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THE PEOPLE VS LARRY FLYNT

Director:Milos Forman. Starring: Woody Harrelson, Courtney Love, Edward Norton (18)

It would seem fairly daring that Hollywood should use Larry Flynt, the founder of Hustler magazine, as the figurehead in a movie promoting free speech, given that debate over the very existence of pornography continues to flourish. But Milos Forman's film should invite no such conflicts - it's tasteful to the point of being utterly innocuous. It follows Flynt - played by Woody Harrelson in a variety of garish costumes far more offensive than anything Hustler ever published - from the peak of his success as a publisher, through to the assassination attempt which left him wheelchair-bound, and the various court cases which chiselled away at his right to freedom of expression.

But the battle is rigged from the beginning, with Flynt unconvincingly painted as a cross between a Saturday Night Live stand-up comedian and a long-lost brother to the Hunter S Thompson of Where the Buffalo Roam, while anyone who objects to his publication is automatically a pen-pushing fascist (just look at how eagerly the stiffs at a fund-raising dinner lap up the pornography they are supposed to be condemning).

Far more interesting than these showcase scenes, in which Harrelson is called upon to make Flynt's tiresome courtroom antics somehow wacky and endearing, are the scenes between Flynt and his wife, Althea. In that role, Courtney Love demonstrates that she can sustain the careful, measured verve and swagger hitherto glimpsed in her cameos in Basquiat and Feeling Minnesota. Even at its more languorous, her portrayal of Althea conveys a sense of effervescent optimism in the face of extreme adversity.

BITS AND PIECES

Director: Antonello Grimaldi. Starring: Asia Argento, Enrico Lo Verso, Chiara Mastroianni, Francesca Neri, Gabriele Salvatores, Sergio Rubini, Dario Argento, Luca Barbareschi (15) (subtitles)

An occasionally beguiling collection of sketches and vignettes which strives to form a cumulative picture of Rome in all its colour and beauty, but is ultimately too unfocused to leave any lasting impression.

It begins wonderfully, with travelogue images of Rome by night interrupted by a hold-up in a Chinese restaurant during which a man has a cardiac arrest, the lolling, romantic soundtrack continuing all the while.

Thereafter, it uses a structure borrowed from Slackers and Short Cuts to bring together a bunch of disparate souls (there are 130 speaking parts in all, the picture claims) for intermittent laughs, but for very little discernible reason.

THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK

Director:Irvin Kershner. Starring: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Billy Dee Williams, Anthony Daniels (U)

The Star Wars revival continues with the re-release, in digitally jazzed-up form, of the series' second installment. The Empire Strikes Back is the most satisfying episode, if only because it has dark stylistic overtones to match its vision of a universe forever on the verge of being governed by absolute evil. What's more, the good guys don't exactly win, and the picture ends on a cliff-hanger of sorts.

It's certainly not perfect - how could it be when its spiritual centre is the sub-Tolkein Zen-master, Yoda? But it has enough suggestions of menace to counteract the anodyne excesses of its predecessor. What a pity that it would be resolved three years later with the abysmal Return of the Jedi (itself exhumed in a fortnight).

MANDELA

Director: Jo Menell/ Angus Gibson (PG) (documentary)

Acclaimed documentary, made three years ago, profiling the effortlessly noble political hero through telling interviews and some rather less effective reconstructions of his childhood.

TWIN TOWN

Director: Kevin Allen. Starring: Dougray Scott, Dorien Thomas, William Thomas, Rhys Ifans, Llyr Evans (18)

Twin Town is an attempt to capitalise on the controversy and acclaim surrounding Trainspotting (whose director and producer executive-produced this), though it fails dismally to hold the attention, let alone set the screen alight.

Adopting the same self-deprecating view towards Wales as Trainspotting did towards Scotland, this film focuses on a group of crooks, louts and suburban grotesques as they engage in a continuing chain of revenge. The Lewis Twins (Llyr Evans and Rhys Ifans) are two glue-sniffing, joy-riding junkies who disrupt the local karaoke night by urinating on the singer, who happens to be the daughter of a thuggish roofing contractor in cahoots with a couple of vicious, corrupt policemen.

The plot has some occasional surges of energy, but the picture never leaves the starting blocks, due to its reliance on scatalogical set-pieces and random violence at the expense of characterisation or comedy.

Allen, who also co-wrote the screenplay, clearly despises each of his characters. It's no offence to write a film about a bunch of reprobates, but it's testing the patience of the most forgiving audience to forbid them any insight into people they are being asked to spend 90 minutes with.

The tone of the movie is as arbitrary as its brutality - in the absence of sufficient depth, the Twins emerge as the heroes simply, it seems, because they are young. You'd have to be as stoned as they are to buy that one.

TOTAL ECLIPSE

Director: Agnieszka Holland. Starring: Leonard DiCaprio, David Thewlis (18)

It's perfectly feasible, as screenwriter Christopher Hampton proposes in Total Eclipse, that the visionary French poet Arthur Rimbaud should have been entirely obnoxious despite his knack for crafting coruscating verse - after all, by the time he turned his back on his art, he was barely old enough to get into whatever the 19th-century equivalent of Stringfellow's was. But that is still no reason for the director, Agnieska Holland, to order her lead actor, Leonardo DiCaprio - a highly versatile performer - to do his utmost to disguise the slightest glimpse of intelligence in his portrayal.

This portrait of the artist as a sadistic wretch accentutates the cruelty of the relationship between Rimbaud and fellow poet Paul Verlaine (David Thewlis) to the point of tastelessness.

The cast, which also includes Romane Bohringer as Verlaine's suffering wife, visibly try to breathe life into their characters, but Holland is so intent on making the audience suffer that the film ends up as little more than an exercise in prolonged sado-masochism - a "Season in Hell" indeed.

CITIZEN KANE

Director: Orson Welles. Starring: Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten, Ray Collins, Paul Stewart, Dorothy Comingore, Everett Sloane (U)

In any given week, the new films would inevitably be shamed by Orson Welles's 1941 masterpiece, but this week's disappointing releases only give you further cause, as if you needed it, to revisit this towering work.

It's the story of the rise and fall of a multi-millionaire newspaper tycoon, Charles Foster Kane (Welles), told from multiple perspectives - including those of his business manager, his second wife, a friend, and eventually his butler. Each of these appears to bring us closer to understanding him, while actually feeding the ambiguities and enigmas surrounding his life and identity.

A strange, haunted movie, somewhat dark and forbidding, but it still maintains sufficient emotional and technical complexity, more than 50 years on, to merit continued examination.

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