Monday, 26 December 2011

Especially For Me - My Favourite TV Christmas Specials

I look forward to TV Christmas specials every year like an excitable puppy going on a car ride. I even watch a bit of Eastenders shortly before Christmas day, so I can be in the know enough for the Christmas special to make sense; when I say make sense, I mean make an Eastenders kind of sense.

The TV Christmas specials, in the UK more than in the US I think, really are quite special. They are little television events, often standing alone separately from the show, and at the same time maintaining the character of the show and often refers to the main story arc if there is one.

Frequently shows come back to life, after their original run has ended, just for Christmas specials, like the Royle Family did until last year, and Absolutely Fabulous did this year and in the past. I often love those as much as I love the specials of a running show; they make me feel as if the shows I loved so much and said farewell to, have lives of their own, which they continued living outside the television box.

This year I felt was lacking in Christmas specials, for the first time since I moved to London. There may still be a few more to come, but none that makes as happy and excited as much as the past specials did. To console myself for this outrageous shortage of Christmas television I turned to a few of my favourite Christmas specials from previous years to keep me company in this drought of Christmas TV.

The Fast Show

Being a sketch show it is easy to plant it on TV detached from any context, and for a long time this is how I saw it; something I watched here and there in special occasions. It was only after watching a whole series off hand with friends that I realised just how brilliant The Fast Show is, and how awe inspiringly talented actors as well as writers Paul Whitehouse and Charlie Higson are.

What impressed me most of all in the Fast Show was just how the sketches could suddenly break my heart just as quickly they made me laugh. One exceptionally brilliant examples of that was the very drunk Rowley Birkin QC, who seems to be in a state of an eternal Christmas, and was consistently funny, sketch after sketch, until suddenly he wasn’t.   

Of course I can’t mention The Fast Show without taking a moment to bow down before my favourite characters Ralph and Ted. The full impact of Ralph and Ted’s story revealed itself, in my opinion, only after watching all of their sketches woven into the show. Their Christmas sketches enhances their effect in my view, because other than the main point which runs through all the sketches, the Christmas sketches reveal something quite personal about each of them.   

  A high pitched mmmmmmmm.... Always comes out of me at the end of this one.

The Royle Family – Queen of Sheba

Before there was a David Brent there was a Jim Royle, and before there was Tim and Dawn there was the brilliant Denise and Dave. The Royle Family will probably forever be one of my all time favourite television comedies. How can I not fall in love with a family whose one of its most important members is TV?

The Royle Family ended its original run in 2000 with a Christmas special. Six years have gone past, The Royle Family has turned into a cherished memory together with other beloved comedies, and then it lifted its head again with the glorious Queen of Sheba Christmas special, which was a little bit of television heaven.  

Since then The Royle Family has had a special almost every year, and though they were all great fun, with The Golden Egg Cup (“There’s been a merder!”Caravan holiday) a very close second, Queen of Sheba is still my favourite of the Royle Family Christmas specials. 

There was a special planned for this year, but Caroline Aherne and Craig Cash, who created the show and play Dave and Denise, did not finish it on time; and so, sadly I won't be celebrating Christmas the Royles this year.

Doctor Who- A Christmas Carol

The Doctor Who Christmas special is always the one I look forward to the most. Admittedly, most of its Christmas specials didn’t really live up to the expectations I was building, and though I liked The Runaway Bride (I think I am the only one who did) it wasn’t as good as some of the regular episodes. None of its Christmas specials were very special to me, but it is the one special I wouldn't miss for the world; such is the power of Doctor Who

As I previously pointed out with the exception of The Eleventh Hour I wasn’t quite taken with Moffat’s initiation to the show, and series 5 left some doubts as to my future relationship with the Doctor. Therefore my expectations of A Christmas Carol weren’t very high.
Not only was Doctor Who- A Christmas Carol the most Christmasy of all other Doctor Who Christmas specials, but it was also the episode where I finally got to see the Steven Moffat I have come to love in the Russel T Davis era; the Moffat who knows all the rules so well only to collapse them and build his own; the Moffat who combines a beautiful moving story and compelling characters with beautifully crafted plot moves and developments.

A Christmas Carol turned out to be, in my opinion, better than most of the episodes in the series that preceded it. It was the episode that brought my hopes back for the series that followed, thought of which I wrote here. So far, Only the Moff, in a stroke of an episode, has managed to change my mind about a show I was ready to despair of.

It seems that Moffat is going for classic tales in the Christmas spirit for his Who specials and I love it! I love the fairytale aspect of it all and I love the special kind of atmosphere created just for the Christmas special. It really does make it a stand alone special kind of episode within the Doctor Who series. 

I enjoyed this year’s The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe, but for me it didn’t quite have as strong effect as A Christmas Carol had,and wasn't quite as good. I felt that some of the guest appearances were just there as decorative fillers and I didn’t really understand why they were there. Therefore A Christmas Carol remains not only my favourite Doctor Who Christmas specials, but one of my favourite Christmas specials, and one of my favourite non special Doctor Who episodes. 

Extras – Christmas Special

I know I may be the minority here, but I was always a bigger fan of Extras than I was of The Office. Not that I didn’t like the office, but while Tim and Dawn annoyed me most of the time, I fell in love head over hills with Andy Milman and Maggie Jacobs. Maybe it’s because I know and have worked quite a lot in this world of films and television and can very much relate to the stories of Andy and Maggie. Or maybe it is because I prefer characters that have personality independent to their love interest. Either way the Extras Christmas special is not only my favourite of all Christmas specials, but it is also one of my favourite pieces of television glory Christmas or not. 

Maggie’s story in the special is one that I am not ashamed to say is very close to my heart. It might seem a little sad that I find myself in such a miserable character, but it doesn't make me sad and I don’t think Maggie is as glum as she may seem at first look. I love her, and to think that Gervais and Merchant would have a character like her in their minds comforts me in a way. 

But it isn't only Maggie that makes this Christmas special so special to me. It is Andy’s journey and personal torment of what he yearns for, which climax in the so candid and painful speech he gives to the cameras of Big Brother at the end. It might be awkward to admit, and Ricky Gervais is an honorary doctor of awkwardness, but the dilemmas he goes through, and the way he feels, as stupid and awful as they may be, are also very true. At least for me they are. 

Don't watch this clip if you haven't seen the special.  
As I look at those loveable Christmas specials which made Christmas day something I most look forward to since I moved to London, I can’t help but feel a little let down by the poor selection of specials this year. Only Doctor Who and Absolutely Fabulous stood out as refreshing new specials in a sea of previous years’ reruns. 

I can only hope that this means that everyone has been very hard at work to make some excellent television for the new year; kicking off with a new Sherlock Holmes, for which the combination of trailers and teasers over Christmas made me jump up and down with uncontrollable joy, I can’t help but feel optimistic about the television of 2012.   


Thursday, 22 December 2011

The Festive List of Festive Films for the Festive Season

By Leslie McMurtry and Aya Vandenbussche

I LOVE CHRISTMAS! It is a time for fireplaces, duvets, creamy soups and hot chocolate; it is a time for shiny lights, red wine, scarves, gloves and boots, but most of all it is a time for good books, good television and good films.

In celebration of the season and the holiday, my dear friend and guest writer, Leslie McMurtry, and I have put out heads together and came up with a festive list of films for Christmas. Not all the films in this list may be considered Christmas films by definition, but they are all, at least for Leslie and myself, films which have what I like to call, the Christmas effect; they keep you warm and fuzzy inside.

Leslie and I chose different films and we shall indicate which one of us chose what film. However, naturally there are films we both feel are a Christmas must and therefore, to differentiate between Leslie’s thoughts and mine, I shall give Leslie’s words a celebratory look in the form of italic writing. I would also like to add that the order of the list is not descending or ascending in its quality or Christmasness, the order is quite random, but I tried to build up towards our collaborative choices. So without further ado, here we go, read and rejoice.

Little Women
Chosen by Leslie McMurtry

This is not a Christmas film, but the Christmas element is so strong, plus its pull on my heartstrings so potent, that I had to include it.  Using Gillian Armstrong’s gorgeous direction, we are deposited in frozen Concord, Massachusetts during the American Civil War.  Far away from the fighting, the March sisters are living a Christmas of deprivation, but on that snowy Christmas Eve, it doesn’t seem to matter.   I have fallen in love with and internalized everything about this film. Christmas to me now has to include “Ding Dong Merrily on High,” “The Wassailing Song,” and a full rendition of “Deck the Halls” as they are portrayed in the film.  Where Dickens would suffice to show us an Old English Christmas, Little Women sensitively shows us one that is both personal and universal.

