Film critic Calum Cooper looks at some of the week’s releases, including the sequel to the horror-comedy Happy Death Day, the comdy-drama Instant Family, and Joe Cornish’s latest film, The Kid Who Would Be King.
Happy Death Day 2U – ★★★☆☆
Happy Death Day was one of 2017’s pleasant surprises, in an already pretty solid year for cinema. I thought it was going to blow based on the trailers, but it actually ended up being quite fun. Its self-awareness on its comedy horror elements combined with a refreshingly strong heroine made it a very entertaining watch. Happy Death Day 2U is cleverly titled, and proves to be just as enjoyable, if not completely necessary.
Described as Groundhog Day meets Scream, the first one saw student Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) reliving her birthday over and over, with the cycle resetting itself every time a murderer in a baby mask killed her. She eventually saved herself, but this film sees her stuck in that time loop once again, with another masked killer on the loose. Taking a sci-fi twist to the horror-comedy template of the first, Tree finds herself in an alternative version of the same day, with notable changes that test her character growth from the previous film. Recruiting some ambitious science students, she now has to work out who the new murderer is while also finding a way to break the loop again.
In a similar way to 22 Jump Street, the film knows it’s essentially repeating the same gimmick again. Normally repetition spells disaster for movie sequels, but this film plays around with its repetition in creative ways, both tonally and with its narrative. It’s much more focused on the comedy this time, as the original was surprisingly strong when it came to its sense of humour. Most of the comedy is fairly strong, as a lot of it comes from Tree exploiting her situation. For example, she learns that she needs to constantly reset the loop so she can memorise certain things. She decides why wait for the killer to murder her when she can choose how she dies. This leads her to off herself in various ways, such as doing a sky dive without a canopy. It’s quite dark upon reflection, but it’s strangely funny too as it’s indulging in all the further ways this premise can go, which was already explored in the original.
Tree’s character development from a callous, uncaring queen bee to an empathetic, understanding young woman was easily the best part of the original, and the familiar but fundamentally new situation she finds herself in allows that growth to continue.
But the drama was actually very solid too. As Tree is now reliving the same day in an alternative timeline, she finds some things have changed drastically. Certain people are less significant in her life, while others, one in particular, is more significant than ever. It puts her in an interesting dilemma in which the film’s core message can be derived, which is not clinging to the past. Tree’s character development from a callous, uncaring queen bee to an empathetic, understanding young woman was easily the best part of the original, and the familiar but fundamentally new situation she finds herself in allows that growth to continue. It creates a character that we believe in, whether she’s comically getting furious at her predicament or finding a way to kill her own future killer.
Once again though, it’s Jessica Rothe that makes all this work as well as it does. She is such a delight! She’s charismatic, full of energy, and utterly hilarious. You can tell she’s relishing every moment she’s on screen. But when the film decides to test Tree emotionally, she completely owns it too. There’s a certain scene where Tree essentially has to say goodbye to someone close to her, and Rothe’s delivery is so authentically human that the person sitting next to me started crying. Rothe balances comedy with drama stunningly, stealing the show in every realm imaginable.
There are some problems of course. The horror elements are sadly underplayed in favour of the comedy, meaning most of the scares take place in obvious locations and have predictable pay-offs. The comedy doesn’t always land, notably taking a nose dive when the scientist characters are the focus. And while the ending is relatively satisfying, there’s a post credits scene that I honestly could’ve lived without.
Nonetheless, I had a good time with this film. It’s disposable, but it’s the perfectly fun kind of disposable. It’s funny, it’s paced well, and it’s occasionally suspenseful. It’s not as invigorating as the original, but it’s a worthy follow-up.
Instant Family – ★★★☆☆
Instant Family is a lot better than it has any right to be. I went in with fairly low expectations, seeing as it was by the people behind the Daddy’s Home movies. But I came out legitimately charmed by it. True, it has an abundance of clichés that you can see coming from miles away. Yet it wears its heart on its sleeve, and is well-realised enough to entice viewers with its well-meaning sentimentality.
Rose Byrne and Mark Wahlberg play couple Ellie and Pete Wagner, who feel as if something is missing in their lives. They decide to adopt a child, partially to spite nosy family members but primarily to fill that void. At a gathering they’re impressed by Lizzy (Isabela Moner), a 15-year-old who goes on about how teenagers never get adopted. They decide to give her a chance by taking in Lizzy and her much younger siblings, Juan and Lita (Gustavo Quiroz and Julianna Gamiz respectively). From there all sorts of hijinks ensue as Ellie and Pete are challenged in new ways. But the film never softens its sincerity.
Although it is a predictable feature narratively speaking, there is an air of truth to it. That may be because it’s based on director Sean Anders’ own adoption experiences. While the aim is clearly to make a comedy – Anders has been making comedies his entire career – the film actually works best when it comes to its emotional core. It’s both sensitive and genuine with how it handles its subject matter.
That being said, the film can be funny. Octavia Spencer and Tig Notaro play social workers who have a love-hate relationship with their jobs and each other. They steal every scene they’re in. They’re a great comedic duo, but they’re thankfully not reserved with all the comedy. While the humour doesn’t always work, the majority is spawned from Ellie and Pete’s unpreparedness for parent life. There’s your typical slapstick and escalation jokes, but the interactions between equally suspecting or nervous characters does add some more substance to them. We find ourselves laughing fairly frequently.
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Yet it’s the characters that sell the material and give it much more depth than you’d expect. You could argue that Byrne and Wahlberg are playing other iterations of their Bad Neighbours and Daddy’s Home counterparts, but they do have good chemistry together. You believe that there’s history between them, and they play off each other’s strengths very well, being equally as funny and dramatic as the other. They’re warm and likeable, and we want what’s best for them.
