Hooray for Holly-Łódź: Cinema 1 – Bałtyk Kino, Movie 1 – Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (2/6)

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9:30am Bałtyk Kino, Prezydenta Gabriela Narutowicza 20

Don't be deceived by the leisure centre exterior and tacky Oscar statue, this is one of the best cinemas I have ever been to.

The thing I love most about being in a city with over 500,000 people and an intense love of film is the fact that you are guaranteed to find at least one cinema screening films at a ridiculously early hour of the day. When I first lived in Łódź, Bałtyk Kino did a particularly good job of catering to my irregular film-going hours, providing me with early morning schedules as well as late-night double feature retrospectives and epic all-night movie marathons. Back in 2001 Bałtyk was still a heavyweight Łodż cinema, with the multiplexes only just having emerged on the Polish cinema landscape. Now owned by the Helios cinema group (who also own Polonia and ran the now defunct Kapitol in the city), Bałtyk has been around since 1927. During the Communist period in Poland it underwent a massive expansion, broadly in line with many of the state-owned Adria cinemas, which left it with a massive main screen, that can comfortably seat 750 viewers in one screening. It’s also one of the few curved screens in Poland, which make it ideal for the perfect presentation of widescreen features.

Until 2003 the cinema was just off Narutowicza, one of the main streets that horizontally bisects Piotrkowksa. Since then the location has remained the same, but the cinema is now at the rear of the newly constructed Philharmonic Hall, with a tunnel-like passageway leading to the main entrance, that oddly lends Bałtyk the air of a grotto. Perhaps the most noteworthy feature of the cinema’s exterior is the somewhat tacky giant Oscar statue that is appended to the wall beside the foyer.

Having had my early morning caffeine fix and taken the short hop from Piotrkowska to Narutowicza, I was surprised to see how little had changed since I’d last been in the cinema, a few years ago. The foyer is still absurdly poky and entirely disproportionate to the size of the screens that lie behind it. In the foyer you have a decent concessions stand that stocks a selection of sweets and crisps, the usual soft drinks and popcorn, as well as a few more ‘luxurious’ items such as ice-cream and nachos. With it being so early in the day, not even a glutton like myself required any hasty nourishment.

One of Bałtyk's superior cinema auditoria, with a massive curved screen for the perfect presentation of Widescreen cinematic releases.

The film I went to see was the latest installment of the Mission Impossible franchise, entitled Mission Impossible: Ghost Franchise. Since the opening of multiplexes like Silver Screen and Cinema City, Bałtyk has tended to focus on screening Polish cinema releases and films that are best suited to projection upon its gigantic main screen. The MI film was being shown on the main screen, which features state-of-the-art Dolby Digital Surround Sound and one of the clearest projections I’ve witnessed in any cinema, ever. The seats are comfortable, being cushioned and yet firm, with plenty of leg space. The rows of seats slope gently upwards away from the screen, but due to the colossal size of the screen there would be little hope of my view being blocked, even if more than the two people in attendance had shown up. Despite being almost alone in the auditorium I felt entirely immersed in a classic cinema-viewing experience and thoroughly enjoyed the film. I can remember previous visits to Bałtyk (the first Lord of the Rings movie in particular) when this main auditorium was packed out and the atmosphere was genuinely electric, seeming much more like a live theatrical event. Despite having to endure increased competition Bałtyk is still an immense cinema, that projects films the way that the director has intended them to be projected. Finally, it doesn’t skimp on the trailers (a vital part of the cinema-going experience) unlike its fellow Helios stablemate Polonia. The price of my ticket was an early morning bargain of just 13 zł (normally 14 zł), with standard ticket prices being 17zł.

Cinema Experience: 10/10

 

In terms of the film Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol was a welcome return to form for a franchise that had looked dead in the water last time out. Tom Cruise may increasingly be looking his age, but he can still deliver a solid performance in the action hero stakes. Cruise obviously had creative control over the project and has been able to equip himself with a solid supporting cast and a good director (Brad Bird coming over from Pixar animation). Jeremy Renner is a welcome addition to the team and lends some dramatic heft to proceedings, whilst Simon Pegg gives good geek as the guy with all the gadgets and Paula Patton is a game and very physical female lead. The movie also manages to find two admirable Euro-villains in Léa Seydoux’s blonde assassin and Michael Nyqvist fanatical physicist, both of whom are eerily self-contained.

There isn’t really much that’s revelatory about the plotting, but MI has rarely been about the story. Intriguingly Cruise and Co. seem to have set their sights on inhabiting the middle-ground between the cool glamour and bravado of the Bond franchise and the gritty, globe-hopping, techno hyper-realism of the Bourne series. The film particular excels in its action set pieces, the most notable of which include: an all-out Russian prison riot, the detonation of the Kremlin and a bit of extreme base-jumping on the world’s tallest building, in Dubai. The BMW corporation clearly provided much of the funding for the movie, as not only do the latest prototype models get an early airing, but the films climactic sequence actually occurs in one of the companies plants. Barely halting to draw breath Cruise seems hell-bent on putting his character, Ethan Hunt, through some of the most adrenalin-fuelled sequences to grace the silver screen in 2011. The film even manages to end with a strangely satisfying emotional coda, that sees Renner and Cruise flex a little acting muscle. All in all a thoroughly enjoyable, big budget romp.

Film Rating: 6/10

Hooray for Holly-Łódź: Introduction (1/6)

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Five different films on five different screens in one Polish city on one winter’s Day.

Street shot of lower Piotrkowska heading toward Plać Wolności.

Łódź is the second biggest city (in terms of population) in Poland. Much like England’s second city, Birmingham, it often appears to be unheralded and unloved. In the case of Łódź this belies the fact (or may be because of the fact) that the city was, for most of the last century, Poland’s industrial hub. In the aftermath of Communism, with the decline in the old heavy industries, Łódź has gradually rebranded itself as Poland’s potential innovation and e-commerce centre, whilst converting many of the stately red-brick factory buildings and palaces into the kind of yuppie apartments and sprawling commercial-cultural precincts that North America tends to lead the way in.

Arial shot of the main square in the Manafaktura commercial and cultural complex.

