• David Parkinson

Parky At the Pictures (23/7/2021)

(Reviews The Surrogate; Here We Are; Off the Rails; Diana's Wedding; Deerskin; and The Birthday Cake)


Cinemas are open again. But not everyone is going to want to sit in the dark being distracted by the prospect of whether everyone else in the auditorium is still behaving as though the social distancing guidelines are still in place.


Consequently, the streaming platforms seem set to keep up their good work a little while longer. In addition to subscription sites like Curzon Home Cinema. MUBI, Netflix and the BFI Player, therefore, 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.


THE SURROGATE.


Film-makers have found surrogacy a tricky topic to handle, whether in such comedies as Michael McCullers's Baby Mama (2008) and Nicole Beckwith's Together Together (2021) or in melodramas like Fabien Gorgeart's Diane Has the Right Shape, Sebastiano Riso's A Family (both 2017) and Carlo Sironi's Sole (2019). However, the debuting Jeremy Hersh has found a non-judgemental way to explore the complex moral and emotional issues involved with insight and sensitivity in The Surrogate.


Having known Josh (Chris Perfetti) since they were at Sarah Lawrence together, thirtysomething Brooklynite Jess (Jasmine Batchelor) readily agrees when he and lawyer husband Aaron (Sullivan Jones) ask her to be their surrogate. As payment in the United States is illegal, the couple have agreed to pay Jess's expenses and play an active role in her pregnancy.


Mother Karen (Tonya Pinkins), a faculty dean at Yale, makes no bones about the fact she disapproves of what Jess is doing, although she receives more support from her father, Stephen (Leon Addison Brown), and sister Samantha (Eboni Booth). She also has to distance herself from casual boyfriend, Nate (Brandon Micheal Hall), who had been hoping things might turn serious. But the prospect of doing something positive to raise her morale while handling social media for a non-profit organisation campaigning for the rights of women recently released from detention is dashed when a routine test reveals that the baby is likely to have Down's syndrome.


Josh and Aaron are crushed and the former has to be talked into accompanying Jess on a fact-finding mission to a nearby special needs facility. While Josh lingers on the periphery, Jess joins in a play session and is taken by the enthusiasm of the bespectacled Leon (Leon Lewis). His mother, Bridget (Brooke Bloom), is too busy to stop and chat, but Sandra (Meg Gibson) is happy to share her life-affirming experience. Jess leaves feeling positive that the baby can have a fulfilling life.


But a visit to Bridget's home only confirms Josh and Aaron's conviction that raising a child with Down's syndrome would be expensive, exhausting and deleterious to their relationship. They ask Jess to make an appointment for an abortion. Having met Leon, however, she can't bring herself to go through with the procedure and asks her parents for money to buy a house in Connecticut. Karen refuses point blank to help, while boss Maria (Tiffany Villarin) can't promise to let her work remotely.


By contrast, Nate is more than willing to become a family. But Jess doesn't want to commit and becomes frustrated when neither Bridget nor Sandra tell her what she wants to hear. She needs to know that Josh and Aaron have understood the decision they have made and the responsibilities they will have if she keeps the child. A heated argument ensues, during which they argue that life is hard enough for a mixed-race gay couple without having to constantly tell a Down's syndrome child that they can't expect to have a normal life.


Jess accuses them of having made a lifestyle rather than an ethical choice and goes to stay with Samantha. Distraught at the prospect of losing his friend, Josh drags Aaron to the house and pleads with Jess to let them help. However, she has reached the conclusion that their negative energy would be bad for the child and she insists that they have no contact with her once her daughter is born. She also asserts that Josh's name will not be going on the birth certificate, although she breaks down when she's alone with Samantha, as she is tied forever to someone who turned out not to be the man she thought she knew.


Closing on a scene of the sisters bathing in a rocky river, this will leave most viewers feeling jolted. In addition to coercing us into examining our stance on surrogacy, Hersh has challenges us to think about race, class, religion, prenatal testing, abortion, Down's syndrome, parental responsibility, women in the workplace and white privilege. Yet, at no point, does this dialogue-heavy, but brilliantly played and absorbing drama feel sententious, impositional or demogogic. Indeed, it should remind us of what grown-up cinema used to be like before even the worthiest, weightiest pictures had to be saddled with click-bait issues to ensure their commercial success.


The boldness of Hersh's approach can be summed up by the sequence in which the African American Jess accuses the Jewish Josh of supporting eugenics when he cites a Richard Dawkins quote about the morality of bringing a child with Down's syndrome into the world. This is daring stuff and should put The Surrogate on the same level as something as groundbreaking as Barry Jenkins's Moonlight (2016) and Eliza Hittman's Never Rarely Sometimes Always (2020).


In only his fourth feature, New York stage actor Chris Perfetti is hugely impressive in the impossible role of Josh. Hersh is less harsh on Josh and Aaron than most viewers will be and balances them with the contrasting attitudes of Sandra and Bridget. But he is wholly behind Jess, whose accommodations and prevarications are played with vitality, compassion and credibility by the debuting Jasmine Batchelor, as she comes to embrace an unexpected need within herself and learns to stand on her own two feet by extricating herself from her dismissive mother, controlling boss, suffocating boyfriend and shallow best friend.


The odd scene flirts with didacticism, while others feel a bit contrived (such as Sandra's comments on the formation of the soul). But, in putting woke liberalism in the spotlight, Hersh largely avoids a filmed theatre approach by keeping Mia Cioffi Henry's handheld camera active and alert as it checks out D'Vaughn Agu's interiors and the expressions and body language of the estimable cast. Cecilia Delgado's nimble editing similarly reinforces the tone of scenes by establishing rhythms that complement the dialogue, as Jess stumbles through a moral maze that offers no easy exits, let alone right ones.


HERE WE ARE.


Apart from Yona (2014), his biopic of poet Yona Wallach, Israeli director Nir Bergman has tackled what might once have been termed `human interest' stories. A mother and her four children try to come to terms with a sudden death in Broken Wings (2002); a young boy struggles with a growth disorder in Intimate Grammar (2010); while four troubled women see their lives change after an encounter with a drifter in Saving Neta (2016). Now, he follows a father trying to do the best for his autistic son in Here We Are.


Fiftysomething Aharon (Shavi Avivi) has given up his career as a graphic designer to care for his autistic son, Uri (Noam Imber). Recognising the importance of routines, Aharon takes Uri on regular train trips that include an immediate turnaround and a cycle ride home. During the journey, Uri watches Charlie Chaplin and Jackie Coogan in The Kid (1921) on a portable DVD player. But he gets jittery if he thinks they are going to run over snails and insists that they walk home in an exaggeratedly careful style.


In addition to scheduling Uri's routine, Aharon is also able to sense disruptions and uses things as mundane as pasta stars to restore his son's equilibrium. But, while Aharon thinks he knows best as far as Uri is concerned, ex-wife Tamara (Smadi Wofman) is convinced that he needs to let go, as Uri is no longer a child and needs to start finding his feet in the wider world. She has arranged for him to move into a residential home and Aharon - who thinks that Tamara is being spiteful because she only has a marginal relationship with her child - has run out of legal options to resist her scheme.


When an assessor comes to the house to see if Uri is capable of fending for himself, he repeats rehearsed phrases about staying in Tivon with his father. But they don't work and Tamara comes to collect Uri for a preparatory visit to the home. Realising he's losing control, Aharon mentions pasta stars as they are leaving so that Uri becomes agitated. However, just to show Tamara how much he understands their son, he calms him down by persuading him that goldfish Yoni, Yaron and Daniel will make him some new stars when he gets home.


Despite realising she's been blindsided, Tamara agrees to let Aharon accompany Uri on a last train journey to keep him calm on the day of the move. On the platform, however, Uri reacts badly to the fact that they are not going to turn around and head home and passengers stare at them as Aharon tries to conquer his fears. Calling Tamara, Aharon asks for more time to get Uri used to the idea of leaving, but she threatens to make trouble for him unless he complies with the terms of their agreement.


Hanging up, Aharon remembers that his former art school friend, Effi (Efrat Ben-Zur), lives in Beer Sheva and Uri is excited at the prospect of seeing her dogs, Shiki and Nehama. On arrival, however, Aharon realises that he has walked into a shiva for Effi's recently deceased mother. He makes it seem as though he has come to pay his respects, but takes her aback when he asks if they can spend the night. She clearly has a crush on Aharon and, when they are alone, she shows him all of the drawings that she had kept from his student days.


Feeling as though he already has enough on his plate, Aharon beats a hasty retreat and catches a bus to Eilat, where they hole up in a hotel. Having dealt with an unfortunate erection in the pool situation, Aharon takes Uri to the funfair and gets into a flap when he sidles off by himself. However, he finds him dancing at a karaoke stall and realises that his little boy isn't as helpless as he might like to feel.


Yet Aharon still feels he's right to keep Uri out of an institution and makes plans to buy plane tickets to stay with his friend David on his farm in Pennsylvania. He asks his neighbour to send their passports, only to discover that Tamara has blocked him from the bank account she has set up for Uri, who refuses to pass through the sliding doors until his father draws a button on the wall for him to press. Fortunately, the envelope with the passports also contains some cash and Aharon buys bus tickets to Haifa, where his brother has a boat.


Unfortunately, Amir (Amir Feldman) and his partner, Sharona (Sharon Zelikovsky), happen to be in town Uri gets into a panic in a posh restaurant because Sharona is eating fish. The siblings have a row about Aharon using Uri as an excuse to turn his back on the world and they leave hurriedly after Uri strips off and tries to join Sharona in the shower. They sleep on the beach and Aharon gets arrested after he gets into a fight with a vendor after Uri takes a popsicle.


Accepting that he has blown his chances of opposing Tamara, Aharon tries to get on with living alone. However, he is called to the home after Uri breaks a window and the principal is only persuaded to let him stay when he explains that Uri has picked up the idea from The Kid, because whenever Jackie Coogan breaks a window, Chaplin turns up to repair it.


Seeing how intricately Uri and Aharon have become entwined, Tamara agrees to let her son return to Tivon. When Aharon comes to collect him, however, he sees that Uri has made friends and has settled into a new routine of craft workshops and leisure activities. Consequently, he encourages him to stay and enjoy himself and promises that he can have pasta stars with Yoni and Yaron whenever he likes. As Uri turns away, Aharon marvels at the fact that he has drawn his own buzzer on the wall to cope with the sliding doors leading into the craft centre.


It should come as no surprise to learn that this compelling film took the Ophir Awards for Best Director, Screenplay, Actor and Supporting Actor. It lost out for Best Picture to Ruthy Pribar's Asia, the story of a mother nursing a daughter with a degenerative motor condition. If ever two films were destined to be paired in a streaming double bill, it's these multiple award winners.


Drawing inspiration from the experiences of screenwriter Dana Idisis's own family, Here We Are is a poignant, sensitive, but never sentimental study of a unique bond and the need for it to evolve. It's clear that Aharon needs to be a carer as much as Uri needs the security he provides. But, for all his connivances, Aharon reluctantly comes to recognise that he has become too close to the situation to see the pitfalls of the existing arrangements and one hopes that he eventually gets round to telling Tamara that she was right all along in spotting that Uri was ready to sample new things.


Smadi Wolfman might not have much screen time, but she is never allowed to become the villain of the piece, even when she threatens Shai Avivi over the phone before he goes off grid. Similarly, Bergman and Idisis are careful to show Avivi manipulating Noam Imber in order to strengthen his own hand, with his scheme to steal his son away to the United States being as grotesque as it's understandably desperate.


With his imperceptible changes of expression, Avivi is simply superb as the father who has made his son's happiness his lifetime vocation. It's apt the Bergman should have chosen to feature a Chaplin film, as his own use of silent technique to express unspoken emotions is masterly.


Of course, questions could be asked about why Bergman opted not to cast an actor on the spectrum. But Imber's nuanced performance is orders of magnitude superior to that of Maddie Ziegler in Sia's excruciatingly dreadful multi-Razzie-winning miscalculation, Music (2020).


Much of the effectiveness of Avivi and Imber's acting is down to the discretion of cinematographer Shai Goldman, who does an equally fine job in capturing the changing Israeli light. Ayala Bengad's editing and Matteo Curallo's cello and guitar score similarly reinforce the tone and pace of an odyssey that only loses its sense of direction in Haifa, where the bickering between Aharon and Amir lacks context and the punch-up with the popsicle seller smacks of melodrama. However, Bergman and Idisis redeem themselves with the linking of Aharon and Uri to the Little Tramp and the Kid and the closing close-up of Avivi.


OFF THE RAILS.


Producer Bill Kenwright has had more success in the West End than he has ever enjoyed on the big screen. Several of his better pictures have featured his longtime partner, Jenny Seagrove, who follows Don't Go Breaking My Heart (1999), Zoe (2001), Another Mother's Son (2017) and Peripheral (2018) with Off the Rails, which has been directed by feature first-timer Jules Williamson from a screenplay by actor Jordan Waller, who shows signs of marked progress after debuting without much distinction on Jesse O'Brien's patchy Aussie Outback horror, Two Heads Creek (2019).


Good though Seagrove and co-star Sally Phillips are, however, this genial road movie belongs squarely to Kelly Preston. Kenwright had got to know her while collaborating with her husband, John Travolta, on Fred Durst's The Fanatic (2019). Consequently, knowing that Preston was battling breast cancer, Kenwright agreed to make this tale of three fiftysomethings inter-railing with a lamented friend's daughter without being unable to insure the venture in the customary manner in order to keep Preston's secret and fulfil her dream.


