Parky At the Pictures (1/9/2023)
Updated: Sep 2
(Reviews of Maigret; Klokkenluider; And Then Come the Nightjars; Anchorage; Otto Baxter: Not A Fucking Horror Story; The Puppet Asylum; Bobi Wine: The People's President; and Mercy Falls)
Prolific Belgian author Georges Simenon wrote 75 novels and 28 short stories about Commissaire Jules Maigret of the Paris Brigade Criminelle. Director Patrice Leconte draws on Maigret and the Dead Girl (1954) for Maigret, an impeccably produced police procedural that sees Gérard Depardieu join Pierre Renoir, Abel Tarride, Harry Baur, Charles Laughton, Albert Préjean, Jean Gabin, and Heinz Rühmann in having played the methodical policeman on the big screen.
Simenon's favourtie interpreter was Rupert Davies, who played Maigret for the BBC in the 1960s, since when Richard Harris, Michael Gambon, and Rowan Atkinson have worn the famous overcoat on British television. Leconte himself is no stranger to Simenon, as Monsieur Hire (1989) was based on Les Fiançailles de M. Hire, the 1933 novella that the Belgian considered the first of the `romans durs' that were deemed weightier than `romans populaires' like the Maigret stories.
While a rundown Jules Maigret (Gérard Depardieu) is being advised to quit smoking his pipe by his doctor, a 20 year-old is being fitted into an ivory evening gown in order to attend a reception in 1950s Paris. Her arrival spooks actress Jeanine Arménieu (Mélanie Bernier), who is celebrating her engagement to the affluent Laurent Clermont-Valois (Pierre Moure). They usher the girl into a side room and ask if they didn't pay her enough to stay out of their lives. However, she is soon to become an even greater inconvenience, as Maigret is called to Place Vintimille to gaze forlornly on the victim of five stab wounds.
As he and wife Louise (Anne Loiret) lost a daughter at birth, the crime hits Maigret hard and he watches children playing in the square as he listens to the testimony of a witness who heard a car draw up after midnight and leave after much banging of the doors and the boot. Maigret views the body after the autopsy and learns that the girl was drunk and that her neck was broken before she was stabbed by a left-hander. He rules out her being a bar girl who lure male customers into buying drinks, but notes she wasn't a virgin and had eaten little for several days.
Informed that the couture dress was out of keeping with the victim's underwear and the meagre possessions in her bag, Maigret visits the atelier to learn that the dress was from a 1937 collection and that there was no way to trace who had bought it. When he shows the dress to Madame Maigret, she wonders whether it had been rented and her husband soon finds the store.
The owner is shocked by the blood-stained garment and gives Maigret the clothes she had left as a deposit because she couldn't afford the hire fee. She speculates that she was an out-of-towner, who was going to meet someone she hoped would help her and laments that so many country girls come to the capital in search of fame or husbands and wind up in houses of ill repute or on the streets.
Having being hung up on after finding a phone number in the deceased's bag, Maigret latches on to Betty (Jade Labeste) after spotting her shoplifting from a station bookstall. He buys her lunch and inquires into her background in an attempt to build up a profile of the modern girl. However, she flees the minute the waitress calls him `commissaire' and he sighs wearily before finishing his wine.
Discovering from a bottle in the bag that the girl had acquired a strong laudanum solution without a prescription because the female pharmacist had felt sorry for her, Maigret asks around the nearby tenements and gains admission to a room that had been sublet from someone called Jeanine. A woman on the landing confides that she had often heard the occupant crying, while the concièrge describes her as a loner who didn't even get mail.
Feeling certain he's on the right track, Maigret is told that the Trocadéro number he had called belongs to Jeanine Arménieu, who is making a film at Billancourt Studios. She is friendly and finds a spot among the fake scenery for them to talk. Revealing that she got to know Louise Louvière (Clara Antoons) on the train to Paris, she piques Maigret's interest by referring to her former roommate in the past tense. However, Jeanine shrugs that she had lost touch because Louise was a moaning minnie who made too many demands for an orphan who had come to Paris to find her father.
Jeanine also mentions that Louise had been an extra in a couple of films and Maigret is able to find some head shots. He also meets Kaplan (André Wilms), an elderly war survivor from Vilnius, who had placed an advertisement in the paper for information on a missing girl. Maigret is unsure that Kaplan was looking for Louise, but he sympathises with the despair he feels at having lost a child.
After spending a night in a seedy bar watching the patrons and girls milling round them, Maigret gets a tip from a taxi driver who had driven Louise to the party. He visits the restaurant and is shown an invitation that leads him to back to Billancourt, where he asks Jeanine if she knew Louise had been present. She insists she hadn't seen her and is put out when Maigret orders her to come to the morgue and identify the body, so it can be buried.
Having installed the homeless Betty in Louise's lodgings, Maigret calls on Laurent and Madame Clermont-Valois (Aurore Clément) in their grand house. The son is in a tearing hurry, but denies knowing Louise. His mother regrets that he is marrying an actress, as the husband she had never loved had enjoyed many dalliances with lower-class women. But she insists that Laurent could never kill anyone and Maigret makes note of the fact that she knew Louise was dead.
After establishing that Laurent had given the chauffeur the night off and had driven himself to the party, Maigret learns that he had twice been charged with sexual assault, only for his mother to pay off the plaintiffs. The judge overseeing the case, however, implies that Laurent is a delicate character and warns Maigret that he will need hard evidence, as he is well connected. According to Janvier (Jean-Paul Comart), he's a workaholic mummy's boy, who sees Jeanine for supper, but always sleeps at home. She keeps her shutters down and only goes out to work.
Dropping in on Betty, Maigret is disturbed to find her wearing one of Louise's dresses. He tells her to take it off and she asks if he's obsessed with the dead girl because she jilted him. She also feels uneasy because the concièrge has suggested that she looks like Louise. Jeanine also notices the resemblance when she calls to collect her mail and she offers her a job (using her stage name, Nadine). Betty tells Maigret, who offers to drive her to the rendezvous with Laurent and she agrees to go, albeit with misgivings.
Rushing out half dressed, Betty describes how Laurent and Jeanine had plied her with drink before coaxing her into making out with Jeanine. She curses having left the cash behind and admits she might have enjoyed the experience, as Maigret drives her home and his wife puts her to bed. At breakfast, Madame Maigret fusses over her guest and smiles fondly when revealing that she has a daughter. As he shaves, Maigret enjoys hearing the chatter from the kitchen and thinks of what might have been.
