Goodbye Christopher Robin

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Biopics of any description can only ever be fragmentary, sketchy examinations of their subjects. Painting in broad strokes, as they inevitably do, it’s easy to cast aspersions or draw inferences about the lives of these historical figures whilst avoiding nuance and richness of detail. Does this render them incapable of insight and intelligence? Not necessarily, and in the case of Goodbye Christopher Robin (2017), a portrait of Winnie the Pooh author A.A. Milne and his son Christopher, there are certainly a handful of genuinely poignant moments in the screenplay by long-time Michael Winterbottom collaborator Frank Cottrell Boyce and Simon Vaughan. The most notable of these honestly broach the darkest threads of Milne’s troubled life, including the initial struggles of anonymity, the curse of success and the terrible cost of both on an individual’s relationships.

Director Simon Curtis is no stranger to this realm of storytelling. His debut feature, after a length apprenticeship in TV, was My Week With Marilyn (2011) which focused on a very specific moment in the life and times of Marilyn Monroe. Turning to a key figure in children’s literature of the 20th Century, Curtis has cast his film well, specifically in the case of Domhnall Gleeson as Milne, a man psychologically wounded by war and emotionally distant thereafter. His wife Daphne (Margot Robbie) is gradually revealed as a frivolous, wretched creature whose attachment to Milne was only ever based on an assumption that he would continue to write and achieve the fame and notoriety that he eventually claimed, thus giving her social opportunities and the promise of a more lavish lifestyle. The arrival of their son Christopher Robin Milne (Wil Tilson and, in late scenes as an 18 year old, Alex Lawther), nicknamed Billy, was more an inconvenient aside than the culmination of a lifelong yearning.

Milne is an awkward parent who can’t relate the innocent child’s perspective of his son but everything changes when he’s thrust into duty during his lowest creative ebb. Having moved away from London to a ramshackle country retreat, he has been abandoned by Daphne, and with Christopher’s nanny Olive (the always superb Kelly Macdonald) called away to be with her ailing father, Milne must actively confront the full scope of his parental duties for the first time. A kind of bonding occurs and utilising his son’s stuffed toys he conjures up a series of adventures for them all in the surrounding woods. The toys become integrated into Milne’s suddenly re-charged creative process and act as the key figures in his stories of Winnie the Pooh, including Tigger, Donkey, Eeyore, Piglet and, of course, their wise human friend, ‘Christopher Robin’.

The score by Carter Burwell is yet another classy contribution from a composer more often associated with the Coen brothers but who never disappoints, delivering music attentively attuned to each project’s needs, whether darkly comic, sensitive or quirky. For Goodbye Christopher Robin he provides a near perfect score. At times it’s openly melodic in a restrained, pastoral English vein; in others, gently probing at the darker edges of Milne’s mental fragility, recollections of war duelling with the harshness and inadequateness of the world he’s returned to. Yet deploying a small orchestral ensemble Burwell always keeps his music in check, never tipping over into overt sentimentality. It’s this masterful control that distinguishes so much of his best work, including his masterpiece Carol (2015), written for Todd Haynes’s extraordinary feast for the senses.

There’s ultimately nothing ground-breaking about Curtis’s film. It follows a formula or template we’ve all subliminally memorised and could recognise in a heartbeat. Accept the ‘facts’ of real lives with a grain of salt, knowing that creative embellishments – outlandish ones even – are part and parcel of how these nostalgic reconstructive dramas are made more palatable, both in their conception and, ultimately, in their re-telling. Goodbye Christopher Robin proves to be a proficient, highly entertaining example, all reservations aside. The performances are strong, eliciting emotional reactions that have truthfulness attached to them in the film’s very best scenes. It may even inspire some to re-examine Milne’s life through his timeless work, not a bad thing at all, if it means finding the child inside of us all once again.

