Movie Review: Goodbye Christopher Robin

Goodbye Christopher Robin means well. With gentle storybook strokes, the biographical motion picture about A.A. Milne, who created and wrote the Winnie the Pooh children’s books, plays from Milne’s traumatic soldiering in World War 1 to his books becoming a worldwide bestselling literary series and beyond. Shown through flashbacks of battlefields, courtship and an only child, with fear of war looming over England, her war veterans and their survivors, Milne’s reconciliation of his war trauma comes through writing what’s childlike.

Reconciling with the child upon whom his stories are based is the movie’s centerpiece. In the showing and telling, and parts of this uneven movie are magically shown and told, the audience gets a sense of the writer’s life. That living with a writer, as Mrs. Milne (Margot Robbie, The Legend of Tarzan) must do, is unbearable. That working for a writer, as the child’s nanny (Kelly Macdonald, Merida’s voice in Brave and Anna Karenina) does, is also a constant strain. That having a storyteller for a father, as the only child of Mr. and Mrs. Milne’s union does, both draws and repels his attention without ever fully gaining his guidance and love.

The child is the Pooh series’ basis, of course, for the character Christopher Robin. I’ll leave it to Goodbye Christopher Robin to spell out the complications of having that name and all it implies for his boyhood. Here, the boy is taken away with his parents to escape London’s triggers for his father’s post-war trauma to live in a cottage near the woods in Sussex. You can probably guess what follows, with stuffed animals, trips to the zoo, an imaginative mother and father, moonlight, sunrays and the wonder of them all blending into the woods. An origin story within the story satiates one’s interest in the Pooh tales; most details are dramatized here.

As Mrs. Milne, Robbie’s a bit overly dramatic or possibly miscast. Daphne Milne’s looks don’t age as persuasively as her husband’s (Domhnall Gleeson, Ex Machina, Star Wars, Brooklyn). As Milne, Gleeson is superb, catching the writer’s irritability, the soldier’s torment, the husband’s lament and the father’s pride. The script does not allow him to show the writer writing, which would have tethered Goodbye Christopher Robin to the tales in a way that director Simon Curtis (Woman in Gold) apparently and understandably wants to avoid.

The result leaves loose ends. Daphne, for example, tenderly helps her future husband to heal when she guides him in how to lead and again later when she instructs him not to plead. Yet their bond never quite seals.

The books’ illustrator, one of the more compelling characters, trails off and disappears. The main two actors who portray the boy at differing ages, Alex Lawther and Will Tilston, are excellent, however, the screenplay does not fully account for the abrupt change in character which merely marks the boy’s progression. His emergence should be the film’s pivot point. Goodbye Christopher Robin contains insights about being the child of a creator — especially about being born to a talented creator whose creation becomes a commercial success — fathering, mothering and nurturing and, in the end, it suggests that parenting as an ideal simply and strictly means preparing the child to live, which is harder than it sounds, particularly for the walking wounded of the Great War.

As a war veteran-writer-father’s fable of how Milne made the most of his moments with his son, fencing and playing cricket in the forest, for the wonderful, childlike stories of Winnie the Pooh, Goodbye Christopher Robin leaves something unfulfilled. But there are also not many movies about sons of men who went to war and lived to write delightfully life-affirming tales. This movie’s lacking, but it hits sweet spots along the trail. It might be considered a must by fans of the books.

Movie Review: Marshall (2017)

Depicting Thurgood Marshall as brash, fast-talking and arrogant, with a chip on his shoulder, some might even use the word “uppity”, especially in 1941 when the movie Marshall takes place, fall’s new biographical picture features Chadwick Boseman (Get On Up, 42, Black Panther in the Marvel Comics film series, such as Captain America: Civil War) in another fine turn as a man of ability.

Steeped in grainy, period detail with Ruth Carter’s costumes, a kind of reverence for black subculture and U.S. history and a mocking reference to “old Negro superstition”, TV director Reginald Hudlin does a skillful job, too, recreating a single, early marker in the life of the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. Marhsall was a lone lawyer for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), a historically enslaved and persecuted group of Americans that needed a legal defense different from whites because they were treated as lesser than whites.

Enter Marshall, who’s riding rails to defend presumably innocent blacks when he’s not stirring up trouble with Harlem renaissance figures such as poet and Communist sympathizer Langston Hughes (Jussie Smollett, Empire), who may have been gay, and freethinking Republican Zora Neale Hurston (Rozonda ‘Chilli” Thomas), author of Their Eyes Were Watching God. With a beautiful, pregnant young wife who wants him home more often, Marshall feels the push and pressure of being a pioneer while trying to cash in on the change he seeks to enact.

