From the moment that world-weary actor Stephen Dorff is seen driving his black Ferrari in aimless circles, it's clear that Sofia Coppola's Somewhere is heading nowhere fast. Grist to the mill of those who found Lost in Translation (2003) preening and smug, this insider's guide to the empty trappings of celebrity and the ennui of artistic down time leaves one longing for the gleeful excess of Marie Antoinette (2006) and the disconcerting dreaminess of The Virgin Suicides (1999). Moreover, it raises worrying questions about whether the soon-to-be 40 year-old is afflicted by the Coppola family curse of starting well before petering out slowly.

Holed up in Los Angeles's legendary Chateau Marmont hotel while he recovers from a wrist injury, Dorff is finding it increasingly difficult to play the movie fame game. He nods wearily to fellow guests like Benecio Del Toro. But acting bores him and press junkets have become more of an inconvenience than an intrusion into a private life that is increasingly populated by lap-dancers and party girls who pester him with texts and demand an interest and an intimacy that he is simply unprepared to invest.

However, he is forced to emerge from his pampered and substance-tinted existence when ex-wife Lala Sloatman shows up unexpectedly to foist 11 year-old daughter Elle Fanning upon him. She is virtually a stranger and Dorff is stung by the fact that buddy Chris Pontius strikes up an easy and immediate rapport with her while he can barely think of anything to say. But Fanning makes few demands on him and seems content to lounge by the pool and accept his flaws in order to get to know him a little better.

Having briefly allowed Harris Savides's camera to prowl between the Marmont's famous bungalows, Coppola rather clumsily contrasts a desultory pole-dance performed twice and in sordid detail by twins Kristina and Karissa Shannon with Fanning's charming ice-skating routine. But she more subtly captures the burgeoning father-daughter bond when Dorff flies to Milan to boost his latest picture and collect an award and Fanning revels in the opportunity to romp with him around his suite at the Hotel Principe Di Savoia. She even manages to shrug off the discovery of starlet Laura Chiatti in his bed the next morning. But the cherished closeness proves to be all-too-transient, as no sooner have they returned to California than Fanning heads off to summer camp and Dorff is corralled back into the meaningless grind by his fawning factotums.

It's a mercy that Coppola decided against depicting Fanning as a do-gooding Pollyanna who shames Dorff into seeing the error of his ways. But his climactic comeuppance is so mild that the screenplay virtually avoids passing worthwhile comment on the way in which talent is indulged in Tinseltown and how many careers and, indeed, lives have been wasted because irresponsibility has been allowed to run unchecked.

Dorff and Fanning interact splendidly, with his slouching indolence contrasting drolly with her alert watchfulness. Yet each is strangely vulnerable, as she risks becoming overly fond of a sham who will never really find much time for her and he is doomed never to realise how much her affection could transform him. But, apart from these fleeting glimpses inside the relationship between a famous man and his daughter, Coppola seems bereft of things to say, about either a situation or a milieu she knows well. Consequently, while this most gently ironic of dramas occasionally amuses, it rarely enlightens or enthrals.

Another father loses his way in Biutiful, Alejandro González Iñárritu's first feature since his acrimonious split with Guillermo Arriaga, the scenarist with whom he worked on Amores Perros (2000), 21 Grams (2003) and Babel (2006). But while the Mexican director and his Argentinian co-writers Armando Bo and Nicolas Giacobone succeeded in fashioning a Cannes-winning and Oscar-nominated role for Javier Bardem, they fail to make the viewer care about the plight of a Barcelonan operating on the margins of criminality who is determined to provide for his children before he succumbs to pancreatic cancer.

Haunting the back alleys and derelict edifices of the Catalan capital, Bardem exploits the defenceless with considerably more conscience than his dissolute brother Eduard Fernández. Together they organise a gang of Senegalese street traders and arrange labouring and sweatshop contracts for the Chinese migrants smuggled into Spain by the merciless Taisheng Cheng. He also acts as a medium so his neighbours in the rundown Santa Coloma district can commune with their deceased loved ones.

But Bardem isn't motivated by greed. Instead, he is driven by the need to take care for Hanaa Bouchaib and Guillermo Estrella, who can no longer be left with their drunken and bipolar masseuse mother Maricel Álvarez, who has recently become Fernández's mistress. However, when he discovers the severity of his condition, Bardem realises that he has little time to ensure that the kids have enough to live on after his death.

