Parky At the Pictures (26/5/2023)
(Reviews of Master Gardener; My Fairy Troublemaker; and A Crack in the Mountain)
The anti-hero looms large in the legacy of Paul Schrader, whether in the four features he scripted for Martin Scorsese or in the 24 pictures he has directed since debuting with Blue Collar (1978). Flouting controversy has also been part of Schrader's MO, with Hardcore (1979), Light Sleeper (1992), The Walker (2007), First Reformed (2017), and The Card Counter (2021) all centring on tightly coiled men resolving crises on their own terms.
This quintet is now joined by Master Gardener, which could almost be seen as a summation of Schrader's pet themes and character types. He's joked that Barack Obama won't be including this on any list of his Top 10 movies. But few others will, either.
Narvel Roth (Joel Edgerton) is head gardener at Gracewood, a large estate somewhere in the American South owned by the haughtily wealthy Norma Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver). She informs him that her 20 year-old, biracial grand-niece, Maya (Quintessa Swindell), will be coming to stay, following the death of her drug addict mother, and hopes that he will take her on as his apprentice.
Arriving in a tie-dye `No Bad Vibes' t-shirt and a pair of ripped jeans, Maya seems underwhelmed by the prospect of working for minimum wage and receiving daily tuition in botany and garden history. But she is warmly welcomed by co-workers Isobel (Victoria Hill), Xavier (Eduardo Losan), and Maggie (Erika Ashley), who are devoted to Narvel and his quiet passion for the land. Norma keeps her distance, however, even though she has fond memories of Maya playing at the house as a child.
Over dinner, Norma tells Narvel (who she calls `Sweet Pea') that she is suffering from health issues and wants the forthcoming charity auction to be a success. She also inquires whether Maya would be worthy of inheriting the gardens, as she wants them to stay in the family after her death. He confides that she has made a promising start before escorting Norma to the bedroom, where he removes his shirt to reveal a torso covered in Neo-Nazi tattoos.
When Norma does finally come to see Maya, they have an awkward snack lunch encounter, in which home truths are exchanged. Narvel warns Maya to tread carefully, as Norma is a proud woman set in her ways. However, when she takes a beating from her mother's old dealer, Robbie Gomez (Jared Bankens), Narvel calls Oscar Neruda (Esai Morales) to request a favour. He is Narvel 's witness protection handler, as he had testified against several members of the white supremacist bretheren for whom he used to work as an assassin. Oscar agrees to lean on R.G. and regrets that he won't be seeing Narvel again, as he's about to retire.
Furiously jealous after seeing Narvel leave the hut where Maya is staying for her own safety, Norma fires the pair. They move into a motel, after Narvel threatens R.G. and sidekick Sissy (Matt Mercurio) with a set of pruning shears. Recognising that Maya is an addict, Narvel puts her through cold turkey and accompanies her to group meetings. She is grateful to him for his help and friendship, until she sees his tattoos and refuses to accept his reassurance that he is no longer the bigot he was.
Following a brief stand-off, Maya comes to Narvel's room and undresses. She asks him to get the ink removed and they sleep together. Going for a midnight drive, they whoop from the windows, as flowers fill the verges illuminated by the headlights. Narvel also goes to see Orlando, only to discover he's been replaced by Stephen Collins (Rick Cosnett). Unwilling to trust him, he returns to the motel to receive a call that vandals have decimated Gracewood Gardens.
Norma sneers on Narvel's return, but he takes the gun hidden under his cabin floor and goes searching for R.G. and Sissy, who had daubed swastikas on his walls. Dishing out painful punishments, Narvel drives back to Gracewood and promises Norma that he will soon have the gardens looking pristine. She finds his marriage to Maya obscene, but he dismisses her protests and dances with his wife on the porch of their cabin.
Struggling to convince from the opening scene of Narvel writing in his journal, this morally ambiguous redemption saga is made watchable by Joel Edgerton's buttoned-down performance as a murderous xenophobe who has turned over a new leaf. Schrader's screenplay is strewn with equally corny verbiage, as well as clumsy flashbacks that hint at Sweet Pea's past brutality.
