- David Parkinson
Parky At the Pictures (28/1/2022)
Updated: Jan 29, 2022
(Reviews of Parallel Mothers; Flag Day; Amulet; and Fanny's Journey)
Cinema-going may not be the most straightforward pastime at the moment. But it's possible to see the latest releases on the big screen, providing you meet the venue's admission criteria and have your mask and vaccination status at the ready.
If you prefer to avoid this rigmarole, 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. Whatever choice you make, think of others to make sure everyone stays safe.
Pedro Almodóvar has had a rocky decade. His airplane comedy, I'm So Excited (2013), failed to live up to expectations, while the release of Julieta (2016) coincided with some negative publicity relating to the Panama Papers. However, he bared his soul to poignant effect in Pain and Glory (2019) before he reminded everyone with the short Jean Cocteau adaptation, The Human Voice (2020), that no one can touch him when it comes to women on the verge and modish décor.
Now Almodóvar returns with Parallel Mothers, which was filmed in a single spring month during the midst of the pandemic. His 22nd feature isn't he best, but his latest rumination on a pet topic that comes with a well-intentioned, if not entirely well-integrated reflection on the issue of the mass Civil War graves that was examined with such muscular sensitivity in Almudena Carracedo and Robert Bahar's exceptional documentary, The Silence of Others (2018).
While doing a shoot with forensic archaeologist Arturo (Israel Elejalde), photographer Janis Martinez (Penélope Cruz) asks if his foundation will help with the excavation of the mass grave in her home village, where her great-grandfather and his neighbours were buried during the Spanish Civil War. He agrees to look into the case and sleeps with Janis after a dinner date. They continue their affair whenever Arturo comes to Madrid. But Janis breaks up with him when she informs him that she's pregnant and he urges her to abort because he isn't able to commit to being a father because he's nursing his wife through chemotherapy.
Approaching her due date, Janis finds herself sharing a room with Ana Manso (Milena Smit), a teenager who has a difficult relationship with her actress mother, Teresa (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón). The women give birth at the same time and name their daughters Cecilia and Anita, while promising to stay in touch.
Much to Janis's delight, Arturo asks to see Cecilia. However, she is crushed when he accuses her of sleeping with another man because the infant's skin is so dark (an issue she had put down to having a Venezuelan grandfather). Concerned by his vehemence, Janis takes a maternity test and discovers she is not the baby's biological mother. She decides to say nothing, even though she suspects the newborns were mixed up during their evaluation at the clinic.
Several months later, Janis recognises Ana waitressing at a café near her apartment. She is devastated to hear that Anita suffered a cot death and
offers her a job as Cecilia's live-in babysitter. As she is alone because Teresa is on tour in a Federico García Lorca play, Ana accepts and shares her duties with Dolores (Carmen Flores) the housekeeper, whose husband is ill. She even gets to learn how to cook the perfect Spanish omelette.
Without telling Ana, Janis conducts another maternity test and discovers that she is Cecilia's mother. She also learns that Ana was coerced into having sex with some classmates who had threatened to leak a sex tape and was only talked out of pressing charges by her father (Pedro Casablanc), who was keen to avoid a scandal. Sensing a kindred spirit, as she had been raised by her grandmother after the hippy mother who had named her after Janis Joplin succumbed to an overdose, Janis allows Ana to seduce her. But her guilty secret means she holds back from committing to the relationship.
Having secured approval from his foundation, Arturo tells Janis that the excavation can begin in the summer. Ana senses something between them when they go out to celebrate and Arturo informs Janis that he is going to leave his wife now she's in remission. Teresa also shows up unannounced to confide in Janis that she has been a bad mother and paid more attention to her career than her child.
Having just returned to work photographing accessories for a magazine run by her friend, Elena (Rossy de Palma), Janis is determined to strike the right balance. But she starts to find Ana's jealousy cloying and decides to risk everything on telling her the truth. Ana is furious at the deception, however, and storms out of the apartment, taking Cecilia with her. In desperation, Janis calls Arturo and they spend the night together, after she confesses her deception.
Fortunately, Ana calms down and recognises that Janis stands to lose two daughters in a short space of time. She assures her that she can visit whenever she wants. Indeed, Ana even comes to La Mancha when the excavation begins. Janis meets up with Brigida (Julieta Serrano) and her niece (Adelfa Calvo) to discuss the night the Falangists murdered the village menfolk.
As skeletons are discovered near possessions that make identification easier, Janis tells Ana that she is three months pregnant. She intends naming the baby Ana if it's a girl or Antonio (after her great-grandfather) if it's a boy. Past and present come together, as Ana and Janis join the villagers in paying their respects to loved ones who can finally have a decent burial.
For all the raucous raunchiness of his Movida movies and the kitschy chic of his arthouse darling phase, Pedro Almodóvar has always been a sucker for melodrama. He's borrowed proudly from the classical era women's pictures of Edgar Neville and George Cukor, as well as the glossy weepies of Douglas Sirk and Vincente Minnelli.
Here, he seeks to combine his recurring obsession with motherhood with the serious issue of Spain's war graves and the scars that remain unhealed eight decades after the Civil War ended. Yet, he can't resist tossing adulterous flings, bisexual affairs, gang rapes and baby switches into a yarn set against the glamorous backdrops of a fashion magazine and the theatre. No one would want Almodóvar to get a dose of the Ken Loaches, but the detachment between the world depicted in his films and everyday reality remains both endearingly and exasperatingly wide.
The far-fetched tele-novelletish elements are treated as seriously as the weightier themes, but they jar alongside the discussion of the pressures facing mothers raising a child, whether they are pushing 40 or 20 and whether they are juggling careers or scraping by. Janis endures vicissitudes that would leave lesser women deeply traumatised without a hair falling out of place, as she summons the inner strength to battle on. Yet, she has knowingly stolen another woman's baby and not only gets away with it, but also avoids the psychiatric scrutiny that one would expect would be inevitable after the authorities discovered that Janis was the deceased Anita's mother and not the abducted Cecilia's.
But why let logic and plausibility stand in the way of a rattling storyline, especially when it can be legitimised by weaving in the war dead subplot? After four decades, we should know that anything can happen in Almodóvaria and invariably does. But he does get away with some preposterous twists.
Channelling Sophia Loren's brand of screen suffering, Cruz is typically empathetic and sparks well with Milena Smit, who brings punkish spirit to the underwritten role of the vulnerable teen who learns through pain how to exude compassion. By contrast, there's little chemistry with Israel Elejalde, while Janis's heart-to-heart with Aitana Sánchez-Gijón's narcissistic thespian feels more like a digression than another insight into working motherhood because she's so scantily limned outside the Lorca speech about maternal anguish.
Rossy de Palma's best friend also feels rather shoehorned in order to accommodate a stalwart member of the Almodóvar ensemble. That said, it's good to see Julieta Serrano in the touching role of the daughter who has never forgotten the night her father was brutally taken away.
Speaking of old reliables, production designer Antxon Gomez and cinematographer Jose Luis Alcaine work their customary magic with light, colour and texture in creating images that only exist in an Almodóvar film. Paola Torres's costumes are also impeccable (right down to Janis's `We Should All Be Feminists' t-shirt), as is the precision of Teresa Font's editing and the warmth and solemnity of Alberto Iglesias's score.
And then there's Almodóvar, whose touch is as distinctive as that of Ernst Lubitsch, as he uses a deeply affecting dissolve from skeletal remains to clothed corpses in order to prompt a nation into reflecting upon a memory that should never be allowed to fade into history.
