Posts Tagged ‘Hayley Atwell’

You know, sometimes I take no pleasure in doing this. I hear the response, so why do you bother? Well, as I think I said, it’s pathological. Really, though, sometimes I turn up to a movie which is obviously gunning to touch upon some serious emotional issues, and take a stand against bigotry and prejudice, and leave the audience uplifted and positive, but as much as I’d like to say positive things about it, I just find myself bitterly regretting the fact that the re-release of Apocalypse Now was on too late for me to see it on a work night, and that one can only go and see Hobbs & Shaw so many times before it starts to look weird.

The film that has me thinking this way is Gurinder Chadha’s Blinded by the Light, a bildungsroman with music, and a film which seems specifically designed to put you in mind of other films you may have enjoyed in the past. Viveik Kalra plays British Asian teenager Javed, living in Luton in 1987 (he is basically a fictionalised version of Sarfraz Manzoor, one of the co-writers). Many films have been made about the travails of growing up as a second-generation immigrant in a fiercely traditional, patriarchal family, and we are surely overdue for one which approaches this whole topic in a wholly fresh and innovative way. Unfortunately, Blinded by the Light is not that movie, and we just get all the usual bits and pieces, from the strict, conservative father (Kulvinder Ghir) on down.

Well, Javed goes off to Sixth Form College where his inspiring English lit teacher (Hayley Atwell) soon spots he is a frustrated poet, but one with little chance of ever properly expressing himself given the way everything is in his life. It just gets worse as his father loses his job and the National Front seem to be on the advance. It all comes to a head on the night of the Great Storm of 1987, when he finally gets around to playing some cassette tapes a friend has lent him – they are, of course, two Bruce Springsteen albums, and Javed’s life is utterly transformed. Well, a bit transformed. Eventually.

I could go into more detail but the film adheres to the standard script-writing structure with grim fidelity: there’s a succession of alternately sad and uplifting bits, building up the stakes, then a really downbeat bit at the end of the second act, followed by a life-affirming climax where the protagonist gets a chance to show everything that they’ve learned about The Important Things in Life. In this respect, like many others, it does sort of bear a close resemblance to Yesterday, another film looking to deliver a feel-good experience powered by some familiar tunes. Neither of them really had that effect on me, though, although I must say that Blinded by the Light manages to make Yesterday look much slicker and better assembled than it does in isolation.

There is just something very odd and not-quite-right about this film.  It’s supposed to be a paean to the power of the music of Bruce Springsteen… which is why the opening section is soundtracked by the Pet Shop Boys, a-Ha and Level 42. (I suppose the film-makers will say they’re holding back the Boss for the revelatory moment of Javed’s first hearing him.) But is it even that? (The paean, I mean.) At times the film resembles a bizarre mash-up of a jukebox musical using Springsteen songs and yet another comedy-drama about the Pakistani immigrant experience. This is an odd fit, to say the least: I know Bruce Springsteen has received many accolades, but I wasn’t aware he was acclaimed as the great interpreter of the British Asian experience in the late Eighties. Maybe the suggestion is supposed to be that his music has that kind of universal power and appeal – well, maybe so, but it still seems a very strangely specific take on this idea.

This is before we even get onto how the film handles its Springsteen tunes. When they do eventually arrive, they are initially accompanied by the words of the lyrics dancing around Javed’s head as he listens to his Walkman, which I suppose is just about acceptable. However, the writers soon decide they want to get some of the fun and energy of the non-diegetic musical into their film, so they break out a few big set-pieces. There are always choices with this sort of thing – you can keep the original Springsteen vocal and have the cast lip-synch to it. Or, you can re-record the song with the actors singing it (or attempting to sing it, if you’ve hired Pierce Brosnan) and use that. Or you can do what happens here, which is to play the original version and have the actors singing along over the top of it (not especially well).

If the singing is not exactly easy on the ear, it is at least better than the film’s attempts at dance routines. I would say these looked under-rehearsed, if I was certain they were rehearsed at all. The result has a sort of desperate earnestness to it which I tried hard to find charming, but I’m afraid I just couldn’t manage it. Something about the film’s biggest musical sequence (a version of ‘Born to Run’ performed in Luton High Street and just off the A505) not only managed to banish most of the vestigial goodwill I still retained for the movie, I’m also pretty sure I could feel it trying to suck out my soul and devour it. I’m not a particular Bruce Springsteen fan, but I can still appreciate the power and passion of his music – however, this film came alarmingly close to making me like his stuff a bit less. (A slightly bemused-looking Boss turns up during the closing credits, having his picture taken with various people involved with the production – one wonders if he was actually aware of who they were.)

