Film: Woody runs on a flattery battery

Film round-up
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Film round-up

WILD MAN BLUES Barbara Kopple (15)

THE HANGING GARDEN Thom Fitzgerald (15)

SHALL WE DANCE? Masayuki Suo (PG)

WESTERN Manuel Poirier (15)

MARTHA - MEET FRANK, DANIEL AND LAURENCE Nick Hamm (15)

THE DESIGNATED MOURNER David Hare (nc)

DONALD CAMMELL: THE ULTIMATE PERFORMANCE

Chris Rodley/Kevin McDonald (nc)

AMY FOSTER Beeban Kidron (12)

SOMETHING TO BELIEVE IN John Hough (PG)

Wild Man Blues documents Woody Allen's 1996 European tour with his jazz band, accompanied by his girlfriend Soon-Yi Previn. It's packed with scenes of Allen being perfectly prickly: recoiling from camera-wielding crowds in Venice, or gruffly revealing that he would rather be bitten than licked (by dogs, that is, not Soon-Yi). The only surprise is that he should emerge looking relatively unscathed and fairly likeable.

His stand-up comic's demeanour has often restricted him as an actor, though he shines here when forced to improvise his way out of awkward situations. But a documentary should investigate rather than flatter its subjects, and on this score the picture is a disappointment. Any film which exposes the idiosyncracies of a public figure has a sleazy allure - and that's all that Wild Man Blues has. It's a movie which licks when it should bite.

Dysfunctional families don't come much weirder than the clan in The Hanging Garden, which comprises a brutal father, a child of uncertain parentage, a grandmother with Alzheimer's and an incontinent dog. By comparison, Sweet William (Chris Leavins), who spent his youth wrestling with his weight, his sexuality and his suicidal impulses, is uniquely well adjusted. When he returns home for the wedding of his sister, played by Kerry Fox in an unhinged banshee style leased to her by Judy Davis, he finds that life is far from normal: his new brother-in-law is making eyes at him, and he can't move for younger incarnations of himself strolling around the garden. The Canadian writer-director Thom Fitzgerald has nurtured a potentially indulgent screenplay into a work of exotic beauty and vitality. Tennessee Williams would be proud.

In Shall We Dance?, a bored accountant (Koji Yakusho) is drawn to ballroom dancing lessons, a scandalous hobby in a culture where couples don't even hold hands in public. This beguiling picture is all the better for its flashes of comic surrealism, best embodied in the timid office nerd (Naoto Takenaka) who's got the rumba in his veins. The shot of his crimped wig sliding across a dancefloor gets my vote for Best Hair-Related Gag since Debbie Harry hid a timebomb in her beehive in Hairspray. And who would have thought that one of our most reviled seaside resorts was also the dance mecca of the world? It's true: the Japanese heroine gazes longingly at the horizon and announces, with impeccable Chekhovian sobriety: "Lately I've been thinking about Blackpool."

Western is not a western at all, but a road movie which zig-zags across Brittany, doubling back on itself or wandering off on a whim, like a good- natured version of Les Valseuses. The drifters are Paco (Sergi Lopez) and Nino (Sacha Bourdo), the thief who stole his car. An odd pair, but then despite Paco and Nino expending most of their energy chasing women, this is not your average buddy movie. In a glorious scene, the unhappily celibate Nino finally manages to tempt a woman into bed only for her to recoil when she wrongly accuses this defective Don Juan of spending each night with a different partner. His exasperation is excruciatingly funny - even as he protests that her suspicions aren't true, you can see that he wishes they were.

The British comedy Martha - Meet Frank, Daniel and Laurence is almost as annoying as its title. An American tourist (Monica Potter) arrives in England and must choose between the three Londoners (Rufus Sewell, Tom Hollander, Joseph Fiennes) who have been wooing her. This romantic comedy is desperately low on charm, not counting a cameo from Ray Winstone (last seen in Nil By Mouth) as a concerned psychiatrist. If only he had been cast as one of the suitors. Or, even better, as Martha.

In Wallace Shawn's adaptation of his own play The Designated Mourner, three characters (Mike Nichols, Miranda Richardson and David De Keyser) offer their reflections from opposite sides of a fascist regime dedicated to extinguishing culture. While conceding that the picture is not even slightly cinematic, I admit to being hooked by Shawn's elegant, lucid writing.

A mind in complete control of its own disorder is a disturbing thing to behold, as proved by the intriguing new documentary Donald Cammell: The Ultimate Performance. For once, the splicing together of an artist's work and life is entirely appropriate; this film-maker compared himself to the hero of his own film Performance even as he lay dying from a self- inflicted gunshot wound.

In the dreary adaptation of Conrad's Amy Foster, Rachel Weisz is the Cornish servant who falls for a shipwrecked Russian (Vincent Perez) while English character actors in ridiculous sideburns grunt disapprovingly. On the plus side, John Barry contributes a sweeping score, and you do get to stare at Vincent Perez for two hours.

Few films legitimately qualify for the so-bad-it's-good category, but Something to Believe In is one of them. A terminally ill croupier on her way across Italy to see a weeping statue of the Madonna meets a classical pianist who's heading for a competition. She manages to stay chirpy long enough for him to get his oats, but then it's respirators and hospital beds all the way. A movie this stupid can change your life forever.

Ryan Gilbey

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