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Films: Also Showing

The War Zone TIM ROTH (18) n Paperback Hero anthony j bowman (15) n Yellow Submarine GEORGE DUNING (u) n The 13th Warrior John McTiernan (15)
ADAPTED FROM Alexander Stuart's 1989 novel, The War Zone is a bleak, unsettling portrait of a family in disintegration in which 15-year- old Tom (Freddie Cunliffe) resents his parents' recent move from London to rural Devon - where he is bored and, but for his sister Jessie (Lara Belmont), friendless. His mother (Tilda Swinton) has just had a baby daughter, while his father (Ray Winstone) seems to be forever on the phone negotiating salvage deals.

Shot in a chilly mid-winter light, Tim Roth's directorial debut builds patiently in atmosphere. The camera acquaints us thoroughly with the family's remote cottage, fixing upon its rooms with the careful scrutiny and stillness of a Dutch genre painting.

It's Tom's casual glance through a bathroom window which sets the story on its traumatic course, though, and significantly, the audience is not privy to what he has seen. Our suspicions run in tandem with his. What exactly is going on between Jessie and their father? With a kind of spiritless determination Tom turns to peeping, bent on acquiring proof of the very explanation which he most dreads.

The question to ask here is not whether a film should treat this incendiary subject - incest - but whether that treatment is justified in the name of art. While Roth is always generous in acknowledging the influence of British filmmaker Alan Clarke, his influences here are more the august masters of European cinema, Bergman and Tarkovsky.

The War Zone is actually a beautiful looking film, exquisitely framed and lent a burnished vitality by Seamus McGarvey's cinematography, though, of course, this makes its subject no easier to stomach. However you choose to film a father sodomising his 18-year-old daughter, it's going to be mightily upsetting.

The problem, as far as I can see, lies partly in the excruciating passivity of the performances by Lara Belmont and Freddie Cunliffe; the latter captures the sad, spotty and slump-shouldered adolescent look perfectly but, like Belmont, he delivers his lines in such a flat and toneless way that little of their character is allowed to emerge.

I think Roth needed to give them more directorial help: it's all very well his insisting he didn't want "actors" to play Tom and Jessie, but some light to offset the shade would have enriched their presence on screen. Both of them seem vaguely catatonic even before their world comes crashing in.

In casting Winstone as the father, Roth has gone to the other extreme. Brilliant actor that he is, Winstone hasn't put sufficient distance between this and his brutish husband from Gary Oldman's Nil By Mouth. His thickset body and that ominous "you-lookin'-at-me?" gaze give us too many signals early on. The dark secret towards which the film gravitates would have been far more credible, and disconcerting, if a less ballistic actor had taken the role.

Roth has said that he wanted to make an "honest" film about abuse, and The War Zone may well answer to the truth of somebody's experience; but I'm afraid it doesn't shake the basically cynical argument that sexual perversion on film remains a guarantee of notoriety, if not box office.

Paperback Hero is a comedy of imposture from Australia that's as lightweight and inoffensive as a water biscuit. Jack (Hugh Jackman) is an outback road-train driver who moonlights as a romantic novelist. Being a tad embarrassed by his literary gift, he's been using the name of his feisty friend and local pilot Ruby Vale (Claudia Karvan) as a cover, a convenient fiction which threatens to implode when a city publisher discovers Ruby and asks her to promote the book around Sydney's media. With hilarious consequences? Not really, though the sparky central couple and the filmmakers' artless way with a "surprise" romance that's plainly telegraphed help pass the time quite painlessly.

The only thing I can ever recall disliking about The Beatles as a kid was their animated movie Yellow Submarine, directed by George Duning. It gets another outing this week, and I have to say that the years have lent it no enchantment. The Fab Four, represented as cartoon hippies in Edwardian moustaches, travel beneath the sea to Pepperland and rescue the natives from the vicious Blue Meanies - and what a time it seems to take. The movie's scheme is to marry eclectic, brightly coloured, nuttily surreal images with a variety of mid-period songs like "When I'm 64" and "All Together Now" - so far from their best - while the kaleidoscopic visuals soon become cloying.

I have it on good authority, however, that the film takes on a far more agreeable aspect when seen under the influence of a giant spliff.

Those in the mood for a spot of Nordic sword and sorcery heroics are directed to The Thirteenth Warrior, which sees a dashing Arab poet (Antonio Banderas) hooking up with a bunch of beleaguered Vikings sometime back in the Dark Ages. It takes Banderas to work out what his new allies could not, namely that the fearsome fur-covered beasts attacking the Viking settlement are actually men wearing bearskins. Useful to know.

Director John McTiernan is aiming for an ensemble warrior movie in the manner of The Magnificent Seven meets The Vikings, but devotes his energies to bloodthirsty battle sequences -chopping, skewering and spurting are the specialty - rather than to individualising his hirsute heroes. Just guessing, but I dare say you've better things to do this weekend.