Parky At the Pictures (29/1/2021)
(Reviews of Beginning; Ham on Rye; The Prom; Dead Pigs; Sputnik; Fritzi: A Revolutionary Tale; One Night in Miami...; and David Byrne's American Utopia)
So, here we are in Lockdown 3. This means that cinemas across the UK are closed until mid-February and all releases will be online. In addition to Curzon Home Cinema. MUBI, Netflix 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. Good luck and stay safe!
Born in Russia and raised in Georgia, Dea Kulumbegashvili studied at The New School in New York before taking a masters in directing at the Columbia School of the Arts. Both Invisible Spaces (2014) and Lethe (2016) were nominated for the Palme d'or for short films at the Cannes Film Festival before she teamed with Rati Oneli on the documentary, City of the Sun (2017). Kulumbegashvili has now made the transition to features with Beginning, which was Georgia's submission for the Academy Award for Best International Feature. Critics have compared this gruellingly compelling saga to the work of such Romanian new wavers as Cristi Puiu and Cristian Mungiu. But the imprint of Mexican executive producer Carlos Reygades is also strong.
Yana (Ia Sukhitashvili) enters the Kingdom Hall in the small town of Lagodekhi near Georgia's border with Azerbaijan. She opens the shutters and welcomes the worshippers before her husband, David (Rani Oneli), who is a Jehovah's Witness missionary, enters to preach a sermon on the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac. As he discusses the sacrifice that the old man was willing to make with his only son, a fire bomb is tossed into the rear of the church and the wooden structure quickly catches light. There are no casualties, but the building is razed to the ground.
David informs Yana that he is going to appeal to the council of elders for money to rebuild the meeting house. When his wife asks why he devotes so much time to religion and so little to herself and their son, Giorgi (Saba Gogichaishvil), David reminds her that he had warned her about how life would be when she agreed to quit acting and become his wife. During his absence, Yana is visited by Alex (Kakha Kintsurashvili), a detective from Tbilisi who is investigating the blaze and is keen for Yana to persuade David to drop any charges. Frightened by the stranger in her home, Yana is taken aback when he demands sexual favours in return for helping her husband and she is further dismayed when she goes to the nearby police station to inquire after Alex and learns that there's no record of him.
Yet, Yana continues to teach Sunday School classes and convinces herself that God will hear her prayers if she makes herself sufficiently vulnerable. She takes Giorgi on a bus trip into the countryside, where she lies on a bed of fallen leaves in a bid to compose herself for her sacrifice. However, she also scares her young son by playing dead.
Having been raped by Alex near a gently burbling river, Yana visits her mother and younger sister and not only hears about the latter's travails as a single mother, but also learns about how controlling her father had been and she realises that David is trapping her in a self-perpetuating circle by accusing her of not being normal. Nevertheless, despite being uncertain whether she is waiting for something to begin or end, she reunites with her husband for a service that seems to restore something of her faith. But, as the couple drive home, she recognises that David's attitude towards her will never change and that she will continue to be his subservient spouse. While peeling cucumbers in her kitchen, however, Yana uses her knife to commit a shockingly pitiless act.
Closing on a troubling shot of a figure in a craggily barren landscape turning to stone and crumbling into dust, this is a demandingly ambiguous, yet compellingly ambitious debut that confirms Kulumbegashvili as a talent to watch. Shooting around her childhood home in long, detached takes with a static 35mm camera, she uses the precise compositions to suggest crucial actions occurring in the off-screen space that seems to corral Yana into the tight Academy Ratio frame. Cinematographer Arseni Khachaturan's unhurried movements are reciprocated by Matthieu Taponier's measured editing, which reinforces the impression that Yana is drifting through her life in the hope of connecting with David's faith and of recognising once more her own face in the mirror.
The pacing and content of several scenes recall Carlos Reygades's Silent Light (2007) and Post Tenebrae Lux (2012), although the detective's invasive visit invites comparison with Michael Haneke's Funny Games (1997), while the climactic cucumber sequence harks back to Delphine Seyrig peeling potatoes in Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975). Yet, while Kulumbegashvili is content to quote others, she achieves a distinctive style that allows her to contemplate such complex issues as the status of women in a patriarchal society and the hopelessness of David's mission in such a resolutely Orthodox state. Indeed, not since the heyday of Ingmar Bergman have questions of faith, identity, gender, institutional power, intolerance, belonging and redemption been explored with such ferocious intensity.
Often coming close to breaching the fourth wall with her challenging gaze, Ia Sukhitashvili is riveting as the forcibly retired actress playing with crushing sadness a role for which she no longer believes she is suited. Rani Oneli (who also co-scripted) and Kakha Kintsurashvili are equally effective, as they abuse and denigrate Yana in their own sordid ways. The sequence in which her mother and sister detail their own experiences at the hands of callously thankless men feels a bit like overkill, but Kulumbegashvili directs with such steely conviction that one goes along with her choices, which have all the more impact because she so scrupulously avoids sensationalism.
It would have been intriguing to see how the picture might have fared in the official competition had Cannes 2020 not been abandoned. But it is guaranteed a warm welcome on MUBI having done such a good job of dividing the critics.
HAM ON RYE.
