THE NIGHT MANAGER (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 6 hours 1 minute

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Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Hugh Laurie, Olivia Colman, Tom Hollander, Elizabeth Debicki, Alistair Petrie, Natasha Little, Douglas Hodge, David Harewood & Tobias Menzies

John Le Carre is known for writing realistic, down-to-earth versions of 007 material. As opposed to explosions and gun fights, you’re more likely to watch people have intense conversations, sneak around, and occasionally murder in a Le Carre adaptation. This British author has found unexpected modern resurgence with the critically acclaimed TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY, brilliantly executed A MOST WANTED MAN, and upcoming OUR KIND OF TRAITOR. One of Le Carre’s novels has recently taken a turn to the smaller screen with BBC’s THE NIGHT MANAGER. If you’re into Le Carre’s espionage stories and talky thrillers, you’ll likely enjoy this miniseries. If you’re not into either of those things, this six-hour slow burn might bore you.

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Jonathan Pine (Tom Hiddleston) is a former British soldier turned hotel manager. After one particularly stressful night, Pine finds himself in possession of sensitive documents that detail illegal arms dealings. With evidence of enough illegal weaponry to start a war and a desire to stop these international criminals, Pine finds himself recruited by bureaucratic Angela Burr (Olivia Colman). Pine’s top-secret mission is to change his identity, infiltrate a group of arms dealers, and expose them for everything they’re worth. This assignment puts Pine headlong into the path of “worst man in the world” Richard Roper (Hugh Laurie), Roper’s attractive girlfriend Jed (Elizabeth Debicki), and his loyal assistant Corkoran (Tom Hollander). A game of cat-and-mouse ensues as Pine attempts to gather evidence, expose secrets, and maintain his cover.

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A film adaptation of THE NIGHT MANAGER has tentatively been in production for two decades, with one version featuring a far younger Hugh Laurie in the role of Pine. Various writers and directors came to the conclusion that there was simply too much material to squeeze into a single film, which made a miniseries format much more alluring. I personally think that this novel could have been tidily compacted into one tense three-hour movie, but this longer small-screen NIGHT MANAGER is allowed much more time to develop its characters within its six episodes. This extra time also allows for subplots to receive more attention that might have otherwise been excised entirely in a big screen version.

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NIGHT MANAGER’s episodes frequently cut between Pine and Roper’s cat-and-mouse game and much quieter scenes of Angela Burr’s struggles to keep the operation afloat, in spite of corrupt higher-ups in Roper’s pocket. Herein comes a pacing struggle, because Burr’s storyline only starts getting interesting during the final two episodes. Nearly everything in the latter storyline feels slightly like filler and noticeably detracts a bit from the far more intense (and interesting) battle of wills/wits between Hiddleston’s Pine and Laurie’s Roper. This may have been the way that John le Carre’s novel played out, but what is written on the page doesn’t always translate well to the screen. That might be the case here.

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Uneven pacing aside, THE NIGHT MANAGER is compelling if only to watch Tom Hiddleston play a character unlike any he’s ever touched before and to see Hugh Laurie portray a truly despicable villain. Hiddleston’s Jonathan Pine may seem like a stereotypical English gentlemen, but an inner darkness begins to reveal itself as the episodes go on. One shouldn’t mistake Pine’s politeness for weakness, because this man is a well-dressed 007 type that isn’t above committing violent acts in the name of revenge and the greater good. A cunning oppositional force comes in Laurie’s Richard Roper. Roper is a believable villain in that he rarely gets his hands dirty, but is more than willing to pay other “lower” people to do that for him. Roper is an intelligent businessman who happens to be in the business of death and destruction, which makes him extremely dangerous. The calm way in which Laurie’s baddie dolls out threats makes him even more intimidating, because we know that he absolutely means and will commit to every word he says.

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Elizabeth Debicki is convincing as Roper’s naïve wife and unconvincing as a forced love interest for Pine. Their romantic affair feels like an afterthought, when it should have been treated as a major plot development. If less time had been spent on the U.K. political subplot, then that might have been an option. As much as I’m ragging on her far less interesting and filler-filled storyline, Olivia Colman is serviceable enough as Agent Burr (Pine’s boss). The real scene-stealer of the supporting cast comes in Tom Hollander as Corkoran (a.k.a. Corky). Corky is such a wicked scumbag and doesn’t bother to hide it. His confrontations with Hiddleston are among the best moments in the entire miniseries. He’s a perfect sidekick to Hugh Laurie’s already diabolical antagonist.

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NIGHT MANAGER’s production values are stellar across the board. From theme credits that intersperse weapons alongside wine glasses and chandeliers to the eloquently expensive look of every frame, it’s clear that there was a big budget behind this miniseries. The story spans across many countries, allowing for glamorous shots and detailed locations. NIGHT MANAGER isn’t all glam and glitz though, because the series is remarkably tense, even in moments that don’t particularly seem exciting. I didn’t realize how wrapped up I was in this story until we are given a suspenseful sequence in which Pine is faced with a matter of seconds to grab some key info…or be caught by Roper and his dangerous friends.

