Film Review:- Czarny czwartek – Jan Wiśniewski padł (2011)

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Dir:- Antoni Krauze

Starr:- Michał Kowalski, Marta Honzatko, Cezary Rybinski, Wojciech Pszoniak, Piotr Fronczewski, Grzegorz Gżył

It would seem that of all the great Polish filmmakers from the last century Andrzej Wajda is the one who is having the most significant effect at the ‘serious’ end of the current Polish cinema landscape. Wajda’s Oscar-winning film on the Katyn massacre managed to establish a new ‘historical-realist’ agenda in Polish drama, that has seen an increasing number of movies in recent years focusing on the events of Poland’s last combustible century of history as sources for dramatic action. This has, in particular amongst those films set during the Soviet-era, led to a sort of ‘anti-propaganda propaganda’ that attempts to rewrite the failings  and omissions of the Soviet record of history, replacing it with an account that emphasises modern Poland’s abiding concerns with heroism, patriotism and religion. Next year Wajda will return with a biopic about Poland’s folk-heroic former-President and Solidarność leader Lech Walęsa, but in the interim comes a lean and particularly vicious account of the 1970 Gdansk/Gdynia Shipyard massacre that served as a backdrop to Wajda’s 1981 movie Człowiek z żelaza

Director Antoni Krauze (Akwarium, Palec boży) comes from much the same period of Łódź film school students as Kieślowski and Polanski, but has clearly been influenced by the interests and technique of Wajda. Czarny czwartek looks to construct a multi-layered examination of the events of the winter of 1970 in the trójmiasto area. It focuses on three distinct areas of action: the political decision-making level of closed-door military and politburo meetings, the street level conflicts between protestors and the army and military police, and, finally, the pained heart of the movie which examines the experiences of the Drywa family during that fateful period of violence and unrest. This is a classic ‘realist’ film structure in Poland, that clearly demonstrates the large-scale operations of society and how they then filter down to impact upon the everyday working man and woman. It frequently dominates Wajda’s work in particular, but can also be found in recent ‘cause’ movies such as Enen. Krauze deviates from the well-worn script a little, primarily in the way he chooses to frame the events of the day in a pseudo-documentary, mock newsreel style.

The symbolism of Polish blood upon a Polish flag makes the long solemn march, in the movie's tense opening 40 minutes, particularly impressive.

One of the most striking aspects of Soviet-era Polish history is the manner in which certain stories were simply never told, or were deliberately erased from the public record. Krauze manages to emphasise this lack of a public narrative to events, by subtly showing the events as they occur upon the street and then juxtaposing them against the complete lack of radio and television information being given. The fact that so little media attention was devoted to events during the 70’s presents both possibilities and difficulties for a filmmaker like Krauze. Without the public record very little can be proven outside of the conflicting accounts of eyewitnesses. One image that did become synonymous with the 1970 protest movement, is the image that gives the film its sub-title and provoked a poetic and musical response from Polish artists of the time. Zbigniew Godlewski, a young shipyard worker from Elbląg was shot and killed in Gdynia, by militia firing into a crowd of protestors from an overhead helicopter. His fellow protestors managed to hoist his body up onto a door and carried him through the streets of the city until they were confronted by more armed militia units. At the time of this event nobody knew Godlewski’s identity, so he was given the common Polish name Jan Wiśniewski, which then served as the title of a particularly frank and forthright political poem and song ‘Ballada o Janku Wiśniewskim’. The song was sung by Krystyna Janda at the end of Człowiek z żelaza and as a direct reference is reprised at the end of Czarny czwartek, in an even more guttural and impassioned manner, by Kazik Staszewski, lead-singer of one of the foremost Polish rock bands Kult.

Polish cinema is generally having a bit of an identity crisis, similar to many other ‘national’ cinemas within Europe. With its undoubtedly rich traditions (Jerzy Hoffman’s epic cinema on a shoestring, deserves a particular mention at this point) and its assortment of Internationally recognized filmmakers Polish film could, and perhaps should, be some of the most inventive and challenging of the former Soviet nations. However, popular Polish cinema is pretty much an unending stream of bland Hollywood derivatives that often don’t even attempt to hide their glaringly obvious English-language origins. As a remedy to this, many ‘serious’ Polish filmmakers have perhaps mistaken solemnity of tone and overarching portentousness for involving, high-quality filmmaking. The combined effect of these conflicting and ‘unofficial’ policies, has left modern Polish cinema with a dearth of interesting and entertaining film. Czarny czwartek is undoubtedly an important piece of cinema, as it neatly brings to light a piece of Polish history that hasn’t been fully explored and will almost certainly be unknown to an international audience. Yet it is a difficult film to watch and the style of the film seems haphazard and needlessly chaotic, as if the filmmaker was trying to unsuccessfully demonstrate the ways in which a work like this might have been censored back in the period it depicts.

