Brendan Gleeson

Paddington 2

10/11/17

Paddington is a tough act to follow. That first film got everything right – a family entertainment that really did have something for everyone. It was also highly successful, so of course there was always going to be a sequel. The modestly titled Paddington 2 says it all. Not Paddington Episode Two, or Paddington Rides Again. No, this does exactly what it says on the tin –  a second adventure featuring Michael Bond’s celebrated ursine hero.

But, can it hope to be as good as its progenitor? The fact that the film’s release has been delayed for a month while the production company scrambles to disassociate itself from a certain Harvey Weinstein doesn’t augur well but, against all the odds, this second installment of the franchise manages to unfold its delightfully silly story without putting a single paw wrong.

The film opens with a flashback to darkest Peru, where Uncle Pastuzu (Michael Gambon) and Aunt Lucy (Imelda Staunton) first encounter the orphaned bear cub who will become Paddington – and we discover that Aunt Lucy has a longheld ambition to visit the city of London. After the credits we nip smartly back to the present day, where Paddington is now a valued member of the Brown family, helping Henry (Hugh Bonneville), Mary (Sally Hawkins), Jonathan (Samuel Joslin) and Judy (Madeleine Harris). He’s also fitting in nicely with the community of the street on which he lives – cue plenty of cameos from what seems like scores of celebrated comic actors.

But with Aunt Lucy’s 100th birthday approaching, Paddington is looking for a suitable present for his beloved aunt so, when his friend, Mr Gruber, (Jim Broadbent) who runs the local antique shop, shows him a charming (and rather expensive) pop-up book of the city, Paddington resolves to earn enough money to buy it for her. To this end, he tries his hand at window cleaning and barbering, both with suitably hilarious results. Then, by chance, his path crosses with that of has-been actor, Phoenix Buchanan (Hugh Grant), who, it transpires, wants the pop-up book for his own nefarious purposes…

Once again, the screenwriters have managed to capture the spirit of Michael Bond’s evergreen tales, presenting us with a storyline that will have people of all ages laughing uproariously – when they’re not clutching for their handkerchieves. Yes, this is undoubtedly manipulative stuff, but it’s done with such style and such sure-footedness, that you cannot help but be swept along. Scenes where the unthinkable happens and Paddington is actually sentenced to a spell in jail will have the hardest heart breaking into tiny pieces – and the little bear’s developing friendship with prison chef Knuckles McGinty (the ever dependable Brendan Gleeson) is a brilliant conceit which occasionally yields comedy gold.

It doesn’t end there. Paddington 2 is endlessly inventive (scenes where the little bear and his aunt cavort amidst a pop-up recreation of the city of London are a particular highlight). Perhaps the biggest surprise here is Hugh Grant (who, weirdly, we think we spotted walking a tiny dog near Rosslyn Chapel a couple of weeks ago). His turn as the self-obsessed Phoenix Buchanan is one of his best performances ever and he very nearly steals the show from the titular bear – still endearingly voiced by Ben Whishaw.

When you witness some of the absolute dross that passes for ‘family entertainment’ these days, it’s reassuring to see something as lovingly crafted as this. The next question? Can they do it a third time? Well, that remains to be seen. Meanwhile, this will do very nicely indeed.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

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Hampstead

25/06/17

Well, we can’t say we haven’t been warned. Reviewers of Hampstead are mostly unimpressed by this based-on-real-life wannabe rom-com, which tells the tale of Donald Horner (Brendan Gleeson), a vagrant who builds a shack on Hampstead Heath, and his unlikely relationship with Emily Walker (Diane Keaton), an American widow in financial straits. Indeed, Wendy Ide, writing for The Guardian, goes so far as to call it “a ghastly faux-mance,” while Peter Bradshaw, in the same newspaper, notes ruefully that “Richard Curtis’s style of comedy drama is very difficult to imitate.” But it’s The Telegraph’s Robbie Collins who really skewers the movie with a one-star review and the acerbic observation that “Donald’s tumbledown cabin has its own well-stocked lake and an immaculate kitchen garden – when Emily pops around for a cosy diner à deux, there’s fresh salad served in a wooden bowl, grilled fish, and wine served in elegant stemware – while his vagrant’s beard is so well-conditioned it could win a prize at Crufts.” And, while my socialist leanings mean I never thought I’d side with anyone writing for this particular Tory rag, I find I just can’t argue with him.

