Parky At the Pictures (25/9/2020)
(Reviews of Enola Holmes; Babyteeth; She Dies Tomorrow; Bulletproof; Rebuilding Paradise; and Hendrix and the Spook)
The majority of cinemas may be closed during these enduringly dismal days. And who, in all honesty is that big a film fan that they would risk contracting a contagious disease just to see something on the big screen as part of a well-spaced crowd? There are still ways to connect with some of the films on general release, however. In addition to Curzon Home Cinema. MUBI and the BFI Player, it should also be possible to access the titles under discussion below via iTunes, Apple TV, Amazon, Sky Store, Virgin, Microsoft, Vimeo, Google Play, Rakuten, BT and Playstation.
Even before it premieres on Netflix, Harry Bradbeer's Enola Holmes has run into trouble with the estate of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. According to a suit filed in New Mexico in June, the makers of this adaptation of the first of Nancy Springer's six novels about Sherlock Holmes's master detective have breached the copyright of the last 10 stories who which the estate can still lay claim by depicting the principal occupant of 221B Baker Street as a man of emotion. It will be interesting to see how the courts rule, in light of the fact that a 2014 judgment stated that all pre-1923 Sherlock Holmes stories are now in the public domain. Whatever the verdict, this represents quite a debut as a producer for 16 year-old star, Millie Bobby Brown.
Having been raised at Musgrave Hall by her mother, Eudoria (Helena Bonham Carter)l, Enola Holmes (Millie Bobby Brown) finds herself abandoned on her 16th birthday. Taking the audience into her confidence as she cycles to the station, she reveals that the palindrome of her name is `alone'. However, she hopes that older siblings, Mycroft (Sam Claflin) and Sherlock (Henry Cavill), will help her trace Eudoria, who has taught her everything from art and science to fencing and chess, ciphers and ju-jitsu. As Enola is Mycroft's ward, Sherlock is powerless to prevent him from sending his unworldly sister to the austere finishing school run by Miss Harrison (Fiona Shaw) that specialises in churning out acceptable wives and responsible mothers.
Following the clues hidden in her birthday presents and some painted chrysanthemums, Enola leaves housekeeper Mrs Lane (Claire Rushbrook) with some money and escapes from the hall dressed in Sherlock's old clothes. On the train to London, she prevents the brown-hatted Linthorn (Burn Gormn) from hurling Viscount Tewkesbury, Marquess of Basilwether (Louis Partridge) out of their carriage. Having jumped on to an embankment, the pair ride in a cart to the capital, where they go their separate ways, as the free-spirited Enola doesn't want to be tied down by a tousle-haired boy.
Taking a room with clothing shop owner, Miss Gregory (Ellie Haddington), Enola goes in search of her mother. Having placed a cryptic message in the personal column of the Pall Mall Gazette, she ventures to the teashop run by Edith (Susie Wokoma), who periodically attended secret meetings that Eudoria held at Musgrave. Using her powers of deduction, Enola stumbles across a Limehouse lock-up that is full of explosives and only just manages to survive a murderous assault by Linthorn.
Realising he is still pursuing Tewkesbury, Enola poses as a widow and goes to Basilwether to question her friend's mother (Hattie Morahan), grandmother (Frances De la Tour) and uncle, Sir Whimbrel (David Bamber). She encounters Inspector Lestrade (Adeel Akhtar) of Scotland Yard, who challenges her claim to be Sherlock Holmes's assistant and she has to swap clothes with a gardener in order to seek out Tewkesbury's treehouse. The Dowager Lady Tewkesbury finds her there and urges her to be careful, as the world is changing quickly and there is a danger that the old ways will be lost forever.
Undaunted, Enola tracks Tewkesbury to Covent Garden, where he is working as a florist. He reveals that his uncle was keen to send him abroad and he fears that he has designs on his title. Their conversation is cut short, however, when Lestrade bursts in and delivers Enola to Mycroft, who has offered a reward for her recovery. He deposits her at Miss Harrison's finishing school, where Sherlock visits his sister to apologise for being unable either to help her or to find their mother. But Tewkesbury smuggles her out in a hamper and they steal the headmistress's motor car in order to return to Basilwether.
They arrive after dark and creep into the hall, only to be shot at by Linthorn. Enola uses her ju-jitsu to disarm him and he suffers a fatal head wound when he lands on a jutting wooden pine cone. However, the Dowager picks up the gun and shoots her grandson because she doesn't him to take his seat in the House of Lords and help pass the 1884 Reform Act that would pave the way to giving votes to women. Fortunately, Tewksebury has hidden an armour breastplate under his shirt and he survives the gunshot.
Sherlock is impressed by his sister's heroism, but Mycroft still wants to return her to Miss Harrison's care. Having wished Tewkesbury luck, as he takes his seat on the day of the vote, Enola finds a message in the Pall Mall Gazette that seems to have been placed by her mother. However, she suspects it's a ruse by her brothers to lure her to the Royal Academy and disguises herself as a news vendor in order to watch Sherlock leave on a statue plinth the pine cone she had imagined was a small dog when she was a little girl.
