• David Parkinson

Parky At the Pictures (21/2/2020)

(Reviews of First Love; Little Joe; End of the Century; Incidental Characters; Il Campione; and Midnight Family)


FIRST LOVE.


The ridiculously prolific Japanese auteur, Takaski Miike, racked up his 100th directorial credit with Blade of the Immortal (2017). He has slowed down a little since, with First Love (2019) being only the third feature he has completed since reaching the milestone. It's hard to believe that he is running out of inspiration. But Miike is now in his fourth decade as a director and devotees will note the overlap between this combustible clash between a Japanese yakuza gang and some Chinese Triad interlopers and his punishing 1995 opus, Shinjuku Triad Society. Ever the genre buster, however, Miike has decided to zhuzh up the formula by incorporating a sweetly offbeat romance, as he reunites with producer Jeremy Thomas for the fourth time after their jidai-geki collaborations on 13 Assassins (2010), Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai (2011) and the aforementioned Blade of the Immortal.


Amateur boxer Leo Katsuragi (Masataka Kubota) ignores the advice of his trainer and goes about his business in a non-showy way. He is profiled by a reporter from Boxing World, who has discovered that Leo never knew his parents. Meanwhile, Yuri (Sakurako Konishi) works as a prostitute under the name of Monica for Yasu (Takahiro Miura) and his Eurasian mistress Julie (Becky Rabone), who also have a lucrative sideline dealing drugs. The local yakuza gang insist it has nothing to do with such a sordid trade and blame the beheading of a Filipino dealer (whose continues to look bemused after his decapitation) on the Triad cabal that is trying to muscle on to their turf. Detective Otomo (Nao Omori) leaves renegade lieutenant Kase (Shota Sometani) in no doubt that he doesn't believe his protestations and is quietly amused when he raises the prospect of going into business together with a confiscated consignment of meth that is due to arrive in the next couple of days.


A senior yakuza boss with a leg brace (Sansei Shiomi) is concerned by the escalation of tensions with triad leader One-Armed Wang (Yen Cheng-kuo), who lost a limb to Gondo (Seiyo Uchino), who has just returned from a prison stretch and is keen to impose himself upon both the gang and the neighbourhood. But Kase wants to exploit the situation and explains to Otomo how they can get hold of the drugs that are going to be deposited with Yasu and Julie by arresting Monica and offering her in exchange for the stash. They will have no option but to comply, as Monica has connections with the yakuza because she is paying off the debts accrued by her abusive father.


It all sounds so straightforward and risk free. But they hadn't counted on Leo, who is wandering the streets in a daze after being informed that he has an inoperable tumour on his brain. He is feeling frustrated after having a tarot reading that claims he's in perfect health and sees Otomo and Monica on a `date' and intervenes when it looks as though she is fleeing from him (when she is actually running from a vision of her abusive father). She is impressed by the way in which he laid out Otomo with a single punch and confuses him with a classmate who had protected her from her father when she was a girl.


While they get better acquainted, Kase ambushes Yasu and steals the bag of drugs, while Julie becomes so agitated while overcoming a mugger that she caves in his skull with her foot. She returns home to find Yasu dead and calls Gondo, who wants to avenge the death with sidekicks Ichikawa (Jun Murakami) and Joshima (Masayuki Deai). However, the latter suspects that Kase is up to no good, especially when he draws the conclusion that the Chinese killed Yasu, and he calls his Triad contact, Fu (Duan Chun-hao), to warn him that Gondo is on the warpath.


Fu orders Chiachi (Mami Fujioka) to rally her minions and prepare for a turf war. But Kase is also having to think fast on his feet, as Otomo has called to report Monica as missing, along with his police badge, which will land him in deep trouble if someone ties up the loose ends. However, he suggests that they should be able to find her because Yasu would have fitted a tracking device into her phone and Kase knocks out Julie to steal Yasu's phone to get access to the app. As he dumps Julie's comatose body on her bed, however, he disturbs her elderly grandmother and is forced to punch her to stop her from calling for help. Unfortunately, he kills her with the blow and uses a wind-up yapping dog toy to cause a delayed action fire to allow him to get away, while destroying any incriminating evidence. But Julie wakes up in time and jumps through a window to safety before vowing to get even.


She's not the only one on Kase's tail, however, as Joshima catches him collecting the drugs he has hidden in a locker. But he isn't as clever as he thinks, as Kase tasers him and drives over his head in his getaway car. He hooks up with Otomo and they go in search of Monica using the GPS in Yasu's phone. However, Julie has also put a device in her lover's phone and she asks Gondo and Ichikawa to help her nab Yase and punish him for murdering Yasu.


Having taken pity on Monica, Leo offers to escort her to her father's old address to prove that she no longer has to fear him. On the train across town, he tries to calm Monica down with some music, but she merely imagines her father dancing along in the middle of the compartment in his white Y-fronts. No sooner has she satisfied herself that her father has vanished than they are attacked by a couple of thugs and Leo kills one and wings the other, who is finished off by Otomo's van as it screeches to a halt. A confused Leo is happy to return Otomo's badge in return for some elucidation. But they have barely begun to scratch the surface when they have to grind to a halt because Gondo and Ichikawa have blocked the road.


They unleash the crowbar-wielding Julie's fury. But Otomo manages to steer the people carrier around her and beat a hasty retreat as Chiachi tries to ambush them. Kase is wounded in the hand and he becomes delirious when Monica spills some heroin on his crotch and starts scooping it up with her hand. However, she recovers her composure and decides she's better off without drugs and needs to keep her wits about her when Otomo crashes the van in an underground car park and Leo steers Monica into a handy hiding place in a nearby supermarket. As they catch their breath, Leo checks his phone and hears a slew of messages from Dr Sakai (Kenichi Takitoh) informing him that there had been a muddle at the hospital and that he is in rude health.


Stunned by the revelation and no longer recklessly indifferent to death, Leo finds himself face to face with a gun-toting Chiachi. She accepts his word that he is merely in the wrong place and is so impressed by his refusal to abandon Monica that she allows them both to leave unscathed. Kase isn't so fortunate, however, as he walks into Chiachi's blade-twirling accomplice. He manages to dispatch him, but stumbles into Julie, who picks up the samurai sword and removes his right arm with a single swipe before lopping off his head.


