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!

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JURASSIC WORLD: FALLEN KINGDOM (2018)

June 29, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. While I will never tire of seeing really cool dinosaurs on the big screen, I’ll probably never avoid frustration from a poorly written and poorly acted film. On the bright side, I got to see this at the Grand Opening of the beautiful new Alamo Drafthouse in Denton, Texas. A 66 foot curved screen with the best available sound system made the dinosaurs that much more impressive, while simultaneously exposing the acting for the disappointment it is … especially the almost impossible to watch Bryce Dallas Howard.

J.A. Bayona directs this follow up to the 2015 JURASSIC WORLD, but he’s saddled with a subpar script from the writers and director of that previous entry, Derek Connolly and Colin Trevorrow. The creatures of the late, great Michael Crichton deserve better. In addition to the aforementioned Ms. Howard (as Claire Dearing), Chris Pratt also returns as the smirking Owen Grady, and this time he flashes some fighting skills that would make Jean-Claude Van Damme proud. Not sure how his experience training baby dinosaurs and building a cabin in the mountains prepared him to single handedly take on an army of armed mercenaries, but such things are possible in a cartoon … which is exactly what this plays like: a live action cartoon with high dollar special effects.

We have a spoof of a villain in Eli Mills, played by an over-the-top Rafe Spall, a quivering techie played by Justice Smith (PAPER TOWNS), a tough Paleo vet in Daniela Pineda (MR ROOSEVELT), a dying billionaire former partner of John Hammond played by James Cromwell, a greedy capitalist who should be twirling a mustache in Toby Jones, a big-gun toting badass by Ted Levine, and a good-hearted housekeeper played by Geraldine Chaplin. Mr. Cromwell and Ms. Chaplin add a touch of class in their all too brief scenes. BD Wong is back doing things with dino DNA, and sadly, Jeff Goldblum probably filmed his two courtroom scenes in a couple of hours. One nice addition is young Isabella Sermon, in her screen debut. She is part of the only decent twist in the story.

Despite the disappointments, it remains awe-inspiring to see the dinosaurs on screen. If only those moments weren’t ruined by such superfluous bits such as a close up of Ms. Howard’s footwear to prove that she’s not wearing high heels in the jungle this time. Director Bayona has three very fine movies under his belt: THE ORPHANAGE (2007), THE IMPOSSIBLE (2012), and A MONSTER CALLS (2016). He’s likely to make more good films during his career, and this will surely be a box office smash because people love seeing the dinosaurs, and are willing to overlook the people. As a frequent movie goer, I’m just unable to cut slack to a mega-budget film that expects us to overlook shoddy writing and laughable acting. We don’t expect to recapture the (25 years ago) magic of Steven Spielberg and composer John Williams in the stunning JURASSIC PARK, but we do expect a better effort than this.

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JOURNEY’S END (2018)

March 15, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. R.C. Sheriff wrote this 1928 play based on his experience as a British Army officer in WWI. The play’s successful two year run led to a 1930 big screen adaptation directed by James Whale and starring Colin Clive – two legends of cinema who also collaborated on FRANKENSTEIN and BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN. Now, exactly 100 years after “the Spring Offensive”, director Saul Dibb (THE DUCHESS, 2008) delivers screenwriter Simon Reade’s version of Sheriff’s story and a tribute to those who served in the Great War.

It’s the Spring of 1918 and a stalemate in the trenches of Northern France has occurred during the fourth year of the war. Fresh from training, a baby-faced Lieutenant named Raleigh (Asa Butterfield, HUGO) is assigned to a front line unit whose commanding officer is his former school mate, Captain Stanhope (Sam Claffin, THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY). The others in the unit include Trotter (Stephen Graham), who eats and talks incessantly to mask his anxiety; Hibbert (Tom Sturridge), who suffers from shell-shock; Mason (Toby Jones), the cook who brings subtle comedy relief: and Osborne (Paul Bettany), the heart and soul of the team.

Slowly cracking under the untenable pressure is Captain Stanhope. His coping method involves a problem with whiskey which drives his raging temper. That temper masks a not-so-obvious commitment to his men … men who walk on eggshells around him. Most of the movie takes place in the dugout over 6 days, and though the soldiers spend much time in a holding pattern, the battle sequences involve an ill-planned surprise attack on a nearby German hold, and of course, the famous battle that kicks off the Spring Offensive – a 3 month run that cost the lives of more than 700,000 from both sides.

With military orders such as “hold them off for as long as you can”, this is no romanticizing of war. Bravery and courage in the face of likely death are balanced with overwhelming human emotions. Confusion and disorientation abound as bombs explode in an environment that offers no place to hide or escape. The war ended later that year on November 11, and trench warfare would never again be the predominant strategy.