There's an amusing side to Edgerton's exchanges with Sigourney Weaver, who is in knowing grande dame mode (albeit without moving a single facial muscle). But there's so little chemistry with Quintessa Swindell that their already unlikely liaison becomes increasingly implausible. Indeed, the moment in which she strips in the half light and allows her desire to surpass her disgust at his White Pride body art would be genuinely disconcerting were it not so dismally gauche. What's more, Schrader lets it pass without further comment, as though he though he didn't care a jot about how Maya had been able to overcome her initial repugnance and her lifetime's experience of prejudice.
For all the floridity of Narvel's writing,
Alexander Dynan's views of the gardens are disappointingly functional. By rarely showing Narvel toiling, Schrader offers little sense of his affinity for Nature or his attachment to his staff. As all other aspects of his life have been boxed up, he cuts too hollow a figure to intrigue. Consequently, it's difficult to invest in either his relationships with Norma or Maya or in how he'll cope with a couple of small-timers without compromising his protected status. This dearth of tension and dramatic truth only further exposes the flimsiness of the scenario and the characterisation, which feels all the more frustrating given how compelling Schrader's last two outings have been. Nevertheless, the concluding note of optimism is sufficiently unusual in a Schrader picture to leave one wondering whether the 76 year-old Michiganer is going soft in his old age.
MY FAIRY TROUBLEMAKER.
Having cut her animation teeth on the children's TV programme, Polo (2014-), Caroline Origer makes her feature bow with My Fairy Troublemaker. A German-Luxembourgian co-production, this has the unenviable task of going up against Disney's live-action take on The Little Mermaid over half-term.
Having failed the annual tooth fairy exam staged by Professor Laurin (Stephan Benson), the cookie-gobbling Violetta (Jella Haase) has to look on as arch-rival Yolando (Julian Mau) gains admittance to the human realm. She tells dragonfly pal Gwen (Alex Avenell) that she is special and has a plan to prove it.
Meanwhile, Maxie (Lisa-Marie Koroll) is forced to leave Mr Tree and her beloved home to move to the big city with her mother, Hannah (Merete Brettschneider), who has a new job at the hospital. She has hooked up with Amir (Tammo Kaulbarsch) and his boys, Tarek (Lukian Rusari) and Sami (John Chadwick). Sharing Maxie's love of nature, Amir wants to protect the city's only patch of greenery from property developer Boris Rick (Tim Grobe). But she's too unhappy at being away from her tree to take notice.
When Sami loses a tooth, Violetta hijacks Yolando's mission to collect it, leave a toy, and return to base. Unfortunately, because Maxie has moved into Sami's room, her trip gets off to a bad start and she knows she only has so long to complete her task or she will turn into a flower.
Taking pity on Violetta and letting her stay in her doll house, Maxie promises to get the tooth from Sami. However, he thinks she smashed his sweet jar, while Tarek resents having to share his room with his sibling. Although Maxie finds the tooth, the belt gem that should return Violetta to Fairyland malfunctions.
Laurin is aware of her problems and forces Yolando to follow him though a portal in the old library run by Camelia (Marion von Stengel). This takes them to the city, but they still don't know where Violetta is. She has gone to the greenhouse that Amir is trying to save and which Maxie takes to straight away because it has a giant tree. However, she gets in trouble when she accidentally trips Sami, who breaks a vial of itching powder and the rally ends in chaos, much to Boris's delight.
Laurin sends Yolando on ahead to deliver a key to Violetta that will get her through the old portal under a full moon. But she is having problems, as her foot has turned into a leaf and Maxie's attempts to fix the gem with glue end stickily. Fortunately, Sami gets involved and loses another tooth (after several attempts to dislodge it) and Violetta hopes someone will come and fetch her. But she knows she doesn't fit in in Fairyland and likes the idea of living in Maxie's treehouse.
