REVIEW: “The Railway Man”

RAILWAY POSTER If “The Railway Man” wasn’t based on a true story it would probably be dismissed as unbelievable hyper-drama. But it is based on a true story which for me made it all the more fascinating. It’s adapted from the bestselling autobiography of Eric Lomax and it strikes a number of heavy emotional chords. It looks at the stresses of war but not through the normal battlefield lens. Instead it examines the trauma some are left with well after the war has ended.

The first thing the film does right is its casting. Colin Firth is unquestionably one of the best actors in the business and this is material he can certainly handle. He plays Eric Lomax and we first meet him as a reserved if not slightly awkward train enthusiast. He sits down with a group of friends and tells them about his chance meeting with a woman named Patti who is stunningly played without an ounce of flash or glamour by Nicole Kidman. The two fall in love and eventually get married.

 

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But in one of the movie’s few clunky bits of storytelling Patti and the audience learn that Eric is holding a lot of inner anguish. Patti’s love for her husband and nursing instincts wants to help him, but he continually shuts her out. She seeks information about Eric’s wartime past from his friend Finlay (Stellan Skarsgård). She finds out that during World War 2 he and some fellow British soldiers were captured by the Japanese and were placed in a hard labor camp where they worked on the railway between Thailand and Burma. During that time Eric endured unspeakable torture which has left him a broken man.

The audience gets to witness the events through a series of well done flashbacks. Jeremy Irvine plays the younger Eric and his resemblance to Firth is uncanny. Irvine was a big surprise and his performance stands right there with Firth’s and Kidman’s. In a great bit of method acting Irvine lost a significant amount of weight for the part. I also read where he did all of his own torture scenes. It’s truly impressive work. Actually I found all of the flashback sequences to be impressive in terms of production and in how it fits in the narrative.

The movie could have easily settled in as a traditional historical war film, but it doesn’t. Instead these flashback scenes work hand-in-hand with the film’s greater focus – an emotionally fragile man, the relationships surrounding him, and his ability to face and overcome the scars left from such traumatic savagery. I loved how these two narrative components worked together. For me each gave the other more meaning. Director Jonathan Teplitzky does a good job of maintaining a necessary cohesion between the two minus a couple of jarring instances where it seems key information was left out.

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An argument has been made that “The Railway Man” is too polished and it takes the “safe route”. Others have pointed to its sentimentality feeling unearned. And then there are some who have taken issue with the liberties the film takes with the actual account. For example revenge fuels the film’s version of Eric, but in reality that doesn’t seem to have been the case at all. Each of these criticisms bring up valid points , but I can honestly say none of them hindered my enjoyment of the film or my connection to the characters in any way.

Ultimately “The Railway Man” works because of the amazing story and the fabulous performances that bring it to life. Firth is enthralling and unforgettable. Kidman is precise and beautifully reserved. Irvine shines in what should be breakthrough work. Sure, at times it is emotionally-driven and undeniably sentimental. It may be polished up and too much of a ‘prestige film’ for some. But to let those things hinder your experience would be a shame. I did find myself longing for information that the film chooses to skip over, but that’s my only gripe in what is otherwise a beautiful and moving movie.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “Paddington”

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“Paddington” is a film that was never on my radar, that is until I noticed the waves of positive reviews coming from overseas. Suddenly I found myself paying attention to its United States debut. The film is based on the classic children’s literature series by Michael Bond. “Paddington” was announced eight years ago with Colin Firth set to voice the cuddly brown bear with a penchant for marmalade. The film finally began shooting in 2013 with Firth out and Ben Wishaw taking his place.

You remember the story of Paddington Bear, right? Forced to leave his home in the jungles of darkest Peru, Paddington, part of a special species of intelligent bears, sets out to find a new home. Many years earlier his family was discovered by an English explorer who told them they would always be welcome at his home in London. A desperate Paddington hitches a ride on a cargo ship and arrives in London where he expects overflowing kindness and of course a new place to call home.

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But things couldn’t be more different for this gentle and optimistic bear. He quickly finds that the people in London are as cold and unpleasant as the weather. Pushed aside and brushed off, Paddington begins to lose faith. But then he meets the Brown family. The wife and mother Mary (Sally Hawkins) and the youngest child Johnathan (Samuel Joslin) are both kind-hearted and compassionate. They convince the reluctant husband and father Henry (Hugh Bonneville) and their grumpy daughter Judy (Madeleine Harris) to let Paddington stay one night and then help him find the explorer who his family met in Peru several years earlier.

“Paddington” almost feels like two different movies. On the one side you have Paddington, his relationship with the Brown family, and his ‘fish out of water’ adjustments to life in the big city of London. This is the bulk of the film and it’s where “Paddington” absolutely sparkles. There is such a well conceived mixture of fun, playful slapstick and intelligent, heartfelt warmth. The film has a few big, wacky scenes, but they work because director Paul King doesn’t bury the material with the constant barrage of loud, frantic slapstick we get from most animated features. He always pulls back and then gives us scenes that humanize the story and the characters (even the bear).

