It has always been hard for sitcom stars to make the transition to movies. Despite the occasional hit, the members of the Friends cast have struggled to carve themselves film niches and it seems clear from Liberal Arts that Josh Radnor finds it equally difficult to leave behind the character of Ted Mosby he has played for seven years in the smart Manhattan series How I Met Your Mother. Yet, while it reinforces Radnor's affable screen presence, this second outing as writer-director after Happythankyoumoreplease (2010) confirms that he also has an ear for dialogue and an eye for a photogenic detail. However, he still has a long way to go to match the wit and insight of Woody Allen and Whit Stillman, whose work this amiable romcom irresistibly resembles.

Bored with his job as a New York schools admissions officer, 35 year-old Josh Radnor is so deep in a state of ennui that he almost doesn't notice that live-in girlfriend Kristen Bush is dumping him and that bookseller Elizabeth Reaser has a crush on him. He can barely summon the energy to chase the thief who steals his washing from a launderette. Yet, when old professor Richard Jenkins invites him to Kenyon College, Ohio to speak at his retirement dinner, Radnor leaps at the opportunity and cannot get out of his rental car fast enough to inhale the intoxicating air of the campus where he spent the best years of his life.

At lunch, Radnor meets Jenkins's friends Robert Desiderio and Kate Burton and quickly becomes enchanted by their 19 year-old daughter, Elizabeth Olsen, who is studying literature and performing with an improv troupe. Pleased with himself for getting her stage mantra that the answer to every question is `yes', Radnor attends the dinner feeling unfamiliarly upbeat. But his mood is soon doused by Jenkins's valedictory bout of self-pity and he takes a moonlight walk to clear his head. He tries to avoid engaging in conversation when he bumps into zoned out slacker Zac Efron, but winds up following him to a student party where he flirts with Olsen and makes a date for coffee the next morning.

While waiting for Olsen, Radnor makes the acquaintance of John Magaro, an intense but insecure undergraduate who is reading David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest. Radnor warns him that reading can become a treacherous solace for the lonely and that he needs to seize the opportunities around him. Indeed, this becomes the theme of his conversation with Olsen, as they stroll between Kenyon's chapel and theatre and come to realise that, in spite of the age difference, they have a lot in common. Yet Olsen seems far more mature than Radnor and feels that he views youth with rose-tinted nostalgia and should stop fretting about unfulfilled potential and start living in the present.

Stung by beloved English tutor Alison Janney failing to remember him, Radnor is rescued from another funk by Olsen giving him a CD full of her favourite pieces of classical music and he readily accedes to her request for a hand-written letter of thanks. In fact, they begin corresponding regularly, with their voiceover missives being accompanied by snatches of Beethoven, Wagner, Vivaldi and Massenet over a montage of images showing Radnor rediscovering his love for life and growing affection for Olsen. Thus, when she suggests he visits her at Kenyon, he is powerless to decline (even though the scribbled calculations on a notepad confirm his suspicion that this May-September liaison may not be entirely wise).

As Radnor fights down feelings of trepidation, Jenkins pleads with boss Gregg Edelman to let him withdrew his resignation and teach on for another three years. However, a successor has already been appointed and Jenkins has to accept that his day is done. Across the campus, Radnor begins to have doubts of his own, as he has an argument with Olsen about her love of Twilight-style vampire fiction. He spends the afternoon with the worst book he has ever read and becomes increasingly irate that somebody he admires should consider that it has even an iota of intellectual validity.

Their row is interrupted, however, when Jenkins spots them in a bar and lectures Radnor on the folly of having a relationship with someone so vulnerable and so much younger. Shortly afterwards, Radnor encounters Efron again under the stars (and wonders if he is not a figment of his imagination in his Peruvian knitted hat) and his prattle about caterpillars having to fight off all sorts of internal obstacles in order to become a butterfly convinces Radnor to knock on Olsen's door. With roommate Ali Ahn already dispatched for the night, Olsen tells him that she wants him to be her first lover. But the responsibility proves too much for him and he bolts, leaving her to seek solace in hunky classmate Ned Daunis, while he allows himself to be seduced in a bar by the predatory Janney, who throws him out of bed the moment her lust has been satiated and mocks his naive belief that they would cuddle in the warm afterglow and read poetry to one another.

Back in New York, Radnor acknowledges that he has some growing up to do and asks Reaser to go for a walk. However, he isn't quite done with Kenyon, as Magaro phones to confess to taking an overdose of pills and Radnor has to overcome his fear of flying to sit by his bedside. Having made his peace with Olsen, Radnor returns east and snuggles with Reaser as she muses about how nice it will be for them to grow old together.

Notwithstanding the chauvinism that undermines the depiction of Olsen, Janney and Reaser's characters, this is an enjoyable dramedy that has little new to say about thirtysomething angst, but says it eloquently and amusingly. Radnor's visual style is rather bland, but cinematographer Seamus Tierney lovingly captures the allure of Kenyon (which is Radnor's real alma mater) and the cast makes being bright, curious and well read seem desirable - which, sadly, is rarely the case in many modern British movies. The script loses its way periodically and neither the Magaro nor the Efron subplots works at all. Yet, even thought the Jenkins and Janney strands feel a tad tangential, each has a standout scene in which they redeem themselves.

As for Radnor the actor, he contents himself with slipping between Ted Mosby and an older version of the character he played opposite Kathleen Turner in his Broadway debut, The Graduate. But he creditably manages to prevent the romance with Olsen from feeling too inappropriate, although this has as much to do with the fact that, at 22, she always seems too mature and wittily wise to play a teenage virgin with a taste for trash fiction. Nonetheless, they spark charmingly and it's a shame that the chemistry between Radnor and Reaser is so palpably less potent, as the contentment she feels at the thought of ageing with someone she truly loves makes this one of the sweetest happy ever afters in recent American cinema.

