Title

Oh No, It's Christmas Movie Time!

Christopher Fowler
  This year comedy has been forced into virtual extinction. Looking through the seasonal films it feels as if Christmas has become just another Netflix category, colour-coded in red, white and gold. The worst offenders are 'Slumberland', featuring charisma-bypass Jason Momoa, which takes Windsor McKay's delightful 1905 comic strip original and removes everything joyful about it. The strip owed its fame to an almost forensic sense of design and disorienting visuals. Now it's about a girl in a lighthouse. Go figure. Almost as awful is another stupid idea; 'Scrooge: A Christmas Carol', a glittery jazz-hands remake of Leslie Bricusse's widescreen musical, which adds a pumped-up but already dated beat to the songs, utterly slaughtering them, not that the tinies will mind. Peer into Santa's grab bag and you'll find many other unwanted streaming presents. The offering that just about passes muster is 'Spirited', with Will Ferrell and Ryan Reynolds. The songs offer some peculiarly fanciful lessons about British life which will amuse, and a ridiculously complicated modern-day backstory about the Christmas spirits, but driven by two charming leads (it says here) it scrapes through. Which leaves 'Matilda', from Tim Minchin via Working Title (a company that mostly makes family films). My fear was less whether it would be any good than whether they'd turn it into another 'Cats' horror show. (I note with interest that 'Avatar: The Way of Water' is getting equivalent reviews in the UK but not in the US). In 'Roald Dahl's Matilda' Director Matthew Warchus has taken the primary coloured hyperreal 'Amelie' approach, which suits the material perfectly. Several songs have gone (without much heartbreak, although I miss the clever lyrics to 'Telly'), performances are faultess and only two things bother me. Emma Thompson's Miss Trunchbull is fine enough but on stage Bertie Carvel stole the show with a performance of borderline insanity. Second, the biggest and best number, the film's shivery centrepiece 'When I Grow Up', may reduce grown-ups to tears onstage but here it has been messed around with so much that it barely exists. In the play the staging is simple; children on playground swings turn into their adult selves as they soar above our heads. Now they choppily gallop about in racing cars while the song gets buried in the background.  Why should Christmas become a dumping ground for sugar-coated films like 'Slumberland'? Guillermo Del Toro has received curiously mixed reviews for the more adult-oriented Pinocchio but has managed to bring fresh life to a well-known story. Its film adds a dark political context and interesting religious iconography, and makes the puppet a Bunyonesque pilgrim's journey from birth through pain and joy to death. The result - I thought - is a film milestone that's utterly wonderful, from its hand-crafted design to its enchanting soundtrack. An illuminating script, non-anthropomorphic creature animation and some brilliant reinventions turn this into a profound experience, although I was sodden with tears by the end. Apparently the American religious right didn't care for it. Maybe I'm not a good judge of Christmas, just movies; I watched Capra's 'It's a Wonderful Life' for the first time last night and did not enjoy it at all. Maybe if I'd seen it fifty years earlier...  

Comments

Phil (not verified) Thu, 15/12/2022 - 13:27

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I have never understood whta the fuss is about 'It's A Wonderful Life' I prefer to rely on the film guide in Private Eye and am hoping for yet another re-run of 'They Flew To Bruges' :)

Ace (not verified) Thu, 15/12/2022 - 14:52

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Well, there you go again --- raising another metaphysical question: what is a 'Christmas film?' If a film falls in the yuletide without sugar plum fairies is it a Christmas movie ? There are (by my last count) at least four possibilities (and their advocates): (A) indisputable films actually about Christmas, (B) set in the Christmas time period, (C) films with a nod to Crimbo with a scene or song or two or --- (D) films you simply watch as a tradition or as part of a ritual during the holiday season, but exhibit neither "good tidings of great joy" nor have "seven swans a-swimming." The categories are certainly not mutually exclusive but you do get strange bedfellows like: 'Die Hard' (B and C), 'Gremlins' (B), Bergman's 'Fanny and Alexander' (C) and yes --- as irreverent as it may seem --- 'It's a Wonderful Life' as a B category entry (IMHO) since it is more about George Bailey's life than Christmas. Et cetera.

