In Canada we have only two seasons: winter, and construction. We are right in the middle of steaming, stinking construction season here in Ottawa, and we’re facing a weekend where the 417, a major highway and our main east-west artery, will shut down entirely. This after a flood season has left our infrastructure crippled and our commutes doubled. Which sort of makes the opening scene of Hitchhiker’s seem a little more likely. In order to make way for an intergalactic superhighway, a little lowly planet called Earth has to be demolished. We meet our hero Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman) just minutes before the Earth’s destruction. He learns that his good pal and towel enthusiast Ford Prefect (Yasiin Bey, then billed as Mos Def) is in fact an alien who can call in a favour to save his friend, but erm, nothing else of human history (don’t worry, the dolphins have already defected – so long, and thanks for all the fish).
They meet up with a clinically depressed robot, Marvin (Alan Rickman), an egomaniacal president, Zaphod Beeblebrox (Sam Rockwell), and most improbably, Arthur’s Earthling crush, Trillian (Zooey Deschanel). Together they’re going to zing around the universe, searching for the Ultimate Question, the meaning of life, a single solitary spot of tea, new chapters for an ambitious encyclopedia, and any remaining shreds of life as they knew it.
Director Garth Jennings bit off more than he could chew trying to adapt Douglas Adams’ influential and beloved work, but you can hardly blame him for trying. Is the movie always coherent? Of course not. If you aren’t familiar with the book, you might find it hard to keep up. If you are familiar with it, there are no doubt bits and bobs that you’ll miss. It is not so much a faithful adaptation as an ode to it, with Adams’ blessing, and mostly by his own invention (such as the sneeze religion helmed by John Malkovich – achoo!). But if it’s a little sloppy, well, what else can you expect from a movie with an improbability drive?
Ivan Reitman and friends actually optioned the film as far back as 1982, thinking it might make an interesting vehicle for Dan Aykroyd and Bill Murray (this is no doubt true). But then Ghostbusters came calling and they were off on a tagent, and Hitchhiker’s languished in development hell, at one point with Hugh Laurie and Jim Carrey slated to appear (I’m less thrilled with that pairing, personally). Douglas Adams wanted Hugh Grant for Dent but I’m so, so glad it went to Freeman instead, who plays the everyman so perfectly he is often overlooked.
In 2005’s finished product, Sam Rockwell steals the show as Zaphod Beeblebrox, basing the character on likely unequal dashes of Bill Clinton, Elvis, and Vince Vaughn. Personally, watching it in 2019, I saw all kinds of his George W. Bush in the role and it gave me a whole new appreciation for a performance I already loved.
Anyway, it’s inevitable that a film adapted from such a great book would fail to live up to it, but I actually give it a lot of credit and find it highly watchable and highly entertaining. So many of the little jokes really do work on the screen, and everyone involved is clearly relishing the opportunity to be involved. It’s hard not to find joy where so much exists.
You’d think I’d have more of an affinity for this, as I once played Clara myself, in a school production. But I suppose any kinship I felt with the role died when I saw film-Clara flopping around in one sumptuous, gauzy, beaded gown after another, while I spent the whole play in a floor-length flannel nightgown.
Clara (Mackenzie Foy) has recently lost her mother, Marie. She is further aggrieved to find that the “one last Christmas gift” her mother has left each of the children is for her rather useless without a key to open it. Her godfather (Morgan Freeman) would seem to hold the answer, but just as she finds the key at his home, it is squirreled away (or perhaps I should say moused away) into a parallel world – into which of course she follows, without a second thought to the state of her beautiful dress, which she clearly doesn’t deserve.
Anyway, this other world is apparently one of her mother’s making, imaginatively speaking. There are four realms, and she meets 3 of the 4 regents right off the bat: Shiver (Richard E. Grant) of the Land of Snowflakes, Hawthorne (Eugenio Derbez) of the Land of Flowers, and of course the Sugar Plum Fairy (Keira Knightley) of the Land of Sweets. These three regents worship Clara as the daughter of their beloved Queen Marie, and wail upon learning news of her death. They confess that the Queen has not been around in sometime, and these 3 realms are at war with the fourth: Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren) of the Land of Amusements.
Sugar Plum (Keira Knightley, using a grating Mickey Mouse voice and sporting drag queen eyebrows for unknown reasons) explains that they can use Marie’s machine, which turns toys into people, to win the war, but they need the key. Yes, the very same key that Clara is already hunting, the key stolen by the legion of mice and now in the possession of evil Mother Ginger. Clara must retrieve the key with only the help of a kind nutcracker named Philip (Jayden Fowara-Knight).
The Nutcracker is of course famously a ballet, and there is but a single scant scene of dance, starring the ephemeral Misty Copeland, which is probably the best stuff in the movie. The rest is really nothing special. It’s almost as if, the more they inflate it with CGI effects, the more magic leaks out. It’s drained of the life and wonder you may have come to expect from The Nutcracker. This one is clunky – often quite mesmerizing to look at, but the directors are depending on literal hypnotic focus on the visuals since the story, which diverges wildly from cannon, just doesn’t hold up. It’s almost amazing how unexciting a land of imagination can be made to feel, and I wouldn’t mind if co-directors Lasse Hallström and Joe Johnston both had their directors cards revoked for such a failure. It’s toys come to life: the wonder is baked right in!
