Goodbye Christopher Robin (2017)

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You’re the man. You lead. It’s WW2 and famous writer Alan Alexander Milne (Domhnall Gleeson) and his wife Daphne (Margot Robbie) get a distressing telegram. We flash back to the interwar years when a shellshocked Milne, an acclaimed playwright, leaves London for the countryside after experiencing one too many reminders of WW1. Milne’s ever-changing moods affect those around him.  Only his friend Ernest H. Shepherd (Stephen Campbell Moore) empathises as a fellow veteran. Daphne is a somewhat dim and brittle wife, unhappy and traumatised on her own account after a violent childbirth. Their nanny Olive or Nou (Kelly Macdonald) is the chief caregiver to their son, Christopher Robin but known as Billy Moon (Will Tilston). Daphne tires of A.A. and his failure to write anything and leaves for the city, ostensibly to buy wallpaper. But the wardrobes have been emptied. When Olive leaves to look after her dying mother, the males of the family are left to their own devices and start to spin fanciful yarns about Billy’s collection of stuffed animals.  Milne invites Ernest to visit and they start to put together a book with illustrations around Billy Moon’s relationship with his toys and their outings to the Hundred Acre Wood.  Tigger is better than Tiger. It’s more Tigger-ish. These stories form the basis for Winnie-the-Pooh  and The House at Pooh Corner, published respectively in 1926 and 1928. Milne and his family soon become swept up in the instant success of the books, while the enchanting tales bring hope and comfort but his relationship with his young son suffers as the boy is wheeled out in public to play the character of Christopher Robin and even their personal phonecalls are broadcast … If I’m in a book people might think I’m not real. Written by Frank Cottrell Boyce and Simon Vaughan, Simon Curtis’ film skirts the edges of whimsy and tragedy and finds it hard to balance the demands of both – how do you make a man experiencing PTSD a sympathetic character? He wants the British public to know the reality of combat and the utter waste of the Great War.  I’ve had enough of making people laugh. I need to make them see. Giving the toys a voice isn’t even his idea, it’s his wife’s.  She sends a poem he writes to her into Vanity Fair where it becomes famous, her eye firmly affixed to publicity. The child is chirpy and aggressive. These are real people, the film is telling us, and it’s not all wine and roses creating beloved children’s stories. They make each other interesting and tolerable through the written word in a narrative that expresses the limits of people’s endurance. When Milne tells Daphne he’s going to do a book about the pointlessness of war she is riled and shrieks that he might as well try writing about getting rid of Wednesdays – he might not like them but they always come around. Making this man see what he can do and the imaginative links he forges between his son’s playthings and his own desire for escaping the reality of his past provides the main texture of the work.  It’s very handsomely handled but never comfortable, no matter how often the sun might peep through the Hundred Acre Wood. Gleeson is an actor of narrow range and his performance is paradoxically limited by the writing but it’s an admirable insight into the writer’s life and the perilous attractions of fame. Stop. Look.

 

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Black Swan (2010)

