Move over Mr Jackson, there's a new trilogy in town

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The Independent Culture

If "cinematic trilogy" has come to mean "sprawling science-fiction/ fantasy epic with lots of tie-in plastic toys", Lucas Belvaux's Trilogie is a timely corrective. He's made three films set over the same period in Grenoble. Each of them tells a different story, but there are points of intersection, so that minor characters in one film reappear as major characters in another, and you have to see all three to get the full picture. What's ingenious is that each film belongs to a different genre. Films two and three are a comedy and a melodrama, while Trilogy One (15) is a thriller starring Belvaux himself as Bruno, a Marxist terrorist who has just escaped from prison.

Fifteen years behind bars have only stoked his revolutionary zeal, but his old comrades feel that their war is over. Much to his chagrin, they'd rather raise children than bring down the state.

One is an intelligent, compulsive piece that bears comparison with The Day of the Jackal. Almost a how-to guide for fugitive freedom fighters, it presents the methodical work and the spiralling mania of its anti-hero with the same rigorous, unflashy detail. Ironically, its only weak points are its links to the rest of the trilogy. When we meet a drug addict who is married to a policeman, we know she'll be back in the melodrama, and when a woman bursts into Bruno's hideout, looking for her husband's lover, she's obviously veered in from the comedy. Neither sequence accomplishes anything except to slow down the action, so if you weren't aware that they had a purpose to serve elsewhere, you'd wish they'd been left on the cutting room floor. As it is, though, they do pique the curiosity. I can't wait to see what those same scenes bring to the Trilogie's other parts, released over the next few weeks.

The Singing Detective (15) is a valiant stab at boiling down Dennis Potter's six-part BBC serial into a feature film. Reduced to the condition of "a human pizza" by his chronic psoriasis, a pulp author (Robert Downey Jr) lies in a hospital bed, hallucinating himself into the pages of one of his own gumshoe novels, and envisaging the people around him as all-singing, all-dancing enemies. It's complex, layered and downright bizarre for a Hollywood film, and the screenplay, written by Potter, can be very funny.

But however faint your memories of the TV series might be, the film still seems to be a rushed, Reader's Digest version. It's satisfying only in that it gives Downey his best ever role, showcasing his charisma, grace and fierceness, as well as his crooning.

Elf (PG) stars Will Ferrell as a human raised by Santa Claus's elves. When he twigs why it is that he's twice as tall as everyone else in the elven basketball team, he ventures from the North Pole to New York in search of his real father, James Caan. Of course, no one in the Big Apple bats an eyelid at the sight of a six-footer in tights, Rumpelstiltskin boots and a conical hat, but his naivety and his candy addiction are another matter.

There's plenty here to ho ho ho about. Ferrell plays his man-child part with wholehearted brio, and writer David Berenbaum and director Jon Favreau find the balance between sharp comedy and festive wonderment. I can't be too critical of a film whose hero accosts a department store Santa and hisses, "You sit on a throne of lies!"

In Laurel Canyon (18), Christian Bale and Kate Beckinsale put on American accents to play a repressed pair of Harvard-trained doctors who stay with Bale's mother, Frances McDormand, while they're house-hunting in Los Angeles. But McDormand is a hard-partying record producer, with a rock star lover her son's age. Bale detests her lifestyle. Worryingly for him, his fiancée doesn't. What ensues is a predictable soap opera, but it has fun lines and performances along the way.

The Medallion (PG) is Jackie Chan's shoddiest film. There is still some spry stuntwork: no one else who isn't a cat can slip through railings or scamper over a wall the way Chan can. But everything else about The Medallion is dross, from Chan's Woody Allenish habit of picking love interests half his age, to Lee Evans's awful hamming, to a cursory plot that's credited to five writers.

Octane (15) is an abduction horror thriller starring Madeleine Stowe. Set in a nocturnal demi-monde of freeway service stations, it tightens the screws efficiently to start with, but it gets very silly later on. Benzina (15) is a bad Italian, lesbian Thelma and Louise imitation. L'Afrance (15) charts the turmoil of a Senegalese student in Paris who is no longer sure where home is, if anywhere.

n.barber@independent.co.uk

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