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Video watch: Close encounters with mysticism

Contact (PG), Warner Home Video (available to rent from today)

Robert Zemeckis has been coming over all ecumenical in recent years, and his films are the worse for it. Forrest Gump turned out to be a dumbed- down, redneck Passion story, and now we're receiving instruction in his third-hand West Coast mysticism via Contact, Zemeckis's sluggish adaptation of Carl Sagan's tale of extraterrestrial redemption.

Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster) appears to have thrown away a glittering career in astronomy to search for signs of galaxy-mates when the instructions for a DIY deep-space runabout are beamed straight into her laptop. "The most profoundly impactful moment in the history of history," according to Ellie, and that's about as well-articulated as Contact gets. Most of the film's two-and-a-half hours are consumed tediously with the exploitation of Foster's interstellar Meccano by self-interested governments and private concerns. There are a few distractions, notably, John Hurt as an Uncle Fester-lookalike tycoon, but Foster's affair with Matthew McConnaughey's drop-out Priest is the crudest example of Zemeckis's overriding theme: the conflict of science and spirituality. If you're in any doubt which discipline comes out on top, the sub-Blakean opening sequence is a big clue.


Albino Alligator (18), Columbia Tristar Home Video (available to rent now)

Three edgy, heavily-armed criminals cornered by the police. It's the standard failed-heist remit, chief among whose qualities is the plot-by- numbers structure. So why does Kevin Spacey come over all tricksy in his directorial debut? Brothers Matt Dillon and Gary Sinise, along with psychopathic strong-arm William Fichtner, wind up in Dino's Last Chance Bar, reluctantly holding a clutch of regulars to ransom - the only twist being that the cops think that someone else entirely is barking out the ransom demands. Having put this kink in the works, Spacey then doesn't seem sure how to oil them. Faye Dunaway looks below her station as a part-time bar keep, but heads a strong cast. Dillon is impressive as the decent crook, torn between filial loyalty to Sinise, the brains of the outfit, and Fichtner, intent on going down with all guns blazing. Perhaps prompted by the actor in him, Spacey gives everyone a little too much space, however, failing to crank up the tension. As the suspense dissipates, so Spacey seems to have less and less conviction in his screenplay.


House of America (15), First Independent (available to rent 9 March)

With the honourable exception of Trainspotting, it's safe to say that the quality of a British film in the Nineties is in strict inverse proportion to the number of Britpop songs on the soundtrack. It is with the deepest regret, then, that I inform you of the presence of Blur, Catatonia, Supergrass, Prodigy and a host of other rock luminaries in House of America, every name a nail in the coffin of Marc Evans's ambitious but ultimately disappointing adaptation of Edward Thomas's stage play. Told by their disturbed mother (Sian Phillips) that dad escaped to America years ago, Sid (Steven Mackintosh) and Gwenny (Lisa Palfrey) sink deeper into Kerouac-inspired incestuous "beat" fantasies to escape the misery of Welsh small-town existence, while their brother, Boyo (Matthew Rhys), uncovers the truth of father's whereabouts. Behind the camera, Evans is obviously a talent, drawing faultless, impassioned performances across the board. It's a pity that he couldn't muster the necessary discipline in the cutting room to transform the panache of isolated scenes into a coherent finished product. By the time Evans has reinforced his lyricism with a little narrative, you're nearly past caring.