Parky At the Pictures (28/8/2020)
Updated: Sep 25, 2020
(Reviews of The Invincibles; The Lost Prince; Wonders in the Suburbs; The Good Girls; Again Once Again; Fragile As the World; All Nighter; Valhalla: Legend of Thor; Mortal; Message Man; and Diablo: The Ultimate Race)
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.
Such was the critical and commercial underwhelmingness of The Invincibles (1994) that 18 years were to pass before Dominik Graf returned to features with A Map of the Heart (2002). In the interim, he established himself as German television's cop show kaiser. However, he always felt that his abrasively sinuous policier had been given a raw deal and the director's cut he presented at the 2019 Berlin Film Festival is currently streaming on MUBI.
In the brutal opening scene, cop Karl Simon (Herbert Knaup) drops partner Heinz Schäfer (Hannes Jaenicke) at the hospital, where he promptly murders his brain-damaged newborn daughter by caving in her skull. Two years later, Simon is surprised to see Schäfer in a Düsseldorf hotel during a raid on an Italian forgery gang, as his decapitated corpse had supposedly washed up near Leverkusen some time after his suicide. Widow Angelika (Meret Becker) insists her husband is dead, but Simon isn't convinced and, when he nearly catches Schäfer injecting one of his sons with insulin, he forces Georg Erlsberg (Bernd Stegemann) of the Office of Criminal Investigations to admit that he has been using the `dead man' undercover operations.
Sending wife Claudia (Valerie Vail) and their boys to relatives, Simon seeks to convince fellow SEK officers Bernd Helmer (Heinz Hoenig), Gerd Falk (Heinrich Schafmeister) and Hannes Grigull (Hansa Czypionka) that Schäfer is alive and up to no good. When Erlsberg is shot on the street, he also tries to exploit a fling with bohemian Melba Dessaul (Katja Flint) to gain access to her politician husband, Holger (Thomas Schücke), who holds the files proving that Schäfer has been a government employee. However, Melba is a tenacious operator, who has found her spouse a compliant mistress in Saide (Natalia Wörner) so that she can retain the lifestyle to which she has become accustomed.
But he is kidnapped during an elite function hosted by his wife and Simon is appalled to discover that best friend Hannes is in cahoots with his nemesis. He is less surprised to learn, however, that Schäfer had been working for a cabal of corrupt politicians who had been on the payroll of an organised crime syndicate. Despite being under scrutiny after Angelika accuses him of offering her a bribe to corroborate his claim that her husband is at large, Simon takes the ransom drop into his own hands by holding the go-between driver at gunpoint, as Melba receives instructions to bring the money to a ski resort in the Karwendel mountains on the Austrian border.
As is often the case with labyrinthine conspiracy thrillers, the details tend to get lost in the twists and turns. But Graf and regular screenwriter Günter Schütter effortlessly sustain the suspense over a 145-minute running time that includes scenes of Simon bantering with his colleagues that have been added even though they were culled from a videotape rather than a 35mm print.
Adeptly photographed by Diethard Prengel and edited by Christel Suckow, the climactic cat-and-mouse game taking Melba's from a shopping precinct to a burning cable car is particularly well handled. However, Graf also maintains the seething sense of something being rotten at the heart of the reunified German state that has earned the picture comparisons with such pessimistically paranoid Watergate era thrillers as Alan J. Pakula's The Parallax View (1974) and Sydney Pollack's Three Days of the Condor (1975).
Excelling in his first major lead, Herbert Knaup would go on to star in such lauded exports as Tom Tykwer's Run Lola Run (1998) and Florian Henkel von Donnersmarck's The Lives of Others (2006), which share the assumption that no one can be trusted, least of all the state. He is potently abetted in establishing an aura of toxic masculinity by Hannes Jaenicke, as the sinister adversary who regards infanticide as a career move.
Yet, despite the focus being on the discredited patriarchy, Graf also contrasts the new brand of German woman through Valerie Vail's trusting wife (who believes true love can be shown by holding a bee in one's hands), Meret Becker's twice-bereaved trauma victim and Katja Flint's socially, professionally and sexually assured femme fatale (in a performance that surely contributed to her landing the title role in Joseph Vilsmaier's 2000 Dietrich biopic, Marlene.
THE LOST PRINCE.
Pitching somewhere between Rob Reiner's The Princess Bride (1987) and Kevin Lima's Enchanted (2007), several film-makers have been tempted by the prospect of creating a classic latter-day fairytale. The latest to tilt at this elusive windmill is Michel Hazanavicius, who re-indulges in The Lost Prince the affection for the Hollywood studio system that had informed his Oscar-winning silent, The Artist (2001). Ultimately, this treatise on the fine art of fatherhood and knowing when to let go plays it safe. But it suggests that Hazanavicius is back on track after the missteps taken in the Chechen War saga, The Search (2014), and the Jean-Luc Godard biopic, Redoubtable (2017).