Informed by Dr Paul (Hervé Pierre) that his lungs are healthy and that Louise broke her neck in a fall that might have been caused by a combination of the opiate and booze, Maigret attends the funeral. His wife arrives to throw soil on the coffin and they walk away with the commissaire sighing that their child would also have been 20 had she lived.
During a meeting with Laurent and Jeanine, Maigret accuses them of having had a threesome with the underage Louise and implies that this was a regular occurrence. He also reveals that the stab wounds were inflicted to make an accident look like murder and notes that Madame Clermont-Valois is left handed. When Laurent gets angry and insists that he left the party because of tummy trouble, the family lawyer intervenes and tells Maigret that any future encounters will have to be formal.
Having shown Janvier how to smoke his pipe, Maigret persuades Betty to have her hair cut like Louise's and, wearing another dress from the 1937 collection, show up at Laurent and Jeanine's wedding reception. The bride flees and trips on the stairs, where Maigret is waiting to ask if this is where Louise had fallen to her death. Madame Clermont-Valois invites Maigret back into the dining-room, where she explains that Laurent had followed her instructions in getting rid of Louise's corpse, while she had stabbed her on impulse so try and mislead any enquiry. Advised to go home and rest before making a statement, she sniffs that the stupid wedding would never have taken place if Louise hadn't stumbled.
Maigret puts Betty on the bus home to her parents. She is glad to have been of assistance, as she knows she has done more than merely help him solve a crime. He goes to the cinema to see the film in which Jeanine and Louise had appeared and is transfixed by the melancholic gaze the latter's wallflower gives the camera during a trendy party scene. Waddling home, Maigret turns to watch a young woman clutching her suitcase teeter on her heels towards a hopeful future. As he shuffles away, he dissolves out of the shot.
In an interview to promote his final feature, Claude Chabrol claimed that Bellamy (2009) was like `a novel that Simenon never wrote' about `Maigret on vacation'. Gérard Depardieu had taken the lead in his sole collaboration with Chabrol and there are echoes of his performance in this commendably faithful adaptation of one of the more poignant Maigret books. This subtle treatise on sexual consent is also the 74 year-old Depardieu's first film for Leconte after several stalled projects, although he wasn't the first choice for the title role and was only cast after Daniel Auteuil withdrew.
Although Depardieu cuts a hefty figure these days, he still feels a better physical fit for Simenon's conception of Maigret than Auteuil, especially as he has to appear breathless after climbing six flights of stairs and needs to convey how unusual it is for the commissaire to be off his food. Depardieu can also be a very poised and watchful actor, which perfectly suits Maigret's distinctive blend of observation and canny questioning.
Leconte and cinematographer Yves Angelo tend to keep the lighting low to suggest a city still coming to terms its wartime traumas and Loïc Chavanon's production design and Annie Périer's costumes reinforce the sense of austerity. Bruno Coulais's orchestral score has a similar solemnity, which Joëlle Hache complements with the measured pacing of the editing that also reflects the meticulous nature of an investigative method rooted in ingenuity, experience, and an empathetic and worldly wise understanding of human nature.
In keeping with Simenon's style, Leconte and fellow scribe Jérôme Tonnerre put more emphasis on psychology than suspense. Thus, while this never offers much of a mystery, it compels through the accumulation of detail and the inter-connectivity of incidents in the case and from Maigret's past. The restrained nature of the support playing fortifies the ambience, while also enabling Leconte to keep the focus on Depardieu, as he conceals more than he reveals in dealing with paternal grief, pity for a murdered provinciale, and a growing awareness of his own mortality.
It's pretty apparent that Neil Maskell has seen Martin McDonagh's In Bruges (2008). And probably more than once. However, the debuting writer-director also draws on his experience of acting in Ben Wheatley's Kill List (2011) and Happy New Year, Colin Burstead (2018), and Paul Andrew Williams's Bull (2021) for Klokkenluider and it's no surprise to see Wheatley's name among the executive producers.
Having stumbled upon a dreadful secret while doing IT work in Downing Street, Ewan (Amit Shah) has gone into hiding in Maarkedal in East Flanders with wife Silke (Sura Dohnke) under the names Mr & Mrs Appleby. It's 6 February 2014 and, while awaiting journalist Suzanne Arden so he can blow the whistle, Ewan entrusts his safety to bodyguards Kevin (Tom Burke) and Ben (Roger Evans). Really named Chris and Glynn, they are still on the cross-Channel ferry, where the former has so little faith in his colleague that he intimates that this could be their last assignment together.
Silke tries to keep Ewan calm after a trip to the local bakery. But he's nervous about being outdoors (a drone shot shots how exposed they are as they sit on a bench beside a lake) and wonders whether he should call the paper and call the whole thing off. She urges him to stop being melodramatic and reminds him that they have booked the house for a birthday celebration and that no one knows their whereabouts.
The couple are arguing when Chris/Kevin and Glynn/Ben arrive. They explain that the paper is paying for them to keep the Applebys safe, but Chris stresses that they don't anticipate any trouble, even though Glynn has brought guns. Silke dislikes the idea of moving to a neutral location for the interview and accuses Chris of bigging up his role when he suggests the holiday rental might be bugged.
Ewan cooks for the newcomers and Kevin snaps at Glynn for drinking too much wine and giving away his real name when Ewan discloses that he's not called Appleby. Silke gives him a reassuring hug, as Chris turns in early and leaves Glynn on watch. Ignoring orders, he polishes off the wine and can't resist playing a practical joke on Chris when he comes to wake him up at 3am. The noise disturbs Silke, who is far from impressed by her protectors.
She accepts Chris's company for a trip to the bakery next day, while Ewan and Glynn share a glass of wine over a discussion about going to war and computer privacy. The topic turns to the document that Ewan saw on the laptop of the PM's chief adviser and Glynn is naturally curious to know what it was after Ewan declares humanity is doomed. Silke tells Chris at the same time (although we hear nothing), as they walk back, and both men are stunned. Indeed, Glynn threatens to kill Ewan if he tells Chris that he knows the truth.
Silke tells Ewan that they passed some soldiers in the village, but presumes there's nothing to worry about. However, he's growing increasingly paranoid, as he fears his revelation will be denied and that he will be exposed to ridicule and persecution. Yet, he feels compelled to speak out about such a monumental situation.
