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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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

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

Film Review

The Big Sick – A Review

Directed by Michael Showalter. Starring Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, Holly Hunter, Ray Romano, Adeel Akhtar, Anupam Kher, Zenobia Shroff. Running Time: 117 minutes.

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While films which opt to remain safely inside the boundaries of a single genre may not attract plaudits for boldness or innovation, they may at least entertain those filmgoers who wish for nothing more than a couple of hours’ worth of diversion that does what it says on the tin, as it were. To put it another way, while genre-busting can be an admirable endeavour, it can also produce some unwatchable drivel (see my previous review of Colossal for further discussion). The Big Sick manages to travel the border between comedy and drama quite deftly, in a way that makes obvious the creative influence of Judd Apatow, who is credited as the film’s producer.

The film opens with Kumail Nanjiani (playing a version of himself) sarcastically outlining to the audience at a stand-up comedy show the ways in which his native Pakistan is not, in fact, especially different from the United States. This foreshadows his central struggle; his uber-conservative Muslim family, intent on arranging his marriage, must be kept in the dark about his burgeoning romance with Emily (Kazan), whose cynical preference for independence is gradually broken down by her growing affection for Kumail.

After a somewhat rocky courtship, the film lurches suddenly from the comfortable realm of the affable romcom as Emily falls victim to a serious lung infection and must be put into a coma. Enter her parents (Hunter and Romano), who get to know Nanjiani in the uncomfortable surroundings of hospital waiting rooms. The three form an unlikely relationship, upon which a large chunk of the film’s narrative is focused.

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Comic and dramatic elements are well-balanced, and are never allowed to outweigh or undermine one another. The humour is first rate on one or two occasions (Kumail’s nervous breakdown at a fast food drive-thru is nothing short of comedy gold), but we are not provided with as consistent a stream of hilarity as other Apatow projects. The central romance is somewhat predictable, but both leads perform excellently; Kazan oozes charm and intelligence, and Nanjiani does an eye-catching job of embodying the fusion between a fiercely traditional Pakistani world and the rapidly liberalizing values of modern America. The difficulties that this dichotomy presents for him are hugely thought-provoking, as are his dealings with the contemporary perception of Islam and Muslims in the West.

The roles played by parental figures are another of this movie’s great strengths. Ray Romano’s contributions are unerringly charming, while Holly Hunter (although excessively Southern at times) does well in the role of concerned mother. Kumail’s mother’s (Shroff) poorly masked determination to find him a suitable bride is also a source of entertainment.

Ultimately, while The Big Sick is neither the funniest nor the most gripping of this year’s films, it scores well in terms of the originality of its premise and the cleverness with which it is delivered.

3/5

(Image credit: Metacritic, Little White Lies, Spirituality & Practice)

Film Review

Baby Driver – A Review

Directed by Edgar Wright. Starring Ansel Elgort, Lily James, Kevin Spacey, Jon Hamm, Eiza Gonzalez, Jamie Foxx, Jon Bernthal. Running time: 113 minutes.

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For some reason, until I watched the trailer for this movie, I had pictured an animated film when hearing its name. Perhaps this was because I subconsciously enjoyed the idea of a whimsical cartoon film about an infant chauffeur, or (more likely) I was just mixing it up with The Boss Baby.

Baby Driver certainly isn’t a film for children, but it is tremendous fun in spots. Its main selling point is its soundtrack; music, almost always diegetic, is a near-constant feature of the movie. This is because the titular Baby (Elgort), a reserved, slightly awkward yet often charming protagonist, suffers from severe tinnitus, and employs the eclectic mix of music on his many iPods to drown it out.

