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Scrooge Month Day 12: Sir Patrick Stewart in A CHRISTMAS CAROL (1999)

Christmas Carol 1999Director: David Hugh Jones

Writer: Peter Barnes, based on the novel by Charles Dickens

Cast: Patrick Stewart, Richard E. Grant, Joel Grey, Ian McNeice, Saskia Reeves, Desmond Barrit, Bernard Lloyd, Dominic West, Laura Fraser, Ben Tibber, Rosie Wiggins

Notes: In the 90s, Sir Patrick Stewart performed a one-man stage version of A Christmas Carol, which garnered great acclaim for several years. The TNT Network, recognizing a good thing when they see it, then produced this film starring Stewart as Scrooge. Stewart got a Screen Actors Guild nomination for best actor in a television movie or miniseries and both the movie and Stewart were nominated for Saturn Awards, the big prize for science fiction and fantasy. It’s a very straightforward version of the story, with the inclusion several scenes from the novel that many adaptations omit.

Thoughts: Patrick Stewart rarely fails to bring the Awesome, let’s be honest. Even when he’s in a bad movie, he’s typically the bright spot in a miasma of mediocrity, and here I am specifically thinking of X-Men: The Last Stand. So it’s not surprising that in this made-for-TV movie, he puts forth a Scrooge every bit as powerful and definitive as Alastair Sim or Albert Finney.

This film kicks things off with Marley’s funeral, a spot adaptations don’t cover that often, and from the start we see screenwriter Peter Barnes trying to bring in some of the Dickens language into the film. Although there’s no narrator as in the Muppets film, here we have some of the narration dropped properly into the mouths of Scrooge and others – the opening diatribe about why a doornail is considered particularly “dead.” When reading the book, that tangent in the first paragraph of the first page has always felt a bit odd to me. Here, it serves to show the mundane way Scrooge treats the death of his partner and sole friend. Much of the dialogue is verbatim Dickens, and Stewart delivers each line with the power and certainty that always drips from his voice.

In the opening scenes we see that this isn’t a Scrooge that explodes in anger or mocks those foolish enough to entreat him for donations to the poor. Stewart’s Scrooge is rather quiet and subdued. Even when he threatens a caroler with a beating, his voice doesn’t raise above the level of a bitter growl. Even in his quiet moments, though, Stewart is perhaps the most intimidating Scrooge we’ve met yet. So often Scrooge is portrayed as a feeble old man. Here he moves with weight and rage that is almost visible around him

TV or no, this Christmas Carol has some of the most impressive special effects we’ve seen yet. Bernard Lloyd appears as Marley’s ghost: he has a spectral form, his hair constantly shifting as though blown by a breeze that doesn’t affect anything else in the room. At one point his jaw falls open in a rather hideous sight that probably gave the willies to a few kids watching this. On a performance level, this gives us the chance to see Scrooge interacting with that rarest of things for him – an equal. He speaks to Marley with a casual familiarity that we didn’t see as he spoke to Bob Cratchit (Richard E. Grant) or his nephew Fred (Dominic West). Even now, before his redemption has begun, we see that Stewart’s Scrooge is more layered than most of those who came before him.

Joel Grey’s Christmas Past is perhaps my favorite of the human actors to portray the part. He has a light air about him, and constantly stands bathed in light. It’s a twist on the “candle” conceit that many versions go with, and it suits him nicely. He comes across as a little patronizing towards Scrooge, which the old codger sort of deserves at this point in the story. As Scrooge starts to feel the effects of his own past, such as when he sees his sister (Rosie Wiggins), we see the Ghost’s smile change from one of condescension to pride that he’s having the proper influence already.

I haven’t said much about the assorted Fezziwigs in this project, because there’s rarely much to say. He’s the jolly shopkeeper Scrooge apprenticed under, he throws a slammin’ Christmas party every year, but he doesn’t have too much to do. Ian McNeice, however, really steals his scene this time around. The man brings so much joy and energy to the screen that you want to watch a whole special about him. Even his musical number plays the character as a sweet, good-hearted ham, like everybody’s goofy uncle that makes the same lousy jokes at every Christmas dinner, but you love him and you love them and it just wouldn’t feel like Christmas if they were missing. Even Scrooge himself defends the man with a real ferocity when Christmas Past dares to disparage him. Somebody at TNT take note, if McNeice is available and amenable, I want to watch A Very Fezziwig Christmas next year.

