Into the wild: a growing lad must converse with an ancient natural force to face his future

Like George Bailey in Christmas classic, It’s A Wonderful Life (1946), young Conor O’Malley cannot escape his limited fate so he must learn to live with it. And so grow.


FOR A 13 YEAR OLD boy, it seems like a dream. Conor’s Dad, Liam has just turned up from America where he lives with his new family, and is suggesting his son join him in L.A. The teenager (Lewis MacDougall) is excited. L.A sounds like sunshine, bright colours and a new life for the boy – and freedom from his washed-out English life where the sun barely shines; he is being mercilessly bullied at school; and is presently living with his too strict and seemingly unfeeling Grandmother (a miscast Sigourney Weaver). And, worst of all, his single Mum (Felicity Jones) is dying of terminal cancer while assuring her aware son that she will get better. And then his Dad adds, ‘We were thinking over Christmas. That way, you could be back home in time for school.’ Conor’s heart sinks.

Like a chorus line for whenever they meet, Liam (Tony Kebbell) will assure Conor that he will be ‘going to come to L.A for Christmas’. (It often occurs at the pier, a place of fun and joy for a Dad and his boy but also suggests that Liam s trying too hard to reconnect.) Except Conor has listened to his father and seen through such promise. ‘In your cramped house where there’s no room for me,’ he spits out, throwing his Dad’s excuse that he couldn’t stay in the United States for ever right back at him. He is also adamant that he does not want to leave his sick Mum on her own in England for the festivities, presumably snce he fears she might die in the meantime.

A Lost Boy Finds Hope In The Wild

Sunshine and Christmas seem a New World away. Conor is essentially ‘stateless’ while his Mum is ill in hospital – and the unsaid question is where he will live should she die. He certainly does not want to remain with his grandmother. He’d feel an entirely lost boy were it not for the unexpected appearance of a huge leafy giant who has emerged from the ancient yew tree that stands in the cemetery on the hill. He sounds exactly like Liam Neeson (which is reassuring since he is also Aslan and Qui-Gon Jinn. On the other hand, Neeson is the assassin known for declaring: ‘I will find you. And I will kill you.‘ And, currently featuring in Scorsese’s Silence (2016) as a Jesuit missionary to Japan who denied Christ. The rotter!)

Which makes Neeson’s casting hugely appropriate. Whenever this Monster appears at 12.07, day or night, although he clearly delights in rolling the name’Conor O’Malley‘ around his mouth, we are never quite sure whether he has the teenager’s best interests at heart as he ‘encourages’ the boy to smash up property and people. He is a truthteller and a truthseeker, weaving a series of three tales for Conor and challenging him to reveal his own truth cum nightmare for the fourth tale. As with the ghost tales for Scrooge in Dicken’s ‘A Christmas Carol’ (1843) it is by facing the darkness of his heart that Conor shall be set free to live, however painful that might be.

An Ancient Spirituality Primed For Our Time

Patrick Ness, author of the acclaimed YA novel on which A Monster Calls is based (Ness also wrote the film’s screenplay), faced criticism for his apparent lack of imagination in reprising ‘A Christmas Carol’s three-stories-within-a-story style. On the contrary. That and Liam’s overplayed reference to Christmas ironically emphasises what Ness’s story is not. And by doing so, focuses on a very contemporary strand of English spirituality.

The beautifully animated tales in earthy reds and browns the Monster weaves, emerge from a time of kings and farmers’ daughters, knights and dragons, apothecaries and priests. The stunning watercolour washes bring to mind the 1930s children’s hymn, ‘When A Knight Won His Spurs’, which, interestingly ends with the couplet: ‘And let me set free with the sword of my youth, From the castle of darkness, the power of the truth.‘. Which is *exactly* what the Monster is endeavouring to help Conor to do. He is thousands of years’ old which suggests an attractive pre-CHristian sensiblity of an ‘original England’ reaching out to Conor’s post-industrial world.