One constant throughout all of these changes and transformations has been the city’s obsession with film. Of all the Polish cities it is Łodż that is most frequently associated with that twentieth century cultural behemoth, cinema. As well as having one of Europe’s most prestigious film schools (that gave the world talents as diverse as Kieślowski, Polanski and Wajda) the city also hosts Camerimage, the premier International Film Festival devoted entirely the cinematographer’s art. The city’s main street, Piotrkowska, has its own walk of fame, featuring ‘Hollywood Stars’ for all of the Polish film industries greatest performers, filmmakers, screenwriters and cinematographers. Furthermore in the last decade the avant-garde filmmaker David Lynch has spent a considerable amount of time in the city, the main fruits of which yielded Inland Empire. The city was also immortalised on film with Wajda’s 1975 adaptation of Nobel prize-winner Władysław Reymont’s Ziemia Obiecana, which is arguably one of the greatest works of Polish cinema and tells the early, and highly cosmopolitan, history of the city.

This year's Camerimage poster. An event that purports to be the foremost International Film Festival devoted to the Cinematographer's Art.

Back in 2001 I came to Łódź for the first time in a teaching capacity at the main city University. I spent two years living in the rough and ready Bałuty district and must have spent upwards of fourteen hours a week in the city’s numerous cinemas. Unlike Germany and Austria, Polish cinemas tend to show films in their original language, rather than resorting to dubbing (except for children’s cinema) or, worse still, the bizarre ‘Lektor’ format beloved of Polish television, in which the same actor reads every role in a dull monotone, over the top of the original dialogue. Being the centre of the Polish film industry Łódż has been traditionally well-served by its cinemas, of which there are still at least ten remaining in and around the city centre. Over the course of the 27th of December this year I decided to revisit many of these cinemas, traversing the city centre in a bid to see five different cinematic offerings over the course of the day. What follows in the next few posts is my account of the day replete with potted history’s of the cinemas in question, reviews of their facilities and brief accounts of the films (fuller reviews of which will appear on this website in due course). My intention is to try to do similar articles in other noteworthy cinematic cities across Europe in the coming years. Hopefully this will prove useful to those of you who may be visiting, or intending to visit, Poland in the coming year, as well as giving a little something different to my standard review format. Please feel free to leave any comments about the work, as well as possible future city suggestions.

Film Review:- Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part II (2011)

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Dir:- David Yates

Starr:- Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Ralph Fiennes, Alan Rickman, Tom Felton, Matthew Lewis, Warwick Davis, Michael Gambon

Note:- Spoilers contained throughout this review. Alas, I’m in a Grinch-mood it would seem, so this is another of my unkinder reviews. In my defence I simply write it as I see it.

Well the Great British Actor’s Pension Plan has finally drawn to a close, with perhaps only Keith Chegwin and Les Dennis failing to benefit. After over sixteen hours of cinema Harry Potter’s ‘dramatic’ adventures as the world’s most unjustly lauded adolescent have come to a cringe-worthy anti-climax. The final shocking revelation? Well, erm, Daniel Radcliffe makes a pretty convincing middle-class thirtysomething parent, which is a whole lot more than can be said for the rest of his performance throughout J.K. Rowling’s beloved children’s saga. Put frankly, Daniel Radcliffe cannot act. At intermittent moments in this final, almost entirely unnecessary, installment of the great Harry Potter love-in Radcliffe does show a modest flair for comic timing that may mark out a future lower profile career as a modern British version of eighties dork-to-order Rick Moranis. However, what had become painfully clear by about Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is confirmed here, Radcliffe just doesn’t have the necessary presence or gravitas to carry off a mature and conflicted central protagonist. In the first three features Radcliffe got by on being relatively cute and absurdly close to Rowling’s vision of the prepubescent wizard. But by the second half of the saga, with puberty kicking in, Radcliffe’s short stature and catastrophic lack of charm seriously hampered a series that had always been about Harry, but was now almost entirely devoted to substantial sections of screen-time dwelling on the vapid thespian talents of its lead.

The myriad failings that can be found in the Harry Potter series go far beyond Radcliffe’s woefully inept turn, although this perception of the series as a relative failure may well be a generational thing. Having read only excerpts from the original novel this review is not meant to be a damning indictment of Rowling’s literary work, but rather focuses exclusively upon the movies. From the very first Chris Columbus directed day-glo dippy film there seemed a curious lack of tension and momentum in Harry Potter’s ‘quest’. As was noted in a previous review of this opening feature Harry Potter seems a very modern child protagonist, almost narcissistically self-involved, incomprehensibly seen as the centre of the universe and overcoming every challenge placed in his way without really having to try too hard, or develop too much. This is heroism devoid of personal growth, a cipher-hero who simply attains ‘champion’ status without having to do anything of distinction to warrant it. Yes, Harry is seen battling all manner of CGI guff, but rarely is he victorious by using skills that he has had to strive hard to achieve, more often action set-pieces unfurl, only to be nipped in the bud with ridiculous ease, by a choice spell, or daft combination of objects, that could have been carried out by anyone (and often is).

There is also a weirdly bland depiction of ‘democracy’ at work throughout the series, which reaches its apogee in the truly awful denouement of the double-length Deathly Hallows, whereby Neville Longbottom’s common-as-muck Northern realist (think a slender, elongated and equally preternaturally aged Phil Kay wannabe) dispatches the final Horcrux (has there ever been a bigger ‘crock of’ in any kids quest?) and then Harry Potter, having finally defeated Voldemort, opts to break the prestigious Elder Wand in two and throw it away. The subtext here appears to read that it is better to be one of the many and share equal power, than grasp for some higher authority and rule. As much as these are admirable sentiments, Harry Potter’s combination of dull, accountant/estate agent charisma and almost sexless physicality, makes the camp ambiguities of Alan Rickman’s heroically elitist Snape, or Tom Felton’s Draco Malfoy far more intriguing, thus diminishing the effect of such a transparent appeal to equality.

What is it with the North-West of England's obsession with the name Neville? Here our loveable BHS Cardigan wearing lummock asks, just one last time, if this is the way to Amarillo?

