‘Peter Rabbit’ Review

This post originally appeared on filmjournal.com

It is an unequivocally bad sign when, a half-hour into a movie made for children, a child can be heard to say, “I don’t like this movie.” No amount of shushing from his mother could erase the echo of these words. A grownup critic feeling particularly curmudgeonly is one thing—but when the intended audience voices its displeasure, you know there is a problem.

The titular hero of Peter Rabbit is an animated bunny based on the popular children’s-book character from Beatrix Potter. He is, as the film’s marketing loudly proclaims, “a rebel.” He likes to dash into the garden of mean old Mr. McGregor, even though—or perhaps because—his father met his end at McGregor’s hands, which then swiftly gave him over to Mrs. McGregor, who baked the patriarch into a pie. Peter’s mother has also passed away, but Peter, his three sisters and his cousin, Benjamin, have found a substitute mother figure in the kindly human Bea (Rose Byrne).

Things are looking particularly sunny when old Mr. McGregor suffers a heart attack and is carted away in “an ice-cream truck with lights,” but soon McGregor’s persnickety great-nephew Thomas (Domhnall Gleeson, who, like Byrne, is really too good for this) arrives. Thomas is not only intent on keeping the rabbits from his garden, but, even more galling, on wooing Bea. Fight between rabbit and redhead ensues.

It isn’t that Peter Rabbit, from Easy A director Will Gluck and his co-writer Rob Lieber (Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day), is poorly made. It is sleek and swift and has a partying vibe due in large part to a soundtrack of ultra-contemporary pop songs, the majority of which I’m not sure we will still be listening to a decade hence. The animation is excellent: You can see the individual bristles of the rabbits’ fur, and their running is wonderfully uncanny. Both the voice work and live-action talent are top-notch: In addition to Gleeson and Byrne, we have Gleeson’s Goodbye Christopher Robin co-star Margot Robbie as the narrator and the voice of the bunny Flopsy, as well as Daisy Ridley as the voice of Cotton-Tail, Elizabeth Debicki as the voice of Mopsy, “Broadchurch”’s Marianne Jean-Baptiste as Thomas’ former boss, and James Corden as the voice of Peter. The story gets going directly from the opening sequence. No scenes are wasted; nothing drags the tale down.

The trouble is the tone of the film. Between the narration (“In a story like this…”) and the jocular, winking dialogue of the rabbits (“That’s my character flaw!”), there are enough meta-asides to border on cynicism. Peter is very loud and very brash and all-around exhausting. He, like the movie, does have a heart, and the film tries to espouse a moral, showing how both Peter’s and Thomas’ revenge ploys lead to unhappiness. But the balance seems to be off. There is too much wham-bam shtick and far too much winking to the audience. It is exceedingly loud, exceedingly fast, so that the impression of noise is great…of substance, in comparison, small. We are taken out of the story too many times to enjoy it. What worked 17 years ago when Shrek was released no longer charms, or else the meta-comedy fails in Peter Rabbit because the movie takes this approach to such an extreme. What sincerity there is simply cannot compete with the cacophony of wrecking-ball action sequences and fourth-wall destruction that surrounds it.

Which is too bad, because the Beatrix Potter books are terrific, and you just know that somewhere in the world there is an unsolicited screenplay that does her characters justice. For this Peter Rabbit, character is regrettably beside the point.

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‘Forever My Girl’ Review

This post originally appeared on filmjournal.com

It must be said at the outset: Forever My Girl is not a good movie. The premise is clichéd, the characters are as cookie-cutter as they come, and the message is so simplistic it is frequently imprinted on mass-produced pillows (“Home Is Where the Heart Is”). You’ve seen it before and you’ve seen it done in far cleverer fashion, in far greater earnest and with far greater soap-operatic relish.

And yet there is something damnably comforting about its familiar formula. In our opening scene, hometown Louisiana boy Liam Page (British eye-candy Alex Roe) ditches at the altar his wholesomely pretty, 19-year-old fiancée Josie (Jessica Rothe, or the girl in Emma Stone’s posse who wears the yellow dress during the “Someone In the Crowd” number in La La Land). Flash forward eight years later: Liam is now a mega-successful country star who shares a manager with Blake Shelton. His life is also emptier than a shotgunned Bud Light. He’s creatively blocked and unable to write the new batch of songs that his label is demanding. When Liam learns his former best friend has died, he makes an impromptu decision to return home for the first time since he split. Needless to say, Josie is less than pleased to see him, but that little seven-year-old girl with the same name as Liam’s dead mother and who calls Josie “Mom” further complicates matters between the exes. In spending time with the woman he still loves and the daughter he didn’t know he had, Liam realizes all that has been missing from his vapid life.