Being a father is a full-time occupation for mechanic Djibi (Omar Sy), as even the sound of a squeaking car door has to be filed away for use in the nightly bedtime stories he tells to his eight year-old daughter, Sofia (Keyla Fala). Set in a kingdom in which dad doubles as an heroic prince protecting a princess from the dastardly El Farto (François Damiens), the tales are played out on a film set in a studio complex that Djibi bestrides with hail fellow assurance, as he heads towards his private cottage on the lot in his ruffed doublet and yellow-and-purple striped hose. In the real world, however, he sleeps on a sofa bed in a cramped apartment in a tenement in a Parisian suburb and pines for his late wife.
Three years later, with Sofia (Sarah Gaye) about to start middle school, Djibi is no longer the apple of his daughter's eye. Indeed, when he meets her on the bus with macaroons, she is mortified because she had been trying to make a good impression on blonde classmate, Max (Néotis Ronzon). Consequently, when they bump into new neighbour, Clotilde (Bérénice Bejo). in the lift, Sofia reminds her father that she wouldn't stand in his way if he wanted to start dating someone new. While he laughs off this hint of filial maturity, Djibi is stung when Sofia declines a bedtime story and he retreats from her room with a reassurance that he is anything but upset.
Over at the studio, however, the Prince is dismayed to learn from soundstage doorkeeper Benoît (Lionel Laget) that he has been replaced by Max as the focus of Sofia's stories. He is even more put out when he finds his cottage locked and he is escorted to one of the trailers used by the bit part players. As he looks round the cluttered room, he is surprised to see a transparent woman peering from behind a door she is carrying (Bejo), who informs him that they had appeared together in a story a while back only for her to become an Oblivian when the roles dried up. She urges the Prince to take any part offered to him before she is carted away by a couple of studio guards.
Hurt by being snubbed at the bus stop (where he also overhears some of the mean girls trash-talking about Sofia), Djibi tries to give the impression that he's fine with his daughter becoming independent. But he is confused about what to do for the best and contemplates El Farto's idea of kidnapping Prince Max and waiting for Wallace the director (Philippe Vieux) to devise new storylines around them. Instead, he decides to let matters take their own course and he gives Sofia permission to go to her friend Melanie's house (when she is really going to a party Max and his brother are throwing while their parents are away).
When he finds out she's been fibbing, Djibi sends Sofia to her room and chews out Clotilde, who has a habit of knocking at the wrong time. Feeling bad for yelling at his neighbour, Djibi goes to apologise and, over a glass of wine, she advises him to cut Sofia some slack or he'll ruin their relationship forever. Meanwhile, the Prince and El Farto have resorted to the kidnap plan and they are dismayed to see the candy coloured studio crumble beneath black clouds, as they carry Max away in a hollowed out tree prop. At the very moment that Djibi discovers that Sofia has crept out to the party, El Farto pushes Max and the Prince into a pit in the wilderness and Djibi realises that he has some serious thinking to do in order to put things right.
As Djibi finds some pages torn out of Sofia's sketchbook and sees the cracked glass on a framed family photo, the Prince encounters the transparent toys that the Princess had long ceased to play with. Concluding that he needs to retreat into the past to go forward, the Prince walks backwards into a cave where the Queen Mother (Eye Haidara) sits on her throne. He recognises her and they embrace (as, of course, she is Djibi's lost wife). But he disagrees that his fate is to remain in this recess for forgotten memories and goes in search of the Woman With the Door to find a way out.
At the party. Max is embarrassed when everyone sees a drawing in which Sofia has given him wings. She is hurt by his reaction and calls Djibi to come and collect her and he hitches a lift on the back of Clotilde's motorbike. In the story world, the Door allows the Prince to leave Oblivion and he strides out towards the ruins of the studio, as Max the Prince begins to fade away. But he realises that the time has come for the Princess to make her own choice. So, just as Djibi allows Sofia to return to the party and sends Max back to find her (after they meet at the bus stop), the Prince lets Prince Max go in search of the Princess, while he and El Farto gracefully fade into the darkness.
Fifteen years pass in the twinkling of an eye and Djibi and Clotilde get a message in the middle of the night. Sofia (Bénédicte Mbemba) has given birth to a daughter, Esther, and Djibi goes to the hospital to visit them. While her mother dozes, the newborn reaches up to her grandfather and he starts to tell her a story. As he speaks, the Oblivians come back to life and they arrive at the restored studio as the Prince and El Farto are awoken from their slumbers and told they have five seconds to get on the set because a new tale is about to begin.
The two nicest smiles in French cinema get to beam at each other in the closing stages of this delightful, if occasionally sluggish fantasy. But, while Omar Sy and Bérénice Bejo ensure there's something quaint about Djibi and Clotilde's nicely underplayed romance, the subplot involving Sofia and Max refuses to spark into life. Indeed, it almost spoils the whole film, as not only does it slow the action in the middle third, but it also undermines events in the story realm because Max is too sketchily drawn for his Prince to be worthy of the emotion that Sofia as the Princess invests in him.
