And the gold medal goes to…

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“Come out to the coast, we’ll get together, have a few laughs…” – John McClane

Merry Christmas! I’m currently sitting down writing this after an INCREDIBLE Christmas dinner and, as soon as I’m done, will be going back through to the living room to sit with my wonderful family. Because here we are: after 11 films, we come to the one Fin and I feel should be given the prestigious honour of being posted on Christmas day. So without further ado, we present everyone’s favourite monkey in the wrench, fly in the ointment and pain in the ass. Die Hard has earned this accolade for two reasons: not only is it a genuine and bona-fide Christmas film, it is also, without a doubt, the PERFECT action movie, which created a paradigm shift in the art of blowing stuff up and looking cool doing it. Here we have a career-defining performance from Bruce Willis as the NYPD cop trapped in a guerrilla war against the dangerously suave Alan Rickman as the terrorist with money on his mind more than political ideals.

‘Whoa whoa whoa’, I hear you cry, ‘this is a CHRISTMAS film blog, matey! We don’t want to hear you gushing about a laddish action film. Where are the Christmas movie staples?! Festive cheer, an emotional heart, an inspiring message…?’ I put it to you that this film has this stuff in spades.

Firstly, the film boldly states that no more should our heroes chomp cigars, have bulging biceps and shrug off injuries with an “Ah ain’t got time to bleed!” (Although, admittedly, Jesse Ventura is awesome in Predator). Here, we have heroes who are damaged and hurting: in John McClane’s case, literally, sustaining grievous injuries and weeping all alone in a corporate washroom while he unloads the things he was too proud or stubborn to say before to a faceless voice on the radio; in the case of Al Powell, emotionally, filled with self-doubt and shame from the fatal mistake that must daily prey on his conscience. Instead of muscle-bound and emotionally stunted he-men, we are rooting for people, ordinary people, who we can identify with. These are people who feel fear and regret just as fully as we can, and yet in extraordinary situations can find it within themselves to carry on. An emotional heart if ever there was one.

The film also addresses how society seems to have lost its way with regards to Christmas and its meaning. The corporate hell of the office party at the start, although flashy, reeks of greed, of modern-day Scrooges who care more about money and winning influence over those around them by attending work functions than actually going home and spending time with the family. The character of Ellis perfectly presents this to us. A genuinely brilliant performance by Hart Bochner portrays a shallow, smarmy suit with a shit-eating grin, gleefully shaming John by highlighting the expensive gifts given to Holly, while both the audience and the hero realise how uncomfortably different a world this is to ours. By the end, many bullets and blowings-up later, the importance of family has been pressed home to us again and again until we get the hero winning the day with the added bonus of rebuilding his broken family.

Still needing an inspirational message? Well, Holly reconnects with the love of her life, John reflects on his own shortcomings as a husband and changes his ways, and Al saves the day by overcoming his personal demons. If I had to put into words the inspirational message to take from this film it’s that it tells us, in the grand tradition of A Christmas Carol, that it’s never too late to change your ways or redeem yourself. Either that or, if in doubt, blow up the building.

…and that’s us. Thank you SO much for sticking with us over this festive season. We’ve loved chatting again about these films and trying frantically to get them into some sort of order we can agree on, and we both hope you enjoyed coming along for the ride with us. For now, we’ll be signing off but, who knows? The summer blockbuster season is now only 6 months away, and they may well deserve some attention…

For now, have a merry Christmas and a prosperous new year! Much love from the ’12 Films of Christmas’ guys!

Tom

Fin and me

“You were only supposed to blow the bloggy post off!”

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Gonzo: Hello! Welcome to the Muppet Christmas Carol! I am here to tell the story.

Rizzo the Rat: And I am here for the food.

When you look back on your formative years, it is easy to pinpoint the people that have had a profound and lasting impact on you as a child and that have shaped you into the person you have become today. Parents, siblings and other relatives are obvious choices of course, but I’m talking here about those outside of your close family. People that were both directly involved in your life, like my 5th Year Higher English teacher, Ms McCusker, and those you just watched and looked up to from afar, like Brian Laudrup, my all-time favourite footballer.

Sometimes, though, we have been encouraged, helped, shaped, and inspired by people, and we had absolutely no idea of it at the time. One person to have such an impact on my life is Jim Henson. I look back now and I see just how many things he helmed and helped to create that literally defined my childhood: ‘Sesame Street’, ‘Fraggle Rock’, ‘The Muppet Show’, ‘The Story Teller’, ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ – the 1990 live action movie, ‘Labyrinth’, ‘The Dark Crystal’, and even ruddy ‘Star Wars’.

