Red Joan


The spy who knitted tea cozies.

(2018) Biographical Drama (IFCJudi Dench, Sophie Cookson, Stephen Campbell Moore, Tom Hughes, Laurence Spellman, Tereza Srbova, Ben Miles, Robin Soans, Kevin Fuller, Stephen Boxer, Simon Ludders, Steven Hillman, Ciarán Owens, Phil Langhorne, Stuart Whelan, Freddie Gaminara, Stephen Samson, Paul Kerry, Adrian Wheeler, Lulu Meissner. Directed by Trevor Nunn

Ah, the things we do for love. Sometimes we are moved to do things because of conscience but how many times have we done things we ordinarily wouldn’t or couldn’t do out of love? Most of us can ruefully admit to at least a small list.

Pensioner Joan Stanley (Dench), an octogenarian living in suburban London, spends most of her days fixing herself tea and working in her garden, weather permitting. Her son Patrick (Spellman), a busy lawyer and politician, rarely has time to visit her anymore so when there’s a knock on her door, she’s taken aback. However, it’s not a social visit; it’s MI-5, putting her under arrest for providing nuclear secrets to the Soviets.

Most of the rest of the film proceeds in flashbacks. While a University student, Joan (Cookson) had fallen under the spell of glamorous immigrant Sonya (Srbova) and even more so of Sonya’s smoldering, brooding cousin Leo (Hughes), a not-so-closet communist party member in the 1930s when the Reds were viewed with some distrust at the very least. It isn’t long before the naïve and mousy Joan is in Leo’s bed.

When the Second World War erupts and the Soviet Union becomes our ally, Joan is drafted into an atomic research team headed by Professor Max Davis (Moore). Although Joan is used as little more than a glorified secretary, she is in fact a brilliant physicist whom Max comes to rely on as a problem solver and eventually, on a much more personal level.

When the Americans drop the A-bomb onto Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Joan who knows better than most the consequences of such an act is absolutely horrified. She comes to the realization that these terrible World Wars will continue unless both sides have access to these terrible weapons. When Leo and Sonya come knocking on her door, she is more than willing to answer.

Although (very loosely) based on actual events, this film doesn’t have the air of authenticity that something based on reality has. Far from being a John LeCarre-like spy thriller which I believe it aspires to be, this is more like a soap opera that out of one side of its face decries the marginalization of women and on the other side has them as simple-headed sops who do mad, impetuous things out of love or maybe just lust. Apparently even feminists can be fools for love.

If that sounds a bit catty, it can be forgiven; there’s a hell of a story to be told here and Nunn and company squander it. Worse still, there are some terrific performances by Dench and Cookson that are essentially wasted. Also, let the viewer beware – although Dench is top-lined here, she is limited to a meager amount of screen time; Cookson gets the lion’s share of that.

While there are some terrific moments – young Joan’s confession to Max, Patrick’s repudiation of his mother – that are worth waiting for, for the most part the movie maddeningly doesn’t let us inside the head of Joan. She does things seemingly on whim. She’s not much of a spy; she gets by mainly because, as Sonya wryly puts it, no men would think a woman capable of such deception plus there’s more than a smattering of dumb luck and Joan’s pals willing to take the blame for Joan’s actions.

This isn’t a spy saga as I’ve said; it’s more of a melodrama and a fairly rote one at that. Given the superior cast and the remarkable true story that inspired it, this movie could have been so much more. However, I can’t review that movie, only the ones that Nunn and his colleagues have given us and it’s frankly not one that rises far above mediocrity.

REASONS TO SEE: Dench always delivers the goods. There are some very powerful moments.
REASONS TO AVOID: A bit soapy and/or syrupy in places. Lots of potential here but ultimately the film doesn’t deliver.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie, as the novel that inspired it, was based on the real life case of Melita Norwood.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/27/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 30% positive reviews: Metacritic: 44/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Theory of Everything
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Master Maggie

Inferno (2016)


Tom Hanks and Felicity Jones at least got their exercise regimens in.

Tom Hanks and Felicity Jones at least got their exercise regimens in.

