‘The Man Who Invented Christmas’ is a waste of time

If Charles Dickens taught us anything, it’s that Christmas is a time for rebirth and the spreading of joy. It’s too bad then that the new film about his most famous piece of work, “A Christmas Carol”, is a sluggish retelling of a story we all know that is strife for a different take. The Man Who Invented Christmas is the opposite of rebirth and there is no joy to spread. Just a stale tale.

Dickens (played by Dan Stevens, who lit up Beauty and the Beast) is coming off a pair of flops after his highly successful Oliver Twist novel, a soul ripe for a fresh tale. When he overhears one of his maids telling his children about a ghostly character who comes around Christmas, he gets a wicked idea for his next novel. And the rest is history.

The largest problem I had with The Man Who Invented Christmas is that it told me nothing that I didn’t already know about Charles Dickens, Ebenezer Scrooge, and one of the most famous books of all time. It’s a dark, slow moving, and ultimately flat take on a popular landmark in literary history. The promise that its trailer gave was that this would be a light and fun adventure. The resulting film is anything but fun, because it doesn’t know if it wants to uplift or just flip through the pages of a book on screen.

Director Bharat Nalluri likes to jump around genres in film (his last film was 2016’s MI:5) while doing a fair amount of television-and his work here doesn’t produce any life in the old material. It would have been different if he aimed for a musical take on the tale or aimed for the comedic aspects of Dickens’ journey towards creation, but instead he just settles for a cinematic field goal instead of going for broke. Susan Coyne’s script isn’t bad, but doesn’t create much juice for the actors to work with.

Stevens was a sight to see in Beauty and the Beast, and here, he tries to put something extra into Dickens, but there’s not much to work with. The author was a famous recluse who tortured himself and his family over his work, a way of life that was stricken upon him through a tough childhood. The actor goes through the motions.

Christopher Plummer is a phenomenal actor, but even he doesn’t have much else to show us with Scrooge. The man has an Oscar on his mantle, but spins in circles here. Jonathan Pryce puts in good work as the imperfect father who clings to Charles, but the two don’t get enough time to create a real relationship.

I get the need to try and tell this story again, but I would have preferred a different method or flavor to the classic tale. Look at what Robert Zemeckis did with Jim Carrey’s A Christmas Carol or what Ralph Fiennes’ The Invisible Woman, which showed a different side of the author. Those movies took a familiar story and produced something fresh with it by going a different route.

The Man Who Invented Christmas doesn’t really invent much new about the tale. Take this year’s Beauty and the Beast for example. By going with a live action fully rediscovered landscape, Bill Condon made the tale seem like a brand new story. Nalluri settles for the familiar period piece, and the result is a perfunctory film.

If I were you, I’d watch Zemeckis’ version instead. At least that had some life to it.



‘Last Flag Flying’: Road trip film with heart, humor, and pathos

Without preaching, Linklater’s film has a subtle power and lightness

What if I told you there was a road trip film about three Vietnam buddies that would make you laugh out loud as well as make you feel something?

Richard Linklater’s powerful ode to veterans young and old, Last Flag Flying, is that movie. A film that gets the job done by throwing three great actors together in a car and watching the sparks fly. Instead of pouring melodrama over the experience, Linklater and co-screenwriter Daryl Ponicsan (who wrote the novel the film is based on) go for the lightness that is often trapped in a dark situation.

Larry “Doc” Shephard (Steve Carell) has a mission ahead of him that ranks higher on the toughness scale than anything he did in Vietnam 30 years ago. He has to bury his 21 year old son, who has just perished in the war in Iraq. In order to keep it together, he recruits his Vietnam veteran buddies, Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston, stealing every scene he’s in) and Reverend Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne). The only problem is, these men haven’t seen each other in decades, but that’s what the ride is for. Continue reading “‘Last Flag Flying’: Road trip film with heart, humor, and pathos”

“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’ is a bold stroke of filmmaking

Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand in tour de force mode) is an angry woman-and for good reason. Her daughter was brutally murdered in a small town in the hills Missouri’s countryside city, Ebbing, and there have been no leads on suspects in months. So, instead of simmering quietly, Mildred rents out three billboards on an abandoned road in order to get the attention of Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), Deputy Dixon (Sam Rockwell), and his police department. The tactic works, setting off fires of rage, compassion, and anger throughout the town.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, written and directed by Martin McDonagh, is about the power of forgiveness and how believing in change can steer us through the worst moments of our lives. As I watched this movie, one of the best of 2017 or any recent year, I was mesmerized by its ability to juggle so many different emotions while keeping its bullseye centered on our hearts. You won’t know where this movie is going, as McDonagh wisely shifts the tone between dark humor, brutal drama, and hard hitting revenge.

