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

Advertisements

Dream House


Dream House

Rachel Weisz is worried that Daniel Craig's performance is a little unfocused.

(2011) Psychological Thriller (Universal) Daniel Craig, Rachel Weisz, Naomi Watts, Marton Csokas, Elias Koteas, Jane Alexander, Taylor Geare, Claire Geare, Rachel Fox, Brian Murray, Bernadette Quigley, Sarah Gadon, Gregory Smith. Directed by Jim Sheridan

A house is just four walls, a floor and a roof. It’s a dwelling, a place to store your stuff and a place to lay your head at night. There’s no emotional connection; it’s a hotel room that’s personalized for you. A home is an entirely different matter; there are people you love, memories – ghosts, if you will.

Will Atenton (Craig) is a successful New York publisher who is giving it all up for a more bucolic lifestyle upstate. He aches to spend more time with his family – wife Libby (Weisz) and daughters Dee Dee (C. Geare) and Trish (T. Geare). The house is a bit of a fixer upper but it has some potential. It’s winter and roaring fires are the order of the day and what could be cozier than that?

Except that the neighbors are affixing some odd looks at Will and his family. There is obviously some hostility, particularly with asshole neighbor Jack Patterson (Csokas) who is going through a bitter divorce and custody battle with wife Ann (Watts) over their daughter Chloe (Fox). Will chalks it up to just general New England suspiciousness and moves on with his life.

Then things start to spiral into the deep end. Will shoos some Goth teenagers out of his basement and discovers evidence that the last family that lived in the house had been massacred – and the father Peter Ward, the only survivor of the massacre (with a nasty gunshot wound to the head) was the suspect in the case. Peter had been committed to Greenhaven Psychiatric Hospital but after five years had just been released. The girls begin to see strange figures outside peering into the house.

Will is determined to get to the bottom of things and decides to investigate further. The more he finds out, the more troubling the situation becomes. It turns out Ann may know far more than she’s letting on. And when Will goes to Greenhaven to talk to Peter Ward’s doctor, he finds out something so shocking and chilling that it threatens his very sanity; and there is no doubt that someone wants Will and his family dead. Could Peter Ward be coming home at last?

Sheridan (director of such movies as In America and In the Name of the Father) is a steady, talented director who is not known for horror films, and his inexperience in the genre shows here. He did have the presence of mind to hire Caleb Deschanel as cinematographer, and the Oscar-winning Deschanel (father to Emily and Zooey by the by) would normally have been a master stroke, but while the movie looks slick with all sorts of barren winterscapes and homey hearths there is nothing really that adds to the tension.

Craig is rapidly becoming one of film’s best leading men, and he certainly looks the part here. He gets shirtless an awful lot in the movie (considering it’s set in the dead of winter) and the part calls for him to change emotional tableaux in split seconds and he’s more than up to the task. His onscreen chemistry with Weisz is genuine and adds an extra measure of enjoyment to the movie. Watts is given less to do and her character could have used more fleshing out.

I need to address something here. The movie’s major plot twist is unconscionably revealed in the trailer – if you’ve seen it, you know what I’m talking about. There have been rumors that Sheridan had angered the production bosses at Morgan Creek, the production company for the movie, for deviating from the established script heavily (Sheridan has a reputation for liking to work improvisationally) and after disastrous focus group screenings, forced reshoots, finally editing the movie to their own standards. Sheridan reportedly requested his name be removed from the film and he, Craig and Weisz all refused to do publicity for the movie.

There is certainly an appearance that the reveal was done deliberately and childishly in order to sabotage the movie, and I’m quite certain Sheridan, Craig and Weisz all feel that’s the case. Of course, I don’t know it for certain – but I do know that the movie was ruined by its own marketing. Certainly not knowing that revelation (which I have deliberately omitted here) made the film less enjoyable. If you haven’t seen the trailer, I strongly urge you not to.

Be that as it may, the movie is far from perfect in any case. There is never any real tension generated by the movie, and what could have been an atmospheric thriller with overtones of supernatural horror becomes a substandard potbroiler that fools nobody and entertains very few. The damn shame of it all is that the movie is actually pretty well-written and with a few tweaks here and there could have been really entertaining. Alas, this is going to go down as a case where a director-producer feud may have ultimately ruined a movie.

REASONS TO GO: Craig is a compelling performer. There is a good deal of tension and overall the movie is well-written.

