The Man Who Invented Christmas movie review

For inSing

THE MAN WHO INVENTED CHRISTMAS

Director : Bharat Nalluri
Cast : Dan Stevens, Jonathan Pryce, Christopher Plummer, Miriam Margolyes, Morfydd Clark
Genre : Biography, Comedy, Drama
Run Time : 1h 44m
Opens : 30 November 2017
Rating : PG (Some Coarse Language)

Charles Dickens’ novel A Christmas Carol has become a cultural touchstone, and imagery from the story is a part of Christmas decorations all over the world. The novel has also spawned numerous film adaptations. Rather than being yet another one of those, this film attempts to take audiences into Dickens’ mind as he was writing the novel.

It is 1843, and Dickens (Dan Stevens) is having a professional slump. While Oliver Twist was a massive success, his last three books have been deemed commercial failures. When his publishers press him for a new book, Dickens goes about devising a parable set during Christmas, about a miserly old man named Ebenezer Scrooge (Christopher Plummer). Dickens’ wife Kate (Morfydd Clark) and his friend John Forster (Justin Edwards) must contend with his mood swings as he attempts to rush out the book in time for Christmas.

Dickens has imaginary interactions with the characters of the book, including Scrooge, who takes delight in mocking him and wearing him down. Dickens realises that he must address the long-festering wound that is the resentment he holds towards his father John (Jonathan Pryce), whom Dickens blames for sending him off to work in a factory as a young boy. As he frantically searches for a satisfying ending to the book, Dickens must exorcise the ghosts that have haunted him all his life.

The Man Who Invented Christmas is based on the book of the same name by historian and author Lee Standiford, subtitled ‘How Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits’. On the surface, this looks like a delightful Christmastime confection, light-hearted and aimed squarely at Anglophiles. However, director Bharat Nalluri and writer Susan Coyne try their utmost to keep the film from being overly treacly or sentimental, and attempt to delve into the author’s psyche.

There are some interesting devices at play here: the story takes on a Shakespeare in Love-type tone, revealing the inspirations that Dickens drew upon. While it wants to be light-hearted, quirky and charming in an old-fashioned way, the film also wants to depict the obsessed, ‘tortured artist’ side of Dickens. There is some of the frothy approach that Nalluri took with the underrated Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, but that is at odds with the Victorian grimness inherent in Dickens’ own backstory.

2017 has been a banner year for Dan Stevens, who has starred in films like Beauty and the Beast and the TV series Legion. Stevens’ energetic portrayal of Dickens brims with manic energy, but the actor does look like he’s constantly searching for the pain that has been brewing in the author’s soul. The film provides a somewhat compelling portrait of the creative process, and the relationship an author can have with his characters – they may seem like figments of the imagination to everyone else, but to Dickens, they are as real as can be.

Plummer is an elder statesman of the acting profession, and join the ranks of many talented actors who have played the curmudgeonly, miserly Scrooge. Scrooge functions as a manifestation of Dickens’ own doubts and insecurities, and the back-and-forth between author and character can be fun to watch. Plummer plays the role with restraint, nibbling at the scenery rather than chewing it outright.

Jonathan Pryce is a talented, often entertaining actor, but the relationship between Dickens and his somewhat-irresponsible father is quite underdeveloped. This thread seems to be the most interesting, but isn’t given enough attention.

Justin Edwards is likeable as Dickens’ friend and eventual biographer, who serves as the physical model for the jolly Ghost of Christmas Present. Morfydd Clark doesn’t get too much to do as Dickens’ long-suffering wife, but Anna Murphy’s bright-eyed maid character Tara adds a dash of innocence and optimism.