Peter’s Friends
Chosen by Aya Vandenbussche

Considering it is set in the 30th and 31st of December and end at midnight of a New Year, Peter's Friends would probably fall under a New Year’s film rather than a Christmas film, or if you’re willing to stretch the definition; a Boxing Day film. Nevertheless, I join Emma Thompson in giving you this untimely gift of the best of the Brits and a delightful treat of warmth, humour and friendship,which makes you want to be a part of, and turns the horrible a little more tolerable.  

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
Chosen by Leslie McMurtry

Okay, there’s no way this can be considered a Christmas film. Wizards don’t even have Christmas, they have “Yule” (yeah, it makes about as much sense as Father Christmas in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe).  That said, it was always my favorite of the books and the films, as I absolutely love the Yule Ball sequence, visually arresting, quite amusing, and adding fuel to the Ron/Hermione ship  (utterly canon, of course). 

Miracle in Milan
Chosen by Aya Vandenbussche

A lot of people will probably consider this the kind of film one might watch if one has taken a film history class, but for me Miracle in Milan is as Christmasy as the Christmas spirit of past, present and Christmases yet to come, put together. Of course Toto's character (not Dorothy’s dog) could be interpreted as a Christ- like figure, but what makes this film so wonderful and Christmasy is its charming naivety, stripped of all cynicism, and its simple yet very funny humour, its happiness and love of people. You’ll have to have a heart of stone not to melt with joy and laughter in still one of the most original and simply lovely and joyous films.

Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer
Chosen By Leslie McMurtry

Rudolph’s plight has now been realized in stop animation for more than forty years, and yet I love the characters of Herby the Elf who wants to be a dentist, Yukon Cornelius, the red-haired prospector, and Burl Ives as the singing snowman. 

Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence
Chosen by Aya Vandenbussche

OK I admit, it is not the most cheerful of Christmas films, and perhaps will be considered a war film more than a Christmas film.  However, despite its depressing and often cruel nature, or perhaps in spite of it, Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence is still a film I love to watch during this season. I like it when sadness comes with beautiful men, beautiful music and forbidden love. It may not fill you up with Christmas cheer, but a good cry is guaranteed and that too is an important part of Christmas. 

Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown
Chosen by Leslie McMurtry

Once again, the music takes center stage; the only traditional Christmas songs here are “O Christmas Tree” and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” with wonderful Mancini-penned tunes (“Christmastime is Here”) which have become modern classics.  The story is simple, the characters never aging.  Linus tells Charlie Brown the true origins of Christmas, citing a Biblical passage with no frills or frippery.  Yet it is the symbol of the Christmas tree that unites and uplifts, showing, I suppose, that religious and secular Christmas can co-exist.

Bad Santa
Chosen by Aya Vandenbussche

Continuing with the slightly bleaker side of Christmas, but with a dash more optimism sprinkled on top; Bad Santa is a Christmas film for adults. At first the idea of a Santa that is bad seemed very juvenile and a cheap comic device, but actually Bad Santa is refreshingly grown up and sensitive. There is no Christmas miracle, or any kind of Christmas magic, there is only a wonderful little boy that captured the heart of a miserable Billy Bob Thornton and changed his life.Bad Santa is the only Christmas film I know that is rated 15. I like that the Christmas of Bad Santa belongs to the older generation and not, as Christmas usually does, to the children, yet it maintains a Christmas spirit, a grown up one. We like Christmas too.

Home Alone
Chosen by Leslie McMurtry, but Aya Vandenbussche concurs!

There are a lot of firsts associated with Home Alone for me.  The first time I heard “Carol of the Bells,” the first time I saw clips from It’s a Wonderful Life, the first time I realized pizza could cost over $100 (I was only five or six when it came out!).  There is a lot of enjoyable escapism in watching it when you are a kid—secretly, you too wish you could defend your house from bumbling burglars while your family is halfway across the world.  A nice soundtrack put together by John Williams is the icing on the cake. 

Chosen by Aya Vandenbussche

The original Broadway musical actually concluded with a Christmas party, which in the film turned into a more generic “YAY! Annie is safe!” kind of party. Either way this marvellous John Huston adaptation to the story of the feisty ginger orphan who won over an even feistier billionaire has made me happy since I was a little girl, before I even realised just how brilliant the cast is (insert a sigh of joy right here).Needless to say that the movie going scene and the movie watching sequence that follow are still one of my favourite cinematic moments. 

