• David Parkinson

Parky At the Pictures (2/9/2022)

Updated: Sep 3

(Reviews of Fall; Wildhood; Dry Ground Burning; and The Territory)


With Covid levels down for now, 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.


FALL.


Several films have tested an audience's tolerance for heights, ranging from Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958) and Renny Harlin's Cliffhanger (1993) to Brad Bird's

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol (2011) and Robert Zemeckis's The Walk (2015). Joining the `acrophobics beware' this week is Scott Mann's Fall, a slightly preposterous, but splendidly contrived white-knuckle thriller that belies the fact it cost a mere $3 million.


Fifty-one weeks after witnessing her husband, Dan (Mason Gooding), plunge to his death while climbing with best friend, Hunter (Virginia Gardner), Becky (Grace Caroline Currey) is drinking heavily and taking her pain out on her father, James (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). She's pleased, therefore, when Hunter visits after a lengthy silence and allows herself to be talked into conquering her fears by climbing the decommissioned B67 communication tower, which stands 2000ft above a back end of nowhere desert.


As Hunter is a YouTuber with 60,000 followers, she insists on recording every stage of the expedition and climbing to the `tippy tippy top' in a revealing t-shirt. Despite misgivings that are not eased by an encounter with a couple of gorging vultures, Becky follows her friend up the ladder inside the creaking metal structure until they reach the height equivalent of the Eiffel Tower. Chivvied by Hunter, she scales the final stretch, but is too preoccupied to notice the odd bolt working loose as she climbs.


Once on the circular platform beneath the warning beacon, the women pose for daredevil shots for Hunter's social media outlets. They also scatter Dan's ashes and Becky thanks Hunter for helping her come back to life. As they start their descent, however, the ladder breaks loose and Hunter has to haul Becky back on to the platform. Unable to get a signal on their phones, they realise that the haversack containing their water bottle has fallen into the satellite dish beneath them.


Confident that one of her followers will raise the alarm, Hunter taps a message into her phone and removes her push-up bra to provide padding inside her baseball boot to cushion the impact of it hitting the ground. After a while, they realise that the phone must have smashed and their spirits sink further when they attract the attention of the occupants of a camper van, only for them to steal Hunter's car.


Having confessed to having had an affair with Dan before the wedding, Hunter decides to use her rope to shin down to the dish in the hope of retrieving the bag. After hanging by a thread, she makes it back to the platform and they agree to ration the water. They also attach a message to the drone that Hunter had used to record the climb. However, the battery runs low before it had crossed the perimeter fence and Becky volunteers to climb to the beacon to charge the battery from the light socket. Just as the drone is about to reach the diner where they had eaten, however, it's shattered by a passing truck and despair sets in.


Breaking with tradition, we won't reveal the ending, if only because it's something of an anti-climax. But this doesn't take away from the gutsiness of Grace Caroline Currey and Virginia Gardner's performances or the ingenuity of Scott Mann and his team. Shooting in the IMAX format in the Mojave Desert, Mann and Spanish cinematographer Miguel `MacGregor' Olaso make exceptional use of the tower, its environs and the vast expanse of sky to highlight the vulnerability of the two women and the scale of the peril they face.


Given the paucity of the budget, credit has to be given to the sizeable SFX crew, who enable editor Rob Hall to blur the lines between the live-action and effects footage. Apparently, some digital wizardry was also required to deepfake Currey and Gardner's faces in order to synch them with dubbed lines that removed the 30+ f-bombs from the dialogue, so that the film could be released with a PG-13 rating in the United States.


In the 17 years since he debuted with Down Among the Dead Men (2005), Mann has alternated between small-screen assignments and features like The Tournament (2009), Heist (2015) and Final Score (2018), the middle one of which starred Robert De Niro. But this seems set to be his peak achievement. It's certainly guaranteed cult status, even though he and co-writer Jonathan Frank might look back with a twinge of regret at their ending.


WILDHOOD.


Nothing out of the ordinary happens to Two-Spirit teenager Lincoln (Phillip Lewitski) after he goes in search of the mother he had long presumed dead before finding a withheld birthday card. But that's no bad thing, as it allows sophomore director Bretten Hannam (expanding the 2019 short, Wildfire) to explore the situation of Canada's Treaty People. Fresh from a scrape with the police, Lincoln and younger half-brother, Travis (Avery Winters-Anthony), flee from their brutish father Arvin (Joel Thomas Hynes) - who implausibly gives up the chase after a bottle of wee hits his windscreen - in the company of Pasmay (Joshua Odjick), a ceremonial Mi'kmaw dancer who has a truck and a crush on Lincoln.