It would turn out to be her last film and plans for a sequel were promptly shelved when she died last July. Yet, while it's impossible not to invest this continental odyssey with posthumous poignancy, it's also easy to enjoy the ride and admire the talent of an actress who was never quite given her due.


Having heard of the death of their old friend, Anna (Andrea Corr), doctor and mother of two Liz (Sally Phillips), cash-strapped writer Kate (Jenny Seagrove) and American soap actress Cassie (Kelly Preston) reunite for her funeral. They listen to Anna's mother, Diana (Judi Dench), struggling to come to terms with her loss and sing along when her teenage daughter, Maddie (Elizabeth Dormer-Phillips), plays the Blondie hit `Dreaming' on the church organ.


Anna had never forgotten the inter-railing trip they had taken as girls and Diana gives them four tickets to take Maddie on a sentimental journey. However, she quickly realises that there are unresolved tensions between Cassie and Kate, while Liz has a tendency to try and organise everyone, when not calling home to check that her husband is looking after their boys.


Following a contretemps with a snooty assistant (Lucille Howe) in a Parisian boutique, Kate admonishes Cassie for buying dresses for herself and Maddie after her own credit card had been refused. They are also disappointed by the standard of their lodgings at the hostel where they had stayed decades earlier. But it's when the trio disagree over where to spend the evening that Maddie turns on her heel and heads home.


Promising to get along better, Cassie, Kate and Liz decide to bash on to Barcelona after discovering that Maddie is carrying a small sachet of Anna's ashes to deposit in Palma Cathedral. As Liz and Cassie discuss their experiences of the menopause, Kate and Maddie bond over Blondie and the revelation that Cassie has never forgiven Kate for dating the father of the child who is now at the centre of a custody battle.


On landing in Girona, the quartet find themselves in the middle of a folk festival. Liz breaks her hand and a table in a fall after Cassie steals the fanny pack containing their passports. However, the café owner brings a charge of criminal damage and they are only released when one of the cops recognises Cassie as Nurse Kendra from her TV show.


Released to enjoy a bottle of wine in a quiet bar, they listen to Dan (Ben Miller) playing acoustic guitar. Maddie tracks him down to a dating app and sets him up with Kate, who is not amused. However, she warms to Dan when he takes her to a drag karaoke bar and they duet to `Sunday Girl' together. She also takes his card when he invites her to his gig in Barcelona the following night. But she is less forthcoming when she calls home for the vomiting Liz and discovers that her husband is cheating on her.


As no one has noticed that Cassie has dropped the passport pouch, the travellers find themselves in trouble when they fall asleep on the train and fetch up in Italy. Without the documents or money to fly back to Spain, they have to take slow trains on branch lines. When one engine breaks down, Liz has to talk Cassie through delivering a baby under a tree beside the track and the women are invited to the village of the proud parents to celebrate the birth of the daughter they decide to name, Anna. While Maddie falls under the spell of charming souvenir salesman Angelo (Alessio Pecorari), Cassie gets to dance with Giovarenni (Franco Nero), the local mayor and proud grandfather. Looking on, Liz wonders whether she did the right thing by marrying the first man she slept with and Cassie keeps her counsel when she concludes that there's nothing wrong with a diet of ready salted crisps, even though there are lots of other flavours to choose from.


Waking up in Giovarenni's bed, Cassie is missing when the others pack to make the train. Kate finds her letters to Cassie's husband and feels victimised. She is furious, therefore, when they miss the connection and gets into a fight with Cassie when she arrives. In bickering, Cassie demands that Kate tells Liz about her husband's adultery and she calls home to give him a piece of her broken-hearted mind. Skulking off alone, Cassie takes a call from her agent, who informs her that she has been fired from her show because the press have got hold of photos showing she has fallen off the wagon in Girona.


Distraught, Maddie slips away and the trio have to call in a favour from Giovarenni to get them to Spain. He arranges for them to fly in a rickety old plane he uses in his `import' business and Kate calls Dan to borrow his motorbike and sidecar so they can get to the docks. Missing the ferry proves not to be a problem, either, as they steal a fishing boat and Kate and Cassie make their peace as Liz steers them to Mallorca.


Rushing into Cathedral de Santa Maria, they find Maddie singing `Dreaming' and they all join in. Suddenly, the sun beams though the rose windows and projects dazzling colours beneath the smaller window on the opposite western wall. Inspired by `God's glitterball', the foursome heads to the beach to scatter Anna's ashes. Kate muses about the wonders waiting over the horizon and they join hands for a freeze-frame, as they run into the sea.


