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In the mid-1980s, cinema was saturated with body-swap comedies in which two characters traded identities like bubblegum cards. These films allowed us to glimpse the craft of an actor, stripping bare the method of interpretation crucial to creating a character. In Face/Off, a cop (Travolta) and a crook (Nicolas Cage) exchange faces, and each actor gets the opportunity to impersonate his co-star.

Naturally, the film exploits the humour in this process. But along with the playfulness there is a seri-ous undercurrent that the director is sometimes in danger of smothering with his operatic visual style, but which survives to create a bewitching work of great intelligence.

Its influences are vast, from the face-swapping Darkman to the haunting philosophical musings of Suture. What Face/Off has above these films is the presence of two stars, which allows it to function as a comment on the way celebrities cultivate their personas.

The structure of the film yields a disorientating practical joke that would have had Hitchcock rubbing his hands in glee. For the first 30 minutes, Travolta is the righteous law-enforcer and Cage is the grotesque psycho. And then, as the hilariously implausible exchange takes place, the audience must reconsider its stance, and regard Travolta as the villain, and Cage as the hero.

If the film has a fatal flaw, it's that this intriguing psychological thriller is itself trapped in the wrong identity, having to adhere to the codes of the action movie genre. This means that however strong an emotional punch a scene may pack, it is always followed by a shoot-out or a car chase which trivialises what has gone before.

WILL IT SNOW FOR XMAS?

(12) Director: Sandrine Veysset

It's triumph-over-adversity time again in rural France, with a nameless mother marshalling her brood to work on the farm owned by the children's father. This cruel fellow doesn't actually live with his family - well not this family, anyway, since he's got another homestead in a better part of the country which he happily shares with his wife and their two sons. I suppose we shall have to wait for the director's cut to discover how he ever found the time to sire seven illegitimate children with his mistress, not mention how he managed to explain this curious situation to his impossibly understanding wife.

If you can ignore the fact that the seven youngsters here haven't got a lazy eye or a jug ear between them, then your sympathies will be engaged by this warm but unsentimental film, shot in a plain unfussy style that verges on documentary.

UP ON THE ROOF

(15) Director: Simon Moore

Halfway between harmless fun and toe-curling embarrassment, this is a nostalgic portrait of five friends using excerpts from their lives. At the end of 1970s, they graduate from university together. In the mid- 1980s they meet up again at a wedding and in the mid-1990s they reunite at a French villa. It might not have been so bad if they hadn't all been parts of an a cappella group given to bursting into their trademark Donna Summer medley at a drop of a hat. The script has some sparkling little gags, but the close harmony rendition of 10cc's "I'm Not in Love" will surely be drowned out by the clang of every jaw in the cinema hitting the floor.

THE GAMBLER

(15) Director: Karoly Makk

Starring: Michael Gambon

A mixture of autobiography and adaptation, with dramatised excerpts from Dostoevsky's The Gambler interspersed with scenes from the writer's life as he struggles to complete the novel in question.

Michael Gambon gives yet another passionate performance that seems too big to be contained by the film he's in, and there is excellent support from Jodhi May as his stenographer, Anna. The film as a whole lacks the daring of their scenes together.

MY MOTHER'S COURAGE

(12) Director: Michael Verhoeven

Starring: Pauline Collins

From Michael Verhoeven, the director of The Nasty Girl, comes the story of Mrs Tabori (Collins), a woman determined not to buckle under the weight of Nazi occupation. An affecting drama with a revelatory performance by Collins.

MAXIMUM RISK

(18) Director: Ringo Lam

Starring: Jean-Claude Van

Damme

The latest vehicle for the minimal talents of Jean-Claude Van Damme, the poor's man Steven Seagal (which is saying something given that Seagal is the poor man's Chuck Norris).

Van Damme is called upon to investigate the death of the twin brother he never knew he had, as if it mattered.

Ryan Gilbey

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