Cinema: Just an extraordinary Joe

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The Independent Culture
My Name is Joe (15)

Antz (PG)

Snake Eyes (15)

Girls Town (15)

The Players' Club (18)

That Ken Loach. He isn't very New Labour, is he? Not very Full Monty, either. Getting naked to the tune of "You Sexy Thing" wouldn't help the hero of his new film. Joe's story is harder, darker, more cognisant of what poverty is and does than the sentimental tales of amateur strippers and colliery bands that have recently spun social deprivation into box- office gold. There is certainly humour, melodrama and romance in Loach's latest slice of dirty socialist realism, but don't expect any sight- gags with garden gnomes.

Joe (Peter Mullan) is 37, a recovering alcoholic who's been gnawed up with guilt since he drunkenly punched his ex-girlfriend into casualty. Despite the effects of long-term unemployment and cheap vodka, he's succeeded in reinventing himself as a pillar of his local community, a run-down estate in Glasgow. He manages a disastrously incompetent amateur football team and is helping his friend Liam (David McKay), a former heroin dealer, to keep clean and pay off his debts to a loan shark. Much to his surprise, Joe also finds himself falling in love with a social worker (Louise Goodall), an affair that Loach brokers with winning sweetness.

But Joe's acute sense of responsibility is also his downfall. Unable to stand by and watch Liam get his legs broken Joe shoulders some of the debt himself, and is soon doing drug-runs for an unsavoury gang boss. The story makes simple, direct points, showing how easy it is to get into debt when you have no job, and how a bad debt to the wrong person can yield desperate and violent consequences. For the protagonists of My Name is Joe, a payment of pounds 1,500 - the cost of the PC I'm cheerfully typing this on - is the difference between life and death.

Loach's protagonist is a 1990s equivalent of Victorian working-class heroes like Dickens's Stephen Blackpool or Gaskell's John Barton: proletarian good guys whose integrity is undermined by the degrading effects of poverty. It is difficult not to idealise such figures into minor sainthood, but Loach and Mullan conspire to make Joe more than an exemplar of the deserving poor. Paul Laverty's script gives its hero a love of Beethoven's Violin Concerto in D, then reveals that he nicked it from a record shop: the classical tape was the only one he couldn't flog down the pub. And Mullan's deceptively ordinary performance avoids obvious heroics. Joe is a mass of complicated kindness and frustrated rage; superb acting without a single false note.

You go to a Ken Loach movie expecting to learn something, but he also loves to tease you with wry touches that suddenly suggest you're watching Ealing comedy. It's a humour that develops out of the enterprising cheeriness that Loach's characters need in order to stay sane, and the best example of it is the sequence in Raining Stones in which Ricky Tomlinson and friends steal the turf from the lawn of the Conservative club. My Name is Joe has lots of this material: there's a hilarious scene in which Joe and his mate Shanks (Gary Lewis) take on a wallpapering job and - discovering that it is beyond their meagre expertise - unleash a storm of plausible oohing and aahing about subsidence. It's sharper stuff than the mix of farce and sentimentality that made Brassed Off and The Full Monty such big hits. My Name is Joe will break no box-office records, but there's truth in every frame of it.

Woody Allen got dressed up as a sperm for Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex... Now CGI technology has allowed him to become a therapy- addicted hymenopteran insect for Eric Darnell's Antz, a spectacular political parable set in a totalitarian anthill. Allen provides the voice of Z-4195, the neurotic Everyant of his colony, a six-legged equivalent of D-503 in Zamyatin's We. In the tradition of such dystopian narratives, he escapes into an unregulated outside world and discovers that just because he has an exoskeleton, he doesn't need to live like an invertebrate. He receives charity from a pair of WASP-ish wasps, flees from hordes of termites quite as terrifying as the Bugs in Starship Troopers, and finds love with another ant (voiced by Sharon Stone) who is much more attractive than him. Yes, even when he's transformed into a tiny arthropod, Woody Allen is still a dirty old man.

The animation is state-of-the-art, yet you can see that this is a technology that's far from a state of perfection. These creatures have a convincing sense of physical movement (provided by Sylvester Stallone and Gene Hackman, among others). But they don't have any genuine physical texture. This is an awkward halfway point between cartooning and live action, and although it wows this week, you can sense that it will only take a few years for it to become as archaic as Muffin the Mule.

What does give Antz an edge is its keen sense of the microcosmos, and how being the size of an ant makes the world a radically different place. The meniscus of a water-droplet becomes an almost insuperable barrier; a pile of mouldering rubbish becomes an insect's paradise of endless free lunch; a boy concentrating the sun's rays with a magnifying glass becomes a miniature re-enactment of Independence Day. Most Hollywood films tend towards the gargantuan, but this does make for a refreshing change of perspective.

Brian de Palma's new thriller, Snake Eyes, has something important to say: "Watch me, I'm Brian De Palma! See how I keep my Steadicam up for 20 minutes without a cut! See how I leap over doorframes and peer through ceilings!" And indeed he does: images swoop and pitch and yawl, the gaps between cuts get longer, the screen splits in two and alters in shape to meet the narrative's demands. De Palma is - and has in the past been - highly successful in his attempts to push the visual grammar of modern film noir beyond its reliance on rather knackered pastiche, and you only have to watch recent genre efforts like Palmetto or This World then the Fireworks to see what a class act he is.

Though you could believe De Palma's camera was some electronically-augmented spider monkey, there's a flat-packed obviousness about nearly everything else in his film. The plot is some half-digested conspiracy story involving missile systems and a heavyweight boxing champion, about which Jean Claude Van Damme might have had second thoughts. The detective hero, Rick Santoro (Nicolas Cage) uses the expression "sexy lady" without any visible irony. The villain says "negative" instead of "no" to show how calculating he is, and gives a detailed explanation of his plans, complete with extravagant hand movements.

Even the restless camera sometimes falls prey to this tendency. When Rick goes through a moral dilemma about accepting blood money, de Palma has Cage stare at a bloodied $100 bill lying on the carpet. Big shot of Nick Cage's anguished Liza Minnelli eyes. Big shot of stained money. Another big shot of Cage angsting at the Axminster. Considering the technical virtuosity, you can only wonder what went wrong. Maybe someone forgot to recharge the monkey.

Jim McKay's Girls Town is also kicking up against a few generic categories: it's a rape-revenge coming-of-age movie set in a New Jersey school. As one of the characters remarks, "90210 it ain't." Grange Hill meets I Spit on Your Grave it is. The story - three young women (Anna Grace, Bruklin Harris and Lili Taylor) go on a crusade against men who have abused them - is a promising one, but the script, workshopped by the director and his three leads, fails to flesh out the issues it raises, and is almost completely reliant on repetitious slanging matches.

There's a desire to make social comment buried somewhere deep inside The Players' Club, rapper-actor Ice Cube's comic fable about Diana (Lisa Raye), a student who puts herself through college by taking a job in a strip joint. According to the press notes, the movie tells the story of "one woman's struggle to escape from its explosive and unstable environment". Fortuitously, this also allows Cube to pump up the corny soft porn. His interest in the heroine's breasts certainly outweighs his interest in her life and aspirations: he can't be bothered to give us anything but the most lazy dialogue about Diana's desire to be an investigative journalist, but he does invest plenty of energy in her Dynasty-style bitch-fight with an evil lesbian stripper called Ronnie (a monstrously sour Chrystale Wilson).

There is, however, one moment of pithy comment in the film: a scene in which Wilson, in dominatrix mode at a secret policeman's ball, pulls down an officer's trousers and spanks his bottom. "One more time for Rodney King!" she howls. Ouch.