Sarah Gaye and Néotis Ronzon do their best, but they are let down by Hazanavicius and co-scribes Bruno Merle and Noé Debré, who are clearly no strangers to Claire Denis's 35 Shots of Rum (2008), Steve Purcell's Toy Story That Time Forgot (2014) or Pete Docter's Inside Out (2015). Yet, while aspects of the plot(s) may feel be familiar, Hazanavicius and editor Anne-Sophie Bion handle the switches between the real and the imagined worlds with deft hands. Moreover, the reflections on how quickly time passes and how soon we are forgotten are closer in tone to the similar discussions in the week's other parenting pictures, Romina Paula's Again Once Again and Gavin Wiesen's All Nighter (see below).
Presumably, Hazanavicius makes little of either the Parisian locale or the bijou lodgings so as not to detract from the Technicolor splendour of the studio and the dream world it hosts. He's right to do so, as production designer Laurent Ott, cinematographer Guillaume Schiffman and costumier Sabrina Riccardi all excel themselves, while the use of computer-generated imagery and Howard Shore's playful score is much subtler than it would have been in a comparable Hollywood picture. Consequently, the moment in which the Oblivians are summoned from the depths and return to duty with a mix of gratitude and joy ranks among the most beautiful scenes in recent cinema, as it avoids sentimentality in inviting us all to recall our once-cherished possessions and those memories that had been lingering since childhood in the corners of our minds.
WONDERS IN THE SUBURBS.
Much admired in auteur circles, Jeanne Balibar won the César for Best Actress for her performance as the eponymous French singer in Mathieu Amalric's Barbara (2017). The fact that such a garlanded film failed to secure a release in this country (even on MUBI, despite streaming on the site's US incarnation) shows how little cinema actually makes it across the Channel each year. But we should be grateful that MUBI has found room for Wonders in the Suburbs, Balibar's solo directorial debut after she had teamed with Pierre Léon on the Sophoclean experiment, Electra, For Instance (2013), which, frustratingly, doesn't form part of the otherwise excellent MUBI library.
Following a testy divorce hearing, Joëlle (Jeanne Balibar) and Kamel Mrabti (Ramzy Bedia) take their places on the platform at Montfermeil town hall, as new mayor, Emmanuelle Joly (Emmanuelle Béart) introduces a raft of reforms to improve a suburb that is best known for once having been a leper colony and for being the setting of a key scene in Victor Hugo's Les Misérables. Among the new theme days are `Harem Pants Day' (which coincides with the anniversaries of Louis XVI and Lenin), while other days are set aside to celebrate the kilt, the kimono and shorts. Easter will become Biodiversity Day, while brioche will receive its own festival, as part of a Policy of Urban Time.
As Emmanuelle is making her announcement, Joëlle (who is a music and movement therapist) leads the assembled citizens in a breathing and meditation exercise that also draws in council dignitaries, as Kamel announces the introduction of reduced working hours and nap times, Benoît Survenant (Mathieu Amalric) launches the International School of Languages and Jean-Michel Dupin (Jean-Quentin Châtelain) invites residents to make use of the new house call service offered by the Sexual Assistance and Satisfaction Department. Almost as an afterthought, the bashful Marylin Bouazzi (Marlene Saldana) explains about the initiatives involving the local Roma community before the oleaginous Préfet Franceschini (Philippe Katerine) slinks into the room to congratulate Emmanuelle on her election.
At a meeting to discuss how the new school can find 547 teachers of 62 languages to blow the Oxford Intensive School of English out of the water, Kamel and Benoît keep coming up with problems caused by the siesta and part-time working initiatives. Denis (François Chattot) and Virginie Jaffret (Valérie Dréville) also raise the issue of the `Undesirables' who need to be brought back into the area after being driven away under the Plan for Urban Renovation, while Delphine Souriceau (Bulle Ogier) is concerned about the rural residents and Juliette Bedoult (Florence Loiret Caille) finds the whole thing baffling.
Waking from a nap that is accompanied by the sound of unanswered ringtones. Benoît tries to find out about the missing Undesirables from a black woman who arrived in France when she was 19 and has raised her two daughters in Montfermeil. Over at the job centre in Cedar House, Kamel suggests that Madame Brakhni (Moufida Amairi) would be better employed as an Arabic pronunciation coach rather than as a cleaner, even though she speaks little French. He is nervous around Emmanuelle, as she has personal space issues where he is concerned. But Kamel is also unhappy with Joëlle for conducting relaxation classes in the waiting room.
While dressed in a Lucha libre outfit, Marylin expresses her dismay that computer expert husband Selim (Mounir Margoum) can't accept her for who she is. She has an unfortunate encounter with Titel (Frank Castorf), the leader of the Roma community, in which she suggests he takes a trip in his `wagons' to Translyvania. Selim has more luck teaching a class of schoolchildren, but Emmanuelle is puzzled by the threatening messages she keeps receiving (unaware that they have been sent by Delphine signing herself `Someone Who's Here to Help') and the pop-ups from a company called PouMaPi advocating the building of offices rather than homes.
As Selim wishes Marilyn wouldn't keep wearing disguises during love-making, they call in SASAD and Jean-Michel and Souleymane N'Gon M'Ba (Denis Mpunga) sit in their bedroom with a thermos flask to talk them through some foreplay strategies. Things are not so harmonious between Kamal and Joëlle, however, as he is still angry with her for bringing up anal penetration during their divorce hearing and he criticises her twinset when everyone else is dressed for Kimono Day. They argue on a bus, as they have each arranged to go out on Friday night, which means they need to find a sitter for their kids. What they don't know is that they have been married to each other in the online Second Life game for two years without knowing the other is Fox Man and Leopard Woman.
