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

 

 

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Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part II (2011)

Bloody Hell, as Ron Weasley might have said. Ten years, eight movies, four directors and a worldwide box-office gross of over six billion dollars and look where it’s taken us: full circle.

So, without further ado, now the conclusion…

With three Horcruxes down and just four to go, Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) must pick up where he left off if he is to defeat Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) once and for all. Bartering with the goblin Griphook (Warwick Davis) – entry into Bellatrix Lestrange’s (Helena Bonham Carter) vault at Gringotts for the sword of Griffindor – Harry, Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) must utilise all they have learnt in order to make it past the extensive security. Recognising Voldemort’s presence in the cup of Hufflepuff, the trio are betrayed and left to make their own way out of the wizarding bank – swordless. Cue: dragon.

Parting ways with the Ukrainian Ironbelly, Harry’s connection with Voldemort indicates that the next Horcrux lies within the walls of Hogwarts. Assisted by Dumbledore’s brother, Aberforth, Harry, Ron and Hermione are shown the way back into the castle, lead through the secret passageway by none other than Neville Longbottom (Matthew Lewis). Identifying the remaining two Horcruxes as Rowena Ravenclaw’s Diadem and the Dark Lord’s pet snake Nagini as the remaining Horcruxes, the trio split up in search of both the diadem and a means to destroy it while the school’s staff, students and the Order of the Phoenix prepare Hogwarts for battle.

There will be some, the odd soul as yet uninitiated with J. K. Rowling’s celebrated source material, to whom the above might as well be conveyed in Parseltongue. All this talk of Horcruxes and Hogwarts, Hallows and Hufflepuff, must read like utter Gobbledegook. Should that be the case, and it is certainly no fault of mine or director David Yates’, I offer this series of retrospectives, links to the rentable film series and the novels before them. One decade on this is our world, just as you wouldn’t tune into the last episode of Lost and expect it to play like the first.

If you’ve stuck with the series, literary or cinematic, endured the duff notes on and off the big screen and embraced the wizarding world, this is the movie you’ve been waiting for. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I did all the leg work, getting us just where we needed to be. My reservations regarding the previous film’s end-point proved ill-conceived, a quick session of plot 101 and we’re good to go, the momentum left to build until we’re veritably hurtling towards the finale. This is the shortest Potter movie of the lot and it certainly feels it, with little water left to tread we all too soon find ourselves back in Hogwarts, the end achingly nigh.

To say I cried at Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part II would be an understatement of towering proportions. The biggest compliment I can bestow on this final chapter is that it hit me like a bat-bogey hex. It is testament to not only the work of Yates and his team of filmmakers – Alexandre Desplat, I love you – but the underestimated talents of Radcliffe, Watson and Grint that a story so high on silly should deliver an emotional punch of such ruthless affect. Both in its epic grandiosity and its treatment of reconciliation and tragedy, the film positively brims with emotional resonance.

If you are devastated at the sight of death, touched by the respect of what came before – CORNISH PIXIES! – or humoured by the richness of character (Helena Bonham Carter was born to do Emma Watson impressions), it is unlikely you will enjoy a more fulfilling experience this year. Already likable presences, Harry, Ron and Hermione now have complete dominion over your affections, whether you have read the books are aware of their fates or have simply followed the actors this far, the bond of their friendship is one of the most moving fictional relationships imaginable. While some characters might not achieve the life – or death – that they deserve, the treatment of the central trio is nothing short of perfection.

This is ultimately Harry’s story, however, and while a certain kiss might warm the cockles of your heart it is Radcliffe’s journey that will set them on fire. The depth of character is simply astounding, Rowling’s creation brought to life by an actor who – once upon a time – could barely rub his scarred forehead with much conviction. That he even survives the appallingly misjudged prologue – every bit as cringeworthy as it is in the novel – with his dignity intact just goes to show what majesty Radcliffe has over his character.

That this much nuance and character development is achieved in the shadow of a bombastic pyrotechnic or rampaging giant just serves to illustrate the richness of texture. This is a war movie and it delivers incredible bang for its buck. As a camera tracks our heroes’ movements around the castle, in and out of crumbling corridors and over bloodied corpses, the background detail truly astonishes. The escape from Gringotts – already a impressive spectacle in its own right – pales in comparison to the battle of Hogwarts, so awash is it with familiar faces, breathtaking action and proclivity for surprise. While J. K. Rowling’s blueprints serve the story well, Yates’ eye for an arresting set piece works the material beautifully, finding a new – but forever faithful – alchemy of his own.

