The Man Who Invented Christmas

Loosely based on a true story, The Man Who Invented Christmas is a fascinating look into the life of Charles Dickens as he writes the classic A Christmas Carol in London in 1843. The film effectively illustrates the inspirations for Dickens, played by Dan Stevens of Downton Abbey fame, by depicting the characters in the famous Christmas story as characters in the movie. We first meet Dickens ten years after the incredibly successful publication of Oliver Twist and is currently suffering from a string of unsuccessful books. To appease his publisher and maintain his fame, he sets out to write a new novel. Suffering from writer’s block, he eventually finds inspiration after witnessing several events in the daily life of impoverished Londoners and the return of his erstwhile father John Dickens, played by the terrific Jonathan Pryce. For much of the film, he is cooped up in his study where he grapples with the story and characters that will be featured in his Christmas-themed novella and interacts with the imaginary characters, especially Ebenezer Scrooge, played by Oscar winner Christopher Plummer. While struggling to finish the story in six weeks time, he asks for advice from a very unlikely source, a young housekeeper named Tara, who encourages him to make the book into a redemption story. Dickens must also deal with his father who has returned to London because of financial difficulties and becomes an imposition and a reminder of Dickens’ troubled early life, including working in a factory as a child. At the end of the movie, Dickens himself evolves into a better person and is more affectionate towards his father, somewhat like Scrooge embracing the true spirit of Christmas at the end of the book. Overall, I thought it was a well done movie that illuminates the background behind one of the greatest Christmas stories ever told, and I enjoyed the unique twist that the filmmaker used in presenting the fictional characters in A Christmas Carol to show how Charles Dickens was influenced.

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LBJ

Directed by Rob Reiner who is mostly known for comedies, LBJ provides a fascinating historical look into the larger-than-life 36th President of the United States, unexpectedly played by Academy Award nominee Woody Harrelson, but,  unfortunately, becomes nothing more than a formulaic biopic that adds very little significance to the already robust cultural treatment of President Johnson. The movie is a series of flashbacks between the fateful days of November 1963 following President Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas and the early years of the Johnson Administration pursuing the monumental Civil Rights Act of 1964. It does a fairly good job of recreating the moments surrounding the JFK assassination, but it does not feel that remarkable since it has been depicted so many times in films and television. The main emphasis of the film is the emotional stress of LBJ witnessing the death of the American president at the same time that he finally achieves his lifelong dream of becoming president. I found the most interesting aspect to be the portrayal of the often difficult and toxic relationships between LBJ, JFK, and members of JFK’s inner circle, especially his brother Bobby who was the attorney general. When he finally ascends the presidency, LBJ must work all legislative and executive options to pass the controversial Civil Rights Act, which potentially alienates him from his former Democratic colleagues from the South serving in the Senate and House, including the more conservative Georgia Senator Richard Russell, played by Academy Award nominee Richard Jenkins, and more liberal Texas Senator Ralph Yarborough, played by Bill Pullman. The movie does a superficial job of delving into the emotions of LBJ and only provides a little insight into his special relationship with his wife Lady Bird Johnson, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh. Overall, I found it to be intriguing only for providing additional stories about such a complicated figure as LBJ, and the film feels lacking in providing a fuller picture of such a charismatic and dynamic president by just focusing on two very specific moments in the life of LBJ.

Thank You For Your Service

Directed by Jason Hall who is the Academy Award-nominated screenwriter of 2014’s American Sniper, Thank You For Your Service is a powerful film that takes a raw unflinching into the life of soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder after being deployed and its effects on their lives back home. Based on true life stories, the movie follows three recently deployed soldiers in Iraq who have returned home but with horrific emotional scars. The main character Staff Sergeant Adam Schumann, played terrifically by Miles Teller, tries to be the good soldier and hide his emotional distress from his loving wife, played by Haley Bennett, and their two young kids. Although broken himself, he becomes the core emotional support for two other soldiers from the same unit who are suffering much more visibly. American Samoa-born Specialist Tausolo Aieti, played by Beulah Koale, has a particularly challenging time acclimating to civilian life and the news that his wife is pregnant with their first child. He suffered traumatic brain injury after withstanding several bomb blasts while on tour in Iraq. Along with Schumann, he tries to get help from the VA but discovers that receiving medical attention is a much more complicated and lengthy process due to the backlog and bureaucracy of the VA. They are particularly desperate to receive help after helplessly witnessing the rapid downward spiral of the other soldier that returned home with them, Billy Waller, played by Joe Cole. His tragic mental breakdown is accelerated after learning that his fiance has left him when he was deployed. As he tries to alleviate the other soldiers’ suffering, Schumann must grapple with his nightmarish flashbacks and guilt over possibly causing additional harm to a soldier with a grave head injury after an accident while trying to save his life. Eventually, Schumann realizes he also must face his own mental health issues caused by PTSD since his marriage is strained and his depression could lead to suicidal thoughts. Unlike most other movies dealing with war, the film is effectively able to focus on the often overlooked and stigmatized effects that war has on soldiers, especially debilitating mental health problems and PTSD. Yes, it is heartbreakingly depressing watching the movie but, I feel, that everyone should see it as it relays such an important message about soldiers and veterans. It vividly reveals how many of them are suffering without insufficient help from the overburdened and underfunded VA. The filmmaker puts faces to the truly shocking statistics about the increasingly large number of soldiers and veterans suffering from mental health illnesses and committing suicide. Overall, I found it to be a highly evocative movie that is sometimes depressing and anger-inducing about such an important issue as PTSD and whose stories are brought to life as a result of the brilliant acting performances. 

