Byline: CHRISTOPHER TOOKEY
Murder By Numbers (15) Verdict: Competent thriller with a rising star
Birthday Girl (15) Verdict: La Kidman can't save lacklustre comedy thriller
The Lawless Heart (15) Verdict: Aimless British drama
Beijing Bicycle (PG) Verdict: Aimless Chinese drama
RYAN Gosling isn't yet a household name, but if he sticks at this acting lark I'm willing to bet that he'll carve out a film career as distinguished as Al Pacino's.
He's got that rare, dangerous quality that makes you want to watch him rather than anyone else on screen, and a range and subtlety of expression that mean he can play several, conflicting emotions at once.
Gosling's debut, as a young Jewish fascist in The Believer, brought him unanimously favourable reviews from the few critics who saw it. Now, cast in his first mainstream Hollywood thriller, Murder by Numbers, he turns in the kind of performance that will have every Hollywood casting director dialling his agent.
It's the same kind of eye-catching turn - as a rich sociopath who kills for fun - that the young Edward Norton brought off in Primal Fear.
Indeed, Gosling distorts the balance of the movie, which is meant to be centred on the detective who's investigating his crime - good old reliable Sandra Bullock, who turns in a typically decent, thoughtful performance but is acted off the screen whenever Gosling appears.
That could be the young man's biggest problem. From now on, only a very confident leading actor will dare to share the lens with him.
Murder By Numbers is pretty much thriller-making by numbers.
It is like an episode of Colombo extended to feature length, with Bullock in the Peter Falk role of the indomitable detective who won't accept the obvious police interpretation of who murdered a young woman.
She senses intuitively that the real criminals are two high school students (Gosling and Michael Pitt) who are trying to prove their intellectual superiority and get away with 'the perfect crime'.
There's nothing new in this - it's another variation on the real-life Leopold and Loeb murder case that inspired Hitchcock's Rope. But Barbet Schroeder directs with the same competence he brought to Single White Female.
OK, this is hackwork, but it's highly professional hackwork, a competent piece of storytelling that will keep you moderately gripped and entertained - and it's worth catching for the advent of someone who is going to be one of America's foremost screen actors.
_ANOTHER eye-catching but more established talent, Nicole Kidman, continues to extend her extraordinary range in Birthday Girl. She plays Nadia, a Russian mail-order bride booked by a St Albans bank clerk with a secret penchant for bondage (Ben Chaplin). THE most enjoyable moments are when Kidman is jabbering away in fluent Russian to the blank incomprehension of her leading man. Much though I admire her courage in taking on such a role in a small British picture and expertise in bringing it off, I really can't see this movie becoming a hit.
Jez and Tom Butterworth's film is fatally torn between being a black comedy heist thriller and a heartwarming romance.
It might have worked better had they gone all out for the former. It catches fire only when the leading lady's cousin (Matthieu Kassovitz) and dangerous-looking friend (Vincent Kassel) turn up announced for her birthday, invite themselves to stay, and lead the hero down the path to criminality and public disgrace.
Unfortunately, the Butterworth brothers seem to think the film works best as a romance.
But Ben Chaplin's character is too boring, sleazy, foolish, petulant and downright ineffectual to make us believe that Nadia could possibly find him attractive.
I doubt if you'll care much for him either. Ben Chaplin is a good, intelligent actor, but he doesn't quite have the charisma, energy or sheer lustiness to make him a star.
_THE other British movie this week, The Lawless Heart, is a strange, aimless affair - really more of a TV drama - redeemed by strong performances.
It's about three men who convene for a funeral on the Essex coast, and are subtly changed by it.
There's the dead man's brother-inlaw (Bill Nighy) who can't quite summon up the courage, as the filmmakers see it, to commit adultery with an attractive Frenchwoman he meets at the funeral. There's the dead man's lover (Tom Hollander) who feels pigeonholed as a gay man, and a friend (Douglas Henshall) who's adjusting back to Britain after being abroad for years, and seems still to be playing the Michael Caine role in Alfie.
The acting's the thing here, with Nighy and Hollander both excellent; and there's a feeling of real life being distilled by writer-directors Neil Hunter and Tom Hunsinger. It's a long way from the plot-led movies of Hollywood, and closer to the character-led musings of Eric Rohmer.
The downside is that very little happens, there's no sense of momentum, and at the end you're left feeling 'Is that all there is?' No commercial blockbuster, then - but an interesting (if, paradoxically, slightly boring) effort by not untalented people.
_ THE same might be said of Beijing Bicycle. Here, the theft of a bike leads to the formation of a relationship between the owner, new to the city, and the urban schoolboy who has come by it. As a glimpse of modern Chinese life, the film does just enough to keep our attention, but the meandering storyline is unnecessarily feeble.
This winner of the Silver Bear at the Berlin Festival is transparently an attempt by Wang Ziaoshuai to make a Chinese version of the Italian neo-realist masterpiece, Bicycle Thieves. However, there just isn't the same sense of narrative thrust or emotional power.
Frankie goes to Hollywood, and takes revenge
Big Fat Liar (PG) Verdict: Sadistic comedy
Rollerball (15) Verdict: Violent garbage What's The Worst That Could Happen? (15) Verdict: More films like this one
BIG Fat Liar starts from an amusing, original premise - a 14-year-old habitual liar (Frankie Muniz, from TV's Malcolm In The Middle) writes a school essay that falls into the hands of an unscrupulous Hollywood producer (Paul Giamatti) who won't admit that he stole the idea from our young hero.
So the boy travels to Hollywood, where he gets his own back in a series of Home Alone-style revenge attacks.
The first 20 minutes or so are genuinely funny, and anyone who has been on the Universal Studios tour may be interested to see its attractions incorporated into a feature film. But the writing - by the same guy who brought us the execrable Good Burger - is crude, and the acting cruder. And isn't there something hypocritical in filmmakers criticising the boorish sadism of Hollywood producers by turning out a movie that celebrates boorish sadism by children?
THERE'S even more striking hypocrisy on display in John McTiernan's relentlessly horrible remake of Rollerball.The dubious message of Norman Jewison's original satire on the exploitation of sport by ruthless capitalists is utterly lost.
Acts of gruesome violence are intercut with voyeuristic relish to a deafening heavy metal soundtrack.
Leading actor Chris Klein is hopelessly miscast as a tough guy, and conveys the physical menace of Kylie Minogue at a convention of Hell's Angels.
John McTiernan has directed enjoyable movies in the past including Die Hard and the recent, glossy remake of another Jewison film,The Thomas Crown Affair - and therefore should feel even more ashamed of himself for this rubbish.
WHILE we're inspecting the bottom of the barrel, I suppose I should mention What's The Worst That Could Happen?, a series of stupid, tedious sketches about a nasty little sadist (Danny de Vito) taking revenge on a cocky thief (Martin Lawrence).
Donald Westlake's novel had its amusing moments, but it beggars belief that it should ever have been turned over to screenwriter Matthew Chapman, who perpetrated the involuntarily hilarious Bruce Willis-asa-psychotherapist thriller, Color Of Night, or director Sam Weisman, whose last horror,The Out-Of-Towners, was among the least funny comedies of the 20th century.The results are exactly as you might expect.…