In one of our first glimpses of John Proctor, the tragic martyr of The Crucible, he is padding away from his fields, a scythe resting at his shoulder, its blade curving behind his head like a slipped halo. Nicholas Hytner's film of Arthur Miller's enduringly disturbing play (which Miller himself has adapted) doesn't go in for prescient imagery, but that shot is a chilling introduction to a man whose momentary loss of judgement, and his own shame at that loss, effectively commits the ink to his death certificate. Proctor has had an impetuous dalliance with a local girl, Abigail, who is one of a group of youngsters caught fooling around with supposedly magic potions in the midnight woods of Salem, Massachusetts. Terrified of the wrath that their nonsense has inadvertently caused, Abigail and her friends find a scapegoat: The Devil.
A witchcraft expert, Reverend John Hale, is called in to confirm it. Hale does so, employing careful judgement - oh, and a few brutal beatings administered to a suspected witch until she relents and implicates others in Salem, exposing an apparent epidemic of evil. Add to these false confessions the fabrication of evidence and you can see why dust never settles on The Crucible for long.
But topicality is not the key to the picture's fierce power, as it might have been when Miller wrote the original play, with its pressing allegorical overtones. Cinema has already begun processing McCarthyism in movies like The Front and Guilty by Suspicion. Perhaps understanding the distance that these fictional interpretations have created, The Crucible seems to invite a moral and emotional, rather then political reading. Proctor has been made more complicit in his relationship with Abigail, and there is a daring moment when he playfully warns her: "You'll be clapped in the stocks before you're 20," and she swoons absentmindedly as though yielding to secret sadomasochism. Winona Ryder feels very reckless as Abigail, her bulging eyes and gulping mouth conveying desperate hysteria so potently that the swooping camerawork used to illustrate her madness is superfluous.
Hytner could have trusted his actors, and his text, a good deal more than he does. Daniel Day-Lewis has indignation rippling through him as Proctor, and his scenes with Joan Allen, who plays his wife, are the quietest in the film - which, with its chaotic chorus of wannabe-witches, can resemble two hours stuck on the Stock Exchange - yet also the most affecting. And there is excellent work too from Paul Scofield as the judge, his cruel voice as silvery as his hair, and George Gaynes in a small but poignant role as Scofield's assistant, the only mournful face among a rabid crowd who cheer every neck that breaks in the noose.
With this cast, you might have thought that Hytner didn't need to emphasise anything, but he does a lot of damage to the film's final half-hour by sending the camera off on wild, skyward missions, or slapping George Fenton's score on to the soundtrack with a trowel. In the last minute he repents for his sins, permitting us to leave the cinema with only the creak of rope and wood in our ears.
The science-fiction comedy Mars Attacks! is a contrived B-movie pastiche with some spicy ingredients alien to other Tim Burton films: attitude, cynicism, misanthropy. As someone who had grown weary of Burton's coy, misunderstood heroes, it's a relief to see him ridicule one of his own beloved idiot savants - the teenage slacker who watches a Martian draw a circle in the air to symbolise earth, and gasps, "It's the international sign of the doughnut!" Burton's films have often been blithely funny. Now he's learning to laugh at himself. It's a step up.
He takes a typical Fifties science-fiction plot - little green men invade earth, motivated by a desire to shrink our population rather than expand our knowledge - and invests it with a twisted, despairing world-view. The aliens themselves are hyper-intelligent beings who use all the technology at their disposal to lark about like schoolkids: they play mid-massacre pranks on terrified earthlings, and sew the head of reporter Sarah Jessica Parker on to the body of her Chihuahua, though Parker does later go on to have a touching romance with an equally incapacitated Pierce Brosnan. If it sounds like the product of a drug-addled mind ... well, that's how it looks. It's all riotously puerile stuff, with beautifully judged turns from Jack Nicholson as the President, Glenn Close as the icy First Lady and Tom Jones as one of the unexpected saviours of mankind, a role we always knew he was destined for.
In the flashy new thriller Bound, you get two femmes fatales for the price of one. Violet (Jennifer Tilly) lives with the mobster Caesar (Joe Pantoliano). She has a wandering eye, but it wanders where you'd least expect it - no sooner has she laid eyes on her new neighbour, an ex-con named Corky (Gina Gershon), than she's popping round to her place, offering Corky the old "would-you-like-to-see-my-tattoo?" come-on. Their relationship moves fast, like the film. One moment they're exchanging bodily fluids, the next they're plotting to steal $2m of mob money from Caesar.
Bound is modern noir, with the obligatory iconography and a plot you need a flashlight to find your way out of. But it's hard to put your faith in film-makers whose Year Zero is Blood Simple. Everything here exists only in the eye of the camera. The directors, Larry and Andy Wachowski, keep interrupting the narrative to demonstrate the clever tricks they've learnt. Here's the camera following the kinks and curls along a telephone wire. Here it is emerging from the barrel of a gun. In fact, the only hole the camera doesn't do a slow zoom into is the one up which the Wachowskis have disappearedn
All films go on general release tomorrow
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies