CHRISTOPHER ROBIN (2018)

August 2, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. “It’s always a sunny day when Christopher Robin comes to play.” You know when it’s not a sunny day?  When grown man Christopher Robin ignores his wife and daughter to work every waking hour at his job as an Efficiency Manager for a struggling luggage company. Whatever made the filmmakers spend so much time here on the gloominess of adulthood is beyond me, but oh my, when the friends all reunite in the Hundred Acre Wood, it’s truly a joy to behold.

It was only last year when GOODBYE CHRISTOPHER ROBIN hit the theatres, and while that was more of a biopic of A.A. Milne and the origin of Winnie the Pooh, this version focuses instead on the adult Christopher Robin, and how responsibilities can rob us of all the joys of childhood if we aren’t careful.

Ewan McGregor plays the grown-up Christopher Robin, and we see him back from WWII as a boring workaholic who has little time for his wife Evelyn (Hayley Atwell) or daughter Madeline (Bronte Carmichael). The story begins with young Christopher Robin (Orton O’Brien) sharing a farewell lunch with his friends just before he heads off to boarding school, leaving his childhood far behind. In addition to Pooh bear, we also see Rabbit, Piglet, Owl, Kanga and Roo, as well as a bouncy Tigger and classically mopey Eeyore. It should be noted that these aren’t the animated creatures you and your kids are accustomed to. These are stunning CGI stuffed animals modeled after the early drawn images of Ernest Shepard. They are lifelike … as much as talking stuffed animals can be … and kid viewers are likely to fall quickly for them.

There are three screenplay credits: Oscar winner Tom McCarthy (SPOTLIGHT), Oscar nominee Allison Schroeder (HIDDEN FIGURES) and Alex Ross Perry (LISTEN UP PHILIP). Their work is based on a story from Greg Brooker (STUART LITTLE) and Mark Steven Johnson (SIMON BIRCH), and of course the characters from AA Milne and Ernest Shepard. It might not surprise you that the director Marc Foster also directed the excellent FINDING NEVERLAND, but it’s a bit eye-opening to think he also directed MONSTER’S BALL and QUANTUM OF SOLACE, neither of which have a single scene that kids should watch!

Despite the heavy gloom of the portion of the story dealing with Christopher Robin’s family and job, the film (and the kids in the audience) lights up when all the friends are on screen. Playing the “Say what you see” game on the train emphasizes that creativity sprouts from nothing (doing nothing is a recurring theme in the Pooh stories), and of course, the ever-present red balloon plays a role (much different than the red balloon in IT), as does the familiar “Winnie the Pooh” song from 1977, which most everyone in the audience hummed along with in its various pop-ups during the movie.

The voice acting is necessarily superb, and credit goes to Jim Cummings as both Pooh and Tigger – roles he also voiced in the animated series and previous animated films. Of course the great Sterling Holloway was the original Pooh voice, and he passed away in 1992. Nick Mohammed is Piglet, Peter Capaldi is Rabbit, Sophie Okonedo is Kanga, while Sara Sheen is Roo. Toby Jones is Owl, and Brad Garrett gets some of the film’s best and funniest lines as everyone’s favorite downtrodden donkey Eeyore.

Pooh, the ‘silly old bear’, states “People say nothing is impossible, but I do nothing every day.” This type of humor and philosophy goes on throughout the film, whenever the friends are on screen. The moral of the story is that it’s crucial that we maintain some sense of childhood wonder and joy, even as adult responsibilities close in on us. If you can wake up each morning and say “Today is my favorite day”, you are likely not a bear of little brain … plus you’ll avoid Heffalump traps!

watch the trailer:

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T2 TRAINSPOTTING (2017)

March 23, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Sequels are big business in Hollywood these days. In fact, it’s not unusual for sequels to be announced even before the premiere of the first! At the other end of the spectrum we have cult films which carry the added pressure of not disappointing (or worse) their rabid fan base. Such is the case with Trainspotting from 1996. So the big question is … can the much anticipated follow up generate the frenetic pace and enjoyable discomfort of the first?

