Monday, December 12, 2011

at Christmas, but not of Christmas

hey everyone

well, it is the season to be jolly and all that, and usually it is thus also the season to reel out the usual Christmas themed films. if you are somewhat tired of Miracle on 34th Street, It's A Wonderful Life and variants of A Christmas Carol, i thought i'd produce a list of 12 (for obvious reasons) films that are set at Christmas, but not particularly of Christmas in regards of the plot.

i will do my best to make the descriptions, apart from the time of year they are set, as spoiler free as possible!

Love Actually is perhaps the one film on this list that "cheats" a bit in terms of what i am saying, so let us get it out of the way now.
other than a sub-plot involving a Christmas present and of course the school Nativity play, there's nothing else to the film that says it has to be set at Christmas. it just is. and it's, quite frankly, wonderful.
for a number of years i avoided watching this one as it looked at surface value to be rather soppy, sentimental and silly. to a degree it is all of those, yet somehow pulls it off and is thoroughly good, heartwarming and heartbreaking entertainment. sure, if you want to watch it with the eyes of a cynic you can pick all sorts of holes in the seemingly almost idylic world in which it is set, but why would you want to do that? this film will entertain you for close on three hours if you just let it do its thing.

close to being another cheat would be Gremlins, i suppose. the fact that Gizmo was purchased as a Christmas present is neither here nor there in regards of the plot or story, though. however, do be warned - do NOT let children watch this film unless you have had a little chat with them about the realities of Father Christmas, as one of the few Christmas related scenes in the film, erm, kind of gives the game away on that one!
not that children in general should be watching it, really - it's rather violent this film is, but somehow (as is quite common with Steven Spielberg related movies) it got a very low age restriction certificate.
i suppose the best way to describe the film is that it's a horror film for people who really do not like horror films. there's a few thrills and scares in it, but mostly it's good fun. and certainly ace watching!

something that isn't good fun would be Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence. it is, quite honestly, one of the darkest and most disturbing films ever made, let alone being the darkest film ever to feature the word 'Christmas' in the title. it is also a masterpiece.
just how dark? well, it's set in a Japanese prisoner of war camp during World War II. that should tell you. and it's difficult to tell you any more of it without giving too much away, least of all why "Merry Christmas" features in the title.
musicians having a go at acting tends to miss more than it hits, but as David Bowie started off as an actor before dabbling with music this is very much a hit, as it were. Bowie is superb in this film, and given ample support by some fine acting. i cannot stress enough that this is in no way an easy film to watch, but well worth it if you are an avid fan of cinema as literature.

heavy but not quite as heavy as the above is LA Confidental. it's easy to forget that the story which inspired the novel which inspired the movie is referred to as "The Christmas Killings", thus it counts for a place on this list!
the 90s produced some amazing films, and for some reason (despite some valid Oscar recognition) people tend to forget about this one. a look at the sleazy underbelly of LA from an era that people would rather look at with rose-tinted spectacles, this is a crime drama-thriller that is as brutal as it is brilliant.
exceptional acting all around, in particular from the sadly often overlooked Guy Pearce, makes this film a must see if you have somehow missed this one.

depending on where you are in the world, this film was released either as The Ref or Hostile Hostages. to be safe, you are probably better off getting your hands on the film twice, one for each variant of the name, and just watching each as it's that good.
actors who made their name as stand up comedians have a hit and miss affair with the cinema (refer to Robin Williams' entire career in this regard), but this film was one that really, really captured the genius of Denis Leary. he plays a somewhat bungling robber who truly bungles one particular job and by chance ends up taking a couple with marital problems - to say the least - hostage whilst the heat dies down.
the humour is equally slapstick as it is cerebral, enhanced by the appearance of a relatively unknown at the time Kevin Spacey.
it's just pure co-incidence that this one happens during the Festive season, this is a great comedy to watch any time!

with all that goes on in the film, it's somewhat easy to forget that Robert Downey jnr's bizarre chain of events in the magnificent Kiss Kiss Bang Bang all start with his attempts to "obtain" a Christmas present via less than conventional means.
i have always found it rather difficult to accept that critics and audiences didn't particularly take to this film, really. at the time of release i suppose Robert Downey jnr had not been quite as "reformed and accepted" as he was by the time Iron Man came along, and Val Kilmer's odd reputation seems to put audiences off for no apparent reason. which is a shame, really, as both are superb in this film - arguably neither have been better, before or since.
what's it about? a daringly funny, noir but not noir comedy thriller is about the best i can do for you. watch and enjoy and you will understand why it's hard to give it a category.

is The Godfather really a film that has a Christmas setting in the background? oh yes, very much so!
in fairness this film covers a rather large amount of time, but a key sequence, when you think about it ("hospital bed" is all i shall say), happened at Christmas. as it was the first time one of the characters truly became involved in the family business, so to speak, it would be unfair not to include it on this list.
beyond Christmas itself actually featuring, it is the season which is perfect for watching this film. again, presumably, unless somehow you have gone your life without seeing it. the idea that this is a "mafia" or "gangster" film is and always has been sheer nonsense, at the core and heart of this film is the importance of family.
if for some reason you have never seen this film, please feel free to leave a comment saying why not, exactly. and then go and find a copy!

now then, why Stanley Kubrick should set his criminally overlooked final masterpiece Eyes Wide Shut at Christmas is a question that would not be answered even if he were still with us. perhaps it was for reasons of the illustration of family as in The Godfather mentioned above, or perhaps it simply amused the great director to do so.
this film was heavily promoted as a "Tom Cruise" film, which it certainly was not. it was a Stanley Kubrick production through and through, brilliantly showing off another investigation into the human condition, just as all his other films did. hard to believe that this is coming up to, what, 12 years old now?
if you skipped it at the time, or really didn't "get it", i would urge you to give it another or first try, really.

and, after a couple of light films, why not delve into the psychologically demanding world of Dumb And Dumber? i at least think this had Christmas in the background, although i could be just confusing it with the fact that a lot of it is about getting to, and indeed in, Aspen, known for its snow.
i am not sure i have ever laughed as hard at a film on repeat viewing as i did with this one. well, yes i did recently - Four Lions. this is one of those rare films in that it captures the spirit of a Monty Python movie, or perhaps even the late great Peter Sellers, yet very much has its own identity.
what, exactly, is it about? erm, for the most part it does exactly what it says on the box, really. as an added bonus it gives an interesting critique of John Denver at one point.

unless i am very much mistaken, the first Lethal Weapon film started off with the song Jingle Bell Rock, didn't it? there was also an early introductory scene to the character of Martin Riggs (played superbly by Mel Gibson) featuring a huge number of Christmas trees.
as with the original Rocky film, it's very very easy to forget just how brilliant the original movie was in the light of hit and miss, straying from the point sequels that followed. Gibson as a self-destructive cop partnered with a by the numbers Danny Glover was an amazing combination here. and let us not forget this featured one Gary Busey as the sinister Mr Joshua. sorry, that's a Gary Busey being very good indeed as Mr Joshua.
this lacks the comedy element of the sequels (no Joe Pesci here, and certainly no exploding toilets), but is very much one of the great action-thriller films to come out of the 80s. which is saying something, as there were some amazing ones.

speaking of which.....

Die Hard. this is the original poster for the film. look carefully - yes, that's right, the building is slightly larger than Bruce Willis, who at the time had a "troubled reputation" as the star of the TV show Moonlighting. this film took off big style and, rightly, made a huge star out of Mr Willis.
plot? it's Christmas, and Brucie is off to see his estranged wife. oh dear, a bunch of European (sort of German) terrorists have hijacked the building in which she works for reasons unclear. they were not expecting a cowboy to spoil the party.
what can i say of Die Hard that has not been said? an insane rollercoaster of action, wisecracks and Alan Rickman.
despite this being far from suitable for the whole family, increasingly i note magazines, polls and what have you are celebrating Die Hard as "the greatest Christmas film ever". it's a reasonable choice for the title, too.

but my choice for the greatest Christmas film ever has to be Trading Places. my first reaction to watching it the first time was to rewind the video tape and watch it again. and i laughed even more the second time around.
two elderly brothers, the Dukes, decide to conduct a scientific experiment to see which one wins, nature or nurture. they arrange for wealthy, educated Wall Street Broker Dan Aykroyd to switch places with down and out vagrant Eddie Murphy just to see what happens - with a bet of an interesting wager riding on the outcome. what follows presents some of the truest social commentary on the 80s in any art form, as well as some of the funniest things you shall ever see in a film.
for me neither of the leads have ever been as good in anything else as they were here, which is rather remarkable considering the somewhat better known films they are associated with. of this entire list, if you have seen none or only a few of these films, please make sure you see this one. or, indeed, watch it again. and do whatever a DVD considers to be rewind and watch once more!

well, there you have it. if this list has reminded you of some great films you haven't watched for a while, or given you reason to watch something you'd not considered giving a go, my work is done!

be excellent to each other!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
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