A Christmas 100-Week Roundup

Breaking the precise order of 100-week reviews, here are a handful of Christmas films I watched back in December 2018. One of them has its UK network TV premiere today, so it seemed like a good time to share them.

  • The Christmas Chronicles (2018)
  • The Man Who Invented Christmas (2017)
  • A Christmas Carol (2018)


    The Christmas Chronicles
    (2018)

    2018 #248
    Clay Kaytis | 104 mins | digital (UHD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | PG

    The Christmas Chronicles

    Netflix’s big-budget Christmas adventure got a sequel this year, which shows this first one must’ve been a hit (by whatever secret metric Netflix use nowadays) — and it’s well deserved, because The Christmas Chronicles is a lot of fun.

    The setup is two home-alone siblings set out to catch Santa on video (thank goodness they didn’t use that inciting incident to launch a found-footage Christmas movie), but things go awry and the pair end up having to help the man in red save Christmas.

    Like many a live-action American kids’ movie, The Christmas Chronicles is a bit cheesy to begin with, but it has an ace up its sleeve: Kurt Russell as Santa. Once he turns up, with a perfectly-pitched performances, the film really takes off — figuratively and literally, thanks to his flying sleigh. From there, the film develops a spot-on streak of irreverence. A chainsaw-wielding elf! Fist-bumping Santa! A jailhouse song performance! Santa snowboarding out of the sky! There are lots of funny little gags too — not big clever “jokes” per se, just well-played moments.

    Sure, there’s an element of comfort and cliché to the “sad kids who need to recapture Christmas spirit” stuff, but Russell’s cool Santa, and the tone he brings with him, enliven proceedings no end. The film manages to dodge the traps of being cloying or overly cheesy, without disappearing into a well of grim cynicism. It works so well that some of the final few minutes might just bring a little tear to the eye.

    Any criticisms (I had a whole paragraph about the kids’ limp family motto and its predictable use) just feel like nitpicking. This is designed to be a frothy, easy Christmas treat, and as that it would be perfectly adequate; but when you add Russell’s superb incarnation of Santa into the mix, it’s elevated to something very good indeed. A great movie? Not particularly. A great movie to watch at Christmas? Oh yes.

    4 out of 5

    (That is the UK poster I’ve used above, despite the fact it’s got the title of Harry Potter 1 wrong.)

    The Man Who Invented Christmas
    (2017)

    2018 #258
    Bharat Nalluri | 104 mins | digital (HD) | 2.35:1 | Ireland & Canada / English | PG / PG

    The Man Who Invented Christmas

    “Charles Dickens writes A Christmas Carol” is the simplified plot of this film. Well, it’s not even that simplified: it’s the plot. In this telling, various parts of Dickens’s story are inspired by characters and situations he encounters in real life — how convenient. It’s all thoroughly far-fetched, of course, but not without a certain Christmas charm and amusement for those feeling forgiving in the festive season.

    Dickens is played by the dashing Dan Stevens. It’s another thing that seems like artifice — making the author young and handsome so he can be the main character in a movie — until you learn Dickens was actually only 31 when he wrote the book. And he’d already written works including Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby by this point!

    But don’t dwell on that too much, because it’s liable to make your life feel crushingly inadequate; and this is a lightweight film — a bit of festive froth — designed to brighten your days with a bit of seasonal cheer, not darken them with realisations of your own shortcomings.

    3 out of 5

    The UK network TV premiere of The Man Who Invented Christmas is on Channel 4 today at 4:55pm.

    A Christmas Carol
    (2018)

    2018 #260
    Tom Cairns | 72 mins | digital (HD) | 16:9 | UK / English | PG

    A Christmas Carol

    Simon Callow has carved out a little niche playing Charles Dickens in various settings — the highest profile is probably in a 2005 episode of Doctor Who, but he was cast in that due to already being renowned for his recreations of Dickens’s public readings. This film is, effectively, one of those: based on Dickens’s own performance adaptation of A Christmas Carol, Callow reads the story and… that’s about it.

