Greetings again from the darkness. Hey, you know that Dad we hated … the one that ruined our lives? Well, he died and I need you to come with me to the funeral. Writer-director Rodrigo Garcia (ALBERT NOBBS, 2011) starts his film in this manner by having Raymond knock on the door of his half-brother Ray’s cabin door in the middle of the night. They haven’t seen each other in five years, but their shared bond is an ill will towards the father who stirred such misery during their childhood that neither have made much of their time since.
Raymond (Ewan McGregor) is a persnickety type; a pent-up bundle of anxiety who has gone through a couple of divorces and is currently separated from his third wife. Ray (4-time Oscar nominee Ethan Hawke) is his opposite – the former addict (7 years sober) puts off the ultra-cool guy vibe with rumpled clothes, tousled hair, and non-stop flirtations. His talent with music was never encouraged by the father and has since been a source of frustration. In other words, these two grown men are messes due to the resentment they’ve carried for their father and his inexcusably poor parenting.
At first, we assume the two men are going to sit around reminiscing about their horrible memories of dear old dad. Instead, they hop in the car and head out of town to the funeral. It’s here where they begin to piece together the last years of their father’s life. Bedridden at the end, he had a room in a former (and younger) lover’s house. Lucia (an excellent Maribel Verdu, Y TU MAMA TAMBIEN, 2001) welcomes the men with the surprise disclosure that her young son is their half-brother. At the viewing, they meet dad’s nurse Kiera (the always terrific Sophie Okonedo). No, she doesn’t have another half-brother for them, but she zeroes in on Ray and his approach to the proceedings.
More surprises await Ray and Raymond, not the least of which is that dad’s final wish was for them to dig his grave by hand. At the grave site, they are joined by dad’s flamboyant pastor (Vondie Curtis Hall), as well as others with a bond to the man in the pine box. Most of these people are unknown to Ray and Raymond, and they begin to realize the man they’ve held in contempt went on to live a full life. Veteran actor Tom Bower has limited screen time as the dad, and overall the cast is strong and deserving of a script that could take the topic and these characters much deeper. Hawke is especially good as the brother holding in so many emotions, while McGregor plays off of him quite well. While there is nothing here we haven’t seen before, we do wish the cast had more to work with.
The film will have a limited theatrical release on October 14, 2022 prior to screening on AppleTV+ beginning October 21, 2022
Greetings again from the darkness. Lena Dunham, the creator of the HBO series, “Girls”, is probably not the first name that comes to mind when you think of costume dramedies set in the Middle Ages. However, for her third feature film, the writer-director has adapted Karen Cushman’s 1994 YA novel, and in doing so, has shrewdly given Bella Ramsey her first lead role.
Ms. Ramsey (played Lorna Luft in JUDY, 2019) plays Lady Catherine, aka Birdy, and is on screen almost the entire time. Birdy is a rebellious 14-year-old who is a master at skirting all responsibilities while finding/causing mischief throughout her village. Birdy is quite a spirited character, one who is properly self-absorbed for her age. The story is structured around her diary entries, and keep in mind this takes place in the year 1290. A raucous mud fight between Birdy and her friends opens the movie and sets the stage for the filmmaker’s approach to the novel – comedy trumps drama.
Birdy learns that her father (Andrew Scott) has depleted the family finances to the point where the only option is to marry off Birdy to the highest bidder. Of course, this won’t be easy, as her father describes her as “one step away from a leper”, and her brother’s description is even more graphic. One obstacle is her not-so-secret crushing on her Uncle George (Joe Alwyn), and mostly we get to watch as Birdy cleverly repels/outmaneuvers each potential suitor, solidifying her lack of interest in getting married. In Medieval times, women were like bartering chips – a family asset not to squander; and soon enough, Birdy is engaged to Sir Paul Henry Murgaw (Paul Kaye, one of the film’s highlights), whom she calls “Shaggy Beard”.
Ms. Dunham mines for humor in nearly every scene, and some moments work, while others fall flat. A use of contemporary music accompanies the more modern-day wordplay used by the characters. Supporting work is provided by Billie Piper (Birdy’s consistently pregnant mother), Sophie Okonedo (another highlight as George’s new rich bride), screen vet David Bradley, and Leslie Sharp (as Birdy’s supportive and interesting nursemaid). There is even an odd cameo from Russell Brand.
Despite some of the strained comedy playing directly to the audience, it’s a treat to watch Bella Ramsey embrace the role of Birdy. The film has the feel of a coming-of-age story, but it’s mostly her father who seems to grow up … although Birdy is striving for independence and does reach a certain maturity level by the end. Filmmaker Dunham presents this as a mostly light-natured romp that gives the feeling of a movie with a much more meaningful message buried deep and left unexamined. Regardless, the best parts are really good (including Julian Day’s costumes), and the rest kind of drags out a bit.
Greetings again from the darkness. For us Agatha Christie fans, a certain amount of trepidation exists every time a new movie or TV version of her work hits. Stress level was reduced a bit this time since director-actor Kenneth Branagh and screenwriter Michael Green are back following their collaboration on Christie’s MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (2017). Although the star power this time isn’t quite at the level of ‘Orient’, it seems Mr. Branagh has grown quite fond and confident of his own Hercule Poirot, the Belgian super-sleuth.
Director Branagh takes an unusual approach with a black and white Prologue from 1914 as a young Poirot shows flashes of his intellect as a soldier in WWI. The real purpose of this segment is to show Poirot was once a young man in love, and then a wounded soldier in love, and then a broken-hearted wounded man who would go on to become the world’s greatest detective. The prologue also provides backstory on the infamous mustache that is so much a part of Poirot.
We then flash forward to a 1937 London speakeasy where a fastidious Poirot fusses over dessert while watching the formation of a shaky love triangle unfold on the dance floor as Salome Otterbourne (SophieOkonedo, with singing vocals from Sister Rosetta Tharpe) belts out her bluesy tunes on stage. Initially it’s Jacqueline de Bellefort (relative newcomer Emma Mackey) in the throes of lustful dance moves with her fiancé Simon Doyle (Armie Hammer in the last gasp of a once skyrocketing career). Things change quickly when Jacqui’s former schoolmate, Linnete Ridgeway (Gal Gadot), makes her show-stopping appearance in a glittery metallic gown. Flash forward again, this time 6 weeks, and its Linnete and Simon tying the knot at the picturesque Cataract Hotel in Aswan on the River Nile. See, Linnete is an heiress to her less-than-scrupulous father’s fortune, and Simon had no trouble trading up. Jacqui, on the other hand, doesn’t take it so well.
Of course the fun part of Agatha Christie’s murder mysteries involves getting to know the players and watching as the clues reveal themselves, and then how Poirot handles the big reveal. This film’s only real weakness is the character development of everyone not named Hercule Poirot. We only skim the surface of Euphemia Buoc (Annette Bening) as Buoc’s (a returning Tom Bateman) disapproving mother, Dr. Windlesham (an unusually reserved Russell Brand), Linnete’s chambermaid Louise (Rose Leslie), Linette’s Godmother and her “nurse” (Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French, respectively), family attorney Andrew (Ali Fazal), and Salome’s niece and manager, Rosalie (Letitia Wright), the proverbial sharpest knife in the drawer.
So what do we get? Well, first and foremost, a fully formed Poirot. Branagh seems to have embraced the character and the mustache, having a blast with his scenes. We also get stunning work from cinematographer Harris Zambarloukos, as he films the beautiful people, the beautiful wardrobes, and such sites as the Pyramids of Giza, the Sphinx, Ramses statues of Abu Simbel, and the excellent set piece known as the Karnak luxury steamer. There are some metaphorical effects inserted that periodically startle us, and seem unnecessary, but then over-the-top moments are not unusual in film presentations of Christie’s writing. She passed away in 1976, and now there are almost 200 film and TV projects associated with her work.
Love and betrayal are key elements here, and for fans of the original book and the 1978 film version, comparisons are unavoidable. Ms. Mackey’s jilted lover stalker is a marked improvement over Mia Farrow’s character, while Salome and Rosalie and terrific additions. Ms. Saunders and Ms. French follow in the footsteps of cinematic heavyweights Bette Davis and Maggie Smith, and your choice of Branagh or Peter Ustinov as Poirot is one left up to you. It’s tough to beat ‘whodunnit escapism’, though it’s a personal choice on which of Christie’s stories serve up the best puzzle pieces on the big screen.
