Monthly Archives: January 2013

TV Show Review: Whitechapel

Whitechapel tv series

Preparing for the premiere of the new period drama Ripper Street, BBC America recently aired the entirety of a similar series: Whitechapel.

Both series use the name of Jack the Ripper to place their shows within a rich history of mystery, of horrific crime, and of a specific place in London. Whitechapel is a small area of London, NE of the Tower of London. It’s pretty unremarkable when you consider all the things that have happened during the course of London’s history (see my post on Boris Johnson’s Life of London), but it is known world-wide because of Jack the Ripper, and because of all the things that changed for modern society, for the press, and for police work during the one year that Jack the Ripper terrorized the neighborhood.

It has been almost 150 years since Jack the Ripper committed his crimes, but he is still the best known serial killer in the world, and a source of endless fascination and theoretical postulating. So both of these shows are anchoring their (relatively standard) police dramas to the J-t-R myth in order to draw in viewers.  The problem inherent in this strategy is that after you talk about Jack the Ripper, almost every other case and every other villain is going to be anticlimactic.

Whitechapel was first broadcast in the UK in 2009 (US in 2011), and has had three seasons (series) so far. A fourth season is set to premiere in the UK this year.

This is a modern police procedural, but it attempts to draw a line between past crimes and current ones.  The first season is 6 episodes, all following a Jack-the-Ripper copycat. The main characters include:

Whitechapel-tvseries characters

DI Chandler (middle): The OCD new leader of the schlubby old-school homicide detectives in Whitechapel. Much of the show is devoted to his relationships with the other detectives, and his own neuroses. Played by the very posh Rupert Penry-Jones

DS Miles (left): This character is played by Phil Davis, who I recognized immediately as the murderer/cabbie from the very first episode of Sherlock. While watching that episode, I remember thinking that this guy was a great actor, so I was thrilled to see him in something else.  He plays Chandler’s second in command, and the two often butt heads on how to manage the other detectives and how to pursue cases.  But he is a very human character and fulfills a void left because of Chandler’s lack of connection with others.

Edward Buchanon (right): Edward is a Ripper-ologist during the first series, lending his expertise to the search for the copycat.  After that, the idea the show takes is that current crimes can be compared to older crimes and historical information can help to point police in the right direction. While this might be true on a large scale (e.g. knowing that women are more likely to kill by poisoning), I fail to see how comparing one specific modern crime to one specific historical crime can be considered accurate. There has to be a reason why the modern crime would happen in the same way as the historical crime. You can’t just assume a correlation!  At any rate, Edward manages the historical archives and offers his advice based on these historical data.

The first series, as I said, deals with a Jack the Ripper copycat.  I found this series the most exciting, and was let down when the following series dealt with the legend of the Kray brothers.  Their fame has not quite reached this side of the pond, so I had no connection with them.  In the third series, instead of focusing the entire 6-episode arc on one villain, there were three two-part episodes. I think this worked a bit better.  The last villain in particular, called the Mantis, was pretty scary.

I think season 2 was the low point for me, but it started to recover in season 3. DI Chandler’s OCD continues to plague him and his relationships with his fellow policemen are strained and rearranged due to his emotional problems.  Often, people with OCD are portrayed on TV in humorous or quirky ways (e.g. Monk) and it was interesting to see someone in a more serious role with this affliction.  It wasn’t humorous at all.

Miles and Chandler are full-fledged characters, but everyone else fades easily into the background. I could only name one other character on the show. That’s not the mark of good writing.

Plus, do we really need another police procedural? Is this different enough from CSI, Law and Order, Copper, etc. etc. etc.  Probably not.  So if we don’t need Whitechapel, do we need Ripper Street?

Ripper Street

Ripper Street premiered a few weeks ago in the UK, and in the US shortly after.  I’ll withhold judgment until I watch at least the first series.  Unlike Whitechapel, it is a period drama, taking place in 1889 in Whitechapel.  From what I can tell, it’s Copper in London.  I have hope for it because I do love Matthew Macfayden.  But I hope that attaching the Jack the Ripper name to the series isn’t the only thing they’ve done to make it more than your average cop show.

