Life as a House (15) <br></br> Mullet (15) <br></br> Warm Water Under a Red Bridge (15) <br></br>Thirteen Ghosts (15)

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The Independent Culture

Some of the acting in Life as a House is so good that you wish it wasn't boxed in by the tired conventions of the terminal-illness weepie. Kevin Kline is very fine indeed as George, an architect whose life has hit the wall: he's estranged from his family, recently fired from his job and (the clincher) has just been told he has four months to live. Determined not to waste what's left to him, he makes plans to build his dream house on a beautiful California clifftop, a means to help him "rebuild" his relationship with his 16-year-old son, Sam (Hayden Christensen).

Yes, I'm afraid the symbolism is as clunking as that, and the revelation that George's father was a bully feels insufficient to persuade his son to drop the teenage-rebel accoutrements – pierced chin, Gothic mascara and (aaagh!) Marilyn Manson posters on his wall – and get with the programme. George even flushes the kid's dope stash down the toilet, which is morally prissy as well as dramatically unimaginative: more truthful, surely, to see the baby-boomer dad roll back the years and share a joint with his son. (Doesn't he know about the emollient properties of cannabis?)

And yet Kline and Christensen dig deep into their roles and actually go some way to convincing you that this is a father and son at war. Jena Malone, as the pert next-door neighbour Sam is secretly in love with, gives a lovely unselfconscious performance, while Kristin Scott Thomas (above, with Kline) also brings a surprising warmth to the role of George's ex-wife, resisting his initial gesture of tenderness by reflexively biting his finger. I liked that moment, and one or two others where director Irwin Winkler and screenwriter Mark Andrus go easy on the corn syrup and let Kline off the leash. But as his house gets built (you may be unpleasantly reminded of the barn-building scene in Witness) and his cancer gets worse, Life as a House begins to subside in the California mush – tears, hugs, and confessions along the lines of "I didn't want you to like me. I wanted you to love me". Mark Isham's gloopy score hammers home the noble heartache of it all. The acting, however, lends a tone that the film doesn't merit. I was moved, and I resented it.

Mullet, the writer-director David Caesar's modest but hugely likeable drama, refers not to the tragic hairstyle but to Eddie "Mullet" Maloney (Ben Mendelsohn), one-time football star and rough diamond who returns home to the small Australian fishing town he suddenly abandoned three years ago. Things have changed: his childhood sweetheart Tully (Susie Porter) has got married to – of all people – his stolid policeman brother (Andrew S Gilbert), and it's difficult to say which of the three feels more conflicted about it.

But other things remain the same: the local bar-owner Kay (Belinda McClory) still has a soft spot for Eddie, his parents haven't stopped squabbling, and he's still at a loss as to where his life should be going.

With no great fuss Caesar takes us right to the heart of this coastal backwater, where everybody seems to know one another and the grapevine is constantly abuzz. Eddie could be a homecoming hero if he wished, but his natural perversity tends to rub his friends up the wrong way; as one of them remarks, people love him, but they don't particularly like him. Gangly and straggly haired, Ben Mendelsohn is an antipodean answer to Gary Oldman, and inhabits this contrary loner with an entirely credible mixture of sweetness and aggression. One minute he's charming company, the next he's reminding his sister's dark-skinned boyfriend that the town will always regard him as an "Abo". Caesar finds something truthful in the sounds, and the silences, that make up a family life, and gets wonderfully relaxed performances from the cast, especially Tony Barry and Kris McQuade as Eddie's parents. Mullet opens the eighth Australian Film Festival in London, and deserves a look.

The last time I saw Koji Yakusho as an unhappy Japanese salaryman who learns to live a little was in the ace 1996 ballroom comedy Shall We Dance? He reprises the role in Warm Water Under a Red Bridge, though Imamura Shohei's film is a less seductive compound of spiritual rebirth and erotic whimsy. Piqued by a rumour of hidden treasure, Yosuke (Yakusho) visits a remote village on the Noto Peninsula and instead finds a young woman, Saeko (Misa Shimizu) who's hiding a mysterious treasure of her own. That it involves the female orgasm and flooding water might arouse the curious, though the draggy pace and heavy-handed symbolism make it harder work than it sounds. And it makes sex look downright inconvenient.

The haunted-house movie Thirteen Ghosts is such a cut-price, jerry-built thing that the title sounds almost like a desperate offer – Thirteen Ghosts: Scarier Than Twelve! Based on a 1960 original by William Castle, this locks a father (Tony Shalhoub) and his two kids in a fiendish mansion designed by his nutso uncle (F Murray Abraham) and thronged with ghosts in the basement. Most of the budget has gone into the spiffy-looking interior where the walls are made of glass, emblazoned with Latin incantations to keep the ghouls out. They've managed to keep a lot else out, too, including anything resembling a fresh line or an honest thrill.