• David Parkinson

Parky At the Pictures (17/7/2020)

(Reviews of Good Manners; And the Birds Rained Down; White Lie; This Is Not a Movie; and Film Title Poem)


Cinemas may be closed during these dismal days. But there are still ways to connect with some of the films on general release over the next few weeks and months. In addition to Curzon Home Cinema. MUBI and the BFI Player, it should also be possible to access the titles under discussion via iTunes, Apple TV, Amazon, Sky Store, Virgin, Microsoft, Vimeo, Google Play, Rakuten, BT and Playstation.


GOOD MANNERS.


The Brazilian duo of Juliana Rojas and Marco Dutra clearly have a thing about nannies. In their debut feature, Hard Labor (2011), the arrival of Naloana Lima coincides with white collar breadwinner Marat Descartes losing his job and becoming dependent upon wife Helena Albergaria's newly opened São Paulo grocery shop. The discovery of a large dog collar hints at untold horrors, but Rojas and Dutra dispense with such ambiguity in Good Manners, an ambitiously outré allegory on the societal tensions simmering under President Jair Bolsonaro that opts to jettison the meticulously established domestic intimacy of its opening half for some markedly less sophisticated gory melodrama.


In 2010, mother-to-be Ana (Marjorie Estiano) is interviewing prospective nannies when she suffers a severe stomach cramp and decides to hire Clara (Isabél Zuaa) after she shows her a technique to ease the pain. Although she has never looked after a baby before and can only cite hymn-singing landlady, Dona Amélia (Cida Moreira), as a reference, Clara soon becomes indispensable, as she prepares the nursery, accompanies Ana to medical appointments and changes her diet after the doctor tells her to cut out meat. However, the switch has an odd effect on Ana, who bites Clara's lip during a passionate kiss after she is caught rummaging through the fridge for a midnight snack.


Ana fetched up in São Paulo after her wealthy father ordered her to have an abortion after cheating on her fiancé. However, she decided to keep the child and, as a result, she was ostracised and can barely afford her luxurious apartment, let alone a pair of designer shoes. Clara has also drifted round after failing to complete her nursing degree and Dona Amélia confides in her cat, Teobalda, that she will never redeem the microwave she left behind to cover her back rent.


The morning after the lip bite, Ana appears oblivious to the incident when she asks Clara if she had enjoyed her visit to a local bar. Saying nothing, Clara deduces that Ana sleepwalks and has nightmares around the full moon and is horrified, when following her during one episode, to see her throttle a stray cat in an underpass and gorge on its neck. Realising that Ana craves blood, Clara cuts her hand and bleeds on to her spaghetti sauce. Having watched her guzzle down the meal, Clara tells Ana about the sleepwalking and reassures her that there is nothing to worry about. But she says nothing about her bloodlust.


When Clara asks Ana why she keeps a gun in her drawer, she recalls how she met the father of her child. We cut to comic-book graphics to show how she allowed herself to be picked up in a bar for a one-night stand in the backseat of a stranger's car. On waking, however, she had been shocked to see a raveous creature prowling around the vehicle and had shot at it. The beast had glowered at her from the woods, but she had managed to get away. But no one seemed to know anything about her lover (although the fumetti interlude ends with the image of a priest with his arm in a sling) and she had left home on finding herself pregnant. Now, with her credit cards maxed out, Ana has to rely on Clara vandalising a pair of diamond-encrusted boots so that they can survive.


Following an ultrasound check with Dr Ciro Poças (Germano Melo), Ana has a craving for some pine nuts to celebrate St John's night. Clara has to go out to buy some and watches the festival fireworks erupting against the full moon. By the time she gets home, Ana has gone into labour and a baby werewolf pushes its way through her belly and it starts crawling across the floor when Clara spots it. She fetches Ana's gun, but can't bring herself to shoot after realising that the creature is choking on its umbilical cord and it looks up at her in gratitude, as it catches its breath. Unable to abandon it on the riverbank after hearing a homeless woman singing to her, Clara takes the baby home and winces when it bites her nipple when she breastfeeds it.


Seven years pass and Clara and Joel (Miguel Lobo) are doing okay for themselves. They have kept Ana's white horse musical box and her keep fit videos, while Clara has passed her nursing exams and is loved throughout the neighbourhood. Joel has also made friends with Amanda (Nina Medeiros) and Maurício (Felipe Kenji), but he isn't allowed out to play alone and has to stick to a rigid vegetarian diet. Trusting Clara implicitly, Joel allows himself to be chained to the wall of a secret bedroom behind the wardrobe and he sits placidly in the bath and listens to the story of how she found him by the river while she shaves off his body hair.


Joel is keen to go to the school's St John's dance with Amanda, but Clara explains that it coincides with the full moon, While she's out, however, Dona Amélia gives the boy a steak for lunch and he is in a foul mood when Clara gets home. He has found her box of Ana keepsakes and realises that she is his mother and that Clara has been lying to him. When she claps the manacles on him, he scratches her arm and she berates her landlady for disregarding her instructions about Joel's diet.


During the night, Joel breaks once of his wrist cuffs. But Clara lets him go to school because he is doing a sword-fighting presentation with Maurício that is enthusiastically applauded by their classmates. Rather than attend the celebratory square dance, however, Joel persuades his pal to accompany him out of the favela and into the smart part of São Paulo in order to track down his father in the Crystal Woods Mall. However, they get locked in after closing time while trying to hide from an officious female security guard on a Segue (Clara de Cápua). Clara is frantic and takes out her frustration on Ângela (Andrea Marquee), who is her assistant at the pharmacy.


Back at the mall, Maurício wants to explore and helps himself to a soda from a snack bar. But Joel can see the moon through the skylight and his friend can only stand and watch in whimpering terror as the lycanthrope transforms. Sitting at her electronic keyboard. Dona Amélia duets with Clara on a waiting mother's lament, but they are interrupted when Joel returns home. He clambers into bed in a daze and Clara tries to cajole him. But the landlady sees his hirsute torso and the blood around his mouth and rushes off to phone the priest so he can perform an exorcism.


Having given Dona Amélia a sedative, Clara hurriedly packs her case to get Joel away from prying eyes. She allows Joel to shave himself in the shower and agrees to let him take the fairy lights from the little bedroom. However, he locks her inside so he can attend the school dance with Amanda and darkness has already fallen by the time that Ângela lets her out.


Loading Ana's gun, Clara heads for the school and shoots the werewolf as it's about to leap on the petrified Amanda. Her screams send an angry mob across the favela, as Clara gets Joel home in a wheelbarrow. Chaining him to the wall, she removes the bullet from his leg and dresses the wound, as she sings the musical box lullaby. Still in his lycanthropic form, the boy recognises her kindness as she frees him. Struggling upright, he puts his paw in her hand and they turn together to face their fate as the pounding grows louder on the locked door.


With its cartoon cutaway and musical interludes, there's no denying the aesthetic ambition of the second half of this intriguing picture. The aptly named Miguel Lobo also does a fine job of showing how one steak can turn an acceptingly docile child into a rebellious monster. But, while its big eyes and strokable fur earn it plenty of pathos in the closing moments, the digitised werewolf is anything but a source of terror. Consequently, the after hours slaughter at the mall and the stalking at the square dance lack the dread factor required for the action to make the transformation from restrained social drama to arch allegorical horror.


This is a shame, as Isabél Zuaa and Marjorie Estiano had worked so hard to achieve the intimate naturalism that makes the relationship between Clara and Ana so compelling on a human, as well as on a class-race basis. No doubt Brazilian viewers will pick up on more nuances than outsiders, but Rojas and Dutra lace Clara's progress from lackey to lover with a sensual intensity that means every word and gesture seems laden with meaning. Even Clara's brief encounter with older bourgeois bar patron Gilda (Gilda Nomacce) sizzles with significance.


Estiano is touchingly vulnerable as the poor little rich girl, although the sleepwalking sequence that requires her to gorge upon a stray cat feels a little gratuitous. But Zuaa proves mesmerising, whether she is calmly alleviating pain or gently imposing discipline. It seems unlikely that a landlady as nosy as Dona Amélia would fail to notice a secret bedroom being tagged on to her property, but the duet between Zuaa and Cida Moreira is deeply affecting. Moreover, Fernando Zuccolotto's production design makes deft contrasts between Ana's cavernous apartment and the cramped lodging that Clara shares with Joel.


Equally striking is Rui Poças's photography, with the inky blackness of the nocturnal sequences highlighting the dense colours of the São Paulo streets, while the long shot contrasting the warren-like favela with the downtown skyscrapers encapsulates the film's entire socio-political thesis in a nutshell. Rojas and Dutra might not yet be Brazil's equivalent to Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani, but they're certainly heading in the right direction.


AND THE BIRDS RAINED DOWN.


Québecois director Louise Archambault has hardly been prolific since making her feature bow with Famulia (2005). Nine years passed before she completed Gabrielle (2014) and found a niche in television. But she returned to the big screen in 2019, with Thanks For Everything coming just a few months after And the Birds Rained Down, which is showing on Curzon Home as part of the Canada Now season. Adapted from a bestseller by Jocelyne Saucier, this is a thoughtful example of what has come to be known as `silver cinema' because of its focus on elderly characters.


Somewhere in the backwoods of Québec, gruff senior Charlie (Gilbert Sicotte) lives in a reclusive lakeside community with boozy singer Tom (Rémy Girard) and Ted (Kenneth Welsh), a painter whose family perished in a fire that once ravaged the forest. Keeping to themselves, the trio enjoy the tranquility of the idyllic spot and share the fruits of their marijuana crop with Steve (Eric Robidoux), the thirtysomething hotelier who brings their supplies. When Ted dies suddenly, however, Charlie and Tom find themselves hosting a couple of interlopers, as photographer Rafaëlle (Eve Landry) arrives to work on a project related to Ted's family and the fire, while Steve's aunt, Gertrude (Andrée Lachapelle), refuses to return to the psychiatric institution where she's spent much of her life following her brother's funeral.


Adopting the name `Marie-Desneige', Gertrude allows herself to be introduced to the wonders of the woods by Charlie, who lets down his defences in embarking upon a sensual relationship. The nature of Steve and Eve's liaison is less clear cut, while a third-reel subplot involving the police sits awkwardly in a scenario that skirts sentimentality in broaching such contentious issues of euthanasia. Archaumbault also dwells on a range of green themes, as well as such topics as memory, a sense of belonging, the right to withdraw and the concept of freedom. But she keeps the focus on the human dramas, which are played with delicacy and dignity by all, although Sicotte and Lachapelle stand out whether they are making love or chatting in a darkened room where age is an irrelevance.


Cinematographer Mathieu Laverdière makes a lovely job of capturing the changing moods of the water and the trees and, in the process, enables Archaumbault to darken in the tone in the later scenes. A similar contribution is made by the piano score composed by Andréa Bélanger and David Ratté from the Montréal indie folk combo, Will Driving West, which is complemented by Rémy Girard's full-length renditions of Leonard Cohen's `Bird on a Wire' and Tom Waits's `Time'. Even more evocative, however, is the sound design created by Sylvain Bellemare and his team, which makes the viewer feel contemplatively cocooned in an enchanted glade.


WHITE LIE.


With the best will in the world, it's impossible to keep up with the vast number of films being released in the digital era. The fact that streaming platforms have been able to maintain such a steady supply of titles during lockdown makes you realise just how many movies must go relatively unseen each year. In some ways, it's nice to see films that would ordinarily be excluded from schedules stuffed to the gunwales with Hollywood studio fare. But the appearance in the Canada Now slate of something like Calvin Thomas and Yonah Lewis's White Lie only serves to emphasise to UK viewers that they will almost certainly never be able to catch up with the duo's previous three outings, Amy George (2011), The Oxbow Cure (2013) and Spice It Up (2018).


Examining the psychological condition known as Munchausen by Internet, White Lie centres on Katie Arneson (Kacey Rohl), an Ontario student who has been faking a cancer diagnosis in order to make money and garner attention. For months, she has been starving herself to ensure she looks suitably gaunt and has just shaved her head to give the impression of hair loss during chemotherapy. Popping placebos to keep girlfriend Jennifer Ellis (Amber Anderson) from suspecting there's nothing actually wrong with her, Katie revels in her victimhood and being a minor campus celebrity among her supporters.


However, in order to qualify for a college bursary, Katie needs to provide her medical records and Jabari Jordan (Thomas Olajide), the crooked doctor who has agreed to falsify the paperwork, wants $2000 for his services. Unable to raise that amount without raising eyebrows, Katie concocts a story to convince Jennifer into withdrawing the money from her bank account. When she is prevented from securing the entire sum, Katie is appalled to discover that Jordan has absconded. Some quick thinking means she is able to tamper with the documents herself. But, when her estranged father, Doug (Martin Donovan), takes to social media to accuse his daughter of shamming, as she had done shortly after her mother's death, Katie is forced to resort to ever more drastic measures in order to maintain the deceit and keep Jennifer's trust.


Played with laudable conviction by Kacey Rohl, this is a tense narrative that touches upon many aspects of our celebrity-obsessed times. But, for all the thought-provoking mentions of fake news, social media outrage and crowdfunding scams, Thomas and Lewis struggle to drag Christopher Lew's camera away from their relatable, if flawed anti-heroine. The fact that the focus falls squarely on Katie gives the action a suffocatingly claustrophobic feel, but it also makes it frustratingly superficial. Moreover, it means that secondary characters like Jennifer and Doug are little more than ciphers.


