- David Parkinson
Parky At the Pictures (11/3/2022)
(Reviews of Sideshow; A Banquet; The Grief of Others; Young Plato; The Sanctity of Space; and River)
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 much of the last two decades as an enforced homebody, it can only be presumed that cinema-going is pretty much a normal activity again.
Nevertheless, 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.
Although less renowned than his younger brother Aki, Mika Kaurismäki has still had a fine career. It has largely been divided between documentary projects filmed since 1992 in his adopted Brazil and fictional fare that has ranged from acclaimed comedies like The Liar (1981), Helsinki Napoli All Night Long (1987), The House of Branching Love (2009) and Road North (2012) to such engaging, but not always widely seen dramas as The Clan: Tale of the Frogs (1984), Zombie and the Ghost Train (1991), LA Without a Map (1998) and Three Wise Men (2008).
He has even made a biopic about Queen Christina of Sweden, The Girl King (2015). But Kaurismäki returns following a four-year lay-off with Master Cheng (2019), a culture-clash comedy that has much the same feel as Naomi Kawase's charming saga, Sweet Bean (2015).
Cheng (Chu Pak Hong) arrives in the remote Finnish village of Pohjanjoki with his young son, Niu Niu (Lucas Hsuan). He is looking for someone named `Fongtron', but no one at the diner owner by Sirkka (Anna-Maija Tuokko) has heard of him. Nursing a cup of tea, the pair use halting English to ask everyone who comes to sample the dish of the day, mashed potato with sausage sauce and minced vegetables. But they get the same response and Sirkka takes pity on them by offering them a room for the night.
Cheng turns up the next day and saves the day when a coachload of Chinese tourists feast on the chicken noodles her rustles up in Sirkka's kitchen, He reveals that he owns a restaurant in Shanghai and is glad to repay her kindness. Locals Romppainen (Kari Väänänen) and Vilppula (Vesa-Matti Loiri) don't like the look of dishes that no heterosexual white male would touch with a bargepole. But they soon change their tune, as Cheng begins to work his magic and Sirkka's usually meagre takings begin to rise.
Niu Niu is bored at the diner and wanders off into the woods after reindeer when Cheng confiscates his phone. Romppainen finds him after a frantic search and asks Sirkka whether the newcomers are actually father and son and whether there's a mother back in China. The mystery over Fongtron also persists, even though Sirkka has promised to help locate him in return for Cheng's culinary skills.
Shortly after Cheng takes Niu Niu into the hills to bury his late wife's engagement ring, he accidentally discovers that Fongtron was really named Forsström and died some time ago. He had helped Cheng through a crisis in Shanghai and had wanted to cook for him to say thanks. However, he now has the local schoolchildren to cook for, as well as the residents of the old people's home, who have discovered that Chinese food has healing powers.
Cheng and Sirkka argue after she buys Niu Niu a bicycle, even though he knows his mother was killed while riding one. But feelings are growing between them, especially after he prepares a soup that cures her menstrual cramps and she confides that her marriage broke up because she couldn't concede and she took over her aunt's diner because she had enjoyed the northern air as a child.
Romppainen and Vilppula are also feeling younger than ever and invite Cheng to have a sauna with them in gratitude. He tells them how Fongtron baled him out when he started drinking after he was widowed and borrowed money from crooks. They suggest he could honour the debt by staying and he is tempted after Sirkka teaches him to dance so that they can go to a social event in the woods, which culminates in them kissing at dawn after an impromptu swim in the lake.
Days later, the cops who have been feasting at the diner announce that Cheng's papers have expired. He tells Sirkka that he has to leave, but Romppainen and Vilppula change his mind during a sailing trip full of song and strong spirits. Moreover, Niu Niu has grown close to Sirkka and even mistakes her for his mother during a firecracker memorial ceremony on the hilltop.
A closing sequence shows Sirkka and Cheng honeymooning in China with a promise to return and serve up more delicacies (like the ones shown inset during the closing credits). Such an outcome is inevitable from the couple's first meeting, but actress-turned-screenwriter Hannu Oravisto has no desire to complicate matters. Nor does she trade on any cultural stereotypes in showing how quickly Cheng is accepted by the occupants of an enclave who seem to relish their outsider status.
This means there are only minor conflicts for the characters to overcome, but that just makes this foodie delight all the more palatable. Despite the contrived nature of the set-up, Chu Pak Hong and Anna-Maija Tuokko drift together plausibly enough, while Kari Väänänen relishes playing the ailing rascal who nudges them together. Lucas Hsuan's assimilation into the community is rather slipshod, while the majority of the locals are ciphers, including Paula Miettinen as Sirkka's shopkeeper friend and Helka Periaho as the teacher.
Cinematographer Jari Mutikainen proves as attentive to the landscape as he is to the comestibles, while Maria Hulkkonen's production design makes the various buildings around Sirkka's inherited estate seem frugally cosy. Even more atmospheric, however, is Anssi Tikanmäki's score, which intriguingly blends Uilleann pipes and accordion to catch the mood of Kaurismäki's sweetly unassuming, if scarcely radical message, which echoes that of his brother's seeming swan song, The Other Side of Hope (2017).
For some reason, Les Dennis has always been an easy target for lazy critics. The longtime host of Family Fortunes (1987-2002) has demonstrated himself to be a decent actor on both the stage and the small screen. His stint as Michael Rodwell in Coronation Street (2014-16) came a decade after he had proved what a good sport he could be by sending himself up in Ricky Gervais's Extras (2005).
Dennis also has a number of film credits, including Philip Goodhew's Intimate Relations (1996) and Justin Edgar's Large (2001), Ed Bye's Fat Slags (2004), Joseph Baker and Tom Large's Wounded (2011), and Ray Cooney and John Luton's Run For Your Wife (2012). The majority of these have been guest slots. But Dennis gets to show what he's capable of with the lead in Adam Oldroyd's debut feature, Sideshow.
Much to the dismay of his agent, Gerald Blinton (Anthony Head), The All-Seeing Stupendo has managed to insult an old lady during the séance part of his mind-reading act. Gerald feels a responsibility to Stuart Pendrick (Les Dennis) because his late father used to represent him. But distressing Doris (Pameli Benham) in front of just 31 other paying customers tests Gerald's loyalty to the limit.
Amidst the sparsely spaced crowd is Eva (April Pearson), who is convinced that Pendrick is sitting on a pot of cash. Thus, with the help of her gormless sidekick, Dom (Nathan Clarke), she breaks into his house in the middle of the night and demands to know where he keeps his loot. Nettled by Eva's suggestion that his act's a fraud and that he preys on the vulnerable, Pendrick refuses to co-operate even when she pulls a gun.
In fact, Eva is more interested in finding evidence among Pendrick's memorabilia whether he performed in Great Yarmouth in 1982. While she searches, Dom has to deal with the ramifications of a lamb bhuna that is playing havoc with his hostage's guts. However, Pendrick is using his discomfort as a pretext for a bathroom window flit and the intruders only just manage to pull him back from the ledge.
Dom gets a bump on the head and is scared that Pendrick has put a curse on him. He pleads with Eva to let Pendrick prove whether he's a genuine medium and he seems to commune with Dom's recently deceased aunt. But Eva isn't convinced and reveals that her mother committed suicide when she was a baby because a medium had given her false assurances about her soldier beau.
Eva is about to exact her revenge when there's a knock at the door. In the ensuing panic, Pendrick falls down the stairs and Eva and Dom find his treasure. But Gerald spots them through the window and insists on coming inside. Fortunately, he gets the impression that Dom is a rent boy and leaves with a chuckle.
Bundling Pendrick into the boot of his car, Eva and Dom drive to a remote spot to dispose of the corpse. But Pendrick isn't dead and persuades Dom that Eva has been bumping off mediums of his age in the hope of finding the one who misled her mum. Confused, Dom doesn't know who to believe. Furthermore, he keeps thinking about the curse and hearing voices in his head.
They are still plaguing him as he escorts Pendrick to the edge of the cliff so that Eva can dispatch him. She loses her nerve when it comes to pulling the trigger and Dom picks up the revolver, only to be shot with a rifle by Gerald. He has never forgiven the various mind-readers for ruining his father's agency and has been bumping off those who did the most damage. But there are two more twists in the tale and, even for a column that usually has no truck with spoilers, it seems apt to let the reader divine them for themselves.
Although Adam Oldroyd has spent much of his career working on wildlife and adventure films, this isn't his first stab at comedy. Over a decade ago, he directed a couple of shorts, Open Casket (2008) and A Very British Cult (2010). The former featured a fine display of old-school timing by Barry Howard as a onetime Hollywood make-up artist who has been reduced to touching up corpses at a funeral parlour. However, Richard Herring is less convincing in the latter as the leader of a religious cult whose members include Miranda Hart and Alex Macqueen.
Neither short was particularly funny; nor is Sideshow. But it bears comparison with Matthew Butler-Hart's Two Down (2015) and Haidi Hajaig's Blue Iguana (2018), which each centred on a bungled siege. Les Dennis is splendidly slippery as the pocket-picking mystic who never misses a chance to exploit somebody's weakness. Despite having much less to do, Anthony Head also brings his customary polish to proceedings, while April Pearson and Nathan Clarke make suitably inexpert crooks being buffeted by the script's amiably arch contrivances.
Production designer Tommima Lloyd-Winder does a good job in cluttering Pendrick's abode, although cinematographer Stephen J. Brand tends to keep it shrouded in gloom to hinder Eva's search and keep Dom on edge. As for Oldroyd, he directs with a jovial sense that the audience is in on the joke(s) all along. One suspects he will return contentedly to making CBeebies shows with Andy Day, but he can be well satisfied with his feature bow.
Ruth Paxton has spent a lengthy apprenticeship making the shorts She Wanted to Be Burnt (2008), Paris/Sexy (2010), Baroque (2011), Nevada (2012), Pulse (2014) and Be Still My Beating Heart (2019). She has also directed several episodes of the BBC's Scottish soap, River City. Yet, while she makes a solid start with her debut feature, A Banquet, the story runs out of steam, as Paxton struggles to resolve the problems inherent in Justin Bull's screenplay.
After witnessing her father end his battle with illness by ingesting bleach, 17 year-old Betsey Hughes (Jessica Alexander) tries to stay strong for her mother, Holly (Sienna Guillory), and younger sister, Isabelle (Ruby Stokes). Struggling to focus on what she wants to do with her life, Betsey attends a party at the house of her boyfriend, Dominic (Kaine Zajaz), but doesn't see the funny side when he plays a joke with some fake cocaine. While smoking outside, she's lured into the neighbouring woods by mysterious whispers and faints on returning to the garden under a red moon.
The next morning, she feels her skin tingling and the thought of breakfast nauseates her. Moreover, when she accompanies her mother and sister to the local ice rink, she goes into a sort of trance and stares upwards. All the doctor can suggest is that Betsey is suffering from a virus, but further tests are carried out after she has a violent reaction to eating a single garden pea.
Although she has become more surly and prone to zoning out, Betsey shows no ill effects from her fast. Indeed, when Holly insists on weighing her twice a day (because only `entitled middle-class white girls' have anorexia), she remains bang on nine stone for months on end. She even seems to have stopped going to the lavatory and her behaviour spooks Dominic, who beats a hasty retreat after Betsey tries to confide in him.
Throughout it all, Holly keeps preparing elaborate suppers and snapping at Isabelle when she attempts to get some attention. Granny June (Lindsay Duncan) suspects this is the root cause of Betsey's antics and reminds her of the time she caught her rehearsing a night panic so that she could get her own way. But Holly is reaching the end of her tether and even considers residential therapy to get to the root of Betsey's malaise.