Kamel's mood isn't helped by the fact that Emmanuelle bawls at him and Benoît when they are late for an important meeting. But life around Montfermeil appears to be improving, with everyone learning new languages and making an effort to get to know each other and their cultures. Benoît also continues his search for Undesirables, even on Kilt Day, when he finds it hard to sit on a low sofa and keep his sense of modesty. Distracted from planting rooftop gardens, Delphine also incurs a problem when one of her friends is taken to a detention centre for jumping a ticket barrier at a Métro station and she starts making plans to bust him out.
Tired of Kamel's refusal to respond to her flirting, Emmanuelle fires him with a glowing reference and he leaves with the support of the other deputy mayors. He hopes his blind date at an arthouse cinema will go better, but is dismayed to find Joëlle in the next seat. Neither puts two and two together, however, as they bicker and ruin the dance film for everyone else.
Meanwhile, Emmanuelle is so distraught that Préfet Franceschini refuses to abandon plans to put offices in the Station Piazza that she slashes her wrists and she is fortunate to be found by Juliette, who rushes her to hospital. As Emmanuelle is convinced that Denis and Virginie are behind the PouMaPi campaign, Kamel fires them and hurls a full water bottle down the stairs after them.
As preparations are made for a party in the park, Joëlle books two places on the trip to Romania, which she hopes will give her a chance to get to know her new boyfriend. She is puzzled when both Kamel and Selim suggest she would be better off going to the Domincan Republic. Yet again, she fails to join the dots and realise that the soulmate she has discovered in an alternative reality is the man she can't life with in their cramped flat.
On the night of the big bash, Marylin dresses as the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, while Emmanuelle gets to know Titel. Kemal dances with Joëlle, who is excited about her fresh start and explains that she has been married to her new chap on Second Life for two years, who is a big fans of Vasily Grossman's novel, Life and Fate. While everyone enjoys dancing to the music, Benoît ventures into the woods with the African woman he had interviewed earlier and she shows him where the Undesirables had been camouflaging themselves. As a SWAT team prowls into the woods, Delphine breaks into the detention centre.
Back at the party, Selim coaxes Marylin out of her Ghostbusters costume and kisses her neck, much to the delight of Jean-Michel and Souleymane, who feel they have done their job well. Emmanuelle and Titel walk away across the field together, while Kamel explains to Joëlle that he is happy she has found her soulmate in Second Life because it's him. They wander back into the centre of Montfermeil at daybreak and the various characters mill around a market in the square. Life may not be perfect, but it could be a good deal worse.
Having started hilariously with the wonderfully wacky policy announcement, Balibar and co-scenarist Camille Fontaine struggle to prevent the action from becoming a series of scattershot sketches that skewer fewer targets as time goes by. The performances are admirable, with Emmanuelle Béart displaying a previously unsuspected talent for broad farce, as she delivers doolally ideas with a straight face and flies into hysterical rages over the slightest things. Balibar herself makes Joëlle a kooky misfit seeking a place to belong, while Bulle Ogier is splendidly dotty as the detached Delphine. Balibar's ex-husband, Mathieu Amalric is amusingly buttoned-up as the well-meaning, but inept Benoît, while Ramzy Bedia comes closest to holding things together as the deputy mayor determined to make his boss's schemes work, even though he suspects they're barmy.
Having dwelt in Montfermeil in Ladj Ly's forthcoming Les Misérables, Balibar paints a much rosier and cosier picture of the commune in the eastern suburbs of Paris. Indeed, she conveys little of the palpable atmosphere of the place, in the same way that she avoids making overt political statements. But this is a genially fond excursion into a high-rise utopia of the kind that usually only exists in sitcoms. André Chemetoff's photography is functional, as is Damien Rondeau's production design and Caroline Detournay's editing, so as to keep the focus on the acting and the satirical whimsy of what often feels like a Gallicised Ealing comedy.
THE GOOD GIRLS.
During the 1980s, Guadalupe Loaeza wrote a weekly newspaper column satirising the antics of `Las Niñas Bien', the haut bourgeois chatelaines who might now be dubbed the Real Housewives of Mexico City. Many fell from grace during the 1982 debt crisis, but writer-director Alejandra Márquez Abella restores them to their pedestal if only to knock them down again in The Good Girls, a sophomore outing that builds on the good impression made by her 2015 debut, Holy Week.
Mother of three, Sofia de Garay (Ilse Salas) lives in the lap of Las Lomas luxury on the profits made by the company that her husband, Fernando (Flavio Medina), inherited from his Spanish father. In fact, he does little work, as his uncles handle the daily business. But he does pay the credit card bills, as Sofia imports dresses from New York, even though she disapproves of the fact that her mother has gone to live north of the border with her new beau.
When not indulging in retail therapy, Sofia chills at the tennis club with her equally pampered best friend, Alejandra (Cassandra Ciangherotti), who is amused that Sofia still has daydreams about meeting singer Julio Iglesias. Like all mean girls, Sofia, Alejandra, Inés (Johanna Murillo) and Cristina (Jimena Guerra) have little time for parvenus like Ana Paula (Paulina Gaitan), who is desperate to fit in after marrying trader Beto Haddad (Daniel Haddad). She is hurt at being excluded from Sofia's annual birthday party, to which Fernando arrives late with a brand new car for the wife who already has everything.
Having packed the kids off to camp for the summer with a reminder not to talk to any Mexicans, Sofia devotes herself to pleasure. However, she is put out when Fernando announces that he will take full control of the company after Uncle Javier (Diego Jáuregui) decides to bail after failing to swing a deal that would have brought some much-needed American currency into the coffers. Sofia is angry with Javier for letting the side down and snubs an attempt by Aunt Mariluz (Claudia Lobo) to explain the gravity of a situation that seems set to get worse before it gets any better.
A few days later, Sofia is nettled when Miguel the chauffeur (Alejandro Caballero) mentions the fact that the staff haven't been paid for a month and she urges Fernando to fire him when he complains that the cheque she gave him has bounced. But reality hits hard when Sofia's credit card is refused in an exclusive mall and she learns from her faithful maid, Toñis (Regina Flores Ribot), that more cheques have been declined. She calls her mother for help, but is given short shrift. Yet Sofia puts on a brave face when the children get home and strives to put some steel into Fernando, who is hopelessly out of his depth and crashes one of their cars while buckling under the pressure.
By contrast, Beto is making money hand over fist and he is quietly delighted that Sofia's reduced means have driven her into Ana Paula's orbit. Maintaining her unruffled composure, Sofia snoops around the couple's new house during the tacky cowboy-themed birthday party (complete with ponies) that they throw for their son. Unable to resist, Sofia steals a pair of Beto's cufflinks and fails to notice when Fernando wears them to a dinner date with the Haddads that leaves her in no doubt that the arrivistes have passed them on the social ladder. Going to the washroom, she removes the shoulder pads from her designer jacket and (much to Fernando's chagrin) returns to the table in time to join Beto, Ana Paula and the other diners in barking at President Jose Lopez Portillo, who has failed to resolve the crisis despite devaluing the peso.
What a fine film this is! Evoking memories of George Cukor's The Women (1939) - and infinitely superior in every way to Diane English's 2008 remake - Sofia's comeuppance is made all the more relishable by the brilliance of Ilse Salas. Indeed, despite being subsumed by her sense of preening chic and complacent self-importance, Sofia almost earns a soupçon of pity for maintaining a facade of seething sang froid that is so impervious that Kristin Scott Thomas seems flustered by comparison.
The supporting ensemble is equally impressive, with Paulina Gaitan making the most of her pre-piñata speech to alert Salas to the changing nature of their relationship. Both women are impeccably dressed by Annaí Ramos, while Claudio Ramírez Castelli's production design is nigh on perfect, especially in the scene in which Sofia mooches around upstairs at the Haddad mansion. Dariela Ludlow's mordantly observant camera creeps conspiratorially around her and this finesse carries over into Miguel Schvertfinger's editing and Alex de Icaza's sound mix, which ensure that we see and hear everything from Sofia's perspective. Composer Tomás Barreiros's blend of choral refrain and caustic hand-clapping also hits the spot, as Márquez Abella sardonically lampoons 80s manners and mores, while warning that such attitudes are anything but an historical anomaly.
AGAIN ONCE AGAIN.
Renowned in her native Argentina as a playwright and a novelist, Romina Paula has also established herself as an actress, with a standout turn as a political agitator in Santiago Mitre's The Student (2011) being followed with such collaborations with Matías Piñeiro as Viola (2012), The Princess of France (2014) and Hermia & Helena (2016). She will be best known in this country to those who saw her in the first two parts of Mariano Llinás's extraordinary epic, La Flor (2018). But that's set to change with MUBI's screening of Again Once Again, which see Paula make her debut as a writer-director with a semi-autobiographical dramedy about motherhood and identity that is all the more affecting because she co-stars with her own mother and young son.
Three years after giving birth, Romina (Romina Paula) is still struggling to re-find herself in her mid-thirties after devoting all her emotional energies to her son, Ramón (Ramón Cohen Arazi). She confides in a voice-over that she finds giving that much unconditional love to be almost unbearable. So, leaving boyfriend Javier (Esteban Bigliardi) in Córdoba, she goes to stay with her mother, Mónica (Mónica Rank), in Buenos Aires.
Romina and Mónica converse in German, as the former's great-grandfather, Fritz Nagraszus, had settled in Argentina after the Great War after being denied entry in Canada because he had fought for the Kaiser. Mónica's grandmother, Gertrudis, might have been born in South America, but she only spoke German to her offspring and Romina reflects on this tradition as she browses through old photograph albums.
