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Scrooge Month Day 19: Jim Carrey in A CHRISTMAS CAROL (2009)

Christmas Carol 2009Director: Robert Zemeckis

Writer: Robert Zemeckis, based on the novel by Charles Dickens

Cast: Jim Carrey, Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Cary Elwes, Robin Wright, Daryl Sabara, Bob Hoskins, Molly Quinn, Fay Masterson, Fionnula Flanagan

Notes: This was the third film from director Robert Zemeckis in which he used his motion capture process to animate in 3D, following The Polar Express and Beowulf and preceding Mars Needs Moms, which flopped so painfully that his animation study was shut down. Although a fairly straightforward retelling of the story, he employs a lot of the motion capture tricks he’d used in previous films, such as using the same actor to play different characters opposite himself or at various ages. Jim Carrey, for example, plays Scrooge at every stage of his life, as well as all three of the Ghosts, using the logic that the ghosts are extensions of Scrooge’s own soul. Okay, I can buy that. Gary Oldman, meanwhile, plays both Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim and – for some reason – Marley, while Robin Wright plays both Scrooge’s sister Fan and the love of his life, Belle, which has some disturbingly Freudian implications.

Thoughts: Once there was a little boy named Robert Zemeckis. Robert made great movies in a far-off land called the 1980s, but as the 21st century began, he fell in love with a pretty girl named “Motion Capture CGI.” They had four children together before they broke up, and of the four, this is probably the best.

Part of it, let’s be honest, is the source material. A Christmas Carol is by far more classic than Zemeickis’s first or last motion capture films, and while Beowulf is a classic in its own right, he took too many liberties with that one (Grendel’s mom is hot? That’s sick.) for it to really rank. Here, though, he takes a legendary tale and gives it a pretty decent polish that makes it worth revisiting at this time of year.

One of the interesting things that Zemeickis pulls off is creating characters recognizable as the actors that play them while still giving them enough of a twist to work as animated figures. Carrey is clearly visible inside Scrooge, but his elongated nose and chin would look silly in real life. Gary Oldman can be squished down to play a short little Bob Cratchit, Colin Firth can be puffed up a bit so Fred looks comfortably plump. Carrey can also be seen in each of the three ghosts. It’s an odd choice, to have him portray the three of them, and I’m not entirely convinced of the point Zemeckis was trying to make, but Carrey’s performances as the ghosts are just fine. Christmas Past is light and airy, Christmas Present is enormous and bombastic. Christmas Yet to Come… well, he’s barely there, and that’s a good thing.

This version is also a good bit scarier than many of them, and at the same time, more in keeping with the original Dickens. Marley’s head wrapping – which was actually a tradition at the time to keep a corpse’s mouth from hanging open – comes loose, and his jaw opens up to a horrific degree. As he howls at Scrooge his mouth rattles around like something out of a zombie movie. Christmas Present doesn’t just age, as he often does, he withers away until there’s nothing left but a skeleton, its teeth chattering with maniacal laughter. Then there’s Christmas Yet to Come, who shows up initially just as a shadow – Scrooge’s shadow, in fact, in a warped and twisted form. We don’t really see much of a physical form for him at all, in fact, which is terribly effective. This is about as scary a version of A Christmas Carol as I’ve ever seen.

The scenes with the three ghosts are pretty by-the-book, but done well. In fact, one of the few times where Zemeckis’s love affair with his computer (more on that later) really works is when Scrooge is facing Christmas Present. Rather than teleporting him to the other locations, as he usually does, he turns the floor in Scrooge’s house transparent and we watch as they “fly” from one place to another. The visuals here – throughout the Christmas Present sequence, really – are absolutely top-notch, and are an example of what Zemeckis can do with his CGI at its best.

There are a lot of good things about this movie, but Robert Zemeckis brings the same problems to this as he did with all of his motion-capture films. First, and most problematic, the characters are largely expressionless. He can make a character move like a human, but he hasn’t mastered the skill of putting feeling into their eyes, which makes them seem somewhat stiff and lifeless. It’s the classic Uncanny Valley problem writ large.

What’s more, Zemeckis was so in love with the technology that he often did things just because it was possible that didn’t really add anything to the story. There’s an extended sequence where Scrooge – for absolutely no reason – is shrunk to the size of a mouse and whips around London. It reminds me of the scene from The Polar Express in which a train ticket is taken by the wind and blown around. It looks good, but ultimately, it’s a meaningless scene that doesn’t go anywhere or do anything. In both instances, I felt like I was watching the film of one of those motion simulator amusement park rides, which is pretty dull when you’re in a stationary seat. Zemeckis does similar things several times throughout the film, to the point where it starts to get actually obnoxious when you sense the first few seconds of the next such sequence.

