Tag Archives: C+

DR. SEUSS’ THE GRINCH

Producer: Chris Meledandri and Janet Healy
Director: Yarrow Cheney and Scott Mosier
Writer: Michael LeSieur and Tommy Swerdlow
Stars: Benedict Cumberbatch, Rashida Jones, Cameron Seely, Kenan Thompson , Tristan O;Hare, Ramone Hamilton, Sam Lavignino, Scarlett Estevez, Angela Lansbury and Pharrell Williams
Studio: Universal Pictures

C+

It was way back in 1966 that Dr. Seuss’ Grinch, arguably the writer’s most famous character, first made his appearance on the screen—the small one—in an animated TV special, in which Boris Karloff provided the voice, doing both narration and the Grinch’s dialogue. Now Illumination Entertainment, the outfit that adapted another Seuss book, “The Lorax,” for the big screen six years ago, has taken up the story of the wicked green one’s effort to steal Christmas from the residents of Whoville. Theirs is, in overall spirit, a pretty faithful adaptation, preferable in that respect (and others) to the Ron Howard-Jim Carrey live-action misfire from 2000; but except in terms of the vibrancy of the images, it too pales before Chuck Jones’s humbler half-hour classic.

The brevity of the time slot, of course, meant that Jones was able to stick very closely to the text and tone of the original; there were some minor additions, including musical ones, but the 1966 film was essentially Seuss. Anyone expanding the simple story into a feature necessarily must resort to padding. Howard and his screenwriters, Jeffrey Price and Peter S, Seamans, added a good deal of incident, much of it misguided, and the result was painful.

The directors of this new version, Yarrow Cheney and Scott Mosier, and scripters Michael LeSieur and Tommy Swerdlow add incident as well, but much of it is composed of slapstick action for the Grinch (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) and his ever-loyal dog Max, though they add a third partner in pratfalls in the form of an oversized reindeer the Grinch tries to enlist in his nocturnal heist, as well as a few appearances by a little goat with an extraordinarily loud bleat. This is harmless, if overextended stuff. (There is a particularly odd sight gag that shows the Grinch wearing tightly-whities in bed, and then putting on “pants” of furry green after he awakes.)

Other expansions are less happy. Like the picture, this one feels compelled to add a backstory to explain the Grinch’s bad humor and hatred of Christmas. It’s derived from Dickens, and clumsily so. We do not need to be told where his grinchiness comes from.

A third major expansion has to do with the home life of little Cindy Lou (Cameron Seely), here no toddler but a feisty, chatty kid, and her single mom Donna (Rashida Jones), which results in lots of sitcom-style banter between mother and daughter and plenty of interaction between the child and the Grinch. That’s far less satisfying material, more sickly sweet than Seussian. It also allows for some scenes involving Cindy Lou’s “posse,” the most notable of whom is a cutesy kid named Grooper (Tristan O’Hare); this is utterly extraneous stuff, and for the most part pretty pallid.

Meanwhile the doggerel of the original, sad to say, suffers noticeably this time around. A few lines are occasionally repeated in a wimpy voice by Pharrell Williams. He’s certainly no Karloff.

As for music, there are a few brief allusions to the songs from the television special, but no new numbers, though the Grinch sometimes plays a huge organ like a green Phantom of the Opera The major stuff is in the form of Christmas carols (appropriate, since, as has been mentioned, the obvious precursor of Seuss’ story in Dickens’), but it seems a bit odd that the one that is most prominently used is “God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen,” with its mention of Christ—though otherwise the Whoville celebration is utterly devoid of any religious element.

The voicework is spotty. Seely and Jones are conventional spunky, and Kenan Thompson gets off a few blustery laughs as a Whoville resident named Bricklebaum, who irritates the Grinch no end. That leaves the question of Cumberbatch’s Grinch. The approach is certainly very different from Karloff’s: more reedy than growly, wheedling rather than gruff. Frequently he sounds like Paul Lynde, with a slight quiver to the voice. It’s certainly a different interpretation, though one that takes some getting used to.