In an unnamed American town at an unspecified time (that is closer to now than it seems), children at a birthday party in the park wait for a firecracker to be lit. Sometime before this, teenagers get ready for the annual ritual that takes place at the sandwich bar owned by Mr Monty (Dan Jablons). A sign at the shop claims it has been relishing the moment since 1952 and the adults waving off their offspring urge upon them the importance of making the most of this unique opportunity. One kid clearly doesn't care, as he sleeps in with his carefully pressed clothes hanging on the back of a chair.
Although the camera alights on several groups and individuals making their way to the venue (the majority of whom are on foot), it lingers longest with two cliques. Wearing white dresses that seem more suitable for a First Communion than a rite of passage, Haley (Haley Bodell), Gwen (Audrey Boos) and Trish (Gabriella Herrera) make a stop so that Gwen can knock at a stranger's door and ask to use their bathroom. She also instigates the detour into the woods, where she reads the postcard she has received from her sister, who left home a few years earlier. Haley wonders why everyone makes such a big deal of such a stupid custom, but Trish and Gwen remind her that everyone knows that what happens at Monty's shapes people's futures.
Meanwhile. Tommy (Luke Darga), Marick (Adam Torres) and Artie (Sam Hernandez), who is on crutches, wonder what to do with their buddy, Jim (Blake Borders), who has slumped down at the side of the road and refuses to budge. Unable to decide whether he's ill or merely having a panic attack, the boys abandon their friend and head towards their date with destiny. Dozens of kids are already milling around the car park when Janitza (Alyssa Fields) walks across to Jamie (Grant McLellan) and punches him on the nose for spreading malicious rumours about her.
Once inside the unprepossessing store, the revellers eat their sandwiches and slurp their drinks. There's little eye contact and the awkward attempts at small talk mostly fall flat. But things start to liven up when the tables are pushed back and everyone starts to dance. Each teenager has their own style and no one seems to judge, as everyone let's the music transport them. Suddenly, a new track changes the entire tone of the evening, as everyone forms a circle and boys and girls take turns pointing at potential partners and receiving a thumb up or down in response. Most seem grateful to have been chosen, even if some of the pairings appear mismatched. But Jamie's antics have made him a pariah and he bolts from the room on being rejected. Haley also exits, as she finds the whole charade distasteful, although nobody seems to complain, as they slow dance and heads rest demurely on shoulders.
At the end of the night, the guests leave Monty's and jovially make their slow-motion way into the dusk. As we look on, however. the kids dissolve or fade from view to be seen no more. Instead, we follow Sloan (Cole Devine), who works at Monty's and deeply resents having to work on this of all days. Clearly, he was overlooked at his own ceremony and he hooks up with even more deadbeat buddies Bronco (Timothy Taylor) and Garth (Gregory Falatek) to cruise around town and kill some time.
Meanwhile, Jim has been collected by his mother, Dorothy (Laura Wernette), who is dismayed that he didn't even make it to Monty's. She barely conceals her feelings, as she calls home to report a broken leg and wheels her son to a fast food joint for supper. Haley and Jamie are also left abroad, as various twentysomething relicts shuffle across town to the outdoor court of the Uno King (Danny Tamberelli) and Uno Queen (Lori Beth Denberg), who preside over a sorry feast for the stoned slackers who got left behind. Haley tries to leave messages for Gwen and Trish, but they don't answer and never will do again.
Some time later, Haley mooches around at home. Her parents have bought her a fish tank for her birthday and she watches with dead eyes, as a yellow balloon floats up to the ceiling. Over supper, her father (Bill Bodell) and mother (Mimi Kmet) suggest calling her older brother at college to cheer her up. But the connection is poor and Haley realises that her sibling has nothing to say to them and is mortified that they have called. She wanders off to the park, where the firecracker has gone off and the children are playing with sparklers. Everyone seems to be having a good time and Haley lies back on the grass in acceptance of the fact that she is going to have to live with her decision to walk out of Monty's for the rest of her life.
Wedged between bookend scenes depicting childhood innocence, the central segment of musician-turned-director Tyler Taormina's remarkable debut feature, Ham on Rye, can either be viewed as an extended regretful flashback or a chronicle of a fate foretold. Whatever the intention, the message seems clear that the majority of people spend their lives repenting the fact that they made life-changing decisions at a time when they were far too young to make them. The sudden switch from adolescent bliss to adult ennui is brutal in its simplicity and finality, but Taormina and co-writer Eric Berger refuse to dwell on its implications for the likes of Haley and Sloan, let alone the father who exhorted Jamie not to screw up, as he sends him on his way.
Despite the impression given by the overview above, there isn't really a plot per se. Instead. Taormina and cinematographer Carson Lund tag along with the kids making for Monty's and eavesdrop on their banal conversations while noting details of their outfits. A large number trudge along in Converse baseball boots, but Haley, Gwen and Trish look like they have wandered out of Sofia Coppola's The Virgin Suidices (1999), especially when they sit in a forest glade to peruse the postcard whose significance becomes more apparent once the importance of the revels has been revealed.
Most members of the sizeable ensemble get a moment in the spotlight, as they embody types rather than inhabit characters. All the familiar faces from the golden age of the teenpic are present, if far from correct, with the trio of preppy girls on scooters using a cashpoint being contrasted to Sloan, Bronco and Garth riding the deserted nocturnal streets on auto-hoverboards with no such sense of purpose. Editor Kevin Anton gives these opening scenes a feel of meandering apprehension that is reinforced by the dreamy flute-led score by the German New Age composer Deuter. This shambling mood translates into the aimless drifting of the left-behinds (who have been discarded as casually as the pink plastic piglet that Monty chucks out of the window), which is cocooned in an unbearable miasma of melancholy that will resonate with anyone who has ever looked back and wondered.
