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Intimate Relations Philip Goodhew (15) Private Parts Betty Thomas (18) Marvin's Room Jerry Zaks (12) The Chamber James Foley (12) A Bit of Scarlet Andrea Weiss (nc) Madame Butterfly Frederic Mitterrand (PG) Kama Sutra Mira Nair (18)
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The Independent Culture
A tough boy with tattoos and a temper. A virgin schoolgirl who plots sexual blackmail. A nymphomaniac housewife who crosses the landing in her slippers and quilted dressing-gown bearing forbidden fruit. And a prosthetic leg being polished over breakfast. No, not the sordid details of the new government's first sleaze scandal, but the prickly comedy Intimate Relations, which aims to do for the suburban semi what Blue Velvet did for the white picket fence. That it fails on that count is largely due to our familiarity with its world of tea-table trade-offs, and net-curtains that twitch of their own accord. The dialogue betrays a considerable debt to Joe Orton and Alan Bennett, who have both explored this territory rigorously, and invested their innuendo with more menace or poignancy. But Intimate Relations still has much to recommend it, not least Julie Walters, who captures the pain undercutting Marjorie Beasley, an electric landlady who goes to great lengths to ensure her guests get a warm welcome.

From the moment that your attention is drawn to an axe standing in a provincial English garden, near the beginning of the film, you know that it's only a matter of time before somebody gets the chop. Will it be Marjorie, who is rumoured to have done more than her bit for the war effort with visiting GIs? Or could it be her new lodger Harold (Rupert Graves), an ex-sailor whose midnight liaisons with Marjorie are cramped by the presence of her 13-year-old daughter lying in the same bed?

The sexual tension is expertly handled by the director Philip Goodhew (who wrote the screenplay, inspired by a true story), and the film looks suitably stale, with decor as ugly as the characters; candlewick and Formica fetishists are especially well catered for. Although its vision of provincial England as a place where morals are about as common as drive-by shootings is hardly original, there is an oddly affecting sadness about the picture. In its clinical portrait of misdirected affections, it is as cruel and bruised and sensual as a lovebite.

The controversial American DJ Howard Stern has the voice of Alan Alda, the hairdo of Cher and the physique of an anorexic giraffe. He would initially seem to be entirely lacking in subtleties or ambiguities - after all, he does make his first appearance in Private Parts dressed as the superhero Fartman. His jokes are consistent in their vulgarity. But although Private Parts is a string of crude sketches purporting to form a portrait of the artist as an anti-social, scatological nerd, it also reveals some very ... well, private parts.

Tracing Stern's career from college radio to eventual superstardom as a rebellious New York "shock-jock", the picture is a fascinating mixture of Kentucky Fried Movie-style skits, self-mythologising bombast and dreary shock tactics. You may wince at Stern's willingness to mine the most taboo subjects for comedy - the jokes about his wife's miscarriage are difficult to endure. But even this provides an unexpected insight into the way a man famed for his unflinching frankness chooses to deal with personal trauma. Anyone who needs to hold a rally to celebrate himself is nursing some serious insecurities. It's commendable that Private Parts hints at that vulnerability without stinting on what a large part of the audience will have turned up for: sick jokes and flatulence.

From the opening tour around a miniature metropolis of medicine bottles, Marvin's Room luxuriates in illness. Marvin (Hume Cronyn) is a bed-ridden old man cared for by his daughter Bessie (Diane Keaton), who is diagnosed with leukaemia. The only hope for Bessie is a bone-marrow transplant, so she calls on her estranged sister Lee (Meryl Streep). Lee has her own problems coping with an arsonist son (Leonardo DiCaprio), but the family reunites, and soon everyone is being brave and tender and funny about life in the way that only movie characters with fatal diseases can. Scott McPherson adapted the script from his own play, and its origins show at every turn. But the performances are excellent, and the only false note is struck by an overdose of light relief from Robert De Niro as a bumbling doctor. Forgive this and you'll find Marvin's Room a superior tear-jerker.

The Chamber is another turgid John Grisham adaptation, with the obligatory idealistic young lawyer here played by Chris O'Donnell, who is fighting to save the white supremacist and convicted killer Gene Hackman from the gas chamber. The twist is that the clean-cut kid is the psychopath's grandson. Putting aside the fact that no one as dull as O'Donnell could possibly have such interesting relatives, The Chamber is still an implausible and soulless piece of film-making.

Of the remaining new releases, only A Bit of Scarlet (at London's Everyman) is worthy of attention. Andrea Weiss's wry documentary compiles film excerpts to illustrate the various functions of lesbian and gay characters in cinema. It's an inconsequential doodle in the margins of The Celluloid Closet, but it's assembled with great wit. The French production of Madame Butterfly, on the other hand, is so uninspired and under-directed that it seems as though the camera was left running while the crew popped out for sushi.

After Intimate Relations and Private Parts, Kama Sutra continues the trend of enticingly titled films which sound like they want to be banned. Mira Nair's tepid love story about two women orbiting a lecherous king shares something with pornography: no discernible plot or characterisation. But, alas, nothing to raise the temperature either, unless seeing a man trampled by an elephant floats your boat

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