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  • David Parkinson

Parky At the Pictures (23/2/2024)

Updated: Feb 24

(Reviews of Hamlet; Hamlet Within; The Promised Land; Out of Darkness; The Moon Thieves; and A Wolfpack Called Ernesto)


HAMLET & HAMLET WITHIN.


Ian McKellen was 82 at the time he was due to star in Hamlet at the Theatre Royal, Windsor in the spring of 2021. However, the production was forced to close before it opened because of the restrictions imposed during the Covid-19 pandemic. As he had a cast in place and there was no knowing whether his stage version would ever be seen, director Sean Mathias decided to film William Shakespeare's most debated play in and around the venue. He even managed to persuade Windsor Castle to light up at night in order to give his backstage Elsinore a touch of grandeur. Two years after the picture was completed, it's finally getting a limited release on the big screen.


Although the text has been abridged, the essential story remains intact. Returning to the Danish court from Wittenburg, Hamlet (Ian McKellen) laments to his friend, Horatio (Ben Allen), that he has missed both the funeral of his father, King Hamlet, and the hasty marriage of his mother, Gertrude (Jenny Seagrove), to his uncle, Claudius (Jonathan Hyde). He is appalled to discover during an encounter with his father's ghost (Francesca Annis) on the ramparts of Elsinore that Claudius murdered his brother by pouring poison in his ear and Hamlet vows swift and sure vengeance.


However, things don't go according to plan. Having confided in Horatio that he will feign an antic disposition in order to ascertain the truth by putting Claudius and Gertrude off guard, he succeeds only in arousing their suspicion. Initially, they enlist the help of elderly courtier Polonius (Steven Berkoff) to discover the source of Hamlet's disquiet. But his conviction that the prince is mad with love for his young daughter, Ophelia (Alis Wyn Davies), proves wide of the mark and Claudius summons Hamlet's old friends, Rosencrantz (Lee Knight) and Guildenstern (Asif Khan), to spy on him.


When Claudius is offended by a scene in The Marriage of Gonzago, staged by the visiting troupe led by the Player King (Frances Barber), Hamlet has proof of his guilt. But he opts not to strike while the king is at prayer and finds himself being swept away on a ship bound for England after stabbing Polonius, who was eavesdropping on a conversation with Gertrude.


Outraged by his father's death, Laertes (Emmanuella Cole) returns to Elsinore in time to witness his sister's breakdown. She drowns shortly afterwards and, when Claudius learns that Hamlet escaped from the ship and sent Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their deaths, he conspires with Laertes to rig a fencing match. However, Gertrude drinks the poisoned wine intended for her son, while Laertes, Claudius, and Hamlet fall victim to the deadly venom in which the former had dipped his untipped foil. Surrounded by dead bodies, Horatio drifts away with the video camera with which he has been recording proceedings.


Among the many intriguing aspects of this feature is the fact that it contains Steven Berkoff and Emmannuella Cole, who seemingly fell out during the previews, with Frances Barber assuming Polonius's mantle and Ashley D. Cole stepping up from Marcellus to play Laertes. These changes reinforce the gender-, colour-, and age-blind nature of the production, although it's never

entirely certain what points Mathias is seeking with his casting choices. There's no reason why Osric or the gravedigger shouldn't be female, but it seems odd that Old Hamlet, Laertes, and the Player King are all played by women, yet the latter is referred to as `she/her' in the tweaked text.


These aren't the only puzzling punts that Mathias takes. Why was Jenny Seagrove saddled with an unpersuasive Scandi-Germanic accent and was it really necessary for McKellen to deliver the `O, that this too, too solid flesh would melt' soliloquy from an exercise bike or for Alis Wyn Davies's Ophelia to turn into a guitar-strumming folkie when she loses her reason? Berkoff's barking bluster during his opening exchange with Cole and Davies is equally peculiar, although he does settle down to play Polonius as a fond fool meddlesomely striving to do his best as both a servant and a parent.


The setting of scenes in various rooms around the theatre, as well in as the cellar and on the roof, quickly becomes gimmicky and renders the action bitty. What's lacking is an anchored space, like a throne room, to convey the sense that the drama is unfolding at a royal court rather than backstage at the Theatre Royal. Moreover, the gambit contributes to the impression that the actors are running through the play to keep themselves sane during lockdown rather than inhabiting characters enduring a dynastic crisis in medieval Denmark. There's even a suggestion from the initial shots of McKellen trying to gain admittance to the theatre that he simply imagines the ensuing enactment.


