Festive films to love?

It’s not Christmas without some decent feature-length festive entertainment, so I’ve decided it’s time to dust off some classics in preparation for a girly night in next week. When I proposed the concept last week (it’s a simple one – girls, possibly clad in PJs, drinking hot chocolate and watching classic Christmas movies) there was much discussion as to which films should make the shortlist. I was shocked that some I felt were mandatory were vetoed, but I’ll watch them anyway, and share them with you for posterity…

Most shocking of all, was a negative reaction to Love, Actually. It’s been compulsory annual viewing since its release in 2003 (in fact, I babysat a child while its entire family was at the film’s premiere – jealous much?) and it’s a favourite for festive train journeys. However, it seems that there’s a sizeable number of people who hate it, actually – as the comments on this fabulous Hairpin article demonstrate hilariously. [Though it seems that even those who try to hate it end up loving it secretly and no one can resist the charm of “Eight is a lot of legs David”.] I may be slightly hardcore in my passion for this film – not only do I watch it throughout the year, but I usually watch the deleted scenes too, after all, Richard Curtis would want me too. Then I play this scene over and over and over…

Similarly, The Holiday is a film I can (and do) watch throughout the year. In fact, I tend to forget that the ‘holiday’ element of it is Christmas, despite the ridiculous quantity of snow in the English storyline. Just a few weeks ago I spent a happy Saturday night in watching it for the umpteenth time and couldn’t be bothered to turn the DVD player off when it finished and discovered that this meant that the movie would start again from the beginning – no matter, I thought, and watched the first half again. For me, this is a motivational film – I’ve done a version of Kate Winslet’s gumption speech twice now with two different men – and I’ll often watch it just for her storyline, skipping the Jude Law/Cameron Diaz scenes. Yes, it’s a chick flick and yes, it’s only tenuously Christmassy, but I adore it.

But what is Christmas for if not for watching films that make you feel like a child again? I suppose it’s no surprise that my other favourites all came out in the late 1980s/early 90s when Christmas was still a magical time for my innocent heart…

Home Alone and Home Alone 2 are both coming into their own as Christmas classics (we don’t speak of the third instalment), but controversially, it’s the second that’s my personal favourite – after all, it stars New York, and who wouldn’t love to be in NYC at Christmas? Plus, it has a lovely soundtrack (John Williams, quelle surprise) and the moment when the family’s reunited in the Plaza melts me every time. Oh, and it features a massive toyshop – what else does it need? [The first film features a church service, so it’s not as if it’s completely blasphemous!] Oh, and it’s got Tim Curry in it – although sadly it doesn’t involve him singing.

Also starring New York is the remake of Miracle on 34th Street. I’ve long preferred this version over its black and white predecessor, but probably because this was the version I saw one Christmas and the version we then owned on VHS and watched annually. However, it turns out that Mark Kermode also prefers the Attenborough version, so I feel justified. Cute children, cute lawyers and some legal drama – what’s not to like?

Finally, back to London, but in the company of some Americans, for the utter classic without which Christmas cannot be complete – The Muppet Christmas Carol. It has much going in its favour. For a start, my Dad adores the Muppets, so this was truly a film for our whole family. Plus, the year it came out on video was the same year that my sister and I were in an Am-Dram production of the classic Dickens’ tale. To this day, I think we could still recite the script in full (as we used to do, to our parents’ joy, on long car journeys). I was overjoyed last week to discover that the soundtrack is on Spotify and that it includes a song glaringly excluded from the DVD release (the scene wasn’t in the theatrical release, but was in the video, I still can’t believe they cut it). The whole thing is a joy from start to finish, but the real star is Rizzo the Rat, who has all the best lines – some of which are still firm fixtures in our family vocabulary:
“Hoity toity Mr Godlike Smarty Pants!”
“Light the lamp not the rat! Light the lamp not the rat!!”
Oh, and I defy you not to cry when the Ghost of Christmas Future takes Scrooge (Michael Caine – see, it’s a gem!) to the Cratchitt house after Tiny Tim’s death. Heartbreaking.

Clearly, there must be classics that I’m missing (though my mother does the entire family’s duty of watching It’s a Wonderful Life every year without fail), so what should I add to my collection?

The power of a ranting be-quiffed man

Last month marked my one-year anniversary of becoming a fan of Wittertainment – Radio 5 Live’s flagship film review programme, hosted by Simon Mayo and Mark Kermode (or, ‘the good doctors’). I’m eternally grateful to the person who, one evening in September, sent me the link to Kermode’s review of Eat, Pray Love, suspecting that I’d be won over by his grammatical pedantry. Won over I was, and the weekly podcast is now something I savour.

The beauty of Wittertainmet is that it creates its own community, akin to a secret society whose members recognise each other not by a secret handshake, but by sly comments relating to 3D films; the addition of words to film titles (the aforementioned Eat, Pray, Love becomes Eat, Pray, Love, Vomit); the Code of Conduct; or unexplained references to that week’s podcast (I once had a text from one such friend which read – apropos of nothing – “while we were sleeping, someone changed the spelling of dilemma…”). Just last weekend a couple of fellow students were discussing at which age their sons could be introduced to 3D films – one was surprised that another’s 3 year old had coped with the glasses, my question was “how did he cope with the 40% light reduction?” and was greeted with a “ahhh, a Kermode fan” from the other father.

You can listen to Kermodian rants on the radio, via podcast and his video blog – and now there’s a whole book of them. (Well, in fact there are two. The first is his autobiography It’s Only A Movie…) This is possibly the first ever book I’ve pre-ordered – though this was mainly because it was released a week after I moved house and I was buying it as gifts for two of the people who helped me move, two people who happen to be the person who introduced me to Wittertainment and the person who took me to their Christmas special. There was obviously an ulterior motive to bestowing the book upon friends, and helpfully one of them finished it in record time and passed it on to me – where it’s taken me four weeks to finish it (thanks, return to academia) and another week to get around to writing this post.

The Good, the Bad and the Multiplex (hereafter referred to as TGTBATM) doesn’t require a film studies degree or a subscription to the Wittertainment podcast in order to be understood or enjoyed. I can quite honestly say that I have never smiled so much while reading a book before. In fact, it led to a rather embarrassing scenario on a tube where an eligible bachelor (no pets) on my course was sat across from me as I was reading it, and probably wondering why on earth I was choking back giggles and grinning like a maniac. It’s not just me either, it seems to have the same affect upon others – I took it with me on our staff retreat last month and the vicar requisitioned it one evening, sitting on the sofa for over an hour, utterly oblivious to everything around him and chuckling, no, shrieking with laughter at regular intervals. [The good Doctor K also got referenced in a sermon recently – the vicar reckons that should Dr K retire, he could replace him. Personally, I think he’s not quite the ranting type, which is a good thing as ranting vicars can be a bit of a nightmare.]

It’s the rants that make Kermode the excellent reviewer that he is. It’s not their length, their passion and the sheer brilliance of the language used within them, but the fact that (most of the time) they’re based upon well grounded facts. Surely he’s well-justified in ranting (continuously) about the scourge of 3D – there are the ridiculous glasses (that discriminate against those of us with our own glasses), the reduced light, and the fact that retro-fitting isn’t even ‘real’ 3D to name just a few. The book’s introduction is entitled ‘Would the last projectionist please turn off the lights…’ and is a moving account of how projectionists are being done away with across the country (by which I mean fired because cinemas don’t ‘need’ them; not that a projectionist serial killer is on the loose). There’s brilliant detail in the history; moving personal stories; plus a good dose of humour and brilliant language.

Kermode writes as he speaks. In fact, whole chunks of the book will be familiar to Wittertainment fans – I’m sure most of us can recite much of his rants on SATC 2 and Transformers 3 – but it’s not an issue and is in fact a reflection of how well he speaks. Mid-way through their reading of the book, my friend sent me an email simply entitled ‘quote’:
“Opinions are like arseholes: everyone’s got one, and everyone thinks theirs is the only one that doesn’t stink.”

Beautiful. 

Friday Fun from the archives

Friday Fun is getting political. I know we’re nowhere near an election (unfortunately), but I spotted a real gem courtesy of John on Twitter and it amused me so much that I had to share. It tickled me for several reasons:
1. It’s a public information film from 1949 – there is always humour to be had from such things.
2. Much of it (if you’re of left-leaning sympathies) will have you laughing hard at the Conservative party, which is a great thing in the current climate.
3. By the end of it, you will actually have learnt some useful political skills that may stand you in good stead for future life.

