Geostorm – Film Review

As long as you know going in that what you’re about to see in director Dean Devlin’s Geostorm is pure hokum, you’ll be fine. If not, and its silliness is just too much, then for you this could rank as among the worst of the year. In fact, nominations for the Razzies may already be in order, and they’ll certainly be justified.  But all the same, go ahead, surrender to the conflicts and their resolutions, try to enjoy it, and you never know, you may have a good time in an MST3K kind of way.

After the delicate sound of thunder, booming in the background as the Warner Bros. logo appears, there’s a montage of TV news clips showing just how bad global weather has become. It’s 2019, though what we’re seeing doesn’t look all that unfamiliar. Shots of hurricanes, tornadoes and ocean water sweeping across coasts everywhere doesn’t have quite the same effect of a futuristic world going crazy when what we’re witnessing could easily be news clips from Puerto Rico, parts of Florida, the Texas coast, and even Ireland during the past couple of months.

Everyone was warned,” a young girl’s voice narrates, “But no one listened.” That young girl happens to be Hannah (Talitha Bateman), the daughter of belligerent satellite designer, Jake Lawson (Gerard Butler). Jake is the genius behind an outta space natural disaster defense system nicknamed Dutch Boy, so called because of the story of the little boy from The Netherlands who plugged a leaking dam with his finger. The system came about after the world’s leaders clubbed together, joined forces, and financed an International Climate Space Station that beams waves down upon the Earth whenever something in our climate gets out of hand. And it works. But three years after the American government suspiciously removed Jake from the project and put younger brother Max (Jim Sturgess) in charge, then replaced some of the international techs with their own less experienced scientists, Dutch Boy starts going wrong.

The first sign of an oncoming disaster begins in Afghanistan. In the middle of a hot desert, an isolated Afghan villages freezes, its occupants frozen to the core, looking as if Disney’s Elsa passed through and let it go all over the place.

The second and even more damaging sign occurs later in Hong Kong. A massive, underground gas leak causes an explosion of epic proportions, resulting with half the city collapsing, it’s skyscrapers crashing into each other like glass towered dominoes, knocking each aside until there are no more buildings left to topple. The authorities blame the disaster on old, cracked pipes, but Hong Kong-based supervisor of the Dutch Boy program, Cheng (Daniel Wu) thinks different. A sudden rise in temperature hot enough to fry an egg on the Chinese pavements caused those pipes to burst, and there’s only one explanation, or maybe two. Either faulty programming made the Dutch Boy program pull its finger out, or someone is purposely sabotaging things.

The answer soon becomes obvious when Cheng makes an urgent call to brother Max. “We’ve got to meet,” he declares after doing a lot of computer research. “I’ve figured it all out.” And with a line like that, guess what happens to Cheng?

The setup is perfectly fine movie science-fiction. A defense system messing up and firing back on the planet is a good start for a popcorn disaster flick, but the dial on the preposterous meter starts climbing once that political conspiracy kicks in. Jake, who has left his daughter under his ex-wife’s care and is now up there, on the space station, is trying to fix things.  But it’s not long before he discovers sabotage, and his investigations take him directly to those in the White House. “Someone has weaponized Dutch Boy!”

Earlier this year, the Hollywood industry buzz was that extensive work had to be done on Geostorm before its release. Test audiences in 2016 gave the film a thumbs down, so with a budget further inflated by $15 million, Warner Bros. brought in new producer Jerry Bruckheimer, writer Laeta Kalogridis, and new director Danny Cannon (all uncredited) to take over the reins and to boost things up. In the end, it’s hard to determine whether what we’re watching is the work of director/writer Dean Devlin or the uncredited Danny Cannon, but suspicion and an obvious change of style, not to mention a good dose of story-telling lunacy during the outrageous and often outrageously funny climax, leads you to think that most of the extra effort went into the final act.

In disaster movies, we all like to see things blow up, and in the recent tradition of Dwayne Johnson’s San Andreas and Devlin’s ex-movie partner, Roland Emmerich and his 2012, you get your money’s worth. Here’s a list. 1) India is on fire where, no kidding, we worry about a boy and his missing dog. 2) Orlando is about to explode during a Democratic National Convention with most of the White House in attendance. 3) Dubai and all those ridiculously tall skyscrapers become awash. 4) Moscow’s Red Square appears as if it might melt, though given the recent real-life discoveries of Russia’s computer hacking interference in all corners of American politics, there’s no losing sleep when watching that particular event. Even Gerard Butler’s Jake is in serious jeopardy as the Dutch Boy space station blows up all around him. Will he get off in time and escape that one, last, mighty explosion when everything seems lost? “He’s coming back,” declares his daughter when watching it all unfold on television. “He promised me.

