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HOWARDS END (Curzon PG 136mins)

Have the regularly reviled Merchant-Ivory team truly delivered themselves of a masterpiece? Or have critics finally tuned into their liberal, costume drama wavelength? A bit of both, though circumstance has helped. Now is an excellent time to present the story of two Edwardian families, one vaguely socialist, the other capitalist and hypocritical, the moral being that the first household shouldn't collaborate with the latter tribe, though the pleading heart demands it. The organ in question belongs to bluestocking Emma Thompson, wooed by industrialist Anthony Hopkins on the death of wife Vanessa Redgrave (a performance of such delicacy it causes the throat to constrict with provokes unshed tears). The actors are used - it's the only word - in interesting ways. The accumulated mannerisms of Thompson, Redgrave, Hopkins and Helena Bonham Carter are decanted straight into their roles. They are never more themselves than when fingering starched collars and putting away parasols; the merger into their allotted characters is perfectly achieved. The most electric performance is Samuel West as Leonard Bast, the aspiring working-class accountant taken up by Thompson and younger sister Bonham Carter as a casual social experiment. They ruin each other with pure good intentions. West forces you to register the full futility of the deed. On release.

SNIPER (EV 15 93mins). An intriguing idea, excitingly directed, erratically scripted and executed. Tom Berenger is a hardened US army assassin instructed to kill a general and a supposed drugs mogul. Deep in the steamy South American jungle, rebels snapping at his rear end, he's also meant to succour tyro executioner Billy Zane, who suddenly develops a serious case of scruples. Whoever penned the dialogue should be shot (every other line is a puffed-up macho howler), yet there's enough going on to merit hanging around for the final reel. Sleek visuals: but should sniping, the ultimate act of cowardice, seem so sexy? On release.

GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS (20/20 15 96mins) Director James Foley takes the camera so close to his star-studded cast that the make-up is revealed. Al Pacino's blue eye-shadow is very becoming. As is his role: king of the real-estate con men, glibly weaving an entire philosophy from selling useless land to suckers. Transferred to the screen, David Mamet's testosterone-enhanced chunk of claustrophic vaudeville loses much of its impact and, like O'Neill, he can be a lumbering primitive. The premise, larded with neon and rain, is almost insultingly simple. Which of these three - Jack Lemmon, Ed Harris, Alan Arkin - will keep their jobs once the cut-throat office sales competition is done? What lengths will they go to? Yet the men's joy in their trickery is identical to the actors' joy in Mamet's profane, repetitive words: they have a blast. On release.

PETER'S FRIENDS (EV 15 98mins). The opening credits offer an Eighties montage - the Falklands conflict, Tory election victories etc. And that's your lot, sociologically speaking. When Peter (Stephen Fry) calls his Oxbridge clan together for a country mansion weekend after a decade and more of being dispersed it's like watching butterflies gather in a vacuum. No one thinks to offer a few stray musings on how British society may have changed (or may have changed them) since their student days. Not even Peter's former best friend and now expatriate director, Kenneth Branagh, married to American sitcom star Rita Rudner. The soap-propelled personal dominates to the point where understandable insularity bows to hypnotic smugness. The smoothness of the ensemble acting delights, and the one-liners enjoy a gleaming, machine-tooled precision, but oh, the schematic tragedies allotted to each character. Death of a child, HIV, alcoholism. . . and, lest we forget, inability to commit to relationships. This might explain the picture's US acceptance. It's British but safely familiar too: The Big Chilblain. On release.

SISTER ACT (Touchstone PG 96mins). This inexplicable comedy hit, originally slated for Bette Midler, had a famously troubled production history (Whoopi Goldberg deliberately provoked Disney executives by wearing a T-shirt emblazed with the Mouseketeer-punning legend Niggerteer) yet sailed to success on the elusive 'feel good' factor. It may feel good - a definite sugar high - but it ain't a laugh riot. Uplift and repentance don't fit the Goldberg persona. She's much more fun as mafioso Harvey Keitel's walking, talking, singing moll than as a pretend sister hiding away in Mother Superior Maggie Smith's crumbling urban convent. Worse, playing holy, Goldberg and Smith retract their claws, letting the dumb story-line take over: can Whoopi whip the choir into shape and avoid being murdered by her ex? God alone knows. . . On release.

BOOMERANG (CIC 15 112mins). Eddie Murphy gets humbled. Eager to trade in his cocky-going-on-misogynist image for a more upmarket model, he plays a womanising marketing executive hurt by his liberated new boss (sultry Robin Givens), who treats him as a pleasurable plaything: she congratulates him on his sexual technique and scampers home. The reversal affords a few wry chuckles, as do the antics of vixens Grace Jones and Eartha Kitt (who look as if they could eat Murphy alive, barely pausing to spit out the bones). While it's hard to wax nostalgic for the 'old' star - on view again in The Distinguished Gentleman - he did have street-smart energy and that sea-lion bark. He wasn't the type to succumb to the solace of someone as bland as Halle Berry. The film advances Murphy at the expense of his favoured targets: women. Ballbreaker, hot number or doormat? Not much of a choice. On release.

