Film: Also Showing

inspector gadget david kellogg (u) n anna and the king andy tennant (12) n cotton mary ismail merchant (15) cinema paradiso (pg) n the legend of 1900 both giuseppe tornatore (15) n hold back the night phil davis (15)
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AS WITH buses, so with films.

Inspector Gadget, the week's second picture about a virtuous mechanical man, is not actually a cartoon, but it's based on one and is as close as "live action" gets to animation.

Thanks to director David Kellogg, it whizzes through a flimsy plot - dumb-but-decent security guard Matthew Broderick gets turned into gizmo wizard by beautiful scientist Joely Fisher and finds himself the number- one target of evil billionaire Rupert Everett - shaking its knowing booty all the while. Snipes are taken at Disney, Saturday-morning cartoons and Madonna; the language is crisp and Everett manages to suggest what a good Bond he'd make if only people would stop associating camp with wickedness. Trouble is, like the Pompidou centre, Inspector Gadget wears all its intelligence on the outside. You're never tempted to poke around within, and by the time you've left the cinema, you can barely remember a thing about it.

What does everyone love about The King and I? The Rodgers & Hammerstein songs, of course. So it may seem a little perverse for Andy Tennant to revisit this territory - minus the music - with Anna and the King.

Tennant is that sort of director, though. As with Fools Rush In and Ever After, his previous, deeply laborious attempts at "liberal" romantic comedy, he's not content to entertain. In this case, he wants the story of a no-nonsense governess, Anna (Jodie Foster), who arrives in Siam to teach the king's son English and ends up discovering love, to highlight issues about race and class.

Foster is not the woman to bring such pedagogy to life. If you watch her face it's like she's being pecked at by invisible and malicious birds. They've dug dark caves beneath her eyes and left only a strip of flesh for a smile, and while that's fine for her early scenes - she's supposed to be harassed and "hidden" - it's a disaster for those moments when we're supposed to watch her melt. Poor Chow Yun-Fat, as King Mongkut, deserves better. Thanks to him, Siam's "progressive" despot appears intelligent, oppressive and loveable all at the same time (his hair, which sticks up at the back like a duck's tail, adds to the effect).

And in that sense, Tennant is also to be congratulated. His desire to make us understand Mongkut may bore conservatives and frustrate radicals (while Harriet Beecher Stowe's revisionist classic, Uncle Tom's Cabin, is constantly invoked, Mongkut often appears too much of an "Uncle Tom") but something solid remains.

The film, through Anna, defends Mongkut's right not to be judged by the money-grabbing West. Replace Siam with modern-day China and the fact that Mongkut "gets away" with beheading two Buddhists seems genuinely controversial.

Also concerned with the pernicious effects of imperialism is Ismail Merchant's Cotton Mary. Here, though, the native at the heart of the tale has little power. Cotton Mary (Madhur Jaffrey) is an ambitious hospital nurse of mixed race - her mother was Indian, her father British - who saves the life of a white baby by having her sister wet-nurse it. In return, the baby's mother, Lily Macintosh (Greta Scacchi), effectively concedes control of her family, which includes a caddish husband, John (James Wilby), and bewildered seven-year-old daughter, Theresa (Laura Lumley). Mary abuses this trust with gusto.

Jaffrey has great fun with a role that Anna Magnani would have loved, and Scacchi gives off a sleepy misery that's hypnotic. The problem lies with Alexandra Viets's screenplay, obviously based on her own experience as a privileged white child in India, which only gives us insight into Mary in flashes and goes way too easy on Lily. If the makers of Cotton Mary were prepared to acknowledge that this is Theresa's story, such a bias would make sense, but, for the most part, they seek to present the film's point of view as objective. Mary schemes against the family's loyal servant, Abraham, who's known Lily since she was a child, and hires in his place a drunken brute. Mary's link to dissolute chaos is clear - but are we really expected to believe in Abraham's saintliness, or the idea that Lily's family was worthy of it?

Events are always threatening to turn grand guignol (Mary's sister sports both baby-girl ribbons and a wheelchair). Somehow, though, Merchant keeps a brake on the wheels and, for all its faults, Cotton Mary leaves a satisfyingly nasty taste in the mouth.

As the re-release of Cinema Paradiso shows, Giuseppe Tornatore used to be an efficient director. The gruff projectionist (Philippe Noiret) and frog-legged little hero, Toto, may come sugar-coated, but at least they looked as if they belonged in their environment. The double-act in The Legend of 1900, Tornatore's latest, stick out like prosthetic thumbs. Tim Roth is a genius pianist who has lived all his life on an ocean cruiser; Pruitt Taylor Vince the trumpeter who falls in love with his gift and tries to lure him on to dry land. Vince looks particularly uncomfortable with the gushy lines (this is an ode to flattery, not friendship). Roth just hams it up. As for the atmosphere - think Only Fools and Horses meets Titanic.

In Hold Back the Night, newcomer Christine Tremarco plays a damaged Northern teenager running away from a host of unwholesome secrets. Tremarco is suitably vital and obnoxious, but we've seen a host of actresses (most obviously Samantha Morton) do this part before. Stuart Sinclair Blyth, meanwhile, can do nothing with Declan, the boil-in-a-bag hippie who encourages Charleen to take to the hills. Declan is endlessly patient with Charleen, but it's hard to be endlessly patient with him. Ditto the upper-class rebel (Sheila Hancock) who keeps turning up just in the nick of time with her sturdy van. Hancock maintains her dignity - but only just.