Fairy Tales With Very Human Endings

The Monster’s stories, based on his own experiences, rather than have conventional happy endings with a clear sense of who is good and who is evil, are far more interesting and thought-provoking than that. He show humans to be conflicted beasts, a mix of right and wrong, with a contradiction at the heart of so much of our behaviour. By the third tale, the Monster is telling of Conor’s own invisibility that will burst into visibility with too much force. But destructiveness can be positive too, revealing dark truths that once confronted enable new life. And Conor must hug his mother as tightly as possible in order to let her go.

As kids we need fantasy to understand reality,’ director J.A. Bayona has explained. ‘This is what fairy tales were written for. Using fairy tales we can understand very complex emotions and thoughts that, the other way around, we wouldn’t be able to process as kids. So I think fantasy is more effective in telling a better comprehension of life and life itself.‘ [1] At one point, hearing of his parents’ failed marriage, Conor will say to his Dad, ‘So you did’nt get ‘happy ever after’?‘ ‘Most of us get ‘messily ever after,‘ is Liam’s very honest, true and lived experience of an answer.

A Modern Mythical Tale Of A Boy’s Bereavement

A Monster Calls celebrates the value of storytelling as well as the manual treasure that is drawing and painting from the heart. The Monster – himself perhaps the embodiment of the mythical ‘Green Man’ – has witnessed the origins of fairy tales before they were sanitised. That he provides ‘hope in the wild’ (as the poster strapline goes) with a ‘manchild’ is the continuance of a 2016 cinematic trend via films including The Legend of Tarzan, Jungle Book, Pete’s Dragon, Captain Fantastic, Hunt For The Wilderpeople and even Revenant and Room where the natural world is where ‘home’ is found away from the troubling contemporary world.

it is to J.A Bayona’s credit that his use of a range of animation techniques including blue-screen and digital does not detract from a very earthed and undoubtedly English tale. An incredible and terrifying sequence in a graveyard also emphasises the quality of young MacDougall’s acting, while underscoring Bayona’s real gift as a director of teenage boys. (Tom Holland’s superb appearance in The Impossible (2012) was reminiscent of Christian Bale’s debut in Empire Of The Sun (1987) – and he makes a hidden appearance in A Monster Calls too.)

It is only January, but A Monster Calls is already a shoe-in for one of the films of 2017.


Shadowlands: the warming light of decorations does not touch everyone

The release of the restored television and cinema classic presents a timely refocus on an urban community at Christmastime


It is the evening of Christmas Eve when Poles celebrate the festival, and on a grey Warsaw housing estate a man dressed as Father Christmas is getting ready in his car before heading off with his sack to an apartment block. A little girl will answer the bell and he will tell her in a deep voice that ‘Santa Claus is here’. In his stationary car, he has already been passed by a drunk man dragging a fir tree behind him and weeping, ‘Where is my home?

As the block door opens, dishevelled bereaved father, Kryszytof (Henryk Brnaowski) whom we recognise from the first episode of this acclaimed television drama happens to come out. As his neighbour, Santa wishes him ‘Merry Christmas.’ ‘Sorry, I didn’t recognise you,’ replies the broken father, his words weighted with so much unspoken truth about the loss of his young son, Pawel. (The boy’s fate was sealed when his father gave him a premature Christmas present of a pair of ice skates.) Kryszytof looks through the block window and sees Santa entering a decorated living room. It appears as magical as the Mexican front room Arthur Christmas (2011) is in awe of. Santa hands out presents to his two small children, his wife and older relation. It is a jolly scene of family celebration – a Christmas archetype – yet we also see that there are those it shuts out by default, who are left with their noses up against an icy window pane at this time of year.

Ten tales that capture frail and troubled humanity

As the restored highlight of a box set comprised of almost the entire television output of acclaimed Polish film director, Krzysztof Kieslowski, Dekalog (1988) has acquired a deserved place in the cinema canon of the late Twentieth Century. Written by Kieslowski and Krzysztof Piesiewicz, and loosely based around the Ten Commandments, it began life as a low budget ten part monochrome tv drama series. Money was so tight that the filmmaker could only afford two takes maximum but this gives each tale a naturalistic tone. We feel very close to these people. The series’ reputation grow beyond Poland (two of the sections were made into films, A Short Film About Love and A Short Film About Killing (both 1988), and Dekalog was celebrated beyond Eastern Europe at film festivals and included in cinema programmes.

