Cinema Review: It's not exactly noir, but I like it

Curtis Hanson's LA Confidential (18) is clearly the best crime picture of the year. Smart, stylish and brutal, it has an exhilarating film noir plot (filleted from James Ellroy's novel) and an impeccable sense of time and place (Los Angeles, 1953, cracked Bakelite under a haze of nickel-cigar smoke). And its dramatis personae are the most carnivorous pack of grifters, sharks and patsies seen since John Huston filmed Dashiell Hammett.

However, it's also pure pastiche. When Hanson attempts to sidestep the noir tradition on which his film relies, it bangs up against its generic limitations as hollowly as an ice-cube in a tumbler of bourbon.

The refreshingly complex plot hard-boils down to the relationships between three LAPD cops and a top-drawer hooker. There's the seedy celebrity-chaser Jack Vincennes (a louche, lounge-lizardly Kevin Spacey), the evangelically ambitious Ed Exley (Guy Pearce, a man with cheekbones in his gums), Bud White, scourge of wife-beaters (Russell Crowe, a male Fury with a Clara Bow pout) and Veronica Lake lookee-likee Lynn Bracken (Kim Basinger, whose stellar luminescence belies her uneven career).

The noir thriller is an uneasy pleasure. The best ones are cocktails of paranoia, sex, corruption and misogyny. Men are thugs and felons, women are peril in a satin wrapper - think of Mary Astor in The Maltese Falcon, or Lauren Bacall in The Big Sleep. They're treacherous and enigmatic, fallen angels who pack a shooter in their garter belt.

Though LA Confidential trades on the femme fatale's guilty glamour, it can't resist attempting to redeem her, and this is where it falters. Complying with sadistic noir convention, Hanson revels in the sensational charnelry of his plot's central criminal racket - a vice ring that proffers "whores cut to look like movie stars". Women are rouged and abused - they get beaten and raped, and suffer plastic surgery to enhance their sexual marketability. The breaking of this racket becomes a quasi-feminist crusade for the aptly-named White, who rescues a punched-up wife on Christmas Eve; jumps to the defence of a young prostitute with a bandaged face; is shocked when she turns up at the morgue. It's an easy indulgence in victimology. The Forties femmes might have suffered equally gruesome fates, but they didn't need knights-errant. Always something more than casualties, they knew how to stab a man in the back.

While Kevin Spacey hobnobs with seedy starlets and Guy Pearce fights - and is seduced by - police corruption, Basinger and Crowe play out a romantic plot that develops with implausible speed, and seems devoid of the sassy irony with which Hanson has spiced the rest of his movie. Though we see Basinger in her boudoir watching They Drive by Night (1942), she is a creature of daylight. Her smile is fragile and girlish; her skin looks like it would bruise to the touch. Veronica Lake had more spunk, and she wouldn't have been seen dead out before Martini hour.

Technically, the film is a marvel - Dante Spinotti's photography gives every image an airless, dessicated quality, and Terry Rodman's sound design unleashes camera flashes that crack like Lugers, and performs witty flourishes like striking up with "The Lady is a Tramp" as a two-bit actor beds the District Attorney for $100.

There's more genre trouble ahead in Bille August's Smilla's Feeling for Snow (15), reworked from the Peter Hoeg novel that gripped most of its readers like an obsession. Hoeg's fiction attempts to settle the historic differences between psychological realism and sci-fi. But, for the film, such stylistic accord is as far away as Greenland.

It begins as Norwegian noir, as Smilla Jasperson (Julia Ormond) investigates the suspicious death of an Inuit boy who has slipped from the snow-covered roof of her apartment block. When it's in this detective-thriller mode, August's film is icily compelling: Smilla's deductive reasoning has all the occult wonder of a Sherlock Holmes masterclass, with a sensitivity to the shifting significance of snow substituted for Holmes's talent for perceiving infinitesimal variations in types of tobacco ash. Ormond - who, in her blizzard-proof mascara, is really too glamorous for the part - gives a performance of impressive detail, managing to suggest Smilla's mixed Norwegian-American-Greenlandic heritage without once raising the spectre of the Muppet Swedish chef. (The rest of the cast - Gabriel Byrne, Tom Wilkinson, Bob Peck - stick to their native accents.)

