Goodbye Christopher Robin


A lovely father, son and bear moment from the Hundred Acre Woods.

(2017) Biographical Drama (Fox Searchlight) Domhnall Gleeson, Margot Robbie, Kelly Macdonald, Will Tilston, Alex Lawther, Stephen Campbell Moore, Richard McCabe, Geraldine Somerville, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Shaun Dingwall, Tommy Rodger, Sam Barnes, Mark Tandy, Richard Dixon, Nicholas Richardson, Ann Thwaite, Allegra Marland, Victoria Bavister. Directed by Simon Curtis

 

The Winnie the Pooh stories and children’s books are among the most beloved on the planet. Who doesn’t long for the simpler times of the Hundred Acre Woods, the love and affection of Eeyore, Piglet, Tigger and of course Pooh himself? When the books were originally written between the wars, they were tonic for the troops, taking a country that had lost so much in the Great War and if not healing at least allowing those wounded and broken by the horrors of World War I to escape it for awhile.

The author, A. A. Milne (Gleeson) was himself  a soldier in that war, fighting in such places as the Battle of the Somme. When he arrived home, he suffered from what was at the time called shell shock but is better known today as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The backfires of cars, popped champagne corks and balloons bursting were enough to trigger Milne with terrifying flashbacks to the war; London had become intolerable for him so he hauled his young bride Daphne (Robbie) to the countryside of East Essex and set about trying to heal.

Shortly thereafter, Daphne gave birth to Christopher Robin (Tilston) whom his parents dubbed Billy Moon. Like most upper class parents of the time, they enlisted a nanny – Olive (Macdonald) whom Billy named Nou – to do the bulk of the child rearing. Daphne disliked the country life immensely, missing the parties and the culture of London and eventually went back to the big city, with no firm date as to when she might return. To add to Milne’s misery, Nou was also obliged to return home due to a family crisis, forcing Milne to spend time with his tow-headed son.

Against all odds the two end up bonding and Milne finds solace in the little adventures that the two set up for Billy’s beloved stuffed bear Pooh. Milne becomes compelled to write the stories down, first as a poem and then as children’s books which prove to be wildly popular. Daphne and Nou both return home and the family basks in the success for a short time.

But the public clamors to meet “the real Christopher Robin” and the clueless parents aren’t above trotting their progeny around for personal appearances, interviews and publicity stunts without a thought of what this might be doing to the boy. With Milne writing sequels and the demand growing exponentially, the real Christopher Robin begins to wonder if he himself is as loved as the fictional one by his parents and the resentment begins to grow and grow and grow.

Considering the joy and lightness of the Pooh books, this is a dark tale indeed and parents thinking that this is suitable for young children brought up on the Disney versions of the characters should be dissuaded from that thought. The themes here are very serious and adult and some of the scenes of war and its aftermath are likely to produce nightmares in the very young.

The odd thing is that most of the people in this film are thoroughly unlikable; Daphne who is a whining harpy who is completely self-centered (it is well known that in reality her son refused to speak to her for the last 15 years of her life), A.A. (called Blue by his friends) who was also self-absorbed and nearly broken and even young Billie Moon acts out an awful lot (understandably). Only Nou comes off as genuine, sweet and caring; fortunately for us she’s also the narrator In fact Macdonald just about steals the show here but I think it’s because the character is a life preserver in a stormy sea of selfishness throughout the film.

Although the film is said to be “inspired by true events” I understand that the filmmakers stuck pretty close to the facts which makes this almost tragic. There are moments of magic, yes, but Milne’s condition is so often and so thoroughly thrust in our faces that after awhile we want to grab Curtis and yell in his face “WE GET IT!!!!” The story of the creation of one of children’s literature’s most beloved characters is not a happy one and while I admire the warts and all portrayal of the Milne family, at the end I was longing for an escape into the magic of the Hundred Acre Wood myself.

REASONS TO GO: Kelly Macdonald gives a marvelous performance as the nanny. The film really picks up momentum during the middle third.
REASONS TO STAY: Tilston is a bit overbearing. The filmmakers overplay the PTSD element.
FAMILY VALUES: There are depictions of bullying, war violence, brief profanity and themes about coping with the aftermath of war and of parental exploitation.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The real Christopher Robin had one daughter, Claire, who was born with Cerebral Palsy. She passed away in 2012 at the age of 56, 16 years after her father did.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/15/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 64% Positive Reviews. Metacritic: 54/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Finding Neverland
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Daddy’s Home 2

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Far Out Isn’t Far Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story


Tomi Ungerer knows how to take a bite out of life.

Tomi Ungerer knows how to take a bite out of life.

(2012) Documentary (Corner of the Cave) Tomi Ungerer, Maurice Sendak, Jules Feiffer, Michael Patrick Hearn, Patrick Skene Catling, Steven Heller, Burton Pike, Patrick Joseph Sheehan. Directed by Brad Bernstein   

Florida Film Festival 2013

 

Children’s books are a big business. Dr. Seuss is a household name after all. There have been other authors – Maurice Sendak, Martin Handford, Margaret Wise Brown and Jo Rowling – who have made a good living at influencing young minds and stirring up young imaginations.

Another name on that list should be Tomi Ungerer. Unless you’re my age or older, his name might not be familiar. In the 60s, he was one of the most popular and highly-regarded illustrator and writer of children’s books that there was. He had created such books as Crictor, The Three Robbers, Flat Stanley and Moon Man.

He was born in Strasbourg and was quite young when his father passed away. Not long after that, the Nazis invaded France and in Strasbourg, a city near the French and German border, French was forbidden. Young Tomi learned to speak German (although his mother defiantly spoke French) and became so fluent in it that even today he speaks with a distinctly Germanic accent, so much so that many assume he’s Austrian or German.

After the war he emigrated to New York City, believing (correctly as it turned out) that he could make his fortune here. He had always loved to draw and had become quite good at it. Inspired by the line drawings style of the New Yorker, he got a job with a children’s publishing house (Harper & Row) and soon became very familiar with the top of the bestseller’s lists. Although a bit on the eccentric side, he was tolerated because his books were selling.

As the 60s wore on, Ungerer – whose sympathies lay with the counterculture – produced a number of posters protesting the Vietnam War. He also created a book of erotic drawings called The Underground Sketchbook followed by Fornicon,  a book that not only was erotic but satire as well, commenting on the increasing mechanization of sex.

That was all it took. Abruptly Ungerer’s services were no longer needed. His books were pulled from the shelves and remained so for decades (some of his books only recently returned to print and others remain so). Eventually Ungerer fled New York for Newfoundland where he worked briefly as a pig farmer – by that time he was married with children and had to do something to support them. Eventually he relocated to Cork in Ireland where he remains today.

In his 80s, Ungerer remains something of a gadfly. The filmmaker (a veteran of VH1’s Behind the Music series) effectively utilizes Ungerer’s artwork and animations to great effect, interweaving talking head interviews, archival footage and home movies to flesh out Ungerer the man. As interesting as the art is, Ungerer himself is even more fascinating. He has lived several lifetimes and seen so much – yet he retains that eye that artists have, that personality that allows them to see life through eyes that reject the normal while understanding it.

I found this to be fascinating stuff. I was familiar with his name more than I was with individual artwork or books – although I’m the right age, I don’t remember having any of his books in the house (my mom and sister might chime in and disagree but I simply don’t remember them if we had any) and watching the movie his style looked familiar but not overly so. I might have wished to spend more time looking at his drawings but then there’s always a visit to the museum devoted to his work in Strasbourg. I even have a good friend who lives in the area.

REASONS TO GO: Ungerer is an engaging presence. His work speaks for itself. Brings his story and artwork back into the public eye.

REASONS TO STAY: Some folks might find his point of view and art offensive.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some artistic nudity and sexual humor.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Like many films of late, this one got much of its funding from a Kickstarter campaign.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/14/13: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet; has been firmly established on the festival circuit.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Crumb

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Shepard and Dark

Rosemary’s Baby


Rosemary's Baby
And baby makes three.

(Paramount) Mia Farrow, John Cassavetes, Ruth Gordon, Sidney Blackmer, Ralph Bellamy, Maurice Evans, Angela Dorian, Elisha Cook Jr., Patsy Kelly, Charles Grodin. Directed by Roman Polanski

The trouble with evil is that it is unpredictable. There are rarely situations in which you can point to something and say “that’s evil” and avoid it; sometimes evil emerges from subtle and unassuming sources – even things that we would normally consider good.

Guy Woodhouse (Cassavetes) is a struggling actor living in New York. He and his wife Rosemary (Farrow) are looking for an apartment that is bigger than the one they live in because they are planning to have a family soon. They find the Bramford on Central Park, a tony address and find the perfect apartment with a gorgeous view that had just become available.

While many of the residents of the Bramford are elderly, Rosemary still has friends from her previous life, none closer than Hutch (Evans), a writer of children’s books. While Rosemary paints and decorates her new apartment, she does meet one young lady, Terry (Dorian), an ex-drug addict who has been taken in as a ward by a couple that lives next door – Roman (Blackmer) and Minnie Castevet (Gordon).

Shortly after that, Terry commits suicide and the Castevets and Woodhouses meet for the first time. The Castevets invite their new neighbors over for dinner afterwards when Rosemary speaks kindly to Minnie about their recently deceased ward. Guy is reluctant at first – he’s just lost out on a plum role to another actor – but he relents and he actually winds up enjoying the company of the much-travelled Roman and his busybody wife.

Despite Guy’s career shortcomings, he and Rosemary decide it’s the right time to get pregnant. Minnie brings over a chocolate mousse that seems tasty but winds up knocking Rosemary out. She has a strange dream afterward of being raped by a beast-like demon. Soon after that, she discovers that she’s pregnant. Her obstetrician, Dr. Hill (Grodin) puts her on vitamins but Minnie won’t hear of it. She’s close with Dr. Abe Saperstein (Bellamy), one of the best-known obstetricians in New York if not the world. She arranges for Rosemary to be one of his patients.

Although Rosemary is suffering from a weird, constant pain, Dr. Saperstein tells her that it’s normal and refuses to prescribe anything for it. In the meantime, the actor that had gotten the part Guy wanted had mysteriously gone blind and the part was now Guy’s. It turns out to be precisely the break Guy was looking for.

Rosemary and Guy are deliriously happy, but all isn’t as it seems, particularly those who seem the friendliest towards them. A monstrous conspiracy is afoot and Rosemary becomes paranoid, particularly when people she knows begin to die off mysteriously. Soon she realizes that she’s alone against a powerful evil, one that wants her unborn baby – but for what purpose?

This is a classic of the horror genre, and in many ways it’s not even a horror movie. Director Polanski, for whom this was his first American film, creates an atmosphere of growing menace that becomes so palpable even the viewer at home gets caught up in it. There isn’t much gore (mostly seen in the death of Terry) and all the violence happens off-screen for the most part (even the rape is more suggested than seen) but still you’re given a firm grasp of the evil surrounding Rosemary and find yourself immersed in her struggle to escape it.

The movie was based on a noted bestseller by Ira Levin which I’ve actually read – the movie follows it nearly word for word (legend has it that because Polanski had never adapted another work for the screen before, he didn’t realize that he could make changes of his own). As the movie progresses, the outcome seems inevitable but still there’s a twist at the end that back in 1968 when the movie was released took audiences completely by surprise – most modern audiences however are aware of the twist simply because it has been so widely associated with the movie since then. That’s a shame because the movie works much better if you aren’t aware how it ends.

Even so, the movie’s main weapon is Farrow. Her performance as Rosemary is so ordinary, so naïve but so completely believable that she nails Polanski and Levin’s vision of Rosemary as the Girl Next Door caught up in a horror greater than she can imagine. By the time she realizes what’s going on, it’s far too late.

Gordon and Blackmer also give fine supporting performances as the Castevets; they have the right attitude to be the consummate New York elderly busybody couple, Gordon’s accent almost Yiddish in places. While the characters are certainly products of their time, they still manage to give off no menace other than in underlying ways that when you look back at the movie, you realize they were creepy all along and you just didn’t realize it. It’s amazing work by any standard.

While this movie is well over forty years old, it has held up well. I watched it again the other night while Da Queen lay sleeping (she finds horror movies too disturbing) and realized that if it had been released last Friday, it would still be just as effective today as it was back then. Horror movies rarely get any better than this one.

WHY RENT THIS: Polanski creates a mood so creepy and troubling that the viewer feels the whole time that something is completely wrong.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: There is little gore and only a few scenes of outright horror which may not meet the standards of modern horror fans.

FAMILY VALUES: While relatively tame by our standards, it does depict a rape and there is a good deal of talk about female pregnancy as well as a good deal of smoking and drinking. There is also some female nudity. While it received an R rating at the time of its release, I would think that it would be adequate viewing for most mature teenagers.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The voice on the phone of the actor who had gone blind, clearing the way for Guy to get the part was an uncredited Tony Curtis. Farrow was unaware who she was talking to, although she recognized the voice she couldn’t place the name. Also, the movie was filmed at the Dakota, the apartment complex on Central Park later made infamous by being the location where John Lennon was murdered.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The pickings are rather slim. There’s an interesting retro interview with Polanski, producer Robert Evans and production designer Richard Sylbert. There is also an original making-of feature that is fascinating as a historical artifact.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: Secretariat

Elf


Elf

Buddy and Santa must work together to save Christmas in Central Park.