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Hacksaw Ridge

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Morphing from strained melodrama via disconcertingly comedic asides into one of the most stomach-churning, brutal depictions of combat ever seen on a big screen, Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge (2016) is a strange but potent beast. Shortcomings may dog its early going, but there’s no doubt that the elaborate staging of the assault on and attempt to wrestle command of the titled Ridge is one of the most pulsating, stirring set-pieces in cinema history. It provides an assault on the senses whilst being uncomfortably entertaining throughout.

On the downside, there are some jarring moments in the character-establishing first third of the film which begins with the childhood of Desmond Doss (Darcy Bryce) on a day when his constant play-fighting with brother Hal takes a nasty turn. The resultant serious injury that Hal suffers truly opens Desmond’s eyes up to how easy aggression can lead to dire consequences in an instant. The boys’ parents, Tom (Hugo Weaving) and Bertha (Rachel Griffiths), seem to have strayed in from a million wartime and other domestic dramas. Tom’s a former soldier himself, haunted by the loss of the friends whose graves he regularly visits to pour salt into all his old wartime wounds. A stray drop or two of alcohol also plays a part into contorting his mind with a strain of poisoned bitterness. Bertha is a commendably salt-of-the-earth type, shapeless but decent, determined to hold the family together even as the odds against it grow more imposing.

We then fast-forward to the young adulthood of Desmond (now played by Andrew Garfield) and his embarrassingly schmaltzy courtship of pretty and preposterously unattached nurse Dorothy (Teresa Palmer). A series of scenes which are cringe-worthy for their triteness, simplicity and painful conventionality follow, before Doss almost immediately decides to follow his conscience and the lead of his brother, and enlist to become an army medic. Scenes of Doss’s time in training are treated with an equally jarring, weirdly comedic tone. The introduction of Vince Vaughn as hardnosed Sgt Howell begins a section of the film that will have you pondering a ludicrous fusion of R. Lee Ermey with Sgt. Bilko. Of course, it’s Doss’s reluctance to ever take arms that raises most controversy and almost sees him railroaded out of the army before he ever sees time on a battlefield. His religious convictions generate mistrust, anger and contempt from fellow soldiers and officers alike who are adamant that Doss will be detrimental to their cause.

But this story of Doss’s contribution to the saving of multiple lives on Hacksaw Ridge without ever firing a bullet in anger is one of remarkable heroism. The hand-to-hand warfare is portrayed with startling authenticity, initially hitting audiences like a thunderbolt of electricity and never letting up thereafter. It’s both increasingly difficult to watch or look away from as men on both sides are shot down like ducks in a shooting gallery. Gibson doesn’t shy away from showing the true horror and chaos of these insane, frenzied, fugue-like back and forths, the extreme physical effects of humans being torn apart like rag dolls shown with a horrifying clarity. But amidst the carnage, Doss reveals cunning and courage as his burrows far and wide to retrieve wounded soldiers who would otherwise have been abandoned to horrible fates, either dying in agony or delivered a fatal blow by Japanese survivors.

Rupert Gregson-Williams’s score – the best of his career – contributes another pulsating, stirring emotional subtext to what is a mesmerisingly uncomfortable snapshot of war’s paradoxical nature, bringing courage and camaraderie to the fore even as it grinds itself down to ever more unpalatable chunks of abject futility. Gibson, never a director to let an opportunity to examine the painful associations of a bloodletting influence his artistic ambitions, as Braveheart (1995), The Passion of the Christ (2004) and Apocalypto (2006) can attest to, has made a ferocious contribution to the sub-genre of war cinema. With a startling lead performance from Garfield as the moralistic but resolute warrior that Doss becomes, and strong work from an ensemble amongst the military ranks (especially young Australian Luke Bracey as Smitty Ryker), Gibson has forged a tale of humanistic endeavour amidst the most inhumane conditions imaginable and it’s almost impossible to remain unmoved by this boldly cinematic tale.

 

 

 

American Honey

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As she did with Fish Task (2009), director Andrea Arnold has justifiably put her faith in a young, first time actress to encapsulate the despair, confusion and danger of a young woman escaping the world beyond her impoverished beginnings in American Honey (2016). Arnold, venturing to the U.S for the first time, has crafted a dazzling, mesmerising freeform road movie that sees a young woman, Star (Sasha Lane), living in poverty, being sexually abused and lumbered with two young children, before jumping at an opportunity to escape her life.