Geostorm is truly absurd, and the deeper the conspiracy theory unfolds, the more absurd it becomes. But with a film as loony as this, who really cares? When the politicians actually discuss how they might look in an election year rather than go ahead and save the lives of countless millions around the globe, tuck in to that popcorn and enjoy the nonsense. Dubai might drown, and everyone in that Orlando Convention center might fry, but you just know that somehow, that kid and his lost dog in India are going to reunite, and in the end, that’s all that counts.

MPAA Rating:  PG-13   Length: 109 Minutes   Overall Rating: 5 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

Only The Brave – Film Review

When it comes to the tragic, real-life story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, emotions in Arizona run high. For those elsewhere, where the disaster headlined the evening news, the occurrence of the firefighters who fought the Yarnell Hill, Arizona fire in 2013 was devastating enough, but once the nightly anchor moved on to the next story, so did the viewing audience. But not in Arizona. And certainly not in Prescott where the Hotshots served as part of the municipal fire department. Four years later, many in what was once the capital of the Arizona Territory can’t move on.

Much of that emotion was shown recently when Hollywood came to the valley, specifically Tempe, to premiere the film, and for the performers to meet the press. Prescott residents felt slighted, and were vocal. From the studio’s point of view, having the junket in the valley created the maximum amount of media coverage to get the word out there – after all, the valley is where the press reside – but Prescott was the home of the Hotshots. It’s there, in Yavapai County, where the devastation on a personal level was felt city wide. That protest is not only understandable, it’s to be expected.

But when it comes to the film itself, residents should feel proud. Only The Brave doesn’t approach its subject in the traditional construct of a Hollywood disaster movie made for entertainment, one where after a brief setup of the characters involved, the fire starts almost immediately and excitement builds with thrills and spills for the following two hours until its conclusion. It’s not that kind of film. Director Joseph Kosinski’s biographical drama is a commendably earnest attempt to honor the memory of those men and to fully create a picture that allows us to understand, in detail, exactly what they were up against, what they did, how they did it, and how it affected their lives and the lives of those around them. And it truly succeeds.

Besides the startling images of the fires themselves, director Kosinski and his cinematographer Claudio Miranda, the man who shot those spectacular sights from Life of Pi, create several other well lit, eye-catching visuals throughout, all adding to the rich texture of the film’s overall look from the start. What initially seems to be magical night-flies bouncing in the air against a black background soon take on their real, ominous appearance once the crackling sound of what is actually occurring is heard. They’re flaming embers, dangerously rebounding, causing havoc and setting alight to anything upon which they land.

There’s also the strange sight of an enormous hose that hangs like something from a science-fiction thriller, dangling from an unseen firefighting helicopter above, sucking the water from a resident’s swimming pool that is then used as water drop. But there’s also the unwelcome sight of a bear on fire, engulfed in flames from head to claws, charging through the forest, unable to escape the hell in which it’s trapped. Because of its bulk, the way it runs appears to be slo-mo, and it’s obvious from the smoothness of its movement that the image is computer generated which helps lessen the reality of what you’re watching, but the horror of what it’s depicting may be too much for some. It’s a sight you hope you’ll never see again.

At two hours and fourteen minutes, there’s a danger for some that the film, like many others that can’t seem to tell its tale in under two hours, may seem too long. The Yarnell Hill Fire occurs during the final twenty minutes or so, but up until that point, the film concentrates on getting to know the fighters, some individually, and what it is they do.

To those who aren’t aware, particularly moviegoers outside of the state, the term Hotshot mentioned liberally throughout may sound like a yahoo nickname, but it’s an official designation, one given to those risking their lives, working on the front line. As we learn, the Hotshots’ procedure is to fight fire with fire. There’s no ability to douse those infernos with water, the aim is to purposely draw a line of fire that controls the direction of the ever advancing flames. They dig, they cut the trees, and they establish a flaming boundary.

Among the twenty members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, there are several upon whom the film focuses. Josh Brolin plays the gruff but likable man-in-charge, Eric Marsh. When out there, ready to battle an oncoming fire, he looks to the distance across a mountainous green vista where the flames currently rage and sees it as an entity, asking, “What’re you doing? What’re you up to?”

