Looking ahead to 2017…

We’ve got 12 months of movies ahead of us. Now that we’ve looked back at 2016, let’s see what’s coming out this year that’s got me excited…

  • The LEGO Batman Movie (Feb. 10). The first LEGO Movie was one of the most unexpected gems of the last few years. The trailers for this first spinoff look to be unfettered fun.
  • John Wick Chapter 2 (Feb. 10). Another unexpected hit was the first John Wick movie. I can’t wait for the sequel.
  • Logan (March 3). Hugh Jackman’s final turn as Wolverine looks like it’s going to be a much darker, more intense take on the character than we’ve seen before.
  • Kong: Skull Island (March 10). With Legendary planning an MCU-style connection between this and their Godzilla franchise, I’m really looking forward to the new take on King Kong.
  • Beauty and the Beast (March 17). Disney’s rash of live-action remakes of their classic animated films has been hit or miss for me, but Emma Watson as Belle is perfect casting. I’ve got high hopes for this one.
  • Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (May 5). After a thrilling, joyful first film, I’m hoping director James Gunn can do the same with this one.
  • Wonder Woman (June 2). It’s almost a crime that it’s taken this long for there to be a live-action Wonder Woman movie. Gal Gadot stole every scene of Batman V Superman, and I can’t wait to see this one.
  • The Mummy (June 9). Universal is hoping to revive its classic monster franchise with (again) an MCU-style shared universe. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that it works.
  • Spider-Man: Homecoming (July 7). Marvel and Sony coming to an agreement for Spider-Man is the best thing that could have happened for the character. Tom Holland rocked in Captain America: Civil War, and I’m hoping for more of that in this film.
  • War For the Planet of the Apes (July 14). The first two films in the new Apes franchise were phenomenal — deep, thoughtful films with mesmerizing performances. I feel very good about this next one.
  • Dunkirk (July 21). Christopher Nolan doing a World War I epic. How can you not be excited?
  • The Dark Tower (July 28). Stephen King’s self-proclaimed “Magnum Opus” is a work that has a need personal meaning for me. I want this movie to be great. The casting is spot-on, although the information that’s come out so far leaves me wondering exactly what angle they’re intending to take on the material.
  • It (Sept. 8). Another Stephen King adaptation. Although not as personal to me, it’s still a great book that had an okay TV adaptation. Can any film truly capture the novel?
  • Thor: Ragnarok (Nov. 3). Although the Thor movies gave the MCU its most charismatic villain, they aren’t quite as memorable as the rest of the franchise. This time out, having Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk and Benedict Cumberbatch’s Dr. Strange along for the ride may finally give us a great Thor movie.
  • Justice League (Nov. 17). I’ve been waiting for this movie since I was a kid, and the promotional materials have looked fantastic. I can’t wait.
  • Star Wars Episode VIII (Dec. 15). Little independent movie. You probably haven’t heard of it.
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2016 in Film

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Favorite of the Year: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Once again, it’s a new year, and that means it’s time to take a look back at the releases of the previous year. I managed to clock in a a lot of movies in 2016, although as always there are still several I haven’t seen yet (Arrival, Shin Godzilla, Moana, and many more). So as always, consider this list incomplete. It’s every 2016 movie I’ve seen so far, including TV movies and direct-to-DVD fare, ranked from my favorite to least favorite, with commentary where I find it necessary.

