If you’re a “regular reader”, if I have such a thing, then you think I’ve just gone mad. Christmas was over a month ago. And I’m only just getting round to recording my thoughts on last year’s festive offering from our favourite Timelord. But such is the magic of iplayer that I downloaded the fantastic episode immediately afterwards, with the intention of reviewing it, only to let it wither away. Now, with it about to die, I had to re-watch it before embarking on a trip abroad and sing its praises.
Because what Steven Moffat managed to do with this seasonal special is capture the sentimental essence of Christmas and cast a magical spell over Doctor Who again. Peppered with slick, funny, genius dialogue, A Christmas Carol was a marvellous reinvention of a classic, and an expression of a truly unique imagination. Fish that swim in the fog; how wonderfully original and unexpected and inexplicably Christmassy.
The problem in the end, with Russell T. Davies’ Doctor Who, was that no matter how spectacular, the stories became predictable. In many ways Moffat’s adaptation of A Christmas Carol had expected elements, features expected at Christmas time. But the all important sci-fi, Whovian additions to the tale were quirky, creative and inventive. There was fantastic time-hopping which had gone missing from the Tardis until Moffat’s ascension to the throne. With all of time and space to choose from, one thing Doctor Who should never, ever be, is predictable.
This story had emotional heart as well as more laugh out loud lines, delivered by a superb Matt Smith who’s well and truly at home in the role now, than I can remember. They included though, the brilliant: “What’s it called when you have no feet and you’re taking a run-up?” and the Doctor’s advice for Kazran’s first kiss; “Try and be a bit rubbish and nervy and shaky…Because you’re gonna be like that anyway.”
Michael Gambon was excellent as the old miser transformed. Katherine Jenkins made an impressive acting debut, doing all that was required of her, including delivering some enchanting singing fit for the occasion. The music in general was wonderful. There were some impressive child performances. The script wasn’t always spot-on, with there being some cheesy, ordinary lines, mainly during the sections with Amy Pond. The episode opened with the necessarily dramatic, but disappointing, “Christmas is cancelled!” The sublime moments more than make up for this though, including the Doctor in a white tux, fretting by a swimming pool about his impending engagement to Marilyn Monroe. Talk about conveying the glamour of time travel successfully on a budget.
This story is a showcase for so much. A lot of it very Christmassy stuff. The power of carols, the warming bitterness of thwarted love and memorable quotes; “halfway out of the dark”, “Time can be written, people can’t”, “Never met anyone who isn’t important before”. Wonderful plot twists like when the Doctor shows the young Kazran his older self. Most of all it’s an example of just how amazing Doctor Who can be on so many levels. All the superlatives I’m wheeling out don’t come close to expressing how good this episode was and how much I liked it, how much I loved it. The new series this year will be split into two and the opportunities for cliff-hangers and twists for Moffat will be unprecedented. I can’t wait to see what he does.
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The most stylish person in a room looks different to everyone else. Often the first step to style, the boldest move towards quality, is doing something different and distinctive. A lot of the time these risky moves will end in tears but some people just have the knack for it.
Three such people are directors Quentin Tarantino, Jason Reitman and Roman Polanski. Recently I’ve watched some of the best known, latest works of all of these men and it’s clear they’re endowed with the lucky gift of success when embracing the unconventional.
Firstly Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds is such a fascinating, intriguing picture. Events within the plot and elements of the execution bear Tarantino’s sensational touch – leading Nazis weren’t slaughtered in reality in a cinema in Paris – but that does not mean there aren’t serious elements to this film too. On the surface it’s a simplified, warped version of history, with a non-existent band of American Jews exacting revenge for the Holocaust, which wasn’t widely known about until the discovery of death camps at the end of the conflict. But at the very least it’s a sumptuous exercise in the best of filmmaking and with its faithful use of various languages, does say something factual rather than fictionalised about the misunderstandings and deceptions of war. It’s also, somehow, hilarious.
As the film’s star Brad Pitt says in one of the interviews on the Blu-Ray disc, this film plays out more like a novel. It’s broken into chapters, the first handful of which establish the characters and the rest bring them together for an explosive, visually stunning finale. Only a few of these characters are typical and expected for the wartime context; the French farmer in the marvellous opening scene for example. But the rest are Tarantino creations. They’re extremely vivid and engaging but also wild, sometimes implausible extremes, almost as if plucked from the pages of a striking graphic novel. Somehow the director/writer makes them wonderfully believable and then gives them bags of room to play in his chapters, which often consist of one, long and extended scene.
The opening scene establishes the marvellous character of the “Jew hunter” played by Christoph Waltz. There are some splendid, picturesque shots of the French countryside, followed by a wonderfully tense dialogue scene indoors. The interrogative German is sinister through his politeness, only to reveal the true nature of his visit. Other scenes in the film get similar space to breathe and come to life, in particular another edge of the seat, tense encounter in a tavern. This is the film’s longest scene and is incredibly realistic and satisfying as the spies, including the wonderful Michael Fassbender, attempt not to blow their cover. Language again plays an important role, and does so throughout, becoming almost another character. Often Inglorious Basterds feels more like a play, only for some explosive action to remind you that only a film could deliver such thrills, laughs and intrigue. Ultimately the spot-on dialogue, lengthy scenes, exploration of language and sensational characters and events, is not only stylish but says something worthwhile about the war.
All of these films say something worthwhile. Juno chips in with messages about taking people at face value and what really makes relationships work, as well as challenging views of young people. And The Ghost, whilst being primarily an impressive exercise in storytelling rather than a substantive study of politics, does have some underlying messages about identity and ethics.
If you had one word to describe Juno, chances are it would be “quirky”. Anywhere you look online you’ll find this label plastered to the film’s witty face. Personally it seems an unfair, limiting term for such an intelligent, funny, well-acted production. But I guess it is undoubtedly true. Juno isn’t your average teenager. She’s witty, quick and cynical. She wasn’t used by some sex mad male but got knocked up by banging the best friend who’s crazy about her out of boredom. She sets about helping a deserving couple, rather than unthinkingly obliterating the fledgling life inside her.
The couple she decides to “donate” her child to are almost as important to the story as Juno. Played by Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman, they are the grown-up heart of the film, the crucial counterpoint to Juno’s usually happy exuberance. All the cast deal superbly with fast, funny dialogue, including Juno herself, Ellen Page, as well as her Dad and Step-Mom, J.K. Simmons and Alison Janney. And of course the love that suddenly blossoms at the end with Michael Cera, is wonderfully touching and encompassed by the duet which ends the film.
Of all these films it’s The Ghost with the most stylistic flourishes, perhaps ironic given the everyman Brit accent adopted by Ewan McGregor. There are no jaw-dropping stunts in this film; all the drama comes from the story and suffocating, tense locations. When crucial, potentially stunning events occur in the plot, Polanski deals with them with the utmost style. The film starts by simply showing an abandoned car to heighten the mystery surrounding the death of the previous Ghost Writer, rather than showing a spectacular murder scene. At the climax of the film McGregor’s character is abruptly hit by a car out of shot; we only see papers scatter and swirl in the traffic, littering the street.
Rich in detail, in The Ghost we learn surprisingly little about anything ever. Polanski somehow captures the Dan Brown like, page-turning twists of the novel and distils them on film, whilst also adding a layer of intelligence to the swerves of the plot. You are gripped, determined to keep watching for the big reveal. A reveal cunningly disguised throughout and then stylishly unveiled with an anticipation building close-up of a gradually passed note. The Ghost is immensely enjoyable and stylish; I couldn’t take my eyes off it.
So filmmakers do something different, unpredictable and restrained if you want to make it big and be lavished with praise.
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