In fact, the series can be effectively read as an extended film about a community centred on a Warsaw housing estate in the 1980s, where an individual whose story is told in one episode will be seen in the background in another one. (Kieslowski was to repeat this pattern in the remarkable Three Colours film trilogy, most astoundingly in the final scene of the finale, Red (1994).

A heightneed view of ordinary lives

Throughout Dekalog, an all but silent man observes the lives and stories playing out before him: he could be termed ‘Christ-like’ but he is a much like the Berlin angels of Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire (1987), observing and standing by human beings but having no agency on what befalls them. None of the stories are prescriptive or moralistic but rather raise questions and do not take spiritual sides.

Indeed Dekalog speaks to viewers wherever they live of ordinary human predicaments and responses to recognisable circumstances. Today, the series can also be regarded as a semi-historical account of a people emerging from Communism into their own confused and often troubled autonomy even while there is no mention of this: people simply get on with their lives.

City-wide search for meaning

The Christmas Eve episode is the third in the series – Dekalog 3 (Dekalogy Trzyi) is based on the seventh Commandment ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery.’ [Exodus 20: 14) it is effectively an hour long three-hander. The tale revolves around Santa –Jamusz (Daniel Olbrychski); ex-lover, Ewa’s search for her partner, Edward this winter’s night – and how she inveigles Jamusz into helping her in her quest even while he has left his suspicious wife at home.

Yet Dekalog 3 also turns out to be a rather touching fable about individuals’ search at this time of year for some sort of meaning. En route, we are shown how different beleaguered people celebrate Christmas: from taking their own life; drinking enough to end up naked in a grim cell; singing together at a care home; or celebrating Midnight Mass. Ironically for all this sadness, the screenwriters express an inclusive humanism. All these ‘minor’ Chirstma stories are as valid and important and worth looking at as the traditional family celebration at the episode’s heart. ‘It’s difficult to be alone on a night like this,’ admits Ewa at one point. Her ex’s reply: ‘People shut themselves in, draw the curtains’ is a pertinent comment about how exclusive a traditional Christmas can be. Dekalog 3 honours those people on the outside too.

Santa Claus and guardian angel

And Jamusz’s comment suggests he’s very aware of his role this Christmas Eve. He has stepped outside that decorated comfort zone. He seems to sense that, for this one lonely night, the Santa in him shall guide Ewa (Maria Pakulnis) beyond her despair, even while they deceive each other along the way. It is reminiscent of the angelic company of Nicholas Hoult guarding the suicidal Colin Firth in A Single Man (2009). By the morning, Jamusz and Ewa part, flashing their car lights at ach other.

Presumably, this was their old signal when they were having an affair, but this Christmas night they have spent together it has been redeemed into an act of fondness: a genuine farewell. Returning to his wife, Zona (Joanna Szczepkowska), it is clear to all three that the good and honest Christmas deed was done that night. The light of the season made itself known.

‘Dekalog and Other TV Works’ Dual-Format Blu-ray & DVD plus interviews, commentaries and a 128-page collector’s book is available from at a special offer price of £49.99 (RRP £64.99) from 31st October.

Like father, like son: Bruce Willis and Jai Courtney contemplate their mirror image (Photo: Twentieth Century Fox)


The slow strains from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony accompanied by gunfire and explosions over nothing but a black screen at the very onset of A Good Day To Die Hard is, come to think of it a clever trick that on the face of it seems rather a dim gesture. Heck, it’s not as if we needed to be reminded that this is the latest – count em: fifth – in the John McClane franchise. But that classical extract draws us mentally right back to the original and best, the Christmas-set Die Hard (1988), conveniently hurdling over the sequels and especially the aberration that was 2007’s Live Free Or Die Hard (aka Die Hard 4.0), the edition that many fans would rather did not speak its name.

And what’s so surprising about this reboot of the Die Hard franchise is how well A Good Day To Die Hard fits. I write as someone who can take or leave action movies, but credit where it’s due to ones that play well to someone like me who’s most at home watching quiet character-led indy pictures like Richard Linklater’s Before… trilogy and foreign films like I Wish.

