THE MAN WHO INVENTED CHRISTMAS (2017)

November 22, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Most would agree there is only one Christmas story that surpasses the popularity and familiarity of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”, and both have had numerous film and screen adaptations. Rather than offer up yet another film version of the Dickens novella, director Bharat Nalluri (MISS PETTIGREW LIVES FOR A DAY, 2008) instead uses the Susan Coyne screenplay adapted from the non-fiction work of Les Standiford to present the lively and entertaining tale of HOW Dickens wrote his iconic book.

Dan Stevens (BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, 2017) stars as the esteemed writer Charles Dickens, and he bounds from scene to scene like a moody and spoiled Energizer Bunny. Attempts to capture the process behind creative writing usually falls into one of two buckets: dry and boring, or outlandish and over-the-top. Mr. Stevens easily fits into the latter, but as a testament to the strength of the story and supporting cast, we viewers are nonetheless quite entertained.

It should surprise no one that Christopher Plummer steals each of his scenes as Ebenezer Scrooge. What a delight to behold the talented octogenarian as he leaves us wishing for even more of the grumpy and miserly old former partner of Jacob Marley. Jonathan Pryce also excels as Charles’ father John, a charming man who has never quite figured out the economics of life … and whose long ago debt sent young Charles to a work house mixing shoe black. Even as an adult, Charles had recurring nightmares of his time in child labor, and fortunately he was able to use those memories to create many long-lasting stories, each oblivious to generational change.

In 1843 London, the renowned Dickens is coming off three straight flops and experiencing financial woes that are exacerbated by his insistence on the finest materials for the large home he and wife Kate (Morfydd Clark, LOVE & FRIENDSHIP) are renovating. Dickens is in the midst of severe writer’s block, and only the quiet strength of his wife and never-wavering loyalty of friend/agent John Forster (Justin Edwards) are able to keep in from sinking to even lower emotional depths. Screen veteran Miriam Margolyes plays the housekeeper, and Anna Murphy is Tara, the Irish nanny who serves as a muse for Dickens.

Having the characters of the story appear on screen and interact with the writer is a terrific way to explain how the creative mind works, although at times, the sources of ideas, characters and key lines seem a bit too convenient. We often get the feeling that perhaps too much was crammed into the run time, what with the conflicts over money, renovations, family matters, and publishing. The best parts are also the easiest with which to relate – those involving the characters and the story slowly coming together.

Simon Callow plays John Leech, the famed illustrator of the finished novella, and Miles Jupp adds a bit of twisted fun as Dickens’ rival William Makepeace Thackery. There are some interesting lines that add color, such as, “People will believe anything if you are properly dressed”, and “blood of iron, heart of ice”. It’s these pieces that allow us to view this as a journey of self-discovery for the author, and not just a famous story being assembled. The overall trouble with the film stems from that title. It seems we could have expected more than a tease of what Christmas was at the time, and more specifically how “A Christmas Carol” inspired a revolutionary new approach to the holiday. We are left to connect many dots. In fact, Dickens didn’t so much invent Christmas as allow folks to re-imagine it.

Is “A Christmas Carol” the most famous Dickens story? Arguments could also be made for “Oliver Twist”, “David Copperfield”, “Little Dorrit”, “Nicholas Nickelby”, and of course, “A Tale of Two Cities”. What can’t be argued is the brilliance of the writer and the impact of his books. His passion is evident in his determination to self-publish at a time when such practice was a rare as it is commonplace today. The film is rated PG, but younger kids are likely to be confused with the frenetic approach; however, all ages will get a merry kick out of Mr. Plummer’s Scrooge!

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REMEMBER (2016)

March 31, 2016

remember Greetings again from the darkness. Earlier this year, 81 year old Maggie Smith impressed with her lead role in The Lady in the Van. And now, just a few weeks later, comes 86 year old Christopher Plummer in a gut-wrenching performance as Zev Guttman, a 90 year old German grieving widower suffering from dementia. Don’t let that description fool you … Zev goes on a cross-continent road trip with a mission of seeking justice against the Auschwitz guard who killed his family more than 70 years ago.

Zev lives in a nursing home and often can’t remember to wear shoes, much less that his beloved wife Ruth has passed away. It turns out another resident/patient at the home shares a history at Auschwitz with him. Wheelchair-bound Max (Martin Landau) says the two men are the last surviving members of their cell block, and must work together to find the guard – now living under the assumed name of Rudy Kurlander – and find justice for their families. So we find ourselves with a coalition of sympathetic senior citizen Nazi hunters.

