New Films

THE KINGDOM II

(NC) HHHH

Directors: Lars von Trier/ Morten Arnfred

Starring: Ernst-Hugo Jaregard, Udo Kier, Kirsten Rolffes

The automatic doors are opening to admit phantoms into the lobby. Orderlies are placing bets on the fate of an ambulance driver hurtling his vehicle the wrong way down a motorway. A half-human, half-demonic mutant baby with the head of a grown man has escaped from his incubator. Nice to see it's business as normal at Copenhagen's haunted hospital in The Kingdom II, Lars Von Trier's fiendishly inspired sequel to the four-part TV series.

The new film, like the first, again comprises four episodes, though the medium is largely irrelevant: they may have been made for television, but they thrust cinema into new territory. Once more the action is filmed with a jerky, verite-style camera that suggests ER, on rusty stock that appears to have been splashed with creosote - though the drama which unfolds is a heady mix of parable, fairy tale, horror story, melodrama and weepie.

You don't have to be acquainted with the first film to know what's going on, though it helps. The grumpy Swedish doctor Stig (Ernst-Hugo Jaregard) is still bemoaning the Danish scum that he's forced to work with, though his troubles have increased. A plot to turn a dead colleague into a zombie fails when he finds that the body has been removed from the hospital premises, while the investigation into allegations that he caused a young girl to emerge from an operation with brain damage is heating up. Meanwhile, long-term patient Mrs Drusse is about to be discharged when an accident brings her back to the Kingdom, where she resumes her contact with the other side.

What Von Trier has created with this grimly funny epic may be one of the few genuinely fresh and original works of modern cinema.

DEEP IMPACT

(12) H

Director: Mimi Leder

Starring: Robert Duvall, Tea Leoni, Elijah Wood, Vanessa Redgrave, Morgan Freeman, Maximilian Schell

A meteor the size of New York is on a collision course with the Earth unless superstar astronaut Robert Duvall and his team can intercept it. But with characters like the ambitious journalist Tea Leoni, the lovestruck teenage astronomer Elijah Wood, and the despairingly sombre US President Morgan Freeman as representatives of the human race, it's hard to get worked up about the potential extinction of mankind. Ropey characterisation and the complete absence of wit or energy are only the worst things about this heavy-handed disaster movie.

THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO LITTLE

(12) HHH

Director: Jon Amiel

Starring: Bill Murray, Joanne Whalley, Peter Gallagher, Richard Wilson, Alfred Molina

From the absurd opening title sequence, which evokes rather fond memories of the early Pink Panther films, it's clear that this comic thriller is going to be a hoot. It's less precise in its targets than Mike Myers' Austin Powers, but then it doesn't really need to be - it's blessed with the comedy genius that is Bill Murray.

Visiting his brother (Peter Gallagher) in London, Murray becomes embroiled in what he believes is a role-playing TV show, but is actually a deadly espionage plot involving politicians, British intelligence and a bloodthirsty Russian hit-man named Boris the Butcher (Alfred Molina).

The picture's pacing is disappointingly leaden, but Murray is a joy from start to finish: you'd be amazed at the amount of mileage he gets from his little- boy-lost-naivety-in-the-face-of-danger routine.

LIAR

(18) H

Directors: Jonas and Josh Pate

Starring: Tim Roth, Rosanna Arquette, Chris Penn, Michael Rooker, Ellen Burstyn

This derivative, drably theatrical thriller has lots of tricks up its sleeve, but, unfortunately, most of them have been stolen from Quentin Tarantino. Even the casting of Tim Roth and Chris Penn, however effective, feels like a nod in the direction of Reservoir Dogs, and the similarities don't end there.

Roth is the epileptic wired up to a polygraph machine so that two cops (Penn and Michael Rooker) can work out whether or not he killed a local prostitute (Renee Zellweger). But what we see as flashbacks may in fact be fantasy: Roth, like Kevin Spacey in The Usual Suspects (another movie echoed here), is a compulsive liar with a knack for turning the tables on his inquisitors.

Twin brothers Josh and Jonas Pate litter their debut picture with over- fussy embellishments - split-screen effects, jokey intertitles - but to little effect. The female characters are scandalously underwritten, though it's nice to see Ellen Burstyn in a spicy cameo as a gangland bookie with glittery eyelids.

LIVE FLESH

(18) HHHH

Director: Pedro Almodovar

Starring: Liberto Rabal

A novel by Ruth Rendell is the unlikely origin of Pedro Almodovar's most accomplished film to date, though the action has been shifted to Madrid and crammed with sexual symbolism so potent that it leaves you reeling. The smouldering newcomer Liberto Rabal plays Victor, a young tearaway who accidentally instigates a shoot-out when he shows up at the flat of Elena (Francesca Neri), the woman with whom he lost his virginity. Two cops burst in on them and one, David (Javier Bardem), is shot, apparently by Victor. He ends up confined to a wheelchair while Victor goes to prison. But when he's released, years later, both men are out for revenge.

One of Almodovar's previous preoccupations, the fragility of machismo, is brought to the fore in the film's intelligent treatment of the relationship between Victor and David: the latter may be wheelchair-bound, but that doesn't diminish the threat that he poses to Victor.

While the garish excesses of Almodovar's earlier work have gone, they have been replaced by a technical maturity that happily co-exists with the director's deep compassion for his characters.

WILD THINGS

(18) HHH

Director: John McNaughton

Starring: Kevin Bacon, Matt Dillon

Relentlessly sleazy thriller from John McNaughton, the director of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and the underrated Normal Life. Matt Dillon is the teacher accused of rape by two female students, and drawn into a plot that ripples with double- and triple-crosses. An intoxicating, gleefully ugly picture that has the kick of giddy satire.

Ryan Gilbey

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