For such an intelligent actor, Sean Penn's record as a director is frustratingly modest. He started off with furrow-browed intensity in The Indian Runner (1991), The Crossing Guard (1995) and The Pledge (2001) before spreading his wings with Into the Wild (2007). Unfortunately, he rather lost his way with The Last Face (2016) and he only partially gets back on the right track with Flag Day, an adaptation of Jennifer Vogel's 2004 memoir, Flim-Flam Man: The True Story of My Father's Counterfeit Life, which is most notable for the performance of his daughter, Dylan Penn.
As US Marshall Blake (Regina King) shows Jennifer Vogel (Dylan Penn) a batch of counterfeit notes, she thinks back over her complicated relationships with her parents. Unpredictable, but brimming with life, her father John (Sean Penn) thought nothing back in 1975 of plucking the 11 year-old Jennifer (Jadyn Rylee) from the backseat of the car and plonking her on his knee so that she could steer the car while he took a nap. His only advice, as the child peers through the windscreen at markings lit up solely by the headlights, is to watch out for a bend in the die-straight road in around an hour.
Naturally, mother Patty (Katheryn Winnick) disapproves of her husband's antics. But she sticks with him to give Jennifer and brother Nick (Beckham Crawford) a roof over their heads, even though they keep hopping around Minnesota to stay one step ahead of creditors, dodgy business partners and the law (after he burns one property down). Having been born on Flag Day (14 June), John believes the nation owes him a living. But, even though her grandmother (Dale Dickey), thinks John is a waste of space, Jennifer (who channels her need for security into a sketch of a Happy Highway Harry road sign) trusts him implicitly right up to the night he packs a bag and disappears in a taxi.
For a while, Jennifer and Nick put up with Patty's drinking. But they ask Uncle Beck (Josh Brolin) to take them to their father, who has found a younger companion in Debbie (Bailey Noble). John is pleased to see them and fires up a barbecue, while disapproving of the fact that the kids would rather dance around to Bob Seger's `Night Moves' than listen to the classical music he insists on playing to give them some culture.
He can't offer them a permanent home, however, as he's too busy wheeler-dealing. Thus, by 1981, Jennifer has become a goth rebel at school. She tries to keep an eye out for Nick (Hopper Jack Penn), but is so furious with Patty for not protecting her from leering boyfriend Doc (Norbert Leo Butz) that she packs a back and hops a bus to go in search of her father.
Refusing to allow him to hide away from his pursuers, Jennifer persuades John to smarten up and get a proper job instead of investing in get rich schemes like a jean-stretching gizmo. She feels encouraged until she discovers his briefcase is empty and that he's really driving a tow-truck at a local airfield. However, she feels betrayed when he's jailed for armed robbery and decides to focus on herself by applying for a university course in journalism.
All goes well as we hit 1992 and Jennifer is reporting for City Pages in Minneapolis. However, she's thrown for a loop when John turns up out of the blue and insists that he's a reformed character. She has her doubts when her spins her a yarn about buying her a luxury car. But the bail-skipping truth hits home while she is threatening Mr Emmanuelle (Eddie Marsan) with an exposé of his eco unfriendly pesticide practices and she sees a report on the diner TV of a car chase involving her father.
This sequence, which concludes with a high-speed crash and a bullet-to-the-temple suicide is beyond preposterous, as even the most sensationalist network would draw the line at broadcasting such graphic violence live. However, it brings us back to Marshall Blake and the $22 million forgery racket in which John had been involved while promising Jennifer that he had seen the light. She grieves for him by returning to the road sign that had meant so much to her as a child. The moving arm hangs limply, as she unrolls the sketch that she keeps in a locket, but Jennifer thanks John for teaching her the value of freedom and for allowing her to become herself.
Working with actual events often presents unique problems for screenwriters and siblings Jez and John-Henry Butterworth frequently find themselves struggling to avoid melodramatics and blandly expositionary dialogue in adapting Jennifer Vogel's story. The showdown scenes with mother Patty are so pat they're almost soap operatic, while there's something chauvinistic about the sketchy depiction of a woman who drinks to console herself for the fact that she keeps choosing worthless men.