Passing on the baton

The point is that the Die Hard films know what they’re good at – throwing Bruce Willis into a maelstrom of shattering metal and glass and having him coming back fighting and with a wise crack on his lips. Here, he’s the same John McClane, only balder, and it doesn’t even matter if he’s a police any more. He’s headed to Russia to pull his son, Jack (a well-matched Jai Courtney, due to appear in this year’s Suicide Squad) out of an apparent almighty mess he’s got himself into – and has to swallow a smirk when he discovers his boy’s actually a CIA operative, referring to Junior flippantly as ‘double-O Seven of Playing Field, New Jersey.’

It’s obvious that the baton passing from getting-too-old-for-this-game Willis/police officer McClane to holding-his-own Courtney/spy Jack aka John McClane Jnr is no accident. The Daniel Craig-fronted revamp of Bond as well as the success of the Bourne films are stiff competition these days, and the Die Hard producers look keen to play ball and what’s more, from this film alone seem up to the game. If the plot seems shaky and convoluted, and the situations improbable, well, that’s par for the course for this film genre. As well as jaw-dropping vehicle chases, there’s a tremendous all-but-final sequence of a helicopter crashing vertically through a building as McClane and son themselves go tumbling down through the same floors to land, virtually unscathed, in a convenient swimming pool together.

A fight for family

Let me ask you something. Do you go looking for trouble or does it always seem to find you?’ asks a bemused Jack, trying to make sense of his Dad. ‘You know, after all these years I still ask myself the same,’ Senior replies. And no surprise, because the truth is that all this shoot ‘em up bluster is a huge McGuffin to disguise the Die Hard films’ fundamental tale of an Irish Catholic New Yorker attempting but not always succeeding to do right by his family. The first two Die Hards were both set at Christmastime with loved ones crossing the country to be with their family a major part of the plot set-up. In A Good Day To Die Hard, McClane is crossing continents to gather up the clan. Family ties are key.

Marriagewise, John has failed abysmally. The pressure and hours of his job and his recognition that wife, Holly (Bonnie Bedella) ‘was the best thing to ever happen to a bum like me’ at the end of Die Hard wasn’t enough. He saved her from her plane falling out of a snow-filled sky in the sequel (‘Oh, John, why does this keep happening to us?’), and left her hanging on the other end of the telephone in Die Hard With A Vengeance. The fourth film put the nail in the coffin of what had been a clearly struggling partnership indicating that the pair were long divorced (the film’s only notable point). Turns out we had been watching the sad tale of a marriage breakdown all along.

Killing bad guys together

At the onset of A Good Day To Die Hard, McClane and grown-up daughter, Lucy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) are on good terms. She waves him off at the airport with a ‘Love you, Dad. Just try not to make a mess of things.’ Lucy clearly has her father sussed. Jack, however, has a bone to pick with ‘John’. (Tellingly, when a shocked son’s getaway van’s path is blacked by McClane Snr in a Moscow street, he blurts out ‘Dad?’ in surprise, but he immediately changes his tune.)

The two haven’t spoken in years. ‘How come you never called and told me where you were?’ pleads John. ‘Like you give a shit,’ fires back Jack. Ouch. Of course, the point is that these two are too alike, that ’killing bad guys’ is both their thing. But they have to risk a fatal dose of radiation at the ruins of Chernobyl, being shot at and the possibility of being blown to smithereens together to realise it and be fully reunited.

For while John McClane might have made a balls up of his generation. his fatherly instinct to go and bring his boy home indicates that he’s going to make damn sure that splitting from his children’s mother wasn’t the end of the family. He seems to have learnt his lesson, even as he appears to be bowing out.

A Good Day To Die Hard is on Channel 4 at 9pm.

Familiar family gathering: but do they make ’em like this anymore?

For all the seasonal cinema screenings of It’s A Wonderful Life and tv stations pulling out all the stops to fill the November & December schedules with yuletide movies, annual Christmas-themed film releases tend to be thin on the ground. 2015 looks very different.


