Review: Paddington 2

Directed by: Paul King
Written by: Paul King, Simon Farnaby
Starring: Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins, Julie Walters, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant, Ben Wishaw
Released: December 21, 2017
Grade: A-

Paddington 2
Paddington Bear is the fun-loving creature from deepest, darkest Peru who was created by English author Michael Bond in the 1950s.  He wears a duffle coat, walks around with an old suitcase, and has a penchant for marmalade.  He’s cute, he’s polite and he’s charming.  He’s one of the nicest characters you’re likely to encounter in children’s literature.

It will therefore come as a surprise to learn that Paddington (voiced by Ben Wishaw) spends half of this new movie in a maximum security prison surrounded by some of Britain’s worst criminals.  It may sound farcical on paper but this film takes a few interesting turns and is better for it.  It’s easily one of the best family releases of 2017.

The first movie ended with Paddington being taken in by the loving Brown family in Windsor Gardens, London.  As this instalment begins, we learn that Mr Brown (Bonneville) has a few work dramas, Mrs Brown (Hawkins) is preparing to swim the English channel, Judy is about to start a school newspaper, and Jonathan is looking for other interests outside his love for steam trains.

As for Paddington, he’s looking to buy a present for his aunt from Peru who is about to celebrate her 100th birthday.  In an antique shop, he comes across a beautiful pop-up book that features landmarks of London which he thinks will be the perfect gift.  It’s not cheap and so he gets his first job – a window cleaner for commercial and residential buildings in the neighbourhood.

Paddington doesn’t realise it but there’s a sinister individual looking to also get his hands on the pop-up book.  Phoenix Buchanan (Grant) is a washed up actor who now makes a meagre living by starring in dog food commercials.  Realising the book has great value, he steals it from the antique shop and frames Paddington for the crime – hence why our beloved bear has been sentenced to 10 years in the slammer.

Paddington 2 is a delightful comedy that can be enjoyed by anyone of any age.  The storyline is easy to follow and it’s filled with plenty of jokes for both kids and adults to enjoy.  Hugh Grant is a wonderfully cool villain who uses an array of humorous costumes to evade capture (plus there’s a part where he eats dog food).  Peter Capaldi (The Thick of It) is the film’s other grinchy character – a cranky man who doesn’t like bears living in the community.  His inclusion allows writer-director Paul King (The Mighty Boosh) to push the important themes of inclusion, diversity and acceptance.

As bizarre as it sounds, the film’s best moments take place within the walls of the prison.  Paddington finds a way to leave his own mark on the facility and becomes friends with people he may never expect.  First and foremost is the frustrated chef (played by Brendan Gleeson) who won’t be publishing a cookbook any time soon.

Most sequels feel inferior to the original but this is a rare case where that isn’t true.


Review: The Florida Project

Directed by: Sean Baker
Written by: Sean Baker, Chris Bergoch
Starring: Brooklynn Prince, Bria Vinaite, Willem Dafoe, Valeriea Cotto, Christopher Rivera, Caleb Landry Jones
Released: December 21, 2017
Grade: A-

The Florida Project
Kids across the globe (and a few adults too) yearn to travel to Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida.  If you visit their website, you can plan the ultimate family vacation and “create memories for a lifetime”.  Whether you agree with their tagline or not, the park in Florida and others around the world are widely referred to as “the Happiest Place on Earth.”

Orlando, Florida serves as the setting for this new film from writer-director Sean Baker (Tangerine) but it offers a very different view of life in the United States.  It’s the story of an adventurous 6-year-old, Moonee (Prince), and her unemployed young mother, Halley (Vinaite).  They live a stone’s throw away from the famous theme park but their life is anything but paradise.

With no home and next-to-no money in the bank, they reside in a tacky, rundown motel ironically called The Magic Castle.  The charge is $38 per night which Halley continually struggles to pay on time to the hotel’s manager, Bobby (Dafoe).  Trips to the unemployment office are fruitless and with no viable alternatives, Halley buys wholesale perfumes and hawks them off to wealthier folks on street corners and carparks.  The cash she earns, coupled with free leftovers from a nearby fast food restaurant, keeps her a millimetre above the poverty line.