I honestly couldn’t have asked for more – well, I suppose I could have but that would just be ungrateful – Yates delivering a movie which honours the past, respects the books and finally gives Alan Rickman something to do other than spout elocution lessons.  As we leave Hogwarts for the last time – awash with rubble and barely recognisable – it is with the utmost closure on what really has been the motion picture event of a generation.

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.


Hogwarts Revisited – Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

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…

Using Cedric Diggory’s death as an excuse to plant one of their own in Hogwarts, The Ministry of Magic exerts its influence over the school with the instigation of Delores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton) as High Inquisitor. Convinced that Voldermort (Ralph Fiennes) has not in fact returned and that Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) was lying in an attempt to undermine the minister, Cornelius Fudge – through the Daily Prophet – has begun a smear campaign aimed at sullying the names of the headmaster and his poster boy, Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe). When Umbridge bans the use of spells in lessons, fearful that Dumbledore is trying to amass and train an army, Harry must take matters in his own hands if he is to prepare his classmates for the Dark Lord’s return. Dubbing themselves Dumbledore’s Army, Harry and his peers use the castle’s Room of Requirement to train themselves in an array of useful spells.

Caught in the act by Umbridge, Dumbledore takes the blame for the organization and escapes arrest leaving the High Inquisitor in charge. Envisioning his godfather Sirius’ (Gary Oldman) capture and torture at the hands of Voldermort, Harry convinces Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) to accompany him to London to rescue him. Stopped again by Umbridge, threatened with the Cruciatus Curse if he doesn’t come clean about his plans, Harry and Hermione conspire to lead her into the Forbidden Forest under the pretense of showing her Dumbledore’s “secret weapon”. Instead leading her to Hagrid’s enormous half-brother, Grawp, they escape back to the castle where they regroup with Ron and Ginny (Bonnie Wright), along with Neville (Matthew Lewis) and Luna Lovegood (Evanna Lynch). Arriving at the Ministry only to discover Harry’s visions a ruse, the students are ambushed by Death Eaters, who need Harry in order to retrieve a prophesy for Voldermort. Saved by Dumbledore and the newly reformed Order of the Phoenix, a force for good which fought Voldermort the last time he rose to power,  there is no longer any denying that Voldermort is back and more powerful than ever.

Having inherited the thickest book in the series when Mike Newell left after Goblet of Fire, David Yates was left no option but to trim everything but the core narrative, laving Steve Kloves’ temporary replacement as screenwriter Michael Goldenberg no option but to rise to the challenge. Gone is Lockheart’s cameo (and the subsequent introduction to Neville’s parents), the Quibbler subplot and much of the finale, with Yates ultimately responsible for one of the most abridged adaptations of the series.  However, although I may be more disappointed than most to see these scenes go – Order of the Pheonix will always be my favourite book – even I have to admit that the resultant movie isn’t a total disaster.

Imelda Staunton is absolutely phenomenal as Delores Umbridge, proving every bit as hateful and churlish as Rowling’s written equivalent. Dressed entirely in pink and with a monstrous mean-streak, Umbridge’s brand of subdued villainy is a welcome alternative to Voldermort’s maniacal evil. When Voldermort does enter the fray, however, he doesn’t disappoint, no small feat considering the excellent handling of his introduction in Goblet of Fire. The climactic battle between Dumbledore and Voldermort is absolutely breathtaking, the increased roles enjoyed by the supporting cast finally giving them something to get their teeth – and wand arms – into.

Daniel Radcliffe meanwhile has the difficult task of treading teenage angst without stumbling into more arrogant or petulant territory. Considering just how unlikeable Harry could have appeared, it is to the actor’s credit that he never lets the hormones win. He duly rises to the role of mentor, the scenes set in the Room of Requirement steeped in authority and control – his kiss with Cho Chang beautifully handled as mistletoe springs from the ceiling. Cheesy, yes, but undeniably sweet and charming too. Quizzed on the experience by Ron and Hermione, it is genuinely delightful to take a moments break from the action and exposition to glimpse just why these three people have stuck together despite the considerable danger their friendship puts them in.

