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

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Rat Film


Oh, rats!

(2016) Experimental Documentary (The Cinema Guild) No cast listed. Directed by Theo Anthony

You dirty rat. Rat bastard. Rat fink. The fact is, rats are not looked on fondly by our society. They are symbols of decay and rot, of filth and poverty. Rats are bringers of pestilence; it is said that they brought the Black Death to Europe but in fact, it was parasites living on the rats that carried the plague. Have rats been getting a bad rap?

Well, no. Rats do carry a variety of diseases and thrive in urban decay. Anthony’s debut feature documentary – or feature experimental documentary to be more accurate – is not so much a feature but a collection of shorts thrown together, sometimes incomprehensibly, with an overall theme of rats in Baltimore – and even that isn’t always true.

The movie is narrated by a female voice that sounds a bit like a distaff Stephen Hawking or more to the point, a primitive bored-sounding Siri. There is also an odd popping sound on the soundtrack throughout that I’m thinking was put there intentionally, if for no other reason than to further annoy the audience which Anthony probably thinks of as “challenging the audience.” Maybe he’s right.

There are a lot of vignettes that may or may not have anything to do with anything else; we follow a city-employed rat exterminator (none of those who appear in the film are named) who is both humane and philosophical; “There ain’t never been a rat problem in Baltimore,” he opines during a break from visiting homes in Baltimore’s poorest areas, “It’s a people problem.” That is apparently because the city of Baltimore more than a century ago set out to divide the neighborhoods by desirability and then focus services on the desirable area. Those in the redlined areas were essentially left to rot and rot they did.

There are sequences where a computer-generated Baltimore is created from a rat’s point of view. Where there are gaps in the program, star fields are shown. Here, the film seems to say, there be rats. Or perhaps more accurately, here there be software glitches. Take your pick.

The sequence showing doll house crime scene recreations from the 30s that are still used today for CSI training (and can be viewed by the public in a museum setting) was interesting. The CGI rat in a maze was not. There is no flow to the film; at times it just seems like Anthony is throwing things at the screen and seeing what sticks. I termed it cinematic masturbation when I saw it; after having reflected on it for a couple of weeks, I’m not sure I was right but I can understand why others might think so

The movie was deeply polarizing. Friends of mine have been singing its praises; others think it’s one of the worst films to ever play the Florida Film Festival. I’m not a fan; perhaps I prefer my documentaries to be more traditional and am not ready for this kind of challenge. I would be remiss in my duties as a reviewer however if I didn’t point out that this really isn’t for everybody; some of the scenes (such as amateur rat catchers luring rats from a garbage-strewn alleyway with turkey slices smeared with peanut butter on a fishhook and then beating them to death with a baseball bat, and the final scene in which a snake devours a helpless baby rat) may make sensitive audience members uncomfortable, and the sensory assault of the computer graphics may also do the same.

I would never tell anyone not to go see a movie, even one that I absolutely loathed. I don’t absolutely loathe this one. The exterminator is an interesting character study and there are moments here and there that I found fascinating. While the linking of rats to urban blight and racism felt more obvious than perhaps was intended, the filmmaker shows a certain sympathy towards the rats. I only wish he’d had a little more for his audience.

REASONS TO GO: The city exterminator is an interesting guy and his story is the most compelling.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie has absolutely no flow; it’s a bunch of images thrown up on the screen without any sort of rhyme or reason. There is a popping sound on the soundtrack that was most annoying.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity present as well as scenes that may make animal lovers a bit uncomfortable..
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The music is composed by electronic music star Dan Deacon.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/28/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sans Soleil
FINAL RATING: 3/10
NEXT: The Archer

I, Frankenstein


Aaron Eckhart is pissed off that his agent let him sign up for this film.

Aaron Eckhart is pissed off that his agent let him sign up for this film.