    A couple of things make it screen worthy. Director Tom Cairns stages proceedings in inventive and enlivening ways, using different rooms, lighting, props, and practical effects, some almost magical, plus music and sound effects mixed in a suitably evocative way, to lend an appropriate atmosphere to every scene and event. A lot of it is shot in long takes, which underline the impressiveness of both the staging (it’s often modified and varied within a single shot) and Callow’s performance, which is enhanced and complemented by Cairns’s work.

    And it is a performance, not just a reading. Callow inhabits all the characters, thereby bringing a sense of life to take the words beyond mere narration; but he executes it in a subtle-enough way that his turn doesn’t descend into some overripe actorly ‘showcase’. It’s very well judged. Indeed, it feels like the kind of thing that should become a staple of Christmas Eve evenings on the BBC.

    4 out of 5

  • The Personal History of David Copperfield (2019)

    2019 #136
    Armando Iannucci | 119 mins | cinema | 2.35:1 | UK & USA / English | PG / PG

    The Personal History of David Copperfield

    A fresh perspective on Charles Dickens’s favourite of his own novels, from co-writer/director Armando Iannucci, best known for sitcom The Thick of It, its spinoff movie In the Loop, and The Death of Stalin.

    Those are all political satires, of course, whereas David Copperfield is more of a shaggy dog story; though its attracted some degree of ‘political’ commentary thanks to its colourblind casting. So let’s get that out of the way first. Not every character here is played by a white actor. Is every character in Dickens’s novel white? I dunno, probably. Is it unrealistic to have people of colour in a story set in Victorian England? Well, considering England was at the heart of a worldwide empire with global trade links and had been through the slave trade, I would guess not everyone in the country was white by that point. I’m no expert on this, but I’ve certainly seen comments by experts that would agree with that.

    Now, all of that said, David Copperfield’s attitude to casting is the most genuinely colourblind I’ve ever seen — it’s not concerned that related characters have ‘plausible’ similar skin tones, even. It seems Iannucci has just cast whichever actor he felt was right for the role. I guess that’s going to prove an insurmountable barrier to some people; too great an ask to accept the ‘reality’ of the story. Whereas a giant hand crashing through a ceiling to pluck little David from comfort, well, that’s just dandy. Anyway, I’m already getting bored with this debate and I’ve barely written about it. If it bothers you, I don’t think it should, but hey, you do you. For the rest of us, we can just get on with enjoying everything else the film has to offer.

    Dev Patel IS David Copperfield

    And that’s quite a bit. Dickens’s novel is a thick tome (768 pages, as per the film tie-in edition), and here it’s been condensed briskly into just under two hours, so there’s a lot more going on than the colour of people’s skin. It’s a semi-autobiographical tale, and Iannucci emphasises that side of it by framing it as David telling his own story at a staged reading. Such a framing device also allows for some flights of whimsy in the film’s treatment of certain things, especially scene transitions, but to say too much of those would destroy some delightful surprises. Trust that Iannucci is doing more than just showing off or messing around, however, instead establishing a style that allows for a neat twist or two later on.

    I don’t know how thoroughly the film adapts those 768 pages, but it feels like it’s trying to cram in as much as possible. It rattles by at a whipcrack pace, which is both one of its greatest assets, because it moves like the clappers, and its biggest drawbacks, because it winds up feeling a bit too long. Every time you think it’s getting to the end, there’s another bit. (Maybe this is less of a problem if you’re familiar with the whole story, which I was not.) This is a minor complaint, though, because while those 119 minutes may be a few more than seems strictly necessary, what’s within them is frequently riotously funny. I saw the film with an almost-full house, and it was clear everyone was having a whale of a time.

    The same appears to be true of the cast. I suppose Dev Patel is best known for heavier stuff, like Slumdog Millionaire (though that was 12 years ago now (jeez)) and Lion, but here reminds us he’s adept at lighter material too (which shouldn’t surprise anyone who’s seen the Marigold Hotel films). Elsewise, the extensive and sublime supporting cast vie for attention in an array of standout performances. For my money the winner (if we must pick one) is Hugh Laurie as the flighty but unfailingly kind Mr Dick. Plus it’s quite nice (or you could say “nostalgic”) to see him back in bumbling toff mode after years of things like House and The Night Manager.

    If he's Mr Dick, what's HER name likely to be?

