Film reviews

‘You’re tearing me apart!” Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) has to make the wise Christmastide decision to go it alone without his other half.

The movies highlighted in the Sky Christmas ads are a strangely familiar choice. Oz The Great And Powerful and Wreck It Ralph are like Old Skool family filler tv staples Zulu and The Sound of Music. Arthur Christmas has the Santa title sewn up. So, only Iron Man 3 stands as both Christmassy and any-time-of-the-year blockbuster actioner.


Malibu, California, and a hyped-up Tony Stark aka Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr), wired by 72 hours of sleeplessness is in his hi-tech uber-modern basement den trialing the latest generation of his project. A traditional decorated tinsel tree stands tall amid the digital paraphernalia and robot mechanics. He requests virtual sidekick, Jarvis (voiced by Paul Bettany) to fire up the old-style record player turntable to which Stark flexes his muscles to the strains of a jazzed up version of Jingle Bells, before calling forth the latest version of Iron Man. Which goes wrong, flinging metal limbs and armour all over the workshop and trashing the place.

As an action movie, albeit a superhero one, Iron Man 3 (!2A) feels very much a crash! bang! whallop! Christmas movie in the tradition of the Die Hard trilogy. However, with Robert Downey Jnr in the eponymous role, then his earlier Christmas film, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005) springs to mind.

It’s not surprising there’s even the same jump cut narration at the film’s very start where the hero is confused about the story he’s telling and has to show us a flashback – here, it’s to New Year’s Eve 1999 – and how consequences of actions then will come back to bite him. After all, Shane Black helmed and had a hand in writing both films.

Seasonal celluloid top trumps

In fact, Iron Man 3 enjoys making little Christmas film in-jokes. ‘I loved you in A Christmas Story,’ Stark tells a young lad in specs (which will be lost on most British audiences, which is a great shame since it’s one of the best seasonal movies). And later, he admits ‘Every one needs a hobby’ to girlfriend Pepper (the always classy Gwyneth Paltrow) as if he’s Norman Bates talking about his taxidermy in Psycho.

But when Guy Pearce turns up as over-reaching geneticist, Aldrich Killian, then it is as if we are watching a yuletide face-off. Given Downey Jr appreared as a reporter in Zodiac, a film as Christmas-themed as L.A Confidential in which Pearce played a cop, then the fact Pearce was also in The Proposition puts the two actors at level pegging in a strong Xmas hand, though perhaps not quite up to Hugh Grant’s record when it comes to featuring in films with at least one Christmas theme. (Paltrow herself also has a blink-and-you-miss-it appearance at the start of Infamous.)

A hero dragged back down to Earth

Ben Kingsley’s scary turn as anti-American terrorist, The Mandarin operates what he refers to as a ‘season of terror’ which contrasts sharply not only with the holiday season of peace and goodwill but also with the world Iron Man is striving to achieve in spite of his neurosis since The Avengers (2012).

Stark has been damaged by messing with aliens and worm holes, and what we see in this sequel is a man very much struggling with his humanness though not his humanity; he has chosen to be on the side of good. He has been dragged back down to Earth where he belongs even as he continues to develop his advanced technology that enhances his abilities.

Yet Iron Man 3’s emotional heft also resides in the story of Stark’s relationship history. (Perhaps another similarity with Die Hard where the story of a struggling marriage is played out through the sequels) There is an obvious evolution of maturity from Tony’s flaky one night stand at the turn of the century with Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall) to being able to love and commit to Pepper Potts even as he’s giving her a ceiling high toy rabbit for Christmas. This is mirrored too in his acquaintance with the young Tennessee lad (Ty Sinclair) whose shed he holes up in with the damaged suit: he goes from flippant and brutal to genuine friendship and generosity.

We see Tony’s struggle as well to truly engage with the world when he crash lands in his Iron Man suit in the snow in Tennessee and ends up pulling the comatose shell behind him, leaving it seated outside a phonebox as he makes a call to Pepper. She is on his mind at Christmastime even as he is laden down with his add-on hero identity.

