Paddington (2014)

PaddingtonWhen an English explorer embarks on an expedition to Darkest Peru he happens upon a new, sentient species of bear. Many years later — after an earthquake destroys their home in the hills — the now elderly bears dispatch a young descendant in search of him, to London where he instead meets Mr and Mrs Brown (Hugh Bonneville and Sally Hawkins, respectively) at Paddington Station. Named after the station, Paddington (Ben Whishaw) is adopted by the family until such time as either Mrs Brown can trace the explorer or Mr Brown can contact the relevant authority. At the Natural History Museum, meanwhile, taxidermist Millicent (Nicole Kidman) catches wind of the bear’s arrival and — aided by the Browns’ intolerant neighbour (Peter Capaldi) — makes the necessary preparations for her new exhibit.

Here’s a question for you: can you name a good British children’s movie. Just one. You can’t, can you? At least, not a recent one. OK, try this: name even an average British children’s movie? There’s no point scrutinising the past year for examples, anyway, for so far 2014 has only subjected the nation’s youngsters (and parents) to the torturous likes of Postman Pat: The Movie, Pudsey: The Movie and Nativity 3: Dude, Where’s My Donkey. Cast your mind back further and you may recall the equally unendurable likes of Horrid Henry and All Stars. There are exceptions, of course — Son of Rambow and Pirates! in an Adventure with Scientists, to name just two — but it’s relatively rare you see a British children’s movie you can actually be proud of.

The man with the best track record is perhaps David Heyman, producer of the Harry Potter films. While financed overseas it is one of the most thoroughly British series of movies imaginable, shot in the United Kingdom and starring a predominantly British cast; and not only did all eight of them play well here but they were embraced the world over, too. Therefore, when Heyman announced that he was to return to the genre post-Gravity with another adaptation — this time of Michael Bond’s ‘Paddington Bear’ books — one couldn’t help but feel a certain level of cautious optimism. If anyone could help to craft a good movie from a quaint, half-forgotten children’s TV character it would be him. Even if it was co-written by the man responsible for Mr Bean’s Holiday.

And he has, undoubtedly, helped to craft a good movie. Director Paul King — in only his second feature film, after Bunny and the Bull — has reimagined Paddington for the 21st Century, remaining faithful to Bond’s original stories while also making the character relevant to today’s audience — and not, like Postman Pat director Mike Disa, by having him participate in Britain’s Got Talent and battle an army of killer robot doppelgangers. Part of that is of course achieved by presenting the character in a manner acceptable to today’s children, those weaned on Pixar and superhero movies — and Framestore have done a terrific job of animating him, proving cries of Scary, Sleazy Paddington to be unfounded — but more than that it’s King’s recognition that London needs updating too which sets the film apart.

Originally conceived in the wake of World War II, when Bond found a lone (toy) bear for sale in a London train station, Paddington embodied a generation of children evacuated from their war-torn homes and adopted by foster families the country over — an idea that is still central to the movie, as it informs Paddington’s preconceptions of the nation while forming the basis of his aunt’s decision to send him there in the first place. It’s no longer British children who are in need of asylum, however, and realising this King has found a new but no less deserving part of the population for Paddington to represent: refugees. At a time when the British government is clamping down on immigration and nationalism is growing in popularity it takes a foreign member of a separate species to come over here, eat all of our preserves and remind us what it really means to be British.

Not only is Paddington an important movie, then, but it’s also an entertaining one, too. The film has a terrifically British sense of humour, combining the kind of cross-dressing silliness you’d expect from something like Monty Python with the sort of visual gags more commonly associated with Aardman. It’s also witty, with the likes of Hugh Bonneville and Sally Hawkins, Nicole Kidman and Peter Capaldi proving excellent sparring partners, and surreal, recalling its director’s own work on The Mighty Boosh. Ultimately, however, the film belongs to Ben Whishaw — who took over from Colin Firth when the latter left the project earlier this year. Prim, polite and very proper, Whishaw also has fun with the grunts and glottal stops that belie Paddington’s jungle origins. For an actor who has so far thrived on relatively adult roles — impressing in Cloud Atlas and Brideshead Revisited — it’s great to see him prove equally adept at something accessible to all.

As welcome as the film’s liberal, egalitatian ethos is, however, you can’t help but wonder if King might have done more to embrace it himself. As nice as it is to see Jim Broadbent or Julie Walters in the supporting cast, the decision to use English actors in international (and regional) roles is a strange one given the message, and sort of undermines the idea that anyone might come to London and call themselves a Londoner — or to Paddington Station and appear in a Paddington bear movie. That said, ridiculous accents have long been a tradition in sketch comedy, and it’s undoubtedly a small quibble with an otherwise unimpeachable success story. Paddington should be toasted — and coated generously with marmalade should he ask for it.

4-Stars

 

 

Le Week-End (2013)

Le Week-EndNick (Jim Broadbent) and Meg (Lindsay Duncan) can’t agree on anything, aside from their mutual dissatisfaction. Even on the way to Paris for their wedding anniversary, the pair struggle to be civil with one another. At their hotel, Meg refuses to stay in the room booked by her husband on account of it being beige, dragging him instead on a taxi tour of the city before taking a room at one of the most prestigious places in town. Thrifty Nick is just as adept at frustrating his wife, smacking his lips while he eats and commenting on her weight while lamenting their lack of a sex life. When they run into one of Nick’s old school friends, a successful author who exudes contentment (Jeff Goldblum), they are invited to an intimate dinner at his Parisian apartment.

From director Roger Mitchell, Le Week-End is an unusually successful attempt at an anti-romantic-comedy, or at least an honest one. The so-called “City of Love”, Paris is shot with an uncompromising lens, the landmarks mired in mist or partially obscured by foliage, the restaurants and people deprived of the romance with which they are usually imbued. It creates a surprisingly mundane, realistic atmosphere that extends to the central relationship between Nick and Meg. These aren’t star-crossed lovers or romantic heroes but ordinary people, as disarmingly recogniseable as they are disconcertingly difficult to read. Broadbent makes his turn in Mike Leigh’s similarly naturalistic Another Year seem positively jolly.

There is a wonderfully ambiguous tension between the two, not sexual but something far more difficult to define. They argue about everything — at one point Meg even pushes her elderly husband to the ground and threatens to leave him, while on another she is hounded with accusations of some past infidelity — but it is always clear that they share an irrefutable fondness for one another. There are scenes of real chemistry and camaraderie, as they laugh at in-jokes and share similar tastes, but there’s always an edge that prevents you from ever feeling truly comfortable in their company. They are not the most likeable characters, and for much of the film you find it almost impossible to warm to them individually or root for their relationship, which only adds to the uncertainty and reality.

Things come to a head with the introduction of Jeff Goldblum’s character, and both Nick and Meg are at breaking point when they show up at his door for a badly-timed dinner party. Once inside they are introduced to an array of young bohemian types who are all successful — and satisfied — in their individual careers. It seems almost absurd given the tone of the opening hour, and indeed it proves too much for Nick and Meg, the former of whom ends up smoking weed with his host’s angsty son while the latter is inclined to accept a sexual advance from one of the young partygoers. Goldblum is a joy, channeling his usual distracted diffidence to fittingly dubious effect, as he confesses to a confounded Nick just how much he owes to his old school friend.

At first glance the ending might seem slightly out of touch with the rest of the narrative, but on second thought it is just as bittersweet as everything that has come before. A film that is as emotionally complicated as it is compelling, Le Week-End is a wonderfully authentic piece of filmmaking that benefits from Mitchell’s uncompromising direction, Hanif Kureishi’s scathing script and two beautiful performances from Broadbent and Duncan. You won’t love it, but nobody’s asking you to.

4-Stars

Filth (2013)

FilthBruce Robertson (James McAvoy) is in line for a promotion, and barring unforeseen circumstances he’s the clear favourite, putting him ahead of Ray Lennox (Jamie Bell), Amanda Drummond (Imogen Poots) and Peter Inglis (Emun Elliott). Cue unforeseen circumstances. Things start to go wrong when, on top of leading a murder investigation, Bruce is tasked with identifying the prank caller who’s been harassing the wife of Registrar General for Scotland’s Office Bladesey (Eddie Marsan) — a job complicated by the fact that he himself is the culprit. Under ever increasing pressure, and struggling with a number of psychological issues and addictions, Bruce begins to unravel, little helped by the unorthodox efforts of his Australian psychiatrist (Jim Broadbend).

If there was an award for best trailer of 2013 so far it would undoubtedly go to Filth, with the tongue-in-cheek 12A teaser making a joke out of the little available child-friendly footage and yet still hinting at one of the most outrageous, surreal and entertaining films of the year. Since Trainspotting, in fact — the last Irvine Welsh adaptation to get the balance just right.  The highlight of the adverts was arguably Jim Broadbent, who chewed the scenery as an Antipodean psychoanalyst who — judging by the accent — might have walked in from the set of a Fosters advert.

