Monday, 2 January 2012

Christmas TV - Reviews #95

A lightning-paced round-up of the three 'Christmas TV' things I bothered to watch, then loads of films, some stuff to do with Johnny Cash and a review of Pushing Daisies. This'll be the last post for a bit, as I've got a lot on, but there are hopefully plenty of things already on the blog that you can explore. Thanks for reading.


Downton Abbey Christmas Special 2011 (Brian Percival, 2011) - A bit blah, and the Bates story is boring already, but I liked the bits I always like: Matthew, Mary and Maggie Smith. And the snow, obviously. They dispensed with Christmas mystifyingly quickly. There's a review of the second series here. (2.5)

Timmy's Christmas Surprise (Jackie Cockle, 2011) - I found this a bit hard to follow, considering it's aimed at three-year-olds, but it was very Christmassy, quite funny and rather moving. Suffice to say, it warmed my cockles. Boom! (3)

Sherlock: A Scandal in Belgravia (Paul McGuigan, 2012) - Just amazing. I can't remember the last time I saw anything as good as this on British TV. Arch, clever, hysterically funny and as warm as that toasty fire at 221B. There's a short thing about the first series at the bottom of this post. (4)



Win Win (Thomas McCarthy, 2011) is another very interesting film from the awesomely talented writer-director McCarthy, if not quite the masterpiece that his previous two films were. A desperate lawyer (Paul Giamatti) takes financial advantage of an old client with dementia (Burt Young), then finds himself feeling protective towards the man's grandson (Alex Shaffer), who keeps saying "a'ight”. Dealing with McCarthy's pet theme of an outsider connecting with unlikely soulmates, it's an intelligent, unsentimental and extremely entertaining movie, though it's ever so slightly baggy and the treatment of Shaffer's drug addict mum (Melanie Lynskey) isn't very clear. (3.5)

See also: McCarthy's twin triumphs - The Station Agent and The Visitor. Win Win came in a little late for my Top 10 of 2011, but with Hugo and Source Code, it would have been vying for the #10 spot.


Mirage (Edward Dymtryk, 1965) - Gripping thriller from the pen of Charade scribe Peter Stone, with amnesiac Gregory Peck trying to piece together his life whilst fleeing from an ominous man called "The Major" - and sidling up to this mysterious kingpin's wumon (Diane Baker). The leads are a bit stiff, and Peck's encounters with a psychiatrist are clumsily scripted, but Walter Matthau is all kinds of awesome as a smartarse PI and the story is so fascinating, the telling of it so slick and well-paced, that such an obvious shortcoming scarcely matters. (3.5)


The Truth About Cats & Dogs (Michael Lehmann, 1996) - Sweet romantic comedy that suffers from an unrealistic story, an obtrusive soundtrack and a wooden leading man, but gets by on the strength of Janeane Garofalo's lovely central performance. She hates it, apparently. (3)


Bad Santa (Terry Zwigoff, 2003) - The first hour of this one-joke Christmas film is just too nasty for me - the odd good gag aside ("What are they gonna do, drop you on someones else's head?") - but the last 40 is pull-the-rug-out-from-under-you amazing, with a pay-off apparently inspired by one of my favourite ever endings: that of the Chester Morris/Walter Brennan Three Godfathers. The pleasant but unnecessary coda borrows from Taxi Driver. (3)


The Treatment (Oren Rudavsky, 2006) - Eloquent little indie about an English teacher (key Whit Stilman and Noah Baumbach collaborator Chris Eigeman), his Freudian analyst (Ian Holm, having fun as an aggressive Argentine) and his cack-handed forays into romance with widower Famke Janssen. Its characters' viewpoints aren't always made sufficiently clear, but it's an intelligent, grown-up film with strong performances and a handful of big laughs. (3)

See also: Chris Eigeman starred in the gobsmacking Barcelona and the excellent - though not as excellent - Kicking and Screaming.


Sarah Palin – You Betcha! (Nick Broomfield, 2011) – Typically shambling, entertaining Broomfield doc featuring the director's trademarks of lively interviews, a voiceover complaining that no-one will talk to him and a finale in which he shouts loudly at his subject, who is trying to ignore him. It's not up there with Biggie and Tupac or his Aileen Wuornos films, but nor is it another Kurt and Courtney or Tracking Down Maggie (thank goodness). Yes, the opening 15 is a touch shaky, with a lack of focus or detail, but the film quickly becomes utterly engrossing, through a combination of rare footage (much of which has "Viewing Copy” stamped across it), a fascinating subject and a wealth of interesting material, even if Broomfield's approach to this hunting enthusiast is more scattergun than sharpshooter. (3)


