Category Archives: 12 Days of Christmas Films

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.

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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.

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. 

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.

Yes, I like Love Actually. Do you want to take this outside?

A couple of months back my twitter timeline exploded with people dismayed to find themselves watching Love Actually. From what I could tell, they weren’t being held against their will. They couldn’t bear to switch it off, but needed to justify their actions with derision.

For a start, they’re doing it wrong. Everyone knows the official date to watch Love Actually is 20th November – exactly five weeks before Christmas, and the day on which the film commences. While watching a movie that’s so laughably bad you have to provide a running commentary of its failures is fun, if you honestly hate the fact that you’re doing so, I’m willing to bet there are a couple of other films out there you haven’t seen yet, and could watch instead. Besides, where’s your festive spirit?!

Richard Curtis continues his expedition into the world of romantic comedy in this all star Christmas extravaganza. Before the opening song titles (a nod to Four Weddings and a Funeral, his first foray into the genre) are over we’ve met Bill Nighy the aging rockstar; Liam Neeson the widow; Emma Thompson the harassed mum, and Keira Knightley the sickeningly beautiful bride. This is exactly how the world looks inside Curtis’s head: a bunch of attractive middle class people who say ‘fuck’ a lot, and Hugh Grant as Prime Minister

The plot is full of holes. I won’t list them all; watch it and pick your favourite. Mine is the fact that they schedule a concert, starring children from a number of different primary schools (even St Basil’s) on Christmas Eve. That would never happen! Which leads directly onto the whole airport debacle. But I’m not going to mention that, as I generally disregard the entire kid storyline on the grounds that it’s a bit shit. Nonetheless, it’s worth it. It’s worth it for Colin Firth‘s swagger when he walks out of the room post jumping in the lake segment. For the thought of Colin Firth learning Spanish for you. For his adorably slow typing. Colin Firth, Colin Firth, Colin Firth.

I love the Wisconsin storyline. And that was surprising starring, as it does, the dude from My Family, who I was predisposed to hate on sight. But it’s just the right kind of silly, the geeky guy from Basildon getting to have all the sex with Betty Draper, Kim Bauer, and other screen hotties. Plus actor Kris Marshall landed the BT love advert series off the back of his stint at the Richard Curtis school of romance acting. We may have grown tired of Adam & Jane at the time, but they were vastly superior to a bunch of filthy students posturing about their Infinity package we have now.

And beautiful Laura Linney. Bringing a slice of realism to proceedings, offsetting the Mr Bean nonsense entirely. In standard chick flicks, you either get your desired outcome or your comeuppance. You never see a good guy get a non happy ending. This is real life in action. Well, real life if your boss was a pervy Alan Rickman hell bent on getting you laid, if you lived in a gorgeous mews house in central London, and if you had the stoic dignity of Laura Linney. She is never once shown cry-sniffing until she chokes a bit on her own snot backwash, which I admit  is a teensy bit far fetched.

I could (and will, on request) write a whole other post on why the Ant & Dec cameo makes me proud, how I strive to parent like Emma Thompson, or why the end credit footage makes me want to move into Terminal 5.

Dear Love Actually. Ignore the haters. For now let me say, without hope or agenda. Just because it’s Christmas (And at Christmas you tell the truth). To me, you are perfect. And my wasted heart will love you until you look like this. [Insert picture of generic rom com flop, set in June and not starring Laura Linney]

Read the 12 Days of Christmas Films so far, or watch Love Actually when it’s next on TV. (Probably sometime in April.)

“This is Christmas. The season of perpetual hope.” (And breaking and entering.)

home alone aftershaveThere have been some great story-tellers who have entertained children over the years. From Hans Christian Anderson and the Brothers Grimm, to Roald Dahl, and the wonderful individuals that helped created a dynasty of Disney classics. But, for me, none of them understood children quite in the way that John Hughes did.

I grew up on John Hughes films and, unlike every other film-maker I’ve known, his work really spoke to me as a child. I always felt he understood my dreams, fears, and what makes me tick – even growing up in a small Devon village, an entire world away from the fictional town of Shermer, Illinois, where the majority of his films took place.

It wasn’t a matter of realism – anyone who complains about a lack of realism in a John Hughes film is missing the point more drastically than one of his trademark villainous teachers. Of course someone like John Bender wouldn’t turn up for Saturday detention. But, if he hadn’t  geeks like me wouldn’t have ever know we had common ground with the likes of the seemingly 30-year-old career criminal in our school, and we certainly wouldn’t have had one of the finest closing shots in cinema history.

Excuse me while I just pop out and punch the air while walking across a football field to Simple Minds.

So to bash Home Alone (directed by Chris Columbus, but written by Hughes) for its utter ludicrousness and unbelievable concept completely misses the point. This is a fantasy film rooted in the mundane. Kevin McCallister (Macaulay Culkin in a genuinely brilliant performance) is an eight-year-old boy who wishes his family would disappear, then wakes up to find them gone. What follows is exactly how an eight-year-old imagines they would spend a few days looking after themselves.

Kevin’s parents act in the way we all thought our parents did when we were mad at them. They’re self-obsessed, stupid, and really unfair. The chain of events that lead to Kevin being left home alone (hey, that’s the name of the film!) leave us in no doubt that Kevin is the wronged party here – someone eats all of the cheese pizza he ordered, no one will help him pack his case for his first ever trip abroad, and finally he’s sent to bed early in the loft after a fight instigated by his older brother leads to carnage in the kitchen and the family calling him a “little jerk” and a disease. The genius of Hughes is that children and adults will watch that sequence and come to entirely different conclusions on who is to blame for the fracas.

Once Kevin is left at home he acts in pretty much the same way we all did when we were left at home. He snoops around bedrooms, eats junk food, and watches trashy grown-up movies. Hell, that’s still how I act when my wife leaves the house to go and get a pint of milk.

The rest of his adventures are exactly how a child imagines things would play out in this situation. Accidental shoplifting charges being avoided with a chase across a crowded ice-rink; imparting of wisdom to old men who may or may not be serial killers while listening to a choir singing the frankly awesome Carol of the Bells; and defending your house against a Goodfella-turned burglar (and the other one, you know, him) in the style of MacGyver delivering Bruce Willis-esque one-liners.

If the naysayers had their way the film would end in 20 minutes, when the number of boarding passes doesn’t match the number of passengers. Or when the policeman who goes to check on Kevin actually does his job instead of telling Kevin’s mum to “count her kids again”. Or maybe they’d prefer a film where two strong career criminals easily overpower a defenceless 8-year-old boy and murder him during the course of a burglary, and a film instead focusing on the trial of a mother who abandoned her son to die at the hands of these fiends?

These people are adults – and they are not your friends. They’re what the French call “les incompetent”. They cannot be trusted.

Instead, slap on your Dad’s aftershave, sledge down a staircase, and conquer your fears of the type of basement furnace which is a huge contributing factor to global warming. Then watch Home Alone (two Oscar nominations and highest-grossing comedy of all-time) and remember when you promised yourself you’d never be like them when you grew up.

Read the 12 Days of Christmas Films so far. If you want to watch Home Alone you’ll have to buy it. It’s already been on.

No, Die Hard isn’t my favourite Christmas film.

die hardYou don’t often hear Bridget Jones’s Diary referred to as a Christmas film, despite the presence of a certain reindeer jumper, and London being dusted in an inch of fake snow throughout. Similarly, the Belgian Tourist Office’s hitman documentary In Bruges isn’t the first feature you expect to see when opening your festive Radio Times. And yet Die Hard, the tale of a heist masquerading as a terrorist attack, seems to be a default response for many people when asked to name their favourite Christmas film. (Though, for me, this same response recently uttered in the aforementioned TV tome, by a certain bumbling film columnist has now rendered this proclamation anything but cool.)

We conducted an entirely unscientific analysis of Die Hard as a stand alone Christmas movie. Stripped of all rockets, ineffectual SWAT teams, and carpet based jetlag cures, it went a little something like this.

INT. A PLANE – EVENING
The plane, containing a nervous looking John McClane, lands.

AIR STEWARDESS
Welcome to LA. Merry Christmas.

No longer nervous looking John McClane departs the plane carrying a giant teddy bear. Bells are ringing.

INT. NAKATOMI CORPORATION OFFICES – EVENING
The offices are decorated with Christmas trees and a party is under way.

NAKATOMI BOSS GUY
Happy New Year!

INT. SOME SWANKY HOUSE IN LA – EVENING

LITTLE KID WHO SHOULD PROBABLY BE IN BED
Mom, when are you coming home? Is Daddy coming home soon?
I promise I haven’t searched the house for presents.

INT. A LIMO – EVENING
John McClane rides in the passenger seat. Run DMC’s Christmas in Hollis plays loudly.

JOHN MCCLANE
Don’t you have any Christmas music?

LIMO DRIVER
This is Christmas music!

INT. NAKATOMI CORPORATION OFFICES – EVENING
Jingle Bells plays as John McClare strolls down a corridor.

INT. MCCLANE’S WIFE’S OFFICE – EVENING
John McClane meets his wife, her boss, and her colleague.

JOHN MCCLANE
Some vaguely racist quip expressing surprise that they celebrate Christmas in Japan.

INT. AN EMPTY OFFICE – EVENING
There is a desk with a Christmas tree on it.

INT. ELEVATOR ON UNKNOWN FLOOR – NIGHT
John McClane holds a lifeless body, spots a large plastic snowman in a Christmas outfit, laughs to himself.

INT. ELEVATOR ON HOSTAGE FLOOR – NIGHT
A gang of mean looking men discover a dead body wearing a Santa hat, with a Christmas inscription written on its jumper. The note reads: “Now I have a machine gun. Ho-ho-ho.”

EXT. CENTURY CITY – NIGHT
A lone police car pootles towards the Nakatomi building, before doing a lap of the driveway which is lined with trees covered in fairy lights.

INT. NAKATOMI CORPORATION LOBBY – NIGHT
An unwitting cop bids the lobby security guard farewell, having carried out some kind of basic search.

UNWITTING COP
Merry Christmas to you!

Unwitting cop strolls out of the building singing ‘Let It Snow’ having concluded there is nothing wrong in the building. Moments later, a dead body is thrown onto the bonnet of his car from height.

INT. NAKATMOI VAULT DOORS – NIGHT

GEEKY LOOKING BADDIE
‘Twas the night before Christmas,
and all through the house,
not a creature was stirring, except…
the four assholes coming in the rear in standard two-by-two cover formation.

INT. NAKATOMI VAULT ROOM – NIGHT

BOSS BADDIE
It’s Christmas, Theo, it’s the time of miracles.
So be of good cheer and call me when you hit the last lock.

EXT. A MANHOLE NEAR THE NAKATOMI BUILDING – NIGHT
One tall FBI agent, one short FBI agent, an engineer and a deputy chief of police who has an air of being recently usurped are talking.

RECENTLY USURPED LOOKING DEPUTY CHIEF OF POLICE
Are you crazy? It’s Christmas Eve!
Thousands of people – the Mayor’ll scream bloody murder

EXT. THE REMAINS OF THE NAKATOMI BUILDING – NIGHT
The limo driver, now very dishevelled, walks through piles of dead bodies and general explosion rubble, gets into limo.

DISHEVELLED LIMO DRIVER
If this is their idea of Christmas
I gotta be here for New Year’s.

Let It Snow plays.

FADE OUT

Other than that it’s a few shots of a bearer bonds robbery with an artificial tree in the background, external shots of building explosions framed by street light decorations, and the occasional light up Santa perched on a desk, as an office chair gets loaded with C4 and lobbed down an elevator shaft.

I did an equally scientific ‘What’s your favourite Christmas film that isn’t Die Hard’ twitter poll. The result was overwhelmingly Elf. Compare Die Hard to Elf on a frame by frame Christmas basis, and Willis doesn’t stand a chance. No North Pole, no department store, Santa and his sleigh are nowhere to be seen, and there is a distinct lack of James Caan on piano.

But that’s ok. The month of December isn’t just about spreading Christmas cheer by singing loud for all to hear. It’s also about defending corporations from German faux terrorists. And Bruce Willis in a white vest, punctuating every other sentence with ‘fuck’. Die Hard is a truly magnificent film, and it just happens to be set at Christmas.

Watch Die Hard Sunday 16 December 9pm Film4