(2014) Horror Fantasy (Lionsgate) Aaron Eckhart, Bill Nighy, Yvonne Strahovsky, Miranda Otto, Jai Courtney, Socratis Otto, Aden Young, Caitlin Stasey, Mahesh Jadu, Steve Mouzakis, Nicholas Bell, Deniz Akdeniz, Chris Pang, Kevin Grevioux, Bruce Spence, Virginie Le Brun, Penny Higgs, Goran Kleut, Yasca Sinigaglia, Nicole Downs, Angela Kennedy, Samantha Reed. Directed by Stuart Beattie

We are born and then we are created. We are all of us blank slates that are filled up by our experiences and our mentors, parents and friends. Of course if you don’t have the latter, you are left to interpret things on your own.

Victor Frankenstein (Young) had found the secret of creation, animating a sewn-together quilt of body parts and grafted skin. Part scientist and part madman, he had promised his creature (Eckhart) that he would one day animate a companion for him but later went back on his promise. In a fit of rage, the creature murdered Frankenstein’s wife (Le Brun) which completely unhinges his creator, who follows his creation up above the Arctic circle and promptly freezes to death. For reasons even he probably can’t understand, the creature carries the body back to the graveyard to bury his creator alongside his wife when the creature is attacked by demons. A pair of gargoyles witness the event in which the creature kills (and sends their spirits back to Hell) most of his attackers. Sounds plenty biblical to me.

They take him back (none too willingly) to a huge Notre Dame-like cathedral in some unnamed Eurocity where he is introduced to Leonore (Otto), Queen of the Gargoyles. She explains to the creature (whom she names Adam) that there is a war going on between the Demons of Hell and the Gargoyles who are the agents of Heaven (apparently the angels didn’t want to get their wings dirty) and that for whatever reason the demon Prince Naberius (Nighy) had chosen to involve Adam, he was nevertheless caught in the middle. However, Adam who is kind of pissed off at life in general (talk about someone who never asked to be born) chooses to turn his back, heading someplace where humans can’t find him. Or demons. Or gargoyles.

200 years pass and Adam, tired of being stalked by demons and still pissed off at life in general, decides to go on the offensive. Things haven’t changed much in gargoyle-land except that they are now willing to win by any means necessary and they don’t trust Adam much. Naberius, masquerading as a tech industrialist, has hired Dr. Terra (Strahovsky), a respected scientist, to help Naberius figure out a way to replicate Victor Frankenstein’s work. Of course, she doesn’t realize she’s working for a demon prince or she’d probably have asked for enough of a salary increase to afford a better apartment.

She’s able to re-animate rats but not humans yet; the reappearance of Adam and the existence of Victor Frankenstein’s journal in the possession of the gargoyles gives her a shot at actually reanimating human corpses. But what does Naberius want with reanimated corpses and how will that lead to the end of the world? And what will Adam, still pissed off at life in general, do about it – if anything?

Based on the Kevin Grevioux (who has a small role in the film) graphic novel, this has a lot of the same elements of the Underworld series; since some of the producer of that series are involved, it isn’t a stretch to figure out why the movie has much the same look as that hit movie franchise. Mainly set at night or at dusk, with palates of blue and grey predominant in the mix, the movie looks slick.

There is of course plenty of CGI gargoyles and demons to augment the slick look, with lots of digital flame and blue light to denote when a gargoyle or demon respectively bites the dust (the flames descend downward, the blue light ascends upward). The only thing missing is a black leather catsuit for Strahovsky.

Eckhart has been one of Hollywood’s most interesting leading men over the last decade but this is a definite misfire. His only expression is anger with a side trip into annoyed. He’s like the Clint Eastwood character in Gran Torino only with a murderous glare and lots of scars. He’s still charismatic but we get no sense of his inner journey – he eventually decides to help (not much of a spoiler gang) but we never get a clear sense of why; for someone who just wants to be left alone he really sticks his nose in things.

Nighy is one of my favorite actors and he’s essentially entertaining in everything he does. He can be light and charming, or dark and menacing as he is here. He makes for a fine demon prince, urbane and charming on the surface but with a whole load of delicious evil below it. Something tells me that a movie about his character would have been much more fun. Strahovsky, best known as the love interest in the TV show Chuck, looks pretty good on the big screen. I think she’ll make the transition just fine if that’s where she wants to go. Sadly, all three of these fine actors deserved better (as does Miranda Otto as the wishy-washy gargoyle queen).

