Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Year Two. Day Twenty-Four: "CBS Radio Mystery Theater: A Christmas Carol" (1975)

T'was the night before Christmas and all through the house, not a creature was stirring as they are all enraptured by this charming radio production from 1975.

To mark the final day of my advent challenge, I decided that I would do something I had never done before and review my first ever radio play while I finish the last of my Christmas baking, and what an enjoyable way to experience it it was.

Scrooge is played by veteran American TV actor E. G. Marshall, who also acts as the narrator and presenter of the tale. His clipped radio presenter voice and spot on English dialect are matched by his riotous performance to which he has committed with all of his heart.

The cast is superb across the board but what really stands out is the marvellous script, which is mostly a faithful retelling of Dickens' story but slimmed down and written to be accessible to an audience who have only their ears to rely on and less than an hour in which to do it.

It is a gentle, rewarding 45 minutes of audio enjoyment, with the story unravelling at a decent pace. It is quite remarkable just how much of the story is compressed into this slender running time and how at no time does it feel rushed in enfolding its story.

It is a sumptuous, rich feast of a play that I cannot recommend highly enough and it is a fitting way to finish my second year of reviewing 24 more adaptations of the greatest story ever told.

The only question that remains is can I make it for a third year?

I think I can...

As festive as spending a Christmas Eve writing my blog.

"CBS Radio Mystery Theater: A Christmas Carol." (1975)  5/5

P.S. Thanks to everyone who has been following my blog. It has been an utter joy to write and I can only hope that you have enjoyed it too.

Merry Christmas! God bless us every one!

Monday, December 23, 2013

Year Two. Day Twenty-Three: "The Odd Couple: Scrooge Gets an Oscar" (1970)

"The Odd Couple" began its life as a 1965 stage play that was later turned into a popular 1968 Walter Matthau/Jack Lemmon movie vehicle. This series, takes the original premise; two divorced bachelors, deciding to live with each other after many years of growing apart and the myriad of humourous situations that would arise when this mismatched duo are forced to share their living space. It was a hugely successful sitcom that gave birth to the house-share format for TV comedy that lives on today in "The Big Bang Theory" and "New Girl."

Tony Randall stars as Felix, a friendly, responsible man with a penchant for neatness, while Jack Klugman plays the role of Oscar, a grouchy slob of a man who has a good heart, but doesn't always know how to show it. Unsurprisingly it is the latter of this pair who is on Scrooge duties for this charming episode.

Christmas is fast approaching and Felix has gathered his friends to put on a play for the local children; an adaptation of "A Christmas Carol." After several failed attempts at finding a Scrooge, the men elect that there is only one person who could possibly play the role. Unfortunately Oscar point blank refuses, until he falls asleep in front of the TV and dreams that Felix comes to visit him as the ghosts of Christmas, here to show him the error of his ways.

This is a brief but sparkling episode from the first season of this winning show. It is a joy to see how ably the actors have fleshed out their characters, whilst the show itself has already found its feet. The "Christmas Carol" elements are fun and fast and the script is light and funny in a classic old-fashioned sense, replete with canned laughter (it wasn't until season two that the format was switched to a live studio audience.)

This may not be remembered as one of the best or most faithful adaptations of the text, but it's likable enough to be a very welcome 25 minutes of well meaning joviality, with a sweet message at the end of the importance of that most difficult of subjects - friendships between men.

As sparkling as a breakfast bucks fizz.

"The Odd Couple: Scrooge Gets an Oscar." (1970)  4/5

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Year Two. Day Twenty-Two: "Rich Little's Christmas Carol" (1979)

So often I find myself watching TV, particularly American TV and feeling depressed by the overwhelming stench of cynicism it evokes. Whether it's sneering at Honey Boo-Boo's family, watching dreams crushed on "The X-Factor" or feigning mock shock at the latest thing a Kardashian has been up to, so much of the entertainment we consume has a streak of nastiness running through it - jostling us in the ribs to remind us we're in on this joke, asking us to look down on people who have never done us any harm.

It is only when something like this wonderful gem from 1979 surfaces from the mire of pessimism that I am reminded of a time when television was brave enough to show sincerity, to celebrate real talent and not ask us to judge our fellow man. This Christmas special is all these things and even more; it is as close to perfection as anyone could hope for.