The questions are, of course: Will Liam really stick around? Will his self-loathing move him to hurt again and hurt worse the people he loves most? Will the hair stylist to Ms. Rothe ever post a YouTube tutorial? Inquiring minds.

Based on the young-adult romance novel by Heidi McLaughlin, Forever My Girl is a guilty pleasure, no doubt about it. It has the of-the-moment fashions, simplicity of narrative intent and execution, and conservative morals of a Hallmark movie. And therein lies its appeal. If you’re up on the latest network news, you’ll know that over the past year or so Hallmark has been killing it. According to The Washington Post, Hallmark was “the only non-news channel in the top 15 to see substantial viewership growth” in 2016. Numbers only increased for 2017.

Here’s WaPo journalist Heather Long on the network’s movies: “The main characters do the right thing. The problems get worked out. The guy and girl, whatever their age or grumpiness level at the start, always end up together.”

And there you have Forever My Girl. With the added note that not only the protagonists but nearly everyone in the cast (with the single exception of a heartless publicist from the big city; but she’s not family, nor, tellingly, is she shown to have a family of her own) is just so darn decent. Even Liam’s antagonist of sorts, Josie’s brother, who resents Liam for the heartache he’s caused his sister, is only a jerk because he loves his family so darn much. It’s discomfiting to consider that the bitterness of our daily news cycle has so affected our palates that mawkishness has come to seem like a welcome respite. Heaven forefend, but when Liam sings a duet with his daughter to a stadium full of people cheering their hearts out, don’t be surprised if yours skips a beat, too.

Is that such a bad thing? Forever My Girl is not a good movie, because whatever emotions it stirs are not the result of insights hard-won. It’s only trying to entertain, sure, but there’s something both compelling and icky about the way it so prettily reaffirms a belief in the primacy of the traditional. Or an idealized view of the traditional: families that are so loving, hurts are easily forgiven without lingering resentments; and neighbors who are so loyal not one—not one—will give up to the press a single photo or anecdote about their internationally famous hometown boy.

Far be it for me to (totally) knock something that reminds people of how nice it is to be tethered by responsibility. Traditional values are not synonymous with regressiveness. But when views of the world are too easy, like they are here, instead of providing a balm for the world’s hurts, they risk making reality feel that much more painful for emphasizing its distance from the fantasy. Baldly escapist movies like Forever My Girlshould come with a warning, especially for the younger YA audience: Viewer, be wary of the comfort provided here.

‘Paddington 2’ Review

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What a delightful way to spend an hour and 45 minutes is watching Paddington 2.Precisely because it doesn’t play to the grownups with meta asides and pop-cultural winking (all right, there might be one or two instances of those), this children’s movie will appeal to anyone who has a heart for whimsy, no matter her age.

When our story opens, Paddington, the young bear who makes friends as easily as he inadvertently finds himself in trouble (there could be no better voice for him than the soft-spoken Ben Whishaw), is living in the bosom of the Brown family in London. Thanks to his polite manners and humanist belief in the existence of good in everyone he meets, he is the most popular creature in the neighborhood. His Aunt Lucy’s (the voice of Imelda Staunton) 100th birthday is fast approaching and Paddington wants to send her a special sort of present. It’s in a shop of antique curios run by a Mr. Gruber (Jim Broadbent) that he finds a book with pop-up pictures of London. That’s it! Aunt Lucy has always wanted to visit London, but she has never had the chance. Unfortunately, Aunt Lucy’s perfect present is unusually expensive. In order to afford the book, Paddington works a number of odd jobs, and to such visually comic effect that if any older members of the audience are taken out of the story for a moment, it’s only to admire the handiwork of the film’s animators. Paddington’s stints at a barbershop and as a window cleaner who doesn’t quite understand how to balance his weight and that of a water bucket as he hoists himself and the object aloft delight with their sight gags. There’s lots of visual fun to be had, but these are some of the sweetest and the silliest, and are greatly aided by an enchanting score from Dario Marianelli (who won an Oscar for Atonement).

But the narrative really gets underway just before Paddington has reached his goal. There’s something special about that pop-up book indeed, so much so that someone is moved to steal it from Mr. Gruber’s. Paddington is blamed for the crime and is sent to prison, leaving it to the Brown family to uncover the mysterious thief.

The cast is spectacular. If some of us had overlooked the fact before, over the past year Sally Hawkins has proven she can do no wrong. Paddington 2 might not be the prestige vehicle of a Maudie or a critically acclaimed The Shape of Water, but Hawkins brings no less impish warmth to Mrs. Brown than she has to her other, grownup roles. Hugh Bonneville as Mr. Brown knows how to play the stuffy patriarch, but here he is allowed to have some fun with the type, just as Hugh Grant, as a pompous actor of the the-a-tre whose star has fallen so low he has been reduced to acting in dog-food commercials, gets to dress up, speak in funny voices and generally act the stuck-up goof.

But if anyone is truly a match for the star power of the bear (and his wonderfully expressive eyes), it’s Brendan Gleeson as a fearsome prison cook named Knuckles McGinty (or “Mr. McGinty,” if you’re polite-as-pie Paddington). Gleeson grimaces and skulks about like a pirate who was raised in the back alleys of a Dickens novel, but he plays it all straight, without hamming or cheesing. He’s the mean hard nut Paddington must crack with his kindness, which—spoiler here—he does, but thankfully not too easily.

Which is why Paddington 2 is such a lovely good time. Its note of sweetness is nicely tuned, with hardly a false note of saccharinity. Of course, this is a children’s movie, so situations and types are broad, but when it comes to its earnestness, nothing seems overblown. There’s no air of reaching, perhaps because the filmmakers seem to sincerely like their characters. (The end credits include a dedication to the Paddington Bearchildren’s books’ author Michael Bond, who passed away in June.)

The film does have a shaky moment that threatens derailment when it goes in for an extended action sequence at the climax. “Action hero” isn’t a suit that fits the civil Paddington very well. Up to this point the movie has succeeded just fine without whiz-bang fireworks: That’s a different kind of movie entertainment, and not one this tale of light visual touches needs. Would that a resolution a trifle more in keeping with the protagonist had been staged—maybe something that featured the reappearance of a whimsical hot-air balloon made of prison uniforms.

Ultimately, however, the film’s message, that nice guys who remain polite finish first, is timeless and fitting. Its gentle exhortation to “be yourself” doesn’t imply, as some other contemporary messages of personal empowerment have done, that you act at the expense of, or with disregard for others. It isn’t always easy for Paddington to act like himself, but when at last he comes through, the conclusion to his story is so just-right, you may leave the theatre feeling as if the world has some order to it after all. This winter you can keep your Oscar fare: I’m with the bear.

‘In Between’ Review

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Girls just wanna have the freedom to have fun in this electric debut from Arab-Israeli filmmaker Maysaloun Hamoud. Her In Between is a political film, critical of Arab culture and Arab-Israeli relations, but thanks to the strength of its characterizations it is never a didactic film. Hamoud proves once again the potency of a tried-and-true formula: Elucidate the macro through the personal.

Three Palestinian twenty-something women are sharing an apartment together in Tel Aviv. There’s Lalia (Mouna Hawa), the gorgeous-and-she-knows-it criminal lawyer who plays just as hard as she works, which is to an extreme. She is a thick-skinned, cosmopolitan woman who has yet to abandon her belief in romance and who is capable of great tenderness. Lalia has been roommates for some time with Salma (Sana Jammelieh), a DJ who is cool to the point of sullenness, who comes from a Christian family in Galilee, and who is beginning to explore her feelings for another woman. At the beginning of the film, they’re joined by a devout Muslim student named Nur (Shaden Kanboura), who rents their third bedroom so she can be closer to her university. Nur wears a hijab and doesn’t know what raves are; her fiancée, a man so unctuously pious one suspects he doth pray too much, doesn’t like the drinking, smoking, fornicating ways of her new roommates. But after a rocky start, Nur bonds with Lalia and Salma. She resists her fiancée’s attempts to convince her to move elsewhere. We know this cannot end easily.

Meanwhile, Lalia and Salma wrestle with romantic entanglements of their own. The seemingly liberal Arab man for whom Lalia has fallen may not be as enlightened as he first appeared, while Salma must juggle the romantic freedom she enjoys while living on her own in Tel Aviv with the unyieldingly traditional viewpoints of her family. Again, no easy solutions are in sight.

