The Man Who Invented Christmas

November 27, 2017 by  
Filed under Jerrod, Reviews

Starring: Dan Stevens, Christopher Plummer, Jonathan Pryce
Directed by: Bharat Nalluri (“Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day”)
Written by: Susan Coyne (debut)

I have this thing about properly delineating the end of the year holidays that I’ve seen challenged more and more over the years. I’m the kind of guy who doesn’t want to see Christmas decorations before “It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” has had its annual TV airing, and would prefer to spend the month of November awash in the browns and orange of fall and cornucopias and Thanksgiving dinner, but no—I know too many monsters who put up Christmas decorations the day after Halloween, egged on by retailers who can’t wait to sell you red and green M&Ms even when it makes no goddamn sense. Needless to say, I’m not necessarily in the right frame of mind to really enjoy a frothy eggnog of a Christmas movie before I’ve managed to replace my blood with turkey gravy, but I’ll be damned if “The Man Who Invented Christmas” didn’t win me over—which the lion’s share of the credit goes to Dan Stevens, who is quickly becoming one of the most valuable British imports since Harry Potter.

Set in October 1843, Stevens stars as Charles Dickens, down on his luck after a series of flop novels and in serious debt thanks to an ongoing home renovation and an ever-growing litter of children with wife Kate (Morfydd Clark). Suffering from writer’s block, Dickens is suddenly inspired to write a Christmas tale after overhearing nanny Tara (Anna Murphy) recounting an old Irish Christmas tale to the Dickens children—only thing is, Christmas at that time wasn’t a big deal, so the publisher balks at rushing production of the book. Believing in the idea anyway, Dickens decides to self-publish and takes out a too-large loan, but he still can’t get over his writer’s block. Slowly but surely, he pulls inspiration from people in real life—a skeletal waiter named Marley, his own crippled nephew—to fill out his story, but it isn’t until the character of Ebenezer Scrooge (Christopher Plummer) comes to life to antagonize him as a vision does Dickens’ sense of the story that would become “A Christmas Carol” truly begin to take shape.

Stevens, here again wrestling visions with a skeptical twinkle in his eye as in TV’s brilliantly trippy X-Men adjacent show “Legion,” makes for a delightfully downtrodden Dickens, running from both his own failures and those foisted upon him by his kindly but spendthrift father John (Jonathan Pryce) that put him in a debtor’s prison and young Charles in a sweatshop years ago. And Plummer makes a wonderfully devious Scrooge, inheriting a role all elderly British actors end up with at one point or another, only this time with the extra layer of interacting with and “bah, humbug”-ing his creator. While probably not exactly true to Dickens’ actual writing process, “The Man Who Invented Christmas” ends up as a nice, sugary yuletide treat served in the form of a mild twist on a story we all know by heart, like a salted caramel cookie or hot chocolate with a hint of cinnamon.

The Last Station

February 26, 2010 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Helen Mirren, James McAvoy, Christopher Plummer
Directed by: Michael Hoffman (“A Midsummer Night’s Dream”)
Written by: Michael Hoffman (“A Midsummer Night’s Dream”)

While “The Last Station,” a melodramatic period piece on 19th century Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, might not find the literary scholar in all of us, there’s no denying the major influence the writer’s work has had on generations of free-thinking minds. From Gandhi to Martin Luther King Jr., Tolstoy, who wrote such well-known novels such as “War and Peace,” “Anna Karenina” and “The Kingdom of God is Within You,” is regarded by many as a one of the greatest storytellers in all of literature.

Portraying Tolstoy at the age of 81 is an icon in his own right, 80-year-old Canadian actor Christopher Plummer, who began his professional film career in the last ’50s and is best known for his role in “The Sound of Music” and his Tony Award-winning work on Broadway. As Tolstoy, a part that earned him the first Academy Award nomination of his career this year, Plummer is fantastic. Accolades are also well deserved for Oscar winner Helen Mirren (“The Queen”), who plays Tolstoy’s wife of 48 years, Sofya. The role earned her a fourth Academy Award nomination.