Finding power in frail humanity

I’ll be honest. This isn’t the type of film I normally go for. I had no knowledge of the Iron Man character and cannot even remember seeing any marketing of Iron Mans 1 or 2. I didn’t catch last summer’s Avengers but now having watched Iron Man 3 and enjoyed it, I am tempted to take a step back to see what made Stark the man he is in this latest episode. I can’t be the only one. Iron Man 3 had huge international box office success for Disney and Marvel Studios’, grossing over $1bn within a month of release, and looks set to be the sales hit of 2013.

By the end of Iron Man 3, Tony Stark has learnt his lesson, and now understands what is important and valuable. He chooses warm human intimacy over steel. His Clean Slate Protocol sees his team of Iron Men flare up like fireworks in the sky to fall as ash, heralding in Christmas morning and a fresh start.

The story of Christmas is that God was born in human form and lived among us. The story of Iron Man 3 is that Tony Stark has learnt that Iron Man resides within him. Our very humanity is what gives us power: all we do can only ever be is human-sized. That is what we have to go on and what we do with that limitation, its extent is what defines us.

Journey to longterm love? Jesse and Celine’s chance meeting on a train takes them far.

Richard Linklater’s celebrated ‘Before Trilogy’ is renowned for its decades-long ‘will they, won’t they’ romance between Jesse and Celine. But it’s also a love story that hinges on what occurred in Austria’s heart one Christmastime…


American, Jesse (a fresh-faced Ethan Hawke) and the French Celine (similarly youthful Julie Delpy) having spent last night wandering the streets of Vienna together are now going their separate ways. Beside Celine’s train to Paris stands a couple who were yesterday complete strangers but this morning know this cannot be the last of it. They hug, clinging on to each other, not wanting to let the other go. They decide to meet in six months time.

It’s going to be freezing,’ notes Celine, the pragmatist.
OK. It doesn’t have to be here. We can go somewhere else,’ suggests Jesse.
Six months from now? Or last night?
Shit,’ replies Jesse, who doesn’t seem to have yet thought of that: ‘Last night. Six months from last night. Which is, er, June 16th. Track 9, six months from now. Six o’clock at night.
December,’ echoes Jesse. ‘Now look, it’s a train ride for you but I’ve got to fly over here and shit like that, all right.
Celine laughs, her yes full of brightness and love. ‘But I’m going to be here,’ continues Jesse. ‘Me too,’ replies the young woman, ‘And we’re not going to call or write, or..
No. it’s depressing,’ counters Jesse, shrugging his shoulders, and revealing by his words that he believes in the magic of romance as much as anyone.
They say their goodbyes, she with an ‘Au Revoir,’ he with a ‘Later’. They part.

Neither Jesse nor Celine has mentioned Christmas, though anyone thinking of December 16th would surely consider that. It is a heck of a time to travel, for one thing, with family members traversing the world whether at local or international level to be with their loved ones for the festival. And Vienna at Christmastime is both freezing as Celine rightly points out but also a city where the festival figures strongly. There are Christmas markets, gluwein, and woven straw decorations. The couple’s encounter would surely not end at the railway platform: they would likely retrace their steps among a city of sparkle and celebration.

Christmastime cliffhanger

Before Sunrise (1995), the first in the trilogy (but what I for one hope will turn out to be a life-long following of these two’s relationship, complete with the same actors) ends with a cliffhanger of a sort. It has been argued that what we have watched is the story of two lives played out (including marriage and death) in the course of a couple’s hours together in Austria’s very beautiful capital city.

Director and co-writer, Richard Linklater (Delpy and Hawke received no screenwriting credit this time) could have left it at that. But audiences – and presumably the trio – were left with the niggling feeling of what happened to this intelligent, lightly humoured pairing? Did they ever get to meet at chilly Track 9 after all?

A question demands to be answered

It took nine more years before we learnt the answer. In Before Sunset (2004), it turns out that one of the characters was just as curious. Author Jesse is launching his new novel based on his earlier encounter with Celine, at the celebrated Parisian bookshop, Shakespeare & Co, and she, curious, turns up to see him.

What starts in half-shy hellos among the shop’s shadowy bookstacks emerges into the afternoon sunshine as a rekindling of their relationship until Jesse must catch his plane home. The pair stop in the street, and Celine tentatively asks: ‘Before we go anywhere, I have to ask you, did you show up in Venice that December?

