Parky At the Pictures (19/2/2021)
(Reviews of Dear Comrades!; Uppercase Print; To Olivia; I Care a Lot; Music; and Pelé)
So, we remain in the depths of Lockdown 3. This means that cinemas across the UK are still closed and all releases will be online until further notice. In addition to the offerings on Curzon Home Cinema. MUBI, Netflix and the BFI Player, it should also be possible to access the titles under discussion below via iTunes, Apple TV, Amazon, Sky Store, Virgin, Microsoft, Vimeo, Google Play, Rakuten, BT and Playstation. Good luck, and stay safe!
Almost 60 years have passed since Andrei Konchalovsky made his initial impact on Russian cinema by co-scripting Andrei Tarkovsky's debut feature, Ivan's Childhood (1962), Having spanned six decades of national history in Siberiade (1979), he enjoyed an extended spell in Hollywood, during which time he speculated on the relationship between Joseph Stalin and his personal projectionist in The Inner Circle (1991). Since his return home following the end of Communist rule, Konchalovsky has largely steered clear of discussing the Soviet era on screen. But he does so with a vengeance in Dear Comrades!, an unflinchingly accusatory monochrome reconstruction of the 1962 Novocherkassk massacre that features an outstanding performance by his wife and frequent collaborator, Yuliya Vysotskaya.
On 1 June 1962, Ludmilla Syomina (Yuliya Vysotskaya) leaves the bed of her married lover, Loginov (Vladislav Komarov), to shop for food. Both work for the Communist Party and First Secretary Loginov cautions Lyuda about complaining about price rises under Nikita Khrushchev when she gets delegate rations when everyone else has to queue. While filling Lyuda's basket in the back room, shopkeeper Valya (Olga Vasilyeva) asks whether there will be shortages, but she gives the Party line and hurries home to change for work, give her father (Sergei Erlish) his cigarettes and make sure that 18 year-old daughter Svetlana (Yuliya Burova) leaves for the NEBF Electric Locomotive Plant on time.
A meeting of Loginov's committee is interrupted with news that a strike has broken out at the factory and incoming phone calls reveal the speed with which the authorities in Moscow learn about the situation. Regional secretary Basov arrives to take charge and has stones thrown during a balcony appeal to the workforce gathered in the courtyard. With the Novocherkassk apparatchiks trapped inside the premises, a senior officer arrives to look through surveillance photographs and tear a strip off the local military for having no idea what was brewing on their watch. Despite the fact that the workers have no weapons, the officer calls for armed back-up because he has learned that Khrushchev has heard about the crisis and expects it to be dealt with forthwith.
As civilian and uniformed bigwigs alike start to fear for their futures, Basov and his acolytes are led to safety through a supply tunnel by reinforcements. However, no one has a clue how to seize back the initiative and Moscow luminaries Frol Kozlov and Anastas Mikoyan are dispatched to take control. However, Lyuda informs them that around a third of the workforce are criminal malcontents who haven't forgiven the 20th Party Congress for posthumously denouncing Stalin just three years after his death. Kozlov is impressed by her reading of the situation and orders a reluctant Colonel Pliyev to arm the troops and be prepared for all eventualities.
Back home, Lyuda argues with Svetka, who sympathises with the strikers and disregards her mother's insistence that things would never have been allowed to get out of hand in Stalin's day. Her father changes into his old Tsarist uniform and props up an icon of Our Lady of Kazan on the table, as he wishes President John F. Kennedy would nuke the USSR and put everyone out of their misery.
The next morning, a 5000-strong demonstration leaves the factory for the city centre and they barge past the token resistance of the military to demand action outside the Party headquarters. Led by Viktor (Andrei Gusev), KGB officers don civvies to mingle with the mob and take covert photos, while Loginov dashes to the phones for orders so that he cannot be blamed directly for anything that occurs. Four protesters get into the committee room and announce from the balcony that the bigwigs are gorging themselves while the workers suffer. They are removed and an officer with a loud-hailer orders the crowd to disperse.
Having been evacuated to a park, Loginov and his cohorts sit and wait. Lyuda watches a dog suckle her puppies in the long grass and rushes towards the square when she hears gunfire. Desperate to find Svetka, she picks her way through the panic and finds herself tending to a wounded woman in the hairdressing salon she had visited the previous day. The owner lies dead on the floor and the casualty is killed by a stray bullet through the window, as Lyuda takes cover behind a chair. When she finally emerges, corpses are being loaded unceremoniously on to trucks and hoses are being used to wash the blood off the asphalt.
Meanwhile, a top-ranking officer has stormed into the Party offices demanding to know who gave the order to fire. He is informed that the troops had been told to shoot into the air and he despairs at the incompetence of his underlings. While Lyuda looks for Svetka at the morgue, hospital staff are forced to take oaths of silence and anyone who expresses any sympathy for the factory workers is led away for interrogation. One of the female orderlies, Faina, ushers Lyuda away and warns her to be more discreet, as the powers that be are locking down the situation without prejudice.
As the square is re-tarmacked to hide the bloodstains and a curfew is enforced, Captain Viktor calls on Lyuda to ask about Svetka's whereabouts and potential connections with the ringleaders. She puts on a show of defiance, as the agent tries to reassure her that her daughter will be fine if she has nothing to hide. But the sound of someone being arrested upstairs brings Lyuda out to see a man being gunned down in the street while making a dash for cover. Her father reads her a letter he received from his niece when the Red Army had cracked down on the Don Cossacks in 1922 and she gulps wine to hide the fear that Svetka is in trouble or worse. Across the city, as a stage is being set up for a diversionary dance the following night, the general in charge of the operation tells Viktor that he can understand why the workers snapped, as the socialism they had been promised is not working.
The next morning, as Lyuda signs her confidentiality documents, the KGB captain informs her that bodies were removed from Novocherkassk during the night and burned. Loginov urges her to make a speech at the public hearing in front of Kozlov and Mikoyan, as the former had been impressed by the way she had been so forthright in castigating the strikers. When the time comes, however, Lyuda loses her nerve and locks herself in a toilet cubicle to pray for Svetka's safety.
Accepting Viktor's offer to drive to the next village to see if they have any corpses, Lyuda finds herself in a cell after being stopped at a checkpoint. He pulls rank to get them released, however, and forces the local officer to show them the plot where the bodies were interred. Lyuda is crushed when he remembers a girl with blue ribbons and holes in her socks and Viktor has to stop her from scrabbling at the soil. As they drive back to Novocherkassk singing patriotic songs, she slugs back some vodka and accuses the KGB and the local cadets of having opened fire and then blamed the atrocity on the troops. Gripping the wheel, Viktor warns her to watch her mouth. But she is distraught at the prospect of never being allowed to visit her child's grave again.
Lyuda cheers up when they stop beside a lake and she reveals that Svetka was the result of a wartime fling with a married man, who has died a hero. Struck by some children playing in the water, she wades in to wash her hands and face. As he drops her off, Viktor gives Lyuda her daughter's passport and reminds her to be careful. She finds her father counting money over a packed suitcase and is overjoyed to be reunited with Svetka on the house roof. They embrace and Svetka tells her mother that she had been hiding at a friend's house. For all their joy, however, they are both acutely aware that Svetka will have to leave if she's to be safe.
According to the official investigation, 26 were killed at Novocherkassk on 2 June 1962, with a further 87 being wounded. Dissident sources, however, claim the fatality figure is probably closer to 75, while seven more were sentenced to death among the 116 who were arrested and subjected to show trials. Chillingly, the incident remained a secret until after the fall of the Soviet Union, although Konchalovsky isn't the first to recreate it, as it also featured in Konstantin Khudyakov's 24-part series, Once Upon a Time in Rostov (2012).
He does make a magnificent job of evoking a bygone age, however, with Irina Ochina's production design and Dmitri Andreev and Konstantin Mazur's costumes being particularly impressive. Andreii Naydenov's monochrome, Academy Ratio camerawork and Karolina Maciejewska and Sergei Taraskin's are also accomplished, as is Polina Volynkina's sound mix, which does much to capture the suppressed sense of silent dread that pervades almost every scene. But this is much more than a craft achievement, as Konchalovsky harks back to the era when he made The First Teacher (1965) and Asya's Happiness (1967), which was banned by the Soviet censors and only re-emerged during perestroika.
Moreover, he and co-writer Elena Kiseleva marble the action with bleak humour, as apparatchiks shuffle along hidden corridors like headless chickens, gossips seek to gain information while lauding a system they despise, and Tsarist veterans parade before KGB agents in their forbidden uniforms. There's also a hint of Socialist Realist parody in the cornily happy ending, while the decision to give the Party hard-liner and the KGB captain soft centres also rings amusingly hollow. But both Yuliya Vysotskaya (who hails from Novocherkassk) and Andrei Gusev give fine performances, as does Sergei Erlish as the grizzled father whose nostalgia for Orthodox iconography and Tsarist pomp contrasts with his daughter's pining for Stalinism and his granddaughter's hope for a better tomorrow.
It sometimes feels as though UK film critics have to operate with one hand tied behind their backs. Don't misunderstand, we're a privileged bunch and are extremely fortunate in having a large PR machine pandering to nigh on every need. Unless they have the wherewithal to gad about the international or domestic festival circuits, however, reviewers will often have to critique titles in isolation. This isn't always a drawback, as most mainstream movies stand on their own. When it comes to items like Rade Jude's Uppercase Print (2019), however, the fact that only The Happiest Girl in the World (2009) and Everybody in Our Family (2012) from the director's back catalogue have been widely shown in this country makes it next to impossible to contextualise the work, particularly when it so clearly chimes in with Jude's recent reflections on Romanian history in Aferim! (2015), Scarred Hearts (2016) and I Do Not Care If We Go Down In History As Barbarians (2018).
It's slightly frustrating that MUBI is unable to show either of these films to support its new release. But rights cost money and there's no guarantee that a large enough audience exists among subscribers to justify the outlay. Expense also puts the films out of reach on Amazon, although Prime has opted not stream the latter in the UK, even though Aferim! is available on disc and download. Film-makers could always help critics, buffs and themselves, of course, by showing more of their titles at reasonable prices on outlets like YouTube and Vimeo. When all's said and done, however, the majority of critics probably won't care that they haven't seen these earlier works and will cast their verdict regardless. Yet with so many digital platforms competing for custom, it does seem a shame that there isn't a more joined-up approach to programming.
In the autumn of 1981, slogans in uppercase chalk lettering appeared on the fence panels outside the Cultural Centre in the city of Botosani. Naturally, attempts were made to remove the inscription, which proclaimed support for the Solidarity trade union and made demands for freedom and an end to the food queues that shamed the whole of Romania. In between reports submitted to the Securitate (and delivered in deadpan directly to the camera by static actors), we see clips from the news, magazine, light entertainment and propaganda programmes that were showing on television at the time. Many feature President Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife, Elena, who are shown being warmly welcomed wherever they go by citizens delighted to see their leader among them.
As the investigation into `The Pupil' continues with the examination of 30,000 handwriting samples, dozens of police officers and Securitate agents arrive in the district. But the perpetrator evades their surveillance and continues to express his frustration at the lack of justice and freedom in a dirty, corrupt and inefficient country. Eventually, 17 year-old Mugur Calinescu (Serban Lazarovici) is caught in the act by two cops and apprehended. While his bedroom is being searched, agents bug the phone and front room to that every conversation Mugur has with his mother, Rodica (Ioana Iacob), can be eavesdropped. She works in the dress department of the local department store and is divorced from Mugur's father, Mihai (Serban Pavlu), who works as a tailor at a nearby factory.
In testimony, she reveals that her son went out each evening for a brisk walk, as had been recommended by the doctor to help with his bronchial asthma. He credits her with being a wonderful mother since his drunken father left home and namechecks classmates Cornel Grigorciuc, Dan Andriescu and Emanuel Vaisser, who are also required to make statements about their friendship with the accused and his dissemination of ideas gleaned from covertly tuning into Radio Free Europe. In trying to protect themselves, each witness lets slip details that incriminates someone else, although Mugur sticks to his story that he had been angered by an accusation made against his mother at work and he had decided tell people that the state was lying to them in the hope they would face reality and act upon it so that decent people were not victimised.
Eager to distance himself from the scandal and prove his loyalty to the state, Mihai calls on Mugur for a cosy chat and is offended when his son accuses him of behaving like the Securitate. Aware they are being overheard, Mihai tries to coax Mugur into revealing the names of any confederates and ridiculously suggests that he was in cahoots with Radio Free Europe and its spies in the hope of becoming a manager. He also keeps inferring that Mugur was asking for outside help, when he was clearly calling for internal reform. The boy mocks him when Mihai asks if he was trying to topple the government, but he falls silent when his father reminds him that he will be scrutinised for the rest of his life.
Following a cheesy pop song about childhood being the best time of life and a sit-down interview with a man who had returned to Romania after finding the transit camps of Austria and West Germany to be unbearable hellholes (and the wider countries full of anti-migrant bigotry), we see Mugur appearing before an educational board, where teachers and administrators fall over themselves to denounce him as a mediocre student who refused to heed his civic duties. A clip from a report on a rundown circus follows, with the voiceover lamenting that licences fall into the hands of the wrong people. Another clip compares Father Frost to Ceausescu and reinforces the notion that Romanians are lucky to live under such a benevolent leader who dedicates his life to their happiness and security.
As 1982 dawns, Mugur declares himself a model pupil, who is committed to his studies and his membership of various Communist youth organisations. Things seem pretty much the same in 1985, with ballads proclaiming Ceausescu's virtues and every aspect of life being improved by his ceaseless toil. Even ethnic Hungarians have cause to be grateful. But this was the year that Mugur died of leukaemia brought on by radiation poisoning and his parents are convinced that he was contaminated by the coffee he was forced to drink while reporting to the Securitate.
In a present day coda, the chief investigator (Bogdan Zamfir) sits at a craft services table with his comrades in a pastiche of Leonardo Da Vinci's `The Last Supper'. He insists that he liked Mugur and would never knowingly have done anything to harm him, despite recruiting his pals to snoop and snitch on him. Moreover, he protests that the Securitate was misunderstood, as it spent more time steering people away from error than punishing them for it. A colleague compares the feared secret police to Cambridge Analytica. As we cut to a portrait of Mugur Calinescu and file photos of his handiwork, however, a contemporary avers that he never forgave the classmates who had betrayed him and had lacked the courage to follow his lead.
Boldly interspersing scenes from the stage play that Gianina Carbunariu had based on actual Securitate transcripts with clips from the TV shows that would have been familiar to Romanians in 1981, Radu Jude has not only succeeded in exposing the despicable nature of the Ceausescu regime, but he has also highlighted how easily people can be manipulated into doing their bidding by today's paranoid regimes and conglomerates, who also use insinuation, threat, falsehood and scapegoating to sever communal ties and bind the willing into populist coalitions of bigoted self-interest. Furthermore, by contrasting historical footage with stylised reconstruction, Jude also shows how citizens can be coerced into playing proscribed roles in scenarios choreographed by all-seeing governments and social media platforms.
Declaiming lines without inflection, Serban Lazarovici makes an engaging anti-hero, while Serban Pavlu emerges as a hissable villain during Mihai's cynical bid to sacrifice his son on the altar of his own welfare. Meanwhile, Ioana Iacob blames herself because she doesn't understand why else her mild-mannered boy would do something so reckless. Giving his Kafkaesque tale a Brechtian feel, Jude makes canny use of Irina Moscu's minimalist sets, so that Mugur's confrontations with his parents take place in front of a giant television set, while the Securitate agents are forever hooked up to a tape recorder. Most imposing of all, however, is the school set, in which the teachers turn to face the camera from red desks in order to condemn the student who is made to seem tiny while standing before the blackboard at the far end of the room.
The archive material is also aptly chosen, with Jude and editor Catalin Cristutiu allowing some extracts to linger while others are abruptly clipped. In addition to the more pernicious snippets of fawning propaganda, there are also some amusing musical interludes, with the pick featuring a cornball double act kidding around as Hercules and Atlas passing over a large globe because humanity's follies have made it too heavy to bear. Equally striking, however, are the sugary paean to Romanian womanhood and the consumer show in which motorists are stopped and questioned about why they have contravened new legislation outlawing the anti-social use of car horns. Indeed, Jude's mastery of his material makes one wish MUBI had also invested in his recent archival documentaries, The Dead Nation (2017) and The Exit of the Trains (2019), which he made in conjunction with Adrian Cioflâncâ.
Director Richard Attenborough and screenwriter William Nicholson probably had no idea what they were about to unleash when they chronicled the relationship between C.S. Lewis and Joy Davidman in Shadowlands (1993). It took a while for sentimental biopics of beloved children's authors to catch on as a sub-genre. Such is their current marketability, however, that even now one can imagine an itchy-fingered scribe hunching over a keyboard to reveal how the Reverend Wilbert Awdry, Anthony Buckeridge, Frank Richards and Richmal Crompton came together to form a secret crime-fighting cabal.
Since the turn of the century, we have been treated to Marc Forster's Finding Neverland (2004), Chris Noonan's Miss Potter (2006), James Hawes's Enid (2009), John Lee Hancock's Saving Mr Banks (2013), Danny Strong's Rebel in the Rye, Simon Curtis's Goodbye Christopher Robin (both 2017), Marc Forster's Christopher Robin (2018), Dome Karukoski's Tolkien (2019) and David Kerr's Roald & Beatrix: The Tail of the Curious Mouse (2020). Released through Sky Cinema, the latter is of particular interest, as it links in with John Hay's To Olivia, a cynical exercise in buffing a scuffed escutcheon that centres on Roald Dahl's marriage to American actress Patricia Neal that is now showing on the same platform.
Following a reading from his new book, James and the Giant Peach, children's author Roald Dahl (Hugh Bonneville) bets Pete Perkins (Michael Jibson), the know-all father of avid fan Gus (Bobby O'Neill), that he can go home with Hollywood star, Patricia Neal (Keeley Hawes), who has seemingly wandered into the parish hall. Of course, Dahl and Neal are married and return in high spirits to Gypsy House, the cottage near Great Missenden that they share with their three children, Olivia (Darcey Ewart), Tessa (Isabella Jonsson) and Theo. But, despite the cosy setting, all is not well. Dahl's books are not selling in great numbers and money is getting tight in paradise.
Indeed, Neal is beginning to tire of domestic bliss in the Buckinghamshire countryside and hankers after a return to Hollywood. Moreover, Tessa feels alienated because her father is so wrapped up in Olivia that he has no time to spare for her. When she complains, Dahl snaps at her and takes Olivia to the village shop for sweets. He talks to her like a grown-up about his work and delights in the interest she takes in the aviary they have set up in the garden. Dahl is also charmed when Olivia takes his tall story about fairies in the garden seriously and Neal scolds him for using chemicals to scorch a message from the little people into the lawn.
Shortly afterwards, however, Olivia dies of measles-induced encephalitis on 17 November 1962 and Dahl is plunged into depression. He abandons Tessa by the graveside and, while Neal tends to the funeral guests alone, he packs her favourite doll into a trunk containing Olivia's possessions. All mention of his favourite child is forbidden and the tyrannical Dahl fumes at Tessa when she releases the Olivia's birds in a bid to remind her father that she and Theo are still around and desirous of his attention.
Feeling in need of guidance, Dahl pays a visit to Geoffrey Fisher (Geoffrey Palmer), his headmaster at Repton School, who has recently retired from his post as Archbishop of Canterbury. They discuss his role in the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II but Neal senses the mood change when Dahl despairs of the cleric's assertion that Olivia would not be comforted by her adored dog Rowley because animals are not allowed into Heaven.
While Dahl and a vision of his school-uniformed self lock themselves into the writing shed at the bottom of the garden, Neal considers screenplays with a view to making a big-screen comeback. She also gets to read her husband's latest opus about a small boy and a chocolate factory and has to put up with his out-of-nowhere tantrum when she enthuses about it. No wonder, therefore, she agrees to play the brief, but telling role of housekeeper Alma Brown in Hud when director Martin Ritt (Conleth Hill) seeks her out to make a personal appeal. Dahl is sneeringly polite and leaves neither in any doubt that he regards the material as trash and that Neal's duty as a mother should come above her ambition as an artist.
She accepts the part, however, and Dahl has to relocate to California to look after the children. He also resumes work on his book, while Neal struggles to get into character opposite her demanding, Method-acting co-star, Paul Newman (Sam Heughan). Having endured a couple of uncomfortable encounters, Neal finds her way into a crucial scene and Newman and Ritt are relieved that they have made the right choice. Dahl offers lukewarm congratulations, but he is more concerned with Neal recognising the genius of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Tessa proves harder to impress, but he is touched by her readiness to speak her mind and she is rewarded with a stroll to the sweet shop.
Neal would win the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her flinty performance, while the acclaim for Dahl's bestseller would confirm his status as one of Britain's most influential children's authors. The next phase of their often turbulent marriage was filmed by Anthony Page and Anthony Harvey as The Patricia Neal Story (1981), with Dirk Bogarde and Glenda Jackson struggling to cope with the aftermath of Neal's 1965 brain haemorrhage. Ironically, the couple would divorce two years after the airing of a teleplay that similarly sought to idealise their relationship. But it's a good deal more credible than this mawkish and downright dishonest dramatisation of Stephen Michael Shearer's 2006 biography, Patricia Neal: An Unquiet Life, which actively departs from the truth in order to celebrate the healing power of creativity. In fact, Neal had finished shooting Hud several months before Olivia fell ill, so any tensions that her accepting the assignment might have exacerbated had absolutely nothing to do with bereavement.
There's nothing essentially wrong with Hugh Bonneville or Keeley Hawes's acting. It's just that they are no more playing Roald Dahl and Patricia Neal than Sam Heughan is Paul Newman or Geoffrey Palmer (in his last role) is Geoffrey Fisher. The portrayal of Newman as a diffidently cool taskmaster flies in the face of his popular image, but it's probably closer to the mark than Bonneville's Dahl. There are flashes of the misogyny that has blighted his reputation as much as the anti-Semitism that prompted the family to issue an online apology in December 2020. But this is an airbrushed depiction that explores in only the most superficial manner the shattering sense of grief that Dahl must have experienced on losing Olivia.
We get a glimpse of his schoolboy self to suggest that Dahl continued to view the world with a childlike innocence. Yet no mention is made of the fact that Olivia was the same age as Dahl's sister, Astri, when she died of appendicitis just a few weeks before the three year-old also lost his father to pneumonia. Little is also made of the fact that Theo had developed hydrocephalus after bring hit by a taxi at three months while his nanny was wheeling his pram in New York.
Cruelty has a crucial part to play in Dahl's stories and Hay and co-scenarist David Logan pitch him as a Trunchbull to Tessa's Matilda. But the situations reek of symbolic contrivance, with Bonneville never coming to terms with the darker complexities of Dahl's personality. Hawes is more typically engaging, although she misses the husky waspishness that Glenda Jackson captured and which is so readily evident in Neal's screen work. The film's recreation of early 60s Hollywood is also way wide of the mark, although one suspects this has more to do with budgetary constraint than any failings on the part of production designer Richard Bullock. Cinematographer Graham Frake has less excuse for shrouding the Bucks countryside with myth-making mists that are the visual equivalent to the swooning strings in Debbie Wiseman's dewy-eyed score. But Hay has nowhere to hide for manipulating and misleading his audience by peddling shoddy melodramatics as historical facts.
I CARE A LOT.
Sometimes a film comes out of nowhere that forces you to look at its maker in a new light. There was nothing in The Disappearance of Alice Creed (2009) and The 5th Wave (2016) to suggest that J Blakeson had a quirky classic in his locker. Were it not for the creeping preachiness in the final stages, he would have come darn close with I Care a Lot, a viciously audacious thriller that is stylised to within an inch of its life and played to the hilt by leads who are clearly revelling in the opportunity to be deadpan dastards.
In her time, Marla Grayson (Rosamund Pike) has known poverty and prejudice. Now, with her sleek blonde bob, high heels and designer suits and shades, she cuts a figure to be reckoned with. Rather than being a high-flier in the ruthless world of business, however, she runs a legal guardianship enterprise with her partner/lover, Fran (Eiza González). But there's nothing cosy about Marla's operation. Working in conjunction with corrupt medics like Karen Amos (Alicia Witt), Marla uses court orders to have wealthy seniors with no dependents entrusted to her for the rest of their natural lives. She then sets about stripping assets while hoping that none of her sedated charges gives her a hard time.
Having received another favourable ruling from Judge Lomax (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.), Marla ignores the abuse being hurled by the furious Feldstrom (Macon Blair) after he fails to overturn a non-visitation order to see his own mother and sets her sights on her next target. She pays Jennifer Peterson (Dianne Wiest) a visit at her comfortable home after getting a tip off about signs of mental slippage from Dr Amos. No sooner has she gained entrance, however, than Marla makes it clear that Jennifer is now powerless to escape her clutches because she has the documentation to keep her locked away at the Berkshire Oaks Senior Living facility that is managed for her by the compliant Sam Rice (Damian Young).
What Marla doesn't know, however, is that Jennifer isn't the lonely old soul she appears. She is actually the mother of mobster Roman Lunyov (Peter Dinklage), who is furious when he learns from sidekick Alexi Ignatyev (Nicholas Logan) that Jennifer is missing and that a crucial key is missing from the house that is being given a makeover prior to sale. Initially, he tries appealing to Marla's greed by sending cocksure lawyer Dean Ericson (Chris Messina) to offer her a bribe of $150,000 to release Jennifer forthwith. However, she realises that her seething client is worth a good deal more than that and, having found a pouch of diamonds in her safety deposit box, proceeds to make mincemeat of Ericson in Lomax's courtroom.
Being used to getting his own way, Lunyov sends Ignatyev to spring his mother from Berkshire Oaks. But, while they burst into the building and get Jennifer close to her son's waiting car, they fail to do so before back-up arrives and Lunyov is forced to rethink his tactics. He has Fran abducted and then captures Marla, who impresses him with her refusal to be intimidated while bound and gagged in his lair. However, she proves an even doughtier adversary than he had expected when she survives being drugged and dumped into a river in a locked car. Indeed, she even managed to circumvent his security cordon to complete a revenge kidnapping that results in the pair recognising a kindred spirit and not only agreeing to a cessation of hostilities, but also the forging of a new partnership.
Bankrolled by Lunyov, Marla becomes a media superstar, as her care homes become the talk of America. Jennifer still loathes her, but Lunyov rather enjoys having an accomplice. He also delights in the small fortune that she quickly accrues. In living the high life, however, Marla takes her eye off little people like Feldstrom, who are unable to forgive and forget.
Such a bare outline does scant justice to the pace and panache of Blakeson's super-slick, if occasionally self-congratulatory writing and direction. In exposing the iniquities of the American care system, he sweeps the audience along by finding new and more outrageous ways for Marla to be dispassionately avaricious. At times, the plotting comes close to being ridiculous, particularly when Marla and Lunyov start trading reprisals that are more knockabout than brutal. But the twist that sees them enter into an alliance has a delicious screwball logic that is all the more winning because there isn't a hint of romantic attraction between them.
Peter Dinklage plays the crime lord with a bolted down restraint that makes it impossible to gauge his emotions, while Dianne Wiest relishes the opportunity to play a harmless old dear with a heart that fizzes like sodium n a bucket of water. It's a pity she gets pushed into the margins once the corporate shenanigans start, as she doesn't seem the kind to go quietly. But Rosamund Pike needs space to steal the show and she'll be frustrated that the strength of the Best Actress field means she will probably not be able to match the Oscar nomination she received for David Fincher's Gone Girl (2014) by adding to the Golden Globe nod she has already landed in the Comedy or Musical category. Savouring each pitiless deed and killer line, Pike manages to coax the audience into rooting for a predatorially compassionate sociopath and it's a shame that Blakeson cops out in the last reel by having a fit of the DeMilles and ensuring that crime doesn't pay.
It's not often that a hair stylist merits mention on these pages, but Lori Guidroz enables Pike to nail Marla's fatale femininity with the laser-cut helmet of blonde hair that sets off the power ensembles created by Deborah Newhall. Doug Emmett's camerawork is more functional, but it does a fine job in picking out the details in Michael Grasley's beautifully thought out interiors. Marc Canham's score and Mark Eckersley's pugnacious editing are also entirely in tandem, as Blakeson explores the extent to which covenants of trust have been shattered in the United States by the rich and despicably powerful. Now that Donald Trump (who, of course, played dirty to ensure he wasn't beaten by a woman) has been ousted from the White House, this can be enjoyed as a feel-good purgative. But that contemptuous scam isn't quite over yet, as millions still believe he's their guardian angel.
To paraphrase the nuns in The Sound of Music, `How do you solve a problem like Sia?' Or rather, how does Sia solve the problems she has created for herself by making Music? It's hard to believe that this misguided vanity project belongs in the same genre as Robert Wise's 1965 Oscar-winning adaptation of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II's stage hit. But there are lots of things that are hard to fathom where Sia's simply dreadful directorial debut is concerned.
Music Gamble (Maddie Ziegler) is a non-verbal teenager on the autistic spectrum, who lives with her doting grandmother, Millie (Mary Kay Place). Her day invariably begins with two fried eggs being served with a ketchup smile before she dons her sensory headphones and sets off to the local library to look at the same article on dogs in a big book. Millie has arranged from everyone from building supervisor George (Héctor Elizondo) to Nassir the news vendor (Braeden Marcott) playing a part in making her stroll as pleasurable and stress free as possible. Keeping a close eye from a protective distance is Felix (Beto Calvillo), an orphan who lives across the street with the adoptive parents (Luoyong Wang and Celeste Den) who make him work at their laundry. He notices that Millie isn't at her window when Music gets home and it's some while before she realises that something is wrong.
Helped by Ghanaian neighbour Ebo Odom (Leslie Odom, Jr.), George calms Music down and manages to trace her half-sister, Kazu (Kate Hudson), who is on probation after serving time for breaking into George's apartment to steal his television for booze. He isn't sure Zu is capable of caring for Music and she looks into the idea of having her committed to a home. But, as they rent is paid up for the next month, Zu moves in to weigh up her options, which include selling as much of Millie's stuff as possible to enable her to buy drugs to sell from preening dealer, Rudy (Ben Schwartz).
Having been informed by the local pawnbroker that Millie's trinkets are only worth coppers, Zu gets a tip from regular customer Evelyn (Juliette Lewis) that a friend needs a big score and she is amazed when a famous singer (Sia) places a massive order that she intends smuggling to the poor and needy as part of her Popstars Without Frontiers programme. Rudy is reluctant to trust Zu with such a large consignment, but he agrees and she sets off to make her delivery. En route, she discovers that Ebo is HIV+ and is buying illegal medication. But she doesn't have time to find out more about his situation because she has to make the drop that will transform her fortunes. However, George can't mind Music and she gets stung by a bee in the park and a panicked Zu forgets her bag in dashing to the hospital.
The incident also means she misses a boxing meet that Ebo has arranged for the kids at his gym and Music doesn't get to see Felix overcome his insecurities to win his bout. However, his father is unimpressed by his victory and causes a domestic disturbance that results in Felix being killed by an accidental blow. Zu is more concerned about Rudy's wrath and seriously considers putting Music in a home. But the notion of confining a free spirit repulses her and she vows to sort her life out and make a commitment to Ebo during the wedding reception for his brother and his ex-wife. They duet together on stage and, despite the fact that no one has any idea who she is, there isn't a dry eye in the house when Music joins in. Her reward is a puppy and everyone lives hopefully ever after.
Riddled with cliché, caricature and contrivance, the storyline concocted by Sia and children's author Dallas Clayton is an embarrassment. But it's the least of the problems facing this unmitigated disaster, which was filmed in 2017 and purportedly took three years to edit. Clearly, the biggest is the arrant decision to cast neurotypical teenager and pop promo muse Maddie Ziegler as the eponymous autistic character bringing magic into the lives of damaged people and Sia only has herself to blame for fanning the furious response to Ziegler veering between wonderment and trepidation by playing the victim in seeking to justify her decision by fulminating that the `special' performer she had chosen was not up to the task. Given that Ziegler has a number of demanding dance routines to perform to convey Music's inner thoughts, it's hard to see how Sia planned to utilise her original selection. But the sudden switch from mannered self-stimulatory behaviour to uninhibited interpretive dance serves only to emphasise the ill-judged nature of the whole candy-coloured dreamworld conceit and the almost extraneous `magical disabled person' who inhabits it.
Ryan Heffington's choreography is very much of a pop video calibre, but he's hardly helped by the crassness of Sia's songs, which do nothing to advance the plot or give the audience any insight into Music's psyche, or the ungainliness of Christine Wada's bizarre costumes. That said, Leslie Odom, Jr. is saddled with the weirdest outfit (a pair of outsize trousers) during the only non-diegetic number that (nonsensically) isn't staged in Music's imagination. Frequently forced to strut around in sports tops and shorts, a closely cropped Kate Hudson has sartorial issues of her own, but she is more central to the melodramatic goings on than Ziegler, as Zu gets to overcome her demons and learn to care for other in being less selfish.
Everyone else has to settle for a bit part in her redemptive rite of passage, which is a shame, as Mary Kay Place, Héctor Elizondo and Beto Calvillo contribute sincere supporting performances that easily surpass showier cameos by Juliette Lewis, Kathy Najimy (as her blink and miss her mother) and Henry Rollins as a testy neighbour. Tig Notaro also amuses as the deadpan host of the Radgicals TV show that Music watches.
The august members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association hardly alleviated matters by nominating Hudson for a Golden Globe and citing this atrocity in the Best Motion Picture - Musical or Comedy category. But the ongoing outcry is entirely justified, as whatever good intentions might have lain behind this horrendously offensive and dangerously reckless miscalculation can't disguise the fact that it represents a monumental arrogance on the part of its makers. Mercifully, Sia responded to complaints by removing a scene in which Music is restrained. What remains, however, fails on just about every level and proves excruciating to watch. No wonder Music was branded a patronising piece of `ableist minstrelsy' by one autistic critic (Salon's Matthew Rozsa) and has replaced Tom Hooper's Cats (2019) as the lowest-scoring film on Rotten Tomatoes. Its rating may plunge even lower after a few more people get the chance to see Jerry Rothwell's documentary, The Reason I Jump, which seeks to simulate the sensory experience of non-verbal autism that Naoki Higashida had recorded in the bestselling book he had written at the age of 13.
The debate will always rage in football circles about who is the greatest of all time. When it comes to documentaries, the clear winner is an Argentinian No.10, who is enviably represented by both Asif Kapadia's Diego Maradona (2019) and Emir Kusturica's Maradona By Kusturica (2008). On purely filmic terms, the runner up with be the wayward Belfast Boy, who gets a sympathetic shake in Daniel Gordon's George Best: All By Himself (2016). The legacy of an overlooked Dutchman is celebrated in Jordi Marcos's astute, if brief study, Cruyff: The Last Match (2014), while the current contenders are respectively ill served by Álex de la Iglesia's Messi (2014) and Anthony Wonke's Ronaldo (2015), with the latter being a woefully misguided vanity project that ranks among the worst sporting actualities of all time.
Whither in this line-up comes Edson Arantes do Nascimento? One suspects that if more footage had survived, he would remain unchallenged in his sport, like Don Bradman. But attention spans in football are notoriously short and few modern fans are seduced by grainy black-and-white images from half a century ago.
Of course, Pelé merits mention in Marcelo Machado, Hank Levine and Tocha Alves's Ginga: The Soul of Brasilian Football (2005), while the bookends of his career have been covered in Jeff and Michael Zimbalist's mediocre biopic, Pelé: Birth of a Legend (2016), and John Dower and Paul Crowder's engaging documentary, Once in a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos (2006). But, for the first time since Anibal Massaini Neto's Pelé Forever (2004), the great man is front and centre in Ben Nicholas and David Tryhorn's Netflix tribute, Pelé, which opens with the 80 year-old legend shuffling into shot with the aid of a walking frame before he takes his seat to confront the camera and the awkward questions that he knows must follow.
As the focus falls squarely on Pelé's achievements at the World Cup, the co-directors rather rush through his impoverished childhood in Três Corações in the south-eastern state of Minas Gerais. Being the son of Dondinho, a prolific forward in club football, he stood a better chance than many of being spotted by a talent scout. But it was coach Waldemar de Brito who took Pelé from the Bauru Athletic Club junior side to the Santos first team, where the 15 year-old scored on his debut against Corinthians in September 1956. Ten months later, he received his first international cap and became the first black sporting superstar after taking the 1958 World Cup by storm.
Having hit the winner in scraping past Wales in the quarter-final, the 17 year-old scored a hat-trick in a 5-2 semi-final demolition of France and two more in a similar thrashing of hosts Sweden in the final. Returning home a hero, Pelé was declared a national treasure in order to prevent him from securing a lucrative transfer to Europe. But continental fans did get to see him in action, as Santos undertook a series of exhibition tours to cash in on their prized asset. He also made a tidy sum from advertising and was the most famous face in Brazil when the team left for Chile to defend its title in 1962.
It's often said that Pelé is the only player to have won the World Cup three times. In fact, he merely played in three World Cup-winning teams, as he was injured out of the 1962 tournament during the second group game against Czechoslovakia. Instead, Amarildo and Garrincha stole the headlines, as the Seleção made short work of England (3-1), the hosts (4-2) and the Czechs (3-1) to win the Jules Rimet Trophy for the second time. They were denied a hat-trick when an ageing team struggled to cope with the aggressively defensive systems facing them in England in 1966. Once again, Pelé limped out of the World Cup, but Brazil had already lost 1-3 to both Hungary and Portugal in the group stages.
On the club front, Santos was also coming to the end of its golden age after claiming numerous national and regional titles, as well as back-to-back Copa Libertadores wins in 1962 and 1963. Moreover, the country was also in a very different place after the 1964 military coup that replaced socialist president, João Goulart, with General Humberto Branco. A backlash against street protests in 1968 resulted in power passing to Emilio Médici, a dictator who employed brutal methods to remain in office until 1974. When asked about his views on this dark period in Brazilian history, which saw thousands killed and disappeared for their opposition to tyranny, Pelé shrugs sadly that he was a footballer who did his best for his people on the pitch.
It's not the bravest nswer, but, in all truth, what else could he do, as the regime was never going to allow him to become a figurehead for malcontents. However, as the 1970 World Cup approached, Pelé seemed set to vote with his feet. He had often stated that 1966 would be his last Mundial and he seemed to have reached his last significant milestone when he squeezed home a penalty for Santos against Vasco da Gama at the Maracanã on 19 November 1969 to score his 1000th goal in all competitions. What's more, coach João Saldanha seemed to take against Pelé when orders came from on high to include him in the preparatons for Mexico. Rather than seal Pelé's fate, however, accusations that he was overweight and past his best merely resulted in a change of management, with ex-teammate Mário Zagallo taking the reins for the tournament.
From the moment he tried to chip Czechoslovakia's from inside his own half during the opening group game, it was clear that Pelé was in prime form and up for the fight. He followed a goal in that match by bringing the best out of Gordon Banks in a 1-0 victory of reigning champions England before bagging a brace against Romania. However, he wasn't on the scoresheet against either Peru (4-2) or Uruguay (3-1) en route to the final, although he played a key role in helping Brazil lay the ghost of the defeat at the hands of La Celeste that cost them a home victory in 1950. Against Italy, though, Pelé was at his imperious best, as he planted a header wide of Enrico Albertosi and set up Carlos Alberto for the coup de grâce in a 4-1 victory that remains the finest goal ever seen at a World Cup.
Once again, Pelé is forced to reflect on how the oppressed public viewed the team's reception by Médici, who claimed their triumph as his own. But he is more forthcoming about his infidelities towards first wife Rosameri than he is on this contentious, but crucial issue, as he maintains that the people were proud of him and grateful for the pleasure he could provide. Teammates Jairzinho and Paulo Cesar are more forthright in their regret that Pelé failed to us his status to speak out against the dictatorship. But Rivellino and the majority of the corralled journalists have sympathy with his plight, as his celebrity was no guarantee of his safety.
Brazil got to keep the trophy, but Pelé wasn't there to help defend it in West Germany in 1974, even though he was only 34 at the time. Instead, he was busy bringing the Beautiful Game to the United States and was spared involvement in a campaign that saw flair replaced by functionality in the face of Dutch `total football'. But Nicholas and Tryhorn aren't interested in discussing the extent to which the greed of Santos board members contributed to Pelé quitting top-flight football so young or, for that matter, any legacy that he might have left outside his individual achievements. Nevertheless, they fulfil their remit with due diligence in placing Brazil's World Cup victories in their socio-political context.
Editors Matteo Bini, Andrew Hewitt and Julian Hart also ensure they make the best use out of the archive material unearthed after an extensive search by Antonio Venancio, although it might have been nice to see something of Santos's games at Hillsborough, The Victoria Ground or Home Park. Talking heads like journalists Juca Kfouri and Roberto Muylaert speak a lot of sense, but offer few exclusive revelations. However, the recollections of sister Maria Lucía Do Naascimento Magalhães and uncle Jorge Arantes are charming, while the reunion with venerable club mates Pepe, Dorval. Mengálvio, Lima and Coutinho is a real highlight, as they delight in teasing him about his precocious exploits. There can only be one star, however, and his guardedly evasive humility speaks volumes.