Kicking the skull along an aisle, Julie kneels to inspect the bag of drugs and looks up to find Fu looming over her. It's the last thing she sees and Otomo hopes that the mayhem is finally over. But Ichikawa, Gondo and One-Armed Wang have now joined the fray, with the latter proving a dab hand and operating a pump-action shotgun. Intent on avenging the loss of his arm, Wang launches himself at Gondo and, while they fight, Otomo and Chiachi walk into a waiting police reception committee and are gunned down. Leo and Monica are also waylaid Fu, only for Monica to mistake him for her father and kick him in the groin.


Leo finishes off Fu with some well-aimed punches, while Gondo offs Wang. He asks Leo if he can drive and tells him to put his trust in Japanese engineering before ordering him to crash through a wall on an upper storey and make their getaway. Suddenly, the action becomes animated in the most gloriously garish manner and is accompanied by a cartoonish `Vroom', as the vehicle flies through the air and lands on the concourse below. As they screech off with the cops in full pursuit, Gondo tells Leo and Monica to create a snow screen by emptying the heroin bags out of the window so that he can take the wheel and they can disappear into the night.


As Gondo drives across a long bridge at dawn with a phalanx of cop cars in his slipstream, Leo and Monica wait for a train to pass at a level crossing. Much to her amazement, the classmate who had protected her is standing across the tracks with his pregnant wife. They chat awkwardly before Monica walks on and accepts Leo's invitation to move into his bedsit. She goes through cold turkey, while he returns to the ring and finally fulfils his potential with a knockout victory.


A closing long shot has Leo and Yuri (as she is again now) going into their poky flat above a busy thoroughfare before Koji Endo's fabulous score (which sounds like a pastiche of every hard-hitting crime show made by the BBC and ITV in the 1970s) hurls us into the credits. But, as their characters have been so thinly sketched and blithely slotted into scenes as Miike and screenwriter Masaru Nakamura see fit, it's hard to summon much enthusiasm for their happy ever after. They're certainly entitled to a second chance after surviving such an ordeal and Masataka Kubota and Sakurako Konishi have their affecting moments during those rare moments when the pace slackens and they are allowed to approximate human beings rather than comic-strip characters.


Shota Sometani also does a nice line in world-weary shrugs and double takes, as fate keeps conspiring against him, while Becky Rabone rages to the manor scorned as the far from feminist avenging angel. But, when it comes to acting, all that matters in a Miike movie is that the cast commits to the director's gleeful senses of the macabre and the absurd. In terms of transgressive shock value, this may pale beside some of Miike's earlier provocations. But he is clearly having a ball, as he makes jokes about incestuous abuse, modern slavery, drug addiction and organised crime. So, with cinematographer Nobuyasu Kita and editor Akira Kamiya pulling out all the stops, there seems little point in trying to resist the darkly comedic pull of a propulsively preposterous, Macguffin-stuffed plot that basically reworks a traditional fairytale scenario by pitching the babes out of their wood and into a Shinjuku jungle, where the baddies have an impressive arsenal at their disposal. No one else makes films like this, so we need to relish Miike for as long as he does.


LITTLE JOE.


In surveys of New Austrian Cinema, Jessica Hausner has often been assessed in the slipstream of Michael Haneke and Ulrich Seidl. She certainly shares their fascination with the darker impulses that lurk beneath society's surface sheen. But Hausner tends to imbue her studies of women negotiating the pitfalls of modern existence with a disarming wit and ambiguity that prompts viewers to question the mode and meaning of what they are watching, while re-evaluating their assumptions about the workings of civilisation.


Since debuting with an offbeat dissection of family life in Lovely Rita (2001), Hausner has put a revisionist spin on the psychological horror movie in Hotel (2004), satirised organised religion and the myths of faith in Lourdes (2009) and challenged the conventions of the historical biopic in Amour Fou (2014). She has also channelled her inner Chantal Akerman in subverting the traditional iconography of women in Western art in the 2006 gallery installation. Toast. Now, the 47 year-old Hausner makes her English-language debut with Little Joe, which borrows tropes from such sci-fi staples as Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, John Wyndham's The Day of The Triffids and Jack Finney's Body Snatchers to expose the extent to which humanity is being slow-walked into a state of compliant conformity.


In a large growth facility at Planthouse Biotechnologies, genetic engineers Alice Woodard (Emily Beecham) and Chris (Ben Whishaw) demonstrate a new strain of flower that thrives when being touched and spoken to and which rewards care and attention with a scent that not only causes euphoria, but also releases oxytocin to reinforce the bond between the plant and its grower. Chris is proud to be working on the project and Alice's 12 year-old son, Joe (Kit Connor), notices that he has a crush on her. She dismisses the notion and brushes aside an awkward invitation for a drink after work. But she does smuggle one of her plants home and names it `Little Joe' in honour of her son, who agrees to lavish attention upon it.


Alice shares the experimentation space with her Irish boss, Karl (David Wilmot), and Bella (Kerry Fox), who are working on a breed of blue tulips that can survive weeks of neglect to suit owners who wish to go on extended holidays. Bella is allowed to bring her dog, Bello, to work and Chris enjoys throwing its ball in the corridor outside the meticulously regulated greenhouse. However, the teams are in competition with each other and the poppy-bobbed Alice shows little remorse when her livid red strain (which she has designed to be sterile) starts aggressively pollinating and killing off Karl and Bella's flowers. She is equally unconcerned when Bello goes missing for a night and returns the next day with a barking refusal to have anything to do with Bella, who insists that her pet has changed beyond all recognition.


While searching for Bello, Chris accidentally comes into contact with the Little Joe pollen and twice tries to kiss Alice while they are having a drink after work because Joe is spending the weekend with his father. Ivan (Sebastian Hülk). She resists him, even though she admits that Joe has designs on them becoming a couple. Chris tells Alice that Bella had been on compassionate leave after having attempted to commit suicide and had since come to rely on Bello as a source of affection.


Back home, Joe does his best to tend his plant. But he is also showered with pollen and he seems strangely subdued by the time Alice gets home. She receives a visit from Bella, who explains that she has had Bello put down because he was no longer her dog. Alice is puzzled when Bella describes the test results conducted by the vet and suggests that there is no evidence to connect Little Joe to Bello's drift into a form of canine dementia.


Karl and his assistant, Jasper (Andrew Rajan), are unhappy with Alice for her maverick approach to the Little Joe project and note that Chris has become overly protective of her and the plants. Alice asks Ric (Phénix Brossard) to show her interviews with the guinea pigs exposed to Little Joe and she's struck by how happy everyone is and how eager they are to sing the flower's praise. However, she fails to sees the changes in Joe that Ivan detects during a fishing weekend and she is oblivious to the fact that he has borrowed her security pass to smuggle classmate Selma (Jessie Mae Alonzo) into lab. As neither wears a protective mask, they inhale the pollen (which Selma thinks smells `sexy') and kiss before stealing a plant to rear in secret.


Bella approaches Alice and posits that Little Joe has learnt how to dupe people into protecting it because it knows that it has a duty to survive because it's been denied to opportunity to reproduce. Alice is sceptical, but she is disturbed when Joe brings Selma home for dinner and she watches them watering the plant like Midwich Cuckoos. She is also upset when Joe announces that he would prefer to live with Ivan, as she is too preoccupied with work to look after him properly. Watching more interviews with the pollen test patients, Alice sees mothers and husbands complaining that they no longer recognise their loved ones after they came into contact with Little Joe and became almost spaced out.


After Bella is accused of tampering with the thermostat to sabotage the thriving red plants, Alice starts to wonder if Little Joe has developed a human pathogenic virus that has the potential to warp people's brains. Chris warns her not to make such wild theories public and insists that they did the right thing in making Little Joe sterile, as genetic modification cannot be allowed to have knock-on effects on Nature. Reluctantly, Alice goes along with his advice, but she is disturbed when she goes to collect Joe from school and he tries to avoid her. He also comes up with excuses not to spend time with her over the weekend and she fears they are drifting apart.


Ric asks Bella to feed the plants, as his girlfriend has had an accident. While in the hothouse, Bella notices the lights change to emit a pinkish hue and the Little Joes begin to puff out their pollen. She tries to open the door, but the system refuses to respond and she is forced to scale the metal tubing against the glass wall to clamber out of a window. When Alice greets her the next day, Bella shrugs off her previous antipathy towards the project and blames it on her mental instability. When Chris catches up with them, she reveals that she inhaled some of the pollen herself and he smiles when Bella insists that Little Joe is a harmless plant doing what it needs to do to survive.


Feeling anxious, Alice consults her psychiatrist (Lindsay Duncan) about Bella's dramatic change of heart and Joe's growing coldness. In recording notes after the session, the therapist describes Alice as a workaholic, who may be struggling with a subconscious desire to rid herself of her son so that she can devote more time to her job. Alice feels particularly maternal, however, when she gets home to find Chris chatting to Joe and Selma. She asks him to leave and brushes off his protestations of love. When she tries to talk to Joe, however, she is horrified when he reveals that he has become a different person since inhaling the pollen and that he and Selma now belong to a select group dedicated to serving the species. Alice is confused when the pair burst out laughing and admit that they were joking, but something about their behaviour keeps bothering her.


She confesses to Karl that she ignored protocols in engineering Little Joe, but he seems unconcerned. Indeed, after Bella reveals in the canteen that she had been feigning symptoms in order to be left alone, Karl and Chris try to silence her and Ric blocks Alice's path to stop her from going to Bella's aid. By the time she finds her, she has fallen down some stairs and Alice is unsure whether Bella has tried to kill herself again or whether Karl and Chris have indulged in some foul play. Back in the canteen, Karl announces that work must go on to get Little Joe ready for the flower fair and he instructs the staff to stop wearing safety masks, as the plant has been declared perfectly safe.


Unconvinced, Alice goes into the glasshouse and lowers the temperature in a bid to kill the strain. But Chris wrestles the key from her grasp and removes her mask after punching her cold. A short time later, Karl announces that Little Joe has won a major well-being prize and that orders are flooding in from schools and hospitals. He also hopes that they can do some business with the European Union. As they raise a glass to the project, Alice and Chris kiss and make up. She also agrees to let Joe move to his father's remote cottage in the hills and tells her shrink that she feels back on an even keel and is almost relieved that she can focus on her work, while Joe gets to know his father. Alone in her cosy home in Liverpool's Georgian district, she wishes her Little Joe goodnight and the plant responds and calls her `mum'.


Emily Beecham won the Best Actress prize at Cannes for her arresting performance as a non-maternal giver of life in this unsettling, but never entirely persuasive study in post-millennial paranoia. Despite the picture's overall lack of scientific conviction, she's well supported by Kerry Fox, Ben Whishaw and young Kit Connor, who capably conveys the sense of having been transformed by a mutation that less possesses a victim with alien traits than strips them of their essential humanity. The off-kilter cadence patterns reinforce the nagging suspicion that all is not well in an elegant part of Liverpool whose origins lie in the Slave Trade. But, while the Georgian merchants sold their souls for gold, the acolytes of Little Joe are prepared to swap the complexities of existence for a state of bliss predicated on a slavish willingness to serve their benefactor.


Some commentators have declared that Hausner and co-scenarist Géraldine Bajard are critiquing a society that has been lulled into acquiescent dependence by psychotropic chicanery. But this Cronenbergian excursion into Stepford horticulture could just as easily be about the mollification of the masses by social media, fast food or false promises. Not everyone will buy into the self-consciously colour-coded artifice of the setting or the expository ponderousness of some of the dialogue. Indeed, there will be those who find the conformist replicants just a tiny bit tiresome (after all, it's never good for everyone to fall into line with the prevailing view).


But Hausner tempers the suspense with an icy humour that extends to Martin Gschlacht's gliding camerawork, production designer Katharina Wöppermann's forbiddingly functional interiors and Tanja Hausner's kitschily chic costumes. Consequently, this melancholic treatise on the misuse of science and the commodification of contentment is markedly more effective as a thought-provoking satire than it is a shiver-inducing chiller, although the snippets from Teiji Ito's poundingly brilliant ballet score, Watermill (1971), sets the nerves jangling on more than one occasion.