That said, often enough they play Springsteen’s stuff without mucking it about or singing over the top of it, and this at least means you are listening to some great songs. This is better than the alternative, which is watching and listening to the scenes telling the story of the movie. These are – well, trite is one word that springs to mind. (‘Blinded by the Trite’ wouldn’t be a bad title for the movie.) None of the characters really behaves like a recognisable human being – they are all stock types living in a dress-up cartoon version of the 1980s, communicating largely in platitudes. Hayley Atwell plays the inspiring teacher, whose functions are to be inspiring and operate a few plot devices. Rob Brydon (wearing a truly shocking wig) plays a comedy relief old rocker, whose function is solely to be the comedy relief. It’s like the guts of the movie are on display throughout – it just doesn’t have the artifice or self-awareness to appear anything other than clumsily manipulative. (It could stand to lose about a quarter of an hour, as well.)

Of course, it does take a stand against racism, which of course is a good and laudable thing to do; and it does make some points about self-expression and being true to yourself and following your dreams, which are all perfectly good and admirable goals in life. Having good intentions doesn’t excuse the numerous narrative and artistic shortfalls of the movie, though. This just about functions as a story and as a musical, but it’s laboured and clumsy and trite throughout: all in all, rather more loss than Boss.

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‘Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose hanging out in a semi-mythic patch of vegetation with CGI versions of well-loved children’s characters while a major international corporation trots out some rather hackneyed platitudes about getting your work-life balance right…’

I know I should keep an open mind, but as the prospect of viewing Marc Forster’s Christopher Robin approached, I was gripped by an ineluctable sense that I was, in some way, entering the abyss. I mean, we’ve been here before this year, haven’t we? Classic children’s story… post-Paddington CGI-live action update… big-name voice cast… In short, the spectre of Peter Rabbit loomed. An unwelcome level of further confusion was provided by the fact that only last year Domhnall Gleeson, one of that unhappy band who made up the human cast of the Rabbit movie, was to be seen playing A. A. Milne (creator, I should not need to mention, of the Winnie-the-Pooh books) in a British film entitled Goodbye Christopher Robin.

Well, anyway, no Domhnall Gleeson in this one, just a lot of Ewan McGregor. Though not quite from the start: there is a prologue restaging the closing moments of The House at Pooh Corner, one of the most profoundly moving episodes in the entirety of children’s literature. The young Christopher Robin bids a sad adieu to his childhood friends: Pooh, Piglet, Eeyore, Tigger and the rest (there is something slightly odd about the fact that some of the animal characters resemble animated soft toys, while others are more photorealistic). Christopher Robin and Pooh swear eternal friendship, before he departs: off to boarding school and a more grown-up world.

Eventually he grows up into McGregor, who gets married (to Hayley Atwell), fights in the Second World War, goes into business, and eventually finds himself the efficiency manager of a luggage company managed by a worthless and contemptible money-grubbing toff in a suit (Mark Gatiss, in a hairpiece so startling it almost looks computer-animated itself). The adult Christopher Robin is a bit of a workaholic, a joyless drone obsessed with the nine-to-five grind who is, needless to say, in dire peril of losing touch with the Important Things in Life. Things come to a head when he is obliged to cancel a family trip to the country by the need to come up with brutal, heartless cuts at the office: Christopher Robin is in danger of becoming a lost soul, but can anything save him?

You may very well be ahead of me on this one. It seems that the unhappiness of Christopher Robin’s life has some sort of metaphysical resonance in the fantastical realm of the Hundred Acre Wood, causing things there to be less thoroughly agreeable than usual, and this motivates Pooh Bear (inasmuch as Pooh can ever really be said to be motivated to do anything) to go in search of Christopher Robin and seek his assistance. Perhaps having to help the toys and animals is just the help he himself needs…

As I said, the trailer for Christopher Robin (a slightly odd choice of title, presumably there is some legal reason why they can’t use the Winnie-the-Pooh brand name in the title) looked worrisomely like another visit to the horrendous cultural wasteland of the Rabbit movie, right down to the climactic scenes in which the CGI characters find themselves out of their comfort zones on a trip to London. I was aware there was a possibility I might find myself spending another 104 minutes doing the Rabbit face. But like a Vietnam veteran finding himself irresistibly drawn to reenlist for another tour of duty, I went along anyway. And it is with enormous pleasure and relief that I can report that Christopher Robin is approximately 239 times better than Peter Rabbit.

