- David Parkinson
Parky At the Pictures (2/10/2020)
(Reviews of Southern Journey (Revisited); 23 Walks; I Used to Go Here; and Two Heads Creek)
The majority of cinemas may be closed during these enduringly dismal days. And who, in all honesty is that big a film fan that they would risk contracting a contagious disease just to see something on the big screen as part of a well-spaced crowd? There are still ways to connect with some of the films on general release, however. In addition to Curzon Home Cinema. MUBI 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.
SOUTHERN JOURNEY (REVISITED).
Rob Curry and Tim Plester first joined forces on Way of the Morris (2011) before broadening their horizons with The Ballad of Shirley Collins (2017). They remain in the world of folk music for Southern Journey (Revisited), a paean to the work of musicologist Alan Lomax, whose pioneering achievement was also the subject of Roger Kappers's Lomax the Songhunter (2004). However, this odyssey has a second agenda, as Plester and Curry also seek to assess the state of the nation under Donald Trump during the 2018 mid-term elections.
Armed with a copy of America Over the Water, Shirley Collins's account of her 1959 song-collecting expedition with Alan Lomax, the film-makers make wry note of the tagline used to promoter Dennis Hopper's Easy Rider (1969) - `A man went looking for America and couldn't find it anywhere.' - in following the Southern Journey route the duo had taken six decades earlier.
On election night, they fetch up on Floyd, Virginia and listen to the dulcet tones of Anna Roberts-Gevalt and Elizabeth Laprelle, as they inform their largely female audience that Appalachian balladeers don't get invited to the White House, as they had been in the days of Texas Gladden, who had been recorded by Lomax and Collins on their Ampex 601 reel-to-reel recorder. Her family live in nearby Salem and Vicki Miller and Cindi Tuttle treat the visitors to some good old-fashioned hospitality, as they read extracts from Collins's book and reminisce about Gladden's belief in witchcraft. As we hear her sing `The Devil's Nine Questions', great-granddaughter Melanie Villarreal confides that she's a pagan.
Chris and Jim Gladden drop in to share their memories and draw comparisons between Gladden and Joan Baez. They also discuss Woody Guthrie's `This Machine Kills Fascists' and lament the way in which the Dixiecrats who had opposed integration have now wrapped Christianity in the Stars and Stripes to put a patriotic spin on bigotry. Gladden would have had no truck with such sentiments and her granddaughter reads a poem in which she extols the virtues of charity and neighbourliness.
Heading south, Curry and Plester arrive in Galax, where they are welcomed by Oscar Hall, a descendent of veteran fiddle player, `Uncle' Charlie Higgins. After 50 years working in construction, his fingers are too worn to play his old banjo, but he still hopes to get a little deer hunting done before the season ends. He also applauds President Trump for putting America first, but insists he always tries to vote for the best candidate rather than clinging to any party allegiances.
Higgins and musical partner Bob Carpenter had respective Irish and German blood and we meet Jorge Moreno, the Mexican who now occupies the house where Lomax had recorded them playing. He reckons folks are pretty accepting in averring that strength comes from unity. Nearby, Jimmy Edmonds, the grandson of fabled fiddler Norman Edmonds, makes instruments in his own workshop and plays the same tune, `Bonaparte's Retreat', that his ancestor had performed for Lomax.
Moving on to Whitesburg, Kentucky, Tommy Anderson, a DJ from the WMMT radio station, outlines the art workshops and social services on offer in the town, which he feels deserves to be seen from a fresh perspective, as its reputation had become cluttered up with clichés. We hear recordings of banjo player Ada Combs, who had once been jailed for shooting a love rival in the leg and who had been unable to keep a date with Lomax and Collins because she had been out hunting squirrels. Linda Jean Stokley and Montana Hobbs, who play as The Local Honeys, are proud of the music they play and the culture that spawned it and are tired of the hillbilly put-downs they have to endure.