Mystery Men (Kinka Usher, 1999) - Appealing but underwhelming film about five ineffective, self-styled superheroes and their attempts to save Captain Amazing (Greg Kinnear) from superbly-named supervillain Casanova Frankenstein (Geoffrey Rush). Sounds, erm, amazing, doesn't it? But it's not. Not quite. It's rarely less than entertaining and the strong comic cast (Ben Stiller, Janeane Garofalo, William H. Macy, Paul Reubens, Eddie Izzard and Tom Waits) is game, but there aren't enough good jokes (though the argument about whether Captain Amazing is the same person as billionaire Lance Hunt is great) and - as with the similarly-themed Kick-Ass, the action climax forgets to be funny. (2.5)


Tropic Thunder (Ben Stiller, 2008) – OK action comedy about a bunch of contrasting actors and what happens when their war movie turns horribly real. There's already a great movie about this and it's called The Stunt Man. This one has a cracking opening 20, stuffed with movie in-jokes, and a decent final five, but little in between. Robert Downey, Jr. and Steve Coogan are both good value (Coogan saying "... what?” is somehow the funniest joke in the film), but Jack Black and Danny McBride are dreadful. (2.5)


Fred Claus (David Dobkin, 2007) - Witless but watchable Christmas film about Santa's brother (Vince Vaughn), full of set-pieces that serve no purpose other than to pad out the running-time, and pitched at a young audience who understand what an efficiency expert is. There are a few nice, sentimental moments, the prologue is very well done and Paul Giamatti is quite fun as the big man, but this is far too bitty, lazy and mechanical to really score. There's an impressive supporting cast - including Kevin Spacey and Miranda Richardson - but they're given nothing to work with. (2)


Four Christmases (Seth Gordon, 2008) - Strange, joyless festive film about commitment-free couple Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon visiting their four divorced parents over Christmas Day, and finding that connecting with these often dislikeable people makes them distrust each other. Happy Christmas! There are four writers and only three jokes, so goodness knows what the other guy was doing. For what it's worth, the supporting cast includes Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek, Mary Steenburgen, Kristin Chenoweth off of Pushing Daisies and Jon Voight (when was he last good on screen?). (1.5)



Pushing Daisies (Seasons 1 and 2, 2007-9) - Astonishingly original in subject, Jeunet-ish in style, this romantic-comedy-detective-series tells the simple story of kind-hearted, lonely Ned (Lee Pace), who makes pies and wakes the dead. Usually, he then touches the dead again within a minute, sending them to everlasting sleep - but he can't quite do it to childhood sweetheart Anna Friel, so she's going to be sticking around. The catch: someone else has died in her place, and he can never touch her again. Whilst navigating the difficulties of such a relationship, and politely declining the advances of waitress Kristin Chenoweth, Ned also continues his role as a sidekick to acerbic PI Emerson Cod (Chi McBride) - he of the "Oh, hell no!" catchphrase - handily able to enquire of the victims who exactly bumped them off. I was really lucky with TV last year but, even so, only Veronica Mars and My So-Called Life occupied the same rarified bracket as this moving, marvellous concoction from Wonderfalls co-creator Bryan Fuller. The four leads are all incredibly good, the vivid visuals are complemented by some of the snappiest, heightened dialogue ever put on the goggle box and it's got more heart than just about anything I've seen. (4)



Walk the Line (James Mangold, 2005) – Pretty good Johnny Cash biopic: somewhat cliched, but intelligently framed and blessed with a few special moments (particularly the letters-from-Folsom sequence) and a flatly amazing performance by Reese Witherspoon as June Carter – the singer's second wife. Joaquin Phoenix is conflicting as the lead: his acting isn't bad, but it's hard to ever believe that he is Cash, as he doesn't look or – more importantly – sing like him. Or all that tunefully. For all the film's strengths, the video to Hurt crams more emotion into those four shattering minutes than this manages in 136. (3), just about.

Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (Jake Kasdan, 2007) - I've a very low threshold for spoofery, but this is one of the best I've seen: a spot-on spearing of musical biopics that plays out in flashback, as "Dewey Cox needs to think about his entire life before he plays". Admittedly momentum begins to slow before the end, but for the most part this is absolutely hilarious, and dozens of the jokes come out of left-field: of course the six-year-old Cox becomes a natural as soon as he picks up a guitar, but he also sings in the voice of an 80-year-old black man. Then there's John C. Reilly (excellent in the lead) playing his 14-year-old self, and Cox's dad sweeping up his barn whilst singing a song about how Dewey should have been killed instead of his brother. The musical parodies are also tuneful and deliciously well-observed. Producer Judd Apatow's best film? Improbably, probably. (Though I'm a big fan of Drillbit Taylor, too.) I laughed, hard. (3.5)

TVM: Johnny Cash! – The Man, His World, His Music (Robert Elfstrom, 1969) - Insightful, very enjoyable no-budget documentary mixing home video footage with handheld in-concert recordings, and containing much of both the man and his music. Wow as he secures an audition with Columbia Records for a Canadian singer-songwriter! Thrill as he walks on stage at the Country Music Awards to a big band version of Folsom Prison Blues! Feel slightly confused as he sings a song to an injured crow that's just bitten him! Great fun and a must for fans of The Man in Black (not Will Smith), especially for that scintillating live version of Five Feet High and Rising. (3.5)

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