• David Parkinson

Parky At the Pictures (24/9/2021)

(Reviews of True Calling; The Ballad of Billy McCrae; and 2nd Screen & Story Film Festival)


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.


TRUE CALLING.


A handful of British academics have turned their hand to film-making, most notably Mark Jenkin, Jamie Adams and Erik Knudsen. With the exception of Cleft Lip (2018), the latter has rather flown under the radar. Born in Ghana, raised in Denmark and resident in Britain since 1984, Knudsen held film-related posts at universities in Bournemouth, Leeds and Salford before becoming Professor of Media Practice at the University of Central Lancashire in Preston.


A former musician, Knudsen has produced a number of shorts, documentaries and stage plays, as well as the features Signs of Life (1998), Brannigan's March (2004), Sea of Madness (2006), The Silent Accomplice (2010) and The Raven on the Jetty (2014). Few of these have been widely seen, although they are available to stream via the One Day Films website/


This proudly quotes the great Feench auteur Robert Bresson's assertion that `the future of cinematography belongs to a new race of young solitaries who will shoot films by putting their last cent into it and not let themselves be taken in by the material routines of the trade'. It would be nice to report that, following the intriguing Cleft Lip, Knudsen has taken another step towards this Bressonian tomorrow. But, alas, True Calling is not his finest hour.


Government energy minister Josh Joseph (David Smith) turns off the lights in his home on the night before an important election debate and climbs into his car. As he drives north, he has a whispered conversation with his six year-old son, Harry (Raphael Thomas), who claims to be scared and wants to know why there are so many people in the world.


After dozing in a layby, Josh climbs a hill bearing some youthful carved initials and looks across at his home town. He mooches around until he sees Mandy (Eliza Marsland) leave home and he catches up with her to ask if they can talk. She is surprised to see him after 17 years, but agrees to stroll down by the river, even after he asks her not to go through with her forthcoming wedding.


While walking through the woods, Mandy asks whether Josh still plays music. He seems embarrassed to remember his Christian Rock days, but she coaxes him into singing a song he claims to barely remember and she provides the harmony before they wander on. They spot Johnny (Ben Hynes) fishing and hide behind a tree, as Mandy gigglingly relates how he got into trouble for protesting against the erection of some wind turbines.


As they lie in the grass, Mandy asks Josh if he still believes in God and he admits that having religious faith can often be a political drawback. He even confesses to having doubts about climate change, wealth inequality and the oppression of minorities. But his bid to change the conversation by asking Mandy if she wants to start a family backfires, as she gets up and hurries into the trees.


Even though she has missed a dress fitting, she forgives him and they walk along a muddy path to the river. When he stumbles, she helps him regain his balance and even washes his feet in the cool, clear water. However, she refuses to let him touch her foot and shies away when he professes his love and offers to give up his career so they can build a life together. Mandy concedes that she had adored him when they were teenagers, but he had never noticed her. Now, having watched him turn into a stranger from afar, she knows he doesn't need her to turn his life around. And she doesn't want him.


Stumbling along after Maddy, Josh measures his length in the mud and curses repeatedly. He rests on a low-slung tree and tosses his wallet away in annoyance at how useless all his cards and passes are to him in the middle of nowhere. As he dozes off, he is watched by a squirrel, a deer and a blackbird and he wakes with a start to find his wallet gone. Wandering into a clearing, he finds a jacket and shirt on a tree stump and later on a pair of trousers over a branch.


He reaches the river, where Johnny declares he has been waiting for him. They exchange family small talk before Johnny announces that his vocation in life is helping people. Offering Josh a change of clothes, he beckons him into the river to wash his face and proceeds to hold him under the fast-flowing water. Stunned, Josh glares at Johnny, but hugs him when he extends his arms.


Night falls and the pair sit on the bank by the light of a storm lamp. Josh reflects on the fact that the TV debate will have happened without him and that news bulletins will be speculating about his whereabouts. But Johnny gnomically reassures him that his story is only beginning, even though his is about to end.


Trudging through the deserted town centre, Josh sits on a park bench opposite Maddy's house. Just as he gives up on catching a glimpse of her, she stands in the window and looks out. Driving south, Josh chats to Harry who answers his own question about why there are people in the world - so they can live. Arriving to find press and protesters on his doorstep, Josh takes a deep breath and burrows through them.


Given the bare-bonedness of the characterisation, it's hard to care much about what happens to Josh, Mandy or John, especially as they seem to speak in platitudes or riddles. But Knudsen forces the audience further away from the troubled politico, the confused bride-to-be and the passively aggressive activist by adopting camera and cutting strategies that create distance while drawing attention to themselves.


