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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Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Directed by Martin McDonagh best known for 2008’s In Bruges, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a terrific film with a stellar cast that expertly blends dark comedy with drama. Set in a small town in Missouri, the movie follows Mildred Hayes, played brilliantly by Oscar winner Frances McDormand, as she tries to find justice for the murder and rape of her daughter several months prior. A force not to be reckoned with, she hatches a plan to rent three abandoned billboards outside of town that directly question the police’s inability to find the culprit. A darkly funny tit-for-tat fight erupts between Mildred and the rest of the townsfolk who are sympathetic to the local police department and Chief Bill Willoughby, played by the always great Woody Harrelson. Things do not get any better with the intervention of the dim-witted and often racist Officer Jason Dixon, played wonderfully by Sam Rockwell, who does not always follow the law in protecting his chief and making sure Mildred removes the incriminating billboards. The issue over the billboards rapidly escalates into violence primarily as a result of the strong-willed and stubborn Mildred who does anything in order to avenge her daughter’s gruesome death. Even as Chief Willoughby is going through his own serious personal problem, she squarely blames the police department for not doing enough to find the perpetrator. To no avail, Mildred’s son Robbie, played by Oscar nominee Lucas Hedges, and her abusive ex-husband, played by Oscar nominee John Hawkes, insist she stop with all the shenanigans in order to prevent further shame to the family. However, she does have some strange bedfellows who encourage her, including the local slick used car salesman who happens to be a little person and excellently portrayed by Peter Dinklage. Although the background story is dramatic and depressing with it involving a rape and murder of a teenage girl, the filmmaker is remarkably able to bring some levity to the situation and allow the audience to laugh at some rather uncomfortable yet ridiculous moments of macabre humor. Overall, I found it to be one of the best films of the year because it contains such brilliant acting performances and is somehow able to effectively mix very real drama with perfectly timed dark comedy.

Lady Bird

Directed by indie actress Greta Gerwig best known for her Golden Globe-nominated performance in 2012’s Frances Ha, Lady Bird is a brilliant film featuring a refreshing take on adolescence and terrific acting performances, especially the young leading actress. A semi-autobiographical story from the first time director, the movie is set in Gerwig’s actual hometown of Sacramento and takes place during the protagonist’s 2002-2003 senior year in high school. The story follows the free-spirited and rebellious Christine McPherson, played by the extremely talented two-time Academy Award nominee Saoirse Ronan, as she navigates the often awkward and chaotic last year at a Catholic high school. The central theme throughout the plot is the sometimes fraught yet loving mother-daughter relationship between Christine, who goes by the self-ascribed nickname Lady Bird, and her equally strong-willed mother, played by Laurie Metcalf best known for her role in the TV series Roseanne. When we first meet her, Christine is somewhat of a troublemaker who constantly frustrates the nuns and does not take her schoolwork seriously. She enjoys playing around with her overweight and funny best friend Julie, but their friendship is tested when Christine desperately wants a boyfriend and hangs out with the popular rich girl at school. During the beginning, she falls for a young man named Danny, played by Academy Award nominee Lucas Hedges, who is a fellow actor in the musical she originally begrudgingly signs up for with her best friend. As she tries to fit in like a typical teenager, Christine has to deal with the repercussions of her father, played by Tracy Letts, losing his job while coping with her stressed-out mother who wants her daughter to succeed but struggles with the possibility that her only daughter may move away for college. Christine’s very strong desire to be independent causes her to act out and eventually starts to date a wild teenager from a nearby Catholic school. Throughout the film, Christine openly loathes her hometown Sacramento and makes it her goal to go to college in a different state as far away as possible from what she sees as such a boring and provincial city. Like her clingy mother, however, she eventually realizes that things in her life need to change in order to grow up. Towards the end, she finally appreciates her family and who she is and develops a sentimental attachment to Sacramento and her experiences at Catholic school. Overall, I found it to be a very impressive independent film, particularly remarkable for having a rookie director, full of excellent performances that help perfect such a hilarious and emotionally dramatic coming-of-age story. 

