The (Increasingly Traditional) James Proclaims New Year’s Eve Review Of The Year That Was

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It’s still 2018 as I write this. At least it is in the UK. In some other time zones it might well be 2019 by now. And indeed it will be 2019 here soon enough too. But before that happens, tradition dictates that it’s time, once again, for me to review the year that has just happened.

Although did anything of note happen in 2018? In last year’s version of this post I wrote about Brexit and Trump. And the year before that I wrote about Brexit and Trump. So I’m loathe to do that again this year, but that does leave me with not much else. Because those two horrendous realities still seem to be largely dominating the news.

Unless I’m mistaken, which is entirely possible because for me personally, 2018 was quite a momentous year.

In that I became a dad for the first time.

Which is quite a big thing.

And frankly the only thing I’m remotely capable of thinking about most of the time.

Obviously, it’s a good thing and I love Baby Proclaims more than I’m able to adequately express in words. She has literally brought joy to my life on a multitude of levels every single day since she entered in my life. I’m sure other stuff happened this year, particularly in the seven months of 2018 that preceded her arrival but I’m finding it hard to recall even the notion of an existence before my daughter.

Still, parenting does have its downsides. I wouldn’t object, for example, a night of unbroken sleep.

The chances of me maintaining consciousness until midnight in order to see the New Year in are not looking overly promising at the moment.

Not that I’m especially devoted to that notion in any case.

Mrs Proclaims and I have never been big on celebrating the New Year. A glass of sparkling wine and a nice meal is the best we normally manage, and, if Baby Proclaims allows, we might just manage that again this year, but we’ve never been likely to trouble a party with our presence, so our ‘bundle of joy’ is hardly cramping our style.

In my younger days I was more likely to be found heavily inebriated in a pub or a club, but honestly, I’m not sure starting the New Year with a massive hangover is an especially good way to go about things, but I was less enlightened in my youth. Probably because I was drunk.

I’ve just had a quick look at the blog resolutions I made on the 1st January and I seem to have achieved most of them. They were, of course, eminently achievable (apparently my ‘clever joke’ last year was to make them especially unambitious) but there was still a chance I would fail miserably. Actually, I’m not sure I did achieve the one about watching a film of Mrs Proclaim’s choice. To be fair she doesn’t really like watching films so I’m really not the worst husband ever and I am nice to her in all kinds of ways that she actually appreciates.

I did achieve the one about running a mile. Indeed, I almost made it to two miles before giving up. Don’t judge me too harshly, I did, as I’ve previously noted on this blog, run more than one marathon in my younger days, but I had more time on my hands back then. I haven’t been completely inactive during 2018, but it hasn’t been a vintage year for fitness and might be something I need to address in 2019. I don’t want to harp on about being a new parent, but I think it mitigates my relative inactivity slightly.

Anyway, the point of all this is that 2018 has now mostly happened and I can’t really remember any of it.

But it was definitely a year.

Of that there is no doubt.

The Fourth Annual Christmas Message from James Proclaims

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As it is now a firmly established tradition that I write a Christmas message on Christmas Day, I shan’t eschew that responsibility and let down the odd person who might actually care. It’s true that the person in question is exceptionally odd, but it feels wrong to disappoint them.

Normally I write this in advance of the big day and schedule it to go ‘live’ at the same time as the Queen’s Speech goes out to the nation. Which is 3pm the last time I checked.

This year I didn’t get around to writing it beforehand, because life has been a little more busy lately. Mostly because I became a parent for the first time this year.

So I didn’t get to go head-to-head with Her Madge this time. Which is probably for the best. She’s getting on a bit and she doesn’t need the added pressure of going up against me any more.

An upside of me writing this on the day itself is that I can actually tell you what kind of Christmas I’m having, as opposed to the usual speculation.

And, as it happens, I’m having a good one. As the time of writing I’m sitting next to the Christmas tree, wearing a paper crown and feeling slightly inebriated after drinking a few glasses of a sparkling wine that is Italian in origin but not prosecco. I’m ok with it not being prosecco, because I have no idea whether I like prosecco any more than I like any other kind of sparkling wine. As long as it tastes nice and leaves me feeling seasonally cheerful then I’ll gladly drink it and this stuff is certainly doing the job.

Mrs Proclaims and I have just enjoyed our festive feast. As Mrs Proclaims is a pescatarian, we don’t  have turkey. Instead I knocked up a side of salmon, which is a reasonable alternative, in that it tastes great but more pertinently, there are usually leftovers, which can be consumed later in sandwich form (this is an essential component of a Christmas dinner in my view). I presented it with all the traditional accoutrements, such as roast potatoes (which I normally do well, but I slightly overcooked them this year) parsnips (which I absolutely nailed) and sprouts (which you basically can’t get that wrong, although it could be argued that sprouts are, by their very nature, wrong). I don’t want to blow my own trumpet but it was a pretty good effort and I’m now feeling suitably stuffed. Like the turkey we didn’t have.

Baby Proclaims is enjoying her first Christmas. I mean she has no idea that it’s Christmas, but she seems to be in good spirits. To be fair she’s often in good spirits. Except, on occasion, between the hours of 1am and 3am. I find her less endearing at those times (but still pretty endearing). In Christmases past Mrs Proclaims and I would have long since opened all of the presents, but this year we’ve not managed to get to them yet. This is partly because having a four and half month old infant is quite the distraction, but also because most of the presents appear to not be for us, but for our darling offspring. They look really nice all wrapped up and Baby Proclaims appears to be in no hurry to open them so we’ve left them in their ornamental state for a little longer. In the background Chris Rea is singing about driving home for Christmas. He’s already done that a few times today. Slade, Wizzard and Wham have also popped up the playlist more than once.

I’ve no idea what the rest of the day has in store for me, but I imagine that Baby Proclaims will dominate much of it as is her way. She looks really cute in her festive outfit though so I expect I’ll be able to tolerate her. I might also have some Christmas pudding.

If you are reading this on Christmas Day, then I hope you’re having a great one. If you’re not reading it on Christmas Day, then I still hope you’re having a nice day, but I will need some pretty compelling evidence to explain why you didn’t make reading my blog the centrepiece of your Yuletide celebrations.

The Second Annual James Proclaims Advent Calendar of Christmas(ish) Films – Door 24

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It’s Christmas Eve once more and therefore logic would dictate that it’s time for the final entry in The Second Annual James Proclaims Advent Calendar Of Christmas(ish) Films.

A year ago we rounded off the first James Proclaims Advent Calendar Of Christmas(ish) Films with the awesome movie that is Die Hard.

It therefore only seems appropriate that this year we complete our festive film journey with the sequel to that film, the not-quite-as-awesome-but-still-really-good Die Hard 2: Die Harder.

The Die Hard franchise is one of diminishing returns as a general rule. It’s a big ask for any sequel to live up to the 1988 original, which is more or less perfect, but to be fair to 1990’s Die Hard 2 it’s probably the closest. It does at least feel like a sequel, unlike the subsequent efforts which seem more like generic action films starring Bruce Willis as ‘generic action hero’. I quite like 1995’s Die Hard With A Vengeance – it’s a really good film, possibly a better film in many respects that Die Hard 2 but, although it pays lip service to the original by having Jeremy Irons playing ‘Simon Gruber’, brother to Alan Rickman’s iconic ‘Hans Gruber’ from the first film, the character that Bruce Willis is playing doesn’t really seem to be John McClane any more. At least not the John McClane we know from the first movie.

And aside from the Gruber connection, none of the supporting characters who contributed to the awesomeness of the first Die Hard turn up.

But they do in Die Hard 2.

Bonnie Bedelia’s ‘Holly McClane’, William Atherton’s ‘Richard Thornburg’ and Reginald VelJohnson’s ‘Al Powell’ are all back, and even if none are quite as central to the action as in the first film they all have their roles to play. Moreover, Willis’ ‘John McClane’ seems like he is pretty much the same character as in the first movie. Indeed his reconciliation with Holly seems to be going really well, aside from the intrusion of heavily armed bad guys. Although Die Hard 2 is set in Washington Dulles International Airport, we know that McClane has given up his life as a New York Cop and is now an LA Cop, working alongside Al. Clearly this isn’t going to last as by the time we get to Die Hard With A Vengeance he’s again separated from Holly and living in New York. Which is kind of sad, but not relevant to this film.

The return of familiar characters, alongside McClane is a nice touch. Given the location of the events the story didn’t need the other characters to turn up but they all add to the narrative and make us feel very much that this is a true Die Hard film.

Die Hard 2 does make the classic mistake that many sequels make, in trying to be bigger and bolder than the first movie, it loses its way at times. In particular a scene in which an aeroplane is brought down by the bad guys (who are way less fun than Hans Gruber) and killing 200 innocent people completely jars with the popcorn action flick that this is supposed to be. After a  tragedy of that magnitude there is no way that anything McClane does is really going to ‘save the day’ but by the end of the movie everyone seems to have forgotten about that particular mass killing and there are smiles and jokes aplenty.

If you can ignore these moments of absolute horror, (and there are other scenes that are just a brutal, albeit on a smaller scale) then Die Hard 2 is a more than a creditable sequel to the greatest action film ever made.

 

Score for Christmasishness

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It’s the only Die Hard sequel that is set at Christmas and as with the original, Christmas is totally relevant to the plot. Indeed Die Hard 2 might even be a tad more Christmasish than the first movie because it also boasts an abundance of snow. An chaos at an airport, which is definitely a hallmark of Christmas.

The Second Annual James Proclaims Advent Calendar of Christmas(ish) Films – Door 23

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Director John Frankenheimer made into last’s years James Proclaims Advent Calendar of Christmas(ish) Films with the, frankly, awful but surprisingly Christmas(ish) Reindeer Games. If that wasn’t representative of his best work then 1998’s action flick Ronin is certainly a better offering..

 

With a decent cast, led by Robert De Niro and Jean Reno, Ronin boasts some compelling action sequences, particularly the car chases, which are reminiscent of The French Connection. It’s not going to change anyone’s  life, but it’s a relatively entertaining way to spend a couple of hours.

 

Score for Christmasishness

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It’s definitely set around the festive period and there is often a hint of Christmas in the background. It’s all totally irrelevant to the plot, but it’s definitely a Christmas(ish) film.

The Second Annual James Proclaims Advent Calendar of Christmas(ish) Films – Door 22

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2008’s Hellboy 2: The Golden Army is a pretty decent follow up to 2004’s Hellboy. Both movies were directed by Guillermo Del Toro, who made the not unremarkable Pan’s Labyrinth in between. While that film garnered plenty of recognition and critical acclaim, neither of the Hellboy movies really troubled any major award ceremonies. But they are still great fun and in a world where seemingly every other major release is a comic book adaptation, the Hellboy films certainly hold their own.

Hellboy 2 might actually be that rarest of entities, in that it’s a sequel that is slightly better than its predecessor. The cast are all decent, but it’s Del Toro’s trademark visual effects that really impress.

 

Score for Christmasishness

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It’s quite a promising  beginning, as we see a young Hellboy being told a fairy tale on Christmas Eve. We never return to Christmas after that, but as most of the action in the movie centres around characters from that very fairy tale, it’s still all sort of Christmas(ish).

 

The Second Annual James Proclaims Advent Calendar of Christmas(ish) Films – Door 21

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For a movie that is based on the premise of middle aged men abusing their status and power to conduct extramarital affairs with their younger female employees, 1960’s The Apartment is a surprisingly life-affirming and uplifting film. This is in no small part due to the endearing performances by Jack Lemmon and Shirley Maclaine, and the inimitable writing and directing of Billy Wilder.

That the plot device that underpins the  central romance of the story is predicated on an attempted suicide  renders the film no less charming. It’s a movie of contradictions that probably shouldn’t work, but is somehow utterly brilliant and holds up incredibly well today.

