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  • David Parkinson

Parky At the Pictures (29/3/2024)

Updated: Mar 30

(Reviews of Ryuichi Sakamoto | Opus; Disco Boy; The Sweet East; Cidade Rabat; Celluloid Underground; and Little Eggs: A Frozen Rescue)


RYUICHI SAKAMOTO | OPUS.


In Stephen Nomura Schible's Ryuichi Sakamoto | Coda (2017), the composer and recording artist contemplated life after surviving throat cancer. Sadly, the disease returned and director Neo Sora teamed with his father in September 2022 to record 20 pieces from across a remarkable 50-year career for Ryuichi Sakamoto | Opus.


Featuring Sakamoto alone at a Yamaha grand piano at the NHK Broadcasting Center 509 Studio in Tokyo (which he considered to have the best acoustics in Japan), this is less a concert film than a last testament. Some of the items had never been played solo before. Others were reinterpretations for the occasion. There were mistakes along the way, but they only enhanced a deeply personal and poignant performance.


The camera starts behind Sakamoto and slowly glides towards him during `Lack of Love' (from the 2000 album, L.O.L.). His white hair shimmers, as his head bows to consult the sheets of music laid out on the top of the black piano. Each movement of his head and fingers is deliberate and precise, as is the case with `BB', which he composed on the day he heard that friend and collaborator Bernard Bertolucci had died.


Next is `Andata' (from the 2017 album, Async), which begins with the camera to the side of the piano. It gradually encroaches into Sakamoto's space before a sudden cut concentrates on his long, slender fingers holding down the keys just long enough for each note to reverberate, echo, and fade. It's a striking effect and it lingers into `Solitude' from Jun Ichikawa's 2004 feature, Tony Takitani. A single desk lamp illuminates Sakamoto's face, as he peers through his tortoiseshell glasses at the score and each note seems to ripple the reflection in the polished black surface of the piano. At the end of the piece, he holds his hands above the keyboard before a cut shows his glasses resting on the lid, as he wipes his eyes.


Sakamoto's right hand comes away from the keyboard in order to conduct his left during `For Johann', which is slightly more fussily filmed and cut than its predecessors. A mirror is positioned on a wall, but even more equipment is visible during `Aubade 2020', which was originally written for a Mitsuya Cider commercial in 2009. Jauntier than its predecessors, it has been filmed to suggest morning flooding into the studio, with light bouncing off the acoustic wall panels.


Taken from the soundtrack of Takashi Miike's Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai (2011), `Ichimei - Small Happiness' is also filmed in bright light. Glimpses of Sakamoto's face can be seen though the lid of the piano, as the camera drifts behind him to rest on the shadow cast on the polished studio floor.


Penned for a 1983 advert for Suntory Old Whiskey, `Mizu no Naka no Bagatelle' begins with the camera sliding past the piano before a cut-in to a close-up of Sakamoto's hands. Gently nodding his head in time, his face is a picture of composed concentration and he holds his fingers above the keyboard as the notes fade away. A quick shuffle of the manuscripts presages `Bibo no Aozora (`Beauty of a Blue Sky'), which hails from the 1996 album, but can also be heard in Alejandro González Iñárritu's Babel (1999). A hint of a smile plays on Sakamoto's lips at one point, but the notes misbehave and he works through a correction before completing the piece and whispering hoarsely for another take.


This isn't seen, however, as we move on to `Aqua' from the 1998 piano solo album, BTTB. Once again, the focus falls on the face and fingers during an exquisite melody that has long been a concert favourite. As it ends, though, Sakamoto admits that he's pushing himself and needs to take a break. Having played a heavy bass riff, he settles back for `Tong Poo' (`East Wind') from the 1978 album, Yellow Magic Orchestra. Alternating between the depressed keys and the hopping dampers, the camera catches his engrossed expression, as Sakamoto plays this sublime arrangement with care and panache.


Composed for Peter Kosminsky's 1992 adaptation of Emily Brontë's classic novel, `The Wuthering Heights' is suitably dramatic, as the lighting starts to darken. With his centre-parted hair flopping over his glasses, Sakamoto plays with an intensity that makes the lower notes throb and the higher ones peal. It's still a controlled performance, however, as though he's aware that he probably won't play this demanding piece again.


Culled from the 15th and final album, 12 (2023), `20220302 - Sarabande' is more sedate and opens with the camera focussing on the shapes made by Sakamoto's fingers on the keyboard. It rises to frame him against the desk lamp, as he plays with pursed-lipped deliberation, as the lens returns to his arching fingers. Bertolucci's 1990 Paul Bowles adaptation yields `The Sheltering Sky', an imposingly stately, but emotive piece that again makes demands on the player, who has time once again to conduct himself with his free left hand, as he builds to the wistfully sombre climax.


