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

James Proclaims (6)

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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

James Proclaims (6)

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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

James Proclaims (6)

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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

James Proclaims (6)

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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.

The Second Annual James Proclaims Advent Calendar of Christmas(ish) Films – Door 10

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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.

The Second Annual James Proclaims Advent Calendar of Christmas(ish) Films – Door 9

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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.

The Second Annual James Proclaims Advent Calendar of Christmas(ish) Films – Door 8

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Behind-Enemy-Lines

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.

The Second Annual James Proclaims Advent Calendar of Christmas(ish) Films – Door 7

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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.