REVIEW: “Paddington 2”

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I still remember January 2015 and the delightful little surprise that was “Paddington”. January is the time of year often known as a dumping ground for movies with little studio support. “Paddington” landed in the United States (after a successful 2014 launch overseas) and not only gave us something to watch early in the year, but a really good movie as well. Now its sequel continues that trend of bright January surprises.

Let me get this out of the way, “Paddington 2” is one of those rare sequels that’s better than its predecessor in nearly every way. That’s not a knock on the first film, “Paddington 2” is just that good. Paul King returns as director and co-writer of this adorable family movie telling the continued adventures of a friendly Peruvian bear and the Brown family of London who adopted him as one of their own.

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Things are wonderful for Paddington. His infectious kindness has endeared him to all of his Windsor Gardens neighbors. Well, with the exception of the delusional self-appointed neighborhood watchman (Peter Capaldi). Ben Whishaw is back lending his gentle and mellow voice to Paddington. Also returning is Sally Hawkins and Hugh Bonneville as Paddington’s congenial human parents Mary and Henry Brown.

Knowing his Aunt Lucy’s 100th birthday is just around the corner, the compassionate cub looks to get her the perfect gift. He finds it in a friend’s antique shop – a beautiful old pop-up book of London. One of my favorite sequences sees a wonderstruck Paddington flipping through the pages for the first time, his imagination pulling him into the book. Inside he walks from page to page showing Aunt Lucy the city she has dreamed of visiting. It’s gorgeous, charming and from then on the movie had me.

In order to purchase the book Paddington picks up some small jobs to earn money. As you would expect slapstick ensues, tempered and funny. But there’s a problem. A washed up actor named Phoenix Buchanan has his eyes on the book as well. Hugh Grant has a blast hamming it up as this narcissistic goofball who believes the book contains secrets that will help him recapture his formal glory. He devises a plan to swipe the book framing Paddington in the process.

It’s here the movie makes a hysterical shift. Paddington is arrested and eventually sent to prison. The entire prison sequence feels like something yanked straight out of a Wes Anderson picture. The dialogue, the quirky sense of humor, the visual composition all scream Andersonian influence. Soaking in Erik Wilson’s images is pure joy and as an Anderson superfan I found myself constantly amazed at how well King utilizes (or is he paying tribute to) such a unique style. But the film doesn’t depend on that influence. King makes this very much its own movie.

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It’s also laugh-out-loud funny. How can you not laugh at a mean, burly Brendan Gleason munching on a marmalade sandwich and discovering its savory magic. By the way his character’s name is Knuckles McGinty and he is the tough-as-nails prison chef. Watching the contagiously kind Paddington attempt to crack this hard nut is both undeniably sweet and genuinely hilarious.

Of the five ‘kids movie’ trailers we saw before our showing three of them contained variations of the tired but immensely popular fart joke. One of the great delights of “Paddington 2” is its trust in itself over lame gimmicky “humor”. Even as the movie picks up steam in the final act it never loses itself like many of these pictures do. And it always stays on message – you can never go wrong by being kind, caring, and compassionate. And the ripple effect of such a mindset can change the world. Now there is a message we all need to hear and “Paddington 2” makes sure we get to laugh along the way.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “In the Heart of the Sea”

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It has been a while since we’ve had a Moby Dick movie. There has been an interesting variety of cinematic iterations (my favorite being John Huston and Gregory Peck’s 1956 version). Now we have Ron Howard’s “In the Heart of the Sea”. Well actually “In the Heart of the Sea” isn’t a Moby Dick movie. It is based on “the true encounter that inspired one of the greatest legends of all time” (aka it’s kind of a Moby Dick movie, but it really isn’t).

The Son of Odin and one time Sexiest Man Alive Chris Hemsworth stars in this nautical thriller which is more directly taken from Nathaniel Philbrick’s nonfiction book of the same name. It chronicles the fate of the whaleship Essex which in 1820 encountered a massive sperm whale in the Pacific Ocean. There is no Captain Ahad driven mad with bloodlust towards a massive underwater leviathan. No, instead this is an open-sea survival story that may end up surprising people with the grim and darker paths it takes.

