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

James Proclaims (6)

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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

James Proclaims (6)

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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

James Proclaims (6)

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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

James Proclaims (6)

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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

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

James Proclaims (6)

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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

James Proclaims (6)

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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.