Reservoir pups

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The Independent Culture
Palookaville Alan Taylor (15)

Portraits Chinois Martine Dugowson (15)

Broken English Gregor Nicholas (18)

Idiot Box David Caesar (nc)

The Disappearance of Kevin Johnson Francis Megahy (15)

Warriors of Virtue Ronny Yu (PG)

The heist-gone-wrong movie has become to the Nineties what the breakdance film was to the Eighties. It's not a new genre - robberies were being messed up in perfectly entertaining and explosive ways from The Killing through to Dog Day Afternoon. Then Tarantino came along, and suddenly every film-school drop-out with a credit card and Harvey Keitel's home phone number decided they had what it took to be a reservoir puppy. So it's refreshing to find that Palookaville offers a slight twist on this tired formula. Welcome to the "heist that would go wrong if only its masterminds could get their lives in order, get a hobby, get out more, that sort of thing" movie.

This lot are the mild bunch. Sid (William Forsythe) lives with his two dogs and dresses like a librarian. Jerry (Adam Trese) is a plump, amiable chap who is secretly thrilled when, during a midnight raid on a jewellery store, he accidentally tunnels into the bakery next door. (There's a delightful scene where he wakes his wife up to show off the stash of doughnuts in his coat.) Only Russ (Vincent Gello) has any fire in his heart, and it's at his insistence that the trio start plotting a hold-up.

For inspiration, they huddle round the TV to watch Richard Fleischer's Armored Car Robbery, equipped with notebook and pencil. These characters are so endearing that it strikes you that Palookaville could be the most socially irresponsible film ever made: you itch for these guys to put their balaclavas on straight, act tough and escape with the loot. But though the film may be comical about the trio's attempts to escape their own lives, it doesn't trivialise their poverty, and there are a few surprisingly tough scenes that punctuate the knockabout antics.

I don't think Palookaville captures the same stinging melancholy as Bill Forsyth's similar Breaking In, but its characters are lovingly detailed, and there is a magnetic performance from Vincent GaIlo. If Chaplin had been fused with the young John Travolta in a laboratory experiment, then chewed up by a garbage truck and spat out on the pavement, the result would be something like this wolfish young actor. He's a physical conundrum - ugly as sin from one angle, pretty as hell from the next. His performance smells of nicotine and cheap aftershave, desperation and romance.

With her new film, Portraits Chinois, Martine Dugowson has widened the frame after the lovely Mina Tannenbaum, and lost something of that picture's crisp definition in the process. She focuses on a group of self-absorbed friends with careers variously blossoming and bombing in the film and fashion industries, and the result is not as bad as Pret a Porter, but not as good as A Confucian Confusion. Ada (Helena Bonham Carter) is a designer who finds herself outshone by the blinding talents of Lise (Romaine Bohringer), a new girl on the block who is also putting the moves on Ada's boyfriend, the screenwriter Paul (Jean-Philippe Ecoffey). Drifting in and out of this story are Alphonse (Miki Manojlovic), a lusty producer; Emma (Elsa Zylberstein), whose stage debut makes Pan's People look like Ballet Rambert; and Yves (Yvan Attal), a film director who is in love with his own fame. Putting aside the fact that you wouldn't want to spend 10 seconds in a lift with these people, let alone two hours inspecting their souls, this is still crushingly dull.

Characters you wouldn't want to spend 10 seconds in a lift with, Part 2. Broken English is a harrowing inter-racial love story that comes from the producer of Once Were Warriors and shares that film's unsparing toughness - not to mention its unpleasant tang of sadism. Nina (Aleksandra Vujcic) is a Croatian immigrant in New Zealand whose affair with Maori colleague Eddie (Julian Arahanga) sends her bigoted father wild. Not for this parent the intimidating body language and warnings to return his daughter by midnight - he favours the baseball bat instead. While the cast respond to the urgent script with great sensitivity, the picture doesn't take long to swap originality and bravery for an itinerary of violence.

Characters you wouldn't want to... Part 3. The heroes of Idiot Box are two unemployed Australian loafers who spend their days fighting boredom by setting off car alarms, stealing charity tins and squabbling over whose turn it is to play air-bass on the latest heavy metal record. Then a weighty thought invades their inconsequential daydreams: a bank robbery could provide the perfect antidote to their humdrum lives and empty pockets. Sound familiar? Sadly, the writing here has none of the warmth and wit of Palookaville, and neither flashy editing nor a soundtrack crammed with kooky rock songs can compensate.

The Disappearance of Kevin Johnson is not the most enticing title in the world. Audiences are unlikely to care who Kevin Johnson is, let alone ponder his whereabouts. If you haven't heard of him, that's because he doesn't exist. He's the figure at the centre of this "mockumentary" and would-be satire on Hollywood. Coming some two years after the various exploits of Heidi Fleiss and Don Simpson, the film lacks topicality, and can only be recommended for its nice parodies of Nick Broomfield's work, cameos from Pierce Brosnan and Dudley Moore, and some fine agent gags delivered by the charming Michael Brandon, who was once - as all fans of crap TV will recall - one half of top Eighties crime-busting duo Dempsey & Makepeace.

Not only is Warriors of Virtue lumbered with the worst title since, well, The Disappearance of Kevin Johnson - this children's adventure will also bewilder its target audience and bore the pants off their parents. For no apparent reason, a young squirt wakes up in a mystical forest, surrounded by the kangaroo tribe from Tank Girl, and with the dwarf from Twin Peaks on hand as spiritual adviser. The 'Roos are ancient warriors, forbidden from killing anyone, though permitted to chafe their opponent if it's absolutely necessary. The boy teams up with them to conquer the evil Komodo, played by Angus MacFadyen, who over-acts with the recklessness of a man who knows that no one will ever see his performance anyway n

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