Film: Also Showing

The Slums of Beverly Hills Tamara Jenkins (15) n The Wisdom of Crocodiles Po-Chih Leong (18) If Only Maria Ripoll (15) n The Philadelphia Story George Cukor (U)

IF YOU'VE ever wondered what a "dingbat" is then look no further than Slums of Beverly Hills, a modest and very likeable rites-of-passage movie written and directed by first-timer Tamara Jenkins. As 15-year-old Vivian (Natasha Lyonne) explains, dingbats are crummy two-storey apartments, the sort of place where her father (Alan Arkin) tends to install Vivian and her two brothers amid the grubbier districts of Beverly Hills.

The arrival of favourite cousin Rita (Marisa Tomei), a recovering addict, brings the girl some much-needed female company and a useful primer in the joys of the vibrator. While the genre material (loss of virginity, sibling conflict, climactic family bust-up) and the period (the Seventies, of course) have been heavily overworked, Jenkins personalises the story through her forgiving tone, helped no end by Arkin's gruffly affectionate father, Tomei's wayward Rita and Natasha Lyonne's precociously composed heroine.

The Wisdom of Crocodiles opens with the image of a mangled car perched in a tree, and proceeds to scale ever higher towards the inexplicable and absurd. Jude Law plays Steven Grlscz, a vampire with a difference: he needs not just the blood of the young women he preys on but their love too. Talk about fussy! His latest target is an alluring beauty named Anna (Elina Lowensohn), who's impressed by the way Steven can sketch upside down and quote from the Song of Solomon, little suspecting he's north London's answer to Bela Lugosi.

In the meantime, two police detectives (Timothy Spall and Jack Davenport) are pursuing inquiries into the disappearance of Steven's last girlfriend. Just when you think their investigation is warming up, the film decides to drop them from view altogether. This plot-hole might have been noteworthy if the director's grip on realism were not so tenuous elsewhere. The Wisdom of Crocodiles might have got away with being laughable; the fact that it's funded by an Arts Council grant makes it deplorable too.

For her debut feature If Only Maria Ripoll deploys the same parallel universe gimmick as Sliding Doors. Struggling actor Victor (Douglas Henshall) is maundering over ex-girlfriend Sylvia (Lena Headey), who's about to get married. By the magical intervention of two Hispanic dustmen, Victor is allowed to wipe the slate clean and start over, but his second chance goes awry when he falls in love with Louise (Penelope Cruz) and Sylvia begins an affair with Dave (Mark Strong).

Set around the more photogenic reaches of Notting Hill, the film is the latest in a line of British romantic comedies that want very badly to be the next Four Weddings and a Funeral. The usual shortcomings undo it: over-eagerness to please, synthetic characterisation, and a script that just isn't up to snuff.

Considering it's an accredited classic of light comedy, The Philadelphia Story (1940) doesn't have that many brilliant lines. Its appeal lies rather in the impeccable timing of the repartee, the graceful playing and the sense of civilised fun that director George Cukor sparks from the tale of a society wedding that threatens to implode. Katharine Hepburn plays the haughty, priggish belle set to marry a respectable dullard when her ex-husband (Cary Grant) shows up to make mischief - and quietly save Hepburn's father from press scandal. Enter a reporter from Spy magazine (James Stewart) with photographer (Ruth Hussey) in tow and all the elements of a swooning romantic farce are in place. This was the only time Grant and Stewart appeared on screen together.

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