Over lunch, Silke gets the giggles about Chris's English reserve. But Ewan is unsettled about the levels of secrecy that Chris wants to impose upon them all and is about to reveal that he has confided in Glynn, when he claims to have heard a car and everyone falls silent. It proves to be a false alarm and Chris shoots Glynn a quizzical look.
Having been informed that the journalist has been held up, Chris agrees to have a glass of champagne while they wait. They do a quiz and Glynn surprises everyone with his knowledge and Ewan ticks off Chris for trying to belittle him. He struggles at charades, however, and is becoming hysterical in doing his mime when there's a knock at the door.
It turns out the Herald didn't think the trip to Belgium was worth Suzanne Arden's time, so they have sent Flo (Jenna Coleman) instead. She swears like a trooper in asking names and warns that she will go off like a firecracker if she's been called out on a wild goose chase after being held up the army, who are out looking for an escaped prisoner. Peppering her utterances with expletives, Flo tells Ewan that there's a very good chance that they already know what he has to confide and that it's unlikely they'll ever be allowed to print it because of legal red tape.
Ewan is appalled by her blasé attitude and insists he has world-shattering information to impart. He demands more respect for the risk he is taking and thinks the paper might have sent a slicker protection team. While Chris and Glynn look hurt, Flo tells Ewan that the media is more interested in advertising revenue and clickbait than it is newsworthy truth and she suggests he starts living in the real world.
This advice chimes with Silke, who orders Flo to pull over when they set out under cover of darkness for an exposed place to conduct the interview. She takes Ewan to one side and asks if his disclosure is worth all this cloak and dagger nonsense. Scared and confused, he feels betrayed by the paper for sending a junior and wonders if they will sell him up the river once he's made his pitch. Glynn comes out into the rain to assure the Applebys that the Herald will take care of them - and they drive on into the night.
They stop in the middle of nowhere and the army truck passes, as Flo leads Ewan and Silke away for their conflab. After a while, she signals with three torch flashes to Chris and Glynn, who grab their guns from the boot and shoot the couple dead. Flo drives off and the assassins return to the car, while the soldiers toss the corpses into a deep pit.
Chris asks Glynn why he's been so weird over the last year, but he refuses to answer because they won't be working together any longer. Watching the burial in the headlights, they ponder how long it will take to get home. Chris probes Glynn to see if Ewan told him anything and he swears he didn't. They sit in silence, as we flashback to the game of charades to remind the audience that, while they might think they know what they have just seen, they will only be guessing.
Taking its title from the Dutch word for `whistleblower', this is a good old-fashioned shaggy dog story with a corny punchline. Maskell makes canny use of his MacGuffin and uses Flo's motor-mouthed explanation of how modern journalism works not only to debunk it, but also to magnify its significance in light of what happens next. Armando Iannucci couldn't have scripted it better, although there's more than a hint of Malcolm Tucker about Flo's effing and jeffing, just as Chris's self-regarding exasperation smacks of David Brent.
Jenna Coleman steals the show with a terrific performance that resuscitates the storyline as it was running out of steam. Tom Burke and Roger Evans have their moments in the Vladimir and Estragon roles to her ruthless Godot, while Amit Shah does what he can with the thankless role of the sitting target, whose situation leaves him little to do but regret and fret. However, Sura Dohnke has even less to work with as the supportive wife, who can't quite forgive her spouse for seeing what he shouldn't have.
Nick Gillespie's jittery camerawork catches the sense of fear and ennui, with the aerial shots effectively highlighting how isolated the Applebys are by their decision. Jayson Rayton's editing works well during the unheard revelation sequence, which is given urgency by Martin Pavey's sound design and an Andy Shortwave score that can, at other times, feel a bit droningly insistent. Despite the odd script protraction painting him into a corner en route to the predictable ending, Maskell directs efficiently. One shot of Ewan and Silke consoling each other through a doorway into the garden is particularly accomplished. He also makes a neat job of the Pinteresque shifts from humour to menace and it will be intriguing to see what he does next.
AND THEN COME THE NIGHTJARS.
Eight years after Bea Roberts's play premiered, Paul Robinson brings the award-winning And Then Come the Nightjars to the big screen. He might have saved himself a good deal of time, money, and effort by recording the action on stage, as this often poignant study of a rural community in the years following the 2001 Foot and Mouth epidemic rarely escapes its proscenium origins.
The first case of Foot and Mouth in England for three decades was discovered at an Essex abattoir on 20 February 2001. By 3 March, the disease had reached Dartmoor and newly widowed dairy farmer Michael (David Fielder) follows hygiene regulations to the letter in order to protect his herd. He seeks the advice of Jeffrey (Nigel Hastings), the local veterinarian who hangs round to help deliver a calf. But Michael twigs that he is lingering because he's had a row with wife Helen and is avoiding going home. Bored with pub quiz questions and enquiries about Sheila's funeral and how he's getting on with estranged son, Trevor, Michael smokes roll-ups and wonders after which member of the Royal family to name the calf.
Eventually, they discuss their wives, with Michael still making two cups of tea and Jeffrey sleeping on a campbed. The old farmer asks the vet (whom he has nicknamed `Herriot') if things are going to be okay. But, while he makes the right noises, Jeffrey can't make any promises and the sound of a nightjar only makes Michael more despondent.
When Jeffrey comes with a white-suited team on 22 March, Michael feels betrayed because his cows are healthy and it's only the proximity of an infected farm that has necessitated the cull. He asks Jeffrey to call the ministry to plead his case, but the phone gets dropped when the slaughtermen get impatient and injure a quail that Michael puts in a nest in the barn. Still hoping that his friend can make him a special case, he pleads with Jeffrey to spare him. But Michael showers him with insults when he explains that the disease is out of control and that he has already witnessed horrors like half-dead cows being tossed on to pyres. When Michael points a shotgun at the MAFF men, Jeffrey reassures them that it's not loaded and expresses deep regret when Michael rushes into the kitchen to show him some of the show prizes the herd has won down the years.
A shot rings out and Michael rushes into the yard. He looks on in despair, as his beloved cows, including Victoria the calf, are stun-gunned. The carcasses are hauled on to a pyre and he stares into the flames late into the night. Next morning, he wanders around the empty shed, with smoke still hanging on the air. The cows slowly filter inside and seem to be staring accusingly at him for failing to protect him.