Texan David Lowery has become a jack of many trades. In addition to co-editing Shane Carruth's Upstream Color, he has also directed a number of shorts, including a series of Boycrazy comedies with actor-writer Alexi Wasser, as well as the little-seen features, Lullaby (2000), and St Nick (2009). One wonders whether these might now secure a DVD release in this country, as his third outing, Ain't Them Bodies Saints, was released to almost unanimous critical acclaim.

Enraged that boyfriend Casey Affleck is planning to do a robbery without her, Rooney Mara threatens to go home to her mother. However, she soon tells Affleck that she is pregnant and they contemplate the future while canoodling in his truck and waiting for partner in crime Kentucker Audley. A dramatic cut takes the action from the beginning of the raid to a fierce gun battle as the fugitives hole up in the ramshackle farmhouse that used to belong to his family. Audley gets killed and Mara shoots cop Ben Foster in the shoulder. But Affleck wipes her fingerprints off the gun and takes the blame for the crime and writes to Mara everyday to express his love and confidence that they will one day be able to start anew.

Four years later, Mara lives with her daughter (played by twins Kennadie and Jacklynn Smith) in a house provided for her by local storekeeper and Audley's father, Keith Carradine. He has always treated Mara and Affleck like his own kids and, when the latter escapes from jail after five failed attempts, she threatens to tell the truth about what happened on the night of the robbery if anything happens to her man. Foster is forced to confiscate Affleck's letters, but refuses to read them out of respect for Mara and she is touched by his gentility and kindness towards her child.

Hijacking vehicles and riding the rails, Affleck makes his way back to Meridian and slips into African-American buddy Nate Parker's bar after hours. He explains how he escapes as a sad song plays on the jukebox and he is glad to hear that Mara and Smith have been well cared for. But he expects trouble from Carradine, as well as the police, and steals a rifle when sneaking downstairs in the night. Next morning, Parker accompanies Affleck as he drives to the old farmstead and digs up a box containing loot. He tosses him a bundle of banknotes to thank him for his loyalty and promises to leave once he has claimed Mara.

Getting away will be more difficult than Affleck envisages, however, as stranger Robert Longstreet and sidekicks David Zellner and Turner Ross arrive in town and ask Carradine for directions to the farm. He remains loyal to his protégé, even after he shows up at the store and asks him to deliver a note to Mara arranging a rendezvous. But Mara is now the only family he has and he has no intention of letting her leave. Foster feels the same way and suggests that Mara and Smith go into hiding until the fuss dies down. Yet, while she refuses, Mara does invite Foster to Smith's fourth birthday party and he is happy to accept.

Foster knows, however, that Mara will never be free unless Affleck is caught and he goes to Parker's bar and finds the photo of Mara that Affleck left behind in his panic to climb out of the window. Parker explains it away, but Foster keeps the picture for himself and Affleck becomes more determined than ever to claim what he considers his property and disappear far away. What he doesn't know, however, is that Mara has written him a letter explaining that she isn't prepared to risk Smith's future by going on the run and hopes that he will evade capture and find them one day when they can be together without fear of a knock on the door. She asks Carradine to deliver the note and he reads it and hides it in a book.

The next morning, Foster drives out to the farm and thinks better of climbing into the attic to search for Affleck, who is lying in wait with Parker's rifle. He goes off to Smith's birthday party and sings her a song on the old guitar he gives her as a present. But Carradine has decided to be more proactive in protecting Mara and gives Longstreet directions to the farm with the warning that he will hunt them down if they fail or linger after their mission is over. The trio drink in Parker's bar, as a band plays a lively tune and Affleck confides in his host that he is scared that Smith won't recognise him. He takes the truck to Mara's house and drives off in fury after looking through the window and seeing Foster playing with his daughter.

Smith lets slip that she is going on a trip the next day and Foster urges Mara against doing anything foolish. She suggests he leaves, but he comes back inside and pleads with her not to let past events get in the way of them making a life together. Mara warns him that she might not have been an innocent bystander on the day of the robbery, but Foster says he has long forgiven and forgotten and hopes she knows he will always be a friend who only ever sees good in her. As they hug, however, Affleck arrives back at the farm and is ambushed by Longstreet and his cohorts. Although badly wounded, Affleck kills Zellner and Ross and asks Longstreet why he has stalked him. Fighting for breath, he mumbles something about `the girl' and, as Affleck speeds off in his truck, a shadowy figure appears to put Longstreet out of his misery.

Back at the house, Mara explains to Foster that she had stopped writing to Affleck in jail because she could never find the right words. Besides, she wanted to keep her life with Smith to herself and tell him in person when he was finally freed. But now, she is exhausted from the strain of trying to cope and the pair fall asleep on the sofa. Having run out of fuel, Affleck hitches a ride with Rami Malek, who is heading home to see his folks. He realises his passenger is seriously injured and offers to take him to the hospital. But Affleck is more concerned by the fact that Malek has no idea who he is and he had always thought of himself as something of a notorious outlaw.

Smith wakes to find Foster and her mother asleep together and she smiles. However, the idyllic scene is shattered by the sound of gunshots outside and Foster plugs the man on the doorstep between the eyes and rushes over to attend to the dying Carradine. He mistakes Foster for Affleck and tells him he was only ever a naughty boy rather than a hardened criminal. As evening falls, Foster drives Mara and Smith home after they have given statements at the station. He notices that the front door is open and goes inside to find Affleck cowering on the floor. Mara settles beside him and, as he slowly slips away, Affleck thinks back to the moments before the robbery when he told her bump what a good father he was going to be. He looks up and sees Smith standing by the door and smiles at her before Foster leads her away and Affleck slumps down. 

