King Arthur (12A)<br></br>The Stepford Wives (12A)<br></br>Garfield: The Movie (U)<br></br>New York Minute (PG)<br></br>Last Life in the Universe (15)<br></br>Gozu (18)<br></br>Ping Pong (12A)

If history is bunk, what do you call this? 'Braveheart 2'?

King Arthur (12A) claims to tell us the true story behind the legend, and while that claim may be, in technical terms, a big fat fib, you can see what it's getting at. The new film has no Camelot and no Holy Grail, no Morgan le Fay and no Green Knight. There's still a round table, but the knights sitting around it aren't courtly medieval noblemen, they're a posse of beardy Sarmatian hardmen who keep the Picts in line for their bosses back in Rome. The setting is Hadrian's Wall, some time in the 5th century. Merlin (Stephen Dillane) is now the Picts' woad-smeared head honcho, and Guinevere (Keira Knightley) is his winsome warrior daughter. Together, they're hoping to persuade the knights' half-British leader, Artorius "Arthur" Castus (Clive Owen), to help them fend off a tide of Saxon invaders.

The film-makers have gone for the Braveheart approach: lots of long hair, blue body paint, rugged mountain scenery and speeches about freedom. It's bound to leave some viewers dissatisfied, as swords-and-sorcery enthusiasts will miss the customary magic, while anyone looking for historical veracity will be disappointed, too. (I know Guinevere's supposed to be the queen of Britain, but would her accent really have been so much like the Queen's?) For most of us, though, King Arthur succeeds as strapping summer entertainment. It just about sustains its thoughtful tone - embodied by Owen's unsmiling, introspective Arthur - and there are a couple of savage battle sequences that pack a bigger punch than anything to be seen in Troy.

The Stepford Wives (12A) has the same outline as the 1975 film and the Ira Levin novel which inspired it. A metropolitan couple (played here by Nicole Kidman and Matthew Broderick) moves to a Connecticut town where, for mysterious reasons, all of the women are the proverbial cooks in the kitchen, maids in the lounge and whores in the bedroom. Back in 1975, of course, audiences might not have realised what those mysterious reasons were. Today, anyone who's had a conversation within the last 30 years will already know the story's twist, and women's lib is no longer the divisive issue it used to be, so a contemporary remake throws up all sorts of problems. They're problems that the new version's writer and director, Paul Rudnick and Frank Oz, haven't worked out how to solve. Rudnick peppers the dialogue with waspish one-liners, and Oz keeps things brisk and bright, so The Stepford Wives is quite a diverting way to pass an hour and a half. But it's always jumping between being a frothy pastiche of the first film, an anti-materialist satire and a conspiracy thriller, as if Oz had grabbed pages at random from three conflicting scripts. And whichever script he got the terrible cop-out ending from should have been shredded.

Garfield: The Movie (U) renders the original fat cat in computer-generated form, with Bill Murray furnishing his drowsy, self-centred drawl. His adventures - far more energetic than they ever were in the newspaper strip - should provide harmless, upbeat fun for children. But if you're old enough to recall the days when fluffy Garfields were stuck inside car windows everywhere, then you're far too old to enjoy this film.

Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen are a pair of frog-faced, teenaged twins who sell a billion dollars' worth of videos, clothes, dolls and make-up to their impressionable young fans every year. As if that weren't enough, the Olsens are now trying to cross over to mainstream cinema audiences with New York Minute (PG). Gasp as the goofy gals foil an evil villain who sells pirated CDs! Chortle as they meet some amusingly tacky black people! Sob as they rediscover the importance of family! Set to a sadistically perky soundtrack, it's a New York minute that feels as if it lasts a month.

This week's trio of bizarre Japanese films begins with Last Life in the Universe (15), actually a Japanese-Thai co-production about a loner from Osaka who's adrift in Bangkok. It features gangsters, shoot-outs, hangings and car accidents, and yet it retains a wonderfully serene, dream-like atmosphere. As with most dreams, however, when it's over you can't remember whether it meant anything at all. Curiouser still is Takashi Miike's Gozu (18), a surreal horror-crime-comedy film in the manner of the two Davids, Lynch and Cronenberg. As a Yakuza lieutenant tries to track down a colleague's missing corpse, stumbling onto one weirdo after another, all of the random strangeness-for-strangeness's-sake turns the film into an irksome, aimless ordeal. In Ping Pong (12A) two schoolfriends compete in a national table tennis tournament. Considering its wimpy title, Ping Pong boasts some grand themes and stylish effects, but the disjointed structure gives the impression of a TV series that's been chopped down to movie length.

n.barber@independent.co.uk

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