REVIEW: “Paddington 2”


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.


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.


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.



REVIEW: “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.”

UNCLE poster

“The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” debuted on NBC during the Fall of 1964. The campy and stylish spy-fi television series ran for only three and a half seasons but it has left a surprisingly lasting impression. That’s funny because during its short run the show struggled with its identity. It was at its peak of popularity when it was trying to be serious, but once the show started incorporating more humor the ratings dropped substantially.

So here we are, 47 years since the original show’s cancellation, and we have a big screen adaptation. The film embraces both the serious and the silliness that marked “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” and its interesting television run. Guy Ritchie helms this wacky mélange of action, comedy, spy thriller, and a retro GQ photo shoot. On paper the movie calls for skepticism as it has all the ingredients to be a disaster. Thankfully it’s far from it. Instead Richie gives us a fun and zesty affair that quite exceeds the expectations I had.


One of my causes for caution was rooted in the film’s two leads. Henry Cavill plays Napoleon Solo – a name so blatantly absurd yet tonally spot-on. He’s an accomplished thief turned reluctant CIA top agent. He’s quite confident and has a penchant for good fashion and even better hair. Then there is Armie Hammer playing KGB agent Illya Kuryakin. He’s a bit of a brute who is a by-the-book operative with a propensity towards fits of anger. Can you see where this is going? Two lone wolves forced to work together and all that stuff? Surprisingly the movie plays with that conceit without going too far.

Brimming with post-World War II and Cold War politics and atmosphere, “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” is set in 1963 where our two good-looking stars meet while trying to nab at target for their respective countries. That target is Gaby Teller (played with sauce and spunk by Alicia Vikander). She’s the daughter of a nuclear scientist believed to be working on a nuclear bomb for a wealthy couple who also happen to be Nazi sympathizers. Solo and Kuryakin are ordered to join forces along with Gaby to foil the nefarious plot despite their differences.

There are several things the film could have done to derail itself. First there is the humor. “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” doesn’t make the critical mistake of taking itself too seriously. At the same time it doesn’t bombard the audience with dopey, annoying gags and slapstick. Instead the movie relies on a very calculated dry wit. In many ways the characters are the gags with their ultra-serious personalities and corny bravado. We really see this in the film’s bromance innuendo that Solo and Kuryakin are completely impervious to.

Then there is the action. We certainly get a handful of snazzy action set pieces, but those expecting to see normal action-packed summer movie fare may leave disappointed. Ritchie doesn’t drown his movie in endless shootouts, fistfights, or car chases. He uses action but even it is presented with pinches of style and humor. There are a couple of action twists that feel a bit out of place but ultimately it is done well and in the right amounts.

But the film’s strongest point may be the fabulous recapturing of its 196os setting. Guy Ritchie, cinematographer John Mathieson, costume designer Joanna Johnston, and composer Daniel Pemberton all contribute to the film’s stylish and energetic sense of time. Everything including the fashion, the decor, the technology. The period flavored music which hearkens back to so many different 60’s era sounds. The film is very aware of its style and it could be said that Ritchie wallows in it, but certainly not to the point of making it any less impressive.


Back to Cavill and Hammer. Some have criticized their performances and the lack of chemistry between the two stars. I actually enjoyed them particularly Cavill and his suave, cheesy overconfidence that is clearly spoofing early Bond. There are moments where Cavill seems to be posing more than acting and Hammer feels as stiff as a board on occasions. But as for their chemistry, it’s a bit hard to judge since they are playing two characters who actually have no chemistry. That’s kind of the point. Overall I think they pull it off. And then you have Vikander who is a lot of fun playing the roles the men visualize for her while being smarter than any off them think. I also really liked Elizabeth Debicki giving a playfully exaggerated performance as one of the film’s villains.

So what to make of “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.? There is a smugness to the whole proceeding that sometimes shows itself in the self-indulgent style and in Ritchie’s infatuation with how good his actors look. But there is also an undeniable allure. I loved the realization of the setting, the controlled but effective humor, and the well utilized smattering of action. Most importantly I had a lot of fun, something we don’t always get to say with these types of projects. Sadly the film’s unique flair hasn’t drawn big crowds at theaters, but I found it to be a welcome retreat that may not be flawless but is certainly entertaining.


4 Stars

REVIEW : “Cloud Atlas”

“Cloud Atlas” has already stirred up quite a discussion between moviegoers. It’s safe to say the film has earned its fair share of fans. But it’s also true that it has its share of detractors. To be honest I can see where people could either love it or hate it. It’s a highly ambitious picture that pulls off an incredibly clever storytelling technique. But it could also be viewed as a three-hour grind that features many of the Wachowski’s familiar self-indulgences. So how was it for me, a groundbreaking cinematic accomplishment or an epic sized disaster? Well neither, But I did find it a chore to sit through despite the things it does right.

