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Big Night Stanley Tucci / Campbell Scott (15) Absolute Power Clint Eastwood (15) Turbulence Robert Butler (18) The Spitfire Grill Lee David Zlotoff (12) By Ryan Gilbey
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The Independent Culture
The food movie is a little genre all of its own, usually built around the use of meals as a kind of symbolic glue for binding people together, with the obvious exception of the Mr Creosote scene in The Meaning of Life. The bright new comedy Big Night doesn't depart too much from this formula, and as it's set among rival Italian restaurateurs in 1950s New Jersey, it has a wistful sense of nostalgia for the days before the phrase "Do you want fries with that?" became the food industry's mantra. But it also does some refreshing things with characters who at first seem programmed to engage in Ealing comedy-style war of ethics.

Primo (Tony Shalhoub) is a perfectionist who runs The Paradise with his brother, Secondo (Stanley Tucci, who co-wrote and co-directed the picture). While the food is impeccable, the atmosphere leaves something to be desired: life. At the tables, diners sit with heads bowed as though observing a minute's silence for each cow that helped the making of the bolognese, and in the kitchen, Primo declares war on a woman who goes starch-crazy and demands spaghetti with her risotto.

Secondo respects his brother, but knows something which he doesn't: The Paradise's elitist tendencies have landed it deeply in debt. There is a way out for Primo and Secondo - they could work for Pascal (Ian Holm), who runs a glamorous restaurant across the street and longs to blend their talent for authentic cuisine with his populist sensibility. Although the brothers' pride prevents such a merger, Pascal agrees to point one of his most esteemed customers, the entertainer Louis Prima, in their direction for a publicity stunt which should put The Paradise on the map.

The strength of Big Night is that, despite numerous opportunities to demonise Pascal, it refuses to become another David and Goliath story, and is warm and realistic enough to see the worth in all its characters. Ian Holm gives a beautifully sympathetic performance. The rest of the cast, which also includes Isabella Rossellini as Pascal's mistress, and a sweet cameo from the co-director Campbell Scott as a car salesman, are also superb. It's a sweet-natured, generous work which will boost the takings for every Italian restaurant within a 10-mile radius of a cinema that screens it.

Has Clint Eastwood ever really known how to grip an audience? His success as an actor has always rested upon denying viewers their basic pleasures; his hypnotic inertia in situations of extreme danger can be interpreted as droll or enigmatic. But as a director, this distance works against him, and too often he can seem clumsy behind the camera, or simply bored with what he's showing us. In his new film Absolute Power, he takes rudimentary scenarios - the thief who suddenly finds he's not alone in the house he's raiding, the man who becomes a simultaneous target for two different assassins - and so thoroughly wrings them of suspense that they feel like Crimewatch reconstructions.

He fudges a crucial early scene, where the President (Gene Hackman) assaults a woman in her bedroom while a burglar named Luther Whitney (Eastwood) watches the attack from behind a two-way mirror. The violence escalates, and is interrupted by two secret service agents bursting in and shooting the woman dead. Initially, Luther's bewildered response seems to hide something darker, as though the behaviour he's witnessing is a reflection of his own desires. But Absolute Power never blurs those boundaries. In the last 10 minutes, we even learn that Luther has returned what he stole from the dead woman's home. He's a burglar and a gentleman.

It's fatal that Eastwood doesn't pull that early scene off, because it's what sets the whole plot in motion. After Luther has witnessed the killing, he becomes a target for the police and the secret service. He's ready to flee the country - it's only when he glimpses the President giving an emotive TV broadcast in which he declares his determination to catch the murderer, that he decides to hang around and pursue justice. Absolute Power is most effective when Eastwood surrenders to the implausibilities of William Goldman's screenplay and concentrates on levelling the espionage with humour. There are some brilliant comic turns - from Ed Harris as a warm-hearted detective; Scott Glenn and Dennis Haysbert, who are brittle and chilling respectively as the murderous secret service agents; and Judy Davis, who, as the President's chief of staff, gets a couple of fiercely funny scenes in which to show off her peerless comic timing. Her mocking smirk seems directed not only at the buffoons around her, but at the entire movie. You can sympathise.

Now that the disaster movie and the serial-killer movie are both dead and buried, Turbulence ingeniously, if not exactly seamlessly, fuses the two to create a garish carnival of horror. It's inevitable, given such a hybrid, that one of the genres should come off worse - so whenever the serial killer, Ryan Weaver (Ray Liotta), appears on screen, it's mostly as a bizarre form of comic relief. Weaver is being transported to death row on a Christmas Eve flight, where his attempt to hijack the plane is challenged by plucky flight attendant Teri Halloran (Lauren Holly). On the ground, the pilot (Ben Cross) asks her what the situation is like. "The marshalls are dead. The crew are dead. There's been a shoot-out. It's a mess!" she replies, in the tone of a parent who's returned home to find wine-stains on the carpet. The picture never touches down in reality, and is all the more enjoyable for it.

In The Spitfire Grill, a far less successful example of the food movie than Big Night, a young girl named Percy (Alison Elliott) is released from prison and moves to the town of Gilead, Maine, where she starts working at a diner owned by Hannah Ferguson (Ellen Burstyn). You know from the start what's on the menu: deep, dark secrets; bonding; home-spun philosophising; more bonding; chauvinistic husbands; death; bonding. As I watched this offensive, ugly movie, my thoughts turned once more to Mr Creosote, and how he could have given The Spitfire Grill that splash of colour it so badly needsn

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