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  • David Parkinson

Parky At the Pictures (22/3/2024)


(Reviews of Baltimore; Late Night With the Devil; and Phantom Parrot)


BALTIMORE.


Twenty years have passed since Christine Malloy and Joe Lawlor announced

their arrival with the exceptional short, Who Killed Brown Owl (2004). Eight more shorts ensued before the pair debuted with Helen (2008), a missing child drama that has since been followed by Mister John (2013) and Rose Plays Julie (2019), as well as the documentaries, Further Beyond (2016) and The Future Tense (2022). They return with Baltimore, a biopic of Rose Dugdale that, sadly, was released in the week that the heiress-turned-IRA member died in a care home run by the Poor Servants of the Mother of God at the age of 82.


While stealing 19 paintings from Russborough House in County Wicklow on 26 April 1974, a pregnant Rose Dugdale (Imogen Poots) feels faint and lies on the floor. She thinks back to killing her first fox at the age of 10, identifying with the Black maid in Diego Velázquez's `Kitchen Maid With the Supper at Emmaus', and arguing with her parents about being presented as a debutante at Buckingham Palace in 1958. Further flashbacks will show her attending a feminist meeting while at St Anne's College, Oxford and disguising herself as a man to circumvent the ban on women at the Oxford Union.


Adopting a French accent, Dugdale had posed as a stranded motorist to gain access to the house before telling Eddie (Jack Meade), Dominic (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor), and Martin (Lewis Brophy) which paintings to steal from Sir Alfred (John Kavanagh) and Lady Beit (Andrea Irvine ). She had cut her hand during the raid, when a man missed in a sweep of the house had tried to surprise her and Martin had been forced to improvise some stitches at the safe house. He is curious about the pictures, but Rose doesn't trust him and demands that he leaves his gun behind when he goes for a late-night recce.


Flashing forward from Rose leading an anti-imperialist meeting in a London squat in 1971, she calls the National Gallery of Ireland from a pay phone and threatens to destroy the paintings unless hunger strikers Dolours and Marian are returned to Ireland from Brixton Prison. She also demands a £500,000 ransom before getting into an awkward conversation with the village shopkeeper (Fionnuala Murphy) and local farmer Donal (Dermot Crowley) about the book she is writing while renting a cottage in the West Cork village of Glandore under the name Mrs Merrimée.


Returning home, she chides Dominic and Martin for being seen outside when she is meant to be there alone. Rose worries the locals will start to gossip and that they will have to destroy the paintings, which include the Velázquez that so touched her as a teenager and Johannes Vermeer's `Lady Writing a Letter With Her Maid'. She tries to explain to Martin why the paintings have a spiritual effect upon her, but they're not on the same wavelength and the conversation falters. Indeed, she had felt a greater connection with Patrick (Flynn Gray), the young son of the man who had tried to jump her, to the extent that she had let her accent slip in discussing the composition of the Vermeer and the maid's yearning to live a different life in which she feels truly valued. Regaining her composure, Rose had told Patrick to forget her vocal slip and urged him to make the most of his schooling, as his future would depend on it.


At the squat, Rose had watched the news coverage of Bloody Sunday in 1972 and her fury at the British presence in Ulster had prompted her to rob the Dugdale family home with lover Walter Heaton (Patrick Martins). Her parents (Simon Coury and Carrie Crowley) had caught them red-handed, but she had escaped with a suspended sentence. She explains this to an IRA contact in 1974, who also asks about the Chelsea flat she had sold to give the money to the poor. He's impressed with her bomb-making skills, but even Rose has nightmares after she orders Dominic and Martin to dig a shallow grave in the woods before dispatching them to join Eddie in Baltimore, in case people start snooping.


