Saturday 30 December 2017

Regeneration Rundown - 2nd update!

With a new Doctor come a new update on the list of regenerations, first and last lines.

To clarify my attempt to clearly number the Doctors:

To begin with, it's easy: same number for the Doctor, life and incarnation. Now it's fiddlier, but hopefully this rundown makes it clear. The Doctors are numbered one to thirteen, with the War Doctor, unnumbered, between the eighth and ninth. Incarnations refer to distinct faces, while lives refer to how many times the Doctor has regenerated. So, Peter Capaldi is the twelfth Doctor, but the thirteenth distinct incarnation. Smith to Capaldi was “regeneration number thirteen,” so he is on his fourteenth life. (I choose to use incarnation to refer to a form, not a lifespan; others disagree. It's really a matter of semantics, there's no right or wrong.) Thus Jodie Whittaker is the thirteenth Doctor, but the fourteenth incarnation and fifteenth life.

WHO REVIEW: 2017 Christmas Special - "Twice Upon a Time"

That was a very unusual Christmas special. Over the years we've had OTT Christmassy trimmings, explosions and bombast, and comedy silliness, often all three. This year, after the extraordinary two parter that ended series ten, we have a much gentler, much quieter affair that acts as an epilogue more than a story in its own right. I might question the wisdom of making the Christmas Day episode - the episode most likely to attract casual viewers - a follow-on from the previous episode and a sequel to 51-year-old black-and-white story, but Moffat seems to have pulled it off. I have to say seems to, because I can only view this from the perspective of someone who's steeped in this stuff. Of course I loved it, and most of my friends who are fans but not diehard Who nuts enjoyed it too. What it must have meant to someone who's taking a punt and has never seen the show before is beyond me.

In spite of the risk of starting something with a flashback to 1966, the opening is one of the best things about the episode. "709 episodes earlier..." states the caption, and shows us a scratchy bit of black-and-white footage of William Hartnell. This is a tricky thing to pull off, not least because you're about to see someone else take on the same role, but the segue from Hartnell to Bradley works beautifully. The move from lo-res monochrome to HD colour makes the differences in their appearance and voice less obvious, not more. It's almost saying, "and here's how it really looked." It also provides context for the fannish indulgence that helps makes sense for newer viewers. Most people who've heard of Doctor Who will know that the actor changes once in a while, so the obvious inference was that there was a first. This is his special comeback.

It's perhaps a little unfair on Capaldi to have him share his swansong with another actor in the same role. He's already going to face the inevitable overshadowing the moment his successor appears, so to have a guest star come in and pretty much steal every scene he's in is a bit harsh. But, we know he's enjoying this. It was Capaldi's idea to bring the Mondasian Cybermen back, and it was apparently his idea to get Bradley to play the first Doctor. This is as much an exercise in indulgence for Capaldi as it is for Moffat, two overexcited fanboys giving themselves one last treat before they go.

What did I love? Capaldi's was excellent throughout, as always. He brings any material up a notch. Rachel Talalay's direction was superb, as it always is, really lifting the scenes which could have dragged as just a bunch of people talking isn't the most visually exciting spectacle.Murray Gold's music was especially good, full of little callbacks to his earlier episodes (the Eccleston theme was a lovely touch). Seeing that he's going as well, it's only right that he should get to give himself a little send-off after twelve years of composing for the series.

Bringing Bill back was the right move. It's slightly baffling that Moffat creates one way to bring her back from the dead, has the character reference it, and then creates a completely different way to bring her back again. No character's safe now, the Testimony could bring anyone back for a cameo. It works though, because not only does Bill really need to be on hand to wave the twelfth Doctor goodbye, she also provides a perfect illustration of how times have changed since the series started, which is what this episode is all about. There barely were any black actors working for the BBC in the 60s, we certainly wouldn't have got an openly gay character, and it the contrast feels right. The little cameos from Nardole ("Aw, cuddle,") and Clara worked well too, although they probably would have played better reversed.

Mark Gatiss was absolutely perfect. Casting his buddy in a major guest role smacks of Moffat indulgence again, but he's so excellent as the war-fatigued Captain that it's entirely forgiveable. Gatiss really is astonishingly good at these "stiff-upper-lip" roles, bringing enormous pathos to a character that in other hands could have fallen very flat, in spite of the fine dialogue. I was waiting for him to be revealed as a Lethbridge-Stewart, and it was a moment that brought a little cheer when it came. Again, more fannish indulgence, but it's such a little thing that it didn't seem intrusive.

