PADDINGTON 2 (2018)

January 11, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. The sequel to the hit 2014 PADDINGTON movie reunites most of the cast, as well as the director Paul King and his co-writer Simon Farnaby. Unfortunately, Michael Bond, Paddington Bear’s creator and author of more than 150 affiliated books passed away in 2017, and was not able to see this most charming follow-up. The beloved little bear first hit UK bookstores in 1958 and has been part of the childhood of every generation of kids since. Now the movies have given life to the little bear with the red hat, blue coat and tiny suitcase.

The entirety of the Brown family returns: Sally Hawkins as Mary, Hugh Bonneville as Henry, Madeleine Harris as Judy, Samuel Joslin as Jonathan, Julie Walters as Mrs. Bird, and Jim Broadbent as Mr. Gruber. Also back are Imelda Staunton and Michael Gambon as the voices of Paddington’s “aunt” and “uncle”, and of course, Ben Whishaw returns as the familiar voice of the adored and oh-so-polite bear.

Most notable among the new faces are Brendan Gleeson as Nuckles (that’s with a capital N), and Hugh Grant as Phoenix Buchanan, this story’s two-faced (and maybe more) villain. You’ve likely never seen the usually reserved and proper Mr. Grant in a role quite so colorful and flamboyant. He seems to be having a devilishly good time.

As the movie begins, we are quickly assimilated into the community where Paddington has made such a difference. The core element to this bear is that he treats all with kindness and finds the best in each person. The results of this approach are clear in how his neighbors enthusiastically greet him each morning … it’s a reminder of the power of kindness. Only when Phoenix Buchanan’s dastardly deed and actions catch Paddington in the crossfire does the film take an abrupt left turn from his blissful life.

If the film has a flaw, it’s in a story that is likely too complex and intricate for the youngest viewers to follow. However, it’s that story that older kids (and grown-ups) will most appreciate and relate to. Younger kids may be lost at times, but there are enough visual pratfalls and bear hijinks to keep them oohing and aahing and laughing – I witnessed these reactions in a theatre that was about half-filled with kids.

This sequel will probably be viewed as an improvement to what was a pretty entertaining original. There is enjoyment for all ages, and it’s a rare combination of cuteness and charm with a strong message of kindness. If that’s not enough for you, stay for the credits and take in the Bollywood-style musical number that will erase any doubts you might have had about Hugh Grant’s commitment to the mission.

watch the trailer:

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THE LOBSTER (2016)

March 12, 2016

lobster Greetings again from the darkness. The scene playing over the opening credits is baffling to us and sets the tone of peculiarity that runs throughout the film. A lady gets out of her car during a rainstorm to perform an unthinkable act as we watch through the windshield as the wipers rhythmically clear our view. Next we watch as Colin Farrell’s wife announces, after 11 years of marriage, she is leaving him for another man. Curiously, Farrell asks if her new man wears glasses or contacts.

Welcome to a dystopian future via the warped and creative mind of writer/director Yorgos Lanthimos (Dogtooth, 2009). It really boils down to a satirical look at relationships and our societal outcast of single adults. In Lanthimos’ world, Farrell, now a single man, must check in to the oddest country hotel you’ve seen. He has 45 days to find a romantic partner. If he doesn’t, he will be transformed into the animal of his choice. He chooses the lobster because of its long life span … ignoring the probability of ending up on a restaurant platter.

It’s an oddball world overly structured with rules enforced by the Hotel manager – a terrific Olivia Colman. Farrell befriends a couple of other single fellows: the limping man (Ben Whishaw), and the man with a lisp (John C Reilly). It’s funny and uncomfortable and kind of sad to watch these folks awkwardly try to connect with others with a deadline fast-approaching.

The first half of the movie is really black comedy at its finest, but once Farrell escapes the Hotel and joins the “loners” in the forest, the tone shifts a bit. An uneven romance develops between Farrell and a woman played by Rachel Weisz (who is also the film’s narrator). Even though this group of loners pride themselves on independence, it’s ironic that Farrell has merely traded one set of rules for another … courtesy of the rebel leader played by Lea Seydoux.

It’s a bizarre film, and one from which we can’t look away. The deadpan-yet- emotional dialogue delivery is strange enough, but the site gags are even further off the charts – keep an eye out for animals (former singles) strolling by in the background (peacock, camel, etc). There is certainly insight into modern day relationships and how people connect based on instantaneous judgments … but at least we don’t have to dig our own graves … yet!

