Monkey business

by Philip Matthews / 27 December, 2003

SATURDAY DECEMBER 27

Adam's Rib, Prime, noon

In this legendary comedy, Spencer Tracy is the district attorney and Katharine Hepburn is a lawyer; they're married, so the plot conspires to have them on opposite sides of a murder trial. The great George Cukor directs. (1949)

Planet of the Apes, TV3, 8.30pm

The original classic, not the confused remake. This stunner has a mythic sense and a nightmarish consistency. It works on a brutally simple premise: astronauts are marooned on a remote planet, where the laws are reversed - ape dominates man and treats him cruelly. Much of the impact comes from the casting of Charlton Heston, who brings the heroic baggage of his biblical epics: the film feels primeval rather than futuristic; the locations are all dust and clay and fierce, burning sun. (1967)

SUNDAY DECEMBER 28

Hamlet, TV1, noon

Kenneth Branagh must have called in every favour he was ever owed to assemble this star-studded and extravagant treatment: in minor roles, we get Charlton Heston, Robin Williams, Billy Crystal and Gerard Depardieu. In the lead, Branagh has admirable energy, while the shooting is crisp and beautiful and the locations are lavish - the decision to set this in the 19th century also restores a geopolitical dimension that most directors skip. (1996)

Dungeons and Dragons, TV3, 7.30pm

The 1970s role-playing game makes a transition to the big screen and it's a poor entry in the overtilled sword-and-sorcery field, especially as the Lord of the Rings films have set the bar so high. Astonishingly, Jeremy Irons was persuaded to take part - he does the evil wizard as a pantomime villain, in the tradition of Tim Curry. (2000)

The Gift, TV2, 9.00pm

A superior horror film. This southern gothic was directed by Sam Raimi and co-written by Billy Bob Thornton before he made it big with Sling Blade. The plot is all B-movie shocks, courtroom twists and trailer-trash caricatures, but it has a good, lurid sensibility and some fine performances. Cate Blanchett stars as the spooked psychic Annie Wilson, whose gift of second sight makes her a witness in a murder trail. Then factor in a homicidal redneck (Keanu Reeves), a village idiot (Giovanni Ribisi), a Lolita (Katie Holmes), a chump (Greg Kinnear) and a woman with a mullet (Hilary Swank), plus the expertly creepy direction of Raimi - who cut his teeth on backwoods horror in the Evil Dead series - and you have something grimly entertaining and often terrifying. (2000)

Bootmen, TV3, 9.45pm

Connected to the touring dance show Tap Dogs, in which regular Aussie blokes tapdanced in their industrial-strength Blunstones, this Australian drama follows the Flashdance formula to the dull, dogged letter: Sean (the promising Adam Garcia) abandons his tap dreams for work at the steel mill with his disappointed and hard-drinking dad, until one day ... Shouldn't you just take your passion and make it happen? Listen to your heart, if not your guide to writing lousy remakes of The Full Monty. (2000)

The Little Shop of Horrors, TV2, 11.15pm

A very good comic performance from Rick Moranis makes this much-loved version of the stage musical that began its life as a cheaper and less cheerful movie by B-grade mass-

producer Roger Corman. As the nerdy Seymour, Moranis courts the lisping Audrey (Ellen Greene) on city streets so mean they could only be in a musical; of course, he is also tending to a monstrous and flesh-eating exotic plant that speaks in the lusty voice of Four Tops singer Levi Stubbs. (1986)

MONDAY DECEMBER 29

Brokedown Palace, TV3, 8.30pm

There's an impressive performance from Claire Danes in this otherwise hopeless yarn about two midwestern teens - Danes and Brit actor Kate Beckinsale - who wind up in the slammer in Thailand. Not for their own drugs, of course, but for someone else's ... (1999)

NEW YEAR'S EVE

Bachelor, TV2, 8.30pm

Chris O'Donnell has long been a charisma-free zone, which makes him deeply and unforgivably wrong for this remake of the old Buster Keaton film Seven Chances, which turns on that hoary chestnut of a bachelor needing to marry in order to claim a massive inheritance. "A catalogue of ugly female stereotypes and rotten jokes," thought the LA Weekly's John Powers. (1999)

The Legend of Bagger Vance, TV3, 10.30pm

As befitting a golf movie directed by Robert Redford, the mood is sedate, nostalgic and slightly new age - this has a caddy as mystical as Yoda; it does for golf what The Horse Whisperer did for horses. Meanwhile, since casting Brad Pitt as a Redford simulation in A River Runs Through It, the director has found a new stand-in: Matt Damon. Was Chris O'Donnell busy? (2000)

NEW YEAR'S DAY

The Importance of Being Earnest, TV1, 10.00am

Cinematically, this is not much more than a filmed play, but what a play - and Michael Redgrave and Edith Evans are among those doing the reading. (1952)

The King and I, TV3, 12.30pm

The role of Yul Brynner's life: besides doing it here, and nabbing an Oscar for it, he played the Thai king - Brynner's from Russia, but who's checking? - some 4000 times on stage. However, co-star Deborah Kerr's singing was dubbed by Marni Nixon. (1956)

The Perfect Storm, TV2, 8.30pm

George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg push the boat out, no matter that a really big storm may make matchsticks of it. In the background to this film is the truly depressing story of an overfished Atlantic Ocean, which is what drives the men out further and further in all weather; that also means that there's a better, more serious film around the edges of this generically action-packed one. (2000)

Beautiful Creatures, TV3, 10.30pm

The rash of Brit gangster movies had to produce a Brit moll movie eventually and here it is: two women (Rachel Weisz and Susan Lynch) do something of a Thelma and Louise when they take revenge on the thugs who have abused them. If you've tired of the casual and shallow viciousness of the Brit gangster movie - a cycle inaugurated by Guy Ritchie's Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, a film so imitated that it feels like Citizen Kane from this distance - then such impulses can only be applauded. (2000)

FRIDAY JANUARY 2

The African Queen, TV1, 10.00am

Rubbish, of course, but enjoyably hammy and lively rubbish: Humphrey Bogart plays it broadly as the drunken river trader (Bogart's playing was an influence on Harrison Ford in the Star Wars and, of course, Indiana Jones films), while Katharine Hepburn is the impossibly uptight missionary. The year is 1915 and the Germans have brought the war to East Africa - can Bogart and his shabby boat take on the German navy? John Huston directs, but the winning factor is a witty script by James Agee and others. (1951)

The China Syndrome, Prime, 9.30pm

This classic of nuclear meltdown and attempted cover-up had the good fortune to coincide with the Three Mile Island disaster, but even without that topicality it remains an effective and spirited liberal thriller. Jane Fonda stars as the TV reporter, a bearded Michael Douglas is the cameraman, but Jack Lemmon overshadows both as the man from the power plant. (1979)

SKYHIGHS

The Kindertransport - in which hundreds of Jewish children were shipped out of Europe to foster families in the UK just before World War II - was one of the great humanitarian efforts of the 20th century. The scheme was all the more remarkable for having been privately organised: it was the brainchild of British stockbroker Nicholas Winton. There is such great, heart-wrenching drama in the kindertransport that, one day, someone will make a great, heart-wrenching dramatic movie about it - certainly, the Czech film All My Loved Ones (Rialto, Tuesday, 8.30pm) is not quite it (the documentary Into the Arms of Strangers is a powerful recounting of several stories; the material was also handled brilliantly in W G Sebald's poetic novel of 20th-century anguish Austerlitz).

Rather than focus on the enigmatic figure of Winton, Matej Minac's film invents an upper-middle-class Jewish family, the Silbersteins, who are living in glorious times before the Nazis help themselves to Czechoslovakia in 1938. The film is told from the point of view of David, the boy who is transported to England in 1939, although it ends where it really should start: with David leaving Prague by train. His family illustrate a range of Jewish attitudes to the Nazi danger: father, a doctor, wants to stay, sure that "the world would never allow" pogroms in the 20th century; his uncles include a concert violinist (the lost high culture of pre-war Czechoslovakia is a poignant theme), a rodeo performer and an orthodox rabbi; his sister hopes to marry a man who plans to emigrate to Palestine - why, another scoffs, would Jews want to live in the desert, with the camels?; the simple German gardener, Helmut, goes Nazi and controversially teaches the Jewish kids the words to "Horst Wessel".

There is too much overworking of the tragicomedy of lost childhoods and lost families; the facts are brutal and potent enough. The encroachment on liberties was more urgently depicted in, most recently, The Pianist and Divided We Fall, and this lost Europe was also caught beautifully in Vittorio De Sica's The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (1970). Still, there are some moving stories here - the best involves concert violinist Sam's (Jiri Bartoska) fall from glory - although the finest sequence is something that Minac procured from elsewhere: a 1988 BBC film of Winton meeting the survivors, 50 years on, still endlessly modest and surprised by his own tears.

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