Tag Archives: Toby Jones

Cat Fancy

The Electrical Life of Louis Wain

by Hope Madden

Did you know that there was a time, at least in England, when cats were not a popular house pet? And it wasn’t really that long ago. How weird is that?

Not weird enough to stand out in the highly unusual and very endearing film The Electrical Life of Louis Wain.

The ever-reliable Benedict Cumberbatch plays Wain, artist whose drawings of adorably anthropomorphized cats took Victorian England, and then the world, by storm. Will Sharpe’s biopic looks to introduce us to the eccentric, charming, and ultimately tragic world of this friend of the feline.

Sharpe’s film is a swirl of color and energy led onward by the droll musings of narrator Olivia Colman, who gets all the best lines. (“Aside from its bizarre social prejudices and the fact that everything stank of shit, Victorian England was also a land of innovation and scientific discovery.”)

As Wain’s life unravels before us, wonderful actors populate the screen: Toby Jones as the publisher who sees great, if unusual, things in Wain; Claire Foy as the governess-turned-wife whose love would bring Wain joy and scandal; Andrea Riseborough, as the eldest sister far better suited to the world of business and awfully frustrated with her unsuitable brother.

At the center of everything is Cumberbatch, more than up to the challenge of creating a lovable outsider, a man so full of something wonderful and so destined to be eaten alive.

Sharpe has trouble with that balance, even if Cumberbatch does not. While Wain’s talent brought joy to many across the world, his gullible nature, wild lack of business savvy and likely mental illness made him an easy mark in a callous world. Sharpe, who co-wrote the script with Simon Stephenson, has a difficult time conveying the madness that would be Wain’s undoing.

He keeps us at arm’s length from Wain, even as Cumberbatch repeatedly invites in. The actor and performance are wonderful, outdone only by an underused Riseborough as the one character even more shackled by the realities of the world.

But Sharpe’s vision is not sharp enough, and he ties up Wain’s frantic and messy life with far too much tidiness, a cinematic shortcut that doesn’t suit the film or the subject. Too much effort goes into wrestling Wain’s madness into a coherent, cinema-friendly plotline and it feels like the artist is being cheated once again.

Sweeter Than Hunny

Christopher Robin

by George Wolf

Pooh! Who doesn’t love him?

Winnie T. Pooh and the gang from the Hundred Acre Wood have endured for decades, and now the second Pooh film is less than twelve months brings all the furry friends to live-action life.

Last year’s Goodbye, Christopher Robin was a bittersweet and uneven origin story, focusing on the inspirations for A.A. Milne’s Pooh tales.

Christopher Robin drops both the goodbye and the bitter in becoming a grown-up fantasyland with an easily digestible, greeting card-ready sentimentality.

Mr. Robin (Ewan McGregor, charming as always) has put the Hundred Acre Wood long behind him, with a wife (Hayley Atwell), a young daughter (Bronte Carmichael – great name!) and a working-class job as an efficiency expert at a London luggage company.

He’s lost sight of the joy in life, and when a crisis at work means Christopher will miss another weekend family getaway, fate intervenes with a much-needed Pooh crew reunion.

The CGI effects that bring the animals to life are wonderful, the voice work  (including Brad Garrett, Toby Jones, Sophie Okonedo, Dr. Who‘s Peter Capaldi and voice acting veteran Jim Cummings) is spot on, the humor warm and the message fuzzy.

What’s missing is depth. There’s no real attempt to find any, and that’s a bit surprising with the filmmaking talent involved.

The director is Marc Forster, and the writing team includes Tom McCarthy and Alex Ross Perry. Between them, those three have some serious depth on their resumes, including Spotlight, Up, Listen Up Phillip, Queen of Earth, Monster’s Ball, Stranger Than Fiction, The Kite Runner and more.

The result is similar to David Lowery’s live-action take on Pete’s Dragon two years ago, where a filmmaker skilled at nuance within serious themes took on a children’s classic and struggled with when to stop simplifying.

Christopher Robin is sweeter than the “hunny” jars Pooh dives into, but nearly as empty as he leaves them. In trying to showcase the need for simple wonders, the film settles awkwardly between a child’s fable and wistful remembrances from grandparents.

There’s plenty to like, but little to love.

 





Bring a Shovel

The Snowman

by Hope Madden

The Snowman, a Norway-set serial killer thriller, runs like a 3-hour flick that someone gutted for time without regard to sensibility, leaving a disemboweled and incoherent pile in the snow for audiences to puzzle over.

Not what I had expected.

I love director Tomas Alfredson. Well, I love his 2008 gem Let the Right One In and so, by extension, I love him. His writing team, adapting Jo Nesbø’s novel, includes the scribes behind such bits of brilliance as Drive (Hossein Amini) and Frank (Peter Straughan), and Michael Fassbender is the lead. Rock solid, that’s what that is.

And yet, The Snowman went horribly, embarrassingly, head-scratchingly wrong.

Fassbender plays Detective Harry Hole. (I swear to God, that’s his name.) He’s a blackout drunk in need of a case to straighten him out. He finds it in one misogynistic mess of a serial killer plot.

All he and his new partner Katrine (Rebecca Ferguson) know is that the killer leaves snowmen at the crime scene and has complicated issues with women. What follows is convoluted, needlessly complicated with erratic and unexplained behavior, ludicrous red herrings and a completely unexplained plot point about prescription pills.

