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Scrooge Month Day 13: Simon Callow in CHRISTMAS CAROL: THE MOVIE (2001)

Christmas Carol The Movie 2001Director: Jimmy T. Murakami

Writer: Piet Kroon, Robert Llewellyn, based on A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

Cast: Simon Callow, Kate Winslet, Nicolas Cage, Jane Horrocks, Michael Gambon, Rhys Ifans, Juliet Stevenson, Robert Llewellyn, Iain Jones, Colin McFarlane, Beth Winslet, Arthur Cox, Keith Wickham

Notes: This film, produced by the British Pathé Films and released on DVD by MGM in the United States, is among one of the more critically-reviled versions of the story. Despite an all-star voice cast, including Nicolas Cage, Jane Horrocks, Michael Gambon and Kate Winslet (who also sang the film’s theme “What If?”), it got lousy reviews in its theatrical release overseas and was largely ignored in America. But you know, you’ve gotta give the filmmakers credit for having the audacity to give this production the title Christmas Carol: The Movie, as if all the dozens of other versions that came beforehand weren’t actually movies at all, but rather live performances, interpretive dances, brands of licensed underwear or dried fruit snacks… anything but “a movie.” Really.

Thoughts: Although some releases of this movie feature a live-action bookend with Simon Callow as Dickens reading his book to a group of children, the DVD release I have cuts straight to the animation, which looks like it was done by a better-than-average Flash artist. (Which is to say: it’s still pretty bad.) But rather than starting with Scrooge or Marley or… y’know… anything recognizable, things kick off with Dr. Lambert (Arthur Cox) being arrested for his debts and leaving his wards – an entire hospital of what I have to assume are orphans – without any hope, as Lambert’s debt has been transferred to the offices of Scrooge & Marley.

As it turns out, the woman left in charge of the orphans (Kate Winslet) is Belle, an old acquaintance of Ebenezer Scrooge (Simon Callow again). She writes a personal letter pleading for mercy, which she delivers to an uncharacteristically unsympathetic Bob Cratchit (Rhys Ifans). It takes almost 15 minutes (in a movie that lasts 77) before we get to something that resembles the Dickens novel, as Fred (Iain Jones) shows up to beg his uncle to come to Christmas Dinner. The Fred design here is awful – ragged and wearing a thin cap, looking more like a waif out of Oliver Twist than Scrooge’s fairly well-off nephew.

Then we watch mice play in a bucket. Why are we watching mice play in a bucket?

I have no flippin’ clue what Kroon and Llewellyn were trying to do with this script. If I didn’t know this was a British production, I would think this was the result of Hollywood filmmaking-by-committee. Some yutz in a boardroom says he doesn’t get the story or he thinks it needs more of a hook so the audience can relate to the characters or some other stupid comment that makes you think he knows better than Charles Dickens how to tell this story, and the next thing we know we’ve got an entire hospital full of kids about to freeze to death and a couple of mice sidekicks. Then, just to make Scrooge a little more evil and to make the stakes in the story a little more personal, Scrooge dumps the bucket of water out the window right on Tiny Tim’s head, in the freezing cold. You can probably guess where this is going.

Nicolas Cage plays Marley’s Ghost, which is a bizarre choice. You cast Nicolas Cage in a movie for one reason and one reason only: so that everybody knows you cast Nicolas Cage. But the reading he gives Marley’s lines doesn’t even sound like Nicolas Cage, and by that I don’t mean that it’s not wild or crazy like many of his roles are, I mean it literally sounds like somebody else performed the voice. If I wasn’t staring at the IMDB page I wouldn’t have thought it was –

–why in the hell are the charity workers showing up after Marley’s ghost? Scrooge’s redemption was supposed to have already begun, having him denying Marley at this point is just stupid. Before everything could be chalked up to Scrooge’s greed, but once he’s already been told he has to change and he keeps rambling on about decreasing the surplus population, he just starts to sounds like an idiot.