Jamie (not verified) Thu, 15/12/2022 - 18:25

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Over here in the States it's nearly impossible to avoid It's a Wonderful Life at this time of year. I don't understand its saccharine appeal, but then I also don't understand the draw of the Minions either.

My favorite Christmas movie is the flawed but wonderful Christmas in Connecticut, with Barbara Stanwyck.

David Ronaldson (not verified) Thu, 15/12/2022 - 18:55

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I watched It's a Wonderful Life when I was young and so now carry it with me each December like treasured bauble. I love Scrooge! the musical and so feel safe to pre-hate the remake. I confess to re-watching Christmas sitcom episodes on Britbox, but am virtually housebound through illness so am pleasing myself.

Isn't it a bit late for a sequel to Dances With Smurfs?

Helen+Martin (not verified) Thu, 15/12/2022 - 19:32

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

We have always watched the Alistair Sims Christmas Carol because my husband claaims it is perfect. (It isn't, but what do I know?) The other night we watched A Christmas Carol with Richard Grant and Patrick Stewart (1999) and the husband said it was just about on a par with the great Alistair. All the big lines were there but I noticed some tampering in the corners. Being in colour you notice all the bits and pieces, the stall holders and passers by, which don't draw the eye in black and white.
Another one that is big in North America is "Miracle on 34th St" which my mother despised as saccharine and I don't like for the crossover between fantasy and everyday and the fact that it is a paean of praise for merchandising in New York.
Do you think Wonderful Life was an attempt to give the US a native Christmas Carol? The saccharine is there alright and did we need the angel winning its wings? Since it was 1946 perhaps that's there as a parallel to an airman getting his wings?
Otherwise, there's Lethal Weapon in the same category as Die Hard.
I don't watch retellings of the Christmas story because those so often drip with saccharine and they leave out the horror of Rachel Mourning for her children. Not surprising since it would certainly take the shine off the angels and frighten away the kings on their camels. No, for that I'll stick with the children in bathrobes and tinsel halos. We even had a sheepdog costume in with the shepherds one year. The last two years we had the pageant via Zoom which was very different but surprisingly almost worked.

Ace (not verified) Thu, 15/12/2022 - 19:46

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Sorry admin but 'Slumberland' and ‘Scrooge: A Christmas Carol’ don't even move the needle (IMHO) when it comes to the worst of the Christmas filmic efforts. As the 'Film Freak' you must remember such crimes against cinema as 'The Nutcracker in 3D,' and 'The Christmas Candle.' Off the top of my head --- two on a long list of painful attempts at making merry.

Joel (not verified) Thu, 15/12/2022 - 19:46

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

have always hated "it's a wonderful life"...i typically watch "white christmas" which make my gay heart sing with the music, costumes, dancing, and mary wickes...i also always watch "how the grinch stole christmas" and "charlie brown christmas"...my favorite scrooge is "scrooged" with bill murray..."meet me in st louis" is a year in the life, but because it ends with christmas (except for the very end when they all go to the fair), i always think of it as a christmas movie...heaven save me from hallmark christmas movies...my mom watches them, but she is at an age, where she has become frightened by a lot of what goes on in the world, so she sticks with hallmark, which is fine by me...it's when she tries to get us all to watch one that my soul just withers and dies...but i do, cuz i love her, and she wants to share an experience with me, and she could be dead tomorrow, so really, giving up a couple hrs to just be with her is worth it...but i still hate hallmark in all it's white blandness...love guillermo, so looking forward to seeing his vision...pinnochio has always made me uneasy, so this should be a great

Roger (not verified) Thu, 15/12/2022 - 20:13

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

David Thomson, in the wonderful Suspects, uses It’s a Wonderful Life to connect classic noir films and reveals its own noir elements. Watch it from that angle and it's very far from saccharine.

Brooke (not verified) Thu, 15/12/2022 - 22:42

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

What Helen said. And Miracle on 34th Street is really a heavy handed promotion of post ww2 US consumerism. Remember the young hero lawyer want to buy a junior two bedroom suburban house and the final scene takes place in a Levittown planned community.

Enjoy the holidays, all.

Joan (not verified) Thu, 15/12/2022 - 23:03

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

What about Joyeux Noel, a wonderful film about an unofficial truce and spontaneous soccer game between opposing sides on the Western Front! Based on a true event, that happened on Christmas Eve,1914.

Jackie (not verified) Fri, 16/12/2022 - 03:49

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Yes, someone else that enjoyed Pinocchio, I really enjoyed it and very taken that it was all stop start animation. I thought it was going to go a bit “Pet Cemetary” at one stage but it was heartwarming and wonderful.

Bob Low (not verified) Fri, 16/12/2022 - 07:44

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

"It's A Wonderful Life" is a fascinating film. I first watched it on television as part of a Frank Capra season on BBC2 one year in mid-Summer. It's beautifully made and acted but it's final message seems to be that the only thing that stands between a genuinely good, community minded, selfless man and destruction at the hands of an evil local business magnate is a corny, last minute supernatural intervention - which, when you think about it, is actually more harrowing than heart-warming.

Peter T (not verified) Fri, 16/12/2022 - 08:56

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I agree with Bob Low. "It's a Wonderful Life" has a decent story, though there may be doubts about the angel. Most Christmas films don't.

Richard (not verified) Fri, 16/12/2022 - 09:44

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Few Christmas movies are prefaced with a warning about suicide. I agree with Roger and others that Frank Capra's 'It's a Wonderful Life' is a chilling film noir and an effective condemnation of soulless capitalism.

Bob Low (not verified) Fri, 16/12/2022 - 13:31

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Richard - I couldn't agree more about the film noir description. The darkness and cruelty of the events in the second half of the film are so powerfully portrayed that they tend to drown out all the "Merry Christmas" stuff at the end. I think it's a genuinely fine film, but a bit too unsettling to be a regular Festive watch.

Peter T (not verified) Fri, 16/12/2022 - 14:11

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I would give credit to James Stewart. He had a capacity to show a pain that cut to the character's soul. It raised the quality of the westerns he made in later years.

Ace (not verified) Fri, 16/12/2022 - 15:43

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Bob/Peter --- The use of an other-worldly figure is a trope that somehow feels right to me in what technically celebrates or commemorates a religious event --- as banal as it may seem as a story device. Certainly used to effect by Dickens. Then there's the underappreciated (IMHO) 'The Bishop's Wife' with Cary Grant as David Niven's guardian angel of sorts --- and probably several more ostensibly 'Christmas films' with supernatural beings or overtones which don't immediately come to mind. Maybe even including 'Miracle on 34th Street.' suggested by its figurative 'wink' or 'nose tap' about Father Christmas/Santa. And whilst I do agree that 'Clarence' is a somewhat jarring addition to the plot of 'It's a Wonderful Life' --- it works for me -- or in the event, allows me to suspend disbelief --- because of Capra's unique take on what could be a trite piece of business in lesser hands: showing George Bailey what life for others would be like if he never existed.

Chris Erickson (not verified) Fri, 16/12/2022 - 16:52

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

A Child's Christmas in Wales with Denholm Elliott is a must watch for us each year. Even better is to listen to Dylan Thomas reading it with just the tree lights twinkling in the room. And I have to give a shout out to Elf which always makes me smile. Merry Christmas and peace and joy to you all!

Helen+Martin (not verified) Fri, 16/12/2022 - 18:46

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Chris E. One of the highlights of the season when I was in my teens was the recording of Dylan Thomas reading A Child's Christmas in Wales. Somehow the film doesn't come up to my imagination. Hurling the snowballs into the fire and the elderly lady .asking the fire brigade if they'd like something to read. Even better was the whispery voice echoing the boys' singing from behind the door of the scary house.

roxanne g reynolds (not verified) Fri, 16/12/2022 - 19:03

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

i cannot abide 'it's a wonderful life.' i much prefer 'a christmas story' which still cracks me up after all these years. 'a charlie brown christmas' with the classic vince guaraldi soundtrack still tugs my heartstrings.

Debra Matheney (not verified) Fri, 16/12/2022 - 21:36

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Joyeux Noel is my pick. Most are too sappy.

Ed DesCamp (not verified) Sat, 17/12/2022 - 01:50

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Chris. I see the nurses have gone out on strike. I hope you are able to get the care and treatment you need.

Helen+Martin (not verified) Sat, 17/12/2022 - 05:22

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Ed, I think they're doing spot strikes; one shift out picketing and then nothing for a week. It's too bad that they've had to do this after 150 years.

Ed DesCamp (not verified) Sat, 17/12/2022 - 06:34

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Thanks, Helen. Coverage here south of the border is somewhat sketchy.
To everyone who has been on this blog over the years, Merry Christmas/Happy Hanukkah/Whatever Floats Your Boat. Thank you for the wonderful entertainment, each and every one!

Cornelia Appleyard (not verified) Sat, 17/12/2022 - 11:58

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Nurses are continuing emergency and palliative care.
As they have said, clapping on doorsteps doesn’t pay the bills. Let’s hope people realise what life would be like if they leave the NHS for better paid jobs.

Peter T (not verified) Sat, 17/12/2022 - 16:16

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Let's hope Clarence can get George back in action and save us from Pottersville. Merry Yuletide to everyone!

Ace (not verified) Sat, 17/12/2022 - 17:33

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Cornelia --- The number of nurses --- and highly trained and experienced ones at that --- leaving the NHS for better paying jobs and working conditions in the past year alone would be shocking enough by itself until you understand the multiplier impact this has on the health and welfare of an already suffering and aging population. Apparently the 'Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come' has indeed come, thanks to outright dereliction or,at best, benign neglect of the NHS, as an engine driving a poorly disguised ulterior motive.

For I've grown a little leaner, grown a little colder
Grown a little sadder, grown a little older
And I need a little angel sitting on my shoulder
Need a little Christmas now

For we need a little music, need a little laughter
Need a little singing ringing through the rafter
And we need a little snappy, happy ever after
We need a little Christmas now

With a tip of the cap to Angela Lansbury's 'Mame' and to all this holiday season.The light at the end of the tunnel is still flickering.

Des Burkinshaw (not verified) Sat, 17/12/2022 - 23:05

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I was groomed by Stephen Fry re: It's A Wonderful Life. In Paperweight he said something about watching it and "have just picked myself up from the floor, sobbing, like any right-minded person would do." That's a paraphrase, but enough of the gist. Intrigued, I watched and was genuinely moved. By the time it had become a tradition in our house, I was indeed a Fryean Sobber.
Sims' Scrooge is peerless, surely?
White Christmas for the music.
Jeremy Brett's Sherlock episode of The Blue Carbuncle.
Talking of things to watch, I hope you've all watched Wednesday on Netflix for a quite astonishing performance from Jenna Ortega

snowy (not verified) Sat, 17/12/2022 - 23:10

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

As we approach the final sprint of the annual festival of moving absolute tat from Chinese warehouses to local landfill, some timely shopping advice from a century ago:

<blockquote>
"The first rule in buying Christmas presents is to select something shiny.

If the object chosen is of leather, the leather must look as if it had just been well greased: if of silver, it must gleam with that light which, as the poet so well says, never was on sea or land. Books are very popular for that reason. There is probably nothing in existence which can look so shiny as a collected works of Longfellow, Tennyson or Wordsworth.

I have seen a common house-fly alight on the back of a Christmas edition of Rabindranath Tagore which I had given to my Uncle James and slide the whole length of the volume, eventually shooting off with incredible velocity and stunning itself against the wall. Many smart people, indeed, strew their drawing-rooms with books which have been wished on them in the merry season of Yule for no other reason than to encompass the dissolution of such flies as may have escaped the swatting of the lower servants told off for that purpose.

They may also be used as mirrors.

My only objection to the custom of giving books as Christmas presents is perhaps the selfish one that it encourages and keeps in the game a number of writers who would be far better employed if they abandoned the pen and took to work.

Publishers rely on the festive season to help them to get rid of all these bulky volumes which they have published at intervals during the past twelve months to oblige their wives' relations."
</blockquote>

Extracted from 'Just what I wanted' by P G Wodehouse - under the pen name of P. Brooke-Haven in Vanity Fair

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If your mind does stray book-ward, here are a few neglected titles that would fit the festive season, [ie. like those strange paper plates of fake orange and lemon slices made of sugar, that nobody ever admitted to buying and wouldn't be tolerated at any other time of the year].

'The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding', Agatha Christie [Short story collection]

<blockquote>
An English country house at Christmas time should be the perfect place to get away from it all - but nothing is ever simple for Hercule Poirot, as he finds not one but five baffling cases to solve.

First comes a sinister warning on his pillow to avoid the plum pudding...then the discovery of a corpse in a chest...next, an overheard quarrel that leads to murder...the strange case of a dead man's eating habits...and the puzzle of a victim who dreams of his own suicide.
</blockquote>

'Christmas Pudding', Nancy Mitford

<blockquote>
An outbreak of hoof-and-mouth disease may have terminated the hunting at the Compton Bobbins' in the Cotswolds, but it has not dampened the Yuletide spirit of the Bright Young Things who find themselves among the oddly assorted guests of the not-so young and quite formidable Lady Maria Bobbin. Philadelphia, Lady Bobbin's serenely beautiful daughter, meets the advances of the very eligible, and equally dull, Lord Lewis and of the charming but penniless Paul Fotheringay, whose terribly serious first novel has, to his dismay, just been hailed by critics as the funniest book of the year.
</blockquote>

'Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm', Stella Gibbons [Short story collection]

<blockquote>
Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm recalls a Starkadder Christmas before Flora's arrival. With Adam playing Santa while draped in Mrs. Starkadders's shawls, the family shares their traditional "Christmas pudding"-a mélange containing random objects of doom foretelling the coming year: a coffin nail for death, a bad sixpence for financial ruin, and a menthol cone to indicate that the lucky recipient will go "blind wi' headache."
</blockquote>

Also available:

'The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle', Arthur Conan Doyle

'Bertie's Christmas Eve', Saki

'Another Christmas Carol ', P.G. Wodehouse

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Films? A Christmas film is any film that makes you happy; that you watch at Christmas.

[I might hunt out a copy of 'The Italian Job', if there is nothing else worth watching.]

Roger (not verified) Sun, 18/12/2022 - 11:51

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

A Christmas Garland by Max Beerbohm, depicting the Christmases pf many of Beerbohm's contemporaries - some still known now some forgotten. It's interesting to try to work out from these parodic fragments what is the key to literary survival.
Also High Spirits by Robertson Davies. As Master of Massey College in the University of Toronto, Davies had remarkably bad (or good, depending on your view) luck in encountering a series of eminent phantoms.

snowy (not verified) Mon, 19/12/2022 - 23:12

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

For those that like a little extra Bah, with their Humbug, there are a few other films for this time of year, [ie. set around Christmas]:

Anna and the Apocalypse - Teen Zombie Horror Musical! [If this is insufficiently strange there is always Repo! The Genetic Opera]

Await Further Instructions - Brit Indie Horror, if you think being stuck with the family all day at Christmas is bad, it can get worse, much worse.

Batman Returns - Slightly mainstream, but on re-examination it's 'Freud for Dummies' somehow turned into a screenplay by somebody on very strong medication, and then directed by Tim Burton.

Brazil - Needs no introduction, except US readers may not have seen the original version, the US version had very a different ending.

Like Spanish horror?

The Day of the Beast [El día de la bestia] - If you took a copy of 'The Exorcist' and a copy of 'The Omen', put both in a shredder, divided the result into two piles, burnt one and then decided to make a film out of what was left; in Spanish, with jokes. [Won 6 Goya Awards].

And for those that want to avoid IAWL, but still fancy something retro:

The Man Who Came to Dinner [1942], Bette Davis and Ann Sheridan in a non-stop Bitch-off, with Monty Woolley as 'Sheridan Whiteside', a character that makes Sir Lancelot Spratt look like the epitome of polite tact.

Wayne Mook (not verified) Tue, 20/12/2022 - 13:06

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

It's a Wonderful Life I enjoyed even if it does go Twilight Zone for a spell, and it is over 2 hours long. The 1st half is a bit stodgy but Barrymore's Potter is fun, he would have been a great Scrooge, the second is more fun. I think we are in good hands. My 11 yr old enjoyed it, but we did watch from when he is about to jump.

Gremlins is a Christmas film, rushing back home and picking up a present, it runs like an extended warning of the old like, a dog isn't just for Christmas. It even has a good reason why someone no longer believes in Santa Claus, plus there is the female version of Potter/Scrooge and a warning about stairlifts. it is about Christmas and it's commercialisation.

Rare Exports is a fun Finnish Christmas film.

Wayne.

Paul c (not verified) Tue, 20/12/2022 - 16:48

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Best Xmas film is The Nightmare Before Christmas which is perfect. I also like Black Christmas but I'm very weird....

Rich (not verified) Wed, 21/12/2022 - 11:16

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Holiday Affair with Janet Leigh and Robert Mitchum is a Christmas film I love.
I had the misfortune of watching the 1995 remake of Miracle on 34th Street in the cinema. I was horrified at the materialistic message.

Wayne Mook (not verified) Wed, 21/12/2022 - 12:41

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Paul be warned they did a remake of Black Christmas, and agree with The Nightmare Before Christmas.

Wayne.

Paul c (not verified) Wed, 21/12/2022 - 17:23

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Cheers, Wayne.
Sad to see director Mike Hodges died today. Get Carter remains a cult favourite here in Newcastle - the Victoria Comet pub where Michael Caine buys a pint still has a commemorative plaque. My grandad was an extra but was mortified after dragging about 25 people to see the film that he wound up on the cutting room floor.
Anyone here been an extra ?

snowy (not verified) Wed, 21/12/2022 - 23:50

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Film extra? Never wittingly, there was the time two very large men were extraordinarily keen to usher me ONTO a film set.

Wayne, food for Xmas....

Stocking filler, if you can find a decent chocolate shop, look out for bags of 'Pommes de Terre', chocs that look <i>exactly</i> like raw New Potatoes.

Snack/Nibble, 'KurKure Naughty Tomato' only available from local stores that carry a proper range of 'Indian Groceries'. [The contents of the packet look like the broken fingers of mummified children, and taste like they are coated in Napalm, lightly dusted with Red Phosphorus.

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[I have to say if this is 'Naughty Tomato', I'm absolutely terrified at the idea of 'Seriously Pissed-Off Pomegranate'.]

Wayne Mook (not verified) Wed, 28/12/2022 - 15:15

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

The salted caramel M&amp;S cheese cake was a winner, I think I would take a pass on the Naughty Tomato. I wonder what the horrible haddock by like? Sorry went a bit Ken Reid and his world wide weirdies, at the end there.

I'll have to see what I can find in the way of chocolates but it is a bit of a trog to my nearest chocolatier. Thanks for the tip Snowy.

I think Get Carter is one of the best British gangster films, Mike Hodges was a sad loss Paul.

Wayne.