Sadly, Jim passed away before I even reached my 5th birthday. ‘The Muppet Christmas Carol’ was the first major production undertaken after Jim’s untimely death, but it a truly wonderful testament to his memory and legacy.

I first saw this movie when I was 8 years old and remember it being, along with ‘Jurassic Park’, one of the first occasions I was completely and utterly transfixed watching a movie; that I totally forgot where I was, and I was immersed in this world that was put before my eyes. I was petrified at the scary moments, hysterical at the comical moments, and overjoyed at the happy moments. And little has changed in the 19 years that have succeeded that first viewing.

There is literally nothing you can fault about this movie.

The cast (if you can call them that) are on top form – all the Muppets are so perfectly assigned to their various characters from the novel, you’d think Dickens actually had Kermit in mind when writing the part of Bob Cratchit, and Robin as Tiny Tim. Michael Caine is astounding as Ebenezer Scrooge, and his transition from the most cold-hearted covetous old sinner in London to “as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew” is beautifully captured.

All of the music will have you singing along whether you want to or not (well, except the duff number that Belle sings half-way through which, thankfully, is cut out on most DVD versions…), and it is impossible not to be smiling from ear to ear by the time The Ghost of Christmas Present has finished his big number, “It Feels Like Christmas”.

I know I’m gushing, but perhaps the following story will illustrate how highly I regard this film and how big an impact it had on me…

When I was in lower Secondary School (about 12 or 13 years old) we were asked to write 1 book report a month for our part of our English class assignment. I hated reading at that age, so any way I could get around it was a bonus. Like doing a book report of a story that my sister told me, or a book we had listened to on cassette as children. Anyway, at Christmas I had the sensational idea to write a report on Charles Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’, having never read the book, but knowing the Muppets version so well I thought it would be an absolute cakewalk. That was until I had my report handed back to me by my teaching asking why my version of the book had TWO Marley brothers in it…

Busted.

‘The Muppet Christmas Carol’, whilst not telling the novel verbatim, IS still very true to Dickens’ novel, more so in tone than actual prose. Still, Gonzo does deliver large chunks from the book in his role as the narrator, which adds a certain gravitas to the otherwise very playful portrayal of the story. One thing I always thought was genius is when the story builds to its crescendo – its most vital and brilliant moment – that Gonzo and his companion Rizzo leave the story completely to leave the viewer to focus entirely on Scrooge’s eventual salvation and redemption.

In fact, the emotional impact of the movie is not just exclusive to this part of the film. I am still a little overcome when Scrooge gnashes his teeth at the first spirit and utters a choked “Leave me!”, and also during the entirety of Kermit’s “meetings and partings” speech at a Cratchit Christmas Dinner far into the future.

To my mind, it is the greatest piece of work The Jim Henson Company have ever produced, and not just one of the greatest Christmas movies ever made, but one of the greatest movies ever made, full stop. A flawless family film. And well worthy of the silver medal in our ’12 Films of Christmas’ mini-blog.

Altogether now: “The love we foooound! The love we foooound!…”

Fin

Heaven helps those who help their elf…

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“Now, all those within the sound of my voice, and all those on this Earth everywhere know that henceforth you will be called Santa Claus.” – Ancient Elf

I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the ‘Bottom’ Christmas Special, but there is a wonderful piece of dialogue between the two main characters, Eddie and Richie, which for me perfectly sums up the attitude we have to Christmas traditions:

Eddie: God, seven o’clock. Another twenty-seven hours of Christmas to go. I don’t think I’m gonna survive it, I’ll have to blank out in front of the telly.

Richie: You hold that finger right there young man, no-one in this house watches the telly until the Queen’s Speech!

Eddie: But it’s “Noel’s Christmas Family Video Accidents”!

Richie: I don’t care, we’re English here and we’re going to do Christmas properly. Alright? Well, unless there’s a Bond film on, obviously. Okay? Now let’s keep it Christmassy. Right now look, there’s only five hours until lunch, I’ve got to get my sprouts on. Don’t want them all crunchy.

Eddie: Not sprouts! I hate sprouts!

Richie: Oh will you stop whinging, Eddie! Nobody likes sprouts…

Eddie: Then why are we having them then?

Richie: BECAUSE IT’S CHRISTMAS!

“Because it’s Christmas” – a phrase that instantly legitimises even the most peculiar and nonsensical of things at this time of year. All the sentimental, mawkish or corny things, and all the things that we wouldn’t dream about doing the other 11 months of the year.