And why are the mice riding in his pocket? Dear God, they’re going to subject us to those things for the entire movie, aren’t they?

Anyway, off to the Cratchit house, where Tim (who doesn’t appear to be crippled in this version) is exhibiting the Cough of Death, no doubt because Scrooge himself doused the kid with water, because it wasn’t enough that he was just neglectful. Nope, he had to actively murder the child. We’re 26 minutes in and I hate everyone involved with this movie.

Back in his room, the same Ebenezer Scrooge that just fatally soaked a little boy and callously refused to give money to the poor finds the mice in his pocket and cheerfully agrees to share his gruel with them, because the writers of this movie tore the page of their dictionary with “characterization” on it out when they ran out of toilet paper one day. Just as he’s nodding off, Jane Horrocks shows up as a Candle-like Christmas Past that fluctuates inexplicably between a child and a ghoulish old woman. We go from there to Schoolhouse Scrooge on the day his sister picked him up from school and introduces him to her best friend: Belle! Because nobody would believe it if he met her at Fezziwig’s like in every other version of the story.

I feel like I need to say something here: I’m not opposed to minor changes in the story in principle. If there were no changes from one version to another it would be sheer lunacy to even make another one. But I do insist that those changes make sense or bring something to the story that other versions do not. Having Scrooge meet Belle as a child doesn’t change anything. Having her present to watch his father dress him down doesn’t improve the story. The subplot with the hospital is utterly superfluous to the point Dickens was making about a man’s redemption – if anything it weakens it, because instead of doing good for the sake of goodness, now we have to wonder if Scrooge’s later good deeds all come as a result of him feeling guilty over how he treated Belle or, even worse, holding hopes of some sort of reconciliation with her.

And the damn mice. Add. Nothing.

And before we leave the past we see the reading of Scrooge’s father’s will, where he gives everything to Scrooge and leaves a pregnant Fan out in the cold and about to die, which Scrooge is perfectly happy to allow to happen. Then, in a move that would make Sheldon Cooper proud, he presents Belle with a “marriage contract” before she walks out on him. This movie strives to make Scrooge and everyone in his world as miserable and heartless as possible, except for when it comes to giving mice food. But by the time Christmas Present shows up we don’t even want Scrooge to be redeemed anymore, we want him to die of typhoid and get buried at the bottom of the river.

Michael Gambon is our Christmas Present, and he at least feels true to the character, showing Scrooge his feast and talking about giving it out in the spirit of love. Unfortunately, the filmmakers choose to waste our time showing us the mice eating a pie instead of focusing on the ghost. He flies around, showing off people making merry in a sequence that looks hand-drawn in a way that would actually be kind of charming if the rest of the animation was adequate and therefore serving as a real contrast.

Christmas Yet to Come is a similarly poorly-animated apparition, waving his arms around at a rate of four seconds per frame to show Scrooge the aftermath of Tim’s death (which, in case we forgot, Mrs. Cratchit directly attributes to him). Marley shows up to tell Scrooge he’s dead, then he wakes up alive. Ebenezer Scrooge has been redeemed, but as someone forced to watch Christmas Carol: The Movie, I have officially lost all hope.

Anyway, because the screenwriters added a completely useless subplot, as the redeemed Scrooge walks around town, Belle weeps over her empty hospital. Scrooge takes the blood money he got for foreclosing on the place and gives it to a homeless guy, because lord knows Belle couldn’t use it at this point, and then starts wandering the city aimlessly. When he gets home, Belle shows up and chews him out for closing the place down. He begs forgiveness from her and she tells him it’s not too late, which of course begs the question of why she was just dressing him down instead of asking him for help. Dr. Lambert is let out of prison and sent to treat Tiny Tim, Bob Cratchit gets his raise, the damn mice ride around on Scrooge’s shoulder and I resist the urge to club a puppy over the head. The end.

