The Past Christmas on TV

Once again it was another busy festive period on the tellybox, and here’s what I thought of what I watched.

Doctor Who  Resolution
Doctor Who: ResolutionNow, that’s more like it! After the damp squib of alleged-finale The Battle of [Mashes Hand on Keyboard], this New Year’s Day special does a much better job of putting a capstone on series 11. Despite its status as a separate “special” episode, it’s hard to deny that it’s actually part of the last series (despite what BBC Worldwide would have us believe, with their cash-grab move of leaving the episode out of the series box set, which isn’t even released for another fortnight): Ryan’s dad finally turns up (after being mentioned multiple times during the main series), while the primary storyline does a more subtle and effective job of mirroring series premiere The Woman Who Fell to Earth than Battle of Thingy-Wotsit did by just having a returning villain.

Resolution has a returning villain too, of course: the Daleks! Or, rather, one sole Dalek. Like 2005 episode Dalek, Resolution seeks to make a single Dalek a world-threatening force, and largely does a bang-up job. As has been thoroughly demonstrated by now, current showrunner Chris Chibnall isn’t half the writer that Russell T Davies or Steven Moffat are (and he only proves this harder by trying to emulate their styles so often), so Resolution doesn’t have as much freshness or innovation as some Dalek tales from Davies’ and Moffat’s eras. But, saying that, the Dalek ‘riding’ a human via some kind of icky telepathic link is a new idea, which makes for some effective horror moments, especially given the creepy cephalopod-influenced design of the creature. There’s plenty of exciting running about too, making this the most blockbuster-like version of Who we’ve yet seen from Chibnall’s era.

It still wasn’t perfect (as glad as I was to see Ryan’s dad turn up, the lengthy heart-to-heart scenes crippled the pace, and his inevitable redemption was narratively unearned; plus, Yaz continues to get shafted with “generic companion” duties), but overall it was a fun treat for Christmas New Year’s Day. More episodes with this kind of ambition when the series returns in 2020, please!

The ABC Murders
The ABC MurdersOnce upon a time it seemed implausible that anyone would ever try to play Poirot ever again, given how iconically (and thoroughly) David Suchet had embodied the Belgian detective during the 25-year series in which he starred. But I suppose it was inevitable that it would happen someday, and so following Branagh’s go at the end of last year, this year ends with another pretender to the throne: John Malkovich. Where Branagh stuck to tradition, with a flamboyant and fastidious embodiment of the character that seemed in-keeping with how Agatha Christie wrote him, Malkovich and regular TV-Christie scribe Sarah Phelps (she’s written all of the BBC’s new adaptations to date) have gone more revisionist. This Poirot is quiet, unassuming, ageing, almost embarrassed to be butting into the police investigation, especially as they would rather he pushed off, and he lives in a 1930s where fascism is ascendent and foreigners are despised, so he feels compelled to hide his Belgian roots as much as possible. It all feels psychologically plausible (and the mirroring of Brexit Britain are obvious), but it’s also a big set of changes to take in one go, which understandably angered some fans. I confess, I’ve never read a Poirot book, but I was a fan of the Suchet series. Nonetheless, I enjoyed this take on the character as an alternative — it may not be faithful, but it is believable.

The same could be said of the plot. Poirot and/or Christie are best remembered for country house-type murder mysteries, with a bunch of upper-class suspects in a confined location, who Poirot interviews one by one before bringing them all together to explain what happened. This was the format that Branagh used to reassuring effect in his film (and, presumably, will continue to use in his next one, if my memory of its structure serves me right). The ABC Murders doesn’t go that way, however, with Poirot on the hunt for a killer who taunts him via letters. The suspect pool is limited not by confined location, but by how sophisticated the viewer wants to be at guessing — the structure is that of a howcatchem rather than a whodunit, as we witness the murderer going about his deeds while Poirot attempts to find him out. But this is Christie, so there’s a twist in the tail. Look, I’m trying not to spoil it for anyone who’s not seen it yet, but everyone I was watching with figured early on that (last spoiler warning!) the guy who was Obviously The Murderer was not the murderer, and so it turned into the usual guessing game of “which recognisable guest star did it?” Well, at least one aspect of this was reassuringly familiar, then.

Watership Down
Watership DownThe BBC and Netflix teamed up for this £30 million CG animated adaption of Richard Adams’ children’s novel, perhaps most (in)famous for its 1978 film adaptation that is said to have traumatised all who saw it (I never have). I guess most of that money went on the all-star cast (seriously, the number of well-known names is mad — far too many to list here, so you can check out this list if you want), because it certainly doesn’t seem to have been spent on the animation. Frankly, much of the series looks like an unfinished animatic; the stuff you sometimes see on animated movies’ DVD release as deleted scenes or work-in-progress versions. And yet, there are occasional flashes of polish: look closely at the rabbits’ fur in many scenes and you’ll see high levels of detail.

Cheap production values are not the be-all-and-end-all, though — such things can be easily overlooked if there’s a good story or characters. But Watership Down’s animation is so poor that it scuppers that, too. Most of the characters are visually indistinguishable, made worse when there are so many of them to get to know, and very little screen time is invested in delineating them. It’s not even something you get used to or work out for yourself — the longer the series went on, the more confusing it became to follow who each rabbit was and what was meant to be happening to them. It’s frustrating and distancing, getting in the way of you caring about the characters or the story, which literally ruins the entire production. We stuck with all four hours of it because of a bloody-minded “we’ve started so we’ll finish” attitude. I’d recommend not even starting it.

Not Going Out  Ding Dong Merrily on Live
Not Going Out LiveNormally I’d fold this into the comedy roundup (see below), but I enjoyed it so much I’m singling it out. As the title implies, this was a live edition of the long-running sitcom. What inspired that, I don’t know, but it paid off with the series’ best episode for years. The storyline didn’t necessitate the live-broadcast format in the same way as 2018’s other live comedy special, Inside No.9, but writer-star Lee Mack built in various sequences to push what was possible live. And, naturally, some things went wrong — golden opportunities for a quick-thinking comic like Mack, who got to throw in plenty of improvisations and fourth-wall breaking. It may not be sophisticated, but it was funny. Indeed, I enjoyed it so much that I watched it twice within 24 hours.

Comedy roundup
Upstart Crow: A Crow Christmas CarolAlso tickling my funny bone this season were a new Upstart Crow Christmas special, given a prime Christmas Day slot. It riffed off A Christmas Carol, which was unfortunate because I saw rather too many version of that this year (see below for another). I can’t say Crow’s take was particularly special, but I’m fond of the sitcom anyway so another episode is always welcome. The night before that (Christmas Eve, for those not keeping up), BBC One had one-off comedy-drama Click & Collect, with Stephen Merchant as a dad who must travel to the other end of the country to collect that year’s most-wanted toy for his daughter, accompanied by his irritatingly over-friendly neighbour. It’s the kind of fluff that would feel a bit too daft most of the time, but hits the right light-entertainment note at Christmas. A bit more cutting edge was Goodness Gracious Me: 20 Years Innit!, marking the 20th anniversary of the groundbreaking British-Asian sketch show with a special that used some of the series’ funniest sketches as examples to discuss what made the show so important. It was a subtly clever way to be both “greatest hits” clip show and retrospective documentary at once. Sadly, the repeat of an overlong old Christmas special that followed wasn’t quite as vintage. And, as I’m rounding things up, there were also seasonal editions of panel shows Mock the Week (the usual clips and outtakes), Have I Got News for You (more compiled clips), and Insert Name Here (actually a new edition! I’m fond of it and was happy to see back on our screens). Several others I’m yet to catch up on (Would I Lie to You, The Imitation Game), though I did see both new episodes of Mrs Brown’s Boys. I know I “should” hate it, but the Christmas Day one, at least, made me laugh.

Also watched…
  • Black Mirror Bandersnatch — Was it a film? An episode of TV? Something else? I’m still not 100% sure, but I went with “film” and reviewed it in full here.
  • A Christmas Carol — A filmed version of Simon Callow’s one-man show, and another production that sits on the film/TV divide. They released it in cinemas before it was on TV, though, so I’ll be reviewing it as a film at some point. The only reason I mention it now, then, is because I thought it was very good and wanted to point out it’s still on iPlayer.
  • The Dead Room — Simon Callow reading again, this time in Mark Gatiss’ latest attempt to revive the beloved-by-some “Ghost Story for Christmas” format from the ’70s. It was an effectively creepy little tale while it lasted, but it seemed to stop before the story was over.
  • Mark Kermode’s Christmas Cinema Secrets — A festive edition of the series that entertainingly explains the inner workings of genre. In this case, we learn that pretty much every Christmas movie is basically A Christmas Carol.
  • Les Misérables Episode 1 — OMG there woz no singing!!!! (Proper review in a future post, when more of it has aired.)

    Things to Catch Up On
    A Series of Unfortunate Events season 3This Christmas, I have mostly been missing A Series of Unfortunate Events season three — the final one! Okay, it only came out yesterday, but I was with family and couldn’t watch it (ugh!) Not that I’d want to rush through it, anyway. By the time you’re reading this I’ll have made a start, and it’ll be reviewed next month. The same is true of Luther season four, which also started yesterday and which I’ll watch sometime later.

    Next month… look away, if you can: it’s the final series of Unfortunate Events!

    Advertisements
  • “Christmas in July” Review Roundup

    Being someone who lives in the northern hemisphere, and up towards the top of it too, we celebrate Christmas at, y’know, Christmas. But for people who live in places where 25th December falls in summery weather, all the trappings of the festival don’t feel so appropriate. Hence at some point someone conceived of “Christmas in July”.* I don’t know when — a long time ago, probably — but I first encountered the concept a year or two back.

    Anyway, I don’t think it’s celebrated on a specific date (it’s just a thing some people do some places), but it turns out there is a “Christmas in July” in London — a great big marketing event, self-described as “the ‘London Fashion Week’ of Christmas press launches.” Well, what could be more Christmassy than massive commercialisation? That’s occurring today and tomorrow, and seemed as good a point as any to post this selection of leftover reviews from the festive viewing I enjoyed seven months ago.

    In today’s roundup:

  • Elf (2003)
  • Scrooged (1988)
  • It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)


    Elf
    (2003)

    2017 #173
    Jon Favreau | 93 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | PG / PG

    Elf

    Regarded by some as a modern Christmas classic (though it’s 15 years old now, so I’m not sure if “modern” still applies), Elf is about a human raised as one of Santa’s elves (Will Ferrell) who travels to New York to find his real dad (James Caan), in the process spreading Christmas joy with his charmingly innocent view of the holiday.

    An early starring role for Ferrell, the film is more concerned with letting him get up to funny antics than it is with, say, building fully rounded character arcs — Caan goes through his inevitable redemption in the space of one cut. It’s less character development, more character transplant. Heck, transplants take time to perform — it’s character transmogrification. By taking such short cuts it fails to earn the changes of heart for its characters, leaving it to feel kind of empty and unsatisfying on an emotional level. Nonetheless, the focus on comedy and an innocent’s eye-view of Christmas means it makes for a fairly entertaining, pleasantly festive time-killer.

    3 out of 5

    Scrooged
    (1988)

    2017 #174
    Richard Donner | 101 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | PG / PG-13

    Scrooged

    Director Richard Donner transplants the most famous of all Christmas stories (that don’t star a divine baby, anyhow), Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, to the corporate ’80s in this fantasy comedy. (Most Christmas movies are “fantasy comedies”, aren’t they? Even the ones that aren’t (like, say, Home Alone kind of are. But I digress.)

    Bill Murray stars in “his first comedy since Ghostbusters”, as the UK poster boasts (“Bill Murray is back among the ghosts. Only this time, there’s no one to call.”). He’s the Scrooge figure, Frank Cross, a miserly TV executive visited by three ghosts who expose his negative effect on the world, and in turn on himself. Obviously, therefore, the film retains the broad shape of Dickens’ original story, but it goes a little further than that, taking all the salient details and adapting them to its own variation. It’s a good modernisation: true to the original, but without being slavishly beholden to translating the story word for word.