As fictionalized here, and it is dramatized with liberties taken, including certain, key facts and that Boseman looks nothing like Marshall, Marshall teams up with white, Jewish lawyer Sam Friedman (Josh Gad, Frozen, A Dog’s Purpose) and defends an accused Negro rapist (Sterling K. Brown, This Is Us) against his wealthy, white employer (Kate Hudson, Raising Helen, Almost Famous). It’s a highly controversial case with several discrepancies, an all-white jury and strict judge (James Cromwell, The Artist) presiding and, curiously, how it plays out under Marshall’s guidance contradicts current left-wing “rape-culture” dogma (read an account of the real life case with spoilers here).

The cast is outstanding and, while Marshall is episodic to the tee which will disappoint those who, like me, may anticipate a wider perspective, this applies to everyone, even supporting actors and Hudson, whose acting I’ve criticized in the past. Brown (This Is Us, Darden in the recent O.J. Simpson murder trial TV series) is among the screen’s best actors bar none and Cromwell (Surrogates, The Queen, Spider-Man 3) is at his best. So, I hope first-time feature director Hudlin makes this the first of a trilogy or something — if I dare to imagine a movie franchise based on men of the mind — about Marshall (Marshall 2: Brown v. Board of Education?) and, personally, I’d love to see spinoffs about Hughes and especially the underappreciated Hurston, though they play bit parts here. As fine a director as he is in working with his actors and establishing the scenes, and the set and production design are really fabulous, Hudlin trips with little details.

For instance, the prosecutor (blue-eyed Dan Stevens, the beast in Disney’s recent remake of Beauty and the Beast) is the stereotypical bigoted white villain. Also, I didn’t figure out that Brown’s character worked for the woman until well into the courtroom drama and I wanted to know at least a bit about Brown’s relationship with his wife, which I think might have added another layer to Marshall‘s humanist theme. As it is, however, Marshall marshals its impressive resources, including good music, with dignity and respect, and a degree of subtlety, which racist, tribalist and race-baiting critics are likely to miss.

With frankness about the NAACP’s self-serving aims, license in favor of Marshall’s role at the expense of Friedman’s and twists you might not see coming, stylish, clever plot points gently unfurl. One of them, with two men ultimately, simply disconnecting, as happens in life, accentuates the separatism.

The meaning of the movie’s lightbulb moment, which skillfully cuts to what catapults Thurgood Marshall from ambitious young lawyer to long-range thinking champion for the oppressed, may be missed if you don’t think twice. But my favorite scene entails a whites-only drinking fountain and the matter of fact way in which the title character selfishly serves and suits himself, living in — to paraphrase Ayn Rand — the future he fights for today. As with Clint Eastwood‘s Mandela movie, Invictus, 2009’s best movie, Marshall depicts Marshall in only his best and most heroic sense and it’s up to historians to sort fact from fiction. Here, America’s first black Supreme Court justice is portrayed in his younger years as marvelously intransigent. Look for an elegant ending courtesy of three characters in cameos by Trayvon Martin’s parents and their thoughtful attorney.

Books: Ayn Rand’s ‘Atlas Shrugged’ at 60

My relationship with Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand began years ago. As most reading this may know, the fictional story of man’s mind on strike is Rand’s magnum opus. I read the mysterious tale, which struck me as both knowing and searching, one summer in Chicago. I recall thinking that it was at once epic, cautionary and glorious. When I finally finished, I felt exalted. I’ve read Atlas Shrugged, which was published 60 years ago today, several times since.

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But that first time was indelible. I was confused, serious and young, still forming my thoughts and views and, frankly, wanting more from life than sometimes seemed possible. I remember reading Atlas Shrugged — in my apartment, while riding on the El or Chicago & North Western railroad or on the rocks on Lake Michigan’s shore — and thinking that this story was suddenly, strikingly very important and relevant. I had lived long and hard enough to know that its characters, plots and theme were true, though I knew I had more to learn.

Reading Atlas Shrugged was part of my lesson plan. It turned out to be much better than that. This is a plug, not a review. Yet writing even this brings back the searing emotions I experienced while reading Atlas Shrugged as a young man. I was caught up in the thrills, suspense and drama of everything from finding the motor to losing the lights of New York City. I hung on every page and thought about every chapter. I recall being stopped by passengers on the train. I was often harassed or scolded but I was also met, on occasion, with an abrupt interruption by someone who’d say something short, direct and oddly personal. They’d usually spot me reading. Then, before disembarking, they’d simply tuck a briefcase, newspaper or package of cigarettes away while coming to face me and say: “Who is John Galt?” I’d look up. We’d almost always part in silence with a nod or a smile.

