This ‘Peter Rabbit’ is Far From Ultimate

Peter Rabbit 2018 poster

After watching the trailer for Sony Pictures Animation’s “Peter Rabbit,” I kept thinking of the times when brands like KFC and Planter’s Peanuts among others changed their image in commercials to something more hip which made them look ever so desperate to appeal to a youthful demographic. It was both hilarious and cringe-inducing to see these popular brands reduce themselves to current trends they were never created for, and more often than not, it just revealed to us how tone deaf corporate executives can be in their quest for a profit. Those of you who have seen the “Peter Rabbit” trailer can agree this is not quite the same character we grew up reading about in those wonderfully imaginative books by Beatrix Potter. Now that I have seen the movie all the way through, I can confirm Ms. Potter is rolling over in her grave.

This “Peter Rabbit” is nothing more than a bastardization of those innocent tales as the filmmakers go out of their way to modernize this material to such an infinitely nauseating extent, and it hurt to see everyone trying way too hard to be clever. The harder everyone tries to be hip here, the more depressing this movie becomes as its story becomes increasingly convoluted and eventually turns in a poor man’s version of “Home Alone” as Peter tortures his nemesis in the same way Macauley Culkin tortured Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern.

Directed by Will Gluck who previously gave us the ill-advised remake of “Annie,” this movie isn’t so much an adaptation of “The Tale of Peter Rabbit” as it is a story which exists outside of it. Even though Peter Rabbit (voiced by James Corden) came close to meeting his maker the last time he invaded Mr. McGregor’s vegetable garden, we see he has not learned his lesson as he continues to steal every single vegetable he gets his paws on. But when a new McGregor moves into town, things will become even more challenging for him and his furry friends.

The opening minutes of “Peter Rabbit” serve to introduce not only Peter, but also a number of Potter’s other creations like Benjamin Bunny (Matt Lucas), Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle (Sia), Tommy Brock, Mr. Tod and Mr. Jeremy Fisher. Seeing this, I couldn’t help but think Sony Pictures was aiming to create a cinematic universe to rival the one Marvel Studios continues to add to. If this movie succeeds at the box office, we may very well see these characters get their own solo adventures to where they might have their own “Avengers” or “Justice League” movie. Still, I don’t think we should expect “Peter vs. Benjamin: Dawn of Radishes” anytime soon. After all, neither has a mother named Margret.

Peter runs afoul again of Mr. McGregor (a completely unrecognizable Sam Neill), but a heart attack suddenly does the old man in, freeing up the rabbit and his friends to have the equivalent to an endless rave party in his home. But then into the picture comes family relative Thomas McGregor (Domhnall Gleeson) who moves in after being fired from his job at Harrods in London, and no time is wasted before he and Peter wage war against one another which involves, among other things, repeated electrocution.

Perhaps it was too much to expect the filmmakers to remain true to “The Tale of Peter Rabbit” with had its main character being portrayed as being very naughty and later paying a price for being recklessly disobedient to his elders. This particular Potter tale was a great one for kids as it taught them the value of being good, something which Peter did not value in the slightest. “Peter Rabbit,” however, defies the tale’s morality and shows how this rabbit’s rebellious ways are something to cheer on instead of lay caution to. Also, Peter’s sisters Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail are shown to be willing participants in his rebellious escapades, something they were not previously.

I was also shocked to see how Neill’s Mr. McGregor was portrayed as a bloodthirsty meat eater who showed no hesitation in making a rabbit pie out of those who failed to escape his clutches. This leads “Peter Rabbit” to have a “Watership Down” scene where we learn how one of his parents became a tasty meal for Mr. McGregor, and this reeks of shameless manipulation on the part of the filmmakers. At the very least, this movie is bound to appeal to vegans as much as it will to children.

Then there is Thomas McGregor, and Gleeson portrays him in a way very similar to his role as General Hux in the recent “Star Wars” movies. Thomas is such an obsessive neat freak to where he wants the toilets at Harrods to be so clean he could drink out of them, and he almost does so with a straw. I expect sick humor like this in “The Human Centipede,” not in a family movie. If you want to see Gleeson in something good, check out “About Time” or the underrated “Goodbye Christopher Robin” instead.

James Corden is a wonderful talent, and I always enjoy watching his late-night sketches which include many unforgettable carpool karaoke episodes. But when it comes to roles like voicing Peter Rabbit, he tries way too hard to be funny and hip. This was the same problem with his work in “The Emoji Movie” which, in retrospect, I gave him too much leeway on. His performance in “Peter Rabbit” is definitely spirited, but seeing him trying to be infinitely clever to where he is desperate to stay one step ahead of the audience becomes painful and exhausting as the movie drags on.

Indeed, the filmmakers try way too hard to make “Peter Rabbit” seem so hip and cool to where they include songs like Len’s “Steal My Sunshine,” a great pop song which has now been officially used once too often in movies. Gluck also includes Big Country’s “In a Big Country,” Rancid’s “Time Bomb,” Vampire Weekend’s “The Kids Don’t Stand a Chance,” and The Proclaimers’ “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles).” You know, the kind of music Potter listened to endlessly while she wrote. Seeing the animals dancing the latest dance moves here was very dispiriting to me, but at least we never see Flopsy, Mopsy or Cottontail do any twerking.

If there is one real saving grace in “Peter Rabbit,” it is Rose Byrne. As Bea, the McGregor’s next-door neighbor, painter and animal lover, she is so infinitely appealing to where she truly lights up the screen whenever she appears. Byrne gives these proceedings a heart and soul which doesn’t deserve them, and I became infinitely jealous of Peter whenever she picked him up and cuddled him. It’s moments like those which had me wanting to be Peter, but anyway.

The children I saw “Peter Rabbit” with really enjoyed the shenanigans portrayed onscreen, and I am sure many of them will get a kick out of this movie. I, on the other hand, stared at the silver screen feeling dejected as the plot went down a road which filmmakers have traveled thousands of times before. Things get even more ridiculous when Thomas and Peter go from being bitter enemies to much needed allies. Seeing one character attempting to blow up another with dynamite is enough to bring about a restraining order. These two coming together near the end is as ridiculous as the thing which kept a pair of superheroes from beating one another to death in “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.”

“Peter Rabbit” is the first 2018 movie I have watched, and I’m positive many others which have yet to be released will be far better. Parents right now have a chance to take their children to movies which are far more imaginative and thoughtful like “Paddington 2,” but it looks like they will be quicker to get in line for this one instead. Call me a purist, but this is not how a Beatrix Potter tale should be translated to cinema. Of the many rabbits out there, this one is far from being ultimate.

* out of * * * *

 

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‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’ Defies Easy Expectations

Star Wars The Last Jedi movie poster

With “Star Wars” movies now becoming a yearly tradition, I wonder if they will begin to feel less like an event and resemble a typical episode of the “Law & Order” franchise. You know a version of the show is always on television in one form or another, but are you as excited to watch an episode as you were when you first discovered it? Perhaps this is an unfair comparison, but considering where Disney is taking this franchise, it is beginning to feel like it no longer takes place in a galaxy all that far away.

I bring this up because I couldn’t stop thinking about this during the opening crawl of “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.” Each new “Star Wars” motion picture feels like a major event to where it should be declared a national holiday, but since it’s becoming a regular thing now since Disney bought Lucasfilm, will the franchise still feel this special with each future installment? Well, hopefully this remains the case as “The Last Jedi” proves to be a rousing piece of entertainment which stays true to the franchise’s ideals, and it even has a number of surprises up its sleeve to where I eagerly await the next episode set to come out in 2019.

While each “Star Wars” film typically takes place several years after the last one, “The Last Jedi” begins where “The Force Awakens” concluded. Rey (Daisy Ridley) comes to meet the legendary Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) who has long since exiled himself on the planet Ahch-To (gesundheit), a much nicer destination than Dagobah. Meanwhile, the Resistance finds itself feeling the First Order after the latter obliterates their main base. From there, the rebels are on the run, but they can only get so far before they realize the First Order has tracked their whereabouts and to where they are trapped with little hope of escape. It is up to the daring and dashing Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and former stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) to save the day with the help of friends both old and new.

Revealing more about a “Star Wars” film just as it is released tends to result in actions which will prove to be infinitely painful to say the least, so this will be a spoiler-free review. What I can tell you is while this episode deals with the subjects of hope and the need to discover more than what can be found on the surface, the key subject writer and director Rian Johnson deals with here is failure. All the characters are dealing with failure in one way or another, and it comes to haunt every action they take. The characters we grew up with are dealing with failings they cannot escape, and the ones we were introduced to in “The Force Awakens” are now discovering the irreversible consequences of their actions.

Johnson previously wrote and directed “The Brothers Bloom” and “Brick,” but his best known film before helming “The Last Jedi” was “Looper,” a sci-fi time travel motion picture which was ingenious as it was thrilling. Having seen it, I went into this “Star Wars” extravaganza with the confidence he could pull it off, and he did. Even though “The Last Jedi” threatens to overstay its welcome at two hours and 32 minutes, making it the longest “Star Wars” movie to date, you cannot punish Johnson for his ambition as he covers a lot of ground while leaving us salivating for more.

When it came to the prequels, you had to forgive the actors because they were being directed by a man, George Lucas, who is a master storyteller but deeply deficient when it came to dealing with the human element. But Johnson, like J.J. Abrams before him, knows how to elicit strong performances from his cast, and each actor is more than up to the challenge.

Watching Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher was deeply fascinating as their adventures in the original “Star Wars” trilogy remain forever burned into my consciousness, and it still feels like I first watched those movies just yesterday. Their youthful exuberance in fighting the dark side was contagious as I wanted to fight alongside them, and I know I’m not the only who feels this way. When we catch up with their characters of Luke Skywalker and Leia Organa in “The Last Jedi,” the years of endless battles and devastating defeats show in their faces as we wonder how much of a fight they have left in them considering what they have been through. While they are heroes, both have grown weary in the face of an enemy which is every bit as imposing as the Galactic Empire, and their confidence in their abilities is shakier than ever before.

It’s especially poignant to watch Fisher here as this was her last movie before she passed away, and knowing this will be the final time we will see her as Leia is a real heartbreaker. Even as Leia’s accent changes yet again, Fisher imbues the former princess with a dignity and humility which will not be easily shattered in the face of defeat. Even as the odds get worse for the Resistance, Fisher makes Leia stand tall, and she makes clear to the audience that this sci-fi icon will not go down without a fight.

After watching Hamill’s brief appearance in “The Force Awakens,” I came into this film wondering where he would take the great Luke Skywalker. Well, he’s no Yoda here as a devastating failure has led him to believe the Jedi should end and has robbed almost completely robbed him of his sense of humor. Whether or not this is the Luke Skywalker you hoped to see in “The Last Jedi,” Hamill dares to take this character in another direction, but despite defying expectations, the actor makes Luke the powerful Jedi we always wanted him to be.

It’s also great to see “The Force Awakens” veterans Oscar Isaac and John Boyega back as Poe Dameron and Finn as their charismatic energy lends itself nicely to the special effects extravaganza which could have, but does not, overwhelm their talents. Watching Isaac here also serves as a reminder that covering him in pounds of makeup like Bryan Singer did in “X-Men: Apocalypse” is completely unnecessary and just takes away from him. Domhnall Gleeson still makes General Hux into more of a twisted tightwad than we previously saw, and Andy Serkis mesmerizes as Supreme Leader Snoke while continuing to shroud the character in mystery.

Among the newcomers to this franchise are Laura Dern as Resistance Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo, Benicio Del Toro as the codebreaker DJ, and Kelly Marie Tran comes into play as Rose Tico, a maintenance worker who becomes a key player in the Resistance. While it is great to see Dern and Del Toro here, let alone in any other movie they appear in, their characters are a bit underwritten to where their talents can only go so far with the material given to them. Tran, however, makes Rose Tico into a terrific character I am very eager to see in the next “Star Wars” episode. As for the Porgs, they are delightful little creatures who do not overstay their welcome, and they serve as a reason why Chewbacca might consider becoming a vegetarian in the future.

But the performances which really held my attention more than any others came from Daisy Ridley as Rey and Adam Driver as Kylo Ren. Both bring a raw intensity to their characters which left me on edge as their passions could lead them either in the right direction, or instead down a road which offers no hope of return. The connection Rey and Kylo share throughout “The Last Jedi” is one which grows stronger in each scene, and it makes me wonder if they could possibly survive without one another in Episode IX. Both actors bring a natural energy which Natalie Portman should have been allowed to bring in the prequels, and they remain as compelling as ever.

Many complained “The Force Awakens” hewed too closely to the plot of “A New Hope” to where it became an exercise in nostalgia more than anything else. So it’s only natural filmgoers are coming to “The Last Jedi” expecting something close to “The Empire Strikes Back.” However, Johnson and company have succeeded in giving us a “Star Wars” episode which surprises us more often than not. While many may be sitting in a movie theater crying out, “I knew that was going to happen,” I think they need to realize not everything is going to go the way they expect. It reminded me of the next to last episode of “The Sopranos’” second season as it left me in shock and wondering what could possibly happen next. While we feel we know and understand the formula of the average “Star Wars” movie, this one upends it to where we can only guess what will happen in the future.

“The Last Jedi” also shows us there is more to failure than we see at first, and this is an important lesson to take in as we often let failure keep us from moving forward in life. It also shows us how hope can be tested more than ever before to where we grasp onto any last piece of it. In “The Shawshank Redemption,” Morgan Freeman talked about how “hope is a dangerous thing” and that “hope can drive a man insane,” but our heroic characters still cling onto hope as nothing else will do, and surrender is not even a part of the equation.

While the continuing onslaught of “Star Wars” movies threatens to make this franchise feel a lot less special, none of my worries detracted from my enjoyment of “The Last Jedi.” It proves to be as entertaining as any other “Star Wars” movie currently out there in circulation, and yes, I include the prequels. This film also makes me look forward to Rian Johnson’s continued contributions to the franchise which look to be many, and I eagerly await the next episode as I am not sure what to expect from it. I just hope I don’t go into a future “Star Wars” movie saying to myself, “I got a bad feeling about this.”

