Goodbye Christopher Robin

Directed by Simon Curtis who is best known for 2011’s My Week with Marilyn, Goodbye Christopher Robin is a fascinating glimpse into the personal life of the creator of Winnie the Pooh and what inspired him to create such an iconic children’s character. Played by Domhnall Gleeson, A. A. Milne is a talented and well-respected writer who struggles with his next project after serving as a soldier during World War I and still suffering from post-traumatic stress. He decides it would be good for his mental health to move out of London and live in East Sussex in the English countryside with his beautiful wife Daphne, played by Margot Robbie, and his young son Christopher Robin who they nickname Billy Moon. Clearly experiencing horrific flashbacks and ridden with guilt and depression, he is largely an absent father and has a sometimes difficult married life. As a result, Christopher Robin is primarily raised by his loving nanny Olive, played by Kelly Macdonald best known for her role in HBO’s TV series Boardwalk Empire. Eventually, Milne becomes inspired during a long weekend alone with his son when he comes up with fantastical stories about Christopher Robin’s toys, particularly his teddy bear, while they play in the nearby woods. With the help of a friend and illustrator, he comes up with the character Winnie the Pooh, named after a bear from Winnipeg in the London Zoo and a swan named by his son as Pooh, and other characters that would be later first published as a children’s book in 1926 and a second book released in 1928. After such a catastrophic war, Winnie the Pooh becomes an inspirational distraction for the British public and helps heal the emotional wounds suffered. The international success of the character Winnie the Pooh and his fictional friend Christopher Robin does renew his literary career but at the expense of his family. His son Christopher Robin, who is the basis for the boy in the stories, essentially becomes a marketing tool and becomes too busy to experience a normal childhood because of his own fame. Milne realizes the mistakes he has made in exposing his son to such publicity at such a young age when the real Christopher Robin grows up and enlists in the military at the outbreak of World War II. Overall, I found it to be a well acted film that does a good job of providing insight into the creation of one of the most beloved children characters and its positive and negative effects on the author and his family. However, the movie at times felt conflicted about whether it should be a sentimental story about childhood or a dramatic story about the ills of war and celebrity. 

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Viceroy’s House

Directed by Gurinder Chadha who is best known for 2002’s Bend It Like Beckham, Viceroy’s House is a fascinating historical drama about the final days of British Imperial rule of India and gives a behind-the-scenes look at the predominantly Indian staff who work for the last British Viceroy of India at his palatial estate in Delhi. The well-respected Lord Mountbatten, played by Hugh Bonneville of Downton Abbey fame, along with his strong wife Edwina, played by Gillian Anderson of X-Files fame, arrive in India in 1947 as the British Empire begins the complicated  process of turning over power to an Indian government. They are portrayed as sympathetic to the plight of many Indians who are extremely divided between the majority Hindu population and the minority Muslim population. Lord Mountbatten first advocates a unified India in which both religions live together as one nation, but, ultimately, he discovers that the issues are much more contentious and that a possible two-state solution of India and Pakistan may be the only option to prevent further violence. The Hindu political leader Jawaharlal Nehru, as well as Mahatma Gandhi, personally petition Lord Mountbatten to push for a single nation while the Muslim political leader Muhammad Ali Jinnah urges the Viceroy to create Pakistan as a separate Muslim-majority country. To dramatize the very real tensions between Hindu and Muslim, the movie follows a new Hindu servant at the Viceroy’s House named Jeet who is in love with the Muslim servant Aalia who has been arranged to marry another Muslim. With violent riots erupting across India over whether to partition the post-colonial nation, Jeet fears for the safety of his family and particularly his love Aalia. As the day of independence approaches, the conflicted Lord Mountbatten announces India will be partitioned in hopes of easing tensions; he learns that it was always the British government’s plan to create the nation of Pakistan and has been secretly supported by his Chief of Staff Lord Ismay, played by the terrific Michael Gambon. Subsequently, like the rest of India, Lord Mountbatten’s staff are forced to claim their allegiance either to India or Pakistan and will have to move their families accordingly after British rule officially ends. Jeet and Aalia, along with their families, must also make this extremely difficult decision. Overall, I thought the filmmaker did an excellent job of providing the audience with a greater understanding of the challenges caused by the Partition of India and its massive human toll, including over 1 million deaths and almost 15 million people migrating between the two new countries. One issue I had with the movie is the romance between the two major Indian characters did not feel necessary to tell the story and was almost as if it was thrown in at the last minute just for dramatic effect. 