Next it’s Desmond Barrit’s turn as Christmas Present, complete with the green robes and holly wreath. Barrit is a more low-key than most Presents. He’s not loud or bombastic, and in fact he seems almost sluggish as he walks around sprinkling his “milk of human kindness” onto the food of the poor. He doesn’t have the judgment of Scrooge in his voice that many people do, but rather a profound sadness. I’ve got to say, much as I like this version of the story, I’m not really keen on Barrit’s ghost.

Christmas Yet to Come here is a shadowed figure with glowing embers for eyes. Of the ghosts in this film, though, it’s also the least convincing. The unaltered, human hands that reach out from beneath the robes to point Scrooge around are somewhat jarring, and only further serve to make you feel like you’re looking at a guy wearing a false head on top of his own like a theme park costume. The other ghosts, including Barrit’s, all have a sufficiently otherworldly (or at least Dickensian) look to them. Christmas Yet to Come looks like something a moderately-skilled cosplayer puts together on his weekend off.

Fortunately, the rest of this sequence is considerably more effective. Scrooge’s pain when he realizes he’s watching the results of his own death comes across perfectly, with Patrick Stewart agonizing over the idea of looking at his own body and asking to see emotion connected to his death. From there we cut to a young couple rejoicing in that they’ll have time to get the money to pay their mortgage now – not exactly what Scrooge had in mind. The scene in the Cratchit home is a real gut-punch, as Bob talks to Tiny Tim’s body, still lying in his bed. It’s rare we actually see the dead child – most adaptations show Bob coming home from the cemetery or visiting the grave. Something about seeing him lying there makes the scene all the more heartbreaking.

The Redeemed Ebenezer Scrooge at the end, like the bitter one at the beginning, is also a little subdued. Stewart doesn’t simply explode out of his bed, but he goes through some really clever ticks – touching his hand to make sure he’s corporeal, choking a bit before he remembers how to laugh and finally spinning into a man wrapped up with joy. Maybe my favorite bit comes when he asks the passing child to go and buy the turkey for Bob Cratchit, he actually has to take a moment to force out his newfound generosity. He’s made the decision to change, but just for a second we get a reminder that old habits die hard. Once he hands over the first few coins to the child, though, it’s like the dam has burst – he gives the man with the turkey extra money for a cab, walks through the streets depositing coins in the cups of beggars, and even engages the children in a snowball fight. He has to push the wall down, but when it’s down by God it stays down. Even then, though, it’s hard for him to knock on Fred’s door, and he almost passes by entirely. He’s willing, but ashamed at his past, and he has to overcome it. Bless ya, Sir Patrick, for making Ebenezer Scrooge a real human.

Although this isn’t the best adaptation of the novel (as I said, the latter two ghosts were really quite weak), most of the performances are pretty good, and Patrick Stewart puts out one of the finest performances as Ebenezer Scrooge I’ve ever seen. It’s worth watching this movie for him alone.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

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The Christmas Special Day 22: Hooves of Fire (1999)

hooves-of-fireDirector: Richard Goleszowski

Writers: Andy Riley, Kevin Cecil, Richard Curtis

Cast: UK VERSION-Robbie Williams, Ardal O’Hanlon, Paul Whitehouse, Jane Horrocks, Steve Coogan, Caroline Quentin, Jean Alexander, Ricky Tomlinson, Rhys Ifans, Harry Enfield; US Version-Ben Stiller, Britney Spears, James Woods, Brad Garrett, Hugh Grant, Leah Remini, James Belushi, Jerry Stiller, Rob Paulsen

