CINEMA / The shape of things to come in the digital domain

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CHARLES RUSSELL's The Mask (PG) is an adventure-comedy crafted out of the future. Seeing it may make you feel like that startled audience, nearly 100 years ago, who first watched Louis Lumiere's image of a train and, when it hurtled towards them, as relentless and palpable as a nightmare, fled the cinema in fright. The Mask isn't that scary, yet it is a vision of cinema to come that may appal some viewers, even as it dazzles them. It takes a step further the computer sorcery of Robert Zemeckis's Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988), which allowed cartoon figures and actors to interact. The Mask's hero switches between flesh-and-blood mortality and cartoon malleability with polymorphous aplomb. When computers are so dextrous, what price human invention? The microchips are down for the movies.

The Mask is a hybrid of ancient and ultra-modern. Its plot is straight out of comic-book history, with a glance at ancient myth. A shy young bank clerk, Stanley Ipkiss (Jim Carrey), finds an antique mask in the sea. It turns out to have magical properties, transforming the wearer into a phantom representation of his own id. After whirling like a turbo- charged spinning-top for a few seconds, sober Stan is changed into a garishly zoot-suited extrovert, his face fluorescent green, his limbs elasticised, his eyes capable of jumping out a foot in front of his face. As The Mask, he foils a robbery at his own bank. But his dim recollection of it leads to his being suspected by the police of the crime. DC Comics meets Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

Part of the film's success lies in its ability to top even its most spectacular effects, without reaching overkill. The producers of this new breed of movie are modern-day Diaghilevs, constantly demanding the Nijinsky of their technology to astonish them - and us. Stan graduates from simple stuff, such as bouncing off the ground unscathed after falling from a high window, to a command performance, in which he mutates into a series of film icons - Clark Gable, Elvis Presley, Popeye - while evading a gangster's bullets. Later he returns bullets with interest, firing them from his mouth, as if spitting out olive stones. When he is told by a policeman to freeze, he transforms himself into an ice-statue, dripping stalactites.

All this is as sophisticated a display of technical wizardry as you are likely to see these days, and yet probably quite crude in terms of the form's ultimate evolution. That may be a mercy, as it allows some breathing space for humanity. Beneath The Mask there is still room for a performance from Carrey, who in his second successive hit (after Ace Ventura, Pet Detective) establishes himself as one of the cinema's most extraordinary performers - which is to say that he is strange, and sometimes brilliant, rather than a comic genius. This role is a natural for him as he already resembles a human cartoon. He has a screen bond with animals - here he has a lap-dog sidekick called Milo - which hints at the rawness of his comedy, its tendency to strip away pretence. Like The Mask itself, Carrey belongs to the future. With his sallies out of character - the anarchic streak which has beguiled young movie-goers - he acts like a man who has seen through movies, or perhaps beyond them.

Success has been a long road for Carrey, who is 32. For his co-star, Cameron Diaz, it has been a short stroll from the catwalk. Making her film debut, as the nightclub chanteuse who is Carrey's love interest, she acts only competently, but her luminous beauty and long legs do the rest. Dancing in a wisp of a skirt, she makes Cyd Charisse look stumpy. There's also a smart villain (Orestes Matacena), who plays golf shots off tees held between his victims' teeth. Most of his scenes go with a swing.

The Mask works as much through such sly touches and an agile script (by Mike Werb) as through its special effects. At your local multiplex, it follows True Lies, which uses computers to plumb new depths of mayhem, and precedes Forrest Gump, in which Robert Zemeckis uses them to introduce fictional characters to figures from the past. The possibilities of this type of film-making are enormous, and so are the dangers. It will need directors of Zemeckis's genius to make the wizardry relevant to our lives. Otherwise, we may in decades to come pine for movies like The Mask as examples of a cinema that was human.

Public Access (no cert) is the latest of the National Film Theatre's showcase launches of new films, and by a long way the best. Directed and co-written by 27-year-old Bryan Singer, it won the Grand Jury Prize at last year's Sundance Festival. In his hero, Whiley Pritcher (Ron Marquette), Singer has created one of the most intriguing figures in recent American film. The very name has a Dickensian suggestiveness, with its hints at guile and preachiness. When Whiley arrives one fine day in Brewster, a typical small American town, we sense he might be anything. He could be a saint or Satan. He sets up a public- access television show, a phone-in, which he presents in yuppie suit and specs. A thin smile plays on his lips, as he invites folk to tell him 'what's wrong with Brewster'.

As the calls mount up, the scales fall from our eyes, and both Brewster and Whiley are shown to be less than savoury. Brewster is rife with corruption and prejudice, and Whiley is too obsessed with the strange power he has over people to notice or care. Shades of David Lynch, of course; but also of J B Priestley's play An Inspector Calls, Clint Eastwood's High Plains Drifter and Steven Soderbergh's sex, lies and videotape - of mysterious strangers, trailing apocalypse or salvation.

As Whiley, Ron Marquette has a little of the brooding fascination of John Turturro. Singer follows his every twitch with slow, rapt camera movements, which give Whiley the force of symbol. By the end, I felt that he and his fractious phone-in had come to represent the media - self-important, provocative, blundering and unrepentant. Singer betrays his inexperience with lurches into melodrama, but for the most part this is film-making of the highest promise. Rather more than that: it's one of the best American films of the year.

Highway Patrolman (15) is the first feature release for seven years from Alex Cox, known to many as presenter of BBC2's Moviedrome, but also a director of punkish flair with Repo Man (1984) and Sid and Nancy (1986). Highway Patrolman, made in 1991 in Spanish (such are the financial and distribution struggles of British film-makers), is more conventional, tracing the rites of passage of a young Mexican patrolman (Roberto Sosa). Assigned to what seems a desert ('Even the buzzards feel lonely out here'), he ends up mired in a war with a drugs ring, an affair with a prostitute and a volatile marriage. Sosa, with his scarred but childish face, is a compelling presence, touchingly unsure about flexing his neophyte authority, then slowly souring on life. Cox's direction is by turns brisk and lyrical. But the film feels slight, more resigned than inspired.

Cinema details: Review, page 58.