Miles Teller is Brendan McDonough, a young guy who when we first meet him is smoking from a bong, getting stoned with a buddy, resting back on a couch, passing the time watching Drew Carey on early morning TV. The scenes that cut between the training of the Hotshots and McDonough’s story are initially jarring. Watching him waking and baking in front of the TV, finding that his ex-girlfriend is five months pregnant, then later committing larceny that earns him three days in jail look like scenes from a different film. But it’s later, when the guy is determined to shape up and approach the Hotshots for a job, that his role finally falls into place. As we’ll later discover, Brolin’s fire chief has history, and in the old-fashioned Hollywood storytelling way that much of the film resembles, he gives McDonough a chance.

Besides the scenes with the wives – Jennifer Connelly is particularly good as Amanda, the chief’s wife – the film also shows what those Fire Shelters are, why they’re a last resort when trapped, and how they operate. When that final, climactic moment in the middle of the Yarnell Hill Fire occurs, we know exactly what those men are doing and why there’s a chance of survival. The moment is captured with respect, and even though we are placed right there, in the center of everything, there are no cheap shots, and nothing even closely resembling that earlier sight of a flaming bear on the run. The scene is reminiscent of the one director Paul Greengrass used at the end of United 93 where the high-jacked plane takes a nosedive in a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, but we witness nothing; the screen cuts to black. The effect of not seeing is far more devastating.

As locals recall, one will survive – he was at another point, radioing information to the team of what he could see – but will suffer the guilt of survival. And be prepared to witness the pain of associates and loved ones whose howls of anguish pierce the heart. It’s a difficult watch, one that as this review is being written, continues to choke once again to the point of tears. Emotions really will run high, and not just in Arizona.

MPAA Rating:  PG-13   Length:  134 Minutes    Overall Rating:  8 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

Man of La Mancha – Theatre Review: Arizona Broadway Theatre, Peoria

Over the years, many have thought it a true tale, but it’s not. Even though the central character to the Broadway musical Man of La Mancha, Miquel de Cervantes, was the real creator behind that most famous of all chivalrous Spanish knights, Don Quixote, the story the musical tells is a fantasy.

True, for a few years the late sixteenth century author was a tax collector for the government, and he really did go to prison in Seville, but his time spent behind bars was not quite the fanciful play-within-a-play existence that the musical tells.

Cervantes (James Rio) and his manservant (Andy Meyers) are arrested by the Spanish Inquisition and left to wait in an inescapable dungeon along with many others. The dungeon is a waiting area, a miserable, cold, dank place where thieves and murderers are kept until they are eventually called to trial. And there’s no point in chaining prisoners to the walls or cuffing them to restrict their movements; there’s no way out.

Those assorted thieves and murderers turn on Cervantes and his manservant the moment they arrive. As is custom, there’s to be mock trial. If Cervantes is found guilty, which is practically a given, the prisoners will take all of the author’s possessions and burn them, including an unfinished manuscript, precious to the writer but of no value to anyone else. Before a verdict is handed down, in his defense, Cervantes tells the story contained within the pages of his written work, and he does it in the form of theatre. He will direct his play and enlist the aid of the thieves and murderers to play the roles, with himself as the leading player.

The wonderful thing about Man of La Mancha is that it truly is piece of great theatre and incorporates all the elements that make imaginative theatre great. When Cervantes tells of an old country gentleman who reads so much that he becomes overwhelmed of man’s inhumanity towards man, and loses his mind as a consequence, with the use of a few props and a change of lighting, that dungeon setting can become the countryside, an inn, a family home, anything it wants. All that’s needed is imagination and to temporarily suspend disbelief. After all, all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players. In the case of these prisoners, that Shakespearean quote becomes literal; their world within that dungeon becomes their stage, and they the players.

After the opening sound of a terrific scene-setting trumpet fanfare, courtesy of John Eth in conductor James May’s equally terrific seven-piece orchestra, the Arizona Broadway Theatre’s plush red curtain rises upon scenic designer Kara Thomson’s handsome looking set, the kind so full of detail that once revealed you can’t help but want to explore all of its nooks and crannies.