A prepared piano is required for `20180219', which begins with Sakamoto meticulously applying clamps to the strings and retuning the instrument before sitting to play. The sound is fascinating, as though each note struck a clashing mechanical cymbal. But this is a mournful melody that feels touchingly simple beside the grandeur of `The Last Emperor', which was written for Bertolucci's Oscar-laden 1987 life of Pu Yi and made Sakamoto the first Asian to win the Grammy and the Oscar for Best Original Score. Starting in near darkness, the room begins to brighten as underlighting is cast on to the acoustic panels to create a flaring effect that reduces Sakamoto and his piano to a silhouette in the centre of the studio.


Taken from Sakamoto and Alva Noto's 2002 album, Vrioon, `Trioon' is a studiously hesitant, but haunting item that echoes of the darkness illuminated only by the canted desk lamp that coats Sakamoto's fingers with limpid light. Following it is YMO's 1981 track, `Happy End', an enchanting lament played against a softly lit backdrop, as the trills strive to coax some gaiety out of a scene that is that is approaching its denouement.


The familiar theme of Nagisa Oshima's Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence (1985) adds to the sense of melancholy that recalls the last videos made by a dying David Bowie. Both were beautiful young(ish) men when this Second World War POW picture was made. Now, Sakamoto sits in a halo of light, as he powers through to a rolling finale and a cut to black. As an encore, he returns to BTTB for `Opus', which was recorded from two stationary vantage points, one more detached from the other to make the final cut into the keyboard playing mechanically in an empty studio all the more affecting.


Sakamoto would die some six months after this session and the effort involved in playing these intricate, complex, and evocative pieces is sometimes painfully palpable. But this is as much an act of artistic defiance as commemoration and the human moments - as Sakamoto stumbles, smiles, and savours - burn into the shimmering monochrome memory made by this courageous, reverential, and accomplished film.


Bill Kirstein's 4K visuals are slick, but austere and rhythmically in tune with the music. The lighting changes also reflect the mood, as the carefully curated reinterpetive running order take us to all corners of Sakamoto's remarkable career. For those unfamiliar with the back catalogue, try listening to the tracks in their original form to see how much of himself and his situation Sakamoto has channelled into the performances. Of course it's sad. But this is a great artist going out on his own terms and Sora deserves credit for allowing him to do so with determined dignity, intimate sincerity, and quiet style. How fascinating it would be to discover what was going through his father's mind over the course of that momentous week. But not knowing underscores the integrity of an impeccably judged farewell that reminds us that Sakamoto's music will long live on.


DISCO BOY.


Following a clutch of shorts and the documentary duo of Fame (2017) and the César-nominated America (2020), Giacomo Abbruzzese makes his feature bow with Disco Boy. As the action centres on the French Foreign Legion, it's difficult to avoid comparisons with Claire Denis's Beau Travail (1997). But this is a bold, bruising study of identity, belonging, corporate greed, governmental neglect, eco-decimation, and exploited desperation that straddles migrational Europe and post-colonial Africa.


Jumping a busload of football fans in Poland, Belarusians, Alexei (Franz Rogowski) and Mikhail (Michal Baliki), attempt to cross a river using an inflatable mattress. A police patrol boat causes them to sink and Alexei makes it to the bank alone in just his underwear. Somehow acquiring clothing and with no money or documents, he reaches Paris, where he calls his friend's mother to break the bad news.


Discovering that he can get a temporary residency permit and eventually a passport if he joins the Foreign Legion, Alexei signs up and is put through rigorous training by bearded commander Paul (Leon Lucev), who explains that thinking and survival don't mix. After an exhausting cross-country exercise, Alexei is relieved to hear his name during a downpour roll call and his past is stripped away as he becomes known as Alex.


Meanwhile, in Nigeria, VICE journalist Rachel Woods (Tiffany Tatibouet Cox) travels by boat to interview, Jomo (Morr Ndiaye), the leader of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta. He lays on a display of gunfiring into the air that amuses his followers because the American is so easily pleased. Jomo records a video warning that MEND will not allow foreign petrochemical companies to spoliate the soil and water.


During a mission to kidnap some employees from the nearby plant, Jomo confides to a friend that he would be a nightclub dancer if he had been born white and his pal jokingly calls him `disco boy'. However, he admits he's a good dancer and he performs in the glow of the campfire with his sister, Udoka (Laëtitia Ky), with whom he shares the distinctive quirk of having different coloured eyes.


