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Film Review: Finding Neverland

Finding Neverland does indeed prove its worth in recognizing the impact of a great story.

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If there were ever a film conceived that you could rely on to believe in the power and value of a compelling, well-told story, Finding Neverland would seem to fit the assumption as well as any. After all, Peter Pan was not your everyday story in the day that it was written, and as the film would have you believe, not many people, including his own benefactor, could begin to comprehend where James Barrie was going when he was putting it together. As it turns out, the film holds unwaveringly true to its pedigree, treading lightly where a less tactful form would turn the final product into sticky sweet trifle without a whole lot of substance. Anchored by a number of wonderful performances, Finding Neverland stands tall in the often unpredictable, catch-all genre of “biopic.”

Thanks to the critical tanking of his latest play, James Barrie (Johnny Depp, with a thick, convincing Scottish brogue) is on tenuous ground. His American producer, Charles Frohman (Dustin Hoffman) finds himself vacillating between nervous confidence and noticeable skepticism, keeping a straight face in public despite his demoralized tone. Frohman is not taking well to the blithe muttering of the lingering crowd, an upper crust group whose level of satisfaction correlates directly with the recouping of his investment. Barrie deflects the downbeat air of the room and assures Frohman that his next story will be a hit. Problem is, nothing puts a crimp into the creative process or raises the ire of any artist more than the mere mention of a bottom line.

As a man relied upon solely for a product that entertains the public, Barrie finds himself caught in the middle of the never-ending internal struggle between artistic vision and commercial success. He doesn’t want to compromise the natural path of his inner storyteller, but being forced into a scenario where another financial failure means his ruination isn’t exactly a conceptual dream. While sitting in the park cooking up his next greatest creation, he crosses paths with Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, a widow saddled with watching over her four sons, a burden that dominates much of her life. The remaining part of her life is effectively overshadowed by her overbearing mother (Julie Christie), who feels entitled to fill in the void left by Sylvia’s late husband, in addition to asserting her belief that James should not be involved.

Barrie forms a bond with the comely widow and her boys, much to the disenchantment of both Sylvia’s mother and his own wife, Mary (Radha Mitchell), who besides being patently suspicious about James’ motivation for accompanying Sylvia and her family around is resentful of being demoted to second fiddle. James seems to be aware that his own marriage is in flux, but in deference to his prior dilemma, creating a new play, he never seems to be visibly worried about it, even as his home life becomes gradually more disconcerting.

Even as everything around seems to be in a constant state of tumult, James takes solace and inspiration from the Davies family, especially in the novel attempts of the youngest son, Peter (Freddie Highmore), to write his own play. Adapting his life experiences onto the page, James puts together an altogether whimsical story, the disconnected rehearsals of which heighten Frohman’s creeping sense of dread. Frohman remains worrisome, but his lack of broad reactionary strokes leads one to believe that he comprehends that a vision does exist in Barrie’s mind. The cards continue to fall for James, but he remains plainly unaffected, even as one last major crisis threatens to separate him from his vision. 

Unlike the sprawling, more ambitious film biographies that often exceed their bounds due to an overabundance of key material, Finding Neverland keeps itself grounded by voluntarily focusing on a more sustainable period of time, which allows the film a greater degree of narrative flexibility. The film puts the impetus less on the whole life of James Barrie than the segment of time in and around the creation of Peter Pan, which practically dispenses with the chaff that may have been included in a film with a broader scope. Consistently underpinning the film is the inherent inability of the bourgeois mind to grasp the thoughts of a person whose imagination makes them tick. Frohman is included in this group, but his responsibility to his beneficiary causes him to stay the course, even if he doesn’t have an inkling to what is going on in James’ head. This is more than can be said for most everyone else, doubters who see Barrie as a wandering soul with no real applicable career skills.

Finding Neverland, aside from the steady, confident hand of director Marc Forster, is buoyed by almost every performance, from Depp all the way down to the precocious Highmore, whose work here was rumored to have earned him a spot in the upcoming Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, also to feature Depp. Kate Winslet appears to have fended off what could have been a guaranteed one-way ticket to ignominy in Titanic, with successive well-chosen roles in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and now Finding Neverland. It’s just about enough to make you forget she was ever in Titanic, which many people, including me, are thankful for. The young men who play the Davies boys are also deserving of high praise, being that this project could’ve never been pulled off had not the kids been able to convincingly carry the gravity of their roles.

