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.



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.


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.


REVIEW: “Paddington”


“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.


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.


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.


REVIEW: “Moulin Rouge!”

MOILIN ROUGE POSTEROn the surface there’s nothing about the 2001 romantic musical “Moulin Rouge!” that would draw me to it. I’m overly picky and less enthusiastic about musicals than any other movie genre. Baz Luhrmann’s schizophrenic style of filmmaking isn’t something I naturally gravitate towards. Also Nicole Kidman is an actress that I appreciate but who has never really blown me away. So I sat out during the movie’s release and eventual Oscar run. “Moulin Rouge!” would go on to earn 8 Oscar nominations including a Best Actress nod for Kidman. It would win two for Costume Design and Art Direction.

It’s been over 10 years since the release of “Moulin Rouge!” and I’ve finally caught up with it. It’s funny, it wasn’t the music or the popularity or the Oscar recognition that finally got me to sit down and give this film a shot. It was my very real and deep-seated affection for the city of Paris. This proves to be fairly misplaced motivation. The beauty and essence of Paris is never explored or injected into the story and my overall “Moulin Rouge!” experience danced between stimulation and tedium.

I won’t deny that “Moulin Rouge!” has its moments. There’s a visual flare that Luhrmann has that’s undeniable. Here he presents a kaleidoscope of hyperactive visual pageantry. The colors and the pizazz leap off the screen as he moves from one shot to the next at break-neck speed. The problem is he milks it for all its worth, especially in the first half of the film. There’s an almost sensory overload as he bombards us with wild, raucous dance sequences, painted faces, and swirling dresses in a relentless parade of musical debauchery that had me ready to leave Montmartre and head to the more pensive and subdued Latin Quarter.

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Yet, just as I was ready to check out, there would be some little nugget that kept me there. Whenever Luhrmann would dial things back the movie would take a better turn and I could latch on. These are the moments where we get into the actual story. It’s set in 1899 Paris. A young writer named Christian (Ewen McGregor) moves to Montmartre with hopes of experiencing the true Bohemian life of the area. Christian is a wide-eyed idealist who has a special boyish obsession with love, something he has never truly experienced before.

Luhrmann instantly begins to lay out his unusual world. His depiction of Bohemian life opens up on a frantic sugar rush. He quickly baptizes Christian into this weird world through a wacky assortment of characters. He runs into an eccentric group of artists and performers who acquire his help in finishing their musical production. Their ultimate goal is to sell their show to Mr. Zidler (Jim Broadbent), the proprietor of the wild and rowdy Moulin Rouge. The biggest attraction of the Moulin Rouge is the beautiful Satine (Nicole Kidman) and Christian is instantly smitten with her. But Zidler has other plans for his most prized property especially after she catches the eye of a wealthy Duke and potential financier (Richard Roxburgh). If Christian is going to win her love he’s going to have to fight for it.

Listening to that setup of the plot you would think there was a pretty strong story in place but it’s actually a bit anemic. There is an interesting romance in there but it ends up being swallowed up by the injections of peculiar song numbers that feel terribly out of place at times. We get big show versions of everything from Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” to Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. Clearly these wild song choices worked for many people but for me they got in the way of something much more interesting – the complicated romance between Christian and Satine. Luhrmann does allow the romance more breathing room in the final act but by that time I felt worn down by the relentless pomp and spectacle. Luhrmann hasn’t an ounce of subtlety and here he flexes his hyper-stylized muscle whenever he can.

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Even though the more interesting story is smothered for much of the movie, it still manages to stay interesting thanks to the fantastic performances of the two leads. Ewen McGregor is great and watching his character move from innocent naivity to someone who has the harsh realities of the world revealed to him is great fun. But for me it was Kidman’s performance that not only stole the show but kept the movie going. She was a key reason I wanted to sit through the patented teeth-grinding Luhrmann scenes. Kidman is the one performer who has a lot to do and I found her work to be fascinating. Broadbent was okay but his character was so wacky and it was hard for me to get passed that. John Leguizamo has a fairly nice sized role as Henri Toulouse-Lautrec. Toulouse-Lautrec was a noted French artist but in this film his scenes mirror what I would imagine an acid trip to be like. He’s all over the place and comes off as a clown. Now considering the difficult life Toulouse-Lautrec had, from his childhood struggles to his crippling health problems which resulted in his death at age 36, this portrayal of him could be construed as an insult. Either way it didn’t work for me.

