Down From the Shelf ~ Scrooge (1970)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A musical retelling of Charles Dickens’ classic novel about an old bitter miser taken on a journey of self-redemption, courtesy of several mysterious Christmas apparitions.

Stars: Albert Finney, Alec Guinness, Edith Evans, Kenneth More, Laurence Naismith, Michael Medwin, David Collings, Anton Rodgers, Suzanne Neve, Frances Cuka

Director: Ronald Neame

Rated: G

Running Length: 113 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: Asking someone what their favorite Christmas (or holiday adjacent) film is a risky endeavor because it can often draw some distinct lines in the sand between friends.  Are you a Love, Actually fan or do you gravitate more toward The Holiday?  Would you choose National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation over Home Alone? What if you had to decide between It’s a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street? Then there’s the all-important question of them all…is Die Hard a Christmas film or is it just a convenient holiday the action revolves around? 

Myself, I’m hard to pin down on any of the questions above (except for Die Hard, which I DO believe is a Christmas movie, and the sequel is absolutely not) but there is one thing that happens every year…a version of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens must be watched and there’s no compromise on that.  You could go classic (1951’s much loved telling with Alastair Sim), animated (Christmas Carol: The Movie from 2001 is underseen but is better than you’d think and has Kate Winslet singing!), Muppet-ed (1992’s The Muppet Christmas Carol), modern (1988’s Scrooged), or revamped (Ebbie, the 1995 TV movie with Susan Lucci as a female Scrooge) but it’s got to be recognizably Dickens.

The one I find myself drawn to more than any is 1970’s Scrooge, a musical version adapted by Leslie Bricusse who also wrote the music and lyrics to a dozen songs plus the score.  Not only is it remarkably faithful to the original story by Dickens, but the lavish production also has some of the best performances that set a high bar for any future interpretation you’ll see.  Aside from a few outdoor shots set in the springtime (a quibble I’ll pick on later), the entirety of the movie was shot inside studios lots on massive Victorian-style sets that are convincing in their size and scale.

Like my recent review of The Tragedy of Macbeth, I’m not going to simply assume everyone knows the story of A Christmas Carol and provide a brief refresher if you’re new or if it’s been a while.

Miserly Ebenezer Scrooge sees the pending Christmas holiday as little more than a nuisance to endure while giving his one employee, Bob Cratchit, the day off to spend with his humble family and sicky son, Tiny Tim.  A curmudgeonly skinflint, Scrooge loans money to townspeople and then charges rates of interest too high for them to pay back, eventually either seizing their property or using their pending debt to extricate services (or maybe just simple human interaction?) from them.

On Christmas Eve, seven years to the day after his business partner Jacob Marley died, Scrooge is visited by Marley’s Ghost, a chained and pained specter who tells Scrooge his fate will be just like his…but worse.  A visit from three ghosts has been set and Scrooge will need to pay heed to the information they provide if he has any hope of fixing his future.  Looking into the past, present, and future with the trio of phantoms, Scrooge is given the opportunity to see himself as he was and how he’s thought of now when no one knows he’s there.  At the same time, Scrooge learns more about himself and his own wrong choices that could be made right…if given the chance.

I have a long history with A Christmas Carol, having acted it in onstage professionally on and off for nearly a decade and seeing it as an audience member in theaters across the country so I feel as if I’m a good judge of how the story can be told well and where it can falter.  It needs to begin with a certain bit of dark turmoil, an uncomfortable place many American companies and productions don’t like to operate in, before it can achieve a transformation in its central character.  That’s why the British-made Scrooge works as such a bright representation of the story, because it understands these beats and hits them with just enough force for the audience to register the necessary emotional intent.

The performances and music do a great deal of help with that as well.  As the title character, the late Albert Finney (Skyfall) is fairly magnificent and not just because he was 34 years old and more than believably playing a man in his 60s.  Finney also plays Scrooge when he’s younger during the always lengthy Ghost of Christmas Past section.  There’s a bit of strangeness in this telling when older Scrooge is watching a younger Scrooge who in turn is having a memory of another time when it is summer – so the film gets away with some snow-free and sunny outdoor location filming…sneaky!  Personally, I always like the Ghost of Christmas Past the way Dame Edith Evans plays it, with a bit of a hard school marm snap to show Scrooge who is boss right off the bat.  It’s in nice contrast to Kenneth Moore’s gregarious Christmas Present.  Though it’s rumored he didn’t care for working on the film, Sir Alec Guinness (Murder by Death) is a brilliant Marley and while his song is likely the weakest in the film (and heavily cut in the final edit, to be fair), his acting choices are top notch.

