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Soho not a Happy Christmas: Nat & hub, Josh's body language says it all (Photo: Giles Keyte)

Soho not a Happy Christmas: Nat & hub, Josh’s body language (right) says it all (Photo: Giles Keyte)

Tis The Season For Misunderstanding and Shame

‘]Christmas parties] are an opportunity for you to tell the person you’ve had a secret crush on all year how you really feel about them.’ In a pulsating nightclub, successful businessman and smooth American, Guy (The Mentalist’s Simon Baker) is making a play for all-but-on-the-same page PR and English rose, Nat (Rose Byrne, Damages). Even as she’s surreptitiously removing her wedding ring, and avoiding admitting that the over-excited party-goer who’s just burst in on this tentative moment of intimacy happens to be her ill-suited husband, Josh (Rafe Spall, Life of Pi). Later, appalled by Josh’s behaviour, Nat storms off home without him.

Meanwhile, in another part of London, Josh’s ex, American aid worker, Chloe (Anna Faris, Scary Movie) is having Christmas dinner with her colleagues in a local Indian restaurant and ready to make a run for it with a workmate back to his apartrment. But when he invites a second woman into his bed, a nonplussed Chloe tears herself away from the tangle of limbs, and leaves.

And the very next day, after Nat has left for work without a word, a hungover Josh rises from the sofa and answers a call from Chloe to her flat where she’s licking her emotional wounds.

Trying too hard

It’s not difficult to work out how I Give It A Year will end. The very name of writer/director Dan Mazer’s romcom gives the game away, the title sequence of Josh and Nat’s whirlwind romance seques into a wedding which screams Il-matched Couple!’ And at the wedding reception, the camera lingers on Chloe who still holds a candle for the groom.

I first saw the film’s trailer in the spring when I was treating my elderly mother to Les Miserables at the local Odeon. It was a weekday matinee screening, and the audience was predominantly older middle class women. They laughed out loud at Stephen Merchant’s turn as Danny, the excruciating Best Man. My Ma turned to me and whispered, ‘I must see that!’

I’m so glad I didn’t follow her up on that. Mazer wrote the screenplay for Borat which explains a lot. I Give It A Year is a film that tries so hard to place its characters in toe-curling and offensive situations that such ’colour’ leaks through the screen and ends up alienating half the audience: (it is not just Nat’s posh parents – including a tart Jane Asher – who’ll look on stony-faced at the honeymoon porn shots in the digital frame they’ve been given as a present.)

Unlikeable and implausible

t doesn’t help that none of the characters are especially likeable. When, in the middle of a lingerie shop, Josh says to Chloe (helping him pick a Christmas present for his wife – so already wrong), ‘You’re as useless as all this sexy stuff as I am, aren’t you? You’re happy with a thermal nightie, a Stieg Larsson, and a nice milky tea,’ we can feel the slap in the face it gives her; that he doesn’t know her at all.

Additionally, too many of the scenes are thoroughly implausible, clearly designed just to elicit an emotional response from us – yet they simply don’t work. In When Harry Met Sally, director Rob Reiner and scriptwriter Nora Ephron purposely set a good number of the scenes at Christmas and New Year because they happen to be emotionally-charged festivities whether you are attached or not. I Give It A Year on the other hand, takes the Christmas season as a framework for scenes of embarrassment, shame, and misunderstanding that are supposed to amuse.

The seasonal sequence begins with Nat already exasperated with Josh before the evening has begun and trying to put him off accompanying her to her Christmas works’ do. Then, after his party brush-off, Guy refuses to give up, organising an ill-starred boardroom surprise lunch for Nat complete with oysters, a violinist, and doves. And, by way of marriage counselling with a scene-stealing Olivia Coleman we learn how ‘things really hit a low point around Christmas’ when the couple visited each set of parents.

Give Them A Year

Yet amid the open-jawed horror at what makes up so much of this utter mess of a movie is the gloriously sarky double-act between Minnie Driver and Jason Flemying – including their amusing seasonal send-off at Nat’s parents door that concludes the Christmas sequence. Steph, Nat’s sister, and her doctor husband, Danny appear to have spent their entire marriage insulting each other. But it turns out that they happen to know what’s what after all: ‘Marriage is about living with imperfections, isn’t it?’ Steph explains to her incredulous sister, as she smiles at her husband and they kiss. ‘…And as you get to know each other, you love each other more,’ finishes Danny.

Fazer has said that I Give It A Year is, in fact an Anti-romantic comedy in that you want the couple who marry at the top of the film to part. That’s true. But that the plotline shows what happens after the perfect wedding between two people who aren’t necessarily perfect for each other? That explains everything. Mazer had the camera fixed on the wrong sister all along.

