We Love… Christmas: ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’

Illustration by Adeline Pericart

Throughout December we’ll be adding more Christmas films we love – so keep an eye on the website and feel free to add any of your own…

 

It’s a Wonderful Life

Scott Townsend

‘Sentimental Hogwash! shouts the malevolent Mr. Potter halfway through Frank Capra’s festive classic, and if you haven’t seen it, or are basing your opinion on half-remembered viewings in Christmases past, you might be inclined to agree with him. At first glance, It’s A Wonderful Life resembles Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol redone by Happy Days. Jimmy Stewart plays George Bailey, a well-meaning, small-town dreamer whose life has taken one unfortunate turn after another, leading him to a Christmas eve prayer which is answered by an angel named Clarence, who shows him why his life is worth living.

After the corny, overtly religious opening in which two angels (read: flashing lights dressed up as stars) discuss George Bailey’s predicament, we are treated to a selection of greatest hits from his life in the wholesome American town of Bedford Falls, leading up to that night. He goes partially deaf as a young child. His father dies the night before George is due to leave for a round-the-world trip and a college education, leaving him in charge of the family business while his brother takes his opportunities, shortly before becoming a war hero. The depression hits his small-town on the night he is due to take his honeymoon, forcing him to use his savings to keep the business afloat. Finally, an honest financial error on Christmas Eve leads him to almost certain bankruptcy, scandal and prison. Despite constantly working hard and putting others first, George Bailey is consistently thwarted in his attempts to follow his dreams, and plans to kill himself so his family can cash in his life insurance policy. As Phoebe from Friends once accurately pointed out, it should be called ‘It’s A Sucky Life and Just When You Think It Can’t Suck Any More It Does!’ Feeling good yet?

In the real world, the situation was equally bleak. Capra (who would later go on to be a commie-baiting coward) convinced a shell-shocked, post-war Jimmy Stewart to come out of retirement for the film, which was ultimately something of a disappointment. It was well received critically but failed considerably at the box office, gaining five Academy Award® nominations but no prizes. It was only when somebody allowed the copyright to lapse that the film became a festive classic, being shown repeatedly on US TV stations wanting to avoid paying royalties. Years later and it’s a holiday staple, despite representing an ever increasing spiral of depression and misery.

Yet here’s the thing – the last half hour or so of the film transforms it into something else entirely. Clarence the angel shows Bailey what Bedford Falls would be like had he not existed – a hellish Film Noir dystopia, populated by drunks and lowlifes steeped in poverty. The supporting cast (which includes a cop named Bert and a cab driver named Ernie, trivia fans) play alternate versions of themselves, and we’re given a glimpse of the effect that one man can have on those around him.

If you’ve never seen it, then I’ll try not to spoil it any more. Rest assured, the ending is the key here. For all the preceding despair, portrayed with overlooked subtlety by Stewart, clashing so perfectly with Capra’s reactionary idealism, the ending is so impossibly feel good that I burst into tears as soon as the words ‘…the richest man in town’ are uttered. Every single time.

Yet while the final five minutes represent some of the most euphoric cinema of all time, when you finally finish crying with joy, forget the ringing bells and think hard about the outcome. Bailey probably never will leave Bedford Falls, and could still technically go to jail. Potter never gets his comeuppance. And which do you think was closer to the real working class 1940s America – the picket fences and friendly neighbourhood establishments, or the alternate main street lined with bars, casinos and burlesque houses? This sublime mix of darkness and light is what makes It’s A Wonderful Life so enduring, endlessly re-watchable and appealing. It’s cinematic mulled wine – warm, sweet and intoxicating, but with a spicy undertone. And a killer hangover.

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We Love… Christmas: ‘The Muppet Christmas Carol’

Santa's Night In

Illustration by Adeline Pericart

Throughout December we’ll be adding more Christmas films we love – so keep an eye on the website and feel free to add any of your own…


The Muppet Christmas Carol

Steven Galvin

After a lengthy absence from cinema screens – having last been seen in The Muppets Take Manhattan in 1984 – many feared that their return 8 years later would be doomed to mediocrity. However, The Muppet Christmas Carol can stand proud as a wonderful addition to the canon of both Muppet and Christmas films. Indeed, as Gonzo once said to a cow: ‘Wow, you have got a great pair of legs! In fact, she’s got two great pairs of legs!’