Victoria and Abdul

Directed by Academy Award-nominated British filmmaker Stephen Frears who is best known for 2006’s The Queen also about a famous British female monarch, Victoria and Abdul is the fascinating untold true story of Queen Victoria’s unlikely relationship with an Indian servant. Clearly, the film’s greatest strength is the magnificent acting performance from Dame Judi Dench, already well-regarded for her portrayal of Queen Victoria in 1997’s Mrs. Brown and her Oscar-winning role as Queen Elizabeth I in 1998’s Shakespeare in Love. Celebrating her golden jubilee commemorating 50 years on the throne in 1887, the Queen is sent two Indian servants as representatives of British-ruled India and begins a fond relationship with one of the men named Abdul Karim, played by Indian actor Ali Fazal. Eventually, he becomes a close confidant of the lonely Victoria who lost her husband Albert many years ago and invites Abdul to palace functions and is even taught his native Indian language. Abdul also is given a house on Royal property and is able to bring his Indian wife and mother-in-law to England. The film does an excellent job of realistically depicting what it must have been like at Queen Victoria’s residences, mostly because it was filmed at the real Osborne House on the Isle of Wight where much of the movie takes place. As Abdul becomes increasingly closer to Victoria, the Royal household and Victoria’s successor and son Prince Bertie, played by Eddie Izzard, continue to get fed up with her unorthodox friendship to a man that they believe is racially inferior and a simple-minded servant unworthy of her attention. Her real deep connection with Abdul forces her to fight back against her own family and royal duties and defends him until her death in 1901. Apparent by the story of Abdul not being uncovered until only recently, there was a actual animosity evidenced by Bertie ordering the destruction of all records pertaining to Abdul immediately after he takes the throne. Overall, I was particularly intrigued by the film’s plot and especially struck by Judi Dench’s terrific performance; however, it was too full of cliches to transcend the genre and was much more of a sad story than the promotional materials lead the viewer to believe.

Dunkirk

Written and directed by the acclaimed Christopher Nolan who is best known for 2008’s The Dark Knight and 2010’s Inception, Dunkirk is a top-notch war movie crafted by Nolan at his finest and joints the ranks of the greatest war films, including Steven Spielberg’s 1998 modern classic Saving Private Ryan. The remarkable true story chronicles one of the most pivotal moments of World War II: the British surrender and massive evacuation at Dunkirk, France beginning in late May and ending in early June of 1940. Up to 400,000 mostly British soldiers representing almost the entirety of the British military were stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk with no real way of crossing the English Channel and reaching home even though it was within sight across the shore. With outstanding cinematography, greatly enhanced by the all-encompassing IMAX 70mm format, the film uses spectacular and often horrifying imagery to follow all the major aspects of the massive operation led by the British Commander Bolton, played by the Oscar-nominated actor Kenneth Branagh. The wide sweeping shots of the thousands upon thousands of war-weary soldiers waiting to be rescued while being constantly bombarded by the German air force reinforce the unbelievable scope of the evacuation. There are also mesmerizing dogfighting sequences between the strained British Royal Air Force, represented by a particularly heroic pilot played by Tom Hardy, and German warplanes and bombers targeting the vulnerable British troops. Further underscoring the horrors of war and the difficulty of evacuating so many men are the scenes showing jubilant soldiers finally getting on British Naval vessels after surviving the battle, only to be killed after many of their ships are torpedoed or bombed by the Germans. Throughout the film, Nolan is able to effectively recreate what it must have been like at Dunkirk and thereby engenders an anxiety-inducing cinematic experience. The visceral reaction is not only created by the stunning visuals but also by the simple yet effectual soundtrack, which is mostly composed of what sounds like a ticking clock to heighten the nerve-wracking situations the characters are facing. Besides speaking to the hell that is war, the film also presents the hopeful and inspirational aspect of the evacuation of Dunkirk: the massive flotilla of ordinary Brits using their fishing and pleasure boats who journey to Dunkirk in the face of danger to help evacuate the many thousands of soldiers and bring them back home safely. To develop a personal connection with these unlikely heroes, the film also follows a father, played by Oscar-winning actor Mark Rylance, and son and a local teenager as they venture their way on their civilian boat to pick up survivors from Dunkirk. They themselves face the harsh reality of warfare when they rescue a severely shell-shocked soldier, played by the Irish actor Cillian Murphy, who is adamant that he must not return to Dunkirk. Overall, I found it to be one of the more engrossing and emotionally powerful depictions of war and was nothing short of a cinematic masterpiece from the auteur filmmaker Christopher Nolan. His remarkable attention to detail and beautiful cinematography is probably the closest a filmgoer can get to experiencing war, both the horrific and inspirational qualities. The uplifting moments appeal to what many Brits still affectionately refer to as the Dunkirk spirit, the forces for good during times of adversity.