* * * ½ out of * * * *

 

Exclusive Interview with Simon Curtis about ‘Goodbye Christopher Robin’

Goodbye Christopher Robin Simon Curtis

Filmmaker Simon Curtis gave us one of the best adaptations of the Charles Dickens’ novel “David Copperfield” back in 1999, he brought Marilyn Monroe back to life along with the help of Michelle Williams with “My Week with Marilyn,” and he directed Helen Mirren to one of her many great performances in “Woman in Gold.” Now he gives us his latest directorial effort, “Goodbye Christopher Robin,” which looks at the creation of Winnie-the-Pooh and the other characters who inhabit the 100 Acre Wood. But while it looks to be a simple biopic focusing on the creation of classic literature, it also proves to be an examination of the scars war leaves behind, the importance of having a regular childhood, and of the damages fame can cause before others can realize it.

I got to speak with Curtis while he was in Los Angeles recently, so please feel free to check out the interview below.

Goodbye Christopher Robin poster

Ben Kenber: From a distance, this movie looked like it would be a simple story of how A.A. Milne came up with Winnie-the-Pooh, but what I really liked though was how the story developed from the effects of fame to a childhood being stolen. Was this inherent in the screenplay (written by Frank Cottrell-Boyce and Simon Vaughan) when you first read it?

Simon Curtis: That’s a good comment. Yes is the answer. I loved the script from the get-go because you think it’s going to be exactly that, but it is about so many other things: family and creation and the impact of war. And yes, Christopher Robin was almost like the prototype child celebrity. And to be fair to the Milne family, it was such an unknown territory. They couldn’t have predicted that the stories would become so popular and the attention it would bring to the boy.

Ben Kenber: There’s no way they could have been prepared for it, and this is what makes A.A. Milne and his wife, Daphne, so incredibly complex. On one hand, you want to get mad at them for robbing Christopher of his childhood, but at the same time, they both come to realize the damage being done. But by the time they stop it, it is too late.

Simon Curtis: Yes, that’s right.

Ben Kenber: I found it very fascinating, and I liked how the movie deals with the PTSD flashbacks. If you’re in a theater with really good sound, you feel the impact of each bang and balloon pop.

Simon Curtis: Yeah, you do. I was trying to make the point that war doesn’t only impact on the men and the women who fight in the war, but their families and their descendants as well. So, the boy is a victim of World War I even though he wasn’t born until it ended.

Ben Kenber: When it comes to introducing the stuffed animals, I loved how Margot Robbie and Domhnall Gleeson introduced them. She had the voices, and he came up with Eeyore’s name. Was there anything about the stuffed animals which you wanted to include in the movie but were unable to?

Simon Curtis: I don’t think so. I love how it’s this almost accidental thing that they buy bear at Harrods or wherever it was, and suddenly it becomes this iconic thing. One of my favorite moments, in terms of when she first gives him the tiger and she says “happy” and then she hands it to him. Then the father says, “Well what should we call it?” “Tigger.” “Why?” “Because it’s more tiggerish” (laughs). It’s just lovely writing.

Ben Kenber: It is. The names all come by accident. It is not some pre-destined thing.

Simon Curtis: Absolutely. They were just little puppets, and that’s the great thing about art. There’s a surprising element to it.

Ben Kenber: A.A. Milne is very eager to say something about war and reality. The interesting thing is, in terms of the way the Pooh stories were written, he found a way of dealing with reality of writing readers with an escape from it.

Simon Curtis: Yes, good.

Ben Kenber: The young actor who plays Christopher Robin Milne, Alex Lawther, was excellent, and he is a very tough role to play here as you see him revel in seeing this stuff animals come to life, and yet he is thrust into a spotlight you couldn’t be less prepared to deal with. Was it hard casting this role?

Simon Curtis: It was lengthy. But I cast a nine-year-old boy would never acted before, do you know that was? Daniel Radcliffe (Curtis cast him in “David Copperfield”), and he had never acted before, so that gave me some confidence. But this boy Alex was a joy and a gift. He was fantastic.

Ben Kenber: Domhnall Gleeson brings a lot of depth to this role.

Simon Curtis: He does.

Ben Kenber: He has scenes where he says one thing, but his eyes have to say something else. How do direct an actor in scenes like those?

Simon Curtis: I don’t know is the answer. You just try to make every scene as good as possible and help the actor to do their best work, and Domhnall is one of those actors who thinks a great deal about it in advance. It brings a lot to the dad, and he was a real partner. The film improved because of his work in the scenes and elsewhere.

Ben Kenber: Margot Robbie has a very tricky part to play here because in some cases the audience may find her to be not for a likable, but she does come across as a very loving mother. It’s a British thing that they hold back. Some of my friends said Daphne is not very likable.

