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

SEASONAL LOVE STORY GLOWS IN BRIGHTLY LIT L.A’S DARK CORNERS

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

AN ALWAYS WINTER, NEVER SPRING EXISTENCE BEGINS TO THAW

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.

CONOR’S MIDNIGHT GUARDIAN

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.

[1] http://screenrant.com/a-monster-calls-interview-ja-bayona/

dekalog
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

KIESLOWSKI’S CAROL FOR THOSE LEFT OUT IN THE COLD

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 http://www.arrowfilms.co.uk 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)

FAMILY MATTERS AMID A MAELSTROM OF METAL AND GLASS

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.


Wrong direction? Expectant mother, Ella (Charlize Theron) struggles to find sanctuary

Stuart Townshend’s docudrama challenges the West’s spend spend spend bonanza highlighting how it comse at a price the planet, its environment and people simply cannot afford

SEASONAL STRUGGLE FOR A WORLD OF PEACE AND JOY

It appears to be the calm after the storm. On the morning of the snow-flecked Wednesday st December,1999 – and two days since Seattle, Washington played host to the opening ceremony of the World Trade Organisation’s five day Ministerial Conference – the streets are empty, and people are regrouping and nursing their wounds.

For on the first day, thousands of protesting human rights, trade union, and environmental activists converged on the city centre, hoping to peacefully stop the talks. And yesterday, protestors’ well-orchestrated blockades cut off not only the main conference venue but the entire downtown core.

The police used tear gas to disperse the crowds, and as things kicked off, a conflicted Mayor (Ray Liotta) who hoped his city would be seen as a bastion of free speech and right to assembly, declared a State of Emergency and called in the National Guard. Protestors such as Andre 2000’s turtle activist, Django, er, turned turtle and, passers-by including heavily pregnant Ella (Charlize Theron) and plainclothes officer, Channing Tatum faced attack from police batons.

Heartbreak Does Not Stop For The Holidays

On the third day, and the first day of Advent, the falling flakes of winter snow act as silencer and comment on this chaotic world. They are soon trodden into the ground or melt in Seattle’s urban warmth. The point is that as much as any of us might hope for a renewed sense of Christmas – a new start as the calendar turns to December 1st, and a sense of a bit of sparkle in the ether – life is simply not like that.

Crisis and pain, stress and heartbreak don’t take a break until January 6th, but any bad news or tragedy that does occur during the last month of the year is made more pignant since it has taken place during a recognised season of celebration and family gatherings. For Christians, Advent is after all the time of preparation and waiting for the coming of the birth of the Prince of Peace.

Surface Level Calm Covers A Deeper Stress

What is interesting about actor Stuart Townshend’s directing/scriptwriting debut is how his docudrama emphasises that the way to a fairer, just and peaceful world – what might be argued as the underlying unifying hope of believer and non-believer alike at this more heightened time of year – is not a straightforward path at all. In fact, everything seems to conspire against it.

Earlier in the film, we have seen Ella (Charlize Theron, Townshend’s then partner), return to work in a department store after her five months pregnancy scan. She is completely oblivious to the gathering storm outside as she wanders the aisles and perennial Christmas movie favourite, Jingle Bells tinkles through the store.

This is how Western Christmasses are played out these days: beside the traditional family gathering is the sanitised surface-level calm and just so decorations of a quality department store at this time of year. The pressure may be on the shopper but the venue is designed to feel special and Christmassy. It is a scene we recognise not only from our own lives but also from Christmas films such as Elf and Twelve Monkeys, and the newly released Carol. These sparkly temples of merchandise are emblematic of what we recognise as an American Christmas.

The Unjust Truth Behind The Tinsel Curtain

Battle In Seattle challenges our cheery cosy assumptions of the season: that as long as we spend, spend, spend on our loved ones and wrap everything in tinsel, Christmas has truly been celebrated and all is well with the world. The protestors present another side to the story, lifting the curtain on the real cost of our shop-centred lifestyles and festivities and how the environment, communities and wildlife globally pay a price. By the time Howard Schutz, CEO of Starbucks appears on the television news, lamenting. ‘For us to close our stores during the peak season, the holiday Christmas season just beginning, really is an injustice,’ Townshend has made clear that the definition of ‘injustice’ depends where you stand.

Hoarding has replaced shop windows; a young couple are grieving the death of their unborn child; protestors are being rounded up wholesale; and inside the conference itself, a representative of Doctors Without Borders is calling for people before profit. In another meeting room there are not enough translators for the African caucus to have their voice heard above purely commercial interests. And then a heartbroken police officer, Dale (Woody Harrelson), husband of Ella chases an activist, Jay (Martin Henderson) into a church and, out of his grief, unstintingly lays into him as an organist practices ‘Silent Night’; to a backdrop of a nativity scene. What a metaphor for the spirituality of Christmas: not irrelevant but rather present, still calling its message to a chaotic, hurting world if we will only listen.

Battle In Seattle is not an anti-Christmas film, but it asks questions about how we celebrate the festival. For those of us who enjoy the lights and decorations everywhere, it is not demanding a hairshirt celebration but rather suggesting we alter our perspective if only just a little for the good of all.


Eye to eye contact: start point of Rooney Mara’s and Cate Blanchett’s exquisite screen pairing

Falling in love raises our spirits and brightens our perception of all we survey, so what better than to wrap it in the delicious chill of the snowbound sparkle of the New York ‘holiday’ season?

LOVE IN A COLD CLIMATE

Staff have been instructed to wear Santa hats at Frankenberg’s Department Store in Manhattan. As they line up to start the day, they are each wished ‘Compliments of the Season’ as they are given one to wear. Yet in the dolls section of the lavishly decorated Winter Wonderland of Toys, one young woman stands behind the counter minus hers – until she is told off for being hat-free. Therese (a luminous Rooney Mara) is guarded by sentries of expensive baby and girl dolls, yet she seems a dreamy young woman out of sorts with this world: she eats alone in the canteen too.

Until, one day across the crowded floor her eyes latch on to the lady in the fur coat who appears so stylish and wealthy. Their paths cross when the older woman (a stately Cate Blanchett) seeks advise about a gift to buy her young daughter – Therese suggests a trainset – and the two women exchange small talk. Before she turns to go, the shopper tells the shopgirl, ‘I like your hat.’ Moments later, from the melee of the crowd, she will turn her head and the pair exchange a glance. Later, in a letter, long after these two have had a wintertime affair, the older woman, Carol will write: ‘There is no such thing as an accident‘. On their very first meeting, it turns out she has left her kid leather gloves on the glass counter, and they will need returning.

Sumptuous Afterglow That Tempts The Heart

Todd Haynes sumptuous adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s semi-autobiographical novel,The Price Of Salt (1952) covers similar ground to his earlier Far From Heaven (2002) Our Twenty First Century sensibilities are brought to bear on the story of same-sex desire during a less liberal era. The rich Douglas Sirk-inspired colourwash and Fifties’ settings of both Hayne films is balanced by the transparency of relationships which were only opaquely depicted in pictures from that period.

The initial setting inside a lavish department store captures the potential magic of such places at this time of year (providing the store manager has the decorative imagination). Frankenberg’s is a luxury temple of tinsel and sparkle which draws the shopper and leaves an afterglow in their minds when they leave. Both women have the same effect on each other.

Carol Aird is in a stilted, indifferent marriage that is hurtling towards divorce, while Therese Belivet is a frustrated photographer yearning to jump careers. The two women seem to recognise something in the other that the younger Therese cannot yet verbalise. She is dating Richard (the upright, 50s’-faced Jake Lacey) but is unsure what she wants from life. ‘Would you like to marry him?’ enquires Carol. ‘I barely even know what to order for lunch,’ the shopgirl replies. As much as Carol is a tale of deep, painful longing, it is also very funny.

Loving With Uncertainty

Therese is like Heath Ledger’s Ennis Del Mar in Brokeback Mountain (2005). While both films are couched as homosexual love stories, both involve a character whose sexuality is not clearly defined. The fatherless Ennis did not seem to know what he really wanted, while Therese admits ‘I never say “No”. I don’t know what I want, and how could I when all I ever do is say “Yes” to everything?’ It is as if she is fearful of missing out on life and its rich experiences. Yet the film is very much about the younger woman’s perception of the glamorous eponymous character, and of her first true experience of being in love. It is Therese watching through the camera viewfinder and writing in her engagement diary for December 21 Sunday: ‘lunch with Carol’.

Carol, meanwhile – as with Ennis’ lover, Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) – knows exactly what she wants. Long ago before she married, she was in a relationship with her friend, Abby (Sarah Poulson), and the attention she gives the young shopworker seems predatory. (Later, Abby remarks: ‘She’s young. Tell me you know what you’re doing.’ Carol replies: ‘I don’t. I never did.’)

Trapped And Betrayed By Society’s Expectations

Carol is not a Christmas film per se. However, like The Hunt (2012) and The Apartment (1960), its most significant moments occur during Advent. This time of year in the Northern Hemisphere is one where people come wrapped in coats and scarves. (The early Fifties was also an era when everyone wore hats and smoked, providing a fine metaphor for keeping a lid on one’s thoughts and desires while stifling even the air in one’s lungs.) Carol’s and Therese’s affair is one of unpeeling of barriers and defences over the course of the season and into the New Year. Conversely, a lot of the time, characters are shot through windows and behind doors as if they are closed in by society’s expectations.

As with Brokeback Mountain, we are made aware of the emotional impact this affair has on the partners left behind. Carol’s husband, Harge tells his estranged wife as they dance at a Christmas party: ‘You’re always the most beautiful woman in the room’, but his continued adoration for her will never be enough for her. The adoring Richard is potentially setting out on the very same road. Carol is a film about people who are swept along by their feelings and the consequences for good or ill of that – and that includes the menfolk too.

Seasons Of Love And Life Keep Turning

Carol and Therese effectively flee by car to New Jersey for Christmas and later will embark on a road trip. They leave the artificiality of the department store and New York’s decorative lights, and emerge out of the very new New Jersey Turnpike Tunnel from where they will encounter the more natural world. ‘I love the snow. Makes it feel like Christmas, don’t you think?’ Carol points out as she drives. They stop to view real fir trees: Therese snaps Carol with the camera Carol gave her for Christmas. The gift clearly chimes with Therese’s dreams but it is also a challenge to open her eyes and see things differently.

There is an innocent quality about Therese as if she is going along for the ride while open to whatever might transpire. Yet the custody of Carol’s young daughter is at stake, and even as the two women are drawing closer in intimacy, Fate is stacked against them. Snow falls and there is an atmosphere of glittery frostiness yet also a promise of spring in the air as they travel cross country. In a hotel in Waterloo, Iowa they will wish each other a Happy New Year and for the first time they will make love. And it will shortly be followed by deep heartbreak; then reappraisal and renewal for each individual.

Others.will choose to euphemistically dismiss Therese and Carol’s love affair as ‘The events of the winter’. Yet the Christmastide meeting and the enveloping of the couple in all the sensuous shine and magical lighting of the season represented so much more. As Carol later reminds Therese when all seems to have been lost: ‘We gave each other the most breathtaking of gifts.’

Carol went on general release on Friday.

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