Director: Scott Silver. Starring: David Arquette (18)
The life of the rent boy may have assumed a certain dislocated glamour in My Own Private Idaho, but at least Gus Van Sant, the director of that film, cared about what happened to his characters. First-time writer-director Scott Silver has borrowed a general tone of heightened, lyrical realism from Van Sant, but johns has no humanity. While the general air of misery may be appropriate, it clashes conspicuously with the delight Silver takes in depicting every bruise and beating they receive in the course of a day's work.
John (David Arquette) is a prostitute whose shoes are stolen as the film begins. The fact that he keeps his money in them, and that he was saving up to buy himself a suite at a swanky hotel for his birthday, excuses his bestial howling. The movie likes to lay the pain on thick, so of course John's birthday is tomorrow - which also happens to be Christmas Day - and naturally he's got to get the money to the hotel clerk by the afternoon, while also avoiding psychotic dates and debt-collecting bully-boys.
There hasn't been such a flimsy excuse for plot and motivation since Hanif Kureishi's London Kills Me, where the hero spent the film searching for a pair of shoes. Silver obviously realises this, because he goes one cliche further for that overkill effect: John and his friend Donner (Lukas Haas) have been offered jobs at a theme park, if they can get the money together for the bus-ride home.
Silver perfectly captures the disorientation of a Christmas spent on sun-baked sidewalks, but he indulges his actors so much that the illusory spell is broken. Silver doesn't seem overtly concerned with making John and Donner plausible characters; he condescendingly paints them as fallen angels one too many times for that - we end up caring about them as little as he does.
Director: George P Cosmatos. Starring: Charlie Sheen (15)
In this plodding thriller, Charlie Sheen plays presidential advisor Bobby Bishop, who uncovers a conspiracy plot implemented by some very powerful people in the White House. You know instantly from the warmth and good humour which Donald Sutherland brings to the role of the Chief of Staff that he's going to figure among the bad guys. Unfortunately, the rest of the picture has little of the fun that makes Sutherland's performance sparkle. The script incorporates too many secondhand set-pieces, swiped from Diva and Speed and Three Days of the Condor, and not enough pace or wit, while casting Charlie Sheen as a man of profound intelligence and cunning is like hiring Macaulay Culkin to play Malcolm X.
THE SQUARE CIRCLE
Director: Amol Palekar. Starring: Nirmal Pandey (15) (subtitles)
In rural India, a village girl (Sonali Kulkarni) on the run from her kidnappers meets a transvestite performer (Pandey) and the two nameless, mismatched characters begin travelling, bonding and swapping beauty tips. However, this is anything but Mrs Doubtfire remade as a road movie: the India depicted in the film is a harsh and demanding country, where neither character truly fits in. If the plot suggests a fairy-tale, the reality is far more cruel. The girl is gang-raped by a trio of louts who roam the countryside on a motorbike, while her cross-dressing pal comes in for his share of abuse when they finally reach the girl's village.
The Square Circle will feel peculiar to the taste-buds of Western audiences - it is technically scrappy, and some of the supporting cast play very broadly. But the film has immense colour and vitality, even in the somewhat incongruous Bollywood musical numbers. There are inconsistencies, such as the timid girl's very sudden transformation into a confident stand- up comedian, but the warmth of the two leads works miracles. Nirmal Pandey is especially delightful - it takes an actor of considerable talent to elicit your sympathy for a character whose idea of rape counselling is to tell the victim to stop whingeing.
Director: Donald Petrie. Starring: Whoopi Goldberg (PG)
Laurel Ayres (Whoopi Goldberg) is a financial analyst who leaves her job when the colleague whom she helps to secure deals is given the promotion that was rightfully hers. Using the apartment building which her father left her as collateral, Laurel starts her own, eponymous business, but soon finds that high-flying businesses are unwilling to put their faith in a woman. Almost accidentally, she invents a male partner, and her new firm begins to take off, with the inevitable complications arising when her clients demand to meet the man with the Midas touch.
From this deeply contrived scenario, The Associate develops into a likeable and leisurely comedy, with the director Donald Petrie allowing the laughs to trickle out gently, but knowing when to set up a spot of shameless slapstick. Goldberg is sharper than she's been in anything since Ghost; her timing is precise, her occasional bursts of rage are fierce, and her scenes with Dianne Wiest - typically sympathetic as Laurel's assistant - give the film a sense of intimacy that the cumbersome plot sometimes seems in danger of smothering. The screenplay could still have used some inspiration, and the eventual unveiling of Mr Cutty, Laurel's fictional partner, won't prompt much more than deja vu from anyone who saw Lenny Henry's cross-racial make-over in True Identity, but this remains diverting, if not particularly surprising, entertainment.
Director: Pier Paolo Pasolini. Starring: Anna Magnani (NC)
Pasolini's 1962 drama, re-released in a new print, is a hymn to the strength and resilience of the working class, with the passionate and brilliant Anna Magnani as the eponymous mother who will do anything to protect her son, Ettore (Ettore Garofolo), even returning to prostitution when her ex-pimp re-enters her life and threatens the sanctuary she has built. Shot through with equal measures of poetry and biting realism, this is fierce, deeply human film-making.
Director: Larry Bishop. Starring: Ellen Barkin (15)
A messy crime spoof whose targets shift between film noir and the Rat Pack movies, but which never succeeds either as a thriller or a comedy. A parade of celebrities do nothing to lighten a clumsy script full of puerile jokes each relayed in triplicate. Jeff Goldblum is practically comatose as the suave hood whose number could be up now that his boss (Richard Dreyfuss) is checking out of the asylum, while Gabriel Byrne soars way over the top as his rival for the big man's affections.