The first cut is the deepest

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The Independent Culture
BEFORE Glasgow became triumphally re- marketed as City of Culture, it bore the stigma (usually in the form of a livid razor scar across the chops) of being our leading City of Violence. Gillies MacKinnon's fine coming-of-age film Small Faces (15), set mostly in and around proletarian Govanhill in 1968, sometimes looks like an attempt to transcend these two fusty urban cliches by scrambling them together: this is a town where youthful creativity is nursed and rewarded by the dingy environs as commonly as it is blighted; where budding artists like its boy heroes, Lex and Alan McLean (Iain Robertson, Joseph McFadden), may either be kicked to a pulp by the local hard men or calmly discuss aesthetics with them or even collaborate on eccentric creative pranks.

In one unpredictably comic scene a gang of youths, known as the Glen, gathers on a rooftop at night, plainly with crime in view. They truss Lex up in a rope and lower him down through a skylight into what proves to be an art gallery, where they then proceed to commit one of the most delicate acts of vandalism in pictorial history. Charlie Sloan (Garry Sweeney), the Glen's sharp-suited leader, strikes a pompous alderman's pose while Alan meticulously draws his likeness on the upper part of a group portrait. When the canvas is judged complete the Glen run shouting through the darkened corridors, as jazzed as if they had just won a bout with their deadly enemies the Tongs.

There's a touch of Anthony Burgess in the way this scene, and others which chime with it, casually shrug off the notion that artistic interests will tame the young human brute, or that they are the exclusive property of the educated middle classes. Lex and Alan's widowed mother Lorna (Clare Higgins), careworn but resiliently sexy, coaches her boys to identify El Greco and Piero della Francesca from cheap prints. When Alan paints her, and shows the result to Charlie Sloan, he offers to buy it and discourses on its obvious debts to Egon Schiele. In fine, this Glasgow would be an idyllic school of genius, were it not for all the sudden spasms of violence, at first comic - Lex accidentally shoots the Tongs' psychotic leader, Malky Johnson (Kevin McKidd), with an air pistol - then increasingly horrible, culminating in a brace of murders.

Co-written by the director and his brother Billy MacKinnon, Small Faces plays partly as minutely reconstructed memory, partly as childhood myth. (The latter tone is set by the opening credits, which show Lex drawing a crayon map of the Glasgow of his mind, dividing it into the lands of the Tongs and the Glen and etching in the names of principal thugs in the spirit of a Dark Ages cartographer noting that Here Be Dragons.) If the adventures of Lex and Alan cover pretty standard portrait-of-the-artist territory - Lex's first gulps of whisky, Alan's first girlfriend, the first glimmerings of the talents which will one day force both of them away from home - there's seldom anything routine about the manner in which they unfold, or in which Gillies MacKinnon frames them: there's one agoraphobic vista of the "Tongland" estate which looks like a sci-fi wasteground, and one overhead shot of a dead body being dragged rapidly from an ice- rink, leaving a perfect red stripe against the white background like a bar on a heraldic shield.

The film feels weakest when it ceases to flow easily from incident to incident and hardens into conventional plot: its climax, in which psycho Malky gets his comeuppance, feels a little contrived, and all the more so since it's immediately followed by a scene that has all the authenticity of shared experience - a nervy cinema manager trying to coax good behaviour from unruly Saturday-morning minors. But the MacKinnons have been well served by their mostly teenage cast, who manage the film's many swings of mood from comedy to horror and back with precocious ease. Small Faces has already won the Michael Powell Award for Best New British Film: stitch that, as the saying went.

George Huang's debut feature, Swimming With Sharks (15), has a cute one- liner of a premise and pursues it with enough energy and malicious wit to gloss over the fact that it was made for what most Hollywood productions spend on coffee filters. Guy (played by Frank Whaley; if the name's unfamiliar think Michael J Fox, as a bumbling hopeful) lands the job of assistant to Buddy Ackerman (Kevin Spacey), the nastiest, most sarcastic, underhanded, philandering tyrant of a studio executive in town: before long, his boss's relentless abuse drives Guy so crazy that he breaks into Buddy's house with a gun, ties him up and works delightful vengeance on him all night with paperclips and chilli sauce. Huang intercuts between this torture- fest, which will surely find a gratified echo in the bosoms of countless underlings, and the chain of office humiliations which led to all the gore.

There probably wouldn't be a lot more to the movie than its gleeful sadism, were it not for Huang's luck in securing Kevin Spacey, hot from Seven and The Usual Suspects, to play Buddy Ackerman. Spacey grasps this gloriously vile caricature of a role and twists it into something more than just wickedly funny. When he treats Guy with crooning mock-concern that the poor dupe actually believes for a moment, you can just about hear the nitric acid start to bubble up in his saliva ducts for the scornful spit of a pay-off. Spacey should play Iago, or De Flores; he's such a treat that you can even forgive the film its sophomoric trick ending.

If Swimming With Sharks is bargain-basement film-making, Michael Almereyda's Nadja (15) is boot-sale film-making. Much of it was shot in "Pixelvision", which is to say with a toy camera, the now-defunct Fisher-Price PXL 2000. This gizmo used to retail for about 25 quid, and produces a fuzzed-up monochrome image several grades poorer than your standard security video - an effect that has been wishfully described as "poetic". Fortunately for everyone's eyesight, the other sequences are shot in regular 35mm monochrome.

Despite its avant-garde means of production and its occasional sproutings of camp humour, Nadja is at heart a traditional horror movie, played straight. Nadja (Elina Lowensohn), beautiful daughter of the recently spiked Count Dracula, is cruising New York in search of midnight snacks and her estranged brother Edgar (Jared Harris). Her life, or UnDeath, becomes complicated when she falls in love with Lucy (Galaxy Craze; yes, her parents thought up the name), who is married to a stolid oddball, Jim (Martin Donovan), nephew of Dr Van Helsing (Peter Fonda, splendidly loony in tweeds and mirror shades). All of which is even sillier than it sounds, and, unless you are one of those losers who can't get their fill of arty vampire flicks (OK, I'll come quietly), probably not as much fun.

And yet the film shouldn't be dismissed too glibly: a lot of it is eerily beautiful, the performers - especially the two Hal Hartley graduates, Donovan and Lowensohn - are extremely watchable, and Almereyda's ability to conjure up sumptuous Gothic effects from a few sticks of antique furniture and a guttering candle puts him in the honourable tradition of Cocteau, whose Orphee haunts several scenes. If underground movies were always so beguiling, more people would use the underground. Best line: "Face it, Jim, she's a zombie."

At this late date, what is left to say about North by Northwest (PG, 1959), now re-released in an impeccable new print? That it is one of Hitchcock's best films; that Bernard Herrmann's score drives its most implausible action along like a giant propeller; that Ernest Lehman's script is sublimely poised between farce and terror; that it contains Hitchcock's flimsiest MacGuffin ("government secrets"); that the crop-dusting sequence looks as precision-cooled and menacing as ever; that Cary Grant, then 55, is impossibly yet appropriately youthful; that the chaste love scenes with Eva Marie Saint seem more erotic than ever; that the title ("I am but mad north-north-west ... ", from Hamlet) correctly hints at seriousness beneath the antic disposition? All that, and plenty more: it offers two and a bit hours of pure pleasure, bordering on bliss.

Cinema details: see Going Out, page 14