- David Parkinson
Parky At the Pictures (20/11/2020)
(Reviews of Relic; 7 Hours on Earth; White Riot; and That Click)
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 during Lockdown 2, 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.
In turning her 2017 short, Creswick, into the 2019 feature, Relic, Japanese Australian Natalie Erika James reflects upon the creeping inevitability of decay and death with a chilling assurance that has drawn comparisons with Jennifer Kent's The Babadook (2014) and Ari Aster's Hereditary (2018). However, memories of the debutant's grandmother's descent into Alzheimer's and Hideo Nakata's Dark Water (2002) seem equally significant influences on a variation on the old dark house saga that disconcerts despite occasionally over-straining for effect.
When the Creswick police call Kay (Emily Mortimer) in Melbourne to alert her to the fact that her elderly mother, Edna (Robyn Nevin), has not been seen for several days, she travels into the countryside with her own daughter, Sam (Bella Heathcote), to help with the search. They discover the house locked from the inside and find Post-its dotted around the rooms reminding Edna to do everything from take her pills to avoid following a mysterious `it'.
Noticing a black mould growing on an upstairs wall, the women also hear unexplained knocking coming from behind the walls. Kay explains that the house was built after her great grandfather had succumbed to dementia in a shack in the woods. However, the stained glass portal from that building was incorporated into the front door and Kay admits that she has never felt comfortable in the place and has tried to stay away as much as possible, even though that has prompted a growing detachment from her mother.
While smoking in the garden, Sam bumps into Jamie (Chris Bunton), a neighbour with Down Syndrome who reveals that his father, Alex (Jeremy Stanford), had told him to stop visiting Edna. Sam says nothing to her mother, who has been having nightmares about a blackened, putrefying figure in an outhouse in the nearby woods. Her fears are alleviated, however, when Edna suddenly reappears and the doctor declares that she is in surprisingly good health, apart from her fading memory and a large black bruise on her chest. Carving candles with determined skill, Edna is at a loss to explain her disappearance and causes Kay to bump her head when she pleads with her to check that nothing is hiding under the bed.
Much to Sam's dismay, Kay announces that she is planning to put Edna in a home and returns to Melbourne to tour a promising facility. While they're alone, Edna encourages Sam to live her own life and gives her a ring. Shortly afterwards, she accuses her granddaughter of theft and Sam is surprised and hurt. She seeks out Alex, who informs her that he stopped letting Jamie visit after Edna had locked him in a cupboard during a game of hide-and-seek and forgotten all about him.
That night, Kay follows Edna into the garden and tries to prevent her from destroying a photograph album and burying it. Her mother bites her and storms off into the house. She wets herself and Kay notices that her urine puddle contains traces of the black mould. Moreover, the bruise on Edna's torso has begun to suppurate and Kay is too preoccupied to notice the bath overflow and short circuit the entire house when the water seeps into an electric bar fire.
The plunge into darkness leaves Sam in a panic, as she has become lost after wandering into the network of corridors that she had found behind the wardrobe. Disconcerted by the damp coating the detritus deposited in the unfeasibly large, but nevertheless claustrophobic rooms, Sam begins to bang on the walls for help. Eventually, she kicks her way through the plasterboard and Kay pulls her to safety. However, they are pursued by Edna, who is picking at her flesh with a knife. Kay lashes out at her when she corners Sam, but pauses when Edna points to a note bearing the words, `I AM LOVED'.
Noticing that the mould has stopped spreading, Kay carries her mother's wheezing corpse to the bed. She helps her peel away the last vestiges of her hair and skin and lies down beside Edna's blackened form. As Sam joins them, she sees a small bruise on her mother's neck and realises that she is already starting to deteriorate and that she will follow in due course.
The poignant finale does much to salvage a picture that starts to lose its way after Kay's visit to the old people's home. Prior to that the mystery of Edna's whereabouts, as well as the cause of the mouldering and the source of the knocking, had given proceedings a measuredly creepy feel. But Edna's irrational outbursts and Sam's entrapment in an impossible labyrinth are more prosaic and it comes as no surprise when the lights fail and James becomes reliant on jolts in the darkness.
This owes more to the flaws in the screenplay written by James and Christian White than to any directorial misstep, Abetted by Denise Haratzis and Sean Lahiff, James sustains the growing sense of unease by seamlessly incorporating Kay's dreams. Moreover, she keeps Charlie Saroff's camera prowling cautiously in the crepuscular gloom around Steven Jones-Evans's interiors and it's only when they begin to wind and narrow around Sam like the closing avenues of Edna's mind that the illusion and allusion start to feel forced, particularly as Brian Reitzell's score and Robert Mackenzie's sound design aren't always as subtle as they might be.
