The Man Who Invented Christmas (2017)

Strictly speaking, Christmas is an origin story. The Man Who Invented Christmas, however, is not about the kid with superpowers who was born in a barn (apologies to my theology professors) but about the creation of the holiday’s other much beloved story. The film recounts how a young Charles Dickens came to write The Christmas Carol out of desperation more than anything else. The movie is humorous on occasion and sometimes clever in its conceit – his characters follow the writer’s maxim and try to take charge of their own story – but it’s also nowhere near as engaging as even the more tortured adaptations of the popular book.

Dan Stevens plays the author with a slight manic twist. He’s a man whose fevered imagination produces great literary work but that sometimes gets the better of him. After a few failures, he’s in need of a quick hit, something to pay for his pricy home remodel and his three or four kids, with another on the way. He proposes a Christmas story, perhaps Humbug: A Miser’s Lament, a real “hammer-blow to the heart” kind of tale. His publishers are skeptical, not only because Christmas is less than two months away but also because it was still a minor holiday at the time, nothing like the capitalist spectacle it is today.

He forges ahead anyway and cobbles together bits of the London life around him. A wealthy businessman’s unattended funeral forms the story’s backbone while a creaky waiter named Marley finds his way into the plot. Even the trials of Dickens’s own friends and family shape the narrative in the form of an ill-fated engagement and a sickly child. The author gets an assist from his new Irish maid (Anna Murphy) as well, inspiring him with homespun ghost stories and tales from Varney the Vampire.

As the deadline draws closer, Dickens grows more agitated. His characters come alive only to lounge around in his study and peer over his drafts, offering unsolicited advice every now and again. Scrooge (Christopher Plummer) proves particularly troublesome. In typical Scrooge fashion, he grumbles at his portrayal and taunts his creator. It’s not just the imaginary that takes ahold of Dickens though. His spendthrift father (Jonathan Pryce) appears unannounced, stirring up childhood memories of a boot blackening factory where he worked after the elder Dickens was taken to debtors’ prison.

I understand the appeal of a behind-the-scenes look at A Christmas Carol. Not content to simply enjoy the story, we often want the “making of” special and feature commentary as well. Sometimes the work is enough though, especially when there are hundreds of iterations to choose from. This film never comes close to the drama and emotion of the original story, and it does a better job explaining how the book transformed the holiday than it does inspiring actual feelings of generosity and compassion. It’s a waste of Stevens and Plummer’s talents; Plummer in particular can play this part in his sleep. Though there are some exceptional personalities – Miles Jupp as Dickens’s vexing rival is my favorite – I much prefer going back to the old standbys when the holidays roll around.

Released: 2017
Prod: Robert Mickelson, Ian Sharples, Paula Mazur, Mitchell Kaplan, Andrew Karpen, Vadim Jean
Dir: Bahrat Nalluri
Writer: Susan Coyne
Cast: Dan Stevens, Christopher Plummer, Jonathan Pryce, Simon Callow, Donald Sumpter, Miriam Margolyes, Morfydd Clark, Justin Edwards, Miles Jupp, Anna Murphy
Time: 104 min
Lang: English
Country: Ireland
Reviewed: 2019


Les Misérables (2012)

Having seen the recent BBC adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel starring Dominic West and David Oyelowo, it’s hard to go back to any other version, catchy tunes or no. The aching six-part miniseries only amplifies the deficits of Tom Hooper’s big screen production and shows the limitations of the musical format in telling Hugo’s sprawling story of poverty and revolution. That’s not to dismiss this handsome film, which boasts many positives, or Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg’s long-running musical, which was my introduction to musical theater, but rebottling emotions can be difficult, and this grand project leaves as much to be desired as to be admired.

I’ll start with a positive, topped by Anne Hathaway’s show-stopping rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream.” She deserves every award for her performance as Fantine, a character who doesn’t even make it halfway through the first act. It’s early nineteenth century France, and after the young woman loses her job in a factory, she turns to prostitution to pay for her daughter’s keep. Hair shorn and teeth pulled, Fantine bats away lechers and wonders how her life has come to this. The camera is fixed on Hathaway, unable to ignore Fantine’s hopeless fury.

Her misery is felt equally by Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a convict sentenced to years of hard labor for stealing a loaf of bread. He finds redemption first from a merciful bishop (Colm Wilkinson, who originated the role) and then in the town of Montreuil, where he becomes a respectable businessman and mayor. Nothing he does seems to atone for his past though, and he is undone by the tenacious prison guard, Javert (Russell Crowe), and his guilt over Fantine’s downfall. Jackman is at his best when Valjean is at his lowest. “Valjean’s Soliloquy,” sung shortly after his release, is laden with despair but also carries the faintest strains of hope.

That is something in short supply as every hard won happiness is met by more suffering. Valjean rescues Fantine’s daughter, Cosette (Isabelle Allen), from the abusive Thénardiers (Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen), but they are forced to hide from Javert, who’s determined to chase them throughout France. When the story shifts forward nine years, the focus turns towards the anti-monarchists charging through the streets of Paris. Among them is Marius (Eddie Redmayne), a young man infatuated with Cosette (Amanda Seyfried), loved by Éponine Thénardier (Samantha Barks), and loyal to the student rebels. Things finally come to a head at the barricades, where everyone loses one way or another.

I’ve always been drawn to the emotional texture of Les Misérables, and the film’s overall look primes the landscape beautifully. Several set pieces show off the story’s scope, such as the cavernous shipyard that opens the movie, the cramped and humble Parisian alleys, and, briefly, Marius’s decadent family home. The factory in Montreuil is also striking, sparse but saturated in blue. The entire production design, including makeup and costuming, are fitting of this spectacle.

Hooper’s direction never really rises above the ostentation though. Here is a story brimming with regret and love and forgiveness, where every character, perhaps with the exception of the Thénardiers, walks along some path of redemption. Hooper plows through it all. It’s as if the movie is at the service of brassy showtunes rather than the characters, who barely have time to catch their breath. Even with its substantial two and a half hour runtime, we’re watching one song crash into another and then another.

His decision to film the live singing instead of using prerecorded music is at least partly to blame. The technique has its advantages, and in the case of the slower songs, we get some nuance that we might not see and hear from a studio performance (again, see Anne Hathaway). But this also necessitates a lot of close-ups, and for a sung-through musical, that’s a lot of giant headshots. The camera is far too tight on the actors when they are singing. It translates into a visually overwhelming, claustrophobic experience, something my friend discovered when he got motion sick and nearly lost his dinner all over the lobby floor.

Some of the better performances are powerful enough to ignore that. Redmayne impresses with his intimate interpretation of a broken Marius in the second act, revisiting the scene of the uprising in “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables.” He doesn’t have the gravity of Michael Ball, who originated the role, but is heartbreaking because of his fragility. Daniel Huttlestone, taking on the part of street urchin Gavroche two years before he co-starred in Into the Woods, also proves he can handle a musical challenge. In the middle of the pack are Seyfried, Barks (reprising her role from the twenty-fifth anniversary concert), and Aaron Tveit as the rebellion’s leader, Enjolras. All give fine performances if not particularly memorable ones. As the comical and rascally innkeepers, Baron Cohen and Bonham Carter add levity, but their singing falls flat.

That leaves Jackman and Crowe, both capable actors but not the best fit for this film. Of the two, Jackman fares far better as Valjean and is quite moving in his despair. If this were a non-musical adaptation, his acting would shine. I keep circling back to his singing though and think his voice too reedy considering Valjean’s physical and emotional heft. For someone best known as Wolverine, Jackman sounds pretty feeble as he strains for the higher notes.

