(may contain spoilers; I’m not going to be overly careful).
3.It’s a Wonderful Life
George Bailey’s (James Stewart) ambition has been thwarted at every turn and now he is about to go to prison because of some missing money. On Christmas Eve, he decides to end his life, when Clarence, a thus far wingless angel, is sent down to save him. Clarence then takes him back over his life and shows him the way things could have turned out if he had never been born.
James Stewart is a joy to watch in any role, and this is his finest. One of the things I really like about George Bailey’s character is that his entire life has been a record of making the best of a bad show; he has had bad luck, he has made sacrifices in order to help others and nothing has really turned out the way he expected or indeed would have wanted. But despite this, things have turned out okay, because he, his friends and family have made it so.
This is not gritty realism but the characters and situations are honest and human. The good are not universally good or strong or wise. Plus there is no absolute justice even in the end – apparently they struggled to get it past the censors at the time because Mr Potter (who actually stole the missing money and is an all-round bad egg) never actually gets his comeuppance.
Cynical weatherman, Phil Connors (Bill Murray), is sent to Punxsutawney to cover their Groundhog Day festivities. He is eager to get back to the city after making the report, but a storm arrives and he is stuck in Punxsutawney overnight. Only the next day he wakes up and finds it is Groundhog Day... again. And the next day, and the next day; he is stuck in the same day forever and he can never leave Punxsutawney.
Initially he exploits his knowledge of everything that’s going to happen that day for money and women, but soon enough he becomes bored and desperate and attempts to end his life. Then, finding this is impossible – every time he ‘dies’ only to wake up back in Punxsutawney on the morning of Groundhog Day – he begins to explore more meaningful ways of spending this ever-repeating day.
I am not a massive fan of Bill Murray and I have seen dining chairs less wooden than Andie MacDowell, who plays his colleague and love interest. However both of them are used to best effect in this, so don’t let that put you off. It is a film about taking control of an unwelcome situation, a triumph of the human spirit over cynicism, but not without a fair amount of comic darkness before we get there.
1.Harold & Maude
This is a beautiful film – as close to perfect as a film can get. And nothing I can say could do justice to it so if you haven’t seen it, hire it or buy it for £4.97 from Amazon.
Harold is an oppressed young man; his mother is attempting to find him a wife, his psychiatrist is attempting to cure him of his angst and his uncle is attempting to conscript him into the army. He can only imagine finding significance through death; his two past-times are staging mock-suicides for his mother to witness and attending the funerals of strangers. At one such funeral he meets Maude, a seventy-nine year old woman who declares that they’re going to be great friends before driving off in the priest’s car. At another funeral, she steals Harold’s own car, but offers him a ride in it anyway.
They do indeed become great friends and eventually lovers, Maude freeing him from his oppression; teaching him the value and vitality of life and himself. It is all very beautiful, as I say. Quirky, yet full of truth. The cast are fantastic; every performance is spot-on. It is at times very funny, and at other times very moving, without the strained tugging on our heartstrings that romances often resort to. Nor is there anything silly or especially comical about the cross-generational love affair, which is in fact entirely plausible and well... I have probably used the word beautiful once too often already, haven't I?
The soundtrack is entirely by Cat Stevens, except for a few seconds of Tchaikovsky, which is of course a joy in itself. It is a film about love and hope and life and the innate exoticism of seagulls.