Seeking a secure spot for the hostages, Jomo is spooked by the search choppers peering through the jungle canopy. Alex is part of a special ops group that comes ashore in wetsuits and changes into camouflage gear in a bid to locate and rescue the French hostages. As night falls, they see a village being torched and the screams of the women and children prompt Alex to radio base for permission to intervene. The request is denied and they press on.


When darkness falls, the imagery shifts into thermal night vision, as the unit comes under attack. Alex fights Jomo when he tries to ambush him in the river. After a struggle, Alex prevails and digs into the ground with his knife in frustration at having had to kill someone. He crashes out and has to be winched to safety by a chopper that rises over the glinting delta with the belching refinery in the distance.


Back in Paris, Alexei joins comrades-in-arms Francesco (Matteo Olivetti) and Andy (Prince Bara) on a night out and they pick up Chloé (Jéromine Chasseriaud) and her friends (Donia Eden and Mathilde Soares), who serenade them in the back of the taxi. They go to a club, where Alex leaves the others to dance while he clinks glasses of Bordeaux at the bar (the wine Mikhail had dreamed of having, along with camembert and Laughing Cow cheese). Suddenly, he catches sight of Udoka dancing on a dais in a spangly dress and wanders towards her transfixed. However, he gets too close and is thumped by the bouncers and ejected.


Wandering the streets in the distracted days that follow, Alexei returns to the club and is invited for a drink by the Slavic owner (a former diamond smuggler) who recognises the word for `orphan' in the prison tattoos covering his chest. He tells him that the dancer is called Manuela and Alexei slips the desk clerk some money to get the number of her room. Falling asleep on the bed, he hallucinates that he's walking towards a light emanating from some tall trees. Suddenly, Udoka is standing before him in her glimmering dress with her hand over his mouth. Stricken with imperial guilt, he feels as though he is seeing a ghost.


When he fails to sing along with `Non, je ne regrette rien' on a route march, Paul has him stripped while reminding him that, unless he completes his five-year stint, he will lose his citizenship and become a clandestine phantom. With images of the burning village forever in his mind, Alex retreats further into himself. Eventually, he sets light to his papers in his locker, with billowing smoke obscuring the wall motto about a legionnaire's Frenchness owing less to the blood he has inherited than to the blood he has shed. Returning to the club, he starts to dance. Udoka spots him from the balcony and joins in on the floor, with the moves recalling those she had enacted by firelight with her brother, whose transported spirit seems to have become a disco boy after all.


Much has been made of the audiovisual audacity of Giacomo Abbruzzese's debut. There's no doubting the technical ingenuity and textural richness of Hélène Louvart's cinematography or the unsettling propulsiveness of the electro-score by DJ Vitalic (aka Pascal Arbez-Nicolas). But the shadow of Beau Travail hangs heavy, with the typically mesmerising performance of Franz Rogowski recalling that of Denis Lavant right up until the move-busting dance-floor finale. Moreover, there's something self-conscious about the night vision switch for the life-or-death struggle, as Abbruzzese over-strives for a visual ethereality to match the transmigratory outcome.


The opaquely elliptical nature of the storytelling adds a veneer of complexity to a slender narrative that is less about incident than impact. Alex is forever having to react to circumstances out of his control, as rivers seal the fates of Mikhail and Jomo and fires cause the lone wolf to lose faith in the French dream he had ironically associated with crème brulée. Completing the elemental symbolism, Alexei crashes on the ground in both Niger and Paris and is left literally up in the air while being winched out of the heart of darkness - almost as if he was undergoing his own version of the Ascencion.


The lurches between nuance and blatancy perhaps explain why some have identified the influence of Pedro Costa and Albert Serra, others Bertrand Bonello and Philippe Grandrieux, and others still Gaspar Noé and Nicolas Winding Refn. Yet there's something nouvelle vaguish about Abbruzzese's cocky self-reflexivity, while there's more than a whiff of Jean-Luc Godard about the post-colonial politics. Alexei may not be the Gen Z's petit soldat, but the psyche of La Patrie doesn't seem to have changed much in the intervening six decades.


THE SWEET EAST.


Having worked extensively with legendary documentarist Albert Maysles, Sean Price Williams made his mark as a cinematographer with Ronald Bronstein's Frownland (2007). Subsequently known for his collaborations with Alex Ross Perry and Joshua and Benjamin Safdie, he turns director with The Sweet East, which is the first feature written by renowned critic Nick Pinkerton.


