(Reviews of Strawberry Mansion; Funny Pages; Big Boys Don't Cry; and The Gold Machine)
Having debuted as a directorial duo with Sylvio (2017), a comic fantasy about a gorilla with a chat show and a penchant for puppets, Albert Birney and Kentucker Audley venture into another alternative reality in Strawberry Mansion. Set in a near future that looks an awful lot like the past, this is a delightful treatise on dreams, the need to protect their privacy and the way in which they connect us to our better selves.
It's 2035 and James Preble (Kentucker Audley) wakes from a dream in which he scarfs Cap'n Kelly's fried chicken in a pink kitchen with Buddy (Linas Phillips) to record his reverie for tax assessment. After breakfasting at a Cap'n Kelly drive-thru (during which he thinks he sees a grassy creature lurking in the parking lot), Preble drives into the country to Strawberry Mansion to perform a long-overdue dream tax audit on Arabella Isadora (Penny Fuller).
Bella is an `atmosphere creator' (although Preble lists her as `artist' in his records) and she makes him lick a strawberry ice cream cone before allowing him into the house she shares with a tiny turtle called Sugar Baby. As she has over 2000 VHS tapes to wade through, Preble accepts Bella's invitation to stay. Her first dream shows Young Bella (Grace Glowicki) reuniting with her dead father and a blurry bluish hologram of Preble takes notes of the taxable items in the rustic scene.
Removing the large viewing helmet that enables him to enter the scenarios he's viewing, Preble feels a pang of unease, as he feels attracted to the Young Bella. He's also spooked by discovering a dandelion achene in his mouth. Bella suggests the second tape, which shows her playing the violin in a churchyard and summoning her father's skeleton from his grave. She also encounters a grass figure like the one Preble had seen earlier.
He is taken aback to find Bella watching him work and he requests privacy. As he munches a roll she has prepared for him, a fly caught in a spider's web warns him that he is in danger. Returning his plate to the kitchen, Preble finds Sugar Baby wandering along the piano keys and pops her back in her tank. That night, he dreams he's in the pink room with Buddy, who urges him to use a spider spray and prevents someone at the door from making contact with Preble.
After watching Bella feed her chickens, Preble takes breakfast with her in a leaf-strewn September garden. She asks about his work and whether he is enjoying her dreams. He joins Young Bella in a restaurant, where she is served by a frog waiter (Albert Birney) who plays the saxophone. Preble sits at her table, as a bird flutters over his head. During dinner, Bella turns into Young Bella, who whispers that she needs to see him again. Shaken, Preble makes his excuses to leave, but Bella realises that he has been affected by her dreams and offers him the anti-advertising hat she has devised to prevent companies from beaming suggestive messages into her sleep.
Appalled by the notion that advertisers have access to slumbering minds, Preble takes the illuminated, multi-coloured headgear and wonders what's happening to him. In his dream, however, he discovers he is able to resist the products that Buddy brings him and allow Young Bella to enter his pink room. The moment she does, the walls collapse and Preble finds himself in a field full of wandering people bedecked with videotape. He seeks out Bella, who is surprised he didn't know about dream infiltration and suggests it's up to him what he does with the information.
Next morning, Preble finds Bella dead in her chair. He feeds the chickens and gives Sugar Baby half a strawberry before placing the light helmet on her bed and slipping a couple of VHS tapes into his suitcase. As he is preparing to leave, he recalls a conversation with Bella about her unhappy first marriage to the father of her son. Peter (Reed Birney) arrives at that moment and invites Preble to join his family for dinner.
While he waits, Preble watches another tape, in which Young Bella has a picnic with the grass man and embraces him. He is interrupted by Peter, who introduces him to wife Martha (Constance Shulman) and son, Brian (Ephraim Birney). They are dining on Cap'n Kelly and Preble is affronted when he finds them unspooling tapes because Peter wants the audit to end. Stomping back to his room, he resumes viewing the videos and he has just learned that he is the grass man Young Bella dotes upon when Peter knocks him unconscious with a 10-pin bowling skittle.
Preble has a nightmare, in which he is stalked by the Blooms. Young Bella pulls him into a wardrobe and they somehow fall from the sky into the sea surrounding a one-tree desert island. They embark upon an idyllic life together until Buddy tries to barge his way in. Young Bella urges Preble to fight the visions, which are being planted by the world's biggest advertising company, which is run by Peter, who wants to kill Preble because he knows too much.
Indeed, Peter leaves the ko'd Preble in his room and sets light to it. As the flames rise, Preble imagines himself to be the captain of a sailing ship on a seven-year voyage to find Young Bella with sailor rats Richard (Shannon Heartwood) and Marcus (Matt Heartwood). They are waylaid by a Blue Demon (Albert Birney) and Preble is taken to its lair, where Young Bella is its manacled servant. They escape while the beast sleeps and wade ashore and are blissfully happy in each other's company.
But Young Bella insists that Preble turns himself into a caterpillar and crosses oceans, deserts and snowscapes to find the isolated factory where Buddy is waiting for him in the pink room. Suddenly, gaudy consumer goods start to tumble from the ceiling and Young Bella has to bring the light helmet to prevent Preble from suffocating. Buddy fizzles out and the couple is greeted by everyone they have encountered on their eccentric odyssey. However, Peter isn't beaten yet and he tricks them into stepping into a pink soap bubble that separates and turns Preble and Young Bella into hurtling balls of fire. He is convinced they're doomed, but Young Bella tells him to dive into the ice-cream cone that Bella had given him to lick when they first met.
Preble lands with a splot, just as his tongue licks the ice. He wakes with a jolt in the fiery room and makes it downstairs. However, he rushes back inside to recover Sugar Baby and the grass man tape before sitting to watch Strawberry Mansion burn down. On getting home, he watches the tape on a giant screen and sees himself reading Young Bella a poem he has written for her. They walk in a meadow before turning to see that the house has been restored by magic. Hand in hand, they turn and walk towards it.
Ending after the credits with the sound of cassette being ejected from a VCR, this is a teasing jaunt through the minds of two lonely people. Turning a modest budget to their advantage, Kentucker Audley and Albert Birney rely on the ingenuity of their backroom crew to make 2035 and its dream realm an enchanting (un)reality. By transferring Tyler Davis's digital imagery to 16mm, the co-directors achieve a visual texture that makes both the future and the chimerical seem more mesmeric.
Production designer Rebecca Brooks Morrin, art director Lydia Milano and costume designer Mack Reyes also work wonders, as they combine props and styles from the 1940s onwards to give both the anticipated and the remembered an imaginational lustre. The contrast between the oppressive pink room and Bella's cosy home sets the tone, which is artlessly continued in Young Bella's white dress (which feels as though it could have come from either Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland or Ingmar Bergman's Wild Strawberries) and the fedora, tight suit and neat moustache that make Preble feel like a refugee from a postwar film noir.
Audley makes a genial everyman in recalling Will Ferrell's taxman auditing Maggie Gyllenhaal's bakery in Stranger Than Fiction (2006), in which his actions were dictated by Emma Thompson's novelist. Penny Fuller twinkles as Bella, while Grace Glowicki brings a winsomeness that lures Preble into sharing her dreams. The notion that they can be corrupted by big business will resonate with anyone who has ever been unnerved by online adverts reading their thoughts, but the satire relating to Peter Bloom and the nastier side of Buddy is a little heavy handed. But, with its time-travelling love story, surreal flights of fancy, retro techno, and midlife rite of passage, this charmingly ambitious picture has plenty of credits in the plus column.
You can't fault debuting director Owen Kline's credentials. He's the son of Oscar winner Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates and he has enlisted Josh and Benny Safdie and Ronald Bronstein to join the roster of producers on Funny Pages. But this tribute to the kind of comic-books produced by Robert Crumb and disciples Harvey Pekar, Daniel Clowes and Peter Bagge always feels as though it's looking in on the grungy milieu rather than reflecting it outwards.
Seventeen year-old Robert (Daniel Zolghadri) wants to draw comic-books and art teacher Mr Katano (Stephen Adly Guirgis) offers advice on the portfolio compiled for his art school application. Katano suggests drawing him naked in his office, but senses Robert is spooked and chases after him when he leaves hurriedly for his part-time job. He's killed when his car is rammed by an oncoming vehicle and Robert is caught breaking into his apartment to take some mementos.
Public defender Cheryl Quartermaine (Marcia Debonis) gets the charges dropped, but Robert infuriates parents, Lewis (Josh Pais) and Jennifer (Maria Dizzia), by agreeing to work in her office rather than finish his studies. Acne-ridden classmate Miles (Miles Emanuel) also questions the decision, but Robert is determined to go his own way.
Borrowing a car from Joe (Rob M. Anderson) at the comic-book store, Robert leaves Princeton and moves into an overheated basement apartment in Trenton, with Barry (Michael Townsend Wright) and Steven (Cleveland Thomas, Jr.). He also starts working for Cheryl as a note-taker during her client interviews. He is puzzled by Wallace (Matthew Maher), a misfit who risks jail for refusing to show up for his trial after an incident at a pharmacy. However, Robert discovers that he used to work as a colour separator at Image Comics.
While watching Robert D. Webb's Beneath the 12 Mile Reef (1953), Robert discovers that Barry and Steven are also comic fans and he shows them some of Mr Katano's Tijuana Bibles (underground books that depict famous cartoon characters in sexual situations). Miles is intrigued by these new acquaintances, but he is hurt when Robert mocks a book he's drawn in the comic store and tells him to stop copying his style (which he does because he has a crush).
Wanting evidence to use in his defence, Wallace exploits Robert's fascination with his Image work to persuade him to enter the pharmacy owned by Richard (Tony Hassini) to prove that he has a short fuse. However, an elderly customer (Louise Lasser) becomes suspicious and Wallace is furious when Robert panics and throws a toy horse at Richard and flees. Nevertheless, Wallace accepts Robert's invitation to spend Christmas Day with his parents and give him a drawing lesson.
Aghast at catching Barry and Steven masturbating to the Tijuana Bibles, Robert heads home for the holiday. Wallace gets off to a bad start with his parents (by smashing a window in the bathroom) and they both make fun of Miles for still liking books about comic animals. Stealing cash from Jennifer's purse to pay for the lesson, Robert is dismayed when Wallace criticises his style. Miles tries to defend him, but Wallace loses his temper on seeing a cartoon ridiculing him in Robert's folder.
A struggle breaks out and Miles gets stabbed in the head with an ink pen. In trying to flee, Wallace crashes Robert's car into the garage and, when Robert runs after him to apologise, Wallace kicks lumps out of him and stomps off. Bruised and limping, Robert heads to the comic store. He taps in the security code and opens for business, sitting at the till trying to rein in his emotions, make sense of the morning's events and fathom their potential consequences.
Ending as it began with an incident that feels far-fetchedly detached from real life, this is a promising first feature that never quite knows where it's going or what it wants to say. Daniel Zolghadri gives a solid performance as the aspiring artist. But, beside his comic-book fixation, Robert doesn't belong with the geeks who hang out at the store, the perverts who share his digs or the oddball he adopts because of his comic connection. Moreover, his actions are so capriciously erratic that they consistently feel cooked up by a screenwriter.
Cinematographers Sean Price Williams and Hunter Zimny give proceedings a giddy waywardness, while the supporting cast led by Matthew Maher does a fine job of making the rough sketches they've been handed seem like plausible characters. But the situations in which they find themselves too often ring hollow to give Kline (who commendably sticks to his misanthropic guns) any benefit of the doubt that this is just a couple of rewrites away from being another Welcome to the Dollhouse (Todd Solondz, 1995), Ghost World (Terry Zwigoff, 2001), American Splendor (Shari Springer Berman & Robert Pulcini, 2003) or Frownland (Ronald Bronstein, 2007).
BIG BOYS DON'T CRY.
The St Leonard's Children's Home in the Essex town of Hornchurch hit the headlines in 1995, when the police began an investigation into the sexual and physical abuse that had been suffered by up to 70 boys between 1965-84. Having frequently been beaten after being left at the home after being found in a dustbin at just two weeks old, Paul Connolly self-published a memoir of his ordeal in 2010 and Against All Odds provides the basis for Steve Crowhurst's feature, Big Boys Don't Cry, which follows on from a 2019 short of the same name.
Returning to his job as a nightclub bouncer after escaping a 10-year stretch for GBH, Paul Connolly (Michael Socha) helps a policewoman Anthea (Zoë Tapper) see off some unwanted attention. He is bruised by her reluctance to date him, but is distracted by the news that Liam, one of his friends from the St Leonard's Children's Home, has committed suicide and the police are hoping to press on with an investigation into the abuse that drove six of his other housemates to take their own lives.
Tormented by memories of house parent Bill Starling (Brett Fancy) telling his younger self (Mitchell Norman) and Liam (Joshua Coombes) that they wouldn't amount to anything, Paul (who is known to everyone as Jacko) struggles to commit to Anthea after she visits his flat and they sleep together after dancing to Etta James's `I Worship the Ground'. They patch up after a day at the seaside, but he can't bring himself to answer her questions about his past.
As he recalls watching some of the younger boys being abused by Starling and cohorts Alan Prescott (Alan Hay) and Howard Thomas (Mark Alec Rutter), Paul gets a visit from Malkie (David Spinx), who wants him and Vince (Daniel Adegboyega) to drive away the gang preying on one of his suburban brothels. When he gets blood on his shirt, however, Paul thinks back to the night he saw Liam washing his underwear after being raped. He also recalls being urinated on by one of the guardians. Anthea sees how distressed he is when he comes home and coaxes him into talking.
He remembers Liam telling Alan (Ross Harland) and Cathy (Libby Rodliffe) at the boxing gym after Starling gives Paul a beating for skiving school and how Cathy had hugged him. Driving into the country, he digs up a gun buried in woodland. Following a tip from Malkie, he enters a pub where one of his persecutors is drinking, but can't bring himself to shoot.
Unaware that Anthea has been put on the brothel reprisal case, but knowing she has stopped taking his calls, Paul gets back to his flat and sinks on to the settee. He puts the gun in his mouth. But a closing glimpse of the real Paul Connolly in a bathroom mirror affirms that he didn't pull the trigger.
With the credits bookended by footage of Connolly with his young family and a photo of lost friend Liam Carroll, this is a potent tribute to all children who have been scarred by abuse and brutality. The closing captions report on Starling (who was sentenced to 14 years in 2001) and Thomas (who was a magistrate) being jailed for preying on boys as young as five, while another man was acquitted after vital video evidence went missing. But the decision to fictionalise elements of Connolly's story means this risks slipping into BritCrime cliché. Why not stick to the facts, especially as they are so remarkable (Connolly followed a boxing career by becoming a gym instructor who worked on Elle Macpherson's exercise video, The Body)?
Despite the best efforts of Michael Socha and Zoë Tapper to invest the often prosaic dialogue with emotion, the romantic subplot similarly feels like something from EastEnders. Much more impactful are the scenes with young Mitchell Norman, although Crowhurst overuses a montage linking shots of Liam in a bathtub, the tip of a burning cigarette and Paul with his hand pressed against a glass door trying to convey his distress. Editors Tom Killick and Jon Casey also overdo the cross-cutting during Paul's climactic crisis. But, despite the overriding sense that Connolly and his companions rather deserve better, the film's sincerity cannot be questioned.
THE GOLD MACHINE.
The media has ensured that the sins of history have largely been left to lurk in the background during the period of mourning for Queen Elizabeth II. Some have felt, however, that this time of reflection is right for Britain to acknowledge, apologise and atone for the crimes that were committed in the name of the imperial cause. By one of those coincidences that always seem to occur, Grant Gee recalls one such instance of colonial cupidity in The Gold Machine, which completes a trilogy about `the places books take us' that was started with Patience (2012) and Innocence of Memories (2015).
The tome in question is The Gold Machine: Tracking the Ancestors From Highlands to Coffee Colony, which was published in 2021 by Iain Sinclair. The 79 year-old psychogeographer is no stranger to film, having teamed with Christopher Petit to direct London Orbital (2002). He has also been Andrew Kötting's companion in Swandown (2012) and London Overground (2016) and his guest in By Our Selves (2015), Edith Walks (2017) and The Whalebone Box (2019). Here, however, Sinclair has to share the limelight with an ancestor, a daughter and an alter ego.
The ancestor is Arthur Sinclair, who wrote the 1895 travelogue, In Tropical Lands Recent Travels to the Sources of the Amazon, the West Indian Islands, and Ceylon. The daughter is Farne Sinclair, who accompanied her father on the research trip he took to Peru and has shared her experience in a podcast. Completing the trio is Andrew Norton, a fictional character who had appeared in Sinclair's 2004 novel, Dining on Stones. Embodied by Michael Byrne and voiced by Stephen Dillane, this `recovering writer' doesn't stray far from his rooms in St Leonards-on-Sea in Sussex. But he ponders on his Aberdonian great-grandfather's encounter with the indigenous Asháninka people of Chanchamayo, which is appraised by both anthropologist Elena Mihas and the film's Asháninka producer, Gregorio Santos Pérez.
The scene setting makes this cine-essay sound off-puttingly convoluted and dry. But, while there are moments of archness and floridity, this is an intellectually rigorous and revealing insight into the activities of the Peruvian Corporation of London, which turned a 10 million acre swathe of the Amazon jungle into a coffee plantation.
We also learn about the dangers to health caused by the Doe Run lead smelting plant at La Oroya, whose devastating impact on the local community is compared with that of the coal mine in Caerau that was captured by photographer Robert Frank in 1953. Norton reveals that this was the place of his birth and notes how the landscape around La Oroya reminds him of his childhood.
Farnes' journey along the Rio Perené brings her to the Convent of San Luis de Shuaro, where Arthur Sinclair had met Padre Gabriel Sala, in 1891. Convinced he was doing God's work, the ruthlessly zealous Franciscan missionary did much to eradicate Asháninka language and culture and Norton laments that his great-grandfather similarly believed that he was observing the Bible's exhortation to enjoy the bounties bequeathed by Heaven in despoiling the forest and evicting its people in order to allow those in the developed world to enjoy a cup of coffee.
Farne interviews some Asháninka villagers so that their testimony can finally be heard after her forebear ignored it. She also witnesses the rise of ayahuasca tourism and how it is now changing a place that joins the rest of the nation in cheering on Peru in a Copa Libertadores clash with Brazil. She hears how hard people were made to work by the coffee companies and how outsiders like Seventh Day Adventist pastor, Ferdando Stahl, sought to wean them off traditional beliefs and practices by building churches and schools. He was rewarded with a pyramidal monument, which Norton compares sardonically to others in Limehouse and St Leonards.
As Farne reaches the coffee collective that now occupies the former corporate plantation at Pampahuali. Here, she sees the cinema where the workers used to watch Mexican movies at night and witnesses beans being blended by a woman with heightened sense, but no appetite for coffee. She is also shown a stash of documents that were left behind by the Peruvian Corporation and which verify their mistreatment of the workers. Copies are taken and are presented to the Asháninka villagers.
Closing on a shot of an audience in a bijou cinema watching the fading of the film we have just seen, this meta-documentary seeks to put right a small piece of the record relating to Britain's colonial history. Despite the references to features like Werner Herzog's Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972) and Fitzcarraldo (1982) and Ciro Guerra's Embrace of the Serpent (2015), however, its strength lies less in its visuals than in the spoken commentary and the first-hand testimony.
The contrasts between the Art Deco Marine Court (where Andrew Norton is incarcerated) and the Asháninka shacks are strikingly captured by Gee's camera. But they occasionally acquire an overemphasis that can also sometimes be heard in Stephen Dillane's narration, as he intones Iain Sinclair's poetic, but fitfully aureate prose. Nevertheless, the points are worth making in alerting us to both the grim realities of our ancestral legacy and the ways in which the Asháninka have forged themselves a niche in the modern world that gives them a platform from which to raise a voice that history has largely ignored.