Friday, December 22, 2006

Some Christmas links for now

Blogger ate an entire post, so I'm going to sulk about that.

In the meantime, here are sites that will let you digest that holiday spirit.

--Like Christmas specials? Here are 101 Christmas movies, TV specials, TV episodes, commercials and other things for you to peruse to your heart's content. In particular, check out this little-seen, underrated version of A Christmas Carol by Richard Williams, master animator. And if you're a child of the 80s who wonders how, exactly, Claymation spent that weird period from 1985-1987 as the best thing ever, here's the Christmas special to prove to you that you weren't hallucinating.

--Like Christmas music? Almost to distraction? There are plenty of places you can go, of course, but I'm fond of starting the day at Music You (Possibly) Won't Hear Anyplace Else, where Lee offers you a wide collection of really odd oddities. Move along to Fa La La La La, where the King of Jingaling is trying to recreate the Christmases of yore, one LP at a time. Then, spend some time with A Christmas Yuleblog and marvel at that title. Ernie (Not Bert) should be your next stop, as he's always got a huge variety of interesting (and totally random) stuff. Then, finally, you have Senses Working Overtime and Blog of 999 Dances, where the entire Great Songs of Christmas series from the 60s is being posted. Here's an easy-to-follow collection of things that have been posted, lest ye get confused. (And don't tell anyone you're downloading all of this stuff, because people tend to raise their eyebrows when you tell them you have over a week's worth of Christmas music. Not that I, y'know, do or anything.)

--Can't be bothered with figuring out these fancy new MP3s? Neither can my family! Go to, in that case and enter some of your favorite holiday songs. Pick the artists you like best go to town. If you want to, you can even create a QuickMix that blends a variety of holiday sounds. Ginchy! Plus, unlike most of the other sites, this one is actually handy during the rest of the year. (Two other radio stations worth checking out: Boston Pete, featuring a wide variety of old-time radio programs and carols, and the Christmas Radio Network, which has a deep library and unintentionally hilarious interstitials.)

--Like A Christmas Carol? So does Jim Hill, and he's watching 40-some versions of the story between Thanksgiving and New Year's from the good to the bad to the deeply, deeply misguided. If you're a member of my family, you'll like his story about The Stingiest Man in Town, a briefly popular made-for-TV musical that somehow became a holiday standard for my mother's family. It covers both the original version and the misbegotten Rankin-Bass version from the 70s. And, if you're in a Christmas Carol-y mood, check out this needlessly elaborate comparison chart.

--Like to read? Here are some Christmas-y type stories for your perusal. Wikipedia's entry on the holiday is actually pretty good for that site. A Christmas Carol is still the most popular Christmas novella. The Little Match Girl is sure to depress, just as surely as The Gift of the Magi is sure not to surprise. Then there's that editorial Sam Elliott reads from in Prancer. And, of course, the poem everyone likes. If you've got money to spend, here's a good book about the history of American Christmas. Plus, there's always, y'know, the Bible. And, barring all of that, there's the strangely moving Dulce Domum from Wind in the Willows.

Now keep busy!


Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Adapt This #2: Other countries' shows

Remaking shows from other countries is in vogue right now in the U.S., thanks to the success of Ugly Betty and The Office. This pilot season will see a number of remakes of foreign properties, most notably ABC's The Thick of It (a remake of a British political comedy) and Footballers' Wives (a remake of a British soap).

But there are two other shows that I think could go over well with American audiences that won't immediately be thought of as such (indeed, both are being imported to the U.S. wholesale). So here you go.

Torchwood (United Kingdom), perfect for ABC: Torchwood is the Doctor Who spinoff that has taken the Brits by storm. Unfortunately, it's a deeply uneven show, not quite sure of what it's tone should be (wondering how I saw it? well, the Internet contains many wonders). It veers from horror to comedy to soap and back and rarely gracefully (though, to be fair, it does get better as the season goes along).

Supposedly, SciFi has a deal to air the show, as it does Doctor Who, but there's stuff that will need to be cut for it to air (though, admittedly, SciFi could bury it at 11 p.m. or so and air it uncut, but that doesn't seem to be the best ratings decision). The language, for one thing, is saltier than American non-pay TV can handle, and the rather frank discussion of sexuality is admirable, if a bit outside of the bounds of American cinematic SF.

But that doesn't worry me nearly as much as the show's tone. Really, this should be my dream show -- a task force of operatives explores the realms of weird alien technology (and the vaguely paranormal) while coping with intra-squad squabbling and romances. Furthermore, their office is in Cardiff, Wales, which isn't exactly the epicenter of modern UK society (though I'm told it's seen a hipster resurgence -- the Pittsburgh of the UK!). There's also a strongly suggested mythology that lurks at the edge of the series, always being interesting without ruining itself. It could be a tart little piece of entertainment, but the lugubrious tone shifts often foul it up.

So that's why I think an American adaptation, rather than a straight transplant, might work better. Similar to The X-Files, sure, but that show has been off the air for over five years now, and Supernatural's more of a direct ripoff anyway. What would set it apart, of course, would be the team aspect, as well as the setting (go, Pittsburgh!).

