NEW FILMS

THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS

Director: Gillo Pontecorvo. Starring: Brahim Haggiag, Jean Martin (subtitles) (NC)

Time has dulled neither the rage nor the compassion of Gillo Pontecorvo's astonishing 1965 drama, which earns a revival this week. Its influence can be detected in virtually any film which tries to burrow beneath the surface of political turmoil, from Z to La Haine, Salvador to Land and Freedom. In the 32 years since its original release, cinematic violence has grown steadily more graphic, and has, in many cases, become a substitute for tension. Perhaps that's what makes the picture seem so startling now. As well as being an astute piece of political commentary, it's a taut thriller which relies less on shocking brutality than sharp characterisation and editing, not to mention a camera which hits the ground running.

In his reconstruction of the Algerians' struggle to attain freedom from France, Pontecorvo integrates two disparate styles. Very swiftly, he establishes a riveting narrative: a labourer named Ali la Pointe (Brahim Haggiag) is hiding with three other Algerians behind a wall which paratroopers are threatening to destroy with dynamite if surrender is not forthcoming. A watery dissolve takes us back three years to 1954, where we witness Ali's rise from petty criminal to pivotal member of the Algerian Liberation Front. Although the use of flashback has already established that we are witnessing a fictionalised version of real events, Pontecorvo then integrates documentary techniques into the film, using ragged, on-the-hoof photography and sudden zooms which position us right on the edge of this ramshackle war.

It's the fusion of these styles which makes the picture so involving, and prevents it from having the coolness of a history lecture. Once we have been drawn into the illusion of documentary, Pontecorvo is then free to manipulate our expectations with dramatic devices which would be impossible to sustain if this really were front-line reportage - the sequence in which a group of Algerian women smuggle bombs into public places is an explicit example, with its dramatic shots of ticking clocks and nervous faces lent weight by the verite style. The vigour of the film's pace and the violence of its grainy black-and-white images are tempered by the equitable view which Pontecorvo takes of his characters, regardless of their allegiances.

LOVE JONES

Director: Theodore Witcher. Starring: Larenz Tate (15)

It's a story we all know. Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, girl finds boy back at the poetry reading where they first fell in love. Indeed, the appeal of love jones lies not in its tired plot, but in the vitality brought to this well-worn scenario by the enthusiastic cast, and a sassy, beautifully-written sceeenplay by first-time director Witcher - not to mention the fact that it allows its black characters a chance to exist in a middle-class, intellectual milieu usually denied by cinema. Larenz Tate plays Darius, a poet and budding novelist who falls for the struggling photographer Nina (Nia Long), and begins a relationship with her which eventually breaks down when they both feign disinterest.

Witcher has a wonderfully dexterous way with words, and manages to plough right to the heart of this stuttering romance, sensitively highlighting the tiny fractures creeping through Darius's self-confidence. It helps, of course, that both leads positively drip sex: the way Long prowls the screen proves that she realises how rare it is for an actress to be offered a part which is sexual while being neither submissive nor threatening, while Tate is in possession of a pair of sleepy, inviting eyes that are not so much "come-to-bed" as "come-back-to-bed-I-haven't-finished-with- you-yet". Admittedly, the picture is a little short on psychological complexity, and its sub-plots are never more than decorative, but as a light, funny, intelligent love story, it really hits the spot.

BATMAN & ROBIN

Director: Joel Schumacher. Starring: George Clooney (PG)

The first two Batman films, both directed by Tim Burton, were dark, brooding character studies in which the characters concerned just happened to be superheroes or grotesque villains.

It was a brave attempt to introduce psychological depths into the tradition- ally vacuous mainstream blockbuster. But since Burton's departure, Batman has apparently shed the ghosts which once drove him on to fight crime, and he has now become as well-adjusted as any man who spends his evenings wearing pointy ears and a rubber cod-piece.

The emotional conflict which lent his earlier battles unsettling overtones have also gone, and now we are left with a straightforward clash between good and evil. The latter, in this case, is represented by two characters who joined forces for no apparent reason other than that they find themselves in the same city.

There is no synchronicity between the ice-obsessed Mr Freeze (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and the venomous eco-warrior Poison Ivy (Uma Thurman), aside from the fact that they have both been scarred by accidents in their respective laboratories. They simply seem to share meglomaniac tendancies, as is the way with comic-book villains. Batman (Clooney) and his sidekick Robin (Chris O'Donnell), whom we first glimpsed together through rhyming close-ups of their armoured chests, come to the rescue when Mr Freeze threatens to turn Gotham City to ice.

But the stability of their relationship is threatened not only by Poison Ivy, who soon has them fighting over her, but by the illness of their butler, Alfred (Michael Gough).

When they learn that Mr Freeze was experimenting with cryogenics, even the moderately attentive viewer will hear the sound of a screenwriter desperately trying to weld together two separate plot lines. Will Mr Freeze find the good inside himself and come to Alfred's rescue? Will Batman and Robin stop squabbling for long enough to notice if he does? And what on earth does the newly arrived and self-appointed Batgirl (Alicia Silverstone) thinks she's doing trying to fight crime in those six-inch stiletto heels?

These questions and plenty more scarcely matter in this ugly, garish disaster, which crams in the celebrities and forgets about the audience.

FRANTZ FANON: BLACK SKIN, WHITE MASK

Director: Isaac Julien. Starring: Colin Salmon (subtitles) (NC)

Released in a double bill with The Battle of Algiers, this wise and lucid documentary shows the talent which the director and co-writer Isaac Julien has for assembling cool, enticing cinematic essays as opposed to the indulgences of his fiction feature, Young Soul Rebels. Black Skin, White Mask takes as its subject Frantz Fanon, an activist and intellectual who worked with casualties in 1950s Algeria, and wrote inflam-matory manifestos for freedom fighters.

Through a mixture of interviews, film excerpts and studio reconstructions, Julien builds a picture of this intriguing figure which doesn't stint on his controversial politics.

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