• David Parkinson

Parky At the Pictures (1/4/2022)

Updated: Apr 2

(Reviews of The Audition; Coppelia; Broadcast Signal Intrusion; and Rabbit Academy: Mission Eggspossible)


Lord alone knows what it's like out there for you folks who can move about at your own volition. From the vantage point of someone who has spent the last two decades as an enforced homebody, it can only be presumed that cinema-going is pretty much a normal activity again, despite the spike in Covid casses.


Rest assured, however, the UK's various streaming platforms are still doing sterling work. In addition to subscription sites like Curzon Home Cinema. MUBI, Netflix and the BFI Player, the likes of iTunes, Apple TV, Amazon, Sky Store, Virgin, Microsoft, Vimeo, Google Play, Rakuten, BT and Playstation are all ready to keep you entertained. Whatever choice you make, think of others to make sure everyone stays safe.


THE AUDITION.


It took a decade for German actress Ina Weisse to follow up her 2008 directorial debut, The Architect. And it's taken three years for her sophomore outing, The Audition, to reach screens in the UK. Whatever the reasons for the delay, this involving saga scripted by Weisse and Daphne Charizani slots in neatly alongside such similarly themed character studies as Michael Haneke's The Piano Teacher (2001) and Damien Chazelle's Whiplash (2014).


Despite the misgivings of her colleagues, Anna Bronsky (Nina Hoss) believes that teenage violinist Alexander Paraskevas (Ilja Monti) has the talent to benefit from admission to a prestigious Berlin music academy. Her 10 year-old son Jonas (Serafin Mishiev) is also a student at the school, although he would much rather play ice hockey and Anna's attempts to correct flaws in his technique annoy his tutor, Frau Köhler (Sophie Rois).


While growing up, Anna had struggled to meet the exacting standards of her academic father, Walter (Thomas Thieme). Consequently, she had developed the stage fright that had ended her own hopes of becoming a concert violinist. Now widowed, Walter lives with his sister, Hilde (Ruth Bickelhaupt), and still makes Anna feel inadequate whenever she visits. By contrast, French luthier husband Philippe (Simon Abkarian) accepts her for who she is, even when she can't decide where to sit or what to order in a restaurant.


As Anna devotes herself to driving the introverted Alexander in preparation for a six-month assessment audition, Jonas becomes jealous and moody. Even Philippe's patience is tested when Anna makes the surprise decision to rehearse with a string quartet run by her cellist colleague, Christian Wels (Jens Albinus), with whom she is having a tentative affair. Yet Alexander's mother (Winnie Bowe) is grateful for her efforts, as she realises that she has taken a chance in championing her son. She has also taken a risk in returning to the recital stage and Philippe watches aghast as she drops her bow and the quintet has to start the first piece again.


The pressure proves too much for Alexander, however, especially when Anna humiliates him by removing his belt to strap a pad on to his shoulder in an attempt to cure his posture issues. Convinced that he won't turn up to the key audition after he stays away from lessons, Anna is relieved when he arrives late and plays brilliantly. However, her evident pride prompts Jonas to trip Alexander as he rushes down the stairs and he catches his mother's eye as she looks on in horror.


Unaware of the fact that his son put Alexander in a coma, Philippe persuades Anna to allow Jonas to make his own decision about his musical future. Bumping into Alexander's mother outside the school, Anna tries to apologise, but is clumsily cool when she bursts into tears. Pausing on the corridor, she peeks through a half-open door to see Jonas playing enthusiastically with his classmates.


Having become a familiar face through the films of Christian Petzold, Nina Hoss does a passable Isabelle Huppert impression in this slowly simmering drama, which holds the attention until the highly implausible denouement. Impassive, yet tightly coiled, Anna is difficult character to like, especially as she cheats on the doting Philippe and uses Alexander to settle scores with her father, her son and her colleagues. But it's hard not to feel a pang when the flawed perfectionist drops her bow and has to walk across the stage to retrieve it and play on as if nothing untoward has happened.


This excruciating scene is deftly handled by Weisse, although similar finesse eludes her in the aftermath of Alexander's audition, when she and editor Hansjörg Weissbrich rush events that require tighter control to keep their convolutions at bay. However, Weisse and cinematographer Judith Kaufman make atmospheric use of the classrooms and concert halls, as well as the contrast production designer Susanne Hopf achieves between the Bronsky's book-lined apartment and Philippe's artisanal workshop downstairs. Equally striking are the ambient silences that abruptly follow intense passages of music and it should come as no surprise to learn that these were mixed by Haneke regular Guillaume Sciama, who achieved a similar effect on The Piano Teacher.


COPPELIA.


Based on E.T.A. Hoffmann's story, `The Sandman', and composed by Léo Delibes, Coppélia premiered in Paris on 25 May 1870. In 2008, Ted Brandsen choreographed a new version for the Dutch National Ballet and Jeff Tudor, Steven De Beul and Ben Tesseur have drawn on his inspiration for Coppelia, which makes deft use of live-action, drawn graphics and computer-generated imagery to put a new spin on a tale of vanity and inconstancy that is highly germane to the modern age.


This isn't the ballet's first appearance on screen, of course, as an extract was staged by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger in The Red Shoes (1948), while Ted Kneeland paired Claudia Corday and Walter Slezak in The Fantastic World of Doctor Coppelius (1968). This new reading has its share of shrewd observations. But the demands of the fiendish plot means that it rather runs out of terpsichorean steam while approaching the denouement.


Swan (Michaela DePrince) enjoys her life running a juice bar in the town square. Her mother (Glynis Terborg) dotes on her and she gets friendly waves on her cycle to work from the mayor (Darcey Bussell), the baker (Irek Mukhamedov), the hairdresser (Jan Kooijman), the florist (Daniel Robert Silva), the art shop owner (Franz Schaven), the bistro owner (Bruno de Rocha Pereira) and the ballet teacher (Igone de Jongh). She is also eagerly greeted by her best friends (Nancy Burer, Mao Jing Jing and Sasha Mukhamedov). But her biggest smile is reserved for Franz (Daniel Carmago), who runs the bicycle shop, when not parading with his pals (Timothy van Poucke, Sem Sjouke and Edo Wijnen).


Indeed, everyone is so content that they don't notice the sleek car cruising the square or Doctor Coppelius (Vito Mazzeo) sliding down a backseat window to survey them with a sneer. He has pioneered a device to create the perfect reproduction of womanhood and he invites the townsfolk to his looming headquarters to see Coppelia (Erica Horwood) for themselves. The scheming scientist also shows them how he can transform them into being younger and more beautiful using his special apparatus.


The mayor goes first and is delighted by what she sees in the mirror. The baker, florist and hairdresser undergo the same treatment and Swan is disconcerted by the fact that are too obsessed with their own looks to notice as she cycles past their shops. Even her mother succumbs. But no one realises that Coppelius has been draining traits and emotions out of their bodies, which he then infuses into Coppelia to make her more human.


Fortunately, the handsome Franz has no need of such a makeover and he dances the night away with Swan and their friends. But Coppelius is the devious sort and he sends Coppelia to pacify Franz with a powder blown into his face in order to lure him back to the laboratory. Swan follows in time to see Coppelius attempt to steal Franz's heart and she dresses herself in Coppelia's yellow wig and pink dress in order to distract Coppelius from his task. Her friends help her escape and Coppelius is crushed when his creation expires and his empire crumbles.


The closing scene shows the townspeople back to normal and dancing in the countryside. But the previous 20 minutes had largely been dominated by close-ups of the victims of Coppelius's plot gazing at themselves in handheld mirrors or static mid-shots of Coppelia and her `donors' sitting under energy-sapping headsets, while Coppelius fiddles with console controls. Swan's diversion requires a little en pointe ingenuity. But running proves a much more effective way of fleeing the lair than leaping or pirouetting.


This may sound a fussy observation, especially as Tristan Oliver's camerawork is so nimble in the opening phases. But Jacqui and David Morris found more kinetic ways to frame the narrative throughout their ballet rendition of A Christmas Carol (2020). As with that film, the production design is key to the success of the conceit and Vincent de Pater's sketchy two-dimensional shop fronts are neatly complemented by the burnished plasticity of the interiors of Coppelius's forbidding tower block and the statuesque menace of the fembots, who resemble Louise Brooks in a Robert Palmer music video.


