Friday, January 12, 2018


Opening this weekend:

Paddington 2As far as I know, this is the first crime thriller about the theft of a pop-up book. The title bear wants to buy the one-of-a-kind tome, you see, as a gift for his adored Aunt back in "darkest Peru." Alas, before he's saved up enough of his pay as a window-washer to make the purchase, the book is filched from the antiques store by a mysterious burglar, and Paddington is suspected of the heist and thrown in jail.

The real culprit—it’s revealed early on, but stop reading now if you don’t want the “spoiler”—is a crackbrained, down-on-his-luck actor played by Hugh Grant, who knows, as Paddington does not, that the pop-up book contains clues to the location of a hidden treasure. So as Paddington struggles to negotiate the perils of prison life and his upper-middle-class adoptive London family searches for evidence of his innocence, the thespian gets closer and closer to claiming the loot.

Michael Bond's beloved bear, with his blue coat, floppy red hat and love of marmalade, has been a mainstay of Brit kiddie-lit since the late ‘50s. Bond, who died this past year (Paddington 2 is dedicated to him) claimed that the character’s inspiration came, in part, from the sight of tagged children on railway platforms being evacuated from London during WWII.

There have been several animated TV series based on Bond’s tales, but the first feature film was a 2014 live-action effort, with a CGI Paddington excellently voiced by Ben Wishaw. That movie had plenty of charm, but it was marred, for me severely, by the introduction of a Cruella de Vil-like villainess played by Nicole Kidman, an obsessed taxidermist who, lacking a specimen of Ursa Marmalada in her collection, wanted to stuff Paddington. This nastiness felt really out of place in the gentle context of the movie.

Paddington 2 is a major improvement. Directed, like the first film, by Paul King of the marvelous Brit TV comedy The Mighty Boosh, the sequel features lengthy, complex slapstick sequences in the sprit of Buster Keaton or Jacques Tati, executed by Paddington (Wishaw again) with similarly earnest absorption. And its softer and sillier villain hits just the right note, without taking too much of an edge off the picture. It does, after all, contain the line, spoken by a security guard at St. Paul’s, “A nun went beserk.”

And that cast! Returning from the first film are Sally Hawkins, Hugh Bonneville, Julie Walters, Peter Capaldi and Jim Broadbent, joined here by the likes of Brendan Gleeson, as Paddington’s tough-guy prison mentor, Tom Conti, Joanna Lumley and Eileen Atkins, billed here as Dame Eileen Atkins, if you please. It’s a testament to the bear’s iconic status over there that that sort of a-list talent could be assembled for a kiddie-movie sequel.

Stealing the picture from all of them is Grant, who turns his no-good greedy ham into a star part. He gets to use a variety of accents and wear cunning disguises—including as that aforementioned “very attractive nun.” He even gets to perform a full Sondheim number.

The CommuterLiam Neeson plays a 60-year-old ex-cop turned insurance salesman who rides a commuter train from Tarrytown to Manhattan and back everyday. Heading home on the day he gets laid off, baffled by how he’ll send his son to college, he’s approached by a mystery woman (Vera Farmiga) with a proposition—somebody on the train doesn’t belong, she says.

He’s given a false name that the person is traveling under (he isn’t told the gender), and promised that he’ll be given $100,000 if, using his cop skills, he makes the identification for them. In a moment of weakness he takes the down payment, but quickly realizes that the people who have hired him are ruthless killers, and that he’d be dooming their target by making the ID. He also realizes that his own family is in danger.

Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, the Spaniard behind 2015’s Run All Night and several other Liam Neeson righteous/reluctant killing sprees, this thriller pays obvious tribute to Hitchcock—overtly to Shadow of a Doubt—but is just as reminiscent of the Bruckheimer-style action excess playbook. The plot gets more convoluted, and the action more ludicrously overscaled, as the movie progresses.

But as usual, there’s Neeson at the center of it, with his quiet masculinity and his decency and his pained, sad-faced acceptance of the distasteful duty of pulverizing his enemies—it’s distasteful to him, that is; we in the audience drool for their retribution. He’s an action hero for middle-aged guys who feel ineffectual, and he delivers again here.

On the whole, The Commuter is more fun than many of Neeson’s other massacres. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, and it’s generous-hearted: especially in a Spartacus-like climatic flourish, it’s about strangers sticking up for each other.

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