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.

Beauty and the Beast

March 17, 2017 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans
Directed by: Bill Condon (“Dreamgirls”)
Written by: Stephen Chbosky (“The Perks of Being a Wallflower”) and Evan Spiliotopoulous (“The Huntsman: Winter’s War”)

As impressive a pair of live-action adaptations Disney was able to churn out in the last two years with 2015’s “Cinderella” and 2016’s “The Jungle Book,” it would’ve seemed like the studio figured out a surefire way to take a beloved classic film and enliven it for audiences who never owned a copy of the original on VHS. In “Beauty and the Beast,” however, director Bill Condon (“Dreamgirls”) doesn’t seem very interested in producing a fresh take of the 1991 animated movie. In fact, in this re-imagining starring Emma Watson (“Harry Potter” franchise), it looks as if the most important thing to do was adhere to the film’s “tale as old as time” adage and commitment to nostalgia. If anything, “Beauty and the Beast” is too faithful.

There are a few liberties screenwriters Stephen Chbosky (“The Perks of Being a Wallflower”) and Evan Spiliotopoulous (“The Huntsman: Winter’s War”) take in the narrative that don’t add much to the overall emotion of the story. The backstory of the Beast (Dan Stevens) get more screen time as we learn the fate of his mother before he is turned into a hideous castle-dwelling monster. Identity politics also come into play as this version of “B&B” introduces us to Disney’s fist gay character, LeFou (Josh Gad), who in the original Disney movie was Gaston’s buffoonish punching bag. In this one, he’s a lively flirt.

Waston is serviceable as the intelligent and innocent Belle, but her interaction with the Beast in the first half of the movie leaves much to be desired. Their relationship lacks because the Beast is missing all of the charm and charisma of his animated predecessor. Becoming computer generated has done no favors for the Beast and we’re left with a hollow shell of a character that used to feel genuine, emotionally complex and enchanting.

While the art direction is nearly flawless albeit a bit overly gaudy at times, scenes like the dance in the ballroom or the “Be Our Guest” performance don’t visually pop like they once did. And when it comes to the new music, none of the songs from “How Does a Moment Last Forever” to the quite lullaby-like melody “Days in the Sun” are not memorable.

Wonderful set pieces, costumes, and childhood memories aside, “Beauty and the Beast” is fairly unexceptional. If French author Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont’s traditional fairy tale has never crossed your radar before, it’s probably best to start with the one that came during Disney’s Renaissance period. It is, by far, the more romantic and entertaining of the two.

A Walk Among the Tombstones

September 19, 2014 by  
Filed under Cody, Reviews

Starring: Liam Neeson, Dan Stevens, David Harbour
Directed by: Scott Frank (“The Lookout”)
Written by: Scott Frank (“Minority Report”)

Anyone else getting déjà vu? If you’ve seen the previews, trailers, or commercials for “A Walk Among the Tombstones,” it certainly appears as if Liam Neeson has returned to the well that has given him a rebirth as an action star. Even though his films might all appear similar, “Tombstones” isn’t quite “Taken 3” (or because of repetitive marketing, “Liam Neeson Aggressively Threatens Someone Over the Phone 3”) though that doesn’t mean it doesn’t feel familiar.

After quitting the NYPD years prior, Matt Scudder (Neeson) works as an unlicensed private investigator in New York. Although reluctant, Matt agrees to take a case from drug trafficker Kenny Kristo (Dan Stevens) whose wife was kidnapped and murdered after he paid a ransom. As Matt begins to dig deeper to find her killers, he sees the operation might be more complex than it seems.

As a hard-nosed former NYPD officer, Neeson sports a pretty bad New York accent that seems to fade in and out throughout the movie. Distracting dialect aside, Neeson doesn’t stray too far from the type of character audiences have seen him in since “Taken.” It’s a typecast that he’s certainly good at, but at this point the roles are beginning to blend together. Though it is of no fault to the cast, “Tombstones” suffers from completely unmemorable characters. Brian “Astro” Bradley gives a fine performance as TJ, a homeless kid who befriends Matt, but the character feels oddly out of place in the grand scheme of the film.

With an uneventful first two acts, “Tombstones” completely stumbles out of the gate. The first hour is dull and generic. Neeson’s character is searching for clues to put together pieces of a mystery, yet nothing of consequence or interest happen.s There are also a few puzzling decisions from screenwriter and director Scott Frank. For whatever reason, Frank felt the need to obscure the faces of the perpetrators and antagonists for the first portion of the film. It is an unnecessary mystery and decision with zero payoff other than literally seeing what the actors look like.

