Rewind Review: A Christmas Carol

When starting out a review of A Christmas Carol, a compulsory beginning should likely read that Robert Zemeckis is incredibly talented and has made many great films that you will never be able to take away from him. Amongst this critics favorites are Back to the Future parts I and II, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Forrest Gump and Contact. Now that list stops before the turn of the century. In the latter part of this decade it seems he’s been on a crusade, as a director, to be at the forefront of motion-capture technology.

Three films into this phase and the animation it seems is still not ready for primetime. The animation is not the only thing that lets the film down but it is a starting point and an important one. The fluidity of motion is just not there in the dance scene and it seems like a jittery video game rendition. The appearance of the characters is inconsistent. Bob Cratchit looks simian through most of his first scene. The characters look good with pronounced highlights or in scenes with very high contrast. Otherwise the artifice of it falls into an odd no-man’s land between live action and animation that isn’t very appealing. The technology has come quite a ways from The Polar Express but it’s not yet in its most desirable state.

The story at times takes a backseat to the technology, otherwise, why would you represent the Ghost of Christmas Past as a flame? It seemed like an overly-contrived way to experiment with lighting techniques in the new technology. Also, the technology allows you to use fewer actors because once you have a reading of their face you can manipulate it in post and have them interpret numerous roles none of which look anything alike.

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This, however, is a double-edged sword it can be incredibly liberating as an actor and the modern day equivalent of wearing a mask but it also means fewer actors were hired for this film to fill the roles. Another effect of the technology is that if you make a bad casting decision it could be amplified by many roles. Jim Carrey plays eight roles in this film and in two of them he was not a great fit. Unfortunately, those two were Ebenezer Scrooge, where he neither sounds all that British or all that curmudgeonly, and the Ghost of Christmas Present where he goes way over the top especially when he laughs which is almost all the time.

It seems like for every step forward this film took it took two back. For every new twist added cleverly because they could through the animation there was something extraneous like Scrooge being shot across the moonlit sky that just didn’t need to happen. I won’t even digress into his being shrunk and sliding down the rooftop except to mention it there.

All the charm, spirit and brilliance that does exist in this story can be directly attributed to Charles Dickens and is not really amplified in any way either by the production or the players, good as some of them were. It’s also a little disingenuous to see this branded as Disney’s a A Chrismas Carol in the opening credits when Disney in 1983 created a short called Mickey’s Christmas Carol that in 26 minutes managed to be ever so much more moving and effective than this film so much so that it was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Animated Short.

Disney's Eine Weihnachtsgeschichte

A case in point about the execution of this film: the effectiveness of the closing line of the tale is completely undercut because all of a sudden it was decided that it would be a good idea to have Cratchit talk to the audience and recite verbatim the closing paragraph and then have Tiny Tim say “God bless us everyone.” The film is not so long that you couldn’t have continued watching Scrooge going around doing his good deeds and allowing that to happen naturally and visually without the “cut to the chase” treatment. It kind of lets the wind out of the sails of an experience that wasn’t all that emotionally satisfying to begin with. Don’t change the nature of the tale and the tempo at the very end just because you don’t want to run anywhere near 100 minutes.

Those who are going to see the the story for the first time will likely enjoy it. I just stress that there are other better versions out there. The only serviceable thing this adaptation does is to reintroduce the tale and maybe it will be read by many for the first time- for as literature it is a masterpiece and this film is nowhere near close.

4/10

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My Year in Film: 1994

First, a tip of the hat to @bobfreelander who was the first I saw doing retroactive year-in-review posts and why I will do a few. Now, while I will be able to contextualize my picks to an extent I cannot be as anal retentive as I wanted to. Ideally, I would’ve loved to say I saw these movies in the year in question and these later, but I cannot with any degree of accuracy. The reason this matters to me is that I was 13 to 14 when these films were being released. Now I, unlike many students around me when I was in school, have been able to exonerate many films I saw before studying films formally from over-analysis. So while many are getting a pass or some sentimental value attached to them I shall not disown them, they are still me. Much in the way I am no longer making BAM Awards for years where I didn’t actively track releases, I am also not changing winners as I did on rare occasions in my teens. This list like those awards are a snapshot, time can reshape one affection for a film, whether heightening or lessening it but the films that mark that year for you mentally remain pretty much identical.

I start with 1994 in part because it was a great year for me in general, I was out of sixth grade and into 7th and 8th and I rather enjoyed Junior High where using your mental faculties to achieve a heightened sense of immaturity was rewarded, at least amongst my circle of friends. Sports-wise it was a great year as my faith in my beloved New York Rangers was rewarded, I knew it’d be a championship season in pre-season and it was. Then not too long after I saw Brazil win its 3rd World Cup while visiting my family.