On their way home, however, Betsey takes her mother to the woods and explains that she was pondering the future when she wandered away from the party. She felt she had been swept up and entrusted with the revelation that a darkness is coming and hopes that Holly can see she has been blessed rather than cursed. Unfortunately, she thinks Betsey has gone crazy and slaps her face when she threatens to have her sectioned. But Betsey is so convinced she has been chosen that nothing is going to cause her to waiver.
Six months later, June comes on another visit and tells Holly a Japanese myth about a kuwazu nyobo preying on a poor farmer and his wife before suggesting that Betsey is devouring the family. A sudden scream rings out, as Betsey assaults Isabelle before going into a reverie. Later that evening, she tries to throttle herself and June remains sceptical after Betsey calms down and tells her how the darkness will come. But Holly wonders whether something they can't understand is happening, when Betsey suddenly says that her father says sorry for committing suicide.
After Holly orders June to leave (after alluding to being abandoned to face her own childhood trauma), she has a nightmare about Betsey feeding fruit to a ravenous mouth on the top of her head. Shortly afterwards, Isabelle gets drunk at a party and Dominic brings her home. Holly asks what Betsey had said to make him run away and he reveals that she thinks her mother needs to be prepared to be the first star of the apocalypse.
Everything proves too much for Isabelle, who tries to force ham into her sister's mouth to get her to eat. But Holly shows her little sympathy after urging her to leave Betsey alone. She goes to stay with June (who apologises for doubting her daughter's parenting skills), leaving Holly to minister to Betsey during a long night of the soul that plays out under a red moon. As dawn breaks, Betsey exclaims that Holly's love has made everything possible.
She dies in bed, as light floods through the window. Strangely calm, Holly wanders into the street before sinking to her knees and sobbing. As she looks up, she becomes aware that something momentous is about to occur and the screen fades to black, as Holly's face is illuminated by a dazzling light that seems to preface the start of Betsey's prophecy.
It would seem evident that Paxton and Bull had made close studies of Lars von Trier's Melancholia, Jeff Nichols's Take Shelter (both 2011), Carlo Mirabella-Davis's Swallow, Rose's Glass's Saint Maud (both 2019) and Amy Seimetz's She Dies Tomorrow (2020) before embarking upon this atmospheric, if not entirely persuasive project. There is also a feel of Daniel Kokotajlo's Apostasy (2017) in the mother-daughter stand-off over a matter of faith, which is further complicated by the fact that Holly's struggle to understand Betsey is linked to her own juvenile crisis and June's response to it.
It's rather apt that Holly is seen tossing ingredients into a blender in the opening scene, as the screenplay also seems intent on cramming as many issues as possible into a mixture that has largely lost its flavour by the dregs. Motherly love, bereavement, physical and emotional sustenance, anxiety and anguish, sibling rivalry, spiritual possession, mythology and martyrdom, madness, hysteria and doomsday dread are just some of the topics Bull explores (in his second script after his 2015 directorial debut, Merge). But nothing is discussed in any depth and, while the ambiguity binds into the sense of unease that Paxton generates with her acutely composed visuals, it makes the denouement all the more disappointing.
Sienna Guillory certainly doesn't lack conviction, despite some of Holly's utterances ringing parentally hollow. Lindsay Duncan makes the most of an extended cameo that raises more questions than it answers, while Ruby Stokes excels as the neglected daughter trying to be a normal teenager in the midst of a crisis everyone else is trying to protect/exclude her from.
Jessica Alexander also copes well with the demands of having to be both mystically ecstatic and psychologically gnomic. However, Bull makes little attempt to explain her certitude and, when he does, it all feels rather twee. Paxton makes amends with her moody use of Sofia Stocco's modish, but forbidding interiors, which are capably lit by David Liddell, whose camerawork ensures the viewer is pitched into the middle of the quandary. However, Paxton might have avoided showing the demonic teeth snarling through Betsey's fruit-strewn hair, as the cheap (and far from convincing) Cronenbergian jolt is out of keeping with the otherwise steadily escalating suspense created by editor Mátyás Fekete, sound editor Phil Freudenfeld and composer CJ Mirra.
