Parky At the Pictures (31/7/2020)
(Reviews of A Russian Youth; Beanpole; The Traitor; Parasite (b/w); We; Infamous; Stage Mother; and Last and First Men)
Cinemas may be closed during these dismal days. But there are still ways to connect with some of the films on general release over the next few weeks and months. In addition to Curzon Home Cinema. MUBI and the BFI Player, it should also be possible to access the titles under discussion via iTunes, Apple TV, Amazon, Sky Store, Virgin, Microsoft, Vimeo, Google Play, Rakuten, BT and Playstation.
A RUSSIAN YOUTH.
There are two films available this week by students of the great Aleksandr Sokurov. Thirty-one year old Belarusian Alexander Zolotukhin makes an assured feature bow with A Russian Youth, a comparatively rare exploration of life on the Eastern Front during the Great War. But not everyone is going to be convinced by the cutaways from the harrowing historical action that introduce us to the orchestra rehearsing the Sergei Rachmaninoff pieces on the soundtrack, `Piano Concerto No.3 Op. 30' (1909) and `Symphonic Dances Op. 45' (1940).
Alexei (Vladimir Korolev) is part of a Tsarist army unit marching towards its new posting. The other soldiers tease the whey-faced youth and mock him when he scurries into a field to take cover from a flair shooting into the sky. On arriving at their trenched emplacement, the soldiers stash ammunition and position the guns in readiness for a German surge. Much to his delight, Alexei is given a rifle and gazes at the weapon with awed pride, as his comrades prepare to dig in. He plays his concertina to boost morale, but the music falls silent as an artillery bombardment begins.
Although the majority are unscathed, there are a couple of fatalities and Alexei notices that the muddy water sloshing over the duckboard has turned red. A tin can alarm is sounded to warn of incoming gas and Alexei joins the others in trying on a makeshift gas mask and putting on a pair of sunglasses to protect his eyes. This improvised protection fails to work, however, and Alexei is blinded and taken to see the doctor by Corsman (Danil Tyabin) who has lost half of the index finger on one hand, who gets into an argument when they bump into a couple of stretcher bearers. They also get chided by an Orthodox priest when they go into the woods to urinate close to a burial plot.
After a propaganda officer (Filipp Dyachkov) makes Alexei to pose with other wounded troopers for a photograph - only to cause them all to fall over by slipping off the upturned coffin he's standing on to form the back row of the group - he is taken to join a forward detachment detailed to keep watch for enemy advances. When the corpsman tries to put a new uniform on him, Alexei gets ticklish and begins squirming and giggling. His antics are looked upon with disdain by some of the unit, while others feel sorry for him that he is being forced into remaining in service instead of being invalided home.
As he is now blind, it's presumed that Alexei's sense of hearing will have become heightened and he is shown to a giant dual-cylinder horn on a rotating turret that enables him to listen out for evidence of enemy activity. He tries on the leather skull cap fitted with headphones connected to the sound locator by ribbed tubing and tries moving the framework to change its direction.
Returning to camp, he pushes his way though the food queue and is paid back by being shown to a seat at the commander's table. The other diners recoil at the stench from his uniform and, when a snooty officer takes exception to Alexei getting porridge on his uniform, he makes him stand with his arms outstretched so he can whip him across the knuckles with a birch branch. Even the other officers look on in silent dismay, but Alexei refuses to cry out or shed a tear.
Nazarka (Mikhail Buturlov) takes pity on him and tries to keep him out of harm's way by finding him some dry hay to sleep on in a barn loft. The next day, he guides Alexei out to the listening device and is sneaking off for a kip in a field when Alexei thinks he hears German planes approaching. He sounds the alarm and the officer (Sergei Goncharenko) summons the men to ready their guns and camouflage the giant funnels with branches. It proves to be a false alarm and everyone stands down.
As they bathe in a lake, the officer uses his knife to remove a tick from Alexei's cheek and shows him how to flap his tunic so that the lice fall out. Shortly afterwards, Nazarka bundles Alexei into the back of a truck and they drive to the nearby village. While Nazarka chats up a couple of peasant girls (Nadezhda Moskina and Ilya Mozgovov), Alexei wanders off alone and is approached by a priest and an altar boy. He resists their attempts to steer him into the church and he bumps into his friend, who has just been supplanted by a couple of cavalry riders, who seem more dashing.
On returning to their post, Alexei finds himself on listening duty again. He picks out the sound of an enemy aircraft engine and bangs on the alarm pipe to alert his comrades in arms. But he has delayed a little too long and the bombardment begins before the gunners can get into position. Missiles explode around him and he has to be rescued from a crater by Nazarka.
They join a column of refugees and retreating troops heading along a winding road to the village. However, there's no escaping the incoming ordnance and Nazarka becomes separated from his pal until Alexei stumbles across him cowering against the church wall. As a last act of friendship, Nazarka ushers Alexei inside and staggers off along the street.
Inside the darkened church, Alexei is challenged by a German soldier of around the same age. He is perplexed when the Russian reaches out to feel his face. But, as they stand beneath a crucifix dangling upside down from the ceiling Alexei is cornered and taken outside to join the compatriots who have been captured. After he is searched, he is guided towards Nazarka, who feels ashamed at having abandoned Alexei to his fate. But he bears him no ill will and they hug before they are lashed to a heavy field gun with several other prisoners and ordered to haul it along a steep rural road, as the film fades out on their Sisyphean endeavour.
A closing caption acknowledge the participation of the State Orchestra Tavrichesky under the baton on Mikhail Golikov, whose members appear somewhat ill at ease in close-ups capturing them watching the screen on the playback stage. But this self-consciously experimental gambit is nowhere near as intrusive or distracting as the more aghast critics would have you believe.
Despite the facial similarity and comparable levels of expressive intensity between Vladimir Korolev and Alexei Kravchenko, this is also nowhere near as terrifying as Elem Klimov's Great Patriotic War drama, Come and See (1985). Indeed, with its muted colours and dubbed hubbub, it more closely reveals Peter Jackson's They Shall Not Grow Old (2018). With Sokurov acting as creative producer, the action is meticulously staged, as Zolotukhin keeps Ayrat Yamilov's camera moving in an often dizzying pursuit of the sightless anti-hero, who is very much a victim of the blind leading the blind.
More informed observers will detect a greater wealth of symbolic detail, as Zolotukhin marks the centenary of a defeat that precipitated the Bolshevik Revolution that brought down both the Romanov monarchy and the Russian Orthodox Church. No wonder the crucifix is depicted upside down and hanging from a thread. This image typifies Elena Zhukova's thoughtful production design, which is matched by Olga Bahareva's costumes, Tatiana Kuzmichyoca's editing and Andrei Fonin's sound design. Equally arresting is the sound locator, which resembles the contraption in the video for Kate Bush's 1985 single, `Cloudbusting'. Zolotukhin may not yet that that creative or innovative. But here he shows definite signs of promise.
Even when you have the talent of Kantemir Balagov, it helps to be well connected. A former student of Aleksandr Sokurov, Balagov made such an impression with his debut feature, Closeness (2017), that regular Andrei Zvyagintsev collaborator Alexander Rodnyansky agreed to produce his sophomore outing, Beanpole. Inspired by the stories told by Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexeievich in her oral history of women in the Red Army, The Unwomanly Face of War, this searing account of life in the immediate aftermath of the Siege of Leningrad firmly established the 27 year-old Russian as one of the rising talents of world cinema.
During the first autumn after the end of the Great Patriotic War, Iya Sergueeva (Viktoria Mironshnichenko) works as a nurse at the veterans hospital in Leningrad. She suffers from occasional catatonic episodes that cause her to zone out of consciousness and the laundry staff at the hospital simply work round her until she comes to. Administrator Dr Nikolai (Andrei Bykov) has a soft spot for Iya, who is so tall that she is nicknamed `Beanpole', as does one of his paralysed patients, Stepan (Konstantin Balakirev).
Everyone on the ward is pleased when Iya brings young Pashka (Timofei Glazkov) to see them and the wounded men do animal impressions to amuse him. One man with the lower part of his right arm missing flaps like a bird, but Pashka has no idea what a dog is because they have all been eaten during the siege. That night, he woofs happily while trying to get Iya's attention in the single room they share in a crowded building with a communal kitchen. As they romp on the floor, however, Iya has a frozen moment and Pashka's tries in vain to push her away until his little arm falls still.
Returning home some time later, still in a shuffling daze, Iya is dismayed to find Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina) waiting for her. She wears a Red Army uniform covered in medals and has brought Iya some presents. Masha also has a toy dog for her son and, as she tries to coax Iya into chatting, it dawns on her that Pashka is dead. Iya fibs that he passed away in his sleep, but tells Masha that she is to blame for his loss. But the boy's mother is too dazed to react and tells Iya to get ready to go dancing.
