"Toy Story That Time Forgot" (
"One Child" (SundanceTV, Friday and Saturday).
With its parent organization's roots in independent and international film, it's not surprising that Sundance (formerly Sundance Channel, now SundanceTV, but can I still just call you Sundance?) has inherited something of its DNA. Through coproduced or acquired series like "Top of the Lake," "Rectify," "The Returned," "Restless," "Appropriate Adult" and now the BBC coproduction "One Child," Sundance has established a recognizable aesthetic brand, one perhaps even more "not-TV" and cinematic than that of HBO, the 800-pound gorilla of cabledom. What these programs share, in varying proportion, are deep feelings delicately evoked; an attention to detail that also creates an air of mystery; a strong sense of (often exotic) place; a naturalistic approach to genre; and an ecstatic regard for ordinary things. At times, with only the slightest application of pressure, they will grow unbearably intense. As here, many have strong central roles for women: In this four-hour miniseries, Katie Leung -- Cho Chang, "Harry Potter" people -- plays a China-born astronomy student, raised in England by adoptive parents
and Donald Sumpter, who travels back to her birthplace to help the mother she never knew free from prison the brother she never knew she had. A death sentence makes time of the essence. Written by Guy Hibbert ("Five Minutes of Heaven") and directed by John Alexander ("White Heat"), it airs over two consecutive nights, Friday and Saturday.
"Handel's Messiah" (BYUtv, Sunday and Tuesday, with multiple screenings through Dec. 25). A bouncy docudrama on the life of composer George Frideric Handel and the creation of "The Messiah," that hooky oratorio that, since it was first performed in 1742, has never taken a Christmas off. The "Hallelujah" chorus -- so wide you can't get around it, so low you can't get under it, so high you can't get over it, whatever your theological allegiance or lack thereof. A production of BYUtv, which is owned by Utah's Brigham Young University -- it's a real network, check your listings -- the film itself has a religious foundation, revealed now and again in interpolated scenes from the passion of Christ, man-on-the-street Bible readings and clerical testimony to the glory of God. Even given the nature of the work under discussion, and whatever the filmmakers' intent, these sections feel discordant -- pasted on, slotted in. For most of its running time, "Handel's Messiah" is an energetically told story of 18th-century show business, of professional creators accommodating changing tastes and official strictures in order to keep working while staying true to art. (Handel, we are informed, was very much his own man.) Like most docudramas, it is more pageant than screenplay, made up of scenes that consist of no more than a few lines of dialog, and sometimes none if the narrator -- Jane Seymour, here -- or one of the film's eminent talking heads is carrying that load. Still, it's full of humor, shot in fetching locations and splendidly dressed; and the story, however much of it may be apocryphal and however much of it you might care to regard as divinely ordered, is dynamite stuff, replete with cat-fighting sopranos, a diva nearly thrown out a window, dueling composers and a tabloid sex scandal. Alongside Handel, the film looks at his devout, depressive librettist Charles Jennens, and at actress and favorite singer Susannah Cibber, the subject of the aforementioned scandal, whose parts Handel taught her note by note. (She didn't read music.) Each is represented as finding in "Messiah" a reversal of ill fortune -- we are meant to see God's hand in it, not just Handel's -- and there are some corny backward-glancing montages to underscore the redemption angle. But it's fine stuff, overall, pretty to look at, interesting to consider, glorious to hear.
"Nova: First Man on the Moon (
Armstrong, who built a wind-tunnel as a child to modify his model planes, was a pilot out of central casting, a man with nerves not so much of steel as of elastic; he appears to have been incapable of panic, whether losing a hunk of wing to anti-aircraft cable flying a mission in Korea; skipping outside the atmosphere in an X-15, still the fastest plane ever; pulling his Gemini 8 capsule out of a nearly fatal spin; or landing on the moon with only 30 seconds of fuel remaining. More difficult for him was the exposure and adulation that followed, though he managed them, too. He left NASA not long afterward for academia and the remove of an Ohio farm; moved into business and philanthropy; endured losses both tragic and commonplace, but was evidently happy in the end. Family, friends and fellow fliers tell his tale, and there is some typically understated taped conversation from the man himself. It's curious to think that the last man to walk on the moon, Eugene Cernan, is now 80, and that the great collaborative dream was finally, if perhaps not permanently, a dead end. We go into deeper space only by robotic proxy now, or in the movies -- all the more reason to pay attention to the humans who once did.
Bing Crosby was a singer and actor of enormous, apparently effortless talent, a phenomenon in his time and, like most musicians not the Beatles, in need of some rehabilitation in later ones. Thus the title: "Rediscovered." I would guess that for most American under the age of, oh, 50, he is best known as the mysteriously dumpy lead of "White Christmas," perennial that it is. (Or perhaps that is over, too? I'll be watching it soon, at any rate.) Or possibly as the conclusion of the phrase "Hope and." The implication of this, like every other, "American Masters" episode is that you ought to know him, if you don't, and know him better if you do; and this seems particularly apt in Crosby's case, given the deceptive ease he brought to his work, the impression of doing nothing at all, of just showing up and living it. But Artie Shaw called him "the first hip white person born in the United States." He was bigger than Elvis and just as radical -- and just as informed by black music; he insisted on using Louis Armstrong, an influence and friend, in his 1936 film "Pennies from Heaven," and also demanded that he be prominently billed. He came along at the right time, alongside the microphone and radio, fitting his voice to its confidential tone; onscreen, too, he seemed preternaturally present. (He was the King of All Media before anyone even thought that could be a thing.)
The person was, naturally, more complicated than the performer. Early on, Crosby was a hard partier who took a sometimes lackadaisical approach to work. His own drinking, at that time, might have been a contributing factor to his first wife's alcoholism. And if he was perhaps not as bad a father to the four sons from that marriage as some of them would later claim -- there is one posthumous second-hand retraction included here -- he was evidently far from cuddly and could be, for what he imagined was their benefit, cruel. Elsewhere, he was generous and supportive. Second-marriage family members, happier, appear here to talk. Jazz critic Gary Giddins, whose "Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of Dreams -- the Early Years, 1903-1940" has been waiting a decade for its conclusion, and