This said the acting is uniformly convincing throughout, particularly when it comes to the central roles of Stenia, Bruno and Leon Drywa. Krauze does an excellent job of keeping the personal story and the political story separate for as long as possible, which when they eventually do overlap makes the events all the more shocking. Brunon Drywa (Michał Kowalski) is depicted as a reliable family man and shipyard employee, who cares most about his three children: Romek, Gabrysia and Mariolka. Living in cramped quarters alongside a live-in-lodger, Brunon and his wife Stenia (an excellent performance from Marta Honzatko) are struggling to make ends meet, but this doesn’t stop Marta from splashing out on tinned ham for Christmas, nor does it prevent Brunon from dreaming about owning his own taxi cab. The initial phases of the protest movement – which began as a result of Polish politburo leader Władysław Gomułka’s price increases on food and other everyday essentials – are viewed from a distance by Bruno and his family. Little information is revealed through the media, but hearsay spreads rumour and on a few occasions Bruno and his family are able to directly observe events unfolding in the centre of the city. Yet nothing directly impacts upon the Drywa’s until Brunon boards a train to go to work at the shipyard on the 17th December 1970.

Krauze in the chilling opening exchanges of militia fire manages to capture the incomprehensible brutality of a nation turning in upon itself. The chaos of the shooting sequences at Gdynia Stocznia train station, as well as later during the solemn protest march with Jan Wiśniewski’s body, hammer home, in much the same way as the final moments of Katyn, exactly how morally unacceptable the events unfolding are. Later Krauze’s focus upon the military police’s continued brutality toward protestors seems increasingly stylized and ineffective, particularly the protracted beating that an innocent bystander receives at the hands of an army unit and its head. But for the controlled panic and tension that spreads through the opening 45 minutes of the film this should, perhaps, be overlooked.

As with all modern Polish films about the Soviet period there is an in-built awkwardness in the way that the politburo hierarchy are depicted. The tendency is to create broad black and white discriminations between the innocent protestors for democracy and the craven and conceited protectors of the Communist status quo. Krauze initially seems to be following this pattern, as the likes of Zenon Kliszko (Piotr Fronczewski) talk in ideological soundbites with an almost inhuman ideological zeal. Amongst the party lackeys, such as Gdynia’s council head Jan Marianski (Grzegorz Gżył), there is a general feeling that action cannot be taken against a Polish city, by a Polish army and that to slaughter citizens would be utterly outrageous. However, Kliszko and the equally zealous politburo chief Gomułka (played with alternating savagery and senility by Pszoniak) effectively bully the Polish bureaucracy into order. Gomułka’s justification for turning upon his own people was the fear that Russia would commit troops to Poland in the same way they committed troops to the Czechoslovakia during the Prague Spring uprisings.

The implacable face of politburo ideology. Zenon Kliszko (Piotr Fronczewski) tells it like it really isn't.

These slight ambiguities within the high-level political narrative are then also explored in the personal story of the Drywa family. In one particularly effective scene the politburo arrive in the middle of the night to inform a still shocked Stenia that her husband is to be buried immediately (a way of enabling the politburo to gloss over the events of the massacre). The city official who accompanies the politburo operative into the Drywa flat has the temerity to ask the lodger for a cigarette, but later on this action becomes an exchange of human courtesy, as the city official stands up to the politburo operative enabling Stenia to call on her brother-in-law Leon (Cezary Rybinski delivering a beautifully understated performance) and get him to attend the funeral also. These little vignettes show that often ‘reasonable’ people found themselves stuck defending a corrupt system, which offers a little more narrative texture than the broad Communist (bad) democratic protestor (good) dichotomy.

