• David Parkinson

Parky At the Pictures (24/6/2022)

)(Reviews of The Big Hit; Manifesto; and Cannon Arm and the Arcade Quest)


It's safe(ish) to presume that cinema-going is a thing again. However, the UK's various streaming platforms are still doing sterling work. In addition to subscription sites like Curzon Home Cinema. MUBI, Netflix and the BFI Player, the likes of iTunes, Apple TV, Amazon, Sky Store, Virgin, Microsoft, Vimeo, Google Play, Rakuten, BT and Playstation are all ready to keep you entertained.


THE BIG HIT.


In the mid-1980s, Swedish actor Jan Jönson started a drama workshop at the Kumla maximum security prison. Realising that the inmates spent their days marking time, he introduced them to Samuel Beckett's absurdist classic, Waiting For Godot. A number of films have centred around acting classes behind bars, including Zeina Daccache's documentary, 12 Angry Lebanese (2009), Paolo and Vittorio Taviani's Caesar Must Die (2012) and David Mackenzie's Starred Up (2019). But Emmanuel Courcol's The Big Hit is the first to take direct inspiration from Jönson's experience.


Unable to convince Conservatoire friend Stéphane (Laurent Stocker) to cast him at a production in his new theatre, Étienne Carboni (Kad Merad) agrees to run a drama workshop at a prison outside Paris. Warden Ariane (Marina Hands) has had to fight with the authorities to keep the programme going, but Étienne isn't convinced that acting out animal fables does much for prisoner morale.


After getting to know Patrick (David Ayala), Moussa (Wabinlé Nabié), Jordan (Pierre Lottin), Alex (Lamine Cissokho) and Nabil (Saïd Benchnafa), he decides that they would benefit from studying Waiting For Godot because it says so much about their own situation. He casts Moussa and Nabil as Vladimir and Estragon, while Patrick and Jordan chosen for Pozzo and Lucky. The latter is barely literate and worries about Lucky's big speech, but Étienne urges him to stay with the group.


He's unable to prevent Nabil being eased out of the group by Kamel (Sofian Khammes), however, who settles into the role after an initial bout of confrontational cockiness. Russian inmate Boïko (Alexandre Medvedev) also becomes part of the team after he lingers while on a cleaning detail. Indeed, Étienne is so impressed by their progress that he coaxes Ariane into letting him stage the play in Stéphane's theatre in six months time. The presiding judge (Catherine Lascault) has misgivings, but the date is set and rehearsals take on a new intensity.


There are stumbles along the way, with Jordan having to overcome his insecurity, while Kamel wants to bale out as the curtain is about to go up because his young son isn't in the audience. Étienne is also disappointed because daughter Nina (Mathilde Courcol-Rozès) fails to turn up. But the show goes and is so well received that a number of other venues ask to book it, complete with Boiko's unscheduled appearance as a shrouded Godot as the lights go down.


Once again, Étienne and Ariane prevail with the judge and the tour is a success, even though Étienne is unimpressed when they corpse on opening night. However, Patrick is delighted to see his doting wife, Martine (Brigitte Froment), in the audience each night, while Kamal is overjoyed to be reunited with his son on stage. But the trip reminds the inmates of what they are missing and they sneak out of the dressing-room to visit a beauty salon. Étienne keeps the indiscretion from Ariane, but a report is filed by the chief guard (Yvon Martin) after they smuggle a bottle on to the bus and dance naked outside the prison where they are to spend the night.


A year after this incident, the Odéon-Théâtre de l'Europe invites the troupe to perform. Ariane is convinced that the judge will refuse to sanction the performance. But it goes ahead, with the judge and the justice minister in the audience. However, the prisoners decide that this is their last chance and they abscond into the Paris night, leaving Étienne to take to the stage to apprise the audience of his journey. He receives a standing ovation that is heard by Kamel when he calls to apologise and hope that Étienne understands their flight.


Closing captions outline how Jönson turned his first night humiliation in Gothenburg into one-man show that caught the attention of Samuel Beckett, who declared it the best thing that had ever happened to Waiting For Godot. Perhaps this would have made a better film than this transposition, which never descends much below the surface, as Courcol and co-writer Thierry de Carbonnières whisk their caricatures between prosceniums and incarceration.