The picture has been branded a psychological thriller, although there's no great suspense generated by Hamlet's prevarication. Indeed, there's no particular insight into his psyche, despite McKellen delivering the lines with the wisdom of the ages in his eyes and voice. This dimmed sense of the inner turmoil behind Hamlet's hesitancy can perhaps be explained by this revelation about his last brush with the role when he was in his early thirties: `When I first played it, I rather demonstrated to the audience what they should note about Hamlet and so and so on. I was in constantly interpreting the part. When I more recently played it, I let the text speak for itself. I was much less concerned to come up with any psychological explanation for what he does or trying to put labels on him. I just did the text.'


This isn't necessarily what his colleagues are doing, however, with the result that there are frequent clashes of performance style, which adds to the sense that this is a production without dramatic or thematic unity. The proximity of Neil Oseman's camera doesn't suit everyone, either, although McKellen embraces it to suggest he is confiding directly in the viewer, particularly when Horatio is filming him in a neat self-reflexive nod to the picture's methodology.


Resplendent in hoodies, trainers, and baggy jumpers, he toys with the references to age in the verse and is almost touchingly avuncular in urging Davies to hence to a nunnery. He has claimed this Hamlet is bisexual and there are hints at a past closeness with Horatio (and possibly Rosencrantz). But, otherwise, the key relationships are given short shrift in an interpretation that appears so pleased with its casting and staging conceits that little deep thought has been given to anything else. If there is method in Mathias's madness, it's not always easy to detect it.


Despite not being a particular fan of the play, McKellen also appears as the Ghost in Ken McMullen's Hamlet Within, which is available on Amazon Prime. Thought-provoking in places, if pretentious in others, this cine-essay subtitled `Five Acts in Search of a Murderous Prince' opens by suggesting that the spirit is a figment of Hamlet's imagination and that the tale actually centres on `an unhappy king killed by his nephew because of some whimsical speculation'.


A bid to de-mythologise the Dane, this intelligent, but self-indulgent study combines line readings by John Shrapnel as Claudius and Polonius and Lex Shrapnel and Ben Turner as Hamlet with some rather haphazard digressions. For example, during a discussion of sources and influences (which includes a recycled 1993 interview with Jacques Derrida musing on plagiarism), Dominique Pinon pops up as Michel de Montaigne for some badinage on a sunlit stroll with Gabriella Wright as his muse.


She re-appears with Elaine Ng in a discourse on pirates before Ng teams with academic Anne Sophie Refskou for a rumination on the role of the grave-digging clowns who so fascinated Karl Marx. Elsewhere, Varsha Panjwani considers the extent to which Hamlet, Polonius, and Laertes invade Ophelia's `psychic space' and how she was the victim of a political murder. Fellow scholar Richard Wilson follows an insight into how the set-up of the Globe Theatre enabled Shakespeare to dramatise thought with an assertion that Hamlet was often played for laughs before the 18th century. He also claims that the prince has become impossible to identify with since 9/11 because he is the prototype suicide bomber who takes up `arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them'.


Over lyrical shots of the sea raging beneath a ruined castle, we hear verses in various languages that have been inspired by the play. A woman's voice repeatedly intones `to die, to sleep' at regular intervals. But, as McMullen hops between topics, this is more of a rattlebag than a concerted thesis. It also bypasses the curious conundrum that Hamlet barely mentions the fact he has been usurped from the throne and displays little ambition to seize power and rule his country. As the play was written when England and Scotland were standing at a dynastic crossroads, it feels as though this is a neglected aspect of a masterpiece that has always been much more than the story of a romantically gloomy youth who can't make up his mind.


THE PROMISED LAND.


Dane Nikolaj Arcel leads a double life. As a screenwriter, he has teamed with Rasmus Heisterberg in adapting Stieg Larsson's bestseller, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2009), for director Niels Arden Oplev. The pair have also scripted four features from the Department Q thrillers of Jussi Adler-Olsen: The Keeper of Lost Causes (2013); The Absent One (2014); The Conspiracy of Faith (2016); and The Purity of Vengeance (2018).