Plot: The red-nosedRobbie the Reindeer (Ardal O’Hanlon/Ben Stiller) has long dreamed of winning a spot as the navigator on Santa’s sleigh team, and it looks like he’s finally being given a chance.  He reports to the sleigh team, run by a taskmaster-lke Blitzen (Steve Coogan/Hugh Grant). As Donner (Jane Horrocks/Britney Spears) shows him to his room, Blitzen begins plotting… he’s been jealous of Robbie’s father ever since the day that (unnamed) most famous reindeer of all saved Christmas, and now he can take revenge on that reindeer’s son. Donner quickly develops a crush on Robbie, but he’s oblivious, only having eyes for Vixen (Caroline Quentin/Leah Remini). Robbie meets Santa Claus (Ricky Tomlinson/James Belushi) for the first time at a party the boss is throwing for the elves, where Santa gushes over Robbie’s father and Vixen rebuffs his advances. Santa has a surprise for the party as well: he unveils the Sleigh Mark II, a new high-tech vehicle full of bells, whistles, and a computer navigation system. Robbie suddenly realizes that, to keep his spot on the sleigh team, he has to be physically fit… which will be hard, as Blitzen has been sabotaging his fitness training. Disheartened, Robbie wanders out into the snow to walk south. He winds up frozen solid and would be lost if he wasn’t found and thawed out by a group of elves. He joins them working in their toy factory, but a series of mishaps bumps him lower and lower on the totem pole until he’s stuck using his antlers for a forklift – which is where he is when Donner finds him. She tells him he’s still got a chance to make the sleigh team, if he can compete in and win the upcoming Reindeer Games. She also convinces him Blitzen has been his enemy all along, and they turn to a legendary reindeer named Old Jingle (Harry Enfield/Jerry Stiller) for help.

They find Old Jingle in his house, precariously perched at the top of Pointy Mountain, and Robbie asks him to help him train. Jingle tells him his best shot at winning is the Steeplechase event, and Robbie begins training. On the day of the games, Robbie suddenly becomes a crowd favorite by saving a baby from a fall. Vixen tries to use Robbie’s crush on her to force him out of the games, but he’s fallen for Donner instead. He leaves the stadium, however, when he learns that Jingle has been trapped under his house. He rushes off and saves the old reindeer, but misses the start of the race, and Blitzen gets an enormous lead. Amazingly, Robbie makes up ground quickly, and one of Blitzen’s cronies has him stumble into a steeple. Robbie uses his special “Nose Jump” to vault to the finish line, but the photo finish reveals Blitzen to be the winner. Donner kisses him, and in his glee Robbie rushes off and performs in every event, breaking all the records, albeit unofficially. As Robbie’s dad sends a congratulatory blimp over the stadium, Blitzen is carted off for drug testing and Santa gives Robbie the keys to the sleigh for the night. He takes Donner out for a romantic evening on the moon, where together they watch the Earth come up.

Thoughts: It’s always nice to see a tweak to a Christmas classic, and this BBC special from 1999 definitely qualifies. While they’re always careful to avoid mentioning Robbie’s famous father by name, there can be no doubt who he is or what made him so famous.

Hooves of Fire picks up on Rudolph, creating a bizarre semi-sequel by way of sports story. Robbie’s tale echoes his father’s in certain ways – picking up on the Reindeer Games, for example. His journey is not just a copy of his father’s however. Although his own nose does some weird things, it never becomes the center of the storyline the way Rudolph’s does. Robbie is made an outcast not because he’s different, but because Blitzen holds an old grudge against his family. Even when Robbie pulls out his nose’s special abilities at the end, they don’t directly contribute to his success. Remember, he loses the games. He wins in the end because he’s made everyone love him for reasons that don’t have anything to do with his nose. Also because Blitzen is a jerk who, evidently, was ‘roided up.

The plot with the Reindeer Games is a mirror of cheesy 80s sports movies… particularly, and appropriately, films like Ski School. We have the jerk jock and the Yoda-style mentor there to help win the day, the goofy protagonist who focuses on the sexpot without realizing the cute girl next door type is in love with him. The writers load up the tropes, and it’s usually for the purposes of ridicule. That’s kind of the weird thing about the comedy, actually – half of it is straight-up parody of Christmas movies, of sports movies, of romantic comedies and so forth. In the other half, though, the BBC gives the show a really sharp, unmistakably British sense of humor, full of cutway gags and non sequiturs that feel almost Monty Python-esque in their scope.

The stop motion used here feels a step beyond Will Vinton, closer to the sort of thing Aardman Animation puts out on their best days. Something about the character design is really bizarre, but in a funny way. The reindeer, for example, are actually weird 2-D designs, with eyes and a mouth that all go on the same side of the head like a character in Peanuts. The designers keep that feel when they plump the characters out for their animated forms, resulting in a set of reindeer heads that obviously don’t work in the real world, but work perfectly in the quirky version of the North Pole director Richard Goleszowski puts forth. The costuming is cute as well: Jingle walks around with briefs on over his clothing, the elves have several diverse designs that range from the traditional to the mini-biker. The steeples in the steeplechase are actual steeples, looking like they were ripped right off the houses.

And Mrs. Claus had a beard. What else is there to say?

If there’s any major complaint, it’s that for some reason they re-dubbed all of the voices with American actors for the stateside presentation of the film. (Except for Blitzen. In his case, they replaced British actor Steve Coogan with… more widely-known-in-the-US British actor Hugh Grant.) I can only assume this was some sort of effort at marketability. In the 13 years since this film was first made, of course, British pop culture has become much more popular here in the US of A – I imagine if this cartoon was released for the first time today, they probably wouldn’t have bothered with the American voices.

Robbie has returned in two other cartoons – Legends of the Lost Tribe in 2002, and 2007’s Close Encounters of the Herd Kind, the latter of which I was actually unaware of until I did the research for this article. I’ve got an older DVD, with the first two cartoons on it, but now I’ve got a quest. I’ve got to see the 2007 film, because Robbie rocks.

Mutants, Monsters, and Madmen Day 34: The Blair Witch Project (1999)

blair-witch-projectDirectors: Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sanchez

Writer: Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sanchez

Cast: Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, Michael C. Williams

Plot: The movie opens up with a title card informing the viewer that three film students disappeared in the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland in 1994, and that what we’re about to watch is their footage, which was found a year later. Heather Donahue, Michael Williams and Joshua Leonard (using their real names) pack up their equipment and begin walking around town, asking locals questions about the mysterious legend of the Blair Witch. The locals of Burkittsville – formerly known as Blair — weave a story about a lunatic in the 1940s who kidnapped and murdered seven children, claiming to be compelled by the spirit of an 18th-century witch named Elly Kedward, who was hanged by the people of Blair. The three of them go into the woods to seek out Coffin Rock, supposedly a spot where five men were bound together and murdered over a century earlier. They make camp, and in the morning Josh reports waking up in the night and hearing some cackling sounds from the woods. Friction begins to grow between Mike and Heather – Mike insisting she keeps getting them lost – and Josh tries to play peacemaker. As they wander, they find stones and branches arranged in strange structures that seem to echo something told to them in town by a woman they dismissed as a lunatic. They hear more sounds in the night, and wake up to a rainfall and an angry Mike, who believes locals have followed them into the woods to toy with them. They try to walk back back to where they left their car, but are unable to find it before nightfall and finally make camp. That night, they hear more of the strange sounds outside the tent, and in the morning they find three piles of rocks that weren’t there before. Before they leave, Heather realizes she can’t find the map, and the three of them all begin suspecting each other of taking it. After some time, Mike laughs and confesses he threw the map into the creek, and Heather and Josh attack him in a rage.

Later, calmer, they find figures made from sticks dangling from the trees, and eventually, they decide to make camp and not light a fire, terrified that someone is tracking them through the woods. In the night, there are more strange sounds and the tent begins to quake, driving them out. When they return, their belongings have been rifled through, and Josh’s recording equipment has been damaged. The next day, despite keeping a southern course for 15 hours, the find themselves back at a log crossing a creek they’d already passed, and their frustration and desperation increases. The next morning, Heather and Mike cannot find Josh, and eventually are forced to go on without him. That night they think they hear him in the woods, and in the morning Heather finds a bundle of twigs wrapped in the bloody tatters of Josh’s shirt. She freaks out, but hides her discovery from Mike. That night, alone, she records herself apologizing to her parents and those of her crew, and takes the blame for everything that has happened, certain she and Mike will die in the woods. They hear Josh again and follow his cries to a house in the middle of the woods. As they search, Mike thinks he hears Josh downstairs and runs there with a camera, finding odd writing on the walls. As he walks, there’s a thumping sound and the camera falls. The footage begins again, Heather screaming, until we see Mike standing with his face against the wall. There is another scream. The camera falls to the floor. And the screen goes black.