  • Rogue One: A Star Wars Story — Two years in a row, a Star Wars movie has claimed my top spot. Under its new Disney home, Lucasfilm is on fire.
  • Doctor Strange — Amazingly, for a character I’ve never fully connected with in the comics, Benedict Cumberbatch has turned in one of my favorite Marvel Cinematic Universe performances to date.
  • Captain America: Civil War — Although they may as well have called this Avengers 3, the third Captain America movie was a blast. I especially liked the fact that this time around the stakes were much more personal, rather than a save-the-world scenario. It was a nice change of pace.
  • Zootopia — This was a huge surprise to me. Not that it was good (John Lasseter taking over Disney animation is the best thing to happen to Disney animation since Walt Disney himself), but how good it was. Funny, sweet, and surprisingly poignant.
  • For the Love of Spock — Adam Nimoy directs this touching documentary about his father, Leonard.
  • Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice — I don’t care what the critics say, I had a great thrill seeing DC’s trinity on screen for the first time, and I can’t wait to see Gal Gadot in Wonder Woman.
  • Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them — I felt the same way about this as Rogue One. The studios have learned that if you can make the universe itself the star instead of a particular character, you can make a franchise last much longer. This was a fun addition to J.K. Rowling’s Wizarding World.
  • Star Trek Beyond — It’s rare that the third film in a franchise is the best, but this was the most exciting, most “Star Trek”-like film in the Kelvin Timeline to date.
  • Finding Dory — Lovely follow-up to Finding Nemo, with a heartfelt message.
  • The Nice Guys — Like so many people, I loved this movie, and wish that it had found a larger audience in theaters.
  • Deadpool
  • Raiders! The Story of the Greatest Fan-Film Ever Made — You may have heard the story of a couple of kids who spent years working on an amateur shot-for-shot remake of Raiders of the Lost Ark. This is that story.
  • Batman: The Killing Joke
  • Hush — Tense little thriller about a home invasion in the home of a deaf woman.
  • 10 Cloverfield Lane — One of the year’s best surprises.
  • Suicide Squad — Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn was fantastic. The rest of the movie was pretty good.
  • Hail, Caesar!
  • The Witch
  • Independence Day: Resurgence
  • DC Super Hero Girls: Hero of the Year — Cute direct-to-DVD movie starring DC’s latest franchise. I love the fact that this series exists, and so does my 6-year-old niece.
  • X-Men: Apocalypse — Weakest of the “First Class” trilogy, but that still places it ahead of the likes of X-Men: The Last Stand or the first two Wolverine movies.
  • Keanu
  • Ghostheads
  • Justice League Vs. Teen Titans
  • Holidays — Fun, if uneven, horror anthology.
  • Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday
  • Batman: Bad Blood
  • LEGO DC Super Heroes: Justice League-Cosmic Clash
  • LEGO DC Super Heroes: Justice League-Gotham City Breakout
  • Mascots
  • The Jungle Book — I know a lot of people were blown away by this, but it just didn’t do it for me. Admittedly, it may just be because I’ve never been able to get into talking animal movies. It’s a weird hang-up of mine, I admit.
  • Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders — Animated film featuring Adam West and Burt Ward, and damn, do they show their age. When Batman and Robin sound like they’re in their 70s, maybe nostalgia isn’t enough.
  • Dwarvenaut
  • Criminal
  • Grease Live!
  • Dead 7 — Weak-ass SyFy movie starring a bunch of washed-up boy band members in a zombie western.
  • The Neon Demon — Probably the most controversial opinion I’ll have here. The latest from writer/director Nicolas Winding Refn of Drive and Only God Forgives, and like those other films, I found this unbearably dull and overblown.
  • Ghostbusters — A weak script and a weak director tanked this remake.
  • Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do the Time Warp Again
  • Paradox

What I’ve Watched In… December 2016

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Favorite of the Month: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

In the interest of full disclosure (and to generate a little content here) I thought I’d present a regular tally of what movies I managed to see in the previous month. Some of them I’ve written or talked about, most of them I haven’t. This list includes movies I saw for the first time, movies I’ve seen a thousand times, movies I saw in the theater, movies I watched at home, direct-to-DVD, made-for-TV and anything else that qualifies as a movie. I also choose my favorite of the month among those movies I saw for the first time, marked in red. Feel free to discuss or ask about any of them!

  1. I Am Santa Claus (2014), A
  2. A Christmas Carol (2009), B-
  3. The Best Christmas Pageant Ever (1983), B+
  4. Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964), D; RiffTrax Live Riff, B
  5. The Night Before (2015), B-
  6. Santa Claus (1959), F; Rifftrax Live Riff, B
  7. A Muppet Family Christmas (1987), A
  8. Snow (2004), B
  9. Snow 2: Brain Freeze (2008), B
  10. Christmas Eve on Sesame Street (1978), A
  11. Christmas With Rifftrax: Santa’s Village of Madness, B
  12. The Shop Around the Corner (1940), A
  13. Trans-Siberian Orchestra: The Ghosts of Christmas Eve (1999), B+
  14. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: The Movie (1998), D
  15. Christmas Eve (2015), A-
  16. Scrooge (1970), B+
  17. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016), A-
  18. The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), A-
  19. Rudolph and Frosty’s Christmas in July (1979), B-
  20. Trading Places (1983), B
  21. National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989), A
  22. A Very Murray Christmas (2015), A-
  23. Marvel Super Hero Adventures: Frost Fight (2015), B
  24. The Ref (1994), B+
  25. An American Christmas Carol (1979), B+
  26. Popeye’s Voyage: The Quest For Pappy (2004), C
  27. Ebbie (1995), D
  28. Scrooge and Marley (2001), C-
  29. Die Hard (1988), A
  30. Home Alone (1990), A
  31. Santa’s Christmas Circus (1966), D; RiffTrax Riff, B
  32. The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992), A+
  33. Santa Claus: The Movie (1985), A
  34. Miracle on 34th Street (1947), A
  35. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), A+
  36. A Christmas Story (1983), A
  37. In the Good Old Summertime (1949), B
  38. Captain Phillips (2013), B+
  39. Hail, Caesar! (2016), B+
  40. Life of Pi (2012), A-
  41. 12 Years a Slave (2013), A
  42. Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders (2016), C
  43. Night Shadows (1984), D-; RiffTrax Riff, B
  44. No Country For Old Men (2007), A-
  45. Keanu (2016), B
  46. 12 Angry Men (1957), A+
  47. Wild Things (1998), B
  48. The Sting (1973), A-
  49. Singin’ in the Rain (1952), A+
  50. The Jungle Book (2016), C+
  51. For the Love of Spock (2016), A
  52. Ghostbusters (1984), A
  53. Ghostbusters II (1989), B