Okay, I can argue a bit. I think the single star is a little unfair. The acting is, for the most part, really very good (Keaton and Gleeson are both extremely engaging, while Lesley Manville somehow manages to transcend her role, which is, it seems, ‘under-developed cypher, with a bit of secretly-tragic rich bitch thrown in’). The plot is nicely stitched together, holding our attention throughout. But… oh dear. This is very much an outsider’s view of poverty, a romanticised vision of the ‘authenticity’ that being poor provides. What it reminds me of most is the Noel Streatfeild novels I read as a child, which I both loved and derided, amused as I was by their privileged depiction of what it meant to be poor. “They’ve got no money,” I’d tell my mum, raising my seven-year-old eyebrows. “So they’re down to just a couple of servants, a nanny and a cook and some woman who comes in from the village now and again. And they’ve got to take in lodgers, because they’ve got this massive house. So there’re a couple of university professors and an opera singer all sharing the space. They can’t afford their places at ballet school, so they have to get scholarships.” And then we’d laugh, putting on ‘posh’ voices, and braying, “How on earth are we supposed to manage, dahling, with just a nanny and a cook?” Well, we found it funny anyway. Maybe you had to be there.

I understand the comparisons to Richard Curtis, but I think they miss something important. It’s not just that he’s better at it (funnier, more charming), but that he doesn’t pretend to be making a social point. His films are unabashedly about those who have it all: they’re frothy, unrealistic depictions of a London that doesn’t really exist, but they don’t claim to be anything else. Hampstead has pretentions toward social commentary, but it doesn’t understand its own material.

It’s not just the improbably delightful home that Donald has constructed from old windows and planks of wood, it’s Emily’s so-called money worries that make me pause for breath. “After I’ve sold the flat and paid off all the debts,” she sobs, “I’ll be left with a little bit, not much, but enough to get me something small outside London, maybe.” Enough, it turns out, to buy a sizeable beamed cottage next to a river on the outskirts of a picturesque Cotswolds village. Ah, that kind of ‘little bit.’ Poor Emily. And after all the hard work she’s never done and the jobs she’s never had. Surely she deserves more than this? (Actually, she does seem to have travelled back in time to the 1960s – well, it is outside London, so what do I expect? – maybe the property prices hark back to that time too?)

In the end, sadly, Hampstead is just a load of ill-informed nonsense, and there’s not much to be said in its defence. The true story it’s based on must have been much grimier and more interesting, and it’s a real shame we can’t get to the nub of it. The rose-tinted worldview we are presented with here is far too shallow to convey the important truths that are hinted at but never properly explored.

2.4 stars

Susan Singfield

Live By Night

18/01/17

Ben Affleck has already proved his worth as a director – Gone Baby Gone and Argo are just two examples that spring to mind – and adaptations of the novels of Dennis Lehane have already yielded cinematic gold on several occasions, so it’s hard to pin down exactly why Live By Night fails to measure up to expectation. It’s a handsomely mounted production, its 1920s setting lovingly evoked and there’s a stellar cast in evidence, with the likes of Brendan Gleeson, Chris Cooper and Elle Fanning submitting strong performances in what amount to little more than cameo roles. But there’s an overpowering conviction that the film is simply trying to cover too many bases for its own good, that a simpler, more linear narrative  would have exerted a stronger grip on its intended audience.

Affleck plays Irish-American Joe Coughlin, an ‘outlaw’ with his own moral code. As he puts it, he doesn’t mind working for gangsters, he just doesn’t want to be one. Which is, it has to be said,  a fairly nebulous difference. After a violent brush with New York Irish mob boss, Albert White (Robert Glenister), results in a lengthy stay in the chokey, Coughlin goes to work for the Italian mob, run by Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone) and finds himself relocating to Florida, where he becomes a major player in the burgeoning rum-running business. He also romances and marries Graciela (Zoe Saldana) and it begins to look as though a pleasant future is assured for both of them. But when Pescatore’s plans for a big casino go awry (largely because of Joe’s refusal to be as villainous as he actually needs to be), it soon becomes clear that there will be the inevitable deadly reckoning…

This is by no means a terrible film and, every now and then, events do spark into fitful life. An early car chase featuring vintage automobiles is decent enough and Elle Fanning’s role as a former heroin addict who turns to religion for salvation is briefly diverting, but too often events become bogged down in a lot of talking and not enough action. And the screenplay seems to want to have a bit of everything, involving as it does the Ku Klux Klan, Latin American swing music and whatever else happens to be wandering across the cinematic horizon. Even the film’s climactic shootout is followed by another half hour of loose ends being tied, all of which goes to dilute its appeal.

Which is a shame because it’s evident that much love and care has gone into the making of Live By Night. A stronger hand in the editing booth would probably have delivered a different viewing experience but, as it stands, this is to be filed under M for ‘Meh.’

3.4 stars

Philip Caveney