But yes, the big star of the episode was David Bradley. His version of the first Doctor is quite different in many ways from the original, but it's an interpretation of a character that convinces and Bradley becomes his own Doctor, much as Richard Hurndell did when they tried something similar back with The Five Doctors. He has just the right mix of grumpiness, compassion and humour, and for all the retconning, it's a fine exploration of the character. It makes perfect sense that the Doctor would resist his first regeneration - the idea would be terrifying! It was even part of earlier drafts of the script for The Tenth Planet. On the other hand, Hartnell's Doctor was never that sexist or pig-headedly old-fashioned. I understand why some fans are put out by this, but I see it as more of a comment on the time the series was created than the character itself. Sexist old first Doctor illustrates that yes, times have changed - after all, it doesn't make much sense that a time-travelling alien would reflect the mores of contemporary Western society, but he always has, so why not lampshade it? It works well, mainly because Bradley's performance of the lines, and Capaldi's cringing reaction to them, makes it so funny. And the "jolly good smacked bottom" line is a direct quote. We should probably be grateful he didn't start going on about Arabs.

For fans, the stronger contrast is between the "early days" first Doctor, who still wasn't quite the heroic figure we now know, even in his final few stories, and the brash superhero that the Doctor has become. Since David Tennant's first episode, the Doctor has been proclaiming that he's the protector of the Earth and threatening aliens with how awesome he is, and it's good to see this approach taken down a peg a little. Moffat is well aware of what works in the modern series, but isn't afraid to send up his own material and call back wistfully to times gone by. It's a tricky balance, but it works.

I love the idea of making the seemingly alien threat a very human, compassionate scheme, especially as the twelfth Doctor is left at a loss when there's no evil plan to defeat. Indeed, everything that happens in this episode is the Doctor's (and the TARDIS'), fault. The most powerful and affecting part of the episode, though, was the Christmas Day armstice. It would have been bizarre not to visit this, if we're doing a Christmas story involving WWI, and it's somewhat surprising that the series hasn't done so in the past, because it seems like such a perfectly Doctorish moment in history. I'm very glad they resisted any temptation to make the Doctor responsible for it, though. It's a truly wonderful moment in our history that needs to be treated with reverence.

The not-so-good? Well, the diversion to see Rusty the Dalek was a bit of an oddity, even though I guessed it was him pretty early on. It's an effective sequence, but it feels out of place in the episode and messes with the, already languid, pacing. Overall, it's a very talky episode and that's perhaps not the best idea for a Christmas extravaganza, so at least the Dalek mutants and laser blasts should have regained some of the kids' attention. As previously said, Capaldi misses out by having to share the limelight here, so it's only fair that he gets a long monologue to say goodbye to the character. That's what these farewell speeches are, of course - it's the actor's chance to say goodbye, not the Doctor's. It's beautifully performed, but my, it does go on a bit, doesn't it? I kind of miss the days when it was all over in a flash.

Altogether, though, this was just lovely, a cosy, reassuring little adventure for a winter's day that bids a fond farewell to Capaldi, Moffat and Gold. It's the biggest shake up since 2010, and even then, the music was still consistent. I'm a big fan of Moffat, but he's been running the show for seven years now - a couple of years longer than he even wanted to do - and it's time for a change. Speaking of which...

Number Thirteen:

I love regeneration episodes. The feeling of sadness as a Doctor leaves moving to excitement for the first few moments of the new Doctor. I have no time for people bitching about Jodie Whittaker's performance because of thinly-veiled reactionary sexism, and nor do I have much time for people gushing over here saying "OMG she's gonna be my favourite!" She has said two words. As with all the Doctors after their first few seconds, it's too early to judge her performance. Calm down! That said, I like her delivery of those two words, I love her smile, and I'm pleased she's kept her West Yorkshire accent.

Sunday 24 December 2017

Yuletide felicitations to you all

One final pre-Christmas festive review: it's "The Good Life" Christmas special, courtesy of Television Heaven.

Thursday 21 December 2017

Xmas Marks the Spot

Every cartoon series has a Christmas special (well, most of them). They are, mostly, pretty terrible, churned out with little thought to what might make them different to all the others. A few stand out, though, and one has stuck with me from my earliest years. That most special of Christmas specials is “Xmas Marks the Spot,” the last episode of the first season of The Real Ghostbusters.

RGB has stood the test of time as my favourite animated series, and arguably my favourite children's programme (that depends on how you categorise Doctor Who). For the first couple of years – the first season and then the long run in syndication – RGB featured genuinely witty, well-written scripts, some surprisingly creepy moments and some of the most memorable monster designs in telefantasy. Yes, it became dumbed down as it went on further and ended as a shadow of its former self, but to begin with, it was a truly brilliant show.

“Xmas Marks the Spot” is not my favourite episode of the series (that's the baseball episode, “Night Game – every American show needs a baseball episode too), nor is it the most remarkable or unique (for my money, that has to be the truly surreal “Chicken, He Clucked.”) It is, however, one of the most memorable, most effective and cleverest episodes of the series, one that takes a ludicrous concept and runs with it for twenty ingenious minutes.

