FAIRYTALE: A TRUE STORY (U) Charles Sturridge

THE BLACKOUT (18) Abel Ferrara

DOWNTIME (15) Bharat Nalluri

Bob Flanagan was not the sort of chap you could have taken home to meet your mother, unless she was a dominatrix who liked nothing better than to make a grown man cry. Flanagan was a cystic fibrosis sufferer who found, by a happy coincidence, that his masochistic tendencies provided the perfect method of coping with the pain of his illness. Not for him a few agony- alleviating puffs on a joint, or a day trip to the local pain management clinic. He did things differently. In fact, the term "going the whole hog" might well have been invented for him.

The startling new film Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan Supermasochist assembles interviews with Flanagan's family and friends, excerpts from his performance art pieces, and documentary footage shot right up to night of his death in January 1996. It isn't an easy film to watch - when you're not hiding your eyes as Flanagan drives another nail through yet another part of his body, you may be wincing at his abrasive gallows humour. Nor is it particularly well directed. The footage has been organised in a fashion that is at best unimaginative and at worst arbitrary, but the issues raised - the relationship between biographer and subject, or the question of personal liberty - are explored with intelligence and sensitivity. Sick's strength is that it manages to subvert conventional images - it aligns itself with Flanagan's view that the masochist is a figure of power rather than submission, and presents this dying man not as a soul being dragged kicking and screaming to the grave, but of a victor walking hand in hand with the grim reaper, and finding his lust for life in the realisation of his own mortality.

Fairytale: A True Story takes itself terribly seriously in the way that all films about the childlike wonder of magical woodland nymphs tend to. It's the story of two young cousins who photograph a family of fairies at the bottom of their garden, thereby bringing them to the attention of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Peter O'Toole), who is in the midst of a theological tug-of-war with Harry Houdini (Harvey Keitel) over the importance of spirituality. I was impressed by the director Charles Sturridge's earlier television version of Gulliver's Travels, and rather missed the way that production tempered its whimsy with harsh scrutiny. Fairytale does nothing of the sort, operating on a disappointingly banal level, though the appearances of Tim McInnerny as a sceptical tabloid reporter is like finding grit in your Angel's Delight. A film this ingratiating needs an actor of McInnerny's harshness. He looks like he was born sucking on a lemon.

Abel Ferrara specialises in dragging his actors and his audience to hell and back, and films like Ms 45 or The Funeral have a raw, redemptive power. But you wouldn't ask your worst enemy to sit through Ferrara's new picture The Blackout, which has Matthew Modine as an alcoholic junkie actor trying to determine whether or not he murdered his girlfriend (Beatrice Dalle) during one wild and crazy evening. I would call it a self-indulgent frenzy of debauchery, only that makes it sound way more interesting than it actually is - it's closer to Fellini without the magic and poetry, or Cassavetes with a hatred of actors. But Modine is outstanding given the limitations of his part, and one scene where he watches himself committing a violent act on videotape makes you flinch - unable to stop the pre-recorded brutality, he flails at the screen like a doll whose puppeteer is having a seizure.

If you're going to combine the conventions of a Hollywood action thriller with the grim locations and tone of British social realism, you had better be completely off your trolley. Unfortunately, the makers of Downtime display worrying evidence of impeccable sanity, despite having concocted a film which is Die Hard meets The Towering Inferno on a Liverpool housing estate. Paul McGann is charming as the police negotiator who persuades the feisty single mother Susan Lynch not to commit suicide, only to find himself stranded in a broken lift with her while the local oiks cause havoc in the control room. There's some pleasant friction in the movie's sheer absurdity - as Lynch prepares to shin down the lift shaft, McGann says: "I'll hold your cardie," a line that would sound even better on Bruce Willis's lips. But it's hard to get excited about the film when the most profound thing it has to say about the society it depicts is "kids these days, eh?"