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KALEIDOSCOPE (2017)

December 7, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Why is it that estranged mothers always seem to show up when we are frantically trying to clean up all evidence of a murder that took place in our apartment? OK, maybe that’s not really a common occurrence, but it’s certainly at the heart of this Hitchcockian psychological mind-bender from writer/director Rupert Jones. His brother, the very talented and always interesting Toby Jones, stars as the quiet ex-con attempting to get his life on track.

A pre-credit opening scene has Carl (Toby Jones) borrowing an uncharacteristically flashy (and quite hideous) shirt from a helpful neighbor for his date which was arranged online. After passing out on the sofa, Carl discovers his date Abby (Sinead Matthews) dead in the bathroom and flashes back to a brief moment of violence. Both Carl and we viewers are disoriented – a sensation that sticks with us until the end credits roll.

An ominous voicemail leads to a visit from Carl’s mother, played by Anne Reid. What follows are Mommy issues galore (on par with PSYCHO in this department). Mother and son have irreconcilable differences over something in the past, but she clearly understands his ‘tendencies’ better than he does – especially those related to women, alcohol and violence.

Director Jones has a very interesting visual style, as well as a unique approach to story-telling. He expects commitment and attention from viewers, and rewards those who play along. Despite the claustrophobic feel of Carl’s apartment, there are some creative camera angles to go with the imposing nighttime shots of the building’s exterior.

The three main actors are all excellent. Ms. Reid is a screen veteran who has spent most of her career on British projects, and she excels as the slightly creepy, domineering figure in Carl’s life. While the dialogue is minimal, Mr. Jones and Ms. Matthews, as Carl and Abby, have one exchange that really stands out.

Abby: “You’re a sneaky snake

Carl: “What do you think that makes you?”

Abby: “Nasty

It’s such a raw moment, and a turning point (along with the voicemail) in their evening. Much of our effort goes into slowly assembling the pieces and clues that are doled out along the way, and it takes a sharp eye to catch some of them … while we are challenged by others to determine if they are dreams, or actual memories. A kaleidoscope changes color, shape and perception as it’s twisted – just like this movie. It’s a fun ride if you enjoy the twists and turns of determining which parts of a nightmare are reality and which parts are something else.

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ATOMIC BLONDE (2017)

July 30, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. David Leitch has taken the rare Hollywood career path of stuntman-to-director. His expertise in fight scenes is beyond reproach as evidenced by his limited work on JOHN WICK (2014), and in his helming this heavily promoted, style over substance summer action film masquerading as a spy thriller. Kurt Johnstad (300) adapted Antony Johnston and Sam Hart’s graphic novel “The Coldest City”, and in collaboration with director Leitch and the ultra-talented Charlize Theron, has created some of the most brutal, bone-crunching and violent fight scenes ever seen on screen.

Ms. Theron stars as Lorraine, an MI6 agent whose life-sustaining nourishment is apparently derived from Stoli on the rocks and an endless supply of cigarettes. The opening scene features a naked Lorraine submerged in an ice cube bath seeking relief for her bruised and battered body. She then heads to an official debriefing by her supervisor (Toby Jones) and a CIA officer (John Goodman); they want details on what went wrong with her most recent mission. Those details come through flashbacks of Lorraine’s trip to Berlin to investigate the murder of a fellow agent and the stolen list of all agents. It’s 1989, and the Cold War concern is that the list falls into the hands of the KGB, immediately placing all agents and missions in peril.

With the recurring backdrop of President Reagan exhorting Mr. Gorbachev to “tear down that wall”, the film in no way employs the clever clandestine strategies of the TV series “The Americans”, or even slightly resembles international espionage classics like TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY or THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR. Instead, whatever plot lines or MacGuffins exist have one sole purpose: generate another fight scene for Lorraine.

Stairwells, kitchen utensils, a skateboard, water hoses, car keys and a corkscrew all have their moments (no, it’s not a Jackie Chan movie), as do a couple of car chase sequences. Ms. Theron is a physical marvel (she performed most of her own stunts) as she takes on numerous adversaries in various locations all while sporting more fashionable black & white outfits (with coordinated stilettos) than we can count. She has proven many times (MAD MAX: FURY ROAD, NORTH COUNTRY, MONSTER) that she is much more than a pretty face, and this is her most grueling role to date.

This is undoubtedly Charlize’s show, and supporting work is provided by an underutilized James McAvoy (fresh off of SPLIT) as the rebellious Berlin station agent, Eddie Marsan as a German Stasi known as Spyglass, James Faulkner as MI6 Chief, Roland Moller as the Soviet Bremovych, the always-cool Til Schweiger as the watchmaker, and Bill Skarsgard (Pennywise in the upcoming IT remake). Sofia Boutella plays the wonderfully named Delphine LaSalle, a French agent who, like most of the human race, is attracted to Ms. Theron/Lorraine.

Though it’s understandable we don’t get to see much of Berlin, the soundtrack continually reminds us that we are in 1989 thanks to music from such varied artists as David Bowie, Public Enemy, Nena, The Clash, Depeche Mode and A Flock of Seagulls. There is even a throwback clip from MTV making a crack about the ethics of sampling, and Cinematographer Jonathan Sela’s background in music videos works perfectly for the flash cut action segments.