Although she speaks to Javier quite regularly, Romina isn't sure whether their relationship has a future and Mónica encourages her daughter to go to a party with her old friend, Mariana (Mariana Chaud). Applying make-up as though she has forgotten how to do it and distracted by Ramón banging a drum in the next room, Romina makes a half-hearted effort at dressing up. She also takes a while to warm up at the party, but she winds up drinking, smoking and dancing, as she relaxes in the knowledge that Mónica will be taking excellent care of Ramón.
Reluctant to live off her mother, Romina starts giving German lessons and slowly established a rapport with her twentysomething student, Pablo (Pablo Sigal). Realising that she's in no hurry to return to Cordóba, Mónica promises Romina that she can stay as long as she wants and the notion of having some space and freedom to reconnect with herself prompts Romina into a hesitant flirtation in the park with a flattered, but reticent Pablo.
Embarrassed by this brief encounter, Romina allows herself to be seduced by Denise (Denise Groesman). However, scruples about dating Mariana's younger sister and an age gap that means Denise has never heard of Maria Luisa Bemberg's Nobody's Wife (1982) convinces Romina that she would be making a mistake. So, having been coaxed into making a decision about returning to Cordóba or finding Ramón a nursery in Buenos Aires, Romina invites Javier to the capital. They hug while on a walk in the country and, as she reaches a narrow railway bridge, Romina looks back to give the father of her child a reassuring smile.
Ending on a note of ambiguity, this is an engaging insight into the impact that becoming a mother has on all aspects of a woman's life. Paula's decision to act opposite Mónica Rank and Ramón Cohen Arazi deepens the deliberations, while also bringing a level of intimacy and immediacy that is epitomised by the boy toddling over to join the other elderly ladies in his grandmother's home fitness class.
The opening Kodachrome slideshow showing four generations of women raising their families to the best of their abilities similarly grounds the action in a reality that is boldly contrasted with the speeches that the various characters give to camera against images projected on to the wall behind them. Pablo talks about going to Berlin, while Denise discusses the feminist movement in Argentina and its drive towards a `daughter's revolution'. Paula pictures herself in different family units and also shares her thoughts in voiceovers that might seem more conspicuously literary were they not so often counterpointed with charmingly unforced scenes of mother and son discovering the world together.
Stealthily photographed by Eduardo Crespo and edited with gentle rhythms by Elaine Katz, this is very much an arthouse offering. Yet Paula raises issues that many women will recognise and it's a shame that so few will outside cineaste circles will get to see the film in this country and that British women directors are so rarely afforded the opportunity makes films that are so personal and so aesthetically and dramatically innovative.
FRAGILE AS THE WORLD.
Born in 1952, Rita Azevedo Gomes has long been associated with the Cinemateca Portuguesa in Lisbon. However, she has also been steadily building a reputation for distinctive features since debuting in 1990 with The Sound of the Earth Shaking, which centred on a writer whose latest story keeps intruding upon his daily life. This was followed by Fragile As the World (2001) and The Invisible Collection (2009), a featurette inspired by a Stefan Zweig story about how culture survived the vicissitudes of the 20th century. These are pretty tricky to track down, but MUBI will be showing the first mentioned along with Gomes's three most recent features: the Jules Amedée Barbey d'Aurevilly adaptation, A Woman's Revenge (2012), the documentary, Correspondences (2016); and The Portuguese Woman (2017), which she has based the second of three stories in Three Women, a 1924 tome by the Austrian author, Robert Musil.
At the centre of Fragile As the World, is Vera (Maria Gonçalves), a teenager who lives with her mother (Sophie Balabanian), father (Carlos Ferreira), older brother (Nuno Nunes) and younger sister, Luzinha (Carolina Villaverde) in a country house owned by her grandfather (João Bénard da Costa). Vera is secretly in love with João (Bruno Terra), who lives in humbler accommodation with his grandmother (Manuela de Freitas) and who writes her love letters that he buries in a plastic bag under the post of a fence that she passes on her way to school. She cherishes these notes and leaves a sprig of flowers in the wire to alert João to the fact that she has left him a reply.
Inattentive at school. as her teacher explains the workings of the human heart, Vera longs only to be with her sweetheart and seizes every opportunity to be alone with him. However, he knows he's below her on the social scale and confides in his grandmother that he doesn't know what his future holds. She reassures him that God works in mysterious ways and João wishes he had her faith. Vera's mother is concerned about her and the distant look in her eye and her fears are scarcely abated when her daughter faints in front of the entire class after getting confused between Portugal's major rives and the arteries that pump blood from the heart.
Shortly before the class goes on a camping trip, Vera asks her grandfather if it's possible to die of love. He tells her the story of a prince who was denied happiness with a Moorish princess, so they jumped into the river together. On foggy mornings, it's sometimes possible to see their clothes floating past and Vera takes that thought into the woods, Giving the rest of the party the slip, Vera and João become inseparable and she makes him promise never to leave her again. They find the ruins of a house that Vera had known as a girl (Maria Celestino da Costa)and she tells him of the occasion when she was chasing a rabbit and slipped down an incline. She seemed to be trapped, but a giant stone moved of its own accord and she was able to escape.
