Let It Go

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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Millions (2004)

When it’s on: Thursday, 26 July (11.35 pm)
Channel: BBC1
IMDb Link

The first entry on this site for a film screened on BBC1 (it’s arrived!) is one entirely out of context with its place in the schedule. Millions is the closest thing Danny Boyle has ever made to a family film, so its appearance at nearly midnight is baffling and almost as daft as the fact it’s a Christmas flick being shown in the middle of (what passes for) the British summer!

It’s also Boyle’s forgotten film, or the nearest thing in his Filmography to one. I did a bit of cross-referencing on IMDb to back this up, and sure enough less people have rated Millions than A Life Less Ordinary, his one directorial effort that I didn’t enjoy. At 6.3, the latter is one of two films – the other’s The Beach – that fall below Millions’ 7.0 approval rating, which suggests not many people have actually watched the thing and those who have thought it was decent enough.

A fair assessment? Well, Millions is no outright classic. For a start, it isn’t quite sure what it’s trying to be. The hard edge and adult themes mean it doesn’t sit well in the Children’s section, whilst the focus on its primary school protagonists imply that’s precisely where it belongs. Perhaps that’s the film’s problem, because looking beyond the uneasy categorising it’s great fun, rather suspenseful and ultimately about as poignant as anything Boyle has put his name to.

The story concerns Anthony and Damian, whose mum has recently died. Together with their dad (played by James Nesbitt), the boys move into a new housing estate in Widnes, in an attempt to start over. But as time passes, it becomes clear the passing ever hangs over the family, Damian coping by ‘hanging out’ with various Saints, about whom he has an encyclopaedic knowledge. and then into the boys’ world comes a bag of money, literally crashing into Damian’s cardboard house by the rail track and apparently dropped from the heavens. It’s the millions of the title,  money they start spending, Anthony sensing the business opportunities that come with wealth whilst Damian tries to focus on good causes. Only the cash hasn’t come from nowhere – a mysterious man (sinister Christopher Fulford) starts sniffing around for it, a trail that leads him to Anthony and Damian…

All this is set against a Britain that is going to convert to the Euro in the New Year, a change celebrated by a winning series of television adverts featuring some brilliantly realistic cameo performances by Leslie Phillips. Further fun is to be had from Damian’s chats with the Saints. St Clare of Assisi surprises him by being a smoker and informing him you can do anything ‘up there.’ Alun Armstrong turns up as a Geordie St Peter and explains the reality behind the feeding of the 5,000 miracle. And then there are the spending scenes, which threaten to turn the corporate-minded Anthony into a pint-sized pimp, whilst Damian makes various ham-fisted efforts to be charitable.

Boyle takes to the material with a light touch, the creepy presence of Fulford’s ‘poor man’ only steadily growing, though towards the end his level of threat becomes almost unbearable. The bits based around the school’s Nativity play are only too charming and authentic, whilst there’s a nice feeling of the family having a hopeful future as Nesbitt sparks a relationship with a kindly charity worker played by Daisy Donovan. It’s an altogether charming piece of work, though the attempts to depict a family in real mourning are too realistic to let it slide into drippy sentimentality. The two child actors, in particular Alex Etel as the angelic Damian, are fantastic.

Millions: ***

127 Hours (2010)

When it’s on: Wednesday, 18 April 2012 (9.00 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

In April 2003, Aron Ralston was walking through Blue John Canyon in Utah when an accident found his right arm pinned against the canyon wall by a dislodged boulder. Surviving for five days, alone in the wild and having told no one of his whereabouts, Ralston realised ultimately that he was going to die there, unless he could amputate his own arm. Sure enough, the only tool he had in order to perform this amateur surgery was a cheap, blunt knife, but as his deprivation and delirium took hold, it stopped being a matter of choice…

Ralston’s experiences in the canyon led to him becoming GQ Man of the Year and a compelling motivational speaker, relating how the prospect of being free and seeing his loved ones put a smile on his face as he was cutting off his arm. The story has become a bestselling book, Between a Rock and a Hard Place, and in 2010 was made into a film, 127 Hours, directed by Danny Boyle and starring James Franco.

127 Hours is one of those strange viewing experiences where you go into it knowing exactly what happens. The publicity surrounding the film outlined Ralston’s story in full, so it’s a bit like Titanic in the sense you go just to see the main event. In this instance it’s the messy amputation, an operation you know will be as visceral and drawn out as humanly possible. It’s something I watched through my fingers the first time around. On the second viewing I forced myself to look more closely and was stunned by how little is actually shown. My mind had filled in the gaps; sound effects, build-up and tension did the rest. It’s perhaps the closest I’ve come to being in one of those 1960 audiences watching Psycho and swearing afterwards that they’d seen deep cuts and much more of Janet Leigh than her torso.

In between the arm trapping calamity and Ralston’s self-mutilation, he loses his mind in the canyon, draining his meagre water supply slowly and letting memories and visions take over. These become steadily more unsettling and scary, a reminder that few directors cover this metaphysical stuff as well as Danny Boyle. Mark Renton’s horrific experience of overcoming his addiction to smack in Trainspotting. Richard losing himself to Vietnam-inspired fantasies in the jungles overlooking The Beach. And now this, long patches of the film relying on Ralston’s inner monologue to fill in the hours and the premonition that gives him resolve to lose his limb.

It’s compelling and never dull, thanks in no small part to the scintillating work put in by James Franco who was Oscar nominated for Best Actor. The film was on the Best Motion Picture shortlist, losing out to The King’s Speech, and whilst it might not really have been the finest choice facing the Academy, it’s disappointing to see them once again go for the safe bet with a title that reaffirms the human spirit, because 127 Hours is edgier, slicker, more traumatic and it’s stayed in my mind far longer.

127 Hours: ***