Over views of Mount Olivet and Blackey, we learn from Elwood Cornett (who recalls Lomax's mission) that the region has been decimated by the decline of the coal industry and he laments that what was once a busy rail hub now only sees one train a day. He gives us a tour of the Cedar Grove Baptist Church and a quick snatch of `Guide Me O Thou Great Jehovah' before Plester and Curry drive south to Como, Mississippi, where Lomax and Collins had stumbled across Fred McDowell, who is still a source of local pride, along with Napoleon Strickland and Otha Turner.
Town librarian Alice Pierotti shows them the cotton fields and explains that the town remains segregated, with the white and black populations living on either side of the railway tracks. Only City Hall and the library are fully integrated and she is embarrassed by the fact that her family were once slave owners. Alice is irked by the fact that `hipster doofuses' come to places like Como to get vox pops that they use to confirm Deep South stereotypes.
We meet Ester Mae Smith, Angelina Taylor and Della Daniels, who are known collectively as the Como Mamas and are reminiscing about the 1959 visit. Ester was eight when everybody congregated at her grandfather's house and they agreed to let Lomax record them because he had promises they would make money from their talent. She also claims that the beat behind MC Hammer's `Can't Touch This' came from the fife and drum picnics that were the highlight of the week during the summer. They mention homemade washboards and the diddly bows that were key to the sound of the Delta Blues. Curry and Plester drop in Glenn Faulkner, a renowned exponent, who uses a perfume bottle to play the single string of baling wire stretched over a neck secured to a decorated cigar box.
As we hear `Ain't It Hard to Be a Farmer' on the soundtrack, Alice takes us to the black Gravel Springs neighbourhood. She admits the sharecropping system was tantamount to slavery under another name and the Como Mamas group concur that it was a harsh lifestyle, especially if the crops failed and you fell into debt. But retired teacher Cloateal Fitzpatrick speaks with pride about her grandfather defying the Ku Klux Klan to become a landowner. Having been married for 45 years to a white man named David, she has also done her bit to beat the bigots. Her brother was singer O.B. McClinton and she has established a foundation in his name to give African-American kids a better chance in life.
Cloateal and David agree that that things have improved beyond all recognition since their grandparents' day. But they concede that divisions have started to open up again under Trump because social media has encouraged people to express private opinions in public. A cutaway shows Jorge Moreno repeating the phrase `it's bad', with growing resignation. But he concludes that America is a beautiful country if everyone pulls together before the credits roll over a picking bow rendition of `The Battle Hymn of the Republic'.
Dedicated to Peter Fonda, this is an engaging voyage of discovery that might be called a whistlestop snapshot or an audiovisual quilt. In following in Lomax and Collins's tyre tracks, Curry and Plester only manage to visit a fraction of the places in their 75 allotted minutes and, consequently, a lot of ground is left uncovered. But they meet some fascinating people en route, who leave one hoping that there are hours more footage that could be edited into a TV series.
The mid-term coincidence turns out to be something of a red herring, as there is little overt political discussion to be heard and none of it is revelatory. Alert viewers, however, will pick up all manner of clues in Damian Calvo's footage that testify to the lurch to the right that has occurred under Donald Trump. They will also be aware of the contradictions that the music enshrines, as many of the songs reflect the grim realities of an oppressive system and there are as many dangers involved in nostalgising them as there are in appropriating them.
We get to see how many of the visited bergs have become shells since the economic bandwagon moved on. But, while passing reference is made to Trump's plans to reopen mines and stand up to the Chinese, nothing is said about the exploitative nature of the lost industries and the ways in which they reinforced the chasms between the communities and exacerbated the injustices that they fostered. Interestingly, there's no mention of campaigns like Black Lives Matter among those African-Americans who can remember what life was like before the Civil Rights movement started to gather momentum in the mid-1950s.
