film round-up

(U) Les Mayfield

The Woodlanders

(PG) Phil Agland

Clubbed to Death

(18) Yolande Zauberman

Ugetsu Monogatari

(uc) Kenji Mizoguchi

Full of vigour, the uncontrollable star of bounces off the walls like a hyperactive child, causing havoc and playing rude practical jokes. No, not Robin Williams, but the anti-gravitational flying rubber invented by his Professor Brainard.

Cooked-up in Brainard's Heath Robinson-like cellar of flasks and vials, is a wondrous new energy source - a glutinous goo with enough power to fly the Professor's old T-Bird above the rooftops, or send bowling balls hurtling skywards for hours at a time. For reasons that have more to do with audiences than physics, when this unstable chemical compound is left to its own devices it gels into a cute, anthropomorphic blob or divides into endless wobbling jelly babies to perform a Mambo spectacular.

There are some human players in Les Mayfield's remake of Disney's 1961 comedy The Absent-Minded Professor but, this being a John Hughes movie, they're as quaintly two-dimensional as the film's college-town setting. Computer-generated effects take centre stage, with Fred MacMurray's dog from the original replaced by a female, floating robot called Weebo who communicates via a library of old film clips (a language Mayfield's scene- by-scene retread understands only too well).

For what it's worth, the plot has Brainard (a bow-tied Williams doing his naive man-child thing again) forgetting his own wedding to college principal Marcia Gay Harden for the third time, then trying to win her back from old rival Wilson Craft (Christopher McDonald) by selling the patent and saving the cash-strapped college from closure. Before he can do so, however, a pair of dependably dim villains are hired by local businessman Chester Hoenicker to snatch (and act as punchbags for Hughes's Home Alone-style slapstick violence).

All that is just an elaborate excuse for a fabulously elasticated game of baseketball and a final, rubberised punch-up. Predictably, when the film tries to stretch to emotion it reaches its elastic limit, and becomes more gooey than . In one particularly sticky scene, a damp-eyed Williams asks what happens to the soul of a machine when it dies. Those watching the film might similarly ask, what happens to the soul of a film when it's mechanised?

With their meticulously detailed prose, lush intertwining of nature and sexuality, and pagan fatalism, Hardy's novels are hard to capture on film. Last year, Michael Winterbottom's austere Jude came close, but this latest adaptation of one of the author's lesser-known works once again proves the difficulty of translating the spirit of Hardy to the screen.

On the face of it, environmental documentary-maker Phil Agland seems well-suited to The Woodlanders, a story that describes Victorian rural tradition threatened by the new technology and changing social mores of the Industrial Revolution. And on this ethnographic level he succeeds. Shot outside, or in purpose-built wooden dwellings, Agland's careful observation evokes the changing seasons and daily cycles of Wessex life with a lyrical naturalism.

Where the film fails is in breathing life into its human tragedy. While Hardy's novel moved between a collection of protagonists, David Rudkin's screenplay centres squarely on the doomed romance between Grace Melbury (Emily Woof) and Giles Winterbourne (Rufus Sewell). Childhood sweethearts, the pair are pledged to marry until Grace returns from finishing school and her father decides she is "worth more" than the honest woodsman. Obeying her father's wishes, Grace marries the cerebral and snooty gentleman doctor, Fitzpiers (Cal MacAninch), who later deserts her for aristocratic seductress Mrs Charmond (Polly Walker).

Dispassionate and desultory, Agland's film is strong on social determinism but short on motivating passion, his coolly detached camera preventing him from really getting under the skin of his characters. Leeched of Hardy's subjective sap, his ensemble go through the motions of tragedy, no more expressive than the tree trunks they occasionally lean on to deliver their lines.

When the nubile young Lola (Elodie Bouchez) falls asleep on the night bus she awakes in the hinterlands of Paris, the poor, multi-cultural banlieues. She stumbles into a rave in a disused bus depot, slips an Ecstacy and is soon swooning among the crowds with a blissed-out smile plastered to her face. In the course of the night Lola falls for junkie Emir (Roschdy Zem), and finds herself competing for his love with his girlfriend, club queen Saida (Beatrice Dalle).

Yolande Zauberman's movie captures the unreality of clubland, where class and race are subsumed by the beat. Using a wheeling, hand-held camera, Zauberman captures the disorientation of Lola's wide-eyed tourist to this nocturnal no-man's-land, moving through the dancing bodies, pausing occasionally to eavesdrop on a conversation or circle a dancer. Before long, Lola's stranger is merging, with all the other dispossessed, into the false community of a seething dancefloor.

Looking uncannily like Dalle's younger sister, Bouchez gives a winning performance in a role that asks her to do little more than grin, while Dalle herself is touching as the raddled and unhappy veteran. Neither character is explored in any depth, however, since in keeping with its drugged-out milieu, the relationships in Clubbed to Death are sensuous but superficial. Plot and dialogue are similarly slight, communication largely reduced to chemically induced attempts at intimacy. Such verisimilitude could border on the pretentious or plain dull were it not for the skill of Zauberman's impressionistic direction. Sweeping lasers and pounding music barely keep at bay the grubby dawn, which brings with it daylight hours to kill scoring, snorting and flopping in squalid rooms. Enjoyably surreal, Clubbed to Death finally scores by letting such flashes of grim reality permeate its mesmerising wash of style.

A welcome re-release for Kenji Mizoguchi's 1953 masterpiece about a pair of 16th-century peasants who go off to war in pursuit of wealth and glory, and the tragic effects of their adventures on their wives. Part action drama, part ghost story, this intricate and poetic film combines exquisite images, well-drawn characters and a pleasingly robust humour. A must.