Cinema: It's alive! It's alive! But only just

Bill Condon's adaptation of Christopher Bram's novel Father of Frankenstein won him an Oscar last Sunday. Gods and Monsters is a sad, insular film. It tells the story of the last months in the life of the movie director James Whale (Ian McKellen), who was born working-class in Dudley, England, but reinvented himself as a gentleman in the trenches of the First World War, and went on to make the 1931 film of Frankenstein, and other artistically odd horror movies like The Invisible Man.

It is the 1950s, and Whale is retired. He lives in a Hollywood suburb, affluent and secluded, overseen by his sometimes punitive European maid (Lynn Redgrave). A recent stroke has left him incapable of suppressing precise memories of his shock-eyed years in France. He can barely pass a window without seeing the face of his soldier-lover, luminous and careful and very vertical in his uniform. It's like the ee cummings line, "Fear buries a tomorrow under woe and up comes yesterday most green and young." Whale's yesterdays shove in, leaving him aghast and secretive.

A new gardener (Brendan Fraser) tends Whale's lawns. He is all muscle and mistrust and tanned belly. The pair become friends, Whale seeking desperate solace in the resolutely heterosexual Fraser and Fraser happy enough to spend time with the caustic Whale. There are no halcyon days in this friendship, and no particular catharsis for either character. The relationship is very troubled and clumsy and real, with Fraser yelling and often confused, and McKellen only once allowing himself the pleasure of pure tears. This, combined with Condon's soulful appreciation of the nuances in Whale's work - his obsession with the thick, wintry life-pulse ("It's alive! It's alive!") - makes Gods and Monsters occasionally valuable.

American History X was directed by British adman Tony Kaye, who once spent eight hours, motionless, waiting for the mouse to sit down next to the cat and the bulldog while making an advert for British Gas. Kaye took so long cutting his film (14 months) that its star, Edward Norton, re-edited the whole thing himself. Kaye went berserk, accusing Norton of being a "narcissistic dilettante". And he claims that Norton's American History X bears no resemblance to the one he struggled for, which is a convenient boast, because the film is rotten.

Norton plays a young, middle-class American neo-Nazi. He is canny and articulate, but the film has him murdering a black man one night in front of his impressionable younger brother (Edward Furlong). After some years in prison, Norton emerges changed, determined to save Furlong, who is now a member of Norton's one-time gang of racist activists.

I don't want to pay American History X any more attention than its brattish genesis has already encouraged. In brief: its black characters are patronised (all wit or all pathos); its psychology is crappy ("Hate is baggage"); and its showdown between the reformed Norton and his thundery former pals as threatening as a scene from West Side Story. Kaye has shot the whole thing as he might an advert for expensive trainers, right down to the black-and-white triumph on the basketball court and Norton grieving over his violent tattoos in wistful moments after a shower.

In Payback, Mel Gibson plays a small-time crook whose wife (Deborah Kara Unger) and colleague (Gregg Henry) rob him and leave him for dead, moments after a heist. Soon Gibson returns, stealthy and sour, and takes on Henry's new employers - Kris Kristofferson and his mob - to retrieve his cash. Payback did badly in the States, because American audiences don't like Mel being resolutely nasty. This is odd, because he was very nasty in all the Lethal Weapon films, forever kicking people and stuffing his badge into his too- small jeans and handling his ratty hair-do.

In fact, he's not that nasty in Payback. But he does smoke like a chimney, which is always a big turn-off for Americans. He smokes so much, you worry for the continuity person who must have spent the whole time watching Mel's progress to the butt. Apart from this, and the film's noirish use of typewriters and warehouses, Payback is savage but uninteresting.

The Rugrats Movie may please fans of the Saturday morning cartoon, which concerns itself with the nappy-related bravura of toddler Tommy Pickles and his baby brother Dillon. The film branches out into rites- of- passage territory with some splendidly lunatic moments, particularly a maternity ward musical set piece which features 20 grizzly-looking newborns peeing in unison to Patti Smith and Iggy Pop.

Mighty Joe Young is a remake of the 1949 film of the same title, a cash-in on King Kong (1933) which was so successful that it saved RKO from liquidation during the Depression. Joe is an enormous ape, discovered in Central Africa then transferred to a Californian animal sanctuary. Like King Kong, Joe has a young, blonde, female companion (Charlize Theron, who gets to be slim in a cream frock, like Fay Wray before her) but there isn't a sexual subtext between the pair in this film. Instead, the quiver is resolutely maternal. It's a surprisingly sweet exercise, rarely collapsing into manipulative schmaltz or even over-tenderness, and rightfully proud of its gobsmacking animatronics.

The Promise (La Promesse) is a tough, forcible drama, made in 1996 by Belgian brothers called Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. Jeremie Renier plays a 15-year-old apprentice mechanic who regularly bunks off his job to help his father (Olivier Gourmet) find shoddy work for illegal immigrants. One man, an African, dies in a scaffolding accident; Renier promises to look after his wife and baby, recently arrived and penniless. Renier comes to adore his new family, but must keep them from his drunken, aggressive father.

The Dardennes owe a lot to Ken Loach. Like Loach's work, The Promise has a brave, bubble-bursting probity, particularly when it looks at how we can unclose ourselves, even at our frailest moments, out of love. It's a positive, humane, thrilling little film.

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