Of course, for Kelly Preston, there would be too few new tomorrows. But she will leave an indelible impression on everyone who sees this hokey, but nevertheless, charming swan song. One wonders how her co-stars must have felt when they learned that she had been fighting a losing battle throughout the shoot. It's hard to see how they could have given such committed performances and the success of the enterprise puts one more tick in the plus column for little white lies.


Those with long memories will recognise a kindred spirit with Kenwright's first producorial offering, Lewis Gilbert's Stepping Out (1991), which also focused on people too preoccupied with their problems to live meaningfully. Jordan Waller's script might have taken longer to establish the backstories, but he wisely keeps Liz's husband off screen, along with the father Kate is keeping in an expensive care home and the son Cassie is fighting for in court. Yet, we need a tiny bit more than Dame Judi's cameo to establish the bond between the women and why they would drop everything at a highly inconvenient time to take a teenager they don't seem to know as well as they should on a train trip.


Making her feature bow, Elizabeth Dormer-Phillips holds her own against the earnestly effective Seagrove, the vulnerably diva-ish Preston and the scene-stealingly deadpan Phillips. But Ben Miller and Franco Nero are left to make the best of ciphers, who are as adequately functional as Mike Eley's touristy camerawork, Malcolm Crowe's measured editing and Williamson's direction, who didn't seem to be drawing on his TV experience on My Holiday Hostage Hell (2007) or The Railway: First Great Western (2013). The use of the Blondie tracks can sometimes feel a little on the nose, but much can be forgiven while under the influence of Clem Burke's distinctive drumming style.


DIANA'S WEDDING.


While Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer were exchanging vows at St Paul's on 29 July 1981, Norwegians Liv (Marie Blokhus) and Terje (Pål Sverre Hagen) were tying the knot with their newborn daughter, Diana, in attendance. Next-door neighbour Unni (Jannike Kruse) is furious with husband Jan (Olav Waastad) for talking her out of naming their daughter, Irene, after the new Princess of Wales. But, despite an awkward first meeting on the doorstep of Liv and Terje's new Sarpsborg home, the couples become firm friends, even though they have little in common.


Jan is an engineer at the pollution-belching plant where Liv is a secretary and Terje skives on the factory floor, while Unni is a housewife. She has accepted the fact that Jan prefers sleeping alone and envies the fact that her neighbours adore each other, in spite of periodic rows like the one that follows Terje's decision to sleep in the car because the bawling Diana is keeping him awake.


By 1990, Diana (Signe Marie Stivang) has been joined by a younger brother, Cato (Vegard Strand Eide), who is often dressed in his sister's clothes. Diana and Irene (Andrea Brekke) are still wary of one another, with the former being jealous of the fact that the latter has better toys, including a Ken doll for her Barbie. As snooty as she is prudish, Unni similarly rubs in the fact that she can afford to vacation in Mallorca, while Liv has to make do with a holiday camp in Sweden.


Jan has developed a crush on Liv and ogles her through the glass of his fish tank when the families get together for a drinks party. No one can understand why Charles prefers Camilla to Diana, but Terje is soon distracted by the well-stocked globe drinks cabinet. He laughs uproariously at the dirty jokes that Unni tells when she gets tipsy, but Jan is embarrassed by her and wishes she was more like Liv.


Following further rows over Diana stealing Ken and Terje nicking some slabs from work to tidy up the back garden, the families go on their holidays. Liv and Terje are the life and soul of the campsite until Diana floats into the lake on a rubber ring and Liv rollicks Terje for the fact that she has to dive in and rescue her because he can't swim.


Worse follows after they return home and Unni wreaks revenge on Liv for alienating Jan's affections by showing her the drawing that Diana has made of the night she followed her father to the pole-dancing club at Kattan. Liv throws Terje out and only forgives him when he cuts a hole in the locked front door. But Unni has to suffer in silence after Jan informs her that he has often been to the club during his trips to Sweden.


Yet, unlike Charles and Diana's the marriage festers on to 1997, by which time Diana (Maja Beitrusten Berge) has become inseparable from Irene (Celine Kathe Foster Engen) and spends less time with her giant pet rabbit or the 11 year-old Cato (Christian Stenberg Kløv). Matters come to a head, however, during another family get together when Jan tries to kiss Liv, Cato accidentally overfeeds Jan's goldfish and Unni hides in the chest freezer to give everyone a fright.


Terje thinks this is funny, but the atmosphere is still frosty next day, when Unni breaks the news that Princess Diana has been killed in Paris. Rather than console their sobbing mothers, however, Diana and Irene announce that they've had enough of the feuds, flirtations and falsehoods and are leaving forthwith for Oslo.