Last Flag Flying

Directed by Golden Globe-winning director Richard Linklater who is best known for the Academy Award-winning 2014 movie Boyhood and 1993’s Dazed and Confused, Last Flag Flying is a well-crafted and very human film that explores grief and war with powerful moments of raw emotion and levity brought to life by the extremely talented cast. Steve Carell plays former Navy Corps medic Richard “Doc” Shepherd who reunites with former Marines Sal Nealon, played by Bryan Cranston, and Richard Mueller, played by Laurence Fishburne, after he learns his son was killed in Iraq serving as a Marine. Clearly broken by the Vietnam War and the recent passing of his wife and now son, Doc contacts the two other men that he served with decades prior in Vietnam as a means of coping with the profound grief of losing his son to war. We first meet the rambunctious and wisecracking Sal overseeing his dive bar and then the soft-spoken and reformed Mueller presiding over his congregation as a Baptist minister. Eventually, Doc persuades the two very different men to pick up his son’s body from Dover Air Force Base in Delaware and take him back home in New Hampshire to be buried instead of Arlington National Cemetery. Over the course of the journey, the middle-aged men reminisce about their time as soldiers in the Vietnam War and try to rectify their prior sins. Underscoring the mixed human emotions experienced in one’s life, the characters, especially the irreverent Sal, share several moments of laughter and bonding time on their road trip despite the extremely depressing circumstances. They also grapple with their patriotism and pride of serving in the military at the same time that they disagree with the American government’s decisions to go to war in Vietnam and now Iraq. The movie works so well because of the very real chemistry that can be felt between all three brilliant actors who bring a certain level of humanity to what most people would expect to be just a sad and grim story about a father grieving over his son’s death. Overall, I found it to be an exceptional film that is both bittersweet and hopeful and provides important insights into the complexities of losing a loved one and the human toll caused by war, complete with heartwarming and heartwrenching moments. 

Daddy’s Home 2

The sequel to the 2015 family comedy Daddy’s Home, Daddy’s Home 2 is a silly family-friendly comedy that is at times entertaining as a result of the dynamics between the talented actors but is a rather stale comedy blockbuster that is not always funny. Taking place several years after the shenanigans of the original, the manly Dusty, played by Mark Wahlberg, and the sensitive family man Brad, played by Will Ferrell, are on good terms co-parenting Dusty’s kids Megan and Dylan who live most of the time with their mother Sara, played by Linda Cardellini, who is now married to Brad. Things once again get complicated when Dusty’s macho father Kurt, played by Mel Gibson, and Brad’s kind and emotional father Don, played by John Lithgow, arrive in town for a joint Christmas between the families. Very much like the first movie, the grandfathers become competitors for who is the better parent and grandparent and thereby indulge their sons and grandchildren in order to favor love and make the other jealous. Stereotypical buffoonery and slapstick hijinks rapidly escalates, especially after Kurt comes up with the idea of celebrating Christmas in a luxurious cabin in the mountains. Along the way, we meet new characters, including Brad and Sara’s baby, Dusty’s new attractive wife Karen, Karen’s daughter Adrianna who Dusty tries to impress, and eventually Adrianna’s hunky father Roger, played by pro wrestler John Cena. With brief moments of laughter and even touching family moments mixed with a holidays theme, the film is your typical family Christmas movie that helps pass the time with family audiences during the holiday season. However, going into the movie I was not expecting what turned out to be a Christmas flick and actually thought that it was too early to release such a movie with Christmas a month and a half away. Overall, I found it to be a somewhat enjoyable and light-hearted comedy that could have been better if the all star cast was not wasted on such a frivolous and ridiculous premise: at least, the first film had some originality because the sequel feels like the filmmaker simply rehashed the original plot with only slight modifications. 

