Christopher Robin review

CHRISTOPHER ROBIN

Director : Marc Forster
Cast : Ewan McGregor, Hayley Atwell, Bronte Carmichael, Mark Gatiss, Jim Cummings, Brad Garrett, Toby Jones, Nick Mohammed, Peter Capaldi, Sophie Okonedo, Sara Sheen
Genre : Comedy/Drama/Fantasy
Run Time : 104 mins
Opens : 2 August 2018
Rating : PG

“When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things,” so wrote the Apostle Paul in the Book of Corinthians. In this live-action/animation hybrid comedy-drama, Christopher Robin (Ewan McGregor) has put away childish things, but the time has come for him to rediscover them.

As a child, Christopher played in what he called the Hundred-Acre Wood with his stuffed animal friends, including the honey-loving Winnie the Pooh (Jim Cummings), ebullient Tigger (also Cummings), despondent donkey Eeyore (Brad Garrett), worrywart Piglet (Nick Mohammed), fastidious Rabbit (Peter Capaldi), intelligent Owl (Toby Jones), warm Kanga (Sophie Okonedo) and her joey Roo (Sara Sheen). They had tea parties and grand adventures, but Christopher has bidden them farewell.

Now an adult, Christopher is married to Evelyn (Hayley Atwell) and they have a daughter Madeline (Bronte Carmichael). Christopher is preoccupied with work at the luggage manufacturer Winslow Industries, and is treated poorly by his boss Giles Winslow (Mark Gatiss). When a crisis in the office pulls Christopher away from a weekend in the countryside with his wife and daughter, Pooh intervenes. Christopher is confused and unwilling, but eventually gets back in touch with the simple joys of his childhood, as the unexpected visit from his friends reorders his priorities.

This is an utterly devastating film that had this reviewer in tears almost from beginning to end. That is in no small part because it is emotionally manipulative, but just the premise is quite depressing: Christopher Robin has a mid-life crisis. This is not a movie meant for children, or at least primarily for children, judging by all the fidgeting kids in our screening. It’s a movie about what it’s like to lose and then regain a sense of wonderment and awe, and it’s something that’s readily relatable.

Last year, the biopic Goodbye Christopher Robin, about the toll that the success of the stories had on their author A. A. Milne and his family, especially his son Christopher Robin Milne, was released. That film was sad and poignant and might’ve ruined Winnie the Pooh for some, seeing how much pain that bear wound up costing its creator. Christopher Robin is sad and poignant in a different, perhaps more production line way.

Director Marc Forster revisits territory akin to that he covered in the 2004 film Finding Neverland, about the inspiration behind Peter Pan. Here, he works from a screenplay by Alex Ross Perry, Tom McCarthy and Allison Schroeder, with Greg Brooker and Mark Steven Johnson receiving a “story by” credit. The number of writers indicates a cluttered script, but there is a refreshing simplicity to Christopher Robin. At times, it comes off as too simple in straining to be twee and nostalgic, but it generally works.

The dreary post-WWII London setting is contrasted with the idyll of the woods in Surrey. Above and beyond the period details, the visual effects in bringing the cuddly denizens of Hundred-Acre Wood to life are key in making audiences buy into the premise. The character animation, mostly done by visual effects houses Framestore and Method, is pitch-perfect – the way each character moves, the texture of their fur, the subtle nuances in the facial expressions – Pooh and company are all brought to life so lovingly.

Ewan McGregor’s performance as Christopher is reasonably endearing, but all the human characters are quite thinly drawn. We see how much pressure Christopher is under and how he is intent on his young daughter going away to boarding school, against her wishes. Because the titular character is intended as a cipher for all adults, there’s not much that makes him distinctive, apart from how he’s friends with a bunch of sentient stuffed animals.

Hayley Atwell is underused in a sparely written role as ‘the wife’, while Bronte Carmichael does inject some personality into Madeline, but again, it’s not much more than “I don’t get to spend enough time with my dad”. The whole thing is very “cats in the cradle” – or “bears in the honey jar”, if you will. Meanwhile, Mark Gatiss relishes playing the cruel boss.

Veteran voice actor Jim Cummings, who has voiced Pooh since 1988 and Tigger since 1989, is such a joy to hear. His performance as Pooh sounds natural emanating from the fluffy three-dimensional rendering of the beloved bear. While the rest of the voice cast are not as closely associated with their respective characters as Cummings is, everyone does well – especially Brad Garrett as Eeyore, who gets some of the best lines.