The Nutcracker has been around since 1892 and now accounts for 40% of a typical ballet company’s annual revenues. It’s been done to death in both movies and television: Barbie did a version. The Care Bears did a version. Mickey and Minnie did a version. Tom and Jerry did a version. And they were ALL more successful that this one, which cost over $120M to make, but you can’t put a price on heart, and this movie just didn’t have it.
Colin Briggs catches a rare break in prison: he gets transfered to one of those mythical low-security, cushy prisons where there are no bars and the food is edible. Colin (Clive Owen) is too cool for it though. He refuses to bond with his elderly roommate Fergus, or to request interesting work. He pulls toilet duty of course, but it’s not long before the warden saves him from himself and assigns him to gardening.
Colin doesn’t know manure from jackshit about gardening, but it’s better than toilets, so he takes lots of books out of the library and eventually works himself up into quite a passionate froth about flowers. The warden is so impressed by the gardening crew’s efforts and so is Georgina Woodhouse (Helen Mirren), who just happens to be the author of several of those books about gardening. Between them, they arrange for some work release – for the prisoners to leave the grounds and work on designing and planting gardens for wealthy clients. Their work is so renowned that they’re invited to participate in the Great British Gardening Show, which is not at all what it’s really called, but I forget the name and don’t care to look it up. Of course, they’re prisoners, and not everyone is open-minded about that.
It’s sort of nice to see a prison warden who believes in rehabilitation, and who treats his prisoners like human beings. This movie is apparently based on a true story; the inmates of Her Majesty’s Prison Leyhill actually did excel at gardening. And finding something that they’re good at, that they can be recognized and praised for, is clearly strengthening and healing for men who have otherwise such bleak futures. It wouldn’t have to be gardening of course, but it’s nice that it is because of course the contrast between delicate flowers and big burly murderers is pretty damn satisfying.
So much of British cinema is devoted to this formula: the underdog triumphing over adversity. You root for the prisoners of course, but you won’t get overly invested because the characters aren’t that knowable, and everyone besides Colin is pretty much just petunias (haha, that’s a gardening joke for “filler”). It’s meant, of course, to be charming and up-lifting, but it’s actually quite bland and manages only mild mediocrity. Worth checking out if you miss Clive Owen’s mug, or if you have a thing for Helen Mirren in oversized floral hats, but otherwise fit for the pruning pile.
As a widow, Sarah Winchester has inherited majority share of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. The other stakeholders get together to hire laudanum-addicted Dr. Price to assess her and find her incompetent to run their business. It shouldn’t be too hard: she’s a crazy, reclusive old lady who is constantly remodelling her home, round the clock, to better suit the ghosts and spirits who inhabit it.
It sounds bad on paper, but once Dr. Price (Jason Clarke) arrives, he starts to share in her hallucinations. Sarah Winchester (Helen Mirren) was a real person, and she really did believe that anyone killed by one of her guns may visit her home in death – seeking revenge or otherwise – and it was her duty to house them and try to find them peace. To appease them, she employed a work crew, round the clock, day and night, 7 days a week for 37 years, until her death, building new rooms, tearing down old ones, resulting in a 7-story house with more than 100 rooms, staircases that led nowhere, and twisty, unnavigable hallways. But some ghosts were not content with her efforts. Some ghosts demanded more.
I have no problem with the cast, and as you might guess, Helen Mirren is of course a gothic gem. But this movie was all wrong. All wrong. It should never have been a horror film. This is actually a very interesting story that deserved a much better treatment. Sarah Winchester is the kind of character you instinctively want to learn more about, but this movie would have you on Wikipedia rather than provide her any backstory or context. Instead the house is the most compelling character, and all the walking, talking, sentient characters, both alive and dead, are badly neglected. But even the house sort of loses its charms after the film makers’ limited imagination is maxed out. It just feels like all directors Michael Spierig and Peter Spierig are concerned with is shoving as many jump-scares into one movie as humanly, or demonly, possible. And it’s a lot. There will be something terrifying in EVERY corner, in every mirror and reflection, under every bed, in every attic, behind the curtains, and inside the body of every ginger man and boy. They’ve used a very interesting story as the mere setting, and then completely spoiled it with misuse.
Winchester needed to be a drama with supernatural elements, like Sixth Sense, but instead it’s bottom of the barrel horror. I was prepared to be frightened by it (Sean and I even “worked up” to it by viewing Peter Rabbit first) but I wasn’t expecting to pity it, and it’s hard to sustain suspense for a thing you feel sorry for. And I felt bad for Helen Mirren, who would be too good for the tripe even if she herself were a long-dead ghost merely haunting the set. The good news, though, is that she looks terrific in a widow’s mourning veil, so let’s get her in a Guillermo del Toro film, stat!