There are what looks like three castle turrets, doorways that flank either side with various other passages to enter and exit, an angled wooden bridge with assorted hanging ropes that resembles the kind of gangplank used when boarding a ship from the dock, and the ability to see a night sky above. But what immediately strikes you is that it doesn’t look particularly like the set to Man of La Mancha. It’s more the Tower of London’s Traitor’s Gate than a dank Spanish dungeon, and without that famous central staircase that lowers like a lean drawbridge when a prisoner arrives and rises so that no one can ever leave, you realize that what you’re about to see is a re-designed version of the musical, one that doesn’t require so much of your imagination, your willing suspension of disbelief, or too many lighting changes to transport you to other locations, the set does all the work for you.

As directed by Joseph Martinez, when James Rio’s Cervantes takes charge and casts his characters from the available prisoners, he explains what is needed of them, but he’s really talking directly to us, breaking that fourth wall, relating events to the ABT audience when he should be directing everything to the cast – they are his audience, they’re his judge and jury, and it’s to them he’s supposed to be appealing. At a later point when the cast exit and leave Cervantes alone (where did they go? It’s supposed to be an inescapable dungeon) he continues telling us the plot. Traditionally, the cast never leave. They are always there, lurking in the shadows, becoming part of the story only when called upon. Evidently, in this case, somehow the judge and jury don’t need to be in attendance to hear the author’s defense.

Perhaps the difference to this particular approach will be lost on those new to the production, but like the set that doesn’t fully reflect the show’s original intention, neither does talking to the audience reflect Dale Wasserman’s original writing. At the show’s conclusion when the cast reprise in one voice The Impossible Dream, they should be angled, facing Cervantes as he exits, their arms reaching out, but here they’re directed to face the audience, once again, acknowledging we’re there, watching them. The voices that sustain that last note are truly inspiring – it’s the kind of overwhelming musical sound that demands you leap to your feet at its conclusion – but it doesn’t look right when turning away from that bridge Cervantes crosses, then turning to face us. That’s for a variety show, not a musical play.

Rio nicely captures that elderly Don Quixote look as he changes from a younger, clean-shaven man to the eccentric looking older knight-errant, though the display would be far more effective had he applied his makeup with his back to us throughout rather than facing the audience. There’s no theatrical sense of a reveal when he declares that he is no longer a country gentleman but a dauntless knight known as Don Quixote, we’ve basically watched the progression. His singing voice serves the songs well. His Impossible Dream is a crowd-pleaser and gets the applause the piece deserves, but his speaking voice, though strong with clarity, lacks the emotional energy the part often requires. When Rio as Cervantes talks of life as it is and not as it should be, the speech remains one-note, more like a resigned ho-hum throw-away, lacking the passion and anger he’s supposed to deliver.

As with the look of the overall production, Jessica Medoff, with her raven, black hair falling in untidy, wild locks, her healthy, stocky build, and her overall good looks, makes a handsome Escalante/Aldonza. Her fiery delivery when performing in the play-within-the play captures exactly what Aldonza’s character is, even if her style of singing doesn’t quite match how the server and whore of the inn might sound. Curiously, as the prisoner Escalanta, a character that’s supposed to be sitting in the shadows of the dungeon, an unwilling participant who traditionally has to be coaxed into taking part in Cervante’s impromptu play, is here, as directed by Martinez, an all too-willing performer, possessor of a hearty laugh at a dirty reference, ready to take on anything presented. She’s like Oliver’s Nancy, ready for a quick burst of Oom Pah Pah as soon as we’re introduced.

Special mention to Geoff Belliston’s Governor of the dungeon and Innkeeper to Quixote’s fantasy. His baritone voice, whether he sings or speaks, is a delight to the ear. Also to Micheal O’Brien’s Duke/Dr, Carrasco. When he enters disguised as Quixote’s enemy, the Great Enchanter, his masked appearance and his booming, amplified voice is hugely effective and serves its purpose; it might be aimed at the old, mad knight, but it would scare the life out of anyone.

Pictures courtesy of Scott Samplin

Man of La Mancha performs at Arizona Broadway Theatre in Peoria until November 11

Posted in Theatre

Meet Me in St. Louis – Theatre Review: Hale Centre Theatre, Gilbert

Unlike the musicals of either Rodgers & Hammerstein or Lerner & Lowe where the show came first and the big screen came later, Meet Me in St. Louis was a movie musical long before it ever hit the stage.  In fact, was it not for the regional theatrical success of Singing in the Rain, or even Seven Brides for Seven Brothers for that matter, the show may never have emerged.  But in 1989, forty-five years after the hugely successful M-G-M movie musical, it must have seemed like a great idea. Meet Me in St. Louis opened on Broadway to mixed reviews and enjoyed a decent eight-month run.

