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The Independent Culture
Smoke (15). True to the spirit of his subtly dazzling novels, Paul Auster's first screenplay weaves an intricate, elusive web around his longtime preoccupations: coincidence, fatherhood, commonality. Wayne Wang's direction is unobtrusive and, perhaps deliberately, a little flavourless; Auster's sleight of hand, invariably takes centre stage. The story revolves around Auggie Wren (Harvey Keitel), a Brooklyn cigar-store owner, and, with deceptive casualness, expands to take in the overlapping lives of many more strikingly-drawn characters. It's a deeply humanist film, literate and even literary, with a cumulative impact that's easy to underestimate. The actors, who include Stockard Channing, William Hurt, and Forest Whitaker, contribute the most impressive ensemble work in any American movie since Short Cuts. Smoke's companion piece, Blue in the Face (15), cobbled together by Wang and Auster in only five days, is a proudly ramshackle string of ad-libbed sketches, the funniest of which involve Jim Jarmusch's deadpan anecdotes and Lou Reed's philosophic ramblings. A heartfelt ode to the crazy-quilt diversity of Brooklyn, it cruises on rough-hewn charm. The free-for-all inevitably begins to disintegrate and (grate), with Madonna's telegram messenger and a RuPaul dance routine, but the film- makers pull the plug before any permanent damage is done.

A Farewell to Arms (PG). Frank Borzage's adaptation of the Hemingway novel, not to be confused with Charles Vidor's bombastic remake, is re- released this week, and compared to Attenborough's similarly themed In Love and War or The English Patient, for that matter, this 1932 film is more sincere - and more electrifyingly romantic. The love affair between an American ambulanceman (Gary Cooper) and an English nurse (Helen Hayes) is blown up to a swooning melodrama, yet Borzage's richly expressionist direction is never less than exquisitely controlled.

The Most Desired Man (18). Ominously promoted as the most successful ever German comedy, Sonke Wortmann's movie, in which a sex-mad dolt (Til Schweiger) causes a series of misunderstandings, does little to combat the unkind stereotypes about Teutonic humour. The only thing that's laughable in this barely adequate farce is the crushing predictability of the plot. Dennis Lim