Life There is only one thing that I actually know that everyone else doesn't; the secret to good lasagna is to spread soft cheese on the pasta sheets.
This can't be it, I muse. In 34 years this can't be it. I ask my husband. He says of course there is more I know, and promptly turns over and goes to sleep. On Skype my brother (perhaps wisely) pretends not to have heard the question. My mother is blunter, "answering that question sounds like something I would do if I had a death wish".
I do not know big things. Instead I know little things. My mother, when she is navigating truth bombs, always says "you only do today once". It is the little things that make the days richer. The moments when you sit with a cup of coffee and look at the pot plant outside that, despite all your efforts, survived the autumn. It's the satisfaction of a perfectly painted fingernail.
These are the little things you should know;
*Know how you like to take your coffee. Don't pretend. Having coffee the way you like it in the morning is one of life's simple pleasures
*Learn how to use emoticons. Technology is not to be feared
*Turn your TV down two notches. The reason you and your neighbour aren't friends is because your TV is on too loud
*When the winter light streams through your window at 4pm stop what you are doing and enjoy it. Winter might be cold, wet and sniffily but it has the best light of the year
*Unfollow people on Twitter who talk about themselves in an unfunny way. That doesn't leave you with many options, admittedly, but it is time we stopped enabling each other's navel gazing.
*Smile at people when you wait for them to go past you on a narrow pavement. At worst they are confused. At best they smile back.
*Wear headphones in Asda. Things you will hear in Asda can risk you despising your fellow man. Protect thyself.
*Never pass on the chance for a hug.
*Don't park like a dickhead. Similarly, don't judge people for parking like morons; you only have to deal with them today, they have to live with their inability to park.
*Ring your mother.
You can follow Laura on Twitter @mslaura_brown.
Film And so life in the #garaiwatch goes on, very much as it has this past age. Full of its own comings and goings with change coming slowly, if it comes at all. For things are made to endure in the #garaiwatch, passing from one generation to the next. When I began this a whole month ago it hadn't been with the intention of watching all of Romola's screen output with quite this intensity, but here I am going into week five with at least four films, The Crimson Petal and the White and both series of The Hour still to do. She'd probably think it was mad and a bit obsessive, presumably because it is a bit mad and obsessive, but if nothing else it has been just the thing as I otherwise wade through the treacle of the Doctor Who series 8 boxed set, each episode as uninviting as the last. At least with Torchwood's Miracle Day, it's so rubbish and creatively bankrupt it's possible to watch it with a certain detached irony. The problem with s8 is that it's so close to being good but destroyed by inconsistent and poorly considered creative decisions. a different kind of disappointment. But I digress.
As I think I may have mentioned, once or twice, notably here, I've never been a fan of King Lear, which tends to lose me after the generally quite strange first act and although I've seen some very good productions and the Trevor Nunn version for the RSC starring Sir Ian, Sylv and Romola comes pretty close to at least making me understand why some people think it's Shakespeare's best. Last time I saw this was as part of the plough through the whole canon in 2012 and as then found the studio production understandable but distracting. Garai is Cordelia so is absent for much of the show which must have been an interesting challenge when the show was on tour and as with her appearance in As You Like It, it's just a shame that Shakespeare doesn't give the character more to do. Her absence is structurally important, she's out of Lear's sphere so she's out of ours, but Garai's performance is so much richer than is often the case with this character in production that it's as frustrating as when a really good Ophelia turns up on a Hamlet.
Before all of that was Angel, Ozon's take on the heritage film, which is, well it's ...
Watching Ozon's Angel. Unremittingly horrible. Romola's giving a very good impression of a bad actress. I think that's what she's doing.
— Stuart Ian Burns (@feelinglistless) November 30, 2014
This is my evening. How's yours? #garaiwatch pic.twitter.com/zoCCDWpBiw
— Stuart Ian Burns (@feelinglistless) November 30, 2014
Not you too Fassbender. #garaiwatch pic.twitter.com/uF4jiC5ptl
— Stuart Ian Burns (@feelinglistless) November 30, 2014
Fassbender gives an excellent impression of what it was like to watch the last series of Doctor Who. #garaiwatch pic.twitter.com/Lvph4JoVKS
— Stuart Ian Burns (@feelinglistless) November 30, 2014
Oh up, war just broke out. #angel #garaiwatch
— Stuart Ian Burns (@feelinglistless) November 30, 2014
This bloody thing is still on. Romola is channeling the actress Elizabeth Taylor in a film based on the author Elizabeth Taylor. #garaiwatch
— Stuart Ian Burns (@feelinglistless) November 30, 2014
Well, either that or both of Shakespeare Sister. #garaiwatch pic.twitter.com/ckMfLUYsR8
— Stuart Ian Burns (@feelinglistless) November 30, 2014
Noel Fielding cameo. #garaiwatch #angel pic.twitter.com/kvVKfaJr42
— Stuart Ian Burns (@feelinglistless) November 30, 2014
Oh it's finished. Atonement tomorrow then. #garaiwatch
— Stuart Ian Burns (@feelinglistless) November 30, 2014
Atonement is fascinating though to properly discuss why, I'll need to spoil it, so I'd skip to the next paragraph. I'd also skip the One Day paragraph too if you've not read that book or novel. Glancing about the general impression with Atonement seems to be that people feel cheated by the ending, that it doesn't provide the expected catharsis, and it's true on first viewing it is possible to feel aggrieved that having been shown the central couple piecing their life back together to have that blown away does leave a nasty taste, especially since the "reality" is shown in montage. But on second viewing, I see it as a very daring approach to the material and one which shifts Joe Wright's film squarely out of the mainstream period picture into art house. Audiences do tend to react badly to this kind of tonal shift, especially if, unlike Inception or Gravity, it's not part of the DNA of the piece to seemingly try and service the opposite sides of the venn diagram at the same time.
When the film was tackled on Newsnight Review back in the day, one of the criticisms was the decision to cast three different actresses as Briony, the sister's whose sexual misconduct allegation leads to the central couple being kept apart. And it's true, especially now, to see Saoirse Ronan growing up into Romola Garai and thence Vanessa Redgrave, three actresses who couldn't look less like each other despite Garai's obvious attempts to recreate some of Ronan's physical performance. Plus Juno Temple remains the same in both ages. But I think what Joe Wright is doing here is extemporising the fact that Briony is a different person in each of these ages with a different understanding of what she did. It's like the Doctor says when his writer had surety of purpose, "We all change. When you think about it, we are all different people, all through our lives and that's okay, that's good! You've gotta keep moving, so long as you remember all the people that you used to be."