But it's all a dream and Michael coughs, as he gets out of bed. It's 21 December and he rushes downstairs to see why the dog is barking. He finds Jeffrey sleeping in the barn because Helen has left him and he's started drinking so badly that he's crashed the car. Suspended because all of the farms have barred him, Jeffrey cuts a sorry figure. Initially, Michael feels no pity. However, they go back a long way and sit in the cold remembering past Christmases and how Michael had played Santa. Jeffrey asks if he can come into the house, but Michael isn't sure he's forgiven him yet.
They're pals again when Jeffrey's daughter, Holly, marries on 24 April 2009. Michael wants to fight with the farmer whose herd causes the cull, as he has sold his land to property developers. However, he feels wheezy from the linger effects of the smoke and calms down at Jeffrey's insistence. They are now running the farm together, with Jeffrey sober and coming up with ideas for diversification. Michael loathes the idea of converting a barn into accommodation, as his family has farmed this plot for over 200 years. But the house is creaking and their options narrowing.
Judging by the pills on the bedside table, Michael's race is almost run by 7 October 2013. Wearing Sheila's old coat, Jeffrey marches out to find him and admonish him when he asks for a fag. In revenge, Michael reminds him of the time he tried it on with Shane the shepherd's wife when he was drunk. They scoff at the new estate being called Shepherd's Dell. But Michael thinks it's sad that Shane is working on the building site rather than tending sheep. The chat about the Goosey Fair and the kids loving Grease (1978). Jeffrey suggests Trev could visit with Jack and Michael nods, as he knows there's not enough time left to bear grudges.
As the sun fades, Michael reminisces about Sheila's cooking and their courtship fumbles in the barn. He reveals that he has spent his entire life in the house and that his mother had been out milking the cows within an hour of his birth. Joking about an awful day trip to Coventry, he tells Jeffrey to stay in the house and find himself a good woman. They clench hands on hearing a nightjar and Michael gives thanks for a life in the only place he'd ever wanted to be.
A dedicatory caption notes that 9677 farms were impacted by Foot and Mouth, with six million animals perishing and 7800 farmers and farm workers losing their jobs. Unlike the industrial injustices that exercise the likes of Ken Loach, it's all been rather forgotten. Yet the odour of nocturnal bonfires will linger with anyone who had the misfortune to smell them.
Together, and with laudable sensitivity, Roberts and Johnson capture something of this sense of irreparable loss and the ploys to which farm folk were forced to resort in order to keep their homes. But the staging often leaves this feeling more like an episode of Emmerdale or one of Jon Sanders's Kentish chamber dramas than Hope Dickson Leach's The Levelling (2016) or Francis Lee's God's Own Country (2017). John Crane's magic hour views, editor Claire Pringle's pillow shots, and Simon Slater's melancholic score all remain the right side of pastoral pastiche. But the decision to confine David Fielder and Nigel Hastings to the farm and keep them stationary during their exchanges deprives the drama of momentum and draws attention to the occasionally self-conscious theatricality of the language.
The leads couldn't be better, with the white-bearded Fielder mastering the Devonian brogue that certifies him as a man of the soil and Hastings as the grockle who has never quite assimilated. Their closing conversation will bring a tear to some eyes. But many will head home wondering why no one mentioned rural depopulation, fox hunting, badger culls, animal welfare, the effects of pesticides and climate change, and the debate over EU subsidies and Brexit.
Seven years have passed since Scott Monahan made his feature debut in Neal McLaughlin's fond tribute to 1950s drive-in fodder, I Was a Teenage Wereskunk (2016). The spirit of exploitation also pervades Monahan's directorial debut, Anchorage, a road movie in which he co-stars with Dakota Loesch, who started his writing career back in 2014 with Kiss Like Big Dogs, a featurette which he also headlined and co-directed with Morgan Jensen and Christopher Tabor.
Florida brothers Jacob (Scott Monahan) and John (Dakota Loesch) have a Cadillac boot full of opioid-stuffed teddy bears. Blue-haired Jacob wants to sell them to addict movie stars in Los Angeles. But shaven-headed John figures that they could make close to a million bucks by flogging the pills to fishermen coming ashore in Alaska with money to burn after spending five months at sea. Gritting his gold grille in the rewilded grounds of a graffiti-strewn house with its own pool, Jacob agrees to the plan and they get wasted on their own merchandise to a choral rendition of `America the Beautiful' that becomes more distorted as they fuel up.
Waking in the night in a stoner panic, Jacob dozes off in John's arms and wakes to find him gone. Stomping down the road, he finds him arguing with a couple of blokes in the ruins of another abandoned home. Sneaking up behind, Jacob beans them both with his trusty baseball bat and drags John back to the car. As they speed away, Jacob berates his brother for jeopardising their operation, but John insists he had everything under control and was simply trying to make them a few bucks for expenses.
Driving along listening to a female voice delivering a prayer on the radio, Jacob stops when he sees a baseball diamond in the middle of the Californian nowhere. He commentates, as he pings stones with his bat and mocks John when he keeps swinging himself off his feet when he misses. However, he clumps the next pebble and they embrace on the home plate and conduct post-match interviews before popping another pill.
At their next stop in another derelict edifice, the siblings try to make each other cry with funeral eulogies. While passing through a deserted housing estate, they pretend to call out to the residents before discussing their ideal meals over a shared can of beans. Jacob despairs when John robs a gas station, but snorts a spoonful of cocaine and keeps his eyes on the road ahead.
After another in-car montage accompanied by jarring violin skirls, John suggests crashing for the night in an old wooden mill. But Jacob is concerned that they're making poor time and would prefer to drive through the night and put some distance between them and the folks with whom they've crossed swords. He comes to regret his decision when they'll pulled over by Deputy Johnson (Christopher Corey Smith). Jacob claims to have been distracted by some Scriptures on the radio and asks about a nearby church in confiding that they were making a family pilgrimage to Anchorage in the footsteps of their grandparents. The lawman buys the excuse and is returning to his car when John jumps out and guns him down. Slumping back in the passenger seat, he pins the blame for the murder on Jacob for being so loose-tongued.
