Goodbye Christopher Robin

You might adore Winnie the Pooh and his cuddly friends, but it’s author might not share your sentiments. That’s perhaps the most surprising takeaway from Goodbye Christopher Robin, which chronicles the messy true-life creation of the beloved children’s characters who have endured for generations.

An uneven tribute to childhood innocence and the power of imagination, this heartfelt and wholesome drama doesn’t disguise its intention to yank at the heartstrings, although its moments of poignancy feel more contrived than genuine.

Set against a backdrop of postwar unease, the story follows A.A. Milne (Domhnall Gleeson), a British veteran of World War I whose writing career has taken a downturn since his return from combat. That frustrates his high-society wife (Margot Robbie) to the point where she flees their rural estate, leaving their young son, Christopher Robin (Will Tilston) in the care of Milne and a beloved nanny (Kelly Macdonald).

Meanwhile, Milne finds unlikely inspiration in his son’s stuffed animals, including Winnie the Bear, Tigger the Tiger, Piglet the Pig, and more. So he reinvents himself as a children’s author — meant as a method of connecting with Christopher Robin — only to find that the resulting fame is more of a curse than a blessing. That’s especially true for the youngster, who resents the eponymous character in the books and the unwanted attention it brings.

A familiarity with the Pooh mythology isn’t necessary — this is technically an origin story, after all. And for fans of Milne’s work, it provides some amusing tidbits: Who knew Winnie the Pooh’s name is short for Winnipeg?

As directed by Simon Curtis (My Week with Marilyn), the evocative film offers a stylish rendering of the Hundred-Acre Wood. The screenplay offers a mild exploration of the perils of fame. Back in those days, apparently, struggling parents didn’t so readily exploit and risk publicly humiliating their children for a quick buck.

At any rate, Gleeson (The Force Awakens) again showcases his versatility as a character who largely keeps his emotions internalized. Tilston plays the androgynous moppet with an appealing charisma that belies the forced precociousness of the character.

Goodbye Christopher Robin is pretty fluffy and innocuous, unlikely to have even a fraction of the lasting impact of the characters and fantasy world spawned by its subject, which is just as well.

 

Rated PG, 107 minutes.

Capsule reviews for Oct. 13

Breathe

Although its emotional uplift spills over into sentimentality, a pair of strong performances boost this heartfelt directorial debut of actor Andy Serkis (the Lord of the Rings trilogy). It’s a tribute to the true-life inspiration of Robin Cavendish (Andrew Garfield), whose diagnosis with polio in 1959 at age 28 turns him into an unlikely innovator and pioneer for rights for the disabled, which not only extends his life but also allows him to raise a family with his dedicated wife (Claire Foy). The final act wades awkwardly into some politically charged subject matter, although the film overall maintains an intimate character-based focus without turning heavy-handed. (Rated PG-13, 117 minutes).

 

Human Flow

The latest documentary from masterful Chinese artist Ai Weiwei is commendable as much for its exhaustive scope as for its thought-provoking message. His topic is contemporary human migration, which he examines through stories of immigration and refugee crises around the world — as he points out, millions worldwide are being displaced because of famine, war, climate change and other factors both unfortunate and infuriating. While that might not be surprising, the film is both persuasive and beautiful in the way it blends dynamic visuals with even-handed compassion for victims. Taking a big-picture approach, the result is perhaps too long, ambitious, and episodic. But it’s also impactful. (Rated PG-13, 140 minutes).

 

The Secret Scripture

A solid cast is squandered in this handsomely mounted period piece from venerable director Jim Sheridan (My Left Foot) that begins with a psychiatrist (Eric Bana) trying to untangle the cryptic diaries of a longtime Dublin asylum patient Rose (Vanessa Redgrave) still haunted by her past. We learn through flashbacks of doomed relationships that the younger Rose (Rooney Mara) endured decades earlier, which were influenced by Ireland’s involvement in World War II and rigid Catholic attitudes toward gender roles. As the mystery unfolds, the film gradually strains credibility and becomes more formulaic in structure — not without its powerful moments, but lacking consistent intrigue or suspense. (Rated PG-13, 108 minutes).

 

6 Below: Miracle on the Mountain

As the title suggests, the outcome isn’t in doubt in this lackluster survival drama from director Scott Waugh (Need for Speed) that chronicles the true-life story of Eric LeMarque (Josh Hartnett), a drug addict who becomes lost during a blizzard while snowboarding in the Sierra Nevada mountains. He tries to survive several harrowing days in subzero temperatures awaiting an unlikely rescue. Hartnett’s committed performance forces him to act by himself for much of the film. He brings more authenticity to the material than the wobbly screenplay, which makes heavy-handed pleas for sympathy but lacks conviction while portraying Eric’s path to personal redemption and spiritual transformation. (Rated PG-13, 98 minutes).

 

Tom of Finland

Even if you’re familiar with the work of the titular Finnish illustrator who became a gay icon, this biopic provides an intriguing glimpse into the relationship between art and commerce, set against a backdrop of cultural repression and restraint. Tom (Pekka Strang) is really Touko Laaksonen, who begins exploring his homosexual tendencies after fighting in World War II. He must draw and market his erotic, hyper-masculine sketches in secret because of sodomy laws at the time, but develops an underground following. Strang is terrific, and Dome Karukoski’s direction is visually striking, even if the film overall is more safe than provocative, considering the subject matter. (Not rated, 115 minutes).

The Mountain Between Us

Even as the snow intensifies, the temperature drops, and the provisions become scarce, you never get much sense that the protagonists in The Mountain Between Us are in much real danger.

That’s the primary issue with this survival drama in which a pair of committed performances become lost amid a series of improbable twists and chilly contrivances.

The film begins at an Idaho airport, where a snowstorm cancels an evening flight for both a bride-to-be Alex (Kate Winslet) and brain surgeon Ben (Idris Elba), who each have pressing business the following morning. They meet over Alex’s idea to split the cost of chartering a private plane through a pilot (Beau Bridges) willing to take the risk.

Then the plane goes down in the Rockies, killing the pilot but sparing both passengers, along with the pilot’s loyal dog. Ben and Alex try to balance the initial panic with clear-eyed resolve in the face of deteriorating weather, limited amounts of food and clothing, and no means of communication with the outside world.

As hours turn into days and then weeks, their desperation increases as the likelihood of a rescue dwindles. Their relationship deepens as much out of necessity as any mutual attraction.

Israeli director Hany Abu-Asad (The Idol), making his English-language debut, contributes some visual highlights. The tense plane-crash sequence in a snowstorm isn’t for uneasy fliers, and the scenic mountain landscapes are frequently breathtaking.

Elba and Winslet, relying heavily on body language and facial expressions given the sparse dialogue, establish a reasonable chemistry in the wintry conditions, playing characters who demonstrate resilience and resourcefulness under the most harrowing of circumstances.

However, the deliberately paced screenplay — based on a novel by Charles Martin — struggles to maintain its suspense in the snowcapped peaks. The central premise feels overly calculated, even if it stems from common fears and frustrations related to air travel. At least the film tries to steer clear of clichés about wilderness survival.

The Mountain Between Us rarely feels authentic in either words or actions. As its characters become more reliant upon one another and share personal secrets, it only leads to eye-rolling melodrama. Emotionally, the result freezes us out.

 

Rated PG-13, 109 minutes.

Capsule reviews for Oct. 6

Barracuda

Considering its backdrop in the world of country music, this low-key thriller appropriately finds an appealing rhythm. Of course, its tune is potentially more sinister when considering the relationship between Merle (Alison Tolman) and her half-sister, Sinaloa (Sophie Reid), both daughters of a deceased musician. Sinaloa visits Merle’s home in Austin with intentions that seem innocent enough at first, but soon are revealed to be darker with regard to her stake in the family legacy. Some intriguing character dynamics and strong performances bolster a screenplay by Jason Cortlund — who also co-directed — that gradually ratchets up the tension and offers a fresh take on familiar material. (Not rated, 98 minutes).

