Law Abiding Citizen, F Gary Gray, 108 mins, (18)<br/>Nativity! Debbie Isitt, 106 mins, (U)

Bereaved Everyman goes bonkers, and how to ruin the greatest story ever told
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The Independent Culture

It's been a tough few weeks for cinema-going punctuation sticklers, what with October's Couples Retreat, and this week's big American film, Law Abiding Citizen.

But even if you aren't niggled by the truant hyphen, Law Abiding Citizen has a lot that's wrong with it. It opens, off-puttingly enough, with Gerard Butler's picture-perfect wife and daughter being murdered by two burglars. Philadelphia's smooth, self-serving deputy prosecutor, Jamie Foxx, does some plea-bargaining, and secures the death sentence for one of the crooks and five years in prison for the other. Butler isn't satisfied. With a cry of "Whatever happened to justice?," he resolves to punish the two criminals, and everyone else connected to the case.

Thus Law Abiding Citizen sets itself up as a vigilante thriller, not unlike the recent Harry Brown: morally repugnant, yes ... but fine if that's your guilty pleasure of choice. Pretty soon, though, the film-makers change their minds, and Butler's bereaved, aggrieved Everyman becomes a mad genius who uses home-made gadgetry to massacre his innocent victims, even while he's locked in solitary confinement. Again, that's all well and good if you want to see a far-fetched shocker about a serial killer who makes the Joker, Lex Luthor and the baddie from Saw seem like pickpockets – but Law Abiding Citizen doesn't stick with that genre, either. In half of his scenes, Butler is a wronged man who has something important to teach Foxx, about the compromised legal system. In the other half, he's Hannibal Lecter on steroids. So, are we supposed to sympathise with him or not? Law Abiding Citizen tries to be two kinds of exploitation film at once, and it ends up as neither.

It's a truth universally acknowledged that primary-school nativity plays are bearable only if your own children are in them, and, alas, the rule holds good for Nativity!, the latest improvised comedy from Debbie Isitt, the director of Confetti. This spirit-sapping slog stars Martin Freeman as a Coventry primary teacher given the job, under protest, of staging the school's Christmas show.

When he bumps into a rival teacher, Jason Watkins, Freeman boasts that his movie-producer ex-girlfriend, Ashley Jensen, is flying in from Los Angeles to turn his nativity play into a film. The small fact that the play hasn't yet been written doesn't prompt a single person to question Freeman's off-the-cuff fib: word gets out, and soon the whole town is treating it as a cast-iron promise of fame and fortune.

That might seem to make no sense whatsoever, but it's probably the most plausible part of a film that has a primary teacher nipping off to California in the middle of term with two of his pupils in tow. Nativity! might have been improvised by the actors, but should it really be quite so obvious that they were making it up as they went along?

Isitt's attitude seems to be that a coherent story and some half-decent jokes are surplus to requirements when you can point a camera at some perky children singing and dancing. After torturing us with 90 minutes of rehearsal montages, she makes us sit through the entirety of the school's Christmas rock opera at the end. That's not just adding insult to injury, it's adding injury to injury.

Also Showing: 29/11/2009

Séraphine (121 mins, PG)

A biopic of Séraphine Louis (Yolande Moreau), aka Séraphine de Senlis, a 20th-century Naïve painter who was discovered by a leading German critic, Wilhelm Uhde (Ulrich Tukur), while she was working as a cleaner in a house he was renting. When the film opens, in 1913, Louis is a stooping, dumpy, middle-aged woman who bustles around in a grey hat and shawl, barely communicating with anyone else in her cobbled town.

Behind the closed doors of her garret, though, she paints febrile still-lives on wooden panels, believing herself to be guided by a guardian angel, and using paints she concocts herself from wild flowers and pig's blood. When Uhde starts selling her work, soon after he championed Henri Rousseau, Louis makes up for lost time by spending every franc that comes her way on expensive clothes and furnishings.

The winner of this year's César Awards for Best Film and Best Actress, Séraphine tells Louis's story in a sober, somewhat dull manner. Keeping a respectful distance from its heroine, it never risks getting inside the mind that could produce such bristling, psychedelic paintings, nor does it attempt to echo those paintings in its own serene visual style. It's like reading the introductory essay in an exhibition catalogue, except that it takes two hours. Personally, I couldn't stop thinking of Susan Boyle on Britain's Got Talent.

Mr Right (94 mins, 12)

Abysmal Brit-com about the on-off relationships of a bunch of gay Londoners, including a reality-TV producer (James Lance), his actor boyfriend (Luke de Woolfson), and an acquaintance (Jeremy Edwards) who might not be as straight as he keeps insisting he is. The thinking behind Mr Right, which is written and directed by a brother-sister team of first-timers, appears to be that the very existence of gay people is such a weird and wonderful phenomenon that no further characterisation is necessary. It means well, but it's one of those shoddy, very-low-budget British films that don't merit even a tiny release.