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

All Aboard! The Canal Trip

all aboard the canal trip

Enough cannot be said about the virtues of slow TV, programming that forgoes traditional ideas of a narrative in favor of leisurely gazes at the ordinary. Unhurried and unassuming, these unconventional documentaries are an antidote to the cacophony that often fills our screens. The most notable of these programs is Norway’s firewood burning marathon, an hours long event that had bewitched viewers contemplating the minutiae of firewood. Most recently, BBC has latched onto the trend with its thus two-part All Aboard! series. The show invites those with an abundance of patience and an appreciation for natural beauty to experience unique and tranquil journeys, both familiar and far out.

I watched the recent Christmas special, The Sleigh Ride, about a pair of reindeer herders trekking across part of the Artic Circle, before I watched The Canal Trip, which aired half a year earlier. And while the tundra boasts captivating vistas, the recent cold snap in Hong Kong, where I live, left me wary of embarking on my own frosty, -40 degree adventure. The Canal Trip, however, offers a sunny alternative and worked like a tourism advert for the Kennet and Avon Canal in southern England. An uninterrupted two-hour ride, the movie takes you down a small section of the route, from Bath to the Dundas Aqueduct.

One distinguishing feature of slow TV is the lack of narration, and this show’s only soundtrack is a raw compilation of nature sounds – water gurgling beneath the boat, wind scrambling through reeds, birds chirping in mid-flight. In fact, the very aim is to approximate, as well as a television program can, the experience of floating down the canal on a quiet Saturday mid-morning, not with your best girlfriends or your college flatmates, but with a book, a desire to clear one’s mind, and maybe a significant other with whom you can share long bouts of silence.

Far from lazy programming – the show is ostensibly a single camera mounted atop a boat, I found The Canal Trip to be television in fine form. This is one where less indeed turns out to be more. Absent typical narrative intrusions, the canal and its environs become characters of their own. As the boat winds eastward, you see snatches of hidden life. The city park gives way to expansive fields and isolated farms. Every once in a while, a village comes into view, next to a picturesque stone bridge that stands steadily as cars flit across. And like a light aside, embedded graphics about the canal’s history and ecology fade in and out but always in the most unobtrusive way. It’s not a fantastic leap, if you watch this with a sense of purpose and not as white noise, to imagine yourself perched at the bow, absorbing the rustic beauty.

What I most appreciate about the All Aboard! series, and this show in particular, though is the way the visual and aural space sweeps past the television screen. If you needed permission to let your mind wander, this is it. Stillness leaves so much ripe for imagination. After an hour or so, I noticed that the water rippled out like a giant thumbprint and that the sound of mini waves hitting the boat was like that of wet batter being slapped around a mixing bowl. I peered curiously into the windows of certain houseboats; there was a beaten one with fraying tarps moored next to a gleaming one with a new blue paint job. Then I wondered why there was so little traffic and, when there was a backup on the waterway, how one might navigate it. Confident there were measures in place for this very issue, my eyes drifted back upwards towards the crisp sky, occasionally clouded over by an English grey. Surely I should start every weekend with a journey this subdued.

Released: 2015
Prod: Clare Patterson
Time: 120 min
Country: United Kingdom
Network: BBC Four
Reviewed: 2015

All Aboard! The Sleigh Ride

all aboard the sleigh ride

All Aboard! Sleigh Ride might be the strangest, most captivating and beautiful thing you’ll see this Christmas, and I’m including Downton Abbey, which returns for its final hurrah. The show follows two reindeer herders as they journey almost silently across the tundra, 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle – and that is all. There is no dialogue or scene change. A wolf does not suddenly leap out of the clearing to savage the reindeer. The herders do not get lost in the snowy, icy abyss. If we’re honest, nothing happens. And yet I could not peel myself away, pausing whenever I got up just so I wouldn’t miss the, um, action.

Sleigh Ride comes off the success of previous slow TV programs like BBC’s All Aboard! The Canal Trip, about gliding along the Kennet and Avon Canal, and Norway’s twelve-hour homage to firewood, which had audiences seriously questioning the proximity of tree bark to fire. These shows fixate their gazes on the mundane for hours at a time and provide little to no commentary on their subject. Which begs the question: why? There are hundreds of more productive things to be doing, especially during the holidays, and that’s probably why Sleigh Ride is so appealing. It gives permission, if you needed it, to step away from the year-end madness, to not have to be always on the go, to basically calm down.

