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THE LEADING MAN

(15) HH

Director: John Duigan Starring: Jon Bon Jovi, Anna Galiena, Lambert Wilson, Thandie Newton, Barry Humphries

It's possible that the witty opening scene of The Leading Man invites expectations that few films of such modest intent could hope to meet. Robin (played by the rock singer Jon Bon Jovi), a cool young buck in black shades, strolls through London listening to his Walkman, pausing to gaze wistfully at the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben. With delicious timing, the writer and director John Duigen chooses this moment to reveal the song that's cracking on Robin's headset. It's "Burning Down The House" by Talking Heads. The sly smile on the young man's face seems to substantiate the suggestion that this is a Guy Fawkes in rock star's clothes.

Although it's disappointing to find that Swan Vestas and anarchy don't figure in Robin's plans, you know he's no angel. He's an American film star in town to take the lead in a play called The Hit Man, but from the moment he meets his pretty young co-star Hilary (Thandie Newton), and flashes those "you WILL be seduced" eyes, it's clear that he's more interested in adding to the notches on his bedpost than the awards on his mantelpiece. Robin is an amoral chancer surrounded by vain or insecure characters who are only too keen to have somebody take advantage of them. Hilary is having an affair with the playwright Felix, who loves his wife Elena but is aching for change. Robin sees a solution. He offers to seduce Elena, thereby giving Felix and Hilary room to breathe - and all for only the cost of his expenses. A snip! But altruism doesn't come cheap, as Felix discovers when he receives Robin's first invoice.

The film seems to be snagged somewhere between Pasolini's Theorem, Polanski's Bitter Moon and a Brian Rix farce, which perhaps accounts for the faint indigestion with which it leaves you. Jon Bon Jovi makes an appealing rascal, and you can even detect traces of malice behind his narcissism every now and then. My advice to him: give up the day job.

CONTACT

(PG) HHH

Director: Robert Zemeckis Starring: Jodie Foster, Matthew McConaughey, James Woods

Ellie (Jodie Foster) is a scientist committed to finding intelligent life in outer space - like the hero of Static who believed he could pick up television signals from heaven, her quest is propelled by the grief she still feels at having lost both her parents. But when she receives coded messages from another galaxy, the sceptical superiors who jeopardised her funding are forced to sit up and take notice.

As too is her sometime lover, played by a moderately deranged Matthew McConaughey, who is a priest. Well, sort of. Making McConaughey celibate would be like casting Jim Carrey as a coma victim, so naturally that's the part of the job that his character couldn't fulfil. But he still challenges Ellie over her atheism, even as she's being tipped to be the first human being ever to make contact with alien creatures.

I like the film's seriousness and conviction, but Zemeckis uses some intrusive methods - too many news broadcasts which give us a second-hand view of the action, as well as some ridiculous Forrest Gump-like trickery involving President Clinton. For the film to have worked, Zemeckis would need to have in his audience what Ellie has in extra-terrestrial life: faith.

FACE

(18) HHH

Director: Antonia Bird Starring: Robert Carlyle, Ray Winstone, Damon Albarn (18)

As is so often the case with the films of Antonia Bird (Priest, Mad Love), the characters often seem on the verge of buckling under the weight of the symbolism she employs. You want an unambiguous display of ethical conflict? How about a prominently displayed crucifix mounted on the wall next to a cupboard in which a bag of sawn-off shotguns are being stashed? You need to see proof of the political past which East End gangster Ray (Robert Carlyle) is attempting to bury? No problem: give him a campaigning mother and girlfriend, both of whom badger him about abandoning idealism for money. You want more? Fine, let's have the walls of his flat covered in posters of Ken Loach films. Never mind that Riff-Raff and Carla's Song, the two Ken Loach films in which Carlyle actually appeared, are conspicuous by their absence. The detail alone jars - does anyone have Ken Loach film posters up in their flat? Even Ken Loach?

If Bird seems unable to integrate simple details, she still does a fine job of translating Ronan Bennett's tight screenplay into visual language, and she manages to conjure up an authentically gritty, desperate atmosphere which should do for London something like what Get Carter did for Newcastle. Ray and his associates (including Ray Winstone and Philip Davis, both excellent, and a sweet cameo from Blur's Damon Albarn) have pulled off a heist, only to have the money go missing courtesy of a third party - or a rat.

Much of the film amounts to Ray struggling to determine whose honour has lapsed, as well as coming to terms with his own tarnished integrity. But the tension is expertly controlled and despite a general lack of subtlety, the film is very good on the way we use our families as armour - whether it's Ray turning to the mother he has rejected and pleading for help, or Julian (Philip Davis) instinctively pulling his baby son onto his lap when Ray calls round, like a man putting on his glasses to forestall a smack in the gob.

DANCE HALL QUEEN

(15) HH

Director: Don Letts & Rick Elgood Starring: Audrey Reid, Paul Campbell

A rough diamond in the mould of The Harder They Come, though with its portrait of Jamaican poverty sweetened by a handful of laughs, this follows Marcia (Audrey Reid) and her attempts to rescue her family from a life compromised by financial reliance on the cruel and lecherous Uncle Larry (Carl Davis). The film's fuzzy, often blurred photography suggests that this has been blown up from video, but a certain exuberance shines through, and Don Letts's usual flair for finding a visual rhythm to match the music is evident in the scenes where Marcia tries to become a dancefloor sensation.

THE SWEET HEREAFTER

(15) HHHH

Director: Atom Egoyan Starring: Ian Holm, Alberta Watson, Maury Chaykin

The Canadian director Atom Egoyan is given to making films that resemble intricate little puzzles, where each character's motives only become clear as the final piece slots into place. His adaptation of Russell Banks's novel about the effect that a tragic accident has on a close-knit community is a more linear piece than his earlier work, but it is deeply moving as well as beguilingly oblique. It's mesmerising to be ferried so effortlessly through three different time periods: alighting before, during and after the school-bus crash in which many of the town's youngsters are lost, Egoyan coolly examines the way tragedy forces lives to change shape.

The lawyer, Mitchell Stevens (Ian Holm), arrives in the wake of bereavement to persuade the families to sue, but his motives seem unclear as he becomes swept along in his own hyperbole, urging the grief-stricken parents to let him "give your rage a voice."

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