Review – Game Night

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Though I’ve been looking forward to seeing this film, it was not my first choice for tonight.  My plan was to see Alex Garland’s Annihilation, but my local theater didn’t get it and I didn’t want to go way out of town for it on a weeknight.  I have a busy weekend ahead, so it will probably be next weekend before I get a chance to see that one, now.  That made Game Night my Plan B, though not one that I was upset about.  And, hey, at least it’s not The 15:17 to Paris, again, right?

Game Night seems like such a simple and obvious idea that I’m shocked it hasn’t been done, in some form, before now.  A friendly game night gone wrong is just ripe with possibilities and co-directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein along with screenwriter Mark Perez take full advantage of many of them.  Combined with an invigorated cast, the end result is a blast of a movie that succeeds in its efforts to be pure, joyful, escapist entertainment.

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Often, filmmakers behind comedies such as Game Night – in which there is an easy and appealing narrative hook – rely on the premise to carry them through and forget that comedies are truly made up of the little moments.  One of the keys to humor is surprise.  That can refer to an unexpected line or a twist in the story or potentially many other things but the truth remains that a gag isn’t funny if the audience can see it coming.  Once the initial set-up was complete, I saw very little of the rest of Game Night coming, both in terms of the big moments and, even more importantly, the small ones.

Once I had involuntarily laughed out loud approximately five or six times before the end of the opening scene, I felt confident that I was in for a good time.  Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams have excellent comedic chemistry together, which I’m not entirely sure I expected, though I have no good reason as to why that would be.  I suppose I’m just not accustomed to seeing McAdams in comedic roles (it’s been a while since Mean Girls), so I was subconsciously prepared for her to play more of a straight role while Bateman got all of the laughs.  Happily, that wasn’t the case, at all.  And as great as they are bouncing off of each other, they’re each just as good on their own, as well.  We knew that about Bateman, as he’s still the king of dry delivery (and, yes, he’s the same basic character in this film as he almost always is, but so what?  He’s the best there is at playing the exasperated, sarcastic, underachieving guy next door.), but McAdams’s timing and delivery is spot on, too, and they both look like they’re having a lot of fun.  And when an audience can pick up on that, it’s contagious.

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The entire cast does a great job, but it’s a good thing for McAdams and Bateman that they’re both so great because, were they even slightly lesser performers, they would have been in great danger of being overshadowed every time they shared the screen with Jesse Plemons’s neighbor cop, Gary.  Gary is as weird as any character I can recall from recent memory but he’s also charismatic and unequivocally entertaining.  Gary gets the most interesting character arc in the film, as well (yes, there are character arcs), and one never really knows what to expect from him, which makes him even more fun.  If the film hits it even moderately big, Gary will likely be the breakout character and it wouldn’t even surprise me to see a plethora of Gary memes popping up on all of our social media platforms.

As far as the rest of the film goes, it’s definitely a mix of action, suspense, and comedy, but I’d break it down as approximately twenty-five percent action and suspense and seventy-five percent comedy.  The funny stuff takes brief pauses here and there to allow for some plot advancement as well as so the very real stakes can breathe and set in.  But the film never forgets that it’s a comedy and, unlike so many movies that are marketed as comedies, it’s genuinely and consistently funny.  There’s a scene between Bateman and Adams that takes place in a parking lot, if I remember correctly, that is pure gold (I’ll just say it involves an impromptu medical procedure) and that is probably the highlight for me, personally.  But the entire film shines.  Whenever the cast shoots for comedy, it scores.  That’s rare and immeasurably refreshing.

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Game Night is everything that audiences love.  It’s a film that lives up to expectations and delivers what it promises.  The characters are relatable and just within the realm of believability, which allows for the humor in their situation and reactions to truly click.  I can tell you that I wasn’t the only one in my screening who was enjoying themselves; the rest of the audience was laughing constantly and one of the big reveals even got an emotional burst of excitement from the guy sitting two seats to my left, which was way too close to me considering the number of people that was there.  That last bit may have been irrelevant to you but what isn’t irrelevant is that Game Night is a winner in every aspect, so if it looks like something you think you might enjoy, I feel confident in saying that you will.

