Review: The Man Who Invented Christmas

Directed by: Bharat Nalluri
Written by: Susan Coyne
Starring: Dan Stevens, Christopher Plummer, Jonathan Pryce, Simon Callow, Donald Sumpter, Miriam Margolyes
Released: November 30, 2017
Grade: C+

The Man Who Invented Christmas
I’m trying to think of another year when we’ve had so many Christmas-themed movies released.  In the past few weeks, we’ve had Bad Moms 2, Better Watch Out, Daddy’s Home 2 and The Star.  The next entrant to throw its hat in the ring is The Man Who Invented Christmas – a drama directed by British Indian filmmaker Bharat Nalluri (Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day).

The origins of this movie are an interesting story in their own right.  Les Standiford is an American historian with an interest in acclaimed 19th Century British author Charles Dickens.  In 2008, he completed a work that was part biopic, part fiction.  The title aptly summed it up – “The Man Who Invented Christmas: How Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits.”  That novel served as the source material for this film.

The better parts of this adaptation are those based on well-known facts.  Charles Dickens was a much-loved author following the success of Oliver Twist but by 1843, it had been several years since his last big hit.  He was now struggling financially and given the lukewarm sales of “Barnaby Rudge” and “The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit”, many believed his career had peaked.

It was at this point where he came up with the idea for what would become one of his most famous works – A Christmas Carol.  If you’ve never read the book or seen a film/TV adaptation, it’s the tale of a miserable old man, Ebeneezer Scrooge, who is visited by a series of ghosts at Christmas and transformed into a better man.  It became so popular that the word “scrooge” became part of common vernacular.  You’ll now find it as a noun in any dictionary.

Where Nalluri’s film struggles is the fantasy elements.  We are provided with a series of flashbacks that show us Dickens’s (Stevens) tough upbringing and the rocky relationship he had with his father (Pryce).  These show that his dad was the original inspiration for Ebeneezer Scrooge.  As this goes on, Dickens is visited by a miserable ghost of his own (Plummer) who feeds him lines which end up as part of the finished novel.

These scenes are clearly an attempt to retell A Christmas Carol from a different perspective but it comes across as jumbled and confused.  Given the number of successful adaptations of Dickens’ work, what is this film trying to add that hasn’t already been achieved?  If you’re looking to be moved emotionally, watch the 2009 animated feature directed by Robert Zemeckis.  If you’re after something a bit more fun, try the 1982 musical that featured the Muppets.  There are countless other adaptations where the messages and themes come through more clearly.


Review: Wonder

Directed by: Stephen Chbosky
Written by: Jack Thorne, Steve Conrad, Stephen Chbosky
Starring: Julia Roberts, Owen Wilson, Jacob Tremblay, Mandy Patinkin, Daveed Diggs, Izabela Vidovic, Noah Jupe
Released: November 30, 2017
Grade: B+

In doing the publicity rounds for this film, author R.J. Palacio has been recounting the real life story that inspired her book.  She was with her 3-year-old son in a shop when he started crying in fear after seeing a young girl with craniofacial differences.  Palacio didn’t want to embarrass the girl and so rushed out of the store with her son.  This didn’t go unnoticed however.  The mother of the girl calmly said to her child “I think it’s time to go” and it was that moment that resonated with Palacio.  She asked herself – what could she teach her own children so that they wouldn’t react the same away again?

Wonder (the book) was the answer to the question.  First published in 2012, it became a best seller that was also picked up to be part of school curriculums.  The film rights were bought not long after and having gone through a bunch of writers and directors over the past few years, it fell upon Stephen Chbosky to bring it to the screen.  He’s familiar with youth-orientated dramas having written and directed The Perks of Being a Wallflower in 2012.

The story is centred around August “Auggie” Pullman (Tremblay), a 10-year-old kid who was born with a rare condition that has affected both his skull and face.  He tells us during the film’s opening that he’s gone through 27 surgeries that have helped him to breathe, to see and to hear.  Given all the operations and given his not-so-normal appearance, his parents (played by Roberts and Wilson) made the decision to home school their child.  They wanted him to give him a great education whilst not subjecting him to the inevitable bullying of the school playground.

It’s time for that model to change though.  Auggie’s parents realise that’s there more to a school than just education.  Their son needs the chance to interact with others, develop social skills and make lifelong friends.  That gets to the crux of where this film is set.  Auggie is enrolled in the local middle school and we follow the ups and downs of his school year.

