The Critics: Cinema: Also Showing

ANTONIA QUIRKE Croupier (15) Mike Hodges; 89 mins Cruel Intentions (15) Roger Kumble; 97 mins Just the Ticket (15) Richard Wenk; 115 mins Gloria (15) Sidney Lumet; 110 mins Venus Beauty (15) Tonie Marshall; 105 mins Bride of Chucky ( 18) Ronnie Yu; 90 mins Touch of Evil (12) Orson Welles; 111 mins

Sunday 20 June 1999 00:02 BST

I'd love to know what goes on in the heads of distributors. How on earth do most of the films usually squashed into the bottom of this column get a proper release, when Mike Hodges' Croupier is left to be picked up by the BFI, and scheduled to play in fringe cinemas about the country?

Croupier is fascinating, mercilessly compact, adamant. It stars Clive Owen as Jack, a writer with no subject. He lives with his girlfriend Marion (Gina McKee), a candid store detective. Jack must earn a living, and is forced to fall back on his old skills as a crou-pier, accepting a job at a London casino. He works long nights, his hands manipulating the cards with maddening speed, his eyes cast impassively on the oiled, strained faces of the punters, on their funereal grins. Jack has found his subject. He is "hooked on watching people lose", on the destructive rage of the gambler.

Hodges and co-writer Paul Mayersberg (The Man Who Fell to Earth) use voice-over pretty consistently, and with such direction that for the first time this technique feels less of an ostentatious afterthought, a form of protection and remove, and more the most profound of punctuations. This is a film as much about writing as it is about gambling, and Owen's singular, empty voice takes us in and out of the narrative, drawing parallels between dealer and author, subject and victim, climate and chance, godlessness and purpose. Not even Scorsese managed this in Casino, which was also largely in voice-over, but voice-over dropped in scathingly. Croupier is Hodges at his best, keeping us always indoors (a flat, a gaming room, a bedroom, a car) and up against Owen, an under-used actor quite brilliant here with his matinee idol hair and mordant cheeks.

Cruel Intentions is a surprisingly winning update of Choderlos De Laclos's 1782 novel Les Liaisons Dangeureuses. It has rich New York teenagers Kathryn (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and Sebastian (Ryan Phillippe) manipulating their perverse and beautiful way around the crotches of their social set. The pair live to seduce and destroy. Enter Annette (Reese Witherspoon) - a smart, smug virgin. Irresistible sport! What fascinates here is how these young actors have absorbed the performances of Glenn Close, John Malkovich and Michelle Pfeiffer in Stephen Frears's Oscar-winning adaptation. Phillippe is the most successful in making the part both a recognisable homage, and his own. There is something consistently tragic about Phillippe's Sebastian, all mouth and slight frame, waving his wrists a la Malkovich, eyes full of complex need, just one put-down away from being doubled-up with terror and hope. The film also handles well. Laclos's atmosphere of secrecy and class is recreated, the truculent and subtle French characters of the original ingeniously translated into shitty American consumers.

In Just the Ticket, Andy Garcia plays Gary, a New York ticket-tout trying to win back both his girlfriend Linda (Andie MacDowell) and his reputation as king of the street. It's a peculiar cocktail of dullish romantic comedy, and of the long lenses, wireless microphones and hidden cameras you would find in a Sidney Lumet film. The film works well when it is down on the street, spying on Gary doing his off-the-cuff stuff with real commuters, and Garcia is physically perfect for this kind of role. Now, more than ever, he looks and behaves like Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon, or even the more relaxed moments of Serpico - Hawaiian shirt, neck held in perpetual astonishment, and shock-absorbent legs finished by white sneakers.

Gloria really is a Sidney Lumet film, and an unnecessary remake of the John Cassavetes 1980 film of the same title. Sharon Stone plays Gloria, a gangster's moll who becomes the reluctant guardian of a six-year-old boy (Jean-Luke Figueroa), after his family is killed by the mob. The film has none of the glare, the belly of the original, despite an artful performance from Stone. You can barely feel Lumet behind the camera - this is unsimmering, saccharine.

Venus Beauty stars Nathalie Baye as a beautician working in a Paris salon. Rendered unromantic by an unpleasant marriage, she is calculatedly promiscuous, picking up men at a local cafe every night, as though looking for blessing in the very effort of body-hunger. When she is approached with protestations of love by a stranger (Samuel Le Bihan), Baye retreats even more behind the high window of her paranoia and solitude. Tonie Marshall's quiet, unremarkable film has little real emotional pull.

Bride of Chucky is easily the best of the four-film Chucky franchise, and it's a barmy, witty horror movie full of Scream-like ironies. Jennifer Tilly plays the brash blonde who was Chucky's girlfriend before he became a toy (don't ask). Things are much as before - Chucky looking as though he's eaten too much liquorice and then had a dribbling fit, Chucky murdering with enthusiasm and ingenuity, and a soundtrack that comes on like a raging ulcer.

Orson Welles's 1958 Touch Of Evil gets a re-edit and a re-release. His morally equivocal thriller about sleaze in a Mexican border town was never released as Welles wanted. Although Walter Murch's restoration of various scenes (notably the famous opening sequence) is to be applauded, only real fans of the film will notice many of the changes. What a film this is. Welles playing corrupt cop Hank Quinlan like an enormous slug, absorbing candy bars, yeasty and damp, with lie-heavy eyes. Janet Leigh with her tinny face and slender, slender calves. Everything dark and inexorable and hot, like coming round from a dream, convinced that something is boiling very close to your head. Perfect then, and perfect now.

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