Thursday, 7 December 2017

The Man Who Invented Christmas



Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol happens to be my all-time favourite story. The 1951 film version is also one of my all-time favourite films. So there was no way I was missing The Man Who Invented Christmas, which tells the story of both how Dickens came to write the novella and where the ideas in the novella originated. Written by Susan Coyne, based on the novel by Les Standiford, and directed by Bharat Nalluri, The Man Who Invented Christmas is a work of fiction, albeit based on the true story of Dickens’ life.

Dan Stevens plays Dickens and he is joined by Christopher Plummer as Scrooge, Jonathan Pryce as Dickens’ father, John, Morfydd Clark as his wife, Kate, Justin Edwards as his close friend and agent, Forster, and shorter appearances by actors like Simon Callow and Donald Sumpter as men involved in Dickens’ attempt to publish the novella himself (his publishers aren’t willing to trust Dickens after a couple of unsuccessful projects). 

All of the acting is wonderful to watch, though I’m not sure that Stevens was the right choice as Dickens. Either his performance or the writing produced a character I didn’t always find convincing, especially in the latter half of the film. To be specific, Dickens is portrayed as a bit of a buffoon, with an impulsive self-absorbed personality that is also kind and friendly and dark and angry. Perhaps this describes the real Dickens, but I found some of his words and actions quite inconsistent.

I mentioned Scrooge as a major character (Plummer is perfect in the role), but you may wonder how Scrooge can be a character in a film about Dickens. This is, for me, actually the film’s greatest strength, because The Man Who Invented Christmas brilliantly portrays Dickens’ writing process as an interaction with the novella’s characters. As soon as Dickens comes up with the name Scrooge, Scrooge appears and joins Dickens in his deliberations. Other characters will soon become discussion partners as Dickens struggles to plan what will happen in each new chapter of his novella. I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of this process, especially Dickens’ conversations with Scrooge, which were the highlight of the film.

The Man Who Invented Christmas is a beautiful film to watch, and the score is solid. All in all, it’s an entertaining, if rather lightweight, film. But my biggest complaint is so big that it easily knocks off a half-star by itself. That complaint is the core idea behind the last third of the film, namely that Dickens couldn’t figure out how to end his novella. I don’t believe for an instant that this is plausible (I’m convinced Dickens knew the ending before he started writing) and this had a major effect on my ability to appreciate what was otherwise a fascinating exploration of Dickens’ childhood and its impact on his personality.

The Man Who Invented Christmas gets a solid ***. My mug is up.

Monday, 4 December 2017

Roman J. Israel, Esq.



Denzel Washington delivers yet another brilliant performance as Roman J. Israel, Esq., a former civil rights activist whose incredible memory for details and sharp legal mind has made him an exceptional behind-the-scenes lawyer in a small Los Angeles law firm (a firm that specializes in pro bono cases and doesn’t pay Israel much for his genius). Somewhere on the autistic spectrum, with the OCD and social awkwardness that accompany this, Israel lives alone in a small apartment, where he has spent years compiling a brief that he hopes will revolutionize the absurd American justice system. 

But when Israel’s boss, the lawyer who makes the court appearances for the firm, has a heart attack, Israel’s life is thrown into chaos, especially after it comes out that the firm is bankrupt, leaving Israel without a job. With every good thing he tries to do backfiring on him, Israel ends up working for George Pierce (Colin Farrell), the man put in charge of the old law firm. Israel doesn’t like or trust Pierce, but their relationship changes over time. Meanwhile, Israel is developing a different kind of relationship with Maya (Carmen Ejogo), a woman running a small civil rights firm whom Israel had met in a job interview. 

With a performance from Ejogo that almost matches Washington’s, with its fascinating comments about the justice system and the desperate need for people to rise up, like they did in Israel’s younger days, to protest injustices, with excellent cinematography and a good soundtrack, Dan Gilroy’s Roman J. Israel, Esq. had the potential for true greatness. Instead, the screenplay loses its way when Israel commits the crime that frames the film, a crime that feels in many ways inconsistent with Israel’s character and distracts us from the drama of Israel’s struggles rather than supports it. The unconvincing enigmatic nature of Pierce’s character (not Farrell’s best performance) doesn’t help. Delving deeper into all three of the major characters could have made this film something really special.

The sad tale of Roman J. Israel, Esq. gets only a solid ***, perhaps edging toward ***+. My mug is up.