At the very end of the film there is a delightfully constructed series of closing shots, that effectively works as a climactic emotional montage. With the Drywa family attempting to escape their politburo organised fate by getting on a train to Słupsk, the carriages pass by the scenes of the worst violence along the trójmiasto’s shipyards. Krauze focuses the viewer’s attention on young Romek Drywa and these snapshots of his father’s workplace (and the sight of his father’s death) have all the more resonance for being suggestively located in the youthful consciousness of the next generation. This artful sequence transcends some of the seemingly televisual limitations of what has come before, but regardless of this unevenness Czarny czwartek is still a haunting and fiercely angry work, worthy of more widespread attention.

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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:- Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983)

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Dir:- Jack Clayton

Starr:- Jason Robards, Jonathan Pryce, Diane Ladd, Pam Grier, Ellen Geer, Vidal Peterson, Shawn Carson

Between 1976 and 1984 Disney attempted to diversify from their patented brand of wholesome family fare. During this period a raft of movies were released that although still aimed primarily at children were clearly much darker in both tone and content. The 1983 adaptation of Raymond Bradbury’s classic Shakespeare-referencing, carny horrorshow novel Something Wicked This Way Comes, sits alongside the likes of Escape from the Dark, Return from Witch Mountain, The Black Hole, The Watcher in the Woods, Return to Oz and The Black Cauldron as emblematic of this awkward collision between traditional Disney family entertainment and a more ambiguous conception of childhood, laced with horror, mystery and more challenging philosophical concerns. At the time Disney was not alone in this trend toward the maturation of kids films. The early eighties, in particular, saw bleak works like The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth, E.T. and The Neverending Story brought to the big screen during holiday season. Whilst blockbuster fare like The Goonies and Ghostbusters (as well as the essentially adult Gremlins) pushed the envelope in terms of what constituted family entertainment. This made growing up in this period akin to a late-Victorian childhood, where a moral education appeared most effectively conveyed through the restrained use of horror and pathos (think Dickens, Le Fanu, M.R. James, M.P. Shiel and the later Edwardians like Algernon Blackwood).

Ray Bradbury’s source novel is a remarkably dense and allusive work, that deals primarily with the mutability of good and evil. It was inspired by Bradbury’s own youthful encounters with a travelling carnival and has much of a child’s curiosity and wonder at its core. Bradbury had initially conceived of the novel as a film script for his good friend Gene Kelly, but failure to attract the necessary studio backing led Bradbury to flesh out his narrative idea into a novel-length work. Disney bought up the rights to the novel from Bradbury in the mid-seventies and commissioned the author to work upon his own adaptation. They also gave Bradbury a degree of artistic control on the project, that saw the producer/director Jack Clayton (who famously directed the eerily compelling The Turn of the Screw adaptation The Innocents) employed to helm the movie. Clayton was hired on Bradbury’s recommendation, as a result of having developed a good working relationship during their time together on the 1976 adaptation of Moby Dick. With this in mind it seems odd then that one of the biggest difficulties that Something Wicked This Way Comes faced, during production, was Bradbury and Clayton’s increasingly divergent conceptions of how the finished film should look. For Bradbury it was essential that the movie retained the core of the novel’s moral incertitude. Clayton, however, was much more pragmatically focused upon making the material accessible enough to as wide an age group as possible. As a result of this creative conflict the finished film has an unevenness of tone that somehow manages to capture the essence of the novel, without staying all that faithful to it.

The film is set in a bygone forties-era, small town America of barbershops and soda fountains. Two teenage boys Will Halloway (Vidal Peterson) and Jim Nightshade (Shawn Carson), one blonde-haired and one black-haired, bond over their frustrated affections for their fathers. In Will’s case his father Charles (Jason Robards) is a world-weary, bookish and fearful man, riven with regret, who cannot bear to spend time with his son since he embarrassingly failed to save him from drowning in a fast-flowing river. Will was rescued, but by Jim’s father Harry, something that Charles seemingly cannot forgive himself for. Jim has an equally problematic relationship with his own father, as Harry has absented himself from the family home and has not been seen by wife, nor son, since. These withdrawn, or absent, paternal figures seem to have defined their own children’s adventurousness and strength of character. Will embraces action to almost the same degree that his father recoils from it, whilst Jim has the kind of reckless courage that stems from his father’s own example.