Written by chief scriptwriter J. Michael Straczynski – better known now as the creator of Babylon 5 – the RGB Christmas special takes a not uncommon route for a festive episode. Yes, it's a take on Charles Dickens's classic A Christmas Carol. Now, pop cultural takes on the classic Christmas novella would make for an article in itself. The Muppets have done it, Doctor Who has done it, even The Flintstones have done it. It doesn't matter. It's a more interesting, more potent way of doing a Christmas special than just having the characters give each other presents or going on a winter vacation. There's scope for the episode to actually be about something.

Peter Venkman (played by the original and best voice artist, Lorenzo Music) doesn't hate Christmas, but to him, it's just another day. Christmas is no fun when your wheeler-dealer dad is always out of town, and so, over the years Peter has managed to convince himself that he doesn't care about the holidays. He needs a lesson in Christmas spirit... fortunately, some Christmas spirits are available to teach him.

The episode has a more contrived set up than most. Usually, there's a spectral menace that needs dealing with in or around New York. This time, however, the 'busters have to abandon their faithful hearse Ecto 1 when they are stranded in a snowstorm, only to be whisked through time and space to 19th century London. It all seems fairly unlikely, but it gets even more so when the 'busters immediately stumble upon the home of one Ebenezer Scrooge. (The episode end makes it clear that there are forces at work ensuring this all happens, so it isn't purely down to a cosmic coincidence.)

The four heroes are too late to stop the ghost of Jacob Marley from escaping back into the spirit world, but they are just in time to encounter three more spirits... “big, powerful,” and heading straight for Scrooge's place. It's the Ghostbusters to the rescue, storming in and immediately busting the three Ghosts of Christmas. It's one of those ideas that's just inspired. Of course, Scrooge isn't keen to give up his hard-earned cash to pay the Ghostbusters, but after some negotiation, they go on their way, and are swept back through the time slip.

Scrooge (guest voice Peter Renaday), inspired, sits down to write his memoir, A Christmas Humbug. It's the story of how he bested the Ghosts of Christmas (all by himself, of course). Meanwhile, 150 years later, the 'busters return to New York to find the book a perennial bestseller. So influential, in fact, that now no one celebrates Christmas at all, and people are incredible arseholes to each other all the time (just like in New York most of the time). “We've really done it this time,” says Ray, (the great Frank Welker) “we've just killed Christmas.” Or, as my good friend Jim put it, “They've gone and fucked Christmas royally in the A!” But then, he's always had a way with words.

From then (and this is after only about ten minutes runtime) the narrative takes two tracks. Peter, Ray and Winston go back to the time slip in an attempt to convince Scrooge of the error of his ways. This involves the three of them taking the place of the ghosts, with Peter dragging up as the very feminine Ghost of Christmas Past. As a nice nod to the blazing light of the ghost in the book, he's equipped with a set of blinding magnesium flares. What follows is an unforgettable sequence in which Venkman tries to convince Scrooge that he's flying through his past by running him in circles in a wheelchair with a ViewMaster on his face. The question of where he got ViewMaster slides of Scrooge's schoolhouse remains unanswered.

In the 20th century, Egon resolves to enter the containment unit and rescue the three ghosts. Now, we'd had a glimpse into the inside of the unit in the Hallowe'en episode, “When Hallowe'en Was Forever,” but this is something else. Egon (Maurice LaMarche, who also voices Bob Cratchit and the Ghost of Christmas Present) constructs a sort of environmental suit that “demolecularises” him, while another lash-up opens a crack in the containment field. He has one hour to get in and out, or he'll be permanently spectral and trapped inside forever. And so he enters the otherworldly interior of the unit, a strange pocket dimension in which the ghosts are imprisoned after capture.

While these two epic threads are playing out, Janine (the faithful secretary, voiced by Laura Summer) is of course convinced that Christmas is nothing but humbug, but agrees to help out of her love for Egon. She is assisted, sort of, by Slimer (Frank Welker's other great role in the series), although he mostly gets himself into trouble and is nearly pulled into the containment unit. Now, one thing we never found out is who or what Slimer was the ghost of. Fan lore is that he's the ghost of John Belushi, but the backstory for the films suggests that he was summoned into existence by arcane rituals, as a being of pure appetite. You might say that there is more of gravy than of grave to this ghost.

In 1837, Winston (Arsenio Hall) tries his luck as the Ghost of Christmas Present, while Ray gets robed up as the Ghost of Christmas Future. In 1986, Egon manages to find the three Christmas Spirits, but there's trouble: the other ghosts have figured out what's going on. Cue every ghost captured in the run of the series so far, including the Sandman, the Winged Puma, Samhain the spirit of Hallowe'en, Big Ugly, the fat blue sleepy ghost... all coming after him at once. After a breakneck chase out of the unit, Egon escapes with the three ghosts in the nick of time.