 

Brawl in Cell Block 99

Any doubts about Vince Vaughn’s underused versatility can be quieted by this ultraviolent thriller from director Craig Zahler (Bone Tomahawk) that vividly depicts the chaos suggested by its title. Vaughn plays a drug-dealing brute who rarely shows his softer side, except when it comes to defending his pregnant wife (Jennifer Carpenter). Jailed after a drug bust, he’s blackmailed into targeting a fellow inmate by a crime boss on the outside while dealing with a corrupt warden (Don Johnson). This leads to plenty of testosterone-fueled brutality within a textured if self-indulgent revenge saga that employs an effectively gritty throwback visual style amid its narrative meandering. (Not rated, 132 minutes).

 

Dina

Dina Buno might not be a conventional movie star, but this documentary shows that a working-class 49-year-old woman from the Philadelphia suburbs is worthy of the spotlight. She’s eccentric but charming as the film chronicles her attempt at cohabitation with her fiancé, Scott, a Walmart greeter who — like Dina — is on the autism spectrum. From there, directors Antonio Santini and Dan Sickles (Mala Mala) chronicle their struggles to achieve intimacy and fulfill each other’s unique needs as their wedding approaches. By using a verite approach, the result manages to balance sympathy for their situation without resorting to cheap sentiment, even if the approach lacks true objectivity. (Not rated, 103 minutes).

 

My Little Pony: The Movie

Most in the target demographic for this egregiously wholesome animated adventure aren’t old enough to read this. It’s a big-screen incarnation of the brightly colored equine dolls (and their eponymous television series) that finds the perky inhabitants of Equestria invaded by an evil force attempting to steal their magic, which causes them to flee and tests the limits of their friendship. While it might charm small kiddos enough to spark toy sales, the film resembles a throwback to Saturday morning cartoons, with rudimentary animation and dialogue like, “Come on, every-pony!” It would be more tolerable without the forgettable songs that needlessly pad the running time. (Rated PG, 99 minutes).

 

The Osiris Child

It might take place in another galaxy, but the clichés in this incoherent science-fiction thriller come straight from Earth. The futuristic story follows the rogue efforts of a soldier (Daniel MacPherson) trying to save his young daughter (Teagan Croft) from a deadly virus unleashed by evil forces on a colonized planet. He reluctantly teams with a prison escapee (Kellan Lutz) to battle intergalactic thugs and lowlifes, in addition to some menacing creatures. Australian director Shane Abbess (Infini) employs some ambitious low-budget visuals that lend some style to a convoluted and chronologically jumbled script. Yet amid the violent chaos, the film never achieves its desired emotional payoff. (Not rated, 99 minutes).

 

So B. It

An exploration of childhood curiosity is undermined by contrived sentimentality in this well-intentioned coming-of-age story from director Stephen Gyllenhaal (Losing Isaiah) that consistently strains credibility. Heidi (Talitha Bateman) is a precocious girl living with her mentally disabled mother (Jessica Collins) and agoraphobic caretaker (Alfre Woodard) in a Reno apartment. Carrying only a gift for good luck at the slot machines, the youngster embarks on a cross-country bus trip seeking answers to questions about her fractured family. The scattered episodes of character-driven charm become lost amid the accumulating afflictions and strained attempts to yank at the heartstrings. There’s not much subtlety or surprise along the way. (Rated PG-13, 98 minutes).

 

Una

Two powerhouse performances skillfully elevate some difficult subject matter in this intimate drama about a vulnerable young woman (Rooney Mara) who tracks down a factory boss (Ben Mendelsohn), then confronts him about a sexual encounter from 15 years ago, when she was only 13. Their respective psychological wounds have evolved in various ways since, as their feelings for one another are rekindled in unexpected ways. The film isn’t interested in contrived revenge, but rather an honest portrayal of the residual damage inflicted by sexual predators. Although the direction sometimes is overwrought, the result has a raw intensity in its character-driven moments that’s both powerful and unsettling. (Rated R, 94 minutes.).

 

Walking Out

The vivid wintry landscapes in this low-key drama provide a harrowing backdrop for a suspenseful tale of survival that’s much more than just father-son bonding in the great outdoors.  It follows a rebellious big-city teenager (Josh Wiggins) who agrees to join his estranged father (Matt Bomer) on a hunting trip in the Montana wilderness. As they struggle to connect, violent circumstances bring them closer out of desperation. The film is much heavier on dialogue than action, yet although it sometimes feels too bleak, it’s well acted and evocatively captures its remote setting to the extent that you can almost feel the chill in the air. (Rated PG-13, 95 minutes).