    It does feel like it could’ve been tightened up a bit, though according to Murray they “shot a big, long sloppy movie, so there’s a great deal of material that didn’t even end up in the film,” which I guess means this is already the improved version. Nonetheless, this is a Christmas tale with just enough ’80s cynicism and gentle horror to stop it being too twee, while retaining an appropriately goodhearted festiveness.

    4 out of 5

    It’s a Wonderful Life
    (1946)

    2017 #171
    Frank Capra | 130 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.33:1 | USA / English | U / PG

    It's a Wonderful Life

    I’m a little late to the party here: It’s a Wonderful Life is a Christmastime TV staple that most people have been enjoying for decades, many since childhood. Frankly, that’s the main reason I watched it — almost out of a sense of duty, owing to it being an iconic Christmas film, and also well rated on polls like the IMDb Top 250.

    So I set out merely to rectify my oversight, expecting to find it a bit saccharine and twee, and probably overrated. But no, it’s not that at all: it’s a beautiful, brilliantly made, genuinely moving film — I even got something in my eye during the conclusion, even if its heartwarmingness was objectively inevitable. Now, my only regret is I didn’t watch it sooner, so that I could’ve been re-experiencing it all my life.

    It’s not often you get a film with a reputation like this that manages to live up to it, but It’s a Wonderful Life is that rare exception. Indeed, it’s so good I’d even say it exceeded its reputation. Wonderful indeed.

    5 out of 5

    It’s a Wonderful Life placed 6th on my list of The 17 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2017, which can be read in full here.

    * If you happened to think this had something to do with the football — you know, like, “if England get through to the final it’ll be like Christmas in July for the fans” — then, um, no. Sorry. ^

  • The Conclusory Monthly Update for December 2017

    And so another year comes to an end — welcome to 2018, dear readers!

    Before that, I’m going to spend the next week-ish raking over the remnants of the year just ended. First up: the month of December, and my final tally of new films watched in 2017.


    #164 Murder on the Orient Express (2017)
    #165 Her (2013)
    #166 Atomic Blonde (2017)
    #167 Men in Black 3 (2012)
    #168 Your Name. (2016), aka Kimi no na wa.
    #169 Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)
    #170 Hidden Figures (2016)
    #171 It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
    #172 Forbidden Planet (1956)
    #173 Elf (2003)
    #174 Scrooged (1988)
    Star Wars: The Last Jedi
    .


    • 11 new films this month sees me reach a final total of 174 for the year, my third highest ever behind 2015’s 200 and 2016’s 195.
    • But that main list total was undoubtedly decreased by putting effort into my Rewatchathon — what if I added the two totals together? Well, there’ll be more on that in my annual stats post later in the week…
    • Other than that, it’s a bit of an unremarkable monthly tally: it’s below the December average (previously 11.55, now 11.5), below the rolling average of the last 12 months (though it bests December 2016, so raises that from 14.42 to 14.5), and below the average for 2017 (previously 14.8, now finalised at 14.5).
    • Earlier this year, Empire magazine published their latest reader-voted 100 Greatest Movies list. Watching It’s a Wonderful Life means I have just 2½ to go: La La Land (yep, still not seen it), True Romance, and the film I can never remember if I saw as a kid or not, E.T.
    • This month’s Blindspot film: sci-fi classic Forbidden Planet, which is still impressive in its own way but has inevitably been out-sci-fi-ed in the last six decades.
    • This month’s WDYMYHS film was more science fiction: Her, which is basically an episode of Black Mirror. A good one, though.



    The 31st Monthly Arbitrary Awards

    Favourite Film of the Month
    I watched a few Christmas films this year, which makes a change, and one of those is also my favourite film of the month. As it’s a long-fêted classic I was a little sceptical about how good It’s a Wonderful Life could actually be. Turns out, it’s magnificent.

    Least Favourite Film of the Month
    No real stinkers this month, but my least favourite was another Christmas film: Will Ferrell comedy Elf. It’s alright, but no classic.

    Most Kick-Ass Women of the Month
    Sure, Rey could get you good with a lightsaber, and whatever-Charlize-Theron’s-character-was-called-in-Atomic-Blonde could hand your arse to you in a single-take stairwell fight, but the women of Hidden Figures fought the patriarchy for real — and racism, too, while they were at it.

    Favourite Porg of the Month
    Porg, Millennium Falcon, window

    The Audience Award for Most-Viewed New Post of the Month
    You might think the release of a new Star Wars film would walk this, but you’d be wrong: the victory goes to my monthly TV review, which this time covered The Punisher, Detectorists, The Good Place, and so on. It’s the sixth time a TV post has won this award in 2017 — that’s half the year, folks! (The Last Jedi was of course the most-viewed film review, and by a considerable margin: out of all posts it came 6th, with the next new film post at 32nd.)


    I didn’t do my review advent calendar again this year, but by coincidence I did post exactly 25 new reviews.


    My Rewatchathon goal of 52 films should’ve averaged out at 4⅓ a month, but I came into December with seven left to get through. Did I manage it?

    #46 The Terminator (1984)
    #47 For a Few Dollars More (1965)
    #48 Star Wars: The Force Awakens 3D (2015)
    #49 Home Alone (1990)
    #50 Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge (2017)
    #51 Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1942)
    #52 Airplane! (1980)

    Yes, I did — but only just: I watched Airplane on December 31st.

    It’s been about 25 years since I last watched Home Alone. It’s not a bad kids’ film, is it? I’d forgotten how little of it is actually the famous stuff with the burglary and the traps.

    My full review of Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon from 2008 is linked above, which I mostly stand by (I found Lionel Atwill’s Moriarty less underpowered now), but it’s also worth noting that this time I watched a colourised version. I jotted a couple of thoughts about that in my Letterboxd diary here.

    Speaking of which, there are also a couple of notes on my Force Awakens rewatch here.


    Everything kicks off again, for the 12th time.

    Before that: all the stats and lists pertaining to my 2017 viewing.

