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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Victoria & Abdul


It’s good to be the Queen!

(2017) Biographical Drama (Focus) Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Tim Pigott-Smith, Eddie Izzard, Adeel Akhtar, Michael Gambon, Paul Higgins, Olivia Williams, Fenella Woolgar, Julian Wadham, Rubin Soans, Ruth McCabe, Simon Callow, Sukh Ojia, Kemaal Deen-Ellis, Simon Paisley Day, Amani Zardoe, Sophie Trott, Penny Ryder. Directed by Stephen Frears

 

Queen Victoria is one of the more fascinating personages in British history. Most Americans only know caricatures of the monarch; “We are not amused.” Most Americans aren’t aware that she presided over what can be only termed as the golden age of the British empire and her iron will held that empire together until it began to crumble in the first half of the 20th century, long after she was dead.

As the Golden Jubilee of her reign is underway, the Indian subjects of Queen Victoria (Dench) mean to present her with a commemorative coin. Prison clerk Abdul Karim (Fazal) is sent to carry the coin to England, mainly because of his height. He is accompanied by Mohammed (Akhtar), an acid-tongued sort who finds England much too cold and the people much too uncivilized.

The head of the household (Pigott-Smith) gives the Indians detailed and voluminous instructions on how to behave in the Royal presence. Victoria herself is in the twilight of her life. Nearly every one of her contemporaries are gone and she lives isolated in a palace full of sharks, all jockeying for positions of favor. She feels utterly alone and has little to do but sleep and eat, plowing through her meals with gusto, so much so that her courtiers have difficulty keeping up before the course is taken away and a new one delivered.

Abdul seemingly can sense her loneliness and ignores the rules of protocol, looking the monarch in the eye and smiling, even kissing her royal feet upon their second meeting. Victoria, unused to be treated as a person rather than a symbol, is gratified and decides to keep Abdul on as a servant and eventually as an adviser and munshi, or teacher. He teaches her Urdu and waxes poetic about the land of his birth; the stories of the Taj Mahal in his native Agra and the amazing architecture of his people.

But the favor Abdul experiences with the legendary monarch disturbs and eventually angers the British court. Some of it is due to the incipient racism of the English upper classes of the time, and Abdul experiences plenty of that. However, much of it is due to the fact that they want to have the Queen’s ear the way Abdul does and soon plots to rid the court of Abdul begin to thicken, led by the Queen’s son Prince Bertie (Izzard) who would later become Edward VII. Further isolating the Queen would play into nearly everyone’s ambitions.

Dench is maybe the best British actress of the last 20 years with essentially only Helen Mirren to compete with her. Like the Victoria she portrays here, she is in the twilight of her career; at 82 and with her eyesight beginning to fail, she has talked seriously about retiring and in any case the on-screen performances left to her are dwindling; it behooves us to enjoy the ones she has left and this one is a mighty good one, already garnering a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress in a Musical or Comedy.

The costumes are sumptuous as is the production design as you would imagine. They are good enough that they are very strong contenders for Oscar nominations, particularly the former. Frears knows how to make a dazzling environment for his actors to work in and this is no different. Frears is one of the best British directors of his generation; he’s 78 now and like Dench, is approaching the end of his career. It makes sense that he would choose this period of Victoria’s life to film. He has set the bar high for himself and sadly, this movie doesn’t quite meet it despite the best efforts of Dench.

You’ll notice that I haven’t really mentioned a lot about the second name in the title. It’s not that Fazal doesn’t do well in his role; he certainly is more than adequate. The problem is that we see Abdul mainly as the sweet-natured teacher, who accepts whatever petty insults come his way with a bowed head and a sad smile. At times you get a sense that Abdul may have ulterior motives but there really is no follow-up. He remains an enigma through most of the movie which is strange because the book this is based on relied extensively on his diary for the information.

I don’t suppose that people who aren’t into history (Great Britain in particular) or into England in general are going to want to see this and that’s a sad commentary into how we have become a culture of avoiding any sort of knowledge or understanding. Then again, the movie fails to provide any insight into Indian culture although we get a good look at what was going on in the British nobility in the latter years of the 19th century. Considering how Abdul is treated by the movie, they may as well have just called the movie Victoria and be done with it. Dench is by far the best reason to see this movie but even her stellar efforts can’t quite overcome the movie’s shortcomings.

REASONS TO GO: Judi Dench delivers a strong performance. There is likely going to be an Oscar nomination for Best Costumes.
REASONS TO STAY: Not one of Stephen Frears’ best efforts. Those who aren’t into British history will likely find nothing of value here.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief profanity and some adult thematic elements.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the second time Dench has portrayed Queen Victoria, Mrs. Brown (1997) being the first.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Frontier, Google Play, iTunes, Movies Anywhere, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/7/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 65% positive reviews. Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Young Victoria
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Geostorm

The Man Who Invented Christmas


God bless us every one? Bah, humbug!

(2017) Biographical Drama (Bleecker Street) Dan Stevens, Christopher Plummer, Jonathan Pryce, Simon Callow, Anna Murphy, Justin Edwards, Miriam Margolyes, Morfydd Clark, Ger Ryan, Ian McNeice, Bill Patterson, Donald Sumpter, Miles Jupp, Cosimo Fusco, Annette Badland, Eddie Jackson, Sean Duggan, Degnan Geraghty, David McSavage, Valeria Bandino. Directed by Bharat Nalluri

 

One of the most beloved and most adapted stories of all time is Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. What some folks might not know is that Dickens wrote, had illustrated and self-published the work in an amazing (for the era) six weeks. It was a massive hit on the heels of three straight flops which had begun to lead the publishing world to question whether he was the real thing or a flash in the pan. He was on the verge of financial ruin when Scrooge, Marley, Tiny Tim and company rescued him.

As we meet Dickens (Stevens) the financial pressures have become overwhelming. He and his wife Kate (Clark) are undergoing an expensive renovation of their home complete with plenty of Italian marble; the last three books after the unquestioned success of Oliver Twist have under-performed and his friend/manager John Forster (Edwards) tells him that his publishers are clamoring for a success and an advance is out of the question.

A story told to his children by Irish maid Brigid (Murphy) gives Dickens the idea of a Christmas-set ghost story but he is in the throes of an anxiety-fueled writer’s block that is threatening his entire career. A chance meeting with a grumpy old man gives him the idea of a miser at the center of the story and once he comes up with the name for the character – Ebeneezer Scrooge (Plummer) – he materializes and starts to argue with Dickens on the direction of the book. People who surround Dickens start to become various characters in the novella; a lawyer becomes Marley (Sumpter), a nephew becomes Tiny Tim, a couple dancing in the festive streets of London become the Fezziwigs and so on.

To make matters worse, Dickens’ spendthrift father John (Pryce) and mother (Ryan) drop by for an extended stay. Dickens and his father have a strained relationship at best and the constant interruptions begin to fray the author’s nerves. Worse still, the novella is needed in time for Christmas which gives him a scant six weeks to write and arrange for illustration of the book with one of England’s premier artists (Callow). Kate is beginning to be concerned that all the pressure is getting to her husband who is at turns irritable and angry, then kind and compassionate. She senses that he is going to break if something isn’t done and time is running out.

I have to admit I didn’t have very high expectations for this film. I had a feeling it was going to be something of a Hallmark movie and for the first thirty minutes of the film I was right on target. However a funny thing happened on the way to the end of the movie: it got better. A lot better, as a matter of fact. The movie turns out to be extremely entertaining and heartwarming in a non-treacly way.

Stevens, one of the stars that emerged from Downton Abbey, does a credible job with Dickens although at times he seems unsure of what direction to take him. Plummer could do Scrooge in his sleep if need be but gives the character the requisite grumpiness and a delightful venal side that makes one  think that Plummer would be magnificent in a straight presentation of the story.

This is based on a non-fiction book of the same title that I have a feeling is more close to what actually occurred than this is, but one of the things that captured my attention was the dynamic between father and son. Certainly Dickens was scarred by his father’s imprisonment in a debtor’s prison when he was 12, forcing him to work in a horrific shoe black factory and from which much of his passion for social justice was born.

