Cranky Hanke’s Screening Room: In search of new Christmas traditions

And so this is Christmas (I quote the immortal words of John Lennon), and though it is certainly a white one from any view I have, it falls a little short of seeming terribly Christmassy. I attribute this to having been stuck in this house for virtually a full week, which means I’m in full “Give me the bat, Wendy. Just give me the bat” dementia at this point. It also means that I’ve no Christmas tree for what may be the first time ever.

I did—with some assistance—get out of here for part of one day (and I did manage to get an early screening of Sherlock Holmes as a result). However, since none but the intrepid with four wheel drive can actually get up the drive, the also netted me the pleasure of an uphill trudge across ice and a vast quantity of seemingly unmeltable snow at three o’clock in the morning. This event is why I have subsequently stayed put.

My original intention for my Christmas viewing—and this column—was to indulge in a small festival of Charlie Chan movies. In fact, there’s about two pages of Chan plans and Chaniana already done, but a power outage this morning (thankfully short-lived), dinner preparations, phone calls various and sundry (I am green with envy over the announcement of an archaeology game Ken Russell ended up with that sounds like all manner of fun), etc. put that plan to bed. But more than that, I was just feeling the need for something seasonal, but what?

None of the traditional answers for Christmas fare were appealing to me. (Much as I love Darren McGavin, I think I’m prepared to forego A Christmas Story for the rest of this life.) Even less traditional fare was quite right either. Even my standard of The Lemon Drop Kid (1951) wasn’t doing it for me, so I started casting about in my mind for possible new traditional Christmas fare. And the answer came in the form of Hugh Grant movies, which, no, does not mean I am suddenly filled with a burning need to harness up sled dogs and make my way to a showing Did You Hear About the Morgans?. I haven’t been cooped up that long.

Of the Hugh Grant vehicles I know well, Chris and Paul Weitz’s About a Boy (2002) and Richard Curtis’ Love Actually (2003) both qualified nicely. (I suppose Sharon Maguire’s Bridget Jones’s Diary [2001] might have worked, too, but I’m not ready to forgive Renee Zellweger for New in Town just yet, though My One and Only helped.) Both films have Christmas scenes and Love Actually revolves around Christmas and Christmas-related events.

I think that part of what sets these apart from a great deal of Grant’s work (apart from being British, since he seems to make his more asinine choices in the States) is that neither one is actually strictly a Hugh Grant vehicle. Yes, the roles fit him and have almost certainly been tailored to fit him, but they’re not strictly about him and they don’t coast on having him do “those things Hugh Grant does so well.” Rather they give him roles that make use of those traits, but which require him to act and shape a character.

About a Boy is far and away the best film Chris and Paul Weitz have made—either together or separately—and it’s a model of how to adapt a novel to film. It knows what to keep and it knows what won’t translate well into the confines of a two hour film. (Dropping the whole plot point about Kurt Cobain’s death will also keep the film from dating.) As for its Christmas quotient, it not only depicts two Christmas celebrations, but Grant’s character lives off the royalties from his late one-hit-wonder father’s song, “Santa’s Super Sleigh.” It’s also pretty strong in the life lessons department, but don’t let that put you off. There are life lessons and life lessons—and these are considerably more thought-provoking than usual, not to mention handled with no little wit.

In the vaguest sense, About a Boy falls into the realm of romatic comedies, but it’s hardly a traditional one. Grant may play a shallow womanizer, but the only thing approaching an actual romance (when he meets Rachel Weisz) happens fairly late in the film, and even it’s far from an ordinary romantic relationship. Actually—and in spite of being clearly designed as a crowd-pleaser—it’s an unusual film all the way around. Some, though not all, of this is due to the Nick Hornby source novel. The Weitzes bring almost non-stop creativity to the way the film is made. Watching it again today, I was reminded of what a truly wonderful movie it really is.

Screenwriter Richard Curtis made his directorial debut with Love Actually, which is more an ensemble film than a Hugh Grant one. Curtis pulled together a cast most filmmakers could only dream of having in one movie—Grant, Colin Firth, Liam Neeson, Emma Thompson, Bill Nighy, Alan Rickman, Laura Linney,Chiwetel Ejiofor, Keira Knightley—and threw in a couple of guests—Rowan Atknison and Billy Bob Thornton—as seasoning. Now, this is without a doubt a full-fledged Christmas movie. The whole film is built around Christmas. It’s even broken into segments detailing how close the action is to Christmas.