Predictably, the vehicle breaks down shortly after the trio learn from a holier-than-thou rehab counsellor (Mary-Colin Chisholm) that Sarah (Savonna Spracklin) was a troubled soul with a wanderlust. Fortunately, they are picked up by pastry chef Smokey (Michael Greyeyes), who introduces them to Mother Mary (John R. Sylliboy) at the Tiger Lily bar, who sends them to the remote Nova Scotian community where Lincoln is not only reunited with Sarah, but also Elsapet (Becky Julian), the old woman who had tended to his wounds in jail.


With the blonde-dyed Lincoln also learning en route to accept his sexuality, this all makes for box-tickingly edifying viewing. Yet, while this may be a rather conventional and unhurried road movie, Hannam and cinematographer Guy Godfree capture the sights of Eastern Canada and the conditions in which its Indigenous population is forced to live. Befitting this anthropological emphasis, the dialogue flits between English and Mi'kmaq, as Lincoln discovers himself and his heritage. But his relationships with his parents, eye-patched half-sibling and genial uncle (Steve Lund) are as sketchily limned as Pasmay's background and the fate of his mysteriously ditched guitar case.


DRY GROUND BURNING.


Film-makers have been striving for reality since the 1890s. Every now and then, a movement like neo-realism in postwar Italy or social realism in 1960s Britain is feted for attempting to capture something approaching life as it is lived. In recent times, the docudrama and scripted reality have taken naturalism in a new direction, as the Brazilian duo of Joana Pimenta and Adirley Queirós seek to do in Dry Ground Burning, a snapshot of live in a favela on the outskirts of Brasilia that slips between observational vérité and stylised fiction.


Chitara (Joana Darc Furtado) lives in the Sol Nascente district of Ceilândia, the satellite shanty that was established in the 1970s to drive migrants and the marginalised out of the newly constructed capital of Brasilia. She leads a ring that has fashioned a derrick that can tap into an underground pipeline and sells the oil to a motoqueiro bike gang, which roars on to a patch of well-guarded wasteland to collect its supplies. Chitara's life revolves around being a gasolineiras. But her friend Andreia (Andreia Vieira) finds time to go to church, where she is moved by hymns whose lyrics prove as pugnacious as the many rap tracks that punctuate the action.


Recently released from a six-year stretch, Léa (Léa Alves da Silva) makes out with her fellow inmates on the prison bus into town. She pays a call on her brother, Cocão (Jefferson Furtado), who tells her how things have changed since she went inside for drug trafficking. He returns her rifle and she lines up the sight with quiet satisfaction. She goes in search of her half-sister, Chitara, and they reminisce about how their father had promised to bring his two families together before he disappeared.


Chitara takes Léa to the compound and she joins the operation. During a lunch break, she jokes about her reputation in prison as a ladykiller. Andreia is standing in the favela for the Prison People Party to reform the neighbourhood, but she can't compete with the tannoy car canvassing for the candidate supporting Jair Bolsonaro's party. Waiting until dark, she rides on the back of Cocão's motorbike and uses her phone to make a campaign speech for social media.


Defying the 9pm curfew, Chitara joins a crowd packed into a tiny bar to dance to a band whose singer who had changed into her outfit in the back of a van. The contrast is start with the interior of a heavily armed police patrol vehicle, which prowls the rutted streets to shoot first and ask questions later. One of these Brazil Avante 3 units is on duty while Chitara is negotiating a 7% deal with the bikers who deliver her fuel. As the rain teems down, the commander teaches his crew a fascistic salute.


Escorted by the motoqueiros, Andreia gives an impassioned rap speech from the back of a truck driving through Sol Nascente. Her raw language dispenses with political niceties in outlining the discrimination facing former prisoners and the way in which the authorities impose curfews to keep the people down. The rally held for Bolsonaro, however, is vast and shows the size of the struggle grassroots activists are having to fight.


