Saturday, 17 December 2016

Christmas on the Box 2016

I know I said I would be blogging yesterday, but it was just one of those days when I didn't get anywhere near my computer -- although nowadays people in general seem surgically linked to one or other of their devices. So belatedly here are my rather dismal recommendations for the Christmas fortnight on UK terrestrial television starting today.

Without double-checking previous Christmas blogs, it really does seem that terrestrial TV in Britain is disappointingly more malnourished than ever this year. There are all of four -- count them four --  studio movies premiering that I have not already seen and only two of these are producing even a frisson of anticipation: "The Lady in the Van" on Christmas Eve and "Dallas Buyers Club" on Boxing Day (courtesy of Channel Five no less). The other two "Hercules" this evening and "Love Punch" also on Boxing Day I could take or leave, although knowing me I will almost certainly watch them on principle. The only other new 'goody' and it's not even listed as a movie, is the animation of "Ethel and Ernest" on BBC1 on the 28th which sounds, promising, along with the new short animation of "We're Going on a Bear Hunt" -- memories of reading this over and over to young Harri.

If I'm counting correctly, there are only seven other terrestrial premieres which are not animations: "A Very Harold and Kumar Christmas" (silly), "Saving Mr Banks" on the 23rd (worthy), "Captain Phillips" on Boxing Day (predictable) along with "Pride" (unusual and not too bad), followed by "The Amazing Spider Man 2" (more of the same stuff), "Captain America - Winter Soldier" (superheroes, yawn), and "Muppets Most Wanted" (OK-ish). Otherwise all of the premieres are animations of which only "Frozen" on Christmas Day is noteworthy -- and tell me please which youngster hasn't seen that one a quadrillion times! In fact the schedules are littered with wall-to-wall animations most of each day. When were sentient adults barred from watching movies over the holiday period??? And obviously there's not a single foreign-language film to be found nor much in the way of documentaries.

Among the myriad repeats there are of course several old family favourites and if you have a tradition of watching the same old chestnut every Christmas you can probably unearth suitable candidates like "It's a Wonderful Life" (one of my own all-time greats) sparkling in the schedules. Otherwise watch Sky or read a book or (like me) catch up on the backlog. Sky, with their daily premieres (many of which are extremely iffy) have held back their 'big guns' for 24 to 28 December with new showings for "Zootropolis", the "Jungle Book" remake, "Deadpool", "Kung Fu Panda 3", and "A Long Way North" (a highly rated French animation). FilmFour by contrast seems to have gone to sleep with virtually nothing new over the fortnight. I also found a goody for my own pleasure buried in the late night schedules for Sky Arts: "Everything is Copy", a documentary on Nora Ephron on the 20th.

I can only see one new film-related programme, yet another tribute to Judi Dench, plus part two of a skimpy Walt Disney biography which started last Saturday. Non-film-wise the schedules are also strangely culturally barren with only one opera and no new programmes featuring classical music or art. I am mildly tempted by the two-part dramatization of "Witness for the Prosecution" on the 26th and 27th, but however well-done it promises to be, I doubt it can hope to hold a candle to the classic Billy Wilder film which starred three of my all-time favourites: Charles Laughton, Tyrone Power, and Marlene Dietrich.

Unlike previous issues of The Radio Times, the Christmas edition doesn't run through New Year's Day, so being the eternal optimist, I do hope that the next issue starting on 31 December is packed to the brim with all those movies I really want to see which have fallen through the proverbial cracks. Fat chance! However let me close on a more upbeat note with my best wishes to all for the holidays...see you again in 2017. 

Friday, 9 December 2016

Mr Turner (2014)

This biopic of the renowned British artist J. M. W. Turner is a labour of love from writer-director Mike Leigh and his lead actor of choice, Timothy Spall. Widely hyped as their joint masterpiece, it did not prove popular, largely because it is far from a conventional biography. Focussing on the last quarter of the artist's life before his death in 1851, its 150-minute running time alienated movie-goers who prefer films that tell a story. What Leigh provides instead is a series of vignettes illustrating different facets of Turner's life, with little linear connection between the various parts. However, like Gestalt theory, these do indeed create a rounded portrait of a talented but eccentric man.

The film was Oscar-nominated for cinematography, costume, original score, and production design, winning none of these. It did not receive any acting nominations, although one might have hoped that Spall would be recognised after a long and remarkable career and who even learned to paint for this role. His bulky physique morphs readily into the gruff, matter-of-fact genius who travelled widely with his sketchpad and painted some of the most romantic landscapes ever. Turner was an accomplished Impressionist before his time. The cinematography is in fact brilliantly done and the outdoor scenes can accurately be described as 'Turner-esque' in their beauty. As his purported last words would have it "The sun is God" and we revel in the light.

