Failed Critics Podcast: 2012 in Review/Failed Critics Awards

2012 in FilmWelcome to our first ever End-of-Year Review and the inaugural Failed Critics Awards! Get your tuxedo on, raid the free bar, and join Steve, James, Gerry, and Owen as they discuss their highlights from 2012, and their thoughts on the winners as chosen by contributors to Failed Critics. As well as the prestigious Top Ten Films of the Year, we also award the best performances, foreign-language film, documentary, and soundtrack of great year for film.

Not only that, but we also review our last batch of films for the year – including our thoughts on Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher, Ang Lee’s sumptuous Life of Pi, and Ben Wheatley’s caravanning ‘comedy’ Sightseers.

We’ll be back on the 14th January with our review of Les Miserables – and we would like to wish all of our listeners a very happy New Year!

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New Release: Jack Reacher

Jack Reacher Tom CruiseBefore I review the film, I feel like I need to address the controversy regarding the casting of Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher. Clearly fans of the novels are loyal and passionate people, and many were up in arms at the prospect of ‘short-arse’ Tom Cruise playing the man-mountain Jack Reacher. Someone even hysterically told me that it was the same as Whoopi Goldberg being cast as Harry Potter. Well, apart from the fact that it was an American action star being cast as an American man in an action film.

But Cruise isn’t tall enough, they cry. And? I read a brilliant point on a forum I frequent where someone quite reasonably asked if there was a major plot-point where Jack had to reach something on a very high shelf. Lee Child likely wrote that Reacher was 6’5” as literary short-hand for being physically menacing. Luckily, in films, we don’t need words to paint a picture; the director can just paint a picture instead. And the picture that Christopher McQuarrie paints with his Tom Cruise-shaped oil and canvas is one of a physically imposing man who doesn’t give a solitary shit whether you think he should be six feet tall.

As for the film, it’s a grizzled action-thriller that could have come straight out of the nineties. And, as such, it’s quite a rare and entertaining thing indeed. The plot concerns an apparently open-and-shut case involving a former military sniper killing five people and refusing to talk to the police other than to call for Jack Reacher. Reacher is an one man A-Team, a soldier of fortune who drifts from town to town using public transport. Hopefully the next film sees him tackling someone playing dubstep through their tinny phone speakers. Basically if you’re in trouble, and no-one else can help you, and you can find him…

Well, you know the score.

Rosamund Pike and Richard Jenkins provide perfectly capable support as the inevitable love interest/defence lawyer and her District Attorney father. Werner Herzog shows up in a rare screen performance as the antagonist, and his voice steals every scene it is in. I would pay good money for an audio book of ghost stories read by Herzog. In fact I’d pay good money to hear Herzog read aloud the Facebook terms and conditions.

Back to Cruise and his apparent inability to play the unstoppable force of Jack Reacher. I haven’t read the original books, so I’m not sure if the main problem I had with the film is the fault of the source material or the adaptation. Jack Reacher is presented as one of the smartest and toughest men on the planet, and he’s also an expert marksmen and incredible driver. At no point in the film is he in anything more than the mildest of peril and, because of this, the film lacks tension and urgency, especially in the final third of a pretty long film. Even James Bond has to escape capture now and again, and he often has to use an inflatable helicopter with a laser-sighted staplegun or some such to facilitate it. Reacher just solves mysteries with the ease of Sherlock Holmes while kicking ass like Jean-Claude Van Damme. It all seems a little too easy. He doesn’t even need a notebook for fuck’s sake.

I know some Lee Child fans will hate me for this, but the characterisation and some of the plotting of Jack Reacher was pretty predictable and clichéd, and it was only the charisma of Cruise, and particularly Herzog, plus the stylish direction of McQuarrie that made it such fun.

The Failed Critics Awards – Editor’s Choice

The votes have been cast, and the polls are now closed for the first ever Failed Critics Awards. While you’re going to have to wait until New Year’s Eve for the results, James Diamond (Founder, Editor, and all-round Svengali of the site) presents his personal picks of 2012.

Best Films of 2012

Sightseers10. Sightseers

From the opening bars of Soft Cell’s Tainted Love, to the epic climax featuring The Power of Love by Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Ben Wheatley’s third feature is gloriously British and reminiscent of a time that many of us have long-forgotten. It’s also very, very funny – like Mike Leigh directing the League of Gentlemen.

9. Holy Motors

The few of you who caught Holy Motors will not have seen anything else like it this year, or possibly ever. Leos Carax’s surreal odyssey stars Denis Lavant as a performer travelling Paris by limousine and performing ‘assignments’ along the way – including kidnapping Eva Mendes and licking her armpits, singing with Kylie Minogue, and leading the finest marching accordion band committed to film.

8. Untouchable

The kind of film you imagine Hollywood screwing up royally (and we’ll know for sure when the inevitable remake appears), Untouchable tells the true story of a millionaire paraplegic and his assistant from the clichéd ‘wrong side of the tracks’. What lifted this film above my low expectations of a saccharine-saturated heart-warmer is its cutting and cynical humour and brilliant central performances (particularly Omar Sy as Driss).

berberian sound studio7. Berberian Sound Studio

This wonderful exploration of the use of sound in cinema reminded me of David Lynch at his creepy best. Toby Jones is sublime as the sound engineer summoned to Italy to work on the sound for the intriguing giallo film-within-a-film The Equestrian Vortex. Funny, and spine-chilling in equal measure.

