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Tag: Christmas

Reviews

Retro Review: It’s a Wonderful Life

December 24, 2018

With the big day fast approaching its time to review another one of my all-time favorite Christmas movies. But this is not just any Christmas movie. This is arguably not only the greatest Christmas movie ever, but one of the greatest movies of all time, period. So, join me as we look back at Frank Capra’s seminal classic, It’s a wonderful life.

The Story

Clarence, an angel hoping to get his wings, is tasked with saving George Bailey (James Stewart) from committing suicide on Christmas Eve. To figure out how to help him, Clarence looks back over George’s life. He finds that George has always put others before himself. From saving his brother from drowning when he was a child to taking over the family business when is father died. Thus, saving the town from being monopolized by the cruel Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore). But because of this he always missed out on personal opportunities. When the threat of bankruptcy emerges, George snaps. Abandoning his wife Mary (Donna Reed) and children, George slowly begins wondering if the world would have been better without him. So Clarence decides to grant George’s wish. Can Clarence save someone who has seemingly given up?

What did I like?

It’s hard to condense all the positive aspects of It’s a wonderful life into a review that doesn’t run on for over 2000 words. But I will try my best.

Firstly, the film has connected with so many people over the years because everyone can relate to the story. Everyone at some point has doubted their place in the world or had to forgo their dreams because life just gets in the way. It’s a story that really grounds the film and helps us easily relate to the situation and the characters. It is not always an easy film to watch, especially when George’s depressed attitude comes to the forefront. Which may hit some viewers a little close to home. But it’s message that no matter how small you think you are, everyone matters to someone, is something everyone wants and deserves to hear, especially at Christmas time.

With it’s grounded story, you would think the supernatural aspect would feel jarring. But it never does. Because It’s a wonderful life both smartly sets up the supernatural presence early on, effectively informing the audience about what is coming and keeps the mystical happenings low-key. The world is re-arranged without George off-screen and the biggest power Clarence exhibits is the ability to teleport by asking his boss for help. Thus, the film can be both mystical and realistic without either seeming to betray the other.

And the story is helped along by well-written characters inhabited by great performances from every member of the cast. No one puts a foot wrong. James Stewart’s George and Donna Reed’s Mary are fantastic leads because they feel like normal people. Everything about them, from their dialogue and the way it’s spoken, to how the actors look at each other and the way they imbue great personality into the smallest gestures, makes them feel like normal people you could see walking down the street. And they wring every ounce of emotion out of all their scenes.

The supporting players are also great. Making the film feel like part of a real community, rather than actors simply playing roles. Special praise goes to Ward Bond and Frank Faylen who provide great comedic relief as loveable cop Bert and taxi driver Ernie. Lionel Barrymore also exudes sliminess as Mr. Potter. Who easily makes you hate every minute he’s on screen. But, aside from when he “acquires” George’s money, he never comes across as cartoonishly evil. He just feels like a man doing all he can to stay in power. And Henry Travers’ Clarence has a sense of childlike hopefulness and absentmindedness. Which combine wonderfully to easily make him cinemas most lovable angel. Even Gloria Grahame’s Violet, who doesn’t contribute anything major to the plot, feels like she belongs in this story. And her playful flirting feels charming, especially at a time where unmarried women were often demonized.

Surrounding a fantastic, relatable story, wonderful characters and amazing performances there is some gorgeous production design. The town of Bedford Falls looks accurate to the times and feels very much like a lived-in world. But also manages to feel timeless because of the lack of technology on display to date the film and the picturesque way it captures the idea of small-town America. And Dimitri Tiomkin’s beautiful musical score perfectly compliments and heightens every scene. With joyful and haunting strings and festive sleigh bells that really give a sense of the characters pain, triumphs and festive mood.

Honestly, I’ve barely begun to scratch the surface of everything that makes this movie great. But I have to move on. Or else my editor will hate me for making his job even harder at Christmas.

What I do not like?

How do you find fault with one of the most highly regarded movies of all time? Well it isn’t easy, and it makes me feel awful, but there are still minor issues that may bother some people.

