THE ORANGES

Stars 2

Hugh Laurie returns to the big screen as a straying suburban dad in this weak and flavourless comedy drama.

His comfortable middle class routines are destroyed when the turbulent daughter of his best friend  returns home for Christmas, with alcohol and a shoulder to cry on conspiring to make David’s rocky marriage a little crowded.

The cast work hard to make the film work but the script has them swimming in marmalade. Nina is at least a spirited presence but poor Laurie is reduced to desperate gurning as he chases laughs.

There is some mildly creative profanity but the central romance is a montage of cinematic cliches. If a plucking guitar isn’t pouring syrup over a scene then uplifting festive songs are blasted out to warn the audience that something ‘amusing’ is happening.

This fruitless lemon squeezes the last drop of goodwill long before the end, and really takes the pith out of the audience as it does so.

THE SAPPHIRES

Cert 12A  Stars 3

Irish comic Chris O’Dowd steams into the cinema aboard the soul train in this retro feel-good slice of fun of musical comedy-drama.

In the Australian Outback of 1968 O’Dowd’s drunkard keyboard player, Dave, recognises the potential of four wannabe soul singers and appoints himself their manager.

Whisking the girls off to the Vietnam war to entertain the troops, Dave proves less than reliable when romance, rivalry, and the war itself threaten the band’s chances of success.

Deborah Mailman, Jessica Mauboy, Shari Sebbens, Miranda Tapsell as the singers are attractive and nicely argumentative personalities, and if they’re not brilliant actors then at least they’re great singers. O’Dowd gives his all but is occasionally embarrassing in a thinly written part.

Budget constraints mean that the combat scenes aren’t hugely convincing but the film is surprisingly robustly effective when addressing the racism the band encounter.

The Sapphires bursts with humour and soul classics that drive the movie along. There’s not much that’s original but it’s warm-hearted and though it won’t win awards, it will win hearts.

GREEN BOOK

Cert 12A 129mins Stars 3

This US road trip comedy-drama about a classical concert tour is an amiable and sentimental journey with plenty of pretty scenery, but painfully straightforward and devoid of surprises.

Astonishingly it’s scored for five Oscar nominations including nods for its stars, Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen, with the former also winning a prestigious Screen Actors Guild gong.

They play an African-American pianist and his Italian-American driver, on a tour of the racially divided US deep south during the early 1960s.

One is snobby and the other slobby and I didn’t really warm to either of the disharmonious pair, and directed by Peter Farrelly, of Dumb and Dumber fame, it feels very much a cover version of Steve Martin’s classic, Planes, Trains and Automobiles, but not as funny or as moving.

There’s no real sense of danger, and the scenes where the white guy explains African-American music to the black guy, is every bit as tin-eared and cringe-worthy as it sounds.

SWIMMING WITH MEN

Cert 12A 97mins Stars 3

Dip a big toe into the feel good waters of this very British comedy.

Rob Brydon plays an accountant whose midlife crisis sees him leave his wife and teenage son, and seek refuge in the arms of a synchronised swimming team comprised of middle aged men.

Brought together by the pointlessness of existence, they find themselves unexpectedly competing in the unofficial World championship in Milan.

It’s kept afloat on bubbles of charm by the likeable and familiar cast, which includes Jane Horrocks, Downton’s garrulous Jim Carter, and This Is England’s Thomas Turgoose.

Best in show is Charlotte Riley as the team’s instructor, whose drill sergeant manner is all the more ferocious for using her native Teesside accent.

Oliver Parker’s direction keeps everything fluid, and it’s played in the same tone as his previous work such Dad’s Army and Johnny English Reborn.

So it’s heart is always in the right place, even if the chaps’ arms and legs frequently aren’t.

 

TULLY

Cert 15 96mins Stars 5

Charlize Theron changes gear from the Fast and Furious franchise to give a first class performance in this wryly funny and gaspingly honest comedy drama.

Only last year the Oscar winner was an impressively ripped action star, now she’s believably hefty, wrinkled and worn.

She brings warmth and humour to the married forty-something, Marlo, who’s suffering soul-sapping sleep deprivation and barely coping with the her newborn, third child.

Marlo watches TV reality shows and scoffs pizza in exhausted surrender to the pressure of conforming to the impossible standards of other, seemingly perfect parents. Her husband returns from work each night and collapses each night in front of the telly.

Marlo’s wealthy older brother has hires them a night nanny, to help with the midnight feeds.

Played by Mackenzie Davis, Tully is an eager-to-please 26 year old, with a toned physique and model looks. And slowly the boundaries between employee, family and friend are blurred.

It’s directed with  sympathy by Jason Reitman and written with commendable insight by Diablo Cody. They previously teamed up for 2007’s teen pregnancy drama, Juno, and 2011’s Young adult, which also starred Theron. This is equally polished and my favourite of the three.

Cody’s script is astonishingly good at portraying the noise, frustration and physical indignities of child rearing, while people tell you how precious and fleeting those early moments are.

Painfully accurate in its depiction of domestic distress, I was suffering Vietnam War-like flashbacks to the terrible times of my son’s first years.

And then Cody delivers a perfectly flighted narrative curve ball which bowls us over with its emotional power.

But this isn’t a depressing experience, more a therapeutic hymn to virtues of sacrifice, compromise and steadfastness.

If a newborn has made you feel afraid, desperate and broken, this film will help put you back together. By the end I was crying like a baby. 

 

FUNNY COW

Cert 15 103mins Stars 4

Maxine Peake hammers home her status as one of Britain’s most fierce acting talents as the title role in this unforgiving comedy drama.

The star of TV’s Silk is mesmerising in the title role which charts the rise of a combative and unrepentant comic from poverty stricken childhood to TV wealth.

Known only as Funny Cow, in flashbacks we’re offered scathing insights into her life and her struggle for survival, identity and reinvention while suffering abuse, battery and alcoholism.

Carefully credited as a piece of fiction, the story bears some parallels to the life of Sheffield-born comedian and variety star, Marti Caine.

The powerful and moving story never shies from the sexist, racist and homophobic material of the smoky and seedy 1970’s northern club circuit, where women were expected to be singers, strippers, or both.

There are comic cameos by John Bishop and Vic Reeves, plus the superb songs of singer-songwriter Richard Hawley on the soundtrack strike an achingly emotional chord.

THE LEISURE SEEKER

Cert 15 112mins Stars 3

Climb aboard this sentimental OAP camper van caper, in which there’s never a danger of going full throttle.

It’s fuelled by the decades long goodwill afforded to its talented actors, Donald Sutherland and Helen Mirren. He hits the open road on a literary pilgrimage to the Florida Keys, and she’s riding shotgun.

They are a convincing married couple, full of affection, frustration and forgiveness. Neither are in great health, he’s losing his memory and she’s popping pills by the dozen.

As the story ambles along through some lovely scenery, secrets, lies and misdemeanours are revealed.

There’s more oomph to the story than the trailers suggest, delivering magnificent melancholy and quiet poignancy alongside some broad comedy.

And it addresses the physical infirmities of ageing, the importance of motorhome maintenance, and the terrifyingly by state of private care homes,

It’s a thoughtful journey and takes care to remind us of the importance of dignity in life and death.