A Christmas Story
Chosen by Leslie McMurtry

Only when I read the book, In God We Trust All Others Must Pay Cash by Jean Shepherd, did I understand the extent of the man’s satirical genius.  Here is the other side of the coin of glamorous, Hollywood 1940s; here is a Midwest where sod’s law reigns for one ordinary kid seduced by the lure of the Red Ryder BB gun.  Life is not fair to Ralphie Parker.  His old man covets a leggy lamp and his kid brother is stuck in deep sea diving gear.  The nostalgia here is genuine, and it’s only fitting that radio should be at the heart of this candy-colored reminiscence with a hard edge.  There is little period music used in A Christmas Story; instead, the Grand Canyon Suite was used and gives it a wonderfully eccentric soundtrack.  The end, where Ralphie’s parents watch the snow falling while a choir sings “Silent Night,” sums up exactly what Christmas means to me.    

The Kid
Chosen by Aya Vandenbussche

Keeping with the theme of happy orphans and winners of most adorable kids in films, I chose, probably my favourite Charlie Chaplin film. Chaplin himself describes it best in the films opening title: “A picture with a smile- and perhaps a tear”. 

Bernard and the Genie
Chosen by Leslie McMurtry

From the pen of Richard Curtis comes this silly yet ultimately heartwarming story about Bernard Bottle, a kind and mild-mannered art dealer who has a terrible day before discovering a Genie who helps resolve his Christmas woes.  Rowan Atkinson is hysterical as Bernard’s evil boss, and Lenny Henry absolutely ebullient as the genie, Josephus, whose attempts to come to grips with the modern world had me rolling around on the floor with laughter the first time I saw it.  “THE KITTENZ!”

Chosen by Aya Vandenbussche

In complete contrast to Bad Santa, Elf is soaked in childish Christmasness and it’s wonderful. Will Ferrell’s comic talent, charm and charisma knows no limits and he is, to me, the perfect person to portray a gigantic magical child with a heart so big it swallows me whole.

Love Actually
Chosen by Leslie McMurtry with the support of Aya Vandenbussche

A later and more commercially successful Richard Curtis, this colorful film was a glimpse of the real, contemporary UK long before I ventured to these shores.  Therefore, the identities of Ant and Dec and Michael Parkinson did not make sense to me at the time.  With an all-star cast, the film does not entirely succeed in wrapping up the stories of its many, interconnected protagonists, with some of them coming off as much less profound than others.  Nevertheless, the most important stories are also the most complex and heartfelt.  There is a streak of insane optimism running through this that steadies the tearful sentimentality spun up by the opening lines of Hugh Grant, playing the Prime Minister.  It warms the cockles, as they say.

Nightmare Before Christmas
Chosen by Aya Vandenbussche, Leslie McMurtry approves

Ho such magical film! I love Jack Skellington and his good intentions that go wrong; it’s the story of my life. I love the animation, the music and the combined forces of Halloween and Christmas which create together a different kind of Christmas, and maybe a different kind of Halloween. 

Christmas Eve on Sesame Street
Chosen by Leslie McMurtry

Probably few adults could stomach this now, but having grown up with it, it’s difficult to imagine Christmas without Cookie Monster trying to call Santa Claus and accidentally eating the phone.  The songs have an incomparable warmth to them, from the joyous, united “True Blue Miracle,” to the heartrending “Keep Christmas with You,” which never fails to elicit tears from me.  Also of note is Grover interviewing small children about how they think Santa gets down chimneys. 

Chosen by Aya Vandenbussche, Leslie McMurtry agrees

There are not enough words and phrases for me to express my love for Bill Murray. He is by far my favourite Scrooge, and I say that with all the love to Michael Caine, Albert Finney and all other great actors who portrayed him. The difference of Murray is that he makes Scrooge loveable right from the start, even before the ghosts appear and his past is revealed. While all other Scrooges start as intimidating and gradually soften as the story progress, Bill Murray has a kind of magic that makes me fall in love with him despite his initial nastiness. Moreover, to this day, Scrooged still makes me laugh so much, and laughter, as you know, is an important element of Christmas films.
A Muppet Family Christmas
Chosen by Leslie McMurtry

I only discovered this two years ago, when a friend said he and his family watched it without fail every Christmas.  Not an overly sentimental guy, my friend, so I was intrigued.  Bringing in the characters from Sesame Street, Baby Muppets, The Muppet Show, and Fraggle Rock, there isn’t much of a plot as such—just loads and loads of hilarious gags and tons of singing—nearly every kind of Christmas song and carol is explored, brought together in rollicking, joyous style that only the Muppets could achieve.  “Even weirdoes were cute when they were babies!”