Wednesday, 29 November 2017

Murder on the Orient Express



I read thirty or more Agatha Christie detective novels when I was in my twenties and that included many of the novels featuring the Belgian super-sleuth Hercule Poirot. I’ve always enjoyed watching the film and TV adaptations of the Poirot novels, with a special appreciation for the ways Peter Ustinov and David Suchet played the role of Poirot. It is generally accepted (by me as well) that Suchet was the best Poirot, and I admit to feeling disappointed at the way Kenneth Branagh (who also directed) played Poirot during the early minutes of Murder on the Orient Express, partly because it seemed so unlike Suchet. But Branagh’s performance grew on me very quickly and, by the end of the film, I had decided that it was my second-favourite thing about this new version of the film. Whether it was any better than Suchet’s performance in the same story, I can’t say, because that was one of Suchet’s later performances as Poirot and I haven’t had the chance to see it (I did see and enjoy Alfred Molina’s take on Poirot in this story (in 2001) but I prefer Branagh). As for the Albert Finney version, well, that was a classic.

My favourite thing about the new Murder on the Orient Express was the way the cinematography and score helped to create a well-rendered dark atmosphere for the film. It’s a beautiful film to watch and the darker take on the story worked well for me, especially with its strong period feel.

I won’t say much about the plot of Murder on the Orient Express. Those who aren’t familiar with it should know as little as possible. I will just say that Poirot finds himself on the Orient Express, travelling from Istanbul to Paris, when a murder takes place on board. As he tries to use his brilliant deductive powers to find the killer, he is constantly frustrated by the inconsistent stories of a number of the passengers, more than one of whom seem to have a motive for killing the victim, but all of whom have alibis. 

The passengers, whom I won’t name, are played by the following actors (among others): Michelle Pfeiffer, Johnny Depp, Daisy Ridley, Penelope Cruz, Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom, Jr., Willem Dafoe, Olivia Colman and Judi Dench. It’s a strong cast, always fun to watch, and the actors deliver solid performances, though most are barely more than cameos. Indeed, the film’s biggest flaw is the lack of attention paid to the various passengers and their stories. The later part of the film (until the last twenty minutes or so) drags because of the poor character development (some of which is also seen in the novel). It also makes for a confusing denouement that lacks the suspense the story calls for. 

Nevertheless, there are aspects of the ending of this adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express that I liked very much, for reasons that I won’t provide, and while this adaptation is by no means a classic, I did find it a very satisfying entertainment, deserving of at least ***, if not a little bit more. My mug is up.

Sunday, 26 November 2017

Back to Burgundy

The critics are not especially impressed with this mild-mannered French comedy drama, Ce qui nous lie, and I think I understand why. A couple plot shifts are abrupt and occasionally convenient. It did, however, hit the right notes for me, and the weaknesses didn’t interfere with my appreciation. 

First it is an earthy film. The physical presence of the terroir is impressive. It could serve as a year in the life of a small French vineyard and that would have been beautiful and interesting enough. It was hard not to have a glass of wine in hand, though – it felt like a live wine tasting should be integrated with a viewing of the movie. (If you should watch this at home, I recommend picking up the best Burgundy you can afford, preferably from a small family vineyard, while watching.)

But integrated with this earthy setting are the lives of the three siblings who inherit this land together. They share one financial problem as part of this inheritance while each carrying their own life problems. One thing that impressed me was that the issues were not over-dramatized. The result might make the plot too quiet for some, but something quite realistic was gained. Patience and a mixture of false starts and baby steps were more involved than dramatic turning points.

The main themes all mean a great deal to me: family connections over time, including the bittersweet tensions between commitments and freedoms; connections with place and land; and the paradox of accepting inconsistencies. 

The writing could have used a little tweak here and there but the acting, cinematography and music all worked well. ***+  and a mug up from me.

Saturday, 25 November 2017

Lady Bird



Wow!

I guess it’s that time of year.

I have noted here before that films written and directed by women, and starring a woman, are few and far between. But I have watched more of such films in the past eighteen months than ever before, suggesting that the current statistic of only 7% of films being directed by women is about to change significantly (yay!). Novitiate and Lady Bird, coincidentally both about teenage girls in Catholic settings and both made by first-time directors, are far and away the best of such films I have seen in the past few years, though only Lady Bird is assured a place in my top ten films of 2017. Like Novitiate, Lady Bird is precisely the kind of film that only a woman could make. It’s no surprise to me that Greta Gerwig, writer and star of Frances Ha and star of last year’s Maggie’s Plan, has, at the age of 34, become one of the best filmmakers out there.

Like Three Billboards, Lady Bird is called a quirky comedy drama. But it could not bear less resemblance to Three Billboards. At first glance, Lady Bird looks like a typical coming-of-age film about a headstrong but insecure seventeen-year-old’s last year of high school (in Sacramento in 2002/3). That doesn’t sound original, and the experiences of the girl in question don’t seem particularly original, but the way the story is told and acted feels remarkably fresh, eliciting a number of silent wows from me as I sat in the theatre (surrounded by women; I saw only two other men in the theatre).

