Simplistic Simon

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MOONLIGHT AND VALENTINO David Anspaugh (15)

HEAVEN'S PRISONERS Phil Joanou (15)

EMPIRE RECORDS Allan Moyle (12)

A THIN LINE BETWEEN LOVE AND HATE Martin Lawrence (18)

DOWN PERISCOPE David S Ward (PG)

SCREAMERS Christian Dugay (18)

I CONFESS Alfred Hitchcock (PG)

As she hurtles toward the spotlight, the new screenwriter Ellen Simon will have to suffer critics drawing inevitable parallels with the work of her father, Neil Simon. So let me get in quick and say that, on the evidence of her first screenplay, Moonlight and Valentino, those connections won't be entirely spurious. Both father and daughter construct the characters in their writing around a defining quirk: in the face of crisis, these people who have been dealt a bum hand by fate suddenly turn lucid and sharp and witty. Other people's deaths become them. If you took any one of the four women in Moonlight and Valentino and broke them open, you'd find a Christmas cracker joke, not a heart.

When a man is killed while out jogging, the tragedy all but makes stand- up comics of those left to grieve - his wife Rebecca (Elizabeth Perkins), her sister Lucy (Gwyneth Paltrow), their friend Sylvia (Whoopi Goldberg) and the siblings' despised step-mother Alberta (Kathleen Turner). The guy is barely out of his jogging pants before they're bonding and finding themselves and being kooky, in a noble sort of way. "Why are you always everywhere with something to say?" demands Lucy of Alberta, though she could just as easily have been addressing her script-writer. If someone developed zits, you can be sure that Simon would be on hand ready to squeeze out the pathos.

Her writing is crude as well as fussy. Rebecca teaches poetry, Lucy is a photographer and Sylvia sits on the lawn with a potter's wheel; these things are intended to denote spirit, spontaneity, passion. We are therefore directed to admire them. But not Alberta, who has short hair, a mobile phone and a career. These people are built entirely of wisecracks and weeping, so the diligent cast are stifled - Simon has given them nowhere to roam. The only breath of air comes from the rock singer Jon Bon Jovi, making an endearing debut as a libidinous young housepainter who helps Rebecca slam the coffin-lid on her grief. Looks like it's time for him to give up the day job.

Despite being 30 minutes too long and utilising its Louisiana locations about as effectively as a Southern Comfort ad, Heaven's Prisoners is intermittently beguiling. Alec Baldwin is Dave Robicheaux, an ex-alcoholic ex-cop who rescues a young Salvadorian girl from a plane-crash and decides to raise her with his wife (Kelly Lynch). His altruism undoes him. As he investigates the crash, and threatens to expose foul play possibly engineered by the local dreadlocked sleaze-ball Bubba Rocque (Eric Roberts), violence erupts on his doorstep.

Heaven's Prisoners wisely retains much of the novelist James Lee Burke's original dialogue, which is sprightly and colourful, and has a deft sense of poetic rhythm (Bubba is memorably described as having spent his high- school days "eating lightbulbs and pushing thumb-tacks into his knee-caps"). But the picture crawls along like a paddle-steamer, and you'd guess that the director Phil Joanou was all too aware of this by the way he hurls his energy into an inconsequential chase sequence that crams in homages to Vertigo and Speed, and briefly disturbs the movie's stupor. It all goes fairly loopy in the end. Roberts relinquishes evil, and dreadlocks, and turns up in a leopard-print dressing-gown, while the plot turns out to have been about nothing more than the importance of using coasters on coffee tables. Oh, don't ask.

It was never on the cards that Allan Moyle, the director of Pump Up the Volume, would deliver an authentic study of modern youth with his new film Empire Records. But the picture is barely even set on this planet, let alone in this era. It hangs on the old let's-put-the-show-on-right- here plot, though in this case it's let's-save-our-record-store-from-corporate- takeover, and the struggle is forgotten by the film-makers until the last reel, when it gets resolved in a matter of minutes via a collecting tin.

The film pays no attention to the basic rules of comedy - that a joke must be impeccably paced, for instance, and, where possible, funny. And Moyle's anachronistic view of what's "rock 'n' roll" hasn't changed from 1980, when he made Times Square, in which serial juveniles terrorised New York by hurling TV sets from rooftops. He thinks that the urchins in Empire Records (including an ingratiating Liv Tyler) are wonderfully wild because they shave their heads, play air guitar and act stoned; his dogged pursuit of these young stereotypes suggests he also believes that they're real. Let's put them in a pit and make them go hand-to-hand with the cast of Kids, and then see how real they are.

Empire Records would undoubtedly be the worst film of the week if it weren't for A Thin Line Between Love and Hate. Martin Lawrence, the Bad Boys star who looks like a glove-puppet, wrote, directed, executive-produced and stars in the movie. And as it could only possibly appeal to someone who thinks that Lawrence is a cheeky, priapic sex-god, it looks like his duties will stretch to being in the audience too. He plays Darnell, a nightclub owner adored by the entire female population, including his mother, into whose purse we spy him slipping a wad of money, the little sweetie.

Then comes Brandi (Lynn Whitfield), who wants to take their one-night stand further, and blows a gasket when he rebuffs her. The picture is being sold as a comic Fatal Attraction, only it's not as funny. And the real obsessed, unhinged lover isn't Brandi, it's Lawrence himself. The leering close-ups of female flesh would be objectionable if they weren't outnumbered by the leering close-ups of Lawrence. If I were him, I'd call the police and have a restraining order slapped on myself.

More flotsam and jetsam: Down Periscope is a puerile but ticklish Police- Academy-at-sea which stars Kelsey Grammer of TV's Frasier, and tells us the things about submarine life that Crimson Tide didn't dare, such as the demoralising effects of flatulence. Screamers is a gloomy sci-fi thriller indebted to Tremors and the trashy oeuvre of Charles Band, but lacking the levity and dippiness of either. And you can tell it's a dire week because even the Hitchcock revival, I Confess, makes for sluggish viewing, redeemed only by the intensity of Montgomery Clift as a priest in sexual torment, a performance now enhanced and complicated by hindsight.

n On release from tomorrow

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