Lillian (Talia Ryder) is a high school senior from South Carolina on a class trip to Washington, DC. She lounges in bed with Troy (Jack Irv) in her hotel room and shoots him a lazily disapproving look as he plays with a used condom and boasts about his looks and prospects.

Disinterested in the sights and embarrassed by the juvenile antics of her classmates, Lillian slips away from the tour outside the White House. When things get too boorish in an eaterie, she takes refuge in the washroom and sings to herself with knowing glances in the mirror.


Suddenly, all hell breaks loose as a lone gunman (Andy Milonakis) demands access to the paedophile den he is convinced is being run from the pizzeria's basement. Another customer, Caleb (Earl Cave), escorts Lillian to safety through a passage behind the washroom mirror that seems to suggest that something sinister actually is occurring. Leaving her phone behind, she's bundled into a van and taken to the house Caleb shares with several other middle-class left-wing activists. Lying that she is disaffected student, she shares a joint with Annabel (Ella Rubin), who suspects she's just a young kid acting out and asks if she needs to contact anyone. Lillian crashes for the night and joins Caleb on a mission to sabotage a right-wing gathering. However, they go to the wrong location and Lillian detaches herself from the group.


Hearing a tannoy, Lillian finds herself in the midst of a white supremacist rally. She's spotted by Lawrence (Simon Rex), an academic who is twice her age and realises that this isn't a safe place for a young girl to be alone. Passing herself off as Annabel (which intrigues Lawrence, as he is a huge fan of Edgar Allan Poe, whose final poem was `Annabel Lee'), Lillian allows Lawrence to buy her some clothes and offer her the use of a spare room at the remote house where he had grown up.


Aware that he is attracted to her, Lillian lays down ground rules that he readily accepts. While he's at work, she wanders in the woods and writes to a friend back home to ask her to inform her parents that she's fine and doesn't need rescuing. Nevertheless, she sees news reports about a nationwide manhunt. Delighted to have a pretty girl to impress with his knowledge and opinions, Lawrence conducts one-sided conversations that Lillian considers a small price to pay for a cushy lifestyle. But, when a skinhead with neck tattoos delivers a red holdall, she becomes suspicious and insists on accompanying Lawrence on a trip to New York in his red sports car.


Unimpressed by their lodgings, Lillian persuades Lawrence to upgrade to a swankier Manhattan hotel and offers to leave the bathroom door open if he tells her what he's up to. Duping him into running a nail polish errand, Lillian discovers that the bag contains a large amount of cash and she dresses hurriedly and makes her exit. As she scurries along the street, however, she's stopped by African American film director Molly (Ayo Edebiri) and her producer, Matthew (Jeremy O. Harris), who declare her perfect for the colonial costume drama they are shooting. After a brief audition, Lillian convinces them that she is poetry student from Howard University and is cast opposite major movie star, Ian (Jacob Elordi).


Amused by Molly and Matthew's trendy prattling and encouraged by their effusive appreciation, Lillian allows Ian to flirt with her. She's frustrated when they are photographed by a paparazzi outside a night spot and fears that her parents will see the front page story. But it's the skinhead who comes to the set and arouses the suspicions of gopher Mohammed (Rish Shah) when he asks for Annabel. As the thugs open fire on the cast and crew, Mo smuggles Lillian into his truck and secretes her in the attic of the house that towers over the jihadist camp run by his brother, Ahmad (Mazin Akar).


Still wearing her period frock, Lillian is virtually a prisoner and spends her days watching Ahmad putting his recruits through a rigorous training regime. As she needs to lie low, she plays the damsel in distress in order to keep Mo dancing attendance. He even brings her a cat for company. But, when she reads in the paper that the film set killers have been arrested, she makes her escape through the barn. Unable to resist snooping in the band's tents, she is caught by Ahmad, who not only buys her story that she is searching for her dog, but is also taken by her flirtatious chattiness and gives her his phone number and a mixtape.


Miles from anywhere, Lillian staggers through the woods before collapsing in the depths of a cold night. She's found by some monks from a local monastery and the Abbot (Gibby Haynes) tells her she's lucky to have survived. He has called the cops and Lillian finds herself back home fending off catty remarks from the class mean girl. Her parents arrange a family gathering and everyone is watching the big football game on television when a drone descends into the stadium and carnage ensues. Striding into the garden, Lillian gives the camera a knowing smile that says, `America, right?'


Pitching Voltaire's Candide into the Trumpist present, this is an entertaining satirical picaresque. But it lacks scalpel-sharp edge and is often far too pleased with its own sense of winking subversiveness, as it dismisses European notions that America is a young country whose foibles have to be indulged. Williams and Pinkerton may poke fun at individuals and some of the tenets on which the American Dream rest. But there's a genuine love for the land here, with the shots of the verdant countryside having a bucolic painterliness about them.