A high octane opening sequence, accompanied by the funky strains of  Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, sets the pace. A bank is robbed; Baby is the (impossibly skilled) getaway driver. We learn that the necessity for his criminal lifestyle lies in a debt owed to Doc (Spacey), a criminal mastermind with unclear motivations and an odd sense of humour. Foxx, Hamm, Gonzalez and Bernthal are the supporting gangsters, each blessed with a different degree and variety of psychopathy. After the first robbery, we are told that “one last job” will sever Baby’s ties to the shady outfit; there are no prizes for guessing that it doesn’t all transpire quite so straightforwardly as that. Debora (Lily James) complicates matters in the way only a love interest can.

Music is more than the glue that holds this film together; it forms the structure of a healthy percentage of it. There is a deliberate, magnetic rhythm to much of the action, and Elgort’s movements mirror beats to hypnotic effect on more than one occasion. Even the dialogue has a musicality to it; Doc merrily referring to Baby’s tinnitus as “a hum in the drum” is but one example.

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This all lends Baby Driver a watchability it would otherwise have struggled to achieve. The storyline, promising at first, gives way to uncertainty about halfway through, and the final act stumbles from contrivance to convolution, with a closing set piece that manages to bore despite its generous helping of bodily harm and explosions.

Unfortunately, the characters are similarly limited. Debora is little more than a plot device with a cutesy Southern accent, and Kevin Spacey’s acting talents are largely kept under wraps. Other than Elgort, whose portrayal of Baby is nuanced enough to keep us interested, the only thespian given a great deal to do is Jon Hamm, who also acquits himself well. Jamie Foxx’s garrulous Bats shows promise, but is lamentably overcooked.

Ultimately, then, what are we left with? This is undoubtedly a film with an array of flaws. None of them, however, manage to fully outweigh the raw energy and atmosphere of fun that oozes out of Baby Driver from the first scene. Enjoy it for what it is.

3/5

Film Review

The Breakfast Club (1985) – A Review

Directed by John Hughes. Starring Judd Nelson, Molly Ringwald, Emilio Estevez, Ally Sheehy, Anthony Michael Hall, Paul Gleason. Running Time: 97 minutes.

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Confining extended sequences of films to a single room or setting has produced many memorable pieces of cinema. Hughes embraces this type of minimalism fully with The Breakfast Club; a mere 13 actors are credited in total. The resulting focus is not used for the same thrillseeking ends as, say, Phonebooth, but the technique serves the film undoubtedly well.

Hughes allows the majority of his story to unfold in the large classroom in which the film’s young protagonists are confined for a Saturday of detention. John Bender (Nelson), a prickly, weed-smoking anarchist, quickly becomes the focal point for the group’s interactions, as the lack of stimulation in their surroundings forces them to get to know each other. What unfolds is an intriguing examination of five typical, yet starkly different youths. Andrew (Estevez) is the conservative jock, Clare (Ringwald) the spoilt princess, Allison (Sheehy) the taciturn oddball and Brian (Hall) the socially awkward high achiever. Stereotypical the roles may be, but each character has a magnetic believability. Possibly this film’s greatest triumph is that its main players are as relevant today as they were three decades ago.

Some realism may be sacrificed in favour of engaging dialogue; it is slightly difficult to believe that five teenagers, having just met, would engage each other with the level of emotional candour on display here. Nonetheless, it works spectacularly.

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Relations are edgy at first; John’s irreverence sets him up as something of an outcast, and Allison barely features for much of the film’s opening half. When formed, however, the group dynamic is sublime; often funny and profoundly thought-provoking on a few occasions. The politics of young adulthood are illustrated unflinchingly, and the challenges they pose for young people are handled with arresting sincerity. Paul Gleason’s despotic principal, involved on an intermittent basis, is the primary source of their unity; whatever contempt they may hold for each other’s character flaws is overshadowed by their mutual disdain for authority.

Although John is given the role of loquacious philosopher to an extent, it is Andrew who tells us: “We’re all bizarre; some of us are just better at hiding it.” This expression of acceptance is fundamental to the film’s warm intentions. The iconic Don’t You Forget About Me by Simple Minds is the icing on the cake.

 

5/5