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RENTAL: Lawn yawn; Damon Smith is not exactly bowled over by comedy Blackball.

Byline: Damon Smith

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

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

The enmity between Ray and Cliff bo ils over until Australian bowls champions, the Doohan brothers (MarkDymond and Mark Little), visit England,and Cliff partners Ray in an Ashes-style tournament.

Blackball follows the conventions of the sporting movie to the letter: the unlikely hero 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.

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

Set in Victorian England and based on Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill's comic book series,Steven Norrington's fantasy adventure The League Of Extraordinary Gen-tlemen 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 (Richard Roxburgh) recruits a team of talented individuals to avert this terrorist threat.

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

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 plot makes little sense and the disclosure of the chief villain's true identity will surprise only those who slept blissfully through the opening hour. Performances are merely adequate and the action set-pieces fail to get the blood pumping.

In America, the National Spelling Bee is something of an institution: a nationwide contest to find the student aged 8-14 with the best spelling skills. Jeffrey Blitz's award winning documentary Spellbound 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, so the competitors dwindle. A silent vowel could prove to be each competitor's undoing. The prize for victory is fame and adulation but the pressure is immense.

The most memorable contestant in the film's motley crew of eight is Harry Altman, a quixotic child comedian whose nervous tics and machine-gun gags invariably steal the show.

Spellbound is an electrifying snapshot of a group of children who find camaraderie and friendship through their participation in the Bee.

By the very design of the competition -one slip and you're out -the film holds our attention in a vice-like grip, until you can feel yourself holding your breath as the final contestant approaches the microphone. U -n-mis-sa-b-l-e.

the verdict

Blackball (Cert 15,93 mins)Comedy starring Paul Kaye,Johnny Vegas,Alice Evans,James Cromwell,Vince Vaughn,Mark Dymond,Mark Little Rating: **The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen (Cert 12,105mins)Action starringSean Connery,Shane West,Stuart Townsend,Peta Wilson,Jason Flemyng, Naseeruddin Shah,Tony Curran,Richard Roxburgh,David Hemmings Rating: **Spellbound (Cert U,93 mins)Documentary starring Harry Altman,Angela Arenivar,Ted Brigham,April DeGideo,Neil Kadakia,Nupur Lala,Emily Stagg, Ashley White,Alex CameronRating:

CAPTION(S):

Paul Kaye and James Cromwell fly the flag for Britain in Blackball,as we are offered the preposterous concept of lawn bowls becoming a popular televised sport
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Daily Post (Liverpool, England)
Date:Feb 13, 2004
Words:689
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