Returning to her digs, Enola finds Eudoria waiting to thank her for doing her bit to pass the bill. But she refuses to come home until women have the vote and equal rights. As she cycles off along a crowded street, Enola also decides to remain in London and follow in Sherlock's footprints as a private detective.
What a very different film this would be without the winningly incongruous performance of Millie Bobby Brown, who makes an engaging and charmingly nonconformist heroine. Whether breaking the fourth wall or shattering Victorian social conventions, she chivvies the audience along through an adventure that intrigues without ever quite engrossing. Indeed, there are longueurs, as screenwriter Jack Thorne struggles to intertwine the main story strands around the 1884 Representation of the People Act.
There's also, surely, a mistake in having the teenaged Tewkesbury take his seat in the Lords when he would have been disbarred as a minor. But the suffrage subplot does allow Edith (a black working-class woman) to rip into the apolitically privileged Sherlock for having no interest in changing a world that suits him so well. More importantly, it leaves room for the Time's Up message that cinema has striven to sideline, if not exactly silence, for so long.
While her detecting skills are more reliant on observation and memory than inspired reasoning, Enola shares something of her sleuthing brother's quirkiness, although she is very much her mother's daughter. In fact, it's easy to imagine the Lady Jane (1986) vintage Helena Bonham Carter taking the title role with similarly winking gusto. But the guiding spirit here is clearly Phoebe Waller-Bridge, whom Bradbeer had directed with dual Emmy-winning distinction in Fleabag (2016-19).
Not all of his flourishes pay off here, with Enola's reaction shots to camera and the gags with the on-screen titles quickly wearing thin as the incessant palindromic references and Thorne's habit of hammering points home with a piledriver. Moreover, the plastically digitised backdrops leave one longing for the handpainted mattes of yore.
Nevertheless, Michael Carlin's production design and Consolata Boyle's costumes are as effective as Giles Nuttgens's photography and the jaunty Daniel Pemberton score that complements the rhythms of Adam Bosman's editing. One suspects this isn't the last we've heard of Enola Holmes, but any sequel would need to make the central mystery a tad more convoluted, as the audience is largely deprived here of the satisfaction of cracking the transparent case for themselves.
Even the subtlest screen adaptations of stage works betray their origins, as writers tend to cling to the lines that made the most impact on theatre audiences. The odd passage in Shannon Murphy's Babyteeth, falls into the trap, as playwright Rita Kalnejais forgets the motion picture's unforgiving habit of magnifying emotion. In the main, however, the debuting duo make a decent job of transferring Young Adult material whose narrative familiarity is offset by a disarmingly novel approach.
Life should be good for 16 year-old Milla Finlay (Eliza Scanlen). She lives in a nice house in a leafy suburb of Sydney with her psychoanalyst father, Henry (Ben Mendelsohn), and her musical mother, Anna (Essie Davis). But Milla is suffering from terminal cancer and she is about to embark upon another course of chemotherapy when she meets Moses (Toby Wallace). He strips off his shirt when Milla gets a nosebleed on the station platform and she is instantly smitten with the 23 year-old drug dealer.
Feeling comfortable with Moses, Milla asks him to shave her head so she is spared the embarrassment of hair loss during chemo. They go to his family home, only for them to be interrupted by his dog breeder mother (Andrea Demetriades) returning home with his younger brother, Isaac (Zach Grech). Jenny orders Moses to leave and Milla gives him some money for a bed for the night.
Milla insists on inviting Moses to meet Henry and Anna. However, the latter (who is on pills to help her cope with her daughter's condition) is alarmed by the age difference and the fact that Moses has a face tattoo. She also deduces that he is a junkie and her remarks make Milla all the more determined to keep seeing Moses, even after Anna asks him to leave.
Hoping that Milla's passion will fizzle out, the Finlays remind her of the need to keep studying at school and ensure she keeps attending violin lessons with Gidon (Eugene Gilfedder), who pairs her with a local boy named, Tin Wah (Edward Lau). Henry also gets to know a newcomer to the neighbourhood, when his pursuit of a barking dog leads to the door of Toby (Emily Barclay), a mother to be who is amused by the fact her pet and Henry share the same name.
Woken in the night, Anna catches Moses rifling through the house. She tries to reason with him to leave, but Milla hears the conversation and asks if Moses can stay for breakfast. Determined to appear reasonable to prevent Milla from rebelling against them, Anna and Henry reluctantly agree and Moses compliments Milla on the new wig she is going to wear to school. One of her classmates asks if she can try it on and Milla agrees, even though she finds the incident uncomfortable.