American Made

There’s an element of nostalgia in seeing Tom Cruise back in the cockpit in American Made, and not just because it takes place in the early 1980s.

While watching this engaging true-life story of drug cartels, weapons smuggling, money laundering, and government corruption, you realize that it’s been more than 30 years since Top Gun, and Cruise has aged really well since then. Plus, the star’s charisma makes him an ideal fit for a fledgling commercial airline pilot who becomes a pawn in an international maze of greed and excess.

Cruise plays Barry Seal, whose flying expertise combined with a tendency to sneak cigars through customs makes him the ideal candidate for Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson), a CIA operative circa 1978 seeking someone to get intelligence on Communist hideouts in Central America from Nicaraguan officials in exchange for government cash.

Soon, his actions catch the attention of a ruthless Colombian drug cartel operated in part by Pablo Escobar, who needs a vessel for cocaine trafficking back to the States. Then the conflict in Nicaragua takes a turn, causing Schafer to add guns to Barry’s cargo — meant to arm the Contra rebels in their fight against the Sandinista regime.

Soon, it all spirals out of control for Barry, whose backdoor dealings leave his loyalties conflicted. But that doesn’t matter as long as the money keeps flowing to his wife (Sarah Wright), who raises their kids in a nondescript Arkansas town where they’ve been given a home and 2,000 acres. Barry realizes only too late that the endless riches come with a price.

The film’s breezy and lighthearted approach is appropriate considering the multifaceted absurdity in Barry’s situation, with enough time having passed to gently mock the intertwined sleaziness in which he becomes inextricably complicit.

While it embellishes some historical details, the screenplay skewers the sociopolitical climate at the time — such as Reagan-era foreign policy, domestic economic volatility, and Cold War espionage — with a clear yet restrained cynicism. Its exploration of the moral complexities for Barry is more muddled. He becomes the hero almost by default.

In the end, there’s not much contemporary resonance, yet Cruise and director Doug Liman (Edge of Tomorrow) offer a slick sales pitch that convinces you the material is all true (even if most of it really is). A serious treatment might have been more informative, but probably not as entertaining.

 

Rated R, 115 minutes.

Battle of the Sexes

Forget what happens on the tennis court in the titular match. In Battle of the Sexes, Billie Jean King trounces Bobby Riggs in screen time.

Indeed, this chronicle of the events leading up to the 1973 exhibition match places a worthwhile spotlight on King’s role as a feminist pioneer in sports — and tennis, in particular — prior to the Title IX era, at the expense of much perspective on his brash opponent or his motives.

Still, the film features shining performances on both sides of the net and manages a fair amount of intrigue, even for those who know the outcome, while volleying tones both dramatic and comedic.

As the film opens, King (Emma Stone) is lamenting unequal prize money for women’s tennis players to a tournament executive (Bill Pullman). So she and seven other top female stars branch out to form their own tour with a cigarette sponsorship and publicity from a magazine publisher (Sarah Silverman).

King’s rise to fame coincides with turmoil in her personal life. With her doting husband (Austin Stowell) at home, she begins an affair with a hairdresser (Andrea Riseborough), and the resulting stress impacts her performance. After all, she knows disclosure of her bisexuality could negatively impact her image and career during such a pivotal period.

Meanwhile, Riggs (Steve Carell) is an opportunistic former Grand Slam men’s champion who, at 55, challenges King to a match at Houston’s Astrodome for a $100,000 jackpot. After hesitating, she later agrees, sensing an opportunity to quiet doubters and broaden the appeal of women’s tennis. Riggs plays up the match as a “male chauvinist pig versus a hairy-leg feminist,” yet in reality, he’s really a hustler burdened with gambling debts who feigns chauvinism to fuel publicity.

As directed by the tandem of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine), the film shrewdly captures the visual texture of the period through more than just throwback fashions and a nostalgic soundtrack.

The straightforward if uneven screenplay by Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire) provides a glimpse into the passion and competitiveness that made King one of the greatest and most influential players of all time. And it doesn’t do much to reverse Riggs’ reputation as a disgraced sideshow.