Thor: Ragnarok

Directed by New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi who is best known for the brilliant 2016 comedy Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Thor: Ragnarok is a wildly entertaining and hilarious comic book superhero movie that is unlike most of the other sixteen films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In the third installment of the Thor franchise, we first meet Thor, played by Chris Hemsworth, as a prisoner on a fiery planet who eventually escapes to return to his home planet Asgard to discover that his father and ruler of the realm Odin, played by Anthony Hopkins, is living on Earth and his trickster brother Loki, played by Tom Hiddleston, is the de facto leader. Both brothers learn from their father that there is a prophecy soon to take place known as Ragnarok that says that Asgard will be destroyed. Soon afterwards, Thor meets his secret evil sister Hela, played by the particularly devious Cate Blanchett, whose appearance will hasten Ragnarok through her destruction and enslavement of those living on Asghar. On a desperate mission to get rid of his powerful sister, Thor finds himself on an extremely colorful alien planet called Sakaar, which serves as the garbage planet for the universe, where he is captured by the female bounty hunter Scrapper 142, played by Tessa Thompson. She turns over Thor to the comically over-the-top ruler of the planet known as the Grandmaster, played by a perfectly cast Jeff Goldblum, who forces Thor to participate in a gladiator-like tournament against the dim-witted yet strong Hulk, voiced by Mark Ruffalo, who appeared with Thor in The Avengers movies. After several funny reunion scenes with Thor and Hulk, they team up with Scrapper 142 who turns out to be from Asgard and embark on a joy ride adventure to save Asgard and kill the deadly Hela. Reminding me of the equally comedic Guardians of the Galaxy films and the vulgar Deadpool movie, the film is chock-full of self-deprecating humor that pokes fun at superhero franchises and references to the other movies as well as today’s pop culture. It also includes completely random and unexpected cameos that further conveys a fun and sometimes ridiculous atmosphere. Overall, I found it to be one of the more entertaining Marvel movies and thereby provides a refreshing reboot of the increasingly stale comic book superhero genre. Even if you are not a fan of comic book superheroes, I would highly recommend going to the film if you are looking for an amusing and good old time at the movies.

Battle of the Sexes

Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris who are best known for the 2006 indie smash hit Little Miss Sunshine, Battle of the Sexes is a highly entertaining and inspirational film about the true story of the famed tennis match between Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King in 1973. In one of her best performances to date, Academy Award-winning actress Emma Stone portrays the feminist and sports icon Billie Jean King who we first meet fighting for equal pay for female tennis players and eventually helps form the all-female Virginia Slims Circuit with the promoter Gladys Heldman, played by comedian Sarah Silverman. The impetus for breaking off from the major tours was the chauvinism showed by the male-dominated sports community best represented by former number one tennis player and legendary tennis commentator and promoter Jack Kramer, played by Bill Pullman. Along with the other star women, King, the reigning number one female player and winner of multiple Grand Slam titles, has success on the female circuit and is depicted as having fun yet healthy competition with the other players. Eventually, the self-proclaimed male chauvinist and perpetual showboating former number one tennis player Bobby Riggs, played by Steve Carell, tries to reclaim the spotlight by proposing to play a female tennis player. Already way past his prime at the age of 55, Riggs is finally able to woo the 29-year old Billie Jean King to participate in the so-called Battle of the Sexes at the height of the feminist movement. While dealing with the pressures of the cultural phenomenon that the match has become, King grapples with her sexual orientation while being married to a man and must push back on the pervasive sexism in society. During the tour, she begins a relationship with a carefree female hairdresser named Marilyn Barnett, played by Andrea Riseborough, who encourages King to embrace being a lesbian at a time when it was taboo. Despite the serious issues raised, the film is able to keep audiences entertained as a result of the buffoonery of Bobby Riggs who does anything to promote himself and has a playful back-and-forth with King until the tides shift during the actual match. The movie does an excellent job of building up the tension to the much-hyped exhibition between man and woman, which takes place in Houston at the Astrodome on September 20, 1973. I came away from the film feeling even more the unpleasant truth that sexism was so pervasive at that time, and that it was normal for male commentators to make clearly chauvinistic comments in public without much rebuke. Overall, I thought the filmmakers were expertly effective in portraying the trials and tribulations of such a trailblazing figure in American history as Billie Jean King, all the while keeping the audience fully engaged with moments of humor and levity.