With Williams acting as his own cinematographer, Talia Ryder is also artfully framed to capture the enticing impassivity that lures the strangers she encounters to project their own visions of her (and their own warped personalities and preoccupations) on her deceptively blank canvas. In this regard, the picture recalls recent road movies like Andrea Arnold's American Honey (2016) and Janicza Bravo's Zola (2020), which was co-scripted by Jeremy O. Harris, whose hipster banter with Ayo Edebiri is one of the film's comic highlights.


The supporting cast does well enough, although only Simon Rex is given time to develop a fully fleshed character. There's a predatory creepiness about Lawrence that is reinforced by both his awkward chatter and the keepsakes dotted around his old family home. But the idea that he is the bagman for some neo-Nazi feels a tad strained, as does the fact that the jihadists billeted in a few flimsy tents could carry out such a sophisticated terrorist attack (providing it was them, of course).


Clearly indebted stylistically to his aforementioned directorial collaborators, Williams offers some nice touches, such as the Paul Grimstad song that Ryder sings prior to the restaurant showdown that was inspired by the Pizzagate conspiracy theory that did the rounds during the 2016 presidential election. But, notwithstanding Lillian's Teflon shallowness and lack of self-awareness and a moral compass, the decision not to delve too deeply in any of the situations in which she lands creates an impression of sketchy superficiality that can sometimes feel mockingly smug or nostalgically sentimental rather than acutely satirical.


CIDADE RABAT.


Having studied at the New University of Lisbon and the London Film School, Susana Nobre started directing with the 2001 short, The Swimmers, before co-founding the Terratreme production company. Following the documentaries, Active Life (2013) and Trials, Exorcisms (2015), she moved into improvised drama with Ordinary Time (2018) and Jack's Ride (2021). Now, Nobre attempts scripted fiction with Cidade Rabat, which was filmed in the Benfica district where she grew up and is screening at The ICA in London.


Arriving at the building on Cidade Rabat in which she grew up, Helena (Raquel Castro) recalls the neighbours who lived in the different apartments, as the light casts shadow through the grill of the lift doors. She finds her mother (Paula Bárcia) tearing old postcards and photographs in half and Helena sifts through the pieces while her mother has a post-lunch nap and slips a fragment into her shirt pocket. Deflecting the request to move back in, Helena takes 12 year-old daughter Maria (Laura Afonso) to spend the week with her father.


After a night with her American musician lover (Randolph Albright), Helena goes to the film set where she is a production assistant liaising between the director and her producer boss. During a discussion about the schedule, she gets a call informing her that her mother has died and she meets with sister Lina (Paula Só) to make the arrangements for the funeral. They agree on a simple ceremony and a burial in their father's grave in a rural cemetery.


Fretting on the drive that the undertaker (Américo Silva) is dozing off at the wheel, Helena interrupts the priest's sermon on the Beatitudes to say that her mother had lived a good life and that she had wanted to believe but couldn't. Her Aunt Tia (Flora Candeia) consoles her and Maria looks across the small village church, as the priest declares that such a statement could only have been made about a woman of faith.


Returning to Lisbon, Helena tries to get on with her routine. She's busy at work and leaves Lina to sort out their mother's affairs, although they keep in regular phone contact. Adding to her woes is an abscess on her buttock and she's embarrassed when the doctor requires a next of kin's contact number before she can drain it. Then again, Maria feels ashamed of her mother when she drags her away from her friends when they are chatting in the park.


She also feels abashed when a tipsy Helena takes to the dance floor at a family wedding and the photographer calls her the life and soul of the party. Having been reluctant to come along, Helena also enjoys a drinks session with the extras from the film. They are mostly Black and live in the impoverished Reboleira part of the city and she bops happily to the music before sinking into the arms of one of the guys during a slow number.


Unfortunately, she's stopped for drink driving on the way home after making a U-turn on an unfamiliar road. Driving to the police station, Helena hears a cop make a racist remark about some Muslims on the street, but she decides now is not the best time to challenge them. A Black cop handles her case and kindly suggests that she pays a small fine and does 85 hours community service, on top of a five-month licence suspension, in order to avoid a court date. Phlegmatically, she agrees.


Opting to work at a sports club for underprivileged kids run by the elderly Marques (José Marques) and Adelia (Regina Guimarães), Helena helps out on the administrative side. But, when she brings a camera to start making a documentary about the club, she gets ticked off by Adelia for not mucking in and leaving the dish- and floor-washing chores to others.


