Christopher Robin (2018)

2018 #180
Marc Forster | 104 mins | cinema | 2.39:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

Christopher Robin

Disney appear to have found a rich seam to mine for box office gold when it comes to live-action remakes of their most popular animated properties. Some have been variations different enough to almost stand on their own two feet; others have been straight-up remakes, because why mess with success. Christopher Robin is, perhaps, the most original so far. There have been many Winnie the Pooh adaptations down the years, as well as original movies and TV series featuring the same characters, so rather than remake any of those, here Disney have set about telling another brand-new story (although it begins with an adaptation of one of A.A. Milne’s very best Pooh stories, which is nice). This new tale justifies its live-action form by moving beyond the confines of the Hundred Acre Wood; and it also, smartly, trades on our own childhood nostalgia for the silly old bear.

We all remember Christopher Robin as a small boy, but small boys grow up, and now Christopher (Ewan McGregor) is an adult in post-war London with a wife (Hayley Atwell) and young daughter, Madeline (Bronte Carmichael). He works for a luggage company that is facing the prospect of firing most of Christopher’s team, unless he can find 20% of cuts; so instead of going away with his family for a nice weekend in the country, he must stay and work — again. With both his personal and professional lives on the brink of collapse, Christopher is very stressed.

Pooh in the park

Meanwhile, in his childhood playground of the Hundred Acre Wood, Winnie the Pooh (a convincingly cuddly CGI creation, given voice by Pooh’s regular performer, Jim Cummings) awakens one morning to find all his friends are missing. Deeply concerned, he wanders through the door through which Christopher Robin used to appear, and finds himself in London, where who should he bump into but his old childhood friend — now all grown up and serious. But Pooh is still a childlike innocent, of course (don’t worry, they haven’t given him a Ted-style makeover), and maybe that attitude is just what Christopher needs.

Having said they haven’t made Pooh into Ted (thank goodness — I like Ted, but that really isn’t the spirit of this franchise), there’s more than a little whiff of Paddington here. It’s not the exact same plot, but the overall theme — of a naïve but good-hearted bear arriving to help humans overcome their problems with kindness — is certainly similar. Indeed, many beats of the story that unfolds are familiar — the climax is somewhat borrowed from Mary Poppins, for example; and you’ll know how every subplot will end as soon as it’s introduced. For some viewers, this will render the film pointless and clichéd. For others… well, it’s not really the point.

The joy of Christopher Robin is it takes those recycled elements and filters them through the prism of Pooh. If you too loved Pooh as a child, or an adult, then Christopher’s journey to rediscover that connection is relatable and supportable. And it’s simply a delight to spend time with the characters, as Pooh casually (and accidentally) dispenses heartfelt wisdom that both delights and, occasionally, may even cause you to think.

Tigger on the loose

The other denizens of the Hundred Acre Wood do pop up too: miserable old Eeyore (Brad Garrett) stole the show for the audience I watched with; Tigger (also Cummings, after test audiences objected to Chris O’Dowd’s English-accented take on the character!) is as exuberant as ever; and Piglet (Nick Mohammed) remains the voice of caution and cowardice, and as sweet as ever. As “the main ones”, those four get the most to do in the story, but there are also appearances from Rabbit (Peter Capaldi), Owl (Toby Jones), Kanga (Sophie Okonedo), and Roo (Sara Sheen) to complete the set; and with actors that good providing the voices, they make their mark.

But, really, this is all about Pooh. Well, Pooh and Christopher Robin — the title’s not inaccurate. For those who don’t feel a connection to the bear of very little brain, I guess the familiarity of the narrative he’s part of in this film will drag down enjoyment — this, I presume, is why the reviews have been somewhat mixed. But, in my opinion, a little Pooh goes a long way — as Christopher says, he may be a bear of very little brain, but he’s also a bear of very big heart. The combination makes for a film that is amusing, sweet, and thoroughly delightful.

4 out of 5

Christopher Robin is in UK cinemas now.

Machine Gun Preacher (2011)

2015 #5
Marc Forster | 124 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | USA / English, Arabic & Acholi | 15 / R

Machine Gun PreacherBetween the mega-hits of Quantum of Solace and World War Z, Marc Forster directed this poorly-received ultra-flop. It’s based on the true story of Sam Childers (Gerard Butler), a drug-addicted violence-prone biker thug, who finds God, goes legit as a construction worker, travels to war-torn Sudan as part of a Christian mission, and ends up becoming obsessed with trying to save kids there. His old skills begin to come to the fore as he has to battle local militia to protect his work, earning him the titular nickname.