The dance hall is closed, so Masha allows them to be picked up by Sasha (Igor Shirokov) and his friend (Veniamin Kac), who have a car. Over swigs of vodka, she tells Iya to go for a walk so she can be alone with Sasha. He's bashful and Masha surprises him by chucking her glass of spirit over him. But it has the right effect, as he does likewise and watches from the front seat as Masha removes her uniform trousers. Hauling him into the backseat, she shows him what to do and he thanks her meekly after orgasm. She tells him he's welcome, but they don't get long to enjoy their moment of intimacy, as Iya drags Sasha out of the vehicle and beats him up before slinging Masha over her shoulder and carrying her home. Sasha's pal has a broken arm, but he finds the entire episode amusing.
At a bathhouse, Iya spots a scar on Masha's belly and doesn't know what it is. She wishes they hadn't gone with the strangers, but Masha hopes she's pregnant as she wants another child. Shortly after reuniting Stepan with Tanya (Alyona Kuchkova), the wife who thought he was dead, Iya gets Masha a job as an orderly at the hospital and she maintains the pretence with Nikolai that Pashka was Iya's boy.
During a visit by Communist Party dignitary, Lyubov Petrovna (Ksenia Kutepova), however, Masha is amused to discover that Sasha is her son. Iya has to hasten one patient away after he bursts his stitches in giving Lyubov a thudding round of sarcastic applause. But Masha keels over after feeling blood trickle from her nose and, when he examines her, Nikolai informs her that her womb was removed during an operation. She asks which one, although she has told Iya that the scar was the result of surgery on a shrapnel wound while she was serving with the anti-aircraft unit to which Iya had also belonged before she was invalided out with shell shock. Masha hopes for a miracle, but Nikolai tells her to face the realities of her situation, as he recommends bed rest for post-combat exhaustion.
Masha asks Iya to bear a child for her, as she owes her for letting Pashka die. However, she doesn't want to face a pregnancy on her own and refuses. Nikolai also turns down the request by Stepan and Tanya to put him out of his misery, as he doesn't want to return to his two daughters in such an enfeebled state. His wife almost wishes he had died, as she can't afford to nurse him and he can't face the prospect of spending the rest of his life in a wheelchair in a home for paraplegics. But Nikolai seems to have a change of heart and gives Iya a vial to inject Stepan in the neck and she blows cigarette smoke into his mouth, as he gently slips away. Looking up, Iya sees Masha watching her from the next bed.
As New Year arrives. Nikolai toasts the onset of happier times. But, as he dances with Masha, she tells him that she knows how he feels to have lost a child during the war, as she was Pashka's mother. She also hands him a signed confession from Iya that she killed the boy and Stepan and she threatens to implicate them both in the latter crime unless Nikolai agrees to father Iya's child. Trapped, he agrees to come to their room and Iya makes Masha lie on the bed and spoons with her, as Nikolai mounts her. Masha flinches, as her friend whimpers gently throughout the act, as much from guilt at harming both Pashka and Nikolai as from any sense of self-pity or animosity towards Masha.
Besotted with Masha, Sasha keeps turning up with food parcels and he tries to make her smile by splashing her with water from her bucket. She's distracted, however, when Iya throws up and Masha is convinced she's pregnant. A doctor at the maternity clinic quickly disabuses her of this notion, however, and informs her that it requires repeated intercourse for a woman to conceive. On learning that Nikolai has resigned through ill health and been replaced by Olga (Lyudmila Motornaya), Iya goes into a panic, as she needs to sleep with another man before Masha discovers the truth.
Elderly neighbour, Shepelev (Dmitri Belkin), has a crush on Iya and urges her to move in with him because Sasha is spending an increasing amount of time with Masha (even helping her paint the walls green) and he hints that the room will become crowded. But Iya is in love with Masha and is charmed when the seamstress from along the corridor (Olga Dragunova) asks her to model a green print dress she is making. Masha asks if she can twirl and the sensation of feeling feminine again momentarily intoxicates her, as a beaming Iya watches her spin.
The realistion that past times cannot be revisited suddenly comes over her, however, and she rips off the dress and bundles the seamstress out of the door. Unable to help herself, Iya pushes Masha against the wall and kisses her on the mouth. She wipes the tears off her cheeks and covers her face with kisses. But Masha resists and Iya has to pin her down to the floor. Suddenly, Masha responds and kisses Iya with an urgency that scares her and she rolls away with streaks of green paint on her face, as Masha lies on her back and gasps for air, as she regains her composure and her control over her friend.
Annoyed by Sasha refusing to eat his porridge, Iya asks Masha why she keeps inviting him round. She insists he is her beau and has no intention of ending things with him. So, Iya stalks off into the night and goes to see Nikolai. While he makes tea, she strips down to her bra and pleads with him to have sex with her again, as she needs to be pregnant to win Masha back. He feels sorry for her and suggests she leaves Leningrad with him to start again.
On arriving home the next morning, Iya sees Masha preparing to meet Sasha's parents and she persuades the seamstress to lend her the green dress. Iya smiles, as she waves them off in Sasha's car. But Lyubov gives them a frosty reception when they arrive at the family's sprawling dacha in the country. When Sasha introduces Masha as his future bride, Lyubov orders them off her property. But they join her and her husband (Denis Kozinets) for lunch and Lyubov lays places for them at the table.
As they eat, she asks Masha what she does. She also inquires about what she did during the war and Masha declares that she was an army camp wife, who slept with the logistics officers to ensure she was always sheltered and fed. While Lyubov listens with steely politeness, Masha discloses that she was `married' many times and had several abortions. But Sasha knows all about her and loves her anyway. He is even fine with Iya bearing their child. But Lyubov tells Masha that she's too good for her worthless son, who will treat her like a plaything and discard her when he's bored. She avers that Masha deserves better, as she has been a war hero of sorts. However, she has no intention of allowing her or her child to become part of her family.
Smiling through the dirty window of a tram, Masha realises that they have stopped. Rumours race that a tall woman has been hit and killed and she pushes her way through the passengers to see a body under the front carriage. Racing home, she is relieved to see Iya sitting by the window. She's in one of her frozen trances and, when she comes round, Masha accuses her of being ready to walk out on her. Iya professes to feeling meaningless and apologises for not being pregnant. But Masha swears her that she won't see Sasha again and promises to stay with her and help raise their new son. Iya smiles, as Masha suggests he will have her nose and Iya's eyes. Relieved to have her friend back, Iya reaches out and they cling to each other, as the screen cuts to the murk of their uncertain future.
The Academy Award for Best Foreign Film (or International Feature as it was recently rebranded) has always been one of the least satisfactory categories. Back in February, the Oscar went, somewhat inevitably, to Bong Joon-hoo's Parasite (see below). Yet, the fact there was no room for Kantemir Balagov's remarkable film shows what a lottery this award is, no matter how commendable Pedro Almodóvar's Pain and Glory, Ladj Ly's Les Miserables, Jan Komasa's Corpus Christi and Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov's Honeyland might have been.
Everything about this harrowing study of war-scarred humanity is exceptional. The reds, greens and ochres in Sergei Ivanov's production design and Olga Smirnova's costumes lock the action into the mid-1940s, while Ksenia Sereda's alert camera repeatedly keeps framing familiar items from arrestingly original angles to coerce the audience into seeing this askance city from the perspective of its traumatised citizens. Stepan Sevastianov and Rostislav Alimov's sound design is also places the viewer in the heart of the action, from the first scene, in which Iya's fraught breathing gives way to silence and, then, the hubbub of the hospital laundry, as she emerges from her trance.
Tall and blonde, with an intensity that suggests she's somehow related to both Vanessa Redgrave and Tilda Swinton, Viktoria Mironshnichenko is remarkable as Iya, the eponymous beanpole whose precise relationship with the spikier, more durable Vasilisa Perelygina remains something of a mystery. Were they both camp followers or did Masha merely make this up to shock Lyubov in, perhaps, the same way that she invented the anti-aircraft battery, the lost husband and her revenge-driven march to Berlin to protect Iya from gossip at the hospital. We never quite discover how hard the loss of Pashka hits Masha, as she has become so used to hiding her feelings behind an inscrutable facade. Wherever the truth lies, it seems clear that Iya's love for Masha runs more deeply and unconditionally, while the latter is too locked into survival mode to allow herself to forgive or trust again.
Andrei Bykov's wearily mournful doctor, Igor Shirokov's Party brat and Ksenia Kutepova's haughty apparatchik are also finely chiselled characterisations, which suggests that Balagov is as good at handling actors as he is at blocking his frames with a painterly eye, meticulously pacing the action and boldly using imagery instead of dialogue to convey information and emotions. Editor Igor Litoninski plays a crucial role in the latter regards, but this is very much the director's triumph.
Writing in tandem with Aleksandr Terekhov, Balagov evokes memories of Fred Zinnemann's Julia (1977), Helma Sanders-Brahms's Germany, Pale Mother (1980) and Max Färberböck's A Woman in Berlin (2008), while his masterly storytelling also manages to imply the influence of writers like Fyodr Dostoevsky and Maxim Gorky and such film-makers as Alexei German and Andrei Zvyagintsev, while resisting the historical revisionism that has become the norm during Vladimir Putin's presidency. Rarely has Russian cinema captured with such unflinching candour the desecration, despair, exhaustion, cruelty and pessimism of a postwar period that has usually been presented through the prism of Socialist Realism. This is, therefore, as much a political statement as it is a work of art. It's also an act of courage, integrity and humanity that sets the bar very high for the remainder of Balagov's career.
The name of Salvatore Riina will be familiar to millions of Italians, as well as cineastes who have seen pictures as different as Ricky Tognazzi's Excellent Cadavers (1999), Paolo Sorrentino's Il Divo (2008), Pierfrancesco `Pif' Diliberto's The Mafia Kills Only in Summer (2013) and Shooting the Mafia (2019), Kim Longinotto's profile of Italy's first female photojournalist, Letizia Battaglia. Totò 'u Curtu crops up again in Marco Bellocchio's The Traitor. But the focus here falls firmly on another key figure in the infamous 1986 Maxi Trial, star witness, Tommaso Buscetta.
On 4 September 1980, St Rosalia's Day, the Cosa Nostra hierarchy meet in Palermo at the villa of Stefano Bontade (Goffredo Maria Bruno) to avoid a turf war by divvying up the heroin trade between the traditional families and the arrivistes from the village of Corleone. Known as `the Boss of Two Worlds', Even though he is only a foot soldier, Tommaso Buscetta (Pierfrancesco Favino) has been invited by Bontade, with his third wife, Maria Cristina de Almeida Guimarães (Maria Fernanda Cândido).
Tommaso is embarrassed by the behaviour of his twentysomething son, Benedetto (Gabriele Cicirello), and, urges his sibling, Antonio (Paride Cicirello), to keep him out of trouble. As the guests dance joyously, Tommaso is aware that he is being watched suspiciously by Totò Riina (Nicola Calì). He poses for a photograph, along with Pippo Calo (Fabrizio Ferracane), Salvatore Contorno (Luigi Lo Cascio), Fra Giacinto (Tatu La Vecchia), and Giuseppe (Alberto Gottuso) and Salvatore Inzerillo (Matteo Contino). But he takes Calo to one side and confides that he is leaving for Brazil and begs him to keep an eye on Benedetto and Antonio, as he is leaving them behind.
Living in Rio de Janeiro under the name Roberto Felici, Tommaso is unaware that Bontade, Fra Giacinto and Giuseppe Inzerillo have been murdered, while his younger brother has had his right arm chopped off before he was slain. However, the turf war comes close to home with the death of his own brother, Vincenzo, and his nephew, Benedetto. Tano Badalamenti (Giovanni Calcagno) flies to Brazil to offer his condolences and try to persuade Tommaso to return to Siciliy, as Totuccio Contorno managed to escape his assassins and wants Riina's clan wiped out before he seizes complete control of the island and its trade.
Initially, Tommaso is unwilling to return. But, when Benedetto and Antonio disappear and Calò stops taking his calls, he realises he's in trouble. Worse follows when he is arrested by Brazilian soldiers and, having been tortured, he is forced to watch Cristina being dangled out of a helicopter in a sadistic bid to coerce him into betraying his trafficking contacts. On 14 July 1984, a week after he tried to commit suicide, he is extradited to Italy by the dictatorship and both Riina and Calò watch news reports, as Tommaso is taken to the San Vitale police headquarters in Rome to meet Judge Giovanni Falcone (Fausto Russo Alesi). He offers him a bargain if he informs on the Coreleonesi, but Tommaso refuses to co-operate. However, a nightmare involving his deceased relatives gathering around his bed and a tearful phone call from Cristina under witness protection in the United States prompts him to chance his mind.
He tells Falcone that the Cosa Nostra he joined as a boy in the late 1940s had principles. It protected the poor and didn't harm women or children (hence a mark he had been detailed to assassinate as a young man going everywhere with his son to stay safe). But he considers Riina to be power-hungry scum because he has changed the rules in declaring open season on anyone who stands in his way.
After a while, Tommaso finds himself sharing a cell with Totuccio, who wants to wipe out Riina's clan and regain control. But Tommaso has realised that he stands more chance of success by providing Falcone with the information to take down the Coreleonesi and he identifies Giuseppe `Scarpuzzedda' Greco (Alessio Praticò) as the killer of Bontade and Salvatore Inzerillo. More names follow and, over shots of scurrying rats, a slew of newspaper headlines declares the Mafia on the run. But Tommaso and Falcone both know that Riina will attempt to silence them and, on 7 December 1984, brother-in-law Pietro Busetta, is gunned down while shopping with his wife. She denounces her brother to the press and suggests he atones in the manner of Judas Iscariot by hanging himself.
On 30 March 1985, Calò is arrested and the Maxi Trial begins in Palermo on 10 February 1986. But there is a commotion in court, as Salvatore Ercolano sews his mouth shut in the dock, while Vincenzo Sinagra throws a fake fit. Others pull similar stunts, while their womenfolk kick up a fuss in the public gallery. Meanwhile, while being measured for a new suit, Tommaso sees ageing Italian president Giulio Andreotti (Giuseppe Di Marca) totter out of a fitting room without any trousers.
When Tommaso returns to Palermo on 2 April 1986, his car is stopped by a demonstration supporting the Mafia for providing jobs. He asks to see where Calò sits in the courtroom and his mind goes back to April 1963 when they had taken their sons to see a white tiger in the zoo. The following day, he takes his place on the witness stand and repeats his contention that he is not a traitor, as he has remained loyal to the tenets of the organisation he joined. Luciano Liggio (Vincenzo Pirrotta) leaps up and demands the right to cross-examine him and the president of the bench grants him permission in due course. Calò makes a similar request and Tommaso has to hold his nerve, as his honour is repeatedly called into question.
A week later, Tommaso is escorted to a bulletproof booth on the dais next to Calò. The latter denies knowing the witness and claims to have been friends only with his brother. They trade accusations and insults, with Calò trying to charm the president with his integrity and quick-wittedness. But Tommaso's controlled fury at his betrayal of their friendship by acquiescing in the murder of his brother and sons strikes home and persuades the others who had wanted to debate with him into withdrawing their requests.
The next day, Totuccio makes his deposition in a broad Sicilian dialect that the mainland lawyers can't understand. He is more willing to confront the men in the dock than Tommaso and he turns to accuse them of being so debased by drug money that they no longer care if their own kids become addicts or succumb to AIDS, so long as Riina keeps raking in the cash. Liggio takes exception to his remarks, but Totuccio is determined to nail the men who tried to kill him and who deflected the Cosa Nostra from its purpose. While he keeps the court in a ferment, Falcone comes to bid farewell to Tommaso, who is about to leave to join Cristina and his children in a witness protection placement in the United States. They shake hands with mutual respect, as Falcone promises that everything has an end as well as a beginning - even the Mafia.
The sentences flash across the screen as they are read out on 16 December 1987, with Calò getting 23 years and a 200 million lira fine. Only Liggio is acquitted and Riina watches on television, as his life sentence in absentia is delivered.
Three years later, in Salem, New Hampshire, Tommaso is unnerved by a singing Santa in an Italian restaurant and they are forced to move to Fort Collins, Colorado. Totuccio lives nearby and they meet up at the car dealership where he works. He wants to go back to Palermo to whack Riina and Tommaso admires his crazy pluck. They reminisce about Falcone, but he is killed in a car bomb attack on 23 May 1992. Tommaso and Cristina watch Rosaria Costa, the widow of associate Vito Schifano, read her message of defiance and forgiveness at his funeral.
This persuades Tommaso to return home, but his wife refuses to accompany him. On 15 January 1993, Riina is arrested in his car and faces Tommaso in court on 19 November. Riina claims not to know him and refuses to rise to the bait that he has helped the state defeat the Cosa Nostra by corrupting it and making it detestable. He is followed into the box by Salvatore Cancemi (Ludovico Caldarera), another time-server turning his back with reluctance because Riina ordered the murder of women and children.
In damning others, Cancemi also confesses to several crimes and Tommaso is appalled to hear that he killed Antonio, while Calò strangled Benedetto. Unable to forgive the treachery of murdering someone he had known as a child, Tommaso vows to have Calò killed, even though he is with Riina in the Asinara Island Maximum Security Prison. He also goes public with what he knows about Andreotti's connections with the Cosa Nostra and the former president goes on trial in Rome in 1996.
