ABSOLUTE POWER

Director: Clint Eastwood. Starring: Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman (15)

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 enigmatic or droll. But as a director, this tendency works against him, and too often he can seem clumsy behind the camera or simply bored with what he is showing us. In his new film, he is unable to sustain suspense in the most rudimentary scenario - the thief who finds he's alone in the house he's raiding, for instance, or the man who becomes a simultaneous target for two different assassins.

He fudges another crucial scene, where the President (Gene Hackman) assaults a woman while a burglar, Luther Witney (Eastwood), watches the attack and eventual murder at the hands of two secret-service agents, from behind a two-way mirror.

The episode is a mess - it's supposed to be. But that doesn't mean that Eastwood has to throw the shots together randomly. He doesn't think about his film structure or how the position of the camera affects the suspense.

It's fatal that he doesn't pull that scene off because it's what sets the whole plot in motion. After Luther has witnessed the killing and the frenzied cover-up by the President's chief of staff (Judy Davis), he steals a pivotal piece of evidence and becomes a target for both police and secret service. The homicide detective Seth Frank (Ed Harris) believes that Luther has nothing to do with the murder, but suspects that he holds some clues to the killer's identity. Luther is ready to leave the country - it's only when he glimpses the President giving a TV broadcast and declaring his determination to catch the murderer that he decides to hang around and use his privileged knowledge to 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 wonderful comic turns here, especially from Judy Davis, who has a couple of fiercely funny scenes in which to show off her peerless comic timing, notably when finding she has become the butt of Luther's cruel jokes.

Initially, as Luther watches from behind the mirror and the President's date turns violent, his response seems to hide something darker, as though the behaviour he is witnessing is a reflection of his own desires. But Absolute Power never blurs the boundaries. In the last 10 minutes, we even learn that he has returned what he stole from the dead woman's home. He's a burglar and a gentleman.

TURBULENCE

Director: Robert Butler. Starring: Ray Liotta (18)

Now that the disaster movie and the serial-killer movie are both dead and buried, Turbulence ingeniously, if not seamlessly, fuses the two to create a garish carnival of horror. It's inevitable, given such a hybrid, that one of genres should come off worse and so whenever the serial killer, Ryan Weaver (Ray Liotta), appears on screen, it's mostly a bizarre form of comic relief. Whether getting his ankle broken or being battered with a door that's just been torn from its hinges, Weaver emits an irritating cackle. The screenwriter, Jonathan Brett, has clearly weighed up death- by-air-disaster and death-by-crazed-psychopaths and found the latter far more accommodating of comic possibilities.

Weaver is being transported to death row on a Christmas Eve flight, where his attempt to hijack the plane is threatened by the plucky spirit of flight attendant Teri Halloran (Lauren Holly). Weaver and Halloran spend most of the film battling for control of the aircraft, while down on the ground, a stiff-upper-lipped pilot (Ben Cross) attempts to calm Halloran long enough for her to land the plane safely. Credibility is sacrificed early on, and all that's left are some moderate shocks and the occasional chunks of batty dialogue.

BIG NIGHT

Director: Stanley Tucci & Campbell Scott. Starring: Stanley Tucci (15)

A delicious comedy about two Italian brothers, Primo (Tony Shalhoub) and Secondo (co-writer and co-director Stanley Tucci), who run a restaurant called The Paradise in 1950s New Jersey. Quality is foremost at their establishment, and Primo in particular takes offence at the success of their rival, Pascal (Ian Holm), who manages a far more colourful restaurant across the street. Pascal would love the brothers to work for him, but he admires their independent spirit and realising that their perfectionism has landed them in debt, agrees to put some of his custom their way. But not just any custom - the singer Louis Prima, who is due to call into town any day. The brothers begin preparing for a magnificent feast, realising that the future of their business rests on this one big night.

The strength of this beguiling picture lies in its subtlety, and its refusal to judge any of the characters. Although the screenplay is primarily sympathetic to the brothers' quandry, it's generous towards Pascal, too, and recognises the value of his populist approach.

The style of the film is light and wistful, but there are also bursts of coarse comedy. Most of all, Big Night's buoyant good nature and gently profound insights into its characters are deeply impressive. GRIDLOCK'D

Director: Vondie Curtis Hall. Starring: Tim Roth (18)

Tim Roth and the late Tupac Shakur play a pair of junkies determined to kick the habit but foiled at every turn by the bureaucracy of the welfare system and the difficulties of signing on for a rehabilitation programme. This offbeat comedy begins in sombre mood with an overdose and then gradually turns into a caper comedy in which our heroes must dodge a pair of inept gangsters out for their blood. While the unpredictable tone makes for some tangy comedy, the picture feels too aimless and unfocused for its satire to have any bite.

THE SPITFIRE GRILL

Director: Lee David Zlotoff. Starring: Ellen Burstyn (12)

When a young girl named Percy (Alison Elliott) is released from prison and moves to the town of Gilead, Maine, to start work for Hannah Ferguson (Ellen Burstyn) at a diner named The Spitfire Grill, it's certain that the locals will start poking around in her murky past - and even more certain that we will all get to hear the sorry tale which landed her behind bars. This is a cloying drama which trades in banal symbolism and a shameless use of sentiment to try and bully tears from its viewers. What this Mills and Boon approach disguises is that the film has no heart, no style, and no love for the characters which it puts through hell.

Ryan Gilbey

GENERAL

RELEASE

(15)

See New Films, p8.

THE ADDICTION (18)

Abel Ferrara's academic vampire movie starring Lili Taylor.

ANACONDA (15)

Brazenly trashy horror movie with Jon Voight as a priest-turned-snake- hunter.

ANNA KARENINA (15)

Bernard Rose's lavish but vacuous adaptation of Tolstoy's work. With Sophie Marceau, Sean Bean and Edward Fox.

BEAVIS AND BUTT-HEAD DO AMERICA (12)

The snickering cartoon couch-potatoes make their feature debut in this entertainingly tasteless but over-extended sketch.

BIG NIGHT (15)

See New Films, p8.

BLOOD AND WINE (15) Jack Nicholson stars in this disappointingly patchy thriller.

BOUND (18) The Wachowski brothers' noir-by-numbers, with femmes fatales Jennifer Tilly and Gina Gershon.

BOX OF MOONLIGHT (15)

Bewitching comedy from Tom Di Cillo, starring the excellent John Turturro.

THE BOY FROM MERCURY (PG) Martin Duffy's sweet debut feature puts a new spin on childhood alienation.

BRASSED OFF (15) Moving drama about the decline of a mining town, seen through the eyes of a colliery band.

BREAKING THE WAVES (18) Lars Von Trier's harrowing epic.

CITIZEN KANE (U)

Orson Welles's re-released masterpiece about the rise and fall of a newspaper tycoon.

COLD COMFORT FARM (PG) John Schlesinger's lucid adaptation of Stella Gibbons's novel breathes life into the Starkadder stereotypes.

THE CRUCIBLE (12)

Arthur Miller's disturbing study of the Salem witch trials.

CRYING FREEMAN (18)

Christophe Gans's elegant adaptation of the Japanese comic-book series about a ruthless assassin.

DANGEROUS GROUND (18) South African-set thriller revealing the severely limited acting abilities of Liz Hurley.

DANTE'S PEAK (12)

Seventies-style disaster movie, with Pierce Brosnan battling an eruption of lava-led SFX.

DONNIE BRASCO (18)

Mike Newell's sombre study of betrayal stars Johnny Depp as undercover FBI man Joe Pistone, and a superbly muted Pacino as his mobster mentor.

EDDIE (12)

Whoopi Goldberg plays a basketball fan hired to coach her team back to success in this lame, formulaic comedy.

THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (U)

The second and best of George Lucas's digitally refreshed intergalactic fairytales.

THE ENGLISH PATIENT (15) Stunning desert landscapes and beautiful cinematography in this timeless love story.

EVERYONE SAYS I LOVE YOU (12)

Woody Allen's whimsical, star-stuffed musical.

EVITA (PG) Alan Parker's stylish but incoherent film of the Rice/ Lloyd Webber musical.

FEMALE PERVERSIONS (18) Tilda Swinton stars in this contemporary feminist drama.

FEVER PITCH (15)

Charmless adaptation of Nick Hornby's football novel.

FLY AWAY HOME (U)

A grieving daughter (Anna Paquin) teaches domestic geese to migrate in this treat of a movie.

THE FUNERAL (18)

Ferrara's brooding, disjointed study of the fall of a mobster family in Thirties New York.

GHOSTS FROM THE PAST

(15) Sedately righteous civil-rights drama from Rob Reiner.

GRIDLOCK'D (18)

See New Films, p8.

HAMLET (PG)

Lush without being cinematic, Branagh's 70mm version is over-stuffed with star cameos.

HIGH SCHOOL HIGH (15)

Surprisingly skilful Naked Gun-style spoof on Dangerous Minds, with Jon Lovitz as the new teacher at an inner-city school.

IT TAKES TWO (PG)

Slick and forgettable family drama about two identical girls matchmaking Steve Guttenberg and Kirstie Alley.

JERRY MAGUIRE (15) Tom Cruise grows up in Cameron Crowe's satirical comedy about a sports agent's crisis of conscience.

JUNGLE 2 JUNGLE (PG)

TV comedian Tim Allen is an uptight commodities trader who treks out to the Amazon jungle, discovers his 13-year-old son, Mimi-Siku (Sam Huntington), and reluctantly takes him back to New York for some standard fish-out- of-water gags.

KIDS RETURN (NC)

Takeshi Kitano's touching and immaculately crafted reflection on the faltering friendship between two Japanese school friends.

KILLER: A JOURNAL OF MURDER (18)

The true friendship between convicted killer Carl Panzram (James Woods) and prison guard Henry Lesser (Robert Sean Leonard) is lent a chilly dignity by sombre photography, but, as the film progresses, it becomes irredeemably itinerant.

KOLYA (12)

Jan Sverk's warmly sentimental story of bonding and understanding.

LIAR LIAR (12)

Jim Carrey's slippery lawyer is forced to tell the truth for a day. Maniacal slapstick, with some less convincing father-son stuff.

LOVE AND OTHER CATASTROPHES (15)

Emma Kate Croghan's debut feature about life in and around a university campus is rough around the edges but full of an infectious energy.

LUSH LIFE (NC)

A witty study of the friendship between charismatic jazz musicians Jeff Goldblum and Forest Whitaker is marred by an additional bid for gravity in the shape of a terminal illness.

MARGARET'S MUSEUM (15) Set in a Canadian mining outpost in the 1940s, Mort Ransen's Gothic fable treads a not always successful line between grim social drama and black comedy.

METRO (12)

Eddie Murphy is the smirking cop on the trail of a vicious killer in this dull crime thriller.

MICHAEL (PG)

John Travolta's slob of an angel matchmakes Andie MacDowell's country singer and William Hurt's cynical hack.

MICROCOSMOS (U)

Transfixing nature documentary which burrows into the world of insects, locating images of dry humour and hypnotic beauty.

MOLL FLANDERS (12)

A plodding, simplistic film which has little to do with Defoe's work and follows a drab collection of characters.

MON HOMME (18)

A prostitute's life switches course after she becomes involved with a homeless man. Betrand Blier's prickly comedy has some sparky gags but little to say about the relationship it chronicles.

NO WAY HOME (18)

Buddy Giovanazzo's impressively raw white-trash character drama is a mixture of seedy realism and hysteria. With Tim Roth.

LA PASSIONE (15)

Chris Rea's embarrassing indulgence makes Give My Regards to Broad Street look like Battleship Potemkin.

THE PEOPLE VS LARRY FLYNT (18)

Milos Forman's innocuous biopic of pornographer Larry Flynt.

THE PORTRAIT OF A LADY (12)

Nicole Kidman in Jane Campion's chilly, yet compelling adaptation of James's novel.

THE RAILWAY CHILDREN (U) Re-release of the now dated 1970s children's favourite about three siblings coping with life after their beloved father is wrongly imprisoned.

RANSOM (15) Ron Howard's family drama about a volatile millionaire (Mel Gibson) who plays dirty in the hunt for his kidnapped son.

THE RELIC (15)

Grisly horror-cum-disaster flick, set in New York's Museum of Natural History, where a mysterious creature has been decapitating unsuspecting minor characters. With a nice undercurrent of black comedy.

RETURN OF THE JEDI (U)

The inspiration and ambition of the Star Wars trilogy disappears down a black hole.

RIDICULE (15)

Mordant comedy set in the court of Louis XVI.

ROALD DAHL'S MATILDA (PG) Danny DeVito's cartoonish adaptation of Dahl.

ROMEO AND JULIET (12)

Baz Luhrmann's garish, audacious Shakespeare flick dazzles with guns, gangsters and a pumping modern score.

THE SAINT (15)

Unintentionally camp film version of the 1970s TV series, starring the silly Val Kilmer.

SCREAM (18)

Wes Craven directs this terrifying, slash-edited satire on slasher movies. A scream.

SECRETS AND LIES (15) Mike Leigh's compassionate, Oscar-nominated family saga.

A SELF-MADE HERO (15)

Set at the end of the Second World War, Jacques Audiard's warm and witty film follows Albert, who remodels himself from loser to Resistance hero.

SHINE (12) Moving study of the troubled life of Australian child protege and pianist, David Helfgott.

SPACE JAM (U)

NBA hero Michael Jordan plays ball with Warner Brothers cartoon characters in this vulgar exercise in spin-off marketing.

SPACE TRUCKERS (12)

The shoddy SFXs of Stuart Gordon's sci-fi yarn are compensated for by a sense of invention and a barrage of bizarre gags. With Dennis Hopper.

THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE (PG) Re-release for Siodmak's chilling 1945 Gothic noir.

THE SPITFIRE GRILL (12)

See New Films, p8.

STAR WARS (U)

Digitally remastered re-release of the 1977 space spectacular.

TOTAL ECLIPSE (18)

Dismal portrait of the love affair between French poets Rimbaud (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Verlaine (David Thewlis).

TURBULENCE (18)

See New Films, p8.

TWIN TOWN (18)

Kevin Allen's opportunistic attempt to apply Trainspotting-style grunge to Swansea fails

to provide real characterisation or comedy.

VERTIGO (PG)

Hitchcock's 1958 masterpiece, released in a restored 70mm print. With James Stewart.

WHEN WE WERE KINGS (PG)

Enthralling documentary about the 1974 fight in Zaire between a witty, charismatic Muhammad Ali and George Foreman.

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