As a film, it feels like a true story, but in a bad way: poorly structured, unfocused and, as a result, sluggish and awkwardly paced. Subplots meander around, coming and going at will, contributing very little to the overall effect. Some people get annoyed when movies change the facts of history to suit their purpose, but it’s done for a reason: this isn’t a documentary about what actually happened, it’s a narrative fiction inspired by it. You don’t have to betray the spirit of the truth even, just make it function as a story: focus on the relevant parts, rather than just tossing in every event; structure said events with a rising scale of action, rather than tossing it together willy-nilly with barely an ending to reach.

Great white saviourThe problem with the last point is that, in real life, Sam is still over there, still doing the same thing, while conflicts rage on. But this is a film — you need to find some kind of conclusion. The makers have tried, but its an incredibly half-arsed climax; less a resolution to the entire story and more Sam having learnt one lesson from something that went wrong a little earlier.

Forster’s direction is uninteresting; strikingly workmanlike, even. Despite earning several major awards nominations for Finding Neverland and employing some interesting visual tricks for Stranger Than Fiction, his Bourne-copying Bond film and the standard blockbuster-ness of his zombie epic perhaps suggest he is a little bit of a gun-for-hire. Thematically, he wants to have his cake and eat it: the film both condemns Sam’s violent ways, very nearly almost touching on an interesting theme of him actually being completely unchanged (he’s just found a better/more acceptable outlet for his violence); but it backs out of that pretty speedily, because it also wants him to be a hero, ultimately trying to present that he is as its final summary.

The film on the whole is too preachy, both about Christianity and the situation in Africa. It doesn’t feel like a professional medium-budget movie made by experienced filmmakers with a name cast, but instead like one of those specialist Christian movies, Preacher(gun)manmashed together with a polemical charity documentary about Africa, and then with some Rambo action sequences grafted on for good measure. Each of those genres manage to find their own audiences — usually ones so interested in the topic that they’ll switch off any critical filters they may (or may not) possess — but I’m not sure there’s much crossover between them, and the combination certainly doesn’t work for anyone with taste.

The real-life story is undoubtedly interesting, and the problems in Sudan are undoubtedly troubling, but that doesn’t automatically confer quality on a fictionalised film. It feels like the fact the tale was fundamentally interesting and Important led a lot of people involved to coast, like it was too good a narrative not to automatically produce a good film. Unfortunately, that’s not how moviemaking works, and while they’ve not produced a bad film per se, it is a strikingly mediocre one.

2 out of 5

Machine Gun Preacher is on Film4 tonight at 11:10pm.

World War Z: Extended Action Cut (2013)

2014 #14
Marc Forster | 123 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA & Malta / English | 15

World War ZIn the weeks leading up to its theatrical release, it was already known that World War Z was going to be an almighty flop. An unscrupulous movie studio had taken a cult novel and thrown away everything but the title, alienating its existing fanbase. They’d spent a fortune making a movie in a traditionally R-rated genre that, if released at R, could never make its money back, and if released at PG-13 would never attract an audience. Then they reshot the entire third act, pushing the budget through the roof and ensuring the resultant film would get critically mauled. A fanbase snubbed, an impossibly huge budget, a genre/rating disconnect, and unavoidably poor reviews to come — World War Z was going to flop, and it was going to flop hard.

Then it came out, and became the highest-grossing film to star Movie Star™ Brad Pitt, and the highest-grossing original film of Summer 2013, and made nearly triple its budget worldwide, and even got fairly good reviews. Maybe I was reading the wrong sources in the run up to its release, or maybe it really was that rarest of things, perhaps even unique: a movie hype-resurrection that was less zombie and more phoenix.

The film sees Pitt’s retired UN investigator called back to duty when a rapidly-spreading plague, which turns people into zombie-like rabid creatures, breaks out around the globe. With his family in tow, he escapes an over-run Philadelphia and ends up with what’s left of the US population on a small fleet of ships, before jetting off around the world on a hunt for answers and, hopefully, a vaccine. Cue large-scale action sequences as director Marc Forster aims for an apocalyptic sci-fi/action epic rather than the zombie genre’s usual stomping ground of claustrophobic supernatural scares.

Panic in the streetsThat, at least, is something different. The first half-hour races through stuff we’ve seen time and again: zombie attacks, humans turning on humans as they loot supermarkets, etc. Here the zombies are of the 28 Days Later-style speedy variety, all the better for creating blockbuster action sequences, such as a huge chase through crowded streets, or a running fight up the stairways of an apartment building. This is where the PG-13 certificate shows through (even though this cut is technically unrated in the US, the fact both versions received a 15 over here is telling): there’s little focus on violence or gore; which is fine, but won’t satisfy the more blood-hungry genre fans.