Thoughts: The filming of The Blair Witch Project has become something of a moviemaking legend. With a mere $20,000, Myrick and Sanchez took three unknown actors into the woods and made a movie that was largely improvised, giving them notes about what to feel or how to behave rather than being strict about the lines they spoke, and often not even telling the actors what they were going to do to scare them, trying to capture a realistic feeling to their reactions. The resulting film made nearly $250 million, making it by far one of the most profitable movies of all time. The film is also notable for being one of the first – if not the first – movie marketed heavily on the Internet. A web page was established that went viral on the conceit that the film was real, with lots of articles, videos and photographs presented to support the film’s premise.

You can really track the legacy of this movie in two ways, neither of them having anything to do with the weak sequel Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2. Although the film did not create the “found footage” genre – the idea that you’re watching a movie constructed of footage filmed by the characters themselves – it sure as hell made it popular. As is always the case, some of the movies that have used this concept in the years since have been critical successes, some have been commercial successes, and some have been outright flops. But unlike most other films that spawn a rash of imitators, only Blair Witch can lay claim to creating a subgenre that is immediately repulsive to anybody who gets seasick easily.

The second – and, to my way of thinking, more important – legacy of this movie the way it change how movies are marketed. In 1999, the Internet was still relatively new to most people, and nobody quite understood yet the power it would one day have. The Blair Witch website, combined with a few other tie-ins like a Sci-Fi Channel special and a comic book from Oni Press, turned a movie made on a microscopic budget into an international sensation. Now, it would be insane to make a movie that doesn’t have a website, it would be ludicrous to not create viral content that fans can find, enjoy, and share with other people in the hopes of generating new fans. If you were on Facebook earlier today, watching the trailers for The Muppets, try to wrap your brain around the fact that such a presentation has its origin in The Blair Witch Project.

In terms of what actually makes it scary, I don’t think it’s the supernatural elements that do the trick. Yeah, the piles of rocks, the little twig-construction stick figures and the other weird things they find in the woods all help contribute to a culture of fear that exists in the film. What makes it work, though, is the way the characters slowly break down. When the movie begins they’re lively and enthusiastic about making their movie. As the film progresses, they get antsy, they get belligerent, and they begin to turn on each other. The suspicion that infects them, the way their little society completely falls apart after a while is pretty scary by itself, because that could happen to anybody. Strip away the witch, take away the manufactured scares, and look at it just as a story about people crumbling just because they’re lost and scared. And it works. Heather’s breakdown near the end has joined the ranks of iconic horror movie scenes for very good reason.

The Blair Witch Project gets a lot of crap today. Like many things which reach enormous popularity very quickly, there was a backlash afterwards by those who feel like it’s uncool to like anything mainstream, and a bit more by those who didn’t care for the style of filmmaking. (Out of the two, the second is by far the more legitimate complaint.) People complain that they feel like they’re watching somebody’s home movies – which, of course, is part of the point. My favorite argument, though, is those who were angry that we never see the witch. My response to this is simple: what could they possibly have shown you that would be scary enough to match what you built up in your own mind?

And of course, there are also many people who react because the whole “found footage” thing has been overdone. Again, this is legitimate – the third Paranormal Activity movie using the same concept just hit theaters as I write this, and frankly I haven’t found them to be remotely frightening – but I think it’s unfair to put the blame for that on Blair Witch. It’s not the fault of this movie that others copied it badly, and as far as this one goes, I think it does what it does very well. I watch this today and get the creeps just as easily as I did back in college. And to me, that’s what makes a movie memorable.

Tomorrow the first stage of Mutants, Monsters, and Madmen (yes, first stage) reaches its conclusion with the most recent film to change the way horror movies are made… so far. We’re going to take a look at Saw.