On TV, it's Christmas, Christmas and (yes) more Christmas


One of the prime duties of a TV critic, you know, is to watch Christmas specials -- tons and tons of them, approximately.

This year, as usual, they've ranged afar. One new cartoon ("Jingle All the Way") is softly pleasant; two others -- "Ice Age: A Mammoth Christmas" and "Prep & Landing: Naughty or Nice" -- have been slick and funny.

And new movies? Hallmark has had plenty, ranging from the awful "Lucky Christmas" (rerunning at 10 p.m. Dec. 14) to the rather fun "Annie Claus is Coming to Town" (debuting at 8 and 10 p.m. today, Dec. 10).

Still, it's no surprise that ABC Family has the best one. The network crafts its films carefully, as part of its "25 Days of Christmas"; most are pleasant and some ("Snow," "Snowglobe") are superb.

This year, ABC Family's only film -- "12 Dates of Christmas," debuting Dec. 11 -- is terrific. Here's a Christmas overview timed to that one:

By MIKE HUGHES

Poor Kate feels like she's been through
this holiday adventure before. So do TV viewers.

Kate (played by Amy Smart) is the
heroine of a movie that debuts Sunday (Dec. 11), the centerpiece of
ABC Family's annual “25 Days of Christmas.” She's just been
dumped by her boyfriend and spritzed by a perfume saleswoman; next
comes a date with a stranger and a party with her dad's new lady.

Worse, this keeps happening over and
over. That's why the film is called “12 Dates of Christmas.”

Christmas films are like that
sometimes, repeating each other and repeating themselves. Still,
they're often crafted with warmth and skill.

Each year, ABC Family makes only one or
two new films for December, filling its “25 Days” with past
movies, cartoons and more. So “12 Dates” – the network's only
newcomer this year – seems to have been crafted with care.

James Hayman – who molded the lush
look of “Ugly Betty” – directed it. He added new songs from
Jordin Sparks and Michael Buble and got strong work from Smart,
Mark-Paul Gosselaar and more.

ABC Family doesn't have the holiday to
itself – especially this year. Hallmark has made a flood of new
Christmas movies; Disney, Ion, GMC and more have jumped in.

Then there are concerts, cartoons and
more. Here's a look at what's still coming:

New movies

– “12 Dates of Christmas” is 8
p.m. Dec. 11 on ABC Family. It repeats at 10 p.m., then 7 p.m.
Monday.

– Hallmark has three new films left.
“The Christmas Pageant” (Melissa Gilbert as a stressed Broadway
director, reluctantly doing a community show) is Dec. 11, “Christmas
Comes Home to Canaan” (an earnest sequel, with Billy Ray Cyrus as a
farmer in 1970s Texas) is Dec. 17 , “Christmas Magic” (an
overstressed party planner becomes an underskilled angel) is Dec. 18.
Each is at 8 p.m., repeating at 10.

– Hallmark films rerun often.
Christmas Pageant” will be 8 p.m. Dec. 15, with “Annie Claus is
Coming to Town” – a pleasant-enough trifle, with Maria Thayer as
Santa's daughter – at 8 p.m. Dec. 16.

– Ion, the former Pax Net, is back in
the Christmas-movie business on Sundays. On Dec. 11, it reruns 'The
Christmas Clause” (2008) at 7 p.m. and “A Christmas Kiss”
(2011) at 9.

Concerts

– “Christmas With the Mormon
Tabernacle Choir” has David Archuleta as its soloist. That's 8 p.m.
Dec. 13 on many PBS stations, Dec. 23 on WKAR.

– “Christmas in Washington” is a
lush event at 8 and 11:30 p.m. Dec. 16 on TNT. Conan O'Brien hosts,
with music by Jennifer Hudson, Justin Bieber, Cee Lo Green, Victoria
Justice and The Band Perry.

– “CMA Country Christmas” reruns
at 9 p.m. Dec. 17 on ABC, with great females – Martina McBride,
Faith Hill, Jennifer Nettles (who hosts), Amy Grant and (with Grant's
husband, Vince Gill) Miss Piggy.

Cartoons, etc.:

– Several new ones or almost-new ones
have reruns coming up.“I Want a Dog For Christmas, Charlie Brown”
is 8 p.m. Dec. 12 on ABC, with “Ice Age: Mammoth Christmas” at 9
p.m. Dec. 16 on Fox, “Jingle All the Way” at 10 a.m. Dec. 18 on
Hallmark, “Prep & Landing: Naughty vs.Nice” at 8:30 p.m. Dec.
22 on ABC.

