with an alcoholic mother. Lana is part of a trio singing 'The Bluest Eyes of Texas' and Brandon is smitten. But it's another country song that comes to mind - 'Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places' - and that's precisely what Brandon is doing in wanting to be one of the boys in this rough macho world. Her criminal past and current offences - for forgery, auto theft and larceny - are bound to catch up with her and expose her deception.

It's possible that the women might react sympathetically and that Lana could agree with Joe E. Brown that 'nobody's perfect'. But John and Tom, a pair of criminal psychopaths reminiscent of Hickock and Smith in Capote's In Cold Blood, are likely to get lethally brutal when they're made to look foolish and have their own sexuality challenged.

The director uses the tiresome device of speeding up time, turning night traffic into a strip of yellow light and racing the clouds across the sky. But she's good, and unpatronising on the empty, desperate milieu, and the performance she gets from Hilary Swank deserved its Oscar. Swank's Brandon is notable for generosity, tenderness and consideration. No wonder the girls respond - there aren't many men like that in Falls City.

Known, if at all, for his obscure, Beckettian fable Happy Days, the Russian director Alexei Balabanov has come up with one of the most impressive Eastern European films of the past decade. Brother is a cool, laconic thriller in the style of Kurosawa's Yojimbo and Leone's Fistful of Dollars, except that instead of being set in a corrupt, mythic past it takes place in a lawless present-day St Petersburg where Danila (Sergei Bodrov), a handsome, recently demobbed soldier, comes in search of his older brother Viktor (Viktor Sukhorukov). The boys' father died in the Gulag, and Viktor, a shaven-headed hard man, is a Mafia assassin. But he turns out to be nothing compared with the apparently mild-mannered, rock-loving Danila.

Danila claims to have been 'a clerk at HQ' whose only experience with guns was on the firing range. His ability to deliver knockout blows, handle firearms, adapt shotguns, carry out killings, prepare explosives and bullets and absorb pain suggests otherwise. He has clearly been with the special forces in Chechnya. But he's a man of his word who looks out for the insulted and injured, protecting an elderly German street-trader from young thugs, helping an abused wife, confronting the Mafia.

Straying into a bohemian party, Danila catches a glimpse of a different, relaxed cultured world to which he cannot belong. As he walks through Putin's degraded Leningrad and along the Neva, we get a sense of a beautiful, temporarily lost world that his vengeful spirit seeks to restore. At the end, in the manner of a Western gunfighter, he hitches a ride out of town on a lorry driving through a deserted, snow-covered landscape into an uncertain future.

Seeing Brother immediately after Dominic Anciano and Ray Burdis's comic crime movie Love, Honour and Obey reminded me of a letter Raymond Chandler wrote to his publisher in 1946 about the film of The Big Sleep. 'Alan Ladd is a small boy's idea of a tough guy,' he said. 'Bogart is the genuine article.' Made in the same improvisatory mode as their Final Cut, with a cast of actor friends using their own names, Love, Honour and Obey stars Jonny Lee Miller as Jonny, a psychopath who works his way into a north London gang headed by plump, karaoke-loving Ray Winstone, becomes the most dangerous hoodlum in town and provokes a war with the south London crew led by Sean Pertwee.

It comes over as a wretched home movie in which the cast are undergoing a form of therapy by acting out their sadistic fantasies of being ruthless criminals and sexually insatiable molls. As two henchmen, Anciano and Burdis spend their time discussing the latter's impotence, a matter that reaches a climax, as it were, with the gang taking an overdose of Viagra and committing a robbery disguised as Arab sheikhs, their robes thrust out by massive erections. For some reason two actors, Rhys Ifans and Denise Van Outen, are allowed to perform under aliases.

Nearly as tiresome as Love, Honour and Obey, but much better acted, Hurly Burly is a film version of David Rabe's play about a quartet of loathsome Hollywood types - three producers (Sean Penn, Gary Shandling, Kevin Spacey) and a failing actor (Chazz Palminteri). They lounge around drinking, smoking, snorting coke and talking inane twaddle. They constantly repeat what they or someone else has just said, and twice in the picture likeable, vulnerable women are left alone at night beside a remote road, in one case thrown from a moving car. If someone put a gun to my head and threatened to pull the trigger if I refused to see this film again I'd ask for time to think it over.

The Carriers Are Waiting, the feature debut of Belgian documentarist Benot Mariage, is a strange, sad comedy about a pathetic photo-journalist (Benot Poelvoorde) working for a paper ironically called L'Espoir (hope) in a declining mining town and determined to change his life. His ludicrous plans to win a car depend on his teenage son getting into the Guinness Book of Records for opening and closing a door the most times in 24 hours. The dreamy, unemployed lad would rather achieve fame as a Presley impersonator and expert on movie continuity errors for a local radio station, and Dad's plans go tragically awry. This monochrome picture is inventive and visually striking (there's a fantastic image of thousands of racing pigeons being released from a railway siding), but it's more painful than funny. A genuine curiosity.


Philip French

The GuardianTramp

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