The idiosyncratic gambits are not new, as Knudsen holds Kwaku Oware's camera in long takes that either depict inertia (such as Josh sleeping in his car) or linger in settings after the characters have exited. Similarly, his use of static front-on close-ups during dialogue exchanges feels regimentedly forced. Moreover, it prevents Josh and Maddy re-establishig any sort of connection, although their chemistry-free conversation suggests that they were never that close to begin with and that Josh's errand to prevent Maddy's marriage seems more creepily quixotic than romantically chivalric.


Even while performing the wince-inducing song (which Knudsen composed), David Smith and Eliza Marsland play the game earnestly enough. However, the stilted nature of both the writing and the technique means they always seem to be acting rather than inhabiting their characters. In this regard, the film recalls the improvised dramas of Jon Sanders, which are always so meticulously made and yet are never exactly inviting.


THE BALLAD OF BILLY McCRAE.


Cardiff-born Chris Crow must be one of those directors who thanks his lucky stars for the existence of DVD delivery services like Cinema Paradiso. Chances are slim that Devil's Bridge (2010), Panic Button (2011), Viking: The Darkest Day (2013) or The Lighthouse (2016) will have played at your local cinema. But there they all are to be rented at the click of a button online. They're on Amazon Prime, too. No doubt, The Ballad of Billy McCrae will soon join them there, as it bathes some familiar film noir tropes in plenty of Welsh sunshine.


Having been robbed by his partner in a Canadian haulage firm, Chris Blythe (Ian Virgo) returns to his Welsh coastal home and is welcomed by parents Jack (Phil Howe) and Mary (Kerry Joy Stewart). Taking a job at the local quarry, he picks a good-natured fight with foreman Harry (Gerald Tyler) on his first day and they find themselves chosen by boss Billy McCrae (David Hayman) and his daughter, Elen (Sianad Gregory), to lay her patio.


Ignoring Billy's threats and Harry's warnings not to get involved with Elen, Chris sleeps with her. She orders him to leave next morning, but she pounces on him again when he lingers after the next after hours visit. Despite having seen Billy use a shovel to bean Mike (David Constant), who had given him lip, Chris agrees to become his part-time bookkeeper, on the proviso that he gets a decent bonus for staying shtum about any fiddling with the receipts.


Elen tells Chris how Billy put her last boyfriend in hospital for encouraging her singing career, when he disapproved. Chris snorts his derision and insists he's not afraid of Billy, especially now he knows he has a shares in a Cornish tin mine and can help him cook the books. But he's on his guard after Billy finds his medallion in Elen's bathroom and he reminds her to treat her well or he'll have to hire a man to kill him.


While out near the marina, Elen suggests buying a boat to cruise the Caribbean and Chris is taken aback when she suddenly becomes moody. He is also surprised when she introduces him to her ex-husband, Dorien (Tim Duthrane), and his new girlfriend, Sharon (Sophie Carmen-Jones). As they chat, Elen asks if he has any cash squirrelled away from his lost fortune, but he reassures her it should be easy to make another one.


Back at the quarry, however, Billy takes receipt of some newspaper clippings revealing that Chris was charged with his embezzling partner's murder. Now he has something on him, Billy asks Chris to conceal the assets of a newly purchased quarry near Newport. Realising how rich Billy is, Chris suggests Elen asks him to pay for their dream cruise, but she quickly puts a dampner on the idea with a show of temper that causes Chris to accuse her of being a spoilt brat.


When Chris discovers that Billy's partner, Frankie McKinley (Christopher Patrick Nolan), has been swindling him, the pair pay him a brutal visit at his local. But Chris is uncomfortable being Billy's heavy and confides in Elen, who tells him to strike out on his own after they get back from their compensatory holiday in Bournemouth. Nevertheless, he agrees to a profit share on a scheme after Billy lets him know that he has checked up on his past and insists that Elen never learns the truth.


After Billy and Chris threaten to torch Mike's house if he goes ahead with a GBH charge, Chris is surprised when Elen asks him to marry her so they can leave town as quickly as possible. He insists they need time to maximise their deal he has with Billy, but he is one of the reasons Elen wants to get away. When she tells her father of her plans, he threatens to cut her off without a penny. Moreover, he reneges on his deal to profit share with Chris on a slag heap business. So, when Elen shows him the facial injuries Billy inflicted and informs him that he refuses to discuss the brother who died of a brain tumour when he was 12, Chris goes for a showdown and winds up killing Billy with his fists.


Over shots of Chris making family discoveries while sitting at Billy's desk, we hear his testimony to the police framing McKinley for a revenge killing. After Elen scatters Billy's ashes over the quarry, they marry. At the reception in the garden of a posh hotel, however, Dorien gatecrashes to tell Chris that Elen has a screw loose and makes up stories about lost brothers and paternal cruelty. When he confronts her, she tells him to stop whining because he killed a man in Canada. But he explains that he was acquitted for lack of evidence and Elen repeatedly strikes his skull with a rock when he tells her it's over and tries to walk away.