 

Score for Christmasishness

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Much of the action occurs over the Christmas period, quite a significant portion of it on Christmas Day itself and the movie concludes on New Year’s Eve. Plus there is a big sequence set at the office Christmas party. It may be more cynical than your average festive fare, but it’s no less Christmas(ish) for that.

The Second Annual James Proclaims Advent Calendar of Christmas(ish) Films – Door 20

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2011’s cinematic adaptation of John Le Carré’s 1974 novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is not the easiest of movies to follow. It might have helped if I had read the book, which I haven’t. I have read other stuff by Le Carré so I imagine I would like the novel, but I generally feel that any adaptation should be able to stand on its own merits and shouldn’t require any advance reading. In the case of this movie that rings doubly true because it is a sort of ‘whodunnit’ (as a Cold War era  British Intelligence seeks to uncover a Soviet mole) and obviously if you know who in fact ‘dunnit’ before you start watching, you are going to lose some of the essence of the film.

However, I don’t wish to be too harsh on the movie version, because it certainly wasn’t impossible to follow, it just isn’t ideal viewing for anyone who struggles to focus for long periods of time. And I’m definitely one of those people.

To be fair, even if you haven’t got a clue what’s going on, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is still eminently watchable. Boasting an formidable cast, led by a superbly understated performance by Gary Oldman as George Smiley, it is strangely gripping for a film in which, arguably, not much actually happens.

 

Score for Christmasishness

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It’s not at all a Christmas movie, although there is a wintery feel throughout. However there are repeated flashbacks to the British Intelligence Christmas party, which looks like a riotous affair, and which includes a moment where a soviet Santa Claus leads the assembled guests in a rendition of the anthem of the USSR. Which is presumably ironic although the gusto with which it is sung suggests that George Smiley might need to be on the lookout for more than just the one mole.

 

The Second Annual James Proclaims Advent Calendar of Christmas(ish) Films – Door 19

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David Cronenberg’s  Eastern Promises is not the cheeriest of films. Indeed it’s all pretty dark and unpleasant really, dealing with matters such as sex-trafficking, rape and murder. Centered around the Russian Mob in London, it is visceral, brutal and definitely not easy viewing. It is, nonetheless, utterly compelling and not overly long – if you can stomach the violence (much of which is implicit rather than explicit although there are a few stomach-churning scenes) for the 101 minutes it runs for, then it is well worth a watch.

 

Score for Christmasishness

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It is actually set at Christmas, which is certainly enough to qualify for this list. There is little in the way of festive cheer for the most part but there is at least one Christmas party where people seem to be having a good time. Certainly not the least Christmas(ish) movie to make the cut this year.

The Second Annual James Proclaims Advent Calendar of Christmas(ish) Films – Door 18

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In last’ year’s James Proclaims Advent Calendar of Christmas(ish) Films writer/director Shane Black was responsible for no less than 6 of the films included. Some of them were more Christmas(ish) than others, but they all deserved their place. If you missed last year’s compendium of Christmas(ish) classics and need a reminder of the man’s legendary contribution to Christmas(ish) cinema then the magnificent 6 were the following:

Door 1 – Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

Door 2 – Iron Man 3

Door 3 – Lethal Weapon

Door 8 – The Long Kiss Goodnight

Door 9 – The Last Boy Scout

Door 11 – The Nice Guys

 

If that wasn’t enough, although he actually had nothing else to do with the movie, he was the person who came up with the title for Die Hard, which, as we all know, is the greatest Christmas(ish) movie of all time.

So Black has more than made a sufficient contribution to the world of Christmas(ish) films and I thought it highly unlikely there’d be any films of his on this year’s list. But there is (at least) one that I managed to leave out last year.

So I’ve included it this year.

Unfortunately it’s nowhere near as good as any of those films listed above.

Seriously, it’s not even as good as The Last Boy Scout.

The movie I speak of is, of course, 1993’s Last Action Hero.

On paper this should be a good movie. Not only was it co-written by Black, it was directed by John McTiernan, the director of the aforementioned Die Hard.

It also stars Arnold Schwarzenegger, a man who may not be troubling the Academy Awards any time soon but who knows his way around an action film and who was very much at the peak of his powers at the time this movie was made.

So Last Action Hero should be a fair bit better than it actually is.

The trouble is, it isn’t really clear what kind of film it’s meant to be. Originally conceived as an affectionate tongue-in-cheek parody of action movie clichés, the actual clichés it mocks are less recognisable than the clichés it uses unironically at other points in the running time. It’s basically a mess from start to finish.

That said, it is still quite entertaining in a ‘so-bad-it’s-good’ kind of way.

 

Score for Christmasishness

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It’s not a Christmas film at all, and none of the events in the movie are set at Christmas time, except for the opening scenes, which are set in a ‘movie within a movie’ and no doubt attempting to parody the fact that a lot action movies (not least those written by Black and directed by McTiernan) end up being set at Christmas. As satire it fails miserably, but there’s just enough Christmasishness in these scenes to suit my purposes, so Last Action Hero makes the cut.

 

The Second Annual James Proclaims Advent Calendar of Christmas(ish) Films – Door 17

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I first saw The Royal Tenenbaums when it hit cinema screens in 2001.

And I hated it.

I rarely leave the multiplex angry at a film, but The Royal Tenenbaums disappointed me on visceral level.

Which was grossly unfair of me, because The Royal Tenenbaums is generally considered a pretty good film. And I can now objectively see that it is. Indeed I actually quite enjoyed it the last time I watched it. Which was very recently in preparation for writing this post.

But back in 2001 I was perhaps a tad less discerning in my cinematic tastes. I generally liked movies with lots of action and explosions, or films that made me laugh. Like Zoolander. That made me laugh. And it had Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson in it. As does The Royal Tenenbaums. So I went in to the screening expecting something a bit like Zoolander. But The Royal Tenenbaums is not like Zoolander. And it did not make me laugh.

It still doesn’t.

Not out loud anyway.

But these days I can appreciate that a film might not have me snorting uncontrollably  in my oversized popcorn but can still be funny.