    Not that the others don’t get their moments to shine — when you’ve got the likes of Tilda Swinton, Peter Capaldi, and Ben Whishaw involved, you’d expect nothing less. I could go on listing recognisable names, for there are plenty here, but you can always just read the cast list for yourself. One of the most noteworthy is Morfydd Clark in a dual role, one of which likes to mainly talk through her dog. I suspect this may be another stop on her path to stardom — she was recently seen in the BBC’s Dracula and a small-but-memorable role in His Dark Materials, and has been cast as Galadriel in Amazon’s Lord of the Rings series.

    So there’s a lot of talent on screen, but it takes that degree of skill to negotiate the tone Iannucci has set: a narrative full with comedy, but that doesn’t lose sight of an underlying heart. Indeed, the degree of humour is a welcome counterpoint to the machinations of the plot, which contain an array of miseries when looked at objectively — death, loss of home, betrayal, and so on. This is again perhaps where that framing device comes into play, setting the story as a man finding the (sometimes dark) humour in the list of tragedies that have befallen him, as well as his friends and family. David’s predilection for storytelling is an important throughline, and the film’s affection for the emotional power of the act of writing is sure to make it a favourite for many authors (and wannabes).

    4 out of 5

    The Personal History of David Copperfield is in UK cinemas now. It’s released in the US on May 8th.

    FilmBath Festival – Opening Night

    I’ve never been to a film festival before. The expense and organisation of travel and accommodation, battles for tickets and/or never-ending queues for entry, racing to dozens of screenings a day… it’s just not my thing. (I don’t know if major festivals are really like that, it’s just an impression I’ve picked up from attendees on social media, etc.)

    But when there’s a film festival one stop on the train away from your house, well, you can’t say “no”, can you? (Doubly so when you work for said festival and get comp tickets…)

    FilmBath Festival isn’t among your Sundances or your Canneses or your Venices or your Londons. Nor is it one of those festival that just specialises in one thing, like documentaries or shorts. There are no red carpets or world premieres; no overtired critics trying to review 5,000 films every day or websites setting up media centres to churn out slightly stilted YouTube interviews with cast and crew desperate to promote their movie. Instead, it’s a local festival giving local people a chance to see previews ahead of general release; films that have already been released but didn’t make it to one of Bath’s cinemas; and smaller, interesting movies that might be difficult to see at all outside a festival.

    Yesterday’s opening night kicked off the festival with a double bill of the first of those, including an exciting late addition to the lineup — so late it didn’t even make the brochure. (Ooh, look at all the beautifully precise punctuation and spelling and whatnot in that brochure! What geniuses must have worked on such a thing!) I saw both films, and I’ll write full reviews nearer their wide releases, but for the time being…

    The Report at FilmBath Festival

    First up was The Report, an All the President’s Men-style thriller about the investigation into the CIA’s use of torture post-9/11. It’s written and directed by Scott Z. Burns, who’s probably best known for writing a handful of Steven Soderbergh movies, plus contributing to arguably the best Bourne movie and Daniel Craig’s final Bond film. At the centre of the story is Star Wars’s Adam Driver as Daniel J. Jones, the senate staffer tasked with combing through millions of pages of secret documents to find the truth. As if to highlight the significance of the story, there’s an all-star supporting cast, led by Annette Bening and Jon Hamm, plus Michael C. Hall, Maura Tierney, Tim Blake Nelson, Matthew Rhys, Corey Stoll, Ted Levine, Jennifer Morrison, and several other recognisable faces. It’s a methodical and gripping film, seemingly as dedicated to explaining the truth as is its protagonist. Imagine if we lived in a world where this was the R-rated war-related true story that became the year’s highest-grossing film at the US box office (as opposed to the one that was).

