• David Parkinson

Parky At the Pictures (22/10/2021)

(Reviews of Playlist; The Beta Test; and 16th Romanian Film Festival)


Even though something approaching normality has returned, not everyone is keen on sitting in cinemas, whether they've been vaccinated or not.


Consequently, the streaming platforms are continuing to show new releases, albeit in smaller numbers, as the distributors seek to return to single ticketing after a prolonged period of all in for the price of one. 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 will be staying open for business. Whatever choice you make, stay safe. Remember, Covid's not gone away yet!


PLAYLIST.


Graphic novelist Nine Antico has confessed that 73% of her feature debut is autobiographical. Most of the remaining 27% of Playlist still rings true, however, as Antico follows Léonor Serraille (Jeune Femme, 2017) in seeking to reclaim the chattily chic kind of twentysomething rite of passage that was once the preserve of Eric Rohmer and Philippe Garrel.


Frustrated that her lack of art school training is hampering her ambitions to become a comic-book artist, 28 year-old Sophie Legal (Sara Forestier) keeps drawing in the notebook she carries everywhere. When not fighting off bedbugs in the apartment she shares with student Louise (Inas Chanti), she waitresses at a Parisian café with her best friend, Julia (Laetitia Dosch), an aspiring actress who has landed a role in an independent film. Sophie is also having a fling with the chef, Jean (Pierre Lottin), who distances himself when Sophie announces that she is pregnant.


Fortunately, they don't have to work together after her abortion, as Sophie has landed a secretarial position at Nomaniak, the bijou publishing company owned by the quirkily short-fused Jean-Luc (Grégoire Colin). He insists his tomes are `graphic novels' and soon has Sophie handling the promotion of his list. Between launches and pitch sessions to magazines and radio stations, Sophie also fetches Jean-Luc's shopping and he chews her out when she buys cheap parmesan because he takes is pasta seriously.


Despite her lack of self-esteem, Sophie uses her position to show her drawings to writers Daniel (Mathieu Peudupin) and Killoffer (playing himself). Indeed, the former shows a romantic interest in her, but as our narrator (Bertrand Belin) keeps telling us, finding a soulmate isn't easy in the modern world. Ironically, Sophie winds up tumbling into bed with mattress salesman Benjamin (Andranic Manet) after the infestation drives her to sleeping on the floor.


She soon has the run of the apartment, however, as Louise suffers a breakdown. But Sophie is made of sterner stuff. At least, she is until Jean-Luc fires her on a whim and she has a blazing row with Julia about artistic commitment shortly after returning to the café, where she tries to headbutt a particularly stroppy customer.


Ultimately, Sophie gets to commit her story to print in a neat animated coda that suggests success will do little to change her haphazard existence. But that's the trick of this amusingly engaging saga, as real life is messy no matter how well it seems to be going. Not even Julie Conte's elegant monochrome photography can disguise the workaday nature of Sophie's travails, which are essayed with a mix of pugnacity and fragility by the excellent Sara Forestier.


She is ably supported by the ever-impressive Laetitia Dosch (the star of Jeune Femme), who doesn't quite get enough to do as the loyal friend who breaks the news to Sophie and her father (Hervé Lacroix) after the premiere of her film that she's going to quit acting because she'll never become a star. Grégoire Colin also stands out as the irascible boss who finds fault with everything, even when he approves of it.


Among the few demerits, Bertrand Belin's doesn't really work, while the male characters (some more toxically macho than others) are somewhat cipheritic (although that's probably by design). The use of songs like Daniel Johnston's `True Love Will Find You in the End' atones, however, as Antico makes clear with wit and frankness that being young, free, single and female in Paris is as fraught with dangers and delights as a trip on the Métro.


THE BETA TEST.


Jim Carrey is alive and well and living in Jim Cummings, if The Beta Test is anything to go by. Following on from Thunder Road (2018) and The Wolf of Snow Hollow (2020), this frantic account of a meltdown works better as an acrid satire on post-Weinstein Hollywood than as a sinister cyber scraping thriller. But it confirms that Cummings is currently the edgiest actor in American cinema.


Talent agent Jordan Hines (Jim Cummings) has a lot on his plate. In six weeks time, he is getting married to Caroline (Virginia Newcomb), while he and partner PJ (PJ McCabe) are lining up a deal with Chinese tycoon, Raymond (Wilky Lau) that will put them among Hollywood's major players. Already a skittish spouter of buzzwords and suffering from an ulcer, Jordan starts behaving more eccentrically than usual after he receives a purple envelope containing an invitation to a no-strings fling with a female admirer.


