Film: American graffiti

Forget the summer blockbusters. Full-scale war breaks out only once a year in the movie industry, and that's at Christmas time, with the lucrative holiday box-office up for grabs and the Oscar race in its all-important final stages. The mad rush starts this week with the long- delayed docking of James Cameron's Titanic, drifting in on a tidal wave of gush from enraptured US critics. It's probably safe to say that you can see where every last cent of the $200m budget went in this lavish spectacle; my main complaint is that you also can't help but feel every last second of its three hours and 14 minutes (the "official" running time, as cited by the studio, is "two hours, 74 minutes"). In Cameron's version of events, the lookouts fail to notice the iceberg because they're busy watching Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet make out. As post-collision chaos erupts, DiCaprio's character - street-smart scamp that he is - shrewdly notes: "This is bad." (DiCaprio has already butchered Shakespeare and reinvented Rimbaud beyond recognition; Titanic merely fortifies the argument that he should never, under any circumstances, appear in a film set before 1980).

The new Bond movie, which goes head to head with Titanic this weekend, should prove something of a relief, if only because it's under two hours long. Elsewhere, the epic epidemic rages out of control. Steven Spielberg's slave-revolt saga Amistad is, as we know, Serious Spielberg, ie, righteously manipulative, as opposed to mindlessly manipulative.

Good intentions notwithstanding, the film gives short shrift to its black characters (including a criminally underused Morgan Freeman) and focuses on a couple of white lawyer heroes: Matthew McConaughey, in what could be the year's most abysmal performance, and Anthony Hopkins, grunting his way through an impersonation of John Quincy Adams.

Some of the best jokes of the season (all unintentional) can be found in the three-minute trailer for Kevin Costner's three-hour The Postman (plot: the ills of a feudal, post-apocalyptic America are cured when Mad Max-ish Kevin starts delivering the mail). As it happens, the movie itself is hubristic hokum, and not very funny.

And Quentin Tarantino's sluggish and intermittently offensive Jackie Brown is another film in need of editing, not to mention a rewrite, and a more imaginative director. QT devotees, this is your wake-up call. Equally unpleasant: Deconstructing Harry, Woody Allen's most proudly rancid work yet, an unprecedentedly shrill conflation of its director's self-congratulatory and self-loathing tendencies.

With so many film-makers mistaking spectacle for substance and length for import, it's gratifying to report that there's at least one movie to get excited about in this dismal bunch: Scorsese's Dalai Lama biopic Kundun, whose final half-hour is more invigorating than all the aforementioned films put together. It's proof that Scorsese, in his element, remains the greatest image-maker in American movies.

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