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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Homemakers


Clean up your room!

Clean up your room!

(2015) Dramedy (Factory25/FilmBuff) Rachel McKeon, Jack Culbertson, Molly Carlisle, Dan Derks, Sheila McKenna, Harry O’Toole, Matt Bryan, Luke Johanson, Devin Bonnée, Daniel Hershberger, Clifford Lynch, Dianna Ifft, Jeff Monahan, LeJon Woods, John Shepard, Nathan Hollabaugh, Pete Bush, Joel Brown, Sarah Jannett Parish, Adrienne Wehr. Directed by Colin Healey

Some movies come along that try to push the boundaries of filmmaking and films. Some even succeed at it. Others are noble efforts. And others…well, they can try a viewer’s patience.

Irene (McKeon) is a singer in a punk band in Austin who has severe impulse control. She is unlikable, unpleasant to be around and her “charm” can be grating. Her bandmates, particularly her ex-girlfriend Kicky (Carlisle) are getting weary of her antics. Then when she has a meltdown onstage during one of their sparsely attended performances – although a well known music blogger is in attendance – and destroys some of her bandmates instruments, the last straw has been reached. They are in the midst of voting whether or not to kick her out of the band when Irene gets a phone call; her grandfather has died and left her a ramshackle house in Pittsburgh.

The house, which hasn’t been inhabited in a decade since her grandpa was unceremoniously shoved into an assisted living home, sits in a working class neighborhood with a cantankerous neighbor (O’Toole) next door. Irene wants a quick payday but the house is in no shape to be sold; knowing nothing about home improvement, she enlists Cam (Culbertson), the cousin she didn’t know she had until the phone call, to help her fix up the place. Unfortunately, he knows nothing about home improvement either. What they do know about is drinking and drugs and so they spend as much time getting plowed as they do channeling Tye Pennington.

Along the way something mysterious, strange and wonderful occurs – Irene, who had committed to nothing in her life except chaos, begins to like the idea of settling down in a home of her own. She begins to get serious about making something of her home – with an eye on keeping it. That’s going to require a good deal of personal improvement to go along with the home improvement though.

Healey in his feature length directorial debut makes the most out of a microscopic budget in putting together a good-looking, well-shot film. I will give him props for going the “different” route. But there are a lot of things here that won’t go over well with general audiences.

Irene is essentially a spoiled, unlikable brat who acts out like a five year old. Watching adults act like children, particularly like venal, mean children, has little appeal to me at this stage of the game. I don’t have anything against child-like behavior but there’s a difference between that and childish behavior, which is what we get here. Don’t get me wrong; McKeon is a force of nature in this role and shows exceptional promise. It takes a lot of guts to take on a part in which the character has virtually nothing redeeming about her until near the end of the film.

The house itself looks like a house that nobody has lived in for ten years. When your mom tells you to clean up your room, it looks like a pigsty, show her this movie and tell her that at least your room isn’t like this. Once you regain consciousness, I’m sure she’ll agree with you. As the house slowly gets renovated, the predictable kitsch takes over as we get garage sale chic going on in the furnishings. Not everything works but at least an effort is made.

Some people are going to find this unwatchable; certainly my wife did. This might end up being a future candidate for Joshua David Martin’s popular monthly Uncomfortable Brunch series at Will’s Pub here  in Orlando, a series that celebrates films that are challenging. Like many of the films that are shown in that series, this is a movie that requires a great deal of forbearance to view. Whether that patience is rewarded at the end of the movie is really your call to make. In my case, I have to say it was not.

REASONS TO GO: Outside the box.
REASONS TO STAY: Irene is extremely unlikable. Lots of indie pretensions. Overdoes the grit.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of foul language, some violence and sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Won the Audience Award at the Independent Film Festival Boston this year.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/17/15: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Having a Healthy Tooth Extracted Without Novocain
FINAL RATING: 2/10
NEXT: The Martian

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (2010)


Abandon all hope.

Abandon all hope.

(2010) Horror (FilmDistrict) Katie Holmes, Guy Pearce, Bailee Madison, Jack Thompson, Garry McDonald, Alan Dale, Julia Blake, Bruce Gleeson, Edwina Richard, Carolyn Shakespeare-Allen, David Tocci, Lance Drisdale, Nicholas Bell, Libby Gott, James Mackay, Emilia Burns, Trudy Hellier, Terry Kenwick, Guillermo del Toro, Dylan Young (voice), Lisa N. Edwards, Kim Ross. Directed by Troy Nixey

Occasionally as children we see a movie that moves us in such a way that it inspires us to take our lives in a direction that might seem unexpected upon the surface. For Mexican horror maestro Guillermo del Toro, that movie was the 1973 TV scarefest Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark in which a troubled young woman moves in a creepy old house and begins to hear voices, see figures scurrying in the shadows and can’t get anyone to believe her that there are creatures living in the house. He was so taken by this movie that he resolved to make these sorts of movies when he grew up. Once he became an in-demand director, remaking the movie that started it all for him became a priority.