Greetings again from the darkness. Quick … name all of the female Country music singers from Glasgow, Scotland! Yep, that unicorn is the premise for this film from director Tom Harper and writer Nicole Taylor, both best known for their British TV work. Rose-Lynn Harlan (played by Jessie Buckley) is being released after a year in jail on drug charges. She uncomfortably adjusts her white boots over the ankle monitor and sets off to conquer Nashville with her singing.
Of course there are a few obstacles to her Music City dream. See, she’s a single mother with two kids, and she’s from a working class area where putting food on the table and paying the bills is a significant achievement. Ms. Buckley stars as Rose-Lynn, and by stars I mean she carries the film and flashes great promise as an actress. Her no-nonsense mother Marion is played by 2-time Oscar nominee Julie Walters, and while Rose-Lynn has stars in her eyes, mother Marion pushes her to take a housekeeping job and be a mother to her kids. The scenes with Rose-Lynn and her kids are devastating, as she has no parenting instincts, and is solely focused on herself.
We know where all of this is headed, and it’s a credit to Ms. Buckley and Ms. Taylor’s script that we care enough to follow along. Rose-Lynn is employed to clean house by the wealthy Susannah (Sophie Okonedo), and we get one of the funniest vacuum cleaner scenes ever. Susannah soon takes on Rose-Lynn as a pet project with the goal of helping her get to Nashville for her shot.
Some rough language is peppered throughout and it’s spouted with the heaviest of Scottish accents, so much of it sounds a bit comical rather than threatening. The film is a bit uneven, but the mainstream approach keeps it from going too far off track, and it quite comfortably fits into the “crowd-pleasing” category. “Three chords and the truth” is used to describe country music, and if that’s your musical taste, you’ll likely enjoy the songs. However, if you prefer ‘Country and Western’, you’re flat out of luck. Either way, look out for Ms. Buckley.
** I saw this at the 2019 Dallas International Film Festival, and it’s now getting a theatrical release.
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!
Greetings again from the darkness. If you have read many of my reviews, you are aware that if I didn’t enjoy watching it, I won’t enjoy writing about it. Also, I (foolishly?) refuse to give up hope on writer/director M Night Shyamalan. If such a creative mind (The Sixth Sense) can go so flat, what possible chance do I have? While much has been written about the influence of Scientology on this project, I can only speak to my personal reaction to the movie and story, not the possible ties to that organization.
Will Smith has proved many times that he is quite a charismatic screen presence when the material allows. However, his role here compares to telling Elvis Presley not to sing or swivel his hips. Smith plays General Cypher Raige, the most courageous Ranger from an advanced civilization living 1000 years in the future. His young son Kitai is played by Smith’s real son Jaden Smith (The Karate Kidremake). The elder Raige is a super soldier, but a lousy father. Kitai wants nothing more than to become a Ranger and prove himself to his legendary father, while redeeming himself from an earlier mishap that had him watching his big sister (Zoe Kravitz) get killed.
The movie kicks into gear after a crash that finds only two survivors … father and son Raige’s … stranded on an inhospitable Earth. Except for a few pretty lousy looking special effects (CGI), a very pissed off Earth is the best part of the movie. The worst part is a near lifeless (double meaning) father Raige tracking the younger Raige on a near impossible mission, all while confined to the wreckage with two broken legs. Somehow this advanced civilization has only invented a weapon that would be effective and cool in today’s world. It seems pretty antiquated when fighting off Ursa, the blind beast that smells fear in humans. Only those who show no fear have a shot at survival.
And that’s pretty much what this movie is about. Man against “Nature”, and Man (boy) overcoming his own fears. The story is interesting enough and Earth is fascinating, though could have been ever better. What doesn’t work is that Jaden Smith just isn’t yet at the level to carry a movie of this level. His emotions are limited to furrowed brow and looking longingly at his dad. Even worse is watching Will Smith incapacitated and stoic in his every move.
The movie gives every indication of a pet project that Will Smith developed as a star-making outing for his son. Heck, we all wish we could do such for our kids. Unfortunately, better timing and a better fit would have upped the odds that it would pay off for the Smith family, as well as us movie-goers. So … my Shyamalan wait continues.
SEE THIS MOVIE IF:you believe Will Smith can do no wrong OR you need to see it to believe it – Will Smith goes two full hours without a smile or that famous laugh
SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: lousy CGI accompanied by lifeless acting aren’t worth $9 to you OR you really don’t wish to be reminded that while you never got the pony you wanted as a child, Will Smith’s kid gets to star in a $130 million movie