Yolando takes Sami's tooth and leaves Violetta the key that unlocks the door in an ancient tree. Maxie reckons it's the one in the greenhouse, but Violetta would rather crash in the doll house and look tomorrow, especially as her other foot has gone leafy. Sleeping in would probably have been a better idea, as Maxie and Violetta accidentally cause a fire with the poison and cigar that Boris has stashed in the greenhouse and he doorsteps Amir with an accusation that Maxie had tried to torch the building at his behest.
Upset that Hannah is thinking about breaking up with Amir, Maxie asks Violetta to leave for having lied about her ability to do magic. However, Sami finds the key and Maxie dashes across town to help Violetta, who is close to going `full flower'. Just as they are climbing the tree, however, Boris bursts in with a digger and he's only stopped by the family riding to Maxie's rescue and she realises they're not too bad after all.
Violetta is convinced she's failed, but Maxie urges her to repair the tree and she exhausts herself in so doing. But Maxie turns the key and Laurin and Yolando pass through the portal to fetch her. The professor informs Violetta that she's a flower fairy and that she has the power to restore Nature. She celebrates by covering the greenhouse with blooms and promises to see Maxie each full moon. Moreover, she reminds her always to bring some chocolate.
Although they can never operate on the same kind of budgets, Europe's CGI animators are definitely catching up with their Hollywood counterparts. Admirable character art and quirky contrasts between the fairy and human worlds should keep younger viewers engrossed during this lively story that makes up in incident what it lacks in message depth. Silja Clemens and her co-writers also succeed in making Violetta winning while also being brashly noisy and recklessly naughty.
Eyebrows might be raised about Yolando's prissy histrionics and Boris's caricatured fat cattishness. But credit is due for teaching Maxie lessons about Sami and his family (despite there being little cultural specificity outside their names), while Violetta gets to learn to accept herself for who she is rather than trying to become something she's not. Even a couple of the songs are quite catchy.
A CRACK IN THE MOUNTAIN.
Despite being four miles long and containing vaulted chambers that are hundreds of feet high, the underground realm of Hang Son Ðoòng was completely unknown until 1990. Situated in the jungle close to the Vietnam-Laos border, this wonder of the natural world remained unexplored until 2009. It has since, however, become a tourist attraction and, as Alastair Evans explains in A Crack in the Mountain, plans to develop the site have exacerbated the problem of balancing economic growth with environmental sustainability that pertains around the world.
When Ho Khanh stumbled upon Hang Son Ðoòng in the Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park in Quang Binh Province, he was hoping to make a few bucks selling a few bits of agarwood. He was too scared to enter the `mountain river cave', as the wind was so strong and there was a loud gushing noise from deep within. When members of the British Cave Research Association, learned of his discovery, Ho took time to remember the location, as he had not deemed it significant. Now, the authorities are keen to increase the 1000-people limit and are even considering a cable car to improve access.
Adam Spillane led the original BCRA expedition and he is back at Camp Two, where tourists are sharing a meal before Howard Limbert leads a party into the cave. The views are arresting, as the figures are dwarfed by the ceilings and appear like specks in the boats carrying them along a green river. Americans Meredith and Pete Harvey try to put their experience into words, as do David Bitner and Jonathan Drake, who are glad to have seen Hang Son Ðoòng in its most natural state.
While they comment on how more impressive reality is than the CGI sets in something like Jordan Vogt-Robert's Kong: Skull Island (2017), Darryl Granger, Professor of Geology at Purdue University, considers its formation along a virtually straight crack in the mountain. Spillane provides statistics to allow the viewer to appreciate the height, depth, and width of the various dolines and limestone buttes. He speculates that it was once even bigger Hang Son Ðoòng and fellow explorer Helen Adams recalls the thrill of discovering such an untouched spot.
Aerospace specialist Bill Stone believes that the final frontier lies underground and Spillane reveals that there is still much to explore around Phong Nha-Ke Bang and locals like porter Tuan Van Tran do valuable work in finding entrances to new caves. He is grateful for a steady job that is easier than hauling wood out of the forest and he enjoys the camaraderie of being part of a 25-man team, even though there is little interaction with the tourists to places like the world's third largest cave, Hang En.