    The Past Christmas on TV

    Ah, Christmas — it could be called “the season of TV” here in the UK. (Apparently Christmas Day telly is Not A Thing in most/all of the rest of the world. What do they do, actually interact with their family?! Madness.) Consequently, although it’s only two weeks since my last TV overview, my list of stuff watched that could go in this post included 26 different programmes. That’s all those one-off specials for you. From that long, long list, here are the ones I felt like writing about…

    Doctor Who  Twice Upon a Time
    Doctor Who: Twice Upon a TimeAnother year, another divisive Doctor Who Christmas special. It’s the third time that the Christmas Day spectacular has to serve double duty by writing out the programme’s lead actor, and it follows the format set out by David Tennant’s swan-song The End of Time and Matt Smith’s finale The Time of the Doctor by being a very inward-looking fan-focused edition. I’m not sure that’s the right tack to take on Christmas, quite frankly, when the show’s playing to a wider audience of more casual viewers than normal. Former showrunner Russell T Davies and immensely popular leading man Tennant had earnt that kind of indulgence by the time they exited, and the series was pretty much the biggest thing on British TV at the time, so most of those so-called “casual viewers” were actually regular watchers of the show anyway. I’m not convinced exiting showrunner Steven Moffat and departing Doctor Peter Capaldi are quite in the same position.

    Oh, but what does it matter? Capaldi’s been brilliant, and is brilliant here again. It was great to see Pearl Mackie back as the wonderful Bill, even if her return felt like a massive fudge about. How you felt about Clara’s cameo really depends on your opinion of Clara (I wasn’t surprised she cropped up; I also wasn’t bothered). David Bradley was absolutely spectacular as a recreation of the First Doctor, originally played by William Hartnell, who Bradley managed to evoke without doing a flat impression or a disrespectful re-envisioning. I’d love him to pop up again in the future, but that would make this a bit less special. The actual plot was a bit of nothing, though it led to a lovely conclusion on the battlefields of World War One — oh, and how good was Mark Gatiss in an almost thankless little role as a WW1 soldier? His reaction to the news that there would be a World War Two was heartbreakingly understated.

    And so, after Capaldi’s overwritten exit speech, we come to Jodie Whittaker’s debut as the Thirteenth Doctor. “Oh, brilliant,” was all she could say before she was kicked out of a crashing TARDIS — just as Tennant, Smith, and Capaldi all were immediately post-regeneration. We’ll have to wait until the autumn to get a proper handle on her interpretation of the role. Under the guidance of a new showrunner, Chris Chibnall, hopefully it’ll be worth the wait.

    The Miniaturist
    The MiniaturistThe BBC’s two-part adaptation of Jessie Burton’s 2014 bestseller promised to be a supernatural treat, though in that respect the trailers were somewhat misleading. Set in 17th century Amsterdam, it’s about a girl who marries a wealthy merchant, but finds his strict and secretive household is not all she’d hoped. He buys her a dolls house as a wedding gift and she commissions a miniaturist to produce items for it, but she soon starts to receive things she didn’t order — things which suggest the miniaturist somehow knows people’s secrets, and can possibly see the future… In actuality, The Miniaturist is more of a period drama, albeit one with lashings of Gothic that were right up my street. It was beautifully made, with a fantastic eye on the costumes and locations, and cinematography that evoked painting of the era. There were strong performances too, particularly from Anya Taylor-Joy (yes, her out of The VVitch and Split), once again brilliant as the initially delicate but increasingly confident lead, and Romola Garai as the merchant’s overbearing sister.

    There were some striking revelations and twists along the way (even if we guessed a few of them), but where the narrative really struggled was as it moved towards its conclusion. Weirdly divided into ‘halves’ running 90 and 60 minutes respectively (did they accidentally make it half-an-hour too long, or half-an-hour too short?), the second episode felt like it was merely playing out the obvious repercussions from the first episode’s cliffhangers and reveals. The answers about the titular character were particularly underwhelming. Thematically, there was something there about being the master of your own destiny, but if that’s what they wanted to convey then I didn’t think it was played out as effectively as it should’ve been. A real mixed bag, then: I loved the overall style and many individual elements, but a disappointing second half failed to stick the landing.

    A Christmas Carol Goes Wrong
    A Christmas Carol Goes Wrong
    A follow-up to last year’s magnificent Peter Pan Goes Wrong (see the “also watched” section), this sees the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society attempt to redeem themselves by gatecrashing the BBC’s new production of A Christmas Carol. Cue a parade of slapstick, farce, puns, tomfoolery, and general merriment. Last year’s production was adapted from an already successful stage show, while this is a brand-new production, which perhaps explains why it doesn’t feel as meticulously fine-tuned as Peter Pan. It’s still funny (though, as the Twitter reaction proved, this style of comedy isn’t to everyone’s taste), but it didn’t surpass last year’s instant Christmas classic.

    The League of Gentlemen  20th Anniversary Specials
    The League of Gentlemen“Oh God, I’d forgotten,” says one character early in the first instalment for almost 15 years of BBC Two’s pitch-black comedy series. He’s been confronted with some other returning characters, but I have to say that the sentiment kind of sums up my reaction to a lot of this revival, in two ways: firstly because I had to keep rummaging in my memory to make connections back to a series I haven’t watched for a decade and a half, and secondly because the hilarious grotesquery of the League came crashing back. Revivals of once-great comedies can be a mistake — they’re often little more than an exercise in nostalgia; and this one is certainly aimed at fans, as the vast majority of it continues or riffs off stuff from before — but, in spite of that, it still felt fresh and edgy, not like a gang of middle-aged men reliving past glories (the other thing that goes wrong with revivals). So it was all really rather good, and it’s gone down very well too. Officially it’s a 20th anniversary special rather than a fourth series, but might we see more? I think it would be welcomed.

    Comedy roundup
    300 Years of French and SaundersSo much comedy, so much of it a passable time-killer that I have little else to say about. The highlight was probably 300 Years of French and Saunders, an excellent celebration of the comedy double act, reminding us of many of their greatest hits alongside a few nice additions. It made me want a whole highlights series repeating all their many hilarious film spoofs. Shakespearean satire Upstart Crow offered a neat riff on one of the better-remembered storylines from modern Christmas classic Love Actually, which it executed with surprising subtly (or, at least, I had to point out the references to my fellow viewers, which was followed by half-an-hour of scouring through Richard Curtis’ film for the relevant scenes). I enjoyed the pilot for Tim Vine Travels Through Time back in September, so was delighted to see a Christmas special in the schedules. It’s good clean silly fun. The same can’t quite be said of Mrs. Brown’s Boys. I only ever watch it at Christmas if I’m around other people who are, but I always laugh more than I feel I should. Other than that, I also chuckled (to one degree or another) through festive editions of Gogglebox, Have I Got News For You, Live at the Apollo, Michael McIntyre’s Big Show, QI, and Travel Man, plus the annual Big Fat Quiz of the Year, one-off Miranda Does Christmas, and a Romesh Ranganathan standup special.