The Muppets’ creator Jim Henson had died in 1990 and many of the cast had undergone changes with different hands up their arses and different faces behind their voices. If truth be told this only really comes to the fore with the two curmudgeonly hecklers Waldorf and Statler – purveyors of cranky quips about the performances on The Muppet Show TV series:

Statler: ‘I know what’s wrong, with this show, it’s the theatre!’

Waldorf: ‘What’s wrong with it?

Statler: ‘The seats face the stage!’

Originally voiced by Richard Hunt and Jim Henson. Jerry Nelson and Dave Goelz’s performances in The Muppet Christmas Carol lack the cantankerous guffawing range of the original duo. But they are given a great line when Statler criticises Scrooge and adds that ‘It’s good to be heckling again.’ Waldorf goes on that, ‘It’s good to be doing anything again!’ Otherwise the performances are spot on. Indeed Steve Whitmire does a great job with Kermit as Bob Cratchit, matching the original voice with style and also making the performance his own.

The Muppet Christmas Carol moves away from the traditional Muppet films and has them more as supporting characters in order to preserve the original Dickens’ tale’s integrity. Rizzo and Gonzo do a great job of pushing the story along as they narrate on screen in tandem with events. Michael Caine puts in a terrific central performance as Ebeneezer Scrooge and treats the whole thing with a fine balance of gravitas and theatrical campness. And who can resist Caine singing! – ‘every night will end; And every day will start; With a grateful prayer; And a thankful heart; With an open smile and with open doors; I will bid you welcome; What is mine is yours’.

I watched The Muppet Christmas Carol with children recently and, apart from the kicking and screaming and constant demand for sweets (that was me of course), it was a thrill to see how the kids responded to the Muppets – reminding me of my own youth in the company of these anarchic all-singing, all-dancing, all-joking puppets – and the great thing about The Muppet Christmas Carol is its array of singing vegetables, skating penguins and oddball collection of characters all harnessed together to retell a classic Christmas tale of redemption.

There’s a nice reference to the book in the film’s closing sequence, which brings back memories of Statler and Waldorf’s comment on the educational aspect of the TV show when Statler asked, ‘Do you think this show is educational?’ To which Waldorf replied, ‘Yes. It’ll drive people to read books.’

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We Love… Christmas: ‘Elf’

Illustration by Adeline Pericart

 

Throughout December we’ll be adding more Christmas films we love – so keep an eye on the website and feel free to add any of your own…

 

Elf

Charlene Lydon

Before taking on the might of Marvel with his Iron Man films, Jon Favreau created another type of super hero: a Christmas hero, Buddy the elf. Christmas movies are like coffee shops, there are millions of them but only a very select few good ones! Elf was released in 2003 and became an instant classic. Now only seven years later it is a mainstay on the shelf of every Christmas enthusiast.

For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure, Buddy (Will Ferrell) is one of Santa’s elves, but he’s twice as tall as his colleagues, he’s not as swift and doesn’t have the same toy-making instincts that they do. That is because he is not an elf at all he is a human who sneaked into Santa’s sack as a baby and was raised by Papa Elf (Bob Newhart) as his own. Buddy soon finds out the truth and is horrified to find that his real father is (Shock! Horror!) on the Naughty List. Determined to change his father’s ways, Buddy sets off for New York. Of course, his curmudgeonly father Walter (James Caan) is less than pleased to see him and sends him on his way but soon learns that Buddy is his responsibility and allows him to stay with his kind, but neglected family. Buddy secures a job as a department store elf, what else, and even falls in love with fellow charlatan elf, Jovie (Zooey Deschanel).

Through the eyes of the naïve and big-hearted Buddy, the audience is allowed to revel in the delights of Christmas time. We can tolerate the tacky decorations, the gaudy lights, the overbearing chirpiness and enjoy it for what it is: an excuse to have a lovely time for a few days of the year. Buddy’s unflappable good spirit is contagious and it infects not only the characters in the film, but also the audience. Will Ferrell’s Buddy is a wonderful creation indeed! He is lovably annoying and a delightful representation of how to be uncynical about Christmas, something people find more and more difficult these days. Will Ferrell has never been funnier or more likeable than in Elf. He plays to his strengths and pulls off a role that could very easily be kind of creepy.

The wonderful thing about Elf is its sheer unabashed cheerfulness and romanticism. It’s also hilariously funny, family friendly and just naughty enough to wink at the grown-ups at times. A classic!