The Man Who Invented Christmas will appeal to avid readers of Dickens’ work and the author’s interactions with his own characters differentiate this from your run-of-the-mill biopic, but the film isn’t as wholly charming as it could’ve been. Because of its tonal confusion, it’s hard to fully get into, and rarely pushes past the point of ‘mildly interesting’. Still, the movie has it charms and features Christopher Plummer in fine form.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Kill Switch

For F*** Magazine

KILL SWITCH 

Director : Tim Smit
Cast : Dan Stevens, Bérénice Marlohe, Charity Wakefield, Tygo Gernandt
Genre : Action/Sci-Fi
Run Time : 1h 31min
Opens : 24 August 2017
Rating : PG13 (Some Coarse Language And Violence)

Dan Stevens looks set to be 2017’s breakout leading man. This year alone, The Downtown Abbey star can be seen in Beauty and the Beast, Colossal, The Ticket, Norman: The Moderate Rise and Tragic Fall of a New York Fixer, Permission, Marshall and The Man Who Invented Christmas. He’s also on TV, playing the lead in Legion. In this sci-fi action thriller, Stevens must stop the implosion of existence as we know it.

 

It is the year 2043, and Will Porter (Stevens), a physicist and pilot, is recruited by the massive corporation Alterplex. The company is on a mission to harness energy from parallel universes, hiring Will to travel to a realm known as ‘the Echo’. The experiment goes awry, and Will finds himself being pursued by a phalanx of heavily-armed mercenaries, and waves of deadly drones. Will must transport a mysterious obsidian box called the ‘Redivider’, which functions as a kill switch, to Alterplex’s tower. If he fails, his sister Mia (Wakefield) and her young son, not to mention the entire population of the world, will perish. Will discovers that Abigail Vos (Marlohe), the Alterplex employee who recruited him, might not be all she claims. Amidst the chaos, a rebel organisation that plans to undermine Alterplex might just be Will’s only hope.

Kill Switch is based on director Tim Smit’s 2009 short film What’s in the Box? Filmed from a first-person perspective, What’s in the Box? garnered considerable interest online because of the possibility that it was linked to the long-rumoured video game Half-Life 3 (it was not). The feature-length version is a perplexing, frustrating, but intriguing film. All the action scenes are filmed from a first-person perspective, giving this a video game-like feel. Because it’s set in two parallel worlds and of the queasiness-inducing factor of filming chaotic, frenetic shootouts and pursuits in that format, Kill Switch is disorienting and is far harder to follow than it should be.

Smit is a visual effects artist whose first feature film is Kill Switch, and it’s an ambitious debut. Shot in the Netherlands with a largely Dutch crew and several Dutch actors in the cast, the computer-generated effects work is solid and rivals Hollywood productions with much larger budgets. There are certain glimmers of cleverness: the original title of the film was ‘Redivider’ which, like the name ‘Tim Smit’, is a palindrome. Unfortunately, Smit’s focus is clearly trained on the visual effects spectacle, with the plot suffering as a result. While the screenplay by Charlie Kindinger and Omid Nooshin packs in exposition to explain the sci-fi workings of it all, it’s still tough to make head or tail of the proceedings.

Stevens has an intensity to him that sets him apart from the bland, cookie cutter action leads Hollywood who are sometimes hyped as ‘the next big thing’. He takes this far more seriously than he hast to. The unique thing about the role is that because all the action scenes are filmed in the first-person perspective, he doesn’t perform any of the action, merely providing the voiceover for those scenes.

Marlohe, best-known for playing a Bond girl in Skyfall, makes for a stiff femme fatale. Interestingly, Will is not in a romantic relationship with any of the female characters in the film, which is another element that differentiates Kill Switch from the average action thriller. Mia is Will’s sister, when in any other film, that character would be the male lead’s wife instead. It’s a shame that Will’s bond with his sister and nephew gets insufficient development, and the potentially emotional scenes fall flat.

Low-to-mid-budget science fiction films usually pique this reviewer’s curiosity, since conventional wisdom dictates that futuristic films are expensive to pull off convincingly. Kill Switch is sporadically fun, the visual effects are confidently and competently executed, and Smit shows considerable promise in an audacious debut. However, the first-person perspective gimmick wears out its welcome all too quickly, and the gee whiz sci-fi plot is confusingly rendered.

