Cinema: Love is ... kicking your drug habit

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The Independent Culture
High Art (18)

Lisa Cholodenko; 101 mins

The Red Violin (15)

Francois Girard; 130 mins

A Civil Action (15)

Steven Zaillian; 115 mins

Bedrooms & Hallways (15)

Rose Troche; 96 mins

Orgazmo (18)

Trey Parker; 90 mins

Slam (15)

Marc Levin; 99 mins

No (12)

Robert Lepage; 85 mins

Cast your mind back, if you can bear it, to the Bratpack films of the 1980s - Bad Boys, St Elmo's Fire, The Breakfast Club. One of the stars of that genre was Ally Sheedy, always cast as the character less attractive than Demi Moore, even then showing signs of a trying, flesh- bearing neediness.

I never bought Sheedy as the plain one. She was thin and did a sexy thing with her chin; she acted with her chin in fact, using it to prod out her lines like someone who would never dribble their soup. After years spent making rubbishy television films, Sheedy returns to the big screen in High Art, one of the best films you'll see this year.

Sheedy finds a uniqueness in every commonplace movement and articulation. She plays Lucy Berliner, a one-time successful photographer living in a New York apartment with her German lover (Patricia Clarkson). Lucy's trust fund supports their heroin habit, and the flat is forever full of friends, sinking through their days, cancelling doubts and loneliness with drug chatter. Lucy meets her neighbour, Syd (Radha Mitchell), a pretty editor at a smartarse New York art magazine, who persuades her to indulge in a kind of comeback by taking a photograph for the cover. The pair become lovers, and for the first time in years, Lucy dares to imagine a life of tenderness and clarity. But first she must deal with her catalogue of addictions.

Writer-director Lisa Cholodenko's debut film is careful, watchful, and almost entirely successful. There really isn't one superfluous scene, one redundant line. That isn't to say the film is hog-tied to logicality, to compression and academic emphasis. In fact High Art is fully emotional, and its concern for people working out the nature of intimacy is profound. More than in any other film of late, Cholodenko rightly promotes love as a kind of recognition - a pure but quizzical moment of self-confidence and self-effacement, this letting a stranger hold your future.

The Red Violin begins in Italy in 1693. A master violin-maker, Nicolo Bussotti, varnishes his finest instrument with the blood of his young wife, who died after a difficult birth. Just before her death, the tarot cards predicted a long life - a not altogether false prophesy considering the life of the violin that would soon wear her blood. The film follows the instrument's progress from keeper to keeper - a child prodigy in a German orphanage, an Oxford-based virtuoso, a cadet-leader in China's Cultural Revolution and its rediscovery by a music expert played by Samuel L Jackson. Each section of Francois Girard's multilingual film is a pristine unit (he made Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould). The most winning is the one devoted to orphan Kaspar Weiss (Christoph Koncz, who actually plays). Scrappy-haired and small, he saws away, breathing deep, his metronomic heartbeat enormous and startling.

A Civil Action stars John Travolta in the true story of a flash Boston attorney. He's approached by eight rural families who blame toxic dumping by their local tannery for the death of their children from leukaemia. Travolta agrees to take the case after uncovering the powerful corporations behind the contamination, and is soon obsessed, risking his financial status, and the life of his firm in the process.

The film is written by Steve Zaillian, who scripted Schindler's List, and it's similarly conscientious and searching. It examines how American law firms operate, and how so many of them must win all manner of shoddy cases in order to make ends meet. Travolta's character is not unlike Oskar Schindler - at first obsessed with profit margins and then exploding with soul-purging generosity. The film is worthwhile and unusual - as big-budget courtroom dramas go - with its air of melancholy, and the lack of a showdown in the dock.

Bedrooms & Hallways is another below-par British comedy in the spirit of This Year's Love. Kevin McKidd plays a thirtysomething gay man living in a warehouse apartment with gay friend Tom Hollander (squandered) and busty Scot Julie Graham. At his men's group, hosted by New Age obsessive Simon Callow, McKidd falls for an ostensibly heterosexual Irishman (James Purefoy) who is soon visiting his bed.

Robert Farrar's script is worryingly muddled. It pretends to deconstruct sexual diversity, but plumps for the clumsy notion that we ultimately choose our sexuality, and must mix and match as the mood takes us. This is no uncomplex boast, and one that demands a far less parochial grip on psychology than Farrar's to make any real sense.

Orgazmo is a silly comedy from the makers of South Park. A Mormon boy (Trey Parker, who also directs) visits the city, reinvents himself as a porn star, and assists in the invention of the Orgazmatron (thank you, Woody Allen), a ray-gun which produces instant orgasm. Badly executed and belligerently sarcastic, it's a crude, toneless piece.

A Sundance prize-winner, Slam follows a black street poet (Saul Williams, real-life poet) as he hedges fame and favour. Shot in nine days by documentary- maker Marc Levin, it's a sometimes bizarre combination of truth and posturing, with the charismatic Williams always holding impressive court.

Robert Lepage's third film, No, is born from his theatre piece, The Seven Streams of the River Ota. At a 1970 World Fair in Osaka, Japan, a French-Canadian diplomat tries his luck with a woman whose boyfriend is plotting against martial law in Quebec. It's a purposefully farcical venture, always fun, and very much worthy of Lepage - one of the great shard-gatherers of European film.

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