Unable to keep his eyes open, Jacob pulls over after starting to hallucinate. When he wakes, he finds John smoking and glaring at him. He follows when Jacob gets out of the car and they fight in the desert dust. The open door blocks the view, as Jacob smashes in his brother's skull with a rock before hauling his carcass to another crumbling ruin. Briefly, he rests his head on John's chest and wishes he could turn to their recently deceased mother, as he feels so alone. Leaving the gun beside the sibling in his red long johns, Jacob checks the teddies are still in the boot and drives off to who knows where.
This may not be the story that John Steinbeck would write if he was still around to observe his nation sliding into another dustbowl abyss, but it more than capably conveys the problems facing anyone who claims to have what it takes to make America great again. Every tumbledown property caught by Erin Naifeh's camera serves as a reminder of a mythical past, while the scheme to get rich by inflicting pharmaceutical misery upon others barely better off than themselves confirms the extent to which the American Dream has become a nightmare.
With only five microbudgeted days at his disposal, Monahan's direction feels tighter and more insightful than Loesch's script, even though he relies over-heavily on editor Spencer Showalter's adept montages. Neither actor is particularly good at improvising, however. Indeed, their curse-littered banter rapidly becomes tedious, in spite of the jagging strings of Savannah Wheeler's tension-ratcheting score. Yet they pass for siblings, as they trade insults, nurse grievances, and wrestle suspicions that have been born out of lifetime of squabbles, bullying, despondency, and resentment. Evidently, the loss of their mother has traumatised the pair and there are hints of begrudging affection. But the outcome of the climactic tussle feels irksomely spurious, as John could clearly knock Jacob's block off.
OTTO BAXTER: NOT A FUCKING HORROR STORY.
`My name is Otto Baxter and I've been filmed by other people since I was a baby,' explains the subject of Peter Beard and Bruce Fletcher's documentary, Otto Baxter: Not a Fucking Horror Story. The duo first met Baxter when they chronicled the efforts of a 21 year-old from Steventon in Oxfordshire to lose his virginity in the BBC Three programme, Otto: Love, Lust and Las Vegas (2009). Now, they follow his five-year battle to direct his first film, the 30-minute short, The Puppet Asylum, which is showing in a double bill that will move to Sky after its brief theatrical run.
As Beard and Fletcher are part of Baxter's support network, they hope that making the two films will enable them to get a better understanding of his feelings, needs, and aspirations. An extroverted joker, Baxter is content to discuss his experience of living with Down's Syndrome. But he is much warier of introspection, particularly of contemplating life without Lucy, the woman from Reigate in Surrey, who had adopted Otto when he was abandoned by his birth mother, Alex. She had allowed cameras to have access to her four sons (all of whom had Down's) in order to challenge public preconceptions of both the syndrome and those who have it.
Audio clips from an old American informational about Down's Syndrome can be heard over the opening credits, which are also interspersed with interview snippets in which Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, and Stanley Kubrick talk about why they make movies. Baxter shares their feelings, although Beard and Fletcher don't mention that he has also acted in a handful of shorts, as well as appearing regularly on stage.
Back in 2017, Beard and Fletcher turn a brainstorming session for The Puppet Asylum into a chance to trace Baxter's past and his relationships with Alex and Lucy. The latter explains how she first came across Down's as a teenage hospital volunteer and realised that the youngsters wanted normality rather than pity and she adopted four boys (in spite of family misgivings) to help them find their niche. In order to dispel the kind of myths perpetuated in some vox pop clips, she readily appeared with the boys in magazine articles and on daytime programmes, while occasionally guesting the likes of The Real Holiday Show.
Baxter is determined to start his short with a birth sequence that establishes Alex's reluctance to keep him and the notion that he was somehow a monster. As he plays with an animatronic baby at an effects studio, we see footage from 2004 of Otto being bothered by people staring at him in a supermarket and Lucy opines that it has always confused him about why people behave differently around him. In the extract, she tries to explain why his actions might attract adverse attention and he laughs. But Lucy admits that she doesn't entirely understand how his mind works and hopes that the short provides some insights into how he feels as a 35 year-old man with Down's.
On the first day of shooting, Baxter meets MyAnna Buring and Paul Kaye, who will play the birth mother and The Master, the nefarious character who takes the baby away. He tells Buring that he never received anything from Alex and Martin for Christmas or birthdays and she reassures him that she is glad to be acting in his picture, which is being photographed by Lorenzo Lavrini. She throws herself into conveying operating table agony and Baxter's expression is a picture as the scene ends.
Fletcher helps Baxter send an email to Alex to inform her about the project and we see footage of their last meeting in 2004. In an interview, she admits that she couldn't deal with the prospect of still having to care for Otto into her own old age. But she's friendly during a tour of the 17 year-old's bedroom and feels sad that things turned out the way they did, both for her and her son. As they finish the message, Fletcher is surprised that Baxter wants to tell Alex that he loves her.
Lucy has never blamed the parents who discarded her sons and reasoned that they were somehow scared. She now recognises that this might have shaped young Otto's sense that he was physically fright-inducing and he channels this into a song that he writes with Fletcher and musician Joe Bennett and suddenly The Puppet Asylum becomes a horror musical. The sequence wraps and Lucy hopes the experience will have done wonders for Baxter's self-esteem. However, the revenue stream ends and, while producer Daisy Allsop seeks new funding, Baxter tries his hand at being a drag queen.
During Covid lockdown, news comes that Alex has died and Lucy shows him a suitcase containing his baby clothes and a St Christopher's medal with a handwritten note wishing Otto well. He feels heartbroken, but is still hurt that they never sent him gifts, as he had been forced to watch two of his brothers open presents from their birth parents. Lucy finds it sad that he had bottled up this pain for so long and reassures him, as he wipes away a tear.
After four years of fruitless effort, Allsop discovers that the film industry has had a change of heart regarding people with disability telling their stories in their own way. Consequently, she was able to secure backing for the resumption of the shoot and Beard and Fletcher chuckle as Baxter burps his way through some continuity audio.
Cast and crew assemble for the second day of shooting, which will focus on Otto's adoption from a Victorian freak show called The Devil's Playground. Rebecca Callard plays Lucy (who appears as an extra) and the day's work is intercut with Lucy's reminiscences of adopting four times and learning both how to be a mother and to ensure that the boys had the same upbringing as anyone else. It had annoyed her when Otto was excluded from secondary school for two years and this prompted her to start highlighting the unthinking discrimination that existed in 1990s Britain.