Having fished the missive out of the dumpster, Jordan fills in the questionnaire and, having received a key in another purple envelope, he is tempted to check out the room at he Millennium Hotel. Initially, he backs away. But the sight of a blindfold on the doorknob proves too enticing and he ventures inside for a wild afternoon with a complete stranger.


What he doesn't know, however, is that some of the other message recipients have been bumped off by their furious partners and it's only when his conscience starts to get the better of him that Jordan realises what he's put at risk and that he needs to find the sender before he ruins his relationship and his career.


Pushed closer to the edge when Raymond informs him that agents are parasites that will soon be obsolete, Jordan poses as a private eye to get information about the person who bulk bought purple stationery. He fails to bully the hotel concierge into divulging any details, but does coerce the security team at his apartment block into showing him CCTV footage of all mail deliveries on the day the first envelope arrived. Moreover, Jordan becomes increasingly detached around Caroline and erratic at the office, as he keeps missing meetings and humiliates an intern named Jaclyn (Jacqueline Doke).


Eventually, he confides in PJ, who is appalled that Jordan would do something so stupid. But he does some research into scamming and explains about digital tracking and how hackers are able to use online data to build up a profile and discern whether a potential target has a weakness and a big bank account. However, PJ's attention wanders when he learns that the China deal is off because the two-timing Raymond has been murdered by his wife.


Desperate to find his stalker, Jordan lies to Caroline during a weekend break that he has been behaving oddly because he's fallen off the wagon. However, he assures her that he will soon have everything under control, even though he embarrasses her in public when he recognises the woman from the hotel room (Olivia Grace Applegate) and causes a scene at a restaurant. However, he discovers the address of someone calling himself Johnny Paypal (Christian Hillborg) and breaks into his basement brandishing a hammer. But he proves unrepentant and is amused that Jordan failed to receive the little yellow envelope offering to reveal the name of his hook-up in return for $5000.


Boasting that he will earn $1 billion from his scheme, Paypal calls the police to report an assault before accusing Jordan of being the bad guy. He tosses away the hammer as he drives home, but bumps into Caroline in the underground car park. True to form, he tries to make excuses, but she doesn't believe them and shocks him when she calmly announces that she forgives him. At a diner en route to the mountains, Caroline chides Jordan for being weak. But she vows not to let the dark forces prevail, as a waitress eyes up her new husband, as he tags along meekly behind.


Exposing the vulgarity and venality of a Tinseltown in which agents wield increasingly diminishing power, Cummings and co-writer-director PJ McCabe take up where the Jeremy Piven TV show, Entourage, leaves off. A phony who spends more time acting than his clients, Jordan (whose agency is fittingly called A.P.E.) has become incapable of authenticity, whether with workmates, clients or his bride-to-be. Yet, while there is something toxic about this egotisctical sociopathic hotshot, he also cuts a pathetic figure in his paranoid anxiety to ingratiate, impress and intimidate.


Cummings plays him to squirm-inducing perfection. But he so dominates the frame that there's no room for any of the other characters to develop, even Caroline. Moreover, despite the sting providing the narrative drive, Jordan's bogus shamus routine is much less intriguing than his temptation and meltdown, especially as the denouement is such a damp squib.


Production designer Charlie Textor and cinematographer Kenneth Wales capture the soulless chic of Los Angeles, but Cummings's editing is a bit too busy and contributes to the lurid scenario (with its surfeit of murderous cutaways) losing its impetus as it runs out of twists in the closing stages in a way that recalls both Robert Altman's The Player (1992) and Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut (1999). His performance remains compelling, however, and there won't be anyone watching this won't wish there was such a thing as a Tiger Woods project to `reboot Caddyshack, but with dogs'.


16TH ROMANIAN FILM FESTIVAL.


The Curzon Soho hosts the 16th Romanian Film Festival, which runs from 21-25 October. Subtitled, The Season of Contention, the programme is built around Radu Jude's comedy, Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn, which won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. Indeed, Jude is represented twice this year, as Uppercase Print (which was reviewed in our 26 February column) is also screening.


The festival theme has been inspired by the growing number of Romanian films that are exploring social and political issues that have previously been neglected or obscured. But film-makers elsewhere in Eastern Europe have also been seeking a better understanding of the past and such concepts as freedom and state responsibility and RFF 2021 presents Slovak Ivan Ostrochovský's Servants (which was covered in the column from 21 May), Hungarian Attila Szász's Tall Tales and Serb Ivana Mladenovic's Ivana the Terrible.