In her small Oklahoma town, Star spies a joker, a charismatic stranger, Jake (Shia LeBeouf), causing a stir in the parking lot of a supermarket. It’s a case of eyes meeting across a void and sensing a spark. The inevitable encounter leads to a proposition of work for Star from Jake who, with a ragtag, eclectic crew of ‘colleagues’, is heading to Kansas City the following day. Ditching her oppressive existence for the chance of a fresh start requires little deliberation and within she has dropped the young children with their natural mother and fled for the group’s hotel.

The next day, with little time to get a bearing on her new surroundings, Star is quickly indoctrinated into the fold of these magazine subscription sellers who must adopt any angle, cover story or other means of deception whilst doorknocking in affluent sections of cities to procure sales. The operation is the brainchild of Krystal (Riley Keough) who, running a tight ship whilst indulging in hedonistic activities on the side, tolerates nothing less than people who can genuinely earn their way. As the new blood, Star is assigned to Jake, Krystal’s personal assistant and top earner, for mentoring.

The chemistry between the two leads is genuine, setting off a strangely intuitive yet combative relationship that, frowned upon by Krystal, has a doomed inevitability about it. Both lead actors are nothing short of sensational. For LaBeouf this part is a gift, clearly the most interesting of his career, whilst Lane astonishes in her screen debut; she possesses an at times overwhelming physical presence and shines in many of the film’s finest sequences in which Star is seemingly placed in jeopardy as she assumes more individual responsibility for sales. Arnold’s has conceived some hypnotically terrifying moments, pregnant with dangerous possibilities and a palpable sense of Star’s vulnerability despite her bravado and willingness to take calculated risks.

Arnold continues to prove herself as a formidable talent. In the light of American Honey, her last film, a magnificent bleak skewering of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights (2013) can be viewed as the next step of her radical evolution as a filmmaker unafraid of spiking convention, narrative form and visual grammar. One of the most remarkable aspects of this, her fourth feature, is her continuing collaboration with cinematographer Robbie Ryan, an equally fearless artist whose eye-popping immersion in Arnold’s world brings forceful scrutiny and a rare sense of authenticity. All the silliness, boredom-relieving silliness, idiocy, intensity and careless but genuine camaraderie shared between members of the group are captured with a purity that organically dissolves into captivating visual poetry.

American Honey is a dazzling, creatively daring film; it’s not only Arnold’s finest to date but one of the 2016’s most memorable and, sure to be, enduring cinematic achievements. Even at around 160 minutes it remarkably never feels overdrawn or bogged down in extraneous scenes for even a moment, and with a canny usage of source music, ends up creating a slew of scenes that will linger in mind for days after.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

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In 2004, when soldiers from Bravo company return to the States as part of a victorious tour, private and public perceptions about what the war and true heroism really means, collide head on. Ben Fountain’s superb source novel did an excellent job of piercing the heart of the hypocrisy and condescension that sees prominent businessmen and political figures lining up to besiege the soldiers with plaudits and commendations of heroism. And yet they do so without ever truly comprehending the psychological impact of the soldiers’ existence in a place where danger can be lying in wait, quite literally, around every corner.

Despite some occasional stilted dialogue, director Ang Lee generally does a fine job of both staying true to Fountain’s story and interweaving the time strands with the transition from the present day’s hectic schedule at n NFL match in Dallas often dissolving into flashbacks from the company’s time in Iraq. Lynn’s story, in particular, is placed under the microscope. Footage of his defining, courageous act of close combat whilst attempting to save the life of superior officer, Shroom (Vin Diesel), has gone viral, giving the nation of point of focus for its nationalistic fervour.

