THE BIG SICK

Cert 15 119mins Stars 2

This first half of this comedy was infectiously funny and left me in stitches, but a second half overdose of  mawkishness brought me out in a rash.

Stand up comic Kumail Nanjiani stars as an aspiring stand comic called err, Kumail. While working as a taxi driver and hoping for a big break, he falls for Emily.

Actress Zoe Kazan is smart, sexy and funny and there’s a sweet chemistry between the atheist Pakistani and the middle class white American. Jokes about the perils of dating have a comic accuracy.

But the film isn’t really interested in Emily, and she’s quickly shunted into a coma so the script can focus on the self-pitying man-child, Kumail.

The fun stops there, and we’re forced to endure watching Kumail get to know Emily’s bickering parents. It becomes nauseatingly cloying, and by the end I felt queasy. When Emily goes to sleep, it’s the cue for the audience to do so as well.

 

 

THE HIPPOPOTAMUS

Cert 15 89mins Stars 3

Sex among the upper classes is explored in this comedy drama which mixes a film noir detective story and the novels of Evelyn Waugh with mild successful.

It’s based on a novel by Stephen Fry, and his over bearing smug pomposity weighs down every line of dialogue.

Roger Allam plays a failed poet who wallows in the caustic mud of his own cynicism. His voice over is full of cruel asides and flowery language, which delights in its public schoolboy humour and obsesses over bodily fluids and functions.

The whiskey sodden writer is employed by a glamorous blonde to investigate a miraculous healing which took place at a large country house.

Fry previously directed a big screen adaptation of Waugh’s Vile Bodies, called Bright Young Things. And there as here, he fails to make us care about his herd of posh idiots.

However the jolly jazz era inspired soundtrack help make it surprisingly brisk on its feet.

 

GHOST STORIES

Cert 15 97mins Stars 4

Investigate the paranormal with this devilishly scary supernatural British thriller.

Andy Nyman stars as a TV presenting Professor who is evangelical in his mission to debunk psychics and the existence of the afterlife.

But his faith in science is tested when he is challenged to solve three separate cases of ghostly experience.

As the tremendous trio of Paul Whitehouse, Alex Lawther and Martin Freeman anchor each segment, the spectre of A Christmas Carol haunts the story and Charles Dickens would have appreciated its bleak and dark turns. 

Beautifully played and with a theatrical insistence on in-camera special effects, it’s inventive and funny as events become increasingly bonkers.

Asylums, churches, caravan parks and the Yorkshire Moors provide a suitably damp and downbeat environment alongside a more traditional fog-bound forest.

We’re asked to contemplate the emptiness of life without the possibility of an ever-after. And by the time Ghost Stories have scared you to death, you’ll be praying there is.

A DOG’S PURPOSE

Cert PG 100mins Stars 2

Time seems to pass in dog years watching this fluffy-minded fable featuring a mutt which ponders the meaning of life while repeatedly reincarnating.

This sun kissed sentimental soap opera is directed in typically treacly style by Lasse Hallstrom, who last made a sentimental meal of Helen Mirren’s The Hundred Foot Journey.

Josh Gad voices Bailey the dog with puppyish enthusiasm. Each time it’s born again, the pooch changes breed, gender, and owners.

This allows this mongrel of a film to move from it’s setting from suburban drama to Chicago cop show. There’s also a Sex and the City style interlude where Bailey experiences some doggy style puppy love.

There are Lassie type heroics involving burning buildings and arresting wrong-uns. He also chases his tail, rolls in the mud and chases chickens.

Dog lovers may enjoy it, but for cat people such as myself it will raise your hackles and make you want to hiss.

 

SWISS ARMY MAN

Cert 15 Stars 3

In this remarkably odd black comedy, former Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe takes on his most fantastical role yet.

He plays a farting corpse called Manny, who inspires a shipwrecked soul to use him as a jetski to the mainline. After this curious beginning, it all becomes a bit weird.

On his mission to return home, Paul Dano’s Hank utilises the cadaver as a host more practical devices, such as a compass and a gun.

There’s a wonderful chemistry between Dano and Radcliffe, even if the biology and physics are tested to their limits.

OPERATION AVALANCHE

Cert 15 Stars 3

This playful mockumentary plays on the conspiracy theory the 1969 Apollo 11 Moon landing was faked by NASA.

Posing as documentarians, two less than special FBI agents are sent to infiltrate NASA. They’re tasked to find Soviet spies, and clearly aren’t rocket scientists.

Instead they discover it’s impossible to return a man safely from the moon, and are roped into a politically expedient plot to fake the landing.

The commendably straight-faced actors take it all very seriously, and the photography captures the grainy feel of  1960s home movie.

Lacking any stars, this is an enjoyably knock-about enterprise.

 

VICE

Cert 15 132mins Stars 3

Sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll are noticeably absent from this amusing and self-aware biopic of US political mastermind, Vice President Dick Cheney.

Former Batman star, Christian Bale, charts Cheney’s rise to power with a restrained and masterful glower while being barely recognisable as the balding, fat and aged politician.

