What would you do if somebody thumped your child? It's fiction's big question at the moment, one that's been asked in an award-winning novel, Christos Tsiolkas's The Slap, an award-winning film, Susanne Bier's In a Better World, and an award-winning play, Yasmina Reza's The God of Carnage, which has now been made into a film by Roman Polanski. Renamed Carnage, and relocated from Paris to New York, it all takes place one afternoon shortly after the son of Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz has whacked the son of Jodie Foster and John C Reilly around the head with a stick. The grown-ups pride themselves on being impeccably civilised, so they get together in Foster and Reilly's tasteful Brooklyn apartment to weigh up what should be done.
The film begins as an exquisite comedy of manners, in which the characters pick and prod at each other, while keeping the smiles glued to their faces. Foster's controlled aggression is a joy, even when she's defending her recipe for apple-and-pear cake, but it's unfair to single her out. The actors all adjust their moods so subtly that I changed my mind every 30 seconds about which one of them was the true star of the film. It may be an uncinematic chamber piece, with little more movement than there was in the stage play, but when you've got such surgically precise performances and dialogue, it doesn't matter that the action consists of four people talking in a flat.
So much for the first half-hour. Unfortunately, Carnage plummets soon afterwards when the characters start letting out their innermost feelings – and one of them lets out a lot more besides. The notorious vomiting scene is the film's dramatic peak, so it's quite puzzling that it arrives so quickly. Once it's over and done with, the conversation veers off in all sorts of less interesting directions, before fizzling out altogether.
Maybe something has been lost in translation. Carnage is billed as a Spanish-Polish-German-French production, which could be why its New Yorkers don't ring true, but the contrivances we might forgive in a theatre are impossible to get past in a film. Would any woman throw up over two near-strangers' coffee table, and then hang around in the same room chatting? Would a corporate lawyer with a potentially ruinous scandal on his hands stay in the room with her, rather than sprint back to his office? Would he discuss the scandal on his mobile for everyone to hear? And would all of these uptight characters suddenly share their deepest, darkest opinions on marriage and morality? I don't buy it. Polanski and Reza have made a sly black comedy about people who keep their emotions in check, followed by a silly farce about people who do the opposite.
The events of Chronicle are far easier to believe – and they involve three teenage boys gaining telekinetic powers when they touch a glowing, star-shaped meteorite. In essence, it's a superhero movie, but one set in something like the real world: instead of donning tights and capes and fighting crime, the boys use their new abilities to play pranks and impress the girls at the school talent show.
They also record their stunts on a video camera through which we see all the action. In the wake of Cloverfield, Paranormal Activity et al, the we-filmed-it-ourselves gimmick is already stale, but it certainly deepens the impression that we're watching ordinary high-schoolers who just happen to have extraordinary powers. It also makes those powers seem even more fantastic. It's all very well when one of the X-Men throws a stone using nothing but his brainwaves, but when you see the same thing happening in the middle distance, shot from one angle, while a teenager whoops with exhilaration, you might be tempted to do some whooping yourself.
Not that Chronicle stays quite so low-key throughout. After one of the boys uses his powers in less innocuous ways, the story revs up to a thunderous climactic battle as spectacular as anything in the Spider-Man movies, but which keeps to the grungy, indie feel of the rest of the film. It's a thrilling and inventive yet poignant debut from Josh Trank and his screenwriter, Max Landis, who may yet match the genre-twisting of his father, John.
Nicholas Barber dresses up right for the return of The Muppets
George Clooney tussles with fatherhood, family, and the anguish of living in Hawaii, in Alexander Payne's elegantly heart-wrenching The Descendants. Elsewhere, the nomadic literary great, W G Sebald, is paid elegant tribute in Grant Gee's teasing essay-doc Patience (After Sebald), exploring the East Anglian landscape, life, and loss.
Also showing (05/02/2012)
Man on a Ledge (102 mins, 12A)
Sam Worthington perches on a hotel ledge, 20 storeys above Manhattan, to divert attention from the diamond heist being carried out across the road by his brother, Jamie Bell. Yes, it's completely ludicrous, but it's energetic enough to keep you watching.
Journey 2: The Mysterious Island (94 mins, PG)
Dwayne Johnson and Michael Caine star in a fast-paced children's adventure full of giant monsters and good jokes. Parents might be pleased that it's the heroes' encyclopedic knowledge that wins the day as opposed to the customary brute strength and ignorance.
Bombay Beach (80 mins, 15)
Part candid documentary, part video artwork, Bombay Beach explores a Californian desert community which could have been created for a post-apocalyptic sci-fi movie. It's setting is a slum town where the sand dunes are strewn with dead fish and other corpses – a nearby salt lake is receding – and the locals are listless, shirtless rednecks on Ritalin and moonshine. As grim as it is, the film is also surprisingly beautiful and tentatively hopeful.