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IN & OUT

(12) HH

Director: Frank Oz

Starring: Kevin Kline, Joan Cusack, Matt Dillon

In & Out doesn't really take place in any recognisable world, rather a fantasy small-town community where news of a teacher's homosexuality causes severe social embarrassment, but no hostility, culminating in a supposedly triumphant finale where young and old get in touch with their inner homosexual. It's that kind of film. Luckily, the teacher is played by Kevin Kline, an actor of consummate comic flair who transforms what might have been the film's most excruciating indulgence - a man whose sexuality is in doubt desperately trying to affirm his masculinity with the use of a self-help tape - into a romping carnival of desperate slapstick.

Also to the film's advantage is the wit of screenwriter Paul Rudnick, whose barbed one-liners and catty observations make the film prickle, even if he does overdo the Barbra Streisand gags. He can't really construct characters or work up any momentum in his script, but his writing is bubbly enough, and he manages to get in plenty of swipes at Hollywood, since it is a former pupil, not a movie star (played by Matt Dillon) who inadvertently outs his teacher during an Oscar acceptance speech. (The scenario is based on a similar incident which arose from Tom Hanks's speech after winning the Best Actor Oscar for Philadelphia).

Much of In & Out doesn't hold together - there seems no logical reason for Dillon to refer to Kline's sexuality on television, and you can't believe that Kline has never slept with his fiancee of three years (a winning performance from Joan Allen as the monstrous bride-to-be). But the sheer silliness and candy-coloured idealism can tickle you.

THE BLACKOUT

(18) H

Director: Abel Ferrara

Starring: Matthew Modine, Claudia Schiffer, Beatrice Dalle

Abel Ferrara is a wild, reckless talent whose best work has an explosive kick, but who is prone to bouts of appalling self-indulgence, as demonstrated by his new film. Matthew Modine plays an actor who may or may not have killed his girlfriend (Beatrice Dalle) during a drink-and-drugs-induced blackout. His friend, a megalomaniac director played in typically psychotic fashion by Dennis Hopper, is no help, being too embroiled in shooting his bizarre porn videos, so it's left to Modine to root around in the depths of his subconscious, torturing himself - and us.

You could liken The Blackout to Fellini without the magic and poetry, or Cassavetes with a hatred of actors - one thing you can't do is admire Ferrara's narcissistic portraits of himself (in the various alter-egos of Modine and Hopper) as some kind of screwed-up messiah whose spiral into madness will be a fascination to the outside world.

DOWNTIME

(15) H

Director: Bharat Nalluri

Starring: Paul McGann, Susan Lynch, Tom Georgeson

This British thriller is just about peculiar enough to be interesting, although its ambition to be a cross between British social realism and Hollywood action thriller is misguided to say the least. Paul McGann is likeable as the police negotiator who falls for Susan Lynch, the woman whom he talks out of a suicide attempt. They find themselves stuck in a lift together, and wouldn't you know it, but the local oiks are larking about in the control room, causing it to plummet at great speed.

Once out of this claustrophobic confine, the film doesn't know what to do, and opts for a last-ditch attempt at analysing inner-city breakdown, which is a disappointingly lame end to a film that could have been completely batty, if only it didn't have a conscience.

THIS IS THE SEA

(15) H

Director: Mary McGuckian

Starring: Richard Harris, Gabriel Byrne, Samantha Morton

A romance between a budding IRA recruit and a local girl is the focus of this Irish drama which has good intentions, but too much sentimentality and too many pat observations. Worst of all, the soundtrack is wall-to- wall Waterboys, a torture that even Bob Flanagan (see Sick, p 19) wouldn't have endured.

FAIRYTALE - A TRUE STORY

(U) H

Director: Charles Sturridge

Starring: Phoebe Nicholls, Paul McGann

Two young girls discover fairies living at the bottom of their garden in this whimsical children's drama. Initially interesting, but the pace flags well before the end and the film is unlikely to hold the attention of its target audience.

GOOD BURGER

(PG) H

Director: Brian Robbins

Starring: Kel Mitchell

Inane comedy about competing burger bars from the Nickelodeon TV channel, which does nothing to dispel the popular myth that all fast-food employees have the IQ of a French fry.

SICK

(NC) HHH

Director: Kirby Dick

Starring: Bob Flanagan

Cystic fibrosis sufferer Bob Flanagan used his masochistic tendencies to help control the pain of his illness, and became a controversial performance artist in the process. This unflinching documentary shies away from none of the unpalatable aspects of this remarkable man's life, and, as such, you may spend most of the film hiding your eyes, as Flanagan undergoes all manner of tortures. Voyeuristic, troublesome, disturbing - but also a film of admirable compassion and intelligence.

PAWS

(PG) H

Director: Karl Zwicky

Voice: Billy Connolly

Uninspired children's comedy about a dog with special powers of communication. Cheaply made and executed, its sole point of interest is a charismatic voice-over from Billy Connolly.

THE SECRET AGENT

(12) H

Director: Christopher Hampton

Starring: Bob Hoskins, Patricia Arquette, Gerard Depardieu

Anarchy and intrigue are in the bones of Joseph Conrad's 1907 novel, but they're nowhere to be found in Christopher Hampton's drab adaptation, whose mix-and-match cast - Patricia Arquette, Bob Hoskins and Gerard Depardieu - look lost at sea.

Ryan Gilbey

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