Although set in the early 1970s, this sombre and ultimately sentimental melodrama is heavily influenced by the Terrence Malick period dramas Badlands (1973) and Days of Heaven (1978) and Robert Altman's revisionist criminal couple saga, Thieves Like Us (1974). Bathed in a mix of golden light and soft shadows by cinematographer Bradford Young, Jade Healy and Jonathan Rudak's production design deftly captures a sense of time and place that is reinforced by Daniel Hart's wistful and cleverly eclectic score. But there is always something a touch self-conscious about the pacing of the action and the intensity of the performances, as though Lowery was striving to convince the audience of the emblematic significance of the story and the old-fashioned quality of his direction.

The post-heist switch from a restless impressionistic approach to something more deliberate can partially be explained by the change the intervening years has wrought on Affleck and Mara's personalities. But it might also be symptomatic of the fact that Lowery conceived this as an action picture and opted to replace the macho aspects with a greater lyrical emphasis on the emotions being experienced by the four principals. Moreover, it remains unclear who Longstreet and his cohorts are supposed to be representing and many will be baffled by the identify the man Foster blows away for killing Carradine.

An alumnus of the aforementioned Altman feature, Carradine delivers a tightly controlled display of pent-up resentment and fiercely protective affection, while Foster exudes the agonised decency of a man deeply in love with an unattainable woman. By contrast, Mara and Affleck sometimes struggle to convey physically the emotions they are too inarticulate to express and, while this may admittedly be in keeping with their characters, their inability to make manifest the passion, desperation and uncertainty driving them towards their potential doom makes their situation markedly more melodramatic than tragic.

David Gordon Green is a somewhat eclectic film-maker. He started out charming the critics with the intimate indies George Washington (2000) and All the Real Girls (2003), but lost their favour with less nuanced mainstream comedies like Pineapple Express (2008), Your Highness and The Sitter (both 2011). Prince Avalanche represents a return to his roots, but it is always much broader than its Icelandic source, Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson's debut, Either Way (2011).

The new setting is rural Texas in the summer of 1987 and Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch are the duo painting fresh markings and replacing reflectors on a highway that has been damaged in a recent series of bush fires. Having been toiling alone since the spring, the thirtysomething Rudd feels superior to Hirsch, as not only is he much smarter, but he also got him the job in the hope that the favour would improve his standing with girlfriend Gina Grande, who just happens to be Hirsch's sister. Rudd also claims to be a much better outdoorsman, who is more temperamentally suited to coping with the isolation and deprivation of living and working in the wilderness, and Hirsch soon tires of the simple joys of fishing, cooking on a camp stove and sleeping under the stars in a cramped tent.

Indeed, all the immature party animal can think about is the forthcoming weekend trip to the nearest town and satiating his lust. They get a temporary respite from each other's company when trucker Lance LeGault parks up and foists a bottle of moonshine on them. But this makes Hirsch even less interested in Rudd's efforts to learn German in order to make a new life with Grande and the already lengthy silences between them have elongated beyond awkwardness by the time Hirsch drives off for his much-needed R&R.

In his absence, Rudd makes the acquaintance of Joyce Payne, an elderly lady who has returned to the burnt-out shell of her former home to see if there is anything worth salvaging. However, Hirsch is soon back on site and he hands Rudd a letter from Grande that has arrived at the local post office. It becomes clear that Hirsch has already read the missive, which is essentially a Dear John, and Rudd is so affronted that he has pried into his business that he storms off, only to knock himself unconscious in a creek.

Suitably chastened, Rudd apologises to Hirsch for his outburst and they get drunk on LeGault's booze. Recognising that Hirsch also has something on his mind, Rudd urges him to open up and he reveals he is going to be a father, as a one-night stand has fallen pregnant. Setting aside his envy, Rudd reassures Hirsch that this could be the making of him and they agree to celebrate by spending the next weekend at a music festival. As they get ready to leave, however, they meet up with LeGault again and Rudd is surprised to see Payne sat alongside him in the cab.

Rudd and Hirsch may indulge in some overly familiar odd couple shtick, as well as the odd instance of knockabout. But they grow into their characters and there is a genuine poignancy to their performances after Hirsch returns from the town. Green and cinematographer Tim Orr also make splendid use of the scenery in the Bastrop State Park, with the montages of the flora and fauna being evocatively counterpointed by the score by David Wingo and the post-rock band Explosions in the Sky. As in Sigurðsson's scenario, the attempts to suggest that the trucker and the wandering woman are ethereal presences doesn't quite come off. But, once again, the leads tend to say more with a gesture of an expression than they do with the spartan dialogue and this willingness to prioritise the visual over the verbal considerably enhances the picture's melancholic comic charm.

Resisting temptation is the theme of Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy's Mister John, a marked departure from the austere realism of their 2008 dramatic debut, Helen, that borrows from David Lynch and Apichatpong Weerasethakul to achieve a teasing tone that equates to the confusion that a middle-aged Brit feels on arriving in Singapore to bury his recently deceased brother. With the languid pace being reinforced by Ole Birkland's static compositions and Niall Brady's unsettling sound design, this could almost be an unwritten Graham Greene novel or a remake of one of those moody colonial sagas that Dirk Bogarde favoured as he tried to shatter his image as a clean-cut matinee idol in the early 1960s. But there is also a noirish undercurrent to the exoticism and mysticism that pervades proceedings that ensnare the audience as surely as the hapless protagonist.

