New Films: The search for brutal truths, the lure of morbid fantasies

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The End of Violence (15)

Wim Wenders is back on form with this stylish and intelligent techno- noir about a NASA plot to "end violence as we know it" through mass surveillance. Gabriel Byrne is the scientist at work in his multi-screened observatory above Los Angeles (a Rear Window Hitchcock would have been proud) when he sees what looks like an assassination in progress. What he partially captures on his camera is, in fact, kidnap victim Mike Max (Bill Pullman), a wealthy producer of slam bam Hollywood action movies, who has been abducted by two hired hitmen. Moments later the two captors are gunned down and Pullman escapes, going to ground with a group of Latino gardeners as detective Doc Block (Loren Dean), a fan of his films, is brought in to investigate the mysterious killings. Was Max somehow responsible for the men's death, or is there another force at work?

Part LA mystery, part self-reflexive meditation on cinema, Wenders' film moves between a clutch of characters who are all, in their way, victims of violence. Although Wenders' stated intention was to explore the desensitising brutality of modern movies, the film works best as a chilled-out conspiracy thriller. As Bill Pullman drawls in one of his laconic voice-overs, "paranoia is our number one export" and in the modern world "everybody needs an enemy".

While the film has many flaws (Andie Macdowell's poorly realised corporate wife, misconceived moments of comedy), it's worth watching alone for the way in which Wenders and his cameraman Pascal Rabaud capture the sprawling alienation of LA. A beautiful, millennial dystopia, Wenders' city is wired in every sense: a hi-tech network of freeways thrumming with venality and latent aggression, its sky blinking with the unseen, electronic eyes of satellites.

Kissed (18)

As a young girl Sandra Larson (Molly Parker) likes to play with dead animals, as a student she studies embalming, so it's little surprise when the wraith-like star of Lynne Stopkewich's impressive first feature graduates to full-blown necrophilia with a succession of stiffs at the funeral parlour where she works.

Set in the 1970s, Lynne Stopkewich's study of necrophilia is short on sensationalism - as leached as one of Sandra's corpses - but certainly far from dead boring. Sex and death are on the slab, but the director's delicate dissection of moribund desire is more metaphysical love story than visceral horror or hip sexploitation flick. "It's like staring at the sun without going blind," says Sandra of her clandestine clinches, and Stopkewich discreetly floods the screen with blinding white light during her moments of existential ecstasy.

Indeed, so cool and calm is Stopkewich's handling of her subject, that Kissed would verge on anaemia if it weren't for its rich seam of mordant humour. "I don't fuck everything that's dead," snaps Sandra to one of her boyfriend's interminable inquiries, while her lugubrious mortician mentor Mr Wallis (Jay Brazeau), with his tradesman-like efficiency and penchant for deceased boys, is a sublimely sinister comic creation.

Despite such flashes of deadpan wit, Kissed is ultimately strangely moving. Shot through with a wan melancholy and sensuality, the film subtlety captures the isolation of a woman who only really feels alive when cuddling up to a corpse.

The Winter Guest (15)

Sincere and admirably unsentimental, Alan Rickman's austere debut makes for rather chilly viewing at this time of year. Set in a remote Scottish town on a day so cold that the sea has frozen over, The Winter Guest stars Phyllida Law as an old woman determined to chip away at the icy grief of her widowed daughter Emma Thompson.

With the magical cessation of the waves, time is frozen for the town's other inhabitants, who escape quotidian reality to ponder over life and death. At a bus stop a pair of old ladies rally for their latest funeral jaunt. Elsewhere, Thompson's teenage son hesitantly approaches sex with a feisty young admirer while down on the beach a pair of schoolboys find an unorthodox use for Deep Heat.

Adapted from a stage play, Alan Rickman's beautifully photographed directorial debut betrays its origins in its episodic structure and theatrical dialogue. While the acting is uniformly fine and Law's performance superb, the film's loose vignettes finally fail to cohere into a profound whole. This would matter less, perhaps, if Rickman, who has been brave enough to allow space and silence into his collection of character studies, didn't fill every one of these moments of reflection with plangent piano music.

The Jackal (18)

This is a glossy retread of The Day of the Jackal with Bruce Willis as the assasin paid $70m by the Russian mafia to bump off the head of the FBI. Shiny, sprawling and risibly scripted, the movie offers viewers the dubious twin pleasures of Willis's Jackal in a series of fright wigs and Richard Gere as Declan Mulqueen, the charming IRA terrorist released from prison to identify his old adversary. In fact, Gere's Irish isn't half bad, but skipping between Moscow, Helsinki, London and America, director Michael Caton-Jones squanders the slow, screw-turning suspense of the original while offering only a slurry of post-Cold War action cliches in return. Trying his best to be impassive, Willis can't resist the old smirk (old habits Die Hard), although he does get to kiss a man on the mouth in this movie, something John McClane would surely never do (even if he got to kill him afterwards, as Willis does here).

Sidney Poitier's FBI deputy, meanwhile, offers the veteran's familiar brand of creaky dignity, so it's left to Diane Venora to steal the show as fearsomely tough Russian FBI operative Valentina Koslova. Asked what her first name is by a flirtatious Mulqueen, the chain-smoking Koslova scornfully replies "Major". The film's real star is, of course, Bruce's big gun. A monstrous, remote-controlled mortar, it's tested in one particularly offensive scene by graphically amputating the arm of a defenceless man, then blowing him to bits. So when the First Lady opens the New Hope children's cancer centre, you just know the gun's going to be there, assaulting innocent civilians in much the same way that Caton-Jones' violent action thriller assaults the audience - firing off endless rounds of chases and shoot- outs in the hope of finally hitting his target.

Picture Perfect (PG)

What is it with weddings? Ever since Four Weddings and A Funeral no romantic comedy is complete without them. After last year's My Best Friend's Wedding, Picture Perfect manages to squeeze a couple in by having its romantic lead make his living videoing them. At one such gig he meets Jennifer Anniston's unhappily single twenty-something, but gets the brush-off after bouncing her on his knee for a couple of wedding snaps.

The Big Haired One has other things on her mind, such as her big career ambitions in advertising. Returning to work on Monday expecting promotion, Anniston's dismayed to find her company prefers its employees married, and preferably mortgaged. Enter Nick (Jay Mohr), whose appearance in Anniston's wedding photos make him ideal to masquerade as her fake fiance, leading to the inevitable misunderstandings and life lessons of your standard Hollywood comedy. Wildly contrived, sticky sweet and featuring Kevin Bacon as a wolfish sex object (err, I think NOT), Glenn Gordon Caron's Picture Perfect has its problems, but scrapes by on the charms of its star. How the producers got the great Ileana Douglas and Olympia Dukakis to appear in this piece of candyfloss is a mystery, but the pair provide sterling support to Anniston's Rachel-esque turn, making for light, bright and oh, all right, hopelessly schmaltzy entertainment.

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