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Showcase at the Movies — X-Men: Days of Future Past

X-men Days of Future PastDirector Bryan Singer returns to the X-Men franchise with X-Men: Days of Future Past. With the bar for comic book movies raised in recent years, can Marvel’s Merry Mutants reach the top again? The guys talk spoiler-free for a while, then put up a spoiler wall for those of you who want to stay clean.

At the Movies Episode 43: X-Men: Days of Future Past

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Scrooge Month Day 12: Sir Patrick Stewart in A CHRISTMAS CAROL (1999)

Christmas Carol 1999Director: David Hugh Jones

Writer: Peter Barnes, based on the novel by Charles Dickens

Cast: Patrick Stewart, Richard E. Grant, Joel Grey, Ian McNeice, Saskia Reeves, Desmond Barrit, Bernard Lloyd, Dominic West, Laura Fraser, Ben Tibber, Rosie Wiggins

Notes: In the 90s, Sir Patrick Stewart performed a one-man stage version of A Christmas Carol, which garnered great acclaim for several years. The TNT Network, recognizing a good thing when they see it, then produced this film starring Stewart as Scrooge. Stewart got a Screen Actors Guild nomination for best actor in a television movie or miniseries and both the movie and Stewart were nominated for Saturn Awards, the big prize for science fiction and fantasy. It’s a very straightforward version of the story, with the inclusion several scenes from the novel that many adaptations omit.

Thoughts: Patrick Stewart rarely fails to bring the Awesome, let’s be honest. Even when he’s in a bad movie, he’s typically the bright spot in a miasma of mediocrity, and here I am specifically thinking of X-Men: The Last Stand. So it’s not surprising that in this made-for-TV movie, he puts forth a Scrooge every bit as powerful and definitive as Alastair Sim or Albert Finney.

This film kicks things off with Marley’s funeral, a spot adaptations don’t cover that often, and from the start we see screenwriter Peter Barnes trying to bring in some of the Dickens language into the film. Although there’s no narrator as in the Muppets film, here we have some of the narration dropped properly into the mouths of Scrooge and others – the opening diatribe about why a doornail is considered particularly “dead.” When reading the book, that tangent in the first paragraph of the first page has always felt a bit odd to me. Here, it serves to show the mundane way Scrooge treats the death of his partner and sole friend. Much of the dialogue is verbatim Dickens, and Stewart delivers each line with the power and certainty that always drips from his voice.

In the opening scenes we see that this isn’t a Scrooge that explodes in anger or mocks those foolish enough to entreat him for donations to the poor. Stewart’s Scrooge is rather quiet and subdued. Even when he threatens a caroler with a beating, his voice doesn’t raise above the level of a bitter growl. Even in his quiet moments, though, Stewart is perhaps the most intimidating Scrooge we’ve met yet. So often Scrooge is portrayed as a feeble old man. Here he moves with weight and rage that is almost visible around him

TV or no, this Christmas Carol has some of the most impressive special effects we’ve seen yet. Bernard Lloyd appears as Marley’s ghost: he has a spectral form, his hair constantly shifting as though blown by a breeze that doesn’t affect anything else in the room. At one point his jaw falls open in a rather hideous sight that probably gave the willies to a few kids watching this. On a performance level, this gives us the chance to see Scrooge interacting with that rarest of things for him – an equal. He speaks to Marley with a casual familiarity that we didn’t see as he spoke to Bob Cratchit (Richard E. Grant) or his nephew Fred (Dominic West). Even now, before his redemption has begun, we see that Stewart’s Scrooge is more layered than most of those who came before him.

Joel Grey’s Christmas Past is perhaps my favorite of the human actors to portray the part. He has a light air about him, and constantly stands bathed in light. It’s a twist on the “candle” conceit that many versions go with, and it suits him nicely. He comes across as a little patronizing towards Scrooge, which the old codger sort of deserves at this point in the story. As Scrooge starts to feel the effects of his own past, such as when he sees his sister (Rosie Wiggins), we see the Ghost’s smile change from one of condescension to pride that he’s having the proper influence already.

I haven’t said much about the assorted Fezziwigs in this project, because there’s rarely much to say. He’s the jolly shopkeeper Scrooge apprenticed under, he throws a slammin’ Christmas party every year, but he doesn’t have too much to do. Ian McNeice, however, really steals his scene this time around. The man brings so much joy and energy to the screen that you want to watch a whole special about him. Even his musical number plays the character as a sweet, good-hearted ham, like everybody’s goofy uncle that makes the same lousy jokes at every Christmas dinner, but you love him and you love them and it just wouldn’t feel like Christmas if they were missing. Even Scrooge himself defends the man with a real ferocity when Christmas Past dares to disparage him. Somebody at TNT take note, if McNeice is available and amenable, I want to watch A Very Fezziwig Christmas next year.

Next it’s Desmond Barrit’s turn as Christmas Present, complete with the green robes and holly wreath. Barrit is a more low-key than most Presents. He’s not loud or bombastic, and in fact he seems almost sluggish as he walks around sprinkling his “milk of human kindness” onto the food of the poor. He doesn’t have the judgment of Scrooge in his voice that many people do, but rather a profound sadness. I’ve got to say, much as I like this version of the story, I’m not really keen on Barrit’s ghost.

Christmas Yet to Come here is a shadowed figure with glowing embers for eyes. Of the ghosts in this film, though, it’s also the least convincing. The unaltered, human hands that reach out from beneath the robes to point Scrooge around are somewhat jarring, and only further serve to make you feel like you’re looking at a guy wearing a false head on top of his own like a theme park costume. The other ghosts, including Barrit’s, all have a sufficiently otherworldly (or at least Dickensian) look to them. Christmas Yet to Come looks like something a moderately-skilled cosplayer puts together on his weekend off.

Fortunately, the rest of this sequence is considerably more effective. Scrooge’s pain when he realizes he’s watching the results of his own death comes across perfectly, with Patrick Stewart agonizing over the idea of looking at his own body and asking to see emotion connected to his death. From there we cut to a young couple rejoicing in that they’ll have time to get the money to pay their mortgage now – not exactly what Scrooge had in mind. The scene in the Cratchit home is a real gut-punch, as Bob talks to Tiny Tim’s body, still lying in his bed. It’s rare we actually see the dead child – most adaptations show Bob coming home from the cemetery or visiting the grave. Something about seeing him lying there makes the scene all the more heartbreaking.

The Redeemed Ebenezer Scrooge at the end, like the bitter one at the beginning, is also a little subdued. Stewart doesn’t simply explode out of his bed, but he goes through some really clever ticks – touching his hand to make sure he’s corporeal, choking a bit before he remembers how to laugh and finally spinning into a man wrapped up with joy. Maybe my favorite bit comes when he asks the passing child to go and buy the turkey for Bob Cratchit, he actually has to take a moment to force out his newfound generosity. He’s made the decision to change, but just for a second we get a reminder that old habits die hard. Once he hands over the first few coins to the child, though, it’s like the dam has burst – he gives the man with the turkey extra money for a cab, walks through the streets depositing coins in the cups of beggars, and even engages the children in a snowball fight. He has to push the wall down, but when it’s down by God it stays down. Even then, though, it’s hard for him to knock on Fred’s door, and he almost passes by entirely. He’s willing, but ashamed at his past, and he has to overcome it. Bless ya, Sir Patrick, for making Ebenezer Scrooge a real human.

Although this isn’t the best adaptation of the novel (as I said, the latter two ghosts were really quite weak), most of the performances are pretty good, and Patrick Stewart puts out one of the finest performances as Ebenezer Scrooge I’ve ever seen. It’s worth watching this movie for him alone.

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!

Robin Hood Week Day 5: Cary Elwes in Robin Hood-Men in Tights (1993)

Robin Hood-Men in TightsDirector: Mel Brooks

Writers: J.D. Shapiro, Evan Chandler, Mel Brooks

Cast: Cary Elwes, Richard Lewis, Roger Rees, Amy Yasbeck, Mark Blankfield, Dave Chappelle, Isaac Hayes, Megan Cavanagh, Eric Allan Kramer, Matthew Porretta, Tracey Ullman, Dom DeLuise, Dick Van Patten, Mel Brooks

Plot: With King Richard away in the Crusades, his brother Prince John (Richard Lewis) and the corrupt Sheriff of Rottingham (Roger Rees) have seized power in England. Really… if you guys have been reading these articles all week this should be no surprise by now. In Mel Brooks’s parody of earlier Robin Hood films (most notably the Costner and Flynn versions), we begin in Khalil Prison in Jerusalem, where Robin of Loxley (Cary Elwes) has been taken captive. He meets a Moorish prisoner named Asneeze (Isaac Hayes), imprisoned for jaywalking. Together they free the captives and Asneeze asks Robin to look after his son Ahchoo (Dave Chapelle), an exchange student, when he returns home. Robin agrees and swims from Jerusalem back to England.

Robin finds Ahchoo and rescues him from a band of the Sheriff’s men. They return to Loxley Hall to find it repossessed by the Prince’s accountant, leaving behind only Robin’s old blind servant Blinkin (Mark Bankfield). The Sheriff of Rottingham pursues a boy who killed a deer on the King’s lands, but Robin humiliates him and drives him off. In the palace, Maid Marian (Amy Yasbeck) confides to her servant Broomhilde (Megan Cavanagh) her wish that she could find her one true love: the man with the key to her “heart.” (Also her chastity belt.)

Worried about Robin’s return to England, Prince John turns to his gnarled, witchlike servant, Latrine (Tracey Ullman), who offers to brew a potion to disable Robin. In the forest, Robin meets Little John (Eric Allan Kramer) and Will Scarlett O’Hara (Matthew Porretta), battling over the right to use the bridge over a ludicrously small creek. After besting John and saving his life… sort of… Robin invites the two of them to join his band of Merry Men. Robin barges into one of the Prince’s feasts, charming Marian and antagonizing the Prince and Sheriff before battling free.