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The only person standing in your way is you.  Featured dancer Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is a young NYC ballerina whose passion for the dance rules every facet of her life which is rigidly controlled at home by her disappointed domineering single mother Erica (Barbara Hershey) who says she gave up everything to have Nina (but she never made it out of the corps). When the company’s artistic director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) decides to replace prima ballerina Beth MacIntyre (Winona Ryder) for their opening production of Swan Lake, Nina is his first choice, perfect for the role of the White Swan. She has competition in newcomer Lily (Mila Kunis) however:  she personifies the Black Swan – her look, her clothing, her behaviour are literally delicate Nina’s polar opposite. As rivalry between the two dancers transforms into a twisted friendship and then into a fiercer rivalry as Lily is cast as Nina’s alternate, Nina’s dark side gradually emerges … Darren Aronofsky’s ballet film states its themes in the first frames:  a battle to the death onstage and then a hallucinatory trip tunnelling into the dark underground of New York City’s underbelly on the subway – a kind of diabolism seems writ large from the off. This psychological horror’s most recent comparator is probably Jacob’s Ladder and that’s three decades old.  But it’s really a film about femininity. The sheer repulsive physicality of it is offputting and not for the squeamish:  the bulimic purging; the bloodied squashed misshapen feet; ripping off of cuticles; continuous self-harming – Nina’s long nails tear at her shoulder and then she sees feathers sprouting in the holes; licking a spot of cake frosting constitutes a meal;  and when Beth takes the knife Nina has returned and stabs herself in the face. The sheer proliferation of close ups of skin is revolting. It’s also in the little things – Nina thinking everyone is talking about her (they are); the lights being switched off when she needs to rehearse;  the piano accompanist refusing to stay late; the need to please the director – when he asks her about her sexual experience and tells her to masturbate and she wakes up and does it in her bed only to find Mom in the chair beside her … Now that’s horrifying! The truth is when I look at you all I see is the white swan. Yes you’re beautiful, fearful, and fragile. Ideal casting. But the black swan? It’s a hard fucking job to dance both  Nina’s fragile mind is devastated by the pressure to perform with feeling rather than mere technical skill and first she thinks she sees herself everywhere in the form of a double – behind her own reflection, walking towards her in the subway – and her mind becomes fragmented in her own image. Then she sees … Lily. Lily the Black Swan. Lily who smokes, drinks, takes drugs and then goes down on her. Or does she?  The lines between dream and reality are blurred. Portman is great as the ingenue who needs to please and we are reminded of The Red Shoes, that classic balletomane’s film, and there are echoes of that madness and drive for perfection everywhere. Hershey, Kunis and Ryder are no less good in their supporting roles, buffeting the central thematic, the narrative’s corps de ballet. This is about obsession and we follow Nina right over the other side and into out and out madness and disbelief.  The climax brings everything together in the most devastating, logical fashion. Performance is all.  Mad, crazed and melodramatic, this is absolutely on the money when it comes to female (and mother-daughter) rivalry and is literally a danse macabre.  Written by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz and John J. McLaughlin.

Hereditary (2018)

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All I do is worry and slave and defend you, and all I get back is that fucking face on your face! Miniaturist artist Annie Graham (Toni Collette) lives with her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne), their teenage son Peter (Alex Wolff), and their strange looking 13-year-old daughter Charlie (Charlie Shapiro). At the funeral of her mother, Ellen, Annie’s eulogy explains their fraught relationship. When Steve is informed that the grave has been desecrated, he keeps it secret, while Annie thinks she sees Ellen in her workshop. At a bereavement support group she reveals that, growing up, the rest of her family including Ellen suffered from mental illness. Daughter Charlie, who likes decapitating birds, sees Ellen, to whom she was especially close, several times.  Ellen’s miniatures reveal that Ellen wanted to breastfeed the girl herself.  Following a terrible accident and another family death Ellen’s difficult relationship with Peter is revealed. She is approached by support group member Joan (Ann Dowd) who persuades her to join her in trying to contact lost loved ones. When Annie attempts to do so at the house she unleashes powerful forces which she knows signify a malign connection only she can stop but her husband just thinks she’s mentally ill …  Ari Aster’s debut feature as writer/director has given Toni Collette a return to the genre that made her world famous nineteen years ago in The Sixth Sense. That was another film about failing families and strange relations and her art works have a prophetic and odd quality which pervades the film itself using the family home as a kind of dollhouse where female power is entrapped.  (Feel free to add your own theatrical metaphor).  Collette doesn’t have all the operatic colours in her performance one is led to expect (although her weird trousers assist in her levitating) considering the importance attached to Greek mythology. At its heart this is about the mother from hell, trying to protect her family from terrible self-knowledge. It could have gone in another more troubling direction. Things are left unsaid, and that’s a good confident script, but it also means certain elements are simply not clarified:  is Steve a psychiatrist? Why is Charlie’s disfigurement not mentioned?  The trail towards the mystery’s solution is cleverly laid even if it’s a particularly slow burn. This is a film which has a split identity:  on the one hand it’s a maternal melo or psychodrama, crossing generations;  on the other it’s a horror homage owing a very large debt to Rosemary’s Baby in particular and therein lieth a problem for this viewer at least. When I finally figured out the plot hook – which actually made me laugh but also made me remember to always trust my prejudices – once the quiet stuff ended about 90 minutes in, I took umbrage at the slight at Roman Polanski which is tasteless if oblique, considering the weight one attaches to certain rumours spread about him in the wake of his wife’s murder. Meta? Yes. Clever? Not especially. But the admonition to Get Out obviously calls up another satirical family horror. This one doesn’t have that film’s sociopolitical critique but it does remind us that true horror resides right there in your family if you look hard enough. Right inside the dollhouse.