Shortly after a body is found floating on a lake in the outskirts of the Lion City, businessman Aiden Gillen flies out from London to identify brother Michael Walsh's body. His luggage is lost in transit and he only has the clothes on his back as he is greeted by sister-in-law Zoe Tay, who insists that he stays in the family home. Gillen prefers to check into a hotel and she takes him to a place run by her friend, Liu Liu Ling. It transpires, however, that the premises are used by the women who pick up their clients at Mister John, the hostess bar owned by his late sibling.

One of the restaurant staff informs Gillen that a water ghost has taken Walsh and that he will have to remain until a suitable replacement can be found. However, Gillen doesn't see this as a grim warning and is quite happy to linger, as things are not good at home because of wife Claire Keelan's recent infidelity. As there is still no sign of his luggage, though, he agrees to accept Tay's hospitality and she insists that he borrows what ever he needs from her husband's wardrobe. She also introduces him to his niece, Ashleigh Judith White, and he tells her about her cousin Molly Rose Lawlor back home.

But the cosy domesticity doesn't last long, as it is clear that Tay has designs on Gillen and he slips away to visit the place where Walsh drowned. As he pays his respects, he is bitten by a snake and doctor Maryanne Ng tells him that he won't feel like himself for the next few hours. In fact, Gillen is afflicted with an erection that refuses to go down as Tay acquaints him with the hostesses at the bar and their regular punters. She explains that she has decided to keep the place going, but needs German ex-pat Michael Thomas to pay his debt. Gillen offers to speak to him, but only finds girlfriend Janice Koh at home and she complains bitterly that Thomas has a roving eye.

Returning to the bar, but still with no idea that he is slowly being sucked into the vortex of this dystopic paradise, Gillen gets drunk. As he sleeps, his dream veers between a blazing row with Keelan and what seems to be an interview, as he assesses her suitability for a post at the bar. The following morning, he sets off to find Thomas and gets into a fight when he demands Tay's money. Badly beaten, Gillen jumps in the lake that claimed his brother and he is scarcely surprised when Tay kisses him when he gets home. However, he decides the time has come to reclaim his own personality and he puts his own clothes on and calls Lawlor to promise to bring her a present from his travels. But whether he will ever get home is left in doubt, as Gillen breaks down at the funeral, partly out of grief for Walsh, but also out of a sense of frustration at having lost control of his life.

Ever since they debuted with the short Who Killed Brown Owl (2004), the Irish husband-and-wife team of Lawlor and Malloy have rooted their films in the landscape and the curious atmosphere of this distinctive setting starts impacting upon Gillen from the moment he arrives. Indeed, he is almost powerless to resist its pull and this unnerving sense of something supernatural playing upon his already vulnerable psyche makes this feel as much like an offbeat thriller as a study in emotional collapse. In some ways, the premise resembles that of Helen, in which 18 year-old Annie Townsend becomes steadily more immersed in the role when she is asked to stand in for a missing girl during a police reconstruction. But Gillen seems oblivious to the fact that a karmic combination of the spirits and his surroundings seems to have selected him to assume the nefarious Walsh's status within the community. 

Seven years after exploring the impact of ageing upon the friendship between actors Peter O'Toole and Leslie Phillips in Venus, director Roger Michell and screenwriter Hanif Kureishi reunite to approach similar territory from a different direction in Le Week-end. This time the imperilled pair are sixtysomethings Jim Broadbent and Lindsay Duncan, who have been married for 30 years and have become so used to each other that his good qualities are beginning to irritate her and he has started taking her for granted.

In a bid to put a bit of romance back into their lives, they arrange a weekend in Paris. But, even as they board the EuroStar at St Pancras, it is clear that she is seething at his lack of spontaneity and he is retreating into himself as he wonders how to break the news that he has been dismissed from his university post for insulting a black female student. He also wants to broach the subject of their adult son, who wishes to come back home with his wife and child just months after moving out. But a more pressing concern is the state of the hotel in which they spent their honeymoon and Duncan's insistence that that take a taxi ride around the city until she can spot something more suitably palatial in which to celebrate their wedding anniversary.

Having opted for a suite with a view of the Eiffel Tower, Duncan resists Broadbent's clumsy attempt to seduce her and it takes a good lunch to put her in a better mood. They spend the rest of the day mooching around museums, churches and bookshops and even take a detour out to Montparnasse to see Samuel Beckett's grave before absconding from a bistro without paying the bill. Yet all is not well and Duncan infers that she would like to quit her teaching job and do something worthwhile with her retirement and Broadbent is forced to come clean about his enforced lay-off.

They bump into Broadbent's Cambridge contemporary, Jeff Goldblum, who reveals that he has relocated to the City of Light and is expecting a baby with young wife, Judith Davis. In inviting them to a soirée, he also lets slip that his literary career has taken off (whereas Broadbent's has stalled after showing some early promise) and that he is extremely wealthy. Thus, it is with some trepidation that Broadbent and Duncan arrive at Goldblum's apartment and they soon feel horribly out of place, despite empathising with both Davis and Goldblum's slacker son from his first marriage, Olly Alexander. But, while they begin to feel better about themselves (as they are not part of this ghastly coterie and are nowhere near as desperate to be the centre of attention as their host), it takes Duncan's flirtation with academic Brice Beaugier and Broadbent's heart-to-heart with Alexander and his soul-baring dinner table revelation to make them realise what they stand to lose if they separate. 