The early scenes with Sean Penn and Jadyn Rylee recall the rapport between Riz Ahmed and Lucian-River Chauhan in another study of unconventional parenting, Michael Pearce's Encounter (2021). But John - the wide boy whose sole skill is coaxing others into sharing in his entrepreneurial delusions - is such a stock figure that the fascination during the later exchanges between father and daughter lies in watching the dynamic between Sean and Dylan (whose mother, Robin Wright, is an accomplished actress in her own right).
She more than holds her own, as she rips the coverings off John's windows, berates him for his selfish stupidity through a prison grille and waves the cord of the disconnected phone her father is using to call a car dealer. But she's less convincing elsewhere, notably in the excruciating interview with the university admissions officer (Nigel Fisher), although this has much to do with the fact that the Butterworths have made Jennifer so one-dimensional away from her father. The sappy songs by Cat Power, Glen Hansard and Eddie Vedder used to spice up Joseph Vitarelli's sweet guitar score don't help much, either.
Regina King, Eddie Marson, Josh Brolin and James Russo (as a mean biker) are wasted in walk-ons, while Hopper Jack Penn is given markedly less chance than his sister to show what he can do. But, despite being overfond of bawled set-tos, Penn directs steadily enough, as he keeps Daniel Moder's camera close to the characters. Editors Michelle Tesoro and Valdís Óskarsdóttir also move nimbly through the time frames, which are conveyed with undue fuss by production designer Craig Sandells. It's just a pity that the drama they have enabled lacks either the narrative complexity or the emotional heft to pull it out from under its enverating sense of its own anguished significance.
Much has been made over the last few months of the emergence of the British feminist horror film. Despite the odd reservation, there was certainly much to admire in Christine Molloy's Rose Plays Julie (co-directed with Joe Lawlor), Rose Glass's Saint Maud (both 2019), Claire Oakley's Make Up, (2020) and Prano Bailey-Bond's Censor (2021). But they were merely following in the footsteps of compatriots Kerry Anne Mullaney (The Dead Outside, 2008), Carol Morley (The Falling, 2014), Ruth Platt (The Lesson, 2015), Alice Lowe (Prevenge) and Kate Shenton (Egomaniac, both 2016). Now, a decade after she made the acclaimed short, Scrubber (2012), actress Romola Garai makes an atmospheric directorial debut with Amulet.
The son of a dentist mother who wanted to keep him away from the fighting, Tomaz (Alec Secareanu) was posted to a remote woodland checkpost during an unspecified Balkan conflict. Having unearthed an amulet while digging a latrine ditch, doctoral student Tomaz had spent his days reading tomes like Hannah Arendt's On Violence until he offered shelter to Miriam (Angeliki Papoulia), a bloodstained woman who had collapsed on the road while searching for her daughter.
He remembers this encounter while sleeping in a London squat, with his hands bound to prevent anything untoward happening in the night. As an undocumented migrant, Tomaz takes any building work he can find. But he loses his money after a racist bigot torches the squat and is grateful to Sister Claire (Imelda Staunton) for recovering his books and photographs from the ashes. She also finds him accommodation in a mildewed terrace house with Magda (Carla Juni), who has been worn down by years of caring for her demanding and often abusive mother (Anah Ruddin).
Tomaz is initially reluctant to stay where he is not welcome. But he recognises that Magda is as damaged as himself and they begin to bond after he flushes out the bat-like creature that has been blocking the bathroom water supply. Moreover, he can't resist her cooking, despite being unnerved by a shell motif in the décor that resembles the amulet's Snail Shell Goddess.
They go to the market together and Magda digs him out a shirt so they can dance at a local nightclub. He pulls away when she tries to kiss him, however, and beats a hasty retreat to visit Sister Claire, who urges him to be open with her, as she lives in a crucible rather than a sanctuary.