Feeling protective of Toby, Henry pops in to change a lightbulb, He gets a shock and falls off the chair, but its unharmed. Meanwhile, Moses turns up at the house and goes for a swim in the Finlay pool. Milla invites him to be her date at the school dance and he accepts. When she suddenly takes ill, however, Moses is forced to admit that he has stolen her medicine. But, as Anna throws him out, he denies hanging around Milla in order to exploit her.
Taking his word, Milla agrees to go to a party thrown by Isaac. She is put out when she sees Moses kissing another girl and tries to mingle with the others, while feeling out of place. When Moses finds her, he takes her outside, where she throws up. He wants to call her parents (who are out looking for her, as Milla has turned off her phone), but she insists she's fine and they dance together. She feels safe with Moses. But, when she wakes the next morning to find herself alone, she is hurt that he has left her and makes her way to the hospital by herself.
Following a conflab with Henry about Milla's relationship (in which he urges her to stop behaving like a drama queen), Anna goes to a piano lesson with Gidon. She confides her concerns and becomes overwrought. Meanwhile, Henry slips over the road to check on Toby. As they talk, he kisses her and flees home with regret written all over his face. Anna realises that he acted impulsively and says nothing more about it, but the episode persuades Henry to let Milla see Moses. He challenges him about abandoning his daughter at the party and a penitent Moses apologises for messing up. Henry invites him to stay because he knows it will please Milla. Grateful for the acceptance, Moses tries to blend in as one of the family and even helps out around the house.
But Milla is furious when she discovers that Henry has been signing prescriptions to keep Moses supplied with drugs (as he also does with Anna) so that he doesn't have to deal on the streets. Distraught, Moses runs away and seeks sanctuary with Isaac. But their mother gets home and orders him to leave. With nowhere else to go, Moses asks Milla to let him sleep in her room. He admits that he will be lost if she were to die and they snuggle.
Henry and Anna throw a birthday party for Milla and she enjoys being the centre of attention. She asks Moses to sleep with her. But she also wants him to smother her, as she is tired of the pain and the gnawing sense that time is running out. He can't bring himself to kill her, however, and they have sex while she comforts him. Getting up without disturbing Moses, Milla goes outside to take a last look at the sky, as the dawn chorus starts.
On waking, Moses realises that Milla has died and he tries to slip away before Anna finds him. She is angry with him for being there, but breaks down in his arms at losing her daughter. Henry goes into Milla's bedroom to give her a goodbye kiss. The scene cuts to the happy day on the beach when Henry had promised Milla that he would take care of Moses after her passing. Relieved, she poses her parents for a final photograph.
Such is the nature of this kind of melodrama that an air of inevitability pervades every scene. Yet, in breaking the action down into short(ish), headed chapters, Murphy and Kalnejais embrace the convolutions and root them in a recognisable reality that is enhanced by Sheree Philips's astute production design. The sterility of the Finlay's trendy abode contrasts with the clutter of Gidon's studio and it's hardly surprising that both Milla and Anna feel more comfortable there than in their own home.
With his facial lettering, ratty hair and shambling gait, Moses sticks out like a sore thumb wherever he goes. But he is played with vulnerably charm by Toby Wallace so that Eliza Scanlen feels better about herself because she can invest emotion in someone worse off than herself. Having also played Beth in Greta Gerwig's Little Women (2019), Scanlen is no stranger to terminal fortitude. But she impresses here by ensuring that Milla avoids becoming a poor little sick girl - at least until her last night, when events take a turn that feel plucked from the YA equivalent of a penny dreadful.
Stalwarts Ben Mendelsohn and Essie Davis also show well, as Milla's conflicted parents, although their personal problems are only explored through the prism of their daughter's illness and, as a result, their insecurities feel more functional than fully fledged. The fact that Milla appears to have no friends also feels a little forced, although this might explain why she would seize upon such a clichéd undesirable, who sets off so many alarm bells that it almost feels as though Murphy and Kalnejais are striving to satirise a hackneyed aspect of the adolescent rite of passage.
Photographed by Andrew Commis with a colour-coded restlessness that is reinforced by Steve Evans's clipped editing and a thoughtful jukebox score, this bears comparison with such early Jane Campion works as A Girl's Own Story (1984) and Sweetie (1989). The presence of Campion's longtime producer, Jan Chapman, among the execs rather confirms the suspicion. But Murphy has made enough shorts and TV episodes to have established her own style and, even though she struggles somewhat to invest proceedings with sufficient emotional veracity, it will be intriguing to see what she after her brief contribution to the third series of Killing Eve.
SHE DIES TOMORROW.
As fears grow of a second wave of coronavirus spreading across the United Kingdom, Amy Seimetz's already chilling She Dies Tomorrow takes on a new resonance. In the 15 years since she started directing with the short, The Unseen Kind-Hearted Beast (2005), Seimetz has made a distinct impression with her feature bow, Sun Don't Shine (2012), and with the 13 episodes of The Girlfriend Experience (2016-17), which she created with Lodge Kerrigan off the back of Steven Soderbergh's 2009 film of the same name. But this unsettling study of viral dread takes her to a new level.
