Film: Never mind the plot, feel the mood

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Afterglow

Alan Rudolph (15)

Dark City

Alex Proyas (15)

Washington Square

Agnieszka Holland (PG)

The James Gang

Mike Barker (15)

Wishmaster

Robert Kurtzman (18)

To make an Alan Rudolph film, you need a few basic ingredients: a city filled with soft light and modern buildings; a bar where the characters can exchange aphorisms; a sexy, well-dressed cast who can pair off in various permutations; and a plangent jazz score by Mark Isham. There's never much call for a plot: Rudolph's new film, , hardly has one at all. When randy plumber Nick Nolte seduces bored wife Lara Flynn Boyle, he inadvertently brings together his own wife, Julie Christie, with Boyle's repressed yuppie husband, Jonny Lee Miller, who meet up while spying on their respective spouses. It's a set- up for a farce, but the mood turns melancholy. Christie's character is haunted by the loss of a daughter, who ran away after discovering that Nolte was not her father, while Boyle longs for a child of her own. Though there's plenty of smart dialogue, the characters never really connect, except at the very end in a moving scene between Christie and Nolte.

Like all Rudolph's films, is highly artificial, and takes a long time to get going. It can seem aimless, but it's the looseness of his approach that allows the actors to breathe. Christie in particular responds with her best work in decades.

After the heavy-metal onslaught of The Crow, Alex Proyas's new film comes as a pleasant surprise. It's not that the style or subject matter have changed - Dark City is another nightmarish urban fantasy. But this has two things The Crow fatally lacked: a brain and good taste. Proyas is an enthusiastic borrower: Metropolis, Nosferatu, David Lynch and Edward Hopper are all quoted, while the basic pitch - amnesiac suspected serial killer on the run - is so old it can only be attributed to "Trad." But Proyas doesn't simply pastiche his favourite movie cliches, he extrapolates them to their (il)logical conclusion. If you've ever sat through old film noirs wondering why it's always night and what exactly brought on the hero's amnesia, Proyas now provides the answer: it's a conspiracy by a sinister race of black-coated, Homburg-hatted aliens known as "Strangers".

With the plot spiralling into metaphysical contortions, this film could easily be swamped by its special effects. But adventurous casting ensures that Dark City never loses its humanity. Rufus Sewell is suitably ambiguous as the hero; William Hurt plays the inspector on his trail, and Ian Richardson the sinister leader of the Strangers.

Washington Square opens with a shot as staggering as anything in Dark City. The camera swoops down from the sky into the square, then across the road and through an open window. Hearing screams from above, we rush up the stairs into the bedroom where a mother has just died in childbirth. The nurse presents the baby girl to her father, but he turns away and curls up beside his dead wife. It's a brilliant beginning, both as a set- up and as a promise that Henry James doesn't have to be dull on screen. Unfortunately, director Agnieszka Holland has no further surprises up her sleeve. The baby grows up to be Jennifer Jason Leigh, an heiress whose dour father (Albert Finney) forbids her marriage to a penniless suitor (Ben Chaplin). That's basically it. Even by James's standards, it's austere stuff, but not without possibilities, as William Wyler's 1949 adaptation The Heiress, starring Ralph Richardson, Olivia de Havilland and Montgomery Clift, showed. The central trio here are muted: Leigh and Finney seem incompatible, perhaps the point, but it hardly produces sparks. It's left to Maggie Smith to steal the show.

In The James Gang, the excellent Helen McCrory plays a stressed-out young Scottish mother who finds a new way to make ends meet: armed robbery, with four children and hopeless boyfriend (John Hannah) in tow. It's a good-looking feature debut for director Mike Barker, who conjures up a neon-lit world of council estates, motels and flyovers, and gets engaging performances. He never makes up his mind whether it's a social drama, a knockabout comedy, a thriller or a shaggy-dog road movie - which isn't necessarily a bad thing.

But the more clever touches Barker throws into the mix - Hannah crooning cabaret songs in a lame suit, an overworked policewoman and her baby- minding husband - the more confused the film seems.

Transforming the djinn of Arabian legend from pantomime figure of fun to movie monster might seem like a shrewd idea for a horror franchise. But despite the recommendation "Wes Craven Presents", there's little trace of The Scream director's ironic touch in Wishmaster - a turgid gorefest about an evil spirit running amok in the art world after it's released from an ancient Persian jewel. "Forget Robin Williams," quips one character as they try to convince the sceptics that this genie is "the face of fear itself". But frankly Williams's hairy back is a lot scarier than any of the soggy latex on display here.

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