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  • David Parkinson

Parky At the Pictures (22/12/2023)

Updated: Dec 24, 2023

(Reviews of The Boy and the Heron; Tchaikovsky's Wife; Cats in the Museum; Raging Grace; There's Something in the Barn; and Teddy's Christmas)


THE BOY AND THE HERON.


So revered is the Studio Ghibli brand that it's a heresy among film critics to admit that, while the graphic elements in Hayao Miyazaki animes are often sublime, the fanastical storylines and enchanted creatures sometimes leave them cold. A gentle man with a passion for nature and a tolerance for human foible, Miyazaki tends to keep his message simple so that it's not lost amidst the flights of fancy and passages of impish surrealism. This is again the case in The Boy and the Heron, which comes a decade after the visionary yarn spinner announced his retirement. It's been suggested that there are hints of autobiography in what may or may not be the 82 year-old's swan song and there will be those who wish that he had further explored this thread rather than meandering off into yet another magical realm.


As Tokyo is fire-bombed in 1944, 12 year-old Mahito Maki (Soma Santoki) races after his father, Shoichi (Takuya Kimura) to the hospital where his mother works. The building is ablaze and the boy is unable to save his mother. A year later, he is still having bad dreams. So, his father decides to leave the capital and move to the rural town of Saginuma, where he takes up a job at a factory making war planes.

Shoichi also springs the surprise that he has married his sister-in-law, Natsuko (Yoshino Kimura), who is already pregnant. Having bowed to a military parade passing along the street, she places her stepson's hand on her bump, as they bounce along in a pedicab on the rutted road leading to the family estate. Mahito is overwhelmed by the size of the house and a towering turreted edifice that abuts it. He is even more taken aback by the gaggle of elderly maids, who grab his suitcase and begin marvelling at the scarce foodstuffs it contains.


Natsuko shows Mahito to his room, but he feels no connection to her and crashes on to the bed, where he dreams of his mother reaching out from a ball of fire. The boy is woken by tapping at the window and he sees the grey heron that had swooped on to the porch on his arrival. Following the bird across the garden, Mahito enters the abandoned tower to collect its feathers. Through a crack in the wall, he sees a spiral staircase. But one of the maids, Kiriko (Ko Shibasaki) fetches him back to the house because Natsuko is looking for him.


Over supper, she explains how the structure had been designed by her eccentric granduncle to house an object that had come from outer space. However, it was sealed up after he suddenly disappeared.

Dismayed by seeing his father kiss his aunt when he gets home from work, Mahito slinks backwards into his room. He endures a miserable first day at school and, having been beaten by bullies on his way home, he gashes his head with a stone so that he has an excuse not to return. The maids fuss over him, while his father vows to get even with the boy who harmed him. However, a stooped maid warns him that things tend to be strange around these parts and that it's best to leave well alone.


Now able to speak, the heron (Masaki Suda) informs Mahito that his mother isn't dead and that he knows where to find her. Jumping from his bed, the boy follows the bird to the lake, where he is greeted by chanting fish and leaping frogs. However, Natsuko saves him with her bow and arrow and Mahito is suitably impressed that he makes his own, with his arrow being fletched with one of the heron's flying feathers.


After firing the arrow into his bedroom wall, Mahito upsets a pile of books and finds a copy of Genzaburo Yoshino's book, How Do You Live?, that has been inscribed by his mother. While he reads the tome, he notices Natsuko wandering into the woods. When she fails to return, the maids become concerned because she is suffering from morning sickness. Mahito offers to help Kiriko search for his stepmother and leads her into the tower. She is wary about entering, but they follow a long tunnel and find themselves in a large room with a divan in the centre. Mahito approaches, as he thinks the figure sleeping he can see is his mother. But the illusion melts at his touch and the heron cackles that he created it.


In annoyance, Mahito fires an arrow that whizzes around the room and pierces the heron's beak. Bereft of its power of flight, it turns into a bulbous-nosed, goblin-like birdman, who is ordered by a wizard to act as Mahito and Kiriko's guide. With the floor softening beneath their feet, Mahito finds himself descending into a sub-aquatic world. Landing on terra firma, he approaches a building whose gates bear the legend, `Those who seek my knowledge shall die.' A scoop of pelicans swoops down on him and push Mahito through the gates. But he is rescued by a young Kimiko, who takes him aboard her red-sailed dinghy. They catch a giant fish and she sells it to a gaggle of bubble creatures known as `warawara'.


They feast on the fish and Mahito is astonished to watch them swell up and float into the sky. Kiriko informs him that they are destined to become humans in the other world and Mahito is appalled when the pelicans start to attack and devour the warawara. Mercifully, they are saved by Lady Himi (Aimyon), who uses fire to drive the predators away. One pelican (Kaoru Kobayashi) asks Mahito to put it out of its misery, as it explains that his people had been brought here and had been forced to feed on the warawara because there are so few fish in the sea. Feeling pity for the noble bird, Mahito buries it and the birdman is taken by his decency. He offers to take the boy to Naksuto, but he insists on finding her himself. Kiriko suggests that they work together and Mahito restores the heron's power of flight by

fashioning a wooden plug to repair its beak.


As they press on, Himi saves Mahito from a chatter of man-eating parakeets and gives him sanctuary in her cottage. Feeding him with a jam sandwich that reminds him of his mother's bread, she sends him to sleep in a bed surrounded by wooden replicas of the old maids. Himi also shows him a different view of the tower, which she explains straddles both worlds. Sneaking past some parakeet guards, they amble along a corridor with green doors giving out into different realities. They are spotted by the parakeets and have to cling on to the handle of the open door or they will be stranded back in the human world. Searching for his missing family, Shoichi sees his son, but is unable to prevent him from swinging back into the tower.


Creeping along a passage whose stone walls give off electrical charges, Himi and Mahito learn that Natsuko is in the delivery room. Taking a risk, Mahito passes through the ornate curtain and sees his stepmother reclining on a bed. Above her, a rack of paper streamers rotates gently. As he gets closer, however, the breeze gets up and the strips start sticking to him and he begins to mummify after Nastuko suddenly sits up and bawls that she hates him and wishes he'd go away. In desperation, Mahito acknowledges her as his mother, just as Himi incinerates the paper.


By entering the delivery room, however, the pair have breached a rule that the Parakeet King (Jun Kunimura) takes extremely seriously. As a consequence, Mahito is chained to the wall in the busy parakeet kitchen, where he dreams that he meets the wizard he had seen earlier. He turns out to be his mother's granduncle (Shohei Hino), who is seated at a large desk beneath a hovering dolmen. As the boy approaches, he sees the white-haired old man puzzling over a teetering stack of stone blocks. Granduncle explains that they represent the world and the need for balance between human need and the good of the planet.


Turning to the boy, the old man asks if he is ready to become his successor, as he is tired and feels the world is in need of a fresh perspective. As he ponders the gravity of his decision and the fact that the stones are imbued with malice, Mahito wakes to see the birdman (badly disguised as a parakeet) weave his way between the busy chefs to crack open his manacles. The tiptoe out and ascend a steepling wooden staircase in pursuit of the Parakeet King, who is escorting the glass case containing the unconscious Himi. He plans to use the woman to bargain with the wizard, as he knows she's of his bloodline. But he holds back in order to spy on Mahito and his granduncle.


The old man has found new stones that are free from malice and renews his request for Mahito to become responsible for the world's affairs. However, the boy remembers the scar on the side of his head and laments that the malice that caused the wound disqualifies him from such an onerous task, especially as he needs to prioritise his relationships with those who love him. Bursting into the room in a rage, the Parakeet King smashes the toy blocks and they scatter. In an instant, the world begins to come apart, with the seas dividing and flooding the land. Grabbing Himi, Mahito and the birdman exploit the chaos to make their escape.


They arrive in the corridor of green doors at the same time as Natsuko and Kiriko. Mahito realises that Himi is his mother and implores her to pass through the door with him. But she accepts her fate and embraces her sister to thank her for taking care of her child. While Kimiko and Himi remain behind, Mahito, Natsuko, and the birdman bundle through the door numbered 132 and are greeted in the human world by Shoichi and the maids. Close behind them are the parakeets, who shrink in size as they take to the skies, and they are followed by the pelicans, who are greeted with awed cries, as the air is filled with the sound of flapping wings.


Amidst the euphoria, the birdman takes Mahito to once side and advises him to forget his experiences and focus on living to the full. The boy puts his hand in his pocket and finds the carved Kimiko that he had taken as a souvenir and he's amazed when it turns into the old lady and everyone heads home, as the heron resumes its normal shape. Looking back at the end of his long life, Mahito recalls that they family returned to Tokyo two years after the end of the war and he joins his parents and step-sibling at the foot of the stairs after a final look around the room that had led to adventure.


Got all that? As you can see, there's an awful lot of plot to take in and much of it seems to unfold according to Miyazaki's whim. Given the career he has enjoyed and the delight he has given millions, that is, of course, his prerogative. But, while some might hail this freewheeling fantasy as the last visionary odyssey of an inspired imagination, others may see it as an accumulation of cockamamie contrivances.


Ultimately, the tale matters less than the means of its telling. The images created by Miyazaki and art director Yoji Takeshige often have a painterly beauty, with the depiction of sunlight through foliage being particularly striking. There are also lovely moments, such as the train journey being reduced to puffs of black smoke across a landscape that artfully obscures the train. If one didn't know better, one might also say that the veteran director is paying passing homage to some favourite animations, as the fire-bombing compares with similar scenes in Isao Takahata's Grave of the Fireflies (1988), the glass coffin recalls Walt Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), the march of the parakeets resembles the stride of the fascistic hammers in the `Another Brick in the Wall' sequence of Alan Parker's Pink Floyd: The Wall (1982), while the wooden doll evokes memories of the hole that Ringo Starr has in his pocket during the live-action coda at the end of George Dunning's Yellow Submarine (1968).

True Miyazaki aficionados will be better placed to spot the summative self-reflexivity. But it is worth noting that, with its typically apposite score by regular composer Joe Hisaishi, this is a rare example of a Miyazaki anime with a male hero, as the focus has fallen on girls in such classics as My Neighbor Totoro (1988), Kiki's Delivery Service (1989), Princess Mononoke (1997), Spirited Away (2001), and Ponyo (2008). The bow and arrow feels a bit borrowed from Susan Pevensey in C.S. Lewis's The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, which this allegorical wartime quest in a troubled realm sometimes seems to echo. And why shouldn't it, as there's nothing wrong with acknowledging one's influences.


It's been quite a year for octogenarians making comebacks. Few will believe that `Now and Then' is the best Beatle song, but it was nice to have a reminder of the greatest band of all time and the love that Paul and Ringo still feel for John and George. Several reviews have concluded that we should be similarly grateful for one last Miyazaki, even though this song of innocence and experience is not a vintage outing. The consensus is that his messages about humanity and the natural world are always worth reiterating and that it's always a pleasure to spend time in the company of a master draughtsman and a beguiling storyteller. Even the stubbornly unconverted will find it hard to disagree with that.


TCHAIKOVSKY'S WIFE.


Russian director Kirill Serebrennikov has no time for Vladimir Putin, as he has made clear in such challenging pictures as The Student (2016), Leto (2018), and Petrov's Flu (2021). However, he pokes the bear rather more blatantly by considering the sexuality of one of the nation's most beloved composers in Tchaikovsky's Wife. Antonina Ivanova Miliukova has already been memorably played with knowing intensity by Glenda Jackson in Ken Russell's The Music Lovers (1970). But this 143-minute saga seems curiously disinterested in either her marital motives and subsequent mental anguish or her husband's music. Perhaps the point is solely to make an epic about a gay icon at a moment in Russian history when such an act is politically, professionally, and personally courageous.


In St Petersburg in 1893, Antonina Miliukova (Alyona Mikhailova) struggles to find the right words to put on a wreath for her late husband, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (Odin Lund Biron). Arriving at the place where his body has been laid out, she is appalled when the composer rises from the catafalque and fulminates about how hateful her presence has always been to him. She holds back the tears, as he is helped to lie back down and thinks back to the time she had first met him.


He had been the life and soul of a gathering hosted in Moscow in 1872 by one of her relatives and she had asked to be introduced with a view to becoming one of his pupils. Antonina had invited Tchaikovksy to her rooms and informed him of her devotion and intention of becoming his wife. She admits that she had known nothing of his music, but is determined to protect him from those who would distract him from composing. Taken aback, Tchaikovsky had told Antonina that he had never loved a woman and would not make a good companion. Indeed, he had felt intimidated when she had averred that she would kill herself if he spurned her.


Despite his hasty retreat, Antonina had recognised that Tchaikovsky had money troubles and she had borrowed passages from a book in writing to confirm her feelings and mention that she could sell her share in a forest that the family owned. Against his better judgement, he had returned to her abode and consented to propose. Antonina's mother (Natalya Nikaronovna), however, had been furious with her for throwing herself at a nobody who had a fraction of the talent of Felix Mendelssohn.


The couple had married in an Orthodox ceremony in July 1877 and Antonina had enjoyed the fuss of being pampered as she changed from her white dress for the wedding breakfast. Her sister, Liza (Ekaterina Ermishina), compares the event to a wake, as the comatose groom is poured into a carriage after drinking himself senseless. The next day, they had travelled by train to meet his father and law school friend Prince Vladimir Meshchersky (Andrey Burkovskiy) had barely been able to contain his amused astonishment when Antonina had claimed that she had won Tchaikovsky's heart, when his old classmate (who is accompanied by a handsome soldier) knows he is an `inveterate bachelor'.


She gets a further inkling of this when they run into her husband's favourite student, Tolya Brandukov (Aleksandr Gorchilin) in St Petersburg and he had looked back wistfully after their encounter on the street. Plagued by stomach trouble, Tchaikovsky had been rude to Antonina when she had received news that the forest sale has been delayed. He had apologised by claiming to be too old for her and too used to being alone. But he had promised to be more companionable once his opera was finished.


Once back in Moscow, however, he had become increasingly distant and Antonina had been hurt when he told her that he detested the red dress she had planned to wear for their photographic portrait. She had been further dismayed when a friend at a drunken soirée had urged her to flee. Yet, that same night, she had attempted to seduce her husband in bed, only to be pushed away in a display disgust that had left her distraught.


Determined to do whatever she could to make her spouse happy, Antonina had accepted the verdict of brother-in-law and Nikolai Rubinstein (Miron Fedorov) that he needs complete rest in order to avoid having a breakdown that would deprive the world of his genius. Consequently, she had gone stay at the Kamenka home of his sister, Sasha (Varvara Shmykova), where her piano playing had been appreciated by her nephews and nieces. However, Sasha had received a letter from her brother in which he had described the torment of living with someone he found repellent. She had implored Antonina to divorce him and free herself. But she had remained devoted, despite sleeping with her lawyer, Aleksandr Shlykov (Vladimir Mishukov), while drawing up the documents for the separation. Tchaikovsky's brothers, Modest and Anatoli (both Filipp Avdeev), had attended the meeting with the judge to apologise on his behalf. But Antonina had refused to sign anything that accused her beloved of adultery.


Moreover, she had seemed incapable of comprehending Rubinstein's tactful explanation as to why Tchaikovsky didn't find her attractive. In a bid to coax her into seeing the benefits of being single, the pianist had brought five strapping men to his rooms and had them strip naked so that Antonina could choose one to become her paramour. But it's suggested that she had sampled all five and still remained obdurate.

Much to her mother's fury, Antonina had refused to betray Tchaikovsky to the police and had even followed him into a restaurant bathroom in order to plead on her knees for another chance. He had tried to apologise before walking out on her, but she had continued to speak of him in reverential terms when his lawyer had come to pay her allowance. She had made a point of entrusting him with a shirt she had made for her husband and had denied even knowing Shlykov, despite the fact they were co-habiting and had three children together. Having seen her sitting in a circle of candles and calling on supernatural forces to change Tchaikovsky's heart, he had beaten her for refusing to show him any affection.


Such had been her enduring fixation with Tchaikovsky that she had attended his concerts and ignored the spies he had follow her. On one occasion, she had gone backstage to see him and they had argued in a side room. She had critiqued his music and insisted that he had declined after Eugene Onegin, which she claims had been about their passion. He had begged her to leave him alone, but she had taunted him with her constancy and made anti-Semitic remarks about his envoys. Cursing her for haunting him, Antonina had whispered that Tchaikovsky would have no life without her.


Shlykov had died shortly afterwards and Antonina had knelt before her piano before it was lowered out of the window. She had dreamt of posing for a picture in a graveyard with Tchaikovsky and her children dressed as angels. But she had been woken by fire and had been crestfallen that she had left her wedding ring in the room after having been lowered to the street. Tchaikovsky's lawyer had been barely courteous to her when she had explained about having to send her children to an orphanage. But she had taken her money with a final wish that her spouse should die a painful death, only to be crushed by the news that he had died of cholera.


A closing sequence, in which Antonina dances through empty rooms with naked men (some wearing Tsarist sailor caps) provides an eccentric coda to a film that had largely been restrained to the point of austerity. Indeed, there are points where this feels more like something by Aleksandr Sokurov than Kirill Serebrennikov. Yet, despite the earnest excellence of Alyona Mikhailova (particularly in her depiction of Antonina's cruel, but quixotically self-inflicted psychological decline), this never quite compels.


This is partly because Serebrennikov's screenplay firstly fails to provide Anotonina or Tchaikovsky with any backstory and then proceeds to calcify their characters in 1872 mode, so that they don't evolve over time. This approach may be historically apposite, but it doesn't make for much dramatic tension. But the narrative structuring doesn't help much in this regard, either, as the action often feels like a loose string of rigidly controlled tableaux vivants. Nevertheless, there are set-pieces such as the railway station farewell that combine long-take virtuosity with compassionate insight, while the recurring sound of buzzing flies in the genteel drawing-rooms suggests something rotten in both the marriage and the society that begat it.

Daniil Orlov's score is elegantly refined, but the absence of Tchaikovsky's music besides some snippets from Swan Lake and `Francesca da Rimini' is ultimately deleterious. The film also suffers when the composer is out of the picture, as Antonina's encounters with his siblings, friends and lawyers are hamstrung by them being so thinly sketched. The same is true of Shlykov, whose relationship with Antonina is almost treated like an afterthought, even though its callousness reinforces the central contention about the status of woman in a remorselessly patriarchal society.


Vladislav Ogay's moodily lit production design, Dmitry Andreev's distinguished costumes, and Vladislav Opelyants's dexterously fluent cinematography are all exemplary in the way they conjure imperial opulence while contrasting it with Antonina's mournful existence. As a result, this is markedly more subdued than Ken Russell's blowsier account. But it's also a lot less interesting.


CATS IN THE MUSEUM.


Ever since the release of Margy Kinmonth's documentary, Hermitage Revealed (2014), it has felt like only a matter of time before somebody made a children's film about the institution's famed feline population. In fact, it's taken almost a decade for Vasiliy Rovenskiy's Cats in the Museum to reach cinemas. But, such is the slenderness of the storyline, it seems as though a little bit longer might have been needed.


Washed overboard at sea, a ginger and white cat (Jordan Worsley) fetches up on an island with an abandoned mansion. There, he becomes enamoured of a painting of a woman and her cat and spends a happy year prowling and snoozing. Occasionally, he has to dodge a growling black dog, who hasn't the sense to stop leaping at the cat and falling through the upper-storey window.


One day, however, the dog lands on a run-aground boat that gets caught on the tide and rams the rock on which the house is perched. As it starts to collapse and the sea rushes in, a kindly mouse named Maurice (Stephen Krisel) - who has been hiding all this time - invites the castaway to shelter in a harpsichord that floats away on the tide. Maurice explains that he had come to the island to feast on a famous picture (because he comes from a long line of art experts), only to discover on his first bite that the painting was a fake. Recognising the image from the mansion, the cat is pleased it has been saved. He is even more delighted when Maurice dubs him Vincent (after Van Gogh) and they are winched aboard a container ship that deposits them in the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg.


Maurice is explaining that this is the most famous art collection in the world when he is chased by three plump cats. When Vincent tries to intervene by saying he had saved the painting from the mouse by devouring him, he is introduced to Puffin, Muffin, Boffin, Brownie, and Townie by Max (Nathan Ford), who is the leader of the Hermitage cats, who have been on duty (in what was then the royal palace) since they saw off a plague of rats for Catherine the Great in 1789. Max also tells of a blue ghost that terrorised the court until it was captured and sealed inside a vessel.


Overwhelmed by his new surroundings and keen to keep Maurice safe, Vincent slips away to warn him. However, he bumps into Cleopatra (Maria Smakhtina), an Abyssinian cat who informs him that the Mona Lisa is about to go on display in the museum. Unable to find Maurice, Vincent is corralled into a search for the rodentine intruder and pads along the harpsichord keyboard to warn his friend to make himself scarce. The ruse works, but Puffin is suspicious and vows to keep an eye on Vincent, as the Mona Lisa must be protected at all costs.


While the resident cats have a snooze in a basement that's filling with water because Maurice turned a tap on, Vincent and Cleopatra go on a gallery tour. Maurice is supposed to be giving Vincent trivia to spout, but his eyes are only on the edible exhibits. As Vincent tries to make him behave, the ghost menaces Cleopatra and she calls Vincent her hero when he chases it away.


Spotting the Mona Lisa being wheeled past to be hung, Vincent dashes off and prevents Maurice from getting close by setting off an infra-red alarm system. However, Max needs him to help recapture the ghost, while Cleopatra wants his full attention. Unfortunately, Vincent gets possessed by the Scottish-accented ghost (Michael Kleeman) and he starts to glow pale blue. Squeaker the dog (who looks just like the one the island and is even dimmer) comes charging into the gallery and smashes the vase just as the ghost was being sucked out of Vincent's posterior (seriously)!


Still melded together, the pair fly down the River Neva before crash-landing back in the gallery. The ghost discovers he can enter paintings and goes in search of the one he escaped from. Meanwhile, the two gormless security guard turn off the alarm for the night and the Mona Lisa promptly vanishes. Vincent thinks Maurice has gone back on his word and scoffed it. When the cats are ejected from the Hermitage, Vincent owns up to having sheltered the mouse.


However, Maurice comes to his rescue and describes how a cat with spots and stripes - who turns out to be a disgraced museum cat named Meatloaf - had stolen the painting and raced across town to deposit it in the basement of a church. When they go to investigate, they discover Max in cahoots with Meatloaf in a plan to refashion famous paintings by shredding them with claw marks. With the other cats caught in a cage, Maurice gets to be the hero, with a little help from the ghost, who discovers his home in a French painting of a lady with a lap cat.


Summing up, Vincent reveals that the ghost got bored and went travelling again, while Max became a celebrated scratch painter. People came from across the world to take selfies with the Hermitage cats, while he and Cleopatra had kittens and learned that things are better if everyone stops fighting and starts collaborating.


Coming from a Russian film, this seems an ironic message at this particular juncture in human history. But the joke will largely be lost, as it's hard to believe that many will get to see an item that has been shoehorned into the schedule in the hope of making a quick buck from the absence of a Christmas blockbuster suitable for young children. This is a shame, as the premise is essentially sound and the CGI is slick. Indeed, it even feels atmospheric both inside the museum and along the Neva, while the animated paintings gag is rather inspired. It's just that the storyline is preposterous, the characters are crass, and the voicework is tenth rate.


At least there are no songs. But the inevitable video game knock-off action sequence is present and correct (as Maurice hurtles along in a toy train), as is the tepid romance (which serves only to make Cleopatra seem preening and needy). Given that the only other prominent female figure is the bossy gallery supervisor, this most certainly doesn't offer much by way of role-modelling for any girls in the audience. It's short on charm and entertainment value, too. Maybe it'll sell well on disc in the Hermitage bookshop.


RAGING GRACE.


Having impressed with the 2018 short, Pommel, British-born Filipino writer-director Paris Zarcilla makes a confident feature bow with Raging Grace. Echoes of Lorcan Finnegan's Nocebo (2022) can be heard in a post-colonial parable whose combination of social critique and old dark house chills qualifies it for that select band of recent British horrors whose tone could best be described as gothic realist.


While saving for a forged visa, Filipina migrant, Joy Espiritu (Maxene Eigenmann), works as a cleaner in London. As she is squatting in the service room of a tower block and strives to make herself as invisible as possible, she smuggles 10 year-old daughter Grace (Jaeden Paige Boadilla) into properties whenever their owners are away. But she's getting tired of the child putting gravy in the coffee and jam in the ketchup.


When a friend from choir asks her to fill in for him, Joy gets to meet the cancer-stricken Nigel Garrett (David Hayman), who is cared for by his niece, Katherine (Leanne Best). She believes Joy has come from the Kipling Agency, but is happy to pay her £1000 a week on an unofficial basis, as well as offering her a room. Feeling she has finally fallen on her feet, Joy readily agrees and warns Grace that she has to be on her best behaviour after sneaking her into the house inside a large suitcase.


Despite resenting being made to sleep in the wardrobe, Grace loves mischief and finds staying in the room a trial. She sneaks up on Joy when she is cleaning the study and sees her perusing some letters that had fallen from a shelf. The girl has to hide behind the desk when Katherine gets home early and Joy has to create a distraction as they look at family portraits to allow Grace to slip upstairs. Katherine's mother had saved the family from ruin, but had been badly treated and she lets slip that she finds tending to Uncle Nigel a chore.


Grace had crept into his bedroom rather than returning to her mother's room and she has to hide under the bed when Katherine comes in to give her uncle some medication. She drops a pill and Grace recognises it as being like the sleeping pills she had picked up in mistake for her vitamins in the last house she'd stayed. However, Joy is too stressed to listen, after being chided for acting like she lived in the house rather than simply worked there. In a tantrum, Grace blurts out that she hates her mother and waits until she's asleep to head into the kitchen for a snack.


As she scours the fridge, a sleepwalking Katherine wanders in and Grace follows her to a usually locked door. Tiptoeing into the room, she sees a recumbent old woman (Stephanie Connell) in a glass case before beating a retreat to see Katherine padding along the corridor making whimpered apologies and references to burning the house down.


Next morning, when Katherine drops some pills in the kitchen, Joy keeps a couple back to ask Grace if she recognises them. However, Katherine is going away for four days and shows Joy how to give Nigel his pills. She also gives her an advance on her wages and heads off, with a conspiratorial wink that they understand each other.


Deciding to see if she can get the pills Grace left in the medicine cabinet, Joy goes out. She calls at the tower block to find someone has ransacked the belongings she had stored, including her pharmacy certificate and some photographs showing her with the abusive man she has nightmares about.


Meanwhile, a bored Grace has gone snooping and is sitting with Uncle Nigel when Joy comes home. She is too busy checking the old man's medication to listen to Grace telling her about the old woman and Katherine sleepwalking with a knife. They work together to make a homeopathic brew that draws out the toxins and Nigel eventually comes round. He takes an instant shine to Grace and informs Joy that he grew up in the Philippines and adored a nanny named Gloria.


Taking to sleeping under Nigel's bed, Grace is delighted when he allows her to play in the garden. Joy is also pleased when he offers to help with her visa and give her a full-time job. However, she is troubled by the revelation that Katherine isn't Nigel's niece and that he needs her help to expose her. Even more disconcertingly, he asks her about cockfighting and notes how well the birds were kept outside the ring.


Things take another turn, when Nigel asks about Grace's father and learns that he's still alive, even though his daughter thinks he's dead. He suggests that Grace starts calling him `lolo' (meaning `grandfather'), but insists on Joy using the term `Master' and he sends her off to make them drinks, while he plays with Grace. At bedtime, he divulges the truth about Grace's father and she glares at Joy for lying to her. Feeling distraught, Joy reads the Tagalog letters in the study and learns how Nigel had clung to Gloria and that she had been forced to stay in Britain rather than return home. She also concedes that she wonders if her family had even received her letters as she never hears from them.


Nigel had been standing in the shadows when Joy had returned to her room. He's out in the garden when Katherine returns and she has to take a shower because Grace has put gravy in the coffee pot. She has also put hair remover in her shampoo and she is screaming into the phone to complain about Joy (with her face pustulating) when Nigel greets her from his wheelchair. He threatens to have her arrested for putting him into a chemically induced coma and, when she crows that she has had him declared medically unfit, he reveals that she had signed papers as an 11 year-old committing her mother to an asylum so that the Garretts could get hold of her fortune and save their 500 year-old trading company.


Grace smiles at Nigel as he's wheeled into the kitchen for lunch. But Joy knows he's a bad man who wants to own them and she feels worse when Katherine wakes her at knife point and reveals that she had been relieved when he lapsed into the coma (which she had maintained) because he had been in pain and had made her life hell. Showing Joy the glass case, she explains that Nigel will exploit her in the same way and she offer an envelope stuffed with cash to help her regain control.


Stung by Katherine's suggestion that the Garretts had given Gloria a better life, Joy condemns the notion of the white man's burden and reminds Katherine that they need servants much more than they need their masters. Hurrying to her room, she wakes Grace from the wardrobe and tells her to start packing because they're in a dangerous place. But the child refuses to leave because lolo loves her. Hearing a commotion, Joy goes downstairs, where cops arrest her for being an illegal immigrant and Nigel urges Grace to stay hidden, as her mother is taken away. He promises Grace he will get Joy back, but needs her to do him a favour first.


He has Grace stab Katherine in the behind with a syringe just as she is about to inject him. She starts to hallucinate and sees the house filled with zombified Filipino servants shuffling along the landing. Rushing into Nigel's room, she sees insects pout out of his mouth and cross the bedspread to attack her. As she screams, Grace shoves her down the stairs and Nigel congratulates her. When Grace insists they fetch her mother, Nigel accuses her of ingratitude and jumps out of the wheelchair to put her inside a glass casket. But she jams his hand in the bedroom door and bites him to slam it shut. Nigel tries to apologise, but Grace is not listening.


When he does gain entry, Grace kicks the wardrobe so that it lands on top of him. A lamp is overturned and sets light to the curtains. Nigel grabs Grace's ankle as she tries to get past him, but Katherine steps on his arm and urges the girl to flee. She vows to see Nigel in hell, as she joins Grace in watching the mansion burn.


Although a lawyer, Katherine is not able to represent Joy in her court case. But she recommends a pro bono colleague and suggests they base their appeal on the fact that Joy was raped by a British citizen and is entitled to stay to raise her legally resident daughter. Following a rousing chorus from Joy's church choir (which prompts a beaming Grace to mouth her love from a pew), the pair knock on the father's door before the credits close with the words, `May you all rage gracefully.'


Despite losing its way in the final third, this is a fascinating bid to blend social realism with guignolic melodrama. Drawing on his own diasporic experiences, Paris Zarcilla conveys Joy and Grace's precarious existence with deft touches before entombing them in the mausoleum in which Katherine and Nigel are conducting their own private war. Shades of Brontë and Poe colour the ensuing action (albeit of the Cormanesque kind where the latter is concerned, especially during the hallucination sequence). But, with its chapter headings coming from Rudyard Kipling's 1899 poem, `The White Man's Burden', the political commentary remains acute, as the unconscious class and racial prejudice of the patronising Katherine and the autocratic Nigel seep into their bileful utterances.


From the moment the latter comes round, it's inevitable that the reliably hissable David Hayman will turn out to be the villain of the piece. But Leanne Best is equally good as the snooty niece, who turns out to be as much sinned against as sinning. As in Adura Onashile's Girl, the tension between protective mother and mutinous daughter is delicately realised, with Maxene Eigenmann being too stressed by the pressures facing her to appreciate the impish intelligence that makes Jaeden Paige Boadilla's performance such a delight. The way she pops up on top of the wardrobe or in the forefront of shot she didn't appear to be in is inspired, while her dialogue delivery has a naturalism that makes her unholy alliance with the manipulative Hayman all the more dismayingly sinister.


Joel Honeywell's camerawork is stalkerishly stealthy, with some of its positioning being innovative. But Zarcilla doesn't make enough of the house, as we're given no appreciation of where the bedrooms are in relation to each other. Katherine's sudden four-day disappearance is a bit too convenient, as is Joy's willingness to trust Nigel, who seems to suffer no after-effects from his incapacity and none at all from the cancer that is supposedly only a matter of weeks from killing him. But so many scripts these days cut corners like this and Zarcilla does enough with his insights into the exploitation of migrants (and women) and with the way in which he plays on viewer assumptions and expectations to earn a bit a slack. He can even be excused the systemic surreal excesses of Katherine's trance, which is the only time Jon Clarke's ominously atmospheric Filipino-inflected score hits a discordant note.


THERE'S SOMETHING IN THE BARN.


Nothing can beat an old-fashioned Christmas ghost story. But a goofy spooky comedy can also do the trick after a couple of eggnogs, particularly when it runs along the lines of Magnus Martens's There's Something in the Barn. Liberally sprinkling an out-of-towner sitcom premise with Home Alone-style slapstick and running gags about American parochialism, gun control, and Scandinavian TV channels, this lively romp starts out apeing Jeremiah S. Chechik's National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation (1989) and puts a Norwegian spin on Joe Dante's Gremlins (1984) before finding its own cornball niche.


Having uprooted his all-American family to turn his uncle's remote Norwegian farm into a guest house, Bill Nordheim (Martin Starr) decides not to tell second wife Carol (Amrita Acharia) and kids Nora (Zoe Winther-Hansen) and Lucas (Townes Bunner) that his relative had plunged to his death as a fireball leaping from the upper storey of the barn. Instead, he reassures them that nothing bad ever happens in Norway, as they drive through spectacular snow-covered scenery. A narrow escape from a charging elk nearly proves Bill wrong, but they arrive safely and start exploring their inheritance.


Sulking at being taken away from her friends, Nora refuses to see any bright sides, while Lucas is pretty sure he's seen something lurking in the barn. But Carol, who plans to run positive thinking courses, shares Bill's enthusiasm for their new home and suggests a trip into town to get their bearings. While the others are receiving a frosty welcome from Raymond (Jeppe Beck Laursen) and the other locals in the café, Lucas heads to an outdoor museum exhibit to learn more about `nisse' or barn elves from curator, Tor Åge (Calle Hellevang Larsen). He confides that nisse dislike change, natural light, and loud noise. But the family aren't in the mood to listen to the boy, as they plan a housewarming party in the barn.


Eager to get things back on an even keel after the elf (Kiran Shah) takes badly to Bill decorating everywhere with fairy lights and installs a booming model Santa, Lucas takes him a cookie and they strike up an understanding. All runs smoothly for a few days, with the elf helping with chores in return for more cookies. But it fumes when the party gets loud after the booze starts to flow and Lucas isn't surprised when it trashes the house.


Bill decides to call the town police chief, Liv (Henriette Steenstrup), to investigate and seems happy when she suggests that a wild fox might have run amuck. But Lucas consults Tor Åge about how to placate a seething nisse and is told to prepare a bowl of rice porridge sprinkled with nutmeg and butter. However, when his attempts to made a traditional lutefisk dish goes wrong, Bill scoff the peace offering and the elf is so insulted by the foul-tasting fish that he summons his buddies to go on the rampage.


The first to feel their wrath is Raymond, who has agreed to play Santa for the kids. He is slaughtered and strung up outside the barn and Bill is appalled when Liv arrives to admit she doesn't carry a gun on her person, as Norwegians tend not to blast each other in the face. However, she gets mown over by an elderly elf (Paul Monaghan) on her own snowmobile and the Nordheims barricade themselves into the house when they realise their car has been sabotaged.


While Bill and Lucas go in search of Tor Åge for advice, Carol and Nora settle their stepmother-daughter issues and bond by fighting off the elves who break into the bedroom. They also prime some baubles with homemade explosive. But their rearguard is thwarted and they have been abducted by the time the menfolk return. The elderly elf has found Liv's gun and he shoots Tor Åge in the shoulder when he tries to explain that Norwegians are great negotiators, as they proved with the 1993 Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organisation.


Fleeing into the barn, the family is warmed to see the nisse attempt to defend them. But the ancient elf wants to destroy them and chases them into the loft. Carol tells Bill and Lucas to jump from the window, while Nora fashions a paper plane and sets it alight to land in a pool of petrol that blows the barn and the elves sky high. Watching the flames, Bill is delighted by the way they have all bonded and believes this is the start of a whole new adventure.


The Nordheims aren't the Griswolds and the nisse lack the mischievous malevolence of the water-doused mogwai. Furthermore, the horror isn't on the same scare scale as Jalmari Helander's Rare Exports (2010) or Michael Dougherty's Krampus (2015). But this makes for lively entertainment, with the leads making the most of the consistently funny gags in Aleksander Kirkwood Brown's screenplay. The key lies in the picture's refusal to take itself seriously, particularly when it comes to national stereotypes and prejudices. Martens over-indulges himself with the drawn-out denouement. But the biggest misstep is Liv's early demise, as Henriette Seenstrup channels her inner Frances McDormand to give her a real Marge Gunderson feel.


TEDDY'S CHRISTMAS.


Not many casting directors have made it behind the camera. But, having worked on such Norwegian features as Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg's Max Manus: Man of War (2008) and Kon-Tiki (2012), Andrea Eckerbom makes her directorial bow with Teddy's Christmas. A throwback to festive tales of yore, this has an inherent sweetness that suits it for young children and grown-ups with a soft centre.


Living in a small town in a Norway that seems caught in a time lapse, Mariann (Marte Klerck-Nilssen) is decorating the Christmas tree with her little brother, Nils, (Vegard Strand Eide), when she sees a squirrel in the branches. In trying to offer the creature a nut, she accidentally spills the bowl and her father, Roger (Jan Gunnar Røise), slips and crashes into the tree. Mother Hilma (Mariann Hole) is sure it's just an accident. But her husband is tired of Mariann always imagining that things are alive and makes her promise to stop her chatter about covert trolls and talking snowmen.


Needing a new tree, Father and the children find themselves at the Christmas market. Mariann wanders over to a wheel of fortune stand and catches sight of a handsome teddy bear (Zachary Levi), who is the first prize. However, he doesn't fancy being won by a child, as they don't have enough money to show him the world he has discovered from the postcards pinned to the stall.


Bothered by a classmate's claim that his father poses as Santa Claus, Nils asks his mother for clarification. She is busy reassuring him when Grandma (Marianne Krogness) and Grandad (Kai Remlov) arrive and everyone bundles into the kitchen to check on the progress of the traditional rice pudding. As Nils has eaten the last almond (which substitutes for a sixpence in the dessert), Mariann volunteers to go to the shop. She arrives to find that the owner (Nader Khademi) has got his hand caught in a sweet jar and he gives her the almond for free after she helps him.


Deciding to spend the coin on a spin of the wheel of fortune, Mariann chooses Teddy's number and claims her prize from the raffleman (Morten Rudå). Much to the dismay of Mr Spinny the spinning top, Teddy moves the dial when no one's looking because he doesn't want to go with a kid. Mariann is dismayed when the raffleman sends her away empty-handed. But she refuses to give up and hurries home to raid her piggy bank. Finding only a button, she agrees to tidy her room for a coin and rushes back to the square with Nils in tow.


In the meantime, however, an elderly man with a green knapsack has offered the raffleman a 100 krone note in order to secure the bear and Teddy is delighted at being won by someone rich. Desperate to find the man, Mariann and Nils wander into an unfamiliar part of town and watch as he places a parcel on the top of a kitchen cabinet. Convinced the bear would be better off with her, Mariann climbs through the window and stands on a chair to reach the package. But it falls to the floor and she lands on top of it, causing a noise that brings the sweet shop owner into the room.


While Mariann and Nils scamper home, the man puts his rucksack in a shed and Teddy wriggles out. He is disappointed to find himself in such a drab place and takes little consolation from the fact that a plush toy hedgehog named Bolla (Marianne Graffam) compliments him on the softness of his fur. She is lonely and gets cross with herself when she fails to make a good impression. But she persists and teaches Teddy about cuddles and the pleasure of belonging to a child who cares.


As the family plays hunt the almond at the dinner table, the sweet shop owner comes to complain about Mariann smashing the doll h had bought for his daughter, Paula (Medina Iqbal). Roger is ashamed of her and sends Mariann to her room. But Hilma is more understanding and they sing her a song to cheer her up before she goes to sleep. Teddy also dozes off in the little nest that Bolla has made for herself and he realises in his dream that his destiny is to belong to Mariann.


She has woken early on Christmas morning in order to give Paula the present left for her under the tree and they agree to be friends. Nils is also up and busy quizzing his father about the identity of Santa. In the shed, meanwhile, Teddy and Bolla have hit upon an escape plan that involves climbing to an upper window. But their bid is foiled and they have to lie still when a man with a white beard comes in to search for them.


He turns out to be Santa and he presents Teddy and Bolla to Mariann and Nils, who are delighted with their cuddlesome companions. Nobody seems to notice Grandad's absence during Santa's visit, but he's back on the sofa in time to be introduced to the new arrivals, who happily drift off to sleep after being tucked into bed with their owners.


Set in a curiously indeterminate time, in which there are no mobile phones or computer games and everyone seems to dress like it's 1955, this is a gentle fable that harks back to simpler times. Screenwriters Lars Gudmestad and Harald Rosenløw-Eeg place plenty of emphasis on family and tradition, while echoing some of the reflections on belonging and bonding that have made the Toy Story series so poignant. But they do so without resorting to corniness or schmaltz, while Merete Boström's production design and Sofie Rage Larsen's costumes similarly suggest cosiness without being twee.


It helps, of course, that the computer-generated animation of the daredevil Teddy and the singing-dancing Bolla is integrated so seamlessly into the action that it feels at times like stop-motion. But disguising the fact that the dialogue has been dubbed into English proves trickier and those of a certain vintage will be reminded of classic imported TV series like The Singing Ringing Tree (1957) and Belle and Sebastian (1965). Nevertheless, the lip-synching distractions don't deter from Marte Klerck-Nilssen's engaging performance, as the little girl who learns her share of lessons over an eventful couple of days. May your Christmas be every bit as splendid.






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