The Second Annual James Proclaims Advent Calendar of Christmas(ish) Films – Door 4

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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.

The Second Annual James Proclaims Advent Calendar of Christmas(ish) Films – Door 3

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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.

 

The Second Annual James Proclaims Advent Calendar of Christmas(ish) Films – Door 2

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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).

 

The Second Annual James Proclaims Advent Calendar of Christmas(ish) Films – Door 1

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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.

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

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Last year I spent the build-up to Christmas by reviewing films that had a (sometimes tenuous) link to the festive season.

At the time I thought this was a clever and interesting idea, but the most basic of online searches reveals that this sort of thing has been done many times before and in most cases done better.

Nonetheless some people seemed to enjoy my incoherent and badly informed reviews.

And more to the point, I enjoyed writing them.

Not all of the films were as good as I remembered them being.

Some of them were awful.

But the quality of the films wasn’t really the point

It was the Christmasishness that was under scrutiny.

And I discovered that there were quite a few surprisingly Christmas(ish) films out there.

So many, in fact, that I managed to identify another 24 films to review this year.

And I already have another 24 lined up for next year.

And so far I’ve got 17 lined up for the year after that.

So, even though it could well be way of making a relatively unpopular blog even less popular for a month every year, this is potentially going to be an annual thing for some time to come.

And, given that content has been pretty sparse on these pages, since my darling daughter entered my life and decided that time I had previously spent writing inane posts about cartoons, morality and penguins would be better spent serving as her bed (because she’s perfectly happy to sleep on me but far less inclined to sleep anywhere else) then 24 posts about films that are vaguely linked to Christmas is probably as good as it’s going to get on this blog for a while. Also, one of the few activities I can do while my daughter is lying prone on my chest is watch films. If those films can be categorized unconvincingly as Christmas movies then so much the better

If you missed out on last years efforts and really have nothing better to do than go sift through some poorly written reviews, then these are the movies that made the cut:

Door 1 – Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
Door 2 – Iron Man 3
Door 3 – Lethal Weapon
Door 4 – Reindeer Games
Door 5 – Ghostbusters 2
Door 6 – Batman Returns
Door 7 – LA Confidential
Door 8 – The Long Kiss Goodnight
Door 9 – The Last Boy Scout
Door 10 – The Ice Harvest
Door 11 – The Nice Guys
Door 12 – On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
Door 13 – Gremlins
Door 14 – The Bourne Identity
Door 15 – In Bruges
Door 16 – Trading Places
Door 17 – Eyes Wide Shut
Door 18 – Prometheus
Door 19 – Rocky IV
Door 20 – First Blood
Door 21 – Enemy of the State
Door 22 – 12 Monkeys
Door 23 – Brazil
Door 24 – Die Hard

Tune in tomorrow to find out which ‘sort-of-but-not-really-Christmas-themed’ film is behind door number 1 of:

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

Films I Watched When I Was Younger – Issue 12: Last Man Standing

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1996’s Last Man Standing is one of those movies that, on paper, looks like it should be an absolute winner. Bruce Willis plays the nameless hero/antihero who goes, for the sake of convenience, by the name of John Smith. Christopher Walken is suitably unsettling as Hickey, the only credible threat to Smith’s supremacy with a firearm. The rest of the cast is decent. The film looks stylish, shot in mood enhancing sepia tones and the film draws on strong source material – being a remake of the much-lauded Japanese movie Yojimbo, which also served as the inspiration for A Fistful of Dollars.

This particular take on the theme of the nameless stranger who takes on all comers, also takes an interesting deviation from the classic western it could have been, instead moving the action to the prohibition era. It’s still set in a ‘one-horse town’ but the bad-guys are booze running gangsters. It’s an interesting take on the theme, and again, on paper, a gangster/Western mash-up sounds quite promising in a leave-your-brain-at-the-door kind of way.

So it should be pretty good right? Bruce Willis in his heyday, taking on Christopher Walken in a shoot-em-up sounds like a lot of fun. Sure, it’s not going to win any awards, but for just over a hundred minutes it should be guaranteed entertainment.

And that’s the problem with Last Man Standing. It isn’t much fun. It’s a bit boring really. For a movie that comes in well under two hours, it feels a lot longer.

It’s not really a bad film, there’s nothing wrong with any of the performances, it looks pretty good and the movie pretty much delivers the story you’d be expecting from the outset. There are no surprises, no clever twists, and that’s all fine because surely no-one is watching this movie other than as pure mindless escapism. But, sadly, there really isn’t much of that on offer either.

 

Films I Watched When I Was Younger – Issue 11: The Silence Of The Lambs

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Hannibal Lecter is arguably one of the most iconic screen characters of all time. There have been multiple incarnations of Thomas Harris’ man-eating serial killer over the years, both in movies and through a more recent TV series. The most notorious portrayal is without doubt that of Anthony Hopkins, and of his three outings, the definitive performance is his work in 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs. Which is fortunate for me, as that remains the only Hannibal Lecter film I’ve ever seen.

This is in part due to a general indifference I have towards the genre. I don’t mind a good psychological thriller, but given a choice of watching that or a lower quality action flick starring Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, well, sometimes you just need to switch your brain off. But a good film is a good film and there’s no denying that The Silence of the Lambs is a very good film. It’s possibly an additional reason that I’ve never really bothered to watch another Hannibal Lecter outing – the 1991 movie is so astoundingly excellent that even if all the other incarnations are good, they still can’t possibly live up to the standards set by Jonathan Demme’s directorial masterpiece.

Winning multiple Academy awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, alongside an Oscar apiece for leading actors Hopkins and the equally brilliant Jodie Foster, The Silence of the Lambs absolutely transcends any notion of genre and instead is the kind of movie for which there are insufficient superlatives to describe it’s virtuosity.

Hopkins rightly picked up the plaudits for his chilling portrayal as Lecter, but it’s actually Foster who does most of the heavy lifting and her performance as Clarice Starling is really what holds the movie together – she doesn’t get to have as much fun as Hopkins does, but it’s hard to imagine how the movie could work with anyone else in the lead role.

I first watched The Silence of the Lambs shortly after its release, some time in the early nineties. I was probably a bit too young to appreciate all of its merits at the time, though there was more than enough gore to keep the attention of a prepubescent teenager. On re-watching it in recent weeks though, it still seems to be more than a cut above Hollywood’s usual offerings. Given the darkness of the subject matter, and the occasionally visceral nature of some of the scenes, it doesn’t make for easy viewing and won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but it has more than stood the test of time. It’s abundantly clear why there will almost certainly be many more incarnations of everyone’s favourite cannibal for years to come, though it remains improbable that any will ever quite match this cinematic tour de force.

Films I Watched When I Was Younger – Issue 11: The Specialist

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I saw 1994’s The Specialist in the cinema when it came out. Until recently that was the only time I’d ever seen it, so I imagine that even as a teenager I didn’t think much of it. Many years on, and when I saw it was freely available on one of the web based content providers I subscribe to, I thought I’d give it another shot. And that’s 105 minutes of my life I won’t be getting back anytime soon. Dubbed an ‘action thriller’, it’s not remotely thrilling and, while there is some action, there’s not a whole lot of it. What there is a lot of is brooding and staring and deep contemplative thought, although quite what the characters are actually thinking about is difficult to establish. There is also a lot of is really bad dialogue. Justifiably nominated for a host of Razzies at the time, age hasn’t been kind and it might possibly be even harder to watch now than it was then. I’m not even sure it could be considered as being ‘so bad it’s good’ – it takes itself far too seriously for that.

Directed by Luis Llosa, a man who is probably best known for 1997’s Anaconda, which probably tells you all you need to know about his credentials, the film stars Sylvester Stallone, Sharon Stone, James Woods, Eric Roberts, and Rod Steiger, all of whom are better than this and none of whom manage to bring an ounce of credibility to the movie.

Stallone plays Ray Quick, a man who seems to have some kind of a moral code, but who literally blows people up for a living, and he’s probably the most plausible character in the film. Stone does do her best with the revenge-seeking May Munro, but honestly has nothing at all to work with. Woods, as villain, Ned Trent has some moments which are almost engaging and probably has the most potential to be interesting, but, actually, when he meets his entirely predictable end, it’s hard to care very much at all.

Truthfully, I didn’t hate The Specialist, it wasn’t anywhere near intriguing enough to provoke such a vitriolic reaction. What it provoked instead was a complete sense of indifference.

 

A Post In Which I Answer A Load Of Film-Related Questions That Someone Asked Me In the Comments Section Of A Different Post I Wrote

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It’s Thursday, which in recent months has been the day I have posted an unnecessary review of a film I watched when I was younger. But this week I’m posting something a little different. Because a few weeks back, in the comments section of one my Tuesday ‘James Explains’ features, I found a load of film related questions from a fellow blogger called Paul S. It seemed rude not to answer them, but as there are so many and as they are so film related, I thought I’d answer them on a Thursday, when I tend to write about films, as opposed to on a Tuesday, when I tend to write about…erm…well other stuff…

So, here are the film-related questions and my film-related answers:

1. What film has been sitting on your shelf for the last six months waiting to be watched?
Alas, more films than I care to mention. Thor Ragnarok and Baby Driver are two recently acquired movies that I really should already have seen, but still haven’t quite managed to find time to watch. I’ll probably get around to watching them soon though. There are others that I bought a while back that I still haven’t managed to watch. Logan is the most surprising of those. I bought it when it first came out and still haven’t seen it, even though it’s exactly the kind of film I would definitely enjoy. I’m quite particular about the conditions needed for the first time I watch a movie, so on the rare occasions I do have a spare two hours, I’m as likely to put on a film I’ve already seen, on the basis that I’m slightly less irritated by interruptions if I already know what’s going to happen.
2. What is the one film you know word for word?
There’s more than one I fear. I’m pretty good on all three of the original Star Wars Trilogy as well as The Princess Bride, the first Die Hard movie, Airplane, The Commitments, and the first Austin Powers movie. Also quite a lot of Christmas films.
3. What screen character breaks your heart?
While I tend to towards the often-quite-mindless blockbuster, I have watched a few more worthy films in my time. La Vita è Bella has always stuck with me and the character of Guido Orefice is definitely heart-breaking.
4. If you could bring an actor back from the dead, and had to pair them on screen with a current actor (who is no older than 40), what would your combo be?
Not sure about actors under 40 – they all look under 40 but turns out most of them aren’t. Emma Stone is pretty good though. As for dead actors – there are lots of those I could choose from too, (although turns out some I thought were dead are very much not). Maybe James Stewart. That could work right?
5. How often do you check your phone in the cinema?
Never! People who do that are beneath contempt.
6. What film do you love which no-one else quite seems to ‘get’?
I’m fairly mainstream in my tastes so there aren’t many films that I ‘love’ that are generally lambasted by others. Having said that, I definitely don’t hate The Phantom Menace as much as most people seem to, but it’d be a stretch to say I love it. I love Star Wars in general too much to hate it though. There’s loads wrong with it, but if you ignore the excessive CGI, annoying characters and unnecessary plot-devices, there is a good film hiding in there somewhere. It’s just really well-hidden a lot of the time.
7. What is your favourite Al Pacino film?
A lot of my friends would say Scarface, but I think for me it’s probably Heat, as much for when it came out as anything else. Movies from the mid-nineties tend to have a special place in my heart.
8. Why do they always manage to make us go one size bigger with the popcorn?
It’s because they call the middle-size ‘regular’ and when you order pop-corn, they ask you if you want ‘regular’, as if that’s the ‘normal’ one to go for. It’s really hard to then ask for ‘small’, without seeming a bit miserly. Even though ‘small’ is usually still massive. I never have any trouble eating it all though…
9. Share one memory from a cinema visit long ago
To be fair, most cinema experiences are pretty unmemorable. The film might be good, but the rest of the experience is often not much to write home about. That said, I do remember going to see Groundhog Day with a friend back in the early nineties and we accidentally walked into the wrong screen. By the time the film started and we found ourselves watching 3 Ninjas we were too embarrassed to leave. To be fair we were stupid teenagers and therefore we did quite enjoy 3 Ninjas, but I’ve never watched it again since. We went back to watch Groundhog Day the following week (is there irony in there somewhere?) and that continues to be one of my favourite films of all time.
10. Have you ever used a line from a movie, in your life, without anyone knowing you stole it? Give details.
Almost certainly. Probably more than I’d like to admit if I’m honest. Back in the early days of our courtship when my now-wife but then-girlfriend told me she loved me, I’d sometimes reply with “I know”. These days she knows I’m just channelling my inner Han Solo, but I think she used to find it quite perplexing at the time. She still married me though…

So that’s all those questions answered. I think the world is now a more knowledgeable place. It’ll be back to the rubbish film reviews next Thursday (as in rubbish reviews of films that may or may not also be rubbish) but I’ll be answering questions on a range of topics on Tuesday, as is my way.

Films I Watched When I Was Younger – Issue 10: Romancing The Stone

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1984’s Romancing The Stone is perhaps as rare an entity as the eponymous gemstone around which much of the movie is centred. Very much a film of its time in some respects (soundtrack being the most obvious), it’s timeless in others, combining a classic adventure story with many of the elements that form the basis of a good rom-com. The action is non-stop, there are some pretty cool stunts on display and a genuine sense of jeopardy throughout. At the same time it manages to be genuinely funny – a young Danny Devito probably deserves the most plaudits for the comedy within the film but there are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments when he is nowhere to be seen. The romance too, is definitely a central theme – protagonist and romance novelist Jane Wilder (Kathleen Turner) seems to find herself living out the plot of one of her own novels, as she forms an unlikely relationship with the seemingly unscrupulous but dashing Jack Colton (Michael Douglas). One of Robert Zemeckis’ earliest directorial outings, Romancing The Stone was a fair indication of the success he would go on to have, indeed his next project was a little known movie called Back to The Future. Unfortunately Zemeckis did not direct the sequel, and The Jewel Of the Nile (which admittedly is still a movie I’m reasonably fond of) was nowhere near as good and effectively killed what could have been a promising franchise.

Turner, Douglas and DeVito all do what they do very well in Romancing The Stone, and to be fair, none of them can be blamed for the inferior sequel.

But it’s a shame that the follow-up couldn’t live up to the original, because there really isn’t much out there that compares to it – a movie which attempts to combine a range of apparently conflicting genres and actually has the audacity to succeed. A rare thing indeed.