Once again the festive season is upon us. Thus, the over-privileged first world will buy stuff they don’t need, drink and eat more than humanly possible, and perhaps even celebrate the birth of the son of God. As you may gather, being a miserable cynic, I’m not a massive fan of Christmas, but it is a lovely time to try and be nice to people, take time off from the day job and watch even more films and television.
Watching films and not being at work is definitely my favourite thing about Christmas, so I thought it fun to have a look at what I consider six of the best Christmas films. How do you define a Christmas film? I would say the film should not only be set at Christmas, but also invoke a sense of the Christmas spirit, evil or otherwise. It should also contain Christmas themes or even some kind of moral within the narrative. Therefore, Die Hard (1988) is NOT a Christmas film. Here, in my humble opinion, are six that most definitely are! Happy holidays!
A CHRISTMAS CAROL / SCROOGE (1951)
“Well, then, I’ll just swallow this and be tortured by a legion of hobgoblins, all of my own creation! It’s all HUMBUG, I tell you, HUMBUG!”
BAD SANTA (2003)
“I beat the shit out of some kids today. But it was for a purpose. It made me feel good about myself. It was like I did something constructive with my life or something, I dunno, like I accomplished something.”
“We elves try to stick to the four main food groups: candy, candy canes, candy corns, and syrup.”
“First of all, keep him out of the light, he hates bright light, especially sunlight, it’ll kill him. Second, don’t give him any water, not even to drink. But the most important rule, the rule you can never forget, no matter how much he cries, no matter how much he begs, never feed him after midnight.”
IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946)
“You see, George, you’ve really had a wonderful life. Don’t you see what a mistake it would be to throw it away?”
“Saint Nicholas is not coming this year. Instead, a much darker, ancient spirit. His name is Krampus. He and his helpers did not come to give, but to take. He is the shadow of Saint Nicholas.”
ALL 4 TV REVIEW – DERRY GIRLS (2018 – 2019) – SEASONS 1 & 2
Created and written by: Lisa McGee
Directed by: Michael Lennox
Cast: Saoirse-Monica Jackson, Louisa Harland, Jamie-Lee O’Donnell, Dylan Llewellyn, Nicola Coughlan, Tara Lynne O’Neill, Siobhan McSweeney, Tommy Tiernan, Ian McElhinney, Kathy Keira Clarke etc.
Original Network: CHANNEL 4 – (Available on ALL 4 and Netflix)
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
There have been many dramas over the years on the stage and screen about the “Troubles” in Ireland. For decades, civil war had divided the Catholic and Protestant people of Ireland, precipitated by the English occupation of Northern Ireland. Many lives were lost in the fighting and the tragedies. It unsurprisingly drew attention from writers, artists and dramatists. Recently though Lisa McGee created and wrote a comedy called Derry Girls, which was also set during this era; and very funny it is too.
Set in Derry (also known as Londonderry) in the 1990’s, Derry Girls introduces us to four teenage girls, their families and friends during these difficult times. The main characters are: the vocal and passionate Erin (Saoirse-Monica-Jackson); the voice of reason Clare (Nicola Coughlan), often crude, anti-authoritarian, Michelle (Jamie-Lee O’Donnell); and detached eccentric Orla (Louise Harland). Joining them is James (Dylan Llewellyn), an English kid who has to join the girls’ school for fear of what the Irish boys may do.
As well as the British army’s occupation of Derry and the divide between Protestants and Catholics providing a backdrop to the girls’ everyday lives, they also manage to find themselves in loads of other trouble too. Episodes centred around: family squabbles, romance, sex, music, drugs, school projects, religious artefacts and holidays create a relatable familiarity to many episodes. The events and energy evoking the girls’ school days reminded me especially of another Channel Four hit comedy, The Inbetweeners.
While the performances by our lead protagonists are very good, scenes are often stolen by the older supporting cast. Siobhan McSweeney as the deadpan and jaded Sister Michael is really funny. As is one of my favourite stand-up comedians, Tommy Tiernan. His downtrodden Dad tries to keep the peace, but often finds himself at the butt of abuse from Ian McElhinney’s contemptuous remarks. Nonetheless, the humour is always good-natured and not nasty, especially toward faith or authority figures.
Overall, Derry Girls is a fast-paced and very funny situation comedy. It’s well written, acted and directed comedy, with loads of fun and eccentric characters to enjoy. While not overtly political in its representation of the “Troubles”, it uses that situation intelligently as part of the narrative and wider social context. Above all else, however, it shows through many fine comedic episodes, that despite the ongoing divide within the country, humans will strive to overcome adversity through friendship, family, community and humour.
Cast: Stephen Graham, Niamh Algar, Helen Behan, Frank Laverty, Mark O’Halloran etc.
Composer: PJ Harvey
Original Network: Channel 4
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
The Virtues (2019) is the latest drama from British filmmaker Shane Meadows and was released on Channel 4/All 4 recently. Over the four episodes we experience the traumas of Joseph (Stephen Graham), as he attempts to overcome events in the present and those which haunt him from the past.
The story begins in Sheffield and introduces forty-something, Joseph as he’s about to say goodbye to his nine-year old son and former partner who are emigrating to Australia. While he’s putting a brave face on this emotional upheaval, internally the separation slowly tears him apart. It also precipitates memories of events which occurred to Joseph when he was young and living in Ireland.
It was at the age of nine when his parents died. While his sister is adopted, Joseph is placed into a care home. It is here that he suffers an unspeakably horrendous trauma. On returning to Ireland as an adult, painful memories he had blocked out until now suddenly resurface. As an adult Joseph tries to come to terms with what occurred, make peace with his sister and at the same time battle his ongoing alcoholism. It is altogether gruelling and compelling drama.
Shane Meadows and Stephen Graham had worked together on the This Is England film and TV series. While that was very much an ensemble piece, this is a more individual focused, personal and painful character study. Stephen Graham is absolutely amazing as the character of Joseph. He has been broken by life, let down by the system and traumatized as a child. Graham lives this pain in virtually every scene he inhabits. His eyes darting nervously, he mumbles, looking down and around, trying to hide; only coming alive when he has alcohol in him. His problem with alcohol is he cannot stop, and this invariably leads to Joseph hurting himself physically and emotionally.
Alcohol as self-medication is just one of the issues addressed in this startling and raw drama. Meadows and co-writer, Jack Thorne also address families, adoption, child abuse, religion and the care system. While the series doesn’t venture into outright socio-political criticism, it explores the damage that can occur to individuals in care. Through Joseph’s sister, Anna (Helen Behan) though, we also get a more positive view of adoption. Her character is strong and determined and a fine mother. But she did not suffer the events Joseph did, so their journeys travelled different paths.
Shane Meadows directs with his usual naturalistic brilliance. Scenes with all the actors feel honest and believable. Meadows is not afraid to shoot simply and allow the performances provide the emotion. Having said that there are some highly stylistic choices. The flashback editing and montage is a case in point. Moreover, when Joseph goes on a bender, we get the camera-harness point-of-view shot I remember first seeing in Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973). This allows us to step into Joseph’s drunken psyche as the soundtrack pounds and a voice-over sermon pipes out on screen. Lastly, the flashbacks to Joseph’s younger years are shot on, what seems like, DV-Cam or an old-style video-camera. This creates an additionally sinister feeling to the events.
Overall, this is another powerful drama from Shane Meadows. He gets amazing performances from all the actors, notably Stephen Graham, star-in-the-making Dinah Algar; and an Irish actor I hadn’t seen in a while, Mark O’Halloran. My feeling is Meadows could arguably of told the story in a two hour film. This is because the four episodes slightly stretched out the story in places. Be warned though, The Virtues is not for the faint-hearted. It is very painful to watch. Such is the emotional power of the story, by the end, your heart will feel like you’ve gone ten rounds with a heavyweight boxer. But as a drama about fighting back against the punches life throws at you it will certainly remain with you for some considerable time.
Produced by: Marco Morabito, Brad Fischer, Luca Guadagnino, Silvia Venturini, Francesco Melzi d’Eril, William Sherak, Gabriele Moratti
Screenplay by: David Kajganich – Based on Suspiria (1977) by Dario Argento and Dari Nicolodi
Cast: Dakota Johnson, Tilda Swinton, Mia Goth, Angela Winkler, Ingrid Caven, Elena Fokina, Chloe Grace Moretz, Malgosia Bela, Lutz Ebersdorf, Jessica Harper etc.
