Parky At the Pictures (19/8/2022)
Updated: Aug 20
(Reviews of My Old School; The Feast; Mama's Affair; and Girls Can't Surf)
With Covid levels and temperatures dropping, it's safe(ish) to presume that cinema-going is once again a thing. Just in case it's not, the UK's various streaming platforms are still doing sterling work. In addition to subscription sites like Curzon Home Cinema. MUBI, Netflix and the BFI Player, the likes of iTunes, Apple TV, Amazon, Sky Store, Virgin, Microsoft, Vimeo, Google Play, Rakuten, BT and Playstation are all ready to keep you entertained.
MY OLD SCHOOL.
Film-makers have always enjoyed spinning yarns about impostors. But there's something more disconcerting about documentary accounts, such as Bart Layton's The Imposter (2013) and Louis Myles's Kaiser: The Greatest Footballer Never to Play Football (2018). Joining the list is Jono McLeod's My Old School, which will beggar the belief of all but those who remember the story hitting the headlines back in the mid-1990s.
In 1993, MacLeod was part of the fifth-year form at Bearsden Academy in Glasgow that welcomed new student, Brandon Lee. As Bruce Lee's son had recently perished while making Alex Proyas's The Crow, the talk was primarily about the newcomer's name. One or two noticed that he seemed a little older than the rest of his classmates, while others were amused by his claims to be the privately tutored son of a Canadian opera singer and a London-based professor, who had come to live with his grandmother following his mother's car crash demise. But Brandon was soon part of the 5C furniture, amusing fellow pupils with his blazer and briefcase and his uncanny impersonation of Clint Eastwood.
Impressing the teachers with his breadth of knowledge, Brandon survived bullying by some of the younger kids to pal up with a couple of the class's outsiders, They were grateful for the help he gave them with their homework and their tips about cool 1980s bands. Speaking to camera from school desks, they also recall how kind his grandmother was when he invited them round to study.
Brandon's physics teacher remembers having to break the news that his father had died, but nobody delved too deeply into his background, with both headmaster Norman MacLeod and his disciplinarian deputy, Mrs Holmes, being satisfied that Brandon was who he said he was. Classmates also admit to having no qualms about him and even commend him for having the courage to play Lieutenant Cable in the school production of South Pacific, in which he had to kiss his classmate, Val, who was playing Liat.
However, the lyric `Younger than springtime am I' should have set alarm bells ringing, as Brandon Lee was really Brian MacKinnon, a 32 year-old failed medical student whose chances of fulfilling his lifetime's ambition had seemed over, as Scottish universities refused to accept applications for medical school from anyone over 30. Desperate to repay his parents for their unfailing support, MacKinnon permed his red hair, adopted a Canadian accent and used his powers of persuasion to secure a place in 5C so that he could resist his Highers and prove his former professors at Glasgow University wrong.
As MacKinnon reveals in an audio interview that is lip-synched by Alan Cumming, all went well with his brazenly audacious scheme until he decided to leave Bearsden early and take an early place at Dundee University's med school. As had been the case a decade earlier, MacKinnon had struggled with the classes and had been forced to drop out. On returning to Bearsden, however, he had been coaxed into going on holiday abroad with a pair of female classmates he barely knew. The trip to Tenerife proved disastrous and the case of Brandon Lee was soon a hot topic on everything from breakfast shows to Newsnight.
Most directors would be satisfied with slotting in the pieces to reach this reveal. But MacLeod has more on his mind. He wants to know why his headmaster namesake took the blame for Mrs Holmes's lapse in judgement in enrolling Brandon without a birth certificate. Moreover, he is eager to discern how much Brandon's mother (who wasn't his granny after all) knew about the deception, as she had called the school on the day his academic father had supposedly died.
MacLeod also reconstructs the calamitous vacation and shatters some of the myths that have built up around it. He does the same with the infamous South Pacific kiss. All of which forces the alumni to reassess the moral ramifications of the hoax and how they feel now about having been exploited by someone who had been twice their age.