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THE NIGHT MANAGER is a realistic James Bond story, complete with style, suspense, and a cat-stroking villain to boot (minus the cat). Hiddleston and Laurie’s tense battle of wits/wills makes this miniseries worth watching, even if Olivia Colman and her generic U.K. subplot feel like they belong in a different series altogether. Hollander’s Corky also sticks out as one of the miniseries greatest highlights. THE NIGHT MANAGER will likely satisfy viewers who can find a tense conversation to be equally as thrilling as an explosive shootout.

Grade: B+

TOMORROWLAND (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 10 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG for Sequences of Sci-Fi Action Violence and Peril, Thematic Elements, and Language

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Directed by: Brad Bird

Written by: Damon Lindelof & Brad Bird

Starring: Britt Robertson, George Clooney, Hugh Laurie, Raffey Cassidy, Tim McGraw, Kathryn Hahn & Keegan-Michael Key

Disney has milked four (soon to be five) movies out of their pirate ride and one (soon to be two) film(s) out of their haunted mansion. TOMORROWLAND (a section at Disneyland as opposed to a single ride or attraction) seemed like an odd choice to adapt into a film on from the beginning. However, a lot of folks (including myself) were getting stoked when they saw that Brad Bird (RATATOUILLE, THE INCREDIBLES) was directing and co-writing this project. The marketing material has sold itself as a spectacular futuristic adventure. In spite of the commercials, this isn’t all jet-packs and robots. In fact, there’s a message at play that’s heavy-handed to say the least. I’m really mixed on how present my thoughts about TOMORROWLAND, because I really loved the first half of this movie…then it fell apart in the second half.

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Casey is an optimistic teenager with an interest in science. She’s constantly sabotaging a construction site near her house that’s tearing down a NASA launching pad and as a result, winds up getting arrested. A stranger has taken notice of Casey’s ambition and gives her a mysterious pin. When holding this pin, Casey is transported to the futuristic dimension known as Tomorrowland. However, the pin has a time limit on it and soon runs out of power. In an effort to solve the mystery of what Tomorrowland is and how she can visit it again, Casey tracks down former boy-genius Frank Walker. However, their potential trip to the other dimension lands them in hot water as they might not exactly be welcomed with open arms into this other world…

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TOMORROWLAND is not what’s being advertised as and that’s a very good thing during the first half of this film. There’s a significant amount of time devoted to developing both Casey and Frank (through various flashbacks) as our mismatched protagonists. Britt Robertson makes Casey an instantly likable character who sticks out from her peers. George Clooney plays Frank as a reluctant hero who sees potential in Casey, but is also dealing with emotional baggage of his own. Then there’s the young actress Raffey Cassidy who plays a cool character that I won’t reveal any details about in this review (no spoilers). These are three likable heroes/heroines who aren’t given the massive adventure that they deserve with a script that’s mostly front-loaded.

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Parents going into this expecting the clean-cut likes of CINDERELLA might want to be cautioned, because TOMORROWLAND takes some ballsy risks for a PG-rated kids movie. There are a few cool action scenes that involve human-looking robots being torn apart and one particular shot made me laugh a bit out of the shock that I was seeing this violent visual in Disney movie. The effects are pretty amazing and the main sequence in the beginning of Casey visiting Tomorrowland stands out as the best scene in the whole film. I was whisked away with her into this land of magic and whimsy and I wanted this movie to maintain that vibe, but it didn’t. As ambitious and exciting as the journey of getting to Tomorrowland is, the film loses a lot of steam once our heroes actually arrive in the futuristic city. If you’re expecting jet-packs and robots everywhere as well as massive sequences through this other dimension, you’re likely to be disappointed. The script drags in the second half to a degree where most kids will likely be bored and the plot seems to be making itself up as it goes along from that midway point.

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There are plot holes and vague revelations found in the second half that construct an overly familiar story, which makes the whole movie feel that much more disappointing. At various points throughout the film, Disney also seems to be referencing itself way too much. A scene in the opening takes place in a specific Disney ride and I had to roll my eyes a bit. Then there’s a bunch of distracting STAR WARS nods in an otherwise fun action scene down the line. It’s almost as if Disney is reveling in their new acquisition on-screen before Episode VII even hits in December. Hugh Laurie is usually a solid actor, but he plays one of the blandest villains in Disney history. His character just isn’t that interesting, has confusing motivations, and ultimately, I didn’t care about him or find him the least bit threatening. To top it all off, there’s an obvious message being thrown at the viewer over and over during the final third that comes off as extremely cheesy and overly preachy. When we have three monologues repeating the same points, I kind of wanted to yell in the theater “Alright, we understand! Now, can we just move this along, movie!”