However, Arcel is also a noted director. Since debuting with King's Game (2004), he has made Island of Lost Souls (2007), Truth About Men (2010), and the Oscar-nominated historical saga, A Royal Affair (2012), in his homeland, as well as the Stephen King chiller, The Dark Tower (2017), in Hollywood. He returns home to reunite with Danish icon Mads Mikkelsen on The Promised Land, another period piece that Arcel and Anders Thomas Jensen have based on Ida Jessen's 2020 tome, The Captain and Ann Barbara.


Returning to Denmark in 1755 after spending 25 years fighting with Germanic armies, Captain Ludvig Kahlen (Mads Mikkelsen) has little but his medal from the Silesian War. However, he has also learnt about potatoes and approaches the Danish crown with a proposal to cultivate them on a forbidding stretch of Jutland heather moor. He requests a title and an estate for his trouble and the Treasury consent to his enterprise as the region is dear to the king's heart.


Living off his military pension, Kahlen receives the tentative backing of Pastor Anton Eklund (Gustav Lindh) and Trappaud (Jacob Lohmann), a local landowner with piles, who warns him that the arrogant Frederik de Schinkel (Simon Bennebjerg) from Hald Manor will do all in his power to thwart his plans, as he claims the moor for himself and abuses his position as magistrate to prevent others from settling. Moreover, he is aware that Kahlen is the illegitimate son of a nobleman who abused his female staff and refuses to have his status jeopardised by a cast-off, especially as his own father had shown more affection towards his hounds than his heir.


Affecting the title `De' to impress his neighbours, Schinkel hopes to marry his Norwegian cousin, Edel Helene (Kristine Kujath Thorp), whose impoverished father approves of the match. However, she knows he abuses his female servants and asks Kahlen whether he can expect his ennoblement within the year so that she can marry him instead.


His hopes of meeting his target are improved when Eklund introduces him to runaway indentured serfs Johannes (Morten Hee Andersen) and Ann Barbara Eriksen (Amanda Collin). They agree to work for bed and board for a year before making for the coast. But Ann Barbara resents Kahlen's aloofness and curt remarks about her housekeeping.


Taking advice from factotum Bondo (Thomas W. Gabrielsson) and reliant on Preisler (Olaf Højgaard) and his henchmen to enforce his decisions, Schinkel succeeds in preventing any locals from working for Kahlen. When he catches Anmai Mus (Melina Hagberg) stealing from his hen coop, however, he forces her to take him to the Romani Tater camp in the woods and persuades the head man, Hector (Magnus Krepper), to assist in burning the heather.

Invited to the annual harvest ball at the manor, Kahlen has a clandestine meeting with Edel and consents to her suggestion that they should wed.


However, Preisler has captured Johannes on a mission to purchase clay for Kahlen and Schinkel appals his guests by making them watch, as he tortures the fugitive farmer to death with boiling water. Afraid that they might be subjected to similar punishment, Hector retreats to the woods and Kahlen is left to battle through the winter with Ann Barbara and Eklund.


Anmai Mus has also stayed at the King's House because Kahlen picked up the stick she had dropped to symbolise his willingness to make her part of his household. But she contracts a fever and Kahlen has to slaughter the goat and use some of his seed potatoes to help her recover.


While Anmai Mus uses her bed, Ann Barbara starts sleeping with Kahlen. They become lovers and form a family unit, with Anmai Mus learning to read and tally. Thus, when the king hears that Kahlen has harvested 80 sacks of potatoes and awards him the title of Royal Surveyor, he refuses the request to cast out `the darkling' made by Balzer (Felix Kramer), the leader of the North German migrants given permission to settle on the moor. Moreover, he spurns Schinkel's offer of a disadvantageous partnership and a bribe to move elsewhere.


Furious at the prospect of having his position undermined, Schinkel instructs Preisler to break some convicts out of prison and attack the German settlement. Blaming the deaths and abductions on Anmai Mus, Balzer refuses to remain unless she's sent away. Much to Ann Barbara's dismay, Kahlen has Trappaud find her a place in an orphanage in Odense before following up a tip from Edel that the killers are being billeted in Schinkel's hunting lodge. In leading a revenge mission, however, Kahlen is seen shooting an ex-army officer by Preisler and Schinkel has him arrested. Furthermore, he reports the incident to the royal court and Kahlen is stripped of his lands.