Although the film is only an hour and 45 minutes long, it’s as if Hamoud took a cue from prestige TV in structuring her story. The narrative thread for each woman is distinct: We have the A, B and C stories that converge at important moments. Without resorting to cumbersome flashbacks or clunky exposition, we are given a clear understanding of the life of each protagonist as we follow her for a time solo. It is the time taken to explore these women individually that makes those occasions when they interact together so impactful. When a moment of shocking violence occurs, the emotionality of their reactions is deepened by this understanding of each in her turn, and continues to reverberate to the film’s conclusion. Even when heartbreaking, it’s cannily done.

The actress who plays Salma is a DJ in real life, as is Hamoud, and the film benefits from their expertise as it sounds a thumping score of underground music from Tel Aviv. There’s an anarchic, F-U vibe to much of the soundtrack. But the film’s greatest strength lies in its unwillingness to go for an easy sense of righteousness. Yes, these women are asserting themselves; yes, there are victories gained. But swimming against the tide and living “freely” is not easy. Even when it’s the comparatively better choice, it may not make you happy.

In Between ends on a note of ambiguity over which a less confident filmmaker may have glossed, or eschewed altogether. But Hamoud, who, thanks to In Between, has become the target of the first fatwa to be issued in Palestine since 1948, is nothing if not confident in her choices. This story of clashing values and women chafing and pretty young things in-and-out-of-love is not novel, however of-the-moment it may be politically. But when filtered through Hamoud’s sensibility, the result is distinctive, a mix of rock ’n’ roll and sorrow. At this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Isabelle Huppert chose the writer-director to receive the Women in Motion Young Talents Award. She is indeed one to watch.

‘Blame’ Review

This post originally appeared on filmjournal.com

Writer, director, editor and star Quinn Shephard has made a taut film that wears its literary inspirations on its sleeve and that largely succeeds in demonstrating the enduring fruitfulness of classic plays The Glass Menagerie and The Crucible. Although at times Blame seems overacted, and our protagonist remains elusive, it’ll keep you going thanks to Shephard’s deft pacing. Of the many titles this talented 22-year-old can claim, editor should not be overlooked.

It’s the beginning of another school year and Abigail (Shephard) is reluctant to return to her suburban high school. Last year there was an incident in her psych class that led her, so the rumors whisper, to be packed away to a funny farm. Just what this incident was is never explained, although we do know that it earned Abigail the nickname of “Sybil,” as in the woman with multiple personalities from the 1973 nonfiction bestseller. And indeed there is something off about Abigail: She’s self-consciously quiet, wears dresses buttoned to the throat, and walks with a pronounced limp. “Just like Laura Wingfield,” the sexy and ferociously insecure Melissa (Nadia Alexander) says derisively, naming a character from The Glass Menagerie and, in the process, helpfully shedding some light on the film’s opening shot of a glass unicorn figurine in Abigail’s bedroom. (CliffsNotes might be helpful as supplementary reading material here.) It seems that Abigail gets so wrapped up in the books she reads, she begins to mimic their characters. So you can imagine the turn things start to take when an attractive new drama teacher (Chris Messina) shows up and assigns her the part of the villainous Abigail from The Crucible.

But Abigail is not the only girl thirsting for attention. Her antagonist Melissa, the “cool” girl with her hair dyed red at the tips, her skirt riding up to her pelvis, her bralette on full display, is jealous. She wanted the part, and the slight rankles her. While Melissa schemes, Abigail gets too-close-for-legal-comfort to the drama teacher. The two girls butt heads, leading, to Shephard’s credit, to a dramatic conclusion that is both unexpected and believable.

When it comes to our leading-lady characters, there is no contest: Melissa with her brashness and fear is far and away more interesting than dreamy and manipulative Abigail. Neither actress, however, hits the mark quite roundly: Though Alexander won the Jury Award for Best Actress in a U.S. Narrative Feature at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival, she has a tendency to exaggerate, to roll her eyes and sneer and prance like someone playing bitchy. It’s possible that her labored affect is part of her character, who is deeply insecure, but the fact that it’s not always apparent just who is overacting, the character or the actress, is a problem. That being said, the Tribeca audience may have been moved to celebrate Alexander for her part in the film’s climax, in which she does convince. With Abigail, Shephard has written herself a cipher. What motivates her is unclear, unless she is indeed as crazy as the mean girls snarl. A flash of deceitfulness hints at interesting depths that are never plumbed. It doesn’t help that when she speaks, Shephard doesn’t always fully enunciate and shuffles her words, sounding not unlike Minka Kelly.