Twenty-three years later, Liv and Terje head to the capital for their daughter's wedding. They stop to squabble en route and the bearded Cato (John Emil Jørgensrud) shakes his head in weary amusement as he drives past them. Unni and Jan have also been invited, although they are barely on speaking terms. Diana (Ine Marie Wilmann) confides in Irene (Linn Björnvik-Gröder) that she dreads things going wrong, but groom Sharam (Nader Khademi) reassures her that everyone will be on their best behaviour.


He proves to be wrong and Diana asks her parents to leave after they cause a scene on the dance floor and Diana wonders why she has bothered to get hitched when Liv and Terje have been such a terrible advert for marriage. Unni feels sorry for her friends and Irene urges her to give Jan a piece of her mind after watching him trying to chat up girls half his age. As Unni demands a divorce, Liv and Terje reach the conclusion that they've done okay raising their kids and return to the reception. They're welcomed with tears and everyone boogies the night away.


In her notes for this amiable decade-spanning dramedy, director Charlotte Bloom reveals that she was trying to achieve a depiction of working-class norms similar to those seen in such North American pictures as Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris's Little Miss Sunshine (2006), Derek Cianfrance's Blue Valentine (2010), Sarah Polley's Take This Waltz (2011) and Martin McDonagh's Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017). Yet, while numerous sly class references fly over the garden fence, this rarely feels like an overtly political film, as it states the case for men and women to work together (for better and worse) in all walks of life.


In drawing on her own upbringing near the Swedish border, Blom also explores the extent to which Norwegians of her generation were influenced by the music, fashions and attitudes of their neighbour. Yet, these seem to have more impact on the grown-ups than the children, with Diana and Irene only dressing to reflect their own personalities at 16. Yet, although Diana often has a watching brief, she often hurls the deus ex machina into the works, such as when she steals Ken, draws her picture and announces her departure.


She's splendidly played as a nine year-old by Signe Marie Stivang, as she observes the behaviour of the adults and learns how to manipulate them, while trying to protect her baby brother. However, the gaps that Blom and co-scenarist Mette M. Bølstad leave between the girls bonding as teens prior to heading to Oslo and the eponymous nuptials are simply too big for viewers to care much about what has happened to them in the meantime.


They've become strangers and not particularly engaging ones at that. Consequently, Diana's relationship with Sharam feels flatly contrived, as do the events at the reception that bring about resolutions that feel hollow because the audience has no idea what has been happening to Liv and Terje and Unni and Jan over the last 23 years. It's not even known how much contact parents and children have had with each other or whether the neighbours have remained close.


Such plot lapses prove more frustrating than enervating, however, and do nothing to diminish the spirited playing of Marie Blokhus, Pål Sverre Hagen, Jannike Kruse and Olav Waastad, who feel like the ideal cast for a Norwegian version of Mike Leigh's Abigail's Party (1977). They are abetted by Ida Toft's deft costumes and Åsa Nilsson's knowing interiors, whose telltale details are picked out by Linda Wassberg's alert camera. But, despite the best efforts of editor Zaklina Stojcevska, the cutaways to Princess Diana simply don't work, with the fact that there is nowhere for Blom to take the comparison after 1997 exposing the flimsiness of the entire conceit.


DEERSKIN.


Having focused on a tyre with a killer complex in Rubber (2010) and human-canine telepathy in Wrong (2012), Quentin Dupieux returns to the world of wack by using a leather jacket to symbolise a man's midlife crack-up in Deerskin. Faint echoes can also be heard from Wrong Cops (2013), Reality (2014) and Keep an Eye Out (2018), as Dupieux (who also works as a musician under the alias, Mr Oizo) provides a dark deadpan distraction from the dispiriting drabness of the daily grind.


While driving in his car, fortysomething Georges (Jean Dujardin) takes exception to his cord jacket and tries to stuff it down a service station toilet. Following a winding mountain road, he arrives at the house of an old hippie (Albert Delpy), who is selling a deerskin fringe jacket for €8000. Georges is a few euros short, but the veteran is grateful for the sale and throws in an old cassette camcorder to sweeten the deal.


With the `killer style' of his ill-fitting jacket suddenly making him feel like a new man, Georges checks into a remote hotel and uses his wedding ring to pay for the room after his credit card is refused. His arrival is noted from her window by Vic (Coralie Russier), who seems to be the only other resident in an adjoining room. Keen to parade in his new jacket, Georges finds a bar and asks barmaid Denise (Adèle Haenel) and customer Kylie (Marie Bunel) if they are discussing his deerskin, because it attracts attention wherever he goes. He informs them that he is a film-maker and Denise's ears prick up, as she has done a bit of amateur editing, including a linear re-edit of Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction (1994).


