Movie Reviews: 'Christopher Robin' a curious tale about staying young at heart
Published Friday, August 3, 2018 6:00AM EDT
CHRISTOPHER ROBIN: 3 ½ STARS
“Don’t go getting all grown up on us.“ That’s the sentiment that hangs over “Christopher Robin,” a new film about regaining an intangible starring Ewan McGregor and Winnie the Pooh (voice of Jim Cummings), like a shroud.
The movie begins with 10-year-old Christopher Robin‘s going away party, just before he leaves for boarding school. His playmates, Piglet (voice of Nick Mohammed), Eeyore (Brad Garrett), Tigger (Cummings again), Owl (Toby Jones), Rabbit (Peter Capaldi), Kanga (Sophie Okonedo) and the honey-loving bear have gathered to see him off from 100 Acre Woods, their home and Christopher’s escape from real life.
“I will never forget you Pooh,“ Christopher says, “even if I live to be 100 years old.“
But of course he does.
Like the quickly flipped pages of a story park the film rockets through Christopher’s boarding school, marriage, efforts in Second World War and his difficulties after the war. Now a husband to Evelyn (Hayley Atwell) and a father to Madeline (Bronte Carmichael), he has a job he doesn’t like and responsibilities that keep him away from his family.
Christopher Robin got all grown up.
When his boss instructs him to cut 20 per cent of his operating budget Christopher is pushed against the wall. The frivolities of youth are pushed even further to the background until Pooh, looking for his friends and in search of honey, shows up in London with the grumbling tummy and some sage words of advice.
“I’ve cracked,” says Christopher when his childhood friend shows up. “I’ve totally cracked. “I don’t see any cracks,” replies Pooh sweetly, “some wrinkles maybe.”
A mix of live action and CGI characters, “Christopher Robin” doesn’t allow the special effects to get in the way of the film’s message of staying young at heart. The stuffed animals—Winnie and friends—don’t feel like and excuse to sell toys. Instead they are given distinct and engaging personalities that move the story and the message forward.
Cummings, who has voiced Winnie since 1988, brings real personality to the character, imbuing his elliptical speaking patterns with equal parts humour and melancholy. Pooh also causes some Paddington-style chaos in the Robin household, adding to the slapstick factor in a movie that toggles between heartfelt and farce.
There is an undeniable sense of loss and longing in “Christopher Robin.” Loss, in the form of a childhood innocence gone missing—“I’m lost,” says Pooh, “but I found you.”—longing in the efforts made to regain the connection to childlike wonder and, in Robin’s case, his own daughter Madeline. Children might not get it, although I’m sure they will enjoy the stuffed characters, but adults will understand the curious tale about the importance of old friends and embracing the inner child.
THE SPY WHO DUMPED ME: 1 ½ STARS
“The Spy Who Dumped Me” is the most multi-hyphenated movie to hit screens this year. It’s a spy-thriller-rom-com-buddy-flick-dark-comedy, that’s a lot of hyphens and genres. Too many, in fact.
Kate McKinnon plays Morgan Freeman (you read that right), BFF to Audrey (Mila Kunis), a cashier still stinging from being dumped by her boyfriend Drew (Justin Theroux). They both thought he worked for NPR as a jazz and political podcaster. Turns out, he’s a secret agent for the CIA. Despite dumping her on her birthday, and by text no less, he reaches out to ask her to deliver a flash drive containing the "back door to the entire internet" to Vienna.
With some coaxing from Morgan—“Do you want to die never having been to Europe or do you want to die on a European trip?”—Audrey agrees and the best friends head for Europe. On their tails are squabbling MI6 spies Sebastian (Sam Heughan) and Duffer (Hasan Minhaj) the “bad people” who have been tracking Drew. “Some bad people are after me and now they are after you,” says Drew.
It seems Audrey‘s video game playing experience has trained her for life in the field. On the mission the two newbie spies Jason Bourne their way through Europe, stamping their stolen passports in Prague, Paris, Berlin while fending off ice cold Eastern European assassin Nadedja (Ivanna Sakhno). Several car chases, one death by fondue and hundreds of bullets later they uncover the truth of their assignment.
“The Spy Who Dumped Me” gets lost amid all its duelling genres. It’s not dark enough to be a dark comedy, not funny enough to be a full on comedy, not romantic enough to be a rom com and certainly not thrilling enough to give 007 a run for its money. Instead it’s a Frankensteined version of all the genres sewn together sitcom style.
McKinnon gives it her all as the well-intentioned BFF who starts as much trouble as she stops, spicing up all her scenes with the deadpan Kunis. McKinnon‘s characters are comedic things of beauty, human but other worldly, strange but relatable, but here it feels as if the big screen amplifies her already larger-than-life character. It’s as if she is acting in a different movie than Kunis and the others. She’s the movie’s MVP but her take on Morgan distracts rather than adds. As Drew tells her when they first meet, “Morgan, has anyone ever told you told you you’re a bit much?”
Despite McKinnon’s best efforts “The Spy Who Dumped Me,” at almost two hours, is overlong and overstuffed.
SCOTTY AND THE SECRET HISTORY OF HOLLYWOOD: 3 ½ STARS
“It’s hard to believe, unless you were there, how much fun that gas station was,” says Scotty Bowers, the subject of a new documentary “Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood.” The gas station in question, Richfield at 5777 Hollywood Boulevard, was the unassuming hub of closeted gay celebrity culture in in 1940s and 50s Los Angeles.
Bowers, now aged 95, settled in Los Angeles after serving as a Marine in the Second World War. To make ends meet he pumped gas at Richfield. His life changed the day Oscar nominee Walter Pidgeon came in for fuel and went home with Scotty. Scotty left Pidgeon’s house with a pocket full of cash and a new career as an escort, and later, a facilitator who ran a stable of studs who charged twenty dollars a date.
Bowers wrote a book about this era called “Full Service,” but it is the subtitle, “My Adventures in Hollywood and the Secret Sex Lives of the Stars,” that sum up his wild years.
He names names, everyone from J. Edgar Hoover and Cole Porter, to the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, get a mention but the film isn’t simply a tell all, or gossipy document of the sexual appetite of Hollywood stars. Although there is some of that—comedian and game show staple Paul Lynde is described as “the drunk,” while “The Philadelphia Story” director George Cukor is called “the salivator”—it focuses on the why not the how.
It’s the story of a man who helped famous gay people, who could go to jail or lose their careers because of their sexuality, “to have lives that were honest and authentic.” Bowers provided a very real service to people who otherwise were restricted by the studio’s moral code and backwards laws.
He’s a compelling character. In his nineties, he still bartends for his rich friends, tends to several homes—which now act mostly as repositories for his hoarded collections of memorabilia—and stays active.
Director Matt Tyrnauer places Bowers’s story against the backdrop of repressed sexuality, painting a vivid picture of the social morays of the day.
Take for example, the case of two of the era’s biggest stars, Spencer Tracey and Katharine Hepburn. Tracey was married but it was public knowledge his frequent co-star Hepburn lived in a guesthouse on his property. Fans assumed they were an item but Bowers claims otherwise. Friends yes, but according to the Hollywood escort—don’t call him a pimp, he says, he never took money for the “dates” he arranged for others—they were both gay.
Bowers says he spent many nights with Tracey and arranged 150 liaisons with women for Hepburn. The larger point Tyrnauer makes is that it was more acceptable to the general public that Tracey and Hepburn could appear to be in an adulterous relationship than it was to be gay or lesbian.
The movie doesn’t dive as deep into Bowers himself. He’s a renegade, an iconoclast but not a particularly introspective one. A great storyteller, yes, but not an inward looking one.
A brief exchange about his wartime experience suggests deeper wounds than he is willing or able to admit. Later the story of continuing on to a date after the news of his daughter’s death isn’t chalked up to subversion of grief but to his work ethic. Even childhood sexual abuse is written off as having no influence on his later life as a hustler.
“The only way they ruin your life is if they run you over with a bus on the street,” he says. “Even as a little bitty kid I never saw anything wrong with anything. I went along with everything and never told anyone.”
In the film he comes off as compelling but not complex, particularly by comparison to the larger issues that surround his story.
Despite Bowers’s lack of self-examination “Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood” is an engaging and likeable film, much like the man himself and as he says in the film, “There’s nothing wrong with that baby.”
MCQUEEN: 4 STARS
Designer Lee Alexander McQueen killed himself at the height of his fame and on the eve of his mother’s funeral. An iconoclast, his art transcended commercial concerns but was embraced by the fashion elite. His clothes were, as one talking head says, “about sabotage and tradition.” The documentary “McQueen,” from directors Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui, attempts to explain the contradictions that made the man, his short life and clothes, a legend.
McQueen, or Lee as friends called him, makes for a compelling central character. The son of a London cabbie and an encouraging mother, his was a talent so exciting that when he started out people paid to work with him.
The film is jam packed with tidbits like that; testaments to his adrenaline fuelled bursts of creativity and fond memories from friends—“He laughed all the time and was funny and disrespectful.”—but the filmmakers instinctively know the best approach to their subject is through the clothes.
“I would go to the far reaches of my dark side and pull these horrors out of myself and put them on the catwalk,” he says.
His dark side included childhood abuse and later, alcohol and drug problems. Excessive workload—he designed fourteen collections a year—and grief at the loss of his mother and mentor Isabella Blow exacerbated his depression. “I’m angry at the world,” he says.
The film’s final chapter details his last, successful but unhappy years. “I think there is more to life than fashion,” he says, “and I don’t want to be stuck in that bubble of ‘This is what I do.’ You see everyone else in the office and they can go home. I can’t. I’m still Alexander McQueen. I can’t shut the door.”
Ultimately “McQueen” makes it clear he was unable to ever close that door, to find a place where life and work could co-exist. The film is a portrait of genius and while the biographical details are interesting, it’s the singular vision of his clothes that lingers. “If you want to know me,” he says, “look at the work.”