Curtis seems to have an affinity—if perhaps not a wholly traditional one—for the holiday. (There are also Christmas scenes in his latest film, Pirate Radio.)  This probably oughtn’t be surprising. This, after all, is the man who had Mr. Bean (Rowan Atkinson) menace Baby Jesus in a Nativity set with model dinosaurs and crafted another scene (in the same episode) involving Mr. Bean with a turkey stuck on his head. Here he crafts a series of stories that sometimes interconnect involving various forms of love and romance that takes place around Christmas.

By way of a kind of a kind of framing story (but with its own take on love) the film is structured around an aging, burnt-out rocker (Bill Nighy) who is making a comeback bid by turning one of his hits into a cheesy Christmas song in hopes of it being named “Christmas Song of the Year.” Though only nebulously connected to the other stories, Nighy’s scenes are among the funniest in the film. At one point—reminded that young viewers are tuned into an interview show he’s plugging his record on—he offers this helpful advice, “Kids, don’t buy drugs—become a pop star and they’ll give ‘em to you for free.” There’s also his incredible music video—a ramped-up parody of the Robert Palmer “Addicted to Love” video—and other choice scenes.

The love stories in the film run the gamut from the comic, to the giddily romantic, to the bittersweet. Again, the movie qualifies as a romantic comedy, but that doesn’t have to be a pejorative term—and Love Actually proves this. It also provided a perfect second feature for my Christmas fix, which was all the more heartening by the realization that not all modern Christmas-themed fare has to be rubbish like Surving Christmas (2004), Christmas with the Kranks (2004) and Deck the Halls (2006). That’s kind of a nice gift in itself.  Now, will these films actually become traditional Christmas fare with me? I don’t know, but I wouldn’t mind. For now, I’m settling in for the Sherlock Holmes marathon on TCM.

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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23 thoughts on “Cranky Hanke’s Screening Room: In search of new Christmas traditions

  1. Bill Callahan

    ”About a Boy’ is far and away the best film Chris and Paul Weitz have made—either together or separately—and it’s a model of how to adapt a novel to film.’

    New Christmas traditions. Hand it to Ken to make it about ‘a boy’ by two guys. So what’s the fascination with this subject Ken and what does it have to do with Christmas traditions?

  2. Ken Hanke

    Hand it to Ken to make it about ‘a boy’ by two guys. So what’s the fascination with this subject Ken and what does it have to do with Christmas traditions?

    Well, Mr. “Cullenhan,” have you even seen the movie? Or are you just off on some tangent in which you have a personal agenda that has nothing whatever to do with the movie? If you want to make implications like this, it would help if you knew something about the movie.

  3. Dionysis

    Great choices to initiate a ‘new tradition.’I commented last holiday season that ‘Love Actually’ was one of the most enjoyable and entertaining films I’ve seen. I missed it upon initial release, but have watched it several times in the last couple of years and will no doubt watch it several more in the years ahead (something I rarely do with even my most favorite films).

    A thoroughly delightful movie in every way, and definitely one at the top of any Hugh Grant list.

    As much as I liked ‘Pirate Radio’, it didn’t top ‘Love Actually’ for me.

  4. luluthebeast

    I’ll have to put ABOUT A BOY on my list to look for. I think LOVE, ACTUALLY is great movie, with Nighy’s Christmas “promise” being a bit of a classic. The movie does venture into the fantasy realm though, as I have NEVER seen women like that in Green Bay, but I suppose one can always dream.
    I also got THE LEMON DROP KID from the library, and except for Frawley’s singing talents, it has lost a bit of it’s luster.
    There’s always the movies churned out on the Hallmark channel, but for the most part are a bunch of pablum.

  5. Ken Hanke

    As much as I liked ‘Pirate Radio’, it didn’t top ‘Love Actually’ for me.

    I’m not sure which I like better — fortunately, I don’t have to limit myself to one or the other. (And with its Xmas scenes, I can add it ino the mix next year if I like.)

    Pirate Radio is such a strange proposition right now, since we’ve only seen a re-edited version over here. I’m very curious to see whether The Boat That Rocked is better or if the re-editing might have actually improved it.

  6. Ken Hanke

    The movie does venture into the fantasy realm though, as I have NEVER seen women like that in Green Bay, but I suppose one can always dream

    I suspect it’s very likely that Richard Curtis has never been to Green Bay.

    I also got THE LEMON DROP KID from the library, and except for Frawley’s singing talents, it has lost a bit of it’s luster.

    I don’t know if it’s so much lost its luster for me as it was just the fact that I watched it fairly recently when I needed a frame-grab of Hope dressed as Santa.