Goodbye Christopher Robin

Directed by Simon Curtis who is best known for 2011’s My Week with Marilyn, Goodbye Christopher Robin is a fascinating glimpse into the personal life of the creator of Winnie the Pooh and what inspired him to create such an iconic children’s character. Played by Domhnall Gleeson, A. A. Milne is a talented and well-respected writer who struggles with his next project after serving as a soldier during World War I and still suffering from post-traumatic stress. He decides it would be good for his mental health to move out of London and live in East Sussex in the English countryside with his beautiful wife Daphne, played by Margot Robbie, and his young son Christopher Robin who they nickname Billy Moon. Clearly experiencing horrific flashbacks and ridden with guilt and depression, he is largely an absent father and has a sometimes difficult married life. As a result, Christopher Robin is primarily raised by his loving nanny Olive, played by Kelly Macdonald best known for her role in HBO’s TV series Boardwalk Empire. Eventually, Milne becomes inspired during a long weekend alone with his son when he comes up with fantastical stories about Christopher Robin’s toys, particularly his teddy bear, while they play in the nearby woods. With the help of a friend and illustrator, he comes up with the character Winnie the Pooh, named after a bear from Winnipeg in the London Zoo and a swan named by his son as Pooh, and other characters that would be later first published as a children’s book in 1926 and a second book released in 1928. After such a catastrophic war, Winnie the Pooh becomes an inspirational distraction for the British public and helps heal the emotional wounds suffered. The international success of the character Winnie the Pooh and his fictional friend Christopher Robin does renew his literary career but at the expense of his family. His son Christopher Robin, who is the basis for the boy in the stories, essentially becomes a marketing tool and becomes too busy to experience a normal childhood because of his own fame. Milne realizes the mistakes he has made in exposing his son to such publicity at such a young age when the real Christopher Robin grows up and enlists in the military at the outbreak of World War II. Overall, I found it to be a well acted film that does a good job of providing insight into the creation of one of the most beloved children characters and its positive and negative effects on the author and his family. However, the movie at times felt conflicted about whether it should be a sentimental story about childhood or a dramatic story about the ills of war and celebrity. 

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women

Based on a rather unusual true story, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women follows the personal life of the creator of comic book character Wonder Woman and his unorthodox relationship with his wife and lover who would  provide inspiration for his famous superhero. We first meet Dr. William Moulton Marston, played by Luke Evans who has appeared in several Fast and Furious movies and the 2016 live action remake of Beauty and the Beast, in 1947 as he is testifying to the Child Study Association of America who is concerned that Wonder Woman is exposing children to lesbianism and sadomasochism. The testimony is used as a reference to the many flashbacks that make up most of the film. In 1928, Marston and his brilliant wife Elizabeth, played by Rebecca Hall, are both professors of psychology at Harvard and Harvard’s all-female college Radcliffe who develop theories to understand human behavior. Marston is particularly struck by the beauty and intelligence of one of his students named Olive Byrne, played by Bella Heathcote, and recruits her to assist in the Marstons’ research. After they use their research to invent the lie detector test, Marston and his wife Elizabeth as well as Olive must grapple with the fact that they all three love each other. Due to the conservative values of the time, they must hide their polyamorous and highly sexualized relationship but, eventually, the rumors about the Marstons’ love life gets them fired from Harvard and Radcliffe. All three of them move to suburban New York where they raise Elizabeth’s and Olive’s kids with Marston while trying to make ends meet with Elizabeth as a secretary and Marston as an out-of-work psychologist. Inspired by their free love and penchant for sadomasochism with the underlying assumption of empowering women, Marston comes up with the idea of a comic book character sharing these attributes and calls her Wonder Woman. Over time, his work that also furthers his psychological theories is published under the pseudonym Charles Moulton by Max Gaines, played by Oliver Platt, who discovered Superman and would later become part of DC Comics. Marston tries to balance his increasingly complicated domestic life with the great success he enjoys with the creation of Wonder Woman. The revelation of their peculiar secret poses a real threat to their family staying together and his career as the creator of Wonder Woman. Overall, I found it to be a well-crafted film that provides unique and sometimes surprising insight into the origins of such a famous superhero as Wonder Woman, and it presents an unvarnished look into the largely unknown and often taboo issues surrounding polyamorous relationships. The excellent acting skills of the three protagonists help to enliven the truly fascinating story and lends the movie a sense of realism.