In the end, of course, everything works out fine. The three Ghosts of Christmas are returned to their proper time to give Scrooge a slightly more convincing lesson, and Christmas is saved for futurity. While defending Christmas to the old miser, Peter has realised just how much he's missed by shutting himself off from it all, and resolves to appreciate it in the future. Subtle it isn't, but then it's Christmas. We don't want subtle, we want hammered home platitudes.

It's a tremendous episode packed with incident and Christmas spirit (literal and figurative). I watch it every year, sometimes several times. It's a classic.

“Merry Christmas to all – and to all, a good night!”

Monday 18 December 2017

REVIEW: A Christmas Carol - Jack Thorne, The Old Vic

I adore A Christmas Carol. I read it pretty much every year. And so I was thrilled to have the opportunity to see the latest stage version at the The Old Vic in London, scripted by Jack Thorne and starring Rhys Ifans as Ebenezer Scrooge. It was, in a word, wonderful.

The stage in central to the theatre, constructed from cash boxes beneath Victorian street lanterns. The stage is simplistic but ingeniously operated, the world of the play made up from doorframes, sound effects and faux snow. The frontmost rows of the audience are practically on the stage, and by the boisterous, glorious finale, Scrooge is running amongst the aisles, the entire theatre brought into the production.

The best adaptations of classical material are frequently those that take the greatest liberties with the source text, and this newest version of A Christmas Carol is a good example. While it is true to the spirit of the novel (pardon the pun), it has been heavily rewritten, with only the best remembered and most essential lines retained. The events that are visited through Scrooge's past, present and future vary significantly from what we see in the novel, although there are also elements retained that are usually forgotten. The strength of the production lies not only in the new script, but in how vividly and powerfully it is brought to life.

Ifans is astonishingly good as Scrooge, taking his place as one of the very best. His Scrooge is hairy, unkempt, clad in threadbare robes and physically aged, but full of life. It is a very bitter sort of life, though, making him the loudest, coursest, most intimidating version of Scrooge I've seen, shouting, bullying and spitting his way through the performance. (Really, I felt for those people in the front row.) As he is taken back through time, we see him as a young boy (played well by Jamie Cameron), but soon Ifans steps into the role, straightening up and taking on a youthful vigour as Scrooge relives the essential moments of his life.

Most adaptations give greater significance to Belle than the novel does, making her a major factor in his callous outlook, rather than merely a victim of it, and this version in particular follows her further in her life than is usual. In this version, Belle is the daughter of Fezziwig, streamlining the backstory somewhat, and is charmingly played by Erin Doherty. A major change from the usual storyline is the attention given to Scrooge's home life as a boy and young man, giving him a hypocritical hatred of his penny-pinching father (Alex Gaumond, who also portrays a desolate and distraught Marley). These scenes also give a lot of time to Scrooge's sister, Little Fan, later mother of his nephew Fred, who is portrayed with great spirit and sympathy by Melissa Allan.

Almost every member of the cast takes at least two roles, most of them taking on duties as group narrators, and several of them taking on two major roles in the story. Particularly good are John Dagliesh as a likeable, open-faced Bob Cratchit, Alastair Parker as an especially ebullient Fezziwig, and Golda Rosheuvel as Mrs. Fezziwig and the Ghost of Christmas Present.

It's always fascinating to see how the three Ghosts of Christmas will be portrayed, especially on stage when special effects and visual trickery are limited. Here, unusually, we have an all-female role call of festive phantoms (Marley notwithstanding), who appear as part of the same class of spirit, rather than the strange assembly we have described in the novel. Initially, the Ghost of Christmas Future is visualised by the entire extended cast, veiled in black, swarming Scrooge, before a single character from his past is brought back to stand for the ghost in one of the most effective changes to the story.

Tiny Tim is played by four different children, each one taking turns of different performances. When I saw it, Grace Fincham played the youngest Cratchit. She gave an absolutely beautiful performance that put me to tears. Even as Tim's fate - far more immediately portrayed here than usual - affects Scrooge terribly, he remains defiant in the face of the ghosts for a long time. Perhaps the most effective change is to Scrooge's funeral, where, instead of being empty, sees people from his life attend to read eulogies and declare that they do indeed hold love for him, in spite of his attempts to push them away. I'm tempted to say it improves upon the original in this regard, making a powerful and positive effect on Scrooge's attitude rather than frightening him with something negative. When it comes to the climactic finale, Scrooge really is a changed man, Ifans taking the aggressive energy from before and channelling it into a joyful, exuberent, Doctorish performance. The entire audience is invited to his "invasion" of the Cratchits' home, before everything quietens down for the final, beautiful moments. 

My All-Time Top Five Christmas Movies

In reply to my friend @kayjoon 's blog post, here are my top five Chrimbly films. His list is very good, and his choice of National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation is fine and good, but he shall forever disagreed with for not putting the Muppets at the very top.

