The Sound of Music Live (2013)

My mother is far more forgiving than I am when it comes to bad television, and she insisted that I watch the Carrie Underwood version of The Sound of Music. And despite all reviews suggesting I maybe shouldn’t, I caved because moms know best. Except mine didn’t, and I spent most of the movie stacking it up, mostly unfavorably, against every other version I had seen, including an international stage production, the 2015 ITV remake, and of course the untouchable film classic.

The 1965 film remains my favorite movie of all time, but I don’t think it’s precious and should be immune from updates. This is not a good one, however, despite some of the best voices American musical theater has on offer. I’m talking about Laura Benanti, Christian Borle, Audra McDonald, and, just because, Audra McDonald again. You can’t pull off this kind of production on network TV with just a few Broadway stars though; you need a real star. Enter Carrie Underwood – country music diva, multiple Grammy winner, American sweetheart.

She, no surprise, sings like an idol but also acts like the star of your local theater, which turns out to be an odd combination for a character like Maria. What I love about better interpretations, namely that of Julie Andrews and Kara Tointon, who starred in the ITV production, is the underlying strength and wisdom that shines through Maria’s occasional naiveté. She may not be worldly or sophisticated, but she understands human nature. She knows when the kids are having a go and stands firm when the Captain is unfairly dressing her down.

Underwood, however, comes across as someone who’s more clueless, a chirpy, idealistic young woman determined to be positive and make positive changes. Basically, an American. She barges through by sheer force of personality, scandalizing everyone who gets in her way. There’s no nuance in her performance; either she’s parroting her lines with the earnestness of an insecure actor or she’s overpowering the fragile, confined set with her buxom voice.

The superior musical theater acting from Underwood’s costars only emphasizes her deficiencies. I never liked the Mother Abbess character – so unsingable and a bit of a relic – but found myself clinging to McDonald’s performance. She gives the mother an authority that comes from character and not just age. Borle camps it up as Max, the Captain’s self-interested friend. I always find something potentially sinister about Borle’s characters. It’s not a moustache twirling evil but a look that says he will double cross you in an instant if it will save his skin. He’s a perfect foil for Benanti’s tantalizing Baroness. This being a remake of the original stage production and not the film, the two abide by a slippery moral code that prefers Nazi occupation to open hostility and confrontation.

Underwood’s main costar, Stephen Moyer, fares less well. He makes an adequate Captain, stern when he must be, gentle at other times. But whereas Underwood is too forceful, Moyer struggles to create any lasting impression. The lack of chemistry between these leads also pushes the love story into the background, which is where you should file this production.

Released: 2015
Dir: Rob Ashford, Beth McCarthy-Miller
Writer: Russel Crouse (book), Howard Lindsay (book), Austin Winsberg
Cast: Carrie Underwood, Stephen Moyer, Audra McDonald, Laura Benanti, Ariane Rinehart, Michael Campayno, Sean Cullen, Kristine Nielsen
Time: 135 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: NBC
Reviewed: 2017


The Sound of Music Live (2015)

I didn’t think anyone who saw the 2013 American production of The Sound of Music Live thought, what I really need is another TV version of this classic musical. As exciting as it was to watch Broadway standouts Audra McDonald, Laura Benanti, and Christian Borle sing together, leads Carrie Underwood and Stephen Moyer underwhelmed and sounded distinctly out of place alongside their accomplished costars. Never discount the brains at ITV though, who thought this would be a better Christmas gift than say an updated version of Carousel. (Someone get on that.)

But as it happens, The Sound of Music Live 2015 edition offers some pleasant surprises. Whereas criticism was directed at country star Underwood for her folksy, overeager Maria, lead Kara Tointon breathes new life into a role long dominated by Julie Andrews. At the same time, she also grabs the spotlight from stage stars Julian Ovenden and Maria Friedman. It’s impossible to erase Andrews from any performance of this musical, but Tointon does her best to escape her predecessor’s long shadow and make the part uniquely her own.

