All she wants for Christmas: Michele’s self-control appears on a knife-edge after a violent break-in

Few reviewers have mentioned it, but that Paul Verhoeven’s acclaimed sex-thriller is set in fairylight-lit December brings added dimension to the suspenseful tale.


OF COURSE the huge Christmas tree in the offices of a zeitgeisty Parisian video game company is a striking Bazooka Joe pink. It screams contrived unconventionality. Yet the young people, mostly men, who work there, for all their presumed youth-cultural superiority to middle-aged female boss, Michele Leblanc (a glacial Isabelle Huppert) are clearly still a cut below her. Of the latest sexually violent animation that is their stock in trade, she demands that the orgasmic moans of a woman being raped by a tentacled monster be made suitably ecstatic.

Later that same day, her coarse lover, played by Christian Berkel (the husband of her friend and company co-founder, Anne Consigny’s Anna), will enter Michele’s small office demanding sex, and after drawing the blinds she will push him away and hold a wastepaper basket ready for him to pleasure himself instead. She apparently handles whatever life throws at her as a matter of fact. And the incidents of this particular working day are made all the more disturbing to us, the viewers, since they come immediately after divorcee Ms Leblanc’s violent rape the previous evening in her mansion by a masked intruder – at the very top of the film. After which, she cleared up with a dustpan and brush, took a bath, and then phoned for a takeway rather than the police, and took a hammer to bed – and, for now tells no one. Nothing phases her, and what’s more, she chooses how she then responds.

Foreign World Where The Loving Ain’t Easy

Director Paul Verhoeven has made a striking career out of controversy with movies such as Basic Instinct (1992), Showgirls (1995), and Starship Troopers (1997), and, for many, his latest does not disappoint on that score. For all the acclaim both film and actress have received in the wake of the release of Elle (and some reviews have focused so much on the mesmerising Huppert that you cannot help suspect that the critic didn’t quite know just what to make of what they were watching), it is not an easy ‘read’ on many levels.

Based on Philippe Djian’s 2012 novel, ‘Oh’, Verhoeven originally hoped to cast Nicole Kidman in an American version. Kidman, who had co-starred alongside then-husband, Tom Cruise in Stanley Kubrick’s darkly erotic Christmas-set Eyes Wide Shut (1999) would likely have done a fine job, but it was felt a US setting would not do the story justice. Or the film be received in the same way than if it was distanced by its foreign, French setting. (As it happens, Eyes Wide Shut and Elle would make a daring seasonal double-bill at a cinema brave enough to screen it.)

A Woman After Her Own Heart?

Michele’s determination to live beyond the status of victim, to take revenge on her rapist, appears at face-value to present an empowering, feminist vision. (Additionally, such is the presentation of practically every man in the movie as incompetent and not up to her fiery independence, including her ex-husband, Richard – Charles Berling – and dim son, Jonas Bloquet’s Vincent, that it feels like we are watching a strong candidate for the flipside of the Bechdel test[1].) She stocks up on weopanry, and takes shooting lessons, but in a plot full of unexpected twists and turns – David Birke’s script contradicts Chekhov’s famous Law [2] – Ms Leblanc doesn’t actually use the armoury she accumulated in Act One. Instead, she embarks on a cat and mouse game with her assailant. as dangerous to either as the one-sided battle between Michele’s wonderfully stoic pet cat and an unfortunate garden bird. (The cat is as deserving of an acting award as the seagull in last year’s The Shallows.)

Yet piece-by-piece, an image emerges of Michele’s murderous family background which sheds a completely different light on who she is today. Back when she was ten, her religious fanatic father slaughtered all the neighbours’ children in her suburban street, and no one has ever forgotten the disturbing image of the blank-stared murderer’s daughter apparently inveigled into the crime. Michele, then, is forever trapped in time by a photograph and defined by an atrocity committed decades earlier. She, thus, remains a victim of her childhood. No wonder, then, her reactions and reasonings appear warped. Nothing else can be any worse than then. Emotionally laced-up and scathing of her dysfunctional, over-Botoxed mother who pays for a much younger male ‘companion’, there is something of the daughter in Toni Erddmann (2016) about Michelle. (Like that German film, Elle is not without its humour,) But all these women, including Michelle’s mother are trying to escape their father/husband in their own way.

A Distanced Seasonal Ritual

In the midst of her Christmastime assaults, Michelle perversely hosts a Christmas Eve dinner and invites neighbours, family, and friends. Here, as her Catholic mother and neighbours watch Midnight Mass from Rome on the television, she is reminded of the ritual of excommunication from the Church though it is not clear as to whether she is talking about her mass murdering father, or, indeed, herself. Michele appears indifferent to belief, earlier bemused by her neighbour’s large Nativity figures positioned in her front garden as a reminder of the beginning and centre of the festival, and now, the same woman’s suggestion of Grace before people begin eating. (Au contraire, Michele will earlier admit to Anna, ‘Shame isn’t a strong enough emotion to stop us doing anything at all. Believe me.’ She is her father’s daughter.)

In Eyes Wide Shut, Tom Cruise is accompanied by a Christmas tree in almost every scene. As he wanders ever closer towards psychological and moral danger, the flickering lights and colours of the trees appear to anchor him and offer guidance, protection and hope beyond the New York night. In the offices and streets of the Paris of Elle, the rows of white lights are neatly strung, the trees a stylishly uniform and artificial hue. They are present but seem merely to offer a decorative presence in secular France.

Cats who walk by themselves: Michele Leblanc’s interior world is inscrutable, even to us

Even among the Christian guests at Michele’s dinner party,there appears a distance between their faith and life. They do not attend church at the second most holiest time (after Easter) of the annual calendar. Nevertheless, in a secular and very dark world, they attempt to keep the flame alive: the neighbour will admit to Michele that she is given strength by her faith. And the ‘sins of the fathers’ appear to be a closed book for the niaive Vincent. His view of the Pope may well be of a holy man who walks inches above the ground, but it is his brave act that saves his mother which breaks the family ‘spell’. And it is he, like the previously free-spirited William in LoveTrue who is latterly grown up and loving enough to move the Leblanc story forward by accepting another man’s child as his own. Chillingly however, as regards Michele Leblanc, we cannot tell if she has shifted one iota.


Elle can be seen at selected cinemas.


Call of the wild: the human heart-cry is an ancient one

Three true-life American love stories which weave through Alma Har’el’s sophomore documentary reveal the emotions and tensions, trauma and triumphs of modern American partnerships


THE STRAINS of seasonal staple ‘The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year’ have New York shoppers stopping dead in their tracks. It is not simply the beautiful voices that draw their attention. The Boyds For Praise Company happen to be a talented family singing group comprising seven child siblings and their father,John. But there is an element of urgency to their performance. As much as they certainly normally rake the money in, (even the youngest being handed wads of notes when the day is over), the family are desperate to raise $4000 so their Mom can leave a homeless shelter and move into her own flat, and maybe even visit them all for Christmas.

Later, in the home the children share with their Dad, the youngest, Michael sits on John’s shoulders beside a huge decorated Christmas tree. The boy precariously reaches for the very top to attach a very large star while the other children look on. Clearly their Dad is a good and loving father – but we learn too that, accoding to his ex-missus, he was a lousy cheating husband, even while a one-time church pastor. This household yearns for parental reconciliation, but a ‘Happy New Year, everybody‘ from the ex-Mrs Boyd is tellingly on speaker phone: she is calling from her new apartment. Later, she will reveal that she will never go back.

Love Is Not What It Is Cracked Up To Be

Director and cinematographer, Alma Har’el’s meditative examination of relationships and what committed love and also family might mean is bookended by St Paul’s familiar words from 1 Corinthians, so often used in wedding. ceremonies. At the heart of verses 1-13 is the challenging: ‘Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.’ The passage – and film – conclude with the line, ‘And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.’

The opening switch of the words True Love at the film’s title sequence indicate that for all the value of those culturally precious Bible verses, real love can be far more of a battlefield and often difficult to maintain however much long-haul commitment might have been desired. There is something of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Dekalog series (1989) about this documentary: life is seem to be so often very different to the hopes, dreams and myths we bring to it. Har’el follows three complicated relationships – twentysomethings Blake and Noel in Alaska; the Boyd family, notably eldest child, the questioning singer-songwriter Victory, 17 in New York; and free spirit, William and his infant son, Honu in Hawaii. What emerges is how the individuals concerned deal with brokenness, and how love in it broad definition can still withstand it.

FreeForm Fluidity Of Past And Future Selves

LoveTrue shares the brave, imaginative and poetic form that Har’el brought to her award-winning first feature documentary, Bombay Beach (2011). Similarly, her focus on three human stories remains compassionate. (Actor, Shia Leboeuf was so impressed with her debut that he Executive Directed this second.) Originally an Israeli-born music video director, it is if the Har’el brings the freedom of fluidity, choreography and a healthily detached unAmerican eye to whom and what she observes.