And The Royal Tenenbaums is funny. And poignant. And clever. And whimsical. And thought-provoking. And entirely worthy of all the acclaim it has received over the years.

It also has an amazing cast. There are too many stellar names to list although the stand-out performer is probably Gene Hackman, who followed up the atrocious Behind Enemy Lines with this, and more than redeemed his performance in that monstrosity.

 

Score for Christmasishness

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I’m glad I revisited this movie, because my younger self woefully misjudged it. But I did only watch it because, in my research for Christmas(ish) films, which largely consists of looking at internet lists, similar to this, written by other people with more talent than me – this one appeared quite often. But there is very little about it that screams Christmas. It is quite wintery throughout, but the only scene which indicates that it might be Christmas is when Royal Tenenbaum (Hackman) and his estranged daughter Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow) meet in an ice cream parlour. There is Christmas music playing in the background and if you squint you can make out some tinsel hanging on the walls.

And that’s it.

It’s hard to work out the exact time span of the movie, but, assuming that the aforementioned scene is indicative of it being Christmas time, it is reasonable to extrapolate that a large proportion of the other events in the movie also take place at Christmas.

But it’s never really obvious that it’s Christmas during the timeline of the movie.

If indeed it ever is.

 

The Second Annual James Proclaims Advent Calendar of Christmas(ish) Films – Door 16

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When the opening scene of a film concludes with the brutal killing of two prisoners of war, one might assume that it’s not the most light-hearted of movies. But while Stalag 17 certainly deals with the drama, emotional turmoil and brutality of life in a World War 2 German prisoner-of-war camp, it’s balanced with a fair amount of comedy and is incredibly funny at times.

Sefton (an Oscar winning performance by William Holden) is a pretty unconventional lead, insofar as he’s quite antagonistic for the majority of the movie and, even when he is heroic, he is primarily motivated by profit or self-preservation. Indeed the character is so unsympathetic that Charlton Heston and Kirk Douglas both turned down the role. Holden only accepted it because of contractual obligations, but clearly it turned out to be a pretty decent career move.

Stalag 17 remains eminently watchable, despite having been made 65 years ago. Director Billy Wilder was certainly no stranger to critical and commercial success during his illustrious career, but this must be up there with the best of his work.

 

Score for Christmasishness

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The events of the film take place in the build-up to Christmas and conclude on the big day itself. While a POW camp might not be the most seasonal of settings, the inmates do try and make the best of their situation and there is a genuinely festive feel about the whole movie.

 

The Second Annual James Proclaims Advent Calendar of Christmas(ish) Films – Door 15

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1968’s The Lion in Winter is based on a play and in many ways it does feel more like watching a stage performance rather than a movie. But it’s a good play with a strong cast, comprising of Peter O’Toole and Katherine Hepburn, alongside, amongst others, a young Anthony Hopkins and an even younger Timothy Dalton.

Set in 1183, in the court of Henry II, it’s a tale of political intrigue as Henry, his estranged wife and their sons plot, collude and double-cross each other to gain advantage. It’s one long game of chess with O’Tool’s Henry and Hepburn’s Eleanor seemingly evenly matched.

It’s almost Shakespearean at times, with monologues aplenty for the two leads, who are in fine form throughout.

 

Score for Christmasishness

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It’s set at Christmas time, although Christmas is not necessarily a central theme. There are festivities throughout and a (possibly historically inaccurate) Christmas tree is definitely visible in a number of scenes.

The Second Annual James Proclaims Advent Calendar of Christmas(ish) Films – Door 14

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On paper The French Connection appears to be a run-of-the-mill crime thriller, with a protagonist, in Detective Jimmy ‘Popeye’ Doyle (Gene Hackman), who doesn’t play by the rules but who ‘gets the job done’’.

In reality, though the odd cliche is apparent intermittently, The French Connection is an intelligent, fast-paced movie with an ending that is as surprising as it is bleak.

Fernando Rey makes for a compelling antagonist and Roy Scheider gives a decent performance as Popeye’s slightly more sanguine partner ‘Cloudy’.

However Hackman’s performance as Popeye, complete with his iconic pork pie hat, is what really elevates The French Connection above its contemporaries. Irreverent, sardonic and with a chip on his shoulder the size of France, Popeye is an obvious inspiration for many a hackneyed movie detective in inferior movies, but Hackman’s performance subtly oscillates between brutality and vulnerability and makes Popeye one the more memorable characters on Hackman’s impressive CV.

 

Score for Christmasishness

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The movie is definitely set at Christmas time, although it probably doesn’t need to be. There are indications of the season throughout the movie, but few are more striking than the first time we meet Popeye, when he is undercover as none other than Santa Claus himself. A foul-mouthed Father Christmas taking on a bad guy in the early moments of the movie certainly makes this a Christmas(ish) film.

Of sorts.

The Second Annual James Proclaims Advent Calendar of Christmas(ish) Films – Door 13

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2010’s Red is ostensibly a ‘by-the-numbers’ action flick. Bruce Willis barely needs to get out of second gear in his performance as lead character Frank Moses – he’s perfectly fine in the role but Moses is the sort of sardonic wise-cracking action hero that Willis could play in his sleep. The main antagonist for much of the movie is played by Karl Urban, and like Willis, he’s perfectly fine, but rarely seems challenged by the role.

So far so ordinary then. In terms of plot Red doesn’t really deliver too much either. It’s all pretty standard stuff when it bothers to make sense but there are many moments when the cohesiveness of the storytelling lets the movie down.

In spite of this, however, there is a lot to love about Red. This is predominantly down to a supporting cast made up of John Malkovich, Helen Mirren, Brian Cox and Morgan Freeman, all of whom appear to be having enormous fun playing a group of veteran spies who have come out of retirement for one last mission. Mirren, in particular, is excellent but it’s Malkovich who really steals the show as the paranoid and unhinged Marvin.