It’s easy to fall in love with her Maria and to see why the other characters gravitate towards her. Tointon’s character doesn’t have the plucky self-righteousness of Andrews’s interpretation; she wouldn’t smirk in the Captain’s face after he chastises her for parading his children around Salzburg in drapes, but she does radiate a warmth and gentleness that touches others in the way they need most. To the children, she’s the compassionate mother figure, and eventual mother, they’ve longed for. At the abbey where she is a distracted postulant, she lends an air of youth and earthiness. Then to Captain Von Trapp, she is the tender, forgiving partner he needs to help navigate his grief – over the loss of his wife, his reluctance to bond with his children, and the political peril he faces.

Tointon’s costar leans in the other direction though and makes you long for Christopher Plummer’s enigmatic portrayal of the Captain. Ovenden appears in my favorite television show of all time, Foyle’s War, and his voice can trigger heart palpitations (again, updated Carousel), but in this production, he comes off distant, mopey, and if we’re honest, a little emo. It’s hard to imagine this Captain taking charge of his household much less an entire ship. Though his passivity is a much better complement for Tointon’s Maria than a more headstrong one, and their “Something Good” duet made me melt a little, I wish Ovenden would have been more bullish.

Less bewildered are the supporting players. They may not have the force of their American counterparts, but Friedman, Alexander Armstrong, Katherine Kelly, and Mel Giedroyc ably carry out their roles. As with the previous remake, this adaptation is of the stage musical rather than the movie, so don’t be surprised when Max (Armstrong) and the Baroness (Kelly) break into song and bang on about capitulating to Nazis.

If there’s anything significantly inferior to its overseas cousin, it’s the boxy set that pens in the action and emotions. The camera is fairly static because there’s nowhere for it to go, and because the visual movement is so restricted, we get the odd experience of watching a stage musical play out on a medium meant to open up the scenery. You might as well watch this on an actual stage where the story at least has some room to breathe – but then you wouldn’t get Kara Tointon.

Andrew Foyle, aka Captain Von Trapp, aka Julian Ovenden, never stops fighting Nazis:

“Something Good” by Kara Tointon and Julian Ovenden – because somewhere in my youth or childhood, I must have done something good to deserve this:

“Edelweiss” by Julian Ovenden:

Released: 2015
Dir: Coky Giedroyc, Richard Valentine
Writer: Russel Crouse (book), Howard Lindsay (book)
Cast: Kara Tointon, Julian Ovenden, Alexander Armstrong, Maria Friedman, Katherine Kelly, Mel Giedroyc, Paul Copley, Evelyn Hoskins, Jon Tarcy
Time: 119 min
Lang: English
Country: United Kingdom
Network: ITV
Reviewed: 2017

Time Crashers S01 (2015)

I’m averse to reality shows and unswayed by the presence of celebrities, A-list, B-list and otherwise, in them. Blame it on the constant manipulation and the way it brings out our worst instincts. I always feel like I’m watching some carnival sideshow, a spectacle that delights in exploiting people’s emotions and weaknesses. Of course, you could say the same is true for scripted television, a medium crafted by writers and actors and one that often speaks to our baser qualities. But these shows distort by their nature, and at least there isn’t a pretension of reality.

So I was surprised when I found myself lapping up Time Crashers, a one season series by the Channel 4 in which ten famous-ish people are chucked into various periods in Britain’s past. All are assigned decidedly unglamorous positions in society and tasked with labor intensive jobs that test their emotional and physical strength. But rather than descending into a free-for-all where the wiliest competitor ends up with the biggest turkey leg, it’s in everyone’s interest to complete their duties and to do them well.

The show isn’t a competition but an educational experience of sorts, one that will also appeal to those who aren’t partial to history documentaries or fancy period dramas but who are interested in the past. The participants, including actors Keith Allen and Kirstie Alley, Olympic athletes Greg Rutherford and Zoe Smith, and presenter Fern Britton, first find themselves at an Elizabethan manor house before zipping through time to a medieval jousting match and then a Victorian fishing market. They go as far back as 54 A.D., where they must prepare a Celtic feast. That is to say, they hack some dead animal under the open air in some very unsanitary conditions and try to start a roaring fire with just a few pieces of flint.