Summary: Recommended only for curious sci-fi fans, Kill Switch boasts impressive production values that are in service of a muddled narrative.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Colossal

For F*** Magazine

COLOSSAL 

Director : Nacho Vigalondo
Cast : Anne Hathaway, Jason Sudeikis, Dan Stevens, Austin Stowell, Tim Blake Nelson
Genre : Sci-Fi/Comedy
Run Time : 1h 50min
Opens : 8 June 2017
Rating : PG13 (Coarse Language And Some Violence)

In this sci-fi dark comedy-drama, Anne Hathaway learns that the bigger they come, the harder they fall. Hathaway plays Gloria, an alcoholic out-of-work writer whose irresponsibility has led to her boyfriend Tim (Stevens) breaking up with her. After getting kicked out of their house by Tim, Gloria moves back to Maidenhead, the small Midwestern town where she grew up. Her childhood friend Oscar (Sudeikis) helps Gloria get back on her feet, offering her a job at his bar. Gloria becomes acquainted with Oscar’s friends Joel (Stowell) and Garth (Nelson), developing a romantic interest in Joel. When a giant bipedal reptilian monster appears out of nowhere to terrorise Seoul, Gloria comes to the startling revelation that she is controlling the creature. At a specific time every day, the monster materialises in South Korea, and mirrors Gloria’s physical actions. As Gloria processes this surreal turn of events, her personal relationships take similarly unexpected turns.

There is a film franchise centred on giant robots, which releases its fifth instalment this year and has the tagline “more than meets the eye”. While there’s often less than meets the eye with that film series, there’s far more to Colossal than one might think. Colossal comes from writer-director Nacho Vigalondo, who helmed the mind-bending Spanish-language film Timecrimes and the experimental techno-thriller Open Windows. Colossal’s zany premise of a kaiju that just happens to be controlled by a random American woman is only its first layer of weirdness. By the film’s end, it’s evident that this is not a movie that is weird solely for the sake of being weird. The film’s genre-defying nature plus its blend of comedy and genuinely unsettling drama might alienate some viewers, but it adds up to a uniquely compelling whole.

Colossal has been marketed as a quirky comedy; its trailer scored with light-hearted music and its cutesy poster depicting Hathaway scratching her head, with the monster standing behind her, doing the same. While the inherent absurdity of the premise does lead to some laughs, Colossal winds up in an unexpectedly dark, dramatic place. As characters’ back-stories and motivations come to light, things suddenly feel a lot more serious than they did earlier in the film. Rather than feeling like whiplash, this trajectory is earned. The story is gripping enough for this reviewer to go along with – even given an explanation for the film’s central phenomenon which requires more suspension of disbelief than usual.

The film’s budget is estimated at around $15 million, which is a paltry sum compared to summer blockbusters than can cost upwards of $150 million. Vigalondo smartly allocates his resources, and the visual effects spectacle holds up sufficiently well. The climactic sequence, which includes scenes of the South Korean army ushering panicked civillians to safety, is more riveting than this reviewer thought it would be.

Hathaway is goofy and endearing, but is also able to evince the hidden conflict within Gloria. The attractive woman whose life has spun out of control thanks to a drinking habit could well be the lead character of an insufferable sitcom, but like with other aspects of the film, Colossal takes that archetype and builds it out in a surprising way.

It’s difficult to meaningfully discuss Colossal without giving too much away, so skip past this paragraph if you’re worried about spoilers – we’ll try to be vague. This is likely the most depth Sudeikis has been able to display in his acting career. The Oscar character starts out as your standard ‘nice guy’ character, but the cracks begin to form. As defined in various think-pieces, the ‘nice guy’ is a man who gives the appearance of being thoughtful and caring while pursuing women, and who becomes bitter and resentful when his advances are rebuffed. The deconstruction of this trope as performed by Sudeikis is visceral, sorrowful and engenders just the right strain of uneasiness.