There’s an added layer of narrative that helps gets the film’s themes and messages across.  There are moments where the story breaks away from Auggie and follows other characters that have been influenced by his life.  These include his old sister, Via (Vidovic), and his new best friend, Jack Will (Jupe).  The moments involving Via resonate strongly – she puts up a tough face but deep down, she struggles with the lack of attention relative to her younger brother.

It’s a little simplistic in places but it’s hard to be critical of such a heart-warming film.  Many will remember Jacob Tremblay’s skilful performance in Room and he’s just as good here in the leading role.  It’s hard to believe he’s just 11 years of age.  The supporting characters all get their chance to impress.  Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson continually stress as Auggie’s loving parents whilst Mandy Patinkin and Daveed Diggs offer wise words as teachers at Auggie’s school.

As part of the film’s release, a push has been made for people to take up the “Choose Kind Challenge.”  They can get a jar, choose a token (such as a marble or a button), and then deposit one into the jar for every kind act they perform.  The end goal is to fill the jar and in the process, make the world a better place.  It’s a nice idea that illustrates the power than films have beyond the walls of a darkened cinema.


Review: Borg McEnroe

Directed by: Janus Metz Pedersen
Written by: Ronnie Sandahl
Starring: Sverrir Gudnason, Shia LaBeouf, Stellen Skarsgård, Tuva Novotny, Robert Emms
Released: November 16, 2017
Grade: B

Borg McEnroe
The tennis achievements of Swede Björn Borg and American John McEnroe have been thoroughly documented.  Borg won 11 grand slam singles titles.  McEnroe wasn’t too far behind with 7.  Borg spent 109 weeks atop the world rankings.  McEnroe edged him out with a total of 170 weeks.  Borg won 64 career singles titles.  McEnroe finished his career with 77 wins.  No one could argue that both are legends in the game.

The title may suggest these two had a long, intense rivalry but that wasn’t the case.  Their careers only intertwined during a very narrow window in the early 1980s.  Borg retired in 1981 at the age of 26 – incredibly young for someone still in the prime of his career.  McEnroe was just coming onto the scene around that time and was still competing well into the 1990s.  They met only 4 times in grand slams – twice in 1980 and twice in 1981.

Brought to the screen by Danish director Janus Metz Pedersen, Borg McEnroe takes us behind the scenes in the lead up to the 1980 gentleman’s final at Wimbledon.  It was the first time these two would face off in a grand slam final and the storylines wrote themselves.  Borg, ranked #1 in the world, was trying to become the first man to win 5 consecutive Wimbledon titles.  McEnroe, ranked #2 in the world, was attempting to build on his US Open title the previous year and claim his first Wimbledon crown.

The tennis scenes in Borg McEnroe are its least interesting element.  You’re looking at two actors run around a court and hit a CGI-generated tennis ball back and forth.  Even with a bit of moody music, it’s not particularly suspenseful.  There’s no substitute for the real thing when it comes to sport.  You can jump on Youtube and watch highlights from the actual match complete with authentic reactions and commentary. 

Where this film does succeed is the way it delves into the background of these two very different individuals.  Borg was a shy man who struggled with fame and preferred to remain inconspicuous.  It was a Catch-22.  The more tournaments he won, the more he had to deal with adoring fans and the curious media.  He was like a pop star in Sweden.  To try to calm the growing pressure he placed on himself, Borg developed a number of borderline-psychotic superstitions.

McEnroe was the complete opposite.  He loved being the centre of attention and wanted journalists to appreciate and value his talent on the court.  He yearned to be one of the world’s top tennis players and not someone who was living in Borg’s shadow.  Unfortunately, his on-court arguments with umpires and linespersons had hurt his reputation with the public.  Crowds would be cheering for his opponent in most matches – a fact that he struggled to deal with.

Told using a mix of flashbacks, Borg McEnroe features some clunky, overdramatised dialogue.  Characters speak as if they’re fortune tellers with lines like “you’ll win Wimbledon one day and be the number 1 player in the world but no one will like you.”  That said, the film provides insight for anyone interested in the world of professional sport and the different paths that exist to become a champion.  Both Borg and McEnroe mad mistakes but they harnessed the lessons learned in pursuit of greatness.