Given the war atrocities, it makes sense that over the years, many movies have placed Nazi hunting as a core theme. Among the most well known are: The Odessa File (1974), Marathon Man (1976), The Boys from Brazil (1978), Inglourious Bastards (2009), and The Debt (2010). But leave it to director Atom Egoyan (Ararat, Where the Truth Lies) to find a different spin and a twist on a familiar theme. At times, Zev’s dementia distracts us from his vengeful mission, while at various other times, the innocence of children acts as a dual reminder – the fragility of old age vs. the eye-for-eye brutality.

It’s Landau’s Max who acts as a type of narrative structure for the story. His sharp and focused plan is written out in letter form so that Zev can constantly refer and be reminded of his purpose. The letter also provides us viewers with the necessary back-story to fully comprehend the what’s and why’s. Each time Zev re-reads the letter, he re-experiences the loss of his wife – yet another of the film’s reminders of the effects of dementia.

Zev’s search takes him from Ohio to Canada to Idaho to Lake Tahoe. He goes through four Rudy Kurlanders – with Bruno Ganz (Downfall, 2004) and Jurgen Prochnow (Das Boot (1981) representing two. There is also a very uncomfortable sequence involving Dean Norris (“Breaking Bad”) which reminds that hatred is often passed down through generations.

The nursing home “getaway” and the purchase of a gun have us thinking Zev is some type of senior citizen Jason Bourne – sharing the lack of memory, but none of the skills. The title of “Remember” has many meanings and interpretations here, not the least of which is as a display of loss, guilt, revenge, family and old age. Even the most poignant moment of the film occurs when Zev says “I remember”.

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DANNY COLLINS (2015)

April 5, 2015

danny collins Greetings again from the darkness. He who was once Michael Corleone is now Danny Collins. With a career spanning 40 plus years with 8 Oscar nominations, including a win for Scent of a Woman, Al Pacino must be considered Hollywood royalty. Upon closer analysis, that last nomination and win came more than 20 years ago, and he is now the go-to guy for a demonstrative, (more than a) few years past his prime type. So on paper, we get why Pacino was cast as Danny Collins (think modern day Neil Diamond).

The film begins with a very young Collins being interviewed by a rock journalist (Nick Offerman) after the release of his first album. Flash forward 40 years, and Collins has made a career of re-hashing the same songs to the same concert goers. He lives in a mansion, throws lavish parties, has a fiancé who could be his granddaughter, and absorbs coke and booze between flights on his private jet. It’s only now that Frank (Christopher Plummer), his agent and best friend, presents him with a long lost letter written to Collins by John Lennon after that interview so many years before. Cue the bells and whistles … it’s time for a redemption road trip.

It’s only at this point that we understand the cute “kind of based on a true story” tag at the opening credits. See, Lennon did write a letter in 1971 to British Folk Singer Steve Tilston, and the letter did take many years to find its way to him. However, Tilston never lost his creative vision the way that Danny Collins did (otherwise, there would be no movie).

What happens next is predictable and a bit formulaic. Colllins tracks down his adult son (Bobby Cannavale) from an early career backstage fling, and does all he is capable of doing to cannonball into his life, and that of his wife (Jennifer Garner) and young daughter (Giselle Eisenberg). Expect the usual TV melodramatics as far as disease and suburban family challenges, and tie-in a flirty back-and-forth with the Hilton manager (Annette Benning), and you can pretty much fill in the blanks for the balance of the film.

Cannavale and Plummer certainly do everything they can to elevate the storyline. Cannavale’s emotions are all over the place as one would expect and he is the most believable of all characters. Plummer adds a sense of reality and humor to his interludes with Pacino – wisely controlling his movements against Pacino’s histrionics.

Stories involving a characters seeking redemption have one thing in common … a character who is not so likable. We never really buy him as the aging rock star, or even as the once promising songwriter, but we do buy him as the guy who was too busy for his family and is clumsy and unaware of the pain he causes, even while trying to do the right thing.

Writer/director Dan Fogelman takes few risks in his first shot at directing. His past writing includes the excellent Crazy, Stupid, Love (2011) and the not so excellent Last Vegas (2013). His common theme seems to be the emotional struggle of men, and we definitely know that’s an unsolved mystery. His effort here may not be a bull’s-eye, but it’s not without some merit – despite the Pacino distraction.

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HECTOR AND THE SEARCH FOR HAPPINESS (2014)

October 8, 2014

hector Greetings again from the darkness. Don’t you feel sorry for the smart, rich doctor with the beautiful and successful wife, luxury apartment and appointment book full of patients?  What about when he loudly humiliates one of those patients for expressing her feelings? We are supposed to want Hector to be happy. But do we? Personally, I didn’t give a rip about Hector.