New lovers Amy (Kate Lyn Sheil) and Craig (Kentucker Audley) have retreated to a desert bungalow to get to know each other. They take mushrooms and order a pizza. But the mood changes after the delivery man informs Craig that he is going to die the day after tomorrow and, as her boyfriend's gloom becomes all-encompassing despair, a single tear trickles from Amy's eye in regret that their nice time together had come to such a sudden and tragic end.
Returning to her recently purchased house in Los Angeles, Amy struggles with her own growing sense of futility, as she repeatedly plays Mozart's Requiem on her turntable. A recovering alcoholic who has never come to terms with an abortion in her early twenties, Amy calls her friend, Jame (Jane Adams), who is convinced that her morose mood is down to her having fallen off the wagon. Dismissing her request to be made into a leather jacket, Jane leaves. Having been overpowered by intense shifts of red and blue light, Amy has a flashback to the day she had shown Craig around her old apartment and they had established an immediate pillow talk rapport.
Unbeknown to either, Amy has infected Jane with the doom-laden sense of ennui and, while Amy heads off in her car chugging on a bottle, Jane breaks into her house to discuss the gnawing sensation that she is going to die the next day. Still dressed in her pyjamas, Jane (who has cut her wrist on Amy's door glass) gatecrashes the birthday party that her brother, Jason (Chris Masina), is throwing for his garrulous wife, Susan (Katie Aselton).
Already bored by Susan's incessant bragging and interminable gushings about dolphins, guests Brian (Tunde Adebimpe) and Tilly (Jennifer Kim) are discomfited by the tension between the sisters-in-law that Jason makes worse by straining to hard to defuse it. Quoting Albert Camus's contention that humans are the only creatures that try to pretend they are something they're not, Jane announces that she is going to die and not even the arrival of Susan's birthday cake can alleviate the gloom that has descended.
Susan is angry with Jason for taking Jane's part until she suddenly begins to contemplate the prospect of her own imminent death, Brian and Tilly also succumb to the blight, with the former driving to the hospital to turn off his father's life-support machine. As he kisses the old man's forehead, Tilly breaks up with him and they wonder why they were ever an item when they had so little in common.
Having terrified their teenage daughter, Madison (Madison Calderon), by breaking the news that they are all going to die, Susan and Jason concur that Jane is to blame for infecting them and they agree to murder her. She has gone to the hospital for a check-up and passed on the sense of foreboding to the doctor who examines her (Josh Lucas). He almost collapses with dismay and whimpers in Jane's arms before rushing off to be with his wife.
Amy nearly has a moment of her own with the man from whom she rents a dune buggy (Adam Wingard). As she drives around the track in the darkness, she thinks back to spending time with Craig in the hot tub at his brother's bungalow and playing Go Fish while they wait for the mushrooms to take effect. But everything changed with the pizza delivery
She returns to the bungalow to confirm that Craig has died and we hear again her lament that their romance had been curtained. Jason watches the sunrise before making Susan tea. They feel no guilt at the crime they have committed, with Susan even being keen to open her birthday presents. Bleeding from the stab wounds,
Jane wanders into a house where Sky (Michelle Rodriguez) and Erin (Olivia Taylor Dudley) are also awaiting their demise. They raise no objection when Jane asks if she can swim in the pool and she leaves a trail of blood, as she clambers on to an inflatable flamingo and Sky reveals that Aztec used to let menstrual blood flow into streams to convince the Conquistadores that human sacrifices were taking place.
Amy finds a leather shop and asks the owner (James Benning) if he would be willing to make a jacket out of a carcass. He explains the process involved in skinning and drying and she asks what he does with the entrails. Hiking into the hills, Amy waits for death and tries to convince herself that she's okay, when she knows she's not.
Given our own time of contagious sadness, this feels like an echo of the wartime propaganda pictures about careless talk costing lives. Social distancing might have gone some way to preventing the spread of this epidemic, but Seimetz offers no explanation for its outbreak or whether it can ever be contained or cured. This heightens the sense of unease far more effectively than the low-fi use of flashing red and blue filters to signify that another victim has been claimed. The accompanying hubbub of mumbling voices blending in with Mozartian choral blasts feels even more gratuitous. But these are the only missteps in a film of austere assurance and chilling plausibility.
Returning from Seimetz's debut, Kate Lyn Sheil and Kentucket Audley get things off to a disconcerting start, while the manner in which bourgeois bores Chris Messina and Katie Aselton turn on the wonderful Jane Adams gives the action a satirical edge. However, the civilised rancour between the mismatched Tunde Adebimpe and Jennifer Kim feels a tad forced, as does the poolside chat about periods and human sacrifices between Olivia Taylor Dudley and Michelle Rodriguez. The cameos by Josh Lucas and experimental director James Benning are more effective, especially as Seimetz's use of the landscape shares some of his formal rigour.