Despite having left King's House, Ann Barbara swears to get even with Schinkel and rejoins his retinue as a maid. While Schinkel has Kahlen whipped before being boiled, Edel agrees to marry him if he spares the captain's life. However, she is in cahoots with Ann Barbara, who has drugged Schinkel's wine and she stabs and castrates him when he falls unconscious.


Kahlen is spared his punishment, but Ann Barbara is sent to prison for life and Trappaud's attempts to lodge an appeal on her behalf are ignored. With Edel having returned to her father, Kahlen finds Anmai Mus and they resume their work on the farm. Years pass and Kahlen has the title of baron bestowed upon him by the king. He also learns that 400 new settlers will be arriving to ensure the project prospers. However, he opts to move on when the 15 year-old Anmai Mus (Laura Bilgrau Eskild-Jensen) accepts the stick dropped by a handsome pedlar, even though it means forfeiting his title. Ambushing the wagon taking Ann Barbara into penal servitude, he makes for the coast and an uncertain future.


There have been numerous films (many of them Westerns) about loners seeking to put down roots on inhospitable terrain in the face of opposition from cruel rivals, with Jan Troell's The Emigrants (1971) and Claude Berri's Jean de Florette (1986) being among the most involving. Among the more recent examples are Kelly Reichardt's First Cow, Thomas Clay's Fanny Lye Deliver'd (both 2019), and DK and Hugh Welchman's handpainted wonder, The Peasants (2023). Echoes of these and others reverberate around this punishing saga, which also has themes in common with Martin Zandvliet's Land of Mine (2015) and Hlynur Pálmason's Godland (2022).


In lesser hands, this could easily have descended into rustic realist melodrama, as Kahlen is the strong silent type, Schinkel the hissable villain, Ann Barbara and Edel the flipsides of the romantic coin, and Anmai Mus the exotic naif providing comic relief and quaintness. But, while there is plenty of incident to pack into the 127 leisurely paced minutes, Arcel is more interested in the personalities of his characters than their actions. He keeps Rasmus Videbæk's camera close to faces in the candelit interiors and deploys figures in moonlight and mists against the vast intractability of the landscape (actually in the Czech Republic). Kicki Ilander's costumes, Jette Lehman's décor, and Dan Romer's robust score are used to line up the audience behind Kahlen, who appears to be a man of integrity because he works hard and says little, while Schinkel drinks and brays.


Yet Kahlen is far from blameless. He betrays Anmai Mus in order to save his harvest and considers Ann Barbara beneath him until he falls for her and breaks his promise to Edel. As a soldier, he is also prepared to use violence, albeit in a less sadistic manner than his feckless adversary. Finally, by quitting his land, he deprives a colony of migrants a place to call home, although the closing captions are vague about the fate of King's House and Hald Manor. Perhaps that's why the original Danish title is Bastarden?


Internalising emotions and frustrations, Mikkelsen is typical excellent, while Simon Bjenneberg revels in Schinkel's wickedness (right down to the way he consistently adds `De' to his name when speaking to those who don't rate him). Amanda Collin and Kristine Kujath Thorp make the most of less nuanced roles, while Melina Hagberg impresses as the sparky Tatar, cursing in her native argot and giving nicknames to protectors.


Her sudden growth spurt and elopement with the first comely youth who takes an interest are rather gauchely conveyed, while Ann Barbara's rescue from a poorly guarded wagon smacks of novelettish contrivance. But, for all the earnestness of the historical themes and the modern resonance of all the pride, prejudice, and exploitation, this is essentially a fairytale for grown-ups, with spuds replacing magic beans.


OUT OF DARKNESS.


Feature first-timer Andrew Cumming is seemingly aware of the

research of Marc Azéma. Why else would he and screenwriter Ruth Greenberg include a Thaumatrope in their Paleolithic chiller, Out of Darkness, which is now in cinemas after playing at the 66th BFI London Film Festival under the title, The Origin?


