A follow-up to the successful 2014 original film based on the classic British children’s character Paddington Bear created by Michael Bond, Paddington 2 is a wonderful children’s movie appealing to all ages with an abundance of charm in storytelling and visuals that makes for a feel-good moviegoing experience. Taking place several years after becoming a member of the Brown family in London, the plot revolves around the lovable talking bear Paddington, voiced by Ben Whishaw, trying to find the perfect gift for his Aunt Lucy back in Peru but somehow finds himself entangled in a mysterious crime. He discovers at an antique shop run by his friend Samuel Gruber, played by Oscar winner Jim Broadbent, a marvelous pop-up book about London landmarks and decides to take out several odd jobs to pay for the expensive book as a birthday gift for his beloved Aunt Lucy. However, the pop-up book is stolen by a mysterious thief, and Paddington is accused and convicted of the crime. He is sent to prison where he befriends several inmates, including the cook known as Nuckles and played by Golden Globe nominee Brendan Gleeson. In several funny scenes, Paddington helps to bring cheerfulness to the prison with a large helping of his favorite food: marmalade sandwiches. His human family headed by insurance agent Henry Brown, played by Hugh Bonneville of Downton Abbey fame, and the sweet Mary Brown, played by Oscar nominee Sally Hawkins, try to solve the theft in order to prove Paddington’s innocence. Suspicions are raised about a local narcissistic actor named Phoenix Buchanan, played by a superbly villainous Hugh Grant, who has an unusual habit of dressing up as his most famous costumed characters. Once Paddington and the Browns discover the true culprit, they are led on a wild goose chase brimming with British charm and wit. Somewhat reminiscent of a Wes Anderson production, the filmmakers pay great attention to detail in creating stereotypically British and whimsical sets and an overall cute atmosphere. Overall, I thought it was a magical and clever movie with a heartfelt story and full of excellent British actors that feels quintessential British and is overflowing with lighthearted charm.
Directed by three-time Oscar nominee Alexander Payne best known for 2004’s Sideways, 2011’s The Descendants, 2013’s Nebraska, Downsizing is an intriguing yet ultimately rudderless film with a very unique twist and applaudable acting performances. I was surprisingly letdown by what was advertised as a comedy with a fun and preposterous premise and came away disappointed by the lackluster effort put forward by a very talented filmmaker. The story revolves around the scientific discovery of being able to shrink humans to only five inches tall as a way of reducing the environmental footprint of humanity. Paul, played by Matt Damon, and his wife Audrey, played by Kristen Wiig, are a middle-aged couple stuck in a rut living in Omaha who decide one day to undergo the procedure known as downsizing. They are convinced after meeting up with their high school friend Dave, played by Jason Sudeikis, who enjoys the financial benefits of living small. They are all prepared to live the rest of their days as small people living in the luxurious Leisureland community, but Audrey has grave misgivings about leaving her family. Eventually, Paul lives alone as a downsized person in a small apartment located in Leisureland after his wife decides not to downsize and files for divorce. Living a rather boring life at a dead-end job, he decides to go partying with his upstairs neighbor and Serbian playboy Dusan, played by an affable Christoph Waltz, who is wealthy from his black market dealings. Further changing his worldview, Paul runs into a Vietnamese refugee and housekeeper named Ngoc Lan Tran, played by Hong Chau whose performance is the highlight of the movie, who is very charitable to the poor residents despite her financial situation. Paul becomes close friends with her and eventually romantic feelings develop between the two. In yet another strangely abrupt and unnecessary plot shift, Paul along with his new and unusual friends embark on a journey to the original downsized community in remote Norway. They learn from the Norwegian scientist who invented the procedure that mankind is in peril as a result of the irreversible environmental impact of full-sized people. Thereby, the movie drastically shifts to becoming a drama about the environment after the first third of the film plays out like a satirical comedy. Overall, I was impressed by the filmmaker’s creativity in concocting such a bizarre concept; however, the film’s execution fails its great potential as a result of jumbled plotlines and largely unsympathetic characters besides Ngoc.