The ever-genial Kad Merad holds things together, but we learn little about his career struggles or the reasons for his estrangement from a daughter who would rather revise for her exams than watch his play. Even less is revealed about the inmates, as though Courcol was scared of losing audience empathy by detailing the crimes for which they were convicted. Consequently, they come across as the butts of culture clash jokes, who are being exploited for not entirely altruistic reasons by Étienne and Ariane (who is revealed to be a divorced lawyer hoping to do more good for the marginalised than defending them against the odds in court).


Marina Hands is typically sincere, while the members of the inmate ensemble do what they can with their sketchy roles. For all the actorly adroitness, however, this feels dramatically formulaic and socio-politically self-satisfied. It's a puzzle, therefore, why it was selected for the Comedy strand at the Covid-cancelled Cannes of 2020.


MANIFESTO.


Writing hours after the Conservatives have lost two by-elections in a single day for the first time since November 1991, it's tempting to wonder how comfortable Boris Johnson would have been feeling at the prospect of meeting Jeremy Corbyn at the Dispatch Box during the next Prime Minister's Questions. But, of course, he is no longer the Labour leader after his mishandling of Brexit and the party's issues with anti-Semitism led to him being replaced by Sir Keir Starmer and stripped of the whip.


How very different things might have been had Corbyn won the last General Election. Had it been held around the time that the Glastonbury Festival crowd was singing his name, he may well have prevailed. But he had become a harder sell by December 2019, despite the enthusiasm for his agenda that Daniel Draper discovered on the streets of Liverpool while making his latest documentary, Manifesto.


As we hear periodic quotations from Robert Tressell's classic socialist text, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, we see Dan Carden and Ian Byrne respectively on the stump in the Liverpool constituencies of Walton and West Derby. With the city budget held down to 63% since 2010 by Tory austerity measures, it should be plain sailing to canvass votes against a government led by a man who has been despised since accusing Liverpudlians of wallowing in a `victim status' in a 2004 article in The Spectator.


Walton is actually the safest Labour seat in the UK, but there's no complacency among activists like Claire Tierney and Michael Hardy at strategy meetings with constituency chair, Lena Šimic, secretary Alan Gibbons and campaign co-ordinary John Whearty. There is a genuine says that this is 1945 Mk2, although the mood is more heated at the gathering attended by Treasurer Tim Jeeves, Over 55s Co-ordinator Ken Dunlop and Office Manager Ian Byrne, as the subject turns to Brexit.


Even before Johnson calls the election on 29 October, open-air meetings and marches have begun in Liverpool in a bid to mobilise support. Amidst autumnal shots of Sefton Park, the news breaks that Stephen Twigg is not going to stand in West Derby and Ian Byrne is shortlisted for the ballot. He has the full support of Women's Officer Maureen Delahunty, as he admits that he's been accused of being too `angry' in his speeches and looking scruffy because he doesn't wear a suit. But his hatred of Johnson and the Tories is heartfelt and this passion connects with core voters.


Byrne secures the nomination by three votes and plans are made for Walton activists to help out in key marginals like Blackpool North and Crewe because their turnout is almost guaranteed. We see Dryden launch the local campaign, as the Anfield crowd is targeted on match day. There's a buzz and a confidence that this is Corbyn's time and that his `decency' will carry the day over Johnson's `cruelty'.


On the streets, Dryden gets the expected mix of support and slating from members of the public. The response is more polite on a quiet estate in Crewe, where the anti-Semitism scandal is dismissed as a few isolated cases. As the polls open, Syed Anwar-ul-Haq and the tele-canvassing team step up their efforts to reassure people that they are not `the only leftie in the village'.


While the count is being scrutinised, news comes in that Jeeves has won a council by-election. We later see Dryden command a 30,000 majority, with Byrne falling short of the same figure by a handful of votes. But both are aware that the tide has turned against Corbyn and that Brexit has mattered more in the so-called Red Wall seats than social issues.


Byrne speaks of the quality of the manifesto, but (despite the film's title), we've heard little about the fine detail of its contents. We also see nothing of Corbyn, whose resignation is consigned to a caption, as his supporters pound the pavements in the cause of peace. At leadership hustings. emotions run high as speakers advocate Rebecca Long-Bailey and Keir Starmer. But work on picket lines and rallies also goes on, until the first Covid lockdown is announced on 16 March 2020. Meetings are held via Zoom until people take to the streets again in June in support of Black Lives Matter, following the racist murder of George Floyd.


