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Who needs colour?: Betty Bacall was always stunning in black & white

One of the last Hollywood Great’s career took her from her glamorous teens to an always classy mature screen presence whatever the movie

LAUREN BACALL DEADPANNING THROUGH A NEW YORK CHRISTMAS

It’s a so cute it hurts cinematic episode that doubtless meant most to a very young Thora (American Beauty, Ghost World) Birch and her proud mother. With the sad passing of Lauren Bacall at the suitably grand old age of 89 last week. her and Thora’s duet for Baby, It’s Cold Outside in 1991’s All I Want For Christmas (U) is brought into sharp relief.

It would be easy to dismiss. The coupling of the deep voice of a celebrated classy New York broad with a little girl’s is not a patch on the more well-known sublime rendition by Zooey Deschanel and Will Ferrell in Elf (2003). But it is hard to ignore simply because of Bacall’s contribution. Her presence adds cinematic grandeur to Robert Lieberman’s otherwise rather cringeworthy 1991 Christmas tale. The film was released in the US making $15m at the box office, and young Ethan Embry and Birch received Young Artists Awards nominations for their contributions. But there is a made-for-telly air about All I Want For Christmas, and in the UK,it is the sort of naff straight-to-dvd fare that can be found on sale in supermarkets in the weeks running uo to Christnas. (Though on that score I’d rather recommend A Dog Named Christmas (2009) any day of the week.)


In the absence of a vid of Bacall & Birch singing ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’, what better excuse to show Deschanel & Ferrell at it?

New York dame state of mind

The tale is told from the two young siblngs’ Hailie and Ethan’s viewpoint. Their Big Scheme is to reunite their divorced parents by Christmas; an even trickier number given their mother (Harley Jane Kozak) is on the brink of remarriage. Leslie Nielsen is the unusually Old World-attired Macy’s department store Santa Claus who might just grant Hallie her wish though it’s a huge step up from the usual toy requests. And Lauren Bacall deadpans it as their New York dame of a grandmother.

It is a role that appears to see the star biding her time between Misery (1990) and Robert Altman’s Ready To Wear (1994). Nevertheless, as with her contribution to another throwaway movie, Appointment With Death (1988), Bacall retains her dignity. Her apparent aloofness, ageless beauty and obvious intelligence which somehow never appeared intimidating to the cinemagoer, rise above any cack she ever happens to feature in. That’s star quality if ever if could be defined!

All I want for Christmas is for this to stop

The trouble with All I Want for Christmas is that it is a trying-too-hard mess of a family feelgood movie. There is over-acting and low budget effects galore, an unconvincing mismatched teen romance, and late Eighties’ fashions to make one wince. As with his turn in 1995’s cult teen flick, Empire Records, Embry’s desperation to be noticed coupled with his director’s strange reluctance to rein him in prove an excruciating mix.

Thora Birch on the other hand is Ethan’s too smart by half little sister. We first see Haillie standing in a tutu in the snow waiting for her brother. As they walk back home together, she wishes a passing gentleman ‘Merry Christmas! Happy Hannukah!’ She explains to Ethan: ‘Teacher says that you should always say both things in New York, because people are really sensitive. Isn’t that a good idea?’ It’s a world and all but half-century away from George Bailey’s daughter, Zuzu announcing ‘Teacher says ‘Every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings!’ in the avowedly culturally Christian It’s A Wonderful Life (1946). (Never mind that a multi-faith recognising Christmas film is a mind-janglng concept if you think about it for too long.)

Honorary award for a glittering career

The truth is that Bacall’s casting in All I Want for Christmas is a mere blip in her screen canon, and at its most value, I suspect, as an answer in a final of UK television gameshow, Pointless. Nevertheless, it does act as a late step in a film career that triumphed with her debut at 19 in To Have and Have Not (1944) – where she first met love of her life, Humphrey Bogart – and continued into her final decade. She was notable especially in The Walker (2007) opposite Woody Harrelson. Scenes where she played cards with him and her friends across a table had a defiance to them, especially when compared to the sad decline exemplified all those years earlier at a similar game when sadsack Buster Keaton sat across from Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard (1950). Bacall was never likely to turn up in a non-speaking cameo!

Lauren Bacall’s one Academy Award was an Honorary Award in 2010 in recognition of her central place in the Golden Age of motion pictures. (She received a nomination for Best Actress in a Supporting Role in 1997 for The Mirror Has Two Faces (!996).) In her later years, in an interview with a magazine journalist, Bacall lamented from her city apartment on the rudeness of New Yorkers. She told of being frequently pushed about, doors slammed in her face or simply blanked as elderly ladies tend to be as she made her way through the city streets unrecognisably wrapped up against the cold.

I imagine most of those same people would have been mortified had they known whom they had just snubbed. Lauren Bacalll, after all, was a woman who remained a screen legend, star quality shimmering around her very name to the end.


A kiss before dying Marion and boyfriend, Sam, blissfully unaware of what happens next

Cue the jarring Saul Bass monochrome graphics and Bernard Herrmann’s rushing, stabbing title track. And then Hitchcock’s 1960 classic opens on a cityscape across which we read ‘Phoenix, Arizona. Friday December the 11th. Two- forty-three pm.’

A PRIVATE TRAP WHERE CHRISTMAS IS ABSENT

Psycho is a Christmas picture so bleak that apart from that one date at its very beginning, there is all but negligible evidence that ‘tis the season to be jolly throughout the entire movie.

Catholic director, Alfred Hitchcock has created an anti-Holy Family who reside in a ‘private trap’ of isolation and horror at the Bates’ Motel. And this is after he’s shown us an illicit lunchtime love affair plus the woman involved, Marion Crane’s (Academy Award-nominated Janet Leigh) spur-of-the-moment thieving of thousands of dollars (cash!) from her boss’s client.

Fate has collided: her headache and stress; the $40,000 in cash; her boss asking her to put it in the bank safe deposit; Marion’s need to pay off boyfriend, Sam’s alimony debt so they can get married. And then she drives away for her unscheduled rendezvous with shy Norman Bates (a career defining role for Anthony Perkins).

A mad as hell director

The deep irony is that Hitchcock never had any intention of making what has turned out to be one of the darkest of Christmas films. Recorded by Stephen Rebello in hiis book on which Hitchcock (2013) was based, set designer Robert Clatworthy recalled: ‘Hitchcock was mad as hell because he had sent out a second-unit crew to shoot process plates of the city street. When he saw what they’d shot, he noticed that Christmas decorations were hung over the street. He didn’t approve of that at all and said, “Hmm. That will take some explaining.” He was always thinking about the audience, trying to outsmart him. You can see the decorations in the shots where Janet Leigh’s boss walks past her car and peers in the window. There wasn’t time to reshoot. So he added the date in the titles at the beginning and hoped some wiseacre wouldn’t wonder why there was no other reference to the holidays anywhere else in the picture.’

Sorry to be a wiseacre, Mr Hitchcock. In the event, the serendipity that is part and parcel of movie-making adds a whole other dimension. We cannot help but watch Psycho through tinsel-framed specs – and what comes into focus is arguably the most anti-Christmas, even anti-Christian of the festive canon.

No sight of a season’s greeting

Set between December 11th through to the 20th (the 17 on the calendar on the courtroom wall in the final scene is a continuity error), even the Christians of Fairvale Presbyterian Church on the Sunday before the second biggest day of their faith’s calendar, aren’t up for the event if the bareness of the outside of their church or the mundanity of the congregation’s post-service filing out is anything to go by. It helps that neither is there any snow: there are no season’s greetings to be seen or heard at all.

Which means Psycho provides a very chilling vision, indeed. We’re presented with a world where neither Marion Crane, or indeed, Norman Bates in their private traps (“We scratch and claw but only at the air, only at each other. And for all we can, we never budge an inch”) ever stood a chance.


When Santa fell to Earth: more Dr Who than David Bowie

It started with my spotting from my bus on my way today’s church service a group of Santas between Hampton Court and Bushy Park, SW London clearly gearing up for a run, and wondering aloud (i.e on Facebook) what the collective noun might be? It ended with a debate about who the holly is that red-suited guy anyway?

LOOK TO CINEMA, NOT COKE FOR THE REAL THING

A sack of Santas? A flypast of Father Christmasses? A cache of capitalists, suggested one cynic. No, no ,no! I protested. The real Santa is about giving, and bringing happiness to the children of the world. (Clearly I have been watching too many Christmas movies.)

But it’s true! Nicklas Julebukk (a hippyish Alexander Scheer) explains it to young German lad, Ben (Noah Kraus) in When Santa Fell To Earth (2011). Nicklas, who swaggers down a Bavarian village street in his long flapping red suede hooded coat is the last Santa Claus, his people and reindeers with them wiped out back in Yuleland by fearsome stormtrooper-like giant soldier nutcrackers. (It is to be noted that Nicklas also travels by a one reindeer-powered sleigh-cum-folky caravan which happens to be a lot bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. He is basically ‘the Doctor’ with presents.)

The evil Goblynsch and his henchmen want to wipe out youthful Julebukk since ‘Happy children’s not our game, parents’ money is our gain.’ Whereas, Nicklas and his elves – horror – create presents that are ‘not obtained through monetary gain’ but rather freely given.

