Film: Also Showing - Death in the ring

The Boxer (Jim Sheridan, 15) The Postman (Kevin Costner, 15) Prisoner of the Mountains (Sergei Bodrov, 15) All Over Me (Alex Sichel, NC)
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I was wary of The Boxer from its very first shot - a man in a hooded tracksuit shadow-boxing behind the bars in a deserted prison yard - and for me the film never recovered from that over-emphatic opening.

Given the location of the story (modern-day Northern Ireland) and the dilemma facing the main character (a former IRA foot soldier who must renounce some parts of his past but not others), the image fits perfectly. I suppose that's the reason why I didn't respond to the picture - everything in it fits just right to the point where it is less a film than a thesis on suffering, or a computer's interpretation of what a film about the Troubles should be like.

Part of the problem is the aesthetic sensibility that the director Jim Sheridan imposes on chaos; staging a bombing around a butcher's shop so that the scattered carcasses create a rockery of pink meat which hints at human carnage; or the decision to revert to mock-documentary style, that standby of authenticity, during a riot scene.

It's not that movies about the Troubles shouldn't be subject to the same artistic process as other films, but rather that you come to suspect any work that is so meticulously choreographed for maximum emotional effect that it seems to squeeze the life out of itself. After a time, you cling to those details that seem daring or spontaneous; the boxing coach who checks the forearms of his pupils for track marks, or the child standing in his pyjamas in the road during a midnight shoot-out, banging a dustbin lid on the tarmac to make his own unruly contribution to the anarchy.

There is some fine work from Daniel Day-Lewis as Danny Flynn, fresh out of prison and face-to-face with Maggie (Emily Watson), the women he once loved, who is now the loyal wife of another prisoner, but with the exception of one scene where Day-Lewis and Watson come alive with childish glee during a clandestine meeting, the script denies them the opportunity to breathe life into their love. And while Chris Menges' photography is consistent in its unswerving use of chilly blues and greys, its oppressive palate is to the detriment of the actors - everyone looks like a cadaver, which may just be fitting. This film is dead from the neck down.

The new futuristic drama The Postman provides ample corroborating evidence for anyone who believes that Kevin Costner is the Antichrist - how else could you explain why a man would make a three-hour tribute to his own magnificence and then have the temerity to inflict it on the world at large?

As an actor, Costner has a rumpled charm best exploited in his films for Ron Shelton. But when he is allowed to direct himself, he is his own worst enemy, cramming in adoring close-ups, and one particularly sickening scene where a woman he has just impregnated watches him sleep. It's possible that few film-makers could have salvaged anything from this story of a man who jump-starts the US postal service after the apocalypse in order to make America united again; the lame allegorical weight of the concept anchors the film before it has begun.

But in Costner's hands, the picture becomes a symbol of obscene human excess - a tale of how you can do anything in Hollywood provided you have a big budge and a bigger ego.

The film is a virtual remake of Dances With Wolves, only this time Costner isn't the saviour of the Sioux community, he's the humble messiah single- handedly rescuing America from anarchy. If his performance is indulgent, his direction is simply vacuous. The film has no sense of pace or tension, while its vision of the future comprises little more than folk music, wildwest iconography and Oxfam chic. When Tom Petty turns up for no apparent reason as a version of himself it becomes clear that even the film-makers have thrown in the towel.

There is some consolation to be had from two rather more modest features released this week. Prisoner of the Mountains tells of two Russian soldiers held hostage by Chechen rebels in a mountain village, poised to be traded for a prisoner held by the Russian army. As the hour of their death approaches, they grow closer to each other and to their captors, though this is no sentimental buddy movie. The picture, based on Tolstoy's story Caucasian Captive, bristles with dry humour and displays a genuine compassion for all its characters. Anti-war movies that refrain from rhetoric are rare. Embrace this one.

You knew there was something sad and haunting about Alison Folland when she appeared as a dopey slacker in To Die For a few years back, and now she is dominating the screen in All Over Me, as an amiable New York teenager who happens to be in love with her best friend (Tara Subkoff). Our plucky heroines' unrequited desires are complicated by the arrival of Ellen's homophobic boyfriend, and as the murder of a local gay man puts this thug under suspicion the film explores its themes with freshness and maturity. It's a free-wheeling but often harrowing drama that isn't content to simply unravel another love story; it has more on its mind than romance. The trump card is Folland - when she falls apart to the sound of Patti Smith's "Pissing In The River", you remember that the best movies have the power to sting.

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