• David Parkinson

Parky At the Pictures (14/5/2021)

(Reviews of Cowboys; Fried Barry; Maya the Bee: The Golden Orb; Some Kind of Heaven; and House of Cardin)


So, here we are. The last weekend (for now) on which the film releases are solely online. Predictably, the major distributors have kept their big titles back until Monday 17 May, when cinemas reopen in England, Wales and Scotland. But not everyone is going to want to sit in the dark being distracted by the prospect of whether everyone else in the auditorium is following the guidelines as strictly as they are.


Consequently, the streaming platforms who have done rather well out of lockdown are going to keep up their good work for the time being at least. Therefore, 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 will be staying open for business. Whatever choice you make, stay safe.


COWBOYS.


Westerns directed by women have been rarer than hen's teeth since Ruth Ann Baldwin made `49-`17 back in 1917. The great actor-director Ida Lupino directed a handful of episodes of the long-running TV series, Have Gun, Will Travel, in the early 1960s, while Lina Wertmüller co-directed the 1968 Spaghetti Western, The Belle Starr Story. Staying overseas, the Soviet film-maker Alla Surikova paid tribute to the pioneering projectionists who brought moving pictures to the Old West in A Man From the Boulevard des Capucines (1987).


Subsequently, the entries in the genre have been solid items like Nancy Kelly's Thousand Pieces of Gold (1991), Maggie Greenwald's The Ballad of Little Jo (1993), Kelly Reichardt's Meek's Cutoff (2010) and Poor Cow (2020), and Nia DaCosta's Little Woods (2019). At a stretch, you could also include Chloé Zhao's The Rider (2017) and Anna Kerrigan's debut feature, Cowboys, which premiered earlier in the spring in the BFI's Flare festival.


Having reached the age of 10, Joe Johnson (Sasha Knight) cuts their hair and swaps the dresses chosen by mother Sally (Jillian Bell) for the cowboy clobber worn by father Troy (Steve Zahn) and his Montana buddies. He gets that Joe no longer identifies as a girl. But, in urging Joe to stick to God's game plan, Sally blames him for making being female seem like the booby prize in the lottery of life.


When Joe does a bunk one morning, Sally is so deeply in denial that she gives cop Faith Harrison (Ann Dowd) an outdated photo. This gives Joe and Troy a head start in their trek to the Canadian border on a white horse borrowed from Troy's pal, Robert Spottedbird (Gary Farmer). However, they are slowed down after Joe inexplicably goes on a nocturnal fishing trip and Troy loses his bipolar medication while pulling the frightened child out of the raging water.


A flashback reveals that Troy had been jailed for pushing Sally's brother Jerry (Chris Coy) down the stairs at a shoe store after his son, Stevie (AJ Slaght), had accused Joe of looking like a dyke in a plaid shirt and jeans. Rather than supporting her husband for defending their child, however, Sally blames him for making her life more difficult and she vows to jolt Joe out of their tomboy phase. On Troy's release, however, Sally had allowed him access and she now curses herself for letting him indulge Joe's fantasies.


With the backstory in place, the plot meanders forward, as Joe becomes spooked by Troy's increasingly manic behaviour and Sally becomes increasingly impatient with Faith, whose ability to see both sides of the conundrum makes her feel like she is the one who has done something wrong. But Faith has to step up her pursuit after Joe panics while waiting alone in the woods and shoots a stranger in the leg. As news bulletins make Troy out to be an irresponsible monster, he struggles to hold it together to ensure his child remains safe. Joe accuses him of letting them down by not having a plan, but stands guard over his body after Troy is shot by police marksmen as Faith is talking them into surrendering.


This being akin to an Issue of the Week TV-movie, Troy survives and Sally agrees to let him help Joe negotiate the choppy waters that lie ahead after he's released from jail. Moreover, on the bus heading towards their first day at school, Joe makes instant friends with a couple of nerdy kids and everyone else turns to listen when they agree to tell the story of their adventure. This is as corny as tucking the child up in bed with a cuddly green extraterrestrial shortly after they had declared that it felt as though aliens had deposited them in the wrong body.