(2016) Thriller (Columbia) Tom Hanks, Felicity Jones, Omar Sy, Irrfan Khan, Sidse Babett Knudsen, Ben Foster, Ana Ularu, Ida Darvish, Paolo Antonio Simioni, Fausto Maria Sciarappa, Alessandro Grimaldi, Robin Mugnaini, Paul Ritter, Vincenzo Tanassi, Alessandro Fabrizi, Simone Mariani, Gabor Urmai, Jon Donahue, Fortunato Cerlino, Attila Arpa, Kata Sorbo. Directed by Ron Howard

 

I don’t know if it’s fair to characterize the novels of Dan Brown as an acquired taste. After all, he’s sold millions of copies of his Robert Langdon novels starting with The DaVinci Code. His plots tend to be complicated and sometimes overly so. Still, they can be an entertaining read. Now, his fourth novel in the series has become the third filmed version of the franchise

Professor Robert Langdon (Hanks), one of the world’s leading minds, wakes up in an Italian hospital with no memory of how he got there. Dr. Sienna Brooks (Jones) is trying to establish how he was shot; there is a head wound where a bullet apparently grazed his skull which might account for his amnesia. Just then a remorseless assassin (Ularu) comes for him, forcing the professor and doctor to flee.

In fact, it turns out a lot of people are after Langdon. The World Health Organization, with Dr. Elizabeth Sinskey (Knudsen) and .investigator Christoph Bouchard (Sy) are chasing Langdon with an unknown agenda. The Italian police are after him after surveillance footage reveals that he stole the death mask of Dante Alighieri  whose Inferno holds clues to a mad billionaire’s (Foster) plan to “cull the human herd” by releasing a plague that will kill half the world’s population and immediately ease overpopulation concerns. A bit of a drastic cure, that.

In any case as Langdon’s memories begin to slowly return, he finds he is in a race against time to find the killer virus and stop this mass murder on a demonic scale. In order to do that he has to follow a chain of clues left behind by the billionaire who killed himself rather than reveal the location of the virus’s delivery system to the WHO. Who can Langdon trust? As it turns out, not the people he thinks.

I have to admit I found the first film in the series, The DaVinci Code, to be genuinely entertaining – the follow-up, Angels and Demons, less so but still acceptable. The third in the series is by far the least entertaining so far; the preposterous nature of the plot has become far too glaring to ignore and the payoff not enough to be worth the ride. Hanks looks a bit tired here; I suspect he’s given Langdon about all he can give him as an actor. There were rumors that both Howard and Hanks were leaving the series after Angels and Demons but apparently they were prevailed upon to do the third film after pre-production on a proposed film version of the third book in the series, The Lost Symbol, stalled.

Again, Howard utilizes an international cast that is largely better known in Europe than in the United States with the exception of the Oscar-nominated Jones who shines here, reinforcing my opinion that she is one of the best young actresses out there who is likely to be one of the most honored actresses of her generation when all is said and done. Khan, who plays the nefarious head of a shadowy security agency, also has some meat on the bones of his character that he can work with but his part is all too brief alas.

Seeing the sights of Florence, Cambridge and Istanbul (among other places) is pleasing, particularly to me personally as I was in Florence just this past May and can attest to the beauty of the city having seen the Ponte Vecchio and the Uffizi with my own eyes. It certainly ignited the tourist in my soul to see some of the sights that the movie highlights. If you have that tourist gene inside you, you’ll likely be pleased by this as much as I was, but it’s not really enough to recommend a movie just for the setting. It’s rough when every ten minutes or so you’re rolling your eyes at yet another plot turn that defies logic. Even Dan Brown’s most loyal fans will be shaking their heads at this one.

REASONS TO GO: Plenty of lovely tourist opportunities for places like Florence and Istanbul.
REASONS TO STAY: The plot is absolutely preposterous.
FAMILY VALUES:  Action and violence in plenty here, as well as a few disturbing images, brief sexuality, some disturbing thematic elements and brief foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  This is the first Robert Langdon film not to be written by Akiva Goldsman.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/6/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 20% positive reviews. Metacritic: 42/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Outbreak
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Be My Cat: A Film for Anne

A Brilliant Young Mind (X+Y)


What could possibly be more English than this?

What could possibly be more English than this?

(2014) Drama (Goldwyn) Asa Butterfield, Rafe Spall, Sally Hawkins, Eddie Marsan, Jo Yang, Martin McCann, Jake Davies, Alex Lawther, Alexa Davies, Orion Lee, Edward Baker-Close, Percelle Ascott, Suraj Rattu, Jamie Ballard, Clare Burt, Adam Foster, Lee Zhuo Zhao, Shannon Beer, Tasha Connor, Lawrence Jeffries, Ciaran Wakefield, Song Chang, Bo-Han Huang, Christina Low. Directed by Morgan Matthews

Those who show any intelligence in our culture are often ostracized for it. When you add to that a touch of autism or any other emotional or developmental disorder and it spells an equation for a lonely childhood. Often it is the most gifted of our species who end up being the most misunderstood.

Nathan Ellis (Butterfield) is a math prodigy. He sees the patterns in everything and is fascinated by things like prime numbers, calculus and Fibonacci sequences. His father (McCann) was his biggest supporter and he and dad had a special bond until his father was killed tragically. Now his mom Julie (Hawkins) is left to raise him alone.

But Nathan is more than just good at maths (the British slang for mathematics); he’s also got a trace of autism and a form of aphasia. Socially he is very closed off; he hates to be touched and he is very particular that things fit into rigid patterns to the point that the prawn balls he orders from his favorite Chinese take-out (takeaway if you’re British) is from a combination plate that is a prime number and the number of prawn balls on the plate must fit in the Fibonacci sequence. It’s enough to drive his poor mum half-mad but she has the patience of a saint more or less although there are times she feels more alone than the average single mum – not only is she without a husband but her son is distant and doesn’t like touching her or being touched by her. Think about being robbed of pretty much all human contact and you might get an idea of what Julie’s going through.

But Nathan’s math prowess catches the attentions of the school’s headmaster (Ballard) who orders math teacher Martin Humphreys (Spall) to tutor the young whiz. Martin was once a prodigy like Nathan but the onset of multiple sclerosis effectively sabotaged him in the International Mathematics Olympiad when he was on the British team and led him to a life of drinking and disappointment. Martin is not happy about the situation but sees something of himself in Nathan and agrees to take him on.

Martin’s unconventional teaching methods prove to be effective for Nathan and despite a little bit of forced suspense (that won’t fool any veteran moviegoer), Nathan eventually makes the British math team and goes to Taiwan to train for the event, chaperoned by gravelly math teacher Richard (Marsan) who is more concerned about winning the event against the heavily favored Chinese team (who have won the last three) than in the well-being of the boys.

For Nathan’s part, his eyes are opened when he discovers that the other boys are at least as brilliant – and some more so – than he, and most are just as socially awkward. He is also assigned a study partner from the Chinese team, Yang Jo (Mei). Much to the audience’s surprise, Nathan begins to develop a great deal of affection for Yang, who to be truthful is depicted here as an utter ray of sunshine, one of the few really nice to be around people in the movie which is filled with smart people who can be utterly rotten.

As the pressure mounts, Nathan’s personal growth still requires some work and while Yang is working on it, Nathan’s relationship with his mother – who has developed a relationship with Martin – is reaching the breaking point. And Nathan has reached a point where he must decide what is most important to him – his beloved numbers or the people who care for him.

When I saw the previews for this film, I didn’t have high hopes for it. After all, the “smart/socially awkward genius” trope has been done to death as has been the mind/sports athlete underdog film. The latter are often documentaries and while this is not, director Morgan Matthews did a documentary on the English Math Olympiad team that largely inspired this movie, although this one is completely fictionalized. The trailer made the movie look pretty typical.

It’s anything but. Yes, there is a certain heart-warming element to it, but it is earned. The characters are completely realistic and if not down-to-earth, feel like they could be slapping shoe leather on this planet. Nathan is capable of cruelty and heartlessness, most often in regards to his mom, but let the audience still roots for him. Mei, Marsan and Spall all deliver strong performances in supporting roles.

Hawkins is a brilliant actress who has been nominated for an Oscar in the past and likely will be again in the future, although not necessarily for this. She could play Julie as the martyr which perhaps in the minds of other actresses she might be, but as Hawkins plays her she’s just a mom coping with tragedy and an imperfect relationship with her son; she is just trying to make things as good as possible for him, as “normal” as possible. Hawkins plays the part with humor and with charm; I wanted to hang out with Julie too, not just with the math whizzes who were frankly a little bit beyond me, which was okay – I’m sure if I started talking movies around most of them they’d be as lost as I am when they talk algorithms.

What I liked about the movie most of all is that the movie treats Nathan’s issues matter of factly as a part of life. Of most of the autistic people I’ve known, Butterfield’s portrayal comes closest to who they are; yes, they are a little different than the so-called normal people and they require a little bit more patience in some cases but otherwise they are just like you and just like me.

I really liked this movie a lot; it’s one of the best ones I’ve seen this year. The performances are strong and the writing is as well. If there is a workman-like quality to some of the story when it comes to portraying the love story, it can be forgiven because the relationships in the movie are so real. While the theatrical run for this film is essentially over, it is certainly one to look for on home video once it is released there.

REASONS TO GO: Warm-hearted without being treacly. Treats autism with respect and realism. Doesn’t overload with math. Fine performances from Spall and Hawkins.
REASONS TO STAY: A few Hollywood-type tropes in here.
FAMILY VALUES: Some sexual references and a few expletives here and there.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The story is loosely based in Daniel Lightwing, an actual math prodigy and current mathematician.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/2/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Happy-Go-Lucky
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT: Beasts of No Nation

The Theory of Everything


Jane and Stephen Hawking, sneakin' around.

Jane and Stephen Hawking, sneakin’ around.

(2014) Biographical Drama (Focus) Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, David Thewlis, Simon McBurney, Charlie Cox, Harry Lloyd, Emily Watson, Lucy Chappell, Charlotte Hope, Christian McKay, Abigail Cruttenden, Maxine Peake, Simon Chandler, Georg Nikoloff, Enzo Cilenti, Frank Leboeuf, Adam Godley, Guy Oliver-Watts, Alice Orr-Ewing, Nicola Victoria Buck. Directed by James Marsh

There is no doubt that Stephen Hawking is one of the greatest minds of our generation. He has redefined our thinking on how the universe works and the nature of time itself. There are many who believe he is in the same league as Einstein and Sir Isaac Newton when it comes to his effect on modern physics.

It is also well-known that he has had physical obstacles that most of us could never begin to cope with. Diagnosed with a version of ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig disease) at age 21, he was given just two years to live. In those two years he lost all motor control and eventually even his ability to speak. Still, he remains alive today – more than 50 years after his initial diagnosis.

Young Stephen Hawking (Redmayne) was a geeky, awkward, gangly sort of young man at Cambridge with plans to get his doctorate in cosmology and go on to come up with one simple, elegant equation that explains everything. In the meantime he does the same sorts of things that geeky, awkward, gangly sorts of young men have done in college for a very long time.

That is hang out with his friends, sleep in, go out drinking from time to time and have a spectacular lack of success with girls. That is, until he meets Jane Wilde (Jones) who is studying Iberian poetry. He is quite captivated with her. They are in many way polar opposites – he is drawn to science, she to the liberal arts. He is not traditionally handsome, she is a beauty by any standards. And he is a dedicated atheist, she a devout Christian member of the Church of England.

But he is warm and funny as well. His imagination takes him beyond the stars and into the way stars live and die. Even as a doctoral candidate his genius is recognized by his mentor Professor Dennis Sciama (Thewlis) as well as noted mathematician Roger Penrose (McKay). However his bright future is severely shaken by the news that he has a motor neuron disease and is only expected to live for two years, maybe a bit more. Needless to say he enters a deep depression.

But he and Jane have fallen deeply in love and have plans to marry. Certainly Stephen would understand if Jane would walk away from what can only be pain and heartache but ever-plucky like a good English rose, she refuses. Whatever happens will happen to them both and if their time together should be short, they will make the most of what they have.

But she wasn’t expecting to sign on for the long haul. Stephen, whose man parts are unaffected by the disease, fathers three children. As his condition deteriorates, she is caring for two and then a third squalling baby as well as for a husband who can’t do anything for himself. Desperate and overworked, she seeks solace from her mother (Watson) who advises her to join the Church chorus.

It turns out to be a splendid idea. The choirmaster, Jonathan Hellyer-Jones (Cox) becomes quite taken by the Hawkings’ situation and offers to help out as much as he can do. He turns out to be a godsend and he and Stephen get along famously. Hellyer-Jones, recently widowed, has begun to develop feelings for Jane and she for him. At his request, he steps back from a situation that is getting tricky.

The new therapist who helps Stephen learn to use an alphabet board (this is before he got the computerized voice that he is now famous for), a vivacious redhead named Elaine Mason (Peake) who came highly recommended develops a bond with Stephen that Jane doesn’t seem to have with him anymore. What will happen to this fairytale love story?

The operative words for this movie are the last two of the previous sentence. This is not a documentary about black holes and singularities, although some of the pioneering science that Hawking is responsible for is explained somewhat simply for most of us who simply don’t have the ability to understand the details of his work. Rather, this is a love story about two people who overcome frightening odds and share triumphs and tragedies.

Redmayne is a wonder here. Folks who are following the buzz for the upcoming Oscar nominations to be announced late next month are probably aware that many veteran industry observers feel that Redmayne is a lock for a Best Actor Oscar nomination and Jones is a serious contender for a Best Actress nomination as well. The buzz isn’t wrong. Redmayne is phenomenal, undertaking a very physical performance, literally shriveling up before our eyes going from a fairly healthy if not physically fit young man to one who is barely able to walk until he is a shell of a man, hunched over in his wheelchair and unable to support himself even in a sitting position. Redmayne spent time with dancers and ALS patients in order to get the movements and body language right. He also captures Hawkings’ delightful sense of humor.

