Monday, 20 November 2017

Film Review: Against all odds, Paddington 2 is a work of pure brilliance

The best kinds of films are the ones that surprise you. I'm not talking about a good plot twist here, I'm talking more about films that turn out to be so much better than you could ever have expected, so much so that you can't help but grin when they finish. Paddington 2 is such a film, but more than that it's a film that oozes heart and soul: it's funny and it's warm and it's just so loveable that you want to squeeze its cheeks until it bursts. The film's predecessor from a few years back was great fun, but this is the textbook example of how to craft a sequel. Bigger doesn't always mean better, but can it when done right? Of course it can.

While the original Paddington was very much a story of fitting in, the sequel tries its hand at a narrative focused on finding the best in people and making even the worst situation work for you. Paddington (Ben Wishaw) wants to buy a book for his Aunt Lucy's 100th birthday, it's a pop-up book about London - the city she never got to visit because, right before she was destined to head there herself, she rescued Paddington and put her life on hold for him. He gets a job to start earning money to afford the book, but right when he's on the verge of success it's stolen by a man in a bearded disguise and Paddington is wrongly arrested. He's sent to prison, leaving Mr and Mrs Brown (Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins) and their family to solve the case and clear Paddington's name.

One of Paddington's biggest assets was its pitch perfect cast, and the sequel again uses them impeccably. Bonneville's comic timing remains pinpoint accurate, as best shown during a breaking and entering sequence punctuated by maybe the film's best visual gag, while Hawkins again demonstrates an uncanny ability to ooze warmth and love through her words and movements. Julie Walters is once again marvellous as Mrs Bird, relishing in her heavy accent and wringing it for every beat she can, while Hugh Grant's turn as the villainous Phoenix Buchanan is as camp as they come but just as brilliant. It's clear that every actor here loves what they're doing, and it creates an infectious energy that fills every word of the script with pure, unfiltered joy. 

It's not hard to see that more money has been thrown at this sequel, but it lands in all the right places. The CGI for the eponymous bear is somehow even more seamless this time around, to the point where you just accept Paddington as a part of the world with barely a second thought. Perhaps most notably, the production design here is far beyond what we saw last time. A sort of Wes Anderson motif appears to run through the film, with bright foregrounds gorgeously contrasting with pastel backgrounds, creating a frame is beautiful as the film around it. While the original Paddington was consistently pleasing on the eye, the sequel is full on dazzling to look at.

Paddington 2 spends a lot of time in a prison but director Paul King makes the connection that this kind of environment doesn't exactly gel with the film's light hearted tone. In a brilliantly inspired move he uses a first rate gag to shift the atmosphere from dark and dingy to bright and warm, his film simply never loses sight of its tone. The prison sequences are also home to some of Paddington 2's funniest moments - Brendan Gleeson's performance as Knuckles McGinty is delightfully offbeat, and the film sources an endless but relentlessly funny sequence involving Paddington's prison pals and a visitors booth.

The comedy is another way in which Paddington 2 improves over its predecessor. While this film may not quite be as consistently funny as the original, it instead uses its first two acts to lay comedic groundwork that it completes in its finale. There's a trope in cinema in which an offhand element in a film's opening comes back as a saving grace by the end, something the original Paddington used simply but effectively with the back up marmalade sandwich under your hat. Paddington 2 takes whatever grievances you may have with this gimmick and shatters them, serving up a final act that draws back to its opening in endless ways, each more unpredictable than the last - there are moments in the film's finale that hard me shedding tears in laughter. And what's more, every last one of them feels genuinely rooted in the character it belongs to: writers Paul King and Simon Farnaby are ingenious in how they use the original film's character work to serve as a comedic backdrop in their sequel.

It's outstanding writing, and not the only example of how strong this film's script is. Paddington 2 overflows with warmth and love, but it never slips into sappiness or sickliness. It's a film about finding the best in people, and that's exactly what it does, and that it does so without any judgement whatsoever is what makes this such a resolutely human film, even if it's technically about a bear. King and Farnaby's script takes on an enormous weight load - from subtle Brexit analogies to slapstick comedy, from laugh out loud cameos to moments of quietly touching emotion - yet it never shows any signs of crumbling under the pressure. The film is fast and frantic (it all culminates in a train chase sequence that's more intense that the entirety of Michael Bay's career) but it always feels confident in every step it takes. It's like watching a masterpiece unfold before your eyes. 