Music by: Thom Yorke
Cinematography: Sayombhu Mukdeeprom
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
There are so many films released that it is virtually impossible to see them all. Plus, even if you didn’t have to work to earn a damned wage or physically need sleep you still wouldn’t be able to watch everything at the cinema. More specifically though, we may choose NOT to go to see a film on the big screen for certain reasons. Collectively, I consider these movies to be “one’s that got away!”
Thus, in a new section called, unsurprisingly, FILMS THAT GOT AWAY, I will be reviewing films which I missed first time round at the cinema and have subsequently caught up with on Sky, Amazon, Netflix, Blu-Ray or even good old-fashioned terrestrial television. I will consider the film critically as entertainment and why I missed it first time round. As usual the film will be marked out of eleven.
When the UK release of Suspiria (2018) was announced there were many reasons I was immediately put off from wanting to see it. Firstly, despite having watched it three times, I genuinely could not stand the original Dario Argento film. I know people consider it a horror classic; however, I think story wise, it’s a bad film. It’s neither scary from an emotional point-of-view or actually makes any sense logically. I know it’s meant to be based on surreal and nightmarish imagery, montage and performance, but the story or characters did not connect with me. The colour design, gore and soundtrack are outstanding but, overall, I felt I was trapped watching the manic outpourings of an Italian psychopath.
The second reason I did not want to watch it is I haven’t always got on with Luca Guadagnino’s cinematic works. Don’t get me wrong, he is a brilliant filmmaker. However, I find him an indulgent artist whose tone, pace and direction seems haphazard. Of the films I have seen, I Am Love (2009) was a brilliant character study, anchored by a stunning Tilda Swinton performance. But A Bigger Splash (2011) and Call Me By Your Name (2017), were expertly constructed but indulgent and over-rated travelogues littered with narcissistic bores. Nonetheless, I really liked Suspiria (2018). It is almost, but for Guadagnino’s typical excesses, a horror masterpiece.
Set in 1977 (when the original was released), at the height of the Cold War in divided Germany, Suspiria, is a heady mix of rites of passage, cold war and horror genres. There are many narrative strands with which the screenplay, by David Kajganich, attempts to balance. Further, we also have personal, political, religious, artistic, gender and communal themes prevalent through the story. While it’s an ensemble cast the focus is Dakota Johnson’s Susie. She is a young aspiring dancer, from an Amish background, who joins the world-famous Markos dance company. In the process she is determined to impress Tilda Swinton’s commanding mentor. The parallel narrative involves psychiatrist Dr Josef Klemperer and his investigation into a missing patient (Chloe Grace Moretz); who also happens to be a dancer from the troupe.
As the story unfolds Susie proves herself an incredibly powerful dancer. At the same time, it is revealed that the elders and teachers of the dance group are hiding a sinister secret with darkness and ritual to the bloody fore. Memorable dance sequences full of beauty, energy and gore dominate, with Dakota Johnson giving an impressively physical acting portrayal. I also liked the nuanced control within her character as she grows stronger with each dance. Meanwhile, further dark events occur as Dr Klemperer’s investigations draw him closer to the troupe’s shadowy doors.
As I said, Suspiria is almost a horror masterpiece. The filmmaking, cinematography, art direction, choreography and score by Thom Yorke all collide to create an incredibly tense and terrifying experience. Moreover, while I was fully committed to the characters in the dance troupe and Susie’s movement up the ranks, the choice to juxtapose the socio-political events seemed to belong in another film. The religious context and notions of family and matriarchal dominance were incredibly powerful too and served the horror well. However, Guadagnino, in my humble view should have shaved some scenes from the running time. While I much prefer this film to the Argento original, a further edit for pace would have made this even better. Nonetheless, it had me riveted throughout through the sheer quality of filmmaking. I was incredibly impressed by the melding of dance and death. Indeed, the final orgiastic ritual with buckets of blood, decapitations and gnarled monsters was supernaturally unforgettable.
Based on the story: Don’t Look Now by Daphne Du Maurier
Cast: Julie Christie, Donald Sutherland, Renato Scarpa, Massimo Serato, Hilary Mason, Clelia Matania, Sharon Williams etc.
Cinematography: Anthony B. Richmond
Music: Pino Donaggio
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
I watched this classic film again on the big screen at the British Film Institute in a 4K restoration recently. It has not lost any of its cinematic power. Don’t Look Now (1973), indeed, remains one of the greatest films in the horror and thriller genre of all time.