Strangely, when the opportunity came to make the movie, he didn’t direct it. Instead, he turned the reigns over to second-time director Nixey. Del Toro also changed the young woman into a little girl and set her and her family loose in a crazy creepy Australian mansion.

Little Sally Hurst (Madison) is shuttled by her somewhat distant mother to live with her father, Alex (Pearce) who is in the midst of renovating a sprawling Rhode Island mansion for a client which would then be sold at an immense profit. Sally is sullen and not at all happy about things, particularly since Alex is completely absorbed by the project which if he can’t pull off would mean financial ruin. It is then his girlfriend Kim (Holmes) who spends the most time with Sally. Sally, who doesn’t like Kim, makes her dissatisfaction known.

Unknown to all three of them, renowned wildlife painter Emerson Blackwood (McDonald) disappeared from the house years earlier. When Sally discovers a hidden ash pit in the basement, she releases a tribe of fairy creatures who turn out to be quite malevolent. They torment Sally and when she tries to explain that the awful things going on to her father, he doesn’t believe her. At first, neither does Kim; in fact, the only person who does is the caretaker, Harris (Thompson) who only wants the three of them to leave.

Eventually the creatures make their hideous plans known to Sally and despite the disbelief of her father, she manages to get Kim to come around. However, can they stand up against a race of creatures that is immeasurably old and have all of time on their side?

Del Toro has a history of putting children in the lead of his horror movies (The Orphanage, Pan’s Labyrinth) and so it’s no surprise that he does so again here. It’s quite natural for adults to disbelieve the wild stories children sometimes tell. However, it then becomes harder to put children in jeopardy, particularly in an American major studio production. Studios are a bit squeamish about that, Jurassic Park notwithstanding. For the most part, we never get a sense that Sally is in any real danger; the creatures, which look like Gollum with anorexia, aren’t really all that scary.

The movie was slapped with an R rating, precisely because the child had the appearance of being endangered but don’t let that fool you; this is definitely more of a PG-13 experience. Pearce and Holmes do a decent job, but they’re not really the focus here; Sally is and while Bailee Madison is a competent child actor, she never really was one that I cared for too much. She’s always seemed a bit insufferable in her performances and Sally certainly is that.

Nixey and del Toro are experts at creating a mood and with the marvelous location and truly creep-worthy sets definitely accomplish the task but again, the lack of feeling of imminent jeopardy kind of wastes all that effort. This is one of those movies that’s all atmosphere and essentially no payoff. It’s surprising because normally del Toro is such a reliable writer. Maybe if he’d made this one independently in Mexico, this might have been a better film. Or maybe if he left the lead character as a troubled young woman instead of a grumpy little girl. This isn’t bad, but it isn’t particularly praiseworthy either.

WHY RENT THIS: Definitely the right location for a haunted house movie. Solid performances by Pearce and Holmes.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Converting Sally to a child was a tactical error. Lacks a sense of dread or jeopardy.
FAMILY VALUES: Horror violence and scenes of terror.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the TV movie that this is based on, Sally was the name of Alex’s wife, not daughter. Here, Alex’s girlfriend is named Kim – and Sally was played by Kim Darby in the original.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s a gallery of concept art here.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $37.0M on a $25M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD Rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Flixster, Vudu
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Insidious
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: The Killer

Prisoners


Hugh Jackman contemplates something truly awful.

Hugh Jackman contemplates something truly awful.

(2013) Thriller (Warner Brothers) Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard, Melissa Leo, Paul Dano, Dylan Minnette, Zoe Soul, Erin Gerasimovich, Kyla Drew Simmons, Wayne Duvall, Len Cariou, David Dastmalchian, Brad James, Anthony Reynolds, Robert C. Treveiler, Sandra Ellis Lafferty, Todd Truley, Brian Daye, Jeff Pope, Victoria Staley, Alisa Harris. Directed by Denis Villeneuve

It is ingrained in us as men that our jobs are simple – to fix things that are broken, and to take care of our family. Our image of ourselves as men takes a hit when we fail at either one of those tasks. However, if someone in our family is taken, how far will we go to get them back?

Keller Dover (Jackman) is a blue collar man living in a Pennsylvania suburban neighborhood. Like most blue collar workers, money is tight but he takes comfort in that he can still afford to take his son Ralph (Minnette) hunting and take pride in his son’s first kill shot. When he gets home from the cold woods with his son, his lovely wife Grace (Bello) and cute-as-a-button young daughter Anna (Gerasimovich) are waiting.

