CVIndependent

Fri01192018

Last updateWed, 27 Sep 2017 1pm

In 1843, when Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol, folks were just starting to get into that thing we call Christmas, with stuff like Christmas trees, gift-giving and Cyber Mondays. (An iPad would cost, like, nothing on Cyber Monday in 1843, because nobody had invented the damn thing yet.)

It was the Dickens novel about a miserable miser named Ebenezer Scrooge, who transforms from evil greed monster to kind philanthropist throughout its five chapters, that would help take the celebration of Christmas to a new level—and the boldly titled The Man Who Invented Christmas spins an entertaining and clever take on how and why Dickens got the idea for the story that would change the world.

Coming off a couple of flops after the success of Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens (Dan Stevens) is doing clumsy book tours to pay the bills. Desperate for a “hit,” he gets an idea for a Christmas book—one in which a greedy man is haunted by ghosts of the past, present and future. The story is meant to be a cautionary yarn about the evils of selfishness, and perhaps less about the joys of Christmas and redemption. As Dickens gets further into his book, and his own psyche, the themes change toward hope, and his classic is born.

Director Bharat Nalluri, working from a screenplay by Susan Coyne (based on the book by Les Standiford), gets the unique opportunity to tell the making of A Christmas Carol while, in some ways, making yet another version of the famed story itself. The film features Dickens conferring with the fictional characters in his story as he creates them, so we get an Ebenezer Scrooge, this time played by the great Christopher Plummer. It’s no surprise that Plummer is perfect for the role. Essentially playing a voice in Dickens’ head, Plummer gets the chance to offer up his own spin on the great line, “Bah, humbug!” and he looks absolutely smashing in that sleepwear.

While he doesn’t get much screen time (this is, after all, mostly a biographical depiction of Dickens), Plummer instantly joins the League of Great Scrooges. He’s right up there with Alastair Sim, Mr. Magoo and Henry Winkler. (OK, Winkler played someone named Benedict Slade in An American Christmas Carol, but Slade was a thinly veiled Scrooge. Actually, I liked that movie, but it would’ve been better had Winkler portrayed Scrooge as his alter ego, Arthur “The Fonz” Fonzarelli, rather than going the old-cranky-guy route. Ron Howard’s Richie Cunningham could’ve been Jacob Marley. OK, I watched too much damned Happy Days when I was a kid.)

Stevens, having a big year with this and his turn in Beauty and the Beast, portrays Dickens as a bit of an eccentric nut. As Dickens concocts the story in his writing room, he throws tantrums and has imaginary conversations with imaginary people. Stevens finds some humor in this, but he doesn’t stay away from the notion that Charles perhaps needed a long metal vacation.

A touching subplot has Dickens dealing with major daddy issues as his penniless father (Jonathan Pryce) comes to town and causes trouble by trying to sell his son’s autograph and unleashing a pet raven in the household. Through flashbacks, we see that Charles’ adoration for his good-natured but scheming father led to a long stretch of sadness when his father went to jail, and he went to an orphanage (themes that obviously played out in other Dickens stories). The film suggests that Dickens’ forgiveness toward his father led to the redemptive turn in A Christmas Carol. I don’t know if that’s based on fact, but I liked it in the movie.

The film’s production values, which look a little drab, keeps it from being great, but the performances help put it over the top.

The Man Who Invented Christmas is a different kind of holiday movie. It’s not going to rank up there with Rudolph or Frosty, but for those of you looking for a deeper telling of a great fable, it won’t disappoint.

The Man Who Invented Christmas is now playing at the Century Theatres at The River (71800 Highway 111, Rancho Mirage; 760-836-1940); and the Palm Desert 10 Cinemas (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert; 760-340-0033).

Published in Reviews

Richard Gere delivers one of his very best performances as the titular Norman, a New York “businessman” who doesn’t really have a business or a job.

He’s a mysterious, earbud-wearing, graying man riding the trains and grabbing crackers for dinner at the local synagogue—with big aspirations. A self-professed “good swimmer” fighting to stay afloat, Norman finds himself in the company of an up-and-coming Israeli politician (an excellent Lior Ashkenazi), and in a moment of generosity/desperateness, Norman buys the man a pair of shoes. That gesture earns him good favor—as the politician becomes the Israeli prime minister. With big friends comes more notoriety, and Norman finds himself involved in political intrigue and rising responsibility within the New York City Jewish community.

