Skin of Man, Heart of Beast<br/>About a Boy<br/>Italian for Beginners<br/>Roadkill<br/>John Q

Families and other failures
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It may have arrived on British screens three years late – even so, Hélène Angel's Skin of Man, Heart of Beast is the week's timeliest film, and the only one that really repays watching. In the week of Jean-Marie Le Pen's shock poll success, the film probably won't tell you who his voters are – even his hard-core following might not be as crazy, as downright feral as Angel's characters – but this impressive debut nevertheless givesa disturbing insight into the psychopathology of the French neo-Nazi worldview.

In a wooded mountainous region of southern France, roughly where Provence meets the Alps, two young girls – obstreperous teen Christelle and her little sister Aurélie – live an idyllic life with their grandmother. Then home comes Papa – Francky, a Marseilles cop booted out for his violent tendencies. As if by magic, his long-absent brother Coco also arrives, supposedly after 15 years in the Foreign Legion. If the blustering Francky is a loose cannon, Coco is even more unnerving – a tight-lipped goblin, crackling with toxic, compressed energy.

This flamboyantly dysfunctional family, tenderly indulged by Maman (Maaike Jansen), fits only too well into the film's bucolic setting. We see the assembled local menfolk at a send-off party for the old lady who was once their schoolteacher: a bunch of overgrown middle-aged boys, they're all coy bonhomie and gallantry, until gunshots ring out and an embittered elder starts spouting off about "Algeria for the French". We are, of course, in the heartland of Front National support, where violent misogyny and racism run rampant. The real power in town is the jovial elderly gangster and pimp, a veteran of the Indochina campaign who, on meeting Coco, bursts forth into Legionnaire marching songs.

Angel's film first appeared around the same time as Claire Denis's Beau Travail, a subtler, more oblique examination of the Foreign Legion myth and its role in the French post-colonial psyche. Angel's film is nowhere near as astute in its examination of masculinity: indeed, it sometimes feels gratingly one-note in its condemnation of male savagery, and arguably it is over-reliant on melodramatic excess. Yet its narrative unfailingly compels, its unsettling fairy-tale flavour suggesting a nightmare experienced by the two young girls: when little Aurélie lies watching insects in close-ups that seem to dwarf her, there's a distinct touch of Night of the Hunter.

Angel also has a flair for casting: Serge Riaboukine's Francky is a shambling lycanthrope, a shaggy behemoth who makes vintage Depardieu look sveltely sensitive; and Bernard Blancan as Coco is one of those disturbing one-off finds who occasionally erupt on the French screen, a gimlet-eyed homunculus whose very look generates disturbance. The extraordinary ending, where the two girls run wild, screaming to a euphoric track by Divine Comedy, leaves you gasping to see what Angel will do next.

In some ways, About a Boy, adapted from Nick Hornby's novel, attempts a more complex take on masculinity and its discontentments than Angel's film; yet the result is glib and insubstantial. The latest Hugh Grant vehicle from Working Title, it has been widely seen as a sort of unofficial Richard Curtis-free follow-up to Notting Hill and Bridget Jones's Diary, but it entirely misses those films' undeniable, if self-satisfied, brio. Grant plays Will, one of the two boys of the title, a solitary, self-centred gadabout who decides to hit on single mothers as the best bet for dating – a theme queasily close to the 1986 American film The Stepfather, in which the titular charmer turned out to be a ruthless serial killer. There's something altogether more disturbing than droll about Will, a blithely self-deluding liar who inhabits his own hermetic world, rooted to the sofa of a chrome-grey apartment that's more fully realised than his character: it's the Wallpaper* prototype for the swinging psycho bachelor pad.

The film is improbably directed by the brothers Weitz of American Pie notoriety; but, in leaving behind their signature ribaldry, they also fail to import any Hollywood panache. About a Boy feels like the most anaemic, workaday British might-as-well-be-TV venture, dependent on wry nudges about cultural stereotypes such as Toni Collette's North London wholegrain hippie depressive. Badly Drawn Boy's laconically breezy folk-rock soundtrack only adds to the stale, early Seventies mood.

This lazy film pulls all the obvious emotional strings, but its one genuinely winning trick is the casting of the title's other boy: Nicholas Hoult, a 12-year-old with hamster cheeks and incongruously satanic eyebrows, gamely takes on the glum, pudding-bowl nerdiness of Will's surrogate son and steals the show, such as it is. Grant's part, though, has a decidedly neurotic edge that reminds you once again what a compelling actor he'd be if only he weren't eternally obliged to carry the rotting albatross of charm round his neck.

* The Dogme movement always seemed best to justify its rationale when matching its lo-tech aesthetic to a whiff of scandal, as in its opening statement Festen. The downside of its emphasis on camcorder immediacy – the idea of capturing actors up-close-and-emotional, free of celluloid artifice – is that it opens the door to sentimental over-indulgence in people's natural charm. That's a major flaw of Denmark's fifth Dogme offering, Lone Scherfig's Italian for Beginners, a low-key comedy-drama in which a group of variously tormented small-town loners find friendship and love in their Italian evening class. With its free-floating narrative drift, Scherfig's film is like a sitcom conceived in the valley of sudden death, sickness and depression.

There's a take-us-as-you-find-us feel to the cast: you either buy their everyday quirks or you don't. But the digital photography leaves the film entirely without visual texture, its flat palette of browns and pinks as oppressive as the characters' lives. As a slow-burning ensemble piece for ill-matched oddballs, this is rather less intriguing than Channel 4's The Book Club is currently proving to be. Connoisseurs of Scandinavian sad-sack humour will find this lacks even the amiable bite of the recent Swedish Together.

John Dahl once seemed to be making it his personal mission to reinvent the B-movie, with the enjoyably devious Red Rock West and the slinky neo-noir The Last Seduction. Following an ill-judged venture into the mainstream, he's returned to first principles with Roadkill, a workable thriller about three young things (well-scrubbed Paul Walker, plucky Leelee Sobieski, smart-mouthed speedball Steve Zahn) who hit the road and incur the wrath of a homicidal trucker. The retro mood is signalled knowingly by the resurrection of that Seventies staple CB radio, described here as "prehistoric internet". The thrills are effective and no-nonsense, but hardly fresh: serviceable if you're too young to remember freeway chillers Duel and The Hitcher, or John Carpenter in his prime. Dahl hasn't quite reinvented the genre; he certainly hasn't reinvented himself.

Dud of the week, with its heart in the right place but its brains in its butt, is John Q, with Denzel Washington providing dependable gravitas as a nice, church-going, blue-collar dad whose little boy needs a heart transplant. The system's stacked against decent working folks, so John Q holds the hospital at gunpoint. The moral, that US healthcare needs rethinking, is unexceptional, but director Nick Cassavetes, son of John, drives it home with leaden, by-numbers manipulativeness.

j.romney@independent.co.uk

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