KUNDUN

(12) HH

Director: Martin Scorsese

Martin Scorsese finds himself a long way from his established territory of thugs and gangsters struggling to prove their masculinity. But the problem with his lyrical, if maddeningly reverent, biopic of the 13th Dalai Lama isn't that the director is out of his depth, but rather that the style in which he has chosen to render the story jars badly with the subject matter - which is to say that the very literal medium of narrative cinema is an unwieldy method with which to translate a subject built on ambiguity and spirituality.

Scorsese is at ease communicating the bare bones of the story, and the early scenes, with Buddhist monks discovering their new leader when he is just two, have a thrilling vibrancy. His screenwriter, Melissa Matheson, was the pen behind ET, so she has no trouble crafting a script from the perspective of a figure fascinated by his strange and disorientating new world, as Kundun is when he is taken in by the monks. But the story is not one which lends itself to faithful interpretation - if ever a tale begged for an abstract, non-linear approach, it is this one.

Some of the haunting dream sequences offer a teasing glimpse of the kind of film that might have resulted from a more experimental style, and Roger Deakins' photography conjures plenty of sumptuous images. But for the most part, Kundun only proves that the conventions of cinema cannot necessarily be applied to everything - sometimes you have to throw the rule-book away.

If it is brave of Scorsese to address the Dalai Lama's story, then in what way does this bravery manifest itself? He has chosen a topic which screams commercial suicide, and selected hundreds of non-professionals as his stars. But why do they all speak English? If you've gone so far in your quest for purity that you turn your back on Hollywood and pick your cast from unknowns, then it's only a small step forwards to have them converse in their native tongue. This apparently trivial compromise exhibits a fatal failure of nerve on Scorsese's part - you might have expected such a project to be loyal to Buddhism, but to remain loyal to the demands of the box-office too is a contradiction which can't help but unbalance the picture.

SPHERE

(12) HH

Director: Barry Levinson

Starring: Dustin Hoffman, Sharon Stone, Samuel L Jackson

Underpinned by a plot that has been utilised by every science-fiction movie from Solaris to Ghostbusters, Barry Levinson's deep-sea adventure stars Dustin Hoffman, Sharon Stone and Samuel L Jackson as a trio of scientists and psychologists who are called in to investigate a UFO that has landed at the bottom of the ocean. Inside they find a glimmering sphere which has catastrophic side-effects upon those who enter it. Sphere is adapted from the novel by Michael Crichton, and it shows in its simplistic philosophising and threadbare characterisation. But Levinson directs with panache, and it's interesting to see a mainstream film which so subtly bucks convention, as Sphere does in its final moments.

OSCAR AND LUCINDA

(U) HH

Director: Gillian Armstrong

Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Cate Blanchett

Gillian Armstrong's film about two compulsive gamblers, Oscar (Ralph Fiennes) and Lucinda (Cate Blanchett), who dream up a wager involving the transportation of a glass church across north Australia, teeters on the brink of whimsy. Adapted from Peter Carey's Booker Prize-winning novel, it is loyal to the richness of Carey's writing, though the necessary compression that results in the adapting process means that many of the episodes lack resonance. There's something trivial at the heart of the picture that prevents it from being as affecting as it might have been.

MOUSEHUNT

(PG) HHH

Director: Gore Verbinski

Starring: Lee Evans, Nathan Lane

Don't be fooled by the posters for Mousehunt, which are decked out in sprightly yellow and red - the film itself has a colour scheme that runs from tombstone grey to mud-brown, while the heart of the movie is black. For a slapstick comedy supposedly aimed at children, Mousehunt is unremittingly bleak. Imagine Tim Burton directing Laurel and Hardy in a Beckett play.

Nathan Lane and Lee Evans play squabbling, penniless brothers, whose father, the owner of a string factory, leaves them a rickety old house in his will. When they discover that the house is actually worth millions of dollars, they set about preparing for its auction, only to have their scheme confounded by a belligerent little mouse who refuses to leave, and seems impervious to every manner of execution that the brothers can dream up (including a loopy exterminator played with unnerving relish by Christopher Walken).

Most of the gags are fiendishly inspired, while Lane and Evans are an engaging double-act - the look on their faces when they discover the value of their house is one of the funniest moments here.

A film guaranteed to please all moderately disturbed children and adults.

TELLING LIES IN AMERICA

(15) H

Director: Guy Ferland

Starring: Kevin Bacon, Brad Renfro, Maximilian Schell, Calista Flockhart

The sensitive side of Joe Eszterhas, the writer of Basic Instinct and Showgirls, comes to the fore in this autobiographical tale of a teenage immigrant (Brad Renfro) who idolises a sleazy DJ (Kevin Bacon) and learns the hard way that your heroes always let you down.

OUT OF THE PAST

(U) HHHH

Director: Jacques Tourneur

Starring: Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, Kirk Douglas

Re-issue of Jacques Tourneur's marvellously clever 1947 film noir, with Robert Mitchum falling in love with the runaway femme fatale (Jane Greer) that Kirk Douglas has hired him to find.

MOST WANTED

(15) H

Director: David Glenn Hogan

Starring: Jon Voight

Keenen Ivory Wayans wrote this trashy thriller, and plays its hero, a decorated soldier who is framed when he is forced into becoming an assassin. Mildly entertaining, and distinguished somewhat by Jon Voight camping it up as the snarling, sneering villain.

ULEE'S GOLD

(15) HH

Director: Victor Nunez

Starring: Peter Fonda

Peter Fonda is excellent as the stubborn bee-keeper Ulee, who rescues his junkie daughter-in-law from trouble, but inherits some of his jailbird son's problems into the bargain. Fonda exhibits impressive restraint - he hardly moves, though you can sense madness bubbling in his crisp blue eyes. But the film, with its banal judgements and pat conclusion, scarcely deserves him.

KILLER TONGUE

(18)

Director: Alberto Sciamma

Starring: Robert Englund, Melinda Clarke

Self-styled cult movie about a woman whose tongue develops homicidal tendencies after portions of a meteorite find their way into her dinner.

Ryan Gilbey

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