Thursday, 25 December 2014

All I watch for Christmas...

It's the season of double-issue festive TV Guides.
But what to watch if you don't have an aerial?

We don't have a TV as such, or at least access to traditional broadcast channels. With the season of comfort and joy often being so irrevocably tied-up with childhood memories - one thing that I occasionally miss is festive programming.  Admittedly, those glitzy Christmas Variety specials and perenial film favourites are often better in memory than reality (unless it's Morcambe and Wise, of course), but I wanted to make the effort this year to see some Christmas-themed films in the lead-up to the big day.  Our unchallenged annual Christmas Eve film will always be Love Actually, its impossible-dream cast and wryly-observed comedy overcoming the occasional cloying sentiment and questionable gender-stereotyping.
This year I also managed to get hold of a universally-panned film adaptation of a very special 1983 novel, a mockumentary which sadly drained all the fun out of what should have been a sure-fire concept, an acclaimed remake of a nearly 70 year old classic and a gorgeous, almost description-defying interpretation of a Hans Christian Andersen tale.

Winter's Tale (2014)

This film has received such a drubbing that its a wonder it got its brief cinematic release at all. I read the novel it is based upon while living in a castle in Scotland, a slightly fantastical location which matched the 'just left of reality setting' of the book. It made quite an impression on me, but seemed so unheard of in following years that sometimes I had to wonder if I actually dreamt it.
The film does not deserve the universal abuse; it is an engaging love story well performed by a talented cast with some beautiful sets and cinematography.  But I'm not sure it can fairly be called an adaptation of the book either, which is many times richer in detail, texture and characters than this film could ever be. The screen writer is honest in his admission that they simply took the love story strand from the novel and adapted that, in which case I believe the film succeeds. Bu there is an epic and engrossing story left untold -which doesn't feature unnecessary exposition or a pointless cameo from Will Smith.  And yes, a key part of the film is set at Christmas time, so it qualifies as a festive film.  Don't listen to the reviews - give it a try.

Stalking Santa (2006)

Oh dear. There's nothing like that sinking feeling when a film you've encouraged others to watch with you gradually and irrevocably takes on the dull sheen of excrescence as the running time drags on and on.  A mockumentary about a man who devoting his life to proving the existence of Santa, and through his researches discovering evidence in an ancient papyrus scroll, cave paintings and even previously unseen Roswell documentation should have been fun.  And these early sections were.  Unfortunately the other 95% of the film is a trudge through misjudged and laboured gags which just clunk to the floor and lie there like festering mince pies of Christmas Past.  Our main character is not simply uncharismatic, because that's the point, but actually unlikeable in more of a miscast sort of way. Probably aiming for the delicious cringe-style humour of The Office, this might have worked as a half-hour take-off in the vein of Leonard Nimoy's or Arthur C Clarke's 'unexplained' series. But instead Stalking Santa saps every ounce of goodwill by staying too long and trying too hard.

Miracle on 34th Street (1994)

Written and produced by John Hughes, this remake of the 1947 classic could have gone just as disasterously wrong. Definitely a family movie, possibly more child-centric than the original, this has the aesthetic of a production from ten years earlier; from the depths of the 'Wall-Street, braces-wearing' 1980's.
I'm happy to report, however, that this film is delightful and should be a must see for anyone with younger relatives in the lead-up to Christmas. Richard Attenborough is perfectly cast as a man who, although not definitively identified as the real thing, completely convinces you in a film which is after all really about faith in goodness and the power of belief. An important message for any time of the year, especially this one.

The Snow Queen (2005)

Proof that not only was Hans Christian Andersen on drugs, but possibly everyone involved in the making of the this utterly unique production. In fact, even watching it is a rather trippy experience - but in the best possible way.  Unique is a much-overused term, but I honestly can't compare its gorgeous blending of live action and animation to anything I've ever seen before.  Sometimes it's a little like Tron, other times like a vintage hand-tinted silent film but mostly it's a full-blown motion-painting which completely blurs the lines between real and created. For the visuals alone I'd like to own this one myself, but the performances themselves are also enchanting, including the silent Snow Queen herself who gives Angelina Jolie's Maleficent a run for her money.  This is no sanitised, simplified Christian Andersen either, but takes you to some very dark places before good eventually triumphs.  Beyond the wintery setting this film is not overtly Christmassy, but made perfect viewing at the close of the big day itself.

Sadly these recommendations come a little late for this year, but I'll post a reminder in the lead up to Christmas 2015, along with some new additions.  In the meantime, I hope you and your family had a very Merry Christmas - and 'the Stick who Walks' wishes you a happy, healthy New Year.

Saturday, 20 December 2014

Count Down Part 7: The Ghost of Chelsea Present

The Prince of Darkness finds himself in an alternative swinging London of the early 70s; mis-imagined by a venerable studio trying to connect with a world which was leaving it behind.

Dracula AD 1972 only proves that the more things change, the more the stay the same.  Despite the frenetic attempt to dowse every thing in technicolour fashion, misconceived lingo and equally dated music, it's really only the scenes involving Cushing and Lee,  (particularly their confrontations book-ending the film) which bring this instalment to life.  The final showdown, beautifully lit and shot in the decaying remains of a de-sanctified church, betrays none of the film's strained contemporary setting and could as easily be set in this series' glory days of centuries past.  Indeed, each antagonist makes his home in a determinedly unmodern setting: Dracula naturally favours a crypt, while Jessica Van Helsing  decries her grandfather's Victorian home as "a mausoleum".

But there's some work to done before we skip ahead to the best bits.  Let's begin with the positives.  By this stage praising our two leads should be a moot point.  Despite grief having visibly aged Cushing so much that Stephanie Beacham's role had to hastily revised to Van Helsing's granddaughter rather than direct offspring, he still owns every single scene he's in. Gentle and compassionate with Beacham, yet still a steely force to be reckoned with when facing down the undead. Honorable mention must go to Cushing's impromptu pull-up when trying to gain access to the fenced-off Cavern - indeed, in interviews Christopher Neame recalls the bruising he received during his tussle with the veteran actor.

Peter Cushing plays (a) Van Helsing for the first time in 12 years.
Lee actually gives voice to some of Bram Stokers original dialogue (probably at the actor's own insistence) and despite giving yet another faultlessly convincing performance as Hammer's greatest anti-hero, publicity stills and behind the scenes footage suggest that he was not having the time of his life.

Come on Chris, if this doesn't make you happy, what will?
Having been vocal about his desire to leave the role behind since the early 60s, why did Lee keep returning again and again to Hammer's Dracula films? This excerpt from an interview with Director John Landis reveals the answer:
"I would say, "Forget it, I don't want to do another one." (Then) I'd get a call from Jimmy Carreras (President of Hammer films) in a state of hysteria and he'd say: "No, you have to do it... because I've already sold it to the American distributor with you playing the part.  Think of all the people you know so well, that you will put out of work!" Emotional blackmail.  That's the only reason I did them."
So we can now add 'martyr' to Sir Christopher Lee's many achievements.

It's the festive season, and I find myself unwilling to dwell uncharitably on this film's less successful elements. Actually, in all honesty, element is more accurate.  I have no problem with Hammer taking 'Drac to the future', especially as it reunites its two stars in their legendary roles for the first time since 1959.  But I just wish the production team didn't feel they had labour the setting so much.  The interminable performance by short-lived band Stoneground at the beginning is an embarrassing toe-curler of the first order, while the dialogue spoken by the younger stars sounds like a middle-aged screen writer's lazy sketch of Hippy-speak, with few lines left unappended by the word 'man'. The soundtrack is similarly unsubtle, but probably dates better than the other '70s trappings spray-coating this otherwise worthy addition to the Dracu-Lee saga.

