Dec 15, 2013

Christmas TV Guide: Part 1

It's CHRISTMAAAAASSSS! And you know what that means, for once there are movies to be found on TV (I swear there were more films, despite there being fewer channels, shown free to air when I was a kid, but I digress).  The old standbys are on, of course, but in this article I'm going to try to pick out some free to air films that you may not have noticed are on over the festive period, but should really try not to miss.

By the way, apologies to international readers, but this one's for the UK audience.  If anyone from the US, Australia or further afield wants to write something similar for their area, send it to me and I'll see about posting it (with proper credit of course).

For this article I'll be using the double length Christmas issue of the Radio Times, which runs from December 21st to January 3rd.  


1am  BBC 2  Wake Wood
Wake Wood
The first new film to have come out of the resurrection of British horror brand Hammer is still the best, and one of the more interesting and underrated British horror films of the last few years.  Wake Wood's story filters personal tragedy through Wicker Man style pagan magic.  The film boasts a strong mix of chills and gore, with solid performances and a striking ending, it's not very festive but well worth seeing.

10:25pm  Channel 4  Never Let Me Go
Appropriately chilly, if hardly seasonal, this adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro's down to earth dystopian sci-fi asks a lot of complex moral questions (especially for me, having had a liver transplant) and was the first place that both Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield made an impression on me.  They excel, along with Keira Knightley as characters first discovering, then coming to terms with, the disturbing purpose of their lives.  The sci-fi concept, happily, takes a backseat to an affecting emotional drama.

12:15am  BBC 1  The Magdalene Sisters
I really do seem to be looking to the darker side of the films on offer over the festive season.  Peter Mullan's Venice winner is pretty difficult to watch; an upsetting fact-based drama about the Magdalene laundries where Irish girls who had 'sinned' and embarrassed their families (often by getting pregnant, but sometimes for much lesser 'offences') could be sent to live.  Mullan doesn't blink from the harsh conditions, and gets outstanding performances from a cast including the always brilliant Anne-Marie Duff.  For the most part the direction is understated, but Mullan has a few moments where he plays things up stylistically to great effect, most notably in a shot of Geraldine McEwan's eye in one of the film's toughest scenes.  A difficult film, but a rewarding and important one.

1pm  Channel 5  Harvey
Christmas is a time for tradition, and that's often reflected in the movies that offered up in the TV schedules.  James Stewart is just the kind of company you want at Christmas as a movie viewer; a warm, familliar presence that seems always to have been there but is still always a delight.  Harvey is one of his most effortlessly charming films and one of his best and most physically deft performances, as he effortlessly convinces us that, at least for his character Elwood P. Dowd, the six foot rabbit named Harvey that nobody else can see really is there and really is his best friend.  It's a sweet, funny movie and a great way to introduce kids to some older cinema.

8:30pm  BBC 2  Jane Eyre [2011]
Cary Fukunaga's take on this frequently told story (it came barely a year after a new BBC version) has a dark, spare, windswept beauty to its visuals, but it is made interesting more by its fine cast, with two fine leads on the cusp of real stardom when the film was released.  Mia Waskowska, beautiful as she is, is dressed down enough to pass as a plain Jane, but it's the intense performances from her and Michael Fassbender as Rochester that really distinguish this version.

12:35am  BBC 2  Witchfinder General
Witchfinder General
The third, and tragically last, feature from young British horror director Michael Reeves is one of the best horror films ever produced in the UK, full stop.  Based very loosely on the real life, self-appointed, 'Witchfinder' Matthew Hopkins, the film relates a fictional account of his last witch hunt.  The film was dogged with problems throughout; a fractious production that saw Reeves and his star, Vincent Price, at each others throats (mostly because Reeves was always trying stop Price overacting) and censorship problems that saw three minutes of the film cut, before its release to often disgusted reviews.  In the event Price is brilliant, chillingly restrained as Hopkins, and the film's bracing violence and relation to history still shocks 45 years on.  Essential viewing for horror fans.

1:10pm  Channel 4  It's A Wonderful Life
Well, it's just not Christmas without this, is it?  It's A Wonderful Life didn't do well on its initial release, but its status as a beloved classic has long been assured, and is much deserved.  A much darker film than it's often credited as (it's about a man in the grip of suicidal depression... Merry Christmas) it earns every bit of its climactic sentiment, and if it doesn't make you cry then you may wish to make arrangements to find out whether you actually have a soul.  James Stewart is brilliant in what has become one of his signature roles, and Frank Capra tugs the heartstrings while never letting you forget the driving force behind the story.

3pm  Channel 5  Dirty Rotten Scoundrels
Dirty Rotten Scoundrels
Remember when Steve Martin was funny?  For me this is among his finest hours; a well plotted and eventually surprising farce with three great leading performances from Martin, Michael Caine and Glenne Headley.  Caine is all slimy smoothness as the practiced long con artist forced to take on, train and then compete with the more abrasive operator played by Martin and their different comic setting play wonderfully off each other.  The film features some inspired routines, especially the sequence with Martin's character Ruprecht, conceived as Caine's 'special' brother, but it's a joy from start to finish, one of those movies I'll almost always find myself watching if I stumble on it on TV.

