• David Parkinson

Parky At the Pictures (23/10/2020)

(Reviews of Saint Maud; Black Box; The Lie; Evil Eye; Nocturne; Lost in London; and The Widow's Last)


The majority of cinemas may be closed during these enduringly dismal days. And who, in all honesty is that big a film fan that they would risk contracting a contagious disease just to see something on the big screen as part of a well-spaced crowd? There are still ways to connect with some of the films on general release, however. In addition to Curzon Home Cinema. MUBI and the BFI Player, it should also be possible to access the titles under discussion below via iTunes, Apple TV, Amazon, Sky Store, Virgin, Microsoft, Vimeo, Google Play, Rakuten, BT and Playstation.


SAINT MAUD.


National Film and Television School graduate is one of those increasingly rare film-makers who is willing to allow her pre-fame work to be seen online. Her Vimeo channel includes the shorts Moths (2010), Storm House (2011) and Room 55 (2014), which all give clues as to what audiences might expect with her acclaimed feature bow, Saint Maud. Only The Silken Strand (2013) and her `Bath Time' contribution to the 2015 anthology, A Moment of Horror, are missing. But they will clearly be in demand among those impressed by this stark, but stylised study of psychosomatic religiosity, physical decay and the inescapability of the past.


Some time after she was involved in a bloody mishap at the hospital in an unnamed seaside town, Maud (Morfydd Clark) has changed her name in order to register as a private nurse. Landlady Joy (Lily Knight) is badgering her about the rent. But Maud refuses to allow her kvetching to deflect her from the sense of purpose she feels at being hired to provide palliative care to Amanda Kohl (Jennifer Ehle).


A once famous dancer and choreographer who misses both the limelight and her hedonistic lifestyle, Amanda is in no mood to listen to Maud's views on the consoling love of Christ. Indeed, she actively resents her carer's disapproval of her penchant for drink, drugs and a flirtatious escort named Carol (Lily Frazer). Yet, she feels sorry for the buttoned-up Maud, whom she considers the saddest and loneliest person she has ever met. Consequently, a curious rapport develops between them, even though Amanda knows that Maud is hell-bent on saving her soul.


While out shopping, Maud bumps into Ester (Rosie Sansom), who recognises her from the hospital and calls her by her real name. She feels sorry for the way that Maud was scapegoated over the scandal and gives her a phone number to call if she ever needs to talk. Struck by a wave of self-loathing, Maud dresses provocatively and loiters in a seafront bar in the hope of attracting a man for a back alley fumble. Not long afterwards, however, she provokes Amanda into dismissing her and she mortifies herself by strapping on a pair of nail-filled shoes. Yet Maud still feels a duty of care to her erstwhile employer and she vows to deliver her into the Lord's merciful embrace.


For all the brilliance of Morfydd Clark and Jennifer Ehle, the stars of this consistently disconcerting picture are the Scarborough views captured by Ben Fordesman's watchful camera and the interiors designed by Paulina Rzeszowksa, which blur into the background as Glass closes in on the faces of her principals to show how interdependent they have become in spite of their irreconcilable differences.


The contrast between the rain-streaked neon of the arcades, the spartan austerity of Maud's bedsit and the Havershamesque gloom of Amanda's cavernous abode reinforces the tensions between the physical and emotional worlds the two women inhabit. But they also stress the fact that Britain has become a country of strangers who no longer have the social skills to communicate with and watch out for each other. They also suggest the instant and implacable intolerance that has become a part of the national character in our era of social media and Brexiteering populism, For this reason alone, we should watch this film through our fingers, as this is where the real horror lies.


In fact, Glass proves less sure-handed in depicting the more macabre moments, with the laceration of Maud's soles/soul seeming more than a little gratuitous. But this is an auspicious start to her feature career and it more than merits comparison with Cristian Mungiu's similarly themed, Beyond the Hills (2012). Ehle excels (as she often does) as the bon viveuring luvvie facing her final curtain and she generously allows Clark to steal scenes with the humourless holiness that eventually causes her to unravel. However, her scenes with Rosie Sansom's nosily concerned ex-colleague are less persuasive, especially as it seems highly unlikely that Maud would have been able to assume a new persona and acquire such a prestigious position so easily in such a small town when her face would have been plastered over the front page of the local newspaper at the height of her infamy.