A more intricate and full-bodied story tied to the international espionage of the Cold War could have elevated the film to a more elite status; however, it immediately becomes one of the top female-led action films and features some of the most impressive and fun to watch cinematic fight scenes ever. Next up for director Leitch is Deadpool 2, so we will soon find out if he can inject humor into his expert action.

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ANTHROPOID (2016)

August 12, 2016

Anthropoid Greetings again from the darkness. It’s been more than 70 years since the Second World War ended, and it’s still producing fascinating stories, books, and movies. Director Sean Ellis co-wrote the script with Anthony Frewin after tireless research into a secret mission of the Czech resistance known as Operation Anthropoid. The purpose was to assassinate SS General Reinhard Heydrich, third in command of The Reich behind only Hitler and Himmler.

Hitler invaded Poland the year after taking Czechoslovakia and put Heydrich in charge. In addition to being the main architect behind the Final Solution, Heydrich became known as “The Butcher of Prague” as thousands of citizens were slain under his reign of terror.

The story is split into two distinct parts … the buildup and the aftermath. It’s late 1941 when we see Jan Kubis (Jamie Dornan) and Josef Gabcik (Cillian Murphy) parachute into the territory outside of Prague and make their way to the city only to discover their contact has been killed. Over the next few months, the two soldiers spend time planning, observing and blending in, while living with their host family – the Moravecs. They become attached to two local ladies (Charlotte Le Bon, Anna Geislorova), first as cover for the mission, and then in a more personal manner as tension builds and the mission gets closer.

Many of the original, historic and actual locations are used which adds an element of realism to a story that’s already plenty real and emotional. The second half of the story is what happens after the assassination. Seven of the original parachutists go into hiding in the basement of the Saints Cyril and Methodius Cathedral. The manhunt is brutal and extensive, and once the hideout is discovered, a seemingly unending parade of German soldiers and ever-increasing weaponry are unleashed. It’s a beautifully filmed, but gut-wrenching scene … think of the last stand at The Alamo.

An extended shootout (6 hours in real time) may not seem like a fun day at the movies, but this story goes to the bravery and desperation of those who refused to give in to the relentless savagery of the Germans. In addition to Ms. Le Bon and Ms. Geislorova, Czech screen vet Alena Mihulova is another standout here. The pacing of the story telling is a bit off at times, but director Ellis brings historical accuracy to a fascinating story in ways that movies such as Valkyrie and Inglourious Basterds didn’t even attempt. As courageous as those in the resistance were, the aftermath and reprisals do beg the question … was it worth the price? Not an easy question to answer even in hindsight.

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THE MAN WHO KNEW INFINITY (2016)

April 30, 2016

USA Film Festival 2016

man who knew infinity Greetings again from the darkness. When one imagines the most exciting topics for movies, mathematics tends to fall pretty far down the list. Heck, most students only take math classes because they have no choice, so why should anyone be interested in the story of a young Indian man who revolutionized the mathematics world at Trinity College in Cambridge in the early 20th century?  The reason is that Srinivasa Ramanujan’s personal story is about more than numbers … it’s about faith and passion and overcoming life’s obstacles.

The story also has an intriguing by-product of demonstrating the difference between intelligence and genius. Trinity College at Cambridge was staffed by some of the smartest, best-educated professors on the planet when this self-taught odd young man appeared with ideas and notebooks filled with equations and concepts that most couldn’t even fathom, much less accept.

Dev Patel plays Ramanujan, the spirited man from Madras India who accepted his remarkable talent as a gift from God. His initially difficult relationship with Trinity Professor GH Hardy (Jeremy Irons) was a clash of two men whose passion for math far eclipsed their comfort in the real world. Hardy was a bit of an outcast at the university, while Ramanujan struggled to provide for his new wife, and had little patience for those who doubted his work.

Writer/director Matt Brown doesn’t seem to believe that the relationship between these two gentlemen is strong enough to hold a mainstream audience, so he commits what comes across as an excessive amount of time to the long-distance battles of the wife and mother of this genius. On the math side, Mr. Brown doesn’t allow us to get lost in minutiae of math equations, but also misses the mark on just how groundbreaking and extraordinary Ramanujan’s work was. There is little doubt that the story of genius, when combined with the abrasive mentorship, racism, elitism and health challenges provides more than enough material to keep us glued to the screen. The rest is merely distracting.

Strong support work is provided by Toby Jones (as Littlewood), Stephen Fry, and Jeremy Northam (as Bertrand Russell), but it’s Patel and Irons who carry the weight here. It’s especially rewarding to see Irons as a co-lead again. There have been other popular math movies like A Beautiful Mind, Good Will Hunting, and Proof, but it’s The Theory of Everything that seems to have the most in common with the story of Ramanujan and Hardy. So give it a shot … and remember to show your work!

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