A Muppet Christmas Carol
Chosen by Leslie McMurtry and Aya Vandenbussche

Unlike other choices, this film, for me, is exclusively for Christmas. There is something about it that I am not sure would have the same effect any other time of year. This doesn't take away from how much I love this film. On top of the well-known and loved Muppets there are other gorgeous creatures unique to this film. I particularly liked the Ghost of Christmas Present which seemed to evolve into a version of Santa as it progresses through the story. I absolutely adore Gonzo as Charles Dickens in the role of the storyteller. It is a lovely addition that I haven’t seen in other Christmas Carol adaptations. It gives the whole film more of a cosy-sitting-by-the-fire kind of feel, which is strangely more Dickensian in mood than one would expect from a Muppet version of a Christmas Carol. Perhaps this is why it is the one film that, for me, is reserved for Christmas only.

I don’t know if Dickens would have ever considered that adding songs and puppets to his story could improve it, but both meld together with this most Christmas-y of tales seamlessly.  Gonzo playing Dickens himself works wonderfully.  Michael Caine is menacing but also full of pathos as Scrooge, and as every good Christmas Carol should be, it’s both elating and terrifying.  Stadler and Waldorf as the Brothers Marley is something they just about get away with.  It’s difficult to reach the end without shedding a tear.

It's a Wonderful Life
Chosen by Leslie McMurtry and Aya Vandenbussche (and probably by many others)

This is shown on Christmas Eve every year in the US.  Most of the time I would only get home in order to see the last half hour, so it wasn’t until I saw the whole film that I appreciated how good it really was.  There is as much that’s dark about this story as there is that’s sentimental, and perhaps that’s why it succeeds so well.  The humour and the happy ending create such joy.  The story at the heart creates such poignancy.  Jimmy Stewart’s performance is as wonderful as it is deathless.  It is also a well-made film, with techniques ahead of its contemporaries, even the meta Holiday Inn.    Bedford Falls is the perfect setting for a morality play where the bad guy wins but ultimately loses. 

Christmas isn’t Christmas without It’s a Wonderful Life. For many years It’s a Wonderful Life was, for me, simply a wonderful film with the most wonderful Jimmy Stewart, for whom I would build a time machine so I can go back in time and marry him. That there was a Christmas element to the film was accidental, and as someone who grew up without it, it didn’t mean very much. Its genuine spirit of kindness and idealism, and for me the power of Jimmy Stewart, is what makes this film timeless.

So there you have it, Leslie’s and my choices of films to watch during the Christmas time. You could argue the Christmasness of some of these films, but I think they all have something in common other than being our favourites of the season; they all give us that  feeling that looks just like Jimmy Stewart 1.10 minutes into this clip. 


Wednesday, 14 December 2011

The Revelation of Hugo.

I went to watch Hugo with very little knowledge of what the film is about and I think the impact was very strong. So if you haven't seen the film and haven't looked at its IMDB go watch the film and then come back and read this. Don't say I didn't warn you. 

Let me begin by saying that no one I know hates 3D more than I do. I have already deployed my personal battle with 3D glasses in the account of My Avatar esperience, but my detestation of 3D is deeper and stronger; you see, I think films shouldn't be in 3D at all. The magic of films, for me, is its fantasy, not its reality. A film's dimensions are in its character, its story and what it might have to say, not the parading of Sony’s latest product. As someone who values visuallity as much as I do, and tends to feel others dismiss it to easily, I get quite emotional about it, and I vowed never to watch a 3D film unless I know of a really good reason for the 3D. I kept my promise and even with my eternal love for David Tennant and Marti Noxon, I am still waiting for Fright Night to come out on DVD, because I couldn't find and 2D screening of it. It’s a matter of principal; I refuse to contribute the extra money, people are forced to pay, to support this awful fad.  

My heart sank when I heard Martin Scorsese, one of my favourite directors, saying he wished he could use 3D technology on Taxi Driver. A horrible scenario of Scorsese joining the Lucas and Cameron gang in chewing their old films into a pulp puking them out and presenting them again as a 3D remakes. I sighed as something inside me died and added Hugo to the list of films for DVD and Scorsese to the list of directors that Christopher Nolan and I will wave our fists at.