As we'll see, there are also some interesting items on the Romanian Shortcut slate, which will be introduced by leading Romanian actor Vlad Ivanov. Claudiu Mitcu's 31 Hours follows in the wake of Cristi Puiu's The Death of Mr Lazarescu (2006) by exploring the ongoing problems facing Romania's health service. Surgeon Stefan Vasille (Alexandru Potoceau) is summoned by superior Tralan Cristescu (Vlad Ivanov) to explain why he botched a routine operation on an eight year-old boy. Cristescu refuses to listen to excuses about long shifts and Stefan returns home to his pregnant wife, Corina (Dana Rogoz), after being confronted by his dead child's grieving parents (Ioana Flora and Mihai Calota).


Determined to have a day off to rest and take his daughter to the theatre, Stefan returns to the hospital to appeal to Cristescu. But, while acknowledging the flaws in the system, he has little sympathy for Stefan because he is better paid than the president. Having painted a sombre picture of a situation that was also examined in Alexander Nanau's documentary, Collective (2019), Mitcu leaves the audience wondering whether the emotionally and physically exhausted Stefan will stick with his guns or buckle under pressure.


Co-directed by Maria Popistasu and Alexandru Baciu, The Seagull is a mortality tale that centres on the condition of the gull that a father (Alexandru Dabija) and daughter (Maria Popistasu) find trapped on their window ledge and the appointment that the former has with his doctor. Uncertain how to help their flightless charge, the pair leave it overnight on the lawn with a plateful of tuna and anchovies.


Having decided to take the gull to the vet, the daughter is relieved to get a call in the car with good news about her father's recovery. The prognosis for the bird isn't so promising, however. But, from the darkness of her car, she tells a white lie about a course of treatment and a new life on the delta.


Touchingly exploring people's reluctance to talk about their health and the looming prospect of death, this is also a subtle study of the way in which responsibility shifts over the passing years between parents and children. Keeping the camera relatively still and at a discreet distance, Popistasu and Baciu remind us of our own vulnerability and the fragility of existence.


In Sarra Tsorakidis's Kaimos/Sorrow, Eli (Maria Popistasu) returns home after many years away to attend her mother's cremation. She gets a frosty reception from Dimitri (Adrian Ciglenean) and Viorica (Victoria Cocias), who have been looking after the old woman, as she succumbed to dementia. But Eli really upsets her brother when she announces that she intends taking her ashes to Greece and he accuses her of playing the concerned daughter after staying away when her help was really needed.


Tipsy on cherry brandy, Eli goes to a party with her niece, Anda (Madalina Stoica). However, she embarrasses herself by getting drunk and appals her brother when she brings photographer Cezar (Toto Dumitrescu) home and wakes the family by crashing around in the kitchen. She stands alone the next morning, therefore, as the noisy crematorium mechanism carries the coffin away. Deftly examining the notion of home in an age of migration, this is a painful study of grief and how people cope with loss. Keeping her camera close to the characters, Tsorakidis captures the awkward intensity of the reunion and the rawness of the emotions that go way beyond mourning.


During lockdown, Vlad Petri lost his paternal grandmother. Medena. While sorting through her belongings, however, he found several photograph albums and an audio recording he had had of them chatting. The recollections complement the images in The Deer Passed in Front of Me, which covers a century of rural Romanian history, as the family endured wars and regime changes. She is particularly proud of Poppa, the village mayor who had been taken prisoner by the Italians during the Great War.


He had died at 42 during experimental cancer surgery. But her Uncle Salivan was gunned down by a passing plane while washing his face during the Siege of Stalingrad. His brother, Dionisie, lost an arm and was killed when the train bringing him home was targeted in an air raid. Medena's father survived, however, and ran the local pub. However, when he was accused of exploiting people during the postwar kulak crisis, Medena was expelled from school in Bistria for fighting a classmate who had badmouthed him and for denouncing the Communist Party.


She met husband Ilie at university in Iasi and recalls how they had once almost been shot by one of his pals during a weekend hunting expedition. He died suddenly in 1980 and she remembers the events of the day in great detail. Following a few final snaps of the countryside, we see Medena smiling sadly into Petri's camera, as he prepares to leave her. It's a moment that will resonate with anyone who has lost someone close and will bring memories of last encounters flooding back.


Similar in form to Radu Jude's potent Holocaust documentary, The Dead Nation (2017), this is primary history at its most simple and effective. The monochrome pictures are mostly carefully posed, yet capture the personalities of the sitters and the times in which they lived. It's nicely done and should inspire anyone with a family archive to make their own photo-memoir.


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