This movie is about a couple of charming runaways on the lam. They haven’t committed any crimes but they’re keen to evade the responsibilities that weigh on them at home. We’ve seen lots of movies about people on the open road, but we’ve rarely seen a man beleaguered by Alzheimer’s helming a large winnebago while his cancer-stricken wife navigates and their adult children are panicking at home.
Ella (Helen Mirren) should be in the hospital receiving treatment, but instead she’s choosing this one last hurrah before Alzheimer’s has her husband John (Donald Sutherland) completely within its clutches. The Leisure Seeker is the name of their beloved RV, and this road trip is designed to trigger memories of happier times – their young family at play, their former selves in love. It’s obvious that the ‘in love’ part has never really faded for Ella and John, and maybe this is why it’s so hard for her to cope when he can’t remember who she is.
The pair hit the interstate armed with pecan logs, slides of old photos, and yes, a gun. This film is a moving eulogy to all the things that are slipping away – not just for John and Ella personally, but also perhaps on a more national scale (like a sense of community for one – though attempts to be any more political feel out of place). But as John’s moments of lucidity grow shorter and Ella’s anguish grows deeper. The Leisure Seeker is pointed toward Florida but we can’t deny what they’re truly headed for.
Mirren and Sutherland make the movie of course – the camera rarely strays from this couple so strongly bonded they can’t even bear to sleep in separate beds. Sutherland spins the dial on the many shades of dementia, his face quietly registering all of them. Mirren wears a cheerful mask but Ella’s pain and smouldering anger never disappear completely. This Brit and her Canadian costar make watching this American road trip movie worth while – even if their Italian director doesn’t quite get it right. The acting, however, is everything, and the casting is spot-on even if Mirren is inconsistent with her southern accent. Just as we’re meeting them, they’re getting ready to say their goodbyes. This is a bittersweet journey, and you’re welcome to tag along. You can leave your gun at home, but do pack some tissues.
While searching for Will Smith’s filmography, I was surprised to see the pleasure with which critics are tearing this movie apart. The reason I was looking for Smith’s info was to try to figure out whether Collateral Beauty is his best dramatic performance (and I quickly realized that since I haven’t seen Ali, I’m disqualified from weighing in on that topic). With that lead-in, it probably goes without saying that I again think it’s been too long since the critics were thrown a juicy morsel, they’re searching for anything to bite down on as a result, and Collateral Beauty has been flagged as an easy target.
Collateral Beauty is not a great movie by any means, but it’s very watchable for several reasons. First, Smith reminds us that he can hold his own against anyone, no matter how many Oscar nominations/wins they may have (his co-stars in Collateral Beauty, Edward Norton, Kate Winslet, Helen Mirren and Keira Knightly, have two Oscar wins and countless nominations between them – incidentally, how does Michael Pena not have any yet?). Smith is consistently the most interesting person on screen even though for a significant portion of the movie he doesn’t say a word.
Second, there’s something undeniably watchable as the movie tries to take aim at cliches, even when it does so by using other cliches. Perhaps it’s just that the cliches that bother me the most were the ones under attack. I can’t really say any more without spoiling some of the characters’ arcs, so if you want more of a rant on that point then feel free to request more details in the comments section.
Third, I found out early on that I was wrong about how the movie’s plot would play out in a major way, which almost never happens nowadays due to the sheer number of trailers foisted on me (especially when half of them have no qualms about spoiling the best parts of the movie they’re promoting). On a related note, seeing a movie in Hawaii earlier this week was sobering because I think they showed every trailer currently in rotation. I am sure Canadian theatres will soon follow suit and it’s already too much here! Just let me watch the movie I paid for already.
Since I’ve started complaining (it never takes too long), it seems like a good time to talk about negatives from Collateral Beauty, and there are some significant ones. The bigggest problem is that Smith’s character’s supposed friends treat him in the worst way imaginable during the worst time of his life, and it seems we are supposed to forgive them for it. The film attempts to make it easier for us to do that but its method requires a major swerve by Smith’s character that came too quickly to feel natural, as well as a twist that seemed too convenient a fix.
That same convenient fix also transformed the tertiary characters’ motivations from awful to divine and again the turn felt too abrupt. While it made thematic sense and actually tied the movie together well, the execution was too rough to be satisfying (and it also gave rise to a new (/old) complaint about the trailer that I can’t discuss without getting into spoilers so again, comment if you’re curious to hear more of a rant on this point).
All in all, Collateral Beauty is worth a watch and is definitely not deserving of the hatred it’s receiving from critics. It’s quite decent and gets bonus points for making me choke up a few times (something that doesn’t happen very often). Sure, it’s cheating a bit by focusing on death and loss, but Collateral Beauty is intended as a tearjerker and wholeheartedly embraces its nature. Is that such a bad thing? I don’t think so.
Collateral Beauty knows what it is and delivers exactly what you’d expect. If you’re in the mood for a sob story then this is your horse. I think riding this teary pony wore Jay out, though, so be prepared if you’re a real cryer like Jay as opposed to a robot who occasionally feels sad (which is the category Jay has put me in and I’ve really got no valid argument against it – beep-boop).
Collateral Beauty gets a score of six teary-eyed robots out of ten.