The exchanges between the off-camera director and his erstwhile classmates are initially larky. But a sombre tone descends as the truth starts to seep out. Similarly, the animated flashbacks - which see Grange Hill meet Daria - are eventually replaced by archive footage and photos of MacKinnon, who had agreed to be recorded, but not to appearing on camera - hence the presence of Alan Cumming.
The tactic of using animation to fill in the visual blanks isn't new. Neither is having actors lip-synch testimony, as Clio Barnard had used it in The Arbor (2010), her study of playwright Andrea Dunbar. But Cumming and MacLeod make a fine job of creating an avatar that fits rather neatly with the film's premise.
What is intriguing is that no one seems to hold a lingering grudge against MacKinnon (who was never charged over his hoax), although Val is decidedly discomfited by the video of the stage clench. Indeed, one man (whose name, spookily, is also Brian MacKinnon) wonders what `Brandon' must have been enduring to take such a desperate course of action. A quietly spoken Black classmate willingly acknowledges that he would not be working as a pharmacist today had Brandon not befriended and encouraged him.
Viewers will reach their own conclusions about this playfully accomplished and touchingly empathetic story, which takes its only major misstep in bookend hints that MacKinnon has altered his appearance through plastic surgery. Much cannier are the underlying ruminations on the reliability of memory and the casting of Lulu as Mrs Holmes and Clare Grogan as biology teacher, Mrs Ogg, as they have each played schoolgirls on screen - Lulu as Babs, opposite Sidney Poitier in James Clavell's To Sir, With Love (1967), and Grogan as Susan, alongside John Gordon Sinclair in Bill Forsyth's Gregory's Girl (1980).
Having started out in Welsh television before graduating to BBC shows like Waterloo Road, Casualty and Doctor Who, director Lee Haven Jones makes his feature bow with The Feast. Yet, while this Welsh-language chiller makes the most of the local landscape and its lore, it has the burnished look of J or K horror.
Glenda (Nia Roberts) has her eyes on the prize. On inheriting her parents' farm, she knocked it down and built a modernist monstrosity that she felt was more in keeping with her status as the wife of the local MP. Gwyn (Julian Lewis Jones) spends little time in his constituency, but he has returned to Wales to host a dinner at which he and business partner Euros (Rhodri Meilir) hope to persuade his neighbour, Mair (Lisa Palfrey), to give him exclusive extraction rights to the minerals that have been found on her property.
In order to make a good impression, Gwyn has summoned sons Gweirydd (Siôn Alun Davies) and Guto (Steffan Cennydd) to the homestead. The former is obsessed with training for a triathlon, while the latter is struggling to kick a drug habit. Neither is enamoured by the prospect of helping their father schmooze. But they are intrigued by Cadi (Annes Elwy), a girl from the village whom Glenda has hired to serve at dinner.
Despite being dressed in a crisp white blouse and black skirt, Cadi has dirty hands and leaves a mark on Glenda's best table cloth. She also prefers snooping in the soullessly luxurious rooms and touching the paintings to laying the table. As she lingers outside the bathroom, she sees Gweirydd shaving his body hair and droplets of blood curdling the water as the razor nicks his scrotum.
When Gwyn plonks down a couple of rabbits that he claims to have shot (when he actually found them ready trussed), Cadi rushes into the garden to vomit and Guto (who had just cut his foot with a loose axe head while chopping firewood) takes a dim view of the fact that Gweirydd tries to make small talk with her.
Striving to stay calm after a relaxing session in her spa room (where the texture of her black facial mask matches Guto's cycling lycra), Glenda starts cooking. She tells Cadi how she had kept some of her mother's belongings, but realised they didn't go with the new house. On spotting a mark on Cadi's blouse, Glenda dispatches her to find a new one in her bedroom. Left alone, Cadi tries on a pair of Glenda's earrings and cackles into the mirror.