A lot of column inches have been exhausted in the British media about what a fabulous job the previously unheralded English filmmaker David Yates has made of transferring the darker tones of the later Potter novels to the big screen. Yet surely the most completely realised and effective of all the films was the Alfonso Cuarón directed Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Apparently this third feature treacherously deviated from the source novel (surely something to be expected when switching between mediums) meeting with the considerable ire of Potterite devotees. Yet compare the manner in which Cuarón manages to incorporate character elements into a neatly paced plot, without sacrificing an ounce of the unique atmosphere he created for the film (something that even shows in the intricacy and ingenuity of the end credits sequence), with the manner in which Yates singularly fails to make much of the more affecting material in the final four movies count. Embarrassingly there is a ten minute sequence in Deathly Hallows, Part II that manages to give more inventively constructed plot elements and character background, than pretty much all of the rest of the movies that Yates was assigned to. It’s not that Yates is necessarily a bad director, but he is merely workmanlike and rather pedestrian, whereas Cuarón brought a masterly cinematic aesthetic to the mix. It is hard to envisage the Spaniard settling on the clichéd use of yet further Lord of the Rings style CGI battle sequences, let alone managing to make them so terribly uninvolving. Rather than fearing for the wellbeing of Harry and his intrepid band of cheerleaders (yes Rupert Grint’s Ron Weasley is back to simply exclaiming what the audience should be feeling about the latest bozo SFX sequence, ‘Brilliant!’) the viewer is utterly detached and divorced from the action, leaving the troubling whiff of modern-day news coverage about proceedings. Whilst all around is being laid waste, it is very difficult to relate to this violence in any meaningful and empathetic manner. Yes, this is children’s fantasy literature, but isn’t there something just a little off about the cold remoteness with which the audience is asked to view this carnage?

During the quest for the undiscovered Horcruxes, which has taken up the narrative of the last three movies, Harry, Hermione and Ron are frequently given little cut-away moments to unconvincingly fill in narrative leaps. These tend to take the form of an absurd eureka moment, usually inspired by some random jump of logic performed by the increasingly underused Emma Watson. This gives the action sequences the feel of a particularly fantastical episode of The Crystal Maze, begging the question who is Richard O’ Brien? The way in which Harry becomes the only show in town also robs the films of any sense of ambiguity, or more complex humanity. The manner in which Watson, by far the best of the young actors, is completely sidetracked during the second half of the saga, only emphasizes the ridiculously limited focus and ambition of the Potter story, whilst simultaneously robbing the audience of sympathetic supporting characters that they can invest some degree of emotional commitment in. All character arcs seem to be sacrificed to the convergence-effect of Harry and Voldemort’s stultifying final face-off, which only goes to illustrate how monotonous the narrative is. So much of this final chapter seems hell-bent on inducing sleep in the viewer, despite the swooping crane shots during the battle sequences or the wholly unterrifying and lifeless use of dragons and giants. Even the supposedly insidious voiceover from Ralph Fiennes pantomime dame of a villain, appears primed only toward beckoning in the Land of Nod that little bit sooner. If this is indeed inspiring fantasy fare for children then precisely how dull is 21st century childhood?

Richard O' Brien has become a little more hands-on in the Channel 4 re-boot of The Crystal Maze.

Yates does strive for a solemn moment of cod-philosophising late on. With Harry Potter finally dying (alas, not for good) and being reunited with one of the few genuinely textured characters, namely Michael Gambon’s Dumbledore. Master and pupil are brought together in a blanched approximation of Channel 4’s The Word set, which may or may not be the most lifeless rendering of heaven ever seen on the silver screen. After a mundane exchange about the whole thing resembling King’s Cross Station, only without the trains, Harry and Dumbledore get down to more profound and weightier concerns. With Harry getting as existential as Radcliffe’s limited acting abilities will allow, he mentions that this all feels as if it is happening inside his head (a rather staggering acceptance of the solipsistic narcissism at the series’ core) and not actually occurring in ‘reality’. Dumbledore comes back with a line that Yates’ own directorial limitations can’t help but ghost in on-screen quotation marks: “Of course it’s happening inside your head Harry, but why should that mean it is not real?”. I’m sure that many a ‘pseud’ could parlay that particular nugget of wisdom into some lifeless culture-section piece, or pop tome on Potter and Philosophy, but really it warrants about as much attention as the underwhelming second-half of the Potter saga in its entirety. Within modern market conditions whereby a literary franchise such as Rowling’s can be converted into a multiple media platform cash cow, there seems an expediency toward good old-fashioned waffle and padding, where in previous generations an editorial scalpel may have been dispatched to rend unwanted verbiage from its sticking place. This is ultimately narrative’s loss, but as long as the box office tills keep a-ringing and Amazon enjoy hefty pre-orderings then what incentive brevity and story integrity?

Bland is the Way of the Walk - If this is Heaven then send me straight to Hell. At least there they might have heard of Armani.

Film Review:- The Future (2011)

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Dir:- Miranda July

Starr:- Miranda July, Hamish Linklater, David Warshofsky, Joe Putterlik, Isabella Acres

Miranda July’s second full-length feature film cements her growing reputation as a quirky and infuriating talent to watch. Back in 2005 July completed her debut Me and You and Everyone we Know, which was generally received with highly positive critical reviews. The film managed to finally give the actor John Hawkes a vehicle worthy of his considerable talents and seemed to herald the arrival of an intriguing new voice in American independent cinema. With The Future July takes a similar narrative approach to her previous film, only this time it is more tightly focused on a smaller number of loosely related characters, whilst simultaneously appearing to have much more ambitious thematic aims. If anything this latest work comes good upon obsessions that were first crystallized in July’s 1998 short work The Amateurist. Uniquely amongst recent cinematic auteurs July seems all too aware of how the film lens, by its very presence, alters reality. Not only do her films have an obscure, elusive and indefinable quality about them, but they often address directly the way in which the process of filmmaking has insinuated itself covertly into everyday existence. As a performance artist July is an exhibitionist by nature, but rather than just dwelling upon the narcissism of this limited artistic dynamic, she seems to be more actively probing our internet-fed modern obsessions with the instant gratification of capturing an audience, as well as the difficulties that modern technologies pose to a sense of authentic human interaction.

In that early short, The Amateurist, July worked out a film within a film, that effectively saw a supposedly ‘professional woman’ (played by July) comment on the performance of an ‘amateur woman’ (also played by July) she was surveilling. An interaction occurs between the two women that is conducted in the most awkward and difficult of ways, and is almost wholly mediated through the use of abstruse technology and jargon. This latest work by July seems to dwell on a similar predicament, but embellishes it by adding the peculiarly crippling effect of time to the mix. Almost every single character in The Future is directly affected by the manner in which the very idea of ‘the future’ forestalls the taking of action in the present. The present is a particularly elusive concept to pin down, as by its very nature it is fleeting , utterly unknown and only definable only in retrospect. Furthermore there is a sense that computer technology serves as both an enabler and a handicapper within the present, offering a myriad of potential possibilities for creative and social fulfillment, whilst all the time increasing the likelihood that a person will be unable to decide what to do with their existence. July’s work is most adept at navigating the comedy that lies between this interplay of frustration and fantasy, anticipation and reality.

Central to the film are the thirtysomething couple of Sophie (Miranda July) and Jason (Hamish Linklater). They are the kind of modern-day American definition of the term ‘hipster’, yet with none of the success that seems to hover around that unfairly applied and oft-derided term. Sophie is a dance teacher, who seems unable to do anything of particular merit with her supposed skills. Jason is a phone adviser for an IT firm, who works from home and pretends to write a novel. At the opening of the movie the couple have signed up to care for a rescued cat, referred to as ‘Paw-Paw’ and voiced by a vocally distorted July. It is the imminent arrival of the cat, a first serious attempt at responsibility, that forces the couple to take stock of their relationship and their existence. Faced with the prospect of having to look after another living being, the couple suddenly realise that they have achieved so little and want to do so much more. Yet despite this realisation, and the setting aside of a thirty-day window to achieve ‘something’, the future is an oppressive realm and weighs heavily on the couples’ ideas of what to do, as well as ultimately coming between them and tearing their relationship asunder.

Can you remember when the spoken word actually mean more than an emoticon?

With a background in the creative writing workshop short story, as well as performance art, July tends to break her narratives down into little units of ambiguous meaning, that intersect with one another at various different points, creating a vague symphony of nuance that grasps for the poetic but occasionally comes away empty-handed. The Future, although stylistically similar to Me and You and Everyone we Know, is a much more difficult movie to warm to. There is an unevenness to its narrative that isolates little moments of the movie as particularly powerful and effective, whilst failing to make the film work as a satisfying whole.

The movie begins with a visually sumptuous and delightfully framed opening credits sequence in which all of the little bits of bric-a-brac that make up a life spent together are shown, devoid of the human presences that would make these things more than simply generic. In one of the more obvious visual gags in the film Jason returns to the flat after one of his many interviews with a strange, sex-obsessed, old man called Joe (Joe Putterlik), only to find himself looking at the objects in his own flat that are almost identical to that of Joe’s. There is a very intense fear throughout the movie that a person may not be as authentic as they would like to think they are. Many times over the film focuses on replicas of other people’s realities, as if all human experience is really just a shared amalgam of consumer products and hackneyed ways of interacting and creating.

Early on July explores the idea of time being brought to a standstill. Whilst Jason and Sophie are working upon their separate laptops at the movie’s opening – inhabiting the same space but utterly divorced from contact – they briefly discuss what secret powers they possess. Jason suggests he has the ability to stop time, which he then proceeds to playfully simulate. Later in the film Jason actually does stop time, at the moment where Sophie is about to break up with him. As befits the all-encompassing inertia of the film, Jason doesn’t actually magically transform the world in this infinity of stalled time, but rather simply fails to make any suitable decision that would help him ‘progress’. July is daring enough, or reckless enough, to allow the film’s slight narrative to almost entirely collapse in on itself at this point, as if she is taking umbrage with the very idea of ‘progress’ itself. In an intriguing structural decision July actually demonstrates that time is relentlessly mono-directional, by allowing Jason to freeze the reality around him and yet time itself remains unfrozen, so that when Jason brings reality back to motion, time has moved on and the couple have missed their appointment to collect Paw-Paw the cat.

The side-plot of the cat is overly twee and yet quietly affecting, as it demonstrates another facet of this waiting around for the future to come, namely the power that anticipation gives to hope. Paw-paw sees a future with Jason and Sophie and looks forward to the days when he will be outside of the rescue cage and living in the comfort of the couples flat. Like Sophie and Jason, Paw-paw projects forward, imagining a time of comfort and happiness as part of a family with them both. Yet this projection is simply a means of making the unbearable nature of the cats confined existence palatable, until that point when hope turns to disappointment, disillusion and death.

This is what it 'feels' like to let it all out.

Another element of the movie revolves around the distinct ways in which Sophie and Jason deal with the disintegration of their relationship, alongside their possible hopes and dreams. Sophie flings herself into an internet-mediated reality, but cannot bring herself to complete the dance film tasks she sets herself. Instead she makes contact with an older man, called Marshall (David Warshofsky) who is a single father of a daughter, Gabriella (Isabella Acres). Sophie gradually enters into the curiously cold and remote world of Marshall and Gabriella (the girl spends hours inexplicably digging a hole, in which she then buries herself up to the neck, one of the more powerful visual metaphors from the movie) and attempts to make a new and very different life for herself. Meanwhile, Jason divorces himself from the internet and embraces the first cause he comes upon, in this case replanting forests. In his door-to-door advocacy of this conservation project, Jason comes into direct contact with an assortment of different people through whom he experiences a sense of ‘authentic’, unmediated reality, which forces him to question what he is doing and what he actually believes in and cares about.