Last year, it was Get Santa and Nativity 3. One notable year, the tube was full of billboards showing a rather scary Father Christmas with Naughty and Nice tattooed on his fists but that was for Rise of the Guardians: a film set at Easter! That’s not to say that there weren’t pictures that flew under the radar, such as Happy! Happy! But on the whole, the annual selection was nominal, the releases often family-aimed contrivances. The Christmas movie canon, after all is a collection of titles released over decades.

Except this year, there’s a veritable glut. And what is more, there is a broadness in the themes they cover: as a collection, they take in issues of sexuality and gender, homelessness, the traditional family gathering, and folk legend. And that is without counting films such as The Lady In The Van, and New Year’s Day release, Joy which both incorporate Christmas scenes into their trailers while neither film is essentially about Christmastime.

On current release

Tangerine (15)

Given it happens to be the first feature film produced on an IPad, trans drama, Tangerine makes both a strange and fitting double bill to watch with Steve Jobs starring a hugely impressive Michael Fassbender as the eponymous Apple computer genius. Mind you, what Jobs would have made of Sean Baker’s sun bleached dayglo vision set among Los Angeles’s hustlers on Christmas Eve is anyone’s guess. The trans girls are shrill, and the drama of their lives is spelt out in capital letters. But this is a funny, sad, grim, tortured, tender tale of people hanging on to the underbelly of the American Dream with their garishly fake-nailed fingertips during a fairy light-lit day of reckoning.

A Christmas Star (U)

Billed as the ‘first Northern Ireland Christmas film’, production company, Cinemagic have accumulated a young cast and crew along with industry professionals to encourage trainees into the industry. Pierce Brosnan plays a property developer (boo hiss) and the mellow tones of Liam Neeson provide the narration. All who worked on it clearly gained some valuable experience, and the whole project is well meant. And while I have not yet seen the film (it is out on dvd on November 23rd), I have been warned off seeing it both by film reviews and to my face (yesterday evening after a press screening of Christmas With The Coopers).

Out 27th November

Carol (15)

As with The Apartment and The Hunt, the crux of Todd Hayne’s beautifully shot and coloured Carol takes place during Christmastime, but it is not the whole story: which is why, technically, none of them can be classed as Christmas movies. It is in the run up to the festival that Cate Blanchett’s upper middle class wife and mother first sets eyes on Rooney Mara’s shopgirl in the tinselled toy department of a New York store. It feels a magical place where dreams might come true, and the pair effectively bewitch each other, striking up a relationship. Which proves a very dangerous game in America in 1952, especially for Carol who risks losing her young daughter. This is a beautifully rich character study that has had critics salivating but may face difficulty in attracting audiences beyond the arthouse circuit.

Out 1st December

Christmas With The Coopers (12A)

I expected slapstick and schmaltz around the Christmas dinner table with Diane Keaton and John Goodman as the heads of the household. The trailer gives the same poor impression. Ignore the trailer. Christmas With The Coopers focuses more on the journeying than the actual arrival at the family home. It’s a film about memories, regrets, lost love, life’s disappointments and childhood sleights that still burn. And is wistful, funny, sharp, moving, romantic, sceptical, humane, hopeful and silly. There are moments which children will enjoy, but this is essentially a Christmas movie for those who have lived a bit longer. At the time of writing, I ‘ve yet to see all the films listed here, but this might be my favourite of the season. And it’s got a great soundrack too.

Out 4th December

Krampus (15)

Nothing like some influence from European folklore to darken the – enforced – Christmas mood and jollity of a dysfunctional American family gatheinrg. Krampus is the anti-Santa Claus whose focus is on the naughty kids – and while there are shivers and shocks to be had, it also falls on the right side of horror. The audience shrieks will be laced with laughter. As with the excellent Rare Exports, Black Christmas, and, why, A Christmas Carol itself, a dark twist on the festivities provides part of the season’s winter colour.

Out 11th December

The Night Before (15)

Three friends – Seth Rogen, Anthony Mackie, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt embark on their annual Christmas Eve night of debauchery across New York in search of the best party, well aware that this could well be their last. If there are any laughs, they are broad ones. And there is one scene set at Midnight Mass that looks set to deeply offend many Christians. James Franco’s genitals apparently have a cameo role. It’s that sort of Christmas movie…

Hector (15)

Peter Mullan plays Hector McAdam, a homeless Scot who every year travels down south to spend Christmas at a London hostel. This year, he has an added journey: he wishes to track down his estranged siblings. This is a small British seasonal film with limited release.

