BFG Is A-OK–For Kids

They’ll be enthralled. Adults, meanwhile, will have to make do with some charming moments and winning performances from two of the stars.

The BFG, the new 3-D fantasy live-action adventure from Disney, arrives in theaters dripping with Academy Award gravitas. The director and co-producer is Steven Spielberg (multiple winner); the music is by John Williams (multiple winner), and the star is Mark Rylance (winner, Best Supporting Actor, 2016).

Then there is the story’s impressive provenance: it’s based on the 1982 children’s novel of the same name by the late Roald Dahl, a famous and fascinating man in his own right. (He authored Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, was a World War II ace with the Royal Air Force, husband of American actress Patricia Neal, and a world-class philanderer. Check his bio; it’s fascinating reading.)

Rylance plays an elderly giant who is spotted one night by the orphan Sophie (young Ruby Barnhill, part of an outstanding all-English cast) while he is wandering the streets of London blowing dreams into bedroom windows with a huge, trumpet-like instrument. Fearing Sophie will alert authorities of his existence, he kidnaps her and takes her back to his home in Giant Country, where he creates dreams and captures them in glass bowls.
In the quickest onset of the Stockholm syndrome on record, captive and captor fall into a loving niece-and-uncle-like relationship, and Sophie names him, redundantly, Big Friendly Giant, or BFG for short.

His home is a ramshackle cave hideaway, and his diet consists of a foul-tasting and -looking vegetable known as a snozzcumber, which BFG subsists on because he refuses to eat people or steal food from humans, like the other giants.

Sophie and BFG are soon engaged in an ongoing cat-and-mouse game with the fearsome but dim-witted giants, as BFG keeps Sophie from their view, lest they eat her. While she hides, the giants make the much smaller BGF their toy, using him as a football and making him a passenger in their version of Demolition Derby. Later, for good measure, they trash his home and his workshop.

Sophie subsequently persuades BFG to accompany her to Buckingham Palace and seek the queen’s help in eradicating the child-eating giants. It’s here that the film picks up, with scenes that compensate adults in the audience for a few earlier sleep-inducing moments.
Much of this uptick can be credited to Penelope Wilton, the 70-year-old actress who plays the queen and whom American audiences will recognize as Isobel Crawley from Downton Abbey. She is a sprightly, humorous, yet authoritative monarch who invites first Sophie, and then BFG, into her home. She is abetted by the always-welcome Rebecca Hall, luminous as her assistant.

A grand and comic dinner ensues, and the ingenuity of the royal staff is put to the test to find seating, utensils and food for the BFG. He brings his own addition to the meal: a fizzy drink called frobscottle, whose bubbles move downward instead of up, causing epic flatulence (“whizpopping” in BFG-speak) among all who imbibe it. The result is a farting fusillade that includes the queen and rivals the beans-and-campfire scene from Blazing Saddles.

After the air-clearing repast, the queen orders the Royal Air Force to help Sophie and BFG subdue the giants. Following some scary moments, the bad guys are captured and helicoptered off to an isolated island, where they are safely (this is a children’s story, after all) deposited and left with a lifetime supply of the loathsome snozzcumbers.

As usual, Disney animation and graphics are superb, especially the meaty and comical giants, and the BFG in particular. Rendered as a spindly, galumphing oaf with huge ears, he has Rylance’s facial features. The Royal Academy product, winner of three Tonys and two Olivier awards, delivers the giant’s lines with pathos or humor, as the occasion demands. As the BFG, he utters nonsense words because, like many in today’s media, he has only a rudimentary grasp of English (sorry, couldn’t resist). Such expressions as “strawbunkles and cream,” “snapper whipper,” “spitzwoggler” and “codswallop” are part of his vernacular, and Rylance speaks the words with his typically laconic authenticity.

Except for a tedious scene where Sophie chases the glowing, Tinker Bell-like dreams, the movie will hold most children rapt. Adults will have to make do with strawbunkles and the like, and winning performances by Rylance and Wilton.

Sinking In The Heart of The Sea

The pedigree of In The Heart of the Sea would appear fool-proof: a competent cast, with Chris Hemsworth, Benjamin Walker, Cillian Murphy, Tom Holland and Ben Whishaw; a true adventure story that had already inspired Moby-Dick, and the Oscar-winning directorial vision of Ron Howard.

Although exquisitely photographed, Sea sadly sinks under its own ponderous weight as it rehashes any number of prior sailing and shipwreck epics. More problematic for this whaling story is the evolved mores of its audience. In 21st century America, it is difficult, if not impossible, to make heroes out of men who hunt these magnificent creatures for glory and profit. Whaling may have been a noble and economically crucial profession in early American history; but to modern eyes, it’s simply barbaric. And it certainly is no longer satisfying as entertainment.

Critic’s Note: There has been a lot of media coverage in recent months about the lack of roles for women, both in front of and behind the camera. I mention that now because these two major studio films featured only a small number of roles for women; none were of narrative consequence, and one involved a bubble bath. Although I can do little to change this sorry situation, I can at least call attention to it.

Financial Crisis as Comedy

Will Ferrell collaborator Adam McKay directs an all-star cast in The Big Short, which explains the Great Recession of 2008

Director Adam McKay is best known as Will Ferrell’s partner on such hilariously sophomoric movies as The Other Guys, Step-Brothers, and, of course, Anchorman. Also the co-creator of the Funny or Die website, he is one of the least obvious filmmakers in Hollywood to be tasked with explaining the Great Recession of 2008. Understanding that economic calamity, however, which saw billions of dollars of wealth inexplicably lost, is a scenario where one needs to laugh to keep from crying, so perhaps a comedic approach is best.

On the evidence of The Big Short, McKay and his gonzo sensibility were just what the analyst ordered. The farcical comedy actually finds the humor as it follows a small group of truly eccentric finance guys who are betting that the glory days are coming to an abrupt and painful end, to the amusement or derision of everyone else in the financial sector. Along the way, The Big Short also manages to comically detail (at least partially) the arcane investment strategies and greed that produced the meltdown.

McKay is aided immensely by the offbeat casting of the film. This disparate group of oddballs includes Steve Carell as an abrasive fund manager, Christian Bale as an arrogant and successful investor savant, Ryan Gosling as a restless opportunist, and Brad Pitt as a recluse and former lion of Wall Street. With their abundant quirks and attitudes, none of these characters are likable people; you would run screaming if you encountered them at a party. But their deep knowledge, passionate commitment, and defiant self-confidence make them mesmerizing on the screen.

The screenplay, co-written by McKay, Charles Randolph, and the original author, Michael Lewis, elected to bring the audience in on the joke, as the characters routinely break the fourth wall to describe, or even contradict, moments of the story to the viewer. And obscure investment terms and instruments (which have evaded easy explanation in the years since the crisis) are spelled out in weirdly serious cameos by the likes of actress Margot Robbie (in a bubble bath, no less), chef Anthony Bourdain, and singer Selena Gomez.

Although much of the film is played for laughs, it’s clear that McKay and his cohorts have something more serious on their minds. The Big Short trenchantly closes with a set of text remarks that note the enormous amount of money lost in the downturn, the lack of any effective regulation put in place to prevent a recurrence, and the fact that only one minor player in the whole debacle ever went to prison. It’s remarkable that upon leaving the theater after a well-done two-hour comedy, my overwhelming emotional reaction was rage.

Leave the Room!

A touching parent-child drama about survival

Room is about the stories we tell one another to survive. Jack, a lively five-year-old boy, lives with his Ma in a single small room where he was born, utterly unaware of anything beyond the confines of the four walls he sees around him. Ma has created an entire imaginative world for Jack in this room, shielding him from the fact that they are both imprisoned there by Ma’s captor/rapist, Old Nick, who visits the room occasionally to bring provisions and to again force himself on Ma. Ma, or Joy in the rest of the world, is little more than a child herself, but her fierce devotion to Jack allows her to endure this confinement—and Old Nick.

Based on the 2010 bestselling novel by Emma Donoghue, Room takes the viewer into an intimate and loving parent-child dynamic built over a well of incredible pain and sacrifice. Brie Larson, who plays Ma/Joy, and Jacob Tremblay as young Jack, capture the shifting rhythms of family life, heightened by the severe limitations of their shared space.

When Old Nick’s financial circumstances erode, and Joy realizes that they are in even greater peril, they attempt a risky escape; and the story and scene shift to the world beyond Room. Although we are deeply invested in these characters, unfortunately the change in locale and the expansion of the story into the world we know as real, takes us viewers into far more familiar, and therefore less captivating, territory. Some of the energy and much of the specialness of this story dissipate, sadly.

Much credit, nonetheless, goes to Larson and Tremblay. Both excel in making their very small on-screen universe feel genuine and compelling. They are ably supported in smaller roles by Joan Allen, William H. Macy, and Tom McCamus as Joy’s reunited family. The direction by Lenny Abrahamson is briskly efficient without being particularly noteworthy. Donoghue, who also wrote the screenplay, can be excused for a somewhat meandering third act on the basis of the rest of the story, which is both engaging and profound.