Simon Curtis: But that’s missing the point because that’s the way people were. Not everyone has to be likable in the world, and that’s the way people were mothers in those days. They had the baby, handed it over to a nanny, and waited for the wedding.

Ben Kenber: I always tell people it is not a question of whether a character is likable or not in a movie. It’s whether or not they are interesting.

Simon Curtis: Exactly.

Ben Kenber: Robbie’s performance is really good because she delves into the unlikable parts of her character, but you never doubt the love Daphne has for her son.

Simon Curtis: Yes, and she doesn’t shy away from it. She has such natural warmth herself as a woman, and that kind of balances it out on another level.

Ben Kenber: For many years, there has been a long battle between the Milne family and Walt Disney over the rights to the Winnie-the-Pooh stories. Was this something you considered including in this film?

Simon Curtis: No because that’s in the future, that story.

Ben Kenber: The movie’s ending could have been too sentimental with two characters hugging, but they don’t hug and I like that they didn’t because it would’ve seemed too manipulative.

Simon Curtis: Yeah, that’s England. Someone said astutely I thought how in England we are the world storytellers from Shakespeare to JK Rowling, but we can’t say I love you to our kids (laughs).

Ben Kenber: I loved the scene where A.A. Milne tells Christopher you will not write another word about Winnie-the-Pooh. The way the same was played was brilliant because it’s straight to the point.

Simon Curtis: I agree. That was Domhnall’s idea for him to be seated and looking up at Christopher who is standing. It was a really good idea. As a director I look like a genius, but it was totally the actor’s idea.

Ben Kenber: Do you give a lot of freedom to your actors?

Simon Curtis: Yeah. Plus, to be perfectly honest, there are so many little things, you can’t have them all solved in your head.

Ben Kenber: The stuffed animals we see in this movie are replicas of the original ones which are now part of a museum exhibit in New York. Did you have any issues with Disney over the rights to show these stuffed animals here?

Simon Curtis: I don’t think so in this case because they all predate Disney. They are not Disney. Winnie-the-Pooh doesn’t have his little red vest. We just wanted him to be this Victorian toy.

Ben Kenber: Were there any dramatic liberties you took with the factual material?

Simon Curtis: Well I think the fame comes much more quickly than a probably would’ve done, so it was that sort of thing.

Ben Kenber: The movie takes a real left turn when the books become incredibly popular, and the sun becomes an unwitting celebrity to where A.A. Milne begins to question the effect fame is having on Christopher.

Simon Curtis: I love that scene where he thinks he is speaking to his dad on the phone, and it is revealed to be a radio interview.

Ben Kenber: It is such a painful moment because you see in the dad’s eyes that he really shouldn’t be doing this.

Simon Curtis: That’s exactly right.

Ben Kenber: Kelly Macdonald’s character of the nanny, Olive, is wonderful as she serves as the Mary Poppins of this story.

Simon Curtis: She is certainly the emotional heart of it.

Ben Kenber: How did you come to cast Macdonald in this part?

Simon Curtis: Well she did a play with my wife about 10 years ago so I’ve always loved her work, and she just struck me as the perfect person at the perfect time.

Ben Kenber: I like how you portrayed England as still recovering from World War I.

Simon Curtis: Very much so, and I think it chimes in now because it feels like were living in wounded times now.

Ben Kenber: Was that something you planned?

Simon Curtis: It just happened in a way.

Ben Kenber: There are a number of things about A.A. Milne I didn’t know before watching this movie such as the fact he was a soldier and a playwright.

Simon Curtis: Yeah, I didn’t know he was a successful playwright.

Ben Kenber: At the beginning of the movie, A.A. Milne does not look the least bit prepared to be a parent. It’s almost like the movie “Kramer vs. Kramer.”

Simon Curtis: Yes, it is. We talked about that actually. There’s the first breakfast and then there’s the expert breakfast in “Kramer vs. Kramer.”

Ben Kenber: The arc of this movie goes from father and son being strangers to them coming together and then later becoming estranged from one another.

Simon Curtis: The thing that bonded them became the thing that tore them apart.

Ben Kenber: The segment where Chris for a sent off to school was handled very quickly. Was this a segment you ever wanted to expand on?

Simon Curtis: Not really because the last thing you want at that point in the film is to be slow.

Ben Kenber: “Goodbye Christopher Robin” has a running time of 107 minutes. I usually expect biopics like this one to go one for over two hours as filmmakers seem desperate to get every little about their subject’s life onto the silver screen. Did you ever feel this pressure when making this movie?

Simon Curtis: I don’t know really how to answer that. I was just doing the script.

Ben Kenber: This movie is dedicated to Steve Christian. Can you tell me more about him?

Simon Curtis: He was one of the producers who supported this script through years of development and who unfortunately passed away after he saw the first cut.

Ben Kenber: Well, it’s nice to know he did see a cut of the film.

Simon Curtis: Yes, it is nice.