So, it’s quite a year! I will cover each of the films as close to their cinema release date as possible. Look out for my full review of Tangerine shortly.

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.

The way its painted on the Big Screen, you’d almost think that Christmas Eve was the Big Day.  It’s when things happen.

It’s Kim Basinger in a scarlet and fur-edged cloak setting off bullish cop, Russell Crowe’s curiosity in L.A Confidential.  It’s the date of the semi-ghost story Festen director, a captivating Thomas Vinterberg tells on the dvd extra, The disclosure of Festen. And it’s the ghostly visitations to Scrooge in any one of 30-plus movie A Christmas Carols.  Or Doris Day waiting to tell morose husband, Barney (Frank Sinatra) at midnight that she is pregnant, except he attempts suicide by driving full throttle in a white-out in the meantime in Young At Heart  in Bridget Jones’ Diary, we learn that Christmas Eve is the horror of a day Mark Darcy discovers his Japanese wife having an affair with his one-time Best Man (Hugh Grant).  It is the courage, hope, steel – and, unbeknownst tragedy in Polish officers in a Russian POW camp celebrating Christmas and singing carols from home in Katyn.

In the circumstances, Christmas Day itself feels like an anti-climax.  But Christmas Eve is the drama, the expectancy, the storm before the calm, the birth of Christmas Day when ends are tied up, the going-without-saying.  In so many films, it is the culmination, and if not the culmination, the day when things begin to turn right, as in Frozen River.  Christmas Day is seen to be a sign on screen that All Manner of Things Shall Be Made Well.

A Merry Christmas to you all.

I will return for Boxing Day and be writing up to Epiphany on January 6th when the decorations come down.  And after that, I’ve news of a new project.

It’s not as if there haven’t been any Christmas films scheduled at local cinemas this December. Western production companies love to tie movies in with holidays and festivals, and Christmas is, of course, one of the biggest.  At the start of the month, arthouse cinema audience were treated to snowy Norwegian marriage tangle drama Happy Happy, and The Hunt, about an innocent man labelled a paedophile, is still being screened.  The multiplexes on the other hand pulled out Nativity 2: Danger In The Manger and Rise of the Guardians for the younger end of the school holiday crowd.  A digitally remastered version of Home Alone is being released on Friday, by the skin of its teeth before the Big Day itself.  It is just the thing to mop up victims of the Boxing Day lull and bored thumbtwiddlers desperate for New Year’s Eve. (Boxing Day is one to catch then too, of course.)

What is striking is how lacking in imagination are most movie-house schedulers, especially given the brpad range of Christmas films they could choose from.  There really are ones to suit all tastes and ages.  Yet, at many surburban cinemas, last year’s Aardman Animation, Arthur Christmas has been the only other seasonal film screened, if at all this year.  Even showing the original Nativity starring The Hobbit star, Martin Freeman as a companion piece to Nativity 2 appears to have crossed very few cinemas’ minds.  Of the London cinemas listed in The Independent on Saturday’s Radar section, the Clapham Picturehouse was, this week, the only venue where iit was being shown.

It is the arthouse cinemas which seem more keen to put on at least a bit of a Christmas show, though they are often at limited times or days rather than week long showings.  Stalwart It’s A Wonderful Life remains one of the favourites, but of the other films shown, what can be seen emerging is a generally accepted Christmas film ‘canon’: selected titles are on the whole familiar and much-loved. Whereas television schedules are a smorgasbord of favourites and lacklustre time-fillers, those cinema managers who make an effort to develop any form of Christmas programming seem more savvy.

If they’re not screening it’s A Wonderful Life, then Christmas would not be Christmas without either Die HardGremlins, a version of Dicken’s A Christmas Carol and especially the delightful The Muppet’s Christmas Carol, and Elf.  Of that last film, director Jon Favreau interestingly. wanted to create an old-fashioned Christmas movie.  The whole cast, notably Will Ferrell as the fish-out-of-water human elf, Buddy are superb.  Released less than 10 years ago, Elf is already a seasonal favourite.   

