Film Review

Daddy’s Home 2 – A Review

Directed by Sean Anders. Starring Mark Wahlberg, Will Ferrell, Mel Gibson, John Lithgow, Linda Cardellini, John Cena, Alessandra Ambrósio.

While watching this film in the cinema a few evenings ago, I was quite unaware of the critical slating it has widely been receiving. It wasn’t as if I expected its reviews to contain effusive praise or anything; a quick glance at the cast members and a cursory awareness of the premise is more than enough to rule that out. It isn’t hard to see that this isn’t the sort of thing that the bookish cinephiles who contribute film reviews to respectable publications go wild over.

The thing is, though, this is actually quite funny. Certainly too funny to deserve a miserable 18% on Rotten Tomatoes. What’s going on, then? Is a bit of humour not enough to afford a family comedy some element of artistic validity? Well, no, because this is 2017, boys and girls, and there are some things that we are simply not allowed to laugh at anymore.

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Some background. Dusty (Wahlberg) and Brad (Ferrell) share fathering and stepfathering duties for a litter of children whose biological parentage varies broadly, Brad having married Dusty’s ex-wife (Cardellini). This dynamic engendered animosity between the two in the first film, but at the outset of this sequel the two are thicker than thieves, and are quite enjoying their shared parenting roles.

The challenge to this cheery situation comes when each man’s father arrives on the scene for Christmas. Don (John Lithgow) is Brad’s father, and is even more bubbly and emotionally expressive than his son. It is Dusty’s father Kurt (Gibson), however, that really ruffles feathers; the feathers of both his fictional counterparts on screen, and the very real folk who have denigrated this film mercilessly since its release.

While Dusty is proudly masculine, Kurt is unabashedly chauvinistic. He tells lewd jokes to children, relentlessly objectifies women and treats the kind of emotion displayed by Ferrell and Lithgow as a distasteful oddity. He admonishes his son for allowing his children to be raised by another man, and hands one of said children a rifle and encourages her to murder a wild turkey. He embodies a worldview that, according to many, should have died out decades ago. And he’s comfortably the film’s funniest character.

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The storyline is ultimately unimportant; the bizarrely structured family spend Christmas in a ski lodge that Kurt books on Airbnb (in a product placement tour de force). The usual tropes abound; improbable occurrences fuel disagreement and conflict, and everyone must find a way to settle their differences in a suitably festive manner. Some of the jokes are excellent, others are poor. John Lithgow’s abject silliness is quite funny, but neither Wahlberg nor Ferrell benefits from material good enough to really showcase their talents. It may not be groundbreaking comedy, but it is certainly enjoyable.

More than making you laugh, though, this film should make you hopeful. Hopeful that there are still people in the world, and especially within Hollywood, that are not afraid to step on the toes of political correctness in the name of comedy. And hopeful that the likes of Mel Gibson’s unlovely Kurt will still be allowed to offend whomever they please through the silver screen for many years to come.

3/5

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Television

Stranger Things 2 – A Review

Created by The Duffer Brothers. Starring Winona Ryder, David Harbour, Noah Schnapp, Gaten Matarazzo, Millie Bobby Brown, Finn Wolfhard, Caleb McLaughlin, Natalia Dyer, Joe Keery, Sean Astin, Sadie Sink, Dacre Montgomery.

This review contains spoilers from Season One of Stranger Things.

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I’m probably late in posting this review, as it would appear from the noise in every corner of the internet that most of the developed world has already watched Stranger Things 2. With Netflix’s previous flagship production, House of Cards, recently “suspended” under the most ignominious of circumstances, it could hardly have come at a better time for the streaming service.

This second season cements Stranger Things’ status as one of the best series in production. That comparison may be somewhat unfair given the fact that, thus far, it comprises just 17 episodes; whether its excellence can persist for as long as that of, say, Game of Thrones will be a welcome test of its longevity, and may ultimately dictate its position in television’s history (in any case, its creators have stated that it is unlikely to progress past a fourth season).

Stranger Things 2 begins almost a year after the disappearance of Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) at the beginning of the first season. Having returned from the “Upside-Down”, the alternate dimension in which he spent the bulk of last season, Will’s life is still far from normal. Post-traumatic stress and his overbearingly protective mother Joyce (Winona Ryder) take a visible toll on him, and his otherworldly nightmares foreshadow the re-emergence of the supernatural in his life.