The festival’s true meaning

Interestingly, even as we face the annual consumerist onslaught, cinema keeps reminding us of the true meaning of Christmas. And the figure of St Nicholas/ Sinterklaas/Father Christmas/Santa Claus/Kris Kringle – why, even the American Indians’ ‘Handsome Fellow’ (the one nugget of information and worthwhile reason for watching dog-centred straight-to-DVD The Adventures of Bailey: Christmas Hero (2012)) as well as Nicklas Julebukk – is so often the harbinger of the goodwill and generosity.

Now, Christians can be picky and point out that Jesus Christ is ‘the reason for the season’ as the cheesy church posters go (though pagans might delight in correcting them since Saturnalia goes a bit further back than that). But in the tinselly, glitter-decked, present-buying context of telly and adverts and shops it’s so difficult to escape at this time of year, that the central figure is still identified as representing goodness and kindness when he appears on film seems to me a positive thing. (Obviously, in movies such as Bad Santa (2003) and A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas (2011), the Santas are sweary human store Santas rather than the Man Himself as in – spoiler alert! – A Miracle on 34th Street (1947 & 1994).)

Back and back and back

It is very easy to dismiss the big-bellied ho-ho-ho figure of Santa Claus as a consumerist ploy. That his jovial aura and scarlet suit have become inextricably linked with Coca Cola doesn’t help (however inaccurate the belief that the company’s 1930s Christmas advertising is the basis for Santa’s modern depiction).

I remember, as a child of the 1960s being taken to meet Father Christmas in Hamleys’ toy shop in Regent Street, and there’s an argument for Brits to reclaim and revive that more traditional name by which we knew him.

Meanwhile, it is notable that again and again we are reminded on screen that the fat fellow’s origins go back to St Nicholas. I loved the hippy otherworldly Santa of When Santa Fell to Earth because he combined both folk tradition (he had a wonderful embroidered white coat plus long fake beard for Christmas Day) and a knowing awareness of sci-fi lore. Notably, Arthur Christmas has family portraits which trace the lad’s ancestry right back to the Christian Saint.

For those with eyes to see, even mainstream contemporary Christmas movies aren’t convinced by Santa’s latterday diminished role as merely someone who helps shift product. They make it clear that he remains a far better man than that.


About Boys: Hugh and Rachel gel over their shared interest amid the Christmastide sparkle.

It Isn’t Beginning To Feel A Lot Like Christmas, Is It?

Simply having a wonderful Christmastime, yet? In the movieworld, Christmas doesn’t officially begin until today – ‘November the sodding 19th’’ when Hugh Grant’s Will Freeman goes late-year supermarket shopping in About A Boy (2002). Over the airwaves comes the truly awful strains of his one hit wonder father’s 1958 hit, Santa’s Super Sleigh: ‘…6 weeks before Christmas already they were playing the bloody thing.

I wonder if Stella McCartney feels the same about the annual return of her Dad’s tinkly Christmas 1979 hitt? For not even the John Lewis seasonal ad nor a blast of St Michael’s Magic and Sparkle can herald the official commercial start of Christmas quite like one’s first hearing of Paul McCartney’s annual warbling over the airwaves as you’re sitting enjoying a coffee in some café or blithely wandering through a shopping centre.

Magical shimmer must touch the heart

And the very fact that so many of us witness all these glittery hints of the coming festivities but can’t help ourselves feeling nonplussed just the same is exactly what About A Boy manages to capture. You can have us much post-Hallowe’en fairy lights strung throughout our shopping streets as you like but if you don’t feel Christmassy, then all those store managers and town centres wishing it so ain’t gonna make a hill of beans of difference. Look again at Will Freeman. His entire life has been defined by Christmas and the seasonal royalties that pay for his flash life, but it’s as if the magical shimmer of the festival hasn’t touched his heart. He’s a selfish git to be honest, a latterday Scrooge needing to learn how to care by Nicholas Hoult’s 12 year old lost boy, Marcus.

So, when does Christmas really begin? As a child, there was a moment when I could sense it on the air. Presumably a perfect storm of a drop in temperature, a shift in light when the contrast of winter darkness against street lights and inviting domestic interiors became just so, the subtle scent of decaying autumn leaves mixed with fresh citrus fruits and nutmeg drifting on a chilly breeze… Maybe. I still hope for that shivery sensation (‘Christmas!) but these days I tend to wait until Advent itself before I dare myself to even start thinking about it. (Unless I’m writing this blog of course.)

