Pipe dreams

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SMOKE Wayne Wang (15)

BEFORE AND AFTER Barbet Schroeder (12)

UNZIPPED Douglas Keeve (15)

SUDDEN DEATH Peter Hyams (18)

Even as you're reading this, there's a film student - probably dozens of film students - writing a thesis on the decline of on-screen smoking: the disappearance of the comradely or sexually charged cigarette, the decline of the masculine cigar, the slow drift towards tobacco as signalling amorality or malignity. They'll all have to revise what they're doing to take account of the aberration from the trend represented by Smoke, in which smoking seems to go hand in hand with a philosophical attitude - philosophical both in the sense of devoted to thought, and in the sense of fatalistic, stoically accepting life's vagaries.

The chief characters are Auggie Wren (Harvey Keitel), owner of a Brooklyn cigar store, and Paul Benjamin (William Hurt), a widowed writer and regular customer. Spinning off from their oddly intimate friendship, the accretion of thousands of fleeting daily encounters, Paul Auster's script paints a warm, almost romantic picture of a series of connected lives - Rashid (Harold Perrineau) saves Benjamin's life, and ends up staying in his apartment; he visits his estranged father (Forest Whitaker), then lands a job at Auggie's store, where Ruby (Stockard Channing) turns up to re-open some of Auggie's old wounds.

This being a Paul Auster script, you do feel from time to time that it's overly concerned with drawing your attention to its extreme cleverness, through a couple of very Auster-esque anecdotes (about Sir Walter Raleigh measuring the weight of smoke; about a skier finding the frozen body of his own father, who died years before and is now younger than his own son). Wayne Wang's direction could be more restrained, too - his camera wanders lovingly over Hurt's habitual expression of hard-won warmth, over the world-weary creases of Keitel's face. Against this, you have to set the film's unhurried exploration of a series of themes - children lost and found, old griefs returning to haunt their owners, notions of balance and obligation, how friendships can contain deception; it's a painstaking assembly of small facts and snatches of emotion, echoed within the story by Auggie's obsessive daily ritual of photographing the same street corner.

It is, in the end, a deeply sentimental film, but one that works hard to justify its sentimentality, so that you don't begrudge it its moments of indulgence; and while it isn't quite as enthralling as its cast and its authorial pedigree lead you to hope, it gives you plenty to chew on. Smoke without fire, sure, but with something of a glow.

Smoke seems even more solid when you set it next to the banal moralising of Before and After. Here we get Meryl Streep and Liam Neeson as the wealthy parents in a backwoods community whose teenage son is implicated in the murder of a local girl. The facts look damning; so do they come clean, or do they cover up for their son?

You may feel that you learn and grow through this film - it teaches you that honesty is the best policy, but that sometimes you have to lie to protect those you love; that a man has to stand up for his children, but that sometimes the children have to stand on their own two feet. You may, on the other hand, feel bored and frustrated by Barbet Schroeder's leaden filming style, hollow characterisation, and stultifyingly narrow focus - at no time does he show any awareness of other lives wrecked, feelings outraged. One faintly revolting scene has Streep apologising to the dead girl's mother, and being heartlessly rebuffed by a hard-faced bitch demanding punishment and reviling her for being middle-class (the film harps rather on the terrible burden of wealth and privilege). Contrast the weight that Auster and Wang allow even minor characters, the sense Smoke has of lives that are embedded in the world around them, and Before and After looks like a shallow, dreary piece of opportunism.

It's a big jump from here to the featherweight world of Unzipped, Douglas Keeve's documentary about the fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi. This isn't quite the glittering parade of wit and style that's been implied in the previews; nor is it the ruthless expose the title seems to promise. Most of the action consists of the hugely likeable Isaac cooking, bathing, having his hair cut, doing crosswords, playing the piano, having his cards read, having his stars read, hanging out with the rich and famous and, just once in a while, doing something that resembles work. The butterfly nature of his world is emphasised by the way the film leaps from black and white to colour, from grainy home-movie to slick Technicolor. It is, all in all, frivolous and utterly disposable - and, precisely because of that, because it doesn't try to kid you that fashion is a serious business, it's also highly enjoyable.

From this fluffily ironic world, it's a steep dive to the full-on machismo of Sudden Death, another foredoomed attempt to integrate Jean-Claude Van Damme into an American landscape. This time, he's an ex-fireman who comes up against a band of money-grabbing terrorists, straight out of Die Hard, who have taken the Vice-President hostage at an ice-hockey match, lacing the stadium with plastic explosive. Of course it's tosh; sadly, aside from some inventive use of kitchen implements, it's also boring tosh. Perhaps one day Van Damme will find a director who understands how to use his peculiar combination of violence and fragility; at the moment he's stuck with Peter Hyams - less Sudden Death than slow torture.

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