BLACK BOX.


A readiness to jettison credibility in order to rustle up a few cheap scares seems to be the rationale behind the Welcome to the Blumhouse quartet released online in time for Halloween. Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour, Jr.'s directorial debut, Black Box, wastes no time in plumping for the preposterous after having established that news photographer Nolan Wright (Mamoudou Athie) is almost totally dependent upon his young daughter, Ava (Amanda Christine), after having lost his memory in the car crash that had claimed his wife.


Doctor buddy Gary Yeboah (Tosin Morohunfola) urges Nolan to consult pioneering neuropsychiatrist Lillian Brooks (Phylicia Rashad). But, when she connects him to her memory retrieval device, Nolan slowly realises that he is sharing his headspace with someone named Thomas (Donald Watkins), a seemingly nasty piece of work who is intent on patching things up with his estranged wife, Miranda (Charmaine Bingwa), and their daughter, Ashley (Nyah Marie Johnson).


Feeling like an elongated episode of The Twilight Zone, this struggles to involve, let alone scare. Having spent so much time coaxing the audience into rooting for the vulnerable Nolan, Osei-Kuffour and co-scenarist Stephen Herman shift the focus midway through to examine fatherhood, mother love and domestic abuse through the eyes of a character we barely know and certainly don't care about.


Donald Watkins does his best to make Thomas as hissable as Mamoudou Athie's Nolan is genial. But the storylines never entwine, in spite of the best efforts of Phylicia Rashad, as the mad scientist who ultimately proves not to be a match for a devoted tweenage girl. Hilda Mercado's handheld camerawork is as agile as Troy James's contortions as the `backwards man' in Nolan's subconscious. But the only memorable aspect of this misfire is Brandon Roberts's disconcerting score.


THE LIE.


Reworking Sebastian Ko's 2015 German film, We Monsters, Veena Sud's self-satisfied Blumhouse horror, The Lie, quickly becomes bogged down in the predictabilities and implausibilities of its moralising plot. Having confessed to pushing classmate Brittany (Devery Jacobs) off a remote country bridge en route to ballet camp, 15 year-old Kayla (Joey King) pleads with divorced parents Jay (Peter Sarsgaard) and Rebecca (Mireille Enos) to keep her out of jail. As a lawyer, Rebecca knows this is a dangerous game. But, having heard abuse rumours, she strives to convince cop buddy Kenji Tagata (Patti Kim) and her brusque partner, Rodney Barnes (Nicholas Lea), that South Asian father Sam (Cas Anvar) is crying wolf over his daughter's disappearance.


Anyone even vaguely familiar with the workings of the genre will be able to guess the climactic twist during its cumbersome set up. Yet Sud just about sustains our interest in the increasingly far-fetched convolutions, as she examines the lengths to which parents will go to protect their offspring. Despite ramping up some of the more intense scenes, Saarsgard and Enos are solid enough, as the estranged couple rediscovering past affection, while Kelly credibly makes her manipulative culprit feel like a clear-conscienced victim.


But Anvar is merely required to be a shrill outsider, as Sud wastes an opportunity to explore the extent to which the US justice system complacently condones racial stereotyping. She also skates over topics like over-indulgent parenting and the corrupting influence of contemporary culture and social media. Consequently, in being bereft of any thematic insight or dramatic nuance and being replete with a surfeit of calculating set-pieces, this supposed microcosmic snapshot of a nation in crisis feels like an Issue of the Week teleplay.


EVIL EYE.


While Blumhouse merits a pat on the back for prioritising cultural diversity in its Halloween foursome, it falls short on the due diligence front when it comes to the quality of the projects it has greenlit. Madhuri Shekar's audio play might have performed well on Amazon's Audible platform. But, in adapting it for the small screen, debuting twins Elan and Rajeev Dassani struggle to prevent Evil Eye from feeling like one of Roald Dahl's weaker Tales of the Unexpected.


