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Parky at the Pictures (In Cinemas 28/6/2012)
Having revived the lost art of screen slapstick with Iceberg (2006) and Rumba (2008), the maverick trio of Dominique Abel, Fiona Gordon and Bruno Romy return with more inspired absurdity in The Fairy. More densely plotted and reliant on dialogue than their previous outings, this still very much belongs to the tradition of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Jacques Tati. But it also contains the merest whiff of socio-political comment and a dash of idiosyncratic romance to root the drollery in something approaching everyday life.
Dominique Abel is the night clerk at a backstreet hotel in the northern French city of Le Havre. Having arrived late for duty because the chain kept slipping on his bicycle, he is about to sit down to a sandwich when English tourist Philippe Martz requests a room and smuggles his little dog Mimi on to the premises in his bag. No sooner has Abel sat down and switched on Dinah Washington's recording of `What a Difference a Day Makes' than Fiona Gordon shows up in a scruffy tracksuit and announces that she is a fairy who can grant Abel three wishes.
Somewhat bemused, he asks for a scooter and a lifetime supply of free petrol. But he can't think of a third thing and rather peevishly ushers Gordon to her room so he can eat his supper. However, he nearly chokes on the cap of the ketchup bottle that had been buried in the filling and Gordon has to devise a head-butt variation on the Heimlich Manoeuvre to save him.
On waking next morning, Abel finds a scooter in reception and an invitation to a rendezvous that evening at the Love Is Blurred café. Gordon, meanwhile, has gone to find a new outfit in town and finds herself fleeing from shoe shop owner Emilie Horcholle and cops Ophélie Anfry and Olivier Parenty in a bizarre chase sequence that allows Gordon to apply make-up as she runs along.
Attended by hilariously short-sighted bartender Bruno Romy, Abel and Gordon have a delightful date that culminates in them skinny-dipping in the sea and sharing in an underwater dance routine that is all the more amusing for its jerky awkwardness and cut-price fantasy setting. Their antics are watched with puzzlement by illegal immigrants Willson Gomba, Destine M'Bikula Mayemba and Vladimir Zongo, who live in an abandoned car on the beach and steal Abel's clothes, so that he wakes naked in the surf next morning.
Reporting late for work, Abel gets so flustered that he cannot contact Gordon that he hurls Mimi down a storm drain. However, he is tipped off by flying messenger Didier Armbruster that Gordon has been captured and returned to the psychiatric hospital where she lives under the watchful eye of nurse Sandrine Morin. Undaunted, Abel poses as a fat man and conspires with fellow patients Christophe `René' Philippe and Alexandre Xenakis (who play poker with Gordon using pills as chips) to rescue the now-pregnant Gordon by hiding her under his coat, in a piece of ingenious lunacy that marries Keystone and Monty Python.
Back at the hotel, Gordon gives birth to baby Jimmy on the roof while Abel is having his finger bandaged after trapping it in a collapsing deckchair. But domestic bliss has to be postponed after Gordon talks Martz into smuggling the illegals across the Channel in his car and they accidentally cause an explosion at an oil refinery while siphoning off fuel for the trip. However, following an encounter with a female rugby team at Romy's café and a bizarre scooter bid to pluck the chortling Jimmy off the boot of Martz's speeding car, the cops finally catches up with the miscreants and the law takes its course. But, this being a comedy, all ends well for the oddball lovers, although the migrants remain stranded on the shore and one is left wondering why nobody has offered them three wishes.
The synopsis scarcely does justice to this charming picture's endless comic invention. The action may be less uproariously funny than in Rumba, but it still generates numerous smileworthy moments, including a balletic massage, a quirky self-service shopping spree, an instantaneous pregnancy and an all-night drinking session that's topped off with Les Dieselles rugby player Anaïs Lemarchand's rousing rendition of Kurt Weil's `Youkali'.
The second dance number on the hotel rooftop feels superfluous, while the plot drifts slightly in the later stages. But Claire Childeric's cinematography, Nicolas Girault's production design and Sandrine Deegan's editing are first rate, while Abel and Gordon are adorably deadpan as they just get on with surmounting problems whose gleeful peculiarity is never viewed as anything other than unblinkingly normal. But what makes this so appealing is the eschewal of cutting-edge visual gimmicks and the insistence on utilising trusted techniques to shoot, for example, a chase sequence with a fixed camera against a back-projection screen. Given the recent harking back to silent stylisation in The Artist, it would appear that French cinema is going through a nostalgic phase.
This is nothing new, however. Six decades ago, David Lean returned to the Victorian milieu of Great Expectations (1946) and Oliver Twist (1948) for Hobson's Choice (1953), an adaptation of Harold Brighouse's 1915 stage play that had previously been filmed by Percy Nash and Thomas Bentley in 1920 and 1931 respectively. Marking Lean's first attempt at comedy since Noël Coward had guided him through Blithe Spirit (1945), this wry domestic power struggle benefited greatly from the presence of Charles Laughton in the title role he had first played in a Scarborough theatre early in his career. But there isn't a sub-par performance in an amusing sitcom, which not only won the British Academy Award for the best home-produced picture, but also the Golden Bear at the 4th Berlin Film Festival.
Manchester boot-maker Charles Laughton is a tyrant, who treats daughters Brenda De Banzie, Daphne Anderson and Prunella Scales no better than his chief cobbler, John Mills. Spending much of his time in the Moonrakers Inn, Laughton expects to be waited on hand and foot and incurs De Banzie's ire when he announces that she is to take sole care of him after he marries off Anderson and Scales to lawyer Richard Wattis and corn merchant Raymond Huntley's son Derek Blomfield.
Proposing to the milksoppy Mills, De Banzie accepts an offer from satisfied customer Helen Haye to set him up in a rival business and Laughton soon finds himself losing income and being threatened with a lawsuit after he falls into Huntley's cellar while staggering home drunk and is charged with trespass. He tries to respond with customary bullying bluster, but discovers that Mills has learned to stand on his own two feet and he winds up being grateful to be taken on as his son-in-law's sleeping partner.
Once seen, never forgotten, the sequence in which a sozzled Laughton puzzles over the reflection of the moon in a puddle is the standout moment of this deceptively steely study of social convention. Slyly shot by Jack Hildyard on Wilfrid Shingleton's evocative sets and played with impeccable comic timing by Laughton to the accompaniment of Malcolm Sergeant's score, this classic moment is more than matched by Mills's efforts to summon up the courage to perform his conjugal duties after completing the writing exercise that his new bridge has insisted he completes on his wedding night.
Stepping in for Robert Donat (whose health issues cost him so many plum roles down the years), Mills draws heavily on mannerisms perfected in Anthony Pelissier's HG Wells adaptation The History of Mr Polly (1949). But his makes a splendid foil for both Laughton and De Banzie, who had grown up in a similar neighbourhood in nearby Salford and turns in a splendidly feisty turn that she would only match opposite Laurence Olivier in Tony Richardson's take on the John Osborne play, The Entertainer (1960).
In the year that Harold Brighouse's play premiered, Norway witnessed one of the most infamous incidents in its penal history, when troops were called to a remote island in Oslofjord to suppress an uprising by the inmates of the Bastøy Boys Home. Now, after a decade of research, Marius Holst is able to reconstruct the events that culminated in shots being fired at civilians in The King of Devil's Island. Sombrely scripted by Dennis Magnusson and suffused with icily grey light by John Andreas Andersen, this is a steady rather than an engrossing account that has more in common with Norman Taurog's 1938 saga Boys Town than harder-hitting reformatory exposés like Alan Clarke's Scum (1979) or Florin Serban's If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle (2010).
Even though it's a rule that no mention is ever made of an inmate's past, rumours start circulating as soon as 17 year-old Benjamin Helstad arrives at Bastøy that he has been detained for murder. Even Governor Stellan Skarsgård's young wife Ellen Dorrit Petersen is fascinated by the newcomer, who is placed in C-Block and entrusted to the care of its sadistic dormitory master Kristoffer Joner and its conscientious leader Trond Nilssen, who is soon to be released after spending six years on the island for stealing from a church collection box.
Having learned to stand up for himself as a harpooner on a whaling ship, Helstad quickly makes an impression when he beats bully Morten Lovstad for stealing a watch from fellow newbie Magnus Langlete. Moreover, he quickly realises that Joner has an ulterior motive in selecting Langlete for laundry duty rather than an outdoor detail and he is deeply disappointed with Nilssen for refusing to raise his suspicions of abuse with Skarsgård. However, Nilssen offers to read a letter from Helstad's sister and the bond is further strengthened when he starts writing down Helstad's memoirs of his time at sea.
Yet, despite seeming to settle down, Helstad is always looking for ways to escape. During a punishment expedition to the woods, he and Lovstad find some poisonous mushrooms and consume enough of them to land themselves in the sick bay, alongside Langlete, who has cut his hand with a knife in a bid to seek sanctuary away from the predatory Joner. However, when the midnight fugitives order Langlete back to bed, he reports them to his nemesis and Helstad winds up in solitary after he is eventually recaptured.
The taciturnly imposing Skarsgård blames Nilssen for the attempted flight and he is further made to feel as though he has abnegated his duty when Langlete fills his pockets with stones to drown himself in the sea. Even the members of a visiting welfare committee chide him for failing to keep a better eye on a classmate in distress. Thus, in order to salvage his own self-respect and the good opinion of his peers, Nilssen is stung into informing Skarsgård about Joner's crimes and the boys feel as though they have scored a significant victory when the detested master is seen heading for the ferry with his suitcases.
However, Joner knows all about Skarsgård's habit of embezzling charitable funds and it is not long before he returns to the staff. Helstad is enraged by this betrayal and is locked in a basement cage along with Lovstad after he attempts to impose his own two-fisted punishment. But he coaxes caretaker Frank-Thomas Andersen (who is himself a Bastøy alumnus) into helping them escape and, when Nilssen opts to confront Joner rather than walk free, a full-scale riot breaks out that sees the barn torched and Skarsgård forced to evacuate the island.
Complete with an infantry charge and a thwarted attempt to reach the mainland over the frozen Oslofjord, the climactic action is often excruciating. But there's a Dotheboys predictability about much of what comes before, as Holst and Magnusson expose the hypocrisy and cruelty of what is supposed to be a Christian regime.
Emphasising the use of numbers rather than names, the exploitative imposition of manual labour and the rigidity of the disciplinary code, Holst ably conveys the Bastøy atmosphere and the fact that the majority of its residents were underprivileged unfortunates rather than desperate delinquents. Yet, while he makes solid use of the Estonian locations, his characterisation is weak, with both Skarsgård and Joner being saddled with lifeless stereotypes and neither Helstad nor Nilssen having the presence to capitalise on their respectively decent displays of swagger and earnestness. Thus, while this is never less than accomplished, it is rarely compelling.
Around the time of the Bastøy revolt, the Spanish director Luis Buñuel experienced institutional brutality at first hand when he was assaulted by a master at the Jesuit Colegio del Salvador in Zaragoza. He would spend much of his screen career exacting his revenge on both the Catholic Church and the social system that sustained it. Indeed, six decades later, he was still railing against cant and class in his penultimate picture, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972).
Delphine Seyrig and her husband Paul Frankeur are deeply embarrassed when they turn up a night early for a dinner date with Parisian friends Stéphane Audran and Jean-Pierre Cassel. So, they invite the couple to join them at a nearby inn with Seyrig's sister, Bulle Ogier, and Frankeur's work colleague Fernando Rey, who is the ambassador of the Latin American republic of Miranda. On arriving at the hostelry, however, they find it closed because the new proprietor has died and the staff are holding a wake. With typical discretion masking their frustration, the party withdraws and attempts to reconvene for lunch two days later.