The story is a powerful study of grief and how a couple vainly attempt to overcome the tragic death of their young daughter, Christine. The opening scene is a masterclass in image system building, cinematography, performance and editing. It is an incredible example of pure cinema, establishing the dread and suspense representative throughout the film. It truly is an iconic sequence and a rarely bettered opening cinematic salvo.
A few months later, the bereaved parents, John and Laura Baxter, are in Venice for his architectural work on an ornate church. He seems to be handling Christine’s death by throwing himself into this project. Laura is more sensitive and wears her emotions close to her skin. An encounter with two mature women causes her grief to explode as one, a psychic, states she can see Christine on the “other side.” The girl is passed but happy and smiling in the spirit world. John is sceptical, but Laura is overjoyed there is a chance to make contact with Christine.
After this encounter Christine seems to appear within the Venice tunnels, her footsteps and laughs echoing in the darkness. With a murderer also on the loose in Venice, the creeping fear within the story heightens and the suspense intensifies. With Laura keen to contact Christine again, themes and symbols relating to religion, the afterlife and occult all combine to add to the terror. Moreover, religious iconography, water, the red mac, children, tunnels, mistaken identity, death, past, present and future also add to the rich tapestry of images.
Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland are so natural in their roles. They give beautiful and haunted acting performances as the bereaved couple. The memorable love scene contained within the second act was very controversial at the time. However, the editing, loving tenderness in performance and sumptuous score illuminate a brief moment of reprieve from the prior horror and terror to come.
The ending of the film contains two big reveals which will shake even the most experienced horror genre viewer. Interestingly, when released the film was double-billed with The Wicker Man (1973), so lord knows what audiences were feeling when they left the cinema. Lastly, Nicolas Roeg and Anthony B. Richmond shoot and direct the film with precise and spectacular style. Shadows threaten, water forebodes, and the masque of the red death hangs heavy over proceedings.
With young filmmakers such as Ari Aster causing a stir with contemporary horror films about grief, death and rituals, I would certainly advise you to catch Don’t Look Now (1973) on the biggest screen you can find. It was a masterpiece of cinema when released and remains so today.
Starring: Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Sian Clifford, Olivia Colman, Brett Gelman, Hugh Skinner, Bill Paterson, Jamie Demetriou, Jenny Rainsford, Hugh Dennis etc.
Composer: Isobel Waller-Bridge
Cinematography: Tony Miller, Laurie Rose
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
This melancholic, painful and chaotic home for middle-class grotesques and excruciatingly awkward comedy situations involving, Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s barely-surviving-human being-the-titular-‘Fleabag’, shouldn’t really work as entertainment. Yet, it does because of: brilliant writing, dark, honest humour, existential depth, almost-cinematic production values; genuine star quality from Waller-Bridge; and a cast on top of their game.
First-world-very-white yet universal human problems are legion in two seasons of twelve breathless episodes. We join our nameless anti-hero scraping through life in the midst of doubling grief, following the recent deaths of her mother and close friend/business partner. No doubt the chattering twenty-something classes are full with “I’m just like Fleabag!” recognition. Nonetheless, there’s something to enjoy for those who love to experience raw, human frailty on screen too.
‘Fleabag’ fights flailing moods, business and family issues in contemporary status-symbol London. Using sex to block out her pain in the first season, ‘Arsehole Guy’ and ‘Bus Rodent’ are two such crutch-like paramours who, along with on-off-ex-boyfriend, Harry, are given the physical and emotional run-around. In the less bawdy second season she falls for an uber-cool Catholic Priest (Andrew Scott). Thus, the lashings of sex from the first season gives way to more interesting abstinence and romantic torture for ‘Fleabag’.
With her best mate dead from a tragic accident ‘Fleabag’s’ sword and shield against life is gone and attempts at bridge-building with her family are fraught with strained agony. Her sister Claire (Sian Clifford), is tighter than a snare drum, existing solely on neurosis and a never-ending workaholic mission drive. The scenes between ‘Fleabag’ and her sister range from touching to hilarious to fractious dread. Meanwhile, their beta-male Father (Bill Paterson), is also grieving and a full-on emotional trainwreck. He finds himself a rabbit-in-the-headlights of Olivia Colman’s ‘Godmother’; a genius at passive aggressivity and unlikely arch-villain, quietly stealing the father away from his daughters.