That brings me to today’s film – the hokey, sugar-coated 80’s classic ‘Santa Claus: The Movie‘. I’m not even going to try and defend it – it is an awful movie, reflected by it’s fairly tragic score on IMDB of 5.3 out of 10. Much less than the sum of it’s parts, it is overblown, confused, and so cheesy in places, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was dipped in fondue during pre-production.

I’ve actually got no issues with Santa himself in the movie – David Huddleston does a stellar job as the most archetypal Coca Cola Santa you could possible imagine, and he is equally matched by the impossibly bubbly Judy Cornwell who, for me, is probably the greatest on-screen representation of Mrs Claus I’ve ever seen.

(By the way, it may interest you to know that David Huddleston was also the actual Mr Lebowski in ‘The Big Lebowski’. “I’m not Mr Lebowski! YOU’RE Mr Lebowski! I’m…The Dude!” Yeah, it kinda blew my mind too when I found out…)

But in a movie that is supposed to be all about the big jolly guy delivering the presents, he is pretty much sidelined halfway through the movie (along with the two frankly appalling child actors) in favour of an almost permanently sloshed Dudley Moore and a scenery-chewing John Linthgow, who play an elf and a dastardly toy manufacturer respectively. Seems a bit odd.

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John Lithgow and Dudley Moore. In poses that in no way completely encapsulate their performances…

 

It all comes together in the end though (of course it does) when Santa comes back to show the world he’s not a has-been, deadbeat fuddy duddy – he’s the best goddam Santa the world’s ever had, and ain’t no sucka got the swag to beat him, yo. And Santa ends up saving the day. Rocky In A Red Suit, if you will…

To be honest though, in spite of the bizarre plot, the garish production, and now fairly dated special effects, I still absolutely love this movie. It’s not cool to like it. Hardly anyone outside of our family likes it. And even if it gets to the stage that I finally see it for what it really is, I’ll STILL watch it every year until I die.

Because, like watching the Queen’s Speech, attending watch-night carol services, or turning the lights off when the carol singers are outside and pretending you’re not it, it’s a tradition. Because it’s Christmas.

Fin

Christmas, spared no expense…

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“I ask the court to judge which is worse: A lie that draws a smile or a truth that draws a tear.” – Bryan Bedford

It sounds both creepy and extremely disrespectful to say that if I could sit on any celebrity’s knee, it’d be the Right Honourable the Lord Richard Attenborough’s. In the context of Christmas and Christmas films, however, this should be seen as the only logical thing to do. You see, in terms of cinematic Santas, he is the one and only Father Christmas for me.

It’s hard to believe that this gentle, charming and kindly old gent is the same man who brought us characters like the psychopathic Pinkie Brown in 1947’s Brighton Rock (below) or the strict and by-the-book Sergeant-Major in Guns at Batasi (the latter of which earned him a BAFTA). Just a testament to the man’s incredible talent, I guess. For a child seeing this film for the first time, none of this is needed; the gold half-moon spectacle, snowy beard and amazingly gentle manner with children were quite enough (his effortless sign language to the deaf girl and little yelp when his beard is tugged are absolutely lovely).

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‘Father Christmas: The troubled early years…’

After sitting and watching it now in preparation for this entry, the cynical grown-up I’ve buried deep, deep down for the important business of re-capturing childish glee can’t help but ponder on the nature of child stardom. Mara Wilson, variably known to me as either ‘that kid off Matilda’ or ‘that kid off Mrs Doubtfire’, is now more known for writing both online and for the stage, has turned away from performing now; welcome break from the usual stories of vice and sin normally associated with former-child actors exploited by the studios. Yet another reason why I can still enjoy this film now, as I’m not shaking my head and wondering ‘what went wrong’.

I’m ashamed to say that I have never seen the 1947 version, but to be honest I don’t think I need to. Like the whole of New York City by the end of the movie, I believe in Kris Kringle. I also believe in Harvey Dent, but that’s another story entirely…

Tom

“Who ya gonna call? Bah, HUMBUG!”

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“The Jews taught me this great word: ‘Schmuck’. I was a schmuck, and now I’m not a schmuck!” – Frank Cross

One thing you don’t see Hollywood doing enough is making modernised retellings of old stories and literary works. When you think about it, the concept is genius and the results are often surprisingly good…

  • Jane Austen’s ‘Emma’ set in modern-day California among valley girls? You’ve got ‘Clueless
  • Homer’s ‘Odyssey’ adapted to the Deep South in the 1930s? That’ll be ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?
  • William Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ played out by the Latino gangs in New York? ‘West Side Story’, and of course there’s the more obvious, but still brilliant, MTV-style adaptation ‘Romeo + Juliet’ by Baz Luhrmann too.
  • And another of Bill’s classics – ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ – ended up on celluloid as the well-loved high school drama ’10 Things I Hate About You’.