As Mildred angers more people with her aggressive tactics, familiar things do occur, but the plot also sets the characters up on an inventive narrative collision course that is impossible to take your eyes away from. Three Billboards is one of those films that seems like a simplistic tale built on bits of cinematic wonder that we’ve seen before, but the manner with which those pieces come together is bold and fresh. McDonagh could have taken the first act of the film and made an easy to please revenge film full of entertaining action, but he instead makes a movie that can really help people defeat cultural divides like race, class structure, and the ordinary human urge.

Example: Rockwell’s badge initially comes off as a reckless man of violent tendencies and destruction, but the journey his character goes on as the film progresses is just a singular example of how impressive this movie is, and how much it stands out.

Name another movie that can make you laugh, cry, and be shockingly moved inside 15 minutes. When a main character dies suddenly right around the midpoint of the film, it feels like a knife stabbing into your heart, but the plot twist is a perfectly triggered moment that kicks the rest of the film into motion. Again, bold strokes is all McDonagh believe in here.

It helps to have a cast working at the top of their game. Try looking left or right with this group and not see Oscar worthy performances, because they are all around. McDormand is quite deft at wielding humor and emotion together into a cohesive performance, and she makes Mildred an easy soul to champion, but doesn’t create anything superhero here. Her heroine has flaws and shows cracks in her facade, but her defiance is the recipe for the actress to built something special that should get award attention.

Harrelson is nearly as good as an unconventional yet old school cop who just wants to help people and hold onto his respect and dignity. He shares a couple great scenes with McDormand, the two vets trading blows like boxers in a ring as the town anger intensifies. Rockwell may be the most impressive surprise here, because we know the guy can act, but even he finds new grooves in Dixon’s incompetent yet not hopeless agitator. You’ll love, hate, and despise this guy, but Rockwell keeps you honest with his performance.

Abbie Cornish makes the most of what could have been a throwaway role for many other actresses, while John Hawkes blends malevolence and sincere care as Mildred’s ex. Peter Dinklage plays a different speed than usual as someone who takes an interest in Mildred, while Lucas Hedges (Manchester by the Sea, Lady Bird) makes his own fire as her son, dealing with the loss of a sibling while seeing it all made very personal during his mother’s fight. Caleb Landry Jones’s Red Welby is another grand creation for the actor of many talents this fall season, while Sandy Martin is simply wonderful as Dixon’s mother.

Three Billboards has a satisfying conclusion that avoids tying a neat bow on the plot, instead leaving the door open for your mind to wonder about what happened without being wrecked about it. Something is inferred and that’s about enough. By the time we ride off into the credits sunset watching two characters come together against all odds, you’ll just sit there and smile at what McDonagh accomplished.

Here is a film that promotes the strength of forgiveness and how much power that ability can wield, even in desperate, terrible conditions. Without focusing too much on it, McDonagh draws considerable attention to the many unsolved murder cases of young teens that happen unfortunately every day of the year. By aiming for the heart and not settling for theatrics, McDonagh produces a hopefuly-and extremely powerful-film. It’s not about who killed Mildred’s daughter, Angela; it’s about characters finding a level of peace with how chaotic the world can become.

I left the theater moved, empowered, and ready to talk about it. It’s the first film that made me think about Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actress, and Best Supporting Actor in one film.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is the official kickoff of the award caliber cinema season. The Not Messing Crew has arrived and its name is Mildred Hayes.

Please check this film out. It hits harder than most.

‘The Killing of a Sacred Deer’ is an unsettling abomination

Skip this movie all together.

Yorgis Lanthismos’ new film, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, is going to make a lot of people very angry-and for good reason. Heart warmer or proud cynic, the end of this film is going to challenge you in a number of ways, pushing you down a staircase in slow motion. I didn’t care for it. Let me tell you why.

Steven Murphy (a disheveled yet happily Irish tongued Colin Farrell) has the American Dream in a headlock. He is a world renowned cardiovascular surgeon with a wife, Anna (Nicole Kidman), running a successful ophthalmologist clinic, and two kids, Bob (Sunny Suljic) and Kim (Raffey Cassidy), experiencing normal problems like haircuts and singing lessons.