In Ho Chi Minh City, Huong Nguyen Thien Le, the co-founder of Save Son Ðoòng, gives a lecture on experiencing total darkness in the cave. As a huge fan of Jules Verne, the expedition took her to the centre of the Earth and she is now determined to keep the site special and protect its surrounding ecosystem. Citing the examples of Ha Long Bay and Phu Quoc Island, Bill Hayton, the author of Vietnam: Rising Dragon, worries about the country's record when it comes to striking a balance between conservation and commercialisation. Writer and activist Giang Hoang Bang concurs that the growing power of major corporations makes it difficult for the Communist Party to resist potentially damaging projects.
Hayton and Huong draw attention to the difficulty of protesting in Vietnam, as the secret police are everywhere. Over footage of John Halas and Joy Batchelor's animated 1954 version of George Orwell's Animal Farm, we hear about Party paranoia and the violent response to street protest. Hence, Huong's online campaign to get people from around the world to send a photo of themselves holding a Save Son Ðoòng sign.
Back in Phong Nha, porter Nguyen Bang Ho and Greg Cummings discuss how the area has already changed since the cave was opened. Spillane recalls that the province was still pocked with bomb craters from the war, as this was the area of the Ho Chi Minh Trail and such was the punishment from the USAF that the region became known as the Fire Mountains. Xuan Thi Hoang remembers how difficult live had been and business owner Hai Thanh Nguyen is amazed by the transformation in under a decade, although Australian David English is worried about the aspirational element of cyclists wanting motorbikes, bikers dreaming of cars, and car owners longing for helicopters.
Tourist video clips eulogising about Phong Nha are tempered by discussions of local ownership and restrained development programmes using locally sourced materials. But all agree that what feels right now may soon seem too small for a growing population. However, the Coronavirus pandemic brought progress to a juddering halt and locals who had taken out loans to launch businesses found themselves in trouble.
This hiatus made some realise the precarious nature of steady growth and English worries that big corporations will increase the pace and turn Phong Nha into a city with generic stores, casinos, and golf courses. This means acquiring land and a discussion follows on traditional Vietnamese attitudes to land rights and the Party's views on private ownership. Fears are rife that corruption will enable to big players to drive people away for meagre compensation and that this will change the tone of the area forever.
Business owner Ha Viet Le is keen for the cable car to be built and bring in tourists who want something other than the cave. Others accept that the community needs to benefit from the boom and not just the conglomerates, but English and Drake are resigned to the fact that greed will dictate the future rather than common sense.
Jonathan Sims was part of the BCRA expedition on 17 April 2009 and he recalls the excitement among the party that Hang Son Ðoòng was something special. As we see footage of a white blind fish, Sims and Adams fret about the cave being over-exploited. But they also accept that Vietnam has a right to develop the site in the best way to serve its people. English fears the cable car is inevitable and Huong hopes local pride in Son Ðoòng will make the government see sense and preserve the wonder for the future.
A closing caption reveals that the cable car project has been delayed until 2030, but it's hard to be too enthusiastic about the fate of Hang Son Ðoòng and its environs. After all, humanity has such a lousy track record when it comes to sharing and caring. However, Evans adopts such a cautious approach to the rights and wrongs of development that many viewers will be left feeling outraged and guilty, as well as despondent, they are caught on the horns of an ecological-colonialist dilemma.
Acting as his own cinematographer (as well as editor), Evans and Ryan Deboot achieve some remarkable images, particularly inside the cave. Can Cangör's special effects shots showing how the cable car might glide into the cave are used as sparingly and effectively as Tomasz Walczak's timelapse sequences. But the music feels full of travelogue clichés, while some of the talking-head contributions are disposable, particularly from the surfeit of affluent tourists pretending to be hippie backpackers. The British cavers speak with intelligence, however, along with Jonathan Drake, David English, and Huong Nguyen Thien Le, whose insights into the perils of protesting are sobering indeed.