Many hilarious and painful scenes play out around dinner tables, art exhibitions, parties, funerals, seminars, retreats and weddings. ‘Fleabag’ vainly attempts normality but understandbly fails. In addition to her family she also conflicts with other characters, notably Claire’s horrendous-alcoholic-overgrown-man-child-husband, Martin. I was genuinely shouting bile at the TV screen every time I saw him. Thankfully, Fleabag also features fine supporting roles from more likeable characters portrayed by the ultra-talented Fiona Shaw, Kristin Scott-Thomas and aforementioned Andrew Scott.
From Hancock to Steptoe and Son to Fawlty Towers to Blackadder to The Office to Spaced and to the most recent Gervais show After Life, British comedy has been replete with idiosyncratic and anti-heroic characters we root for. Indeed, it takes special writing and performances to get such shades of grey to work on stage and screen. Overall, Waller-Bridge takes familiar themes and situations and spins comedy and dramatic gold from them. Formally, she smashes the fourth wall with Brechtian direct address, welcoming us into her tumultuous reality, speaking to us and asking us to laugh and cry and love and hate and do what humans do: somehow just get through the day.
Executive Producers: Michael Schur, David Miner, Morgan Sackett, Drew Goddard
Producers: David Hyman, Joe Mande, Megan Amram
Starring: Kristen Bell, Wiliam Jackson Harper, Jameela Jamil, D’Arcy Carden, Manny Jacinto and Ted Danson
US Network: NBC / UK Platform: Netflix
**SPOILER FREE REVIEW**
“Hell is other people.” Jean Paul Sartre
So I started watching The Good Place with expectations of it being another slickly written and performed, shiny, sparkly and goofy American sitcom. I figured I would check it out, give it a season, enjoy and then allow it to slide into viewing obscurity. However, little did I realise it was going to be one of the funniest, intelligent, imaginative, philosophical, slick, shiny, goofy and densely plotted television shows I had seen in years.
Created by uber-comedy-producer Michael Schur, The Good Place, has an immediately fascinating high-concept premise. Set in the ‘after-life’, it deals with the lives and deaths of four disparate characters, namely: Eleanor (Kristen Bell), Chidi (William Jackson Harper), Tahani (Jameela Jamil) and Jason (Manny Jacinto). They have all died and gone to a version of heaven, but there’s been a mistake. Eleanor is the snag. Due to a cosmic confusion she should not be there. Her behaviour ratings on Earth are so low she should have gone to ‘The Bad Place’ instead.
Frantically attempting to cover up this hellish mistake, the immoral, selfish and petualnt Eleanor enlists the indecisive but very moral Chidi to teach her how to be good. Thus, begins one of the major themes of the show: what does it mean to be a good person? As a moral philosophy professor when alive, Chidi, reluctantly agrees to train Eleanor. However, she is so inherently selfish it proves a tough task, and much humour comes from Chidi and Eleanor’s life perspectives clashing. Overseeing the “guests'” everyday lives are the architect/angel (arch-angel geddit!), Michael, played with the usual comic brilliance by Ted Danson; and super enthusiastic, Janet (D’Arcy Carden), a personified, sentient, artificially-intelligent computer.
The Good Place starts strong with a brilliant premise and then cascades into a series of incredible events, flashbacks and character reveals, culminating in some hilarious and ingenious narrative twists. Michael Schur is a past master of ensemble comedy, having worked on the The Office (U.S.) and Parks and Recreation; and here his army of writers, actors, designers and effects team serve his fantastic vision superbly. Moreover, the cast zing out the screwball-comedy paced dialogue and gags with laser-sharp comedy timing, with Kristen Bell the pick of the lot. The flashback scenes which show Eleanor back on Earth illustrating why she should go to hell are particularly hilarious. Of course, she’s not precisely evil but very human; she’s just not very good at being human.
Thus, if you want a television show which is shiny on the outside but actually quite dark on the inside then this is for you. The Good Place makes you both laugh and think. It deals with death, religion, heaven, hell, human behaviour and also gives insight into basic philosophy. I mean, it’s educational too; you learn about Camus, Sartre, Kant, Mill and many more! Overall, all three seasons zip along full of zinging one-liners that had me breathless from start to finish and it has heart too. You get to love these characters, despite their faults, and the show certainly leaves you in a very good place.