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Book Review: Mrs. Queen Takes the Train by William Kuhn

Mrs. Queen Takes the TrainFirst, I have to give a tip of my figurative hat to the art director/cover designer for this book. I love it! What sums up QEII more than Buckingham Palace, some guards, and a cup of tea? Horses, a little handbag, and Corgis, obviously. It is a really cute little hardcover.

Unfortunately, I don’t think it was an entirely successful novel.

The book is primarily about Queen Elizabeth II (the current queen, for those of you who really don’t pay attention) and the hazards of getting older and of being a monarch in the 21st century.

The primary plot revolves around The Queen deciding she could really use a day off/a cheer-up. She is feeling her age, and her increasing lack of power and importance in modern UK life. Let’s face it, the monarchy has rarely been less liked and less powerful than it has been lately. I think the dislike reached a peak at the death of Princess Diana, and has been recovering the last year or two with the Olympics, the jubilee, the royal wedding and soon-to-be royal baby.

As I’ve said before, I am not a big fan of the royals. Most people in the US seem more fascinated by them, I suppose because we don’t have anything equivalent here, but I just can’t be bothered to care much about them. I do not believe much in tradition, in ceremony, or in a class system. I picked this book up because, even though I’m not drawn to the monarchy as a subject, it promised a humanizing look at QEII. This is the author’s first novel, having previously written several biographies and light historical books on Brits and Americans (including Jackie O, the closest thing the US has ever had to a Queen). I do think it’s interesting to consider the monarchy from the position of human beings placed into this unique and almost impossible situation. How does one adjust to the fact that they lead the country by supposed divine decree? How would you adjust to the changing times and ideas of politics and political power during a 60+ year reign? When QEII had her coronation, Churchill was the PM and the nation was still recovering from the devastation wrought during WWII. She’s still Queen, but undoubtedly the country is totally different. It is really fascinating to consider the role of a leader when you’re able to also hold it in your mind that this is just a regular person. Despite what Henry VIII might say, I don’t think any of the monarchs have ever been assigned by God or given special gifts or knowledge to allow them to lead. They are, by chance of birth, thrust into a position of leadership. I’ve already talked a little on this blog about Edward VIII and his decision to abdicate in order to marry Wallis Simpson. He couldn’t be King and marry the woman he loved, so he chose. Prince Charles, by all accounts, was asked to marry Princess Di when he loved Camilla from an early age. That obviously didn’t turn out well, but the point is that obedience and sacrifice comes with the pedigree and the real estate. It’s not a free ride. I’ve also already talked about the current climate of paparazzi frenzy over pictures of the royals, and how that will affect both Kate Middleton and her royal baby. It’s a tough time to be a royal, in my opinion. So a look inside all of the pomp and circumstance and at the reality of the situation is always a welcome thing.

Unfortunately, despite his training as a historian, Kuhn doesn’t seem to have captured a believable queen. It’s ironic, because as a historian, it is possible that this is a very accurate picture. Maybe she really does do yoga and feel comfortable talking to strangers on the street. But it doesn’t seem believable, even if it is true. Some aspects were plausible to me–the idea of The Queen not wanting to ask for computer help even though she hasn’t quite got the whole thing down–and others were really not–the queen having a secret twitter account only followed by family and friends. Even if these details are true, they don’t match with the public perception of The Queen, and there is nothing in the text to reconcile these. In scenes where The Queen was practicing yoga, I found myself picturing her in a lavender dress and matching jacket. I wondered how she could do Warrior II in panty hose. I couldn’t imagine her ever doing Downward Dog, because what if someone walked in and saw her backside in the air?

Of course the Queen is a human being, and sometimes she doesn’t wear pantyhose. It’s possible she even has yoga pants. On the other hand, how many octogenarians do you know who do yoga? If she is unusually attuned to what is young and new, then there has to be something in the text to align that with her public persona as being very old-fashioned, traditional, and proper. Otherwise, there is too much cognitive dissonance.

In the book, The Queen decides to take the eponymous train journey from King’s Cross to Edinburgh (a trip I recently made myself) in order to visit the royal yacht (which was decommissioned in the ’80s or ’90s) moored there. She sneaks out of Buckingham Palace on a whim, wearing a borrowed hoodie. She doesn’t tell anyone where she is going.