Director Danny Boyle (and his Oscar from Slumdog Millionaire) is back at the helm, and re-joining him is writer John Hodge who is once again working with the main characters from Irvine Welsh’s source novels. Of course what has the fans excited is the reunion of Ewan McGregor as Mark Renton, Ewen Bremner as Spud, Jonny Lee Miller as Sick Boy Simon, and Robert Carlyle as Begbie. Despite high expectations and fear of disappointment, it’s difficult to imagine the fans not having a blast with this second go round. Sure, the boys are a bit older – but to say they are much wiser, would be stretching things farther than these off-kilter blokes already do.

For reasons never really made clear, Mark returns to face the fellows he left high and dry some twenty years ago. Perhaps it’s guilt and he accepts that he deserves a good ass-kicking, or perhaps he simply realized he didn’t belong anywhere else. Simon has an attractive new partner named Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova), who seems to be the one generating whatever income the couple has. Spud is still struggling mightily with his addiction, while Begbie is planning a quite painful escape from prison.

The reunions happen separately and slowly throughout the film, and each carries its own awkwardness. These guys are all similar to the guys we know, yet nobody’s quite the same. It’s not until near the end when all four share a scene. However, getting to that point involves everything we could hope for: flashbacks, quirky camera angles, flash-cut edits, familiar music blasting, and exaggerated sound effects … in other words, all of the style from the original (only with a higher budget).

Also making return appearances are Kelly McDonald as Diane (only one scene), novelist Irvine Welsh (this time buying stolen goods from Begbie), and the always great Shirley Henderson as Gail, whose single line of dialogue is pitch perfect. It’s nice that Ewen Bremner gets such an interesting and unexpected path in this sequel, and we can’t help but smile at director Boyle’s tributes to David Bowie, Stanley Kubrick, and of course, his original Trainspotting. You may ask why and in what form, but it’s clear all four main characters have decided to “choose life”. The next cult favorite up for sequel treatment is 1982’s Blade Runner, which likely faces an even more challenging journey to satisfy fans from 35 years ago.

watch the trailer:

 

 


BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (2017)

March 14, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. An entire generation still enjoys their childhood animated movie memories thanks to Disney’s The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and the Beast (1991) and The Lion King (1994). We are now a quarter-century later and Disney is looking to re-create the magic (and hopefully cash in) with Live Action versions of all three …as it did with Cinderella (2015) and last year’s The Jungle Book (sensing a trend?). Up now is director Bill Condon’s mixture of live action, CGI and music for Beauty and the Beast.

The 18th century story (1740) by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve was re-written and shortened by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont after Barbot’s death. Director Jean Cocteau’s 1946 French film version looks to have been a key influence for this updated ‘Beast’, while the 2014 version with Vincent Cassel will probably now be rendered forgotten. Screenwriters Stephen Chbosky (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) and Evan Spiliotopoulos (The Huntsman: Winter’s War) team with Oscar winner Condon, whose musical movie resume includes Chicago and Dreamgirls, to inject some contemporary aspects to Belle’s personality, as well as a bit more backstory for quite a few characters … all while staying true to the 1991 version.

Emma Watson proves a nice choice for Belle as she has what it takes to be nice yet tough, while still being an oddball within her own community. Belle is a bookworm who dares to help other girls to read, while also being the brains behind her father’s (Kevin Kline) work. She realizes her neighbors view her as a curiosity – and there is even a song to prove it! Ms. Watson brings strength, independence, and courage to the role. These traits and others are on full display even before her first encounter with the beast.

Dan Stevens (“Downton Abbey”) is the beneficiary of an extended backstory for the Prince, which includes a large dance and musical production at the castle, leading to his being cursed for having no love in his heart. Most of the scenes with Beast utilize CGI for the face and head. This effect worked for me as I found the look fascinating and able to fulfill the necessary emotions, though the non-beast Prince would be considered the weakest link in this fairy tale chain.

Since the comparisons to the 1991 version are inevitable, and certainly a matter of personal opinion, Luke Evans made a wonderfully pompous Gaston, while Josh Gad was quite humorous as LeFou, Gaston’s loyal sidekick who is also the center of the misplaced controversy (not worthy of discussion here). The staff – both live versions and special effects – includes Ewan McGregor as Lumiere, Ian McKellan as Cogsworth, Emma Thompson as Mrs. Potts, Audra McDonald as Madame Garderobe, Stanley Tucci as Maestro Cadenza and Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Plumette. Each bring their own touch to the roles, with Ms. McDonald being a particular standout, and Ms. Thompson having the most thankless job as replacement for Angela Lansbury.

