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FILM / Grunge gets grimier in the gutters of Seattle

BY THE end of American Heart (15) you may wonder if the title is a contradiction in terms. British director Martin Bell's first feature is set in the same seedy Seattle backwaters as was his documentary, Streetwise. Floating into this stagnant pond is Jeff Bridges' Jack, straight out of the slammer and sporting a ponytail and a physique that looks as if it has been honed on prison boredom. With him is his teenage son, Nick (Edward Furlong), a moody, mistrustful boy with a permanent frown of wounded innocence. Together they start a new life in this pitiless, dingy city. There's not been a dirtier film all year: from the peeled walls of the pair's rented apartment to the desultory buskers outside. You feel after a while like getting up to wash your hands.

The film is balanced between the father and son. As Jack builds a new life going straight, Nick is lured by the bent underworld. In his red-necked, unschooled way, the father is trying to give his son the life he never had. Jack has always been a drifter, running from a memory which flickers in black and white throughout the film. Jeff Bridges, with his smirky smile and uncomplicated charm, gives a portrait of a man who has never grown up. With his parole officer, he sounds like a child in front of teacher, reaching for the grandest word he knows, and getting it wrong - 'Why pronasticate? We're working on a relationship.'

Peter Silverman's script, full of such sly insights, hums with a rich, gutter demotic. When Bridges gets robbed of his savings, he pleads with his landlady: 'Can you cut me a bit of rhythm on that. I've just got beat.' But at times you wish there was no script at all. The film is most compelling cruising the criminal underclass with Nick. He hangs out with a 15-year-old prostitute, and we get to see the desperate gaiety of her band of hookers and transvestites, a sort of street carnival of vice.

When the drama does take over, it's hampered by 16-year- old Furlong, who plays a single, slightly drippy note. 'I can't tell if it's an act or he's a sad kid,' Jack's girlfriend comments, and we have the same ambivalence. Silverman and Bell bring the film to a predictable tragic climax, but by then it has provided enough of the unexpected and unexplored to make the film stand out. The soundtrack leans heavily on Tom Waits, and at its best the film has the same boozy, heartfelt bravado.

Addams Family Values (PG) has disappointed at the American box office, which must puzzle its distributors, Paramount, after the original's success: the theory is that though a lot of people went to see The Addams Family, not many liked it. Ironically, they're now missing a better film. This time, there's even something close to a plot. Uncle Fester, who, early on, we see howling from the mansard roof into the inky sky, is seduced by gold-digging nanny Joan Cusack. Meanwhile Morticia (Anjelica Huston) has given birth to a new child, Pubert, and the other children, set on infanticide, have been sent off to camp.

By far the best scenes are here, where the two Addams kids dissent from the American way of play with the gloomy disdain of morgue attendants at a Fourth of July party. Thirteen- year-old Christina Ricci steals the show as Wednesday, dripping acid one-liners over her sickly-sweet companions. With her grave, compelling beauty, this girl actually looks like an Addams drawing - she has the forehead for it, a broad plane that seems to house the brain of a superior species. She gives her lines morbid conviction, unlike her bland parents, Raul Julia and Anjelica Huston.

Director Barry Sonnenfeld worked as cinematographer for the Coen Brothers, and has clearly acquired from films like Blood Simple and Miller's Crossing a feel for contemporary gothic. The Addams family always have the right deathly grandeur, even if, when they speak, they often mangle some of Addams's best gags. Sonnenfeld's neatest jokes are visual, creating a humorous, black- and-white contrast between Addams sobriety and worldly cheer: the pallid Addams kids, in their pitchy rags, make mockery of the wholesome camp kids, a row of blond bobs and glinting teeth-braces. Such moments are the closest we get to the discreet wit of Charles Addams's Indian ink.

The Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu was born on this day in 1903 and died exactly 60 years later, with almost as many films as years to his name. The dual anniversary is commemorated by a season at the Renoir, the highlight of which, Tokyo Story (U), runs for the next fortnight. An elderly couple visit their daughter and son in Tokyo, but are only warmly received by another son's widow, and she again is the only one to show true filial piety when the old woman dies. Within this sparse framework, Ozu ruminates on the city and the country, the new Tokyo, the ties of family, and the binds of life. It's the sort of film in which pensees such as 'Isn't life disappointing?' sound profound rather than platitudinous, springing from layers of feeling. Ozu's style, with its steady camera, is both rigorous and elegant, objective and sympathetic. It is worth making the acquaintance of this unassuming master.

The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb (12) is a featurelength 3-D animation. Tiny Tom, with his bald head and sad eyes, has the same appeal as ET, both foetus-like and ancient. Soon ET meets the The Trial, as Tom is whisked away in a box by men from the ministry. The plot then becomes labyrinthine without being very interesting, suggesting the film might have worked better in its original 10-minute form. Still, the visual invention never flags, especially the use of pixilation to give live actors an unsettling, juddering cartoon life.