It doesn’t feel like a vicious, cynical parody of the original stories, for one thing; it makes almost no attempt to be contemporary or have any kind of attitude, for another (a few aspects of the film’s post-war setting don’t quite ring true, but you would have to be a churl to make a big deal out of this). The gentle, amiable, slightly melancholic tone of the Milne stories survives very much intact – although, this being a major Disney production, we are still saddled with a Pooh who speaks with an American accent, while the characters resemble the animated Disney versions at least as much as Ernest Shepherd’s timeless illustrations (people are suggesting this is why the film is not being released in China: apparently the government has an issue with suggestions that there is any resemblance between Disney’s Winnie-the-Pooh and President Xi).

Although, if we’re talking Disney, there is obviously something just a little bit Toy Story about the premise of Christopher Robin – it’s central to the plot that, rather than being imaginary friends to Christopher Robin, Pooh and the others have some kind of odd, objective existence of their own. They are on some level ‘real’. Naturally the film never goes into this in too much detail, but it does kind of add to the slightly bleak nature of the story: abandoned toys left to wander pointlessly in their pocket universe once their owner starts to grow up… it could almost be the premise for a particularly disturbing horror movie, with the embittered, maddened toys breaking through into the real world to take revenge on the man who has forsaken them.

This is not that movie, however. This one is gentle and sweet and genuinely very funny in places, and it’s quite well-written, catching the tone of Milne even when some very un-Milne-like events are in progress (at one point Winnie-the-Pooh and the others turn up at a board meeting of the luggage company). It is also rather well played by all the human performers, particularly McGregor who basically has to carry most of the movie himself. You might hope for more from some of the better-known voice artists (Peter Capaldi as Rabbit and Toby Jones as Owl don’t get much to do), but it makes sense for the film to focus on the most famous characters.

In short, I rather enjoyed Christopher Robin – it is a rather predictable film, by any measure, and the lavishly-realised post-war England it is set in is every bit as much a fantasy world as the Hundred Acre Wood, but it has a laid-back, gentle cosiness which I found really rather appealing, even if the theme – a bittersweet meditation on what it means to grow up – may be more resonant with adults than children. But maybe this is just another sign of how woefully out of touch I am with modern tastes: the Rabbit movie has racked up $350 million at the global box office, making a sequel grimly inevitably, while Christopher Robin is languishing by comparison, with less than a third of that total. Well, maybe we really do get the movies we deserve – but if so, I had no idea we had become quite so troubled as a society. Not a happy thought, but Christopher Robin is a film which will probably stand a good chance of cheering up anyone with a soul.

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History is like spicy food: you always notice when it starts repeating on you. One of the very last films I saw in the summer of 2001 before starting to write regularly on the topic was Jurassic Park III, directed by Joe Johnston. Now I went to see that with rock-bottom expectations – it was a one-trick series, and the first sequel had seemed extremely tired and mechanical. To be perfectly honest, I only went to watch the tyrannosaurus fight the spinosaurus (yes, that’s how nerdy I can be).

And yet, I really enjoyed it, and it even made it into the Lassie Awards for 2001 as Pleasant Surprise of the Year: Johnstone’s focus on characters, atmosphere, and humour really made the film work much better than it had any right to on paper. As I mentioned, history appears to be repeating itself as I could say practically the same thing about his new movie, Captain America: The First Avenger (possibly trading only as The First Avenger, depending on which country you live in and their geopolitical affiliations).

You might well consider this movie a candidate for our Oh God, Not Another One department as it is the third Marvel super hero movie of the year (to say nothing of those derived from the comics of other companies). I have to confess I had grave reservations about the project, simply because Captain America is a fiercely dull character. It seems to me that his having to serve as the patriotic embodiment of their nation means that writers simply can’t give Cap any kind of personality worth mentioning. That’s not to say that interesting stories haven’t occasionally been told using the character, but they haven’t really been about him.