At the compound, Léa cleans her pistol and tells Chitara about Rodrigo, the father of her 12 year-old son, who was framed for robbery and murder and jailed for 35 years. She hatched a plan to bribe a guard to pass on the equipment he needed to escape. But he was killed just 45 days after breaking out and she lost the only man she had ever loved. Chitara remembers how their father had bought her mother records and she had played them endlessly after he had disappeared.


She reflects on her own 21 year-old son and the fact that crime pulls you in deep. They discuss an uncle who had threatened their father's life and how hard it has been, as women, for them to find a niche in a man's world. Thanking her mother for making her a warrior (and naming her Joana Darc), she vows she would rather torch her refinery than let her grasping uncle get hold of it.


During the night, Léa hears someone outside the perimeter fence. She wakes Chitara and they threaten the interloper with bullets if they don't back off. They fire three shots in the darkness and we see Léa scouting the avenue. A cut brings up a close-up of Chitara, who announces that her sister has been arrested again. Speaking to the directors off camera, she recalls hoping that Léa would be able to join her when she started making the film and hoped that she would be able to settle down with the steady income from the business and see more of her three children. But crime never lets you out of its clutches and she is back inside and Chitara worries that she won't be able to cope.


A fade to black presages the reading of a report by undercover narcotics agents detailing how Léa and her friend Monica were observed selling drugs at a school and rendezvousing with a couple at a hotel. The text is read in a perfunctory manner over photographs taken in evidence. We hear a letter from Léa offering her support to Chitara in tough times, as we see bikers capturing an Avante 3 and gutting it before setting it alight. A closing image, shows Léa riding on the back of Cocão's bike, which is surrounded by motoqueiros.


Adirley Queirós grew up in Ceilândia and his acute insights into way in which the state views this dumping ground for outcasts are evident in every frame of this potent study of a country in crisis. Having previously served as his cinematographer on Once There Was Brasilia (2017), Joana Pimenta shares the directorial credit for bringing some of the audiovisual rigour that she had acquired from her time at the Sensory Ethnographic Lab at Harvard, which had been responsible for such landmark actualities as Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel's Leviathan (2012).


Playing variations of themselves (and being amused that they had become actresses), Joana Darc Furtado and Léa Alves da Silva embody the spirit and soul of Sol Nascente, while also retaining the fierce individuality that has been forged in the battle to reach this point in their hardscrabble lives. They make no apologies for their criminality, as they see breaking the law as an act of resistance.


Refusing to depict their characters as victims, Queirós and Pimenta similarly make no bones about preferring these bandit queens to those backing Bolsonaro. At times, they come close to fetishising their outlaw status, most notably in the long takes of the derrick pounding the earth, the sisters bestriding the compound watchtower and the headlights of the motoqueiros piercing the gloom. But at a time when hopelessness seems to have grasped the world by the throat, this explosive piece of pulp politicising leaves a deep impression of liberatingly inspirational defiance.


THE TERRITORY.


Made over three years between 2018-20, Alex Pritz's The Territory leaves viewers in no doubt about the scale of the damage being done to the Amazon rainforest by those convinced that they are fulfilling a Brazilian form of Manifest Destiny sanctioned by far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, who is hell bent on keeping his genocidal promise to ensure that `there won't be one more inch of Indigenous reserve'.


When the Brazilian government first made contact with the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau people in 1981, their numbers ran into the thousands. Now, under 200 survive, while their 7000-square-mile plot in the state of Rondônia has become an Amazonian island surrounded by farms. Environmental activist Neidinha Bandeira sends up a drone, she sees the swathes of deforested terrain and 18 year-old Bitaté is dismayed by the disregard the `landgrabbers' have for his home. Pritz uses close-ups of beavering insects and children playing to reinforce the sense of an idyll being ravaged, as Bitaté demonstrates how he can hold his breath under water for 45 seconds.


He needs such tenacity, as the elders have chosen him to lead the Jupau Association dedicated to resisting the theft of Indigenous lands. However, presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro has the support of those like 49 year-old farm worker, Sérgio, who claims that it is the Brazilian dream to own enough land to make a living. He has spent his life toiling for others and believes he deserves to be his own boss, especially as the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau have no right to occupy the soil without making a contribution to the national economy.


Younger settler Martins resents being branded a criminal for taking Indigenous land and feels activists like Neidinha are betraying those seeking to better themselves. When loggers trespass on to Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau territory, Neidinha calls the Indigenous Affairs Agency and is informed that it's powerless to intervene. So, Bitaté and Ari organise watch parties to keep tabs on the invaders because they know the rainforest is vital for the entire planet and not just their tribe.


