Wonder ****

Following on from Anti-Bullying Week 2017 in the UK, and based on the New York Times bestseller, this heartwarming screen story adapted by Beauty and the Beast writer Stephen Chbosky is highly poignant, reminding us that we are all different but the same inside. In the same vein as the 1985 film that propelled Cher’s on-screen career, Mask, there is a central character that is extraordinary, both physically and mentally, trying to fit in and be ordinary. Personal journeys cannot fail to hit the right chord, if attempted well.

This is the story of August ‘Auggie’ Pullman (Jacob Tremblay), a young boy with facial differences who has had years of corrective surgery. Homeschooled by his mother, Isabel (Julia Roberts), he decides it is time to enter fifth grade in a mainstream elementary school. It means going out in the world without his trusted spaceman’s helmet. He encounters many reactions to looking ‘different’.

Chbosky and team have developed a convincing back story to the Pullman household – that includes Dad Nate (Owen Wilson) and big sister Via (Izabela Vidovic) – without relying on schmaltz for reaction. We get a very real sense of each character’s place in the family unit and their hopes, frustrations and reactions to the position they find themselves in. Indeed, the Pullman world does revolve around Auggie and protecting him, but the little boy resists this to an extent, wanting to be judged on merit and personality alone.

The strength of the tale lies in the comparisons between siblings. Wonder juxtapositions their life experiences, and examines how one child gets more parental limelight than the other, through no fault of their own. In fact there is a great deal of ‘selflessness’ to all four characters making truly inspirational viewing. It is outside forces and opinions that propel the narrative forward, using Auggie as the litmus test in each new scenario.

This sweet coming-of-age tale does not leave any of its leads behind either – each one gets a chance to grow their character arc, not just Auggie, which is refreshing. This means none are left as two-dimensional caricatures propping up another, pointing to some great writing and direction.

We are used to seeing Roberts in fighting mom spirit, though this is commendably understated in Wonder, complimented by Owen’s gentle humorous input as Nate. Both Tremblay and Vidovic give engaging performances as the Pullman children. Even though Roberts and Owen are big names on the project, the film belongs to the younger stars.

This enlightening family viewing is full of morals, incentives and solutions for all – not just the standard “you can accomplish anything if you put your mind to it” mantra. It is in the little details that Chbosky’s film speaks its greatest volume and empathizes with all characters: There is no black and white in Wonder as the storyline unfolds – even the school bully has a back story that goes some way to explaining his hurtful actions.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Daddy’s Home 2 **

Family dynamics around the festive period are ripe for the comedy picking. Everyone can relate to the age-old saying “you can’t chose your family” when faced with spending the requisite time with them. Indeed, even the most cynical of us will cherish at least one memorable moment – event if it’s at the expense of a loved one.

The thought of comedy duo Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg – who had a natural flow in The Other Guys – returning as Brad and Dusty respectively for a second Daddy’s Home edition, and trying to create the ‘perfect’ Christmas does prick the interest. Such enormous comedy potential, considering all was at peace with dad and stepdad at the end of the last film in 2015.

The potent mixer here is introducing the chalk-and-cheese granddads, played by John Lithgow (Bard’s emotional, touchy-feely dad) and Mel Gibson (Dusty’s macho, womanizing, guarded father) to stir up dormant feelings of inner inadequacy in our boys. Throw in some tinsel, snow and cute kids, and you have the perfect recipe, right?

The biggest crime committed here is the writers is not attempting to pen any original festive film gags, considering all four leads can do comedy with great ease. The ‘waste’ of talent is shameful. After the fun, fantasy meet-and-greet at the airport, it’s cue fairy lights going wrong, cue someone falling flat in snow, and cue a festive sing-along to remind all what the silly season is about how we should love one another. In truth, in a world in turmoil at present, this message should not be squandered lightly, but the film’s musical number leaves a sickly-sweet taste in the mouth – even though there’s a potential Marky Mark moment for fans.

This time around utter idiocy is in command. There are moments you can pick out of the festive-film déjà vu that do resonate, especially if you are a parent, and these are always a comic given. Indeed Christmas with the family does mean repetition of old ways and habits, and the predictability of it all is what the film-makers give a nod to here.