But as with most mysteries, the obfuscation is more satisfying than the explication, and August can't steer his picture through the huge gear- change that occurs in its concluding half. The demands of an increasingly unearthly plot transform Smilla from a hoarfrosted Holmes to an Arctic Fox Mulder (as if to bolster the comparison, Wednesday's X Files had an almost identical premiss). In his novel, Hoeg unifies these elements in the consciousness of his remarkable protagonist. August doesn't have the option of using a first-person narrative in this way, and the unfortunate result is Tom Wilkinson speechifying about lethal prehistoric worms.

When I was 11, John Landis's An American Werewolf in London was the film every schoolboy pretended to have seen. Anthony Waller's belated rehash, An American Werewolf in Paris (15) is now on release, and like some cinematic Alcopop, it's a flavourless mixture of sex and gore suitable only for under-age consumption. Waller resurrects a few scenes from the 1981 original: the lead's zombified best mate appearing in a bathroom mirror; a traumatic dream-within-a-dream; bone-crunching lycanthropic transmogrifications. However, as its Interrailer hero (Tom Everett Scott) gets lucky with a sophisticated Parisian (Julie Delpy), Waller's film reveals that it's got just as much in common with frat-house comedies like Porky's. Condoms get inflated, there are jokes about unshaven armpits, and the central theme is virgin sacrifice. And it's odd that a film so eager to search out the comic possibilities of its hairy-palmed horror sub-genre should be so blind to the silliness of its central twist: that a sect of skinhead werewolves from an upmarket arrondisement are attempting to create a new world order which, as their leader explains, will be "free from ze trappings of technolurgical advurnce". No one old enough to see this movie legally will find it has much bite, but it will certainly please any 11-year-olds who slip past the usherette - though they may be bewildered by a hilarious diagram of werewolf biorhythms (full moons on the x axis and lycanthropic hormone levels on the y axis). Does it interfere with the Pill, I wonder?

It's more difficult to tell who might be the right audience for Michael Cohn's Snow White: a Tale of Terror (15), a grisly rewrite of the Grimm Brothers with pretensions towards the Angela Carter end of the Gothic. It's set in 1493, in a part of the Black Forest in which the American accent is popular, even with British actors like the late Brian Glover. In this dialect, the word "princess" becomes a shot of Brooklyn sarcasm rather than a prompt for Mittel-European forelock-tugging. The only cast member who doesn't follow the rule is Miroslav Taborsky, playing a murderous mute who looks like Will Self swallowing a banana sideways.

According to the press release, the film "recounts the Brothers Grimm fable with all its historical authenticity", and though there are no blue tits to help with the washing up, neither is there a character called Snow White. Instead, the heroine is Lilli Hoffman (Monica Keena), who's shown in an early scene begging her nurse to recount her favourite tale. (It's Snow White, and she knows it off by heart.) So, when her father (Sam Neill) introduces Lilli to her new wicked stepmother, Lady Claudia (Sigourney Weaver), it's odd that she doesn't get a rush of deja vu - especially as Claudia comes equipped with a talking mirror and, later, offers her an apple of dubious provenance.

The title of Andy Tennant's Fools Rush in (12) doesn't allude to Pope or Forster, but to Elvis: "Wise men say only fools rush in, but I can't help falling in love with you." It's will-they-won't-they romantic fluff, only She (Salma Hayek) and He (Matthew Perry from Friends) have conceived a child and married in the film's first half-hour. Despite some doubtful Mexican stereotypes and an irony-free speech about racial difference that employs a bizarre metaphor about squirrels, Tennant's film is more attractive and generous than many recent efforts in this field - One Fine Day, for example. It grows on you like mould on last week's guacamole.

Finally, there's just space to mention Shane Meadows's Small Time (18), a fresh, loose, likeable comedy about a bunch of tenth-rate thieves from the Nottinghamshire town of Sneinton. It's in a double bill with Meadows's Where's the Money, Ronnie? (15), a breakneck caper, also with a Sneinton setting. The Sneinton heist flick: it might constitute the birth of a whole new genre.

Cinema details: Going Out, page 9.

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