It’s after this that things, as noted, turn from claustrophobic to post-apocalyptic. The storyline feels moderately fresh, showing us the global scope of such an outbreak, rather than how a global event impacts a small group of people. I believe this is the closest the film gets to the spirit of the novel (which I’ve not read, so take that comparison with a pinch of salt). However, what’s new to the zombie genre isn’t necessarily new in any other respect, and by the time we get to Jerusalem and the characters are again being chased through crowded streets, it begins to feel a tad repetitive. Some of the sequences work well though, particularly a zombie outbreak on a passenger plane.

The re-shot final act is a breath of fresh air. Apparently the originally-filmed version was yet another epic battle, which has been switched for a more tense creep around a semi-abandoned research facility in… Wales. Yep, a big budget Hollywood action movie climaxes in the middle-of-nowhere in Wales. I quite like that. The original ending was axedIt’s a Wales populated by a Londoner, a Scotsman and a Spaniard, but still. I say “more tense” because this is far from the most nail-biting zombie film you could see. The finale is a nice change of pace, and does work as a climax in spite of the bombast that precedes it, but these are zombies as teen-friendly action movie menace, not adult scare-inducers, so don’t except to feel much fear or surprise.

As to the extended cut, it adds only about seven minutes… but there are 121 differences. I can’t even be bothered to read that properly, never mind recount it. There seem to be myriad tiny extensions to all the action sequences, many of them literally lasting a fraction of a second — someone watched this really closely! I can only presume this is actually the original cut, which was then trimmed for the sake of the MPAA to create a theatrical version, because who would consciously go back to add so many little bits? Some are even described as “very unnecessary extension”s by that summary. Other moments do expand on character, though in a subtle fashion (looks like the attempted rape of our hero’s wife, and the murder of one of the wannabe rapists, previously got the snip), or do add to the gore — clearly, it’s too much for a PG-13, but certainly within the realms of a 15. I can’t imagine any of it makes a great deal of difference to the overall experience, however.

Generally, World War Z is a competently entertaining blockbuster. It moves pleasingly fast, with characters quickly and lightly sketched rather than lingered on — not to everyone’s taste, and I imagine some will find it emotionally cold in the way so many recent spectacle movies are. There’s perhaps room for more, particularly from Daniella Kertesz’s Israeli soldier, who is nonetheless somehow the film’s most appealing character; Daniella Kertesz’s Israeli soldierbut I don’t think it was the filmmakers’ aim to make us feel the characters’ plight, but instead to show the scope of a worldwide disaster. It does that pretty well, even if the occasionally-CGI zombies prove to be an I Am Legend-style plasticky distraction, especially when coupled with impossible swooping camera shots — it’s better and more effective in the sections where there’s a grittier feel to the camerawork and practical zombie make-up.

As it lacks the social subtext or extreme gore that the two branches of zombie fandom most value, I don’t think WWZ will find an enduring place in genre-fans’ hearts. As an epic summer action blockbuster, however, it largely passes muster.

4 out of 5

World War Z is on Sky Movies Premiere this week, starting today at 4pm and 8pm. It’s also available on Now TV, where the running time suggests it’s the extended cut.

The Kite Runner (2007)

2009 #3
Marc Forster | 123 mins | DVD | 12 / PG-13

The Kite RunnerCan no one tell a story from the beginning any more? I blame How To Write books and courses, insisting that films must begin with certain types of incident to hook the audience, even if this isn’t the first event chronologically. Do they think the audience has no patience? Especially in a film, where you’re only committing about two hours of your time (as opposed to however long it takes to read a novel) and even the most lazy viewer is likely to stick it out for at least 15 minutes.

The Kite Runner is just the latest film to do this (and by that I mean “latest I’ve seen”, as I’m sure dozens have done exactly the same thing since), beginning two thirds of the way through with a scene that makes little sense… until, inevitably, the story flashes back to the start and leads us through to that inconspicuous scene, finally giving it some meaning. Really, it’s little more than a cheap tease; a promise to the audience that what follows is actually going somewhere, however pointless it may seem. It’s perhaps the only trick that makes me inclined against a film (or indeed any work of fiction) right from the off.

Perhaps the structure is lifted directly from the source novel. The film certainly has an unusual feel in this sense, like the text has only been half converted for the screen. Not every film should — or does — conform to the structural rules of those How To Write books, but there’s something about the way events progress here that feels more novelistic than filmic. Arguably this is also true of the story itself, which seems to be more about its themes than its characters: bravery, cowardice, and the difference between the two; friendship, and the lengths (or not) it will go to; truth and lies, and what underhand things people — especially children — will do to cover up their own shortcomings and failings.

