Novocaine (15) <br></br>The King is Dancing (15) <br></br>Dogtown and Z-Boys (15) <br></br>Chop Suey (NC) <br></br>Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron (U)

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The Independent Culture

Steve Martin is Frank Sangster in Novocaine, a smugly prosperous dentist whose fortunes begin to buckle when he falls for a patient, Susan Ivey (Helena Bonham Carter), the clue being right there in the name – she's poison. Before long, drugs go missing from his office, his fiancée (Laura Dern) smells a rat, and Susan's thuggish brother (Scott Caan) wants to wring his neck. Frank thinks that lying is like tooth decay; problem is, he hasn't the expertise to cope with this new kind of rot, and now the police are after him for drug-trafficking and murder.

For a while, this throwback noir simmers nicely (narrative voiceover, a femme fatale, an unexpected corpse), even if you're longing for Steve Martin to goose the old routines like he did in Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid. The odd thing is, the director David Atkins's screenplay sounds halfway to self-parody already, but the film doesn't seem to know whether to keep a straight face or to wink knowingly. One minute there's a giddy bit of comic business involving a tape measure and a stray pair of knickers, the next Martin is on the run and fighting for his life as the Hitchcock "innocent man". And just when the plot needs to tighten its noose, it blows the suspense altogether in a sequence of jaw-numbing twists. Rinse and spit.

Richly caparisoned and lavishly shot, The King is Dancing investigates the relationship between Louis XIV (Benoît Magimel) and his steward of music Lully (Boris Terral), whose position in court seemed impregnable despite his being Italian, bisexual and prone to rock-star tantrums. They make an odd couple, for sure, the monarch a spoilt show pony, Lully almost neurotically devoted to his master's every whim – he ignores his wife's childbearing agonies to stay up all night serenading the king on his sickbed, and later falls to resenting his friend Molière (Tchéky Karyo) because his satires are more pleasing to the royal ear than Lully's musicals. The director Gérard Corbiau makes it all look handsome enough, though its movement through the 1660s and 1670s is awfully plodding, and Boris Terral's petulant performance cries out for nothing but a good smack.

On the face of it, a documentary about a crew of rebellious West Coast skateboarders may not be the sort of film you'd make an instant date for, yet Dogtown and Z-Boys is a really engrossing tribute to an athletic form of outlaw cool. Once a fad that seemed to have withered and died, skateboarding was revolutionised in the early 1970s by a group of teenagers in a run-down coastal resort of Santa Monica known as Dogtown, "where the debris meets the sea".

What impresses is the near-fortuitous nature of their emergence. Surfers by inclination, they found themselves with nothing to do once the tide receded mid-morning, so, armed with makeshift skateboards, they took instead to "surfing" playground asphalt and concrete, while a drought in South California turned empty swimming-pools into a perfect site to practise their wheeling, daredevil moves – at least until the cops came along.

Eventually, assembled as the Zephyr Skating Team, they made a public splash at the 1975 Skateboard Championship with their low-slung, innovative style, and some went on to superstardom. But it didn't always last, and one look at the busted septum of erstwhile golden boy Jay Adams is evidence enough of how some got trapped in California's cocaine canyon (he is currently doing time).

A happier story is that of Stacy Peralta, one of the original Dogtown skaters and now the director of this movie: together with the photojournalist Craig Stecyk, he has corralled contemporary footage, vintage stills and new interview material into a vivid patchwork of reminiscences. He couldn't have given his old gang a finer salute.

It makes the week's other documentary, Chop Suey, look pretty trivial in comparison. This is career scrapbook as home movie, languidly assembled by the photographer Bruce Weber, and dotted here and there with some marvellous clips, such as the studio duet between an elderly Robert Mitchum and the bluesman Doctor John, or the vignette of the English explorer Sir Wilfred Thesiger, with a nose "like a Giacometti sculpture". I wanted a bit more of these and a lot less of Weber's latest discovery – a beautiful but deeply uninteresting youth named Peter Johnson, whose only memorable contribution was to confess that he'd never heard of Ava Gardner. The photographer's signature images – homoerotic idylls, cheekbones, sculpted torsos – are easy on the eye, though they're better suited to the fleeting dissolves of a Calvin Klein ad than a feature-length examination.

The animated adventure Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron tells the story of the Wild West, straight from the horse's mouth, or rather, from the politically sensitive screenwriters at DreamWorks, so, essentially, it's another apology to Native Americans for the pillaging of their land. The rugged Western scenery looks fantastic, and some of the chase sequences pack a wildly vertiginous thrill. Indeed, I would have dozed along quite happily but for the revolting songs by Bryan Adams, whose throaty, pseudo-dramatic bleating had me curled in a full-body cringe.