Based on the novel by Francois Lelord, the movie stars Simon Pegg as Hector, a psychiatrist bored with the every day rituals he has set up for himself. A rare two minutes of soul-searching leads Hector to pause his life and embark on a mission to discover the true meaning of happiness. See, Hector believes he can no longer help his patients until he helps himself. My take is that Hector can’t help his patients because he isn’t even trying … he is a narcissist and a jerk who can’t appreciate the moments that make life grand. My disgust towards people like Hector made his journey much less entertaining and enlightening than if the character were someone I cared for.

If all that weren’t bad enough, the first person Hector meets on his trip is an obnoxious business man (Stellan Skarsgard) whose key feature is that he is much richer than Hector. The two grown men tour Shanghai and the night is capped with the gift of a prostitute with a heart. This is no spoiler because Hector is the only one who doesn’t know she is a prostitute. After this, he hangs out with Tibetan monks and sets up their Skype (so he can use it).

Along the way, Hector’s OCD traits cause him to maintain a journal filled with self-help one-liners and funny drawings of his sights. His spontaneous travel itinerary and endless budget take him next to “Africa” – quotations for the generic and clichéd approach the film provides. When Hector is imprisoned by rebels, there was glimmer of hope for the movie, but soon enough, a previous favor for a drug lord (Jean Reno) pays dividends.

Somehow the movie has less insight than the similarly themed EAT PRAY LOVE, and certainly less creativity than The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Hector’s approach even blatantly borrows from the “Tintin” stories, and makes no apology for doing so. The only moment with any emotional depth comes when Toni Collette lashes out with armchair psychology and tells Hector exactly what he is. In all fairness, the movie is directed by Peter Chelsom, who also directed Hannah Montana: The Movie, so perhaps any expectations were too high.

Despite all of the short-comings, I will always pay admission if a movie includes a 3 minute monologue from the great Christopher Plummer, an especially welcome sight here. Simon Pegg, though an incredibly gifted comic actor, is over the top miscast here. His persona is distracting to the point that we never once believe he could be a psychiatrist or that Rosamund Pike would find him appealing. But the single biggest obstacle is that an audience finds it difficult to root for a narcissistic protagonist who believes that there must be some magic potion for happiness … maybe sweet potato stew.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you always root for the spoiled, rich guy to win in his battle against a mid-life crisis

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: your local cinema has a rule against throwing items at the screen during especially annoying parts

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THE SOUND OF MUSIC cast 1965 and 2013

April 30, 2013

The cast in 1965 and 2013

(left to right):

Kym Karath (Gretl), Debbie Turner (Marta), Angela Cartwright (Brigitta), Duane Chase (Kurt), Heather Menzies (Louisa), Nicholas Hammond (Friedrich), Charmian Carr (Leisl), Julie Andrews (Maria), Christopher Plummer (Captain Von Trapp)

Sound of Music - then and now

 


THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO (2011)

December 21, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. The character of Lisbeth Salander absolutely fascinates me. That’s true whether we are discussing Stieg Larsson‘s Millennium trilogy novels, the Swedish film versions, or this latest film version from director David Fincher (The Social Network) and a screenplay from Steve Zaillian. It’s also true whether Lisbeth is played on screen by Noomi Rapace (Swedish films) or Rooney Mara. She is a brilliant character hiding in plain sight from a world that has fiercely mistreated her, and now misjudges and underestimates her. She is the oddest heroine I can recall … and I can’t get enough of her.

 Let’s start with the source material. Stieg Larsson’s books are far from perfect, but addictive just the same. The first book (on which this film is based) is, at its core, a traditional who-dunnit presented in a manner that is claustrophobic, paranoid and eerie. Moving on to this particular film, we find the director and screenplay holding the basic tone of the book and original films, while making a few changes … some minor, others more substantial. These changes may irk those fervent fans who are quite loyal to the books, but Fincher surely wanted to offer more than a simple re-telling of the story.

 Daniel Craig plays Mikael Blomkvist, the journalist hired to solve the 40 year old mystery of the disappearance/murder of Harriet Vanger, niece to Swedish millionaire Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer). To research, Blomkvist must dig into the Vanger’s rotten family tree of Nazis, anti-Semites, sexual predators, anti-social fanatics, and a few just plain loony birds. You can imagine how excited this rich and once powerful family is to have someone uncovering long buried secrets. Circumstances allow for Lisbeth to assist Blomkvist in researching this.

 Unlike many mysteries where assembling the clues is the most fun, the real heart of this story is the odd, somewhat uncomfortable developing relationship between Blomkvist and Lisbeth. This latest version allows this to develop relatively smoothly, but it nonetheless rattles our senses. We see the subtle changes in Lisbeth as she slowly opens up to the idea of a real friendship based on trust. Fear not mystery fans, the Vanger clan still provides more than enough juice to keep any film sleuth happy.