Gere, who basically shrinks himself under a sun cap and trench coat here, sparkles in the role, making Norman a memorable, likable and appropriately annoying character.

Supporting performances from Dan Stevens, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Steve Buscemi round out an excellent cast. Director Joseph Cedar presents the story in a surprisingly layered, often-funny fashion, with definite tragedy at its center.

Gere’s work here is some of the year’s best so far.

Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer is now playing at the Regal Palm Springs Stadium 9 (789 E. Tahquitz Canyon Way, Palm Springs; 844-462-7342) and the Century Theatres at The River (71800 Highway 111, Rancho Mirage; 760-836-1940).

Published in Reviews

Anne Hathaway and Jason Sudeikis gloriously upstage two kaiju monsters in Colossal, a science-fiction monster mash that features numerous twists—and a psychological/emotional river that runs mighty deep.

Hathaway outdoes herself as Gloria, a New York City writer who gets kicked out of the apartment of her boyfriend (Dan Stevens) because she is constantly partying and being somewhat “unmanageable.” She winds up in her hometown, sleeping on an inflatable mattress, where she bumps into Oscar (Sudeikis), a childhood friend.

Oscar, an overly sweet and generous guy at first glance, immediately tries to help out Gloria. He gives her a job at his bar and showers her with furniture for her sparse home. This seems to be the setup for a strange romantic comedy—with science fiction/horror as the background.

Writer-director Nacho Vigalondo, however, has something much different in mind.

Gloria awakens one morning after a night of drinking to discover that a giant, lizard-like creature is attacking Seoul, South Korea. After examining some YouTube videos and news reports, she realizes the monster seems to be mimicking her mostly drunk body movements. Yes, the monster is the manifestation of her self-loathing, out-of-control, alcoholic ways, and it’s taking lives in Korea. She feels more than a little bit guilty about this.

Things get weirder when an equally large monster robot shows up next to Gloria’s monster—and appears to be the manifestation of Oscar’s anxieties. Oscar is far more into the notion of having a monster under his control and starts playfully taunting Gloria. The monsters wrestle it out, and their battles become more intense as Oscar and Gloria begin to have ever-bigger problems in their newly reborn friendship.

While the movie has plenty of fun with giant monsters beating each other up, it has even more fun with the mystery that is Gloria and Oscar. It becomes an introspective film, and even a scary look at messed-up relationships—more specifically, severely messed up dudes and their manipulative ways.

Sudeikis is on fire, delivering easily the best performance of his post-Saturday Night Live career. Oscar is as clever and charming; many of his actions seem to be propelled by good-natured ribbing or tomfoolery. As the film goes on, however, Sudeikis and Vigalondo slyly reveal more and more about Oscar’s psyche. It turns into one of the more interesting, intricate character studies in a movie so far this year.

Then there is Hathaway, one of the more wonderful actresses to ever occupy the big screen. There’s been a strange Hathaway backlash since her incredible, Oscar-winning turn in Les Miserables. (Some of that blame is due to her straining attempt at hosting the Oscars while co-host James Franco mentally checked out mid-ceremony.) Colossal immediately re-establishes her as an actress to be reckoned with. She’s everything in this movie: hilarious, heartbreaking, sympathetic and sometimes full-blown crazy. Sure, the manifestation of her problems is killing helicopter pilots in Korea, but we can’t help but root for her. Many of us probably have buddies like Gloria—minus the kaiju shadow, of course.

Together, Hathaway and Sudeikis create fireworks that overshadow their clashing monsters. They prove that human beings going at each other’s throats can be more terrifying than King Kong vs. Godzilla.

By the time it plays out, you’ve seen what will surely stand as one of the year’s more clever, adventurous and experimental films. You’ve also seen the next step in Sudeikis’ career, as he proves he can be a true dramatic force. As for Hathaway, you’re seeing more of the same—an actress in full command of her every moment onscreen in a movie.

What a wonderful, weird, gonzo idea for a film. Colossal goes into the category of movies with Being John Malkovich, Barton Fink and Mulholland Dr. It’s bizarre—but it will have you thinking about it long after you’ve seen it.

Colossal is now playing at the Palm Desert 10 Cinemas (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert; 760-340-0033). It opens Friday, April 28, at Mary Pickford Is D’Place (36850 Pickfair St., Cathedral City; 760-328-7100).