Most enervatingly, the failure to delve into Katie's psyche leaves the audience wondering why she has committed so wholeheartedly to such a risky lie. Thomas and Lewis's script shows intelligence and, for the most part, they direct steadily. Just occasionally, however, they lay it on as thickly as Lev Lewis's insistently ominous score.


THIS IS NOT A MOVIE.


Canadian documentarist Yung Chang has worked steadily since winning the prestigious Golden Horse Award for his account of the building of the Three Gorges Dam, Up the Yangtze (2007). He repeated the feat with China Heavyweight (2012), which later found a companion piece in Omega Man: A Wrestling Love Story (2019). As Yung's other feature-length study, The Fruit Hunters (2012), focused on the exotic fruit trade, the decision to centre This Is Not a Movie on fabled journalist Robert Fisk represents something of a departure.


Inspired to become a newspaperman by Alfred Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent (1940), Fisk followed a degree at Lancaster University with a thesis on Eire's neutrality at Trinity College, Dublin. This made him an idea candidate to report on the Troubles in Northern Ireland. But Fisk also covered Portugal's Carnation Revolution before finding himself reporting for The Times on the Iran-Iraq War. In 1976, he was posted to Beirut and this has remained his home, as he developed a reputation as one of the most incisive and fearless commentators on the Middle East. Quitting The Thunderer when Rupert Murdoch took over in 1989, Fisk found a berth at The Independent, where he remains, in spite of his initial misgivings when the daily print edition was scrapped in 2016.


As Yung and editor Mike Munn capably show, Fisk has been an indefatigable witness to history. He was one of the first to discover the extent of the massacres at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps and he returns to the scene with a sense that few lessons have been learned across the region. While covering the Soviet-Afghan War, Fisk conducted the first of several interviews with Osama bin Laden. But his eye and expertise meant that he was forever on the frontline, as he sent dispatches from the Gulf War, the conflicts in Kosovo and Bosnia, the Algerian Civil War and the standoff between Israel and the Palestinian Territories.


Having followed the Coalition campaigns against Afghanistan and Iraq in the aftermath of 9/11, Fisk also chronicled the Arab Spring of 2011 before devoting his time to the pitiless Syrian Civil War. A deft cut takes him into the heart of the action in Abadan in 1980 and Homs in 2018 to reinforce the fact that he has always insisted on seeing things for himself. Indeed, with his trusty notebook in hand, Fisk has often spoken disparagingly of hotel journalism. More recently, he has also railed against the spread of fake news and the way in which it has been used to change perceptions of events like the Armenian Genocide, which caused the murder and displacement of 1.5 million ethnic Armenians between 1915-23.


Acclaimed for such books as Pity the Nation (1990) and The Great War For Civilisation (2005), Fisk is first and foremost a reporter and Yung capably conveys as sense of the man and his guiding principles. He allows himself to become a little awestruck in places. But, notwithstanding the odd controversy sparked by his critics, this is entirely understandable, as Fisk is a correspondent superstar, whose dedication to the truth is matched only by his affection for that old-fashioned concept of print on a page.


FILM TITLE POEM.


Cineastes have much to be grateful about where lockdown is concerned, as digital technology has made it possible to stay at home and still see a wide range of mainstream, independent, subtitled, documentary and experimental films. Originally shown in 2016, Jennifer West's Film Title Poem falls into the latter category and, such is the canniness of MUBI's policy of blurring the line between new and unseen films, it is being promoted as though it was freshly minted, as it has never been shown in its entirety before on an Internet platform.


Over a century ago, Italian Futurists Arnaldo and Bruno Ginanni-Corradini produced a series of nine (long lost) films in which the images were applied by hand to transparent celluloid. Around the same time, avant-gardists Viking Eggeling, Hans Richter and Oskar Fischinger started to explore the abstract potential of the moving image. Artists Fernand Léger and Marcel Duchamp similarly experimented with non-narrative forms in the 1920s after American photographer Man Ray had created Return to Reason (1923) using the non-camera Rayograph technique of placing objects directly on to light-sensitive materials.


This brand of Cinéma Pur prompted the likes of New Zealand animator Len Lye and Scot Norman McLaren to apply paint or etched images directly on to the frames of a celluloid strip. Labelled `direct' or `scratch' animation, this style was later taken up by such film-makers as Harry Smith, Tony Conrad, Hy Hirsch, Aldo Tambellini, Pierre Rovère, Dieter Roth, Takahiko Iimura and José Antonio Sistiaga. Stan Brakhage's Dog Star Man (1961-64) is often feted among the form's masterpieces and its influence can still be felt in the work of more recent practitioners like Steven Woloshen, Richard R. Reeves, Baerbel Neubauer, Cécile Fontaine, Vicky Smith, Ian Helliwell, Emmanuel Lefrant, Jennifer Reeves, Marcelle Thirache, Amy Granat and Jennifer West.


An artist and collagist based in Los Angeles, West has produced over 80 films since 2004 by distressing, damaging or destroying strips of celluloid and looping the digitised effects for projection in museums and galleries. A quick glimpse at her Wikipedia page proves most instructive, as the `radical materiality' method used in each case is outlined in some detail. Take A 70MM Film Wearing Thick Heavy Black Liquid Eyeliner That Gets Smeary (2008), which was achieved by having a `70mm film leader lined with liquid black eyeliner, doused with Jell-O Vodka shots and rubbed with body glitter'. Or Hollywood Sign Film - For Peg Entwistle (2009), which saw a `35mm interpositive dripped with holly berry juice, painted with pepper spray and silver dust using a great horned owl feather' before it was lit by headlamps, flashlights and police search lights after Shamim Momin, Mariah Csepanyi and Jwest illegally climbed on the Hollywood Sign.


The same year, West taped Peter West's 35mm print of clouds in the sky that had been covered with ink, Ho-Ho's and melon juice on to a ramp in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern so that a bunch of skateboarders could `ollie, kick flip, pop shove-it, acid drop, melon grab, crooked grind, bunny hop, tic tacs, sex change, disco flip' over it to create Skate the Sky Film. Her most recent effort before Film Title Poem was Terrazzo Floor Spiral Film (2014), which required 16mm negative filmstrips of West's double exposed images of mosaic floors and telecine machines to be taped to tables at Casal Solleric in Mallorca, Spain, where visitors `melted candle wax, wrote, scratched, smeared lipstick, rubbed soppressata, crumbled cookies, made marks with beer bottles and spilled wine on the filmstrips'.


Inspired by a re-viewing of Chris Marker's Sans Soleil (1983) and following on from a subsequent Instagram project, Film Title Poem has been dubbed `a psychic montage of my inner history of film'. Drawn from West's own collection of video cassettes, DVDs and Blu-rays, the 500-odd title frames were reshot in complete darkness by torchlight from screenshots on 35mm film. Taking cues from such experimentalists as Raphael Montañez Ortiz and Carolee Schneemann, these were then tinted, etched upon, punctured and scratched by West and animators Kelsey Boncato and Sadie Marchese-Moore using `food coloring, inks, dyes, sharpies and everyday items found around the house or studio, such as shards of mirror, forks, hole punchers, vegetable peelers, push pins, toothbrushes, glass scoring tools, stencils and more'.


The results were transferred to HD video with the purpose of emphasising the materiality of the celluloid, redefining the filmic space, showing how cinema leaves imprints upon our memories and exploring how the experience of watching motion pictures has changed since the digital and streaming revolutions. Edited in alphabetical order (starting with numerals before somewhat bizarrely placing films beginning with the indefinite and definite articles in the `A' and `T' lists), the combination of flashlight happenstance and serendipitous juxtaposition meant that `the strung together words offer playful, poetic, philosophical, comedic, ironic, political, and urgent moments throughout the film'. The montage is accompanied by an audio collage pieced together from snippets of soundtracks, some of which recur to offer intriguing contrasts.


In introducing this collection of `collaged words, images, patterns and glitches' on MUBI's Notebook page, West claims to have created `a film about movies, a movie about films, a list made into a poem, a poem on film, an analogital streamer, to be continued...' She also encourages viewers to make their own `cinema-lover list', while remembering when and where they first saw the chosen titles. Most tellingly, she also urges people to reflect the fact that so many classic films are `racist, misogynist, homophic, transphobic' and `use stereotypes, clichés and many other issues around systemic racism, colonialism, the destruction of the environment, consumerism and so many other crucial issues of our times'. With the cancel ethos in the West seemingly hurtling towards a head-on collision with our cultural heritage, this is an interesting point to raise. West aims to make a new version of the film in 2016. It will be fascinating to see how much the archival landscape will have changed.


Having noticed that West has done much of the heavy scene-setting in this review, readers are entitled to ask, `Well, critic, does the film work or not?' The answer is simple. `Absolutely, but watch it yourself to see why.' Be prepared to be surprised, however, by how trendily conventional West's viewing tastes are.


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