Jones has a difficult role to play albeit one that is much less physically taxing. Hers is much more emotionally challenging, playing a woman who is being beaten down by the difficulties of her role not of wife and mother but also of nurse. Often times she feels taken for granted, cleaning up after the messes that her family makes and unable to take the time to pursue her own dreams. Jane is clearly frustrated and overwhelmed and Jones successfully conveys that to audiences. Our sympathy is with her as well as with her husband as her sacrifice takes on special resonance for those of us who are disabled who have a partner who has to shoulder more than her burden (or his).

There is a scene that resonated especially with me as a person with a degenerative condition. Stephen is having more and more difficulty walking and one afternoon Jane brings in a wheelchair. There isn’t any dialogue but it can only be an admission that the disease is winning for him and she allows him to process the situation on his own. “This is only temporary,” he says tearfully in a slurred voice. “Of course it is,” she says comforting him. With a wheelchair likely in my own future, I could relate to his sentiment.

Friends of mine have criticized the movie as being boring and perhaps from a certain point of view it is. My wife would most likely call the movie quiet, an adjective she uses a little differently than most of us. Perhaps the expectations of those going in is for something a little bit more science-y and this is not that movie. It is, as I mentioned before, a love story. One that possesses no loud crescendos, no cosmic triumphs but just sheer will power to make things work and a complete faith that two people have in each other to get them through a severely challenging situation.

It is an inspiring story but I don’t think it is meant to be in the rah-rah sense. Rather, this is just two people getting on with it. The ending to the movie is neither happy nor sad but it is the stuff of everyday life, even if both of the parties in the relationship happen to be extraordinary.

REASONS TO GO: Award-worthy performances by Redmayne and Jones. Some sequences inspire wonder. Is more of a love story than a physics textbook.
REASONS TO STAY: Some sequences are a little dry. Easily offended religious sorts may take umbrage at Hawking’s frankly stated atheism.
FAMILY VALUES: Adult themes and some sexually suggestive material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: It took screenwriter Anthony McCarten three years to convince Jane Hawking to allow a film version of her book to be made; it took another seven years for him to get the movie made.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/15/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 81% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Beautiful Mind
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Horrible Bosses 2

The Other Man


The Other Man

Ah, the game's afoot...or, in this case, a pawn.

(2008) Drama (Image) Liam Neeson, Antonio Banderas, Laura Linney, Romola Garai, Pam Ferris, Craig Parkinson, Sophie Wu, Lola Peploe, Richard Graham, Emma Fielding, Priyanga Burford. Directed by Richard Eyre

Even in a marriage we often don’t know everything about our partner that we think we do. Sometimes we discover a secret life that is completely unknown to us. When our world comes crashing about our ears, how do we rebuild it without destroying what’s left?

Peter (Neeson) is a successful computer software designer. He is married to Lisa (Linney), a successful shoe designer. They live in Cambridge (the English one) and have a pretty good life. That is, until Lisa disappears.

Peter is frantic, understandably and tries to find a clue, any sort of clue as to where she is. He hacks into her computer and discovers pictures – pictures that indicate she was having an affair with another man. In an instant, he goes from grieving husband to jealous, angry husband.

Using his sleuthing skills, he determines that the nameless Other Man lives in Milan. Peter goes there to find him and, quite possibly, murder him. His daughter Abigail (Garai) is concerned; her father seems obsessive and enraged. She wonders what he intends to do and he refuses to tell her.

Eventually, Peter tracks down Ralph (Banderas), a gentleman living in Milan. Without telling him who he is Peter meets Ralph in a chess café and has a game with him. Soon, Peter realizes that something is fishy about Ralph and that everything is not as it should be. The question soon becomes, where is Laura? The answer might surprise you…

Director Eyre has made some real good movies, including Notes on a Scandal which was far superior to this. Here he crafts a thriller without tension, a drama that isn’t terribly dramatic. The script seems to exist to send you sideways with different plot twists; unfortunately, it spends far too much time on unnecessary plot twists, as when Peter’s suspicions fall on someone working in the office with Lisa.

There is some real quality in the casting too. Liam Neeson is one of the most interesting actors alive; he has a rough exterior but a very soft interior and he is extremely skilled at using both. Some of his scenes as a grieving husband are extremely wrenching, and well worth watching on their own. Banderas is, I think, underrated as an actor, always cast as the Latin lothario but here he takes a part which is a bit different than what we see him in normally. The part appears to be that way, a Spanish gentleman in Gucci loafers, as Peter disparagingly refers to them, in Milan, the center of designer shoes. That should tell you a little bit about who Ralph is.

Garai also does surprisingly well as the daughter. I wasn’t familiar with her previous work, but the girl’s got skills. She infuses Abigail with both compassion and concern. She isn’t weak at all though; she stands up to her dad and gets in his face about things. Yup, just like an actual daughter. I appreciated that element of the storyline.

Unfortunately, not that much else in the film is compelling. Some of the big “twists” are hopelessly telegraphed and some of the action lacks fire. While having Peter and Ralph confront each other over a game of chess, it lacks the emotional charge that the confrontation should have had. There’s no dramatic tension, and that torpedoes the film overall.

However, a movie with these actors in it and a generally skilled director isn’t going to be all bad. This is going to go down as one of their more forgettable efforts but that doesn’t mean it isn’t completely without merit. I would say that it is a movie that isn’t impressive, but has some moments worth savoring.

WHY RENT THIS: Neeson is always compelling, and Banderas takes on a role that’s new for him. Garai does an impressive job. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie is kind of bland and not well thought out. Certainly all the obfuscation about who the “other man” is was unnecessary.

FAMILY VALUES: Not rated, but there’s some bad language and adult situations regarding marital infidelity, as well as some nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Juliette Binoche was originally supposed to play the part of Lisa but had to leave the cast before filming started. She was replaced by Linney.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.1M on an unreported production budget; chances are the movie didn’t make back its budget.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Promise

The Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader


The Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader

Anyone who says there are no stars in Voyage of the Dawn Treader is crazy!

(2010) Fantasy (Fox Walden) Georgie Henley, Skandar Keynes, Ben Barnes, Will Poulter, Liam Neeson (voice), Simon Pegg (voice), Gary Sweet, Laura Brent, Bille Brown, Bruce Spence, Terry Norris, Colin Moody, Tilda Swinton, Anna Popplewell, William Moseley, Shane Rangi, Arthur Angel, Arabella Morton, Rachel Blakely. Directed by Michael Apted

When we sail for unknown waters, it takes a certain amount of fortitude. Not only do you never know quite what to expect, but it’s also likely that you won’t return the same way you left.

Lucy (Henley) and Edmund (Keynes) Pevensie remain in England during the Blitz while brother Peter (Moseley) and sister Susan (Popplewell) go off to America – apparently because they’re older, they deserve greater safety. Lucy and Edmund are packed off to Cambridge where they are rooming with their despicable cousin Eustace Scrubb (Poulter) who is an insufferable know-it-all and quite the twit. Edmund would like nothing better than to punch him in the face, but prefers to try and join up for the British Army, although he is too young by a couple of years.

He is frustrated because as a King in Narnia, he has fought wars against superior forces and led armies into battle but here on Earth he is just a silly boy. Lucy is the embodiment of the Stiff Upper Lip but she is deeply insecure about her looks; while Susan is already a bit of a stunner, Lucy feels invisible and ignored by comparison.

When the nautical painting in the bedroom Edmund shares with Eustace begins to change and a Narnian-looking ship appears on the horizon, Lucy realizes magical forces are work and a call back to the magical land is just around the corner. Eustace has always pooh-poohed their talk of Narnia and thinks them barking mad. He’s about to find out how wrong he is.

The sea floods out of the painting and into the bedroom; rather than opening the door or window and escaping the children essentially wait for the room to fill up before swimming to the surface and being greeted by the flagship of Narnia’s fleet, the Dawn Treader. On board is good Prince Caspian..err, King Caspian (Barnes) who is searching for seven lord of Telmar that supported his father but then had to flee for their lives. They carried with them seven magic swords that Aslan (Neeson) had given the Narnians for protection. They don’t know it but they are about to need them.

The two Pevensies are overjoyed to be back in Narnia; Eustace not so much. He thinks that everyone and everything not named Eustace are complete idiots and utterly lacking in…well, anything useful. He is basically the ultimate spoiled brat, a precursor to Dudley Dursley from the Harry Potter series, only far more venal and wretched.

Also aboard is the swashbuckling Reepicheep (Pegg), the mouse with the gentlemanly mien and the bold attitude. He becomes something of a mentor to Eustace, although of course Eustace detests him at first. There’s more involving a malevolent green mist, an island that is the embodiment of evil and a blue star that is in fact not a star but you get my drift. Eustace also turns into a dragon, a Lord turns into gold and the Dawn Treader will battle a vicious sea serpent before the final credits.

This is based on the third in the six-book series by C.S. Lewis which was meant to be Christian allegories as well as morality lessons for children. Amazingly, both of those aspects of the books were left intact in all three of the movies (much more overtly here).