The good news is that, thanks to this film, An All Dogs Christmas Carol only had to keep the title of “worst adaptation” for a mere three years. The bad news is that this version even exists. I used to think the worst thing a version of A Christmas Carol could be was forgettable. Now I’m afraid I’m going to remember this one because of how stupidly bad it actually is.

Also, buy mouse traps.

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!

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Batman Week Day 5: Christian Bale in The Dark Knight (2008)

??Director: Christopher Nolan

Writers: Jonathan Nolan, Christopher Nolan, David S. Goyer

Cast: Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Aaron Eckhart, Michael Caine, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, Monique Gabriela Curnen, Chin Han, Cillian Murphy, Nestor Carbonell, Eric Roberts, Anthony Michael Hall, Colin McFarlane, Michael Jai White, Joshua Harto

Plot: A group of men wearing clown masks break into and rob a bank in Gotham City, each of them killing another according to their mysterious plan. The last of them, a scarred man in makeup called the Joker (Heath Ledger) boards a school bus full of cash and rides away.

Dr. Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy), a Scarecrow-masked villain who escaped Batman before, plans an operation in a parking garage, only to be interrupted by several men wearing Batman masks and sporting guns. As a shootout begins, the real Batman (Christian Bale) arrives, taking out criminals and fake Batmen alike. He warns the pretenders to leave the crimefighting to him.

Wayne and his butler, Alfred (Michael Caine) meet in a secret bunker they’ve been using since the destruction of Wayne Manor. They discuss the new District Attorney, Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), who is prosecuting gangster Salvadore Maroni (Eric Roberts). Dent celebrates his progress with his girlfriend — and Bruce Wayne’s ex — Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal), before meeting up with Lt. James Gordon (Gary Oldman), asking him to arrange a meeting with the Batman. That evening, Bruce has dinner with Rachel and Dent. Impressed by the new DA, Bruce offers to hold a fundraiser for him with friends that will fill his coffers for life. Meanwhile, the Joker interrupts a teleconference between a Chinese businessman named Lau (Chin Han) and the rest of the Gotham underworld. The Joker says they need to eliminate Batman – a task he’s happy to perform for a mere half of their bounty.

Batman meets Dent and Gordon, and the three of them make a pact – if Batman can bring them Lau, they’ll use him to bring down the rest. Bruce makes a visit to Wayne executive Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), who is secretly supplying him with impressive technology. He sneaks off to Hong Kong, where Lucius plants a sonar-like device that allows Batman to track Lau and bring him to Gotham. Dent, Gordon and Rachel interrogate Lau, making a deal that will allows Gordon and the GCPD make over 500 arrests in the next few days. The mayor (Nestor Carbonell) is upset at Dent for overloading the system until Dent points out that, although many of the top criminals will soon be out of jail, most of the lower-level hoods will be tied up for months, giving them the time needed to clean the streets. Their meeting is interrupted by the body of one of the false Batmen, lynched and painted to look like the Joker, dropped from the roof. The news shows a video of the victim being tortured by the Joker, who demands Batman unmask and turn himself in or the killings will continue.

That night is Dent’s fundraiser, where Bruce gives him a ringing endorsement. Rachel is angry at him, thinking he was mocking Dent, but Bruce swears he meant every word. He sees Dent as the man who can create a Gotham that will no longer need a Batman, at which point he and Rachel can be free to be together. Minutes later, she and Dent are alone, and he proposes to her, but she has no answer.  As the party continues, the Joker kills the police commissioner and the judge who indicted Dent’s 500 crooks, then comes after Dent. Bruce knocks Dent out and hides him, then faces the Joker as Batman, just barely saving Rachel. A newspaper at a subsequent crime scene indicates who the Joker’s next target will be: the mayor.

Lucius is approached by a Wayne employee named Reese (Joshua Harto) who is investigating the tech Lucius has funneled towards Bruce. Lucius laughs at the notion of blackmailing a man who spends his evenings beating criminals within an inch of their life. At a memorial service for the slain commissioner, the Joker attacks again. Gordon saves the mayor, but is shot himself. Dent takes away one of the hoods working for the Joker, finding a hint that Rachel is next. Batman brutalizes Maroni, but Maroni refuses to talk, being more afraid of the Joker than the Bat. Dent, meanwhile, has the gunman tied up and starts flipping a coin to determine if he’ll shoot the man or not. Batman arrives, telling Dent he has to remain pure, the symbol of hope Gotham needs. He tells Dent to hold a press conference in the morning, where he’ll give himself up. Before he can do so, though, Dent claims to be the Batman himself and is taken away.

Rachel gives Alfred a letter to pass on to Bruce “when the time is right,” then goes to see Dent in jail, where he’s being transferred to another facility. He gives her his coin, revealing it’s two-headed, and that he always “makes his own luck.” In transit, the Joker attacks. After a spectacular chase and battle sequence, the Joker has Batman on his back and is about to remove his mask, but is taken down from behind by a cop: Jim Gordon, very much alive. When they return to the police station with the Joker, triumphant, the Mayor announces Gordon’s promotion to police commissioner.

The joy is short-lived, however, when Dent goes missing. Batman interrogates the Joker, who tells him Dent is in a warehouse full of explosives, and Rachel is in a second one. Batman rushes to save Rachel, while Gordon goes after Dent. In the chaos, the Joker escapes. Rachel, who has an open phone line to Dent, tells him she will marry him. Batman discovers the Joker lied – he’s gone after Dent, not Rachel. The bombs go off and half of Dent’s face is terribly scarred. In the other warehouse, Rachel is killed. Batman finds Dent’s two-headed coin in the wreckage, one side blackened and charred. He returns it to Dent and goes home, where Alfred hides Rachel’s letter (revealing her intention to marry Dent), allowing him to believe Rachel was going to wait for him.

Reese goes on television with the intention of announcing the secret he’s found: the true identity of the Batman. The Joker calls the TV studio and says he’s changed his mind about Batman’s identity being revealed, so he issues an ultimatum: if Reese is still alive in 60 minutes, he’ll blow up a hospital. The Joker sneaks into Dent’s hospital room, preaching to him a gospel of chaos, and Dent decides to leave things to chance. He’ll flip his coin – clean side, the Joker lives, burned side, he dies. Moments later the Joker walks away, blowing up the hospital behind him. Dent is missing again.

The Joker announces that anyone left in Gotham will be playing by “his rules” by nightfall, and that people using the bridges and tunnels are in for a surprise. As people cram onto ferries to escape, Dent begins going after the criminals and corrupt cops tied in to Rachel’s death, flipping his coin to decide who’ll live and die each time. Lucius discovers Bruce has adapted his sonar device to allow him to use every cell phone in Gotham as a tracker. He’s disturbed at the invasion of privacy and agrees to help Batman find the Joker, but this will end their partnership. Batman tells him to type his name into the device when he’s finished.

The Joker incapacitates two ferries: one full of citizens, one full of criminals being transported by the police, each loaded with bombs. He’s also given each ferry a device he claims will detonate the bomb on the other ferry. If one of the boats hasn’t exploded by midnight, he’ll blow them both up. On the civilian ferry, the passengers vote to blow up the criminals, but nobody can bring themselves to do it. One of the convicts, meanwhile, takes the detonator from the guard and throws it overboard. Lucius tracks the Joker down and Batman chases after him, but another trick forces Batman to fight the police to get to him. Although defeated, the Joker is in high spirits, anticipating a long future of playing his game with the Batman.

Dent has kidnapped Gordon’s wife and children and brought them to the site where Rachel died. As Batman and Gordon confront him, Dent asks why – of the three of them – he was the only one who had to pay the price for their quest to save Gotham. He nearly kills James Jr., but Batman saves him, Dent dying in the process. He and Gordon agree to allow Gotham City to think Batman is responsible for Dent’s rampage, believing the myth of Harvey Dent to be more important to the city than the truth. When Lucius types his name into the sonar device, it self-destructs, proving to him that he had Bruce’s faith all along. Batman goes into hiding, allowing the city to make him the villain so it could have the hero it deserves, with only the Gordons knowing the truth about the Dark Knight.

