Monthly Archives: November 2012

Sometimes a quality Christmas film slips through the net. You mention its name to a friend and draw a complete blank. They watch it based on your recommendation. They can’t understand why it’s not widely known either…

Breath-taking thriller demands to be seen

Courtney Hunt’s gritty 2008 action movie, Frozen River won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, and was double-Oscar nominated for Best Actress in Melissa Yeo, and Best Original Screenplay by Hunt.  Quentin Tarentino declared it ‘the most exciting thriller I’ve seen this year…. It took my breath away!‘  Yet it remains largely unknown on this side of the Atlantic, although it pops up on television every so often and is definitely worth catching. Frozen River happens to be my favourite Christmas film.

Cold hard-graft lives hide warm hearts

The film centres on two worn-down lone mothers, one Native American (Misty Upham), the other White (Leo) thrown together as smuggling partners across iced Reservation waters between Canada and the US in the days before Christmas for the sake of their children. 

The womens’ lives are cold and full of hard-graft scraping to make ends meet but each retains a deep maternal tenderness nevertheless.  On the radio, a commentator declares ‘It’s all about the kids.  Yeah, it’s all about the kids all the time.’  That is the heart of Frozen River, the motivation of these two worlds-apart women.  And it is as if the gradual recognition of this in the other shifts the pair’s initial harsh suspicion to a mutual respect.

Taut journey across ice expanse

The third main character in this gripping drama is the dangerous frozen river itself that the pair must risk crossing.  For Yeo’s Ray, it unites New York State with Canada and represents illegality.  Myla (Upham) however happens to be Mohawk and opposite banks are Mohawk territory.  Their different perceptions separate them. 

Yet the very fearsomeness of the ice expanse, the taut journey both are forced to encounter this Christmastime in their lives serves to release them from their prejudices and their social isolation. They understand each other.  They have become friends

Frozen River is a hard-won Christmas tale then – why, there’s even a miracle baby – but as with, say, Young At Heart, it is a tale of a new beginning beyond dark times.  It is a Christmas film that also magics an Easter Grace.

Never work with over-age children and animals David Tennant wonders what he’s let himself in for…

Sometimes, a Christmas pop song is worth listening to. Sometimes, all that magic and sparkle is more than a seasonal M&S slogan. And sometimes, a sequel to a Christmas movie isnt quite as bad as you feared…


I’d deliberately avoided Nativity! (2009) because I feared a generic British ‘comedy’ full of tv stars who presumed their living room fame made them fit for the Big Screen.  Alien Autopsy.  Confetti.  The Wedding Video I rest my case.  What’s more, Hollywood churns out cheap festival-related fodder just like Clinton Cards, so why wouldn’t Brit cinema?

How wrong I was. I watched Nativity! (U) to gen up for its sequel.  It turned out to be likeable, warm and laugh-out-loud funny (‘Herod: the Opera’ as a primary school production, anyone?).  Teacher Martin Freeman is set the task of shepherding a bunch of unruly school kids to nativity play match-fitness at St Bernadette’s. Marc Wooten is his anarchic child-man Teaching Assistant, Ashley Jensen the love interest, and Pam Ferris the school head teacher.  Backed by BBC Films, no wonder the film has the feel of Sunday teatime telly.  But that’s no bad thing..  

The criitcs disliked Nativity! but it did well at the box office. As it should have done.  It is harmless, lighthearted family fare that isn’t too much of a trial for parents of under 12s to sit through too.  Oh, and it’s dedicated to inspirational teachers everywhere.

More than one star shining brightly

Nativity 2: Danger In The Manger (U) was awarded one star by The Independent. Grinches.  C’mon, guys, it’s not that bad,  (It’s not Lesbian Vampire Killers, for one thing.)  Debbie Isitt’s sequel takes place two years on.  Martin Freeman has long gone but is yet to be replaced, for Marc Woolton’s wayward Mr Poppy is still causing havoc.  