ABC could find a home for this sort of project. It's the kind of freewheeling genre show they could pin before Lost and gain some traction with. If they didn't want it, NBC could throw it after Heroes, or Fox could just stick it somewhere and watch it die. Heck, the procedural format could work on CBS.

Corner Gas (Canada), perfect for NBC: This is trickier. As it is, Corner Gas is a pretty great little show. It's a quiet ensemble comedy set in the middle-of-nowhere Canada, a wackier, yet gentler Northern Exposure (if you can believe either). And it's entirely dependent on the tone set for it by its creator and star, Brent Butt. What's more, the casting is decidedly atypical -- there are attractive people, to be sure, but most of the cast consists of the sort of well-worn faces you don't see on U.S. television all that often.

Now, Corner Gas is coming to WGN mostly intact (the show's a HUGE hit in Canada, and the people behind the deal are hoping it pulls in good numbers on the Midwest's biggest station, I imagine). And I can't say I blame anyone for bringing it to the U.S. as is. It's going to translate and gain a cult following, I imagine, and the references are going to be familiar to those in farm country.

But I think there's an American spin to be done on this. It'll have to have EXACTLY the right sort of talent involved, as Butt was. But the middle portions of America have been largely neglected since the MTM folks and their deliberate attempts to set sitcoms in every major Midwestern city went away. There's great television to be mined from the empty spaces in America's breadbasket, and while Corner Gas is going to ring true for a lot of those folks, there's also stuff that's U.S.-centric that could be plumbed (the uneasy intersection of religion and commerce, etc.).

Now, having grown up in that portion of the country, I'm not suggesting I'm the one for the job (okay, I am), but I do think that something Corner Gas-esque could work. It might need too much tweaking to keep the name, but there's something in there that would translate, I should think.


Tuesday, December 19, 2006

South Dakota Dark's Advent Calendar, volume 3

Our latest chapter begins. I'll post five today, five later this week and five on Christmas Day. How's that sound?

All right.

Dec. 10: The Boondocks, season one, episode seven, "A Huey Freeman Christmas"

I saw this last year when it first aired, and I remember really liking it. Watching it again, I was struck by just how genuine it is in both its melancholy and its humor. It's the true ancestor to "A Charlie Brown Christmas," both in spirit and in the many, many homages it makes to that Christmas classic. The episode is miles more cynical than the Peanuts special (as is to be expected -- the comic strip was a dark riff on the Peanuts set-up), but there's a real heart that gets bruised here, and most of the jokes land (Jasmine's fantasy of a Santa-worshipping holiday, which you can see above, in particular, seems like the worst nightmare of my Sunday school teacher from back in the day). I also like how the episode is basically the story of Aaron MacGruder trying to turn his comic strip into an animated television show. By turns moving and hilarious, "A Huey Freeman Christmas" is the best Christmas episode I've seen in several years.

Dec. 11: Prancer

(Can you believe YouTube has no Prancer videos?)

I've never seen this movie. Is it SUPPOSED to be overwrought and sort of stupid? And has Sam Elliott ALWAYS looked so much like Powers Boothe? And what of the reindeer?

Basically, Santa Claus movies are always doomed to fail (NBC's poorly thought out remake of The Year Without a Santa Claus is sort of exhibit A in this argument). Now, obviously, some don't, but Santa Claus is such a saintly figure that you can't really base a narrative around him, and his hangers-on are all pretty slight (I mean, Prancer is just a NAME from that Night Before Christmas poem). So you either have to beat out a story that divulges from the well-trod path (Rudolph did this, as did Elf) or you have to come up with some new spin on Santa (Miracle on 34th Street). Since almost nobody can do this, we end up with movie after movie that are just silly.

Hence, Prancer.

Dec. 12: How I Met Your Mother, season two, episode 10, "How Lily Stole Christmas"

Not the best HIMYM ever, but, then, how can you hope to top "Slap Bet" anyway? I'll give the episode points for daring to include Harry Groener, who's a fine, fine actor and will make a fine, fine Clint for the show. Also, writing around the one-word-you-really-can't-say-in-polite-conversation-anymore was pretty well-done, even if "Grinch" wasn't the best word to choose (though it WAS seasonally appropriate). Mostly, the episode was worth it to see Barney and Marshall duet on Silent Night, speaking of which. . .

Dec. 13: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

Also speaking of which.

Rudolph was never my favorite as a kid (if you'll let me be blindingly personal again), but it's really grown on me as an adult. There's something so DIY about the animation that it can't help but be charming, and the Abominable Snowmonster (which terrified me as a child) always looks sort of ratty, which amuses me. Plus, as Libby says, Christmas just ain't Christmas without Burl Ives, who makes this into a soundtrack worth owning.

Dec. 14: The Office, season three, episode 10 "A Benihana Christmas"

I don't think I've laughed harder all year than I did at Jim tricking Dwight into telling the waitress the best way to drain a goose of blood. Just sayin'.

