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The price of free speech

Also Showing
The People vs Larry Flynt Milos Forman (18)

Total Eclipse Agnieszka Holland (18)

Bits and Pieces Antonello Grimaldi (15)

The Empire Strikes Back Irvin Kershner (U)

Citizen Kane Orson Welles (U)

It seems fairly daring that Hollywood should use Larry Flynt, the founder of Hustler magazine, as the figurehead in a movie promoting free speech, given that debate over pornography continues to flourish. But Milos Forman's film The People vs Larry Flynt invites no such conflicts - it's tasteful to the point of being innocuous. It follows Flynt - played by Woody Harrelson in a variety of garish costumes far more offensive than anything Hustler ever published - from the peak of his success as a publisher, through to the assassination attempt that left him wheelchair bound, and the various court cases that chiselled away at his right to freedom of expression.

But the battle is rigged from the beginning, with Flynt unconvincingly painted as a cross between the martyr-styled Lenny Bruce portrayed in Bob Fosse's Lenny, and a long-lost brother to the Hunter S Thompson of Where the Buffalo Roam - two films that also rendered abrasive or problematic figures palatable for easy consumption. Meanwhile, anyone who objects to Flynt's publications is automatically a pen-pushing hypocritical fascist (just look at how eagerly the squares at a fund-raising dinner lap up the pornography they're supposed to be condemning!)

Far more interesting than these showcase scenes, in which Harrelson is called upon to make Flynt's tiresome courtroom antics somehow wacky and endearing, is the relationship between Flynt and his wife Althea. In that role, Courtney Love demonstrates that she can sustain the careful, measured verve and swagger hitherto glimpsed only in her cameos in Basquiat and Feeling Minnesota. Even at its most languorous, her portrayal of Althea conveys a sense of effervescent optimism in the face of extreme adversity, not to mention extreme fashion crimes.

If it weren't for the passion and intensity of Love's performance, and the characteristic reverence of Forman's visual style (whose contrast with the subject matter provides the only dramatic tension), this would resemble the kind of knockabout nonsense that Burt Reynolds used to churn out in the 1970s. Any illusions about this being a political work are quickly dispelled by the film's eagerness to portray everyone but Larry and his clan as sub-human. It appears that we all have our civil rights - apart from when it comes to being represented in a movie.

It's perfectly feasible, as the screenwriter Christopher Hampton proposes in Total Eclipse, that the visionary French poet Rimbauld should have been an obnoxious brat despite his knack for crafting coruscating verse - after all, by the time he turned his back on his art, he was barely old enough to get into whatever the 19th century French equivalent of Stringfellow's was.

But that's still no reason for the director Agnieszka Holland to order Leonardo DiCaprio, a highly versatile actor, to do his utmost to disguise any glimpse of intelligence in his performance. This portrait of the artist as a sadistic wretch accentuates the cruelty of the relationship between Rimbaud and fellow poet Paul Verlaine (David Thewlis) to the point of tastelessness. The cast, which also includes Romane Bohringer as Verlaine's suffering wife, is visibly trying to breathe life into their characters, but Holland is so intent on making the audience suffer that the whole thing ends up as an exercise in prolonged sado-masochism. A season in hell indeed.

Bits and Pieces has a dreamy, delightful opening that the rest of the film never catches up with: travelogue-style shots of Rome-by-night are interrupted by a robbery in a Chinese restaurant during which a man suffers a cardiac arrest - his heart couldn't take the wontons, claims a relative - while lolling, romantic music continues to play on regardless on the soundtrack. The movie borrows some tricks from Slacker and Short Cuts in an attempt to use unconnected characters (a total of 130 speaking parts, boasts the production notes) to build a cumulative picture of Rome in all its colour and vibrancy. It's occasionally beguiling, but the effect is somewhat diminished by the pointlessness of each vignette.

The Star Wars revival continues with the re-release, in digitally jazzed- up form, but with no discernible increase in running time, of the series' second instalment. The Empire Strikes Back is the most satisfying episode, if only because it has dark stylistic overtones to match its vision of a universe forever on the verge of being governed by absolute evil. What's more, the good guys don't exactly win, and the picture ends on a decidedly downbeat cliffhanger. It's certainly not perfect - how could it be when its spiritual centre is provided by the sub-Tolkein, Fozzie Bear-voiced Zen-master Yoda? But it carries enough suggestions to menace to counteract the anodyne excesses of its predecessor. The climactic confrontation between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, is particularly thrilling, though the appealing decision to keep interrupting the scene with cutaways to whatever the rest of the cast happen to be doing at the time suggests that the movie was made by complete idiots.

In any given week, the new films would inevitably be shamed by the reappearance of Orson Welles' 1941 masterpiece Citizen Kane, but this week's disappointing batch only give you further cause, as if you needed it, to revisit this towering work, which reappears on one London screen in a new print. It's the story of the rise and fall of newspaper tycoon Charles Foster Kane (Welles), told through multiple perspectives which each appear to bring us closer to understand him, while actually feeding the ambiguities and enigmas surrounding his life and identity. A strange, haunted movie, dark and forbidding, but with enough emotional and technical complexity to merit continued examination for the rest of timen All films on release from tomorrow

Ryan Gilbey