Before leaving Russborough, Rose had taken Lady Beit to the cellars and accused her at gunpoint of class arrogance. Needing to know that Donal would not squeal, she had also pulled a gun on him (behind his back), while suggesting that the eye disease that has reduced him to reading Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird in braille had misled him into thinking that he had seen two men at the cottage. Despite having heard on the radio about her participation in a helicopter raid on a Royal Ulster Constabulary station in Strabane, he allows her to use his car and she kills a fox on the road. That night, she hears the father of the Price sisters reading their request for the gang to return the paintings unharmed, as there are too few beautiful things in the world.


After dreaming of the Beits holding her at gunpoint, Rose receives a visit from the Gardai after they had questioned Donal about strangers in the area. She asks a fisherman if he can take her to Baltimore in his boat and she packs the pictures into the boot of Donal's car and drives to the jetty. However, the Gardai are waiting for her and she imagines herself escaping with the Vermeer, as she sits in the back of a squad car.


Captions reveal that Dugdale served nine years after pleading `proudly and incorruptibly guilty', during which time she gave birth to a son in Limerick Prison on 12 December 1974. The following year, Eddie was sentenced to 20 years for kidnapping a Dutch industrialist in the hope of freeing Rose. But Dominic and Martin were never identified or apprehended. In 1987, the Vermeer was donated to the National Gallery of Ireland.


In piecing together a narrative that only tells a fraction of the story, Malloy and Lawlor - who examined their own relationships with Britain and Ireland in The Future Tense - don't always stick to the facts. Nothing is said in the captions, for example, about Dugdale's post-prison stint developing weapons on a County Mayo farm or the fact that she remained married to Eddie Gallagher while living with IRA comrade Jim Monaghan. Those keen to learn more should seek out the profile in TG4's 2012 series, Mná an IRA (which can be found online).


In addition to juxtaposing the events that led to Dugdale's radicalisation with scenes from both during and after the Russborough robbery, the co-writer/directors also slip in dream sequences and reveries that leaven the clipped intensity that they have required of Imogen Poots in playing their enigmatic anti-heroine. The intimate conversations that Rose has with her unborn child reveal another aspect of her complex personality. Yet the stiffly staged scenes set at Oxford and in the London squats rarely convince, as they surround Poots with ciphers who offer little by way of personal influence or political ideology. Equally unpersuasive is the occasional resort to the kind of tripartite split screens that one associates with 1970s American cop shows.


The dependable Tom Vaughan-Lawlor fascinates as the experienced warrior who somehow finds himself taking orders from an upper-class English rookie, but Lewis Brophy struggles to make much of the stereotypical hothead who is forever on the verge of becoming a liability. In fact, Dugdale appears out of her depth as the brains of the operation, as she fails to impose her authority on her cohorts and stay in the character she has invented for herself during the heist.


The scrambling of the scenario often feels as unsatisfactory as the drably middlebrow observations on art. But it enables Lawlor and Malloy to avoid passing judgement on the vehement, but vulnerable Dugdale, whose anger source remains as elusive as her shifting purpose, as she bobs like a cork between class conflict and armed struggle to the strains of Stephen McKeon's menacing riffs on Hector Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique. But, as the reality of her situation sinks in, Poots remains compelling, as Tom Comerford's camera searches her impassive features for clues when not locating her in landscapes that emphasise her insignificance and isolation. Ultimately, however, this feels like an arthouse take on a tabloid tale that requires more historical and psychological depth to justify its gnomic gravity.


LATE NIGHT WITH THE DEVIL.


A quarter of a century has passed since Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez gave the horror genre a shot in the arm with The Blair Witch Project (1999). Ruggero Deodato had actually come up with the `found footage' format with the notorious video nasty, Cannibal Holocaust (1980). But it was the plight of student film-makers Heather Donahue, Michael C. Williams, and Joshua Leonard in the Black Hills near Burkittsville, Maryland that caught the imagination of audiences and showed producers how to make sizeable profits from a limited outlay.