Thoughts: The nature of this project being what it is, I could only allow myself to pick one of the three films from Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight Trilogy.” Rather than the first or last, I decided to go with the best film of the three, perhaps one of the best superhero movies ever made. But again, as I discuss it, expect spoilers for the whole series, because this is really here as an excuse for me to discuss the franchise as a whole.

Batman BeginsThis being the Batman Icons project, let’s start with Christian Bale himself. When Bale and Nolan came onto the franchise in 2005’s Batman Begins, they had the unenviable task of making up for the mess the Burton franchise became after the dreaded Joel Schumaker took it over. (I spent the better part of a decade firmly believing that Batman and Robin was not merely the worst of the franchise, but perhaps the worst superhero movie ever made. To this day, I struggle internally to decide whether or not Halle Berry’s Catwoman actually took that top spot away.)

The world Nolan created and Bale inhabited is as close to perfect as a live-action Batman has ever been. They tried to make it as realistic as possible, dropping any element of fantasy the previous versions used and making the technology as plausible as they could. All three of the films in the trilogy have at least one piece of tech that seems to fit firmly in the realm of science fiction, but none of them are as out of the blue as so many of the toys the Burton films conjured up.  More importantly, the story and performances have a ring of truth, of authenticity to them that no previous version managed to capture. Although this is a superhero movie, structurally speaking it’s much more like a classic crime drama, a tale of steadfast police trying to take down the scum that have torn their city down. Nolan’s Batman universe has far more in common with The Untouchables than it does with the world of Adam West.

Bale is a pitch-perfect Bruce Wayne, able to put on the flaky playboy image in front of everybody but Alfred and Rachel, and becoming a determined warrior as soon as he’s in a safe place. He’s gotten some flak from people about the gruff voice he puts on as Batman, and yes, it’s somewhat exaggerated, but it’s never bothered me. The comics have often pointed out that Bruce alters his voice when he puts on the mask, and an abrasive tone is just fine. And honestly, if that’s the biggest complaint you can conjure up for Christian Bale’s performance, that still places him light-years ahead of, say, Val Kilmer. (I didn’t discuss Kilmer’s Batman Forever in this project, but in short, he gave us a Batman that’s short and flippant and a Bruce Wayne that was dark and brooding, exactly the opposite of every sane or logical comportment the character has ever had.)

Another reason I had to pick this film instead of the other two is because of the villains – the best two of the franchise and proof that it is, in fact, possible to make a superhero movie with multiple villains that doesn’t fall apart under its own weight. Heath Ledger’s Joker has become truly iconic, and probably would have done so even if he had not died before the film was released. This version of the character is nearly impossible to qualify, especially compared to earlier versions. He uses the veneer of madness that we expect from the Joker, but in his behavior he comes across more like a complete nihilist, a man dedicated to anarchy because of his philosophy rather than because he’s simply crazy. The Nolans and Goyer, crafting the story, picked up on the best parts of the character from the comics, particularly Alan Moore’s notion from Batman: The Killing Joke.  Here, they dismiss efforts to give the character a true “origin,” for the Joker says if he has to have a past, he wants it to be multiple choice. As a nod to that, each time the Joker talks about how he got his scars in this movie, he tells a different tale. That lingering question mark, leaving his past open instead of filling in every blank like Burton did, makes him all the more menacing. He’s the most terrifying vision of the character ever brought to screen, perhaps the most terrifying vision ever. Romero was goofy. Nicholson was dangerous, but still amusing. There’s nothing funny about this Joker, he’s a creature of terror.