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Review – Game Night

Review – The 15:17 to Paris

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Clint Eastwood has changed the course of his career in recent years.  He has stepped out of the spotlight and shifted to roles behind the camera, in particular producing and directing.  He has put out some fantastic work (Million Dollar BabyGran Torino – in both of which he still had starring roles) and some creative and artistic disasters (American Sniper, one of the worst films to ever be nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars).  One common theme in his recent work has been the military, as he almost always features current or former veterans as the main characters in his stories.

In the case of The 15:17 to Paris, he takes that idea one step further, actually casting the veterans in question as themselves in the film.  Air Force vet Spencer Stone, National Guardsman Alek Skarlatos, and their childhood friend Anthony Sadler assume the roles of themselves as they play out actual events leading up to and including the day that they fund themselves confronted by a terrorist on a commuter train in Europe.  As I watched the film, one question kept repeating itself in my head: How did this get made?

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I want to state up front that the act of heroism portrayed in the film and that also occurred in real life is just that: an extraordinary moment of selfless bravery.  Understand that this review is not a review of the real-life event or the three guys as people.  This is a review of the film based on their memoir.  The real-life act was tremendous.  The film is atrocious.  I haven’t hated a film this much since The Neon Demon.  Going in, I thought to myself that this movie would at least be better than American Sniper, even with that film’s unclear message, selective representation of Chris Kyle, and laughable fake baby.  But this was worse.  It was so much worse.  At least Sniper still had Bradley Cooper’s excellent performance to brag about.  The 15:17 to Paris has nothing.

Okay, look, I can appreciate the thought behind casting the three real guys as themselves in the film.  But they aren’t actors.  And it shows.  Truthfully, their performances weren’t as bad as I was afraid they might be, but they were still very bad.  Wooden delivery, monotone voices, and a vocal decibel level that always hovered just below a moderate shout permeated all three of their performances.  They also often spoke too quickly out of nervousness, taking any semblance of authenticity out of their presentation.  (But, of course, we all know that Eastwood supports people who are unqualified for their positions, so maybe we shouldn’t be too surprised.)  The worst of the three is Spencer, so he naturally becomes the narrative center of the proceedings and receives the most screen time.  But, why wouldn’t he?  He’s the one most closely associated with the military, so he’s the most laudable of them all in Eastwood’s eyes.  Spencer even gets an extra boost when Eastwood fabricates an element of The Big Moment in order to make it seem as though Spencer bravely (stupidly?) charges right at an aimed gun from nearly the length of the train car.  This never happened.  Nobody else gets phony moments of bravery to falsely elevate their heroism.  Only the Air Force guy.  (By the way, there was a fourth man who also helped to detain the shooter on the train who gets almost no recognition in the film.)

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Despite Eastwood tossing the three leading men to the wolves and putting them way out of their element, I was still happy to see Jenna Fischer and Judy Greer pop up, because I love both of them.  They always have a sense of believability, sincerity, and relatability.  At least, they always did before The 15:17 to Paris, where they become a pair of unreasonable and delusional mothers who refuse to see their young middle school sons (during some flashbacks) for who they are.  The boys’ teacher calls them in to express concern at the boys’ behavior and offer some suggestions to help.  Both mothers become indignant, stubbornly refusing to accept the fact that their kids are troublemakers, and then verbally attack the person trying to help them.  And this is presented as something to be applauded.

Oh, and those flashbacks never really carry any significance.  One challenge facing Eastwood was taking a ten-minute story and stretching it into a 95-minute film.  He never overcomes that challenge.  Almost the entire film is a flashback before The Big Moment and exactly one scene builds to some sort of payoff during the climax.  The rest is just filler.  All the time spent showing us the three guys as a-hole middle-schoolers leads exactly nowhere.  I thought maybe it was building to them being some sort of representation of toxic masculinity throughout their adulthood, but that didn’t materialize, as they were presented as pretty decent guys, even aside from The Big Moment.  By this point in his career, Clint Eastwood should understand that one shouldn’t lay a foundation if they’re planning to build a houseboat.