REASONS TO STAY: The main plot twist is revealed in the trailer. The identity of the real killer is weak and doesn’t fool anybody.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a bit of violence, some terror, a little sensuality and briefly some bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Weisz and Craig began a romantic relationship after meeting on set. They were recently married in a discrete ceremony.

HOME OR THEATER: This is definitely one for the home front.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: 50/50

Miss Potter


Miss Potter

Norman Warne and Beatrix Potter inspect a proof of her first book.

(2006) Biographical Drama (Weinstein) Renee Zellweger, Ewan McGregor, Emily Watson, Barbara Flynn, Bill Paterson, Lloyd Owen, Anton Lesser, David Bamber. Directed by Chris Noonan

Most of us are aware of Peter Rabbit, Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail – they are indelible parts of our childhood. Some of us might even be aware of Beatrix Potter, the 19th century author and creator of those wonderful characters. Most of us, however, know nearly nothing of her, which considering she is the best-selling children’s author of all time – she has sold more books than both Dr. Seuss and J.K. Rowling – is a bit of a shame.

Zellweger means to change that. A fan of the famed author, the biopic of Beatrix Potter was something of a labor of love for the star. She plays Potter as an un-lovely but imaginative spinster, living in the home of her wealthy parents who despair of ever marrying her off as she rejects suitor after suitor, most of them brought before her because of their titles or bloodline. Beatrix, however, will have none of that. She’ll marry for love or not at all.

She also is a talented artist, a skill encouraged by her father (Paterson) who was something of an artist himself before his family forced him to take up a more respectable vocation – the law, which ironically he rarely practiced. She also has a talent at making up stories, one which kept her and her brother entertained as children. Now, she means to entertain other children with her tales, but she goes from publishing house to publishing house only to meet rejection and scorn. She finally finds one, Warne House, which is willing to publish her but only believes she’ll make a marginal profit. They fob her off on Norman (McGregor), youngest son of the family and thought to be something of a foul-up.

Norman, however, proves to be almost as enthusiastic about the project as Miss Potter herself, and the two engage in a marvelous simpatico that results in some of the classic children’s books of all times. Norman introduces Beatrix to his sister Millie (Watson) and the two become fast friends, a friendship that deepens as Beatrix falls in love with her editor. The two propose to marry, but Beatrix’s parents are aghast. Firstly, Norman is a tradesman – why, the very thing is beneath them. Secondly, by Victorian standards, they’ve barely met. The overbearing mother (Flynn) and the somewhat more sympathetic father finally arrange a truce with their distraught daughter – if she still feels the same way at the end of the summer, then the marriage will receive their blessing. Reluctantly, Beatrix agrees, expecting to hear wedding bells at the conclusion of her time at their house in the English Lake Country. Tragically, it is not wedding bells but a funeral dirge that she will hear as Norman sickens and dies in her absence.

Devastated, she moves to a home in her beloved Lake Country in a charming farm house (which still exists today, by the way). There, she finds solace in a new vocation – as an activist in preserving the Lake Country from over-development, and in the arms of a realtor (Owen) that she first met when he was a young man.

Fantasy segments bring the drawings of Beatrix Potter to life, and while unfortunately Zellweger’s performance is a bit bland (but to be fare, Miss Potter in reality was a bit bland), nonetheless you feel as if you’ve gotten some insight into the woman at the film’s conclusion, a very satisfactory outcome for any biopic. I enjoyed McGregor’s performance and the English supporting cast is first-rate, although not well-known.

I love the recreation of the period, which feels authentic and allows a glimpse at the daily lives of the well-to-do, not to mention the psyche of the nouveau riche of the time. And, of course, there are the wonderful tales of Beatrix Potter; watching her creations come to life in her head was revisiting beloved old friends for me. This is truly a charming movie that isn’t overwhelming, but a solid effort nonetheless.

REASONS TO RENT: Charming fantasy sequences. Solid performances by McGregor and support cast. Nice recreation of the period.

REASONS TO RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Zellweger a bit bland. Story drags a bit in the middle third.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some mildly naughty words but really nothing your kids haven’t already heard.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The “Hilltop” house that Beatrix Potter retreats to in the Lake District is actually Yew Tree Farm in the town of Coniston in the Lake District, not far from where Potter actually lived.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: There is a feature on the real Beatrix Potter and the marketing of her books which was one of the first books to market the characters to children and made Potter one of the wealthiest authors of her time.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $35.1M on an unreported production budget; I’d hazard a guess that the movie was slightly profitable.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Two Lovers