5. Gremlins (1984)

Perhaps the grimmest, certainly the nastiest Christmas movie that isn't an out-and-out horror, although it comes close. It came out in the middle of summer, something that went down poorly with writer Chris Columbus and director Joe Dante, but it is undoubtedly a Christmas film, being not only set at Christmas but very much about it. People have argued for years about who or what the gremlins are meant to represent, but for me it seems clear that they stand for the crass commercialism of the modern Christmas and the potential damage it can do to a true family Christmas.

Spielberg got the film made, and his influence toned down the horror elements and made it into a just-about-family-friendly movie, albeit one that helped reconfigure the film ratings system (along with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Spielberg used it to campaign for a new rating between PG and R, which led to the adoption of PG-13 in the US and the UK rating 15 in its stead). The original script had cute little Gizmo turn into the murderous monster; instead he produces already pretty nasty offspring that become worse after their transformation. The film loses some of its point because of this, but it's unlikely it would have been the same hit if the one cutesy and marketable character became a demonic killer. Still, they did manage to keep in Phoebe Cates's horrible soliloquy about her character's tragic history with Christmas, which Dante fought with Spielberg to keep. It's the indicative moment that combines the joy and misery of family to blackly comic effect.

4. The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

OK, this is as much a Hallowe'en film as a Christmas one, and was released as such, but it provides the perfect intro to the Christmas' movie marathon. Both festivals are the modern evolutions of ancient pagan festivals that ushered in the dangerous winter months, so they go together, and ghosts always work well at Christmas (see below). Nightmare might also be taken as an attack on the commercialism of Christmas, on how it doesn't matter if you get the look and trappings right, if the spirit isn't there (Christmas spirit, not Jack Skellington).

Although one of the most Tim Burton-esque films, people tend to forget it was Henry Sellick who directed it, and the stop motion style is absolutely perfect for the childishly spooky setting. The songs are pretty brilliant too  - the opening song "This is Hallowe'en" is clearly the best, but "Oogie Boogie's Song" works very well too, and is eminently coverable. Nightmare was perfectly designed to appeal to nine-year-old me, with just the right level of monsters and ickiness. Christmas isn't Christmas unless you feel a bit sick once it's over.

3. Trading Places (1983)

The eighties really were a good time for darkly comic Christmas movies. Basically a modern take on the 19th century novel The Prince and the Pauper - something so much part of American literary culture that even Mickey Mouse starred in a version, as with A Christmas Carol (see below). Trading Places has Dan Aykroyd's up-and-coming Harvard graduate Louis Winthorpe cast out of his home and job, while Eddie Murphy's street-living beggar Billy Ray Valentine is given his old position, all as part of a social experiment by the money-grabbing Duke Brothers. Aykroyd and Murphy are great, but the film belongs to the side cast, with Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche the stand-outs as money-grabbing modern Scrooges the Dukes. Jamie Lee Curtis plays her most likeable character in Ophelia, Winthorpe's unlikely love interest, and Denholm Elliott is perfect as manservant Coleman. Often overlooked, though, is Kristen Holby, who is utterly spot-on as Winthorpe's snooty, icy fiance Penelope.

Winthorpe's descent into social hell culminates in his taking a desperate position as the most wretched Santa Claus ever committed to film, very nearly ending in violence, suicide and stolen smoked salmon. It's on the edge of being a Christmas film, general social commentary, particularly racial stereotyping and privilege being its main concerns, but setting it in the run up to Christmas and New Year makes the cruelty all that stronger. Also, it's got more tits in than the rest of this list.

2. Scrooged (1988)

Frank Cross is Bill Murray's second greatest role (the first being, of course, famous parapsychologist and date rapist Dr. Peter Venkman, and no, Ghostbusters II is not a Christmas film, it is a New Year's film). The second greatest screen version of A Christmas Carol, Scrooged is brave enough to give a genuinely modern take on the story, albeit one that is now overdue for another treatment. You could easily remake Scrooged with updated settings every twenty years or so. Making the Scrooge analogue a heartless TV exec was a stroke of genius. Murray and director Richard Donner did not get along at all well, but this tension reflects well in the production and there's even a hint that Murray carried some of Donner into his performance.

The subject of Frank's callous disregard for human life is low-level team member Bobcat Goldthwait (whatever happened to Bobcat?); Scrooge's nephew becomes Frank's brother James, played by Bill's real-life brother John Murray; John Glover makes a memorably fake and vacuous "LA slimeball" after Frank's position. Karen Allen has her best role as do-gooder Claire, the Belle figure of this Scrooge's life, albeit one who isn't so lost to him as in the original. Most affecting, of course, are the always brilliant Alfre Woodard as the Cratchit figure Grace, and her mute son, played silently Raphael Harris in the potential future and almost silently in the present by Nicholas Philips. If you're not buoyed up when he says, "God bless us, everyone," you have a heart of stone.

