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JERRY MAGUIRE

Director: Cameron Crowe. Starring: Tom Cruise, Cuba Gooding Jr, Renee Zellweger, Kelly Preston (15)

Garlanded with five Oscar nominations, this (nominal) romantic comedy marks the belated growing up of Cameron Crowe, writer/ director of those tart teen cults, Say Anything and Singles, and box-office guarantee Tom Cruise (the Tyrone Power of his generation), both of whom are pushing into their mid-thirties and finding it increasingly hard to do the Peter Pan thing.

Indeed, those who have fantasised about killing Cruise - he deserves to die just for making Cocktail - will be crushed to discover that Crowe and the superstar murder the arrogant, grinning Eighties version of Tom Cruise before the opening credits have even finished rolling. Cast as the best sports agent in the business, Jerry Maguire is an "animal" who, in his own words, "suddenly sprouts a conscience" and in a fever of late-night self-loathing, composes a mission statement lambasting the almighty dollar. He finds himself fired, and, worse, without the traditional masculine identity conferred by earning power and worship in the workplace. (A bit rich coming from the actor who once fronted a movie called The Colour of Money.)

The masterstroke here - or maybe it's just one of those lucky pop-cultural collisions - is harnessing Cruise's search for a new image in light of all those men out there coming to terms with downsizing, downshifting and their sense of threatened self. When his high-flying fiancee (Preston) beats him and dumps him, it's no accident that Maguire, with his "intimacy" problems, feels a spiritual kinship with "minorities". He becomes involved with that usually reviled creature, a working single mother (Zellweger, who makes tears as beautifully as Sylvia Sidney once did) or that the one client who sticks with him, footballer player Cuba Gooding Jr, is black and the picture's depository of committed family values. These are values which Jerry must discover if he is to survive the future as literally, a New Man.

As a swoony love story for messy contemporary times, Jerry Maguire is a mild triumph. It teeters towards formula only to reverse your expectations (there's a "cute" kid who's actually cute, and a divorced women's group that isn't portrayed as a coven of bitter witches), before succumbing to the inevitable Sappy Ending - sexual politics be damned. Still, it's an even greater success as market repositioning. Farewell Eighties Tom, hello Nineties Tom. Jerry Maguire is to Cruise's career what the Older album is to George Michael's: part repentance, part acceptance, and an admission that, for men, maturity isn't sought, but is instead a sort of necessary pain.

John Lyttle

BLOOD AND WINE

Director: Bob Rafelson. Starring: Jack Nicholson, Stephen Dorff, Jennifer Lopez, Judy Davis, Michael Caine (15)

A pedestrian thriller elevated by some canny casting, Blood and Wine touches on moments of painful honesty, but is too distracted by its own McGuffin to truly connect with the themes and emotions it courts.

Jack Nicholson gives an unusually reserved but masterfully taut performance as Alex Gates, a wine merchant whose home life is in pieces - he and his wife Suzanne (Davis) all but exchange gunfire over the breakfast table, while his stepson Jason (Dorff) cannot be bothered to conceal the contempt he feels for Alex. But there's a way out for Alex - a jewellery theft which he's planning to pull off in partnership with the seedy English crook Victor (Caine), and which could provide him and his mistress Gabriella (Lopez) with the means to build a new life.

Despite being the fifth collaboration between Nicholson and director Bob Rafelson, Blood and Wine forsakes mood too often in favour of plot to really measure up as a psychological study in the manner of early works like Five Easy Pieces and The King of Marvin Gardens. One of its other main problems is its ill-advised dependency on the young actor Stephen Dorff to carry off some crucial confrontation scenes. Dorff simply isn't up to the job - looking surly doesn't cut the mustard in a film which spends so much time milling around with its characters.

Thankfully, the pairing of Nicholson and Caine lives up to expectations, with Caine particularly grubby as the wheezing Victor, a grim walking reminder of mortality. In their lightly squabbling scenes together, they seem to be clambering away from death, desperately trying to wring some glory from their crumbling lives - ironically, the movie is never more alive than when they're on screen.

NORMAL LIFE

Director: John McNaughton. Starring: Luke Perry, Ashley Judd, Bruce Young (18)

The terrible menace of suburbia hung over John McNaughton's controversial debut feature, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, and also brings a claustrophobic horror to his latest film, Normal Life. Ex-Beverly Hills 90210 heart-throb Luke Perry plays Chris, a rookie cop who falls for Pam (Judd), an astronomy buff whose official profession, we realise, some time before Chris does, is bad girl. She takes drugs and mutilates her own body; she flips out if confronted by the most basic domestic situation, such as dinner with her creepy in-laws; and you'd think Chris would consider ditching her when she arrives at his father's funeral in rollerblades. But no - instead, he becomes a bank robber to support her.

If this sounds like Serial Mom territory, that's close to the truth - McNaughton's sympathy for his tragic characters evokes the reckless early comedies of John Waters, while still remaining faithful to the realities of the story. It's a precarious balancing act, but McNaughton really pulls it off, aided immeasurably by Luke Perry's muted, coiled performance, which measures an uncharacteristic nought on the narcissism scale.

IRMA VEP

Director: Oliver Assayas. Starring: Maggie Cheung, Jean-Pierre Leaud, Nathalie Richard (subtitles) (NC)

Although this wry comedy concentrates on the chaos surrounding a remake of Feuillade's Les Vampires, it quickly changes from a Day for Night-style film-within-a-film to something altogether more ambiguous and intangible. Maggie Cheung essentially plays herself, an action-movie actress who arrives in France to star in Jean-Pierre Leaud's film, but finds the production in shambles.

There are plenty of digs here at the current state of cinema, and in particular at those so-called film buffs who celebrate modern directors like John Woo at the expense of delving into cinema history. But the strength and magic of Irma Vep lies in its amorphous nature: at various points it is a satire of the movie industry, an homage to silent film-making, and a hymn to Maggie Cheung, and in its imagination and originality, much more than the sum of these parts.

SWANN

Director: Ann Benson Gyles. Starring: Miranda Richardson, Brenda Fricker, Michael Ontkean (15)

Sarah Maloney (Miranda Richardson) is a best-selling author who comes to Ontario to research her new book about the obscure poet Mary Swann. In her efforts to discover what happened to Swann on the night that she died, Sarah meets Rose (Brenda Fricker), who was the last person to see Swann alive. The two women strike up a friendship which uncovers secrets not only about their mutual interest, but also about themselves.

This adaptation of Carol Shields's novel is shot with complete disregard for narrative pace or momentum, with mournful violins complaining on the soundtrack in the places where genuine emotional depth should have been.

Miranda Richardson is spiky and pleasingly unsympathetic, but her efforts are undermined by the silly "whodunnit?" plot and some trite ideas about the relationship between the sexes.

Ryan Gilbey

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