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I wish that was all.  I really do.  But there’s more.  The script is the worst-written tripe I can recall assaulting my ears since I accidentally watched a Fifty Shades trailer.  My joy at seeing Fischer and Greer was quickly extinguished as soon as I heard the simple-minded words and “ideas” (a word I use extremely loosely, here) coming out of their mouths.  The guys themselves have to spew even more awful verbiage and, to make matters worse, their lack of acting abilities only highlight the absurdity of their speech.  I’m not exaggerating when I say that, on a scale of one to ten, this material was only a couple of levels above Tommy Wiseau’s The Room.

I feel like I’ve been pretty clear, here, but let me be direct, just to be sure: I hated every moment of this moviegoing experience.  How much do I hate this movie?  I once had a dream that I was fighting with The Office‘s Jim and Roy over Jenna Fischer’s Pam character and I’m now glad that she didn’t choose me because I would never want to be permanently connected to this movie – even by marriage in the dream world.  The two elderly ladies near me occasionally talked and, for once, I didn’t mind because they had better dialogue.  I didn’t have to pay for this movie but Moviepass deserves their money back.  I hate this movie.

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If you think I’m being unfair, you’re wrong.  Simply put, Warner Brothers knew they had a stinker on their hands and that’s clear because they released the film in February.  If they thought it was even close to being decent, they would have released it before the end of 2017 because this type of film is usually prime Oscar bait.  But they knew.  And now, we all know.  Clint Eastwood appears to have quit caring about quality and now only puts effort into mobilizing his conservative fan base and getting them to the theaters.  Although even they aren’t turning out for this one, as the film is nowhere near making a profit and might not even break even.  I would like to think that the Clint Eastwood of old still exists, somewhere, but if this is what we can expect from him for the time being, I might just be waiting on the sidelines and hoping for somebody else to someday tell me that he’s back.

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Review – The 15:17 to Paris

Review – Early Man

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Nick Park, creator of Wallace & Gromit and the man behind the underrated Chicken Run, returns with Aardman Animation in their latest effort, the prehistoric comedy Early Man.  Park’s trademark character designs and stop-motion animation – his medium of choice – are back in full force as Park and his crew deign to stand tall against the modern animation styling of computer generated graphics.  At the same time, hopes are high that the attempt at counterprogramming against Marvel’s Black Panther results in some spillover business (“Dang, Black Panther is sold out.  Let’s go see Early Man, then.”) and a boost in ticket sales.

Set during the transition from the stone age into the bronze age, Early Man tells the story of caveman Dug (Eddie Redmayne), who works to unite his fellow caveperson brethren in order to save his home from the evil tyrannical leader of a more technologically advanced civilization responsible for propelling humanity forward and hoping to leave Dug and his friends in the distant past.  So, Dug sets out to win freedom for himself and his loved ones by . . . winning a game of soccer?

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Okay, so the narrative is a bit odd, but the first shot of the film shows dinosaurs and man cohabiting the earth, so reality is tossed right out the window from the very start.  And I’m not bothered by “odd”, anyway.  Unfortunately, said narrative is also a bit dull.  The idea is fine.  Any idea can work with the proper execution.  But, here, the execution is just a bit off.  The culprit is primarily the pacing, as it takes a long time to get to the hook, even though the film only runs a bit over ninety minutes long, including credits.  But the film is also largely uneventful until the big climax finally arrives, causing the film to feel as if the story contains a beginning and an ending but no middle.  To compound the issues, the humor almost entirely falls flat, mostly due to the fact that the majority of it is derivative, having been done before in a copious amount of other films.

It’s not a total loss, as the movie has its moments.  I’d be lying if I said that the film didn’t get a few chuckles out of me (there’s one particularly amusing gag involving a duck that I won’t elaborate on any further, and Nick Park’s Hognob is consistently amusing), but in a film that’s marketed as a comedy, “a few chuckles” just aren’t enough.  As has become common in recent years, the funniest films often tend to be those that aren’t advertised as such, whereas films such as this one, whose primary goal is to elicit laughter, struggle to find even minimal success.  I appreciated the few moments that I got, but I wanted more than just those few sprinkled amongst stereotypical slapstick and one-liners that originated decades ago.