There is also the decision to take scenes during the climax of the film and relate it to a theme involving the 12-step program. It is a connection that is ill fitting and flimsy at best and actually annoyingly interrupts some of the most tense moments of the film. Where “Tombstones” is able to salvage itself is in its final act where the heat finally turns up and the story begins to take interesting turns. When Matt takes over another kidnapping situation, the film gains momentum as he inches closer and closer to a showdown with the bad guys. It is here that Neeson proves his worth and becomes fun to watch.

“Tombstones” is both visually and thematically a pretty dark affair. Unfortunately, it works in both directions and, at times, enhances certain scenes while leaving viewers cold and distant in others. It’s a shame Frank couldn’t have gotten to the point through a quicker and a more interesting route. “A Walk Among the Tombstones” is a slow burn that takes far too long to ignite.

The Guest

September 18, 2014 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Dan Stevens, Maika Monroe, Sheila Kelley
Directed by: Adam Wingard (“You’re Next”)
Written by: Simon Barrett (“You’re Next”)

“They don’t make them like they used to” isn’t really a phrase that can be used when talking about a movie collaboration between director Adam Wingard and screenwriter Simon Barrett. At least they’ve proven that to be true so far, first with their 2011 thriller/comedy “You’re Next,” a film that took every horror movie cliché it possibly could and spun them in a way that audiences felt they were watching something familiar but fresh. It was like someone actually cared about the script instead of tossing out the same tired concepts for mass consumption. Wingard and Barrett hit pay dirt again with “The Guest,” a clever and highly-entertaining throwback thriller in the same vein as “The Terminator” and the original “Halloween,” but with a lot more laughs and a charismatic performance by lead actor Dan Stevens (TV’s “Downton Abbey”) that cyborg Schwarzenegger and Michael Myers could only dream to outdo.

In “The Guest,” Stevens plays David, a clean-cut, all-American soldier who shows up on the doorstep of the Peterson family one afternoon with a message he promised to deliver to them from their son who died while serving with him in the military. Touched by his loyalty and sincerity, the Petersons open their home to David for a couple of days until he decides where the road will take him next. Little do they know, however, that David isn’t who he says he is and will quickly drag the family into a situation that would only be believable if it were in an insanely ridiculous movie that knew just how insanely ridiculous it was. Fortunately for “The Guest,” it fits the bill.

The self-awareness and mischievously fun nature of “The Guest” is what keeps the story moving forward, especially when it feels like Wingard and Barrett have back themselves into a corner with nowhere to go except into directions countless of thrillers have gone before. But Wingard and Barrett know how to pivot and do such a fantastic job of avoiding a lot of the pitfalls most films in this genre always  seem clumsily run into. Even when they do manage to borrow from past movies, the satirical way they deliver the scenes is so mindful of it cinematic status, there really is no way to fault it for piggybacking on the movies that inspired it.

As the all-out merciless David, Stevens is just as rousing as actress Sharni Vinson’s character Erin was in “You’re Next.” Unlike Erin, however, David is far from the protagonist of “The Guest,” although he’s one of those movie bad guys audiences will secretly be rooting for. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, especially since Stevens owns every facet of this enjoyable role. In fact, one might be hard-pressed not to invite someone like David over for dinner based on first impressions. It would definitely be a lovely evening if not for all the death and destruction.

Dan Stevens – The Guest

September 18, 2014 by  
Filed under Interviews

After spending three seasons on the critically-acclaimed PBS drama “Downton Abbey” (before his nice-guy character Matthew Crawley was tragically killed off of the series in 2012), English actor Dan Stevens was ready to move onto something completely different. In the throwback thriller/comedy “The Guest,” Stevens finds exactly what he was looking for in David, a charming yet completely berserk American soldier, who infiltrates the home of a family in mourning by telling them he served with their son in the military and was with him on the day he died. Once the family opens their doors to this stranger, it becomes a fight for survival as David turns out to be the exact opposite of the polite, straight-laced young man he initially pretended to be.

During a phone interview last week, Stevens, 31, talked to me about what he thinks director Adam Wingard and screenwriter Simon Barrett are doing differently in the thriller genre today, and why he felt a film like “The Guest” was the perfect way to disconnect himself from early 20th-century Yorkshire.