The other side of the coin is the lack of respect given these men who are placed on a pedestal and idealised, very briefly, to sustain momentary blasts of patriotism but will soon be yesterday’s news. We get an especially telling insight into these fickle attitudes when the choreography of a show stopping spectacle needs to be rigidly adhered to. In the mayhem of the pre-show the soldiers become just a minuscule part of the ‘event’, in which crassness, ratings and celebrity power are what provide the real currency for a society sick on its force-fed idealisations of the kind of greatness they should truly aspire to.

Mostly from Billy’s eyes we see how manipulated Bravo become, their status as heroic figures quickly diminishing. Visions of Iraq and the loss of Shroom pouring through Billy’s haunted eyes provide a powerful juxtaposition against the mechanical, forgettable role they’re asked to play. The immersion of Bravo into this elaborate schematic fluff is almost painful to watch.

First time performer Alwyn is a revelation, surrounding to the need to make Billy an inward-gazing young man doesn’t deny him an inherent goodness and craving for the binding safety of family. His most important relationship however is with sister Kathryn (Kristen Stewart), still healing from a car crash and yearning for his return to re-centre her own life and that of their family. It’s the increasingly impressive Garrett Hedlund who steals the show however as Bravo’s forthright, vocal leader.

Important to the film is the real sense of camaraderie created between the men of Bravo. They act like fools at times and are blissfully ignorant about how to act in participating in this charade, but their sense of humour humanises them and as the film draws to a close with Billy teetering on the verge of an important decision, we feel the bond he feels with both the men and the duty he wishes to uphold. It’s complicated stuff, a torturous state of emotional turmoil that sees him weighing the pros and cons of staying home to tend to his family’s pain or fulfilling the expectations of his brothers and by extension, an entire nation – as ignorant and clueless as they may be. Adding further complication is the cheerleader he’s fallen for, Faison (Mackenzie Leigh), and the allure of another alternative life that she represents if he’s brave enough to take a wild, impulsive chance.

The final scenes, despite a couple of unconvincing moments, generally feel credible and right somehow, and not a betrayal of everything we wish for Billy as his revelatory day is reduced to its most crucial moment. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2016), despite its flaws, is a restrained, humanistic portrayal of the terrible burden placed on young men tossed into the cauldron of a battleground on foreign soil. I admired it for an ambition that never strangles the film with expectation and yet allows Lee to find interesting ways to impart this important, gently moving story without it ever requiring empty spectacle to contextualise it.

Inferno

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The general preposterousness of nearly every scene – every twist, escape, rendezvous and revelation of duplicitousness – doesn’t necessarily render Ron Howard’s third flirtation with Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code bestsellers unentertaining. Inferno (2016), taken with a grain of salt, has a wonderfully disorienting opening quarter of an hour. Here, Howard and his cinematographer Salvatore Totino, working from an adaptation by the experienced David Koepp, get to indulge a perhaps latent fascination with surrealist horror as the notion of Dante’s circles of hell, with appropriately grotesque, abstract imagery included, is heavily layered into the narrative.

There are other merits beyond the opening stanza to speak of, however, like a semi-manageable plot pitched along with decent forward momentum. And…………..what else? A barely cognisant – for a while at least, and that could be a good or bad thing – Tom Hanks as the much-travelled, much hunted symbologist Robert Langdon, awaking in hospital only to be saved from a hail of bullets and intellectually seduced by a bland medico, Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones), with a suspiciously broad grasp of the literary subject matter at hand.

The supporting players are a mixed bag. The always watchable Ben Foster is sadly underutilised as Betrand Zobrist, a billionaire with a God complex and the creator of a virus that threatens human existence. His personal fate is exposed early on but he continues to make fleeting flashback appearances. Of course it’s hard to openly root for such a morally destitute villain, but there’s no denying he’s a slightly magnificent bastard. What’s more, he exhibits ‘marginally’ more charisma than a hellfire-seared roundtable of his co-participants combined, particularly the horribly cast French actor Omar Sy, still somehow getting work after 2010 Gallic mega-hit The Intouchables, and here seen impersonating the impersonation of a dodgy World Health Organisation worker. We mostly view Sy in pursuit of both Zobrist and Langdon though his motivations are as murky as his co-workers, many of whom have slinked off to form another faction being led by Sidse Babett Knudsen’s stock-standard Elizabeth Sinskey.

From an even more culturally diverse pack of players – including Irrfan Khan as head of a security firm and Ana Ularu as a Terminator-like member of the Carabinieri – Langdon is again forced to ponder, during infinitesimally brief moments of reverie, just who is chasing him and why. And more tantalisingly, are the chasers allies or are they foes? Who gets the girl? Did Steve Austin teach you, Robert, to visually scan a very detailed painting like that? And just how much red dye is in that endless body of water or is it all goddamn CGI?

Vacillating between mortal terror, rapid-fire puzzling solving and passports-not-required globe-trotting, Inferno, to damn it with faint praise (something, perhaps, any Ron Howard film deserves), proves to be better than both its predecessors. It’s but an incremental advancement in quality, however, barely noticeable and twice as easily forgettable. If or when a fourth installment comes along, we’ll deny everything of course. Da Vinci Code? Angels and Demons? Inferno? Nope, never saw ’em. Don’t know what you’re talking about.

 

Ghostbusters

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Nostalgia can only carry a reinvented concept so far without genuine substance to support it. A third Ghostbusters film was rumoured for years before the advancing age of the original cast members seemingly put a final nail in the coffin of a much anticipated regeneration. But Hollywood, now approaching critical mass in its search for a new creative nadir, has too often shown disdain for even the most beloved touchstone films of generations past.

With nothing off limits, the re-tooled inversion of Ivan Reitman’s original Ghostbusters (1984) has arrived. Comedy central’s flavours of the months, Melissa McCarthy as paranormal investigator Abby Yates and Kristen Wiig as disgraced academic Erin Gilbert, take the lead roles. They’re joined by Leslie Jones’s ballsy transit worker Patty Tolan and Kate McKinnon’s slightly kooky science boffin Jillian Holtzmann in director Paul Feig’s reconfiguration of the original quartet, unwittingly called into action to solve New York’s outbreak of ghostly pranksters.

The cameos from original cast members are mercifully brief. A bust of the late Harold Ramis means that without dialogue he fares best. Dan Ackroyd’s few rushed lines as a harried cab driver apathetically negotiating his way through the finale’s ghoulish hell storm are passable, whilst Ernie Hudson as Patty’s uncle and Sigourney Weaver as Holtzman’s mentor are inoffensively ticked off. However Bill Murray’s couple of scenes as a psychic debunker are awful and borderline embarrassing, his last fleeting moment – ejected through a window by the crew’s first captured ghost – provides a fitting final indignity of sorts.

The blatant padding in Feig and Katie Dippold’s overstretched screenplay becomes more obviously damaging as the film progresses. For a while the sheer novelty of this new incarnation and the solid chemistry created between Bridesmaids alumni McCarthy and Wiig and, especially, the quirky McKinnon carries it along without too many dead spots. But as the plot gets lazy and loses all focus and, naturally, the CGI quotient expands, the pitfalls that taint every single over-blown, over-budgeted Hollywood event film become issues.

Nonsensical battles, possessions and a slimed-up flood of extraneous scenes are soon the order of the day. There’s virtually zero wit on display, which isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker – Hollywood has provided a multitude of offerings with concepts of ‘witlessness’ and ‘entertaining’ crowding the same space – but a slew of rank, cringeworthy scenes are definitely an issue. Case-in-point, the gang’s meeting with NYC’s mayor (Andy Garcia) to discuss their unofficial status which is riddled with one clunky line after another. Chris Hensworth as a moronic beefcake hired to be the women’s secretary is simply too stupid to be funny for anyone with even fifty percept cerebral capacity, whilst bug-eyed Neil Casey is appropriately cast if utterly unmemorable in the Rick Moranis mould as a beaten-down loser vengefully unleashing an apocalyptic battery of ghosts in an effort to achieve immortality.