Elsewhere, however, life is largely progressing as normal. Among the obligatory influx of new characters is Max (Sadie Sink), a new student at school who attracts the romantic interest of both Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), but whose presence in the group displeases Mike (Finn Wolfhard). Also new to the show is Bob (Sean Astin, whom Lord of the Rings fans will recognise as Samwise Gamgee), a solid, reliable sort who has begun seeing Joyce. As was the case in the first season, although to a lesser extent here, the real start is slow to come.

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Having captured worldwide attention last year, Millie Bobby Brown’s portrayal of Eleven is once again a haunting spectacle. Although she has a more extensive vocabulary this time around, Eleven is still far from garrulous; Brown must often rely on facial expression to act her part. This she does with flawless judgment. The fact that the actress has only recently turned thirteen is almost hard to believe. The other of this season’s standout acting performances is that of Gaten Matarazzo, who is unerringly charming in his provision of comic relief. His prominence this season comes at the expense of Mike, whose position as the main protagonist has been shared roughly equally among the (now expanded) group.

Plausibility is not a concept that this show places a great degree of importance in. The pubescent leads are impossibly composed for their years, and the timing of many key events is highly improbable. However, in a world where children have telekinetic superpowers and bloodthirsty monsters emerge from rips in the fabric of our dimension, does it really matter? Believability is not the selling point; as a matter of fact, it is quite the opposite. Stranger Things’ greatest attraction is its setting, an offbeat universe that resembles our own, but is profoundly, magnetically different. Rather than scoff at its outlandishness, we must praise its fearlessness.

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This story arc travels to darker places than last season’s, and we are shown some very effective use of the horror genre; the show is truly frightening in places. As was the case last season, the soundtrack and the visual effects especially do an outstanding job of creating an atmosphere of menace and terror.

If you haven’t watched it yet, do. And try to overcome the temptation to do so all in one sitting.

5/5

Television

Narcos – Season 3 – A Review

Starring Pedro Pascal, Damián Alcázar, Francisco Denis, Matias Varela, Michael Stahl-David, Alberto Ammann, Arturo Castro, Pêpê Rapazote.

This piece contains spoilers from Seasons 1 & 2 of Narcos.

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There was always going to be a challenge here in maintaining artistic credibility, of defying claims that this third season was shoehorned onto our laptop screens for the sole purpose of filling Netflix’s coffers. Up until now, the primary focus of Narcos was the dissection of Pablo Escobar (a delightfully sombre Wagner Moura) as a character, and in that capacity it worked beautifully. His psychopathic disregard for human life, which never once imposes itself upon his tender nature as a husband and father, makes for fascinating viewing, as does the slow unravelling of his mettle as his empire comes closer and closer to collapse. In the wake of Mr Escobar’s dramatic departure, this third season was left with a large gap to fill.

Miguel and Gilberto Rodriguez, with whom we became casually acquainted in the second season, jointly assume the role vacated by Escobar. They are two of the four godfathers of the Cali cartel, along with Pacho Herrera (Ammann) and Chepe Santacruz (Rapazote), neither of whom feature as prominently. The two brothers share the limelight roughly equally over the course of the season, with changing circumstances dictating focus.

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On the law enforcement side of proceedings, Javier Pena (Pascal) returns to Colombia, taking up the mantle of narrator in the absence of Agent Steve Murphy (Boyd Holbrook). With Pena returns his inscrutable façade and gruff determination to dismantle the Colombian cocaine trade. A cursory attempt at illustrating his life outside the world of policing is proffered, but few questions are answered; one is given the distinct impression that much more lies on the cutting room floor.

The singular, unemotional focus on action is tempered somewhat by the introduction of Jorge Salcedo (Matias Varela). Salcedo begins the season as a leading figure in the Cali cartel’s security network, with the intention of resigning his post in the near future to set up a private security firm. His usefulness to the cartel proves to be a stumbling block for him in this pursuit; he is told in the opening episode that he must stay in his job until the cartel surrender their illegal operations. Despite his earnest demeanour and effectiveness in his role, he is not a killer, and is shown to be uncomfortable with the explicitly heinous side to the cartel’s activities as the season progresses. He is also a family man, and the stress placed on his home life by his unique position within the cartel adds a human dimension (quite similar to that provided by Agent Murphy in seasons 1-2) that would otherwise be sorely lacking.

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The documentary aspect to Narcos is as important here as it was previously. Production footage is interspersed with clips from news reports of major events, and Pedro Pascal’s narration carefully details major events, as Boyd Holbrook’s did. As well as dutifully covering the most unpalatable acts of violence by those involved in the drug war on the ground, Narcos unveils the political ugliness that facilitated it, and ultimately asks some troubling questions about the viability of the war on drugs.