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Aside from a few reboots, Disney really hasn’t had a great live-action film hit the big screen in quite some time. I had high hopes for TOMORROWLAND and it certainly is an ambitious movie. I truly loved the first half of this film and thought the character development was handled well. However, the second half suffers from plot holes, a lame villain, preachy monologues and an underwhelming finale. If this entire movie had been as fantastic as the first half was, I’d consider TOMORROWLAND as a potential modern classic. As it stands, the imagination on display goes to waste in a muddled disappointment from Disney.

Grade: C-

ARTHUR CHRISTMAS (2011)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 37 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG for some mild Rude Humor

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Directed by: Sarah Smith & Barry Cook

Written by: Peter Baynham & Sarah Smith

Voices of: James McAvoy, Hugh Laurie, Bill Nighy, Jim Broadbent, Imelda Staunton, Ashley Jensen, Marc Wootton, Laura Linney, Eva Longoria, Ramona Marquez & Michael Palin

Aardman Animation is primarily known for their Claymation (WALLACE & GROMIT, THE PIRATES!), but have dipped their hands into computer animation back in 2006 with FLUSHED AWAY. That flick didn’t exactly impress. This past iffy effort and poor marketing are why I was turned off from watching ARTHUR CHRISTMAS for about three years. Turns out that I was cheating myself out of a modern Christmas classic. ARTHUR CHRISTMAS is one of the best animated films to come out of the new millennium that doesn’t have the Pixar label attached to it. Combining imagination, lovable characters and a heartwarming sense of childlike wonder make for a phenomenal film that is sure to become a holiday tradition.

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Santa Claus is very real, but not an immortal jovial old man flying around the world in a single night. There’s a dynasty of Clauses living in the North Pole and they are aided by tons of elves. The current Claus family has three completely different generations of Santas. There’s the retired grand-Santa, the active Santa, and his two sons, technologically advanced Steve and bumbling Arthur. Santa and his elves are in charge of delivering presents and Steve is in charge of the S-1 (an enormous computer-powered sleigh), but Arthur is in charge of reading the letters of children around the world. After a child’s gift is mistakenly undelivered, Arthur takes the initiative and journeys across the world to make sure that one little girl has a merry Christmas. Since Arthur isn’t exactly a trained Santa, his race against time goes a little awry to say the least, which causes conflicting views in the Claus family to butt heads.

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One special factor that makes ARTHUR CHRISTMAS unique from other family films of this kind is that there’s no real antagonist. The family members have conflicting viewpoints causing friction in their relationships, but nobody is perfect as each generation of Santa has their own flaws. Grand-Santa glamorizes the good old days and yearns for the fame he once had. The current Santa is too self-centered to realize that he’s hogging glory that should rightfully be passed down to his sons. Steve is so obsessed with the technical side of Christmas that he neglects the pure emotion surrounding the season. Arthur is a clumsy and cowardly guy who’s sort of roped into this quest.

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These characters are all essential pieces in a brightly colored world that’s filled with imagination around every corner. The visuals here are crisp and vibrant. There’s a warm holiday glow around the environments, but each location is given a unique flare. Let’s just say that England isn’t the only place that Arthur rides a sleigh through. Vocal talents of big actors bring these various Santas to life. James McAvoy’s voice disappears into the overly eager Arthur. Bill Nighy nails it as Grand-Santa and Jim Broadbent plays the current Santa. Hugh Laurie is excellent as Steve. Finally, there’s my favorite character, Byrony. This punkish elf (complete with unique hair-style and facial piercings) provides the biggest laughs in the whole film. She’s in charge of wrapping presents and accompanies Arthur on his trip. Not to mention that’s she is just plain adorable. I want a stuffed Byrony and I’m a grown-ass man.

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Another top-notch quality that seals the deal in ARTHUR CHRISTMAS is a brilliant sense of humor. There are jokes being thrown out at a mile a minute. Running gags pop up frequently and one of them (involving wild life that gets in when you leave the door open at the North Pole) absolutely cracked me up on multiple occasions. There’s plenty of witty banter among the characters and the script is far more clever than one might initially expect going into this film.

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The best thing about ARTHUR CHRISTMAS that separates it from many other holiday films and animated family fare is that a lot of heart was clearly put into this whole movie. The story is funny and imaginative, but also has the genuine sweetness that makes beloved Christmas classics worth watching year after year. It’s simultaneously heart-warming and hysterical, which are two good qualities that go great together.

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I’ve said before and will say again that the best children’s films are the ones that make adults feel young at heart as well as delighting younger viewers. These movies respect the intelligence of the audience, in spite of supposedly being constructed only for kids. ARTHUR CHRISTMAS nails every quality that matters in a story like this and manages to be perfect all around. I don’t have a single complaint or problem with any part of this movie. The feeling that ARTHUR CHRISTMAS leaves is specific to the holiday season should be cherished by viewers of every age. ARTHUR CHRISTMAS is a modern, magical holiday classic that I will watch repeatedly for years to come.

Grade: A+

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