One problem is that the films pacing feels slightly uneven towards the end. Because all the action revolving around Clarence and George’s journey to affirmation only comes into play in the third act, the build-up to the climax feels a little rushed. The emotional payoff is still great and the third act is the most memorable part of the film. But the final portion could have used a bit more room to breathe.

Also, some points make the film feel slightly dated. The revelation of what happens to Mary if George was never born is a good example of this. In this darkest possible timeline, where gentle Bert and Ernie are cynical and hostile; playful people like Violet are abused and shoved around, the idea that the worst thing that could happen to Mary is that she is not married and works at the library, feels a little too old-fashioned. And you can look at the Bailey’s family housekeeper and see examples of racial stereotyping.

Finally, the use of banking and building and loans as a central plot thrust may leave some people perplexed at times. Sometimes the minutia of the profession does feel a little inaccessible. However, these scenes never go on too long and you are still able to follow the story. It just might mean you momentarily zone out when talk shifts to banking matters.

Verdict

Despite slight blemishes brought on by age, a finale that may have benefitted from a bit more time and the sometimes impenetrable banking subject matter, It’s a wonderful life is a film that deserves to be watched every festive season. It’s grounded story with a wonderful festive message, loveable characters, flawless acting, production design and emotional score make it a true masterpiece. And it deserves its reputation as the best Christmas movie ever made.

Verdict: 5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

But…it is still not my favourite Christmas movie. What is? You will have to wait for my next review to find out.   

Editorials

Top 5 Un-Christmassy Christmas Films

December 20, 2018
Brazil (1985)

Debates are currently raging across social media and news outlets regarding a certain movie and it’s status as a Christmas movie. So when would be a better time to run down a list of the 5 most debatable Christmas movies ever?

For the purposes of this list, a Christmas movie is a movie that pays particular attention to the holiday season. And also focuses on delivering the festive message of goodwill. As such, movies on this list don’t pay close attention to the holiday or deliver messages of despair and misery. What a fun way to counteract all the forced gaiety of Christmas time. So for those of you looking to watch something different this year, you’ve come to the right place. Let’s begin.

Black Christmas (1974)

Many un-Christmassy Christmas movies like to use Christmas as an ironic or dark setting. To exemplify their stories horrific or absurd nature. One of the earliest films to do this was the original Black Christmas. Bob Clark’sseasonal chiller tells a familiar story. A group of sorority girls are killed off one-by-one by someone hiding in the attic. But it sets itself apart in a myriad of ways. Not least by how it uses Christmas as its backdrop. When juxtaposed against the snow, lights and carolers, the films violence and adult content becomes extra effective. And the perversion of Christmas iconography like birth, family and having the killer breaking into the house like Santa Claus, transforms the film into both a well-told deconstruction of Christmas mythology and the best Christmas horror film ever. But when watching it, goodwill will be the furthest thing from your mind.   

Gift wrapping gone wrong in Black Christmas (1974)

Brazil (1985)

Terry Gilliam’s masterpiece is a sci-fi reimagining of George Orwell’s 1984, except more concerned with corporate bureaucracy, the power that corporations hold over us and how fantasy is a far more attractive prospect than reality. And it is set at Christmas…I wonder why? Like Black Christmas, Brazil uses the bright trappings of Christmas to accentuate the darkness of its world. But this time with a more darkly satirical edge. Like many of Gilliam’s films, it finds absurd humour in combining jolly childish fantasy with bleak adult reality and both of those things very much fit the Christmas motif. Making for an experience that captures not so much the fantasy of Christmas, but perfectly captures the pain of growing out of Christmas.

Santa visits the condemned in jail. Brazil (1985)

The Hunt (2012)

And continuing from Brazil’s use of grim adult reality to offset childhood innocence, comes the ultimate example of how assumed childhood innocence can have grim repercussions on adult life. The Hunt is a Danish film from director Thomas Vinterberg and stars Mads Mikkelsen. The story focuses on Lucas, a schoolteacher accused of something during the holidays. He then spends the season attempting to clear his name. While also trying to save his relationship with his son and surviving persecution from his neighbours. This truly is one of the most challenging films set at the most wonderful time of the year. Watching a man being driven to near-suicide, for something he didn’t do, by “civilized” people is as far removed from Christmassy as you can get. But the message of forgiveness and the dangers of pre-judgment is one that everyone should hear, especially at this time of year.