In tackling such a contentious subject, Kerrigan is entirely right to adopt a sensitive approach. But the spectre of political correctness stifles the life out of a story that requires at least three whopping convolutions to keep it on the heels of its chief inspiration, George Roy Hill's Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969). These melodramatic flaws are compounded by some poor dialogue passages, notably after Troy and Sally make out in the front seat of his truck and when he turns into a whimpering mess after Joe berates him for leading them into danger.


Nailing each pronoun, the wired Steve Zahn and the melancholic Jillian Bell rally to the cause, as does Ann Dowd as the down-to-earth Flathead cop. Sadly, despite a standout moment drinking in the machismo at the local bowling alley, young transmasculine actor Sasha Knight struggles with the more emotional aspects of Joe's ordeal. But this is still a landmark performance in a well-meaning picture.


Indeed, despite the occasionally simplistic plotting and the odd cumbersome set-piece, Kerrigan can't be faulted for pushing the message that people are people, whether they are trans, bipolar or too afraid of what others might think to accept complex situations for what they are. Moreover, accompanied by Gene Back's soulful Morriconesque score, John Wakayama Carey's atmospheric views of the north-western wilderness are sublime.


FRIED BARRY.


Jean-jacketed, wild-eyed and straggly-haired, Barry (Gary Green) occupies his time between fixes by stalking around Cape Town. When he can be bothered to return to the abode he shares with long-suffering wife Suz (Chanelle de Jager) and their young son (Joey Cramer), he is surly and ungrateful. Having listened to a barroom bore (Paul Snodgrass) explain how Walt Disney based Mickey Mouse on a vaudeville minstrel, Barry goes back to his flat and gets wasted. As he staggers home, however, he is abducted by aliens and submitted to some highly intrusive probing to enable an alien to take control of his body.


Blundering around the night-time streets, as though seeing everything for the first time, Barry finds himself in a bar. A blowsy Scouser in a red England shirt boasts about picking up a couple of girls, only for them to spurn him. Puzzled by the sight of a black man fellating a white man in the toilets, Barry wanders back on to the street, where he is ushered into a nightclub. Hepped up on pills, he dances wildly and catches the eye of a woman (Lauren Steyn) determined to end a spell of enforced abstinence. Puzzled by the condom she produces and the noises she emits as they cavort, Barry goes along for the ride and looks more bemused than ever when he's dismissed without a post-coital by your leave.


Pounced on by a prostitute (Bianka Hartenstein), Barry has unprotected sex and looks on in confusion as the stupefied woman undergoes an truncated pregnancy and gives birth to a howling infant. None of this makes sense to Barry's controlling alien, who steers him to the park in time to see a happy couple fussing over their newborn. Affected by the scene, he returns home and pleases Suz by spoon-feeding their son some yoghurt. Having spat out his hot dog, Barry uses phrases from an old movie playing on TV to sweet talk Suz into the bedroom, where she also insists on using protection.


Spooked when Suz threatens him with hospital after he experiences a series of rapid temperature changes, Barry disappears into the neighbourhood and winds up keeping company with a pair of junkies what resembles a tumbledown greenhouse. He picks up a set of discarded headphones and jigs along to the music until he bequeaths them to a mugging victim, who is bleeding to death from stab wounds in an underpass.


Having been pulped by three thugs for straying on to their territory, Barry is dragged to his lair by a sadistic child-catcher named Daddy (Jonathan Pienaar). A caged victim (Reese Dettmer) looks on as Barry is subjected to some ad hoc dentistry. But he manages to get away and helps the little girl free her fellow captors and evade the chainsaw-wielding maniac. Unfortunately, they are unable to prevent Barry from being arrested for being a paedophile and he is sent to a psychiatric unit.


Here, he makes the acquaintance of Ronald (Sean Cameron Michael) and Martini (Joe Vaz), who confide that they have made plans to break out. While they are quickly overpowered, Barry succeeds in getting outside, where he is collected by Lawrence (Graham Clarke). He gives Barry an injection as they drive along and he goes on a major trip. On returning to his version of normality, he saves the prostitute he had encountered earlier from her pimp and she introduces him to his son, who has grown into a gurgling clone.


Watching him breastfeed proves too much for Barry, however, and he collapses and is rushed to hospital. Suz dashes into the emergency room in time to see Barry die and the prostitute is feeling sorry for her when the corpse suddenly reanimates. The women smuggle Barry out of the hospital in a wheelchair and drive him home. However, his spaceship hoves into view and Suz wishes him happy landings before asking the prostitute how she knows her husband. As they walk away, a thud on the pavement suggests that the aliens have disposed of Barry's body from on high.


Reuniting with Gary Green after a 2017 short also entitled Fried Barry, director Ryan Kruger makes an impactful, if somewhat uneven feature bow, which is premiering in the UK on the Shudder platform. The veteran of over 30 shorts and pop promos, he certainly knows how to frame an image and is ably abetted by production designer Monica Rosie and cinematographer Gareth Place, as they turn Cape Town into an alien's worst nightmare. Editor Stephen Du Plessis also plays his part, along with visual effects designers Blake Prinsloo and Harry Shaper, and Haezer, whose score and sound design do more than anything to give the action its ethereal feel.


Much also depends upon Green, a stuntman and bit player whose deadpan mien and pliable physicality do as much to make Barry seem like a wild thing as the passing resemblance to Ginger Baker, the legendary Cream drummer who spent his later years in South Africa. While he doesn't have much to say, Green proves adept at the spontaneous gesturing that complements the improvising of several of his co-stars, including Chanelle de Jager, who steals many a scene with her fuming diatribes and sudden switches into expletive-strewn Afrikaans.


Ultimately, Kruger and co-writer James C. Williamson offer few fresh insights into South African society or the human condition. They also overdo the nudity, the trippiness and the grossoutery. But their extraterrestrial twist on the Candide scenario has a scattershot satirical vitality and lurid potency that would have Gaspar Noé applauding vigorously from the kerbside. The odd moment might even bring a lump to the throat.


MAYA THE BEE: THE GOLDEN ORB.


After Maya the Bee (Coco Jack Gillies) brings some rampaging glow worms back to the hive after talking Willi (Benson Jack Anthony) into helping her make the sun rise on the first day of spring, the Queen (Justine Clarke) decides the best way to prevent further chaos is to keep the friends apart. While collecting sap to repair the hive, Maya is entrusted with taking a golden egg to Greenleaf near Bonsai Peak by Chomp (Tom Cossettini), a green ant who is being pursued by Rumba (Frances Berry) and two dimwitted beetles under the command of her brother, Bumbulus (Christian Charisiou), who wants to keep the colony off his patch.


Floating along on a dandelion clock with army ants Arnie (David Collins) and Barney (Shane Dundas), Maya and Willi find themselves caring for a baby princess named Schmoosh when the egg hatches after a tumble into a cave. Luckily, this provides them with shelter for the night after some swooping birds drive the boom bugs away. Another close shave follows in Loggy Hollow before Boof (Callan Colley) and Henchie (Noel Cleary) abandon Rumba after she fails to prevent the friends from escaping on a leaf raft on the river.


As Willi stops her from drowning, however, Rumba joins forces with the Greenleaf ants to repel Bumbulus's invasion. The ants and beetles then team up to thwart some hungry birds and Miss Cassandra (Tess Meyer) is so impressed by what she has witnessed that she recommends to the Queen that Maya and Willi should stay together because they saved the day.


Following on from Maya the Bee (2014) and Maya the Bee: The Honey Games (2018), Maya the Bee: The Golden Orb is a brisk, bright animated quest that teaches younger viewers about friendship, responsibility and the need to live together in peace. With its brash computer-generated visuals, this may lack the visual sophistication of its American counterparts. But the forest backdrops are charming, even though they provide cover for the feathered predators who pose a threat to the insects who are too busy squabbling among themselves to realise that co-operation is the best way forward.


The voiceovers are lively, with David Collins and Shane Dundas particularly having fun with the rhymes and puns in Fin Edquist's screenplay. Christian Charisiou also does a decent job with Bumbulus's lite metal songs, while credit should be given to whoever produced the cuddlesome Schmoosh's infectious chuckle.


As is often the case with modern animations, there are far too many chase sequences that look like they have been imported from a video game. But Noel Cleary's direction keeps the focus on the characters and the lessons they learn. Grown-ups will probably prefer Antz, A Bug's Life (both 1998), The Ant Bully (2006) and Minuscule: Valley of the Lost Ants (2013). But most tinies will be glad to go along for the ride.


SOME KIND OF HEAVEN.