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I will say that I enjoyed the characters as well as the voice actors who bring them to life.  Dug, Goona (Maisie Williams), Hognob and the others are endearing, charming, and even lovable, making it difficult to outright dislike the film.  Even when rolling one’s eyes at their jokes, their sweet smiles and sincere hearts are rather irresistible.  Kudos to Aardman for pulling that off.  But they didn’t do it alone.  The studio pulled out all the stops in procuring their cast, with Redmayne and Williams being joined by Tom Hiddleston.  I had to remind myself during my viewing that these huge stars were the voices I was hearing, as they were unrecognizable while still managing to fully invest in their roles.

I also found it quite refreshing to see some classic stop-motion animation again.  It’s not smooth.  It’s not sleek.  It’s not shiny.  It’s not sexy.  But it’s art.  And it’s beautiful in its own way.  While not quite up to the level of the recent efforts from Laika, the studio behind the instant classic Kubo and the Two Strings, stop-motion animation is still an impressive accomplishment, regardless of the perceived shortcomings.  It lends an old-school, palpable feel to the film and contributes a much-needed kick to the energy level in the face of a narrative that doesn’t quite get the job done.

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I think I’m more disappointed in the fact that I’m not wild about Early Man than I am in the film itself.  The movie is not without its charms, but it’s also lacking the wit and bite that I was hoping to find as I sat down at the theater.  Most people seem to enjoy it more than I did, though, and I’m happy about that.  I want the film to do well.  I didn’t outright hate it, and even if I had, there should still be room for more traditional forms of animation to succeed.  Even if the movie doesn’t fire on all cylinders for me, personally, it’s an earnest effort from the filmmakers and the love they poured into it shows.  So, even though I’m not totally crazy about the film, if you had an interest in it, I hope you still go and see it.  Maybe you’ll fall in line with the majority and thoroughly enjoy yourself.  For your sake, the film’s sake, and the medium’s sake, I truly hope you do.

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Review – Early Man

Review – Black Panther

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If one needed any further evidence that Marvel Studios has its fingers firmly on the pulse of modern audiences, look no further than the fervor surrounding the newest entry in the vaunted Marvel Cinematic Universe, Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther.  While the Black Panther has been well-known to comic fans for over fifty years after being created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby for FANTASTIC FOUR #52 in 1966, he has remained a relatively unknown bit of trivia for the general public, much like the Guardians of the Galaxy once were.  Yet, there is practically every bit the excitement surrounding this film as there has been for any of Marvel’s other recent releases, with box office records expected to not only fall but be obliterated over the weekend.

Without question, Marvel and Disney know how to market their properties, but they’ve also built up good will with audiences and critics alike (every single MCU entry has garnered positive reviews, overall), so audiences feel safe in “risking” their money on a ticket to see the latest MCU effort.  But in addition to all of that, Black Panther is tapping into the same vein that both of last year’s hits Get Out and Wonder Woman tapped into.  The film is very appealing to an audience that has been underserved by the genre of comic book films.  There have been black superheroes before, but – as far as leading roles go – it’s been a while and little to none of them have been presented with the same sense of prestige and scale as the Black Panther is being presented.  Just as Wonder Woman was a superhero who happened to be a female, rather than a “female superhero” (“Look!  A superhero who keeps reminding you she’s female!  Yay!”), the Panther isn’t a “black superhero” but rather a superhero (and king) who is also black.  Don’t overlook the difference, because it’s all-important.

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So, after being introduced to audiences in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, we finally have the Black Panther’s formal debut.  I’ve had much about how the film isn’t a “typical Marvel movie”, and that would be true if there were such a thing.  But Marvel Studios has given us action films, comedies, espionage stories, heist films, mysteries, dramas, coming of age movies, space operas, period pieces, and virtually everything else (except for horror).  And now, in the form of Black Panther, Marvel and Coogler have given us a bombastic social commentary, though not necessarily of the kind one might presume.

What Coogler has delivered is a film about equality in all of its forms.  The goal is not to spread a message of “black power”.  In fact, the narrative goes out of its way to make the point that power should be wielded responsibly and benevolently.  Rather than being about any sort of “power”, the film preaches empathy, tolerance, and understanding.  Chadwick Boseman’s title character bears the birth name of T’Challa, with the Black Panther being a mantle that is passed down from one king to the next.  How that power is wielded is the primary focus of the story and is represented by multiple points of view, all with a component of validity.