In the same vein as a great Mike Leigh drama (Secrets & Lies, Another Year), The Florida Project is an observational piece with no clear narrative structure.  There’s no shock twist or huge personality transformation.  We watch these people go about their daily lives and see how they make the best of a bad situation.

This approach from director Sean Baker won’t satisfy everyone as evidenced by the number of walk outs at the preview screening I attended.  I guess some would prefer a lightweight action blockbuster as opposed to this harsh dose of reality that highlights the widening gap between rich and poor in the United States.  Whilst these characters are far from perfect, it’s hard not to feel empathy for their plight.  Desperate people do desperate things.

7-year-old actress Brooklynn Prince has been showered with praise for her amazingly natural performance as Moonee.  She’s a kid acting like a kid.  It looks entirely improvised and so I was surprised to learn that most of it was scripted (she has a great ability to learn lines).  Bria Vinaite is unrelenting as the emotional mother.  An intriguing element is the way the film delves into child psychology with Moonee closely imitating her mother’s vocabulary and personality – often to a fault. 

I saw someone remark on Twitter that the motel deserves a nomination for best supporting actor given it has such a strong, distinctive presence in the film.  You’ll know what I mean once you’ve seen the film.  The bright purple paint masks the troubled lives of the motel’s residences.  Rightly or wrongly, the hotel is likely to lose to Willem Dafoe who has already picked up a slew of awards for his subtle performance as the hotel manager.  He has a tough exterior but there’s a softer, protective side that comes through when the time is right.

Ending on an unusual note, The Florida Project may take a little time to sink in but it’s a commanding character study that will hopefully open eyes.


Review: The Man Who Invented Christmas

Directed by: Bharat Nalluri
Written by: Susan Coyne
Starring: Dan Stevens, Christopher Plummer, Jonathan Pryce, Simon Callow, Donald Sumpter, Miriam Margolyes
Released: November 30, 2017
Grade: C+

The Man Who Invented Christmas
I’m trying to think of another year when we’ve had so many Christmas-themed movies released.  In the past few weeks, we’ve had Bad Moms 2, Better Watch Out, Daddy’s Home 2 and The Star.  The next entrant to throw its hat in the ring is The Man Who Invented Christmas – a drama directed by British Indian filmmaker Bharat Nalluri (Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day).

The origins of this movie are an interesting story in their own right.  Les Standiford is an American historian with an interest in acclaimed 19th Century British author Charles Dickens.  In 2008, he completed a work that was part biopic, part fiction.  The title aptly summed it up – “The Man Who Invented Christmas: How Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits.”  That novel served as the source material for this film.

The better parts of this adaptation are those based on well-known facts.  Charles Dickens was a much-loved author following the success of Oliver Twist but by 1843, it had been several years since his last big hit.  He was now struggling financially and given the lukewarm sales of “Barnaby Rudge” and “The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit”, many believed his career had peaked.

It was at this point where he came up with the idea for what would become one of his most famous works – A Christmas Carol.  If you’ve never read the book or seen a film/TV adaptation, it’s the tale of a miserable old man, Ebeneezer Scrooge, who is visited by a series of ghosts at Christmas and transformed into a better man.  It became so popular that the word “scrooge” became part of common vernacular.  You’ll now find it as a noun in any dictionary.

Where Nalluri’s film struggles is the fantasy elements.  We are provided with a series of flashbacks that show us Dickens’s (Stevens) tough upbringing and the rocky relationship he had with his father (Pryce).  These show that his dad was the original inspiration for Ebeneezer Scrooge.  As this goes on, Dickens is visited by a miserable ghost of his own (Plummer) who feeds him lines which end up as part of the finished novel.

These scenes are clearly an attempt to retell A Christmas Carol from a different perspective but it comes across as jumbled and confused.  Given the number of successful adaptations of Dickens’ work, what is this film trying to add that hasn’t already been achieved?  If you’re looking to be moved emotionally, watch the 2009 animated feature directed by Robert Zemeckis.  If you’re after something a bit more fun, try the 1982 musical that featured the Muppets.  There are countless other adaptations where the messages and themes come through more clearly.


