31 Days to Scare ~ Ghost Stories

The Facts:

Synopsis: Skeptical professor Phillip Goodman embarks on a trip to the terrifying after being given a file with details of three unexplained cases of apparitions.

Stars: Alex Lawther, Martin Freeman, Andy Nyman, Jill Halfpenny, Jake Davies, Nicholas Burns

Director: Jeremy Dyson & Andy Nyman

Rated: NR

Running Length: 98 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  It should be clear by now that I’m a fan of anthology horror.  If you don’t believe me, take a gander at my reviews of After Midnight, Cat’s Eye, From Beyond the Grave, Tales from the Crypt, Asylum, The Willies, Tales of Halloween, and the Creepshow films.  There’s something satisfying about compact tales of terror that are to the point and, if they aren’t your cup of tea, don’t overstay their welcome.  What you often have to deal with in these omnibus films are framing devices that are hackneyed and can have little to do with the interwoven stories.  This makes the overall experience feel choppy.

Why Ghost Stories is unique, aside from the fact that it’s adapted from a stage play, is that the interstitial scenes that tie everything together actually play a part in the tales themselves.  So there’s value in paying attention to what’s going on throughout. Even when the film starts to go off the rails near the end, it remains a cleverly crafted and unique entry in the anthology genre…and one that is often quite frightening.

A TV personality known for debunking supernatural occurrences, Phillip Goodman (writer and co-director Andy Nyman, Judy) is summoned to meet one of his childhood idols, Charles Cameron.  A leading paranormal investigator in his day, Cameron is haunted by three cases he was unable to solve and asks Goodman to take a look to see if he can figure out the mystery that surrounds them.  The first case involves a night security guard (Paul Whitehouse) working at an abandoned women’s sanitarium that might not be as empty as it seems.  Next, Goodman looks into a teenager (Alex Lawther, The Imitation Game) who has a literal run in with the Devil.  Finally, we’re introduced to Mike Priddle (Martin Freeman, Black Panther) a man awaiting the birth of his child who arrives with…complications.

Each story has it’s own stable of shivers but it’s the first one set in the shuttered hospital that will really give you the chills.  With some great camera work and expert timing, Nyman and his co-director/writer Jeremy Dyson goose the audience with the right amount of scares to get the blood pressure up.  The subsequent investigations have nice moments of dread but are ultimately a bit more depressing than scary.  The outcome of Goodman’s inquiries are surprising and not exactly what you’d expect…just when you think you might know how it’s going to end (or when it’s going to end), Dyson and Nyman have another trick to unmask.  It’s not an entirely slam-dunk ending, to be honest, but it definitely wasn’t what I could have guessed at the beginning.

I can’t imagine how this was produced on stage and would have loved to see this one during its initial run in the West End where it played to great success for some time.  It subsequently toured through Europe but I’m unaware if it’s had a premiere stateside yet.  I would think it would be a special engagement show NYC audiences would get a kick out of but would take some expertise in staging regionally.  In any event, Dyson and Nyman have translated it to the screen with style and if the play is half as scary as the movie I’d bet the shrieks would be as loud as the applause.

Movie Review ~ Goodbye Christopher Robin

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A behind-the-scenes look at the life of author A.A. Milne and the creation of the Winnie the Pooh stories inspired by his son C.R. Milne.

Stars: Domhnall Gleeson, Margot Robbie, Kelly Macdonald, Will Tilston, Stephen Campbell Moore, Alex Lawther, Richard McCabe, Nico Mirallegro, Geraldine Somerville, Phoebe Waller-Bridge

Director: Simon Curtis

Rated: PG

Running Length: 107 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: Lord, do I love Winnie the Pooh. A longtime fan of that honey-loving bear, I admit that I first came to the Hundred-Acre wood via the now-frightening live-action television series that first aired on the Disney Channel. Remember that one? The one with the puppets that rarely blinked and sometimes talked without moving their mouths? I watched a few minutes of an episode recently and was aghast at how scary it was to me as an adult, obviously I was much less critical (and less easily terrified) when I was six or seven. Anyway, I digress. What I mean to say is that it was only as I became an adult that I went back to the works of A.A. Milne and read the source material that served as a jumping off point for Disney animators and Imagineers.

So that’s all a preface to say that I had high hopes for Goodbye Christopher Robin, a look into the life of the famous author and his family and how he created the world of a hungry bear and his forest dwelling friends. While the early previews promised a heart-tugging drama (don’t worry, hearts are tugged are tears are shed) it didn’t hint that the film winds up to be pretty boring in its heavy first half before finally finding its footing nearly an hour into its runtime.

Coming back from the first World War, playwright Alan Alexander Milne (Domhnall Gleeson, About Time) struggles to adjust back to civilian life. His socialite wife Daphne (Margot Robbie, Suicide Squad) not so much longs for a child but thinks that it will do her marriage good. The arrival of Christopher Robin Milne (first played by Will Tilston, then by Alex Lawther) is a rough one, mostly because it’s hinted that Daphne wasn’t aware exactly where babies come from…literally. Quickly hiring a nanny nicknamed Nou (Kelly MacDonald, Brave), the parents resume their showbiz lifestyle, often leaving their son for weeks on end as they travel.

It’s only when Milne grows tired of “making people life” and after he moves his family to a beautiful estate in the English countryside that the father is forced to get to know his son. With his wife flying the coop back to London after becoming exasperated at his sluggish ways and Nou off to care for her ailing mother, Milne starts to explore the woods and that’s when the stories are born. First as a play-game and then put to paper and illustrated, the tales of Christopher Robin and his woodland friends become a sensation, blurring the lines between the real boy and the boy featured in his father’s books. This creates a growing resentment from Christopher Robin that permeates his entire childhood, a childhood that may have been stolen away by a limelight he didn’t ask for.

Director Simon Curtis (Woman in Gold) along with screenwriters Frank Cottrell Boyce and Simon Vaughan front load the movie with too much Milne moping. A.A. and Daphne are painted as such neglectful ninnies that your heart goes out to their son that can’t find a way into their social circle. Raised to be caring and compassionate by his adored nanny, his life is ultimately sheltered which makes the instant celebrity he achieves so difficult to deal with. Excellently played by young Tilston, the movie takes off when he’s center stage and the same goes for anytime MacDonald is onscreen (why people aren’t mentioning her for an Oscar nom is beyond me) as the sole voice of reason.

I’m not sure if it’s because Robbie is so painfully miscast that her character comes off so horribly but it’s got to factor into the equation. Robbie is a bit of a puzzle actress, she’s never great but seems to be given the benefit of the doubt in Hollywood more often than she should. She’s certainly terrible here, botching her accent and aging too gracefully as the years pass by. When Gleeson ditches his eternal scowl he becomes a tolerable presence but both A.A. and Daphne were so clueless to the pain they were causing their son that it’s a hard thing for an actor to overcome without some blowback.

Goodbye Christopher Robin’s middle section that explains how these fondly remembered characters were created is the best part while it’s poor opening and rushed closing provide an imbalance that the movie can’t recover from. Truth be told it has some emotional heft as it nears the conclusion, but it doesn’t feel totally earned and the tears are delivered via a fairly manipulative plot device that might put some audience members off. I for one was a little miffed at the game that was being played, I just wanted to know more about why the characters were playing it to begin with.