It’s surprising, then, that it took until 1988 for someone to take a punt at a modern-day retelling of Charles Dickens’ festive masterpiece ‘A Christmas Carol’. But I’m ever so glad they did. Doubly so because some clever clogs thought about casting Bill Murray in the ‘Scrooge’ role.

I love Bill Murray. He’s one of only two actors* on the planet that I would watch in anything, literally anything – regardless of the plot, cast, or director. To me, Bill Murray is like cheese – he will instantly improve any movie just by being in it, the same way cheese will make any meal better regardless of how good or bad it was before. And he is on top form here, bringing his usual brand of low-brow sarcasm and wit to the role, whilst somehow making you feel SORRY for his completely loathsome yuppy TV exec character…

‘Scrooged’ plays out like some glorious hybrid of ‘A Christmas Carol’ ‘An American Werewolf in London’, and ‘Ghostbusters’ and is helmed by Richard Donner (‘The Goonies’, ‘The Omen’, ‘The Goonies’, ‘Superman’, ‘The Goonies’, ‘Lethal Weapon’, and ‘The Goonies’), and throughout he manages to coax some truly wonderful, almost pantomime-esque performances from the cast. My personal favourite was always Carol Kane as the Ghost of Christmas Present – an obvious nod to Glinda, the Good Witch of the South from ‘The Wizard of Oz’. Only on crack.

Characters like her, however, are offset by the delightful heartfelt performances from other cast members, notably the ‘Bob Cratchit’ character – a sassy black PA who is a widow and a mother of four – and her purposefully mute son, Calvin, in the ‘Tiny Tim’ role. (Calvin is also the proud owner of quite possibly the finest ever delivery of the line, “God bless us, everyone!”. It’s so good, you don’t even mind the cheesy closing monologue or the musical number that rolls till the credits…)

So, please, Hollywood, would you think about looking at a few more literary classics and using them as inspiration and source material and not just lazily churning out endless, generic, repetitive sequels and remakes of films that were mostly guff to start with?

Otherwise, you’ll DEFINITELY be getting the towel for Christmas and not the state-of-the-art VCR…

Fin

* The other is Paddy Considine. If you don’t know who he is, just be thankful I’m not within 5 yards of you right now, throwing his entire back catalogue in your face. Seriously. Get on it.

Not sure if ‘Radio Gaga’ or ‘Times they are a’changin’…

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A Special Tribute To All The Non-Christmas Christmas Films…

“Zulus, sir. Thousands of them.”

“The hiiills are aliiiiive…!”

“Why’d it have to be snakes?”

“I’m Spartacus!”

“Fill your hand, you son of a bitch!”

“Bless your beautiful hide…”

“Use enough dynamite there, Butch?”

etc…

Yes, yes, YES! Today’s the day! Last night, trembling with excitement, I bought this year’s bumper Christmas edition of the Radio Times (the thinking man’s TV Guide) and now I’m sitting down with my highlighter ready to plan my Christmas viewing.

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‘Legendary indeed!’

Christmas television was my education; Film Appreciation 101. First, there was the swathe of TV premiers of films out only a couple of years before, with which the BBC, ITV, and Channel 4 all competed for your attention, particularly if you were like my house and only had terrestrial telly. Then, of course, there was the magnificent blend of ‘80s family adventures, musicals, John Wayne westerns, Disney movies, black and white war movies and glorious Technicolor epics. If you wanted to see the classics of cinema without having to go and buy them on VHS or rent them from that surly clerk at Global Video (only kidding, Matt), you’re best chance was at Christmas.

