(87 mins, 15)
Directed by Jacob Aaron Estes; starring Rory Culkin, Josh Peck, Scott Mechlowicz, Carly Schroeder
In Your Hands
(101 minbs, 15)
Directed by Annette K Olesen; starring Ann Eleonora Jørgensen, Trine Dyrholm, Nicolaj Kopernikus
A Dirty Shame
(90 mins, 18)
Directed by John Waters; starring Tracey Ullman, Johnny Knoxville, Chris Isaak, Patricia Hearst
xXx 2: The Next Level
(12A, 100 mins)
Directed by Lee Tamahori; starring Ice Cube, Samuel L Jackson, Willem Dafoe
Clifford's Really Big Movie
(73 mins, U)
Directed by Robert Ramirez; featuring the voices of John Ritter, Jenna Elfman, Judge Reinhold
The Big Red One: The Reconstruction
(160 mins, 12)
Directed by Samuel Fuller; starring Lee Marvin, Mark Hamill, Bobby Di Cicco, Robert Carradine
Most of us have painful childhood memories of occasions when we felt picked on and excluded by our schoolmates, and even more troubling ones of times when we joined in the tormenting and humiliation of others. Writer-director Jacob Aaron Estes's feature debut Mean Creek effectively and convincingly deals with such a situation in a small Oregon township. The community nestles under an enormous, snow-topped mountain that looms like a giant ice cream over the local kids' lives.
We are lured into complicity with the film's schemers when George (Josh Peck), an overweight 14-year-old school bully, gives slightly-built, sweet-natured Sam (Rory Culkin) yet another playground beating. Sam's loving older brother Rocky, and his two chums, Clyde (who lives with his dad and dad's gay partner), and the charismatic, slightly older Marty (from a dysfunctional working-class home), prepare a cold dish of revenge.
They invite George to join them on an outing down the river to celebrate what they claim is Sam's birthday. It's a beautiful summer's day, the setting is idyllic, and Sam's smart girlfriend, Millie, comes along. The aim of their practical joke is to persuade George to jump in the water and then be forced to walk home naked.
Estes plays cleverly with our feelings as the bullied Sam comes to like the sad, fat, lonely George, and he promises Millie he'll persuade his brother to have the scheme aborted. But the macho, posturing Marty (Brad Pitt lookalike Scott Mechlowicz), who is himself the object of the punches and humiliating jibes of his older brother, won't back down.
A deadly game of truth or dare takes place. George, after ingratiating himself with the gang, turns on them with a venomous tirade of wounding insults. An idyll becomes a nightmare.
The makers have compared their film to Conrad's Heart of Darkness. The comparison that occurs to me is John Boorman's Deliverance. What it doesn't resemble is Three Men in a Boat. The ensemble acting of the six kids is outstanding, and adults scarcely figure in this world except as someone who opens a front door, stands behind a counter or turns up too late to help. This lean film ends with no firm dramatic resolution and no moralising, fake or otherwise.
Annette K Olesen's In Your Hands is a glum Danish product of the Dogme school set largely in a liberal women's prison to which a recently ordained woman priest, Anna (Ann Eleonora Jørgensen), comes as a temporary chaplain. She arrives on the same day as Kate (Trine Dyrholm), a drug addict jailed for letting her baby die and dumping it in a rubbish bin.
It turns out that Kate has attained miraculous powers of healing and insight. Like an annunciatory angel, she tells Anna, who'd believed herself incapable of conception, that she's pregnant and a strained bond of trust and disbelief springs up between them. Meanwhile, a naive young male warder falls in love with Kate, breaching his professional code.
At first, one thinks this is going to be some Danish version of Stephen King's The Green Mile. But nothing grand or particularly revealing occurs. The acting is rather good, but the jail seems an odd place. There are references to work but no one seems to do any, and there are very few prisoners, hardly enough to provide the steady trade that supposedly supports in style the children of a tough, drug-dealing inmate.
When John Waters started out in the Sixties, he had no trouble shocking people or getting his films banned or censored. But ever since the Mayor of Baltimore declared February 7 1985 'John Waters's Day' in honour of the city's most celebrated citizen (by then, he'd eclipsed the disgraced Spiro Agnew), he's had trouble giving offence.
A Dirty Shame, a calculatedly offensive picture set in his usual dreary Baltimore suburb, more or less reworks Night of the Living Dead. But instead of zombies terrorising the neighbourhood, the marauding mob is composed of sex addicts practising every conceivable kind of perversion. What makes them this way is having been accidentally hit over the head, and the chief victim is Sylvia (Tracey Ullman), who turns from ultra-respectable mother and housewife to nymphomaniac not so much overnight as before lunch.
Her mother recruits a local legion of decency with the slogan 'No More Tolerance' and, at its inaugural meeting, one middle-aged victim of her husband's renewed lust declares: 'I'm Viagravated and I'm not going to take it any more.'
A Dirty Shame is a soft-core porn comedy with the actual sex largely reduced to an indecent minimum. It relies instead on language, especially outrageous things said by seemingly respectable folk. Waters has raided a slang Thesaurus and come up with enough colourful phrases for different sexual activities to keep that eminent Victorian Dr Peter Mark Roget spinning in his grave for a year. The characters' principal occupation is oral sex or, as they would put it, 'sneezing in the canyon', 'having a Swedish headache', 'having lunch downtown' etc.
Patricia Hearst, now a regular member of Waters's rep company, plays a reformed addict, and David Hasselhoff appears as himself, reading a book called Suicide in the Entertainment Industry and dropping a block of frozen urine from a plane passing over Baltimore. The tone is one of oppressive innocence.
In the violent action thriller xXx 2: The Next Level, plump rapper Ice Cube takes over from slim Vin Diesel as National Security Agency chief Samuel L Jackson's top special agent. Their task - frustrating a right-wing coup led by patriotic Secretary of Defence, retired admiral George Deckert (Willem Dafoe), to kill liberal President Sandford (Peter Strauss), who plans to get back on friendly terms with America's estranged allies and to use defence cuts to alleviate third-world poverty. This is Seven Days in May for muscle-flexing boneheads.
Inspired by the long-running TV series, Clifford's Really Big Movie is an animated tale about Clifford, a likable red dog the size of King Kong, who comes to the aid of an ailing travelling show of performing animals, a high-wire walking cow among them. It's impossible to dislike and young children should enjoy it a lot.
Samuel Fuller (1911-1997) only had two pictures given any sort of release in the last 30 years of his life, but having been acclaimed by the critics who constituted the French New Wave, his reputation steadily grew as an authentic auteur with a cranky two-fisted individual vision, a tabloid journalist turned film-maker, who distrusted established authority and stood up for common decency and the shared values of ordinary people. His last film of significance, the semi-autobiographical The Big Red One, a long-cherished project about his Second World War experiences as a GI in the US infantry, was brutally edited in 1980 by its distributors. I wish I could say that the reconstructed version, now 50 minutes longer, reveals the film as a masterpiece, even a flawed one. It doesn't.
Lee Marvin, also a combat soldier in the Second World War, is a magnificent presence as the sergeant leading his platoon from North Africa via Sicily and Omaha Beach to the liberation of an extermination camp on VE-Day. The economical recreation of the D-Day landings is stunning and greatly influenced Saving Private Ryan. But a lot of this stylised film, including some of the restored material, is trite and embarrassing. It's certainly a film to be seen, though, and if you can't get to a big screen there's a well produced two-disc DVD from Warner with a commentary by the producer of the reconstruction and much valuable additional material. Of Fuller's half-dozen war movies, the best is Merrill's Marauders (1961), a finer, subtler if less passionate affair than The Big Red One.