Ben Kenber: The way I see this movie, I feel it is about the long journey to happiness. When father and son come together again, they realize to get to a point of happiness, they have to experience a lot of sadness and pain in order to better appreciate joy.

Simon Curtis: To me, the theme is pay attention to your loved ones while they are around because they won’t be around forever. And also, we punish ourselves over getting this or getting that done, and actually just being with your loved ones is the greatest gift of all. Somehow, that’s embedded in the film. I’m so glad when my kids were young because it was before these (cell)phones because I would’ve been totally on them the whole time.

Ben Kenber: In the movie’s postscript, it is revealed A.A. Milne did get to write his anti-war piece. Was this something you wanted to include in the movie as well?

Simon Curtis: Yeah. He didn’t intend to be known only as the writer of Winnie-the-Pooh. There’s a quote (by A.A. Milne) in the “Goodbye Christopher Robin” book introduction by Frank Cottrell-Boyce. Just read that.

Ben Kenber: “…little thinking

                     All my years of pen-and-inking

                    Would be almost lost among

                    Those four trifles for the young.”

Simon Curtis: Yeah. In fact, it’s not almost, it’s now completely. So that’s good, isn’t it?

I want to thank Simon Curtis for taking the time to talk with me. “Goodbye Christopher Robin” will arrive in movie theaters on October 13, 2017. Click here to check out my review of the film.

‘Goodbye Christopher Robin’ Has More On Its Mind Than Winnie-the-Pooh

Goodbye Christopher Robin poster

Like many, I was raised on the stories of Winnie-the-Pooh and watched the various Disney movies which brought the “silly old bear’s” exploits to a whole new generation of fans. More importantly, I became a die-hard fan of the beloved donkey of these stories, Eeyore, as his depressed demeanor came to resemble my own for a time. The human boy at the center of these books, Christopher Robin, had a wonderful imaginary life which brought him to a place of love, happiness and adventure, so perhaps it’s not a surprise to learn the author of these books, A.A. Milne, did not always lead the happiest life. Yet in the process of trying to confront the horrors life inflicted on him, he found a wonderful way to escape from them, and millions of others joined him in this escape as well.

Goodbye Christopher Robin” offers the viewer a look into the complex relationship between A.A. Milne and his son Christopher Robin Milne whose collection of stuffed animals came to inspire the stories of Winnie-the-Pooh. I went into it thinking it would be a standard biopic which would recount how this honey-addicted bear and his various friends came into being, but I was stunned to see how the filmmakers covered more ground as the movie went on. Just when I thought the story was about to end, the movie takes another turn as it explores the effects of war, society, growing up, and fame have on both the youngest and oldest members of a family. It’s also a reminder of how no one, whether they have it good or bad, will ever get out of this life unscathed.

When we first meet A.A. Milne (played by Domhnall Gleeson), he is a World War I veteran and a noted playwright, and it doesn’t take long to see the damage war has done to him as he repeatedly suffers from flashbacks every time a loud sound goes off or a balloon pops near him. He and his wife, Daphne (Margot Robbie), have just become the parents of a baby boy, but it is shown to have been a difficult birth which almost killed Daphne. They name their son Christopher Robin Milne, and for a time there is a bit of a distance between father and son. Just watch as Gleeson picks up his baby for the first time. The audience I saw this movie with couldn’t help but laugh at what they saw.

Once the family moves to a house out in the woods, A.A. begins work on an anti-war book as he feels London is still suffering long after “the war to end all wars” was concluded. However, he suffers from writer’s block and finds himself in the same position William Shakespeare was in while he was trying to write “Romeo & Ethel The Pirate’s Daughter” in “Shakespeare in Love.” He is determined to write one kind of story, but he eventually comes to write a completely different one.

Seeing A.A. and Christopher come up with the characters for the Winnie-The-Pooh stories feels wonderfully organic as does their growing relationship. After Daphne disappears from the family for a time, father and son are forced to deal with one another in ways they didn’t anticipate. The porridge Milne makes for Christopher does not look the least big appetizing, but it serves as an ice breaker between the two as the distance between them decreases until they find themselves truly enjoying the imaginary world they have created for themselves.

From there, I figured “Goodbye Christopher Robin” was going to be a simple tale of father and son coming together in a wonderfully unique way, but then the focus shifts. We see the Winnie-The-Pooh books become a literary sensation to where the public cannot separate Christopher Robin Milne from the fictional character of Christopher Robin. As a result, this young boy is suddenly thrust into a spotlight no one can ever easily deal with, and the film almost turns into a horror flick as we know this will do irreparable damage to him. While some may consider him to be the luckiest boy alive, it becomes apparent his life is no longer his. Christopher should be allowed to have a childhood, but his parents don’t realize they have denied him this in time.

