Film: `Microcosmos': it's definitely got legs

Edgar Allan Poe tagged one of his macabre fables with a quotation to the effect that there is no truly exquisite beauty without some admixture of strangeness. He might well have been entranced by Microcosmos (U), which offers some incomparably strange and exquisite visions. The glistening liquid ballet of a couple of mating snails, for example, which squirm and ripple and pulse in unison, locked surface to luminous white surface in what the mammalian onlooker can only assume to be mollusc ecstasy, especially since the sound-track graces their coupling with a soaring aria. Unless you already dote on slime, you'll need to conquer mild feelings of disgust to relish the sight, but the effort is easier than you might have believed. Every frame of this gorgeous journey down into the insect world puts its idiosyncratic spin on the old maxim that small is beautiful.

The loving work of two French biologists, Claude Nuridsany and Marie Perrenou, Microcosmos purports to show a bug's-eye view of a single summer's day in an Aveyron meadow. In reality, it took the duo three years to amass the 60-odd kilometres of film they have edited down into its 75 minutes of elegant end product. Apart from a few sentences of narration at beginning and end, spoken for the Anglophone print by Kristin Scott Thomas, there is no commentary to anthropomorphise the creepy-crawlies a la Disney nature movies, or to state facts in the honourably didactic spirit of a BBC wildlife film. Despite their training, Nuridsany and Perennou seem less concerned with teaching scientific lessons than with provoking that sense of wonder at nature's bewildering variety which has fired great biologists.

If the film has an obvious flaw, it's that it doesn't always transcend cuteness. The musical score by Bruno Coulais - at times brilliantly integrated with the complex, dramatic textures of the sound recording (credited to Laurent Quaglio) - frequently attempts to provide the insects and gasteropods with emotions too grand or too soppy for their nervous systems. A scarab beetle accidentally impales his (her?) giant food pellet on a stick, and makes comically dogged attempts to dislodge it; stag beetles clash angrily like Luke Skywalker confronting Darth Vader; a Eucera bee appears to fall giddily in love with an Ophrys orchid. These are relatively trifling lapses, since for the most part Microcosmos rejoices not in fanciful similarities between the insects and ourselves but in the awesome differences.

It shows off forms and colours you might never have thought existed in nature, movements of fascinating intricacy and obscure intent, activities - like the construction of a diving bell out of thin air by an Argyronet spider - that seem transported from superior science fiction or a painting by Ernst. Though the directors have acknowledged the influence of the entomologist Jean-Henri Fabre, there's a sense in which the real spirit of their work is surrealist. They lay bare worlds of terror and splendour that live just feet and inches away from us, literally overlooked. Microcosmos also helps explain why the century's most fastidious aesthetes (Nabokov, Ernst Junger) thought insects worthy of the keenest attention. If the distributors need a classy line for their advertisments, they could do worse than adapt from Proverbs: "Go to the ant, thou sluggard; Consider her ways, and be wise."

Or perhaps, "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee." The other outstanding film in this clotted week is also a documentary - When We Were Kings (PG), a tense, funny, thoughtful and richly entertaining account of the fight known as the "Rumble in the Jungle", Muhammed Ali's 1974 championship bout with George Foreman in Zaire. Directed by Leon Gast - who has been struggling for 22 years to raise the finance to complete his film - in collaboration with Taylor Hackford, it combines footage of the long and troubled build-up to the fight with retrospective commentary by the likes of Spike Lee, George Plimpton (patrician, witty) and Norman Mailer, who's a terrific speculative anecdotalist.

It doesn't matter a jot if you aren't greatly interested in boxing, since the film is about so many other matters, too: the politics of Zaire and of black America, the blossoming of soul music, even African witchcraft - one of the film's motifs is the cryptic, faintly malicious face of a female musician, who comes to stand for the "succubus" reputed to have laid Foreman low. Above all, it's an exercise in character study: of Don King, the flamboyant promoter with a slick line in Shakespeare; of the depressive Foreman; and of a man who has enough complexity of character for an average regiment of the army he wouldn't join, Muhammed Ali. Mailer speculates on the part Ali could have played in American public life had Parkinson's not disqualified him, and on this evidence, he's close to the mark. If America wasn't ready for a President Ali, that may have been America's loss.