The entourage of characters from the story that follow Dickens around is delightful. Of course, the movie shows Dickens getting an attitude adjustment and growing closer to his family thanks to his writing of the novella and who knows how accurate that truly is but one likes to believe that someone who helped make Christmas what it is today got the kind of faith in family and humanity that he inspired in others.

This has the feeling of a future holiday perennial. The kids will love the whimsical characters that not only inform the characters in the story but fire up Dickens’ imagination; the adults will appreciate the family dynamics and all will love the ending which is just about perfect. This is the kind of Christmas movie that reminds us that we are all “fellow passengers on the way to the grave” as Dickens puts it and the kind of Christmas movie that Hollywood shies away from lately. I truly wish they would get back to making movies like this one.

REASONS TO GO: A thoroughly entertaining and truly heartwarming film.  The portrayal of the relationship between Dickens and his father is intriguing.
REASONS TO STAY: Starts off slowly but after the first thirty minutes or so improves greatly.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity as well as adult themes in the film.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The majority of the cast are trained Shakespearean actors, many of whom have appeared in a variety of adaptations of Dickens’ work through the years.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/23/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Finding Neverland
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Big Sick

The Mummy (2017)


Tom Cruise and Annabelle Wallis are up in the air waiting on the future of the Dark Universe.

(2017) Horror (Universal) Tom Cruise, Russell Crowe, Sofia Boutella, Annabelle Wallis, Jake Johnson, Courtney B. Vance, Marwan Kenzari, Simon Atherton, Stephen Thompson, James Arama, Matthew Wilkas, Sohm Kapila, Sean Cameron Mitchell, Rez Kempton, Erol Ismail, Selva Rasalingam, Shanina Shaik, Javier Botet, Hadrian Howard, Dylan Smith, Parker Sawyers, Bella Georgiou. Directed by Alex Kurtzman

 

Given that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has become a license to print money for Disney, it’s no wonder that shared universes are all the rage in Hollywood. A shared universe differs from a franchise in that whereas franchise films feature the same characters appearing in different films that are literal sequels, a shared universe has different characters appearing in different films that share a common background and often different characters appear in the films of other characters.

Universal has decided to throw their hat into the ring with the Dark Universe, a shared cinematic universe featuring their classic monsters which if you ask me is a tip-top idea; back in the heyday of Universal monster movies, the studio made big bucks when they would have films with three or four of their monsters sharing screen time in the same movie so in a way they have already done the shared universe thing. Can they it work in the 21st century?

Nick Morton (Cruise) is a U.S. Army officer who moonlights as a soldier of fortune “liberating” ancient artifacts from the various countries he serves in and selling them on the black market. Nick is not so much amoral as he is self-serving and his sidekick Vail (Johnson) knows it. When they are ambushed by insurgents during a long reconnaissance in Iraq, Nick calls in an airstrike which in turn reveals an ancient Egyptian tomb.

Nick’s superior Colonel Greenway (Vance) enlists archaeologist Jennifer Halsey (Wallis) to examine the tomb which she reports is more like a prison. Nick discovers a sarcophagus inside a pool of mercury and raises it. With the insurgents returning, Greenway orders the sarcophagus put on an army transport plane and sent to England for further study.

What Nick doesn’t know is that the tomb is that of Ahmanet (Boutella), an ambitious Egyptian princess in line for the throne until one of Pharaoh’s concubines gives birth to a son. Knowing this will relegate her to the sidelines, she slaughters her entire family and prepares her lover to be sacrificed so that the spirit of the evil god Set can take over his body but the pharaoh’s guards discover what she is up to and for her awful crimes she is sentenced to be mummified alive.

What Nick also doesn’t know is that his pal Vail has been bitten by a camel spider which was controlled by the evil princess and is now controlled by Ahmanet. On board the transport he goes on a rampage in an effort to free the mummy but is killed; Ahmanet instead sends a massive flock of crows to bring the plane down. Nick at the last moment puts a parachute on Jennifer and sends her out the door. He is apparently killed in the plane crash.