Captain America is, as you’d expect, a tremendously polished and technically sophisticated movie, but its greatest achievement is in making the title character someone you can actually believe in and even care about (a bit, at least). Chris Evans (note to British readers: no, not him – the other one) plays Steve Rogers, a young man desperate to do his bit for the USA at the height of the Second World War. Alas, he is a scrawny little shorthouse with a long list of medical problems and the army will not take him.

Luckily he is offered the chance to serve by a passing boffin (Stanley Tucci), who shoots him full of – er – blue stuff and then attaches him to the local power grid. As luck, and the magic of dubious 1940s superhero origins, would have it, this transforms Steve into a physically perfect adonis! The army brass breathe a sigh of relief (as do the special effects department, as they no longer have to keep digitally transforming Evans into a wimp). But tragedy strikes as a passing Nazi agent guns down Tucci’s character, who rather thoughtlessly has neglected to write down the recipe for the blue stuff anywhere. It seems that Steve will be unique as far as American super-soldiers go…

…but not quite unique worldwide. It turns out that a previous test subject of Tucci’s is still on the scene. He is the Red Skull (played, as only he can, by Hugo Weaving) and he appears to be in a permanent strop (possibly having no nose or hair and serious complexion issues will do this to a fellow). The Skull has parted company with the Nazis as they are just too moderate and embarked upon his own plan for global conquest. To this end he has got his hands on an ancient occult relic (to be fair, the movie acknowledges what a cliche this has become) and is all set to unleash his nefarious schemes…

Whatever success Captain America achieves – and to my mind it is a considerable amount – all derives from the opening section of the film, which takes its time to establish the characters, the plot, and the tone with great care. This makes for a slightly slow start, but still an involving and enjoyable one. The cast is unusually strong throughout – apart from the people I’ve mentioned, Tommy Lee Jones, Toby Jones, Hayley Atwell, Dominic Cooper and Neal McDonough all make an impression – and the script neatly plays with various concepts of Captain America as a character. Originally created as a morale-boosting wartime icon, he literally becomes that here for a while, before transforming into a much grittier figure clearly based on the Ultimates version created by Mark Millar (Millar is thanked in the credits). For its first half, the movie is always just a little bit wittier, smarter, darker, more knowing, and more affecting than you really expect it to be, and constantly rewarding as a result. (I was a little baffled by Stan Lee’s cameo, obligatory though it is: this isn’t a character he originated!)

That said, the rest of the film does see it settle down to become not much more than an effects-intensive action picture: a fairly successful one, but not much more than that. And the conclusion is… well, odd. You can almost sense the writers scratching their heads about which point they should end the story at, and I’m not sure they made the right decision, to be perfectly honest. I’m not saying it’s a total failure, but the very last beat of the movie before the closing credits fell rather flat for me.

All of this is, of course, down to Captain America‘s status as the latest Marvel Studios picture and the last one before the release of The Avengers next summer. Despite its period setting, this film has quite a few little nods to others in the series – Dominic Cooper is playing Tony Stark’s dad, which may explain why Robert Downey Jr had a version of Cap’s shield in his lab in the last Iron Man, while anyone who saw Thor will have a good idea of where the central plot Maguffin originated from – and elsewhere. (I particularly enjoyed the fleeting appearance of the original Human Torch, which may well be a reference to Chris Evans’ own history playing a different version of that character.) That said, only at the very end did I get a sense of pieces being carefully shuffled around, and this film is quite capable of standing on its own merits.

For me, the Marvel Studios films, while uniformly slick and entertaining, haven’t quite hit the same heights as some of the Marvel movies made by different companies (and here I’m thinking mainly of the X-Men and Spider-Man films). I’d hesitate to say Captain America was the best one yet, but for me it was certainly more satisfying than Iron Man 2 or The Incredible Hulk, and quite possibly edged it past Thor as well. It’s also one of the most satisfying popcorn movies I’ve seen this year: full of good-natured fun and interesting characters, and with a near-total absence of weary jingoism and moralising, this may not be the greatest superhero movie ever, but it’s possibly one of the best interpretations of Captain America in any medium. Highly enjoyable.

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