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Many people in the past have drawn a comparison between the dichotomous dynamic of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X and that of the X-Men’s Professor X and Magneto due to their similar respective ideologies regarding discrimination and race relations, though a more direct comparison can now be made from the real-world civil rights-era figureheads to T’Challa and Michael B. Jordan’s Erik Killmonger.  Ultimately, the message in the film is that nothing should matter less than skin color.  For T’Challa, it’s completely irrelevant.  He won’t even entertain that discussion.  All that truly matters are ideals.  One can choose inclusion or exclusion.  It’s a choice we each make every day.  We make it in small ways and we make it in large ways.  But we all do it, without exception, every single day.  And that is the choice that truly defines us, both as individuals and as a culture.

Coogler and Marvel have assembled a stellar cast and crew to help them to tell this story.  In addition to Boseman’s T’Challa (who is complex, layered, and majestic) and Jordan’s Killmonger (who is technically a villain but will likely have many viewers wondering if his basic beliefs are really that off-kilter), audiences will enjoy a memorable supporting cast of authentically complicated characters portrayed by talented performers.  The biggest crowd-pleaser of the bunch will likely be Letitia Wright’s Shuri, T’Challa’s younger sister.  We can’t know if her character will eventually follow the same path as her comic book counterpart (comic fans know what I’m talking about.  The rest of you can look it up if you want to risk being spoiled down the line.), but either way, she is a welcome addition to the proceedings and Wright plays her with unbridled joy and enthusiasm.

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I could nitpick.  The action is solid (with a grand finale) but not overly groundbreaking, though Shuri designs some extremely ingenious tech.  It’s guilty of one trope that the MCU is often guilty of in that the villain becomes a super-powered clone of the hero (we’ve seen it before in Iron ManThe Incredible HulkIron Man 2Captain America: The First AvengerAnt-Man, and Doctor Strange).  And, while it’s a good time, it’s not quite as much pure fun as many other recent spectacle films, both Marvel and otherwise.  But it doesn’t necessarily need to be as it offers a certain kind of substance that many of those other films did not.  The film breaks ground by taking the high road and refusing to indulge those who are waiting for it to in some way – any way – stick its foot in its mouth.  Using this film as a provocative conversation starter would have been easy.  But, instead, Coogler and Marvel take a much more difficult and admirable route: they deliver a film that is a poignant, powerful, and punctuated conversation ender.

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Review – Black Panther

Review – Winchester

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The Winchester house is a very real thing.  Following the death of her husband, famed gun magnate William Manchester, Sarah Winchester continued to add onto the San Jose house that they had previously purchased together in an attempt to appease the ghosts that she claimed were haunting her.  Construction on the house never stopped until her death in 1922.  Over the decades, many have claimed that the house is haunted (with claims persisting to this day) and it has built up quite a legend for itself, even inspiring Stephen King to write a teleplay, which became the made-for-television movie Rose Red.  Now, brothers Michael and Peter Spierig (Jigsaw) adapt the story for the big screen and they’ve landed Helen Mirren for the lead role of Sarah Winchester.

Winchester is a brilliant example of a movie that is inspired by a true story and not based on a true story.  The foundations and framework of the film are steeply rooted in truth, but the primary narrative is entirely fiction.  Having established that, I would have thought that having the freedom to construct any desired story around the most unusual house in the world – with stairways leading into ceilings and oddly placed windows and pointless dead ends and on and on and on- which also happens to reportedly be haunted would be inspiration enough to craft something truly unique and original.  But, disappointingly, that is not the case with Winchester.

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As far as the traditional horror elements go, Winchester is a moderate success, depending upon what style of horror one prefers.  The film is moody and atmospheric enough but generally excels with its jump scares – more so than most recent horror films.  I was surprised by how many of the scare attempts occurred when I was truly, in no way, prepared for them.  They are accompanied and delivered by some solid visuals, expertly designed and crafted by the fine folks in the art department.  Genre fans should appreciate their efforts.

