• David Parkinson

Parky At the Pictures (14/1/2022)

(Reviews of The Hand of God; Swan Song; The Alpinist; and Escape From Extinction)


Cinema-going may not be the most straightforward pastime at the moment. But it's possible to see the latest releases on the big screen, providing you meet the venue's admission criteria and have your mask and vaccination status at the ready.


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


THE HAND OF GOD.


Paolo Sorrentino has never hidden his fondness for the cinema of Federico Fellini. His 2012 masterpiece, The Great Beauty, was essentially an updating of the maestro's La dolce vita (1960) and the rite of passage chronicled in The Hand of God is clearly indebted to Fellini's Oscar-winning autobiogaphical reverie, Amarcord (1973).


Some may regret the fact that Sorrentino shares Fellini's penchant for cartoonish characterisation and his over-reliance on male gazedness. But this deeply personal Neapolitan memoir throbs with life and, if its depiction occasionally seems at odds with modern modes and mores, it should be remembered that the events we're witnessing have been skewed by the preconceptions of an observant, but impressionable adolescent residing in a religious, patriarchal and effusive southern Italian city in the 1980s.


When Patrizia (Luisa Ranieri) is lured away from a Naples bus stop patron saint , San Gennaro (Enzo Decaro), she is convinced that it has been made possible for her to conceive through the intercession of the Little Monk, who is believed locally to have miraculous powers. Husband Franco (Massimiliano Gallo) isn't so trusting and he terrifies her so much after accusing her of whoring that she has to call her sister, Maria (Teresa Saponangelo), to rescue her.


She crosses the city on the back of a scooter with spouse Saverio (Toni Servillo) and second son, Fabietto (Filippo Scotti). He gawps at his aunt's exposed breast, as she swears that the Little Monk put the money in her handbag and Saverio jokes that Fabietto has no chance of getting through school if he believes in superstitious nonsense.


Fabietto is also intrigued by the Baroness (Betti Pedrazzi) who lives in the apartment above their own. She pops down to gossip with Maria, while Saverio is getting ready for work and is frustrated that daughter Daniela refuses to come out of the bathroom. He is also bothered that elder son Marchino (Marlon Joubert) is neglecting his studies because he has decided to become an actor. As a Communist who works in a bank, Saverio Schisa sees the world in his own way. But he is adamant, despite the rumours, that Diego Maradona would never leave Barcelona to sign for Napoli.


At an al fresco family lunch on a sunlit Sunday, Maria delights the children by juggling oranges and the adults by teasing the endlessly grumpy Signora Gentile (Dora Romano), the mother of their host, Geppino (Roberto De Francesco), who swelters in a fur coat while gorging herself on a large ball of mozzarella. Uncle Alfredo (Renato Carpentieri) is no more cheerful, as he tells Fabietto that he will kill himself if Maradona goes to Juventus.


Everyone is on tenterhooks to see Luisella (Viviana Cangiano) and her new boyfriend and there is slack-jawed amazement when Aldo (Alessandro Bressanello) turns out to be a retired Venetian policeman who limps and talks through a voicebox. He insists on everyone knowing that his intentions are honourable, as he joins the family on a swimming expedition on Geppino's outsized rowing boat.


While young and old bathe in the sea, Aldo gives Luisella tips on how to bake the perfect sponge cake. When she goes for a dip, Patrizia takes the batteries out of Aldo's voicebox and tosses them into the sea before infuriating Franco by sunbathing naked on the deck.


Fabietto can barely take his eyes off her, but can't resist some cigarette smugglers evading the chasing police in their speedboat. As they stroll home, Fabietto notices how sad Patrizia seems, as she gazes wistfully at the sea and longs to become a mother.


Marchino attends a casting call to be an extra in a Fellini film. Fabietto sits in the waiting-room and looks at the assembled attention-seekers and is amused when a young woman in a red dress tells an old roué to stop ogling her. The audition doesn't go well, as Fellini thinks Marchino has the conventional looks of a waiter. But he overhears him telling a journalist that cinema is a distraction from reality. At that moment, they see someone resembling Maradona sitting in a parked car.


Saverio doesn't buy their claim and reminds them that they are a Communist family when they complain that they don't have a remote controlled television (he changes channels from the sofa using a long stick). He is also angry with Maria for putting in a prank call to their snooty neighbour, Graziella, to inform her that she has been cast as Maria Callas in Franco Zeffirelli's new biopic. As the boys had laughed, Saverio makes them apologise en famille and they sit beneath a wall-mounted stag's head as Graziella holds forth on the faults of southerners.


Later that night, Saverio lands in the doghouse when Maria intercepts a phone call from his mistress at the bank. Fabietto is so distressed by the howls his mother emits while juggling that he gets the shakes and has to be held by his brother. But they embrace for a very different reason when Saverio gets a call in the middle of the night from a colleague who has just handled the transaction bringing Maradona to Napoli.


Maria throws Saverio out of the apartment. but confides in Fabietto that she will let him return when he's learnt his lesson. She offers to cook him something special for his birthday, but he's not in the mood, even though Saverio has bought him a season ticket and taken him on a sentimental journey to the place where he had first seen Maria as a girl during the war. However, he also shows Fabietto the tenement where he had lost his virginity and advises him to accept any offers to get that monkey off his back.


Maria exacts her revenge on Saverio by having a man pose as a bear to scare him while he's moving furniture at their new holiday home in Roccarasco. But things are never quite the same at home again, as Marchino has found a girlfriend and never stops kissing her. Having watched Antonio Capuano (Ciro Capano) conduct a nocturnal location shoot, Fabietto has also become seducted by the idea of directing films. But the incident that transforms family life comes a couple of years later - while Maradona is exacting his revenge on the English during the 1986 World Cup - when Geppino is arrested for embezzlement and some of his relatives take out their fury by assaulting his mother.


Shortly afterwards, Saverio and Maria die from carbon monoxide while spending a weekend at Roccarasco. Fabietto is distraught because the doctor won't let him see them and he is still in a daze at the funeral. As the coffins are screwed into their resting place, Uncle Alfredo informs him that the hand of God had saved him because he had chosen to stay in the city to watch a match against Empoli.


The brothers attend training at Napoli's ground and watch Maradon practicing free kicks. During a visit to the volcanic island of Stromboli, Marchino admits he doesn't have the perserverence to become an actor, but urges Fabietto to stick with his dream. During a chat with Daniela (who is still in the bathroom), he also learns that he has an eight year-old half-brother from his father's affair. While he waits for his sister to watch Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in America (1984), the mournful Graziella drops in dish of home cooking.


As Patrizia is recovering from a breakdown. Fabietto visits her and assures her that he had believed her story about the Little Monk. She reveals that she had become pregnant, but lost the baby during another argument with Franco. He tries to console her by telling her how much he loves her and she smiles.


A few days later, the Baroness asks Fabietto to catch a bat loose in one of her rooms. She asks if he is missing his parents and he considers it a foolish question. He retorts by asking if she misses the husband she supposedly treated like a doormat. But she confides that the success of a marriage isn't based on the occasional raised voice and warns him that it's impossible to know what goes on behind someone's locked door.


As he goes to leave, the Baroness asks him to brush her hair. He is taken aback when she orders him to do her pubic hair, too. She reclines on the bed and tells Fabietto to lie on top of her. Without hesitation, he drops his trousers and follows her instructions to think of someone he loves and bury his face in the pillow to focus on her. Fabietto thinks of Patrizia and feels suitably grateful when the Baroness urges him to think to the future.


Returning from a theatre trip, Fabietto bumps into Armando (Biagio Manna) the cigarette smuggler. He inists on taking him on a motorbike tour of the waterfront and Fabietto is oddly impressed when Armando kicks seven shades out the foreigner whose girl he has been eyeing up in flip flops. They take a boat to Capri to go dancing, but everything is closed down. Fabietto thinks he sees the world's richest man, Adnan Khashoggi, with a celebrity companion. But she curses at him, as she teeters off behind the Arab in high heels.


Swimming in the dark, Armando tells Fabietto that they are now pals and asks to meet his parents. He feels strange using the word `orphan' and does so again while visiting Armando in prison, where he is doing time for assault. Sitting in an empty hall, Armando reminds Fabietto that he is free and should make the most of his opportunities.


Back at the theatre watching Julia (Sofya Gershevich) overplay the role of Salomé, Fabietto is astonished when Capuano starts heckling her and forces her to flee the stage in tears. Rushing after him, Fabietto declares his intention to become a director, even though he has only seen a handful of films, because he hates his new reality and wants to disappear back into the fantasy he had before.


Down by the sea, Capuano demands to know if Fabietto has a story to tell and suggests that he ditches his pain to make it fun, as people are tired of suffering. He also tells him to grow up and use the name Fabio, while offering a sympathetic ear whenever he needs it.


As he gets home, he sees Maradona win the Serie A title for Napoli. His neighbour, Mario, sits on the bonnet of his car and smokes a satisfied cigarette before the clamour erupts across the city. Even Daniela emerges from the bathroom sobbing with a mix of sorrow and joy. But Fabio can't linger. He has bought a ticket to Rome to see if cinema is his métier and he feels reassured when he sees the Little Monk waving from the platform of a quiet country station and settles back to enjoy the journey with his Walkman playing a sentimental ballad.


Upending the famous Fellini shot of the flying Christ statue with a Mussolini-inspired image of a man hanging from his ankles above the Galleria Umberto I at night, Sorrentino doesn't quite convince with the epiphanic moment that made him decide to devote his life to cinema. He will also draw ire for the unreconstructed depiction of Luisa Ranieri, as she waits at a bus stop with her nipples pneumatically protruding against the tight white fabric of her dress in a leeringly parodic homage to the way in which his predecessors had chauvinistically objectified such screen sirens as Sophia Loren, Claudia Cardinale and Gina Lollobrigida.


But this is easily Sorrentino's most intimate and tender feature to date, as he pays his respects to the people and places who shaped him. Superbly abetted by cinematographer Daria D'Antonio and production designer Carmine Guarino, he captures the the beauty of the Bay of Naples, the shabby grandeur of the architecture and the brusque ebullience of the citizenry. Taking cues from Fellini regular Nino Rota, Lele Marchitelli's score brings a muscular sentimentality to the scenes of family life, as insults are traded with abrasive affection and food is consumed with a lustful appetite that carries over into the passion for sex and soccer - but not cinema, as that flawed masterpiece Once Upon a Time in America goes left unwatched.


With a pierced ear and curly mop, Filippo Scotti's Fabietto vaguely resembles a beanpole Maradona, as he soaks up the atmosphere and memories that will have to sustain him after he loses his parents at 17. Sensitively staged, this tragedy markedly changes the tone of the story, as brimming vitality gives way to the ruminative introspection that transforms Fabietto from a boy into a man.


Yet, while Fabietto is the protagonist, Sorrentino is too modest to make him the centre of attention, as he fills the screen with indelible characters who feel like the Neapolitan equivalents of the Riminise commemorated by Fellini in Amarcord. As ever Toni Servillo catches the eye, as the pipe-smoking father whose guilty secret doesn't make him any less loving to his wife and sons. Whether responding to her husband's whistled love calls or pranking her neighbours, Teresa Saponangelo proves irrepressible in the face of everyday adversity.


She certainly suffers less harrowingly than her sister, whose emotional fragility is conveyed with touching delicacy by Luisa Ranieri. Betti Pedrazzi also impresses as the gossiping aristocratic neighbour who initiates Fabietto into the mysteries of love-making with a commedia all'italiana insouciance that contrasts with the equally perfunctory pep talk he receives from Antonio Capuano (for whom Sorrentino would co-write the 1998 feature, The Dust of Naples).


With editor Cristiano Travoglioli ensuring that the supporting players in the excellent ensemble also have their whimsical moment in the spotlight, Sorrentino does full justice to his extended family. However, he's less successful in integrating the seedier sides of Neapolitan life and offers few insights into its socio-political aspects. Perhaps more curiously given the centrality of football to his debut feature, One Man Up (2001), Sorrentino undersells the galvanising impact that Diego Maradona and the Scudetto had on a city that could finally look its northern rivals in the eye and extend a middle finger. Nevertheless, this immersive and candid mosaic of the sorrows, joys, secrets and lies, that we all experience does more than enough to justify the alternative title, Once Upon a Time in Naples.


SWAN SONG.


Five years after winning an Oscar for his live-action short, Stutterer, Irish writer-director Benjamin Cleary makes his feature bow with Swan Song, a meticulously calibrated melodrama set in the near future that scrupulously avoids exploring in any depth the ethical and logistical issues at its core.


Graphic designer Cameron Turner (Mahershala Ali) doesn't particularly enjoy his advertising job. But compensation comes in the form of an idyllic home life with his music therapist wife, Poppy (Noemie Harris), and their young son, Cory (Dax Rey). With Poppy expecting a second child, all should be set fair. But Cameron has been diagnosed with a terminal disease and, because Poppy has only just recovered from the trauma of losing her adored twin brother, Andre (Nyasha Hatendi), in a motorbike accident, he decides not to tell her about his situation and places his trust instead in an experimental treatment being developed at Arra Labs by Dr Jo Scott (Glenn Close) her and psychologist-cum-technician, Dalton (Adam Beach).


Scott has perfected a cloning technique that allows a molecularly regenerated duplicate to take the place of a dying donor in order to spare their loved ones the agony of loss. Having suffered a series of seizures, Cameron has already started transferring his conscious and subconscious memories to Jack, a physically precise replica (apart from an tiny identifying freckle on his palm) who will replace him at an agreed time and then lose all sense of being a clone.


Despite being reassured by the remote retreat's only other resident, real estate agent Kate (Awkwafina), that he's doing the right thing, Cameron has misgivings, as he thinks about Jack taking ownership of treasured moments like his first meeting with Poppy over a chocolate bar on a commuter train, as well as the crisis that followed her bereavement.


When Jack is sent to acclimatise at the Turner home, the secluded Cameron is allowed to view a video feed and he is overwhelmed by the sight of Poppy and Cory interacting with such unsuspecting affection (although the family dog proves more discerning). However, he has already withheld too much from his wife to explain his motives to back out and he is persuaded to go through with the swap when he narrowly avoids detection following a doorstep blackout. He insists upon a farewell visit, however, and is rewarded for the sacrifice of his dignified exit by a respectful gesture by the still-cognisant Jack that allows him to hear one last time how much Poppy loves him.


To quote Kenny Everett's immortal alter ego, Cupid Stunt, every facet of this sentimental and highly specious scenario is done in the best possible taste. Yet it never convinces for a second, in spite of such neat glimpses into the future as the driverless cars and digitised contact lenses.


By opting not to explain how Cameron got to know about Arra Labs or how his pioneering treatment (he is only the third recipient) is being funded, Cleary risks further alienating those already disconcerted by the fact that Cameron (for reasons we have to accept are altruistic for all their muddle-headed duplicity) is prepared to consign his wife and child to the care of what is essentially an untested and legally dubious prototype that could potentially be riddled with all manner of physical and psychological glitches.


This refusal to delve beneath the burnished surface robs the narrative of any intellectual depth and reduces the film to being little more than a slick weepie. This is a shame, as Mahershala Ali delineates between the equally vulnerable Cameron and Jack's personalities and body language with considerable skill. He also engages deftly with Glenn Close and Awkwafina, although his scenes with supposed soulmate Naomie Harris sometimes strain to convey their blissful contentment.


Perhaps fittingly, in a study of identity, appearance and undetectable fabrication, the production values are more impressive than the human elements. Production designer Annie Beauchamp not only makes telling contrasts between the serenity that Cameron feels in his cosy home and the sleek hospice, but she also creates an unshowily credible near future, in which technology has become so personalised that Cameron (whose condition conveniently has no telltale symptoms) is able to cover his tracks in dealing with Arra Labs without leaving any incriminating details in a browsable search history or phone log.


Masanobu Takayanagi's cinematography reinforces the visual and tonal differences between Cameron's dual worlds, as do Cynthia Ann Summers's subtle costumes and Jay Wadley's poignant orchestral score. Editor Nathan Nugent similarly adjusts the pace between suburban home and forest haven, while also constructing the memory montages that will enable Jack to assume Cameron's place in Poppy and Cory's lives.


