This biopic about Winnie the Pooh author A.A. Milne may look like the usual lushly produced British period movie, but it's far more original than expected. Avoiding pushy sentimentality, the filmmakers go for something that's surprisingly grim, and the messiness of the people and situations makes it feel almost unnervingly real. It may be set in frightfully posh society, where cut-glass accents waft through sun-dappled woodlands, but there are gritty issues swirling through every scene.
It opens in 1941, as Alan and Daphne (Domhnall Gleeson and Margot Robbie) receive word about their son Christopher Robin, who is off fighting in the war. This triggers a flurry of flashbacks for Alan, who is still suffering from trauma after his own service in World War I. He returned from the front determined to stop writing frothy comedies for the stage and screen, and sets out to be more politically aware. After his wife gives birth to Christopher Robin, whom they call Billy, they move to the Sussex countryside. Billy is mainly raised by his nanny Olive (Kelly Macdonald), but as a young boy (Will Tilston) he also spends time with his father in the woods, making up stories about his collection of stuffed animals. These would become the Winnie the Pooh books, and they change the family's life as the public clamours to know the "real" Christopher Robin. So as Billy grows up (now Alex Lawther), he's determined to be his own man.
Director Simon Curtis (My Week With Marilyn) cleverly weaves the flashbacks to create a vivid sense of Alan's mindset. This of course triggers big emotions, but the filmmaker never wallows in them. Gleeson is superb in the role as a sensitive, creative man with a gentle twinkle in his eye and some very dark shadows deeper inside. In his privileged world, he's not allowed to show emotion, but the actor lets us see inside. Robbie has an even trickier role as the matter-of-fact Daphne, a good-time girl who rejects anything serious ("No blubbing!") but is clearly feeling everything very strongly.
Continue reading: Goodbye Christopher Robin Review
Nearly 25 years after the sitcom debuted, Edina and Patsy arrive on the big screen to continue their drunken antics, although without the usual enthusiastic laugh-track everything feels eerily muted. Thankfully, there's still a lot of fun to be had, including well-aimed jabs at celebrity culture. Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley are still hilarious in their signature roles. And it's hard to get too worried about the limp plot when every scene is packed with amusing cameo appearances.
With her PR agency fading and her money spent on expanding her home, Edina (Saunders) discovers that her credit cards are "broken" and her champagne fridge is empty. So she and her pal Patsy (Lumley) set out to make some cash. After failing to sell her memoirs, Edina sets out to woo Kate Moss as a client. But this goes spectacularly wrong when Kate ends up falling off a balcony into the Thames. Now under investigation, Eddie and Pats flee to the South of France to find Patsy's wealthy ex (Barry Humphreys). They're chased by a detective (Robert Webb), who's the boyfriend of Edina's daughter Saffron (Julia Sawalha), whose teen daughter (Indeharna Donaldson-Holness) has run off with them.
Written by Saunders, the script is very loose, bouncing around without much focus before a series of impatient, nonsensical conclusions. Basically, it's little more than a flimsy framework that includes brief scenes for series regulars (including Jane Horrock's airhead assistant, June Whitfield's dotty mum, Celia Imrie's rival PR and Kathy Burke's bulldog editor), plus a few new characters like Chris Colfer's stylist. All of these people have their moments, but never quite emerge as much more than comedy sketch figures. On the other hand, the big-screen format allows Saunders and Lumley to give Edina and Patsy a bit of surprising emotional depth amid the usual slapstick nuttiness.
Continue reading: Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie Review
The beloved 1970s British sit-com gets the big screen treatment, although there's been very little attempt to do anything clever with it aside from A-list casting. There are some terrific gags in Hamish McColl's script, but director Oliver Parker (Johnny English Reborn) fails to find the comical potential in the material. So the film feels clumsy and muted, which is certainly not going to attract a new generation of fans to the premise.
It's 1944 in the small village of Walmington on the southern English coast, where the men who were unfit to serve in the regular army have volunteered for the Home Guard when they're not working their normal jobs. The platoon's captain is bank manager Mainwaring (Toby Jones), who leads a ragtag group of retirees (Tom Courtenay, Michael Gambon and Bill Paterson) and younger army rejects (Daniel Mays and Blake Harrison) through a series of exercises along the seaside cliffs. They've been tipped off that there's a Nazi spy in the area, but they're all so smitten by the curvy visiting journalist Rose (Catherine Zeta-Jones) that they fail to notice that she's up to something nefarious.
The material is ripe for political-edged comedy, which the script touches on in between the relentless double entendre. And the cast is definitely up for it, delivering solid performances that bring out character details while playing up the goofy interaction between them. But Parker leaves them looking adrift on-screen, never cranking up either a sense of pace or a spark of life. Each set-piece falls utterly flat, starting with the movie's opening scene in which the gang is chased around afield by a supposedly angry bull. And everything that follows feels half-hearted, which means that the Carry On-style innuendo, physical slapstick and nutty action all fall flat.