The Tin Drum (1979)

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There once was a drummer. His name was Oskar. He lost his poor mama, who had eat to much fish. There was once a credulous people… who believed in Santa Claus. But Santa Claus was really… the gas man! There was once a toy merchant. His name was Sigismund Markus… and he sold tin drums lacquered red and white. There was once a drummer. His name was Oskar. There was once a toy merchant… whose name was Markus… and he took all the toys in the world away with him. Oskar Matzerath (David Bennent) is a very unusual boy born in Danzig in 1924, after the city has been separated from Germany following WW1. Refusing to leave the womb until promised a tin drum by his mother, Agnes (Angela Winkler), Oskar is reluctant to enter a world he sees as filled with hypocrisy and injustice, and vows on his third birthday to never grow up as he watches his mother take her cousin Jan for a lover and she becomes pregnant – but by who? Miraculously Oskar gets his wish when he throws himself down a staircase.  His talent for breaking glass when he screams garners him attention. As the Nazis rise to power in Danzig, Oskar wills himself to remain a child, beating his tin drum incessantly and screaming in protest at the chaos surrounding him as his mother dies, his father takes a new wife who has a baby Oskar is convinced he has fathered and Hitler takes over while Oskar decides to join a travelling circus and entertain the Nazi troops in Paris … Günter Grass’ stunning 1959 novel was adapted by Volker Schlöndorff (and Jean-Claude Carriére and Frank Seitz Jr.) and he became the first German director to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes with this transgressive, arresting and surreal impression of Nazism and the breakup of Europe. It’s mesmerising, brilliantly conceived and performed – Bennent is one of a kind – and once seen can never be forgotten. It is the blackest of comedies about the darkness in Germany and the way in which Polish people handled the transition to Nazism. The coda in real life – that Grass was found to have been in the Waffen-SS as a teenager after a lifetime of denial –  somehow just gives this greater heft. Amazing.

A Quiet Place (2018)

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Who are we if we can’t protect them? We have to protect them.  Over three months in 2020, most of the Earth’s human population has been wiped out by sightless creatures with hypersensitive hearing and a seemingly impenetrable armored shell that attack anything that makes noise. The Abbott family — engineer husband Lee (John Krasinski), wife Evelyn (Emily Blunt), congenitally deaf daughter Regan (Millicent Simonds), and sons Marcus (Noah Jupe) and Beau (Cade Woodward) — silently scavenge for supplies in a deserted town. Though skilled in sign language the family must nonetheless be vigilant in case they make accidental noise. Four-year-old Beau is drawn to a battery-operated space shuttle toy, but his father takes it away. Regan returns the toy to Beau, who unbeknownst to her takes the batteries their father removed. Beau activates the shuttle when the family is walking home through the woods, near a bridge. Its noise makes him an instant target for a nearby creature, and he is swiftly killed. A year later Evelyn is pregnant, Regan is plagued with guilt and convinced her father doesn’t love her (despite working on a cochlear implant for her) and he takes Marcus out on survival training just as the creatures are circling the farm and weeks before Evelyn is due to give birth … A canny blend of horror, sci fi and maternal melodrama, the fact that this has a somewhat unclear endpoint doesn’t necessarily ruin its affect. Third-time director and star John Krasinski contributed to the rewriting of the screenplay by Scott Beck and Bryan Woods (which had just one line of dialogue) and it’s a testament to the construction that the hook gets a great payoff but still sacrifices a major character. The thrills mount as the tension grinds on, the family treading barefoot everywhere as the slightest noise could bring these aliens swooping down on them.  The elements – air, water, fire – are put to deft use in this clever narrative which tests the audience and not just because a lot of the diegetic atmosphere consists of … silence.  Mercifully short (at 90 minutes) this has all the best elements of 70s horror and a cliffhanger of an ending which means you just know there will be a sequel.