But in the main, Blame succeeds thanks to its thriller-like pacing that makes for a slow burn, and to the filmmaker’s evident control of her material. While helping her drama teacher choose which scenes their class should perform for its showcase, Abigail suggests they pick only those that “tell the story.” This is precisely what Shephard has done. It’s true that her film doesn’t use the themes of the plays that inspired it in particularly surprising ways—this is not an against-the-grain-read—but that’s quibbling, for it does fit them comprehensibly into the world of a 21st-century high school. If there is little that can match the power of a work by Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams, Blame is nevertheless a strong debut.

‘Pitch Perfect 3’ Review

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This third and seemingly final (you never can tell) installment in the saga of the Barton Bellas a cappella group is the flashiest of the franchise. There are offshore bank accounts in the Cayman Islands, explosions onboard yachts and—most shocking of all—instruments on stage. Bigger is rarely better, of course, and Pitch Perfect 3 falls short in charm and narrative coherence of 2012’s Pitch Perfect. Still, writers Kay Cannon and Mike White are masters of the one-liner and they do their darndest to ensure you know they know that we all know this is the silliest of stuff. Once again, contemporary pop songs and jokes about social awkwardness prove an undoubtedly entertaining combination.

Save for Emily (Hailee Steinfeld), all of the Bellas whom we have grown to love over the past five years have graduated from Barton and are struggling to find their places in the real world. Just about all of them hate their jobs and would do anything to relive their college glory days and perform as an a cappella group once again. Beca (Anna Kendrick) in particular is disillusioned by what should have been her dream job as a music producer.

Luckily, Aubrey’s (Anna Camp) military father, whose harsh words of advice are a staple of his daughter’s conversation and neuroses, can secure the former Bellas a spot on an international USO tour to entertain the troops. This wouldn’t be a Pitch Perfect without a competition, however, as the characters themselves point out in one of many meta-reflections. As it turns out, the Bellas will be touring with real-life hip-hop impresario DJ Khaled and three other bands. At the end of the tour, Khaled will choose one group to open for him. Almost immediately the Bellas are intimidated by the competition, an all-girl collective named Evermoist (fronted by Ruby Rose) especially. When the dodgy father (played by John Lithgow) of Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson) shows up, things really start to get complicated. Filming it all for a doc-a-mentary are our faithful announcers John (John Michael Higgins) and Gail (Elizabeth Banks). They don’t film much and only pop in every now and again, but they’re as much a part of the story as Becca and Fat Amy, plus they’re funny, so, whatever.

That’s a thought that may occur frequently while watching PP3Well, whatever. It would be easy to quibble the film to death. Many new characters are introduced only to hang about half-formed, including a hunky soldier who acts as the girls’ escort, the sexy-sneering ladies of Evermoist, a strange rapper who flirts with the strangely near-silent Bella, and an attractive music exec on Khaled’s team who has a thing for Beca. Evermoist in particular is framed as a major antagonist only to fall by the wayside as other, bigger, kookier concerns take over. Any one of these threads could have made for a strong subplot in its own right, but all together they prove a mishmash of bits and gags. But because this is a comedy, the film gets away with its scattered elements, though only just. In the end, it is the Bellas’ story and everyone who is not in the gang is something of a prop to be used by it.

Smartly, the story has aged with its characters. The streak of earnestness that runs through all the films and which was done best in the first movie with the Benji (Ben Platt of “Dear Evan Hansen”) and Jesse (Skylar Astin) characters, both absent here and sorely missed, focuses on the girls’ bumpy transition into adulthood. This tale of Millennials being forced to face adulthood is as timely as the movie’s soundtrack and its emphasis on sisterhood.  But after turning Fat Amy into an action hero, there aren’t many more places for the franchise to go. Heaven forfend a Bad Moms angle should be taken for any Pitch Perfect 4. Let this be indeed their final song.

‘The Tribes of Palos Verdes’ Review

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Jennifer Garner must have had a lot of fun on the set of The Tribes of Palos Verdes. She plays a manic-depressive, narcissistic loon of a mother whose unraveling state of mind, in toxic combination with the selfishness of her husband, has devastating consequences for her children. She gets to rant and rave and play against type with a fearsomeness that does indeed enliven this otherwise atmospheric film whenever she appears onscreen. There is some chewing of the scenery, although not enough of it to call her performance campy. It isn’t a bad performance, just as this debut feature from the brothers Emmett and Brendan Malloy (who won the “Directors to Watch” award at the Palm Springs International Film Festival this year) isn’t a bad movie. Only, it isn’t anything we haven’t seen before. It is an unremarkably solid contribution to the genre and, as such, is done well for what it is.

Our protagonist is teenage Medina (Maika Monroe), who has just moved with her twin brother Jim (Cody Fern), her mom Sandy (Garner) and her heart-surgeon father Phil (Justin Kirk) to dystopian Palos Verdes, CA. This is the sort of place where the more immaculately kept the houses are, the more unhinged are the realities within. Though the family is hoping to start anew, its troubles have followed. Soon enough, Mom is succumbing to black moods and making socially inappropriate complaints to the tennis wives, while Dad is once again fooling around. When he finally ups and leaves his tribe for a svelte California blonde (Alicia Silverstone), Mom really loses it and begins to rely over-heavily on Jim, the newly lone “man of the house.” Medina, for her part, when she isn’t being manipulated by one or the other of her parents, finds solace in surfing, and then in the affections of an unlikely source. The crisis to which these elements build is a tragedy that duly elicits tears.

The Tribes of Palos Verdes opens with a long single take that follows Medina as she moves from the pool of her backyard to her new front yard overlooking the ocean, coming into contact with and introducing us to each member of her family along the way. This shot is so masterfully handled it’s disappointing that the film never quite lives up to the dynamic promise of its opener. Instead, the movie utilizes a lot of slo-mo cinematography (which seems to be de rigueur for creating an aestheticized sense of atmospherics these days) that contributes to an air of moodiness, which, while certainly in keeping with a teenager’s point of view, makes for some unwontedly slow sequences. It is these many “ruminative” shots of Medina surfing and gazing unhappily at the craziness around her that make the active kookiness of Garner’s character so welcome when it appears.

The film also includes a bit of voiceover that sounds as if it were taken straight from the Joy Nicholson novel on which it’s based. Dee Rees’ recent adaptation Mudbound proved to what great use literary voiceover can be put, but in this instance Medina’s voice is neither lyrical enough nor insightful/informative enough to enrich the present action. We have already a firm sense of her character and of her surroundings simply by watching the one interact amid the other. In voiceover, Monroe sounds as if she is reading directly from a book, and in more of a recitative than performative sense.

The heart of the film and its most compelling aspect is the relationship between Medina and her twin brother. The movie stays close enough to this core that when the climax occurs, it has an impact. Much of its effectiveness is thanks to the performance of Australian actor Fern, who in 2014 won the Heath Ledger Scholarship. Some of us might have wished something more or different had been added or pushed in this competent story, but at least The Tribes of Palos Verdes delivers on expectations.

‘The Man Who Invented Christmas’ Review

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With its grand score, detailed period sets and flashy shots, Bharat Nalluri’s (Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day) adaptation of the nonfiction book The Man Who Invented Christmas revels in the thingness of the movies. One can’t help but wonder if this story about Charles Dickens and the making of his A Christmas Carol really needed to be told on the big screen, if such a lot of money really needed to be slung about in service of so many bright costumes and for the salaries of so many name actors, given that the narrative at the center of it all is such a slight one. The film leaves a faint impression but is diverting while you watch it.

Charles Dickens (Dan Stevens, exercising every muscle in his hale face) is a world-renowned author beloved for his ability to tug at his readers’ heartstrings. But it’s been some time since he had a hit—his last three attempts all flopped. With extensive renovations to his London townhouse underway and his wife newly pregnant with their fifth, Dickens is in debt and desperate for some cash. So he decides to write a new book. This delights his publishers…until they realize their somewhat tarnished golden boy wants to write a Christmas book.

Impossible. The holiday has gone out of favor, not to mention it’s already fall; there simply isn’t time for Dickens to write the book, have it illustrated and printed all before Christmas. But Dickens will not be dissuaded. With his kind friend John Forster (a delightful Justin Edwards of Love and Friendship) by his side, he decides to prepare and release the story himself. He has yet to write a page of it. He has just six weeks to complete it.

A period of creative madness ensues. Things are further complicated by the arrival of Dickens’ mother and sweet but irresponsible father (Jonathan Pryce). Nearly every time Dickens gets going in his study, someone knocks upon his door and “real life” rudely intrudes upon his “process.” Of course, many of these interruptions are as important as the writing itself. Whenever he hears a name or idea, or sees an image or person that strikes his fancy, Dickens enjoys an “a-ha!” moment. Thus we learn that the name for A Christmas Carol’s Marley comes from an elderly waiter, the model for Ebenezer Scrooge (Christopher Plummer) is an old man Dickens sees in a graveyard, and the character of Tiny Tim is inspired by his sickly nephew.

The problem of how to dramatize the writing process is well known. Susan Coyne’s script gets around the difficulty by making Dickens’ characters talk to him, pushing him to a state of distraction matched only by the flesh-and-blood friends and family who demand he act like a human being as well as an author. If the characterizations of types like the long-suffering wife and the impoverished but innately sensitive young girl are broad, the plot moves along quickly enough, the dialogue is snappy enough, the visuals are enchanting enough, and Stevens’ face is expressive enough to distract from the fact that there really isn’t much happening here at all.

Perhaps oddly for a film about the making of a classic story, it is not in the story of The Man Who Invented Christmas that the film’s appeal lies. Instead, the movie diverts because of the masterful handling of its aesthetic elements (score, sets, facial muscles). It’s a shiny toy that pleases while you play with it, but come tomorrow or the next day, it will likely lie forgotten.

‘Brimstone & Glory’ Review

This post originally appeared on filmjournal.com

For ten days every year, the residents of Tultepec, Mexico, celebrate the Patron Saint of Fireworks San Juan de Dios with a pyrotechnics festival. They build electrical towers that burst into flames and shower sparks upon the spectators. They construct and ignite massive papier-mâché bulls by whose sides they run down the crowded streets. Revelers shoot off firecrackers and fireworks as they dance through the flames. There is something at once pagan and spiritual about the spectacle; the result is as fine a line between the ecstasies of heaven and the horrors of hell as can perhaps exist outside of the human psyche. The tonally lush score by producer Benh Zeitlin (Beasts of the Southern Wild) and Dan Romer (also of Beasts acclaim, as well as Beasts of No Nation) contributes as much to Brimstone & Glory’s oneiric sensibility as its frankly aestheticized cinematography.

There isn’t much of a story here, though the doc does often return to the point-of-view and family of the young (ten-ish) Esau, or “Santi.” The men of Santi’s family help make the fireworks and construct the electrical towers they call “fire castles” for the festival. This dangerous job isn’t one the women of the family love a great deal; Santi’s grandmother recalls the death of her son and Santi’s uncle, which occurred when one of the flaming bulls overturned upon him. (When the credits roll, we see that the movie has been dedicated to several men who passed away in service of the festival.) The adults like to repeat about Santi that “gunpowder is in his blood,” but while Santi does seem adept at packing the powder and manipulating the wiring, he is understandably afraid of incurring injury on the job. But “in this family, this is what we do,” says his mother. “There’s not much else” for them in Tultepec.

This is an interesting conflict—in fact, several interesting conflicts—but traditional character conflict is not the film’s concern. Brimstone & Glory is an “experience,” a tone poem, not a narrative. We see the men constructing the fire castles, the residents creating their painted bulls, police readying for the celebration, paramedics treating those injured by the flames (squeamish among you, be warned), and revelers reveling, but with the exception of Santi, individual personalities are subsumed beneath visuals that are made to seem dreamlike through masterful tricks of lighting and slo-mo cinematography. A scene filmed with a head-cam worn by one of the workers as he climbs an unlit fire castle is an extraordinarily effective attempt to place the viewer in the subject’s shoes. If you can induce vertigo in someone sitting firmly in a cushioned seat bolted to the floor, you’re doing something impressive.

Then, too, there are some lovely and simple ideas underlying the film’s mesmeric images. In voiceover, Santi explains the legend of San Juan de Dios: He rescued several people from a burning building without receiving a single scar. For the residents of Tultepec, however, scars are just what they’re after. “It’s for people to feel something,” says Santi of the general eagerness to dance amid flames, to, quite literally, “take something home with them.” It’s a different way to think about “playing with fire,” where one is not flirting with danger but openly desiring it.

Brimstone & Glory clocks in at 67 minutes. On the one hand, this seems like the right amount of time for a work striving above all else to give an impression. On the other, such brevity makes the doc feel slight. It begs the question, too, of ROI: This is a film that ought to be seen on the big screen, that can perhaps not be appreciated unless it is viewed in a theatre, but how many people will be willing to spend nearly $20 for barely an hour’s experience, however immersive? Brimstone & Glory is deserving of an audience. But, in strange contrast to the average men and women searching for a moment of transcendence it depicts, this slip of a doc is something of a luxury item.

