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.

HOOKING UP

Cert 15 Stars 2

Limp and less than satisfying, this tame sex comedy is a attempts to romp around the US but is too respectful of the State’s addiction to therapy and monogamy to spring any surprises.

Eager to please but suppressed by a timid script, Brittany Snow and Sam Richardson play strangers who’ve agreed to re-enact her sexual history in all the cities, towns, clothes shops, changing rooms and airport toilet where she’s had sex.

She’s a cynical magazine sex writer using the trip as cathartic therapy, and he’s a shy gym worker for whom it’s a welcome excuse for a great time before he loses his remaining testicle, but she hasn’t told him she’s secretly blogging about their adventures on her magazine website.

With sex guaranteed they gradually get to know each other which makes for a very predictable and safe experience. And with the best jokes banged in at the beginning, it means the fun’s all done after about ten minutes. Which always makes for a disappointing evenings entertainment.

BANANA SPLIT

Cert 15 Stars 3

It’s a busy year for Liana Liberato who starred in last week’s tragi-drama To The Stars as a free-spirited new girl with a tricky romantic life, whereas in this enjoyable High school romcom she plays err, a free-spirited new girl with a tricky romantic life.

To be fair she’s terrific as Clara who breezes into town and hooks up with a newly single hot bloke while becoming best friends with his ex, April, played by Hannah Marks.

A heartfelt, honest, funny and an optimistic account of female friendship, the best scenes involve the foul mouthed arguments between April’s feisty younger sister and their down-with-the-kids mum.

A trawl through bowling alleys, amusement arcades and house parties while they indulge in alcohol, drugs, road trips and beachfront shenanigans, and it’s all soundtracked by bands I’ve never heard of, yet it’s also energetic and straightforward with enough inventive staging and charm to distinguish it in a crowded field.

And so what if they’re all sex and relationship status-obsessed narcissist? They’re teenagers.

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.

THE VAST OF NIGHT

Cert 12 Stars 4

Creepy, claustrophobic and immaculately constructed, this stylish and intriguing sci-fi mystery thriller pays loving homage to TV shows such as The Twilight Zone as it builds to a haunting and transcendent finale.

Set in the 1950’s Sierra McCormick and Jake Horowitz have a lovely flirtatious chemistry as an earnest telephone operator and a cocky local radio DJ, who begin exploring reports of power cuts, strange electrical interference and secret military operations in the nearby desert of New Mexico.

Their enthusiasm for new technology is infectious and their rat-a-tat dialogue makes hanging out with them great fun, especially as the film treats their fears and concerns with great seriousness and respect.

It’s a remarkable directorial debut by Andrew Patterson, who demonstrates a deft confidence, steady handed ambition and an unadulterated love of cinema.

He skilfully deploys a light-handed awareness of the time’s racial, class and sexual divisions, there’s a palpable love of the period’s technology, and I really dug the cars and clothes, daddy-o.

THE LAST FULL MEASURE

Cert 15 Stars 3

A battle for justice is fought for a Vietnam War veteran in this straightforward and respectful real life US drama given gravitas by the astonishing roll call of acting talent.

Giving gravitas to a workaday script are William Hurt, Ed Harris, Peter Fonda, Samuel L. Jackson, Christopher Plummer, and in the lead is Sebastian Stan, fresh from saving the world in Marvel’s blockbuster smash Avengers: Endgame.

Sporting an interesting bouffant hairstyle he plays a young ambitious government lawyer strong-armed into securing a posthumous prestigious Medal of Honour for a Pararescueman, a member of what’s essentially the air ambulance wing of the US air force.

Flashback combat rescue scenes are effectively staged so we’re in no doubt as to him being a worthy recipient, as well providing as some welcome punctuation to the pedestrian investigative stuff.

Where once the Vietnam War was used to explore the dark heart of humanity, this is a solid endorsement for family, the flag and the sacrifice of the common soldier.

THE HIGH NOTE

Cert 12 Stars 3

Freed from the constraints of the Fifty Shades series which showed off all her talents but the acting ones, Dakota Johnson delivers a warm, funny and endearing performance in this glossy and escapist romcom set in the small and incestuous LA music scene.

With uptempo soul songs on the soundtrack it begins as a reasonable cover version of 2006 smash, The Devil Wears Prada, and sees a put-upon and poorly paid personal assistant called Maggie attempting to realise her dreams of producing a new album for the ageing diva she skivvies for.

Johnson gracefully shoulders the film as Maggie with an impressive yet understated comic ability and an easy confidence which suggests playing this sort of role comes easily to her, and there’s no escaping she gives the impression of having a great deal more to give.