 

Stevens’ supporting role is a minor one, but he does get to retain his English accent. The friction that arises from the initial friendliness shared by Gloria, Oscar, Joel and Garth in the bar unfolds in believable fashion.

It is perhaps ironic that Colossal’s producers were sued by Toho Studios, who claimed the film was too similar to their flagship kaiju Godzilla. There are superficial similarities in that Colossal, like Godzilla, features a monster stomping about an Asian metropolis. However, the underlying allegory is completely different, and Vigalondo’s boldness in crafting a film that defies classification pays off, in that it is far from a jumbled mess. Colossal not only breaks the mould, it stomps on it with insouciant defiance.

Summary: Colossal is an odd beast, but the weirdness that fuels it belies surprising depth, salient social commentary and emotional resonance.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Beauty and the Beast (2017)

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (2017)

Director : Bill Condon
Cast : Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, Josh Gad, Kevin Kline, Emma Thompson, Ian McKellen, Ewan McGregor
Genre : Musical/Fantasy/Romance
Run Time : 2h 9min
Opens : 16 March 2017
Rating : PG (Some Intense Sequences)

You know how this story goes: Belle (Watson), who lives in a provincial French town with her father Maurice (Kline), is misunderstood by the townsfolk because she’s intellectually-inclined and doesn’t conform to the norms of the time. Belle catches the eye of the boorish Gaston (Evans), always accompanied by his sidekick Lefou (Gad), but Belle rebuffs Gaston’s advances. When Maurice loses his way in the woods and is held prisoner by a frightening Beast (Stevens), Belle volunteers to take her father’s place as the Beast’s captive. The Beast was formerly a handsome prince, who has been cursed by an Enchantress for his haughtiness and unkindness. The household staff of the castle were also cursed: the suave head butler Lumiere (McGregor) is a candelabra, fussbudget majordomo Cogsworth (McKellen) is a clock, and matronly head of the kitchen Mrs. Potts (Thompson) is a teapot. Belle must fall in love with the Beast to break the curse, but when Gaston learns of the Beast’s existence, he will stop at nothing to kill the Beast and take Belle for himself.

These days, the foundation stones of the House of Mouse are nostalgia. Beauty and the Beast is a remake of the landmark 1991 animated film, which was in turn based on the 18th Century French fairy tale by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve. It’s easy to be cynical about the practice of live-action remakes, a practice Disney is keen on continuing. While there are elements to this lushly designed, beautifully photographed live-action remake that are worthwhile, it does hew closely to the venerated 1991 version. Director Bill Condon, who earned his musical cred with Chicago and Dreamgirls, dutifully assembles a work of prefab nostalgia.

This is not to say Beauty and the Beast is not enjoyable. This reviewer had goosebumps through much of the film, and there’s a novelty in seeing flesh-and-blood actors (alongside multiple computer-generated characters) telling this tale. There is an effort to stick a little closer to the original story. For example, the Beast imprisons Maurice because Maurice plucked a rose from the castle gardens, Belle having requested her father bring a rose back from his travels. That’s in this version. Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos’ adaptation of Linda Woolverton’s screenplay includes flashes of rib-tickling wit.

The production design by four-time Oscar nominee Sarah Greenwood is sumptuous, with lots of dizzying details to take in. Jacqueline Durran’s costumes are similarly beautiful, but the friend whom this reviewer saw the film with noticed that the gold leaf details were printed onto the dress rather than sewn on. It’s also fun to parse when exactly this is set, given clues like Gaston having fought in “the war”, Belle reading Shakespeare to the Beast, the powdered wigs worn by the aristocrats, and the mention of the black plague, historical markers that were absent from the 1991 version.