    Black Mirror  White Christmas
    Black Mirror: White ChristmasBlack Mirror series four was released last Friday, but I haven’t even watched series three yet. Well, I did only watch series two just before series three came out, so I guess I’m catching up at a set speed. One of the obstacles (kind of) was this, the show’s only Christmas special — you can’t watch a Christmassy Christmas special any time other than Christmas, can you? Of course, I could’ve watched it last Christmas, but shh. Originally airing at Christmas 2014 (so I’m only three years behind), the feature-length edition introduces us to a couple of blokes isolated somewhere on Christmas Day telling each other a trio of technology-inspired tales that (surprise!) turn out to be connected after all. It nails Black Mirror’s best-known qualities: future technology that’s incredibly plausible due to being just slightly more advanced than our own, the way it considers how such marvellous innovations would actually be used and affect us as human beings, and particularly how it might go horribly, horribly wrong. Merry Christmas!

    Also watched…
  • The Dresser — This adaptation of Ronald Harwood’s superb play, starring Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Anthony Hopkins, was actually on over two years ago, we just finally got round to watching it now. Should I have counted it as a film, perhaps?
  • The Galaxy Britain Built — The centrepiece of BBC Four’s Star Wars Night, a new documentary on the British designers and craftsmen who contributed so much to the look and feel of a galaxy far, far away — and continue to do so today, in fact. You’re welcome, geekdom.
  • The Highway Rat — I normally devote a bit more time to discussing these animated specials (previous ones include The Gruffalo, Room on the Broom, and Revolting Rhymes, all brilliant), but I was a bit underwhelmed by this year’s offering. The actual animation was as beautiful as ever, but the story and writing left something to be desired. Hey-ho.
  • Peter Pan Goes Wrong — Sadly this highlight of last Christmas wasn’t repeated this year, but my parents still had it recorded so I got to see it again. Last year’s review is here.
  • Snow Bears — This was an odd one. The BBC are normally so good at nature documentaries, yet this took a bunch of different bits of footage and mixed them up into a fictionalised narrative, and did it so obviously that they had to put a disclaimer at the start. Some cute stuff with bear cubs, mind.

    Things to Catch Up On
    Little WomenI may’ve watched 26 different programmes, but there’s still an awful lot I’ve missed. Like the BBC’s new three-part adaptation of Little Women — I’ve never read it or watched another version, so here’s my chance to get cultured. Less worthy but no less lovely, there’ve been a couple of Great British Bake Off specials featuring contestants from the BBC years even though it’s now on Channel 4. Gasp, indeed. And despite that long list up above, there’s still a handful of comedy specials I’ve got to catch up on, like Not Going Out, Would I Lie to You?, and even some not featuring Lee Mack. There’s bound to be something else I’ve forgotten — I’ll have to go through the Radio Times, again…

    Next month… New Year, new shows!

  • The Past Christmas on TV

    Christmastime: it’s all about family, food, presents, sweets, more food, alcohol, a bit more food, some kid who was born a while ago, and also food. But most of all, it’s about TV. Oh dear Lord, so much TV.

    Is it just me and my insanely broad and forgiving interests, or has there been more TV to watch this Christmas than normal? Every day in our copy of the Radio Times’ “legendary” Christmas issue seems alight with highlighter markings, an endless parade of visual entertainment to… well, to add to the list of stuff to watch later on catch-up, mainly. But I did actually watch some of it, and here is what I thought.

    Doctor Who The Return of Doctor Mysterio
    Doctor Who: The Return of Doctor MysterioThe controversial Steven Moffat era of nuWho is headed towards its end, but before his final full series next year there’s this penultimate Christmas special. There have been 12 of them now and they’re always divisive: some people think they’re too Christmassy, some that they’re not Christmassy enough; some like that they’re standalone adventures suited to a broader audience, but other times they’re not standalone enough… Each year presents a different mix of these elements, pleasing some and alienating others.

    This year, Doctor Who taps into the zeitgeist by finally tackling superheroes, with a riff off classic-styled Superman. Personally, I thought it was the best Christmas episode for years — a fun, exciting, witty, entertaining romp, that captured the tone of the superhero genre but gave it Doctor Who’s typical gently-irreverent spin. The tone was perfectly suited to Christmas day.

    But was there too much or too little Christmas in it? Well, I’ve seen critics put it in their top five Who Christmasses purely because there wasn’t much Christmas, and Letterboxd fans write it off purely because there wasn’t enough Christmas. When you’re the showrunner of Doctor Who, you literally can’t win.

    The Great Christmas Bake Off
    The Great Christmas Bake Off“Proper Bake Off” came to an end with what felt a little like a joyous celebration of the series’ unique charms, as well as its highs and lows. Considering the two festive episodes were shot before the controversial move to Channel 4 took place, that’s almost impressive. It’s hard to imagine GBBO without the alchemical mix of Mel, Sue, Paul and Mary, and these episodes showed the format on fine form. And then the BBC went and snuck in that perfectly-edited 60-second tribute to the whole thing. Who knew a programme about baking cake could be so good? Or make some people so emotional

    Bob Monkhouse: The Last Stand
    A few months before his death in 2003, Bob Monkhouse gave a one-off gig to an invited audience of fellow comedians which has apparently gone down in comedy legend. I’d never heard of it before, but there you go (I had the same thing with the joke in The Aristocrats and its alleged notoriety, so I won’t say I’m surprised). This was the first time that gig has been televised in a full form, and I confess I’d paid it no heed until it was trending on Twitter. Thanks for that recommendation, Twittersphere, because it’s a very good show: Bob tells jokes, tells stories, and interviews Mike Yarwood in front of an admiring audience who aren’t aware it’s probably his last gig — but, with that hindsight, the themes of sharing a lifetime of wisdom and finding contentment are obvious.

