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CINEMA: this week's releases reviewed by PAT STACEY and SOPHIE GORMAN

The stars shine out for maestro Altman There are some things we've come to expect from a Robert Altman film: a large cast of characters and several interlocking storylines (with a few sub-plots) often set up through snatches of overheard, overlapping dialogue.

Gosford Park (15) features all the familiar Altman trademarks, especially in the opening 15 minutes, but in some respects it's his most un-Altman-like film yet. From the highs of Nashville, Short Cuts and The Player to the nadir of Pret-a-Porter, Altman's films have covered considerable ground, both in terms of theme and geography. But who could have guessed that the old maverick would fetch up in the unlikely setting of an English country manor in the 1930s and that he would deliver a real treat that ranks as his most thoroughly satisfying in a long time.

Gosford Park is an absolute delight. It takes place over a shooting weekend organised by lecherous, cantankerous old Michael Gambon and his restless, sex-hungry wife, Kristin Scott Thomas.

Naturally, a large and colourful collection of guests arrives. Most of them have grudges to bear or secrets to reveal, and come with personal valets and maids in tow. We know from the off that, by the end of the weekend, someone is going to be murdered (it doesn't take much figuring out who) and skeletons are going to come tumbling out of closets.

But before that happens, there's plenty of bitching, back-stabbing and betrayal to get through.

If this looks, on the face of it, like a well-worn Agatha Christie mystery, that's because it's supposed to (Stephen Fry even pops up as a pompous, pipe-smoking copper). But don't be put off. The deliberately creaky whodunit element is merely the peg from which Altman and screenwriter Julian Fellowes drape a sly, witty, wickedly playful comedy of manners, morals and murder.

If anything, Gosford Park is closer in spirit to Upstairs, Downstairs, in the way it depicts the pecking order of the servants' quarters as being as subtly layered and pernicious as anything the decadent aristos can manage. Apart from the Irish-born Gambon, Bob Balaban, as a crass Hollywood producer who makes Charlie Chan B-movies, and Ryan Phillippe as his sneaky, snooping valet, are the only non-British actors in a large and eclectic cast that includes Jeremy Northam (as Ivor Novello), Alan Bates, Clive Owen, Emily Watson, Helen Mirren, Richard E Grant (in full-on sneer mode) and Kelly McDonald, as the naive young Scottish maid who gives the film its moral centre.

All are outstanding, and Altman marshals them brilliantly, but that practised film-stealer Maggie Smith, as the catty, pot-stirring old maid of the family, gets all the best put-downs and delivers them with relish.

This a marvellously entertaining confection, served up with a wonderfully light touch. PS

As the sun rises on the rest of Jake Hoyt's (Ethan Hawke) life, it's Training Day (18) for this young father setting off for his induction on the threatening narcotics unit of the Los Angeles Police. He has just 24 hours to show his commanding officer, Det Sgt Alonzo Harris (Denzel Washington), that he's got what it takes to make it in this elite squad.

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Making the rules up as he goes along, the murderously corrupt Alonzo's mission is to transform this rookie and rid him of his upstanding ideals. Using his motto "a good narcotics agent must know and love narcotics", the first challenge he sets Jake is to become familiar with the illegal substances he is trying to eradicate.

Alonzo's methods are uncompromisingly violent and intimidating. How long can Jake maintain his morals? How long before he becomes just like Alonzo and the men they're hunting?

Directed by relative newcomer Antoine Fuqua, the energetic pace of this gritty thriller is relentless as as good battles evil and power becomes pitiable. With cameos from Snoop Doggy Dog, Macy Gray and Dr Dre, what elevates it well above the norm are the central performances. An extraordinary Washington dominates the film. He has already collected the LA and Boston film critics and the AFI awards for best actor and a Golden Globe nomination and is being tipped for Oscar-nomination.

Powerful performances and a sensitive script in Iris (15PG) combine in such a powerful manner that the effect is almost unbearably moving. Shifting between a spirited young Iris Murdoch's early days at Oxford and the distressing onset of Alzheimers four decades later this is really the story of a 40-year love affair.

Based on husband John Bayley's memoirs, Elegy for Iris and Iris: A Memoir, director and co-writer Richard Eyre successfully captures the eccentric intelligence of one of England's most respected contemporary novelists. Eyre's greatest triumph, however, is in allowing the four performances at the heart of this tale to speak for themselves.

The fierce intensity and flamboyant promiscuity of Kate Winslet's young student is a perfect match for Judi Dench's understated terror as this inspired mind disintegrates uncontrollably. And the power of this woman is perfectly sustained by Jim Broadbent's and Hugh Bonneville's astonishing portrayals of her utterly devoted husband. His role develops over the years until finally he finds himself almost a parental figure to a fading Iris.

Highly recommended. SG

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