DADDY’S HOME 2: 2 STARS
Who says there are no new ideas in Hollywood? A week ago we had “A Bad Moms Christmas,” the heart-warming (or should that be heartburning) tale of three young moms trying to make Christmas perfect for their families until their mothers crash the scene, bringing with them expectations and judgement.
This week along comes “Daddy’s Home 2,” the story of two men, Dusty (Mark Wahlberg) and Brad (Will Ferrell), a father and stepfather who just want Christmas to be perfect for the adorable kids they share. It all goes well until Dusty’s rough-around-the-edges father (Mel Gibson) and Brad's lovey-dovey dad (John Lithgow) both come to town.
One stars women, the other, men. You’re not having déjà vu, they’re completely different, see?
When we last saw Dusty and Brad, they asked a very simple question, What do kids need more, a father or a dad? Anyone can be a father, the opening narration tells us, but it takes real work to be a dad. Brad is the mild-mannered stepfather to Dusty’s biological children. What’s Dusty like? “Imagine if Jesse James and Mick Jagger had a baby,” says his ex-wife Sarah (Linda Cardellini). “He sounds like a rascal,” says Brad.
The kids adore Dusty because he’s more fun but Brad, though uptight and dull, is always there when the kids need him. By the time the end credits roll the two have figured out an uneasy dente in the co-parenting game.
This time around, it’s Christmas and the co-dads are determined to make it perfectly cool yule for the kids. “I got as big surprise,” says Brad. “This year, no more back and forth at Christmas. A together Christmas like a normal family.” The stressful time is made more stressful when the grandfathers show up, turning the cool yule into a blue Christmas.
For most of its running time I thought “Daddy’s Home 2” was the laziest comedy of the year. Then I thought all the way back to last week’s screening of “A Bad Moms Christmas” and I remembered—even though I tried to forget—what little effort that movie put into story, jokes… well, just about everything.
Then something else happened, after an hour and twenty minutes of uninspired comedy seemingly Xeroxed on Christmas wrapping from the 2015 original film, “Daddy’s Home 2” manages to turn from lump of coal to a diamond. At least for a few minutes. It’s too little too late, but you will leave the theatre with a grin.
Now for the elephant in the room; Gibson is a major character, eating up screen time like Santa chowing down on gingerbread cookies. In a completely charmless and grating performance, he plays Dusty’s snickering dad as a man who thinks everyone not with his last name is a snowflake. He encourages his young grandson to slap a little girl on the bum and tells the kids a joke that begins with, “Two hookers walk into a bar.” If you didn’t want to see the movie because of him, this is not the performance that will win you over.
“Daddy’s Home 2” gets some things right. When the middle daughter continuously turns up the thermostat so she can be warm while she sleeps with the window open, it ignites a thermostat war that will be familiar to anyone who has ever paid a heating bill. When the movie latches on to those moments, it works. When it doesn’t, it’s as stale as last year’s fruitcake.
MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS: 2 ½ STARS
Agatha Christie’s story of murder and mayhem and a moustachioed detective comes to vivid life on the big screen with, as they used to say, more stars than there are in the heavens. Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr., Michelle Pfeiffer and Daisy Ridley play travellers on the luxurious train and all are suspected of doing a dastardly deed by Hercule Poirot, the legendary Belgium detective played by director and star Kenneth Branagh.
Set in 1934, a time when women wore afternoon dresses, men donned flat hats and the Orient Express was seen as the epitome of first-class steam-age travel. Poirot, looking for peace and quiet and some downtime between cases, joins the Orient Express in Istanbul, heading for Calais for a much-needed holiday. “Three days free of care, concern the crime,” says friend Bouc (Tom Bateman).
On board is a colourful collection of characters. There’s Russian Princess Dragomiroff (Judi Dench) and her obedient maid Hildegarde Schmidt (Olivia Colman), the racist German academic Gerhard Hardman (Willem Dafoe), “husband huntering” American widow Mrs. Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer), the troubled Countess Andrenyi (Lucy Boynton) and her ballet star husband, Russian dancer Count Andrenyi (Sergei Polunin), Spanish missionary Pilar Estravados (Penélope Cruz), British governess Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley) and American art dealer Ratchett (Johnny Depp), his butler, Masterman (Derek Jacobi) and private secretary, Hector MacQueen (Josh Gad). “There’s nothing like a triangle of strangers pressed together on a train with no purpose but to go from one place to another.”
One of them is murdered and one is a murderer. Vacation or not, there is a crime to be solved and only one man for the job. “My name is Hercule Poirot,” says the elaborately moustachioed detective, “and I am probably the greatest detective in the world.” Thus the “Avenger of the Innocent” goes fishing for clues in a barrel of red herrings.
Lush production design and old school storytelling gives this version of “Murder on the Orient Express” a Masterpiece Theatre vibe. It is a parade of great faces and attention to period details with a slight updating in the character’s ideas about race but while the train may be speeding along on tracks of steel, the story isn’t.