And so to the usual output. Peter Hyams is generally a decent, efficient director of action movies, and The Relic (15) is a reasonably decent, efficient beastie-on-the-loose yarn, if a shade too reminiscent of the Alien series. The beastie here is called a Kathoga, a reptile/mammal/insect hybrid sent back in a crate from South America to a Chicago museum, where it proceeds to run around in dark tunnels, evolve unpleasantly and chomp the heads off night security guards so as to gorge on their pituitary glands. Biped civilization is saved by a plumpish, dog-loving cop (Tom Sizemore) and a plucky scientist (Penelope Ann Miller). Hyams has enough good taste not to permit them to snog, which may be why this surprisingly bloody production merited a 15 certificate.

Despite bearing an Executive Producer credit for Oliver Stone, Tim Metcalfe's Killer: A Journal of Murder (18) wears its quota of guts and corpuscles with relative restraint. Based on an autobiography by the real- life burglar, rapist, murderer and all-round exceedingly bad egg Carl Panzram (James Woods), hanged in 1930, the film largely adopts the point of view of Panzram's prison guard Henry Lesser (Robert Sean Leonard), a delicate, left-leaning soul. Seeing redemptive qualities in this appalling man, Lesser struggles in vain to save him from the gallows he is so stubbornly eager to mount. One suspects that Stone would have pumped up the film's tendentious qualities had he been in the director's seat, but Metcalfe makes something less numbingly clear-cut of his material, and Woods is on furiously good form, chill and nasty.

In High School High (15), David Zucker, the man guilty of tne Naked Gun series and other spoofs, makes loud flatulent noises in the general direction of Dangerous Minds. Jon Lovitz adopts the Michelle Pfeiffer position as a likeable fat twerp of a teacher who takes a job at an inner-city high school, so tough it has its own cemetery, and through naive goodwill and idiot's luck turns the place into a house of good learning. As usual, the gags come so fast and thick that even if you only condescend to giggle at one in 20, you'll still be quite diverted. It certainly has the best cat sex joke in recent memory.

Michael Elias's Lush Life (no cert), which has been sitting on the shelves for a few years now, is a good-natured ramble with a couple of jobbing jazz musicians, played by Forest Whitaker and Jeff Goldblum, whose already messy routines are blown to bits by the discovery that the Whitaker character is about to die from a brain tumour. The second half of the film builds towards the huge party-cum-gig which is to be his send-off into endless night. It's not much of a plot, and Elias doesn't make much more of it, but the music and acting are both agreeable enough.

Dangerous Ground (18), directed by Darrell Roodt, is manifestly a vanity project for the tubby rapper Ice Cube, who Exec Prods as well as stars in a risible thriller about a PhD candidate who returns to his native South Africa, finds that his younger brother is caught up in a drugs ring masterminded by a soccer-crazed gang boss (Ving Rhames), and links up with a crack-crazed trollop (Elizabeth Hurley) to rescue him. The first half-hour or so, in which our hero appears strangely passive, is almost original. Then he gets angry and starts to kick what Americans call ass and we call situpon, and one rather loses interest.

Does the MOR singer Chris Rea have no friends, no family, no one at all concerned for his well-being? If so, why did they not beg and weep and plead for him to burn every foot of film, every inch of tape he defaced in the making of La Passione (15), another vanity project, so awesomely ill-accomplished you could rent it out to Third World dictators as an instrument of torture? It's a sort of fantasia about a young boy in the North of England who dreams of red Ferraris and ... no, sorry, I can't go on with this, even though I was one of the four reviewers who actually sat through to the end of this embarrassing spectacle. Imagine a Fellini film like what Ernie Wise might have wrote in a bad morning and you still don't come anywhere near the image and horror of it.

Cinema details: Going Out, page 14