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The Independent Culture
THE IRON GIANT (U)

Director: Brad Bird

Starring: Jennifer Aniston, Harry Connick Jr

One for the discerning child in your life this Christmas - culled from the book by Ted Hughes and anchored by the sort of subtle storybook animation you thought Disney had killed off long ago. Hence the giant of the title - a clanking, industrial-grey ET - crash-lands in Cold War USA, is hunted by government agents and hidden by a kindly nipper. In a sense, Warner Brothers' second cartoon feature (after the wannabe vogueish Space Jam) is a film out of time, from its retro Fifties stylings through to its quiet dignity and heartfelt pacifist message. It's well worth seeking out. HHH

On release

INSPECTOR GADGET (U)

Director: David Kellogg

Starring: Matthew Broderick, Rupert Everett

Kellogg's live-action re-hash of the Eighties children's cartoon casts a mugging Broderick as the bionic detective tackling Everett's louche super-villain. Wit and charm get substituted for "look-at-me" special- effects and nudge-nudge references to other movies (Godzilla, The Last of the Mohicans), while the wise-cracking "Gadgetmobile" looks like a cynical concession tossed in the direction of the dumbest kid in the house. All told, it's a short-fusing, soldered-together little jalopy of a film. HH

On release

ANNA AND THE KING (12)

Director: Andy Tennant

Starring: Jodie Foster, Chow Yun-Fat

The King and I, sans showtunes. Foster stars as the bonnetted British schoolmarm in 19th-century Siam, Yun-Fat as her thin-skinned, despotic employer. Stripped of the Rodgers and Hammerstein element, Anna and the King emerges as a lengthy, lushly textured, old- school epic. Instead of chalk-and-cheese bickering, director Tennant manages a more mature and character-based examination of a burgeoning love-affair bedevilled by culture-clash differences. Fortunately, on-song Foster and impressive Yun-Fat are well up to the task. HHH

On release

HOLD BACK THE NIGHT (15)

Director: Phil Davis

Starring: Christine Tremarco, Stuart Sinclair Blyth

Into the wilds of Scotland trudge the damaged trio of Davis's bleak British odyssey. Vera (Sheila Hancock) is dying; Declan (Sinclair Blyth) a dreadlocked crusty innocent; Charleen (Tremarco) an abused, raw-boned runaway. Meantime, Hold Back the Night keeps pace doggedly. This is a sour, state-of-the-nation portrait; a tad cliched at times, but properly tough and authentic-looking where it counts. A Christmas movie it ain't. HHH

On release

COTTON MARY (15)

Director: Ismail Merchant

Starring: Madhur Jaffrey, Greta Scacchi

Played out in post-colonial Fifties India, Cotton Mary unveils an intriguing power-balance tale in the style of Joseph Losey's The Servant. Scacchi is the ex-pat mum in crisis who looks on as her newborn babe and rakish husband (James Wilby) slide into the orbit of Jaffrey's nutty local nanny. But for all its measured acting and nuanced period detail, Merchant's languid drama winds up a bit too slow-burning for its own good. HH

On release

LEGEND OF 1900 (15)

Director: Giuseppe Tornatore

Starring: Tim Roth, Pruitt Taylor Vince

Magic realism with a dose of syrup from Tornatore, who charts the life- history of Roth's soulful savant - a ship's pianist who literally watches the 20th-century slip by outside his porthole. Framed in flashback - Citizen Kane-style - by the reminiscences of Taylor Vince's trumpet-player, Legend of 1900 proves a very European fable: good-looking, properly cinematic, yet infested with a maudlin strain of schmaltz. HHH

On release

CINEMA PARADISO (15)

Director: Giuseppe Tornatore

Starring: Philippe Noiret, Salvatore Cascio

A shrewd holiday re-issue for Tornatore's 1989 hit: a positive paean to the liberating effect of the movies, set in a backwater Sicilian village and pivoting gracefully around the cramped local picture-house. Try to resist this sun-dappled charmer and it just sidles closer, hugs you tighter, smothers you in kisses. HHHH

On release

DOGMA (18)

Director: Kevin Smith

Starring: Matt Damon, Ben Affleck

Where Clerks, Smith's classic poverty-row debut, stuck to a solitary convenience-store location, his scattershot Dogma tackles a sprawling canvas of life, the universe and everything. Thus we get a star-stuffed secular satire about two renegade angels (Affleck and Damon) intent on busting their way back into Heaven, and the odd-bod saviours (Linda Fiorentino, Chris Rock, Alan Rickman, Salma Hayek) charged with stopping them. The ensuing yarn gallops along at a breakneck pace; a rattle-bag of half-baked conceits, comedy cardinals, frat-house antics and a God who turns cartwheels outside church. Of course, Old Testament types might want its makers stoned to death, but there's really nothing that's offensive about this slipshod, rollicking, sporadically charming comedy. After all, as the pre-credits disclaimer says: "Even God has a sense of humour". HHH

Released 26 Dec

MUPPETS FROM SPACE (U)

Director: Tim Hill

Starring: David Arquette, Andie MacDowell

In which the crooked-beaked Gonzo discovers he is an alien from outer- space and his Fuzzy Felt cohorts jiggle in time to various musical interludes. True, the latest Muppets marathon shoehorns in some spry one-liners and film-savvy japery, but there's still a lot of dead air in among the tried- and-tested malarkey, plus a moth-eaten sense to the franchise at large. HH

Released 26 Dec

MYSTERY MEN (PG)

Director: Kinka Usher

Starring: Ben Stiller, William H Macy

When the preening superhero Captain Amazing (Greg Kinnear) is foiled by his arch nemesis (Geoffrey Rush), the Mystery Men - a raggle-taggle troupe of Walter Mitty types - seize their shot at glory. Set-up complete, Usher's comic-book spoof ambles merrily on its way, buoyed by bold, primary-coloured design and genial playing from its comedic cast (Stiller, Janeane Garofalo, Paul Reubens). Sad to say, then, that this goofy little outing starts to flag midway through. In the end, there's not quite enough gags to go around. HHH

Released 26 Dec

BLUE STREAK (12)

Director: Les Mayfield

Starring: Martin Lawrence, Luke Wilson

A strutting action-comedy in the Simpson-Bruckheimer vein, Blue Streak turns an indulgent camera on Lawrence's wisecracking jewel-thief. The plot has our hero infiltrating police HQ to retrieve a precious diamond and then going native as the most unorthodox cop since... oh, since Eddie Murphy in Beverly Hills Cop, or the Lethal Weapon guys, or about a squillion others you'd care to mention. Because Blue Streak is a film with nothing new to say, and a noisy way of saying it, you wish it would just pipe down and go away. H

Released Boxing Day

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