Daddy’s Home 2 – Film Review

There’s no place like home for the holidays. Unless you’re playing host to Mel Gibson’s creepy and mean-spirited grandpa in Daddy’s Home 2, in which case you’d be forgiven for wanting to be anywhere else. Added to the cast of this spiritless sequel as Mark Wahlberg’s sex-pest father, the sight of a convicted domestic abuser laughing off his past by playing a thinly-veiled caricature of himself fosters the deeply unpleasant mood hanging uncomfortably over this otherwise mildly unfunny Christmas comedy.

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Like many a half-baked sequel before it, Daddy’s Home 2 tries to generate some fresh energy by drafting in some new faces to the cast list. Cue Gibson’s wayward grandfather and John Lithgow’s ebullient ‘pappy’ descending on their peaceful families for the holidays to break-up the newfound bromance between Wahlberg and Will Ferrell’s progressive co-dads.

Unfortunately, double the dads doesn’t result in double the laughs. The humour is hackneyed and incredibly patchy, Sean Anders and John Morris’ script simply rehashing many of the goofball shenanigans and reductive male stereotypes of the first movie – only this time there are no gooey, warm-hearted characters to make the sour material palatable.

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There are some highlights, of course. A delightfully silly Mexican snowball-off during a live nativity scene delivers the movie’s biggest belly laughs and many of the performances deserve praise. Wahlberg and Ferrell continue to have a genuine chemistry – even if the former struggles to sell the peppy and sentimental dynamic with his new parenting buddy; meanwhile John Lithgow proves to be an entertaining addition to the cast, his irrepressible enthusiasm perfectly matched with Ferrell’s dewy-eyed manchild schtick.

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And then Gibson swaggers onto the scene to stomp all over these merry misadventures. It’s hard to overstate quite how tone-deaf Gibson’s casting is in light of recent events. Here we have a shamelessly chauvinistic wretch who tells jokes about dead hookers, brags about mistreating women and encourages his grandson to grope his schoolboy crush without permission. This irresponsible characterisation is further compounded by an attempt to make us feel sorry for the perverted scumbag by suggesting he feels like an outsider within his own family – despite having spent the entire movie gleefully destroying his “loved ones'” Christmas by turning them against one another.

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It’s perhaps unsurprising, then, that an attempt to tack a schmaltzy, Christmas-friendly ending onto this bitter tale fails to ring true. The plot is sketchy by nature, leaving very little time for its various subplots to bear fruit – the unexpected divorce of Lithgow’s Don is particularly clunky, feeling like it was parachuted into the story to unsuccessfully provide some much needed pathos amid all the merciless merth-making. As a result, the apparent personal growth both families experience fails to sweeten the sour taste left by the previous 99 minutes – not least because the one character who desperately needed to change remains entirely unmoved, his family merely blithely accepting his depraved acts as if it’s all part of his charm. We can only hope that viewers will not be quite so forgiving.

Runtime: 100 mins (approx.)
Director: Sean Anders
Screenwriters: Sean Anders, John Morris
Stars: Mark Wahlberg, Will Ferrell, Mel Gibson, John Lithgow

 

 

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Justice League – Film Review

It’s difficult to overstate just how much the DCEU needed Wonder Woman. After the dour and mean-spirited Batman V Superman and the full-metal racket of Suicide Squad, Gal Gadot’s virtuous Themysciran warrior was a Wonder-ful leap forward for the franchise, finally placing an endearing superhero at the heart of an entertaining movie that was as witty and inventive and it was groundbreaking.

If the success of Diana Prince’s first solo-outing offered the chance for the DCEU to shift gears, it’s one Justice League fails to take. Visually ugly, boring and repetitive, this souped-up superhero team-up is a return to the murky aesthetic, sketchy characters and chaotic action that have continuously dogged the series since its conception.

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Tonally, the movie is all over the place, clumsily attempting to stitch together it’s disparate elements into an uninspiring whole. This is most noticeable during a labourious opening act which swings wildly between a grim and gritty Gotham, the shimmering lands of Themyscira and the submerged ruins of Atlantis as Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) grumpily tries to recruit a mis-mash of meta humans and ancient gods to his nebulous cause.

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It’s several months after the ‘death’ of Superman and the absence of the son of Krypton has encouraged exiled God Steppenwolf (CiarĂ¡n Hinds) and his army of buzzing Parademons to invade Earth in search of three cosmic MacGuffin boxes that, when combined, posses the power to destroy the universe. Realising that a seven foot supernatural warrior with a magic axe might pose more of a threat than a bunch exploding wind-up penguins, Batman assembles a ramshackle band of super-beings to help him defeat Darkseid’s right-hand man and prevent the world from becoming an apocalyptic wasteland.

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Such a hackneyed plot holds few surprises, essentially following the tiresomely typical beats of a team-up movie – even the idea of an alien baddie invading Earth to unite a trio of cosmic trinkets is ripped straight from The Avengers. Perhaps that’s why the movie is in such an almighty rush to get down to business. Coming in at a trim two hours, it’s a brisk, breezy adventure – further leavened by an abundance of knowing gags, no doubt penned by Joss Whedon, who replaced director Zack Snyder after a family tragedy and here receives a writing credit.

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Yet this leaves very little time to get to know our new heroes and to dig down into the team dynamics. Like every other movie in the DCEU, Justice League is so eager to catch up with its Marvel rival that it assumes our connection with its characters rather than earning our affections. As a result, the planned emotional beats fail to pay off and the entire story descends into an underwhelming mess of ropey visual effects and lunkheaded plot developments – culminating an overblown finale featuring giant purple tentacle-things, flying zombie insects and a CGI monstrosity so sloppily developed it’ll make you yearn for the heady days of Doomsday and Superman playing computer-rendered whack-a-mole.

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Even so, there’s great fun to be had, particularly in scenes of the League together, bickering and bonding in a rapid-fire exchange of quips, and the cast play off each other extraordinarily well in the circumstances. Ezra Miller is the highlight as a whip-witted and overzealous The Flash, while Gadot once again radiates gravitas as Wonder Woman. Ray Fisher perhaps needs more fleshing out as the brooding Cyborg, though his digitised Frankenstein arch holds promise. Of the new recruits, Aquaman is by far the worst served, Jason Mamoa reduced to bellowing stock-jock phrases like ‘Oh yeah’ and ‘My man’, as if he’s a drunken frat boy rather than the heir to an ancient kingdom.

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If Batman feels like an after thought to the team, that’s hardly the fault of Affleck, who brings an enjoyable gruffness that works well with his elder statesman interpretation of the Caped Crusader. The problem is that Batman is simply not suited to the role of inspirational leader to a team of superheroes – a point the movie tries to address, to unsatisfying effect – and his physical handicaps when compared to the rest of the team understandably see him left behind during many of the action scenes.

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Justice League is undoubtedly brighter and funnier than any DCEU movie to date. But it remains lumbered with the same flaws that have been dragging the franchise down from the beginning – namely a loose grip of its tone, haphazard plotting and a collection of unengaging heroes who fail to live up to their billing. As long as these problems persist, there’s no danger of the DCEU usurping the big red behemoth as ruler of the multiverse.

Runtime: 120 mins (approx)
Director: Zack Snyder
Screenwriters: Chris Terrio, Joss Whedon
Stars: Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Gal Gadot, Ezra Miller, Ray Fisher

 

 

Paddington 2 – Film Review

“If you’re kind and polite, the world will be right,” Paddington Bear proudly declares in this splendid sequel to 2014’s cuddly Michael Bond adaptation. At a time when world events are so utterly miserable that even Morrissey finds the news a bit too bleak, there’s something irresistibly delightful about a movie with the sole aim of being warmer, funnier and more charming than it’s predecessor. That Paddington 2 absolutely delivers on that promise is perhaps the most joyful surprise of all, embarking on another gloriously whimsical adventure that proves our furry friend from deepest Peru has lost none of his quintessential spirit.

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With Paul King back in the director’s chair, the warm glow of Paddington’s visual splendour remains undimmed. From an opening shot of Paddington smudging the movie’s title on a misty window to an affectingly animated sequence that transforms London Bridge into an old-fashioned pop-up book, the movie is crammed with clever motifs. This endearing blend of antiquated fantasy and modern elements is never more apparent than in King’s misty-eyed view of 21st Century London – a place where neighbours greet each other jovially every morning and people still make calls to landlines from a phone box.

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There we rejoin Paddington (Ben Whishaw), who has happily settled into life with the Brown family and become a popular fixture of the Windsor Gardens community. With his Aunt Lucy’s 100th birthday approaching, the duffle coat-sporting bear sets his heart on buying a pop-up book of London as her present, only to learn it costs much more than the 50p coin he found in his ear. Before he can earn enough money to buy the book, it’s stolen by washed-up local actor Phoenix Buchanan (a wonderfully preening and pretentious Hugh Grant), who frames Paddington for the theft and has him sent to jail for “grievous barberly harm’.