Despite that, modern horror has evolved beyond being able to rely solely upon scares if the filmmakers desire their final product to be anything truly memorable.  Films like The Conjuring and It tapped into the public zeitgeist and became true societal phenomena by being more than simply scary.  Those films were about the characters who were being victimized first and the horror second.  Audiences were invested in the Warrens and the Losers Club.

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While it’s clear that some effort was put into making both Sarah Winchester and Jason Clarke’s Eric Price sympathetic and relatable in Winchester, the effort largely goes wasted.  The narrative just isn’t unique or dynamic enough to provide Mirren and Clarke with the necessary ammunition to transform the project into something that stands out amongst its competition.  The writing isn’t “bad”.  It’s just bland.  Once the premise is established, the film comfortably falls back onto genre tropes without taking full advantage of the unrivaled setting (which was a gift) of the Winchester mansion.  Outside of the scenes during which Price is exploring the house, it somehow never feels any different than any other old haunted house from a hundred other horror movies.  And, even if they’re well timed and orchestrated, neither do the horror moments themselves.  It’s all just more of the same.

If nothing else, Jason Clarke still manages to shine and make the most of what he’s given.  Mirren is just fine, of course, but she could have handled this role as written with a severe head injury and a face full of Novocain.  Clarke, however, is finally granted a lead role that he manages to hold on to.  I feel like, for many, Clarke is one of those actors that is often recognized but is difficult to place.  He has had bigger, more high-profile roles than this one, but has always been overshadowed.  In Zero Dark Thirty, he had to share the screen with a fiercely determined Jessica Chastain.  As John Connor in Terminator: Genisys, he was competing with Emilia Clarke and the return of Arnold Schwarzenegger.  As George Wilson in Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, he found himself nose-to-nose with Leonardo DiCaprio.  But here, he truly takes the lead role (getting even more screen time than Mirren) and delivers a performance that won’t win awards, but was still injected with sincerity, soul, and vulnerability.  For me, this was the best I’ve seen him and it’s a shame that it will go almost entirely unnoticed.

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What it all comes down to is that Winchester is a mediocre horror film with a few bright spots.  For diehard horror fans, that might be enough.  For others, it won’t be.  I feel like this was a missed opportunity to do something special, especially with a tremendously motivated Jason Clarke in tow.  Alas, it wasn’t meant to be.  The desire is there, but the follow-through is not, most likely due to the relative inexperience of the directors/screenwriters.  Unlike most, I enjoyed their take on the Saw franchise with last year’s Jigsaw, so I’m not giving up on them.  But this particular outing was more of a walk than a home run.

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Review – Winchester

Review – Paddington 2

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I had absolutely no interest in seeing Paddington 2.  None.  I saw the first film, just a week or two ago, and didn’t love it.  It wasn’t poorly made, or anything.  It just wasn’t made for me.  The humor and presentation were squarely aimed at kids, with little for adults to enjoy.  And there’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but it didn’t exactly fill me with excitement for seeing another installment by the same filmmakers, including director Paul King who returns to helm this sequel.  To be fair, though, most critics and audiences, alike, enjoyed that first film, so I decided that I could be willing to give the series another chance and check out the new one – especially after its crazy reviews.

Oh, right – the reviews for Paddington 2 . . ..  For those who are unaware, Paddington 2 is officially the highest rated film in Rotten Tomatoes history (though, as I illustrate here, you’re probably using Rotten Tomatoes incorrectly).  It is one of only a handful of films to ever earn a 100% score on the review aggregation site and it’s done so with more reviews than any of the others that managed to achieve that milestone.  So, really . . . I kind of had to see it, right?  Even if I’m a couple of weeks behind, I just had to see it.  In spite of those reviews, I still expected to dislike it at worst and be bored at best.  I was straight up wrong.

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In the film, Paddington (voiced by Ben Whishaw) sets his sights on a rare and expensive birthday present for the aunt who raised him and he left behind in the woods, so long ago.  As he assumes the responsibility of earning the money for it all on his own by taking odd jobs, the intended gift is stolen and things quickly spiral out of control for Paddington and his adoptive family, the Browns.