The version you’ll see at Gilbert’s Hale Centre Theatre is the one that was tweaked and slightly altered from the one that opened in New York and subsequently did the regional rounds during the early nineties.  The good news is, Hale is much better off for it, and, as a consequence, so are we.  Having seen that earlier edition, this newer, refreshed version with songs either altered or cut and some newer ones added, is far livelier and considerably more entertaining.  Where that earlier version felt more like a simple, almost lifeless retread of the movie screenplay, Meet Me in St. Louis the stage musical now has a life of its own, somewhat separate from the film.

The initial interest of the Hale Centre Theatre production is knowing what some of the differences are.  The opening conversation between young Tootie (Lily Nelson) and Mr. Neely (Michael Schwneke), where Tootie talks of the oncoming world’s fair, her doll that has just died, and the correct way of pronouncing St. Louis – locals say the ‘S’ – remains intact, but here Mr. Neely is no longer the delivery ice-man, he’s the mailman.  Plus, the conversation between the family where each discuss the taste of the soup is no longer around a smoking pot in a hot, steaming kitchen but at the dinner table.  Those changes may seem like small details, but in a show where not a lot of conflict actually occurs, changing settings and character status are of great importance.

Like the film, the overall story revolves around the upper-middle-class Smith family who live at 5135 Kensington Avenue. The time is turn of the last century America, a wistful remembrance of idyllic Americana, where the boys in their summertime white pressed pants, jackets and their straw boaters appeared clean-cut and wholesome, and the giggly girls in their eye-catching, cheerful dresses and their leather, high-heeled lace-ups were the prettiest features of the country’s mid-west. Mary Atkinson’s costume designs are quite perfect.

Unlike the film, which was essentially a vehicle for its leading lady, Judy Garland, the character of teenager Esther Smith (Holly Payne) is not always the focus.  True to the heart of the musical, Esther remains central to most of what happens, but with the addition of new songs and considerably more involvement from the family, consisting of son Lon (Allan DeWitt), older sister Rose (Heidi-Liz Johnson), young Agnes (Katie Brown), Grandpa (Dan Stroud), mom (Rochelle Barton), the above-mentioned Tootie, Katie the Irish maid (Mary Jane McClosky) and the character that actually pays for everything, dad (Rob Stuart), they’re all given something close to equal time.

Actual conflicts are minimal, something that was never quite so noticeable in the film but stands out in the show.  The most important event of the first half, besides whether the long-distance call from Yale graduate Warren Sheffield (Stephen Serna) will be a marriage proposal to Rose, or if the boy-next-door, John Truitt (Jacob Goodman) will ever notice that Esther is practically pining for his attention while he plays catch, is the fact that the 1904 World’s Fair is ten months away.  That’s it. The second half introduces a bigger conflict when, prior to Christmas, dad tells the family he’s got a promotion that will take him and everyone else to New York.  Besides uprooting from their favorite city – not to mention that dad never even discussed it with them before making his decision – the family are less than enthusiastic, particularly as it means they’ll never get to go to the fair, not to mention that Esther’s boy-next-door will no longer be living next door anymore.

Meet Me in St. Louis is a show where the young ladies are given the choicest characterizations.  Esther, by default, is front and center, while sisters Rose, Agnes, and Tootie, plus family friend Eve Finley (Emily Woodward-Shaw) are all nicely rounded, but the boys are across-the-board bland.  This is not so much the fault of the players, but of the script itself; it’s the way they’re written.  In what could be considered a reversal of roles, the boys are there to serve the ladies’ secret wants and girly desires.  Why Esther is so attracted to John Truitt is hard to say, other than he lives next door and he’s available. However, Hale regular Stephen Serna injects an extra layer of life and energy into his Yale graduate, Warren Sheffield, even though it’s doubtful that such a wholesome, clean-cut, turn of the last century young character would be sporting a growing beard and mustache.

Like the film, there are three great songs and they all belong to Esther.  Due in large part to Holly Payne’s excellent vocals, The Boy Next Door, the fun and extremely well-staged Trolley Song, and Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas remain true delights.  But as often happens when new numbers are presented alongside the hits, the new material never quite measures up.  Part of this is to do with familiarity and years of repetition, not to mention that Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas is so well known it might even surprise many to discover that it actually originated in the 1944 movie musical.