The form has been capably spoofed in Zak Penn's Incident At Loch Ness (2004), which co-stars Werner Herzog, and the 2020 duo of Gillian Wallace Horvat's I Blame Society, and Eugene Kotlyarenko's Spree. But Aussie siblings Colin and Cameron Cairnes suggest a familiarity with Chris LaMartina's WNUF Halloween Special (2013) in Late Night With the Devil, which captures the mayhem that breaks loose during a live local TV chat show on Halloween night in 1977.


A lengthy preamble (narrated by Michael Ironside) puts the found footage in context. During the `time of unrest and mistrust, fear and violence' known as the 1970s, Night Owls With Jack Delroy sought to cheer up American audiences. A former Chicago radio host, Jack (David Dastmalchian) caught the public imagination, although he always found himself trailing in the ratings to Johnny Carson and The Tonight Show. Rumours abounded about his membership of a sinister all-male Californian club called The Grove, but his rock-solid marriage to popular actress Madeleine Delroy (Georgina Haig) keeps gossip at bay. However, his ratings continued to slip after she appeared on the show two weeks before dying of cancer and Jack resorted to an audacious Halloween special in a bid to salvage his career.


Starting out by creeping up on sidekick Gus McConnell (Rhys Auteri) wearing a ghostly shroud, Jack cracks gags about Billy Carter and the spookiness of Sweeps Week, when the national TV ratings are assessed. He then brings out a medium named Christou (Fayssal Bazzi), whose first attempts at communing with an audience member's loved one backfires and produces a few laughs. However, a second name enables him to console the mother of a man who had committed suicide five years earlier and Delroy is relieved to go to the commercial break on such an uplifting human note. But Christou suddenly shrieks with pain, as someone called Minnie tries to get through and the audience members gasp when the lights suddenly fizzle.


During the break, the off-air camera picks up Jack seeking reassurances from producer Leo Fiske (Josh Quong Tart) that he was behind the power outage, while Gus frets about a part of the show that he's not been briefed on. As he chats to Sammy the make-up girl (Gaby Seow), Jack notices that Christou is on edge and his mood is not improved when magician-turned-sceptic Carmichael Haig (Ian Bliss) comes out to join them.


He conjures up a cigar from thin air and lights it with his thumb before discussing his crusade to expose charlatans. Carmichael has offered a cheque for $100,000 to anyone who can prove their special powers, but no one has passed his tests. As he taunts Christou for being a fraud, however, Jack reveals that `Minnie' was his nickname for Madeleine. Carmichael pleads with him not to fall for the oldest trick in the book, only for Christou to hurl a glass of water in his face and fall to his knees in pain. Suddenly, he spews black bile all over his detractor and Jack urges Leo to go to a break.


As Carmichael continues to mock while asking Jack to take him to a meeting at The Grove, Leo informs his star that the switchboard is lighting up and that a boss from one of the major sponsors is on the front row with his wife. Slipping back into host mode, Jack reassures viewers that Christou is receiving medical attention and ignores the sound of a wailing siren to cue up a piece of film that will introduce the audience to parapsychologist Dr June Ross-Mitchell (Laura Gordon), who has just published Conversations With the Devil following her encounters with Lilly (Ingrid Torelli), the 13 year-old who survived a mass suicide at the First Church of Abraxis run by Szandor D'Abo (Steve Mouzakis). Despite knowing that she is possessed, Jack is charmed by the poised teenager when she comes on stage and reassures him that not only will his grief assuage, but that he is about to become very famous.


During a break, Jack ignores June's warning that Lilly is acting up (and seems obsessed with him) and urges June to seize the chance to make her name. As Carmichael discovers from the suicide's mother that a woman had asked her some questions before the show started, Leo informs Jack that Christou has died from severe haemorrhaging. Meanwhile Gus tries to get floor manager Phil (Christopher Kirby) about the plans for the big finale.


Slightly ruffled by Lilly's intensity and readiness to speak her mind, Jack welcomes back the audience. He says nothing about Christou and has to rein in Carmichael when he dismisses June's academic credentials and her contention that `everyone has a demon inside them' and grabs the dagger that she had retrieved from the Satanic church and pretends that he is being forced to hold it to his throat. Lilly asks why he has to be so rude before explaining that she calls the demon inside her, Mr Wriggles, because he wriggles in and out of her head.