But the Association of Rural Producers of Rio Bonito care only for staking their claim and seizing what they insist is their Promised Land. Sérgio is proud that his cattle farm looks like something from an old Western movie and has nothing but contempt for the indolent Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau. Martins and his crew wield chainsaws and set fires to decimate the forest, as the camera depicts the ferocious flames lighting up the night sky. As Pritz prowls through the scorched earth the next morning, Neidinha laments the fate of the animals that will have perished.


As president of Rio Bonito, Sérgio wants to do things by the book and ensure that documents are secured for each enterprise. But Martins is an opportunist and boasts to Pritz that no one can tell him what to do. Bitaté chairs a meeting and has to persuade some of the elders against meeting force with force, as he knows the invaders have friends in high places. Neidinha briefs journalists about the failure of the police to help the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau, but she's sent into a spin when someone calls claiming to have abducted her daughter, Kim, and she has to dash home to check she is safe.


Time passes and Martins builds a shack on his scorched plot, while Sérgio urges members to refrain from acting outside the Association, as it will undermine its credibility. When the Indigenous Affairs Agency demands proof of land grabs, Ari arranges patrols. But he is beaten and left for dead at the side of the road and is distraught at losing a true guardian of the forest. Bitaté vows to carry on his work and uses drones to survey the forest for signs of activity.


However, by August 2020, Neidinha is more concerned that intruders will spread Coronavirus among the Indigenous peoples, who will have no means to counteract the virus. The pandemic prompts Bitaté to lead an expedition deep into Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau to record evidence of incursion to show to the authorities. They torch an illegally erected shack and arrest a man they find on a recce. He claims not to know that he had strayed on to Indigenous land, but Bitaté isn't buying his excuses.


A news montage reveals that he has become something of a vigilante celebrity after capturing 30 invaders and destroying encampments. The bad publicity causes politicians to desert the Association and Sérgio closes it down. He vows to fight on, as we see him spraying pesticides in an area filled with insects and butterflies. Martins also has no intention of quitting, even though his dwelling has been razed. By contrast, Neidinha protects her home with a high wall and razor wire, as she pledges to honour Ari's memory by furthering his cause.


Bitaté grows into his leadership role and uses technology to preserve the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau language and alert the wider world to the defence of the territory. Closing captions, however, reveal that invasions doubled in 2021 in a 15-year high. Nothing has been done to stop them and no one has been charged with Ari's murder.


Providing a harrowing insight into the shameful ease with this the lungs of the planet are being destroyed, this is an important film that needs to be seen. Yet it's not always as impactful as it might be, as the debuting director fails to drive home significant points.


Bitaté's grandfather mentions how much things have changed since his boyhood, but his recollections don't make the cut. Consequently, we get little sense of the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau culture and lifestyle that is being threatened, even though we clearly see the spoliation of the rainforest itself. Nothing is explained about the people's social structures (apparently, they live in six adjoining villages) or the extent to which they interact with neighbouring groups, such as the Amondawa and Uru Pa In.


Visually and aurally, this is a highly loaded treatise, with the emotive close-ups of hard-working insects and decorous butterflies leaving us in little doubt where Pritz's sympathies lie. Katya Mihailova's score similarly strives to shape the viewer's responses, as it contrasts the sustainable simplicity of the Indigenous existence with the destructive pillaging of the interlopers.


Despite going puzzlingly easy on Bolsonaro and his cronies, Pritz gives the encroachers a chance to make their case, although neither Sérgio nor Martins makes a particularly persuasive spokesman. Yet, while allowing these would-be pioneers to damn themselves with their xenophobic pronouncements, Pritz says nothing about the developed world consumers who have created the demand for the products that agribusiness conglomerates feel justify their monstrous act of ecological vandalism.


Having established a reputation as a documentary cinematographer with Jon Kasbe's When Lambs Become Lions (2018) and Matthew Heineman's The First Wave (2021), Pritz undoubtedly has a fine eye. He also seems to be a good teacher, as the footage captured in his absence by Tangae Uru-eu-wau-wau is indistinguishable in Carlos Rojas Felice's deft edit. But he might have benefited from a touch more guidance from producer Darren Aronofsky in presenting his compellingly disconcerting material.



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