Branagh revels in the deduction phase of the tale, shining a spotlight on Poirot’s process. He’s a great character and Branagh is clearly having a good time playing him but his larger-than-life presence sucks much of the air out of the room, leaving the others gasping. Individually the sprawling cast aren’t given much to do, many reduced to little more than cameo appearances. The real mystery is why Branagh would assemble such a stellar cast and then not give them anything to do.
Even more frustrating are several of Branagh’s stylistic choices. Beautiful sets, and frequently, beautiful performers are obscured by odd cinematography. Pfeiffer’s big entrance is shot in an impressive tracking shot that spends more time showing the outside of the train than the actors. Later a crucial revelation is inexplicably shot from above, showing only the backs of the actor’s heads. The camera is almost constantly in motion and while it helps create a sense of forward movement, it can be distracting. However, when it focuses on the period details it is a pleasure to gaze upon.
At its core “Murder on the Orient Express” does end with a morally interesting question but doesn’t spend enough time with its characters—save for the great detective who is clearly being set to be the focus of a franchise—for us to get fully invested in whodunit in question.
LADY BIRD: 4 ½ STARS
On paper the teen angst of “Lady Bird”—teen heartbreak, mom issues and blossoming sexuality—sounds like something we’ve seen before. “Where’s Molly Ringwald?” you might ask. And yet, though this may be well-trod ground, writer-director Greta Gerwig’s semi-autobiographical look at her California upbringing hits the ground running. It feels fresh, simultaneously heartfelt and spirited.
(NOTE TO READER: This synopsis does not do the movie justice. Feel free to skip the next two paragraphs.)
Saoirse Ronan is Christine McPherson, a Catholic School teen who goes by the name Lady Bird. “Lady Bird. Is that your given name?” Father Leviatch (Stephen Henderson) asks. “It is,” she replies. “I gave it to myself.” She lives in Sacramento—“The Midwest of California.”—with mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf), unemployed father Larry (Tracy Letts) and two adopted siblings. She’s a theatre kid who along with her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein) perform in plays, plan for their future college careers and develop crushes on cute classmates.
Lady Bird learns about life and love through dalliances with two boys; the sweet-natured Danny (Lucas Hedges) and edgy-rocker dude Kyle (Timothée Chalamet). The key relationship in her life, however, is her mother. The two are deeply connected yet cannot see eye-to-eye, especially when it comes to Lady Bird’s choice of university.
Gerwig’s skilful handling of the story of Lady Bird’s busy senior year works not just because it’s unvarnished and honest in its look at becoming an adult but also, in a large degree, to Ronan’s performance. I have long called her ‘Lil Meryl. She’s an actor of unusual depth, a young person (born in 1994) with an old soul. Lady Bird is almost crushed by the weight of uncertainty that greets her with every turn—will her parents’ divorce, will there be money for school, will Kyle be the boy of her dreams, will she ever make enough cash to repay her parents for her upbringing—but Ronan keeps her nimble, sidestepping teen ennui with a complicated mix of snappy one liners, hard earned wisdom and a well of emotion. It’s tremendous, Academy Award worthy work.
“Lady Bird” bangs familiar gongs but Gerwig and Ronan, with ample help from the supporting cast, help those notes resonate loudly and clearly. The material is tenderly observed on both sides of the camera, imbued with a refreshingly genuine point of view.
MY FRIEND DAHMER: 4 STARS
“My Friend Dahmer” is a firsthand account of the world’s most famous serial killer’s troubled high school years. The up-close-and-personal look is based on a graphic novel and memoir by artist John "Derf" Backderf, a childhood friend of the future cannibal.
“Jeff’s a little off, right?” “Yeah,” says Derf (Alex Wolff), “that’s what we like about him.” The guys are talking about their classmate’s habit of “spazzing out to the max.” Outwardly he’s like a lot of teenagers. Shy and bullied, he acts out in public to make up for the attention he doesn’t get at home.
Privately it’s a different story. An unhealthy interest in roadkill and binge drinking point to the inner demons that would eventually consume him and push him to kill and consume seventeen people between 1978 and 1991.
“My Friend Dahmer” effectively captures Dahmer’s extreme teen angst. Like John Hughes with deep psychological undercurrents, it is a picture of regular American life with a twist. At its heart is former Disney Channel star Lynch. His broodingly empathetic performance haunts the film, building tension as Dahmer becomes disconnected from his family—mentally ill mother (Anne Heche) and ineffective father (Dallas Roberts)—and friends.
It’s a remarkable performance that hits all the notes. When asked what line of work he wants to get into, he replies, straight-faced, “biology.” It’s a funny line delivered with just enough chill to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. Later, when he tries to convince a classmate to go to the prom with him, he says, “You want to seem normal, right?” Those words hang heavy in the air as Dahmer slowly loses his grip.
“My Friend Dahmer” builds to a chilling climax that will make you lean forward in your seat but never really pulls back the layers of the killer’s psyche. Lynch’s tortured soul routine is well realized but the film never gets too far past blaming the parents for the deeds of the child.