They arrive back at the hotel basking in an odd sense of superiority. However, they are informed that Broadbent's credit card has been declined and are forced to call Goldblum and ask him to meet them at a café. He finds the silver lining in the situation and they put a record on the jukebox and begin to dance, in homage to the Madison sequence involving Anna Karina, Sami Frey and Claude Brasseur in Jean-Luc Godard's Bande à part (1964)

Hanif Kureishi is a curious writer. His dialogue has a tendency to be florid and his scenarios invariably take a melodramatic twist. Yet he also has an intuitive gift for character and the milieux he creates always feel authentic. Thus, this is a bittersweet curate's egg of a picture that veers between moments of deft inspiration and utter contrivance. Fortunately, in his fourth collaboration with Kureishi, Roger Michell knows how to tone down his excesses. He is also a fine director of actors and allows Broadbent and Duncan to limn an eminently resistible duo, whose vulnerability allows the audience to forgive their peevish tics and traits and hope that they find a way of becoming the people they once were and would like to be again.

As he so often does, Jeff Goldblum also excels as the cocky American whose façade barely conceals his insecurities. But it's the tension between Duncan and Broadbent that holds the film together, as he rides her wounding barbs about the nature of his love for her and she tolerates his willingness to settle for second best. The simmering row over a past infidelity that they carry over into the dinner party is particularly well realised and the ensuing conversations that bring things to a head reveal their willingness to share their misery with others and fulminate upon it rather than sit down and discuss it together and assess how it might impact upon the future of their marriage. Yet, excellent though the leading trio are, cinematographer Nathalie Durand comes close to ensuring that Paris steals the show, while the use of tracks by Bob Dylan and Nick Drake alongside Jeremy Sams's pastichy score is worth a dozen of Kureishi's self-consciously chiselled bon mots.

Several more innocents abroad populate James Toback's splendidly satirical and riotously rambling documentary, Seduced and Abandoned, which tracks the corpulent film-maker around the notorious Cannes market place as he tries to persuade anyone and everyone to invest in his proposed remake of Last Tango in Paris. Alec Baldwin and Neve Campbell have signed up for the Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider parts. But few are convinced that they have the star wattage to command the $15 million budget that Toback is seeking and virtually no one believes that Last Tango in Tikrit stands a chance of being a hit.

Having plotted their campaign in New York, Toback and Baldwin head to the South of France, where the latter (a festival virgin) is delighted to be collected in an open-top Rolls Royce. Before launching into the frey, Toback has Cannes's current artistic director, Thierry Fremaux, and legendary Positif critic Michel Ciment provide a potted history of the event's cultural significance before American reviewers Todd McCarthy and Scott Foundas describe the chaos that Toback and Baldwin will experience when they try to strike a deal. Splitting the screen at every opportunity, Toback is clearly in seventh heaven and exploits the opportunity to ask heroes like Bernardo Bertolucci, Roman Polanski, Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola for their memories of La Croisette and they respond with a candour and poignancy that is somewhat out of keeping with the more mockumentary tone of the pitching sessions.

From their first meeting onwards, it's evident that, while everyone likes Toback and Baldwin, no one has any faith in their project. Studio executives Jeffrey Katzenberg, Mike Medavoy and Ron Meyer chime in with such producers and sales agents as Mark Damon, Jeremy Thomas, Arni Lerner, Thorsten Schumacher and Ashok Amritraj that Baldwin and Campell are no longer marquee names (if, indeed, they ever were) and the faux naïf Toback is persuaded to interview Bérénice Bejo, Diane Kruger and Jessica Chastain in a bid to find a more stellar heroine. It's uncertain whether these actresses are in on the game, but they seem to take the prospect of any job seriously and Kruger particularly plays hard ball, as she insists that the script would have to be beefed up considerably before she would even consider becoming involved.

Ryan Gosling is more relaxed about the process and regales Toback with some amusing, if rather disconcerting tales about some of the casting calls he attended when he was first starting out as an actor. But all play and no work leaves Toback with a dead duck on his hands and he even tries his luck with Greek shipping magnate Taki Theodoracopulos on his 60-foot yacht and French auto heir Jean `Johnny' Pigozzi on his vast Côte d'Azur estate in the hope of finding an angel. However, his hopes remain dashed and he is forced to agree with Baldwin that a picture in development is like a bad lover who seduces and abandons you incessantly.

Nimbly edited to the sombre strains of Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony by Aaron Yanes to bring some sort of order to the rattlebag of pleadings and reminiscences, this offers a droll insight into the sharp end of the movie business. Nothing can get made without funding and this is rarely offered without some sort of guarantee that tills will ring merrily for months after opening night. Toback is no fool and he is well aware that his update is a non-starter. But he takes the brickbats with good grace, as does Baldwin, who proves a worthy co-conspirator. Although this is primarily intended to be parodic, a vein of melancholy marbles the action, as Toback exposes the venal pragmatism of an art form that is too expensive to be entrusted solely to artists, especially those with a unique vision.

Music producer Rick Hall was very much the product of his environment, as the sounds he brought the world reflected his upbringing in the Alabama backwoods. Indeed, the songs he heard the cotton pickers singing as they toiled in the fields prompted him to open the fabled FAME Studios. However, as the debuting Greg `Freddy' Camalier points out in Muscle Shoals, this region around the Tennessee River was synonymous with musical greatness.

According to Tom Hendrix, the Yuchi Indians believed that a woman sang in the waters of the river to ward off evil spirits and, thus, there is something in Bono's contention that the songs recorded in this burgh of 8000 souls `came out of the mud'. The U2 frontman becomes something of an irksome presence as he waxes lyrical about the energy of a place that spawned WC Handy (the father of the Blues), Helen Keller and Sam Phillips, who would sign the likes of Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash to his Sun Records label in Memphis. But, while he packs the early stages of this enjoyable documentary with Terrence Malick-like magic hour shots of the Colbert County countryside, Camalier never quite nails why Muscle Shoals generated so much exceptional music.