The Snowman is not the first in Nesbø’s Harry Hole series, so a lot of “catch us up on this guy” exposition gets wedged in. From there, the writing team took a buzzsaw to Nesbø’s prose, leaving none of the connective tissue necessary to pull the many, varied and needlessly lurid details together into a sensible mystery plot.

It all leads ploddingly, frustratingly to an unearned climax heavy with needless flashbacks and convenient turns.

Everybody smokes, so it almost works as a cigarette ad, but as an actual story? No.

Fassbender, an inarguable talent, offers little to a clichéd character whose tics are predetermined—a shame because this is an actor who can dig deep when it comes to character tics. Ferguson and Charlotte Gainsbourg, as Hole’s ex, fare even worse. And an entire slew of heavy hitters gets wasted completely, including J.K. Simmons, Toby Jones and a weirdly dubbed Val Kilmer.

Alfredson films snowcapped carnage with a grotesque beauty few directors can touch, but that’s hardly reason enough to sit through this muddled mess.





Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blonde in Me

Atomic Blonde

by Hope Madden

Charlize Theron is a convincing badass. (You saw Fury Road, right?) She cuts an imposing figure and gives (and takes) a beating with panache.

Director David Leitch understands action, having cut his teeth as a stunt double before moving on to choreographing and coordinating action for the last decade. With the help of a wicked soundtrack and about a million costume changes, he also makes 1989 seem cool – which is a real feat.

Together, Theron and Leitch take on Antony Johnston and Sam Hart’s graphic novel The Coldest City, under the far more rockin’ title Atomic Blonde.

It’s Berlin in ’89. The wall’s about to come down, the Cold War’s coming to an end, but there’s this pesky double agent issue to contend with, and a list of coverts that has fallen into the wrong hands. MI6 sends in one lethal operative, Lorraine Broughton (Theron), to check in with their embedded agent Percival (James McAvoy) and work things out.

What to expect: intrigue, Bowie songs, boots – so many boots! – and a great deal of Charlize Theron beating up on people. Mayhem of the coolest sort.

From the opening car crash through half a dozen other expertly choreographed set pieces to the action pièce de résistance, Theron and Leitch make magic happen. Each sequence outshines the one before, leading up to a lengthy, multi-villain escapade shot as if in one extremely lengthy take. (It isn’t, but the look is convincing and the execution thrilling.)

Theron delivers. Reliable as ever, McAvoy is once again that guy you don’t know whether to love or hate – probably because he always looks like he’s smiling and crying simultaneously. He makes for a wild and dicey counterpoint to Theron’s sleek, ultra cool presence.

Precise and percussive, the action propels this film. Leitch’s cadence outside these sequences sometimes stalls, and not every casting choice works out.

Sofia Boutella, saddled with an underdeveloped character who makes idiotic choices, suffers badly in the role. Other supporting characters, though – including the always welcome Toby Jones and John Goodman – take better advantage of their limited time onscreen.

The storyline itself is equal parts convoluted and obvious, with far too many conveniences to hold up as a real spy thriller. But unplug, soak up that Berlin vibe and appreciate the action and you’ll do fine.

Verdict-3-0-Stars





To Infinity, Not Beyond

The Man Who Knew Infinity

by Hope Madden

If you think a movie about math can’t be thrilling, well, The Man Who Knew Infinity won’t prove you wrong.

Writer/director Matt Brown’s painfully earnest biopic of Indian mathematical genius Srinivasa Ramanujan (Dev Patel) seeks to tackle divine inspiration, institutional racism, culture clash, colonialism, and mathematical proof against the backdrop of WWI Britain. Unfortunately, the film feels far more hemmed in by cinematic tradition than inspired by historical events.

Brown’s approach is certainly by-the-numbers, and a stifling respect for the subject hamstrings the effort. Ramanujan is never more than an utterly wholesome, godlike presence. A lead turn by Patel does nothing to burst through the clichés. As has been the case in each of his films, Patel’s performance is broadly drawn and lacking depth.

He isn’t given much to work with, truth be told. Brown’s screenplay offers little more than saintly suffering. Look how nobly he endures taunts, cultural misunderstandings, loneliness, illness!

The scenes at home in India are even more appallingly respectful, everything quaintly simple and yet admirable. It’s as if Brown distrusts the audience with any complexity or information on Ramanujan they might deem offensive. (Like, for instance, that his wife was a 10-year-old when they married.)

As Ramanujan’s Cambridge mentor G.H. Hardy, Jeremy Irons, of course, shines. A veteran of the melancholy Englishman role, Irons inhabits this academic with emotional rigor mortis, occasionally lapsing into the most charming flashes of vulnerability and ardor. The subtlety and sly tenderness of his performance suggests a longing that nearly revives the film from its terminal anemia.

A handful of supporting turns – Toby Jones, Jeremy Northam – almost add layers, but Brown’s screenplay relies so heavily on the rote of Traditional British Cinema that the film never gets the chance to breathe.

I’m willing to bet that Srinivasa Ramanujan was a flawed and fascinating person – geniuses so often are. Too bad Brown is content to see him as a romantic mystery.

Verdict-2-0-Stars