THE GRIEF OF OTHERS.
A couple of weeks ago, we covered Patrick Wang's debut feature, In the Family (2011). Released four years later, The Grief of Others is a shorter, but more structurally ambitious adaptation of a novel by Leah Hager Cohen. Once again exploring the dynamic between parents and children, this affecting drama confirms the first impression that Wang should be much better known.
John (Trevor St John) and Ricky Ryrie (Wendy Moniz) live on the Hudson in the village of Nyack with their children, Paul (Jeremy Shinder) and Biscuit (Oona Laurence), who are 13 and 10. A red-tinted opening shot reveals that John and Ricky have just lost their newborn baby and it feels as though the action that follows is being viewed from the perspective of the infant watching over the family it never had.
Paul gets picked on at school because he's chubby and prefers to hide away in his room drawing. But he gets home one day to see the house full because Biscuit has been plucked from the river by their neighbour, Gordie (Mike Faist), who is sitting in the kitchen next to Jessica (Sonya Harum), the twentysomething daughter from John's first marriage, who has argued with her mother because she's pregnant.
Much to John's relief, the workaholic and sometimes distant Ricky suggests that Jessica should stay until she's had the baby, even though her presence will bring back memories of her own recent loss. Sharing Biscuit's room, Jessica gets used to lots of night-time questions and quickly realises that her half-sister is unhappy. She also discovers that Gordie is mourning the recent loss of his father, who made dioramas as a hobby.
He had tried to get closer to his father, but had to channel his affection into his dog. His momentary flashback to an offer to help with a clockwork piece contrasts with John arriving home to recall the night that Ricky had told him that she had withheld the news that their child was going to die soon after birth. He had been hurt by her secrecy (and the fact she had an affair), but they have rebuilt the relationship, even though Ricky has thrown herself into being the family breadwinner, while John makes scenery for the local theatre group.
He is baffled by Biscuit's behaviour when he finds her truanting and playing with fire in the bathroom. While lecturing her, Paul arrives home after getting into a fight and he snaps at Ricky when she gets back late because she's never around when parenting needs doing. She has been shopping for lingerie as a surprise, but has to apologise to Jessica for having to witness the row.
She has asked John to get the dioramas valued and he is out when Ricky calls home for some parental reassurance, as she is feeling so insecure. Stunned by Paul's clumsy attempt to kiss her, Jessica also starts to feel the strain of being in a household where nobody communicates openly. In trying to tell Gordie, he accuses her of flirting insincerely and she gets upset. A few days later, she discovers her child has died in the womb. But no one talks about it.
When she wakes from the procedure, however, Ricky is at her bedside and urges her to cry and not to feel guilty for being relieved the ordeal is over. She leaves shortly afterwards, with hugs all round. John discovers that Biscuit has been bunking off to conduct daily memorial services for her lost brother. So, they agree to scatter his ashes and float sunflowers in his memory.
The closing sequence will live long in the memory, as Wang holds a shot of the kitchen and superimposes a circular image of the family performing their riverside ritual. The water seems to seep on to the floor before we see the Ryries walking back up the hill to the house, as others stroll past to enjoy this beautiful and tranquil spot.
Working with long, static takes filmed on Super 16mm, cinematographer Frank Barrera and editor Elwaldo Baptiste deserve credit for this effect and for the immediate manner in which they insert flashbacks and memories into the action. As these cutaways often begin with a face looking directly into the lens, this reinforces the notion that the deceased infant is sharing the moment and, therefore, playing its part in bringing about a sense of healing.
The performers also play a crucial role in making this conceit work, as it creates an intimacy that offsets the distance that comes from Wang's somewhat theatrical blocking and the sometimes stilted delivery of the dialogue. Nevertheless, this remains a moving, intelligently observed and naturalistic insight into how families muddle along, with the most profound meaning often coming in the silences that often bring us much closer than words.