    Grantchester
    GrantchesterThe problem with Christmas specials of on-going shows is you’re sometimes left with on-going plots that must be acknowledged, and Grantchester has a particularly major one with its hero’s life-long love leaving her husband while pregnant. If you don’t watch, it’s set in the ’50s, so this kind of behaviour is the greatest scandal known to man. The special leaps into this without even the by-your-leave of a “previously on”, so I pity any non-regular viewers made to sit down in front of it on Christmas Eve. But it’s an immensely popular show with big ratings, apparently, so who can blame ITV for wanting it in their always-underpowered Christmas schedule? I imagine it fared better than Maigret did the next night…

    Revolting Rhymes
    Revolting RhymesThe team behind previous Christmas specials The Gruffalo, Room on the Broom, and Stick Man returned this year with a two-part adaptation of Roald Dahl’s retold fairy tales. Dahl’s individual tales have been intelligently remixed into a pair of stories (one per part, of course), with a framing narrative that actually contains a neat cliffhanger twist at the end of part one. Maybe it just caught me unawares because I wasn’t expecting it, but I thought it was very effective. Anyway, Dahl’s witty rhyming couplets are retained, delivered by a well-chosen cast, not least Dominic West as a smooth, charming, suspicious Wolf. The claymation-ish visual style of the CG animation is familiar from the makers’ previous films, but as polished and well-applied as ever, with some beautiful details. It makes for a visual treat to equal the excellent words they have to work with.

    The Witness for the Prosecution
    The Witness for the ProsecutionI thought And Then There Were None was one of the highlights of last year’s Christmas schedule, turning Agatha Christie’s most popular novel into a dark, slasher-movie-esque thriller, the first English-language adaptation to remain faithful to the original’s glum ending. I don’t know if this year’s Christie is faithful to her original short story, but it isn’t to the play adaptation (at least as I know it from the excellent film version). It seems to have deliberately followed in And Then There Were None’s tonal footsteps, shooting for a bleak tale about the fundamental darkness of human nature. Instead it’s diluted the satisfying mystery and removed the tension, with a two-hour running time feeling ponderous and its cinematography trying for atmospheric but instead hitting murky. Some people don’t approve of Christie-esque narratives that make a guessing game out of murder, but if you want you can always write your own gloomily realistic meditation on the nature of evil rather than co-opting her work into a grim treatise.

    Comedy round-up
    WILTYThere’s always a lot of special episodes of comedy shows on over Christmas, with varying degrees of success. I thought this year’s Live at the Apollo was woeful, with Romesh Ranganathan the only truly bright spot in 45 minutes of flat observations and unfunny daftness. Conversely, Would I Lie To You? proved to be as good value as it always is, thanks to the quick wit of the regulars plus Tom Courtenay’s affected (I presume) dodderiness. Mock the Week’s clip show format was perhaps improved by the fact I didn’t watch the most recent series, while the imperfect Insert Name Here makes a nonetheless welcome return. In the comedy gameshow sub-genre, Alan Carr’s 12 Stars of Christmas was the kind of trash I’d never watch at any other time of year yet stuck with for all five hours and kind of enjoyed (helped by watching on catch-up and fast-forwarding the really repetitious bits), while the David Walliams-fronted Blankety Blank revival provided as much charm as the format ever has. And normally it wouldn’t count as comedy, but this year’s run of Celebrity Mastermind began with CBBC puppet Hacker T. Dog as a contestant. At least he didn’t win.

    Also watched… (stuff that wasn’t Christmassy)
  • Castle Season 7 Episodes 22-23 — the last episode feels very much like someone thought they might get cancelled. After the quality of this season, I don’t blame them.
  • Class Series 1 Episode 8 — it’s been an uneven series, but the tease for season two’s big plot is very intriguing. Fingers crossed for a recommission.
  • The Grand Tour Season 1 Episode 3 — in which they actually do a version of the Grand Tour.

    Things to Catch Up On
    OutnumberedMy list of Christmas TV to get round to remains pretty extensive. There are all those regular series that insert a seasonal episode — The Grand Tour (that’d be the episode with Richard Hammond’s ice cream comments that you might’ve heard about), Paul O’Grady: For the Love of Dogs, Yonderland (not that I’ve watched any of the latest series), QI, Inside No.9 (which I’ve never watched before, but the special sounds good)… And there are series coming back for one-offs too, like Outnumbered and Jonathan Creek (which I loved during its original run but have been surprisingly lax about watching in the last few years). I’ve also not yet caught a couple of this year’s animated adaptations, Michael Rosen’s We’re Going on a Bear Hunt and Raymond Briggs’ Ethel & Ernest (which I figure will count as a film). Documentaries like Lego’s Big Christmas and West Side Stories also sit on my list, likely to get forgotten. There’s Sky1’s big Christmas Day drama, The Last Dragonslayer (which I wager I’ll also count as a film); Eric Idle’s comedy musical science thing, The Entire Universe; and Charlie Brooker’s 2016 Wipe, which apparently manages to make 2016 funny (I’ll believe it when I see it). Finally, I always save Channel 4’s The Big Fat Quiz of the Year for either New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day, because that just seems more appropriate.

    Whew!

    (And to think: this doesn’t even mention all the big specials for things I don’t watch.)

    Still To Come
    Sherlock series 4Things are beginning to wind down now… but as far as TV schedulers are concerned “Christmas” lasts until at least January 1st, so there are a couple of big hitters left. The biggest of all is a new, potentially final, run of Sherlock. No idea what the quality will be like, but expect lots of handwringing on social media and huge ratings either way. On New Year’s Eve there’s stage adaptation Peter Pan Goes Wrong, which I’ve heard such good stuff about it’s probably going to be a disappointment, and a Winnie-the-Pooh documentary that I’m going to watch even though it’s presented by Alan Titchmarsh. Next week (which you could argue is still part of Christmas if you have very forgiving holiday leave) sees lots of police shows kicking off, if that’s your thing: Death in Paradise, Endeavour, Midsomer Murders, No Offence, Silent Witness, Unforgotten… even Brooklyn Nine-Nine. And in the sphere of movies on TV, tonight you can choose between the network premiere of Captain America: The Winter Soldier on BBC One at 8:30pm and the subscription premiere of Captain America: Civil War on Sky Cinema at 8pm, an almost-double-bill (I mean, you can’t watch them both live) that I only note because of the “huh, well there you go” factor.