In his book, The Prehistory of the Cinema, Azéma revealed that he had found on the walls of 12 French caves like the famous Chauvet-Pont d'Arc Cave in the Ardèche around 50 animals engraved in such a way that they might suggest movement in flickering torchlight. He calls this effect, `proto-cinema', and the discovery of the Ledge of Horses in the Atxurra Cave in the Basque country suggests that the technique was common 12,000 years before Plato described the cave of shadows in Republic in c.375 BC.


In 45,000 BC, six people abandon their failing community to find a new home. They are led by Adem (Chuku Modu), who is accompanied by his 11 year-old son, Heron (Luna Mwezi); his younger brother, Geirr (Kit Young); and his pregnant mate, Ave (Iola Evans). The aged Odal (Arno Luening) is valued for his wisdom, while Beyah (Safia Oakley-Green) is considered a `stray', who has been allowed to tag along as a spare female.


While sitting round the campfire, Heron (the owner of the primitive Thaumatrope) asks Ave for a story, but she refuses because she is not his mother. Odal claims that they are living their own story, as Adem is taking them on an adventure into the unknown. As they head towards the mountains in the hope of finding a cave, however, they are unnerved by blood-curling noises in the night. The next morning, they discover that Heron has disappeared.


Convinced he has been abducted by a monster or demon, Adem insists on following the trail into the woods. However, they get lost and the others accuse him of leading them into a trap. Making camp, Adem decides to investigate when they hear more noises. But he is savagely attacked and is close to death when Geirr recovers his body. As he's unable to put his brother out of his misery, Beyah wields the knife. With Ave feeling faint, Beyah proposes that they eat Adem in order to keep up her strength. Odal agrees that Adem would want to do what's best for his child. But Geirr refuses to partake and buries his portion in the undergrowth.


The next morning, Geirr assumed command and attempts to find a way out of the woods so they can resume their trek towards the mountain on the horizon. He succeeds only in bringing them back to Adem's cadaver, however, and Odal suggests sacrificing Beyah to appease the stalking entity, as he believes it has latched on to the scent of her first menstrual blood. Geirr and Ave try to overpower her, but she wrestles free and knocks the former unconscious.


Convinced that appeasement is the only policy, Odal turns on Ave and stabs her with a sharp branch. As she falls, she breaks the old man's ankle and, by the eerie green light of the Aurora Borealis, he watches as Ave's corpse is dragged away by the creature. It returns for Odal at dawn, with Beyah and Geirr looking on from behind a tree.

Refusing to believe the predator is supernatural, Beyah creeps up from behind and pounces. She removes a mask to discover the wearer is a female Neanderthal (Rosebud Melarkey), who tries to frighten her away with ear-piercing hisses and howls. Opting not to confront the figure, Beyah allows her to escape and follows close behind, with Geirr in her wake.


Reaching the mountain, they see a cave and venture inside from two different directions. Beyah fends off a male Neanderthal (Tyrell Mhlanga) by feigning death as he tries to throttle her. Having killed him, she reaches the main cave and finds Heron asleep and unharmed on a bed of furs. As she checks on him, she is surprised by the female Neanderthal brandishing a stone hammer.


Hearing the sound of a struggle, Geirr rushes into the cave, pausing to finish off the male Neanderthal with his spear. However, he is caught off guard by the female, who kills him. Fending her off with a torch, Beyah sets light to some straw and leads Heron through a narrow ventilation opening. When the Neanderthal gets stuck, Heron goes to help her because she has been kind to him. But Beyah smashes her skull with a rock.


Heron protests that the Neanderthals had protected him, as they thought he would die if her remained with the group. But Beyah explains that they killed his father because they are little more than monsters. Later, while telling Heron a story, Beyah admits that she regrets harming the Neanderthals because they were also frightened humans doing what they thought was best to survive.


Heron shows her Ave's body, which had been reverently painted and laid out according to the Neanderthal ritual. She suggests they bury her, along with Geirr and the Neanderthals and set up home in the cave. Together, they can start a new community and will apply the lessons they have learned from their ordeal in order to survive.


It would appear that Lewin Fitzhamon's Prehistoric Peeps (1905) was among the nascent cinema's first attempts to depict our earliest ancestors on screen. A surviving still showing Cain and Abel in prehistoric implies that George Méliès was not far behind in the opening segment of the now lost, Humanity Through the Ages (1908). D.W. Griffith similarly explored the use of force in Man's Genesis: A Psychological Comedy Founded on Darwin's Theory of the Genesis of Man (1912), as Weakhands (Robert Harron) demonstrates superior intelligence and survival skills in fashioning a club with which to defend himself from the hulking Bruteforce (Wilfred Lucas).