No sooner have Audran and Cassel greeted their guests, however, than they rush into the garden to satiate their lust. Convinced that the hosts expect a police raid because Frankeur and Rey are involved in drug smuggling, the quartet beats a hasty retreat, with Seyrig and Ogier taking sanctuary in a tea-room that runs out of every beverage except water. As they wait to be served, they meet a soldier who tells them a story about his father being killed by a love rival and a second murder is revealed by bishop Julien Bertheau, who turns up unexpectedly and asks Audran and Cassel if he can work in their garden.
Further dream sequences, ghostly visitations and abortive attempts at dining ensue, with a meal with French colonel Claude Piéplu bemusingly taking place on a theatre stage and causing Cassel to freeze with terror because he doesn't know his lines. Even an afternoon assignation between Seyrig and Rey is disrupted by Frankeur's unscheduled appearance. Yet, such is their breeding and their conviction that they will finally be accorded their just desserts that the sextet keeps calm and carries on regardless, even though the country road along which they are walking in the closing shot seems to be leading nowhere.
Having declared that Belle de Jour (1967), The Milky Way (1969) and Tristana (1970) were all to be his final film, Buñuel was inspired to produce this scathing satire by producer Serge Silberman's recollection of an occasion when guests arrived for a dinner party he'd forgotten he was hosting. It proved to be the 72 year-old's most artistically complete and commercially successful feature and earned him the Oscar for Best Foreign Film (although he was less than enamoured to be given an award by `2500 idiots').
Essentially, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is a L'Age d'Or for the 1970s. The protagonists turn out to be neither discreet nor charming, with the ambassador being a fascistic drug dealer, the outwardly respectable Seyrig being an adulteress and the gardening bishop a murderer. Yet, Buñuel conceded that `I now say with humour what I used to say with violence', and while he mocked the characters on political, religious, sociological and psychological levels, the quality of his mercilessness is somewhat strained.
The searing ingenuity of his imagery, however, is undiminished. Directing via a prototype video link because of his sciatica, Buñuel replaced his customary close-ups and constricted camera movements with tracking shots and zooms. Yet, he edited largely in the camera and spent just over a day in the cutting room. This economy renders the complexity of the action all the more remarkable, as Buñuel plays games with planes of reality throughout and, such is their absurdity, that its impossible to distinguish between actual events, the dreams and anecdotes that punctuate them, and the scenes on the open road.
By forestalling the meal with increasingly sinister interruptions, Buñuel derides his directionless fools for their decadence, class consciousness, indolence and desperate attachment to a collapsing patriarchal order. Moreover, by keeping them on the move, this mordant masterpiece reveals just how little he cares about their ultimate destination.
In collaboration with the painter Salvador Dalí, Buñuel was in the vanguard of refining the visual tropes that were used to convey psychological states in the silent cinema of the 1920s. Considering the digital paraphernalia at the disposal of modern film-makers, it's surprising to realise how little these gambits have changed over the course of nine decades. Blurring focus, canting angles and shifting subjective perspectives with sudden camera movements or swift cuts are still the tactics of choice to create hallucinatory or disorientive effects. These low-tec effects were rediscovered by Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick and used to great effect in The Blair Witch Project (1999). But it's disappointing to see how reliant Sanchez is to these standby gimmicks in his latest chiller, Lovely Molly.
Recovering addict Gretchen Lodge marries trucker Johnny Lewis and moves into the Maryland home where she shared an unhappy childhood with sister Alexandra Holden. However, soon after they settle in, the couple is awoken in the night by the sound of noises downstairs and they summon the police to investigate. Although the back door is discovered open, nothing appears to have been stolen and Lewis reassures Lodge that she will be okay while he is away on a job if she remembers to switch on the alarm each night.
Lodge and Holden work as cleaners for manager Craig Sechler at a downtown shopping mall and, recognising her sister's anxiety, Holden invites her to stay with her and her young son Josh Jones. Yet, while Lodge insists she will be fine, she keeps a baseball bat handy and pleads with Lewis over the phone to hurry home soon. However, she is soon angry with him when he announces that he is going to be away on her birthday and exacts a modicum of revenge by getting wasted with Holden and her friends.
During the night, Lodge thinks she hears a voice calling her, as well as the sound of a child crying. She wanders into her old bedroom and opens a cupboard door before extending a hand, as though offering solace to an unseen being. Next morning, Lewis finds her naked on the bed and he consults the doctor when she insists that her deceased father is still alive. He also admonishes Holden for letting Lodge smoke a joint and only goes off on his next trip with the greatest reluctance.
Such is her conviction that she is not alone, Lodge begins filming compulsively with a camcorder and makes lewd advances to pastor Field Blauvelt when he calls to check she is okay. Sechler is also concerned with how haggard Lodge is looking and is appalled when he discovers CCTV footage of her seeming to simulate sexual activity against the storeroom wall.
Frightened and desperate, Lodge ventures into the attic and looks through an old family album. She is spooked by her father's relentless gaze and unearths the teddy bear in which she had kept a secret heroin stash. On getting home, Lewis is horrified to find a syringe on the kitchen table. But a drug lapse is the least of his problems, as Lodge is now thoroughly possessed and as likely to do to him and Holden what she has already done to the fatally tempted Blauvelt.
Making a fine impression on her feature debut, Gretchen Lodge creditably conveys the sense of powerlessness as she is transformed into a succubus. Production designer Andrew White, cinematographer John W. Rutland and soundscapers Matt Davies and David West also deserve credit for making the most of the old dark house's nooks, crannies and creaking stairs. Chicago indie band Tortoise also contribute an eerie score.
But Sanchez fails to breathe any life into Jamie Nash's story, whose references to horses and a slaughtered deer are thuddingly clichéd in their Freudian symbolism. Moreover, Sanchez and co-editor Andrew Vona struggle to make much out of the mishmash of what one can only take to be memories, home movies, imaginings and camcorder snippets. Indeed, such is the muddle that it is wholly unclear whether Lodge is reliving her past, viewing her father's voyeuristic outtakes or spying on another woman with two daughters who is possibly having an affair with Lewis. Apparently, Sanchez sought inspiration in Roman Polanski's Repulsion (1965). But it seems clear that he is still fixated with the handheld, found footage format that he introduced into the horror genre 13 years ago. Thus, regardless of such subsequent outings as Altered (2006) and Seventh Moon (2008), one can only conclude that he has progressed little as a film-maker since Blair Witch.
There is also a surfeit of fuzzy, trippy imagery in Robin Mahoney's Glastonbury The Movie In Flashback, which reworks a rockumentary record of the 1993 festival that was originally presented in cinemas in 1996. In all honesty, any recollection of that picture has long since been erased. Consequently, this review will concentrate on the current incarnation rather than attempt to identify any alterations or make any qualitative comparisons.
The action opens on a summer Thursday, as stage and compound riggers roll up to Michael Eavis's Somerset farm with those hoping to beat the traffic and find the best camping spots. The mood is relaxed and the pace unhurried, as revellers erect tents and enjoy the first of many drinks and doobies, while stallholders stake the pitches from which they will spend the next few days selling their wares, producing their crafts or promoting their causes.
No one is identified on screen, but the closing credits name check some of those in the passing parade as Sasha the Sushi Girl, Ryan the Cola Man, Vanessa the Pink Dress Girl, Milton the Singer, Rik the Sitar Man and Fergal the Anthropologist. But this is the ultimate `cast of thousands' movie, as Mahoney frequently resorts to split screens so he can show both the bands performing and either the crowd dancing to them or the scenes taking place away from the main stages.
The effect is splendidly evocative and viewers will get a much better idea of what it feels like to attend Glasto than they will ever get from the BBC's annual coverage. But one can only take so many beered up blokes and spaced out hippy chicks cavorting around before they start to look much of a muchness. Indeed, as some overgrown adolescents cruise around in open-top cars and others career around on stilts and unicycles, it becomes clear that, even in the dappled days of 1993, the majority of folks went to this kind of bash as much to be seen as to see the bands.
YouTube and MySpace may not yet have been invented, but the Show-Off Generation had already been born and they were every bit as willing to make a spectacle of themselves for the gazing actuality cameras as their forbears had been at Monterey, Woodstock and the Isle of Wight. Thus, this CinemaScopic cavalcade doesn't feel much like a moment frozen in time. The fashions don't seem to have changed enormously, neither does the devotion to hedonism. Even the attention-deficit editing patterns are the same, as Mahoney seeks to pack as much between the dawn and dusk magic hour shots delineating the passage of Friday into Saturday, Sunday and home time Monday.
Only the music is different and it betrays how much this critic is stuck in a 60s/70s time warp when he is forced to confess that, apart from The Lemonheads and The Verve, a band roster comprising The Co-Creators, Omar, Spiritualized, McKoy, Porno For Pyros, Ozric Tentacles, Airto Moreira, Back to the Planet and The Filberts means next to nothing.
Other people having fun has never been much of a spectator sport and its appeal rapidly diminishes in film form no matter how skilled the director has been in assembling his or her evidence. Glastonbury is clearly a cherishable experience for those who have survived to tell the tale. But all this revision proves is that time, tide and taste march on and that trying to restore their lost lustre is an impossible task.
Slam poetry is also an acquired taste and one again suspects that a 51 year-old whose lyrical education ended with John Cooper Clarke is not the target audience for Alex Ramseyer-Bache and Daniel Lucchesi's We Are Poets, which follows six teenagers from Leeds as they seized the opportunity to express their frustrations with the modern world while representing their country at the Brave New Voices competition in Washington DC.
Khadijah Ibrahiim, Melody Walker and Paulette Morris formed Leeds Young Authors to give 13-19 year-olds from disadvantaged backgrounds a chance to develop their language and social skills by writing and performing poems about such pressing personal problems as identity, integration and purpose, as well as a range of wider global issues. Such was the rapid rise of the group's profile that it was chosen to compete for Britain at one of America's most prestigious slam events and Ramseyer-Bache and Lucchesi followed Kadish Morris, Saju Ahmed, Joseph Buckley, Maryam Allam, Rheima Ibrahiim and Azalia Anisko from the first auditions to the final showdown against a team from New Orleans.
Although the directors don't go into prying detail, each teen has faced difficulties growing up, whether it's the Muslim Maryam being confronted about her choice to wear the veil, Joseph and Kadish facing the prejudice of white and black classmates for being mixed race or the Bangladeshi Saju struggling to keep out of trouble, complete his education and fulfil his potential. Thus, being part of the LYA squad means a great deal to them and the camaraderie is one of the most pleasing aspects of a film dedicated to contradicting right-wing press perceptions of modern youth as illiterate, idle and politically apathetic.
The weeks of writing and rehearsing under the watchful eye of acclaimed poets Rommi Smith and Saul Williams are covered with a mounting tension that culminates in a debate over whether to include Joseph and Maryam's contentious `America' in the programme. The adults fear that such a Bush-bashing screed will alienate audiences and judges, but the kids are convinced that they will recognise the truth of the criticisms and warm to their honesty. Ultimately, they are proved right, but things Stateside don't quite go according to plan.
Slam poetry is very much an acquired taste and while it's fascinating to watch this affable sextet rise to its challenges, the performance sections in front of baying crowds rather blur into one another and the abrasive messages contained in the verses become somewhat lost in the documentary's cosy `against all odds' narrative. Moreover, once the scene shifts to the American capital, Ramseyer-Bache and Lucchesi struggle to convey the whirlwind of activity into which the kids are pitched and succeed only in confusing matters by including vox pops from rival poets that not only lack context, but also any real insight into the cultural status of slam or its socio-political significance to transatlantic youth.
In fact, the Leeds party's baggage was lost at the airport and the film-makers themselves were left without equipment for half of the four-day stay. But this human interest angle is neglected and the picture never recovers its momentum. Even the climactic slamout lacks excitement, as the mechanics of the contest and what is at stake have been so inadequately explained. Nevertheless, a coda back in Leeds reveals how much Kadish, Saju, Joseph, Maryam, Rheima and Azalia have benefited from their experience, while closing captions reveal that they have all gone on to higher education after returning to Brave New Voices the following year to surpass themselves.