In movies like Legion and Max Payne we get a very similar background story with a very similar look to both movies, and this one doesn’t really distinguish itself from those other two (and a whole mess o’ B-movies with similar themes). While some of the effects are nice and the leading actors do their job, the dialogue can be cringeworthy and you get the sense that director Beattie – who has some pretty good movies to his credit – lost a whole lot of battles to the producers and/or studio. In any case, this is bound to be heading to home video pretty quickly and while I won’t say it’s a complete waste of your time, you might be better off waiting for it to be a cheaper ticket than the ten dollars plus for the 3D version that are out there now.

REASONS TO GO: Bill Nighy is always entertaining. Aaron Eckhart is a solid leading man. Some nice eye candy.

REASONS TO STAY: Plot is very much paint-by-numbers. All concept and no substance.

FAMILY VALUES:  Throughout the movie there’s plenty of action and violence although not much gore.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The monster was given the name Adam in Mary Shelley’s original novel. Few of the movies have utilized it but this one does.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/4/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 5% positive reviews. Metacritic: 30/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Constantine

FINAL RATING: 4/10

NEXT: Labor Day

Flushed Away


Flushed Away

Roddy St. James wanted a couple of slugs with dinner, but this isn't what he had in mind.

(2006) Animated Feature (DreamWorks) Starring the voices of Hugh Jackman, Kate Winslet, Ian McKellan, Jean Reno, Bill Nighy, Andy Serkis, Shane Richie, Kathy Burke, David Suchet, Miriam Margolyes, Rachel Rawlinson, Susan Duerden, Miles Richardson.  Directed by David Bowers and Sam Fell

It is no secret that a life of privilege and ease and a life of work and stress are as worlds apart as can be. Night and day doesn’t even begin to describe it. We all aspire to be in the penthouse, but generally most of us have to settle for scraps floating around in the basement.

Nowhere is this allegory more succinct than in Flushed Away. In this animated feature, a pet mouse named Roddy St. James (Jackman) lives in pampered gentility in the fashionable Kensington district of London. His home is a magnificent, plush cage with all the amenities a rodent could aspire to. Better still, when the human inhabitants leave the house, as they do frequently, Roddy gets free run of the house. Being a refined and sophisticated mouse, he looks for the right outfit for the right occasion, be it volleyball at the beach or fine dining. He has a wardrobe – well, it belongs to the dolls but it fits him nicely – and prefers the studied elegance of a tux to just about anything else in his closet.

With England gripped by World Cup fever – the finals are just a few days away, and the plucky Brits are taking on the Germans – Roddy finds there is one thing that he doesn’t have in this existence of plenty – company. He is a pampered pet, but a pet nonetheless and it is a cage where he sleeps, no matter how gilded the environment.

That all changes when the plumbing backs up a bit and out jumps Sid (Richie) from the depths below. He is a sewer rat with a cockney accent and a foul leather jacket. Sid takes one look at the new digs and decides he wants to stay permanently. Roddy is aghast at the concept, but plots to get rid of the unwelcome guest. He escorts Sid to the bathroom and offers him a nice Jacuzzi bath. Sid, being a worldly rat, is not fooled by Roddy’s weak scheme. Instead, he gives Roddy a nice push into the “Jacuzzi” and pulls the lever to activate the bubbles. Of course, Roddy is flushed down the toilet.

He winds up in the sewers, far from his beloved home. Everything is strange and unfamiliar, especially the slugs who are everywhere, squealing in high-pitched terror. Then, Roddy finds himself in a city…a copy of London made out of garbage and debris, inhabited by rats. It is a wondrous place, with peg-legged salts (whose wooden legs are made of pencil stubs) selling fish and chips…well, fish…well, it looks a lot like fish…from the harbor side. Roddy wants nothing to do with all of this, however. Like Dorothy before him, he just wants to go home.