Speaking of the music, Bricusse opens the film with a booming chorus proclaiming “Sing a song of gladness and cheer, for the time of Christmas is here. Look around about you and see, what a world of wonder this world can be!”  This credit sequence, played over hand-painted pictures from British illustrator Ronald Searle is a grand, nostalgic way to begin and previews the entirety of the action so close your eyes if you want to avoid spoilers!  Though esteemed critic Pauline Kael (in my opinion, wrongly) thought the music was “forgettable”, Bricusse wound up with an Oscar nomination for his work and truly has a way with an earworm so don’t be shocked if you’re humming a note or four in the days following.  It’s especially hard to rid yourself of the Oscar-nominated “Thank You Very Much”, used twice in the film to good effect.  (The other two Oscar nominations Scrooge received were for Costume Design and Art Direction.)

Whatever your holiday movie of choice is, don’t let anyone tell you it’s “not Christmas-y enough” or “not the right version” because this is the time to choose experiences that gives us comfort and joy more than anything else.  For me, Scrooge, directed by Ronald Neame (two years before he made The Poseidon Adventure) brings a lot of those feelings to the surface and as I grow older, I find myself responding more to smaller flashes near the end when you see the magnitude of not just what Scrooge is doing in the moment but what he recognizes as how his life will change for the better because of these kind gestures.  That’s part of the lesson Dickens has cleverly hidden in his text and the most enduring productions, like Scrooge, have captured so well.

Mid-Day Mini ~ Erin Brockovich

The Facts:

Synopsis: An unemployed single mother becomes a legal assistant and almost single-handedly brings down a California power company accused of polluting a city’s water supply.

Stars: Julia Roberts, Albert Finney, Aaron Eckhart, Marg Helgenberger

Director: Steven Soderbergh  

Rated: R

Running Length: 131 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  Though Roberts had been nominated twice before for an Oscar (for Steel Magnolias and Pretty Woman), it was her loose performance as the title character in this David vs. Goliath true life tale that finally brought her an Academy Award…and it remains some of her best work.  While Roberts gets much of the credit, you can’t forget the strong support she received from  Albert Finney (Skyfall, The Bourne Legacy) as her boss, Susannah Grant’s snappy script and Steven Soderbergh (Side Effects, Magic Mike) sitting in the director’s seat. 

Brockovich was an unemployed single mom when she fast talked her way into a job at a small law firm headed by Ed Masry.  Though she didn’t look the part and definitely didn’t talk the part, Brockovich became a valued asset to the firm as she became a champion for the case of a town affected by the deadly dumping of toxic chemicals. 

Roberts is on fire here…you can tell it’s a role she believed in and a director she had faith in…and it all comes together to be a very satisfying picture.  Some have argued that it was Roberts popularity in (and money-making for) Hollywood that helped her win but this is exactly the kind of role that the Academy is known to eat up.  And who doesn’t love a good old fashioned tale of the little guy/gal triumphing over evil?

Bond-ed for Life – Skyfall

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Bond’s loyalty to M is tested as her past comes back to haunt her. As MI6 comes under attack, 007 must track down and destroy the threat, no matter how personal the cost

Stars: Daniel Craig, Javier Bardem, Dame Judi Dench, Naomie Harris, Berenice Marlohe, Ralph Fiennes, Albert Finney, Ben Whishaw, Helen McCrory, Ola Rapace, Tonia Sotiropoulou

Director: Sam Mendes

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 143 minutes

Trailer Review: Here and Here

TMMM Score: (10/10)

Review:  The release of the 23rd Bond feature film inspired me to take a look back at the 22 films that have come before it.  Starting with the 1962 of release of Dr. No and continuing on through the 2012’s Skyfall, audiences around the world have come to know, trust, and count on James Bond to show up on Her Majesty’s secret service to get the job done.  Though the faces of Bond have changed over the years and the man himself has gone through some character development, one thing remains true…this is a gentleman who loves his country, his women, and his martini’s shaken not stirred.

Now, as the franchise celebrates its 50th Anniversary, a Bond adventure has been crafted that surpasses every expectation one could have and reaches levels I’m not sure anyone involved could have ever imagined or hoped to reach.  It’s as close to a perfectly made action film as I’ve seen in my years of going to the movies, one that will hold appeal to those well acquainted with 007 and those that are just starting out.  Skyfall is, in my opinion, the best James Bond movie ever produced.

Bold statement, right?  Well…let me try to explain it the best way I can – and know that this review is going to be spoiler free so as not to ruin the experience for you.  The less said about the scope of the picture the better because one of the key ingredients to its success is the not knowing what’s lurking around the corner for Bond, M, and his colleagues at MI6.

I can’t go further into this review without mentioning a few new faces behind the camera for Skyfall.  New director Mendes draws on his theatrical background to help his cast dig deeper than ever before in service to the dynamite story/script provided by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and exceptional screenwriter John Logan.  In his first true action film (let’s not mention 2005’s Jarhead), Mendes works like a master to create the most fully formed Bond experience one could hope for. 

Mendes brings along Oscar nominated cinematographer Roger Deakins, another artist not readily known for his work in the action genre.  Deakins keeps the camera moving in such a way that though the action is fast, furious, and delirious, we never lose track of what we’re watching and where it’s going.  Production designer Dennis Gassner returns to Bond after Quantum of Solace to create a bar-raising world of exotic locales, abandoned islands, and misty moors.  It’s all set to Thomas Newman’s hat-tipping score that’s quite thrilling.  When Monty Norman’s original Bond theme starts to play at a key point in the movie, I had chills from horn to hoof.