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THE DANISH GIRL (2015)

December 17, 2015

danish girl Greetings again from the darkness. There was a time when movies were cultural trendsetters in such areas as speech, style and behavior. Somewhere along the way, a transition occurred, and these days movies are more a reflection of the times – showing us who we are and focusing mostly on what society focuses on. Oscar winning director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) capitalizes on the current movement to mainstream the LGBT community by telling the story of Einar Wegener/Lili Elbe, a transgender from more than 40 years before Dr. Renee Richards, and 75 years before Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner.

Lucida Coxon has adapted the 2000 novel from David Ebershoff, which is a fictionalized version of the 1933 “Man Into Woman” … the personal letters and diaries of Einar/Lili (edited by Niels Hoyer). The film opens in 1926 Copenhagen as successful landscape artist Einar Wegener and his struggling-to-gain-respect portrait artist wife Gerda appear to be happily married and quite attracted to each other. During this segment, Hooper and cinematographer Danny Cohen utilize a somewhat distracting quasi-fisheye lens that distorts most every shot … presumably making the point that this couple’s life is itself distorted. There is no shortage of foreshadowing despite the bohemian artist lifestyle. Einar doesn’t miss a chance to caress the silks and frills as he visits his ballet dancing friend Ulla (Amber Heard), and things escalate quickly once he poses in stockings for one of Gerda’s portraits.

The best and most interesting segment of the film is the middle as Einar begins to explore his Lili persona, and Gerda is diligent in her support … going as far as to encourage her husband to attend a party as Lili (introduced as Einar’s visiting cousin). The public interactions with their friends and acquaintances are a little difficult to accept, though the scenes with her initial male suitor Henrik (Ben Whishaw) make it clear this is a point of no return. Despite this, the times are such that Einar willingly attempts to repress the Lili side, and even visits multiple medical and psychological specialists. It’s this segment that reminds us how quickly the medical profession of the era overreacted by prescribing radiation, electrotherapy, and even by institutionalizing those who were so inclined.

Gerda and Einar/Lili “escape” to Paris, where it becomes obvious that it’s Lily who has been masquerading as Einar, rather than the other way. The duality of Einar/Lily soon dissolves and daily life is filled with lessons … such as a Paris peep show where hand and body movements become part of the transition. Eddie Redmayne (last year’s Oscar winner for The Theory of Everything) gives an extraordinary performance, and is at his best when exploring the subtle nuances of Lili. It’s crucial to note that while Redmayne’s performance is a physical marvel, it’s Alicia Vikander (A Royal Affair, Ex Machina) as Gerda who provides the real heart and soul of the story. Though the film glosses over some traits of the real life Gerda, Ms. Vikander is stunning in more than a few scenes, which in the hands of a lesser actress, could have proved cringe-inducing.

Adding some depth in limited roles are Matthias Schoenaerts (Rust and Bone) as Hans, Einar’s childhood friend all grown up, and Sebastian Koch (The Lives of Others) as the pioneering doctor who performs the sex reassignment surgeries that physically transition Einar into Lili. Even with the strong supporting cast, there is no mistaking this as anything other than a film that belongs to Mr. Redmayne and Ms. Vikander.

Director Hooper takes a very conventional approach to an unconventional story, and this “safe” direction seems designed to make the uncomfortable story more palatable for mainstream audiences (similar to how Brokeback Mountain handled homosexuality). However, don’t mistake this for Tootsie or Mrs. Doubtfire. There are two serious stories here: the struggles of one person’s identity, and the corresponding challenges of a married couple. Hooper’s style is by no means cutting edge, but does feature one of the best lines of the year … “I’ve only liked a handful of people in my life, and you’ve been two of them.” This story has bounced around the movie world for awhile, and for many years was rumored to have Nicole Kidman in the Einar/Lili role. Your imagination can determine if that would have made for a better fit.

watch the trailer:

 

 


SPECTRE (2015)

November 8, 2015

spectre Greetings again from the darkness. Don’t come to me looking for objective judgment on Bond. By the time we hear that familiar opening trumpet blast of Marty Norman’s Bond theme, I’ve already been swept away into the land of MI6 enchantment – gadgets, cars, women, over-the-top stunts, globe-trotting, global villains and quintessential coolness. And it doesn’t help that this time director Sam Mendes treats this 24th (official) Bond film as an homage to those that came before. At times it plays like a tribute – and maybe even a closing chapter (for Mendes and Daniel Craig?).

A long tracking shot drops us into the Day of the Dead festival in Mexico, complete with skeleton masks and giant parade props. We follow a masked couple as they maneuver through the crowd and into their hotel room, where 007 quickly leaps out the window and makes his way across roof tops towards his mission. It’s one of the more visually stimulating and explosive openings in franchise history.