In relating his first linear story, Iñárritu so relentlessly piles misery upon misfortune that he leaves little room to develop subplots involving Senegalese mother Diaryatou Daff and her deported husband, Cheikh Ndiaye, and the grasping Cheng and his ne'er-do-well lover Luo Jin. Moreover, he ends up allowing Rodrigo Prieto's lowering imagery and Gustavo Santaolalla's imposing score to carry as much of the dramatic burden as Bardem, with the consequence that this becomes more of a mood piece than either a character study or an exposé of the seedier side of a city renowned for its chic cosmopolitanism.

Having banished any semblance of humour, Iñárritu periodically attempts to lighten proceedings with ill-judged moments of magic realism. But there are scenes of unbearable power and poignancy, such as the police assault on the street vendors, the disastrous attempt to heat the crowded basement where the Chinese workers sleep and the exhumation of the father that Bardem and Fernández never knew because he fled in fear of Franco and died alone in Mexico. Yett it's Bardem's helpless sigh of regret that he will soon abandon his own children and has failed so singularly to protect those he loves that proves the most distressing.

Despite tackling very different issues in much more salubrious surroundings, Joanna Hogg's second feature, Archipelago, is also something of a curate's egg. Superbly photographed by Ed Rutherford and played with intelligence by a decent ensemble, it suffers from being too similar to Hogg's overrated debut, Unrelated (2007), and the fact that her laudable attempts to produce chamber dramas that combine the intensity of Ingmar Bergman with the edge of Michael Haneke are so urbanely bloodless.

Once again Hogg's holidaying bourgeois prove to be neither charming nor discreet. Arriving on the Scilly isle of Tresco for a short break before he goes to Africa on voluntary service, twentysomething Tom Hiddleston settles into a cosy cottage with mother Kate Fahy and sister Lydia Leonard. He natters bashfully in the kitchen with hired cook Amy Lloyd and endures some barbed dinner-table teasing from the disapproving Leonard about his flirting with a stranger when he is about to leave his girlfriend in the lurch while he goes on an adventure to find himself.

The tension has abated, however, by the time Christopher Baker arrives to give Fahy and Leonard their first painting lesson. But Fahy becomes increasingly frustrated with her husband's telephoned excuses for his failure to join them, while Leonard allows her resentment that Hiddleston is the favoured child to spill over from waspish sniping into a brattish rant when she complains about the way her guinea fowl has been cooked in a small local restaurant and then erupt into a full-blown tantrum when she storms out into the night after yet another contretemps with her sibling.

Despite bicycle rides and picnics replacing the more exotic Tuscan excursions, the phone feuds and off-screen squabbles that made Unrelated so distinctive and disconcerting now feel decidedly derivative. Moreover, the eloquent chit-chat (much of which is improvised with an awkward naturalism) does little to overcome either the dearth of backstory explaining the lack of familial affection or the dogged distanciation of the inert shooting style that prevents any identification with the characters.

Consequently, this self-consciously elliptical saga seems alternately precious and ponderous. But, with so many British film-makers still convinced that social and dramatic legitimacy can only be found on council estates or in inner-city towerblocks, it's vital that Hogg remains dedicated to exposing the truth behind civilised middle-class façades.

Overcoming preconception is also among the themes of Shamim Sharif's I Can't Think Straight. However, the emphasis is more firmly on the prejudices of patriarchal religion.

Adapted by the debuting Sharif from her own novel, this is essentially a slice of soap opera with arthouse pretensions, in which middle-class Indian Muslim Sheetal Sheth falls for affluent Christian Palestinian Lisa Ray in suburban London. Sheth is a wannabe novelist, who works for her father's insurance company while tolerating mother Siddiqua Akhtar's constant nagging about finding a suitable husband. She knows Rez Kempton isn't Mr Right and is quick to ditch him after becoming besotted with his gal pal.

However, Ray is about to return to the Jordanian capital, Amman, to tie the knot after breaking off her three previous engagements. But a weekend trip to Oxford changes everything and the couple has to overcome their mothers' misgivings before they can find happiness.

With its passing discussions of anti-Semitism and the pain of the émigré, this cross-cultural romance clearly wants to be both socially conscious and romcomically cute. However, it's stuffed with simplifications and stereotypes. Sheth and Ray's sisters, Amber Rose Revah and Anya Lahiri, are more like plot devices than siblings, while Nina Wadia's insolent maid (who keeps spitting in Akhtar's drinks) is a risible attempt at light relief.

Even more damningly, there's precious little chemistry between the leads, whose stiff performances are not helped by either the wince-inducingly sincere and thuddingly theatrical dialogue or the way in which Sharif poses the pair against travelogue landmarks and landscapes for Aseem Bajaj's fetishising camera. Rarely have Oxford's architectural jewels been filmed in such a cloyingly postcardy manner.

It's never pleasant to castigate a film that means so well. But such crassly complacent caricaturisation and naive ethnic schematicism is hard to overlook and it's something of a relief to report that Sharif's second outing, The World Unseen, represents a significant improvement.

Indian actress Lisa Ray clearly delights in defying convention. Having broken Hindu laws pertaining to widows in Deepa Mehta's controverisal drama Water, here she challenges both the apartheid system and the social taboos surrounding lesbianism in 1950s South Africa, as she becomes increasingly alienated from cheating grocer husband Parvin Dabas and develops a coy crush on mixed-race Asian, Sheetal Sheth. She is something of a trailblazer herself, as she not only allows her black staff to sit with the white customers in her neighbourhood eatery, but she also shelters Dabas's fugitive and highly politicised sister, Nandana Sen. However, it's only a matter of time before the lovers' secret comes out and painful choices have to be made.

Genial, polished, but lightweight, this could perhaps be subtitled, Fried Green Chillies at the Location Café. Sarif's liberal stance is unimpeachable. But the Afrikaaner cops are allowed to rant like B-movie Nazis, while both Ray's romance with Sheth and postmistress Grethe Fox's platonic relationship with café manager David Dennis are too novelettish to convince. Sarif seems to be more of a novelist than a film-maker, but maybe she'll have better luck if she ever gets round to adapting her acclaimed second novel, Despite the Falling Snow.

Adult animation has made great strides in recent years, with films like Persepolis and Waltz With Bashir (both 2008) showing how serious themes can be tackled in cartoon form. However, Fernando Trueba, Javier Mariscal and Tono Errando's Chico and Rita is much less accomplished, both in terms of its subject matter and its graphic style, as it follows the fortunes of two Cuban musicians from the 1940s to the present day in a format that lavishes attention on the evocative settings and skimps on the crucial character sketching. Consequently, while this is an engaging checklist of musical movie tropes that boasts a glorious soundtrack, it's something of a visual disappointment.

Opening in postwar Havana, the action quickly brings Chico and Rita together, as the struggling pianist spots the lissom chanteuse in a tiny dance club and asks if he can accompany her in an upcoming radio talent contest. Rita, however, plays it cool and leaves on the arm of an American impresario named Ron. But they meet again, hours later, at the swanky Tropicana (after Chico's opportunist manager Ramon had smuggled them in) and she's suitably impressed when he sits in with Woody Herman's band and makes an impeccable sight reading of Stravinsky's `Ebony Concerto'. A breakneck car chase through the city and a night of torrid passion ensues, only for Rita to end up slapping Chico's face when they're interrupted next morning by his sassy mistress, Juana.

Ramon coaxes Rita into participating in the radio show and their triumph leads to brief celebrity. However, Chico becomes jealous of Ron's attempts to lure Rita to New York and she decides to leave after watching him take drunken consolation in the ever-willing Juana. Once again, Ramon rises to the occasion and lands Chico some gigs in the Big Apple. But Ron is desperate to keep the couple apart and, when Rita lands a lucrative Hollywood contract, he bribes Ramon into sending Chico on a European tour and years pass before they are reunited. Even then, however, Ron is prepared to do whatever it takes to prevent Chico from keeping their New Year wedding night rendezvous in Las Vegas.

Employing the enhanced rotoscoping technique used by Richard Linklater in Waking Life (2001), animation director Marcelo Fernandes De Moura captures the rhythms of the Cuban jazz scene with sensual grace. The background rendition of the clubs and landmarks of Havana, New York, Paris, Hollywood and Vegas is also wonderfully atmospheric. But the character animation is frustratingly unflattering, with Rita resembling a Modigliani caricature, while Ron glowers with all the subtlety of a comic-book villain. Moreover, the graphic shortcomings serve to emphasise the narrative contrivances that are almost wholly dictated by impulse and irrationality. If Chico and Rita had taken the time to have one frank conversation some time around 1950, they could have spared themselves a lot of heartache.

