There’s something dark in the woods

Goodbye Christopher Robin

***** Very Good

What’s it about? The story of the family behind the creation of the world’s most popular children’s fiction character, Winnie the Pooh.

Who directed it? Simon Curtis, who first came to attention with the excellent My Week With Marilyn (2011), and more recently directed Woman in Gold (2015).

Who is in it? Domhnall Gleeson plays author-playwright A.A.Milne, who created the character of Winnie out of bedtime stories he made up for his son, Christopher Robin. Gleeson was seen earlier this year as the cynical CIA controller in Tom Cruise vehicle American Made. Milne’s wife, Daphne, is played by the Australian actress Margot Robbie, in a big shift from her last role in 2016’s Suicide Squad. Will Tilston makes his cinema debut as the young Christopher, with Alex Lowther playing the young-adult Christopher, a role perhaps too similar to his performance as the young Alan Turing in The Imitation Game (2014). In a role that could have been made for her, Kelly Macdonald, last seen in T2 Trainspotting, plays Christopher’s nanny, Olive.

My View: A film about Christopher Robin and Winnie the Pooh probably creates expectation/trepidation of honeyed sentimentality. There is sunshine and sweetness in evidence, but also plenty of dark shade and sour notes.

The whole is a bittersweet creation that covers ground a long way from the innocent pleasures of life in the Hundred Acre Wood.

The opening sequence takes us from sun-dappled countryside to Western Front trenches to 1920s posh society party, laying out the themes to be explored.

Milne is psychologically damaged by his experiences on The Somme during World War One. Daphne is a party-loving girl-about-LondonTown, for whom the ‘mechanics’ of giving birth to their only child come as a traumatic shock (how she thought it was going to happen, having presumably been conscious during the child’s conception, is a mystery the film wisely ignores).

Together, they make very selfish and neglectful parents. Their son finds affection and attention mainly from Olive.

Milne’s magical creation of Winnie and the other animals in the woods comes out of a rare period of time when father and son bond (Daphne has gone back to London for a season of parties). It could have been the start of a much closer and happier relationship.

Instead, as the Milnes rapaciously exploit the commercial opportunities arising from the Pooh books’ extraordinary popularity, their son is left more isolated and miserable than ever.

This is a child who is invited to the House of Lords, but yearns for some sign of love from his parents. He is left wanting for nothing, when all he really wants is them.

Instead, they steal his childhood and sell it in a raffle, the lucky winners having the chance to have tea with “the happiest boy in England”.

The final part of the film, with a reconciliation that did not happen to the real Milne family, is the one moment when the syrup is laid on too thick. But the dark, chewy stuff that comes before makes this forgivable.

Watch this film if: you suspect that, behind every apparently happy family, there’s a story of secret sorrows.

 

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Nice suits: shame about the film

Kingsman: The Golden Circle

* Awful

What’s it about? Kingsman, the British secret service operating from a Saville’s Row tailor’s shop, teams up with Statesman, its American whiskey-brewing counterpart, to fight the insane boss of the world’s biggest drugs cartel.

Who directed it? Matthew Vaughan. He produced Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) and Snatch (2000), before moving into directing. Films include Layer Cake (2004), Kick-Ass (2010), X-Men: First Class (2011), and Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014).

Who is in it? Taron Egerton, Colin Firth and Mark Strong reprise their roles from the first Kingsman film (despite Firth’s character, Harry Hart, being very obviously dead after being shot in the head; apparently, he was saved by a magic gel and revived by microbots which rebuilt his brain; whatever). This time around, they are joined by Juliette Moore, as Poppy, the drugs mastermind; Channing Tatum, Jeff Bridges, and Halle Berry are members of Statesman.

My view: The first Kingsman film was a surprise box-office hit. I missed it in the cinema, but saw it recently on television; I thought it was edgy, energetic and funny. It was described as a punk-style James Bond, though I thought its immaculately-dressed and umbrella-wielding agents owed a debt to Patrick Magee’s character John Steed in The Avengers 1960s tv series.

I enjoyed it, despite the ending being partly spoiled by a spectacularly misjudged sex joke. The trouble with the sequel is that it expands and elaborates on the inappropriate and distasteful stuff (apart from the smuttiness, there are two gross scenes involving a giant meat mincer, and a truly gobsmacking sequence where a tracker is inserted into a certain part of a female festival-goer’s anatomy ), while at the same time forfeiting all of the style and fizz that made the first film such fun.

We are left with a ludicrous plot, pointless characters (including repeated cameo appearances by Elton John, simply to allow the film to reprise the original tasteless sex joke), and very leaden performances all round.

It is all very disappointing. It appears that Kingsman is being viewed as a franchise vehicle, but it’s already crashed.

