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A mazy and disjointed ramble through Christmas films…

‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house not a creature was stirring, well apart from me as I still have some sort of bloody virus that’s stopping me from those little holiday luxuries like a good sleep. In fairness, being ill – not really ill, as in ‘sorry, I can’t make it in today’ proper sickness, more what we refer to as being ‘a bit under the weather’ – has driven this site’s churn of watching and writing about films. The Glenn Miller Story is currently cued up, ready to go, and, let’s be honest, there’s never a bad time to see it, is there?

A cursory glance through the schedules reveals to me that Frozen is Sky’s big Christmas Day premiere. It’s a sound choice, obvious even. Doing my present buying in recent weeks, I’ve been confronted with endless merchandise, image after image from the Disney flick that has bucked tradition by becoming increasingly popular long after its initial release, so that it’s now a juggernaut with faulty brakes, gaining a kind of snowball effect with viewers. Generally, I have little to say about it that disagrees with Badblokebob’s excellent review; like Bob I quite enjoyed Frozen, though I saw nothing that really made it stand out for me, and in true middle-aged man style my Dreyfus tic kicks in whenever I sense a song on the horizon. If I remember rightly, it isn’t even a Christmas film per se, in the same way Jingle Bells was never in fact written for Christmas, but it’s become part of the season thanks to its snowy subject matter and Disney’s canny alignment with all things Yule. Look, if you really want to know, I thought Maleficent was a far better picture.

As for genuine Christmas movies, Mrs Mike and I went to the delightful Picture House in Hebden Bridge yesterday afternoon to catch It’s a Wonderful Life. I know, I know, it’s an obvious choice, and somewhere down the line it became the archetypal film of the season. My father was a fan of classic cinema and sat me down before it back when I was a kid because ‘it’s good and you might learn something’, and I’m sure in those days it didn’t hold the special place in peoples’ hearts that it currently occupies. And it remains a disturbing watch, the grim tale of an essentially decent man driven towards such untold levels of despair that a guardian angel is sent to show him what his hometown and its citizens would be like if he had never been born. The film’s final few minutes are unashamedly sentimental, but that’s just a payoff for the main character’s nightmarish vision of coming across dear old friends and a wife with no idea who he is, their lives and outlooks hard and cynical because he was never there to provide the friendship and optimism we all need in order to carry on. At the heart is James Stewart’s George Bailey, a note-perfect performance from someone keen to subvert his wholesome image as a man who seems to visibly carry the worries of the world on his shoulders. The film is marketed as heartwarming, ‘the most loved Christmas film of all time’ goes the tagline, yet the image that stays with me is Bailey before he gets his vision, bags under his eyes, grey in his hair, all slumped posture, a picture of utter defeat. It might very well be wonderful, but it isn’t light viewing.

And yet it’s a million miles removed from most Christmas films, loaded with sentiment and a bit like being tied down while someone straddles you and pours syrup down your forced open mouth, sugarboarding if you like. Heck, there are entire Cable channels that show nothing but Christmas movies. Most of them I don’t like. Elf? Nope. The Santa Clause? No thank you. Those interminable Disney films where dogs are the heroes? Someone must like that sort of nonsense, but not for me. I will admit to a fondness for Robert Zemeckis’s animated take on A Christmas Carol from 2009, largely because no one can make a camera do those impossible swoops and dives through computer generated scenes quite like Zemeckis, but the source material has become so familiar and readapted that watching any version is like an easy wander down some local path that I’ve taken many times beforehand. The best, again handed down from my dad, is the 1951 vintage directed by Brian Desmond Hurst and starring Alastair Sim, though its by no means Sim’s finest performance (without thinking hard about it, I have nothing but love for his professional bounder in School for Scoundrels) and, perhaps because it’s the one that was circulated most frequently when I was young, the musical Scrooge from 1970 remains close to my heart.

Perhaps my favourite Scrooge film isn’t even an adaptation of A Christmas Carol at all, but is instead Hammer’s Cash on Demand, in which the old curmudgeon is reimagined as a stuffy bank manager, played by Peter Cushing. The story takes place on 23 December. Harry Fordyce runs his provincial branch on a short leash, setting impossible standards for the staff, especially Richard Vernon’s hangdog underling. The bank’s workers prepare for their Christmas party in the full and sure knowledge that Mr Fordyce will not wish to be involved. Into his world strides Colonel Gore-Hepburn (Andre Morell), a bogus investigator from ‘Head Office’ who turns out to be a bank robber with the perfect plan to empty the branch’s vaults and somehow co-opt Fordyce as his willing accomplice. It’s brilliant, tense viewing, running a breathless 80 minutes as, steadily, Fordyce’s stiff veneer is undermined until the desperate and emotional core is on full display. Cushing has been in many bigger films but he’s rarely been better, entirely convincing as his entire raison d’etre is stripped away. Morell is like all three Christmas ghosts rolled into one, an effortlessly charming criminal who is far more likeable and personable than the austere and remote Fordyce. It’s fortunate that Sony cleaned up and released the film on its Icons of Suspense boxset several years ago; previously, it was a forgotten footnote in the Hammer back catalogue, rarely screened and largely unavailable.

Otherwise, I submit for your approval Millions, the little Danny Boyle film from 2004 that I see as completely charming without resorting to cheap sentiment. Reviewed on these pages here, it was made for very little money and raked in enough to be considered a minor success, though its impact on the box office was minimal compared to the juggernauts of the time. That said, its release was an exercise in mishandling. It’s a Christmas film that came out in April, and its semi-regular appearances on network television have it bouncing around the calendar, as though no one knows quite what to make of it. The barebones plot is that of two young boys who come across a suitcase full of money, the classic MacGuffin plot device that served Boyle previously in Shallow Grave. Unlike that earlier film, in which the characters attempt to cheat and harm each other in an effort to gain all the cash, Millions’ kids are cute with their newfound wealth. The older one, Anthony (Lewis McGibbon), is savvy and uses it to gain status with his peers; his younger brother Damian (Alex Etel) wants to give it to the poor. Damian’s knowledge of and conversations with real-life saints is both a reflection of the wonder of children, whilst also serving as a reaction to the boys’ recent loss of their mother. Clearly affected, Damian’s mourning is shown in his inquiring of the saints whether they’ve come across Saint Maureen; as he explains, she’s new in Heaven.

Their dad is played by the ever-underrated James Nesbitt, obviously just about holding it together despite his grieving. There’s a rubbish nativity play, a series of televised adverts about Britain’s imminent conversion to the Euro that star Leslie Phillips, and the film’s villain, the ‘poor man’ played by Christopher Fulford whose search for the suitcase turns him into an understated yet deeply sinister character, like Death itself ever on the fringes of the action. Set in a modern and very real Widnes, it never pushes its morality too hard whilst charming the socks off its viewers with its really big heart. Damian is an adorable character without ever trying to be; he’s entirely relatable. Such a shame that Millions remains in semi-obscurity; take this as a plea from me to check it out.

So anyway, it’s (Glenn) Miller time, to be accompanied with coffee and York Fruits (the supermarkets had been cleared of Celebrations and Quality Street by the time we arrived, so some improvisation was required). Please enjoy your Christmas, whatever you choose to watch, though I heartily recommend The Lady Vanishes, and I’ll see you on the other side.

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