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Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Christmas 2015: December 23

A Christmas Carol (1984)

There have been so many adaptations of “A Christmas Carol” over the years. Ones that are in black and white, in color, musicals and cartoons, ones for TV and ones for theaters. For a while there, we were getting new “Christmas Carols” on an almost yearly basis. There have been so many takes that most of the new ones add comedic, meta, or modern angles. Heck, I’ve already reviewed one version this December. Out of all the versions of Scrooge’s story that have graced the screen, one has emerged as definitive. The 1984 version starring George C. Scott still gets singled out as the best adaptation of Charles Dickens’ beloved novel.

Like I said, “A Christmas Carol” is so frequently adapted that most versions have to add some sort of gimmick. If the ’84 version can be said to have a gimmick, it’s incredible fidelity to the source material. The film hews so closely to Dickens’ book that the dialogue is frequently taken directly from the page. Every aspect of Ebenezer Scrooge’s nightly journey with the three ghosts is included. Many elements frequently left out of other adaptations are presented here. The spooky carriage that precedes Marley is left intact. The Ghost of Christmas Past carries a metal cap over her head, which Scrooge eventually smites her with. Scrooge’s boyhood love of reading is included. The Ghost of Christmas Present presents the children of ignorance and want to the old man. Scrooge’s frequently excised sister Fan appears. As does a moment which shows the married life of the old man’s love, Belle. The movie is so faithful to the text that it almost becomes a flaw. As in Dickens’ book, Scrooge’s fate as the hated dead man is too heavily foreshadowed. Still, Dickens fans hoping to see the author’s words retained on-screen will likely do best by this version.

Because such effort was made to follow the original book, 1984’s “A Christmas Carol” is far spookier and darker then most adaptations. This is one of the few Dickensian movies that truly seem to earn the title of “ghost story.” Marley’s appearance is truly creepy, his jaw dangling open in a grotesque way. He shouts and screams like a banshee. The Ghost of Christmas Past has an eeriness rarely seen in other versions. All the ghosts are more stern then usual, giving Scrooge a lot more grief for his bullshit. The usually jovial Ghost of Christmas Present comes off as downright mean at times, not sparing the old man’s feelings. When the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come appears, he is shown only in silhouette. An off-putting noise, a shriek like rusted metal, accompanies the spirit. The movie also focuses far more on the filthy, foggy conditions of London in the 1880s. The plight of the poor is given extra attention. “Dickensian” is a term associated with filthy ragamuffins for a reason, you know. This “Christmas Carol” doesn’t forget that.

1984’s “Carol” is respected for sticking so closely to the novel and its serious presentation. The reason people love this movie is George C. Scott. The notoriously gruff character actor was perfect for Ebenezer Scrooge. His husky voice works especially well when barking Dickens’ dialogue. Scott often adds a sardonic edge to the character, his cynicism hardened to a point. When the Ghosts presents his past or present to him, his exterior never cracks. He watches with a stern, stony face. The emotion he shows most often is anger. Scott’s unerring curtness makes Scrooge’s inevitable redemption all the more satisfying. (Also amusing: Scott never even attempts a British accent. He was a good enough actor know how ridiculous that would sound.) The rest of the cast is solid as well, including relatively big names David Warner and Susannah York as the Cartchits and Edward Woodward as the Ghost of Christmas Present. But Scott outshines all of them, dominating the screen and impressing the audience.

It’s a frequently overlooked fact but this “Christmas Carol” was actually made for television. It originally aired on CBS. You’d be mistaken for missing this, as the film is incredibly cinematic. The production design is impressive, the film deeply rooted in London fog. Director Clive Donner has a stylish visual sense. He’s fond of reflecting images through the Ghosts’ trademark item. Scenes are shown in the Ghost of Christmas Past’s cap or through the Ghost of Christmas Presents’ torch. Really, the only sign that the movie was originally made for TV is a single shot, the introduction of the Ghost of Christmas Past, that comes off as slightly cheesy and dated. This “Christmas Carol” was so well made that it was released theatrically overseas without a pause.

I’ve already established what my favorite version of “A Christmas Carol” is. This particular take ranks a close second though. It beautifully captures the spirit and tone of Dickens’ original work. It’s a fantastically well made and directed movie. Mostly, I love George C. Scott as Scrooge, one of my favorite actors putting his own stamp on an overplayed part. When a version of a story adapted this often makes this strong of an impression, that shows you just how well done it is. [8/10]

Futurama: The Futurama Holiday Spectacular

When a revival of “Futurama” was announced, it seemed like a great idea. The show was still hilarious when it was canceled and never seemed to get a fair chance in its day. Quickly though, fans learned once again that sometimes dead is better. The direct-to-video “Futurama” movies were disappointing and the new season got off to a really rough start. While the quality would eventually turn around, none of the new episodes proved as memorable as the classic ones. Take the new season’s Christmas episode, for example. “The Futurama Holiday Spectacular” provides three segments, each based around a holiday. Christmas, Bender’s made-up “Robanukah,” and Kwanzaa are all high-lighted, each story ending in catastrophe and death.

In the Christmas segment, Fry has the X-mas blues, once again feeling isolated in the future holiday. This retreads ground covered in season one’s “X-Mas Story.” With some help from Robot Santa, Fry realizes he needs a traditional Christmas tree. A quest to recover the extinct pine tree results in a super-strain of the species that takes over the world. The best gags in this story involve barking snakes and the guard of the seed vault’s nonchalant, vaguely Canadian attitude. Bender’s apocalypse-triggering cigar is a nice touch, especially his realization that he hasn’t contributed to this plot yet. The song – each segment features a song – is pretty lame though. It’s funny but not very novel.

The funniest segment in the episode is devoted to Robanukah. A holiday seemingly made up by Bender to get an extra day off work, Robanukah involves copious alcohol consumption and robotic prostitutes wrestling in petroleum oil. Petroleum oil is increasingly rate, leading to a dangerous quest deep into the Earth. The weird specific qualities of Robanukah are amusing, even though it’s out of character for Bender to care that much about anything. This segment features solid, absurd gags. Such as an albino humping worm, discovered deep in the Earth. Or the ending, which twists the Hanukkah legend in a goofy, perverse direction. Special guest star Al Gore also gets a funny gag about solar energy. The song here is the catchiest, with some amusingly strangled rhymes.

The last segment is devoted to Kwanzaa, as celebrated by Hermes and his family. The search for traditional bee’s wax candles, hindered by colony collapse disorder, send the Planet Express team towards the giant space bee hive, seen all the way back in “The Sting.” This story builds on a gag first mentioned in “A Tale of Two Santas.” Kwanzaa-Bot reappears and sings a rap explaining the holiday’s traditional. Amusingly, even the robot is slightly clueless about the tradition’s meanings. A similar joke declares Kwanzaa to be “a thousand” years old, a comparatively short amount of time considering the future setting. The story also brings back some minor characters, leading to decent gags. The antics of the giant space bee is funny, including a random reference to “Raging Bull.” Of all the downbeat endings in this episode, the Kwanzaa story’s conclusion comes off as the most mean-spirited.

Truthfully, all of the stories are a little too mean, each killing the cast members in brutal ways. The episode’s theme of limited resources and ecological tampering are appreciated and won the show an award. The best joke in “The Futurama Holiday Spectacular” is in the framing devices, which makes repeated references to “Gunderson’s Shelled Nuts!,” the show’s corporate sponsor. There are several good gags and funny moments in “The Futurama Holiday Spectacular” but it really doesn’t hold up against the show’s other holiday-themed episodes. [7/10]

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