However, there’s a new director in town; Apted, who has previously directed Coal Miner’s Daughter and The World Is Not Enough. This is kind of a new genre for him and he does a great job, never allowing the special effects to overwhelm the movie but using them when he needs to. While the effects aren’t particularly groundbreaking, they are serviceable – the sea serpent particularly at the end is hideous and scary.

Part of the problem with the first two movies is that the acting wasn’t up to the level of the Harry Potter movies. The child stars were all a bit on the wooden side; thankfully, Keynes has gotten much better and Henley as well, although she still can be annoying in places. Poulter, who was in the indie film Son of Rambow was actually really good, bringing out both the awful and redeemed sides of Eustace nicely.

Barnes also gets to shed the ill-advised Spanish accent of Prince Caspian and comes off much more mature and far more likable here. While the character tends to be much more of a second banana to the Pevensies than perhaps he should be, nonetheless Barnes makes the most of what he has to work with. My only wish is that Apted had let Caspian’s feelings for his father get a little more attention; that was an interesting subplot that seemed to go nowhere really.

I actually liked this film better than the first two and even better than TRON: Legacy to be honest. The books were a big part of my childhood, being a lover of fantasy and science fiction from an early age as I was. Seeing these films is a bit like going home, Dawn Treader a bit more than even the first two (and I thought The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was a good solid movie). While the box office numbers have been underwhelming for a movie with this kind of budget, I’m hoping that it makes enough to warrant the making of The Silver Chair. This might well be the most entertaining movie of the holiday season, far more so than the overly grim and overwhelming Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 and a little bit more than the uneven TRON: Legacy. Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear like the audiences are giving it the chance it deserves.

REASONS TO GO: The best of the series so far. Poulter brings the horrible Eustace Scrubb to life. Barnes has improved 100% as Caspian.

REASONS TO STAY: Not really groundbreaking effects work and Henley remains a work in progress.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some scenes that are probably too scary for younger, more impressionable children (particularly during the sea serpent battle) but by and large, perfect movie material for most kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Simon Pegg as Reepicheep replaces Eddie Izzard who voiced the cavalier mouse in The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian.

HOME OR THEATER: This may sound a bit strange but as big a movie as this is, I don’t know that the epic scope is diminished on the smaller screen. I usually recommend the multiplex for movies like this but it might be just as well for you to see it at home.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: The Holly and The Quill begins!

The Social Network


The Social Network

Eduardo Saverin and Mark Zuckerberg, the new Odd Couple.

(Columbia) Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake, Joe Mazzello, Patrick Mapel, Rooney Mara, Max Minghella, Armie Hammer, Rashida Jones, David Selby, Brenda Song, Malese Jow, Dakota Johnson, Wallace Langham, Caitlin Gerard. Directed by David Fincher

With Facebook having just reached 500 Million subscribers, that adds up to almost one in every fourteen people on the planet that have a Facebook account. It has become the pre-eminent social network, replacing MySpace and America Online before it, and in a sense, replacing real life in exchange for a digital replica. It’s insanely addictive and has it’s uses, but it has the insidious side to it, eating our time and energy.

Few of us know that much about how Facebook came to be. Many of its users don’t even know the name Mark Zuckerberg unless they trouble themselves to read the masthead. This new movie, which is often referred to as “The Facebook Movie,” isn’t about giving a fact-based account of the founding of Facebook, but then again, generally those types of accounts make for poor movies.

Zuckerberg (Eisenberg), a sophomore at Harvard in 2003, is having a beer with Erica Albright (Mara), his erstwhile girlfriend, and engaging in some conversation and by conversation I mean he is engaging in a kind of strategic battle of words with her, filled with condescending remarks and sometimes biting thinly-veiled insults. She has grown weary of the battle and breaks up with him.

Angry and humiliated, Zuckerberg goes back to his dorm room and as 21st century kids tend to do, starts blogging. Caught up in the raw emotion of the moment, he does a pretty thorough character assassination of her, even going so far as to insinuate that her breasts are “barely there.” A more experienced man might have told him never to insult a woman’s breasts.

Half-drunk and fueled by his own rage, he decides to humiliate every woman at Harvard and creates over the course of the night a webpage that allows women to be rated like so much meat. He calls it Facemash and it becomes so popular it crashes the servers at Harvard. This gets Mark hauled before the board of administration for some disciplinary action.

It also gets him noticed. Twins Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (both played by Hammer) and their programming friend Divya Narendra (Minghella) want to create a kind of Harvard-exclusive site that allows people with Harvard e-mail addresses to link up online and enlists Zuckerberg to do it. He agrees, but early on determines that their idea is more compelling than their vision and determines to create his own site which he calls The Facebook. His roommates Dustin Moskowitz (Mazzello) and Chris Hughes (Mapel) are enlisted to do the programming and his best friend Eduardo Saverin (Garfield) fronts them the seed money.

