The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

Director: Henry Selick Cast: Chris Sarandon, Danny Elfman, Catherine O’Hara, Ed Ivory, Ken Page, William Hickey, Glenn Shadix

The Pumpkin King of Halloween Town, Jack Skellington, becomes tired of doing the same thing every year for Halloween. He stumbles across Christmas Town and is taken in my its magic, and decides to take Christmas into his own hands this year. However, it doesn’t go quite to plan and he needs Santa to save the day.

It’s one month until Christmas everybody!!! And that means I’m back onto my annual Christmas Crackers series- which in 2016 included a grand total of one whole review, so if I can beat that I’m doing a good job. Anyway, I thought I’d start with A Nightmare Before Christmas as, to be honest, it’s pretty early in the year to go full-scale Christmas so this Halloween/Christmas crossover is a good compromise.

As far as Christmas films go this one’s not really particularly Christmassy, which was a bit of a let down, but like I say it’s still early so I’m willing to let that slide. Plus, if you usually hate sickly-sweet Christmas films then maybe this one’s for you. I did enjoy it and it’s not too Tim Burton-esque compared to some of his other seriously weird stuff (he was the writer for this), in that it’s not hugely creepy or sinister, which does certainly make it for family appropriate for this time of year. The animations are very cool, and there are lots of little details with the characters and the sets which are fun to spot. Plot-wise it’s fairly predictable, but it’s not very long and it kind of makes a nice change to not have too much squashed into one film. The blossoming romance between Jack and Sally is a little forced towards the end and the plot would have worked without the romantic angle- but still, it’s a festive film to you kind of need something like that. But really the film is about the animation and design, which is top-notch.

I liked this more than I thought I would and it works as a family film as it’s not quite scary enough to put off kids. It’s worth a watch as it’s fun and a bit different from your usual Christmas film, but just don’t save it until Christmas Eve.

3 stars

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12 Angry Men (1957)

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Director: Sidney Lumet Cast: Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, E. G. Marshall, Martin Balsam

Twelve jurors are tasked with deciding on the case of a young boy who is accused of murdering his father. While eleven are confident of his guilt, one doesn’t think the evidence is enough to convict the boy for sure, and it’s up to him to convince the others.

As I’m gradually ticking off films in IMDb’s top 250, 12 Angry Men was next on my list. I had to build myself up to watch it, because I knew it was one of those films with lots of talking that requires attention throughout- and finally got around to it on a relaxed Sunday evening.

Actually, it turned out not to be as much of a difficult watch as I’d thought. It didn’t feel too long (after all it is only about an hour and a half), and as the jurors changed their mind one by one there were clear pointers to show the plot moving on. With it being a group of twelve middle-aged white men, and the film in black and white, it started off slightly difficult to identify certain characters individually. However as the film progresses each juror shows their particular personalities, and fairly soon I was able to pick out who was still saying guilty or not guilty. The script is obviously split up between twelve different people so each character doesn’t necessarily get many lines, but still the writing allows for their different personalities to come through.

The issue I did have- and this may well be just me- was that once one person picks a hole in the prosecution’s argument, there’s clearly an element of doubt and so they have to go for not guilty. The main character’s points were enough for me to doubt the guilt of the accused, but it took more than that to sway the other jurors. Not having ever been a juror myself, I can’t say how realistic this would be. Having said that, some of the characters (notably the last one to sway to not guilty) had personal reasons for starting off with a guilty verdict, however unreasonable, which adds to the characterisation and so gives the film some depth.

As I say, this is a thinking person’s film and there’s a lot of dialogue, so don’t watch it when you’re tired or looking for something to watch lightly. If you’re in the right frame of mind, it’s easy to follow and enjoyable. Definitely one to watch to examine different characters and how a script can build up characterisation.

4 stars

The Great Dictator (1940)

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Director: Charlie Chaplin Cast: Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard, Jack Oakie, Reginald Gardiner, Henry Daniell

After spending years in a hospital recovering from memory loss brought on from an accident in the First World War, a Jewish barber returns to his old neighbourhood to find it is suffering persecution under the rule of a new dictator. Meanwhile the dictator himself struggles to assert his new authority.

I think the most interesting aspect of the film is putting it into the context of when it was made- 1940, as the Second World War was really starting to get underway. Post-war films have often struggled about how to portray Hitler and the persecution of the Jewish people, and for many years film-makers avoided it altogether, not wanting to provoke controversy. However The Great Dictator is both an amusing satire that successfully pokes fun at Hitler and the politics of the time, as well as a poignant and powerful portrayal of what was then the present-day reality of Germany under the Nazi regime. The film was made before the full extent of the atrocities in Europe were known, and so perhaps benefitted from not having the pressure to consider the extreme aspects of the Second World War that we now know.

Subject matter aside, the film (which was Chaplin’s first “talkie”) is pleasantly amusing. There’s plenty of Chaplin’s signature slapstick, as well as some clever satire which is still funny almost 80 years later. One particular scene in which Hynkel and Napaloni (Chaplin’s portrayals of Hitler and Mussolini respectively) can’t work out whether to shake hands or salute had me reminiscing about a Dad’s Army style of humour.

While I wouldn’t say that the film is light, it’s certainly not your usual intense Second World War drama (no Das Boot levels of tension here). It’s enjoyable, but quite clearly makes its points about fascism. It’s also considered a classic on a number of levels, so certainly worth a watch.

5 stars

Memento (2000)

Memento

Director: Christopher Nolan Cast: Guy Pearce, Joe Pantoliano, Carrie-Anne Moss, Mark Boone Junior, Jorja Fox

A man with short-term memory loss devises a system of writing himself notes, including in the form of tattoos, to remind himself of his search for the man who he believes killed his wife.

This is probably one of the most original films I’ve seen. Instead of a regular linear timeline, or even a film made up of flashbacks, the film is actually told backwards. We have scenes of maybe 10 minutes, and then the plot moves back to the scene before, which ends at the point that the previous scene started (if that makes any sense at all). So basically, the film starts at the end of the storyline, and the viewers, like the protagonist Leonard, have to piece together bits of information that we have no idea where they came from or what they mean. I can’t think of anything else quite like it!

The film takes place in an unnamed and nondescript town in the US, which is effective in adding to the disorientated nature of the plot and what Leonard is going through. It’s also not clear right until the end who is telling the truth and who is lying to Leonard, which puts the viewer in the same position as him. It’s pretty much impossible for the viewer to work out who that murderer is, but I imagine the second time around the film might lose some of its mysterious intrigue.

Apparently Inception was the film that Christopher Nolan always wanted to make, but while both Inception and Memento have similarities in their unusual methods of how the plot unfolds, I think Memento is far better- it actually makes much more sense. The viewer has to be alert throughout as it is, unsurprisingly, harder to follow that your average linear story, but fortunately the plot itself isn’t actually that complicated so once you can work out the method of storytelling it’s not too difficult.

The film is highly rated and was Oscar-nominated, but I don’t actually know that many people who have seen it. It’s not a family film due to it’s slightly more complex nature and also scenes of violence, but it’s an intriguing thriller with a superb ending. Watch only when you’re prepared to concentrate hard and have time to sit through it all in one go.

4 stars