But there is one London cinema I must give a well-deserved shout-out to. (I’m interested to know whether any other cinemas in other towns and cities can compete.) Since last Saturday running through to 29th December, the independent Prince Charles Cinema off Leicester Square in the West End has been spreading cinematic sparkle.  They have already shown BrazilMeet Me In St Louis (in which Judy Garland has never looked so lovely), Jingle All The WayBad SantaTrading Places, and Scrooged.  I plan on seeing the double-bill of A Christmas Story and A National Lampoon Christmas Vacation this Thursday evening.  As well as the afore-mentioned, the original Miracle on 34th Street and White Christmas are scheduled for this Saturday, and the cooler Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and Lethal Weapon are showing Thursday week.

Something for everyone, then.

(For further details of Prince Charles Cinema’s Christmas programme, go to:

Today is officially the Feast of Saint Nicholas, patron saint of children, sailors and the city of Amsterdam.  The religious festival is celebrated in countries across the European continent in a manner very much as English speaking countries celebrate Christmas Day.  St Nicholas or Sinterklass has a long white beard and dresses in red like the bishop Nicholas did in life.  He carries a book in which is indicated whether a child has been good or not.  He also has an assistant, Zwarte Piet (Black Pete).  Children put out shoes or clogs he will fill with presents.

It is not difficult to see where our image of Santa Claus or Father Christmas came from.  It goes way back before Coca Cola’s red and white livery, and the beginning of cinema.  But Sinterklass is a figure who has lasted, whom the movie screen still has room and an audience for. As I reported on my last blog, Santa takes centre stage on the Rise of the Guardians posters to tie in with this month’s release.  He is a broad-shouldered hulk of a man given a Slavic accent by Alec Baldwin.  He appears an intimidating gruff figure with his Naughty/Nice tattoos on his arms (not having enough fingers on which to spell it out, presumably), but he assures Jack Frost that he has not forgotten the sense of wonder at his core.  Baldwin’s choice of accent seems an attempt to drag back Santa Claus close to his Old World roots, a rare decision in Hollywoodland.  The only other similar portrayal that comes to mind is Leslie Nielsen’s Macys Store Santa in the dire All I Want For Christmas.

What is notable about Rise of the Guardians is that the problem of children’s unbelief is exactly the same problem faced by Santa in Jon Favreau’s delightful Elf.  His sleigh after all runs on their faith.  In both the 1947 and 1994 versions of Christmas classic, Miracle on 34th Street, it is initially one little girl’s (a very young Natalie Wood) whose sense of wonder and magic is at stake: is the twinkly-eyed store Santa, otherwise known as Mr Kris Kringle the real deal?  But it ends in court over establishing who this old man really is.  Even in gritty drama Frozen River, hardbitten Ray cannot imagine how her Native American friend cannot celebrate Christmas: it is the children who miss out when there’s no Santa, she muses.

Santa in the movies tends then, to be the fat red-suited good guy.  So much so, that it’s a challenge to put a new spin on the story.  There are only so many times that you can retell the  age-old ‘of course he exists!’ tale and maintain its freshness.  Enter stage left Billy Bob Thornton as Bad Santa.  Foul-mouthed, cynical, child-loathing, hard-drinking safe-cracker and he’s appearing in the local department store’s toy department this holiday.  He’s a very unlikeable character but he’s also very funny.  And by the end we know he’s a got a soft core revealed by his ‘odd couple’ friendship with an unloved lost boy.  (This film is the dark, dubious flipside of Miracle on 34th Street where a child believes in a Santa who isn’t…)  There might be a Hollywood cop out in the last reel.  Or it might be my own cynicism at the true spirit of Christmas breaking into the film.

But my favourite Santa-twist is that in the poorly directed & scripted and very low budget 1984 British horror fiick, Don’t Open Til Christmas.  The premise is that a serial killer is on the loose in London – and he’s murdering store Santas one-by-one in extremely violent ways.  There’s something very seedy about this film, and the Fangoria website ripped it to shreads.  But it has two redeemiing features. Firstly, for women such as myself who were girls in the 70s, it features the first and final feature film role of tv teen heartthrob, Gerry Sundqvist (his life sadly turned to tragedy).  And secondly, that premise.  There is still to be written a quality horror script around this Christmas theme.  There.  That’s your  challenge.