At that moment, Gus's theremin starts playing by itself and the water glasses on the table shatter. Carmichael unplugs the speaker system and explains that the emitted note broke the glass not Abraxis. But Jack is intrigued and Lilly consents to show how the demon manifests itself. June has misgivings, but is swayed by the audience to conduct a controlled encounter.


Gus rushes over during the break and warns Jack not to dabble in things he doesn't understand. He confides that some of the band are ready to quit, but Jack hisses that he is trying to save their show and that no one will ever forget them if the Devil comes forth on live television. June is angry with Jack for setting her up, but Lilly is thoroughly enjoying being the centre of attention.


Jack hands the floor to June, who asks the studio audience to remain calm regardless of what they witness. She puts Lilly (who is tethered to the chair by her wrists) into a deep sleep and asks to speak to Mr Wriggles. Eventually, he speaks up, as Lilly's angelic face becomes ugly and contorted. Mr Wriggles greets Jack and claims to know him from The Grove. He also taunts him that he is now free to date June and Lilly breaks into a sing-song rhyme about them copulating.


As Lilly turns her head to look at the shocked audience, June slaps her and the girl looks scared as her chair starts levitating. A shaft of blue light zips around the studio, as Mr Wriggles asks why he has been brought here before he starts echoing the incantations that June is whispering. Carmichael rises to declare the whole episode a charade, but Jack intervenes and tries to soothe Lilly as he calls for a final ad break.


Learning from Gus that Christou has died, Carmichael looks pensive. June demands to know why Mr Wriggles seemed to know Jack, but Leo sweeps him away to announce that the network boss has declared this the biggest TV event since the Moon landing. Despite being unnerved by Lilly sounding like Madeleine, Jack gathers himself to close the show.


He allows Lilly to reassure viewers that she's okay before ceding the floor to Carmichael. He ropes Gus into helping him stage a demonstration of his own and discusses his fear of worms before using his watch to hypnotise him. Once under, Gus begins to itch and he removes his jacket before plucking a worm from a wound in his neck. His stomach rips open and worms cascade forth, while a giant one bursts out of his eye socket. With the audience squirming and Jack edging forward in horror, Carmichael momentarily panics when finger clicking fails to bring Gus round. But he chants a spell to restore him to normal before revealing that he hypnotised everyone into seeing the same thing. The videotape is rewound to show Gus responding to Carmichael's suggestions and he accuses June of doing the same thing with Lilly.


Leo wants to cut to the resident singer, but Jack insists on showing the tape of Lilly's possession to prove that June had not been faking. A glitch makes the footage jump and a frame-by-frame rewind reveals Madeleine's spectre standing beside Jack. June tries to drag Lilly off the stage, but she hovers in the air and makes quick work of Gus when he raises the crucifix around his neck and yells, `the power of Christ compels you!' when her skull cleaves and light floods out of her brain.


June is also lifted by a noose around her neck that slits her throat as she pleads with Lilly to stop. Carmichael drops to his knees and starts to worship the demon, only to be zapped. Leo pulls Jack backstage, as the screen fills with static before an indistinct figure lurches forwards and a `Station Difficulties' sign appears.


This disappears, as Gus welcomes Jack on to the set and he has no idea what's going on. He finds himself in a caveman sketch and being confronted with a giant worm before Madeleine accuses him of being a bad husband. A rapid montage follows the Wheel of Fortune spinning to resemble Carmichael's swirling watch face and Jack finds himself being escorted into the presence of D'Abo. He is congratulated on topping the ratings, but is reminded of the sacrifice he has to make in return.