Not that movies lagged that far behind, if at all. Many of these films, whether I saw them during the calendar year or soon thereafter, have been favorites for many years.

The films are in no particular order.

1. Satantango

Sátántangó (Kino Lorber)

I’ve been meaning to give this film an annual viewing but at 7+ hours in length it is very hard to schedule. I first heard about this film in college when it wasn’t readily available on DVD but I hunted it down. Having it was like having gold such that I even loaned it to a professor once. It’s an impressive example of story-telling muscle-flexing as it goes back and forth in time with many events repeating at intersecting points of perspective, as we follow characters and see certain events over through their eyes. Its ending is a shocking as such a minimalist ending can be and gives me goosebumps every time.

2. Milk Money

Milk Money (Paramount)

Here’s one I could’ve seen in ’94 but didn’t. In a world where I didn’t have a computer or access to the IMDb I couldn’t confirm my casting misconceptions, namely at the time I confused one of the girls in a quick shot in the trailer with Anna Chlumsky. I did eventually see it on HBO and this was where my admiration for Melanie Griffith originated and I hunted down practically everything she did after seeing it. Now hooker with a heart of gold stories weren’t new to me even then but the context and the slightly verboten yet laissez-fair handling of this one along with its outcome are a major part of what won me over.

3. Once Were Warriors

Once Were Warriors (Fine Line Features)

When the Independent Film Channel (IFC) first hit the airwaves I watched it practically every night for a week, and as an atypical teen movie fan I craved something different and I got it. This is a harrowing tale of a Maori family in New Zealand. I’m not even sure if I’ve even revisited it. Even if I have it could surely qualify as a film you only need to see once.

4. Disclosure

Disclosure (Warner Bros.)

This is a great film. Yes, it’s true Michael Douglas gets Michael Douglas-ed in it, if you’ve seen enough of his films you get what I mean, but sexual harassment was a hot button issue in the country as there was a politically correct renaissance about and to flip expectations to have an actress like Demi Moore, in likely her best role, in that position make it a compelling drama.

5. The War

The War (Universal)

For those of you who may have been asleep during the 90s and didn’t know, Elijah Wood was one of the most prodigious child actors who ever graced the silver screen. This film of his is his most criminally under-seen. It’s a great allegorical tale wherein Wood does his most serious work as a youth but he’s supported by Kevin Costner, Mare Winningham and Lexi Randall. If you’ve never seen this film do yourself the favor.

6. Little Giants

Little Giants (Warner Bros.)

G-Men! OK, if you read my intro you probably surmised I’m a native New Yorker, however, that’s not the only reason that this film makes the list, there are some others. It is smart that this film does play into actual NFL rivalries and takes the Bad News Bears motif to football but there’s some more to it. Part of it has to do with seeing Ed O’Neill in a movie and perfectly cast, it being one of Rick Moranis’ last theatrically released films plays into it some. Yet it’s also about the team, which plays into the appeal of any underdog story, and also it may be the most effective rivalries in terms of having certain off-the-field relationships with the opposition.

7. A Feast at Midnight

A Feast at Midnight (Live Entertainment)

This is a film that I found a few years later. One thing that’s refreshing about it is that it’s a tale of boarding school mischief that doesn’t get too dark. Essentially the boys at this school are tired of their crap food. They learn to cook and bake and sneak about in the dead of night to have proper feasts. More comedy and tension are added by Christopher Lee who plays the headmaster who they refer to as a dinosaur and many scenes play out as homages to Jurassic Park, which are just brilliantly done.

8. Vanya on 42nd Street

Vanya on 42nd Street (Sony Pictures Classics)

If I recall correctly this was an impromptu purchase. I typically used my weekend allowance to take a bus to the multiplex and then to the mall after to pick up another film. This was likely one of them. It didn’t lead me to instantly pursue more Chekhov but it was the spark that opened the door for my appreciation of his work.

9. The Shawshank Redemption

The Shawshank Redemption (Columbia Pictures)

What could I possibly say about this film that hasn’t been said before? I didn’t see it in 1994 as it was slightly before I discovered Stephen King, and my life forever changed. I saw it later and I saw it before I read it, and I learned Frank Darabont is a King adaptation master, and this is his best work.

10. North

North (Columbia Pictures)

Here’s the section of the list where I’ll place a couple of movies you likely hate and I hope you’ll do me the kindness of scrolling past them if you do hate them rather than closing your browser window. For those of you who are still with me, I can even understand how you can dislike North and It’s Pat, the latter much more than the former. However, with this one I really don’t get how some claim its one of the worst things ever. Yes, it’s another Elijah Wood title and while here he’s more comedic this one really does have more to do with the concept than him or the supporting all-star cast. It’s a wish-fulfillment story and yes, based on the tale you know where it’ll likely end up, but that doesn’t stop it from being a very effective fantasy in my estimation.