With her white hair serving as a bellwether, Robyn Nevin ably judges the shifts in Edna's mental state, while Emily Mortimer runs the gamut of emotions from feeling guilty for neglecting her mother to wondering whether she will be able to cope with attempting to atone by taking her in. Faced with the less defined role of the daughter en route to repeating her mother's mistakes, Bella Heathcote struggles to impact until she finds herself trapped behind the walls and is given licence to go into Scream Queen mode. But the nuanced performances, the malignant ambience and charred prosthetics are judged well enough to remind us of the fate that awaits us all.
7 HOURS ON EARTH.
A summer well spent is revealed in 7 Hours on Earth, an ambitious project that was filmed during the 2017 holidays by Patricia Sharpe, the English and Film Studies teacher at Graveney School in Tooting. Working from a screenplay by Steve Smith, Sharpe has cannily shown how Shakespeare can be fun, while also giving a few of her pupils a chance to work alongside some professional actors.
While Helen (Rufiat Awolope) is happy best mate Charlotte (Ramona Marquez) is dating classmate Louis (Byron Easmon), she can't decide whether she wants to go out with Dan (Gus Flind-Henry) or just be friends. They are all due to work on the school production of Romeo and Juliet and drama teacher Hugh Jass (Karl Queensborough) is becoming increasingly stressed as the big day arrives. The headmaster (Harry Jardine) hopes that a successful show will bring the school some much-needed publicity. But he is more concerned that his Russian assistant, Veronika (Ruby Richardson), wants to terminate their relationship so that she can start seeing the hunky PE teacher, Mr Adamant (Matt Underwood).
As the Head and Veronika are chiding the day's miscreants, a spaceship crashes nearby and the alien crew take over the bodies of everyone in the Head's study while they work out how to get home. Being unfamiliar with Earthlings, the Head sends Milly (Shanaya Henry) to mingle with the kids while he strives to assume an air of authority without giving the game away. Unfortunately, Milly unwittingly becomes a latterday Puck from A Midsummer Night's Dream.
Meanwhile, Charlotte's father (Martin Marquez) has grounded her so that she can't help out backstage at the play and Milly overhears her woes. In trying to find a solution, however, she complicates matters by making Louis fall for Helen, while Dan becomes besotted with Charlotte. Elsewhere, Hugh Jass is close to breaking point because Lauren (Jasmine Rowland), who is playing Juliet, has decided that the Bard's text is too politically incorrect to be suitable for the 21st century and is busy rewriting speeches to reflect woke notions of gender equality and fluidity.
Naturally, everything falls into place before the curtain goes up, but Sharpe and her charges have a good deal of fun in the interim. Familiar from the BBC sitcom, Outnumbered, Ramona Marquez revels in playing a teenpic role alongside her classmates. Rufiat Awolope impresses as the hesitant Helen, although Jasmine Rowland comes close to stealing the show with her astute observations on Shakespearean terminology.
Sporting a pair of furry antlers, Harry Jardine enjoys himself as the highly strung Head, who remains in character even after his extraterrestrial possession. Ruby Richardson proves an admirable comic foil (she has the best line in sparring with the alien leader: `he is twice the disembodied entity that you will ever be'), while Karl Queensborough neatly sends up the cliché of the trendy teacher trying to show the kids how cool he is. The production values (including the delightfully low-wattage special effects) are solid enough and, while the script might meander in places, it raises plenty of smiles in melding Joe Cornish's Attack the Block (2011) with Grange Hill (1978-2008).
Expanding on her 2017 short of the same name, Rubika Shah uses the feature documentary, White Riot, to examine the role that Rock Against Racism played in preventing the National Front from securing a footing at the British ballot box at a time of social and industrial unrest. What's readily and dismayingly apparent is that many of the attitudes that sustained this pernicious organisation have resurfaced during the Brexit debate and, as in 1979, the Conservative Party has made itself a sanctuary for such bigots rather than denouncing them for their intolerance and ignorance. Labour's once proud record on this issue has, of course, been scuffed by Jeremy Corbyn and Momentum's damning refusal to eradicate anti-Semitism. But, with the Black Lives Matter campaign garnering positive headlines in the wake of the tragic killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, this 2019 film feels both timely and significant.
When Eric Clapton infamously offered his support to Enoch Powell during a concert in Birmingham in 1976, he was not alone in flirting with the extreme right. Rod Stewart had used the term `the man' in discussing Powell, who had become the acceptable face of British racism following his inciteful 1968 `Rivers of Blood' speech. Even David Bowie had suggested that the country wasn't far away from having a fascist leader, while Sid Vicious and Siouxsie Sioux had been pictured with wearing swastikas. Elsewhere, the viewing schedules on Britain's three TV channels found room for The Black and White Minstrel Show (1958-78), as well as sitcoms like Love Thy Neighbour (1972-76) and It Ain't Half Hot Mum (1974-81).
