Film: The hunks who lost America

Ride With the Devil (15) Ang Lee; 140 mins East is East (15) Damien O'Donnell; 96 mins Jakob the Liar (12) Peter Kassovitz; 119 mins The Out-of-Towners (12) Sam Weisman; 90 mins Following (12) Christopher Nolan; 70 mins The Story of O (18) Just Jaeckin; 95 mins

Whether exploring Taiwan-ese, English or American manners (The Wedding Banquet, Sense and Sensibility, The Ice Storm) Ang Lee is famous for his neat-as-a-pin, strange-as-an- ocean subtlety. And yet, from the moment Jake (Tobey Maguire) ambles into view in Ride With the Devil, you just know he's going to be a goodie. As flabby-chinned as an infant, trusting and saucer-eyed, he's plainly a boy whom a series of traumatic events will turn into a man.

And so it proves. The traumatic events are supplied by the American Civil War - Missouri-born Jake is of German stock, which naturally links him to the Unionists, but his pal Jack (Skeet Ulrich) encourages him to join up with a boisterous gang of pro-Confederates. Once among them, he forms an unlikely (ie inevitable) friendship with Daniel Holt (Jeffrey Wright), a former slave whose affection for his old master keeps him on the Confederate side. Gradually, this penchant for loyalty brings the two outsiders together ...

With the brilliantly unsettling Ice Storm in mind, you look to the impassive Holt for emotional shocks. But no. Jake's friend is perfect material for those who think there are two kinds of black men, the uppity wisecrackers of the modern day and the quietly dignified foils of the past. We know Holt is virtuous because he's prepared to sacrifice his life for our hero; because he has a non-existent sex drive; and, most importantly, because although he appreciates his freedom when it comes, he doesn't seek it out. This is Huckleberry Finn territory, sure enough. But Mark Twain introduced all sorts of oddities through that white child-black man partnership, dragged us beneath his characters' skins. Jake and Holt are, among other things, simply too bland.

The dialogue belongs to the Dan Quayle spell-it-out school: "It ain't right, it ain't wrong, it just is," concludes Jake at one point. As if seeking relief from his non-characters (only country girl Sue Lee Shelley - played by the singer Jewel - looks, with her burnt-popcorn teeth, as if she belongs in Missouri), Lee turns to the beautiful countryside, but even this feels over-familiar. Yes, it takes your breath away, but so do exquisitely shot calendars. Early on in the film, Jake notes that the Yankees will pay dearly for their "belief in appearances". I wonder if audiences will make Ang Lee pay for his.

East is East has been done no favours by a campaign which plugs it as the new Full Monty. The Seventies Salford-set tale of a Pakistani father, George (Om Puri), his English wife (Linda Bassett) and their seven unruly children, it's both better and worse than that would suggest. The most joyous moments in British cinema recently have involved people lip-synching to music, but whereas The Full Monty used this device to provide a predictably rousing finale, East is East scatters its treasures (tomboyish daughter Meena performs a gloriously caffeinated parody-tribute to Bollywood) while going for something far more hard-earned at the end. It also boasts more adventurous camerawork (this is a world seen not head-on, but through cracks and irregularly shaped holes) and a skew-whiff, fags'n'cussing humour worthy of The Royle Family.

But it compares unfavourably to The Full Monty in its treatment of peripheral female characters. The greatest sin in East is East is to be a demanding, sexually undesirable woman (facial hair is a no-no). That this is true is puzzling, given that so much attention is paid to the taboos surrounding sexuality. One of the film's gags involves a vagina sculpted by Puri's son Saleem, which horrifies his father's uptight friends. East is East is a bold British film, but when it comes to women, it does Alf Garnett proud.

Robin Williams and the Holocaust sounds like a match made in Hell. It is. Jakob the Liar matches Life is Beautiful for cheap sentimentality (tearful Jewish clown, saintly, mute wife, shiny-eyed kid) but, unlike the latter, can't distract us with the originality of its concept. We can only despair that Williams had the clout to get it made. The Out-of- Towners, a remake of the Jack Lemmon-Sandy Dennis comedy, is about a couple of Ohio squares (Goldie Hawn and Steve Martin) who get kicked out of their fiftysomething rut by good old New York. The irony, of course, is that it's Martin and Hawn who are in a rut, churning out glossy goo like this. One gag stands out. "If you're over 40 you're not cutting- edge!" wails Martin, revealing that he's been fired. "But that' s ridiculous," coos his sympathetic wife. "You were never cutting-edge".

Twenty-nine-year-old Christopher Nolan has attracted a lot of attention with his debut, Following, but it's hard to know why. A grey-and-white treatise on gullibility and illusion, it works best when it's out of doors, capturing the hollowness of London's busy streets. Inside, it struggles too hard for a gritty noir feel and, paradoxically, the atmosphere turns as flat as a daytime quiz show.

Banned for 25 years, Just Jaeckin's The Story of O is a hymn to female masochism that manages to be silly and illuminating at the same time. Look out for one of the "exotic" maidens attending young O (Corinne Clery). Round-shouldered and glum, Andree appears to be weighed down by three invisible bags of shopping. She finally decides to get out of the pain game and hug a tree instead. The Story of O breaks the first rule of pornography. It's got characters you can love.

Antonia Quirke returns next week

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