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

4-5-stars

REVIEW: “Assassin’s Creed”

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I just knew they existed even before the first screenings of “Assassin’s Creed” – the haughty dismissive jabs at yet another ‘video game movie’. Nevermind that video games have evolved from simple pixels and sprites into vast interactive experiences often times anchored by deep, thoughtful stories. Forget that video games have surpassed both Hollywood and the music industry in the entertainment market. Many people simply won’t treat video games or their movie adaptations seriously, so in that regard “Assassin’s Creed” was already behind the proverbial eight ball.

But there is another unavoidable truth. Filmmakers aren’t doing much to quell these attitudes. In fact, video games have a history of spawning some truly terrible film adaptations. Look no further than “Super Mario Bros.”, “Street Fighter”, “Mortal Kombat: Annihilation” just to name a few. But isn’t “Assassin’s Creed” different? I mean it stars Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Jeremy Irons, Brendan Gleeson, Charlotte Rampling. With that amount of talent it can’t be as bad as many are saying, right? The short answer – no it isn’t, but it’s complicated.

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The immensely popular Assassin’s Creed video game franchise from developer Ubisoft is ripe with big screen potential. This film clearly intends to be a launching point for a film series. The games have never been restricted to certain characters which enables to movie to create entirely new ones and tell a new story within the same universe. Fassbender latched on early in the process not only starring but also co-producing.

The story takes place during two time periods – 2016 and 15th century Spain during the Spanish Inquisition. An age-old war between the Knights Templar and the Assassins has bled over into modern day driving the mysterious Abstergo Foundation to create the Animus. The machine allows Abstergo to connect people with their descendants in order to glean information from the past. The foundation is ran by Alan Rikkin (Irons) but the Animus creator Sophia Rikkin (Cotillard) oversees the project. Both father and daughter have very different ideas for its use.

Enter Callum Lynch (Fassbender), a death row inmate who wakes up to find himself in an Abstergo facility. Lynch is the descendent of a 15th century Assassin named Aguilar de Nerha who may hold the key to locating a powerful relic called the Apple of Eden. Sophia sees the relic as a tool for global peace while others at Abstergo have much more nefarious intentions.

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Let’s get this out of the way. “Assassin’s Creed” isn’t the wretched, soulless dreck its Rotten Tomatoes score would have you believe. In fact, a solid two-thirds of its running time is a ton of fun especially for those familiar with the franchise. The film nicely juggles Creed’s signature crazy mix of action, historical drama, and science fiction while tossing out several nods to fans. But you don’t need to be an aficionado to understand what’s going on, at least until the last act. At that point things get a bit muddled and messy as the film tries to tie up its many layers of plot.

Director Justin Kurzel (who had previously worked with Fassbender and Cotillard in “Macbeth”) offers several interesting touches as he works in two very different time periods and locations. The 15th century sequences are exhilarating particularly one street chase that may be my favorite action sequence of the year. Kurzel and regular cinematographer Adam Arkapaw shoot the scenes with gusto and great detail. When it moves back to modern day it leaves the dusty, dirty shades of brown for cold, dreary blues and greys. This is where most of the story plays out.

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But now I get back to that third act. Overall I disagree with the criticisms calling the plot convoluted and overblown, at least for the majority of the film. But as it wraps things up it does get a little confusing. The story moves into full franchise setup mode, putting characters and tensions in places that clearly points to follow-up movies. There are some good elements to the finale, but some messiness as well. Even the action takes a step down in last 15 minutes.

Still, I had fun with “Assassin’s Creed” particularly with its wildly unique (and admittedly wacky) story. It also doesn’t hurt to have this level of acting talent in front of the camera. It does fall victim to some of the usual franchise-building frustrations, but at the same time it sets itself up for limitless possibilities. Where does it go next – the Civil War, the French Revolution, the Cold War? I don’t know. First it will depend on the box office and so far that hasn’t looked too promising.

VERDICT 3.5 STARS

3.5 stars

REVIEW: “Calvary”

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The opening scene in “Calvary” wastes no time conveying the tone of the film – bleak, cynical, and disturbing yet with an odd touch of subtle dark humor. The scene opens with a shot of Father James in a confessional. The camera never leaves his face. He is listening to a parishioner talk about the horrible sexual abuse he experienced as a child at the hands of a now deceased priest. He says he is going to kill Father James in one week because killing a “good priest” would be a much bigger shock to the Catholic Church. The scene ends.

This brilliantly unsettling opening sets the framework for writer and director John Michael McDonagh’s stinging Irish drama. The story moves through what may or may not be Father James’ final week on earth. He spends the time going about his normal work in his Irish coastal town – tending to the church and tending to his flippantly immoral and ungrateful flock. We also see him getting a few personal things in order, you know, just in case.

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Father James is played by Brendan Gleeson, an actor so naturally gifted and perfectly cast. Father James is an earnest and faithful man of the cloth. He is a man of integrity which allows him a degree of respect from the community. But at the same time that same virtue and integrity is what they hate about him. It clashes with their shameful and unrepentant lives. His encounters and conversations with these people make up the bulk of the story.