The only ship captain brave enough to travel the dangerous waters of the sewers to the world above is a lady named Rita (Winslet), captain of the “Jammy Dodger.” She is plucky and brave, but suspicious. Seems there’s a nefarious criminal after her – one Toad (McKellan). She has something of his – well, it was hers before it was his but that’s not the way he sees it – a ruby. Roddy arrives just as a couple of his nastier henchmen – Whitey (Nighy), an ex-lab rat, and Spike (Serkis), a street-smart hooligan – come to retrieve the Toad’s property.

They wind up capturing the pair, especially since Roddy, who doesn’t care how he gets home as long as someone gets him there, sells Rita down the river. However, when Toad (as most criminal masterminds will) decides to deep-freeze them both, Rita rescues the both of them, taking a critical item that Toad wants even more than the Ruby (which is just glass, by the way) since it is central to his plans of taking over.

Once Spike, Whitey and their fellow henchmen are unsuccessful at recapturing the pair, the disgusted Toad calls in the big guns; the French super-criminal Le Frog (Reno) and his group of miming, prone-to-surrender French Frogs. In the meantime, Roddy meets Rita’s family and begins to realize just what he is missing. Still, he has to get back home and promises Rita real jewels to get him there. She may not trust him, but she is loyal to a fault, particularly when a bargain has been struck. Still, with the villainous amphibians on their trail, can they make it to the penthouse once again?

Aardman Studios, the creators of Chicken Run and Wallace and Gromit are responsible for this. It is their first foray into computer generated animation – they are known for their stop motion animation, which doesn’t work very well with water, which much of this movie is set on or near. They brought in veterans of Shrek to help them, and so this has the look and feel of an Aardman film without the thumbprints – although the software written for the movie actually digitally inserts imperfections into the characters to make it look more like a traditional Aardman movie.

Like most Aardman movies, Flushed Away skewers British life and frailties (although they go after other nationalities, with the ugly American tourists and the supercilious French) and carries a tremendous amount of in-jokes. For example, when Roddy is going through his wardrobe, he finds a yellow spandex outfit that looks suspiciously like what Wolverine wears in the comics (Jackman, of course, plays Wolverine in the X-Men series). A cockroach is seen reading Kafka’s Metamorphosis and Roddy encounters a Nemo-like clownfish in the sewers.

The real attraction here are the slugs. Although at first it looks like they’re going to be a one-joke occurrence, they settle into a role as a kind of Greek chorus, singing popular songs to emphasize various points during the movie. They never fail to amuse; in fact, every time they came onscreen, I wound up laughing, many times out loud. They’re by far the best part of the movie, not unlike Scrat the Squirrel in Ice Age. If the movie does well, don’t be surprised if we see a lot more of the slugs over the next couple of years.

The movie is well-cast, with Jackman bringing a kind of dorky charm that he displays from time to time onscreen (see Kate and Leopold). His chemistry with Winslet is surprisingly good, and Reno has a great time lampooning a character he played in Leon: The Professional. The problem I have here is a minor quibble; the story is a bit unnecessarily complex. They have this whole subplot with the ruby and then cast it aside very abruptly when Toad sets his eyes on something else. That left the ruby kind of superfluous; they’d have been better off without it and just have Toad go for the thing he really wants from the get go, instead of having to contrive for Rita to steal it. I guess they must have needed to pad the running time a bit.

Still in all, this is real entertaining for kids and their parents alike. The slugs are some of the funniest characters this year, and to my mind this is right up there with Cars and The Ant Bully as the best kids movie of the year. Considering this is an Aardman production, that’s not surprising at all.

WHY RENT THIS: Like all Aardman productions, this is big time quality all the way, and plenty funny for both kids and adults. The slugs are hysterical.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the British in-jokes may not necessarily play well outside of the U.K.

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the humor is a bit crude and a few bad words, but otherwise suitable for most kids and certainly all teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Robert DeNiro and William Shatner were also considered for the part that eventually went to Andy Serkis.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are a couple of extra slug songs. There is also a pipes maze in a fair-to-middlin’ kids section.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $178.1M on a production budget of $149M. The movie lost money.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Ninja Assassin