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 Tercentenary Monthly Update for December 2018

    This year, I watched over 300 films… just not if you count by my usual rules. I wrote about that earlier this month, so I won’t rehash it all here; but to update the numbers: my final tally of new films is 261, plus 50 in my Rewatchathon, and 8 short films to boot. Add all that up and you’ve got 319.


    #248 The Christmas Chronicles (2018)
    #249 Torment (1944), aka Hets
    #250 Sorry to Bother You (2018)
    #251 Snowpiercer (2013)
    #252 Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle (2018)
    #253 Light the Fuse… Sartana is Coming (1970), aka Una nuvola di polvere… un grido di morte… arriva Sartana
    #254 Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
    #255 Music in Darkness (1948), aka Musik i mörker
    #256 The Shape of Water (2017)
    #257 Zatoichi the Outlaw (1967), aka Zatôichi rôyaburi
    #258 The Man Who Invented Christmas (2017)
    #259 Hachi: A Dog’s Tale (2009)
    #260 A Christmas Carol (2018)
    #261 Black Mirror: Bandersnatch (2018)
    Snowpiercer

    Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

    .


    • I watched 14 new films this month — a perfectly respectable number, really, but it’s tied with August for the lowest month of 2018. That’s the first time August has been the year’s lowest month, though December previously took the (dis)honour in 2016.
    • It also means December remains my only month to have never achieved a tally of 20+. It’s now a whole year before I can try that again (obviously).
    • And I didn’t watch a film on December 22nd, one of the three outstanding dates on which I’ve ‘never’ watched a film, so that’ll have to wait a whole ‘nother year too.
    • However, this month did beat the December average (previously 11.5, now 11.7), but wasn’t close to the monthly average for 2018, which is now finalised at 21.75.
    • Two Ingmar Bergman-related films this month: one he wrote, Torment, and one he directed, Music in Darkness. I got Criterion’s gorgeous box set for Christmas, which duplicates numerous titles from an old Tartan DVD box set I’ve owned for years, so before I get stuck into the Criterion set I’m watching the films that are unique to the Tartan set, with an eye to selling it. There are only three, though, so I’m 66.7% complete already.
    • This month’s Blindspot film: a 2013 film that only got a UK release a couple of months ago, when it was snuck out on digital-only with no fanfare. Not that that’s what held me back: I imported the US Blu-ray over four years ago. No, this is just my own inexplicable tardiness (again). Anyway, the film in question is Snowpiercer. Thankfully, it lived up to the wait and the hype.
    • And, with that, all 22 of this year’s Blindspot and WDYMYHS films are complete!



    The 43rd Monthly Arbitrary Awards

    Favourite Film of the Month
    Ooh, this is a toughie — not, as is sometimes the case, because I didn’t really love anything this month, but because there were at least three films I adored and are strong contenders for my forthcoming 2018 top ten. But on balance I’m going to plump for the dystopian sci-fi allegory of Snowpiercer.

    Least Favourite Film of the Month
    Nothing I outright hated this month, so it’s a question of which was the most disappointing among things I at least liked. On that score, I think I have to go for Light the Fuse… Sartana is Coming, because it’s emblematic of how underwhelming I found that series on the whole.

    Best “Christmas Carol” of the Month
    I watched altogether too many different adaptation of A Christmas Carol this month, including a meta-ish one in The Man Who Invented Christmas, a Muppet-y one in The Muppet Christmas Carol, and a Shakespearean-studio-sitcom one in the Upstart Crow Christmas special. But I think my favourite was actually the most straightforward: a filmed version of Simon Callow’s one-man show, in which he just reads the story, basically. That’s to undersell it, though: he performs the story, and there’s some neat but not overdone direction to match. It was released in cinemas earlier in the month and screened on BBC Four over Christmas. if you missed it, it’s still on iPlayer here.

    Best Spider-Man of the Month
    Spider-Verse featured a surfeit of Spider-People to choose from, and while it may’ve been newbie Miles Morales’ film, with a key role for a worn-out Peter Parker, there’s definitely something to be said for Nicolas Cage as Spider-Man Noir. Part of me wants to see a whole spin-off film starring him; part of me thinks that would be a bit much. A decent-length short film would be welcome, though.

    The Audience Award for Most-Viewed New Post of the Month
    Netflix’s Mowgli was building a comfortable lead for itself in this category, far ahead of second-placed Spider-Verse… and then Bandersnatch happened. The first “Netflix interactive film” generated a tonne of buzz on social media (it was the top trend on Twitter almost all day on its release), and I watched and reviewed it promptly. Those factors combined led to a surge of page views that saw it surpass Mowgli’s 21-day tally in under 24 hours. Of course, they’re both Netflix films, which almost always do well in these stats. And with a couple more days under its belt since then, Bandersnatch may have found itself among my most-viewed posts of the entire year, despite only being around for three days.