END OF THE CENTURY.


It only feels like yesterday that the world was fretting about Y2K. But we are now in the third decade of the 21st century and time's irritating insistence on slipping through our fingers is the subject of Argentinian writer-director Lucio Castro's debut feature, End of the Century. Flitting between 1999, the present day and an idealised alternative reality, the action is flecked with references to such film-makers as Michelangelo Antonioni, Eric Rohmer, Richard Linklater, Luca Guadagnino and Andrew Haigh, as Castro (the son of a telenovela actress who has a sideline as a fashion designer) muses on male insecurity and its impact on life-defining choices with a wistfulness that recalls a pivotal quotation from AIDS activist David Wojnarowicz's memoir, Close to the Knives: `If I could figure out a way to remain forever in transition, in the disconnected and unfamiliar, I could remain in a state of perpetual freedom.'


Ocho (Juan Barberini) is visiting Barcelona and the opening 12 minutes show him checking into his Airbnb apartment and wandering around the city. He checks Grindr and masturbates in bed before taking a battered paperback copy of Jules Verne's Around the Moon to the beach. Spotting a handsome man bathing in the, Ocho joins him and is disappointed when he dries himself and disappears. As luck would have it, however, the stranger passes beneath Ocho's window and he calls out `Kiss' to him in a reference to the band logo on his t-shirt.


Accepting an invitation to come up to the apartment, Javi (Ramon Pujol) reveals himself to be the director of a children's TV show, who is based in Berlin. while Ocho explains that he's a poet from New York. They kiss and Javi urges Ocho to slow down, as they stumble into the bedroom. He even insists on Ocho buying condoms, even though he's on PrEP. After sex, Ocho asks Javi about his programme and is amused to hear that Old Dog is about the residents of a rescue kennel. As he dresses, Javi gives Ocho his WhatsApp details before heading back to the next-door apartment where he is staying with his parents.


They meet up later in the day for cheese and wine on Ocho's balcony. He describes coming out of a 20-year relationship and needing to feel free for a while. Javi suggests that we are always alone to a degree, even when we are in a relationship, and asks how they managed to keep their sex life going over such a long time. Ocho is evasive, but Javi is frank in revealing that he is rarely intimate with his husband of two years. as they have an open relationship. However, his priority is their young daughter and they agree that it's important for good people to have children to prevent the world being overtaken by the spawn of bigots.


Ocho has the feeling that they have met before and, as Javi confirms that they have, a cut takes us back to 1999, as Ocho arrives in Barcelona. Whereas he had earlier used his phone to take pictures and get directions, he now has a camera and a folding map (and more grey in his beard then than he has in the present), He has come to stay with his singer friend, Sonia (Mía Maestro), who asks Ocho about his girlfriend before reminiscing about breaking up with her ex during a trip to Goa. She had been proud of herself for taking the plunge so far from home and making her way back to Spain alone. But she couldn't stay alone for long and has a new boyfriend, who just happens to be Javi.


While out taking photographs in a park, Ocho impulsively follows a strapping jogger who beckons him into the bushes. He loses his nerve when the man makes his intentions plain, but he is so turned on that he starts to masturbate against a tree. Much to his embarrassment, the stranger drops to his knees in front of him and Ocho takes to his bed for a couple of days after rushing back to Sonia's flat to vomit and look online for information about the HIV risk of unprotected oral sex.


Javi brings him some pills from the chemist and Sonia keeps an eye on him, while rehearsing a piece of music. However, she has to go away for a day or two and Javi offers to show Ocho the sights. He asks about his nickname (which means `eight') and he reveals that his real name is Gustavo. They discuss parenthood and whether Javi and Sonia plan to have kids. When they visit an art museum, they chat amiably about the exhibits and whether it is better to know something of the background to a piece before seeing it.


While drinking by the waterfront, Javi tells Ocho about the documentary he is making about millennial anxiety and how he is worried that it will become pointess once the clock hand ticks past Y2K. Feeling inspired, Ocho announces that he has decided to quit his job in business administration in order to study literature and become a writer. Walking home, they find a KISS t-shirt and Javi keeps it as a souvenir. They get drunk and smoke a joint while bopping around the flat to the Flock of Seagulls track, `Space Age Love Song'.


All of a sudden, Ocho lurches in to kiss Javi, who tries to laugh it off. But, as they collapse on the sofa, their passion begins to rise and they tear off their clothes. Just as quickly, a cut reveals Javi waking alone and he wanders into Ocho's room to discover he has already packed and left. He picks up the copy of David Wojnarowicz's book, which has been left open on the bed, and the aforementioned quote scrolls across the screen, as Javi reads. Feeling nauseated, Javi runs to the toilet and throws up.


Back in the present, Ocho asks Javi when he had realised that they had met before and he insists it was instant. He reveals that Sonia had provided the egg for his daughter before she had been killed in an accident with a garbage truck while she was singing in New York. Ocho is shocked by the news, as he hadn't kept in touch with her, but he is touched by how closely Javi's daughter resembles her. Javi teases Ocho about the fact that he had wanted a big family and they laugh about how rarely life goes according to plan.


As Javi has a rule with his husband about not forming attachments, he bids farewell and Ocho thanks him for taking care of him 20 years earlier when he thought he had contracted AIDS and that Sonia was providing the soundtrack for his death. They hug and, as Ocho goes back into the room, he treads on a rubber duck squeak toy. He also discovers that the fridge is full of healthy food and that Javi is sleeping in their double bed.


The next morning, he takes care of their toddler, Oona, while Javi is working and they see Sonia busking in a quiet courtyard. Very much in charge of the household, Javi orders Ocho to sort out the clothes he no longer wears and he is reluctant to part with a KISS t-shirt. In bed, Ocho would rather make love than read and Javi agrees to make an effort, as that's what loving couples do. Unable to sleep, they chat on the balcony and Ocho is surprised to look down and see Javi returning next door after their tryst. He opens a beer from the empty fridge and sits down to reflect, as the camera ventures outside to capture various views of the city awakening to another day.