The town they inhabit is the very definition of idyllic, as it is a place where little of consequence seems to break the sweet slumber that has fallen over its residents. The adults of the town all seem to be somnambulists. From the barber Mr. Crosetti (Richard Davalos) to the matronly school teacher Miss Foley (Mary Grace Canfield), they seem incapable of effecting change in themselves and initially repress their desires for a different life under the prevailing benign contentedness that pervades the community. It is this deep-rooted and unacknowledged dissatisfaction that brings Mr. Dark (Jonathan Pryce) and his Pandemonium Carnival to town. Dark is a demon, if not the devil, who animates a beguiling Dust Witch (Pam Grier) and sets about giving the townsfolk what they truly desire. Yet these acts are by no means altruistic, as they are simply cunning illusions engineered to enslave the townsfolk within the diabolical carnival, allowing Dark to feast upon the marrow of human misery and despair. Both Will and Jim stand in Dark’s way, as they are self-possessed youths who have yet to feel the crippling doubts and fears of their elders. Their curiosity, their vitality is the very thing that Dark most fears, as it contains the potential for lightning and love, the powers that can destroy the dour and depressing illusions of the carnival. In this way a crucial ancillary role is that of Tom Fury (Royal Dano), the lightning man, who goes around selling conductor rods that channel lightning away from buildings. Fury manages to sell one of his rods to Jim, which acts as a vital defence against the very worst that Dark can do and ultimately brings about the storm which is Dark’s downfall.

The devilled eggs chase the bacon round the frying pan.

Such, almost allegorical, narrative ideas can seem more than a little muddled when transferred from book to big screen and in fact Bradbury (and an uncredited John Mortimer) jettison much of the novel’s explanatory material, making the film all the harder to follow. Yet one thing that Clayton and Bradbury have been able to capture and transport from page to screen almost perfectly is the rather intense atmosphere of dread and fear that runs through the core of the source material. James Horner’s wonderfully chilling soundtrack supplies much of this intoxicating mood. However, there is also some impressive visual horror that seems all the more authentic in light of modern CGI blandness. One particularly horrific sequence involves an invasion of tarantulas that is up their with the insect infestation sequence in Creepshow for the sheer, visceral repulsion it evokes. Pam Grier’s silent performance as the malevolent Dust Witch is also queasily evocative of Poe’s best work, her veiled beauty occasionally morphing into a Munch like personification of evil and anguish. The carnival set features two extraordinary elements. The first of these is the Mirror Maze, that ultimately serves as the scene of the final encounter between the Charles, the boys, the Dust Witch and Mr. Dark. The second is the Merry-go-round, upon which people either grow rapidly younger or older. In the Mirror Maze Bradbury seems to combine elements from Hesse and Snow White, that Clayton then reproduces in a similarly disorienting manner to the famous closing sequence of Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon. On the Merry-go-round, when Bruce M. Fischer’s Mr. Cooger is reduced to a small child, the film uses an impressive hallucinatory visual trick that harks all the way back to the very origins of cinema.

Despite the film’s plot failings it is a striking work of cinema because of this focus upon the origins and defining characteristics of the medium, namely as a source of illusion. The opening sequence that has a train approaching the screen in the dead of night, plumes of steam billowing from the engine stack, a bright white light piercing the darkness, is a direct reference to that most exhilarating of cinematic moments L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat, seeming to act as the blackened mirror image of that moment of technological magic. Later on in the movie various visual effects are deployed that make the viewer all too aware of the artifice and illusion of the film itself, most impressively in a stippled lightning effect, toward the end of the film, that seems to convert an empty field into a threatening alien landscape. When these moments of visual virtuosity are allied to the disturbing spectacle of a carnival promenading down the town’s main street, Jonathan Pryce marching at its front decked out in black top hat and tails, cane in hand, then the film appears to be self-consciously using the form as a means of examining ‘strangeness’.

There are familiar elements in the movie that hark back to works like Tod Browning’s Freaks and Clayton’s own earlier effort The Innocents. Yet, the most striking aspect of the film is the way in which it seems to serve as a visual blueprint for the far more sophisticated Hungarian work Werckmeister Harmonies, from the legendary cinematic auteur Béla Tarr. Perhaps, it points up an unrecognised, or unacknowledged, Bradbury influence upon the novelist, and Tarr collaborator, László Krasznahorkai. In another cultural crossover, the singer Tom Waits also seems to be pilfering a little of Pryce’s devilish magnetism in his promo video for the song ‘In the Neighbourhood’, from his career-changing album Swordfishtrombones. There are also parallels to be drawn between the smooth visual darkness of the film and later ghostly eighties works such as Tim Burton’s uproarious Beetlejuice and Frank LaLoggia’s sombre fable Lady in White.

As well as the unique look of the film, Clayton also manages to elicit some incredibly strong performances from the likes of Pryce, Robards and Grier. Robards was always most impressive when playing characters who combined a mixture of stoic resolve with resigned world-weariness. His turn here as the emotionally stunted librarian and father Charles Halloway, is one that manages to work out almost every imaginable permutation of despair and regret, without engaging in the fanciful histrionics of a born-again Hamlet. Robards’ still central performance could have allowed Jonathan Pryce to run amok in the hammiest of ways in the role of Mr. Dark (maybe Stephen King was thinking of Pryce’s performance when he wrote the character of Leland Gaunt in Needful Things). However, Pryce is far too subtle an actor to grandstand Pacino-style. His performance is remarkable for the way in which it suggests menace whilst exhibiting so much restraint. Perhaps the most insidious of all images in the film is that of the seductive Pam Grier. Her performance as the Dust Witch is one that is so powerfully effective precisely because she does so very little. The slight gesture of her hand, or faint nod of her head become quiet little moments of horror, that force the viewer to watch on whilst all the time indicating that indeed something wicked this way comes.   

The Female of the Species is More Deadly Than the Male: Pam Grier as the beguiling Dust Witch.

Note:- Thank you to Abby Olcese of the No More Popcorn Blog, who wrote an excellent article on the movie back in October which can be accessed at the following link. I recommend to all readers that you check out her work.

Film Review:- The AristoCats (1970)

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Dir:- Wolfgang Reitherman

Starr:- Phil Harris, Eva Gabor, Sterling Holloway, Scatman Crothers, Nancy Kulp, Roddy Maude-Ruxby

What makes The AristoCats a noteworthy film nowadays is its historical significance. It was both the last film to be approved by Walt Disney and the first to be produced and completed after his death. Alas, The Jungle Book would seem a more fitting epitaph for the great animator. It is not that The AristoCats is particularly bad, it is simply blandly mediocre in comparison to anything Disney had produced up to this point. By the end of the 1970’s many Disney fans would be looking back on the film as the last great production that the ailing, financially stricken, animation studios had produced. Yet such rose-tinted nostalgia should not be allowed to paper over the glaring deficiencies of Reitherman’s fourth major feature for the studio.

The brisk narrative is a bit like a magpie approximation of some of Disney’s finest moments from the recent past. There are bits of 101 Dalmatians in there (particular with the mercenary butler Edgar), as well as Lady and the Tramp (the alley cat Thomas O’Malley and Duchess’s wrong side of the tracks affair) and a little of the vibe of The Jungle Book (particularly in its utilising adult cultural references such as the Beatnik jazz scene of Scat Cat’s crew). Duchess (Eva Gabor) and her litter of kittens Berlioz (Dean Clark), Marie (Liz English) and Toulouse (Gary Dubin) are well looked after by their doting spinster owner Madame (Hermione Baddeley). Living in palatial splendour in a Parisian château the cats are treated like human beings, being fed the finest vanilla cream and having the opportunity to play piano, paint and generally behave as spoiled little rich kids. Madame decides that she is going to leave her wealth to the cats, so that they may be secure for the rest of their lives, after which the money will go to her put-upon Butler Edgar (Roddy Maude-Ruxby). Overhearing this Edgar decides to try to eliminate the cats immediately, so that he might inherit the wealth sooner. Driving out into the countryside Edgar abandons the cats to their fate, but thanks to an encounter with a resourceful alley cat called Thomas O’Malley (voiced by Baloo’s Phil Harris) the pampered felines are able to find their way back to Madame.

The AristoCats feels like a leisurely film, as if it were attempting to simulate the bored luxuriance of wealthy, aristocratic life. This lack of dynamism doesn’t make for a particularly exciting kids cartoon, nor is their enough sophistication in the humour and animation of the piece, to appeal to adults either. Whereas The Jungle Book had a rather simplistic and clean visual style, The AristoCats, although similarly dated, deploys a busier and more detailed scenery, whilst leaving everything with a rather static, museum quality. This doesn’t matter so much during the films interior sequences, or the sections in the country, however it impacts severely on the films credibility when it comes to the city street scenes. Never has Paris seemed so relentlessly dull and boring. Not even the desperate attempts at cultural significance, which by and large worked in The Jungle Book, have any real effect here. The portrayal of Scat Cat and his band of hip groovesters is an embarrassing take on the already outmoded Beatnik scene of Kerouac and Ginsberg.

Beatnik Bohemia Disney style. I'm not sure Hemingway, Kerouac, or Dexter Gordon were ever so 'Hip'. You dig?

There are further problems to be observed in the animation, particularly with the representation of the human figures in the story. Ever since Snow White and the Seven Dwarves Disney films had prided themselves on at least presenting cutting edge animation technology. However by the mid-sixties the studio was already experiencing financial constraints, as well as the effects of an ageing talent pool. The result had been a gradual stagnation in the innovation of the studio’s animation techniques. In The Jungle Book there were the first signs that Disney’s much lauded animation style was fossilising. However, it is with The AristoCats that the first signs of a much deeper malaise really set in. Human figures like Madame and Edgar are demonstrably sketchy in their animated realisation, with stray pencil lines breaking free from their body, as if the viewer were looking at a crudely realised flickbook. There are also moments where the animation ceases to be smoothly described, when Edgar has to hobby-horse the lawyer up the stairs, for example, which manages to breakdown that elusive and seductive spell that Disney movies had always aimed to weave.

Even the music, normally an area that Disney films excel in, is fairly forgettable. Roping Maurice Chevalier in to sing the Gallic-tinged title track seemed a coup, but its lyrical hook is almost completely absent and the melody nowhere near as memorable as a ‘Bare Necessities’. As for O’Malley’s intro song, or the woeful Scatman Crothers track for Scat Cat and his band, these are resolutely one-note, minor-key affairs, that do nothing to add some charm to proceedings. Thankfully the always reliable voice work of Phil Harris and Sterling Holloway (as the mouse Roquefort) do help to lend a little magic to the proceedings. Whilst Eva Gabor’s purring delivery certainly makes Duchess one of Disney’s more affectionately rendered characters. Yet the voice work alone cannot detract entirely from the generally low caliber, shoddy workmanship, elsewhere.

The AristoCats was the first of the Disney films I saw as a child that left me feeling a little bemused. Even the musical abstractions of Fantasia had managed to ignite something of wonder in my young imagination. Yet this flâner through a rather unregally realised upper-class Paris left little, to no, impression, save for the lightly amusing and impossibly English geese and their sot of an uncle. Normally revisiting a Disney film from this period is like experiencing a time-capsule reconnection with my younger, less cynical, sensibilities, but The AristoCats lends itself to little other than my full critical arsenal. As disappointed now as I was then, this is a cartoon that may only appeal to the feline fetishist amongst you. Even then, it may be a bit of a yawn to sit through.

Three sheets to the wind like Uncle Waldo. Probably the preferred state to be in whilst watching The AristoCats.

Book Review:- A Partridge in A Pear Tree by Stuart MacBride

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Crime at Christmas Series: 12 Days of Winter (No. 1 – A Partridge in a Pear Tree)

(Kindle Editon, London: HarperCollinsPublishers, 2011)


 

Stuart MacBride’s experiment with e-publication seems at once to be embracing the modern zeitgeist and also harking back to a much older early twentieth century tradition. The internet allows established writers to hawk their wares in bite-sized nuggets, for a token fee, without the need to worry about excessive, nigh on prohibitive, publication costs. In this case MacBride is selling off short stories at 49p a pop. However, there is an overarching design to these story publications, which will inevitably suggest the form of a printed volume, should these e-book editions prove successful. Similar to old Edwardian writers such as M.R. James and Oliver Onions, MacBride has put together a cavalcade of Christmas themed grotesqueries. Whereas the likes of James and Onions foregrounded the ghostly or the weird and left the detective elements deep within the mechanics of their stories, MacBride, as a popular crime writer, foregrounds the criminal elements (thus the Crime at Christmas moniker), whilst simultaneously applying a gloss of his favoured gruesome violence. What the reader is left with are little grim nuggets of MacBride, more like novelistic set pieces than satisfying short stories.

The first of MacBride’s projected twelve short stories, comprising the 12 Days of Winter, involves a 21 stone petty thief and cat burglar called Billy Partridge. Together with a friend called Andy ‘Twitch’ McKay, they are trying to steal a Monet painting from a well-to-do elderly couple in the fictional town of Oldcastle, where much of MacBride’s work is set, supposedly somewhere between Dundee and Aberdeen. The story is particularly slight, being barely sixteen Kindle pages long, giving very little character detail (a failing of MacBride’s novelist background) for the reader to get their teeth into. As well as this the plot isn’t particularly exceptional, revolving, as it does, around nothing more than a failed robbery. MacBride’s robust writing style that is perfectly suited to longer dissections of the grim vicissitudes of a criminal case, here seems rather lacking in the subtlety and precision necessary for the successful execution of a shorter fictional form.

Yet probing beneath the surface of the seemingly utilitarian prose, there are some nicely articulated descriptive passages, like toward the start of the story where the reader is introduced to the awkward physicality of Billy:

his XXL designer jeans smeared with moss and dirt. That’s what he got for trusting Twitch to bring the sodding stepladders. (Locations 13-21)

This manages to suitably conflate the filth marking Partridge’s clothing with the soft curse of ‘sodding’, creating a little visual image of the northern Scottish rural landscape in the process. Later on, when describing the posh area of Oldcastle that the house they’re breaking into is located in, there is a nice demarcation of haves and have-nots in the nouns used:

where Oldcastle’s old money lived. With a fine view of the Bellows and the Kings River, Castle Hill was not for the likes of Fat Billy Partridge and Andy ‘Twitch’ McKay. (Locations 32-43)

MacBride’s writing is always far more nuanced than it is given credit for and despite the narrowness of the narrative arc he manages to work away at a central theme, or concern, that adds depth to proceedings.

MacBride essentially attempts to unfold a little fable about the ‘value’ of possessions. On one side of the divide is Twitch, who seems to be entirely focused on those things of obvious material value. Whereas Billy, although initially participating in the burglary out of fear of what the gangster Dillon might do to him, expresses some inarticulate yearning for aesthetic value and the meaning that such aesthetic value might give. This division is clearly highlighted in the section in which Billy comes across the Monet for the first time:

A pear tree stood in the middle of a canvas as big as a widescreen telly – the leaves a mixture of delicate greens and dark blue, tinged with purple; the sky a riot of vermillion, ultramarine and gold as the sun set. And in the branches a single pear glistened. It was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen in his life. (Locations 101-110)

In this section the grammar of the passage would suggest the narrator is alternating between precise aesthetic detail and bland commercial approximation, either as a direct expression of the central motif of the story, or rather as an attempt at registering Billy’s own understanding of what he gazes upon, as filtered through his GCSE-level appreciation of art. MacBride could well be making a sly dig at the way in which modern culture seems to bring the popular and the particular together with ever greater frequency. This notion is further reinforced later in the narrative when the old gentleman owner of the house, whilst in pursuit of the two burglars, doesn’t scream for the return of his Monet, but rather for the return of his “bloody laptop!” (Locations 152-61). Again this could be read in at least two ways, either the old gentleman couldn’t possibly imagine a couple of ‘small-time hoods’ appreciating the aesthetic or commercial value of a Monet, or, moreover, modern culture is shown, once again, as one in which the values of commercial consumerism dominate aesthetic concerns. Not only is the gangster, Dillon, not deserving of this artwork, but potentially its monied owner also.

The set-up for the narrative is lengthy and not entirely satisfying, as the ‘shock’ denouement comes almost too abruptly for it to resonate. MacBride is careful enough as a writer to nicely pattern the Christmas setting, particularly emphasising, on three separate occasions, the white lights which will ultimately serve as the grim reaper at the story’s climax. Throughout there is an insistence on the commercial aspect of modern Christmas, from Harry Potter gifts to gaudy decorations, that even amongst such economically disparate backgrounds as Billy’s and the Castle Hill residents’ has come to predominate. Although not a short narrative masterpiece, MacBride’s first festive foray at least holds forth the prospect of further darkly subversive little riches to follow. It also offers up a nice comparison between the overly cultured ghost-investigation narratives of James, which were so popular within their own period, and the grittier work preferred of present day English language fiction – even at its more fantastical. James’ work showed a preference for a certain morality and ‘high-cultural’ value, whilst MacBride’s simply demonstrates the less clearly defined moral concerns of the present-day, along with the cultural hotchpotch of ‘high’ and ‘low’ aesthetic concerns that cannot even be perceived as defining of modern culture any longer.

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