Streep laughs at death

NICE to see Meryl Streep back, fighting fit and firm-thighed, in The River Wild. She has had a few minor disasters in recent years, one of which was Defending Your Life (Pearl, 9.30pm) in 1991. It was savaged by some critics, but it's not bad. It has more vision than it was given credit for, and some good jokes too.

Ms Streep's middle name, as she has so often proved, is Versatile. In Defending Your Life she handles a precipitous mix of comedy and black drama with tender loving care. The question central to the film is one that we have been asking for a long time and one to which we shall, I hazard a guess, never know the answer. Is there life after death? Daniel Miller (Albert Brooks, Broadcast News) is an advertising executive who meets his maker in a car crash. He is catapulted into Judgment City, a mid-point, a sort of MTR station in the sky, where fates and directions are decided. Here the not-quite-dead defend their lives before a jury. Good boys and girls go straight to heaven. Bad ones are sentenced to return to Earth. Miller's destiny is in his own hands. Will his past catch up with him? In Judgment City - it looks a little like Sha Tin, but cleaner - Miller meets Julia (Streep), who teaches him a thing or two about life, ironically now that they are both dead.

Defending Your Life is original in concept and funny in spasms. Streep is a joy, full of energy and intelligence, even as a corpse.

IT won an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture in 1983, but why? The Big Chill (Pearl, 12.30am) is a big-budget, big-name Thirtysomething, with insufferable yuppies dumping on each other and straining to be profound. The stiff being dressed for a funeral under the titles at the beginning is Kevin Costner, who looks better than he did in Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves, even though you don't see his face.

Among the university contemporaries who reunite for Costner's funeral are Meg Tilley, Kevin Kline, Glenn Close (who won an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress), Tom Berenger, Jeff Goldblum and William Hurt. There are tears, hugs, confessions and, in the end, something approaching a realisation from the assembled crew that life is to be lived, even when others are dying. In between there is tedium and irritation.

Technically there is nothing to complain about. Lawrence Kasdan directs with skill, but without much relish. It's as if he finds these people as infuriating as we do. The Big Chill is much too earnest for its own good; it is, to borrow a phrase, a film with a beard, although it does have a nice soundtrack.

THERE is nothing earnest about Hong Kong-hater Keith Floyd. When God was dishing out the cynicism he joined the queue again and got second helpings. In Floyd On Italy (Pearl, 6.50pm) he is in Umbria, which is smack bang in the middle of the country, above Rome and below Florence.

FILM-MAKERS John Waters and John Sayles have good cameos in Something Wild (World, 9.30pm) as a used-car salesman and motorcycle cop respectively. The film also stars Melanie Griffith, Ray Liotta and Jeff Daniels, so there can be few complaints about the cast. It was directed by Jonathan Demme, a fine director and one who knows a thing or two about psychology, as he proved in Silence Of The Lambs.

The ingredients do not gel in Something Wild, largely because it veers so uncontrollably from humour to sadistic violence and back again. The happy ending looks like an afterthought, and probably was. Hollywood insists on believing what its tests audiences tell it.

Daniels meets Griffith at a coffee shop. She is an erotic, vivacious woman who unlocks his sexual fantasies. He drops his family, his lifestyle and everything else and takes off with her on a joy ride. Liotta, perfect for the psycho role, is her husband, just out of jail. He is none too happy about the situation.

WORLD'S mini-series Wild Justice is on late (1.15am). It is based on the novel of the same name by Wilbur Smith and stars Roy Scheider (Jaws) as a CIA agent expelled from his squad for an initiative his superiors do not appreciate. He starts working for a beautiful baroness (Patricia Millardet), a woman with a mysterious past who also owns an industrial plant that produces sophisticated weapons. Enter an enigmatic Lebanese terrorist called Caliph, a kidnapped 13-year-old daughter, and a love affair. Wild Justice also stars Sam Wanamaker, who died earlier this year.