The advent of Christmas movies

It’s that time of year again, when people of all nations come together to eat gargantuan portions of food and win Academy Awards for present-opening reactions; a time when you can’t escape the ostentatious parade of brand names and possible presents; and, indeed, a time when the special edition of the Radio Times reliably informs us of all the Christmas movies on offer this season. But with everything from high-budgeted action to TV-film corniness, my question is: what are some of the best (and worst) Christmas movies, and do Christmas movies in general ever have a chance of surviving outside of their two-month slot?

It’s sad to say that over the Christmas period, quite often, I find it difficult to use the television, because it is often occupied with these horrible C-List American TV movies that are entirely devoid of charm but which certain members of my family insist on watching. Take, for example, the title-tells-you-all Single Santa Seeks Mrs. Claus, which stars Police Academy‘s Steve Guttenburg as a soon-to-be Santa who, er, happens to be seeking a Mrs. Claus. I caught five minutes of the atrocious ending and was genuinely terrified. Guttenburg, over the course of the movie, indeed finds his wife, but at the point I joined he had separated from her for some soap-opera reason or another (you know how it goes). But in the end… he returns! Though in a thoroughly disquieting fashion. As actress Crystal Bernard (who?) bounds down the steps to see what Santa has brought her son this year, she discovers Guttenburg – sitting in a chair in Santa suit, smiling eerily, as if he has been up all night, waiting for her to descend the stairs so he can pounce and sink his claws into her neck. I don’t know if it is just me but I thought that this scene was one of the finest examples of cinematic weirdness since David Lynch baffled us all with Mulholland Drive, and the image still haunts me to this day (safe to say, I haven’t watched the rest of the film).

I'm positively quaking...
I’m quaking…

Also occupying the less brilliant side of the scale of Christmas movies is Home Alone 2. Now, I’ll admit, I loved the original and its billion sequels a lot when I was younger, laughing gleefully at the slapstick humour and wit of its tiny protagonist, Kevin McAllister. I wondered after seeing Home Alone 2 on TV this afternoon just how strangely warped my child mind must have been to enjoy it. It wasn’t the silly sentimentality or even the unusual length of two hours that caused me to recoil this time round. Surprisingly, it was exactly what attracted me to the film in the first place, the final sequence, where the hapless and brainless Harry and Marv try to catch the young Kevin as he disappears into an unfinished house, only to be subjected to the various traps that have been laid out for them. So far, so good – except the traps in the first film were actually funny. Here, they are downright sadistic. That’s right, there’s brick-throwing, explosives, an overwhelming barrage of heavy objects being ceremoniously dumped on heads, electric shocks, and spillage of paint. If movies actually told the truth, then poor Harry and Marv would have been dead before they even got into the house. We eventually get to a point where we want the criminals to succeed, and for Kevin to either be thrown off the building or sent to a mental hospital where he’ll sit in a corner, deliriously hatching new plans, for the rest of his life, so he won’t ever appear in a film again and, crucially, won’t miss any more stupid planes.

Don't you just want to punch his little face?
The psychologists would have a field day…

Did I enjoy this Christmas fluff? Well, no. Would they bear viewing in, say, June? Certainly not. What then, are the best Christmas movies, the ones that are worth watching, and the ones that do bear viewing in any season? There may be many, but I just want to give two of my favourites to counteract the two already mentioned: Gremlins and Die Hard. 

First to Gremlins, which is a genuinely fantastic horror-comedy from director Joe Dante. If you haven’t seen the film, then you must have heard of the all-important rules regarding the initially cuddly creatures of which the young Billy is gifted early on in the film: 1. Don’t get it wet. 2. Keep it away from sunlight 3. Whatever you do, don’t ever, EVER feed it after Midnight. Unfortunately, Billy betrays all three of these rules and suddenly finds legions of malevolent monsters swarming the town. I love the way that the film utterly destroys the idyllic scene of small-town America as the cackling devils take over cars, invade bars and, every once in a while, actually kill someone. I also loved its ability to be both hilariously funny and unusually dark in places; there are laughs, but they are interspersed with crazy violence and one pretty depressing story related by one of the supporting characters that explains her dislike of the Christmas period. Watching that scene now almost makes me want to laugh. Perhaps that’s what I love best about Gremlins – it’s not just gloriously entertaining but it gleefully subverts typical ideas about a Christmas movie with a savagery not unlike that of the puppet monsters. (Incidentally, the puppetry is amazing, and the film is worth seeing for that alone.)

