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Director: Ventura Pons

Starring: Rose Maria Sarda, Nuria Espert

Cult Spanish director Pons rustles up a googly-eyed bit of cinematic navel-gazing in this ode to the acting lark. Shot back in 1997 (before last year's art-house hit, Caresses), Actresses details the earnest research of Merce Pons's aspiring thespian - interviewing three diverse old hands (Rose Maria Sarda, Nuria Espert, Anna Lizaran) about their life and times in the greasepaint trade. Part acting-masterclass, part locquacious reminiscence, Actresses slowly stews in an ambience of airless, oppressive theatricality. Its performers talk as if they're being paid by the word.



Director: Todd Solondz

Starring: Dylan Baker, Philip Seymour Hoffman

Happiness (above) opens with a forlorn break-up in a New Jersey restaurant, and ends with a little kid ejaculating off a balcony. Inside lies the darkest, richest and most unsettling picture you'll see all year; interleaving a veritable train- wreck of lifelines as Dylan Baker's suburban shrink romps off in dogged pursuit of his son's classmates, Philip Seymour Hoffman makes dirty phonecalls from his bachelor bedsit, and Joy Adams' wan little temp gets ripped off by the Russian cabbie (Jared Harris) who takes her to bed. Writer-director Solondz' everyday monsters are rendered with a queer mix of comedy and compassion. His film lights out for a suburban world at once humdrum-familiar and loopily, horribly surreal. We wouldn't want to live there, yet suspect that - just maybe - we do.



Director: Oliver Parker

Starring: Cate Blanchett, Minnie Driver

Stuffed-shirt politico Sir Robert Chiltern (Jeremy Northam) is held to ransom by Julianne Moore's brittle blackmailer. Wife Cate Blanchett looks on in horror, while louche Rupert Everett and effervescent Minnie Driver provide the comic relief. And so it goes, Oliver Parker's proficient but oddly mechanical overhaul (above) of Oscar Wilde's still-pertinent satire of middle-class hypocrisies; of the friction between the public and private sphere. The stilletto dialogue is rather blurred by the snappy editing and sumptuous design. Bright playing from a starry cast helps to paper over the cracks.



Director: Tony Harrison

Starring: Michael Feast, Walter Sparrow

Tony Harrison's dense and literate film-poem (above right) kicks off with a visit from Hermes (Michael Feast) to a depressed mining town in Yorkshire, before moseying off through the smokestack landscapes of polluted Eastern Europe. Harrison's rigorous, locomotive prose stokes an awkward and overclogged narrative (updating Aeschylus's Prometheus Bound) into life, but it's still too long, too ill-paced, too heavy-handed in its eco-conscious message. Two hours in, and those rhyming couplets start to grate a bit.



Director: Joseph Ruben

Starring: Vince Vaughn, Anne Heche

Eden takes on a definite whiff of sulphur in the course of Joseph Ruben's fact-based saga, as two strutting graduate travellers (Vince Vaughn and David Conrad) are impelled to return to the scene of their former crimes when an erstwhile buddy (Joaquin Phoenix) is busted for drugs possession in Malaysia. A classic morality play in the "what would you do if?" mould, Return to Paradise still conspires to bungle its ready- made drama. Opening out as a taut marriage of Midnight Express and The Beach, its endemic tension seeps away throughout a pedestrian second half. A love angle between Vaughn and Anne Heche's earnest defence lawyer looks tacked on as an afterthought.


Xan Brooks