So what’s the overall assessment of this latest “Grinch”? In terms of visuals, it’s outstanding, an example of computer-generated animation that matches the best Illumination standards, and both kids and adults should appreciate that. But while bright and shiny and energetic, it also pads the original to its disadvantage, proving once again that bigger and longer is not necessarily better. Jones and Karloff still rule the Whoville universe.

VIPER CLUB

Producer: Anna Gerb, Neal Didson and J.C. Chandor
Director: Maryam Keshavarz
Writer: Marytam Keshavarz and Jonathan Mastro
Stars: Susan Sarandion, Matt Bohmer, Lola Kirke, Julian Morris, Sheila Vand, Adepero Oduye, Edie Falco, Patrick Breen, Amir Malajou and Damian Young
Studio: Roadside Attractions/YouTube Original Films

C+

Susan Sarandon gives a committed performance as a mother whose son, a freelance journalist, has been taken hostage by terrorists in the Middle East, but Maryam Keshavarz’s “Viper Club” does not showcase it to best advantage. The drama is earnest and well-meaning, but it never generates the emotional wallop it aims for; even the conclusion, which should be shattering, falls short.

Helen Sterling (Sarandon) is a veteran nurse at a New York hospital emergency room, where she’s a mainstay of the staff, even teaching a young doctor (Amir Malaklou) how to give the ultimate bad news to worried parents in the waiting room while showing support to a mother (Lola Kirke) whose daughter is lying in a coma from which she might never awake. What she hasn’t told her colleagues, including her boss (Adepero Oduye), is that her son Andy (Julian Morris), was seized by insurgents while covering the Syrian civil war and is being held for a huge ransom she cannot possibly pay.

She’s sought help from the government, of course, but none is forthcoming: the FBI agent she’s been conferring with (Patrick Breen) offers only bullet points about not dealing with terrorists and advice about trying to get their demands reduced, and State Department personnel are no more helpful. A congressman brushes her off with a mini-speech about how Andy, by entering Syria against the government’s instructions, had deliberately put himself in jeopardy.

Helen has to look elsewhere, and eventually is contracted by Charlotte (Edie Falco), the mother of a former hostage who knows the workings of a secret group, called the Viper Club, that can help in raising funds and circumvent US policy to make contact with the captors. Two of Andy’s colleagues, Sam (Matt Bomer) and Sheila (Sheila Vand), offer their help as well.

What results is a campaign to raise the money to secure Andy’s release. It involves her talking via Skype with another captive and joining Charlotte to make appeals for contributions from well-heeled prospective donors—with whom, of course, she feels intensely uncomfortable and out of place. Nevertheless the fundraising continues, with a bank of phones eventually replacing direct contact, and it inches toward meeting the terrorists’ demands. It appears, in fact, that Helen’s story might have a happy ending.

Sarandon is clearly the best thing about “Viper Club.” Although the supporting cast—especially Falco and Bomer—contribute strong turns, it’s she who holds the film together as surely as Helen does her own life. Angry, fearful and desperate, Sterling emerges as a complex figure in her capable hands; though perhaps the surname is rather too spot-on, that’s more the fault of Keshavarz and co-writer Jonathan Mastro.

Also problematic is the filmmakers’ dependence on gauzy flashbacks to Andy’s childhood and more recent encounters with Helen, inserted into the main narrative by editor Andrea Chignoli, to demonstrate the power of her maternal attachment. Simply put, Sarandon’s fierce performance is sufficient in itself to show us that, and the rather cheesy ambience of too many of the flashbacks undercuts the integrity of the picture, which otherwise—in Drew Daniels’ gritty cinematography and Javiera Varas’ plain production design—evinces authenticity.

The result is that, apart from Sarandon, “Viper Club” doesn’t transcend the feel of a decent, but hardly outstanding, TV movie. The only difference is that if it were cable fodder, the ending might have been different.