I still can't believe I'm saying this, but Paddington 2 is a work of sheer brilliance, a film that has you laughing out loud one moment before tugging at the heartstrings the next, and the shifts from one to the other are always executed perfectly. It's quirkily performed and lovingly crafted, a pitch perfect example of how to create a sequel that expands on its predecessor in all the right ways without losing what made it such a delight to begin with. There may be more conventionally strong films this year, but I struggle to name any as infectiously joyous as Paddington 2 - it simply latches onto you and refuses to let the smile leave your face. It is of course possible not to enjoy the film, but I'd think twice about trusting anyone who doesn't find happiness here: if any film can make the world outside today feel just a little bit more bearable, it's this one.

In A Sentence

With a visual palette as delightful as its underlying message, the unexpectedly superb Paddington 2 is a funny, clever and phenomenally enjoyable film with its heart, brain and soul in all the right places.

Saturday, 11 November 2017

Film Review: Kenneth Branagh's Murder on the Orient Express doesn't quite stay on the tracks

There's a general, inescapable thrill to murder mystery stories. They're very easy to get caught up in as you train your own eye to pick up on minute details and attempt to solve the crime yourself before the film or TV show's lead detective does. Of course, any whodunnit story where you can in fact predict the outcome probably hasn't done its job right, but I'd take a predictable ending over an ending that you just don't care about any day.

In Kenneth Branagh's version of Murder on the Orient Express, the fourth adaptation of Agatha Christie's famous novel, this is unfortunately the case. A lot of money has been splashed on this - check out that cast list, and the film looks pretty damn good too - but no number of zeros after a dollar sign can turn a boring film into a lively one. Branagh has taken a classic piece of literature and directed it with the enthusiasm and intrigue of a dead fish floating at the top of the tank. There's just nothing to care about here.

Perhaps a lot of this comes down to Branagh's bizarre fixation on keeping Hercule Poirot in the spotlight, which wouldn't be so awkward if that role wasn't also played by Branagh. Poirot is undeniably the heart and soul of this story, let alone its brain, but with Branagh both behind the camera and in front of it this comes across as somewhat self indulgent. Yes, Poirot needs to be on screen for a lot of this film, but there are very few scenes in this retelling that don't feature him. Supporting characters are relegated to paper thin caricatures, turning an A-list cast into little more than a series of cameos.

As well as under utilising his cast, Branagh's heavy focusing on Poirot has narrative impacts too. When a passenger is found dead on the train, chills should be sent down our spines. When the shocking truth comes out in the final act, our jaws should hit the floor. Instead, you'll just take the information as it is and move on. Branagh, and screenwriter Michael Green, never make us care about this story or the characters that populate it, it's the definition of a half baked piece of work. Everyone here gets the job done and just moves on.

Branagh's direction of the film is flashy, but murder mysteries should rely on subtlety rather than extravagance. He repeatedly frames people through cut glass to distort their reflections - do you get it, because they're all masking their true selves, do you get it - and while the images themselves look nice, they don't add to the impact of the film. Branagh never utilises his claustrophobic setting, the film is less intense than the climax of The Lego Movie - a body has been discovered on a train and one of the passengers, still on board the train, is the killer. How the film manages to turn that premise into something so catastrophically dull is something that will plague my mind for months.

When Branagh does hand the spotlight over to someone else the performances are mostly decent enough. Daisy Ridley proves there is hope for her career outside the Star Wars universe, Penélope Cruz spits out her dialogue with a gleefully enigmatic snarl, Judi Dench and Olivia Colman are reliably in sync with the film's tone. Not everyone here is a runaway success - Michelle Pfeiffer's overacting borders on criminal, while Josh Gad splutters his way through any half serious scene - but a cast this reliable doesn't disappoint. Again, Branagh's refusal to give them all the time they deserve is frustrating.

Murder on the Orient Express should be one of the year's best films with a cast like that taking on this story, but what we have instead is drained of life and devoid of intrigue, a murder mystery where the biggest mystery is how the story wound up this dull. Maybe the ending will surprise you, I have to admit to not seeing it coming - then again, by that point I was more interested in the minutes ticking by on my watch than who the killer would actually turn out to be. This is less whodunnit and more whencanitend.