Yet, for all the control he exerts over the look of the film and the performances, Cleary heavy-handedly allows the pathos of the protracted closing scenes to descend into a mawkishness that might have been alleviated had the screenplay confronted the creepier aspects of Cameron's moral dilemma rather than avoiding them. But at least Cleary resists the temptations presented by the science-fiction elements in order to concentrate on a decent man having to surrender his grasp on life while coming to terms with the inevitable, but still sobering fact that the world and those he holds dearest within it will go on without him.


THE ALPINIST.


Climbing films have been in vogue since Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin won the Academy Award for Best Documentary with Free Solo (2018). In fact, Peter Mortimer and Nick Rosen started work on The Alpinist before Vasarhelyi and Chin hooked up with Alex Honnold, who is one of the talking-heads expressing his admiration for twentysomething Canadian, Marc-André Leclerc. However, precise dating proves something of a problem in a paeaning profile that somewhat inevitably turns into a cine-obituary.


Having failed to settle into the British Columbian school system after being home-tutored by mother Michelle Kulpers following an ADHD diagnosis, Leclerc fled into the wilderness at the first opportunity to scale the peaks where he felt free. Unlike his peers, he shunned social media and only the climbing fraternity knew about the fearless solo alpinist who was breaking records for fun and finding new routes up the most challenging inclines. Sleeping in a stairwell, he embarked upon a relationship with fellow climber Brette Harrington, who understood his need to do things his own way.


It was seemingly at this juncture that experienced mountain documentarists Mortimer and Rosen approached Leclerc about a collaboration. Overcoming his initial reluctance, he allowed them to film him in action, although he occasionally restricted access to reconstructions after he had made the initial ascent alone. However, he remained reticent on camera when discussing his techniques and philosophies.


Fortunately, Harrington and the other interviewees were more forthcoming, as they enthused about Leclerc's unconventional methods, which sometimes required him to change footwear mid-climb in order to cope with shifts from rock to ice. The footage of him hanging from ice axes is both exhilarating and excruciating, although Leclerc seems oblivious to any peril he might be in.


Eventually. however, he became spooked by being the centre of attention and went off grid. Mortimer admits in his narration that they feared the project was over. But they tracked Leclerc down and persuaded him to allow a companion to carry a camera during an attempt on Torre Egger in Patagonia. As one might have expected, however, Leclerc `forgot' to record the bulk of the expedition and Harrington admits to being amused and touched by his maverick approach.


Shortly afterwards, however, she is devastated by the news that Leclerc had fallen to his death at the age of 23. Peers express their sorrow, but insist that every alpinist knows the risks involved in pursuing complete physical and spiritual freedom. For the majority of mere mortals watching in the darkness, however, the concept of dying for one's art may seem to offer little consolation.


Notwithstanding the manipulative manner in which they structure their narrative, Mortimer and Rosen succeed in celebrating Leclerc's extraordinary achievements, while also capturing something of his engaging, elusive and deceptively complex personality. Yet, for all the dizzyingly spectacular footage they amass, they fail to fathom what drives Leclerc and his ilk to imperil themselves in the pursuit of an adrenaline rush and the fleeting thrill of satisfaction before they are off (often with little thought of those waiting behind) in search of their next fix.


ESCAPE FROM EXTINCTION.


Sponsored by the animal welfare charity American Humane and narrated by Helen Mirren, Matthew R. Brady's documentary examines the role played by zoos in fighting to save species threatened with extinction in the human-made calamity facing our planet. This is an emotive issue and Brady seeks to counter arguments against the cruelty of captivity by presenting zoos, aquariums and water parks as latterday arks, whose breeding and cross-fostering programmes have contributed to the wild repopulation of such creatures as the grey wolf, the black-footed ferret, the kakapo and the whooping crane.


In promoting American Humane's support for `accredited zoos', however, Brady slips into infomercial mode. Moreover, he denies screen time to those animal rights activists he demonises using the precisely the kind of ominous music and emotive language that he lambastes in exposing the media's sensationalist depiction of sharks.


The researchers and administrators interviewed here clearly mean well, with the former doing valuable work in response to an ongoing emergency that endangers an eighth of the world's eight million species. But viewers would have been better served by a debate rather than a diatribe and it's easy to see why PETA has criticised a film that celebrates so unquestioningly the legacy of such complex characters as 19th-century hunter-turned-conservationist, William Hornaday.



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