Still, casting the Tony-winner is understandable, unlike the choice of Crowe as Javert. He’s in his own league of awful here but not for a lack of trying. Crowe is so out of his depth that he completely loses his character. Rather than a police inspector with an obsessive agenda and an unbending sense of justice, Javert is a confused guy in a funny hat squeaking out threats. Surely a dramatic reading of the lyrics would have been better for all of us. If there is a bright side to Crowe’s participation, it is the reminder that Philip Quast gifted us with this profound performance of “Stars” in the tenth anniversary concert, and that is the version I’m off to watch now.

“Valjean’s Soliloquy” by Hugh Jackman:

“At the End of the Day” by Anne Hathaway and cast:

“I Dreamed a Dream” by Anne Hathaway:

“The Confrontation” by Russell Crowe and Hugh Jackman:

“Castle on a Cloud” by Isabelle Allen and Helena Bonham Carter:

“Master of the House” by Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter:

“Suddenly” by Hugh Jackman:

“Stars” by Russell Crowe:

“Paris/Look Down” by Daniel Huttlestone, Aaron Tveit, Eddie Redmayne, and cast:

“Red and Black” by Aaron Tveit, Eddie Redmayne, and cast:

“In My Life/A Heart Full of Love” by Amanda Seyfried, Hugh Jackman, Eddie Redmayne, and Samantha Barks:

“On My Own” by Samantha Barks:

“One Day More” by Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Eddie Redmayne, Amanda Seyfried, Samantha Barks, Aaron Tveit, Sacha Baron Cohen, Helena Bonham Carter, and cast:

“Do You Hear the People Sing” by cast:

“A Little Fall of Rain” by Samantha Barks and Eddie Redmayne:

“Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” by Eddie Redmayne:

Released: 2012
Prod: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Debra Hayward, Cameron Mackintosh
Dir: Tom Hooper
Writer: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Eddie Redmayne, Helena Bonham Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen, Samantha Barks, Aaron Tveit, Daniel Huttlestone, Colm Wilkinson
Time: 158 min
Lang: English
Country: United Kingdom
Reviewed: 2019

The von Trapp Family: A Life of Music (2015)

If filmmakers were hoping to cash in on my love for The Sound of Music, Austria, and Matthew Macfadyen, they’ve found the right vehicle in this von Trapp family biopic. While it doesn’t approach the beloved classic by any measure, it’s a workable companion piece that casts a light on the children’s perspective, namely that of eldest daughter Agathe. The movie is based on her memoirs and, not surprisingly, paints a different, less rosier portrait than the one in the musical. The principal players and events and even some singing remain, but this story is not so concerned with kids traipsing around in drapes as it is with a family navigating the growing menace of Nazism.

Maria (Yvonne Catterfeld) has a supporting role behind sixteen-year-old Agathe (Eliza Bennett), who has never gotten over the death of her mother. After the family move to Salzburg, the young girl takes charge of her siblings, content to be the lady of the house. She is indispensible to her adoring father, Georg (Macfadyen), a respected naval officer, and is not so thrilled when he announces his engagement to their new nanny.

On screen, the courtship takes all of ten minutes, from the time Maria appears at the von Trapp home, guitar case in hand, to the moment the wedded couple shuffle through the gates of Nonnberg Abbey. The sequence is a reminder that this isn’t a movie for soft focus close-ups and romantic ballads in the moonlight. Instead, A Life of Music is determined to bring the mood down closer to reality, and its rougher take makes this retelling worthwhile.

Stubborn and proud, Georg misjudges the political situation and keeps his family in Austria perhaps longer than he should. His defiance sets him up for a dramatic confrontation with the Nazis, who try to strong-arm him over to their cause. Agathe, meanwhile, is more attuned to the national mood. Her friendship with Sigi (Johannes Nussbaum), a young resister, and Lotte (Annette Dasch), an opera singer, allows her a close-up of the destructive ideology taking over the city.

This plot adds details to a familiar story and is the movie’s main appeal because by itself, it’s a lackluster pre-war drama with spotty character development and a completely unnecessary framing device. Rosemary Harris plays an elder Agathe, who is recounting her history to grand-niece Kirsty (Lauryn Canny) in America. Besides contributing nothing to the story that couldn’t be done with voiceover or better writing, the constant flashforwards are so distracting that you would do well to skip over them.