There is a point to this lengthy introduction, other than ranting about 3D, I promise. It was a combination of not having to pay for the film, the endless raving I have heard about the use of 3D and Scorsese's own words assuring me there was a really good reason for it, which brought me to finally watch Hugo, and I even decided to keep an open mind about the 3D of it all.

From the first frame I realised I was facing something new; every corner of every frame of Hugo is designed with 3D in mind, from stunning frame composition to awe-inspiring camera movements, like no other film I have seen before. The difference of Hugo is that it doesn’t use 3D for special effects; it uses it for the sake of 3D, it falls in love with it in the same way Scorsese fell in love with cinema, and against my will so did I.

Going to see Hugo I had very little clue, as I later discovered, as to what the film is really about. All I knew of it is that it's a Scorsese film, it’s in 3D and there were no 2D screenings of it and it’s about a boy, the actor I knew from the quite terrible The Boy in the Striped Pijamas, who lives in a train station. Because of my crusade against 3D, I didn’t even look at its IMDB, and it's a good thing I didn't, because one glance on IMDB and the effect the revelation of the film had over me would have been lost. A revelation is what the Hugo experience was for me.

The cinematic references and quotes, the historical comparison and Georges Mêliés are so accurate to the film and it is no longer a film about a boy in a train station, it's film history lesson that acknowledges, loves and is deeply grateful to the film pioneers. Hugo expresses a lot of ideas and references, specifically the famous train arriving at a station film, which represent the kind of muses I had about 3D in times of breaks from despising it, not all my musing about 3D are negative. Hugo is also very much a Martin Scorsese film; it takes its time, it lingers and it enjoys doing it and I enjoyed lingering with it, soaking every second and wanting more.
Hugo is how it should be and it can't be any other way. It is the only film that shouldn't be watched any other way but in 3D, but make no mistake dear reader, my views about 3D have not changed that much. I stand by what I wrote in the introduction, with passion, and I will not hesitate to turn my back at Scorsese should he ever commit the crime of remaking any of his old films as 3D. I will continue to choose 2D screenings and push films that don’t have that option to DVD viewing. Even if Hitchcock himself came back to life and decided to continue his 3D experiments... Well, maybe I'll make an exception for Hitch, especially if he came back to life, but my point is that Hugo is one of a kind and I think it should stay that way. 

There is no way for me to explain the impact of its 3D, particularly the incredible use of it with the old Georges Mêliés films, which caused me palpitations and fits of joy, had over me. I doubt there will be many other films that can or should recreate that.  


Monday, 12 December 2011

From Russia With Love

“I have thought long and hard about the disaster that has overtaken my life and about the fate of my book. I wrote about ordinary human beings, about their pain, their joys, their mistakes and their deaths, and now I am forced to ask, why the whole power of the state has been used to forbid publication? To steal my book from me and hide it like a convicted murderer? It contains no lies or slanders, only truth, pain and love for human beings.

This post is about the radio 4 dramatisation of Life and Fate and the spoilers in it are mainly thematic. I have put a spoiler alert where I thought it might be necessary. 

Being born when I was and raised where I was, my knowledge of the Second World War came form the books, films and education I was provided with, which primarily told the stories of the UK, the US, the Jewish people and of course Germany. It disappoints me to comprehend how little I know of the country which it is doubtful the war could have been won without.

Despite having a crucial part in bringing the war to an end, unlike the UK and the US, who tell a story of victory, Russia’s story is different. Russia is hurting, confused and broken. Its involvement in the war, like its political positions and ideologies, were a lot more complex and problematic than those of the other countries who fought Nazi Germany.

Though I have an interest in Russian literature and history, I can’t really say that this was what made me listen to the radio dramatisation of Vasily Grossman’s epic novel Life and Fate. I also confess I was always a bit suspicious of radio dramas; they seemed archaic and unnecessary in a time of television. Only recently I have been getting to know and cherish this exceptionally beautiful form of telling a story. Therefore, I admit that the main incentive for me to listen was the Tennant/Branagh factor. To have these two extraordinary Shakespearian actors together in the same drama, radio or not, was something I had to experience.

Life and Fate, in its adaptation for the radio, is an eight hours dramatisation divided into 13 radio plays, which took over the drama slots of radio 4 in the course of a week in September. Though there is an order to the chain of events of the different plays, they each stand alone as an independent story. The main characters, the Shaposhnikov family and Viktor Shtrum (Kenneth Branagh) have an arc that spreads over several plays. In between those plays, are seemingly unrelated plays, like Journey, with never-to -be-repeated characters. These plays ostensibly give a more generic overview of a time and a place, but in effect create an emotional and at times disturbing intimacy that has a depressingly chilling impact.  