It’s a terrific performance for which the British actor deservedly won the Golden Globe for best actor and has being nominated for the equivalent BAFTA and Oscar {will change this if he isn’t – find out Tuesday 22nd}.

Meanwhile the BAFTA nominated Amy Adams is breathtakingly fierce as Lynne, his wife, whose ferocious drive and thwarted ambition is held responsible for providing the thrust for Cheney’s ascent.

He’s presented as a ruthless, unrepentant and amoral patriot who’s obsessed with power, and is the real force in the White House during the tenure of President George W. Bush.

He’s played Sam Rockwell who kicks back, plays dim and suffers daddy issues, meanwhile Steve Carell enjoys himself as Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld.

Written and directed by Adam McKay, this is a companion piece to his Oscar-winning 2015 hit, The Big Short, which was a comic and condemnatory examination of those responsible for the financial crash.

McKay adopts a similar approach here, mixing dramatic recreations and news footage with a gift for explaining complex legal matters into easy to digest scenes, so even dummies such as me can understand them.

But there is nothing new or revelatory here, and regurgitating known events is the not the same as creating a drama, plus the enjoyably jokey tone undermines an interesting attempt to pitch Cheney’s life as a Shakespearean tragedy.

And having explained at length how Cheney creates the conditions which offered the possibility of a Donald Trump presidency, McKay then hectors us for our stupidity in allowing it to happen.

Yet Bale makes it worthwhile to indulge in this mostly enjoyable and undemanding vice. 

CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME?

Cert 15 106mins Stars 3

Hollywood’s fascination with the con game continues in this downbeat real life crime drama, where the world of 1990’s New York publishing is the victim Melissa McCarthy.

The star of comedies such as 2016’s woeful all-female Ghostbusters reboot demonstrates what a decent actress she can be when she’s not trying to be funny, and has picked up Best Actress BAFTA and Oscar nominations to prove it. 

She plays Lee Israel, a failed author who begins a lucrative career as a forger of  personal letters by deceased writers, such as the US First Lady of wit, Dorothy Parker.

And nominated alongside her in a performance which is no more than bang average by his standards, Brit thesp Richard E. Grant, plays her gay alcoholic accomplice.

We should be grateful for the energy and charm Grant brings to an otherwise melancholy and passive/aggressive affair, which demands we sympathise with the sad and seedy duo while giving us little reason to like them.

 

STAN AND OLLIE

Cert PG 98mins Stars 4

Hats off to Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly who don the famous bowlers of Hollywood’s  most popular double act and do delightful justice to the supreme slapstick talent of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy.

Blessed with two modern performers at the top of their game, this funny, affectionate and respectful tribute is also surprisingly moving as it touches on age, fame and friendship, with an array of headwear charting the state of their messy relationship.

Sixteen years after an acrimonious split at the height of their big screen stardom, it’s now 1953 and the pair arrive in Newcastle Upon Tyne for a live tour of England’s low rent theatres, intended to showcase their talent with the hopes of catapulting them back to the big time in film.

Dogged by ill-health and financial issues, their fans believe them long retired,  younger generations don’t recognise them, and to add to the pressure their formidable wives are flying in with high expectations.

Played by the waspish Shirley Henderson and Nina Arianda, they’re a scene-stealing double act whose comic chemistry is a venomous echo of the mens.

Coogan and Reilly bring out the competitive best in each other and perfectly capture Stan and Ollie’s famous mannerisms to an almost unnervingly accurate degree.

Their affecting and testy relationship have us believe they’ve spent years together honing their act as they deliver the familiar evergreen gags with great skill and immaculate timing.

Stan And Ollie is nominated for Best British film at this year’s BAFTAs which also sees Coogan nominated for Best Actor as he again demonstrates what a skilled dramatic actor he is, while Reilly was nominated for Best Comedy Actor at this weeks Golden Globes.

But as Stan says, ‘you can’t have Hardy without Laurel’, and it’s as a team they bring heart and humanity to this poignant portrait and a long overdue celebration of a pair of comedy giants.

 

 

 

 

WELCOME TO MARWEN

Cert 12A 115mins Stars 2

Steve Carell is at his most cloying in this misjudged real life fantasy drama which is sure to remain one of the most bizarre films of 2019. 

He stars as cross dressing artist, Mark Hogancamp, who’s suffering memory loss and emotional issues after a violent hate crime.

In his yard he’s built a miniature model Second World War-era Belgium town, called Marwen, which frequently becomes a fantasy retreat where he imagines himself alongside a quintet of glamorous gun toting resistance fighters taking on Nazis.

These animated Action Men and Barbie dolls are a cleverly designed blend of actors and CGI, however their strong sleazy portrayal rules this out as a kids entertainment.

Director Robert Zemeckis is responsible for creating this mawkish mix of mental illness, obsession, romance, bullet shredding action and witchcraft, and he can’t resist referencing his previous work, particularly the classic Back to the Future trilogy, a high point on his CV which seems ever further in the past.