As perfect as Heath Ledger’s Joker is, though, I think Aaron Eckhart is often overlooked as Harvey Dent. Everybody who went to this movie went in to see Batman and the Joker, but it’s Dent that’s the Shakespearian figure, the tragic hero that falls to the darkness. When we first meet Dent we see someone proud, idealistic, and determined to do good at any cost. Throughout the film his armor is chipped away – first by Rachel’s refusal of his proposal, next by the threat on her life, then a piece at a time until her death and his disfigurement. At that point his plunge over the abyss, his embracing of the Joker’s doctrine of chaos, seems utterly plausible. We weep in this movie for Harvey Dent, we bleed for the hero that Gotham needed, but that lived long enough to become the villain. Eckhart sells every minute of this transformation. Ledger got a posthumous Oscar for playing the Joker (a concession I still maintain was only given to him because he died – I simply can’t believe the turgid Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences would have awarded a “comic book movie” if the actor was still alive), but I think Aaron Eckhart was every bit as deserving of a nomination.

Next, let’s look at Gary Oldman as Commissioner James Gordon, and I apologize if the comic nerd in me becomes even more pronounced here than it usually is. Most of the Batman characters allow for different interpretations, but the version of Gordon dearest to me is that of the one good cop in a sea of corruption, struggling to right the ship. He’s one of the greatest supporting characters in comic books precisely because of this, and he’s the one character that none of the live-action versions ever got right. The 1966 Gordon was inept. The Burton Gordon started out okay, but never impressive, and spiraled down into a clown by the time Schumaker was done with him. Goldman, though, was magnificent throughout three movies. It’s Batman’s series, but Gordon here is a true hero in his own right, and I would have been just as happy watching him as the star. When he was shot in this movie, I didn’t really believe he was dead (although I knew I couldn’t discount it, as Nolan had proven himself willing to toy with the mythology of the franchise). Despite that, when he revealed himself, taking down the Joker, I jumped out of my seat and cheered right there in the movie theater. (My fiancé, Erin, still laughs about that.)

DarkKnightRisesPosterThe third film in this trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises, has caused a bit of a division between fans. Although I don’t want to spent too much time talking about that movie right now there’s one point of contention I want to address, because I believe The Dark Knight sets it up very well. At the end of that film (and c’mon, spoiler warnings if I really need to say it), Bruce fakes his death and passes on the responsibility of protecting Gotham to a good cop, John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). This upset a lot of comic readers I know who argue that Bruce Wayne would never quit, never retire, because it simply goes against his character. And if we’re talking about the character in the comic books, I agree. But as I’ve been saying all week, Batman is a character that allows for many interpretations, and to me, The Dark Knight justifies the retirement of this incarnation of Batman. Several times in this movie, Batman clearly expresses a desire to quit. He latches on to Harvey Dent because he sees in him a man who can create a Gotham that doesn’t need a Batman. He wants to give it up and be with Rachel, but he doesn’t feel like he’s earned it and refuses to leave Gotham without a hero. Although Rachel is dead in the third film, he manages to find happiness with Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) and a hero to take over for him. Even in the first movie, Batman Begins, the groundwork was laid when Bruce indicates to Rachel that they can’t be together as long as Gotham needs Batman, as well as in an early conversation with Alfred where he makes it clear that he needs to be a symbol rather than a human being. If your version of Batman doesn’t allow for that, I can respect that. That’s pretty much how I feel about the 1966 version, after all. But I think it’s perfectly consistent with the world that Nolan created.

But this discussion is supposed to be about The Dark Knight, and I think it is The Dark Knight that is the Batman masterpiece. Warner Bros is already talking about restarting the franchise with a new Batman, as Nolan’s story is done, and I guess I’m okay with that. He’s been rebooted before, after all. But I can’t help but wish they’d wait a little bit longer, let this trilogy completely digest and fade a little bit before moving on to something new, because anything they try to do next will inevitably be compared to Christopher Nolan, Christian Bale, and Heath Ledger. And unless they pull off a feat of storytelling virtually unheard of in filmgoing circles, almost any movie that invites an immediate comparison to The Dark Knight will inevitably be left wanting.

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!