Several characters are charged with and volunteer to track her down in order to keep her from harm. They include an equerry (old-fashioned term for a sort of personal assistant to the monarch), a lady-in-waiting, a butler, a stable girl, a dress maid/ladies’ maid, and a clerk from a cheese shop. They frantically search for her, forming uneasy alliances across class lines (slightly reminiscent of Downton Abbey), and try to keep her disappearance quiet.

I had two problems with this book. The first was a lack of real suspense in the plot. We view the story from alternating perspectives, but we are never away from The Queen as narrator long enough to worry about her safety. The other characters are stressed about not finding her, but the tension of the situation and its potential dangers are glazed over and presented as secondary to the maze of social propriety involved in dealing with the monarch. There is never a sense of a non-happy ending being remotely possible.

The second problem was the portrayal of The Queen. As I said before, it doesn’t seem realistic even if it is based on real facts. So that’s a problem of writing, not of research. I think it also paints The Queen as less capable and competent than she most definitely is. The Queen in the book seems to regret that everyone went to so much trouble looking for her, and that she caused them stress. But, after being queen for 60+ years I’m fairly certain QEII knows exactly and entirely what would happen if she went AWOL. I would respect the character more if she knowingly decided to escape from her handlers. I also think that The Queen in the book is not as bogged down and restricted by her ideas of propriety and tradition than QEII must be in real life.

But where am I getting this info? What on earth do I know about QEII? Nothing, obviously. But she is a human being, who was raised knowing very early on that she would one day lead her country. She’s seen it through wars, through peace, economic prosperity and depression. She’s seen PMs come and go, political parties rise and fall. She stands alone, is the only one who can know the burden of leadership and the restrictions of monarchy. Her family has inklings, but nothing on the same level. There is no way to portray her in any book or movie that does not acknowledge this ordering of the world according to tradition and to responsibility. And in this book I just don’t think that was acknowledged enough.

I’ve read quite a few novels lately written by historians. I have no idea why they would want to make that jump. There’s an old joke that the profession least likely to get their book published is a writer! Seriously though, it’s not as easy as it looks, guys (the ones I have read were men; I am not implying that all historians are men). There has to be a more human look at the historical figures, not just an ‘accurate’ portrayal. If you described Henry VIII as large, fat, with a beard, who liked to have his wives beheaded, you wouldn’t be wrong. But you wouldn’t catch the essence of him as well as someone who might write about his frustration and anger with himself at not fathering a male child, frustration that he aimed clearly at his wives. Cutting off their heads was an easy way to blame them, and to excise the blame from himself. Is saying that accurate? No way to know. But it makes a better novel, and if you’re going to travel into the realm of fiction you have to take the leap away from concentrating on accuracy and focus instead on creating a character comprehensible and relatable.

And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie

And Then There Were NoneFirst of all, I should note that I got this really cool graphic from this blog. It’s not the official cover of the book, but I like it much better!

Okay, so a confession: This was my first Agatha Christie novel.  I’ve never been really attracted to the murder mystery genre, mostly because it seems to be a genre dominated by male protagonists being chauvinistic and old-fashioned.  Pass.  Agatha Christie is obviously an exception to the Sam Spade idea I’ve got in my head. One of her most famous repeating characters is Miss Marple, an elderly woman who solves most of her mysteries because people spill their guts to her without paying her much attention. Her lack of importance in society leaves her able to understand and see more than less disenfranchised (more enfranchised?) people would be able to. This isn’t a Marple mystery, nor is it one of her other popular characters taking the helm.  In fact, no one has the spot as main character in this. It is, though, the best selling of all of Christie’s (many) books.

The plot revolves around ten people who have been brought to an island with a few different tricks and guises. One thinks he is there to meet old soldier friends, another believes she is there to be a governess to young children for a temporary placement. They are all called to a large house on a secluded island where they expect to meet a host who never arrives. The entire plot revolves around a nursery rhyme, which occupies the first page of the book:

Ten little Soldier Boys went out to dine;
One choked his little self and then there were nine.

Nine little Soldier Boys sat up very late;
One overslept himself and then there were eight.

Eight little Soldier Boys travelling in Devon;
One said he’d stay there and then there were seven.

Seven little Soldier Boys chopping up sticks;
One chopped himself in halves and then there were six.

Six little Soldier Boys playing with a hive;
A bumblebee stung one and then there were five.

Five little Soldier Boys going in for law;
One got in Chancery and then there were four.

