- David Parkinson
Parky At the Pictures (4/6/2021)
(Reviews of Apples; After Love; Surge; Vanquish; Stalker; Undergods; My New York Year; and Felix and the Hidden Treasure)
Cinemas are open again, then. But not everyone is going to want to sit in the dark being distracted by the prospect of whether everyone else in the auditorium is following the social distancing guidelines as strictly as they are.
Consequently, the streaming platforms who have done rather well out of lockdown are going to keep up their good work for the time being at least. Therefore, in addition to subscription sites like Curzon Home Cinema. MUBI, Netflix and the BFI Player, the likes of iTunes, Apple TV, Amazon, Sky Store, Virgin, Microsoft, Vimeo, Google Play, Rakuten, BT and Playstation will be staying open for business. Whatever choice you make, stay safe.
Such has been the impact of the Weird Wave on Greek cinema that it's tempting to view every film from that country through the same lens, especially when it's been directed by a former assistant to Yorgos Lanthimos. There are certainly plenty of left-field moments in Christos Nikou's debut, Apples, which offers no explicable context in appearing to be set in an alternative present devoid of digital technology or a recent past in which direct contact is the only form of human interaction. But they don't dilute the sense of melancholy that pervades this drolly deadpan, but poignant study of grief, identity and adjustment.
Seemingly the latest to fall prey to a bout of spontaneous, but irreversible amnesia, Aris (Aris Servetalis) is taken from the back of a night bus to the Disturbed Memory Unit at an Athens clinic, where he is monitored by a neurologist (Anna Kalaitzidou) from the New Identity programme. He does poorly on the aptitude tests and the doctor is concerned by the fact that no one has come forward to claim him. Faced with the prospect of an indefinite stay at the hospital, Aris agrees to join the `Learning How to Live' scheme in order to help him start afresh.
Driven to a new apartment, Aris starts keeping a photo album containing Polaroids to prove he has performed the challenges posed by the doctors via cassette messages. The first involves doing a wheelie on a bicycle and Aris completes the task by borrowing a child's bike in the park. On being sent to a fancy dress and ordered to mingle, he goes as an astronaut with a visor helmet. He also opts to pay for a lap dance on being instructed to meet a woman and become physically intimate with her.
The doctor visits the apartment with white-bearded colleague (Argyris Bakirtzis) to check on his progress, while Aris bumps into a dog named Malou from his home address. He accidentally let slip this number when buying apples and the suspicion strengthens that Aris hasn't lost his memory at all, but is merely trying to forget. But he keeps up the charade and starts hanging out with fellow patient Anna (Sofia Georgovassili) after he spots her hiding behind her seat during the scary moments at a screening of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
He feigns ignorance when she describes the plot of James Cameron's Titanic (1997), while they are driving out into the country for her next assignment. She's impressed that he knows the words to `Sealed With a Kiss' when it plays on the radio and he falls silent before she shunts the car into a tree. Having posed for her snapshot, they walk home and Anna stands on her head for 154 seconds outside her building. Aris is amused she thinks this amounts to four minutes and they agree to meet up the next day, as he realises that she will enable him to glean what to expect from each new challenge.
Fresh from diving from the lowest platform at a swimming pool, Aris fixes Anna's camera and joins her at a nightclub. He enjoys bopping to `Let's Twist Again' and accepts Anna's whispered invitation to join her for a knee-trembler in a toilet stall. However, he can't find her when the time comes for him to crash a car and he is dumbfounded when the next tape relates to casual sex in a nightclub washroom.
Switching from apples to oranges when the greengrocer (Babis Makridis) claims the former aid the memory, Aris gives Anna the swerve. But, while he lies about his own one-night stand task, he continues with the programme and finds a sense of purpose when he is detailed to adopt a dying patient in hospital and befriend their loved ones. He takes a shine to the old man (Kostas Laskos) and returns to feed him soup. As they chat about his wife's pastries, Aris admits to being widowed and he is so moved by his new friend's passing that he visits his own wife's grave and realises that the time has come for him to resume his old life. He starts by eating an apple that has remained fresh in the fruit bowl and looks sombrely into the lens.
Reference has been made to the film's release during a very different kind of pandemic, but the notion of a virus robbing people of their memories has been explored in recent times in more apocalyptic fashion by Claire Carré in Embers (2018). The opening montage of still lifes (or, more accurately, shots from a life that has been paused) suggest that Aris Servetalis is banging his head against the window frame in an effort to forget rather than remember. Thus, by showing him striving to bury painful memories under new and inconsequential ones allows Nikou and co-writer Stavros Raptis to satirise modern living and its absurd obsession with selfies, while also stringing along those viewers who have missed the initial clues as to true nature of Servetalis's spotless mind.
Anna Kalaitzidou and Sofia Georgovassili prove engaging foils, as Servetalis performs tasks that prompt a growing scepticism about both the science behind the New Identity programme and its manipulative methodology. But even the characters outside the experiment seem to be trapped in a world of narrowing horizons and this impression is reinforced by cinematographer Bartosz Swiniarski's use of the Academy ratio. Production designer Efi Birba similarly contrasts the clutter of Servetalis's own apartment with the sparse furnishings of his temporary abode, while costumier Dimitra Liakoura draws subtle distinctions between the neutral designs supplied by the hospital and his own wardrobe.
Servetalis's impassively taciturn performance is complemented by George Zafiras's measured editing and the evocative soundscape crafted by Alexander `The Boy' Voulgaris. But who is to say he will be granted an opportunity to pick up the pieces of his old life, as the pandemic is still out there and his watchful experience as an auto-amnesiac affords him no immunity.
Having studied film direction at the University of Westminster, Aleem Khan followed Diana (2009) and The Wayfaring Stranger (2011), with the BAFTA-nominated short, Three Brothers (2014). Six years later, he completed his debut feature, After Love, a fictional drama that reflects on his own experiences of being of English-Pakistani heritage, of having lost a baby sister when he was a boy and of being Muslim and gay.
Mary (Joanna Scanlon) is mournng the loss of her husband, Ahmed (Nasser Memarzia). They had met on a London housing estate when she was a teenager and, much to the dismay of her family, she had taken the name Fatima and converted to Islam in order to marry him and relocate to Kent. Ahmed (whom she had called Ed) had worked as a ferry skipper and Mary had stood on the same spot atop the White Cliffs every afternoon to wave him off.
Despite wearing a hijab, learning Urdu, praying five times a day and perfecting her culinary skills, Mary had always been regarded as an outsider by Ahmed's family and the death of their infant son had further driven a wedge. But the couple had remained devoted. So, when Ahmed dies suddenly while singing a Bollywood song, the bereft Joanna is all the more humiliatingly distraught when she goes through his things the day after the funeral and discovers that her husband had been having an affair in Calais with a Frenchwoman named Geneviève (Nathalie Richard).
Tempted to tell Ahmed's sanctimonious family that he hadn't been such a paragon after all, Mary decides instead to cross the Channel and confront her rival. As she looks back at the spot where she had used to stand, a part of the coastline crumbles away and Mary realises that her own life has been built on equally shaky foundations.
Finding the address, Mary crosses the street in her white mourning hijab and salwar kameez only for Geneviève to mistake her for her new cleaner. Hiding her true identity, Mary accepts the job of helping Geneviève prepare to move house and maintains the deception even after learning that Ahmed had fathered a teenage son, Solomon (Talid Ariss). She also withholds the news about Ahmed in order to gain an insight into his double life and discern what the elegant Geneviève could offer that she couldn't provide. That said, she never misses the opportunity to score quiet points, such as when she informs Geneviève that she converted because it was an act of love for her husband that no one else could replicate.
Taking every opportunity to snoop around the house, even when the smell of Ahmed's cologne on Geneviève's clothes causes her a pang, Mary tries to gauge what his second life must have been like. As she gets to know Solomon, she realises that he misses his father and sends him text messages from Ahmed's phone. She also cooks curry for him when Geneviève is out and keeps silent when she guesses the nature of his relationship with a male classmate.
Somehow, caring for the boy and helping him come to terms with his Pakistani-French heritage makes Mary feel closer to Ahmed, even though she still can't bring herself to forgive him, especially when Geneviève casually acknowledges that she had made her married lover a better husband. But, when Solomon spits in Geneviève's face during an argument, Mary slaps him and is instantly dismissed. Feeling unable to return to England without telling them the truth, Mary tracks them down to the new address. She breaks the news about Ahmed's death and the fact that she is his widow.
Some time later, Geneviève and Solomon travel to Kent to visit Ahmed's grave. They pay a call on Mary, who invites them to look around so that they can form their judgements on Ahmed's life with her. It's awkward and painful for them all. But a bond has been forged and all three now have a way to deal with their sense of loss.
It was one of the scandals of the most BAFTA ceremony that Joanna Scanlon was not nominated for Best Actress for her career-best performance. Much has been made of the moment in which she examines her naked body in the mirror to see how years of being an obedient wife had transformed her. But it's the way in which she conveys and suppresses emotion while only her face is showing that makes this such a poignant study in self-laceration, betrayal, grief and forgiveness.
Khan has conceded that Mary is modelled on his own English mother, while Solomon's closeted anguish is based to a degree on his own struggle to come to terms with his sexual identity. But the story that forms around these truths is entirely fictional and it's here that the film often struggles to convince.
It's possible to overlook the corniness of the White Cliffs crumbling at the precise moment that a crushed Mary looks back at her waving spot. But the ease with which she manages to ingratiate herself with Geneviève and gain unfettered access to her home and possessions feels convoluted. As does the melodramatic manner in which she becomes Solomon's confidante and comes to threaten Geneviève's maternal status.
Nevertheless, there's something compelling about Khan's contention that all-consuming heartache can prove so deranging that it can blind someone to the reality of their actions. Such is Mary's determination to achieve closure at the expense of the woman who knew that her lover had a wife in Dover that she is willing to deceive her, invade her home and violate her privacy. Such is her stealth, however, that the audience doesn't always appreciate that they are watching a rigorously restrained hijab-clad variation on Adrian Lyne's Fatal Attraction (1987).
For all the excellence of Nathalie Richard and Talid Ariss's supporting turns, this is very much Scanlan's film. Yet, she can rarely have acted less in displaying such impeccable technique and control. She keeps Paul Dynan's camera close, as it roams around the interiors designed by Sarah Jenneson to reinforce the contrasts between Ahmed's abodes. Gareth C. Scales's editing is equally discreet, as is Chris Roe's score, which gives way to Joakim Sundström's sound design as Mary's emotions become less raw and she acclimatises to her new surroundings.
Such deft touches characterise Khan's direction, as his sure sense of place is complemented by his insights into Joanna's specific situation and human nature in general. But, while the focus falls firmly on the living, it's also possible to learn something about Ahmed and the socio-cultural insecurities that lay behind his nonetheless despicable deception. Slowly, but surely, Doosra cinema is finding its feet and long may it continue to reach mainstream screens.
Since winning the Royal Television Society Student Award for his National Film and Television School graduation project, Spilt Milk (2009), Aneil Karia has been steadily building a reputation. While making his debut short, Southbank Centre Goes Bollywood (2012), he dipped in and out of commercials and music videos, while also contributing to the video elements of the Opening Ceremony of the London Olympics.
In 2014, he helped launch the original content strand on the BBC iPlayer with Tag before earning a BAFTA nomination for Work (2017). Diversity and innovation remained the watchwords as he produced such shorts as Switch (2017) and Ina (Light) (2018), while also shooting episodes for TV series like Lovesick (2018), Pure and Top Boy (both 2019) for Netflix and Channel 4. Moreover, he also collaborated with Riz Ahmed on his powerful positing of an alt-right future, The Long Goodbye (2020). Yet, it was the 2013 short, Beat, that lingered in the back of his mind and he has now reunited with its star, Ben Whishaw, for the feature variation on the theme, Surge.
Joseph (Ben Whishaw) has a lengthy daily commute from his flat in Tottenham to Stansted Airport, where he works as a security officer. He finds the impersonal intimacy of searching strangers stressful and episodes with an elderly Russian and a man who claims to know him leave him feeling shaken. Only Lily (Jasmine Jobson) bothers to chat to him in the staffroom, even though he's brought in a cake to mark his birthday. As he listens to the banter, Joseph bites down hard on his fork and wishes he was somewhere else.
His mother, Joyce (Ellie Haddington), is disappointed that he has already had a cake, as she has baked specially for his celebration visit to the family home in the suburbs. Father Alan (Ian Gelder) ticks Joseph off for upsetting his mother, who also chides him for swallowing so noisily. Agitated by the bickering, Joseph bites into his water glass and rushes to the bathroom with his mouth bleeding. Having inspected the damage, he bolts out of the front door without a word to his parents.
The next day, Joseph's discomfort catches the eye of a small girl on the train. He pulls faces at her and twitchily sniffs at the fur coat being worn by one of the female passengers. Clocking on for his shift, he is dismayed to learn that Lily is off sick and starts behaving erratically. When his workmates try to prevent him from ignoring protocols, he lashes out and has to be restrained before his supervisor sends him home.
Changing out of his uniform, Joseph heads to Lily's flat in order to connect her laptop to her new TV. Realising she has an HTML cable missing, Joseph pops out to buy one. However, his credit card is refused at the store before it gets swallowed by the cashpoint at a nearby supermarket. When the bank teller refuses his railcard as valid ID, he writes a note informing her that he has a gun and that she has to hand over a large sum in cash. Amazed that the robbery went off so easily, Joseph pays cash for the £4.99 cable and buys a beanie hat when ducking back into the shop to avoid the police vehicles rushing to the scene.
Venturing back on to the busy street, Joseph returns to Lily's flat and is rewarded for his efforts with two glasses of cheap cola and sex on the kitchen counter. Giggling awkwardly, he makes his excuses and stalks off to find another bank to rob. Straining to retain control over his limbs, head movements and facial tics, Joseph impulsively writes another note and is in the process of stuffing cash into a bag when he is spotted by a customer. Making a dash for the door, he is exhilarated by the fact that he can outrun his pursuers. However, a red canister detonates in the bag and he is forced to abandon the money.
Needing somewhere to lie low, Joseph checks into a boutique hotel, where he proceeds to pick the mattress apart with a knife. At one point, he clambers inside and pushes with his feet to rip the side seams. Pleased with the effect, he slashes the pillows before proceeding to trash the room. Feeling bored, he wanders the corridors and stumbles into a wedding reception. Taking exception to the best man's coarse remarks about the groom, Joseph wanders up to the top table and a scuffle breaks out. Nevertheless, he remains to eat some buffet and take a turn on the dance floor.
Amazingly failing to attract the attention of a single police officer, Joseph ambles home. Still short-circuiting, however, he steals the quad bike that a neighbour always leaves in front of the entrance and is speeding through the quiet streets when he slams into a jutting car. Smirking at the driver, he gets punched in the face and staggers away from the incident with his face covered in blood. Walking until first light, he fetches up at the family home, where he strips naked and clambers on to his bed. Hearing him come in, Joyce lies beside him sobbing.
She gives him cake and milk for breakfast and she reassures him that everything will be okay. Alan is less enamoured to see his son, however, and calls the cops. Joyce calls him `a silly sausage' and the pair chuckle before Joseph departs after a lingering hug. He buys a nectarine and a banana and uses the latter as a weapon in a third bank robbery. However, the security doors lock behind him and Joseph sinks to the floor to await his arrest, while watching some colourfully dressed Indian women dancing on the opposite corner.
Fizzing with visual energy and boasting a lead performance of bravura brilliance, this should be an easy film to critique. But it isn't for the simple reason that, for all its technical ingenuity and actorly audacity, the action jettisons the compelling cogency of the initial scenes and starts stumbling randomly between increasingly wild implausibilities. Moreover, as Joseph becomes further detached from reality, he ceases to be a credible character and becomes a one-man deus ex machina, with the result that Whishaw stops channelling his inner Anthony Perkins and comes to rely ever more heavily on the panoply of quirks, flicks and tics that he has imported wholesale from Beat.
The first phase is highly impressive, as Karia and fellow scribes Rita Kalnejais and Rupert Jones accumulate telltale details that place Joseph in the alienating inner-city environment that has wound him so tightly. Particularly acute are the sequences at the security check-in, which serve to dehumanise both the passengers and those searching them. It's also deftly established that Joseph isn't one of the boys and that Lily feels sorry for him. However, it doesn't come across that she would offer herself to him for fixing her telly and this grotesquely chauvinist incident marks the point at which the already contrived storyline veers off at breakneck speed towards the preposterous.
Even in a film with such a stylised attitude towards reality is pushing its luck by failing to place this criminous Candide in any peril from pursuing coppers. In our surveillance and social media age, his likeness would have been flashed across cyberspace and it's inconceivable that he could stroll through busy streets without being recognised and then check into a chic hotel without any form of ID or luggage and be allowed to pay in cash without the desk clerk at least consulting a supervisor. Similarly, even though those attending the wedding breakfast might not have been paying attention to the news, it seems unlikely that they would allow such an obvious gatecrasher to remain unchallenged.
Throughout these decreasingly credible scenes, cinematographer Stuart Bently performs some minor heroics in keeping up with Whishaw. Yet, while the jerkiness of the handheld imagery ably captures the giddiness of Joseph's wired spree, it occasionally feels excessive, as does the ricocheting fragmentation of Amanda James's editing. Much more effective are the enclosed sequences that intrude into Joseph's personal space, whether he's vandalising the mattress or trying to cope with the suppertime tensions created by his parents (who are admirably played by Ian Gelder and the magnificent Ellie Haddington).
The farewell exchange between Joseph and Joyce is the most poignant moment in the entire picture, as mother and son try to forgive each other for a lifetime of perfidy and misunderstanding. Yet it leaves one longing for a little more backstory to help us understand if Joseph's breakdown is the culmination of years of tormented suppression or part of a repeating pattern. If it's the latter, it's unlikely he would have been considered for such an exacting occupation. But, then, Karia - who has evidently been influenced by Benny and Josh Safdie's Good Times (2017) - would have no story to tell. Maybe next time, he needs to give the script a final forensic perusal, as he is clearly an exceptional talent and it would be a pity if his potential were to be compromised by the overlooking of small details.
Retired cop Damon (Morgan Freeman) needs a few favours calling, as an Internal Affairs inquiry gets closer to the crew he left behind after being invalided out of the force. As housekeeper Victoria (Ruby Rose) is an ex-drug courier with a sickly daughter (Juju Journey Brener) who can be conveniently held for ransom, Damon coerces her into making five stops that will require her to use her old skills if she is to walk away with the money he's owed.
Covering her shaved head with a crash helmet, Victoria zooms around the unnamed city on a Harley Davidson. At each poorly guarded hideaway, she is able to stroll into the villain's inner sanctum and gun down as many henchmen as she needs before dumping the dough at Damon's feet. A German mobster, his brother, an African-American druglord, a camp Southern kingpin and a crooked state governor are efficiently dispatched without anyone laying a glove on Victoria's white leather jacket.
Dawson watches proceedings via the various devices secreted about Victoria's person and even has time to off the occasional intruder into his luxurious home. But he is prepared to sacrifice this in order to silence his onetime oppos and buy Victoria and Lily the time they need to make a getaway with the loot.
There's nothing duller than film as a shoot `em up video game and George Gallo's Vanquish is more tedious than most. Having debuted back in 1991, Gallo seems desperate to prove that a veteran can still mix it with the neophyte tearaways on the action scene. But crash cutting visuals with a Cinéma du Look sheen hardly feels du jour and, consequently, this lazy mash-up of Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window (1954) and Luc Besson's La Femme Nikita (1990) lands with a resounding thud.
Seated in a remote-controlled wheelchair, Morgan Freeman picks up the easiest pay cheque of his entire career, as he delivers his lines and surveys Ruby Rose's exploits with a fixed facial expression. She throws herself into a role that requires her to slay some of the dimmest sidekicks ever, including those who allow her to produce a grenade from her inside pocket while pointing guns at her head.
But Rose lacks the presence to make her killing machine feel even vaguely plausible. Moreover, bookend sequences reveal her to be no more convincing a concerned mother, although she is hardly helped by Gallo and Samuel Bartlett's lumpen scripting, which deprives the action of wit, depth and authenticity. You'd never know from this mishmash that Gallo had penned Martin Brest's Midnight Run (1988).
Notwithstanding some odd lighting choices, Anastos N. Michos's photography is accomplished enough, as are Yvan Gauthier's slam-bam editing and Aldo Shllaku's pulsating synth score. But such competence (which also extends to the by numbers chase stunts) merely reinforces the impression that everyone here is going through the motions without any conviction whatsoever.
Following a painful break-up, Andy (Vincent Van Horn) leaves Dallas for a fresh start in Los Angeles with his dog, Juicebox. Setting up as a private tutor, he lucks out in bumping into Sam (Christine Ko) in a bar. Unfortunately, their ride share driver, Roger (Michael Lee Joplin), turns out to be a bit peculiar, although Andy only realises this after he's given him his phone number after a night's drinking. While Andy and Sam are camping in the hills, Roger breaks into his house and snoops around. He also makes a prank call that sends Andy to a drug den rather than a student's house.
Sam is concerned about Andy and arranges for him to play the drums at a nightclub to let off some steam. But he's in a dark place after having punched Roger while trying to reason with him to back off. Things get murkier when he finds a hidden camera in his living-room and discovers that not only has Roger been sending inappropriate e-mails to the parents of his students, but that he has also gained control of his laptop. Moreover, he's kidnapped Juicebox.
With the police being unable to act without a genuine name to trace, Andy heads to the abandoned warehouse where Roger has agreed to meet Sam. Waking from being tasered, he sees Sam bound and gagged in a chair. But things are not what they seem and Andy is left feeling foolish after he confesses that he was not the innocent party in his break-up and receives an object lesson in how appearances can be deceptive. Not that Roger gets away scot-free, either.
Identity theft is a frightening crime, as there are so few ways of defending oneself, let alone fighting back. Tyler Savage's thriller delves into the perils of social media without overplaying its hand. Michael Lee Joplin may not be the most expressive of pests, but he resists the temptation to turn Roger into a cackling maniac. Similarly, Vincent Van Horn embraces the flaws that prevent Andy from being an entirely empathetic victim, as his self-obsession prevents him from seeing what is actually happening around him.
For once, let's not reveal the twist. as it's so obviously the best thing about a film that is scripted, staged and shot with a sizeable measure of functionality. Cinematographer Anthony Cisneros capably contrasts the blinding sunlight with the deceptive allure of LA's nocturnal neon. But the nature of the far from novel narrative leaves Savage and co-writer Dash Hawkins overly reliant on on-screen texts and camcorder footage.
That said, the audiovisual gimmicks are not done to death as gratuitously as they were in Eugene Kotlyarenko's Spree (2020), which also features the kind of cab driver you wouldn't want showing up on your doorstep. However, that wild ride didn't have a killer pay-off involving man's best friend.
As K (Johann Myers) and Z (Géza Röhrig) drive round a bleak towerblock estate collecting corpses, the former describes a recent dream about a ghost in an apartment. We enter the home of Ron (Michael Gould) and Ruth (Haley Carmichael), who are eating an unappetising supper in silence. The doorbell rings and Harry (Ned Dennehy) asks to borrow a phone because he has been locked out of his place on the 11th floor.
Ron has misgivings, but Ruth offers the stranger the sofa and is delighted when he does some odd jobs around the house. Harry takes the trouble to chat with her and she agrees to accompany him to the shops to buy snacks for a party. She doesn't answer her phone while they are out and Harry slaps Ron's face for daring to raise his voice to his wife. Unimpressed by Harry's insistence that the first three rules of life are `Be nice', Ron wakes up in the corridor and returns to find Ruth and Harry naked in bed together.
Having vented his fury in the underground car park, Ron learns from an estate agent that he and Ruth are currently the sole occupants of the building. Wielding a knife, Ron orders Harry to leave. The smitten Ruth tries to protest, but Harry mocks her performance in bed before heading for the lift. Ron charges after him, only to wind up dead and alone when the lift reaches the ground floor.
The sight is witnessed by Octavius (Khalid Abdalla) and his young daughter, Horatia (Maddison Whelan). That night, she asks her father for a bedtime story with monsters and he tells her about Hans (Eric Godon), a businessman who had fallen on hard times since the death of his wife. He dotes on his daughter, Maria (Tanya Reynolds), and dislikes her new writer beau, Johann (Tadhg Murphy). However, he becomes distracted while swindling an architect (Jan Bijvoet) out of a revolutionary design and is aghast when the foreigner kidnaps Maria.
Coercing Johann into accompanying him to an old dark house, Hans is bemused when he finds himself in the rundown estate at the mercy of K and Z, who beat him senseless and dump him in the back of their truck. They sell Johann to an overseer at a forced labour facility, where Sam (Sam Louwyck) has spent the last 15 years trudging between dimly lit rooms and sleeping on concrete floors. Somehow, he manages to escape and returns to the home that wife Rachel (Kate Dickie) and son, Will (Jonathan Case), now share with her new spouse, Dominic (Adrian Rawlins).
He is an engineer at a factory run by Tim (Burn Gorman), who is keen to promote him and coax him into letting his hair down at his weekend birthday party. However, he is so frustrated by Rachel investing time in restoring the silent Sam to his former self that he gets drunk at the party and is thrown out for upstaging Tim during a karaoke rendition of `My Way'. Speeding home, he barges in to confront Rachel, only for Sam to dash her brains out for talking too much. He also kills Dominic before sitting quietly on the sofa to watch TV with Will, who is quite pleased to be free from parental moaning. As Z finishes his story, the truck pulls into a desolate cityscape and he and K toast families in all their peculiar forms.
Despite the potency and currency of the unifying theme of the decline of the patriarchy, Chino Moya's feature bow, Undergods. is more memorable for its visuals than its vignettes. For all their grimly surreal fairy-taleness, there's a thudding familiarity about the storylines and Moya comes up with no compelling reason why he should revisit the home invasion scenario. However, the episodes are knowingly played by an international ensemble that makes it difficult to pin down where and when the action is supposed to be taking place.
The lack of context isn't really an issue, however, as the Spanish-born, but UK-based Moya is more interested in ambience than specificity. He's deeply indebted, therefore, to production designers Marketa Korinková and Jo Sutherland for finding such disorientating locations (seemingly in Estonia) and for creating such unprepossessing interiors in which the characters can suffer to the strains of the Wojciech Golczewski synth score that so unsettlingly complements David Wranken's sound design.
Cinematographer David Raedeker's lighting reinforces the sense that the mise-en-scène and the figures that populate it have been moulded entirely out of grey clay. This distinctive look brings to mind the worlds devised by the likes of Alexei German, Roy Andersson, Béla Tarr and Jean-Pierre Jeunet (during his Marc Caro phase), while it often feels as though Terry Gilliam and Ridley Scott (whose son Jake exec produces) have drawn on their dystopian pasts in order to pay wry tribute to Aki Kaurismäki.
Having made his name with commercials and music videos, Moya clearly has an eye for an arresting image. His storytelling skills are more nascent, though, and it will be interesting to see how he handles a feature-length situation and some fully fleshed characters. Regardless of its shortcomings, however, this still represents a memorable first outing.
MY NEW YORK YEAR.
It used to be common to mock changes that dumbed down the titles of British films for American audiences. Well, the boot is firmly on the other foot in the case of My New York Year, which is being used in the UK instead of My Salinger Year because, while everybody's heard of the Big Apple, there will be moviegoers out there who are blissfully unaware of the author of The Catcher in the Rye. But why make the change? It's not as though airbrushing J.D. Salinger is going to make a light comedy about a literary agency irresistible multiplex fare.
In 1995, having been bowled over by New York while visiting her best friend, Jenny (Seána Kerslake), Joanna (Margaret Qualley) decides to abandon both her studies at Berkeley and her musician boyfriend, Karl (Hamza Haq), in order to devote herself to her writing. Needing work, she applies to the one of the city's oldest literary agencies and becomes the new assistant to Margaret (Sigourney Weaver), the fastidious boss who insists that her correspondence is typed rather than word processed.