One by one we meet these townsfolk each with their own level of vileness. A fantastic supporting cast flesh out these heathens and ingrates. Chris O’Dowd plays a local butcher and abusive husband. His wife (Ola O’Rourke) is no saint. She shamelessly flaunts her affairs, her latest being with a cocky Ivorian (Isaach de Bankolé). Aidan Gillen plays a disgustingly calloused athiest doctor and Dylan Moran plays a lonely, pompous, and self-absorbed millionaire.

There are a handful of other characters that round out this motley crew of miscreants. All of them view Father James as a walking joke – a punching bag for their cruel and merciless ridicule and mockery. These are really bad human beings and we begin to wonder how much Father James can take. He truly is a good man (McDonagh stated he wanted to make a film about a good priest). We often see him bewildered by the gall of these people and it feels as if he wears down a bit more with each encounter.

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Thankfully there are a few small rays of light among the downers. Father James has the opportunity to reconnect with his daughter Fiona (Kelly Reilly). The two haven’t been close since her mother died several years earlier. Repairing the fractured relationship would feel a void in both of their lives. For James moments with Fiona are like a refuge and an escape. In a way it is for us too. These scenes give us (the audience) a slight break from the ugliness.

And then there is the mystery of who wants to kill Father James. Is it one of the people he encounters throughout the final week he is given to live? In a clever narrative maneuver McDonagh makes it clear that James knows who has threatened him. But we do not. So we also watch these encounters and conversations with a slight deductive eye. This isn’t the main focus of the story yet it’s a fun and crafty way to engage the audience even more.

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“Calvary” is indeed a movie of conversations, one right after another. This could make some a little wary but it shouldn’t. McDonagh’s writing is just so good and each conversation seems important to the story and full of meaning. There is also some gorgeous imagery in the form of landscapes, ocean views, and green-coated mountains. It’s magnificent to see but it also serves as a sharp reoccurring contrast between the beauty of the scenery and the ugliness of the people living there. McDonagh offers several creative touches like this which douses his film with grit and energy.

And it all comes back to Gleeson, the veritable linchpin of this layered but slyly simple character study. The man strikes every note with an unmistakable honesty that comes through in each thoughtful response, in each perplexed expression, and each tired and weary sigh. There is a gelling, a chemistry if you will, between Gleeson’s approach and McDonagh’s script which gives us a realistic and sturdy anchor within the film’s almost otherworldly vileness. That clash is just one of the film’s many compelling components.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4.5 STARS

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

“The Raven” – 2 STARS

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Have you ever had a movie that you didn’t really respond to but you had a hard time pinpointing why? This is the case with me after watching the 2012 period thriller “The Raven”. This is a movie that intrigued me from the start although I did keep it at an arm’s length. While the components for a unique crime thriller seemed to be there, I still never felt myself drawn to hurry up and see it. So as you can see, my fence straddling with “The Raven” started early. Well now I have seen this widely slammed movie. Is it as bad as the vast majority of critics made it out to be? I don’t think so. But unfortunately it’s missing some major pieces that are vital in making this kind of movie work.

In case you don’t know the story, it’s set in 19th century Baltimore, Maryland. A brutal and grisly double murder puts the police on the trail of a serial killer who patterns his crimes after the short stories of Edgar Allan Poe. Lead Detective Fields (Luke Evans) at first suspects the eccentric Poe (John Cusack) but eventually calls on him to help in the investigation. It’s a cat and mouse game as the two sift through the clues left at every new and horrible crime scene, each tied in to Poe’s writings.

The stakes are raised for Poe after his fiancé Emily (Alice Eve) is kidnapped and used as a pawn by the killer. Now this is a direction the story takes that should give the movie some emotional kick but that’s not the case at all. Poe and Emily’s relationship is cold and lifeless. They try to throw in some tension with Emily’s father (Brendan Gleeson) who despises Poe, but that does little to liven things up. Emily’s capture does lead to some of the movies most intense moments. But the underplayed romance between her and Poe strips the movie of a genuine and much needed sense of urgency.

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I guess that leads into where my real problems lie with “The Raven”. It moves at a sharp pace. It captures the dark and moody tone that it’s going for. The crime scenes are perfectly unsettling. But in the end so much of the story feels manufactured. The relationships feel manufactured. The urgency feels manufactured. Even the ending feels manufactured (and a bit unsatisfying as well). But perhaps the biggest sin this movie commits is its overall lack of suspense. It’s hard to call a thriller a success if it lacks suspense. “The Raven” desperately tries to muster some but I don’t ever remember feeling it at any point in the movie.

I think “The Raven” is a movie that has some good ideas, but it doesn’t do much with them. It’s not a sloppy or lazy picture. But it also fails to step outside the bounds of conventionality, something that the material afforded them the chance to do. Now it’s decent enough to keep you in your seat, but it never does anything to put you on the edge of it. Again, I guess that’s where my biggest problem lies. There’s nothing suspenseful that grabs you and keeps you glued to the screen. That’s what I want from a thriller and I just didn’t get enough of it here.