There's a lot more to The Villages in Sumter County, Florida than 23 year-old Lance Oppenheim lets on in his debut documentary, Some Kind of Heaven. A recent graduate from Harvard, Oppenheim clearly has an appreciation of campus culture and there's much to commend in the way he translates his own experiences among young people to the lifestyle enjoyed by the majority of the senior citizens residing n this cross between Disneyland and a Stepford Wives theme park. Yet in focussing so closely on a long-married couple, an unmerry widow and an octogenarian interloper, Oppenheim restricts his perspective to the human interest angle, when there is so much to explore on a sociological and anthropological level.


Having invited the audience to smirk at such communal activities as synchronised golf carting, Oppenheim thankfully dispenses with the condescending attitude as he narrows his gaze. Recognising that there's little mileage in contentment, he alights upon four people who find paradise problematic.


On arriving at The Villages from Boston, Barbara Lochiatto had high hopes for her retirement. However, her husband died of a brain tumour shortly afterwards and she has spent the last 12 years working at the complex's rehab centre because she can't afford a life of leisure. This is all that 81 year-old Dennis Dean desires. But he doesn't have the resources to become a member of this exclusive club and sleeps in his illegally parked camper van when not mooching around the pools and bars in search of a susceptible singleton to take him in.


By contrast, Anne and Reggie Kincer seem to have it made, as they approach their 47th anniversary. But, while Anne is content to while away the hours playing pickleball, Reggie succumbs to a late-life crisis. It starts with him seeking spiritual enlightenment, but winds up with him facing prison after being caught in possession of THC and cocaine. Anne is dumbstruck, but takes her wedding vows seriously enough to stand by her man.


Dennis hopes that Nancy has similar views on loyalty after she offers him a room in return for doing some odd jobs. He calls his mother to reassure her that he's landed on his feet. But the DUI charge he had fled in California catches up with him and, after being rebuffed during several favour-begging phone calls, he is seen hauling his belongings back to his van.


As for Barbara, she tries to throw herself into the giddy social whirl. She signs up for an acting class and is persuaded to try the `Livingston Saturday Night' vibe at the Parrothead club after befriending a golf cart salesman known as The Margarita Man. They play crazy golf together and she tells her hairdresser about their rapport. But, having watched him flirting on the dance floors, she reaches the saddening conclusion he's not a keeper.


Founder Harold Schwartz used to claim that he had built his select community around a fountain of youth. For those wealthy and healthy enough to take full advantage of its amenities, The Villages could well be an idyllic place to live one's twilight years to the full. But, while he views daily life with a raised eyebrow, Oppenheim seems reluctant to pry too far beneath the surface. There's nary a hint, therefore, that this mostly rich white enclave is a Trump stronghold (hence the `fake news' accusations that have been levelled at the film). Moreover, we get no sort of impression of how the world's largest retirement `bubble' (which is home to over 130,000 Baby Boomers) impacts upon its neighbours in Greater Orlando.


Having started out filming between 10-15 people (whose appearance is now limited to the opening montage), Oppenheim realised that the story lay in the exceptions to the community's Benthamite philosophy. He exhibits considerable discretion and compassion in charting the changes his subjects experience and refuses to judge either the resistibly exploitative Dennis or the desperately delusional Reggie, whose mental health issues are handled with laudable tact. But it's clear (from the shots of them dancing and Ari Balouzian's score, if nothing else) that Oppenheim's sympathies lie with Anne and Barbara, who often appear to be as uncomfortable on camera as they are with situations not of their own making.


Expanding from a college thesis project and shooting over 18 months in collaboration with cinematographer, David Bolen (who also co-edits with Pacho Velez), Oppenheim toys with the marketing brochure fantasy of dwelling in God's waiting room. But, under the tutelage of executive producer Darren Aronofsky, he avoids easy mockery in exposing how readily people are willing to accept this artificial bower as Shangri-la.


There are no explicit mentions to Frank Capra's Lost Horizon (1937) or Ron Howard's Cocoon (1985), but Oppenheim has spoken of the influence of Nicholas Ray's Bigger Than Life (1956), Tim Burton's Edward Scissorhands (1990), Albert Brooks's Defending Your Life (1991) and Todd Haynes's Safe (1995). He has also revealed in interviews that his four principals are still going strong after the film wrapped in 2019. It might have been interesting to include a coda showing how The Villages coped with Covid. But the throwaway image of the auto set misfiring on a 10-pin bowling lane already says it all.


HOUSE OF CARDIN.


The endless appetite for documentaries about fashion houses means that we are subjected to P. David Ebersole and Todd Hughes's corporate video about Pierre Cardin. Protest all they may that House of Cardin is a documentary, the makers reveal so little about the man (who died in December at the age of 98) and so much about the products that he has churned out during a long and often glittering career that it's difficult to view this as anything other than a PR exercise. Stuffed with talking heads who gush rather than discuss, this is slickly assembled puffery that often leaves Cardin looking like Young Mr Grace in the BBC sitcom, Are You Being Served? (1972-85).


Born into a family of wine merchants in Treviso, Pietro Cardin was raised in Saint-Étienne in France from the age of two. He relocated to Paris late in the war and founded his own fashion house in 1950 after brief spells with Maison Paquin and Christian Dior that respectively resulted in him designing the costumes for Jean Cocteau's La Belle et la bête (1946) and Carlos de Beisteguí's masked ball in Venice in 1951.


On the back of his breakthrough with the bubble dress in the mid-1950s, he was credited with democratising fashion by making his creations available in department stores like Printemps. Yves Saint Laurent disputed his claim to have invented prêt-à-porter and they fell out, as Cardin positioned himself as the first socialist of haute couture. In rethinking the A-line dress to give it a new modernity and practicality, Cardin also liberated the female form at the very time that socio-cultural attitudes were changing. He also had the good fortune to design the collarless suits that Brian Epstein chose to smarten up The Beatles.


The Swinging Sixties also saw Cardin move into furniture, eyewear and fragrances and he quickly recognised the profit potential of appending his name to a range of luxury items that even included cars and aeroplanes. He also used branding as a means of proclaiming his own taste and by ensuring that his logo was seen in all the best places, he was able to keep the company coffers filled and retain his independence. Moreover, it allowed him to acquire venues like Maxim's and L'Espace Cardin, the theatre in the former Café des Ambassadeurs where Gérard Depardieu got his start and Marlene Dietrich made her emotional comeback.


Having discovered model Hiroko Matsumoto, he also had the nous to take his products to such untapped territories as India, Japan and China, where he famously staged a fashion show on the Great Wall. Cardin also ventured into Russia to exploit the spending boom following the collapse of Communism, but Hughes and Ebersole are too busy paying lip service to explore the politics and paradoxes that underpinned the empire and made Cardin such an enigma. They similarly sidestep the scandal that broke when he bought the Marquis de Sade's former chateau and several other properties in order to launch the Lacoste Festival.


If only they had lingered longer on Cardin's film work, particularly his relationship with Jeanne Moreau after he had dressed her in Marcel Ophüls's Peau de banane , Jacques Demy's La Baie des anges (both 1963) and Jean-Louis Richard's Mata Hari, Agent H21 (1964). We also get to learn about Cardin's bond with designer André Oliver, but Tony Glenville from the London College of Fashion rightly notes that those in the public eye should be entitled to their privacy.


Ably stitched together from archive and access footage by Brad Comfort and Mel Mel Sukekawa Mooring, this profile must have delighted the atelier's longtime communications chief, Jean-Pascal Hesse. He appears alongside such other Cardin insiders as Maryse Gaspard, Renée Taponier, Jean Delair, Matthew Gonder and nephew Rodrigo Basilicati, who view their boss with a mixture of sycophancy and affection. But no one attempts to put his achievement into context or broaches the subject of the legacy of the first couturier to design a menswear collection.


Designers like Jean-Paul Gaultier, Philippe Starck, Hanae Mori, Kenzo Takada, Yumi Katsura, Trina Turk and Guo Pei similarly fall over themselves to pay the most lavish tribute, although they are left flailing by such celebrities as Naomi Campbell, Dionne Warwick, Jean-Michel Jarre, Alice Cooper and a shamelessly swooning Sharon Stone. Writers Amy Fine-Collins, Laurence Benaim and Amber Butchart seek to put the paeans into some sort of perspective. But this functional 2019 outing is essentially a premature eulogy rather than the valuable work of historico-cultural analysis it could have been.


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