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The story is told to us through an interview between writer Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) and Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson). Melville is an ambitious young novelist who needs (both mentally and career-wise) a good story to tell. Nickerson served on the Essex as a young boy and since has been haunted by pent-up memories of survival.

 

Nickerson recalls his story through flashbacks. In them we meet a seasoned whaler named Owen Chase (Hemsworth). Although he had been promised the captaincy of his own ship, instead he is assigned to the Essex to serve as First Mate to an inexperienced and insecure Captain with a prominent last name (Benjamin Walker). The 21-man crew head out on a two and a half year voyage for highly coveted and profitable whale oil.

The crew-favorite First Mate Chase and the jealous Captain Pollard quickly butt heads. Pollard’s arrogant ineptitude nearly has them killed by a violent storm. But the first sighting of whales quickly mends the hostility. While restocking in Ecuador Pollard and Chase are told of an area of Pacific waters that is loaded with whales for the catching. They are also warned of a giant beast bigger than mind can fathom. They dismiss the warning and head towards the fishing grounds hoping to get their oil quota so they can head back home.

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I shouldn’t need to tell you they do encounter this massive sperm whale and the results aren’t good. Soon after the crew find themselves fighting to survive, not so much from the whale, but from starvation, the elements, and at times each other. The story ventures into some pretty dark areas and deals with some fairly complicated moral questions. It never fully dives into its darkness. In skirts around the edges of its PG-13 boundaries and it doesn’t spend as much time exploring the harsh survival aspect as it could have. Still, it definitely gets its points across.

The moments Melville has with Nickerson are fantastic and they have just as much going on dramatically. Gleeson is simply one of the best working actors. With an effortless poetry he allows us to see through the eyes of this scarred and emotionally fragile character. His scenes with Whishaw are fewer, but they are just as compelling as the high seas adventure. They are also inseparable. The story of the Essex is the cathartic release of a damaged psyche and since I bought into Nickerson, the story he was telling was made more important.

 

This is a big film for Hemsworth, an actor who needs a good meaty performance. He needs something to help him be seen as more than ‘Thor from the Marvel movies’. Other than some pretty solid work in “Rush” we haven’t seen it. Forgettable performances in forgettable films like “Red Dawn”, “Snow White and the Huntsman”, and “Blackhat” haven’t helped. Here he gives a much more seasoned and fitting performance. There are moments where he works a bit too hard, but overall he’s good. Hemsworth lost almost 50 pounds of that chiseled Asgardian physique for this one. He certainly went all in.

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Speaking of going all in, so does Ron Howard. “In the Heart” has no shortage a special effects most of which are strikingly effective particularly on the big screen. A lot of my pleasure came from how he and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (a Danny Boyle favorite) framed many of their shots. There are so many cool angles and unusual perspectives. Some are used to heighten our senses to certain situations while others simply ground us in what’s going on. Some may be just to show off how beautiful a shot is. There is such a high polish to many of the visuals and sometimes that makes the effects a tad too obvious, but as a whole Howard gives us plenty of fantastic things to look at.

People will undoubtedly compare this to “Moby Dick” and that’s unfortunate. In fact walking out of the theater I overheard a guy saying “I like Gregory Peck’s version better.” The trailers have certainly helped to fuel these expectations. But his isn’t a man-versus-whale story. This isn’t “Moby Dick”. There is an entirely different story being told and I found it to be pretty compelling. Popular critical sentiment is that “In the Heart of the Sea” falls short. I’ll admit Ron Howard submits to a pretty firm and unbending structure and perhaps the film doesn’t explore certain themes as deeply as I wanted. But there is so much I appreciate both narratively and visually, and the film is definitely more than high seas eye candy.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4 Stars

REVIEW: “Suffragette”

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suf·fra·gette (/səfrəˈjet/) noun • historical

a woman seeking the right to vote through organized protest.

That definition is true yet in no way does it adequately define the women and the movement they sparked in the late 19th and early 20th century. In Great Britain the suffragette movement became a force sometimes blurring the lines between lawful and militant protesting. Militant groups such as the WSPU led by Emmeline Pankhurst went from picketing, protesting, and hunger strikes to arson and bombings. While their tactics may have sometimes crossed the line, the rights they fought for were important and deserved. It was a complex time.