In noting the contributions of production designer Ariel Vida, cinematographer Jay Keitel and editor Kate Brokaw, it should also be noted that Katie Aselton (Black Rock, 2012) has also directed a horror on the theme of creeping death, while Seimetz acted in Adam Wingard's A Horrible Way to Die (2010) and You're Next (2011). All three films have a Mumblecore connection through Mark Duplass and Joe Swanberg, although Seimetz also seems to have been influenced by the work of her former partner, Shane Carruth, from whom she parted on the most acrimonious of terms. Yet, for all the self-reflexivity, Amy is able to deride Jane's suggestion that she calms down by watching a movie, as it's a monumental waste of minutes when time is so short.
Considering the negative publicity that America's police forces have endured over the last few months, it almost feels like an insult to release Joel Souza's Bulletproof, which was shown Stateside as Crown Vic. Contrasting strongly with Ladj Lys's Les Misérables, this rookie ride-along saga seems to have been designed to show what cops have to put up with in the line of duty. With the US title deriving from the Crown Ford Victoria used by the Los Angeles Police Department, this owes much to such thin blue line flicks as Richard Fleischer's The New Centurions (1972) and Antoine Fuqua's Training Day (2001).
Three years after graduating from the academy, Nick Holland (Luke Kleintank) is coaxed from behind his Oakland desk to join 25-year veteran Ray Mandel (Thomas Jane) on the streets of LA. As the son of a decorated cop, Holland feels somewhat railroaded into following in his footsteps and his misgivings are hardly alleviated by Mandel's blunt observations on body cams and cellphones making it tougher to indulge in some good old-fashioned policing. He also can't resist teasing Holland when he keeps receiving calls and texts from his anxiously pregnant wife.
A two-time divorcé, Mandel is full of unsolicited wisdom about how to survive as a married cop. But the mounting number of professional snafus have reduced him a training role when he would much rather be at the sharp end. Amused though he is by Holland's woes, Mandel is forced to focus on his job, as this is proving to be a busy night. The Olympic Division duo are already on the lookout for a couple of masked robbers on a murderous spree when they come across a burning car. On closer inspection, they spot a body inside and call for back-up.
They get a bit of light relief when they encounter Ally (Emma Ishta), a young woman who is as well-oiled as she is well-heeled. Unfortunately, she is also behind the wheel of a car and, when Mandel and Holland book her, she promptly throws up in the backseat. Highly strung exhibitionist Claire (Scottie Thompson) and her disapproving husband, Lester (James Andrew O'Connor), also prove a handful when they are called to a domestic disturbance. While Claire may be half-dressed and off her meds, she's harmless, unlike Detective Jack VanZandt (Josh Hopkins), a war veteran whose tendency to take speed and work off his traumas on suspects is far from frowned upon by his quirky partner, Stroke Adams (David Krumholtz).
As if Mandel didn't have enough to do, he is also on the lookout for eight year-old Kailey (Shiloh Verrico), who has gone missing after arguing with her mother, Tracy Peters (Bridget Moynahan). She happens to be the widow of Mandel's late partner and he feels dutybound to keep an eye on his family, especially as Tracy is in cahoots with despicable drug dealer, Floyd Stiles (Devon Werkheiser). However, this loyalty takes Mandel into some of the darker recesses of the City of Angels, where he hopes that eruptions of brutal violence like the one in the combustible denouement can stay hidden forever.
Although it feels tacked on, this subplot offers the most insights into Mandel's mentality and the seedier side of LA life, as he scours the drug dens and fleshpots seeking to keep his old pal's girl out of danger. For the most part, however, Thomas Jane growls his perfunctory dialogue, although he seems a model of restraint beside the psychotic Josh Hopkins and the deeply disconcerting David Krumholtz, who seems like he is auditioning for a remake of Sidney Lumet's Serpico (1973).
Surprisingly well photographed in widescreen by Thomas Scott Stanton, this is a slickly assembled nocturnal jaunt around the urban jungle. But, in averring that a policeman's lot is not a happy one, Souza drifts away from the harsher realities that keep appearing on our news bulletins by standing squarely behind the twosome in the interceptor. Thomas Jane is an underrated actor and he taps into his inner James Caan in essaying the grizzled veteran who is paying the price for refusing to play by the rulebook. He forges a credible rapport with Luke Kleintank, but his daddy's boy tied to his wife's apron strings is purely a cinematic construct that owes as little to life as any of the other secondary characters on either side of the law.
Souza's script is so stuffed with transient incidents that there's little room for fleshing out the lowlifes our heroes encounter or the environment that produced them, Indeed, Souza seems frustratingly disinterested in the sociological realities of the neighbourhood (which is actually Buffalo, New York doing some discount stand-in work). But, amidst the macho posturing, it is possible to see evidence of Donald Trump's American Dream in the shots of all those cuffed black men with their faces crushed into the paintwork of a patrol car awaiting their fate in a justice system they may not survive to face.
Two years on from the Camp Fire that cost 85 people their lives and thousands more their homes, belongings and livelihoods, California is experiencing some of the worst wildfires in the state's history. Despite the mounting evidence, climate change deniers continue to dismiss the notion that the planet is hurtling towards calamity. Renowned Hollywood director Ron Howard reminds us of the incontrovertible facts in the montage of global catastrophes that concludes his harrowing National Geographic documentary, Rebuilding Paradise. But, while his core message is clear, Howard's focus is firmly on how a small town that had been razed to the ground sought to rise from the ashes.
On 8 November 2018, a faulty power line sparked a fire in Camp Creek Road in Paradise, a town of 26,000 in Butte County in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Fanned by stiff easterly winds, the flames spread quickly and prompted the emergency services to evacuate entire neighbourhoods. In the opening nine minutes of the film, Howard and editor Miki Watanable Milmore piece together dashcam clips that convey something of the intensity of the heat, the density of the smoke and the sheer terror of those trying to escape in cars that were heating up as they crawled along choked roads.
Ultimately, it took 17 days and the arrival of the overdue autumn rains to bring the firestorm under control. By that time, 85 people had perished, 18,804 structures had been destroyed and 150,000 acres had been scorched. President Donald Trump turns up to call the town `Pleasure' in front of the news cameras. But, despite a heartbreaking shot of three frightened horses seeking shelter, no mention is made of the animal toll. Nor is it made clear that a quarter of the $16.5 billion damage tally related to uninsured items. Indeed, a good deal of nitty gritty detail is missing from this record of how those with nowhere else to go were gradually moved from a tented village on the Wallmart car park to temporary mobile homes provided some 30 miles away by Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Instead, in making his three-monthly visits to Paradise, Howard opts for a human interest angle so that viewers can identify with those determined to rebuild a century-old gold rush community that prides itself on the fact that all its residents are proud to live there. Having introduced us to Wally Culleton, the onetime town drunk who went on to become mayor, Howard goes on a ride-along with Matt Gates, a pin-up police officer who is raising three sons with his wife Tenille and has a kind word for everyone he encounters on his beat.
Superintendent of Schools Michelle John is also a popular figure, as she throws herself into getting classes started, while also overseeing clearance operations and organising charity events with her army veteran husband, Phil. School psychologist Carly Ingersoll also puts a brave face on things, even though she was almost trapped by the flames as she tried to drive out of town. Among her charges are seniors Brandon Burke and Zach Boston, who seem to accept the loss of property and possessions with good grace, as they are simply grateful to be alive.
School custodian Justin Cox similarly seeks to adopt a `business as usual' attitude, while wife Cayla jokes about the fact that John Wayne adorns the only shot glass to survive from her collection. As a local, she is determined to stay, even though Justin admits to having had enough of California. Marcus Nelson and Krystle Young are also intent on raising their three daughters in their hometown, even though they have lost almost everything and have limited employment prospects.
While the 74 year-old Culleton puts in an application to rebuild his home, Gates adopts a stray dog named Looter and finds it hard to believe that some of his neighbours have been stealing from each other. Moving in with cousin Roni Masuda, Michelle juggles appointments with kids, educators and contractors and one is left to presume that somebody was performing similar heroics in trying to re-open the local healthcare centres. State Assemblyman James Gallagher shows his face to promise support, while Erin Brockovich and local lawyer Joe Earley address a gathering to urge the residents to back Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey in suing Pacific Gas & Electric for neglecting the cables that caused the fire and for failing to turn off the power supply on the day of the fire.
Faced with an impossible task, PG&E executive Aaron Johnson does what he can to apologise at a tense public meeting. But FEMA also comes in for considerable stick, as it place conditions on assistance packages that cause the likes of Culleton to chew out councillors Mike Zuccolillo and Melissa Schuster for failing to stand up to the outside agencies that wouldn't be averse to Paradise being abandoned and the population dispersed.
Reliving the nightmare of tackling the blaze, firemen John Singler. Sean Norman and Alejandro Saise are joined by retired California Fire Chief Ken Pimlott, pyrogeographer Zeke Lunder and Calli-Jane DeAnda from the Fire Safe Council in questioning the wisdom of rebuilding the town in a drought area whose problems have been exacerbated by ill-conceived forestry strategies.
Against all the odds, however, progress is made, as Culleton welcomes his wife to her new home, while Burke and Boston are among those to chant `Go Bobcats!' one last time at the graduation ceremony that Michelle John has organised on the school football field. Tragically, she is widowed three days later, when Phil suffers a heart attack during a 40-mile bike ride. We also learn that Matt and Tenille Gates have divorced because he was devoting too much time to his job. Yet life goes on, as students collects for tornado victims in Alabama, Gates weekends in his trailer with his boys and Michelle packs up to spend her retirement somewhere that doesn't remind her of her beloved husband.
Having tackled the topic of firefighting in Backdraft (1991), Howard knows enough about the dangers posed by conflagrations to make the opening segment indelibly gripping. The more sobering jolt is provided by the 11:38am time check, when the world outside the car window is enveloped by a billowing darkness that is only alleviated by jagged streaks of red and orange flame. By contrast, the sense of relief when one family reaches daylight is equally palpable.
Thenceforth, however, Howard struggles to find the most effective way to relate a remarkable story. His intention seems to have been to coin a popcorn variation of Frederick Wiseman's observational style in seeking to combine Kafta with Capra. But, while he is fortunate in the people he has chosen to profile, Howard is less adroit when it comes to his angles of approach. Despite the significance of the law suit against PG&E, Howard shows little interest in its complex technicalities of a case that would end in a $13.6 billion out-of-court settlement and contents himself with merely establishing the utility as the villain of the piece. Similarly, he does no more than note that some residents were unhappy with the demands made by FEMA before it offered any practical assistance.
Elsewhere, he leans heavily for tone on the Hans Zimmer and Lorne Balfe score that sentimentalises in seeking to inspire. Most damagingly, however, Howard tends to idealise a rather insular community that appears to be predominantly white, middle-class and Christian. He also decides against addressing the divide between those who quit Paradise because global warming means it will forever be imperilled and those who insist that it's rebuilt along traditional lines. One can appreciate that such a redemptive act would bring about a sense of closure for those who have chosen to remain, but Howard's reluctance to examine the pioneering spirit that underpins the ambition is discomfitingly disappointing.
As for the past and present residents of Paradise, one can but hope that they managed to avoid future fires and succeed in putting their lives back together. Despite the best efforts of the film-makers, it's impossible to know exactly what they went through. But we are able to get a better idea through the distressing dashcam footage, which seems to confirm that, even in the direst circumstances, people are sufficiently social media savy to keep the camera rolling.
HENDRIX AND THE SPOOK.
Poor old Jimi Hendrix. He has had no luck where movies are concerned, although things got off to a decent start with Joe Boyd, John Head and Gary Weis's 1973 documentary, Jimi Hendrix (aka, A Film About Jimi Hendrix). Subsequently, however, he has been indifferently played by Wood Harris and André Benjamin in a pair of biopics, Leon Ichaso's Hendrix (2000) and John Ridley's Jimi: All Is By My Side (2013). Just before lockdown, Janie Hendrix sanctioned the first official biopic of her guitarist brother, but intervening events resulted in this being put on the back burner. Consequently, the 50th anniversary of Jimi's sad passing on 18 September 1970 has been marked by Tim Conrad's Hendrix and the Spook, which seeks to put a fresh and contentious spin on the 27 year-old's well-documented demise.
As narrator Mark Ebulué flashes back from the hazily reconstructed images of Jimi Hendrix (Anthony Aquarius) being rushed along a corridor at St Mary Abbot's Hospital in London, we get a thumbnail account of his past. Adoring younger brother, Leon Hendrix, recalls their troubled childhood, while Harry Shapiro, the author of Electric Gypsy, fills us in on Hendrix's army service and steady musical rise from the Chittlin' Circuit to a residency at Café Wha? in Greenwich Village, with his band, Jimmy James and the Blue Flames.
Back in Britain, the pop boom attracted the interest of Mike Jeffery (Paul O'Callaghan), an ex-soldier who opened Club A'Gogo in Newcastle with the insurance money from fires at the Marimba coffee bar and the Downbeat jazz club. Among the regular turns were The Animals, who agreed to let Jeffery manage them. As lead guitarist Hilton Valentine remembers, however, he worked them hard and ripped them off. Moreover, he squirreled monies into a company called Yameta, whose offshore assets were held in the Bahamas.
Exhausted and disillusioned, The Animals split in 1966. Bass player Chas Chandler decided to go into management and spotted Hendrix in New York. Needing financial backing, Chandler allied with Jeffery and brought Hendrix to London to record `Hey Joe' in September. On his first night in the capital, the guitarist met 20 year-old Kathy Etchingham (Emilia Finan) and they remained an item for the next couple of years, as he enjoyed the string of hits with The Jimi Hendrix Experience that are lauded by Paul Gambaccini.
Such was his meteoric rise that Hendrix was unprepared for the pressures of fame and Chandler sold his stake to Jeffery after drugs and groupies made the superstar less reliable to work with. His lifestyle also resulted in Hendrix and Etchingham drifting apart, as he began talking of quitting touring and pursuing his musical ambitions outside the rock circus. Unfortunately, he was still under contract to Jeffery and, with the hits drying up as the decade turned, he needed to keep Hendrix on the road with a band that would appeal to white audiences in order to pay the debts that he had incurred in opening the Electric Lady Studios in New York.
In addition to Warner Bros, Jeffery also owed money to the Mafia and the documentary shifts its focus from Hendrix's brief moment in the spotlight to the murky motives that might have accounted for his death. Much is made of Jeffery's financial plight and the prospect of a bleak future once Hendrix's contract expired in December 1970. Secretary Trixi Sullivan de Linick concedes that her boss may have been out of his depth, but she scorns the claims made by Jeffery's former enforcer, Tappy Wright, that he had used waterboarding methods learning in the forces to have Hendrix murdered with red wine.
Dr John Bannister, who tended Hendrix at St Mary Abbot's, notes that, for all the excess of wine in his lungs, there was little trace in his system. This raises questions about Hendrix's movements during his final hours and the role played in them by Monika Dannemann (Natasha Murphy), the German `girlfriend' who had inserted herself into Hendrix's life during the late summer and had taken his final photographs in the garden of her apartment at the Samarkand Hotel.
Music promoter Tim Knight recalls seeing them together during Hendrix's ill-starred guest slot during former Animals frontman Eric Burdon's gig at Ronnie Scott's jazz club. Kathy Etchingham also remembers bumping into them on the street and being concerned about how tired Hendrix looked. But, as Harry Shapiro avers, the versions of events that Dannemann provided in her police and inquest statements are notoriously contradictory and Conrad sifts through the pieces to present a possible solution to the puzzle of what happened to Hendrix in the period after he left a party thrown by music publisher Pete Kameron to which he had been invited by old friend, Devon Wilson.
Hendrix was residing at the Cumberland Hotel, from where he had called lawyer Henry Steingarten to ask him to find a way out of his contract with Jeffery. While having afternoon tea with MP's son Philip Harvey, Dannemann became frustrated by the fact that Hendrix was ignoring her. But her statement insists that all was well with the couple, who had enjoyed some wine over dinner before Hendrix had written `The Story of Life', the poem that prompted some (initially including Eric Burdon) to speculate that the guitarist had committed suicide. Indeed, Dannemann makes no mention of the scene she had caused that had prompted Hendrix to leave Kameron's party around 3am, as she claims that they had talked for hours at her apartment after she had made tuna fish sandwiches.
The autopsy report contradicts this assertion, as only rice from the Chinese food Hendrix had eaten at the party was found in his stomach. In recording an open verdict, the death certificate cited `insufficient evidence of the circumstances' in stating that Hendrix had died of asphyxia while under the influence of barbiturates. While there appears to be no truth in Dannemann's recollections of Hendrix being alive when she went out for cigarettes some time after 10am, it does seem likely that he had been so desperate to sleep that he had befuddledly swallowed up to nine Vesparax sleeping pills, without knowing that the recommended dosage was half a tablet.
Shapiro and Etchingham are in no doubt that Dannemann was a fantasist who both panicked on discovering Hendrix's body and was alert enough to recognise that she could benefit from being the last person to see him alive. In dismissing her claims to have been his fiancée and to have ridden to the hospital in the ambulance, the pair concur that she had phoned around for someone to help her and that Eric Burdon (who was not interviewed for the film) had come over to help her remove any drugs from the premises before she called for help. Rather than finding a fearful Dannemann, the crew entered through an open door and discovered an already deceased Hendrix covered in vomit on the bed.
The exact truth will never be known, but Conrad has arrived at much the same conclusion as Philip Norman in his new biography, Wild Thing: The Short, Spellbinding Life of Jimi Hendrix. Norman surmises that Hendrix might have been saved if help had been sought before the flat was cleared. But, while former Sussex police superintendent Dennis Care had claimed in 1993 that Hendrix might still have been alive when he reached St Mary Abbot's, the consensus is that he had been dead for several hours. In her 2005 tome, Jimi Hendrix: The Man, the Magic, the Truth, Sharon Lawrence claims that Dannemann had told her that she had used red wine to remove some of the vomit from Hendrix's torso. However, Conrad leaves the liquid mystery unsolved, although he does dismiss suggestions that Hendrix had been bumped off by the Mafia or the FBI because of Jeffery's debts and his connection with the Black Panthers.
What is certain is that a number of people, including Jimi Hendrix himself, played a part in his desperately sad demise. The avaricious Jeffery exploited him to the point of exhaustion, while the deluded Dannemann drove him to the brink her possessiveness. Yet Hendrix seems to have been incapable of taking care of himself and it's often forgotten how young and ill-prepared he was for the level of fame he achieved. Reduced to staging scenes to illustrate points and largely devoid of original music, this competent, if Channel Five-like documentary covers most of the salient points. It largely avoids descending into sensationalism, although the shift of focus away from Jeffery after making him the villain of the piece is more than a little arch.