Despite having returned to Delhi, Usha Kharti (Sarita Choudhury) can't resist meddling in the life of her daughter, Pallavi (Sunita Mani), who remains unmarried in New Orleans on the cusp of turning 30. Husband Krishnan (Bernard White) wishes Usha wouldn't set such store by the evil eye bracelet she insists Pallavi wears, but he knows that she has never recovered from the scarring assault that had resulted in the bridge-plunge demise of a jealous ex-lover. However, he becomes increasingly concerned for Usha's sanity when she appears to take an irrational dislike to Pallavi's new boyfriend, Sandeep (Omar Maskati), the scion of a rich and influential desi family, who she had met following a mix-up over a matchmade date.


From the moment he sidles into shot for the clumsiest of coffee shop meet cutes, it's obvious that the too-good-to-be-true Sandeep is somehow connected to Usha's lingering nightmare. What's so frustrating, however, is that neither Shekar nor the Dassanis do a single thing to cast any doubt over the threat he poses and the audience has to wait patiently until the frantic Usha flies halfway across the world before he can make his murderous move. Sarita Choudhury is splendid as the traumatised mother, while Bernard White is gentleness personified as her supportive spouse. But, with Kristina Hamilton-Grobler's deft editing only emphasising the gulf in actorly class, neither Sunita Mani nor Omar Maskati is able to interest us in an utterly predictable courtship that is only made vaguely unsettling by Ronit Kirchman's relentlessly ominous score.


NOCTURNE.


First-time writer director Zu Quirke has clearly put a lot of thought into this

supernatural addition to the Blumhouse quartet. Unfortunately, the quirkiness of the material isn't enough to distract from the formulaic nature of Nocturne's storyline or the lack of any palpable anguish or suspense.


Long before they enrolled at an exclusive music academy, 17 year-old twins, Vivian (Madison Iseman) and Juliet (Sydney Sweeney), were encouraged to become musical prodigies by their ambitious parents. But, while Vivian has already secured a place at Juilliard and has been asked to top the bill at the end of year concert, the less talented Juliet remains firmly in her shadow. She hasn't even been kissed, while Vivian has an adoring boyfriend in Max (Jacques Colimon) and the evident admiration of her dashing perfectionist piano tutor, Henry Cask (Ivan Shaw), who sees classical music as a bloodsport and memorably defines rap as `a half-literate teen swearing in time to a drum machine'.


By contrast, Juliet has to make do with the underwhelming coaching of Roger (John Rothman), whose frank appraisal of her keyboard limitations prompts her to exact a cruel revenge. Everything changes, however, when gifted violinist Moira (Ji Eun Hwang) leaps from a window and Juliet finds her music book. Inspired by the premonitory drawings she finds inside, Juliet begins to improve as a musician. She also acquires a new-found confidence that prompts her both to expose Cask's lust for her sister and make a play for Max at an out-of-bounds rave. When Vivian injuries herself spying on them in some caves, Juliet steps into her shoes to play Camille Saint-Saëns's `Piano Concerto No.2' at the gala.


Naturally, her change of fortune comes at a price and Quirke slow-walks us to the inevitable forfeiture with a soporific sureity. Every scene is capably staged and commitedly played by the young cast. The drawings in the demonic manuscript are suitably creepy, while Sweeney conveys Juliet's mental decline with an astute mix of poignancy and malevolence. But the air of inevitability is even more ruinously pervasive, as the action invites unflattering comparisons with everything from Brian De Palma's Carrie (1976) and Dario Argento's Suspiria (1977) to Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan (2010) and even Damien Chazelle's Whiplash (2015), which was also produced by Jason Blum. Perhaps Quirke might have been better advised to stick with a straightforward sibling rivalry melodrama.


LOST IN LONDON.


In the preamble to Lost in London, Emma Stone is among the celebrities doubting the wisdom of shooting a movie live on the streets and simultaneously beaming it into hundreds of cinemas in Britain and America. But Woody Harrelson's directorial debut got lucky with the London traffic and largely went without a hitch, although the gonzo nature of the project can't disguise the flaws in the script, which was supposedly based on one wild night back in 2002.