But the script isn’t as strong as the one her mother Melanie Griffith had in 1988’s Working Girl. And this may as well have been written back then for all the relevance the internet seems to be in this version of the music biz.

Meanwhile Tracee Ellis Ross, the daughter of Motown legend Diana Ross brings a tremendous swagger as Maggie’s boss. She comes armed with a delightfully earthy laugh, a tremendous singing voice talent, and a great deal of conviction when delivering a speech about the sacrifices necessary for a middle aged black woman to maintain a high profile career.

Former rapper Ice Cube plays her irate manager, Kelvin Harrison Jr. as David Cliff impresses as an aspiring musician and love interest, Bill Pullman has a brief if agreeable appearance as Maggie’s father, and Brit comic Eddie Izzard breezes though in little more than a cameo.

Having made last year’s so-so Emma Thompson comedy Late Night, director Nisha Ganatra keeps everyone singing from the same hymn sheet and provides another serviceable and female-centred piece of light entertainment.

TO THE STARS

Cert 12 Stars 3

This unforgiving portrait of small town prejudice in 1960s is also a heartfelt coming-of-age drama which is filled with fine performances but saddled with a twee sugary and sentimental soundtrack which wrestles at times with the sombre tone.

With alcoholism, depression and domestic abuse it’s a moody period piece with interiors to match, given welcome respite by the glorious expanse of the Oklahoma landscape.

Kara Hayward and Liana Liberato star as Iris and Maggie, polar opposite characters whose burgeoning friendship is to have a dramatic and irreversible impact on their lives.

Iris is a shy and bespectacled wallflower who is saved from the unwanted attentions of local boys when Maggie arrives in town with a violent intent and confidence worthy of a Western hero.

They bond over make-overs, road trips and midnight skinny-dipping sessions, and though Maggie is an inspirational figure to Iris, she has a secret which threatens their developing friendship, and it’s not just her father isn’t the glamorous photographer she claims him to be.

I’M NO LONGER HERE

Cert 15 Stars 4

There’s an extraordinary richness to this meandering yet moving drama which manages to combine a wholly original take on Mexican gang culture, a scathing view of globalisation, an exploration of loneliness and a lament for the diminishing cultural identity of local communities.

Juan Daniel Garcia is quietly charismatic as 17-year-old Ulises, an exuberantly styled devotee of Cumbia, a slowed down and hypnotic version of traditional Colombian music which sets the film’s pace and allows the characters to breathe.

His accidental involvement in a serious crime sees him sent away to New York for his own protection, meaning the late night community dancing he leads with an almost religious fervour at the film’s beginning is performed in very different circumstances at the films end.

The camerawork is often exquisite as it finds fresh angles on familiar situations, and provides an immersive and sometimes documentary viewing experience. If I’d seen this on the big screen I’d probably have given it the full five stars.

THE LOVEBIRDS

Cert 15 Stars 3

A pair of likeable stars bring a breezy freshness to this otherwise by-the-numbers romcom caper and do enough to divert you from the feeling you’ve seen it all before.

Issa Rae and Kumail Nanjiani play Leilani and Jibran, lovebirds who risk becoming jailbirds when a road accident unwittingly involves them in a high powered blackmail conspiracy and a night of being chased by the police and a relentless gun-toting bad guy.

Being in possession of a phone containing compromising photographs of prominent people, they’re chased around from dinner party, to bars, and to a masked ball which unsurprisingly turns out to be populated by high society swingers.

Being tied up, assaulted and forced to dress very badly allows them to learn truths about each other and reevaluate their relationship.

If this sounds familiar well you’re probably thinking of Steve Carell and Tina Fey in 2010’s Date Night, or Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams in 2018’s Game Night, and possibly a few more besides.

Where this is notably different is in the casting, as it’s still regrettably rare to see an African-American and a Pakistani-American headlining even in this sort of modest Hollywood fare.

The script is blind to their ethnicity except when gags are made about police prejudice, and even this is balanced by the vaguely sympathetic investigating officer also being African-American.

Rae is bright, vivacious and the more funny and ballsy of the two, though that doesn’t take much, as Nanjiani would probably be the first to admit he’s far from being an Alpha male.

He’s amiable screen presence and his throwaway comic asides on modern life are delivered in the passive aggressive style manner he demonstrated in 2017’s romcom success, The Big Sick, for which he was Oscar nominated for Best Original Screenplay.

A mainstream entertainment not trying to change the world, The Lovebirds provides sufficient chuckles in its enjoyable, undemanding and disposable way.