    The Personal History of David Copperfield at FilmBath Festival

    Next, that late addition: Armando Iannucci’s new adaptation of Charles Dickens’s The Personal History of David Copperfield. It’s got another all-star cast, headed by Dev Patel as the eponymous young man. Obviously such colourblind casting has provoked comment, and I guess some people won’t be able to get over that, but it doesn’t matter. Dickens’s novel is a thick tome, here condensed briskly into two hours, and there’s a lot more going on than the colour of people’s skin. Its whipcrack pace is both one of its greatest assets (it moves like the clappers) and its biggest drawbacks (it winds up feeling a bit too long). But it’s frequently riotously funny, and the namey cast are sublime, including (deep breath) Tilda Swinton, Hugh Laurie, Peter Capaldi, Ben Whishaw, Gwendoline Christie, Anna Maxwell Martin, Benedict Wong, Paul Whitehouse, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Aneurin Barnard, plus many other faces you might recognise depending how much British TV you watch. Plus, its affection for the emotional power of the act of writing is sure to make it a favourite for many authors (and wannabes).

    Two completely different films, then, but both very much in my wheelhouse — as I said, I’ll review them later, but I enjoyed them both immensely. An exceptionally strong opening to a festival that promises many more delights (Jojo frickin’ Rabbit!) to come.

    FilmBath Festival continues until 17th November. For information about what’s screening and to buy tickets, look here. You can also follow me on Twitter, Instagram, and/or Letterboxd for timely updates about what I’m seeing.

    A Christmas Carol (2009)

    aka Disney’s A Christmas Carol

    2016 #188
    Robert Zemeckis | 88 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

    Disney's A Christmas Carol

    You surely know the story of A Christmas Carol — if you don’t instantly, it’s the one with Scrooge and the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future — so what matters is which particular adaptation this is and if it’s any good.

    Well, this is the one made by Robert Zemeckis back when he was obsessed with motion-captured computer animation, following the financial (though, I would argue, not artistic) success of The Polar Express and Beowulf. Fortunately A Christmas Carol seemed to kill off this diversion in his career (he’s since returned to making passably-received live-action films), because it’s the worst of that trilogy.

    The theoretical star of the show is Jim Carrey, who leads as Scrooge — here performed as “Jim Carrey playing an old man” — but also portrays all the ghosts, meaning he’s the only actor on screen for much of the film. Except he’s never on screen at all, of course, because CGI. Elsewise, Gary Oldman is entirely lost within the CG of Bob Cratchit, as well as, bizarrely, playing his son, Tiny Tim. The less said about this the better. Colin Firth is also here, his character designed to actually look like him — which, frankly, is even worse. There are also small supporting roles for the likes of Bob Hoskins, Robin Wright Penn, Cary Elwes, and Lesley Manville, but no one emerges from this movie with any credit.

    I ain't afraid of no ghosts... except this one

    In the early days of motion-captured movies many critics were inordinately concerned with the “uncanny valley”, the effect whereby an animated human being looks almost real but there’s something undefinable that’s off about them. Robert Zemeckis attracted such criticism for The Polar Express, mainly focusing on the characters’ dead eyes. No such worries here, though: the animation looks far too cheap to come anywhere near bothering uncanny valley territory. There’s an array of ludicrously mismatched character designs, which put hyper-real humans alongside cartoonish ones, all of them with blank simplistically-textured features. Rather than a movie, it looks like one very long video game cutscene.

    I don’t necessarily like getting distracted by technical merits of special effects over story, etc, but A Christmas Carol’s style — or lack thereof — is so damn distracting. Beside which, as I said at the start, this is a very familiar and oft-told tale, making the method of this particular telling all the more pertinent. At times it well conveys the free-flowing lunacy of a nightmare, at least, but who enjoys a nightmare?

    2 out of 5

    Great Expectations (1946)

    2007 #98
    David Lean | 113 mins | DVD | PG

    Great ExpectationsClassic adaptation of the acclaimed novel. While my experience of Dickens is woefully limited to screen adaptations, this tale is one of my lesser favourites; the first act and elements of the climax are wonderfully Gothic (and here beautifully directed to that effect), but it seems to lack the depth or importance of works such as Bleak House, Oliver Twist or A Christmas Carol.*

    Though, aside from the dully straightforward middle, there’s little to dislike about the adaptation. John Mills is too old to convince as a 20-year-old Pip, but his performance is good and he’s ably supported. However, the main highlights are undoubtedly all in Lean’s brilliant direction.

    4 out of 5

    * I don’t remove anything when I repost my old reviews, but I must add that I now find this comment to be suitably embarrassing. ^