11:25pm  BBC 2  The Awakening
For the last 12 years or so I've felt that ghost stories on screen have largely been going through the motions and found them very samey and almost completely unfrightening.  The Awakening doesn't break the mould, but for me it's the best of the recent crop, thanks to the always watchable Rebecca Hall, a few really solid fright sequences, and a story that ties back in an effective way to the Great War.  Even if, like me, you're a bit tired of these movies, this one is worth a look.

8:50am  BBC 2  The Red Shoes
The Red Shoes
This is a silly timeslot, but if you don't already own it set your digibox to record the HD broadcast of this, a sure finalist if there were ever a contest to find the most beautiful film ever made.  The story of a young dancer torn between love for a man and for dance is a little hokey these days, but Moira Shearer proves as capable an actress as she is a ballerina and makes it play.  

The real stars are choreographers Robert Helpmann and Leonide Massine, DP Jack Cardiff and director Michael Powell, who render the story so beautifully through movement, light, design and camerawork that it hardly needs dialogue.  The 15 minute sequence of the ballet of The Red Shoes, which falls almost exactly at the midpoint of the film, is one my favourite sequences in all cinema.  I insist that you see this if you've, so far, managed not to.

3:20pm  BBC 1  Toy Story 3
It seemed, when the first film came out, that making a sequel to Toy Story would be a fool's errand, but then Toy Story 2 came along and not only did it not disgrace the original, many people felt it was better.  Having caught lightning in a bottle twice Pixar really seemed to be tempting fate by trying to do it a third time but not only does Toy Story 3 deliver, it's by far the best of the series.  This film takes all our familiarity with these characters, all our affection for them, and uses that to raise the emotional stakes.  It's an extremely funny film, with some inspired gags, but there is also a tinge of melancholy tat becomes ever more prevalent and ever more affecting as the film goes on, with the third act being enough to reduce this grown man to a blubbing mess.  It delivers on every level you could hope for.

3:20pm  ITV 1  Tangled
For a while, especially in the late 90's and early 2000's, it had seemed that Disney was struggling to reinvent itself, to find relevance in a changing landscape of kids entertainment.  Over the last few years it really seems to have found a groove again, and for my money Tangled is the studio's best non-Pixar animated effort in twenty years.  Based on Rapunzel, it both adheres to and messes with the traditional fairytale formula, injecting a sharp, snarky wit, but never neglecting what is an effectively told love story.  It also has, in Donna Murphy's brilliantly performed Mother Gothel, Disney's scariest and nastiest villain for some time.  I get the feeling that Tangled never quite found its audience (certainly I don't see it talked about much), so this is the perfect opportunity to discover it.

3:05am  Channel 4  A  Matter Of Life And Death
A Matter Of Life And Death
Powell and Pressburger are a rare commodity in film; a writing and directing team you can't go wrong with, one timeless masterpiece would be enough for most people, but they churned them out as a matter of course.  A Matter of Life and Death may be their most moving film, with its relationship story straddling both Earth and Heaven, powered by brilliant performances from David Niven and Kim Hunter.  The images, which capture Heaven in black and white and Earth in vivid colour, are absolutely stunning, some of the best work Jack Cardiff ever did.  I'm mystified as to why this great film has been shunted to a 3:05am slot, but at least you'll be able to record it in HD.

11pm  ITV 3  Fierce Creatures
Okay, yes I am recommending this, stick with me here.  No, it's not A Fish Called Wanda, but Fierce Creatures is far from the disaster you might have been primed to expect it to be.  The comic chemistry between the cast still works well, and it's perhaps the last film John Cleese appeared in before his terminal case of not giving a shit kicked in.  The film runs off the rails a bit as it goes on, but the premise of a zoo with no fierce animals being taken over by an abrasive billionaire who wants to bring in vicious animals to bring in the crowds is a lot of fun, and there are some great set pieces.  Give it a chance.

2am  Channel 4  Legend
War And Peace
It's unfortunate that Channel 4 will likely be showing the original theatrical cut of Ridley Scott's much maligned fairytale, which has many of its undoubted problems solved by the director's cut.  That said, it's not as though the theatrical cut of Legend is without great strengths, especially in its look.  The forest set, the creature design and the realm of darkness all look incredible, but it's Tim Curry, in an astounding full body Rob Bottin make up, who steals the film as Darkness, a striking villain who might make this movie a bit too scary for little kids who may otherwise like a good fairytale film.  A compromised version then, but with flashes of great things.

11:30am  BBC 2  War and Peace
Of all the films on this list this is the one I know least about, having, like the philistine I am, never got around to reading the book nor to watching my VHS copy of the film.  This is a good opportunity to get hold of a film that remains a VHS exclusive in the UK, and to record the magnificent sight that is a 26 year old Audrey Hepburn, who stars as Natasha.  I'll be honest, that's more than incentive enough for me.  I'll get back to you on whether the film is actually any good.

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