It’s practically impossible to give any kind of brief synopsis of the plot of “Cloud Atlas”. It’s basically six individual stories that take place at different points in time. The first story is set in the 1800s and follows a young lawyer handling business for his father on a voyage across the Pacific. The second story takes place in England during the 1930s as a young unfulfilled composer is hired to help an older accomplished composer create his music. The third story is set in the 1970s as an investigative reporter finds herself in danger after uncovering a nuclear energy conspiracy. The fourth story, set in 2012, follows a writer and publisher who finds himself in debt and in deep with some local mobsters. The fifth story jumps to a futuristic high-tech Seoul, Korea where a clone is believed to hold the keys to the future. The final story leaps further into the future where mankind is left to live in a barbaric caveman-like world.

Now there’s a process to watching “Cloud Atlas”. First the audience must adjust to the fractured form of storytelling. The Wachowski’s and co-writer and co-director Tom Tykwer don’t tell the six stories separately. Instead, the movie jumps from one story to another requiring the audience to keep up. For this to work, we first have to get to know the characters. For the most part the introductions work pretty well although I did struggle to connect with some of them. Once the characters and their stories are laid out then the audience can sit back and watch things unfold. This is when the movie was most effective. In fact, I found myself completely absorbed in what I was seeing during the middle of the film. Then the audience has to piece each of the stories together, some through more obvious and straightforward connections and others through more cryptic and allegorical meanings. This is another place where I felt the film really stumbled.

I want to start with the positives. The storytelling technique employed in “Cloud Atlas” could have potentially been a disaster. Earlier I used the word ambitious and for good reason. Taking pieces of six individual stories, breaking them up, and interweaving them together while maintaining a good strong narrative is an incredible challenge. I was blown away with how well it was done in this movie. We seamlessly move back and forth from story to story and the filmmakers are able to keep total control of the narrative. Even later when the transitions seem to come quicker and quicker, the broader story never loses its sense of cohesion. It’s intelligently crafted and executed and it serves as a great reminder of the power of cinematic storytelling.

There are also some amazing special effects and spectacular cinematography. The overall visual presentation of “Cloud Atlas” gives it a true epic motion picture feel and it beautifully captures the various time periods that it dabbles in. I loved the period-perfect look of the 1800s as well as the futuristic landscapes and technologies from the later period. Every place we visit in time looks and feels perfect. It also helps to have such a superb cast involved. The movie is loaded with strong performances from actors and actresses playing multiple roles. Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Susan Sarandon, Keith David, Hugh Grant, Bae Doona, and Jim Sturgess all do great work in bringing this complex story to life. Each play a variety of different characters in the different storylines often in heavy prosthetics and sometimes in full drag. This is a good lead-in to some of my questions and concerns about “Cloud Atlas”. I’m not certain why it was necessary to have these actors play multiple roles. I’m assuming the filmmakers felt it added a sense of connection between the stories. Or maybe there was another underlying intention that I just don’t care to figure out. Regardless, do we really need to see Hugo Weaving dressed up as a husky female nurse?

Then there is the issue with how some of the individual stories end. There are a couple that I found quite satisfying. But then there are those that feel a little too tidy and borderline conventional as well as one that’s just flat-out silly. Also I never felt as though I made the full connections between some of the storylines. The movie simply doesn’t tie them together sufficiently. Now to be fair, a movie like this almost begs to be viewed a second time. I’m certain there are little nuggets of information that I missed. But the problem is that I’m not sure I want to tackle it again and that’s in large part due to the sometimes laborious 3-hour running time. Now I don’t mind long movies, but there were stretches in “Cloud Atlas”, particularly in the first and third acts, where the film seemed to be spinning its wheels. This isn’t unusual for the Wachowskis and I had a similar problem with their Matrix series. Much like those movies, this film at times feel bloated and self-indulgent. I also found the social commentary to be obvious and heavy-handed. Even in the instances where the message is good, they sometimes come across as blatant and contrived. Now to be perfectly honest, I’m not at all familiar with the source material, but I can’t imagine it being as glaringly in-your-face as the film can sometimes be.

“Cloud Atlas” is a difficult movie to process. It can sometimes be exhilarating cinema and at other times a frustrating chore. From a technical standpoint the film is astonishing. Both the visuals and sound design are phenomenal and the ability to capture the uniqueness of each time period is quite amazing. Even more impressive is the artistry involved in the unconventional storytelling method. There’s a crisp lyrical harmony to how we’re moved back and forth from one story to the next. Unfortunately there are a host of other problems, including those mentioned above, that keeps “Cloud Atlas” from being a really good film. But I haven’t asked the bigger question surrounding this movie. What’s it really about? Is it above love conquering all? Is it about choices and the blessings or consequences that follow them. Is it about a deep interconnection that all mankind share? I’m not sure, but in the end “Cloud Atlas” is a relatively small movie hidden underneath its lavish ambition and grandeur. It’s an exercise in style over substance that has enough flaws and misguided conceits to overshadow the things it does really well. That’s a shame.