Days of mourning and lost romance

What did or did not occur that winter day almost a decade earlier lies at the heart of the hours Jesse and Celine spend wandering the streets of the City of Love together. Celine was unable to make it since she had to attend her grandmother’s funeral. Her December 1994 was one of mourning: ‘I was crying because I was never going to see her again and… never going to see you again.’ Jesse teases her: ‘I flew all the over there, you blew the thing off, and my life’s been a big nose dive since then, but I mean, it’s not a problem.

Jesse cannot stop teasing Celine yet there is an underlying pain to what he says. His stay in Vienna was one of unfulfilled romantic hope spent walking the streets for a couple of days before he flew home, owing his Dad two thousand bucks for the privilege.

Wondering about life’s ‘what might have beens’

The duo’s Woody Allenesque talk sees them comparing notes but also wondering what might have been: ‘Our lives might have been so much different,’ pleads Jesse. Celine seems the more optimistic and philosophical: ‘Now that we’ve met again, we can change our memory of that December 16th. It no longer has that sad ending of us never seeing each other again. Right?

Yet Jesse, trapped in a dutiful marriage sees himself damaged by that day. In the back of a car to a flat, he tells Celine: I think that I might have given up on the whole idea of romantic love, that I might have put t to bed the day when you weren’t there…

Though unspoken, Celine’s no-show must too have sullied Jesse’s memory of their original June 1994 hook-up, leaving him wondering if it had been worth even speaking to the French girl on the train in the first place nine years ago. How many ‘if onlys’ we accumulate through life! For these two, it as if back on December 16th 1994, they missed the chance they ever had of true love.

A loving pairing stretched to breaking point

Except, except…. In 2013’s Before Midnight (15), the audience are able to breathe a collective sigh of relief. Jesse and Celine are a partnership at last, and what’s more they have two beautiful young daughters. (Watching Hawke and Delpy grow older together in these roles is just as heartening.)

Yet life isn’t as cut and dried as they, and especially Jesse would like. He also has a thirteen year old American son, Hank from his first unhappy marriage, whom he has just said farewell to at the Greek airport on the island where his second family are enjoying a break. Driving his remaining family back from the airport, the girls asleep in the backseats, it is clear the American father is being torn apart emotionally: ‘..Every summer. Every Christmas. You know.’

For all his lightheartedness, teasing and jokes, there is a more serious side to Jesse that every so often emerges. He recognises he is missing or at least has missed the best years of his son, Hank’s life but his new family are Parisians, and his life is settled in Europe. This split will be the crux of what will cause a rift in his partnership with Celine. Ideally, Jesse would return to America so he could at least see his Chicago-based son more often, but Celine has been offered a new job with the French Government and doesn’t want to throw away such a professional opportunity.

The charm of romance meets the grit of reality

In referring to summer and Christmas, Jesse is referencing the holidays when Hank could have free time to spend with his Dad, where they could share experiences together, and Jesse could more easily support the boy growing up. However, summer holidays and Christmas are also a time, for most of happy memories, and it is much a possibility that Jesse’s nostalgia for his own childhood – and those times of the year that we so tend to over romanticise – is colouring what he hopes for in his relationship with his son.

Later, in a hotel room Jesse and Celine will both face a storm of an argument that threatens to rip their love to shreds. For all the romance and quips, Before Midnight turns out to be a very honest and adult examination of relationship and what makes and keeps long term couplings alive or alternatively destroys them. It will be turning up in a lot of critics’ Best Films of 2013 this Christmas.

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.’


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?


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.


In the bleak midwinter Bruce Willis looking for life in 2030’s Philadelphia

This is something they don’t teach you in history lessons. But 20 years ago today, there was a close call for most of the human race. And it took a guy with the initials J.C to pull us back from the brink…


Among Christians, today is St Lucia’s Day, where in Sweden eldest daughters, representing the martyr, wear a crown of candles and serve breakfast with special cakes for the family. Alternatively, today can be celebrated as Twelve Monkeys Day. For 13th December 1996 is the date scientists in 2030 pinpointed when a virus which went on to kill 5 billion people was first released in Philadelphia.

Had it not been for James Cole (Bruce Willis in a non-gung ho role) travelling from fourteen years hence back to December twenty years ago to track down the source of a killer virus deliberately spread via the world’s inter-city flight paths, the vast majority of humanity would have been wiped out.  And never even made the Millennium. Or social networking, come to that.

