Scott of the Arctic

THE SANTA CLAUSE Tim Allen (U) MURDER IN THE FIRST Marc Rocco (15) MAD LOVE Antonia Bird (12) ELISA Jean Becker (15) CANDYMAN 2 Bill Condon (18) MY DARLING CLEMENTINE John Ford (U) APOCALYPSE NOW! Francis Coppola (18) THE WAGES OF FEAR Henri-Georges Clouzot (NC)
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My favourite film of the week is the only one that delivers on its every promise, and makes you giggle because it's meant to. It also happens to be the one that features SAS-style elves, and a trainee Father Christmas being despicable to a girl who catches him in the fireplace ("Do you want this or not?" he barks, shaking a rag doll in her face. "Right. Then go to sleep!").

We're getting The Santa Clause a whole year after its US release but it's been worth the wait. The jokes are as crisp and crunchy as that first stretch of sparkling snow. And you can feel the movie's star, Tim Allen, marvelling from his bedroom window at all the freshly fallen zingers laid out before him, pulling on his wellies and stomping out to be the first to leave his footprints.

He plays Scott Calvin, a divorced father whose son Charlie (Eric Lloyd) spends Christmas Eve with him, half-knowing that they will end up eating their turkey in a restaurant (a tragically funny scene: Allen glances around and sees every table seating a similar combination of humble father and glum offspring).

That night, the pair are disturbed by a ruckus, and rush outside only to see Santa Claus topple off the roof. Through a series of contrivances too bizarre to explain, Allen dons the Santa suit and finds himself in the North Pole (which looks like a cross between Hamleys and Thunderdome). There, he is informed that by climbing into the costume, he has become subject to "the Santa clause": he is the new Pere Noel. And within weeks, he's sprouting a lush, shiny beard, putting on weight and generally becoming Kenny Rogers.

The screenplay, by Leo Benvenuti and Steve Rudnick, proffers the ingenious notion that the identity of Santa Claus is transient, something passed on like a baton in the manner of James Bond or Dr Who. The writers allow themselves too much seasonal goodwill, but John Pasquin (who directed Allen in the sitcom Home Improvement) sours their sugar by allowing Allen's personality, part-Oscar the Grouch, part-SuperDad, to roam as freely as his character's waistline.

It's interesting that a roughly 15-rated performer should choose a U- rated children's comedy to make his film debut. He has immense warmth. Yet there's a coarseness that he shares with Bill Murray (who tempered the schmaltz of Scrooged): you sense that his sarcasm could break the skin and inflict mortal injury. He makes the bright jokes blinding, and gives the dull ones new sheen. He has the makings of a fine comic actor - and a terrific shopping-centre Santa.

While Tim Allen is busy being Kenny Rogers, Kevin Bacon spends most of Murder in the First doing a Michael Stipe impression which should earn him a place on Stars in Their Eyes. He is Henri Young, an Alcatraz inmate pushed over the edge after three years in solitary confinement. It was an escape attempt that led to his stretch in the "dungeon", and the beatings at the hands of the sadistic Warden Glen (Gary Oldman). When Young is finally dragged from the darkness, he spies the accomplice who shopped him to Glen. He flips, and buries a spoon in the man's neck, killing him.

A young lawyer named James Stamphill (Christian Slater) is assigned to defend Young, and takes the courageous step of indicting Alcatraz, claiming that without the prison's corrosive influence, Young would never have realised the deadly possibilities contained within the simple domestic spoon.

This is Bacon's Nell, his Rain Man, and he has a whale of a time down there on his haunches, mumbling and grumbling and rolling his bingo-ball eyes. He's more piercing, though, when he just keeps still and clamps his mouth shut. In the drab trial scenes, his stillness is riveting, stubbly scalp buried in his hands, his face streaked with blue scars like a hunk of Stilton, playing dead while Slater buzzes about like a fly avoiding the swat.

Bacon isn't the only one who squanders the dramatic potential of stasis. The director Marc Rocco cannot keep his camera still (with all the zooms and pans, the courtroom scenes are like being stranded in the middle of a marathon tango tournament). Thanks to his obtrusive efforts, we never think "What a landmark in the history of human rights", just "Crikey, that was a 360-degree tracking-shot!". I'm sure Henri Young would be saddened to know that his suffering has been turned into something so inconsequential.

A last-minute, early-evening screening; Drew Barrymore and Chris O'Donnell as the stars - I couldn't have been given less incentive to see Mad Love if there had been broken glass over which I had to crawl to reach the screening room. Antonia Bird, the director of Priest, claims that her Hollywood debut was Mr Jonesed by Touchstone, who were frightened by the bleakness of this love-on-the-run drama. More likely they were frightened by Barrymore, who, as a slightly unbalanced teen smitten with O'Donnell (make that "incredibly unbalanced teen") runs the gamut from insane to insanely happy. I think Bird is crying wolf: there's nothing in her film to suggest that this slab of mutton could ever have been passed off as lamb.

Gerard Depardieu appears in the last reel of Elisa, as the drunk who abandoned his child Vanessa Paradis (wouldn't you if your daughter was dating Lenny Kravitz?). He has some touching lines ("I never gave any pleasure. But I'm excused: I never got any"), though he turns the movie to suet. The first half, detailing Paradis' sadventures with two street- chums, has great vigour, but the sex scenes are tipped dangerously toward paedophilia.

Candyman 2 is not only an inept horror film, it's also oddly angled: it elicits sympathy for its bogeyman, an ex-slave mutilated by his white masters then smeared with honey and stung to death. Now he takes revenge on anyone who says his name in the mirror. You can't blame him: wherever he goes, bees dance about his lips, which must be a bind when you've got company. I was rooting for him all the way, which surely can't have been the intention.

The week's three revivals are John Ford's poignant Western My Darling Clementine, Coppola's folie de grandeur Apocalypse Now!; and best of all, Henri-Georges Clouzot's The Wages of Fear. Its story of two trucks full of nitro-glycerine crawling along dilapidated mountain roads seems now like an anti-Speed. For two and a half hours, the tension bears down until you know that if the trucks don't explode, you will. The cruel conclusion will leave you feeling you've been taken for a ride, in both senses.

n All films on general release from Friday

RYAN GILBEY

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