Dead End<br/>Dracula: Pages From a Virgin's Diary<br/>The Fighting Temptations<br/>Together With You<br/>Ten Minutes Older - The Cello

Stay on the road. Lock your doors. Don't stop 'til Christmas
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The Independent Culture

Dead End (15) is one of the best Christmas movies in years, although it does have more dismemberings than most of them. It's late on Christmas Eve, and a family ­ middle-aged husband and wife, student son and daughter, and daughter's boyfriend ­ is driving to the wife's parents' house. On the way, the husband makes two grave errors. First, he turns off the highway and onto a forest road. Second, he stops to help a lone woman in white. It's safe to assume that not everyone's going to be around for mince pies and brandy butter.

As its title concedes, Dead End doesn't go anywhere. The whole film is set in and around the same car on the same road, and it doesn't have a plot, as such ­ just a series of creepy happenings. It's as if Jean-Baptiste Andrea and Fabrice Canepa, the film's French writer-directors, wanted to see how long they could keep us hooked without moving on the story. But it's this omission of an orthodox structure that sets Dead End apart from such recent road horrors as Wrong Turn, Roadkill and Jeepers Creepers. Like the characters, we don't know where we're heading, because there's no map to warn us what the next nightmare image might be.

Andrea and Canepa are David Lynch fans ­ Twin Peaks alumnus Ray Wise plays the dad ­ and they've learnt from him how to be deeply unsettling without relying on special effects or gore beyond the odd severed ear: the sight of a pram in the middle of the road in the middle of the night is spookier than anything in the Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake. They've also learnt the value of abundant black humour. Never tipping over into outright spoofery, Dead End is a well-drawn caricature of a family falling apart at the seams, and it has as many one-liners and shock confessions as it has scares.

An even odder horror exercise, Dracula: Pages From a Virgin's Diary (12A) is a Canadian ballet that looks as if it were filmed with a hand-cranked camera not long after Bram Stoker wrote the novel. It's shot in black-and-white, although there are splashes of colour, and it comes complete with blurring and flickering, and breathless inter-titles ("A daring escape!"). Both a lavish homage to the period and a parody of it, Guy Maddin's gothic curio is like no other film there's been for decades.

The Fighting Temptations (PG) stars Cuba Gooding Jr as a New York advertising executive. Like most advertising executives, he's a lying materialist, but unlike most advertising executives, except for those in the movies, he learns to change his ways. The lesson comes when his aunt dies, leaving him a small fortune in shares which he can collect only if he returns to his small home town in Georgia and leads the Baptist church choir to a gospel singing championship. Naturally, the choir is terrible.

Naturally again, a good proportion of the townsfolk look and sound like pop stars, among them a conveniently single mother played by Beyoncé Knowles.

As an unchallenging combo of The Commitments and Sweet Home Alabama, The Fighting Temptations should hit the right notes, but it goes off key in two major ways, one of which is named Cuba Gooding Jr. I doubt anyone will enjoy his twitching and gurning apart from Lee Evans, who may leave the cinema thinking that if Gooding can win an Oscar, so can he. The film's other major flaw is its stupefying slowness. It's an MTV Production, so you'd expect quick cutting, but Jonathan Lynn makes a supposedly jaunty comedy move so sluggishly that even its bright-eyed and bushy-tailed jokes ­ and there are several ­ are left onscreen until they die of old age. To give you some idea of the film's pacing, Knowles doesn't get her first line of dialogue until 45 minutes in. If only the same had been true of Gooding.

Chen Kaige's Together With You (PG) is the story of a 13-year-old violin prodigy who is taken to study in Beijing by his country bumpkin dad. At the film's heart, there's an affecting portrayal of how adolescents outgrow their parents. But Chen has buried it in pat Hollywood subplots: after just a few weeks of lessons, for example, the boy's embittered, lonely teacher is tidying his flat and buying new cardigans.

Two months after Ten Minutes Older ­ The Trumpet comes Ten Minutes Older ­ The Cello (15), another portmanteau of time-themed short films directed by some of the world's most esteemed auteurs. If I were a
cellist, I'd sue.

Michael Radford's sci-fi yarn is a welcome oasis of plot, and Jiri Menzel and Bernardo Bertolucci both turn in touching reminders of the brevity of life. But the other directors seem to be battling it out to see who can be the most crushingly pretentious. Although Claire Denis and Mike Figgis are in the contest, no one can top Jean-Luc Godard.