Carrie Fisher

leiasupportsgunrights-anhIt’s not unusual for an actor to try to distance themselves from their more famous roles, afraid of getting typecast. Elizabeth Berkley went from squeaky clean Saved By the Bell to Showgirls. Steve Carell got away from The Office by doing serious drama and dramadeys like The Way, Way Back, showing he was more than just Michael Scott. And Miley Cyrus… well.

As someone who’s done a bit of acting, I get that. Acting is an art and no artists really want to do the same thing over and over forever and ever. They want to branch out, show their range, prove what they can do. But I ask you, if the character you’re indelibly associated with is one that people love, one that inspires people, one that matters to people… is that such a bad thing? Leonard Nimoy was Spock, and eventually he learned to embrace that. Alan Rickman was Hans Gruber for one generation and Professor Snape for their children, and that was great for all of them. And since word came of Carrie Fisher’s heart attack last week, the responses from people have shown she was another such performer. She had entertaining roles in a lot of movies, and for years she was one of Hollywood’s greatest secret weapons, as a mostly-anonymous script doctor on Hook, Sister Act, and a number of other films for which she never received credit. But for most people who have been praying for her the past few days, it was her role as Princess Leia Organa in the Star Wars films that made her a part of their lives.

While it’s true that Leia was essentially the only significant female character in the original Star Wars trilogy, what a character she was. She was brave, strong, and an incredible force for good — she stood toe-to-toe with Darth Vader and didn’t blink an eye, grabbed a blaster and led her own rescuers on the escape from the Death Star, took the lead of the rebellion in later films. Even in Return of the Jedi, when Jabba the Hutt placed her in the much-maligned “Slave Leia” outfit, Carrie Fisher’s character was a pillar of strength, fighting against and ultimately killing her oppressor with his own chain.

She was tough as nails, is what I’m saying. And from all indications, that’s something that could also be said of Carrie Fisher herself. Her life may not have been easy, but she made the most of it, telling stories and creating a character that can and should be seen as an inspiration to people everywhere.

The last few days — the last few hours in particular — have seen fans coming out of the woodwork to talk about what both the actress and the character mean to them, that she’s someone to be admired, someone to be imitated. One could do far worse with their life than to be remembered as Princess and General Leia Organa.

I only hope that Fisher herself knew that people felt that way.

RIP.

Scrooge Revisited Day 5-Dean Jones in Scrooge and Marley (2001)

scrooge-and-marleyNote: If you’re new to Reel to Reel, I’m more about dissecting and commenting on film than writing a straightforward review. As such, please be warned, the following is full of spoilers.

Director: Fred Holmes

Writer: Fred Holmes, based on the novel by Charles Dickens and the book What If Jesus Had Never Been Born? by D. James Kennedy

Cast: Dean Jones, Reg Grant, D. James Kennedy, Joan Plowright, Greg Wilson, Jason Richards, Jessica Lee, Jon Freda, Al Arasim, Al Quinn

Notes: Former Disney leading man Dean Jones stars in this faith-heavy adaptation of Dickens, produced by Gospel Communications International.  Although this is relatively short film (48 minutes total), it starts earlier than most adaptations of the story, spending a long time on Marley’s death and burial. In this version, Scrooge is not only explicitly atheist, but head and sole member of a group called (I swear I am not making this up) Atheists Are Us, and directs his anger not at Christmas in general, but the nativity specifically. He tries to harangue nephew Fred into taking down the town’s manger scene, threatening him with a lawsuit if he doesn’t. (Oh yes, Scrooge is a lawyer in this version.) In fact, the courtroom scene goes on for some time before Scrooge wins, then fires Cratchit for being late. At this point we’re halfway into the movie, and Scrooge hasn’t even talked to Marley yet.