He is more successful in identifying what drove Hall to rise from an isolated shack with no amenities to mixing with musical royalty. Forced to live with his father after his mother drifted into prostitution following the scalding death of his toddler brother, Hall saw both his father and his first wife killed in vehicular accidents (he under the tractor his son had bought him to celebrate his success and she in the car that Hall himself was driving). However, he was also determined to prove wrong those who had crowed that he wouldn't amount to much and to exact a measure of revenge on Billy Sherrill and Tom Stafford, who had fired him from his first studios in the nearby town of Florence for taking music-making too seriously.

But, from the moment he recorded Jimmy Hughes's `Steal Away', Hall knew he had found his calling and he scored his first solo hit with `You Better Move On', which was written and recorded by local hotel busboy Arthur Alexander and became a major UK hit for The Rolling Stones in 1964. However, the first house band Hall assembled - comprising Norbert Putnam, Peanut Montgomery, David Briggs and Jerry Carrigan - didn't stay with him for long, as they were whisked away to open for The Beatles at their first American concert in Washington, DC. Undaunted, Hall put together another crew and David Hood (bass), Jimmy Johnson (guitar), Roger Hawkins (drums) and Barry Beckett (keyboards) became known as The Swampers, whose `greasy' sound convinced those not in the know that these four young white boys were seasoned black veterans.

They were often joined in the studio by songwriting session players Spooner Oldham, Donnie Fritts and Dan Penn and they attracted the attention of Jerry Wexler at Atlantic Records after hospital orderly Percy Sledge topped the charts with `When a Man Loves a Woman' in 1966. Suddenly, Hall was playing in a different league and he forged an unlikely bond with the notoriously temperamental Wilson Pickett, who brought the best out of The Swampers on tracks like `Land of 1000 Dances' and `Mustang Sally'. Recorded at a time that Governor George Wallace was still advocating segregation, these hits should have become theme tunes for the campaign for equality. But not even Aretha Franklin knew that she would be working with white folks when Wexler signed her from Columbia and redirected her flagging career with `I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)'.

This session ended with Franklin's husband, Ted White, getting into a fight with one of the brass section and Wexler and Hall fell out when the latter went to the singer's hotel to have it out with the controlling spouse. Yet, while he lost his contract with the label, The Swampers were invited to New York to finish such legendary cuts as `Respect', `(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman', `Chain of Fools' and `Do Right Woman, Do Right Man'. Undaunted, Hall contacted Leonard Chess in Chicago, who entrusted him with Etta James's next album and he talked her into recording `Tell Mama', which became a huge hit. She admits being a difficult customer, but was soon seduced by the Swamper mix of blues, hillbilly and rock, in which the heavy bass and drum grounding allowed for a little more surface finesse.

Shortly afterwards, Duane Allman arrived in Muscle Shoals after quitting his band, The Hour Glass. As brother Gregg recalls here, he had recently damaged an elbow in a horseback fall and had been inspired to play slide guitar with a bottle of Coricidin pills after hearing the debut album by guitarist Taj Mahal. Welcomed with open arms by Hall and The Swampers, the long-haired Allman was viewed with deep suspicion by the locals and it was a reluctance to face the lunch counter crowd that led Allman and Wilson Pickett to concoct a version of `Hey Jude' that was to prove crucial to the evolution of Southern Rock. However, for once in his life, Hall's ear failed him and he let The Allman Brothers Band slip through his fingers.

Camalier doesn't quite explain the extent to which this misjudgement persuaded Hood, Hawkins, Johnson and Beckett to decamp and join Wexler just as Hall secured a big deal with Capitol Records. Instead, he lets Percy Sledge reminisce about the time Jimi Hendrix played in his backing band and his conclusion that time changes everything is left to justify the decision to open the Muscle Shoals Studios at 3614 Jackson Highway. Cher was among the first clients. But, as Hall guided Clarence Carter to the top of the charts with `Patches' (which he wrote in memory of his recently deceased father), the new facility got off to a slow start and the Swampers were growing concerned that they had made a dreadful mistake when The Rolling Stones checked in.

Mick Jagger and Keith Richards recall their brief stint at the studio with evident relish. Indeed, Richards reckons that the recording of Fred McDowell's `You Gotta Move' and their own compositions `Wild Horses' and `Brown Sugar' was perhaps the funkiest highlight of the band's 50-year career. But, while his erstwhile colleagues were spinning rock gold, Hall was melding session stalwarts like Clayton Ivey, Jesse Boyce and Harvey Thompson into The FAME Gang, who played on albums by a bewildering variety of artists over the next decade. Indeed, such was the growing reputation of the two studios that they got to host acts of the calibre of Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Art Garfunkel, Candi Staton, Bobbie Gentry, Lou Rawls, Joe Tex, Joe Simon, Bobby Womack, Tom Jones, The Osmonds, Carlos Santana, JJ Cale, Boz Scaggs, Bob Seger, Linda Ronstadt, Joan Baez, Leon Russell, The Staples Singers, Otis Redding, Kris Kristofferson and Mark Knopfler.

The list is as astonishing as it is impressive. But what is most notable is the diversity of the artists and the fact that the two house bands always seemed to catch the vibe of whoever they were backing, whether it was Jamaican Jimmy Cliff on `Sitting in Limbo' (which did so much to popularise reggae) or Steve Winwood and Traffic, whose `headless horseman' style was slicked into shape by The Swampers on tracks like `(Sometimes I Feel So) Uninspired'. As Donna Jean Godchaux (who sang backing vocals for Percy Sledge before joining The Grateful Dead) avers, they were just a bunch of freakishly talented musicians who just all happened to be in the right place at the same time.