The happiest midnight mass ever in The Hunt (2012)

Die Hard (1988)

The movie everyone is currently discussing for its holiday relation. The classic action movie concerns New York cop, John McClane (Bruce Willis). Who attends his wife’s Christmas party which is later hijacked by “terrorist” Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman). The story then becomes pure white-knuckle action as John tries saving the day, while desperately trying to avoid being killed. It is so easy to get absorbed in the action, brilliant acting and dialogue, that Die Hard’s Christmas setting seems incidental. But again the festive trimmings lend extra catharsis to the blood spurts. And the themes of greed and honesty that permeate the film still shows a clear affinity for the holiday. So we may have Bruce Willis instead of Santa. Delivering death instead of presents. But Die Hard deserves to be seen as a Christmas movie. Let it Snow’s presence on the soundtrack also helps.

See a Santa hat. Die Hard (1988) is a Christmas movie

Filth (2013)

Finally, for our list of seasonal antithetical movies, we have the filthiest holiday movie of the century so far. Filth stars James McAvoy as Bruce Robertson. A cop with dreams of promotion, investigating the murder of a foreign exchange student. But he has some serious demons to deal with. Including drug addiction, a disparaging voice in his head (Jim Broadbent) and being separated from his wife and child. Consequently, he spends the Christmas season making life miserable for himself and his colleagues. Pitch black in every sense, Filth is only recommendable to those with strong constitutions. Even seasonal goodwill may not get you through it. This is a film intent on showcasing humanities selfish and destructive side. But McAvoy’s brilliant performance makes it hard to turn away from. If nothing else, this film shows, however bad you think your office Christmas parties are, they could be much worse.

One hell of a Christmas party in Filth (2013)

So, I hope this list has given all of you some new festive treats to check out. To help provide a different perspective on this wonderful time. It may not always be holly and jolly, but all are a great cure for a silent night at home. Happy watching.

Reviews

Retro Review: The Muppets Christmas Carol

December 13, 2018

With the Christmas countdown officially underway, this is the time of year when old favorite holiday movies are wheeled out to get everyone in the festive spirit. For me, there are three movies that I always watch during the most wonderful time of year, and over the next few weeks, I will be reviewing them for you. The first of which is my families Christmas eve tradition, The Muppets Christmas Carol.

The Story

On Christmas Eve, Charles Dickens (The Great Gonzo) and his partner Rizzo the Rat, regale us with the tale of Ebenezer Scrooge (Michael Caine). Scrooge is an old skinflint who makes life miserable for his employee Bob Cratchit (Kermit the frog). He shuns friendship and family and, detests Christmas, preferring to be alone with his misery. But this night the ghosts of his old partners Jacob and Robert Marley (Statler and Waldorf) visit him. They tell him that if he doesn’t change his ways, eternal suffering awaits him in the afterlife. From there he is visited by three spirits, the Ghost of Christmas Past, who makes him confront the root of his Christmas hatred. The Ghost of Christmas Present, who shows him what Christmas means to everyone else. And finally, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, who shows him what Christmas will be like if he does not change.

What did I like?

Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is one of the most adapted stories of all time. The tale has been adapted countless times in many mediums and there is a new adaptation at least once every few years. So it becomes hard to stand out. But Muppets Christmas Carol defeats this problem. Not only by remaining mostly faithful to the original text, even cribbing prose from the actual story but also investing the story with both the Muppets trademark sense of humor and a real sense of pathos.

The story is delivered with gusto. All the muppets suit the roles assigned to them. This allows for hilarious sight gags upon seeing how characters from A Christmas Carol were changed to fit the muppets. But it also allows this version to have a broad family appeal. The kids can enjoy seeing the muppets and the parents get to laugh at seeing the muppets in a serious literary tale. Anyone can enjoy it. The voice actors all do great work, imbuing life and fun personalities to their puppets. And the human actors are delightful to watch. Michael Caine is clearly having a blast playing the old miser. Adding great relish to his hateful lines. But what makes it better is that the human roles are played entirely straight. There’s no self-awareness, the human actors play against the muppets with 100% seriousness and that makes it all the funnier.

But remarkably, the cast and crew also know when to tone the humor down. The sequences that need to be scary or emotionally impactful always hit their marks because they are played with 100% sincerity.   

And while the film would deserve praise simply for making a muppet movie both gut-bustingly funny and tear-jerking at the same time, the film also does a lot of other things to ensure that it deserves its place as one of the best Christmas Carol adaptations. The inclusion of catchy musical numbers adds an extra layer of charm to the proceedings. Allowing exposition to be delivered creatively and keeping the films pacing up. The puppeteering is also very impressive and still holds up today. The puppets have many little facial ticks and movements that make them feel like real creatures rather than props. The set design is also spectacular. Recreating the novels Victorian setting very well. And taking influence from German expressionist horror films, which help the place feel oppressive. And finally, the inclusion of Gonzo as the narrator.

While only a small addition, the inclusion of a narrator adds to the nostalgic feeling I mentioned in my overview of the Grinch. It makes the story feel like it’s being imparted by an older friend. Thus making it more personal to us, the audience. The inclusion of Rizzo as an audience POVcharacter furthers this as he, like us, is cynical, constantly trying to disprove Charles and making snide comments. This makes it easy to get invested and gives us a personal sense of attachment to the story. Making it all the easier to return to this version again, and again and again.

What I do not like?

It breaks my heart to find faults in all the movies I will be reviewing this season. But they are never the less there and it doesn’t make melove these films any less.

Firstly, the story is heavily synopsized. While this improves some aspects of the story, which in other versions can be a bit plodding, the flashback to Scrooge’s relationship with his fiancé Belle suffers for it. Because we only have a short time to get to know Belle, we don’t feel as invested in her relationship with Scrooge. As such the reveal that this is the major reason why Scrooge is a loner doesn’t carry as much weight. The actors, however, do a fine job of selling the scene, which does manage to salvage it.

Another problem is the fact that Scrooges change of heart comes a little too soon. In many other adaptations, Scrooge changes gradually, only really cracking when he sees the effect his actions have on Bob Cratchit and his family. But here he seems to be a happier person by the time he meets the Ghost of Christmas Present. Which could lessen the impact of the Tiny Tim scene.

Finally, towards the end of the film, the musical numbers stop, and the film just focuses on the action. Which, while appropriate, gives the impression that the musical numbers are a crutch to hold up the first part of the film.

Verdict

Despite its flaws, The Muppets Christmas Carol is, for my money, the best adaptation of Charles Dickens classic tale. The acting is so much fun. It delivers the story in a way that is accessible to everyone. It has charm to spare, with its musical numbers, the nostalgic and relatable use of narration to tell the story and the insertion of the muppet’s giant personalities into the proceedings. But it’s also not afraid to let things breathe and get serious when it needs to. If you only see one version of A Christmas Carol this year, make sure it’s this one.

Verdict: 4.5 out of 5 stars (4.5 / 5)

Editorials

A Christmas Buyer’s Guide for Film Lovers

December 2, 2018

At the time of writing, Christmas is just over three weeks away. The streets are strewn with lights, classic Christmas songs are on the radio and everyone is struggling to find a gift for their loved ones. But fear not. If you are buying for a film lover, Big Picture Film Club has your back.

Today we are going to give five categorical recommendations of gifts that will please any film fan. Hopefully, this will give some of you an idea about what to get. So, let’s begin.

Collector’s edition DVD’S/Blu-rays

Nothing makes a film fan happier than owning the best editions of their favourite films. Regular DVD’s/Blu-rays are nice but there is a certain pleasure in unwrapping a collector’s edition with filmmaker commentary, documentaries, interviews, analyses, and a gorgeous transfer. Although collector editions are available from various sources, in the UK if you want the best, you can go to one of five companies:

  • Arrow Video – Specialises in cult releases (see also, Arrow Academy which specializes in critically acclaimed work and Arrow Films, which focuses on new releases)
  • The Criterion Collection – Specialises in releasing important films from world history
  • Eureka’s Masters of Cinema and Eureka Classics label – a UK counterpart to Criterion which puts out works of cultural importance and well-regarded niche films. If criterion doesn’t have your film, Eureka probably will.
  • BFI – They provide gorgeous transfers of historically significant work from Britain and around the world
  • Curzon Artificial Eye – Provides extra ladened releases of world cinema titles, new and old.

If your friend loves a film released by one of these companies, you owe it to them to get it. They are a little more expensive than other DVD/Blu-ray releases but for the quality of the content, it’s worth it.

(Also recommended 88 films, 101 films, Powerhouse Films, and Second Sight Entertainment)

Film Merchandise

This category really has the power to surprise and delight. Film fans adore minutia to brighten up their homes and there are so many options for what to buy.

You could get them a classic poster of their favourite film to give them something gorgeous to hang on their wall. You could buy them a Funko Pop of their favourite film characters to liven up their work desk. Or, why not buy them replicas of famous movie props. To allow the recipient to live out the fantasy of being a part of their favourite films.

Freddy Krueger replica glove (Amazon.co.uk)

These items vary drastically in price but no matter what you pick, your film loving friend will have a big grin on their face.

Subscription Viewing

There really is nothing better to get your friend to ensure that their movie viewing needs are cared for all year. But, what service should you get them? Well, what do they like?

  • Netflix – For a range of well-known classics, critically acclaimed modern and original films (£5.99-£9.99 monthly)
  • Amazon Prime – Provides modern favourites and many obscure older titles. Also includes prime next day delivery for those who frequently use Amazon (£79 a year or £7.99 monthly)
  • Shudder – A streaming service for horror fans. Stocked with well-known and obscure horror titles from around the world (£47.98 a year or £4.99 monthly).
  • Now TV with Sky Cinema subscription – Provides a range of classic and little-known Hollywood favourites (£55 a year)
  • Mubi and Mubi Go – For those with a taste for auteurs, independent and foreign language films. And Mubi Go allows the owner to attend one specially selected film screening a week at selected cinemas (£59.88 a year)

Or perhaps if your friend likes visiting the cinema, you could get them a subscription card for their favourite cinema chain. Cineworld has unlimited, Odeon has limitless and many cinemas have their own loyalty program. So, if your loved one likes visiting the cinema, this could help them keep up to date with new releases.

You won’t see your friend for a few weeks after they get their gift, but be assured, they are appreciative.

Home Cinema Equipment

What’s better than getting a good quality Blu-ray or DVD of your favourite film? Watching it on good home media equipment. Whether it be the latest 4K television that allows you to see a higher quality image or a home surround sound system to provide a more immersive sonic experience, it makes a nice little addition to any film watchers home.

Home Theatre System (Family Living Today)

Filming Equipment

Finally, every film fan likes watching films, but do they also want to make their own films? Well, this year why not give them a helping hand.

Firstly, find out what the person you are buying for is interested in. Do they make films solo or are they interested in one particular area of filmmaking? Once that question’s been answered, we can proceed.

If they want to make films themselves and you have a bit of extra cash, then you could buy them a nice DSLR camera. Which allows them to shoot their own stuff on the go and have a great input into how the image will look. If you don’t have enough cash for that, why not try a nice phone gimbal? To allow them to use their phones in a more cinematic way.

Do they want to be an editor? Why not buy them some editing software like Final Cut X or Premiere Pro? Hopeful directors can always use a viewfinder. For those interested in sound maybe a new microphone may be in order. And there is a myriad of other equipment available online to help start your friends on their journey towards becoming the next Spielberg. So, I encourage you to look around.

Conclusion

So, there are just a few suggestions of what to get your cinephile for Christmas. I hope this has at least given you some idea about what is available out there and wish you all the best of luck with your Christmas shopping. If you have any further ideas of what to buy, then please let us know in the comments and stay tuned for more festive articles coming soon.