Continue reading: Dad's Army Review
Maggie Smith couldn't be more perfect for the title role in this film if it were written for her. But the most astounding thing about this story is that it's true, an event from playwright-screenwriter Alan Bennett's own life. The film cleverly plays with the idea of a writer telling his own story. And it also gives Smith an unforgettable role in a movie that's both entertaining and sharply pointed.
It happened in 1970 Camden, as neighbours worried about a homeless woman parking her van in front of their houses. She turns out to be Mary Shepard (Smith), and resident Alan Bennett (Alex Jennings) offers to let her park her van in his driveway for a few months. She stayed there for 15 years, during which Alan refuses to pry into Mary's personal life and she turns a blind eye to the steady flow of young gentleman callers at his door. Even so, over the years Alan learns some details about Mary's past as a musician, ambulance driver and nun, and that she became homeless because she was on the run from the police.
Bennett takes a cheeky approach to the script, writing two versions of himself: one who lives his life and one who writes about it. The interaction between the two is cleverly played by Jennings and directed with offhanded hilarity by Hytner, who shot the movie in the actual street and house where the events took place. Jennings also adds some emotional interest in Alan's relationship with his mother (Gwen Taylor), who ironically has to move into a nursing home. Opposite him, Smith is as magnetic as ever, reeling off each pithy one-liner with impeccable timing. The role may not seem like much of a stretch, but she delivers it with a prickly mix of attitude and humour, plus a strong undercurrent of pathos.
Continue reading: The Lady In The Van Review
The plot feels like a Jane Austen novel infused with a hot-potato political issue, but this is actually a true story. It's been somewhat fictionalised, but the central facts are accurate, and while the production is perhaps a bit too polished for its own good, the solid acting and filmmaking make the story involving and provocative. And its themes feel just as relevant today.
In 1769 London, a young half-black girl named Dido Belle is taken by her soldier father (Matthew Goode) to live with his uncle, the Lord Chief Justice Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson). With his wife (Emily Watson) and sister (Penelope Winton), he is already caring for another niece, and the two girls grow up as inseparable friends. Hidden from society, Dido (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) inherits a small fortune from her father. And while Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon) is penniless, her white skin makes her a more suitable spouse. Then family friend Lady Ashford (Miranda Richardson) foists her son James (Tom Felten) on Elizabeth. To their horror, his brother Oliver (James Norton) falls for Dido. But she's more interested in an impoverished law student (Sam Reid).
Along with these rather standard period-movie romantic shenanigans, there's a major subplot about Lord Mansfield's imminent ruling in the first court case to take on the slave trade, which could destabilise the entire British Empire. And this is where the film jolts into something significant: the UK's top judge had an adopted mixed-race daughter who probably influenced the first landmark decision against slavery. Meanwhile, director Amma Asante also vividly portrays the gritty realities of this young black woman's precarious position in society.
Continue reading: Belle Review
While women in the audience may find resonance in the comical prickliness, this film remains more of a stage play than an actual movie. Indeed, playwright Hirons has adapted the script from her play When Women Wee, but it's such a broad farce that we never quite believe any of it on-screen. Although two of the actresses nicely underplay their characters for the cameras.
The story takes place almost entirely in the ladies' room at a British nightclub, where the disorganised Sam (Smith) is having a night out with her friends: shameless maneater Chanel (Winstone), trashy Saskia (Hoare) and the too-nice Paige (Steele). Then Sam runs into the posh Michelle (Nash) and her gorgeous French friend Jess (Chaplin), and decides to ditch her pals. But the club isn't big enough to avoid them for long, and things get increasingly messy for everyone as the night progresses. Meanwhile, the restroom attendant (Fiori) just laughs at their melodrama.
With Sam at the centre, every other woman is essentially a stereotype carefully written to convey some aspect of femininity. By contrast, the men are barely defined at all, so only two register, both of them unusually nice: Sam's ex (Warren) and a guy (Balfour) she chats to in the smoking area. But in this large ensemble, only Sheridan and Winstone manage to give their characters three dimensions, mainly because they create properly cinematic performances that rely on understated details rather than histrionics.
Continue reading: Powder Room Review
Gifted runner Shania (Crichlow) lives in a rough London estate, where she trains with a local shopkeeper (Davis). Despite her lack of support, she's one of the fastest athletes in Britain, and qualifies for the team in the run up to the World Championships. She's facing competition from her privileged rival Lisa (Lily James), whose father (Graves) heads up Team GB. Shania is happy running solo and, despite encouragement from coach (Clarke), isn't sure about becoming a team player and joining Lisa, Trix and Belle (Burroughs and Lynch) for the relay event.
Continue reading: Fast Girls Review
Disabled by polio at age 10, Ian Dury (Serkis) grew up with a fierce determination to be himself, and against the odds became an iconic leader of Britain's punk scene in the 1970s. But his unruly lifestyle takes a toll on his personal relationships, and he barely knows his son Baxter (Milner) from his first wife Betty (Williams). So Baxter comes to stay with him and his current girlfriend Denise (Harris), and both father and son need to figure out how to relate to each other. And to realise how much they need each other.
Continue reading: Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll Review
Twenty years from now people will look back and say, "Man, everyone was so weird in the nineties!" and frankly after seeing this movie, I'll agree.
Continue reading: Splendor Review
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