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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

In 1843, when Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol, folks were just starting to get into that thing we call Christmas, with stuff like Christmas trees, gift-giving and Cyber Mondays. (An iPad would cost, like, nothing on Cyber Monday in 1843, because nobody had invented the damn thing yet.)

It was the Dickens novel about a miserable miser named Ebenezer Scrooge, who transforms from evil greed monster to kind philanthropist throughout its five chapters, that would help take the celebration of Christmas to a new level—and the boldly titled The Man Who Invented Christmas spins an entertaining and clever take on how and why Dickens got the idea for the story that would change the world.

Coming off a couple of flops after the success of Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens (Dan Stevens) is doing clumsy book tours to pay the bills. Desperate for a “hit,” he gets an idea for a Christmas book—one in which a greedy man is haunted by ghosts of the past, present and future. The story is meant to be a cautionary yarn about the evils of selfishness, and perhaps less about the joys of Christmas and redemption. As Dickens gets further into his book, and his own psyche, the themes change toward hope, and his classic is born.

Director Bharat Nalluri, working from a screenplay by Susan Coyne (based on the book by Les Standiford), gets the unique opportunity to tell the making of A Christmas Carol while, in some ways, making yet another version of the famed story itself. The film features Dickens conferring with the fictional characters in his story as he creates them, so we get an Ebenezer Scrooge, this time played by the great Christopher Plummer. It’s no surprise that Plummer is perfect for the role. Essentially playing a voice in Dickens’ head, Plummer gets the chance to offer up his own spin on the great line, “Bah, humbug!” and he looks absolutely smashing in that sleepwear.

While he doesn’t get much screen time (this is, after all, mostly a biographical depiction of Dickens), Plummer instantly joins the League of Great Scrooges. He’s right up there with Alastair Sim, Mr. Magoo and Henry Winkler. (OK, Winkler played someone named Benedict Slade in An American Christmas Carol, but Slade was a thinly veiled Scrooge. Actually, I liked that movie, but it would’ve been better had Winkler portrayed Scrooge as his alter ego, Arthur “The Fonz” Fonzarelli, rather than going the old-cranky-guy route. Ron Howard’s Richie Cunningham could’ve been Jacob Marley. OK, I watched too much damned Happy Days when I was a kid.)

Stevens, having a big year with this and his turn in Beauty and the Beast, portrays Dickens as a bit of an eccentric nut. As Dickens concocts the story in his writing room, he throws tantrums and has imaginary conversations with imaginary people. Stevens finds some humor in this, but he doesn’t stay away from the notion that Charles perhaps needed a long metal vacation.

A touching subplot has Dickens dealing with major daddy issues as his penniless father (Jonathan Pryce) comes to town and causes trouble by trying to sell his son’s autograph and unleashing a pet raven in the household. Through flashbacks, we see that Charles’ adoration for his good-natured but scheming father led to a long stretch of sadness when his father went to jail, and he went to an orphanage (themes that obviously played out in other Dickens stories). The film suggests that Dickens’ forgiveness toward his father led to the redemptive turn in A Christmas Carol. I don’t know if that’s based on fact, but I liked it in the movie.

The film’s production values, which look a little drab, keeps it from being great, but the performances help put it over the top.

The Man Who Invented Christmas is a different kind of holiday movie. It’s not going to rank up there with Rudolph or Frosty, but for those of you looking for a deeper telling of a great fable, it won’t disappoint.

The Man Who Invented Christmas is now playing at the Century Theatres at The River (71800 Highway 111, Rancho Mirage; 760-836-1940); and the Palm Desert 10 Cinemas (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert; 760-340-0033).

Published in Reviews

It’s been 12 years since the great Al Pacino has been involved in a project worthy of his talents. (His Roy Cohn in 2003’s Angels in America was his last great role.) He’s become a bit of a caricature in the last decade, appearing in some of its worst movies (Ocean’s Thirteen, Gigli, 88 Minutes, Jack and Jill and Righteous Kill to name a few) and hamming it up to the point where he’s nearly unwatchable.

Danny Collins isn’t a return to absolute greatness for Pacino, but it does serve as a relevant and crowd-pleasing vehicle for the former Michael Corleone. Pacino steps up as the title character, a Neil Diamond-like rock singer who has spent the past 40 years touring and performing “the hits.” No longer a productive songwriter, he’s come to rely on the comfort of crowds reacting happily to his most popular hit, “Baby Doll.” He’s also heavy into drugs and alcohol, and is engaged to a girl half his age.

On the eve of his birthday, his manager (a delightfully acerbic Christopher Plummer) gives him a special present: a framed letter to Collins that John Lennon wrote many years ago that was never delivered. Lennon had once read an article about Collins, was moved, and sent correspondence from him and Yoko, with his phone number. He was offering some fatherly advice to the confused young Danny—but a scummy collector got his hands on the letter, and Danny never got it.

The gift throws Danny into a tailspin, as he wonders what life would’ve been like if he could’ve called Lennon and been pals. Trivia note: This element of the story is based on the true story of folk singer Steve Tilston, who received a similar letter from John Lennon 34 years after it was written, phone number and all.

Danny packs his bag and heads to Jersey, where he takes up residence in a Hilton and commits to finding his estranged son (Bobby Cannavale). He puts a piano in his room and tries to rediscover the artistic hunger that drove him 40 years prior.

Perhaps Pacino saw the “redemptive” angle in the script as a nice parallel to his own career. His last great cinematic venture, besides the HBO effort, was 2002’s Insomnia, which capped a long stretch of good-to-great vehicles for the American icon. Pacino dives into the role of Danny with much aplomb, and employs the sort of nuance that has been missing from his work for too many years. He’s fully engaged in the movie, which helps him to rise above the schmaltz and make it something entertaining, moving and funny. He gets help from a stellar supporting cast, including Cannavale, Plummer, Annette Bening as the hotel manager on whom Danny has a crush, and Jennifer Garner as the daughter-in-law he’s just meeting.

Cannavale deserves special notice. His character is given a disease-of-the-week plotline along with the abandoned-son routine—in other words, enough clichés to torpedo any performer. Somehow, Cannavale turns the whole thing into his best screen work yet. It’s a pleasure to see him exchanging lines with Pacino.

The biggest stretch in this film is buying Pacino as a singer. Pacino is a shitty, shitty singer, and he seems to know it, so the couple of scenes during which he’s onstage are a bit comical. Yet they have a lot of appeal.

Danny Collins might not mark the return of the great Pacino, but it does stand as proof that he has plenty of gas left in the tank. I think he should do a little tour as Danny Collins. It would be fantastically awful to the point of being awesome.

Danny Collins is now playing at the Regal Rancho Mirage Stadium 16 (72777 Dinah Shore Drive, Rancho Mirage; 844-462-7342) and the Century Theatres at The River (71800 Highway 111, Rancho Mirage; 760-836-1940).

Published in Reviews