Yet, while Martin Webster was whipping up support for the National Front, it wasn't Labour Prime Minister James Callaghan who led the chorus of disapproval, but a Red Saunders, a member of the Kartoon Klowns agit-prop theatre troupe who was best known for playing a character named Mr Oligarchy. He fired off a letter to the New Musical Express in which he dubbed Clapton `a colonialist of black music' in calling for a movement to remove the `racist poison' from music. When no one else came forward, Saunders founded Rock Against Racism and joined forces with the likes of Syd Shelton, Ruth Gregory, Roger Huddle, Lucy Whitman and Kate Webb to produce a poster-zine called Temporary Hoarding to promote the cause of a `rebel music' that would confound the bigots.
Shah makes deft use of zine iconography and animation to enliven the archive material that survived an arson fire at Saunders's studio in 1993. She also includes interviews from the members of School Kids Against the Nazis and explains how punk and reggae joined forces on RAR bills across the country to raise consciousness. Yet, while she references Saunders's Nigerian childhood, Gregory's experience of Aboriginal apartheid in Australia and Webb's parental connections with the Civil Rights movement and the Prague Spring, Shah skates over internal tensions within RAR and its often fractious relationship with the Anti-Nazi League. Moreover, she avoids a discussion of the fact that RAR's leadership were largely white and says nothing about the role that Black and Asian activists played in the campaign.
Instead, Shah chronicles the organisation of the Carnival Against the Nazis, which saw tens of thousands march from Trafalgar Square on 30 April 1978 alongside giant heads of Webster, John Tyndall and Adolf Hitler that had been made by Peter Fluck and Roger Law, who would soon be household names as the creators of Spitting Image. The Metropolitan Police had scoffed along the route, but around 100,000 attended a gig at the toiletless Victoria Park in Hackney. The Tom Robinson Band shared the bill with X-Ray Spex, Steel Pulse and The Clash, who were joined on `White Riot' by Jimmy Pursey of Sham 69, who was keen to disassociate his band from the Neo-Nazi cause.
Pauline Black from The Selector, Steel Pulse's Mykaell Riley and Clash drummer Topper Headon reflect on a day that helped change the tone of the debate. But, in overlooking the extent to which Margaret Thatcher offered xenophobes a haven within the Tory Party, Shah concludes somewhat fancifully that Rock Against Racism more than did its bit to ensure that the NF failed to make gains during the 1979 election. It certainly helped mobilise British youth and it's intriguing to hear accents from across the country in the vox pops taken on the day.
It might have been useful to have added a coda to mention the Militant Entertainment Tour that took the message to the provinces and the emergence of Rock Against Sexism. Similarly, with the film only running 80 minutes, Shah might have examined RAR's legacy and considered the political aspects of the modern music scene. Nevertheless, this is a valuable record and would make a decent double bill with Jack Hazen and David Mingay's Rude Boy (1980).
In his six decades as a prominent photographer, Douglas Kirkland has worked with over 600 A-list celebrities and can number 150 films among his 2000+ assignments. Now 86, he is still working and producing imaginative images that capture the personality and spirit of his sitters. However, he is poorly served by Luca Severi in the documentary profile, That Click, which can't make up its mind whether it's a serious artistic study or a puff piece.
Hailing from Fort Eerie in Ontario, Kirkland joined the staff of Look magazine at the age of 24 and quickly scored two notable assignments when he got to accompany Judy Garland to the Berlin premiere of Stanley Kramer's Judgment At Nuremberg (1961) and was treated to a private audience with Marilyn Monroe. Ignoring her advances, Kirkland took a series of pictures that showed the troubled star in a new light of hazy positivity and he was distraught when he heard of her tragic death a few months later.
Current stars including Sharon Stone, Nicole Kidman, Michelle Williams Elle Fanning, Tracee Ellis Ross, Juan Pablo Raba and Andy Garcia line up to gush about Kirkland's genius. Kidman and Williams convey something of the working methods he employs to coax a sitter out of their shell, but Stone spouts buzz words that sound like they have been gleaned from a speed reading of a Wikipedia article on photo aesthetics. Directors Baz Luhrman and Luca Guadagnino are similarly highfalutin, although designer Catherine Martin and fellow shutterbugs Gerd Ludwig, Jean-Pierre Laffont and Lauren Greenfield have more useful things to impart, as do wife Françoise and son Mark, who discuss domestic issues, as well as the toll taken by the closure of Look and Kirkland's switch to Life magazine. But the standard of contribution is rather summed up by Paris Hilton's vacuous interjection.
While he displays plenty of howling energy in the studio and is well aware of his standing in the photographic fraternity, Kirkland isn't much of a raconteur and his recollections of working on Robert Wise's The Sound of Music (1965), Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), James Cameron's Titanic (1997) and Luhrman's Moulin Rouge! (2001) are fond rather than fascinating. Whether covering the curating of a gallery exhibition or compiling lustrous montages. Severi does justice to Kirkland's pictures. But this falls far short of the recent studies of war photographers like Don McCullin and Tim Hetherington, as well as the likes of Leon Gast's Ron Galela study, Smash His Camera (2010); Richard Press's Bill Cunningham New York (2012); John Maloof and Charlie Siskel's Finding Vivian Maier (2014); and Laura Israel's Don't Blink - Robert Frank (2016).