Charles L. Gaskill and Ralph Ince also examined the harshness of existence in The Cave Man (1912), although Charlie Chaplin was able to see the funny side of Stone Age existence as his Little Fellow bested King Low-Brow (Mack Swain) in His Prehistoric Past (1914). In making his directorial debut alongside Edward F. Cline, Buster Keaton also played a Stone Age Stone Face, who invents golf and hops aboard a brontosaurus in Three Ages (1923). This had a clear influence on the Hanna-Barbera TV series, The Flintstones (1960-66), as well as the Carl Gottlieb comedy, Caveman (1981), which teamed Ringo Starr and Barbara Bach, and Nick Park's Claymation gem, Early Man (2018).


Despite pitting cave dwellers against dinosaurs, Hal Roach's One Million BC (1940) and Don Chaffey's One Million Years BC (1966) sought to approach prehistory with a little more gravitas. Subsequently, Jean-Jacques Annaud's Quest For Fire (1981), Michael Chapman's Clan of the Cave Bear (1986), and Felix Randau's Iceman (2017) have sought to present anthropologically plausible impressions of the harsh realities of the dawn of human civilisation. Cumming and Greenberg clearly took note of these pictures, but were also guided by Palaeolithic archaeologist Rob Dinnis in how the characters would looknd behave and by poet and linguist Daniel Andersson, who cut-and-pasted bits of Arabic, Basque, and Sanskrit to create TOLA (`The Origin Language') so that British, Swiss, and German actors (all of whom are purposely of mixed heritage) could sound authentically homogeneous.


By the end of the shoot, the admirable Safia Oakley-Green and her colleagues were improvising in TOLA. But they also do a lot of acting with their eyes, whether communicating with each other or in expressing the trepidation and terror they feel as they confront their own demons and the beast in the woods. Cinematographer Ben Fordesman used natural Scottish Highland light for the daytime sequences and an adjustable flame for the nocturnal action. Such attention to detail extends to Adam Janota Bzowski's score, which blends bone flutes with ancient percussive instruments. Yet, there are moments when silence might have made the plight of a character isolated in the darkness more unsettling.


In truth, despite being so scrupulously made, the Blair Witchy storyline isn't particularly gripping, perhaps because Cumming doesn't spend enough time with the characters to explore their past experiences and their hopes for the future before he starts imperilling them. We learn little about their bonds or how Adem came to be with Ave and why she is so disdainful towards Heron. Odal and Beyah's presence within the family unit might also have been explored in greater depth, especially as she turns out to be the final girl. Moreover, as nothing is said about the group's belief system, the audience has no idea about what kind of supernatural manifestation or physical form would frighten them.


Much more interesting is the film's discussion of civilisation, which will make it resonate with audiences in a fearful world. By making the sextet the target of an unseen menace, Cumming and Greenberg coax viewers into empathising with them. But they pull the rug by forcing us to reassess the motives of the Neanderthals and the readiness with which the wanderers kill first and ponder later. It's not the most complex of messages (indeed it's readily open to misinterpretation), but it reminds us how little human nature has changed over time.


THE MOON THIEVES.


A couple of true-life heists provide the inspiration for The Moon Thieves, a crime comedy whose primary interest lies in the fact that the leads are taken by Edan Lui, Anson Lo, and Keung To, who are all members of the Hong Kong Cantopop band, Mirror. This is the third feature for director Yuen Kim-wai (aka Steve Yuen) and the first not to star ex-wife Karena Lam, after Heaven in the Dark (2016) and Legally Declared Dead (2020). It's also his second brush with some of the Mirror boys after the panned TV series, We Got Game (2022).


Vincent Ma (Edan Lui) makes watches for a shop belonging to his father, Kuen (Ben Yuen). He also repairs items using authentic spares and produces one of these `frankenwatches' for Wayne (Deon Cheung), a crime lord in his Hong Kong neighbourhood. However, he accuses Vincent of cheating him and they wind up in the office of Uncle (Keung To), the arrogant son of a recently deceased underworld watch dealer. In order to place Vincent in his debt, he has his expert authenticate his craftsmanship and Wayne accepts his word.