Much of the nostalgia factor is directly linked to the music. The songs from the 1991 film, with music by Alan Menken and lyrics by the late Howard Ashman, have been etched into the collective consciousness. In this iteration, there are lush orchestral arrangements and some very pretty harpsichord parts.

However, this reviewer couldn’t suppress his disappointment that the songs from the stage musical adaptation, including If I Can’t Love Her, Home, Me and Human Again, are conspicuously absent. Instead, Menken has re-teamed with Tim Rice, the lyricist for the additional songs in the stage musical, to write a few new numbers. These include the Beast’s solo Evermore, which is a sweet torch song but is an also-ran replacement for If I Can’t Love Her, and Days in the Sun, a more melancholic take on the wistful Human Again. It seems odd that given how this started out as a direct movie adaptation of the stage musical, those songs are all gone. Menken and Rice are plenty talented, so the new songs are good – just not as good as what we had on Broadway.

Watson has stated that the character of Belle was a big influence on her when she was growing up, and as such she’s honoured to get to play her. While Watson is fully convincing as a feisty bookworm, since she spent around ten years playing one earlier in her career, there seems to be something missing. Perhaps it’s how iconic the animated Belle is, that it’s hard not to see Watson the actress/activist when looking at this Belle. Her singing voice has also been autotuned into oblivion, disappointing when compared to how lively and engaging voice actress Paige O’Hara’s performance was in the 1991 version.

Stevens sounds remarkably like the Beast’s original voice actor, Robby Benson. This version makes multiple attempts to render him as sympathetic as possible, to tamp down the icky Stockholm Syndrome connotations. As such, the Beast is never really fearsome, even when he’s locking up Maurice in the beginning. At times, his computer-generated visage seems suitably animalistic, and at others, it looks like hair has been digitally flocked onto Stevens’ face. He also looks more than a little awkward while singing.

Gaston steals the show, as Gaston is wont to do. Evans flings himself into the part with great aplomb, seemingly channelling Hugh Jackman, who played Gaston on stage in the Sydney production. Much has been made of how Lefou is “officially” gay, and it can’t help but seem like a marketing device to generate controversy more than anything else. Gad is ideal casting and a fine complement to Evans. Maurice is less of the clumsy, absent-minded elderly man he was in the animated film, Kline lending the character warmth and a degree of grounding.

The all-star cast extends into the actors voicing the enchanted objects. McGregor seems to be putting in the most work, affecting a French accent and having fun with the role. He shares great vocal chemistry with McKellen, whose voice sounds apt emanating from a stuffy, unyielding worrywart. Thompson does a full-on Angela Lansbury impression, which is quite charming. This also marks a reunion for Hermione and Prof. Trelawney. Stanley Tucci voices a new character, the court composer-turned harpsichord Cadenza. Broadway star Audra McDonald voices the wardrobe Mme. Garderobe, and gets to perform an aria that seems awfully like Prima Donna from The Phantom of the Opera. The enchanted objects must’ve been the biggest stumbling block in translating the animated film into live-action, and there are several moments which work much better in the 1991 film, Be Our Guest being chief among them.

Beauty and the Beast will charm and entrance large sections of moviegoers, but it seems preoccupied with hitting its marks, glancing down at the floor on occasion. Things get lost in translation, and Disney devotees will be locked into continuously comparing this with its animated forebear. Still, it will be largely futile to resist gasping when each petal falls off the rose, even though we know how it’s going to end.

Summary: While it’s largely bound by an enforced slavishness to the now-classic 1991 animated film, more than enough delights await within this refurbished castle.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

A Walk Among the Tombstones

For F*** Magazine

A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES

Director : Scott Frank
Cast : Liam Neeson, Dan Stevens, Ruth Wilson, Olafur Darri Olafsson, Sebastian Roche, David Harbour, Mark Consuelos, Astro
Genre : Crime/Thriller
Opens : 18 September 2014
Rating : NC-16
Running time: 114 mins

