Please Spike, just drop the Nikes

also released; He Got Game 15 The Land Girls 12 Hands PG Way Out West/ The Music Box U Species II 18
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The Independent Culture
What is it with Spike Lee? His films are full of big ideas, but undermined by bigger lapses of judgement. He offers you an insight like a well-chosen birthday present, then spoils the party by suddenly becoming insipid and crude. And his new one, He Got Game, conforms to the pattern.

The central premiss is strong. It's the story of Jesus Shuttlesworth (played by NBA star Ray Allen), a young basketball ace who is forced to examine his relationship with his father Jake (Denzel Washington). There is one important obstacle to this process: Jake is serving a life sentence for killing Jesus's mother. The movie is marred by outbreaks of ungainliness: a risible sub-plot about a prostitute redeemed by Jake's kindness; some naff sex scenes; and clumsy product placement for Nike Air Jordans, Skittles, and Sony PlayStations.

Good things first. Thanks to the testing time to which Lee subjected him in Malcolm X, Denzel Washington is now one of Hollywood's most authoritative leading men. Jake is a character in a more minor key than Malcolm was, but it's difficult to imagine who could better his portrayal of a man who knows that he has squandered his dignity and happiness with a single act of careless violence. (While we're at it, it's also difficult to imagine another actor you could take seriously in the silly haircut that Lee has forced upon him.) Washington's performance stages a busy exchange between pragmatism and idealism: you can see him mulling his way through every twist and turn in the narrative. He Got Game confirms him as one of cinema's few genuinely thoughtful performers.

But that subplot! Jake's nurturing relationship with Dakota (Milla Jovovich), a hooker with a heart of gold, is just embarrassing: a tedious male fantasy played out with little wit or distinction. A similar story almost capsized LA Confidential, but Lee's movie suffers more. I don't suppose his backers - in this case Buena Vista - dare tell him what to do these days, but He Got Game would have been a much better film had someone been brave enough to order him to cut all of Jovovich's scenes. And since this part of the narrative has no organic connection with the rest of the movie, a clean excision would have been entirely possible. Next time round, his producers should get tough with him. It might improve his game.

There are few surprises in The Land Girls. It's formulaic heritage film- making of the sort that keeps the owners of vintage cars and steam museums in business. The 1994 Angela Huth novel of the same name provides the inspiration for David Leland's wartime drama, which sees three oh-so- very-different women finding friendship when they are assigned to the Women's Land Army during the Second World War. As you might expect, there's a snooty one (Catherine McCormack), a bookish one (Rachel Weisz) and a proley sensualist (Anna Friel). Despatched to bash mangolds in Dorset, they soon find themselves up to their plus fours in pig muck and libidinous yokels.

As he showed in Wish You Were Here (1987), Leland has a genuine feel for the Forties and Fifties. He's particularly good at convincing you of the joys of working in a state-run rural economy: cheery women baling hay, bright red farm machinery chugging away, the blade of a plough slicing through wet turf. The pleasures of living in a Sovietised rural society are communicated so strongly that you feel like running out of the cinema to dig for England.

These tableaux are disrupted, however, by an overproduction of plot, which forces the narrative to belt on at a breakneck speed. In one scene there are two declarations of love, a fist fight, and news of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Anna Friel's character gets married and hears of her husband's death in the space of three minutes. And the movie's conclusion is swift and trite to be point of being ridiculous.

The economic crisis in Russia gives a stark currency to Artur Aristakisyan's Hands, a bleak documentary about street people in contemporary Moldova - not that you'd guess from looking at it that his film was a product of the present day. Aristakisyan's images of the poor are like postcards from the 19th century: naked children bathe in a filthy pond, a one-legged beggar gathers rags, an old man shares a garret with a brood of pigeons. But the attitude is one of modernist despair. We meet a former asylum inmate who stands silently in a basement, his head poking from the ground like Beckett's Winnie. We encounter an amputee who wheels himself around in a trough, and who once paid his neighbours to kill him by rolling him from the rooftop. (He survived the fall.) The power of the work resides in the images: the narration, an address by the film-maker to his unborn son, is - judging by the somewhat wayward subtitles - incoherent and pretentious.

And there are questions of propriety that remain unaddressed. Some of Aristakisyan's subjects are clearly willing participants. But others - a pair of lobotomised epileptics, for instance - don't seem to be aware that they are on camera. However, if you've got the stomach for it, Hands is an experience worth having. Just try and resist the temptation to hurl yourself under the next passing troika.

A re-release of two Laurel and Hardy greats - Way Out West and The Music Box - will give you the strength to go on living. Stan and Ollie have earned their place in the pantheon by refusing to ingratiate themselves, and by never letting you forget that their squabbles and frustrations emerge from their deep, desperate affection for each other. Though crashing pianos, falling bricks and pokes in the eye are the stuff of their comedy, what will survive of them is love.

And finally, to Species II, soft porn schlock horror in which Natasha Henstridge plays an alien with a one-track mind, and Michael Madsen (who must rue the day he turned down the John Travolta part in Pulp Fiction) descends another circle of career hell. Becoming the Nineties equivalent of Lee Majors now seems to be his best chance of staying employed.

Peter Medak's movie has an unerring interest in slime, bile, tacky sex and exploding wombs. Everyone - apart, perhaps, from people who have difficulty in forming normal human relationships - would do best to avoid this film.