The Man Who Invented Christmas


God bless us every one? Bah, humbug!

(2017) Biographical Drama (Bleecker Street) Dan Stevens, Christopher Plummer, Jonathan Pryce, Simon Callow, Anna Murphy, Justin Edwards, Miriam Margolyes, Morfydd Clark, Ger Ryan, Ian McNeice, Bill Patterson, Donald Sumpter, Miles Jupp, Cosimo Fusco, Annette Badland, Eddie Jackson, Sean Duggan, Degnan Geraghty, David McSavage, Valeria Bandino. Directed by Bharat Nalluri

 

One of the most beloved and most adapted stories of all time is Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. What some folks might not know is that Dickens wrote, had illustrated and self-published the work in an amazing (for the era) six weeks. It was a massive hit on the heels of three straight flops which had begun to lead the publishing world to question whether he was the real thing or a flash in the pan. He was on the verge of financial ruin when Scrooge, Marley, Tiny Tim and company rescued him.

As we meet Dickens (Stevens) the financial pressures have become overwhelming. He and his wife Kate (Clark) are undergoing an expensive renovation of their home complete with plenty of Italian marble; the last three books after the unquestioned success of Oliver Twist have under-performed and his friend/manager John Forster (Edwards) tells him that his publishers are clamoring for a success and an advance is out of the question.

A story told to his children by Irish maid Brigid (Murphy) gives Dickens the idea of a Christmas-set ghost story but he is in the throes of an anxiety-fueled writer’s block that is threatening his entire career. A chance meeting with a grumpy old man gives him the idea of a miser at the center of the story and once he comes up with the name for the character – Ebeneezer Scrooge (Plummer) – he materializes and starts to argue with Dickens on the direction of the book. People who surround Dickens start to become various characters in the novella; a lawyer becomes Marley (Sumpter), a nephew becomes Tiny Tim, a couple dancing in the festive streets of London become the Fezziwigs and so on.

To make matters worse, Dickens’ spendthrift father John (Pryce) and mother (Ryan) drop by for an extended stay. Dickens and his father have a strained relationship at best and the constant interruptions begin to fray the author’s nerves. Worse still, the novella is needed in time for Christmas which gives him a scant six weeks to write and arrange for illustration of the book with one of England’s premier artists (Callow). Kate is beginning to be concerned that all the pressure is getting to her husband who is at turns irritable and angry, then kind and compassionate. She senses that he is going to break if something isn’t done and time is running out.

I have to admit I didn’t have very high expectations for this film. I had a feeling it was going to be something of a Hallmark movie and for the first thirty minutes of the film I was right on target. However a funny thing happened on the way to the end of the movie: it got better. A lot better, as a matter of fact. The movie turns out to be extremely entertaining and heartwarming in a non-treacly way.

Stevens, one of the stars that emerged from Downton Abbey, does a credible job with Dickens although at times he seems unsure of what direction to take him. Plummer could do Scrooge in his sleep if need be but gives the character the requisite grumpiness and a delightful venal side that makes one  think that Plummer would be magnificent in a straight presentation of the story.

This is based on a non-fiction book of the same title that I have a feeling is more close to what actually occurred than this is, but one of the things that captured my attention was the dynamic between father and son. Certainly Dickens was scarred by his father’s imprisonment in a debtor’s prison when he was 12, forcing him to work in a horrific shoe black factory and from which much of his passion for social justice was born.

The entourage of characters from the story that follow Dickens around is delightful. Of course, the movie shows Dickens getting an attitude adjustment and growing closer to his family thanks to his writing of the novella and who knows how accurate that truly is but one likes to believe that someone who helped make Christmas what it is today got the kind of faith in family and humanity that he inspired in others.

This has the feeling of a future holiday perennial. The kids will love the whimsical characters that not only inform the characters in the story but fire up Dickens’ imagination; the adults will appreciate the family dynamics and all will love the ending which is just about perfect. This is the kind of Christmas movie that reminds us that we are all “fellow passengers on the way to the grave” as Dickens puts it and the kind of Christmas movie that Hollywood shies away from lately. I truly wish they would get back to making movies like this one.

REASONS TO GO: A thoroughly entertaining and truly heartwarming film.  The portrayal of the relationship between Dickens and his father is intriguing.
REASONS TO STAY: Starts off slowly but after the first thirty minutes or so improves greatly.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity as well as adult themes in the film.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The majority of the cast are trained Shakespearean actors, many of whom have appeared in a variety of adaptations of Dickens’ work through the years.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/23/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Finding Neverland
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Big Sick

Nancy, Please


Nancy is all smoke and mirrors.

Nancy is all smoke and mirrors.

(2012) Drama (Small Coup) Will Rogers, Eleonore Hendricks, Rebecca Lawrence, Santino Fontana, Novella Nelson, Wally Dunn, Timothy Chastain, Ellis Cahill, Steph Holmbo, Claire Molloy, Elizabeth Ansell, Peter Coleman, Alice Kemelberg, Alex Robles, Alexis Rose, Hilary Shar, Matthew Taylor. Directed by Andrew Semans   

 Florida Film Festival 2013

It doesn’t take much to annoy most of us. Petty little cruelties can prey on our minds. Most of the time we just brush it off and simply classify the perpetrator as a jerk and move on. Once in awhile however something just captures our brains and we get obsessed by the injustice, determined to exact our measure of triumph out of a situation in which we feel wronged.

Paul (Rogers) is a doctoral candidate at Yale, working on a thesis that follows the description of the English political process described by Charles Dickens in his classic novel Little Dorrit. To that end he has his own hardcover in which he has written notes covering the subject.

Life is actually pretty good for Paul. He’s just moved in with his beautiful girlfriend Jen (Lawrence) who is supporting him while he works on his thesis, which he is finally ready to start writing. However as he’s unpacking, he discovers to his chagrin that the crucial copy of the book has been left behind at his old apartment. Therefore he calls his old roommate Nancy (Hendricks) to see if he can drop by and pick up the book.

Days go by and he hears nothing. He is beginning to get frantic. His best friend Charlie (Fontana), a fellow doctoral candidate, urges him to simply drive over to his apartment and knock on the door. s they do, Paul is certain he glimpses Nancy inside but she doesn’t answer the door. The door turns out to be unlocked but Paul feels awkward about going in so he continues to wait.

The cat and mouse game between Paul and Nancy continues, escalating. Nancy does return his call a couple of times but always when Paul is unavailable. Paul is becoming obsessed, certain that Nancy has some sort of vendetta against him. Jen is becoming irritated because Paul is neglecting to do things around their house that he’d promised to do, forcing Jen who is supporting them to have to take care of things that Paul has more time to deal with.

However Paul is too busy dealing with Nancy to really focus on anything else. His faculty advisor, Dr. Bannister (Nelson) is growing impatient; it has been two years since Paul began his doctoral work and he has shown little or no movement in getting his thesis done. She is threatening to have him removed from the program. Paul’s stress is turning to desperation; he needs that book. So finally after a good deal of prodding from both Charlie and Jen, he decides to go in using a spare key Jen had when she used to come by the apartment to visit him and just get the book himself. This plan turns out to be disastrous.

Humiliated and physically injured, Paul’s paranoia about Nancy is reaching the boiling point. Jen, seeing that things have gone far out of control, finally takes matters into her own hands and in her mind (and in any other reasonable person’s mind) resolves the situation. But in Paul’s mind things are far from over…

This isn’t an easy film to sit through. I think that this is best described as a horror film that is going on only in the lead character’s mind. The innovative thing here is that it’s not actually a horror movie to anyone but Paul. Paul sees Nancy as some sort of cruel monster and she’s a vindictive bitch to be sure but Paul is about as passive a character as you’re likely to meet. He is so aggravating that Da Queen, not normally given to such hyperbole, proclaimed him the biggest pussy in the history of movies. She may have a point.

But so many male indie film leads could be described using that pejorative and you wouldn’t be far wrong and I think that part of the filmmaker’s intent is to satirize the somewhat cliché indie  saw of a passive male lead whose life is resolved either by a strong female presence or through some sort of external motivation. As someone who has seen his life transformed by the love of a good woman, I can’t argue that a man can’t find self-confidence and an improved sense of self-worth through that process. I can say though that it is used far too often in indie films of late.

The focus of the movie is on the antagonists Nancy and Paul and somewhat refreshingly it is more vital for those two to have chemistry than for Paul and Jen to have it and in fact that is the case. Hendricks gives a strong performance in a role that is pretty thankless; Nancy really doesn’t have any reason not to give Paul the book other than to inflict punishment for some sort of transgression – I assume it’s because he had the gall to move out on her. Given her actions it’s not surprising that he’d want to.

Even more thankless is the role of Paul. He’s the nominal “hero” of the piece but he’s far from heroic. In fact, the danger here is that Rogers might be too good in the role – he certainly makes Paul an unlikable lead, to the point where Da Queen really didn’t like this movie once. While my wife and I have nearly identical taste in movies, this is one instance where we disagreed somewhat significantly. I liked the movie precisely for the reason that she didn’t – because the filmmakers have the courage to present a lot of unlikable people in a situation that could easily be resolved but isn’t. Real life is often that way.

Maybe I can see a little bit of myself in Paul. I certainly am the sort who avoids conflicts whenever possible and I tend to let life walk all over me. My ambitions tend to be overridden by my shyness and I tend to need a bit of nagging to get moving on things I know have to get done. However I’m nowhere near as bad as Paul is in that regard – I can self-motivate and even if I do procrastinate on some things they do get done in a timely manner, just not in an instantaneous manner most of the time.

Personal identification aside, I can heartily recommend this movie because it is different and the filmmakers are showing how a simple situation can get complicated in a hurry. I admit that the movie has grown more on me than it did make an immediate positive impression and that may well be the case for you, but if you want to try something outside of the usual kind of movie this is a good place to start.

REASONS TO GO: Love the juxtaposition between the paranoid fantasy going on in Paul’s mind and the mundane reality.

REASONS TO STAY: Possibly one of the most frustratingly passive lead characters ever.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s some brief violence, adult situations, a bit of sexuality and a modicum of expletives.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While the film is set in New Haven, it was mostly filmed in Brooklyn and other New York City locations.

CRITICAL MASS: There have been no reviews published for the film for either Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dark Matter

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Be Good and more 2013 Florida Film Festival coverage

Scrooged


Tiny bubbles...

Tiny bubbles…

(1988) Comedy (Paramount) Bill Murray, Karen Allen, John Forsythe, John Glover, Bobcat Goldthwait, David Johansen, Carol Kane, Robert Mitchum, Michael J. Pollard, Alfre Woodard, Nicholas Phillips, Mabel King, Jamie Farr, Robert Goulet, John Houseman, Buddy Hackett, Lee Majors, Brian Doyle-Murray. Directed by Richard Donner

 The Holly and the Quill

Some Christmas tales are so timeless, so meaningful that they can survive being twisted, pulled, yanked out of shape and modified into something quite different and still be meaningful and timeless.

Frank Cross (Murray) is the programming VP at the IBS network and he’s the youngest in the industry. He’s the golden boy, the one who has the eye of network head Preston Rhinelander (Mitchum). It’s Christmastime and Cross has an ace up his sleeve for the Yule season – a live broadcast of Scrooge from various locations, with Buddy Hackett as Scrooge, John Houseman narrating and Mary Lou Retton as Tiny Tim. God bless us, every one.

The people who work around Frank could use all the blessings they can manage. Frank is a world-class a-hole with a mean streak wider than the Long Island Expressway. This live show is crucial to his career; if it succeeds he is on the fast track to Rhinelander’s job. If it fails, he’s on the fast track to unemployment, where he has already put nebbish assistant Eliot Loudermilk (Goldthwait). He tries to keep his long-suffering assistant Grace Cooley (Woodard) working late, preventing her from taking her mute son Calvin (Phillips) to a needed doctor’s appointment.

But if you think Frank is callous in his professional life, you should see his personal life. He spurns his brother Earl’s (Doyle-Murray) invitation to dinner. He is as alone as alone can be. That wasn’t always the case. He was once deeply in love with the pretty community activist Claire Phillips (Allen) but that was from a long time ago. He’s barely thought about her over the years…well, that’s what he’d have you think anyway.

Frank is on a one-way trip to the hot seat but there are those who think he has something inside him worth saving – one being his mentor Lew Hayward (Forsythe), who pays Frank a visit on Christmas eve to try and reason with him. Never mind that Lew’s been dead for years; he’s really got Frank’s best interests at heart. He sure doesn’t want his protégé to end up like him – a rotting corpse doomed to walk the earth for eternity. To help the reluctant Frank along, Lew’s sending three ghosts to show him the way – the Ghost of Christmas Past (Johansen), the Ghost of Christmas Present (Kane) and…you get the picture.

This was a much ballyhooed remake of the Dickens classic that Murray, who had last tasted success with Ghostbusters four years earlier, had his imprint all over. SNL compatriots Michael O’Donoghue and Mitch Glaser co-wrote it and many of Murray’s cronies from SNL and from his other movies, as well as all of his brothers, were in the film. The film is very much set around Murray and his style of humor, so if you don’t like him much you’re not going to find a lot of reasons to see the film.

Still, if you do like him, this is one of his most iconic performances, one that will live with most of his classic performances in Stripes and the aforementioned Ghostbusters. The movie didn’t resonate with the critics very much – at the movie’s conclusion, Murray delivers a speech about the true meaning of Christmas which some felt was treacly and not heartfelt (although I beg to differ).

The ghosts are all amazing and fun, particularly Kane who beats the snot out of Murray (in one scene she pulled his lip so hard that filming had to be halted for several days while he recovered). The special effects are fun and if they are a little dated by modern standards (the movie will turn 25 next year) they still hold up pretty well.

The movie remains if not a Christmas classic at least a Christmas perennial. It runs regularly on cable this time of year and is easily available on streaming or for rent. It is perhaps less serious than most other Christmas movies but it has edgier laughs and that’s certainly worth something.

WHY RENT THIS: Kane, Forsythe and Johansen make some terrific ghosts.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Seems like an overly long SNL skit at times.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are a few scary images and some bad language. A little rude humor to tide you over as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Tiny Tim-like character Calvin Cooley was named for former President Calvin Coolidge who was known for being taciturn.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $60.3M on an unknown production budget; in its time the movie was a big box office disappointment.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fred Claus

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: The Holly and the Quill continues!

Ghosts of Girlfriends Past


Ghosts of Girlfriends Past

Jennifer Garner and Matthew McConaughey only have eyes for Daniel Sunjata.

(New Line) Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Garner, Michael Douglas, Breckin Meyer, Lacey Chabert, Robert Forster, Anne Archer, Emma Stone. Directed by Mark Waters

In many ways the era of the confirmed bachelor is well behind us. Men who don’t get married at a certain time in life are regarded with some suspicion, as if they’re missing a requisite character trait that makes them trustworthy. Plus, given the state of 21st century sexuality, with STDs, unplanned pregnancy and so on, men are less inclined to play the field as much as they did even 30 years ago.

Don’t tell Connor Mead (McConaughey) that though. Mentored by his Hugh Hefner wannabe Uncle Wayne (Douglas), Connor refuses to spend more time than absolutely necessary to seduce women which makes his career as a fashion photographer an ideal hunting ground. He has adopted a love ‘em and leave ‘em attitude, hold the love ‘em, and has been known to break up with three women at a time on a conference call.

Uncle Wayne is long gone, passed on to the great piano lounge in the sky, but his estate is going to be used by Connor’s younger brother Paul’s (Meyer) wedding to the highly neurotic Sandra (Chabert) whose ex-Marine dad (Forster) is performing the ceremony. Connor is far more interested in seducing the bride’s wife (Archer) and even more interested in getting plastered and espousing his views on love which are to wit that love is a myth, to be believed in the same way Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny are. His mood isn’t helped by the presence of Jenny (Garner), his first girlfriend who parted terms with Connor on less than friendly terms.

A little later on when Connor goes into one of the cavernous bathrooms of the mansion, he runs into the late Uncle Wayne, who advises him that he is going to be visited by three ghosts that evening in order to save him from a life of loneliness and unhappiness. Can these specters save Connor from himself?

Frankly there came a point when I didn’t care. McConaughey has an easy charm which here masks a guy with real problems. I generally like the shirtless Southerner’s performances but here he might have been a little too good at his job – Connor’s misogyny is so pronounced that eventually I lost interest in his salvation.

Still, there are things to recommend the movie, chief among them Michael Douglas. As the Lothario to end all Lotharios, he resembles the legendary womanizing producer Bob Evans with slicked back hair, big glasses and silk cravat, but Douglas plays the role with a hint of a twinkle in his eye. Poor Jennifer Garner has the thankless role as the one McConaughey is “meant” to be with and she manages to make the part less cliché than you might think. Personally I’d get a restraining order.