The film trades on what it knows though, and that is the 1965 classic. Sometimes this means trying to get away with half-sketched characters, like Konrad (Cornelius Obonya), the chauffeur and resident villain of the piece. He is parts Franz and Herr Zeller, his working class frustrations manifesting themselves in the worst possible way. Yet his occasional bursts of loyalty to Georg are confusing and neither earn him sympathy nor create genuine tension.

We’re left to fill in the blanks with Maria as well, who while not the film’s focus still has an important secondary role. Unfortunately she doesn’t do much besides establish herself as an anti-Julie-Andrews-Maria, a bit cold and entitled. Part of the problem is that Agathe only really interacts with Sigi and Lotte and, in one powerful scene, her father. The remaining von Trapp children are mere extras. Agathe’s relationship with her childhood friend, Sigi, is the most touching, marked by great warmth in a movie that parcels those emotions out in small amounts. There’s a distance between the family though, and it’s misleading to think of this as a movie about the von Trapps when it really is about Agathe. Nevertheless, Georg has some fine moments, and credit to Macfadyen for bringing precious vulnerability to another beloved character.

Where the film fails its subjects, it makes up for with nods to the movie musical. The stately yellow house with the green doors, the trimmed landscapes of Mirabell Gardens, the lush and sweeping Austrian terrain – the two movies link in a way that doesn’t detract one from the other. This one may be a humbler set for a humbler story, but it still captivates with little effort.

Released: 2015
Prod: Rikolt von Gagern
Dir: Ben Verbong
Writer: Christoph Silber, Tim Sullivan
Cast: Eliza Bennett, Matthew Macfadyen, Yvonne Catterfeld, Rosemary Harris, Johannes Nussbaum, Cornelius Obonya, Annette Dasche, Brigitte Kren
Time: 98 min
Lang: English, some German
Country: Germany
Reviewed: 2019

One Magic Christmas (1985)

There are plenty of movies to choose from if you want to watch one about a down-on-their-luck family that gets a little holiday help during Christmas. One of my favorite films that kind of falls into this subgenre is Where God Left His Shoes. The 2007 drama stars John Leguizamo as a father who tries to get his family out of a shelter and into their own home before Christmas. It treats homelessness with the seriousness it deserves and leaves you feeling both uplifted and uneasy. I also recently caught up The Christmas Star, an older movie that fits snugly into this category. Not as powerful as Leguizamo’s film, it nevertheless has touching moments that make it worthwhile.

So it was with some expectation that I thought One Magic Christmas would deliver. Unfortunately, it buries you in so much sorrow that its feel-good ending comes as a relief rather than as any celebration. Mary Steenburgen is masterful as overworked mom and wife Ginny Grainger, wearing her exhaustion like it’s the only thing she’s got. With an unemployed husband and bills coming due, she has to take a job at the grocery store. You can see her soul creeping away as she stands at the till, leaving her hollowed out by shift’s end. Then things go from bad to worse. It’s not just about finding a way to pay for gifts or arguing about whether Ginny’s husband, Jack (Basaraba), should start his own bike shop. A chain of events leads to a devastating Christmas, a place where all hope has been abandoned.

The thinking behind this movie seems to be that the more sadness and misery these characters experience, the more joyful and redemptive their Christmas will be. A somewhat forgotten angel, Gideon (Harry Dean Stanton), is witness to what transpires and has been sent by God, or the talking moon – it’s not clear which, to help Ginny. But help comes via the most circuitous, painful route imaginable, and I’m sure the movie would be just as moving had Ginny not felt like she’d entered the gates of Hell.