Swedish actor Sverrir Gudnason (Monica Z) has an uncanny resemblance to Borg and is a good fit for the role.  We haven’t seen much from Shia LaBeouf (Transformers) in recent years but he delivers a similarly worthy performance as the anxious McEnroe.  While the real Borg and McEnroe didn’t have much involvement in the development of the script, it’s a nice touch that Björn Borg’s own son plays the teenager version of him in the film.

It’s not often that the tennis and film worlds collide.  Up until a few months ago, the last mainstream “tennis movie” to reach cinemas was Wimbledon with Kirsten Dunst and Paul Bettany back in 2004.  Now we’ve had two in the space of 8 weeks – Battle of the Sexes and Borg McEnroe.  I guess the adage is true – when it rains, it pours.


Review: Daddy's Home 2

Directed by: Sean Anders
Written by: Sean Anders, John Morris
Starring: Will Ferrell, Mark Wahlberg, Linda Cardellini, John Cena, John Lithgow, Mel Gibson
Released: November 23, 2017
Grade: C+

Daddy's Home 2
In Bad Moms 2, the writing team added a layer of complexity but introducing three grandmothers to cause trouble for the film’s three leading ladies.  Those behind Daddy’s Home 2 came up with the same idea when working on a screenplay for the popular original (released back in 2015).

For those needing a refresher course, Daddy’s Home starred Will Ferrell as an insecure stepfather trying to win the affections of his two stepchildren.  He was making progress until their real father, played by Mark Wahlberg, arrived back on the scene.  After a silly battle to see who could get the upper hand, the film ended with both extending the olive branch and agreeing to be “co-dads”.

Given that things ended so acrimoniously at the end of the last movie, Daddy’s Home 2 needs to find a new way to make conflict.  This is achieved by going one back one generation and bringing the two granddads into the equation.  John Lithgow plays the father of Will Ferrell whilst Mel Gibson does the same for Mark Wahlberg.  They have similar personalities to their children which becomes a recipe for trouble.

It’s Gibson’s character that starts the chaos.  He’s an aggressive, macho guy who is disgusted that his son is allowing his kids to be raised by another man.  Most wouldn’t have a major problem with this.  They’d appreciate that not all relationships go the distance and when parents re-marry, custody of children often needs to be shared around.  Unfortunately, he doesn’t share this view and he’s doing whatever he can to cause tension between the two fathers.

The other similarity with Bad Moms 2 is its pitch to be a Christmas movie.  That film was set in the days leading up to Christmas and dissected all the stressful planning that goes into the lead up.  For Daddy’s Home 2, the arguments are around which households will get the honour of hosting Christmas lunch and dinner.  It’s Gibson who forces his own compromise on them all – he’s rented a luxurious house for everyone so that festivities can take place at a neutral venue.

It’s one of my all-time favourite movies and I was stunned to read last month that Mark Wahlberg asked God to forgive him for starring Boogie Nights (released in 1997).  He later clarified by saying that he didn’t regret the role but he’s not sure if he’d make the same choice today as a 46-year-old man who is married with 4 kids.  It doesn’t fit too well with his religious beliefs and his ability to serve as a role model for his family.

That statement gets to the heart of why Wahlberg is appearing in movies like Daddy’s Home 2.  It’s a lightweight, family-friendly comedy that promotes familiar, wholesome values.  It’s not rude and crude like Bad Moms 2 – the most obvious point of difference between the two.  Whether you like this or not will ultimately come down to your own sense of humour.  For the record, I lean more towards the edgier comedy offered up in the Bad Moms franchise.

This film will have its fans and will find its audience but it didn’t offer enough laughs for me.


Review: Murder on the Orient Express

Directed by: Kenneth Branagh
Written by: Michael Green
Starring: Kenneth Branagh, Penelope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr, Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley
Released: November 9, 2017
Grade: B-

Murder on the Orient Express
I’m a fan of a good old fashioned “who done it?”  You size up the suspects, look at their motives and give it your best shot in identifying the killer.  For those who have read the 1934 Agatha Christie novel, seen the 1974 feature film or watched the 2001 television movie, there won’t be many surprises here.  Screenwriter Michael Green (Blade Runner 2049) has stuck with the source material and the 1930s setting.

When not sitting in the director’s chair, Kenneth Branagh also slips into the shoes of the film’s protagonist, Hercule Poirot.  The first impression he gives off is one of arrogance.  He has impeccably high standards, loves to show off, and calls himself “the greatest detective in the world.”  He’s not someone I’d share a dinner table with.