Uncle is keen to impress his father's former confederate, Mr Bard (Kwok Fung), and accepts his commission to steal three watches that once belonged to Pablo Picasso from the Japanese firm handling their auction. Uncle coerces Vincent into building three undetectable copies and sends him to Tokyo in the company of his trusted oppo, Chief (Louis Cheung), explosives specialist Mario (Michael Ning), and Yoh (Anson Lo), the son of safecracker Ms Hong (Luna Shaw), who insists on going in her place to pay for the cataract operation that will save her sight and enable to keep open her wool shop. What Yoh doesn't know, however, is that Chief and Mario were involved in the operation that resulted in the death of his brother.


Once in Tokyo, Yoh and Vincent pose as a playboy and his secretary and let it be known in all the reputable watch stores that they are keen to purchase a rate item with a sizeable reward. Chief and Mario then offer the same model to a lower-rung dealer and arrange to conclude a deal with Yoh and Vincent in the VIP room at the store holding the Picasso watches. When the clerk opens the safe to store the watch until the monies are transferred, Yoh checks out the locking mechanism. However, Vincent spots the Omega Speedmaster that Buzz Aldrin wore on the lunar surface (the fabled S/N 43 Moonwatch) and momentarily loses concentration.


Luckily, the clerk doesn't notice his slip, but Chief gives Vincent a slap and warns him that he will pay for any further mistakes. Having identified the safe, Chief meets a dealer to provide Yoh with an identical model on which to practice. He discovers that the code resets after three failed attempts and knows he will have little margin for error on the night. Mario and Vincent recce the sewer under the building and realise that they will have to do the job on the night of the equinox fireworks to disguise the noise of the explosives needed to breach the dividing wall.


All goes to plan, with the security guard going out for his nightly takeaway just as the pyrotechnics begin. However, a drunken reveller barges into the shop door and triggers the alarm. This puts pressure on Yoh and he muffs his first two attempts to crack the safe. But when Mario spots dried wax on some of the buttons, he regains his composure and they start swapping the Picasso watches for the replicas, Vincent, however, can't resist handling the Moonwatch and receives another reprimand for not sticking to the plan.


Escaping through the sewers before the cops arrive, the quartet head for a lonely spot in their van to plan what to do next. Vincent hits upon the idea of taking the watches to pieces and then mailing them back to Hong Kong with stickers on the packages that will enable his friend in the sorting office to recognise them. Meanwhile, the store discovers that S/N 43 is also missing and its yakuza boss owner, Kato (Kazuya Tanabe), vows vengeance.


Chief is furious when he learns that Mario has pinched the Moonwatch. But he agrees that Uncle is dangerous and has plans to eliminate his father's old retainers. So, they devise an elaborate plan to put Kato on Uncle's tail. Having allowed themselves to be captured, Vincent prevents Uncle from killing Chief and Mario by refusing to reveal the whereabouts of the Picasso watches unless he's set free. He demands that Yoh accompanies him to the safe place and they wind up having to hijack the post office truck after they realise that some of the parcels have not been delivered.


Arranging a rendezvous with Uncle, Vincent and Yoh withhold the watches until Chief and Mario have joined them in the van. At that moment, Kato and his henchmen arrive and a gun battle ensues. As Vincent and Yoh have cunningly parked over a manhole cover, the gang are able to slip away with Mario detonating a stick of dynamite to give the impression they've been blown to bits.


It's only then that they discover the Moonwatch has been mailed back to the sender because of a fault with the address label. Flying back to Japan, they are about to enter the post office when Vincent shows his friends the three Picasso watches on his wrist. Back in Hong Kong, Uncle attempts to flog the fakes to a Russian mobster and finds himself looking down the barrel of a gun.


Although not a patch on Francis Rossi and Rick Parfitt's mugging in Stuart St Paul's Bula Quo! (2013), the Mirror trio give a good account of themselves in this slick, if undemanding caper. Anson Lo occasionally looks a little lost, but Edan Lui makes a virtue of his geeky glasses, while Keung To rocks his shiny red jacket despite scarcely convincing as the murderous upstart crook. They're helped along by Louis Cheung and Michael Ning, as the tough guys realising that they need to adjust to changing circumstances in order to stay afloat. But screenwriter Ronald Chan's characterisation is sketchy and Yuen and editor Hoi Wong dice the footage into so many Ocean's Eleven-like mosaic pieces that no one is really given the chance to fashion a performance.