Caroline Munro just about redeems the cringe-some musical interlude
The performances are all typically of a standard exceeding Hammer script requirements, with Christopher Neame bringing just enough gravitas to disciple Johnny Alucard and Stephanie Beacham showing all the promise which her long career has delivered on. It's always a pleasure to see Caroline Munro, and the tall actress recalls in interviews how she was genuinely afraid of the towering Christopher Lee in their scene together.
But the film's crowning glories are the confrontations between the Count and two different generations of Van Helsings.  The frantic night-time grapple on the runaway coach at the film's start is pure gold - as exciting and well-realised as the climax of any of the previous films - and this is just this beginning.

That wheely hurts: the Count is spoke to
The climactic resolution of this film is beautifully shot, the surreal lighting giving the impression that stills from this sequence have been somehow hand-tinted.  Hammer films are modern morality plays and naturally good triumphs, the battered but determined Van Helsing using a shovel to force the struggling King vampire onto a concealed bed of stakes in surprisingly gritty, but satisfying conclusion.

Not painted from 'life'
History seems to remember this film as an unsuccessful experiment, which is certainly odd as it had a direct sequel the following year, so faithful to AD 1972 that together they make a splendid two-part adventure.  But more about Lee's final bow as Hammer's Dracula next time.

It's only five more sleeps to Christmas, and this blog is about to turn very tinselly in the next few days.  I was even hoping to somehow tie Dracula AD 1972 to the festive season, and unsurprisingly failed miserably until it finally occured to me why I like it so much:
"In the seventh part of 'Count Down' Hammer gave to me: 
Peter Cushing, Caroline Munro and Christopher Lee"

And if that isn't a Christmas present worth opening I don't know what is.

Sunday, 14 December 2014

Great Southern Land

Nine sleeps to go, but I received the greatest gift my parents ever gave me in 1972: when my family moved to a tropical Island on the other side of the world

Immigration was a popular pass-time in Scotland, and families were encouraged to up-root themselves and set up new lives in former colonies of the British Empire.  Canada, South Africa and Australia were popular destinations. Contrariness made my Father pick New Zealand, so we were soon jetting towards the one place no-one else was going, or had even heard of.

Our first night in the run-down cottage which was to be our temporary home, my mother sat in the middle of the furniture-less living room and cried.  It was a shock, the change and challenge of building a new life all seemed so huge and she was homesick.  (In years to come, she became a fierce advocate of the kiwi lifestyle and would never entertain returning to Scotland.  There was always a slight gnawing anxiety that my father might want to one day, but despite always pining for the country of his birth, he knew when he had it good).

I was mad about animals, and comfortingly, my new bedroom had cartoon African wildlife on the wallpaper. Throughout that unsettled night, trains rumbled through the rail yards across the road, on their way to even stranger places.

It was March, and the next day dawned hot. People wore shorts, sometimes bare feet. They said ‘Gidday!’ Tar melted on the roads. There were huge palm trees planted along the river banks – this was a tropical island paradise!
It was all in stark contrast to the Scottish town I had grown up in up till then.  Much more of an urban playground, I never really got the opportunity to lift rotten branches and gape in fascination at the variety of critters wriggling and scuttling for cover – the wildlife encountered back home was usually an angry dog who sent me scuttling for cover.
I don’t even remember climbing a tree in that concrete jungle, whereas here we had a whole wood (actually a very modest orchard) outside our own back door. And a tyre swing!  Not in my most fevered imaginings could this ever have come true!

There were overgrown fuscia trees crowding the cottage, the already other-worldly flowers rendered completely alien in livid pinks and purples and an ancient, aromatic lemon tree which attracted all kinds of insects.  I got bee stings from running across the small lawn in bare feet, and was terrified but fascinated at the same time by a tiny jumping spider, because I’d been warned about the poisonous katipo (and have still never seen one).

Initially, school was marginally more terrifying.  I was stood at the front of the class while they were encouraged to guess where I came from.  A barrage of exotic realms were flung at me, before I was buffeted by a lusty recital of  ‘A funny old bird is the kiwi bird’.
I was rubbish at team sports (and still am – the promised bodily co-ordination never arrived) and was always left over after the Captains had picked their soccer teams. But somehow being able to draw made me accepted.  The first time we did some drawing in the classroom my teacher got the teacher from the next classroom, who then got the headmaster to come and watch me scribble ( animals, of course) with an HB pencil on a big sheet of newsprint paper.  My name quickly got shortened to its first three letters by my classmates. I was six, and instantly adopted the lingo and, perhaps to my father’s slight dismay, the accent. Every variety of the Scots accent makes a big thing of the ‘r’ sound, whereas Kiwi’s seemed determined to make it an endangered species.  Fair enough – so in Godzone I did as the Godzonans do.

In the year of our arrival, at least, Blenheim had an odd post-war timelessness about it.  Women wore sun frocks, men wore hats and giant wooden butterflies adorned the outside walls of houses. Some older people called England ‘home’, a Mother country they’d never been to, while younger generations didn’t seem to think much of ‘Poms’, a description I sometimes got inexplicably tagged with.

Swimming was a huge part of the kiwi lifestyle and my sister and I were quickly enrolled in swimming lessons to learn how to ‘starfish’.  Huge use was made of our school pool but in weekends the destination was something which sounded to my foreign ears like ‘the town bars’.  It took me ages to realise that the last word was actually ‘baths’ – a quaintly archaic term for the municipal swimming pool.  Unlike Scottish Pools this one was outdoors, no cloying pall of chlorine, queasily tepid water and conditioned air or weird muffled acoustics, but swimming as nature intended - in the fresh air and sunshine.  This is a passion which has stayed with me always, despite water temperature and shark documentaries.  After hours in the cool blue water, my school friends and I would lie stretched out on the sun-warmed tiles by the poolside drying and browning (or reddening) at an equal rate.

Beaches were ‘down the Sounds’ (the Marlborough Sounds were actually north of us, but you went ‘down them’.  'Up the Lake’ was Lake Rotoiti, due south in the Nelson Lakes National Park
We joined another family on a holiday ‘down the Sounds’, in an incredibly run-down batch.  I poured over my pride and joy – the A to Z of New Zealand animals and looked forward to ticking off as many as I could.  I caught my first fish, an undersized ‘spotty’ who had to be instantly released, and cried all the way back to shore.

The sun still shone in wintertime, my Mother marveled at the way the sky could be cloudless and the sun blazing, while the temperature plummeted past zero and the grass frosted white.  Mice moved into our house, another species for me to be fascinated by.
A long-gone Homestyle bakery on the other side of the railway tracks layered our chilly semi-industrial neighbourhood with the irresistible aroma of fresh bread.

Summer came again and we discovered berry fruit, not the brambles and blackberries we’d been used to, but strawberries and boysenberries.  Perhaps we couldn’t always afford them, because my Mother announced that she’d heard sliced tomatoes sprinkled with sugar tasted just like strawberries, and we were going to try it.  When asked for my verdict I replied innocently and with a complete lack of the smart-arsed-ness which my Mother often characterised me by: “It tastes like tomatoes with sugar on them.”

We finished our first year in New Zealand at ‘the Lake’ sharing Christmas dinner with new friends while the sun blazed outside and small boats dotted the sparkling water.  We were as far as physically possible from our own extended family, and the seasonal comfort and joy was inevitably tinged with home-sickness for Mum and Dad, but my sister and I were utterly, bare-footedly, pavolva-lovingly converted.

My parents brought us from the other side of the world to find a better life, and in that one brave, scary, strange and utterly wonderful year everything changed.  Anything of value I now have, or can call myself blessed to have experienced,  I can trace back to that courageous decision they made, in far-away 1972.

Saturday, 6 December 2014

On the Third Long Play of Christmas

Third time's the charm? It's time once again for the gift which really does seem to bring more joy in the giving than the receiving...

It's a shorter Christmas album this year, we're going for quality over quantity (ahem - and also trying to make sure that the disk actually plays). But as usual it's been fun trying to track down those Christmas singles by surprisingly familiar artists which you probably haven't heard before (or ever wanted to)...

