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DONNIE BRASCO

Director: Mike Newell. Starring: Al Pacino, Johnny Depp, Michael Madsen (18)

With his new film, Mike Newell, director of such sunny fripperies as Four Weddings and a Funeral, proves he's adept at handling weightier human drama. Johnny Depp is ice-cool FBI agent Joe Pistone, an undercover cop who reinvents himself as "jewel man" Donnie Brasco, boring his way into the New York mob through the soft heart of Lefty (Pacino), a washed-up foot soldier who has missed his chance to be a wise guy, but sees a future for himself in Donnie.

From the moment Lefty takes Donnie under the wing of his nasty wide-boy coat, the seeds of betrayal are sown, and Newell makes them blossom with the grace and inevitability of a classical tragedy. With Donnie, we're educated in the language and hierarchy of the mob, plunged into a murky sludge-lit world of seedy bars and empty cafes which all seem to be seen through the tinted sunglasses that any serious wise guy needs to sport. As the law begins to fade from Pistone's mind, however, his family start to disappear, too, replaced by another family - and a surrogate father in Lefty. The heart of the movie, this relationship is beautifully played by the two leads, with Depp surprisingly convincing as a tough guy and Pacino giving one of his best performances in years as the gangster who has done 26 hits, but knows that he's never going to make the big time.

SCREAM

Director: Wes Craven. Starring: David Arquette (18)

With its leafy avenues and sunlit town fountain, the suburban town of Woodsboro is almost too perfect. Something's got to disturb the peace. Enter a blade-wielding serial killer dressed in a Halloween mask who begins to "fillet" local High School kids with the relish of a short-order chef. After the rape and murder of her mother, Sidney Prescott (a winsome Neve Campbell) is having a rough time. Her hormonal boyfriend, Billy, is pressuring her into sex, and her Dad's constantly away on business. Worse still, she seems to be number one target for the town's mystery psychopath. As David Arquette's sleepy Deputy tries to solve the case, everybody becomes a suspect.

So far, so familiar. The same plot's been seen in every teen horror since, well, Nightmare on Elm Street. What's really exhilarating about Wes Craven's new nightmare is the way it sticks the knife into the video nasties debate of the 1980s and gives it a good old self-referential twist. From the moment the first victim starts making popcorn alone in the house, the film's a generic bloodbath. Sly sight gags on everything from A Stranger Calls to Prom Night mean the film's references pile up as quickly as its body count.

A giddy mix of sadistic black humour and genuinely chilling horror, Scream is a shock-edited, bloody Valentine to that most despised of genres, the slasher flick. "It's a very simple formula," declares the school nerd and horror video buff. Scream proves that it can be twisted to become very clever indeed.

LIAR LIAR

Director: Tom Shadyac. Starring: Jim Carrey, Jennifer Tilly (12)

When Fletcher Reede's son Max is asked what his father does at school he says he's "a liar". In fact, he's a lawyer, but is smoothly unscrupulous to the point that his professional dishonesty spills over into his relationship with his divorced wife and his child. After one too many excuses about his absence, Max makes a birthday wish that his father be able to speak the truth for one day. After being asked what he thought of sex with his boss Amanda Donohoe, Jim Carrey's Reede replies "I've had better" and from then on he's in a battle with his new, veracious self. Clowning and life lessons alternate, and Carrey comes to understand the corruption of his ways.

The scenario offers Carrey a chance to goof out in an all-too-familiar way. Instead of the struggle with his dark side that we saw in The Mask, it's a struggle with his right side, which wins, offering the most chilling spectacle of all - Carrey trying to act sincere. He can't do it, and comes across as creepy, but there are some good scenes along the way.

MARGARET'S MUSEUM

Director: Mort Ransen. Starring: Helen Bonham Carter (15)

After losing her father and brother to the pit, Margaret (Bonham Carter) has sworn not to love another miner, until bag-piping charmer Neil Currie comes along, that is. This Gothic fable treads a slightly surreal, and not always successful line between grim social drama and black comedy. There's more than a hint of Breaking the Waves about Margaret's "snot- nosed" outsider finding a short-lived happiness only to have it snatched from under her running nose, unfortunately the film's conclusion is so heavily signalled from the start that one gets impatient for the tragedy to be concluded, not least to escape Bonham Carter's feisty little-girl lost.

FEMALE PERVERSIONS

Director: Susan Streitfeld. Starring: Tilda Swinton (18)

Based on the essays of theorist Louise J Kaplan this is less a movie than a set of walking, talking feminist theories. Tilda Swinton plays Eve, a powerful career woman who power-dresses her way to success until her inability to reconcile her wild fantasies with modern femininity leads her to suffer a breakdown. Along the way, the film checks every female malaise from eating disorders to self-mutilation. The idea is to present the stereotypes that women must adopt to survive in modern society. Ironically, the coolly academic feel of the film prevents identification with the characters, and they remain stereotypes.

IT TAKES TWO

Director: Andy Tennant. Starring: Kirstie Alley (PG)

The Prince and the Pauper meets My Girl in this slick, forgettable fable. Billionaire Steve Guttenberg and social worker Kirstie Alley are the couple looking for "real love". So it's just up to two identical little girls, who happen to be from opposite ends of the social spectrum, to miraculously end up in the same place and get them together. A family romance shot and edited with all the sentimental vacuity of a TV soap.

THE BOY FROM MERCURY

Director: Martin Duffy. Starring: Rita Tushingham (PG)

After the death of his father, young Harry has been living in a dream world, not talking to his mother or brother, and sleepwalking through school. Martin Duffy's debut feature puts a charming spin on child's eye alienation by making it exactly that - Harry comes to believes he's a thing from outer space. Duffy creates a convincing fantasy world with just the right dash of Irish charm and whimsy.

Liese Spencer

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