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Wag the Dog (15). When the President of the United States is accused of molesting a teenage girl in the Oval Office, a mysterious Washington spin doctor (Robert De Niro) hires a blustery movie producer (Dustin Hoffman) to orchestrate a fictitious war against Albania to keep the media distracted until after Election Day. This Barry Levinson-David Mamet collaboration may seem absurdly prescient, but it isn't really very astute. Wag the Dog is basically a one-joke movie (though, admittedly, it gets an awful lot of mileage out of that one joke), and its attempts at political and media satire tend to be familiar and glib. But director Levinson, whose recent work has been mostly sentimental or just plain sluggish, keeps up an appealingly brisk pace, glossing over the lapses in internal logic in Mamet's deeply cynical, somewhat cocky screenplay. Both lead actors (who'd only shared the screen once previously, in Levinson's dreadful Sleepers) are fun to watch: De Niro is his usual understated self and Hoffman threatens to run away with the show as the loquacious, megalomaniacal Hollywood bigwig; watch also for a very funny Woody Harrelson cameo.

Junk Mail (15). This first feature by Norwegian director Pal Sletaune takes the stereotype of a super-sterile Scandinavia and empties a slop bucket on it. At once clever and aimless, the film centres on - or, more accurately, runs circles around - Roy (Robert Skjaerstad), a jowly, sullen and exceedingly slobby Oslo postman for whom routine invasion of privacy constitutes the sole job perk. Mid-round one day, Roy wanders into the apartment of a hearing-impaired blonde and soon finds himself trapped in a crime caper populated by grotesques. Sletaune keeps the reasonably familiar set-up tightly wound and slightly off-balance. No detail is inconsequential - the film is as streamlined, incident-filled and hermetically plotted as a superior Seinfeld episode. That said, there's less to Junk Mail than meets the eye. For all its grime, it's ultimately content to become whimsy. But Sletaune's way with vivid detail shouldn't be taken too lightly - you never know what might happen when he gets around to scratching the surface.

Live Flesh (18). Pedro Almodovar's latest is based on a Ruth Rendell novel, but the director's own long-standing themes are very much in evidence: desire, jealousy, destiny, sexual pleasure and sexual inadequacy, along with a strong sense of recent local history. Less a crime thriller than a convoluted melodrama, Live Flesh explores a love triangle involving a married couple and the man who inadvertently shot and crippled the husband some years back. Subdued by Almodovar standards (the production design, for instance, is less hysterical than ever before), it's a thoughtful, tender and generous movie. Taken together with the director's fine previous film, The Flower of My Secret, it suggests that this "grown-up phase" could yield his best work yet.

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