The story combines the personal back-story of Bond’s childhood with his relentless pursuit of the evil empire known as Spectre … the crime syndicate that has been part of the Bond universe for many years and films. The tie-in to the iconic Bond nemesis Blofeld, this new mastermind Franz Oberhauser, and Bond’s adoptive family make for an interesting chain of custody. However, as is customary, it’s the characters and action sequences that deliver the entertainment bang.

Oberhauser is played by Christoph Waltz (understated given his track record), and the two Bond “ladies” are played by Lea Seydoux (the daughter of Mr. White, and the key to finding Spectre), and Monica Bellucci (the widow of Bond’s Mexico victim). Mr. Waltz takes advantage of his limited screen time, while Ms. Bellucci is limited to a few lines and a chance to model some lingerie. Reprising their roles are Rory Kinnear as Tanner, Ralph Fiennes as M, Naomie Harris as Moneypenny, Ben Whishaw as Q, and Jesper Christensen as Mr. White. New to the mix is Dave Bautista as Hinx (in the mode of Oddjob and Jaws), and Andrew Scott as C … the latest of those trying to shut down the “00” program. Whishaw brings a nice element to his role, while Bautista’s Hinx gets to participate in both a car chase and train fight … while uttering only a single word of dialogue.

The evil doers have gotten more intellectual over the years, and Oberhauser and Spectre have the goal of global surveillance and controlling information and data. It’s a modern theme for a Bond film that also seems intent on reminiscing. There are nods to most (if not every) previous Bond film via (among other things) Nehru jackets, cats, scars, and a white dinner jacket. And it’s nice to see the gun barrel sequence back in the opening credits where it belongs. As for the new song, Sam Smith has a very nice voice, but his Bond song lacks the punch of the best.

In terms of globe-trotting, we get Mexico, Rome, Tangier (Morocco), London and Austria. The (prolonged) car chase occurs on the deserted streets (and steps) of Rome and features two stunning cars – Aston Martin DB10 and Jaguar C-X75. In addition to the cars and previously mentioned train, it’s helicopters that earned a couple of worthy action sequences.

It’s Daniel Craig’s fourth turn as Bond, James Bond. He brings his own brand of emotion and cheekiness, while also possessing a physicality that allows the action sequences to work. He has made the role his, much like Christian Bale took ownership of Batman. For those who refuse to accept the new generation, director Mendes delivers enough nostalgia that even the old-timers should be entertained.

R.I.P. Derek Watkins

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SUFFRAGETTE (2015)

November 5, 2015

suffragette Greetings again from the darkness. Most “issues” movies go big in their approach to society-changing events and those that led the charge. Director Sarah Gavron (Brick Lane, 2007) and writer Abi Morgan (The Iron Lady, 2011) instead show us one little corner, a building block if you will, of the larger movement towards gaining women the right to vote in the UK. By focusing on the efforts of a small group of working class women in 1912, the struggle becomes one of flesh and blood, rather than granite statues.

Carey Mulligan stars as Maud Watts, a manual laborer at a commercial launderer. Her character is a composite of working class women of the time, and we come to appreciate her strength and the incredible sacrifices she makes for the greater cause. Maud seems to be a simple woman. She works hard, loves her son and is loyal to her husband Sonny (Ben Whishaw). When first exposed to the civil disobedience of the suffragettes, Maud is caught in the crossfire of a rock-throwing frenzy. She recognizes faces and becomes intrigued with the mission. At first, Sonny tries to be supportive, but soon enough, he is confused, embarrassed and finally forced to take extreme measures. After all, no self-respecting man of the time could allow his wife to sneak about town throwing rocks, setting off bombs, and attending secretive meetings … all for the sake of some ridiculous notion of equality for women!

Helena Bonham Carter appears as the neighborhood pharmacist who is a key cog in the local movement – a movement that had been ongoing peacefully for decades. What’s interesting about her appearance is that Ms. Bonham-Carter is the great-granddaughter of H.H. Asquith, the Prime Minister of UK from 1908-1916. He was an outspoken opponent of the suffragette movement during its most critical time. Her appearance and role in the film is a bit of redemption for the actress and her family.

Deeds not Words. This became the rallying cry for these women thanks to their leader Emmeline Pankhurst. Meryl Streep makes an all-too-brief appearance as Ms. Pankhurst, but it’s a key moment in the film as it solidifies the cause for this group of women who needed to believe that they could make a difference.

Gender inequality seems such an insufficient term for what these women endured. Sexual abuse, domestic violence, unequal pay, hazardous work environments, and almost no child custody rights in disputes with men … these were all commonplace at the time, and the film does a terrific job of making the points without distracting from its central message. Director Gavron’s subtle use of differing color palettes is effective in distinguishing the man’s world from that of the women.

It’s clearly a snapshot of a society on the brink of a revolution, and a grounded yet emotional glimpse at those foot soldiers in the war on injustice. Though this story focuses on the UK, the end credits remind us that in the U.S., it took until 1920 to ratify the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote; and even more startling, Switzerland took until 1971 and the women of Saudi Arabia only this year obtained voting rights. The movie is a powerful personal story, and also an effective history lesson on the irrationality involved in bringing about humanistic change.

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SKYFALL (2012)

November 11, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. Celebrating 50 years on film for Ian Fleming‘s creation, we get the 23rd official James Bond movie. Many critics are hailing it as the best Bond film yet, though having seen all in the series, it is difficult to understand a proper form of comparison. The Sean Connery run varies significantly from the Roger Moore period, and though Pierce Brosnan brought a touch of seriousness back to the role, it wasn’t until Daniel Craig that the character and series took on an ultra-intense structure. Clear influences are seen in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, as well as the “Bourne” series.

This latest entry has some distinct advantages. Most importantly, Sam Mendes in the director’s chair brings a love and understanding of the Bond template, and the skills to deliver both top notch action sequences as well as realistic human drama. His background includes such fine films as American Beauty and Road To Perdition (also with Daniel Craig). Mendes brought on famed Director of Photography Roger Deakins (9 Oscar nominations) who delivers a look and feel superior to any previous Bond film. Also, the villain plays a key role in determining the strength of all Bond films. Here, Javier Bardem offers up a megalomaniac bent on revenge, and his unusual approach immediately vaults his Silva into one of the top 5 all time Bond villains.

 Of course, none of that matters without a strong Bond, and it is quite clear that Daniel Craig has made the role his own. This particular script from series vets Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and John Logan demands some real acting as Bond faces his mortality as well as his childhood roots. These issues combined with the physical demands of the action and the ability to toss in a few zingers, make Mr. Craig a nice fit for the tailored suits … and the classic Aston Martin.

It wouldn’t be Bond without the Bond “women”, and while there isn’t much familiarity of Berenice Marlohe, her Severine is interesting enough to capture our attention … even with Komodo Dragons hovering nearby. We also get Naomie Harris as Field Agent Eve, and the argument can be made that she is weakest link in the film. Surprisingly, the Bond woman central to this story  is M, played once again by the great Judi Dench. Much of the story revolves around her and there is quite a bit of ageism involved. Experience does matter … unless you are speaking of the new Q, played with fascinating geekery by Ben Whishaw (Cloud Atlas).  The museum scene with Q and Bond is one for the ages.

The usual global jet-setting is on full display with Istanbul, London, Macau, Shanghai and the Scottish Highlands. The traditional opening action sequence finds Bond racing across Turkish rooftops on a motorcycle, while wearing a beautifully tailored suit. These are the same rooftops on display in Taken 2, but it’s much more fun here. Then, as if motorcycles on the roof and through the Grand Bazaar of Turkey aren’t enough, we find Bond fighting atop a fast moving train … well, until M makes a business decision that quickly changes the arc of the story. By the way, the guy Bond is chasing on rooftops and fighting on the train is played by Ola Rapace, husband of Noomi from the original Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy (Daniel Craig starred in the English remake).

 When Bond finally meets Silva (Bardem), it is on the deserted Hashima Island. We quickly learn that Silva is no ordinary criminal and definitely not one to just sit and chat. His quest for revenge adds a personal touch. His personality and demeanor and background add elements previously missing from Bond films. It’s no surprise that the film’s best sequence involves Bond and Silva together and the tradition of the villain explaining what’s ruffled his feathers.

The climax of the film occurs on the hardscape of Scotland and forces Bond to come to terms with his past. There are also plenty of parental issues thanks to M and the caretaker played by Albert Finney. The personal forces at work in the script are more developed than in other Bond films, but we definitely don’t get cheated on explosions, gun play and hand-to-hand combat.

As always, music plays a vital role. Adele sings the opening title track and it plays over an unusual opening credits graphical sequence – somewhat bleaker than we are accustomed to, but no less dramatic. Also, Thomas Newman’s score is excellent and incorporates Monty Norman’s iconic Bond theme (though not often enough for my tastes).

This latest Bond film is a fine bounce back after the disappointing Quantum of Solace, and it may be the best made of all films. The idea of cyber-terrorism is very timely and a reminder that not all bad guys are trying to take over the world. Some just need revenge. Determining if it is the “best” Bond ever will be your call.

Just for old times’ sake:

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to judge for yourself if it’s the best Bond ever OR you want to see a blonde Javier Bardem as a creep, frightening villain.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you have never bought into the James Bond mystique OR you can’t take a blonde Bond and a blonde Bond villain

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6kw1UVovByw