Part of the film’s other issue is bad timing of outside forces at play on its ‘innocent’ storylines – through no fault of the film-makers. With Hollywood under a cloud of abuse allegations, Gibson’s rather misogynistic character Kurt is a tad uncomfortable to watch, especially in a family film. The other is a loose attempt at tackling the gun control issue in a family-centric way, with both sides of the argument given, though the pro lobby shouting louder and even glorifying it further. The danger of polarizing characters and their beliefs renders the status quo as caricatures, with any depth and empathy for them in danger of being lost.

This does come across as Ferrell/Brad and Wahlberg/Dusty fight to be heard in the crowded screen space. Their central dynamic key to the first film and their past comedic success is muted to the point that when the cracks appear and the tipping point comes, there is a sense of disappointment. Perhaps making it more about the others – though Linda Cardellini as Brad’s long-suffering wife is woefully under-used – is to the film concept’s detriment: Too many personalities, big and small, grappling for the limelight?

Daddy’s Home 2 does bring more daddies into the domestic fray with a couple of snatched laughs – more in disbelief at what is being delivered on screen with hindsight. It also will appeal to the Bad Moms crowd too, with adults behaving childishly and without consequence. Even a sweet coming-of-age storyline about girl trouble fails to rescue this completely – and Ferrell and Wahlberg, however much we want it to.

2/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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LFF 2017: Mudbound ****

This year’s BFI LFF was full of richly layered film-making that seemed poignantly relevant to current affairs, even though the story may have been set in another time and era. Perhaps we never learn our past mistakes?

One such example is writer-director Dee Rees’s Mudbound, based on Hillary Jordan’s novel of the same name, a beautifully rendered tale set in the Deep South about the impact of post-war America on the various communities. Not only does it explore racial tensions of the time, present-day unrest in Charlottesville, for example, makes us project latter-day opinions on the film’s events.

When two men – one white (Garrett Hedlund as Jamie McAllan) and one black (Jason Mitchell as Ronsel Jackson) – return home from World War II to work on a farm in Mississippi, they struggle to deal with racism and adjusting to daily life after war. One belongs to a white family who own the land (the McAllans), and the other to family who, along with its descendants, works it (the Jacksons).

Nothing is taken for granted in Mudbound. No back story is left untold. Hence there are no plot holes to contend with. Rees fully fleshes out each character, as well as gives them an individual journey to embark on. Coupled with some fantastic casting/acting in Hedlund and Mitchell and Carey Mulligan, Jason Clarke, Mary J. Blige and Rob Morgan, this film offers a plethora of events and surface tensions to dissect and submerse in that parallel present-day tensions in America.

The storytelling is emotive in nature, as is to be expected. However, it is not drawn out for effect and exploitative in sentimentality. Events play out with real-time significance, with some of the most violent scenes very real indeed. In fact, Clarke’s McAllan brother, Henry, actually hits actor Hedlund for full effect in the brothers’ confrontation scene. The irony is there is also sensitivity invested in the characters and their story that Rees’ coaxes out on screen that is powerful in the mundane of moments.

Mudbound could fall into the clichéd Deep South screen story of racial divide but addresses all injustices using the most traumatic, humbling and leveling device: war.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Justice League **

Fans aside, for the rest of us, there is no competition: both DC Comics and Marvel have some iconic characters that are perfect of big-screen adaptation. Sometimes they fair better in their own film, like Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman and Iron Man and Captain America. Other times getting them all in one flick just means too many superhero egos to deal with/ or not enough development to care. DC Comic’s latest ensemble, Justice League, is the latter.

In this story, Batman (Ben Affleck) and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) must quickly recruit a superhero team – including The Flash (Ezra Miller), Aquaman (Jason Momoa) and Cyborg (Ray Fisher) – to combat a newly awoken enemy after three powerful boxes to gain ultimate apocalyptic power. Part of this feat means Batman must face an old ‘nemesis’, Superman (Henry Cavill).