Impatient with the medical staff who can't access her information on a database, Helena dresses and walks out of the surgery. She calls round to Cidade Rabat and is so shocked to see that someone has started sorting her mother's belongings that she kneels beside her sofa and sobs. Lina empathises when she confides that she has been having dreams about her mother and wakes confused about whether she's still alive or not.


On her last day of community service, Helena watches Maria compete in a cross-country race and we see her last eating a cake at a pavement café. She has decided not to move into her mother's old apartment. But, even though she seems to have a new sense of purpose, much in her life remains up in the air.


Although nothing quite lives up to the exquisite visuals accompanying the atmospheric opening narration, this is an engagingly insouciant study of coping with the things that life has a habit of throwing at us when we're least expecting them. Often implying rather than emphasising, Nobre coaxes the audience into fathoming Helena's emotions, as Raquel Castro greets each happenstance with equal impassivity.


That said, while Helena is vulnerable, she is far from blameless as she drifts into a kind of second adolescence. She's more of a dutiful than a devoted daughter and she leaves her sister to sort out their mother's estate. Moreover, having criticised the undertaker's wakefulness at the wheel, she recklessly drives under the influence and rather looks down her nose at the Reboleira extras and the other offenders doing community service at the sports club. But she does her best by Maria (who is played by Nobre's own daughter), even though they're not always on the same wavelength, and it's the sheer ordinariness and nuanced intensity of Castro's debut performance that makes her so compelling.


Cinematographer Paulo Menezes's contrasting views of Benfica and Reboleira are also highly effective, as is Martial Salomon's measured editing. Nobre's background in documentary is evident, but there's no Laverty-Loachian preaching about the socio-economic chasm between the neighbouring districts in this wrily satirical and melancholically contemplative feminist parable.


CELLULOID UNDERGROUND.


In his first documentary feature, Filmfarsi (2019), Ehsan Khoshbakht examined the lost legacy of the popular Iranian cinema made during the reign of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. The unsung guardian of that tradition and of cinema-going in Iran was Ahmad Jurghanian and, in Celluloid Underground, Khoshbakht reveals why he should be ranked alongside such pioneering archivists as France's Henri Langlois, Britain's Ernest Lindgren, and India's P.K. Nair.


Anthony Quinn loomed large in Khoshbakht's cine-education. He had headlined Richard Fleischer's Barabbas (1961), which he had seen during his first trip to the cinema as a young boy, and has co-starred with Giulietta Masina in Federico Fellini's La strada (1954), which his father had related to him as a bedtime story it became increasingly difficult to see films as the grip of the ayatollahs strengthened after the Islamic Revolution that had taken place two years before Khoshbakht was born in 1981.


As a young man, Khoshbakht had come to Britain and found himself living in Alfred Hitchcock's old Leytonstone neighbourhood. It was here that he became a film curator and a co-director of Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna. Here was also where he learned of the death of Ahmad Jurghanian, a fellow cineaste who had dedicated his life to preserving any films he could find and storing them in basements across Tehran to ensure that the cinema from the silent era on survived in Iran, albeit covertly.


Having been bought a single frame of celluloid when he was six, Khoshbakht had built a projector and beamed the image under the bed for his sisters. As he grew older, he showed films for neighbour kids and added his own narration. He then used a video projector to show VCR prints of banned films and founded a cine-club that was monitored by the secret police. However, it was only shut down after he was accused of promoting Marxism after a screening of Dariush Mehrjui's wonderful parable, The Cow (1969).


Launching a new garden cinema club at university, Khoshbakht longed to project celluloid. Someone put him in touch with Jurghanian, who loaned him a 2-D copy of Arch Oboler's 3-D classic, Bwana Devil (1952), and Georgi and Sergei Vasilyev's Socialist Realist biopic, Chapayev (1934). He wept on discovering the true shabbiness of Charlie Chaplin's clothing through 35mm and staged a John Huston retrospective. Thrilled by the human aspects of the chemicals that make up celluloid, Khoshbakht felt a physical connection with what he was projecting. But it was only when Jurghanian invited him to visit him in Tehran that he realised the extent of the treasure trove he was hoarding and the risks he was taking to do so.


Behind a door chosen because it resembled the one to Alain Delon's hideout in Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Samouraï (1967), was Jurghanian's realm of `vinegar syndrome and spliced passion'. Crammed with film cans, boxes, and piles of posters and stills, it was a haphazard repository that resembled his film knowledge. Jurghanian reminds Khoshbakht of the brash pre-revolutionary action star, Mohammad-Ali Fardin, whose film are now banned.