When Marley (Reg Grant) does show up, it’s not to take him on the traditional journey through Past, Present, and Future. Oh no. Instead, we get Scrooge sent to an ethereal courtroom where he’s tasked with proving his assertion that the world would be better if Jesus Christ had never been born, with the caveat that he plunges to Hell if he fails. One would think that the very confirmation of Hell’s existence would be enough to drive the atheist out of most people, but that would make this movie even shorter than it is, but that would be too simple.

This is where it gets totally bonkers, guys, because Marley calls Dr. D. James Kennedy to the stand. If you missed it, it’s the same D. James Kennedy who wrote the book this movie was based on and minister of the church that produced the movie. Once you get past the sheer absurdity of his presence, you get a kind of boring debate between Kennedy and Scrooge. He then tries to steal Marley’s boutonniere and gets an electric shock out of it. I don’t get it either.

At the end of the trial, after a speech about the nature of Hell from Marley, we see Scrooge tossed in his own grave only to wake up, back in the original court, before judge ruled against the Nativity scene. He stumbles outside, weeping at the manger, and a woman appears and tells him God forgives those who ask for it. Tearfully, he realizes the woman is the ghost of his dead sister, Fan. He returns to the court to withdraw his lawsuit, begs Fred’s forgiveness and proclaims “I’ve discovered I like Christmas.”

Thoughts: These sort of faith-based films have grown in popularity in the last few years, and one wonders if D. James Kennedy could have done his movie with a bigger budget if he had waited a decade for the era of fare such as God’s Not Dead. As it is, the threadbare budget is on constant display in this film. For example, the main characters are all wearing Dickensian costumes, but when Scrooge walks down the street he’s surrounded by people wearing contemporary clothing and 20th century American-style Santa Claus hats. The dichotomy is preposterous enough to actually be amusing. To further confuse what time period we’re supposed to be watching, Fred cites a Supreme Court decision from 1985 in the court scene, and Marley’s appearance is heralded by a ghostly ambulance.

There’s a lot of amusing stuff in this movie, and not all of it intentional. Early on, for example, we see Scrooge plopping the late Marley’s head in his soup, then later Dean Jones hammishly chokes on a wonton, at which point we learn he sued the Chinese restaurant for killing Marley, winning free soup for life. (Atheists love wonton soup, it’s common knowledge.) We see Bob Cratchit (Greg Wilson) chugging along with a wonderfully over-the-top British accent, only to crash into Fred (Jason Richards) who doesn’t even attempt covering up what sounds like a cartoonish Boston accent. He stands in stark contrast with Mayor Boz (John Sheffield) who simply sounds like a cartoon.

Although I don’t talk about it online very much, I am Christian myself, and in general I want to support culture that portrays faith in a positive way. This movie, though, is so goofy and heavy-handed about it that it’s hard to imagine it convincing anybody. It’s funny, it’s fun to watch, but not for any of the reasons the filmmakers may have intended.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Scrooge Revisited Day 4-Susan Lucci in Ebbie (1995)

ebbieNote: If you’re new to Reel to Reel, I’m more about dissecting and commenting on film than writing a straightforward review. As such, please be warned, the following is full of spoilers.

Director: George Kaczender

Writers: Paul Redford & Ed Redlich, based on the novel by Charles Dickens

Cast: Susan Lucci, Wendy Crewson, Ron Lea, Molly Parker, Lorena Gale, Jennifer Clement, Nicole Parker, Susan Hogan, Kevin McNulty, Taran Noah Smith, Jeffrey DeMunn, Bill Croft, Laura Harris

Notes: Are there any words in the realm of cinema more exciting than “Lifetime Original Movie”? That’s what we have today, my friends – soap opera legend Susan Lucci as Elizabeth Scrooge in this gender-reversed TV production. Lucci’s Scrooge is the manager of a department store rather than a moneylender, but she still has her Roberta Cratchet (Wendy Crewson), niece Francine (Molly Parker) and a gaggle of ghosts. The Tiny Tim role is filled by Taran Noah Smith, at the time part of the cast of the hit comedy Home Improvement, while Jake Marley’s ghost is appropriately played by future Walking Dead star Jeffrey DeMunn. In an odd case, Susan Hogan – who played the equivalent of Mrs. Fezziwig in An American Christmas Carol, essential fills the same role here. The movie can occasionally be found on DVD under the title Miracle at Christmas: Ebbie’s Story, with hot property Smith cuddled up to Lucci on the cover, despite having little more than a cameo appearance.