Respectively playing over the opening credits and during the dance sequence, `Blue Eyes Deceiving Me' by Even As We Speak and `Tonight I'm Gonna Fall in Love' by The Teardrops also have an emotional impact. as Taormina muses on the importance placed on such crossroad moments as the high-school prom. Echoes can be heard from the likes of Peter Weir's Picnic At Hanging Rock (1975), Brian DePalma's Carrie (1976), Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused (1993) and David Robert Mitchell's The Myth of the American Sleepover (2010). But, while some have identified this as a kooky mash-up of John Hughes and David Lynch, this is a highly distinctive picture that was filmed across Los Angeles with a largely inexperienced cast and without permits in around two weeks. This freewheeling aura brings a hint of authenticity, as the action drifts from hazy reverie to waking nightmare and leaves an indelible impression on the memory.
Based on an original concept by Jack Viertel and written by Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin, with a song book by Beguelin and Matthew Sklar, The Prom ran for around a year after opening on Broadway in October 2018. However, the film version directed by Ryan Murphy will be seen by a much larger audience on Netflix, for whom he has recently launched Hollywood as a companion piece to Feud (2017). Murphy has made features before, but this feel-good civics lesson owes much less to Running With Scissors (2006) and Eat Pray Love (2010) than to the much-loved TV series, Glee (2009-15), which also employed a high school setting to change entrenched perceptions of sexuality, race, disability and the generation gap.
Just as Mrs Greene (Kerry Washington), the head of the PTA at James Madison High School in Edgewater, Indiana cancels the prom because lesbian student Emma Nolan (Jo Ellen Pellman) wants to bring a female partner, narcissistic actors Dee Dee Allen (Meryl Streep) and Barry Glickman (James Corden) learn that their new Broadway show, Eleanor!, is to close after dismal opening night reviews. Perpetual chorine Angie Dickinson (Nicole Kidman) and resting Juilliard graduate Trent Oliver (Andrew Rannells) encourage them to become celebrity activists to keep their names in the papers and Dee Dee's determination to become a 21st-century Eleanor Roosevelt means that their choice of cause takes them to Edgewater with a touring cast of Godspell.
Despite having the tacit support of principal, Tom Hawkins (Keegan-Michael Key), Emma finds herself being subjected to bullying, which persuades her girlfriend, Alyssa (Ariana DeBose) - who just happens to be Mrs Greene's daughter - to remain in the closet. However, cheerleader pals Kaylee (Logan Riley Hassel) and Shelby (Sofia Deler) uncover the romance and heartily disapprove, as does the audience at a monster truck rally when Dee Dee's ensemble turns up for a guest slot. She gets a more sympathetic reception from Hawkins, however, a longtime fan who is appalled when the PTA plans a separate prom for Emma while her classmates party at a private club.
Emma and Alyssa have a blazing row and she seeks solace from Grandma Bea (Mary Kay Place), who has been looking after Emma since her parents threw her out. Angie also offers Emma a shoulder to cry on, while Barry suggests that Dee Dee can repair the damage caused by blurting out that she only came to Indiana to burnish her reputation by getting Emma on her ex-husband's TV show. Despite Dee Dee giving away her house in The Hamptons in return for the favour, Emma refuses to go on air. But a song she performs online goes viral and Trent hits the shopping mall to persuade Kaylee and Shelby to stand beside their friends.
In a bid to patch things with Barry, Dee Dee calls his estranged mother, Vera (Tracey Ullman), who apologises for driving him away. Moreover, Dee Dee agrees to bankroll Emma's consolation prom and Alyssa defies her mother when she tries to intervene. Reunited with her sweetheart. Emma arrives for her big night to discover that LGBTQ+ students from across the state have been invited to her event. During the course of the evening, Barry and Vera put the past behind them, Trent becomes the school's new drama teacher, the cheerleaders admit the error of their ways and Angie lands the role of Roxie Hart in Chicago. What's more, Emma and Alyssa are not alone in sharing a kiss, as Dee Dee and Hawkins also declare their love, as everyone hits the dance floor.
Maybe the preamble reference to a flop stuck in the minds of those critics who chose to give this blast of feel-good positivity a kicking. There are slow moments and the odd song feels shoehorned, but the message couldn't be more timely and the cast could certainly not have done more to sock over action that feels simultaneously cornball and modern. Donald Trump may be out of the White House, but the rancid brand of conservatism that propelled him up the greasy pole has not gone away and it will take more than some jazz hands to scour it from the nation's psyche. But this paean to tolerance hits more right notes than discordant ones and, for that alone, it deserves to be applauded.
However, Martin and Beguelin's scenario is much smarter than that. Like John Waters's Hairspray (1988), it satirises the very holier than thou liberal values on which it is piggy-backing. Whether they are humblebragging to the red carpet press or slamming their awards on the hotel check-in counter in the hope of getting upgrades, Dee Dee and Barry keep brandishing the fact that they are not good people. They treat publicist Sheldon Saperstein (Kevin Chamberlin) like dirt and have nothing but disdain for the Juilliard-trained Trent. But we are persuaded to tolerate their flaws because they have both been wounded in the past and eventually come to realise the value of their journey of self-discovery.
Fortunately, they are played with knowing brio by Meryl Streep and James Corden, who just about gets away with camping it up in a role that was originated by Brooks Ashmanskas and might just have been better suited to an older gay performer like Nathan Lane. Nicole Kidman and Andrew Rannells play second bananas with self-effacing grace, while Jo Ellen Pellman makes a fine first impression. However, the decision to cast Kerry Washington as the bigoted head of the PTA feels a tad stuntish and reinforces the fact that Murphy always seems double underlining each point he's making.
Unfortunately, the resoluteness of the emphasis also seeps into intimate dramatic scenes like Barry and Dee Dee's hotel tête-à-tête, in which they reveal the fragile state of their crushed blueberry hearts. More damagingly, it threatens to swamp the musical numbers, which have been amped up stage director Casey Nicholaw to reference Busby Berkeley, Gene Kelly and Bob Fosse. Matthew Libatique's camera has also been over-choreographed so that it glides and gyrates with a restless energy that is dissipated by Peggy Tachdjian and Danielle Wang's pernickety cutting that chops routines into itty-bitty pieces when they should have been allowed to develop their own full-figured kinetic momentum. Ask Fred Astaire, he'd tell you.
Murphy's penchant for excess also impacts upon Jamie Walker McCall's production design, although his recreation of the Great White Way evokes the golden age of the MGM musical when soundstages existed solely to accommodate fantasy. Lou Eyrich's costumes also flirt with pastiche, although the red gingham Little House on the Prairie dress that Emma considers wearing to the prom is hilarious. Yet, despite so much of the production seeming to teeter on the verge of `too much', Murphy manages to pull things together, even though direction is clearly not his forte.
This becomes more obvious when assessing the staging of the songs. Despite being integrated reasonably well into the narrative, few of Matthew Sklar's melodies linger long in the memory, although they're catchy enough and keep the toes tapping while being performed by leads who wouldn't necessarily put `singer' on the first line of their resumés. Chad Beguelin's lyrics are much more effective, however, as they are full of wittily inventive rhymes and offer insights into the character's emotions. But, once again, the over-zealous camera movements and fidgety edits make the numbers feel like MTV promos rather than musical interludes.
Confirming Dee Dee and Barry's egotism, `Changing Lives' is a hoot that is neatly appropriated to expose their cynicism when Angie and Trent join in the reprise after they've decided to become celebrity activists. The same riotous immodesty courses through `It's Not About Me', which Dee Dee delivers in full diva mode having gatecrashed the PTA meeting in the school hall. Such delicious brashness is reined in for Emma's `Just Breathe', which she performs en route from her locker to the classroom, and her bleachers duet with Alyssa on `Dance With You', which reaffirms the message that the film is about the right to be oneself and the expectation in a civilised society of a modicum of forbearance.
Frustratingly, Murphy overplays his hand when Trent leads the ensemble in `The Acceptance Song' and even more so in `Love Thy Neighbour', in which he accuses the kids of cherry-picking their morality from The Bible while cavorting around a shopping mall. Equally boisterous, but bombastic is `You Happened', which goes into Glee overdrive as the students make their promposals. The dial dips back below as the smitten Principal Hawkins serenades Dee Dee with `We Look to You', but we're soon back into High School Musical overdrive for `Tonight Belongs to You', even though it most certainly doesn't belong to the heartbroken Emma in the empty gym.
Angie tries to cheer her up with the Fosse-inspired pep talk, `Zazz', but the editing fails to disguise the fact that the willing Kidman isn't Gwen Verdon (not that Michelle Williams was in Fosse/Verdon, either, but that's a debate for another day). Streep also comes up a bit short in `The Lady's Improving', in which she bounces around Hawkins's office in an effort to demonstrate that her base motives are now a thing of the past. Alyssa's effort to explain her situation to Emma also falls a little flat in `Alyssa Greene', although that's down more to the sketchiness of the character than the quality of Ariana DeBose's performance. One could question the need for Emma's bed to levitate during her rendition of `Unruly Heart', but the charm of the song carries it through. And Murphy can also be excused for turning `It's Time to Dance' into a barnstorming finale that's complemented over the closing credits by `Wear Your Crown' and `Simply Love'.
It remains to be seen how stage director Jonathan Butterell will fare in making his feature bow with Everybody's Talking About Jamie, the 2017 musical by Dan Gillespie Sells and Tom MacRae that was inspired by Jenny Popplewell's 2011 tele-documentary, Jamie: Drag Queen at 16. But comparisons will doubtlessly be made with The Prom and it's fervently to be hoped that they provide lockdown audiences with some tuneful food for thought.
Born in Shanghai, but raised in the United States, Tisch School of the Arts graduate Cathy Yan completed the shorts Last Night (2013), Down River and According to My Mother (both 2016) before making her feature bow with Dead Pigs (2018). While promoting her DC Comics blockbuster, Birds of Prey (2020), Yan intimated that her debut would likely be the only picture she shoots on the Chinese mainland. One hopes not, however, as this quirky offering executive produced by Sixth Generation stalwart Jia Zhang-ke suggests she is too deft a director to devote herself solely to comic-book shenanigans.