And then there’s the mysterious Martin (Barry Keoghan), whom Steven has taken an interest in due to Martin’s ambition to be a surgeon as well and some other unknown reason that you find out later on. Something’s not right about this kid, and his literal speaking manner is the smallest problem. Let’s just say Martin kicks the leg out from under the family’s happy life and things get progressively worse. Such as sudden paralysis and bloody eyed worse.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer is the first time I’ve laughed out loud in a theater at a film that was actually horrifying me. Lanthimos’ thriller is as unsettling as a two hour dental visit, with Martin’s true intentions unfolding as the running time climbs.

When Steven is faced with the toughest decision a parent would ever have to make, you will think about leaving the theater. But then you won’t, staying locked into your seat in order to see what he actually decides in the end.

The script is full of overly simplistic and literal communication that dries out the emotional connection. Even the 12 and 14 year children of the Murphy’s will seem like they have a computer chip inside their body instead of a heart. Maybe that was on purpose, or perhaps Lanthimos doesn’t want you to feel anything.

I’ll be honest with you: this movie doesn’t make for a good time. You won’t want to take your girlfriend for pie after this. Maybe a sad piece of angel food cake in a darkly lit kitchen, because this is a cold film.

After I left the theater, I was asked what I thought. At first, I had no answer. Most of the critics around me lacked an answer as well. Then it hit me on my way back to my car.

This isn’t the kind of movie you can easily call trash or gold. The film looks gorgeous and is well-made. Yes, the film’s first and second acts are thought provoking, but the third act just made me shake my shoulders in utter despair.

If I had to compare this film to another, it would be Darren Aronoksky’s recent film, the highly controversial Mother! That film was equally maddening and got more extreme as the plot twists stacked up, but the writer/director knew what he was doing and more importantly, where he was going. When the end came, it fit the previous act. The Killing of a Sacred Deer’s ending did not and carried zero purpose. 

It just made me mad.

Avoid this film unless you want an unsettling,  unintentionally funny, and ultimately pleasure-less experience. Save it for that time when you have a high fever, stomach ache and bad back all at once. The look on your face will match this film’s heart: angry and hollow.

Watch Mother! instead.

‘Lady Bird’: A triumph for Greta Gerwig

Honesty is this film’s key recipe

Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) is having a tough time. She constantly butts heads with her sweet yet thorny mother (Laurie Metcalf), along with the constant boy drama and decision making that hits a woman in her senior year of high school, and her doting father (Tracy Letts) may be suffering from depression. All the while, Christine wants to break out of small town boredom in Sacramento, California to a college far far away. She’s dealing with a lot.

You’ve seen this story told before, but Greta Gerwig makes it feel fresh and personal again in her directorial debut, Lady Bird. Gerwig is a fine actress, but she is a much better filmmaker. You’ll leave this film feeling every single emotion that Gerwig intended.

I love a film that can be heartwarming without pointing its arrow directly at the viewer’s heart. Instead, a film may simply trigger something inside of you, awake a memory perhaps-or make you suddenly relive a part of your past that had been buried for quite some time. Lady Bird does that and wisely blends drama, comedy, and some romance into a realistic portrait of teenage rebellion.

“Lady Bird” is what Christine desperately wants people to call her, like a private shield to deflect attention to where she lives-“on the wrong side of the tracks-while trying to understand whether her mother loves or dislikes her.

The chemistry between Ronan and Metcalf as two women who have way too much in common but are too blinded emotionally to notice it makes the film what it is. They share the most scenes together in the film and create a devastatingly honest portrayal of a mother-daughter relationship. Right when you think Gerwig’s tale may dip into easy going melodrama and try to manipulate the audience, a sharp cut of dark humor slices through the film.

Lady Bird reminded me of The Perks of Being a Wallflower in that it warmed you up while being honest at the same time. Most films have to stretch outside the border of realism to make you feel good; this film does not. Gerwig’s tale has confidence, and a fair dose of humor to balance out the heavier themes in play.

The supporting cast is potent without trying to do too much. Outside of the exemplary work from Ronan and Metcalf, Letts is very good as the afflicted yet loving father whose “good cop” nature balances Metcalf’s cold streak. Beanie Feldstein is very good as Christine’s best friend, Julie. The two of them share a few hilarious scenes, including a tearful rendition of Dave Matthews Band’s hit song, “Crash into Me”.

I mean, any film that plays a great D.M.B. song three times pushes it closer to a thumbs up review from this critic. Thankfully, Lady Bird is a lot better than the last time I heard Dave Matthews Band’s “Crash” in a movie, which was 1997’s Excess Baggage.