    Next month… Sherlock returns.

  • The Present (2014)

    2016 #114
    Jacob Frey | 4 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | Germany / English

    The PresentA short film about a boy and his dog, The Present was a graduation short for the Institute of Animation, Visual Effects and Digital Postproduction at the Filmakademie Baden-Wuerttemberg in Ludwigsburg, Germany (yeah, I copy & pasted that), which has since won more than 50 awards after playing at film festivals around the world. Reportedly it also single-handedly landed its animator/director a job at Disney — he went on to work on Zootopiatropolis.

    The simple story sees a videogame-obsessed boy given a mysterious box by his mother. Distracted long enough to open it, inside he finds a puppy, and… well, the film’s only four minutes long — you’re better off watching it than having me describe the story.

    Regular readers will know I’m a bit of a sucker for cute dogs nowadays, be they real or animated — I gave Disney short Feast a full five stars last year. If you enjoyed that, then I’m certain you’ll like The Present too. There are other similarities: it’s about a guy bonding with his dog; it’s told in near-silence, with the big emotional reveals left for you to pick up through the pictures rather than explanatory dialogue; and it certainly tugs on the heartstrings to a similar degree.

    In fact, I don’t think it’s going too far to say The Present may even be the better of the two — though it’s a close call.

    5 out of 5

    You can watch The Present free on Vimeo.

    P.S. A dog is for life, not just for Christmas.

    Come Together (2016)

    2016 #185a
    Wes Anderson | 4 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English

    Come TogetherChristmas adverts are all the rage these days, thanks to the likes of John Lewis and their beautifully affecting tributes to the holiday season / twee pieces of emotionally manipulative crap (delete as appropriate). This year clothes retailer H&M got in on the act by hiring everyone’s favourite go-to example of an idiosyncratically quirky director, Wes Anderson, to helm a short film-cum-advertisement — the first part of that equation being why I’m reviewing it here.

    For me, Anderson pitches the tone just right. Rather than making a four-minute festival of sappiness that rots your brain with its generic sugary sentiment, or a music video for a slow breathy cover of a once-famous song, or a long build-up to a cheap punchline, Anderson instead brings his own familiar style to a brief narrative that comes to a surprisingly heartwarming conclusion. In the process, he’s made an advert that doesn’t feel like an advert — another reason to factor it in here.

    I suppose for that same reason it almost fails — I’m no more or less likely to shop at H&M than I was before (in truth, I had to even double check they were a clothes retailer) — but as brand awareness goes, well, it doesn’t make me want to kick their teeth in until they go away and never bother me with one of their stupid adverts every again. Suck on that, John Lewis.

    4 out of 5

    Come Together can be watched on YouTube here.

    Just Friends (2005)

    2016 #97
    Roger Kumble | 91 mins | streaming | 1.85:1 | USA, Canada & Germany / English | 12 / PG-13

    I was aware of the existence of Just Friends in the way you’re aware of any movie with name actors that came out during the period in which you were cognisant of films that were being released — that is to say, I knew it was a film and it was a comedy, and I had paid it no heed beyond that. Until a couple of months back, when an article at the A.V. Club about a different topic referred to it as a “pop culture dud”, and the comments section got half overtaken with people defending it. Couple that with it being available free on Amazon Prime Instant Video and my curiosity was suitably piqued.

    It’s the story of Chris Brander (Ryan Reynolds), a fat kid at school who was publicly ridiculed when he declared his love for his best friend and most-popular-girl Jamie Palamino (Amy Smart). Years later, he’s got fit and become a womanising record company exec who hasn’t been home since that incident. However, events conspire to strand him back home for Christmas, with crazy popstrel Samantha James (Anna Faris) in tow, where he finds Jamie stuck in a dead-end job. Can he reclaim his past love, etc, etc, etc.

    For all kinds of reasons, Just Friends spends a long time feeling like a morally bankrupt movie. It’s unclear if it’s praising or condemning Chris’ frivolous lifestyle, if he needs saving by coming home, or if he deserves revenge on the people who mistreated him. We know what the standard Hollywood perspective on these things is, so kudos to some degree for dodging it (at least for a while), but it doesn’t commit to the other direction either. What the story really amounts to is wish fulfilment on an epic scale. Its message is essentially: you can go back to your past and make it better. Maybe I’m just a cynic, but that’s not something I believe.

    So it was on course for 2 stars, the inconsistency and moral questionability of its worldview tempered by the fact that it was sometimes pretty funny, even hilarious once or twice, particularly when it nails some slapstick. However, at around the halfway point it seems to lose all control of its story, veering wildly around from subplot to subplot, and from conclusion to conclusion (it feels like it’s reached its final play at least three times). Normally that would make things worse, but, concurrently, it settles down in to what it’s trying to say (as much as it’s trying to say anything). It even delivers laughs more consistently, too. To a degree, from that midpoint the movie is slowly rescued.

    One lesson I took from watching Just Friends (as if I didn’t know this already) was that just because a bunch of people defend something they like in a comments thread on the internet, it doesn’t mean you’ll like that thing too, even if that comments thread is on the A.V. Club. Nonetheless, while Just Friends is not any kind of “must see” film, as a 90-minute diversion — with, at this temporal distance, a splash of mid-’00s nostalgia — it’s passably entertaining.

    3 out of 5

    Die Hard (1988)

    100 Films’ 100 Favourites #23

    Twelve terrorists. One cop.
    The odds are against John McClane…
    That’s just the way he likes it.