Significantly, little is said about the relevance of folk, gospel and the blues to modern youth, although the Como Mamas are quick to lay claim to the hip-hop beat. As the emphasis is on those who remembered the people Lomax interviewed, this is perhaps unsurprising. But it might have been useful to learn more about the extent to which the legacy of America's musical bedrock endures in a time when the cultural and socio-political divides are getting much wider than the Como railway track. To paraphrase the late Mac Davis, a little more conversation, a little less action, please.
Paul Morrison is one of British cinema's unheralded talents. He earned an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film for his feature debut, Solomon & Gaenor (1999), a tale of anti-Semitism in the 1910s valleys that was filmed in both English and Welsh. In Wondrous Oblivion (2009), he relocated to the South London of 1960 to show how cricket could bridge the racial divide, while he harked back to Spain in the 1920s to chronicle the friendship between Federico García Lorca, Salvador Dalí and Luis Buñuel in Little Ashes (2008). But, in tackling a contemporary topic for the first time, Morrison rather loses his way in 23 Walks.
Dave (Dave Johns) and Fern (Alison Steadman) first meet on a narrow path in a North London park, where she gives him a flea in the ear for not keeping his German Shepherd on a lead before stalking off with her Yorkshire Terrier. But Dave is rather taken with Fern and uses the next brief encounter between Tilly and Henry to attempt a conversational gambit. Eventually, Fern relents and they start getting to know each other on subsequent walks around Hampstead Heath.
He is a retired psychiatric nurse, while she was once a receptionist at an alternative therapy clinic. She isn't looking forward to attending her son's wedding in Spain, as she hasn't forgiven her ex-husband, Jimmy (Graham Cole), for replacing her with a younger model. Over cups of tea, games of draughts and renditions of Flanders and Swann's `The Hippopotamus Song', Dave makes it clear that he likes Fern. But, while she enjoys the companionship, she would rather take things slowly, as she suspects he isn't over the loss of his wife.
In fact, Dave hasn't been entirely honest, as he remains married, even though Marcy (Marsha Millar) is in a home with dementia. Daughter Donna (Natalie Simpson) is dismayed by his lack of loyalty, even though her two kids enjoy spending time with Tilly and Henry. But Dave insists he's entitled to a bit of happiness and invites Fern over for supper. Having discovered that she is a former Tiller Girl who once had Bajan chicken with Cliff Richard, he persuades her to dance around the living-room and she even dig out her old black dress to sing `Besame Mucho' for him on the Heath. However, Fern is appalled when Dave takes her on a surprise visit to meet Marcy and breaks off all communication.
Life goes on and Dave has to face the prospect of moving to Luton or Chingford after being chastised for falling behind with his rent by a jobsworthy housing officer (Nina Smith). His move is made all the more miserable by the fact that he has seen Fern hugging another man and that Tilly has developed a tumour. She dies on the sofa of Dave's grotty high-rise flat, while Fern talks to her down the phone. But the loss brings about a rapprochement and they spend a few chaste nights together before having sex. Jimmy resents finding Dave at his ex-wife's breakfast table and announces his intention of selling their house. But things end on an optimistic note when Fern shows Dave her new cottage.
The cosy conclusion rings as hollowly as much else in this pleasant, poignant, but unpersuasive picture. Morrison specks the ambulatory proceedings with social critique, as Fern tuts about the injustice of an NHS nurse being turfed out of their home after a lifetime of service and Dave is treated like a burden on the state in a scene that rather laboriously riffs on Dave Johns's turn in Ken Loach's I, Daniel Blake (2016). But this runs closer to soap opera than social realism, as Dave hides the truth about Marcy and Fern withholds a revelation about a deceased daughter.
Morrison's association with Alison Steadman goes back to his 1994 short,
Degas and Pissarro Fall Out, but she struggles to spark with Johns. Indeed, there's more chemistry between Henry and Tilly, who are as easy on the eye as David Katznelson's views of the verdant scenery during the nine of the 23 walks we actually get to see. The leads aren't helped by either the stilted dialogue or the schematic sketchiness of the characters. But, even during the rather joyous connubial moment, there's an awkwardness that constantly reminds viewers they are watching actors playing roles.
