Wednesday, November 22, 2017


Directed by Bahrat Nalluri. Starring Dan Stevens as Dickens, Christopher Plummer as Scrooge, Jonathan Pryce as John Dickens.

THE MAN WHO INVENTED CHRISTMAS takes its cue from a famous painting by Robert William Buss, “Dickens Dream,” painted in 1870, around the time of Dickens’s death. It shows Dickens in the chair of his study, surrounded by the dream-characters of his novels. The movie likewise surrounds Dickens with his imaginary creations during the throes of his writing A Christmas Carol. This sort of psychic drama can be a tricky thing to bring off, wherein whimsy all too often turns into muddy pretentiousness; but on the whole, THE MAN WHO INVENTED CHRISTMAS brings it off, not least due to the whimsical impersonations by the cast members of the imagined characters in A Christmas Carol.

The year is 1843, and after the relative failure of his recent novels, Martin Chuzzlewit and the travel book, American Notes, the 31-year old author is facing a serious slump in his career. With the celebrated Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist already behind him and David Copperfield and Great Expectations yet to come, the need for a comeback compelled by a growing family and accumulated debts is pressing and immediate. And so begins the creation of what would become his most famous book, A Christmas Carol. It celebrates for all time a Christmas that is not so much a solemn religious observance but how we know it mostly today, a festival full of Pagan festivity and charitable brotherhood.

Visualizing the creative process on film is a really dangerous business. How do you penetrate with the camera something so mysterious as the imaginative impulse? Now, as actor Simon Callow, who appears in the movie briefly as Dickens’s illustrator, John Leech, once told me, this is a near-impossible task. In the instance of writing, what can you do, he admitted, when all you have is a person sitting silently in a chair, with pen in hand, a piece of paper before him?—Shoot closeups of the scratching pen? Cut to the writer’s wrinkled brow? Track the words spilling across the page? Etc. Indeed, any moment of creation is essentially sealed off from the probing camera. Isn’t it?

The Man Who Invented Christmas resorts to a kind of meta-cinema. As Dickens prowls the streets and records images and incidents and scraps of overheard dialogue, their imaginative correlatives--Marley, Scrooge, Cratchit, Tiny Tim, the Three Christmas Ghosts—spring to life. The world is his storybook and he is merely their auditor. The characters crowd into Dickens’ study; and soon they beleaguer the poor writer with advice, sometimes helpful, sometimes not. “You are the author of this story,” suggests one of them with a sly wink—“aren’t you???"

It’s almost as if Pirandello had taken a left turn from his Six Characters in Search of an Author to A Christmas Carol.

Charles Dickens at age 25. Drawing by John C. Tibbetts
I must confess although there is some charm and wit in this business, I’m a bit uncomfortable with it. Like most creative artists, Dickens didn’t always depend solely on the immediate world around him for direct inspiration. The processes of his writing must have been far more mysterious than that. In some unfathomable fashion, his work came from within. For example, some of his other Christmas stories didn’t depend upon the thronging streets of snow-bound London; rather, he wrote them amidst the sunny climes of Florence, Italy.

But I digress. With a deadline of just six weeks, Dickens has not only to contend with the demands of his phantom characters, he has to put up with the unwonted interruptions of family and professional life, the demands of his creditors, of his children, the intrusion of his neer-do-well father, and the prospect of yet another baby on the way. Moreover, a series of nightmares are plaguing him. They take him back to his dreadful boyhood, when the abandonment of his father forced him to work grueling hours in a London blacking factory. Writing A Christmas Carol reawakens forgotten traumas of a blighted childhood—traumas that would never entirely leave him but would remain unknown to the general public for many years.

But Dickens slogs along and at length comes to the moment when Tiny Tim has died, and the third Ghost takes Scrooge to the graveyard. Full stop. Dickens has insisted Tim must die. And Scrooge must remain unrepentant. Any happy endings and overnight conversions would never do. But a chorus of protests assails him, from characters and family members alike. Even the young Irish maid protests. Dickens holds firm. Things are at a standstill. Only a personal epiphany resolving conflicts with his childhood and with his estranged father will break through the impasse and bring Tim back to life and Scrooge to his redemption.

Am I so cynical to consider that Dickens’ had a point; that maybe his initial instincts for a downbeat ending—at least as the movie tells us—were right?

In closing I greatly admire THE MAN WHO INVENTED CHRISTMAS for its concentration on the novel and the characters of A Christmas Carol. And not, ironically, on this business of movie adaptations, of which there have been confoundingly many. Here, viewers have the opportunity to learn about the book, after all. Indeed, I’d like to think this movie proclaims an essential truth of the matter:

It’s time to READ THE DAMN BOOK. On its own terms.

Friday, November 17, 2017


Directed by Todd Haynes from the illustrated novel by Brian Selznick. Starring Oakes Fegley as Ben, Millicent Simmonds as young Rose, and Julianne Moore as adult Rose.

With a wonderful title like “Wonderstruck,” with its slew of lightning flashes and power blackouts, space music by David Bowie (“Space Oddity”), a pithy epigram by Oscar Wilde (“We all live in the gutter, but some of us look at the stars”), and a literary property by Brian (the wonderful Hugo) Selznick—with all that, you would think WONDERSTRUCK would dazzle and soar.

Sorry, it’s mostly down-to-earth, burdened with a rambling and leaden pace, protracted dialogue exchanges, and an increasingly tedious pattern of shifts between color and black-and-white. Moreover, it’s a kind of museum piece that walks its characters (and us) through an endless succession of dioramas, curiosity cabinets, and table-top displays. Indeed, the conclusion of the film, which reveals its secrets against the backdrop of an enormous tabletop model of New York City, confirms that its characters and their world are nothing more than a collection of cardboard faces and miniature buildings on display. Welcome to the dollhouse.

