BLUE IN THE FACE Wayne Wang / Paul Auster (15) ROUGH MAGIC Clare Peploe (12) MONEY TRAIN Joseph Ruben (18) FRANKIE STARLIGHT Michael Lindsay- Hogg (nc)

Nothing strikes fear into the moviegoer's heart like "improvisation" (except, perhaps, the words "... starring Charlie Sheen"). Too often this technique, employed to conjure up stretches of fluid, unrestrained cinema, actually creates the opposite - stiffly played, sparsely directed longueurs in which people drink coffee and scream a lot. You can glimpse such design flaws every now and then in Wayne Wang and Paul Auster's film Blue in the Face, but not often enough to ruin your enjoyment of what is a sassy and jubilant slice of on-the-hoof lunacy.

Wang and Auster knocked the movie together immediately after completing their previous collaboration, Smoke. Blue in the Face shares a clutch of characters with its sister film - Auggie Wren (Harvey Keitel), the jovial owner of the Brooklyn Cigar Company, the New York corner-store, which is the core of both films, leads us through a flurry of unrelated episodes populated by star cameos, backed up by his little trio of chums, notably Tommy (Giancarlo Esposito), a bristlingly funny wolf in chic clothing.

Given the picture's ramshackle conception (it was shot in under a week, with the cast riffing before the camera in various hastily-arranged scenarios), the higgledy-piggledy observations which bob to the surface are surprisingly coherent. And from those shaggy-dog stories, you get a poignant, cumulative sense of the paradox of Brooklyn, where myriad cultures converge but each rubs the other up the wrong way; and of the Brooklynite's ever-present tension between staying and fleeing, brilliantly exemplified by Lou Reed's monotone monologues (passing his skew-whiff judgement on Sweden, "Sweden scares me. Everyone's drunk. Everything works"). That frizzy perm, the deadpan delivery, those gags - this guy should be in showbiz.

Most of his co-stars already are. There are delicious walk-ons from Lily Tomlin, Michael J Fox and Roseanne; there's even a perfectly agreeable performance by Madonna. My favourite, though, was the director Jim Jarmusch, who pops into Keitel's store to share the joy of that last-cigarette-before- quitting. He embodies Blue in the Face at its richest: dry but dippy, strung-out yet still searching. But a warning to anyone trying to kick nicotine: Jarmusch's vividly poetic eulogy to his newly retired habit had me reaching for the Marlboros, and I don't even smoke.

You get the feeling that Rough Magic is everything it could possibly have been, and yet that doesn't feel like nearly enough. It's a sparky 1950s love story between a magician's assistant (Bridget Fonda) and a reporter (Russell Crowe) en route to Mexico City. No, wait. It's a tongue-in-cheek thrills 'n' spills adventure about Fonda joining up with dubious quack Doc Ansell (Jim Broadbent) in the quest for a secret elixir. No, hang on a sec. It's a brooding B-movie pastiche about one woman's search for love and faith in a time of chaos.

Whatever it is, it's directed with flair by Clare Peploe, who elicits spirited straight-faced playing from Fonda, and shot with a frugal grace by Gus Van Sant collaborator John J Campbell. So much attention has been lavished on the immaculate period detail that you're saddened when all you can recall is the scene where a man gets transformed into a hot dog. Could it be magic? Only for those who don't get out enough.

Mind the pap: Money Train is a shambolic comedy-thriller which reunites Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson, who whipped up some crackling banter in White Men Can't Jump five years ago, and casts them as a pair of cops hatching a plan to become the latest great train robbers. This is cheap, gaudy and anachronistic, an inelegant mess of colliding plot-lines and stunted characters, beefed up with some objectionable violence and derailed by the inability of the director, Joseph Ruben, to unfold a simple narrative. And those are just the good points. I predict that this train will call at all stations to your video store bargain bin.

Frankie Starlight is a small film about a small man. Frank Bois (Corban Walker) is a dwarf who ambles into a literary agent's office and presents the manuscript of his autobiography. Of course, this means we have to be ushered through the entire wretched thing in painstaking flashback, from the arrival in Ireland of Frank's mother (Anne Parillaud, so leaden you suspect she's under anaesthetic) to the sudden, improbable appearance of a kindly Yank (Matt Dillon, so cloying you wish he were under anaesthetic). Walker and Alan Pentony, who plays the younger Frank, invest the picture with some considerable dramatic weight and make the hero's passion for the stars wholly plausible. But their efforts are undermined by the script's thick vein of whimsy. We are all of us in the gutter... and those responsible for Frankie Starlight deserve to stay there.

All films on general release from tomorrow

RYAN GILBEY

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