It’s actually a shame that he never quite got a handle on how best to use this sort of technology, because when it works it works well. But like George Lucas dropping in added effects to the Star Wars special editions, Zemeckis got so excited that he could do certain things that he never stopped to think about whether they should be done. The result is like going to an industrial sawmill to cut a single two-by-four in half. It’ll work, but it’s overkill, and there are much better ways to do the same thing.

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!

Gut Reaction: Dark and Stormy Night (2009)

Dark and Stormy NightDirector: Larry Blamire

Writer: Larry Blamire

Cast: Jim Beaver, Jennifer Blaire, Larry Blamire, Bob Burns, Dan Conroy, Robert Deveau, Bruce French, Betty Garrett, Trish Geiger, Brian Howe, Marvin Kaplan, James Karen, Alison Martin, Fay Masterson, Susan McConnell, Andrew Parks, Kevin Quinn, Mark Redfield, Tom Reese, Daniel Roebuck, Christine Romeo, H.M. Wynant

Plot: After the demise of millionaire Sinas Cavinder, an eccentric group of friends, family, rivals, employees, reporters, total strangers, and a dude in a gorilla costume gather for the reading of his will. When the lawyer is murdered in the midst of the reading, the gathered survivors have to solve the crime, or any one of them could be next.

Thoughts: Have you ever gotten a disc from NetFlix with no memory of the movie or any idea why you put it in your queue, let alone how it got close enough to the front to actually make it to your mailbox? When that happens, you pop the disc in just so it doesn’t feel like a waste before you send it back, usually disappointing you in the process. But every so often, you get a movie that delights you so much you wish you could go back in time, figure out who clued you in on the film in the first place, and thank them.

Larry Blamire’s micro-budget motion picture Dark and Stormy Night is exactly this kind of movie. This black-and-white buffet of assorted cheeses is a loving tribute and send-up of old-fashioned murder mysteries, mixing together parts of Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and Clue with the sort of killers and freaks that made for the richest mocking in the glory days of Mystery Science Theater 3000. Every actor, without exception, delivers their lines with an excess of camp and self-awareness, gleefully hamming up preposterous dialogue and overreacting to the most simple of situations. It’s as if somebody is deliberately putting on the most melodramatic dinner theater production ever made, and that’s what makes it glorious.

The show-stealers here are Daniel Roebuck and Jennifer Blair as competing reporters 8 O’Clock Farraday and Billy Tuesday, respectively. The two of them bounce off each other with energy and vigor, chewing through Python-esque logical leaps that eat up one noir cliché after another. Dan Conroy is funny as hell as hapless cab driver Happy Codburn, who only got drawn into the whole mess because Farraday stiffed him out of 35 cents. Jim Beaver’s Jack Tugdon brings in a sort of faux intensity to the proceedings, pulling in a taste of The Most Dangerous Game with his humorless (and, by result, hysterical) delivery of such lines as “I went to bed… once.”

Blamire drops in plenty of tired clichés and runs with them – Alison Martin as the terrible psychic Mrs. Cupcupboard, who has the audacity to announce “I sense death” while standing over a fresh corpse. The staff includes a butler (Bruce French) who seems to have some skeletons in his closet and a chef (Robert Deveau) who wields his meat cleaver in a particularly disturbing way, spouting out lines that feel like Norman Bates talking to Mother. Blamire even gets into the act himself, playing a stranger whose “car broke down” outside, then immediately asks if he can stay for the reading of the will, which nobody has mentioned to him yet.

As funny as the performances are, it’s Blamire’s script that makes this work. His lines go from painful puns to razor-sharp wordplay without missing a beat, and he takes great joy in using every cliché you can imagine for this sort of “trapped in the mansion” mystery, then deconstructing the hell out of it. I admit I was a little shaky about the film for the first few minutes, when we saw an obvious model car driving up to an obvious model mansion. But when the lights go off and the guests all panic until the frustrated maid (Trish Geiger) turns the switch back on and shows her exasperation when the idiotic guests behave as if she’s performed some sort of miracle, I found myself buying in entirely.

Most importantly, you really get the sense that the cast is having fun. None of them are making a fortune performing in a film released by the Shout! Factory, but all of them take what they’re given and run with it. Half the time when you go to the movies these days you get a film with a blockbuster budget and a bunch of actors walking through their parts, taking the paycheck, clearly having no passion for what they’re doing. Dark and Stormy Night is the opposite of that in every way, and it’s glorious because of it.

Looking up info about this movie for the sake of this review, I notice that Blamire has two other films with most of this same cast, The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra and The Lost Skeleton Returns Again. Both of those are going to the front of my NetFlix queue right away. And this time, I’ll remember how they got there.

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!