STILLWATER (2021)

July 29, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. It’s understandable if you are taken in by a trailer that hints at a movie featuring an unknown dad going non-stop in cold pursuit of justice for his daughter (those numerous Liam Neeson references were for my own pleasure). In fact, this father has his own particular set of skills: he’s a master at carpentry and electrical, he speaks the Oklahoma version of English, and he owns two guns (neither of which he has with him). And yes, this film is billed as a crime thriller, but you should know, we see very little crime, and the thrills are mostly non-existent. Despite all that, I connected with the story, not as a thriller, but rather as a character study of a flawed man trying to do the right thing by his daughter and find redemption for himself.

Oscar winner Matt Damon plays Bill Baker, a quiet out of work oil worker whom we first see on a clean-up crew after a disastrous tornado. Not long after, he’s on an international flight to Marseille to visit his daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin). She’s been incarcerated for five years after being found guilty of stabbing her French-Arab lover, Lina, to death. In a highly publicized trial, Allison held fast to her claim of innocence, and still does. Her father visits regularly, delivering supplies and clean laundry. Although they hug on the visits, a definite chasm exists. We later learn that Bill previously struggled with drugs and alcohol and never received votes for Father of the Year. Allison asks her father to deliver a sealed letter to her attorney claiming there is new evidence in her case – she heard a guy named Akim had bragged at a party about committing Lina’s murder.

You likely noticed the similarities to the 2007 Amanda Knox case. The differences being that was Italy, this is France; and it was Amanda’s roommate, not lover. In this movie, the media fascination is derived from the ‘rich’ entitled American white girl brutally murdering her minority working class lesbian lover (a textbook Hollywood rendering). Allison growing up poor in Oklahoma mattered little to the media.

Damon plays Bill as a stoic, Heartland of America man who’ll do anything for “his little girl”. But he’s no Jason Bourne. He’s the proverbial fish-out-of-water on this mission. He doesn’t speak a bit of French, and depends on the kindness of local actress Virginie (Camille Cottin, ALLIED, 2016) to be his interpreter and cultural guide in a world he doesn’t comprehend. Bill quickly bonds with Virginie’s precocious daughter Maya (a sterling film debut by Lilou Siauvaud), and soon a platonic family unit has formed. Bill’s frequent prayers and odd American manners are the perfect cultural clash with Virginie’s artsy French ways. Of course, this ultimately leads to a shift in the platonic nature of their relationship.

The film is directed by Tom McCarthy, an Oscar winner for SPOTLIGHT (2015). I highly recommend two of his other films, the excellent THE VISITOR (2007), and his sinfully under-seen directorial debut THE STATION AGENT (2003). McCarthy co-wrote this script with Marcus Hinchey, Thomas Bidegain, and Noe Debre, which explains why the French details are so spot on. Cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi delivers brilliant camera work to go with the story’s methodical pacing, and Mychael Danna’s music adds intensity and depth to situations both quiet and fraught with emotion. Damon does some of his best work here as a man burdened with his own past and slowly becoming aware of possible personal and family life redemption. Ms. Breslin burst on the scene in 2006 with LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE, and she has transitioned well to adult roles … though this role is somewhat abbreviated, she still does nice work in her scene with Maya and Virginie.

Bill and Virginie and Maya have some terrific segments together, including a dance to Sammi Smith’s “Help Me Make it Through the Night”. I’m guessing the rousing applause the film and actors received at Cannes was due partly to its French setting, and also to the depth of Bill’s character (and Damon’s performance). There are elements that seem far-fetched and maybe even overly complex, but viewed as the story of one man, it delivers some thought-provoking topics to the big screen. And yes, “life is brutal”.

Opens in Theaters Friday, July 30

WATCH THE TRAILER


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: