Just empty wallets on legs

American Buffalo Michael Corrente (15) Mr Reliable Nadia Tass (15) Sunchaser Michael Cimino (15) Gabbeh Mohsen Makhmalbaf (nc)
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The Independent Culture
There's a telling shot during the opening credits of American Buffalo, David Mamet's claustrophobic play which he has now adapted for the screen 21 years after its first production. Teach (Dustin Hoffman) is playing cards, but he's close to being nudged out of the game. He pulls the lips of his wallet apart, gently, cautiously, like he's tearing into fruit. But there's nothing there - just a staleness that you can practically smell. Cut to Teach's weathered face, looking every bit as empty and leathery as that wallet. The other visual references to the state of Teach's life - his stump of a pony-tail, his grim bedroom - are largely redundant. Mamet's characterisation is so vivid, despite the bareness of his dialogue, that any embellishment a film director chances runs the risk of appearing superfluous.

The wallet haunts you, though - its needy mouth, its awful, bottomless darkness. It doesn't just symbolise Teach's life - it is his life. The quest to fill that wallet drives him. He's a grubby dog-end of a man, but he's a master of insidious bullying too, and you sense he could muscle his way into, and out of, any situation. When he gets a whiff of the burglary being planned by his friend Donny (Dennis Franz), he wants in. From the beaten look on Donny's face you know that this despicable weasel will get his own way, even at the expense of Donny's loyal teenage accomplice Bobby (Sean Nelson).

American Buffalo is not a conventionally cinematic film. Teach, Donny and Bobby loiter with intent in Donny's junk shop, or on side-walks, talking themselves into a tizzy, but never doing anything more dramatic than ordering a slice of pie. Their conversations pivot on euphemisms - the robbery is only ever referred to as "the thing". And the dank corner of Rhode Island in which the director Michael Corrente has shot the film plays host to nothing more startling than the occasional passing police car. But it's a depressingly perfect setting - barren and lonely, all iron shutters and sinister silence, as though somebody has dropped a bomb designed to leave only diners, junk shops and tragic middle-aged crooks standing.

The three-man cast captures the restless desperation of these no-hopers with some brilliantly fidgety playing. But the film still has trouble sparking to life. It doesn't have the drive and urgency of its own characters, or of the original play. Attempts to disperse the theatrical mood with scene changes are disruptive. Movies are usually savaged for seeming like filmed plays. American Buffalo is best when it bares its roots. These men are theatrical beings, after all. They're only as impressive as their last profanity or swagger or boast. They think they're kings. Really, they're empty wallets on legs.

The Australian comedy Mr Reliable tells the true story of cabbie, ex- con and all-round professional cheeky chappie Wally Mellish (Colin Friels) who, by an absurd sequence of events, ends up being suspected of kidnapping his girlfriend (Jacqueline McKenzie), and holding her hostage in his home. He hasn't, of course. But Wally uses the opportunity to humiliate the police. Before long, he's a fully-fledged media hero stuck in the middle of an accidental siege. Part Crocodile Dundee, part Dog Day Afternoon, this perky comedy doesn't take long to stretch your patience to extremes. There are some dotty minor characters who gain definition as the siege escalates. But once the film starts hunting for sympathy for our amiable hero's wounded dog, you'll feel somebody is taking you for a wally.

Sunchaser is two hours of mystical mumbo-jumbo in which a harassed doctor (Woody Harrelson) learns to take life easy after spending some time on the road with the noble, cancer-stricken teenage thug (Jon Seda) who has kidnapped him. Even more cloying than its recent spiritual cousin, The Eighth Day, it is redeemed only by Seda, who manages to be captivating despite having to howl like a wolf and deliver all the worst lines. But it marks a steep shift down in gears for its director Michael Cimino. Echoes of Thunderbolt and Lightfoot only remind you how far he's fallen.

Gabbeh is a visually glorious, emotionally vacuous slice of Iranian folklore revolving around the making of a gabbeh, the Persian carpet which tells of its creator's travels. There are tableaux here to take your breath away. A shame, then, that it's just an Iranian counterpart to How to Make an American Quiltn

All films go on general release tomorrow

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