Video roundup

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The Independent Culture

December's two comedy releases, The Actors and The Man Who Sued God, were so abysmal that I almost could not bring myself to finish watching them. Only inertia kept me pinned to the sofa. This is a strange and sad state of affairs, since both star men who should by rights be tear-inducingly funny, in the case of Billy Connolly, and wryly comic with the odd belly laugh, in the case of Dylan Moran (excellent in the BBC's Black Books). As a rule, the very words crime caper make me feel tired, but The Actors, which also features Michael Caine as an ageing narcissistic thesp, relies on the kind of slapstick buffoonery that makes Nuns on the Run look sophisticated. It is hard to believe that it was directed by Neil Jordan (The Crying Game) and even harder to fathom why Michael Gambon consented to ham it up as an Irish gangster. In Mark Joffe's The Man Who Sued God, Connolly plays an Australian fisherman whose boat is struck by lightning. When his insurance company refuses to cough up on the grounds that they do not cover acts of God, he decides to sue, with predictable hilarious consequences. We are in Erin Brockovich territory, and a different director might have produced something genuinely powerful out of this story of a man who stands up for all the little people shafted by corporate greed. But Connolly is utterly unbelievable as a crusader and, frankly, as a father - the scenes played with his daughter, intended, no doubt, to invest him with a little more emotional depth, are deeply unconvincing. Worst of all, though, he just isn't funny.

You only have to think back to M*A*S*H to realise that the US Army hasn't always come out of the movies very well. But I suppose in recent times we have been used to a more heroic account of America's armed services. So Buffalo Soldiers (only released in the US this year, two years after its completion) will have seemed to some to be titillatingly satirical - it helps if you are a fan of Joaquin Phoenix's bee-stung lips and James Dean-style sexuality. We are on a German army base shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and Phoenix is making a small fortune selling army supplies to the Germans and drugs to his fellow soldiers. Things start to get messy when he tries to swap a consignment of guns for heroin, and falls foul of the sergeant appointed to clean up the camp. Actually, Buffalo Soldiers is well made, well acted and enjoyably dark, and does not pull its punches when it comes to drug-crazed grunts, institutional violence and the well-meaning stupidity of the senior ranks, though its closing scenes may strike some as a cop out.

The beautiful young British stars of Pirates of the Caribbean, Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom, are an undeniable aesthetic pleasure, but setting their peachiness aside, Pirates is one to rent for your older kids. There is plenty of swash and buckle, beautiful scenery, girl power in the shape of our valorous heroine, and some ghoulish special effects involving an undead Geoffrey Rush and the dastardly crew of his ship, The Black Pearl; but anyone who has seen Master and Commander will find the seafaring scenes a composite of enjoyable hokum. Nor was I on the edge of my seat at any point, which is surely what a blockbuster should achieve above all else.

For younger children and their grown-ups comes the enchanting French animation Kirikou and the Sorceress, made in 1998 and now released in an English language version. Kirikou is a miraculous child who delivers himself from his mother's womb and sets off to save his village from the devastation wrought by a seductive local sorceress. Based on a West African folk tale and with music by Youssou N'Dour, Kirikou is witty, sexy, moving and, at a time when baby Jesus is at the top of the agenda, provides some instructive cultural parallels.