It’s not long before you realise that the hype around Poirot is warranted.  Travelling from Istanbul to Calais on the famous Orient Express train service, his legendary detective skills are called upon when a passenger (Depp) is murdered in the middle of the night.  His body, complete with several stab wounds, was found in his locked compartment.

There are roughly a dozen passengers on board the carriage and over the course of day, Poirot will interrogate each of them.  It’s not long before many secrets come out into the open.  Complicating matters is the deceased man himself – an art dealer with a shady past.  He’d amassed many enemies which only added to the number of possible motives.

Perhaps my expectations were too high but I was a little underwhelmed by Murder on the Orient Express.  Kenneth Branagh tries to milk humour from his character’s self-important nature but it’s not as funny as it could be.  Only a handful of moments were worthy of a smile.  With so many high profile actors in the cast, the screen time is split and no one gets a chance to stand out.  If I had to pick a favourite, I’d lean towards Daisy Ridley (Star Wars: The Force Awakens) as a young governess who has fallen in love.

There’s also something disappointing about the simplistic ease in which Poirot puts the pieces of the puzzle together.  I realise he’s a light-hearted fictional character but it feels like he knows the answer to every question before he asks it.  There are a couple of scenes where we see him stress but they are even less authentic given his telepathic abilities.  If they’d brought him into their ranks on a show like CSI: NY, every mystery would be solved with 5 minutes.

The film’s strongest attribute is its setting.  Most events takes place aboard the old-school train and the camera weaves up, down and above the narrow corridors and passageways.  Part of me would love to take a journey like that one day…. well, except without the murder.  It’d be nice to enjoy a three-course meal in the dining carriage while looking out across the snow-covered mountain ranges of Europe.

Shot using 65mm film cameras (as opposed to digital), Murder on the Orient Express looks great but struggle to deliver on its early intrigue.


Review: Justice League

Directed by: Zack Snyder
Written by: Chris Terrio, Joss Whedon, Zack Snyder
Starring: Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Gal Gadot, Ezra Miller, Jason Momoa, Ray Fisher, Jeremy Irons, Diane Lane
Released: November 16, 2017
Grade: C+

Justice League
Marvel did it with The Avengers and now DC Comics is trying to do the same with Justice League.  You get the sense there’s a little impatience though.  Marvel gave each of its characters a standalone movie across a three year stretch before bringing them all together for the first Avengers movie.  That’s not the case in the DC Universe.  Three heroes in Justice League (The Flash, Aquaman and Cyborg) are being seen for the first time.

It’s for this reason that the opening hour is spent introducing the characters and bringing them together.  Some we’re already familiar with.  Batman (Affleck) is a brooding, emotionless man who jokes that his superpower is “being rich”.  After slaying a bug-like creature, he gets a strong sense that dark times are coming to Earth and that he’ll need a little help to defeat the next villain.  For this reason, he enlists the precocious Wonder Woman (Gadot).  She prefers to keep a low profile but realises that her services will be required.

The new additions all have something different to offer.  The Flash (Miller) can move at breakneck speed and generate an electric charge in the process.  Aquaman (Momoa) can control the movement of water whilst also communicating with creatures that live under the sea.  Cyborg (Fisher) is a human-turned-robot who has incredible power thanks to his metal arms and legs.

There’s just the one “bad guy” for them to stop – a ho-hum alien named Steppenwolf.  He’s come to Earth to locate three power boxes which, if brought together, will allow him to transform the planet into his own version of hell.  He’s not a particularly creative or engaging villain and he’s easily the weakest part of the movie.  That’s even more obvious when you compare him to Cate Blanchett, Jeff Goldblum or Tom Hiddleston in the recent Thor: Ragnarok (a vastly better film).

The action scenes feature so much colour and so much CGI that you’d question whether actors were even needed.  They did nothing to get my blood pumping.  It’s just a repetitive, goofy smash-a-thon that lacks the character development that made Wonder Woman so great (also a vastly better film).

The most interesting battle is to see which character has the funniest one-liners and it’s Ezra Miller who comes out on top as The Flash.  His light-hearted, insecure nature reminded me of Tom Holland in Spider-Man: Homecoming (you guessed it – a vastly better film).  The other characters are trying to outsmart each other in the comedy stakes but they’re too hard.

The budget of Justice League was reportedly $300 million and if you ask me, that money was not well spent.