Think of a Christmas film. Maybe you thought of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life‘ or ‘The Muppet Christmas Carol‘. Maybe you need your Christmas schmaltz to be tempered, so thought of ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas‘ instead. If you were a bit more lateral you might have thought of ‘Home Alone‘, ‘Gremlins‘ or ‘Love, Actually‘ which are also set at Christmas. But you probably did not think of a homo-erotic drama set in a Japanese PoW camp (‘Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence‘). There are so many schlocky films where somebody like Tim Allen dresses up in a red suit and acts good, or somebody like Billy Bob Thornton dresses up in a red suit and acts bad, you may have forgotten all the films where Christmas features prominently in the story, but which also managed to be so much more. Luckily, you have me to remind you. When sat in front of the tellybox this festive season, here are ten excuses to change the mood and enjoy something different.
10. Eyes Wide Shut
The last film made by the obsessive Stanley Kubrick, Eyes Wide Shut is less a story about the sexual imagination of two people, and more of an excuse for Kubrick’s imagery. Kubrick paints with a vivid palette that cuts between sensuous reds to offset radiant skin, and icy blues that reflect the dark hungers of the soul. Real-life star couple Kidman and Cruise play the married protagonists, but the story itself dances on the boundaries with the surreal. The character’s dreams are merged with the dream-like events that happen to them, leaving the viewer disoriented about what is happening in the world and what is happening in the character’s minds. In the final scene, thoughts are equated with actions. Kidman revels in fantasies about infidelity, but turns down the one real-life lothario that she comes across. Tom goes cruising for sex, gets into trouble, and is frightened back into his wife’s arms. But the real star of the movie is Kubrick’s backdrops, which is also why it fails to be erotic. No matter how good the drapes look, they will never turn me on. Kidman and Cruise do their best, but ultimately they have to settle for being gorgeous mannequins in a Kubrick set piece. Whether at a fabulous party, a costume shop, a sumptuous orgy, or the deserted streets at night, the movie transports us through the hinterland of the subconscious. The bright lights of Christmas can be cold and distant, and are used to frame this moving picture artwork. Take a look at this scene where Cruise finds himself being followed:
The film does leave you asking one question, though. Why do I never get invited to parties to like that?
There are teen movies that are made for teens who want teen movies, and there are teen movies that are made for people who think they are old enough to know better. Go is a superior example of the latter. It has all the hallmarks of a movie on the cusp of indie and Hollywood. A cast of good-looking emerging stars eat up the dialogue in a multi-threaded plot. The ribbon of story ties together all those favourite devices of drugs, cars, crime, sex, guns, and violence, and wraps it in the shiny tinsel paper setting of Christmas in Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Diving into the plot and motivation of the characters is not recommended, as any apparent depth is an optical illusion. One to watch when the kids are in bed and you are still pickling your brain on what is left of the party booze.
8. Lethal Weapon
This is the Hollywood buddy cop movie with edge. Before the franchise was watered down with the likes of Joe Pesci and Chris Rock, Gibson and Glover came as close to granite as you can get in a mainstream action flick. As the suicidal Riggs, distraught over the death of his wife, Gibson delivers a performance that is straight out of the watch-out-I-am-very-disturbed-and-might-go-mental-at-any-moment drawer. Setting the film at Christmas is a simple way to add depth to this emotional undercurrent. Check out the scene where Riggs contemplates ending all his troubles:
7. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
When they make the effort, Robert Downey Jr. and Val Kilmer can out-act most of the rest of Hollywood. Fortunately for the audience, they were both ready for action when they showed up at the shooting of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. This black comedy crime caper is sometimes too clever and too black for its own good, but the scintillating dialogue lights up the movie when Downey Jr. and Kilmer are on screen. It is the story of a petty thief mistaken for an actor who reunites at an LA Christmas party with the girl he had a crush upon in childhood, only to become embroiled with her and his metrosexual private eye acting coach in a murder mystery that… Forget me trying to explain the plot. If you have not seen it already, then watch it and find out for yourself. To whet your appetite, here is a choice cut from this juicy script:
6. While You Were Sleeping
Along with Speed, this film turned Sandra Bullock into a star, and she has never been better. Romances sprinkled with touches of comedy and pathos are always delicate affairs. Get the mix too heavy, and they are unpalatable to anyone but the desperately sentimental. Too few ingredients, and they evaporate before you can taste them. They demand actors that can stay believable when both silly and serious, without letting either kind of scene overpower the flavour of the movie. Bullock shines as the lead character in this movie. She plays a lonely girl with a crush on a stranger that buys train tickets from her booth, and is then mistaken for his fiancé when he falls into a coma. Bill Pullman is also at his best as Bullock’s comic and romantic foil. Choosing to set this story at Christmas may seem like overkill, but it was handled as gently as the rest of this surprisingly tender and heartwarming story. If you want a masterclass in Christmas romance, you will not get better.