RAISING CAIN (CIC 15 88mins). Questions, questions. Is director Brian De Palma so uncertain of himself after the disaster of Bonfire of the Vanities that he's botching the perverse thriller form he once executed so brilliantly? Or is Raising Cain, a baroque tale of a husband and father with murderous multiple personalities, meant to be a mean, silly parody of the De Palma technique? It's impossible to say. What is sure is that it's fun. There's an endlessly long joke tracking-shot (a nod to Bonfire's beginning) and a recap of The Untouchables baby-buggy-down-the-steps scene that verges on the deranged. And speaking of deranged, isn't John Lithgow obviously overqualified to be killing Moms, kidnapping their children and messing with their tender young minds? You can spot the 'shock' ending a light year off but who cares? Narrative tension has by then transferred to De Palma's legerdemain. Can he pull it off? And the larger enquiry: what is he trying to pull off? On release.

BITTER MOON (Columbia-Tristar 18 138mins). Wannabe erotic melodrama from Roman Polanski. Peter Coyote and gorgeous, pouting Emmanuelle Siegner lure fellow cruise companions Hugh Grant and Kristin Scott Thomas into their fevered world with visions of - strictly minor - debauchery and sexual exploration. It's just an old man telling dirty stories, eager to shock the timid, little realising that his audience has outgrown and outstripped his interests (a reference to Coyote's character that does very well for Polanski also). The advertising tag line declaims: 'Some lovers never know when to stop.' Some directors too. On release.

SINGLE WHITE FEMALE (Columbia-Tristar 18 104mins). Inventive variation on the From-Hell category, introducing fiendish flatmate Jennifer Jason Leigh into the life of Bridget Fonda, recently broken up from her unfaithful boyfriend. Barbet Schroeder, bored by the black and white of Fatal Attraction and imitators, keeps the situation beguilingly grey. Identification artfully seesaws between the invading country mouse and the big city fat cat, until Jason Leigh's avid obsession with her role model / love object explodes into predictable bloodshed. Predictable and warped, too. Fonda realises that retaliating means killing part of herself. As shockers go, sophisticated and complex, though the lesbian sub-text seems too readily aimed at the guys wearing vibrating raincoats in the back row. Available 19 May.

HUSBANDS AND WIVES (20 20 Vision 15 103mins). Surely only the publicity barrage over the Mia-Woody contretemps explains the handsome reviews accorded this thin and ultimately self-serving study of marriage gone awry? Once again, the Woody Allen figure is the sole soul worthy of respect. He could seduce the enticing, fearsomely young Juliette Lewis - she's gagging for it - but soft, second thoughts prevail. He alone will learn that to be old, free and single is fine. Meanwhile, passive-aggressive wife Mia Farrow will attach herself to Liam Neeson once the disgruntled Judy Davis (dazzling in her role) has it out with Sidney Pollack after his fling with an aerobics bimbo. The roundelay is horribly plausible, even if the swaying camera is the biggest swinger around (the ranting couples are recognisable enough to command embarrassed blushes). What won't wash is Allen's loftiness, not merely about his own intentions, but about the frigid banality of what he chooses to impart about wedlock's cranky miseries. Available 26 May.

RETAIL

MGM/UA roll forth three gritty Humphrey Bogart double-features on 7 June. Titles include Conflict / Key Largo, To Have and Have Not / Dark Passage, High Sierra / Treasure of Sierra Madre. Retail price: pounds 10.99.

Warner Home Video and Columbia Tri-Star are expanding their Wide Screen libraries. JFK comes as a new Director's Cut (another 17 minutes of convoluted conspiracy theory) as does the recently re-released Blade Runner. Also available circa 7 June: Thelma and Louise, Battle of the Bulge and Superman. JFK retails at pounds 13.99, the others for pounds 12.99. Columbia Tri-Star's Taxi Driver and Midnight Express cost pounds 10.99.

Further upmarket lurks Tartan Video's The Wild Wild World of Pedro Almodovar, following on the heels of their Matador Special Edition Box Set. Video premieres for Pepi, Luci, Bom, Law of Desire, Labyrinth of Passion and What I Have Done to Deserve This? loom. Prices from pounds 15.99 to pounds 29.95. Available from 24 May.

COMPETITION

We have 10 copies of the Wide Screen Director's Cut of Blade Runner to give away. Simply answer the following questions: who played the female lead in Ridley Scott's The Duellists? Name the horror movie she made for Michael Winner. One entry per household. Answers on a postcard please, to: Blade, Arts Page, The Independent, 40 City Road, London, EC1 2DB. Closing date: Friday, 21 May.

COMPETITION WINNERS

The winners of The Adjuster contest are: Declan O'Driscoll, Tipperary; Paul Kingston, Hull; G Bond, Warrington; Mavis Corrigan, Liverpool; Y Heward, Horncastle; Martin Bradley, Derry; P Stones, Southport; B Jordan, Wigan; Neil Pain, London; James Jackson, Knowsley.

The five winners of the Doctor Who and the Daleks double-bill video are: Tom Fenton, Worcester; Dave Sargent, London; Janette Pelosi, London; Peter Lloyd, Oxford; A R MacFarlane, Surrey.

(Photograph omitted)

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