It’s A Wonderful Mind-Bending Gilliam Christmas Movie

Back in the real 1995, Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys was heralded with a clever hush-hush marketing campaign that covered street hoardings in posters which mirrored the grafitteed logo of Brad Pitt’s eponymous animal rights group. 

Inspired by the French film, La Jeteé (1962), (and itself an inspiration for last year’s Looper), Twelve Monkeys pairs with Brazil (1985) as a mind-bending Gilliam Christmas movie (though the Nativity features at the very beginning of The Life of Brian (1979)).  It is also, of course, not Bruce Willis’ first festive film: Die Hard (1988) and Die Hard 2 (1990) are both set on Christmas Eve.  

A Languid Angel And A Dead Store Tree

Although Twelve Monkeys never leaves winter, Cole’s jump cut between centuries jerks us around as much as a plot which cleverly plays with our assumptions of whodunnit.

We initially follow criminal, Cole in 2030, who, clad in high protective layers has been ordered on a mission through what turns out to be a manhole into the snow-deep city of Philadelphia.  He traps a bug in a jar as a contemporary specimen to see if there remains any sign of the deadly virus.  He wanders through the cobweb entangled cavenous atrium of a decrepit department store. A statue of an angel hangs languidly, and there is a large dead Christmas tree.  He disturbs a flock of pigeons in the building and they fly upwards through the shattered glass roof.  

We catch a glimpse of how the store once was. On the air we hear the strains of a seasonal song.  Or is it in Cole’s head?  There is a lion on a rooftop.  Cole has to avoid a grizzly bear.

Always Winter, Never Spring?

The deep snow that lieth all around suggests that it is certainly winter, whether or not Christmas itself is still being celebrated beneath the ground a third of the way into the Twenty First Century.  Scientists know that symptoms were first detected in Philadelphia on December 27th from where it spread across the planet, and have calculated that it must have been released around December 13: Cole’s task is to help stop it in its tracks and so prevent the terrible outcome.

Yet rather than being some glorious pre-virus world, the 1990s corners of Philadelphia he investigates and the people who iive there are shabby and barely clinging on to reason and civilised living.  Nevertheless, James is compelled to remain in this time, through love for psychiatrist Kathryn (Madelaine Stowe) whom he has managed to almost convince of his sanity, but also through a strange sense of familiarity even though he is due back in the future.

Magic And Confusion Of Ordinary Life

We can’t help but note the parallels with Cole’s future investigation in his protective suit.  Philadelphia also has impressive architecture like City Hall where years hence he has seen a lion wander among its parapets.  Inside a department store (in reality, Wanamaker’s Department Store[1]) he’s reminded of how he saw it in 2030: the pigeons high above, the angel here about to be raised, and the Christmas tree now in full sparkly bloom.  The time traveller has come full circle.

In 1996, there is the magic and confusion of ordinary life, of mundane traffic jams and a family of giraffe running along the motorway and pink flamingos in the sky because of a group of animal rightists gone wild.  And James is reminded too of a cracked recording of a woman’s voice calling from this past, warning of the Army of the Twelve Monkeys: “They’re the ones who are going to do it.  I can’t do anything more now. I have to go.  Have a Merry Christmas.” Via fate and time, love has tracked Cole down.


Christmas movies are often derided as seasonal schmaltz, but the best carry a seam of darkness entwined with the sparkle.

In an image as heartwarming and festive as chestnuts roasting on an open fire.  James Stewart in his best-loved role as George Bailey, stands smiling beside the glittering Christmas tree, one arm cradling his little girl (Karolyn Grimes), the other around his devoted wide, Mary (Donna Reed).  The Christmas film favourite, It’s A Wonderful Life presents us with Hollywood’s approximation of a holy family: the good, decent Baileys, who pray  and help their neighbours in post-war, small-town America.

Yet the tinsel and Christmas cheer of the film’s conclusion is not what makes it such a perennial favourite.  There is darkness beyond the homely glow – just as there was in the Nativity story – captured by director Frank Capra as the maelstrom that whorls around George Bailey’s seemingly settled existence.  If the film’s explicitly Christian worldview still resonates it is because it frames life’s disappointments and hurts so accurately too.