Still tormented by his memories and his failed attempt to prevent Miriam from leaving the guard post, Tomaz is stunned by the sight of Mother writhing in a corner of the attic and giving birth to another hairless, razor-toothed bat. He consults Sister Claire, who speaks to him of demons and the ways in which evil gets into the world and impacts upon it.
After witnessing Mother attempting to harm Magda, Tomaz vows to kill her with a carving knife. But she pulls the blade from her throat and is only prevented from attacking him by Magda's promise that she will stay with her. Much to Tomaz's consternation, Claire appears without her veil to break the news that he has been possessed. When he asks why, she reminds him of his actions with Miriam and suggests that he gets used to the idea of being a host.
Claire asks Tomaz who he would like as a companion and he requests Magda. When Claire informs him that she is still serving Mother, he declares that he will finish her off. On venturing into the attic, however, he finds press cuttings on the floor about the wife and daughter killer who had previously occupied the house. He slashes Mother's throat, only to discover that she was the man in the headlines. Reeling, he is drawn through an open door, where he finds a giant shell. He crawls inside and sees Magda as the Snail Shell Goddess and she purrs that he will make a wonderful mother, as a swelling bursts through his belly.
A closing passage takes us to a garage in the middle of an Eastern European nowhere. Magda gets out to make a purchase from Miriam, who has been reunited with her daughter. As the women chat about the merits of forgiving and forgetting, Magda hands over the amulet to let Miriam know that her attacker has been punished. She climbs back into her car and tosses the packet of raw meat to a creature under a blanket on the back seat, which reaches out to grasp the treat with Tomaz's hand.
Turning numerous horror conventions on its head, this brooding, if not always coherent or convincing saga turns a noble rescuer into the source of evil, while also transforming a menace into a victim. Between Tomaz and Mother stands Magda, the prisoner who becomes the liberator in a treatise on shifting female status that also examines subservience, atonement, forgiveness, punishment and male dread.
Grounding herself in giallo and vintage Euro horror, writer-director Garai packs the action with audacious ideas and images, while also coaxing a fascinating performance out of Alec Secareanu, as the aspiring philosopher whose belief in his own goodness is compromised by an action that he was powerless to prevent from switching from chivalric to rapacious. Swiss actress Carla Juri is equally intriguing as the beauty trapped with the beast. But Imelda Staunton is less persuasive as the nun who turns out to be the goddess's amanuensis, although she's not helped by some of the purple utterances with which Garai saddles her.
In truth, the occasionally confusing scenario never quite gets its conceptual ducks in a row, while some of the CGI-abetted directorial flourishes in the flustered final reel sit awkwardly with the studiously spartan suspense that had preceded them. Nevertheless, with cinematographer Laura Bellingham, production designer Francesca Massariol, editor Alastair Reid, sound designer Nick Baldock and composer Sarah Angliss all making first-rate contributions, this unabashedly angry and stylistically bold Babadookian outing represents a laudable excursion into scare-free, but decidedly disconcerting terror.
The UK Jewish Film Festival marked Holocaust Memorial Day by highlighting Lola Doillon's Fanny's Journey (2016), which is available to rent via Vimeo. Based on an autobiographical book by Fanny Ben Ami, this is a noble tribute to the Œuvre de secours aux enfants (or Children's Aid Society) that smuggled thousands of Jewish children out of Vichy France during the Second World War.
Following her father's arrest in 1943, 12 year-old Fanny (Léonie Souchaud) is taken to a safe haven by her mother, along with her younger sisters, Erika (Fantine Harduin) and Georgette (Juliane Lepoureau). The house is in the Italian zone, but the girls are forced to relocate after the boarding school is reported to the authorities by the local parish priest (who sneers from his bicycle, as the departing coach passes him on the road).
On arriving at their new billet, Fanny tries to protect her sibling from the brusque Madame Forman (Cécile de France), who refuses to allow them to sleep in the same bed. However, she is relieved get away from her clinging siblings and work in the kitchen beside Elie (Victor Meutelet), a handsome teenager who boasts of his missions with the Maquis. He keeps a radio in a cupboard and rejoices at the news that Benito Mussolini has been arrested. But Mme Forman knows this is bad news, as the Germans will take over the district and start rounding up the Jewish population.