The thing is, he’s not quite dead yet. He wakes up and nobody is more mystified than he as to why he’s still alive. However, Vail’s ghost informs him (in a conceit right out of American Werewolf in London) that Nick has been marked by Ahmanet to be the new vessel for Set, completing her bargain with the god and giving her unlimited power on Earth. However, in order to do that she’s is going to have to find two relics – a ruby and a dagger – that are hidden in England.

Nick finds out that Jennifer is an employee of a company called Prodigium which was created to fight supernatural enemies on Earth by a man named Henry Jekyll (Crowe), a brilliant scientist who harbors a secret that pretty much everybody knows he won’t be able to Hyde. Stopping Ahmanet is job one at the moment. However, Ahmanet has been busy. She’s been regenerating by feeding on the living and her powers to control the dead are growing. Nick knows he can run but he can’t hide – he and Ahmanet have a psychic connection now. How do you fight against a monster that has virtually unlimited power?

Most people are going to compare this to the 1999 version of The Mummy. Do yourself a favor and don’t, as hard as it is not to have that film in your head when watching this one. The Brendan Fraser version is a rollicking roller coaster ride that is sheer entertainment from beginning to end. This one is far more ponderous. Kurtzman, a veteran writer, has penned some big movies for some big franchises and who has been placed in creative control of the Dark Universe. He’s indulging in some world building here and that might be understandable but the problem is that he’s really cramming way too much into a single movie. Things get convoluted and while the Prodigium stuff is fascinating, the ancient Egyptian backstory is not. This feels less fun and more of a chore to get through so that the other movies can come along and fit in to the sandbox Kurtzman and his fellow writers are constructing. That’s not how you want to feel coming out of a big summer tentpole movie, particularly one in which you want to establish a billion dollar franchise. This has the feel of a movie-by-committee.

Cruise is beginning to show some signs of middle age but he still has the smile wattage and the screen presence to pull this off. Crowe makes Jekyll an enigma who you want to learn more about; both of these performances bode well for future ventures. Boutella also makes a pretty decent movie monster. She’s sexy AND scary, a nice combination. Wallis is less memorable although I think that’s more a function of the writing and less of her performance.

The CGI is less than sparkling; it’s not that it is out and out bad, it’s just not exciting. These days the CGI has to dazzle to a certain degree and here it merely fills in the gaps. I will say that the plane crash sequence here is flat-out amazing; it’s truly the highlight of the film and is a scene I wouldn’t mind seeing again. Not enough to want to buy the movie though.

Kurtzman is packing too many elements in here. We see bits of Indiana Jones, of the aforementioned American Werewolf and even Aliens. The whole movie feels ponderous and derivative where it should be fun and exciting, or at least scary as hell. The movie ends up being not so much boring as unimaginative and lacking in any reason to want to see the scheduled follow-up Bride of Frankenstein (which has since been yanked from the Universal release schedule – something tells me some major re-tooling is underway). When you’re trying to establish a new cinematic universe, that’s the opposite of the effect you want your movie to have on your audience.

REASONS TO GO: The character of Henry Jekyll and the Prodigium backstory have potential.
REASONS TO STAY: Too many elements borrowed liberally from much better films make this less of a thrill ride than the 1999 version.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of violence, action and scary images; there’s also a smattering of sexually suggestive material including some brief partial nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: With this film and his starring role in American Made, this is the first time since 2012 that Cruise has starred in more than one film in the same calendar year.
BEYOND THE THEATERS:  Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/10/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 16% positive reviews. Metacritic: 34/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Loving Vincent

Wonder Woman


Gal Gadot takes aim at stardom.

(2017) Superhero (Warner Brothers) Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Connie Nielsen, Robin Wright, Danny Huston, David Thewlis, Said Taghmaoui, Ewen Bremner, Eugene Brave Rock, Lucy Davis, Elena Anaya, Lilly Aspell, Lisa Loven Kongsli, Ann J. Wolfe, Ann Ogbomo, Emily Carey, James Cosmo, Wolf Kahler, Alexander Mercury, Martin Bishop, Flora Nicholson. Directed by Patty Jenkins

 

In a world where superheroes are nearly all men, the superhero movie reigns supreme at the moment. Audiences of superhero fans – also mostly male – have been streaming to these films for more than a decade, buoyed by advances in CGI technology which enable the deeds and superpowers to be rendered to live action. It’s a great time to be a fanboy.

