Can’t say I cared much for Skyfall but clearly I seem to be in the minority. Anyway here’s the programme notes for the latest screening at The Station.
Skyfall (2012, Sam Mendes)
“Sometimes the old ways are the best.”
Having successfully rebooted the Bond franchise with Casino Royale (2006, dir. Martin Campbell) producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson found making a worthy follow-up problematic. A strike enforced by the Writers Guild of America meant Quantum of Solace started filming without a finished screenplay. The resulting movie naturally enough seems rushed but despite the low-key approach and its perceived failure Quantum of Solace remains one of the more interesting Bond films. Not many big-budget action movies are concerned thematically with the effects of grieving.
Still it wasn’t what audiences wanted after the confident approach of Casino Royale. Worse was to come for Eon Productions when their partners MGM filed for bankruptcy. There were worrying echoes of the prolonged absence from the screens after 1989’s Licence to Kill (John Glen) when a series of legal wrangles shut down the franchise for six years and led to the cancellation of a proposed third Timothy Dalton film titled ‘The Property of a Lady.’ For a few months it seemed like Daniel Craig might share the same fate as his predecessor until Sony stepped in and signed a deal to co-finance and distribute all future Bond films.
Eon have brought together an impressive group of A-List talent. Director Sam Mendes won an Oscar for American Beauty (1999) and previously worked with Daniel Craig on the gangster movie Road to Perdition (2004). Cinematographer Roger Deakins (The Assassination of Jesse James) is widely regarded as being one of the greatest in his field. Spanish actor Javier Bardem is an impressive bad guy sporting a haircut that’s every bit as weird as his barnet in No Country for Old Men (2008, Joel & Ethan Coen). The plot is relatively straightforward. Bond must battle to save his surrogate Queen M (Judi Dench) from a vengeful former agent while Intelligence Chief Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) tries to enforce her retirement.
Skyfall feels like a new beginning once again reinstating classic elements from the Bond franchise including Q (Ben Wishaw) and the Walther PPK, but also reinventing the past. Danny Boyle opened the Olympics in style with a short film showing James Bond escorting a certain VIP to the opening ceremony. Mendes continues this celebratory theme for the franchise’s 50th anniversary year and affirms James Bond’s place as a British cultural icon even going as far to emphasise his Anglo-Scottish roots. Time will tell if Skyfall deserves a place alongside the great Bond films but for now it is the right film at the right moment.
Would you rather Richard Attenborough’s Kris Kringle got jail time in Miracle on 34th Street or a blizzard covered Bing Crosby’s head as he sang White Christmas? Or maybe you’d love James Stewart’s bank manager to jump before Clarence the Angel persuades him his place in the world is important. If so here is an alternative list of Christmas movies.
The Thin Man (WS Van Dyke, 1934)
Set over Christmas Nick and Nora Charles are world class drinkers and married Private Eyes caught up in a murder mystery though whodunit is less important than the witty repartee between leads William Powell and Myrna Loy.
Blast of Silence (Allen Baron, 1961)
In this little-seen Noir masterpiece hitman Frankie ‘Baby Boy’ Bono returns to New York to kill a gangster. Frankie craves solitude and has no interest in other people. Yet when he arrives in his hometown to find carol singers in Central Station and the department stores decorated with lights. Frankie gets to thinking about his childhood in an orphanage. Then he meets a girl he used to know called Laurie (Molly McCarthy) and suddenly Frankie doesn’t want to be alone anymore.
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Jacques Demy, 1963)
Demy’s musical about young lovers Guy (Nino Castelnuovo) and Genevieve (Catherine Denueve) ends with an epilogue outside a petrol station at Christmas. Demy had the houses in Cherbourg painted in bright colours so they looked better than life. With added snow and Christmas decorations Demy directs one of the most beautiful scenes in cinema.
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (Peter Hunt, 1969)
George Lazenby’s only appearance as James Bond is one of the best in the series. Bond goes undercover at Blofeld’s hideaway in the Alps. When his cover is blown 007 escapes on skis and hides out in a small town holding a winter fair. Peter Hunt orchestrates a masterful sequence to the sound of composer John Barry’s song ‘Do You Know How Christmas Trees are Grown?’ Bond loses himself amongst the crowd and hides out by an ice rink. Looking troubled and afraid for once, the spy adjusts his collar against the cold and looks up to see his lover Tracy (Diana Rigg) standing in front of him.
Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence (Nagisa Oshima, 1982)
Oshima’s idiosyncratic war film about the culture clash between Japanese prison guards and their prisoners sees British officer Lawrence (Tom Conti) striking up a friendship with brutal guard Sgt Hara (Takeshi Kitano). The two meet again briefly after the war has ended. The film takes its title from the final line of dialogue spoken between them, a hugely affecting moment acted with tremendous subtlety by Kitano and Conti.
Trading Places (John Landis, 1983)
City whiz-kid Louis Winthorpe III (Dan Akroyd) has it all; a fancy house, a pretty girl, and the world’s coolest butler (Denholm Elliot). That is until his bosses Randolph and Mortimer (Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche) decide to replace him with a homeless man (Eddie Murphy) for a bet.
At his lowest point Winthorpe gatecrashes the kind of party he would once have been invited to and hides food in his beard to consume on the bus home. Drunk and depressed he considers shooting himself in the head. Just a regular Christmas night out then.
Gremlins (Joe Dante, 1984)
Deserves its place on the list for Kate (Phoebe Cates) anecdote about why she hates Christmas, as well as director Joe Dante letting his anarchic version loose on the kind of small town setting Gremlins producer Steven Spielberg likes to eulogise in his own movies.
Lethal Weapon (Richard Donner, 1987)
Screenwriter Shane Black clearly likes Christmas, he set his other big action movie Die Hard (1988) during the festive period as well. Lethal Weapon sees Mad Mel Gibson taking on a mercenary cartel with the help of Danny Glover. Nothing says Merry Christmas quite like Gary Busey kicking down your front door and shooting your television.
Batman Returns (Tim Burton 1992)
Tim Burton’s underrated Batman Returns (1992) has the Caped Crusader falling for Catwoman (Michelle Pfieffer) on the rooftops of a snowy Gotham City. Lovely ending too.
Bad Santa (Terry Zwigoff, 2004)
Though it was marketed as an anti-Christmas movie Bad Santa follows the Scrooge-like formula usually found in Xmas movies. Store Santa Billy Bob Thornton starts out as a cynic, but by the end of the movie he has become a better person and made new friends. It remains wonderfully offensive though.