Dickens’ words do heavy lifting in ‘Carol’

Posted Nov. 12, 2009, at 4:55 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 11:57 a.m.

In theaters

A CHRISTMAS CAROL, written and directed by Robert Zemeckis, 95 minutes, rated PG.

The new Robert Zemeckis movie, “A Christmas Carol,” arrives just in time for the holiday onslaught, when stores are crushed with the customers they need while too many of those folks already have all the grumbling charm of Ebenezer Scrooge.

Presented in 3-D with the same motion-capture technology he has been trying to perfect since his 2004 movie, “The Polar Express,” a nightmarish film filled with dead-looking zombie tots and Nazi undertones, the good news for Zemeckis is that advances in that technology now are allowing him to come closer to realizing his vision of turning real people into animated characters.

Though it’s questionable why he wants to achieve animation that brushes against photo-realism (why not just use live actors?), the effort is starting to pay off. The animation here is very good, with actors such as Jim Carrey (Scrooge) retrofitted into something admirably crooked, wicked and rotten. The characters’ eyes still are flat, but they aren’t completely without soul, as was the case in “Express” and the follow-up to that movie, 2007’s equally disappointing “Beowulf.”

Based on his own script, Zemeckis gives Charles Dickens’ tale a dimension he never could have imagined when he published the story in 1843, well before the advent of film. The question, of course, is whether a story this rich even needs the clamoring of elaborate special effects to make it resonate with today’s audiences.

The answer is a resounding “no,” but here’s the thing. The story has held up so well, it actually helps the movie, bolstering the technology behind it because the story’s themes remain relevant. Shrewdly, Zemeckis hasn’t toyed with those themes — he doesn’t tinker. He allows Dickens’ words to do their part of the heavy lifting, while the technology does the rest.

About the film: For those who don’t know the story (is that possible?), we’re in 19th century London and the movie follows the transformation of one mean penny pincher, Ebenezer Scrooge, who has a heart of coal and who looks every bit as chilling as his name sounds. Skeletal, bent, his nose a crooked faucet pockmarked with pores, there is nothing about this frowning beast that’s likable.

People fear him, which is what he wants. His one employee, Bob Cratchit (Gary Oldman), tries to keep warm at his desk while Scrooge enjoys the bulk of the meager heat. Meanwhile, at home, Cratchit’s young son, Tiny Tim, is steamrolling toward death — and Cratchit doesn’t have the money to save him.

How do we know this? The movie offers cutaways, but mostly it’s through a life-altering journey Scrooge takes thanks to some rather relentless spirits, one of whom is Death itself. The idea is to shake some sense into Scrooge, to make him see himself for who he is.

What’s curious about the movie is that the film’s 3-D elements are employed in such a way that they add to the experience, not detract. Snowflakes drift down in the theater — it’s a sweet effect — but the better effect is that beyond them is a story that trumps those flakes. Tart it up all you want, but Dickens’ words still resonate, his characters still infuriate, frighten and touch, and there’s still satisfaction to be had in his tale.

Grade: B

On DVD and Blu-ray Disc

BRUNO, directed by Larry Charles, written by Sacha Baron Cohen, Anthony Hines, Dan Mazer and Jeff Schaffer, 88 minutes, rated R.

Larry Charles’ “Bruno” really isn’t a movie at all. Calling it one is like calling mutton the new white meat. Still, for simplicity’s sake, we’ll refer to it as such here.

This blast of flamboyant bombast is a sketch comedy of bad taste and “shocking” moments that took four writers to conceive. Sometimes they score — the opening moments are the movie at its most outlandish and best — and other times they fail, which makes for a movie whose highs and lows conspire to make for an uneven experience, to say the least.

And what experiences we have in “Bruno.” The film is about the uber-gay Austrian fashionista Bruno (Sacha Baron Cohen), who aspires to be a worldwide superstar no matter what. That’s the slim thread that carries the movie forward — but it isn’t much, and to be fair to the film, it really isn’t meant to be.

The whole point behind “Bruno” is to push buttons. It’s to make those not in on the joke feel even more uncomfortable with the gay community than they already are. “Yes!” some righteously will claim. “That’s exactly what it means to be homosexual!” Others will know that little of this has anything to do with being gay — it’s satire — and one with a double-sided edge.

Bruno’s very being — a toss of frosted hair, dusted cheek bones that could give Joan Crawford a run for money, and outfits that are intentionally ridiculous — will at once do its share of damage to the gay community, and its part in helping it. Bruno is, after all, the poster boy for homophobia, a stereotype so amplified and overwrought, the wrong people will be nodding and triumphantly repelled, while others will watch waiting for the laughs to strike.

And that’s the real problem with “Bruno.” Unlike Cohen’s much funnier “Borat,” “Bruno” seems oddly out of touch with current times. It doesn’t reflect the now — instead, it reflects the then. It’s a movie about a gay stereotype written and performed by a straight man who is married with a child. He doesn’t quite get it. The film does have its moments, just not enough of them. You watch the movie with a kind of bemused puzzlement. What is “Bruno” trying to accomplish? If the film wants to make us laugh, it doesn’t do so often enough. But if it wants to infuriate and affirm certain fears, it succeeds.

And where is the fun in that?

Grade: C

WeekinRewind.com is the site for Bangor Daily News film critic Christopher Smith’s blog, DVD giveaways and movie reviews. Smith’s reviews appear Fridays and weekends in Lifestyle, as well as on bangordailynews.com. He may be reached at Christopher@weekinrewind.com.

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