But it’s the children they adopt that prove the most interesting characters, particularly the teenager Lizzy. Isabela Moner gives the best performance of the film. The primary conflict concerns teenage adoption and how Lizzy is stuck between clinging to a life she once had with her biological mother and the life she could potentially have with these strangers. It doesn’t matter what the circumstances of her old life was, it was still her family, and she’s had to bear the weight of responsibility ever since.
It would’ve been dead easy just to make Lizzy another rebellious teenager, but because we understand the severity of what she’s had to live with beforehand, we find ourselves sympathising so much more. Moner taps into the darkness of this role terrifically, fuelling the most lachrymose scene towards the end, while also embracing the more light-hearted and fun side to her character and the story once we enter the funnier moments.
The dramedy tone doesn’t always work, particularly when the story starts using its heavy bag of clichés – like snooty extended family members and a third act conflict – as a crutch. But because we believe in the people driving the story, whether that’s Lizzy or Ellie and Pete, we find ourselves much more on board with it. The right amount of heart is definitely in the screenplay, and the characters are fleshed out well enough that we find ourselves laughing at the funny moments and empathising with the dramatic moments. It’s heartfelt, it’s paced well, and, to my pleasant surprise, I liked it.
The Kid Who Would Be King – ★★★☆☆
I got really lucky this week on FilmSpace. Three solidly enjoyable films, all of which surpassed my expectations. Out of them all, The Kid Who Would Be King was probably the most wholesome, largely in part due to its staunch belief in the power of the younger generation, whether they’re slaying demons or deciding the fate of the future.
We get some stunning animation in the prologue to remind us of the King Arthur story. But our hero is 21st century 12-year-old Alex (Louis Ashbourne Serkis, son of Andy if we’re doing the medieval thing). He lives a difficult life, having just started high school while living with a single mother who struggles financially. On top of that, he and his best friend Bedders (Dean Chaumoo) are often the targets for bullies Lance and Kaye (Tom Taylor and Rhianna Dorris). When running away, Alex comes across a sword embedded in a stone. He successfully pulls it out and thinks nothing of it. It is soon revealed by a disguised Merlin (Angus Imrie/Patrick Stewart) that the sword he pulled was Excalibur, and that Alex is destined to defeat King Arthur’s half-sister Morganna (Rebecca Ferguson), who is planning to rise again after being defeated by Arthur years ago.
Alex gathers friend and foe alike, and decides to partake in this quest. Along the way he discovers the full extent of his journey, and learns more about himself in the process, creating a charming experience of a film. Not without its flaws for sure, but a film with a lot of fun to share and convictions to uphold.
Directed by Joe Cornish, the man behind 2011’s Attack the Block, the script plays around with the King Arthur mythology in numerous entertaining ways. Not just with the character names referencing past Knights of the Round Table, but with the various locations the characters travel to and the usual beats we see in King Arthur stories applying to modern day scenarios, such as the kids having to eventually team up with their bullies, the way Arthur made his past enemies into his closest allies. They assist in the growth of these characters as they go from scared youngsters to hardened warriors and leaders.
There’s a terrific line towards the end of the film where Patrick Stewart’s Merlin says, “there’s a wise soul in every child, and a foolish child in every old soul.” What better, more empowering way to teach younger people the strength they possess, and the influence they could one day have?
Accompanying these colourful characters is a good blend of action and comedy. Merlin in particular is very funny, largely in part due to Imrie’s vibrant delivery and how casually he talks in ancient, over the top dialect to unimpressed peers. There’s also a cracking laugh concerning what modern foods revive him as replacements to medieval medicine. It makes the film a real treat when it slows down for comedy, but that doesn’t take away from the exciting moments either. With solid VFX and creative usage of editing and cinematography, the action is both varied and kinetic, incorporating comedic edges when it suits, but never dampening the excitement.
However, what I took away the most was the underlying message. It’s a fun romp on its own, but from the way it’s written and directed, it’s clear that Cornish has enormous trust and belief in that of the younger generation. Placing the lessons, danger, and wonderment of the King Arthur legend into the hands of the children isn’t just for the sake of making a good family film. It’s to show how resilient and intelligent the younger generation is, and how they are learning from the mistakes of their ancestors and elders, as the past literally comes back to kill them. The film is deliberately set in the modern day to make reference to the current state of the world and how today’s leaders seem much more occupied with themselves than the grander picture. Eventual revelations concerning Alex’s character arc too only further add to the themes, taking a page from the books of The Last Jedi and Into the Spider-Verse to show that anyone is capable of great feats, regardless of where they come from or whose blood they share. This staunch faith in youth and its ability to do better than those who came before elevates the film from one I enjoyed a lot, to one that I immensely respect too.
It’s purely coincidental that the film came out in the same week as the climate change strikes, where thousands of students across the country went on strike to band together and raise awareness of the single biggest issue currently facing our planet. But it’s all the evidence you need to see how much merit the film’s belief has, a belief that Cornish seems committed to sharing with this and Attack the Block. It’s a sorely needed reminder on how we all need to put biases and differences aside and unite for more urgent causes. This reminder just happens to be a good family film too. The comedy doesn’t always work, and, with how the story plays out in seemingly four acts, it’s sadly not always paced well. But it’s an enjoyable film with charm, laughs and thrills that will keep families enticed, while also serving as a rallying cry for the unity of youth. There’s a terrific line towards the end of the film where Patrick Stewart’s Merlin says, “there’s a wise soul in every child, and a foolish child in every old soul.” What better, more empowering way to teach younger people the strength they possess, and the influence they could one day have?
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