The Critics - the cinema: also showing: A mad killer is at large in the movies. Yet again

In Dreams (18) Neil Jordan; 100 mins The Honest Courtesan (15) Marshall Herskovitz; 111 mins At First Sight (12) Irwin Winkler; 129 mins Solomon and Gaenor (15) Paul Morrison; 104 mins The Waterboy (12) Frank Coraci; 90 mins Knock Off (18) Tsui Hark; 91 mins The Ninth Configuration (18) William Blatty; 115 mins
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The Independent Culture
Neil Jordan's In Dreams opens with an upsetting sequence. It is the 1960s, and a small American town has been evacuated to make way for a new reservoir. The water comes, flooding the schoolhouse and main street, in ghastly, violent swirls. Jordan concentrates for ages on the melancholy of the empty town, peering through windows and at town statues. He takes us into a house, into a bedroom. We see a small boy chained to a bed, yelling for his mother. Soon he is submerged, but manages to get free, reaching for the surface, gaping and maddened. It's a sharp overture to what turns out to be an incredibly confusing film.

The rest of the action takes place in the present day. Annette Bening plays a housewife who predicts the future in her dreams. These hallucinatory fevers have recently revealed children being led into empty houses and then murdered. Her waking life becomes difficult and dark, full of crying and panic. When her own daughter is abducted and murdered, Bening wills herself into insanity, hoping to absorb the mind of the killer responsible and locate him.

But Jordan's film (co-written by Bruce Robinson) is illogical. It's too fond of its dream-gropings and fairy-tale imagery - for example an orchard full of diseased apples, its air thick with a poltergeist fog - there's so much here that doesn't make sense. Just when we think we have identified a certainty, someone will say or do something that denies it. Not once does Jordan recognise the dead ends of his own very elaborate creating - he's thudding his drum, but not noticing that his plot is falling to pieces. Is the killer psychic too? Should we mistake creativity for madness? What the hell is at the heart of this maze?

Bening, always a sensible actress, marches through the mud, surrounded by underwritten characters having their underwritten moments. Stephen Rea, playing Bening's psychiatrist, spends most of his time looking like a worried hamster. Rea usually acts like most people whisper - he has that collapsed face, and that mouth somewhere between sentimental and axe-slash. He might be standing across the street but he always feels half-way inside you, which is a disconcerting skill. In this film he is lost. If his accent is anything to go by, Rea doesn't even seem to know his character's place of origin (Kilkenny? Brooklyn? Warsaw?), let alone how he might handle a patient heaving with horror. Nothing diverts us for long enough from the fact that Jordan's film is unoriginal - a serial-killer thriller like most others, irritatingly inaccurate in its labelling of the mentally ill, remote and crazed.

The Honest Courtesan is set in 16th-century Venice. Veronica Franco (Catherine McCormack) is an intelligent, poor girl who becomes a courtesan - one of a select gaggle of expensive whores who might become independently wealthy, with access to the literature and gossip denied the proper Venetian wife. Franco publishes a book of poetry in her spare time, and earns a glossy living. But when a plague kills half of Venice, the courtesans - and the now-infamous Franco in particular - are blamed, and handed over to the Inquisition.

The Honest Courtesan tells its true story, from Margaret Rosenthal's biography, in a very panting way. It is pretty silly. Imagine McCormack (earnest, formidable) sitting on the bed in a Caravaggio tunic massaging her client's back with an ermine cloth, saying: "I see the Turks are on the move again." There are moments when the whole thing reminded me of the 1980s children's cartoon Dogtagnan which had the musketeers as spaniels, and the courtesans as poodles in bustiers being alluring with Cardinals (untrustworthy red setters, if you can imagine such a thing). Like that cartoon, there is a hint of the original source material here, a suggestion of exploration. But Franco's story - one of an emancipation of sorts - is muddled by the film's relentlessly old-fashioned gloss.

The story behind At First Sight is based on Dr Oliver Sacks's case history, An Anthropologist on Mars. Val Kilmer plays Virgil, a blind masseur who is encouraged by his new girlfriend Amy (Mira Sorvino) to undergo radical eye surgery. The procedure works - temporarily - and Virgil struggles terribly with spatial awareness, with seeing and believing what is suddenly moving and colourful and unpredictable. Virgil feels pestered by sight, never trusting one moment to elide into another without first the horrible routine of interpretation and self-examination.The major fault of this unremarkable film is certainly its characterisation. Not one of the people here is likeable. Amy bulldozes her new lover into the operating theatre just days after their first night together, and Nathan Lane as Virgil's sight therapist is oddly flippant.

FilmFour's Solomon and Gaenor follows the love affair between the son of a Jewish merchant family (Ioan Gruffudd, most recently Pip in the BBC's Great Expectations) and the Protestant daughter of a miner in the Welsh valleys in 1911. It opens well, with virtually all the dialogue in either Welsh or Yiddish, which, in itself, is absorbing, and surely a first. But when the plot shifts from Hardy to Catherine Cookson (an obligatory pregnancy, a super-human trek through the snow) the delicacy of the film's grief over inconvenient love is spoilt. It's a kind piece of work, nevertheless, and beautifully played.

Loathed by American critics, adored by American teenagers, The Waterboy has comedian Adam Sandler playing a thick teenager, perhaps destined to do nothing but distribute water to the players during games. In between checking pH levels, and being verbally abused by the jocks, he panders to his frightening mother, played by a rip-roaring Kathy Bates (forever yelling and barbecuing baby alligators in a shower cap). Dumb-ass, but not without its moments, and very brief.

Knock Off stars Jean-Claude Van Damme as a sales rep high-kicking the Triads during the 1997 handover of Hong Kong to China. Director Tsui Hark does his best with the charmless script (I'm sure I spotted a bit of symbolism; well, a carp doing nothing in particular - does that count?) and Van Damme fans will doubtlessly love his new brushed-forward hairdo.

The Ninth Configuration was written, directed, and produced in 1979 by William Peter Blatty (author of The Exorcist) and has a group of military types being given experimental psychiatric treatment in what looks like Germany. A gutsy take on inmates storming the asylum, with heavy and sometimes ludicrously pretentious illusions to the Bible and Shakespeare, this is far from subtle, but seamlessly, almost admirably chaotic.