The thought of Batman facing Superman again, after the super dark and abysmal concept of Batman vs Superman last year, is enough to stimulate excitement for Justice League. Director Zack Snyder has a ‘second chance’ to get their power play right. The moment they meet again, however, is a damp squib, as Affleck’s Batman just feels tired. Admittedly, part of the attraction of The Dark Knight’s appeal is he has no super powers so there must come a point when the weariness sets in and it’s time to retire Alfred too (here, played by Jeremy Irons once more).

The only superhero acts as the vital glue in this is Wonder Woman, with Gadot a one-woman force but ‘missing’ a lot more costume than in her solo film this year. Are things that desperate that we have to resort to low-level, up-skirt shots of the only female character?

The only characters that are mildly interesting in addition to the female lead are The Flash and Aquaman. That said the former becomes the film’s token joker character, when his eccentricities are interesting enough to explore further, and the latter is the resident Scandi eye candy that also keeps the status quo light and entertaining but has little substance apart from that.

The other dominant force that shrouds any development in the central superhero characters is the relentless CGI – some of it not so impressive too. This is a Snyder film after all – albeit it the director had to make a swift departure at the end due to personal circumstances. Those who find the overuse of CGI in a film nauseating will cringe watching this, to the point that the effects are actually the lead character in the frame in the action moments, possibly masking the flimsy narrative and many plot holes.

Overall, Justice League is a bit of a lackluster stew. DC Comics had to get them all together, but unlike the Marvel Avengers, they just seem awkward and unconvincing together – teamwork definitely does not make the dream work here. Keep watching the credits for a big reveal… Maybe the Justice League has had a bumpy start. Now they have worked together, they need another screen outing to prove themselves…

2/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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LFF 2017: Good Time ****

Robert Pattinson has come a long way from his Edward Cullen years in Twilight, having to carefully pick his roles as to throw off the vampire mantel. He has had some successes and some duds. However, with the Safdie BrothersGood Time, an urban thriller on speed, he may just have done it. Its edgy pace and sense of ‘in the moment’ fixes makes the actor’s underdog character Constantine ‘Connie’ Nikas not just an exhilarating one to try and keep up with, but a complete change from the normally laid-back Pattinson.

After a botched bank robbery by brothers Connie and Nick (Benny Safdie), the latter gets caught and jailed. So begins the desperate 24-hour countdown by Connie to collect together bail money and stop his mentally-ill brother from being sent to Riker’s Island prison, where he knows Nick will not survive.

With its film noir nods, punctuated by psychedelic colour and energizing pop tracks, the Safdie Brothers take us on a journey through the underbelly of Queens – their home turf, with Connie as our unwilling guide. The gritty, hand-held production was often shot without filming permits – as is the Safdies’ ‘urban opera’ style, further complimenting the whole affair.

With elements of Taxi Driver to it – the Safdies are working with Scorsese on a new film, there is a pressure-cooker environment waiting to come to boil. Unlike the 1976’s cult classic, Good Time has moments of release, only for a split second, to show the idiocy/absurdity of certain events throughout.

At the heart is a criminal with a heart – thieves may not stick together, but brothers do. Pattinson’s casting is a clever choice by the Safdies, who have pluck unknowns from the street to act. Pattinson embodies Connie completely, including clinching the accent. That said there is a softer edge to his hardened exterior, allowing empathy with his plight to filter through at times.

This is in stark contrast with Queens native Buddy Duress, a real-life, reformed felon who the Safdie Brothers cast in their earlier film, Heaven Knows What (2014). Duress plays Ray this time, a pathetic small-time crook who knows how to get cash quick for Connie. The fact Pattinson is so convincing opposite Duress in their scenes is credit to the Brit’s complete transformation in this.

Good Time is a ride of the night, a pulsing, high-octane race against the main enemy – time. It may surprise some Pattinson’s fans, but it will certainly hold him in greater acting regard by everyone who sees this.

4/ 5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Paddington 2 *****

Most people know who Paddington Bear is; a classic childhood character that loves marmalade sandwiches and travels from Peru to London, where he comes to live with the Browns. The first film three years ago did an enchanting job of introducing the bear to the Big Smoke, complete with some fun and memorable moments (like the bathroom flooding scene) and a villain in taxidermist Nicole Kidman.