Accompanied by the BBC Concert Orchestra playing Maurizio Malagnini's score, the performers are admirable, with Sierra Leonean-American dancer Michaela DePrince combining winsomeness and pluck as Swan (shortened from the original Swanhilda), while Darcey Bussell does a nice line in self-important susceptibility as the mayor. But, sporting a devilish goatee, Vito Mazzeo steals the show as the wicked creator of a femme fatale who rather resembles Lisa Marie's Martian in Tim Burton's Mars Attacks! (1996) and reminds us that beauty is only skin deep in exposing the very millennial misdemeanour of fabricating images in order to exploit the trusting.


BROADCAST SIGNAL INTRUSION.


Jacob Gentry has been making features since Last Goodbye (2004), with The Signal (co-dir, 2007), My Super Psycho Sweet 16 (2009) and Synchronicity (2015) having been released on disc in the UK. However, he has reached a select few cinemas with Broadcast Signal Intrusion, a conspiracy thriller that takes its inspiration from the Max Headroom signal hijack in Chicago on 22 November 1987.


In Chicago in 1999, James (Harry Shum, Jr.) is still recovering from the disappearance of his dancer wife, Hannah, when he notice something strange on one of the broadcasts he is archiving for a TV station. A news programme is interrupted by a man in a white plastic mask saying something unintelligible. As this chimes in with some recent dreams, his interest is sparked and he learns that it is one of two incidents that so baffled the FCC and FBI that no one was ever apprehended.


Fellow retro-tech geek Chester (Arif Yampolsky) gets him a copy of the second hacking and points him in the direction of academic Dr Stuart Lithgow (Steve Pringle).

Despite advising James to avoid falling down rabbit holes, he reveals that there was a third intrusion and James becomes convinced that they were linked to the murder of young women after he manages to slow down the speech and decipher some kind of confession.


Despite being warned to steer clear by MacAlister (Michael B. Woods), who has ruined his life in investigating the case, James ploughs on and is joined by Alice (Kelley Mack) after he realises she has been following him. She spots a Morse message in the background of one of the hacks and they deduce it's a telephone number. On getting through to an answering machine and, despite witnessing McAllister slit his throat, they latch on to The Phreaker (Chris Sullivan), the man who rented the storage unit where the machine is kept.


He tells them how he learned to hack as a lonely kid after seeing the Night Pirate and taught some rich kids how to do it. Parting ways with Alice, James becomes more determined to find the third tape made in 1996, as he thinks it might be connected to Hannah. When he finds a hack in a video of his wife dancing, he ventures out to a rickety house in the middle of nowhere, where he finds Michael (Justin Welborn). He overpowers him with a hammer and locks him in a convenient cage, so he can get the answers he has been looking for. Or, at least, some of them. Despite forcing him to make a new message on a reconstruction of his old set, the others go to Michael's grave.


Ending with a bizarre hit-and-run episode and a fuzz of video static, this is a sleazily engaging thriller that just about manages to bump past the glitches in the Phil Drinkwater and Tim Woodall script, which was expanded from the latter's 2016 short. However, by taking his cues from Alan J. Pakula's paranoia triptych of Klute (1971), The Parallax View (1974) and All The President's Men (1976), Genry is able make the ambiguity work in his favour in concocting a creepypasta gumbo that can't quite get past the fact that its big reveal involves a previously unseen character, which will frustrate any armchair detectives.


Picking up the baton from John Travolta in Brian De Palma's Blow Out (1981), Harry Shum, Jr. makes a suitably hangdog obsessive, although he's more interesting in the company of Kelley Mack, whose removal is something of a fudge to allow Shum to complete the quest alone and dispense his own brand of justice. The supporting cast is solid, given that they are playing characters who are essentially walking wodges of exposition.


Striving to keep the viewer at the centre of events that seem bent on pushing them away, Scott Thiele's camera prowls around Sarah Sharp's dimly lit subterranean sets to the strains of Ben Lovett's unsettling, gialloesque score. As editor, Gentry also indulges himself with the odd head-scratching montage, while Dan Martin stages the Sal-e-Sparks interludes with James Swanton to creepy effect. But there's little sense of the palpable suspense that made the 70s films Gentry admires so compelling.


Notwithstanding the Lynchian undertones, the original Max Headroom incursions were supposed to be comical, hence the second message coming in the middle of a sitcom about an android housewife. But jamming signals was much more fun when Sid James and Arthur Askey did it in Lance Comfort's comedy, Make Mine a Million (1959).


RABBIT ACADEMY: MISSION EGGSPOSSIBLE.


In 2017, Ute von Münchow-Pohl introduced audiences to Max, the mischievous city slicker who stumbled across a training centre for Easter bunnies after crashing his plane in a forest. Now the German follows up Rabbit School: Guardians of the Golden Egg with Rabbit Academy: Mission Eggpossible. Younger audiences don't need to have seen the original in order to enjoy the sequel. But grown-ups could score brownie points over the holidays by watching the former online before completing the double bill at the pictures.


Having received a letter informing him that he is the first ever city dweller to be accepted at the Rabbit School, Max (Callum Maloney) rides off on a motorbike purloined from Leo (Cameron Simpson), a Shockwave Rabbit with his own social media site. As one of the academy's few flunkees, he despises Easter and has plans to boost his online numbers with a live transmission of him disrupting the annual egg hunt.


Arriving at the academy in the middle of the woods, Max is greeted by instructors Madame Hermione (Karen Ardiff) and Mr Fitz (Brendan McDonald), who not only supervise the painting of eggs, but also guard the secrets of the golden egg, which gives the students such superpowers as invisibility. However, Mr Fitz is unimpressed that Max has led Ferdinand (Jonas Elkhawad) and his brothers, Bruno and Louis (Luke Griffin), to their gates, as they are plotting with their mother, Ruth (Mary Murray), to hijack the celebrations and make foxes the new symbol of Easter.


Emmy is pleased to see Max again, although some of the other bunnies think he's a bit brash for their conservative academy. He is determined to become a Master Rabbit and acquire his superpower. But the school is plunged into gloom when the golden egg turns black and everyone loses their talents. Miss Hermione urges them to be vigilant, as she suspects they are under threat. However, Ferdinand is so dismayed by his family teaming up with Leo (after he has warned them that he wants to ruin Easter not make it fox-friendly) that he leaves home and offers to help Max and Emmy resist the imminent attack.


As he's a bit of a boffin, Ferdinand is able to devise a rapid way of getting supplies down from Egg Mountain to ensure that all the eggs are painted in time for the Easter Sunday deadline. However, when he goes to spy on his family to see what they're up to, he's accused of betraying the school when Leo uses rubber plungers to scale Egg Mountain with Bruno and Louis. Max saves the day by bombarding them with paint bombs to make the rock slippery and he discovers both the power of teamwork and his individual gift when he unites with Emmy and Ferdinand to prevent Leo from using a drone to steal the precious eggs. His lesson learned, Max recognises the value of teamwork and is granted his power to celebrate with his new friends as they lay the egg hunt across the city.


With characters designed by Gerlinde Godelman and sets by Felix Presch, this lively story rattles along without having to resort to the kind of point-of-view chase or plummet sequences that so many CGI kidpix import from video games to up the ante. There's a brief pursuit when the foxes try to catch Max on the motorbike, while the drone attack allows for a little POV viscerality. But, in the main, this is a tale about character building and learning to put the common good above individual ambition.


The voiceovers grate from time to time, especially when Max and Leo go all street. And there's no excuse for the resistibly twee `Let's Colour the World' song. But the foxes are amusing and rascally rather than wicked in their desire to take over Easter to be loved rather than demonised. It's also good to see Emmy being treated as an equal rather than being Max's sidekick, while Ferdinand shows that brain matters more than brawn. Yet screenwriters Katja Grübel and Dagmar Rehbinder - who have clearly seen Dan Scanlon's Monsters University (2013) a few too many times - fail to generate any palpable threat. Thus, there's no suspense to speak of and precious little fun, either.


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