 

Score for Christmasishness

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Red seems to oscillate between it obviously being Christmas time and there being literally no indication of the time of year whatsoever. In an early scene we see Willis’ character decorate his house for the festivities, only for the elaborate decorations to be systematically dismantled by machine gun fire. Christmas decorations are then sporadically seen throughout the movie and a plethora of festive lights near the denouement of the film suggests it has been Christmas throughout the running time. Overall the movie is massively inconsistent in its Christmasishness, but it is definitely more than Christmas(ish) enough to meet the requirements of this advent calendar.

The Second Annual James Proclaims Advent Calendar of Christmas(ish) Films – Door 12

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2015’s The Hateful Eight is the eighth film by Quentin Tarantino and it is not untypical of his oeuvre, containing, as it does, extreme violence, offensive language and a plot that only really makes any sense by the time you get to the end of the film. It’s also not untypical of his movies in that it counts Samuel L Jackson, Tim Roth and Michael Madsen amongst a pretty impressive ensemble cast. And indeed it’s definitely not untypical of his work in that it’s just brilliant.

For a film that comes in at a shade under three hours, it doesn’t feel overly long and while Tarantino definitely doesn’t pull any punches, and the movie takes us to some pretty dark places, but there are plenty of laughs on offer too, albeit it’s the kind of macabre humour that is particularly synonymous with his usual offerings.

The eponymous eight are indeed mostly hateful, although Kurt Russell’s John Ruth is probably the closest the movie comes to having a heroic figure. He’s still a nasty piece of work, but not quite as nasty as all the others. It’s Jennifer Jason Leigh who steals all the plaudits though, in her role as Daisy Domergue, a character that, even in this undesirable company, is as unsettling as they come.

If Tarantino is not your thing, you won’t find much to change your mind in The Hateful Eight, but if, like me, you are a fan, then this happily sits alongside the best of his films.

 

Score for Christmasishness

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While hardly full of joy and seasonal goodwill, The Hateful Eight is seemingly set around Christmas time. Michael Madsen’s character alludes to being en route to visit his mother for Christmas and one of the other characters plays silent night on the piano. Also there is a lot of snow, which is always a bit Christmas(ish).

The Second Annual James Proclaims Advent Calendar of Christmas(ish) Films – Door 11

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When Jurassic Park hit the big screen in 1993, it was pretty pioneering stuff. For the first time dinosaurs on screen looked like real dinosaurs. Insofar as we have any idea what dinosaurs actually looked like. And it’s fair to say there is still some debate in that area. The dinosaurs in Jurassic Park don’t have feathers, for example. Which actual dinosaurs might have had. Or they might not. I don’t know. I’m hardly an expert on dinosaurs.

The point is that the Tyrannosaurus Rex in Jurassic Park looked, moved and sounded like an actual animal that could exist. And a pretty scary one at that.

And so, thanks to CGI, the game was changed in terms of what it was possible to bring to our screens. Which in no small way lead to the Star Wars Prequel trilogy. But it wasn’t all bad. CGI has been responsible for some good films too.

Unfortunately the wow factor that came with Jurassic Park was somewhat lost in its sequels, because however impressive a velociraptor is the first time you see one on screen, it’s not quite as awe-inspiring the second or third time around. The Lost World and Jurassic Park 3, therefore had to rely a little more on storytelling to win audiences over, and in this regard they were not as successful as they might have been.

Consequently, 2015’s sort-of-sequel, sort-of-reboot to the franchise, Jurassic World was a risky proposition. No doubt special effects have moved on significantly since 1993, but while aficionados of the art might be able to appreciate how much better they all are, most of us are still only going to see the same dinosaurs that we saw in the preceding three movies.

And to quote a line from this movie, “no-one is impressed by dinosaurs anymore”.

Fortunately Jurassic World  does try to do something different to the original movies, in that, for the first time in the franchise, the dinosaur theme park is no longer a bad idea waiting to be realised but instead a fully functioning attraction open to the public.

Which predictably leads to carnage, although, thanks to the heroic actions of Owen and Claire (an eminently likeable Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard), the carnage is less horrific than it might have been.

It could never be as groundbreaking as the original, but Jurassic World is far better than it probably should be. If you’re after a couple of hours of mindless entertainment, you could definitely do worse.

 

Score for Christmasishness

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Jurassic World was ostensibly a summer blockbuster and should have no business featuring in a list of Christmas(ish) films. And for most of its running time there is absolutely no reason to think of this as a movie that is predominantly set at Christmas time. But early scenes of the obligatory annoying kids, before they set off for the theme park, suggest that it is very much Christmas time, not least because Christmas music is playing in the background. The owners of the theme park clearly see no need to cash in on the time of year, because Christmas is never referenced again. But it is definitely Christmas time nonetheless and so Jurassic World makes the cut for my compendium of Christmas(ish) films.

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Many film franchises that begin with a great first outing often deliver sequels of diminishing returns. But few decline quite so rapidly with each edition as the Jaws movies. The 1975 original regularly does well in polls that (rather futilely) try to determine the greatest films ever made. Jaws 2, by contrast, never troubles such lists, but is generally regarded as ‘not a bad follow up’ to a movie that really didn’t need a sequel, and it does have the honour of one of the great taglines in “Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water…”

Jaws 3 is genuinely awful, although did have the novelty of being shown in 3D in cinemas. I’ve only ever seen it in 2D. I can’t imagine that a third dimension would add much to the experience.

However, the franchise was, apparently, capable of sinking to newer depths because 1987’s Jaws the Revenge is arguably one of the worst films ever made.

It’s genuinely inexplicable. The premise is absolutely bonkers.

Essentially, the Brody family (who have been represented in one way or another in all of the preceding movies) are specifically targeted by a shark. A shark who seemingly wants revenge for all the events of the previous movies.

But it isn’t the big fish from the original Jaws, because that shark is killed at the end of that movie. And Jaws 2 also concludes with the death of that movie’s monster. And in Jaws 3, the offending creature is literally exploded into pieces. So this is definitely a new shark.