The film in question is ‘The Personal Touch’ from the Yorkshire Film Archive and was made by the Conservative party to teach its members how to canvass effectively in the run up to the election that eventually took place in early 1950 – this being the election following Labour’s landslide in 1945. (In case you’re unfamiliar with the concept, canvassing is a means of establishing who votes what in which neighbourhoods and is also an opportunity to plug your party’s cause. The British seem to be obsessed with it – not sure if it actually happens in other countries.)  As the film itself states in its introduction:

Very true. Dated, but educational – for a whole host of reasons…

Many of its lessons do still ring true today. For example, the film tells us not to assume that someone is a socialist just because they live in a small house. The opening dialogue involving a Tory canvasser and an innocent occupier of a small house is delightful:
“Most of the people on this street are socialists. I assume from your house that you must be one too…” 
[She declared that she wasn’t. Neither was she a Tory.]
“If you’re not a Socialist or a Conservative, I suppose you’re a Liberal. I’ll put you down as an ‘L’ – look! It looks like you’re a learner! You’ve got a lot to learn if you’re a Liberal…”
[She wasn’t a Liberal either. We never do find out who she intended to vote for – I’ll bet it was the Monster Raving Loony Party.]
Also, one should pay little attention to the party broadcasts from the opposition. There’s the usual scaremongering about how society will continue to deteriorate under a left-wing government (what with the awful things they initiated, like the NHS) and what disasters will occur thanks to the pressure of the Trade Unions…the familiar right versus left stuff. 
Plus, there’s a whole lot of legal rambling about what you can and can’t do during canvassing and how this changes during an election. Knowing the way the British political system works, this is probably still the case now – we love having rigorous election rules. (We just aren’t so keen on having the fairest voting system…) 
Anyway, do watch and enjoy. It’s long (over 20 minutes) but well worth it. If that wets your appetite for a little more archive film amusement, I highly recommend ‘Journey by a London bus’ (buses are so simple to use that even Africans from ‘Keenya’ can use them…) and ‘Growing Girls’ (a terrifying insight into how ‘gals’ in the 1950’s grew up) from the BFI YouTube channel. Both have been mentioned on the blog before, but they stand up well to multiple viewings – trust me. 

If this is all far too educational for you for it to be fun, then spend the next four minutes being mesmerised by a Japanese water fountain – you’ll be serene for the rest of the day.

Wizard Friday Fun

Today is an auspicious day.

Today, the final curtain will fall on a saga that has kept me occupied for a good many hours over the last 11 years. 
Today, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 is officially released (henceforth known as HP7b) and I, for once, will see it the very day it opens. 
The media is full of Harry Potter retrospectives at the moment – and with good reason. The final instalment of an eight film franchise is a momentous occasion. Yes, not all the films are superb, but, as a general rule they do the books good service – especially Prisoner of Azkaban (the discerning Potter fan’s favourite book and film). The first film came out during my final year of university and now I’m on the cusp of another big change. To this day, parts of Hogwarts are still the room where I had choir rehearsals as a teenager and I will forever be indebted to Alan Rickman for making Snape a much more bearable character to read as the later books were published. [Coincidentally, right at this moment my parents are on holiday in Alnwick – location of Alnwick Castle, the main set used for Hogwarts. Wonder if they’ve realised?] 
Anyway, for those of you that consider this an important event, I have some fun for you. Those that couldn’t give a toss about Harry Potter can come back next week – I make no apologies for what I like… 
Firstly, a fantastically creative interpretation of all the films, via cartoon. The Summharry parody comic by Lucy Kinisley is utter genius and you’ll have to follow that link to see the full beauty of it. One cartoon for each film now turned into one massive cartoon covering all eight of them. The comedic detail is fabulous! 
Continuing the spoof theme and returning to my favourite blog written by a bookseller, Jen Campbell (of ‘weird things customers say in bookshops’ fame) has written some seriously fabulous spoofs. Yes they’re long, but to anyone who knows the books in a certain amount of detail, they’re hilarious. Books 1-4 have been done so far, and if this extract from the opening chapter of Harry Potter and the Cup of Pretty Blue Flames is anything to go by, they’re well worth reading:

Chapter One: Some dude called Frank

JK Rowling: Once upon a time there was an old man who lived in a house…
Readers: WTF Jo, where’s Harry?
JK Rowling: Shut up, I am SETTING the SCENE.
Readers: Oh. Well get on with it then.
Frank: PESKY KIDS.
Nagini: Hissssssssssss.
Frank: You’re not a pesky kid.
Voldemort: So, David Tennant, what will you bring to the story?
David Tennant: An amazing cool leather jacket.
Voldemort: Fabulous. Fashion is my number one priority right now.
Nagini: Hisssssssssss.
Voldemort: Ooo, Nagini says that lunch is standing just outside the door.
Wormtail: Oh, fabulous, I was getting rather peckish. AVADA KEDAVRA.
Something I didn’t think I’d manage to include in this week’s fun was my traditional standby of comedy a cappella YouTube video, but, remarkably you can get a Harry Potter themed one of those too – superb! This is Overboard Vocals (friends of the ever-wonderful Swingle Singers) performing Hedwig’s Theme, complete with wigs…

Yes, I realise that you’ll now have quite an irritating piece of music going round your head for the rest of the day – but imagine what it’s like working in a bookshop on a Harry Potter release day and hearing nothing but that for many, many hours from very early in the morning. I have no sympathy.