Desperate to prevent wife Laura (Eleanor Matsuura) from seeing a tabloid exposé of his extra-marital sexploits, Harrelson tries to whisk her back to their hotel from a quiet restaurant near the West End theatre where he's performing. However, she sees the front page and Harrelson leaves La Petite Vérité with an Arab prince who wants to party with a star. At a nightclub where he is mistaken for Woody Allen by Zrinka (Zrinka Cvitešic), Harrelson bumps into old buddy Owen Wilson and they trade insults about each other's films and celeb scandal cover-ups before the joint is raided and Harrelson has to flee into the night after being caught on camera assaulting a homeless man in a wheelchair.


Arrested for failing to pay a taxi fare, Harrelson tries to curry favour with Irish cop Paddy (Martin McCann) by letting him speak to Bono on his phone. But he has to endure a long night of the soul in a cell with only a hallucinated Willie Nelson for company. Fortunately, Wilson comes to bail him out and Harrelson is reunited with Laura and their two daughters on Waterloo Bridge in time to go to Leavesden Studios to meet Daniel Radcliffe on the Harry Potter set.


Harrelson deserves credit for attempting such an audacious conceit and he owes an enormous debt to cinematographer, Nigel Willoughby and camera operator Jon Hembrough for keeping up with him over 14 locations. His 30-strong cast also does him proud, with the nervy over-acting of the opening sequence settling into accomplished spontaneity. Time hangs heavy in a few paces, but Harrelson and Wilson spark splendidly at the nightclub, as the latter keeps insisting that his best friend is director Wes Anderson rather than Harrelson. His self-deprecatory willingness to be the butt of the joke, while also baring a bit of his soul, is admirable. But, as one-take stunt pictures go, this isn't a patch on Sebastien Schipper's Victoria (2015).


THE WIDOW'S LAST.


Hailing from New Zealand, Vanessa Perdriau has been on quite a journey. Graduating from the Met Film School, she worked as an assistant on the Jerry Rothwell documentaries, Donor Unknown (2010) and Town of Runners (2012), as well as Sarah Gavron and David Katznelson's Village at the End of the World (2012), before setting up her own production company to make a range of corporate and creative films. She also impressed with her first two shorts, Holding On (2013) and The File Room (2015). But it was The Widow's Last (2017) that established Perdriau's reputation after the concept took the £25,000 top prize at Pinewood's The Pitch competition. Now, there's a chance to catch up with this ambitious period piece on Omeleto's YouTube platform.


Somewhere in Ireland in 1847, as the Great Hunger enters its third year, Kathryn (Charlotte Peters) discovers that her last potatoes have the blight that has decimated the crop and left thousands in despair. Passing a neighbour burying a female relative, Kathryn hurries home to her young son, Michael (Sam Hardy). He is weak from malnutrition and she is so worried by marks on his skin that she decides to make a loaf from the last of their grain.


While out collecting firewood, Kathryn stumbles upon Edmund Kingston (Matthew Wolf), an English landowner who was out riding in the woods when he was shot by Sean (Damien Hasson), a rebel who has heard enough excuses and promises. Just as Kathryn is about to leave Edmund to his fate, having stolen his pocket watch, she turns to see Michael standing behind her and she feels compelled to take the stranger home to tend to his wounds. She even hides him when Sean comes to finish him off and packs him off to the local garrison with a hunk of bread she can't afford to share.


Anticipating the themes of and markedly less melodramatic than Lance Daly's Black `47 (2018), this is a beautifully made and thoughtful treatise on loyalty in a time of crisis. At its core is a faint echo of Alan J. Pakula's Oscar-winning adaptation of William Styron's Sophie's Choice (1982), as Kathryn is faced with saving a son whose very future might be compromised by her decision. Charlotte Peters conveys this anguish with a restrained intensity that prevents the action from tipping into melodrama. Moreover, Perdriau ends on a note of ambiguity, as we are left to wonder whether a dream has come true or whether a nightmare is about to begin.


Designed with unshowy authenticity by Felicity Boylett and evocatively photographed by Andy Catarisano, this capably captures the grimness of the Famine, although the drone shots of Glengariff Woods Nature Reserve feel as misjudged as the more fulsome passages in Luke Atencio's otherwise effective score. It would be nice to see Perdriau's earlier work, but there's enough here to suggest she will rise to the challenge if she gets to make her feature bow with Epie and the Moon Man, a proposed adaptation of Lisa Wingate's bestseller, Dandelion Summer.


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