11. It’s Pat

It's Pat (Touchstone Pictures)

I get it on this one, OK? Pat is gross, that’s what makes the sketch funny for those who do think it’s funny. I’d say this is likely the most avoided and reviled SNL-sketch based feature of them all, I will not claim that it’s the best, but I do like it. Julia Sweeney is a very underrated comedienne and this is her best character.

12. The Little Rascals

The Little Rascals (Universal Pictures)

I can’t remember if I ever consciously wanted to see this movie but having younger siblings it was acquired on home video and I ended up watching it many times and I ended up liking it quite a bit also. Looking back you could almost draw a parallel between this and The Three Stooges in as much as those actors were The Little Rascals, so theoretically a remake shouldn’t work but it was cast so well and the story was very much in the spirit of the original with minor updates such that it works very well.

13. Airheads

Airheads (20th Century Fox)

When you rely on cable television for your viewing you can end up watching things over and over whether you want to or not. An example or not would be Empire Records, I have no idea what convinced me that seeing it over and over would change my opinion of it. It just kept getting suckier. This I liked right away and wanted to see many times over, it’s just a hilarious and well executed premise.

14. The Client

The Client (Warner Bros.)

Joel Schumacher can be very divisive and I certainly cannot defend all of his films. However, those that I can I will tooth and nail. This is one of them. I watched The Client many years later and it has in it perhaps one of the tensest first acts I can recall. It doesn’t let up much from there.

15. Speed

Speed (20th Century Fox)

Here’s a film that’s become a bit of a punching bag in hindsight. I will grant there is a level of silliness to it, however, if you get past the whole 50 MPH thing, (which I have) it rather works. Also, one must bear in mind that this was really Sandra Bullock’s breakout role so she was new to us and about to be beloved by many. Also, this is Keanu many roles before we saw that being Keanu is about the extent of his range.

16. Trading Mom

Trading Mom (Trimark Pictures)

This is a film that it took me a while to track down, eventually it debuted on cable. My willingness to see it was mostly due to Anna Chlumsky’s involvement. It would be a great double-feature with North as there are similar themes to it, Wanting to Change Parents but Realizing Yours Are the Best, however, it also features a great performance by Sissy Spacek in many incarnations. Its a more down-to-earth and stripped-down version of the aforementioned premise that still works rather well.

17. Serial Mom

Serial Mom (Savoy Pictures)

I’ve seen this movie a lot of times but none very recently. This could be John Waters at his demented best. This is where I not only learned a rule of fashion but also got “Day Break” stuck in my head for life. Kathleen Turner is incredible in this.

18. The Hudsucker Proxy

The Hudsucker Proxy (PolyGram)

I avoided this film for a long time for a number of reasons. I like Coens films when I watch them but my viewership of their filmography is very incomplete, the title and description also made it seem like it couldn’t be that interesting. It’s perhaps the best argument for just watching the movie. I love it.

19. Major League II

Major League II (Warner Bros.)

As opposed to the sequel later in this list this is one that I think I like more than the original. It’s sillier, funnier and doesn’t take the high road in the ending but those are all things I like about it. Plus, taking the approach that this team overachieved and now rests on its laurels and struggles is pretty smart and true to life.

20. Ace Ventura: Pet Detective

Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (Warner Bros.)

It’s a very simple discussion when dealing with Jim Carrey: Either you love the over-the-top end of his comedic repertoire or you hate it. I love it and Ace Ventura is the prime example of this facet of his gifts.

21. Trevor

Trevor

This film I first saw only last year. It’s the only short on this list. It’s almost more important for its significance than the film itself for this film is what spawned The Trevor Project. Perhaps what’s most impressive is that it really was ahead of the zeitgeist in terms of a hot button issue. It deals with a youth struggling with his sexuality and is suicidal. It won an Oscar after it was made and was re-introduced in a TV special hosted by Ellen DeGeneres but now it has a third incarnation as The Trevor Project is one of the most notable and active NGOs in the nation right now. Granted its a film buoyed by its message and its significance but few films, especially shorts, have this kind of track record so far as reemergence and staying power are concerned.

22. Menino Maluquinho- O Filme

Menino Maluquinho - O Filme (Filmes Europa)

Below you will see another comic character that I love come to life. I saw this a few years after the release of the film. This film benefits from the fact that though this character is featured in Brazilian comic strips he originated in graphic novels and this film tackles the story told in the first of those books for the most part and that streamlines things and makes the interpretation very pure.