(New Line) Will Ferrell, James Caan, Mary Steenburgen, Bob Newhart, Ed Asner, Zooey Deschanel, Michael Tay, Faizon Love, Peter Dinklage, Amy Sedaris, Michael Lerner, Andy Richter, Kyle Gass, Artie Lang. Directed by Jon Favreau

Not everyone can be an elf. These small creatures are industrious, cheerful and limber, making them the perfect workforce for Santa. Nearly all of them, anyway.

Buddy (Ferrell) is an elf who isn’t an elf. He’s a human, an orphaned baby who crawled into Santa’s sack one Christmas and hitched a ride all the way to the North Pole. Santa (Asner), unwilling to send him back to the orphanage, leaves him in the charge of Papa Elf (Newhart) who wanted a family of his own but never had the time to go get one.

As time goes by, it becomes very apparent that Ferrell doesn’t fit into the elfin world – literally. He’s big and clumsy compared to the other elves and while his heart is in the right place, he just doesn’t have the skills. Finally, Santa takes pity on him and tells him where he can find his birth father – in New York City. Unfortunately, Buddy’s birth mother had passed away some time before.

Said birth father, Walter (Caan) is a hard man, a publisher of children’s books who doesn’t have any child in him, unless he happened to eat one at lunch. He greets the possibility of an out-of-wedlock son in a green tunic and yellow tights with all the enthusiasm of an agoraphobic forced to sing the national anthem at the Super Bowl.

Once Buddy name-drops his birth mother’s name, Walter realizes that there might be something to the whacko’s story and hustles him down to the family doctor for the world’s fastest genetic test and in no-time, is welcomed to the family by Walter’s saint of a wife Emily (Steenburgen) and plucky son Michael (Tay).

Of course, Buddy gets into trouble, working in the mail room at Walter’s publishing house and at Gimbel’s, a department store that used to be the chief rival of Macy’s but has been closed for quite awhile, even before this movie was made. There, he meets Jovie (Deschanel), a cute-as-a-button seasonal worker who likes to sing in the shower and might be a match made in Macy’s for the love-struck Buddy – or would have been if it hadn’t been at Gimbel’s.

The movie serves notice that it’s going to be irreverent from the opening, when Elves are shown fleeing an unfortunate fire in the Keebler tree, and it is throughout – Dinklage makes an impressive cameo as the world’s nastiest-tempered children’s book author, whom Walter is courting in a last-ditch effort to save his job at the publishing firm.

Favreau, who would go on to direct Iron Man, has a deft comedic touch and a good understanding of special effects. Many of the effects that have to do with Buddy towering over the elves are done with an old camera trick called forced perspective, where Ferrell stands closer to the camera to appear larger than those in the background.

He has also assembled an impressive cast, led by Ferrell who is at his best here. Ferrell can be an amiable sort when he isn’t dumbing down (as he does in Step-Brothers) and he plays Buddy with a lot of heart and a sweet tooth the size of Mt. Everest. The supporting cast is magnificent as well. Getting to see veterans like Asner, Newhart and Caan together is always a treat, and Steenburgen adds a touch of class.

Deschanel is one of my favorite actresses and she does shine here to a certain extent, although there are times that she is just so darn hip and cool that it overwhelms her cuteness and makes it seem like she’s in another indie film instead of a major studio family event movie. That can be mildly distracting at times, as well as the bashing over our heads of the fish out of water thing with Buddy in New York. I realize he’s supposed to be naïve, but there’s a difference between naïve and outright stupid and it crosses the line of stupid every so often.

Still, these are essentially minor complaints and this is a marvelous Christmas holiday movie. It’s funny enough to rival Saturday Night Live in some places, and charming enough to fill you full of holiday cheer. That’s the kind of gift that keeps on giving, don’t you think?

WHY RENT THIS: A very sweet-natured film. Indie darling Deschanel slums on a major studio release and nearly steals it. Any movie that has Newhart, Asner and Caan in it is worth seeing regardless of the subject. Dinklage’s cameo is hysterical.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The plot is dumb in some places. Deschanel is so cool and hip she’s almost in a different movie.

FAMILY VALUES: Definitely a kid favorite.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: All of the names on Santa’s nice list that he shows to Michael are members of the film crew.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The DVD comes in an Infinifilm version, with regular opportunities to stop the movie and watch a feature pertaining to what is onscreen. Da Queen and I love Infinifilm. The Blu-Ray comes with something similar. There are some games and such on the DVD which are oddly missing on the Blu-Ray.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Holly and the Quill continues