Pig farmer Wang Genfa (Yang Haoyu) lives in the provincial town of Jiaxing and has done well enough in recent months to buy himself a virtual reality headset. Meanwhile, his pigeon-fancying sister, Candy (Vivian Wu), occupies the family home and preens like a diva around her beauty salon. The Golden Happiness property group is desperate to demolish her the turquoise wooden edifice to construct a luxurious complex, but she refuses to sell and her intransigence is hindering the prospects of Sean Landry (David Rysdahl), an American architect who has lived in Shanghai for 18 months and hopes to make his reputation by attaining the Chinese Dream with Golden Happiness.
Wang's son, Zhen (Mason Lee) works in the city at a suckling pig restaurant, although he has told his father he is a major success. One night, businessman's daughter Xia Xia (Li Meng) leaves her mobile on the table and winds up in hospital after crashing her car into a watermelon stand. Fascinated by her, Zhen tracks her down and becomes smitten on returns the phone, even though he knows she's out of his league. While he dreams of romance, hard reality knocks on his father's door in the form of loan sharks demanding the immediate repayment of his RMB252,000. However, he's in no position to pay because a mysterious illness is ravaging the porcine population and even his oldest customers are refusing to buy his meat.
In desperation, Wang asks Candy for a loan. But she refuses and blenches at the suggestion that she sells her house, even though Wang is entitled to a share of the proceeds. Furious, he returns to the farm and hurls the carcasses of his dead swine into the river and becomes something of a media sensation when others follow his lead. Back in the city, Xia returns to the restaurant and remembers Zhen. He is touched and accepts her invitation to meet after work and they go for a cycle ride. When his father seeks him out in the hope of borrowing some money, however, Zhan has to come clean and admit he doesn't own his own apartment.
While waiting for the building project to begin, David accepts an offer from talent scout Angie (Zazie Beetz) to become a Westerner for hire, as wealthy Chinese like having foreigners at their functions because they give them a touch of class. He even acquires a reputation as a celebrity speaker and convinces himself that he has the gift of the gab to talk Candy into selling and evacuating her property. But, with the news bulletins following officials from Beijing on a mission to sort out the pig farming crisis, David and Candy also find themselves making headlines when she insists on putting up a very public fight for her rights.
Expanding Down River's focus on the 2013 crisis that saw 16,000 pig carcasses hurled into the Jiapingtang River near Shanghai, Cathy Yau makes an accomplished start to her feature career by taking her time to introduce her characters and show how three of them are related. Thanks to editor Alexander Kopit. she interweaves the storylines without obvious contrivance, but the Altmanesque action rather meanders into its grandstand finale, with the American in Shanghai aspect being the weakest link. Maybe Yau was trying to pander to a Stateside audience, but she makes her points about Sino-American relations early on and doesn't add much by dropping in on David's speaking engagements, when she might have been saying more about environmental matters and the impact on ordinary people of market forces and social mobility.
The thread involving the poor little rich girl and the waiter (who is played by director Ang Lee's son) also becomes strained and it's left to veterans Yang Haoyu and Vivian Wu to give the picture a bit of soul, just as it strikes the acerbic note that everything in modern China has its price. Resplendent in costumes by Wang Zixin, Wu struts around her salon hissing home truths at her pampered clients before hunkering down in the two-storey abode made to seem both cosy and decrepit by production designer Yao Jun, whose city offices and tacky hot spots are equally acute.
Cinematographer Federico Cesca's contrasts between town and country are also well judged, as is Andrew Orkin's score, which avoids cliché in counterpointing scenes of tradition and modernity. But Yau deserves credit for the tonal flits between grim realism and urbane observation, while also finding room for the odd surreal flight of fancy and even musical reveries like the spontaneous routine to Teresa Teng's 1986 hit, `I Only Care About You', which couldn't be more ironic in the overall circumstances.
Recalling a time when the Soviet Union was still a key competitor in the space race. first-timer Egor Abramenko's Sputnik has been a huge hit in its homeland, as lockedowned Russians sought a little online escape both in outer space and on the Kazakh steppes. Clearly influenced by both Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris (1972) and Ridley Scott's Alien (1979), this low-budget sci-fi shocker also contains elements of Christian Nyby's The Thing From Another World (1951), William Castle's The Tingler (1959) and Daniel Espinosa's Life (2017). Screenwriters Oleg Malovichko and Andrei Zolotarev strive to embed some subtext, but they struggle to maintain the sombre tone, as the plot is stuffed with splendidly silly contrivances.
Following a 1983 close encounter that cost fellow cosmonaut Kirill Averchenko (Aleksey Demidov) his life, Konstantin Veshnyakov (Pyotr Fyodorov) crash lands on Earth and is quarantined at a remote military facility in Kazakhstan. Neurophysiologist Tatyana Klimova (Oksana Akinshina) is ordered to monitor the patient by Colonel Semiradov (Fyodor Bondarchuk), who withholds the fact that he is unknowingly playing host to an extraterrestrial life-form. Indeed, Klimova only learns the truth when Semiradov and scientist cohort Yan Rigel (Anton Vasiliev) reveal that they wants her to extricate the creature from Veshnyakov without harming either, as they have developed a symbiotic dependency.
Klimova seeks to unsettle Veshnyakov by reminding him of the son he has consigned to an orphanage. She discovers that the alien is affected by the Russian's hormone levels. but she also learns that Semiradov is already aware that the creature feeds off the cortisol released by frightened humans and has been feeding it prisoners in the hope that Klimova can help him discover a way in which he can control and weoponise the beast's threat. Concerned by the colonel's motives, Klimova tries to help Veshnyakov, who confesses that he is aware of the alien's activities and is playing along because he is now desperate to survive his ordeal and make amends to his son.