Another reason these moments are so effective is because Paddington the character isn’t irritating, juvenile, or superficial. He’s charming, well mannered, and surprisingly genuine. It’s easy to love him and sympathize with his situation while also laughing at his well-meaning antics and the circumambient British wit. There is also enough substance and authenticity to his story and his relationships to give the movie a subtle emotional pop that I never saw coming. I was moved by an early train station scene inspired by a post-World War 2 reality and a one-word line of dialogue from Paddington himself near the end was absolutely perfect.

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But then there is that other movie I mentioned. Unfortunately King and co-writer Hamish McColl felt the need to shoehorn in an antagonist played by Nicole Kidman. A short side-story unfolds telling us of how Kidman’s mad taxidermist is intent on catching and stuffing Paddington. It’s silly, over-the-top, and it ultimately distracts from all of the things the movie does so well. The movie also follows a pretty predictable blueprint and it employs one of my least favorite narrative shortcuts – the big ‘this is the moral of the story’ speech at the end. These are all noticeable flaws, but thankfully they don’t kill the movie.

I could spend time talking about the fine performances from the tender-voiced Wishaw, from Hugh Bonneville, and especially Sally Hawkins. I could talk about the amazing job of mixing stunning CGI effects with live action. I could talk about the cool and artistic visual flair that Paul King brings to the film. There is so much I loved about the movie. Sure it has a few hiccups, but “Paddington” is such a welcomed treat. It’s head-and-shoulders above most of the PG-rated effects-driven family movies that we often get. Talk about a smart and entertaining surprise. Now pass me the marmalade.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “Magic in the Moonlight”

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There is no doubt that Woody Allen falls into the ‘hit or miss’ category. The 79-year old Allen is still writing and directing his films and we get a new movie every year. This self-imposed annualized system of his had led to several fairly rotten films. On the other hand, when Woody Allen is on his game, he can deliver some of the sharpest and wittiest character-driven movies you’ll find. His latest picture is “Magic in the Moonlight” and the big question was which Woody Allen were we going to get?

I have to admit my expectations for this film were pretty tempered. Critics seem to be split down the middle on it and even the positive reviews rarely featured high praise. So I sat down to watch the film preparing to be disappointed to some degree. But an interesting thing happened. The film hooked me after its first few scenes. As it went on I found myself more interested in its characters, more taken by its charms, more amused by its humor, and more satisfied with its simplicity. As it turns out I really liked this movie.

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As with many of Allen’s films, “Magic in the Moonlight” follows a very eccentric lead character. Colin Firth plays Stanley, a famous traveling illusionist in late 1920s Europe. He is a smug, snarky fellow who we quickly learn to dislike. His arrogance really shows itself in his obsession with mortality, specifically debunking any notion of mysticism or an afterlife. When describing himself and his perspective on the subject Stanley states “I’m a rational man who believes in a rational world. Any other way lies madness.” His close-minded cynicism and innate stubbornness won’t allow him to entertain the possibilities of there being more beyond what we see.

One of Stanley’s side pleasures is exposing psychics as frauds. He is recruited by a childhood friend (Simon McBurney) to travel with him to the French Riviera where a young American clairvoyant named Sophie Baker (Emma Stone) has wooed a very wealthy family. No one has been able to disprove Sophie’s “mental vibrations”, but that doesn’t deter the overly confident Stanley. After arriving at the Côte d’Azur, insulting most of the people he meets, and sitting in on a séance, Stanley finds himself baffled at Sophie’s abilities. Complicating matters even more, he soon finds himself smitten with her.

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When Allen’s material is clicking he can give us some truly fascinating characters. Stanley is a pompous and pretentious jerk. He’s insulting and confrontational, but there is another layer to the character. He’s also a miserable man whose facade of self-assuredness can’t hide his neurotic insecurities. The wily Colin Firth is fabulous and he handles Allen’s dialogue like a fine sculptor with clay. He delivers a character that is detestable, sympathetic, and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny. Much of it is due to the signature sharp writing, but a big part is all because of Firth. The man is incapable of a bad performance.

But it’s Eileen Atkins who almost steals the entire show. She plays Stanley’s wise and straight-shooting Aunt Vanessa. She practically raised him since birth and knows him better than anyone else. She’s a subtle firecracker and her frank but loving dealings with Stanley offer up some of the film’s best lines. I was a little less enthusiastic about Emma Stone. She certainly isn’t bad by any means, but in some scenes she just doesn’t quite feel right for the part. It may be that she clashes with portions of Allen’s writing style. I can’t quite put my finger on it.

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One of the true stars of the film is cinematographer Darius Khondji. This is the fourth film he has shot for  Woody Allen and his work is fabulous. More and more locations are becoming bigger characters in Allen’s films. Here the gorgeous French Riviera setting is vividly captured. Sometimes it playfully lingers as a backdrop. Other times Khondji seems to be framing a beautiful postcard right up until someone enters the frame. And then there is the percolating 1920s setting. I loved the conscientious attention given to the many period details.

I can see where “Magic in the Moonlight” would be too lightweight for some people. For some it may not be funny enough. For others it may not be romantic enough. Overall it has underwhelmed a lot of people. I found myself happily wrapped up in its setting, its humor, and its simplicity. Now don’t misunderstand me. This doesn’t have the magic of “Midnight in Paris”. But it is a film I enjoyed getting lost in, and when the final credits rolled I had a big smile on my face.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS