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  • David Parkinson

Parky At the Pictures (14/7/2023)

Updated: Jul 16, 2023

(Reviews of Lost in the Stars; A Kind of Kidnapping; and Pinocchio: A True Story)


LOST IN THE STARS.

(Spoiler Alert - requested by distributor)


In 1960, Alfred Hitchcock bought the rights to Frenchman Robert Thomas's play, Trap For a Solitary Man. The Master of Suspense never got round to the project, although François Ozon did musicalise an earlier Thomas offering as Eight Women in 2002. Twelve years earlier, Soviet director Alexei Koronev released A Trap For Lonely Man and this is the latest picture to receive the makeover treatment from Chinese producer Chen Sicheng.


Having previously reworked Jeethu Joseph's Malayalam thriller, Drishyam (2013), as Sheep Without a Shepherd (2020) and Nick Cassavetes's Denzel Washington vehicle, John Q (2002), as Fireflies in the Sun (2021), Chen has concocted Lost in the Stars with co-scenarists Gu Shuyi and Yin Yixiong. Sam Quah and Dai Mo had been entrusted with the earlier revisions. But first-timer Cui Rui and Liu Xiang share the credit for this involving, if not always entirely convincing puzzler.


Chinese couple He Fei (Zhu Yilong) and Li Muzi (Kay Huang) arrive on the Bankal island of Belandia to celebrate their first wedding anniversary. A couple of days into the holiday, however, He Fei wakes to find another woman impersonating Li Muzi (Janice Man, aka Wen Yongshan) and the local police dismiss his assertion that his real wife has disappeared because the woman's ID is in order.


As she has been missing for 15 days and he only has five days left on his visa, He Fei is grateful when Officer Zheng Cheng (Du Jiang) takes pity on him. However, he believes the imposter is telling the truth, as she knows lots of intimate details about their relationship and there are photos of her on He Fei's phone. He is baffled when locals also testify that Muzi is his wife and aghast when he finds that CCTV footage at a bookshop has been tampered with to airbrush out his spouse.


When Muzi tells Zheng that He Fei has been acting strangely since taking pills for a neurological condition and that she went to a neighbouring island to teach her husband a lesson, he wants nothing more to do with the case. However, hot shot lawyer Chen Mai (Ni Ni) is intrigued when he tells her about saving Li Muzi's life as a diving instructor and how they had married three days after surviving a car crash. She is also interested in Manman, a film directing best friend whom He Fei has never met and who has blocked him on social media.


On visiting a photographic studio where the couple had posed for pictures, Chen smells a rat. She also spots errors in the edit of the bookshop CCTV footage and is convinced that He Fei was drugged on the night of a firework festival so that Li Muzi could be smuggled away by traffickers without anyone noticing. Moreover, she senses the hostility when the red-dressed replacement returns to the hotel room and learns that Chen believes He Fei's story.


Muzi invites He Fei to supper at a beach restaurant, where she gloatingly informs him that she can have him institutionalised under Belandian law. She goads him into causing a scene and Chen (who has been eavesdropping via a wire) warns him that he has to keep calm or he will play into the enemy's hands.


Following a car chase the next morning, Chen and He Fei find themselves at an abandoned building in the wilds. An office is filled with evidence that seems to prove He Fei's contention, but they have to flee from a gunman before they can gather anything. Rather than back He Fei, however, Chen asks why he withheld the fact that he's a gambler and that Li Muzi might have staged this entire stunt herself to pay him back for a year of duress. But he assures her that she loves him and would never do anything to hurt him.


Sitting by Mohsha Lighthouse, He Fei tells Chen that he had fallen into gambling to escape poverty in Shanghai. He had enjoyed the thrill of winning and a casino montage sums up his easy come, easy go attitude. However, he ran up debts and was desperate when he met Li Muzi and he had kept his word to keep away from the tables in return for her helping him get solvent. Such is his sincerity that Chen believes his account and his insistence that his wife wouldn't do anything to harm him.


The next day, Chen receives information about other disappearances in the region. She also learns that Hassel (Shi Jiankang), a slacker at a beach diving shop has photos of He Fei and Li Muzi together. He agrees to testify to Zheng, although Chen is puzzled when one of his colleagues recognises Li Muzi and says she hired some diving equipment. He Fei angrily denies this and bundles the witness into Chen's car. Once again, Chen demands to know if He Fei is telling her the whole truth. But they are ambushed on the road and, with Hassel dead, He Fei leaps into a waterfall to make his escape.


Back at the hotel, he is taunted by Muzi, who smiles at the prospect of taking every last piece of him. She hits herself with a bottle to feign an assault, but He Fei is attempting to strangle her when Zheng bursts in. When he wakes, He Fei finds himself strapped to a table in a hospital, where he realises that Muzi and Zheng are in cahoots and that they have bribed a doctor to give him a lobotomy.


Disguised as a nurse, Chen gets into the room and forces He Fei to confess that he smuggled Li Muzi to the lighthouse during the firework show. Furthermore, he admits that he had racked up another 10 million in debt and that his wife had refused to help him. Chen accuses him of setting up the whole charade in order to murder his wife, seem like the victim, and inherit her fortune. She refuses to help him and leaves. But he manages to break free and finds himself in the forest building where he had earlier discovered the evidence of Li Muzi's existence.


Barging through a door, he stumbles into a room filled with all the people he has encountered over the previous fortnight. Leading them is Li Muzi's film director friend, Shen Man (aka Manman), who has been playing the part of Chen Mai. They had known each other since school and were inseparable up to the moment Shen went to work abroad. The montage shows their shared passion for Vincent Van Gogh's `The Starry Night' and it was a sight like this that He Fei had promised to show Li Muzi during a nocturnal dive. She had trusted him and he had locked her in a cage and swum away.


Stopped from attacking Shen with a scalpel, He Fei is arrested. She visits him in prison and he jokes that he wishes he had killed her, too. However, she has one last twist to inflict upon him, as Li Muzi had been going to break the news she was pregnant and was ready to give him another chance. As Shen walks tearfully away, He Fei is tormented by an ultrasound image fixed to the bars of his cell.


Although Alfred Hitchcock succumbed to the odd melodramatic lapse in his time, he would certainly have exerted a tighter grip over the closing third of this engrossing, but ultimately gimmicky yarn. The clues signposting the denouement are so clumsily inserted that it will be obvious how events are going to play out to anyone who has seen Curtis Bernhardt's Conflict (1945) or Michael Anderson's Chase a Crooked Shadow (1957) or more recent variations on the theme like Roman Polanski's Frantic (1998) or David Fincher's The Game (1997). Astute viewers will also want to know how He Fei has been occupying his time prior to the opening scene he causes in the police station, as a truly concerned husband would surely have alerted the authorities a lot earlier in a supposedly frantic search for a beloved wife.


The scenario's shortcomings weren't quite as blatant in Koronev's version, as his direction was rather less ostentatious. Yet, while Cui Rui and Liu Xiang lay on the stylistic overkill with a trowel, the performances of both Zhu Yilong and Ni Ni are tremendous. Janice Man also revels in playing the bogus bride goading her victim into indiscretions that occur with an increasingly frequency that makes it harder for the audience to keep rooting for He Fei.


He Shan's cinematography is nimbly atmospheric, while Tang Hongjia's editing has a pugnacity that only stalls during a thrill-free car chase and the laboured montage sequences that further expose the flaws in a plotline that can meander between eruptions of disclosure. Hu Xiou'ou's score also ramps up the ante during the more propulsive or sentimental scenes. However, Zheng Chen's art direction is consistently slick in presenting Balandia in all its gaudy glory, while the red dress designed for Janice Man knowingly highlights the danger that the fake Li Muzi poses to He Fei. If you can suspend your disbelief, this is highly diverting. But, for all its polish, it's not markedly superior to such humble TV-movie takes on Thomas's comédie policière than John Peyser's Honeymoon With a Stranger (1969), Glenn Jordan's One of My Wives Is Missing (1976), or David Greene's Vanishing Act (1986), which respectively starred Janet Leigh, Elizabeth Ashley, and Margot Kidder, and which can all be found online.


A KIND OF KIDNAPPING.


Dan Clark was brilliant as the socially inept Don Danbury in How Not to Live Your Life (2007-11), a BBC sitcom that saw him cut his directorial teeth on a third of the 21 episodes. He has since helmed the splendidly prescient Julia Davis pilot, Morning Has Broken (2014), and two shorts, The Kidnapping of Richard Franco (2017) and Diane's New Boyfriend (2018).


Clearly, the first of this pair was a dry run for the newly style D.G. Clark's feature bow, A Kind of Kidnapping. However, the longer form has seemingly proven something of a challenge, as while this class satire gets off to a corking start, it winds up meandering into platitude and contrivance.


Aspiring actress Maggie (Kelly Wenham) and Welsh boyfriend Brian (Jack Parry-Jones) are finding life in Newcastle a struggle. He's training as a programmer, while she waitresses at a restaurant. But a lack of cash means they're going to be evicted from their flat. So, when smug MP Richard Hardy (Patrick Baladi) comes on a post-Brexit tour of the North-East, they decide to kidnap him.


As Maggie breaks Hardy's nose with the butt of her pistol prior to him recording a ransom message, we flashback to the politician getting her fired for being rude after he complained about his order. We also learn she's on antidepressants and frequently needles Brian for being too nice. They have also used up the last of their money to rent their Airbnb hideaway.


Back at Tuesday breakfast time, Brian gets into a panic because the video has gone viral and the story is all over the news. Furious, Maggie calls Lyndsey Hardy (Olivia Poulet) to ask why she's not kept the kidnapping quiet and she announces that she doesn't want her husband back because he's a philandering rogue. Initially, he's stung and frets that he's going to die. But Hardy quickly realises from the TV coverage that the saga is wonderful publicity and urges his abductors to continue the charade, even if he has to pay them £200,000 in Bitcoin himself.


Brian thinks it's a terrible idea and storms out, with Maggie taunting him that he doesn't like her when she's not on her medication. As Hardy suggests she removes her mask because he now knows her name, we flashback to Monday evening, when Lyndsey had demanded a divorce in the restaurant and Hardy had gone to the nearest pub to drown his sorrows.


While Brian goes shopping in the village and remembers discussing babies with Maggie, she curses Hardy for being a poor little posh boy. However, he wins her over by claiming to have been bullied at school and shares her loathing for the culture in which success is measured by the number of social media followers. They are mutually impressed by the viewing figures for the video, however, and agree to make another one. They get so turned on by Maggie belting Hardy on camera that they have sex and only just manage to dress themselves before Brian returns with a takeaway.


He's spotted entering the house by neighbour Doris (Leila Hoffman), who comes to check on her friend. Letting herself in through the back door, she is dubious about Brian and Maggie's Airbnb claims. But she becomes more of a problem when she spots the gun and shoots herself in the head. Brian panics, Maggie tucks into her food before burying the body, and Hardy suggests that they hook up together because they've got so much in common.


While digging a hole in the garden, Brian accuses Maggie of not hurting enough after she miscarried their child and Hardy tries to get them to talk out their problems. They wind up sobbing in separate rooms, remembering how happy they'd been when Brian had picked up Hardy in his cab and excited Maggie with the idea of kidnapping him. He had even allowed her to contact her drug-dealing ex in order to obtain the gun. But everything had unravelled.


While Hardy calls his accountant and tells Maggie that the money has been transferred, Brian watches the sex tape that the pair had accidentally made while recording the second demand. She's excited about fleeing to France, but Hardy is disappointed that she doesn't want to become his new partner. What none of them sees, however, is a news report about the owner of the house recognising her décor on the hostage video.


Distraught at being cuckolded, Brian binds Maggie and Hardy together on back-to-back chairs and shoots the latter in the groin before leaving. As he suspected, Hardy has failed to transfer the money, but Maggie doesn't give him away when the police burst in. A year later, `Hardline' Hardy makes a speech outside 10 Downing Street having made it to the top of the greasy pole.


That part of the ending, frankly was never in doubt, as Patrick Baladi plays the oleaginous Tory in the grand manner of Rik Mayall's Alan B'Stard in The New Statesman (1987-94). But Clark's screenplay paints itself into a corner the moment the nosy neighbour appears, which is frustrating because it had judiciously slotted in flashbacks to chronicle the events of the previous evening and reveal the cracks in Brian and Maggie's relationship.


Jack Parry-Jones does his bit as the nice sap with some handy computer skills, but the comic frisson kicks up a notch when Baladi and Kelly Wenham trade insults en route to reaching a sordid understanding. Some of the dialogue is a tad crude, but the odd zinger keeps things sparking.


Often working in dingy half light and reliant on close-ups, Ben Saffer's camerawork is as effective as Rachel Durance's editing. As for Clark, he keeps things simply directorially, as he scores points at the expense of the Tories and the Red Wall voters who helped them get Brexit done. It's hardly cutting edge satire, but, in recalling such recent outings as Tom Edmunds's 2018 comedy, Dead In a Week (Or Your Money Back), it's slickly done and one hopes Clark will get a second crack - or even show us how Don Danbury is getting along.


PINOCCHIO: A TRUE STORY.


How many film adaptations of Carlo Collodi's The Adventures of Pinocchio, Story of a Puppet do we need? Last year brought interpretation from Oscar winner Guillermo Del Toro and Robert Zemeckis to add to Walt Disney's classic 1940 animation and variations by Giuliani Cenci (1971), Jules Bass and Arthur Rankin, Jr. (1980), Hal Sutherland (1987), Steve Barron (1996), Michael Anderson (1999), Roberto Benigni (2002), Daniel Robichaud (2003), Enzo D'Alò (2012), and Matteo Garrone (2019)?


We've even had Kevin Tenney's horror riff, Pinocchio's Revenge (1996). So, it's safe to say that Vasily Rovensky's Pinocchio: A True Story enters a market place that is even more crowded than it would have been had it not spent two years sitting on a distributor's shelf because of Covid and the Russian invasion of Ukraine.


A talking horse named Tybalt (Jon Heder) reveals that a lot of nonsense has been talked about a puppet who became a boy and whose nose grew when he told fibs. He looks in on woodcarver Geppetto (Tom Kenny) as he finishes his creation and Pinocchio (Pauly Shore) is brought to life by Lyusilda (Kate Lann) in gratitude for Geppetto repairing her wand.


With Detective Constable Brioni (David Grout) looking for suspicious personages, Pinocchio and Tybalt make themselves scarce. While in the woods, they hear shooting coming from the circus, where Mangiafuoco (Bernard Jacobsen) is discussing new talent with Fox (Stephen Ochsner) and Cat (Andrei Kurganov). The latter's gun scares the horse hitched to the wagon occupied by Mangiafuoco's demure daughter, Bella (Lisa Klimova).


She is charmed when Pinocchio rides to the rescue, but her father is more intrigued by the curiosity and commercial value of a wooden boy. The first night audience goes wild for Pinocchio's stunt riding act, while Bella's song while walking a tightrope and gyrating in a flying ring brings the house down. A tour montage follows their success across Italy. But Bella overhears Mangiafuoco scheming to keep Pinocchio with the show and tells him to leave, just as he was about to share his feelings. Convinced he's a freak, Pinocchio sets out to find Lyusilda, who supposedly has the power to transform him into a real boy.


Having avoided Cat and Fox's bid to separate him from five gold coins, Pinocchio goes to Lyusilda's mountain. Her parrot, Caro (Stephen Ochsner), tries to scare them off, as they have heard rumours of evil spirits. But they reach her enchanted gardens, only for Lyusilda to tell Pinocchio that she can't help him. What she really means is that the time is not yet right and she looks into the camera to inform younger viewers that the secret to being human is just to be human.


Meanwhile, Pinocchio and Tybalt discover that Brioni suspects them of robberies in the towns where the circus has been playing. The puppet also feels duty-bound to perform that night and warm Bella about the Cat and Fox. Giving Brioni the slip, Pinocchio heads for the city, unaware of the fact that Bella isn't Mangiafuoco's daughter after all and wants to leave now she knows about his criminal activities.


While Pinocchio is caged up with Geppetto (who had come looking for him), Tybalt makes enquiries of his own and discovers that Bella was a foundling whose real father was Brioni. So, he arranges a special musical number exposing the crooks and reunites Bella and Brioni after Pinocchio's heroics during a big top fire enable him to become a real boy.


As fireworks light the night sky, we see the new Brioni circus wowing the crowds. Fantozzi the clown and the Balognese Brothers do their unicycling and strongmen acts before Pinocchio, Tybalt, and Bella steal the show. It's a brash ending to what had largely been a sedate tinkering with the Collodi framework. Tinies should be able to follow the story easily, but older siblings will find it a smidge dull, while accompanying grown-ups will be driven spare by the woeful vocal performances of Pauly Shore and Jon Heder, who come close to ruining the whole thing.


This is frustrating, as the visuals are pretty decent. The decidedly unligneous Pinocchio and the blue-haired Bella are a bit bland, but Cat and Fox are neatly rendered. Moreover, the backdrops designed by Svetlana Tolstosheina and Artur Mirzoyan are atmospheric and often beautifully lit by cinematographer Fedor Mesentsev and lighting supervisor Olga Amol. Anton Grzlov's score is also rousingly spirited. But the songs aren't great, with Shore and Heder's contributions to the showstopping disclosure rather summing up the entire enterprise by being somewhat off key.


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