Disney has been leaning extremely hard on nostalgia, and Christopher Robin puts a bit of a spin on that by commenting on the nature of adulthood and of maintaining a connection to childhood after we’ve crossed that threshold. The film doesn’t comment on this in the most insightful manner, but there are moments that are sweet as honey, and, if you’re as emotionally fragile as this reviewer, as sad as an empty honey jar.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Denial

DENIAL

Director : Mick Jackson
Cast : Rachel Weisz, Tom Wilkinson, Timothy Spall, Andrew Scott, Alex Jennings, Caren Pistorius, Mark Gatiss
Genre : Biography/Historical/Drama
Run Time : 1h 50min
Opens : 17 November 2016
Rating : PG-13

denial-posterIn 2000, the U.K. saw one of the most explosive libel trials in history: Deborah Lipstadt (Weisz), an American historian, was sued by Holocaust denier David Irving (Spall). This film, based on Lipstadt’s book History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier recounts the dramatic court proceedings. Irving, who contended that Hitler never ordered the genocide of Jews, claimed that Lipstadt had defamed him and damaged his reputation by calling him out on his claims. Lipstadt’s legal team is headed by solicitor advocate Anthony Julius (Scott), known for defending Princess Diana during her divorce from Prince Charles. Representing Lipstadt in the courtroom is Richard Rampton QC (Wilkinson), a leading British libel lawyer. With Irving representing himself and Sir Charles Grey (Jennings) as the presiding judge, the high-stakes case draws the attention of the press and holocaust survivors alike.

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It might be tempting for jaded audiences to dismiss Denial out of hand as bog-standard Oscar bait. After all, it has respectable actors, most of whom are British, re-enacting true events centring on heavy themes. We’d implore you to set your cynicism aside, because this is a story worth telling. Each passing year puts more distance between us and the atrocities of the Second World War, but films like Denial rightly champion the relevance and value of remembering and learning about the Holocaust. Most viewers aren’t historians or lawyers, so it falls to screenwriter/playwright David Hare to adapt Lipstadt’s book into digestible morsels. The resulting film is engaging, easy to follow and even thrilling at the right junctures.

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Director Mick Jackson’s body of work, including blockbusters The Bodyguard and Volcano, might not belie subtlety. However, Jackson did win an Emmy for directing the made-for-HBO biopic Temple Grandin. There are times when it feels that the technicalities of the trial have been oversimplified for brevity, clarity and dramatic license, but Denial never comes off as overwrought or condescending. There is an effort made to be faithful to actual events: all the dialogue in the courtroom scenes is taken verbatim from the trial records. The sequence in which Lipstadt, Rampton and the legal team travel to Auschwitz to gather facts was shot on location and is appropriately haunting and sombre. The judicious use of brief flashbacks depicting the Jewish prisoners in the concentration camp are a way for the reality to hit home without the film being emotionally manipulative.

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Weisz is an actress who effortlessly embodies fierce intelligence, and the Oscar-winner gets to sink her teeth into a wonderfully meaty role here. Lipstadt is characterised as a principled, serious academic, who doesn’t take kindly to being told she cannot stand up for herself and who baulks at being discouraged from testifying. Weisz is an English actress playing an American woman, surrounded by English actors using their natural accents, and is completely believable. In the English justice system, the burden of proof lies with the defendant, not the plaintiff, something which baffles Lipstadt. When Lipstadt clashes with her legal team, we’re rooting for her, and she’s not afraid to admit she was wrong when she realises the rationale behind their advice.

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Seeing as this is based on Lipstadt’s first-hand account, it stands to reason that David Irving would be characterised as a thoroughly despicable man, but one could argue that he’s done a fine enough job of that on his own. Still, there’s a complexity to Irving’s views, however skewed, which gets skimmed over in Denial. Irving doesn’t dispute that Jews were killed by Nazis; he disputes that there was an executive order from Hitler specifically targeting Jews. As depicted in the film, Irving seizes on minutiae, distorting the facts to serve his ideology. He longs to be taken seriously in academia despite his views. It’s been said that it’s more fun playing bad guys, and Spall’s performance is evidence of that. Spall has an expressive visage, visibly relishing every second of hateful bluster and does a whole lot of indignant frowning.

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While Scott may be better known for his villainous roles, he’s also fun to watch as Lipstadt’s steadfast ally. He’s composed but direct and keeps a stiff upper lip. Wilkinson’s Rampton looks at first to be a crusty curmudgeon and Lipstadt locks horns with him, but then we get one of the film’s best scenes, in which they cordially break bread and come to an understanding. As architectural historian Robert Jan Van Pelt, an expert witness for the defence, Mark Gatiss turns in a quietly moving, thoughtful performance. Caren Pistorius also makes an impact in her relatively small role as Laura Tyler, a young lawyer on her first case. In her introductory scene, Tyler visits Irving’s house to deliver materials the defence has gathered, and glowers at him in disgust. Lipstadt later develops a heart-warming, almost maternal bond with Tyler.