Who DOES go carol singing these days?
Who DOES go carol singing these days?

And now to Die Hard. Perhaps the most obvious indicator of how astonishingly good this film is is the fact that the first time I saw it was not at Christmas, and I couldn’t have enjoyed it better. In case you didn’t already know, it’s the explosive story of what happens when John McClane, a New York Police Officer, comes to visit his estranged wife in Los Angeles for a Christmas party; the colossal office building is taken over by European terrorists while John is in the bathroom, and it is up to him to thwart these foreign villains and rescue the hostages – even though he’s not even wearing shoes. Like GremlinsDie Hard benefits from its humour, but also from its terrific performances, particularly from Bruce Willis, the perfect deliverer of one-liners, and Alan Rickman, who could not be more charismatic as the leader of the operation. But what do we really watch Die Hard for? The action! There is only one location, and the filmmakers certainly make the most of it; the fact that the triumphant and massive explosion of the lower section of the building was carried out for real (not CGI) only adds to the sense of awe. But is it a Christmas movie? Well, it takes place over the season, and it is certainly a Christmas tradition in my house to watch Die Hard every December. After all, nothing spells out peace and goodwill to all men than a sweaty middle-aged man in a vest with a receding hairline firing round upon round at a group of Euro-villains.

John feels the squalor of student living after paying his tuition fees.
John feels the squalor of student living after paying his tuition fees.

There’s no question that there are some excellent films which use Christmas as an important plot device: It’s a Wonderful Life, for example, or any decent version of A Christmas Carol. But I think that many of the best Christmas movies really aren’t very much about Christmas. They could take place around the season, and therefore could be seen accordingly, but would be appreciated equally in any month of the year. So, if you ever feel weighed down by trashy movies this December that are designed to lift your spirits but do exactly the opposite, just remember that there is still hope – make sure you have DVDs of Gremlins and Die Hard just in case. I wish you all a very Merry Christmas indeed.

Review – Looper

Review – Looper

2012, 118 mins, 15, Dir. Rian Johnson, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt and Paul Dano

Looper

Looper is writer/director Rian Johnson’s third film. His first was Brick, a low-budget independent which took the linguistic styles of Raymond Chandler and substituted them into, believe it or not, a high school setting. And Johnson shows the same originality here, constructing a science-fiction premise which leaves you gasping for breath. It’s not perfect, but Looper is easily the best science-fiction film since Moon, a terrific and fresh train-ride of a movie which beguiles, shocks and entertains in turn.

It is 2042. We follow a man called Joe (Gordon-Levitt) who is employed as a ‘Looper’. When the mob want to get rid of someone in the future, they send them back in time to these loopers, who murder them. Loopers enjoy the high life of clubs, drugs and sex, but there comes a time when their own future selves are sent back to be dispatched – ‘closing your loop’. When this happens to Joe, his older version (Bruce Willis) escapes, triggering a violent train of events which will see a clash between the old and younger selves, a clash of two ideas about Joe’s future and past.

From the outset, it certainly looks like an action film, and from the beginning it convinces you that it is. There are some excellent set-pieces that simply refuse to be generic, with the characters actually taking time to aim and shoot, instead of a barrage of misfires and cover-taking. It also takes a decidedly R-rated stance; indeed, the heavy and powerful blunderbusses utilised by the loopers don’t allow for much else. The scenes in a dystopian Kansas city are truly exciting, but suddenly the film slows down and takes a more reflective stance. As Joe stumbles onto the farm of the protective Sara (Emily Blunt) and her young son, the action turns minimal for a long period of time. Such a rapid change of pace is a little disorientating but if you can adjust then it is rewarding – the long sequence at the farm reveals some intriguing surprises, and Emily Blunt gives a bolstering performance as a woman you feel could really shoot you if she wanted to.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt, meanwhile, is barely recognisable as the young Bruce Willis, and also gives a strong performance. When the two of them are onscreen together, chiefly in the diner sequence, it is more tense than you would imagine. They face each other off, grappling fiercely with alternate futures, each trying to impose himself on the other. Willis in particular is terrifying in this sequence and in the rest of the film; with a gun, he is a formidable and unforgettable force, plagued by memories of his life, and seeking to restore them as much as he can, no matter the cost.

