The Damned United, Tom Hooper, 97 mins, 15<br>Knowing, Alex Proyas, 121 mins, 15<br>Martyrs, Pascal Laugier, 95 mins, 18

Michael Sheen's latest reincarnation as Brian Clough is strong on Seventies nostalgia but doesn't reveal much about the man
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In a few short years, Peter Morgan and Michael Sheen have become the most bankable British screenwriter-star partnership since Hugh Grant stammered through Richard Curtis's scripts in the 1990s. Morgan and Sheen have made films about Tony Blair (The Deal and The Queen) and David Frost (Frost/Nixon), and now, in The Damned United, they tackle Brian Clough, thereby raising the question of whether it's possible for M&S to find a real-life subject who radiates more complacency than the three they've covered already. Maybe they should leave it a while before they try to answer that question, though, because The Damned United, as fun as it is, carries a distinct whiff of diminishing returns.

It begins in 1974, as Clough gets one of the top jobs in English football, manager of Leeds United. Prior to that, he presided over Derby, lifting the club to new heights with the aid of his right-hand man, Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall), and with his belief that the beautiful game "must be played beautifully". Meanwhile, his arch enemy, Don Revie (Colm Meaney), was managing a Leeds squad that played more brutally than beautifully. So when the heroically tactless Clough takes over from Revie, he starts by insulting the players, belittling their past achievements, and threatening dire consequences for anyone who so much as mentions his predecessor's name.

The Damned United is essentially an affectionate, tongue-in-cheek homage to the 1970s game, when footballers were permed semi-professionals who had an orange and a cigarette at half time, and who were never called upon to advertise Pepsi. ("A salary of £300 a week," squawks Derby's manager (Jim Broadbent. "You can't pay a footballer that!") Much brighter and warmer than David Peace's source novel – perhaps they should have renamed it The Darned United – it's an upbeat alternative to the humourless Hollywood model of an inspirational sports biopic, and I'm particularly well qualified to state that you can enjoy it even if you have no prior knowledge of Clough or, indeed, football.

The problem is, I still don't have that much knowledge of Clough. Morgan's script leaves us in no doubt as to his flaws. "This mad ambition," cries Spall, helpfully, "it takes over and destroys everything that's good in your life!" But by flashing back and forth between his years at Derby and his weeks at Leeds, it reduces both stints to a handful of comic snapshots. Just as Frost/Nixon failed to pinpoint why Frost was able to extract a confession from Nixon when no one else could, The Damned United doesn't establish why Clough was so alchemical at Derby, or why Leeds fared so badly as soon as he came on board. Shouldn't a biopic of a unique football manager leave us with some understanding of what was unique about him?

Knowing may be the first film in which the bug-eyed craziness of Nicolas Cage's central performance is matched by every aspect of the production. He plays his usual shouty, over-caffeinated loon, in this instance a widowed astrophysics lecturer. When his son's school celebrates its 50th anniversary by opening a time capsule from 1959, Cage takes home one of the artefacts, a handwritten page of numbers that appears to predict the date and death toll of every major catastrophe of the intervening decades, plus a couple that are still to come.

It could be the premise of a Twilight Zone episode, but Knowing is more like an M Night Shyamalan film on steroids. About half an hour in, a jumbo jet crashes 100 yards from where Cage is standing, and the tone gets less restrained from there on, growing bigger and more bombastic until the film mutates into a hysterical, apocalyptic disaster movie. It's actually quite invigorating to watch the spectacle and pretension skyrocketing to such stratospheric heights. It's just a shame that, beneath the sound and fury, it's all such nonsense.

Be warned: you shouldn't dream of seeing Martyrs unless you've already made it through Funny Games, Audition and Irréversible, and you're ready for something yet more gruelling. Twisting between home invasion thriller, ghost story and torture porn ordeal, this French film is the work of a clever director who keeps taking the story to unexpected places. But I don't know why anyone would choose to endure it. I've never before seen so much extreme gore and violence depicted with such unblinking nonchalance.

Also showing: 29/03/2009

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The Life Before Her Eyes (90 mins, 15)

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