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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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.

The Second Annual James Proclaims Advent Calendar of Christmas(ish) Films – Door 6

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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.

 

 

The Second Annual James Proclaims Advent Calendar of Christmas(ish) Films – Door 5

James Proclaims (6)

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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.

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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Catch Me If You Can 2

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

James Proclaims (6)

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

James Proclaims (6)

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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