Unfortunately that also sums up my overall reaction to “Moulin Rouge!”. It just didn’t work for me. It’s a shame really because under the heavy coating of Baz Luhrmann’s mind-numbing stylistic excess lies a romantic tale that actually has heart. It’s a romance that’s made all the more interesting by two deeply commited lead performances. But sadly that doesn’t erase the countless times I was rolling my eyes or checking the time. I know “Moulin Rouge!” has a following and if you can connect to this type of schizophrenic storytelling you’ll probably find a lot to like here. But for me it was a case of too much visual insanity, too many poor choices for songs, and not enough of the central romance. That’s enough to keep “Moulin Rouge!” off my rewatch list for quite some time.


“Stoker” – 4 STARS

STOKER POSTERThere are two things that you’ll instantly notice when watching “Stoker”. First, it’s clear that director Park Chan-wook is a true visionary. Second, there is something seriously not right in the Stoker household. “Stoker” is a twisted psychological thriller oozing with Hitchcockian influence and mixed with traces of classic horror. There’s a good reason for that. The script was written by Wentworth Miller (yes, the guy from “Prison Break”) who stated that he used Hitchcock’s classic thriller “Shadow of a Doubt” to help frame his story. But this isn’t a mere carbon copy. He takes things in a much darker direction which helps this movie stand on its own two feet.

Chan-wook is best known for his “Vengeance” trilogy and for “Oldboy” which is currently being remade by Spike Lee. “Stoker” marks his English-language debut and his fingerprints are all over this film. He takes Miller’s script and instantly incorporates his signature style which works to create a specific mood and tone throughout the picture. And if you’re familiar with his other work you know his films often incorporate uneasiness and brutality. Both are present here as well.

The story centers around young India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska). Her life is dealt a terrible blow when her father Richard is killed in a tragic car accident on her 18th birthday. India was very close with her father, something that can’t be said about her relationship with her mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman). The two have a strained relationship resulting from Evelyn’s emotional instability and her jealousy of India’s affection for her father. After the funeral, both meet Richard’s brother Charlie (Matthew Goode) who has been traveling abroad for years. Evelyn takes to him instantly but India doesn’t trust him. He has the charm and good looks but there’s something unnerving about this guy.


Uncle Charlie volunteers to move in to help the family out. Evelyn is thrilled which does more to strain her relationship with India. The story unfolds and we quickly sense Charlie is up to no good. But there’s a lot more going on than anyone realizes. Most of the film deals with the tension between India and her Uncle. Her suspicions of Charlie are valid but neither she or the audience can figure the guy out. But it’s not as if she’s completely stable. She’s a very dark and brooding recluse. She lives in her own little world which is made clear by a couple of scenes that take place at her high school. The contrast between home and away is profound. Her nature and Charlie’s creepiness make for some good, eerie conversations between the two. But there’s also an undeniable psychosexual tension that permeates each scene. It’s a key part of the movie’s overall weirdness that sometimes has you squirming in your seat.

Wasikowska is an young actress that I’ve always been impressed with. She gives another solid performance here although the material doesn’t require much in terms of range. Throughout the entire film she maintains the same blank expression regardless of what’s happening. It’s nothing that allows her to flex her acting muscle yet it’s strikingly appropriate for this story. I also thought Kidman was really good. She takes on a smaller role, but her strong performance brings more to her character than you might expect. But for me Matthew Goode is the real standout. From his first appearance in the cemetery overlooking his brother’s funeral service, Goode maintains an eerie presence. He slithers around the Stoker’s secluded two-story estate channeling his best Joseph Cotton from “Shadow of a Doubt”. I loved what Goode did with the role and for me he helped give the movie the creepy intensity it was shooting for.


But I think my favorite thing about “Stoker” was the undeniable style of Park Chan-wook. I loved what he was doing with his camera and I never grew tired of his perspectives. There’s such artistry at work as he uses strategic close ups, moving cameras, and specific framings of shots. Chan-Wook also left indelible images carved into my mind. He gives the film a real horror movie feel with chilling shots of things like a crawling spider, a hair on a bar of soap, or a pencil sharpener. He also gives the movie heightened senses particularly in the area of sound. It may be voices, buzzing house flies, or even the crumbling of a boiled egg’s shell. All of this contributes to letting us know everything’s wrong in their world. I mean even the end credits are backwards and scroll down instead of up.

All of the amazing visuals and strong acting really worked for me. But some will assuredly be turned off by the movie’s bloody and violent final act. In a way I can understand why but not necessary due to the blood. I’m just not sure that the ending works that well storywise. That aside, “Stoker” is a strong film, dark and unsettling but still wickedly entertaining. It’s most certainly not a film for everyone. But it should be seen even if only for Goode’s devilishly good performance and the stylistic visionary direction. Lucky for me, I found there to be more to like than just that.