Director: David Fincher Starring: Michael Douglas (15)
Is there a more wonderful sight in the movies than Michael Douglas being tormented? I don't think there's another Hollywood actor who does such a fine job of suffering. In David Fincher's wily new thriller The Game, Douglas is in his element as Nicholas Van Orton, a frosty millionaire ensconced in an affluent world from which he is required to make only the most fleeting contact with fellow human beings. His reprobate brother (Sean Penn) punctures this cocoon with an unusual birthday present - an offer to play "The Game", an executive adventure which Van Orton takes to be an inconsequential Dungeons & Dragons-style diversion. He signs up, undergoes a thorough psychological examination - and waits. What follows might be the weirdest Twilight Zone episode never made.
Coming from the director of Seven, it's no surprise to find that the experience of watching The Game is like being marooned in someone else's nightmare. The real magic is in the way Fincher balances the film's opposing levels. The surface action is tense but potentially frivolous - even at the points where Van Orton is in most danger and it appears that the exercise has spun out of control, we remain aware that the film-makers have a get-out clause - "it was all a game" - at their disposal.
These caper scenes are underpinned by Van Orton's tragic background: he has just hit his 48th birthday, the age at which his father committed suicide. The convenience of this detail might suggest that the screenwriters have identified their hero's Achilles heel via semaphore, but Fincher finds a subtle, eerie way of ushering us into the private enclosure of Van Orton's loneliness. He uses washed-out home movies initially to recall childhood birthday parties, but then to depict Van Orton Snr's high-dive from the mansion roof, the one incident where no movie camera would possibly have been present. We may be familiar with thrillers and action movies which illuminate the protagonist's perspective, but it's rare to find one which lowers us so far into his unconscious. It's dark down there; you can feel like a deep-sea diver running out of oxygen.
Voices: James Woods, Danny DeVito (U)
This is distinctly minor Disney, reworking Greek mythology in a predictable and uninspired manner. That's not to say that it isn't a slice of pleasantly diverting fun, but it milks its anachronisms so thoroughly that it finally disappears into its own post-modernist obsessions. Here is a Hercules whose success as a hero is represented by a series of explicit nods to the Disney business strategy. Not only do action figures of him go on sale once he's defeated the Hydra, but there's a line of footwear and even "The Hercules Store" following in his wake. The merchandising of Toy Story was acceptable, even witty, because it was naturally integrated into the film, but this is just incongruous.
The film has a few moments which aren't weighted by self-reflexiveness. The characters are nicely rounded, with Hercules appealingly presented as an adolescent bimbo and Hades, designed by Gerald Scarfe, inseparable from James Woods, the actor who provides his voice. But did it really have to be a musical? The handful of songs here wouldn't cut the mustard on an episode of Teletubbies.
HOUSE OF AMERICA
Director: Marc Evans Starring: Sian Phillips (15)
Some people find it hard to stay with a film once the characters begin to infuriate them, and you may find you have this problem with House of America. Certainly there are characters here that you wouldn't want to share a planet, let alone a room, with - like the grotesque Mam (Sian Phillips), who makes Joan Crawford look like Doris Day. But do stay with the picture: it's a consistently imaginative evocation of the conflict between small-town claustrophobia and dreams of freedom, with an ironic view of America - the overriding obsession of Mam's offspring - as death, or Heaven, or both.
The attempts of young Sid (Steven Mackintosh) and Gwenny (Lisa Palfrey) to escape the homestead inevitably end in tears, but not before we've seen south Wales transformed into a sparse, surreal, no-man's-land where even David Lynch might feel uncomfortable. At a time when British cinema could be said to be in a very literal phase, House of America bravely trades in metaphors and symbolism at the risk of alienating those viewers who are reluctant to join the dots without supervision.
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn Starring: Kim Bodnia
Pusher is the simple story of Frank, a Copenhagen drug dealer, who faces severe personal injury if he cannot repay the debt he owes to a local gangster. Like La Haine, the film is structured as an ongoing countdown to violence, with inter-titles separating the days.
There's an anthropological tilt to the director Nicolas Winding Refn's style: whether choreographing kinetic violence or immersing us in long verite passages, his prime concern is charting the gradual implosion of a man gripped in the teeth of a vice.
Director: Chen Kaige Starring: Gong Li, Leslie Cheung (15)
Rambling but intimate melodrama from Chen Kaige, the director of Farewell My Concubine. It's the story of the gigolo Zhongliang (Leslie Cheung) who, in the 1920s, is sent to the Pang estate, a place which represents his most painful childhood memories, to seduce the family's current head, Ruyi (Gong Li). Though the cinematographer Christopher Doyle locates some memorably surreal images, this is ultimately a work which pleases the eye, not the heart.
NIL BY MOUTH
Director: Gary Oldman Starring: Kathy Burke
Gary Oldman's directorial debut imagines Hell as a South London housing estate, where a family is ruled over by the vicious, alcoholic Raymond (a bulldozer of a performance from Ray Winstone). There is no story as such, just a steep descent into raw, blistering pain as Raymond beats up his junkie brother-in-law Billy (Charlie Creed-Miles), his wife Val (Kathy Burke, who won the Best Actress award in Cannes this year) before finally having a complete nervous breakdown. Oldman places his camera right in the middle of this disturbing domestic battleground, but for all the verbal and physical aggression, he never loses sight of the fact that his characters are human beings.
Director: Ivan Reitman Starring: Robin Williams, Billy Crystal (12)
In this sugary comedy, Robin Williams and Billy Crystal are dispatched to hunt a missing 16-year-old boy who, their mother (Natassja Kinski) claims, could be the biological son of either man. Predictably, both wannabe fathers undergo a life-altering experience. More surprisingly, none of the gags raise more than a weak smile, while a running joke in which the adults and their teenage charge are mistaken for a threesome, jeopardises the film's levity.
Trevor Garfield (Samuel L Jackson) is a science teacher who becomes acquainted with the police code for a homicide when he flunks a student who first scrawls '187' all over his tutor's textbooks, and then stabs him in the back. CW: Ritzy Cinema, Virgin Trocadero, Warner Village West End
AIR FORCE ONE
Air Force One is the name of the Presidential plane, which is hijacked hours after the President has delivered a startling anti-terrorist address. Gary Oldman is the psychotic villain threatening to shoot a hostage every half hour. CW: Odeon Marble Arch, Odeon Mezzanine, Odeon Swiss Cottage, Plaza, UCI Whiteleys, Warner Village West End
A fascinatingly perverse plot is told through flashbacks and coincidences as Vincent Cassel is bewitched by a girl from his past. CW: The Minema, Renoir
AUSTIN POWERS: INTERNATIONAL MAN OF MYSTERY
Sixties spy thrillers and superheroes are parodied in this silly, but shamefully funny, spoof written by and starring Mike Myers. CW: Virgin Chelsea, Warner Village West End
BATMAN & ROBIN
George Clooney and Chris O'Donnell star in Joel Schumacher's ugly, garish, disaster of a movie. CW: Odeon Camden Town
Rowan Atkinson's dreadful alter ego commands little sympathy in this excruciatingly bad comedy. CW: Odeon Kensington, Odeon Mezzanine, Plaza, UCI Whiteleys
Crude slapstick comedy in which two horny devils attempt to charm a pair of young women into bed. CW: Virgin Trocadero
Mike Leigh's latest follows former flatmates as they tentatively rebuild the friendship they forged 10 years before. The film can be crudely schematic, but Leigh's acute observation is as rewarding as ever.
CW: Clapham Picture House, Curzon Phoenix, Odeon Swiss Cottage, Plaza, Ritzy Cinema, Screen on Baker Street
Ellie (Jodie Foster) is a scientist committed to finding intelligent life in outer space. When she receives messages from another galaxy, her sceptical superiors are forced to sit up and take notice. CW: Odeon Camden Town, Odeon Kensington, Ritzy Cinema, Screen on Baker Street, UCI Whiteleys, Virgin Chelsea, Virgin Haymarket, Virgin Trocadero, Warner Village West End
Richard Donner's erratic thriller stars Mel Gibson. CW: Warner Village West EndReuse content