Pierce Brosnan strutted his “older man of action” stuff recently in The November Manand now Liam Neeson, the definitive “older man of action” of the moment, is at it again in A Walk Among the Tombstones. Neeson plays Matt Scudder, a former NYPD cop, now an unlicensed private detective and a recovering alcoholic. Drug dealer Kenny Kristo (Stevens) engages Scudder’s services when his wife is kidnapped and killed even after he’s paid the ransom. While doing research in the library, Scudder befriends homeless teenager TJ (Bradley), whom he takes under his wing. Scudder discovers that the psychopaths responsible are targeting young women related to figures in the drug world, knowing they would be unable to go to the police for help. Working outside the law, Scudder must prevent the serial killers from striking again.
            
A Walk Among the Tombstones is adapted from the 10th book in Lawrence Block’s long-running Matt Scudder series (there are 17 books now). Jeff Bridges played Scudder in 1986’s heavily panned and largely forgotten 8 Million Ways to Dieand this film has been in the works for quite a while, with Joe Carnahan attached to direct and Harrison Ford to star at one point. Writer-director Scott Frank’s realisation of A Walk Among the Tombstones is slick, stylish and foreboding, lean and effectively chilling. At times, it seems reminiscent of David Fincher’s work, if more pedestrian. A slow-motion sequence in which the killers leer at a young girl walking her dog, set to Donovan’s “Atlantis”, is a very darkly comic touch. The book was published in 1992, but Frank chooses to set it in 1999, hinting at Y2K paranoia with the symbolism of people being “afraid of all the wrong things”, as the tagline goes. This doesn’t seem to add a lot to the story but it is an interesting textural detail.
           
          However, beyond the look and feel of the film, the story is a pretty conventional one. Yes, the serial killer antagonists are very creepy, but it’s nothing you haven’t seen before in dozens of police procedural or detective TV shows. They drive around in a van, kidnapping women to torture and kill and they’re unbalanced and evil – not exactly a unique or compelling situation for our hero to be up against. It’s a good thing then that our hero is Liam Neeson, a master at the art of being quietly intimidating. He’s effortlessly cool throughout the film and you’ll want to cheer when he snarls “are you listening, motherf***er?” through the phone at the kidnappers. More than that, it’s entertaining to watch Neeson’s Scudder just doing some old-fashioned sleuthing about, cleverly cajoling information out of various subjects. Neeson is sufficiently low-key and yet never seems like he’s sleepwalking through the film. He also has the approval of author Block, who thought Neeson would make the ideal Scudder since watching him in Michael Collins.

            Less conventional than its main “catch the kidnappers” plot is the relationship between Scudder and tagalong kid TJ. TJ could have very easily been unbearably irritating and Brian “Astro” Bradley did get on many nerves as a contestant on American X Factor. However, he holds his own opposite Neeson and their interactions lend the film a slight hint of dry levity without the character being “the comic relief”. There’s some sentimentality there too, TJ stricken with sickle cell anaemia, having nowhere to go and drawing superheroes in his sketchbook. The scene in which Scudder chastises TJ for picking up a gun he found in a dumpster is particularly well done and a discussion about cool detective names displays a self-awareness of the genre without it being obnoxious.

           
           Some fans of Liam Neeson have bemoaned that since Taken, the Oscar nominee has starred in a string of run of the mill actioners that don’t particularly test his abilities as an actor. A Walk Among the Tombstones puts less emphasis on the running and the shooting -though there is some of that, to be sure. While the role of Matt Scudder isn’t wildly different from the cool tough guys we’ve become accustomed to seeing Neeson play, there is more here for Neeson to sink his teeth into and this film certainly is more of a grown-up, intense, sometimes disturbing thriller than his more action-oriented movies. And isn’t it nice that the novel’s original name was preserved instead of the title being changed to some snappy synonym for “vengeance”?
Summary: Liam Neeson fans will want to take this walk, his lead performance as the old-school detective and the creepy atmospherics making up for the familiar narrative.
RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong