Freeview films from 24 December 2022

World Cinema

Saturday (31/12)   11:00   Film4    The Red Turtle (2016)

This wordless animated fable is gorgeous. It was directed by a Dutchman, Michaël Dudok de Wit, with the backing of Japan’s Studio Ghibli when it had temporarily run out of steam. It doesn’t look much like one of theirs, being altogether less kinetic and more ruminative. A man is washed on an island, Crusoe-style, and attempts to make himself at home. His attempts to escape are impeded by a gargantuan red turtle. Pretty much everyone adored this film. Read Donald Clarke’s review in the Irish Times: ‘No frame is too busy. If only shades of green are required, then that is the only colour we will see. This is a very balanced class of loveliness.’ The exception to the chorus of approval was Nigel Andrews in the Financial Times: ‘The images are tamely drawn; the tale is wanly evolved.’ Maybe he was having a bad day. Luckily, his miserable review is behind a paywall, so you won’t have to waste your time on it. (JM)

Stephen’s Seasonal Selection II

Saturday (24/12)         13:25   Channel 5    Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987)

Road trip and/or buddy movie by John Hughes, featuring Steve Martin as an ad executive and John Candy as a shower-curtain-ring salesman thrown together after snow makes it impossible for them to get home the usual airborne way for Christmas. Gradually they exhaust the alternative transport options. Unusually, Martin plays more of a straight-man role, but the finished article is still pretty funny. (JR)

Sunday (25/12)            20:15   Sky Arts        Elvis: That’s the Way It Is (1970)  (also Sunday 1/1 13:45)

The definitive Elvis concert movie, backstage, onstage and in the corridor between. If you like this sort of thing, you’ll love it. I worked on an Elvis book, Return of the King by Gillian Gaar. It contains one truly gobsmacking revelation, about Elvis’s leather trousers, straight from his dresser. I’m not telling you what it is, although I will if I bump into you. (JM)

Monday (26/12)          22:00   BBC4             Tutti Frutti Parts 1-2 (1987)  (continues Tuesday/Wednesday)  

There was in the 1980s a brief vogue for television that attempted to vamp on the energy of rock music. This is the best of those series, I would say. Written by a proper playwright, John Byrne, with a great cast and lots of energy. The Majestics are Scotland’s self-proclaimed ‘Kings of Rock’, with gargantuan frontman Big Jazza (Robbie Coltrane) at the helm, when Suzy Kettles (Emma Thompson) a sexy redhead, joins their tour. The road turns rocky. As the old musicians’ joke has it: ‘What’s the difference between a terrorist and a female singer?’ ‘You can negotiate with a terrorist.’ Richard Wilson, as the crotchety manager, pretty much steals the show from the youngsters. Filmed in Glasgow and various lesser-known Scottish locales when they were rough as guts. I expect they’re worse now. (JM)

Wednesday (28/12)   09:35   BBC2            The Third Man (1949)

The disparate talents of Carol Reed, Graham Greene, Anton Karas and Orson Welles combined to create something greater than the sum of the parts; a timeless masterpiece of writing, performance, visual style and music. The transcendent final shot impacts with the force of myth. Pure cinema and pure emotion. (SF)

Thursday (29/12)        13:55   BBC1              Zootopia (2016)   

Delightful, Oscar-nominated return to form for Disney, whose 21st century releases have been hit-and-miss; but the hits are often huge and powerful. This is the sweet tale of an underappreciated, sidelined police officer, rabbit Judy Hopps, who doggedly uncovers a case of corruption and chemical warfare in the titular town, the detail of which is a marvellous achievement in itself. Also released as Zootropolis. (MH)

Friday (30/12)            13:00   Channel 5      Superman (1978)

The first and, until Christopher Nolan came along, simply the greatest comic book superhero blockbuster. It balances breathtaking spectacle and sweet charm, aided massively by the central performances of the late Christopher Reeve as the Kryptonian and Margot Kidder as love interest Lois Lane. There’s also a well-known John Williams score. With an infamous Marlon Brando cameo as the superhero’s father. (MH)

Saturday (31/12)    13:05    BBC2                 The Remains of the Day (1993)  

In James Ivory’s adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel, Hopkins plays Stevens, butler first to the Earl of Darlington, an English aristocrat with Nazi leanings, and then to a US Congressman. The framing for the film is Stevens’s quest to reconnect with Miss Kenton (Emma Thompson), the former housekeeper at Darlington Hall, whom he hopes to persuade to return. A brilliant portrait of emotional reticence, which foregrounds period romance over historical-political resonance: the novel is more explicit in that respect. (JR)

Other modern films of more than moderate interest

Sunday (25/12)           01:00   BBC2               La La Land (2016)  (also BBC3 Thursday 21:00)

Damien Chazelle’s bright, intoxicating, effervescent La La Land serves as a love letter to musicals and a standalone musical of great control and accomplishment. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone team up again in the simple story or romance under pressure from their careers and their art. The top-notch performances (Stone took home the Best Actress Oscar) and directing ensure that the character engagement is never lost in the singing or dancing, (which itself is greatly performed) the quiet moments hit home just as much or more than the big musical numbers. There were other Oscar wins for music, director and cinematography. (MH)

                                   22:55   Channel 4      Catch Me If You Can (2002)  (also Saturday 31/12 4seven 21:00)

Steven Spielberg’s slick, entertaining, fictionalised retelling of the true story of Frank William Abagnale, a brasen trickster who, after starting running scams as a child, reportedly blagged his way into the FBI Ten Most Wanted list. Hunted by a dogged FBI agent (Tom Hanks), Frank works his way all over the world as a Pan American airline pilot, leaving a trail of fraudulent cheques, confounded police and puzzled women in his wake. (MH)

Tuesday (27/12)         12:55   Film4               Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) (also Sunday 1/1 13:05)

Wes Anderson’s delightful first venture into animation, based on Roald Dahl’s book about the battle between farmers and a family of thieving foxes. George Clooney and Meryl Streep provide the voices for Foxy and Felicity Fox. Also featuring the vocal stylings of Bill Murray, Willem Dafoe, Michael Gambon, Owen Wilson and even Jarvis Cocker. (MH)

                                     23:05   More4           Bridge of Spies (2015)    

Spielbergian fact-based account of insurance executive and former lawyer James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks), defending Russian Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) when he is arrested in New York in 1960 on spying charges. Initially reluctant to become involved in the case, Donovan is drawn further in and ends up in Cold War East Berlin, negotiating the release of captured U2 pilot Gary Powers. The chilly world the other side of the Iron Curtain is rendered well, as is the populist reaction to Donovan’s legal defence of a Communist. Primarily a stage actor, Rylance was appearing in his first film for some time, and for the audience it was worth the wait. (JR)

Wednesday (28/12)   11.40   BBC1              Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005)  

Leporine horror by Aardman. Wallace and Gromit investigate the damage being done to their garden, with the annual giant vegetable competition in the offing.  Things are done with a Morris Minor that you wouldn’t believe possible.  Priceless. (JR)


Saturday (24/12)        13:40   BBC2                     North By Northwest (1959)   

Well-received in its time but less revered now, Hitchock’s tale of exec Roger Thornill (Cary Grant), who is mistaken for a spy, George Kaplan, still has some outstanding sequences, none more than the crop-dusting scene, which has something truly existential about it. The New York Times felt Grant ‘was never more at home than in this role of the advertising-man-on-the-lam. He handles the grimaces, the surprised look, the quick smile … and all the derring-do with professional aplomb and grace’. Time Out highlighted how the film ‘caught the zeitgeist perfectly: Cold War shadiness, secret agents of power, urbane modernism, the ant-like bustle of city life, and a hint of dread behind the sharp suits of affluence’.  Eva Marie Saint is the woman Thornhill somehow meets on a train, James Mason is the adversary Philip Vandamm, Leo McKern the mysterious Professor, and Jessie Royce Landis plays Thornhill’s mother. All very Freudian. It was 53rd in the BFI’s critics’ poll of the greatest films ever made. (JR) [Bernard Herrman’s best score, for me. JM.]

                                     16:55   BBC2                     Chariots of Fire (1981)  (also Thursday BBC4 21:00)

This is one of those films that rings not so much a bell with me as a great clanging gong. It contains a trueish account of an incident at my Cambridge College, Gonville & Caius, in the 1920s, when the dons undermined Harold Abrahams, a Jewish student who wants to run in the Olympics and employs a professional coach. He runs against Eric Liddell, a Scottish presbyterian who runs for the glory of God. It features winning direction by Hugh Hudson, great performances by the young leads (Ben Cross and Ian Charleson) but also Cheltenham College boy Lindsay Anderson, and cinema’s first thumping synthesizer score (by Vangelis Papathanassíou, of course). Anyway, the film marked the apogee of the British film industry, in a way, after writer Colin Welland, having sampled the refreshments, stood onstage at the Oscars and told the assembled suits, gangsters and molls that ‘The British are coming’. He wasn’t forgiven, and neither, really, was British cinema. Here’s Pauline Kael: ‘The picture is a piece of technological lyricism held together by the glue of simpleminded heroic sentiment: basically, its appeal is watching a couple of guys win their races. One good scene: a charming flirtation between Abrahams and a young D’Olyly Carte singer-actress, played by Alice Krige, whose cooing, artificial style is a little reminiscent of Joan Greenwood’s purring.’ Brava, Pauline, but ‘simpleminded’ is not always bad. Minds are over-rated. Hearts count too. (JM)

                                     17:25   Channel 4             Home Alone (1990)  (also 4seven 21:00) 

Macauley Culkin is an eight year old who is left at home by his family (‘And why not?’, as Barry Norman would say) when they set off to spend Christmas in Paris. He is initially liberated by this, but soon finds he has to fend off would-be burglars Joe Pesci (in a previously unfamiliar comic guise) and Daniel Stern. A strong cast includes John Heard, Catherine O’Hara and John Candy. Having been shut down by Warner because it was exceeding its budget, it went on to become the second highest-grossing film of 1990, making $476m.   (JR)                                        

                                     21:05   Talking Pictures    Runaway Train (1985)  (also Wednesday 21:00)             
Originally conceived by Akiro Kurosawa in the 1960s but eventually abandoned, it was brought to fruition by Andrei Konchalovsky.  Two escaped convicts, played by Jon Voight and Eric Roberts, and a railway employee (Rebecca De Mornay) find themselves on a speeding train with no driver and no brakes. Could be an analogy for all sorts of things. Action-packed, as you might expect. Roger Ebert gave it four stars.    (JR)                                     

Sunday (25/12)           15:10   BBC2                      Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)                                                    

Howard Hawks’ colourful, knowingly shallow, and delightful musical comedy starring Marilyn Monroe as the money hungry Lorelei Lee. Although she isn’t blessed with a powerful singing voice, and her typecast materialistic, ditsy, naive blonde persona has aged horribly, Monroe is the very epitome of sultry, and her charm and charisma are undeniable. Still, the seven-year-old George Wilmslow steals the scenes he’s in. Diamonds really are a girl’s best friend. (MH)

                                     15:25   ITV2                      E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) (also ITV1 Tuesday 13:30)

Steven Spielberg’s first, and wildly successful, foray into the territory of childhood, focusing on ten-year-old Elliott (Henry Thomas), who finds an alien in the field near his home. Initially afraid, he lures it into his house and quickly bonds with it. But it cannot stay.

There are references to Spielberg’s own childhood in the script – his parents divorced and he missed having a brother – and Gary Arnold in the Washington Post said ET was ‘essentially a spiritual autobiography, a portrait of the filmmaker as a typical suburban kid set apart by an uncommonly fervent, mystical imagination’. It made $794m, from a budget of $10m, and enabled a whole series of films about aspects of childhood and adolescence: Gremlins, Back to the Future and Super 8, among others. (JR)

                                     16:40   BBC2                    Some Like It Hot (1959)

Billy Wilder’s late great film, preceding The Apartment by a year.  But what a film!  It was refused Hays Code approval, because of the cross-dressing element: Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon flee from the mob after the St Valentine’s Day Massacre disguised as female musicians. Along the way they run into Marilyn Monroe as Sugar, the singer who has a habit of picking the wrong guy, and Joe E Brown as a millionaire strangely drawn to Lemmon. George Raft appears as a textbook baddie. The Hays Code didn’t last much longer anyway. (JR)


Monday (26/12)          00:05   BBC1                    When Harry Met Sally (1989) 

Romcom directed by Rob Reiner from Nora Ephron’s script, and featuring the famous Meg Ryan scene in which she demonstrates the art of faking. She is Sally and Billy Crystal is Harry. They know each other from university and reconnect at various times, hovering between friendship and something more. Carrie Fisher is Sally’s more hard-headed friend. It spawned a raft of imitations that weren’t as good. (JR)

                                      09:15   BBC2                    Great Expectations (1946)

David Lean may be best remembered for sweeping historical epics, although in truth his greater works are often on a much more personal scale. This, surely the greatest production of the classic Charles Dickens text, doesn’t have the intimacy of his crowning glory Brief Encounter, but it is lively and sentimental, with a crisp, clean, black-and-white aesthetic. (MH)

                                      11:50   Channel 5             My Fair Lady (1964)

A musical as classically beautiful as its leading lady, who plays the cockney flower girl Eliza Dolittle, coached by the wealthy and bored speech specialist Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison), to mix with the upper classes. Based on George Bernard Shaw’s less romantic Pygmalion, of course. This was the last film to make use of the entirety of Audrey Hepburn’s unmatched star power, that was cultivated through the 1950s and 60s. Quotable sings include ‘The Rain in Spain’, and ‘I could have danced all night’. (MH)  

                                      15:40   Talking Pictures   Oliver Twist (1948) 

David Lean’s classic adaptation, starring Robert Newton as Bill Sykes, Alec Guinness as Fagin, Kay Walsh as Nancy, Anthony Newley as the Artful Dodger and John Howard Davies as Oliver: later to be a top BBC comedy producer. Wonderful monochrome cinematography by Guy Green and economical image-driven direction. (JM)

                                      16:25    BBC1                     Mary Poppins (1964)   

For people of a certain age, the best children’s film ever, starring Julie Andrews as Mary, the magical nanny ideally suited to dealing with some badly-behaved middle class children, and Dick Van Dyke as a pavement artist with a dodgy Cockney accent. Disney’s subsequent Saving Mr Banks (2013) showed that its gestation wasn’t straightforward, but it was all right on the night. Directed by Bill Stevenson from the novel by P.L. Travers. (JR)

                                      17:30    BBC2                     The Magnificent Seven (1960) (also Thursday BBC4 23:00) 

John Sturges’s translation of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai into the American West. Not bad, but not a patch on the original. Elmer Bernstein’s sweeping score may be the best thing about it. (JM)

                                      22:15    BBC2                     Goodfellas (1990)  (also Friday BBC3 22:00)

One of my All Time Top 10 films, and the closest Martin Scorsese has come to a consummation of his considerable skills, not least in cinematography and soundtrack. Ray Liotta stars as real-life gangster Henry Hill, who follows his role models, gangster Jimmy (Scorsese regular Robert DeNiro) and boss Pauly (Paul Sorvino), into the mob, but never really has the cutthroat attitude to survive. He is forced to take desperate measures when the life of plenty gives way to backstabbing and murder under the threat of exposure. (MH)

Tuesday (27/12)          13:30    BBC2                     Hello, Dolly! (1969)     
Lavish, large-scale musical which was Gene Kelly’s last film as a director. Barbra Streisand is Dolly, a professional matchmaker with her eye on Horace Vandergelder (Walter Matthau). The plot is all about matchmaking in one form or another. Given the box office returns, Eric Henderson in Slant magazine described it as ‘one of Hollywood’s foremost turkeys’. At least that’s seasonal. (JR)

                                      19:10    Sky Arts                The Beach Boys: Endless Harmony   (1998) (also Tuesday 3/1 01:05/ Friday 6/1 20:50)

To me The Beach Boys are the greatest of all rock bands, both for the wonder of their music and the bottomless depth of their soap opera existence (take a gander at their Wiki entry, which barely scrapes the surface), but I appreciate that other people might feel differently. This is a documentary by Alan Boyd, released not long after the death of Carl, the youngest of the three Wilson brothers. Brian, the eldest and most gifted, was having nothing to do with the band, having acquired a grasping therapist who fancied himself as a co-writer. Al Jardine, the teenage friend who lasted the course, immediately started touring as The Beach Boys Family and Friends and ran into a lawsuit. Mike Love (first cousin) marched on belligerently, as he does to this day. The film includes the usual footage and celebrity endorsement. ‘America’s band’ have been more biographised, mythologised and intellectualised – and less understood – than any pop-culture figures I know. And I haven’t even had my turn yet, although I have met Brian twice and written loads about them over the years. (JM)

                                      21:25    Sky Arts                George Harrison: Living in the Material World (2011)

Harrison was the mystical Beatle, the quiet one. An excellent songwriter, when he got the chance. He was also mean with money, right from the start. That was apparent in Peter Jackson’s endless TV documentary about the making of Let It Be, one of this year’s great disappointments for me. The title of this documentary, therefore, is apposite: it’s also the title of one of his songs. Martin Scorsese is a man with deep musician-envy and an increasing tendency to ramble. His film clocks in at around three-and-a-half hours. I’ve not seen it. Harrison’s little jingle for the Krishna movement (‘Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Rama Rama’, etc, vamp for 128 bars) made a lot of money for the Hare Krishna sect, but he was never a member and later on got rather annoyed with them for their habit of pouncing on people in airports and in the streets. With their websites, apps and relentless soliciting of ‘donations’, their orange-clad, shaven-headed missionaries offer an unusual version of the tradition of mendicant monasticism, common to both medieval Christianity and Hinduism. (JM)

Tuesday (27/12)          21:00   BBC1             1917 (2019)

Sam Mendes’ technical tour de force about life in the WW1 trenches is notable for its capacity to give a 360-degree impression of the action, reminding you that many war films seem to lack a dimension. It gives the impression of being filmed in one take but actually wasn’t. George MacKay plays the lead as Lance Corporal William Schofield, with energy and stamina, supported by Dean-Charles Chapman as Tom Blake. The pair are sent into No Man’s Land to deliver a message to another unit, calling off an attack which would endanger British lives if carried out. The cinematography is by Roger Deakins and the music by Thomas Newman. It was nominated for ten Academy Awards, winning three, but did not persuade the critics. Alison Willmore of Vulture said ‘The artifice of the aesthetic premise overwhelms any of the film’s other intentions’, and Manohla Dargis in the NY Times said it turned ‘one of the most catastrophic episodes in modern times into an exercise in preening showmanship’.  (JR)

Wednesday (28/12)    22:30    BBC2                     Heat (1995)

Michael Mann had his actors train with their real-life equivalents to perfect their performances, and in the case of Al Pacino’s Vincent Hanna and Robert DeNiro’s Neil McCaulay, the work paid off massively. The two channel their respective cops and robbers to a tee. The film is masterfully balanced, and wonderful from beginning to end. It made big news because the two stars, arguably the two greatest American actors of their generation, met on screen for the first time, in the now legendary diner scene. My full review. (MH)

Saturday (31/12)        10:15    BBC2                    Shadowlands (1993)     

Period drama, set in the late 1950s, in which Anthony Hopkins plays Oxford don, children’s author and Christian propagandist C.S. Lewis, who falls in love with American poet Joy Davidman Gresham (Debra Winger), who is visiting the city with her son. Their burgeoning relationship is beautifully depicted, as well as their cultural and emotional differences: she is Jewish. Sadly, she is diagnosed with cancer and her task becomes one of preparing him for the inevitable. Richard Attenborough directs. Very powerful, especially the choral music. A BBC Wales film, when such a thing was possible. (JM)                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 

