Film: Insecticide is the coward's way out

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Mimic Guillermo del Toro (15) n Journey to the Beginning of the World Manoel de Oliveira (U)

Ponette Jacques Doillon (15) Girls' Night Nick Hurran (15) Palmetto Volker Schlondorff (15) Going All the Way Mark Pellington (15)

IN THE new horror film Mimic, giant mutant cockroaches are roaming subway tunnels in search of human flesh, a scenario which will have special resonance for anyone who has travelled on the Northern line recently. Mira Sorvino is the entomologist who, having inadvertently created this species whilst trying to combat another, is called upon to go where no Rentokil operative has gone before - a case of "you've made your cockroach, now squish it". But this isn't your everyday 12-foot-tall bloodthirsty bug; these creatures have an accelerated evolutionary process which has enabled them to assume the form of their predators. America once feared Reds under the beds; now it's roaches in the subway coaches.

Although it has its share of bargain-basement dialogue, Mimic is more poetic and melancholy than killer-bug movies tend to be. This is due to the influence of the Mexican director and co-writer Guillermo del Toro, whose last work was the unexpectedly poignant vampire fable Cronos. His camera intuitively alights on arresting images, but he's also unusually compassionate for a horror director. You really sense that he cares about each of his characters - he doesn't treat any of them like bug food, even if that's all they are. And his tenderness can manifest itself in unlikely places, like the scene where Sorvino and her lover are coating their skin with cockroach excretions to disguise human scent. She bats her eyelids. He gazes back at her. And then she smears insect viscera on his cheek. Aaah. They've got the love bug.

Journey to the Beginning of the World features Marcello Mastroianni final performance; his disposition, wise and sunny but flecked with both mischief and weariness, is unchanged. He still looks like a man who has been benignly trailing heavy luggage for all eternity without complaint. But the picture, by the 90-year-old film-maker Manoel de Oliveira, is a grave disappointment. It's a commentary on life through the travels of Manoel, the elderly director (guess who he's based on?) played by Mastroianni. There's some dreamy travelogue footage, shot from a vehicle's rear window; what with all the talk of death, I felt like I was touring Portugal in the back of an ambulance.

This backwards perspective is typical of the film's fuzzy nostalgia. And it's anchored by increasingly unwieldy symbolism. When Mastroianni strains to grab a burst of blossom on a tree, his friends look on blankly, refusing to lower the branch for him. Why? Because it's symbolic blossom, and a symbolic branch. He's probably got symbolic arthritis too.

The title character of Ponette is a four-year-old girl whose mother dies in a car accident, causing her to reflect on the implications of death. The young Victoire Thivisol shows a preternatural comprehension of acting technique, though it's hard to stifle a distinct discomfort at watching one so young parade such primal emotions. It doesn't help matters that Ponette has nothing very sophisticated to say about grief or childhood. Perhaps the film's failure to engage comes down to the fact that when adults are good, they're very, very good, but when children are good, they're just creepy.

Death again in Girls' Night, in which Brenda Blethyn wins a Bingo jackpot and then discovers that she has a brain tumour. Sadly, the film isn't making any radical link between Bingo and terminal illness, but rather celebrating the magnificent resilience of chirpy Northern factory workers. Julie Walters plays Blethyn's sister-in-law, and together they jet off to Las Vegas and hang out with Kris Kristofferson, who plays a wrinkled rodeo rider, before it's time for the final "ta-ra". This pedestrian weepie stoops to unalloyed sadism in its quest to break your heart.

Palmetto is film noir by numbers. Woody Harrelson plays a writer who gets mixed up with a blonde vixen (Elisabeth Shue). From there, it's two hours of high heels, swag-bags and bodies in trunks, all thrown together by director Volker Schlondorff (The Tin Drum), and with most of the fun spoiled by the fact that you're at least five steps ahead of the hero.

There are some imaginative visual interpretations of mental chaos in Going All the Way but this is a largely reductive rites of passage story, with two soldiers (Jeremy Davies and Ben Affleck) returning home to 1950s America and disillusionment. With Spanking the Monkey and this, Davies is cornering the market in dysfunctional young men who masturbate a lot and lust after older women. Sure, it's his career, but something tells me this is a dead-end street.

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