6. Argo

Who would have guessed back when he was starring in Gigli that Ben Affleck would become one of the most reliable directors in the business. After serving his apprenticeship on low-key films like Gone Baby Gone and The Town, Affleck nailed the classic Hollywood thriller with Argo – the ‘true story’ of the showbiz-facilitated extraction of US Embassy staff during the Iranian uprising. I’ve backed this as my outside bet for Best Picture at the 2013 Oscars, which guarantees it won’t win, sadly.

5. Avengers Assemble

In my humble opinion the best blockbuster of a year that saw the conclusion of the Nolan Batman series, the reboot of Spider-Man, and the return to the Alien franchise of Ridley Scott. Joss Whedon’s supergroup of a comic book adaptation improved on every single Marvel lead-up movie, and more. Featuring a typical Whedon script that managed to be funnier than most ‘comedies’ (I’m looking at you two in particular, The Dictator and Ted), as well as introducing a number of children to the year’s best insult (“you mewling quim”), Avengers Assemble has it all. Except a decent name in the UK. With Whedon already planning a sequel, and Shane Black (Lethal Weapon and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang screenwriter) in charge of Iron Man 3, Marvel looks to have stolen a march on DC Comics who are frantically trying to pull together a Justice League film to retaliate.

4. Safety Not Guaranteed

Finally getting a UK release on Boxing Day, this smart and funny film from first-time director Colin Trevorrow is full of charm, humour, and no little romance. I saw it at Sundance London in May, and wouldn’t shut up about it for the following seven months. I challenge you not to fall in love with Aubrey Plaza as Darius, the magazine intern who is investigating a small ad that simply reads:

Wanted: Somebody to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. You’ll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. Safety not guaranteed. I have only done this once before.

The man who placed the advert is seemingly dangerous loner Kenneth (Mark Duplass), and the resulting film is part-adventure/part-romance in true 1980s Amblin style.

3. The Imposter

This is one of those documentaries that hammers home the cliché that truth really is stranger than fiction. It tells us the story of a young French man who impersonated a missing 13-year-old boy from Texas, ensconcing himself within the family home and their community with tall tales of being trafficked by the military. What makes this film more than a weird Channel 5 documentary is its innovative use of recreated flashbacks and, most importantly, interviews with the people at the centre of this strange situation – including the con-man himself. A true story that plays out like a Coen Brothers thriller, this film really has everything.

2. Amour

Michael Haneke’s second Palm d’Or-winning film is a brutal study of the inevitability of death, ever-so-slightly tempered by a wonderful portrayal of octogenarian love. With his trademark long-takes allowing space for the incredible performances of Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant to breathe, Heneke has created a near-perfect film that immerses the viewer into a world more than the technical wizardy of 3D and 48fps could ever hope to. As patrons left the screening I attended no-one wanted to speak to each other. The silence was a sign of the sheer power of this film.

rust-and-bone1. Rust and Bone

Beaten by Amour at Cannes, and unlikely to renew battle at the Oscars after France nominated Untouchable for the Foreign Language award, at least Rust and Bone director Jacques Audiard can take consolation in grabbing the number one spot on this list. I fell in love with this film back in November, and I have struggled to communicate exactly why since. I mean, it’s the story of a killer-whale trainer who loses her legs in a tragic accident, and her heart to a drifter and single parent who finds his niche in bare-knuckle boxing. It sounds ridiculous, but it is an incredible study of romance, and the importance of finding ‘the one’. Marion Cotillard is incredible, but Matthias Schoenaerts holds his own as her extremely flawed lover. Yet another brilliant Alexandre Desplat score (surely the best composer working in cinema right now) is backed by an eclectic soundtrack, with an unbelievably moving use of Katy Perry’s Firework. Honestly.

I’ve seen 75 films so far this year, so some great films were always going to miss out, and the following were very close to making my top ten.

The Muppets – A wonderful mix of the anarchic Muppet humour, the charm of Jason Segal and Amy Adams, and the brilliant songs of Brett ‘Flight of the Conchords’ McKenzie. The most fun I’ve had in a cinema for years.

Shame – The second Steve McQueen/Michael Fassbender collaboration, I enjoyed this even more than Hunger. A fascinating study of addiction, with plenty of The Fass and Carey Mulligan on show for those who are interested in that kind of thing.

The Raid – Quite literally the best pure-action film I’ve seen since Hard Boiled. The action world has a new star in Iko Uwais.

Skyfall – After the mess that was Quantum of Solace, this was a welcome return to form for 007. Equally influenced by the TV series Spooks and Home Alone, it featured the best Bond villain in years.

Holy Motors Denis LavantBest Performance

Denis Lavant (Holy Motors) and Marion Cotillard (Rust and Bone)

Best Soundtrack

I can’t choose between three very different soundtracks. Rust and Bone for its fantastic score and eclectic track selection; The Muppets for the best original songs in the cinema this year; and Searching for Sugar Man for introducing me to the wonderful story and music of Sixto Rodriguez.

Biggest Surprise

I have spoken about Matthew McConaughey’s rebirth as a credible actor at length, so I’ll have to give this jointly to 21 Jump Street and Goon for being far funnier (and more sweet and charming) than Ted or The Dictator.

Worst Film

This Means War was an abomination with even Tom Hardy looking confused. Dark Shadows though, was the film that made me loudly and involuntarily exclaim “oh, for fuck’s sake!” in a reasonably busy cinema.

The Failed Critics Awards will be presented during the Failed Critics End-of-Year Podcast Special.

What to Expect When You’re Expecting to go to the Cinema in 2013: Part 1

In the first part of James Diamond’s preview of 2013 he takes us through a packed January to March…

January

DJANGO UNCHAINEDThe New Year kicks off with a number of Golden-Globe nominated films (and Oscar hopefuls) hitting UK screens. First up is Les Misérables, the screen adaptation of the stage musical adaptation of Victor Hugo’s classic novel. Reviews suggest that fans of the musical will be very satisfied, but is there anything here for anyone new or ambivalent to the source material? Well, any chance to see Russell Crowe trying to keep up vocally with the Jackmans and the Hathaways of this world has got to be worth a punt, and the film does look suitably epic.

In a jam-packed month, the following week sees the release of Django Unchained and Gangster Squad. Tarantino’s ‘Southern’ (simply a Western taking place in the South) is apparently his best work in years, with lashings of blood, violence, and a cast including Jamie Foxx, Christophe Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Samuel Jackson. If the trailer is anything to go by, we can at least expect a welcome return to common parlance of the word ‘rambunctious’. Which is nice.

Gangster Squad was put back by a few months after the tragedy of the cinema shooting in Colorado, and we can finally see if it is going to be this generation’s The Untouchables or Dick Tracy on 18 January. It has a great cast (Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, Josh Brolin, and Sean Penn), but can director Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland) successfully move on from his ‘youth comedy’ background?

Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln has ‘Oscar-winner’ written through it like a stick of rock, and with a cast like Daniel-Day Lewis, Tommy Lee Jones, Sally Field, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the story of America’s greatest President you would be a fool to bet against it. In a controversial move Spielberg appears to gloss over Lincoln’s vampire-hunting years though. Risky.

The final film we’re very excited about here at Failed Critics is the official return of the Governator in The Last Stand. A couple of cameos in the Expendables series aside, this is Arnie’s first leading role since returning to Hollywood. When a drug cartel leader busts out of prison and is racing to the Mexican border, a sheriff (almost certainly approaching retirement) and his inexperienced staff in a border town are the only thing in the way. If Arnie gets to show a little depth, and even vulnerability, as the lead this could be great. If the film tries to pretend he’s the same Arnie we knew and loved in the 80s and 90s however…

February

Wreck-It RalphThis month sees the release of a couple of films playing on our nostalgia in very different way. First up is Disney’s paean to computer games of our youth, Wreck-It Ralph. The film features the voice talents of John C. Reilly as the eponymous game ‘baddie’, and his journey through all the games in an arcade to become a hero. The key to the film’s success will be in whether it has the cross-over appeal between children and adults that is omnipresent in almost everything their Pixar subsidiary produces.

The second film of the month playing to our nostalgia gland comes with the tagline “Yipee-ki-yay Mother Russia”. That’s right, this year’s Valentine’s Day is A Good Day To Die Hard. Bruce Willis is back as John McClane, and this time he’s in Russia.

With his son.

For some reason.

Who cares when we’ve got Euro-trash bad guys, people jumping off of buildings, and a rumour of the awesome Patrick Stewart playing the main villain?

Also out this month is the adaptation of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, directed by Tom Twyker (of the brilliant Run Lola Run), and Andy and Lana Wachowski (of The Matrix. Just The Matrix. There were no other Matrix films. Leave it). Anyone who has seen the five-minute trailer will know, well, about the same as anyone who hasn’t seen the utterly bonkers and nonsense trailer. It looks fantastic though.

Anyone who has been to the cinema recently will have noticed an advert asking customers to turn their phones off apparently voiced by Alfred Hitchcock. Guess what – it’s not really archive footage of an incredibly prescient Hitch, but Anthony Hopkins in a sneak preview of his work in Hitchcock; the story of the master of suspense and how he made Psycho. Expect an pretty rosy portrayal of the type of behaviour that would have resulted in lawsuits and possibly criminal charges these days – Hollywood doesn’t tend to perform hatchet-jobs on its own people.

March

oz_the_great_and_powerful_wicked_witchStoker, the English-language début of director Chan-wook Park (Oldboy) is out on 1 March, and it certainly sounds interesting. Written by Wentworth Miller (yep, that Wentworth Miller who starred in Prison Break) and starring Mia Wasikowska as India Stoker, a young woman who becomes infatuated with the mysterious and charming Uncle Stoker (Matthew Goode) who comes to stay with the family after his brother (and India’s father) dies in an accident. Not likely to be too high on laughs.

At the complete opposite end of the cinematic scale we have the long-delayed GI Joe: Retaliation. Originally scheduled for release last summer, the latest GI Joe film was delayed for rewrites and the addition of 3D. Oh joy. Still, it’s got the Rock and Bruce Willis as the original Joe, so there’s a slight chance it might be better than anything Michael Bay has released in the last 12 years.

The final film we’re looking forward to in the first quarter of 2013 is yet another attempt to play with the mythology of the Oz universe. Not the HBO series about a prison, but the universe created by L. Frank Baum and brought lovingly to the screen in the classic Judy Garland film The Wizard of Oz. Ever since then creative people have been drawn to this world and tried to create their own take on it, the the stage musical Wicked being the most successful of recent years. Oz: The Great and Powerful is Sam Raimi’s take on the Oz myth, and stars James Franco as a stage magician thrown into the world and using his wits and skills to survive the plans of three witches hunting him. I cannot help but feel this will either be brilliant, or contender for worst film of the year. Fingers crossed.

In Part 2 we will look at the releases scheduled for April to June, including Carrie, Iron Man 3, The Great Gatsby, Star Trek: Into Darkness, and Man of Steel.

It’s a Wonderful Film!

its-a-wonderful-lifeWe’ve reached the end of our 12 Days of Christmas Films, and I cannot think of a better film to round off our festive series. It’s a special kind of film that makes you well up just reading the plot summary on Wikipedia. Or so someone told me. No, you’re trying to stop tears saturating your keyboard!

Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (a worthy prefix in the style of ‘William Shakespeare’s Hamlet’, or ‘Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol’) is simply the greatest Christmas film of all time. It might not feature Santa Claus, someone falling off of a roof putting up decorations, or even take place predominantly over the Christmas period – but its simple message is one that everyone needs reminding of at this particular time of the year.

James Stewart (in his favourite role) plays George Bailey; simply the most selfless and implausibly kind person who ever lived. Seriously, he makes Mother Theresa look like Tony Soprano. At the start of the film an angel (Second Class) by the name of Clarence Odbody (Henry Travers) is tasked with saving George as he contemplates taking his own life. Clarence’s line-managers (it helps me to put religion into context by imagining the afterlife as some higher form of bureaucracy) review the life of George Bailey, and the next 50 minutes or so are some of the most depressing and asphyxiating cinema ever committed to film.

George saves his brother’s life and, in doing so, loses his hearing in one ear; George stays at home to run the family business; George gives his college money to his brother; George sacrifices his honeymoon fund to save the townspeople. It’s one crushing disappointment after another, and George remains stoic above it all. He’s not even one of those people who uses their goodwill as a stick to beat the rest of us feckless bastards with.

It all finally gets too much for George though, leading to him meeting Clarence on the bridge where he is about to kill himself. Clarence proceeds to show George how Bedford Falls would look if he had never existed. It’s here where we learn (or are at least reminded of a) vital truth about our humanity. In recent years the trend has been to embrace science, with all its logic and reason rightfully highlighting how insignificant we are in the broad history of the universe. Compared to the alternative, that is a very good thing. But this film’s central message that “no man is a failure who has friends” is one even rabid atheists can use to embrace their humanity at Christmas.

This is a short piece for a few reasons. Firstly, I’m writing this on Christmas Eve before I go to the cinema with my family to watch It’s a Wonderful Life on the big screen. And I’m not even dressed yet. More importantly though, every extra word I write about this masterpiece is wasted computer ink compared to actually watching it for yourselves. So turn off your computer/phone/second-screen device, track down a copy of It’s a Wonderful Life, and hold your friends and family close.

Merry Christmas!

Read the 12 Days of Christmas Films so far, or catch White Christmas most days on Sky Movies Classics.

Snow! Snow! Snow! Snow! (White Christmas.)

white-christmas-snowWe have a saying in our family: ‘Gran friendly’, used to describe inoffensive methods of entertainment which the whole family can enjoy together. This means something other than Rammstein on the stereo over Christmas lunch, board games other than Pictionary (which causes us to use only the good swear words while stabbing each other with pencils) alongside the cheese & biscuits, and a suitable film on the telly. Personally, one of my earliest Christmas day memories is staying up late to watch Tremors with my dad, but even I recognise the need for something a little more wholesome with your post turkey cuppa when there are pensioners present.

White Christmas tells the tale of two old war buddies slash entertainers. The film opens to a barrage of artillery, like Saving Private Ryan. Although, as this occurred some 50 years previously, the falling brickwork effects don’t feel quite so dramatic. Nonetheless filmed in Technicolor and, notably, the first film to be released on VistaVision, it looks fantastic before they’ve even dusted off those Christmas costumes.  Indeed, this is a simpler time. You know the era – everyone talks proper, people regularly launch into song, and if someone announces their engagement there’s always a pianist within earshot to immediately bash out a quick rendition of ‘here comes the bride’

Bing Crosby is Bob Wallace, the eternal brooding bachelor who pulls off a heart wrenching tribute to his former army General. Fred Astaire was originally offered the part of Phil Davis, Wallace’s singing partner, but turned it down after seeing the script, the silly billy. Still, Danny Kaye is a brilliant comic actor and pulls off a masterful slapstick performance. His fake falling down the stairs distraction technique is particularly endearing.

The Haynes sisters (“Lord help the mister who comes between me and my sister”) played by Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen, constantly wear matching outfits, which only goes to exacerbate how completely different they look from each other. Personally I think one of them is the milkman’s. Clooney is sensible and stern, and you can’t help studying her face for traces of her young Oscar winning nephew. Meanwhile Vera-Elle is sparkly eyed and ably flings herself around the dance floor, showcasing her footwork and ability to avoid health and safety hazards simultaneously. Seriously, who the hell puts a lake in a night club?

The four pals are soon living it up on the train to Vermont, America’s snow playground, singing “Snow, snow, snow, snow!” at any opportunity. I speak from experience when I say this is the perfect song to join in with through your drunken, post lunch haze. The musical numbers do all feel pleasingly familiar, which is lovely. There is nothing worse than watching a musical unable to sing along because you don’t recognise a single one of the songs. (Thanks a bunch recently viewed theatre production of Hello Dolly!)

The characters are cute and likeable, particularly the adorable General, which is just as well when you know what happens at the end. There are snow related jokes galore, and plenty of ballgowns and big dance numbers to keep Gran happy.

Phil Davis: My dear partner, when what’s left of you gets around to what’s left to be gotten, what’s left to be gotten won’t be worth getting, whatever it is you’ve got left.

Bob Wallace: When I figure out what that means I’ll come up with a crushing reply.

Read the 12 Days of Christmas Films so far, or catch White Christmas most days on Sky Movies Classics.

Failed Critics Podcast: Christmas Triple Bill

Home Alone Christmas TreeHo ho ho! Merry Christmas to every single one of our beautiful listeners (we hope the less good-looking ones have a decent time as well), and as an early Christmas present to you we present our favourite Christmas films. Well, three of us do anyway. One of the team decided that they wanted to be different and chose some films that might have a bit of snow in them, possibly a tree in one of the scenes. I wonder who…

We’ll be back on New Years Eve with a review of the year destined to be bigger, more bloated, and even less self-aware than late-period Marlon Brando. There’s still one more day to vote for you favourite films of 2012 by visiting the site here – rock the vote!

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Lenny Henry: The British Robin Williams

Bernard and the GenieI apologise in advance for what will be one of the most obscure posts you will ever read on this site. As we count down to Christmas with some of our favourite seasonal films, I cannot help thinking back to my childhood. When I was young Christmas was perfect. I had no concept of post-work do hangovers, January credit card bills, or deciding when to encourage your children to question the existence of Father Christmas, in the same way you encourage them to think of Jesus as being a more boring Harry Potter.

No, Christmas for me meant spending a few weeks off school, eating chocolate whenever my parents weren’t looking, and Christmas television. You see, this post is about a TV movie which was only ever shown once on British television in 1991. And it starred an idol of mine at the time. Lenny Henry.

Bernard and the Genie is a Richard Curtis-penned comedy starring Alan Cumming (who went on to roles in Goldeneye, X-Men, and can currently be seen in the excellent The Good Wife) as an art-dealer sacked (by Rowan Atkinson in Blackadder territory) just before Christmas for being too nice. To make matters worse he finds out that his fiancé is sleeping with his best friend, and he is left in his empty flat, all alone at Christmas. Cue Mud.

Luckily he’s been left with a lamp, which contains a genie. Played by Lenny Henry.

Some (well, just me) would argue that Robin Williams’s acclaimed voice-work as the genie in Disney’s Aladdin a few years later owes a great debt to Henry in this film. I’m pretty sure everyone else would tell me to shut the fuck up. Henry’s genie plays a little hard and fast with the rules though. For a start he appears to be one of these new-fangled start-up genies offering unlimited wishes, unlike the traditional three wishes the old genie business model has trusted in for centuries.

Henry is perfectly cast as the man lost out of time in early-90s Britain. In classic culture-clash comedy style he is easily confused by modern bathroom amenities (washing his hair in the toilet and cleaning his ears with a toothbrush)…and hilarity ensues!

Out in public he discovers ice-cream, Big Macs, and Terminator 2…and hilarity ensues!

He tries to fix Bernard up with an attractive young lady and brings up the subject of dowries and child-bearing capability…well, you get the picture.

I freely admit that I cannot be objective about this film. It is very much of its time and hugely dated – and, in this case, that’s why I love it. It reminds me so much of 1991 it hurts. That was the year I went to big school, scored my first goal for my local football team (complete with Roga Milla dance), and bought my first cassette with my own money (Dire Straits’ Money for Nothing). Bernard and Genie is constantly throwing out pop culture references of the time (a youthful Melvin Bragg and Bob Geldof appear in cameos, Terminator 2 and Thelma and Louise are showing at the cinema, and Kylie Minogue is the object of every man’s desires – well, some things are timeless), and I revel in these references like a pig in shit, but shit made of wonderful memories.

Even if you could track a copy of Bernard and the Genie down, unless you saw it at the time I wouldn’t bother. You wouldn’t understand. You weren’t there, man!

Bernard and the Genie has only ever been shown once on UK television. You may be able to find a region-free copy on DVD from eBay. Don’t tell anyone I told you.

Put a little Bill Murray in your heart

Scrooged Bill MurrayCharles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is the perfect Christmas story. It takes place over Christmas Eve and Christmas morning, features the unlikely redemption and emotional rebirth of its protagonist, and it’s got fucking ghosts in it! What makes this story so enduring though is that the framework can be utilised in any number of modern retellings, all of which are a commentary on the culture that produces them. So how do you improve on perfection? Cast Bill Murray.

Scrooged is one of those films I taped one Christmas as a young boy and watched religiously while I grew up. It didn’t even need to be Christmas either – I remember watching it three times in a day during the school summer holidays one year. These days I have learned a little restraint and can keep myself down to one or two December viewings of the modern classic.

Murray stars as Ebenezer Scrooge-substitute Frank Cross – a TV executive whose undeniable success has cost him his warmth, his soul, and the one true love of his life. His network are planning a live-to-air adaptation of A Christmas Carol (the story-within-a-story, very meta) and Frank’s plan for the marketing is to literally scare the viewers into not missing it. When a junior executive, who goes by the fantastic name of Eliot Loudermilk (played by the even more fantastically named Bobcat Goldthwait), disagrees with Frank he is fired on the spot and spends the day planning his revenge. Meanwhile Frank is fighting off an ambitious producer who is after his job, and trying to ignore the protestations of his assistant and brother that he should show a little Christmas spirit and try caring about someone other than himself.

You know the drill from here – Frank is visited by the ghost of his former mentor who warns that he will be visited by three ghosts. The Ghost of Christmas Past takes Frank through his difficult childhood (where he receives veal steaks for Christmas); to the moment he chose his job over the utterly lovely Claire (Karen Allen).

The Ghost of Christmas Present shows Frank’s brother (played by Murray’s real-life brother John) sticking up for his brother despite all the evidence to the contrary, while Frank’s assistant is living in poverty with a mute son (a classic ‘Chekhov’s Gun if ever there was one) and Claire is working in a homeless shelter.

The Ghost of Christmas Future is a suitably dark bastard who scared the living crap out of me as a youngster – and he clearly does the same to Frank who decides to change his life in true Ebenezer Scrooge-style. He just needs to fight off a psychotic Loudermilk, reconcile with a lost love, and deliver a passionate and slightly unhinged soliloquy on live television.

In the paraphrased words of a once-mute little boy; God bless Bill Murray. Everyone!

Watch Scrooged on Christmas day (2:25pm Channel 4) or stream instantly on Netflix UK.

They tell me you got the cripple from New York in there. He mention Keyser Soze? Or Santa?

polar express santaOur toddler dictates that we watch a lot of Disney. The animation of which is all bright colours and rounded edges. It’s inoffensive on the eye, even at the ridiculous hours of the day two year olds tend to watch their cartoons. The Polar Express isn’t one of those films. It’s kind of funny looking. Type ‘polar express animation’ into Google and the first thing it auto completes to is ‘technique’. The second is ‘creepy’.

There’s an interesting CNN article about the specifics. But what it boils down is that the (incredibly clever) motion capture technology which merges real life acting into 3D is unable to capture the one thing that really matters. Apparently putting sensors onto the eyeballs isn’t possible, since no one goes to the Robert De Niro school of method acting these days, and so the eyes have to be computer generated. Therefore, despite having incredibly lifelike bodies, the characters all look completely dead inside.

The story is kind of creepy too. Random train rocks up in the middle of the night, picking up kids and taking them off to some undisclosed location. Ok, the conductor tells him they’re bound for the North Pole. But I’ve heard enough warnings about men with vans full of puppies to fall for that one. Also, none of the kids are allowed names. What’s that about? Is it some kind of cult? Instead we’re given Hero Boy, Hero Girl, Know-It-All and Lonely Boy. It’s hardly endearing. Besides, Lonely Boy should clearly be known as ‘guy with the mysterious limp’. Or Keyser Söze.

The kids are all voiced by grown ups, but it’s far from an all star ensemble cast. The incredibly earnest Hero Girl is played by Nona Gaye (Marvin’s daughter) and the sniffling Lonely Boy by Peter Scolari. The brash boastings of Know-It-All, who is animated to look exactly like Corey Feldman in Stand By Me, are provided by Eddie Deezen, probably best known for playing nerdy Eugene Felsnic in Grease. Aside from the kids, pretty much all the other characters are voiced by the same person. What kind of narcissist takes six roles in a film with 10 characters? Multiple award winning actor Tom Hanks? Oh, ok, I guess.

That every character who turns up looks and sounds like a dead-eyed Hanks is a little disconcerting. They should have called it The Tom Hanks Express, but I guess they were pushing hard for the Christmas market. And a Christmas fest it is. When the train finally reaches the North Pole, with no thanks to those pesky kids, they get the full on experience, complete with Santa, reindeer, an army of elves and the biggest bag of presents you ever did see. And that weird animation. And the dark undertones of a mythical crime lord of possibly Turkish descent.

The problem with The Polar Express is that it’s just not very much fun. There is plenty of lesson learning. Aside from the obvious one: even if you only give a kid one thing to look after, chances are they’re going to lose it, the main themes are about patience, humility, and other sensibilities. No mention of the true meaning of the festive period: decorate your house with a minimum of 16,000 fairy lights, bag as many presents as possible and eat until you feel genuine pain.

“Though I’ve grown old, the bell still rings for me, as it does for those who truly believe”. Smug, Hanks. Very smug.

 

The Polar Express is on Christmas Eve (2:40pm Watch) and Christmas Day (2:20pm Watch).

Santa Claus: The Movie (based on a true story)

santa claus the movie mcdonaldsThis month is the last December we’ll get with our daughter before we have to introduce her to the web of lies that is Father Christmas. This troubles me.

I don’t remember learning about his existence, nor do I recall the big discovery that he was fake. I know that I used to leave him a mince pie and a beer (my dad’s idea) before I went to bed on the 24th. But, as far back as I remember, I also know I spent the preceding week searching the house for presents (my mum’s wardrobe, far left corner). I think, for me, it was always just a nice idea. I wasn’t particularly intent on grilling my parents for details. I gathered the particulars from a pop-up book version of The Night Before Christmas and my annual viewing of this film. A very specific trio of Christmas Eve traditions was watching this, followed by a trip into town to see the lights, and eating the best part of a box of Neapolitans chocolates. Long before I ever had to worry about maintaining any kind of elaborate ruse to my kids, while drunk on brandy. They were undoubtedly simpler times.

Santa Claus: The Movie provides a potted history of the red robed gift giver, from the initial recruitment process through to the perils of modern day consumerism. Santa was hired in the 14th century by Gandalf, to distribute toys to the world’s children. It was his wife (who eventually retires to become Onslow’s missus) and not the Coca-Cola Company who decided his suit should be red. And he communicates by letter so effectively he puts the Royal Mail to shame.

We join the Claus family in the 1980s, when they are plagued by improved childhood literacy rates and the subsequent increase in demand. It is decreed that Santa should get an assistant, some 600 years after he started the job. Two elves, Patch and Puffy, compete in an Apprentice style production challenge in order to win the coveted sidekick role. Dudley Moore‘s Patch is an ambitious entrepreneur, who has big plans to revolutionise the North Pole set up. With sweatshops, mainly. His overzealous output of shoddy goods sees him summarily fired, and exiled to New York.

New York, which is mainly represented by an enormous McDonalds, is also home to ruthless toy tycoon B.Z. (John Lithgow), whose hatred of kids is such that he stuffs his teddy bears full of sand and chunks of glass just because he can. A disgruntled Patch and B.Z. launch a hostile takeover bid on Christmas, and are somehow thwarted by an incessantly hungry homeless kid called Joe, a dozen pretty wussy reindeer, and the brilliantly named Cornelia, who is unashamedly eighties and has the pink sweatshirt with red diamond elbow patches to prove it.

Santa Claus The Movie is a pretty bold title, for a film which puts a disgraced elf and an unsavoury businessman in top billing. Though the big beardy does feature heavily and, if you’re looking to educate your offspring on this vicious and all-encompassing deception, then you could do a lot worse. Among other things you will learn that the word ‘yo’ makes reindeer fly, that a little snitch named Sarah Foster and her precious cat instigated the whole naughty and nice thing. Oh, and that Santa has been known to let random kids move into the North Pole for eleven months of the year, with little in the way of parent/guardian knowledge or consent. But that’s ok, because they have a school teacher.

Don’t have nightmares.

Watch Santa Claus The Movie on Friday 21 December (3:10pm ITV3) and Christmas Eve (6:55am ITV3). Or read the 12 Days of Christmas Films so far. 

Failed Critics Review: The Hobbit

The HobbitIn honour of this week’s main review we thought about splitting this podcast into three full-length episodes, or recording it at twice the speed, or even inviting old guests back for needless cameos (except we’ve never had a guest on the podcast).

Instead we felt the story of a short, hairy old man and his companions resonated enough with us hear to avoid such frippery.

This week sees the Failed Critics dissect Peter Jackson’s return to Middle-Earth in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. We’ll give you the low-down on the new 48fps technology, discuss the wisdom of turning a short ‘children’s book’ into a dark and epic trilogy, and two of the team confess to falling asleep at some point.

It’s one of our more argumentative podcasts so far, and there are some very passionate criticisms and defences of the years last blockbuster.

We’ll be back on Christmas Eve with our Christmas Films Triple Bill, and then on New Years Eve we’ll be looking back on 2012 and revealing the first ever Failed Critics Award winners.

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Santa Claus is coming to town. To kidnap your children.

Rare ExportsIt had to happen at some point. I’m Failed Critics’ resident film snob and so far in this series I have written about two safe, mainstream Christmas films that sit well within the confines of what you might call ‘wholesome family entertainment’. It’s time to crack out the dark and obscure foreign-language stuff for those of you with toothache from all the cinematic saccharine we’ve served up this week.

How many of have you ever watched The Thing and thought “I love this film, but how great would it be as a Christmas film?” Probably not many, come to think of it, but now I’ve planted the thought in your head let me present Finnish horror film Rare Exports.

Released in 2010, Rare Exports is a truly odd and wonderful beast. It takes place in the weeks leading up to Christmas, and features a child encountering elves and Santa Claus. So far, so Christmassy. But this isn’t all Richard Attenborough and Dudley Moore. Oh no, it seems that the creature who inspired the Santa Claus myth didn’t really have a lot of time for the administration of a naughty and nice list, let alone instigating a system of multiple checks and balances for said list. In fact, in a startling show of public service efficiency the Conservatives would be proud of, he focussed on the task of punishing naughty children.

The story starts a few weeks before Christmas when a mining expedition discovers what appears to be a tomb buried deep inside the Koratunturi Mountains on the border between Finland and Russia. Young Pietari (son of one of a group of village reindeer herders) witnesses this piece of terrible acting and exposition and heads back to his house to read up on the origins of Santa Claus. A few weeks pass and on the day before Christmas Eve the villagers discover the reindeer that they were counting on for meat have been slaughtered, and the mining compound over the border has been abandoned.

As Pietari starts to solve the mystery of the footsteps in the snow outside his window, and the disappearance of the village children overnight, he finally begins to earn the respect of his uber-macho father who earlier in the film wouldn’t even let his son drive the snow mobile. I mean seriously, what is the point in living in the Finnish wilderness and having to eat reindeer that have been pissed on and buried for months if you don’t even get to drive a snow mobile?

The rest of the film is played as a very straight horror film, without ever being too graphic or violent. In fact, I’d argue that older children will not only be fine with the levels of tension and violence in the film, but they will enjoy the anarchic portrayal of a murderous Santa and his creepy elf followers.

Read the 12 Days of Christmas Films so far, and you can catch Rare Exports on Sunday 23rd December, 1am on Channel 4

Christmas, Arnie style.

jingle all the wayIt started innocently enough. We sacked off Sky Movies after a couple of months, the way most people tend to. But, for some reason, when we phoned to cancel, they let us keep the even numbered channels free of charge. Trade secret: they don’t show any of the good films on the even numbered channels. What they do show are a great many Christmas films, on repeat, all year around. And so began my love affair with Jingle All The Way.

Following in the footsteps of Bruce Willis and Mel Gibson, Arnold Schwarzenegger swaps action movies for good old fashioned Christmas spirit. There’s something oddly refreshing about seeing The Terminator throwing his significant frame into normal, everyday things, like operating a VDU mattress ordering database, and arguing with his missus. The film is set on Christmas Eve, and boasts a stellar bell-heavy soundtrack. Not only is it festive as fuck, it showcases Schwarzenegger in all his glory. Arnie on a climbing frame, Arnie taking a field sobriety test, Arnie running through the streets chanting ‘Dasher; Dancer; Prancer; Vixen; Comet; Cupid…’, Arnie wearing intense amounts of lycra.

Inspired by the real life high demand toy hunts of Christmases past, Jingle all the Way tells the tale of the fist fights and general screaming involved in trying to track down the much sought after TurboMan action figure. I experienced this struggle first hand, in December 1993, when my parents attempted to procure a Talkboy (the variable speed cassette player which originated in Home Alone 2: Lost in New York) for my little brother. He ended up with two. Which proves the competition for toys was not so intense in the East Midlands. Either that, or my dad is secretly Arnie.

Featuring the usual festive check list of dead beat dad, department store shenanigans, someone nailing fairy lights to the roof of a house, and a reindeer being punched in the face. Seriously. We follow Howard (Arnie) and a corrupt postal worker (Sinbad) as they attempt to partake in a little last minute holiday panic buying. Sinbad, a noted stand-up comedian, improvised the majority of his lines in the film. Apparently, Schwarzenegger also ‘improvised many of his responses in his conversations with Sinbad’s character’. Bless.

The action culminates at the ‘Wintertainment parade’, where Howard, still having been unable to buy one of the bloody dolls, stumbles his way into a TurboMan costume, and onto the main float. His turn as a live version of the action figure is so authentic that, later, he conducts a full five minute conversation with his wife and son without either of them realising who he is. That small strip of yellow plastic (pictured above) manages to conceal not only his eyebrows, but his thick and distinctive Austrian accent. Clearly he really has been spending too much time in the office.

Supporting cast includes Rita Wilson (Mrs Tom Hanks) in the role of long-suffering wife of a mattress salesman, the late Phil Hartman (Troy McClure) as the sleazy neighbour, and Jake Lloyd (young Anakin Skywalker) as the spoilt kid who couldn’t just be satisfied with a skateboard. Plus a random but always welcome cameo from Jim Belushi. Oh, and did I mention Arnie punches a reindeer in the face? Happy Holidays.

 

Read the 12 Days of Christmas Films series, or watch Jingle All The Way on Sky Movies almost every day from now until Christmas. 

Clark Griswold: The Last True Family Man

National Lampoons Christmas VacationAnother day, another film written by John Hughes. I didn’t mean for my unadulterated love of the man to dominate my contributions to the 12 Days of Christmas Films. In fact, this submission was supposed to be an exploration of A Christmas Story, and why it’s a religious experience for our American friends but almost completely unnoticed on this side of the Atlantic.

Only I had to turn it off after twenty minutes.

It was just, well, awful. I can see the appeal to a certain section of the American public. It’s a story of a boy who wants to exercise his right to bear arms and buy a gun, and it’s told in the style of a voiced-over flashback to remind everyone that the golden old days were great. You know, when children in China were starving rather than the new owners of the ‘greatest country on Earth’. I received a tweet from @Jook which summed it up brilliantly:

A Christmas Story is kind of like Woody Allen’s Radio Days, except it’s set at Christmas and it’s shit.

So, after turning it off, I did what anyone of my age would do in this situation. I had my own nostalgic moment and remembered a time when Chevy Chase was funny. I watched National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation – directed by Jeremiah S. Chechic and written by the masterful John Hughes.

This is the third vacation we are invited to share with the Griswold family, and Christmas is the perfect time to spend with Clark (Chase), Ellen (Beverly D’Angelo), Audrey (Juliette Lewis), and Rusty (Johnny Galecki). The film documents the last few weeks before Christmas as the Griswold family prepare to celebrate with the extended family.

Every single festive film trope and cliché is here, from It’s a Wonderful Life on the television, to the slapstick disaster of decorating the house with festive lights. The turkey isn’t cooked properly; old people cause embarrassment through senility; and red-neck relatives gon’ be redneck. The great thing about Christmas Vacation is it does all of these clichés better than pretty much any other film that has attempted them.

Clark Griswold even seems to be going through some kind of reverse-Scrooge narrative journey – this is a man who loves Christmas, but is essentially visited by the ‘ghosts’ of anti-Christmas (his mean boss, his yuppie neighbours, and his own clumsiness) and his Christmas cheer is tested and pushed to the edge. But despite all this, he retains his demented love of the holiday season.

Where do you think you’re going? Nobody’s leaving. Nobody’s walking out on this fun, old-fashioned family Christmas. No, no. We’re all in this together. This is a full-blown, four-alarm holiday emergency here. We’re gonna press on, and we’re gonna have the hap, hap, happiest Christmas since Bing Crosby tap-danced with Danny fucking Kaye. And when Santa squeezes his fat white ass down that chimney tonight, he’s gonna find the jolliest bunch of assholes this side of the nuthouse.

Of course Chase is the star of the show, but every member of this cast puts in a great performance, from D’Angelo’s subtle performance as Clark’s long-suffering wife, Juliette Lewis perfecting the sulky teen persona, to Julia Louis Dreyfuss as the Griswold’s up-tight yuppie neighbour. The best foil to Chase’s everyman frustration, though, is Randy Quaid as Clark’s brother Eddie. Eddie is one of those people who says whatever pops into his head, and most of it is comedy gold. He walks a fine line between outright disgusting and oaf with a heart of gold. He is also the source of some of the film’s most risqué humour. Upon revealing he had to have a metal plate in his head replaced with a plastic one, he tells Clark “Every time Catherine revved up the microwave, I’d piss my pants and forget who I was for about half an hour or so.” In fact, for a supposed family film, Christmas Vacation is not only funnier, but actually edgier in places than recent comedies like Ted and The Hangover.

If I grow up to be half the father that Clark Griswold is, I’ll be a happy man.