Published in Reviews

Beauty and the Beast, Disney’s wonderful animated musical from 1991, is the latest feature to get placed on the Disney Live Redo of a Beloved Animated Movie Assembly Line, with a big-budget effort starring Emma Watson as the iconic Belle, and Ewan McGregor as a CGI candelabra.

You may be asking yourself, “Is this absolutely necessary?”

The answer: No. No, it is not.

Then, you may ask yourself, “OK, if it isn’t necessary, is it at least an enjoyable pastime, for I like enjoyable pastimes? They help distract me from all of this trivial shit in my head.”

The answer: Why, yes, it is an enjoyable movie, even if it is completely unnecessary.

The movie isn’t a shot-for-shot remake of the original like, say, Gus Van Sant’s time-wasting Psycho effort. However, it does follow a lot of the same plot points and incorporates enough of the musical numbers to give you a sense of déjà vu.

Thankfully, Watson makes it worthwhile—Hermione makes for a strong Belle. Since director Bill Condon retains the music from the original animated movie, Watson is asked to sing, and it’s pretty evident that Auto-Tune is her friend. She has a Kanye West thing going.

As the Beast, Dan Stevens gives a decent-enough performance through motion-capture. The original intent was to have Stevens wearing prosthetics only, but he probably looked like Mr. Snuffleupagus in the dailies, so they called upon the help of beloved computers. The CGI creation blends in nicely with his human side.

The cast and crew labor to make musical numbers like “Gaston” and “Be Our Guest” pop with the creative energy of the animated version, but they don’t quite reach those heights. They are nicely rendered, for sure, but not on the masterpiece level that was the ’91 film. As for the romance between Belle and the Beast, it has a nice emotional payoff. In a way, the movie is a sweet tribute to the animated movie, rather than being a movie that truly stands on its own.

Where does Beauty and the Beast stack up with the other recent re-dos of animated Disney classics? I would put it well above Pete’s Dragon, but below Cinderella and The Jungle Book, which were more solid efforts and felt a little more original.

There are worse things to do in cinemas right now than watch a good-enough retake on a Disney movie starring one of your favorite members of the Potter universe and that guy from Downton Abbey. Beauty and the Beast is nice, yet ultimately disposable, fluff. Let’s face it: Disney has the money to throw away on ventures such as this, and given the box office takes, this train is going to keep on rolling.

If you like Disney redo fluff, there’s more coming. The Lion King, Aladdin, Dumbo, Peter Pan and Mulan are just a few of the remakes in the pipeline. Actually, pretty much everything they’ve done up until now is being remade. Universal has a Little Mermaid movie on the way, yet Disney still has plans to release their own live version of their animated gem. Winnie the Pooh and Cruella (the villain from 101 Dalmatians) are all current projects.

In short, with this juggernaut, Star Wars and Marvel all under the same dome, Disney is so big, they will be governing the planet soon. Stay tuned for Disney Health Care, a Disney Missile Defense System, and Mickey Mouse for president.

Oh, wait … that last one has sort of happened already.

Beauty and the Beast is playing at theaters across the valley in a variety of formats.

Published in Reviews

The third time is the charm for the Night at the Museum franchise: Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb is first good movie in the lot.

The previous chapters lacked soul, laughs and a true sense of adventure. This installment allows Ben Stiller to clown around a little more and drop some better jokes. Having him play a second character—a Neanderthal man—is an inspired touch.

This time out, Larry (Stiller) discovers that the ancient tablet that gives the museum attractions the ability to come alive is deteriorating. He ultimately treks to London to solve the problem, visiting a museum where Sir Lancelot (Dan Stevens) comes to life.

Stevens is a nice addition; he’s consistently funny and wicked as the crazed knight. His subplot leads to him running onstage during a musical production of Camelot, which provides a pretty hilarious cameo that I won’t give away.

All of the usual characters are back, including Robin Williams, in one of his last roles, as Teddy Roosevelt. Mickey Rooney’s final appearance is also here; he has one twisted scene. Owen Wilson and Steve Coogan get a bunch of laughs as the cowboy and the Roman soldier, while the peeing monkey steals a bunch of scenes.

Stiller, director Shawn Levy and the cast finally get it right, and bring the series to what I hope is its conclusion. I never expected to laugh during a Night at the Museum movie—but I found myself giggling often during this one.

Special Features: A director’s commentary, a bunch of featurettes and some deleted and extended scenes make this a pretty packed disc.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing