• David Parkinson

Parky At the Pictures (4/2/2021)

(Reviews of Stray; Ammonite; Justine; The Columnist; The Owners; and Willy's Wonderland)


Despite the relaxation of the odd outdoor restriction, we remain in Lockdown 3 for a few more weeks. This means that cinemas across the UK will stay still closed and all new releases stay online until 17 May at the earliest. So, in addition to subscription sites like Curzon Home Cinema. MUBI, Netflix and the BFI Player, you should also be able to access the titles under discussion below via iTunes, Apple TV, Amazon, Sky Store, Virgin, Microsoft, Vimeo, Google Play, Rakuten, BT and Playstation. Stay safe and make the most of the dwindling days of the streaming bonanza, as it will almost certainly disappear the moment the distributors can reimpose the myth that movies can only be fully appreciated on a giant cinema screen in restoring the restrictive practices that makes them tons more dough when everyone watching has to buy their own ticket.


STRAY.


Filmed on the same Istanbul streets, Elizabeth Lo's debut documentary, Stray, would make a perfect companion to Ceyda Torun's Kedi (2016). Switching the focus from felines to canines, Lo's exemplarily filmed study of life on the margins of Turkey's biggest city would also double-bill neatly with Iván Osnovikoff and Bettina Perut's Santiago-set Los Reyes (2018), another dogumentary that centred on a free-spirited, wet-nosed twosome named Chola and Football. The golden-haired protwagonist here is named Zeytin and her friendships with the devoted Nazar and a bashful puppy called Kartal are contrasted with the hardscrabble existence of the Turkmen kids from the war-torn Syrian city of Aleppo, who have also fetched up on the Galata district abutting the Golden Horn estuary.


Istanbul is home to over 150,000 stray dogs and cats and citizens have resisted all attempts to control the population since an ill-fated attempt by Sultan Mehmed V in 1910 to rehouse them on an island in the Bosphorous. Indeed, since 2004, it has been illegal to capture, let alone put down strays in the city and, in spending two years following Zeytin and Nazar, Lo noted how they were shown considerably more leniency than Jamil, Halil and Aliof, the refugee trio with whom they palled up. The police certainly don't make life easy for the boys who steal Kartal from under the nose of site guard Cenan and leave him no option but to tag along with dogs to whom scavenging has become second nature.


It's not all rootling, however, as Zeytin often belies the soulful nature suggested by her beautiful eyes by romping around with the ever-willing Nazar. She also gets into a few scrapes and proves more than capable of looking after herself. Indeed, she's more at risk from the cars rumbling through the neighbourhood, although Zeytin has jaywalking down to a fine art. Her political credentials are also impeccable, as not only does she hang out with glue-sniffing refugees, but she also takes part in a nocturnal demonstration about women's rights (which is partially undermined by the sight of two dogs rutting in its midst).


While Zeytin can make a friend of anyone, the glue-sniffing Syrian boys are consistently harassed by security guards and the police, as they try to beg or hunker down for the night in dilapidated buildings or construction site huts. Eventually, they are rounded up by the cops, depriving the dogs of their caring companions. Life for Zeytin and Nazar will carry on as before. But, as we watch the closing images of a pack dashing through the countryside, it's not clear what fate has befallen the adorably vulnerable Kartal, as he was missing when the boys were released from custody.


Acting as her own cinematographer and editor, Lo has produced an urban wildlife study that is riven with neo-realist compassion. Some may consider the captioned quotations from Diogenes of Sinope to be a bit twee or might consider Ali Helnwein's score to tilt the balance towards sentimentality. But the astonishingly intimate dog-level visuals and Ernst Karel's enveloping sound mix convey the relentless harshness of streetlife, as well as the hypocrisy of those animal lovers who treat their fellow human beings with callous disdain.


Made partially as a tribute to the family pet that shared her Hong Kong childhood, Lo's film bears the influence of John Berger's essay, `Why Look At Animals?', and Donna Haraway's studies of interspecies relations. But this heartfelt, if laudably detached reflection on canine intelligence and fortitude so demonstrates the commitment and acuity of its maker that it makes one curious to see shorts like Last Stop in Santa Rosa (2013), Treasure Island (2014), Hotel 22 (2015), The Disclosure President, Bisonhead, Notes From Buena Vista (all 2016) and Mother's Day (2017), which are available to watch online via Elizabeth Lo's website.


AMMONITE.


Some time in the 1840s, as a woman scrubs the floors of the British Museum, male curators shuffle past carrying a large fossilised Ichthyosaur. It had been discovered on the beach at Lyme Regis by Mary Anning (Kate Winslet), although she had received no credit because women were excluded from the inner sanctum of academe. Instead, she ekes out a living in the small fossil and gift shop she runs near the Cobb with her ageing mother, Molly (Gemma Jones). It's to here that Mary is tracked down by Roderick Murchison (James McArdle), a member of the Geological Society of London, who is keen to learn more about ammonites. He is accompanied by his delicate wife, Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan), who is entrusted to the Annings for a fee when she proves too fragile to join her husband on a six-week continental expedition.


Despite needing the money, the taciturn Mary is reluctant to allow Charlotte to tag along during her daily scourings of the Jurassic coastline and her patience is further strained when her guest contracts a fever after bathing in the sea. She is attended by Dr Lieberson (Alec Secareanu), who has recently moved to Dorset and wastes no time in inviting Mary to a recital at his home. Attending with Charlotte, Mary is dismayed to see her conversing with Elizabeth Philpot (Fiona Shaw), a neighbour and amateur palaeontologist with whom Mary had once been close, despite the 19-year age gap. Shortly afterwards, Mary and Charlotte become lovers and they share their frustration at being marginalised by the male hierarchy after they discover another significant specimen.


Learning of her husband's return, Charlotte has no option but to return to London. Molly dies soon afterwards and Elizabeth comes to offer Mary her condolences and her apology that their relationship had petered out. Keen to see how her latest find has been exhibited in Bloomsbury, Mary accepts Charlotte's offer to stay in her spacious home. On being shown to her room, however, Mary is aghast when Charlotte suggests that she moves in permanently. Chiding her friend for devaluing her life in Lyme, Mary finds alternative lodgings. But the women meet again at the British Museum.


Having made an immediate impact by setting the same-sex love story, God's Own Country (2017), in his native Yorkshire, Francis Lee heads south and back in time for his sophomore outing. He's wholly entitled to take historical liberties with the dramatis personae, even to the point of inventing physical affairs between Mary Anning and both Charlotte Murchison and Elizabeth Philpot, whose relationship with Anning was the subject of Tracy Chevalier's 2009 novel, Remarkable Creatures. . But some of the factual tweaks seem more cynical, especially the ones relating to Charlotte, who was not only 11 years older than Mary, but was also an accomplished geologist in her own right. Indeed, she had been touring Europe with Roderick since 1816 and had been largely instrumental in focusing his attention on minerals, while pursuing her own interests to a level of expertise that would have prevented her from needing assistance from Mary in the basic identification of fossils when they first met in 1825.


In responding to complaints from the Anning family about his approach, Lee more than reasonably asserted, `After seeing queer history be routinely "straightened" throughout culture, and given a historical figure where there is no evidence whatsoever of a heterosexual relationship, is it not permissible to view that person within another context?' His contention is bolstered by the fact that the liaison between Mary and Charlotte is sensitively handled and admirably played by Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan. But the revisions relating to their ages and the dating of their meeting feel specious, particularly as Murchison's not inconsiderable achievements in a male-dominated field have been so blithely suppressed in order to vaunt Anning's.


Away from the controversies and what they reveal about those on either side of the queering history debate, Lee has done a fine job in capturing the arduous nature of Mary's existence and the contrasts between her working-class purview and that of the gentile Charlotte, who came into a sizeable fortune on the death of her mother in 1838. In this regard, he's well served by production designer Sarah Finlay and costumier Michael O'Connor, while cinematographer Stephane Fontaine and sound designer Johnnie Burn turn the cliffs and shoreline of Lyme Regis into an implacable character that yields up its secrets with the same reluctance as Mary.


In truth, Lee overdoes the symbolism pertaining to the opening of rocks and the revelation of the treasures they hide. With the dialogue often being so unapologetically un1840ish, he also occasionally allows his leads to slip out of character and into performance, although both Winslet and Ronan have a tendency to seem modern in period roles. But this is a laudably bold enterprise and it will be intriguing to see how Lee fares with the horror project he has been trailing while publicising a picture that has created more of a stir than Céline Sciamma's similarly themed Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019), which is superior to it in every conceivable way.


JUSTINE.


Opening with Ovid's reminder in The Heroides to cast hooks in the least likely pools because chance is so powerful, this Brighton-set drama shows how alcoholic probationer Justine (Tallulah Haddon) catches the eye of TEFL trainee Rachel (Sophie Reid) by stealing the said slim volume from a trendy bookshop. Despite taking Rachel's phone number after they go for coffee, Justine is too distracted by her court-mandated counselling sessions with Leanne (Sian Reese-Williams) and shoplifting with sole friend Peach (Xavien Russell) to call. When they do meet up, however, the touch of a hand in a darkened cinema is enough to persuade Justine to trust Rachel and they soon become inseparable.


Prompted by Leanne, Justine reflects upon her strained relationship with her mother, Olivia (Kirsty Dillon), and breaks into the house where she is raising her infant stepsister with her new husband. Despite carrying vodka around in a plastic water bottle, Justine holds things together and spends an idyllic day in the dunes with Rachel, who is touched when she receives a handmade necklace. However, she ruins the mood when she announces that she has landed a teaching job in Barcelona and wants Justine to come with her.


Resisting Leanne's insistence that she's a bright woman with much to live for, the self-loathing Justine goes on a bender and Rachel finds her passed out in a pool of vomit in her flat. Refusing to be mollycoddled, Justine does a flit and summons the courage to pay Olivia a visit to ask her for the money she needs for her overdue rent. On being refused (supposedly for her own good), Justine gets so badly beaten by three teenage girls in an underpass that she has to be hospitalised. Doctor Jim (Steve Oram) warns her that she risks doing serious damage to her health if she keeps on drinking. But she sneaks out at night, only to return after collapsing during another binge. As she sleeps, Rachel climbs on to the bed beside Justine and hold's her hand.


First seen submerged in a bathtub with cuts and bruises to her face as her landlord pounds on the door for his money, Justine lives in a drunken haze that prevents her from seeing her horizons narrowing. She gives so little away in her therapy sessions that it's not easy to get a handle on the precise timing of the breakdown of her relationship with her mother or how the blame should be apportioned. We don't even learn how she wound up behind bars, although it's odds on it had something to do with drink and pilfering. Whatever the causes, however, the residual damage bolsters a fear of being hurt that prevents her from accepting that Rachel offers her an escape from her nightmare.


Working in his home city from a script by Jeff Murphy, Jamie Patterson directs with the confidence of someone making his 13th feature. He avoids Brighton's tourist landmarks (although he does set a lovely scene inside the Duke of York's Picturehouse) in contrasting the milieux inhabited by Justine, Rachel and Olivia and makes particularly effective use of a graffiti-daubed playground, where Rachel seeks sanctuary with Peach. He's rather wasted as her confidante, when she could have opened up to him in a way she can't to Leanne, whose touchy-feely approach to helping her self-destructive patient strikes one of the few hollow notes. Another is the plush kitchen showdown with Olivia, who is far too convenient a scapegoat for someone who refuses to take responsibility for her own actions, in much the same way that Rachel is too acceptingly good to be true as Rachel's saviour.


Despite being saddled with such a two-dimensional woke bourgeois stereotype, Sophie Reid makes a decent foil for the scene-stealing Tallulah Haddon, who fiercely resists the temptation to smooth Rachel's rough edges in refusing to court easy audience sympathy. That said, while they commendably make addiction the core issue rather than lesbianism, Patterson and Murphy do give themselves an easy out by making her the victim of an unprovoked attack that comes out of nowhere before bringing her to her knees (and possibly her senses) with a last blow-out. Paul O'Callaghan's night-time photography adds to the poignancy of this scene, as it does to the camp-out under the stars. But Patterson wisely sticks to the social-realist functionalism that might have prevented his 2018 drag queen saga, Tucked, from toppling into melodrama.


THE COLUMNIST.


Dutch newspaper columnist Femke Boot (Katja Herbers) has become so obsessed with the abusive comments on her Twitter feed that she has developed writer's block. Already under pressure because her publisher (Medina Schuurman) wants her to come up with something combustible, Femke falls behind with the book she's writing. Moreover, she has little time for teenage daughter Anna (Claire Porro), who has just been fired from the school paper by the headmaster (Harry van Rijthoven) because of her stinging criticism of his regime. And just to make things that little bit more complicated, Femke is romancing Erik Flinterman (Bram van der Kelen), a genial chap who writes lurid crime fiction and launches fierce media attacks on his girlfriend under the nom de plume, Steven Dood (Bram van der Kelen).


Femke discovers that elderly neighbour Arjen Tol (Rein Hofman) is behind the vicious remarks about her article condemning the practice of blacking up to play Sinterklaas's companion, Zwarte Piet. Such is her fury that she pushes the fortysomething off his roof while he's doing some repairs and severs his middle finger as a souvenir. Rather than be racked with guilt, Femke feels empowered and energised and begins writing with clarity and speed. She feels better still after killing sausage-guzzling troll Diederik Mathijssen (Thomas Höppener) with a frying pan and derives particular satisfaction from smashing up the train set so painstakingly laid out by the elderly Arend (Genio de Groot) before shooting him with his own hunting rifle.


With her secret life taking up more of her time, Femke fails to notice that Anna is becoming alienated, especially after she fails to show at a school event on the freedom of speech. Moreover, Steven (whom Anna suspects is the Middle Finger Killer) becomes convinced she's having an affair and follows her when she tracks down her vilest critic, who has accused her of being a paedophile. Having offed a man at the address, Femke discovers that Tarik Bos (Achraf Koutet) is actually a teenager and she is left with no choice but to kill him and Steven when she realises he is going to turn her in. Still splattered with blood, Femke arrives at her book launch, where her appearance is mistaken for a political stunt and she seems set to get away with murder - or at least until she gets home, where Anna has been busy photographing the contents of a box found in the freezer.


Slick, smart and utterly superficial, Ivo van Aart's social media satire (whose Dutch title, De Kuthoer, translates as `The Cunt Whore') rattles along confidently in wondering why people can't be nice while enjoying their inalienable right to free speech. For all the acuity in condemning the manufactured outrage of the legion of laptop losers, however, plausibility is in short supply, as Femke disproves the myth of Internet anonymity to track down her suburban trolls with a comic efficiency that's blacker than Steven's nail polish.


Screenwriter Daan Windhorst actually relies on Anna's subplot battle with the headmaster to pursue the libertarian theme, as the texts that ping on to the screen as Femke reviews her daily torrent of abuse primarily represent the abuse of privilege that turns her into a quirkily innovative killing machine. She's not very subtle, however, and the failure of the police to latch on to her would appal Piet van der Valk, especially as the TV news bulletins so helpfully provide regular summations of the clues.


Nevertheless, Katja Herbers brings a deadpan conviction to a sketchily limned and unapologetically non-empathetic character, whose personality and politics are barely explored amidst the flailing swipes at censorship and online cowardice that presage the bleakly ironic conclusion that Femke is far more intolerant than any of her tormentors. Claire Porro and Bram van der Kelen provide solid support in equally thin characterisations, while production designer Robert van der Hoop and cinematographer Martijn Cousijn bring a visual gloss to the smugly sententious one-gag premise that never comes close to being as dangerously subversive or mockingly outrageous as something like Joel Schumacher's Falling Down (1990) or John Waters's Serial Mom (1994).


THE OWNERS.


Millennial slackers Nathan (Ian Kenny) and Terry (Andrew Ellis) are persuaded by Gaz (Jake Curran) to break into the remote country home of Dr Richard Huggins (Sylvester McCoy) and his wife, Ellen (Rita Tushingham), in order to steal the cash hidden in their safe. Nathan's girlfriend, Mary (Maisie Williams), waits for the boys because she wants to use their getaway car. However, she ventures into the house when her friends fail to appear and they are trapped when the elderly owners return and not only turn the tables on the burglars, but also sew dissension among them before revealing a dark secret of their own regarding their dead daughter and Mary's missing sister.


It's obvious from the outset how Julius Berg's debut feature is going to play out and some self-conscious, last-act tweakery with the aspect ratio is scarcely going to change things. Adapted from a graphic novel by Hermann & Yves H. entitled Une Nuit de Plene Lune, the scenario concocted by Berg and co-writer Matthieu Gompel seeks to put a spin on the home invasion formula. But the clumsy sketchiness of the characterisation makes it difficult to care what happens to the doltish Terry, the thuggish Gaz and the shiftless Nathan, who certainly doesn't deserve a girlfriend like the pregnant Mary.


Whether swinging a sledgehammer or trying to reason with her captors over tea, Maisie Williams works hard to retain audience interest. However, she's upstaged by the civilly sinister Sylvester McCoy and the dementia-suffering Rita Tushingham, who are as gleefully aware of the flaws in the plot as they are of the contents of the `safe' that turns out not to be a complete MacGuffin after all. Bobbie Cousins's production design, David Ungaro's photography and Marc Boucrot's editing are decent enough. But, for all its asides on class, age and rural ennui, this lacks the suspense or the intensity to work as a social realist chiller.


WILLY'S WONDERLAND.


Needing $1000 to pay Jed Love (Chris Warner) for repairs to a car that was sabotaged by a spike strip outside Hayesville, Nevada, a nameless motorist (Nicolas Cage) agrees to spend a night janitoring at Willy's Wonderland, an abandoned family activity centre owned by Tex Macadoo (Ric Reitz). As the stranger discovers the threat posed by animatronic mascots Willy Weasel, Arty Alligator, Cammy Chameleon, Ozzie Ostrich, Tito Turtle, Knighty Knight, Gus Gorilla, and Siren Sara, Liv Hawthorne (Emily Tosta) gives Sheriff Eloise Lund (Beth Grant) and heads to the restaurant to burn it down with buddies Chris Muley (Kai Kadlec), Kathy Barnes (Caylee Cowan), Bob McDaniel (Terayle Hill), Aaron Powers (Christian Del Grosso) and Dan Lorraine (Jonathan Mercedes).


A roof cave-in results in the teens being slaughtered by the mascots, while Liv tells the Janitor that the venue used to be owned by serial killer Jerry Robert Willis (Grant Cramer), who performed a satantic ritual with his cannabalistic sidekicks to transfer their spirits into the animatronics. Further exposition is handily conveyed when Lund informs Deputy Evan Olson (David Sheftell) that she, Love and Macadoo forged a pact with the manic munchers to keep them supplied with victims in return for leaving the townsfolk alone. Neither survives the night of mayhemic carnage, while the co-conspirators perish in a morning after car fire. But Liv and the Janitor get to hightail it out of town.


Obviously, all of the talk has been about Nicolas Cage's wordless display as the man with no name. But kudos has to go to production designer Molly Coffee and creature creator Kenneth J. Hall for making this delirious variation on Whac-a-Mole so much manic fun. Seasoned director Kevin Lewis and debuting screenwriter G.O. Parsons also deserve credit for devising a vehicle that allows Cage to ham it up to his heart's content without the usual verbotechnics. Beth Grant also seems to be relishing the chance to co-star with a bunch of besuited stunt folk. Ultimately, this lacks the palpable menace of Tobe Hooper's The Funhouse (1981), but there are worse ways to spend 88 minutes of lockdown.


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