The 51st State (18)<br></br>Dog Eat Dog (15)<br></br>Christmas Carol - The Movie (U)

Forget the yoga and the plastic cushions -give us real people
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The Independent Culture

From its title onwards, The 51st State (18) is out to take on the Yanks at their own game. No brass bands or bodices permitted, it's a British film distinguished by guns, sex, car chases and a happy ending. To give it a head start, an American star leads the cast.

Samuel L Jackson is the pharmaceutical genius who flies to Liverpool to sell the recipe of his new wonder drug. Robert Carlyle is the Scouse git he liaises with; Emily Mortimer is the spunky hitwoman on their trail. And playing a more significant role than them all is the film's director, Hong Kong action veteran Ronny Yu, who doesn't stint on the violence, gags or acrobatic camerawork. Anything Hollywood can do, we can do dafter.

At distancing itself from British social realism, The 51st State succeeds rather too well. I'd suspect that Stel Pavlou, the screenwriter, drew the characters from the comics he's read rather than from the life he's led. Everybody has a gimmick that doesn't so much indicate his personality as stand in for it. One gangster (Meat Loaf) is called The Lizard and he has a scarred face. Another (Ricky Tomlinson) always sits on an inflatable cushion, another (Rhys Ifans) is learning yoga, and so on. The star's gimmick is that he wears a kilt, but he's still just Samuel L Jackson being his usual cool dude. Pavlou has tried too hard to make the characters and situations quirky, not hard enough to make them real.

Dog Eat Dog (15) has comparable flaws: it, too, mistakes wackiness for originality. Its heroes are black, not white, and they live in west London, not east, but if you've seen Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, then the misadventures of four young geezers who owe big money to bad men will ring a bell or two. And as with all of Guy Ritchie's imitators, Moody Shoaibi (director/co-writer) and Mark Tonderai (star/co-writer) can't match him. The film sags beneath the weight of too many characters and too many threads, while its good jokes are outnumbered by its ropey ones. But if Dog Eat Dog shares some of The 51st State's vices, it has some of its virtues, too: its vigour, its irreverence, its conviction that "too far" is preferable to "not far enough".

It's far better than this week's other two British releases. The first of these, Christmas Carol - The Movie (U), is a Christmas turkey. You'd think that a cartoon would be the ideal medium for Dickens's phantasmagoric fable, but the screenwriters deserve to be haunted and the animators contrive to make the story slow, colourless, and devoid of magic.

Women Talking Dirty is a sub-Bridget Jones chick-lit adaptation set in Edinburgh. Its stars, Gina McKee and Helena Bonham Carter, are both a decade too old to play students and neither is capable of a consistent Scottish accent (presumably Kelly McDonald was busy). The plotting is as wayward as the casting.

Riding In Cars With Boys (12) is another movie about the bond between female friends when one of them is impregnated by the wrong man, although it reminded me more of Jonathan Demme's Blow: both movies track a real person through the decades from the 1960s onwards, allowing the lead actor to raid the dressing up box for groovy wigs and costumes. And both films leave you feeling that when all's said and done, the protagonist just isn't worth spending time with.

Based on a memoir by Beverly Donofrio, Riding In Cars ... stars Drew Barrymore as Beverly, a smalltown girl whose dreams of being a writer in New York are popped by her teenage pregnancy. The other characters keep reminding her how wondrous she is, but the person we're shown is an ungrateful, self-centred cow. To be fair, that's the conclusion the film reaches, too. Regrettably, it takes over two hours to get there.

Catherine Breillat's A ma soeur! (18) is an unblinking look at the sexuality of two adolescent sisters, complete with a shock ending that hits you between the eyes.

n.barber@independent.co.uk

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