Robin’s men stop the wandering Rabbi Tuckman (Mel Brooks), who agrees to join them – along with his stores of Sacramental Wine. As the men “bless” everything in the forest, the Sheriff turns to Don Giovanni (Dom DeLuise), a lord who suggests using an archery contest to trap Robin. Overhearing the plot, Marian and Broomhilde rush to the forest to warn him, arriving just after the show-stopping “Men in Tights” musical number. Robin professes his love to Marian and promises to avoid the contest, a promise he promptly breaks.

The disguised Robin nearly loses to one of Don Giovanni’s men before checking the script for the movie and confirming that he has another shot. With his “Patriot Arrow,” he annihilates the target. He’s captured and almost killed, but Marian promises to marry the Sheriff if he allows Robin to live. Ahchoo saves Robin just before she can say “I do,” and the Prince’s men go to battle with Robin’s. The Sheriff drags Marian away hoping to consummate the marriage, only to be stymied by Marian’s Chastity Belt. Robin and the Sheriff duel, breaking open a medallion from Robin’s father and revealing the key to Marian’s belt. The Sheriff impales himself on Robin’s sword while trying to stab him from behind, and Latrine offers to save him if he’ll marry her. He agrees, and immediately regrets it. Robin and Marian plan a wedding, but are interrupted by the return of King Richard (a cameo by Patrick Stewart), who has his brother arrested and makes Robin a knight. Tuchman finishes the marriage ceremony and Robin and Marian dance away… only to find Robin’s key doesn’t turn in the lock.

Thoughts: Just as the Kevin Costner Robin Hood hit when I was 13 and looking for adventure, this version hit when I was 15 and looking for things to be cynical about. A Mel Brooks comedy was just the thing. And like the Kevin Costner version, I still like this film despite its flaws. Unlike the Costner film, though, I find the flaws in this movie a bit harder to defend.

Brooks is credited with co-writing the screenplay with the two men credited for the story, one of whom never wrote anything else and the other of whom went on to write Battlefield Earth. When you realize just how drastically this film lacks the sharp verbal wit of Brooks’s superior films, the preceding sentence makes a lot more sense. The best Brooks movies (by which I mean Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein) were so great because of how sharp and clever the writing and characters were. This movie doesn’t quite rise to that level, relying more on anachronistic dated references like Ahchoo’s pump sneakers and a kid parodying Macaulay Culkin’s character in Home Alone. Anachronisms in Brooks comedies isn’t new, of course, but compare the impromptu musical numbers and wild finale of Blazing Saddles with Blinkin holding a braille Playboy magazine in this movie and tell me they belong in the same conversation. Other nuggets feel like lame Mad magazine gags (Will Scarlett O’Hara – “We’re from Georgia”), or the “Wide load” sign on the back of Loxley Hall as it’s carted away.

The best bits, in fact, are the ones that harken to Errol Flynn’s The Adventures of Robin Hood, a movie a good 75 percent of this audience never saw. Robin and Little John’s battle at the creek is great – the two of them duel over the right to cross a body of water approximately ten inches wide, their fighting staffs breaking in half over and over until they’re left swatting at each others’ fingers. The battle at the feast is set up much like the fights in Flynn’s movie, with added visual gags which work infinitely better than many of the verbal jokes in the film. The archery contest, similarly, is really funny. Brooks is no stranger to breaking the fourth wall, but having every character stop to check the script to make sure Robin was entitled to another shot… I don’t really know why, but I still chuckle at that.

A great Brooks comedy always has great performances, but this is the only one I can think of where the performances actually save the weak material. Cary Elwes is really great here, only a few years after The Princess Bride and playing a broader version of the swashbuckler from that film. While he does his share of mugging for the camera, he does it with charm and wit. His famous dig at Kevin Costner (“Unlike some other Robin Hoods, I can speak with an English accent”) is the one thing everybody remembers from this movie even 20 years later, and he sells it with real panache. Had he been born sixty years earlier, I think Elwes would have gone down as one of the all time great movie heroes. As it is, he has that one great movie, this lesser movie, and Saw. Wow, it’s depressing when you think of it that way.

Amy Yasbeck isn’t a bad Marian. While not a classic beauty, she has a sweetness to her that feels like it’s been amplified for the sake of the comedy, but remains sincere at heart. Richard Lewis and Roger Rees, similarly, work well in this film. While Lewis would never fit in to a straight version of Robin Hood, he’s perfect as this sort of weasely, incompetent Prince John. Roger Rees, probably best known for his recurring role in Cheers, is the perfect smarmy right-hand man. He’s the enforcer, with a little bit of muscle to back up the Prince’s gutless orders. At the same time, though, he’s a bumbler himself, constantly tripping over his words and never exuding any real menace.

This isn’t the best Robin Hood movie, I concede. And it’s certainly not Brooks’s best movie. But if there’s one thing I think we can all agree on, it’s this: at least it’s not Dracula: Dead and Loving It.

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!