Thoughts: I’ve seen a lot of different version of A Christmas Carol, but this one stands out as being, perhaps, the least exciting. The film is updated to the 90s and set in America, although despite that the writers tried to tweak lines from the original Dickens in terribly awkward ways, like the old “are there no orphanages? Are there no workhouses?” speech. For a version so far away from the original in its setting, it’s weird that they would ty to cling to the details, and that adherence to Dickens is actually this movie’s death-knell.

Like An American Christmas Carol, Ebbie’s ghosts play double-duty. This time, they’re all employees of the department store that she shafted in one way or another (disrespect, a crappy Christmas bonus, or a yuletide firing, respectively). I’m starting to think it was less an artistic choice and more a way to cut down on the number of actors they had to pay. This film is Dickens on a budget.

The made-for-TV credentials are evident from the first ghost. DeMunn’s Marley makes his appearance first by popping into the TV shows Ebbie is watching, then shows up in a glowing blue form complete with a giant 90s cellphone he stole from Zack Morris. We race through his point and get to the ghosts of Christmas Past – Jennifer Clement and Nicole Parker, who we saw earlier in the movie as perfume girls in the department store, looking like rejects from Hairspray. It doesn’t help that they actually use hairspray to zip back in time and view Ebbie’s past, where we literally hear her father tell her mother “I never wanted you.” If they want us to feel sorry for Ebbie, it comes across as too heavy-handed (especially with the clownish pair of ghosts) for the emotion to truly land. It gets even sillier when we see her very pregnant sister (Parker again) taking to her “little sister,” played by Lucci, looking a good 20 years older. Christmas Past is interminably long, sloughing through Ebbie’s destruction of her relationship with her boyfriend, the takeover of the department store with Marley, and Marley’s Christmas Eve death. Again, it’s hitting all the beats, but not doing so in any clever or creative way. If you’re not going to change up the formula at this point, you damn well need to execute it very well, and this movie just has all the tropes of a Lifetime movie with none of the charm of the better Christmas Carol adaptations.

Lucci is doing her soap opera best here, which is to say that she’s heavy on the melodrama, but light on real emotion. I can’t say it’s entirely her fault, of course – she’s doing exactly what you expect out of Susan Lucci, and doing it as well as can be expected. The rest of the film piles on the melodrama so thickly that it scarcely matters. By the time we reach the forced treacle of Tim singing “Angels We Have Heard on High,” you’re certain the film has been running for all twelve days of Christmas, even though it’s only been a little over an hour. Perhaps the most interesting (or maybe just the least boring) segment is Christmas Yet to Come, where Ebbie is forced to witness herself getting struck by a car, rather than succumbing to old age or whatever it is that usually takes out Scrooges.

This is perhaps one of the dullest Christmas Carol adaptations I’ve seen. Lucci is so flat that you don’t feel any transformation at all, and her climactic announcement that she’ll “honor Christmas” feels entirely by rote, without any passion to it. If you’re a Lucci fanatic, you may want to watch this. For the rest of us, there are much better versions to choose from.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Scrooge Revisited Day 3-Cosmo Spacely in A Jetson Christmas Carol (1985)

jetson-christmas-carolNote: If you’re new to Reel to Reel, I’m more about dissecting and commenting on film than writing a straightforward review. As such, please be warned, the following is full of spoilers.

Director: Ray Patterson

Writer: Barbara Levy & Marc Paykuss, based on the novel by Charles Dickens

Cast: George O’Hanlon, Penny Singleton, Daws Butler, Don Messick, Janet Waldo, Jean Vander Pyl, Mel Blanc, Frank Welker

Notes: This cartoon was originally made as an episode of the 80s-era revival of The Jetsons. It would later be released on its own on VHS, and has been shown as its own special on occasion since then (although to date the only place to get it on DVD is part of the Jetsons Season 2 set). It logically casts George Jetson’s boss, Cosmo Spacely (Mel Blanc) in the Scrooge role, with George (George O’Hanlon) taking the Bob Cratchit part. Their dog Astro (Don Messick) fills in for Tiny Tim after he swallows a gear from his Christmas present, which somehow results in him turning green and running a temperature. What can I say, medicine works differently in the future. Hanna-Barbera, of course, also tackled Dickens in A Flintstones Christmas Carol, and at least one other time, in the Scooby-Doo cartoon A Nutcracker Scoob, which so far I’ve been unable to locate on DVD, because clearly somebody at Warner Bros hates joy.