And to be clear, the main Brody, Martin Brody, is already dead by the time the events of this movie begin. Mostly because Roy Scheider wisely chose not to reprise his role for this abomination. So this shark, a brand new shark, wants revenge for acts that were perpetrated against different sharks, and it wants revenge on people who didn’t perpetrate them, Arguably it might have some genuine grievance against Mike Brody, as he was the character that saw off Jaws 3. Albeit that Mike Brody was played by Dennis Quaid and the Mike Brody that pops up in Jaws the Revenge is played by someone else (Lance Guest anyone?). To be fair, I don’t think we can expect a shark to notice a casting change.

Lorraine Garry who played Ellen, the wife of Martin Brody, in the first two movies does reprise her role in what was to be her final big screen experience, and she must have wondered why she bothered. Goodness knows why the shark was after her, given that she had no active role in dispatching any of its predecessors.

It all makes less than no sense. Everyone seems relieved at the end when this fourth shark is undone, but presuming that we’re all happy to suspend our disbelief and assume that a shark is able to understand concepts such as revenge, is genuinely affronted by the deaths of other sharks, and has the wherewithal to track down individual people, even when they spend most of their time on land and actually travel to a different country during the course of the film, then what is to stop yet more sharks coming after this family? Obviously nothing at all.

Amazingly, a preposterous plot is not the most perplexing aspect of this whole mess. What’s more troubling is that Michael Caine is in it. In fact it was during the making of this movie that he was awarded the first of his two Academy Awards. And he didn’t turn up to collect the award, because he was making Jaws the Revenge.

Which is essentially sticking two fingers up at the entire concept of cinema.

And this from a knight of the realm.

 

Score for Christmasishness

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For no good reason whatsoever, Jaws the Revenge is set at Christmas time. It all feels pretty festive in the opening scenes in New England. Then the action switches to the Bahamas, where it is less noticeable that it’s still Christmas. And actually, the plot would make more sense if a little time had passed, given that  Ellen Brody loses her youngest son, Sean, to the shark early on in the movie. But Christmas is still occasionally referenced later in the film, which suggests very little time has actually passed and although the Brody family occasionally pay lip service to mourning for Sean, they generally seem to be a pretty callous bunch who probably deserve the unwanted attentions of a vindictive carnivorous fish.

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1994’s The Ref is not the longest film ever made at 97 minutes. Nonetheless it might well be slightly longer than it really needs to be. The premise is relatively simple – following a heist that goes wrong, career criminal Gus (Dennis Leary) takes married couple, Caroline and Lloyd (Judy Davis and Kevin Spacey) hostage and then struggles to maintain order, as he realises that they aren’t quite living in the marital bliss he might have assumed they were. It’s a decent concept for a black comedy and in general it works pretty well.

Nonetheless, the movie is intersected with various subplots involving minor characters that never really seem to go anywhere, don’t really add much of anything to the film and detract unnecessarily from the central premise.

If it were just the three leads on screen for the entire movie, there would more than enough to love about  The Ref, and the redundant focusing on other characters sporadically throughout the running time is, at best, mildly perplexing and often slightly annoying.

However The Ref is still more than worth 97 minutes of anyone’s time. At its best it’s irreverent, subversive and darkly funny and when it does take the occasional misstep in pacing, it never deviates too far before returning to form.

 

Score for Christmasishness

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Although hardly the most sentimental of seasonal offerings, there’s no denying that this is as close to a fully-fledged Christmas movie as they come. The action takes place on Christmas Eve and the Christmas setting drives a number of plot points forward, not least one of the more dysfunctional cinematic depictions of a festive family gathering in many a year. A Santa Claus costume also manages to weave its way into becoming a key narrative device, which is certainly enough to qualify this as a genuinely Christmas(ish) film.

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I had relatively high hopes for 2001’s Behind Enemy Lines. On paper it looks like it should be pretty good. A pilot gets shot down ‘behind enemy lines’ and needs to find his way back to safety while avoiding enemy soldiers who are looking for him. It should be a ‘switch-your-brain-off-at-the-door’ roller coaster ride of an action movie, with adrenaline fuelled chase sequences, shooting, fighting, and lots of explosions.

But it isn’t really that.

Nor is it a slower-moving tension-filled thought-provoking movie about the horrors of war.

It doesn’t really know what it wants to be, but it’s definitely too cliched and frivolous to be dealing with subject matters like genocide. Which is something it tries to do. Very badly.

I thought my biggest issue would be trying to accept Owen Wilson as an action hero but to be fair he does his best with what he’s got to work with, which is basically nothing. More disappointing is Gene Hackman, who should elevate this abomination into something more palatable, but who instead offers up one of the more prosaic performances of his career as a cardboard cut-out of a generic commanding officer.

The film is just one misstep after another from start to finish and when you think it can’t descend any further into hackneyed stereotypes and jingoistic storytelling, it manages to find new levels of unpalatable awfulness.

It was the debut of director John Moore, who has done nothing of value since and is also the idiot that managed to make the only unwatchable Die Hard film.  

 

Score for Christmasishness

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It starts off promisingly – the hero (if indeed Owen Wilson’s character deserves to be labelled as such) and his ill-fated partner are sent off on a reconnaissance mission on Christmas Day. There are some decorations on the naval ship on which they serve. Later, as the mission goes wrong (mostly thanks to Wilson’s character actively disobeying orders to satisfy his own ego), we see Hackman’s character informed of the disaster as he eats Christmas dinner in the mess hall. And then Christmas is never alluded to again, despite the timeline of the movie occurring over, at most, a few days.

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On the cover of the DVD case that contains my copy of 1999’s comic crime caper Go, it’s Katie Holmes who appears to be the star of the movie. On the original promotional poster, however, that honour fell to Sarah Polley, who arguably plays the film’s lead character Ronna. There’s no doubt that Holmes’ star has shone a little brighter than many of her co-stars since the movie was made, and she certainly has a substantial enough role but the original poster is probably a fairer assessment of the respective significance of the two characters in relation to the plot. Then again, this is a movie of interweaving narratives and so it’s arguable that there isn’t really one character that is much more important than any other. As well as Holmes, there are other notable names that have gone onto to bigger things including Timothy Olyphant and, in a brief role and making her cinematic debut,  none other than Melissa McCarthy.