Four little Soldier Boys going out to sea;
A red herring swallowed one and then there were three.

Three little Soldier Boys walking in the zoo;
A big bear hugged one and then there were two.

Two little Soldier Boys sitting in the sun;
One got frizzled up and then there was one.

One little Soldier Boy left all alone;
He went out and hanged himself and then there were none.

As you might expect from a murder mystery, people start to be killed. And they are killed in the exact fashion described in the poem.  Being reasonably intelligent people, the remaining guests realize that someone is killing these people.  First, they search methodically for some kind of madman loose on the island.  It is a small enough place that they can search its entirety in one day. There is no one but themselves.  So, it must be one of their own.  They begin to suspect and mistrust each other, driven to the point of paranoia and mania from fear and tension.  One by one they are killed.  All of them.  They all die, as you might expect from the title.

Only in the last two-three pages is the killer revealed, and I’m happy to say I did not know who it would be. There isn’t really a good way to guess it. The only clue might be found in the last 6 or 7 pages, after everyone is already dead.

I was strongly reminded of the movie Clue while reading this, and firmly expected them all to be killing each other.  I didn’t see any way for it to have been just one person, because they all end up dead.

I really enjoyed the book, and it did keep me guessing to the end.  Some of the tropes involved in it are a little trite to a modern ear, but this book is about 80 years old. It’s possible this was one of the first examples of some of these tropes being used, so they didn’t particularly bother me. I liked the suspense, I liked the honest mystery, I liked the lack of a inveterate gumshoe in trench coat and fedora.  I really enjoyed Christie’s style and thought it was easy to read.  My only complaint was that it turned out to be very difficult to keep all of the characters straight off the bat. I had to keep a list with reminders, until they became solidified in my imagination.

My only complaint with the book is a very uneasy feeling I got when I learned the history of it.  I read a lot of stuff that is about 200 years old, sometimes older.  A lot of it contains very insensitive stuff about entire races of people, religions, and especially women. I’d say I’m mostly immune to it. But…I found out, upon looking this book up, that it was originally titled something else. The name obviously comes from the nursery rhyme I pasted above.  The original form of the nursery rhyme in the UK was actually Ten Little N****rs, a fact that makes my stomach twist just thinking about it. And it came with some truly horrifying artwork on the cover:

Ten Little N****rsExcuse me while I hold back my vomit.  That is atrocious. Apparently instead of ‘soldiers’ the nursery rhyme used the n-word.  This name was used in the UK until THE EIGHTIES!! What.

In a somewhat palliative move, the US edition changed the name to And Then There Were None. In an incomprehensible move, they changed the nursery rhyme to read Ten Little Indians.  Gee that’s so much better.  Oh wait, no it’s not.

The book more or less uses the nursery rhyme as a frame for the action, and it doesn’t have much to do with race at all–all of the characters are white.  But just having this sort of nonsense adjacent to the action makes me ill. I liked the book, but hoped to find others of Christie’s that don’t have the same associations.

But now that I really think about it,  it isn’t just Native Americans or people of African descent who are thought of in unpleasant terms. The prejudice is widespread and very nonchalant.  There is one character whose crimes against an entire group of Indians (sub-continent, not Native Americans) are especially nauseating.  All of the characters are guilty of wrongdoing–wrongdoing that resulted in death–but this one character is responsible for the death of something like twenty ‘natives’ and is totally unapologetic! I thought I might puke.  Add to that the fact that there were a few scenes of ludicrous anti-Semitism. One character describes someone as a sneaky, conniving ‘Jewboy’, exclaims that you can’t lie to Jews about money because ‘they know’ and talks about the man’s ‘thick Semitic lips’.  My actual, physical nausea continues.  Of course this is only one character, and every character in the book is fairly flawed (re: a murderer), so I thought perhaps it was more acceptable since we aren’t meant to like any of these people. Since then, I’ve read that many of Christie’s books have an undercurrent of anti-Semitism. And this book was published in 1939, just as World War II was starting…by someone living on the ‘good’ side.  Makes you realize some truly horrifying things about what it meant to be any sort of minority during this time period. So…despite my enjoyment of the book, I’m not sure I feel comfortable reading any more of hers.