Meanwhile, Gwyn urges Guto to be on his best behaviour and ignores a comment about his sons' psychological problems being down to his poor parenting. He tries flirting with Cadi, after he hears her singing a song that Glenda knows from her mother. She remains impassive, however, and Gwyn gets a sudden noise in his ear that causes him to flinch.
While Glenda searches for Gweirydd, a rapid montage intersperses previously seen snippets with shots of a blood-spattered Cadi shovelling something into her mouth. Nothing is explained, however, as Cadi wanders into the garden and chats with Guto, who is dying for a fix. She finds him some magic mushrooms in the woods, while Gweirydd spies on them.
Euros arrives and soon proves to be a nasty piece of work, as he chides Cadi for being idle. Gwyn orders her to clean up after Euros drops a bottle of wine, but she hides a broken piece of glass in her underwear before returning indoors. She serves canapes, while Guto fetches Gweirydd, who shares his resentment at their parents before accusing his brother of fingering Cadi by a tree.
It's Cadi's fingers that leave a trail of dirt on the walls, as Mair arrives with news that a car has plunged into the nearby lake and that her husband has taken the tractor to help pull it out. Hearing Mair at the door. Gwyn stops looking at the cave photos that Euros took when work was postponed at the drilling site after a worker fell ill. He fawns over her and Cadi looks on with a steady gaze while skewering kebabs.
Mair recognises Cadi from chapel and the Red Lion and offers condolences on the recent loss of her father in an accident at the wind turbine plant. She also commends Gweirydd on his ability to cycle up hills and hopes he'll soon be able to resume his medical career in London. Cadi wretches as she takes the first course out of the fridge, but Guto feels no ill effects as he stuffs his face with mushrooms, while tending to the worsening wound on his foot.
While Glenda shows Mair her relaxation room (and is disturbed by a floating red feather that her childhood friend doesn't appear to see), Cadi goes into the garden and lies on the grass in the darkness, as though communing with the earth. She returns to serve and watches Guto get sent to his room by his father for criticising Gweirydd's special diet. Euros guzzles his food noisily, while Mair eats slowly and their different approaches arise when she declines his invitation to join the mineral excavation scheme.
The tension is broken when Gweirydd starts to choke on his raw meat and Cadi has to force her fingers down his throat to pull out a wodge of human hair. Glenda promises her a bonus, as she sends her to Guto's room with a plate. But she notices the trails of mud on the pristine kitchen floor after she sinks to her knees to clear up a dropped dish.
Guto has been cooking and injecting mushrooms and his leg is bleeding badly when Cadi finds him. She tries to suck out some of the maggots crawling in the wound, but returns to the dining room with no sign of blood on her face. Gwyn asks her to sing, but she refuses and he crumples with pain as the noise rips through his ear. Gweirydd follows Cadi into the corridor to check that she's okay and she kisses him passionately and pushes him through the door.
As Glenda tries to coax Mair into consenting to drilling on her land, she is scolded for ignoring the legend of the Rise that abuts their land and Mair leaves indignantly, telling Glenda that her mother would be appalled by the way she's turned out. Outside, Cadi leads Gweirydd to the woodpile, where Guto is writhing in agony. She tells him to chop off the infected leg to save his brother's life and he obliges to silence Guto, who is yelling about the patients that Gweirydd had raped at his London hospital.
As Cadi urges Gweirydd to go deeper as they make out against the tree, Glenda thinks she sees her mother's face looking through the window. She ventures outside to see Mair returning with the news that it was Cadi's car that had plunged into the lake and she stuns Glenda by claiming that the girl's body has been possessed by a risen spectre.
Grabbing a knife from the kitchen, Glenda goes from room to room, unaware that Cadi has taken Gwyn into the wet room to drive a skewer through his ear as she sings to him. Glenda finds a dress that had presumably belonged to her mother and she puts it on to drift as in a trance into the garden to call her sons and carry the severed leg into the kitchen. Still in this reverie, she slices through the flesh and serves it to Euros, who is bolting from his plate like a pig.
Having forced a shotgun into Euros's mouth, Glenda slashes her own throat. Cadi carries the corpses in a wheelbarrow to the pyre she has built in the garden. As morning comes, she ambles through the field to the drilling rig. She pauses and looks skywards, as though rain was starting to fall, before she turns her bloodied face towards the camera and smiles as though she's been relieved of her burden.
For an hour, this is an adroit parable, which suggests that both Lee Haven Jones and screenwriter Roger Williams are keen students of Luis Buñuel's The Exterminating Angel (1962) and Bong Joon-ho's Parasite (2019). The social satire is far from subtle, but the duo succeed in demonstrating that each member of the viciously dysfunctional family (as well as Euros) will thoroughly merit their just desserts.
But then, at the precise moment the blood-letting starts, everything that has made the picture so atmospherically effective to that point is jettisoned in favour of cack-handed schlockleteering that is only redeemed by the fact that the dark secret underlying the carnage goes undivulged. What makes this all the more frustrating is that the performances had been so spot on, with Nia Roberts's preening queen bee and Annes Elwy's time-biding avenging succubus being particularly outstanding. Gwyn Eiddior's knowing production design, cinematographer Bjørn Ståle Bratberg's off-kiltering compositions, Dom Corbisiero's preternatural soundscapes and Samuel Sim's perturbing score are equally noteworthy. It's just a shame that the teasingly prying ominousness (and impeccable craft) of Cadi's initial prowl along the forbidding corridors of this anachronistic mausoleum to arriviste vulgarity is frittered in such a reckless fashion in the needless pursuit of generic scares.
Tucked away in the archive of the Library of Congress is a print of Victor Fleming's 1921 adaptation of Rachel Barton Butler's play, Mama's Affair. Scripted by Anita Loos and John Emerson, this silent comedy stars the wonderful and sadly forgotten Constance Talmadge as a bride-to-be trying to cope with an hysterical mother. It may not particularly psychologically enlightened, but this hour-long farce sounds more engaging than Hong Kong sophomore Kearan Pang's Mama's Affair, which serves as a vehicle for Keung To and Jer Lau, who are members of the wildly successful Cantopop boyband, Mirror.
Eager to return to work in the music industry, Mei-fung (Teresa Mo) is dismayed to learn that things have changed since she took time out to marry and raise a family. Consequently, she finds herself having to settle for a role at a children's art centre run by Norman (Vincent Kok). Here, she encounters Fong Ching (Keung To), a takeaway delivery driver who impresses her with his voice and dance moves. Indeed, she becomes so excited by his potential that she barely notices that 17 year-old son Jonathan (Jer Lau) has just won a prestigious drama prize with his school.
He is also upset that Mei-fung seems to accept that her marriage to Lap-Yan (Yeung-Ming Wan) is winding down and resents the fact that classmate Samantha (Lok-Tung Tsang) is so taken with Ching, as he embarks upon his meteoric rise after Mei-fung plays a karaoke demo to an old producer friend. However, fame doesn't suit Ching, as he doesn't want his new fans to know that his father (Wing-Cheong Law) went to prison for killing his mother in a drink-driving crash.
Jonathan is embarrassed that his mother has offered Ching the spare room and hides the fact from classmates Samantha, Tim (CY ) and Angela (Gigi Cheung) - although he is nearly rumbled when they get tummy trouble after scarfing pizza. But they don't get the chance to hang out together for long before Jonathan learns that Mei-fung is managing Ching and that his father has got another woman pregnant. He feels excluded from his own family and complains that the stress will take its toll on his forthcoming examinations.
Ching offers Mei-fung a shoulder, but she says she's strong enough to cope with the pressures of a man's world. She's still hurt, however, when Lap-Yan comes into a restaurant with his partner (and Ching discreetly asks him to move to a table out of her eyeline). What he doesn't know, however, is that Mei-fung has been to see his own father, who bitterly regrets his actions and wishes he could patch things up with his son. Meanwhile, Jonathan has a man-to-man with Lap-Yan, who reminds him that not every problem has a perfect solution and urges him to focus on getting into Cambridge.