While I found this version quite enjoyable and well done, it’s a bit confusing why the decision was made to go so dark and foreboding. It’s not young kid friendly at all, and seems as if the target audience is millennials who were raised on the 1991 version. This was done at the expense of inviting a new generation to explore the story and characters. Parents should probably avoid taking any kids under age 10 or 11, and the film easily could have received a PG-13 rating.

8-time Oscar winner Alan Menken returns to score the film (he did the 1991 version as well), plus he wrote new songs with Tim Rice and there are some original lyrics by Howard Ashman. With only one viewing, it’s doubtful any of the new songs will be instant classics, but “Be Our Guest” is a definite crowd-pleaser (again).

Of course, it’s an impossible task to please everyone when you mess with the classics, but overall, it’s a nice twist for fans of the 1991 animated version. Likely a missed opportunity to bring new youngsters into the fantastical BATB world, it does show that the animated to live action transformation can be well done … and that’s a relief with The Lion King and The Little Mermaid on the way. Dear Disney – don’t mess ‘em up!

Be our guest … watch the trailer:

 


AMERICAN PASTORAL (2016)

October 20, 2016

american-pastoral Greetings again from the darkness. Tackling one of the great American novels is a difficult challenge for even the most seasoned film directors … and a dubious undertaking (at best) for a first-timer. Philip Roth won a Pulitzer Prize for his 1997 novel “American Pastoral”, and there have been rumblings of a Hollywood production for more than a decade. It’s somewhat surprising that the screen version is directed by first time director Ewan McGregor … with the Scottish actor also taking on the lead role of local Jersey boy and sports hero Seymour “Swede” Levov.

The story examines the cracks behind the façade of a seemingly perfect family … the sports hero marrying the beauty queen. Of course, there is always more going on within a family than most care to admit (at least that was the case in the days prior to Facebook). There’s an early scene where Swede has introduced Dawn (Jennifer Connelly) to his father (Peter Riegert), and the philosophical and religious differences perfectly capture the changing times and mores from one generation to the next. Never has this been more true than the late 1960’s and early 1970’s … political and social upheaval were daily occurrences – and sometimes quite violent.

The first half of the movie is exceptionally well done and captures the essence of why the second half feels like a total decimation of everything Swede thought he had. He and Dawn’s daughter Merry is beautiful and feisty and stutters … something that only enhances the anger she expresses and anguish she causes for her parents. Her innocent questions as a young child evolve into radical political beliefs and affiliations as she grows up.

Merry (ironically named) is by far the most interesting character in the story, but with the focus on Swede, Dakota Fanning only has brief moments that are worthy of her talent, and Dawn has only a few emotional moments that allow Ms. Connelly to flash the acting depth she hasn’t shown in years. So much time and attention is devoted to Swede that the second half is a bit of a letdown and leaves too many details and questions unanswered.

John Romano’s (The Lincoln Lawyer) adaptation of the American classic took a different direction than we might have preferred, but it’s a thankless job since so many have considered this as unfilmable. McGregor shows a good eye as a director, though it’s obvious this material needed a more experienced filmmaker at the helm. The great Alexandre Desplat provides a classy score … the piano pieces are especially well suited. Supporting work is solid from David Strathairn as narrator Nathan Zuckerman, Rupert Evans as Swede’s brother, Molly Parker as Merry’s therapist, Uzo Aduba as Swede’s employee, and Valorie Curry as a misguided revolutionary. It’s a reminder that family dynamics may be the most complex organism, and when blended with the volatile times of the Vietnam War, a generational gap should be expected … even if it’s difficult and emotional to accept.

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MILES AHEAD (2016)

April 15, 2016

miles ahead Greetings again from the darkness. What would rate as the bigger challenge: defining jazz or describing the life of Miles Davis? In true “passion project” mode, Don Cheadle not only portrays the iconic trumpeter, but also directs, co-writes and co-produces. Cheadle’s tribute to The Prince of Darkness is as open to interpretation as the hundreds of songs from Davis’ recordings over thirty plus years.