Scripted by Philip Palmer and originally known as Red Mist, this is more of a melodrama than a thriller, as so much character backstory and interaction is dependent upon contrivance. However, Crow directs and edits with a canny sense of concealment and a taut revelatory pace. Anyone versed in film noir will be familiar with the term femme fatale and, even though David Hayman's controlling father and Ian Virgo's shady palooka have their secrets, it's rarely in doubt that Sianad Gregory's scheming seductress is the real villain of the piece.


With her short hair, she recalls Jean Simmons's poor little rich girl reeling in Robert Mitchum's chauffeur in Otto Preminger's Angel Face (1953). But Crow, production designer Ollie Kelly and cinematographer Alex Metcalfe keep the action rooted in a blue-collar milieu, as they make the most of the quarries, slag heaps and belching chimneys that scar the landscape around Port Talbot. Several key scenes are also set in Billy's cramped office, which is stuffed with boxes and files that could hide any number of dodgy deals and closeted skeletons.


Hayman has his tetchy Scot act down to a fine art, while Gregory slips effectively between being vampish and vulnerable. Virgo is less agile, but the script protects him by not putting him under more pressure to defend his record in Canada. The chances of anyone not knowing every last detail about his travails in a quarrying community in which everyone's business is public knowledge seems highly specious, however. Although the scenario's biggest weakness is the way in which Dorien returns in the final reel after a fleeting introduction to deliver the wedding day coup de grace.


SCREEN & STORY FILM FESTIVAL.


Running between 15-25 September, the Screen & Story Film Festival returns for a second year. Gathered under the themes Disabilities, Technology, Sustainability, Affection, Humour and Self, the programme of 103 films from 39 countries breaks down in 40 fictional film, eight experimental items, 24 documentaries, 28 animations and three features.


Amidst the 20 hours of viewing, there are 17 virtual premieres from some of cinema's up-and-coming talents. But our focus here will be on the three features on show.


Moroccan Tawfik Baba's debut feature, Oliver Black, centres on the bond that develops during a trek across the desert between Vendredi (Modu Mbow) and White Man (Hassan Richiou). Having nothing but the clothes on his back, the Senegalese is hoping to reach Morocco to fulfil a lifetime ambition to join a circus and send money home to his mother. But the older man has a tent and cooking utensils in his backpack and he agrees to let the callow youth tag along with him.


Vendredi keeps spouting advice that his mother gave him, but White Man doesn't always think it's practical, especially when it comes to finding water. As they wander on, they see a donkey with a water bottle attached to its saddle. The boy has to be stopped from rushing across, as the area around the well might have been mined by the army. As it happens, they are lucky and trudge on with replenished supplies.


White Man gets cross with Vendredi when they catch a lizard for supper and he pretends to have stepped on a mine and causes the old man to gash his leg on the rocks. Beside the campfire that night, White Man tells the boy that he is an Algerian and has lost his dromedary while travelling home for his granddaughter's wedding. But he agrees to take Vendredi to the Moroccan border and chides him for using henna to try and whiten his skin.


The next day, they are joined by Anuk (Mohamed Elachi), who hangs behind them, When they camp, White Man gives him food and tea, but he tries to rape Vendredi and the youth runs into the desert after killing his assailant. In the morning, he finds White Man standing on a mine and he urges the boy to go to Morocco and leave him to die. But Vendredi rolls a boulder across the scrub and places it on the mine so his friend can escape.


He asks if he can come to the wedding and recalls his younger sister being genitally mutilated by two female neighbours. White Man points out the difference between nuptials and circumcision is surprised to learn that Vendredi's mother uses sign language, as he thinks she talks too much. He is touched by his love for his mother and has a vision of his granddaughter dancing with her veil inside a ring of fire.


On waking, White Man is frail and urges Vendredi to leave while he can. But he fashions a stretcher out of the haversack and tent canvas and the old fellow's fingers drag in the dust as he's pulled along. They reach a camp and Vendredi hopes it's the circus. But it's an ISIS unit and White Man is paid for having delivered another recruit. He has been forced to resort to such tactics because his granddaughter is confined to a wheelchair and he has no other means of providing for her.


As he leaves, he swears not to dupe any more vulnerable youths. Vendredi, who has been renamed Oliver Black, writes to his mother about how he never got to do the things he dreamed of and how he is now serving a cause he knows nothing about. He is transported with others in the back of a truck, with the black Daesh flag fluttering in the breeze, as Vendredi laments becoming part of the wrong circus.