‘Lady Bird’ is the name our protagonist has given herself (her parents named her ‘Christine’) and what she insists everyone calls her. And while much of the film follows Lady Bird’s adventures in school or with her classmates, the film’s opening scenes signal the fact that, at its heart, Lady Bird is a film about the relationship between a mother and daughter. This is fortunate for the viewers, because the actors playing the mother and daughter provide two of the best performances you will ever see (I expect both to be nominated for Academy Awards). Lady Bird is played by Saoirse Ronan, who, at the age of 23, has already received two Oscar nominations and is probably about to get her third (she may even win this time). Her incredibly natural portrayal of a lower-middle-class girl’s struggles at home and in the Catholic school she attends is jaw-dropping. But Laurie Metcalf’s performance as Marion, Lady Bird’s domineering mother, who just doesn’t know how to care for, or show love for, her daughter, may be even better. 

Other actors of note, all of whom are excellent, include two up-and-coming young actors (Lucas Hedges from Manchester by the Sea and Three Billboards as Danny, Lady Bird’s first boyfriend, and Timothée Chalamet, who was so phenomenal in Call Me By your Name, as Kyle, another boy in Lady Bird’s life), as well as Tracy Letts as Larry, Lady Bird’s understanding father, Lois Smith as Sister Sarah Joan, the wise and kind school principal, Beanie Feldstein as Julie, Lady Bird’s closest friend, Odeya Rush as Jenna, the popular girl Lady Bird befriends (at Julie’s expense), and Stephen McKinley Henderson as Father Leviatch, the gentle acting instructor who is clearly struggling with some deep emotional issues.

The beautifully-drawn characters are one of the things that make Lady Bird special, but even better, for me, is how sympathetic all of the characters are (Lady Bird’s teachers and principal are a prime example). There is a stark contrast between the characters and dialogue in Lady Bird and those in Novitiate, Three Billboards or The Florida Project. All four films feature sympathetic characters and well-written intelligent dialogue, but Lady Bird doesn’t feel as raw as the others, even though it feels every bit as real as The Florida Project. As a result, even with the difficult ongoing tension between Marion and Lady Bird, Lady Bird (the film) is a much warmer film than the others. This doesn’t make it a better film, but it’s one of the things that makes Lady Bird feel fresh.

The humour in Lady Bird is another. The humour is natural and endearing, not silly or forced (even when a football coach diagrams stage movements for a play, the funniest scene in the film). Lady Bird’s depiction of Christianity is yet another example. Not afraid to either criticize religion or show its strengths, the film touches gently on Lady Bird’s own changing feelings about God and the church while at the same time providing glimpses of her growth into a thoughtful young woman over the course of a year. 

Finally, a note about the cinematography and music, both of which were carefully done to provide exactly the right feel for the time, the situation and the city of Sacramento, which plays a major role in the film (there’s a wonderful scene near the end in which the principal talks to Lady Bird about Sacramento). 

Lady Bird is insightful and well-made filmmaking at its very best. **** My mug is up.

Friday, 24 November 2017

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri



A smart and wise man once asked me (that would be my son-in-law, Laurens, yesterday morning): “Vic, how can you give three stars to a film when your review is so negative?” Walter understands this sentiment very well, as he has asked me the same question more than once. After watching Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri yesterday afternoon, I do think something about my rating system needs to change. Why? Because the number of stars deserved by Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri exceeds the number of stars I gave Justice League by much more than one, but one is all I have left to give.

Before I say more, a word to the writers of Justice League and Thor: Ragnarok: If you want to know what original, imaginative stories look like, watch Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

And now, the moment you’ve all been waiting for:

Wow!

What a thrill to watch a film that surprised me time and again, that wasn’t like anything I remember watching before. This is what good writing is all about; it’s no surprise that it was written (and directed) by Martin McDonagh, who gave us the original In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths. Thank goodness the trailers for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (of which I had seen at least parts) gave me no idea what was coming. The film is being called a dark comedy drama, which I suppose is accurate, though a strong emphasis needs to be placed on the drama (as opposed to the comedy), with the word ‘dark’ clearly referring to both the drama and the comedy. I would probably describe it as a quirky dark drama, with humour, similar but decidedly different from the work of the Coen brothers.