The Zookeeper’s Wife

Based on the true story as recounted in Diane Ackerman’s 2007’s book of the same title, The Zookeeper’s Wife tells a fascinating mostly untold story about the director of the Warsaw Zoo, Jan Żabiński, and his wife Antonina, portrayed by Jessica Chastain, who were instrumental in saving many Jewish lives throughout World War II in the bombarded city of Warsaw, Poland. The movie begins showing the innocent goings-on of the zoo during the typical days before the Nazis invaded Poland and focuses mostly on Chastain’s character and her love of animals. Eventually, after it suffers catastrophic damage from German bombings in which many animals are killed, the zoo is shuttered by the new Nazi regime and becomes the testing grounds for Hitler’s so-called zoologist, played by the sinister Daniel Brühl, to breed a large extinct animal. Still living on the zoo’s property with their young son, the couple devise a plan to hide Jewish citizens from the infamous Warsaw Ghetto who would eventually be condemned to death in the extermination camps. Over the course of the war, over 300 men, women, and children are estimated to have been saved as a result of their heroic actions of sneaking Jews away from the ghetto and harboring them until they could be safely freed from German-occupied Poland. Like many Holocaust-themed films, at times it was very hard to watch, especially the scenes taking place within the inhumane Warsaw Ghetto and when the Nazis finally decided to liquidate all of its Jewish residents. What also struck me about the movie was the uncanny parallels between the zoo animals who were kept in cages yet very much loved by their zookeepers and the innocent Jewish victims who were deprived of their human rights and forced to live in cages of their own as if they were animals themselves. Overall, I found it to tell a very enlightening story that significantly contributes to the innumerable tales of horror and heroism during one of the darkest times in our history.

Silence

Directed by Academy Award-winning director Martin Scorsese as a passion project 25 years in the making, Silence is an often difficult to watch film that as the title suggests is full of silent moments reflecting the characters’ religious introspection and how God could exist in such a cruel world. Set in 17th century Japan when the country was closed to Westerners and Christians were violently oppressed, the film follows the Portuguese Jesuit priests Father Rodrigues, played by Andrew Garfield, and Father Garupe, played by Adam Driver. Both eagerly religious men are snuck into forbidden Japan on a mission to find the missing Father Ferreira, portrayed by Liam Neeson, who may have apostatized, or renounced Christianity. When the men first arrive in the Nagasaki region, they are greeted enthusiastically by downtrodden farmers who have had to hide their Catholic faith. The priests live out of sight during the day to avoid the draconian Japanese inquisitors but return to the villagers at night to give Mass, Communion, confession, and baptism, strictly forbidden rituals not given by clergy in several years. Through the eyes of Garfield’s and Driver’s characters, we witness the horrifying torture and gruesome killings of those suspected to be Christians by the Japanese authorities. For instance, men are tied to crucifixes on the shore where rising tides eventually drown them, and innocent bystanders are executed if one person does not apostatize. The major tactic used by the Japanese to discover who is a Christian is to force individuals to trample, or step, on a stone inscribed with the image of Jesus or other Christian iconography. Eventually, Father Rodrigues is detained by brutal Japanese officials who insist that he immediately apostatize while being told that Father Ferreira has renounced his faith and now lives as a Buddhist with a Japanese wife. Scorsese does a brilliant job of underscoring the priests and Japanese Christians torturously grappling with their inner personal faith as they suffer unimaginably simply for being Christians. Mirroring often tedious spiritual exploration that takes time and quiet reflection, the movie is almost three hours long with very little action and has extended stretches of no dialogue. Furthermore, the film heavily relies on nature for storytelling by filling the soundtrack with insect and other wild noises instead of a more conventional musical score. The sweepingly beautiful yet rough landscape of rural Japan is also perfectly captured by the powerfully nuanced cinematography. Overall, I found it to be a spiritually moving cinematic experience about what it means to follow a religion and how even the most dire circumstances can be overcome with deep personal convictions. Although it definitely is not for everyone or the faint of heart, the movie presents yet another terrific case why Martin Scorsese is one of the most talented filmmakers today.

Patriots Day

From Peter Berg who directed 2013’s Lone Survivor and 2016’s Deepwater Horizon, Patriots Day is a well done procedural drama that follows the events of the Boston Marathon bombings in April 2013 and provides insight into the many men and women who were victims as well as those investigating and capturing the culprits. The events leading up to, during, and after the terrorist attack are shown from the perspective of the fictional Boston Police Department Sergeant Tommy Saunders, portrayed by Boston native Mark Wahlberg. The movie captures the Boston Strong attitude when all of Boston came together during an especially trying time, and one way the filmmaker does this is by casting real Bostonians as extras. Much of the movie revolves around finding out what happened and how to pursue the bombers. The local officials, including the Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis portrayed by John Goodman, Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, and Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, have initial investigative differences, typical of most Hollywood depictions, with the federal government represented by FBI Special Agent Richard DesLauriers, played by Kevin Bacon. Underscoring patriotism and the desire to seek justice, the filmmaker shows many of these characters working together to arrest and capture the Tsarnaev brothers whose free reign terrorizes the entire city of Boston. Free of excessively gruesome imagery of the actual attacks, the film attempts to focus on the emotional aftermath and vividly retrace what happens over the course of the days that follow until those responsible are no longer a threat. The power of the movie is visualizing the events for the viewer even though most Americans already know many of the details. Overall, I found it to an effectively somber and emotional film that shines a light on terrorism and how authorities are able to tackle such a timely issue in a humane and thorough manner.