Having read my review, you may think While You Were Sleeping is at least half-decent. Unfortunately, you would not think so from the movie trailer, which just confirms what I said about how hard it is to get the balance right. Here it is anyway.
5. Batman Returns
Tim Burton was the movie maverick who started Hollywood down the dark path which has brought us to the most recent Batman movies and Heath Ledger’s spellbindingly unhinged take on ‘The Joker’. When Burton first unleashed his gothic vision of Gotham City, it set nerves racing. After directing the visually stunning, creepy, enormously successful but ultimately quite bland Batman, Burton had licence to take the follow-up, Batman Returns, deeper into the cave of Bruce Wayne’s psyche. The result is an eerie concoction. Sewers of explosive penguins are commanded by a deformed Danny DeVito. Christopher Walken is the corrupt businessman in extremis. His character’s name, Max Shreck, is a reference to the actor who was the original screen vampire, Nosferatu. Michael Keaton inhabits the rubber suit with an embodiment of the phrase “still waters run deep”. The change to Batman’s love interest completes the swing in the mood. Goody-goody reporter Vicky Vale from the first film is out, replaced by the cartwheeling, nine-lives, tight-stitched Catwoman of Michelle Pfeiffer. Though it looks a little tame by recent standards, Burton’s Batman Returns was too much for the Hollywood machine, which handed the directorial baton into the much safer hands of Joel Schumacher. Batman Returns is certainly not your typical Christmas flick. This is the scene where Shreck lights Gotham’s Christmas tree, only to be interrupted by the Penguin…
4. Edward Scissorhands
Tim Burton must have a thing about Christmas. As well as Batman Returns and The Nightmare Before Christmas, he also directed Edward Scissorhands. Scissorhands is perhaps the most personal of Burton’s unlikely festive treats. It is a modern inversion of a morality play, where the unfinished Edward remains good and innocent despite the provocations of the corrupting townsfolk. Edward, like many a misunderstood teenage goth or emo, may look scary, but is timid and has a sensitive soul. His early Christmas present from his creator, a pair of hands, does not arrive early enough. His maker, played by Vincent Price, dies whilst showing the hands to Johnny, and they are never fitted, leaving Edward with blades instead. After his misadventures with the townsfolk, Edward is forced back into hiding at the deserted house of his creator. Even so, the film ends with Edward showering down a present on the town below – the ‘snow’ created by the whirlwind creation of his ice sculptures. The eponymous lead is beautifully played by Johnny Depp, and he is ably supported by a tremendous cast including the gorgeous Winona Ryder. Depp imbues his fantastic character with a real gravity. In this scene, Edward is helping with the Christmas decorations:
3. Trading Places
Commodities trading used to be so simple. Time was, you could take an ordinary guy off the street, suggest to him that he should buy low and sell high, and before you knew it he would corner the market in frozen orange juice. Those were the days. Back then, John Landis was a hot director (long before the ignominy of Blues Brothers 2000), Dan Aykroyd could still see his toes and could still time his punchlines, and Eddie Murphy was a rising star who went to auditions and cared about being funny. Working with a great script, and a tremendous supporting cast including Denholm Elliott (best ever English butler), Jamie Lee Curtis (best ever tart with a heart and best ever superfluous money shot), Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche (best ever rich scheming billionaire baddies) they made a timeless gem of a movie in Trading Places. Not only do the baddies turn the lives of Aykroyd and Murphy upside down, they do it at Christmas! Thankfully, the heroes end up joining forces and hatch a scheme to turn the tables on the crooked arch-capitalists.
In this scene, our Murphy’s character shows the billionaires that he really has the inside ‘juice’ on how the commodities markets work. If only the rest of the world understood it as clearly…
Dystopian futures never come as dystopian, or as fantastic, as the dystopian futures created by director and ex-Monty Python Terry Gilliam. In Gilliam’s future, they do not just torture you – they ruin your credit rating by making you pay for the electricity. Long before the war on terror, Gilliam’s vision is one of a repressive government squeezing the life out of its own people, in the name of safeguarding their security. In this world, government is not just ruthless and inhuman, it is also bureaucratic and incompetent. Gilliam rightly sees that their bungling inability to identify who their enemies are, and their production-line punishment of the innocents that they catch instead, makes them scarier still. But this being Gilliam, we also get caught up in the story of a man just trying to make the system work well enough and long enough to allow him to find the woman of his dreams. In Brazil, the always superb Jonathan Pryce excels as the hapless protagonist Sam Lowry. Along the way his paths cross with a real assortment of characters that only populate a mind like Gilliam’s. Robert De Niro puts in a performance of unusual verve and originality for his later career, playing a ‘terrorist’ plumber who is the only man wiling to turn down the heat in Lowry’s flat. Another Python, Michael Palin, is cast as Lowry’s more career-minded friend. He not only tortures people for a living, he changes the name of his wife to fit in with a mistake made by his boss. If you have not seen it, I will not spoil the ending, and I promise you will not be able to predict how this Christmas story ends. Did you expect the predictable from a Python? This clip shows the opening of the film…
1. Die Hard
No matter how bad your office party was, it was not as bad as the one held in Nakatomi Tower, downtown LA, 1988. It was not a good party, but it was a truly great blockbuster movie – good enough to spawn three sequels. Bruce Willis is John McClane, the wise-cracking NYPD cop in the wrong place at the wrong time. Alan Rickman is Hans Gruber, the smooth and sophisticated European terrorist turned master thief. In Die Hard you cannot take your eyes off either. Combine them with a great script, tremendous direction, pacy editing and top stunt action, and you get the best Christmas film you completely forgot was about Christmas. Willis and Rickman are individually brilliant, and because the film keeps cutting backwards and forwards between them, Die Hard has a wonderful dramatic rhythm that few action films can recreate. This is the scene where they first face each other:
Die Hard has it all, and raised the bar for every action movie afterwards. It is exciting. It is well written. It is funny. By the time they got to version 4.0, they had started to run out of good ideas, buy anyone would struggle to match the original Die Hard. Another of its incredible strengths is how well paced it is. You get a little breather every so often, and then…
Helping to keep the film engaging and moving at the same time, the film delivers an intriguing array of supporting characters. You get FBI agents Johnson and Johnson (“No relation”). There is McClane’s estranged wife Holly Gennaro (“What idiot put you in charge?” “You did. When you murdered my boss.”) Sergeant Al Powell boosts the morale of McClane by talking to him over the radio, whilst Deputy Police Chief Dwayne T. Robinson makes a hash of things (“What about the body that fell out the window?” “Well, who knows? Probably some stockbroker, got depressed.”) Rounding out the ensemble we get a couple of classic buffoons in scumbag reporter Richard Thornburg, and corporate clown Harry Ellis (“I negotiate million dollar deals for breakfast. I think I can handle this Eurotrash.”) Each character gets just a few minutes to make their mark, but each character hits the mark. It takes an ambitious script to slip in so many vignettes alongside the adrenalin, but Die Hard does it with elegance and wit.
There is a lot of icing on the Die Hard Christmas cake. All the finishing touches turn an excellent film into a unique treat. McClane is a fan of Roy Rogers but no fan of flying. We find out where Gruber buys his suits. One of the henchmen helps himself to a chocolate bar whilst waiting for a shootout in the lobby. Finally, there is the music: Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, and Vaughn Monroe crooning “Let it snow! Let is snow! Let it snow!” As a result, we get a regular subconscious reminder that all the events are set on Christmas Eve.
This festive season, try not to spend too long glued to the television. But if you do indulge, spare a thought for these forgotten classics. If you have nothing better to do, you can do worse than digging out your old video tapes or DVDs. I promise you will enjoy them far more than a re-run of The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause. All of which leaves me with only one more thing to say. Yippee-ki-yay and merry Christmas!