Books: Film guides

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Faced with the mound of competing authorities among movie guides, the best way to separate wheat from chaff is to set each the same aesthetic challenge. Today's test question is "How fully do the authors comprehend the contradictory genius of Jim Carrey as expressed in the film Ace Ventura: Pet Detective?" On this criterion, it's The Sixth Virgin Film Guide (edited by Cinebooks, Virgin, pounds 16.99) that leaps out of the pile. While acknowledging that the great Carrey's blockbusting animal-infested debut is "Stupid and surprisingly shoddy" (as it is), an informative and well-written entry wisely notes that it is also one of the funniest Hollywood films of the 1990s, and concludes that its star, like its central character, is a "genuine weirdo who happens to be stunningly competent at his job".

The notion of stunning competence is a gratifying one. Turning the pages of this entertaining and perspicacious volume, the extent to which it eschews the half-assed cut-and-paste aesthetic of many Virgin music titles becomes ever clearer. The entries - drawn from 45,000 in Cinebooks' 25- volume Motion Picture Guide - have enough in them to be worth reading more than once.

A provocatively favourable summary of Natural Born Killers is balanced with the searching qualification that "Director Oliver Stone lacks, and may never attain, the kind of intellectual acuity that most of us still expect from artists". Get back in the knife drawer, as Pauline Kael used to say. For this, they can be forgiven for giving Help! half a star more than Hellzapoppin'.

Also on its sixth edition, but failing the Ace Ventura test with a scathing "Pitiful stuff", The Time Out Film Guide (edited by John Pym; Penguin, pounds 13.99) endeavours to redeem itself via one of two extended essays. Barney Hoskyns's "All Hail Stupidity" suggests - not all that controversially - that the great Cahiers du Cinema critic/directors of years gone by might respond more warmly to Jim Carrey than to Ralph Fiennes. The bold opening gambit of employing two veterans of the NME at its most highflown (Biba Kopf is the other) to up the critical ante only shows up the shortcomings of the whole, as the capsule reviews tend too easily towards the dismissive and throwaway.

Halliwell's Film and Video Guide (edited by John Walker, HarperCollins, pounds 19.99) has acquired a reputation as the Roy Hattersley of the genre. Its verdict is the one you always expect to hear; whether you actually want to is another matter. Ace Ventura is deemed "extraordinarily inept", though time is taken to note, entertainingly, that "It also provides Sean Young with the most demeaning role of her career". This would have been the ideal jumping-off point for a supplementary list of all her other demeaning roles but, in Halliwell, such indulgences are strictly off-limits.

Turn to Halliwell's Filmgoer's Companion (edited by John Walker, HarperCollins, pounds 16.99) for elucidation on this point and "American leading actress, a former model" is the best they can come up with. The foreword to the first edition of this doughty supplementary volume asserts that it is "A collection of fads rather than opinions; if a few of the latter have crept in, they are usually the ones most generally held". If you are the kind of person who is sometimes unable to get to sleep because you can't remember who Red Buttons is, this is probably a book you need quite badly. Its random mix of brief career summaries and puzzling conceptual interludes ("Abortion", "Above the title", "Acetate") is nicely leavened with quotations. Some are excellent (Depardieu on Catherine Deneuve: "She is the man I would have liked to be") but others raise more questions than they answer. If John Travolta would really "never do anything solely for money", how would he explain Look Who's Talking Two?

Elliott's Guide To Home Entertainment (edited by John Elliott, Aurum, pounds 12.99) makes a bold leap into the present by supplementing its film and video releases with made-for-TV mini-series and feature-length dramas. The changes in viewing habits concomitant with satellite's marvellous trash explosion decree that the time is right for an authoritative guide to such deliciously debased phenomena. Unfortunately, this shining opportunity to create a true couch potato's bible has been squandered, with entries varying from banal (Lace was "Glossy but extremely boring and empty") to bizarre. The Thorn Birds, readers will be amazed to discover, "Suffers from not having been shot on location in Australia".

From the ridiculous to the sublime: making its first appearance in paperback, Geoffrey Nowell-Smith's impeccable Oxford History Of World Cinema (pounds 19.99) is the perfect companion to the Virgin volume. The still from Thelma and Louise on the front is presumably there to remind everyone that World here means World, not just, as is so often the case, Everywhere They Don't Speak English. Positing the cinema, after documentarist Paul Rotha, as "the great unresolved equation between art and industry", Nowell-Smith and his team range eloquently from Arnold Schwarzenegger to sub-Saharan Africa; Bunny, Bugs to Bergman, Ingmar. The imposing weight of scholarship behind this beautifully presented and intellectually nourishing work somehow gives it momentum rather than bogging it down.