Now, I understand that I’m not talking about a single film here, and I know that they’re not necessarily ‘Christmas’ films, but for me, leafing through this magazine and looking at the ba-jillion films showing over Christmas was the TV highlight of the year. But to do it right, it had be approached with the care, planning, diplomacy, and fighting spirit of a military campaign…

Conflict could arise at any time; conflicting times being the worst. How on earth could I watch ‘Zulu’ on BBC 2 at 12.15pm when ‘Ben Hur’ was coming on ITV at 1pm? Yes, I could tape one of them, but did I have enough space on the scrappy video cassette with my name spelt out with stick-on labels on it? I had, after all, already taped ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, so perhaps I could negotiate space on another family member’s tape? If I CAN tape one of them, I’ll record the shorter, but will the longer one be finished before ‘The Italian Job’ starts on BBC 1 at 5pm? And don’t get me started on when I’m fitting in this Christmas’s ‘Wallace and Gromit’

Such are the trials of a young boy and his TV scheduling…

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‘Ahh, Barry Norman. You magnificent cinema-wizard…’

And this Christmas shall be no different. After pouring over this year’s edition (the first I’ve looked at in around a decade or so…) I can see that little has changed. The daytime family-friendly fare like ‘Cool Runnings’, ‘Twins’, and ‘Bedknobs and Broomsticks’ are present and correct. So too are the classic musicals like ‘Seven Brides for Seven Brothers’ and ‘Sound of Music’ and vintage adventures like ‘The Dam Busters’, ‘Spartacus’ and ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ to curl up onto the sofa with while nursing post-dinner food-babies, and of course the late night gems such as ‘Blade Runner’, ‘The Birds’ and ‘Die Hard II’.

The only thing that feels a little weird is perhaps the fact that time has, of course, moved on; stuff that I never even thought would grace the pages of the RT are there. Stuff like ‘In Bruges’ and, the film that finally turned my other half vegetarian, ‘Julie and Julia’ squat on these hallowed pages like interlopers. It’s not that I don’t think these are ace films, it’s just that to me things like Digital, SkyPlus, Anytime, On Demand, Tivo and such like have made something publications like these a bit superfluous. To me it’s something very much of Christmas Past, and it never entered my head that films post-2003 would ever appear. Yep, time has DEFINITELY moved on, perhaps more quickly than I realised.

Be that as it may, I’m all set for this Christmas. Come December 22, I’m saying goodbye to such quaint ideas as ‘outside’ or ‘fresh air’; I have soaked up Barry Norman’s infinite wisdom as in days of yore,  and will settle down with a few segments of Chocolate Orange to let three-quarters of a century of the western world’s cinematic history wash over me. God bless us, everyone!

Tom

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‘And so it begins…’

It’s snow joke… (*badum-ch!*)

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I absolute love the TV show ‘Friends’. I bet that has shocked you to your core. It’s a pretty left-field thing to say, as much as saying you love The Beatles, or pizza, or breathing.

And it’s rather handy whilst writing this mini-blog that one of my all-time favourite episodes is the festive treat that is ‘The One with the Holiday Armadillo’ (Season 7, Episode 10), where Ross cannot get hold of a Santa outfit so close to Christmas to impress his young son and has to instead take the only costume left in the fancy dress store: a giant armadillo costume. Thus, the Holiday Armadillo is born.

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“I’m Santa’s Representative for All The Southern States! Aaaand…Mexicoooo!”

Anyway, at the start of that episode Phoebe introduces us to one of her peculiar holiday traditions: the Christmas skull. Something her late mother would put out every year to remind her children that “even though it’s Christmas – people still die!”

Thanks, Phoebs. Way to bring the mood down. Humbug to you too…

Well, actually, I think there’s something quite poignant, quite British almost, about a little tragedy or melancholy when talking about Christmas. Helps us not to get too emotional, “like them damned Yanks”.

And I think that’s why The Snowman is such a British institution. I must admit, I wept like a child (well, I WAS a child, so no street cred lost there) the first time I watched it – this poor young lad’s only pal is a 6-foot sculpture of snow. And it melts at the end. It MELTS! And on top of all that he’s ginger…

(By the way, can I just point out at this juncture I love both Americans and gingers. The facetious tone is purely for comedic effect. Just in case that wasn’t clear. okthanksbye.)

But despite the tragic ending, there is so much to enjoy: the glorious pencil-sketch animation (see also Colgate TV ads round about the same time – it’s a lost art…); the stunning score that compliments the soft visuals so beautifully; and, of course, THAT song. The sadness at the end is beautifully juxtaposed with the joy and merriment that precedes it, with young James being whisked away to join in a Snowpeople’s forest shindig and not only meeting Father Christmas but receiving a special present from him too.

But if you seriously can’t handle the heart-breaking finish to this British classic you can just do what I did until I could stomach it (when I was 25) – just turn it off when James goes to bed after returning home. That way it’s just a joyous family romp, it’s even shorter than it’s 26 minute run time, and you can get back to stuffing your gob with turkey and Bucks Fizz.

Job’s a good’un.

Fin