‘Mudbound’ Review

This post originally appeared on filmjournal.com

Mudbound, the debut novel from Hillary Jordan on which the latest from talented Pariah director Dee Rees is based, won the Bellwether Prize for fiction in 2006. Author Barbara Kingsolver had founded the award six years earlier in order to recognize an unpublished work of fiction that addresses problems of social justice. In a story published by NPR in 2008, Kingsolver (The Poisonwood Bible) said of the book, “I love that you understand everybody, even though everyone isn’t right, and in the long run some people are very wrong. But you begin by feeling their own perspective, and you have some sympathy for every character.”

The chapters in Mudbound the novel are each written from the first-person point of view of one of six characters, three of whom are white and three of whom are black. Mudbound the film maintains the novel’s emphasis on a multiplicity of voices by periodically allowing these characters to narrate their inner monologues through voiceover. This emphasis not only on interiority, but on plumbing the thoughts of people on different rungs of the social hierarchy, as well as the lyricism of the narrations themselves, do result in a novelistic kind of film (if we’re to understand the novel in its traditional form). The result of this emotional panorama, greatly aided by the sometimes sweeping, sometimes unnervingly intimate cinematography of Rachel Morrison (Fruitvale Station, Cake, Dope), is moving.

The two families of Mudbound are tied—or, some of their members might think, yoked—together by a piece of land in the Mississippi Delta. It is the 1940s and white Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke) has decided to move his wife Laura (Carey Mulligan) and their two small daughters from the suburbs of Memphis to a farm in the sticks, because, well, he has always dreamed of owning a farm. This is news to Laura, the cultured woman who years earlier agreed to marry Henry not because she loved him but because she was a 31-year-old virgin. To make matters worse, Henry’s loutish father “Pappy” (Jonathan Banks from “Breaking Bad” and “Better Call Saul”) will be living with them, while Henry’s charming brother Jamie (a very good Garrett Hedlund, channeling in look and voice a young Brad Pitt) is off fighting the war. The black sharecroppers, Hap and Florence Jackson (Rob Morgan and Mary J. Blige), who dream of owning their own property outright one day but who for now work the land Henry has bought also have a son, Ronsel (Jason Mitchell), who is a soldier overseas. When Jamie and Ronsel return, they become friends. But this is the Jim Crow South and from the first we are only waiting for something awful to happen.

Before then, quite a bit else happens, yet it is a testament to the deft hand of Rees that her adaptation (whose script she co-wrote with TV scribe Virgil Williams in his feature writing debut) never feels overlong, episodic or weighed down by a novel’s multitude of incident. Each character is so distinct in voice and action that although this is not a “character study” as the phrase has come to be understood through its assocations with indie films, its successes are nearly all functions of its strong characterizations. Kingsolver applauded the novel for its sympathetic portrayals, and Rees’ film achieves a similar feat almost without resorting to facile—that is, sensationalist or sentimental—grabs for empathy. Some of the screenplay’s insights ring soundly (Laura’s admission of her non-love for Henry: “I was so grateful to him it dwarfed everything else”), although either Rees/Williams or the story’s original author Jordan has a weakness for cleverness (Hap’s remark that it is a “deed” [a legal document] and not “deeds” [conscious actions] that matter for those who want to own land).

If the film missteps, it may be, arguably, at its end. This is a tricky point, because I do think a measure of grace should be sought after the truly terrible thing for which we have been waiting occurs. Large ideas, about family, friendship, race and loyalty, are thematically present throughout the film, but the problem with the finale may be that its Large Idea upstages the character through whom it is being conveyed. It is not the idea itself, which is stated outright in the film’s final line, which is the trouble, but the tidiness of its rendering. Given the often rich characterizations that have marked the film to this point, those final frames surprise a bit with their sentimentality.

But overall, Mudbound is beautifully shot, well-edited, well-acted, well-scored (by frequent Rees collaborator Tamar-Kali Brown) and, of course, well-directed. A few weeks ago Rees’ next project was announced: She will be adapting the Joan Didion political thriller, The Last Thing He Wanted. Said Rees, “I am so excited to be able to interpret this literary masterpiece.” Book-to-film fans should be similarly moved.