Parky At the Pictures (15/9/2023)
Updated: Sep 16
(Reviews of Love Life; Fremont; Brother; The Nettle Dress; Rally Road Racers; and KICK OUT! - The Newtown Neurotics Story)
Since debuting at the age of 22 with The Chair (2002), Japanese director Koji Fukada has produced seven further features, with only the Cannes prize winner Harmonium (2016) securing a UK release. The BFI now presents Love Life, which takes its title from a 1991 Akiko Yano song and its theme from the lyric, `Whatever the distance between us, nothing can stop me from loving you.'
Married for a year, Taeko (Fumino Kimura) and Jiro (Kento Nagayama) share a cosy flat with their six year-old son, Keita (Tetta Shimada). He has just won an Othello tournament and his parents are throwing a party, with Jiro's workmates coming together to create a congratulations display with placards and balloons. His parents, Makoto (Tomorowo Taguchi) and Akie (Misuzu Kanno), are also coming, even though his father disapproves of his son marrying a divorcée with a child.
Popping back from settling a dispute at the soup kitchen where she works, Taeko bumps into Jiro's friends and is introduced to Yamazaki (Hirona Yamazaki). As he cooks party food, Taeko asks her husband why he never mentions her and we learn from his pals that she was going to marry Jiro when he cheated on her with Taeko. Makoto considers her a cast-off and insults her during a discussion about secondhand fishing equipment. But Akie forces him to apologise in time for Jiro's friends to perform their greeting, which is actually for Makoto's 65th birthday. However, two nuns have to stand in for Yamazaki and another member of the group after she gets upset waiting in a nearby café and runs away.
The party goes well, with Keita using a new blue bi-plane as a microphone to sing karaoke with the nuns. When Makoto starts to sing an old song, the boy goes off to play in the bathroom. But he slips and knocks his head on the tub and drowns in the water that Taeko had forgotten to drain. She finds her son lifeless, but her cries can't be heard above the karaoke track.
Taeko and Jiro are questioned, but a verdict of accidental death is returned. Aike dislikes the idea of Keita's body being returned to the apartment, as it used to be her home and she gave it up to the newlyweds and took another opposite to help out with the child rather than retire to the country. But Makoto comforts her and Taeko shuffles away behind her husband in the silent daze in which she remains, as he takes down the decorations.
She wakes thinking Keita is running around the room and finds Jiro looking at photos to use at the funeral. Taeko fetches her own laptop to access older pictures and he tells her to pick her favourites from any time, as he won't be offended if she doesn't choose any recent ones. He also tells her to stop blaming herself and Aike echoes the thought when Taeko calls to have a shower because she can't bear the thought of using the bath (which has become something of a shrine).
Despite the efforts at being supportive, no one says much and there is no physical contact between husband and wife, let alone with the in-laws. Aike apologises for getting upset at the hospital and explains that she has only ever had to deal with losing people older than herself. Taeko understands, but isn't really taking anything in.
She holds up at the funeral, as mourners file past to place yellow flowers in the open casket. Among them is Yamazaki, who looks nervous as she joins the line. But all eyes are on the unkempt Korean man in the mustard shirt, who pays his respects before slapping Taeko, who crumples to the floor and starts sobbing, as he is the deaf husband who had abandoned her soon after Keita was born.
Taeko finds his passport and some letters and hands them over when she finds Park doing a nocturnal soup run. He apologises for his actions and accepts that she can never forgive him. But they run into each other again, when Taeko interprets for Park when he comes to the social security office to claim benefits. Still shaken by his parents' decision to move, Jiro is surprised to see his wife and her ex together. But he urges her to take the case and she helps Park get a job in an electrical store.
As his parents are due to move, Jiro starts using the bath again (holding his face underwater in a moment of quiet despair). But Makoto realises that Taeko needs more time and suggests that she keeps using their apartment until it is sold. She joins Aike on the balcony for a smoke and they discuss religion and whether faith might have saved Keita. Neither woman really believes, but the accident has made Aike realise how powerless humans are and how she needs the reassurance of a guiding presence.
While Jiro is away helping his parents settle into their new home, Taeko tries sitting in the bath fully clothed and throws up. When an earthquake strikes, she protects the Othello board that she has kept as Keita left it and is pleased that Jiro called to check she was okay. However, he was sitting in his car with Yamazaki, who just happened to be staying with her parents near where Aike and Makoto have relocated. She asks if she can see him again before he leaves and Jiro agrees.
When they meet up, Yamazaki admits that she felt resentful towards Taeko when they first met on the day of the party, as she thought she knew of her existence and was being smug. But Jiro hadn't mentioned her and Yamakazi is even more distraught because she had wished something bad would happen to spoil their idyll - only for Keita to die. She tries to apologise and Jiro kisses her, but she ticks him off for never being able to look people in the eye.
Meanwhile, Taeko has found Park on the park bench he shares with a brown-and-white spotted cat and installed them in the empty flat. She shows him the Othello board and asks a favour. He sits with her as she bathes and insists that she should stop blaming herself. However, Taeko signs that she was relieved he had shown anger at the funeral, as everyone else was trying to get used to a world without Keita as quickly as possible.
Returning from the country, Jiro sees Taeko and Park fooling around on the balcony, where he is pretending to be a ghost while hanging out his laundry. He storms across the car park to confront them, but Taeko has gone to buy cat food. Jiro scribbles a note about waiting for her and, knowing Park can't hear him, he accuses him of being selfish for coming back to express his own grief and deny him the chance to mourn with his wife. He loathes him for the pain he has caused Taeko by disappearing and for the rift her situation had prompted with his parents.
Unaware that Jiro is speaking, Park tidies up his bed roll, while the cat scampers around the room. Taeko is surprised to see Jiro when she gets back and pushes him away when he tries to kiss her. In the commotion, the cat gets out and they search the compound for it. Jiro finds it and Park suggests he should keep it. He's about to leave when Taeko panics that she won't see him again because she feels dutybound to protect him as he's so vulnerable. At that moment, the postman hands Park a letter and he asks Taeko for the money to sail home and see his dying father.
Jiro drops Park at the ferry terminal, where he signs to Taeko to ignore people who tell her to move on with her life. His plea never to forget Keita moves her and she tells Jiro that she had let Park down before when she had spotted him and turned away shortly before their wedding. But she can't abandon him again and joins him on the boat, much to Jiro's annoyance, as he had just suggested to his wife that they start making eye contact when they speak to each other.
Hitching a lift, Taeko discovers that Park had lied about his father, as he is really going to the wedding of his son by his first marriage. As she knew nothing about this, Taeko hits Park in the backseat of the car, as the driver jokes about a lovers' tiff. At the outdoor reception, Park gets attacked by his ex-wife (who is also deaf), as she had never wanted to see him again. The son explains to Taeko, who finds herself swaying to the song the wedding singer is performing. She keeps dancing after everyone else rushes inside from the rain and suddenly realises she's alone.
Back at the apartment, the sun glints off the CD dangling from a string to keep the birds off the balcony. As the beam bounces off the Othello board, Taeko comes through the door. She is giving the cat some milk when she hears a message ping on the PC. It's from Keita's online Othello partner, who had no idea he had died. Jiro comes back with shopping and they agree to go for a walk to work up an appetite for lunch. Taeko apologises and asks him to look at her. The camera lingers on the balcony to watch them cross the blue play area. They walk apart, but there's hope they will soon be back in step.
Immaculately made and played, this is a deceptively intricate study of how couples work and the many forms of loneliness. In addition to turning around three triangles - with Keita, Park, and Yamazaki each exposing fissures in Taeko and Jiro's relationship - the action also includes a four-person ménage, as Makato and Akie put pressure on their son and his wife through their respective overt and unspoken prejudices.
The mise-en-scène is scattered with telling details like height marks etched on walls that reinforce the intimacy of the story, while also enabling it to skirt its more contrived moments unscathed. For every overly convenient postman, however, there's an unexpected nun, as Fukada contemplates life's capricious capacity for getting caught on fate's breeze. He also explores modes of communication, with the scene in which Taeko and Keita use sign language to tease Jiro behind his back being as delightful as the dockside farewell is poignant. Equally touching is the online chat between Taeko and Sudo the Othello player, who bond without the eye contact that both Taeko and Yamazaki demand of Jiro. The irony, of course, is that Taeko and Park don't look into each other's eyes while signing, either, as they're too busy watching fingers.
Such acceptance of human foible and the measured pacing of the drama recalls the chamber dramas of Yasujiro Ozu. However, there are also echoes of Éric Rohmer, Hirokazu Kore-ada, and Hong San-soo in this discerning blend of acute sadness and quiet wit, which reminds us that everyday reality can't be neatly sorted into the happy and the unhappy. Forever finding new angles within Masaki Owa's confined interiors, cinematographer Hideo Yamamoto consistently emphasises the space between people who are supposed to be close to each other, while Fukada and co-editor Sylvie Lager stress the awkwardness that often comes with physical and emotional proximity.
Leading a small, but estimable ensemble, Fumino Kimura particularly excels as the bereaved mother exhibiting dignified restraint while being buffeted by both tragedy and whimsy, while Kento Nagayama adopts an air of polite formality in order to avoid having to deal with difficult emotions. With Olivier Goinard's poised piano score keeping sentimentality at bay, this remains throughout an insightful and provocative treatise on the peculiarities of human nature and the sometimes absurd and often cruel randomness of existence.
Born in Iran, but raised in Britain and trained at the London Film School, Babak Jalali made an instant impression when his short, Heydar, an Afghan in Berlin (2005), was nominated for a BAFTA. Having made his feature bow with Frontier Blues (2008), Jalali moved on to Radio Dreams (2016) and Land (2018), although neither secured a release in his adopted country. He returns, however, with Fremont, a monochrome comedy that stars a former television presenter who was forced to flee Kabul after the Taliban retook control of Afghanistan. Maybe someone should send Tobias Ellwood a ticket!
Donya (Anaita Wali Zada) works in a fortune cookie factory in San Francisco. She gets along fine with Joanna (Hilda Schmelling) and Fan (Avis See-tho), who discuss what they'd do if they won $1 million on a TV quiz show. Since leaving Afghanistan, where she had been an interpreter for US troops, Donya has suffered from survivor's guilt and finds it difficult to sleep. Next door friend Salim (Siddique Ahmed) gives her his appointment with therapist Dr Anthony (Gregg Turkington) and she decides to go, even though married neighbours Suleyman (Timur Nusratty) and Mina (Taban Ibraz) doubt whether it will do her any good.
Employers Ricky (Eddie Tang) and Lin (Jennifer McKay) let her leave their Chinatown premises early and Donya has to talk her way past a jobsworthy receptionist to see the doctor, who is also dubious about bending the rules of appointment booking. However, he agrees to see her on a pro-bono basis, although she's baffled by why he asks so many background questions when she just wants something to help her sleep. Joanna thinks a romance would do the trick and urges Donya to buy a double bed to give fate a nudge, although her own love life is hampered by the fact she shares a bed with her mother.
At the cheap Turkish restaurant where Donya eats, waiter Aziz (Fazil Seddiqui) breaks off from watching soap operas to advise her not to let things get on top of her, as Afghanistan has always been a battleground and things won't change because she feels guilty. At her next appointment, Dr Anthony questions her about the family she left behind and whether they are in danger because she fled. But she proves evasive and claims not to think too much about the old country because she has such a frantic social life.
Salim returns the chemical mousetrap he had borrowed from Donya because he thinks it's too cruel for such a small creature. Joanna decides to give up blind dates because she keeps meeting losers, but Donya encourages her to stick with it and even hints she might come along one time. Despite being frustrated by the new drinks machine at work, she persists with her therapy sessions, even though she's reluctant to give much away and denies suffering from PTSD after witnessing combat and having several translator friends denied seats on evacuation flights.
When Fan keels over at her desk while writing cookie messages that Joanna thinks are rubbish, Donya is offered the job. Ricky gives her a pep talk and a head massager to help her relax. He reminds her of the responsibility of keeping people sweet with her messages and informs her that the best writers love themselves. She's pleased with her first attempt - `The fortune you seek is in another cookie' - and gives one to Dr Anthony at her next appointment (although he struggles with the wrapping).
He suggests channelling her emotions into her writing as a way of coming to terms with her experiences. But she can't always come up with the necessary inspiration and Aziz tells her to find a man because it's clear she's lonely. Joanna sings Vashti Bunyan's `Diamond Day' on her home karaoke machine and Donya cries. Dr Anthony makes up his own cookie messages and reminds her that ships may be safe in port, but that's not their purpose.
Inspired, Donya puts her phone number on a message about fulfilling a dream and Lin wants her fired. But Ricky knows that China and Afghanistan share a border and that she deserves another chance because her memories will produce great messages. He brings a globe to her desk and spins it slowly, while he hints that people from all countries should get along, but that they sometimes need to use discretion,
Unable to sleep, Donya asks Salim if it's okay to think about love when people back home are suffering and he says it's fine providing she doesn't choose an asshole. Dr Anthony tells her the story of Jack London's White Fang to show how good can come from trauma. She is intrigued and explains that she works in San Francisco because she doesn't want to spend the day surrounded by Afghans in Fremont. Mina confides that she is unhappy and worries her son will grow up without learning the right values and Donya bites her tongue rather than revealing that she dislikes Suleyman because he is so dismissive of her. When he forces his wife to stop talking to her, however, Donya looks directly into the camera before yelling up to his window that she worked for the enemy to help keep him safe.
At the factory, Lin charges Donya $2.50 for a coffee because the machine has broken down. She asks if she likes her job and Donya says she does, but is nettled by her boss's attitude. When Dr Anthony gets teary reading about White Fang's reunion with his mother, Donya consoles him and reveals that she had been ostracised by the other translators for being a woman. He snuffles into a tissue and is grateful that she has opened up. Meanwhile, someone has responded to one of her cookie messages and she calls Joanna for advice on whether he's genuine. She practices the date in her room and borrows Joanna's mother's car to drive to Bakersfield to meet her respondent at a pottery.
En route, Donya stops at a small garage to check her oil and mechanic Daniel (Jeremy Allen White) helps her out. He follows her to the diner for lunch and asks about her accent. She corrects him when he calls her `Afghanistani' and he says she seems to come from a friendly people. Despite declining his offer of a cup of coffee, she goes to his office anyway to clarify that she's not really a writer. Daniel is glad she is who she is and says the coffee will always be on the house if she comes by again.
Arriving at the pottery, Donya discovers she's been sent on a wild goose chase by Lin, who wants her to pick up a deer statue. Having booked a motel room, Donya feels like a fool, but she heads home next day with the deer strapped into the front seat with the safety belt. She stops off at the garage and gives the deer to Daniel. He claims to have always wanted one and goes off to make coffee, leaving Donya standing in a pool of sunlight beneath a tree in the garden. A train passes and, as she turns, the frame freezes.
This may be a suitable ending for a film with a decided nouvelle vibe, but it's the deadpan drollery of Jim Jarmusch that trickles down through this delightful dramedy. Writing with Carolina Cavalli, Jalali not only creates a collection of memorable characters, but he also gives them all a distinctive voice, whether they are musing on the caprices of the world like Salim and Ricky, struggling to find their niche like Joanna and Mina, or trying to find the right words to get through to Donya, like Dr Anthony and Daniel.
Each role is played to perfection, but the standout is first-time actor Anaita Wali Zada, whose watchful display is enhanced by the subtlety of Caroline Sebastian's costumes and Holly Ruth's hairstyles. Protecting herself with an impassivity that occasionally permits a smile, Donya is resilient, resourceful and resolute in a confrontation. But the 22 year-old Wali Zada had to be coaxed into bellowing at Suleyman, as she had never shouted at anyone in her life. Moreover, she had to overcome limited English during the 20-day shoot. Awards don't go to this kind of performance. But they should.
Credit should also go to cinematographer Laura Valladao, whose hazily monochrome Aspect ratio images deftly capture the ambience of Donya's apartment, Dr Anthony's office, Daniel's small-town garage, and the cookie factory (which actually operates with the old-fashioned machinery shown in the film). Mahmood Schnicker's guitar music also fits the bill, as it weaves cross-cultural influences to reflect Donya's shifting moods. The odd scene meanders, but Jalali's editing of the largely fixed-camera shots is self-effacingly fluent. He will probably want to move on in his next feature, but there will be many who hope that there's a sequel out there waiting to be stumbled upon.
One suspects that Clement Virgo has watched Barry Jenkins's Moonlight (2016) more times than he has read the 2017 David Chariandy novel that he adapts in Brother. The Jamaica-born, Canada-bred director has also cited If Beale Street Could Talk (2018) as a key influence on a rite of passage that follows on from Virgo's feature debut, Rude (1995), The Planet of Junior Brown (1997), Love Come Down (2000), the notorious Lie With Me (2005), and the acclaimed Poor Boy's Game (2007).
Ten years after he (Sebastian Michael Smith) had followed older brother Francis (Aaron Pierre) to the top of an electricity pylon in the Toronto suburb of Scarborough, Michael Joseph (Lamar Johnson) receives a visit from Aisha (Kiana Madeira), whom he has idolised since she was a girl (Delia Lisette Chambers). He thinks back to how Jamaican cleaner mother Ruth (Marsha Stephanie Blake) would lock Francis (Jacob Williams) and Michael (David Odion) in the apartment when she went to work. But they would always sneak out to read magazines at the local store.
Escaping bullying at school because Francis was watching over him, Michael finally got to chat to Aisha in the library and they had discussed their parentage. Michael had admitted to not knowing his father and we flashback between scenes of the young brothers being scared after two Black men were shown robbing a store in a news report and the teenage Michael watching in dismay as Francis had beaten up a kid from school. Deep down, he knew he was heading for trouble and had been aghast when Ruth had slapped Francis's face on the day he had sworn at a teacher and walked out of class.
Walking home after Francis had told Michael that he was going to leave, they had witnessed a shooting on their estate and Michael wakes, as though from a nightmare memory, to find that Aisha isn't in the apartment. Despite knowing that she has recently lost her father, Ruth disapproves of her using his bed (even though he's sleeping on the couch) and he has to remind her that she's from the neighbourhood and needs some space to grieve.
The brothers had been detained on the night of the shooting, but Francis had bolted rather than face questioning. A little girl named Goose, whose bike he had once fixed, had been hit by a stray bullet as she slept and Aisha had been so angry that she had thrown a stone through a police car window before giving Michael a clingingly desperate hug. Now she's back, however, she seems intent on bringing Ruth out of herself and suggests a party. But Michael is dead against the idea.
Shortly after Michael recalls a happy picnic by a babbling brook with his mother and brother, Goose (Taveeta Szymanowicz) informs him that Ruth has been seen wandering down that way and he and Aisha go looking for her. They help her home and this triggers a flashback when she had played hell with Michael for putting tin foil on the windows to reflect the sun. She had apologised for smashing a glass, but he had realised the strain she was under.
Seeking out Francis at the barber shop where he was working as a DJ, Michael had told him that things weren't good. But he had bridled when Francis had suggested visiting their father, because he had tracked him down and could drive there in his flashy new car. Frustrated by his sibling's timidity, Francis had urged him to stop wearing his emotions on his face and to start holding himself better so that he couldn't be mistaken for a nobody.
The trip had been a disaster, as their father had denied knowing them over the building intercom. Michael had called on Aisha for comfort and they had wound up in bed, while Francis had been consoled by his buddy Jelly (Lovell Adams-Gray). In the present, though, he's furious with Aisha and Jelly for arranging the party behind his back and order everyone to leave before listening to Curtis Mayfield's `We the People Who Are Darker Than Blue'. He's interrupted by Aisha, who reminds him of the travails that immigrant parents had endured to give their kids a good life. She's saddened by the fact that her father (who had grown up near Ruth) had told her so little about his past and Michael says sorry for erupting.
We join another party, as Michael and Aisha arrive and greet Francis, who is DJing with Jelly. The night had been swinging until the venue was raided by two white cops who had insisted on searching everyone in connection with a nearby store robbery. Francis had been forced to bite his tongue, but the sting of humiliation had rankled.
It had dug deeper when a white promoter had paid scant attention to their audition set and hadn't even bothered to take their contact details. Tired of being disrespected, Francis (who was so fearless that he had once grabbed the blade of a man who had threatened Michael at a bus stop) had tried to go back inside. But had been savagely beaten by the Black bouncers and Michael had been held down and forced to watch.
He had brought Francis home, where he had apologised to Ruth for being a bad son. But he hadn't waited to be cleaned up and Michael had been forced to steer him into the barber shop. Again refusing help, Francis had accused everyone of being losers who had been suckered into believing in the Dream, As Francis had tried to leave, three cops had entered and informed the men that they were investigating reports of a fight. Politely asking why he was being treated like a criminal, Francis had edged towards the cops, who had promptly pulled their weapons. He had turned to his friends and lamented that everything ends today before one of the officers had panicked and fired a shot.
At the funeral, Ruth had pulled her hand away when Michael had tried to console her. He had thought he had seen his father in a pew, but he had been mistaken. CCTV footage of the shooting had made the news, but Ruth had withdrawn from Michael and had started going to her room as soon as she had got home from work. One night, she had broken down and started smashing the lounge with a hammer and she had sobbed when Michael finally managed to calm her down.
Rather clumsily inserted in the middle of these traumatic flashbacks, Aisha had rushed into the apartment to tell Michael that there had been an accident. Yet, when she had called round with groceries a fortnight after Francis had died, Michael had cold-shouldered her because he had felt compelled to care for his mother. She had tearfully hoped that this would not be the end, but Michael had closed the door on her.
Relieved by the news that Ruth had only suffered minor injuries, Michael visits her hospital room and lays his head on her lap and weeps. As he pushes her wheelchair down the corridor, a flashback to young Michael listening through headphones to Francis's records is accompanied by Nina Simone's `Ne me quitte pas'. Aisha and Jelly are waiting for them and they head home to celebrate (in slo-mo). A cutaway takes us back to the top of the pylon, as Francis reaches down a hand to pull his brother to the top so they can sit and admire the view. But the closing image is of a mother and her two boys having a picnic in their favourite spot by the stream.
While many will heap praise upon the actors and the director, the key people responsible for this time-spanning saga being so compelling are editor Kye Meechan, production designer Jason Clarke, and costumier Hanna Puley, as the décor and fashions help viewers make sense of the plotlines through the ceaseless shifts imposed by the ambitious cross-cut structure. The odd vignette is left hanging. But, otherwise, this is an assured piece of storytelling that makes precise use of Guy Godfree's widescreen imagery.
Todor Kobakov's score is also well judged, as are the song choices that extend the action beyond the three periods depicted. The need to tie up so many loose ends makes the closing passage feel slightly cluttered, while Virgo doesn't always avoid cosy nostalgia, mawkish melodrama, or socio-political cliché in examining the immigrant legacy and the extent to which exploitation and prejudice impacted upon both those willing to battle stacked odds in seeking a new life and their US-raised children who had been taught to expect more.
Nevertheless, this is often potent and poignant, with Aaron Pierre excelling as the imposing, but impotent rebel with a cause. Indeed, the picture can lack focus in his absence, although Lamar Johnson is admirable as the second son who is so intent on doing the right thing by everyone that he loses himself after fate had bobbed him along like a cork on a brook. Michael's shift in temperament after Francis is killed is understandable, yet it doesn't quite convince, as we are shown nothing of the intervening decade in which he had seemingly become entrenched in grief and despair.
Missteps like this and the haphazardly inserted pylon climb are rare, as Virgo leavens the weightier episodes with short scenes of everyday domesticity, such as Michael scavenging in an empty fridge and Francis walking in on his brother while he's masturbating. Kiana Madeira reveals more than the script as the girl-next-door, while Marsha Stephanie Blake captures the exhaustion of a mother who is so busy providing for her boys that she doesn't always notice what they are doing when she's working double shifts. Many viewers will see where the siblings are heading long before she does, but the familiarity and inevitability of the turn of events in no way diminishes their provocative power.
THE NETTLE DRESS.
Experienced documentarist Dylan Howitt is best known for Matters of Life and Death (2014) and Out of Thin Air (2017). The latter was acclaimed for its investigation into Iceland's most notorious murder case, while the former was nominated for a BAFTA in the Children's Learning - Secondary category for its exploration of complex ethical issues. He now comes to the big screen with The Nettle Dress, a study in sustainability and subsisting that took seven years to make.
Textile artist Allan Brown fell into a bed of nettles as a boy, when a tree branch snapped. The memory lingered and, in the mid-2010s, he started trawling Limekiln Wood near Brighton with his dog, Bonnie, to collect nettle stalks in order to access the fibre that he believes could be used for making clothes. Through a process of trial and error, he creates a yarn and, after two years, Brown is ready to try weaving a sample.
He describes how spinning has become part of his daily routine and helped him cope while visiting his dying father in London. Soon after, his 45 year-old wife, Alex, was diagnosed with an inoperable tumour and he kept spinning as she lived out her final days as though on a mission to show that there was nothing to fear from death.
Inspired by Hans Christian Andersen's story, `The Wild Swans', Brown determines to make a nettle dress. He mentions that nettle cloth had been used in former times, but doesn't go into any detail. Similiarly a few flicked pages on camera sum up the extensive research that leads him to a Viking design that will require about 25ft of cloth at 2ft width. A montage shows him doing various tasks including carding, but none is explained. Finally, after five years of effort, he is able to start preparing the warp thread and fitting it on to his loom. Then, he starts weaving and explains the intricacies of working with a yarn he has to keep separating with his fingers, as though running them through a lover's hair.
We see him preparing a meal of nettles in a billy can in the woods, but the image is left to suffice, as no information is imparted about why he's suddenly consuming the plant or what it tastes like. We also join his four children at the dinner table, as Brown wonders what they think about his enterprise. But no one bothers to ask them.
The camera looms up close, as Brown starts stitching his weft thread and he realises how many hours he still has to toil and how much time the entire process will eventually take. He confides thoughts with great sincerity as he concentrates, with a cat poking its head around a door to shoot a look of indifference, while the nuzzling Bonnie gazes up adoringly.
A sudden burst of Liz Pearson singing `The Birds in the Spring' accompanies Brown on a woodland walk, as he keeps spinning to maintain his supplies. Sitting at his loom, he explains that what started as a shroud to absorb his grief has become something hopeful and magical and he hopes that this tough material will be able to protect the wearer. His musings are poignant, while the meticulousness of his technique, the nimbleness of his fingers, and his devotion to the project are laudable. But why does he have to weave by candlelight in one shot, when he's only using traditional methods not reviving a bygone lifestyle?
Having wound the cloth off the loom, Brown wraps it around himself with a mix of achievement and relief. He boil washes it and hoses it down on the line, joking that its changed texture makes it feel like the Turin Shroud. It's the autumn of Year Seven and Brown is shown pressing down on the cloth with a handheld stone. Once again, no justification is given, as he ponders what has happened over the course of the task and avers that he would wear nettle into battle as arrows would bounce of it.
As he prepares to cut the pattern, Brown bases his design on daughter Oonagh's measurements. She is delighted to be part of something that has united the whole family through some tough times, as is Bonnie, who brushes against Brown as he kneels with his scissors. They go for a walk and drone shots highlight his contention that hedgerows are being lost to new farming methods and he celebrates the tenacity of nettles to keep thriving in the margins.
After making his own sewing thread from nettle and homegrown flax, Brown completes the garment and Oonagh tries it on. The cat clings to her long blonde hair when she picks it up, but Bonnie remains relaxed on the sofa. It's not the most stylish dress, but couture was never the aim and the sunlight catches the colour when they venture into the woods from whence it came for a photo shoot. Brown shows off the headdress made from dried flowers and grasses and hopes the dress has lots of adventures before being laid back in Limekiln Wood to biodegrade.
As spring comes and the family marks the fourth anniversary of Alex's passing (`Mumness Day'), Oonagh walks through the bluebells in the wood. Satisfied with his work and grateful for its therapeutic benefits over the changing seasons, Brown is awed by the transformative power of a plant whose sting wards people off, but whose fibres safeguard them.
It's a nice thought at the end of an engaging film that has been affectionately made in a manner that complements Brown's meticulous methodology. With Howitt acting as his own cinematographer and editor, this reverential and reflective study is clearly as much a labour of love as the dress itself. How else do you secure a shot of a nettle puffing seed? Yet, suffused as it is with Alex Munslow's melodic, if occasionally over-insistent score, it often feels less like a cinematic feature than one of those informationals that are shown in small screening rooms at galleries or tourist sites. Moreover, Howitt leaves so many questions unanswered at each stage of the process.
Consequently, we get no concept of who Brown is, what he does when he isn't obsessing about nettles and patiently amassing 14,400 feet of thread, and how he is able to afford what appears to be a large house in East Sussex. Funding was obviously tight, but surely the 68-minute running time could have been expanded to put the man and his mission into context. Brown is a nice man whose hippyishly homespun philosophy and quiet commitment are consolingly soothing and swathingly affecting. But, for all its careful craft and good intentions, this winds up being as frustrating as it is fascinating.
RALLY ROAD RACERS.
The world has been crying out for an animation about a slow loris. Mercifully, the wait is now over, as Ross Venokur's Road Rally Racers features several of these endearing little creatures in a nippy story that pauses periodically to explore such poignant themes as family, tradition, belonging, and being oneself.
Somewhere in China, a young slow loris named Zhi (Jimmy O. Yang) dreams of being a racing driver. Ignoring the pleadings of Granny Bai (Lisa Lu) to slow down and appreciate the benefits of tai chi and bonzai cultivation, Zhi feels the need for speed and disrupts the local festival by careering through the middle of the town on his bicycle. Not everyone disapproves of his antics, however, as a female slow loris called Shelby (Chloe Bennet) thinks his headlong dart down a steep hill was pretty cool, even though he was wearing a soup pan as a helmet.
Time passes, but Zhi doesn't see Shelby again because he's too busy racing at the local car track. The trouble is, whenever he takes the lead, his nerve and focus waver and he unerringly conspires to blow the race. Gnash (J.K. Simmons), a mono-horned old goat who runs a bumper sticker stall, offers to give him some tips. But Zhi can't believe he has anything to teach him that would put him on a par with the world's leading driver, a cane toad named Archie Vainglorious (John Cleese), who has just won the Bonzer Rally in Australia.
Much to his dismay, Zhi gets to meet Archie in person when his company announces plans to demolish the slow loris village in order to create Muddy Meadows, a leisure complex for wealth amphibians. Convinced that his hero will listen to reason because the house is also a shrine to his late mother, Zhi goes to the Vainglorious offices to plead his case. Archie and his froggy Echo minions mock his entreaties, however, although he is given time to find the money to pay for Granny Bai's house.
Discovering there's a handsome prize for winning the Silk Road Rally, Zhi decides to enter. Archie finds this hilarious and makes a wager that if Zhi wins, he will spare the entire slow loris village. In need of a car, Zhi turns to Gnash, who turns out to have once been the only racer capable of beating Archie. He puts Zhi through a rigorous training routine in a bid to sharpen his skill at coming from behind in the latter stages so that his front-running phobia has no time to hobble him. He also soups up the car he had driven as the Amazing Gnash and they arrive at the starting line of the four-day race in good spirits.
Among the other competitors are Chinese birds Bling and Bling (Rebecca Yao), a British hound and his weasel co-pilot, some bushy-haired Indian apes, a pair of pangolins, and Beppe the pregnant Italian seahorse (Kerry Shale) and his wife, Adalina (Naomi MacDonald). Commentating on the event are kangaroo Abby Jacks (Sharon Horgan) and her dim reindeer sister-in-law, Juni Hakansdotter (Catherine Tate). But all eyes are on Archie, who makes a grand entrance to a chorus of `Who Let the Frogs Out'.
The first leg gets off to a frantic start to the strains of The Sweet's `Ballroom Blitz'. But co-driver Gnash makes Zhi stop to help a slow loris whose motorbike has been in a collision with a tiger's car. Zhi is appalled by the decision until he sees how pretty the crash victim is and becomes utterly tongue-tied. What he doesn't know as he speeds off again is that Shelby is in Archie's debt over a favour he did her father and that her mission is to sabotage Zhi's chances in the race.
Ghash is unperturbed about finishing in sixth place, but Granny Bai confides to her daughter's picture that she is scared something bad will happen to Zhi. He's certainly in danger of his heart skipping a beat when he bumps into Shelby during the first-night party and he realises she had been the slow loris who had called him cool when they were small. This discovery disconcerts Shelby, too, and she asks Archie if she can pay him back in some other way, as she likes Zhi and has fond memories of his village. But Archie is in no mood to compromise, especially as he has his own grasping father on his back to ensure that Muddy Meadows becomes a money-spinning reality.
Upping the stakes so that Zhi has to become his echo if he fails to win and secure the deeds for the whole village, Archie becomes sneakier than ever. But Zhi is inspired and drives fearlessly, imagining that he and Shelby are in a rotoscoped pastiche of the video to A-ha's `Take on Me'. He is forced to return to reality, however, when he realises that the other competitors are trapped on a rapidly cracking frozen lake and hangs back to rescue them. His heroism makes him the darling of the crowd and footage reaches Granny Bai.
Feeling confident, Zhi dances with Shelby at that night's reception. However, Gnash is more interested in an offer from the other drivers to join forces in hindering Archie's progress. As he plots, he notices Shelby wandering into the toad's garage and realises they are in cahoots. Eager to protect Zhi from the truth, Gnash distracts him until the flag starts the third day.
For a thousand miles, Zhi yammers on about his future with Shelby. When Gnash tells him to concentrate on the race, he pushes a turbo button that sends the car into overdrive as they approach the finish. Once again, the crowd responds, but Gnash gives Zhi a ticking off and accidentally reveals that his mother had once been a racer and had been killed on the road. Zhi storms off and news of the falling out reaches Granny Bai, who decides to travel to the city to give her grandson a pep talk, which he needs, as Archie has told him about Shelby and he has wandered the rainy streets to the sound of Juni playing `Are You Lonesome Tonight' on her saxophone.
Buoyed by his grandmother's words about having found his dao and by the birth of Beppe's babies, Zhi makes up with Ghash and vows to save the village. Moreover, the other racers are prepared to do their bit, with the British duo pushing a dashboard button marked `Brexit' to fill the road with teapots. As Zhi seeks to make up lost time, the cars surround Archie's motor to prevent him from picking up speed and Zhi pips him to the post in Shanghai. Everyone's thrilled, except Archie, and the film ends with Shelby and Granny Bai beating Zhi and Gnash at mahjong.
Those of a certain age will not just remember the eclectic pop songs chosen for this CGI caper, but they will also recall Hanna-Barbera's splendid cartoon series, Wacky Races (1968). Before anyone cries `rip off', however, let's not forget that this 17-episode series had itself been inspired by Blake Edwards's The Great Race (1965) and that Jack Lemmon's Professor Fate had provided the model for both Dick Dastardly and Archie Vainglorious.
Given his love of lemurs, it's easy to see why John Cleese should be lured into a slow loris saga and he clearly enjoys pitching his character somewhere between Mr Toad from The Wind in the Willows and Baron Greenback from Dangermouse. His Echoes are clearly based on the Minions from the Despicable Me series, while the Taoist vibe feels imported from the Kung-Fu Panda franchise. However, Venokur's borrowings aren't all so blatant, with the commentary combo of Sharon Horgan and Catherine Tate being as amusingly original as J.K. Simmons and his unplaceably accented goat.
The animation is colourfully slick enough, although there's little genuine excitement in the racing sequences, in spite of the zip of Adam Garner's editing and Richard Lewis and Steven Parker's vrooming sound design. Moreover, the character designs are rather uninspired, with too many of the minor racers being shruggably indistinctive. Even Zhi and Shelby lack visual personality, while the friendship between Zhi and Beppe also feels somewhat forced. That said, the shot in which the big-eyed, newborn fry (why can't they be called `seafoals') huddle together to peer out of their bowl is exceedingly cute.
KICK OUT! - THE NEWTOWN NEUROTICS STORY.
Even for those who lived through it, the punk era feels like it happened aeons ago. Nationally, it was a time of mismanaged decline that saw the Labour Party run out of ideas and the Conservatives seize the opportunity to sever the links with Britain's industrial past and decimate the working-class through a process of denationalisation and deregulation.
For many, punk was a way of ensuring that howls of protest could be heard above the capitalist platitudes of a prime minister who was not above appropriating the prayer of St Francis of Assisi to make herself sound more messianic. Ultimately, even the most right on punk bands sold out or broke up. But, as Luke Baker reveals in the crowdsourced documentary, KICK OUT! - The Newtown Neurotics Story, one combo remained true to its principles and, despite personnel changes, continues to do so five decades on.
Raised in the history-free zone of Harlow in Essex, Steve Drewett was inspired to form The Newtown Neurotics by seeing The Sex Pistols on ITV and The Ramones at The Rainbow. First seen as a support at to The Sods, Drewett, bassist Colin Dredd, and drummer Tiggy Barber initially played for drunken fun, but they were soon selling cassettes of live shows and borrowed money from Barber's dad to release a single (which was delayed because the newly installed Margaret Thatcher increased VAT).
John Peel played `Hypocrite' on Radio One, but it was `When the Oil Runs Out' that suggested there was more to the band than punk aggro. They were taken up by John Baine, who performed as punk poet Attila the Stockbroker. He encouraged Drewett to express his social and political views in his songs and `Kick Out the Tories' became the Neurotic anthem.
Unable to rely on Barber (who was also in a New Romantic band), Drewett recruited schoolboy Simon Lomond to play drums just as Jon Langford signed them to CNT Records. They released `Kick Out the Tories' as a single and Phill Jupitus, John Robb, and Garry Bushell are among those to extoll its virtues on camera. This progress prompted Drewett to swap the Roger Daltrey-like locks for a crew cut to show that appearances can be deceptive. Unfortunately, it led to threats from skinheaded neo-Nazis, but the band played on, even when things turned violent during a show at the notorious Skunx venue. But DJ Steve Lamacq and musician Billy Bragg attest to the sense of solidarity and recharged activism that people derived from Neurotics gigs.
This was particularly true during the 1984-85 miners' strike, when ranting poets like Attila the Stockbroker, Porky the Poet (Jupitus) and The Big J (Janine Booth) gave verse a DIY punk edge and relevance through classics like `Andy Is a Corporatist'. Such was their socialist cachet that they were invited to accompany Bragg to East Germany, where they had to have their lyrics approved by the state censor before being allowed to play. When the attempted an impromptu student gig, translator George Wolter was punished with a stint in the army because Stasi agents had been in the audience.
When they returned in 1988, Dredd was too ill with pleurisy to tour and bassist Mac McDonald had three days to learn 30 songs. Like Lomond, he was taken aback by the star treatment they received from fans and sponsors and having wodges of cash when there was nothing in the shops to spend it on. Bragg draws a line between being a political musician and a rocker, but his apologia doesn't quite calm the qualms.
Deciding that they couldn't continue without Dredd, The Neurotics played an epic farewell gig at the Fulham Greyhound. Drewett formed The Indestructible Beat to play `Afropunk', but the strain of gigging and holding down a full-time job took its toll and they split in 1995. However, the release of a punk compilation album led to a reunion show at The Square and Drewett decided to hit the road with David Walsh on drums and Adam Smith on bass.
After five years, Lomond asked if he could come back and Dredd made the odd guest appearance before his death in May 2015. The loss hit Drewett hard, but made him determined to make new material like `Climate Emergency' reflect the modern world and play events like Rebellion Festival in Blackpool. Bragg is glad to have them back on the scene being angry and eloquent.
Baker deftly shows how the Neurotics ages are interconnected with a closing montage before a live rendition of `Living With Unemployment' plays over credits that end with the exhortation to `Keep the Faith'. It's a punchy ending to a profile that makes effective use of the access to Drewett and Lomond and the wealth of archive footage. Yet, notwithstanding the typically astute insights of Steve Lamacq, this always feels rather insulated and remote from the wider punk and pop scenes that emerged during the Thatcher years.
Obviously, Baker wants to focus on The Newtown Neurotics and he capably chronicles the various personnel changes and major events like the trip to the DDR. But there's little assessment of the music or the band's recording history. Albums like Beggars Can Be Choosers (1983), Kickstarting a Backfiring Nation (1987), and Is Your Washroom Breeding Bolsheviks (1988) are listed at the end of the crawl. But only one track is discussed in any detail, which is frustrating given the emphasis placed on the political intelligence of Drewett's lyrics.
Peers like Kevin Jones, Martin Brown, Tim Voss, Nigel Clark, Paul Howard, and Leigh Heggarty pay their respects. But there's no sense of how The Neurotics fitted into the punk scene and how they managed to survive when they enjoyed little breakout coverage outside NME and fanzines. Evidently, they had a following and they will make up the bulk of the film's audience. But the presumption of foreknowledge risks excluding those new to the band and wanting to learn more about them and songs that are as relevant today as they were four decades ago.