THE KING OF STATEN ISLAND

Cert 15 Stars 3

Having previously directed Knocked Up, and The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Judd Apatow is on familiar ground with this over-long and indulgent slacker comedy drama which sees his self-penned script elevated by the quality it’s performances, not least by a terrific central performance by Pete Davidson, a regular on US TV’s Saturday Night Live comedy show, not the former Dr Who.

He plays Scott, a 24 year old failed tattoo artist from New York’s Staten Island, the poor relation to Manhattan and Brooklyn, and at first glance he appears to be the latest in a long line of Apatow’s self-pitying man-babies, with his only virtue being his friends are more stupid and unprepossessing than he is. However Davison is a charismatic presence who remains combative as he’s graced with a growing sense of self-awareness.

This is inspired by Brit actress Bel Powley as his sparky and ambitious girlfriend, and by Marisa Tomei who brings heart to the role of his widowed mother. Together they managed to charm away my scepticism.

DAYS OF THE BAGNOLD SUMMER

Cert 12 Stars 3

Simon Bird is best known for playing hapless Will in TV’s The Inbetweeners, and he doesn’t stray a million miles from familiar territory in his directorial feature debut, a gentle coming of age comedy drama set in an anonymous English suburb,

Adapted Joff Winterhart’s 2012 graphic novel, it’s a sensitive and generous portrait of lower middle-class middle-aged single-motherhood, and Bird cajoles lovely performances from Monica Dolan as mousy librarian Sue, and as Earl Cave as her 15-year-old metalhead son, Daniel.

With the pair on the cusp of independence and trying to work out what their futures hold, this is an affectionate and nicely observed character piece about self esteem and identity, with low-key dramatic scenes such as experimenting with new-age nonsense, a poorly dog, and a band audition.

Bird achieves his modest ambitions with a pleasant and nicely crafted minimum of fuss, aided by Tamsin Greig and Rob Brydon in the cast, and accompanied by the winsome and twee tunes of indie-folk band Belle and Sebastian writing the soundtrack.

A RAINY DAY IN NEW YORK

Cert 12 Stars 4

Controversial director Woody Allen delivers the latest in a long line of his deft comedy dramas which frequently feels like a self-aware and whistle-stop tour of his own lengthy career.

Once again he takes pleasure in briskly laying bare the hypocritical rotten heart of upper-middle class Manhattan society where commerce rubs up against art and both are aphrodisiacs.There are some wonderfully dry and acerbic one-liners accompanied by the timeless ballads of Irving Berlin and moments of comic farce.

Allen’s self-penned script sees a scheming student taking his naive, wealthy and aspiring journalist girlfriend to the Big Apple for a romantic weekend, but he risks being cuckold when she takes time out to interview a famous yet insecure movie director with a shady reputation.

Previously in Allen’s films we’ve seen actors such as John Cusack and Jesse Eisenberg play the typical ‘Woody Allen’ figure, here Timothee Chalamet is excellent as Allen’s stand-in nerd who finds ‘hostility and paranoia exhilarating’, and provides a voice-over with Allen’s trademark stammer.

Also giving excellent performances are a gauche and gushing Elle Fanning and a nicely sardonic Selena Gomez.

With his frothy tone barely attempting to disguise the acid asides in his script, Allen is in a combative and provocative mood. With several of the male characters involved in the disreputable film world, it feels as if Allen is parading various himself before us at various points in his career and daring us to judge him.

He merrily explores the relationship between journalism and movies which he sees as parasitic and he’s unsurprisingly disdainful of how the media twist and distort private relationships. Plus in eye-opening fashion he presents a relationship between a guy and the younger sister of his former love as the epitome of romance.

If you’re not a fan of Allen’s films then this won’t change your mind, but if you are then there’s a great deal here to explore and enjoy.

MISBEHAVIOUR

Cert 12A Stars 3

Feminists rock the Royal Albert Hall in this disappointingly tame and light-hearted account of the controversial true events of the 1970 Miss World beauty contest final, a competition with a then bigger global TV audience than the Moon landing or the World Cup.

There’s some great British on show, as Keira Knightley and Jessie Buckley lead the charge as activists disrupting the show with rattles, flour bombs and water pistols.

Knightley is engaging and earnest as always, and well cast as the posh single mother and mature student who’s drawn into the world of activism after being belittled in academia.

When she meets a sneering commune dweller, she becomes a key player in sadly the least interesting and convincing performance by the usually brilliant Buckley.

Sympathy is given to the thinly sketched contestants who see the substantial cash prize as the means to a better life, and Gugu Mbatha-Raw offers dignity as the eventual winner Miss Grenada.

Her best moment is when she points out to Knightley how the struggles of white western women are very different in scope  to those of black African women, but generally she struggles with the weak script along with everyone else.

Rhys Ifans gives a clownish turn as impresario, Eric Morley, and  Greg Kinnear gives an listless and unflattering portrait of showbiz legend and host, Bob Hope.

Billed as a comedy-drama but less than compelling on either front, its refusal to portray any sleazy or predatory behaviour – Bob Hope aside – lessens the dramatic impact, which undersells the women’s achievement in garnering global publicity and kickstarting the feminist movement in the public consciousness.

And always pulling its punches, it barely hints at any possible influence the Prime Minister of Grenada may have exercised on the contest as a member of the judging panel.

Despite its best intentions Misbehaviour is as unthinking a celebration of sisterhood as the contest itself.

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MILITARY WIVES

Cert 12A Stars 4

Two great actresses go to war with each other in this hugely emotional and thoroughly British and uplifting feel-good comedy drama from the director of 1997’s famous British victory, The Full Monty.

Kristin Scott Thomas and Sharon Horgan play the combative mother hens scratching out battle lines as they struggle to put an all-women amateur choir through singing boot camp.

They’re attempting to to boost morale while their soldier spouses are on a six month tour of Afghanistan, but squabbling, stage fright and a betrayal of a confidence threatens their prestigious appearance at the Royal Albert Hall as part of a Remembrance Day concert.

Best known from Four Weddings and A Funeral, it’s a surprise to see the ever elegant Scott Thomas return to low budget crowd pleasing material such as this, having spent her career mixing minor roles in Hollywood blockbusters with major ones in French arthouse films.

Incapable of giving less her formidable best, she brings sharp edges and shifting emotional layers as a posh and pushy busybody who hides her grief by bullying the women into shape.

And this brings her into conflict with Horgan, who’s popular among the women for her more relaxed approach.

Inspired by a true story of singing spouses which featured in Gareth Malone’s 2011 hit BBC documentary and produced a number one single, the predictable storyline is part of the film’s charm, and allows us to enjoy the strong character work and humour as the women discover confidence and resolve.

Though the musical sequences lack the heart-racing thrills of Brassed Off, it’s full of familiar pop tunes, with the camaraderie of Calendar Girls, plenty of cross-generational appeal and a cast representative of every corner of the British Isles. 

Mercifully the script doesn’t shy away from the men risking their lives for their country, which gives depth to the drama and the songs and is surprisingly emotional.

It’s probably going to be my mother’s new favourite film.

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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.