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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The Salt of Life (Gianni e la donne)


The Salt of Life

Gianni di Gregorio points at what he wants most in life.

(2011) Comedy (Zeitgeist) Gianni di Gregorio, Valeria De Franciscis Bendoni, Alfonso Santagata, Elisabetta Piccolomini, Valeria Cavalli, Aylin Prandi, Kristina Cepraga, Michelangelo Ciminale, Teresa di Gregorio, Lilia Silvi, Gabriella Sborgi, Laura Squizzato, Silvia Squizzato. Directed by Gianni di Gregorio

 

When a certain age is reached, people tend to become invisible to the opposite sex – transparent, as one character ruefully comments in this Italian comedy. The tendency is for us to fight against this marginalization and assert our own sexual potency, particularly in the male of the species.

Gianni di Gregorio, who co-wrote and directed this as well as starred in it, has reached that age. He is a pleasant, willing sort who was forced, unwilling, into retirement years ago (although for what reason it is never said). His laid-back, low-key and giving nature are constantly taken advantage of by the women in his life, particularly his nonagenarian mother (Bendoni) who fritters away her life savings while her son scrapes by. She constantly calls her son to come visit her to basically wait on her hand and foot, while her caregiver Kristina (Cepraga) is given designer dresses and jewelry to wear.

Gianni’s wife (Piccolomini) is cordial towards him, although she does belittle him for having nothing to do. Her earnings and Gianni’s pension are barely enough to make ends meet. Still, they have a pretty comfortable lifestyle, although the two of them sleep in separate bedrooms and essentially lead separate lives. With them lives their daughter (Teresa de Gregorio), who is stressed with university exams, and her slacker boyfriend Michi (Ciminale) who seems to spend more time with Gianni than with his girlfriend.

Rome has always been filled with attractive women and Gianni is surrounded by them – besides Kristina there’s Gianni’s ex-girlfriend Valeria (Cavalli) who is newly available and seems to adore him, his neighbor Aylin (Prandi) who professes to be madly in love with him but that seems to be mainly because he is willing to walk her St. Bernard for her and run errands for her while she sleeps off a hangover from yet another night of partying. None of them seem to have much more than a playful flirtation in mind for him and he wonders if he missed out on the romance in life. This spirals him into a mild depression.

Gianni’s best friend and lawyer (Santagata) notices Gianni’s melancholy and advises him to take on a mistress. Gianni warms to the idea – even some of the most decrepit men in his neighborhood have one – and seems to fear the idea of becoming the lonely old man who walks his dog in a Trastevere park every day. But how to go about it?

This is not really a sequel to di Gregorio’s last film, Mid-August Lunch (which I saw at the 2010 Florida Film Festival and it wound up on my list of Ten Best Films that year) so much as it is a continuation. There are several of the same characters in that movie including Santagata and Gianni’s mom. It carries with it the same inner charm and sweetness that the first movie carried.

As in that movie, Gianni is something of a pushover, blandly murmuring “certainly, certainly” when asked to do something by the various women in the movie. Yet when he decides to do something it become woefully obvious he doesn’t have game by modern standards. He is courtly and charming but lacks passion and confidence, something most women look for. He is a hand kisser in an age of ass grabbers. He is so inept at wooing the women around him that one wonders how he got married and managed to sire a daughter.

Gianni has that woeful hangdog look, and his melancholy is palpable throughout the film. He  is aware of the bags under his eyes and although not an un-handsome man, he is no Giancarlo Giannini. In many ways, he is the man most women like to affectionately complain about – somewhat befuddled, a little inept and lost without the women in his life.

The sun-dappled streets of Trastevere are charming and alluring in their own way. Even though Gianni isn’t in the best of financial shape, he still leads an enviable lifestyle; eating well, drinking often and not having to go to work every day. Still, there’s something missing for him, something that leads him to stray onto trails he doesn’t know and isn’t sure where they’re going to lead him.

It seems odd to root for someone to cheat on their wives but it is important to remember that mistresses occupy a different place in Italian culture than in our own. Not that it’s accepted so much as politely ignored. Here, it’s a major no-no so American audiences might have trouble getting behind Gianni’s quest.

Still, this is delightful, laid-back, charming and laugh-out-loud funny. Di Gregorio makes the difficult art of comedy seem effortless, and that’s the mark of a real master. In a landscape littered by raunchy comedies by Judd Apatow and his wanna-bes, this is a refreshing change. Not that I don’t enjoy Apatow’s films or raunchy comedies in general but it’s nice to have variety and isn’t that the salt of life?

REASONS TO GO: Gentle and charming.  Has a sweet sexiness that American films rarely capture.

REASONS TO STAY: Gianni lacks inertia. Hard to root for a guy trying to cheat on his wife.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual innuendo and a few bad words scattered here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The actress playing Gianni’s daughter is in fact his real life daughter.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/24/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100. The reviews are solid.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mid-August Lunch

ROME LOVERS: This movie is set in Rome’s Trastevere neighborhood and is the Rome not of tourists but the city where Romans actually live. One gets a real sense of the lifestyle of those who live there.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: The Raid: Redemption