When interviewed, he recalled seeing the first Farsi film directed by a woman, Shahla Riahi's Marjan (1956), when he was eight years old. The two reels in his collection are all that survives from a time of postwar euphoria when an absence of international copyright laws meant than films from around the world were available in Tehran. Khoshbakht is excited to find a poster for Seymour Friedman's Son of Dr Jekyll (1951), but Jurghanian remains focussed on launching the University of Tehran Film Society with Luchino Visconti's Rocco and His Brothers (1960) and then opening his own cinema with a season of Sergei Eisenstein and Vsevolod Pudovkin.


As he didn't have to clear rights, he could afford to buy prints from film exchanges who were glad to clear their shelves. His first purchase was George Stevens's Shane (1952) and he still feels pride that his collection of 5000 films began from a single frame. Distributors often chopped reels with axes to stop them being shown and selling them off for the silver to be reclaimed from the nitrate coating. But Jurghanian used to steal them from offices and often swapped the Iranian films he didn't value for things like Nicholas Ray's Johnny Guitar (1954). He also exploited the political sensibilities of 1970s students to pass of pictures like Jack Conway's Dragon Seed (1944) and Elia Kazan's Viva Zapata! (1952) as key insights into social struggle, although Costa-Gavras's The Sleeping Car Murders (1965) and Z (1969) were more popular.


Khoshbakht illustrates these films with clips, while archive actuality footage is mined for passages about the changing situation within Iran. He also draws on documentaries about the making of celluloid to convey Jurghanian's passion for films they faced extinction from so many sides. But it's the very Iranian films he dislikes that accompany the section on the 1979 revolution and the mission to rescue films from closing cinemas for ideological reasons and move them to city stores after initially hiding them in the countryside. In 1984, however, Jurghanian was arrested for owning physical media and he has never forgiven himself for cracking under torture and losing 800 titles in giving away the address of one of his hideaways.


Once freed, Jurghanian returned to his collection and started exhibiting items again when restrictions were relaxed - although kisses had to be excised, as in Giuseppe Tornatore's Cinema Paradiso (1988). He talks a local cinema owner into letting him watch some films with Khoshbakht, who has started trying to sort through the daunting array of stills and posters, while also trying to identify some of the features. All the while, he keeps videoing and chronicling an ongoing battle with paranoia, as Jurghanian fears being detected and losing everything he has sacrificed for. But, while his obsession remained magnificent, Khoshbakht began to yearn for a new beginning and he left for London and never saw his mentor again. He was killed by a motorcyclist in 2014 and the fate of his collection remains unclear. One friend Khoshbakht calls wonders if it matters whether they will either be found and destroyed or will just decay away. The prospect reminds him of the ending of John Huston's The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) and he bids Jurghanian farewell with gratitude for having fostered the fixation that has enabled him to start again in a freer world and carry on his work of bringing the classics to the people.


Brimming with affection and tinged with regret, this is a poignant reflection on the chequered history of cinema in Iran. Such was Jurghanian's distaste for mainstream movies, however, it's also a rather elitist insight that privileges white male film-makers. There's even a casual indifference to the realities of cotton picking in the Deep South in the factuality about the making of celluloid that will leave some feeling distinctly uncomfortable.


Khoshbakht has already covered pre-revolutionary populism. But it seems odd for a film dedicated to and featuring several clips of Fardin to aver that the loss of his work was a price worth paying to save more precious foreign films - that would, in all likelihood, have been preserved in their country of origin.


Khoshbakht's use of reconstructions for the scenes of childhood film-going is deft, while his knowledge of the archive for the illustrative clips is deeply impressive (as are Niyaz Saghari's editing and Ekkehard Wölk's score). Cineastes might have preferred a few captions, especially for the Iranian titles, rather than lumping them in the closing crawl. But this is an eloquent essay that marbles admiration for Jurghanian's single-mindedness with a sadness that his achievement may count for nought unless the collection can be salvaged What's genuinely depressing, however, is that his Herculean efforts may be forgotten altogether if advances in technology render the digital format that Khoshbakht has employed obsolete.


LITTLE EGGS: A FROZEN RESCUE.


By all accounts, Little Eggs: A Frozen Rescue is the last in the `Huevos' franchise created by Gabriel Riva Palacio Alatriste, and Rodolfo Riva Palacio Alatriste for Huevocartoon. The series is among Mexican cinema's most successful brands. But it has largely been sneered at by British critics, who probably haven't seen the original duo of An Egg Movie (2006) and Another Egg and Chicken Movie (2009), which were traditional 2-D computer animations, or the fully CGI twosome of Little Rooster's Egg-cellent Adventure (2015) and Little Eggs: An African Rescue (2021).