Rich Little is an American comedian and impressionist who is still working today at the age of 75. This adaptation puts his extraordinary talents to use by having him play all of the central roles of "A Christmas Carol" each of which is itself a spot on impression of a cavalcade of familiar voices from the 70's. We have Jonny Carson as Fred, Edith Bunker as Mrs. Cratchit and Truman Capote as Tiny Tim. In any sane world, this shouldn't work yet somehow it completely does.

Rarely have I been so enchanted by anything. Rich Little as W.C. Fields as Scrooge is a particular stand out, but each of his impressions are so lovingly crafted you will forget that it is a single man playing them all. Overall there is a sense that this is a labour of love from a single man with the kind of talent and desire to do nothing but entertain. It is so rare to find such an earnest thing in these cynical times.

From its laugh out loud comedy, catchy songs and incredible spirit of kind heartedness, this is an absolute treat from start to finish. I adored every single frame of it.

As old fashioned as wassailing on Christmas Eve.

"Rich Little's Christmas Carol." (1979)  5/5

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Year Two. Day Twenty-One: "Ghosts of Girlfriends Past" (2009)

The sub-genre of non-Christmas set adaptations of "A Christmas Carol" is a weird but fascinating area. This year I have already reviewed a Halloween and a Valentine take on the story. This adaptation doesn't use a calendar date at all and instead, hangs its plot around a wedding.

Matthew McConaughey plays the Scrooge role in this wildly irreverent version. He is Connor Mead, a womanising photographer who does not believe in love or marriage. In the real world, somebody's rejection of assumed societal norms is not a problem, least of all as in this case, nobody is being harmed by Connor's beliefs except for (possibly) himself. However, this is a Hollywood movie and any deviation from the norm is seen as a terrible malady that must be fixed.

On the eve of his brother's wedding to Gretchen Wieners from Mean Girls (the always fetch Lacey Chabert,) Connor is visited by the ghost of his departed uncle and told he will be guided through the evening by the spirits of past girlfriends who will take him to the past, present and future to help him understand the error of his ways and how he can truly find love with Jennifer Garner.

The main problem with this movie is that Connor is such an odious, lecherous pig that we have no desire to see him find happiness or to get the girl in the end (after a tedious race-to-the-airport climax.) Matthew McConaughey plays this man as such a vile, donkey-face misogynist that he comes across as borderline sociopathic. How are meant to root for him?

Worst of all are the woman-hating, slut shaming, homophobic string of non-jokes that are somehow meant to make us regard Connor as a loveable rascal. He is nothing of the sort and by the time his redemption comes around (complete with window-flinging-open scene) you'll be hoping that his supposed true love will finally see some sense and get as far away from him as she can.

Despite that, McConaughey is surrounded by a cast of far, far more talented actresses who flesh their characters out fully in ways that the script itself has mostly denied them. It is never explained why all of these smart women are falling to their knees in front of this disgusting excuse for a man (save for the creepy wish fulfilment story the two male writers were no doubt in search for.)

As hard on the stomach as a Boxing Day hangover.

"Ghosts of Girlfriends Past." (2009)  1/5

Friday, December 20, 2013

Year Two. Day Twenty: "The Simpsons: 'Tis the Fifteenth Season" (2003)

As far as adaptations go, this festive special takes an approach that is not unlike rebuilding a listed house - as long as one of the original walls remains standing, then it still counts.

This is perhaps the loosest interpretation of "A Christmas Carol" I have thus far seen, and there is probably a fair argument to be made that this is more of an ode to TV Christmas specials than a take on the classic tale - but I love "The Simpsons" and it's just close enough to the story to count as far as I'm concerned!

This episode finds Homer in a particularly selfish mood. After buying key rings for all of his family, he spends his new found fortune on an expensive, unnecessary astrolabe for himself.

It takes a late night in front of the TV, watching an animated version of "A Christmas Carol" on TV (at which point, Homer realises that the story is "like me if I were a cartoon") for him to see the error of his ways. As the adaptation draws to a close, he understands that he has become a Scrooge and elects to become "the nicest man in town."

This is a very enjoyable episode that has plenty of fun with TV adaptations of "A Christmas Carol" - particularly the splendid "Mr Magoo's Christmas Carol." Unlike those versions, Homer's redemption story goes beyond mere generosity and actually becomes a rival to his neighbour, Ned Flanders.

It may not be anything close to a faithful adaptation, but it is knowing enough and aware of its own ties to the original tale, that make this a very enjoyable tale - that is only tangentially related to "A Christmas Carol."