Finding Neverland does indeed prove its worth in recognizing the impact of a great story. It’s an honest, graceful picture, the rare modern film that is wholly devoid of any cynicism. While it might tug at the heartstrings a little too earnestly at times, it’s the sort of emoting that doesn’t make the audience feel as if they’ve been pushed and prodded to that conclusion. There’s a foggy line between shameless manipulation and honest-to-goodness storytelling, and for once in the 21st Century, an honorable film like Finding Neverland walks safely on the side of the latter. 

FINDING NEVERLAND
Directed by: Marc Forster
Cast: Johnny Depp, Kate Winslet, Julie Christie, Dustin Hoffman

Film Reviews

Film Review: It Chapter Two

The sweet spot between Stephen King fans, horror fans and (believe it or not) comedy fans

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The final installment in the It saga is a clever, scary, probably-too-long allegory about the power of friendship — complete with a 20-foot clown spider. Sure, it’s probably a half-hour longer than it really needs to be — but It Chapter Two is still a fantastic film that hits the sweet spot between Stephen King fans, horror fans and (believe it or not) comedy fans.

It’s a story about friendship, and just like the first film, it’s those relationships that make this story so compelling and keep it woven together in a way that you really care about what’s happening to all the folks Pennywise has been menacing across these two films. Sure, Bill Skarsgård’s absolutely terrifying performance as Pennywise is what puts butts in the seats, but at its heart, this is a story about the power of friendship to win out over pretty much anything. If we work together, we can overcome fear, loneliness, doubt, depression — and yeah — even a supernaturally godlike killer clown. Thankfully, all the blood keeps that message from getting too sappy along the way.

The first It in 2017 was a surprise, monster hit — but for good reason. The Stephen King adaptation by director Andy Muschietti is pretty much a horror masterpiece wrapped in a compelling coming of age story. Think Goonies meets a face-eating monster flick with jump scares galore to keep the blood pumping. But, despite a decently-closed ending to the first chapter, the story was always conceived as a two-part film run, which is pretty much the only way one could hope to possibly wrap up King’s massive tome (the studio actually briefly considered splitting Chapter Two into two films, because there’s just so much material). 

It Chapter Two makes a wise decision to keep the stellar younger cast from the first film involved via ample flashbacks, while still providing space for the adult Losers to live and breathe (and, ahem, die) while bridging the gap between who they were and who they all grew up to be. It also embraces the inherent silliness and insanity of its premise to laugh, now seen through the lens of middle-aged adults as opposed to middle school minds. It’s a hard tone to hit, and it arguably might come off with more laughs than scares, but it’s true to the inherent madness of Pennywise.

The adult cast is also a home run by and large. James McAvoy makes for a capable adult Bill; Jessica Chastain is the embodiment of adult Bev; James Ransome nails grown-up Eddie; and Isaiah Mustafa does a capable job providing the necessary info-dumps as adult Mike. But the real breakout is Saturday Night Live alum Bill Hader as grown-up Richie. There’s scattered buzz that Hader could be worthy of an Oscar nomination for his performance, and he deserves every bit of it. We knew Hader had comedy chops, and he uses them plenty to keep this dark tale from getting too dark, but he really taps into the emotion of what it’d be like to go through something so traumatizing. And the moments that break Richie will almost certainly break you, too.

As for the changes to King’s original novel, sure, they’ll certainly be noticeable for fans. That said, the book itself — especially the ending — is absolutely wild and arguably impossible to adapt in a way that could work on the screen. The ending on-screen largely stays true to King’s themes built into the novel, and for the story that’s been told across these two films, it really does work. Hell, even King himself shows up in a cameo to make a joke about just how hard it can be to get an ending right.

Thankfully, despite a few bumps, It Chapter Two pretty much nails the landing. In a world filled more and more with King adaptations, this two-film run will stand as one of the best.

