CommonSpace film critic Scott Wilson takes a look at the films of the moment
FILMSPACE RETURNS with a look at new releases, some of the last month’s big hitters, and the most divisive film of 2017...
Goodbye Christopher Robin – ★★★☆☆
It is easy to be wary of a film that looks like Goodbye Christopher Robin. Like Hampstead, that shallow and twee summer release, it looks like it would fit comfortably into the afternoon slot of BBC2’s Sunday programming. So inoffensive it hurts, and all a bit too prim and proper.
That sort of rings true. In its accessibility, it is universal. This is a story about the boy behind Christopher Robin, the human in Winnie the Pooh stories. Domhnall Gleeson’s A.A. Milne and Margot Robbie’s Daphne de Sélincourt, Milne’s wife, keep good company and uphold a certain decorum. Frustrated by writer’s block, they move somewhere quieter, and that somewhere gives their son – Christopher Robin on his birth certificate but known affectionately as Billy Moon – a playground for his imagination.
It poses difficult questions about the origins of Winnie the Pooh, a character beloved by so many, and how he may have been borne at the expense of a proper childhood.
But it has a touch of darkness to it that something like Hampstead would never have the gall to attempt. Billy Moon was not a happy child, and his mum and dad were not good parents. Kelly Macdonald (who is so good here) is Olive, Moon’s nanny, and the maternal figure in this story. She shows the need for a child to play, explore, and live, and how guardian figures play an important role in that. Meanwhile, the whirlwind of Winnie the Pooh gusts around little Moon, spurred on in some ways by his parents, and in other ways just through sheer hype.
It isn’t exactly a loss of innocence tale as much as it’s about neglect and exploitation. It poses difficult questions about the origins of Winnie the Pooh, a character beloved by so many, and how he may have been borne at the expense of a proper childhood.
It’s quaint in the way we expect a film related to the characters of the Hundred Acre Wood would be, but it doesn’t have the same cheer or optimism, and it’s all the better for that. That darkness makes it a story worth telling, because behind Winnie the Pooh and Christopher Robin was a real child who was never heard.
Gerald’s Game – ★★★☆☆
God knows the world doesn't need another Stephen King adaption (at least, 2017 doesn't). The Dark Tower aimed as high as its namesake and barely got off the ground. It (the film) was criticised for not being spooky enough, but it's still a fun adventure romp with more laughs than most of this year's comedies.
Both of those were big screen affairs, but Gerald's Game benefits from its Netflix distribution. Jessie is tied to a bed - where scarier to watch it than in your own bed?
Like director Mike Flanagan's other Netflix release, Hush, Gerald's Game threatens to peak too early. Once the initial horror of being bound to a bed with no hope of escape becomes the new norm, there's still over an hour of film to fill.
What appears to be a film with a central puzzle is more of a psychological study about what it takes to endure.
It'd be easy to do that with Saw-like progress. If this was anyone else, Jessie would free one arm, locate a source of water, and find a way to extend her reach, all as plot points on the way to the film's conclusion. But it's Stephen King, and scarier than Jessie's external predicament is what being tied to one place does for her internal grasp on reality.
It alters the senses, too. Touch in particular is amplified, and awareness of the environment becomes hyper. When it's impossible to tell what's real and what isn't, it's genuinely uncomfortable as manifestations of something approach Jessie. Gerald's Game manages to put you in her place.
And this is without delving too deep into where the story goes. What appears to be a film with a central puzzle is more of a psychological study about what it takes to endure. Like a lot of King's work, it goes to some dark places, dwelling on them long enough to evoke a whole host of negative feelings, but it's earned: Jessie is fighting as much as she's succumbing.
After 2017's other cinematic King adaptions, Gerald's Game is a welcome intimate story to contrast with the bombast of the others. It's the most unsettling of the three, taking place in a room that's universally symbolic for a safe haven. The widescreen escapism of It and The Dark Tower puts them somewhere else in time and place, but this one is grounded with its premise and humanity, making it tangible and real.
It – ★★★★☆
Fear of the unknown is given too much credit. Anticipation for a climactic reveal works now and then, but sometimes you want to know what the menace is early on. Pennywise is ready for his close up within five minutes, and It is all the better for it. We know what we're dealing with, and we know what we want: The Losers' Club to survive.
It works because of this ghost train-like approach. Danger is lurking around every corner, and the danger is known to the audience, and it isn’t long until it's known by the losers. It's an adventure, a battle, a quest to survive. It's the excitement kids dream of, but don't want happening to them.
This, added to how hilarious it is, makes It one of the year's funnest films.
The complaint that it's not scary enough is missing the point. Pennywise's jumpscares are fine and comical, but the treatment of the children of Derry surely warrants the "horror" label.
But also - it's the summer holidays, and that sun-kissed haze contrasts with labyrinthine sewers and sinister personal lives. Pennywise is scary, but he's not the scariest thing in the film. What sticks in the mind may well be the amount of "your mom" jokes, but sexual and emotional abuse is happening in the town of Derry. These are real horrors given a backseat to the supernatural Pennywise. The kids talk about the dancing clown, but they don't talk about Bev's dad.
It is, in a lot of ways, a good time. As a huge Stranger Things fan, this ticked all the right boxes. The complaint that it's not scary enough is missing the point. Pennywise's jumpscares are fine and comical, but the treatment of the children of Derry surely warrants the "horror" label. Yeah, Mike from Stranger Things wielding a baseball bat is capital-A Awesome, but remove Pennywise from the equation and this is still a terrifying story.
Mother! – ★★★★☆
The most divisive film of 2017?
Mother! works without any of the analysis people have thrown at it. It invites a thorough interpreting, but it isn’t necessary. Atmospherically it’s an introvert’s nightmare that becomes an actual nightmare, one that’s so immersive and violent that it doesn’t take knowledge of the Bible to appreciate it.
It’s like one of those controversial Halloween horror houses where they push you about for hours after signing a dodgy waiver. It’s in your face, prodding you, pleading you to snap.
And then there are things to stroke your chin about if you want to, whether that’s the Biblical allegory, or how Jennifer Lawrence’s character represents Mother Nature, or how Javier Bardem’s character is a dominant patriarchal figure, or how his tortured artist shtick is dangerous and dismissive of everything around him. By throwing so many ideas into the pot, Darren Aronofsky is guilty of seeing what sticks and running with it, but when it’s this visceral and chaotic, sometimes it’s enough just to appreciate the delivery.
The studio, and Aronofsky, took a risk that paid off for some and was pretentious nonsense for others. See it, if only to join the debate.
But, it’s possible Mother! is the worst film of 2017. Marketed as a conventional horror film with one of the most successful stars of recent years as its lead, that isn’t the film that’s being offered. Unmet expectations can sour a viewing experience, and that’s a totally valid criticism.
It’s also deliberately provocative in a way that it’s possible to interpret as trying too hard. By including a bit of everything (seriously – what doesn’t happen in Mother?), Aronsfky could be seen as trying to shock rather than trying to say anything at all, or anything worth saying is buried under a desperate cry for controversy.
That a film this different was released into mainstream cinemas is surely worth celebrating. Audiences have been crying out for original material and this fits the bill, whether it’s enjoyed or not. The studio, and Aronofsky, took a risk that paid off for some and was pretentious nonsense for others. See it, if only to join the debate.
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