In A Sentence

Lazily written and sloppily directed, even an A-list cast can't save Kenneth Branagh's woefully dull Murder on the Orient Express.

Thursday, 9 November 2017

Film Review: The Killing of a Sacred Deer will shatter your nerves and crush your soul until it bleeds

Nightmares are inherently personal entities. They're the subconscious manifestation of our biggest worries and our deepest fears, quite literally the things that keep us up at night. Few films successfully evoke the feeling of being trapped in a bad dream, but when they do they tend to be painted with broad strokes around things that scare us all: misery, pain, death. The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Yorgos Lanthimos' latest deranged work of art, is so unhinged from reality and so devoid of any semblance of the humane that it skips right past the personal and lands on the foreign. You can't relate to this at all, you can barely even understand it - it feels like being trapped inside someone else's nightmare.

And yet, Lanthimos takes a clinical approach to the film. He opens with an extreme close up of a beating heart mid-surgery, and in most films this would be the most startling image - in a Lanthimos film, it barely cracks the top ten. We meet Steven (Colin Farrell), a surgeon with his perfect wife Anna (Nicole Kidman) and their two perfect kids Kim and Bob (Raffey Cassidy and Sunny Suljic). Steven's whole life seems perfect, again almost clinically so, apart from his frequent meetings with the teen aged Martin (Barry Keoghan). We don't understand their connection, but we know there's something sinister behind it - the screeching strings played at the beginning of their scenes tell us enough. Steven decides to bring Martin to his family and join his two worlds together, but slowly begins a descent into an unimaginably impossible situation.

Lanthimos knows his story is dark, he knows the sheer ugliness of this narrative, and so he paradoxically paints his canvas with gleaming, pristine whites and mesmerising reflective cinematography - the film is visually stunning in every sense of the word. His actors (particularly Kidman, in what could be a career best performance) perfectly capture the feel of Lanthimos' deranged world, they deliver their lines with an almost professionalised mundanity, every word lands like it's being performed at a spoken word concert. Keoghan is especially tasked with a difficult kind of acting here, his blank facial expressions and childishly sinister manner of speaking are pure nightmare fuel. Despite the recognisable cityscape and modern vehicles frequently on display, this film doesn't seem to take place in the world we know.

It makes perfect sense, in that it barely makes any sense at all. The film's plot (which I will actively avoid discussing in any further detail, the less you know the better) is rooted deep in the psychological horror genre but its refusal to answer any of its questions almost borders on fantasy. The film's central thematic ideas are given more clarity - as well as other things, Lanthimos is looking at suffering and justice and how the two can equate to each other - but the plot remains incessantly enigmatic. Lanthimos gives us the why's but abstains from treating us to the how's: we know why Steven deserves this horrendous ordeal, but we haven't the faintest clue how it can be happening.

While the film might begin slowly and take its time to fully reveal the true evil it wants to subject us to, Lanthimos works on atmosphere. As a screenwriter he may have peaked with last year's The Lobster, which saw him land his second Oscar nomination, but as a commander of tone it's tough to imagine Lanthimos ever exceeding his work here. His jarring soundtrack clashes with his clean cinematography, his sudden outbursts of violence add levels of grim realism to a story drifting further into the abstract. He paces his film with a meticulous slow build, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is content to wallow around in emptiness for its opening hour, confident that its second half will fulfil every promise you're made.

And fulfil them it does. Lanthimos' film erupts in its finale, it finds the point of no return and spits in disgust as it soars past it. There's depth to be found to The Killing of a Sacred Deer, and anyone wanting to dive further into its absurdist metaphors needn't worry about a lack of content, but this is a film impressive enough on surface level to carry it into greatness: context exists in hindsight, but it's barely a necessity. This is a numbingly intense, jaw droppingly daring piece of cinema - while the mere idea of rewatches feels like willingly submitting to sleep paralysis, they're almost vital in fully taking in everything Lanthimos has perfected here. The Killing of a Sacred Deer certainly isn't for everyone, but for those who like something twisted to come with their big screen ventures, Lanthimos has more than got you covered. Sickeningly, unapologetically brilliant. 

In A Sentence

Absurdism at its most absurd but nothing short of masterful, Yorgos Lanthimos' The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a nightmarish, unforgettable descent to hell that feels like nothing else you've ever experienced.