It’s a decent cast all round but none of the aforementioned actors were  major cinematic draws at the time of the movie’s release and it didn’t perform as well as it might have done at the box office. Which is a shame because it’s a really good film. The intersecting narratives, the back and forth timeline and the irreverent black comedy might be indicative of a movie that is more style than substance, but actually it’s a pretty compelling film from start to finish with an unrelenting pace, plenty of twists and more than a few laugh-out-loud moments.

 

Score for Christmasishness

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The narrative all takes place in the build-up to Christmas and there are plenty of reminders of this, not least Olyphant’s character, the sociopathic drug-dealing Todd, sporting a Santa hat, while displaying very little in the way of holiday cheer. The movie probably could work without the Christmas setting but it’s not totally irrelevant to the plot and ultimately the film is only enhanced by the seasonal backdrop.

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Objectively I can see that 1991’s Hook is not an especially good film, but I still can’t help but like it. As intriguing as the idea of a grown-up Peter Pan should be, the movie doesn’t really make enough of the concept. Instead the central theme seems to be a distant father rediscovering his inner child and reconnecting with his offspring, which is hardly the most original of motifs.

Most of the kids in the film are mildly irritating, though some are downright annoying and the character of Rufio is genuinely inexplicable (he’s way too old to be a ‘lost boy’). The action sequences are generally quite pedestrian and the effects are somewhat less magical than they could be.

What the movie does have going for it is Robin Williams and Dustin Hoffman and though they aren’t given much to work with, they more than make the most of what they have.

Spielberg has made worse films than this but not many (there are plenty of online lists ranking his movies from worst to best and, while there are quite a lot differing opinions, most rank Hook as one of the weaker films. Even Spielberg himself is reputedly not a fan). I think the main reason I enjoy it is that, like so many bad movies, I fell in love with it as child. No amount of objective criticism is going to shake that affection.

 

Score for Christmasishness

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The opening scenes of the film, the bits before we get to Neverland, are quite clearly set at Christmas time. We even have snow in the scenes set in London – this, of course, never actually happens in London at Christmas time, but it is definitely the staple of many a Christmas movie. Once we get to Neverland, there isn’t so much as a bauble in sight, but as we are in the realms of a fairy tale, it still seems perfectly reasonable to consider this a Christmas(ish) film.

 

 

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1989’s When Harry Met Sally is one of the few romantic comedies that I’ll openly admit to liking. It is a romantic comedy in the truest sense in that romance is clearly a central theme but it’s also actually funny.

Director Rob Reiner, screenwriter Nora Ephron and leading man Billy Crystal all add value to the movie, but it’s Meg Ryan’s performance as Sally (not least that iconic scene in the deli) that deservedly steals all the plaudits.

If I was being especially churlish, I might argue that the dialogue is sometimes a little too clever for its own good, but I’m more inclined to suspend my disbelief and enjoy a thoroughly entertaining film for what it is.

 

Score for Christmasishness

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It’s not really a Christmas film, but there are some reasonably important moments set at Christmas time, not least the juxtaposition of the eponymous characters’ burgeoning friendship when Harry helps Sally to purchase her Christmas tree one year, compared to their subsequent estrangement when she is left alone to struggle with the logistics of getting her tree home the following year. The climactic moment when, in true rom-com fashion, our titular heroes realise that they are meant to be together, happens at a New Years Eve party, which definitely qualifies it as a Christmas(ish) film.

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Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake of King Kong  is a bit on the long side at 187 minutes. This is an impressive feat given that the 1933 original came in at a 100 minutes. Where Jackson manged to find an additional 87 minutes of story to tell is anyone’s guess but making the most of relatively little source material is not unheard of in Jackson’s oeuvre. Quite how he managed to extract 3 movies worth of material from a relatively short book in creating the Hobbit trilogy still astounds me, particularly given that the final movie of that particular collective is based upon a mere five pages of text.

Obviously, Jackson is no stranger to making an epic or two, but at least The Lord of the Rings Trilogy is a set of really long movies based on a really really long book (or three long books, or six longish books depending on your point of view – I personally read them for the first time in a single volume ‘omnibus’ edition, which was quite hard to hold if I recall) and even if it feels like there’s a bit of unnecessary padding at the denouement of The Return of the King (how many endings does a film really need?) there’s no doubting that it’s a pretty stunning adaptation of Tolkien’s masterpiece. The Hobbit trilogy comes across as significantly more self-indulgent, and Jackson’s King Kong could be accused of the same.

Not that it’s a bad film, because there is a lot to love. Jackson is clearly a fan of the original (which by all accounts is considered a genuine classic of the Silver Screen – not that I’ve ever seen it.  I have seen the 1976 version which is not at all considered a classic and rightly so) and his affection comes across in spades. In many ways this is a love letter to cinema itself and if a shade over three hours is probably a tad longer than the film really needs to be, viewers are rewarded with a movie that is the definition of an epic. The visual effects are stunning from the get go – I’ve no idea if the depiction of 1930s New York is in any way accurate (having never been to New York in any capacity, let alone over forty years before I was born) but it’s stylishly brought to life on screen and you’re in no doubt from the opening scenes that no expense has been spared in the making of this movie. Skull Island (when we eventually get there) is also a visual feast and when Kong finally makes an appearance, he is everything you’d hope a modern cinematic monster to be.

The acting from a decent cast is generally commendable, but it is definitely Andy Serkis’ motion-captured performance as the giant gorilla that steals the show, closely followed by myriad CGI creatures that render Skull Island a tourist destination for only the most intrepid and stupidly reckless of individuals.

 

Score for Christmasishness

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I’ve no idea if the original King Kong has any links to the festive period, but there’s no doubt in the 2005 version that by the time the adventurers return to New York (some 2 hours into the movie, but with still an hour of running time left) that we are in the build up to the holidays. In particular, when Kong takes in Central Park, there are multiple Christmas trees in the background.