He also has great friends – Franklin Birch (Howard) and his wife Nancy (Davis) who live just a few blocks away. Friends close enough to be virtually family, in fact – they spend Thanksgiving day together. Anna and the Birch’s youngest daughter Joy (Simmons) are thick as thieves and Ralph and the older Birch daughter Eliza (Soul) are pretty tight as well.

Joy and Anna go on a toy run to the Dover house but when they don’t return, concern sets in. When searches around the neighborhood yield no clue of their whereabouts, concern turns to fear. When it is discovered that the two girls were seen playing near a dilapidated RV in which someone was clearly inside, fear turns to panic.

Police Detective Loki (Gyllenhaal) is on the case and he has never not solved a case he’s been given. The RV is spotted near the a service station and Loki finds the driver, young Alex Jones (Dano). He turns out to be mentally challenged and when a search of the RV turns up no evidence that the girls were ever inside it, Alex is released.

But that’s not good enough for the enraged Keller. When he confronts Alex at the police station, he is certain that the young man muttered “They only cried when I left them.” He is certain that Alex knows where the girls are so when the opportunity arises, he kidnaps young Alex from his Aunt Holly’s (Leo) house and takes him to a run-down apartment complex that Keller is renovating and tries to beat the answers out of him.

Grace has essentially fallen apart and is in a drug-induced haze, pretty much unaware of anything but her missing daughter. Franklin and Nancy are fully aware of what Keller is up to but refuse to act; if this is what it takes to get their daughter back, so be it. They won’t stop Keller despite their misgivings about his actions but they won’t aid him either.

In the meantime Detective Loki is getting nowhere despite some promising leads – including a drunken priest (Cariou) with a surprising secret in the church basement and a hooded stalker (Dastmalchian) who may or may not be involved with the kidnapping. In the meantime time is ticking away on the fate of the girls.

Villeneuve has previously directed the excellent Incendies and shows a real flair for the thriller genre. He utilizes cinematographer Roger Deakins – one of the best in the world – to create a grey and colorless environment, growing increasingly more so the longer the girls are away. The children bring color and life; when they are gone there is a growing despair.

Jackman, who was Oscar-nominated for Les Miserables surpasses even that performance here. He is a loving father but one with hints of paranoia even before the kidnappings. He follows a philosophy of being prepared for the worst but nothing could have possibly prepared him for this. As his desperation grows, so does his veneer of civilization begin to crumble. He is so sure that Alex knows something that he is unwilling to even entertain the suggestion that he may be innocent; he knows in his gut that Alex knows where the girls are and he’ll get that information out of him no matter what it takes and folks, it isn’t pretty. Some of the torture scenes are decidedly uncomfortable.

Gyllenhaal has a bit of a cipher on his hands. His Detective Loki is aptly named; not necessarily for the Norse trickster God but for the sound – low key, and the Detective is decidedly that. His people skills aren’t all that well-developed; he answers questions from the distraught parents with the same word-for-word phrase “I hear what you’re saying. We haven’t ruled anything out yet. We’ll certainly look into it” but there is nothing genuine behind it. Loki bears some odd tattoos and is far from perfect; when shadowing Keller whose actions have become suspicious Loki is easily spotted, for example.

The denouement has some unexpected twists to it which is a good thing, although there are some huge holes in logic – for example (SPOILER AHEAD) DNA is not found in a place where it later turns out the girls HAD been; even had it been wiped clean (and it doesn’t appear to have been), there would have been traces. Also, apparently, police cars in Pennsylvania have no sirens or radios.

Still, this is a gripping thriller that will make any parent who sees it twist inwardly as they watch their worst nightmare unfold onscreen. The ensemble cast is uniformly superb and Dano, the lone non-Oscar nominee among them, may well earn one for his work here. While I thought the movie was a bit long at two and a half hours, it still doesn’t feel like any time was wasted. This is one of the better movies to come out in wide release in recent months and is worth seeing just for Jackman’s performance alone.

REASONS TO GO: Wrenching and emotionally draining. Solid, realistic performances throughout.

REASONS TO STAY: Almost too hard to watch in places. A few lapses in logic. Runs a bit long.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s some extremely disturbing violence with depictions of torture and child endangerment, as well as foul language throughout.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie has been in development for nearly a decade, with Bryan Singer and Antoine Fuqua (among others) both attached at various times to direct and Mark Wahlberg and Leonardo di Caprio both attached at other times to star. Jackman was attached when Fuqua was set to direct but both dropped out; Jackman came back on board when Villeneuve was brought in to direct.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/28/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 79% positive reviews. Metacritic: 73/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Silence of the Lambs

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Mr. Nice