“Suffragette”, the new film from director Sarah Gavron, sets itself in this period and seeks to tell the story of passionate women standing up for their right to vote. But movies like this can be tricky. When you have a wealth of rich historical source material you automatically have a story to tell. It also offers a chance to deliver a powerful message. Movies have often stumbled when trying to balance these two creative opportunities.

The story is told through predominantly fictional characters but with a few historical figures included. Instead of telling a specific historical account, writer Abi Morgan creates several characters and reveals that period through their eyes and their experiences. The always absorbing Carey Mulligan serves as our main lens. She plays Maud Watts a wife and mother who also works long, strenuous hours as a laundress.

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It’s London in 1912. The suffragettes have only begun to make waves. Maud first witnesses the movement through street speakers and storefront vandalism. But her interest is mainly influenced by the inequalities she experiences at her workplace. She is also encouraged by the infectious enthusiasm of her friend Violet (Anne-Marie Duff). Maud becomes more involved as she meets inspirational women like Helena Bonham Carter’s Emily and Meryl Streep’s Emmeline Pankhurst.

Wisely, Gavron and Morgan don’t make Maud’s decisions easy. We get a compelling internal struggle and there is a constant wrestling with the potential consequences of going too far. The decisions are made even more difficult by her unsupportive husband Sonny (Ben Whishaw) and the thoughts of being separated from her young son. Add to that the dogged pursuit of the government assigned Inspector Steed (Brendan Gleeson). As the movie progresses that struggle evolves in a way that is very organic and satisfying.

The character and the struggle mainly works thanks to Mulligan. This is such an understated and subdued performance that plays in perfect sync with the character. She skillfully articulates every feeling and raw emotion. It’s no glamorous role. Mulligan sports a tired and worn face and she often expresses a convincing sense of physical and emotional exhaustion. It’s impressive watching her transition from a woman sadly content with the hand she has been dealt in life to a woman driven to action by that very same hand. It’s a fine performance.

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Then there is Meryl Streep. In a bit of promotional manipulation you would think Streep has a significant role. Actually she does not. It’s basically a glorified cameo. It’s almost as if they were positioning her for the obligatory Oscar nomination she gets every year (apparently no one feels “Ricki and the Flash” is going to do it for her). She’s not bad here, but there is nothing to her small appearance that stands out either.

Where “Suffragette” stumbles is in the omission department. The film looks at Maud’s life and tells her story well. But at the same time it wants to represent an important historical struggle and does so in broad strokes. Much of the struggle is thinly represented namely the motivations behind voter suppression and the political manipulation and posturing. So much in this area could have been explored. Instead we just get highlights. There is also the ending which is fine in concept but came sudden and abrupt.

“Suffragette” dances in numerous shades of gray both in the actions of the women shown in the film and in the film’s opinion about them. But it certainly doesn’t waver in its message about the plight of women during a time that wasn’t that long ago. Regardless of any hiccups, the film deals in powerful and important themes and does so in a way that can’t be ignored. There is such a great sense of time and place and falling into the life of Maud is effortless for us. It also helps to have a great performance by Carey Mulligan – one that could easily earn her a nomination come Oscar time.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4 Stars

REVIEW: “Spectre”

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In a way I owe Daniel Craig a debt of gratitude. His tenure as James Bond is what lured me into the hugely popular franchise. Purists will likely scoff, but Craig’s iteration of the British super spy has featured less cheese and more humanity and vulnerability. An argument could be made that the high-energy cheese is what made those earlier films great. I believe that to a degree. But ultimately it has been Craig’s Bond run than has drawn me and given me an greater appreciation for the franchise as a whole.

This is Craig’s fourth turn as the dapper 007 and his second Bond film with director Sam Mendes. Their previous installment “Skyfall” was a global juggernaut at the box office becoming the 14th film to earn over $1 billion dollars. It was also well received by critics many of whom called it Craig’s best Bond picture. So now comes the next film and the unenviable task of matching the success of its predecessor. To do that the film was given a budget that has made it one of the most expensive movies ever created. But throwing money at a project doesn’t automatically equal good results.