However, Rochelle Barton makes You’ll Hear A Bell a fine new addition.  It almost makes up for a couple of clunky songs in the second half that feel like nothing more than padding.  Mary Jane McClosky’s Katie is perfectly fine and comically welcome, even if her Irish is less the reality of County Kildare and more the whimsical fantasy of Hollywood-of-the-forties, but her song A Touch of the Irish with its references to blarney, shamrocks and Irish jigs, is awful.  So is The Banjo sung in the Ballroom scene on Christmas Eve, but at least The Banjo incorporates a high-kick line, which in a musical is always hard to resist.  You’ll applaud the kicks while momentarily forgetting how bad the song is.

Once again, director and choreographer Cambrian James makes great use of Hale’s theatre-in-the-round setting, making continually inventive decisions of how best to stage events so that all four sides can see without audiences missing the action.  It’s amazing how adept the company has become when changing props, dinner tables, and various other required scene-setting furniture in the dark and with such efficiency.

Meet Me in St. Louis isn’t necessarily great theatre – its status as a classic remains firmly with the film, not the show – but Hale Centre Theatre’s production is such a friendly, likable, and extremely well-staged musical, you can’t help but surrender, even if nothing of real consequence ever happens.  And those Christmas scenes with the lighted tree and the snow-covered, front yard hedges are so pleasant that once a quartet of carolers in their Victorian costumes enter (primarily to distract you from the scene-changing) you’ll already be thinking of what Hale Centre will be offering at the end of November once Meet Me in St. Louis concludes on the 25th.

Pictures courtesy of Hale Centre Theatre

Posted in Theatre

Goodbye Christopher Robin – Film Review

There are some things you may want to consider before seeing the totally charming and ultimately sad new drama from director Simon Curtis, Goodbye Christopher Robin. If you’re not overly familiar with the A.A. Milne stories of Winnie-The-Pooh, look them up. At least, give yourself a quick overview of the characters. It helps.

But more importantly, go online and search for the 1922 poem Vespers. It’s easy to find, there are plenty of sites. It was later included in a set of poems published in A.A. Milne’s When We Were Very Young, but within the film there’s a presumption of knowledge, which is fine for British audiences who may even know it as a lullaby, but elsewhere, some audiences may feel left out. It’s not that being unfamiliar with the poem of a child saying his prayers before going to bed compromises enjoyment, it’s just that it helps further enhance the references in the film and the recognition of moments that inspired the writing.

As most should probably know, the young Christopher Robin of the Winnie-the-Pooh stories, the child who lived in the Hundred Acre Wood with his animal friends, was a real child, and so were the woods, though in reality they were five hundred acres located in Ashdown Forest, East Sussex, England. The child was the son of author and playwright A.A. Milne and his socialite mother, Daphne Milne. However, what you probably didn’t know is that neither his parents nor his nanny ever called him that. His name at home was Billy, stretched to Billy Moon because of his mispronunciation of the name Milne. His real name was used only in the books. In fact, as the film shows, whenever anyone called him Christopher Robin, from the boy’s point of view, it was as though they were referring to someone else. As his father would later tell his son when the boy asks why do people call him Christopher Robin, “It’s because it’s your real name, but it’s not who you really are.

The film begins with the overused television construct of starting events at a dramatic point, then jumping back to an earlier time. It’s 1941. A.A. Milne is already a world famous author, his books of Pooh Bear are already written, and Billy Moon is now a grown man in uniform. The war has ravaged Europe for over two years, though from the idyllic setting of a home in the middle of the country surrounded by woods, you’d never know of the death and destruction occurring on the outside. Not until, that is, a hand-delivered telegram arrives, and the reality of the war and its dreadful consequences are brought right to the doorstep of the parents.

The film then cuts to the First World War where playwright Milne (Domhnall Gleeson) is serving as an officer, fighting overseas. The experience is emotionally as well as physically shattering. At the end of the war to end all wars, which clearly didn’t work, upon returning to England, the damaged writer is plagued by memories of his time in the trenches. Anything, like a stab of light to the eyes, the popping of a cork from a bottle of champagne, or a balloon accidentally busting, triggers haunting memories, momentarily sending him back to the Somme. At a social event, the privileged raise their glass to the end of the war and declare “Tinkety Tonk.” It was an expression among the English upper classes that meant, goodbye, something akin to Toodle Pip. For the record, it is said that during the second world war, the Queen Mother used to conclude her personal correspondence with the phrase, Tinkety Tonk Old Fruit, And Down With The Nazis.

Eventually, the film will circle back to that telegram in 1941, but it doesn’t end there. To tell more is a plot-spoiler, but for those who know their literary history, you’ll know that it’s all a screenwriter’s device to hold suspense and nothing more, and it works, even if the event it’s dramatizing is not exactly honest. Hankies may be required.

Goodbye Christopher Robin clearly shows how awful his parents were at parenting. As is often the case with the English privileged class, the real raising of the child was done by the nanny (Kelly Macdonald) whose name was Olive, but was called Nou by Billy, and often written in A.A.Milne’s poems as Alice. She was twenty times the parent than his real parents would ever be. During a dramatic confrontation, when Nou faces the mum and dad and tries to tell them truths about their behavior, the clueless Daphne (Margot Robbie) declares, “I gave birth to him. It nearly killed me,” as though that was the lone qualification required to be considered a mother. “With respect, ma’am,” responds the nanny, “A cow can give birth.”

Sadly, the situation was rarely different when it came to families of the English upper-class, but seen from an outsider’s modern-day perspective, considering how both parents kept their child at arm’s length, you wander why they ever desired children in the first place. It’s sad to see the father’s manner in which he often views his boy as an inconvenience while later using him as a promotional tool for his books – he actually becomes annoyed when the public wants to know more of the child and not of the writer – but his mother’s ignorance and her lack of interest of even being a mother is alarming. During birth where she screams and screams even more, the midwife tells the father not to be concerned at the sounds he hears from the bedroom. “It’s all going swimmingly,” the midwife cheerfully informs him, adding that the silly mother, “… Wasn’t aware of the mechanics.”

There’s fun, however, at witnessing the creativity behind the writing of the stories while observing how the name Winnie was given to Billy’s beloved nursery teddy bear, and why he’s called a Pooh. Plus, the film’s refined scenic designs, the performances of Irish born Gleeson (who must now rank as one of the most chameleon-like performers in films today) and Australian Margot Robbie whose socially prestigious English Received Pronunciation accent of the twenties is as good as you could expect, all adds to a film that looks and sounds tastefully resplendent.

But while the film has a PG rating, and the title has that magical, fantasy ring to it – isn’t Christopher Robin the perfect name for a child whose best friend is a lovable, cuddly teddy bear? – this is not necessarily a film for children. The realities of both the first and the second world wars are not for the young hoping to catch as many glimpses of Pooh Bear, Piglet, and Rabbit as possible. Neither is the sadness that follows, or the treatment of Billy by the other boys when he leaves his home and goes away to school. Plus, Daphne is not just a bad mother, she’s a bad person. During those early days of Billy’s childhood, she leaves the country home for an indefinite period and goes to London to party and drink. When she finally returns and her husband asks if it’s worth asking her where she’s been, she replies, “Oh, goodness me, no. What would be the point?”

If Billy Moon’s story was a present-day telling, he’d be a child actor, thrust in front of the cameras of Hollywood, later promoting the film, doing the talk-show rounds, continually in demand for interviews, publicity shots, guest appearances wherever the cameras were ready to shoot, and everything else that goes with the selling of a product. But it’s the 1920s, and even though the promotional system of films and television was not in place in the way it is now, the demands on the little boy were just as traumatic. Sadly, it ruined a childhood and made those later years of maturing extremely difficult. As a child, he didn’t understand the attention; as an adult, Billy would resent what his father had done to him. Tinkety Tonk Christopher Robin, and take some tissues.

MPAA Rating: PG    Length: 106 Minutes    Overall Rating 8 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

The Florida Project – Film Review

Chances are, unless you’re the dedicated movie-buff with a keen interest in independent films and a taste for visiting film festivals, you haven’t seen director Sean Baker’s previous work, Tangerine. The 2015 comedy-drama was remarkable for several reasons, though the most remarkable thing of all was the way in which the film was shot. The director used 3 iPhones, cropped the images to look widescreen, and released a film with a color palette that made Los Angeles look practically incandescent.

With Baker’s new film. The Florida Project, the director has turned to a more conventional 35mm camera shoot, but his color design is no less glorious. He’s substituted the glowing reds and the electric fluorescent dark blues of LA to the eye-catching pastels of Orlando, and the results are striking. Everything, from the paint on the walls of the motels, the rainbow across the sky after a storm, the clothes the characters wear, the towels that hang over the motel handrails, even the green of the grass, all seem to glow with an unnatural, spectral-colored beauty that suggests we could be nowhere else other than Florida.