The story is a pile-up of tragedy, which doesn’t just make things sad, it also makes them slow. Steenburgen has a scene early in the film where she’s singing to the Supremes in the shower, and it’s a rare fun and carefree moment. The movie doesn’t allow enough of these though. Sarah Polley plays the sweet neighbor girl, and Ginny’s own kids add charm. Her daughter (Elisabeth Harnois) wants to send a letter to Santa, hoping that he can change things for the better. I even liked sad, hangdog Gideon who does bring perspective and a sense of calm despite talking like he’s the angel that all the other angels don’t invite to their parties. All I need from this supposedly family-friendly movie is a little more optimism.

Released: 1985
Prod: Peter O’Brian
Dir: Phillip Borsos
Writer: Phillip Borsos, Barry Healey, Thomas Meehan
Cast: Mary Steenburgen, Gary Basaraba, Harry Dean Stanton, Arthur Hill, Robbie Magwood, Elisabeth Harnois, Wayne Robson, Sarah Polley
Time: 89 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2019

Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

After years of neglecting this Christmas classic, I finally found time to enjoy the movie the way it was meant to be enjoyed – alone and nursing bowls of mac and cheese and popcorn. I was pretty disappointed, however, to find that Miracle on 34th Street was about as festive as my holiday snack, and I’m still working out why a film so tedious remains beloved by so many. The plot relies heavily on a court case and a tangle of psychiatric evaluations, none of which scream Christmas fun. It’s not exactly the family-friendly entertainment I was led to believe, and I want my money, or at least my two hours, back.

I’ll also take the 1994 adaptation because while that remake is not on my annual Christmas must-see list, it at least has touches of great tenderness and joy. I still remember Santa signing with the deaf girl and little Susan’s surprise when she tugs his beard. Also there’s dreamy, dreamy Dylan McDermott. None of the characters in the original have the same emotional pull even though the two stories are similar.

The multi-Oscar-winning 1947 film also follows skeptical Susan (Natalie Wood), her reality-based mother, Doris (Maureen O’Hara), and Doris’s suitor, lawyer and neighbor Fred (John Payne). Doris’s last-minute hiring of Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn) to replace drunk Santa at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade proves to be a fortuitous move. He looks the part and converses in a language kids understand, Dutch in one case, but more importantly, he gives helpful shopping tips to parents. Sometimes that means directing them to Macy’s competitor, Gimbels, a tactic that unwittingly earns Macy’s greater goodwill and customer loyalty.

Of the two main conflicts, Susan’s wavering disbelief strikes a merrier tune. Wood easily won me over with her hopefulness and measured cynicism. While she might give Santa a mean side-eye, she has a child’s vulnerability, an inclination towards wonder and magic. That’s what I want out of a Christmas movie, but it’s something the adults in her orbit fail to convey. Payne is indistinguishable from the other suited white men, and I was turned off by Fred’s initial admission that he was using Susan to get close to her mother. That’s creepy and very un-Dylan-McDermott-like, even if he does encourage Susan to believe in Santa. Doris, meanwhile, doesn’t give a damn what your criticisms are so long as you keep your ideas about fake old men away from her daughter. In the 1994 version, Elizabeth Perkins shows off this character’s frosty side too, but it seems motivated by some deep hurt, as if sticking to what is real and tangible will keep her from experiencing the rest of life’s disappointment. O’Hara’s interpretation is less forgiving; Doris just doesn’t believe.

Miracle is about more than a little girl who meets Santa Claus though, and the story takes a long, dull turn when it becomes a debate over Kris Kringle’s sanity. Doris insists he go in for a psychological examination when he lists his reindeer as his next of kin, a good show of humor if you ask me. A disgruntled doctor’s report, however, results in a court hearing over Kris’s mental state. I’m not saying that existential questions have no place in a Christmas movie, and actually the holidays are a great time to ponder deeply, but the story dries up when it moves too far away from Susan and her youthful enthusiasm.

Um, *spoiler alert*. “Susan believes” clip:

Released: 1947
Dir: George Seaton
Writer: George Seaton
Cast: Maureen O’Hara, John Payne, Edmund Gwenn, Gene Lockhart, Natalie Wood, Porter Hall, William Frawley, Jerome Cowan, Philip Tonge, Harry Antrim
Time: 96 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2018