Richard Hammond’s Crash Course – Season 2

Richard Hammond's Crash CourseThe second season of Richard Hammond’s Crash Course aired this fall on BBC America.  They seem to have abandoned all attempts to have Richard drive as many crazy and weird vehicles as possible (the main theme of season one)…presumably because there are none left.  Last season, he was trained to operate an Abrams tank, a tree harvesters (the Lorax would lose his shit if he saw one of these), trash-handling equipment in a landfill, a fire engine, and equipment utilized in demolition and salvage operations.  Mostly, he learned to converse with the barely literate rednecks they found to train him.

This year the focus was less on vehicles, and I think the show is better for it. Of course, Hammond is famous for Top Gear, and in America it is the only thing we know about him.  But he is not exclusively a car guy, and in the UK he has multiple shows.  He’s a TV personality more than a car guy, so it doesn’t make sense to keep him tied to this imaginary identity.

This season saw him tackle what were described as ‘American professions’, though I  imagine these professions make up less than 1% of American workers.  Watching people file or return emails is pretty dull, so they’ve picked the more interesting jobs.  We see him tackle jobs as a stuntman, cab driver, standup comedian,

Hammond does comedy

bullfighter (actually, rodeo clown), paddle boarder, Indy pit crew member, a barber in a Harlem barber shop, a cattle rancher, snake wrangler, exotic animal keeper, bike messenger, and we see him build and then test a helicopter.

This is such a monumental list of stuff, very little of which draws upon his acknowledged skills with vehicles. There is little in his past that would help him deal with rattlesnakes or work as a stuntman.  We see him do really well in a few of the challenges–he takes up the animal tasks very quickly, but we also see him falter in some of the other tasks.  He doesn’t finish his paddle boarding race, and he manages to make negative $ as a cabbie in NYC.

The first season seemed to give the Hamster lots of time to play with the industrial machines he was manning, and he spent most of the time goofing off, even as he was learning.  It’s obvious this season was far more emotionally and physically grueling for him. But at the same time, many of the tasks (cattle rancher, bullfighter, snake wrangler) tap into his romantic notions of the American West.  What is it about the Brits and their love of cowboys and a good Western? Why is Dallas more popular in the UK than in the US?  Maybe it is because there isn’t an equivalent experience to have in the UK, and their affection for it is just curiosity for a different sort of life. A wilder life.  At any rate, Hammond has got it bad. He never looks more thrilled than when he’s told to put on a cowboy hat or some chaps.

Hammond with a gun

I enjoyed this season more than the last, I think.  Certainly, I wasn’t embarrassed by it.  A lot of the people they found for season one were (I fear) the exact stereotype people have in their minds when they think of Americans.  I don’t particularly enjoy watching those stereotypes be confirmed, nor does it make for great television when your chatty host can’t actually have a discussion with the people accompanying them.  This season, they found some people who could at least form complete sentences on camera.  Some of them were actually quite interesting, and I learned a bit about a few of the professions. I learned more than I thought I would ever know about Harlem Barber Shops and their hair-cutting competitions. The Stuntman episode (the first of the season) was particularly interesting. They took Richard through all of the typical stunt scenes–jumping from a tall building/bridge, a fight scene, being lit on fire,

Hammond on fire

and (of course) a car chase.

No word yet on if there will be a third season.  I can only imagine what they’ll make poor Hammond do if there is. I suspect he’ll be shot out of a cannon.

Movie Review: The Hobbit

THE-HOBBIT-AN-UNEXPECTED-JOURNEY-PosterCan I start this post by saying how much I love Martin Freeman and how perfect he is for Bilbo Baggins? He’s the reason I’m reviewing this movie for this blog. Technically, it’s not a British film.  It was shot in New Zealand with Kiwi director, producer, and writer(s).  The cast, like the Lord of the Rings films, is multinational. But, Martin Freeman is such a feature on this blog, and my ever-growing adoration of him requires that I comment on this film.

I actually prefer The Hobbit to all of the Lord of the Rings books.  So perhaps my expectations were slightly too high, because I was disappointed by the movie.

First, a word about some technical aspects involved in the film.  Normally, I couldn’t care less about frame rate or resolution, and don’t think it affects my viewing of most movies.  I bring all of this up because The Hobbit was shot in a faster frame rate than a normal movie, and it is very noticeable. Normally, movies are shot at 24 frames per second. The Hobbit was shot at twice that, 48 frames per second.  This is noticeable in a few key ways.