In steps new teacher, Donald Peterson (David Tennant) where others fear to tread.  (Tennant also plays dastardly twin brother, Roderick).) It is early December, a nationwide ‘Song for Christmas’ competition has been announced, and the stage is set for competing school choirs to converge on Wales for the musical showdown.

A donkey trek to Warwick

Whereas Nativity centred on the city of Coventry, culminating in a children’s Christmas musical extravaganza in the grounds of the old cathedral, the breathtaking Welsh landscape is given a starring role here. (There is a tourist attraction feel about both films.)

A rather tortuous allegory, complete with donkey begins in the depths of the countryside and is played out to the film’s climax in a barn beside Warwick Castle.  In between, there is a repeat of the X Factor auditions from the first film, with Jessica Hynes as a Charlottechurchalike compere..  The songs are clever parodies, and this section feels a show in itself.  The theme of career disillusionment played out in Nativity! is replaced by that of family dynamics.  The class struggle between schools introduced in the original is even closer-to-the-bone this time round.

An unforgotten baby

But this is a U certificate, so all manner of things shall be well.  Given that St Bernadette’s happens to be a church school, and the film is called Nativity 2 one should not be surprised that the baby at the centre of it all is not forgotten. 

This turns out to be a traditional Christmas card of a movie, then.  There is slapstick, and a lot of laughs, but it is clear where its heart is.  The sequel is not as tight or as entertaining for adults as the original, but, still,  the eight children in the row in front clapped at the end.


Hugh Grant: Christmas seems to like him…..

It’s that time of the year again. It gets earlier every year, beginning in many British shops as soon as the Hallowe’en displays come down. Thankfully, Christmas film have given us a later start to the season…


In About A Boy, Will (Hugh Grant) is a man haunted by Christmas.  Apart from anything else, like everyone else he has to suffer his father’s truly awful 1958 hit, Santa’s Super Sleigh blaring out of store speakers while shopping in autumn. (‘November the sodding 19th, 6 weeks before Christmas already they were playing the bloody thing.’)

Well, on November the sodding 20th, I endured Paul McCartney’s dreadful 1979 hit, Wonderful Christmastime while eating scrambled eggs on toast in a Greasy Spoon. (‘Simply having.’  Not exactly, Mr Beatle, thanks for asking.)  And over the following days, I encountered heavy winter snowfall and accompanying yuletide glitter while watching both Untouchable (tasteful Parisian decorations outside Chanel) and snow-muffled Norwegian marital tangle comedy Happy Happy.  Coming out of Central London’s Odeon Panton Street afterwards, I cut across Leicester Square’s gardens only to find myself in the rather family-fantastic – and free – Rise Of The Guardians playground. (The children’s film, featuring Santa, the Easter Bunny, Sandman et al opens on the 30th.)  The dvd for last year’s Arthur Christmas has just been released. Britflick sequel Nativity 2 is out today.

The basic appeal of some cinematic sparkle

But it is because Christmas films are now such a part of the (overlong) run-up to Christmas and our enjoyment of the festival itself that I’m writing this blog.  I’ll cover the new releases but I’ll also highlight recognised favourites as well as the not so well known.

kissbangchristmas as my blogname was inspired by celebrated US film critic, the late Pauline Kael’s second collection of reviews.  She claimed the book’s title, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang was ‘perhaps the briefest statement imaginable of the basic appeal of movies.  This appeal is what attracts us, and ultimately what makes us despair when we begin to understand how seldom movies are more than this.’   (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang also happens to be the name of a yuletide Robert Downey Jnr, Val Kilmer vehicle.)

Sugar and spice and suicide

Certainly Christmas films are often schmaltzy and mere seasonal cinematic money-spinners.  But so often they’re not. There’s a reason movies such as It’s A Wonderful LifeElf, and one of my own faves, Young At Heart have become December classics.  That’s what I’m here to celebrate.