INTIMATE RELATIONS

Director: Philip Goodhew. Starring: Julie Walters (15)

A tough boy with tattoos and a temper. A schoolgirl who plots sexual blackmail while still in possession of her virginity. A prosthetic leg being polished over breakfast. And a nymphomaniac housewife who crosses the landing in her slippers and quilted dressing-gown bearing forbidden fruit. No, not the sordid details of the new Government's first sleaze scandal, but this prickly comedy, which sets out to do for the dull old suburban semi what Blue Velvet did for the white picket fence.

That it fails on that count is largely due to our familiarity with its world of tea-table trade-offs, and net curtains which twitch of their own accord. The dialogue, loaded with sly double entendres, betrays a considerable debt to Joe Orton and Alan Bennett, who have both invested their innuendo with a menace or poignancy that is largely missing here. But Intimate Relations still has much to recommend it, not least Julie Walters, who beautifully captures the sadness undercutting Marjorie Beasley, an electric landlady who goes to greater lengths than most to ensure that her guests feel welcome.

From the moment that your attention is drawn to an axe standing in a provincial English garden near the beginning of the film, you know that it's only a matter of time before somebody gets the chop. Will it be Marjorie, who is rumoured to have done more than her bit for the war effort with visiting GIs, and has got tongues wagging again now that she's taken in another lodger? Could it be the new arrival himself, Harold (Rupert Graves), an ex-Navy lad who keeps his brutality in check by popping sugar lumps at regular intervals? Or will it be Marjorie's inquisitive 13-year-old daughter, Joyce (Laura Sadler)?

The initial sexual tension is expertly handled by the director, though this dissipates once the bed-hopping begins, and it's a relief when murder finally enters the equation - by this point, the script has run out of things to say. The film looks suitably stale and musty, with decor which is almost as ugly as the characters. And though its vision of provincial England as a place where morals are about as common as drive-by shootings is hardly original, there is something affecting about the picture; in its portrait of misdirected affection, it is as cruel and bruised and sensual as a love-bite.

THE CHAMBER

Director: James Foley. Starring: Gene Hackman (12)

The interminable procession of John Grisham adaptations from bookshelf to cinema screen continues with perhaps the most wretched one yet. Chris O'Donnell plays Adam, a young lawyer who decides he wants to try and save the convicted killer Sam Cayhall (Hackman) from the gas chamber. Adam's decision is not entirely altruistic - Sam is Adam's grandfather; the young man, troubled by his own father's suicide, hopes that delving into family history might provide self-illumination. Never mind that you can't believe O'Donnell could ever have a background that interesting; this bland thriller is utterly uninvolving.

THE DEVIL'S OWN

Director: Alan J Pakula. Starring: Harrison Ford (15)

Alan J Pakula made his reputation with tough thrillers that traded in paranoia and ambiguity, like Klute. But there's nothing going on beneath the surface of The Devil's Own, which takes a promising premise - IRA terrorist Brad Pitt establishes a US base for his operations in the home of his unwitting host, a cop played by Harrison Ford - and squanders its potential. Where the film is strong is in building the relationship between Ford and Pitt, but this is exploited for a rushed wham-bam finale in which loyalties are questioned. A wasted opportunity.

MARVIN'S ROOM

Director: Jerry Zaks. Starring: Meryl Streep (12)

From the opening tour around a little metropolis of medicine bottles, Marvin's Room luxuriates in illness. Marvin himself, played wordlessly by Hume Cronyn, is a bed-ridden old man cared for by his daughter Bessie (Diane Keaton), who is diagnosed with leukaemia as the film begins. The only hope for Bessie is a bone marrow transplant, so she calls on Lee (Streep), the estranged sister whom she hasn't seen for 20 years. Lee has her own problems in the shape of her son Hank (Leonardo DiCaprio), but the family eventually reunites, and the obligatory scenes of everyone being brave and tender and funny about life start mounting up. The performances are excellent, and though it overdoses on comic relief in the shape of bumbling doctor Robert De Niro, this is a superior tear-jerker.

PRIVATE PARTS

Director: Betty Thomas. Starring: Howard Stern (18)

The story of controversial American DJ Howard Stern as he progresses from nerdy teenage misfit to nerdy media superstar, Private Parts is a fascinating mixture of self-mythologising bombast, and dreary shock tactics. Stern plays himself, and his assertion that "I grow on you - like fungus" isn't wide of the mark; through autobiographical sketches, Stern conveys the warmth beneath the weirdo. Audiences may take umbrage with his willingness to mine the most painful subjects for comedy - the jokes about his wife's miscarriage, for example - but even these moments provide an unexpected insight into the way a public performer famed for his frankness must choose to deal with personal trauma.

A BIT OF SCARLET

Director: Andrea Weiss. Narrated by: Ian McKellen (NC)

A comical documentary compiling clips from films like The Leather Boys, If... and Black Narcissus to illustrate the various functions of lesbian and gay characters in cinema. Perhaps superfluous after last year's more conventional history lesson The Celluloid Closet, this has its pleasures - like Ian McKellen's dry narration - and the excerpts are well chosen.

KAMA SUTRA

Director: Mira Nair. Starring: Naveen Andrews (18)

The insipid tale of a princess and a servant-girl whose lives are connected by their relationship with the text of the ancient Kama Sutra, and their love for the cruel King Raj (Andrews). No plot, no characterisation and definitely no sensuality - unless seeing somebody get trampled by an elephant floats your boat.

MADAME BUTTERFLY

Director: Frederic Mitterrand (PG)

Puccini's tragic opera is done no favours by this French production, which presents the action in a soulless, uninspired theatrical style and gives no evidence as to why the film-makers have chosen cinema as their medium.

Ryan Gilbey

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