– The classics return. ABC has “A
Charlie Brown Christmas” at 8 p.m. Dec. 15; the Cartoon Network has
“How the Grinch Stole Christmas” at 8 p.m. Dec. 18, 11:30 a.m.
Dec. 19 and 8 p.m. Dec. 21.

– There will be much more in the
final stretch, Dec. 22-25. ABC has cartoons and a parade, NBC has “A
Wonderful Live,” TBS has its “Christmas Story”marathon.

 

 

Michigan movies: The low-budget/no-budget side is worthy, too


Over the years, there have been three kinds of Michigan movies:

1) The ones that were made there simply because it's a great backdrop. "Anatomy of a Murder," "Somewhere in Time" and "Escanaba in Da Moonlight" used the settings beautifully.

2) The ones that were made during the brief time when the state was handing out subsidies giddily. Film companies passed through the state like traveling circuses.

3) And some worthy ones that need more attention. With no subsidy -- and often well short of the $50,000 minimum to get one -- they came up with interesting-enough films. You can catch one of them, "The Key," Thursday at Celebration Cinema in Lansing.

Jack Schaberg is a Williamston writer-director whose first films ("We Know Care," "The End of Art") were comedies, clearly done on a shoestring. This one is a drama, more ambitious and (with Robert Kunc as director of photography) solid technically.

The plot gets pretty tangled, especially since key details are parcelled out sparingly to its heroine. Still, it does all seem to add up.

Kaitlyn Giguere plays a young beauty who is being perplexed by the scheming grown-ups (Don Cochran, Christine Marie) in her life. After finding a crucial key, she confronts people who are scheming blackmail and murder and such.

This doesn't get you running to the cineplex the way some films do. (Recently, I've loved "The Muppets" and "Hugo.") Still, it's a solid-enough film that does keep you thinking. And it's a chance to see the filmmaking that continues, after the traveling circuses leave Michigan.

Details are

– “The Key,” 5:15 pm., 7:30 p.m.
and 9:45 p.m. Thursday (Dec. 8)

– Celebration Cinema, Lansing

Peter Pan soars into Syfy's big week


You're never sure what to expect with the Syfy Channel. It can be as brilliant as "Battlestar Galactica" or the best moments of "Eureka"; it can be as silly as some of its Saturday movies ... or as the way it decided to mis-spell Sci-Fi.

Now, however, comes a grand, seven-day stretch:

-- Sunday-Monday (Dec. 4-5): "Neverland" shows what can be done when an old story gets an epic re-telling. The Peter Pan story has great visuals and clever touches; at the end of this, I'll put the story that I sent to papers.

-- Tuesday (Dec. 6): All three series try odd Christmas episodes. "Eureka" is light (a bit too light, actually), "Haven" is serious ... and "Warehouse 13" is both, in a terrific hour at 9 p.m.

-- Saturday (Dec. 10): "Snowmageddon," from 9-11 p.m. Really. Lots of snow-related disasters happen, because of a Christmas snow globe. In its own, daft, way; it's modestly entertaining.

Anyway, here's the "Neverland" story:

 

By MIKE HUGHES

As Peter Pan soars anew, we're back to
THAT story.

You know the one, about a regular
British kid who's swept to a new world. That has spanned centuries,
from David Copperfield to Harry Potter.

The story works because so many people
have actually lived it. J.M. Barrie (Peter Pan's creator) was 6 when
his brother's death transformed his family. Charles Dickens
(Copperfield's creator) was 10 when his family moved from the idyllic
countryside to an overwhelming London.

And Nick Willing, the writer-director
of “Neverland,” the ambitious new cable miniseries? He was 12
when his family moved from the Portuguese country to London.

“My 'Rosebud' is Portugal,” Willing
said, a symbol of a childhood that changed abruptly. He went from
rural beauty to a cold urban scene. “It was a bit like Harry
Potter, looking up at these tall towers.”

So it probably shouldn't surprise us
that he likes signs of eternal childhood. “He is (Peter),” said
Charlie Rowe, who stars as Peter Pan. “I just (looked) at how he
was behaving and replicated it.”

