Film: Also Showing

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A civil action Steve zaillian (15) The faculty Robert rodriguez (15) slam marc levin (15) No robert lepage (15)

the red violin francois girard (15) bedrooms & hallways rose troche (15) orgazmo Trey parker (18)

A CIVIL Action promises a great deal. The fact-based plot is a peach: cynical, cocky and super-successful personal injury lawyer Jan Schlichtmann (John Travolta) takes on a tricky environmental case and all but destroys himself in the process. The acting impressively restrained (Robert Duvall's hammy support turn not included). And Travolta puts everything into the part, his well-heeled,I-can't-be-bothered-to-charm-you smiles bleeding, quite plausibly, into Joe Schmoe impotence (Travolta's tree- trunk neck, forever straining at his white shirt collar, tells a story all in itself).

Writer-director Zaillian doesn't try to distract us with sex or sentiment. There's no alluring woman (even the excellent The Verdict, a similarly bleak study of America's legal system, tried that trick); no big-eyed child breaking our hearts; no adulation awaiting our hero. Unfortunately, Zaillian's so pleased he's managed to avoid these genre cliches that he forgets to put anything in their place. What we get is a wearily literal account of Jan's fall from financial grace and endless, pointless flashbacks. With so little to do, the imagination naturally grows restless. Still, A Civil Action remains a worthy piece, with the rush of satisfied rage provided in the last 10 minutes almost making up for lost time.

The Faculty is the latest self-conscious, cine-literate, comic-horror show from the pen of Kevin Williamson and, while it may not have Scream's roller-coaster pace, it compensates with wit in abundance. Smuggled in via a paranoid sci-fi plot, education is the big issue here. Six mismatched kids, including trendy Zeke, (Josh Hartnett, cuter than the young Marlon Brando) and stroppy Stokely (Clea Duvall, wonderfully heavy of jaw) are pupils at Herrington High, a survival-of-the-fittest hell-hole where the entire school budget goes on the powerhouse football team. Puny teachers barely scrape by (as Salma Hayek's flu-ridden Nurse Harper says, "I'm saving my sick days for when I feel better"). This is the sort of black humour you expect from Jimmy McGovern, not a Hollywood blockbuster.

And Williamson just keeps pushing. When things go bump in the lab, brainy Casey (Elijah Wood) realises his teachers are being replaced by aliens: suddenly the staff look confident, aggressive, even sexy. As a teacher's revenge fantasy, it's good fun. It's also properly unnerving - the teachers haven't challenged the school's Darwinian logic, they've just joined the winning side. At the same time, Williamson avoids moral absolutes. On Friday nights "everybody's at the football stadium". Casey's smart-alec friends are appalled but maybe the noisy majority are on to something. Why should minority interests come first?

The Faculty, in other words, is a fantastically enjoyable treatise on democracy. The pity is that Williamson, along with over-hyped director Robert Rodriguez, can't keep up the good work. You know it's all over when they play "Another Brick in the Wall", the most gormless, anti-teacher rant of all time. By the end of the film, special effects have taken over and virginal Marybeth (Laura Harris) is, for no good reason, wandering around starkers... Presumably this is what "the kids" want to see. As Homer Simpson might say: stupid kids.

Marc Levin's Slam, (which comes laden with prizes from the Sundance and Cannes festivals) follows Ray (Saul Williams), a sensitive lad from a Washington ghetto who gets shoved in jail on a drugs charge, but finds redemption through his rap stylings and the love of a woman (Sonja Sohn).

There's much to irritate here: in order to make Ray sympathetic, he's constantly shown being nice to kids and outcasts (a la American History X, black men have to be saintly if they're to be worthy of our attention). The acting by the two leads, meanwhile, is often OTT and their characters overly symbolic. The sense of claustrophobia inside the prison, though, is sharply dealt - even the shadows in the courtyard have a menacing, mercurial life of their own. And the film teases out some hard answers. Flawed, then, but affecting.

Canada's Robert Lepage is best known for his work in theatre. With No, his follow-up to Le Confessionnal and The Polygraph, it's still unclear why he decided to switch mediums. Set in 1970, in Japan and Quebec, this agreeable tale (boiled down from a seven-hour play), juggles two narratives. In one, an actress performing Feydeau realises sexual attraction is a farce; in the other, her writer boyfriend discovers revolution is, too. The search for identity, cultural and emotional, underpins everything and, though intelligently done, it all feels a bit schematic.

Another offering from Canada, The Red Violin (made by the same team behind Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould), is a costume drama which reveals, in five interwoven parts, the biography of a perfect, but cursed, violin over a period of nearly 400 years. A winsome fairy-tale for adults, its cinematography is ravishing and the music exquisite. But it can't handle passion (there's a ludicrous segment with Jason Flemyng and Greta Scacchi as fiery lovers) and Samuel L Jackson, as a debonair violin expert, is simply wasted.

It's hard to reconcile Rose Troche's London Film Festival hit, Bedrooms & Hallways, with her 1994 debut, Go Fish. Where the first was witty, light and purely cinematic, this one - centred on a confused carpenter (Kevin McKidd), one of a group of bed-hopping, gender-bending thirtysomething living in London - looks made for TV. Watching B&H is a bit like sitting in a luke-warm bath, waiting for someone to turn the hot water back on. The longer you wait, the colder it gets.

Orgazmo, an early work by Trey Parker (creator of cult TV cartoon South Park), is about a Mormon who gets mixed up in the porn business. Parker's a comic genius. But trust me, it's a recent development.

All films are on release from tomorrow

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