And that’s not the only time a grand meal is involved. In fact, much of their work revolves around feasting and fanfare, very little of which they can partake in. Instead, the time crashers spend most of their days turning spits, stuffing boars heads, and watching other people eat. When they’re not around food, they’re busy with some other thankless task, like washing clothes in urine. At the end of a long day, those who are lucky enough to have a bed can collapse on that while some poor soul inevitably gets shunted off to some dark corner with only a few blankets.

This tourist’s view of history turns out to be both highly entertaining and informative. Host Sir Tony Robinson watches from the sidelines as a historian supplements with commentary. Their hushed voices lend an air of nature documentary to the experiment, as if we were watching plucky birds try to make sense of their altered surroundings. The participants are guided, and sometimes ordered, by re-enactors who instruct them on the finer points of their roles – the precise angle at which to bow before the lord and lady, the most expedient way to sew up a carcass. When they finally steal away for a meal or turn in for the night, the group lament their difficulties, acknowledging in the process their own privilege as people of status and modernity.

The camaraderie is one of the most striking things about this program. Occasionally the celebrities are pitted against one another. During the jousting tournament in which they serve as squires, the winning side gets to celebrate with their knight while the losing side is stuck polishing armor. But the competition is never spiteful, and more often than not, this mishmash of personalities shows off the very best in people. Who would have thought that Meg Mathews, whose celebrity credential seems to be her former marriage to Noel Gallagher and who proudly boasted that she didn’t even have to walk her own dog, would end up being voted group leader because of her willingness to get dirty? On more than one occasion, mother hen Fern Britton is there to offer a hug or an encouraging word, and then there is Keith Allen, who stirs up trouble with his mischievous streak but who also uses that to steal fruit for his tired, starving friends. If reality shows were more like this, I’d be binging those alongside my Wolf Halls and Downtons.

Released: 2015
Cast: Tony Robinson, Cassie Newland, Keith Allen, Kirstie Alley, Fern Britton, Charlie Condou, Meg Mathews, Jermaine Jenas, Louise Minchin, Chris Ramsey, Greg Rutherford, Zoe Smith
Time: 47 min x 6
Lang: English
Country: United Kingdom
Network: Channel 4
Reviewed: 2017

Bernard and the Genie (1991)


Like finding one last Christmas present buried in the toe of your stocking, you’ll discover that Bernard and the Genie is a delightful treat and a pop of real joy. A rare 1991 BBC production that deserves at least a respectable DVD release, this 67 minute movie directed by Paul Weiland and written by Richard Curtis features satisfying performances from stars Alan Cumming, Lenny Henry, and Rowan Atkinson. It’s a wacky intersection of Aladdin’s tale, the Gospels, and time travel with welcome reflections on friendship and commercialism.

You wouldn’t think this was a warm addition for the holidays by the looks of it though. Henry plays Josephus who, due to a knife throwing incident gone awry, is imprisoned inside a genie lamp for two millennia. In the present, hapless art dealer Bernard Bottle, played by an earnest, fresh faced Alan Cumming, is having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. His kindness at work hasn’t won him praise but instead has gotten him fired, he discovers his girlfriend is bonking is best friend (Kevin), and when he invites her over to collect her things, she cleans out his flat. At the end of the day, all he has left are a few pieces of furniture and a tarnished lamp.

Bernard’s luck changes in a flash when Josephus bursts out of the lamp, and after an initial misunderstanding, the two become fast friends. It’s a good thing too because both are in need of companionship. After all, “it’s a tough dog-stabs-dog-in-the-back-and-then-dog-eats-dog kind of world,” observes Josephus. Bernard delights in taking his new friend around London and introducing him to the pleasures of modernity. The latter is particularly enchanted by Mozart, Big Macs, and the Terminator. Meanwhile, Josephus is Bernard’s personal wishing well, which turns out to be very handy for someone who’s feeling down and out. It takes awhile for both of them to get the hang of the arrangement since Josephus doesn’t have much genie training, but once they do, they use their wishes liberally.