The first item I want to touch on is what I mostly disliked about the first film: the humor.  It’s definitely better in the sequel, with subtlety and a traditional British dryness about it that, while not uproarious, certainly works.  The humor sneaks in there without feeling the need to announce itself as humor.  You either catch it or you don’t.  And, thankfully, there are enough instances of comedy aimed at adults – through sophistication, not any sort of inappropriateness – that parents (or film geeks who just want to see what all the fuss is about) will be amused.

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But what surprised me the most was how many elements of other films and shows – films and shows that wouldn’t be expected – I found in Paddington 2.  For example, part of the film takes place in a prison and while that on its own isn’t enough to draw any sort of insightful comparison to “Orange is the New Black”, Brendan Gleeson’s Knuckle McGinty character is.  His arc is evocative of one of the Netflix series’s more memorable character arcs.

Also, as Hugh Grant’s Phoenix Buchanan searches for his own treasure, his path is reminiscent of The Da Vinci Code.  Buchanan is also an actor in the twilight of his career, being relegated to doing dog food commercials.  I couldn’t help but think of Birdman but, more than that, Grant’s own star isn’t what it once was and, similar to Buchanan’s reputation taking a hit for appearing in a dog food commercial (which is one of the highlights of the film), Grant took some flak in certain circles for appearing in this very film.  That adds another more meta aspect to his role and performance and it certainly seems like Grant is getting the last laugh, right about now.

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But there was one other comparison I kept making and it had to do with Paddington’s characterization.  Paddington is irresistibly lovable and, as I watched, I made a concerted effort to put my finger on why.  Yes, he’s a cuddly little bear with an English accent, but so is James Corden, and he can be divisive.  No, it’s something beyond that.  And then it hit me.  Paddington is likeable for the exact same reason that Deadpool was likeable in his 2016 film: authenticity.  It was here (in one of my more popular columns) where I pointed out that people love Deadpool not because he’s violent, not because he’s funny, and not because of the foul mouth that the film version has and the comic version usually doesn’t, but because he’s earnest.

In that way, Paddington is the same.  When Paddington is funny, it’s not because he’s trying to be funny; it’s because he’s just being himself.  When Paddington is helpful, it’s not because he’s looking to get something in return; he’s just being himself.  When Paddington is angry, he’s not worried about how the target of his anger will react or feel; he’s just being himself.  And when Paddington is being loving towards his family and friends, it’s not because he’s trying to selfishly retain them to satisfy his own needs; it’s because he genuinely loves them.

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This idea is the cornerstone of the film.  Ultimately, the message of Paddington 2 is that love and kindness have ripple effects that make life better for both the giver and the receiver, first in little ways and then compounding into more significant, long-term aftereffects that can change a person’s life for the better.  The word that keeps coming up in reference to Paddington 2 is “charming” and I’m going to have to use it, too.  Because, amidst its charismatic characters, heartwarming story, downplayed humor, creative shot framing, and majestic English setting, the film has an undeniable charm that is missing from most movies, these days.  Paddington 2 is a throwback to the days when simplicity was king and high ethics and morals as well as family values were considered boons, not banes.

Maybe I’ll give the first film another chance, once I get through watching some other movies and shows I have on deck at home.  Perhaps I just wasn’t in the mood for it, the first time around.  Regardless, I’m glad I took my own advice, listened to the critics, and saw Paddington 2.  Maybe, just maybe, I’ll try marmalade soon, too.

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Review – Paddington 2

Review – The Commuter

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Has anyone played the same exact character archetype with the regularity and consistency of Liam Neeson?  This time, he reunites with director Jaume Collet-Serra (who won me over entirely with this underrated 2016 gem) as they are joined by The Conjuring alumnae Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson for The Commuter, an action-thriller set upon a commuter train.  Neeson has fallen into a very comfortable niche as the hard-nailed tough guy willing to sacrifice his own well-being for the benefit of literally anyone else, whether it be his own family or a bunch of strangers.  In The Commuter, it’s both but, as clichéd as this type of role has become for Neeson, the film still has plenty of fun and thrills to offer.