A follow-up to the popular 1995 film Jumanji starring Robin Williams, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is a fun and surprisingly clever adventure movie that successfully recreates the creativity of the original. The story begins when the Jumanji board game is discovered in the 1990s and a young man is sucked into the magical world of Jumanji. Then, the plot fast forwards to today when a group of high schoolers find themselves in detention and discover the game Jumanji that has been transformed into an old video game. Unaware of its powers, each teenager chooses a character to play in the game and are sucked into the jungles of Jumanji. The nerd in the group Spencer becomes the strong archaeologist and explorer Dr. Smolder Bravestone, played by Dwayne Johnson, the popular jock “Fridge” becomes the scrawny and squeamish zoologist and weapons valet Franklin “Mouse” Finbar, played by the hyperactive comedian Kevin Hart, the pretty popular girl Bethany becomes the obese middle-aged archaeologist and cartographer Professor Sheldon “Shelly” Oberon, hilariously played by Jack Black, and the shy unpopular girl Martha becomes the attractive commando and martial artist Ruby Roundhouse, played by Karen Gillan. With all their practical skills and only three lives before they actually die, they must work together to navigate several challenges to finish the game and return home. They have to fight off the villain Van Pelt, played by the devious Bobby Cannavale, who wants to take control of Jumanji by possessing the mystical jewel “Jaguar’s Eye.” Defeating him and his army of mercenaries is the only way they can escape Jumanji. Eventually, they receive help from a pilot and adventurer named Jefferson “Seaplane” McDonough, played by Nick Jonas. There are several unexpected moments of hilarity that makes for a truly entertaining movie, especially the scenes with Jack Black’s character who talks like a flirtatious teenage girl and freaks out at the littlest things. Overall, I was pleasantly surprised to find the movie to be a light-hearted and fun-filled comedic adventure that goes beyond simply rehashing the original movie without much imagination.
Directed by James Franco, The Disaster Artist is a hilarious and unexpectedly touching film about the mostly true making of the 2003 cult classic The Room, infamously known as one of the best worst movies ever made. The truly hard-to-believe yet well-crafted storytelling and terrific acting performances allow the movie to rise above its seemingly ridiculous plot to become more than just a silly comedy poking fun at a terrible film. We first meet the protagonist Tommy Wiseau, played almost perfectly by Oscar nominee James Franco, in San Francisco in the late 1990s befriending a fellow struggling actor named Greg Sestero, played by Dave Franco. A very eccentric man with an unusual accent whose background is never really known by anyone, Tommy convinces Greg to move with him to Los Angeles where they can try to pursue a career in acting. Despite his unbridled enthusiasm and passion, Tommy is unable to find any acting jobs due to his rather poor acting skills and awkward personality. Fed up with the lack of opportunity in Hollywood, Tommy decides to make his own movie and sets out to write a script for a feature-length about a complicated man and his love life, and he offers Greg a major acting part and producer credit. Tommy spends millions of dollars that seem to come from nowhere to purchase film equipment, rent out a studio, and hire a large cast and crew, including a skeptical script supervisor played by Seth Rogen. In addition to being the screenwriter, the increasingly controlling Tommy also serves as director and producer at the same time that he stars as the main character Johnny. Several funny scenes take place as the befuddled cast and crew must deal with Tommy’s poor filmmaking judgement and preposterous demands. However, quite surprisingly, the film paints a sympathetic and at times heartbreaking picture of Tommy, particularly through his occasionally tumultuous personal relationship with Greg. Tommy is fairly oblivious to the fact that the other cast and crew members constantly make fun of his passion project that he feels will be extremely successful and prove his talents to Hollywood. Overall, I found it to be a profoundly entertaining and fascinating glimpse into the making of a truly bad movie that has become a cultural phenomenon and shines as a result of the brilliant directorial and acting skills of James Franco.
Following in a long line of successful Disney and Pixar productions, Coco is a terrifically well-made CGI-animated film geared for kids that also delights adults for the dazzling visuals and creative story about family and loss. Voiced by newcomer Anthony Gonzalez, the main character Miguel Rivera is a 12-year-old Mexican boy living in a small town in Mexico who dreams of becoming a musician. However, his large family forbids anyone in the family from playing music after Miguel’s great-great-grandfather left his great-great-grandmother Imelda and his great-grandmother Coco so that he could become a musician. Miguel decides to secretly participate in a local talent show on the Day of the Dead in hopes of becoming just like the most famous Mexican musician and guitar player Ernesto de la Cruz, voiced by Benjamin Bratt, who is from Miguel’s hometown and lived in his great-great-grandparents’ time. The night of the Day of the Dead, a special Mexican holiday when families visit their dead relatives’ graves to celebrate their lives, Miguel along with a friendly stray dog named Dante is magically among the dead spirits and travels to the Land of the Dead. He must get the blessing of one of his dead relatives before sunrise in order to go back to the Land of the Living. However, he discovers that he must speak with Ernesto de la Cruz to receive the proper blessing. On his adventures in the Land of the Dead, Miguel befriends a lonely trickster named Héctor Rivera, voiced by Golden Globe winner Gael García Bernal, who is trying to be remembered by his family so that he can visit his grave and see his beloved daughter. Towards the end, we learn that not everything is as it seems, and Miguel develops a greater appreciation for his family and perhaps will be able to be a musician. Besides the beautifully emotional plot, the movie does a remarkable job creating the Land of the Dead as a brightly colorful and whimsical world in which the dead depicted as skeletons are not scary and ghoulish. Overall, I found it to be yet another memorable Pixar film that uses its visual appeal to engender a story full of heart while also celebrating Hispanic culture, particularly Mexico and such traditions as the Day of the Dead.