When João leaves her the next morning to find some fruit, Vera is so distraught that she swoons and he has no idea how to revive her. When he hears shooting near by, he goes off in search of the hunters so that they can help Vera. But they chase him away for trespassing and it takes him a time to find Vera again. She is unconscious when he finds her and the narrator (Mário Borroso) describes how a small girl claims to have seen two figures lying in a boat as it floated downstream.
It has been said of Azevedo Gomes that `everything in her films seems to be involved in a slow melting, a metamorphosis'. This is particularly true of this formally rigorous, symbol-strewn study of forbidden love that takes its title from Portuguese poet Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen's line, `Fear of loving you in a place as fragile as the world.' Switching between sequences in monochrome and colour, Azevedo Gomes draws on art, architecture, music and literature to achieve multiple layers of aesthetic and psychological, metaphysical and material meaning that make considerable intellectual and emotional demands on the audience.
The Bressonian performances reinforce this sense of meticulous construction. But they also distance the viewer from the characters and make it more difficult to identify with the anguish that Vera feels at being parted from her beloved. Maria Gonçalves has her moving moments as Vera and the closing image of her and Bruno Terra stepping backwards into darkness provides a striking contrast with the use of fog to add mystery and atmosphere to the woodland scenes. Ably abetted by cinematographer Acácio de Almeida and production designer Paula Migalhada, Azevedo Gomes directs with confidence and delicacy and it's not surprising to find João César Monteiro and Pedro Costa among those thanked in the closing crawl.
Films are expensive to make. Yet they keep getting churned out and it's not always easy to appreciate why anyone would want to invest their hard-earned in projects that stand next to no chance of making a worthwhile return. Thousands disappear without a trace each year, with some never being seen again after their premieres. Others tour the festival circuit before being subsumed into the streaming morass that is slowly making discs obsolete. Then there are those that make it on to the release schedule because they managed to convince a well-known actor into signing on the dotted line.
Completed five years ago, Gavin Wiesen's All Nighter has been rather unfairly lumped in with the dross that has been dusted down during lockdown. It's far from original. Indeed, the premise is barely plausible. But Wiesen has been in two-hander territory before, having paired Freddie Highmore and Emma Roberts in his debuting slacker comedy, The Art of Getting By (2011). Moreover, since self-directing Peepers (2010), screenwriter Seth Owen has managed to persuade Ridley Scott to produce Morgan (2016) for his fiftysomething director son, Luke.
Neither exactly enhances his reputation with this odd couple romp, But Wiesen and Owen had the sense to hire JK Simmons off the back of his Best Supporting Oscar win for Damien Chazelle's Whiplash (2014) and he has the chops and self-respect to prevent this negligible knock-off of Martin Scorsese's After Hours (1985) from descending into something far worse than the plodding mediocrity it is.
Six months after enduring a nightmare dinner with girlfriend, Ginnie (Analeigh Tipton), and her jet-setting father, Frank Gallo (JK Simmons), banjo player Martin (Emile Hirsch) is living in Los Angeles with his doper roomate, Jimothy (Jon Daly). Having been dumped, he is surprised when Frank shows up on his doorstep expecting to find Ginnie, who isn't answering her phone. As he has to fly to Geneva in the morning, Frank asks Martin to take him to his daughter's new address. But the bickering Roberta (Kristen Schaal) and Gary (Taran Killam) have no idea where she's gone.
Tipped off by waitress Tracy (Stephanie Allynne) at the café where Ginnie used to work, the pair drive to a West Hollywood restaurant on the advice of her yoga buddy, Lizzie (Rebecca Drysdale). Frank is embarrassed when he bumps into Kelly (Meta Golding), who had waited on them the night of the disastrous dinner and Martin deduces that Frank is a serial womaniser. Winding up in the Rococo nightclub, Martin gets mocked by Trevor the DJ (Jon Bass), but complimented on his music by the down-to-earth Lois (Shannon Woodward).
They get into a fight and, having taken the drunken Megan (Xosha Roquemore) home, they have another with her jealous boyfriend, Bri-Baby (Trenton Rostedt). Now wearing a pink t-shirt emblazoned with the phrase `Keep It Juicy', Frank is getting stressed out by some calls from his assistant in the `procurement' business before his phone dies. Taking stock in a bar, they bump into Gary, who just happens to have his magic mushrooms wrapped in a piece of paper with Ginnie's address on it.
Having broken in and been forced to flee from Connie's knife-wielding roommate, Terri (Milana Vayntrub), Martin informs Frank that he learned from his ex-wife that his daughter is holidaying with her new boyfriend. However, she returns in time to see Frank being tasered by an over-zealous cop. Frank, Martin and Gary spend a night in the cells, but everything works out okay - because it was always going to, right - and Frank nods along as Martin's band plays a bluegrass version of Bob Seger's `Night Moves'.
Despite the best efforts of Simmons and Hirsch, this capably made, but crass comedy would have been destined to slip into the realm of instantly forgetable films had it not pushed its luck. It was bad enough for Owen to saddle Simmons with a line about this being real life and not a movie. But he also has the audacity to have the zonked Taran Killam compare this relentlessly unfunny farago to John Ford's The Searchers (1956).