It's clear from the opening passage and the museum diversion that Lucio Castro is a fan of both José Luis Guerin's In the City of Sylvia (2007) and Roberto Rossellini's Journey to Italy (1954). But there's nothing slavishly imitative about this arresting debut, as Castro tinkers with the conventions of screen storytelling, while reflecting on the physical and emotional risks that gay men take when acting upon their instincts. Although Ocho and Javi are notionally creative types taking a short break from their working routines, Castro also avoids preciousness by keeping the conversations on an everyday level, as the chance lovers seek to connect on more than a lustful level.


They are splendidly played by Juan Barberini and Ramon Pujol, although the latter only comes into his own during the reverie sequence, as he becomes the organising partner and even becomes the top in bed. But the chemistry is strongest during the drunken dance routine and as the pair conclude their balcony chat with the realisation that their moment(s) have come and gone and that they can only fantasise about what might have been. That said, this section does contain the screenplay's only major misstep, as the callous manner in which Sonia is disposed borders on glib misogyny.


Otherwise, Bernal Mestres's photography and Robert Lombardo's score capably reinforce the sense of fluidity that permeates proceedings that deftly riff on notions of memory, intimacy, monogamy, artistic aspiration and urban alienation. It's hardly Alain Resnais's Last Year At Marienbad (1961) - which also turns on a possible previous encounter between two supposed strangers - but it has some of its elegance and audacity. Acting as his own editor, Castro's control over the mood and pacing of the piece is exemplary. But it's his attention to tiny detail that makes this almost love story so intriguing and one can only hope that when he comes to navigate that difficult second feature, he manages to avoid the pitfalls and we get to see the results.


INCIDENTAL CHARACTERS.


British regional cinema has come into its own in recent times, with films made in Lancashire, Yorkshire, the North East, East Anglia, Kent and Cornwall all securing a national release. Of course, not everything can be as innovative as Mark Jenkin's Bait. But it's good to see neophytes like Benjamin Verrall putting places like Lewes in East Sussex on the cinematic map with his nicely judged 2015 short, Lovers Lane, and his promisingly offbeat feature bow, Incidental Characters.


Opening with an e.e. cummings quote about the value of being yourself in a world doing its darnedest to turn you into someone else, the story swiftly introduces us to Josie Jackson (Sophia Capasso), Tony McGinley (Steve Watts), Alison Goode (Isabella Marshall) and Alf Prescott (Howard Perret) by having them talk to camera about what they had for breakfast. Tony runs a small publishing company in Lewes and regularly visits the care home where his mother, Doris (Lucinda Curtis), is being treated for dementia. Returning to the company after a highly uneventful gap year, Alison runs the McGinley office, while Alf makes social media content when not mooning around Josie, an aspiring artist who works in a trendy gift shop nearby.


Alf got a crush on Josie after popping in to buy a birthday present for his niece. But he finds small talk tricky and struggles to read between the lines when Josie tells him about staying at home while all her school friends have left for pastures new. Alison also seems more comfortably confiding in the camera, as she spends a lonely weekend at home with a couple of bottles of wine from the corner store. On her first day back at McGinley's, she has an awkward conversation with Tony about a non-incident at her previous leaving do when she had spent the night in his spare room after getting tipsy.


Tony has been married twice before and prides himself of having remained friends with every woman he has slept with. But he is disappointed to hear that Alison has a date with Danny (Mark Knightley), a musician she hasn't seen in some time. She is surprised to learn that he is divorced and is going through a custody battle for his son, but she is also put off by the fact he keeps using hipster-speak in trying to impress her. He invites her to see his band perform, but she confesses to finding live performance akin to masturbation and he realises that he's not going to be invited home for a cheeky nightcap.


Sitting in the shop wearing some of the merchandise, Alf gets a similar sinking feeling when Josie invites him to visit Lewes Castle, only to make it clear that they would be going as friends and nothing more. He returns to his tiny studio and struggles to find the right sense of menace to record a guide track for a video spot promoting a lurid pulp tome about a pizza delivery guy. When he goes to make a cuppa, he bumps into Alison, who introduces herself and they have an excruciating exchange, in which they keep misconstruing the meaning of what the other is saying. She invites him for an office drink and compliments him on one of his thriller promos, but has to admit to not being a fan of crime fiction.


Speaking to camera, Alison reveals that she once had a crush on her English teacher and enjoyed sitting next to him on the coach back from a theatre trip to see Macbeth. She was 15 at the time and liked the fact that he seemed to listen to her, unlike a chemistry master who used to get the class to recite the periodic table while he played the bongos. Tony also has fond memories of the teacher who persuaded his parents to let him go to Cambridge, as his father didn't believe in university and wanted him to follow his older brothers in getting a job. His father had always joked that he had been an accident, although he had often used the word `mistake'.


At the pub, Alf gauchely asks Alison about her age before blurting out that she gives off an air of melancholy. Tony spares her further embarrassment by barging in to buy a round, but he struggles to remember Alf and over-compensates with gushing good wishes when he makes his excuses to leave. He asks Alison about her date with Danny and assures her that he is enjoying the single life. We see him walking on the Downs and writing in a notebook. But, as he tells the camera, Tony lives in hope that the next chance encounter could be the one to change the course of his life.


Josie and Alf go for a walk and she takes him to her favourite glade in the woods. To mark the moment, he tries to tell her something significant about himself by revealing that he was good at drama at school, but never quite got the hang of improvising. Back in her room, after she has shown Alf the self-portraits in her portfolio, Josie urges him to go with his instincts when she peels off her top and kisses him. However, she's stricken with post-coital regret and can't shake the image that Alf has of himself of being a cardboard robot. She even imagines herself in the same guise, as they share a bed, and she scoots him away before her mother gets home.


Tony is visiting his mother at the home and keeps trying to make conversation, even though Doris's mind keeps wandering. She asks after his first wife, Carol, and keeps remarking on the fact that the midwife had been amazed by the size of his hands and feet when he was born. While he plugs away, Alison discloses that she's not the marrying kind and doesn't expect to find the sort of soulmate that Josie hopes is out there somewhere among the other 7.6 billion people sharing the planet.