This is, in effect, the key to the Muscle Shoals story and Camalier rather misses in allowing Bono to ramble on with pretentious earnestness and cinematographer Anthony Arendt to shoot so many evocative images of riverbanks and main streets. But this is less a forensic study than a fond shuffle down memory lane, with the anecdotes mattering as much as the archival footage ably edited by Richard Lowe and even, perhaps, the music itself. Thus, the picture winds up with what is essentially a digression about Lynyrd Skynard's passing association with The Swampers that earned them a mention in the lyrics of `Sweet Home Alabama'. But, as Jimmy Johnson divulges, the combo played a key part in helping the Van Zant siblings find their sound and it was his refusal to cut the nine-minute `Freebird' down to under four minutes for radio play that led the label to snatch them away from his studio.

Although his rift with Wexler has never healed, Hall bears no grudges against Hood, Johnson, Hawkins and Beckett (whose 2009 death goes curiously unmentioned) and Camalier opts to end his overview with the old gang reuniting to accompany Alicia Keys on `Pressing On' rather than chart the fortunes of the complementary rivals over the last 30 years. Such decisions may be frustrating, but they don't detract from the excellence of what Camalier has chosen to include. Some may cavil at his leisurely approach, but many more will be scrambling to acquire some of the countless gems contained in an affectionate actuality that is head and shoulders above Dave Grohl's  Sound City, which aired on BBC4 last week.

Following in the footsteps of David Weissman's deeply personal memoir We Were Here (2011) and the more combative pairing of Scott Robbe's Act Up! and Jim Hubbard's United in Anger: A History of ACT UP (both 2012), David France's Oscar-nominated documentary How to Survive a Plague provides a first-hand account of the campaign mounted by the New York gay and lesbian community to shame both the federal government and the pharmaceutical industry into funding and finding an effective treatment for AIDS and making it accessible at an affordable price. Exceptionally edited by Woody Richman and Tyler H. Walk from archival news material and home movies taken by activists at meetings and demonstrations between 1987 and 1995, the footage is presented in such an unashamedly triumphalist manner that this could almost be a celebration of the Civil Rights movement or the race to space, with the leading figures in the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power finally being hailed as the heroes and heroines they are.

Making a fine companion piece to Dylan Mohan Gray's Fire in the Blood, this is not just a film about combating a pernicious disease. It's a compelling social document and an important affirmation of the power of the people when they unite behind a pressing political cause.

An opening series of captions states that in Year Six of the AIDS epidemic, the lack of viable drugs means that there is a 100% death rate among those being diagnosed with HIV. As an anti-gay backlash intensifies, hospitals are beginning to turn cases away and New York mayor Ed Koch is taken to task for calling gay activists fascists. Enraged by the lack of affirmative action as the worldwide death toll tops 500,000, lawyer David Barr, PR executive Bob Rafsky, playwright Jim Eigo, author Larry Kramer, video activist Gregg Bordowitz, bond trader Peter Staley, television personality Ann Northrop, club DJ Bill Bahlman, actor Spencer Cox and film archivist Mark Harringon joined forces under the ACT-UP banner and marched on City Hall in March 1987. As the policing becomes more aggressive, Kramer tells a TV crew that he feels as though he is fighting a war, as people are being allowed to die through fear, ignorance and bigotry.

Looking back, Staley remembers how the disease took hold of him and left him prone to the smallest infection and he was confident he would die before a treatment, let alone a cure, was found for either the Human Immunodeficiency Virus or Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome. Yet, as he started attending meetings at the Lesbian and Gay Community Centre, he began realising that he was not only surrounded by like minds, but also some very informed and inspired ones and the way in which ACT-UP challenged a security guard at St Vincent's Hospital for beating up HIV patients to keep them away from his ER gave Staley confidence that he was with the right crowd.

As an associate physician at the hospital, Barbara Starrett was dismayed by how quickly infection felled sufferers and teamed with retired scientist Iris Long in running underground drug trials to try and find effective combatants. A married housewife from Queens, Long taught the activists about the nature of the disease and the ways in which they affected the body and the immune system. Kramer and Eigo recall her compassion and the eagerness with which everyone seized upon her wisdom and willingness to help. Teenager Garance Franke-Ruta became part of the Treatment and Data group and Harrington compiled a glossary of terms that standardised the vocabulary used in relation to AIDS and Rafsky and Staley became regulars on news and chat shows, as they tried to browbeat Washington and Big Pharma. But even when Burroughs Wellcome released AZT in late 1987, ACT-UP refused to be grateful for the most expensive drug in history, as a course of treatment cost $10,000 per annum. Indeed, four activists broke into the company's headquarters and made sure the news crews caught their assertion that executives were profiteering from the decimation of the gay community.

As the counter at the top of the screen shows the death rate top 800,000 in 1988, France shows us footage of a dying man and his empty hospital bed, as Starrett recalls how corpses used to be removed in big bags and that many funeral parlours refused to bury AIDS victims. Mathilde Krim from the American Foundation for AIDS Research (amfAR) concurs that basic care was being withdrawn, as homophobic senators like Jesse Helms railed against unnatural acts and Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Health (NIH), conceded that the gay aspect of the disease made it difficult for the Establishment to fund research.

Left to their own devices, groups like the People With AIDS Health Club began importing drugs that were legal outside the United States and Derek Link and Franke-Ruta recall how many of them were quickly revealed to be `what the hell drugs' as they were so ineffective. But Long urged ACT-UP to eschew the black market and campaign to make the open market work more fairly. In a bid to embarrass the US Food and Drug Administration, a demonstration was held outside its offices in Rockville, Maryland and gay activist Vito Russo turned up to speak as banned drugs were sold among the protesters and 185 arrests were made. However, as if to prove there was no such thing as bad publicity, Staley went on the Crossfire programme with Tom Braden and Pat Buchanan to endure the misgivings of both Democrats and Republicans about the way ACT-UP was conducting itself.