Yet there’s loneliness while reading this epic tale. I experienced it that summer in Chicago, again when I re-read it years later, and again and again, as the world closed in, resembling the dystopian America Rand conceived, re-created and dramatized with romantic realism, power and a passionate love for life. The story of the woman of ability who runs a railroad in a rotting civilization and who is the ideal man breeds a sense of alienation, at least it did for me, while at the same time yielding a sense of clarity and peace. I am enlightened, soothed and uplifted when I read Atlas Shrugged. I am horrified, too, of course, and the libertarian movie trilogy narrowly and unfortunately focussed on that, but, mostly, I am exalted. Though it is fiction, this is the world in which I live. It is richer and more vibrant than the horror of a civilization coming to a grinding, screeching stop.

In Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand teases, sketches and distinguishes with literary brilliance what makes the world go. She does this eerily, compellingly and with grace, depth and grandeur. That I’ve found it takes a lifetime — at least it does for me — to contemplate, reflect and integrate the wisdom to be gained from its themes is less discouraging now than it was when Atlas Shrugged was in its 20s. I celebrated in Boston when Rand’s last published novel turned 35, ten years after its author had died, and again in Colorado when it turned 50. And again at the first Objectivist Conference (OCON) in Chicago and this summer at the world’s first OCON in Pittsburgh. I think of it when the lights go out, trains derail and Washington directives come down. I think of it when the manmade glows, rockets soar and the individual rises above the collective and for his own sake.

I think of Atlas Shrugged, too, when the best men fall, hide or stumble. The world is still confusing, though I am less confused, perhaps even more than when I read it when I was young. There is still so much about life that stings, saddens and looms, and, 60 years after it shocked the West and was denounced by the dominant thinkers, Atlas Shrugged is here to read, enjoy, think about, ponder and inspire.

In my general adult writing course, I recently read “All Summer in a Day” by Ray Bradbury and a draft of a short-short story I wrote called “Escape from Indigena”. Each student reads or listens and formulates what he thinks is the writer’s theme. This immersion in the writing process, which I call Writing Boot Camp, is a kind of mental fitness training for living in a world that still sometimes feels like it’s about to “blank out”, expire or has just plain gone bad. Atlas Shrugged is foremost a novel about what being alive means. It is poetic, serious and profound. I first read it because I passionately wanted to live. I write this because I still do. So, this is my 60th anniversary plug for Atlas Shrugged, which is to say — if you want to read a great and powerful American novel, especially if you, too, sense that something’s horribly wrong with the world and you want to know why so you can live and enjoy your life to the fullest, do something wonderful for yourself: read Atlas Shrugged.

Movie Review: Blade Runner 2049

Denis Villenueve directs Jared Leto, Ryan Gosling and Harrison Ford in a refined sequel to 1982’s Blade Runner with this fall’s simple and stylized Blade Runner 2049. The original movie, directed by Ridley Scott, who gets executive producer credit here, was more of a mood than a compelling motion picture as far as I’m concerned.

This time, Villenueve matches the moody, noirish dystopian cinema style to the story — also based on a novel by science fiction writer Philip K. Dick with co-screenwriters — and comes up with a more coherent and linear movie than any version of the predecessor. As with Villenueve’s other pictures, such as Sicario, Incendies, Prisoners and last year’s Arrival, you don’t want to think too much about what’s happening on screen. What you see is often enthralling, as with his other movies, but there’s a limit to what the pictures convey.

For instance, when a police boss (Robin Wright, Moneyball, A Most Wanted Man, Wonder Woman) throws a barb at her policeman K (Gosling), an android/replicant and ‘blade runner’ assigned to hunt down older model androids, essentially telling the expressionless young cop that he has no soul, you might be inclined to wonder what she has to gain by the jab. After all, if he’s got no soul, why bother to deliver the dig? If he does, on the other hand, insulting him might deplete his motivation.

But with terms such as pre-blackout, pre-Prohibition, slavery, “Soviet happy” and other little seeds planted throughout this long and visually arresting film, Blade Runner 2049 offers the constant promise of resolution. There must be a point to the action, lines and clues, right?

Nicely, and not too exhaustively, there is, with an almost archival deliberation of details, points and themes that show respect for Ridley Scott’s film without alienating the modern audience. I couldn’t tell you much about the original, except that I think the late Joanna Cassidy is terrific in it, but even I recognized Edward James Olmos when he shows up in the new movie. Villenueve balances Blade Runner‘s essentials without being confined.

One of his themes, however thinly rendered, is that one ought to be free “to be [left] alone” and, in this sense, the movie’s deserving of praise. The first act sets the future earth’s dystopian tone as K sets out to do his job, or, in a good line which taps the best and worst of how one should regard today’s cops: “Do your fuckin’ job!” Villenueve injects an urgency with slow-burn suspense amid the tone-setting and character-building. Besides Leto’s blind, villainous “industrialist”, though monopolist is probably a better term, a character in bangs and a ponytail who serves the sinister blind man (Sylvia Hoeks, evoking Genevieve Bujold and stealing every scene) makes a penetrating impression.

