wed 24/07/2024

A Merry Little Christmas Eve: theartsdesk recommends | reviews, news & interviews

A Merry Little Christmas Eve: theartsdesk recommends

A Merry Little Christmas Eve: theartsdesk recommends

Our writers recommend selected DVDs and CDs to pick up today

Late for a very important date? Consult theartsdesk's last-minute shopping list

As we all have only one shopping day left, theartsdesk hopes to make Christmas Eve a little easier by offering a few enlightened recommendations. From our writers on new and classical music, opera and ballet, film and comedy, here is a list of CDs and DVDs that we hope will enhance your 11th-hour shopping experience. Happy Christmas from all at theartsdesk.



LoopdvdIn the Loop, dir. Armando Iannucci (Optimum)

by Jasper Rees

The cinematic spin-off of The Thick of It seems destined to take its place as an enduring moreish classic alongside This Is Spinal Tap. It’s as if the film knows it itself. “I’m sweating spinal fluid here,” says Malcolm Tucker when trying to win over a compunctious underling as he assembles his dodgy dossier in the big bad corridors of Washington.

The script comes at you like a block entry for The Oxford Dictionary of Weapons-Grade Invective. Buy In The Loop for a teenager who swears and doesn't read the news. Or Malcolm Tucker will hole-punch your face.

Let-the-Right-One-In-006Let the Right One In, dir. Tomas Alfredson (Momentum)

by Sheila Johnston

In nocturnal, snowbound, suburban Stockholm, an uncommon love story is unfolding. Oskar is a geek, albino-pale, bullied at school. Eli is dark, Goth and keeps strange hours; she is 12, she tells Oskar, but she has been 12 for a very long time. This gloriously emotional, sometimes comic and full-bloodedly gory vampire tale takes its title from a song by Morrissey and its inspiration from a novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist, who also wrote the script.

Hitherto all but unknown outside Sweden, Tomas Alfredson tells his story with an elegant, melancholy touch and draws eerily affecting performances from the two young actors, Kåre Hedebrant and Lina Leandersson. In a year that has seen a surfeit of tawdry horror flicks, Let The Right One In is the one to buy for incurable romantics, horror and art film buffs, worldly teens and Twilight-bedazzled daughters, granddaughters, nieces. Red in tooth and claw, it should wean them off all such anaemic offerings.


Mid-Aug_DVDMid-August Lunch, dir. Gianni Di Gregorio (Artificial Eye)

by Ryan Gilbey

The title hardly suggests a perfect Christmas film, but this Italian gem, ideally watched with a group of gently sozzled but discerning friends and relatives, gives family entertainment a good name. Gianni Di Gregorio, the picture’s writer-director, plays Gianni, an amiable, undemonstrative man in his fifties who still lives with his 90-year-old mother. During the midsummer Ferragosto celebrations, he finds himself saddled with caring for two other men’s elderly mothers (plus an aunt) and presiding over a feast to keep them all sated and smiling.

It squeezes more insights, compassion and gently bubbling gags into its 75 minutes than most films could manage in double that time, and leaves you feeling like you’ve been simultaneously hugged and tickled. Weirdly, Di Gregorio also wrote the violent and incisive crime drama Gomorrah, which I suppose you could call another family film, in the Corleone sense at least.


Acosta_spartacusSpartacus, the ballet Carlos Acosta/Bolshoi Ballet (Decca)

by Ismene Brown

Body crises generally overtake us around this time of year, so what could be more encouraging than to watch one of the fittest and most beautiful men on the planet hurling himself around the stage to the kind of music that makes you sweat just to listen to it. Surely this is the gym DVD to end all: apart from its glistening interest to balletomanes (Acosta, the Royal Ballet's Cuban star, makes mincemeat of the Bolshoi and something glorious of this rather hokey ballet), this is the DVD to give to a slightly overweight male partner. And stick a picture of Acosta on the fridge while you're at it.


GMahler_YOMahler: Symphony No 4; Schoenberg: Pelleas und Melisande Juliane Banse (soprano), Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra/Claudio Abbado (Medici Arts)

by David Nice

It’s been a year in which a certain youth orchestra, admittedly not from Europe, took the world by storm. A year, too, in which the greatest orchestral music-making I’ve ever heard was mostly Claudio Abbado’s doing in Lucerne. With these in mind, and the fact that next year we’re in for an awful lot of Mahler, a music-literate family will all enjoy this concert of late-romantic innocence versus experience given by the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra under Abbado in Vienna. DVD points one more way forward, too, colour-coding the different characters in Schoenberg’s labyrinthine tone-poem Pelleas und Melisande, in line with what the author of the original play, Maurice Maeterlinck, apparently intended. As if all this weren’t enough, the concert ends with the wide-eyed beauty of Juliane Banse to guide us through Mahler’s child’s-eye view of heaven.


TovarischTovarisch - I Am Not Dead, dir. Stuart Urban (Artefact Films)

by Tom Birchenough

Stuart Urban follows an extraordinary father-and-son story over 60 years across some of the most dramatic moments of the 20th century. His father Garri flees the advancing Nazis in 1939 to the USSR, before being shot trying to swim to freedom in Romania - the title comes from his first words to his captors after arrest. From then on it's a story of the GULAG, escape (or release with connivance of the authorities?), recapture, and eventual post-war escape again. In 1992 Urban Jr follows his father on trips back to the locations of his wartime experience in a video diary; highly touching is his reunion with Nona, his sweetheart of 50 years earlier, still surviving with difficulty on the edge of Moscow. Garri is as slippery a character to his son as he is to the viewer - charismatic, proud, capricious. He avoids giving final answers even to his son - and it's just the fact that the enigma remains that gives Tovarisch - I Am Not Dead its considerable depth.


i_claudius_I Claudius - the Complete BBC Series dir: Herbert Wise (BBC)

by Peter Culshaw

Based on Robert Graves' epic books, they don't make TV series like this any more. Diabolically well acted by a wonderful cast including Derek Jacobi as Claudius, Sian Philips as Livia and John Hurt as Caligula. Even Brian Blessed is terrific as Augustus. The video-taping of the time leaves something to be desired, but the quality of the script and the acting more than compensate.

Even if you have family tensions at Christmas, watch this and in comparison your family squabbles will seem as nothing as the intrigues, poisonings, power struggles and incest provide hours of entertainment. As a by-product, you get to brush up on your Roman history. The five emperors after Caesar? You will be up to speed. Even the theme music is evocatively perfect.


supernatural4completeSupernatural, season 4 (Warner Bros)

by Adam Sweeting

The days aren’t long enough to keep up with all the long-running American series saturating our TV screens, but it’s worth chiselling a few hours out of the seasonal pandemonium to catch up with the photogenic Winchester brothers and their never-ending quest to purge America of demons and devils. It all began back in the day when Sam and Dean’s mother was gruesomely slaughtered by a murderous supernatural force, following which their father John raised his sons as demon-hunters.

Supernatural follows their ghostbusting odyssey, and this fourth series opens with Dean waking up and dragging himself out of the coffin in which he’s been buried, having miraculously escaped from the torments of Hell (glimpsed in hair-raising flashback). The plot quickly gels around its core proposition – the powerful demon Lilith is hell-bent on breaking the 66 seals which will allow Lucifer to walk free. Eek! Fortunately, the debonair angel Castiel has arrived to lend a hand, while Sam and Dean never lose their dude-ish cool despite severe paranormal provocation. It’s hokum, but done with panache.


medium_knussenOliver Knussen: Where the Wild Things Are & Higglety Pigglety Pop! (Warner Music Entertainment)

by Mark Pappenheim

With sets and costumes designed by Maurice Sendak himself as life-size pop-up versions of his classic story-book illustrations, this magical double-bill of Oliver Knussen’s two one-act “fantasy operas” was the first thing my wife and I ever saw at Glyndebourne, courtesy of a Time Out ticket offer back in the days when a living composer’s name on the bill was still guaranteed to cause a run from the box-office. The 1985 production soon came out on VHS and a few years later, when our first son couldn’t sleep, I often used to play it to him in the middle of the night. He particularly loved Wild Things, with its wolf-suited young hero, and Knussen’s scintillating score clearly held no more terrors for him than those lovably gallumphing, goggle-eyed, rumpus-dancing monsters. Now he’s a university student, just back home for the hols, and, having seen and disliked Spike Jonze’s new film, he’s asked to see Knussen’s CGI-free, imagination-rich opera again. And, luckily for him (and me), the Glyndebourne version is now out on DVD, so I know just the present to Max him out this Christmas. “Is it still hot?” you ask. “It’s hot.”


PUllingPulling, box set (BBC)

by Veronica Lee

There must have been some red faces at the BBC when Pulling was nominated for a Bafta and won a British Comedy Award earlier this year, as the dolts in charge at the time hadn’t realised what a hit they had on their hands. The comedy, written by Sharon Horgan and Dennis Kelly, started on BBC Three, gained a devoted audience and critical acclaim and was repeated on BBC Two, but the suits inexplicably pulled the plug after two series. Then in, inestimable reverse-ferret mode, they brought it back for a one-off hour-long special when they realised their mistake. In this box set of the first two series, Horgan stars as the neurotic, self-obsessed Donna, who shares a flat with Karen, an alcoholic teacher who hates children, and Louise, a soft touch where men are concerned.

There is much dark humour, broad comedy and many a zinging one-liner as Pulling explores honestly and without judgment casual sex, female friendship, emotional immaturity, recreational drug use and the pleasures of swearing. The humour is often of a very sexual nature and there’s some fruity language, so this is not one for young children or for an easily shocked grandma. But if you have a young male in the family who might appreciate hearing what women really talk about when they are alone, this is for him.




Hair: The New Broadway Cast Recording (Ghostlight)

by Edward Seckerson

For all those of my generation who share my musical sensibilities but won’t own up to their age I shall give a copy of the new Broadway cast recording of Galt MacDermot, James Rado, and Gerome Ragni’s “Tribal Love-Rock Musical” Hair. This glorious revival, due in London with the entire American cast in March, is the first production since the 1967 original that hasn’t put the piece in inverted commas. Its profanity and sexually liberated style – “make love not war” – is decidedly retro now, but its relevance (for Vietnam read Afghanistan) is not. And best of all the score – a compendium of hippie counter-culture rock anthems – is a corker. You are no child of the Sixties if you don’t instantly tear up at “Let the Sunshine In”.


Rhythm_and_BoozeRhythm & Booze (Capitol/EMI)

by Thomas H Green

Rhythm & Booze: 25 Shots of Vintage R&B contains 25 tracks of jazz-tinged Forties and Fifties jump blues, every one of them celebrating or bemoaning alcohol. Brilliantly, even those that are anti-drink sound hopelessly elated at the prospect of getting another round in. Nina Simone has the "Gin House Blues", Jimmy Rogers is "Sloppy Drunk" - fabulously so - Louis Jordan demands "Whisky Do Your Stuff", Amos Milburn orders "One Scotch, One Bourbon, One Beer" and Peppermint Harris admits "I Got Loaded". In pre-rock'n'roll America this was the bar-room soundtrack to Saturday night and it still sounds like a top party, boasting non-PC, liver-damaging frivolity that's hard to resist.


SibeliusSibelius: Symphonies Nos. 1-7; Kullervo, LSO/Colin Davis (LSO Live)

by Graham Rickson

I'd urge anyone nervous about 20th-century music to invest in the LSO Live box which collects Sir Colin Davis's recent cycle of Sibelius symphonies. They are wonderful, highly individual works, played here with panache and affection, nicely balancing the elements of joy and gloomy introspection. Davis knows when to keep the music moving and how to handle those miraculous moments when Sibelius can seem to make time stand still. As a bonus you get an excellent account of the early Kullervo symphony. And it's less than £20.

I'd certainly consider giving this to a feckless teenage niece or nephew who needs to learn to slow down and appreciate the good things in life.


Marling-_alas2Laura Marling: Alas I Cannot Swim (EMI)

by Russ Coffey

Laura Marling’s ethereal yet tortured debut may not seem like obvious Christmas fare but spare a thought for whoever you know this year who’s not feeling like dousing themselves in gin, donning a Santa hat and playing parlour games. Besides, Marling's delicate, transcendent melodies and plaintive vocals counterbalance the sometimes haunted lyrics to give an overall effect that is more meditative than gloomy. And if you want something a little more seasonal there’s also the new single, Goodbye England (Covered in snow).

Marling may be 19 years old but unlike other young talents her precociousness almost seems an irrelevance; her potential audience is as broad as heartache. For sure, it’s is not going to make any party playlist, but for someone given to contemplative walks with an iPod, or spending time in their room, this could be just the present.


base_mediaRegina Spektor: Far (Warners)

by Robert Sandall

Regina Spektor is a Russian-born American singer-songwriter who has been making waves on the East Coast "anti-folk" scene for most of the past  decade. Her spiky piano-playing and fondness for unlikely song topics have attracted comparisons to the queen of quirky, Tori Amos, but her idiosyncratic musicality and fluting vocals are more tellingly reminiscent of the great Joni Mitchell.

Spektor's fifth album is her most polished effort so far, an often jaunty collection of sublimely melodic chamber-pop reflecting on everything from locating God to losing a wallet. The beauty of Far, gift-wise, is its cross-generational appeal. Indie kids and older Elton fans will all find a strangely comfortable home here.


TWaitsTom Waits: Glitter and Doom (Anti)

by Howard Male

Tom Waits has something of the anti-Santa about him.  It’s easy to imagine him delivering the most earthshaking and guttural "ho, ho, ho!" that shook the foundations of a chimney. And the title of his latest album, Glitter and Doom, even sounds, well, half Christmassy. So this excellent live recording of Waits’s wintry, weather-beaten songs could be just the thing to cheer up a grumpy dad or mystify an X Factor-obsessed daughter. Even if they remain unmoved or even horrified by the music there’s always the bonus CD where there’s half an hour of Tom’s undiluted between-songs chatter - all warped wisdom, wonderfully poor puns and surreal flights of fancy.


ChopinChopin: Nocturnes Ivan Moravec (Elektra)

by Igor Toronyi-Lalic

Before the Chopin tsunami hits in anniversary year, and the CD market and concert halls are flooded by cheap rides from all and sundry, turn to this connoisseur’s classic from one of the forgotten greats of the last century to hear what Chopin can really sound like. Moravec’s mysterious, prowly take on Chopin's Nocturnes are an antidote to the soppy, frilly romanticism often associated with Chopin playing.

Here we have a serious lyricism and sturdy dreaminess that will make poetry of the early winter nights. There will be flashier and feistier performances next year, but none will have Moravec’s dark intensity. Purchase for the brooding teenager, the aspiring musical snob or for anyone who hasn’t yet got the great Polish composer.

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