But what about the women? While it’s true there are not very many female superheroes at either of the two major comic book houses – DC and Marvel – compared to male ones, there definitely are some and there have been few female-centric superhero movies, the not-well-remembered Elektra being the last one back in 2005. The most iconic distaff super heroine – DC’s Wonder Woman – hasn’t had a movie of her own, until now. Although her TV series starring Lynda Carter in the title role is fondly remembered from back in the 70s, there was a certain element of camp to it that gave it less serious consideration – which in many ways was true of all superhero TV shows until recently. Now it’s different for this is the age of the super heroine.

Diana of Themyscira (Gadot) lives on an island of all female Amazon warriors. Her mother Hippolyta (Nielsen) is reluctant for her daughter to be trained in the arts of war, although her aunt Antiope (Wright) trains her in secret, recognizing that Diana is destined for greatness. When Hippolyta finds out, she is furious and Diana becomes frustrated, chafing at the bit to learn how to fight from her aunt who is widely acknowledged to be the greatest of all Amazon warriors.

The world of Themyscira has been hidden from the world of Men and for good reason but all this comes to an end when a biplane carrying an American spy, Steve Trevor (Pine), splashes into the lagoon of Themyscira. The First World War is raging in Europe and when a German flotilla of ships chasing Trevor manages to find Themyscira, an all-out battle rages on the sands of their beach. They manage to defeat the Germans but at great cost.

Diana finds out more about the conflict and immediately recognizes the hand of Ares, God of War, in the insanity. Bound and determined to go and kill Ares and thus save the world, she gets reluctant but tacit approval from her mother to go. Diana reaches the London of 1919 and it is a confusing place to her. However, Trevor reports to the war council that Germany’s General Ludendorff (Huston) is planning on unleashing a new poison gas perfected by the mad Dr. Maru (Anaya) – who is known among the rank and file as Doctor Poison – that could turn the tide of the war. Sir Patrick (Thewlis), a Parliamentarian who alone seems to take Diana seriously, sends Trevor and Diana deep into Germany to find and destroy the factory manufacturing the poison gas.

Trevor and Diana are accompanied by three of Trevor’s operatives; Chief (Brave Rock), Sameer (Taghmaoui) and Charlie (Bremner). The five of them pass beyond enemy lines to witness the horrors of war and of the world of men firsthand. Diana’s sensibilities are thrown into disarray but she must put that all aside if she is going to save millions of lives. In order to do that however she is going to have to confront a god.

There has been much critical praise here with some critics stumbling all over themselves to label this a feminist superhero movie. I don’t really know how to react to that; part of me doesn’t think that the term “feminist” has a very strict definition to be honest. There are all sorts of feminists believing in all sorts of ideals. I imagine you could shoehorn Wonder Woman into a category that believes that women can be superheroes and just as badass as men can and I would be okay with defining this as a feminist film from that standpoint.

One thing positive I think the movie will do is dispel the Hollywood myth that women directors can’t do big budget action CGI films, James Cameron’s criticisms notwithstanding. Clearly Jenkins proves here that she can handle the many facets that go into a production of this magnitude and in some ways comes out with a product better than that produced by a number of Hollywood heavyweights. No longer can women directors be ghettoized into smaller more intimate films about love, feelings and empowerment which seemed to be all Hollywood – and indie producers as well – were letting women direct. Who wouldn’t want to see a woman handling a Star Wars film or a war epic after seeing this?

Gal Gadot is one reason the movie succeeds. She has always had screen presence in her supporting roles; here she proves that she has more than enough to tackle a lead role in a Hollywood blockbuster. She handles the fight scenes convincingly (not true for all A-list Hollywood men) but then again she actually served in the Israeli army, an organization that knows a thing or two about kicking butt. She also does well with the comic overtones during her fish out of water scenes in London. In fact, I wish there would have been more of this element to the film – Gadot is that good.

There is a lot to be said about the set design here. Everything is terrific, from the imaginative Themyscira sets (shot on the Amalfi coast in Italy) to the note-perfect London of the Great War era. The world we see may be fantastic but it is always believable and there is much to be said for that. The action sequences are also imaginatively staged with one exception and I’ll get to that in a moment.

The movie falls down on two fronts; first, that irritating theme music first introduced in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. We hear it again and again in this film and quite frankly it makes me want to stick a power drill in my ear. Secondly, the climactic battle is a nighttime set everything but the kitchen sink battle royal between Diana, Ares, the German army and Team Trevor. There is a lot of flying debris and dimly lit action sequences. It’s overwhelming considering the CGI overkill and I thought it almost came from a different movie, although there is a distinctly femme point of view to how the scene is resolved and that, I must admit, was much appreciated.

There was much buzz surrounding this film, which was heralded as a different take on superheroes. Wonder Woman, one of the most iconic characters in the DC Comics pantheon was finally getting her own live action big screen extravaganza and the film was to be directed by – *gasp* – a woman. Never mind that eight out of the ten producers are men as well as all five credited screenwriters; the glass ceiling has been shattered at last.

As any woman will tell you – well, not really. Certainly strides are made here and there is hope for the future as Marvel has a female superhero film (directed by a woman) in the pipeline and given its impressive box office receipts there is definitely going to be a sequel to this film and Jenkins is in line to direct it, although if she passes it will likely give another female director a chance to shine. This is to my mind the best DC comic book film not directed by Richard Donner, Tim Burton or Christopher Nolan and certainly a huge step for the DCEU (DC Extended Universe) to establish itself as a contender to Marvel.

This isn’t the greatest comic book superhero film ever. It isn’t even the best one being released this summer. However, it’s plenty good enough to be a worthy addition to one’s home movie library whether you are a feminist or a fanboy – or both. There’s no reason the two have to be mutually exclusive.

REASONS TO GO: Gadot is absolutely sensational in the title role. There’s enough action to make the film palatable to superhero fans but the different point of view will be attractive to those tired of the same old thing.
REASONS TO STAY: The climactic battle is a bit of sensory overload.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some superhero and war-related violence, some sexually suggestive content and a few disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first female-directed film to have a budget over $100 million, the first female-directed film to have a $100 million plus opening weekend and currently holds the title as the female-directed film to earn the most box office revenue ever.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/5/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Captain America: The First Avenger
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Baywatch

 

Transformers: The Last Knight


Mark Wahlberg reacts to news that Michael Bay plans to blow even more shit up.

(2017) Science Fiction (Paramount) Mark Wahlberg, Anthony Hopkins, Josh Duhamel, Laura Haddock, Santiago Cabrera, Isabela Moner, Jerrod Carmichael, Stanley Tucci, Liam Garrigan, John Turturro, Glenn Morshower, Gemma Chan, Peter Cullen (voice), Frank Welker (voice), John Goodman (voice), Steve Buscemi (voice), Omar Sy (voice), Ken Watanabe (voice), Jim Carter (voice) Sara Stewart. Directed by Michael Bay

 

Michael Bay sure loves to blow shit up. In his latest installment of the Transformers series, he does a whole lot of blowing shit up; so much of it, in fact, that there’s almost no room for a coherent story.

See if you can make any sense of this; the world is in chaos with Optimus Prime (Cullen) having fled the planet to go seek Cybertron, the home world of the Transformers. There is no leadership and the Transformers are being hunted down by the TRF, a government strike force headed by Colonel William Lennox (Duhamel) who implores in vain his field chief Santos (Cabrera) that there are differences between the Autobots and the Decepticons. As far as Santos is concerned, the only good robot is a dead robot.

Izzy (Moner), a 14-year-old girl living in the rubble of old Chicago in a zone off-limits to humans due to Transformer infestation is discovered by the TRF but rescued at the last moment by Cade Yeager (Wahlberg), one of the most-wanted people on Earth due to his association with Bumblebee and the other remaining Autobots. Yeager is given a strange talisman by a dying Transformer who appears to be much older than the rest of them. In the meantime, Yeager takes Izzy to South Dakota and his junkyard where the last remaining Autobots are hiding.