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One of the most refreshing elements of this series is the way Paddington’s kindness runs through the comedy. There are no offensive one-liners or gross gags on show here – instead, the humour comes in the form of silly set-pieces as Paddington clumsily attempts a series of odd jobs in a bid to raise money for his auntie’s gift. Even on the rare occasions when a joke is at someone’s expense, it’s always a result of Paddington’s naive honesty rather than malice. And, as is the case with Peter Capaldi’s grumpy Little Englander Mr Curry, the victim usually has it coming to them.

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If the episodic structure results in a few chapters running a bit too long – a prison-set sequence that feels like a Porridge/Great British Bake Off crossover drags the film to a halt midway through – there’s always another daft set piece on the way to lift the mood. That’s not to say Paddington 2 is without moments that’ll have you rummaging for the hankies – King and Simon Farnaby’s script is speckled with fuzzy sentiment about the importance of family and belonging.

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Politicos might choose to see this as a softly anti-Brexit statement, but that feels far too grown-up for a wonderfully silly film that really seems to have nothing more on its mind than revelling in the joys of life. Yes, Paddington 2 might not solve the world’s problems, but it’ll most definitely make us feel better about them. I bet even Morrissey will enjoy watching this one…

Runtime: 103 mins (approx.)
Director: Paul King
Screenwriters: Paul King, Simon Farnaby
Stars: Ben Whishaw, Hugh Grant, Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins

Murder on the Orient Express – Film Review

Despite its status as one of Agatha Christie’s finest works, it’s been more than forty years since superlative whodunnit Murder on the Orient Express last graced the big screen with Sidney Lumet’s celebrated adaptation. By modern standards that makes Kenneth Branagh’s remake long overdue. It’s a shame, then, that it’s hardly worth the wait as Branagh struggles to prevent this handsomely-mounted thriller from falling off the rails.

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Though Michael Green (Logan, Blade Runner 2049) throws a few mischievous tweaks into his script, the plot essentially remains the same. The meticulous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (Branagh, sporting an inconceivably dramatic ‘tache) joins an eclectic array of first-class passengers aboard the titular locomotive. What begins as a exquisite trip across Eastern Europe swiftly takes a more sinister track when a fellow passenger is discovered dead in a locked cabin. Everyone is a suspect as the Belgian bloodhound starts sniffing for clues and deduces that the murderer must still be hiding on board the train.

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Like Lumet’s effort, Branagh has attracted a glittering cast to play his menagerie of eccentric travellers. Dame Julie Dench is a fussy Russian aristocrat; Olivia Coleman plays her timid servant; Michelle Pfeiffer is a flirty widow; Daisy Ridley shines as a sharp-witted governess; Leslie Odom Jr plays a noble doctor; Johnny Depp is a shifty gangster, while Josh Grad and Derek Jacobi play his twitchy secretary and tetchy butler; and Willem Defoe rounds out the main players as a disagreeable Austrian academic.

The starry nature of the cast is outshone only be the majesty of the cinematography. Shot in 65mm, the movie basks in the luxury and lavishness of the era, the camera soaring over snowy mountain tops and plummeting down vertiginous drops as the train teeters upon a towering trestle after being halted by an avalanche. This indulgent style adapts surprisingly well to the claustrophobic confines of the carriages, Branagh deploying elegant tracking shots and woozy angles that can be so effective in building tension.

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That the movie then fails to sustain any sense of suspense is surprising. Part of the problem is that modern audiences are so well-versed in the genre that all the old-fashioned tricks and misdirections inevitably underwhelm – one deduction relating to a smudged passport is so blindingly obvious it brings into question Poirot’s status as the world’s greatest sleuth.

More troublesome, though, is the lack of spark between the passengers. Some mild attempts to stoke racial tensions aside, there’s an absence of animosity or drama between those on board the train and too many of the travellers feel like caricatures rather than fully-fleshed characters. Branagh in particular allows Poirot’s amusing peculiarities to overshadow his genius.

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It’s disappointing because there’s an engaging movie hiding amid this tired mix of revelations, reveals and red-herrings – the desperately gripping denouement is masterfully executed as the facts of the case push Poirot’s morality to its limits. If only the audience’s attention spans hadn’t disembarked long before the train lurched into its powerfully moving destination.

Runtime: 114 mins (approx.)
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Screenwriter: Michael Green
Stars: Kenneth Branagh, Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, Johnny Depp