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We Love… Christmas: ‘The Lion in Winter’

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Illustration by Adeline Pericart

Throughout December we’ll be adding more Christmas films we love – so keep an eye on the website and feel free to add any of your own…

 

The Lion in Winter

Geoff McEvoy

Christmas is normally a time when our capacity for saccharin is tested to breaking point, but The Lion in Winter is a richer seasonal treat, with the pleasing tang of something bitter. Not that it looks that way at the start. The credits roll to a series of pictures of decaying medieval gargoyles (not Christmassy), then the scariest Gregorian chanting you ever heard kicks in (not Christmassy) and it soon become clear that the film has a very low budget (definitely not Christmassy). Or maybe they just spent all their money on casting because they certainly put together a great line up of actors: Peter O’Toole, Katharine Hepburn, and (making their screen debuts) Anthony Hopkins and Timothy Dalton. And as soon as someone speaks all your reservations disappear because they have given these actors a wonderfully sharp and witty script, a perfect combination for some festive fun.

‘What shall we hang, the holly or each other?’

It’s obvious why Aaron Sorkin made this Jed Barlett’s favourite film in The West Wing because, like his writing for that show, The Lion in Winter finds the perfect balance between hilarious quick fire exchanges and powerful emotional drama. Like your first glass of mulled wine it’s a heady brew. Henry II (O’Toole) rules England and most of France and he has decided to bring his feuding family together for a Christmas court to appoint his successor. Among the guests are his three sons Richard (Hopkins), Geoffrey and John, Philip II of France (Dalton), and his estranged wife Eleanor (Hepburn) who he’s had locked up in Salisbury Tower for the past ten years. So things are set for an explosively dysfunctional Christmas.

‘Hush dear, mother’s fighting’

What makes it work so well as a Christmas film is that, despite the fact that they are fighting over the throne, the characters true motives are all so familiar. The youngest son is a spoilt pouting teenager and the middle child is bitterly resentful of the affection lavished on his siblings. At the centre of it all are Henry and Eleanor constantly scheming and manipulating to undermine each other. They’ve been at it so long that they’ve forgotten how to relate to each other any other way, so they torture each other almost out of habit – Eleanor even seems to torture herself – as they try to find the best way to inflict emotional pain. If one member of this family loves another then that love becomes a weapon to be used against them.

“There’s everything in life, but hope.”

So I guess there’s no denying that, even though it is very funny, this is an anti-Christmas film. Henry and Eleanor may understand the value of peace on earth and goodwill towards men, they may even aspire to it, but it’s just not in them. And yet after all the screaming matches and the knife fights, the exchange of threats between rictus grins and the collapse into despair, you’re still left smiling. Because at the end of the day they’re alive and they have each other and for one day that’s enough (very Christmassy).

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We Love… Christmas: ‘Bad Santa’

Illustration by Adeline Pericart

Throughout December we’ll be adding more Christmas films we love – so keep an eye on the website and feel free to add any of your own…

 

Bad Santa

Liam Brennan

‘I’m on my fuckin’ lunch break!’

The words of an aggravated mall Santa…words that we are all guilty of nearly saying at least once in our working lives.

For those of us who work a meaningless day job just to pay the bills, often staring out the imaginary window that should exist in front of your cubicle but likely doesn’t because that would make your day go by just a little bit faster, well, Bad Santa is the holiday film for us. It’s not so much that Willie hates his job as a mall Santa – he does after all take home a nice sum of cash at the end of the holiday season, be it illegally, but nonetheless – it’s that he seems to hate just about everything there is, except for booze and sex. And who could blame him? Willie lives out every man’s fantasy of playing by his own rules and taking absolutely no shit from anyone, other than his wisecracking, little person partner, Marcus that is. Together, they make a perfect team, outsmarting that wormy mall manager, Bob Chipeska (the brilliant John Ritter in his finest role) who tries to see the best in them despite Willie’s fondness for the word ‘fuckstick’ and his affection for having sex with large women in the ladies big and tall changing rooms. They even manage to avoid the suspicions of security officer, Gin, (the hilarious Bernie Mac in perhaps his finest role as well… this is all becoming a bit of a downer, but Willie would drink to that so here we go…) for a while until Marcus has to take matters into his hands and pulls a Coen Brothers-style hit on us out of nowhere.