Battle of the Sexes conveys both the absurd spectacle and underlying high stakes in its true-life tale, while staging the climactic on-court action with crowd-pleasing flair.

 

Rated PG-13, 121 minutes.

Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House

When the most natural comparison is a classic like All the President’s Men, almost any movie is bound to feel inferior.

That’s true of Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House, a straightforward biopic that adds a layer of contemporary relevance and a slightly fresh perspective to the events surrounding the Watergate scandal.

Yet considering it’s been more than four decades since the most notorious political scandal in our country’s history, at least so far, you’d expect this portrait of the infamous whistleblower nicknamed “Deep Throat” to contain more insight and suspense — and to fill in more gaps.

The film begins in 1972 with the death of longtime FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover, which leads his highly respected deputy, Felt (Liam Neeson), to assume he’d be promoted to the role, having developed a stellar reputation with a belief in the bureau’s independence from the White House.

When the Nixon administration instead chooses outsider Pat Gray (Marton Csokas) for the top post, the unassuming Felt becomes disgruntled but agrees to remain. Then the Watergate scandal breaks, leading to cover-ups and backdoor deals between Gray and corrupt Nixon officials trying to scuttle the resulting investigation.

When classified information starts leaking to the press, most notably the Washington Post, almost every agent at the FBI becomes a target except Felt — the most obvious suspect but also the last person you’d suspect, with his loyal patriotism and quiet determination to maintain the dignity of his office.

Timely parallels abound in the screenplay by director Peter Landesman (Concussion), which opens with a sequence involving the White House discussing the consequences of firing Hoover. The story, of course, also chronicles accusations of election tampering, government leaks, cries about obstruction of justice, and an administration embroiled in constant turmoil.

Neeson is solid, as always, even if the film’s portrayal of Felt borders on left-wing hero worship. Landesman provides some intriguing biographical tidbits but seems content to scratch the surface with regard to the motives and moral complexity behind Felt’s decision to go rogue, and the turmoil in his personal life, especially his volatile relationships with his wife (Diane Lane) and disenfranchised daughter.

Given that it depicts events long before the dawn of social media and 24-hour news cycles, the film offers a valuable history lesson. However, just like in 1974, a deeper investigation is still warranted.

 

Rated PG-13, 103 minutes.

Capsule reviews for Sept. 29

Literally, Right Before Aaron

The man fitting the titular description in this annoying romantic comedy is Adam (Justin Long), a geeky loser who can’t get over his break-up with his ex-girlfriend (Cobie Smulders). Improbably, she invites him to her wedding to the aforementioned upgrade Aaron (Ryan Hansen), and pathetically, he accepts, then makes a mess of things because of his unresolved feelings. As this far-fetched scenario plays out, the primary characters lack both sympathy and charm, not to mention logic. And the screenplay by rookie director Ryan Eggold — who expanded his short film to feature length — tries to channel The Graduate yet doesn’t provide many laughs along the way. (Not rated, 103 minutes).

 

Lucky

You get the feeling that the late Harry Dean Stanton wasn’t that much different from the title character he plays in this offbeat examination of spirituality and mortality. Lucky plays by his own rules while living alone in a rural house. He drinks milk, he does yoga, he watches game shows, he smokes a pack of cigarettes, and he visits the same diner and bar every day, where he interacts with the quirky townsfolk. The bittersweet film moves and speaks deliberately, like its protagonist, while allowing Stanton to explore Lucky’s vulnerabilities and insecurities hidden beneath an irascible shell. Both humorous and heartwarming, it’s a lovely showcase. (Not rated, 88 minutes).

 

The Sound

Some intriguing concepts become lost amid all the supernatural nonsense in this thriller about a blogger (Rose McGowan) whose skepticism about ghosts brings her to an abandoned Toronto subway station, where she looks to debunk rumors of a haunting by using a technique involving low-frequency sound waves. But her cynicism turns to fear after she meets some weird folks and begins hallucinating amid the silence. The film tries to convey a sensory horror experience but manages only intermittent tension. It’s more worthwhile for its scientific theories than its formulaic chills — neither of which are exciting enough to carry the flimsy premise to feature length. (Not rated, 92 minutes).