Then there are the ghosts. With even the deliberately obscure Ghost of Christmas Past often portrayed in similar ways on screen, and the Ghosts of Present and Future being straightforward, we often know what we're getting with the ghosts. Not with Scrooged, which from John Forsythe as the ghost of his boss (Lew Hayward, the man who invented the miniseries!) take new, imaginative, hilarious and terrifying forms. David Johansen of the New York Dolls is the revoltingly unlikely Ghost of Christmas Past, Carol Kane is truly brilliant as the gleefully violent Ghost of Christmas Present, and the Ghost of Christmas Future is the most terrifying ever put to screen (with the exception of Mickey's Christmas Carol). For all the cynicism on display, the story moves to a rousing and moving conclusion, and there should not be a dry eye in the house. Thanks to Scrooged, "Put a Little Love in Your Heart" will forever be a Christmas song, and we'll always know the name of the ship that took them all to Gilligan's Island.

1. The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)

Hands down, the greatest Christmas movie, the greatest screen version of A Christmas Carol, and the only film on this list which would be on my overall top five. Although made by Jim Henson Productions, this was made after Jim Henson's death by his son Brian and from the initial idea by Bill Haber, who saw the original novel as the greatest story ever and one ripe for adaptation. As with previous Muppet movies, the decision to make it as a mixture of human actors and puppets must have led to all sorts of logistical problems, but works brilliantly. The greatest respect has to go to Michael Caine, who gives a career-best performance as Scrooge, acting with Muppets without blinking an eye and absolutely selling the character's transformation. Casting Muppets as legendary characters, such as Kermit the Frog as Bob Cratchit, could have failed badly, yet somehow fits perfectly. It's best not to think too much about a world where frogs and pigs sit down to eat roast goose, and vegetables can sing.

Surprisingly, this adaptation is among the most faithful to the original text, not least because Charles Dickens is a character, thereby allowing his voice as narrator a part in the film. The fact that Dickens is played by Gonzo the Great is neither here nor there. The new Muppets created to be the ghosts are remarkable, not least the ethereal spirit that appears as the Ghost of Christmas Past, realised by filming a puppet in a tank of oil/water mixture and superimposing the footage, translucent, onto the film. The greatest idea, however, has to be making Statler and Waldorf the brothers Marley ("It's good to be heckling again!" "It's good to be doing anything again!"), so that somehow, "The Marleys were dead, to begin with," sounds perfectly correct and natural.

The songs are perfect to sing along to, the lines are endlessly quotable, and if you ever get the chance to watch it with Gonzo and Rizzo's commentary, I recommend it. It's a truly uplifting film, perfect for the whole family, at any time of the year - because wherever you find love, it feels like Christmas.  Although I do suspect the entire thing came about so that they could use the Fozziwig gag.

Honorable mentions:

As mentioned above, National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation narrowly missed out and is an absolute classic of the often poorly realised Christmas comedy genre. Mickey's Christmas Carol was left out for not really being a feature film, at only twenty minutes long, but my, it's an epic twenty minutes. I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Die Hard, but it's never going to make my top movies list, however good an actioner it is. I have fond memories of the Dudley Moore vehicle Santa Claus: The Movie, but I recognise that this is nostalgia and it is in no way a good film. The 1991 Raymond Briggs film Father Christmas also deserves a mention - it's far superior to The Snowman, although both are TV films and not really applicable to this list. The 1999 ITV production The Flint Street Nativity would probably top my Christmassy TV movies list.

Friday 15 December 2017

Crazy like a Fox

So, Fox has sold it's huge catalogue of creative properties to Disney, leaving it to focus on sport, news and other propaganda opportunities. This isn't particularly surprising, in some ways. Disney has been hoovering up properties over the last ten years, acquiring Marvel and LucasArts among others, making it the heavyweight in the tentpole blockbuster game. Fox's TV and film output has been increasingly at odds with its far right, conservative news output; The Orville is a good example of a show that doesn't always get it right but at least tries to show strong women, same-sex relationships, interracial relationships and gender fluidity in positive lights. Fox News, on the other hand, is world-famous as the most right-biased news network in the United States and a major factor in the proliferation of homophobic, transphobic, racist and misogynistic opinions held by the contemporary Republican party. There's a weird schism there.

Soon, 20th Century Fox will, bizarrely, no longer be owned by 21st Century Fox, but by the Walt Disney Company. Rupert Murdoch will be another fifty billion dollars richer and Disney's movie empire will stretch even wider. Unsurprisingly, it's genre fans who are talking about this aspect the most, seeing that many of the most popular fantasy franchises will now be owned by Disney. Having already acquired Star Wars and Indiana Jones, Disney now own the Alien and Predator franchises. Most notably for comicbook fans, Marvel studios now have access to all of the properties previously owned by Fox, including the X-Men and all associated characters such as Deadpool and Cable, plus the Fantastic Four and their associated cosmic beings.