However, while George Bailey manages to make something of what Psycho’s Norman Bates would have termed the ‘private trap’ of Bedford Falls, Bates is totally ensnared by his own.  Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 horror classic is a Christmas picture so bleak that we can only tell the season from the date, Friday December the Eleventh across the opening shot of Phoenix, Arizona and some barely noticeable Christmas decorations seen from Marion Crane’s (Janet Leigh’s) car.

In fact, the only reason the date is given at the beginning of the film at all is down to Hitchcock’s attempt to explain the second-unit crew’s glitch in filming decorated city streets that he had no time to re-shoot later.[1]  Ironically, the date’s very inclusion brings a new dimension to the entire film.  If the aforementioned film still from It’s A Wonderful Life exploits aspects of what we understand in the West as the grammar of Christmas – family, tree, tinsel – then the complete absence of such tropes in an American film set at Christmas is, by definition deeply disturbing, and ultimately chilling.

But the visual absence of Christmas also serves to underscore the very tragedy of killer Norman Bates (so cleverly portrayed by Anthony Perkins) as a young man who never had a chance.  He thus becomes the child of a very Unholy Family indeed, a lonely tormented lost boy in a lost world who still sleeps in his childhood bedroom, his teddy and globe on top of the bookcase beside his small bed.  And, ironically, that makes him less of a monster and more human.  The Bates Motel then, is an unforgiving universe where the spiritual light offered by Christmas has never been able to break in – with horrific consequences.

Psycho is made deeply disturbing, and ultimately terrifying by its void   But David Fincher’s Zodiac (2007)  about a real-life series of killings, the first of which occurred at Christmastime days after the alleged murderer’s birthday, show how his acts mock the festival.  He chillingly wishes media folk involved in the case a ‘Merry Christmass’.  The sparkle and celebration, the very spiritual meaning in the December air seem to be made null and void by the man’s evil acts.  Two fictional period police dramas, the Nick Cave-scripted The Proposition (2005) and Curtis Hanson’s 1997 LA Confidential, adapted from James Ellroy’s Fifties’-set novel,  both steamroller Christmas celebration and comforting tradition, and leave it for dead under an onslaught of domestic violence, torture, and mass murder – and, coincidentally vicious rivalry among three men.  Yet this cinematic suggestion of the religious festival, let alone the very meaning of Christmas struggling to survive in a bleak world is not a new one.

Horror and violence after all, is part and parcel of Christmas since the original nativity story when Jesus’ family fled as refugees into Egypt as Herod’s soldiers slaughtered every child under two.[2]  Brokenness and darkness is notably present and explored in often the best or most memorable of Christmas films.  But then, were there not life’s darkness, there would have been no need for the original Christmas in the first place.

Yes, there are damaged film children who go on to do great evil like Norman Bates, and the protagonist of pre-Halloween slasher eye-view flick Black Christmas (1974) who lives in the attic of a college girls’ house of residence and duly bumps off the students one-by-one.  But there are also those who as adults play out the trauma of their childhood Christmasses before they are healed.

About A Boy (2002) is essentially a Christmas ghost story for Hugh Grant’s moneyed layabout as he annually suffers his late father’s seasonal sole hit over the airwaves.  Wilbur Wants To Kill Himself (2002) because as a 5 year old he inadvertently killed his sick mother by not letting her in the house one snowy Glasgow night.  In Young At Heart (1954), Frank Sinatra’s Barney Sloan attempts suicide on Christmas Eve by memorably turning off his windscreen wipers in a snowstorm because he doesn’t believe he deserves better. This remake of Four Daughters (1938), feels like a Christmas film simply because so much of significance occurs during the festival.   Unbeknownst to dour musician Sloan, the yuletide gathering of the clan of sunny wife, Laurie (Doris Day in a surprisingly successful star-coupling) sets the scene for wrongs to be righted.

The point is, these characters’ stories do not end at Christmas.   Christmas is both an important stage and a signpost to where they are heading.  They have passed through the darkness towards hope.

[1] Rebello, Stephen.  Alfred Hitchcock and the making of Psycho. Dembner Books, NY, 1990. P 90.

[2] Matthew 2: 13-23

(An earlier version of this piece appears in the current issue of Third Way magazine.)

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