FILM / You promised me a miracle: Leap of Faith (PG) Richard Pearce (US); The Ox (12) Sven Nykvist (Swe); Paris is Burning (no cert) Jennie Livingston (US); Best of the Best 2 (18) Robert Radler (US)

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The Independent Culture
STEVE MARTIN's a dab hand at playing wild and crazy guys, but when he takes on complex characters he becomes a prickly, unappealing screen presence. In Grand Canyon, he was a schmucko producer of ultra-violent exploitation movies; in Leap of Faith he's a sleazy con-man turned revivalist preacher. Neither character is comfortable with himself, and the actor doesn't have the knack of making us, the audience, understand and like them.

The film starts smartly. Martin's travelling show is stopped for speeding, and brilliantly parlays the arrest into another slick born-again conversion. His knack is to pierce the souls of his victims with the help of God and high technology. The film cross-cuts between the gospel singers and dry ice, and the backstage management. Here, armed with a computer and radio mike, his assistant (Debra Winger) feeds him information about the audience: there is alcoholism, arthritis and unemployment; the girl in the glitter jeans is knocked up, though she'd as soon Martin didn't mention that. His dyed-blonde, sequin-tuxedo'd on-stage performance offers the movie's most manic moments with its odd, scurrying little bursts of dancing and 'miracles' effected not so much with a laying on of hands as a robust shove in the stomach.

The movie's dramatic premise is promising too. The sideshow has fetched up in impoverished Kansas (the director, Richard Pearce, already has two solid rural dramas in his filmography, Country and Heartland). Martin milks the local suckers while the sheriff (Liam Neeson) tries to run him out of town; these people need bread, not circuses. The Bible-basher objects, slightly irrelevantly under the circumstances, that they'd pay a mighty lot more for a seat to a Broadway show.

But the two strands don't mesh. There you are, wanting to laugh along with Martin, bask in his insincere twinkle, relax and enjoy the scams (the film's closing credits include a 'cons and frauds consultant'). But there he is, suddenly baring an unhappy childhood and a conscience. On the other hand, you can't get involved with the townsfolk either - two desultory sub- plots involve an unconvincing Winger-Neeson romance, and Martin's vain attempt to bed a local belle (Lola Davidovich) by befriending her crippled brother. None of these characters gets enough screen time to command much interest. And the story, which starts out bursting with dark satire and healthy cynicism, abruptly draws in its horns; before we know it, a deus ex machina, Kansas-corny conclusion has crept up on us, asserting that, hey, miracles can happen after all.

There are no fake wonders in The Ox, a fierce, simple fable directed by Sven Nykvist, one of the world's stellar cinematographers. In 19th- century Sweden, a village wastes away with famine. A young labourer, listening to his baby daughter's cries, watching his neighbour's ox grazing outside his window, is seized with resolution. He fells the beast with an axe, and is seized with guilt. Discovery seems inevitable.

Nykvist makes sure his film looks faultless, a succession of carefuly composed images radiant with clear, cold Northern light. But he doesn't lose sight of his characters or narrative, a true story from his grandfather - who was not the starving labourer but the farmer whose ox was slaughtered and who found himself unable to forgive the crime. That typifies Nykvist's approach, which understands the motives of each player in his little tragedy. His film has a line-up of Ingmar Bergman's regular actors (Liv Ullman, Max von Sydow, Erland Josephson) and bears superficial resemblances to Bergman's harsh vision: Nykvist has shot 22 of the master's films. But this is a benign view of human nature - his characters aren't bitter, sexually uptight and tortured as Bergman's so often are, but loving and kind, their essential goodness twisted, but not snuffed out, by impossible conditions.

Paris is Burning, Jennie Livingston's documentary about New York's drag balls, has already been seen on TV shorn of about 20 minutes, and, although this 'remix' is entertaining and thought-provoking, one feels the shorter version would be preferable: its subjects are engaging, outrageously narcissistic poseurs who just lurve performing to camera and are allowed rather to outstay their welcome. The film explores the 'balls' - actually fashion shows, with the participants, mainly gay minority men, expertly impersonating their favourite fantasy from the straight world - military men, buppie executives, schoolgirls, fashion models (with the older generation of drag queens looking on sceptically from under thick curtains of false eyelashes). The film is a comprehensive, if dated, tour through a subculture which, thanks to the ministrations of Madonna, has long since passed into the semi- mainstream.

Michael Medved must have abhorred Best of the Best 2, if he has deigned to review this jumped-up martial arts video flick, which in a way is a kind of recommendation. Chris Penn (from Reservoir Dogs) is an unlikely karate whizz who has to conduct all his fights in a dayglo jumpsuit to conceal his paunch. Eric Roberts twitches. Ralph Moeller glowers as the obligatory evil Ubermensch. Among a galaxy of impressively lousy performances, Wayne Newton stands out as the toupeed MC of an illegal fighting club - a sort of Vegas Terry Wogan oozing forced, ebullient bonhomie while his contestants rip the living daylights out of each other.

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