When they move on to schooldays, Reuben Reuter arrives to play Otto (complete with a horn in the middle of his forehead) and we cut back to the script sessions, when Beard and Fletcher came to realise that The Master symbolised the doctors, teachers, and social workers who had tried to force their views upon him. Baxter also casts Kiran Shah as his Reigate friend Jamie, who is depicted as a ventriloquist's dummy that is kept in a box. Jamie comes to the set and Lucy recalls how glad she was that Otto had been able to forge such a close bond, as it had helped him see that he belonged.
We see footage of the two at 16, with Jamie giving Otto tips on how to ask girls to dance at a disco. On set, Jamie reminds Baxter how he had struggled with drink after his father's suicide and had been fortunate enough to meet a woman who turned his life around. After a number of relationships that hadn't worked out (usually because of the intervention of over-protective parents), Baxter also finds someone to love and fiancée Stephanie comes to the shoot. But he still insists on including a sequence in which Otto is rejected by a beautiful woman in a pub because he's a monster.
Lucy reveals that Otto has always found it difficult to talk to women because his social skills aren't attuned. In his mind, he's James Bond and he can't understand why girls wouldn't fall for his chat-up lines. Consequently, when Baxter becomes overly flirtatious with female members of the team, he has to be reminded by Beard and Fletcher that people have to feel comfortable in the workplace and, even though he had never meant to upset anyone, he has to promise to watch what he says. This proves difficult, however, and, after she watches him flirt with an actress, Stephanie informs the camera that she and Baxter are just friends really.
In the short, The Master kills Lucy and Beard and Fletcher try to make Baxter focus on how he will feel and what he will do if he finds himself alone in real life. He's reluctant to discuss the issue and Lucy admits she has put off making plans for the future. In order to stop social services imposing faits accomplis on her sons, she has set up a network of legal deputies, who can challenge decisions that undermine their autonomy. Beard and Fletcher are among Baxter's deputies and they explain the concept in the recording studio.
As he fears being sent to an institution, Baxter decides to set the denouement in an asylum and he concludes the shoot by playing the adult Otto crashing through a door and announcing, `I'm the fucking monster now!' Looking on, Lucy bursts into proud applause and confides that she's delighted that this cathartic experience has allowed him to feel a sense of true valediction for the first time. His excitement is evident when he introduces the premiere at The Screen on the Green in London.
Sorting through some photographs, Lucy avers that the people depicted might easily have gone on to achieve something worthwhile had they not been kept confined by a society that couldn't spare the time to appreciate them. She wants the documentary and the short to demonstrate that Down's should not be perceived as limitating and she hopes that her son becomes a role model. Baxter jokes, however, that he's merely made them to boost his career as a male stripper.
A caption discloses that he is now working on a Christmas chiller to be called Satan Claus. Another urges everyone to watch The Puppet Asylum, as `it's much better than this rubbish documentary'. Neatly summing up the spirit in which Beard and Fletcher have approached their profile, these captions also confirm the depth to which they are invested in Baxter's future and the sincerity of their wish that their film not only brings about a long-overdue change in attitudes, but also persuades people to accept that those with Down's or other syndromes have the right to be taken seriously as both artists and human beings.
Admirably attesting that there's much more to Baxter than Down's, the co-directors also ensure that his remarkable mother also gets her share of the limelight. Lucy doesn't seek any credit, however, as her goal is acceptance for her children and Beard and Fletcher's refusal to elicit easy sympathy makes them invaluable allies. One is left wondering, however, the extent to which they affable pair are aware that Baxter might have borrowed from them for his villain.
THE PUPPET ASYLUM.
Taking a break from scratching his back with a pheasant, the Narrator (Adeel Akhtar) takes us back to 1888, when Jack the Ripper was on the loose in London. Screaming in agony, a woman (MyAnna Buring) gives birth to a son she considers to be a monster because of the horns in its forehead. Posing as a doctor, freak show entrepreneur The Master (Paul Kaye) and his nurse (Laura Aikman) sing about burying the infant deep in the ground. Pressurised by her husband, the mother allows the child to be taken to the Devil's Playground.
When The Master unveils his latest exhibit, however, Lucy Baxter (Rebecca Callard) takes advantage of the chaos on stage to remove the baby and takes it home to raise alongside another adopted boy who also has horns. Sixteen years pass and Otto (Reuben Reuter) is celebrating his birthday when he receives a head in a box from The Master and a note vowing to reclaim him and his remarkable powers. Lucy explains in a song how she has tried to protect Otto, but the time has now come for him to take control of his own destiny.
When The Master takes the place of Otto's teacher, he offers him freedom if he can solve an equation. But Otto opts instead to open a trunk in the classroom and unleashes, Jamie (Kiran Shah), who claims to have been trapped inside for 500 years. He offers to be Otto's friend, and they run away to a cemetery, where Jamie tells Otto to do whatever he likes, even if it involves taking a dump on a grave. The occupant (Dexter Fletcher) is in the process of complaining when The Master tracks them down and Otto digs into a corpse on the gravedigger's barrow and throws a bloody organ in his face.
This only makes The Master cackle and he pursues the pair to the pub where they are denied drinks. As Otto peers through the window, he sees Lucy being knifed in the back and he is dragged to the Devil's Playground, where he is briefly reunited with his birth parents, who now work for The Master. Tossed in a cell with a rocking horse, Otto is informed that he has the power to communicate with the dead and possess the minds of the living. But The Master intends using his abilities for his own evil ends and he roars with malevolent laughter, as Otto sobs and yells in his miserable isolation.
Another 16 years pass and Otto (Otto Baxter) sees only The Master, who pops in at mealtimes for a jolt of the power that comes from a green-neon line on Otto's palm. However, Jamie has finally tracked his friend down and he slips a doll's hand into Otto's grasp and this prevents The Master from refuelling. While his captor grew weaker, Otto was transforming into the man he was destined to become and he calls on Lucy's spirit for advice. She tells him to seize possession of The Master and he emerges from his glass box and forces his gaoler to punch himself, drink poison, and slit his own throat.
Lucy urges Otto not to use his third power, but he fancies being utterly evil and throws his three brothers out of the family home so he can have his wicked way with a beautiful woman (Ellie Rawnsley). At this juncture, the Narrator breaks character and asks director Otto Baxter if he wants to end the story with the morale that evil can conquer evil. Insisting that he just wants some power, Baxter tells Adeel Akhtar to wrap things up and they have a cup of tea.