  7. withinreason

    “Love Actually” arrived in our mailbox quite by accident on Christmas Eve. We have watched it twice in 2 days and I believe it to be the best contemporary Christmas movie in recent years. The theme of love that permeates the film speaks to what we all really want and need for Christmas, which is somebody to love us and to love somebody.

  8. davidf

    I think you’re onto something with LOVE ACTUALLY, as far as new traditions are concerned. I actually haven’t seen it yet, which is astounding, considering I’ve been invited to no less than 3 parties in the past few weeks where people were gathering to view it together. I couldn’t make it to any of those parties, but it seems like I’m destined to see it soon enough.

  9. Ken Hanke

    I think you’re onto something with LOVE ACTUALLY, as far as new traditions are concerned

    Well, it would certainly be pleasant to see that tradition-worthy movies didn’t end with A Christmas Story.

  10. Uncle Charley

    Thanks to the magical, illegal powers of the internet, I managed to get my hands on The Boat That Rocked and am happy to report little was lost in the re-editing process, with the exception of what may be the only footage of Chris O’dowd being something other than “that funny Irish guy over there.” In truth, whoever threw the American recut together must be some kind of a genius in the cutting room for successfully trimming twenty minutes (17% of its original running time) and still cobbling together the only movie this year that gave me nearly the same charge as (500) Days of Summer.

    The same can be said for Love Actually, which could have easily outlasted The Lord of the Rings: Two Towers had they its makers actually put together all the footage that they’d scripted and filmed. For whatever reason, people are averse to laughing in a room with friends longer than 100 minutes (which led to me getting into multiple fights defending the honor of Knocked Up) without some other facet to the story to pin them down. Perhaps Christmas is it.

    Whatever the formula was that made everyone shut up, sit down and enjoy Love Actually, it certainly worked on my mother’s side of the family this year where we realized that everyone in the room was at least a teenager, and if we didn’t all laugh at a bit of R-rated humor now, soon enough there’d be new family members to ruin the fun. So until the warmth and traditions of spring nudge the pitter-patter of little, loud, impatient feet into the picture, I heartily approve of this picture as a holiday mainstay. Next year the Owens clan will start the viewing with a toast to ya’ boss: strong, nicotine-filled, and quite possibly belligerent on your mountain.

  11. jimmytwotimes

    We had “Love Actually” playing in the den on Christmas morning.

  12. brianpaige

    I watched The Man Who Came to Dinner on TCM last week as somewhat of a new Christmas tradition of sorts (well not a tradition yet, we’ll see). Sheridan Whiteside isn’t necessarily someone I want to spend every Christmas with, but it might be fun to watch every 5 years or so.

  13. Ken Hanke

    Next year the Owens clan will start the viewing with a toast to ya’ boss: strong, nicotine-filled, and quite possibly belligerent on your mountain

    I will be far less likely to be belligerent if I’m not snowed in. Then again, next year I can add Pirate Radio — or The Boat That Rocked — to the mix.

  14. Ken Hanke

    We had “Love Actually” playing in the den on Christmas morning

    I’m interested to see such an apparent acceptance of Love Actually, especially since it seems to be mostly (perhaps entirely) being endorsed by guys. That’s supposedly unusual with a film that can be classed as a romantic comedy.

  15. Ken Hanke

    Sheridan Whiteside isn’t necessarily someone I want to spend every Christmas with, but it might be fun to watch every 5 years or so

    It’s almost a parody of a Christmas movie with its main character an acid-tongued raconteur who makes part of his living being a kind of Mr. Christmas on radio. It’s unfortunate that some of his best moments didn’t make it out of the play. I guess Warner Bros. decided that his opening line upon surveying the people he’s going to be surrounded by — “I may vomit” — was too much for the movie.

    I keep living in hope that FMC will realize they own a film, Life Begins at 8:30, that starts with Monty Wooley as a drunk department store Santa Claus haranguing the crowd with, “I hate you! I hate you all!”

  16. entopticon

    I like Love Actually a lot. I even bought a copy recently. I do have one pet peeve though… There are a bizarre amount of fat jokes in the movie. Usually I wouldn’t mind because in real life people make fat jokes, and just because a character may say something it doesn’t mean that the filmmakers are endorsing that point of view, but the number of fat jokes in the film, from many of the ensemble characters, is actually a bit strange once you notice it. Obsessive even.

    I watched the deleted scenes on the dvd that I bought, and several of them were actually very good. Worth watching if you enjoyed the film.