Thoughts: This special is a nice balance between traditional Christmas Carol tropes and the puns and goofs that Hanna-Barbera cartoons do so well. After things kick off with Mr. Spacely forcing George Jetson to work overtime, we lapse into all the main beats – Spacely is visited the ghost of his old partner “Jacob Marsley” (Blanc again) followed by a trio of mechanical ghosts who show him the past, present, and future. The Past and Future are old computers, while Present is a talking gift box. It’s actually my favorite joke in the show, and my wife’s least favorite joke of 2016. Christmas Future takes a nice twist as well – Spacely isn’t dead in the future, just out on the streets after the Jetsons sued him over Astro’s death. As far as changes go, this is the most amusing one – it would be too much for the children’s cartoon to show Spacely’s death, so instead they kill off the dog.

The special adds a little interesting backstory to the characters. In the “Christmas Past” segment, we see that George and Spacely are actually contemporaries, rather than Spacely being George’s senior. What’s more, Spacely has been bullying George and jerking him around financially since they were children. I’m pretty sure this is literally the only time in the history of the cartoon that such a thing is mentioned.

Ultimately, nothing else that happens in the cartoon is terribly surprising. It’s a standard version of A Christmas Carol, mixed in with a standard episode of The Jetsons. If you enjoy either of those things, you’ll like this as well. Fortunately, I do.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Scrooge Revisited Day 2-Henry Winkler in An American Christmas Carol (1979)

american-christmas-carolNote: If you’re new to Reel to Reel, I’m more about dissecting and commenting on film than writing a straightforward review. As such, please be warned, the following is full of spoilers.

Director: Eric Till

Writer: Jerome Coopersmith, based on the novel by Charles Dickens

Cast: Henry Winkler, Dorian Harewood, David Wayne, Chris Wiggins, R.H. Thomson, Ken Pogue, Gerard Parkes, Susan Hogan, Chris Cragg

Notes: This TV movie from 1979 cast the then-34 Henry Winker, riding high on the success of Happy Days, as Scrooge substitute “Benedict Slade.” The film transplants the events of Dickens’s novel from Victorian London to Depression-Era New England, but keeps the most important beats of the timeless tale of a miser faced by ghosts to drive him towards redemption.

As usual, I don’t want to waste time rehashing a well-trod plot, but it’s worth pointing out how the film branches out at the beginning. The first real act of Scroogery comes on Christmas Eve when Slade and his Cratchit stand-in, Thatcher (R.H. Thompson) repossess the property of an African-American farming couple, the Reeves (Dorian Harewood and Arlene Duncan). They then pull the same stunt on the headmaster (Fraggle Rock’s Gerard Parkes) of the very school he once attended, and a university shop that makes the terrible mistake of selling books instead of something profitable. By the time Slade and Thatcher arrive home with a truck full of goods taken back from people who couldn’t pay, you start to feel that Slade may actually have Scrooge beat when it comes to being a jackass. When Thatcher tries to convince him to put money into reopening the town quarry, since Roosevelt has all these plans that will require slate, he thanks him by firing him. Just as Slade destroys a first edition of A Christmas Carol he took from the university shop (this bit, incidentally, made me hate the man as much as any movie villain I’ve ever seen), the visitations from the spirits begin…

Thoughts: From the beginning, Benedict Slade is a different kind of take on Ebenezer Scrooge. For one thing, the makeup job is awful. Winkler, who again was only 34 at the time, is layered under slabs of makeup that don’t serve to make him look old so much as they make him look like he’s late for a Halloween party. (There’s an unintentionally funny bit when he encounters the first ghost and accuses him of being under heavy makeup like “that man who played Frankenstein,” while Ken Pogue is playing a ghost and yet still looks more natural and lifelike than Winkler.) The film spends an inordinate amount of time with Christmas Past, I think, largely so that we can see Winkler’s face without the ridiculous makeup. He does make up for it, I should note, by sporting a bitching mustache.

Bad makeup aside, though, Winkler’s performance is actually pretty good. He’s got a nasty, bitter tone in his voice that fits in with all the Scrooges we’ve loved before, and you definitely get the impression right off that this is a man who keeps rage close to his heart. As we get his backstory, he comes across as a much more rounded Scrooge than many other incarnations – as a young man he seems earnest and sincere. His first steps down a bad path come not out of greed or spite, but because he is trying to look forward for the sake of his business while his mentor (Chris Wiggins) insists on miring himself in the past. Wiggins’s character owns a woodshop, making furniture by hand, and Slade leaves him for the sake of a company that is progressing in the direction of automation and mass production. By the time he does anything that could legitimately been seen as corrupt, he’s already gone quite far down the path of trying to do what he thinks is best for his business – and what’s more, history proved him right.

That goes a long way to selling his redemption – when he approaches Thatcher during the “Christmas Present” segment, asking forgiveness for not knowing that Thatcher’s son was sick when he fired him, you believe his contrite nature. The final scene with the Thatcher family, when Slade hands young Jonathan (Chris Cragg) one ticket after another to get him to the clinic in Australia that can cure whatever it is he’s suffering from, Winkler is nailing it. Even when Mrs. Thatcher hugs him, he pulls off a wonderful little beat where he gets anxious, not used to physical contact after all these years, that fits the character marvelously.