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Denial may not be the most searing or pertinent film based on a true story, but it is insightful and emotional all the same. Bringing history into the courtroom changes things up from your average legal drama, and its real-life heroine is one you’ll be cheering for throughout the film.

Summary: The court case at the centre of Denial is a tricky one to bring to life, but an able cast led by Rachel Weisz at her sharpest and a sound, cogent script make it a moving, thought-provoking piece.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Our Kind of Traitor

For F*** Magazine

OUR KIND OF TRAITOR

Director : Susanna White
Cast : Ewan McGregor, Stellan Skarsgård, Damian Lewis, Naomie Harris, Alicia von Rittberg, Mark Gatiss
Genre : Thriller
Run Time : 1 hr 48 mins
Opens : 7 July 2016
Rating : M18 (Some Sexual Scenes and Nudity)

Our Kind of Traitor posterBoth Ewan McGregor and Damian Lewis appeared in the largely forgotten Stormbreaker, and now reunite for a spy film of a very different stripe. McGregor plays Perry Makepeace, a poetics professor on holiday in Marrakech with his wife Gail (Harris). In a Moroccan restaurant, Perry befriends Dima (Skarsgård), who turns out to be the chief money launderer of the Russian Mafia. A powerful underworld player known as The Prince (Grigoriy Dobrygin) killed one of Dima’s associates, so Dima fears for the safety of his family, and enlists Perry in delivering key information to MI6, information that implicates powerful English bankers and politicians in colluding with the Russian Mafia. MI6 agent Hector (Lewis) naturally has his suspicions – can Dima be trusted? Why would he choose Perry as his messenger? Gail is also frustrated that her life has become upended because of her husband’s sudden involvement in this risky enterprise.

Our Kind of Traitor Ewan McGregor and Naomie Harris 1

Our Kind of Traitor is adapted from the John le Carré novel of the same name. Our Kind of Traitor joins the illustrious list of films based on a Le Carré books, including A Most Wanted Man, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Constant Gardener and The Spy Who Came In from the Cold. One expects a Le Carré adaptation to boast a cerebral quality, leaning more on politics and interplay than chases and gunfights. Our Kind of Traitor is a slick and stylish picture, director Susanna White delivering a product with all the trappings of a spy thriller. While White is an accomplished television director, this is only her second feature, after Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang, and it does feel like the work of someone who is a dab hand at assembling thrillers. The exotic, glamourous locations include Marrakech, London, Paris, Bern and the Swiss Alps, and Oscar-winning cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle is on hand to lend the visuals poetry and polish.

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Our Kind of Traitor certainly looks the part, but the story never seems sufficiently grounded, with pretty big leaps of faith asked of the audience. There is a degree of intrigue to the premise: regular folks are yanked into the cloak-and-dagger realm of spies and gangsters. However, we never get a satisfyingly logical explanation for Perry’s involvement, and the story relies on several convenient turns in the plot to progress. While McGregor is an amiable leading man, Perry finds himself out of his depth and yet gets willingly strung along so often that it’s hard to not think of the character as exceedingly naïve. It seems the character is stuck in “sure, whatever you say” mode for the duration of the film, which can be frustrating. The tension between Perry and Gail, the two somewhat unhappy ten years into their marriage, does not get sufficient development.

Our Kind of Traitor Stellan Skarsgard and Ewan McGregor

Skarsgård’s Dima is gruff yet friendly, at once suspicious and charming. While the Russian accent he attempts isn’t great, Skarsgård manages to be convincing as a high-level mob figure who has had a change of heart and now fears for his life. There’s a warmth to him and a real sadness in the actor’s eyes when Dima needs to be vulnerable. Alas, the portrayal of the Russian Mafia doesn’t offer many insights, sticking close to the stereotypes and perceptions most already have, instead of delving into the inner workings of the criminal organisation. Lewis looks right at home in a film of this sort, but there isn’t much nuance he can bring to the role of Hector, who mostly stands about looking stern.

Our Kind of Traitor Damian Lewis

Our Kind of Traitor may not be the most involving or intricate spy yarn ever, but competent performances and glossy production values go a good way to papering over the cracks in the story. There is a bit of a lull in the middle, but the intrigue and smatterings of violence help to push it along.

Summary: It’s pretty to look at and ticks most of the spy thriller boxes, but thanks to an almost laughably gullible protagonist and a general lack of intensity, it’s not particularly easy to get into.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong