“A Million Little Pieces” (prose)

A Million Little Pieces*

There’s no such thing as a “true” story. We—every one of us–fictionalize our lives. Everything is recorded through our senses and, as a result, our perceptions are highly subjective. My recollection of an event will differ sharply from that of other observers. The studies they’ve done on memory. False memories. Altered memories. Missing memory. Nothing we see is factual, everything is processed and interpreted by minds riddled with biases and preconceptions and false conjectures. Memories aren’t tactile but they are elastic. They’re comforting—or terrifying. Or sexy. But each one has been altered in a fundamental way. Edited by time, emotions and physiology. Like film, memory flickers, flutters, grows brittle and, eventually, breaks. Then the burning light.


  • This tale appears in Stromata: Prose Works (1992-2011) by Cliff Burns; Black Dog Press; 2012
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“Strange Love” (poem)

kubrickStrange Love
(for Stanley Kubrick)

Stanley Kubrick’s eyes belie dispassion:
remoteness was his only defence.
Look how frankly he regards you,
the way you shrivel from that gaze.


© Cliff Burns (All Rights Reserved)

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“Down Terrace” (movie review)

down:posterDown Terrace (2009)

Director: Ben Wheatley
Screenplay:  Robin Hill & Ben Wheatley
Cast:  Robert Hill, Robin Hill, Julia Deakin, David Schaal, Tony Way, Kerry Peacock, Michael Smiley

Count me among Ben Wheatley’s great admirers—it is directors like him (along with Peter Strickland, Alejandro Inarritu, Leos Carax and Richard Ayoade) who give me faith in contemporary cinema. Original, thoughtful artists not shy about skewing or warping our perspectives, reminding us that in actuality none of this is real.

“Down Terrace” is Wheatley’s first feature and right from the beginning it’s apparent the director has a dab hand when it comes to casting. The acting is just about note perfect, the relationships between the principal players intricate and finely detailed; there is a lot going on inside that innocuous, working class house, undercurrents of suspicion and fear rippling and swirling beneath the surface, threatening to overwhelm its occupants.

Bill (Robert Hill) might be “past it”, as his London criminal associates fear, but his 34-year old son Karl (Robin Hill) doesn’t have what it takes to run the family’s various illegal enterprises either. Both have just returned home after narrowly avoiding lengthy jail terms because of an informant at the very heart of their organization. They have someone in mind and in one hilarious scene, a professional hitman, played by Michael Smiley, shows up to eliminate their prime candidate with his young son in tow. No babysitter available…

The film is funny and macabre, the violence coming in fast jolts, usually catching us off guard. Bill is determined to get his affairs in order, his wife Maggie (Julia Deakin, in a star turn) acting as his clear-headed advisor and steady right hand; Lady Macbeth and Lucrezia Borgia, all rolled into one.

“Down Terrace” was shot in eight days, much of the cast and crew either family or friends. One of the main actors (Robin Hill) co-wrote the movie and his real life father, Robert, plays Bill, patriarch and two-bit hoodlum with king-sized problems, in his business and his domestic life.

A family affair, a critical first feature, a creative collaboration, “Down Terrace” succeeds on all counts, presenting a closeup view of petty criminals sharing the same address, the same genes, but possessing very different plans for the future. Hard choices have to be made but who among them is strongest, willing to do what is necessary to survive?

ΩΩΩΩ  (Out of 5)

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“Bunny and the Bull” (movie review)

bunnyBunny and the Bull (2010)

Writer and Director: Paul King
Cast: Edward Hogg, Simon Farnaby, Veronica Echegui, Julian Barratt, Noel Fielding, Richard Ayoade

Due to circumstances that eventually become clear, Stephen (Edward Hogg) hasn’t left his apartment in almost a year. The very thought of venturing outside can bring on an anxiety attack. But even within the safe confines of his flat, Stephen can’t escape the past, preserved and labeled in boxes lining the walls, a meticulously maintained catalog of his self-inflicted exile, right down to his used straws and toenail clippings. The consequences of opening one of those time capsules can be dire—Stephen often finds himself visited by his dead pal Bunny (Simon Farnaby) and other remnants of his former life.

Writer-Director Paul King is one of the clever buggers who helped create “The Mighty Boosh” and there are little homages and reminders of that brilliant series scattered throughout “Bunny and the Bull” (most obviously in the casting choices). Stephen’s world is populated by flesh and blood people but often features painted or paper backdrops, miniature models and stop-motion animation. Very Boosh-like…but the artificial settings also emphasize the protagonist’s tenuous hold on reality and remind us that much of what we are seeing has been coloured and shaped by memory (and trauma).

The cast is more than up to the material—young Veronica Echegui is a treat, earthy and funny, her profanity-laced interplay with Hogg and Farnaby one of the highlights of the film.

Original, whimsical, heartfelt, “Bunny and the Bull” is for people who loved “Boosh”, “Withnail & I” and some of those odd little Brit comedies Handmade released in the early-1980s: “Private Function” and “The Missionary”. Disarming and funny, smartly produced and entirely too unique and different to appeal to all tastes.

Personally, I loved “Bunny and the Bull” and I wouldn’t hesitate recommending it to a friend. But I wouldn’t be surprised if they didn’t like it. Especially once they got to the dog-milking scene…

ΩΩΩ 1/2  (out of 5)


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“Biutiful” (film review)

biutifulBiutiful (2011)

Director:  Alejandro Inarritu
Screenplay:  Alejandro Inarritu, Armando Bo, Nicolas Giacabone
Cast: Javier Bardem, Maricel Alvarez, Hanaa Bouchaib, Guillermo Estrella, Eduard Fernandez

Director Alejandro Inarritu is a hot prospect in Hollywood these days.

His latest film, “The Revenant”, just nabbed a couple of Golden Globe Awards and is being heavily touted this Oscar season. His last movie, let us not forget, was the sublime “Birdman” and he is also responsible for another of my favourites, “Amores Perros”.

“Biutiful” was released in 2011 and was a finalist for an Academy Award in the Best Foreign Film category. It tells the story of Uxbal (Javier Bardem), a man eking out a living on the streets of Barcelona by helping find employment for illegal migrant workers. He also moonlights as a kind of “ghost whisperer”, settling the spirits of the dead and bringing comfort (most of the time) to the bereaved.

Uxbal is a man running out of time. A nagging complaint finally forces him to see a doctor and the examination turns up malignant tumors—Uxbal has a matter of months to live. But how does he go about getting his affairs in order, arranging for his young children’s care, when his job pays him so little (he accepts no fee for his spirit work) and his ex-wife (Maricel Alvarez) is a bipolar woman-child barely capable of seeing to her own needs?

Everyone is “Biutiful” is trapped in lives they did not seek, consigned to fates they do not deserve. Uxbal, his wife, the migrants who suffer exploitation, deprivation, imprisonment, all in the hope of one day gaining their freedom, their handlers (controlled by the Chinese mob)…a circle of predation and despair.

Director Inarritu brilliantly surrounds these narratives with layers of insight and brutal honesty–there is not a trace of treacle in evidence, not even during Uxbal’s final hours. We (as viewers) are spared no discomfort and “Biutiful” does not stoop for an instant to mawkish sentiment.

High marks, to everyone involved with this exemplary production.

ΩΩΩΩ  (out of 5)

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“Valley of the Bees” (1967)–Review

valleyValley of the Bees (1967)

Director: Frantisek Vlacil
Screenplay: Vladimir Korner & Frantisek Vlacil
Cast: Petr Cepek, Jan Kacer, Vera Galatikova, Josef Somr

I have fallen in love with the Czech “New Wave”.

To date, I’ve seen a number of its representative films and can find little fault with any of them. It lacks the pretension and self-regard of its French counterpart and even within the confines of a closed, oppressive political system, manages to give every impression of aesthetic freedom of movement, creative ambition and joie de vivre.

“Marketa Lazarova” (also directed by Vlacil) was one of the best films I’ve seen in the past five years and only time constraints have kept me from reviewing it here. An oversight I hope to correct very soon. A few weeks ago I had the great pleasure of viewing Jaromil Jires’ “Valerie and Her Week of Wonders” and marvelled at the interplay between reality and the fantastic. Visually stylish but never permitting form to overwhelm content. “Closely Watched Trains” was another gem, an erotic charmer that deftly and realistically combined the tragic and comic.

“Valley of the Bees” is a medieval tale about a monk knight who flees holy orders and, pursued by one of his devout brethren, returns to his home village and the estate his family maintains there. Ondrej finds much changed in the years since his departure: his father dead, the family’s fortunes declining, the patriarch’s attractive widow doing her best with the assistance of a few loyal retainers.

Ondrej and his stepmother are drawn to each other and there is also Ondrej’s close, intimate relationship with Armin, his dogged fellow knight, determined to return with him to the order’s remote northern keep…unspoken, forbidden love lies at the very heart of the narrative.

Magnificently composed, beautifully shot (by Fratisek Uldrich), “The Valley of the Bees” is a morality tale that relies on subtle hints and knowing glances—the cast is to be commended for never over-playing, veering into histrionics. In the end, we’re left wondering, without any hope of clear resolution: did faith win out or are those far-off brothers about to receive a visitation from a soulless, blasted revenant?

Great cinema, not to be missed.


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Best Films of 2015


I watched over 100 films in 2015.

No other movie came close to “Hard To Be A God” in terms of its sheer, visceral impact, the power and intensity of director Aleksei German’s vision (many years coming to fruition).

Here’s a list of the best films I viewed this year, the ones that stood out from the pack:

“Hard to Be a God” (Directed by Aleksei German)
“Amores Perros” * (Dir. Alejandro Inarritu)
“Leviathan” (Dir. Andrey Zuyagintsev)
“Sightseers” (Dir. Ben Wheatley)
“Valerie and Her Week of Wonders” (Dir. Jaromil Jires)
“Blue Ruin” (Dir. Jeremy Saulnier)
“Winter Sleep” (Dir. Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
“Gomorrah” (Dir. Matteo Garrone)
“Amarcord” (Dir. Federico Fellini)
“Boyhood” (Dir. Richard Linklater)
“L’il QuinQuin” (Dir. Bruno Dumont)
“Time Crimes” (Dir. Nacho Vigalondo)
“The Devil’s Backbone” (Dir. Guillermo del Toro)
“The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser” (Dir. Werner Herzog)
“What We Do in the Shadows” (Dir. Taika Waititi; Jermaine Clement)
“Berberian Sound Studio” * (Dir. Peter Strickland)
“2001: A Space Odyssey” * (Dir. Stanley Kubrick)
“Chinatown” * (Dir. Roman Polanski)

Honorable Mention:

“Closely Watched Trains” (Dir. Jiri Menzel)
“Jodorowsky’s ‘Dune’” (Dir. Frank Pavich)
“Wild Tales” (Dir. Damian Szifron)
“Satyricon” (Dir. Federico Fellini)
“Ex Machina” (Dir. Alex Garland)
“Land of Silence and Darkness” (Dir. Werner Herzog)
“Stroszek” (Dir. Werner Herzog)
“Nightcrawler” (Dir. Dan Gilroy)
“Her” (Dir. Spike Jonze)
“Maps to the Stars” (Dir. David Cronenberg)

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