Writer Jerome Coopersmith picked a good time period to set the story – placing in during the Depression makes it easy to show the rich/poor gulf between his version of Scrooge and… well, everybody else. What’s more, it allows him to play a little on racial tensions in a way that Dickens never does. Although the film doesn’t make it explicit, it can’t be a coincidence that the first nasty thing Slade does is to a black family struggling to survive the Great Depression.

The film makes some interesting choices in regards to the ghosts. Rather than trying to make the ghosts creepy or ethereal, Slade is visited by spirits who take the form of the people he screwed earlier in the day. Christmas Past is the bookstore owner (David Wayne) whose copy of A Christmas Carol bit the dust, Christmas Present is Parkes, and Christmas Future is Harewood. I’m honestly not sure what the thought process is here – to give it a bit of Wizard of Oz flair? To make the interaction between Slade and the ghosts more personal, since he personally wounded each of them? Harewood in particular is odd, dressing him up in 70s-era clothes complete with a shirt open to his bellybutton and gold chains. While using “future” radio broadcasts to herald his arrival is an interesting touch, the clothes he wears would be enough to make any reasonable person fight against such a horrific future.

In the end, this is a pretty good iteration of the story. It recontextualizes Dickens in a different time and place in a way that fits the new setting, while still maintaining the spirit of the original. Although it keeps most of the skeleton of the story the same, there’s just enough of a change to the set dressing to make it feel like a different experience. It’s not my favorite version of A Christmas Carol, but it’s not a bad one at all.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Scrooge Revisited Day 1-Walter Matthau in The Stingiest Man in Town (1978)

stingiest-man-in-townNote: If you’re new to Reel to Reel, I’m more about dissecting and commenting on film than writing a straightforward review. As such, please be warned, the following is full of spoilers.

Directors: Jules Bass & Arthur Rankin Jr.

Writers: Romeo Muller & Janice Torre, based on the novel by Charles Dickens

Cast: Walter Matthau, Tom Bosley, Theodore Bikel, Robert Morse, Dennis Day, Paul Frees, Sonny Melendrez, Debra Clinger, Bobby Rolofson, Steffi Calli, Eric Hines, Dee Stratton, Darlene Conley

Notes: Rankin and Bass, of course, were the kings of Christmas animation in the 60s and 70s. They’re the people who gave us the timeless versions of Rudolph and Frosty, several definitive Santa Claus specials, added the Heatmiser and Snowmiser to our holiday menagerie, and so on. It’s no surprise that they would eventually tackle the most famous Christmas story of them all. What is kind of interesting is that this animated special was not quite an adaptation of A Christmas Carol, but rather a remake of a musical TV special of the same name from 1956 starring Basil Rathbone. The live action version apparently made it to DVD in 2011. Great, now I’ve got something else to look for.

Thoughts: From the beginning, this adaptation attempts to put a little coat of fresh paint on an old story, with the story narrated by Tom Bosley as “B.A.H. Humbug,” a character I’m sure children of 1978 took to like kids take to the Pokémons today. He’s largely a superfluous character, though, with some weird family history thing he has with the Scrooges that’s never really developed and you don’t really care. The film is almost operettic, with very little spoken dialogue. Nearly every line is sung, which isn’t a bad thing, except that the cast isn’t necessarily the most musical. Neither Bosley or Walter Matthau, as Scrooge, were Top 40 crooners in their day, and as a result, the songs don’t exactly land. Matthau’s singing in particular is stilted, over-enunciated, the sort of thing that sounds like somebody doing a parody of an over-the-top Broadway performer. That would be fine if this film was intended to be a parody. In a serious adaptation, though, it’s a problem when your Scrooge’s voice is the weakest part of your Christmas Carol. In truth, some of the best singing in the special comes from Robert Morse as young Scrooge in the scene where the miser is rejecting Belle (Shelby Flint).

It doesn’t help that none of them are particularly memorable in their own right. Even when it’s not Matthau singing, the songs just aren’t catchy. The best is probably “There is a Santa Claus,” sung at the Cratchit’s house, which is a nice enough piece if you can forget the fact that this is ostensibly Victorian England, where nobody called him “Santa Claus” and the practice was largely abandoned anyway. This odd version of the story not only throws in a superfluous Santa Claus song, but follows that up with the Humbug singing a song about the Nativity. I’m not about to complain about a Christmas special that actually has the guts to talk about Jesus, but it feels very out of the blue, out of place with the rest of the story. The song tries to make an equivocation between Jesus and Tiny Tim, which is the sort of allegory that probably sounded great on paper, but just doesn’t gel in practice.