On 15 October, Carden resigns from the Shadow Cabinet over the Spy Cops Bill. A fortnight later, the Equality and Human Rights Commission finds 23 instances of `inappropriate involvement' by Jeremy Corbyn's office when dealing with complaints of anti-Semitism. He responded by claiming that the extent of the problem had been `overstated for political reasons' and blamed enemies within the Labour Party and the media.


On 17 November, Corbyn's suspension is rescinded by the National Executive Committee, only for Starmer to withdraw the whip two days later. A month later, Alan Gibbons (who has been vocal in his criticism of Starmer) is suspended without a cited cause. But the fight goes on because it matters to him and his colleagues to be effective on a community basis until they can influence the next manifesto for nationwide change.


Despite losses at the local elections in May 2021, Labour retains almost 50% of the vote in Liverpool. A closing sequence takes us to Robert Tressell's pauper's grave, where everyone vows to learn the lessons from the treachery that toppled a socialist leader and bring about lasting reform. Equally poignant is a caption revealing the death of Tim Jeeves, who seems to have embodied decency more veritably and with more humility than this film's off-screen idol.


Completing the Hope Trilogy started with Nature of the Beast (2017) and The Big Meeting (2019), this is another impressive exercise in agit-vérité by the estimable Daniel Draper. There's a hint of Frederick Wiseman in the way he keeps the camera at the heart of public meetings to capture both dull procedure and impassioned debate with equal fidelity. Moreover, like Wiseman, it's easy to gauge where he stands on the topic he's filming, although his sympathies are often more apparent.


This is anything but thick-ear propaganda, however. While the issues plainly matter, it's the basic impulse of serving the community and improving the lives of those on the lower rings that comes shining through. The members of the Walton branch have an agenda that links Tressell and Corbyn, but they also have a core humanity that transcends politics and should inform every aspect of social-economic life. That is doesn't in the second decade of the 21st century shames us all and makes it even more of a shame that Corbyn allowed hubris to wreck the best chance of transforming Britain since 1945.


CANNON ARM AND THE ARCADE QUEST.


Kim Købke doesn't say much. He prefers to let his fingers do the talking, So, when `Cannon Arm' decided to have a crack at playing the 1983 arcade game, Gyruss, for an unprecedented 100 hours on a single coin, Danish documentarist Mads Hedegaard simply had to be present to cheer on his compatriot. The result is Cannon Arm and the Arcade Quest, a charming study of unassuming mastery and geek camaraderie that would make a fine double bill with Seth Gordon's The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007).


With his blonde mullet cascading down his back, 55 year-old chemist Kim Købke is instantly recognisable at Copenhagen's Bip Bip Bar. A taciturn grandfather who has been nicknamed `Kanonarm' since the 1980s, he once set the world record for playing Gyruss for 49 hours straight. Now, in homage to Thomas, the much-lamented friend who took his own life, Kim seeks to go way beyond the current record of 56 hours and embarks upon a fitness regime having been warned of the dangers of going for so long without sleep by his doctor.


While Kim pounds the pavements in preparation for his fourth attempt at the ton, his buddies forge themselves into a support unit to cater for his every need while he's ensconced in a pimped up garden shed. When not competing at poetry slams, Dyst fancies himself as a Puzzle Bobble expert and his pounding will give Kim a sense of arcade normalcy, as Emil keeps him supplied with snacks and Icelandic mathematician Svavar monitors the console during the carefully planned pee and snooze breaks.


Aiding this process is the computer spreadsheet devised by Trier, which keeps count of the lives that Kim accrues by completing levels so that he knows how many he can afford to burn on break and how close he is to the 250 mark, when the game has been known to erase scores on a whim. Keeping an eye on everyone is Carsten, who has devoted his life to analysing the works of Johann Sebastian Bach. However, he also shares Kim's musical tastes and can blast out Iron Maiden's `Run to the Hills' when the mood leads lifting.


Anxious not to get in the way or miss anything significant, the awestruck Hedegaard and co-cameraman David Bauer give editor Mark Bukdahl plenty of angles to convey the energy and tension of what is essentially a static enterprise. Taking the odd swipe at gaming golden boy Billy Mitchell, the film sees nothing wrong with notion that the geek shall inherit the earth and signs off with a touching graveside sequence, as the gang raise a bottle to their fallen friend.


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