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“Spectre” starts off firing with Bond in Mexico City during the Day of the Dead. He’s on a deeply personal mission which leads him to a terrorist named Marco Sciarra (Alessandro Cremona). Sciarra is connected to a sinister secret criminal organization called Spectre which is led by the shadowy Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Christoph Waltz). At the same time M (Ralph Fiennes) is battling to protect MI6 from the aggressive head of the Joint Intelligence Service who wants to do away with the 00 program.

Bond tracks Spectre to Rome, the first leg of his globetrotting search for answers. He discovers that he may have a deeper connection to Ernst and his organization. As 007 hunts to unearth the truth, Spectre is out to stop him at all costs. They go head-to-head in a number of exotic locales including Rome, Morocco, Austria, and London. One of the film’s strong points is how well it captures all of the fun and varied locations.

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In fact all of “Spectre” looks good. Hoyte van Hoytema’s cinematography lives up to the franchise expectations and at times it absolutely shines. The Mexico City opening is exciting and energetic featuring several visual highlights. The same goes for a fun car chase through the streets of Rome and a thrilling plane vs. Land Rover chase down a snowy Austrian mountain. The film definitely has its moments.

Unfortunately “Spectre” also has its flaws and no amount of visual splendor can cover them up. While I liked “Spectre” as a whole, I was expecting more action, more energy, more drama, more character development, and more signature Bond moments. Compared to Craig’s three previous Bond movies “Spectre” feels hollow, inert, and terribly inconsistent. After the phenomenal Mexico City start, the movie is constantly fluctuating between excitement and slow stretches of vapidity.

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You simply don’t expect this considering how well these movies have worked in the past. But as I sat in the theater I kept waiting for the film to gain its footing. I kept waiting for it to kick into gear. But there is a frustrating sluggishness to the screenplay – the collaborative work of four different writers. It wastes so much time that could’ve been better spent developing some of the characters namely the story’s villain.

Christoph Waltz is a superb actor but the amount of screen time he is given never allows him to flesh out a compelling villain. His villainy is mainly referred to more than shown and we never see that big Bond vs. Villain moment. The closest we get is an absurd torture scene that features one head scratching moment after another. I was so excited to see him as a Bond villain but this was a tremendous waste. As was Dave Bautista as Spectre’s hitman. He’s a stereotypical henchman who shows as much emotion as a house plant.

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Craig gives another good performance but he isn’t offered any material to stretch his character. All of the supporting Bond cast members are here including Q (Ben Whishaw) who gets more screen time than before. He’s a lot of fun. Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) has a few good lines and Fiennes is good when wrangling back and forth for the 00 program’s survival. Unfortunately both feel underused. Lea Seydoux is the main ‘Bond girl’ this time around and her performance is solid. But her character is a bit flimsy and uneven.

That could be the best way to describe “Spectre” – uneven. It’s a film undoubtedly approached with mile-high expectations from many. Perhaps too high. But truthfully expectations aren’t the problem. This is a film that features some fine action sequences. It has a good story at its core and there are moments where it comes together in really interesting ways. But there are also moments where it makes practically no sense and other moments where it sputters and spins its wheels. Still I liked the movie and I’m anxious to give it another look, but with this cast and this pedigree I can’t help but be disappointed with what we get.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

3 Stars

“SKYFALL” – 4.5 STARS

Skyfall” may be the best James Bond movie ever. Better yet, Daniel Craig may be the best James Bond ever. Now before the Bond diehards come at me with torches and pitchforks let me make something abundantly clear. I am not the biggest Bond guy. I haven’t seen even half of the Bond movies. So I certainly don’t consider myself a Bond expert. In fact I may not even qualify as a true Bond fan by some. I’m not well versed on Bond lore, the Bond girls, or the history that has surrounded this universally loved character for the last 50 years. So I don’t live under the false assumption that I’m an expert when it comes to the James Bond franchise. But I like to think that I know a good movie when I see one and “Skyfall” is a very good movie.