And what about Therman Murman, the oversized adolescent who takes Willie in when no one else will because his only friend is his sandwich-making granny who’s oblivious to anything but what’s on the television? He shows us the true meaning of Christmas by feeding Willie when he’s hung-over… albeit through his beloved Advent calendar with ‘awesome fuckin’ stories’ in it, but nevertheless. Bad Santa presents viewers with over-the-top characters involved in over-top-situations, but it’s likely the most realistic Christmas film you’re bound to see this holiday season simply because of it’s honesty. Years come and go and as they do, we tell ourselves that we’ll take a different path and make profound and lasting changes in our lives only to wake up the following year and wonder where the hell the time went and force ourselves to make new promises we’re bound to break by the time the New Year’s hangover finally subsides, all the while filling our respective voids with useless shit that’s out of date the moment you take it out of the box. But there’s no shame in that, and through it we do ultimately manage to evolve into entirely different people without really realizing it…just as Willie does by the time he’s gunned down trying to hand Thurman his pink elephant on Christmas Eve.

Whatever the case, we can all stand learn a solid life lesson from watching “Bad Santa this Christmas: Shit happens when you party naked.

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We Love… Christmas: ‘The Apartment’

Illustration by Adeline Pericart

Throughout December we’ll be adding more Christmas films we love – so keep an eye on the website and feel free to add any of your own…

 

The Apartment

William O’Keefe

The tag line for The Apartment runs: ‘Movie-wise there has never been anything like The Apartment; love-wise, laugh-wise or other-wise’. On all accounts this is true. There are laughs – line after line of smart and sophisticated humour, the tag line refers to the addition of the word ‘wise’ to many words spoken during the film, mocking the corporate speak of the world these people inhabit.

‘That’s how it crumbles, cook-wise’

This is only one of many touches and detail which litter the film. So too there is all the mess and drama of love and there is all the other darkness and light that mark this movie apart from what you might expect of a black and white movie from 1960. The film is full of flawed people, self-serving and unaware – there is depth to the characters, they are trapped by circumstance and their own foibles. There is no easy fix working towards a sugar coated resolution on Christmas morning. Jack Lemmon, on everyman duty as ‘Bud’, and in winning form doing so, spends Christmas Day nursing Shirley MacClaine’s ‘Fran’ through her suicide attempt from the previous evening. Bud loves Fran, but she had ended up on his apartment on Christmas Eve because she is caught up in an affair with a married man and Bud lets out his apartment to senior executives in his work place in return for career advancement to roles which have no meaning, but nice offices.

Bud’s love for Fran is the purest element of the film. His and her actions are otherwise both misguided. Bud describes himself as Robinson Crusoe, ship wrecked among eight million people. There is no better description for this lost man, sitting on park benches while his apartment is used for affairs as he slips into docile acceptance of his situation. Shirley MacClaine plays Fran as naïve but jaded, self-aware but self-destructive. From the minute she appears on screen she sets proceedings alight with her snappy delivery, wit and eyes which can tear up on cue. She likes the cracked mirror in her make up compact as it reflects how she sees herself. She just might be the best example of a person to love because of her flaws.

‘When you’re in love with a married man, you shouldn’t wear mascara’

Ironic misfortune and debauched Christmas parties set events in a downward spiral. The Christmas setting is the apt background for the wavering souls. A solution or a change at least does come for our couple however. Bud decides to extricate himself from his situation on New Years Eve while Fran needs one final wake up call to the reality of her situation and who truly cares for her. The final scene is perfect and elusive in a way – for this writer it suggests the couple have a way to go. She may have run through the melee of New Year’s Eve to find Bud, but Fran does not admit to any love. She is committed to them as a unit and how they will go to ‘another neighbourhood, another town, another job’. The final result is a hopeful one as they begin a new year together – a very effective sign off.

There are many quotes about cinema and the medium of film. My favourite of these is that cinema is not a slice of life, it is a slice of cake. The Apartment is the essence of such a sweet treat. Billy Wilder amidst the high point of his career, delivers a rich, wonderfully cynical commentary, a romance and a comedy. The film abounds in charm and as a construct is near perfect in terms of tone, character and story.

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We Love… Christmas: ‘Home Alone’

Santa's Night In

Illustration by Adeline Pericart

Throughout December we’ll be adding more Christmas films we love – so keep an eye on the website and feel free to add any of your own…

Home Alone

Gemma Creagh

 

What’s not to love? Home Alone has extreme violence, some adorably funny acting and is laced with just the right amount of shmultz so it fits in nicely into the Christmas Movie genre! So surrounded by the remains of my first selection box of the season, I sat down to watch one of the most memorable Christmas movies of all time. And what a movie… I honestly enjoyed it as much in this sitting as I did when I caught it as a nipper in the early nineties.