And she is not phased nor confined by traditional documentary form. She hires people to act out past and future stories. Often they wear t-shirts with their role. So a barefoot Young Will (Kekoa Hunt) acts out the recalled freeform youth of his older adult self. Self-defined ‘nerd’ and pole dancer, redhead Blake sits beside a fellow stripper (Mary Hanglad), who, aged 49 is realising her days at the Reflections Gentleman’s Club where they both work are numbered and she has little to show for it. The woman’s vest reads ‘Older Blake’: it seems a wake-up call to the pair of them. There are beautifully choreographed sequences too, most notably when we view surfer William’s minds-eye view of an underwater battle with the one-time good friend who had an affair with his presumed soul-mate. The score by Flying Lotus is hugely atmospheric.

Celebration Of Humanity’s Desire To Truly Connect Regardless

The Christmas experienced by the Boyd family in Love True captures the festival’s many recognised and traditional dimensions, whether or not people share the Boyds’ Christian beliefs. It is a time of joy and celebration, of charitable giving, putting on a brave face, and both gathering of family and friends and an awareness of absences. And that we can’t help noticing in Alma Har’el’s thought-provoking and mesmerising doc is the very nature of so much human love. The people who feature in her film are very honest about their successes and failures in these close relationships. Love is seen to be difficult and troubling, as well as heartwarming and positively life changing.

Of all the varieties of striving for love expressed here, it is Hawaii’s laid back ‘Coconut Willy’ who emerges the memorable revelation. His once carefree life was turned on its head during the making of the film when he learnt that Honu was not his child although he had always been his father. His response is as heroic and decent and self-sacrificial as that of Viola Davis’ character in Fences. Real-life love is still very often genuine unconditional true love.

Snow falls outside the club where Blake has made her living. Her tale of love and loss, like the others here, and the director’s own sign-off dedication of her film to her parents who always tried to love each other is a microscopic view of the entire human story. As are those fragile tumbling flakes.

LoveTrue is now available on dvd at £9.99


Senses and sensibility: a struck-dumb Mia is captivated by the sound and then the coloured-lit sight of Sebastian at the piano

It is life’s shadows which emerge amid the glare of the Golden State that give this award-winning musical its true colour


WERE IT NOT for the captioned seasons that introduce each segment of this song-filled Hollywood-set tale, we would barely know where we were. Beyond the sharp daylight and rare snow flurry, it is the Christmas tree in the flat of barista/actress Mia (Academy Award-winning Emma Stone, exemplary), and the baubles and lights strung around the bar where disillusioned pianist, Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) works that help mark time.

Trad jazz-mad Seb’s assigned set list is a cheesy Christmas medley including ‘We Wish You A Merry Christmas’, ‘Jingle Bells’, and ‘Deck The Halls’. When he chooses to go off-piste – which mesmerises a just-happened-to-be-passing Mia into entering the club – Seb is sacked on-the-spot by his stern manager (Whiplash‘s J.K Simmons). ‘It’s Christmas!’, the young man protests. ‘Yes. I see the decorations,’ his now ex-boss fires back. ‘Good luck in the New Year.’ When Mia, a silent onlooker moves to let Seb know her appreciation, he barges past her and out of the club. It is not the first time their paths have crossed: he got irate with her on a car-jammed flyover. That was no ‘meet cute’either,

Dreams Cost – And This Is Where You Start Paying

If, especially in the current political climate, you’re in the mood for sunshine and starlight, romance, dancing and singing down the street. And coming out of the cinema whistling a happy tune, you need to watch The Muppets (2011). La La Land, Damien Chazelle’s second feature (after 2014’s similarly jazz-promoting acclaimed Whiplash) is certainly full of colour, romance, humour, and dancing, and Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are a well-matched pair. But La La Land also captures the pain, sheer luck, heartache, and struggle and determination involved in creating Art. (I had tears streaming down my face during Stone’s stunning, shattering singing of ‘Here’s To The Ones Who Dream’.)

Until this movie, I had underestimated Emma Stone’s sheer acting chops. She has an incredibly expressive face and her auditions scenes are a tour-de-force. Yet notable about La La Land is how the clear and obvious talent of all the behind-the-scenes departments are blazing up on the screen, too. As much as this is a movie about Hollywood movies and beyond, (from Rebel Without A Cause (1955) to Casablanca (1943) to The Red Balloon (1956) and a myriad more, the references could act as a viewing primer for film students) it is also about the mechanics of how movies are made. Yet apart from a storming traffic-jammed song and dance number at the very top of the film, Stone & Goslings’ own song and dance numbers are pleasant rather than knock-out: their footwork is sweet but without much natural grace – though that might well be the point. For a real musical, nothing beats West Side Story (1961)

A Two-Forked Road that Divides Romance From Dreams

The pair’s growing romance is juxtaposed with the rollercoaster trajectory of their dream careers. Sebastian yearns for his own jazz club (Gosling’s piano-playing is notably accomplished), while Mia desires to be a film actress They both begin very much in the same place of hoping for a break. When Seb loses the job he doesn’t even really want, made worse by it being at Christmastime, it runs parallel with Mia’s string of failed auditions. Their shared end of year predicament is reminiscent of the account in award-winning documentary Searching For Sugarman (2012) of Detroit singer-songwriter Sixto Rodriguez’s releasing ‘Cause’ with its prophetic lyrics: ‘Cause I lost my job two weeks before Christmas’ just before he was dropped from his record company on the turning of the year. It is not just that nobody will be hiring anyone until January but December is supposed to be an upbeat jolly twinkly month of family and celebration, isn’t it?

These two support each other but their dreams and the path each is on comes into conflict with the other. Women are no longer prepared to simply support a man while he fights for his own success. As also suggested by his debut, Damien Chazelle does not appear to believe that the road to success can ultimately be accomplished without choosing solitude. For all the sweetness of the couple’s dancing together so often and tellingly in the neon and artificial light of Hollywood, their dreams of life and love conflict.

Dreaming of the road less travelled?: love might prove a missed opportunity for Seb

La La Land might appear a challenge to Hollywood’s usual happy-ever-after. The course of Mia and Sebastian’s true love never did run smooth: it became tangled, split in two and went off at completely different tangents! Instead, it is staying true to your one true dream that is presented as the alternative myth. That is, just another romantic Hollywood fantasy.

La La Land is now available on DVD & Blu-Ray

Out in the cold: Lee Chandler’s life is stalled by his frozen heart

A man entombed by the chill of grief, guilt and despair is warmed by the ordinary hometown love of friends and family in a humane and grounded film classic


SNOW SITS DEEP on the streets of the small waterside town where hunched Boston janitor, Lee Chandler (Academy Award-winning Casey Affleck) has returned to face his brother, Joe’s death. The rare Christmas wreaths visible in a number of front doors are notable by the fact that not one carries any decoration. And there are barely any inidcators of Christmas colour anywhere else either. This is a chilly, bleached out world encapsulating Lee’s glaciated interior. It is as if he carries the snow and ice with him. (There is also a burning rage behind his eyes that bursts out physically and uncontrollably in bar-room brawls and swearing at the tenants whose pipes he unblocks.)

Lee is shocked to discover that, in his will, the chronically sick lone-parent, Joe (a contrastingly warm Kyle Chandler) assigned his brother the guardianship of his 16 year old son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Lee is not in that place, and knows it. Yet, Joe’s beyond-the-freezer ‘gift’ (the Manchester ground is too hard yet to bury the body) forces Lee to take an adult responsibility that he rarely took years earlier – – and ultimately led to tragic consequences. Ever since, it has been as if Lee has been serving time until his own death.

Earthed Humanity That Is Not Afraid Of Life’s Loose Ends

Kenneth Lonergan’s third feature in 15 years (his output is as slow-burning as his films) follows the acclaimed You Can Count On Me (2000) and Margaret (2011). All have in common sterling performances, especially from their leads (Anna Paquin was robbed of a Best Actress Academy Award nomination as Margaret); plus a determination to recognise real life’s knots, tangles and loose ends at the back of its supposed rich tapestry that conventional Hollywood movies would rather not admit. And a cameo by Matthew Broderick. (In Manchester By The Sea his slightly out-of-kilter smoothness in contrast to the rest of the cast sits perfectly in his role as Patrick’s Mom’s evangelical Christian fiancee.)

If Lonergan isn’t the tightest of editors (I would have been happy with Margaret ending an hour earlier, and there was a moment in Manchester By The Sea when I felt things were not going anywhere), it can also be read as his honest reflection of how life actually happens. The film’s soundtrack is heavy-handed at times, but Jody Lee Lipes’ cinematography is beautiful, and will undoubtedly draw visitors to the Massachusetts town.

There Is More To Life Than Life’s Body Blows

Interestingly, Manchester By The Sea happens to be the second film in the UK’s traditional ‘January Awards Season’ after A Monster Calls which has as its main theme the pain of living with heartbreak and deep grief. There is a moment in the England-set film where a divorced father admits to his son that rather than the fairy tale ending, ‘Most of us get messily ever after.’ It is the ‘messily ever after’ of real-life lived by ordinary people we could so easily be or encounter that is playwright/screenwriter/director Kenneth Lonergan’s concern.

Whereas A Monster Calls harks back to a pre-Christian spirituality that is literally earthed in Nature, a quiet all but unspoken Catholicism lies beneath Lee’s pain. It is as cultural as that of the Boston Globe reporters in last year’s Spotlight but there is a suggestion that it might be more than that. When Patrick, returning home from visiting his Born Again Mom (Gretchen Mol) and her fiancee dismisses them as being ‘Christian’, Lee reminds him: ‘We’re Christian, you know.’ He cannot stop looking at churches as he drives past them ,either. Lee’s belief seems like the hard-won thread than runs beneath all the harsh experiences and choices of Andrew Garfield’s Father Sebastian in Silence.

Hope And Lightness Accompany Life’s Nightmares

Lonergan doesn’t make life easy for his characters, but there is lightness and humour to be had too. He recognises that the loss of a child carries a lifelong grief but that that is not the end of the story. (The theme, too, of the 2016 Nick Cave documentary One More Time With Feeling.) Lee’s ex, Randi (Michelle Williams making a devastating impact in her short screen time) retains a broken heart yet has remarried and had a baby and carries deep remorse for how she treated Lee and forgiveness over the loss of their children. She can admit her love for him even while he remains devoid of any emotion.

So, when a sly smile breaks across Lee’s face as he learns to understand his nephew better, it is heartbreaking for us, the audience. In flashbacks throughout this often emotionally raw movie, we have learnt how much this new-found happiness, however fleeting, has cost him.

Brotherly love: In life, Joe’s enveloping compassion fails to break through Lee’s devastation (This still alone kills me.)

And when a small group of family and friends at last can gather around the newly dug graveside, and there remains a space on the family tombstone left for the broken son, the ring of love that never gave up on Lee is tangible. His healing is not yet over (whether it shall ever be this side of life), and he knows it is too painful to remain in Manchester, but Lee is not where he began, and he knows he is not alone.

Manchester By The Sea is now out on DVD and Blu-Ray

Into the wild: a growing lad must converse with an ancient natural force to face his future

Like George Bailey in Christmas classic, It’s A Wonderful Life (1946), young Conor O’Malley cannot escape his limited fate so he must learn to live with it. And so grow.


FOR A 13 YEAR OLD boy, it seems like a dream. Conor’s Dad, Liam has just turned up from America where he lives with his new family, and is suggesting his son join him in L.A. The teenager (Lewis MacDougall) is excited. L.A sounds like sunshine, bright colours and a new life for the boy – and freedom from his washed-out English life where the sun barely shines; he is being mercilessly bullied at school; and is presently living with his too strict and seemingly unfeeling Grandmother (a miscast Sigourney Weaver). And, worst of all, his single Mum (Felicity Jones) is dying of terminal cancer while assuring her aware son that she will get better. And then his Dad adds, ‘We were thinking over Christmas. That way, you could be back home in time for school.’ Conor’s heart sinks.

Like a chorus line for whenever they meet, Liam (Tony Kebbell) will assure Conor that he will be ‘going to come to L.A for Christmas’. (It often occurs at the pier, a place of fun and joy for a Dad and his boy but also suggests that Liam s trying too hard to reconnect.) Except Conor has listened to his father and seen through such promise. ‘In your cramped house where there’s no room for me,’ he spits out, throwing his Dad’s excuse that he couldn’t stay in the United States for ever right back at him. He is also adamant that he does not want to leave his sick Mum on her own in England for the festivities, presumably snce he fears she might die in the meantime.

A Lost Boy Finds Hope In The Wild

Sunshine and Christmas seem a New World away. Conor is essentially ‘stateless’ while his Mum is ill in hospital – and the unsaid question is where he will live should she die. He certainly does not want to remain with his grandmother. He’d feel an entirely lost boy were it not for the unexpected appearance of a huge leafy giant who has emerged from the ancient yew tree that stands in the cemetery on the hill. He sounds exactly like Liam Neeson (which is reassuring since he is also Aslan and Qui-Gon Jinn. On the other hand, Neeson is the assassin known for declaring: ‘I will find you. And I will kill you.‘ And, currently featuring in Scorsese’s Silence (2016) as a Jesuit missionary to Japan who denied Christ. The rotter!)

Which makes Neeson’s casting hugely appropriate. Whenever this Monster appears at 12.07, day or night, although he clearly delights in rolling the name’Conor O’Malley‘ around his mouth, we are never quite sure whether he has the teenager’s best interests at heart as he ‘encourages’ the boy to smash up property and people. He is a truthteller and a truthseeker, weaving a series of three tales for Conor and challenging him to reveal his own truth cum nightmare for the fourth tale. As with the ghost tales for Scrooge in Dicken’s ‘A Christmas Carol’ (1843) it is by facing the darkness of his heart that Conor shall be set free to live, however painful that might be.

An Ancient Spirituality Primed For Our Time

Patrick Ness, author of the acclaimed YA novel on which A Monster Calls is based (Ness also wrote the film’s screenplay), faced criticism for his apparent lack of imagination in reprising ‘A Christmas Carol’s three-stories-within-a-story style. On the contrary. That and Liam’s overplayed reference to Christmas ironically emphasises what Ness’s story is not. And by doing so, focuses on a very contemporary strand of English spirituality.

The beautifully animated tales in earthy reds and browns the Monster weaves, emerge from a time of kings and farmers’ daughters, knights and dragons, apothecaries and priests. The stunning watercolour washes bring to mind the 1930s children’s hymn, ‘When A Knight Won His Spurs’, which, interestingly ends with the couplet: ‘And let me set free with the sword of my youth, From the castle of darkness, the power of the truth.‘. Which is *exactly* what the Monster is endeavouring to help Conor to do. He is thousands of years’ old which suggests an attractive pre-CHristian sensiblity of an ‘original England’ reaching out to Conor’s post-industrial world.

Fairy Tales With Very Human Endings

The Monster’s stories, based on his own experiences, rather than have conventional happy endings with a clear sense of who is good and who is evil, are far more interesting and thought-provoking than that. He show humans to be conflicted beasts, a mix of right and wrong, with a contradiction at the heart of so much of our behaviour. By the third tale, the Monster is telling of Conor’s own invisibility that will burst into visibility with too much force. But destructiveness can be positive too, revealing dark truths that once confronted enable new life. And Conor must hug his mother as tightly as possible in order to let her go.

As kids we need fantasy to understand reality,’ director J.A. Bayona has explained. ‘This is what fairy tales were written for. Using fairy tales we can understand very complex emotions and thoughts that, the other way around, we wouldn’t be able to process as kids. So I think fantasy is more effective in telling a better comprehension of life and life itself.‘ [1] At one point, hearing of his parents’ failed marriage, Conor will say to his Dad, ‘So you did’nt get ‘happy ever after’?‘ ‘Most of us get ‘messily ever after,‘ is Liam’s very honest, true and lived experience of an answer.

A Modern Mythical Tale Of A Boy’s Bereavement

A Monster Calls celebrates the value of storytelling as well as the manual treasure that is drawing and painting from the heart. The Monster – himself perhaps the embodiment of the mythical ‘Green Man’ – has witnessed the origins of fairy tales before they were sanitised. That he provides ‘hope in the wild’ (as the poster strapline goes) with a ‘manchild’ is the continuance of a 2016 cinematic trend via films including The Legend of Tarzan, Jungle Book, Pete’s Dragon, Captain Fantastic, Hunt For The Wilderpeople and even Revenant and Room where the natural world is where ‘home’ is found away from the troubling contemporary world.

it is to J.A Bayona’s credit that his use of a range of animation techniques including blue-screen and digital does not detract from a very earthed and undoubtedly English tale. An incredible and terrifying sequence in a graveyard also emphasises the quality of young MacDougall’s acting, while underscoring Bayona’s real gift as a director of teenage boys. (Tom Holland’s superb appearance in The Impossible (2012) was reminiscent of Christian Bale’s debut in Empire Of The Sun (1987) – and he makes a hidden appearance in A Monster Calls too.)

It is only January, but A Monster Calls is already a shoe-in for one of the films of 2017.


Shadowlands: the warming light of decorations does not touch everyone

The release of the restored television and cinema classic presents a timely refocus on an urban community at Christmastime


It is the evening of Christmas Eve when Poles celebrate the festival, and on a grey Warsaw housing estate a man dressed as Father Christmas is getting ready in his car before heading off with his sack to an apartment block. A little girl will answer the bell and he will tell her in a deep voice that ‘Santa Claus is here’. In his stationary car, he has already been passed by a drunk man dragging a fir tree behind him and weeping, ‘Where is my home?

As the block door opens, dishevelled bereaved father, Kryszytof (Henryk Brnaowski) whom we recognise from the first episode of this acclaimed television drama happens to come out. As his neighbour, Santa wishes him ‘Merry Christmas.’ ‘Sorry, I didn’t recognise you,’ replies the broken father, his words weighted with so much unspoken truth about the loss of his young son, Pawel. (The boy’s fate was sealed when his father gave him a premature Christmas present of a pair of ice skates.) Kryszytof looks through the block window and sees Santa entering a decorated living room. It appears as magical as the Mexican front room Arthur Christmas (2011) is in awe of. Santa hands out presents to his two small children, his wife and older relation. It is a jolly scene of family celebration – a Christmas archetype – yet we also see that there are those it shuts out by default, who are left with their noses up against an icy window pane at this time of year.

Ten tales that capture frail and troubled humanity

As the restored highlight of a box set comprised of almost the entire television output of acclaimed Polish film director, Krzysztof Kieslowski, Dekalog (1988) has acquired a deserved place in the cinema canon of the late Twentieth Century. Written by Kieslowski and Krzysztof Piesiewicz, and loosely based around the Ten Commandments, it began life as a low budget ten part monochrome tv drama series. Money was so tight that the filmmaker could only afford two takes maximum but this gives each tale a naturalistic tone. We feel very close to these people. The series’ reputation grow beyond Poland (two of the sections were made into films, A Short Film About Love and A Short Film About Killing (both 1988), and Dekalog was celebrated beyond Eastern Europe at film festivals and included in cinema programmes.

In fact, the series can be effectively read as an extended film about a community centred on a Warsaw housing estate in the 1980s, where an individual whose story is told in one episode will be seen in the background in another one. (Kieslowski was to repeat this pattern in the remarkable Three Colours film trilogy, most astoundingly in the final scene of the finale, Red (1994).

A heightneed view of ordinary lives

Throughout Dekalog, an all but silent man observes the lives and stories playing out before him: he could be termed ‘Christ-like’ but he is a much like the Berlin angels of Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire (1987), observing and standing by human beings but having no agency on what befalls them. None of the stories are prescriptive or moralistic but rather raise questions and do not take spiritual sides.

Indeed Dekalog speaks to viewers wherever they live of ordinary human predicaments and responses to recognisable circumstances. Today, the series can also be regarded as a semi-historical account of a people emerging from Communism into their own confused and often troubled autonomy even while there is no mention of this: people simply get on with their lives.

City-wide search for meaning

The Christmas Eve episode is the third in the series – Dekalog 3 (Dekalogy Trzyi) is based on the seventh Commandment ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery.’ [Exodus 20: 14) it is effectively an hour long three-hander. The tale revolves around Santa –Jamusz (Daniel Olbrychski); ex-lover, Ewa’s search for her partner, Edward this winter’s night – and how she inveigles Jamusz into helping her in her quest even while he has left his suspicious wife at home.

Yet Dekalog 3 also turns out to be a rather touching fable about individuals’ search at this time of year for some sort of meaning. En route, we are shown how different beleaguered people celebrate Christmas: from taking their own life; drinking enough to end up naked in a grim cell; singing together at a care home; or celebrating Midnight Mass. Ironically for all this sadness, the screenwriters express an inclusive humanism. All these ‘minor’ Chirstma stories are as valid and important and worth looking at as the traditional family celebration at the episode’s heart. ‘It’s difficult to be alone on a night like this,’ admits Ewa at one point. Her ex’s reply: ‘People shut themselves in, draw the curtains’ is a pertinent comment about how exclusive a traditional Christmas can be. Dekalog 3 honours those people on the outside too.

Santa Claus and guardian angel

And Jamusz’s comment suggests he’s very aware of his role this Christmas Eve. He has stepped outside that decorated comfort zone. He seems to sense that, for this one lonely night, the Santa in him shall guide Ewa (Maria Pakulnis) beyond her despair, even while they deceive each other along the way. It is reminiscent of the angelic company of Nicholas Hoult guarding the suicidal Colin Firth in A Single Man (2009). By the morning, Jamusz and Ewa part, flashing their car lights at ach other.

Presumably, this was their old signal when they were having an affair, but this Christmas night they have spent together it has been redeemed into an act of fondness: a genuine farewell. Returning to his wife, Zona (Joanna Szczepkowska), it is clear to all three that the good and honest Christmas deed was done that night. The light of the season made itself known.

‘Dekalog and Other TV Works’ Dual-Format Blu-ray & DVD plus interviews, commentaries and a 128-page collector’s book is available from at a special offer price of £49.99 (RRP £64.99) from 31st October.

Like father, like son: Bruce Willis and Jai Courtney contemplate their mirror image (Photo: Twentieth Century Fox)


The slow strains from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony accompanied by gunfire and explosions over nothing but a black screen at the very onset of A Good Day To Die Hard is, come to think of it a clever trick that on the face of it seems rather a dim gesture. Heck, it’s not as if we needed to be reminded that this is the latest – count em: fifth – in the John McClane franchise. But that classical extract draws us mentally right back to the original and best, the Christmas-set Die Hard (1988), conveniently hurdling over the sequels and especially the aberration that was 2007’s Live Free Or Die Hard (aka Die Hard 4.0), the edition that many fans would rather did not speak its name.

And what’s so surprising about this reboot of the Die Hard franchise is how well A Good Day To Die Hard fits. I write as someone who can take or leave action movies, but credit where it’s due to ones that play well to someone like me who’s most at home watching quiet character-led indy pictures like Richard Linklater’s Before… trilogy and foreign films like I Wish.

Passing on the baton

The point is that the Die Hard films know what they’re good at – throwing Bruce Willis into a maelstrom of shattering metal and glass and having him coming back fighting and with a wise crack on his lips. Here, he’s the same John McClane, only balder, and it doesn’t even matter if he’s a police any more. He’s headed to Russia to pull his son, Jack (a well-matched Jai Courtney, due to appear in this year’s Suicide Squad) out of an apparent almighty mess he’s got himself into – and has to swallow a smirk when he discovers his boy’s actually a CIA operative, referring to Junior flippantly as ‘double-O Seven of Playing Field, New Jersey.’

It’s obvious that the baton passing from getting-too-old-for-this-game Willis/police officer McClane to holding-his-own Courtney/spy Jack aka John McClane Jnr is no accident. The Daniel Craig-fronted revamp of Bond as well as the success of the Bourne films are stiff competition these days, and the Die Hard producers look keen to play ball and what’s more, from this film alone seem up to the game. If the plot seems shaky and convoluted, and the situations improbable, well, that’s par for the course for this film genre. As well as jaw-dropping vehicle chases, there’s a tremendous all-but-final sequence of a helicopter crashing vertically through a building as McClane and son themselves go tumbling down through the same floors to land, virtually unscathed, in a convenient swimming pool together.

A fight for family

Let me ask you something. Do you go looking for trouble or does it always seem to find you?’ asks a bemused Jack, trying to make sense of his Dad. ‘You know, after all these years I still ask myself the same,’ Senior replies. And no surprise, because the truth is that all this shoot ‘em up bluster is a huge McGuffin to disguise the Die Hard films’ fundamental tale of an Irish Catholic New Yorker attempting but not always succeeding to do right by his family. The first two Die Hards were both set at Christmastime with loved ones crossing the country to be with their family a major part of the plot set-up. In A Good Day To Die Hard, McClane is crossing continents to gather up the clan. Family ties are key.

Marriagewise, John has failed abysmally. The pressure and hours of his job and his recognition that wife, Holly (Bonnie Bedella) ‘was the best thing to ever happen to a bum like me’ at the end of Die Hard wasn’t enough. He saved her from her plane falling out of a snow-filled sky in the sequel (‘Oh, John, why does this keep happening to us?’), and left her hanging on the other end of the telephone in Die Hard With A Vengeance. The fourth film put the nail in the coffin of what had been a clearly struggling partnership indicating that the pair were long divorced (the film’s only notable point). Turns out we had been watching the sad tale of a marriage breakdown all along.

Killing bad guys together

At the onset of A Good Day To Die Hard, McClane and grown-up daughter, Lucy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) are on good terms. She waves him off at the airport with a ‘Love you, Dad. Just try not to make a mess of things.’ Lucy clearly has her father sussed. Jack, however, has a bone to pick with ‘John’. (Tellingly, when a shocked son’s getaway van’s path is blacked by McClane Snr in a Moscow street, he blurts out ‘Dad?’ in surprise, but he immediately changes his tune.)

The two haven’t spoken in years. ‘How come you never called and told me where you were?’ pleads John. ‘Like you give a shit,’ fires back Jack. Ouch. Of course, the point is that these two are too alike, that ’killing bad guys’ is both their thing. But they have to risk a fatal dose of radiation at the ruins of Chernobyl, being shot at and the possibility of being blown to smithereens together to realise it and be fully reunited.

For while John McClane might have made a balls up of his generation. his fatherly instinct to go and bring his boy home indicates that he’s going to make damn sure that splitting from his children’s mother wasn’t the end of the family. He seems to have learnt his lesson, even as he appears to be bowing out.

A Good Day To Die Hard is on Channel 4 at 9pm.

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