With war looming the wizarding world really comes into its own. While Luna’s unique brand of comic relief ensures that it’s not all doom and gloom, the introduction of Bellatrix LeStrange and the reformation of the Order of the Phoenix really example the depth and intricacy of Rowling’s extraordinary vision. Bonham Carter’s stunning performance – particularly the scene in which she greets Neville Longbottom almost as an old friend (she tortured his parents into insanity) – really forces you to sit up and take stock of the mythology’s burgeoning maturity. The last act’s infamous fatality – and the devastating effect it has on Harry – is so fraught with emotion that it is easy to forget that this is a saga that started out with Nimus 2000s and Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans.

While I might gripe at a few duff notes from Kathryn Hunter’s Mrs. Figg, a heavily abridged finale which leaves most with little to do and – in my opinion – the miscasting of Evanna Lynch as Loopy Lovegood, these are the arbitrary complaints of a fastidious fanboy. What David Yates has done – and will continue to do throughout the rest of his tenure as director – is take the phenomenal foundations laid by Chris Columbus, Alfonso Cuarón and Mike Newell and build an immersive experience the likes of which have rarely been seen. Despite whatever acting shortcomings, Radcliffe, Grint and Watson have become their characters, and it’s fantastic to see how the trio might interact when they’re not sitting in class or dodging three-headed dogs.

Hogwarts Revisited – Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

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 open at the 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…

Having stopped Lord Voldermort twice now, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) has attracted the attention of a new threat – a black dog which seems to be stalking him around Little Whinging. Returning to Hogwarts, Harry learns that Sirius Black (Gary Oldman) – the man believed to be responsible for betraying his parents to Voldermort all those years ago – has escaped Azkaban, spurring the Ministry of Magic to detach a number of Dementors to protect the wizarding school. Unusually susceptible to the creatures’ influence, Harry receives lessons from new Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher Remus Lupin (David Thewlis) in how to protect himself – using an apparently effective combination of charms and chocolate.

Seeking revenge on Black with Ron and Hermione once again in tow, Harry’s perception of the truth is drawn into doubt by the revelation that it wasn’t Sirius, but Peter Pettigrew (Timothy Spall) – who has been hiding out as Ron’s rat, Skabbers – who gave Lily and James Potter’s names to He Who Must Not Be Named. When Sirius is captured and sentenced to suffer the Dementor’s kiss, a fate worse than death, Harry uses one of Hermione’s time-turners to relive the day and save his godfather from his horrid fate.

Now in the hands of Alfonso Cuarón, the Harry Potter franchise was finally able to establish an identity of its own, other than as a mere extension of J. K. Rowling’s literary phenomenon. Taking the executor’s axe to a series of expendable subplots – much of Black’s backstory is cut along with the exact nature of the Marauders – Prisoner of Azkaban is much more streamlined than Columbus’ films, boasting a slimmer running time despite the increased size of the third book.

The simplification of the film’s plot allowed Cuarón – hired due to his outstanding work on Y Tu Mama Tambien – to show a renewed focus on character. As such we get our first real suggestion of the burgeoning attraction between Ron and Hermione, as well as a glimpse at Harry’s darker side – epitomized here by his desire for revenge. Often considered the best book in the series, Azkaban is also viewed by some as being the best film, with a series of exquisite action set pieces, an astute handling of the last act’s horror beats and a brilliantly ambiguous performance from Gary Oldman marking this one out from its predecessors.

Considering that much of the film takes place over the same day – repeated due to the time-travelling subplot – the film builds up a truly impressive momentum as it nears its Dementor-trouncing conclusion. Unavoidably darker than the films directed under Chris Columbus – the werewolf transformation scene is delightfully Hammer Horror – the film drags our heroes into their teenage years with a greater focus on Harry, Ron and Hermione’s lives outside of school hours. A darker Hogwarts called for a darker headmaster, and with the tragic death of Richard Harris prior to the release of Chamber of Secrets, Michael Gambon inherited the half-moon spectacles in a rather inspired piece of casting that would stand the franchise in good stead for the more turbulent instalments to come.

That said, Prisoner of Azkaban belongs to Messrs. Moony, Wormtail, Padfoot, and – well – not Prongs obviously, but the first three certainly. Oldman, Thewlis and Spall play beautifully off one another, their antagonism (not least with Alan Rickman’s Snape) leading to some of the most memorable and compelling scenes from the franchise to date. Holed up in the Shrieking Shack with an injured Ron, a terrified Hermione and an interrogative Harry, the surviving Marauders play off the younger cast-members to truly impressive effect. When the movie is so clearly capable of such hefty and dramatic notes, however, I can’t help but wish Cuarón hadn’t deemed it necessary to have Harry repetitively faceplant whilst on the Nightbus. Twice. What a total buzzkill.