This is ostensibly a comedy and in fact there are some genuinely funny moments as when Ghost of Girlfriends Past played by Emma Stone in a highly amusing role, announces that Connor is about to see a montage of girlfriends set to the timeless music of Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time.” However, there aren’t enough of those moments to really sustain this movie.

Obviously using Charles Dickens as a touchstone is never a bad idea, but results may vary and quite frankly, this is a disappointment which while it may not necessarily have Dickens spinning in his grave, it might get him to send the Ghost of Screenplays Past to visit the writers of this movie.

WHY RENT THIS: Michael Douglas is having a good deal of fun, and there are some moments that are genuinely funny.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Connor’s attitudes are so hateful it’s hard to root for him to get the girl. There aren’t enough funny movies to earn a higher rating.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a good deal of sexuality and sexual references. Connor’s attitude towards women might need explaining to the younger set.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ben Affleck was originally attached to the role of Connor back in 2003 when the movie was originally set to be made, but the failure of Gigli and concerns with the budget caused the studio to cancel production one month before they were scheduled to shoot.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Paris, Je t’aime

A Christmas Carol (1938)


A Christmas Carol (1938)

Reginald Owen as the miserly Ebeneezer Scrooge.

(MGM) Reginald Owen, Gene Lockhart, Kathleen Lockhart, Terry Kilburn, Barry Mackay, Lynne Carver, Leo G. Carroll, Lionel Braham, Ann Rutherford, D’Arcy Corrigan, Ronald Sinclair. Directed by Edwin L. Marin

“God bless us, every one.” It’s a line that has become part of popular culture and has been that way for nearly two centuries now. It was common enough when Charles Dickens wrote it back in 1843 but these days it refers to the classic tale.

You know the details. Ebeneezer Scrooge (Owen) is a penurious money-lender whose grasping, greedy ways and hateful, aggressive attitude have made him the terror of London. He is visited on Christmas Eve by his jovial nephew Fred (Mackay) who invites him to dinner, which he does every year. As he does every year, Scrooge declines, expressing his disapproval to Fred’s betrothal to Bess (Carver), a poor woman who Fred nonetheless loves with all his heart.

Receiving his message better is Bob Cratchit (Gene Lockhart), his long-suffering clerk who suffers Scrooge’s rages stoically and tolerates his insults meekly. When he asks for Christmas Day off, Scrooge begrudgingly gives it, lambasting his employee to be at work all the earlier the next day. He reluctantly pays Cratchit his pitiful wages and the two depart. The fun-loving Cratchit has his top hat knocked off by a snowball thrown by some young boys which prompts an impromptu snowball fight. Eager to join in the fun, Cratchit lofts a snowball and knocks the hat off of…his boss. The hat unfortunately is crushed under the wheel of a coach. Scrooge sacks him on the spot and to add insult to injury, demands a shilling to compensate for the hat.

Cratchit walks away morosely but the sight of a swinging goose neck on the back of a shopper soon restores his good humor. He bustles from shop to shop, ordering the best meal he can afford. When he gets home, his good-hearted wife (Kathleen Lockhart, Gene’s real-life wife – and for those who love trivia, they were the parents of actress June Lockhart who appears in an uncredited role as Belinda Cratchit, one of their young children) and his beloved children are waiting. He loves them all – but perhaps the crippled Tiny Tim (Kilburn) the most.

The miserly Scrooge in the meantime arrives at his home, empty and silent as the grave. He goes inside to light a candle and is startled to see a face appear on his door knocker. It is the face of Marley (Carroll), his partner who passed away seven years previously that very night. He slams the door and heads up to his bedsit to warm himself by a meager fire. He hears a loud booming noise like a great door had been opened, then the unmistakable sound of chains being dragged across the floor and in walks Marley, bound and fettered.

At first Scrooge doesn’t believe in Marley and dismisses him as the results of indigestion. He summons the local bobbies to remove the intruder but they arrive to find the room empty. Angrily, Scrooge sends them on their way but is startled to see Marley still there. Now convinced of Marley’s validity, he listens to his message. Marley warns Scrooge that he will suffer a fate as sad as his own unless he changes and there was only one chance of that – but he would need to be visited by three spirits in order to do that – the Ghost of Christmas Past (Rutherford), the Ghost of Christmas Present (Braham) and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come (Corrigan). We all know what happens after that.