Cross-examined by Franco Coppi (Bebo Storti), Tommaso crumbles as he is confronted with numerous minor contradictions in his past evidence that are made to seem more momentous than they are. Calò crows with delight from his cell at the back of the court and quotes the song that the restaurant Santa had sung in Salem. His eyes well up with tears, as he feels humiliated and angry that his courageous truth has been made to seem base and mercenary by Coppi's suggestions that he had only provided information for the money that enabled him to take Cristina on cruises and pay for plastic surgery.
On his 71st birthday, Tommaso sings a sentimental ballad for the friends he has made from Falcone's office and his surviving family. But he has been warned about his health by his doctor and he dozes off while sitting on a rooftop of his home in Miami, Florida on 2 April 2000. Cristina had covered him with a blanket, while he slept on a balmy evening and the sight of some scavenging dogs remind him of the moment he had finally killed the man who had spent years hiding behind his son, as he smoked a cigarette alone in a courtyard after his wedding.
Closing captions, over footage of the real Tommaso Buscetta singing for his friends, reveal that his testimony led to 366 Cosa Nostra arrests in Italy. Among them was Pippo Calò, who is serving five life sentences in Milan. After serving six years, Totuccio Contorno was arrested for drug trafficking in 1997. Seven years later, he was charged with extortion, but he is currently at liberty. Totò Riina died behind bars in Parma on 17 November 2017, while serving 19 life sentences. Since her husband's death, in his own bed, Cristina has remained in witness protection in the United States.
Marco Bellocchio has come a long way since making a powerful debut at the age of 25 with Fists in the Pocket (1965), a subversive stab at bourgeois Catholic morality that was funded by his family and largely filmed on their property. He has never shied away from controversy, whether satirising the rise of Maoism in the Italian provinces in China Is Near (1967); exposing abuse in boarding schools in In the Name of the Father (1971); denouncing the state's bid to discredit the revolutionary left in Slap the Monster on Page One (1972); challenging the necessity of military service in Victory March (1976); questioning the legal system's understanding of society in A Leap in the Dark (1980), recalling his own twin brother's suicide in The Eyes, the Mouth (1982); exploring notions of female passion in Devil in the Flesh (1986); investigating the process of canonisation in My Mother's Smile (2002); or debating the issue of euthanasia in Dormant Beauty (2012).
Always ready to examine the impact of recent history on Italian society,
Bellocchio has also tackled such factual stories as the assassination of former Christian Democrat prime minister Aldo Moro by Red Brigade terrorists in Good Morning, Night (2003) and the life of Benito Mussolini's mistress, Ida Dalser, in Vincere (2009). Now, for the first time in his 55-year career, he has devoted an entire film to the Cosa Nostra and. while The Traitor often makes for compelling viewing, it falls some way short of Bellocchio's best work.
Writing in conjunction with Valia Santella, Ludovica Rampoldi and Francesco Piccolo, Bellocchio tells his tale with pace and panache, as he slips in the odd flashback to make sense of Tommaso Buscetta's connections and reinforce the enormity of his decision to turn state's evidence. Yet this is also a rather elementary recap of the events surrounding the Maxi Trial and its consequences. Imposingly played with contradictory flecks of inscrutability and vulnerability by Pierfrancesco Favino, Buscetta is the only fully fleshed character, with other key figures like Giovanni Falcone, Totò Riina, Totuccio Contorno and Pippo Calò lingering in the wings until called upon to participate in a spikily scripted set-piece. In each instance, the performances are rock solid, as is the case with Maria Fernanda Cândido's Cristina. But there's little of the dangerous intimacy that Javier Bardem and Penélope Cruz brought to the roles of Pablo Escobar and Virginia Vallejo in Fernando León de Aranoa's Loving Escobar (2017).
There's a lot of dense detail to pack into the sprawling narrative and those familiar with Falcone's crusade against the Mafia will find it easier to follow than newcomers. Yet, while Bellocchio provides little criminous context for Buscetta's revolt against the methodology of the Corleonesi (and, thus, highlights what a ruthless man he was in his own right), he does a splendid job with the courtroom sequences, which crackle with both cynical wise guy wit and the seething fury felt on either side at the treachery of the other. Bellocchio also makes solid use of his first-ever CGI effects in the scenes depicting Cristina's helicopter ordeal and the car bombing.
Blessed with impeccable costume and production design, Bellocchio and cinematographer Vladan Radovic are able to contrast the more opulent settings in Palermo and Rio with the functionality of the fortified courtroom. Editor Francesca Calvelli handles action sequences and expository montages with controlled pugnacity, while composer Nicola Piovani resists the temptation to add the odd overly operatic flourish to a score that is artfully complemented by the inclusion of items like `Va, pensiero' from Giuseppe Verdi's Nabucco and Guadaloupe Pineda's Mexican classic, `Historia de un amor'. So, while this pentito saga may be short on narrative novelty, it's superbly made by an 80 year-old who deserves to be ranked among the greats of Italian cinema.
Before he decided to release the Oscar-winning Parasite in a black-and-white version, South Korean director Bong Joon-ho had not been one to repeat himself. Since debuting with Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000), a macabre comedy about an unemployed college professor turning on the canines running amok in his apartment block, Bong has turned his hand with equal adeptness to the serial killer crime drama (Memories of Murder, 2003), the creature feature (The Host, 2006), grim social dramedy (Mother, 2009), the sci-fi actioner (Snowpiercer, 2013) and the political allegory (Okja, 2017). Yet, while these films may be different in theme and tone, they are united by a lacerating sense of satire that denounces the growing divide between the classes in a country forever looking over its shoulder at it dangerously unpredictable neighbour to the north.
It's become unfashionable to label film-makers as auteurs, but Bong confirmed his status with Parasite, which saw him become the first Korean director to win the Palme d'or at Cannes and the Academy Award for Best Picture. Coming on top of the Golden Globes and the BAFTAs he had already won, Bong was able to reach an unprecedented audience with a howl of rage that often feels like a Korean variation on Hirokazu Kore-eda's Shoplifters (2018), another Cannes winner that approached the theme of poverty with a hint more narrative boldness and dash more disarming wit.
Kim Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho) lives in a cramped Seoul basement with his wife, Chung-sook (Chang Hyae-jin), and children, Ki-woo (Song Kang-ho) and Ki-jeong (Park So-dam). Despite being willing to work, the Kims can only find jobs in the gig economy and make a botched job of folding boxes for a nearby pizzeria. However, Ki-woo's friend, Min (Park Seo-joon) offers him the chance to take on his home-tutoring job while he is studying in the United States. Using photoshopping skills that her father considers worthy of the Oxford School of Forgery, Ki-jeoing creates some certificates for her brother and he sets off to meet Park Da-hye (Jeong Ji-so), a 15 year-old who resides with her father, Dong-ik (Lee Sun-kyun), mother, Yeon-gyo (Cho Yeo-jeong), and brother, Da-song (Jung Hyeon-jun), in an elegant, gated house with a sprawling garden in a smart part of the city.
Shown into by housekeeper Gook Moon-gwang (Lee Jung-eun), Ki-woo makes an immediate impression on Yeon-gyo, who decides to call him Kevin after watching him take Da-hye's pulse during the tutorial in a bid to show her how she needs to keep calm when answering exam questions. As he is leaving, Ki-woo has a sucker arrow fired at him by Da-song, a wild child with an obsession with Native Americans and an eccentric gift for art. Ki-woo tells Yeon-gyo about a college classmate named Jessica, who trained in the United States and she immediately asks him to bring her to the house.
Of course, Jessica is Ki-jeong, who impresses Yeon-gyo with her calm control over her son and her insistence that he needs art therapy four times a week to suppress his potentially psychotic tendencies. However, Da-hye is jealous because she thinks Ki-woo has a crush on Ki-jeong and he has to pay her a lavish compliment and kiss her on the lips in order to reassure her. Chauffeur Yoon (Park Geun-rok) is also suspicious when Ki-jeong asks him to drop her off at a train station rather than drive her to her door. Realising he could be a threat, she plants a pair of knickers under the driver's seat for Dong-ik to find and he and Yeon-gyo agree to replace him with Ki-taek, who poses as an experience chauffeur and friend of Ki-jeong's family.
He passes a coffee cup cornering test with flying colours and Dong-ik quickly comes to confide in Ki-taek. Thus, when they discover that Moon-gwang is allergic to peaches, the Kims devise an elaborate ruse to convince Yeon-gyo that the housekeeper is suffering from tuberculosis. They even smear a tissue with chili sauce to make it look like she has coughed up blood. No sooner has she been dismissed than Ki-taek tells Dong-ik about an exclusive domestic service called The Care and Ki-jeong puts on a droning voice to pose as the company secretary when Yeon-gyo calls to find a new housekeeper and is informed that Chung-sook would suit her perfectly.