Now this all would make for a very pretty picture…but if you didn’t have the right people to stick in front of the camera you’d be up the creek.  Thankfully, Mendes has populated his film with intriguing cast additions and welcome return visitors.

Craig should now be considered the fully formed embodiment of Bond.  No disrespect to the the other actors that have come before him but Craig is as close to the James Bond found in the novels of Ian Fleming as anyone yet to suit up for the part.  A reckless Bond in Casino Royale and a vengeful Bond in Quantum of Solace, in Skyfall Bond has become someone that is genuinely afraid to feel anything that he can’t control.  It’s a brilliant move for the film to give the actor (and us) the opportunity to see under the skin and it’s Craig’s best performance on screen in any film.

Is there anything bad one could say about Dame Dench at this point in her career?  Her involvement with the Bond films since GoldenEye have been nothing short of excellent but it’s with Skyfall that M becomes a leading character along with Bond.  She sits atop a plot that hinges on how much we really want to know about her…had M stayed on the sidelines during her tenure this film couldn’t have happened in the way it did.  M has always been illustrative of a surrogate mother to Bond and that relationship comes into play several times.

In a series that is famous for its outlandish villains, you’d be hard pressed to find one as genuinely menacing as Silva.  Bardem takes a huge risk with his character that could have crashed and burned but winds up making him even more terrifying.  Even without the bleached hair and eyebrows, it’s the actor’s eyes that tell the biggest story with thinly veiled rage boiling deep down.  His personal vendetta against M and MI6 takes the place of any kind of global domination, allowing the film to hit close to home.  It’s a terrifying performance that doesn’t merely replicate his Oscar winning role in No Country for Old Men from the man my friend (let’s call him R for Bond-time sake) calls the Spanish Meryl Streep for the way he totally immerses himself in a role.

Supporting players are nothing to snuff at either.  Fiennes has a nifty role as one of M’s colleagues and Whishaw is a wonderfully nebbish Q.  Bond Girls are a dime a dozen but Mendes has found two shiny silver dollars in Harris and Marlohe.  Harris is a spunky field agent that helps set into motion the action of the film in the breathless prologue and Marlohe may have one of the single best meet and greets with Bond in memory.  Both actresses are splendid but aren’t featured as prominently as the ladies of the past.  Still…Mendes and co. are smart enough to see that this story is ultimately about Bond and M.

Adele’s powerful theme song is a real winner as both a throwback to the Shirley Bassey Bond themes and a mysterious clue to what the film has in store for us.  Playing over a gorgeously designed credits sequence by Daniel Kleinman, the haunting melody is nicely incorporated by Newman in several music cues along the way.  And what of the mysterious Skyfall of the title?  I’m not going to give that secret up but it acts as yet another way the film opens up to audiences the mystery that is Bond. 

Everyone has their favorite Bond and reasons why they lean towards one or the other.  Having reached the end of my Bond journey, Skyfall just happens to be the best of the bunch.  It’s a fantastically entertaining, surprisingly emotional, and stupendously produced action film that once again redefines the spy genre.  James Bond will return…this much we know from the closing credits.  How he’ll top himself after Skyfall is the next big mystery to figure out.

Want more Bond?  Check out my reviews of the previous 22 James Bond Films:

Dr. No

From Russia With Love

Goldfinger

Thunderball

You Only Live Twice

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

Diamonds Are Forever

Live and Let Die

The Man with the Golden Gun

The Spy Who Loved Me

Moonraker

For Your Eyes Only

Octopussy

A View to a Kill

The Living Daylights

Licence to Kill

GoldenEye

Tomorrow Never Dies

The World is Not Enough

Die Another Day

Casino Royale (2006)

Quantum of Solace

The Silver Bullet ~ “Skyfall” Teaser

Synopsis: Bond’s loyalty to M is tested as her past comes back to haunt her. As MI6 comes under attack, 007 must track down and destroy the threat, no matter how personal the cost.

Release Date:  November 9, 2012

Thoughts:   Ah…Bond is back.  It’s been nearly four years since his last adventure and while many were left unsatisfied with Quantum of Solace on repeated viewings I see what the franchise was going for.  It’s still not my favorite entry but it existed as a way to end a particular chapter on the Bond saga.  With that taken care of, the series is free to explore a new storyline and the description of Skyfall sounds quite juicy.  With director Sam Mendes at the helm expect a different kind of action film with expertly designed camera shots and more nuanced performances from all involved.  With the film adding Ralph Fiennes, Albert Finney, and Javier Bardem to the roster (as well as a new Q!) I’m counting down the days to Bond’s arrival.  Once we get a little closer to the release date I’ll be reviewing all of the Bond films for the blog – stay tuned!