Watch this film if: you are a barely-pubescent schoolboy with a bespoke-tailoring fetish.

The lonely helplessness of the world’s most powerful woman

Victoria & Abdul ****

What’s it about? A bored and melancholy Queen Victoria befriends an Indian Muslim clerk after he is sent to England to present her with a Jubilee gift from the sub-continent that she rules but has never visited. As she advances his position, making him her “munshi” (teacher) and then her personal secretary, concern and anger grow among her aristocratic courtiers, led by her son Bertie, the future Edward VII.

Who directed it? Stephen Frears. It is not his first film about the British monarchy; he directed The Queen (2006). He has also worked previously with Dame Judi Dench, in Mrs Henderson Presents (2005) and Philomena (2013).

Who is in it? Dench plays Queen Victoria, returning to a role she has played before, in Mrs Brown (1997). More recently, she has enjoyed success as M in seven James Bond movies. Her performances in two Best Exotic Marigold Hotel films have also helped propel her into ‘national treasure’ status. By contrast, the role of Abdul Karim is played by a newcomer to Western cinema; Ali Fazal appeared in Furious 7 (2015), but has a strong pedigree in Bollywood movies. Bertie is played by the comedian Eddie Izzard, building on a cinema career that includes Whisky Galore! (2016) and the Ocean’s 12 and 13 films.

My view. Dench may be revisiting the role, but this is much more than a reprise. This time, Victoria is more than 20 years older than she was in Mrs Brown, and Dench’s portrayal of her is even deeper and richer. What has not changed is her unpredictable choice for male companionship.

In one early scene, Abdul tells Victoria the story of the Mogul emperor who built the Taj Mahal as a shrine to his dead wife, and how he was eventually deposed by his own son. “The cruelty of children,” she says, and one of the film’s themes is how Victoria used Abdul (and John Brown before him) as substitute for her own children, whose behaviour and character had added to her sense of isolation after the early death of her beloved Prince Albert.

Her loneliness is apparent, as is her sense of helplessness; she is the most powerful woman in the world, but all she can do is wait for death to reunite her with “all of the people I have cared for.”

Wishing she would hurry up with this is her eldest son and heir, played with a tremendous mixture of impatience, frustration and malevolence by Izzard. Surrounding him and his mother is the royal court, a pit of intrigue and social climbing – which is mirrored, to the courtiers’ increasing fury, by Abdul’s swift elevation from servant to the Queen’s right-hand man.

The part of Abdul is much less defined. I’d like to think this is deliberate on Frears’s part. Abdul is a blank canvas, on which the other players project their own desires and prejudices. Victoria sees a loyal and trustworthy friend. Bertie and the courtiers see a charlatan and a threat to the established order (he is both “common” and – horrors! – coloured).

Fazal does as much as can be expected with the role, but make no mistake, this is Dench’s film. I wouldn’t be surprised if it earned her yet another Best Actress Oscar nomination.

Watch this film if: you have a passing interest in the British monarchy or the British Empire, enjoy historical drama, or want to see one of Britain’s great actresses turning in an outstanding performance at the age of 82.

Prepare to be appalled and angered

DETROIT ****

What’s it about? The brutal interrogation and murder of three young black men by white racist police officers at the Algiers motel during the Detroit race riots in August, 1967.

Who directed it? Kathryn Bigelow, who is best known for her powerful dramas Zero Dark Thirty (2012) and The Hurt Locker (2008), for which she became the first (and still the only) female winner of the Best Director Oscar.

Who is in it? Two of the three leading roles are played by British actors Will Poulter (The Revenant 2014) and John Boyega (Star Wars: The Force Awakens 2015). The third part is played by American actor-singer Algee Smith, in the biggest film role of his career to date.

My view: I did not enjoy this film. That is not a criticism. ‘Enjoyment’ would be entirely the wrong word to describe the range of emotions I experienced. I was appalled at the police brutality – and the way other men in uniform turned a blind eye to it; angered at the failure to bring the guilty men to account; and left with a sense of profound pessimism over whether much has changed in race relations and civil rights in the 50 years since the events portrayed in the film.

Bigelow presents the story in three acts. The first part – the police raid on an illegal drinking club that sparks the rioting – is gripping. The central act – the 60-minute real-time action in the motel, as events spiral downwards from racist abuse to murder – is suffocatingly tense. The final part – the trial of the police officers and a black security guard – inevitably suffers from a slackening of the tension.

There are strong performances from Poulter as the out-of-control racist cop, and Boyega as the black security guard who is seen as compromised by his uniform in Afro-American eyes. Smith’s performance, as the lead singer of the Detroit group The Dramatics, may just be an Oscar nomination in waiting.

Watch this film if: You want to see a masterful filmmaker in action; have any interest in racial politics; want to understand the back story to the Black Lives Matter campaign.