Six years ago, Neasa Ní Chianáín and David Rane profiled Amanda and John Leyden and their bid to provide more than an education to the boarders at Headfort School in County Meath. Following on from School Life (2016), Ní Chianáín returns to the classroom in Young Plato, which she has co-directed with Declan McGrath to show how one headteacher in Belfast is using philosophy to reconcile his primary pupils to the past in the hope of ensuring a better future for them and their neighbours across the sectarian divide.
Driving through the streets of the Ardoyne with Elvis Presley's `I Can Dream' on the stereo, Kevin is the principal of Holy Cross Boys' Primary School. Each morning, he greets his charges with high fives, hugs and kindly words, while he offers everyone reassurance in assembly after a viable dissident Republican device is found near the school.
McArevey also runs philosophy sessions that get the boys to express their views and think outside the box on such topics as whether it can ever be right to take out your anger on someone else. They prove just as forthright when ex-pupil Leonard comes to give a talk on his memories of being their age during The Troubles. Some of the boys were unaware of the peace walls dividing Catholics and Protestants, while others argue that their beliefs make it impossible for them to be a single family. One lad disagrees, however, and points out that we all bleed the same colour.
Philosophy isn't confined to the classroom, as McArevey uses it to resolve disciplinary issues with the boys. Even the youngest pupils are eased into core concepts like the right to hold differing opinions. Other staff members buy into the strategy and parents also attend briefings in large numbers and accept the challenge to employ McArevey's methods at home.
A boy who pulled a chair out from under another is talked through his actions at the philosophy wall (actually a whiteboard) in McArevey's office, which is filled with Elvis memorabilia. When a playground game gets out of hand and six turn on a smaller boy, they are also summoned to consider how they can avoid similar incidents from happening again.
Female staff member Jan-Marie Reel cheers up a boy feeling down because of a diabetes diagnosis and the fact he rarely sees his father. Her delight when he starts eulogising about his baby sister is deeply affecting, as is McArevey's pep talk about happy places (his is Graceland, of course) and how conflicts and funks can be helped by taking a time out.
But this is a tough area and the death of a former pupil prompts McArevey to tally that some 20 old boys have died suddenly through drugs or suicide. He gets a class to open up about anxiety and showing emotion, while another boy confides in Reel that he has been having nightmares. This sense that there is always someone to turn to normalises the often difficult process of accepting that some things can't be solved by bottling them up.
Reel often joins McArevey in the gym for workout sessions that are part of the staff's own care network. This also extends into homes, as McArevey helps parents to get into the habit of talking to their kids. He feels pained when a pair of cousins get into a playground fight and has to work harder than usual in convincing them of the error and folly of their ways. In order to reinforce this notion that reason must prevail, he commissions a mural (among so many political ones in the vicinity) to show the importance of moving on from the past.
A class is stunned by footage from 2001, as pupils walking to Holy Cross Girls' School were intimidated by Protestants across the border fences. Some have family members who experienced the ordeal and McArevey emphasises how unity is the only way to overcome the sectarian hatred that has survived the Peace Process.
Shortly after conducting a class on Seneca's techniques for defusing a situation, McArevey is faced with one boy hitting a teacher and another stealing a can from a shop. Each has featured prominently in the film and they are distraught at having let the side down. However, their cases are forgotten as coronavirus strikes and the school is forced to close during lockdown.
Mindful of the fact that many pupils will have spent much of their time online, McArevey does a class on online bullying. He also presses on with the mural and selects Conor (who has just left for secondary school) to pose as The Thinker for the centrepiece. The feuding cousins get into another fight and the philosophy class turns into a workshop on how to challenge a parent who insists on meeting violence with violence. After a hard day, McArevey leaves early and Reel sends him a photo of his dancing Elvis doll in the bin. He smiles and drives off to `I Can Dream', as a drone flies over the mural and the rooftops of a neighbourhood taking small steps in the right direction.
Filmed in true fly-on-the-wall style by Neasa Ní Chianáín, this inspirational documentary is bound to draw comparisons with Nicolas Philibert's Être et avoir (2002). It's surely not an accident that the UK release coincides with the Northern Ireland Executive issuing an apology following the 2017 Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry. A few more Kevin McAreveys over the last century and Ulster's fate might have been rather different.
It is what it was, however, and Holy Cross not only seeks so balm old wounds, but also to ensure that there is never a return to terror and bloodshed by teaching pupils to consider the consequences of actions before committing to them. Some may wonder how children this young can take such complicated philosophical concepts onboard. But it's clear that McArevey and his staff are on their wavelength and have the respect to ensure that their ideas are received and understood.
Of course, there are moments when things don't go according to plan. But both McArevey and Jan-Marie Reel excel at calming boys down and either coaxing into admitting their shame and remorse or edging them towards a less fraught frame of mind. Editor Philippe Ravoet links the episodes into a cogent story that lingers on a handful of recurring characters who keep slipping off the straight and narrow. But this uplifting insight into living with a legacy never remotely feels like an exploitative reality exercise and would easily hold its own in a double bill with either School Life or Kenneth Branagh's Oscar-nominated Belfast.
THE SANCTITY OF SPACE.
The climbing documentary ventures into new territory with Renan Ozturk and Freddie Wilkinson's The Sanctity of Space. Much of the focus falls on the pair's attempts between 2007-13 to scale the Tooth traverse to the south-east of North America's highest peak, Denali. However, this is also a tribute to Bradford Washburn, the pioneering mountaineer, explorer and photographer who first realised that there was a direct route across the features known as Moose's Tooth, Eye Tooth, Broken Tooth and Sugar Tooth.
A familiar face from Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi's Meru and Jennifer Peedom's Sherpa (both 2015), Mountain (2017) and River (2021l see below), Ozturk had long considered setting up a tilt at the traverse with Wilkinson and buddy Zack Smith, as no one had previously attempted a lateral climb from summit to summit. Recces to Denali (aka Mount McKinley) in the Alaska Range confirmed that the climbers would need to be fortunate with weather conditions to complete the route, as avalanches were a constant danger.
While they kept in touch while honouring other commitments, the trio also started to investigate the life of the man whose photographs had piqued their interest in the Traverse. Born in Cambridge. Massachusetts in 1910, Bradford Washburn had started climbing at Harvard. Along with Robert Bates, he had a narrow escape during an ascent of Lucania when Bob Reeves's light aircraft nearly became embedded in unseasonal slush. Stranded after Reeves managed to get airborne, Washburn and Bates had trekked across country for 150 miles after scaling the peak before running into locals from Burwash Landing.
But not all of Washburn's dealings with planes worked out so well. In 1937, he turned down Amelia Earhart's offer to serve as navigator in her bid to become the first woman to circumnavigate the planet by air. He had misgivings about her plans for the approach to Howland Island and proved justified in his caution when Earhart and Fred Noonan were declared missing.
The following May, however, Washburn was the one at fault when he crashed a floatplane during a sightseeing flight over Puget Sound. He managed to get out of the aircraft as it sank in Lake Union, along with Will H. Borrow, Jr. But the latter's fiancée, Dorothy Mathews, and Elisabeth Diaber drowned and Washburn never piloted another plane after being cleared by an inquiry.
Two years later, Washburn married Barbara Polk and they spent their honeymoon making the first ascent of Mount Bertha. She also became the first woman to scale Denali and it's charming to see the couple reminiscing about their exploits in contented old age, with Washburn's pride in Barbara's intrepidity plain to see. By this stage, he had spent decades in charge of the Boston Museum of Science and participated in expeditions to Mount Everest in his seventies and eighties.
As biographers David Roberts and Mike Sfraga reveal, Washburn had also recognised the role that aerial photography could play in cartography. Kurt Markus lauds the quality f his work, while astronaut John Grunsfeld describes how he took Washburn's Fairchild K-6 camera on a 2009 Space Shuttle mission. But it was the clarity of his images of the Traverse route that convinced Ozturk, Wilkinson and Smith that the unprecedented feat was possible.