Having stated in numerous interviews that he had no interest in the usual “cradle-to-grave” biopic, Cheadle’s odd blend of fact, fiction and hallucination are meant to capture the essence of Miles Davis, rather than the life and times of the man. Guns, drugs, music, girls, and art are all present throughout this trippy trip of a movie that plays like an impressionistic painting, and not a portrait.

The bulk of the film is spent on Miles Davis during his self-imposed six year drug-fueled hiatus in the 1970’s when he secluded himself in Howard Hughes fashion. There is an odd and ill-fitting plot involving the “secret” master tapes that Davis has recorded while waiting for his manager (Michael Stuhlbarg as Harper Hamilton) to pay him the money he is owed. Mixed in is a “Rolling Stone” writer named Dave Brill (Ewan McGregor) desperately trying to get an interview with Miles and listen to the tapes. This mad caper-ish core benefits greatly from the quick cuts to the past … especially those featuring Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi) as Miles’ beautiful, talented and supportive wife.

Of course, we shouldn’t expect linear story-telling from a man whose life was anything but linear. After all, we are focused on the man who claimed his music was not “jazz”, but rather “Social Music” … and that “it takes a long time to play like yourself”. The car chases and gunfights might seem out of place, but do capture the essence of a man fueled by drugs and a possible (temporary) loss of his creative genius. Perhaps, as the movie suggests, Miles was remorseful for how he treated Frances. Or maybe it was simply the pressure of being Miles Davis …. The coolest of Cool Jazz.

Mr. Cheadle does a nice job in portraying Davis, and is spot on in the trademark raspy whisper which Miles was known for (the after-effects of a larynx operation in the 1950’s). Ms. Corinealdi (to appear in the new “Roots” project later this year) is outstanding as Frances Taylor, and is the one character we latch on to in hopes of maintaining our bearings throughout.

Taking its title from a 1957 Miles Davis album, the movie offers a glimpse into the mind of a musical genius who didn’t always fit into “proper” society, and would be the perfect pairing for a head-scratching trumpeter double-bill with the recent Born to be Blue, a look at Chet Baker.

watch the trailer:

 


AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY (2013)

January 12, 2014

august Greetings again from the darkness. Tracy Letts had a very nice year in 2008. He won the Pulitzer Prize and a Tony for writing the play August: Osage County. Since then, he has also written the play and screenplay for Killer Joe, and been seen as an actor in the key role of a Senator in the TV show “Homeland“. This time out, he adapts his own play for director John Wells’ (The Company Men, TV’s “ER“) screen version of August: Osage County.

With an ensemble cast matched by very few movies over the years, the screen version begins with what may be its best scene. Weston family patriarch and published poet Beverly (the always great Sam Shepard) is interviewing Johnna for a position as cook and housekeeper when they are interrupted in stunning fashion by Violet (Meryl Streep), Beverly’s acid-tongued wife who is showing the effects of chemotherapy and her prescription drug addiction. This extraordinary pre-credits scene sets the stage for the entire movie, which unfortunately only approaches this high standard a couple more times.

Despite the film’s flaws, there is no denying the “train-wreck” effect of not being able to look away from this most dysfunctional family. Most of this is due to the screen presence of a steady stream of talented actors: in addition to Streep and Shephard, we get their 3 daughters played by Julia Roberts (Barbara), Julianne Nicholson (Ivy) and Juliette Lewis (Karen); Ewan McGregor and Abigail Breslin as Roberts’ husband and daughter; Margo Martindale (Violet’s sister), her husband Chris Cooper (Charles) and their son Benedict Cumberbatch.

As with most dysfunctional family movies, there is a dinner table scene … this one occurring after a funeral. The resentment and regret and anger on display over casseroles is staggering, especially the incisive and “truth-telling” Violet comments and the defensive replies from Barbara. As time goes on, family secrets and stories unfold culminating in a whopper near the end. This is really the polar opposite of a family support system. Unlike many movies, getting to know these people doesn’t make us like them any more.