The Kims are delighted to have found well-paid jobs with the Parks and put it down to the scholar stone that Min gave them before going abroad. But they are put on the alert when Da-song accuses Ki-taek, Chung-sook and Ki-jeong of smelling alike and they agree to use different soaps and fabric conditioners - and move out of the basement where drunks frequently stop to pee - in order to remove the smell of poverty from their clothes.
When the Parks go away on a camping trip, the Kims move into the house for a week of light, space and luxury. Chung-sook is less than amused by the prospect of having to pamper the three Park dogs, Zoonie, Berry and Foofoo, but she agrees with her husband that it's a small price to pay, especially as the Parks are so nice - for rich people. They particularly like Yeon-gyo, as she is so naive and malleable. But Ki-woo admits to having a crush on Da-hye and suggests they could even marry one day. The family is joking about how they would have to hire actors to play them on Ki-woo's wedding day when their reverie is interrupted by Moon-gwang, who shows up in the middle of a thunderstorm and asks via the intercom if she can tend to something she had left behind in the kitchen basement.
Leaving Chung-sook to answer the door, the other three snoop from behind a pillar and follow Moon-gwang into the secret room where she has been hiding her husband, Geun-sae (Park Myung-hoon), from vicious loan sharks for over four years. She explains that Namgoong, the architect who built the house, had not told the Parks about the hideaway and she had used it to keep her spouse safe. She offer Chung-sook some money to keep feeding Geun-sae, but she unexpectedly gains the upper hand when Ki-taek, Ki-woo and Ki-jeung tumble out of their hiding place and Moon-gwang captures Ki-woo calling Ki-taek `dad' on her mobile phone. She threatens to send the clip to Yeon-gyo unless they co-operate.
Upstairs, Moon-gwang has the Kims kneel on the floor with their hands in the air, while she gives Geun-sae a massage. He compares the send button to Kim Jong-un's nuclear launcher and laughs as his wife impersonates a North Korean newsreader hailing the Supreme Leader's sagacity in turning the country's last weapon on this wicked family. However, they momentarily take their eye off the ball and the Kims leap on them and not only delete the footage, but also overpower their conquerors.
At that moment, the phone rings and Yeon-gyu orders Chung-sook to cook a special noodle dish for Da-song, who is sulking because they had to abandon the campsite because of the storm. They are eight minutes away and the Kims have to use some peaches to incapacitate Moon-gwang, while Ki-woo and Ki-jeong try to remove evidence of their presence and Ki-taek drags Moon-gwang and Geun-sae back into the secret room. The former escapes just as the Parks arrive and Chung-sook knocks her cold by kicking her down the stairs and Ki-taek is able to pull the shelving back in front of the entrance before anyone notices.
Da-song (who once saw Geun-sae and thought he was a ghost) is determined to camp and fetches his teepee from his room and his parents allow him to sleep in the garden. They decide to spend the night on the sofa so they can keep an eye on him. Dong-ik thinks he can smell Ki-taek, as he has a distinctive odour of boiled radishes. But they soon start fondling each other, unaware that the Kims are hiding under the table in front of them and that Ki-taek has been nettled by the remark about the poor having a telltale smell.
When Dong-ik and Yeon-gyo fall asleep, the trio emerge from under the table, but Ki-taek nearly gets caught when Da-song sends a walkie-talkie message about not being able to sleep and his parents wake up. The Kims manage to make their escape through the garage and run through the streets in the torrential downpour. They arrive home to find that their apartment has flooded and they are only able to salvage a few possessions before the water rises too far. Meanwhile, back in the Park basement, the concussed Moon-gwang can feel herself losing consciousness and she tells Geun-sae that Chung-sook kicked her downstairs. Despite being bound and gagged, he uses the button for the hall light to spell out `H-E-L-P' in Morse code and Da-song gets the message.
Ki-taek and his children are forced to spend the night in a gymnasium and he tells Ki-woo that making plans is foolish because they never work out. The next morning, they have to accept donated clothing in order to come to the impromptu garden party that Yeon-gyu has decided to throw for Da-song's birthday. She upsets Ki-taek in the car by feeling queasy when she gets a whiff of his body odour, while Dong-ik urges Chung-sook to set up the tables quietly because Da-song is taking a nap in his tent.
Watching the party guests while kissing Da-hye in her room, Ki-woo seems distracted and wanders off carrying the scholar stone. While Dong-ik explains to Ki-taek how they are going to stage a mock Native American tomahawk fight with Da-song to boost his self-esteem, Yeon-gyu corrals Ki-jeung into carrying her son's birthday cake. Meanwhile, Ki-woo goes into the secret basement, only to be overpowered by Geun-sae, who caves in his head with the stone before making his escape. Grabbing a knife from the kitchen, he goes in search of Chung-sook, but stabs Ki-jeong in the chest instead.
This causes Da-song to have a fit and Dong-ik calls to Ki-taek for the cat keys so he can drive him to the hospital. As he tosses them from beside a profusely bleeding Ki-jeong. Chung-sook attacks Geun-sae with a meat skewer and he lands on the keys. Seeing Dong-ik react to Geun-sae's smell, Ki-taek snaps and he picks up the carving knife and stabs his employer before staggering away in a daze.
A month later, Ki-woo comes out of a coma to learn that his sister had died of her wounds. Unable to do anything but laugh, he goes on trial with his mother for fraud and various other charges. They receive a suspended sentence and he revisits the house and sees the landing light flashing out a message in Morse. He learns that his father is hiding in the basement room and sneaks out to steal food from the German family renting the property. Living in the family's renovated apartment, Ki-woo writes a letter to Ki-taek promising to make enough money to buy the house and set him free. But, while this seems eminently possible in his imagination, the truth is somewhat harsher.
Putting a bleakly comic twist on the home invasion format, this fascinating, but far from faultless film contains echoes of everything from Jean Genet's The Maids (1947) and Pier Paolo Pasolini's Theorem (1968) to Claude Chabrol's La Cérémonie (1995). Yet, for all the ingenuity of Bong's direction and the brilliance of his estimable ensemble, this often feels as calculating as the brand of `soapcial realism' that Ken Loach and screenwriter Paul Laverty peddled in Sorry We Missed You, which throws everything but the kitchen sink at a Newcastle family of four.
The characters are ciphers who exist to fulfil their role in the scenario. But, while Bong and Han Jin-won's writing couldn't be more precise in its exposition of this specific example of the chasm between the Korean classes, there's no real sense of lives being lived outside the Kim's dead-end subterranean flat that confines them below the lowest rung on the ladder and the Park's opulent abode, which was designed to show off its creator's genius rather than provide a comfortable living space. Indeed, the only time we gain a wider perspective comes when the Kims are forced to sleep in a gym with neighbours who have been driven out of their homes by sewage caused by the same deluge that barely disturbs Da-song in his American-bought wigwam.
Not a detail inside Lee Ha-jun's impeccable production design is wasted, but this reinforces the sense that Bong is manipulating the audience's response to material that has been expressly designed to balance antipathies while provoking outrage at the state of millennial capitalism and the indifference of the Haves towards the murderous struggle of the Have-Nots for the crumbs being thrown from their table. Why else would Dong-ik's software company be called Another Buck or would Chung-sook have once been a medal-winning shot putter? But what else do we know about them or their personalities or their ideals and aspirations? They are merely pieces in a fiendishly elaborate parable about the occupation of the moral high ground that is neither as funny as it could be or as disquietingly furious as Lee Chang-dong's study of working-class angst, Burning (2018).
Despite describing this as `a comedy without clowns, a tragedy without villains', Bong isn't in the same league as Luis Buñuel when it comes to bashing the bourgeoisie. But, make no mistake, this is film-making of the highest order, with Hong Kyung-po's photography, Yang Jin-mo's editing and Jung Jae-il's score enhancing the sense of accomplishment and polish. Moreover, Bong is absolutely right to rail against the inequality of opportunity in the modern world and the way in which the cosseted children of privilege are being stunted by indulgent parents straining to protect them from reality. But, with the exception of the consciously messy denouement, his approach is too neat and knowingly sophisticated to drive home the point with the rawness, raggedness and recklessness that one associates with the best satire.
And what about the monochrome, you rightly ask. Remember what we said at the beginning about Bong not being the kind to repeat himself? Well, he's actually done the b/w business once before, with his fourth feature, Mother. As before, he worked with his cinematographer and colorist to regrade the imagery and there's no doubt that the contrast between the neo-realist basement and the White Telephone townhouse is more striking. Indeed, the different textures between the two worlds brings to mind Joseph Losey's The Servant (1963), in which Dirk Bogarde and Sarah Miles launched a downstairs takeover against James Fox and Wendy Craig.
Bong has joked that his mother refused to let him go to the pictures as a boy because the local fleapit was precisely that. Consequently, he saw the masterworks of world cinema on a black-and-white television set. As he told one interviewer, `I think it may be vanity on my part, but when I think of the classics, they're all in black and white. So, I had this idea that if I turned my films into black and white then they'd become classics.'
The inkiness of the visuals tips the action into noir territory, but it also makes the humour that bit darker. It's unlikely that Bong will have seen Mario Zampi's Too Many Crooks (1959), but it bears comparison with Parasite B/W, as the underdogs get to have their day at the expense of the hissably smarmy Terry-Thomas. In describing his own response to the monochrome take, Bong confided to the Hollywood Reporter, `The first time, it felt like I was watching an old movie, a story from long ago. But the second time, the movie felt more intense; it felt [more] cruel.'
He's not wrong and there's much fun to be had for serious cineastes to watch the two versions back to back in differing orders to spot contrast responses. Of course, they would never dream of watching the original cut of John Huston's The Maltese Falcon (1941) with the much- and rightly detested colorised version. Proponents of this painting-by-numbers technology argued that detractors were snobs who didn't want multiplex audiences to gain an appreciation of the classics. Supporters of dubbing air similar arguments in decrying subtitles.
While he has every right to do so, Bong has achieved his alternative vision through manipulating pixels rather than lighting sets designed to register on the grey scale. Whatever the legitimacy of the gambit, it pays off on an aesthetic, as well as on a curio level. But one can only hope that he hasn't started a trend for directorchrome cuts.
Northern Europe has a peerless reputation for films about children and young adults. Although Hollywood has cornered the market, the features produced in Germany, Denmark, Norway and Sweden are notable for the way in which they tackle social situations pertinent to young audiences without patronising them. The Netherlands also has a fine record in this regard, with Steven Wouterlood's My Extraordinary Summer With Tess (2019) being one of the unassuming pleasures of last autumn's London Film Festival.
When it comes to teenage transgression, however, even the northlanders struggle to hit the right balance between subversion and exploitation. This is particularly true in the case of We, TV and music video specialist Rene Eller's adaptation of Elvis Peeters's provocative novel, Wij, which falls into many of the traps that made Larry Clark's Harmony Korine-scripted kids (1995) such controversial picture.
Set in a small town on the Belgian-Dutch border, the story of a tumultuous summer is related by four teenagers involved in a court case that has the population gripped. In each account, Simon (Tijmen Govaerts), Ruth (Maxime Jacobs), Liesl (Pauline Casteleyn) and Thomas (Aime Claeys) recall how they joined with Ena (Laura Drosopoulos), Femke (Salomé van Grunsven), Jens (Friso van der Werf) and Karl (Folkert Verdoorn) to spend the holidays indulging in a little sexual experimentation.
It all starts innocently enough, as they ride their bikes along winding country lanes and hang out at an abandoned caravan on the outskirts of town. But the uninhibited underage gang soon gets bored playing games in which the girls expose their genitals on a motorway bridge, try to guess what objects are being inserted into their behinds or find new ways of listening to iPods. Instead, the boys hit upon the idea of making their own porn videos and, not only do the girls readily fall in with the plan, but they also agree to prostitute themselves out to older men. Indeed, business is so brisk that they have to recruit Loesje (Lieselot Siddiki) and Sarah (Gaia Sofia Cozijn) to share the load.
Things are far from hunky dory at home for the four narrators, as Simon misses his father (Pieter Embrechts) and has nothing but contempt for Guy (Michael Pas), the show-off boyfriend of his mother, Vera (Barbara Sarafian). Ruth, who adores Simon and wishes he didn't have such a crush on Femke, has domestic issues of her own, as her mother (Christine van Stralen) doesn't like her spending so much time with a dissolute crowd. Liesl similarly has little respect for her mother, Patricia (Joke Devynck). But she also feels herself to be superior to the others in the cabal and insists that what they deem to be acts of rebellion are artworks.
She delights in pushing the others out of their comfort zones and tries to coerce them into confronting real life. But Thomas is easily the most messed up, as he is regarded as something of a loser by his father, Martin (Axel Daeseleire), and older brother, Frederik (Vincent Van Sande). Only his mother (Karlijn Sileghem) offers him any support, but he despises her right-wing views and the fact she is backing Bart Van Langendonck (Tom Van Bauwel) to become the new mayor in the forthcoming election.
What she doesn't know is that he regularly avails himself of the service provided by the girls. As does a moped salesman (Dominique Van Malder), who is forced to let Thomas have three bikes at a sizeable discount after he threatens to post footage of him having sex in a car. Thomas starts to emerge as the dominant force in the gang, even though he alienates Ruth by hitting Sarah with reckless force while punching her stomach in the hope of inducing an abortion. Liesl is also dismayed when he ties an elderly woman's stolen dog to the railway line by its lead, but she knows nothing about the fact that he also drugs and rapes Loesje before carving the word `whore' into her groin and urinating on her.
Moreover, shortly after the stunt on the flyover causes a multi-car pile-up, Thomas accidentally kills Femke when she bangs her head after he thrusts an icicle in her anus. He hides the body in the caravan and sets light to it and starts a whispering campaign that lands Van Langendonck in the dock. During the trial, he delivers damning testimony about the mayorial candidate abusing him as a boy and roping his friends into a sordid brothel and blackmail racket that he tried to cover up when things went wrong. Several months later, Thomas meets up with Simon, who congratulates him on getting them all off the hook. But, when he jokes about the bogus abuse claims, Thomas goes sullenly quiet.
From the moment it flashes up the dubious claim to have been based on actual events, this unapologetic, but hugely resistible film goes out of its way to shock, in much the same way that Paul Verhoeven, Todd Solondz, Lars von Trier, Harmony Korine and Yann Gonzalez respectively set out to do with much greater success with Spetters (1980), Happiness, The Idiots (both 1998), Trash Humpers (2009) and Spring Breakers (2012), and You and the Night (2013). But, despite the overweening sense of self-satisfaction, this sordid rite of passage fails in almost every regard.
As the cartoonishly calculating and callously misanthropic Thomas, Aimé Claeys flips into full-on Christian Slater mode. But there's nothing remotely amusing here as JD's murderous spree in Michael Lehmann's bleak satire, Heathers (1989). Moreover, the fact that the action presents the same events from four contrasting perspectives doesn't make this the Dutch teenpic variation on Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon (1950). Comparisons with such female-directed studies of outrageous adolescent insurgency as Sofia Coppola's The Virgin Suicides (1999) and The Bling Ring (2013), Catherine Hardwicke's Thirteen (2003) and Barbara Kopple's Havoc (2005) are even further wide of the mark.
In fairness to the juvenile leads, several of whom are appearing before a camera for the first time, they do a decent job of putting a millennial spin on the kind of degenerate delinquency that only occurs in the warped minds of sensationalist novelists and attention-seeking movie-makers. Eller also just about makes the case that the parents and a wider society dehumanised by social media are every bit as culpable as the kids for their despicably solipsistic hedonism. But the sociological context is sketchy at best and, while Eller and editor Wouter van Luijn just about avoid turning Maxime Desmet's camera into a voyeur's sinister conduit, this remains a grubby little picture of little artistic merit that lacks the courage of its designerly debased convictions. Its all-pervading pessimism, however, is crushingly credible.
Over the last six years, Joshua Caldwell has done remarkably well to make four features on what one can only imagine were limited resources. Prior to the streaming release of Infamous, British audiences would only have had a chance to see Be Somebody (2016) on Amazon Prime, as neither Layover (2014) nor Negative (2017) was picked up in this country. Unfortunately, judging solely on the basis of this stodgy and hugely derivative lovers on a spree scenario, Caldwell is a better movie magpie than he is a director.
As she records a last message for her online followers in a bank strewn with cash and corpses, Arielle Summers (Bella Thorne) breaks the fourth wall to introduce herself and explain that she has always wanted to be famous. We flashback to see her barely existing as a schoolgirl-cum-waitress in a Florida backwater with her mother, Janet (Marisa Coughlan), and her trailer slob beau, Bobby (Joey Oglesby). But a catfight into a nightclub puts Arielle on the social media map when it nabs her 147 extra followers and the adrenaline rush makes her eager for more.
Ignoring the warnings of galpals Emma (Aaliyah Muhammad), Kelsey (Madison Bready) and Stacy (Rose Lane Sanfilippo) to stay away from mechanic Dean Taylor (Jake Manley) because he's done time for armed robbery and assault, Arielle makes a play for him at a party. Bonding over hooch and dope, they make out in his car and plan to make a break for freedom after he teacher her how to fire his gun. Having discovered that Bobby has stolen her savings from a box underneath her bed, Arielle threatens to kill him and storms out nursing a banged head after he pushes her away. She gets another trying to intervene in a fight between Dean and his dad, which results in the latter suffering a fatal fall down the stairs.
Deciding the time is right to quit `the redneck Riviera' for Hollywood, Arielle films Dean knocking over a gas station and is thrilled by the response of her rapidly growing fan base. He's less amused to see their exploits online, but she assures him that she has an ID blocker and that being famous will pay off in the long run. Sourcing a gun on a library computer, the pair seek out a drug dispensary because dealers tend to keep their cash close because they can't get bank accounts. This time, Arielle gives the orders and feels such a thrill that she can't wait to do it again and a blag montage to driving indie pop follows showing her wearing a range of brightly coloured wigs and designer kerchiefs. Giant pink letters also show the leap in her follower tally to over three million.
When a TV news bulletin identifies them as `a modern day Bonnie and Clyde', Dean freaks. But all Arielle has ever wanted is to be a celebrity and she has no intention of disappointing her legion. So, when they lie low in a half-built house after she shoots a sheriff who pulls them over for speeding, she starts to lose followers. Dean doesn't seem to care and insists they stay put until he says so. But Arielle refuses to be told what to do and, in a bid to silence the trolls, she tries to hold up a gas station alone. However, she merely winds up killing an innocent bystander and getting shot in the arm by the clerk, who has a pump-action shotgun under the counter.
Furious that Arielle would do something so reckless (again), Dean forgets the money bag in speeding away from the hideout. Once again, Arielle gets a buzz from shooting at the pursuing cops and takes a selfie of her gunshot wound. But Dean has had enough and demands to know why she fails to see the trouble they are in and why her fixation with fame has backfired on them. But they wind up kissing passionately and find a safe haven after taking a hostage, Elle (Amber Riley), who turns out to be a fan. A telemarketer unable to pay off her student loans, she likes the fact that the fugitives are sticking it to the Man. However, Dean regards it all as a twisted fantasy and Arielle is hurt by the fact that her lover doesn't understand her.
Elle helps them cross from Texas into Oklahoma by hiding Dean in the boot and posing as Arielle's sorority sister. But, while she is fine with Elle coming with them, Dean feels it's safer to leave her on a country road with a bottle of water in the heat. They rendezvous with Dean's old cellmate, Kyle (Michael Sirow), who wants to graduate from pushing to bank robbery. However, he isn't impressed with Arielle's self-promotion and warns her that he can't afford to have any loose cannons aboard. Dean feels the heist is too risky, but Arielle can't resist a six-figure payday before they head to Mexico.
Defying Kyle's order, she streams the raid and he loses his patience with a teller when they realise the bank is low on funds. Much to his dismay, the cops have been following Arielle's coverage and Dean defends his woman's honour in a shootout that leaves him and Kyle dead. Arielle delivers her speech to her followers before allowing herself to be arrested so that she can parade in front of the massed ranks of her cheering fans in the street outside and give a slo-mo wink to the camera as she passes out of shot.
You have to give Caldwell credit: he borrows from the best. Following a finale flashback à la Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity (1944) and Edgar G. Ulmer's Detour (1945), he takes nihilistic cues from such lovers on the lam classics Joseph H. Lewis's Gun Crazy (1950), Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Tony Scott's True Romance (1993), Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers (1994) and Gregg Araki's The Doom Generation (1995). But, oh for a bit more of the craft and guile on offer in Fritz Lang's You Only Live Once (1937), Luchino Visconti's Ossessione (1942), Jean-Luc Godard's Pierrot le fou (1965), Terrence Malick's Badlands (1973) and Robert Altman's Thieves Like Us (1974).
He knows what he's doing, but what he does lacks invention and verve. Eve Cohen's photography and Will Torbett's editing are solid enough, but they are put to such predictable use. Arielle films everything, so why not show a bit more of the action from her phone rather than simply having her hold the camera next to her cocked pistol during each raid. Moreover, if she's so obsessed with celebrity, why not have her interact with a few fans online? She could at least have a hissy fit at some of the negative comments on the site. But Caldwell reduces her craving to a MacGuffin, when it's her raison d'être and the sole source of friction with Dean.
Having directed the hardcore Pornhub short, Her & Him (2019), to shatter the image that Disney created for her as CeCe Jones in Shake It Up (2010-13), Bella Thorne is clearly up for playing the bad girl. But she winds up having to ham to the point of hissibility because Caldwell has given her such a vapidly needy sociopathic stick figure to work with that her only interesting feature is that she was named after the heroine of Disney's The Little Mermaid (1989). Partner in crime Jake Manley is even more poorly served with a characterisation that is no more substantial than the bumfluff on his chin.
At least he gets to deride the star-crossed charade during his cosy chat with aspiring accomplice Amber Riley. But her willingness to go down in a hail of bullets because she can't pay off the debts incurred studying art history exposes the entire wit-free, cliché-strewn exercise for the thematically hamfisted, indulgently self-satisfied and flashily specious nonsense that it is. If you still have an irresistible hankering for a shoot `em twosome `gotta love America' movie, invest your hard-earned in either David Lowery's Ain't Them Bodies Saints (2013) or Malina Matsoukas's Queen & Slim (2019) instead.
The wheel comes full circle with Thom Fitzgerald's Stage Mother, as Canada was also responsible for Richard Benner's Outrageous (1977), a pioneering comedy about a hairdresser who moonlights as a female impersonator. In between times, drag clubs have featured in a clutch of films as different (or the same) as Édouard Molinaro's La Cage aux Folles (1978) and Mike Nichols's Hollywood remake, The Birdcage (1996); Stephan Elliott's The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994); Beeban Kidron's To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything, Julie Newmar (1995); Joel Schumacher's Flawless (1999); Travis Fine's Any Day Now (2012); and, more recently, Jamie Patterson's Tucked (2018), which featured a bravura performance from 60s tough guy, Derren Nesbitt.
When addict drag queen Rickey (Eldon Thiele) fatally collapses on stage at Pandora's Box in San Francisco, Maybelline Metcalf (Jacki Weaver) feels a pang of guilt at having allowed her highly conservative husband, Jeb (Hugh Thompson), to shape her reaction to their son coming out. Maybelline and sister Bevette (Lenore Zann) sing in the choir of the Southern Baptist chapel in the tiny Texan town of Red Vine and tongues start to wag when she buys a ticket to California in order to attend Rickey's funeral.
On arriving in the Castro District of the City by the Bay, Maybelline receives a cool welcome from Rickey's business and life partner, Nathan (Adrian Grenier), who is unable to forgive her for the fact that Rickey never got over their parental rejection. He is also angry that he can't afford to keep the club open and deeply resents that the Metcalfs will profit from its sale. However, having turned on her heels at Rickey's funeral after seeing drag artistes accompanying the eulogy, Maybelline has a damascene change of heart after getting to know her son's best friend, Sienna (Lucy Liu), whose infant son (who just happens to be named Rickey) needs a babysitter.
Calling Jeb to inform him that she is staying in Frisco to sort out Rickey's effects, Maybelline watches artistic director Dusty Muffin (Jackie Beat) supervising a lip synching session with star turns Cherry Poppins (Mya Taylor), Joan of Arkansas (Allister MacDonald) and Tequila Mockingbird (Oscar Moreno). As the conductor of the church choir, Maybelline knows a thing or two about carrying a tune and she suggests that the trio use their own voices instead of miming. This prompts Dusty to quit on the spot and Nathan is even more furious with Maybelline and it's only when Sienna arranges a dinner party for them to get to know each other better that the ice begins to thaw.
Handily, Bear the bartender (Garrett Baer) also happens to be a fine pianist and he volunteers to accompany Cherry, Joan and Tequila during rehearsals. But it soon becomes apparent to Maybelline that each of her new friends has a problem that is holding them back and she vows to help them. Yet, she fails to recognise that her own home life is at a crossroads, even after she befriends August (Anthony Skordi), a charming Texan concierge who lets her advertise the club in his hotel foyer.
Slowly, but surely, Maybelline starts finding solutions to seemingly unsolvable problems. Visiting his digs after hours, she helps Joan face the fact that he has a drug problem, while she keeps visiting the diner where Tequila's mother (Murlane Carew) works as a waitress until she is able to persuade her that she knows exactly what she's going through in being the mother of a gay man. Having driven away Sienna's abusive boyfriend, Maybelline turns her attention to Cherry's wife (Catherine Richardson), who refuses to grant him a divorce so he can begin to transition.
All the while, the new show begins to take shape. But Jeb is beginning to get impatient and Bevette heads to the coast to coax her sister into forgetting this sequined nonsense and come home where she belongs. Much to the amorous August's disappointment, Maybelline decides to return to Texas. However, she misses her new circle and realises that Rickey's legacy is to liberate her from the prejudices and shackles that have been holding her back. Jeb is stunned when she walks out on him and there is much surprise when she turns up at Pandora's Box. She even jollies Dusty into returning to the fold. Yet, with August watching on from the bar, she joins Tequila, Joan and Cherry in a rousing rendition of `Total Eclipse of the Heart' to announce that this Lone Star mama really is one of them after all.