Of course, when his new creation goes online on February 4, 2004, the twins are furious, thinking they’ve been ripped off. Tyler and Narendra are all gung-ho to sue Zuckerberg but Cameron, wishing to maintain the decorum of a Harvard gentleman, wants to find some other way of redress. It is only when they discover that the once Harvard-exclusive site has gone global that Cameron changes his mind and calls out the family lawyer.

As the site begins to grow by leaps and bounds, Zuckerberg decides to summer in Palo Alto, hoping to get some Silicon Valley entrepreneurs interested in his start-up. Eduardo stays behind in New York, trying to sell advertising for the new website which makes Zuckerberg a bit uncomfortable. He begins to fall under the sway of Napster founder Sean Parker (Timberlake) who at least has the vision to see Facebook as a world-changing application, and determines to capitalize on it, interesting venture capitalist and PayPal founder Peter Thiel (Langham) to invest big bucks in Facebook. Soon Zuckerberg finds himself as one of the youngest billionaires in the world, but the cost is his friendship with Saverin, as at the urging of Parker he devalues Saverin’s shares from nearly 30% to less than 1%. Saverin, incensed, decides to sue. The simultaneous lawsuits act as a framing device for the film.

The buzz for this movie has been plenty high and after its debut at the New York film Festival last month, grew to a dull roar. It’s being touted as the year’s first serious Oscar contender and it seems likely that some nominations are going to be coming its way, quite likely for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay and maybe even to Eisenberg for Best Actor.

The real Zuckerberg is reportedly none too pleased with his portrayal here, and Aaron (The West Wing) Sorkin’s screenplay certainly isn’t very complimentary. It gives us a Zuckerberg who is arrogant, ruthless, cruel and socially awkward; he doesn’t seem to have a problem gutting his friends and certainly believes himself to be the smartest guy in any room. Is that the real Mark Zuckerberg? Chances are that elements of the character are accurate but I sincerely doubt that this is meant to be an exact capture of the essence of the Facebook founder. Rather, it’s meant more to be symbolic of digital hubris in an age of online egos gone out of control. Eisenberg becomes something of a cipher, his face often going blank when he is trying to hide what he’s feeling. He usually plays likable nerds but there’s not much likable about this guy and yet still we are drawn to him; as one of his lawyer’s (Jones) tells him near the end of the film, he’s not an asshole but he’s trying really hard to look like one.

Garfield, who was recently cast to be the next Spider-Man, does a great job as well, making the likable but ultimately out of his depth Saverin the emotional anchor for the story. Audiences will naturally root for him, and when he is eventually betrayed will feel his pain. Garfield hadn’t to this point caught my eye with any of his performances, but he certainly shows the ability to carry a franchise film like Spider-Man on his own.

Timberlake, whose acting career has blown hot and cold, delivers the best performance of his career to date as the unctuous Parker. Looking visually not unlike Quentin Tarantino, he is slick and snake-like, mesmerizing his victims with his charm and promises, then striking with lethal speed, delivering his venom in a swift, fatal blow.

Much of the movie is about courtrooms, programmers and start-up Silicon Valley businesses, as well as the rarefied air at Harvard, but despite some of the dry subjects manages to hold our interest throughout, and that’s mainly due to the interactions between the characters and Fincher’s deft hand at directing. The movie is both emotional and antiseptic, sometimes showing us heart and then slamming that door shut abruptly. It serves as a cautionary tale, not just for would-be billionaires but also to all of us. We reap what we sow and if we choose our own egos over actual human interaction, we too could wind up endlessly refreshing a computer screen, waiting for a friend request acceptance that never comes.

REASONS TO GO: Compelling story and some intense performances. Eisenberg is particularly marvelous in a role that is quite frankly unlikable.

REASONS TO STAY: The portrayal of Harvard students is so self-aggrandizing at times it makes you wonder if our species has any future.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a surfeit of drug usage, quite a bit of sexuality and no shortage of foul language. Older teens should be able to handle this, but more impressionable teens should be steered clear.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Finch was unable to find suitable twin actors to portray the Winklevoss twins, so he cast Hammer and Josh Pence who have similar body types, then digitally inserted video of Hammer reading the lines over Pence’s face to create the illusion of identical twins.

HOME OR THEATER: Nothing here screams big screen, so you can be forgiven if you wait for the home video release.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: The Importance of Being Earnest (2002)