Really? “I'm a bit older than Peter,”
said Willing, 50, “(but) I probably am quite a bit like Peter Pan.”

After a childhood that was briefer than
expected, Willing has spent his adult years on playful projects –
music videos and then miniseries about young people in new worlds.
His 2007 “Tin Man” went to Oz, the 2009 “Alice” to
Wonderland. Now Peter goes to Neverland.

There are rich characters there,
including:

– Anna Friel as the pirate captains,
lusty and lethal. “It was kind of like being a child in the most
fantastic dress-up box you could ever imagine,” she said.

– Rhys Ifans as Jimmy Hook – not
yet a captain, not yet short-handed. He's Peter's hero and his
nemesis. He's also a swashbuckler; that took work for Ifans, whose
early training with sworda was so-so. “There were several injuries,
so I wasn't a great swordsman.”

– Bob Hoskins as Smee, the same role
he played in “Hook,” the Steven Spielberg film. “To me, he was
the embodiment of Smee,” Willing said. “I couldn't get him out of
my head.”

– And Rowe as Peter. “He's really
an insecure kid,” Rowe said, “mixed up … all he knows is this
father figure, Jimmy. He still is naïve.”

That requires acting, because nothing
about Rowe suggests naïvete, insecurity or a Cockney orphan. His
dad, Chris Rowe, is a TV host; at 15, Charlie is outgoing, amiable …
and, on this particular day, at least, a snappy dresser. He also grew
up in Willing's neighborhood.

Willing gave him his first acting job
when Rowe, 9, starred in an episode of a British kids' show. Still,
he didn't think of him for the “Neverland” lead. “He was a kid
I knew from around the neighborhood.”

So Willing looked for Pan elsewhere. “I
must have seen 400 kids and then, right at the end, he walked in for
(a smaller role) and I went, 'Ah, (crud). That's Peter Pan.'”

Then the adventure began. Rowe found
himself on a giant ship off the coast of Genoa, Italy. And
re-creating 1906 London in Dublin; “it was a cobbly sort of
historical area.” And re-creating fantasy moments, while standing
in front of a green special-effects screen in Ireland.

“I suppose my least favorite is the
color green,” Rowe said.

Still, that's the color that lets him
star in THAT story about a British kid in a strange world.

– “Neverland,' a two-part,
four-hour miniseries on Syfy.

– Opener, 9 p.m. Sunday, rerunning at
11; conclusion 9 p.m. Monday

– Both parts air together Monday
(7-11 p.m., 11 p.m. to 3 a.m.) and Dec. 11 (10 a.m. to 2 p.m.)

 

 

 

 

Beth's back; TNT's busy


We're heading into an odd month for TV -- lots of Christmas (which is a good thing), lots of reruns (which isn't) and occasional exceptions.

One of those is coming next Sunday (Dec. 4), when Syfy starts a splendid, two-night "Neverland" miniseries. And one starts now, when several TNT shows return for the second halves of their season.

Monday (Nov. 28) brings a good "Rizzoli & Isles" and an OK "The Closer"; prior to that, today (Sunday Nov. 27, then rerunning on two other days) brings an excellent "Leverage." Here's a story I sent to papers about "Leverage" co-star Beth Riesgraf:

By MIKE HUGHES

As “Leverage” returns, Beth
Riesgraf gets to do what actors like most. That's … well,
everything.

Her character, Parker, is a true
believer in romance and Santa Claus. She's also a scam artist, cat
burglar and more. “I get to break a chair over a guy and ... do all
kinds of fun things,” Riesgraf said.

Which is the way she likes it. “I
love the physicality of both comedy and the stunt work,” she said.

“Leverage” is neatly suited for
that, with a former insurance investigator (Tim Hutton) leading
former crooks in tricking bad people. And Riesgraf's life is suited
for variety; it's been equally split between small-town Minnesota and
big-city Las Vegas.

First was Belle Plaine, a Minnesota
town of 3,100, midway between Minneapolis and Mankato.

“It gave me a sense of … community
and family,” Riesgraf said. “And I had all this freedom as a kid.
I grew up on 300 acres of land, with horse and animals and I had so
much freedom and independence.”

And then came the sudden shift. Most of
her dad's construction projects were in the West and most of the
Riesgraf kids were gone to college. So the family moved to Las Vegas
when Beth was 13.