Unfortunately, Filth is not as outrageous, surreal or entertaining as the promotional material would have you believe. Many of the most memorable images are wasted in the first few scenes, relegated to dream sequences and unimportant imaginings, while Jim Broadbent has little to do but re-enact the scenes you’ve seen before every other movie for at least the last two months. The film is sick, twisted and decidedly un-PC, but it lacks the colour and playfulness that could have made it enjoyable, too. A discordant and juxtapositional soundtrack might work to offset or subvert the content, but it is neither as clever, cheeky or as punchy as it thinks it is.

That’s not to say that the film is without merit, as the performances are exceptional almost without exception. James McAvoy gives Bruce Robertson his all, wasting no time in a futile attempt to make himself sympathetic and instead channeling his full energies into making the character as vile, reprehensible yet undeniably compelling as physically possible. As established, Broadbent is a delight whenever he’s onscreen, while Imogen Poot, Jamie Bell and Eddie Marsan make impressions completely disproportionate to their minimal screentime. Filth has actors to spare, with Iain De Caestecker, Kate Dickie and Shirley Henderson left to fight over scraps.

Like Trainspotting, Filth is an extraordinarily unlikeable story full of the sort of reprehensible characters that you’d usually cross the road to avoid. Unlike Trainspotting, however, and despite a superior trailer, it lacks the directorial verve and editorial punch necessary to create the illusion of entertainment. It’s certainly filthy, but not at all gorgeous.

3-Stars

Cloud Atlas (2013)

Cloud AtlasWhile reading the diaries of a young American lawyer (Jim Sturgess) busy concluding business during the Californian gold-rush, amanuensis Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw) produces “The Cloud Atlas Sextet”, a masterpiece in part inspired by the dreams of an aging composer. After a chance meeting with Frobisher’s ex-lover in 1973 puts her up against Lloyd Hooks (Hugh Grant), journalist Luisa Rey (Halle Berry) pens a crime novel based on her investigations into his oil company, to be published 27 years later by one Timothy Cavendish (Jim Broadbent). In the future, the plight of a small rebellion and their clone saviour (Doona Bae) continues to impact the life of  Zachry (Tom Hanks), 106 years after The Fall. Read more of this post

The Iron Lady (2012)

It’s present day, and Margaret Thatcher (Meryl Streep) is struggling to keep her mind as the painful memory of her late husband (Jim Broadbent) haunts her wherever she goes. Never free of his presence, the ex-Prime Minister fights senility in anticipation of the unveiling of her portrait at 10 Downing Street. Determined to exercise her burgeoning dementia by ridding herself of his old clothes, Thatcher finds herself re-living her life through a series of half-remembered episodes.

It seems that everyone has a problem with The Iron Lady, Phyllipa Lloyd’s directorial follow up to Mamma Mia!. Thatcher’s peers are outraged by the film’s timing, it’s depiction of the ex-Prime Minister potentially damaging not just to the political party, but the aged Lady herself. Her detractors, meanwhile, are faced with the prospect of two hours spent in the company of a heavily sentimentalised variant of their own personal anti-Christ. And this is after Lloyd has stripped her film of controversy, inadvertently robbing it of substance in the process.

So, if The Iron Lady isn’t actually about politics, as a decidedly optimistic Lloyd might have us believe, what exactly is it about? Well, everyone involved seems to have a different answer. To some it is a portrait of a feminist icon, to others it is a simple love story, while the director herself maintains that it is a film about ageing. While the filmmakers handle these errant threads with varying success, the unavoidable fact that the polarising figure of Margaret Thatcher has been chosen to play case study, sans her political baggage, leaves the film with a gigantic hole at its centre. An oliphant in the room, if you will.

Not that anyone appears to have alerted Meryl Streep, who duly approaches the role with a verve and attention to detail that goes some way to compensate for the screenplay’s distinct lack of spine. Having clearly done her research, Streep has amassed a truly amazing arsenal of nuances and idiosyncrasies that help veer this psuedo-biopic away from mere charicature. From budding politician to dementia-laden hate figure (by way of Prime Minister, of course), her performance is never anything short of astounding.