I USED TO GO HERE.
In the course of her career as a performer, writer and director, Kris Rey has used her maiden name, Williams, and her married name, Swanberg. Indeed, she was still cohabiting with Mumblecore stalwart Joe Swanberg when she directed her first three features: It Was Great, But I Was Ready to Come Home (2009); Empire Builder (2012); and Unexpected (2015). However, she has plucked the name Rey for I Used to Go Here, which is a semi-autobiographical dramedy that has found itself mainstreaming after its festival career was curtailed by coronavirus.
Everything should be rosy for Chicagoan Kate Conklin (Gillian Jacobs), as she has just published her first novel. But the poor sales of Seasons Passed have prompted her publishers to cancel her book tour. Moreover, she has just been dumped by fiancé (Alex Ross Perry), while Laura (Zoë Chao) and her two other best friends are all pregnant at the same time. Leaving the baby shower in the doldrums, Kate is happy to receive a call from her old writing tutor, David Kirkpatrick (Jemaine Clement), inviting her to give a reading at her alma mater, Illinois University.
Billeted by student guide Elliot (Rammel Chan) at a bed and breakfast with run by the grumpy Mrs Beeter (Cindy Gold), Kate so enjoys her reading that she accepts David's offer to stay in Carbondale and teach for a term. He is now married to Alexis (Kristina Valada-Viars), but Kate still has a crush on him and accepts his offer of dinner as readily as she does an invitation to a party at the Writers' Retreat, her old house across the street from the B&B, which is now occupied by students from Hugo (Josh Wiggins), Animal Springstine (Forrest Goodluck) and Tall Brandon (Brandon Daley).
Following a disastrous hook-up with old classmate Bradley Cooper (Jorma Taccone) and his horny girlfriend, Rachel (Kate Micucci), Kate crashes the house party and is caught under the desk charging her phone when Animal tumbles into bed with Emma (Khloe Janel). They wind up helping her analyse texts from her ex and make her a bed on the sofa before inviting her to spend a morning by the lake she loved as a student. She gets stoned while swimming with Hugo, but Emma warns her to steer clear of his jealous girlfriend, April Barnhardt (Hannah Marks), who is the new star of David's class.
April has ambitious plans to start her own press and Kate learns about them just as she receives a mauling review in the New York Times. She also realises that David is sleeping with April in the same way he had with her 15 years earlier. So, she leads an expedition of her new gang to spy on the lovers and discovers that her hero hasn't even read her book. By contrast, Hugo has read the story she wrote in college about the death of her brother and they connect for a night before going their separate ways.
As she leaves her former home, Kate bumps into April, who accuses her of being a hypocrite. But they patch things up after Kate admits to being jealous of April's talent and ideas. After a hearty breakfast with the landlady who turns out just to have been lonely, Kate gets a call from Laura, who is about to go into labour. Driving to the train station, Elliot congratulates her on her book, but she knows there's room for improvement.
Inspired by Rey's own impressions after screening one of her films on campus, this is an amusing insight into scholarship and the literary world that offers a female perspective on the themes explored in Josh Radnor's Liberal Arts and Alex Karpovsky's Red Flag (both 2012). It all gets a bit muddled once Kate reverts to student type and becomes involved in trying to ruin the reputation of a younger and more dynamic version of herself. But her destructive envy is made to pale beside the predatory sleaziness of her mentor, even though his reprehensible behaviour is partially motivated by his being cuckolded by his wife and her ex-husband.
The schematic romcomedic elements also obscure the points that Rey seeks to make about women in academe and the arts. But she does find room for two poignant portraits of lonely middle-aged women looking for someone to take care of in Mrs Beeter and Hugo's mom (Jennifer Joan Taylor), who forms an unlikely, if quaint attachment to Tall Brandon during a convoluted digression on Kate's last night in Carbondale. Hannah Marks contributes an equally effective performance and it's a shame she doesn't have more scenes with the Gillian Jacobs, whose character is more intriguing when questioning her own attitudes and actions than she is when blaming someone else for her misfortunes.
The production values are solid enough, as is Rey's direction. But, while she makes a canny phone-photo cameo as the new woman in the life of Kate's ex-fiancé, her amiable screenplay takes too many easy options and lacks the edge that Lena Dunham, Desiree Akhavan, Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Hannah Marks herself have brought to femcoms. As her heroine concedes of her own text, `it could be better'. But that's just the kind of smug thing a reviewer would say (even one who's been doing this for 35 years this very week). Indeed, no one could disagree with David's observation that `critics are the worst kind of human'.
TWO HEADS CREEK.
Jesse O'Brien seeks to hark back to the golden age of Ozploitation with Two Heads Creek, a rollicking horror that has been written by its star, Jordan Walker. Taking plentiful potshots at the attitude of recent Australian governments towards migrants, this has a few worthwhile things to say. But the narrative backs itself into a dead end far too quickly, with the result that time tends to hang heavily in the slugging run-up to the denouement's gleefully gory mayhem.
Having discovered that they were adopted by their Polish mother, reluctant butcher Norman (Jordan Walker) and his third-rate actress twin, Annabelle (Kathryn Walker), decide to leave the racist abuse they endure on their English council estate and seek out their birth mother, Mary Pearce. Once in Queensland, this quickly proves to be a mistake, as Two Head Creek is a rickety backwater that seems keener on welcoming Vietnamese tourists than Europeans (unless they know Prince George). Moreover, as Hans (Gary Sweet) explains, Mary died after a battle with dementia and the funeral is tomorrow.
Despite the anti-Pommie hostility of Uncle Morris (Don Bridges), Apple (Helen Dallimore) takes pity on the newcomers and they tuck into a meaty stew that cures Annabelle of her veganism. However, Norman suspects all is not well when he overhears Hans telling Apple's husband, Noah (Kevin Harrington), to improvise a funeral, as they don't usually need them. His misgivings are confirmed in the night when Uncle Morris stabs him in the thigh with a fork and, as she stitches the wounds, Daisy (Madeleine Nunn) explains that he blames the twins for the curse that caused the local pigs to die.
Following the unconventional service, Hans tries to bundle Norman and Annabelle on to the bus. But something about the way butcher Eric (David Adlam) sharpens his knives persuades Norman to stay behind and stumble across a giant meat grinder in the barn. Meanwhile, coach driver Apari (Gregory J. Fryer) tells Annabelle that they government is in cahoots with the cannibals of Two Heads Creek and allows them to consume as many immigrants as they like.
She returns in time to save Norman from the pot during an Australia Day jamboree that comes complete with a `Horror Movie' production number. But Apple is determined to make them pay when they kill her daughter and she beheads Hans while he is explaining that he is their father. Luckily, Mary (Kerry Armstrong) turns out not to be dead after all and she helps Annabelle slaughter the residents while Nornan dangles from his ankles in a rope trap. There's a final showdown involving Apple and the Big Boy shredder before a cornball coda has the survivors running a sinister vegan snackbar in the Outback.
Knowingly played with gusto by a willing cast, this exposé of pernicious Australian parochialism has its moments. But they're far too few and far between, as O'Brien and Waller dawdle through the central segment and lose any goodwill they might have accrued with the tacky Rolf Harris crack. It's a shame that Kathryn Wilder has to deliver this line, as she is splendidly acerbic as the failed actress who has been reduced to fronting a stool softener campaign. Waller does well enough, as her less than macho sibling, while Helen Dallimore devours huge chunks of scenery with bullish relish.
Those with fond memories of the 1984 miniseries, Bodyline, will be amused to see Gary Sweet (who played Don Bradman) essaying a flesh-eating Düsseldorfer. But Joseph Tiernan's production design is probably the most accomplished aspect of a picture that seeks to mock and shock and winds up doing neither.