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Unsung Gems – A Christmas Collection

Unsung Gems – A Christmas Collection

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Given that for most people reading this website, Christmas brings with it the coldest and most treacherous of outdoor experiences, it’s little wonder that cinema plays such a big part of the holiday season. Families gathering in their warmly lit living rooms next to the tree and watching classic films of heartwarming sentiment or epic scale is as much a part of common tradition as gift opening or alcohol fuelled social faux pas. While for the US the classic is It’s a Wonderful Life and over here in the rocky United Kingdom it’s The Great Escape, we all have our quintessential Xmas movie looping every year at the same time ad nauseam. ‘Tis the season for such folly, after all.

But rather than simply highlight the virtues of the Harry Potter franchise or predictable screenings of Die Hard and Doctor Zhivago, Unsung Gems takes this opportunity to pick out a handful of international entries each with their routes in the Christmas season both by setting and spirit, but in a darker, harsher and more adult tone which may not make them ideal family viewing, even if there unfairly underrated status means they should be seen to a greater degree by a larger audience. Wrap up tightly, sup on your eggnog and enjoy…

In Bruges

In Bruges (Clemence Poesy & Colin Farrell)

Directed by Martin McDonagh
Written by Martin McDonagh
UK, 2008

Rather cynically mis-marketed as a Guy Ritchie-esque gimmicky caper in advertising, Martin McDonagh’s uniquely memorable film debut instead proves to be a pitch black comedy of both brilliant dramatic flourish and hilarious comic wit that places a great deal of its intellect on sharp symbolism and casually placed metaphor. After a botched job sees a young boy killed, Irish hitmen Ray (Colin Farrell) and Ken (Brendan Gleeson) make a hasty exit and hole up in the wintery city of Bruges (…it’s in Belgium) awaiting further instructions from their bluntly cursing boss Harry (Ralph Fiennes).

While the older and wiser Ken takes the chance to explore the rich tapestry of the city, the more hotheaded Ray acts the part of sulking teenager as boredom exacerbates his all pervading mortal guilt at the mistakes made in his first hit. Briefly roused by Ray’s dalliance with a local film’s production assistant cum drug dealer Chloe (Clemence Poesy), and entertained by high jinks including copious amounts of cocaine, fights with Canadian tourists and partying with a racist dwarf (played by Jordan Prentice), the fun and laughs cease when Harry finally comes to a decision and orders Ray to kill his young partner. Cue hard boiled emotional conflict and an inevitable, bloody and dysfunctional final shoot out.

Described by various critics as ‘Quentin Tarantino meets Father Ted’, In Bruges proves to be such a freshly told story that it’s originality in tone and pace makes pigeonholing near enough impossible, hence the ill judged attempts to sell the product as an ‘X in X’ curiosity. What it instead provides is a starkly and almost offensively funny tale earning its humor from McDonagh’s beautiful screenplay, which also gives rich and deep material allowing Farrell and Gleeson to shine in a story full to the brim with pathos and emotional weight. Further memorable and intense support from Fiennes in the film’s second half provides many of the best lines and the gut wrenching and violent climax.

It makes a star of its Writer/Director, as well as giving much deserved centre stage to phenomenal character actor Gleeson and some career rejuvenation to Farrell. The trio of Irishmen at the heart of the film’s success give the platform for a seamlessly mood swinging piece that flits between knockabout farce, romance and hard edged crime thriller with every passing scene. With a lesser man orchestrating the action this would have collapsed under the weight of excess, but with McDonagh’s finesse, In Bruges instead becomes a wonderful and unforgettable seasonal flick.

The Proposition

The Proposition (Guy Pearce & Danny Huston)

Directed by John Hillcoat
Written by Nick Cave
Australia, 2005

Imbued with all the finest virtues of violent Spaghetti Western while ensconced firmly in the rarely filmed background of colonial era outback Australia, John Hillcoat’s brutally beautiful story of family and grisly lost humanity remains one of the finest of its genre from the 00’s and provided the platform for its Aussie director to make the move to Hollywood, most recently with Lawless. After a shootout at a criminal inhabited ranch, fugitive brothers Charlie (Guy Pearce) and Mikey Burns are captured by lawman Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone) and face trial for slaughtering a family with their old gang. Facing the gallows, Stanley makes the offer of the title to Charlie; track down and kill his older brother Arthur (Danny Huston) by Christmas Day, and in exchange his mentally challenged younger brother will be exonerated.

What follows is a two legged story as Stanley struggles to maintain order within his community after the nature of his deal becomes common knowledge, something he tries to hide from his loving wife Martha (Emily Watson) and aristocratically ignorant superior Eden Fletcher (a sneering David Wenham), and Charlie’s Heart of Darkness style passage into the wilds to find his psychotic, animal-like sibling and then his pensive and heartfelt voyage to a decision on whether to honor his agreement. As one can imagine from the content, The Proposition is a visceral and bloodthirsty outing, but the real merits come from the philosophical soul brought to proceedings to Nick Cave’s inspired script and his haunting soundtrack.

Making brilliant use of the Australian wastelands, darkly appropriate violence and the nation’s regrettable national heritage, Hillcoat spins a tale that stings the senses while soothing the soul that is poetic even at its most bloody. A top notch cast, also including a scene stealing turn from John Hurt as a veteran bounty hunter, turn up on their best form and work through a screenplay that is wise in its dialogue as much as its vision, delivering a sad and misanthropic story that stands up proudly as both an indictment on the blight of humanity and the amazing grace of nature. One of the most aesthetically and thematically memorable movies of its decade, The Proposition shines light on an oft-forgotten period of depravity and sticks with one for some time after. Australia; what fresh hell is this?

Wszyscy Jestemy Chrystusami (We’re All Christs)

Wszyscy Jestesmy Chrystusami (Michal Koterski & Marek Kondrat)

Directed by Marek Kotersky
Written by Marek Kotersky
Poland, 2006

Considering its national mindset of beaten down underdog hammered home by a tough 20th Century, it’s no real surprise that Polish cinema has long been home to stories full of yearning lost hope and cynical lack of fulfillment. One of its finest exports is Marek Koterski’s 2006 black comedy We’re All Christs, a loosely focused character study following the nature and implication of alcoholism and shattered family values. Adas (played as a young man by the brilliant Andrezj Chyra, and by Marek Kondrat as his older incarnation) is a down on his luck alcoholic who manages to spurn the bottle for long enough to get married and have a son. One Christmas, however, he is led astray and ruins the season with a spectacular relapse that ultimately cripples his family dictated happiness.

We follow the intervening years as Adas struggles both to get by in life after losing his job due his addiction and then to maintain a healthy relationship with his damaged son Sylwus (Michal Koterski) who begins exhibiting similarly dependencies. Employing vast amounts of religious symbolism, We’re All Christs taps into the self-loathing culture of the Polish underachievers with a wry if extremely black humor that sees the film occasionally lean towards fantasy as it aims its sights on bizarre character study. Beyond the hilariously underdressed guardian angels and ironically scripted monologues, however, is a story that is as simple as its set up suggests; the quest by one man to find salvation and escape from his life affirming vice before it’s all too late.

In this respect, there is a warm heart to Koterski’s work, one that takes a while to become clear after all the darkly funny outbursts, humiliations and shockingly abrupt confrontations. Adas despairs at the world around him, citing his country, his creed and his origins as excuses for the excesses that have destroyed the good things in his life long and hard before turning his eye firmly on himself and ditching the defensive mechanism of self loathing long enough to realize that he needs his son as much as son needs him, and that exorcising his demons is enough for some kind of redemption. Riotously funny and wonderfully eccentric, We’re All Christs is at its heart an emotionally fuelled tale of human struggle and one that deserves to be told and viewed en masse.

Gangs of New York

Gangs of New York (Leonardo DiCaprio & Cameron Diaz)
Directed by Martin Scorcese
Written by Jay Cocks, Stephen Zaillian & Kenneth Lonergan
US, 2002

A long term passion project for legendary Director Martin Scorcese, Gangs of New York sees the famed local boy ditch wise guys and rock soundtracks to delve back into his city’s rich and vivid and history and put on a place a fierce epic of astonishing scale and storytelling virtue. Long after the death of his father in an organized gang fight, young criminal Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio) returns to the hectic and multinational cesspool that is 19th Century Manhattan with revenge on his mind. In his sights is the community’s widely feared kingpin Bill the Butcher (Daniel Day-Lewis), and amidst a backdrop of nationwide struggle and political chaos he infiltrates his enemy’s gang and in the process jeopardizes his blood debt by growing too close to his new father figure.

An incredible all star cast also includes Cameron Diaz as a pickpocket love interest, Brendan Gleeson as an old family friend, Liam Neeson as Amsterdam’s late father and dozens of other recognizable faces from high and wide in a tale that is as much about the city as the inhabitants. Filmed in a meticulously constructed set in Italy and loaded with historical detail, Gangs of New York is filmmaking at its grandest and with a multi-branching plot taking in the civil war, petty crime and historically defining change in a sweepingly ambitious cinematic experience that matches up to the best of David Lean. With a huge running length and loving attention to authenticity before dramatic license, it is a glowing tribute to the dark origins of the big apple by a director clearly fulfilling a lifelong dream.

While characterization is occasionally slack, with DiCaprio struggling for consistency and presence as well as a believable accent, the performances by the likes of Day-Lewis as the unforgettable monster Bill (high strung intensity channeling DeNiro in his pomp) more than make up for any shortcomings and the sheer spectacle means there is never a duff note or a dull moment. Simply put, Gangs of New York is Scorcese at his biggest and finest, displaying his versatility with a searing and energetic film that at every corner finds a way to entertain, captivate and stun. A wonderful achievement, and a grand historical foible of the highest order.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2009 Original)

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (Michael Nyqvist & Sven-Bertil Taube)
Directed by Niels Arden Oplev
Written by Nikolaj Arcel & Rasmus Heisterberg (from the novel by Steig Larsson)
Sweden, 2009

It’s something of a trendy creed of clique to argue the superior merits of the recipient of a Hollywood remake, but for every True Grit there is a Let The Right One In, and appropriately it is Sweden to which we head in search of the superior incarnation of a great story. Before the heavy stylization of David Fincher’s version, Niels Arden Oplev put forth his adaptation of the late Stieg Larsson’s huge novel with something of a twist of the more spiteful aspects of the book’s subtext, in turn providing a much stronger human heart. Disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) is about to head to jail for slander when he is hired by venerable business magnate Henrik Vagner (Sven-Bertil Taube) to solve the long standing mystery of his beloved niece’s disappearances decades earlier.

With the unlikely help of punk chick hacker Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), Blomkvist’s efforts see him turn his attentions to the fractured Vanger family and a series of murders in the 60’s and 70’s that may hold the key to the investigation. Amidst a subtext of chauvinism and Nazism inspired punishment of the female (the book’s original title was The Men Who Hate Women), Oplev’s adaptation mixes with the formula to provide a firmly foreground partnership between the wounded Blomkvist and the inherently untreatable Lisbeth, one that is both honest to its distinctly penned characters and pleasingly committed to the idea of vindication and human connection against the odds. While Fincher’s remake scrapped chemistry for shine, Oplev zeroes in on the central duo’s growing relationship as they work on a noir-esque murder mystery which comes across as the evil twin to Agatha Christie convention.

Long in running time and heightened in dramatic purpose by character building subplots and unsavory suffering, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is a brilliantly balanced double act of thriller and drama that transcends its genre and somehow manages to hold dear the best arguments of idealism and cynicism, unafraid of cultural controversy and hammer horror shocks in search of its ultimate message and narrative purpose. With a career defining and making performance by Rapace as iconic heroine Lisbeth Salander and great understated work from Nyqvist, Oplev’s work is a deeply satisfying and pulsating film with the smarts to pull off a change in literal direction. And just in time for Christmas.

Scott Patterson