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It doesn't quite bowl you over.

Blackball (Cert 15, 93 mins, Icon Home Entertainment, comedy/romance, also available to buy DVD pounds 15.99/VHS pounds 12.99)

Starring: Paul Kaye, Johnny Vegas, Alice Evans, James Cromwell, Vince Vaughn, Imelda Staunton

In the sleepy seaside town of Torquay, lawn bowls is the sport of kings. Arrogant and foul-mouthed newcomer Cliff Starkey (Kaye) unseats the area's reigning champion, Ray Speight (Cromwell), and is quickly signed up by glitzy American agent Rick (Vaughn), who intends to transform the formerly stuffy game of lawn bowls into a television phenomenon.

Fame and adulation go to Cliff's head and he casts aside his family, his best mate Trevor (Vegas) and girlfriend Kerry (Evans), who just happens to be Ray's daughter.

The enmity between Ray and Cliff boils over and the old timer orchestrates Cliff's lifetime ban from the game.

However, when Australian bowls champions the Doohan brothers visit England, Cliff's ban is hastily overturned so he can partner Ray in an Ashes-style tournament.

Blackball follows the conventions of the sporting movie to the letter: the unlikely hero, the battle against adversity, and the rousing triumph against seemingly insurmountable odds.

Yet the film, like some of Cliff's woods, fails to hit its target. There are plenty of laughs but most are half-hearted chuckles, and the romantic subplot involving Cliff and Kerry barely simmers. Kaye is suitably irritating as the self-styled "John McEnroe" of lawn bowls but never manages to win our sympathy.

In sharp contrast, Cromwell brings his old timer to life with some skill, showing the sadness and jealousy that drive Ray before he sees the error of his ways.

Vegas offers lively support as Cliff's larger-than-life best mate, who is cruelly cast aside when fame and fortune come knocking, but he is given too little screen time to make sufficient impact.

NDVD Extras: Director commentary, cast and crew interviews, TV spots, theatrical trailers.

THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN (Cert 12, 105 mins, Twentieth Century Fox, action/thriller/drama, also available to buy DVD pounds 15.99/two-disc special edition DVD pounds 22.99/VHS pounds 12.99)

Starring: Sean Connery, Shane West, Stuart Townsend, Peta Wilson, Jason Flemyng, Naseeruddin Shah

Set in Victorian England and based on Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill's comic book series, Steven Norrington's fantasy adventure is all style and no substance. When villains break into the Bank of England circa 1900 with a state-of-the-art bulletproof tank, undercover operative M recruits a team of talented individuals known as the League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen to avert this terrorist threat.

He approaches legendary explorer Alan Quartermain (Connery) to lead the mission, aided by mythical figures including adventurer Captain Nemo (Shah), vampire bride Mina Harker (Wilson), invisible man Rodney Skinner, the ever youthful Dorian Gray (Townsend), doomed Dr Jekyll (Flemyng) and gung-ho cowboy Tom Sawyer (West).

The team is hastily despatched to Venice, where world leaders are due to meet in three days' time, but a traitor lurks in the league's midst. The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen is a glaring misnomer. For a start, the lovely Mina would no doubt feel aggrieved to be referred to as a gentleman, and some members of the league are anything but extraordinary.

Screenwriter James Robinson sniggers in the face of realism - he asks us to believe that the 10-storey high, 300ft-long Nautilus could successfully navigate the shallow, windy canals of Venice with barely a scratch. The plot makes little sense and the disclosure of the chief villain's true identity will surprise only those who sleep through the opening hour.

Performances are merely adequate - Townsend seems to be the one member of cast playing his part with tongue wedged firmly in cheek - and the action set pieces fail to get the blood pumping, despite all of the computer-generated pyrotechnics.

NDVD Extras: One-disc version: producers', actors' and crew commentaries; two-disc version: producers', actors' and crew commentaries, Matters Of Previsualisation featurette, stills gallery, Assembling the League featurette, 17 deleted and extended scenes, Behind the Fantasy featurette, European premieres of the film, 12 TV spots, posters, three theatrical trailers.

SPELLBOUND (Cert U, 93 mins, High Fliers, documentary)

In America, the National Spelling Bee is something of an institution: a nationwide contest to find the student aged eight to 14 with the best spelling skills. Jeffrey Blitz's award-winning documentary follows eight regional winners in the 1999 competition as they descend upon Washington DC for the televised final, where they must grapple with vocabulary including cabotinage, cephalalgia, logorrhea and opsimath.

As the tension rises, a silent vowel or unusual declension could prove to be each competitor's undoing. The prize for victory is fame and adulation but the pressure is immense.

Blitz's subjects are sweet, endearing, eccentric and scarily obsessed. In some cases, the parents are evidently pushing their offspring every tentative step of the way, like Neil Kadakia, whose affluent father has developed the perfect system for drumming vocabulary into his son's brain. The most memorable contestant in the film's motley crew of eight is Harry Altman, whose nervous tics and machine-gun gags invariably steal the show.

Spellbound is an electrifying snapshot of a group of children who are, on the whole, regarded as misfits by their classmates, but find camaraderie and friendship through their participation in the National Spelling Bee. By the very design of the competition - one slip and you're out - the film holds your attention in a vice-like grip until you can feel yourself holding your breath as the final contestant approaches the microphone. S-u-p-e-r-b.

DVD Extras: none stated.
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Publication:Evening Chronicle (Newcastle, England)
Date:Feb 13, 2004
Words:913
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