As if to prove it could get things done, ACT-UP turned its attention to a new drug, DHPG, which had been shown in trials to help those with advanced AIDS from losing their sight. When the FDA refused to sanction its sale, a sit-in was staged at the Bethesda headquarters of the Oversight Committee until regulator Ellen Cooper was so struck by the vehemence of the heckling against her and the cogency of the points made in ACT-UP literature that she secured a reversal of the original decision. Yet, all this proved to Harrington was that the FDA had no coherent strategy for tackling AIDS and he helped draft a manifesto that exposed the gaps in treatment and research policies around the world. Armed with this, they picketed the International AIDS Conference in Montreal and Susan Ellenberg from the NIH was so impressed by the document that she recommended it to her colleagues. Scientists at Bristol-Myers were also won over and pushed for DDI to be made available as quickly as possible, while Emilio Emini and Joseph Vacca at Merck were sufficiently encouraged to step up research into the way that protease inhibitors could prevent the reverse transcription process that enabled the virus to replicate in infected cells.

Even though AIDS-related deaths passed the 1.2 million mark in 1989, the Roman Catholic Church continued to denounce homosexuality and insist that celibacy was the only way to avoid becoming infected with HIV, as condoms offered no protection. In order to prevent Cardinal John O'Connor undoing valuable work in educating people about the use of condoms, ACT-UP organised a protest inside St Patrick's Cathedral as O'Connor presided over mass, while artist Ray Navarro dressed as Christ with a crown of thorns to accuse the cardinal of endangering life. Shortly afterwards, NIH HQ was also invaded with Rafsky taking Fauci to task for costly mistakes, while Staley delivered a speech of great eloquence and power at the International AIDS Conference at San Francisco, in which he pleaded with the pharmaceutical giants to enter into a partnership with ACT-UP to atone for the indifference of the Bush administration.

Amazingly, Fauci agreed to end the policy of secrecy surrounding AIDS research and invited Treatment and Data personnel to attend trials and meetings. Emini recalls the value of this development, as ACT-UP members encouraged him to bounce back after setbacks. Yet, while protests were staged at the courses where Geoge Bush was playing golf and a giant condom was erected outside Jesse Helms's house, the situation took a turn for the worse in 1990 (with 1.7 now dead from AIDS), as new infections kept springing up and the company that had patented a treatment for the skin lesions known as Kaposi's sarcoma refused to release the drug in the United States. A furious Rafsky accused the executive who came to meet the occupation party of letting him die and Staley admitted on TV that he expected to die sooner rather than later.

In 1991, as figures reached 2.4 million, a cabal of dissenters within ACT-UP declared that the Treatment and Data representatives were becoming too cosy with their drug company counterparts and all efforts to mediate by Barr, Northrop and Kramer fell on deaf ears (in spite of a blistering speech about the plague threatening them all that the latter gave after being heckled during a meeting). Consequently, Harrington, Staley and Rifsky formed the breakaway Treatment Action Group (TAG), with the latter making national news when he confronted Bill Clinton on the presidential hustings in 1992 (3.3 million). The arrival of the AIDS quilt in Washington and the reading of names also captured the public imagination, although an angrier protest saw some bereaved marchers emptying ashes of their loved ones on to the lawn outside the White House. On the night before the ballot, Rafsky brought the coffin of AIDS victim John Fisher to the same spot and delivered an impassioned oration in which he cursed Bush for his neglect. However, it would prove to he his last hurrah, as Rasky died soon after and France includes footage of the wife and daughter to whom he had remained close.

Amidst these very public displays of grief and anger, Emini and Vacca made a breakthrough at Merck when Patient 143 responded positively to Crixivan and they tried to analyse why it worked so well on him and not anyone else in the test. Yet, while they continued to toil, news came that AZT, DDI and DDC had proven less effective in the long term than had initially been hoped and Barr and Staley gave a press conference regretting their naiveté in thinking that there was a magic bullet just waiting to be discovered. Such pessimism persisted into 1994 (6.2 million) and onetime comrades fell out dramatically over the FDA director David  Kessler's desire to speed up the release of Saquinivir, with TAG reps Link and Gregg Gonsalves urging caution to prevent a repeat of past mistakes. But, just as internecine fissures began to tear, fortune smiled.

France links close-ups of Harrington,, Link, Gonsalves, Cox, Bordowitz and Staley in the present day, as the 1995 counter slips past 8.2 million deaths. Staley laments that so many good people were lost and feels guilt at surviving when so many others did not. Fauci praises Harrington and his circle for matching intelligence with diligence, as their promptings helped Emini and Vacca devise the triple combination treatment that showed such remarkable results within 30 days that the press began proclaiming a `Lazarus Effect'. An emotional Staley expresses his pride at the goodness and humanity the gay community and their supporters showed in taking care of each other, while Kramer and Eigo commend the courage and zeal of ACT-UP. However, Harrington cries as he lambastes Reagan and Bush for not acting sooner and the film concludes with the staggering statistic that six million AIDS victims have survived thanks to combination therapy - while a further two million die each year because they cannot afford it

Complete with a happy ending, this often feels like a summation of the countless documentaries that have charted the progress of AIDS research since the early 1980s. It is angrier with the White House than some and more forgiving of Big Pharma than others. But it is most intent on lionising those in the ACT-UP and TAG vanguards, who took on all-comers in the face of institutionalised neglect. That so many of them lived to tell the tale is remarkable, but that they do so with such sensitivity and lack of self-congratulatory hindsight is even more admirable. As a journalist who covered the story first-hand, France knows his material and the personalities involved inside out. But he only occasionally takes prior knowledge for granted and, as a result, this could become the defintive account of a struggle that shamed a nation and still casts a dark shadow over the reputation of the global pharmaceutical industry.