I Give It A Year is available on Blu-ray at £24.99 and DVD at £19.99

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What dreams may come. Two brothers (real-life siblings, Koki and Oshiro Maeda) whose wishes for their family pull them in different directions. (Copyright: arrow Films)

Finding Wonder Beyond Belief In Santa Claus

Sweet, pretty Megumi and her grade school friends are full of excited talk of miracles and secrets as they burst through her mothers ‘tiny, dirty bar’ en route to the girl’s bedroom above the shop. ‘I used to believe in miracles,’ says a regular, as if the children have left flecks of stardust in their wake. Megumi’s mother, topping up his glass, laughs at the thought of her daughter: ‘She doesn’t even believe in Santa Claus anymore.’

It is a throwaway line, and I’ll be honest, the only reason the dvd release of celebrated Japanese director, Kore-Eda Hirokazu’s I Wish features in kissbangchristmas. Though it helps that this charming and rather wonderful fable about childhood dreams is undoubtedly one of the top films of the year. I Wish stands alongside fellow champion, Mud too at excelling at capturing a moment where youthful innocence gives way to necessary growth.

Hatching a plan

And, funnily enough, the sole reference to Christmas makes perfect sense. The original Japanese title of I Wish is miracle. This is a film about looking for and finding wonder in ordinary life, and also yearning for something more. Seven children hatch a plan to travel across the country to a new track point where two bullet trains pass each other: ‘because of the intense energy, whoever sees it, their wish will come true.’

Yet at is core is a tale of two brothers, 12 year old Koichi and the younger Ryumosuke (real-life siblings Koki and Oshiro Maeda) who live apart with their separated parents. The more conservative Koichi yearns to see his family reunited and it is this which is the spur to his adventure, even as the livewire but more pragmatic Ryu recognises that would not be for the best. The boys at least hope to meet up, and their plan attracts and impacts on those around them.

Magic is not just for children

I Wish is certainly a delightful children’s film focusing on the pre-secondary school age years with touching accuracy. The pre-teens’ heads remain full of fantasy and wonder even as they are beginning to understand life’s reality. But Kore-eda emphasises life’s hope too by showing that age need not quell new beginnings and joys even as adult responsibilities bring their own limitations, and the years their disappointments.

There is a lovely sequence where an elderly couple faced with Megumi pretending that she’s their granddaughter, know full well her deception but nevertheless invite her and her friends to stay the night in their small-town home close to the track point. When setting off to the railway the following morning, and one of the girls runs back to ask if there’s anything they want wished for themselves, they can only respond ‘We couldn’t have asked for anything better then yesterday.’ Their hospitality to the children was repaid by the long-forgotten youthfulness and colour the young strangers brought into their home. There is magic afoot in the world.

Imagination and feelings fuel hope for the future

Koichi’s grandfather, who with his wife now house their daughter, Koichi’s Mum and the boy wonders to a friend: ‘Do kids today feel something about anything?’ Well, yes. One of the heartening aspects of this Japanese movie is that it portrays the nation’s youth as rich with feeling and full of imagination. They dance, act, draw and paint. Together they make and decorate a flag with their individual wishes. They are disarmingly low-tech children. (The dvd includes cast and crew revealing their own dreams; the younger actors are slightly more worldly.)

We cannot be sure any of the children truly believe their wishes will come true even as they scream them through the security fence as the trains pass. They are expressions of the different stages of childhood: some are mundane (‘I want to run faster’), others speak of confusion and heartache (‘Make Dad quit gambling!’). In the communal shouting, each child has been able to express their most personal desires. They are prayers of a sort, cries in the dark, dreams, wishes, hopes, or moments of acceptance.

A vital step along the path to adulthood

For the very act has cast its own ‘magic’. Koichi has realised that his brother and father are better off separated from their mother (or at least has come to accept that his parents will not reunite and that that’s ok), and Megumi has decided that she is going to head to Tokyo to become an actress, and what’s more, courageously choose to tell her mother that this is her next move.

As with Kore-eda’s earlier acclaimed After Life (1998), we are shown how life’s moments have their own memorable value. These children will always remember their ‘I Wish’ moment by the side of the railway, but the journey to that experience and what unexpectedly emerged at that moment of truth proved a vital step towards maturity and adult life. The world of dreams and desires, of ‘I wishes’ and fairytale figures – why, even Santa Claus – are shown to be an integral part of life’s journey.

I Wish is available on Blue-ray at £19.99, and DVD at £17.99

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The Christmas lights are shining: The Bennett family welcome December 25th, 2004 alongside fellow holidaymakers on a Thai beach. (Photo: Entertainment One)

So Much More Than A Disaster Movie

A roaring sound fills the black screen. In fact it fills the whole cinema. Perhaps not since Buried (2010) – interestingly, another Spanish co-production – has such nerve-shredding tension and fear created through noise alone both opened a movie and captured the sheer horror of a situation.