It doesn’t need to be Christmas, but there is a nostalgic romanticism to this remake that makes the festive backdrop at the denouement seem somewhat appropriate.

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The Life of Brian was my introduction to the world of Monty Python, though the first time I watched it, while I found it fairly diverting, much of it was probably lost on me as I was a prepubescent teen, and my friends and I had rented it alongside a few other films (on glorious VHS no less) while attempting to stay awake for 36 hours in an ill-advised attempt to raise money for Comic Relief (incidentally, of the four of us who started that particular quest, I was the only one who made it past 24 hours of uninterrupted consciousness but alas, even I fell at the final hurdle, drifting off at somewhere around hour 34).

I can’t remember what else we rented but The Life of Brian stuck with me as being pretty funny, even if, at the time, it was only the more puerile and silly jokes (which to be fair there are no shortage of in the oeuvre of Cleese et al.) that tickled my funny bone.

Years later, and now a fully-fledged fan of the work of the Pythons, I am able to enjoy The Life of Brian on a more cerebral level. Although it is probably the puerile and silly stuff that works the best.

Often accused of being blasphemous, The Life of Brian is nothing of the sort. It may be set during the lifetime of Christ, but there is absolutely nothing within the movie that lampoons or criticizes Christianity at all.

Indeed, it is pretty clear that the eponymous Brian is absolutely in no way to be considered the Messiah. It’s all just a bit of an unfortunate mix-up.

Some of the humour is, even by the ground-breaking standards of Monty Python, a little dated these days (there’s really only so funny a man pretending to be a woman can be and it’s entirely unclear why, even in 1979, anyone thought there was a need for John Cleese to ‘black up’ in one of the opening scenes) but generally a lot of the jokes stand up pretty well and it’s so relentless that if one joke doesn’t make you laugh, the next one probably will.

It’s also the movie that gave us the fantastically catchy Always Look on the Bright Side of Life as well as a plethora of quotable lines, the pick of which is undoubtedly “He’s not the Messiah, he’s a very naughty boy!”

Score for Christmasishness

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Clearly it’s not a Christmas film at all, but the movie does open with the newly born Brian being visited by three wise men bringing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Brian’s mother is nonplussed with the myrrh although readily accepts all of the gifts, only for the wise men to realise their error, reclaim the offerings and head to the stable next door, where we eventually find out that the actual Nativity scene is unfolding.

Nothing else Christmas(ish) about the film at all, but a Nativity scene more than qualifies it to make the cut for this list.

 

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I had intended to include 2002’s Catch Me If You Can in last year’s ‘Advent Calendar of Christmas(ish) Films’ but alas I was unable to actually ‘catch it’. During one of its myriad outings on TV that is. Because it is the kind of film that is seemingly on all of the time. Except, apparently, when I actually want to watch it.

To be fair, that shouldn’t have mattered because I’m pretty sure I used to have a copy of the movie on DVD. But much like Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks) struggles to locate Frank Abagnale Junior (Leonard DiCaprio) for the majority of the movie, so too I struggled to locate my DVD copy of the film.

So Spielberg’s crime caper didn’t make the cut last year, but it was one of the first films I pencilled in for this year’s assortment of adventures.

Because it really is an enjoyable film and well worth 141 minutes of anyone’s time. It’s an embellished fictionalized version of the exploits of the real-life con-man Frank Abagnale (whose criminal CV is nonetheless impressive) and, though there are plenty of poignant moments, it is, at its core, a film that never takes itself too seriously and there is plenty of levity throughout.

DiCaprio and Hanks are usually reliable performers and certainly don’t let anyone down here. The supporting cast is also pretty decent, with Amy Adams, and Martin Sheen amongst them. Christopher Walken probably offers the stand-out performance as the hapless Frank Abagnale Senior.

 

Score for Christmasishness

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Though the film is not specifically set at Christmas time, many of the movie’s pivotal moments occur over the course of several Christmases and Christmas is a recurring motif throughout the story, not least the regular Christmas phone exchanges between the two leading characters. In addition, the first time we meet the Abagnale family, the ill-fated engagement, Abagnale’s eventual capture in France and his extradition back to the USA a year later all occur at Christmas time. It’s not an actual Christmas film by any stretch, but more than qualifies as Christmas(ish).

 

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And so December is upon us and The Second Annual James Proclaims Advent Calendar of Christmas(ish) Films is officially underway. But just what is the film that’s going to kick of this year’s semi-seasonal selection of silver-screen spectacles?

Why it’s none-other than the sublime Submarine – Richard Ayoade’s 2010 directorial debut.

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Ayoade is probably better known for his work in front of the camera than behind it, with a CV incorporating a range of acting, TV presenting and generally being pretty funny.

But though directing is not his main occupation (to date he has just Submarine and 2013’s The Double to his name), he is rather good at it.

Submarine is a quirky ‘coming-of-age’ comedy that is much better than that description would suggest. Craig Roberts is spot-on in the role of social misfit Oliver Tate, and the film charts his cinematically unconventional relationship with ‘occasional bully and part-time pyromaniac’ Jordanna (played to perfection by Yasmin Paige). The teenagers are the heart and soul of this film, which isn’t to say that the adults don’t get their moment to shine. Noah Taylor and Sally Hawkins play their respective parts as Oliver’s troubled parents with understated pathos, and Paddy Considine has fun in his role as the (clearly ridiculous) self-proclaimed ‘mystic’ Graham, who threatens to disrupt their already dysfunctional marriage.

Submarine is genuinely funny, and although the majority of characters are emotionally and morally flawed, it is also rather heart-warming at times. It’s probably not everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s definitely a film I’ll go back to periodically for repeat viewings.

Score for Christmasishness

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It’s not overtly a Christmas movie, but the timeline of events seemingly takes places in the winter months, with the most significant plot developments taking place during the school Christmas holidays. Plus one of the most poignant (and uncomfortably funny) moments occurs while Oliver joins Jordanna’s parents for an early Christmas Dinner.

It certainly deserves to be considered a fairly Christmas(ish) film.