Compounding the insulting comparison to one of the most complex and controversial Westerns ever made is the sheer tastelessness of the remark, as John Wayne and Jeffrey Hunter were trying to track down Natalie Wood, who had been abducted by the Comanche during a raid that had wiped out Wayne's family. There may be other factors, but this might just explain why Owen and Wiesen haven't made another picture since.
VALHALLA: LEGEND OF THOR.
Norse scholars must curse the Marvel Cinematic Universe for corrupting contemporary conceptions of Thor. However, Fenar Ahmad takes his inspiration from the Peter Madsen comic-book that the Danish cartoonist brought to the screen with Disney animator Jeffrey J. Varab as Valhalla (1986). It takes a while for Thor (Roland Møller) and his brother, Loke (Dulfi Al-Jabouri), to lure siblings Tjalfe (Saxo Moltke-Leth) and Røskva (Cecilia Loffredo) across the rainbow bridge from Midgard into the Hall of the Gods. But, once there, the mortals have to ally with Quark the mute giant (Reza Forghani) to recapture Fenrir the wolf before it can bring about Ragnarok by consuming the sun.
Born in Czechoslovakia to Iraqi immigrant parents before being raised in Denmark, Ahmad cut his directorial teeth with Flow (2014) and Darkland (2017). But he comes of age with this revisionist spin on the Old Norse legends, which bears the demystifying influence of Harry Kümel's Malpertuis (1971). There's more expository chat than knuckle-whitening action, as Ahmad hammers home the odd plot point (as it were), such as Freya (Silja Eriksen Jensen) explaining about the Child of Light. He also relies on Kasper Tuxen's camera to provide a little natural spectacle in the absence of eye-popping special effects. Nevertheless, this could be a good way to introduce superhero-obsessed youngsters to the Norse pantheon that has influenced so many comic-book scenarios.
Returning to the native realm of Troll Hunter (2010) after diverging away for The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016) and Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (2019), Norwegian director André Øvredal puts a modern-day spin on a mythological origins story in Mortal. Three years after surviving a suspicious farm fire that killed his family, Eric (Nat Wolff) strives to lay low in the Odda countryside. However, he is arrested by the local police chief, Henrik (Per Frisch), after a bullying youth dies following a confrontation and, with angry father Bjørn (Per Egil Aske) seeking retribution, the taciturn Eric is entrusted to psychologist Christine (Iben Akerlie), who slowly comes to understand that her patient is trying to fathom how to use the remarkable powers that set him aside from others. The helicopter arrival of American agent Hathaway (Priyanka Bose) to reclaim her compatriot sends the lovers on the run, as Øvredal contrasts Norse nobility with US chicanery. Shifting tone and pace with a control that recurs in the playing and the camerawork, Øvredal might disappoint comic-fixated fanboys. But this is a thoughtful treatise on the responsibility of power and the need to understand oneself that also demonstrates that arresting visuals can be achieved on a modest budget without relying entirely on CGI.
Five years after it was filmed, Australian Corey Pearson's directorial debut secures a UK streamng release. Things get off to a slowish start in Message Man, as retired assassin Paul O'Brien potters around in his boat before pulling into Indonesia to buy some spares. By befriending street kids Aji Santosa and Zahira Aleka Ashari, however, he incurs the wrath of piratical sex-trafficker, Verdi Solaiman, who has a score to settle with the Aussie because he had once been hired to hit his parents. Abducting the children and sending their battered mother, Agni Pratistha, as his messenger, Solaiman seeks to engineer a showdown in Jakarta. But, abetted by tut-tuk driver Mario Irwinsyah and Mike Lewis (the invisible sniping back-up he summons via a handy app), O'Brien vows to rescue Pratistha's offspring and put Solaiman's racket out of business. Centring on gun battles, punch-ups and knife fights, the overly delayed violence is staged with brutal efficiency by choreographers Jonathan Ozoh and Michael Purnama. Moreover, Irwinsyah provides some robust comic relief alongside O'Brien, who will surprise those who only know him from Home and Away. But, with its abused women and hacked limbs, this remains a thick-ear of a picture that will appeal primarily to genre fans.
DIABLO: THE ULTIMATE RACE.
It shouldn't come as any surprise that successful formats get recycled around the world, but it still feels odd to see the Fast and Furious premise playing out on the streets of Warsaw. Directors Daniel Markowicz and Michal Otlowski stage the high-octane action capably enough, but the storyline is so clunkingly predictable that time often hangs heavy between the races, even when the fists start to fly. Needing quick cash to pay his younger sister's medical bills, Kuba (Tomasz Wlosok) tries his hand at street racing and soon catches the eye of Max (Rafal Mohr). He promises to introduce Kuba to Jarosz (Cezary Pazura), who is the big noise on the circuit. However, he also expects his drivers to go above and beyond (whether legally or not) out of competition and demands that they steer clear of his daughter, Ewa (Karolina Szymczak), who also happens to be a fearless driver. This subplot tilts the action in the direction of Michaël R. Roskam's Racer and the Jailbird (2017). But this is nowhere near as slick, even though Karolina Szymczak is suitably statuesque and Tomasz Wlosok does a nice line in mean moodiness that brings to mind Zbigniew Cybulski, even though he's not in the same league.