It Chapter Two is in cinemas now

IT CHAPTER TWO
Directed by: Andy Muschietti
Written by: Gary Dauberman
Cast: James McAvoy, Jessica Chastain, Bill Hader, Isaiah Mustafa, Bill Skarsgård
Distributed by: Warner Bros. Pictures
Run time: 169 minutes

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Film Review: Hobbs & Shaw

If you’ve already got the volume at 11, you might as well blast it to oblivion

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Hobbs and Shaw

It is hard to believe that 2001’s The Fast & The Furious was just a film about the underground culture of street racing. Fast forward nearly 20 years later and the films have gotten so ridiculous that the only logical next step for the film series is to blast it into space. Our endless appetite for the series has seen us grown accustomed to cars taking planes out of the sky (Fast 6), cars jumping from one building to another (Fast 7), and cars being remotely controlled to act like a pack of mechanical wild dogs (Fast 8). Ridiculous is not a barrier the film series will ever brake for and so it brings us to this, the biggest spin-off the series has seen, Hobbs & Shaw.

When the chemistry between The Rock and Jason Statham proved magic in Fast 8, it only took The Rock butting heads with Vin Diesel to see that logically, the series needed a freshness to it. Who better than Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham? Well, as Hobbs & Shaw proves, if you’ve already got the volume at 11, you might as well blast it to oblivion as the film cares not for subtlety, pouring gasoline on the fire. The film sees the addition of Idris Elba as supervillain Brixton Lore and the effervescent Vanessa Kirby as Hattie Shaw, the sister of Statham’s character. Both characters fit in superbly well to the colorful, over-the-top personas of the series, but with one difference; they haven’t worn thin yet and are extremely likable. The film benefits greatly from the absence of Vin Diesel’s dopey head and the majority of the dopey Fast “family”, instead taking the Fast and Furious formula and giving it a spit shine, turning it sideways, and sticking it right up… well, you know the drill.

Hobbs (Johnson) and Shaw (Statham) play the unlikeliest (but most charismatic) buddy cop twosome since the days of Eddie Murphy and Nick Nolte. Unexpectedly, this film is really quite hilarious- with the two swapping one-liners and jibes that keeps the film light and funny. The two are tasked with stopping global genocide at the hands of the megalomaniacal terrorist organization known as Etheon. The “face” of Etheon is superhuman Brixton Lore (Elba), an agent left for dead and turned into a weaponized cyborg-esque villain using genetic engineering. He’s the “black Superman” as he says, and he’s got an array of tech and gadgets (including a transforming, autonomous motorbike that would have found itself at home in a Transformers movie) that are part of Etheon’s plan to rid the world of the “weak”.

Vanessa Kirby
Vanessa Kirby is one of the highlights of Hobbs & Shaw

Etheon are after a deadly virus that is in possession of Hattie Shaw and what ensues is the expected cinematic equivalent of flexing your muscles and undoing the top few buttons of your blouse soundtracked to explosions, fast machines, and zippy dialogue. Director David Leitch (Atomic Blonde, Deadpool 2) keeps things by the book, and visually it’s all very on brand with the film series. But it is the chemistry and likability of the stars- namely Kirby, Statham, and Johnson- that keeps Hobbs & Shaw light on its feet, big with its set pieces, and never a chore. Kirby, in particular, has shown that her action chops are as deadly as her acting chops (is it too late to make her Black Widow? Or maybe just put her in all the action films). She never spends the film waiting to be rescued and is often the one quelling the childish, but hilarious quarrelling between Statham and Johnson.

The film trades the tired Fast family for real blood family, and while we still get the whole “family” and “heart” spiel that Vin Diesel loves to harp on about in these films, there is definitely a welcome change to the last few films. In fact, the Fast films haven’t been this fun in a long time. Unlike the last few, Hobbs & Shaw knows that the stakes of the film are global, but never does it take that too seriously and we the audience never feel too burdened by the ridiculousness of it all. There are some great cameos (two unexpected stars pop up that add the right comedic touches, plus Helen Mirren is always brilliant) and while the changing of scenery to Samoa is reminiscent of the previous Fast family vacations to South America et al, there’s something spiritual about this trip.

In the end, you don’t even have to turn your brain off because the film is soaked in charm and lightness that makes for a fun, smart enough romp that keeps its two-plus hour run time feeling like quite a breeze. Hobbs & Shaw is what this film series desperately needed. And while we can’t say the appeal will still be there when we’re inevitably sitting through Hobbs & Shaw 2, 3, 4, 5… we can say that for now, we’ll live this life one spin-off at a time.

HOBBS & SHAW
Directed by: David Leitch
Written by: Chris Morgan, Drew Pearce
Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham, Vanessa Kirby, Idris Elba, Helen Mirren
Distributed by: Universal Pictures
Run time: 135 minutes

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