Review: Ferdinand

Directed by: Carlos Saldanha
Written by: Robert L. Baird, Tim Federle, Brad Copeland, Ron Burch, David Kidd, Don Rhymer
Starring: John Cena, Kate McKinnon, Anthony Anderson, Bobby Cannavale, Peyton Manning, Gina Rodriguez
Released: December 14, 2017
Grade: B-

I’ve described many movies as a “load of bull” but I think this is the first time I’ve said that a positive attribute.  Ferdinand is the latest 3D animated feature from Blue Sky Studios – the company behind such projects as Rio, The Peanuts Movie and The Ice Age franchise.  They’ve produced some quality films but seem to be a few notches behind Disney and Pixar when it comes to great scripts.

Based on the children’s book first published in 1936, Ferdinand is the story of a talking Spanish bull (voiced by John Cena) who is trying to “buck” convention and make a better life for himself.  He doesn’t want to follow in the hoof prints of his father and become a fighting bull.  Ferdinand is a passive creature who would rather lie on top of a hill and smell flowers than run around an arena chasing a matador with a red cape.

The message here is obvious from the get-go – there’s nothing wrong with being a little different.  Ferdinand is taunted by his fellow bulls for being soft and weak but he’s not going to let them get the better of him.  Adding to his problems is a “calming goat” (voiced by Kate McKinnon) who doesn’t always provide the best advice.  It’s not long before he finds himself in a series of perilous situations that threaten the survival of both he and his friends.

 We’ve been blessed with two terrific family movies for the upcoming Christmas holidays – the animated Coco and the live action Paddington 2.  Unfortunately, Ferdinand isn’t on the same level when it comes to big laughs and engaging storylines.  Aside from Ferdinand the Bull and Lupe the Goat, none of the characters offer much in the way of interest.  They’re just trying to fill gaps in the story until it reaches its inevitable conclusion.

The film does have its highlights.  Most would be familiar with the saying that they’re as clumsy as “a bull in a china shop”.  We get to see how that situation plays out in reality when Ferdinand finds himself stuck in such a store while trying to evade some not-so-nice individuals.  There’s another cute moment when he sneaks around while gate crashing a flower festival.

As tends to be the case in the world of animated features, the voice cast features some recognisable names – John Cena, Kate McKinnon, Anthony Anderson, Bobby Cannavale and American footballer Peyton Manning.  It’s a shame the script isn’t as memorable.


Review: Wonder

Directed by: Stephen Chbosky
Written by: Jack Thorne, Steve Conrad, Stephen Chbosky
Starring: Julia Roberts, Owen Wilson, Jacob Tremblay, Mandy Patinkin, Daveed Diggs, Izabela Vidovic, Noah Jupe
Released: November 30, 2017
Grade: B+

In doing the publicity rounds for this film, author R.J. Palacio has been recounting the real life story that inspired her book.  She was with her 3-year-old son in a shop when he started crying in fear after seeing a young girl with craniofacial differences.  Palacio didn’t want to embarrass the girl and so rushed out of the store with her son.  This didn’t go unnoticed however.  The mother of the girl calmly said to her child “I think it’s time to go” and it was that moment that resonated with Palacio.  She asked herself – what could she teach her own children so that they wouldn’t react the same away again?

Wonder (the book) was the answer to the question.  First published in 2012, it became a best seller that was also picked up to be part of school curriculums.  The film rights were bought not long after and having gone through a bunch of writers and directors over the past few years, it fell upon Stephen Chbosky to bring it to the screen.  He’s familiar with youth-orientated dramas having written and directed The Perks of Being a Wallflower in 2012.

The story is centred around August “Auggie” Pullman (Tremblay), a 10-year-old kid who was born with a rare condition that has affected both his skull and face.  He tells us during the film’s opening that he’s gone through 27 surgeries that have helped him to breathe, to see and to hear.  Given all the operations and given his not-so-normal appearance, his parents (played by Roberts and Wilson) made the decision to home school their child.  They wanted him to give him a great education whilst not subjecting him to the inevitable bullying of the school playground.

It’s time for that model to change though.  Auggie’s parents realise that’s there more to a school than just education.  Their son needs the chance to interact with others, develop social skills and make lifelong friends.  That gets to the crux of where this film is set.  Auggie is enrolled in the local middle school and we follow the ups and downs of his school year.