Granted, they may lack the polish of something produced by Disney, Pixar, DreamWorks, or Aardman. But glibly rubbishing them out of hand without even bothering to assess the storyline, voicework, characterisation, or graphic technique smacks of cultural complacency, especially in the case of a series that has raked in $44.2 million worldwide and currently holds the top three grossing animations in Mexican screen history.


Toto the rooster (Fredrico Fajardo) has been taking it easy on the farm owned by Grandma Abuelita (Kim Ostrenko) with egg pals Willy (Alexander Machado) and Confi (Romulo Bernal) since rescuing kids Max and Uly from Africa. Wife Di (Felicia Overfelt) despairs that they don't realise what she does for them, but mother-in-law Mamá Gallina (Ann Marie Olson) reassures her that families show appreciation in odd ways. Her words prove prophetic when a polar bear cub named Polito (Adriel Cortes) escapes from a circus run by pirates Redbeard (Alex Teixeira), Yellowbeard (Daniel Reyes), and Blackbeard (Rayner Garranchan), who had abducted him from the South Pole with penguin siblings Antonio (Christian David Vandepas), Venancio (Iain Batchelor), and Manolo (Jason Kesser). Toto promises his mother on her deathbed that he will reunite the bear with his parents, as it's clear they can't keep cool in Grandma's fridge.


Having borrowed a boat from the harbour, Toto discovers that his family have come with him, along with Confi, Willy, and the latter's broody girlfriend, Bibi (Paula Andrea Barros). Captain Buddy the seagull (Paula Andrea Barros) shows them how to use the GPS guidance system and they head south, where Papá Oso (Donald Guzzi) and Mamá Osa (Ghia Birnbaum) - who were hit with tranquiliser darts by the pirates - are searching for Polito on ice that has broken up since being rammed by the pirate ship. Hungry orcas circle in the water waiting for them to slip in and a couple of daffy seals advise them to join Rockhopper DJ Pingüino Rey (Kyle Phillips) and the other penguins in moving on to the next mountain.


Landing at the Pole, Toto urges Di and the kids to stay on the boat. But they insist on coming and everyone slides through an ice tunnel that leads to the colony's former habitat. Scared that he will never see his parents again, Polito trudges on with the penguins and has to be rescued from the whales by Toto. In a bid to keep the others safe, he smashes an ice bridge so that they can't follow him up the mountain, where he hopes to spot signs of life. However, he slips and gets wedged in an ice crevasse and laments having been a bad husband and father.


Fortunately, Di is just the other side of the ice wall and hears every word. She lures a large walrus into chasing her into the cave and he shatters the ice when he tumbles down the hole. Promising to work as a team from now on, Toto tells Polito that he heard his parents calling for him and there's an emotional reunion. However, the pirates have tracked the GPS and their ship crashes into the ice shelf, which starts to fracture. Toto just prevents Polito from falling into the water, with the orcas prowling. But the penguins board the pirate ship and overpower the Beard brothers, who are vanquished.


Toto needs a warm hug from Papá Oso in order to recover from the effects of extreme cold, but he's able to enjoy the party thrown by Pingüino Rey. Moreover, Willy and Bibi adopt a cracked egg in need of a home. Di sings a song on the voyage home, but things don't work out so well for opposums Tlacua and Cuacheon (whose raft drifts to the South Pole) or the Beard brothers, who receive a message from the circus inspector and his pet Dodo that their licence has been revoked because it's illegal to have performing animals under the big top in Mexico.


There's so much incident packed into this final egg-venture that there's bound to be the occasional lull and contrivance. The notion of Mexican pirates abducting some penguins and a polar bear cub for their travelling circus is faintly absurd. But the story is told with a brio that almost atones for the odd off-colour joke and the over-eagerness of some of the voicework. Moreover, the script broaches issues that may prompt post-screening discussions about the death of an elderly relative, the relationship between children and their parents, animal poaching, or the threat posed by the breaking up of the polar ice caps.


The animation isn't inspired compared to that in the Ice Age or Madagascar movies. But the backdrops are dramatic and the characters have distinctive quirks. Tinies will particularly warm to the furrily cute Polito and the antics of the penguins. But there are some scary moments involving the ravenous orcas that might cause some to watch through their fingers. It's far from a classic. However, as with Jérémie Degruson's recently released puppet romp, The Inseparables, there's more to this family-centric picture than meets the eye - at least for those who take the trouble to look.



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