A few behind-the-scenes clips launch the credits of a notable debut that Otto Baxter uses to work his way through some of the issues raised in Peter Beard and Bruce Fletcher's documentary, Otto Baxter: Not a Fucking Horror Story. It's not perfect plotwise. But the candidness of the discussion is remarkable and there's a real sense of catharsis in the way Otto relishes turning the tables on his persecutor. It's also nice to see Lucy Baxter at her son's side during the meta-finale, as her role in his emergence as a creative artist with something valuable to say is incalculable.
Credit should also go to Beard and Fletcher who helped Baxter organise his thoughts. The cast throw themselves into their roles, with Paul Kaye and Kiran Shah particularly having a ball. The technical standouts are production designer Kit Falck, who works wonders with a tight budget, and cinematographer Lorenzo Lavrini, whose lighting recalls Stefan Czapsky and Dariusz Wolski's designs for Tim Burton. But the star of the show is undoubtedly...
Having drawn BAFTA nominations for the shorts Choices (2010) and Perfect Strangers (2015), Glaswegian Ryan Hendrick set about expanding the latter into his first feature, Lost At Christmas (2020). His sophomore outing represents quite a departure, however, as he attempts a survivalist horror in Mercy Falls, which will follow its cinema run by landing on digital platforms on 9 November.
Scott (James Watterson) and Heather (Layla Kirk) are driving north with Rhona (Lauren Lyle) when she ignores a female hitchhiker on the road. The friends have agreed to hook up with Donnie (Joe Rising) and his irritating pal Andy (Eoin Sweeney) to go in search of the cabin that had been left to Rhona by the father she never forgave for slitting the throat of an ailing horse when she was a girl. When Andy spills a drink over Heather, Carla the hitcher (Nicolette McKeown) lends her a scarf to cover the stain and, much to Rhona's reluctance, she agrees to act as guide for their trek, as she knows the area.
In the bar that night, Rhona gets smoochy with Donnie, while Carla thumps a local who pesters Heather when she dances to a folk band. She also takes control of the group after Rhona gets lost and goes into a panic when she hears her father's hectoring voice while she tries to figure out why Carla has suddenly vanished. She had circled behind them to give them a fright and Scott shares Rhona's inkling that something's not right.
The tension mounts after they reach Mercy Falls and Scott and Andy almost come to blows when the latter teases the former about reading Homer and openly flirts with Heather. Spotting the story on the front page of Andy's newspaper, Carla tosses it on the fire before anyone else can see it (but the audience is treated to a flashback of soldier Carla hacking into her male attackers while trying to protect a comrade in Afghanistan).
She keeps her counsel around the campfire, while Scott tells the tale of the Sirens. However, Carla follows when Donnie slips off to skinny dip in the lagoon and Rhona is appalled to see him kissing a naked Carla in the moonlight. Stumbling back to camp, she runs into Heather snogging Andy and is tearful and confused when she accepts the oblivious Scott's offer of a consoling hug.
Waking next morning from a flashback nightmare, Rhona sees Scott burst out of his tent to confront Andy about sleeping with Heather. In the scuffle, Andy falls backwards and an upward-pointing branch pierces his thigh. Reasoning that he would bleed out before help could arrive, Carla slits his throat (as she recalls doing the same for a fallen female comrade after her killing spree). Warning the others that they will go to prison as accomplices if they tell the police, they start gathering stones to weigh the body down in the lagoon. However, Heather finds the charred front page in the fire and hides it in her coat.
As Heather and Scott blame each other for Andy's demise, Carla orders them to head for the cabin so they can achieve their goal and go their separate ways. They can claim that Andy went back alone in the wrong shoes and lost his life somewhere en route. Bemused, the others fall in behind. But Heather shows Rhona the cutting revealing how Carla has escaped from a psychiatric hospital and she passes the information to Scott, who is blaming himself for Andy's death.
When Carla scales a rock to see if she can see the cabin, Rhona shows the paper to Donnie and persuades the others to make a dash for safety. Carla sees them go and catches up with them just as Donnie pushes a log bridge into a ravine so that his three friends can get away. He is brutally butchered as Rhona looks on and exchanges steely glares with Carla, who has no intention of letting them elude her murderous grasp.
When they pause for a rest, Rhona tells the others about her father killing the horse that had been caught in a trap. She now realises that what she had taken for cruelty was an act of kindness and she wonders whether Carla had done the right thing by Andy. Heather nips off for a wee and Scott is busy telling Rhona about how they're through when Carla hooks a noose around Heather's neck and hoists her into the air. Rhona and Scott see the body dangling and know they have no time to grieve.
Finding the cabin, they start the generator to power the radio. But they can't get through and decide to set a trap because there would be no point trying to go hand-to-hand with a trained soldier. They find weapons and take them to a nearby cave before returning to light up the cabin like a Christmas tree with lamps, candles, and the roaring fire before which Rhona and Scott have sex, unaware that Carla is watching through the window while eating slices of apple.
Scott volunteers to fix the generator when the lights go off and gets knifed in the stomach. He staggers back indoors and Rhona takes his hand away from the wound so that he dies more quickly. She looks up to see Carla in the doorway and beans her with a whisky bottle when the radio crackles into life and distracts the intruder.
Fleeing to the cave, Rhona uses a pink flare to light a fire and the torches she and Scott had prepared. Carla thrusts at her with her knife and they struggle, only for Rhona to escape and hurl a bucket of petrol at Carla and the torch does the rest. In agony from her wounds, Rhona sinks to the grass as the sun comes up. She fishes a family photo out of her pocket and it falls from her fingers as she fights for breath, as the screen cuts to black.
Courtesy of John Rhodes's splendid scenic views and his deft use of the changing woodland light, this might have been a decent wilderness chiller. The spirited performances of Lauren Lyle and Nicolette McKeown would also have not been out of place in a genuinely scary movie that didn't exploit post-combat trauma for cheap yuks. But the surfeit of feeble contrivances to which Hendrick and co-scribe Meliá Grasska resort in imperilling five hapless out-of-towners will draw more eye rolls and sighs than finger peeps and screams.
There are arresting moments, such as the first night around the campfire, the eruption of unexpected colour when the flare goes off (in the same cave used for the showdown with the white rabbit in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, 1975), and the benumbed expression on Rhona's face as she watches Carla burn. But that's not enough to keep viewers on the edge of their seats for 103 minutes, especially as they struggle to atone for such cornball incidents
as Carla's acceptance into the group and naked waterfall seduction of Donnie, the discovery of the telltale newspaper article in the ashes, and the convenient bursting into life of the radio just when Rhona needs a distraction.
No one expects horror to be rigidly neo-realist. But the persistent irrationality of the hikers' behaviour and the reliance on cheap exits from tight narrative corners undermines the credibility of the story and its ability to unnerve. Stephen Wright's generic music doesn't help much, either. But the weakest link is Hendrick's editing, which chops action sequences (in both Scotland and Afghanistan) into such jerky fragments that it's often impossible to discern what's going on. He also employs arch framing and cheat cuts to avoid having to spend much on convincing blade slashes and gore effects. Yet, for all its shortcomings and affectations (you can't beat a bit of Homer), this makes atmospheric use of the Highland location and brings the best out of McKeown and Lyle.
BOBI WINE: THE PEOPLE'S PRESIDENT.
In 2021, singer Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu went up against longtime incumbent Yoweri Museveni in Uganda's presidential election. The National Unity Platform made significant gains at the expense of the ruling National Resistance Movement, but Museveni remained in office for a sixth term after a campaign that had been characterised by intimidation, fraud, and violence. Christopher Sharp and Moses Bwayo recall the events in the documentary, Bobi Wine: The People's President.
When Yoweri Museveni took power in 1986, he seemed like a beacon of hope after the drift that had followed the dictatorship of Idi Amin. After decades in power, however, he had become the problem and, in 2014, 32 year-old Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu decided to exploit his popularity as rapper Bobi Wine and expose corruption and injustice by standing for parliament.
His rapport with the residents of his old Kampalan neighbourhood of Kamwokya is evident and wife Barbara recalls how he had raised himself after the loss of his parents with his music. She had no idea of his alter ego when they fell in love across the tracks while at university and she admits he remains unpredictable. But she also knows that if he sets his mind to something, he sees it through.
In 2016, Museveni won another election after his supporters had menaced opponent Kizza Besigye. A year later, he changed the constitution to remove the age limit on the presidency, in spite of the protests of Bobi Wine, the new MP who not only made impassioned speeches, but also recorded a single calling on the president to listen to the voice of the people. Indeed, such is his disillusion with opposition leader Winnie Kiiza that he starts campaigning in July 2018 for a united front against Museveni and his corrupt cohorts.
He receives rapturous receptions while supporting candidates across the country. In Arua, however, his driver is mistakenly assassinated after a rally and Wine is arrested for throwing stones at the presidential motorcade in an effort to silence him. Tortured over 10 days at the Gulu barracks, he appears before a military court martial, even though Barbara points out that he has no connection to the army. Amidst protests worldwide, he is found not guilty of possessing illegal firearms, only to be arrested by the police and charged with treason.
Allowed to seek medical attention, Wine flies to Washington, where he gives a press conference with human rights lawyer, Robert Amsterdam. He laments in a car that Museveni used to be his favourite revolutionary and now wishes he could ask him why he is clinging to power with such ruthlessness when a new generation of Ugandans wants to reclaim the country. That said, in an interview with Al-Jazeera, he admits that it's possible he might fall into the same trap in the future.
Returning to a hero's welcome (as seen through a Feargal Keane BBC report), Wine announces his presidential candidacy in January 2019. But Sharp and Bwayo leap forward to March 2020, as the Coronavirus pandemic is ravaging the planet. Wine records a song containing hygiene advice and visits fellow MP Francis Zaake after he was arrested and beaten for distributing food to constituents in contravention of a presidential order. He also has to find a way of campaigning in the so-called `scientific election', as rallies have been outlawed because of Covid.
Three days before the deadline for election applications, the headquarters of the National Unity Platform are raided and nomination papers and campaign funds are confiscated. In just three days, however, NUP managers succeed in meeting the criteria and Wine announces his candidacy on 3 November 2020. Six days later, he goes on the stump, with meetings being limited to 200 people. Huge crowds greet him everywhere he goes, however, until troops in Jinja District use tear gas and bundle Wine into the back of a paddy wagon.
Nationwide protests are brutally suppressed, with over 50 being killed. Yet Museveni continued to operate without hindrance, despite his supporters breaching mask rules. He even brazenly informs the foreign media that he had quashed an Arab Spring-like insurrection and accuses the `homosexuals' of backing the plot. After two days, Wine is released on bail and resumes campaigning. However, two members of his team are shot in the face during a gathering, while 140 are abducted on 30 December.
Having explained to his four children why they are being sent to an aunt in America, Wine returns to the frontline. Three days later, however, more members of his campaign are detained and he is dragged from his car during a Zoom interview with foreign journalists. He apologises that they had to witness such things happening in his country. But neither the US nor the EU risks sending observers to monitor the election and no one is surprised when the Ugandan Internet system goes offline the night before the poll.
On election day, Wine calls for Washington and Brussels to cut aid to Uganda because they are propping up `a monster'. Soldiers surround his compound and Barbie tries to force them into talking to her on camera, while Wine conducts phone interviews in which he accuses Museveni of rigging the vote and being scared. When the results are announced, the president commands 58% and his opponent 34%, with the former insisting this was the fairest election in Uganda since 1962.
Four days after the election, the Internet is restored on 18 January 2021, but the Kyagulanyis remain besieged for another six days. A fortnight later, their children return, but it's not until June that the members of the election team are released. A caption reveals that the NUP reckon that over 3000 were abducted during the campaign, with 150 being killed.
There's little more to add, as the contents of this enraging documentary speak for themselves. It should be noted that Moses Bwayo was charged with unlawful assembly during filming and that he and fellow camera operators, Sam Benstead and Michele Sibiloni, deserve enormous respect for their courage.
The occasional temporal leap in the narrative jars, while the structure of the NUP and Wine's relationship with other opposition candidates might have been made clearer. But, given conditions on the ground, it's understandable why Bwayo and Sharp would switch between Direct Cinema observation and vérité interactions with Bobi and Barbie, while also having editor Paul Carlin insert footage from external news outlets. The account can feel a little haphazard as a consequence, but it also has an immediacy and insight that make it both authentic and compelling.