  17. Ken Hanke

    Usually I wouldn’t mind because in real life people make fat jokes, and just because a character may say something it doesn’t mean that the filmmakers are endorsing that point of view, but the number of fat jokes in the film, from many of the ensemble characters, is actually a bit strange once you notice it

    Interesting — and an observation that escaped me. I suspect it doesn’t mean an endorsement of that point of view, based on the depiction of the far from svelte Nick Frost as a ladies’ man in Pirate Radio.

  18. Ken Hanke

    Thanks to the magical, illegal powers of the internet, I managed to get my hands on The Boat That Rocked and am happy to report little was lost in the re-editing process, with the exception of what may be the only footage of Chris O’dowd being something other than “that funny Irish guy over there.” In truth, whoever threw the American recut together must be some kind of a genius in the cutting room for successfully trimming twenty minutes (17% of its original running time) and still cobbling together the only movie this year that gave me nearly the same charge as (500) Days of Summer.

    Well, a copy of the film made it to me from Australia — thanks to a certain poster on here, who appears to be on holiday till Jan. 6 — and I find that all in all I do prefer The Boat That Rocked original — with one and half differences. I’ll get those out of the way first. I really do prefer using “All Day and All of the Night” at the end rather than Bowie’s “Let’s Dance.” (I do like the choice of album covers on the original better. I didn’t even notice the prominently displayed Taylor Swift album that’s in the US print.) And I kind of prefer “My Generation” to “Let’s Spend the Night Together” in the scene where Hoffman pretends the station goes off the air. I admit that may simply be a case of what I’d already grown used to. There are other soundtrack changes, but those were pretty much a wash for me.

    Otherwise, I liked the extensions of several scenes a good bit. The characters do get more development. I understand cutting the pub crawl if you just want to save time, but I really like the sequence and prefer the film with it. Not only does it give you the Small Faces’ “Lazy Sunday” (always a good thing), but it plays like a miniature Richard Lester film (even more than the “Elenore” sequence does), which is an apt touch for the era. I also like the reinstatement of a bit of dialogue where the others express concern over Hoffman still being in the control room. I found it odd that everyone just seemed to forget about him in the US print. But perhaps the biggest improvement for me was switching the two final shots. Every time I saw the end of Pirate Radio I felt the film needed to end on Bill Nighy’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll,” not on Young Carl saying it. I was delighted to see that Curtis apparently felt that way, too, since that’s how he cut the film originally. I hope that DVD of the film in this country offers both versions, because while I’m happy to have the Region 4 disc, I’d prefer not to have that slight speeding up that comes from converting PAL to NTSC, and the colors on the disc are less vibrant than the ones I saw in the theater.

  19. Uncle Charley

    The Boat That Rocked is unquestionably a cake ready to be served at a wedding, with much better trimmings and presentation than its brethren. I maintain, however, the brilliance of Pirate Radio‘s editor (Emma Hickox, who I can only assume was as responsible for the American cut as the originial) for realizing that it could still be a tasty cake, so long as she just removed flourishes from the frosting and not…you know…eggs.

  20. Ken Hanke

    Oh, bear in mind, I’m not downplaying Pirate Radio. After all, I saw it about six times. I just mostly prefer The Boat That Rocked. Hard to tell who recut the film. For that matter, most editing is a collaboration between filmmaker and editor — at least when you’re dealing with a director with some degree of clout, which Curtis has (especially as one of the producers). Both may have been involved in turning it into Pirate Radio — or neither. There used to be a guy at MGM in the 60s and 70s they called the Metro-Goldwyn-Mangler, who seemed to delight in cutting down other people’s movies for no reason other than he could. Whoever recut this, on the other hand, clearly had some degree of respect for the material.

  21. I can confirm that THE BOAT THAT ROCKED makes excellent Christmas viewing, as I watched it twice over the holidays (a third time if you include with the commentary, plus all the deleted scenes) and it made me feel very good about the world and life in general – this seems appropriate for Christmas. And says joy to the world and good will to all men better than Jeff Beck’s Hi Ho Silver Lining?

  22. Ken Hanke

    I’m going to parade my ignorance here and ask whether the music used when they’re jumping overboard is original scoring or a song I’m unfamiliar with. (I have no idea what Jeff Beck’s “Hi Ho Silver Lining” is, for example.)

  23. I’m going to parade my ignorance here and ask whether the music used when they’re jumping overboard is original scoring or a song I’m unfamiliar with.
    That’s original score by Hans Zimmer.

    I have no idea what Jeff Beck’s “Hi Ho Silver Lining” is, for example.
    This: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IsGDNG2Cpbg
    Bill Nighy is listening to it when Young Carl first arrives on board that boat.

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