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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 Reactions: Kick-Ass 2 (2013)

Kick-Ass 2Director: Jeff Wadlow

Writer: Jeff Wadlow, based on the comic book series by Mark Millar & John Romita Jr.

Cast: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Chloe Grace Mortez, Morris Chestnut, Claudia Lee, Clark Duke, Augustus Prew, Donald Faison, Steven Mackintosh, Monica Dolan, Garrett M. Brown, Lyndsy Fonseca, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Yancy Butler, John Leguizamo, Jim Carrey, Robert Emms, Lindy Booth

Plot: It’s been two years since the events of the first Kick-Ass, and both Dave Lizewski (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Mindy Macready (Chloe Grace Mortez)  have remained retired from action as the “real world” superheroes Kick-Ass and Hit-Girl. When Dave starts to feel restless but is unable to convince Mindy to get back into action, he finds a new team of citizens eager to fight to take back the streets. Meanwhile the former Red Mist (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) finds himself with the freedom to take action against Kick-Ass for killing his mob boss father with a plan that could plunge the entire city into all-out war.

Thoughts: As big a geek as I am, I’ve never actually read any of the comic books the two Kick-Ass movies have been based on. I’m not a fan of the writer, Mark Millar, who I feel often goes for shock value at the expense of real emotion and discards characterization at a whim. Despite this, I liked the first Kick-Ass and wasn’t surprised that I thought the sequel wasn’t bad at all.

With news stories about “real world” superheroes like Seattle’s Phoenix Jones becoming more prevalent in the news, this story hits a nice chord that examines the philosophy of a person who would choose to put on a costume and try to beat up gang bangers at night. This time around, with Nicolas Cage’s “Big Daddy” character out of the picture, the relationship between Dave and Mindy becomes the center of the film. The two of them both shift back and forth between craving the life of a hero and trying to reject it at various points. What’s more, it’s easy to understand and even sympathize with both points of view – on the one hand, it’s a remarkably dangerous and (frankly) stupid lifestyle. On the other hand, when confronted with evil, how can a decent person simply choose to do nothing?

Interestingly, the most press I’ve seen about this movie in the last few months seems to have come from the fact that Jim Carrey, who plays “Colonel Stars and Stripes,” has chosen not to promote the film. Carrey says that the events at Sandy Hook Elementary last winter (which happened after filming was complete) affected him deeply and he cannot, in good conscience, promote violence. While I don’t take issue with him choosing a pacifist lifestyle, I have to wonder if he actually paid attention to the movie while he was making it. Kick-Ass 2 in no way promotes a violent lifestyle. While there is a lot of comedy in the film, and while some of the fight scenes are somewhat exaggerated, that’s not the same thing as saying they’re glamorized. The film clearly shows the consequences of violence in general and the lifestyle that Dave has chosen in particular, and neither of these are things that any sane person would willingly accept. In this movie, as in the first one, choosing a life of violence hurts, both physically and spiritually.

Which is not to say there isn’t fun. Mintz-Plasse’s character, embarking on a quest to become the world’s first real super-villain, is pretty laughable for most of the film. Even once it gets dark, when he starts to recruit real muscle to back up his threats, he’s still a caricature of every stupid, overblown villain cliché you can imagine. He’s a point of ridicule, a pathetic character, and would be pitiable if he didn’t pull off a few legitimately evil acts in the film. (It’s also worth noting that the film scales back on the comic book, dropping the most evil act he commits as apparently being too much to put on screen. I haven’t read the comic, as I said, so I can’t judge how well it worked there, but I do think it would have been too much on the screen.)

With so many superhero movies these days, it’s nice to see one that brings the action down to a (mostly) human level, that doesn’t treat average citizens as cannon fodder, and that shows that being a hero can hurt. There are two other comics in this series (a Hit-Girl spinoff and the currently in-progress Kick-Ass 3), and I’d be anxious to see both of those make it to the screen too. If not, I may actually have to break down and read the comics to see how the saga of Dave Lizewski finally ends.

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!