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Posts Tagged ‘Marc Forster’

‘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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(New Cinema Review: The Vue near Harrow-on-the-Hill tube station. Considered opinion: not too bad, but not the nicest Vue I’ve been to in the last year by any stretch of the imagination.)

All right, some context: I first heard about Max Brooks’ novel World War Z at some point in 2007, finally got my hands on a copy at the end of that year, and found it to be one of those rare, unputdownably brilliant pieces of writing. I actually gave that original copy away to a friend, I wanted to share the pleasure of reading it so much (this is an almost unheard-of occurrence). And while I was reading it I couldn’t help thinking what a brilliant film it would make, if handled properly – I could imagine how it would play out, pictured the various scenes in my head, and so on, even while realising it would be a ridiculously uncommercial film.

Well, they’ve finally made a movie of World War Z, and it is directed by Marc Forster, possibly best-known for helming the unloved Bond movie Quantum of Solace. It bears very little resemblance to the film which was in my head all those years ago – which is another way of saying it’s nothing like the source novel.

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Bradley Pitt plays Gerald, an ex-UN investigator (you know that ex- isn’t long for this world) who has retired to spend time with his wife (Mireilles Enos) and children. The wife and children have no real personalities beyond being touchingly wan, vulnerable, and worried about him, and they’re only really in the film to provide a plot device and some coarse-grained sentiment.

Another day for Gerald and the family in Phildelphia takes an unfortunate turn when society suddenly falls to a zombie apocalypse, and they find themselves in New Jersey, which is a barren, terrifying wasteland (and the zombie apocalypse has made it even worse). Luckily Gerald’s old boss has them airlifted to a ship in the mid-Atlantic where what’s left of the UN and the armed forces are trying to come up with a response to the crisis.

Needless to say, the UN needs Gerald to investigate the source of the zombie outbreak so they can come up with some sort of solution to the crisis, and if he doesn’t, he and the kids will be thrown to the undead. Needless to say Gerald signs on for this frankly dodgy mission and is soon flying off on a whistle-stop global tour that will take him to destinations as exotic and far-flung as South Korea, Jerusalem, and Cardiff…

Let’s be fair about this: World War Z was always going to be a difficult film to adapt into a conventional narrative. The genius of the novel is to look at the basic idea of a zombie apocalypse in a very rational, comprehensive way – how could a zombie outbreak get started? How would it spread? How would governments and other powerful bodies realistically respond to it? What would the end-game be? (This last is a point most movies are quite vague about.)

The result is a book without a central character or a single plotline, but one which is almost an anthology of accounts of people caught up in the outbreak, from its earliest beginnings, to institutional disbelief and/or exploitation, to gathering panic and chaos, then calamity and retreat and ultimately the fight-back against the putrescent menace. It takes place over a timescale of years, and its conclusion is full of ambiguities and uncertainties.

None of this is in the film. In fact, Forster’s movie isn’t much more of an adaptation of World War Z than any other zombie film from the last decade. There is, to be fair, a reasonably lengthy section set in Israel which does draw heavily from an early section of the book, but this is all. (The whole issue of the origins of the zombie outbreak has been changed, quite probably to avoid offending a large and lucrative foreign market Hollywood studios are desperate to break into.) The rest is very generic big-budget zombie stuff.

It’s not even as if this is a particularly good generic big-budget zombie movie: the CGI-rendered undead megaswarms are admittedly impressive as they swarm up the sides of buildings, but the performance of at least one featured zombie provoked sniggers at the viewing I attended. The performances are a little variable too – Daniella Kertesz is quite good as a soldier who becomes Pitt’s sidekick, but Peter Capaldi is painfully all at sea as a boffin whose scientific speciality appears to be describing in detail what’s happening in front of him and everyone else in the scene, just for the benefit of anyone in the audience who may be a bit slow on the uptake.

Then again, Capaldi is just in the final third of the movie, which was extensively rewritten and reshot for reasons which remain somewhat obscure but were apparently political (again). The ending they have come up with is, to say the least, weak, not to mention cheap-looking given the epic scale of most of the rest of the film. There is a definite sense of ‘is that all?’ come the final credits starting to roll.

I suspect that World War Z, the movie, will be a massive disappointment to anyone who read and loved the book – I can’t imagine a general audience being particularly impressed, either. Still, I suppose that the movie retains just enough of the unique flavour and qualities of the source material to perhaps entice a few of the audience to check it out – which in and of itself is just about enough to justify its existence.

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