Without giving too much away (I’ll stick to what’s revealed in the trailer), The Commuter centers on Neeson’s character of Michael MacCauley as he is approached with an offer by the mysterious Joanna (Farmiga) as he is riding the commuter train home following a particularly trying day.  Joanna informs Michael that someone on the train doesn’t belong, as they have something that isn’t theirs.  If he is able to identify that person for her before the target departs the train, Michael will be rewarded with $100,000.

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It should be clear to anyone who is both vaguely aware of their surroundings and in possession of the ability to form long- and short-term memories that this kind of film is right up Neeson’s alley.  He’s naturally at complete ease in the role and, though we’ve seen this same character and same basic performance from him many times, it never really gets old, does it?  I would imagine that Neeson himself would love a high-profile opportunity to demonstrate the range that he obviously possesses, but it can’t be a horrible thing to be able to make so much money in such an effortless and presumably enjoyable fashion.  Neeson delivers exactly what you’re looking for, so don’t worry about that.

Vera Farmiga’s Joanna doesn’t get much screen time but she devours the few minutes she is afforded.  However, even though we don’t see much of her, Joanna has a constant presence throughout the film and Farmiga makes an excellent villain.  She’s very relaxed and confident, but also firm and commanding.  She knows she’s in control and she knows how to get what she wants.  The rest of the supporting cast (including the aforementioned Wilson and the always-welcome Sam Neill) carry their own weight, with some getting more of a spotlight than others.  One in particular (who I will refrain from specifying in order to avoid potential spoilers) really jumps at their chance and makes quite an impression with only one truly meaty scene.  Nobody in the film is positioned to be Margot Robbie in I, Tonya or Jessica Chastain in Molly’s Game but everyone combines their talents into a group effort that elevates the overall product.

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As an moviegoing experience, The Commuter delivers.  In fact, for me personally, it exceeded my expectations.  I believe the main reason for that is the marketing.  I already had somewhat lofty expectations because the picture is directed by Collet-Serra, but the marketing sold it as an action-thriller with a hint of mystery.  I find generic action films to be rather tired without anything else to offer, so that made me a bit wary.  Knowing Collet-Serra was helming the film gave me hope that there was more to it than mindless action, however, and there is.  Rather than being a straightforward action film, the majority of the narrative focuses on the mystery unfolding around Michael.

It actually plays out much like a high-octane, contemporized Murder on the Orient Express.  One primary difference is that the focus remains on Michael and, much like real life where we see the same faces day in and day out as we go about our daily routines of hitting the gym or the subway or the grocery store, we mostly only know the other passengers by their faces and general demeanor.  Collet-Serra does an excellent job of making each of our suspects distinctive and memorable.  Each stands out so that when they later resurface, no effort is necessary to recall them from before.  I’ve seen many other filmmakers struggle with this sort of thing (many general audiences still don’t know who Maria Hill is from the Marvel Cinematic Universe), so this seemingly simple accomplishment actually speaks highly for Collet-Serra’s instincts as a filmmaker.

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Speaking more specifically of Collet-Serra, not many people know his name, quite yet, but he’s establishing a reputation for himself as a consistent, reliable craftsman of action-suspense-thrillers.  With Non-StopOrphan, and The Shallows already on his résumé, in The Commuter he offers an endlessly entertaining and suspenseful crowd-pleaser that effectively builds to a satisfying and exciting conclusion.  Bits of the film may be predictable, but each story beat moves sensibly to the next and there are still some surprises to be had along the way.  Those who watch without engaging their brains may blow the movie off as more of the same from Neeson.  But for those who are paying attention, there is much more going on than just that.

The bottom line is that Jaume Collet-Serra’s The Commuter will provide the viewer with whatever it is they’re hoping to find within the film, whether it be mystery, suspense, action, Neeson being Neeson, Farmiga stealing scenes, or unexpected performances from little-known members of the cast.  There is no effort from anyone involved to provide anything outside of a fun escape from reality, which is actually quite refreshing among all of the Oscar bait that has been swamping me with all of said reality, lately (as enjoyable as many of those films have been).  This isn’t about subtextual societal commentaries or emotionally uplifting think pieces.  It’s just a good, old-fashioned fun time at the movies.

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Review – The Commuter