1-There is no blur.  When characters are doing fast paced action scenes, the normal blur isn’t seen.  This is kind of cool, but on the other hand the human eye can only move so fast and take in so much.  Some people find it dizzying.

2-Everything is in focus.  It is almost like an HD nature film. The depth of field is really large.  Some scenes make this really interesting, and some scenes make it bothersome. The experience also seems to vary depending on whether you see the movie in 2 or 3-D, in IMAX or on a regular screen.

3-Some motions seem too fast.  Small things, like the actors making motions with their eyes or standing up, can seem overly dramatic and fast. This isn’t anything against the actors–they’ve honed their craft for a specific medium, and this isn’t the same one.  If this frame rate was adopted by everyone, I think actors would learn to act in a way that works for it, but they haven’t had that chance yet.  Sometimes it affects your enjoyment of the film, takes you out of the action.

4-The CGI technology that we’ve developed thus far isn’t very good at this frame rate.  Since twice the amount of frames are being presented to the human eye, twice the amount of computer information would have to be presented for it to look as real as it would at a normal frame rate–if I understand this correctly.  So, the bottom line is that the CGI in the Lord of the Rings was great  and the CGI in this movie didn’t look as good, or as real.

It’s important for directors to take chances and innovate, but I can’t say I thought this was successful or particularly necessary.  But, I imagine that Peter Jackson will get better with each movie and I may be a huge fan by the third in the Hobbit franchise.

Which brings me to a minor gripe.  The Hobbit is a fairly short book, compared to, say, Return of the King.  Since there is nowhere near enough plot to make three movies out of this one story, they seem to have taken all the information from Tolkien’s appendices and the Silmarillion.  Example: Radagast the Brown (a wizard friend of Gandalf’s) is mentioned in passing during The Hobbit (book), but in the movies he is a major character and introduces a separate plot with the Necromancer.  This is just sort of touched upon in The Hobbit (An Unexpected Journey), but it will be (I think) a major part of the second Hobbit film. Also, bonus for me–Benedict Cumberbatch is playing the Necromancer.  I like having the extra movies, but I don’t like the feeling that New Line and Peter Jackson are just trying to bleed my wallet dry.

Okay, so now that I’ve rambled about the technology and the differences between book and movie.  What about the movie itself?

I didn’t care for it as much as the Lord of the Rings films.  I found it more childish.  There are two or three songs, and unlike the songs in the LotR, these seem to have been written professionally and planned ahead of time. And I don’t mean that as a compliment.  They didn’t have the soul and the folksy character of the hobbit songs in LotR–those seemed to be truly born from a time when people composed poetry and songs to pass the time. These were too slick and overproduced.  One accompanies a scene of the dwarves invading Bag End and eating all of Bilbo’s food, and then doing his dishes.

The dwarves are hard to keep straight, mostly because they all have beards and wear similar outfits.  The most memorable are:

Thorin:

ThorinA prince among dwarves, on a journey to reclaim the riches that belong to his family.  He is played admirably (but unrecognizably) by Richard Armitage.

Kili:

FiliThe only eye candy you’ll find in the movie.  I love you Martin Freeman, but big hairy feet and a mop of hair are not a good look for you.  Kili and Fili (his brother) are the youngest and fittest of the company, so they get some of the more action-oriented scenes.

Bombur:

bombur

Whatever the opposite of ‘youngest and fittest’ is, it applies to this guy.  There’s a lot of waffle in this movie about Bilbo not being able to keep up with this company of dwarves, being a hindrance, etc.  Are they kidding? Have they seen this guy?  I found him really repugnant. I mean, for one thing, is that braid made of beard hair or head hair?  Or…some other hair I don’t want to know about?

The dwarves are barely given enough screen time to figure out who half of them are. Most of the time is devoted to Thorin, Bilbo and Gandalf.  I can only hope some more time will be set aside in the next movie to make them distinguishable.  In Fellowship of the Ring, we meet four hobbits, a dwarf, an elf, a wizard, and two men within the space of a few minutes, but their characters are very well developed by the end of just that first movie. I’m disappointed that they weren’t able to distinguish the dwarves as well in the Hobbit. But I hold out hope for the future.