Stirring up a season of goodwill

The Americans seem to have got the balance right. Thanksgiving Day is celebrated with a family dinner on the last Thursday in November, so it’s very easy to put off any Xmas-talk until then. (Thanksgiving has also spawned its own sub-genre of movies such as Home For The Holidays and The Ice Storm.) But since that’s a date Britons are unable to import from across the Pond, ever since Halloween was over-commercialised over here from the moment a crack team from Woolies went to the US and brought a glut of black and bright orange horror to sell here [1] , November 1st seems to have been designated the unofficial beginning of Yule. At least for anyone planning on making the cash tills ring from the sale of all things glittery.

For those who wish to bring some old-style tradition into their family preparations – and this is one that is continued to be passed down generations – then let’s give a hand for Stir Up Sunday. It’s a largely unheralded pre-Christmas event on the Sunday before Advent 1. In the cycle of Anglican readings, this is the day the opening prayer – or collect – begins ‘Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord.’ At that moment in the service good Christian wives have been known to give each other a nod across the aisle. For this is also the ideal day to make the Christmas pudding if it is to be suitably matured in time for the Big Day. I have never made a Christmas pudding in my entire life but I remember the sense of occasion during the Seventies of Mum’s huge ceramic bowl filled with its rich mix, and the fruity promise it represented. It is a wonder that no one has made even a short film set around this event. Cinematically, we Brits really do need something after Hallowe’en and the consumerist downer of Will Freeman’s too-early Santa’s Super Sleigh to get us in a better mood and prepare the palate for the over-sugary onslaught of too many Christmas movies.

1. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/this-britain/halloween-how-the-hell-did-it-get-here-and-what-does-it-say-about-us-513188.html

I don’t remember seeing so many ‘dead’ Christmas trees out on the pavements ever before. It reminds me of that post-Christmas scene in Kramer vs Kramer where Dustin Hoffman’s walking along the street with his neighbourhood friend and the two of them are having to sidestep neglected pine trees all along the way.

But it reminds me too that Christmas isn’t technically over even though it looks and feels like it. Orthodox Christians celebrated Christmas when the rest of us were taking our decorations down on the 6th. For the Church of England, the season of CHristmas isn’t actually over until Candlemass on February 2nd: I have a friend who is keeping out his nativity scene until then while all the baubles and sparkle are back in their box.

Similarly, Christmas pops up in films when you’re least expecting it. I watched Sandra Bullock in While you Were Sleeping the other night. I’d argue that it beats Bridget Jones hands down on character, humour, charm, Christmas glitter, and singleton truth. I also saw classic 1945 British horror movie Dead of Night . the one with poor Michael Redgrave as a ventriloquist tortured by his malevolent dummy. There’s a Christmas ghost story hidden away in that film, featuring the young actress, Sally Ann Howes who went on to become Truly Scrumptious in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Those of us who read The suspicion of Mr Whicker will appreciate the Francis Kent reference too.

I went to see the very impressive The Impossible today. Set at the time of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, and beginning on a holidaying Christmas Eve, it’s a brave cinema scheduler who puts that in their future seasonal programmes. The soundtrack is such that you feel engulfed. Worth catching – with young Tom Holland a highlight. His feature debut is reminiscent of that of Christian Bale in Empire of the Sun. Expect to see more of him.

If there’s a strange emphasis of Christmas Eve over Christmas Day in seasonal films as if the Big Reveal is on the stroke of midnight with Santa’s due-arrival, then New Year’s Day is little different.  New Year’s Eve is when things happen, when people go searching and find themselves en route to love whether the End of the World is nigh (Last Night) or not (In Search of a Midnight KissNew Year’s Eve)  If we see the new year in on film, it’s the fireworks we’ve waited for (Strange Days) even while we tend to do exactly the same beyond the cinema and back in the real world.

Season, what season?

Yet New Year’s Day might be gone in a blink though we mumble our greetings further into January until we don’t know where and the words fall flat.  Yet Christmastime continues until a very definite January 6th when the decorations come down, but between Boxing Day and the Festival of Epiphany, we barely acknowledge the season at all.

Films that take account of Christmas continuing often happen to deal with adult perspectives on relationships.  Of course, any movie version of A Christmas Carol lets us know that Scrooge has turned a corner and will never be the same again.  Likewise, George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life has had his eyes open to the true value of his life that he had previously not recognised in spite of his goodness.  And independent films such as Frozen RiverHappy, Happy, and Tuesday, After Christmas might feature brokenness, hurt, and confusion, but that they all take place over this spiritual/commercial festival brings extra meaning.

Magical time

For Christmas continues, and as an audience, we expect something to happen on screen because of it.  Things come to a head, yet move on.  Life continues. Something has shifted.  The magic of the season has infected the players.

Whatever we, ourselves believe Christmas to be, our cultural understanding, at least at the cinema is that this time of the year has meaning.


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…

TIME FOR A CHRISTMAS MOVIE?

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.

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