Pick of the Litter – April 2018


BLOCKBUSTER OF THE MONTH

Avengers: Infinity War

(Disney/Marvel) Robert Downey Jr., Benedict Cumberbatch, Chris Pratt, Josh Brolin. Summer starts early this year as the traditional first weekend in May Marvel play date has been moved back a year this year as Earth’s mightiest heroes will face their mightiest challenge as the mad Titan Thanos comes a’calling and he has the Infinity Stones firmly in his sights. These gems, which have been making appearances since Phase One of the MCU, are incredibly powerful on their own but when gathered together and placed in the infinity gauntlet they give the wearer virtually unlimited power to re-shape reality in his or her own image. This is the first of a two-part Avengers movie which will bring Phase Three to a close and change the landscape of the MCU permanently and not everyone will survive. April 27

INDEPENDENT PICKS

 

The Endless

(Well Go USA) Callie Hernandez, Emily Montague, James Jordan, Tate Ellington. Two young brothers who escaped a doomsday cult return to the cult’s compound after getting a mysterious message. When they arrive, they discover that there may be something that the cult has discovered that may prove their beliefs not far from the mark. Critics are already comparing it to some of the best horror films of the decade and promising that this one is a game-changer. From the trailer, it appears that the critics could be on to something. April 6

Borg/McEnroe

(Neon) Sverrir Gudnason, Shia LaBeouf, Stellan Skarsgård, Tuva Nuvotny. One of the greatest tennis rivalries of all times took place during the 1980s and the two men involved couldn’t have been more different. There’s the passionate, temperamental American John McEnroe and the cool, machine-like Bjorn Borg. Together they dominated men’s tennis in their heyday and their battles with each other were legendary. This will be playing the upcoming Florida Film Festival. April 13

Aardvark

(Great Point) Jenny Slate, Zachary Quinto, Jon Hamm, Sheila Vand. A disturbed man goes to see a psychiatrist about the return of his brother. The two have an abusive relationship but the psychiatrist suspects that the man may be bipolar or have a severe mental illness, especially when she meets the brother who proves to be much different than her patient described him. However, as the tales grow more and more wild she begins to wonder if maybe there is something much stranger happening to her. April 13

The Devil and Father Amorth

(The Orchard) William Friedkin, Gabrielle Amorth. The claim to fame of William Friedkin was that he directed the classic horror movie The Exorcist. However, he hadn’t ever seen an actual exorcism being performed – until now. This is, incredibly, not a narrative film – it’s a documentary.  April 20

Ghost Stories

(IFC Midnight) Andy Nyman, Martin Freeman, Paul Whitehouse, Alex Lawther. The promotional material claims that this is the best British horror film in years and it just might be. A debunker of paranormal phenomenon is presented with three cases that nobody has been able to disprove; the deeper he investigates, the more the cases begin to be connected – to him. April is turning out to be a great month for horror movies this year. April 20

Disobedience

(Bleecker Street) Rachel Weisz, Rachel McAdams, Alessandro Nivola, Anton Lesser. A woman, exiled from the conservative Jewish community that she grew up in after a sexual transgression, returns to mourn her father who had just passed away. The same patterns and passions that ignited the ire of the community smolder in her once again as the past looks ready to be repeated once more. April 27

The Gospel According to André

(Magnolia) André Leon Talley, Whoopie Goldberg, Anna Wintour, Tom Ford. Perhaps the most unlikely fashion icon ever, Talley went from humble beginnings in the segregated American South to the runways of Paris and Milan. One of the more quotable designers, his sense of style has informed not only the Fashionista community but also the African-American community as well. Not bad for a tall, gay African-American man from the South. April 27

The House of Tomorrow

(Shout Factory) Asa Butterfield, Alex Wolff, Nick Offerman, Ellen Burstyn. A high school boy lives a sheltered life with his great-aunt and legal guardian in Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome house, the House of Tomorrow. When he meets another young man with a heart condition and a love for punk rock which he shares with geodesic dome boy, both of their lives will be changed forever. April 27

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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