Having established the bear, the sequel ups the ante, delivering a wonderful storyline fans can really get on board with. Now settled with the Browns, Paddington decides to buy his Aunt Lucy a 100th birthday present. However, the present he wants costs too much, so he reserves it until he can collect together enough money. Sadly, the gift catches the eye of vain local actor, Phoenix Buchanan (Hugh Grant). Then it goes missing from the shop in an apparent burglary. Paddington gets into trouble hunting the culprit, resulting in him having to clear his own name.

The excellent returning cast of Ben Whishaw (voices Paddington), Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins, Julie Walters etc is always a positive. The location also plays on nostalgic London – the kind tourists seek out, where affluent Brits can be as eccentric as they please in their own local community, rendering a bear living in their midst as ‘normal’. There is also the introduction of an old-fashioned fun fair to enchant further in other scenes and hark back to childhood memories.

This film is better than the original because there is an actual adventure to follow and two brilliant new characters; camp Buchanan (Grant) and menacing prison chef Knuckles McGinty, played by Brendan Gleeson. Adventure-wise, the story leads us (and the bear) to all kinds of places, some you wouldn’t expect Paddington to be in. But through his impeccable manners and innocence, he wins over hearts and minds – just another part of the whole film’s charm.

Grant steals the show though – this will be sweet music to the musical-theatre-loving thespian he plays. Grant is having a ball hamming it up – so do we watching him. This climaxes in a colourful finale that will have you in hysterics, especially as the actor has proclaimed not to be too fond of dancing. In contrast to the showy Buchanan, Gleeson’s no-nonsense Knuckles goes on a personal journey, thanks to Paddington. There is even a scene straight out of a Bond/Bourne film that bonds the unlikely pair further.

Paddington 2 is good-value family entertainment, with all kinds of characters in the mix, but still enjoying the full support of the Browns – not relegated to the sidelines as the bear goes on his hunt/adventure, but still very much in action. Do catch this if you can!

5/5 stars

By @Filmgazer

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LFF 2017: The Killing of a Sacred Deer *****

It is becoming increasingly difficult to describe a Yorgos Lanthimos film to the uninitiated. The Greek writer-director first came to international attention with his odd but endearing dystopian drama, The Lobster, about people having a limited time to pair off in a hotel, before being turned into an animal of their choice. Two years on, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is equally perverse, though chillingly more sinister in nature. It also reunites Lanthimos with actor Colin Farrell who is enjoying a career-defining change with such misfit characters – and lots more facial hair.

Farrell is Steven Murphy, a successful heart surgeon married to medic Anna (Nicole Kidman). They have two children. Steven is forced to make an unthinkable sacrifice in his family, after taking a strange young man called Martin (Barry Keoghan) under his wing.

The story plays heavily on the supernatural, the fear of the unknown. It is quite clinical in its approach, from the wide vistas of the hospital to the equally lofty rooms at Murphy’s home. What makes the status quo even more absurd and detached from reality is Lanthimos’ curious script, co-written with Efthymis Filippou. Through the terse (sometimes shocking), banal chitchat – think the unfiltered subconscious having a voice – comes a wealth of emotion from the characters. They seem cold and aloof at the start, but actually, as disaster comes ever closer, there is more urgency and feeling in their rapport.

Farrell and Kidman are compelling as a screen couple – subsequently going on to film The Beguiled after this. However, credit goes to Keoghan whose ‘immortal’ Martin is the most fascinating character overall. Keoghan begins by making him vulnerable and inquisitive, until something unknown penetrates Steven’s closeted and privileged lifestyle. Then it is too late. This is a superior supernatural thriller, utterly unique in execution – even the roaming camera has a mind of its own.

5/5 stars

By @Filmgazer

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LFF 2017: Breathe ****

The ‘based on a true story’ mantra either triggers interest or groans – the latter from cynics crying “Oscar baiting”. However, some tales deserve a little more credit and attention, and Breathe is one such story. The sentimentality is kept firmly in check by debut director Andy Serkis (The Lord of the Rings’ Gollum) who works here with long-time friend and producer Jonathan Cavendish to deliver a truly inspirational and surprisingly upbeat drama about Cavendish’s parents.