23. Forrest Gump

Forrest Gump (Paramount)

This is another film that has become somewhat of a punching bag over the years. Taking the visceral arguments out of the equation (for I do like and connect to the film) the significance of this film in certain cinematic is in fact that it breaks rules about a passive protagonist, in that it employs one, and it works very, very well. You’d be hard pressed to find many other situations where it would but here no doubt it does. I predicted Tom Hanks would win the Oscar on the eve of the show when asked, and not only was I right but I was pleased. It’s another question of time. Hanks has become more interested in producing and has become an Oscar ceremony staple but I’d never question his merits in the roles that won him statues.

24. Little Odessa

Little Odessa (Fine Line Features)

Here is another IFC special. I did revisit this one at least once. It’s a tremendously underrated film and features a great turn by Edward Furlong before his depressing decline.

25. Richie Rich

Richie Rich (Warner Bros.)

Macaulay Culkin is precisely 364 days older than I am, so his stardom was kind of a big deal for me growing up for he was, and is, essentially my age. Furthermore, add the fact that here he was interpreting one of my favorite comics characters of all time and this was going to be a must see for me. Now, here’s an example similar to one you’ll see below where the star and the involvement in a project is more significant to than the film, for I definitely nitpick this one and the follow ups (though they be Culkin-less) it wasn’t an interpretation completely without merit, I did like a lot of it.

26. Blue Chips

Blue Chips (Paramount)

Another cable special and another I’ve given many viewings. Nick Nolte is, as he tends to be, brilliant in this film. However, what really elevates this film for me is the great examination of the moralistic quagmire that amateur athletics are. Nolte’s confession speech while rather unrealistic in a real context, as sports fans know all too well, allow for the film to really expose the inevitability of star athletes getting perks and incentives to go to certain colleges.

27. My Girl 2

My Girl 2 (Columbia Pictures)

Alright, no My Girl 2 is not a great film, there are a few entries on this list I wouldn’t call great. As I mentioned in my introduction that’s not quite the point of this post. It was a film that was overly delayed, in my estimation, and brought a new writer into the fold but the fact of the matter is it’s the sequel to what was at the time my favorite movie ever, and a film I still have a great affection for, so that makes this notable. It’s a film I do pick nits with endlessly but the fact that it matters to me cannot be denied.

Review- Mr. Popper’s Penguins

Carla Gugino, Maxwell Perry Cotton, Madeline Carroll and Jim Carrey in Mr. Popper's Penguins (20th Century Fox)

You may not be expecting much when walking into a film like Mr. Popper’s Penguins. While it certainly won’t blow anyone away it does have some surprises in store and it really is quite good.

There is a quick backstory montage with some flashes that establishes who our protagonist is and what his relationship with his father was like. This sets up our expectations for what he will be like as a grown man. While this set up can have us assuming certain things how they come about is a bit unexpected.

Perhaps one of the most enjoyable aspects of the film is Jim Carrey’s performance. Here you get what I call a hybrid of his two very distinctive styles, both of which I like. It’s a homogenization of his over-the-top comedy and his dramatic persona much more so than Liar Liar, which is very much the former.

This film also sets up several standard situations but avoids trapping the film in overly-familiar gags and goes about things differently. There are Needing to be Two Places at Once, Apparent Defeat and Ulterior Complications that are to an extent necessary and accepted handled briskly and with a twist such that they’re not stale.

This film by doing those stock things in a slightly more inventive, fresher way does end up being rather funny. There is a good dose of slapstick and verbal comedy thrown into the mix such that it’s balanced.

Comedy aside it is a family film and so the family unit has to be strong in terms of performance and chemistry and this film does that perfectly. Aside from Carrey you have Carla Gugino as his ex-wife and Madeline Carroll and Maxwell Perry Cotton as his children. Though she’s played other roles Gugino since Spy Kids is the prototypical uber-mom charming and appealing to all ages. The kids have very different tasks and handle them brilliantly: Carroll as a teenage girl whose emotions are always teetering on the edge and Cotton who plays the younger brother wise beyond his years. They make fantastic foils and allow Carrey to play drama and comedy at times simultaneously.

The children and the family story ultimately bring out the biggest surprise in that while packaged as a goofy animal film it is a sweet, heartfelt story.

While his dialogue does get a bit repetitive the film does adequately turn the man from the zoo into a serviceable villain. There are also secondary threats to the penguins conditions that never over-intrude but make their presence known.

The CG work that’s done, when it’s needed, in this film is also well-rendered and never too obvious.

Mr. Popper’s Penguins is one of the better surprises I’ve had at the movies in while. Which just goes to show that just as you can’t judge a book by its cover you can’t judge a film by its trailer (or its poster for that matter).

7/10