British film on an arctic roll

also showing; THE YOUNG POISONER'S HANDBOOK Benjamin Ross (15) BLUE JUICE Carl Prechezer (15) HIGHER LEARNING John Singleton (15) CHUNGKING EXPRESS Wong Kar-Wai (12) LES DIABOLIQUES Henri-Georges Clouzot (15)
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It has not been a distinguished year so far for British cinema, but the skies are about to brighten, with six films, including new work from Ken Loach and Terence Davies, opening over the autumn. The season kicks off this week with two lively and more than promising first features. The Young Poisoner's Handbook borrows the funereal theme music from the definitive study of British delinquency: Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange. It's a tough benchmark to be measured against, and Benjamin Ross, the director, acquits himself well, barrelling through this burlesque black comedy with terrific confidence, style and many a barb at the expense of the prison system, British jingoism (one crime is thwarted by the "I'm Backing Britain" campaign) and, in particular, cramped London suburbia - Neasden to be precise - anno 1961.

Here the 14-year-old Graham Young (the film is loosely based on a true- life case) grows up with a passion for poison and a healthy contempt for his dull family. The film falls into three sections: Neasden, where members of the Young residence have a distressingly short life expectancy; a mental hospital for the criminally insane; and a photographic lab where Graham, now rehabilitated, is tempted back into the bad old ways. Because of these large leaps in place and time, the secondary characters are lightly drawn, cartoonish even; it's through Graham's baleful gaze that we see the world.

If the film has a weakness, it is this (through no fault of Hugh O'Conor, incidentally, who gives a drolly spooky, bug-eyed performance): Graham is admirably nasty, but not, when push comes to shove, a wildly interesting individual with whom to spend 105 minutes of our time. He has no special reason for being bad. Indeed, through the figure of the liberal prison psychiatrist (Antony Sher), who tries to analyse and then to reform him, the film seems to mock the idea that criminal behaviour can be understood, much less corrected. He doesn't develop. He doesn't even dream. But that's a small reservation about a film that otherwise fairly gleams with spit and polish.

Carl Prechezer and Peter Salmi's shorts (Spotters and The Cutter) have a sardonic humour of their own. Their feature debut Blue Juice is sweeter, an engaging film which you want to like, but which also suggests that they haven't yet quite got the measure of the full-length narrative. A comedy set in Cornwall in the waning days of summer, it skims over familiar terrain. Sean Pertwee faces the big 30 and the choice between commitment to his exasperated girlfriend (Catherine Zeta Jones) and eternal adolescence with his raucous surfer pals. Fat Terry (Peter Gunn), by contrast, is about to rush into marriage and premature middle-age. Then there's the record producer who has sold out (Steven Mackintosh), the hopeless screw- up (Ewan McGregor), Keith Allen's sleazoid newshound and Heathcote Williams' levitating guru.

All these characters come crowding in in the first few scenes, hell for leather - so quickly that for the first half hour or so the film feels chaotic and unfocused. Some of the gags are a little broad, but there are plenty of them, and the picture has a bright, upbeat feel. The main joke, and it's quite a good one, turns on the incongruity of the hip(- ish) surfer culture and picturesque Little England with its cream teas, fishing villages and an FM station that's less local radio than yokel radio.

A cautionary tale: John Singleton was feted a few years back for his poised first film, Boyz N the Hood. Since then his career has taken a nosedive with Poetic Justice and, now, Higher Learning, an ambitious campus drama spoiled by that sound familiar from Spike Lee's movies: the strident sound of axes grinding. Singleton's university is inhabited by little caucuses of interest groups: blacks, Asians, women and whites, including a band of neo-fascists who sport shaven heads, swastikas, and tattoos and say things like (in thick hick accent) "Mah paw was a survivalist". They all hate or mistrust each other and a naive attempt to throw a "Peace Festival" ends in predictable bloodshed. It's a thoughtful, angry film, but marred by stereotyping and a pervasive self-righteousness.

Chungking Express is a curious mix of maudlin male romanticism (it consists of two separate, slightly overlapping stories about cops on the rebound after being ditched by their lovers) and impish absurdity. All the characters have odd quirks: one eats 30 cans of pineapple to help himself forget his girl; another talks to his tea towels; a third breaks into the apartment of the man on whom she has a crush and swaps round all the labels on his tins of food; a fourth is never seen without a blond wig, sunglasses and raincoat and smokes lilac cigarettes. The film is terminally stylish, with edgy editing and liberal use of slo-mo, freeze frame and other visual fireworks. It conveys a sharp sense of Hong Kong as a city both lonely and overcrowded, where lives jostle without ever coming together. It bears the imprimatur of Quentin Tarantino who has acquired the film for distribution in the US and, like that director's films, the potent mood and flamboyant mise-en-scene conceal, one feels finally, a core that's faintly hollow and unsatisfying.

It's a good week for crimemasters because Les Diaboliques, Henri-Georges Clouzot's classic suspense thriller, also resurfaces briefly. The victim is the overbearing headmaster of a minor private school whose ailing wife and ruthless mistress plot to bump him off. The corpse, however, refuses to lie down. As in Poisoner, the atmosphere is arctic and the characters thoroughly unlikeable, but the plot's cunning machinery holds you in its jaws. There is, we hear, to be a remake with Sharon Stone, so catch the original quickly before Hollywood botches it.

n On release from Friday.