This, collectively, is where the show’s greatest strength lies. The fact that its subject matter is so shocking, that the despicable acts seen on screen were actually perpetrated, packs a compelling punch. Unfortunately, its duty to portray truth also handcuffs it considerably. Compared to the spellbinding insight into the Escobar family we were given in the second season, this season’s characters fail to capture the imagination on an emotional level.  The Rodriguez brothers are defined principally by the broad differences between them; Gilberto is a man of reason, who basks in the admiration of those around him, while Miguel is gruff and stubborn. In the absence of his former partner, Javier Pena is now the face of the DEA in Narcos, and spends more time on screen than anyone else by a good margin. Despite this, Pedro Pascale is given little to do other than portray stoic dedication to the cause of apprehending drug traffickers.

There are enjoyable performances from more minor characters; Pêpê Rapazote, in particular, is tremendous fun to watch as gleeful psychopath Chepe Santacruz, who runs the Cali cartel’s operations in New York.

It isn’t giving away too much to share that the ending, on the whole, is far from a happy one.

3/5

Film Review

Fried Green Tomatoes (1991) – A Review

Directed by John Avnet. Starring Kathy Bates, Jessica Tandy, Mary Stuart Masterson, Mary-Louise Parker, Cicely Tyson. Running time: 130 minutes.

It is something of an odd phenomenon, when you think about it, that the inspiration of sadness is considered a desirable quality in a film. It is difficult to think of any other setting in which people invest their time and money to make themselves weep. Odd or not, however, it is hugely prevalent; we need only look to the popularity of The Shawshank Redemption or The Notebook for proof of that.

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Before either of those films, however, came Fried Green Tomatoes, a movie possibly more reliant on heartstring-plucking than any other I’ve seen. It was recommended to me as a tearjerker, and upon voicing my intention to watch it I was told I would have to try not to cry “too much.” In that endeavour, I am glad to report, I was roundly successful.

Fried Green Tomatoes presents two plotlines; the first follows Evelyn (Kathy Bates), an unhappily married housewife who forms a chance friendship with octogenarian Ninny Threadgoode (Jessica Tandy) during a visit to a retirement home. The second narrative, relayed by Ninny to Evelyn, concerns the young lives of Ninny’s sister-in-law Idgie (Mary Stuart Masterson) and her friend Ruth (Mary-Louise Parker) in the Deep South of the early 20th century.

The latter storyline emerges as the dominant of the two. Idgie and Ruth open a restaurant in the small, rural town of Whistle Stop, which provides a neat focal point for the reliable themes of racial prejudice, familial loyalty and resilience in the face of injustice. Suffice to say there is little in the way of innovation.

It is the minor plotline (which is so loosely related to the major one that it could almost have been its own film) that gives us more to chew on. Bates’ characteristic enthusiasm comes across beautifully in the character of Evelyn, and her struggles to find meaning within her life are sincere and relatable, as well as uproariously funny on one or two occasions. Her frenzied encounter with two obnoxious young ladies in a grocery store carpark is undoubtedly the film’s highlight, at least from a comic perspective. Ninny, played endearingly by Jessica Tandy, is also a likeable sort, although she is unfortunately involved in an unforgiveable plot contrivance near the end.

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It is interesting to note that the relationship between Idgie and Ruth is explicitly romantic in the source novel; this is only ever hinted at in vague terms in the movie. There are subtle nods to it, certainly, but nothing to threaten the film’s viability as a family-friendly money-spinner. This businesslike cynicism, also responsible for the relentless appeals to our tear ducts, cheapens the whole affair considerably.

It’s not all bad news; the characters have undeniable chemistry, the acting is uniformly good (Tandy bagged an Oscar nomination) and Thomas Newman’s score combines with beautiful cinematography to create a warm, likeable atmosphere. The script, which gives each character a distinct and engaging voice, was also nominated for an Oscar. It’s worth a watch, if you’re willing not to examine it too closely.

2.5/5

Television

We Need to Talk About TV Series

There are many questions we must ask ourselves regarding the dawn of television’s new age, or, perhaps more accurately, the new age of screen-based drama. Traditional television, encumbered with the unfortunate tendency to prescribe and rigidly schedule viewing content, is almost certainly on its way to extinction.

Television shows, however, which may nowadays be consumed on anything from a cinema screen to a wristwatch, are enjoying a scarcely believable renaissance. Production quality has improved steadily and big-name celebrities with illustrious film careers (Kevin Spacey in House of Cards, Winona Ryder in Stranger Things and Matthew McConaughey in True Detective to name but a few) are getting involved. The number of top-quality shows has increased accordingly; never before have discerning viewers had so much to choose from.