Loosely based on a true story, The Man Who Invented Christmas is a fascinating look into the life of Charles Dickens as he writes the classic A Christmas Carol in London in 1843. The film effectively illustrates the inspirations for Dickens, played by Dan Stevens of Downton Abbey fame, by depicting the characters in the famous Christmas story as characters in the movie. We first meet Dickens ten years after the incredibly successful publication of Oliver Twist and is currently suffering from a string of unsuccessful books. To appease his publisher and maintain his fame, he sets out to write a new novel. Suffering from writer’s block, he eventually finds inspiration after witnessing several events in the daily life of impoverished Londoners and the return of his erstwhile father John Dickens, played by the terrific Jonathan Pryce. For much of the film, he is cooped up in his study where he grapples with the story and characters that will be featured in his Christmas-themed novella and interacts with the imaginary characters, especially Ebenezer Scrooge, played by Oscar winner Christopher Plummer. While struggling to finish the story in six weeks time, he asks for advice from a very unlikely source, a young housekeeper named Tara, who encourages him to make the book into a redemption story. Dickens must also deal with his father who has returned to London because of financial difficulties and becomes an imposition and a reminder of Dickens’ troubled early life, including working in a factory as a child. At the end of the movie, Dickens himself evolves into a better person and is more affectionate towards his father, somewhat like Scrooge embracing the true spirit of Christmas at the end of the book. Overall, I thought it was a well done movie that illuminates the background behind one of the greatest Christmas stories ever told, and I enjoyed the unique twist that the filmmaker used in presenting the fictional characters in A Christmas Carol to show how Charles Dickens was influenced.
Directed by Martin McDonagh best known for 2008’s In Bruges, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a terrific film with a stellar cast that expertly blends dark comedy with drama. Set in a small town in Missouri, the movie follows Mildred Hayes, played brilliantly by Oscar winner Frances McDormand, as she tries to find justice for the murder and rape of her daughter several months prior. A force not to be reckoned with, she hatches a plan to rent three abandoned billboards outside of town that directly question the police’s inability to find the culprit. A darkly funny tit-for-tat fight erupts between Mildred and the rest of the townsfolk who are sympathetic to the local police department and Chief Bill Willoughby, played by the always great Woody Harrelson. Things do not get any better with the intervention of the dim-witted and often racist Officer Jason Dixon, played wonderfully by Sam Rockwell, who does not always follow the law in protecting his chief and making sure Mildred removes the incriminating billboards. The issue over the billboards rapidly escalates into violence primarily as a result of the strong-willed and stubborn Mildred who does anything in order to avenge her daughter’s gruesome death. Even as Chief Willoughby is going through his own serious personal problem, she squarely blames the police department for not doing enough to find the perpetrator. To no avail, Mildred’s son Robbie, played by Oscar nominee Lucas Hedges, and her abusive ex-husband, played by Oscar nominee John Hawkes, insist she stop with all the shenanigans in order to prevent further shame to the family. However, she does have some strange bedfellows who encourage her, including the local slick used car salesman who happens to be a little person and excellently portrayed by Peter Dinklage. Although the background story is dramatic and depressing with it involving a rape and murder of a teenage girl, the filmmaker is remarkably able to bring some levity to the situation and allow the audience to laugh at some rather uncomfortable yet ridiculous moments of macabre humor. Overall, I found it to be one of the best films of the year because it contains such brilliant acting performances and is somehow able to effectively mix very real drama with perfectly timed dark comedy.