“The biggest culture shock (was)
going from a class size of 53 people … to like 700 kids,”
Riesgraf said. “It was a big shock, but thankfully I adjusted
pretty quickly.”

That may be an understatement. At
Cimarron-Memorial High School, she was prom queen, senior body
president and voted “most admired senior.”

Even if she had stayed in Minnesota,
Riesgraf, 33, might have gone into the arts. (Two of her older
sisters went to the Minneapolis College of Art and Design.) But being
in Vegas sort of cinched it.

Sh began landing occasional TV roles a
decade ago and also started a romance with Jason Lee. They were
engaged at one point and have a son, Pilot Inspektor Riesgraf-Lee,
now 8; she also worked with Lee in two episodes of “My Name is
Earl” and the “Alvin and the Chipmunks” movie.

Still, Riesgraf was mostly unknown
until “Leverage” came along.

On one level, each character is
eccentric and imaginative. Hutton said that sets up his favorite
parts: “When Plan A doesn't work and we have to shift into Plan B,
Plan C, Plan D …. You see the characters at their best and worst,
all at the same time.”

Parker is a master at sneaking and
crawling – a role that fits Riesgraf. “I think I would be a
really good cat burglar,” she said with a laugh.

That comes from her girlhood of
tennis, soccer and softball. “I'm certain nowhere near as agile or
limber as an actual gymnast, … but I'm pretty good at crawling
through the air ducts.”

And at breaking chairs over heads. What
more could an actor ask for?

– “Leverage,” 9 p.m. Sundays, TNT

– Second half of the season begins
Nov. 27; that episode reruns at midnight, then 11 p.m. Wednesday
(Nov. 30) and 9 a.m. Dec. 3

 

Cartoons, cartoons and ... well, cartoons


There really was a time -- a long time -- when animation was for kids. Adults sometimes went along (reluctantly) to maintain order and keep the popcorn from spilling.

Not any more. Cartoons do pretty well on TV and extremely well at the movie box office. And over the Thanksgiving weekend, there will be an animation avalanche.

At the bottom of this blog, I've included a list of the key animated movies and specials, Thursday through Saturday. And to prepare, I viewed two new specials and one not-new movie.  They are:

-- "Ice Age: Mammoth Christmas" is a total delight, mixing droll verbal humor with broad and well-crafted sight gags.

-- "Bee Movie" captures some of that. It has lots of verbal wit -- you expect that from Jerry Seinfeld -- but doesn't always make full use of the animation. The beginning and end are quite visual; the middle gets kind of talky, albeit with clever talk.

-- "Jingle All the Way" doesn't go for the laughs. It's a sweet story of a homeless puppy who likes to hang around school kids -- until they leave for Christmas vacation. It's warm, kinda pleasant and very seasonal.

Anyway, here's a list of the animation avalanche:

– What's new: “Ice Age: Mammoth
Christmas,” 8 p.m. Thursday, Fox; “Happiness Is a Warm Blanket,
Charlie Brown,” 8:30 p.m. Thursday, Fox; “Jingle All the Way,”
7 p.m. Friday, Hallmark; “Hoops & Yoyo Ruin Christmas” and
“The Elf on the Shelf,” 8 and 8:30 p.m. Friday, CBS.

– What's classic: “A Charlie Brown
Thanksgiving,” 8 p.m. Thursday, ABC; filling out the hour is the
Mayflower portion of “This Is America, Charlie Brown”

– More reruns: “Grandma Got Run
Over By a Reindeer” and “Olive, the Other Reindeer,” 8 and 9
p.m. Friday, CW.

– Movies Thursday: “Horton Hears a
Who (2008), NBC. On cable: “Monsters, Inc.” (2001) and “WALL-E”
(2006), 7 and 9 p.m., ABC Family; “Open Season” (2006), 7 p.m.,
Cartoon; “Kung Fu Panda (2008), 8 and 10 p.m., FX.

--Movies Friday: “Shrek the Third”
(2008), 8-10 p.m., ABC. On cable: “A Boy Named Charlie Brown”
(1969) and “Snoopy, Come Home” (1972). 7 and 9 p.m., ABC Family;
“Shrek Forever After” (2010), 7:40 p.m., HBO.

– Movies Saturday: “Bee Movie”
(2007), 9-11 p.m., NBC. On cable, a Cartoon Network marathon, from
“Shrek” (2001) at noon to “Open Season 3” (2011) at 7 p.m.