    My evenly-spaced-throughout-the-year Rewatchathon schedule allows for four films most months, but for some reason it decided there needed to be five in December. There have to be two “five” months to get me to 50, but why did one have to be the very last month of the year?! (I mean, when you stop and think about it it’s kinda logical this would happen, but it did seem to put a burden on the final month of the task).

    Anyway, I made it, so that’s jolly.

    #46 The Princess Bride (1987)
    #47 Scooby-Doo (2002)
    #48 Death Becomes Her (1992)
    #49 Home Alone 2: Lost in New York (1992)
    #50 The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)

    I don’t really feel like doing a Guide To The Princess Bride anytime soon (my backlog’s too huge as it is), but I should someday — it’s a magnificent film that, with hindsight, deserved a place in my 100 Favourites.

    It wasn’t a conscious choice to end with three 1992 films back-to-back, it’s just a bizarre coincidence. Indeed, I watched Home Alone 1 last Christmas and intended to get round to the sequel back then. Instead, it took me 371 days. Though, another coincidence: they were both Rewatchathon #49.

    I wrote a little about Death Becomes Her and Scooby-Doo on Letterboxd, though to the latter I’d add my highly amusing observation about the lead cast being a bunch of “before they weren’t famous” faces.


    Other sites and blogs may get their year-end stuff out in December (or, if you’re Empire magazine, Oc-frickin’-tober), but if you write a blog that covers everything you see in a whole year, you ain’t done ’til 11:59:59pm on 31st December.

    So, as usual, January will begin by looking back over 2018, in a series of lists and whatnot that I’ll post over the rest of this week. And then I’ll start this shebang all over again, for my 13th year. Lucky for some…

    A Room with a View (1985)

    2008 #14
    James Ivory | 112 mins | download | PG

    A Room with a ViewI can’t help but wonder if, back in 1985, there was any audience confusion between A Room with a View and A View to a Kill. One can imagine legions of Bond fans accidentally finding themselves with a witty heritage drama, and legions of old dears accidentally finding themselves with a man twice their age trying to be an action hero. (In actuality the films were released about a year apart — that being just one reason this is a particularly silly notion.)

    Putting aside such nonexistent confusion, what of that witty heritage drama? Once again, thanks to the adaptations module of my degree, I’m stuck watching a film straight after reading the novel it’s based on. So far these viewings have supported my long-held theory that reading any novel before watching the film version (especially immediately before) is a Very Bad Idea. However good A Room with a View may be — and it certainly has its share of positives — it still pales slightly in direct comparison to the novel.

    The film’s faithfulness is admirable at least, combining events effectively at times and at others leaving well alone. Unfortunately this “copying out” style of adaptation means that the dialogue is exactly as written but sometimes loses important elements through its abbreviation. In the novel, characters frequently mean something entirely different to what they say, but you wouldn’t guess so in the film. Similarly, a lot of the novel’s wittiness is lost — unsurprising, as much is carried in Forster’s narration, which here is largely left unadapted. “Largely”, because chapter names occasionally intrude as intertitles or subtitles. These usually merely skip what would be a few lines of expositional dialogue, but occasionally they’re entirely pointless, and frequently are rendered meaningless by what would otherwise be minor tweaks to the plot. As I suggested at the start, however, a lot of these flaws are only blatant when placed in stark contrast with the novel.

    Others aren’t. Julian Sands is disappointingly flat as love interest George Emerson, and he frequently drags Helena Bonham Carter down with him (and not in the “written by Andrew Davies” sense). In my opinion, Bonham Carter is the weak line in an otherwise flawless cast, neither acting nor looking much like my image of Lucy (Sands might not give much of a performance, but at least he looks the part, and Emerson is meant to be quite awkward). This could well be just my personal vision clashing with that of the filmmakers, of course, but there you have it. Those two aside, the rest of the cast are excellent: Maggie Smith and Judi Dench are note-perfect, especially in the handful of scenes they share (it’s a real shame Dench’s character disappears before the halfway mark); Daniel Day-Lewis is the right mix of comical, annoying and unfortunate truth as Cecil; and Simon Callow, Denholm Elliott and a young Rupert Graves are also perfect fits for their roles.

    Finally, no Room with a review (ho ho) can be complete without praising how gorgeous Italy looks here. The camera lingers on the art and architecture more like a documentary than a fiction film, taking the viewer on a sightseeing tour just as much as the characters. There are essays to be written (indeed, they have been) on why such spectacle is a bad thing, but if you don’t want to be so pretentious then it’s wonderful to look at. Which, in many ways, sums up the entire film.

    4 out of 5