Paddington 2 spreads its charm like its marmalade sandwiches – thickly, while The Florida Project shows the struggles of a single mother in America whose six-year-old daughter is joyously oblivious to the seriousness of their plight
Paddington 2 (PG) ****
The Florida Project (15) ****
Professor Marston and the Wonder Women (15) ***
Marjorie Prime (12A) ***
Like many sequels to runaway box office hits, Paddington 2 ups the ante. Kicking off with a dramatic rescue sequence and concluding with a chase atop a moving train, the scale is bigger, the stakes are higher and the action set-pieces more elaborate. But don’t worry. Given how gentle, whimsical and charming the first film was, even ratcheting up the spectacle a notch or two hardly puts it on a par with Marvel. The marmalade-loving bear from deepest, darkest Peru remains a very different animal: quieter, more modest, less in need of a full scale aural assault to hold audience interest. Success, in other words, hasn’t ruined this big screen incarnation of the late Michael Bond’s wonderful creation. If anything, returning director Paul King (who co-wrote the script with Mindhorn’s Simon Farnaby) doubles down on the things that made the first one such a success: the sense of warmth, the sense of inclusivity, the wild flights of imagination – not to mention all the goofy jokes that will likely have under-12s in stitches.
It also has Hugh Grant as the villain, a faded stage actor so hammy he’s practically honey glazed. Long since reduced to making a living advertising dog food, Grant’s embittered Phoenix Buchanan is a hoot: a riot of pantomime awfulness. Desperately in need of funds to stage what he hopes will be his theatrical resurrection, Phoenix frames Paddington in order to get his hands on a vintage pop-up book of London that he believes holds clues to a stash of hidden jewellery. Paddington – who wants the book as a 100th birthday present for his beloved Aunt Lucy back in Peru – is convicted of stealing it and swiftly discovers the legal system isn’t sympathetic to ursine immigrants like him. Despite only the flimsiest of circumstantial evidence, he’s sent down for ten years.
If the last film was a sweet-tempered ode to the value of multiculturalism, this one continues Paddington’s humane message by showing the negative impact his incarceration has on the diverse Notting Hill neighbourhood of his adoptive family, the Browns. Without the daily chaos Paddington leaves in his wake to bind them together, people are altogether grumpier and less tolerant of one another – a fact reinforced by the positive effect he immediately starts having on his fellow inmates. Not that prison seems all that bad. In the world of this film – which owes a definite cinematic debt to Wes Anderson – it seems to have been modelled on some hipster themed restaurant. But that’s what’s nice about this film: it’s so lacking in cynicism that even though the plot’s about as substantial as one of Paddington marmalade sandwiches, it’s hard not to be won over by the duffel coat-sporting furball.
If Paddington 2 celebrates the innocence of childhood, The Florida Project dramatises how precarious it is in tough circumstances. The latest film from Sean Baker – who broke through with the shot-on-an-iPhone Tangerine back in 2015 – it’s set in a low-rent motel called the Magic Kingdom, a temporary stop-gap for the transient that stands in the shadow of the real Disney World. That serves as an ironic counterpoint to the life of its pint-sized protagonist, Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), a six-year-old wildcat whose nightmare mother (Bria Vinaite) is simultaneously doing her best and her worst as she struggles to hold on to the bottom rung of the economic ladder in a country that still clings to the bogus notion that anyone can pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Though the motel’s manager (Willem Defoe, on empathetic form) keeps a watchful eye on Moonee and her feral friends, she basically has the run of the motel and she’s both hero and brat, seeking out fun at every opportunity, all the while oblivious to how dire her situation really is. Like a US version of Lynne Ramsay’s Ratcatcher, this is a film fully attuned to the way kids find beauty all around them and Baker does remarkable work with his young cast. The final sequence is also an all-time keeper.
For anyone not au fait with he The Secret History of Wonder Woman, Jill Lepore’s excellent, scholarly investigation into the strange, kinky, uber-feminist origins of the iconic superhero, Dr Marston and the Wonder Women provides a conventional dramatisation of the same intriguing story. Which isn’t to say that writer/director Angela Robinson has whitewashed the more salacious biographical details of Wonder Woman creator William Moulton Marston (Luke Evans). His polyamorous relationship with his wife (Rebecca Hall) and their lover (Bella Heathcote) is the central thread of the film and his bondage fetish is fully explored. But although presenting all this in the form of a run-of-the-mill biopic makes thematic sense given the way Marston tried to advance his progressive politics via comic books, that doesn’t stop it being a little dull to watch.
Similarly, the sci-fi themed Marjorie Prime is more provocative in concept than execution. Set in a near future in which hologram “primes” of deceased family members can be purchased to heal old wounds or ease suffering, it features good performances from veteran character actress Lois Smith and Jon Hamm, but as adapted by Michael Almereyda, it can’t quite transcend its theatrical origins to make its big ideas about memory and identity hit home. ■