A big part of Lady Bird is about the difficulty of a bird flying away from its nest, aka a teenager breaking off from her hometown and family for bigger and better things. As much as Christine hates to admit it, Sacramento is a part of her no matter what, and that really affected me. Growing up in South City, I carry parts of my hometown wherever I go, and it simply never goes away.

Movies are extra special when they don’t just help you escape, but also relate to something in your personal life.

There’s a moment towards the end where Christine talks about the feelings she had when she first drove through her hometown. It’s a subtle yet emotional part of the film that you know was a method process for Gerwig. It made me think about the first time I drove down Kingshighway and Chippewa, looking at my old neighborhood (and current one) with a new pair of “lenses”.

Lady Bird isn’t another teenager lost in translation flick; it’s a brutally honest take on the ties that bind a young person to their family and childhood. How no matter what, we are our past, for better or worse.

Greta Gerwig’s film made me feel something. Go see if it has the same effect on you. There may be a few laughs along the way.

‘The Florida Project’: Lack of focus wastes talented cast

Dafoe’s earnest performance can’t save misguided film.

The Florida Project has good intentions, a fine cast, but ends up saying very little that we didn’t already know.

Sean Baker co-wrote and directed this feature about a young Moonee (newcomer Brooklynn Prince) growing up in the slummier regions of Florida at The Magic Castle hotel, right next to the magical confines of Disney World. A play on the Philadelphia photographer Jacob Riis’ classic quote: “Where there is church, the devil lives next door.”

For Moonee, the world is a giant playground and full of opportunities to create mischief with her friends (Valeria Cotto’s Jancey and Christopher Riveria’s Scooty) while bonding with her troublesome mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite, the true breakout star of the film). Then there’s the stern yet kindhearted hotel manager, Bobby (Willem Dafoe).

Right off the bat, Baker establishes that the kids in this film aren’t your normal darling angels, when they spit on a stranger’s car repeatedly for ten minutes. This pales in comparison to the other things these kids do in the film, which includes setting a fire in an abandoned hotel and messing with the Wifi in the hotel, much to the chagrin of Bobby. Calling them rebellious is selling them short. These kids make Dennis the Menace look like a harmless do-gooder.

Have I hooked you yet? No. Well, that’s because not much happens in this movie. There is no central plot point or general lever to swing down on in the two hour film. It’s a couple weeks in the life of the other side of the human population: the broke yet good time seeking freeloaders who scrap for every penny and hope for a handout since they spent their cash on hair dye and cigarettes.

There is no real plot. A subplot with Bobby’s son (late addition Caleb Landry Jones) goes nowhere and is dumped midway through the film. Small scenes involving a pedophile and a rift between friends carry ferocity, but they don’t propel the film enough. They are tiny specs in a movie full of setup, but no follow-through.

The Florida Project would have made for a great 8-10 hour mini-series on HBO or Showtime, so perhaps the story could expand and breathe into something unique and complete. Instead, the end just slams the door on you without any sense of closure.

Sure, there’s something about the isolation that goes on in a kid’s mind, especially when their parents make poor choices. A kid has little idea what is right or wrong until their parent sets the perimeters, but a thousand films have showed us that and layered it into a better story.

The only thing that makes this film recommendable is the acting. Dafoe is strong as usual, imbuing Bobby with a quiet dignity and grace that unleashes the hunger for his backstory instead of merely existing as a stand-in character. Vinaite is a force to reckon with and gives Halley something extra. Prince challenges your patience with Moonee, but creates a dual-sided character instead of a typical bratty kid. The cast is authentic, but they are running around a remote landscape with no real plan.

I’d save your ten bucks for something more complete and true, like Blade Runner 2049 or Lucky. Catch The Florida Project on Blu Ray as a parental advisory: how NOT to raise your kids. Continue reading “‘The Florida Project’: Lack of focus wastes talented cast”

‘Thor: Ragnarok’: Proof that Marvel knows how to have fun

Thank you Taika Waititi for finally giving Thor a sense of humor.

The comedy in Thor: Ragnarok, the third solo adventure for the God of Asgard, is the key ingredient that makes this cinematic adventure a slice of delight amid the early rush of Oscar season.

Let’s be honest. After the first two Thor films, I was ready to move Chris Hemsworth’s avenger into the “supporting” department of Marvel. Like Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk, there was only so much to the character that an isolated story ran dry too quickly. You were good with a partial serving instead of an entire dish. Continue reading “‘Thor: Ragnarok’: Proof that Marvel knows how to have fun”