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Kids Return Taskeshi Kitano (nc) Anaconda Luis Llosa (15) Crying Freeman Christophe Gans (18) Moll Flanders Pen Densham (12) Ghosts from the Past Rob Reiner (15)
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The Independent Culture
I know what you're thinking. The last thing the world needs right now is another rites-of-passage movie in which two school-friends skip class, play pranks on stuffy teachers, fall in with the wrong crowd, squander their potential and end up sharing a bicycle like a low-rent version of Katharine Ross and Robert Redford in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Right? Unless, of course, that movie happens to have been made by Takeshi Kitano, the Japanese director whose previous features (Violent Cop, Boiling Point, Sonatine) have proved him to be an artist of inestimable vision and intelligence. His new film Kids Return - for plot, see above - is sweeter and more evocative than those earlier works, but despite its meandering storyline and passive, blank-faced heroes, it's not ephemeral; its colours and images and bubbling humour, and the beautiful, chiming score by Joe Hisaishi, linger in the memory.

Kitano navigates us around the intersecting lives of Masaru (Ken Kaneko), a tough kid with yakuza yearnings, and his friend Shinji (Masanobu Ando) who, despite being the gentler of the two, soon finds his feet notching up knockouts in the boxing ring. The duo's relationship gives the picture emotional weight, so that the script's digressions into the lives of numerous minor characters don't feel superfluous, despite the sense that the camera is sometimes wandering off to observe whatever takes its fancy. Kitano constructs a cumulative, richly detailed portrait of what it means to be young and clueless, and avoids the traditional Hollywood view of youth as virginal and sacred and unmatched by adulthood when he ends Kids Return on a bright note of resounding optimism.

The cast-list of the brazenly trashy horror movie Anaconda looks as though it was assembled from the winners of a tie-breaker competition: "I would like to play second fiddle to a 40-foot snake because..." For Ice Cube, it must have looked like an opportunity to flee all those films about South Central LA. And as for Jon Voight - well, who would miss a chance to play a Paraguayan priest-turned-snake-hunter who cackles demonically after every other line, and can perform a DIY tracheotomy at the drop of a hat? Voight hops aboard the boat of a documentary film-crew crawling up the Amazon, promising to steer them toward the mysterious Shirishama Indians, but with more selfish motives up his sleeve: he's got a date with an anaconda.

The film is crude and silly, and the expensive computer-generated effects are a disappointment, conveying the snake's agility while rendering it dainty and weightless. But for those viewers who feel their heart can take more strain so soon after last week's Scream, the picture has its share of genuine shocks too. Not to mention an enjoyably sick sense of humour that sanctions such indulgences as a point-of-view shot from inside the anaconda's mouth as it devours its victim, vomiting him moments later, only for the masticated man to wink cheekily through a coating of reptile- bile. A strong contender for regurgitation scene of the year.

Crying Freeman is an elegant adaptation of the Japanese comic book series about an assassin who sheds an enigmatic tear each time he kills. The director Christophe Gans uses tight close-ups to echo the style of the original Manga comic strips, though there are certain elements here that betray the more rudimentary aspects of the film's pen-and-ink origins, and might have been given deeper consideration - the sloppy characterisation, for instance, which is always forged either through flashback or voice- over. Meanwhile, the fact that the heroine is named Emu, and the rest of the cast address her without corpsing, indicates that Japanese culture remains unsullied by Rod Hull.

The Freeman himself (played by Mark Dacascos as a kind of Errol Flynn on downers) is a mild-mannered potter who is forced to become a killer after witnessing a murder at one of his own exhibitions, private views not being what they once were, and finding himself abducted by the sinister Dragon clan, who recondition him and throw a free all-over body tattoo into the bargain. If you've still got a straight face, this may be the movie for you. It is sombre and stately, and would be half the length if only the action sequences weren't in slow-motion, though it's blessed with the infectious self-absorption of the best comic books.

Among the opening titles of Moll Flanders is a disclaimer disguised as a credit that reads "Based on the character from the novel by Daniel Defoe". That gives the game away. For this plodding film bears scant relation to Defoe's work; it's a parade of bloodless miscreants set against a background of Monty Python-style peasants and poverty. In the lead role, Robin Wright has the looks and poise of a young Julie Christie, but none of the magnetism, while Stockard Channing plays the brothel keeper Mrs Allworthy with such single-minded gusto that she seems about to burst into song at any minute. Only Morgan Freeman survives with dignity intact - as the man instructed to teach Flanders' daughter the error of her mother's ways, he is noble and warm, his name unblemished even as his accent makes a regrettable detour into Van Dyke Cockney.

Ghosts from the Past, Rob Reiner's polite squeal of horror at Mississippi's racist history, is all crassness and conscience. Alec Baldwin plays Bobby DeLaughter, a lawyer who agrees to investigate the 30-year-old case against Byron de la Beckwith (James Woods), suspected of gunning down civil rights activist Medgar Evers in 1963. Beckwith was never convicted - the perks of having low friends in high places - but will modern society be any more receptive to justice? This is a film that is intended to make you feel holy, and yet it's not Whoopi Goldberg, as the graceful widow, that you wish had more screen time but Woods, phlegm rattling in his throat and his soul. Amid all the sanctimonious excess, he is a welcome breath of foul airn