That's it for now. I'll try to get another one of these up soon AND I promise it will be filled with old-timey special goodness!


Monday, December 18, 2006

We are not amused: The Queen

The Queen, the second in director Stephen Frears' proposed trilogy of films about British prime minister Tony Blair (the first was about Blair's rise to power, the third would be about he and George W. Bush deciding to go to war in Iraq), has an inherently stuffy and stagey feel to it, rather befitting a film about one of the more set-in-her-ways people on Earth. Unfortunately, this quality occasionally robs the film of a more cinematic quality, making it play like a filmed version of a stage production (indeed, it's easy to conceive of a Broadway adaptation of this making the rounds at the Tonys a few years from now). What the film loses in cinematic urgency, though, it makes up for with wonderful performances.

In The Queen, Blair (Michael Sheen, dryly witty) has just ascended to the position of Prime Minister and encountered Queen Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren, who's actually worthy of the awards talk for once), a queen who's as suspicious of him and his Labour Party ways (it's briefly referenced that the Queen has more in common with the Tories) as he (with his anti-royalist wife) is of her. Shortly after Blair is ensconced, Princess Diana dies, and the public outcry of grief threatens to do the Queen in. The rest of the movie has to do with Blair convincing her to step outside of her shell to give the people what they need -- a queen who mourns for someone she was never particularly fond of and, indeed, has no real reason to mourn.

It must be said that a lot of this seems very odd. In our age, when terrorism and war dominate headlines, the fact that the death of a rather insignificant figure on the world scale caused this much grief feels a bit quaint (and the film takes pains to show that the mourning crossed over from the United Kingdom to other countries as well). Diana, of course, was a good person, and the causes she worked for were uniformly fine ones, but, even now, the grieving seems over-the-top. It's far easier for an American such as myself (who's naturally suspicious of royalty and the national soap opera that springs up around it anyway) to side with the slightly bemused Queen than Blair, who sees that the people need a mourner-in-chief.

What's nice about this is that there's never any attempt to play this situation as a deep drama. It quickly becomes more of a comedy of manners set among the monarchy, the sort of wry entertainment you might immediately think of when you hear the phrase "British film." It's less about the attempts by Blair and the Queen to have their way, and more about the generation gap that separates them -- he intrinsically understands how the 24-hour media has changed everything, and she has no idea. This isn't presented as the story of what really happened after Diana's death; the script is far too witty to suggest that. It's a dry comedy, drawn in bits and pieces.

Frears' camera is rarely dynamic here -- there are few shots where it actually moves or gives the actors much room to breathe (indeed, it's easy to remember the many, many stifling close-ups Frears traps his actors in). But his ability to subtly make both sides of the argument seem to make sense to the audience as well as his hand with the actors are the movie's true strengths.

Frears has always been something of an actors' director (he's wrangled great work out of a long list of performers from Jack Black to Chiwetel Ejeiofor to Anjelica Huston), and his cast here comes ready to play. The film is, in essence, about two protagonists learning to capitulate to each other politically. While that doesn't sound horribly interesting on paper, Mirren and Sheen make it the stuff of riveting drama (especially Mirren, who manages to sell even the film's more bizarre moments, which involve the Queen mourning a dead stag), slowly circling each other and coming to respect an individual they wouldn't be naturally inclined to respect in the first place.

But Frears manages to strike just the right notes with his other performers. James Cromwell is hilarious as the doddering Prince Phillip, while Sylvia Syms manages to put a new spin on the overly-controlling old biddy as the Queen Mother. Helen McCrory, as Blair's wife, Cherie, is probably the strongest impediment to Blair and the Queen seeing eye-to-eye, but it's to the credit of Frears and scripter Peter Morgan that her concerns are treated just as fairly as everyone else's.

From both a political and a strictly American standpoint, The Queen is a bit hard to wrap one's mind around. It ends up being something of a love note to the royals, and while the royals are entertaining as soap opera, it's hard to take monarchy seriously in the 21st century, when it has essentially been superceded by democracy in the West (again, especially for an American, what with our complete lack of a royal system and our general cynicism toward our leaders since Watergate). There's an argument to be made (I won't make it, but I have friends I can point you in the direction of who will) that the monarchy prevents true social change from sweeping across the countries where it has a toehold.

But Frears, Morgan and this cast never force questions of politics down your throat. Their greatest achievement here is in never condescending to any of their characters. All of these people have very reasonable goals and motivations, and it's hard to come away from the film without feeling sympathy for all of them. The Queen isn't a perfect film or even a stunning example of cutting-edge filmmaking (as the amount of praise lavished upon it might lead you to suspect). What it is is a closely observed portrait of a moment in time that already feels so long ago, a film that has the decency to treat its larger-than-life subjects as both human beings and adults.

(Note: There will be TV stuff over the next few weeks, but the holiday hiatus most of the networks are laboring under will mean that more film reviews will go up as I catch up with the stuff I've missed.)