My sense of humor is sometimes very juvenile, so I have to tell you that I’ve been laughing all morning watching your recent appearance on “Good Morning Britain.”

Well, first of all, we want to get across to people that this movie is funny. There is a twisted sense of humor there. So, I guess we did that all in one fell swoop on “Good Morning Britain.” It was one hell of a morning.

What do you think a director like Adam Wingard and a screenwriter like Simon Barrett are doing for the horror genre no one else is doing right now?

When you meet Adam and Simon, you quickly realize what sense of humor they have. They’re trying to step outside of their comfort zone. “The Guest” borrows from the horror genre, but they also want to speak other languages, too, and have fun. I saw and loved [Adam and Simon’s 2013 film] “You’re Next.” I thought it was hilarious and such a riotous film. It was very playful. They were doing something with the horror genre that I hadn’t seen before. Simon said the other day that “The Guest” is a very charming home-invasion horror. It’s a formula you think you know, but you don’t.

I think there is a lot of wit in both “You’re Next” and “The Guest.” There’s also a lot of really well-done campiness. I think, however, sometimes the word “camp” can have a negative connotation to it if it come across as cheesy. How do you think “The Guest” avoids that?

Well, I think there are a lot of things that feed into that. I think when we get into the ridiculousness of it all, it is written with one or two realities kept in mind. I think one of those realities was this family in mourning and the bond that David has for his friend, this soldier who has died. Once we’ve established those rules and set that reality, then we can go to some pretty crazy places like films did in the 80s and 90s. I have to say, growing up in England we were saturated with American action thrillers. A movie like “Big Trouble in Little China” was a major turning point in my life. The comedy and humanity they were able to get out of those action sequences was great. It was important for us to do the same thing with “The Guest” and give the action sequences a little humor and character to them.

Was that throwback sensibility to the film something Adam made you and the cast aware of as you were shooting this? Did it feel like you were making a movie from the 80s or 90s or did all that happen in the editing room?

Well, we weren’t trying to pretend like we were in the 80s or 90s. It’s very much a contemporary story. But it is set in the desert in this slightly timeless landscape. I think, of course, the soundtrack and Adam’s choice of music gives it that throwback feel.

Since most people know you for your role in “Downton Abbey,” is it important for you at this stage of your career to play against type so you don’t get typecast in any way?

Well, typecasting only happens when you say yes. I would’ve felt foolish stepping down from something like “Downton” and into something that was similar. I was looking for something different. I was exploring a lot of different possibilities. I’ve been doing that for the last couple of years – really exploring a range of things. I certainly didn’t think I would end up in something as batshit crazy as “The Guest.” But when it came along, it just made perfect sense. It appealed to my sense of humor and it also felt a little bit dangerous. As soon as I sat down with Adam, we established that we shared that dark sense of humor.

Describe what it was like to play an American?

For an actor like me, it’s a delicious prospect – to step into something that is far out of your own experience. Getting my head around the accent was fun. I’ve always enjoyed doing accents and voices and that sort of thing. To get to work some of that into an on-screen character was cool. It was interesting to me how this Kentucky dialect, in particular, fed through a militarized dialect and formed the psychology of the character.

You’re going to be all over the big screen this fall with movies like “The Guest,” “The Cobbler,” “A Walk Among the Tombstones” and the third film in the “Night at the Museum” series. Aren’t you worried moviegoers will be tired of you by the end of the year?

(Laughs) Well, [all those films are] all for different types of crowds. “Night at the Museum” is definitely something my kids can see. My daughter is four and my son is two, so I don’t think I’m going to show them “The Guest” for a couple of years. But I certainly am having fun exploring all these roles and entertaining people in a lot of different ways.

Next year you’re going to star in a film called “Criminal Activities,” which will be Oscar-nominated actor and San Antonian Jackie Earle Haley’s directorial debut. What do you think Jackie brings to the table that would have you believe he has what it takes to be a director in this industry?

Jackie is an amazing actor and someone who I’ve admired for years. It’s always interesting when an actor wants to direct. I think a lot of actors leap at that opportunity. Jackie certainly has the sensitivity as an actor to really shape his scenes. He is a very sensitive guy. I haven’t yet seen how that film has come together, but I’m sure all eyes in San Antonio will be on that movie.