Ka Ho Karl Tam's photography is restlessly slick, but still lingers long enough over the moving watch components and the workings of the safe locking mechanism to draw amusing attention to the fact that the operation hardly goes like clockwork. But it rattles along to a satisfying conclusion with the rousing accompaniment of Hatano Yusuke's score. Chalk and cheese they may be, but this would make for the lower half of a droll horological double bill with Cyril Schäublin's Unrest (2022).


A WOLFPACK CALLED ERNESTO.


Born in Colorado, but based in Mexico, Everardo González has made his name with such documentaries as Pulque Song (2003), The Old Thieves (2007), The Open Sky (2011), Drought (2011), El Paso (2015), and Devil's Freedom (2017). However, while he has focussed in the past on drug cartels and the consequences of gang warfare, he has never produced anything to compare to A Wolfpack Named Ernesto.


When he started work on the project in 2019, González considered linking the segments with an actress voicing an Argentinian gun as it works its way through the Mexican crime network. Instead, he and cinematographer María Secco hit upon the idea of fitting several juvenile gang members with a scorpion-tail device connected to an iPhone in order to capture footage of the backs of their heads approximating the perspective of a shooter video game. Initially, despite the immediacy of the imagery, the technique feels gimmicky. But viewers are soon drawn into the dangers that are an everyday reality for thousands of Mexican boys and girls.


The testimony provided by the kids (whose wolfpack is fictitious term of convenience) is intoned in a matter of fact manner that proves highly unsettling. But the voices don't always correlate with the figures on screen and it's not always easy keeping up with the subtitles while watching images with a shallow depth of field that makes everything beyond the close-up head and shoulders look blurred and indistinct. As we never see faces, it's not always easy to associate with what's happening or what is being said. Cumulatively, in spite of Paloma López Carrillo's astute editing, this has a distancing effect that gradually attenuates the effectiveness of the visuals, as the lack of any tangible social or geo-physical context renders them almost impossible to interpret.


There are striking moments, such as the sequence in which guns are secreted in bags of sugar, while a motorcycle ride under darkening skies makes a kinetic change from the scenes of family interaction, barroom badinage, and street corner bravura. But the grim fascination comes to lie in the statements made by those who have survived the ordeal of becoming ensnared in gangland life.

Some recall being intrigued by things they saw but didn't understand when they were only nine or 10 years old. One lad describes how impressed he was by the fact that his father was so well known around the neighbourhood, while another explains how the sense that he was somehow missing out led to him running errands for tips by gangsters he didn't twig that they were grooming him. At first, they were rewarded with sweets, but these were replaced by booze and solvents and it was only then that these dependent tweenagers realised they were trapped.


Many speak of the exhilaration of having money and status, as well as a sense of superiority to the poorer kids in their street. But running drugs soon leads to smuggling guns and a sobering segment follows in which speakers describe getting hold of weapons from the US military and Mexican cops and helping deliver them around the city or across the border. One woman explains how she had started out filling cosmetics bottles to feed her children after her husband had left her, but found she could make a better living renting out guns for a few dollars an hour.


Handling firearms almost inevitably leads to using them and several speakers confess to the adrenaline rush they felt when they first shot someone. Others dwell on the physical toll taken by the realisation they had ended a life and the sense of dread that their turn would soon come in a milieu in which secrets rarely stayed hidden. Such feelings soon dissipate, however, as further hits are demanded and the youths develop an emotional armour that enabled them to hang tough after they realised that they were never going to reach the upper echelons of the cartel and acquire serious power and wealth.


Each themed section closes on a prolonged fade to black that serves the same purpose of one of Yasujiro Ozu's famed `pillow shots'. However, Mathías Barberis's inspired sound design continues to play over the pause, with sirens, gunshots, and screams often forming part of the mix below the score that was composed by Haxah, Konk Reyes, and Andrés Sánchez Maher, who helped put González in touch with his contributors in the Mexico City district of Tepito. One can only wonder how many will still be around to see their distinctive perspective on the big screen.


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