Quartet * * * *
Cert 12A, 98 mins
Nobody wants to find themselves ending up in an old folks’ home.
But there are care homes and there are care homes – Hedsor House in Buckinghamshire was used for this film and “Beecham House” is so stunning to look at it’s like an extra character in a movie already full of the best.
Set in a retirement home for opera singers, the market this film is chasing is clearly the same one as Mr Holland’s Opus (1995), Mrs Henderson Presents (2005) and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2012).
And if you think of it as a very good companion piece, then you won’t go far wrong.
After Exotic, Maggie Smith again stars here and there’s another reference to a need for a new hip.
But perhaps we can forgive Oscar-winning screenwriter Ronald Harwood (The Pianist) for that since the script is based on his original 1999 play.
Cissy (Pauline Collins), Wilf (Billy Connolly) and Reg (Tom Courtenay) were in an operatic quartet, but with a concert to be staged for Verdi’s birthday every year, will the appearance of Reg’s ex-wife Jean (Maggie Smith) put a spanner in the works given her fall from grace?
Of course, any film about people heading towards the end of their lives isn’t going to be a total bundle of laughs.
But the hints here about everything from absent-mindedness, creeping senility and increasing fragility are all done with compassion.
Nothing is ladled on like treacle and, if you do need to raise your spirits for a moment, then Billy Connolly will be back any minute still behaving as if he’s a teenager.
It should be noted that Quartet’s director is first timer Dustin Hoffman – at 75 an inspirational 10 years beyond the standard ‘retirement’ line.
In a career which has brought him the rare distinction of two best actor Oscars (Kramer vs Kramer, 1979 and Rain Man, 1988), Hoffman has worked for some of the best people on the other side of the camera, from Mike Nichols to Sydney Pollack, Sam Peckinpah, and Steven Spielberg.
He’s learned enough over the years to know that with a cast like this you just let people fall into character and act.
There is no need to whirl the camera around to leave everyone feeling dizzy, never mind over-editing to a near-subliminal degree.
Quartet isn’t note perfect and it’s not as much fun as Best Exotic, but it’s well made and has its heart in the right place.
For most people of a mature mindset, it will be offer a welcome respite from the modern world before the end credits offer a reminder for viewers of all ages to enjoy the peak years while you can.
The Impossible * * * *
Cert 12A, 114 mins
Earthquakes and exploding volcanoes always seem to be international news stories with no more relevance to the relatively rock-solid UK than cancelled air flights.
But when the Boxing Day 2004 Sumatra–Andaman earthquake unleashed a tsunami which hit 14 countries, filmmaker Dickie Attenborough lost a daughter and granddaughter.
That such a man, and a family which includes brother David Attenborough, could have been hit by such a force of nature from the biggest event of its kind since Alaska, 1964, was a stark reminder of how small the world is becoming.
I haven’t been on a plane since 1998, but marvel at how so many people I know now go here, there and everywhere at the drop of a hat.
Their exuberance to ‘see the world’ is at the beating heart of a disaster movie that hasn’t been designed like a monster movie to make you laugh in all of the wrong places.
As genre films go, The Impossible is brilliantly made by the Spanish writing-directing team of Sergio G. Sánchez and Juan Antonio Bayona.
They were behind my favourite horror film this century, The Orphanage (2007), which also featured cinematography by Óscar Faura.
Naomi Watts (21 Grams / King Kong / The International) is terrific in the lead role of a mother desperate to survive and to protect her children, while newcomer Tom Holland as son Lucas is like a livewire Jamie Bell as he tries to become a kid-parent overnight.
Ewan McGregor plays her husband and there are two other children.
Based on a true story, all five of them are swept away when the tsunami strikes and The Impossible is the story of their attempts to defy the odds to be reunited.
Their physical and emotional journey will pin you back in your seat.
The intensity of the film is such that even though the ending is as predictable as it was in Apollo 13, I’d be wary of taking anyone under the age of 10 to share the family’s pain en route.
Parental Guidance * * *
Cert U, 105 mins
Child-parent relationships are also at the heart of this new family comedy, released on Boxing Day without any advance screenings.