It’s in the second act that striking symbols, images and thematic nuances come into play, eerily playing on ghoulish news headlines with numbers, fires and ashes suggesting a holocaust. Add to this disturbing sense angry mobs, hiding places, implants, what might become a Trojan horse and, tossed in with product plugs for Peugeot and Sony, an explosive twist on getting a manicure. Villenueve alternates the action with quiet, slow plot progression, too, allowing a few scenes with a memorable memory maker to take root. All this and his usual attention to detail, from chipped paint and K’s clammy skin when he’s merging fantasy and reality with two women to the Salvador Dali-influenced surrealism in red with high heels suggesting Pierre Boulle’s absurdism ala 1968’s Planet of the Apes.

The third and final act begins with an inviting homage to better days, styled to a crisp Vegas casino piano bar neo-classicism, complete with flashes of Liberace, Marilyn, Sinatra and Elvis in moving pictures. This almost made me want to live in this film’s 2049. With an adorable old dog, it’s a wistful remembrance.

If it sounds terribly abstract, it’s because Blade Runner 2049 is, like Villenueve’s previous movies, too ponderous, deftly implanting seeds while crowding them so they don’t fully take root and bloom. I think this is a fundamental fault with the series premise, however, which revolves around a question, not an answer: what makes a man? Still, entire characters could have been cut to accentuate the idea.

That said, it’s stunning. Hangdog Ryan Gosling (The Notebook, La La Land, Lars and the Real Girl) is the stranger in this strange new land. Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club, Suicide Squad) and his accomplices dangle the prospect or threat of going “off-world”. The irascible, perpetually brow-furrowed Harrison Ford (Star Wars: The Force Awakens, 42, Cowboys & Aliens) reprises his original role (and is as bland an actor as ever). With waves, snowflakes and stairsteps symbolizing the constant war and peace of being human on earth — seeded with optimism — Blade Runner 2049 is something to see and ponder, if not to think too deeply about.

Tom Petty, 1950-2017

With Blondie, David Bowie, the Pretenders, Pat Benatar, the Cars and various other American and British punk and New Wave recording artists, Tom Petty, who died last night in Santa Monica, revived rock and roll in the late 1970s with fresh, original and elementary songwriting and tunes.

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The 66-year-old Southern Californian, who was born and raised in Florida, dropped out of high school and met Elvis Presley on the Ocala, Florida, set of Follow That Dream, which inspired him to pursue a career in music. Petty, who’d been physically abused by his father, later said he’d decided to commit to becoming a rock and roll musician after watching the Beatles perform on live television. The early trajectory goes to why he’s being widely praised and mourned by music fans. I think part of what distinguishes Petty is that his songs and sensibility represent middle class American values. He brought both urgency and simplicity to rock’s essential roots. He did so with distinction.

I discovered Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers with his breakthrough, bestselling 1979 album Damn the Torpedoes (pictured) with its powerful songs bursting with sharp guitar riffs and biting, straightforward lyrics expressed in Petty’s bluesy, emphatic vocals in “Refugee,” “Don’t Do Me Like That,” “Here Comes My Girl,” and “Even the Losers”. As the years and decades passed, from his cool, distant “You Got Lucky” and “The Waiting” to “Free Fallin’” and the Dave Stewart-tinged “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” which Petty sings with the deep, slow and dead-on anger of someone who’s seeing things clearly for the first time, arcing up at the end for a fine, guitar-raging finish, and the simple yet insightful song he wrote with Electric Light Orchestra’s Jeff Lynne, “Learning to Fly”, a Tom Petty single always expressed a mood, sense or thought with melody, structure and clarity. Even his duet with Fleetwood Mac’s Stevie Nicks for her bestselling solo album Bella Donna, “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around,” is distinctive in its first few notes. Whether on his own solo album, Wildflowers, or in his brief collaboration with Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne in their band the Traveling Wilburys, Tom Petty made his mark.

As far as I know, Petty stayed focused on making music in his own way and he never strayed, holding to the unpretentious, childlike spirit of trading his slingshot for a box of 45s, many of them Elvis Presley songs, when he was a kid. In his recent book Petty: The Biography, Warren Zanes reportedly wrote that “Elvis became a symbol of a place Tom Petty wanted to go. In time, the Beatles would be the map to get there.” Self-made Petty met, performed with and honored some of his own heroes, remaining active, touring and playing music he made, leaving behind a catalog of songs about life. I am one beneficiary of his having gone full speed ahead.