In this respect it feels like it’s part biography (though it’s fiction) and part moral fable. By the end, we’re presumably meant to leave with the feeling that some justice has been done at last. But while one boy has been saved from the horrors of his captors — and even then, almost too late — there are hundreds left behind with the still-active villain. In this respect it’s undoubtedly true to life, but it belies an attempt at an uplifting and redemptive ending.

In assessing The Kite Runner it feels like I may have missed something and am being unduly harsh, but sadly it failed to engage me. While I long continued to ponder some of the issues it raised for me (always a positive), I’m not certain they were the ones the filmmakers intended.

3 out of 5

This review was written over three months after seeing the film, based entirely on notes made at the time and my rather poor memory. Apologies if it is therefore a bit unfocussed or, God forbid, inaccurate in the odd minor fact.

My Quantum of Solace Film Season

In case you’ve somehow failed to notice, Quantum of Solace, the 22nd official James Bond film, hits UK cinemas this Friday. I’m more than a tad excited (and considerably annoyed that I won’t be able to make it to the first screening in my area thanks to a seminar), and to celebrate I’m having myself a sort-of mini-ish film season-thing. Which I have dubbed My Quantum of Solace Film Season. You might’ve guessed that from the post’s title.

The selection process is quite simple: one film a day, each representing a different key member of QoS’s cast, plus one for director Marc Forster; and, to comply with this blog’s normal rules, all films I’ve never seen before. Well, that was the idea, but as with any good plan some changes have had to be made — there’s no film for Judi Dench, for example (well, other than a certain already-seen previous entry in the franchise), and I initially forgot Daniel Craig. Ha! Luckily I could switch him in for Jeffrey Wright by virtue of the fact they both appeared in The Invasion. Then there’s a double bill to try to get (almost) everyone in, and a film I’ve seen before too. “Oops.” (It was also entirely unintentional that all but the first and last films are from 2007.) Naturally, things come to a close with QoS itself on Friday, so thanks to only having thought of this plan yesterday my time to watch things is rather limited.

Anyway, you don’t really care about all that. Here’s the schedule:

  • Sunday 26th October: The Director
    Marc Forster’s Stay.

  • Monday 27th October: The Villain
    Mathieu Amalric (‘Dominic Greene’) stars in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.

  • Tuesday 28th October: The Girls
    A double bill for Bond’s two new women. Gemma Arterton (‘Agent Fields’) stars in St. Trinian’s, followed by Olga Kurylenko (‘Camille’) in Hitman.

  • Wednesday 29th October: The Spies
    Daniel Craig (‘James Bond’, donchaknow) stars — with support from Jeffrey Wright (‘Felix Leiter’) — in The Invasion.

  • Thursday 30th October: The First Part
    As has been (very) widely reported, QoS is the first Bond-sequel, starting within an hour of Casino Royale’s climax. As such, it seems only appropriate to watch the preceding film the night before. (I’ve seen CR several times but will be reviewing it anyway, in light of having seen QoS, if that makes any difference.)

  • Friday 31st October: The Point
    Ba-da, dum… ba-da, dum… ba-da ba-da-da! Phonetic renderings of iconic theme tunes aside, Bond is back! Hurray!
  • The exact order is subject to change depending on how readily I can get hold of the films (I only own two of the six), but that’s the plan. Last time I tried to watch a film a day I failed miserably, so we’ll see how this goes. (Incidentally, reviews won’t appear on the said days, or even follow shortly behind — check out my ‘coming soon’ page to see how backed up I am with reviews.)

    Stranger Than Fiction (2006)

    2007 #81
    Marc Forster | 108 mins | DVD | 12 / PG-13

    Stranger Than FictionAnother of Empire’s best films of last year (this one was 21st).

    Forster is developing an eclectic filmography, with Oscar-nominated dramas Monster’s Ball and Finding Neverland alongside psychological thriller Stay and the 22nd Bond film. Stranger Than Fiction is different again, melding several styles into a cohesive whole — mystery, rom-com, existentialism, a bit of fantasy, and those IKEA graphics from Fight Club. Some plot beats may be clichéd, but that’s almost the point; besides, there’s plenty of originality to make up for it. A few plot turns in the final act also make sure you’re never certain how it will end.

    4 out of 5

    Stranger Than Fiction placed 5th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2007, which can be read in full here.