It is the movie against which all other Christmas movies tend to be measured; the movie local cinemas are most likely to screen as a festival-themed attraction outside of the latest sparkly family fare; the movie regularly cited by people as their Christmas favourite. Yet  Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life (U) happens to be a 1947 black and white tale of how American small town Christian values triumph amidst life’s trials.  Nevertheless, in the hard-wired, high-tech Twenty First Century, It’s A Wonderful Life remains a celebrated film that still holds its own.

It wasn’t always thus.  When It’s A Wonderful Life was first released, although it was star, James Stewart’s post-war comeback movie, it only fared moderately well at the box office.  It’s ‘Christmas classic’ status evolved through repeated showings on television in the run up to the festival once it had gone out of copyright and proved cheap to broadcast.  Viewers warmed to it.  In the same way that many people annually reread Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, to watch It’s A Wonderful Life has become part of the Christmas ritual.

Interestingly, there is a mythic/fairy tale quality about both.  The turning of the pages at the beginning of the film even suggests that the audience is being introduced to an age-old fable.  And the message that the individual can be heroic, a force for good whatever their circumstances, that what each of us does matters is a very potent one.

Whereas Dickens’ novel redefined the meaning of Christmas for Victorian readers, It’s A Wonderful Life continues to inspire we who live in the cinematic age.  (The digital age has yet to reveal anything comparable.)  Clearly Capra’s classic is of its time, its assumption of the inherent rightness of caring capitalism reflecting the political mores of a western world recovering from the Second World War.  (Ironically, the way Stewart’s George Bailey manages his savings and loans company has in itself proved a rejoinder to the workings of our own financial culture.)  Yet the film’s context is also explicitly Christian.

Bookended by the Liberty Films company’s chiming belll, a motif itself redeemed by the film into suggesting heavenly celebration, Bailey’s rescue from the pit of despair at the impending loss of all he holds dear (“He’s worse than sick, he’s discouraged”) takes place on Christmas Eve.  The film opens onto a view of the rooftops of Bedford Falls, the soundtrack is of George’s wife, his children, his relations and friends praying with all their might for God’s protection for the desperate man.

And prayer is seen to work.  Perhaps It’s A Wonderful Life’s most heartrending scene – which moved James Stewart to tears when it was shown during his televised interview with Michael Parkinson in the Seventies – is of George seated at a bar, almost out of his mind at the thought of the impending financial ruin caused by the disappearance of a then massive $8000 from his loan company’s coffers, and struggling for the words to ask for help from God.  The subsequent appearance of “angel – second class” Clarence (Henry Travers) represents God’s response.

For someone with “the IQ of a rabbit, the faith of a child”, Clarence’s jump into the river is a stroke of genius and sheer chutzpah (the last thing a self-obsessed potential suicide about to drown expects to view from the bridge is someone else flailing in the water below, crying for help).  It also embodies the Christian principle of being prepared to lay down one’s life so another might live, and strikes directly at George Bailey’s heart.  For George cannot stop helping others regardless of the cost to his own plans and dreams.

That is his downfall and his salvation.  George’s lifelong ambition of doing “something big, something important”, his dreams of escaping “this crummy little town” are continually thwarted, as much by his own selfless acts as by circumstances beyond his control.

Even his honeymoon in New York with the devoted Mary (Donna Reed) loses out to his concern that his customers are not bought out by a greedy banker, Henry Potter (Lionel Barrymore).

It is as if there is an invisible barrier around Bedford Falls that George cannot penetrate.  There is horror in the limitations enforced by small town life, and clearly his anger, violence and self-hatred that erupt at a moment of crisis have been repressed for years.  (This is almost as feel-good a film as Slumdog Millionaire…)

Yet the very reaching out to others that has sealed his fate ensures that George’s friends and family are there for him, too, at his time of need.

In gaining spiritual maturity in coming to terms with the life marked out for him, George Bailey is also assured that he is not alone.

(An earlier version of this piece first appeared in The Church of England Newspaper.)

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