Resident in Nova Scotia since his student days, Thom Fitzgerald made his reputation as a playwright before debuting on screen with The Hanging Garden (1997). He focused on the AIDS crisis in The Event (2003) and 3 Needles (2005), in which Lucy Liu played a Chinese blood smuggler. But Cloudburst (2011) and Splinters (2018) were couched in a lighter tone and this Pollyanna-like dramedy is very much in the same vein. As he had watched his own mother come to terms with the death of his brother, Fitzgerald was taken by Brad Hennig's screenplay. Yet, while it's the stuff of feel-good dreams, the narrative is disappointingly schematic and rarely deviates from the beeline it makes for a denouement that is an inevitability from the second we meet Maybelline.
Of course, Jacki Weaver is marvellous in a role that rarely stretches her, although lines like `I don't storm, I flounce' often strike a false note when uttered by such a coy homebody. There's also a hollow ring to the bickering as she picks her way towards a rapprochement with Adrian Grenier, whose one-note petulance makes him difficult to like when Nathan has much to be aggrieved about. Anthony Skordi's dapper bachelor is also thinly sketched, as is Lucy Liu's BFF.
Such is her inimitable screen presence, however, that she makes more of a mark than any of the `drag sisters', although Mya Taylor - who had dazzled in Sean Baker's Tangerine (2015) - relishes a lovely piano-top duet with Garrett Baer on `Beautiful to Me' that would be the musical highlight were it not for `He Ain't Mr Right' playing over the closing credits. For the rest, the song spots are mediocre at best and scarcely likely to turn Pandora's Box into a jumping joint.
Credit should also go to production designer Michael Pierson for the contrasting interiors in Red Vine and San Francisco, while James A. Worthern comes up trumps with the costumes. Thomas M. Harting's photography is also solid, as it deftly uses locations in Halifax, Nova Scotia to capture the hint of Golden Gate ambiance that recalls a time when the city was dubbed the `Gay Capital of America'. The flashbacks to when Maybelline (Sofia Banzhaf) was close to Rickey (Vox Smith) are also nicely handled and chime into the heartwarmingly uncontestable message of acceptance. But this well-meaning fare lacks the melodramatic heft to sock it over with suitable cornball oomph. That said, it's tempting to speculate how it would look on a double bill with Charles Brabin's pre-Code adaptation of Bradford Ropes's penny dreadful, Stage Mother (1933), in which Alice Brady plays a vaudeville bill-filler who schemes so that estranged dancer daughter Maureen O'Sullivan can become a Broadway star.
LAST AND FIRST MEN.
Icelandic musician Jóhann Jóhannsson was a member of the 1980s shoegaze combo Daisy Hill Puppy when they were `discovered' by John Peel. He went on to have a successful solo career by fusing the various musical styles that would influence his film work. Having initially collaborated with compatriot Róbert Ingi Douglas on The Icelandic Dreams (2000) and A Man Like Me (2002), Jóhannsson forged a profitable partnership with Canadian Denis Villeneuve on Prisoners (2013), the Oscar-nominated Sicario (2015) and Arrival (2016).
They parted company during the making of Blade Runner 2049 (2017), however, by which time Jóhannsson has also hooked up with So Yong Kim on For Ellen (2012) and Lovesong (2016) and James Marsh on the Oscar-nominated The Theory of Everything (2014) and The Mercy (2018). The first of these collaborations brought Jóhannsson a Golden Globe, but he also did less vaunted work on Bill Morrison's The Miners' Hymns (2011), Lou Ye's Mystery (2012) and The Shadow Play (2018), and Panos Cosmatos's Mandy (2018). Darren Aronofsky opted not to use Jóhannsson's score for Mother! (2017), but the pair teamed with Craig Henighan on the distinctive sound design.
Sadly, Jóhannsson died accidentally in Berlin in February 2018. However, he had joined forces with the BBC Philharomic to give a live performance at the Manchester International Festival of his sole directorial outing, Last and First Men (2017), which was inspired by a 1930 novel by the British philosopher and science fiction writer, Olaf Stapledon. Narrated by Tilda Swinton, this message from two billion years into the future was always more likely to find a home in galleries and concert halls than movie theatres. So, it's somewhat fitting that this treatise on our `huge fluctuations of joy and woe' should be released during lockdown on the BFI Player.
Over oblique 16mm monochrome close-ups of the Spomenik war memorials that Yugoslavian president Josip Broz Tito erected in the Balkan Mountains, a member of the Eighteenth Species addresses listeners from two thousand million hence. She informs us that astronomers have predicted the imminent demise of human society and breaks the news that that none of the utopias predicted by romantic science fiction writers have come to pass. Indeed, for long periods, the tide of humanity has run sluggishly, with outbursts of inspiration being sporadic in the extreme.
Occasionally, civilisation was threatened by climate change, malignant microbes and self-inflicted acts of folly. An eruption of the Sun caused 10 species to try their luck on the plains of Neptune after the other planets became uninhabitable. Others sought to go out with an orgiastic bang. Now the Eighteenth are about to go out in a blaze of (in)glory and the voice (which appears on screen as a luminous green ray) cautions hearers that they might find their descendants strange to behold, as some are covered in fur or mole velvet, while others have red or ash green skin. Over images of the stones at Novi Travnik in Bosnia, we learn that they also have an eye in the crown of the skull that gazes upwards into the heavens. But the speaker reassures us that we also have much in common and should regard the Eighteenth species as kin.
As the camera glides around the monuments, the orator tells us that they were built to house the astronomers and as sites for the performance of the rituals that replaced the debased religions of old. We also learn that, as everyone is potentially immortal, the need for children has diminished. However, the society needs to create improved beings and a good deal of thought has gone into methods of upbringing. After the foetus is carried for 20 years, the child spends a century in infancy before devoting a millennium to growing in mind and body. Once this period has passed, they spend a further thousand years in one of the polar regions known as `the Land of the Young', where they learn to love, hate and learn from the mistakes of the past before progressing into maturity.
The Eighteenth Species had been consciously designed to create a `group mind' through `telepathic unity' that enables the entire history of the species to have the immediacy of a personal memory. The speaker declares her admiration for the navigators who contemplate outer space and mentions the crew of a craft that had returned as shadows of their former selves after witnessing a star turn from white to violet. However, as a red sphere comes to dominate the blackened screen, we hear that the navigators have discerned a forthcoming solar catastrophe that will eradicate all lifeforms. In the face of such apocalyptic news, the decision was taken to make the most of the time remaining to humanity before facing oblivion with dignity.
Efforts have been made to project particles into the cosmos in the hope that a welcoming environment can be found for the continued propagation of life. Few believe this mission has much chance of succeeding and it was agreed that a bid to influence history would be a more profitable undertaking, so that the past could make the most of itself. As the oceans begin to evaporate, the dwindling number of survivors meet in silence to offer each other tacit solace. They are awed by the cosmos that seeks to destroy them, but pity its inability to recognise the spirit of the species that have come and gone in a flash of its incalculable timespan.
Treating the Spomeniks of the Former Yugoslavia like the trilithons of Stonehenge or the statues of Easter Island, Jóhannsson and cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen generate a grainily misty sense of loomingly earthbound ethereality that recalls Haradl Reinl's 1970 adaptation of Erich von Däniken's Chariots of the Gods. The influence of Chris Marker's La Jetée (1962), Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Godfrey Reggio's Qatsi trilogy (1982-2002) also seems evident on a meditation on evolution, extinction, memory, mortality and human insignificance that will intrigue some, exhilarate others and leave many curiously unmoved or even bored.
In précising Stapledon's text for Swinton's mechanically precise, yet dispassionately reassuring delivery, Jóhannsson and José Enrique Macián struggle to draw viewers/listeners into the plight of the Eighteenth Species, even though its representative makes a direct appeal for their help. Perhaps coronavirus has focused minds too firmly on the here and now for us to worry about the precarious fate in two billion years time of a breed of humanity that is even more distant in time than the Neanderthals. Or, maybe, our imaginative scope is simply too puny to contemplate such a calamity.
Oddly, the hypnotic choro-orchestral `soundworld' created by Jóhannsson and Yair Elazar Glotman makes it more difficult to focus on the enormity of the ominous message, as it draws us away from the spoken word and ushers us instead into considering the authoritarian monumentality and emblematic momentousness of, among others, the Brutalist Spomeniks at Novi Travnik, Podgaric, Jasenovac, Tjentiste, Mostar, Sutjeska, Popina and Bihac. Such is the almost grotesque audacity of these edifices that it's easy to drift into immersive reveries about their construction and their survival since the ferocious fragmentation of Tito's recalcitrant republic. As it is, we shall let them stand as a quirkily heartening and endlessly reinterpretable memorial to the 48 year-old Jóhannsson and his visionarily distinctive musical genius and to the terrifying prospect that humankind may already be doomed.