WONDERSTRUCK weaves together two narratives. One, set in 1977, introduces us to young Ben, who’s recently lost his mother. He runs away from home and goes to New York City in search of his absent father. The second, set a half century earlier, is about a young girl named Rose. She undergoes a similar quest to New York to find an absent parent, in this case, her mother, who turns out to be a silent-movie star going under the name of “Lillian Mayhew.” The first is in color, the second in black-and-white. The first captures the sleazy chaos of Times Square; the second, the tattered charm of a bygone era.
Figuring prominently in both is New York’s Museum of Natural History, the center of much of the action.

How these stories intersect engages our interest—for awhile. But as these children plod their way through their respective storylines, our engagement flags. And it’s mostly due to that blasted Museum, wherein the children, past and present, ramble interminably through the halls and exhibits. And I mean interminably. Director Tod Haynes seems to be his own museum walker, hypnotized by its clutter of worlds.

And it should be noted that a curious paralysis grips the film when the children, who are deaf, attempt to communicate with scribbled notes and clumsy sign language. These interminable dialogue exchanges bring us full stop, and we watch and wait impatiently for the story to move on. I hate to sound unkind, but really, this is a real problem in narrative pacing. By the time the kids’ quests are resolved and united (young Ben learns that he is the grandson of the little girl from fifty years before), the moment is shrouded in the darkness of a New York blackout. And I, at least, sitting in the darkness of the theater, no longer care to look up at the stars. Unlike the lyrics to Bowie’s “Space Oddity”—heard several times throughout—wherein “Major Tom” successfully travels to the stars, WONDERSTRUCK never gets off the ground.

True, there are wonderful things here. Haynes’ recreations of New York in 1927 and 1977 are amazing in their wealth of authentic detail. In important ways, the black-and-white sequences of the film successfully evoke the experience of watching a silent film. Haynes’s pastiche of Lillian Mayhew’s films (such as Mayhew’s Child of the Storm) is a dead-on parody of virtually anything by Lillian Gish and Mary Pickford). Haynes extends this effect by conveying in a similar manner much of Rose’s story, providing dialogue titles and non-diegetic incidental music. But even here, the pace slackens, relying too much on Carter Burwell’s oddly jarring collection of non-diegetic pop songs and background music. And may I register a personal note: I can’t stand the rock-music version of Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra” by Deodato, which is heard several times. It’s tacky and cheapens events.

In sum, WONDERSTRUCK is a curiosity cabinet whose many drawers and clutter of figures and objects invites us to pause a moment and enjoy the world en miniature. But after awhile, we are impatient, and ready to move on.

Thursday, November 16, 2017


Directed by and written by Sean Baker and starring Willem Dafoe as Bobby, Bria Vinaite as Halley Brooklynn Prince as Moonee

I emerged from a screening of THE FLORIDA PROJECT confused, disheartened, and angry. I couldn’t shake its disorienting effect. The streets and people outside the theater seemed but an extension of the desperate lives and failed hopes on screen.

That’s the powerful, if disorienting effect this amazing film has on the viewer. It’s a story of two “magic” kingdoms in Orlando Florida. One is Orlando’s Walt Disney World; the other is a nearby slum hotel. They counterpoint each other. The first is a shining Cinderella castle of dreams; the second is its garish parody. Cinderella’s castle is a glorious illusion; the motel is the sordid reality behind that shining curtain. Both lie simmering under the blazing Florida sun.

Among the motel’s collection of drifters, drug dealers, and near-homeless are a mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite) and her six-year old granddaughter Moonee (Brooklynn Prince). Mother and child are running wild, from the very beginning of the film, feral creatures in the grip of some sort of desperately manic energy. While the little girl is all arms and legs playing contact sport with the world, the mother is warily negotiating with it. While the child and her little friends wreak damage against the hotel’s power system, sets a nearby abandoned building on fire, and spits and terrorizes the inhabitants, Mom is soliciting the guests of a nearby resort hotel and turning tricks in her room. Presiding over it all is Bobby (Willem Dafoe) a kind and hard-working motel manager who wages a hopeless battle to maintain some semblance of order amidst the surging chaos of the inhabitants.

The steady stream of images, incidents, and fragments of storyline gradually coalesce into a mosaic of mounting dismay and horror. Violence ensues. Halley nearly kills another motel resident who accuses her of prostitution. Police and social workers arrive to take her away and consign her bewildered child to foster parents. The little girl breaks away. She flees to the door of one of her little friends. The moments captured in closeup as she screams and pounds frantically at the door are among this year’s movies’ most agonizing moments. She and her friend escape the motel and bolt through fields and across busy streets to the nearby Disney Magic Kingdom. Desperately, they thread their way through the parking lot and the crowds of thronging tourists. Ahead looms Cinderella’s Castle. They run and run. And then, abruptly, brutally, the screen goes to black. Not even the magical fantasy of Disney can help them now.

Like Sean Baker’s breakout film from a few years ago, Tangerine, THE FLORIDA PROJECT is so real and so vibrant that it hardly seems to be a movie at all. The children, in particular, seem absolutely themselves, not the fabrications of direction, camera and script. Contrasting Dafoe’s stoic and sturdy manner (one of his very best performances) are the amazing portrayals by newcomers Bria Vinaite and Brooklynn Prince as mother and child. So raw and seething are their roles, I can hardly fathom how they could have been achieved, ironically, by seasoned actors. There’s not a shred of contrivance here, only a raw authenticity that is unschooled and unvarnished.

Both Magic Kingdoms fail their occupants. Both are only a ground zero, a dead end. Cinderella’s Castle is as hollow and useless as its motel counterpart. Viewers of faint heart and cozy fantasies should stay home. Which is a pity, since this is one of the very best movies of the year.