Mei-fung coaxes Ching into reading the letters his father had written from prison and he gets to know him. He also realises that he has to forge a bond with Jonathan to ensure he doesn't drift apart from his mother and they reach an understanding after a fistfight. Consequently, Jonathan comes to Ching's farewell concert before he relocates to Korea and hugs Mei-fung in the dressing-room, as Ching dedicates his last song of the night to his father.
With all the loose ends tied, Mirror fans will drift into the night in a state of blissed contentment to re-listen to albums like Ignited, Warrior and We Are. Non-devotees, however, are likely to have forgotten the film by the time they reach the bus stop. But that's the nature of pop star movies and this one does the job, with the narrative superficiality being tempered by some uncynical polish.
Having worked on TV shows like My Secret Live and King Maker, Kearen Pang is sufficiently au fait with the Cantopop milieu to bring an authenticity (if not much insight into the realities of fame) to the backstage and concert segments. Her experience of directing the coming-of-age saga, 29 + 1 (2017), also ensures that the domestic issues don't (quite) get bogged down in a mawkish morass. First-timers Keung To and Jer Lau acquit themselves creditably, but Teresa Mo gives the most assured performance, as the restless housewife who suddenly finds she has another son on her hands.
GIRLS CAN'T SURF.
Looking back at classic Bruce Brown surfing movies like Slippery When Wet (1958), Surf Crazy (1959) and Eternal Summer (1964), the focus was always on rippling male torsos and an adamantine sense of camaraderie. Two decades later, according to Australian documentarist Christopher Nelius, the mood had changed, as the cocksure fraternity sought to prevent the surfing sisterhood from sharing in the fun. This landmark battle of the breakers is recalled in Girls Can't Surf.
As opening captions reveal how chauvinism took over surfing in the late 1970s, we are introduced to San Clemente sisters Jolene Smith and Jorja Smith Harmon, Jodie Cooper from Albany, Western Australia (who hated the phrase, `oh, you're really good for a girl'), Frieda Zamba from Flagler Beach, Florida, Pam Burridge from Sydney's Northern Beaches, Wendy Botha from East London, South Africa and Pauline Menczer from Bondi Beach.
They were among the pioneering crop of women who competed on the burgeoning professional tour in the early 1980s, even though they were often forced to perform on inferior waves and were rewarded with a fraction of the prize money that was slushing around the glamorous world of men's surfing.
Association of Surfing Professionals founder Ian Cairns and journalist Nick Carroll remember this being a boom time, even though the latter mocks the guys for having `an impossible sense of their own magnificence'. Reporter Jamie Brisick commends the ASP for making the sport more professional and attracting sponsors like Ocean Pacific for banner events like the Op Pro. However, the women's heats took place during the lunch break when no one was watching and Carroll concedes that surfing culture wasn't ready to go unisex.
Alisa Schwarzstein-Cairns enthuses about the impact that `Robotron' Zamba made when she first came on to the scene. She was viewed somewhat enviously from within the sorority, as was Botha. But neither of them earned a fraction of what their male counterparts took home for surfing the same waves. They also struggled to attract the same sponsorship interest, with Burridge being amused that she had a scrapyard as one of her early backers.
Carroll and Brisick admit to an imbalance, as men were judged solely on performance, while women had to have looks and personality to garner any publicity. There was unease when Botha posed for Playboy as world champion, especially when riders like Menczer (who had grown up on the breadline after her taxi driver father was murdered) had to live in a van and make money selling jeans.
Under orders to lose weight to please the photographers, Burridge developed anorexia and came close to death before finding a different way to cope with the pressures of being on tour. Along with body image, sexuality was also a taboo issue at the time and both Cooper and Menczer tried to hide their identity for fear of losing sponsors or being ostracised. Menczer used to call her partner her `coach' on tour, but Cooper was outed after she left her diary in a dormitory and reveals that she was marginalised before she took control of the situation and made it a problem for others to deal with by being proud of who she was.
In 1989, the Op Pro dropped the women's event to divert the purse into the men's prize kitty. The Smith twins led a vigorous campaign to shame the organisers and Cairns applauds them for showing such tenacity in exposing the hypocrisy of staging bikini beauty contests and not women's surfing events at the same meet. The same year saw Cooper make her mark at Sunset Beach in Hawaii, where she conquered waves that the men were ducking.
That event saw Burridge miss out on the world title for the fifth time and she put everything into the 1990 season to end the hoodoo. She admits to enjoying pipping Botha (who remains gracious in her rare defeat) and to being able to pay back the nation's goodwill during her darker days. However, a global recession hit the sport the following year and Rochelle Ballard from Montebello, California remembers that prize money dropped and the tour became something of a grind. In order to protect their product, several male surfers suggested that women ran separate events and found new sources of revenue from fashion and cosmetics companies. As a consequence, stars like Botha, Cooper, Zamba, the Smith twins and Burridge retired and left the sport open to a new generation.
Along with Menczer (who was often debilitated by arthritis), the new icons were Lisa Andersen from Ormond Beach, Florida and Layne Beachley from Manly Beach in Sydney. She decided to become world champion at 14 in order to quash her feelings of inadequacy after discovering she had been adopted. The established surfers joke about what a persistent pest Beachley was, but her determination to succeed was unquestionable.
Menczer had the misfortune to win the world title in the year in which there was no prize money. Within few months, the Roxy Quiksilver board shorts boom occurred and Andersen became the beneficiary, while Ballard was taken on by O'Neill. Andersen's first bid for the world crown was disrupted by pregnancy, while the second was hit by a crippling back injury. With baby Erica by her side, however, she won the title and went on such a run of invincibility that Surfer magazine ran a cover with the strapline, `Lisa Andersen surfs better than you,'
Such was Beachley's determination to hit the top that she worked 60 hours a week in four different jobs to fund her training and travel. A year after landing a Billabong clothing contract that allowed her to focus solely on surfing, she realised her dream. By 1999, however, another dip in funding saw the ASP reduce women's representation on the committee from two to one and informed the press that they were bending over backwards to help the women's side of the sport. When the women were ordered to take poor water at the competition in Jeffreys Beach in the Eastern Cape, therefore, they sat in protest on the beach to draw attention to the discrimination they faced.
With Ballard as their rep, the women fought their corner and things finally started to look up when the tour went to new venues that guaranteed good waves all day so that the women could demonstrate that they were every bit as courageous and athletic as the men. As the Internet started carrying coverage, the events became global affairs, just as Beachley went on a run of seven titles in nine years. This achievement has since by matched by compatriot Stephanie Gilmore and the interviewees are glad that she is able to reap the rewards from a golden age that their struggle helped bring about. Nevertheless, she still receives a fraction of the prize money on offer to the men, as a viral photo of two outsized cheques from the 2018 Under-18s competition proved.
Within a year, the pay gap was closed and the giants on whose shoulders the beneficiaries were standing were unbegrudgingly delighted. Such magnanimity makes the women profiled in this uplifting documentary all the more remarkable. Their sporting prowess sits indelibly in the record books, but their exceptionalism as people is even more incontrovertible, especially as they have the humility to credit the likes of Linda Benson, Cathy Beauford, Brenda Scott Rogers and Debbie Beacham, who had paved the way for them.
Carroll is spot on when he opines that such women changed lives and coerced the men into respecting them through their talent and force of will. But, while Nelius rightfully proclaims their triumphs, he doesn't fail to call out the misogyny and homophobia that highlights how snivelling the male of the species can sometimes be.
In broaching some contentious and important topics, Nelius and editor Julie-Anne De Ruvo largely keep things simple by cross-cutting between talking heads and archive footage. But that's precisely what makes this so compelling, whether it's Menczer disclosing that she encourages kids to strive towards being the best while driving a school bus or Botha cackling about today's surfers occasionally getting duff waves. One hopes Bruce Brown would be captivated.