1. It doesn't often snow at Christmas (The Pet Shop Boys, 2009)
This is a 2009 commercial version of a Christmas single previously only available to the Pet Shop Boys' fan club - and is as orchestrally sparse and understated as you might expect from them.  I jest, of course, it's a production number of colossally camp proportions and quite brilliant. Cue drum machine, choir, bells and , er ... trumpet solo!

2. Joy (Tracey Thorn, 2012)
From the unmistakable Ms Thorn's fourth solo album Tinsel and Lights, Joy is a family effort: featuring her husband and the other half of 'Everything but the Girl', Ben Watt, with backing vocals by their three children.  Actually, the whole album is wonderful, watch out for her on next year's playlist...

3. Christmas-time (Don't Let the Bells End) (The Darkness, 2003)
The Darkness are often accused of sounding 'just like Queen', but there are far worse charges which a band could face.  Certainly, the guitar is classic Brian May, but could that be school-boyish parody lurking within the boisterous lyrics?  I couldn't possibly comment - just enjoy 'the best Christmas single Queen never made'. (Thanks Peter)

4. Silver Bells (She and Him, 2011)
The 'adorkable' and multi-talented actress Zooey Deschanel formed a duo called She and Him with musician Matt Ward, when he learned that she sang and wrote songs but never pursued a musical career.  In this stripped-down version of the perenial favourite, Deschanel picks her way unhurriedly through the song while accompanying herself on the ukelele.  Cute as a button, much like the lady herself.

5. Baby Please come Home (Darlene Love, 1963)
U2 have also recorded this Phil Spector hit, but this album is about Christmas, not you, Bono - so we have the original Darlene Love version.  One reason why is that  "...nobody can match Love's emotion and sheer vocal power" according to Rolling Stone magazine, and who are we to argue? Speaking of Bonos, however, the percussion on this track is credited to one with the first name Sonny, with backing vocals by a lady needing no second name: Cher.

6. Merry Christmas (I Don't Want to Fight Tonight) (Ramones, 1987)
This is 'our' song, as Rose and I invariably fight while engaged in that most peaceful and good-willing act of the year: decorating the Christmas Tree. (Last year was an exception: I toppled off a stool while adjusting the crowning star, instead, and broke a toe)
The point is: who'd have thought it would take a pioneering Punk Band to remind us of the true meaning of the season: peace on earth, at least for one night...

7. What Christmas Means to Me (Stevie Wonder, 1967)
What is Christmas without some Motown?  This song is particularly moving when you consider that Stevie Wonder is lovingly describing festive iconography he was never able to perceive himself.  Wonderous indeed.

8. Please come home for Christmas (The Eagles, 1978)
Don Henley on vocals backed by Joe Walsh on guitar - what else could you want for Christmas? The first Christmas song to reach the US Billboard top 20 in 15 years when it was released, and you can hear why.

9. All I want for Christmas (Styx, 2002)
These legendary rockers have toured with the likes of Boston, Foreigner and REO Speedwagon, which is a surely Seventies music fan's idea of Christmas.  In this track Glam rock makes its traditional album appearance this year - feel free to stomp around in your platforms to the glittery beat - you know you want to.

10. 2000 Miles (The Pretenders, 1983)
A Chrissie present! (sorry.)
The Pretenders are instantly recognisable and rightfully legendary . This song, about distance not always being overcome in efforts to be together at Christmas-time, is a little mournful; but no-one does bitter-sweet like Chrissie Hynde.

11. Last Christmas (Manic Street Preachers, 2003)
The Manics need no introduction in our house, we've enjoyed the Welsh rockers for years.  I've never been able to love the simpering Wham original of this ubiquitous Christmas chestnut, but the Manic Street Preachers' unplugged version is sublime. It deserves the applause.

12. Snoopy's Christmas (The Royal Guardsmen, 1967 )
'Nuff said. Except: Merry Christmas, my friend!