When he’s not singing, Matthau is adequate as Scrooge. His voice has emotion laced through it, but it’s a little too obvious, a little too much like he’s “acting” instead of delivering the lines naturally. He’s better at the end of the cartoon, after Scrooge’s redemption, when he’s sounding joyful instead of terrified, although his “happy” singing voice is no less bombastic or forced than his stingy one. Matthau is a bit outshined, as well, by Paul Frees as the Ghosts of Past and Present. Frees was one of the usual players at Rankin and Bass, and responsible for a few of their legendary characters – Jack Frost, the Burgermeister Meisterburger, a few turns as Santa Claus, as well as performing Ludwig Von Drake and other voices for Disney. His Christmas Present in particular is good, a nice, loud, round-sounding voice that’s perfect for the mountainous spirit.

I’ve got to give Rankin and Bass credit, though, for not toning down the story. The story shows Scrooge in his bed being menaced by an apparition before the opening credits even roll, then cuts back to show the traditional visit with Fred (Dennis Day) in the counting house When Scrooge goes home to see Marley’s face in the door knocker, it’s a rather gruesome sight – mouth wide open and dripping, about as grotesque as you can imagine a cartoon from the 70s ever being. I was hoping for something similarly chilling from Christmas Yet to Come, but instead the character essentially made a cameo, appearing in the traditional robe and vanishing in less time than it took to sing the Jesus song.

It’s worth noting that Rankin and Bass’s animation style had evolved considerably from their classic specials. Unlike the earlier traditionally animated films, like Frosty the Snowman or ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, which were more or less on-model with the stop motion characters, the character designs in this film are much closer to their 1977 production of The Hobbit – less perfectly round and more bulbous, globular, and wrinkled. Scrooge himself looks like he would be perfectly as home in their version of Bilbo’s shire.

This, frankly, is not one of their best specials. It’s not terrible, but when you inevitably compare it to Rudolph and Frosty, it’s going to fall in the pack of lesser works. The same goes for when you compare it to other renditions of A Christmas Carol. It may not be as painful as An All Dogs Christmas Carol, but it’s nothing to write home about either.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Coming Monday: Scrooge Revisited

scroogeA few years ago, in a fit of what can only be deemed temporary insanity, I set out and reviewed 20 different interpretations of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol in one month. It was an astonishing feat of fortitude, the sort of thing normally reserved for Olympic-level competition, and when it was over, I was of course universally recognized as a world champion. However, only covering 20 iterations of Scrooge barely scratches the surface of all the near-countless versions that exist in the world of cinema. It would be child’s play to conjure up a list of 20 more takes on Dickens, right?

I am not that stupid.

I am, however, stupid enough to conjure up five more. So this year, on the week before Christmas, I’m going to give the Reel to Reel treatment to five additional Carols, five takes on the story of Ebenezer Scrooge that I didn’t tackle before. Come back Monday and you’ll see my look at the first of them. In the meantime, though, if you want to go back and look at the first 20 versions, I’ve provided handy links below:

  1. Sir Seymour Hicks in Scrooge (1935)
  2. Alastair Sim in A Christmas Carol (1951)
  3. Fredric March in A Christmas Carol (1954)
  4. Quincy Magoo in Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol (1962)
  5. Albert Finney in Scrooge (1970)
  6. Scrooge McDuck in Mickey’s Christmas Carol (1983)
  7. George C. Scott in A Christmas Carol (1984)
  8. Bill Murray in Scrooged (1988)
  9. Michael Caine in The Muppet Christmas Carol (1993)
  10. Fred Flintstone in A Flintstones Christmas Carol (1994)
  11. Carface Carruthers in An All Dogs Christmas Carol (1998)
  12. Sir Patrick Stewart in A Christmas Carol (1999)
  13. Simon Callow in Christmas Carol: The Movie (2001)
  14. Kelsey Grammer in A Christmas Carol: The Musical (2004)
  15. ??? in A Christmas Carol: Scrooge’s Ghostly Tale (2006)
  16. Oscar the Grouch in A Sesame Street Christmas Carol (2006)
  17. Daffy Duck in Bah Humduck! A Looney Tunes Christmas (2006)
  18. Robert Wagner in A Dennis the Menace Christmas (2007)
  19. Jim Carrey in A Christmas Carol (2009)
  20. David Ruprecht in Mister Scrooge to See You (2013)

There, that should keep you occupied for a few days. See you Monday!