During a business meeting, Tony confides in Alison that he's not sure he's cut out to be a publisher, as he only set up the company at Carol's suggestion. She assures him that his authors adore him and suggests bringing bestseller Mike H. Betts (Jon Campling) over from the United States to do a promotional tour. Distracted by his inability to get through to Doris, Tony protests that the costs would be prohibitive and is taken aback when Alison suggests that he needs to put himself first and informs him that everyone in the office knows he is gay and has no problem with the fact. He smiles weakly and jokes that he had entertained visions of being Alison's knight in shining armour after her long-standing relationship had folded. Taking his concern as a compliment, she swears that she would be attracted to him if she happened to be a gay man of a certain age.


While Tony quotes John Clare's `The Secret' before reaching out to two-time best man Colin (Stuart Sessions) and taking him to meet Doris, Alf discovers that Josie has left the shop without a word. His day goes from bad to worse when Alison breaks the news that he has lost his job. But she takes pity on him when he stumbles into the pub trying to find Josie and the cardboard box containing his desk contents falls apart. She takes him home and smiles when Alf says he thinks he hates her. Over wine and rum, she shares the fact that she had left Lewes after discovering she had been dating a married man and had been accused of destroying his family by his teenage son. Unsure how to respond, Alf tells Alison about his crush on the girl who had played Eliza Doolittle to his Henry Higgins in the school production of Pygmalion and how devastated her had been when she had died from sniffing an aerosol. Alison hugs him, as she realises how young and vulnerable he is and he thanks her for looking after him.


As he wanders home, Alf gets a text from Josie asking him to meet her at the castle. She apologises for doing a bunk and explains that she needed to get away to ensure that she continued with her own story and didn't merely become a bit part player in his. He shrugs because he had hoped for more, but Josie suggests they remain friends and that he learns to love himself a bit more, as she learned to do by drawing so many self-portraits. They agree to accept each other nincompoopiness and hope that Alison is right in her assertion that everything will work out.


A coda revels this to be the case, as a film crew interviews Josie after her Elsewhere comic-strip becomes a runaway success. Tony's book of poetry earns him acclaim and a television interview, while Alf is profiled after creating a webcast about some Muppet-like aliens landing on Earth from a cardboard planet. The only character whose to-camera interludes are not explained away by interviews is Alison, who is holding a Skype conversation with Michael, who has become friends during their business chats and who is trying to find out as much as he can about her before she pays him a visit in the States.


This final reveal is the neatest thing about a film replete with deft touches. What's particularly intriguing about the pieces to camera is the fact that they feel like notes that each character is giving themselves on the life that they would rather be leading, if only they could break out of the confines that they have built around themselves. Not everyone will be convinced by their petty bourgeois philosophies or the store they set by `throwaway comments' and `incidental characters'. But Verrall deserves credit for seeking drama in the lives of such comparatively ordinary people.


Isabella Marshall is perhaps the best at handling the direct-to-camera inserts, although she also delivers her confessional speech with a sensitivity that sets her apart from her estimable co-stars. Lucinda Curtis also impresses, as the mother locked in a world constructed from disconnected memories. But Sophia Capasso struggles with the sketchier Josie, who feels less entitled to her self-obsession than the sexually conflicted Tony and the traumatised and emotionally stunted Alf. That said, does Alison deserve more pity than the wronged wife, even if she really was blithely unaware of her existence?


Verrall isn't the first to find humour in moments of cringe-inducing social discomfiture, but his dialogue sometimes lacks wit and brevity. But he and cinematographer Jeremy Read punctuate the action with Ozu-like pillow shots that both showcase the Sussex location and provide the audience with space in which to ponder what they've just seen, while speculating about what might happen next. Such stylistic assurance confirms Verrall's potential, but his character delineation and dialogue need to be much more rigorous.


IL CAMPIONE.


On 25 February, CinemaItaliaUK returns to the Regent Street Cinema in London's West End for its monthly presentation. Directed by Leonardo D'Agostino, Il Campione takes audiences behind the scenes of Serie A and serves as a timely reminder that footballing success often comes at a price. Borrowing elements from films as different as Gus Van Sant's Good Will Hunting (1997) and Marcel Gisler's Mario (2018), this may not lure too many calcio addicts away from Napoli's Champions League clash with Barcelona. But fans of Stefano Accorsi are definitely not going to want to miss it.


AS Roma superstar Christian Ferro (Andrea Carpenzano) has the world at his feet. But he has allowed his wealth and fame to go to his head and he keeps making headlines for all the wrong reasons. When a shoplifting stunt follows hard on the heels of his latest car crash, club president Tito Rigoni (Massimo Popolizio) decides to teach Christian a lesson by forcing him to undergo private tuition in order to prepare him for his school certificate examination. The majority of those who apply for the post are eager to exploit the club and bask in some reflected glory. But the scruffily attired Valerio Fioretti (Stefano Accorsi) knows nothing about football and his annoyance at Christian's mocking grin convinces Tito to offer him a lucrative contract with a €30,000 bonus if he can get the wayward sporting genius a passing grade.


Father Enzo (Sergio Romano) is all in favour of Christian having his wings clipped, even though he enjoys a life of luxury in the secluded villa that is forever full with the liggers from his son's entourage. Business manager Nico (Mario Sgueglia) also offers Valerio his support. But he points out that footballers have to exploit every commercial opportunity that comes along, as they never know when their moment in the spotlight might come to an end. With training also taking up much of his time, Christian fails to attend a single lesson and Valerio gets a handle on why he has become such a brat when he watches him chatting with Alessia (Ludovica Martino), a girl from his Trullo neighbourhood who fills the vending machines at the training ground.


One of the conditions for Christian's probation period is that he passes a weekly test and Tito has no qualms in having him dropped from the matchday squad when he fails to answer a single question on his first paper. Tito gets booed at Sunday's game and assistant Paola (Camilla Semino Favro) warns Valerio that the club expects rapid results. But, with Enzo forever tapping up his son for handouts and his girlfriend Sylvie (Yulia Sobol) proving a vacuous distraction, Valerio decides to hold the tutorials in his own apartment. Yet Christian finds it impossible to understand the simplest concepts of history and literature and it's only when Valerio recognises his flair for plotting football tactics that he finds a way to fire his imagination.