There’s something soothing and cathartic about, in my case, sitting in a cramped studio flat in the middle of Hong Kong and allowing the show’s silence and natural beauty to sweep away the cacophony around me. All you hear is the steady crunch of snow under reindeer hooves and the soft, syncopated tinkling of bells, though the two native Sami herders, bundled in reindeer fur skirts and bright red shawls, occasionally dip into muffled conversation, with each other, with people they meet at various outposts, with a lone ice fisher. The camera lets you ride, or walk, alongside them. It drifts left and right, revealing thin, naked silhouettes of trees and shrubs but also vast expanses of snow that glow under a brilliant lavender sky. Sometimes it hovers just above the ground and other times it draws back, hoping to capture the immensity of the landscape but knowing that it can never truly match what nature creates for itself.

The program has hints of early Lumière films, which turned the quotidian into something fascinating. (A modern day descendent might be the pandacam, equally hypnotic in my opinion.) At times, my mind was carried away in a rhythmic lull, and I found myself awestruck that scenes like this exist on this planet. People really do trek across ice and snow with their reindeer, they clutch torches because the sun barely peaks above the horizon, and every night they rest under the Northern Lights. This isn’t dull; it’s beautiful.

Released: 2015
Prod: Luke Korzun Martin
Dir: Justine Evans
Time: 120 min
Country: United Kingdom
Network: BBC Four
Reviewed: 2015

The Wind in the Willows (2006)

wind in the willows 2006

Having never read or seen The Wind in the Willows until two days ago, I was delighted to come across this faithful adaptation of Kenneth Grahame’s book. This clean retelling preserves much of the plot, which concerns a few country friends and some motoring mishaps. Mole and Rat lead off the adventure, but it’s really Toad who steals the show.

We first meet Mole (Lee Ingleby) when he bumps into a new friend Rat (Mark Gatiss). Far more worldly and well dressed, Rat teaches the agreeable little creature the pleasures of aboveground leisure. The two soon find themselves in the company of Toad (Matt Lucas), a jolly spendthrift who is the lord of Toad Hall. His talent for squandering money and his taste for the latest transportation fads leads him down an increasingly reckless path. It’s Toad’s discovery of the motorcar, however, that prompt Mole and Rat to intervene. They venture into the woods, by foot, to seek Badger’s (Bob Hoskins) advice on reining in their friend.

The film’s fidelity to its source material is a testament to the story’s charm, and those who are familiar with the book will see most of the major episodes with little manipulation. A capable supporting cast pops up in some memorable cameos to push the plot along. Imelda Staunton plays a ruddy bargewoman, Jim Carter is an avuncular train engineer, and Anna Maxwell Martin and Mary Walsh help spring Toad from jail.

Of course the main stars are also skillful, transforming themselves into very believable country critters. The lean Ingleby cuts a different figure from the chubby Mole of animated incarnations, but he bursts with the awed innocence of someone who longs for a little adventure while still delighting in the comforts of home. Gatiss, meanwhile, brings a more learned air to Rat, his nose literally upturned at times, and Hoskins’s gruff demeanor allows Badger to put Toad in his place without being overly menacing. As for the great and fantastical Mr. Toad, Lucas’s exuberant performance is hard to turn away from, unless you’re determined to dislike the actor. In that case, you’ll find him insufferably over-the-top per usual, but I thought his theatrics suited the foolhardy Toad just fine.

Besides wise casting choices, the make-up and costuming departments also struck a nice balance. For a children’s movie filled with talking animals, there was little need to overcompensate with special effects, something I always find refreshing in the age of 3D and computer graphics. There were just enough fur mittens to keep an element of whimsy without distracting from the story or performances.

Released: 2006
Prod: Justin Thomson-Glover, Patrick Irwin
Dir: Rachel Talalay
Writer: Lee Hall
Cast: Matt Lucas, Mark Gatiss, Lee Ingleby, Bob Hoskins, Imelda Staunton, Jim Carter, Anna Maxwell Martin, Mary Walsh
Time: 99 min
Lang: English
Country: United Kingdom
Network: BBC
Reviewed: 2015