Film Friday: ‘A Christmas Carol’ & ‘The Box’

by W. Andrew Powell

A scene from Disney's 'A-Christmas-Carol'

A scene from Disney's 'A-Christmas-Carol'

Arriving in theatres this weekend, Disney debuts the latest animated remake of the classic Dickens’ story A Christmas Carol with Jim Carrey as the voice of Ebenezer Scrooge; Cameron Diaz and James Marsden star in the science-fiction drama, The Box; plus a look at Men Who Stare At Goats, and The Fourth Kind.

Disney’s A Christmas Carol (3-D)
Cast: Jim Carrey, Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Bob Hoskins
Director: Robert Zemeckis

How many times do you think Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol has been remade for film? Dozens of times? Hundreds? It’s hard to say, but director Robert Zemeckis has made an incredible effort with what I can only call a dark, resonant rebirth of this classic Christmas story. It’s also, and quite happily I might add, not what you might expect.

Jim Carrey leads the film as the voice of the one and only Ebenezer Scrooge, as well as the voices of all three Ghosts of Christmases Past, Present and Yet To Come. With only a few changes from the original novel and play, we are introduced to Scrooge as the penny-pinching owner of a London counting house, which he once ran with his partner Jacob Marley, who passed away seven years ago.

On the night of Christmas Eve, Scrooge begrudgingly gives his poor employee, Bob Cratchit, the next day off, before he goes to his silent home to hide away from the Holiday spirit. As we’ve come to expect he encounters the tormented soul of Marley, bound in chains and warning Scrooge that he too will face the same fate if he doesn’t change. Over the course of the night, Scrooge is visited by the three ghosts of Christmas, who will try to show him the error of his ways.

If you have seen Zemeckis’ previous animated films – The Polar Express, or even Beowulf – you’ll understand the one flaw with the motion capture process they use on their actors. Specifically, the character’s faces sometimes look a little strange or unnatural. This has been a huge complaint in the past, but I didn’t see the same issues in A Christmas Carol. The faces are not perfect, but they are quite good, and coupled with the tremendous voice-acting, the characters are top notch.

Carrey in particular is quite a natural Scrooge, keeping the character reserved and angry for the early parts of the film, while indulging in the darker parts of this curmudgeonly old man later on.

Looking at the trailers, you might expect that the film would be something of an animated comedy, as we’ve seen so many times before in these Christmas Carol remakes, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Although there are some comic elements, Zemeckis has gone back to the roots of this dark story for much of the film’s mood, and it’s a wonderful reinvention in my mind.

Lastly, there’s the matter of the film’s 3-D presentation in both IMAX and Real 3-D. While I still look at this as a gimmick, and not much else, there are some wonderful 3-D moments in the film. Early on I had a hard time ignoring the cumbersome Real 3-D glasses (which are not nearly as big as the IMAX glasses, but the Real 3-D glasses are actually not designed that well if you ask me), but the effects are often very compelling in showing you the world that Scrooge inhabits. The whole presentation is handled quite well, and actually does add a little something to the story, particularly when we see the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come.

It’s a bit early to get in the Christmas spirit for me, but this is a wonderful film, even if I think it could have been a bit more revelatory and emotional. It will surely be a huge hit closer to Christmas, but I would just warn parents with very young children that some of the early scenes can be a little scary.

The Box
Cast: Cameron Diaz, James Marsden, Frank Langella, James Rebhorn
Director: Richard Kelly

When Donnie Darko was first released I was amazed at what writer and director Richard Kelly had wrought. This was a brilliant piece of indie filmmaking that surely deserved praise, and promised a bright future for its creator.

Looking at The Box, and the trailers for the film, I was somehow not feeling quite as hopeful. Perhaps it was the curse of working with a bigger project, or studio, but it seemed like Kelly had stumbled into cheesy territory this time out.

Starring Cameron Diaz and James Marsden as a struggling married couple with one young son, The Box is a retro-science fiction tale about morality, and consequences set in the bygone days of 1976. Norma and Arthur are simply given a life-changing opportunity by a strange man, played by Frank Langella. He offers them a million dollars if they decide to press a button, but the consequence is that someone they don’t know will die.

Obviously, they consider it a joke at first, but as they fall deeper into the story, they realize they may have stumbled into a horrific chain of events that promises to swallow them whole.

Were the film released 50 years ago, and polished a bit more, The Box might have been a powerful, genre-defining movie. There are elements that can be quite chilling, but in Kelly’s hands they come across as fumbled mistakes.

The core group of stars are quite good, and I was very impressed with Diaz for a change, but the background actors and non-speaking roles actually ruined a lot of this film for me, and elicited more than a few laughs during the screening I attended.

Laying it all on very thickly throughout the film, Kelly misses the opportunity to make The Box a tightly-wound dramatic thriller, and instead I was merely left with the feeling that Kelly ended the film perfectly, but really had a hard time getting to that point. There is genius at work here, to be sure, but it’s overshadowed by a clumsy approach, and cheesy acting that makes it ripe for lampooning by the old Mystery Science Theatre 3000 crew.

Also opening this weekend…

Men Who Stare At Goats
Cast: George Clooney, Jeff Bridges, Ewan McGregor, Kevin Spacey
Director: Grant Heslov

In this political satire, Ewan McGregor plays a journalist looking for answers among a regiment of soldiers stationed during the Iraq War. The question? Why does the U.S. Military think paranormal abilities could help them at war?

Co-starring George Clooney, Jeff Bridges, and Kevin Spacey, the film is filled with jokes about the strange concepts that have floated around the U.S. Military for years, and is actually based on Jon Ronson’s book of the same name.

Critics are mixed on the results by director Grant Heslov, who is a long-time collaborator with Clooney. Bill Goodykoontz of the Arizona Republic had one of the more positive reviews, writing that, “For a movie that searches constantly for a consistent feel, sometimes within the same scene, The Men Who Stare at Goats is remarkably entertaining.”

The Fourth Kind
Cast: Milla Jovovich, Elias Koteas, Will Patton, Hakeen Kae Kazim
Director: Olatunde Osunsanmi

And finally, if you want something a little scarier this weekend, Milla Jovovich stars in the horrifyingly bad looking The Fourth Kind, about a northern city in Alaska that seems to be overrun by aliens, who are kidnapping people left, right, and centre. Expect to be disappointed.

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