Entering a bedroom, he sees a dying Madeleine pleading with him to put her out of her misery. He promises her that he hadn't intended his Faustian pact to turn out like this and sobbingly tells her that he still loves her. She asks him to reach for the knife beside the bed and he plunges the blade into her chest. However, he looks down to discover that he's on the set of his show and has just stabbed Lilly. Bodies are strewn over the floor, as Jack repeatedly babbles, `dreamer here awake,' as a siren can be heard in the nearing distance.


Awash with throwaway self-reflexivity, this is a clever pastiche that confirms the Cairnes brothers as talented film-makers. But, as with Amanda Kramer's Give Me Pity! (2022), there's a lack of control in organising the inspired ideas that undermines the excellence of the performances and the production values. Moreover, there are so many found footage infractions that it almost falls outside the category.


Even though no authorship is revealed, the eight-minute prologue is rather clever, as it allows the Cairnes to blur the lines while contextualising the conceit. The shooting of the chat show segments is also admirable, as Otello Stolfo's sets and Steph Hooke's costumes are niftily photographed in boxy 70s tele-style by Matthew Temple. But why would the control panel master tape include the monochrome behind-the-scenes footage, which has very obviously been edited - but by whom, as the shots wouldn't have been called by the director in the gallery? The climactic hallucination sequence also breaches found footage convention, as who could possibly be filming what is going on in the head of a man having a breakdown?


The delusional finale is a bit of a muddle (as it probably should be), as it strives to tie together the loose ends. But the whole subplot surrounding The Grove feels forced from the moment it appears in the opening segment that contains echoes of the News on the March newsreel in Orson Welles's Citizen Kane (1941). There are also nods towards William Friedkin's The Exorcist (1973), Sidney Lumet's Network (1976), and Martin Scorsese's The King of Comedy (1983), amongst others. But Jack is anything but an Alan Partridge figure, as some have suggested.


He's played with a mix of manicured sincerity and escalating despair by David Dastmalchian, who nails the rapport with the audience and the patter with sidekick Rhys Auteri, while letting the mask slip backstage. Ian Bliss is also bombastically pompous as the conjuror-turned-sceptic, while Australian teenager Ingrid Torelli is splendidly assured and unsettling as the corrupted innocent, who has Laura Gordon's devoted, but exploitative academic wrapped around her little finger.


Some have criticised the fleeting use of AI for some of the ad break cards, but the visual effects are as admirably restrained as Emma Bortignon's sound design. Cult favedom surely awaits, although this is never as disconcerting as another study in neediness set against the backdrop of 70s television, Antonio Campos's Christine (2016), or Ueda Shinichirô's blistering One Cut of the Dead (2017). But, even though this is bound for the found footage canon, it plays by too many of its own rules to truly belong there.


PHANTOM PARROT.


Whatever you read about Kate Stonehill, the blurbs proclaim her to be `a journalistically-minded documentary director and cameraperson' whose award-winning films explore `power, identity and citizenship in the digital age'. She certainly lives up to this billing with her first feature-length documentary, Phantom Parrot, which is touring venues across the UK into May.


On returning to Heathrow from Qatar in 2016, Muhammad Rabbani was detained under Schedule 7 of the 2000 Terrorism Act. When ordered to disclose the passwords and PINs for his electronic devices, he refused and was jailed for three months. As the managing director of Cage, which campaigns for the human rights of Muslims held under War on Terror legislation, Rabbani believed he had been targeted as part of a data harvesting exercise rather than because he posed a security threat to the UK.


Rabbani had been returning from a research trip pertaining to the case of Ali Al-Marri, a Qatari-born US resident who had been imprisoned and tortured for 13 years in the United States after being falsely accused of being an enemy combatant. Charleston lawyer Andy Savage had represented him after he had arrived in the US the day before 11 September 2002 and had been charged with credit card fraud, identity theft, and making false statements by the FBI. Now, Rabbani and Cage's research director Asim Qureshi meet Al-Marri in Amsterdam to prepare him for a series of interviews.