Throughout these various vagaries of the plot July somehow manages to prevent the film from falling into the alienating preciousness of unsatisfying fare like 3 Backyards. This is partly achieved by the carefully cultivated ironic humour of many sequences, of which July herself is the prime purveyor. More importantly however the film has individual sequences that are so powerful that they make it possible to forgive the film’s more self-indulgent moments. Perhaps the most impressive of these comes during Sophie’s visit to Marshall in the movie’s final third. Taking up residence in his bedroom she comes across the mysterious yellow shirt creature that has absurdly followed her around the film. Pulling the outsized yellow shirt on, she becomes enmeshed in its amorphous form and performs an achingly emotional solo dance, that resembles nothing less than the complete destruction and reformation of a human being. It’s a moment of inspired and arresting wonder and beauty, which absolutely justifies the film’s various eccentricities and infuriating narrative elisions. It also brings July’s concerns with that moment of audience capture full circle, as it bewitches and seduces the viewer into going along with her arch-whimsy. An ice-cold movie, with little eruptions of comic warmth, The Future suggests that humanity finds it impossible to live in the here and now and that the fleeting moment has been devalued and eroded by the proliferation of depictions of self via modern internet media. July, at her strongest, restores some of the profoundly enchanting quality of dream to an otherwise jaded reality.

Film Review:- Ga, Ga – Chwała bohaterom (1986)

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Dir:- Piotr Szulkin

Starr:- Daniel Olbrychski, Jerzy Stuhr, Katarzyna Figura, Leon Niemczyk, Maria Ciunelis, Krzysztof Majchrzak

Put quite simply, Ga, Ga – Chwała bohaterom is a low-budget absurdist sci-fi masterpiece from the tail-end of the Communist era in Poland. Director Piotr Szulkin made a number of fairly inventive and daring movies during the 1980’s, including Golem, Wojna swiatów – nastepne stulecje and O-bi, O-ba – Koniec cywilizacji. Yet since the end of the Communist era in Poland his cinematic output has been limited to a 2003 adaptation of the Alfred Jarry play Ubu Roi. In many ways this is a great loss to Polish cinema, as the Gdansk-born Szulkin is one of the most distinctive Polish directors outside the holy trinity of Kieslowski, Polanski and Wajda.

Set in a bleakly grim futureworld in which prisoners are put to good use by being blasted out into space, supposedly to discover and claim new planetary terrain, Ga, Ga – Chwała bohaterom plays out like some twisted blend of Dark Star, Mad Max and Monty Python. The hero (or bohater) of the title is played by Daniel Olbrychski, one of the premier stars of the Polish screen (and an actor who in more open times would have almost certainly become a significant Hollywood presence). Olbrychski does sullen, Eastwood-like terseness almost as well as the great man himself and in Ga, Ga – Chwała bohaterom he wanders around the hellish ‘western’ civilization he has ‘stumbled’ upon, seemingly unwilling or reluctant to engage with anything, or anyone. What he does discover, fairly rapidly, is that the idealised notion of interplanetary discovery that both the government and the prison authorities are putting across is a lie. Rather than being sent to dangerous new planets the prisoners are sent to one particular planet where they are greeted as arriving heroes by the depraved human population that has colonised this dark place. However this hero-worship has a hidden and sinister purpose that becomes increasingly apparent to Olbrychski, who appears to have simply swapped one type of prison for another, more dangerous, one.

Szulkin, who must have been working on a shoestring budget, manages to convert areas of Łodz (Poland’s heavily industrialised second city and cinema hub), particularly the Widzew stadium, into truly terrifying frontier terrain. At times the film has a close visual feel to the night-time sequences from the cult Australian movie Dogs in Space, laced with a little of the working-class surrealism of Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismäki. One of the most impressive visual metaphors throughout the film is the way in which the old and stately rubs shoulders with the brash and modern. Christmas lights seem to illuminate every shop or bar sign, advertising various iconic American products, such as Coca-Cola and Campbell’s soup. In the bar hotdogs are sold (inexplicably made from human fingers), whilst immense pride is taken by the bureaucrats of this hell-hole in the form of transport they drive around in. Inside the hotel that, as a hero, Olbrychski has to inhabit, there is a chaotic assortment of sculptures, busts and artworks, as if the place were some lapidary cemetery, or decaying museum, in which the forgotten history of a culture was haphazardly stored away. So much of the landscape of the planet is familiar and obviously Earth-like, yet Szulkin is circumspect enough in his framing of each shot, that it unnervingly becomes an explicitly alien terrain in which humanity seems to have become hideously degraded and morally deformed.

If you could only find a way to commit a massacre with this toy piano then you'd be our one true hero.

Alongside Olbrychski another titan of the Polish screen, Jerzy Stuhr (Amator, Seksmisja, Kiler), features as the camp and craven local bureaucrat, who seems at first to have only Olbrychski’s best interests at heart. There is a certain ‘theatrical’ style of acting that comes through in some Polish cinema and television and resembles a milder form of the deranged performances extorted by Andrzej Zulawski in his 1981 horror film Possession. At its worst this manner of performance can be seen as an irritatingly ineffectual and heavily signposted anti-realism, that seems to turn every role into a cabaret comic turn. However, when given the right narrative conditions, and when executed with the sophistication of a figure like Stuhr, this type of performance can significantly escalate the absurd comic energies of a given film. Here Stuhr puts on a whining, wheedling, brilliantly brown-nosing display that comes to encapsulate the passive-aggressive implacability of ‘officialdom’. This comes across most effectively in one brilliant sequence in which Stuhr arrives, unannounced, in Olbrychski hotel room to shower the ‘hero’ in gifts of a most disturbing nature.

The depravity of the frontier terrain that Szulkin has created in the movie has a hysterical and blackly comic tone to it. Gangs of whooping and screaming individuals ride around on converted motorbikes and sidecars, letting off firecrackers and lighting eerie flares. Sex is a prime source of corruption, with Olbrychski being inundated with different perverse offerings from the very moment his spaceship lands. Stuhr’s bureaucrat presents the first of these offerings to Olbrychski in the form of a youthful Katarzyna Figura, who plays an ‘innocent’-looking prostitute called Once. Later in a wonderfully demented sequence involving Maria Ciunelis’ malevolent harridan of a whore, Stuhr’s slimy authority is called into question as he is verbally chastised by Ciunelis with the kind of inventive cursing that is so rarely heard in everyday Polish. Aside from sex, there is an obsession with violence and brutality in this frontier world. The ‘heroes’ are meant to participate in this society by committing a suitably grisly and sickening crime, so that they can then be publicly executed in a truly horrendous and highly comical manner. Having left behind a brutally oppressive and dehumanising prison life on planet Earth, Olbrychski is more and more mortified to discover that far from having the lonely freedom of deep space welcoming him, he rather has an even more distorted and disturbing version of Earth to navigate through.

Szulkin’s film is an extremely funny one, but underpinning, and in many ways fuelling, this humour is a satirical bite that doesn’t need a specific understanding of late-Communist Polish realities to make its mark. The subversive way in which it ennobles Olbrychski’s prisoner figure by showing him to have far more humanity than either the prison authorities who deal with him upon earth, or the citizens of this ‘Depraved New World’, is further complemented by the manner in which government methods of policing and bureaucracy are frequently shown to be corrupt fabrications of idealised ‘authority’. In one particularly effective, if slightly heavy-handed, sequence Krzysztof Majchrzak’s military policeman first antagonizes Olbrychski, then provokes him into committing an absurdly violent act, before finally ensuring that the necessary evidence of wrongdoing is obtained by framing the scene. It is as coy and playful an interpretation of the average Polish citizens relationship with authority as you’ll find in Polish cinema, lent even greater poignancy by Olbrychski’s baby talk protestations (from which the title of the movie is derived) that seem to suggest that the only way to respond to those who wish to infantilise you is to become truly babyish.

Now repeat after me: 'Who has been a naughty little Hero then'?

Being a Polish director Szulkin cannot resist also involving elements of Catholic religious symbolism in his work and in Ga, Ga – Chwała Bohaterom the implicit waiting for the Second Coming of Christ is found in the arrangement of objects in trinities, one on the left, one on the right and one in the centre. On a couple of occasions in the film this religious metaphor accrues an additional political meaning, as Olbrychski’s character refuses to select between left and right, but rather looks toward the middle option, the central way (neither adhering to the failures of either extreme, but seeking to balance one against the other). In this way Olbrychski’s character could be interpreted as a lone voice of reason, in a world of fanaticism and extremes. Szulkin tends to write these exchanges so that they resemble a particularly portentous take on Beckett, straining for elusive ambiguity. This is a rare false note in an otherwise energetic, sharp and wholly original take on the dystopian sci-fi subgenre. Even the naming of the planet on which Olbrychski lands has a degree of ironic sophistication, it being a new-fangled formulation of Australia, that colonial dumping ground for all those dissident elements of ‘British’ society. This excellent film is well worth unearthing and has been handsomely boxed alongside two of Szulkin’s other 80’s films in a recent Telewizja KinoPolska release, replete with English subtitles.

Film Review:- Murder on a Sunday Morning

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Dir:- Jean-Xavier de Lestrade

Feat:- Brenton Butler, Patrick McGuinness, Ann Finnell, Duane Darnell, Michael Glover, Jim Williams, James Stephens

Following in the footsteps of documentary movies like The Thin Blue Line or the Paradise Lost trilogy, the Academy Award winning Murder on a Sunday Morning examines failures in the American justice system, that have ultimately led to a young black male being prosecuted for a crime he hasn’t committed. On the morning of the 7th of May 2000, a retired couple, Mary Ann & James Stephens, were approached by a young black male in the parking lot of a Ramada Inn in Jacksonville, Florida. The husband and wife from Toccoa, Georgia were on vacation and had just been returning from breakfast when they were intercepted by the stranger who proceeded to point a gun at them and demand that Mrs Stephens hand over her purse. Moments later Mrs Stephens was dead from a shot to the face, her husband was in shock, but otherwise unharmed, and their assailant had scarpered with both the murder weapon and Mrs Stephens purse.

As all of this was taking place fifteen-year-old Brenton Butler was getting ready to go and apply for a job at his local Blockbuster Video outlet. Instead of applying for the job he ended up in the back of a Jacksonville PD squad car, whereby he was taken to the scene of the crime and hastily identified, by the sole eyewitness to the murder, as the shooter. Taken to the police station Butler was held for twelve hours by officers who seemed utterly convinced of his guilt, yet had no solid evidence to pin Butler to the crime. It is at this point that the case goes from being a routine murder/armed robbery investigation to a glaring miscarriage of justice. What transpires in the twelve hours that Butler is held in police custody is in effect the subject matter of Murder on a Sunday Morning.

Director-Producer team Jean-Xavier de Lestrade and Denis Poncet had developed a production company called Maha Productions that specialised in making documentary films that examined aspects of international judicial systems. Immediately prior to their work on Murder on a Sunday Morning, they had been examining the legal campaign for international recognition of the atrocities carried out in Rwanda during the 1990’s in a television documentary entitled The Justice of Men. The two men happened to be in Florida in May of 2000 with a film crew, as they were carrying out preliminary research for a documentary film focused on the American justice system. Until the Butler case it seemed as if the project had no clear identity, with de Lestrade and Poncet trying to insinuate themselves into various law firms to get access to trials, but not really having the narrative hook around which they could structure a film or television series. On meeting the public defender, and effectively the star of Murder on a Sunday Morning, Patrick McGuinness, de Lestrade and Poncet were introduced to an eerily vacant and expressionless young man, that would turn out to be Brenton Butler. Ultimately, it was this inscrutable image that the young Butler presented to the filmmakers that got them engaged in his case, with both de Lestrade and Poncet unable to excise the boy’s face from their minds.

Throughout the film Butler is almost a silent cipher, both inscrutable and emblematic of the way in which black voices are still routinely silenced in American society.

What follows from this initial kernel of curiosity and interest is one of the more unusual examinations of legal process that has been committed to celluloid. Effectively given unlimited and unprecedented levels of access to the trial, through the defence attorneys McGuinness and Finnell, de Lestrade and Poncet were able to catalogue the construction of a case, that would go on to prove the innocence of Butler and indict the Jacksonville Police Department for a grievous miscarriage of justice.

Central to the power of the film is the relationship that is established early on between the viewer and the principle defender, Patrick McGuinness. This chain-smoking, hyper-focused, eloquent and fearsomely righteous individual is pretty much the first figure the viewer is introduced to in the film, as well as the figure who has the last word. It is McGuinness’ skepticism that propels the initial investigations into the negligible evidence that the officers have amassed. Also, it is McGuinness who first comes to express doubt about the veracity of the eyewitness identification. Unlike in Morris’s The Thin Blue Line whereby the director of the documentary is carrying out an investigation into the facts of a case that has been tried a long time prior to the completion of the film, de Lestrade and Poncet were not actively carrying out an investigation, but rather observing the inquiries of McGuinness and Finnell. This is an important distinction because in Morris’s movie the film becomes structured specifically around Morris’s understanding of the facts of the case, as he discovers them, with Morris effectively adopting the McGuinness role and using his camera to point up the hypocrisy of the principle figures involved in convicting an innocent man. In Murder on a Sunday Morning there is less of a sense of the film as a construction and statement of the truth, but rather as a literal document of the trial and legal process around Butler’s case. This makes Murder on a Sunday Morning seem a far more transparent film than it actually is. It is very easy when faced with the slow unfurling drama of McGuinness’ probing and pushing into the shoddy police work around the case, to forget that in effect there is only really one side of the case that these filmmakers have full access to. Thus no matter how panoptic it may appear the documentary has a very obvious bias, which shouldn’t diminish its message any, but that makes it impossible to tell both sides of the story.

This is a fundamental problem with all documentary film, however. More than with any other genre of cinema, documentary asks the viewer to invest in the truth of a cinematic depiction, whilst frequently manipulating an audience into certain ways of thinking about a topic. Every documentary film has an angle upon the ‘truth’ of what is being depicted, but few documentaries reveal this angle in its entirety, instead allowing the editing process to reconstruct moments of reality in such a way as to tell the narrative that the filmmakers wish the viewer to concentrate upon. Even the most ‘objective’ processes of documentary film (such as the non-edited film of an event or occurrence) are ultimately a construct of the director. De Lestrade and Poncet try to approach the material in a linear/chronological fashion. They take the news footage of the incident as a starting point and then introduce McGuinness and Finnell into the mix and show how they have doubts upon the events of the day. They then go through the stages of the trial, with moments where the film goes off at a tangent, or digresses to focus attention upon a pertinent detail that may have hitherto been overlooked. The viewer is invited into the Butler family home, the local church and the community to which the Butler’s belong, but the viewer’s involvement isn’t filtered through the direct awareness of the filmmakers role, or the camera’s presence, but rather through the displaced identification with McGuinness, the person to whom the Butler’s have pinned their hopes. What the film subtly establishes is a sympathy and empathy for Butler and his situation, based almost entirely upon the growing convictions of the prosecutor and the bonds established between family, prosecutor and filmmaker. It makes for a wholly compromised documentary, but, perhaps, a far more satisfying and involving film.

There are at least three significant elisions within the film, one of which is an aesthetic choice on the part of the filmmakers, the other two being more likely forced upon the filmmakers as a result of their investment in the Butler side of the affair. The aesthetic choice, which is also one of the defining characteristics of the movie as a whole, is in filming Brenton Butler almost entirely without hearing him speak. This seems to stem from de Lestrade and Poncet’s initial impression of Butler as a completely detached and self-contained individual. It also serves as a wonderfully sharp metaphor, seeming to demonstrate how Butler’s voice has been silenced, or denied him by the injustice of the Florida legal system. Also, it points up the problems of presentation that the defence attorneys have to face, with Finnell diplomatically describing Butler as a male teenager, with all the sullen uncommunicativeness that may suggest. Of the two omissions that were clearly foisted upon the filmmakers, the most awkward one is the lack of access to the victim’s family and in particular her husband. The film has to rely on the testimony of James Stephens and his cross-examination by McGuinness, to give an impression of this central facet of the story. This negation of the victim’s narrative, allows the filmmakers to focus upon the other ‘victim’ of the film, namely Butler himself. It also allows the filmmakers to opt for a detailing of the trial process from the point-of-view of the defence, showing not only the trial, but how a good defence attorney would probe and shape the evidence to get at the hidden ‘truth’ of the matter. This is an important formal decision as it allows the film to be authoritative despite the fact it is clearly one-sided. It seems as if the film stands as a direct riposte to the lies of the police investigation and a rebalancing of the justice system in the way it works its own biases so thoroughly into the fabric of the narrative. In this manner it is really no loss that we fail to get access to the police side of the story.

NABBED: Can you tell me which of these words are Butler’s and which of these words are your own.

The film is at its most entertaining and horrifying in the sections during which Jim Williams, Michael Glover and, the particularly odious, Duane Darnell are caught in McGuinness’ crosshair. McGuinness is a perfect cinematic subject, with a showman’s appreciation of the camera. Prior to each of the cross-examinations, he gives a little insight into his strategies for breaking down the individual testimonies of all the police officers involved. Often these are hilariously candid little bon mots, such as when before dealing with the arrogant and sleazy Officer Darnell, McGuinness tells the camera that in response to a gibe from Darnell about his smoking, he told the officer he always likes to have a cigarette before sex. McGuinness comes prepared, knowing full well that the officers in question have already displayed a pronounced track record for laziness, sloppiness and cutting corners. Having the ammunition of his knowledge of their incompetence, he routinely embarrasses the officers during his cross-examination of them, forcing them into a corner where they either have to renounce their flawed narrative and look like a liar, or affirm their narrative knowing full well how preposterous it now looks. McGuinness compares this process to the stern disciplining of a puppy that doesn’t know where to do it’s business yet.

Amongst the many irregularities in the Butler case there is the unquestionable fact that the police jumped on the first suitable black suspect they came across, with no evidence to link him to the crime other than the colour of his skin. Disturbingly there is proof of violence being used to force a confession from Butler, with the very fact that a large, intimidating police officer like Michael Glover, regardless of his ethnicity, admittedly took Butler into a secluded area of wood on his own, supposedly to find the murder weapon, becoming a damning indictment of their investigation, in and of itself. The neglect of responsibility for the case demonstrated by lead officer Jim Williams is gobsmackingly ignorant, with Williams effectively confessing to the fact that nobody monitored Darnell or Glover whilst they were in the interrogation room with Butler. It’s this final detail that points up the significant legacy of the Butler case, as shortly after his acquittal new regulations were drawn up to make it a requirement that all police interviews were to be filmed, as standard procedure. In the film’s hastily constructed post-script further information comes out regarding the case, which shows that McGuinness’s office actually provide the police with the relevant information to catch the real killers, Juan Curtis and Jermel Williams. Intriguingly the story that is told about the shooting reveals that James Stephens eyewitness testimony was somewhat more than suspect, as his wife apparently was able to fire her cup of coffee into the face of the shooter Juan Curtis, which may go some of the way to explaining the bizarre circumstances of the shooting. In the aftermath of the case the Butler family settled a claim against the Jacksonville PD out of court, for approximately $775,000, whilst all three police officers involved in the case were either demoted, or left the force. Undoubtedly the lasting impact of this quiet, isolated young man’s struggle with a distorted justice system, is in the increased procedural requirements that all US police forces have to fulfill before bringing a case to trial.

Comment:- The Necessity of Hitchens

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Auditioning for the role of Shane MacGowan in the new Pogues biopic?

The long-expected, or if you are the National Portrait Gallery egregiously pre-empted, death of polemicist and writer Christopher Hitchens occurred today. Hitchens had been diagnosed with terminal end-stage oesophageal cancer in July 2010 and in a recent interview with Richard Dawkins, it was increasingly obvious that the disease had been taking its merciless toll. Despite this it is indicative of the sheer vitality of Hitchens ire and indignation, that even whilst riddled with cancer he was able to produce high quality writing, with his trademark polemical clarity, incisiveness and scabrous wit. It is the snapping anger of the man that will be most missed, particularly the way in which he tended to meet pomposity with pomposity, never-failing to address the rapidly accruing modern-day shibboleths within our globalising culture.

Hitchens dedication to critiquing the various different disguises that totalitarianism might take made him a prolific columnist for the likes of Vanity Fair, The New Statesmen and The Nation. Notionally a Marxist socialist with Trotskyite internationalist leanings, Hitchens, in later years, increasingly drifted toward the classical liberal socialist positions of people like George Orwell or Bertrand Russell. Many colleagues and like-minded commentators felt somewhat betrayed by Hitchens uncomfortable fawning around the Bush Administration’s post-9/11 War on Terror. However, despite this blind spot when it came to Bush, Wolfowitz, Chaney and Co., Hitchens remained incredibly cogent when it came to arguing against those who would sacrifice necessary ‘freedoms’ for the implementation of doctrine.

Quite late in his career Hitchens earned his largest public following for his very public criticism of the ‘totalitarianism’ of organised religion. His 2007 bestselling book God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, argued for an atheistic understanding of human existence and attempted to puncture fatal holes in organised theocratic thinking. It’s a perfect exemplar of the articulate, powerful, but curiously insubstantial manner in which Hitchens best polemical pieces seemed to operate.

Until recently I had failed to grasp the importance of a figure like Christopher Hitchens. Having been exposed to the powder-puff conservative paranoia of his younger, more hawkish, brother Peter Hitchens, I’d frequently adopted the habit of zoning both Hitchens’ out of my consciousness, as if they were in fact one, and the same, person (now a little more portly, now a little more angular and avian). Such benightedness was really unforgivable, as the two Hitchens, on closer inspection, seemed to share little more than an uncanny physical resemblance, a penchant for arguing and a relatively stern conservative upbringing as the offspring of a socially mobile father. Of the two siblings Christopher was always more enamoured with the flamboyance and panache of his mother’s personality, something that seems to have been a defining difference between his brother and himself, making him a far more appealing transatlantic personality.

I actually began to tune in to Christopher Hitchens far more receptively after having read his thorough dissection and ritual disembowelment of Tom Wolfe that featured in Unacknowledged Legislation: Writers in The Public Sphere (London:Verso, 2000). Hitchens was here asking, nigh on demanding, that the careful reader observe a two-way connection between writer and politics. Most people would accept to some degree a writer’s personal politics will dictate their sphere of interest in terms of writing, but what Hitchens argues goes further, demonstrating that a writer’s work then engages with the political process, either implicitly or explicitly, by lending support to dominant ideologies, or through critiquing them. This was all very Saidian, but for Hitchens the distraction of ideology being a politically left concern was one of the fundamental flaws in the formulation of the political as something distinct from the cultural or aesthetic. With the increasing relativism, both cultural and moral, applied to criticism at the end of the twentieth century, Hitchens was strongly arguing for a necessary space in which the political could enter back into the aesthetic and cultural as a means of demonstrating, or possibly prompting, engagement with the essential ideas and issues of the times. This is perhaps one of Hitchens most important points, as it addresses a way of considering the world that has drifted out of fashion since the days of Orwell, namely that there is a continuum between political conviction and aesthetic creation, with both navigating their way toward some kind of notion of ‘truth’.

Far from agreeing entirely with Hitchens every vituperative polemic, I have found myself at least challenged to consider where my own ideological complacencies lie, vis-a-vis whatever the issue is that he is writing about, or discussing. Individuals like Hitchens who so jealousy guard the right to write or say anything well are a rare commodity, nowadays. The danger of any public life is that it ossifies the individual leading it, making the political everything and thus castigating any perceived incoherencies in a person’s positions and pronouncements. The very necessity of public critics and intellectuals like Hitchens lies in their unwillingness to simply toe the line and hold fast to the ideas of the past, whilst simultaneously ensuring that a critical voice isn’t diminished in these times of liberal-conservative political hegemony and post-Capitalist cultural disconnect.

 

The Best of Hitchens on the Web

1) The Hitchens Zone – An exhaustive assortment of articles, videos and general information resources, featuring Hitchens lengthy radio doc on George Orwell.

2) Vanity Fair Index – Christopher Hitchens contributed to VF for many years and the magazine has done its best to collate much of that material and other media on their website.

3) The Guardian: Books – The literary section of The Guardian newspaper has done a good job of catalouging their love/hate relationship with Hitch.

4) The New Statesman – The left-leaning weekly news and opinion digest has frequently published Hitchens work down the years and has an extensive on-line index.

5) The Daily Hitchens – A well maintained unofficial website, that does a good job of covering his material on atheism in particular.

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