Sadly, the TRF track them there too but Yeager is rescued by Cogman (Carter), a kind of C-3PO type of Butler. Cogman flies Yeager and Bumblebee to Jolly Olde England where Sir Edmond Burton (Hopkins) informs Yeager that the Transformers have been on Earth much longer than anybody knew and that he has been charged with protecting the history of the Transformers by keeping it hidden. He is also protecting the Staff of Merlin (Tucci) which is in reality a high-tech weapon. Quintessa (Chan), the Mad Goddess-Creator of Cybertron, wants that weapon so that her dead world can live again – only it would rob the Earth of its magnetic core which would kill our world. Yikes.

So Cybertron is on its way to Earth, Megatron (Welker) is doing the bidding of Quintessa and Optimus has surprisingly switched sides under the Mad Goddess’ influence. Everyone is after the Staff but only one human can wield it – Vivian Wembley (Haddock), a comely Oxford professor of history who specializes in Arthurian legends and who happens to be, unbeknownst to her, the last living direct descendant of Merlin. Got all that?

I really don’t know where to begin. At more than 2 ½ hours long, this is a bloated mess that outstays its welcome early on. There’s only so much falling masonry the puny humans can dodge before it starts to get old and it gets old fast. The trouble with a franchise like this is that in order to sustain it, you have to get bigger and badder with each succeeding movie and I can see Bay is trying his damndest to do just that. The novelty of having giant robots battle each other is wearing thin; not only are we seeing that kind of thing from the Transformers franchise but also from such movies as Pacific Rim and Colossal. There is a certain segment of the population – mainly adolescent boys or men with the maturity of adolescent boys – for whom that is all that is necessary for an entertaining movie. The rest of us need a bit more.

The turgid dialogue may be the most cringe-inducing of the entire series and that’s quite an accomplishment, albeit one that shouldn’t be an object of pride. The fact that they got Sir Anthony Hopkins, one of the greatest living actors, to appear in the movie is something of a minor miracle although I sure hope they paid him a dump truck full of money.

I give Wahlberg props for at least trying to make a go of it in the film but in the end he is reduced to mostly ducking for cover, sliding down embankments and bickering with Vivian. Wahlberg is an extremely likable actor but most of his charm is wasted here in lieu of spectacle and make no mistake – it’s spectacle without spirit.

The destruction is so constant and unrelenting that after awhile it becomes senses-numbing and actually quite boring. I will admit to never having been a fan of the animated show in the first place but I thought it to be at least better than most of the similarly natured kidtoons of the era but this is worse than even those. While the CGI is generally pretty detailed at times there are moments where it looked like they completed the CGI in a hurry and it shows.

The movie jumps the shark early and never stops jumping it. For example late in the movie, the 14-year-old girl stows away on a military aircraft on a do or die mission to save the world. I mean, really? The only reason she is on there is to save the day for the adults so that the tween audience can be pandered to. Quite frankly I felt the movie was aimed at the lowest common denominator throughout. That’s not a good feeling.

I probably would rank this lower if I thought about it long enough but there are some pretty impressive effects and Wahlberg deserves something for his efforts. I think Bay went for sheer spectacle and found that he was so focused on the sizzle that he neglected to put on the steak. That makes for a pretty empty and unsatisfying summer barbecue.

REASONS TO GO: Lots of shit gets blown up. Wahlberg makes a vain but valiant attempt to elevate this.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is wayyyy too long and boring. It’s a bloated, mind-numbing mess.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of sci-fi violence and robotic mayhem, a smattering of profanity and a brief scene of sexual innuendo.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the most expensive Transformers movie to date with a shooting budget of $260 million.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/23/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 16% positive reviews. Metacritic: 27/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Nothing compares to this.
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Beatriz at Dinner

David Brent: Life on the Road


David Brent is his own biggest fan.

(2016) Comedy (Netflix) Ricky Gervais, Ben Bailey “Doc Brown” Smith, Jo Hartley, Tom Basden, Mandeep Dhillon, Abbie Murphy, Andrew Brooke, Tom Bennett, Rebecca Gethings, Andy Burrows, Stuart Wilkinson, Steve Clarke, Michael Clarke, Nina Sosanya, Stacha Hicks, Kevin Bishop, Alexander Arnold, Dermot Keaney, Diane Morgan. Directed by Ricky Gervais

 

Most Americans are aware of the version of the sitcom The Office that starred Steve Carell and a fair amount of them are probably aware that it was based on a British version starring Ricky Gervais. Much fewer of the American audience have probably ever seen any of the British episodes and fewer still will likely have enjoyed it; certainly it is an acquired taste and although it shares many attributes with the American version, the two are quite different.