Providing the children with forged documents, Mme Forman keeps waking them in the night to ensure that they automatically recite their new names and backstories under duress. Elie is detailed to escort a group to the Swiss border and Mme Forman has to swoon on the station platform to distract the gendarmes to ensure that Fanny and her sisters board the train along with Victor (Ryan Brodie), Rachel (Lou Lambrecht), Marie (Malonn Lévana), Julien (Jérémie Petrus), Jacques (Lucien Khoury), Helga (Elea Körner) and Diane (Anaïs Meiringer), a 16 year-old who looks much older than the rest.
Victor is sceptical about Elie's Resistance claims and isn't surprised when he slips off the train at the first stop after entrusting Fanny with a note for delivery. Fortunately, Mme Forman is travelling separately and arranges for the children to proceed with Maurice (Igor van Dessel), who uses a football to raise spirits as the group trudges up steep slopes in order to rendezvous with the smugglers who will take them to the border.
Unfortunately, the lorry in which they are riding is stopped by a patrol and the children are subjected to interrogation by gendarmes who disbelieve that they are heading to a summer camp. When they are betrayed by a woman seeking protection for her baby, they are locked in the village school and left without food until they reveal the names of the people who have been helping them.
Shortly after they see the mother who had double-crossed them being led away without her child, Victor catches the attention of a woman in the street and the children are moved to a nearby convent. Fanny is suspicious, however, and she ushers the group through a window, although Diane is too big to climb through and has to stay behind.
Making their way through the village, singing `Frère Jacques' to make it look as though they have nothing to hide, the children reach open countryside. They enjoy some light relief chasing the banknotes that spill out of Victor's satchel before hiding up trees to evade the gendarmes pursuing them. But they are exhausted and are glad to find an abandoned chalet to shelter for the night.
Fanny and Victor wonder whether they could hide out here until the war ends. But the younger children eat some poisonous berries and they have to seek help from Jean (Stéphane De Groodt), a hill farmer who reluctantly allows them to stay in his barn and work for their keep. Diane manages to catch up with them and Fanny hopes they are finally safe.
However, a Nazi unit comes to requisition Jean's property and he is forced to put the children in touch with a smuggler, who agrees to drive them to the Swiss frontier in return for a fee. Happy to put his money to good use, Victor leads his friends through a hole in the wire fence and across No Man's Land. But Fanny has to go back for a straggler, just as two German border guards open fire.
For her third feature following Just About Love (2006) and In Your Hands (2010), Lola Doillon picks her way carefully through territory that has also been covered in Cate Shortland's Lore (2001), André Téchiné's Strayed (2003) and Jonathan Jakubowicz's Resistance (2020). Writing with Anne Peyregne, she sets the scene efficiently and makes canny use of Pierre Cottereau's low-level photography to present events from the perspective of a watchful child. But it's her direction of the young cast (she reportedly auditioned 10,000 kids for the roles) that stands out, as they bond over moments of peril and light relief without seeming remotely twee, even when discussing why they can't simply stop being Jews or making up an inspirational message from a blank sheet of paper.
The debuting Léonie Souchaud particularly impresses, as she draws on the memories she associates with her father's camera to steel her into leading her little band. She's well supported by Ryan Brodie and Anaïs Meiringer, with the former insisting he's a Catholic until terror prompts a return to Jewish prayers and the latter trying to protect the `sister' who had actually been entrusted to her by a neighbour. Her sudden reappearance at the farm is a little melodramatic, while Doillon is also prone to moments of rustic lyricism. But this makes complex issues accessible to younger audiences, who will also recognise in the children's ordeal the plight of the migrants currently crossing Europe in the hope of finding somewhere to belong.