Drugs, Guns & Politics. There are no more good guys.

AMERICAN MADE ****

Plot: A TWA pilot is recruited by the CIA to fly clandestine reconnaissance missions over South America in the 1970s, and ends up smuggling drugs for the Medelin Cartel and running guns for the CIA.

Director: Doug Liman (Edge of Tomorrow 2014)

Cast: Tom Cruise (The Mummy 2017, Jack Reacher, Never Go Back 2016, Mission Impossible – Rogue Nation 2015): Sarah Wright (Walk of Shame 2014): Domhnall Gleeson (The Revenant 2015, Star Wars: The Force Awakens 2015)

Thoroughly entertaining, and based on the real-life story of pilot Barry Seal. Cruise is back on top form after the disappointment of The Mummy last time out. The role of Seal, who apparently was an adrenaline junkie, suits him perfectly, and Cruise gives every impression of having thoroughly enjoyed himself.

The film is deliberately un-slick, with handheld camera work, scrawled text on screen, and even that old ‘plane-flying-across-map’ technique to track Seal’s increasingly complex nefarious dealings.

In a world where everybody sees everybody else as a means to financial or political gain (or both), Seal’s feelings for his family are the honourable exception, and Wright is very good in the underdeveloped role of his wife.

The title, like the film, casts an ironic and cynical sideways look at the West’s great ‘defender of democracy.” “Is this legal?” Seal asks; “It is if it’s for the good guys” replies Gleeson’s CIA officer. Except, there are no good guys.

Verdict: A light touch on very serious issues, this is a perfect vehicle for Cruise.

 

Anything they can do, she can do tougher

Atomic Blonde

GINGER Rogers said that anything Fred Astaire could dance, she could dance backwards – and in high heels. Charlize Theron will know how she felt.

Theron plays an MI6 agent who is more than a match for macho action-men like Jason Bourne or latter-day James Bond. She shoots, punches, scissor-kicks and car-chases her way through a Berlin at the end of the Cold War. And does so in stiletto-heeled boots, and a series of figure-hugging outfits that take the “undercover” out of “agent.”

This is not so much ‘Lights, Camera. Action’ as ‘Neon, Soundtrack, ACTION!!!!’ The film is washed in glowing neon right from the opening credits. The story rips along to a background of 1980s tracks from George Michael, Nena, and New Order. And as for the action…

Director  David Leitch is also a stuntman (he’s been a regular stunt double for Brad Pitt), and boy does it show. Really, this is a stuntman’s film. The action shots come thick and fast, with a whack that makes you wince. It all culminates in a bone-snapping, face-smashing, body-wrecking long shot, where Theron fights her way down a staircase, through an apartment and into a car chase.

The plot – British, Russian, French and East German spooks in an increasingly violent search for a missing list of British agents operating undercover behind the Iron Curtain – is just the vehicle for the action.

Director: David Leitch

Cast: Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, John Goodman, Sofia Boutella, Toby Jones, Eddie Marsan.

Verdict: Stylish, brutal, and very, very enjoyable. ****

 

 

 

 

My 5 Favourite Films of 2017 (so far)

SUMMER blockbuster season seems as good a time as any to look back at what films I’ve seen this year, and select my top five (in purely chronological order):

 

Manchester By The Sea:

Cast: Casey Affleck, Kyle Chandler, Lucas Hedges, Michelle Williams.

Director: Kenneth Lonergan.

A restrained study in grief and loss, with an outstanding six-star performance by Casey Affleck at its heart.

Lion:

Cast: Sunny Pawer, Dev Patel, Nicole Kidman, Rooney Mara.

Director: Garth Davis.

This tale of a lost child’s long journey home delivered plenty of emotional clout.

Moonlight:

Cast: Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes, Naomie Harris, Jangle Monáe, Mahershala Ali.

Director: Barry Jenkins.

Named the Best Picture Oscar winner (eventually), a complex tale in which what remains unsaid is as important as what is said.

Their Finest:

Cast: Gemma Arterton, Sam Claflin, Bill Nighy, Jack Huston.

Director: Lone Scherfig.

Let’s hear it for the British. Nostalgic and patriotic, with some genuinely emotional moments, and a convincing Welsh accent from Gemma Arterton.

Baby Driver:

Cast: Andel Elgort, Kevin Spacey, Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx.

Director: Edgar Wright.

A superbly choreographed match-up of a brilliant soundtrack and incredible driving stunts.

And a couple of duds

Going In Style:

A cast of starry veterans wasted in a predictable and limp tale, with some embarrassingly awful ‘action’ scenes.

Alien Covenant:

Not every film lives up to its hype. This was a tedious reprisal of over-familiar scenarios.