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Nativity! Brings some light in the gathering gloom

JOHN GORE, founder of StokeScreen Film Club, with his pick of the week's movies on TV (from Nov 28).

The nights are drawing in. It gets dark very early. This week there is a spectrum of darkness across the film choices, too. So, not so different from previous weeks, then! However, I shall begin with a bit of froth and frivolity for all the family.

Nativity! (BBC2 17.45 Sat 28 Nov) pictured above, is one of the first festive films out of the traps. This is a homegrown perennial which is very close to my heart. The story is simple enough: two Coventry schools face off in a competitive Christmas concert, posh kids vs oiks like us. No surprises, a lot of charm and plenty of rough edges are on show alongside familiar landmarks, including a house in East Avenue, a bunch of beguiling kids (who must be in their 20s by now) and a lot of heart.

Director Debbie Isitt still lives and works in Coventry. I recall showing her early shorts around the turn of the century, premiering her first feature, Nasty Neighbours, in 1999, and being honoured to host the first screening of Nativity! to an audience of schoolchildren (mostly from Sacred Heart) so that Debbie could watch how it worked with an audience. We continue to work together when we can.

This film spawned a franchise which has bred three others, and a stage musical. While it was scorned by critics, the film found large and enthusiastic audiences around this country but also in the less glamorous parts of Canada, the USA, Australia, New Zealand and across Europe where they understood the Cinderella quality of the story.

The BBC4 classic of the week is High Society (BBC4 20.00 Thu 3 Dec), an adaptation of StokeScreen favourite, The Philadelphia Story, with Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Grace Kelly, Louis Armstrong and his band, music and lyrics by Cole Porter. Here is the wedding of socialite, Tracy Lord, disrupted by journalist and ex, Mike Connor. It may not have quite the snap, crackle and pop of The Philadelphia Story but it is as good a clothes horse to hang some fine songs on as you would wish. What a swell party this is!

Music in a darker context features in Francis Copolla’s The Cotton Club (Talking Pictures TV 22.20 Sat 28 Nov), which is a portrait of the legendary jazz club in Harlem at the time of prohibition. Richard Gere plays aspiring trumpeter, Dixie, mixing with Harlem’s finest musicians, dancers and the odd gangster or two. Probably a triumph of style over substance, it displays Copolla’s visual flare and creates an impression of a time and a place not often explored. Gregory and Maurice Hines play the roles of the legendary tap dancing Williams Brothers and give a pretty fair impression of them, hoofing along to Hot Jazz.

I am sure I have talked about Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies (Film4 18.15 Fri 4 Dec) recently and how the limelight is stolen from Tom Hanks by Mark Rylance. Well, here we are again, in the thick of the Cold War, at Checkpoint Charlie, looking to exchange prisoners to an uncertain fate. Worth your time and effort.

I think I have also remarked on Shame (Film4 01.50 Tue 1 Dec), Steve McQueen’s (Small Axe) study of a sex addict played by Michael Fassbender. This is an extraordinary study of alienation in the city which looks fab and has terrific central performances by MF and Carey Mulligan.

Adore (Film4 01.30 Mon 30 Nov) is a bit of an Aussie oddity, (a marsupial film?) back again after a few months. The credits are very good: based on a story by Doris Lessing, The Grandmothers, adapted by Christopher Hampton, directed by a French director with a good track record, Anne Fontaine, and with a quality cast fronted by Naomi Watts, Robin Wright and Ben Mendelsohn, sun, sea and surf. Alas, somehow it does not prove the sum of its parts. Or maybe I am missing the point. Let me know what you think, please.

Seen less recently is Westworld (BBC1 00.20 Sun 29 Nov), precursor to the Netflix series and one of the first films to explore cyborg/human relations and artificial intelligence. Directed and scripted by Michael (Jurassic Park) Crichton, it is dystopian in tone but asks a lot of searching questions that we are still negotiating about our relationship with technology. This is the film which brought Yul Brynner back into the public eye.

One of the more interesting and cinematic of Shakespeare films of the last decade is Ralph Fiennes' take on Coriolanus (BBC1 00.50 Mon 30 Nov). One of the Bard’s Roman plays, Fiennes moves it to the conflict in Bosnia, in fatigues and with the latest weaponry. This is one of Shakespeare’s less well known plays and it adapts with alarming ease to a later period and a different setting, underlining the timelessness of the tale, alas.

The BBC film premiere this week is Monsoon (BBC2 22.00 Sat 28 Nov) which combines grief and romance, as a young man from the UK returns to the place of his birth, Saigon, to try to reconnect with an old friend. If nothing else, this season of films is bringing forward different stories, new faces and vital new talent. I look forward to seeing this.

I have also not yet seen Ema (Film4 01.20 Tue 1 Dec), the latest film by Pablo Larraín, whom I regard as one of the most interesting and challenging of directors in world cinema. This is the story of a marriage which founders on an unsuccessful adoption and the search to find fulfilment. The cast includes Mexican heartthrob Gael Garcia Bernal and comes from the maker of Jackie, No, and The Club, all of them fearless encounters with emotions.

It is probably right to include 120BPM (Channel4 00.10 Wed 2 Dec) in the same breath. This is a dramatisation of the campaign by social activists, Act Up, to urge the French government and pharmaceutical companies to invest more to combat the HIV-AIDS pandemic in the 1990s. Much of this revolves around club life, with a pounding dance soundtrack, hence the title, 120 beats per minute.

An invitation to teach your grandchildren to skim stones on a pond, The Dambusters (Film4 15.15 Mon 30 Nov) returns. This doesn’t announce itself as the singalong version, but I am sure you can.

The survey of Clint Eastwood’s development in the Western reaches Hang ‘em High (Channel 5 21.00 Fri 4 Dec), when Clint returned from his apprenticeship with Sergio Leone to bring Spaghetti Western style to Hollywood. This is a tale of victim of mob justice returning as a lawman to hunt down the vigilantes who tried to kill him. So far, classic spaghetti, but as a director, Ted Post was a bit of a blunt object emotionally and had none of Leone’s sly wit and irony - yet it brought Eastwood closer to directing in his own right.

The Swedish modern day urban vampire movie, Let the Right One In, a fascinating piece of metaphorical film making, was remade in the States as Let Me In (Horror 21.00 Tue 1 Dec) in a less resonant form but this still stands out ahead of most horror fare. This is a more straightforward tale of the bullied boy who befriends another outsider, a girl who just happens to be a vampire. Wish fulfilment perhaps, or a metaphor for the less than comfortable mutations of adolescence, this is engaging viewing with an interesting cast and moderated tone.

Richard Ayoade presents a new series of The Crystal Maze this week and to coincide with this we have The Double (Film4 01.45 Thu 3 Dec), his adaptation of a novella by Dostoyevsky about an office worker who encounters his doppelganger at work and struggles to maintain his own identity in the light of this. Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network) and Mia Wasikowska (Alice in Wonderland) head the cast in a dark but haunting nightmare which will stay with you for some time.

As ever, it is always good to hear back from you, so please put your thoughts down and send them to us at Fabebook: StokeScreen at CNWSC and

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