The supporting cast too are an absolute delight. Jim Broadbent fleshes out what could have been a truly gaudy gimmick as the bizarrely corporeal memory of Thatcher’s late husband, the actor’s own personal reservations about Thatcher Proper invisible beneath his customary warmth and humility. Olivia Colman, meanwhile, threatens to steal the show as Carol Thatcher, similarly avoiding pastiche in preference of sentiment and poignancy, leading to some undeniably touching moments. Beyond the core family, however (and maybe Anthony Stewart Head’s Geoffrey Howe), the rest of the film’s cast flit by in a passing resemblance to infamous faces past and present.

Unfortunately, this simply isn’t enough to paper over the cracks. The framing device just doesn’t work, with the narrative taking an absolutely grating amount of time to get underway. Considering just how much happened during Thatcher’s time in power (and if there is one thing to be said of the so-called Iron Lady it is that she had an eventful term in office), an absolutely unforgivable amount of time is wasted in conjecture, speculating as to the impact of Thatcher’s excursions to buy milk. There may be moments in this fabrication that work, but ultimately it fails to provide a workable starting point from which to explore her past.

Slight, tedious and painfully episodic, The Iron Lady marks little but a wasted opportunity, particularly disappointing due to the staggering amount of talent evident onscreen. Career-high performances are completely at odds with a misguided script, unremarkable direction and an unseemly amount of time spent watching an elderly Margaret Thatcher eat toast. Powerful, yes. But Lloyd seems to have forgotten that with great power also comes great responsibility.

Arthur Christmas (2011)

With Christmas having been progressively militarised by Steven Claus (Hugh Laurie) in his figurehead father’s (Jim Broadbent) growing laziness, the magic of Christmas is under threat as presents are dispassionately delivered by diligent, absailing elves aboard a giant aircraft instead of by Santa in his trusty sleigh. When a child is missed and left presentless, lost in the operation’s margin of error, the forever festive Arthur Claus (James McAvoy) takes matters into his own hands, recruiting the elderly Grandsanta (Bill Nighy) and endeavouring to deliver the child’s present using the old man’s archaic sled, Evie, along with one of his sole remaining reindeer and gift-wrapper extraordinaire Bryony (Ashley Jensen). Unfortunately, their crude equipment and the lateness of the hour leads to a number of sightings and their mission is mistaken by for an alien invasion. With the world’s armed forces in hot pursuit, Steven and Clause Senior must put aside their dispute about the future of the Santa brand and help Arthur before it is too late.

Following last year’s Finnish tale of feral Santamen who slay reindeer and punish naughty children, it is a bit of a relief to return to more traditional fare with an animated comedy about a good-natured misfit who just wants a perfect Christmas for all. The first CGI film from Aardman, Arthur Christmas treats the Santa myth with mock seriousness as it tries to put a decidedly British spin on a character who has to date largely been played by Americans. A note perfect voice over from Outnumbered‘s Ramona Marquez sets the scene beautifully as her character enquires as to Santa’s means of accomodating population growth and why his headquarters do not appear on Google Earth, hinting at the Aardman’s own quality that we are about to enjoy.

The voice cast is quite simply sublime, with the dulcet tones of Imelda Staunton, Robbie Coltrane, Michael Palin, Eva Longoria,  Andy Serkis, Dominic West and Joan Cusack filling out an ensemble that prove just as effective as the Claus’ they support. It is the unbeatable combination of Bill Nighy’s senile curmudgeon, Jim Broadbent’s out-of-touch has-been, Hugh Laurie’s ambitious commander and Ashley Jensen’s rookie elf that ultimately steals the show, however, with only McAvoy struggling to keep the eponymous Arthur on just the right side of annoying.

Like any Aardman production, however, it is the attention to detail and keen wit that sets the movie a Wallace and Gromit apart from the competition. With the exception of a clunky extra-terrestrial subplot, the film rattles along at an astounding pace as the visuals delight and the wordplay engages, both parents and children able to enjoy the jokes as equals. Gently mocking everything from Toronto, to alien-fearing Americans, to Christmas itself, the gags come thick and fast as the studio’s genius is put to reliably good use. The film’s message about the sterility of technology, however, might have been more effective had this not marked Aardman’s controversial embrace of computer generated 3D.

Although some may miss the nostalgic thumb-prints, there is no denying that this isn’t classic Aardman at its best.  Though the narrative may lose its way towards the film’s bloated mid-section, all involved regroup with such gusto for the inspired resolution that any earlier fumblings couldn’t be further from your mind. Witty, clever, and yet wonderfully absurd, Arthur Christmas is a very welcome addition to the Christmas film cannon.