Back to dear Alan Rickman. So Snape is perhaps not a role in which I’m able to swoon over him as I would in Truly, Madly, Deeply or that Texas video that I love, but he is utterly fabulous and thank goodness JK Rowling was able to persuade him to take the part. I love him even more ever since I read the letter he wrote to fans, published in Empire Magazine in April:

Finally, just in case you need a reminder of what’s happened in the last films, here’s a handy round-up of all that has gone before:

And with that, I’m off to enjoy a screening of HP7b in a classy cinema (which serves booze), with good company and no children. Awesome!

If you only see one film

There’s a classic film review cliché: “the only film you’ll need to see this year”, which is utterly ridiculous because firstly, why would you ‘need’ to see a film and secondly, what are the chances that there’d just be one out of the hundreds of movies released annually?

However, having seen just the one film in the last year (well, 14 months actually) I can say that I’m thoroughly happy with my choice. Africa United (12A, 88mins) is the story of five children from various parts of Africa who trek from Rwanda to the opening of the World Cup. Along the way, the film touches upon the issues of HIV/AIDS, child soldiers, prostitution, poverty and war – but by no means is it an ‘issue’ film.

The cinematography is stunning, doing justice to a beautiful part of the world. It also incorporates animation sequences, telling a story that Dodo (pronounced ‘do-do’, not as in the extinct creature) makes up for the other children along the journey. Made out of objects the animators discovered in Rwandan markets, it makes the film stand out as more than a travelogue. The story, though simple, is captivating and the characters so engaging that it’s impossible not to empathise with them. Dodo is a fabulous individual – a self-styled football manager, obsessed with the beautiful game, with speech that’s littered with football malapropisms as well as random NGO speak. The opening scene in which he teaches boys how to make a football out of a condom and a carrier bag is in turns hilarious and poignant – setting the tone for the rest of the film.

It also made me cry. (This isn’t that unusual, I’m quite secure in my habit of letting tears flow during films, it’s immensely cathartic.) I’m not going to give anything away, but the final 15mins really tugged at my heartstrings, to the extent that I nearly cried again after the film, when I realised the impact one event would have had on another character…I was probably thinking a little too much.

I suppose I should confess that I might be a tad biased. The film is directed by someone who goes to my church – and various friends were involved at points in its development, including my lovely wise friend providing vocals for the soundtrack. (Plus, my church gets a thank-you in the credits.) Thanks to this connection, we had a private screening followed by a Q&A with the director in a West End cinema last night. This is also what managed to get me into a cinema for the first time in over a year…

I love films, but I hate the cinema. I know I’ve ranted about this before (last time I went, in fact), but the more I listen to the Wittertainment podcast and Mark Kermode’s rants about cinema goers, the more I dislike the idea of going. Not to mention the fact that a central London cinema ticket costs £11.50 – for £10 you can see a more than decent play at the National Theatre.

But last night was a beautiful experience. True, the fact that the whole screen had been hired by a church made it feel a little like a Sunday school outing, but it also meant that I knew most of the audience. [An exceptionally random moment being when I bumped into girls I’d already spent two of the previous three evenings with, who don’t actually have any connection with my church.] This meant that even if people did misbehave, no one had any qualms in telling them off. No one kicked the seats, played with their phones, ate gross smelly food, there were no children…it was bliss.

The nature of the audience also provided one amusing moment. In a scene where the children are in a boat on Lake Tanganyika, one character tosses his phone into the water (he’s a middle class Rwandan and the only one with a phone). This took place just minutes after an encounter with a big cat, yet which got the loudest reaction? Big cat – muted gasps. Throwing a phone away – loud gasps and genuine shock. Such is the technologically dependent character of 20-something Londoners.

Even better, the usual post-film discussion (which I usually fair badly in, as it takes me about 24 hours to process whatever I’ve just watched) was avoided because all the questions you’d raise in the pub were instead raised with the Director in person. So now I know how they filmed the scenes at the World Cup, what the budget was, how the animators got their inspiration and that one of the leads was a chance discovery in Norwich.

Articles on the film are littered across the internet and newspapers, so you should be able to find information if you’re interested, plus the writer’s also interviewed on this week’s Wittertainment. Or, just watch the trailer. But if you get the chance, go see it – especially as Pathé will donate 25% of the film’s profits to Comic Relief, so it’s properly worthy too!