The question, of course, on The Impossible’s dvd release is whether the terror of 2004’s Asian tsunami and its aftermath for one European family can be maintained on a far smaller screen. Except the point about The Orphanage director, J.A Bayona’s retelling of one family’s incredible against-all-odds true-life survival story is surely that it is so much more than a disaster movie. And an in-your-own-home calm after the storm of the film’s New Year multiplex release enables a more measured view of what we’re watching. (At my local cinema, they had notices on the screen doors advising viewers to turn away should they feel seasick.)

Wrong focus?

For many critics, this month’s dvd release has only heightened their antagonism towards The Impossible’s focus on the plight of some relatively well-off white Westerners in light of a geological catastrophe that took a quarter of a million, mostly low income East Asian lives.

To be honest, this wasn’t something that struck me when I first saw the movie. On second viewing, it seems a somewhat disingenuous complaint. We may as well criticise Apocalypse Now! or Platoon for sidelining the Viet Cong perspective. Or, indeed, given 13 year old Tom Holland’s film debut here as Lucas Bennett is as astounding and memorable as Christian Bale’s in the similarly based-on-real-life Empire of the Sun, why focus then on an English boy’s wander through wartime Japan?

Challenge to global privilege

Spaniard Maria Belan’s memoir on which Sergio G. Sanchez’s Anglicised script is based is the story which happened to float to the surface. That a complete family of five, including three boys aged 10 and under lived through the sheer direct force of such a wave seems an impossible event. (The Making Of extra suggests that, sadly, there was family loss beyond the film’s ending )

For Western audiences The Impossible raises the question of how we ourselves would cope stripped of the developed world securities we take for granted. This aspect of the film reminded me of an American reality show that re-sited wealthy gated-suburbanites to have them make do as early pioneers. There is reassurance again here that for all our global privilege, this family dealt admirably with the harsh challenges that flooded their way.

Christmas contrast

It is of course pure coincidence that the tsunami struck on Boxing Day, December 26th. The Impossible is a Christmas film for that reason alone. (It would be a brave and perhaps insensitive cinema programmer who would choose to screen it in a yuletide season.) Yet the seasonal festivities only add to the contrast of what we know is to come.

Families holiday at this exclusive Thai beach resort beyond the forest at this time of year partly because of the very promise of Christmas. They countdown to midnight and let free their Chinese lanterns into the night sky. This is a prelapsarian time where Christmas morn in the Bennett holiday bungalow is captured on video (by Ewan McGregor in his first role as a Dad), with small boys clambering excitedly out of bed to follow a trail of chocolates that takes them out to their presents on the veranda.

There appears no Christian content to the festival per se but the religious grammar infuses its portrayal. This is the family celebration before the slaughter of the innocents. Yet more so, the sunshined frollocking in the pool and snorkelling among the brilliant coloured coral, even with parental worries over jobs and finances, can be read as a Genesis-type Paradise from which all shall be flung. It is under extreme duress that we see what this family is worth and are reminded of what is important about being human.

Astounding and captivating

The breathtaking tsunami sequence remains an astounding piece of cinema. The dvd is impressively informative about how such a realistic wave was created using small-scale models, and that mother (a tough Naomi Watts) and son (Holland) battle for their lives amidst the torrential flood waters in a huge water tank. Yet such knowledge does not detract from the horror of what we are watching.

It is this coupling of a seriously injured woman fighting for her and her boy’s lives and values which prove the heart and soul of The Impossible. As much as the five actors become a screen family before the disaster, and will be eventually reunited, it is Watts and Holland together who are especially captivating. The Oscar nominated actress deserves credit for putting the fledgling screen actor at his ease through what must have been a gruelling shoot for both of them. In contrast, the other half of the family’s story cannot help but feel somewhat lacklustre though it carries its fair share of emotion, not least Mr McGregor bawling down a loaned mobile to family on the other side of the world.

Hurting humanity

The camera pulls back to stress that this is but one family’s experience amid a mass and confusion of hurting humanity. Even when their insurance company shows up with a private jet to get them all the hell out of there, they carry with them reminders of who they have left behind. It is to Bayona’s credit that he doesn’t let either them – or us – escape that easily.

As with Never Let Me Go (2011), it is the suggestion of what is going on just beyond the camera that leaves a trace of unease:– the mass of unaccompanied young children ripe for abduction; the severe injuries caused to puny human bodies by the washing-machined debris; travellers and locals who simply vanished. But this is also a survival story in which fragile hope, kindness, strength, dignity, support, love, friendship and thankfulness outlast the terror wave. The humanly possible.
The Impossible is available on dvd and Blu-ray.

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