As Klimova has gleaned that Averchenko actually survived the mission because his undetected cancer saved him from the alien, she injects Veshnyakov with Addison's Disease in the hope the entity will reject him. Their bid to flee the base is foiled by Semiradov's troops, but Veshnyakov turns the creature on the colonel before shooting himself to deprive the alien of its home. Relieved to have been spared, Klimova adopts Veshnyakov's son because she is also an orphan.
Production designer Mariya Slavina, creature creator Andrei Maximov and special effects supervisor Arman Yahin were clearly hampered by a ruble shortage, but cinematographer Maxim Zhukov works wonders with shadow and red lighting, as he prowls around the claustrophobic sets to reinforce the sense of unease generated by the derivative scenario and driven home by Oleg Karpachev's booming score. Malovichko and Zolotarev get bogged down in subplots, although the alien's human flesh fetish enables Abramenko to make liberal use of gore to atone for the more static chat passages.
Having spent three years developing the project from a short entitled, The Passenger, the debutant is also fortunate in having Fyodor Bondarchuk and Pyotr Fyodorov provide Oksana Akinshina with so much solid support in her bid to create a Slavic Ellen Ripley. Bondarchuk makes a particularly hissable villain, as he seeks to dupe or exploit everyone with whom he comes into contact. But it's Akinshina who carries a picture that can never quite decide whether it wants to say serious things about the legacy of the Cold War and the current state of Russian society or just scare the bejesus out of fanboys willing to try anything that could replace their much-missed blockbuster adrenaline rushes.
FRITZI: A REVOLUTIONARY TALE.
Showing as part of the Night of Ideas event held online by the Institut Français, Matthias Bruhn and Ralf Kukula's Fritzi: A Revolutionary Tale is a charming animated adaptation of Hannah Schott and illustrator Gerda Raidt's children's novel, Fritzi Was There. Providing younger viewers with an insight into the events that hastened the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe in 1989, this has the visual feel of Sylvain Chomet's Belleville Rendez-vous (2003). But it also makes complex ideas accessible and deserves to be picked up by a UK distributor.
In Leipzig in 1989, 11 year-olds Fritzi (Ali Lyons) and Sophie (Lucy Carolan) enjoy their summer holiday by playing music in the latter's treehouse, with her dog, Sputnik. When mother Kati (Amy Potter) loads up the car for a two-week vacation in Hungary, however, Sophie is forced to leave Sputnik behind and Fritzi becomes concerned that she will never see her best friend again after she fails to return for the first day of the autumn term at Juri Gagarin School. Adding to her woes is new teacher Frau Liesegang (Nicola Lindsay). who is an earnest advocate of the social and political ideals that underpin the German Democratic Republic, even though a growing number of people are trying to reach the West across the well-guarded border.
She is far from impressed when Fritzi finds herself on the television in the middle of a Monday Demonstration outside the Nikolaikirche after Sputnik had followed her classmate, Bela (Oison Conroy) inside the church that is filled with ordinary people listening to speeches about the need for change and peaceful protest. Fritzi's parents are aghast, especially as her father, Klaus (Hugh O'Conor), is content to remain in the GDR, as he fears he won't find work as a violinist in the West. Her nurse mother, Julia (Aoibhín Murphy), is keen to start afresh, however, and her spirit prompts Fritzi to visit a travel agency to inquire about holidays in Hungary.
The woman at the desk (Louise O'Meara) calls the Stasi as soon as Fritzi leaves the shop, but she dupes her into returning the next day. When Sputnik growls at the man browsing the brochures, Fritzi flees and is protected by a female resident when she hides behind some prams in the lobby of an apartment block. But, having hatched a plan to smuggle Sputnik on to the school trip to the border country, she feels suitably emboldened to ask a security officer giving a talk to her class about ways of crossing into West Germany (where Sophie's grandmother lives) without detection. Despite Liesegang being on the alert. Fritzi, Sputnik and Bela creep out of the camp at night and use a compass to reach the fence. However, the dog chases a rabbit and triggers an alarm that results in Fritzi being captured, interrogated and excluded from school.
As the family watches news reports of East Germans being given asylum in the West German embassy in Prague, Fritzi discovers some new friends at school, who vote against her being expelled. However, Klaus gets arrested while searching for his daughter at a Monday Demonstration and he is kept in custody for several days. Julia agrees to go on a march with Fritzi and her younger brother, Hanno, and they walk alongside Bela and his father. Next morning, they are pleased to see the local paper refer to the protesters as `citizens' rather than `ruffians' and are even more delighted when Klaus comes home.
On the night it's announced that the border is to be opened, he drives to the West German frontier and Sputnik earns the cheers of the crowd when he runs through the barrier to be reunited with Sophie on the other side. Receiving orders from Berlin, the guards let people cross and Fritzi hugs her friend and gets a grateful lick from Sputnik. As winter snow begins to fall, Fritzi meets Bela in the treehouse. They have decided to stay in Leipzig, as German unification seems inevitable, and Bela celebrates by giving Fritzi a puppy, whom she names Ruffy after the `ruffians' whose non-violent resistance had brought the country its freedom.