While Christian buys him a giant television screen, Valerio gets a whiteboard to map out of the causes of the Great War. Much to his delight, the scheme works and they are soon racing through the Russian Revolution. Moreover, Christian comes to appreciate his time training with the team and he dumps Sylvie and throws his mates out of the house when they try to stop him from studying.


On the night before his next test, however, he agrees to Valerio's suggestion that they take a break in a local bar. However, Valerio bumps into his estranged wife, Cecilia (Anita Caprioli), and gets beaten up when he tries to prevent a couple of fans from pestering Christian. Back home, Valerio urges Christian to find a way to channel his anger and he reveals that he has struggled to cope with the loss of his mother six years earlier. She was also called Cecilia and his foundation aims to support research into breast cancer. Valerio admits to missing his wife, but would rather not talk about the tragedy that claimed their son.


Having scored 8/10 on his test, Christian is restored to the team and he invites Valerio to see him score the winner against Sampdoria. He also seeks his advice about what he should wear on his date with Alessia and all seems to be going swimmingly, as he keeps playing at his peak and taking the team up the table. However, he discovers that Nico has been swindling cash from his mother's foundation and the fact that other players had donated shirts to an auction makes him look bad in front of the entire league. Rather than blame his father in public, Christian takes the flak and throws Valerio out of the house when he accuses Enzo of being a selfish sponger. Moreover, he reminds Valerio that he refused to let Cecilia take their son to the hospital on the night he died.


Suddenly alone with his pet piglet, Christian hooks up with his old gang at a nightclub and the villa soon becomes party central again. His form dips and he gets sent off after missing a sitter. But this doesn't dissuade Chelsea from putting in a bid that Tito can't refuse and Nico does all he can to cajole his client into signing so that he can claim his percentage. Valerio is disappointed that his student has been denied the chance to take his diploma and turns down Paola's offer to stay on and teach the more troubled kids in the academy. However, Christian sees him leaving her office clutching an envelope and believes that Valerio has sold him down the river and taken his unearned bonus.


Unable to face the farewell party at the villa, Christian goes to see Alessia and tells her how miserable he is to be leaving his boyhood club. He asks her to come to London with him and she tells him that he needs to sort things out with Enzo and Valerio. News breaks next day that Christian has failed to turn up for his unveiling at Stamford Bridge, but Valerio knows where to find him - at the examination centre, where he is determined to pass his diploma and show up Tito and Nico, who had never taken his education seriously. Wishing him luck, Valerio promises to wait for him to come out and the picture ends with him meeting Cecilia for a long overdue talk about their past and their future.


This may not be the most complex story, but it's told with insight and economy by Leonardo D'Agostino and co-writers Antonella Lattanzi and Giulia Louise Steigerwalt. Indeed, such is the universality of the poor little rich boy scenario that it's easy to see it being remade in other footballing territories or being tailored to fit other sports in places like America and India. After all, how many countries have now got their own versions of Paolo Genovese's Donatello-winning drama, Perfect Stangers (2016) - fyi, it's 18 and counting.


While the on-field action may not be entirely convincing, D'Agostino capably captures the entourage mentality that has resulted in so many young footballers being led astray by friends and family members who are more interested in sampling the high life than being part of a support mechanism. Wisely, the script enlists the help of a down-to-earth girl next door to give the prodigal player an added incentive to mend his ways. But the romance remains a secondary factor, as Christian finds a reliable father figure and Valerio seizes the chance to help his surrogate son.


One has come to expect excellence from Stefano Accorsi, who only looks awkward when required to cheer on Roma at the Olympic Stadium. But he forges an effective bond with Andrea Carpenzano, who impresses in playing a variation on the tearaway who befriends Alzheimer-suffering poet Giuliano Montaldo in Francesco Bruni's deeply moving, Tutto quello che vuoi/Everything You Want, which CinemaItaliaUK programmed in 2017. D'Agostino's film doesn't quite have the same emotional heft, but it's highly watchable and just begging to be remade.


MIDNIGHT FAMILY.


Following in the wake of Ilian Metev's Sofia's Last Ambulance (2012) and Zaradasht Ahmed's Nowhere to Hide (2016), Luke Lorentzen's Midnight Family is the third documentary in recent(ish) times to put a novel spin on the term `ambulance chasing'. As an opening caption reveals, Mexico City has fewer than 45 public ambulances to serve a population of nine million. As a consequence, the vast majority of the capital's accident and emergency cases are taken to hospital in private ambulances, which operate on a fee on delivery basis. But, as this compelling and frequently disquieting study shows, making a living from this essential service is far from easy, especially when the medical and law-enforcement agencies exploit the situation for their own ends.


Among those competing for business in Mexico City are the Ochoa family. Father Fernando is on medication for an unnamed condition and shares the driving with his 17 year-old son Juan Alexis. As there doesn't appear to be a Señora Ochoa and Fer can't afford a child minder, he has to take nine year-old son Josué with him whenever he's on duty in his shiny red ambulance. Moreover, he sometimes invites Josué's pals to come on ride alongs to keep him occupied while he and paramedic Manuel Hernández are attending to casualties. At no point do the Ochoas or Hernandez mention qualifications or their familiarity with all of the equipment in their ageing ambulance. All that matters to them is that they respond to emergency calls faster than their competitors, as this is strictly a first come, first serve business.


As the film opens, Juan is on the phone to his girlfriend Jessica, as he describes having to wipe the blood of a stretcher after a woman died following a hit-and-run accident. He sounds matter of fact, as he relates the gory details. But point-of-view footage from a dashboard camera gives the viewer some idea of the stress involved in hurtling an ambulance along the busy urban streets in response to a callout.


Having swerved to pass a cyclist, a taxi and a bus at breakneck speed, the Ochoas arrive to tend to Michel, who has been waiting for attention for 40 minutes because there are so few ambulances on the road that particular night. He has been shot in the leg and his impoverished father apologises to Fer for not being able to give him the price of a cup of coffee for transporting his son to the nearest public hospital. Shrugging, Juan tallies up the cost of the supplies and fuel expended on the call and confides that they can't live on job satisfaction alone. He enjoys the buzz of responding to an emergency, but he still finds it hard to cope with the sight of people suffering and he often wonders whether he is cut out for this line of work.