Although Fox will be releasing its immediate output including Deadpool 2, New Mutants and X-Men: Dark  Phoenix, any further productions for these characters will involve Disney/Marvel, including around a dozen TV and film productions already in various stages of progress. Fox's plans for the FF have been in stasis since the dreadful 2015 movie, and presumably Marvel will be making the most of having their first family back in their creative hands. Marvel still don't own the screen rights to all their characters. Spider-Man is still owned by Sony and is used by Marvel Studios under agreement, with movies focusing on subsidiary characters, such as the finally-happening Venom movie, wholly under Sony's purview. Marvel will continue to use the Hulk as a supporting character, but a Hulk-focused movie won't happen unless Universal agree to a new deal on the character; currently, Universal hold the distribution rights on any Hulk film and will not let up on this, while Disney will never let another studio distribute one of their tentpole movies. There's been a long interest on both sides in making a movie for Namor, the Sub-Mariner, one of Marvel's oldest properties, but the rights situation there is complicated (and any Namor film now would look like it was ripping off Aquaman anyway). While Marvel own the Malibu comics rights, film rights to Men in Black, their only real hit, still rests with Malibu's former owners, and they're probably not letting them go, although it's easy to see how keen Disney would be to get their mitts on those.

One area of concern amongst fans is that Disney is not known for R-rated movies, but for more family-friendly affairs, which doesn't bode well for the future of the Alien and Predator franchises, nor the more adult-oriented direction that has made such a hit of Deadpool and Logan. This isn't something that I'm too worried about; Disney have already announced that they've no plans to take the R-rated franchises in the other direction, and they're canny enough to make the most of what works, for maximum exposure and profit. We just won't see "Walt Disney" splashed all over these films' posters.

I am, like most Marvel fans, hugely enthused that we might finally get the movie the Fantastic Four deserve. I actually quite like the first two films - they weren't good, by any stretch, but they were fun, goofy movies, and some risible miscasting aside, they were enjoyable. Still, the FF should be getting huge, cosmic crowd pleasers like Guardians of the Galaxy, not small, moody affairs like Fant4stic. No, what I'm not keen on is the idea of the X-Men coming into the MCU.

This might seem odd. This is what every Marvel fan has been dreaming of, right? Wolverine joining the Avengers! Spidey and Deadpool! Iron Man fighting Doctor Doom! The thing is, Marvel's comic universe is hugely overstuffed, with increasingly unwieldy crossover events involving every-single-bloody-title making any series hard to follow and franchise involvement overly expensive. I barely buy Marvel comics anymore because of this. The MCU is already reaching breaking point, and the announcement that the fourth Avengers movie will signal something of a cut-off point for the interconnected approach is no bad thing. The X-Men movie universe has been its own thing for the last seventeen years, playing fast and loose with its own continuity and trying new things. It messed it up as often as it got it right, but at least it's been interesting. Moreover, the X-Men mythos is rich enough and diverse enough to maintain its own universe. Bringing all this into the MCU, recasting most of it again, no doubt, making mutants just another group of super-people like they are in the comics will actually be creatively damaging for the franchise.

Still, it will probably keep Disney off Universal's back for a while

Sunday 10 December 2017


Here's an impressive and rather fun short film to help tide you over till The Last Jedi comes out next week. It's only eight minutes long and looks incredible. Clearly filmed on the southern coast, it really has that Star Wars feel to it. It was written by Lorenzo Fantini and directed by Carlos Boellinger, with an excellent original score from Two Twenty Two. It stars Omri Rose, Paula Rodriguez and the amazing Veronica Jean Trickett who you may recognise from As We Are or other awesome things.

It's the Dark Times between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope, and the Jedi are almost extinct...

Saturday 9 December 2017

REVIEW: Sandman Overture

The Sandman never needed a prequel series. Really, it never needed any sequels, spin-offs or additional volumes at all, being a perfectly told epic in itself. Nonetheless, some of the extra material has been amazing, not least Death: The High Cost of Living and the original run of Lucifer. Having Gaiman back to write the untold backstory of Dream's imprisonment that created the entire story of The Sandman is exciting, but there's always the risk, as with anything of this nature, that the result will be disappointing. The Sandman was so remarkable that any attempt to revisit it will struggle to recapture the magic. Going back to explain it all is even more dangerous, since the mystery of the Endless and their origins is crucial to the appeal of the story.

A troubled publication schedule put me off Sandman: Overture about halfway through, but I suspected that it would read better in collected form. It's taken me a while to actually get round to picking the trade up, but now I have done, and I can happily confirm that Overture is a worthy successor (should that be precursor?) to the original Sandman. Gaiman pulls together a story on a truly epic scale that only really shines through when taken in as one mighty volume. It's also vital that it be read in good old-fashioned paper format, since J. H. Williams uses an artistic style that goes everywhere, in every direction, and at several points requires the book to be rotated or flipped upside-down in order to follow the sequence of events or dialogue, and that just doesn't work on a computer screen.