There’s nothing that spreads xmas cheer quite like a male in a large building who’s defending it from threatening invaders by picking them off separately – all while missing his family. The film’s title could easily have been Die Hard Jnr. ; and so, like its Bruce Willis equivalent, Home Alone has some pretty nasty bad guys. The brilliantly creepy villains, played by Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern, are so good that both young kids can hate them, and the adults can fear them breaking into their home. In fact, some careful marketing would see this film’s TV sponsors as being Eircom Phone Watch.

Lord knows how this kid’s film managed to wrangle its PG cert, what with all the gruesome brutality. More than once I found myself flinching from the eerily authentic-looking injuries which the young protagonist afflicts on the ‘Wet Bandits’. Fair play to IFCO for not putting up the rating after the nail-in-the-tar scene through. Yikes.

There are so many laugh-out-loud moments throughout Home Alone; most of which stem from the excellent casting of wee Macaulay Culkin and his unnatural adultness; his cheapskate uncle Jack and his brutish brother Buzz – who reminds me of a young Biff, the baddy from my other childhood favourite, Back to the Future. John Candy’s brilliant cameo as the lovable Polka-obsessed Gus Polinski couldn’t go without a mention. His long list of musical hits still have me chuckling.

Some truly superb writing is evident; not just in the excellently observed characters; but in the fact that in the film a family made it all the way to France while BELIEVABLY forgetting their youngest son. These are the two most fundamental things missing from Hollywood films at the moment; in which everyone’s a two-dimensional (or 3D as the case may be now) stereotype who plod in and out of the laziest of plot devices. Home Alone is just outrageous enough to be ridiculously relatable, and that’s why it’s just so goddamn great.

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We Love… Christmas: ‘Gremlins’

Santa's Night In

 Illustration by Adeline Pericart

Throughout December we’ll be adding more favourite Christmas films we love; so keep an eye on the website and feel free to add any of your own.


Gremlins

Peter White

‘It was snowing outside, the house was freezing. So I went to try light up the fire… and that’s when I noticed the smell.’ Few cinema moments evoke as strong a sense of Christmas as Phoebe Cates’s childhood story in Gremlins. What it lacks in merriness, it makes up for with a sack full of black humour.

While the gremlins are in full swing on the streets, Billy and Kate take refuge in the ransacked bank. Against a soundtrack of anarchism from outside, an eerie keyboard rendition of ‘Silent Night’ and lit only by the flickering lights of a toppled Christmas tree, Kate recounts her reason for no longer joining in the festive cheer. Thanks to a teaser of Kate’s sensitivity concerning her aversion to Christmas earlier in the film, you cannot help but become completely engrossed along with Billy and Gizmo as the wonderfully horrific story unfolds. Out of context, this story would be tragic in the extreme but following on from the vaudeville bar scene it takes on a kind of surreal comedy. Several cuts to the adorably emotive Gizmo which show his facial expression turn from indifference to confusion to wide-eyed horror further add to the twisted comedy of the scene. The black humour of Gremlins is never more evident than when Kate’s story reaches its climax with the line, ‘And that’s how I found out there was no Santa Claus.’

This scene alone makes Gremlins my festive favourite. As much as we may believe that everyone enjoys this time of year, it’s important to remember Kate’s warning about the less festive among us; ‘While everybody else is opening up their presents, they’re opening up their wrists.’ Wow, that does come across a tad gloomy doesn’t it? I guess you need to see Gremlins in all its gloomy glory to appreciate the sentiment. Or maybe I just need to watch It’s a Wonderful Life again.

Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good fright.


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We Love … Christmas

Santa's Night In

Illustration by Adeline Pericart

 
The Film Ireland Christmas elves have been busy this year preparing gifts of recollections of their favourite Christmas film to leave under your tree this festive season. And so as blankets of white fall upon us this December, we’re reminded of those wonderfully poignant words served up by Shakin’ Stevens when he memorably sung that ‘snow is falling all around me; children playing – having fun. It’s the season of love and understanding. Merry Christmas everyone.’
 
Throughout December we’ll be adding more favourite Christmas films we love; so keep an eye on the website and feel free to add any of your own.

Click on the link below to enjoy our writers’ pieces:

Peter White – Gremlins

Ciara O’Brien – The Nightmare Before Christmas

Gemma Creagh – Home Alone

William O’Keefe – The Apartment

Liam Brennan – Bad Santa

Geoff McEvoy – The Lion in Winter

Charlene Lydon – Elf

Steven Galvin – The Muppet Christmas Carol

Scott Townsend – It’s a Wonderful Life

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