But the ending also makes apparent that in fact most of what we see in the film, especially that central relationship is a fiction. When we're shown what happened at the fountain, what we're really seeing is how Briony imagines in the scene played out and every moment, which is why we cut back and forth to her looking out of the window. We're effectively watching a film adaptation within a film adaptation, the version of events as she imagines them as they appear in her final novel. In that way it's more akin to The Usual Suspects or Fight Club, in that the events we witness are a reimagining and it's not until the television interview that we're seeing the truth or something close to it. Having not read the book (obviously), I'm not sure how much of this is from the book, but on screen it puts a lot of demands on the viewer who might not realise that Briony is the protagonist and that everything else that surrounds her is happening inside her imagination and expectation, a heightened reality.
After The Other Man and King Lear, Romola's next release was Glorious 39 which oddly enough has a similar flashback structure to Atonement but is clearer about it. A modern undervalued classic, it's Steven Polikoff once again showing a piece of history from an unusual and original position, in this case the pre-WWII appeasement. There's a weird old piece in The Guardian about how the film's scorn of appeasers is wrongheaded as though we're somehow not allowed to look down upon the ignorance of the past. Essentially Poliakoff's film finds its edginess in its images, of the burning domestic animals, the mansion within existing ruins reminding us that the characters are all part of history which tumbles ever onward, the juxtaposition of steady-cam and honeyed photography with despicable acts. Plus it's something of a reunion, Garai having played opposite a lot of the cast on previous project. Oh and there's David Tennant bringing her Doctor tally up to two, not that there isn't one of her projects that doesn't feature another Who actors of some description.
The charming Emma was next (see trailer above) then into One Day in which she plays what she hoped would be a change, the "comedy bitch" but as she describes in the 2011 Guardian interview, "I thought there'd be a lot of fun in making her a total bitch, but [director] Lone Scherfig doesn't work in those sorts of stereotypes. The character was quite a departure for me and it was great to do comedy, I've never done anything like it before. If the filming experience is anything to go by, that film will have a lovely warmth." She's right. Because the film can't quite decide what it wants to be in general anyway, she's clearly wanting to do one thing but the film pulls her in other directions to the point that she's really quite loveable and given the behaviour of Jim Sturgess's main character Dexter probably understandable. Indeed there's an action towards the end which leads you to actually wonder if her character doesn't have the more interesting story, which might have been a better film, of having to deal with falling in love with a man who already has a lifelong female friendship.
But the film is an adaptation and original writer David Nichols had a different idea which is essentially When Harry Met Sally as romantic tragedy. Which is fine, there's nothing wrong with that, except it's also exceptionally rote in places and the gender politics are up the wall. As friend of the blog Allyn Gibson said to me on Facebook earlier (comments reproduced with permission) (see also), "I have such mixed feelings about that film. It managed to film a book that I'd have thought was unfilmable, and in so doing it brought some of the book's problems to the fore. I didn't realize it when reading the book, but Em isn't much more than an manic pixie dream girl. She gets a little more development than the typical MPDG (we see some of her life beyond Dex, though we never meet her family or friends), but her plot function is essentially the same -- be supportive to the male lead, be unattainable until the male is ready like a motivational tool, and then be available when the male has figured it out. And in case we missed it, Ian underlines all of that for us at the end."
Rereading that, Em's actually an MPDG squared, not just for Dex but also Ian and although she's gifted some agency, the whole Paris trip is from Dex's point of view, we discover with him her new found publishing breakthrough, her move to the continent her finding of a new boyfriend. Then when the unfortunate incident occurs it's a good old fashioned fridging. As I only vaguely noted in my old blog post about the genre, many, many of these films follow this structure of having a male protagonist and a female co-star with marginal agency whose own scenes are almost always in service of the main character's story (see also About Time). That's why something like Celeste and Jesse Forever are such a revelation. They subvert the genre by giving the agency to the female character in a way that they really shouldn't have to. All of which is a terrible shame because Ken Stott as Dex's father is like weaponised Cribbins, especially in the final tv dinners scene. a single line from which and his delivery of will stay with me forever.
How to create a £500 luxury hamper on the cheap:
"Perhaps the most eye-catching is Asda selling a whole leg of Serrano ham, complete with a stand to carve it on, for £39. The cheapest you can find a basic leg from the upmarket Spanish delicatessen, Brindisa, is £115, though if you really want to splash out, Fortnum & Mason is selling an Iberico ham for £1,950. It comes with its own DNA certificate. Yes, really. For that price you could probably salt, cure and serve up Peppa Pig."
This American Life Holiday Sale:
"Hello, friends. We have some new merchandise and sale items available for your holiday shopping needs. The perfect gifts for people who like receiving things!"
Christmas tree growers get ready for the fir to fly:
"Rob Morgan and family at Poundffald farm on the Gower, near Swansea, who grow about 350,000 trees on 120 hectares (300 acres) – including one destined for 10 Downing Street – have been waiting for this moment for months. Last weekend they had a sense of what was coming when half-mile traffic jams built up in their village of Three Crosses as people queued to get to their farm."
Electronic Christmas cards on Tomorrow's World in 1982:
"Peter Macann looks at the bleeping musical cards of the future in this clip from the classic BBC show."
J.K. Rowling’s Christmas Present to You Is More Harry Potter Stories:
"The author announced the new stories in a newsletter to Pottermore members, explaining that each new installment would be posted at 1 pm GMT (8am ET) every day beginning Dec. 12. The email promises “wonderful writing by J.K. Rowling in Moments from Half-Blood Prince, shiny gold Galleons and even a new potion or two.”"
Yule Log 2.0:
"Yule Log 2.0 is back for a second season! Composed of a collection of short films created by illustrators, animators, directors, and creative coders, this site is bringing the traditional Yule Log back and into the digital age. So gather ’round and warm your hearts and hands with us on the web this holiday."