 

Super Dark Times

Familiar elements are recombined into a compelling blend of horror and comedy in this coming-of-age throwback about nerdy teenage buddies Zach (Owen Campbell) and Josh (Charlie Tahan), whose mischief leads to the accidental death of a classmate (Max Talisman) and then to a downward spiral of guilty conscience and paranoid hallucinations when they try to cover it up. Beneath the surface, there’s a sincere exploration of friendship and loss of innocence, delivered with conviction by a sharp young cast. Rookie director Kevin Phillips takes a stylish approach to the material, even if the script sometimes struggles to avoid genre conventions and awkward shifts in tone. (Not rated, 104 minutes).

 

Take Every Wave: The Life of Laird Hamilton

As with other surfing documentaries, this portrait of the legendary big-wave daredevil has its best moments on the water, with some breathtaking shots of its subject in action in exotic locales around the globe. Yet this compelling if straightforward effort from director Rory Kennedy (Last Days in Vietnam) doesn’t drown during its sequences on the shore, when it examines Hamilton’s upbringing, his innovative techniques, his critics, and his sometimes volatile personal life. The glossy film certainly focuses on his achievements more than his shortcomings, and it’s probably best suited for aficionados who will appreciate this salute to the legacy of a pioneer more than outsiders. (Not rated, 118 minutes).

 

Te Ata

As good as the intentions might be, this earnest biopic of a pioneering Chickasaw actress and musician could use more subtlety and deeper context. Te Ata was the adopted stage name for Mary Thompson (Q’Orianka Kilcher), who had Broadway dreams growing up in Oklahoma (then called Indian Territory) during the early 1900s. With encouragement from drama professor (Cindy Pickett) but against the wishes of her pragmatic father (Gil Birmingham), she begins touring the country with a one-woman show to promote stories from her tribal heritage. She’s a worthwhile subject, although this dry and deliberately paced cinematic treatment hardly does justice to her talent or legacy. (Rated PG, 105 minutes).

Kingsman: The Golden Circle

Compared to its predecessor, Kingsman: The Golden Circle is more about quantity than quality.

This sequel to the 2014 big-budget action saga ratchets up the technical bravado and the stunt casting within its globetrotting tale of espionage, while forgetting to incorporate a compelling story worthy of advancing the fledgling franchise.

Eggsy (Taron Egerton), the newcomer to the titular clandestine British spy organization in the first film, is now one of its most loyal and trusted agents, having adopted the same Galahad nickname as his late mentor (Colin Firth). As this installment opens, he’s ambushed by a former rival (Edward Holcroft) with a bionic arm that he uses to relay secrets to his new boss, Poppy (Julianne Moore), a ruthless international drug tycoon living in a jungle utopia.

Poppy’s plan for world domination — besides kidnapping Elton John (gleefully playing himself) for her own personal entertainment — involves exploiting the world’s drug addicts by adding a deadly toxin into trafficked shipments of marijuana, cocaine, and more.

She also dispatched henchmen to destroy the Kingsman headquarters in a London tailor shop, prompting Eggsy and his colleague, Merlin (Mark Strong), to flee to the United States, where they partner with an equivalent organization run by Champagne (Jeff Bridges) that’s housed inside a Kentucky whiskey distillery. Their combined efforts to locate Poppy before her scheme runs its course are endangered by conflicting loyalties and other complications.

From its opening fight sequence set inside a cramped taxicab, to the ensuing chase involving the aforementioned souped-up vehicle, to the two hours that follow, Kingsman: The Golden Circle keeps the pace lively. Between the seamless visual effects and the hyperkinetic action sequences — choreographed and edited together with creative precision — the film has style and attitude to spare.

The ensemble cast features plenty of recognizable faces, some of which only contribute for a few scenes (such as Channing Tatum and Halle Berry) and are presumably meant to contribute more to future sequels.

However, the convoluted screenplay by Jane Goldman and director Matthew Vaughn (X-Men: First Class), who also collaborated on the first film, doesn’t have much substance to supplement the spectacle. The villain seems one-dimensional, and there’s a lack of sociopolitical context given the contemporary climate in which the story is set.

As a result, the final showdown seems more predictable than provocative, revealing the film to be a compilation of half-realized ideas that never come full-circle.

 

Rated R, 141 minutes.