The title comes from the name given to Orlando’s Disney World when the plans for the magical theme park were originally in development. For Baker’s film, the title has intended irony. These characters live and play in Orlando, but it’s a parallel, desperate world to the hopes, dreams and fantasies of the one in the parks. These people with their children live in extended-stay motels where establishing residency is against the rules, but with some tweaking of what is and what is not allowed, as long as the weekly rent is paid, they remain. And they’re there for one simple reason: they can’t afford to live anywhere else.

That Disney parallel comes from the names of the lavender painted, off-the highway, low-rent motels, such as The Magic Castle or the Future Land Inn, where the principle characters live. Nearby business establishments with their garish, often crudely designed fronts, such as a fruit stand called Orange World, or a place that sells tourist trinkets and tickets to the theme parks, known as Gift World, all add to the setting that, despite the attractive color palette, we’re really in the Floridian projects. At one early point, a long shot shows an elderly man moving from one side of the screen to the other, passing in front of Orange World. It looks as though he might be on his personal theme park ride, but he’s sitting in his electronically powered wheelchair; it’s the only way he can get about.

Told in an anecdotal style, often in trivialities, the film revolves around a heavily tattooed young mother called Halley (Bria Vinaite) and her boisterous, playful daughter, Moonee (Brooklyn Prince). Moonee is an undisciplined brat, but at just six years, her bratty behavior comes more from irresponsible parenting than anything else. She doesn’t know any better, and much of what she says is the result of what she’s heard adults say, particularly her foul-mouthed mother.

When we first meet Moonee, she’s playing with friends and causing mischief. It’s the summer break, and the kids have nothing better to do than to spit from the second floor of a motel onto the parked cars below. When a neighbor steps out and notices the saliva splayed across both the windshield and the hood of her vehicle, she looks up and scolds the kids. Rather than run, Moonee leads her two friends in a verbal assault, with language that is startling, calling the woman a bitch, telling her where to go, and laughing.

In her own Magic Castle motel, Moonee knows the story of most who live there. As she passes the doors of several residents she’ll tell a new young play friend that, “This man gets arrested a lot,” or “This woman thinks she’s married to Jesus.” But her mischievous pranks often get dangerously out of hand, particularly when she pulls the main power switch to The Magic Castle, plunging the whole motel into darkness, and worse, vandalizes then sets a match to an abandoned pillow in the fireplace of a nearby, derelict building that sets the whole place up in flames.

Moonee’s mother may be in her twenties, but like her daughter, Halley is still a child. And she’s lazy, preferring to hang out with her daughter for most of the day, lying on the bed, watching TV. When neighbors complain of Moonee’s behavior, Halley pretends to admonish her six year-old, but in reality, she does nothing. Though we never see the mother doing drugs, with her reddening, sleepy eyes, and her pale, somewhat gaunt features, Halley has the look of a woman perpetually on the down side of a high.

The future for mother and daughter will never be good, and that’s something of which you’ll be aware from practically the opening moment. To talk of the ambiguous though abrupt end would be close to revealing a plot-spoiler, though you can be sure what you’ll see will inspire conversation for the drive home.

Though continually engaging with rarely a false move from any of the cast, one thing the film miscalculates in its character-driven style is the manner in which it asks us to sympathize with its two central players. You get the feeling the film wants us to feel pity and understanding when it comes to the desperate plight in which Halley finds herself, yet out of sheer indolence, ignorance, and general inertia, the mother continually sabotages her life, and it’s both painful and annoying to watch. The woman is not one to like.

As an adult, at this point, Halley should be making an effort – her more responsible neighbors are, at least, trying – but Halley has no interest, even when those around her, like Willem Dafoe’s excellent portrayal of Bobby, the gruff but likable motel manager, attempt to help and even protect. And as for young Moonee, under any normal circumstances, her playful though aggressively belligerent ways would be considered far more objectionable with less room for forgiveness if she wasn’t played by a performer who didn’t look so undeniably cute. When Moonee shouts with an insulting tone, “Give us a break, lady!” it’s only because it’s something she’s heard her mother repeatedly declare. At such a young age, early intervention should help. But for her mother, even though she is only in her twenties, with the things she says, the actions she takes, and her overall vindictiveness when she doesn’t get her way, which is most of the time, she may already be a lost cause.

MPAA Rating:  R    Length:  115 Minutes    Overall rating:  7 (out of 10)

Posted in Film