Hogwarts Revisited – Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

On the fifteenth of July, 2011, the highest grossing film franchise ever will finally come to an end. Spanning ten years, eight movies, four directors and a worldwide box-office gross of over six billion dollars – the Harry Potter film franchise will draw to a close with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, as Harry faces off against He Who Must Not Be Named for the very last time.

So, without further ado, previously on Harry Potter…

Voldermort is making his presence felt, not only in the wizarding world but with the violent destruction of London’s Millennium Bridge. Returning to Hogwarts, even Professor Dumbledore’s (Michael Gambon) ability to protect his students is drawn into question when a series of attempts on the headmaster’s life backfire on the school’s student body. Convinced that it is Malfoy (Tom Felton) who is behind the attacks, having seen him inspecting a vanishing cabinet at Borgin and Burkes, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) has a hard time convincing his friends that Malfoy might be given such an important assignment by Voldermort. Dumbledore, meanwhile, is far more concerned with teaching Harry a proper subject for once: history.

Using a Pensieve to share a series of memories with Harry, Dumbledore is troubled by a memory sourced from the new Defence of the Dark Arts teacher, Professor Slughorn (Jim Broadbent). Tasked with retrieving the unedited memory from Slughorn, Harry uses his fame to infiltrate his teacher’s self-important Slug Club. Discovering that Tom Riddle was looking to split his soul across seven items – and certain that he may have succeeded – Dumbledore takes Harry to the alleged site of one of these Horcuxes with the intention of destroying it like Harry destroyed the diary and he himself had destroyed the ring. Escaping with it to Hogwarts, Harry is shown to have been right as Malfoy ambushes Dumbledore with a series of Death Eaters, killing him.

David Yates, only the second director to return for another glass of Polyjuice Potion, picks up where he left off with the celebratory cries of Bellatrix LeStrange (Helena Bonham Carter) ringing through the opening sequence, having just murdered her cousin. Haunting and evocative, the echoes of Order of the Phoenix immediately invoke the oppressive atmosphere invoked by the end of the previous movie. From this point on, Yates does his best to balance the impending darkness with a cavalier portrayal of teenage life – namely through his focus on “sex, potions and rock and roll”. It is a winning duality, providing our best insight yet into the central trio’s core relationship.

The soap operatics work beautifully, as Grint and Watson are finally given more to do that mug and scowl respectively. Their growing jealousy of one another provides a nice escape from the impending sense of doom, each student allowed to mature into young adults in a way that feels remarkably organic and within character. Radcliffe is exceptional in a role that finally allows him to stretch his funny bone, the scene in which he mourns the death of Hagrid’s (Robbie Coltrane) pet acromantula while high on liquid luck really endears the character in a much more engaging way than previously attempted. It is the scenes set across The Tree Broomsticks and Slug Club gatherings that really impress, however, with the sexual politics and maturing inter-relationships fleshing out the friendship in a way that expertly ups the stakes for the coming war. You really start to fear for the characters.

It isn’t just Radcliffe, Watson and Grint that impress, however, with the franchise continuing to introduce interesting new characters even at this late stage in the game. Lavender Brown (Jessie Cave) and Cormac McLaggen (Freddie Stroma) both provide winning comic relief as differentially successful love interests for Ron and Hermione respectively. Jim Broadbent, meanwhile, is marvelously mistrustful as the new potions master (Snape has finally claimed the Defence Against the Dark Arts position), Professor Slughorn. With the exception of a few early duff notes from Michael Gambon’s Albus Dumbledore (come on Professor, try!), it is quite amazing just how solid the performances have become.

David Yates’ relatively gung-ho approach to the script does begin to grate, however, with a number of key scenes dropped in favour of a needless, invented-just-for-the-movie scene in which The Burrow is inexplicably destroyed by Death Eaters. Citing a concern for repetitiveness, Yates even went so far as to remove the final battle – quite despite the fact that the decision to split the final film in two would end the next film on a different note entirely. Whether because of my general disregard of the sixth book (goodbye and good riddance to Harry’s belly-monster) or the wealth of consolation on offer, however, I’m more forgiving of Half-Blood Prince than I am of Order of the Phoenix. Subjective, yes, but this is a retrospective.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, then, is the perfect quasi-penultimate instalment. The calm before the storm, it really is an absolute pleasure to spend some quality time with Rowling’s extraordinary creations before they depart on their crusade against Voldermort’s scattershot soul. With Nicholas Hooper returning to score the film – his enchanting Dumbledore’s Army theme thankfully in tow – and boasting the awesome cinematography of one Bruno Delbonnel (the pensieve-set scenes are a work of art), this really is family entertainment at its best.