    Country: USA
    Language: English
    Runtime: 132 minutes
    BBFC: 18 (1988) | 15 (2007)
    MPAA: R

    Original Release: 15th July 1988
    UK Release: 3rd February 1989
    First Seen: DVD, 2003

    Stars
    Bruce Willis (Twelve Monkeys, The Sixth Sense)
    Alan Rickman (Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Sense and Sensibility)
    Reginald VelJohnson (Turner & Hooch, Die Hard 2)
    Bonnie Bedelia (Die Hard 2, Presumed Innocent)

    Director
    John McTiernan (Predator, The Hunt for Red October)

    Screenwriters
    Jeb Stuart (Another 48 Hrs., The Fugitive)
    Steven E. de Souza (The Running Man, Beverly Hills Cop III)

    Based on
    Nothing Lasts Forever, a novel by Roderick Thorp.

    The Story
    While off-duty cop John McClane is visiting his estranged wife at her office Christmas party, a gang of terrorists enter the building and take the guests hostage. McClane avoids capture, making him their only hope of rescue…

    Our Hero
    One of New York’s finest unfortunately caught in the wrong place at the wrong time… or, as it turns out, the right place at the right time. They’re currently working on an “origin story” movie for cop John McClane, which is daft because Die Hard is his origin story — he may’ve become an action hero in later movies (I wouldn’t know, I still haven’t got beyond the second), but here McClane is just an ordinary cop. Well, a very committed ordinary cop, anyway.

    Our Villain
    Smart, witty, and thoroughly ruthless, Alan Rickman’s big-screen debut is a flawless turn that defined thriller villains (British-accented terrorists with a secret plan) for at least the next half-decade. No one does it better, though.

    Best Supporting Character
    McClane’s only real friend, Sgt. Al Powell is a beat cop on the outside who just happens to pick up his signal. Fortunately, he’s much smarter and more helpful than a team of FBI agents. Well, aren’t we all?

    Memorable Quote
    Hans Gruber: “Do you really think you have a chance against us, Mr. Cowboy?”
    John McClane: “Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker.”

    Quote Most Likely To Be Used in Everyday Conversation
    See above.

    Memorable Scene
    As Gruber lectures the collected hostages on how the terrorists have planned for every eventuality, a nearby elevator door pings open. One of the hostages screams, Gruber and co rush over, to find one of their compatriots dead with a message scrawled on his sweatshirt: “Now I have a machine gun, ho-ho-ho.”

    Truly Special Effect
    When the bomb in the elevator shaft blows out the side of the building, the effect was accomplished by collecting virtually every camera flashbulb of a particularly powerful type and wiring them to the outside of the actual building to simulate the flash, then superimposing a shot of an actual explosive blowing a hole in an all-black miniature of the building.

    Making of
    The filmmakers struggled to find a way for McClane and Gruber to meet prior to the movie’s climax. The scene in which they do, where Gruber pretends to be one of the hostages, was dreamt up after it was discovered Alan Rickman could do a good American accent.

    Previously on…
    Die Hard is adapted from a novel, which is a sequel to one called The Detective, which was filmed in 1968 starring Frank Sinatra as the lead cop (called Joe Leland rather than John McClane). When production began on Die Hard, Fox were obligated to offer the lead to Sinatra. Fortunately for them, he turned it down.

    Next time…
    Lightning struck twice for unlucky John McClane when he got embroiled in another Christmastime terrorist incident in Die Hard 2, aka Die Harder; then Gruber’s brother sought revenge in trilogy-forming Die Hard with a Vengeance. Years later, someone realised there was money to be made, leading to poorly-received cash-in sequels Live Free or Die Hard, aka Die Hard 4.0, and A Good Day to Die Hard. A sixth is in development.

    Awards
    4 Oscar nominations (Editing, Sound, Sound Effects Editing, Visual Effects — or, to put it another way: Sound, Effects, Editing, Sound Effects Editing)

    What the Critics Said
    “From its trailer, Die Hard looks like a typical action movie of the ’80s: a sweaty, bare-chested, all-American hero battles swarthy, heavily accented terrorist villains, accompanied by lots of high-tech explosions, vast sheets of breaking glass and enough sophisticated weaponry to account for the Pentagon’s budget overrun. As directed by John McTiernan, it turns out to be something more — the archetypical action movie of the ’80s, the perfection of the form. Sleekly engineered, impeccably staged and shrewdly dosed with humor and sentiment, Die Hard has everything but a personality.” — Dave Kehr, Chicago Tribune

    Score: 92%

    What the Public Say
    “Vulnerable but witty, McClane is a very well realised action hero who has set precedence as far as similar roles are concerned. […] Unlike Schwarzenegger and Stallone, Willis’ McClane is not the archetypal heroic figure that is invincible and untouchable. He gets his butt handed to him regularly and often finds himself panicking with frequent looks of nervousness and even fear.” — Billy’s Film Reviews

    Verdict

    The action movie to end all action movies… or, y’know, spawn endless sequels and rip-offs. But Die Hard really did perfect the mix: a capable but not superhuman hero, a genuinely threatening but enjoyable-to-watch villain, plenty of thrills and tension, but also humour and eminently quotable dialogue. And it’s set at Christmas (though originally released in July — what?!), which makes it ideal for seasonal counter-programming. What more could you ask for?

    Prepare thyself… for #24.

    Merry Christmas, Internet

    I was going to post my review of The Force Awakens today, but I’ve had a grotty cold and haven’t felt like writing it.

    Er, I mean — Merry Christmas! Glad tidings to all! It’s the most wondrous time of the year!

    100 Films HQ, today.

    100 Films HQ, today.

    This is what happens when you meet all the family, then all the other family, then go shopping, then to a crowded cinema (i.e. spending time in confined spaces with lots of strangers and their germs), and then stand around in the cold and rain at Longleat for two hours.

    Longleat was good, though.

    Longleat was good, though.

    Anyway, I hope you’re having a nice day. I’m off to debate whether to bother making Christmas lunch or just leave it for tomorrow (because it’s just the two of us and the dog, and precisely none of those people are bothered whether we have The Big Meal today or on another day when I’m feeling more like it).

    Marty McFly, in the TARDIS, under our tree, yesterday.

    Marty McFly, in the TARDIS, under our tree, yesterday.

    Oh, and if you’ve not heard it already, don’t bother with Radiohead’s Spectre theme, it’s rubbish. (But because I know I’d want to hear it even after someone gave me that advice, here’s a link).

    Merry Christmas!