The acting talent is limitless in “The Last Station,” which also stars Oscar nominee Paul Giamatti (“Cinderella Man”) and up-and-coming Scottish actor James McAvoy (“Atonement”). In the film, McAvoy plays Valentine Bulgakov, a young and impressionable essayist who becomes Tolstoy’s personal secretary. Like his role in 2006’s “The Last King of Scotland” where he plays Ugandan dictator Idi Amin’s private physician, McAvoy’s Valentine is at the center of a delicate, emotional, and historical narrative. This one splits Tolstoy between his family and his faction.

The year is 1910 and Tolstoy has built a substantial following of people who live life according to his philosophy, which includes celibacy and passive resistance. Known as Tolstoyans, a Christian anarchist group formed by Vladimir Chertkov (Giamatti), the advocates regard Tolstoy as a prophet. In “The Last Station,” Vladimir sends Valentine into the Tolstoy estate to spy and report back family news from inside the household. Vladimir is worried Sofya will ruin the commune’s plan to indoctrinate the public with his beliefs. She wants the rights to her husbands work after he passes away, but Vladimir argues the work belongs to the people. Tolstoy, himself, seems bewildered at the thought of having to choose between his wife and the man who could help seal his legacy.

While “The Last Station” might feel a bit stuffy and slowly-paced for some viewers, director/screenwriter Michael Hoffman (“A Midsummer Night’s Dream”) has created an intelligent drama based on the intricacies that evolve when relationships and ideals collide. As Mrs. Tolstoy, Mirren is memorable when revealing her character’s frustrations as she slowly loses her husband to the world. McAvoy, too, holds his own alongside the veterans by creating a sympathetic character lost between his idolization of a flawed master and his better conscience.

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

January 7, 2010 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Heath Ledger, Christopher Plummer, Lily Cole
Directed by: Terry Gilliam (“The Brothers Grimm”)
Written by: Terry Gilliam (“The Brothers Grimm”) and Charles McKeown (“Brazil”)
 
He’s always been an acquired cinematic taste, but more recently filmmaker Terry Gilliam has been a harder pill to swallow than ever before.
 
Since returning to the movie set in 2005 for his incoherent fantasy “The Brothers Grimm” after a seven-year hiatus, Gilliam also struck out with the artistic yet immensely disappointing “Tideland” that same year.
 
His losing streak stays intact with his newest venture into the bizarre with “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus,” the final film of Heath Ledger’s career. The late Oscar-winning actor passed away in January 2008 while in the middle of shooting “Parnassus.” To complete the film, Gilliam, after tweaking the script a bit, recruited the services of Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell to play Ledger’s character as the restructured story called for it.
                                             
In the film, Ledger portrays an amnesiac man named Tony who joins a struggling traveling sideshow through the streets of London. Bleak cityscapes, however, are not what Gilliam is bringing you to see. One step into the Imaginarium – Gilliam’s personal Looking Glass – and he’s transported you into the fanciful mind of Parnassus, an immortal who has dealt the soul of his daughter (Lily Cole) to the devil himself. Think of it as a psychedelic version of “Being John Malkovich” once you’ve made the trip.

The narrative, however, slowly fades once you are inside and realize it was more interesting to be curious about it than actually experience it. Basically, Gilliam has given us a frantic story about good versus evil that isn’t the swan song Ledger deserved. While “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” might have moments of visual awe, piecing the rest together into some kind of meaningful fairytale proves to be an impossible feat.

9

September 11, 2009 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Elijah Wood, Jennifer Connelly, John C. Reilly
Directed by: Shane Acker (debut)
Written by: Pamela Pettler (“Monster House”)

Contrary to popular belief “9” is not a movie directed by Tim Burton. It seems like anything these days that is stylish, dark, and animated is mistaken for Burton’s work. No, “Coraline” wasn’t his either.

That still doesn’t mean, however, that someone as creative as Burton hasn’t visually influenced a director like Henry Selick or Shane Acker. In “9,” Acker, who turns his 2006 Academy Award-nominated animated short into a feature film, provides a picturesque setting through impressive computer-generated images but leaves some of the storytelling behind in the process.