                                      13:45    Channel 5             Zulu (1963)   
Cy Endfield’s account of the British defence of Rorke’s Drift against the Zulus in 1879, made at a time when British colonial expansionism was pretty much over. Stanley Baker and Michael Caine star. Caine later said that his whole career depended on being cast in this film, and that only an American director would have put him in the role of an officer. (JR)

                                      15:10    BBC2                     West Side Story (1961)

Something’s Coming

An old review, but I’m pleased with it, so you’re getting it again. I didn’t watch the Spielberg remake of West Side Story. The trailer looked terrible. The original West Side Story (1961) is a piece of film history, of course, but it is still vivid and alive.  Its concerns – youth, tribalism, gangs, family, the cluelessness of authority, the dangers of love – are perennially in the news. The weird jazz lingo of the script and some of the songs, which was, in any case, largely invented, now sets the film in a time and place as imaginary as Shakespeare’s Verona. The plot, freely adapted from Romeo & Juliet, floats free too, a fact partially explained by the show’s long, painful genesis. 

When choreographer Jerome Robbins first approached composer Leonard Bernstein and playwright Arthur Laurents, in 1947, he was planning East Side Story, a contemporary forbidden-love musical about Irish Catholics clashing with Jewish newcomers. The Puerto Ricans came later, plucked from headlines about juvenile delinquency, just as the prodigy Stephen Sondheim was brought in to write the lyrics: the show would be called West Side Story. Nobody wanted to put up the money (too grim, too controversial) but it was a Broadway smash. 

Hollywood was determined to make a movie, not adapt a stage show. Robbins, who had never worked in film, was paired with Robert Wise, who had edited Citizen Kane. He saved the musical when it ran disastrously late: people kept getting injured in the choreographer’s reckless dance/fight sequences. The big songs were shifted about. The size of the orchestra was tripled, to Bernstein’s horror. NYC locations were used for the big fights. The film would look radical: super-saturated colour and costumes; violently expressive editing, dictated by the music; Super Panavision 70. 

Casting was crucial. Tony, the Polish-American hero, played by a handsome TV actor called Richard Beymer, could have been Elvis Presley, Burt Reynolds or Robert Redford. Warren Beatty was also considered and rejected. Wise picked his then-girlfriend, former teen star Natalie Wood, as innocent Maria. 

Pauline Kael hated the film – “frenzied hokum” – and critics have been sniffy about the occasional naiveté of the script. And it is true that the lead couple are somewhat overpowered by the supporting cast, especially firecracker Rita Moreno – an actual Puerto Rican (and still alive and kicking) – as Anita, Maria’s confidante and girlfriend of her doomed brother. Neither Beymer nor Wood sang: poor Natalie was led to believe that her vocals were going to be used, but the music department had already replaced her with the inevitable Marni Nixon. Only in the final reprise of ‘Somewhere’, as Tony dies, do we hear a fragment of Wood’s singing: its technical inadequacy only enhances the heartbreak of the scene. And yet, for all its flaws, this is a wonderful film: steeped in colour, dynamic, with irresistible tunes and rhythms and some of the wittiest, most musical words you can imagine. The love story is unashamedly romantic, and brilliantly realised in film. As the couple first glimpse each other across the dance floor, everything else disappears into abstraction and irrelevance. I suspect Shakespeare would have adored the magic of cinema, in which a whole army is put to work so two actors – not the best in the world – can conjure up moments of unforgettable emotional intimacy.  (JM)

                                      16:45   Talking Pictures    The Four Feathers (1939)

An upper-class British son is reluctant to follow in his family’s military tradition and resigns his post, just before being posted to Sudan, and is branded a coward. To redeem himself, he undertakes an undercover mission, disguised as a mute native. This brings him into close contact with his wife’s secret admirer, who has been blinded and has no idea his guide is someone so close to him. With some nice, if contrived, plot devices, Zoltan Korda’s film improves from its rather stuffy opening to become a charming tale of love and war at the height of Britain’s imperial reach. (MH)

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