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REVIEWS: A night out with with the mafia? Adam Mars-Jones would rather spend a quiet evening down at the local dime store
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The job of a first film is putting your goods in the shop window, a job which Kevin Smith's Clerks (18) manages in exemplary fashion. It just so happens that Smith, filming in a convenience store where he was also working as an employee, had to shutter up the shop windows first, to dodge the problem of matching natural light with supposed time of day (much of the filming was actually done at night). For screenplay purposes, the locks on the shutters have been jammed with gum - just one more trial in the hero's working day.

Dante (Brian O'Halloran) represents service culture at its most put upon and obliging - when a customer wants to use the staff lavatory, Dante ends up not only giving him some soft toilet paper but also a magazine to read. His friend Randal (Jeff Anderson), on the other hand, sees his job in the adjacent video store as a daily campaign of attrition. His task is to wear the customer down first.

Clerks establishes one set of credentials with its characters (Dante's grunge-era mouth-beard and hip-in-America Doc Martens), its black-and- white photography and Indie-rock soundtrack, another set with its pointedly abstract titles between episodes: vagary, purgation, syntax and so forth. Perspicacity. Harbinger. Vilification. The film is made up of individual sketches, always crisp and often funny, subtended by a slightly soggier story, in which Dante must decide between his supportive but somewhat suffocating current girlfriend and an old flame from high school whom he has never quite got over.

There's a latent earnestness to this theme (in therapy-driven America you're never too young to examine your life) that is kept at bay pretty effectively. Smith originally cast himself in one of the leads, but sensibly retreated to the role of Silent Bob, who nevertheless breaks silence with a single speech about the prevalence of sexual betrayal and the rarity of finding someone who'll bring you lasagne for lunch at work. It's an almost alarmingly sensible perspective. To whom can we look for extremes of hope and despair if not the young (Smith is 23)?

Clerks is full of things that are referred to without quite being real. Dante lives with his mum but she makes no appearance. There's someone selling drugs outside the store, but none of the main characters is interested in buying. There is much talk of sex, and even a little of the thing itself, but Aids-fear and safe sex are conspicuous by their absence. The most foul-mouthed character, Randal, seems not to have a sex life at all, though his fondness for dirty videos of hermaphrodites suggests he could potentially be interested in anything or nothing.

It's a pity the plot of Clerks pivots on what is essentially an urban folk tale (this friend of a friend of mine thought she was meeting her boyfriend...) and also that Kevin Smith tries some fancy camerawork where none is needed, whipping back and forth between two conversing faces instead of settling for the stand-to shot. But all in all Clerks delivers good entertainment value, not just in terms of the budget dollar but also by the screen minute.

Twenty-four-year-old James Gray's debut as writer and director, Little Odessa (18), is altogether more ambitious and a lot less successful. The setting here is the Brooklyn suburb of Brighton Beach, where Russian immigrants reproduce their culture in miniature, and Russian is the preferred language of business. Gray exploits the familiar eerie pathos of a resort out of season, the promenade bleak with snow. The plot concerns a hit man (Tim Roth) returning to his home town for a job, and making tentative contact with his younger brother, played by Edward Furlong.

This situation allows for any number of Big Themes: loyalty, betrayal, love and hate. Add to these, thanks to a mother with a brain tumour, pain, death, and the meaning (or not) of life. The effect, though, is more of an all-you-can-eat buffet of literary ideas than of a cinematic story dynamically told. The scenes are usually short, but slow in rhythm and full of all too significant silences.

At one point Gray uses a slow-motion tracking shot for a celebration dinner, a mannerism that Terence Davies could get away with but here seems closer to lugubrious pretension. The dialogue has definite aspirations to the profound, for all its fluency. "We're Jews, we wander," a character will say or "The weak are the killers", or "I'm sorry I hit you, but you're always running away".

The only markedly contemporary element in the film's style is its post- Reservoir Dogs gun language (appropriate to a film with Tim Roth in it). Remember when people pointed guns at each other? Not any more. These days gun play is a contact sport, and threatening someone from a distance looks old fashioned and laughably understated. In Little Odessa, Tim Roth makes a point in conversation by grinding the muzzle of his gun into a colleague's cheek. We see the indentations it has made when he withdraws it. Confrontation doesn't get much more in-your-face than that.

A gap opens up in the film between scenes of actions, shot with a hand- held immediacy, and scrupulously composed sequences of low-key family trauma. Camera movement is sometimes stylised, starting behind a character's shoulder, for instance, then moving up and over to look down into the envelope he's opening. Even when the visuals are naturalistic, the soundtrack is likely to be mannered: there is a violent abduction, for instance, done with very selective use of direct sound, so that we hear a whistle from outside but no noise of breathing, though there are six people in the bedroom and at least two of them are in fear. Maximilian Schell (excellent as the father of the family) may be lying face down in the snow but his voice is sonorous as ever as he denounces the sins of his son.

The magic glue that the director uses to hold his film together is, unfortunately, Russian choral music, that quintessence of lamentation. James Gray seriously underestimates how distinctive this style of singing is, so that what on its first appearance was powerfully affecting becomes repetitious self-parody. A clich Russia of enigmatic sorrow comes to dominate the film.

By the time the film reaches it sombre climax, audiences are likely to be in revolt against the film's sadness. It doesn't help that immediately before the final shoot-out a character pins up some sheets on the drying line, for no reason except to oblige the director with their visual possibilities: concealment, silhouettes, white cotton showing up red blood, and a moment where the camera peers through the hole that a bullet has just made - a characteristically inert flourish.

n On release from tomorrow