In the film, which at times can be much more disturbing than anything Burton (a producer on this project) has conjured up, Acker sets his story in a post-apocalyptic world where all humans have disappeared and the only things that remain are a group of small ragdoll-like beings who spend most of their time fending off the frightening mechanical beasts that hunt them down.

The last of the characters to come alive in the wasteland is called 9 (voiced by Elijah Wood). He and the others that have come before him, all of which seem constructed out of burlap sacks and spare parts, are also named in the order they were hand-stitched. It’s only natural that the character with the No. 1 sewn on its back is the leader of the “stitchpunks.” So, when 9 attempts to disturb the hierarchy by questioning why they hide away and wait to be destroyed instead of fight back, a pint-sized revolt takes place and each numbered character must decide what they should do if they want to survive.

While the narrative starts off intriguing, it’s when Acker and screenwriter Pamela Pettler (“Monster House”) fall back into the familiar storyline that things get murky. The second half of “9” becomes a simple rescue mission with an underlying tale about how the machines have come to take over the world.

Still, the visual stimulation “9” offers up is too much to ignore even if most of it comes in heavy doses of drawn-out action sequences. Each character Acker has fashioned has its own unique personality and comes with some fine voice work by actors like John C. Reilly, Christopher Plummer, Martin Landau, Crispin Glover, and Jennifer Connelly. Even the two mute stitchpunks are mesmerizing to watch as they blink incessantly to communicate with their counterparts.

At the end, Acker makes rookie mistakes, but it’s not enough to spur disinterest in something so imaginative. Give him a few more years and he’s bound to make a masterpiece even without Burton in his corner.

Up

May 29, 2009 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: (voices of) Ed Asner, Christopher Plummer, Jordan Nagai
Directed by: Peter Docter (“Monster’s Inc.”) and Bob Peterson (debut)
Written by: Bob Peterson (‘Finding Nemo”)

While Pixar is far from perfect (“Cars” could have used a major overhaul), there’s no other animation studio doing the type of impressive work on such a consistent basis.

Add “Up” to the equation that has made the subsidiary of Disney Studios such a delight to watch ever since introducing us to Woody and Buzz Lightyear in 1995’s “Toy Story.” Fourteen years later, Pixar is still the animation groundbreaker.

In “Up,” directors/writers Peter Docter and Bob Peterson take on a species Pixar hasn’t experimented with before: humans (without superhuman powers, of course). The film follows retired balloon salesman Carl Fredricksen (Ed Asner) as he journeys to South America via a house attached to thousands of helium-filled balloons.

The trip was an adventure he and his wife Ellie always wanted to take together but was never meant to be when they were younger. Although they always saved money to move to the South American sanctuary known as Paradise Falls, something always came up that forced the happy couple to dip into their savings and put the vacation on hold.

But when Ellie passes away (an adult theme Pixar has never used before, which is probably why it earned only the second PG rating in its history…gasp), Carl wants to make their dream come true by traveling the only way he sees fit – in a floating house. He’s also not very interested in being forced into a senior living facility by city contractors who want to bulldoze his cherished home to make room for new buildings.

In an attempt to save his home and honor his wife, Carl drifts “Danny Deckchair”-style to start a new life in Paradise Falls. Unlike the 2003 film starring Rhys Ifans, Carl is not alone. Russell (Jordan Nagai), a young stowaway Boy Scout hoping to earn his Assisting the Elderly badge has ended up on the house’s porch and instantaneously becomes part of Carl’s long journey.

“Up” is a sweet story filled with touching moments especially when we watch the loving relationship between Carl and Ellie during the film’s first 15 minutes. Animated films usually never take the time to build characters this well. Once you wipe your tears away and are up in the sky with Carl and Russell, the comedy stays steadily fresh between the little boy and the old man.

Even when the story stutters during a not-all-too-interesting rescue mission on the ground, there are enough fascinating characters, smartly-written dialogue, and some subtly amazing 3-D effects (it is Pixar’s first, you know) that never play out like a cheap gimmick (see “Chicken Little” and “Fly Me to the Moon” for that). Instead, Pixar lets the work speak for itself. With “Up,” the film has a lot to say about loss, friendship, personal ambition, and living life to its fullest all in a deeply moving and enchantingly animated package.