The 12 (well, ... 24 Alternate) Days Of Christmas: Pt. 1
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7) LOVE ACTUALLY (2003)
play "Blue Christmas" - 1957 (Elvis Presley)
Utilizing the “multi-narrative / combined threads” story structure, which in previous years had been the exclusive purview of dramas like TRAFFIC (2000), writer / director Richard Curtis (FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL, BRIDGET JONES DIARY, NOTTING HILL) fashioned one of the funniest, perceptive and moving ensemble films in recent years.
Taking place during the weeks leading to Christmas, ten stories unfold (and occasionally overlap) which explore the various conceptions and perceptions of love. Among them is an examination of familial love; and there are two such stories here - the 1st about a sister’s caring for her mentally deficient brother at the cost of her own social life; and the 2nd of a widower leading his young son through the mine field of his first school crush. There is also brotherly love (examined as a harried music manager sticks by his client and best friend - an aging rocker who, when he finally has a contemporary hit single, begins to forget those who helped in his success. And there's even a look at love of the simply lustful sort as a middle-aged married business owner finds himself attracted to a flirty young employee at a Christmas party.
Featuring a stellar international cast including Hugh Grant, Liam Neeson, Laura Linney, Colin Firth, Alan Rickman, Emma Thompson, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Keira Knightly, Bill Nighy… and even Billy Bob Thornton and Denise Richards in uncredited cameos, LOVE ACTUALLY would become the template to which later films such as Gary Marshall’s VALENTINE’S DAY and NEW YEAR’S EVE would unsuccessfully aspire.
TRIVIA: Today considered one of the most successful screenwriters in England (and the world) Richard Curtis’ early career included writing for hit British TV series such as BLACK ADDER and MR. BEAN. The Christmas party flirtation / come-on of LOVE ACTUALLY's Colin (the comical waiter character played by Kris Marshall) was originally written by Curtis for inclusion in FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL but dropped. Always fond of the sequence, Curtis was able to find a place for it here.
8) ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE (1969)
One of the best of the entire James Bond film series is also ironically the least seen by the general public. Closely based on what many consider the best of Ian Fleming's later day 007 novels (first published in 1963), OHMSS follows Bond’s pursuit into the Swiss Alps of arch villain Ernst Stavro Blofeld (in the previous film YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE portrayed by Donald Pleasance; now here by Telly Savalas) as the international criminal mastermind puts the finishing touches on a bacteriological warfare scheme designed to blackmail the United Nations over the Christmas holiday. During the course of his Alpine adventure, Bond falls in love with the spirited and acerbic Contessa Teresa di Vincenzo (Diana Rigg); so deeply in love, he marries her and retires from British Intelligence … until a tragedy leaves him scarred for the rest of his life.
The only Bond film to star Australian model turned actor George Lanzeby (who’s actually not bad) would also be the only film directed by former Bond series editor Peter Hunt. Wanting to get away from the fanciful “cartoon-ism” of the previous entry YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE, Hunt deliberately brought the 007 character back to his brutal, earth bound Ian Fleming origin roots. A similar “back to realism” tact would be taken again years later when the more realistic FOR YOUR EYES ONLY (1981) followed on the heels of the sci-fi influenced MOONRAKER (1979), and Daniel Craig’s “down and dirty” debut CASINO ROYALE (2006) brought things “back on track” after the more surreal climactic excesses of DIE ANOTHER DAY (2002).
TRIVIA: Unlike most other Bond films, OHMSS features an instrumental rather than vocal title song. The film’s vocal love theme however “We Have All The Time In The World” (penned by veteran Bond composer John Barry with lyricist Hal David, and heard during the montage in which Bond and Teresa fall in love) was performed by Louis Armstrong. It would be the final recording of the legendary crooner and trumpeter before his death in July of 1971.
9) THE LION IN WINTER (1968)
Generally regarded as “historical drama”, THE LION IN WINTER (adapted for the screen by James Goldman from his acclaimed 1966 Broadway play) isn't a stodgy fictional treatise on the “whys, wherefores” and deceitful power struggle machinations within the castellated walls of 12th Century European royalty. It does delve into those Shakespearean themes. But above all it's magnificent satire: a deliberately funny, piercingly perceptive allegory of the modern dysfunctional family. Not a comedy mind you. It's serious business here, but with a wickedly modern spin.
Long before the Bundy’s of Fox’s MARRIED WITH CHILDREN or even Edward Albee’s hard drinking George and Martha from WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? (play - 1962 / film - 1966), the holiday dinner table bickering of King Henry II (Peter O’Toole), his wife Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine (whom Henry keeps locked in Salisbury Tower, only to be released during annual Christmas family get-togethers) and their spoiled royal children, would ring true to the ears (and hearts) of audiences around the world for years. Think the dysfunction of the Gallagher family from Showtime's SHAMELESS coupled with say the royal court intrigue of the film ELIZABETH (1998) and you've got a good idea of the tone of Goldman's prose.
Boiled down - the complex plot concerns Henry’s upcoming bequeathing of his throne to one of his sons. He favors the younger John (Nigel Terry) while Eleanor backs the older brother Richard (a young Anthony Hopkins in his film debut). Also in the mix is young King Phillip II of France (Timothy Dalton also in his first film) - the son of Eleanor’s former husband Louis VII of France. Phillip has arrived to give the hand of his half sister Alais (Jane Merrow) as well as her dowry, to the future heir. And he will demand the return of both if a decision is not soon reached. A hot kettle of water as Alais has also become King Henry's mistress. Whew! Families and their dirty laundry during the holidays!