 

Girl Flu (2017)

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I’m never going to have kids. I already have my mom. Robin aka (Baby) Bird (Jade Pettyjohn) moves from the San Fernando Valley burbs to the hipster Echo Park neighbourhood to housesit her grandmother’s home with her selfish stoner waitress mom Jenny (Katee Sackhoff). She has to become a woman whether she wants to or not when she gets her first period in the middle of a sixth grade picnic and the meanest of the mean girls Rachel (Isabella Acres) bullies her. She finds herself abandoned in ignorance and finds out how to deal with the blood letting from Mom’s friend Lili (Heather Matarazzo).  Mom’s boyfriend Arlo (Jeremy Sisto) tries to help the flaky Jenny to grow up:  it’s not happening to you!  he tells her as she wallows in self-indulgence, fatally unsuited to being a mother.  Bird finds out that she’ll never be able to return to the Valley but she has new friends here, against the odds even as she goes through the worst week in living memory … Sharp and funny on a gross-out topic, the writing and directing debut of actress and story consultant Dorie Barton is a refreshing and very impressive blast boasting seriously charming performances in a new twist on mother-daughter dramedy. While Grandma is blithely Skyping from an ashram in India (ensuring we know why her daughter is useless at being a mother) Jenny leaves Arlo to pick up the family’s pieces and even pretend to be Bird’s boyfriend when the bullies threaten. My mother is a narcissist and my father is a workaholic, he tells Lilli. That figures, she retorts. Smart, well written and a really authentic comedy of embarrassment and growing up the hard way. I want a real mom.

The Boss Baby (2017)

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He carries a briefcase! Does no one else think that’s, oh, I don’t know, a little freaky? A new baby’s arrival impacts a family, told from the point of view of a delightfully unreliable narrator the wildly imaginative 7-year-old Tim Templeton (Miles Bakshi). The unusually verbal Boss Baby (Alec Baldwin) arrives at Tim’s home in a taxi, wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase. The instant sibling rivalry must soon be put aside when Tim discovers that Boss Baby is actually a spy on a secret mission, and only he can help thwart a dastardly plot that involves an epic battle between puppies and babies… This is simultaneously inventive, overdone, funny and draining,with a serious dip in energy round about the hour mark but it picks up by the end. Is anyone else as tired of endlessly gee-whizz-flash computer-generated animation as I am? At least there’s a nice use of The Beatles’  Blackbird in the story. Adapted from Marla Frazee’s 2010 picture book by Michael McCullers and directed by Tom McGrath. And yes, Bakshi is the grandson of the incredible Ralph. Sigh.

The Sixth Sense (1999)

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I see dead people. How extraordinary is this film? A truly scary ghost story – even all these years later when you know the amazing twist at its centre. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) is the child psychologist treating troubled Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment). The son of a single mother (Toni Collette), he’s a kid whose weirdness marks him out amongst his schoolfriends leading to bullying and strange injuries. Halfway through the story he tells the extremely sympathetic Malcolm his dark secret – and he knows that Malcolm just doesn’t get it. A stunning exposition of death, bereavement, grief, sorrow, the problem with acceptance and some punishing home truths, this is augmented by totally believable, realistic performances. A really audacious and cunning piece of work by writer/director M. Night Shyamalan.

The Birthday Present (1957)

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Ah, the 1950s. When smuggling in Europe was yet to become eased through Duty Free shops, now known as Airport Shopping.  Tony Britton is the star toy salesman who buys his wife a lovely watch in Germany and is nabbed by Customs (think of what they miss nowadays …). His solicitor messes up the defence, he doesn’t have the money for an appeal plus the various fines, so he winds up doing three months in the clink. And word begins to leak out … Very proper low-budgeter with the gorgeous Sylvia Syms as his beautiful, loyal wife, a photographic model.  There are a lot of familiar faces playing the roles of Ex-RAF officers now on company boards hiding their own drink drive convictions and nobody really wants to do right by him when he finally re-enters society. Geoffrey Keen is Colonel Wilson, the boss who tries to defy his board of directors and re-hire him. Not bad but hardly thrilling drama, directed by the venerable Pat Jackson. Written and produced by Jack Whittingham.