However in the large and well-cast ensemble, my top kudos would go to Dorothy Atkinson, who plays his drab, devoted, and obviously love-struck housekeeper Hannah, whom Turner takes for granted, barely notices or communicates with, and whom he uses for rough sex when the urge arises. For my money, she steals every scene in which she appears with her expressive face counterpointing the action. The artist was, it would seem, something of a lecher, denying his estranged and bitter wife and daughters -- claiming blithely that he never had any children. He eventually takes up with his occasional Margate landlady Sophia Booth (well-played by Marion Bailey) to whom he introduces himself initially as Mr Mallard (she subsequently remembers him as Mr Duckworth) and who has little idea of his fame before he is recognised by a local doctor. They live together on and off through his death and her devotion does manage to partially soften his prickly demeanour; as far as his Chelsea Embankment neighbours are concerned he is the devoted Mr. Booth.

In between there are telling tableaux of his interaction with other artists of the period at the Royal Academy, his championing by the effete art critic Ruskin (a nice turn from Joshua McGuire), his having his portrait taken by one of the new-fangled cameras (and returning to have another taken with the reluctant Sophia), attending a theatrical performance where both he and Ruskin are satirised, and the sickly Hannah's heartbreak on discovering that he is shacked up with another doting woman. I found the movie largely satisfying, since the whole certainly does add up to far more than the sum of its parts.

Next week my annual picks for British television viewing over the Christmas period...

Friday, 2 December 2016

Wishin' and Hopin' (2014)

I had every intention of making this week's blog another of those 'that was the week that was' summaries, since my viewing since last Friday included a number of A-list films which I have only just caught up with. These included "A Royal Night Out" (unbelievable but sweet), "Sicario" (a nasty drug wars flick), "Revenant" (long and gruelling, but hardly my cup of tea even if it did win DiCaprio his Oscar), "Hitman Agent 47" (a far-fetched live video game), Jackie Chan's historical bore "Dragon Blade", "The Battle for Sevastopol" (a worthy Russian biopic), "Strangerland" (a minor Nicole Kidman Aussie drama, not particularly good), and "Horns" (Harry Potter grows a pair -- interesting, but what it was all meant to mean is beyond me).

Now I could have written about any of these or I could have wondered aloud how Sky Movies manages to source so many obscurities in their weekly selection, but one film -- and a made-for-cable one no less -- stood out as the most entertaining of the bunch. It's that time of the year when a number of channels dredge up their dreary backlog of Christmas-themed movies, most of which are silly rom-coms of a high-powered female executive returning to her home town to sell a Christmas tree farm or a cookie factory or a diner and falling for a local hunk and simple down-home values. Yawn.  However the above film soars above that sort of dross threatening to become a new Christmas cult classic, much in the vein of l983's "A Christmas Story".

Based on a New York Times best-selling novel by Wally Lamb, the movie takes a nostalgic look back at l960s Connecticut and the Catholic Funicello family, whose main claim to fame is that they are distant cousins of pop-star Annette. Ma and Pa are Annabella Sciorra (nice to see her back if only in a small part) and Danny Nucci; there are two teenaged sisters, and little Felix, beautifully-played by Wyatt Raiff, a wee ten-year old charmer. At his parochial school we meet terrifying nun Conchata Ferrell and the creepy Monsignor Muldoon, played by Meatloaf. Felix's class has a temporary lay teacher, the Canadian Madame Frechette, essayed by ex-teenage queen Molly Ringwald with her best French accent, who must take over the class' portion of the annual Christmas pageant and who decides upon a series of living tableaux. All of this is narrated by the adult Felix, voiced by Chevy Chase.

However it is the child cast that stands out and provides most of the smiles and laughs. These include the Miss-know-it-all young lady who is Felix's nemesis, his 'dumb' bestie who has been left back twice, Zhenya a l7-year old new and sexually precocious Russian arrival, and a token black who knows all the sympathy-evoking ploys. The rivalries and jealousies all come to a head at the disastrous pageant where poor little Felix ends up playing the Baby Jesus when the Jesus doll is trashed. An earlier attempt to make his mark as a talented Funicello occurred when he appeared on television as part of a special audience for the 'Ranger Andy Show' (a real local TV show of the period). All the family and friends are merrily gathered watching the box when he is invited to tell a joke. He repeats one that he has heard recently from a helper at his father's diner without realising that it is filthy, not understanding what the words imply. His innocence is shattered, but only temporarily. He has the good-natured love of his family (and famous Cousin Annette) to see him through. It's delightful! It's a winner!