This version has been shown on television many, many times over the years and is something of a Christmas tradition for many. Despite the technical limitations of the era (the special effects are primitive by our standards and some of the sequences of the spirits flying over London look a bit silly today) the acting is as good as you’ll find in any of the many filmed versions of the story. Particularly good is Gene Lockhart as Cratchit and even if he looked a bit well-fed to be impoverished (although in truth most onscreen Cratchits have been on the chubby side) he manages to capture the unshakable faith and unstoppable cheerfulness that make up the core of the character. Mackay does Fred very well indeed, and is a bit less callow than most of the other actors who have played the role; in my book it’s a little bit closer to the way Dickens wrote him.

Kilburn in my estimation set the standard for all those who tackled the role of Tiny Tim thereafter. His look, his gentleness and his ability to project cheer and joy has essentially become the way we mostly characterize the role. In fact, his recitation of the line I quoted at the beginning of the review is most often seen when the line is needed in advertising or in features.

The drawback here is that the studio wanted this to be an uplifting family film, so nearly every unpleasant element has been eliminated, including the character of Scrooge’s fiancée and the death in childbirth of Fan, his sister. If it wasn’t for that, the movie would have gotten a higher rating as so many familiar elements are missing that it feels like the movie is truncated.

This is one of the most classic of Christmas stories and many of our current holiday traditions can trace its roots to the original Dickens novel. It has been made and remade literally dozens of times on television, in animated form and as live action movies for television and the movies including the latest version starring Jim Carey that was previously reviewed here. While the 1951 version is probably the best known – and the best – of all of the many versions, this one set the standard that almost all of them have derived from at least partially and it is certainly worth seeing for that reason alone. Turner Classic Movies shows it regularly here in the States, but it is easily available everywhere. Merry Christmas to all, and God bless us, every one.

WHY RENT THIS: Gene Lockhart and Barry Mackay are memorable in supporting roles, and Terry Kilburn was one of the best Tiny Tims ever. Veteran character actor Reginald Owen delivers his most memorable performance as Scrooge.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The filmmakers speed through the material, skipping over entire sections of the story to finish at an astonishing 69 minutes. Some of the material is sorely missed. The special effects are primitive and at times painful to watch by modern standards.

FAMILY VALUES: As with most movies from the era, it is no problem for modern family audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the first version of the classic Dickens tale to be made as a talkie and was meant to star Lionel Barrymore as Scrooge, but Barrymore was badly injured in a fall on another movie set and was unable to perform. He personally recommended Owen to replace him in the role.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are several short features, Judy Garland singing “Silent Night” in a film that was reportedly only played at an MGM Christmas party and an animated short called “Peace on Earth” that, ironically, was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, the only filmed entertainment to be honored thus.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Avatar

Disney’s A Christmas Carol


Disney's A Christmas Carol

Jim Carey is haunting...himself.

(Disney) Starring the voices of Jim Carey, Gary Oldman, Bob Hoskins, Colin Firth, Robin Wright Penn, Cary Elwes, Ryan Ochoa, Jacquie Barnbrook, Lesley Manville, Molly C. Quinn, Fay Masterson, Fionnula Flanagan, Leslie Zemeckis. Directed by Robert Zemeckis

No matter how badly we behave, no matter how heinous the acts we have done in our lives, there is always a possibility of a second chance. It is one of the most wonderful things about being human.

Ebeneezer Scrooge (Carey) is a miserly fellow, bitter and curmudgeonly. He is feared and despised by the citizens of London circa 1842. After his partner Jacob Marley (Oldman) dies on a Christmas Eve in 1835, Scrooge continues to operate his counting house, bullying his clerk Bob Cratchit (Oldman again). Scrooge saves particular vitriol for Christmas, which he proclaims as “humbug.”

Scrooge is visited that Christmas Eve first by his nephew Fred (Firth) who patiently invites his uncle to Christmas dinner, which is refused. Fred is puzzled as to why his uncle despises him so, but it seems to be tied to his marriage. Later, a pair of businessmen collecting for charitable donations receives Scrooge’s distinctive philosophy on life (the famous quote “Are there no jails? Are there no workhouses?”) but no cash.