So, do I have anything good to say about the film after ranting about the frame rate and the childishness of the plot?  Well…despite the fact that it’s too long, it does pick up speed in the second half.  The first half an hour is quite dull, but by the end of the piece I didn’t mind the length.

Martin Freeman and Ian McKellen are great in this movie.  But I love everything they do, so perhaps I’m not the best judge.

As much as I rather hated Tolkien’s books, no one can deny that he created a wonderful world and wonderful characters in it.  After I saw the LotR movies I was struck by how much Peter Jackson had changed and had improved on the cannon.  Unfortunately, I don’t think I can say the same for this movie.  But we are still in that same world, and there is still the same sense of fate, of bravery, and of small beings accomplishing great feats.  We see the scene with Gollum, when Bilbo first gets the ring. We see Bilbo, like Frodo, pushed out of sedentary agrarian life and into adventure and danger.  We see Bilbo alone being brave enough to defend Thorin in desperate times.  As someone of relatively small stature and absolutely no importance, I can always appreciate the underdog.  Even though I found the movie experience disappointing, it was enough for me to be back in this world.  Like the Star Wars fans that will keep going to whatever tripe-infested rubbish George Lucas puts on screen, I will keep going to see whichever of Tolkien’s tales Peter Jackson chooses to tell. Let’s just hope things don’t get as bad as Attack of the Clones.

The British Christmas special

There is a Christmas tradition as popular in the UK as mince pies: the Christmas special. Popular TV shows generally have a stand-alone special episode airing in the week of Christmas (or on Christmas day itself).  Unlike most TV series here, these Christmas episodes are not within a specific season but stand alone (usually at the end of a season or a few months after the end).  I may be wrong, but this might be partially because the TV seasons/series in the UK do not run Fall-Spring, like they do here.

Some of the most famous Christmas specials in the recent past were shows like the Vicar of Dibley, Only Fools and Horses (these specials continued to air at Christmas years after the series itself was cancelled), as well as shows more known on this side of the pond, like The Office and Doctor Who. From what I have read, the Christmas special episodes of the two big soap operas, Eastenders and Coronation Street, are always the most depressing episodes of the year. And these are soap operas for whom melodrama is an understatement. According to tvtropes.org, people gather around to watch the emotional and physical carnage.  Fun.

This year, I saw two Christmas specials that made their way across the pond in one form or another: Downton Abbey and Doctor Who. Before I get into those specific episodes, I’d like to talk about my favorite Christmas specials in British TV history.

The Office UK Christmas Special

The Christmas Special for The Office UK also functioned as the series finale (a habit of Ricky Gervais’ apparently), so it was extra meaningful. It was a two part special (or two specials, according to some) that aired on December 26th and 27th in the UK in…whatever year it was.  Things are quite different in the special than they  were in the series, with Dawn and whats-his-name off in Florida, David Brent trying to make a career in Comedy, and Gareth the manager of the Slough branch of Wernham Hogg.  Of course the Tim and Dawn relationship is the big story of the specials, and it makes me happy and sappy every time I watch it, partially because of my intense love for Martin Freeman.  But another key moment is one that advances the slow story of David Brent becoming a human being.  He meets a nice woman who he likes, and who likes him.  That alone is lovely, but the best part (perhaps of this entire TV show) is when he stands up for her to Chris Finch (worst person ever).  Every time I see that I have renewed faith in his ability to evolve as a character.  The US Office presented a much more sympathetic boss, but David Brent walks a fine line between being irritating and being empathetic, which I think is more accurate and realistic.

Extras Christmas Special

Again, Ricky Gervais chose to end his series with a Christmas special.  This one has Andy Millman choosing between commercial success and artistic integrity.  In the end, he firmly says no to commercial success for its own sake, though I’m not sure he’s any closer to artistic integrity.  Again, he evolves as a person and that is rewarding, though not in the same way as occurred in the Office finale.  The best part of this special is undoubtedly the last five minutes, when he finally stops being an utter ass.

Christmas Tardis

There has been a Doctor Who Christmas special every year since David Tennant took over in 2005.  In fact, the Christmas special was the first appearance of the tenth Doctor.  Unfortunately, they haven’t all been gems. David Tennant spends most of 2005’s “The Christmas Invasion” asleep (literally), and we are stuck with Rose, Jackie, and Mickey the Idiot. In “the Runaway Bride”, Donna Noble makes her first appearance as a very argumentative pseudo-companion and the whole episode isn’t very Christmas-y, though there is a return of the Santa Claus robots that plagued London the previous year. A high point of 2007’s “Voyage of the Damned” is the Doctor discovering that everyone in London leaves each Christmas, because there has been an invasion for the last two years.  Little moments where the show pokes fun at itself really make it worth watching.  Each Christmas special has some really spectacular visuals, but often times they are not the best episodes taken on their own.  I’m not a fan of “The Next Doctor” and “The End of Time” left me heartbroken and angry.  “A Christmas Carol” had Michael Gambon, but that was the best thing about it.

And this year? This year was called “The Snowmen” and I have to say I think it was the best Christmas special they’ve had. The visuals were great, though I am very partial to Victorian England so that may have had something to do with it. Also, though, most of our current Christmas traditions emerged in Victorian times, so it’s a very Christmasy looking episode.  We see the return of Oswin, confusingly, and we see some very creepy snowmen.

Doctor Who Snowmen

My personal favorite part was the Doctor pretending to be Sherlock Holmes.  Hilarious.  After a lackluster first part of the seventh season, this episode gave me a lot of hope for when the show returns in the Spring.

Christmas at Downton Abbey

Downton Abbey has now had two Christmas specials, and I can’t say I cared for either of them.  The first one, did at least take place at Christmas, however!  And the ending was much happier.  It took place in 1919/1920, and there were sad points (Bates being convicted of murdering his wife) but there were happy moments (Matthew and Lady Mary finally getting together). It had some emotional resonance because of that fact.  This year’s Christmas special was …infuriating.  Warning to all who have not (in a totally legal way) seen season three and its special–spoilers!

This year’s Christmas special took place just a few months after the last episode of season three, though it did not take place at Christmas time. The Grantham family goes north to Scotland to visit the super annoying Lady Rose, and now we know that she will be in the show regularly from now on–much to my chagrin. The men stalk deer (in deerstalkers…). Edith continues to settle for unavailable and unworthy men, in an effort to have someone at all. I don’t really like her.  A strumpet of a housemaid starts making eyes at Tom Branson,  A rotund grocer tries to marry Mrs. Patmore because he is deeply in love with her sandwiches. Thomas is beaten nearly to death by ruffians after a highly contentious game of Tug of War (really?).  But there’s just one thing that really makes news in this special.

If you follow the gossip about DA at all, you know already that Dan Stevens, who plays Matthew, is leaving the show.  I had heard that he would be in a few episodes the following season, just to end his run, but apparently not.  Mary is very pregnant in the special, and as soon as I saw that, I had an inkling.  A few loving and tender moments between Mary and Matthew throughout the special clinched it. By the time Mary was giving birth, I knew it would be a boy, because they need an heir, and I knew it was curtains for the Tramp Matthew.  Also, whenever anyone in any movie goes out for a ride/drive and are extremely happy, they’re going to be killed in a car accident.  For proof of this precedent, see City of Angels, Lawrence of Arabia, etc.  It was just really predictable.  And not Christmasy.  And not fun.  And I feel that Julian Fellowes has just killed off too many people in this show.  The death of the heir on the Titanic starts the first episode, but on camera we have the deaths of William, Mr. Pamuk, Sybil, Lavinia, all of the minor characters who die on and off screen, and now Matthew.  It’s a lot for three seasons. Buffy the Vampire Slayer was on for seven seasons, featured a town rife with earthquakes, vampires, demons, gods, and every other nasty thing…and though there were a ton of red shirt deaths, only a few major characters were killed.  Just saying.  I found this Christmas episode irritating and disappointing.

I find that Christmas specials sometimes put together everything trite and overwrought that the creators can envision for the series.  It’s very rare that they get it right, and manage to convey a Christmas theme and an important part of the life of their characters.  What I do like about a Christmas special is that it adds some pomp and circumstance to the holiday.  In America, the Christmas episode of a show is just part of the season, and usually airs about three weeks prior to the holiday.  In the UK, these specials can happen when the show isn’t even on the air anymore–Christmas is important enough to mark out on its own. I don’t even like Christmas, but I like a Christmas special.  I wish we had them here. Though, I prefer when Ricky Gervais is in charge of them, not Julian Fellowes.