COMPARISON: It’s truly impossible to avoid comparisons between the two movie versions and the respective casts. It’s quite obvious Mr. Fincher was working with a substantially greater budget than Niels Arden Opler had for the first Swedish film. While they are both enthralling, I actually lean a bit towards the rawer original. That takes nothing away from this latest version. Same with Noomi Rapace vs. Rooney Mara. Ms. Mara is excellent in her performance and I was fully satisfied, though Ms. Rapace brought a rougher edge to the role … one that made it even tougher to crack that shell. The biggest difference in the casts is Daniel Craig against Michael Nyqvist. Mr. Craig is just a bit too cool for the role, while Nyqvist captured the insecurity and vulnerability that Larsson wrote about. To have two such strong film versions of the same story released so close together speaks to the strength of Fincher and Larsson.

 All of that is nit-picking. Both film versions are thrilling and sterling entertainment, and clearly the Fincher version will bring the story to a much wider audience. He even brought back Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross to deliver another note-perfect score. I would encourage those that are interested to check out the Swedish version, as well as the Larsson books. Maybe you will join me in my fascination with this creature known as Lisbeth Salander.

note: this is an extremely harsh, dark film.  It includes brutal sex crimes, Nazism, animal cruelty and quite a few unlikeable, unsavory folks.  Heck, even the Swedish winter is jarring!

note 2: get there in time for the opening scene and credits. Reznor and Karen O (from the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s) deliver a searing remake of Led Zeppelin’s classic “The Immigrant Song” … over some mesmerizing visuals.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a fan of the Larsson books and/or the original Swedish films OR you want to see one of the most original characters on film OR you are just looking for another reason to hate rich people

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF:  you are looking for upbeat, light-hearted holiday entertainment OR you avoid movies featuring any, much less all, of the subjects in my note above

watch the trailer:


BEGINNERS

June 10, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. This is a terrific little art-house character study with comedic elements, fine acting and superb writing. The creative force is Mike Mills, who was also the writer and director on another excellent little movie from about 5 years ago called Thumbsucker. When I say “little movie”, I mean intimate and poignant with a nominal budget.

Three interwoven time periods are presented to an effective end. One period shows us Oliver (Ewan McGregor) as a young kid interacting with his mother (Mary Page Keller). Another period shows Oliver’s 75 year old father Hal (Christopher Plummer) confessing to him that he is gay (this is a few months after the mother/wife dies). The third period has Oliver trying to forge a relationship with Anna (Melanie Laurent) whom he met at a costume party.

 While that may sound like a simple set-up, I assure you that the complications created by these characters are realistic and head-spinning. It turns out Hal knew he was gay prior to marrying Oliver’s mother, but claims she promised to “fix” him. Once he proclaims his gayness, Hal jumps in with both feet to all causes gay. He thoroughly enjoys himself and even clicks with a new, younger lover. And just when he admits to joy, inoperable cancer is discovered in Hal’s lungs. This begins the second major secret of his life.

 The scenes from Oliver’s childhood provide crucial evidence on why he is so solemn and afraid of relationships. He suffers quietly just as his mother did. Things begin to shift for him when, dressed as Freud, his costume party sofa becomes occupied by Anna – a beautiful, alluring French actress who, it turns out, is just as messed up emotionally as is Oliver. They make the perfect threesome … including Arthur, Hal’s Jack Terrier, who (speaking through subtitles) lets us know when things are either OK or not. Arthur takes a great deal of the heaviness away, though not in a slapstick manner.

There are many elements of this film that I really like. The houses of both Hal and Oliver are full of as much personality as either of the characters. The look and pace of the film is meticulous and steady given the material. It seems to be naturally lighted from windows and interior sconces. Nothing even comes close to looking like a Hollywood set.

 Ewan McGregor plays his part very close to the vest and conveys the pain and uncertainty that Oliver has learned over the years. His defenses are up! Melanie Laurent was my favorite part of Inglourious Basterds (she was the cinema owner on a mission) and here she offers both hopefulness and melancholy. To me, the heart of the film is Christopher Plummer’s performance. He portrays an elderly gay man with grace and then takes it to another level in his “cancer” scenes. He is a wise man who may or may not understand how selfish he was, but is intent on showing Oliver that it’s never to late to be a “beginner” in love.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you can appreciate the special moments that a well made arthouse film can deliver OR you want to see the leader in the clubhouse for Best Supporting Actor (Christopher Plummer)

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: Thor or X-Men is more your cup of tea, as the only chase scene involves McGregor catching a flight to apologize to Laurent.