Marshall

Based on a true story, Marshall is a well-crafted biopic about the early years of the first African-American Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall during his time as a lawyer for the NAACP representing a black man accused of raping a white socialite. We first meet Marshall, played by Chadwick Boseman best known for his role as Jackie Robinson in 2013’s 42, as a crusading lawyer working for the then relatively small African-American civil rights organization known as the NAACP. As only one of the few full-time lawyers on staff, he is sent throughout the United States to represent falsely accused black defendants who are on trial primarily the result of racial discrimination. In 1941, the head of the NAACP recruits him to represent a black chauffeur named Joseph Spell, played by Emmy Award winner Sterling K. Brown, charged with raping the wealthy white woman he works for in the predominantly white town of Greenwich, Connecticut. Played by Golden Globe winner Kate Hudson, Eleanor Strubing claims that while her wealthy husband was away she was brutally assaulted, repeatedly raped, and thrown off a bridge by Spell. Unable to directly represent Spell as an out-of-state attorney, the brilliant Marshall must work with the reluctant local white lawyer Sam Friedman, played by Josh Gad, to develop a case and find evidence disputing the crime that Spell repeatedly says he did not commit. The filmmaker shows the meticulous and extremely smart detective and legal skills of Marshall to uncover the truth while being bombarded with racist attacks from the white community. Although the time away from his wife is often challenging, he bravely embraces his dangerous job because of his passion for equality under the law and respecting the Constitution. Racism was so prevalent at the time that even the prosecuting attorney Loren Willis, played by Dan Stevens of Downton Abbey fame, and Judge Foster, played by James Cromwell, clearly do not respect Marshall as a black man and blindly trust the evidence and witness accounts despite not crossing the legal threshold of beyond a reasonable doubt. Over the course of the trial, Friedman becomes a friend to Marshall and understands what African-Americans go through on a daily basis after he is attacked for helping Marshall and being a Jewish immigrant. The movie is also an excellent example of a tense courtroom drama that slowly builds up suspense to the verdict. Overall, I thought the film provides unique insight into the legendary Thurgood Marshall by presenting a relatively unheard-of case in his early career and how it forms the rest of his highly successful career leading up to his appointment as a Supreme Court Justice in 1967. The quality acting performances and writing creates an inspirational and compelling portrayal of the early Civil Rights Movement and the role of Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP. 

Only the Brave

Based on a true story, Only the Brave is an emotionally powerful and dramatic movie with a terrific ensemble cast that tells the heroic story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, an elite group of wildfire firefighters based out of Prescott, Arizona who were involved in the tragic Yarnell Hill Fire in June 2013. Leading up to the events of the summer of 2013, the film follows this small group of firefighters working for the Prescott Fire Department and led by supervisor Eric Marsh, played by Academy Award-nominated actor Josh Brolin, as they try to get certified as the first municipal interagency hotshot firefighting crew. Not just filled with thrilling action scenes, it goes deeper by providing an intimate glimpse into the personal lives of those brave men who decide to fight the extremely volatile wildfires. For instance, we see the challenges faced by Eric’s wife Amanda, played by Academy Award winner Jennifer Connelly, as she tries to deal with his dangerous job that strains their marriage and ability to have a family. Eric is portrayed as a good man who gives chances to troubled young men, including Miles Teller’s character Brendan McDonough who is recovering from a drug addiction and has a newborn with his ex-girlfriend. The other firefighters, including Taylor Kitsch’s character, at first do not respect McDonough, but eventually they become like brothers as they all have the same mission to save lives. This ragtag group, with the encouragement of Jeff Bridges’ character who holds a leadership position in the fire department, is able to prove they have the talent and skills to being on the front lines of wildfires throughout the United States as hotshots. The filmmaker does an excellent job of showing how firefighters contain wildfires through the use of digging trenches and setting small fires in an attempt to extinguish rapidly advancing flames primarily caused by lightning. In late June of 2013, the crew is sent on a routine mission to contain a wildfire referred to as the Yarnell Hill Fire not too far away from Prescott. However, conditions rapidly deteriorate, and the now highly respected Granite Mountain Hotshots are faced with the horrific situation of being surrounded by an out-of-control wildfire. Although there are some heartbreaking moments, the movie creates a fuller and surprisingly personal picture of those brave men who take great pride in fighting wildfires in order to protect their communities. Overall, I definitely thought it was not just a great firefighter movie but a highly evocative and inspirational film about the trials and tribulations of those who courageously serve a greater good. The filmmaker, with the help of the terrific cast, effectively balances the emotional side of the characters with harrowing and heart-stopping realistic action sequences.