David Brent (Gervais) was the boss in The Office but he’s fallen on hard times. He works as a salesman of toilet cleaning products for a company called Lavichem and although he turns a somewhat upbeat face to it, one can tell that he is not satisfied at all with the way things have turned out. He’s bullied mercilessly by fellow salesman Jezza (Brooke) and is often the subject of serious conversations with HR manager Miriam Clark (Gethings).

He isn’t without admirers though, like Nigel (Bennett) who looks up to him as a comic mentor, or hopelessly besotted Pauline (Hartley) and the sweet receptionist Karen (Dhillon).  Still, Brent can’t help but feel as if his destiny is passing him by and that destiny is to be – a rock star. So, he assembles a second version of his original band Foregone Conclusion (which includes We are Scientists drummer Andy Burrows) and taking unpaid leave from Lavichem hits the road to do ten dates in the Midlands….all within a few hours’ drive of his flat in London. Along for the unwilling ride is Dom Johnson (Brown), a fairly talented rapper whom David brings along for the street cred he miserably lacks and whom David generally refuses to allow to perform except to use David’s abhorrent lyrics. Cashing out his pension, David undergoes financing the entire tour himself, much to the concern of sound engineer/road manager Andy Chapman (Chapman).

David’s tendency is to blurt out whatever comes to mind without first passing it through a filter, following it with a sort of strangled giggle as if to say “Oh dear, what have I gone and said now?” as a kind of embarrassed signature. He stops conversations dead with his pronouncements and off-the-wall observations that betray sexism and bigotry that most people have the good sense to keep to themselves if they possess those tendencies at all.

True to form, he alienates everyone in his band to the point where they force him not to join them on the tour bus he rented but to follow in his own car behind it. They refuse to dress with him, forcing him to have his own dressing room. The songs that he writes for them to play are pretty awful and the band is humiliated at gig after gig; the only saving grace is that nobody is showing up at them and those that do are drawn out of curiosity to Brent’s quasi-fame (the film treats The Office as a documentary which of course it was made to resemble) and most leave well before the gig is over.

Against all odds, one ends up feeling a kind of sympathy for Brent. He’s the guy who doesn’t realize that he is the joke and nobody is laughing. Still, he soldiers on either because he’s oblivious or refuses to let it get him down. There is a kind of nobility in that which is fascinating, because believe me Brent says some of the vilest things. There is a whole sequence around the “N” word that takes uncomfortable to new levels.

This is a comedy of awkward silences. There is no laugh track and no incidental music, just like the sitcom. The silence serves to make the audience feel more and more uncomfortable which I suppose is a form of humor. In its time it was innovative although it seems a bit dated now. The problem is that the movie doesn’t really add anything to what’s already out there; although Gervais has gone to great pains to distance this project from The Office, his presence essentially makes the sitcom the elephant in the room by default. That begs the question; why did this film need to get made? Some fans will just be happy to see Brent back in the saddle but others will need more than that.

In general, those who adored the British version of The Office will likely enjoy this or at least be interested in checking it out. Those who found the show puzzling will likely not find any insights here that will change their minds. It’s definitely an acquired taste and those who have not yet acquired it should probably give this a miss. Otherwise, those who have might find something here worth ingesting although they likely won’t find it as good as the original.

REASONS TO GO: Gervais actually manages to make Brent somewhat sympathetic. Fans of the British Office will find this right up their alley.
REASONS TO STAY: It’s a very acquired taste, just like the original The Office. It’s an hour and 36 minutes of awkward.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, sexual innuendo and drug humor.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although David Brent is depicted driving a car on numerous occasions in the film, Ricky Gervais actually doesn’t know how to drive.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/22/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 61% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Office (BBC Version)
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Burning Sands