What surprised me about “Goodbye Christopher Robin” is how it is a biopic which cannot be boiled down to one sentence. This film is not just about the creation of a literary classic filled with characters who remain very popular to this day, but also one which deals with a multitude of themes, each of which is given a lot of meaning and depth. None of the real-life characters featured here are painted in an easily broad manner, and their evolution throughout was never less than fascinating to me.

Domhnall Gleeson has since created a name for himself outside of his father’s, Brendan Gleeson, success as an actor to where it is easy to separate the two of them. Domhnall has given terrific performances in “About Time” and “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” and he does superb work here as a famous writer whose creations eventually take on a life of their own. At this movie’s start, he portrays A.A. Milne as a man traumatized by his experiences in war and slow to warm up to his role as a father, and he fully inhabits this man to where you can never catch him acting. Gleeson makes A.A. a wonderfully complex human being as he becomes more receptive to the world Christopher has created for himself, and he shows how this famous author quickly gets caught up in his book’s success to where he feels obligated to make his son a celebrity figure despite his growing concerns of what this will do to him. Although he eventually comes to see the damage he is doing, this realization comes too late, and he is left to pick up the pieces of a broken relationship which may never be fully repaired.

Robbie, who burst into our collective consciousness with her scene-stealing role in “The Wolf of Wall Street,” has an even trickier role to play here as Daphne de Sélincourt is shown to be both a loving mother and a very needful wife. You want to berate her for using her son to get a level of attention she might not otherwise receive, but there is no doubt as to the love she has for him. Daphne also provides the voices for Christopher’s stuffed animals to where A.A.’s cannot compete in the slightest, so her presence in Christopher’s life still has a tremendous amount of influence. Whatever you may think of Daphne, Robbie makes her into an individual who is undeniably flawed but still a loving mother.

One performance worth singling out above others in “Goodbye Christopher Robin” is Kelly Macdonald’s as Olive, Christopher’s beloved nanny. While Christopher’s parents get caught up in the fame these stories have brought about, Macdonald shows how Olive is thankfully objective to where she is never easily seduced by forces which have easily seduced many others away from a normal, ordinary life. She understands better than anyone how Christopher is being subjected to something very unhealthy for him, and she does her best to make his parents see how they need to see to remove them from the public eye.

And yes, Will Tilson makes a wonderful Christopher Robin Milne and shares a lot of great scenes with Gleeson.

As “Goodbye Christopher Robin” came to its conclusion, I came to realize how it was about the long and rough path towards happiness. We all want to be happy in our lives, but happiness is not as easy to come by as we are lead to believe when we were young. While some may complain about the exceptions made to historical fact, I loved how this film built up to an exhilarating point as Christopher comes to make peace with his dad to where he realizes what it means to be a happy person. The path to happiness is never a straight line or an easy road to travel, and the fact this biopic truly understands this fact is something I am very thankful for as its path still remains a torturous one for me after all these years.

Simon Curtis has directed a few biographical films previously (“My Week with Marilyn” and “Woman in Gold”), but he really outdoes himself here. In a time when biopics range from excellent (“Straight Outta Compton,” “Love & Mercy”) to incredibly disappointing (“I Saw the Light”), “Goodbye Christopher Robin” thankfully ends up on the positive side of the critical spectrum.

* * * * out of * * * *

Click here to read my exclusive interview with “Goodbye Christopher Robin” director Simon Curtis.

Calvary

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Calvary” is one of those movies which left me in a deep state of contemplative silence after it was over. While it is advertised as a darkly comic tale, and it does have some funny moments, it is really a serious story about sin, faith, and of what it means to be a good person in this day and age. I am always fascinated with movies about Catholics as they deal with characters who suffer psychologically, who are always caught up in one sin or another, and who can’t deal with the state of the world today in a relatively sane manner. The word Calvary is defined as an experience or an occasion of extreme suffering, especially mental suffering, and it is the perfect title for this particular movie.

The character who suffers most in “Calvary” is Father James Lavelle (Brendan Gleeson), and the movie opens with him listening to an unseen parishioner who confesses to being sexually abused by a priest when he was a boy. But then the conversation takes a sinister turn when the parishioner tells Father James he will kill him in a week. When Father James asks why, the parishioner tells him it is because he is a good man as well as a good priest, and a good priest’s death will have a far more devastating impact on the Catholic Church. From there, Father James has a week to settle his affairs with the townspeople and his family, and hopefully give him time to discover the identity of his purported assailant. But more than anything else, we will see his faith in the things he believes in get tested more than ever before.

“Calvary” takes place in the small Irish town of Sligo where everyone seems to know one another quite intimately. The more we get to know the town’s inhabitants, the more it seems like any of them could be the one who wants to murder Father James. They all have problems in their lives which have led them to lose their faith or belief in God, and while they come to Father James for help, they also tease and question him over his supposed rule over the town and for supporting a church forever tarnished by scandal.

The movie was written and directed by John Michael McDonagh, brother of the insanely talented playwright Martin McDonagh. It’s tempting to think John would be suffering endlessly under his famous brother’s shadow especially after “In Bruges,” but he has already found his voice thanks to his previous film “The Guard.” With “Calvary,” he goes even deeper to explore issues of faith in a time where virtue seems like it’s in such short supply. As good hearted as Father James is, he is surrounded by people who have been scarred deeply by life and have sinned in one way or another. Heck, there are even people who go out of their way to flout their sins in his face just to see how he will react.

What’s really shocking about “Calvary” is John has gotten away with creating a truly good priest. Father James proves to be a good-natured man right from the start, and it made me realize how we don’t always see good characters like these in movies these days. Most characters we typically see are antiheroes or deeply flawed human beings struggling for some form of redemption, and it feels like filmmakers avoid using good characters in their movies for the fear of them appearing quite dull. This is not to say that Father James is not without his own flaws, but even when he waivers you feel his goodness flowing throughout, and you pray he doesn’t falter in the face of what seems at times like a godless town.

John also struck gold by casting Brendan Gleeson as Father James as the actor gives one of the very best performances of his career here. What I love about Gleeson here is he inhabits his character more than he plays him. From start to finish, he is simply Father James, and he gives this character an unforced naturalism which looks easy to portray, but in actuality is quite difficult to pull off. One scene which stands out is when Father James befriends a young girl whom he finds walking along the road by herself, only to be interrupted by the girl’s father who suspects this Catholic priest of being up to no good. It’s a painful moment as we, the audience, have gotten to know Father James quite well, and Gleeson makes the character’s wounded feelings all the more palpable.

Gleeson is also surrounded by a top-notch cast as well. Kelly Reilly, so good in “Eden Lake” and “Flight,” plays Father James’ daughter Fiona who was at one time suicidal and is now very eager to repair her relationship with her dad. From that description, this could have been a subplot overrun by a plethora of clichés, but Reilly invests her character with a wounded strength, and her scenes with Gleeson are wonderfully moving.

We all remember Chris O’Dowd from his star-making performance in “Bridesmaids,” and he is stunning here as Jack, the local butcher who doesn’t seem to mind his wife constantly cheating on him. O’Dowd has some funny moments here, but his role is a serious one as he constantly dares Father James to prove to him there is a god. It should be no surprise O’Dowd is as good as he is in “Calvary,” but then again, we still live in a world where most people think doing comedy is easy while making people cry is hard (it’s the other way around folks).

Irish comedian Dylan Moran successfully wrings the complexity out of his character Michael Fitzgerald, an extremely wealthy man whose life seems to have lost all its meaning. You also have Aidan Gillen here as the gleefully atheist surgeon Dr. Frank Harte, Marie Josee Croze as French tourist Teresa who suffers an unspeakable tragedy, Isaach de Bankole as car mechanic Simon Asamoah who does not like to be bossed around, David Wilmot as the good-natured but rather oblivious Father Leary, Pat Short as the incensed barman Brendan Lynch, Gary Lydon as shady detective Inspector Gerry Stanton, Killian Scott who plays the lovesick Milo, and Orla O’Rourke as the butcher’s flagrantly unfaithful wife Veronica. You even have veteran actor M. Emmet Walsh showing up here as American novelist Gerard Ryan, and even Brendan’s son Domhnall Gleeson shows up, and he looks completely unrecognizable by the way, as serial killer Freddie Joyce.

Every single actor in “Calvary” gives an exceptional performance. It doesn’t matter how big or small the roles are because all are very well written, and each actor seizes the material with tremendous passion. Every character is fully realized here, and no one looks to be off their acting game for one second.

While “Calvary” is a kind of whodunit story, it really doesn’t matter if you know the identity of the person threatening Father James long before it’s revealed because it’s not the point. What matters is how Father James struggles to maintain his faith as dark forces continually close in around him, and you pray he doesn’t lose an ounce of it in the movie’s climax. In the process, John forces you to question your own faith and of what means to be a good person in an increasingly cynical world.

“Calvary” does end on an ambiguous note which may annoy some members of the audience, but I happen to like ambiguous endings, and the one here is perfect. No, it doesn’t provide us with an easy answer, but so what? Not all movies are meant to have easy answers, and this one certainly wouldn’t benefit from any. Every once in a while, it is a good to watch a movie which really forces you to think long and hard about what you just saw.

If nothing else, John came up with a lot of great quotes which will stay with the viewer long after the movie has ended. My favorite has already been spoiled by the movie’s trailer:

“I think there’s too much talk about sins to be honest and not enough talk about virtues.”

Never has a truer line been spoken in a movie released in 2014.

* * * * out of * * * *

Click here to read an exclusive interview I did with John Michael McDonagh on “Calvary.”