Reminiscent of the early works of Oliver Laxe, this is an intense tale of innocence and experience that comes with a scorpion's sting in its tail. Directing with a keen eye for the unforgiving landscape and making telling use of close-ups and sun- and firelight, Tawfik Baba is indebted to cinematographer Smail Touil for the evocative imagery. But it's the interaction of Modou Mbow and Hassan Richiou that make this so compelling, as the youth with a rapacious soldier for a father latches on to the resourceful stranger who seems to set such store by faith and family.


The clues are there that White Man is not to be trusted. But the denouement still comes with a gut punch. Baba is keen to expose the dangers of human trafficking and the betrayal that coerced conscription represents. Yet this is another film that echoes Jean Renoir's famous maxim that everybody has their reasons.


The second feature on the slate, Iranian Laleh Barzegar's Domino, is another debut. In addition to writing a book of short stories and exhibiting her paintings, Barzegar has also produced a number of shorts: Promenade, 20m² (both co-dir, 2012), The Black Rainbow (2013), The Day Will Come (co-dir), Death Penalty (both 2014) and I, Leili (co-dir, 2015). She took the inspiration for her first feature from the experience of a female relative, who had married twice in order to escape from family pressure.


Yalda (Sonia Sanjari) is a university lecturer in Tehran. However, husband Mehrdad (Arash Afif) isn't happy with her being at the beck and call of her professors. She, on the other hand, hates the fact his sister pops round whenever she feels like it, while she's not allowed to help out her brother with his shop. When Mehrdad catches her giving him money, Yalda asks her father (Mohammad Reza Barzegar) and mother (Farrokh Mehr Keyvan) if she can stay with them. But they insist she does her duty to her husband, as her highly traditional relations will become suspicious and start asking awkward questions.


They are dismayed when Mehrdad applies for a divorce, but Yalda is determined to press her own case after he attempts to drag her home because he disapproves of her accepting a lift from her classmate, Hamed (Keyvan Mohammadi). Ignoring her mother-in-law's threats, Yalda proceeds with her suit and is frustrated when Hamed withdraws his offer to collaborate on a project because of her private life. Unable to afford her own apartment, Yalda leaps at the chance when a private student's mother gives her an introduction to Mrs Maleki (Nasim Bahadori), who is looking for a new maths teacher at her school.


As her parents haven't told the wider family about the divorce, Yalda has to stay away when they have guests. She bumps into Hamed, who offers her the use of the flat at his family home and they are horsing round making animal noises when he gets called away. Left alone in his room, she knocks over a domino run (a symbol that feels as blatant as the earlier shot of a small child letting go of a white balloon).


They seem to be getting on well, but Yalda thinks she's too old for him and that the seven-year gap will seem bigger over time. She also dislikes Hamed being so eager and playfully possessive and consults with a woman whose fortysomething brother is looking for a new wife after his divorce. News of her own separation reaches Mrs Maleki, who isn't impressed. Neither are some of the girls in her class.


But Yalda decides she's had enough of being unwelcome at home and takes the plunge to get an apartment. She also hopes to work on a paper with Hamed. However, he still wants to marry her and leaves her alone in her new flat after she informs him that she's got too much on her mind to complicate matters with a husband.


It says much that the principal themes pursued by Iran's female film-makers have remained largely unchanged over the last 25 years. The status of women, the stigmas attached to being unmarried or divorced and the tyranny of family tradition have dominated scenarios since the Makhmalbafs made their first features in the 1990s. Laleh Barzegar builds on their foundations with admirable assurance in a drama that uses repetition to emphasise the cycle in which Yalda is trapped.


Superbly played by Sonia Sanjari, Yalda always seems to be taking a backward step with every two she takes forward, whether it's with her immature husband, her conservative parents, her employers or a classmate who complicates their academic partnership by trying to rush her into a romance. But, under the relentless gaze of Mohammadreza Sajadian's camera, she refuses to buckle or be browbeaten and her determination to do things her own way sends a hugely positive message.


Finally, anyone approaching Léa-Nunzia Corrieras's Everything Is Fine needs to have a good working knowledge of French law relating to alternative maternity units, as this hour-long documentary - which clearly takes its cues from Yann Le Masson's Regarde, elle a les yeux grand ouverts (1982), which is excerpted at the beginning - provides little or no context. There's no doubting the compassion and commitment of the women running the experimental Doumaia `house of birth', but the breastfeeding mother discussing the epiostomy that had been performed on her without consent seems somewhat unimpressed with the service.


Moving on to an `atelier d'auto-gynécologie'. we see a pre-natal class in action and everyone seems to approve of the independence that the centre affords them. This session touches upon sexual violence in a potent and poignant manner and it's revealed in a follow-up visit to a new mother that Lou, the group leader, was transitioning and is relieved and proud to have been so accepted.


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