Back home, Juan gives Josué a rollicking for refusing to take school seriously. He warns him that he will have a lousy life unless he gains some qualifications and despairs when his sibling struggles to add up the value of four 20 peso notes. The house is sparsely furnished and it's clear that is simply somewhere to grab some sleep between shifts rather than a conventional family home. But Fer is too exhausted to do much parenting and is largely content to let Juan keep his brattish brother in line, even though he is still a kid himself, with braces on his teeth and clings to a cuddly toy to help him sleep.


Josué is having a kickabout with his mates when the Ochoas dash off into a race with another ambulance that is so determined to reach the scene first that it races along with its rear doors open. Juan is first to arrive, however, and he ascertains that 18 year-old Andrea has been headbutted by her boyfriend, who has scarpered into the night. She is distraught because her mother is too poor to pay for treatment, but she doesn't want to have her looks spoilt by a broken nose. Manuel tries to console her, as they try to contact Andrea's mother to let her know the situation.


As her daughter suspected, she is reluctant to pay for an x-ray, let alone the 3800 pesos (£160) that Fer has requested for ferrying Andrea to A&E. The camera keeps its distance, as Fer and the mother haggle over a price. But it seems clear that she doesn't feel obliged to pay, even though the government ambulances on duty left her daughter to her own devices. Juan puzzles over people's attitude to payment, as they wouldn't expect to get a taco for free.


He calls Jessica, while his father chats with some of the rival drivers. They complain that they are being harassed by the police over some newly introduced protocols that seem designed to make life more difficult. One accuses a squad car of blocking the road so that a government ambulance to take a call, while another grumbles about what amounts to a protection racket, as the cops demand a cut of his fees in return for allowing him access to an accident scene.


Fer already has enough to worry about with the ever-hungry Josué guzzling his way through the petty cash. He is busy filling his face with tuna and sweetcorn after a visit to a 7/11 when they pick up a radio transmission about a multi-vehicle pile up. There appears to be no police supervision on the scene and Fer finds himself supervising, as motorists attempt to bundle casualties into the backs of their cars.


The Ochoas take responsibility for a distraught woman and her 11 year-old son, Gustavo. They have public insurance, but are forced to go to a private hospital because the state facilities are all full. As these clinics pay the ambulance crews for each patient received, they finally get a decent reward for their efforts. But the cops who have been following them demand their cut and Fer is left with no option but to comply. He sucks hard on a cigarette and curses that he will never get rich being an angel of mercy, as this potentially lucrative case has left them with only 173 pesos each and he decides to blow most of his share on some tortillas.


During a period of downtime, Fer plays a song on his phone about life being grindingly tough. Juan mocks Josué for being more concerned about having a cool backpack than being a good student. But Juan gets a sharp reminder of his own vulnerability when he is arrested at the next port of call by a policeman who demands a bribe before letting the Ochoas tend to a patient with respiratory problems after a crash. Once again, Fer has to dig into his dwindling resources and he fumes about the cops being a law unto themselves, as they have started clamping down on vehicles over 10 years old, even though the state ambulances are often much older.


Trawling the streets for custom, the Ochoas find a glue sniffer whose infant son, Maxi, has lost consciousness. Manuel is concerned that the child is not responding, but he persists and is relieved when the boy starts to bawl. The police arrive and threaten to take Maxi into protective custody, but his father protests that his mother is working at a nearby bakery and he is allowed to go free. Once again, the crew leave empty handed and Juan is annoyed that the police are more interested in hassling them than they are in punishing idiots endangering the lives of their offspring. His mood scarcely improves when they run out of petrol and have to push the ambulance to a garage, where they are forced to wait while Fer taps up an undertaker friend for a loan.


Back under way, the Ochoas come to the aid of Sonia Aguilar Lambarry, who has fallen four storeys from her family home. Her mother sits in the front seat with Fer, as Manuel ministers to her daughter and Juan uses the ambulance's tannoy to order vehicles out of their way. They are held up by a bus at a set of traffic lights and Juan bellows at the driver to move because they are dealing with a case of serious head trauma. Even though they only have a short way to go to the hospital, they are too late and Juan calls Jessica to break the news that the girl has died.


Despite being aware that Sonia's mother is bereft, Fer has to ask her for 1500 pesos to cover their costs. She accuses him of seeking to profit from her misfortune and demands to know why he brought her daughter to a private hospital when it would have been easier to go to a public clinic near their home. As we see banknotes changing hands, one can only presume that the hospital paid Fer for his trouble. So, even though Manuel looks crushed by his failure to save Sonia, the decision making process in this instance puts an entirely different spin on the entire documentary.


Heading home, Juan plays with a remote control car in the bare apartment. He helps Fer lay some blankets on the floor, as they can't afford beds. The next day, they collect Josué from school and drive off into the rush hour traffic. As the film ends, we see shots of the busy roads criss-crossing the city and are left to ponder the enormity of the task facing the state and private ambulance crews and the iniquity of a system that is so predicated to keeping the poor in their place.


It would be too easy to lament the situation in Mexico while scaremongering about any potential changes to the UK's ambulance service in the wake of a trade deal with the United States. But this sobering actuality should remind policy makers of the perils of deregulating a system that is supposed to treat everybody equally, regardless of their ability to pay.


Acting as his own vérité cameraman and editor, sophomore director Luke Lorentzen deserves great credit for gaining the trust of the Ochoas and for presenting their reality in such an unvarnished manner. By all accounts, he spent three months on call with the crew, but it isn't always easy to gauge the time lapses between the various incidents and how many hours a night they are actually on the lookout for custom.


It's clear that they mean well and always endeavour to do their best for their patients. But, while it's easy to empathise with them, Fer and Juan are not merely Good Samaritans and questions have to be asked about their modus operandi, irrespective of the problems they face from the capital's more corrupt police officers. Despite the occasional self-interested shortcomings of the private crews, however, the blame for this ethical shambles lies with the teetering healthcare system and it's a shame that Lorentzen didn't feel the need to take a step back to place the Ochoas and their rivals in this wider context.


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