The story concerns Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), whose teenage daughter Angela was raped and murdered nine months before. During that nine months, Mildred has seen no evidence that the police in Ebbing have done much to find Angela’s killer, so she buys advertising on three billboards near her home (on a seldom-used highway) to ask ‘why not’, aimed specifically at the popular Ebbing chief of police, William Willoughby (Woody Harrelson). Willoughby is dying of pancreatic cancer, so the billboards create a big stir and bring a lot of hatred down on Mildred and the billboard owner, Red Whelby (Caleb Landry Jones). Even Mildred’s son, Robbie (Lucas Hedges), is furious with his mother’s behaviour. Not to mention Charlie (John Hawkes), her ex-husband. But the most angry person in Ebbing is Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), Willoughby’s second-in-command, who worships the ground Willoughby walks on and wants to see the foul-mouthed Mildred put behind bars. Very few people in Ebbing wouldn’t agree. One of them is James (Peter Dinklage), a lonely car dealer with a crush on her. I won’t say anymore about the plot, because this is a film I recommend to all who can handle the violence and the darkness.

Other actors of note are Clarke Peters, who plays Abercrombie, a police officer forced to step into the situation in Ebbing, and Abbie Cornish, who plays Anne (Willoughby’s wife). The acting is stellar by all concerned, but Rockwell is nothing short of phenomenal, with some sensational assistance by McDormand and Harrelson. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri also features gorgeous cinematography and a nice score.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri does have some rough edges, and a couple of scenes bothered me a lot (i.e. I would have written them differently), but, on the whole, I was blown away by the intelligence and humanization of the film. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri may be a very dark film, but there is a fair bit of light in all the right places (and I will say no more). ****. My mug is up, along with a guaranteed place in my top ten films of 2017. 

Thursday, 23 November 2017

Justice League



I’ve mentioned before that I’ve been a DC fan since the age of seven (a long time ago), with my favourite superheroes being Batman and The Flash, so, despite the mediocre reviews from critics, I needed to go watch Justice League. After all, I liked Batman vs. Superman a lot more than the critics did, despite Ben Affleck’s presence as Batman. 

I watched Justice League in 2D IMAX, the only way to watch this film. And I must note, right off, that, unlike Ragnarok, the cinematography suffers very little by being made-for-3D. Indeed, Justice League looked gorgeous on the IMAX screen and this alone was worth the price of admission. I especially enjoyed the continued dark atmosphere of the Zack Snyder DC films, helped by Danny Elfman’s score, which, while nothing special, did what was needed. 

Justice League tells the story of how Bruce Wayne (Batman), with the help of Alfred (Jeremy Irons), brings together a group of superheroes to fight the big bad Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciaran Hinds), who wants nothing less than to make planet earth his own. To do this, Steppenwolf needs three boxes full of primal energy that have been kept hidden and protected by the three groups who had fought and defeated  Steppenwolf once before (the Amazons, the Atlantans, and regular humans). For some reason, Steppenwolf has little trouble finding and acquiring the boxes. Indeed, before Bruce Wayne manages to bring the Justice League together, Steppenwolf has already brought the three boxes together to create the mighty power that will destroy the planet. Can the Justice League possibly arrive in time to save humanity? And what about Superman? Can they do it without him? Isn’t he dead? What would happen if a way was found to bring him back to life - would that be a good idea?

The questions above should be read in a tone that lets you know how little I respect the plot of Justice League. It is every bit as inane as the plot of Ragnarok, and that is saying something. Big baddie wants to destroy the world. Superheroes fight together (after many arguments and much sarcastic repartee) to destroy big baddie. The end! What a crock! How is it that the writers of superhero films (and no less than Joss Whedan was involved in writing Justice League) have such a limited imagination when it comes to telling an original or at least entertaining story. They just tell the same old story over and over and over again, ad nauseam, hoping that all the mindless action and a few lines of entertaining dialogue will be enough to bring in the masses. Surely, one of these days, the masses will get bored (but not yet, since Justice League had one of the 25 highest-grossing opening weekends of all time, though it's viewed a failure because it didn't perform as well at the U.S. box office as it was supposed to).

As in Ragnarok, the characters in Justice League are occasionally fun to watch, especially The Flash, played well by Ezra Miller. Other Justice League members include Batman, Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), Aquaman (Jason Momoa), Cyborg (Ray Fisher), and, if he weren’t so very dead, Superman (Henry Cavill). The Justice League 'origin story', while by no means original, was at least at lot more entertaining than the Steppenwolf story. Amy Adams does well as Lois Lane, but how could she have so much airtime if Superman is dead? Sigh. Other than Miller, the acting certainly wasn’t outstanding, but it was passable (I’m even getting used to Affleck as Batman).

The  bottom line is that I enjoyed Justice League about as much as I enjoyed Ragnarok (though for different reasons), which means I did think it was worth a look. *** My mug is up, but one of these days the lack of an original flavour inside will make me turn these mugs down.