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Buffalo '66 (15) Vincent Gallo Divorcing Jack (15) David Caffrey Mercury Rising (15) Harold Becker A Moment of Innocence (nc) Mohsen Makhmalbaf

NEAR THE start of Buffalo '66, the character played by Vincent Gallo (who makes his directorial debut with the film) climbs into a car on which the licence plate reads "OZU". At which point I scribbled in my notebook "He should be so lucky". How could I have known that Gallo would go on to demonstrate that, yes, he has learned from the Japanese master that there can be inestimable value in fixing your camera on human beings and simply watching?

Buffalo '66 isn't worthy of comparison with Ozu - or Cassavetes, or Paul Morrissey, or any of the other influences paraded here. But the point is that Gallo has got it where it counts: in the heart and in the guts.

He plays Billy Brown, fresh out of prison in thrift store threads and impish red leather boots, planning to impress his parents with his new wife.

Trouble is, he hasn't got one. So he does what most of us would do - he kidnaps a teenage tap dancer (Christina Ricci) and orders her to play the loving wife over dinner with the folks. After a time you realise that it's only the wax in Billy's hair and the grime on his skin that's holding him together.

There is no getting around the fact that Gallo's idea of character psychology is rather less accomplished than his grasp of cinematic technique.

When Billy's hostage turns out to be a submissive baby doll in child- woman make-up, the picture arcs steeply into a geek's wish-fulfilment fantasy. It isn't sinister - it just hasn't been thought out, either by Gallo or by his co-writer Alison Bagnall. What saves the movie is its optimism, which can work on you like laughing-gas.

It may be more a collection of great moments than a consistently fine film, but it has something original to say about dreams and how they change to accommodate the beatings they take. And Gallo himself runs on a jittery energy which feeds into his movie; he has the hungry eyes of a child and the derangement of a travelling salesman on a caffeine jag.

It's a bumper week for anyone who likes their men unshaven and unhinged. In the contest to see who can most resemble an unmade bed, David Thewlis beats Gallo by a centimetre of stubble in Divorcing Jack, in which he gives a characteristically fearless performance as an alcoholic Northern Irish journalist. After vomiting into a lavatory bowl, he steadies himself and then bravely announces "Right. Second half" before committing an act of casual infidelity that sets into motion a blackmail plot implicating politicians, terrorists and a gun-toting nun-o-gram.

Colin Bateman has adapted his own novel for the screen with mixed results. While the blend of comedy, political commentary and harsh violence is highly successful, echoing the Alan Bleasdale-scripted No Surrender, the convoluted plotting squeezes all the life out of the film. The director of photography, James Welland, evokes the hero's woozy demeanour by shooting the picture in the style of a protracted hangover, though the contrived wackiness can get to you. A brief PS: get there early for the accompanying short, Desserts, starring Ewan McGregor and an eclair. It's naughty, and not in the least bit nice.

First the bad news about Mercury Rising. It concerns an embittered FBI agent assigned to protect a nine-year-old autistic boy from government assassins after he cracks their security code. Now the good news. The film is strictly a No Bonding Zone. Oh sure, the agent (Bruce Willis) tries to get through to the kid (Miko Hughes). But those looking to have their cockles warmed will have to make do with a perfunctory hug in the last scene.

For the rest of us, the film is a refreshingly contemplative thriller, unevenly paced but with its share of taut moments, courtesy of Harold Becker (Sea of Love, Malice). As Willis keeps rescuing the boy from railway tracks and rooftop gutters, the picture threatens to turn into Baby's Day Out for grown-ups. But it left me more in mind of the subtle pleasures of Gloria or Witness.

Most of the Iranian movies which get a British release revolve around the same thing: film-makers shooting films about film-making and A Moment of Innocence is no exception. It stars, and was made by, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, who will be familiar as the director impersonated by a fan in Abbas Kiarostami's Close-Up - another work set in the no-man's-land between life and art.

Makhmalbaf's film follows the director's attempt to reconstruct a pivotal incident from his early life, when he knifed a policeman. The vanity of the participants intrudes; at one point, the boy playing the young Makhmalbaf breaks down, complaining that he doesn't want to stab anyone.

The picture has immense warmth and wit, and is not at all the clinical experiment it appears to be.

All films are on release from tomorrow

RG

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