The episodic nature of the Life and Fate adaptation, interweaving arc stories with stand alone stories creates a sense of fragments of life and fractions of fate, pieced together to portray a sad but honest, painful but loving, remarkable picture of Russia and its people at the Second World War.   
Listening to Life and Fate I felt there was something quite different about it in comparison with other Russian work I have encountered before. Yet at the same time it gave a sense of capturing a true character of a certain time and place. It is hard for me to put my finger on what it is exactly that makes Life and FateLife and Fate lacks intellect; it has a lot of love towards it and within the Russian image, it highly values it. different. Perhaps its tone was more personal and tender, while other Russian literature often feels like a flood of overwhelming pure intellect without mercy. This doesn’t mean that

The criticism towards Stalin, and the hatred and fear towards Nazi Germany are clear. However, the sobering process of facing the truth behind Stalinism is not easy and not obvious.  Life and Fate is not angry or dogmatic; it is hurting, it is conflicted, heartbroken and full of sorrow and compassion as it painfully reveals that the communist party and its leader are not what they promised to be and probably have a lot more in common with Nazi Germany than anyone who had genuine optimistic belief in them is willing or even capable of believing. Life and Fate has taken the side of the people rather than the nation, which might not be a very communist thing to do, but it makes for a compelling and incredibly moving drama.

It might be David Tennant and Kenneth Branagh that made me want to listen to Life and Fate’s radio adaptation in the first place, but it was the extensive outstanding cast that made me listen to it twice. Both Tennant and Branagh are fantastically sweeping as Nikolai Krymov and Viktor Shtrum, and both characters broke my heart in very different ways. However, the rest of the cast does not fall behind with incredible performances from Greta Scacchi, who plays Lyuda, Janet Suzman, who plays Anna Shtrum and many more excellent performances. Being more used to visual kind of acting I was amazed just how much the vocal nuances, tone of voice and the actual contents of the plays has helped me in conjuring the characters and situations in my mind. The revelation of the dramatisation and the actress that really caught my ear and captured my heart is Raquel Cassidy who plays the magnificent and unique Zhenya Shaposhnikov. Minor spoiler alert: hers and Krymov’s love story is romantic without the romance, dramatic without drama and intimate without them ever being together in the same place at the same time. I am a sap for a great love story and theirs is horrible and wonderful at the same time. End of minor spoiler.

I know the subject matter of Life and Fate is heavy and mostly depressing, to put it mildly, and though I love me a depressing story, especially in winter, I understand that it might not be very appealing, but as much as it may be a tragic story, if you let it, it will wrap you with its loving Russian hug and keep you warm where it really matters.  

Thursday, 1 December 2011

No Need for a Bigger Boat.

After putting Avatar to shame with my words of scorn in my previous post, I thought it only fair, for the sake of balance, that I should donate some words of praise for James Cameron. After all I wouldn’t care so much about how bad Avatar was if I didn’t think Cameron was capable of a lot better.

Although I am a great fan of the first two Terminator films, the others are not worth mentioning, and Aliens, I chose to write of the less obvious Cameron film, and less popular amongst fans of the other films; Titanic. I think Titanic has a lot more in common with the "funkier" films than their "cool" fans would probably like to admit, but at the same time I think it is a different kind of film within the Cameron repertoire, which is why I love it that little bit more.

Like Terminator 2: Judgement Day before it and Avatar after, the making of Titanic involved groundbreaking technology, built especially for the film. The most exciting technical accomplishment of Titanic, for me, was the special camera, built by, behind the scene brother, Davy Cameron and the special lighting equipment that allowed the incredible underwater filming of the real remains of the Titanic at the beginning of the film, and the above and under water filming for the scenes in which Rose saves Jack.

Of course Titanic was also a celebration of CGI and special effects galore, but my knowledge of it, as I mentioned previously, is limited and I have no idea if the use of CGI in Titanic was in any way novel or innovative. I do, however, think that the use of the CGI and SFX in the film was effective and more importantly didn’t steal focus form the film. Whether you love or hate Titanic, the discourse around the film, at the time it was shown, didn't focus on the shiny effects quite as much as it was with a certain other box office record breaker by the same filmmaker.

Not that the technological side of Titanic went unnoticed. The ship sure took its time with its magnificent sinking, but perhaps Titanic most remarkable technological triumph is the use of the most advanced technology of the time without actually showing it off. Well, maybe a little bit by giving a sneak preview of what's to come with the digital simulation of the drowning at the beginning of the film. Still, it is quite different to how it is used in Cameron's other films. While Terminator 2 displays the melting abilities of a new and improved terminator and Avatar parades the creation of Pandora out of nothing, Titanic uses its technology to proudly exhibit a past, and make it bigger and arguably better.

Despite its astonishing technological achievements and its visual tour de force, I think what probably puts the fans of the “cooler” films, off Titanic is the same thing that attracted so many weepy teenage girls to watch it over and over again, for it was famously a film that people, girls mainly, returned to watch more than once at the cinema; the over the top, larger than life love story.

Indeed when it comes to kitsch Titanic is up there with the sunsets and the sunrises, the beaches and the wind in the hair. I admit, I am a lover of the kitsch and the over the top drama and can easily get carried away with it into a random horizon. However, more than kitsch itself I love to watch when someone like James Cameron changes its rules without loosing its power and impact. 

Sorry Leo, not my type, but we can still be friends.
It may seem a bit silly today, but when Titanic came out things were different: the twin towers were still going strong, the president of the most powerful country in the world was getting sexual favours under his desk and Leonardo DiCaprio was Hollywood's flavour of the month. You may not remember, but, at the beginning of his career, DiCaprio was very much a poster boy, and not the kind of poster I would decorate my wall with, far too blond. He was most famous for What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, in which he did some acting, but for me no one other than Johnny Depp existed in that film, and Leo did not make a good impression on me by trying to steal Depp’s thunder and Oscar nomination; The Basketball Diaries, which was a film tailored for Hollywood’s up and coming pretty boy; and Romeo + Juliet, which felt to me like a lame attempt to make Shakespeare sexy for youth, and not even one of his great plays I thought. 

Leonardo DiCaprio seemed very much like a natural choice to star in the next big romantic love story, but while the fragile Clair Danse seemed like a perfect match for Leo, in 1997 I could never imagine Kate Winslet, then famous mainly for Sense and Sensibility, anywhere within spitting distance from DiCaprio. Even less as the star of what would become Hollywood’s biggest block buster until Avatar came and ruined everything. 

Little did I know just how much I would come to love DiCaprio and Winslet, together and apart. Leonardo DiCaprio, though still too blond for my liking, is one of the finest actors to come out of Hollywood in my opinion, and that Kate Winslet didn’t make it to my list of gorgeous women in films is a testimony of my own stupidity and neglect. She is by far one of my favourite actresses today, and I hang my head in shame for forgetting her.  

Considering Cameron’s fondness of cool, strong women, who save the day, Kate Winslet, in hindsight, is not a surprising choice for the role. Nevertheless Kate Winslet and Rose the character she plays in Titanic are quite different to the other Cameron women. While Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) in the Terminator films and Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) in Aliens lived in times where women could be cool, strong and wear combat trousers and sexy vests, they were athletic, trained and had some day saving experience, Rose was a cool woman at a time when the idea of independent women still scared many women as well as most men. 

Rose was intelligent and opinionated, yet dignified within her social class. She was curvy, feminine and unlikely to have had any kind of combat training, yet she is resourceful, brave and surprisingly strong, physically as well as anything else. First she grabs Jack with one hand and pull him from the front to the back seat of the car they were sitting in, and then, later in the film, she goes back to save him, while wearing a most unpractical gown for rescuing people. It gets even less practical as she walks in deep water and the gown gets heavier and harder to move in, yet she does this while carrying an axe! Now that’s what I call a badass woman. I would like to see Ripley fighting aliens wearing a layered dressed. 

Karen Gillan think running around in a mini skirt is hard! Ha!
In most of Cameron’s film the woman is usually the one who saves the day and the men, but to do that they become tough and aggressive. The nature of Titanic as a love story and a period drama, amongst other thing, together with Winslet's natural look, makes Rose softer than Cameron’s other women, but that doesn't make her less tough or capable. Rose is certainly a woman of valour.

So there you have it, I love Titanic. I love the spectacle of it, it blew my mind at the time, and still does today. I love the over the top drama and love story, it makes me cry every time. I loved all the actors in it, the rhythm and fluidity of the story, the attention to details and the amazing visuallity. I even love the theme song a little bit, but most of all I love Rose.