Don’t be deceived by this movie’s small, banged up, and dated package. Curtis’s wry and witty script packs in a lot of humor that’s just as fresh and funny today as it was twenty-five years ago, minus some off-color jokes along the lines of eating dog meat. Even the cheesy special effects have an endearing quality. The music conspires with the writing as well; our introduction to Bernard includes a hilarious song that is amusing even as it twists the knife ever so gently. In supporting roles, Atkinson throws in a pinch of salt as Bernard’s sneering and heartless boss while Dennis Lill’s deadpan elevator operator shows a very big heart to go with some very big lies.

Cumming and Henry really ground the film though, not only with their odd couple dynamic but also with their decency. There’s such a genuine kindness that defines Bernard and Josephus’s brief friendship and they show themselves to be wildly selfless in a world that cares little for that. It makes you wonder why we can’t all just be nicer. And right when you think they’ve delivered their message, the movie squeezes out just a little something more, about “a crap businessman but a great human being” who was Josephus’s contemporary.

Mr Success:

Released: 1991
Dir: Paul Weiland
Writer: Richard Curtis
Cast: Alan Cumming, Lenny Henry, Rowan Atkinson, Dennis Lill, Angie Clark, Kevin Allen, Andrée Bernard
Time: 67 min
Lang: English
Country: United Kingdom
Network: BBC
Reviewed: 2016

The Greatest Store in the World (1999)


You can be sure there’s a story behind every superlative boast, and when it comes to The Greatest Store in the World, it’s not quite the magical emporium you expect. Things aren’t looking so great for young Livvie (Elizabeth Earl) and her family after their camper van explodes and they are left homeless. While she tries focusing on her part in the school nativity, her bohemian mother, Geraldine (Dervla Kirwan), tries looking for temporary housing, preferably on four wheels. The latter turns up empty-handed but announces an ingenious solution. They are going to live in Scottley’s, the greatest store in the world, at least until social services can get things sorted.

It’s up to Livvie to be the voice of reason in the family, which includes her younger sister, Angeline (Holly Earl). She cautions her mother against the recklessness of the plan and is too old to buy into her mum’s insistence that it’s just another adventure, since this probably isn’t the first time they’ve found themselves in this situation. Livvie has no choice though and does her best to play along for Angeline’s sake. The greatest store really lives up to its title after closing time and the sisters run wild in the Harrods-like behemoth. They’re instructed to only eat sell by food and not damage any packaging though because come on, they’re not thieves. They also have an S Club 7 dance party because it’s 1999.

Hanging around the mattress department or the camping gear every day during closing time is sure to arouse suspicions, however, and as they extend their stay, they have to find new ways to evade guard dogs and the doorman, a humorless man they’ve christened Mr. Whiskers (Peter Capaldi perfecting his creepy turn-of-the-century magician look). I’m not sure why they can’t use different entrances or why Scottley’s hasn’t installed security cameras, but there are other problems to worry about, like a shifty Santa (Ricky Tomlinson) and his elf (Sean Hughes). You’d expect a fancy department store to have higher standards when it comes to hiring, but Scottley’s doesn’t seem to mind its crass, chain-smoking in-store entertainment.

Based on a book by Alan Shearer, the story is a good one to tell during Christmas, It’s nice for kids to know that the holidays are not all merry and bright for everyone. Livvie is mature beyond her years, but what the girl should really be dealing with is how to avoid her bullying classmates, not how to avoid getting sent to foster care. I’m in favor of giving kids a more challenging picture though, and if we’re looking at Christmas movies about children and homelessness during the holidays, I recommend Where God Left His Shoes. It’s not a gritty docudrama by any means, but it does strike a more emotionally powerful chord.

Released: 1999
Dir: Jane Prowse
Writer: Alex Shearer
Cast: Dervla Kirwan, Elizabeth Earl, Holly Earl, Peter Capaldi, Helen Schlesinger, Ricky Tomlinson, Sean Hughes, Brian Blessed
Time: 73 min
Lang: English
Country: United Kingdom
Network: CBBC
Reviewed: 2016