The next day, Georges discovers that his estranged wife has blocked his access to their joint bank account and he cuts off all ties to his former life by throwing away his phone. He is also surprised to learn from Denise that Kylie came on to him the previous evening because she's a prostitute. Denise quizzes him about his project and he claims that he is keeping himself occupied while waiting for a crew to return from Siberia. His lack of film-making knowledge almost gives him away, but he bluffs his way through and steals a secondhand book on filming to keep up the pretence.


Back in his room, Georges starts having conversations with his deerskin, which turns out to have an attention-seeking streak. Moreover, it has an ambition to be the only jacket in the world and the idea of being the only person to own such an object begins to play on Georges's mind. Having stolen a deerskin hat and a ring belonging to the hotel desk clerk who had committed suicide, he persuades Denise (who has an old editing machine) to view his footage and she is suitably intrigued to agree to become his editor. She also delves into her savings to give Georges some cash, which he promises his producer will repay.


Irked by the stare of gangly teen Nicolas (Pierre Gommé), Georges advertises for people to be filmed handing over their jackets and vowing never to wear another one for the rest of their lives. But he drives off with them in his boot and eventually buries them all in a large hole. Denise is fascinated by the footage and asks Georges about the message he is trying to convey. He invites her to speculate and nod in agreement when she avers that the jacket represents the hard shell that we all have to adopt in order to protect ourselves from the slings and arrows. However, he remains answerable solely to his jacket, which he supplements with deerskin boots, some trousers and a pair of gloves.


When Nicolas annoys him, Georges hits him in the head with a brick. The act seems to spur him on and, when one man refuses to hand over his jacket, Georges kills him. When Vic becomes too inquisitive, he bumps her off, too. Moreover, he pulls the fan off the ceiling and sharpens one of the blades to use as a weapon against those who refuse to hand over their jackets. One woman is impaled through the roof of her car and the footage delights Denise, who offers to become Georges producer when he finally admits to having lied about the crew in Siberia.


Relieved to have Denise's support and her money, Georges continues with his spree. However, while Denise is filming him at the side of a mountain road, Georges is snipered from a distance by Nicolas's father. Instead of being afraid, she removes the jacket, puts it on and keeps filming.


As the credits roll beside an insert of Georges wearing his jacket while approaching a herd of deer, many will be left wondering what on earth they have been watching. But, even those who don't go searching for the asides on masculinity, mental health, technology, provincialism and pseudo-celebrity, there is still plenty to amuse and disturb in this bleak farce.


Topping the list is the typically assured performance of Jean Dujardin, who displays enough charm and vulnerability to make the unhinged Georges empathetic, while also ensuring he remains a complete enigma, even as he switches from venting his frustration with verbal outburst to slaughtering innocent people. Only an actor with Dujardin's savoir faire could make the conversations with the deerskin seem simultaneously witty, piteous and sinister. His je ne sais quoi also allows him to get away with tempering Georges's patronising city swagger and flagrantly manipulative bluster with the childlike excitement he feels at acquiring each new deerskin accessory.


Secreting even more beneath the surface, Adèle Haenel makes a fine foil, as it slowly becomes clear that Denise is anything but a hapless scam victim. Underplaying as deftly as Dujardin, she reveals her contempt for the townsfolk, while proving chillingly less deluded, as she delights in the clumsy slayings she witnesses in her flat. Indeed, her response is key to the credibility of the story that Dupieux scripts, shoots and edits in a mischievous manner that seems to dare the audience into taking it seriously.


THE BIRTHDAY CAKE.


Who knew? It seems as though Anton Chekhov's maxim about a gun in the first act also applies to baked goods. Which rather suggests that Jimmy Giannopoulos has given the game away by titling his debut feature, The Birthday Cake. He may as well have called it All the Bad Guys Die At the End.


Since starting out with the bands Pretty Good Dance Moves and MOTHXR, Giannopoulos has made a handy habit of associating himself with the daughters of famous people. Having formed the electropop duo, LOLAWOLF, with Zoë Kravitz (whose parents are Lenny Kravitz and Lisa Bonet), he dated Dylan Penn (the daughter of Sean Penn and Robin Wright) before hooking up with Clara McGregor, who doubles here as a producer and bit part player alongside her famous father, Ewan McGregor.


All of which explains why a first-time film-maker has been able to assemble such an impressive cast. But, for all his showbiz connections and directorial chutzpah, Giannopoulos struggles to prevent this formulaic mob saga from being the Brooklyn equivalent of a BritCrime thick ear.