Closing with black-and-white photographs from October 1989, this is a fine way to mark the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Yet, while it reveals the distinctive manner in which Leipzigers expressed their discontent, the film also explores the extent to which it is possible to have an idyllic childhood under an authoritarian regime. Fritzi only becomes aware of the injustices of East German society after she is deprived of the friend who made every day a delight. But Bruhn and Kukula avoid sentimentalising Fritzi's political education, while making clear the threat posed by the Stasi and their informers and the way in which the state used schools to indoctrinate and subjugate youth.
The animation has a traditional hand-drawn look, with the characters being a tad bland against the atmospherically detailed backdrops. But Sputnik has personality to spare the voiceover work of Ali Lyons keeps the audience following Fritzi to see how the encounters with Frau Liesegang and the other state officials will play out. There's even a hint of a crush on Bela that culminates in a chase kiss on the cheek after he presents her with the puppy. A sequel showing how Osties struggled for acceptance in the reunified state would be intriguing to provide a kind of kidpic equivalent to Edgar Reitz's Heimat 3: A Chronicle of Beginnings and Endings (2004).
ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI...
The recent trend for bringing plays about the African-American experience to the cinema screen has paid dividends for Denzel Washington's Fences, Barry Jenkins's Moonlight (both 2016) and George C. Woolfe's Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (2020). Now, fresh from scooping the Academy Award for Best Actress for Jenkins's James Baldwin adaptation, If Beale Street Could Talk (2018), Regina King makes her directorial debut with One Night in Miami..., which has been adapted by Kemp Powers from his own stage show.
On 25 February 1964, boxer Cassius Clay (Eli Goree), singer Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom, Jr), American footballer Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) and Civil Rights activist Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir) met in a room at Hampton House on the night that the 22 year-old Clay became World Heavyweight Champion after defeating Sonny Liston (Aaron D. Alexander). Although the mood was celebratory, each man had been through the mill in the preceding months. The motor-mouthed Clay had been forced to take a backward step after being knocked to the canvas at Wembley Stadium by Henry Cooper (Sean Monaghan), while Brown had realised that sporting success meant nothing when he returned to his native Georgia and was barred from the house of Mr Carlton (Beau Bridges), an avid admirer and family friend who also happens to be a racial bigot. Despite having become a pin-up within his own community, Cooke had failed to charm white audiences when he sought to broaden his appeal, while Malcolm is at a low ebb while debating with wife Betty (Joaquina Kalukango) whether to leave the Nation of Islam.
Malcolm and Clay had prayed together before the bout, with the latter being eager to announce to the press that he had converted to Islam and was going to ditch his `slave name' for the more liberating name of Muhammad Ali. However, he's in the mood to party after his shock victory over the intimidating Liston and is as disappointed as Brown and Cooke to discover that they are going to be the only guests and that the sole refreshment is vanilla ice cream. The latter pair are also peeved because the teetotal Malcolm has insisted on chatting rather than carousing and Cooke accuses his friend of being a killjoy.
Malcolm responds by castigating Cooke for selling out by becoming a popular entertainer and there are further grumblings when Brown announces that he is going to quit football to become a movie star, even though roles for Black actors have long been caricatures. As everyone is in confessional mode, Clay declares his intention to join the Nation of Islam. But Cooke and Malcolm have unfinished business, with the singer insisting that his new-found celebrity and the record label he has founded should be a cause of rejoicing because he has shown his brothers and sisters that it's possible to succeed while retaining cultural credibility. Malcolm disagrees, however, and asks Cooke why he hasn't released a protest song like Bob Dylan's `Blowin' in the Wind' to touch the soul of the nation. When he replies that such numbers aren't commercially viable, Malcolm insinuates that Cooke is an Uncle Tom.
Brown and Clay try to adjudicate and suggest that Malcolm is only being so hostile because of the stress caused by his surveillance by the FBI and the deterioration of his relationship with Elijah Muhammad. When Malcolm reveals that he is about to quit the Nation of Islam to set up his own movement, Clay demands to know whether he has orchestrated his conversion to drum up publicity for his own ends. Before they can settle their differences, however, they are interrupted by news that the press has learned of their meeting and want a story. As the new champ, Clay agrees to talk to reporters and Malcolm consents to accompany him. Left alone, Cooke confides to Brown that he has written a protest song of his own.
A few weeks later, Cooke performs `A Change Is Gonna Come' on The Tonight Show, by which time Muhammad Ali had taken his place on the political stage. In the ensuing months. Brown quits the Cleveland Browns to make his acting bow in Gordon Douglas's Rio Conchos (1964) and Malcolm X had formed the Muslim Mosque, Inc. and the Pan-African Organization of Afro-American Unity. He would be assassinated on 21 February 1965, two months after Cooke had perished in still-mysterious circumstances at the Hacienda Motel in Los Angeles on 11 December 1964.
First performed at the Rogue Machine Theatre in Los Angeles in 2013, Kemp Powers's speculative play his its antecedents in Tom Stoppard's Travesties (1974), which corrals James Joyce, Lenin and Tristan Tzara, and Terry Johnson's Insignificance (1982), which assembles Albert Einstein, Marilyn Monroe, Joe DiMaggio and Senator Joseph McCarthy. The latter was filmed by Nicolas Roeg in 1985 and the debuting Regina King finds herself facing similar problems in deciding how cinematic to make a drama loosely rooted in fact, in which the words and the performances matter much more than the visuals. But, having escaped the proscenium during the prologue, King and Powers find themselves trapped in a confined space that emphasises the artifice of each camera move and cutaway.