It’s a variation of Home Alone, with grandparents Artie Decker (Billy Crystal, 64) and Diane (a still live wire Bette Midler, 67) arriving to look after her daughter’s three children while the parents go away.
Naturally we expect World War III to break out and for the house to be completely trashed.
But, while there is an element of that to keep watching youngsters entertained with flights of fancy – and cake – the underlying issues make for a surprisingly relevant film.
The script also has a modern subtext about how you should bring up and, indeed, teach, young children today.
And, just as importantly, where and how you can draw the line in terms of enforcing discipline.
One of the neat twists here is that while mum Alice Simmons (Marisa Tomei) and husband Phil (Tom Everett Scott) run a hi-tech household, their devices are aimed more at being labour saving than entertaining the children.
So, getting used to the way things work and that the fact that gadgets might even speak to you, is going to be a challenge for the grandparents.
Can they learn quickly enough to survive – and will the grandchildren they barely know come to like, and to love, them?
Ten years have quickly passed since Analyze That (2002), so it’s a pleasant change to see 64-year-old Billy Crystal back on the silver screen where he belongs and doing something other than hosting the Academy Awards.
As for Bette Midler, now 67, the double best actress Oscar nominee is still an exuberant tour de force.
I haven’t seen her on screen since The Stepford Wives (2004) and found Bette’s energetic return here most refreshing for a star of her age.
She alone makes this funnier than Barbra Streisand’s Little Fockers (2010), so there’s no reason why Parental Guidance can’t go on to have its own sequel, with the other set of grandparents coming into the equation.
Parental Guidance is a reminder that if you’ve got grandchildren, the best end-of-holiday treat you can give them is not something gift-wrapped in a shiny bow.
It’s simply your presence.
Playing For Keeps * *
Cert 12A, 106 mins
When a romantic comedy comes along starring Uma Thurman, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Jessica Biel, you might expect it to be every girls’ idea of a perfect New Year night out.
Bridesmaids, perhaps, with a touch of class and no stomach-churning sickness.
In the end, this is a film about Gerard Butler, Gerard Butler and, er, Gerard Butler.
He’s George, a stubble-chinned, curly-haired ex-footballer in danger of becoming a retired prima donna.
A playboy with his mind on the wrong side of the touchline.
But fear not, ladies. While he might have once been a star for Celtic, George doesn’t spend the entire match lamenting for club legends like Jock Stein and Kenny Dalglish.
In fact, this isn’t really a film about football at all.
The only way George keeps in touch with his sporting instincts is to bizarrely take his trousers off ready to speak to a camera in his own flat in a bid to train himself up as a TV pundit.
That and teaching his son, Lewis (Noah Lomax) how to play soccer himself.
It’s one of the more stupid things about this film that young Lewis is cursed with a coach who looks like he couldn’t teach a child to kick a tree stump.
So George takes his place and gets the team scoring again. At this rate, you think, he’ll be offered the Villa job next.
Before that can become reality on screen, though, there are lots of female issues to sort out.
Because George is a hunk and seemingly back on the market, he gets attention from the likes of Uma Thurman and Catherine Zeta-Jones. As you do.
Kill Bill star Thurman looks positively curvaceous when she insists on stripping off to her underwear during a flying visit.
Zeta-Jones is more at arms length, trying to swing it for George to get his dream job working with ESPN.
And then there’s Jessica Biel, the ex Mrs George and mother of Lewis.
She is almost ready to try on her new wedding dress ready to kick George into touch once and for all.
But if he gets his new job in Connecticut, what will the future be for son Lewis. And are there any sparks left between them to rekindle their marital status?
If this was a real football match, though, you’d be praying for someone like Vinnie Jones to come on as a substitute. A panto villain to get everyone else booing and hissing.
In the end, Robbie Fox’s script feels as rusty as if it was written by someone who hasn’t had a decent credit since Mike Myers’ So I Married an Axe Murderer 20 years ago. Which he hasn’t.
The net result is like a 0-0 pre-season friendly, when the key players look good in their holiday tans but don’t even break sweat.
Even an actor as capable as Dennis Quaid is incapable of wading in to save it.