Film reviews: Sisters | Grandma | Hector | Swung

Tina Fey and Amy Poehler in Sisters
Tina Fey and Amy Poehler in Sisters
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Raucous, bawdy, sweet and consistently hilarious, Sisters is ready to mop up the moviegoing leftovers from Star Wars. Alistair Harkness also reviews the Lily Tomlin-starring Grandma and Swung, a Glasgow-based drama billed as Scotland’s Fifty Shades of Grey

Sisters (15) | Rating: **** | Directed by Jason Moore | Starring Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, Maya Rudolph, James Brolin, Diane Weist

Sisters officially opens on Friday, but it’s getting a full six days of previews from today in an effort to hoover up some of that pre-Star Wars mullah. Not that stars Amy Poehler and Tina Fey – reuniting on the big screen for the first time since the so-so Baby Mama seven years ago – didn’t know what they’d be up against when the decision was taken to go (almost) head-to-head with The Force Awakens. Although Sisters has a Christmas setting – ensuring it’s not entirely some foolhardy crusade against the likely dominance of a single movie over the holiday period – they have been milking the association for all it’s worth, launching playful attacks for weeks now via parody online making-of docs that mock the reverential tone of that other movie’s sneak-peak marketing.

Their “you can see both” ploy also echoes Mike Myers’ ludicrously successful efforts to get audiences interested in the second Austin Powers movie back in the summer of 1999 when all anyone was talking about was The Phantom Menace – so it’s not as if their move to take on the might of Star Wars isn’t without precedent. The good news is that it’s also justified: Sisters is straight up funny, the former Saturday Night Live cohorts, erstwhile hosts of The Golden Globes and all round queens of American television comedy (Fey with 30 Rock, Poehler with Parks and Recreation) delivering a gags-to-giggle ratio that far outstrips the film’s frat-party-for-40-somethings premise.

They play the sisters of the title, Kate and Maura Ellis, the former (Fey) a chaotic presence whose life is mostly one big mess, the latter (Poehler) a strait-laced nurse who likes helping people even when their help isn’t needed or wanted. Both are despondent when their parents – James Brolin and Diane Wiest – tell them they’re selling their childhood home in Florida and moving into a condo instead. Of the pair, Kate takes the news the hardest: partly because it’s sprung on her after Maura – at the behest of their parents, who want them to clean out their room – has covertly persuaded her to return home under false pretences; partly because she’s already formulated a plan to move back home to give her time to get her life in order and win back the respect of her teenage daughter (Madison Davenport), who has grown tired of her mother’s inability to hold down a job or maintain an apartment.

Maura’s irrational distress, on the other hand, is linked to a fear that her parents’ decision to move means she’ll soon lose them. She’s a constant presence in their life, to the extent that they’ve taken to fake freezing during Skype calls in order to get her off the line. She’s also divorced and prone to handing out self-help cards with words of wisdom cribbed from Twilight to people she misidentifies as poor souls. Needless to say, when she and Kate read through their teenage diaries, Maura realises she really didn’t have as much fun in school as Kate, forever taking the role of “party mum” whenever the girls threw one of their legendary “Ellis Island” ragers for their friends.

There are no prizes here for guessing the trajectory each character will take during the course of the movie. As Kate persuades Maura to throw one last party in their now empty home (part of a flawed plan to thwart the sale of the house), it’s clear each will have to absorb a little of what the other has going for them in order to fix themselves. But the joy of the film is seeing how much Fey and Poehler are cut from the same cloth: their sisterly bond in career terms translates into a believable bond on screen, whether they’re mock-objectifying a hot neighbour (Ike Barinholtz), making fun of themselves as they shop for ridiculously inappropriate clothes, or dusting off dance routines not performed sine the late 1980s.

Together they’re raucous, bawdy, sweet and consistently hilarious, and the script – by longtime Saturday Night Live writer Paula Pell – furnishes them with plenty of great lines, the repetition of which here would ruin the fun of having them fly at you from the screen. They deliver vulgarity with an undercurrent of heart, or heart with a side order of vulgarity, and there’s plenty of smartly observed humour too, particularly regarding how easily middle-aged concerns like children, medical procedures and career chat can be the ultimate buzz kill. On top of that, it’s also one of the few recent seasonal comedies to mine family dysfunction for actual laughs instead of just using it as an excuse to have people shout at each other for two hours.

Star Wars might be what every cinemagoer wants this Christmas, but Sisters is a pleasantly outrageous surprise gift nonetheless.

Grandma (15) | Rating: **** | Directed by Paul Weitz | Starring Lily Tomlin, Julia Garner, Marcia Gay Harden, Sam Elliott

Since breaking through with the smarter-than-you-remember it American Pie, director Paul Weitz has mostly made middling studio fare (About a Boy, American Dreamz, Admission) that deal with interesting issues in a polished, palatable manner. But with Grandma he’s rediscovered a bit of an edge, delivering a movie more in keeping with the run-and-gun approach of classic low budget indie films from the 1990s (it was shot in 19 days and much of the cast supplied their own wardrobe). This approach suits him. More importantly it suits his characters and the story he’s telling.

That story revolves around Elle (Lily Tomlin), a veteran poet, academic and first-wave feminist whose pregnant granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner) arrives on her doorstep, clueless yet entitled, looking to borrow $600 to pay for the abortion she’s arranged for later that day. Broke and no longer in possession of any credit cards (two plot points Weitz uses to good effect to justify the shape of the narrative while also clueing us into who this woman is), Elle agrees to help Sage raise the money, embarking on an one-day intergenerational road trip that encompasses visits to ex-lovers; a confrontation with Elle’s estranged daughter/Sage’s mother (Marcia Gay Harden); and the delicious sight of Elle physically reprimanding Sage’s casual boyfriend (Natt Wolff) for getting her knocked up in the first place and then attempting to “slut-shame” her.

The broad-strokes of this plot don’t, however, convey the subtleties of the script, or those of the performances, starting with Tomlin, who elevates the irascible Elle above any “bad grandma” stereotypes. Elle’s behaviour is symptomatic of someone frustrated at the way many of the advances and liberties she’s fought for throughout her life have been eroded, rejected or taken for granted by subsequent generations. She’s horrified to learn that Sage has no idea who Betty Friedan was, for instance, more so when she discovers her prized first edition of The Feminine Mystique has almost no resale value in an age dominated by comic book culture. But Tomlin’s performance is also a nicely judged portrait of the way grief can harden a person’s outlook: Elle’s still mourning the loss of Vi, the woman she shared her life with for three decades and whose relatively recent death has left her brokenhearted and up to her eyeballs in debt.

Given the film comes in at a shade under 80 minutes, Weitz deserves credit for packing a lot in; it’s an economical movie in every way, but one rich in life and bolstered by fine supporting turns from the likes of Harden and Sam Elliott, brilliant as an acquaintance of Elle’s with whom she has a complicated history.

Hector (15) | Rating: ** | Directed by: Jake Gavin | Starring: Peter Mullan, Keith Allen, Stephen Tompkinson, Gina McKee

There’s no faulting Peter Mullan’s performance in this Christmas redemption tale about a homeless man reconnecting with his estranged family: gentle and big-hearted, it’s a side of the actor we rarely get to see. Alas there’s just something a bit worthy and pedestrian about the film around him. As the eponymous Hector (Mullan) travels the motorways between Glasgow (where he has to get a health check-up) and London (where he attends an annual Christmas dinner at a homeless shelter), the plot is too lacking in genuine drama to feel particularly urgent and it’s not naturalistic enough to work as a proper character study. In the end it ambles to a fairly predictable conclusion without really saying much about anything.

Swung (18) | Rating: * | Directed by: Colin Kennedy | Starring: Elena Anaya, Owen McDonnell, Elizabeth McGovern

Adapted from Ewan Morrison’s Glasgow-set novel, this drama about a lifestyle journalist (Elena Anaya) who finds her relationship with her impotent partner (Owen McDonnell) tested as they become embroiled in the local swinging scene is a dull and mostly dour affair, enlivened not one bit by groaning – pun fully intended – descents into kinkiness and smutty innuendo. The conceit of a journalistic investigation into sex is pure 50 Shades of Grey – and about as credible. The dialogue is risible too, as are the performances, among them Elizabeth McGovern as the madam of a sex club who rhapsodises about once having had someone make love to her armpit. And the less said about the terrible visual metaphors – which include a train whooshing past at the moment of climax – the better.

Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict (15) | Rating: *** | Directed by: Lisa Immordino Vreeland

Like the recent Listen to Me Marlon, this documentary portrait of the self-styled black sheep of the Guggenheim family is built around a series of recently unearthed audio recordings of its subject. These thought-to-be-lost interview tapes were made during the last year of her life and they prove an invaluable aid to understanding her character: she’s witty, self-deprecating and unapologetic about her wealth, her voracious sexual appetites and, most importantly, her passion for art, which brought some of the most important painters of the 20th century – Jackson Pollock most famously – to prominence. Director Lisa Immordino Vreeland doesn’t do anything radical with the material beyond shaping it into a chronological run-through of Guggenheim’s life, but what a life. She also deserves credit for presenting the rare sight of Robert De Niro – whose artist parents Guggenheim championed – being accidentally garrulous in an interview situation.

Ice and the Sky (U) | Rating: *** | Directed by: Luc Jacquet

March of the Penguins director Luc Jacquet returns to the Antarctic, this time with a film about 83-year-old glaciologist Claude Lorius, the first scientist to uncover evidence of global warming and our role in exacerbating the situation. Unlike Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, Ice and the Sky isn’t really a lecture about the dangers of climate change; it’s more concerned with looking at Lorius’s extraordinary career and how the adventures he’s had – and there’s a wealth of archival material – have led him to reach the conclusions he has. The subtitled film can be a little dry at times, but Lorius is good company and his arguments are persuasive.