Upon returning home, Scrooge is visited by the ghost of Jacob Marley who warns Scrooge he is to be visited by three ghosts; the Ghost of Christmas Past (Carey), the Ghost of Christmas Present (ditto) and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come (you got it). At stake his Scrooge’s soul, and the life of Cratchit’s son Tim (Ochoa).

This is one of the most beloved and best-known stories on the planet and director Zemeckis (Back to the Future, Forrest Gump, The Polar Express) has the tall order of making a story so known to many seem fresh and new. Most of us can quote Charles Dickens’ original story word for word and know the story backwards and forwards. With so many already-filmed versions to choose from, the public can afford to be choosy and set high standards for any new films. Making one that stands out from the crowd is no easy task.

Most versions of A Christmas Carol depend heavily on the performance of the actor playing Scrooge. Actors have generally been classically trained English thespians, but from time to time comedians (Bill Murray comes to mind) have also tackled the role. Carey is perhaps the most unusual choice for the iconic miser. I’m not particularly fond of Carey – he tends to mug around a bit in my opinion – but one can’t deny the talent. He tackles the roles of Scrooge in all his iterations, as well as all three of the ghosts. For the most part, he restrains himself but from time to time Ace Ventura shines through.

The supporting cast is pretty good. Hoskins displays bonhomie as Fezziwig, while Penn is solid in the dual roles of Belle, Scrooge’s love interest and Fanny, his sister. Better still is Oldman, whose portrayal of Bob Cratchit (complete with Cockney accent) is superb. His scene during the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come sequence mourning his son is incredibly moving.

After a great start with The Polar Express, motion capture hasn’t really lived up to its promise. The visuals are spectacular, eye-popping really. Zemeckis has a terrific visual sense and crafts a movie that captures the imagination. Unfortunately, it doesn’t capture the heart (except for the Cratchit scene mentioned above). There’s far more emphasis on spectacle than there is on the story, and some fairly important vignettes are glossed over or cut out entirely and yet Zemeckis conducts an extended hearse chase scene that is striking to look at but ultimately feels more like a placeholder for a future theme park attraction. That gives the movie a rushed feeling that I found unsettling.

The animation isn’t perfect. Cratchit’s head is disproportionate, and his daughter Martha towers over him by what appears to be about a foot and a half or more. It looks unsettling. Also, while the faces and movements are lifelike, there is a curious lifelessness to the eyes that makes the characters look a little bit like zombies. In many ways, the more clear-cut animation of Pixar and DreamWorks is preferable because it’s more consistent; you know it’s an animation so there’s a standard for realism or its lack thereof. Here, you’re expecting a more life-like quality and frankly the technology isn’t quite there yet.

People who love Jim Carey are going to enjoy this movie because you get a whole lot of him here. People who love the original Dickens tale are going to be a bit more critical and may find this a difficult pill to swallow. The 3D effects are terrific (the snow falling is particularly nice) and definitely enhance the movie nicely. However, I can’t recommend this unreservedly. All in all, the package comes in gaudy wrapping paper with an elaborate bow, but all the pretty paper in the world can’t conceal that what’s inside is a bit empty and light.

REASONS TO GO: There are some amazing visuals here, particularly the ghosts. Zemeckis puts the story on its biggest and boldest canvas ever. Oldman gives a moving performance, particularly in the Christmas Yet to Come sequence.

REASONS TO STAY: Zemeckis sacrifices story for spectacle in several instances. Some of the figures, particularly Cratchit and his daughter Martha seem to be disproportionate. The hearse chase scene is completely unnecessary and seems to be there only to provide the inspiration for an eventual theme park ride. A little Carey goes a long way.

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the ghost sequences, particularly Marley and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come might be a bit too much for impressionable sorts.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The earliest known filmed version of Dickens tale was made in 1901 by British film pioneer Robert Paul and was under three and a half minutes long. It can be seen in its entirety on the British Film Institute YouTube channel.

HOME OR THEATER: The dazzling visuals should be experienced on the big screen, preferably in the 3D presentation (and IMAX if you can get to an IMAX theater).

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Tale of Despereaux