My Bond apathy changed in 2006 with the release of “Casino Royal”. It introduced a grittier, more grounded Bond in the form of Daniel Craig. He wasn’t as prim and polished and a sense of reality was brought to the character that I had never seen before. It was also a fantastic movie that I thoroughly enjoy. The Bond appeal grew for me in 2008 with the lesser but equally entertaining “Quantum of Solace”. And now he’s back with “Skyfall”, a 007 film that’s every bit as good as “Casino Royale” and for my money even a bit better. Sam Mendes directs the film, the 23rd installment of the franchise. Mendes tips his hat to several of the previous 007 films and has fun with many things that Bond fans should love. But he also maintains the emotional edge to Bond that has made Daniel Craig’s run so effective for me.

The film starts with a jaw-dropping opening chase sequence that uses cars, motorcycles, trains, and cranes. It moves through market streets, on rooftops, through tunnels, and finally on a huge bridge where Bond is inadvertently shot off of a speeding train by a fellow agent at M’s command. Believed dead, Bond goes off the grid and submerges himself in a life of anonymity and alcohol. Now the movie never gives a satisfying reason as to why Bond became a closed off boozer. We get a few hints of it later but it seemed pretty drastic and off-the-wall. But we wouldn’t have a Bond movie if 007 wasn’t spoiling evil plots with his well-pressed suits and assorted gadgetry. He makes his return after MI6 is devastated by terrorist attack with M seeming to be the main target. Judi Dench returns to the role that she first played in 1995’s “GoldenEye”. This time she’s not only a terrorist’s target but she’s facing heavy political pressure concerning her handling of MI6. As with each of her other performances in the series, Dench is marvelous and here we get to see a different side of her and her relationship to 007.

The big baddie this time is none other than Javier Bardem. He plays Raoul Silva, a psycho former MI6 agent with a rather large grudge against M. Bardem is deliciously villainous and once he makes his appearance the movie’s intensity amps up. Unfortunately he doesn’t show up until well into the film. Now that’s not a knock on the first part of the movie. But I wanted more of Bardem and I couldn’t help but feel that they could have built up the character and his motivations more in the early parts of the movie. Some of the movie’s best moments feature Bardem. There is a tense first meeting between Bond and Silva that you can’t take your eyes off of. There’s also a fantastic “Silence of the Lambs” styled exchange between Silva and M that sets the table for what’s to come later in the movie. It’s one of my favorite exchanges in cinema this year.

Another new addition to the cast is Ralph Fiennes. He places an ex-military man and current government intelligence official who regulates MI6. Fiennes is rock solid, as you would expect. Albert Finney also has a fun role as an old family friend of Bond’s and Ben Whishaw steals several scenes as Q, the gadget granting quartermaster. All the performances are good and this is probably the best overall cast in a Bond movie yet. They are helped by a crisp, intelligent, and perfectly paced script that pulls absolutely everything out of these characters. And the screenplay knows how to be respectful of the franchise while also having fun with it as well. There are several good laughs but for the most part this is the same serious, no-nonsense Bond that we got in the last two films and I’m thankful for that.

There are several other things that worked incredibly well that I could mention, most notably Roger Deakins brilliant camera work, the wonderful editing by Stuart and Kate Baird, and Thomas Newman’s perfect score. But not everything worked that well. The Bond girls have become almost as popular as 007 himself. But with the exception of the unconventional M, these Bond girls are bland and for the most part forgettable. Now Naomie Harris is fine as a fellow MI6 field agent who holds her own with 007. She has some really good scenes when working in the field, but she also has a couple of almost obligatory flirt scenes with Bond that didn’t work as well for me. Then you have Bérénice Marlohe who certainly looks the part but disappears almost as soon as she arrives. Also, I know Bond is a ladies man. But there are a couple of scenes featuring out-of-the-blue “romance” that are thrown in just because its expected from the character. Never mind that they clash with the tone and pacing of the story. Both are scenes that were poorly conceived and I could have done without them.

While these few flaws may keep “Skyfall” from being a perfect movie, they don’t stop it from being great movie. More importantly, the Daniel Craig era of 007 movies has won me over to the point that I’m anxiously awaiting the next installment. There has been a lot of internet buzz lately over who may be the next 007. But for my money Craig has earned the position for as long as he’s willing to take it. And as long as the studio is willing to surround him with a fine supporting cast, intelligent writers, and sharp directors, the possibilities are endless for this iconic character. One thing is for certain, I’m now officially a Bond fan and “Skyfall” only cemented that. Bring on oo7 #24!