Beginning in the 1950s, dashing, active, fun-loving Robin Cavendish (Andrew Garfield) is struck down by polio while living in Africa with his pregnant wife, Diana (Claire Foy), and is paralysed from the neck down for the rest of his life. Struggling to accept being bed-bound in hospital, Robin becomes depressed, and begs Diana to get him out. So begins an extraordinary life journey that defies the medical profession. When the couple’s friend, Teddy Hall (Hugh Bonneville) invents a wheelchair with built-in breathing apparatus this allows Robin to live – and even travel.

Breathe avoids failing into cliché on the whole. It has some very funny and uplifting moments, once Robin leaves the confines of the hospital. There is a wonder at what the character will achieve next that prevents the narrative from being bogged down by mawkishness. The central performances from Garfield and Foy are illuminating. The pair has a natural screen rapport that extenuates the bubbly moments of joy and wonderment at the Cavendish’s achievements, while focuses our attention on the more serious aspects. Serkis’ care with the source material is such that by the time the inevitable arrives, the viewer is not emotionally drained and actually celebrates the good that has come out of Robin’s situation.

4/5 stars

By @Filmgazer

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LFF 2017: Mutafukaz ****

Japanese anime has always been pop culture’s anarchic social commentary on current affairs, but equally troubling for its sexualizing imagery of young girls. Its fantastical themes, vibrant characters and whirl of colour are still compelling for most.

Mutafukaz, the new Franco-Japanese collaboration by directors Shoujirou Nishimi and Guillaume ‘Run’ Renard shown at this year’s London Film Festival suddenly makes anime more relevant and accessible to a wider audience. With its nods to the likes of Ren and Stimpy, Grand Theft Auto, Leon and even Men in Black, Mutafukaz uses such references cleverly to address modern-day social issues, ranging from austerity and multiculturalism to state intervention in a highly energetic and entertaining way.

The story’s lead character is pizza-delivery boy called Angelino, one of many deadbeats living in Dark Meat City (D.M.C.), along with flat mate, best buddy Vinz who has a skull head that’s always flaming. In life in D.M.C. will always be “Desperate, Miserable and Crap” – the boys just need to break away from all the ugliness and the cockroaches.

On his rounds one day absent-minded Angelino is transfixed by a stunning, mysterious girl walking past, causing in him crashing his scooter. First putting it down to concussion, he begins noticing menacing monster-like shapes, while mean-looking men in black are after him, resulting in him and Vinz going on the run.

Creator Renard has come a long way from the Sundance short of the same name. With the help of veteran animator Nishimi they have given birth to genuine animated characters, each with curious personalities. The feature-length run-time of 90 minutes has helped with this, giving an actual sense of Angelino and Vinz’s daily troubles, but amplified by strong, purposeful voiceovers from actors Tay Lee and Mark Ryan Haltom respectively.

While having an ever-present sense of urgency and paranoia, the pace slows at times, so we can take a breath and marvel at the creativity, illustrating the mood of the moment. Take Angelino’s Pied Piper-esque skill with their resident cockroaches, rendering something revolting rather alluring to watch.

Die-hard anime fans still get their dose of gravity-defying moves, graphic gore, juvenile reactions and blatant sexism. However, scenes such as the shoot-outs in the ghetto are injected with Shakespearean prose (and graffiti) and stage choreography, all in splendid 2D render. With such hard-hitting issues at play, grinding down our protagonists, empathy for each multiplies, reaffirming our commitment to seeing them succeed.

This addictive sense of survival and rebirth, coupled with the bigger mystery – who are the alien beings and why do they want Angelino – adds many intriguing layers to a 2D production, while the characters bombard us with thoughts and opinions in their wake.

Mutafukaz becomes not just a coming-of-age journey for our animated heroes, but one for the anime newcomer, quite possibly igniting a newfound love of the art and bringing the fantasy down with a thud to a palpable street-level understanding.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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