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WALKING AND TALKING

Director: Nicole Holofcener. Starring: Catherine Keener, Anne Heche, Liev Schreiber, Todd Field, Kevin Corrigan (15)

Time, once again, to stroll breezily through Indie land. Low-budget American filmmakers construct sweet movies set there, in which the characters just sit around and chat about their love lives. It's always summer; denizens live in dreamy apartments even though they have slacker jobs; and there is always one character who, in spite of being unarguably gorgeous, can't get a decent date.

Though this well-trodden milieu is the setting for Walking and Talking, Nicole Holofcener's movie is a fresh and wry confection. The lead role falls to Catherine Keener as Amelia (the Unarguably Gorgeous But Unlucky in Love archetype mentioned above), a 29-year-old New Yorker who is best friends with trainee shrink Laura (Stressed-Out Young Woman Who Can't See That Everything She Ever Wanted is Right in Front of Her).

But Laura has moved out of their shared apartment and got engaged to goateed corporate jewellery designer Frank (Hack Arty Type Who is in Fact Genuinely Creative). This leaves Amelia living alone, jousting matily with her ex-boyfriend, Andrew (Nice Guy With a Hidden Sexual Hang-Up), and quirkily dating the bum-fluffed video-store clerk who is obsessed with horror movies (the excellent Kevin Corrigan: Weirdo Who Turns Out to Be Sensitive).

It's all most engaging and amusing: the script is biting on the dynamics between the sexes and the couple-singleton triangle (Amelia sees Laura and Frank having a spat and chirps: "You guys fight? Cool!"), and Keener in particular is outstandingly likeable - vulnerable, cynical, sexy and funny all at once.

Holofcener has created an enjoyable, old-fashioned date movie about how you grow up once you're already supposed to be an adult.

THE GHOST AND THE DARKNESS

Director: Stephen Hopkins. Starring: Michael Douglas, Val Kilmer, Bernard Hill, John Kani (15)

Not a Victorian country-house tale of phantoms, but an action flick based on the true story of how two man-eating lions went on the rampage while Irish engineer John Patterson (Val Kilmer) was trying to build a railway bridge in colonial Africa at the end of the 19th century. The big cats slaughter insatiably, almost as if they were evil spirits rather than large hairy animals. Thus, the locals christen them "the ghost" and "the darkness" and start to mutiny. Enter Michael Douglas (surprisingly charismatic here) as an American hillbilly turned freelance hunter, who roams Africa with his friendly Masai warriors.

It's Jaws on land, basically. In daylight, the lions hunt in the long savannah grass, occasionally showing a tail above their shifting yellow element, just as the fish showed its fin. Jerry Goldsmith's pleasurably bombastic score even rips off John Williams's shark music.

Tons of money has been thrown at the period setting, which looks lovely, but the film buys into some depressingly unrealistic stunts. Although the picture's a very efficient and exciting piece of movie fluff, you just laugh when Kilmer manages to outrun one of the monsters, over a distance of some 30 yards. You could no more outswim a Great White than do that.

PICTURE BRIDE

Director: Kayo Hatta. Starring: Youki Kudoh, Akira Takayama, Tamlyn Tomita (subtitles) (12)

In the early 20th century, photography modernised the tradition of arranged marriages in Asia, and hundreds of Japanese women were boated over to Hawaii to marry workers in the sugar-cane fields, on the strength of a letter and snapshot. This is what happens to Riyo (Youki Kudoh), an orphaned Japanese girl. Trouble is, when she arrives in Hawaii, her intended turns out to be 20 years older than his picture. Riyo, hugely disappointed, immediately resolves to save up enough money to go back to Japan.

The rest of the film is about the gradual taming of this resolution, as Riyo comes to love her husband and accept magical Hawaii as her home.

Sound too good (not to mention chauvinistic) to be interesting? Well, there is tragedy along the way, as Riyo's new-found friend, Kanya, dies in the burning fields trying to rescue her wandering baby. But this doesn't seem to matter. The acting is fine, except that nearly everyone on screen seems to be having too good a time to convince the audience of the real hardships of the sugar-cane workers (who earned the princely sum of $11 a month). And Claudio Rocha's stunningly lush photography invites aesthetic admiration rather than emotional involvement with the characters.

Great atmosphere - precious little feeling.

THE PREACHER'S WIFE

Director: Penny Marshall. Starring: Denzel Washington, Whitney Houston, Courtney B Vance, Gregory Hines, Jenifer Lewis (U)

The Preacher's Wife is a gospel-hued Christmas comedy. (Never mind that Christmas happens to be over, there are soundtrack albums to shift.)

Whitney Houston is the titular spouse, it's coming up to Yuletide, and preacher Henry (Courtney B Vance) has got problems: his son's best friend has been taken into care; one of his teenage parishioners has been wrongly fitted up for armed robbery; greasy property developer Joe Hamilton (Gregory Hines) wants to tear down his church; oh, and his marriage is at breaking- point, too. So, he prays to God for help, and, bingo, an angel falls from the sky. But Henry doesn't believe he's an angel, and Whitney takes an erotic shine to the newcomer.

Everything that is most emetic about Hollywood is here: kids' nativity plays, stupid hack moralising, an evil plug for Microsoft, and endless ear-punishing displays by Whitney, who happens to be leader of the gospel choir in Henry's church.

But. The angel is played by Denzel Washington, who delivers his hokey lines with such twinkly understatement that he almost redeems the whole mess. This is great comic acting, against all the odds. Still, the biggest laugh comes last. As the angel walks away in the final shot, the camera pans out to show that the name of the urban thoroughfare is Elm St, as in Wes Craven's seminal horror movie. Yes, Denzel, it's been a nightmare: get the hell out while you can.

Steven Poole

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