Tami Reiker's lighting mostly eschews movie gloss. But, each time the camera prowls around Barry Robinson's mirror-filled set, it draws attention to itself and away from the quartet that Powers has styled `the Black Justice League'. As origins stories go, this one lacks pyrotechnics, but it does have its combustible moments, as Kinglsey Ben-Adir's eloquently seething Malcolm rips into Leslie Odom, Jr.'s urbanely assured Cooke and Eli Goree's confused Clay challenges Malcolm's motives in luring him into the Nation of Islam. Perhaps because Jim Brown is still alive, Aldis Hodge is given less to work with, but he proves to be the conscience of the group, as he strives to remind them what made them friends in the first place.
Aspects of the storylines have been explored before in Spike Lee's Malcolm X (1992) and Michael Mann's Ali (2001), while a couple of documentaries have provided a stop-gap while negotiations continue behind the scenes on a long-gestating Sam Cooke biopic. But, in avoiding hagiography, King has made a valuable contribution to the mythology of a foursome whose bond exemplified the extent to which African-American males were starting to make their mark on wider society in the 1960s. Sport and showbiz had long offered opportunities, but the film reflects the growing celebrity sense of socio-political responsibility and there's a hint that Powers and King are prodding a few more of today's icons to put their heads above the parapet to boost campaigns like Black Lives Matter.
DAVID BYRNE'S AMERICAN UTOPIA.
There's an inescapable sense throughout Spike Lee's filmed record of David Byrne's American Utopia that both the director and the former Talking Heads frontman are fully conscious of the fact that they are compiling the soundtrack to the decline and fall of Donald Trump. Shot at the Hudson Theatre in New York on a bare stage fringed on three sides by chain-link curtains, this priceless record of Byrne's Broadway hit may seem something of a departure for Lee, even though he had previously immortalised Mark Stewart's Passing Strange (2009). But it will delight fans of Jonathan Demme's Stop Making Sense (1984) and Byrne's own directorial debut, True Stories (1986).
Taking to the stage in bare feet and a silvery grey-blue suit that is also worn by the 11-piece band, David Byrne is in enigmatic mood. He references Dada poet Hugo Ball and Kurt Schwitter's Sonate in Urlauten in suggesting that the show is a sign of the time protest. Indeed, he reinforces this by taking the knee in the manner of American footballer Colin Kaepernick and by urging the audience to register to vote. But the most powerful message comes during a cover version of Janelle Monáe's `Hell You Talmbout', when Lee heightens the call-and-response `Say Their Name' segment by bringing on photo-carrying relatives of African-American victims of racial intolerance and/or police violence from Emmett Till to George Floyd. It could easily have seemed tacky, but it hits home hard to remind Trump and his more bigoted backers why they lost the election.
In between numbers, Byrne (without ever coming out of character) slips into raconteurial mode, as he alternates between playful anecdotes and weightier pensées on such pet topics as bourgeois complacency, interpersonal detachment and the oddness of existence. He also makes sure that everyone knows the names of the cosmopolitan band members, who are allowed their moments in the spotlight, as they interact untethered with the audience and the camera, while providing backing vocals and dancing to the moves choreographed by Annie-B Parson, the co-founder of the Big Dance Theatre, and Alex Timbers. For the record, they are Chris Giarmo (melodica), percussionists Tendayi Kuumba and Gustavo Di Dalva, Angie Swan (electric guitar), Bobby Wooten III (bass), drummers Tim Keiper, Jacquelene Acevedo, Daniel Freedman and Stephane San Juan, and the twin musical directors Mauro Refosco and Karl Mansfield, who also plays keyboards.
At the risk of being listy, the tracks in running order are: `Here', `I Know Sometimes a Man Is Wrong', `Don't Worry About the Government'. `Lazy', `This Must Be the Place', `I Zimbra', `Slippery People', `I Should Watch TV', `Everybody's Coming to My House', `Once in a Lifetime`, `Glass, Concrete & Stone', `Toe Jam', `Born Under Punches', `I Dance Like This', `Bullet', `Every Day Is a Miracle', `Blind', `Burning Down the House', `Hell You Talmbout', `One Fine Day', and `Road to Nowhere', while `Everybody's Coming to My House: Detroit' plays over the closing credits, as the company clamber on to bicycles to whirr through the nocturnal Manhattan streets.
Lee and cinematographer Ellen Kuras make such innovative use of Busby Berkeley-style top shots to look down on the patterns being created by the fleet performers that editor Adam Gough ensures that the film audience gets a more immersive view of proceedings than those bopping and applauding in the auditorium. But they got to experience Byrne on fine form with a rocking band, as he trots through numbers from his Talking Heads and solo back catalogues, as well as tracks from the American Utopia album. He was 67 at the time of filming and glories in the rock sage gravitas afforded by his floppy grey hair. Yet, despite playing his greatest hits on the Great White Way, this trawl through 30 years is anything but a faded star cash-in, as Byrne still has plenty to say and, as he shows by leading his musicians up and down the aisles during `Road to Nowhere' like the Grand Old Duke of Dumbarton, no one else can say it quite like him. Same as it ever was.