Joe (Gordon-Levitt) and Joe (Willis)

The future urban city is brilliantly but realistically built. It is overpopulated, many of its residents living in poverty on the streets; the upper classes, with their expensive cars, suppress their fear of crime with large guns. China has overtaken the USA as a superpower, as Joe is recommended by his boss to learn Mandarin instead of French. You really gain a sense that things could turn out as they do in the film.

As with most films, though, there are problems. And Looper contains a number of plot holes that may affect your enjoyment of the film. Don’t let that happen. Yes, there are things which don’t quite add up, and some things which really don’t add up, but that should be no reason to pass it off. What you have is arty, ballsy filmmaking which disregards cliché and takes you on a thumpingly good ride. You may think it slumps in the middle. But the performances of the two leads, the design and the stellar action scenes more than make up for that. It’s a fantastic film.

8/10

Review – Moonrise Kingdom

So I got back in England yesterday at 10.00am and went to bed later on having been awake for 36 hours. After a swift awakening at 5am I decided that, in a state of jet-lag, it would be wise and relaxing to go and… SEE A FILM! So off I went to the Prince Charles Cinema and watched Moonrise Kingdom. Here’s my  brief review, which doesn’t quite express just how good it is.

Review – Moonrise Kingdom

2012, 94 mins, 12A, Dir. Wes Anderson, starring Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Francis McDormand, Tilda Swinton

Moonrise Kingdom

I must confess to having watched only one Wes Anderson film before I came across Moonrise Kingdom. I thought Fantastic Mr. Fox, his only animated feature, was Americanised and not as witty as the Dahl children’s book. After seeing his latest film, however, I might just have to purchase his entire back catalogue.

Moonrise Kingdom is one of the most fun films of the year. It tells the story of two young outcasts who, after falling in love, run away from town on an island off the coast of New England. This causes mass panic and a search-party is commissioned just days before a great storm. 

Even for an Anderson newbie, the director’s style is instantly noticeable. His emphasis on quickly panning from one scene of action to the next propels the film forward with effervescent energy. Anderson is also very precise in his framing. Not a single shot is wasted as our two plucky protagonists journey through the forest, and a strange man with glasses and a green hat explains to the audience where we are and at what time at the beginning of the film.

His name is ‘Narrator’.

But it’s not just the cinematography that catches your attention. It’s a hilarious film, both in terms of its scripted jokes and general quirkiness. The fact that a lot of it takes place in the world of 12-year-olds allows it to do things that would seem out of place elsewhere; Suzy, the more disturbed member of the central couple, stabs one of the pursuing scouts with ‘lefty scissors’, which are vengefully referred to later on. The wittiness of the script and the craziness of the scenarios that play out are served well by the sumptuous visuals.

Credit must be given for the acting. While the ‘name actors’ (and there are plenty of them) surprise the audience each in turn, the real praise goes to Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward, both of whom have never been in a film before. Their central roles aren’t easy but they adapt confidently to the strangeness of it all, and contribute to some of the best gags. They give the film its heart and are very easy to root for; we follow their journey truly hoping that they will make it.

Kara Hayward and Jared Gilman as Suzy and Sam.

It’s a very nostalgic film, set in the 1960s, with record players and the like, but also in its youthful sense of adventure that is absent so much today. Anderson uses this nostalgia to great effect, perhaps connecting with some members of the audience through memories of childhood and young love. It’s cartoonish and, at times, surreal (especially the ridiculously tall tree-house glimpsed in the trailer), but ultimately it’s very touching in this way.

The director’s idiosyncratic style may alienate some cinemagoers, but for most, Moonrise Kingdom is a well-acted, funny and engaging film which has made me salivate for more of Anderson’s work. 

9 out of 10