In the weeks before Al-Marri's trial, Savage was surprised to be given access at the Charleston naval brig to written and audiovisual material relating to the interrogation. Staff even helped him photocopy documents and he sent them to his client following his release. As they contained information about the conduct of FBI agents, the American government was keen to keep them under wraps and Rabbani is convinced he was detained as a diplomatic favour to an ally to that his devices could be confiscated and accessed.


Employed by over 100 countries, Magnet Forensics is one of the leading data extraction companies. We eavesdrop on a seminar in which a retired cop discusses the significance of passwords and the ease with which targets can be surveilled once their devices have been hacked. Reporter Ryan Gallagher then discloses how the top secret documents published by Edward Snowden included a British item that revealed the existence of `Phantom Parrot', a tool for siphoning information from confiscated devices for storage on a vast database at GCHQ. As Gallagher notes, this allows agents to use phone numbers and timelines to establish connections between users.


In 2009 Al-Marri pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organisation and was sentenced to eight years in prison in consideration of the time he had already spent behind bars. Savage had advised him against this course, as he felt the US authorities had abused their powers to coerce him into taking this decision. But Al-Marri felt the sentence would put an end date on his ordeal and Savage had to respect his reasoning.


Computer graphics have been used to this point to reconstruct Rabbani's first interrogation at Heathrow. But we now see CCTV footage of his interview with counter-terrorist detectives in the presence of his lawyer, Gareth Peirce (who had famously defended the Guildford Four and had been played by Emma Thompson in Jim Sheridan's In the Name of the Father, 1993). As he was now under arrest, Rabbani was able to maintain silence and Peirce read out a statement on his behalf.


A cutback to the House of Commons in 2000 shows Jeremy Corbyn opposing the Labour government's bill and being the sole MP in a two-thirds empty chamber to vote against it. He spoke of powers being abused and the judge in Rabbani's court case accepts that he was not under suspicion of any crime and was trying to protect the confidentiality of vulnerable people. But the law prevents her from dismissing the charge and Rabbani ponders the potential ramifications of being criminalised after receiving a conditional discharge.


At the seminar, a speaker raises the issue of corporate tracking and suggests that individuals who complain about state intrusion are complacently allowing the likes of Amazon, Google, and Facebook to amass information without knowing where it is stored, who has access to it, and how it might be used. Meanwhile, at a computer fair in Karlsruhe, a biometrics expert talks about some of the recognition technology that is being developed. All of which reiterates Peirce's point in a speech at a Cage event about the public needing to retain a sense of shock as nations place less emphasis on protecting the rights of citizens than on state security.


Having impressed with the shorts Fake News Fairytale, Jelly Brain (both 2018), Mother (2020), and The Family Statement (2022), Stonehill leaves us with plenty to think about, as captions reveal that Rabbani lost his appeal and has again refused to surrender his passwords after being stopped at an airport, while Al-Marri is awaiting news on a referral of his treatment to the Metropolitan Police's War Crimes unit. She has made an important contribution to the debate about the pernicious nature of the Phantom Parrot programme and the systematic targeting of Muslims by the UK's border forces, police, and security sector. Indeed, this rumination on digital surveillance and data collection would make for a striking double bill partner with Ashish Ghadiali's The Confession (2016), particularly because of Moazzam Begg's association with Cage.


The use of croquis-like figures to illustrate the initial interrogation is highly effective, as it implies the dehumanising aspect of thep process. Some of the computer screen sequences showing date being lifted feel over-extended, but they allow Stonehill to avoid using voiceover, as she alternates between archival material, talking-head interviews, and observational passages.


Showing the digital forensics bods lecturing rather than speaking directly to camera also renders them smug rather than empathetic, thus, making their message sound more menacing than reassuring. However, the Gallagher and lecture theatre inserts feel a little shoehorned, while the bid to out-Glass Errol Morris with Nainita Desai's self-consciously ominous score is a boomingly intrusive miscalculation. It might also have been nice to learn more about Muhammad Rabbani and Cage's other activities, especially as Michael Gove included it among the organisations that `give rise to concern' in recently redefining extremism.


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