As loosely hung as tinsel.

"The Simpsons: 'Tis the Fifteenth Season." (2003)  4/5

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Year Two. Day Nineteen: "A Christmas Carol" (1969)

"A Christmas Carol" has always leant itself well to animation. Whether it is the trippy 1971 Oscar winning version or the technically impressive, but emotionally muted 2009 version, this simple tale with its promise of visual treats has been a delicious prospect for many faithful adaptations.

This made for TV version from 1969 has not been as fondly remembered as the 1971 version, not least of all because that adaptation featured Alastair Sim in the lead role - a man who was already acknowledged as the greatest on screen Scrooge of all time thanks to his 1954 performance. Ron Haddrick cannot hope to live up to that example, but this adaptation does have its own unique charm.

The animation style is serviceable, if a little flat. However, if you are as fond of the 1979 animated version of "The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe" as I am, then you will find plenty to enjoy in the visuals. The voice work is good, if a little over-baked in a handful of moments and the design of the ghosts, particularly that of Christmas Past, are quite striking.

Unfortunately the only terms I can use to describe this version are ones which will damn it with faint praise. It is adequate, it is competent, it is passable. At a running length of 45 minutes it is longer than many other animated versions, allowing the story to have a little time to breathe and even some space for a handful of songs, all of which are performed very well.

While it runs, it never threatens to outstay its welcome and is diverting enough fun until it ends. However, the reason why it is not fondly remembered today is most likely not for any negative aspects of its production - it just is not special enough to be remembered at all.

As easily forgotten as a Christmas turkey in the oven.

"A Christmas Carol." (1969)  3/5

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Year Two. Day Eighteen: "It's Christmas, Carol!" (2012)

Deep in the bowels of the Hallmark Channel headquarters there must be some deeply complex machine, programmed to spit out a script for yet another female-centred, modern day American adaptation of "A Christmas Carol" - just in time for the holiday season.

All of these films are essentially the same. Single, childless business woman; sassy friends who make bitchy comments about her over cocktails; forgettably handsome love interest. Moreover, they all seem to come to the same conclusion - that this shrew needs to stop busting balls at the work place and get herself a nice man and a brood of TV-cute sprogs.

After rolling my eyes at the title, I discovered that "It's Christmas, Carol!" is so firmly within this well-established mould, I did worry at first that perhaps I had already seen it and had to scroll back through my blog to confirm I hadn't.

It concerns the fate of Carol, played with bland efficiency by Emmanuelle Vaugier. She is a hard-nosed business woman who owns a publishing firm in a Chicago that consists solely of stock footage of the Willis Tower and Wacker Drive. After forcing her staff to work Christmas day (which, you may remember, not even Scrooge stooped to) she is visited by the ghost of her former employer, Eve (yes, I rolled my eyes at that too) who will be playing the roles of all of the ghosts throughout Carol's redemption tale due to "cutbacks." Thankfully, Eve is played by Carrie Fisher, so this is no bad thing.

What is peculiar about this adaptation is that it is set in a world in which "A Christmas Carol" already exists as a novel. In fact, in one scene Carol, (who calls herself a fan of Dickens) has to look up the plot of the book to find out which ghost comes next. At the same time, there are a couple of bright nods to the original and to the great man himself (plus a fun reference to Star Wars in one of Carrie Fisher's scenes.)

Throughout her voyage to her past, I did not understand what we were supposed to be feeling. We were offered no reasons as to why this idealistic young woman went from champion of classic literature to ruthless capitalist in pursuit of the next best seller at all costs - that is, until I realised that the film is not so subtly trying to say that it was being a businesswoman itself that turned her into an unspeakable churl. Nice one Hallmark, I'm sure this a fantastic message to send to your almost exclusively female audience.

Carol's redemption is only partly owing to her new found generosity, what really saves her is that she is finally worthy of love with a man, whereupon she will presumably settle down and give birth to the tribe of children her alternative future had promised her.

This would all be unbearably offensive - and easily the worst adaptation I have seen so far (save for that awful, awful Kelsey Grammar musical version I saw last year) but the one shining light in its favour is the ever welcome presence of Carrie Fisher, who is enjoying every second of this hokey claptrap - and seems to be the only one who is.

"It's Crap, Carol!"

"It's Christmas, Carol." (2012) 1/5