There’s an added layer of narrative that helps gets the film’s themes and messages across.  There are moments where the story breaks away from Auggie and follows other characters that have been influenced by his life.  These include his old sister, Via (Vidovic), and his new best friend, Jack Will (Jupe).  The moments involving Via resonate strongly – she puts up a tough face but deep down, she struggles with the lack of attention relative to her younger brother.

It’s a little simplistic in places but it’s hard to be critical of such a heart-warming film.  Many will remember Jacob Tremblay’s skilful performance in Room and he’s just as good here in the leading role.  It’s hard to believe he’s just 11 years of age.  The supporting characters all get their chance to impress.  Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson continually stress as Auggie’s loving parents whilst Mandy Patinkin and Daveed Diggs offer wise words as teachers at Auggie’s school.

As part of the film’s release, a push has been made for people to take up the “Choose Kind Challenge.”  They can get a jar, choose a token (such as a marble or a button), and then deposit one into the jar for every kind act they perform.  The end goal is to fill the jar and in the process, make the world a better place.  It’s a nice idea that illustrates the power than films have beyond the walls of a darkened cinema.


Review: The Disaster Artist

Directed by: James Franco
Written by: Scott Neustadter, Michael H. Weber
Starring: James Franco, Dave Franco, Seth Rogen, Alison Brie, Ari Graynor, Josh Hutcherson
Released: December 7, 2017
Grade: A-

The Disaster Artist
I love the irony of good things coming out of bad things.  Ed Wood is regarded as one of the worst filmmakers of all time.  In the 1950s, he directed a string of movies that featured incoherent storylines, dreadful acting, laughable special effects and dubious editing. When making Plan 9 from Outer Space in 1959, he used footage of the late Bela Lugosi despite it having been shot for a completely different film!

The humorous silver lining is that Ed Wood was so bad… that they have developed a cult-like status over time.  Acclaimed director Tim Burton even made a hilarious comedy about Wood in 1994 that won two Academy Awards – best make-up and best supporting actor (for Martin Landau).  How could anyone have predicted that Wood would become one of the most memorable filmmakers of the era?

History appears to be repeating itself when it comes to director Tommy Wiseau.  Very little is known about his background but it was San Francisco, 1998 where he met a young wanna-be actor named Greg Sestero.  After moving to Los Angeles and struggling to find work, the pair agreed to make their own movie with Wiseau serving as writer, director, producer, financier and lead actor.

When it premiered in June 2003, the audience laughed hysterically at how awful it was.  Critic Scott Foundas described it as a movie where people would ask for their money back within 30 minutes.  The script had gaping holes, scenes were shot out-of-focus, dialogue was out of sync, and the acting was abysmal.  In its first two weeks of release, it made just $1,900 in ticket sales across a handful of theatres.

Word then started to spread.  Crowds flocked to cinemas in Los Angeles to have a laugh and it wasn’t long before it was being screened at film festivals across the world – including here in Brisbane.  I don’t know why… I don’t know how… but Tommy Wiseau found fame by entertaining audiences in a way he could never have imagined.

The Disaster Artist is a wonderful comedy that takes us inside the making of Wiseau’s iconic film.  James Franco serves as both director and lead actor and I have to smile when hearing the awards season buzz about his performance.  He could win awards for best actor by recreating the performance of one of the worst actors.  He’s joined in the film by a couple of long term collaborators, brother Dave Franco and good friend Seth Rogen, as well as a lengthy list of Hollywood stars who pop in for well-timed cameos.

I’d argue that the movie doesn’t provide as much insight into Tommy Wiseau as it should.  It doesn’t answer any questions about where he was born, how he made his fortune, and why he believes so strongly in himself.  Still, it’s a fascinating story that will leave many in hysterics.  It doesn’t matter if you’ve seen The Room or not.  You’ll be laughing regardless at this truth is stranger than fiction tale.

It’s hard to pick a specific highlight but perhaps the most memorable scene is a part where Wiseau appears in his own film for the first time.  He utters the famous “oh hi Mark” line and the reactions from his crew and fellow cast members are pure gold.  Another great feature of the film is the closing credits sequence where you see how closely the art in The Disaster Artist mirrors the reality of The Room.

In playing a crew member, there’s a great line where Seth Rogen says about the hapless production – “the best thing I can ever say is that no one will ever see it.”  How far we’ve come since then!