Billy Bob Thornton Was Hammered During Filming And Other Things You Might Not Know About ‘Bad Santa’:
"Generally, Christmas movies tend to cater to the family friendly genre, which is probably why myself and so many others love Bad Santa. It’s the anti-family friendly Christmas movie, trading heartwarming for vulgarity as Billy Bob Thornton plays a perpetually drunk Santa Clause who enjoys anal sex with women in department store dressing rooms. Billy Bob’s foul-mouthed mall Santa and his equally crude elf cleaned up at the box office in 2003 with the movie pulling in $76 million and becoming an instant holiday classic."
The Best Alternative Animated Christmas Movies:
"A camera in virtual motion allows us to follow the journey of a golden train ticket as it ripples, rolls, lifts, drops and swirls like a snowflake across mountain tops, through forests, past packs of wolves before finally resting on the beak of an eagle. It’s a glorious long take, and it’s from Robert Zemeckis' 2004 film, The Polar Express. The sequence is about winter, set amid a larger movie that’s very specifically about Christmas. This sequence, then, is a smart reminder of the visual allure and possibilities available to filmmakers in their depictions of both seasons."
Theatre I need to tell you about an experience I had. But I don’t know where to begin. Does it even have a beginning? It has a dramatic ending, but where is the line between my life before Sleep No More and my experience at the McKittrick Hotel?
When friends or colleagues or acquaintances ask for theatre recommendations, I try to find good fits. Not everyone is going to like non-narrative drama in site-specific locations. Not everyone is going to like text-based dramas done on mainstages. I’m just glad when people ask for theatre recommendations at all.
Those who venture to New York, though, often feel like a requirement of a visit to the Big Apple is a Broadway show. And I can’t argue with that. It’s the city that still makes it feel like you are missing out if you don’t attend the theatre. Where you can be walking along a dozen streets that intersect with Broadway and be unable to move for crowds spilling out of theatres.
Broadway shows are still tricky to recommend. Do you want a musical? An uplifting one or a subversive one? A new show or an institution? Do you maybe want to see a play instead? Does it have to have a famous-famous person in it or is a Broadway-famous person enough? Do you want to get cheap tickets from the booth in Times Square or are you happy to pay Premium prices?
With all these questions, maybe I’m not the right person to ask.
I do have an answer now, though. If you ask me about a not-to-miss show in New York. The answer is Sleep No More.
And if I describe it, well – let me describe it. It’s part-Shakespeare riff, part-Hitchcock homage. It’s non-narrative but you can feel the story in your bones. It’s not just theatre, it’s an experience. And I recommend it because it’s unlike anything else you have ever experienced in live performance.
It’s a warehouse in the Meat Packing District of Manhattan. No, it’s a “renovated” hotel. It’s five stories. It’s spooky rooms and dark corridors. It’s creepy hospital rooms and abandoned bars. It’s an ensemble of actors and dancers who you might encounter in a moment that might easily be described as a blood orgy or, one-on-one, in a tiny room, a phone booth or a crowded bathroom.
You check in and then your experience is different than everyone else’s experience. You are let loose in the McKittrick Hotel. You can explore the space. You can open drawers and cupboards. You can read letters and move furniture. One minute a female actor reclines across you, the next a male actor is whispering a secret in your ear.
Then you’re in a ballroom watching exquisite dancing. Or a feast. Or an execution.
And all from behind a mask. The audience are all masked. And these masks imbue you with anonymity and a strength to immerse yourself into this noir world, with tinges of Macbeth.
I went in knowing that I wanted to throw myself into every opportunity. The friend who went with me was terrified by the whole notion of it. Each of us came out changed by the experience. Me, for finally getting to experience the rich world of a Punchdrunk show, and my friend feeling thrilled to have had a night that redefined what theatre could be for her.
And our experiences of Sleep No More couldn’t have been more different.
You want to know what show to see in New York? Sleep No More. Because no one will ever see the show you’ve seen and you’ll never forget it.
You can follow Keith on Twitter @keithgow. His Doctor Who show, Who Are You Supposed to Be?, is playing at Adelaide Fringe in March 2015.
Photo credited to Robin Roemer.
'What do you call a snowman in the desert?' Comedians test the best Christmas crackers:
"Like the gifts presented to Jesus by the three kings, the merriment contained in a Christmas cracker comes in three parts. Instead of gold, there is a paper hat. Instead of frankincense, there is some kind of item made out of plastic that will be forgotten about within 90 seconds, and instead of myrrh, there is (grits teeth) a joke. We’ve assembled a team of comedians to assess the quality of this year’s Christmas cracker gags, which is rather like getting Marcus Wareing in to judge the quality of an empty plate that a toddler insists contains a cake."
Young farmers pose naked for Christmas cards - all in a good cause:
"Market Bosworth Young Farmers have produced a set of nearly-naked Christmas cards to go with a charity 2015 calendar being sold to raise money in memory of two-year-old Tom Beaumont from Cadeby who died in April 2014 after battling a brain tumour."
Harvey Nichols' budget Christmas campaign relies on smart PR rather than big media spend:
"Harvey Nichols declined to reveal the total budget for its Christmas campaign but it is believed to be a fraction of the £7m spent by John Lewis – and even more by Sainsbury’s. Forget schmaltzy messages of love, peace and goodwill. Harvey Nichols has instead cut to the heart of the matter with the tongue-in-cheek message: get me what I really want for Christmas, or woe betide you – or, in its own words "Could I be any clearer?"
A Preview of the Real Amazon Store:
"Tier two is made of products that are adjacent to the tier-one products. They’re electronics, or electronics accessories, that don’t really get much advertising, unless you count how easily they’re discovered when shopping Amazon for other stuff. These are the best-known of the “Amazon Basics” products. They’re HDMI cables and adapters. They’re cheap things, things that only have to function, usually in a single way, to be satisfactory; they’re also, perhaps not coincidentally, things that physical electronics stores, which Amazon would like to destroy, tend to mark up." [via]
Newspaper Staffers Remember Ex-Colleagues With A "Ghost of Christmas Past" Tree:
"For the past ten years, newsroom staffers have put up a tree and decorated it with photos of former colleagues. “Most are from the past 20 years, but a few go farther back than that,” says design editor Scott Griffin. “We’re up to 183 people now.”"
HRH Duke of Cambridge to unveil Christmas Truce Monument:
"HRH The Duke of Cambridge will attend a dedication ceremony for a monument commemorating the 1914 Christmas Truce at the National Memorial Arboretum in Alrewas, Staffordshire on Friday 12 December 2014."
Houses lighting up Shropshire with Christmas cheer:
"The start of December has heralded the arrival of houses lit and decorated for the festive season. And for some it has become something of a sport, competing with neighbours for bragging rights."
The Bottled Water Taste Test:
"Is expensive water really worth it?"
Politics The one thing that I’ve learned this year isn’t even one thing and I’m also not sure that I’ve finished learning it. It’s a bit like ‘travel broadens the mind, but not half as much as trying to make it work where you are’.
To give some less abstract context, in 2014 I came back to the UK after two years working in the Netherlands. My partner and I had been taking advantage of the freedom of movement within the EU that has become such a vexed issue, and it was absolutely great. Honestly, if you are at the stage in your life where you can take a bit of a risk and you have a skill that’s in any kind of demand, you too can relocate to one of the various beautiful and ancient cities of Europe, have a great time and become a much braver person to boot. You don’t even actually have to go very far. It turns out that Europe was inside you all along - or is it possibly the other way round?
Be warned though, you will find yourself doing the all the half-barking expat things: complaining about imperceptible differences in teabags, explaining to French dudes that mince pies aren’t savoury, becoming a serious fan of The Archers, not understanding why your health insurance doesn’t cover this or that prescription. Obsessing over the Great British Bake Off. Weeping salt tears over the result of Strictly. Missing Britain.
When we came back, nobody seemed to know what Britain was about. Over the summer, we watched the Scottish referendum play out, tense and captivated and totally unable to predict the result. Maybe that would help us work out what 'British' meant? No, as it turned out.
Obviously, this is just a wild stab in the dark, but I think that what 'British' is [might be, could be, should aim towards?] is an acknowledgement that your identity is a complicated accident of history, made up of compromises and triumphs and travesties. The multiple strands in a British identity are inclusive and, if you’ll forgive an extended textile metaphor, this makes the whole thread stronger and creates a much more interesting weave.
I’m worried and saddened by the isolationist right wing, who see the British identity as a way to differentiate Us from Them. I can’t see things their way. I mainly see a whole world of people who have more in common than they have to separate them. I see the causes of inequality somewhere different to where the right wing see them. The one thing I hope to learn in 2015 is how to make my voice heard clearer and stronger than theirs.
You can follow @ellielabelle on Twitter here. She's also the writer of The Hand Knitted Pirate blog.
Stars In Their Eyes - Christmas Special 1992:
"Stars in their Eyes Christmas Special recorded from ITV in 1992. Favourites from the first 2 series join together to perform a special version of Do They Know it's Christmas."
Taste test: the cast of Mother Goose rate the best festive fizz:
"The opening, last night, had been a triumph. The first schools matinee, this afternoon, met with near-riotous approval (the kids, wildly excited, had just piled out of the doors). And this evening, there is no show. So were the cast of Mother Goose, the Hackney Empire’s gloriously raucous annual Xmas pantomime, up for blind-tasting a few bottles of seasonal fizz, from basic supermarket plonk to one of the best bubblies in town? Oh yes they were …"
Christmas 2014: 14 best turkeys:
"Finding the perfect turkey is the first step to a memorable Christmas Day. But with so many on the market, choosing the best festive bird can be mind-boggling. This is not helped by the myriad of differing needs that families have. Whilst some want frozen, others want fresh. Whilst some want just a crown, others want a huge, whole bird to feed hoards of hungry relatives. And for many, the most important factor of all is that the bird has been treated well."
18 Surreal “Star Wars” Scenes From A Galaxy Not So Far Away:
"Artist Thomas Dagg has found unique and subtle way to incorporate Star Wars into seemingly ordinary modern scenes."
All your secret santa woes are over, with The 12 Rubbish Novelty Mugs Of Christmas:
"It’s the most wonderful time of the year: the time to buy something a bit cack for the office secret santa, or for family members you know next to nothing about. The perfect solution: an ‘amusing’ mug!"
New York Christmas Tree Lit Up:
"The giant Christmas Tree in New York's Rockefeller Center was lit up after a ceremony that included performances from Trisha Yearwood and Mariah Carey."
"Bing Crosby dreamt of it, children wish for it but what counts as a white Christmas and how likely is it to happen? BBC Weather's Sarah Keith-Lucas explains."
Newly discovered letter reveals what really happened during the 1914 Christmas Day truce:
"The Christmas truce may have become one of the defining episodes that shapes our perception of trench warfare in the First World War, but a recently discovered letter shows how the event impacted on the soldiers on the front line in 1914. "
The New Statesman Christmas campaign 2014: end the detention of women seeking asylum:
"This year’s NS online Christmas campaign supports for Women for Refugee Women, a charity set up by longtime contributor Natasha Walter. The NS has covered the conditions at the Yarl’s Wood detention centre before, for example in this piece by Laurie Penny; this by Caroline Criado-Perez and this by Alan White. It is shocking that women who have often experienced sexual violence are locked up indefinitely while awaiting deportation, and Natasha’s work with WfRW has always foregrounded the words of those who have been through this process. Read Alice’s story below, and support our campaign by joining the 50,000 people who have already signed the Women for Refugee Women petition. "
Film When you're invited to share something of real worth with a fine blog's readership, you probably shouldn't pick an insanely successful Hollywood blockbuster movie based on an insanely successful children's toy.
I have decided not to follow this advice and will be talking about The LEGO Movie.
So to counterbalance my complicity in the tyranny of commercialism, here is a quick list of some more spiritually wholesome things that I also recommend:
1. Somerset House
Coffee on the terrace overlooking the South Bank is a joy; the Courthauld Collection is one of London's greatest hidden gems.
Birds are great. Even when you're in the middle of a city, there's usually a bird or two knocking around.
3. Browsing bookshops for ages
I know I'm preaching to the converted, but now feels like a special time for books. From romance novels to political theses, they're works of art.
Of course, that's a slightly disingenuous opening, because I do actually feel that The LEGO Movie has real worth; I wouldn't be dedicating my, or your, time to it if I didn't. But as a premise, it didn't bode well - an animated kids' movie based on LEGO should be, by all rights, the pits. The fact that's it's not only not the pits, but actually funny, warm and inventive, is something to be celebrated.
What hinted at rather better things were the director/writers - Phil Lord and Christopher Miller are behind the "no, they're actually really fun" Jump Street movies - and the cast, which is essentially a who's who of American sitcoms: Will Arnett (Arrested Development), Alison Brie (Community), Elizabeth Banks (Modern Family and 30 Rock), Charlie Day (It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia) and, of course, Parks and Recreation's Chris Pratt as the voice of lead character Emmett.
With Guardians of the Galaxy also under his belt, this has been a fantastic year for Pratt, and his rise to more mainstream prominence has been cheered on by those of us who adore the human Labrador that is his Parks and Rec character Andy Dwyer. It's easy to forget that in the first season Andy was pretty unlikeable and selfish, and I think Pratt owes at least a little of his more recent success to that side of his personality being ditched - it's hard to see the guy who plays that Andy becoming a lovable leading man.
But I digress. For 400 words.
The fact is, a sitcom approach to gag-rate means that The LEGO Movie is consistently, impressively funny. A ridiculously strong opening sequence that sees Emmett following all the daily rules laid down by President Business (Will Ferrell) with an unthinking glee means that the film passes Mark Kermode's six laugh test within minutes, and there's no real dip over the course of the film.
And while that's a genuinely great achievement in itself (film, in the main, just isn't as good as telly at comedy), it's only one of this movie's charms.
Visually, it's genuinely like nothing else I've seen. After staying relatively tight-lipped about the animation process, Lord and Miller have recently given a little more insight into how they persuaded the audience they were were seeing real LEGO bricks, at their real size. While some bricks were used, the majority of the film is computer generated (they'd have needed billions of bricks to do it by hand) - but you'd never know it. There's weight and heft, imperfections and fingerprints. I found it astonishing.
Perhaps most impressive of all, though, is the big risk in storytelling that's taken in the last fifteen minutes of the film, and somehow got passed by a studio that must have had its qualms. I won't give the twist away of course, but it comes so late, and puts such a different complexion of the rest of the story that for a moment you find yourself thinking: "they've ruined it". Almost immediately though, it becomes clear that they haven't ruined it; they've elevated it.
The LEGO Movie isn't perfect by any means - Lord and Miller have already promised to make sure the sequel is less of a boys' club - and it won't change your life. But it was my favourite movie of 2014, and if you haven't seen it already and you're quick, it might become yours too.
Anna can be followed on Twitter @annawaits.
It's A Wonderful Life: Rare Photos from the set of this Holiday Classic:
"Far more than a mere plot device heralding George Bailey’s dark night of the soul (and his joyful return to the land of the living), softly falling snow is something of a central character in Frank Capra’s 1946 holiday classic, It’s a Wonderful Life. But the cheap “fake snow” so often used on movie sets back in the day — often just cornflakes painted white — simply would not do; Capra wanted real snow, or something as close to the real thing as he and his prop department could get."
The first Christmas card:
"Collector Jackie Brown shows historian Ruth Goodman the first ever Christmas card, which was commissioned by Sir Henry Cole, in this 2009 clip from Victorian Farm Christmas."
Tony Blair and the art of a good Christmas card photo:
"It's set up to look like a domestic scene of an elder statesman and his devoted wife. But there's no getting around it - the former prime minister looks perturbed, even angry, according to dozens of tweeters. His teeth are bared and his eyes appear to be downright fierce, they suggest. "Perhaps the oddest thing about Tony Blair's threatening Christmas card is that this must have been the BEST photo..." tweets one observer. "The strange thing about Tony Blair's Christmas card is how the teeth seem to follow you round the room." "Be afraid. Be very afraid," write others."
23 Disturbing Santa Claus Photos That Will Wreck Your Christmas:
"You’d better watch out, ‘cause these Santas will make you cry."
Arena Christmas Bauble Auction 2014:
"Loosely based on the Fabergé Egg and born as a fund raising event, these collections celebrate the artistic talent housed in Arena studios on an annual basis. This year sees 10 boxes available for purchase. Each hand made box contains 6 solid wood baubles by 6 different artists along with a booklet containing the artists signatures."
Life A review of the year would be easy, of course. I’ve had a really full year. It started with health worries (physical and mental, and the physical health worries have seen me have LOTS of blood tests, plus an x-ray and not one but two MRI scans), joblessness, plus really struggling on the musical circuit after a busy Christmas (I’m in a musical duo). It’s ended with a diagnosis which isn’t nearly as scary as I’d feared, passing a course which has landed me a wonderful job (still waiting for the paperwork, but it should start soon), and taken in getting married (that musical duo? The other half of it is my husband) along the way. So yes, a simple old review of my year would be easy to write; it would have sorrow and joy and a happy ending.
However, Stuart doesn’t want a plain old review of the year, of course not. What’s the one thing, he asks, that I think everyone should know? Well, I’m a pretty opinionated person, so there’s an awful lot I think people should know, although this year I think I’ve finally learned that not everyone needs my opinions as much as I sometimes think they do.
In fact, I’ve learned such a lot this year.
Musically, we started the year a bit miserably. We’d had several amazing gigs at some well-known Liverpool venues at Christmas, which we thought had gone very well. At one, people even danced around in the freezing air, glasses of mulled cider in hand. At another, people clapped along to a mediaeval carol I was singing, getting faster and faster until I could barely keep up with them… but somehow I did. But then came January and neither of those venues replied to our requests to play again. Another venue asked us to play. We said yes, but they never replied to our “when?” Then a month later said they’d discussed it with their regulars and actually, they didn’t want “alternative” music there. Another venue said we weren’t a style they were looking for. Yet another venue booked act after act at their live music showcase once a week but when we asked for a gig we were told “we’ll bear you in mind” (as far as I know, we’re still being borne in mind). I felt miserable. In terms of people listening to our music (at that time, we had a handful of home-recorded demos online) we didn’t seem to be doing that much better either. We’d promote our music on twitter but our followers (which at that point seemed to be made up largely of other bands) didn’t retweet, or reply that they’d listened, despite the fact we’d listened to their music. We’d tweet and tweet and tweet about our music but when even long-term friends didn’t listen or comment, it started to feel a bit hurtful.
I wanted to give up music. Maybe I wasn’t musical at all. Maybe I should go back to poetry.
But then after talking with Marc (my musical and now marital other half) we decided to take it back to what we really liked and how we’d started out; just performing, at open mics, for the love of it. Not trying to make people love us, just writing and performing songs because we wanted to. In fact, we only contacted one place that spring to ask for a gig, and that was because it was a place I’d loved since I was much younger (the Bombed Out Church in Liverpool) and the thought of performing there made me excited and nervous. After every open mic event we wrote a little piece on our blog about what we’d loved, and what we’d learned. As for twitter, I stopped being so arrogant as to expect quid pro quo. I just followed more of the bands who made the kind of music I loved, and listened to it, and tweeted about it, without ever expecting them to listen to our music. Occasionally, if I knew someone had downloaded our music before, I’d ask them for their opinion on new stuff, but I stopped expecting people to listen just because they were friends.
And gigs did happen. We played the Bombed Out Church three times this year (four if you count our wedding), in fact, as they kept inviting us back! Word seemed to get out, and we got asked to play at several festivals, and even accompany a lantern parade and fire jugglers! My favourite musical thing of this year though was when Brighton indie/folk-pop band The Beautiful Word – gorgeous harmonies, imaginative arrangements, thoughtful lyrics – asked us if we’d play a set to open their gig with Wrexham’s finest noise-pop enthusiasts, Baby Brave, at Liverpool’s Sound Food and Drink! But here’s the thing; we were going to go to the gig anyway, as The Beautiful Word are one of my favourite ever bands (first saw them at a festival in 2012 and was blown away). We weren’t being cynical … in fact we didn’t even ask, we wouldn’t have dreamt of it… we just loved their music, and were honoured when they asked if we’d open with a set.
This year, of course, also saw Marc proposing to me. I am divorced from my first husband, and I was awfully cynical about the idea of getting married. I’d told Marc this, in fact, not long before we moved in together. The idea of marriage felt confining; the tradition was age-old and came with a solid, straight set of expectations. But, still being cynical, if anything happened to me, marriage would be more likely to mean my son could still see his stepdad, plus at that point, I was jobless, with some kind of undiagnosed, potentially long-term health condition and marriage was a big rubber stamp that said “security” on it.
I didn’t know what I would do if Marc proposed, and then he did. And it wasn’t cynicism or security that went through my mind at that point, but the realisation that I loved him completely, and woolly though that sounds now, at the time it was enough to make me say “yes” (and then ask a lot of questions about how it would work).
We got married in September this year, but it took some doing, and en route included: a visit to a village priest (my husband is a Catholic, and I an agnostic divorcee. To say the visit was unfruitful is a massive understatement), my dream wedding dress not arriving less than a week before the big day and me having to find a different dress at the last minute, and of course, the threat of our chosen venue (the Bombed Out Church, naturally) being closed down. Thankfully, that didn’t happen; people pulled together and donated to a crowdfunder to keep this much loved arts site, community space, live music venue and war memorial open. So many people love the Bombed Out Church that not only has it stayed open, but it also seems now to have on even more events than ever before. As for the dress, I wore a simple white robe rather than the full-on Snow Queen-esque gown that I’d planned to wear, and it didn’t matter, nor did it matter that we didn’t have the official blessing of the Catholic church; we entwined secular and pantheistic elements with Christian in our bespoke ceremony, and a prayer from a nun for good measure. Oh, and on the way to the wedding I bumped into my favourite ever band on Bold Street, and if that wasn’t a good omen, I don’t know what is.
And then there was my job. I lost my job in March 2013. I’d been in an administrative job I didn’t really enjoy but the hours fitted in perfectly with school drop off and pick up times; as a single parent, living on the dole was very hard. I did a bit of typing from home and in fact, disclosing this to the job centre resulted in nasty letters. Marc moved in with me, and we managed to get by on the one salary. I decided that it was time to do something I’d always wanted to do but never quite got around to; work with children. I started a course to train to be a teaching assistant, and volunteered in my son’s school. I loved it; I am impatient and easily stressed in many other areas of my life but I seem to have been blessed with a heap of patience with young children. Marc supported me while I studied; friends picked my son up from school one night a week so I could go to my course. In July this year, I learned I’d passed, but delayed looking for work while we organised the wedding (plus half a dozen gigs).
I saw a few jobs come up on the council’s website, but none were quite suitable; hours regularly longer than school hours in schools just that bit too far away from my son’s school (I can’t drive). However, I was starting to realise beggars couldn’t be choosers, especially as Christmas drew closer and money got tighter, and I would have to bite the bullet and arrange wraparound care every day for my son while I went out to work in a different school. However, a job came up in my son’s school, and I applied for it, and got it. I’m waiting on some paperwork, but should be able to start soon and I can’t wait. I actually worked as what was then called a Non-Teaching Assistant once before, during my year out, when I was just nineteen. However, after uni, I wanted to work in marketing and sales because that was “cool”; if I’d thought a little more, and used my heart a little more, I should have continued in the line of work I’d been in before uni.
But where do all these little vignettes into my year leave you, dear reader? All these things I’ve learned; what’s the one thing you should know?
I’ll let you into one last secret if I may, and this one is a little “out there”. I’m agnostic, though I was raised a Christian, then became a full-on atheist before starting to look at the world through neo-Pagan eyes, then coming to a more pantheistic understanding of it all. This year, I started to look at Christianity again, with the help of books like Living the Questions, and In Memory of Her. However, I simply cannot make myself believe in the supernatural elements of it all, such as an afterlife, or raising from the dead, or angels announcing an immaculate conception, but I have found a new appreciation of some of the parables and teachings in the gospel. And I think I’ve decided that I believe the “god is love” of the gospel of John in quite a pantheistic way. I believe love – which is both a verb and a noun – is something that threads through everything. That “god is love”, for me, doesn’t mean there is some kind of supernatural being who is loving, but that love itself is “god”. It’s one of those equations where the equals sign has three lines, where “is” means “the same as”. Maybe the universe runs on love, like a car runs on petrol, or I run on coffee and avocados. Maybe I’m wrong.
But it doesn’t matter whether or not you believe that. It’s a bit “woo” really, and that’s not to everyone’s taste. But I have noticed over this year that when I’ve done things out of love, without too much cynicism, things seem to have worked out quite well. And that’s what I think everyone should know. Of course, to do things out of love in the hope that they then work out is cynical in and of itself. But perhaps it’s worth trying just for the sake of it?
A little caveat. When I talk about love, I don’t mean those awful memes that tell how if you find a job you love you’ll never work a day in your life. That’s true for some people of course, but it’s easy to infer from those sorts of quotes that people who work in sweatshops are only there because they haven’t yet sat down and written that best-selling novel. Structural inequality isn’t something that can just be waved away with a bit of hippy faerydust; I’m aware of that, and it’s not what I’m trying to say. And of course, love is hard. Love is not shouting at the child who for the 100th night running has woken you up at two in the morning, unable to sleep, even though you’ve got work in the morning. Love is admitting that you were wrong and apologising for laying into someone on Facebook about their opinion, so utterly different from yours. Love is watching a football match with your child when you don’t support their team; you don’t even care about football. Love is picking up cat poo out of the garden and using what little savings you had to pay a vet’s bill because health insurance on an older cat has so many loopholes and clauses it’s basically pointless. Love is sometimes drudge work (and there’s a whole blogpost – no, a whole book – to be written on why this kind of “love” often tends to fall to women more than men, though that’s another subject for another time). But it is also doing the things you love.
Love is the one thing everyone should know.
Ruth can be followed on Twitter @mossandjones. Moss & Jones's Christmas single, A Song For Mary is available on Bandcamp.
Top 10 Christmas Gifts For Film Lovers:
"It's Christmas Eve, you've had one too many sherries and you're feeling in the mood... time to turn up the heat by breaking out this wax replica of sadistic Gestapo agent Tohte from Raiders of the Lost Ark and recreating one of the most memorable deaths in movie history."
Christmas rail delays on West Coast:
"Passengers are being advised not to use a main London to Scotland rail line over Christmas due to one of a series of engineering projects set to cause severe disruption to travellers in the South East over the holiday period."
Christmas tree-throwing contest launched near Keele:
"A farm in Staffordshire is hosting what is thought to be the UK's first Christmas tree throwing competition. Participants are given a 6ft (1.8m) tree, weighing about 10 kg (22lb), for the contest at Keele Christmas Tree Farm. They must then throw it as far as possible and get the tree as high over a bar as they can. One hundred trees are being used at the charity fundraising event to benefit the Help for Heroes campaign."
Every Official Christmas Number 1 ever!
"As we eagerly wait to find out who will be Official 2014 Christmas Number 1, we celebrate all the Christmas chart-toppers of the last 60 years! The Christmas Number 1 is the most anticipated chart battle of the year, and on Sunday December 21, Scott Mills and Jameela Jamil will reveal who has won the race to the Official 2014 Christmas Number 1 live on BBC Radio 1’s Official Chart Show."
Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park Winter Update (from Diamon Geezer):
"One thing that's popped up all around Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park are stand-alone posters promoting the Orbit. The twirly crimson mega-sculpture has now been open since Easter, and I've never seen it busy, so needs all the customers it can get. Part of the issue is the cost of a ticket - fifteen pounds, or two quid off if you're local and happen to have turned up clutching a utility bill."
Leading boy gets proposal at Christmas panto:
"There was a magical fairytale ending to the Sleeping Beauty pantomime at Cheltenham's Everyman theatre ..."
Residents launch crowdfund campaign to bring back Christmas lights to Torry:
"A 'Lighting up Torry' project has been launched by local residents to reinstate the festive lights on Victoria Road. The newly formed Torry Development Trust, set up by six local volunteers, has asked for community support to put up new Christmas lights, after the original display mysteriously vanished several years ago. "They used to brightened Torry’s main street at the festive time of year," said David Fryer, a founding member of the group."
Saffron Burrows: ‘I’m really proud of my family and who they are’:
"The table in the Japanese brasserie that Saffron Burrows has proposed for dinner is so wide that we decide to sit not opposite each other, but side by side. Interviewing movie actors tends to be a mutual exercise in faking natural human interaction within entirely unnatural circumstances: a limited number of minutes in a hotel suite with “the talent” flanked by cardboard movie posters to aggressively remind everyone why they’re here: to sell the thing. Burrows is indeed here in this TriBeCa restaurant to sell a thing, but she’s also here because both she and I know that she wants to talk about her personal life for the first time. And the strange thing is how unstrange it all feels."
Christmas dinner: Lidl are good on price, but how are they on taste when it comes to festive favourites?
"With a growing number of budget options, Christmas doesn’t have to break the bank, but how does the cut price stuff fare up against the competition? Here's our first taste test for Christmas, featuring products from so-called budget retailer Lidl."
Star Trek “Klingon Bloodwine” Hits Shelves in Time for Holidays:
"Christmas has come early for wine-loving Trekkies. Following the release of the collectible Star Trek wine series launched last year, CBS Consumer Products produced its latest addition to the line, the Klingon Bloodwine. The 2012 Klingon Bloodwine is Malbec, Petit Verdot and Syrah blend from Paso Robles and is available for $20 online through Vinport.com and national retailers."
Placido Domingo plays golf with Dame Kiri Te Kanawa and football with Kevin Keegan:
"In this clip from Placido Domingo's Christmas Choice, originally broadcast on 24 December 1980, the Spanish tenor reveals his love of football, takes to the golf course with Dame Kiri Te Kanawa and enjoys a kickabout with Liverpool legend Kevin Keegan."
Life The word 'that' is mainly superfluous. This is a piece of advice I was given about 10 years ago, and think about whenever I write something. I will return to it. But first…
A long time ago I contributed to an SFX Doctor Who special. I scripted – as I do in times of trouble – a Whizzer & Chips-style comic strip in which Steven Moffat tries to kill off Arthur Darvill. I was then kindly asked if I'd do an additional thing, something along the lines of my hopes for the programme. Or maybe it was my favourite bits. Anyway, a box-out wherein my remarks would run alongside other writers' comments on the same topic.
I politely declined, because I felt there would be an arrogance implicit in an assumption a reader might have any interest in my thoughts delivered this way. You know, "Oh, what does Graham Kibble-White think?" Let's be frank – what I think has no cache.
Yet, here I am, writing what's essentially a vanity piece for Stuart Ian Burns. As though my point of view does have a bearing. You'll have seen the remit Stu's given everyone . It's pretty loose; predicated on folks feeling they can opine in a way that's engaging.
It's a little hypocritical I fret in this way, because I write reviews for Doctor Who Magazine. But – and this is the truth – I try and do so in an anonymous fashion. I don't want to be in the picture. Yes, I'll sometimes adopt the first-person, because synonyms like "your reviewer" quickly get annoying, but that's about it. My hope is I'm constructing something of worth, but not a vehicle for myself.
Writing for DWM, I'd guess, is probably the thing about me that is potentially of any interest to readers of Feeling Listless, so I'll talk a little more about that.
How did it happen? I mainly can't remember. A long process of attrition. I think I sent things to Clayton Hickman, the predecessor to editor Tom Spilsbury, but nothing ever interested him. However, Tom – then the deputy – would reply. Due to various other stuff I'd done over the years, I guess we had mutual acquaintances, so I was always at least a known quantity.
What I can recall is making the effort at Doctor Who press launches to get to know Tom. Eventually it paid off. The first thing I ever did for DWM was in 2009. And it was [fishes out invoice]…
COMMISSION: 200 Brilliant Doctor Moments
- Romana’s leaving scene (Warriors’ Gate)
- “Why not? After all, that’s how it all started!” (The Five Doctors)
- Opening scene (The Two Doctors)
- "The cream of Scotland Yard!" (Ghost Light)
I managed to dig in from that, eventually becoming the person who writes their TV reviews. It's such a pleasure to do. I'm already massively fortunate in that I get to write for a living, but the DWM stuff is the only thing I produce professionally that prompts any tangible response. It means that even when people are slaying me – which they do – I'm okay with it. Besides, it would be massively hypocritical to feel aggrieved at criticisms of how I, in turn, critique.
But back to 'that' advice, as I shape this contribution in a cyclical manner to give it the semblance of a structure. I had lunch the other Monday with a friend who is in a similar line of work. He cares more about his craft than almost anyone I know, and as a result I always enjoy it when we talk about writing and the like. Within our chat, he offered up a nugget that now nestles alongside the 'that' maxim for me. He commented on how reviews often end up laden with 'perhaps' and 'maybe', particularly when a writer is trying to soften an opinion. He didn't mean this as counsel, but I've taken it that way.
I was, in fact, in the middle of a commission at the time and when I returned, I hit CTRL+F and went hunting for both phrases. There they were – a lot.
I'm not someone who takes many lessons from life. But from 2014, it's going to be that:
Kill my perhaps-es and maybes.
You can follow Graham on Twitter @grahamkw.
Nottinghamshire Christmas pudding: Everything you need to know:
"LIKE Brussels sprouts, you either love them or loathe them. After shifting a ton of turkey and roast potatoes, a hefty Christmas pudding is either obligatory fare on December 25 – or the very last thing you want to tackle. No surprises about which camp Libby Clark and daughter Sarah Radford are in. The foodies are so keen on the family recipe that they will be sharing it with strangers next weekend... and Nottingham Post readers today."
Exotic foreign fare sidelines traditional Christmas puds:
"It’s arrivederci the traditional Christmas pudding; salve panettone. The steamed pud, based on a recipe that has changed little since Victorian times, has gone stale. Fewer of us, it seems, are prepared to end Christmas lunch with a stodgy, fruit-filled, flame-burnt, brandy-sodden dessert. British consumers are opting for more exotic sponge puddings or foreign alternatives."
BFBS to launch Christmas music radio station:
"BFBS Music Manager, Frank McCarthy, said: “Think of the ‘Totally Best Of’ Christmas mix of music that sets the perfect festive scene, wherever you are listening. BFBS Christmas does that and more in one huge free present from us to you."
DVDs and Blu-rays for your letter to Santa from Observations on film art:
"One occasional feature of our blog has been to point out new releases on DVD and Blu-ray, especially of titles that haven’t gotten much publicity. Some of these are easily available at major sources like Amazon, while others have to be ordered directly from their publishers, often abroad. But if you have a multi-standard player, don’t hold back. Ordering from abroad isn’t as intimidating as it might seem. Many sites have English-language sales pages."
Nick Frost: How the real Santa was ‘a joy’ to work with…
"Nick Frost discusses how the real Santa Claus helped him on the set of Doctor Who."
Happiness in one small but mighty package
Music I’m a pretty strong advocate for music. I tend to spend a substantial amount of brainpower and energy on a lot of musical things throughout my days.
But if I had to whittle it down to one single thing today, only one “have you thought about this?” tidbit, I think it would have to be – ready for it – the ukulele.
OK, so let’s get the Tiny Tim/George Formby/Youtube-cover-frenzy comments out of the way and then we’ll proceed. And for the record, I do quite like Tim and George although I’m less enthused about the seemingly endless bedroom “uketube” covers...but I digress.
You see, I have discovered the magic in this mighty little instrument. Maybe you have, too. It’s an instrument that is perceived in so many ways and, with its chameleon-like persona, blends into all manner of odd and wildly different surroundings.
The ukulele really is an instrument of the people. It is an instrument that can tuck neatly into a VW van to accompany hipster-friendly tunes. It can be the guitar’s cute cousin in mainstream/radio-play bands. It can be thoroughly and classically mastered to woo audiences with interpretations of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody or hooked up with wires and chopsticks to create a wild experiment in timbre and ukulele-electronica. It can allow the tiniest of fingers to make small, special melodies and old, weathered hands can strum meaningful wartime tunes.
In my pitches for the uke, I often cite its capabilities from a teaching standpoint. I can teach children and adults alike all kinds of things from ear training, theory and composition, to strumming chords or plucking melodies. Accompaniment is also a big one – you can sing and play this little sweetheart, too, for the bargain price of around Cdn $50 to start. Not a bad price point for an instrument that can do so much musically.
The one consistent piece is that it brings happiness. Seriously. There is joy in these teeny tiny music makers. Whether it’s three chords with a pint, or a well-practiced melody and harmony, it brings a positive little vibe wherever it goes. George Harrison knew it. The Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra knows it. James Hill knows it, as do Gus & Fin, Eddie Vedder, Taimane Gardner and thousands of others around the globe. I’d like to think it’s now past the point of being a novelty or a phase. I think the ukulele has started to sink into the mainstream as a viable instrument. It’s well-deserved recognition, as far as I’m concerned.
So whether it’s just for a giggle or for some serious music-making, there is goodness to be had in a little ukulele. I think you should try one on for size. Everyone deserves a little musical happiness in their days. In fact, in the words of one of the world’s best players, Jake Shimabukuro, “There is no ego when you’re a ukulele player,” and “The world would just be a better place if everyone played the uke.” Here’s hoping one may arrive in your hands this season. This is my holiday wish: Ukulele peace on earth.
You can follow Cynthia on Twitter @CynthiaCrumb.