Williams's artwork, in combination with Dave Stewart's colours, creates a bold and powerful visual universe which is vital for Gaiman's storytelling to shine through. The key word for this story is scope. So many prequels fail by limiting the imagination of the reader/viewer by filling in too much of what might have come before. Overture expands the Vertigo universe, taking Sandman into broader, more science-fictional realms than before, giving everything a truly cosmic feel. Taking place, as Gaiman says, after Endless Nights and before Preludes and Nocturnes, Overture twists history around and brings Dream's new incarnation, Daniel, into the storyline in a vital aspect. The risk of limiting the character of Dream is averted by the most celebrated moment in the story, in which Morpheus is brought face-to-face with infinite variations of himself, in all manner of guises.

Overture takes on Endless Nights's best story and expands it by revisiting the City of the Stars, a realm that truly appears to be constructed from light, and makes it the core of the story. Billions of years earlier, Dream, or an aspect of him, failed to snuff out an insane star, leading to the imminent destruction of the universe in the present. Through his quest to put things right we visit more realms than ever before, with the other Endless taking part in events in different roles. More contentiously, we meet Dream's parents. Given that the Endless are siblings, it makes sense that there would also be parents involved, but their existence as distinct characters could have been the worst thing for Gaiman to show. Instead, Father Time and Mother Night are depicted as enormously powerful and remote beings who add to the mystery of the Endless. (They may also be viewed as the DC equivalents of Infinity and Eternity, and Gaiman's enough of a Marvel fan to have intended this.) There's even Dusk, who might just be another sister of the extended Endless family.

Even with the universe tearing itself apart in entropy and war, Gaiman keeps the story working at a personal level by pairing Dream up, for much of the voyage, with the orphaned alien girl, Hope Beautiful. To begin with she comes across as a slightly twee, spunky kid, but avoids becoming a generic character by meeting her own tragic end and then playing a vital part in the revitalisation of the universe. The balance between the cosmic and the personal is balanced well, reflecting how Dream is at once a small, flawed individual and the very essence of imagination in the universe.

Overture is far stronger when read as a novel, rather than a series of issues, and skirts that fine line between telling us too much and telling us just enough to keep the mystery interesting. I could definitely stand to see no more Sandman ever after this, though; Overture bookends The Sandman in a perfect ouroboros that should never be broken.

Tuesday 5 December 2017

Inescapable truth

Of late, the news has become an ongoing name-and-shame of predatory men in positions of power, and particularly in Hollywood. In the UK, we already had our watershed moment, when the not-remotely-surprising news that Jimmy Saville was a serial child sex offender began a rush of such revelations and accusations, and in time appeared that almost everyone who worked in entertainment in the UK in 1970s was involved in one way of another. In the Premier League, accusations, and occasionally convictions, of rape and sexual assault, are so commonplace that they barely make the news anymore. It's just taken time for the US media to react to their own series of top-level assault claims.

None of this is really a surprise. Power corrupts, yes, and more than that, power attracts deeply corrupted individuals. The sudden rise in accusations, and the rise in coverage and acceptance, is a consequences of Weinstein being big enough, important enough, and revolting enough that he has forced open the floodgates. It's not as if this hasn't been happening for as long as our civilisation can remember. It's that the world at large doesn't care about the victims of these crimes until the media decides they are reportable. Until a steady stream of headlines and clickbait can be generated, it's just more "unimportant" news.  Suddenly, we're allowed to care.

However, as the #metoo phenomenon has made very clear, this shit has been happening for a long time, to virtually every woman in every walk of life. The fact that it has become clear it's the norm in Hollywood (and television, and music, and theatre) doesn't mean that it's not the norm everywhere. It is endemic. Yes, men suffer from it too, and all sorts of men - Anthony Rapp and Matt Smith experiencing it as youngsters seems less surprising than Terry Crews dealing with it at a party a few years ago, which only goes to prove that it doesn't matter who it is, everyone is potentially at risk. Nonetheless, the fact remains that women suffer from this crap all through their lives, from the mildest verbal harassment to brutal rape, and disproportionately so.The backlash against powerful men in Hollywood may indicate that western society is finally starting to look at things differently.

The smallest, least relevant problem to come from this is how people like me can discuss films and television. It has now become impossible to separate art and entertainment from a criminal culture that has thrived for decades. And while Bryan Singer and Kevin Spacey get kicked off current projects, it can't erase the many, many productions of the past retroactively tainted.

I don't know what the solution to this is, other than to approach things individually and take the background of productions into account where I can.

How a white guy sitting behind his computer deals with this news is the least important thing about it, but I wanted to at least make it clear that I recognise the situation.

For now, I'll leave the commentary to people who actually have a real stake in the matter.