But, as in most musicals, the storyline is simply a convenient hook on which to hang the numbers and the music here is sublime. With jazz legend Bebo Valdes playing Chico's piano part and Idania Valdes providing Rita's sultry singing voice, tracks like Consuelo Velásquez's `Besame Mucho' and Cole Porter's `Love for Sale' evoke both period memories and the heyday of the Buena Vista Social Club. The cameos by Charlie Parker, Woody Herman, Dizzy Gillespie and Chano Pozo (who meets a violent end after a run-in with some Gotham drug dealers) are also persuasive, as is Chico's late-life revival with Estrella Morente. However, Rita's career-wrecking rant against racism within the American entertainment industry is less convincing (despite its historical accuracy) and the final reconciliation is pure cornball. But when was a musical - whether animated or not - ever anything else?

And there's plenty of opportunity to judge the validity of that statement in The Deanna Durbin Collection, which has been issued to mark the singer's 90th birthday in December.

Born Edna Mae Durbin in Canada, but raised in California, the teenage chanteuse failed to impress MGM's Louis B. Mayer when she was teamed with Judy Garland in the 1936 short, Every Sunday. So, after she failed an audition for Walt Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), she was snapped up by Universal, where she became an overnight sensation and saved the studio from bankruptcy in Three Smart Girls (1937). Her reward was a special Academy Award that was presented by Mickey Rooney and noted her `significant contribution in bringing to the screen the spirit and personification of youth, and as juvenile players setting a high standard of ability and achievement'.

She would make five more features with director Henry Koster, who brought European charm to her all-American exuberance. But it was 10-time producer Joe Pasternak who moulded her lyrical soprano and perky personality in a way that enabled her to combine contemporary and classical song, most notably in tandem with Leopold Stokowski in One Hundred Men and a Girl (1937).

Only Garland and Shirley Temple could match Durbin's spirited warmth in films like Three Smart Girls Grow Up (1939), It's a Date (1940) and Nice Girl? (1941). But she quickly moved from playing Cupid to having crushes and her first kiss, with Robert Stack, in First Love (1939) became headline news, especially as she then had the world's biggest fan club.

Durbin was also a talented actress who delivered dialogue with a fluency and intelligence that echoed the disciplined clarity of her singing and made her a match for Charles Laughton in It Started With Eve (1941) and Because of Him (1946). Indeed, non-musicals like Christmas Holiday (1944) and Lady on a Train (1945) suggested that she could easily have graduated from musicals. But after Pasternak left for MGM, Durbin was assigned more routine (if still enjoyable) vehicles, like The Amazing Mrs Holliday (1943), His Butler's Sister (both 1943), I'll Be Yours, Something in the Wind (both 1947), Up in Central Park (1948) and For the Love of Mary (1949).

Durbin only made one film in colour, Can't Help Singing (1944), in which she introduced Jerome Kern's `More and More', one of her four Oscar-nominated songs - the others coming in That Certain Age (1938), Spring Parade (1940) and Hers To Hold (1943). Indeed, she had more hits (23) on radio's Your Hit Parade than either Judy Garland (13) or Betty Grable and Doris Day (12 each). But she was becoming frustrated by the calibre of her material and the constant struggle to manage her weight. So, after only 22 features, she retired at the age of 26.

On quitting Universal, Durbin declared, `I can't run around forever being a Little Miss Fix-It who bursts into song - the highest paid star with the poorest material.' But, even when she was offered choicer projects, she resisted Mario Lanza's frequent entreaties to make a comeback and turned down Alan Jay Lerner's personal invitation to play Eliza Doolittle in the Broadway premiere of My Fair Lady (1956).

Besides one interview with British critic David Shipman in 1983, Durbin has since refused to discuss her career and has lived in near-total seclusion in the French village of Neauphlé-le-Château for the last four decades. Yet she remains the most requested star of Hollywood's Golden Age on the BBC and this overdue DVD set may well win her a new generation of admirers.