Very few iconic moments from the original are recreated, which wouldn’t be a problem if Feig and Dippold were able to conceive equally memorable scenarios. At the end of the day, this updated Ghostbusters (2016), whilst conceptually fresh and imbued with, initially, with a genuine liveliness and sense of fun, simply runs out of legs. It’s entertaining enough, certainly, but you simply reach a point where you just want it to end. The final half hour is tediously anti-climactic, a wearying feeling only enhanced by subsequent news of the certain sequels to come.

 

 

Everest

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Only the most minimal amount of acting is required to sustain this latest encounter with Everest. Though purportedly centred on the epic human endeavour of conquering the world’s most fearsome icy mountain peak, this is a film that’s almost entirely about the spectacle, the awe-inspiring scenic vistas and, most significant of all, the series of disaster scenarios that hope to create tension and drama. Recounting the trek of a group of tourists being led up the mountain in 1996 by trailblazing New Zealand businessman Rob Hall (Jason Clarke), Everest (2015) offers scant character sketches by way of introduction to the men who’ll partake in this adventure of a lifetime.

Other than Hall, these include Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin), a Texan – damned if that isn’t the only fact I can immediately recall about him; Doug Hansen (John Hawkes), whose health is an issue and who will clearly be pushing himself to the limit one last time, God help him, for Everest glory. Sam Worthington and Martin Henderson appear and disappear like ghosts, while Jake Gyllenhaal’s Scott Fischer is a young upstart, the laid-back leader of another tourist venture who Hall would like to join forces with.

Then there are the haplessly marginalised female characters, the tortured wives doomed to suffering ‘back home’ and given the skimpiest of material to work with. Keira Knightley, dodgy New Zealand accent and all, is Hall’s pregnant partner, whilst Robin Wright is handed the equally onerous task of breathing life into a faded sketch as Beck’s wife Peach back in the States. Closer to the action, at base camp, is Emily Watson’s hen mother Helen Wilton, providing the line of communication between the front line and the anxiously awaiting womenfolk.

Other shortcomings in William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy’s painfully hollow screenplay draw attention to their virtual non-presence. Even more skimpily depicted than the females are the all-important Sherpas whose back-breaking, integral participation is reduced to a couple of perfunctory scenes, references and mediocre jokes to show that they’re nothing if not a slap-happy bunch whose amiability seemingly negates any tiresome need to reveal any human depths they might possess. Soon to be seen on our cinema screens is Jennifer Peedom’s glorious Sherpa (2015), a film that, beyond its visual grandeur, dignifies and illuminates the extraordinary breadth of the Sherpas grit and courage in the face of elemental forces and economic calamity.

Baltasar Kormakur’s film is a far less interesting cinematic proposition; in fact it’s possibly the most deadly dull ‘epic adventure’ in recent studio history. With its wind-strewn, comprehension-disabled dialogue, stumbling men rendered anonymous under layers of face-contorting clothing, cringeworthy collection of fake Kiwi accents, and depressingly perfunctory dialogue, Everest stumbles into each murky crevice of cliché armed with well credentialed actors who surely signed on the dotted line for the promise of a getaway and a well paid fitness regime. Tension and drama are absent from every threat posed by the falling, collapsing, clamouring icy chunks and boulders. Even worse, a woeful sense of familiarity has its own sweet way with the entire production, making the ascent to and descent down Everest’s peak as torturous for the audience as it is for the players.

Is there anything more depressing than seeing genuinely fine actors, best known for a series of genuinely interesting creative choices partaking of something so awful, so blatantly commercial and allowing themselves to be made into a cardboard cut-out of a human being, an imposter whose part is either marginal at best or whittled away to noting in the editing room? Is this really the same John Hawkes who has forged and truly earned his reputation as one of American independent cinemas finest actors in recent times thanks to his unforgettable roles in Winter’s Bone (2010), Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011) and The Sessions (2012)? Fair to say Everest won’t be a film he’ll use to highlight his talents to his succeeding generations or even prospective employers from this day onwards.