TRIVIA: THE LION IN WINTER would win three 1968 Academy Awards. One for Katherine Hepburn: tied that year with Barbra Streisand for FUNNY GIRL,the only time in Oscar history such a tie has occurred. Another well deserved staute for screenwriter / original playwright James Goldman. And one for the film's music score by legendary composer John Barry.
10) NOBODY’S FOOL (1994)
During a series of eventful weeks between Thanksgiving and New Years Day, life-long n’er do well, slacker, absent father and general all around loser Sully Sullivan (Paul Newman) is forced to re-evaluate his life (rather late in the game) when his son arrives (with his ownson in tow) in the sleepy town of North Bath, upstate New York with news that his perfect marriage is on the rocks. Seeing his own life now repeated in that of the son for whom he was never present, Sully clumsily takes comedic (and touching) steps to right a lifetime full of wrongs.
Based on the 1993 novel by Richard Russo, screenwriter/director Robert Benton (KRAMER VS. KRAMER-1974, PLACES IN THE HEART-’79, MURPHY’S ROMANCE-’85) coaxes out of Newman, Jessica Tandy (in her final role), Melanie Griffith, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Dylan Walsh and especially Bruce Willis (as Newman’s humorous business and personal nemesis) some of the best performances of their respective careers. Composer Howard Shore's wistful folk-like score is one of the most gorgeous things you've ever heard - the plaintive oboe, trickling piano keys and lush strings speaking to both autumnal sadness and last-chance hope of fulfilled dreams at the same time.
TRIVIA: Newman would receive an Oscar nomination for his portrait of Sully - at turns side-splittingly hilarious, then within minutes heartachingly vulnerable. In 1998 he, Benton and writer Russo would re-team on the pretty good but nearly as impressive neo-noir mystery TWILIGHT co-starring Gene Hackman, Susan Sarandon, James Garner and Stockard Channing.
11) WHILE YOU WERE SLEEPING (1995)
Sandra Bullock is Lucy Moderatz, a lonely token collector for the Chicago Transit Authority who’s life is turned topsy-turvy the Christmas morning she pulls mugging victim Peter Callaghan (Peter Gallagher) off the El tracks and he falls into a coma. In a sequence of charmingly improbable narrative events (which would be at home in any Preston Sturges film of the 1940s) Lucy is mistaken as the presently comatose Peter’s fiancée, a situation the family-less heroine at first doesn’t much mind, especially during the “family get-togethers time of year”. That is until the arrival of Peter’s brother Jack (Bill Pullman) with whom she soon finds herself genuinely falling in love.
Numerous romantic comedies have since attempted to bottle the effervescent, genuinely endearing and even touching hip-ness (yes, we used that word) of this comedic little gem, but to little avail. Soaring on the charisma of Bullock (this and her previous film SPEED made her a star), Pullman, Gallagher, old pros Peter Boyle, Jack Warden, and Micole Mercurio, ... and certainly on the charismatic directorial tone of Jon Turteltaub (COOL RUNNINGS, NATIONAL TREASURE), the film upon repeated viewings comes to feel like a loved one visiting for the holidays with whom you curl on the couch and chat into the wee hours.
TRIVIA: Director Jon Turteltaub is the son of legendary television writer/producer/director Saul Turteltaub (SANFORD & SON, THAT GIRL, LOVE AMERICAN STYLE). The younger Turteltaub and Disney/Hollywood Pictures first offered the role of Lucy to Julia Roberts. When the popular actress turned it down they eventually chose Bullock. While no American sequels or remakes have been discussed, the film was unofficially remade as both the 1997 Malaysian film CHANDRALEKHA and the 2000 “Bollywood” extravaganza HAR DIL JO PIYAR KAREGA (“Every Heart That Loves”).
12) THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR (1975)
During the bustling New York City holiday season, contemporary CIA cryptographer Joe Turner (Robert Redford) - who’s job it is to read all internationally published material in order to decipher possible hidden codes and messages within them, unwittingly stumbles across a rouge faction of the CIA planning an unsanctioned coup on foreign soil. After returning to his office from an afternoon lunch run, Turner (his code name - Condor) discovers all of his co-workers gunned down.
He escapes into the crowded streets of the Big Apple to hide in plain sight and is eventually told by his superiors to “come in”. But when he’s fired upon by those supposedly sent to protect him, then shortly thereafter even framed for a murder, Turner realizes the only person he can now trust is himself. A book worm amateur tossed into in an ocean of lethal international sharks, Turner sets out to clear his name and to get to the bottom of a growing Watergate-like conspiracy, relying upon years of accumulated book knowledge as well as on the surprising assistance of a local photographer (Faye Dunaway). All the while the smooth international assassin Joubert (Max Von Sydow) tracks his every move.
TRIVIA: Based on James Grady’s popular first time novel SIX DAYS OF THE CONDOR (orig. pub.1974), director Sydney Pollack (THE WAY WE WERE-1973, THE INTERPRETER-2005)’s film adaptation would become a seminal 1970s political paranoia thriller along with it's close thematic cousins THE PARALLAX VIEW(1974)and the fact based ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN (1976). It's plot structure would also become an archetypal suspense thriller narrative template for years - wherein during the second half of a film an everyman uses years of accumulated book knowledge to get the upper hand on a powerful cadre of bad guys who during the first half has had our guy on the run.
Two of the most popular later such films borrowing the CONDOR-paradigm structure would be the John Grisham adaptations THE FIRM (1993) - also directed by Pollack, and THE PELICAN BRIEF (1993) - coincidentally directed by THE PARALLAX VIEW's Alan J. Pakula. Grady would go on to pen (to date) another dozen books, beginning with the 1975 sequel novel SHADOW OF THE CONDOR. He is also the father of Rachel Grady, the co-director (with Heidi Ewing) of the 2007 documentary film JESUS CAMP.