Ten years after he lost his father on the same birthday that he was humiliated by some Russian kids on his block, Giovanni (Shiloh Fernandez) is nagged by his mother, Sofia (Lorraine Bracco), to light a candle for this father at the Catholic Church where Fr Kelly (Ewan McGregor) is parish priest and to deliver the cake she bakes each year for the memorial dinner that Angelo (Val Kilmer) hosts in honour of his lamented brother. This year, she has used chocolate, which means her son can't have any because he's allergic.


Gio is hazy on the details of his father's death, but seems determined not to repeat his mistakes by steering clear as best he can of the family business. However, he remains close to his cousin, Leo (Emory Cohen), who had given him a gun a decade earlier to deal with the Russian mob kids who had been harassing him. He seems to have got involved with a gang of Puerto Rican drug dealers and everyone Gio meets as he walks through the borough to deliver Sofia's cake asks if he has seen Leo.


At the café run by his buddy Tommaso (Jeremy Allen White), Gio is amused by his bickering with girlfriend Tracey (Ashley Benson), who wants to go out for the evening because Christmas is coming and she needs to let her hair down. Her friend Diane (Clara McGregor) has a crush on Gio and puts the cake in a ribboned box to make it easier to carry. However, he nearly leaves it behind in the cab driven by Jochee (Luis Guzman), who takes exception when Tommaso bad-mouths the Puerto Ricans who have muscled into the neighbourhood.


Having already been threatened by FBI agents Eagle (Aldis Hodge) and Pete (Jake Weary) over Leo, Gio is also badgered by corrupt cop Ricardo (William Fichtner), who has become trusted in family circles through offering the protection of the law. Already late for the party, Gio takes a detour to the bodega run by Peeno (Penn Badgley) and he has to cower in a corner, as he is gunned down by a Puerto Rican pair who are disappointed that he has failed to make good on his promise to betray Leo.


Finally, reaching Angelo's place, Gio is reunited with his cousin Joey (John Magaro) and uncles Vito (Vincent Pastore), Tiny Tony (Nick Vallelonga) and Carmine (Paul Sorvino). In constant need of oxygen, the latter is keeping quiet in a backroom, while Angelo has to use a voice box after undergoing a tracheotomy. Amidst the wise guy banter and endless inquiries about Leo's whereabouts, Gio becomes increasingly edgy. He tries to leave early after Vito gives a speech, but he is forced to stay for the cutting of the cake. As he looks on, his relations start foaming at the mouth and he realises that Sofia had used chocolate to spare him a painful death.


Frantic and seemingly oblivious to the fact the cops will be able to trace the cake back to his mother, Gio goes in search of Leo, who is slowly dying in the bathtub after being tortured by Ricardo. Gio guns him down and flees to the church, where Fr Kelly reunites him with Sofia and promises to give them both an alibi, as some sins are less heinous than others.


A little plot goes a long way in this routine slog along the mean streets, which Giannopoulos co-wrote with Shiloh Fernandez and Diomedes Raul Bermudez, the Cuban American producer of a clutch of Iggy Pop videos who has also written the upcoming thriller, Tomorrow Today, with 50 Cent. The influence of Martin Scorsese is all-pervading, most notably in the nods towards After Hours (1985) and GoodFellas (1990). But Giannopoulos is also evidently in thrall to Josh and Benny Safdie's Good Time (2017), to the extent that he hired the film's cinematographer, Sean Price Williams, to recreate its look and feel.


Williams gives the visuals an atmospheric muscularity that conveys something of the Brooklyn vibe, which is reinforced by art director Madeline Sadowski's knowingly telltale interiors. But the authenticity of the milieu is undermined by the sketchiness of characterisation that leaves venerable performers like Paul Sorvino and Vincent Pastore with little room for manoeuvre. Even Shiloh Fernandez (who should be reeling from the effects of anxiety and distrust) is left to wander round like a rabbit in the headlights, as he grapples with the intricacies of a predicament that will be blindingly obvious to anyone in the audience paying the slightest attention to either the plot or the lyrics of the Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons hit, `The Night'.


Val Kilmer deserves enormous credit for refusing to bow to throat cancer, while Lorraine Bracco makes the most of her all-too-brief cameo. But Ewan McGregor (who also contributes some lazy expository narration) proves as much a piece of stunt casting as Marla Maples, the former wife of Donald Trump, who crops up as one of the aunties out on the tiles for a hen night. Giannopoulos has corralled Pamela Anderson, Paris Hilton and Sky Ferreira into his sophomore outing, 18 & Over. He clearly fancies himself as a director, but it remains to be seen whether his métier is music or movies.


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