Although Ozturk and Wilkinson had sponsorship deals to enable them to plan their schedules, Smith preferred to run solo and live in a remote cabin with his wife. Consequently, while he's involved in scouting the route and dealing with the grief of seeing another party perish in the foothills, he's unable to make the final ascent. This was delayed, however, when Ozturk suffered a cranial fracture and shattered vertebrae in a skiing accident in Wyoming in 2011. The footage of the aftermath of this incident is pretty gruesome and reinforces the risk facing those irresistibly drawn to the mountains.
As ever, the expedition footage is vertiginously spectacular, as Ozturn and Wilkinson negotiate unstable rock and unpredictable ice, bivouac on ridiculous ledges and glory in the views from their lofty vantage point. There are setbacks along the way and the occasional discussion about tactics and exit strategies. But the goal of accomplishing something that no one else has done before drives them on and they phone Smith from the final summit to break the good news (which he takes with admirable stoicism).
Seven years seems a long time for the picture's post-production process, especially as the period reconstruction sequences don't seem particularly complicated. Even then, editors Erin Barnett and Chad Ervin don't quite succeed in weaving the Washburn elements into the climbing narrative. Nevertheless, the fact that the co-directors are willing to pay homage to a pioneering predecessor is admirable. Indeed, the monochrome images taken in the 1930s steal the show, with their clarity, detail and beauty. But, with Logan Nelson's score providing suitably stirring accompaniment, the Tooth traverse itself makes for epic viewing.
Having scaled the heights with Sherpa (2015) and Mountain (2017), Australian documentarist Jennifer Peedom returns to earth with River, a second water-based actuality after Solo (2008), her debut account of Andrew McAuley's bid to kayak from Tasmania to New Zealand, which she co-directed with David Michod. Once again accompanied by the Australian Chamber Orchestra, the narration by Willem Dafoe soothes rather than illuminates. But the imagery is sublime, as it sweeps the viewer along for 75 humbling minutes.
Beginning with a geology lesson that reminds us that rivers are world-makers that flow through landscapes and human minds, a thrilling drone shot follows a mountain stream on its journey to becoming a waterfall. Nothing quite matches this for kinetic potency, but the visuals remain majestic, as we see how waterways traverse various kinds of terrain.
In exploring how rivers shaped human society, as settlements grew up on their banks, monochrome archive footage testifies to an unpredictability that persuaded humankind that they needed to be bent to its will. However, juxtaposed with images of commerce and leisure, are sobering lessons about the pros and cons of dams and the damage caused by pesticides and plastic. As Dafoe solemnly intones, upstream need and greed have resulted in downstream disaster.
Following a homage to rivers in the sky, the survey ends on a positive, as a dam is detonated to unleash a torrent that frees up the nourishing silt that had long been allowed to stagnate. A montage of shots taken from the prows of a range of small boats reaffirms our intimate relationship with rivers, while Dafoe avers that it's our duty as ancestors to revere them in ensuring they remain fit for purpose for generations to come.
Much of the socio-geographical information is rather mundane, but the eco messages are always worth repeating, even if the prose composed by Peedom, Robert Macfarlane and co-director Joseph Nizeti often errs on the sniggerable side of florid. Think 1960s planetarium commentary and you're heading in the right direction. To his credit, however, Dafoe handles the purplest of passages with calm conviction.
The music composed by Richard Tognetti, William Barton and Piers Burbrook de Vere also has its ripe moments. But those familiar with the works of Godfrey Reggio and Ron Fricke will be accustomed to the sound. Indeed, they will also recognise the visual style, as will anyone who saw Jennifer Baichwal and Edward Burtynsky's Watermark (2013). However, the photography of Yann Arthus-Bertrand, Ben Knight, Sherpas Cinema, Renan Ozturk and Peter McBride is exceptional, even when it's not exactly clear what we're looking at (as with those extreme close-ups that make familiar items unguessably undiscernable). Editor Simon Njoo similarly does a fine job, but, after the excellence of Mountain, this feels like something of a comedown.