A major consideration here, of course, is the explosion in the accessibility of TV programmes. Before the birth of high-speed internet, if one wished to watch several seasons of the same show back-to-back, they would have had to purchase a DVD box set. These were rather expensive, and required a certain degree of commitment and forethought. Neither of these drawbacks apply to the wonderful invention that is the on-demand streaming service, however. Netflix and its competitors have made the dream of convenient, affordable, unlimited TV consumption a reality for millions across the world.

We do not have to cast our minds back too far to recall a time when television binges were considered the preserve of aimless teenagers and those with a pathological fear of the outdoors. After all, it was somewhat unreasonable to expect a well-rounded person to derive pleasure from hours of TV-watching when the most entertaining spectacle available to them for a large portion of the day was Jeremy Kyle.  Nowadays, things are different. There are now good, honest, respectable people, folk who, once upon a time, would have spent their free time hillwalking or attending Mass, that have no compunction whatsoever about announcing to their peers that they could contentedly spend entire weekends alone in a dark room, watching Narcos and eating crisps.

I have never been one to suggest to others what they should or should not do with their free time, nor indeed have I ever been a particularly voracious advocate of a healthy and balanced lifestyle. It does seem to me, however, that we should exercise some caution before embracing this new culture too readily, for a rather specific reason; time. The time investment one makes when they commit to watching a new TV series is massive (and often unforeseen).

Compare, if you will, the length of time taken to get through The Sopranos to that required to watch the entire Godfather trilogy (a film franchise noted for its length). Despite the comprehensiveness of the latter, the former is roughly eight times as long in minutes.

It’s probably true that, given its inarguable artistic qualities, The Sopranos represents a decent return on the time invested in it. But there is plenty of content that could have been left behind if it had become necessary. Scenes, storylines, perhaps even characters that would never have made it to the screen were it not for the requirement to fill up all those hours commissioned by HBO. Anyone remember the time A.J. made a stand to his parents by refusing to be confirmed in Season 2? I didn’t think so. And I (along, I’m sure, with many others) still feel profoundly wronged by The Fly, the unashamed filler episode that blighted the otherwise sublime third season of Breaking Bad.

The same complaint could be made of books, of course, where similar fleshing out of detail is commonplace. Novels can often stretch to over a thousand pages, yet it is unlikely that you will hear anyone accuse Charles Dickens or J.R.R. Tolkien of being unscrupulous time thieves. The key difference lies in the fact that it is quite difficult to overindulge in a book in the same way as a television series. Perhaps this is due to the level of active engagement required by reading, or perhaps merely our lazy preference for watching things unfold in front of us rather than having to imagine them to life ourselves. Whatever the reason, the comparison serves to illustrate my ultimate point; there is an addictive quality to television series, a tendency to absorb the viewer, that does not present itself in other entertainment forms, at least not nearly to the same extent.

What, then, is to be done? For those reading this who view their spare time as an item of irritation, something to be endured in as straightforward a way as possible, today’s unending raft of television programmes are most likely something to be celebrated. For those of you who aspire towards something more, however, perhaps think twice before blithely diving into whatever new Netflix creation catches your eye the next time you get bored.

Take it from someone who knows; it is not pleasant to find oneself halfway through the fifth season of Gossip Girl only to finally realise how dreadful it is, and that you have somehow spent over three entire days of your precious time on this Earth watching it. You have been warned.

Film Review

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) – A Review

Directed by Noah Baumbach. Starring Adam Sandler, Dustin Hoffman, Ben Stiller, Elizabeth Marvel, Emma Thompson, Grace Van Patten. Running Time: 112 minutes.

It is always interesting to note the effects of certain triggers that have been ingrained into our collective social consciousness. When, for instance, someone begins a sentence with words like “I don’t mean to be racist, but…”, one can almost hear the intake of breaths or see the motionless winces that beg the speaker to reconsider whatever thinly veiled bigotry they are no doubt intent upon sharing with the room.

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A similar knee-jerk-type association seems to connect Adam Sandler and sub-par movies. Sandler has spent over two decades churning out largely rudimentary comedy. To his credit, some of this (Billy Madison, Happy Gilmore) is quite funny. Some of it, however (Pixels, Jack and Jill), hovers dangerously close to the realm of unwatchability. It is the latter that has defined Sandler’s image; his name become linked, almost inextricably, to poor, crass filmmaking. His role here (although his character is not entirely dissimilar to previous Sandler incarnations) affects his reputation altogether differently, displaying an unmistakeable acting talent to which we have rarely been exposed in the past.

Danny (Sandler) and Matthew (Stiller) Meyerowitz, half-brothers who rarely see each other, spend the film teasing out their grievances with their father Harold (Hoffman), as well as with each other. Harold, a retired sculptor and college professor, is largely indifferent to the effects of his eccentricities and pomposity on those around him, particularly his children.

The film’s plot revolves around the potential sale of Harold’s home, amid concerns about his health and the stability of his relationship with his alcoholic fourth wife (with whom Emma Thompson has endless fun). The intricacies of the story are of little real concern, however; this film is about its characters. Elizabeth Marvel gives a delightfully understated performance as quiet, unassuming daughter Jean, while Stiller is effective, if comfortable, as the affluent financial manager living in Los Angeles.

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Sandler has rightly attracted plaudits for his portrayal of Danny. Slightly unhinged, and given to the explosive tantrums that have by now become almost a trademark of Sandler’s, Danny is quite a layered sort. Ultimately, however, it is love for his daughter (Van Patten) and frustrated affection for his father that shine through. Perhaps unfortunately for Sandler, however, his lauded venture into serious cinema has been outshone somewhat by a truly masterful performance from Dustin Hoffman. Harold’s neuroses and social clumsiness are portrayed in hilarious and thought-provoking fashion, and every mannerism comes together perfectly to create a hugely enjoyable character.

Shades of Woody Allen’s quirky style are evident in this film, primarily in the outlandish characteristics of its main players, as well as in Randy Newman’s minimalist, offbeat soundtrack. Another obvious influence is Jonathan Franzen’s wordy masterpiece The Corrections, a TV adaptation of which Noah Baumbach worked on before it was abandoned; the characterization of the three leading men in the film is strikingly reminiscent of that in Franzen’s Lambert family. Baumbach has lent his own voice to proceedings, however, and has produced a film with an original style which blends comedy and drama to great effect. It’s well worth the watch, and is available to anyone with a Netflix subscription.

4/5

Film Review

MAZE – A Review

Directed by Stephen Burke. Starring Tom Vaughan-Lawlor, Barry Ward, Martin McCann, Eileen Walsh, Aaron Monaghan, Niamh McGrady. Running Time: 93 Minutes.

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It goes without saying that a certain degree of even-handedness is required when dealing with subject matter of this nature. The element of bias that many viewers will no doubt be expecting (and even relishing the prospect of) is, thankfully, absent. The jailed IRA members are not saintly freedom fighters, nor are the Unionists inhuman or unrelatable.  What does emerge is an effective examination of the human factors involved in Northern Ireland’s troubled past, as well as the depth and venom of the divide that fuelled it. With only 93 minutes (albeit a very tight 93 minutes) to work with, however, the film is never allowed to wander too far away from the business of being a prison escape thriller.

Tom Vaughan-Lawlor’s Larry Marley seems at first an unassuming sort; weak-looking and softly spoken, he attracts derision from fellow inmates upon his return from the blanket protest (republican prisoners’ refusal to wear prison uniforms on the grounds that, as political prisoners, they should not have had to do so).

Marley strikes up a relationship with an initially hostile Gordon Close (Ward), a well-respected guard with a fierce disdain for the nationalist movement. It is here that Marley’s talents become obvious; his outwardly amicable nature disarms Close, thus making escape a possibility. He goes as far during one conversation as to condemn the actions of nationalist hunger strikers as pointless; his commitment to his cause is such that the verbal dismissal of his keenest beliefs barely costs him a thought. It is this Machiavellian resourcefulness that comes to define his character.

After the inevitable period of dismissive scoffing from other inmates, Marley’s proposal of escape is taken seriously and preparatory work begins. The film’s middle act outlines the escape’s practical elements, and does so with a well-judged amount of detail.

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A word must be said for Vaughan-Lawlor’s imperviousness to the dreaded typecast. Having spent five years in what was arguably Irish television’s most recognisable role, he has managed still to emerge as a versatile and credible actor in his own right. His performance here is a strong one, despite some questionable interpretations of Northern pronunciation. Ward is equally effective in the other load-bearing role.

Ultimately, this film’s greatest strength probably lies in its succinctness. Extraneous detail could have interrupted the flow and suspense, and too detailed an examination of the trials faced by either side of the cultural divide could have suggested a flavour of partiality. Burke has skilfully navigated his way around these pitfalls to produce a gripping thriller with historical value. A caveat, however; the brevity with which the period after the escape is dealt with is a major shortfall. Too many questions are left to the closing scroll of text to answer. That aside, MAZE has achieved what it wanted to achieve in fine fashion.

4/5