Meryl Streep’s performance is one of the most demonstrative of her career. Some may call it over the top, but I believe it’s essential to the tone of the movie and the family interactions. Her exchanges with Julia Roberts define the monster mother and daughter in her image theme. They don’t nitpick each other, it’s more like inflicting gaping wounds. Surprisingly, Roberts mostly holds her own … though that could be that the film borders on campy much of the time. Streep’s scene comes as she recalls the most horrific childhood Christmas story you could ever want to hear.

It must be noted that Margo Martindale is the real highlight here. She has two extraordinary scenes … each very different in style and substance … and she nails them both. Without her character and talent, this film could have spun off into a major mess. The same could be said for Chris Cooper, who is really the moral center of the family. While the others seem intent on hiding from their past, he seems to make the best of his situation.

The film never really captures the conflicting environments of the claustrophobic old Weston homestead and the free wide open plains of Oklahoma. The exception is a pretty cool post-funeral scene in a hayfield where Roberts tells Streep “There’s no place to go“. The main difference between the film version and stage version is the compressed time and the decision to include all explosive scenes. There is just little breathing room here. Still, it’s one of the more entertaining and wildly dysfunctional comedy-dramas that you will see on screen, and it’s quite obvious this group of fine actors thoroughly enjoyed the ensemble experience.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF:  you want to sit back and watch family members go at each other with much more verocity than anything at your own family events OR you just want to see some of the best actors working today (Streep, Martindale, Cooper, Cumberbatch)

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you can’t imagine sitting through a dysfunctional family dinner so soon after your own holiday family time.

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4VBEZrkCT8Q

 


THE IMPOSSIBLE (2012)

January 6, 2013

impossible Greetings again from the darkness. Director Juan Antonio Bayona and writer Sergio C Sanchez reunite for a much different film than their taut thriller The Orphanage (2007). What separates this from the long list of disaster films is that it’s exceedingly well made, it’s based on a true story, and it puts a young actor in a role vital to the connection with audience.

The real life Belon family from Spain have for some reason been presented here (by Spanish filmmakers) as the British Bennett’s with Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts (as Henry and Maria). They are on vacation at a beach resort with their three boys Lucas (Tom Holland), Thomas (Samuel Joslin), and Simon (Oaklee Pendergast). In the beginning the resort plays like paradise. Unfortunately, this is Thailand in 2004 when one of the worst impossible2natural disasters of all-time hits … a Tsunami with enormous force and monstrous waves.

Filmed with remarkable intensity, we see Maria and Lucas (separated from the others) struggle mightily to survive and stay together. This 10 minute sequence leaves the audience spent and gasping for air. Rarely do we witness such realistic near-drownings on screen. The film soon breaks into two simultaneous acts: the fight for survival by Maria and Lucas; and the quest to find them by Henry, Thomas and Simon.

The first half of the film is the strongest portion and it deals with the storm and it’s aftermath. The second half is very emotional impossible3and focuses on the courage of Lucas and the strength of Maria. It’s one of the most unique combination tales of survival and family love that we’ve seen. The filmmakers wisely choose to let the story follow the family and not throw in cheap parlor tricks like TV newscasts. We all remember those reports, and the actual film does a terrific job of recreating the frightening images.  There is also a short, but sweet (almost mystical) scene featuring Geraldine Chaplin (daughter of Charlie) contemplating the stars.

Acting by the leads take this to elite status. Ewan McGregor turns in what is his best performance in quite some time. His phone call home scene is excruciating to watch. Naomi Watts delivers what is likely an Oscar nominated performance, despite being almost unrecognizable while laying in a hospital bed during much of the film. The real star and soul of the film is Tom Holland as the youngest son. His performance recalls those of Hailee Steinfeld in True Grit and Shailene Woodley in The Descendants … two of the best ever child performances.

Be forewarned. This one is a true tearjerker … especially if you are a parent or grandparent. Keeping in mind that it’s the true story of one family’s ordeal makes a few scenes almost impossible to watch clear-eyed. The film ends with a photo of the Belon family … perfect.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you enjoy a good tear-jerker, especially if based on a true story OR you want to what terrific filmmaking in a disaster movie looks like OR you need proof that it is possible to make Naomi Watts look unattractive.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: watching the trailer eclipses your preferred public display of emotion

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bgw394ZKsis