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PALOOKAVILLE

Director: Alan Taylor Starring: William Forsythe, Frances McDormand (15)

Palookaville is the place that Marlon Brando got a one-way ticket to in On the Waterfront. It's the arse of the world. And it's the place that Russ (Vincent Gallo), Sid (William Forsythe) and Terry (Adam Trese) want to escape from so desperately that they turn to crime. But these are no tough guys. A midnight raid on a jewellery store goes wrong when they realise they've broken into the bakery next door; and to get inspiration for the hold-up, they watch Richard Fleischer's Armored Car Robbery armed with a notebook and pencil. It's details like that which make this sleepy comedy so effortlessly charming. While the film may be comical about the trio's attempts to struggle above the bread-line, it doesn't trivialise the reality of their situation, and there are a couple of surprisingly tough scenes to temper the knockabout antics.

I don't think Palookaville captures the same stinging melancholy as its biggest influence, Bill Forsyth's Breaking In, but its characters are lovingly presented, and there is some endearing work from Vincent Gallo, the ugly-pretty wide boy who has the same arrogant swagger as John Travolta. With his eyes as bright as floodlights, and his wolfish way of prowling, he commands the screen, and you can't take your eyes off him.

PORTRAITS CHINOIS

Director: Martine Dugowson Starring: Helena Bonham Carter, Romane Bohringer (15)

Martine Dugowson's first film was the moving and subtle Mina Tannenbaum, but with her follow-up she moves away from the earlier film's intimacy and loses much in the process. It's not that she can't handle this amount of characters - the picture follows seven or eight friends, with Helena Bonham Carter at their centre, whose careers touch various points in the fashion and film industries - but there isn't enough complexity or unpredictability in them to make the film feel like anything other than a leisurely perusal of their lives.

Stand-out performances come from Miki Manojlovic as a lusty producer with a cruel laugh; Romane Bohringer as the brilliant young designer stung by love; and Yvan Attal, who has the good fortune to be cast as the one character with tangible shades of darkness.

THE DISAPPEARANCE OF KEVIN JOHNSON

Director: Francis Megahy Starring: Pierce Brosnan, Dudley Moore (15)

It's not the most enticing title, is it? Audiences are unlikely to care who Kevin Johnson is, let alone ponder his whereabouts. If you haven't heard of him, that's because he doesn't exist. Johnson is the invention of director Francis Megahy, who uses this enigmatic figure as the pivot for his mockumentary and would-be satire on Hollywood. He doesn't quite pull it off - despite some celebrity cameos and a detailed script which nicely parodies the work of Nick Broomfield, the ideas are drained of topicality, coming some two years after the various exploits of Heidi Fleiss or Don Simpson were exposed.

WARRIORS OF VIRTUE

Director: Ronny Yu Starring: Angus MacFadyen (PG)

As well as being lumbered with the most unappetising title since, well, The Disappearance of Kevin Johnson, this children's adventure is likely to bewilder its target audience. Pity young Ryan Jeffers, a squirt with a game leg who wishes he could hang out with the cool kids. He's so desperate to be popular that he accepts a dare to walk across a pipe suspended over a whirlpool. Nod solemnly at the pitfalls of peer pressure! Gasp as Ryan plummets to certain doom! Scratch your chin and mutter "Huh?" as he wakes up in a mystical, studio-bound forest with the dwarf from Twin Peaks on hand as his spiritual advisor. The Roos are the eponymous soldiers - forbidden from killing anyone, though apparently allowed to chafe their opponents if it's necessary.

This is no ordinary fantasy yarn, but one which buckles under the weight of its delusions of profundity: the magical land is called Tao, and even the villain (played by Angus MacFadyen, over-acting as only a man who knows nobody will ever see his performance can) comes out with lines like "Life is just a dream floating into another dream".

LOVE! VALOUR! COMPASSION!

Director: Joe Mantello Starring: John Glover, Jason Alexander (15)

Although Terrence McNally's adaptation of his own Broadway play is shot with precious little imagination, the alternately brittle and compassionate dialogue shines through, and there are some winning performances to distract you from the sentimentality. Jason Alexander of Seinfeld has had little chance to demonstrate his dexterity with drama, but as the most outrageous of eight gay men who spend three weeks bonding together in a country house, he allows us to glimpse the traces of vulnerability behind a character who appears to be all surface.

BROKEN ENGLISH

Director: Gregor Nicholas Starring: Rade Serbedzija (18)

A harrowing story of inter-racial love which comes from the producer of Once Were Warriors, and shares that film's unsparing toughness - not to mention its unwelcome tang of sadism. Nina (Aleksandra Vujcic) is a Croatian immigrant in New Zealand, whose affair with a Maori colleague (Julian Arahanga) sends her bigoted father wild. Not for this parent the intimidating body language and warnings to return his daughter by midnight - he favours baseball bats instead. While the cast respond to the urgent script with great sensitivity, the picture runs out of ideas after an hour. A valiant effort all the same.

IDIOT BOX

Director: David Caesar Starring: Jeremy Sims (NC)

Playing like an Australian take on Restless Natives, with a touch of clumsy social satire, this kinetic comedy soon wears the senses down. It focuses on two unemployed suburban friends who spend their days trying to fight boredom by setting off car alarms and squabbling over whose turn it is to play air-bass. And then a weighty idea invades their thoughts: wouldn't a bank robbery provide the perfect antidote to their humdrum lives? Sounds familiar? Unfortunately, the writing here lacks the fizz of Palookaville, and neither flashy editing nor a soundtrack crammed with kooky rock songs can compensate.

Ryan Gilbey

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