A pair of new releases speak to life in these trying times

Photo: Left: Jigsaw from the Saw series. Right: Will Tilston as Christopher Robin and Domhnall Gleeson as A.A. Milne.

By T.T. Stern-Enzi

Reflective parallels appear  in some of the most unlikely places and faces. We have come to expect refraction, a splintering of reality into the bizarre and the surreal, a nightmarish funhouse of mirror images that leave us anxiously awaiting the moment when we can wake up and break free of the spell.

The problem for us, is that we live in what the hit Netflix series “Stranger Things” has defined as “the upside down,” a dark social media-driven landscape where freedom of speech now means having the right to spew forth every hate-filled random aside that pops up in your head in response to everything from the person in the checkout line ahead of you taking too long, to ungrateful athletes kneeling during the National Anthem, to internecine wars within political parties. We used to have the internal fortitude to keep these impulses at bay, to work to solve disputes behind closed doors.

But now, we stand at a morbidly fascinating threshold where, for instance, the latest installment in the “Saw” series, “Jigsaw,” which arrives courtesy of directors Michael and Peter Spierig (the German siblings behind “Daybreakers” and “Predestination,” a pair of bleak sci-fi actioners with Ethan Hawke), seems like a necessary reaction to the everyday madness of our newsfeeds.

It has been seven years since “Saw 3D: The Final Chapter,” but we (those of us who have been strapped in this long-running rickety rollercoaster of moral mayhem) know there have been even more years since John Kramer, aka Jigsaw (Tobin Bell) has been actively in charge of his serial punishment-dispensing enterprise. In the “Saw” timeline, the criminal mastermind has been dead for a decade, while in the franchise sequencing, his demise took place in episode three. Always plotting and planning though, Jigsaw found ways to enlist a cadre of, mainly willing, acolytes to join his crusade.

This “Jigsaw” iteration offers what seems like required comeuppance for a world gone mad with lies, media manipulation, and rampant sexual harassment, but part of me wonders if Jigsaw would have a problem with questionable police shootings of unarmed people of color? I wouldn’t be surprised to see Jigsaw take a knee for social justice.

On the other end of the spectrum, there is director Simon Curtis’s “Goodbye Christopher Robin,” which reads between the lines of the life Winnie the Pooh author, A.A. Milne (Domhnall Gleeson), a veteran of the first World War who battles his traumatic stress by channeling playtime episodes with his young son (Will Tilston) into a series of bestselling stories. Without a doubt, the innocence of Christopher Robin saves the father’s sanity, especially since his wife, Daphne (Margot Robbie), would rather avoid any of the uncomfortable aspects of being a wife or mother.

What emerges, from a contemporary perspective, is a critical debate involving the use of children to sell books and products. As Milne’s fragmented pieces of poetry and a few sketches blossom into a beautiful garden of delightful treats for children and families, we start to recognize the dawn of a new age of marketing and promotion that has metastasized into a cancerous affliction.  How could society, at that time, see the impact such deplorable capitalistic exploitation was having on this young boy and not decide to do something immediately? On an intimate level, his nanny (Kelly Macdonald) does her best to shield him from the excesses of the publicity machine, but cannot win the war against a mother in love with the spotlight and an ineffectual father.

The film itself feels like a polished apologetic afterthought when stacked up against this grievous wrong and the harm it caused not only to Christopher Robin Milne, but the inevitable monster birthed from its loins. I certainly appreciated the historic updates in the credits, which revealed how the young Milne never accepted any of the proceeds from the Winnie the Pooh sales, and I found myself wishing that more people would watch the film and hang around long enough to read this tidbit.

For all the evil, both large and small, that dominates our cultural scene, we need to focus on the tiny miracles of hope like this. We can find reflections of our better angels, hidden in the corners of these dark frames. Keep looking.



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Reach DCP Film Critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com and visit his blog for additional film reviews at TerrenceTodd.com. You can also follow him on Twitter at @ttsternenzi.

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