She also instructs Joanna to shred all of the fan mail addressed to J.D. Salinger, the notorious recluse who is the agency's most important client. Despite being urged by senior colleagues, Daniel (Colm Feore) and Hugh (Brían F. O'Byrne) to stick to mailing out generic responses, Joanna starts reading some of the letters and is touched by their sentiments. She also becomes friendly with Salinger (Tim Post) through their occasional phone conversations, although new boyfriend, Don (Douglas Booth), is appalled by her confession that she has never read any of his work.
She is a huge admirer of children's author Judy Blume (Gillian Doria), however, and is dismayed when Margaret mishandles her bid to write for the adult market. She further blots her copybook by contacting a superfan from Winston-Salem (Théodore Pellerin) and a girl who wants an A grade (Romane Denis). Daniel and Hugh speak up for her when the latter shows up at the office to berate her for her patronising remarks. But Margaret takes her off Salinger mail duty and she is only forgiven when the author insists she is involved in a deal with small-time publisher Clifford Bradbury (Matt Holland) to produce a book version of the fabled New Yorker story, `Hapworth 16, 1924'.
Joanna is sent to Georgetown University to liaise between Salinger and Bradbury and takes the opportunity to mitch off to Washington to see Karl, who is playing in a concert. She reads Don's novel and is underwhelmed and breaks up with him after he insists on attending his best friend's wedding alone. More upheaval follows when Daniel commits suicide and Joanna learns that Margaret had been his mistress and had shared his bipolar care with his wife. But she thrives during Margaret's compassionate leave and is offered a promotion after placing her firs manuscript. However, Joanna feels ready to dedicate herself to her writing and resigns.
The fact that Philippe Falardeau's film is based on Joanna Rakoff's memoir about her time at Harold Ober Associates suggests that her decision has paid off handsomely. Following her award-winning first novel, A Fortunate Age (2009), Rakoff recalled her agency days under Phyllis Westberg in the 2010 Radio 4 play, Hey Mr Salinger, and its story translates cosily, if not always convincingly to the screen.
Despite eschewing the gloss of the former and the latter's grit, it often feels like a cross between Jean Negulesco's The Best of Everything (1959) and Kitty Green's The Assistant (2019). Coming across as eager, but lacking in curiosity, Margaret Qualley has a much easier time of it than Julia Garner, while Sigourney Weaver dials down the grande damery exhibited by Joan Crawford in imposing her impossibly high standards upon recent graduate Hope Lange and her colleagues at the Fabian Publishing Company.
Production designer Elise de Blois makes a hushed job of the office interiors, while Sara Mishara adopts a measured tread for the camerawork. Composer Martin Léon also gets the tone right. But the French-Canadian Falardeau - whose best film remains Monsieur Lazhar (2011) - misjudges Joanna's personality and she comes across as intellectually stunted, romantically shallow and petulantly self-absorbed. Moreover, for a budding scribe, she doesn't seem to do much writing.
He also fails to match David Frankel in his 2006 take on Lauren Weisberger's The Devil Wears Prada in conveying the magnitude of the chance that Joanna has been given. Consequently, this lacks authenticity and depth and only intrigues when it's revealed that the agency started reading Salinger's mail before junking it because they might have missed a clue that could have prevented self-confessed Catcher freak Mark David Chapman from murdering John Lennon in December 1980.
FELIX AND THE HIDDEN TREASURE.
Stressed after two years of widowhood raising two small children, Mylène (Holly Gauthier-Frankel) goes on a cruise and entrusts 12 year-old Felix (Daniel Bochu) and his infant sister, Mia (also Gauthier-Frankel), to her own sister, Annie (Angela Galuppo). Refusing to believe that his fisherman father, Jack, has been lost at sea, Felix persuades Tom the lighthouse keeper (Vlasta Vrána) to sail to Dark Shadow Island off the coast of Quebec to see if there is any sign of the missing boat.
Accompanied by Rover (a cat that thinks it's a dog; Jérôme Boiteau) and an eye-patched parrot named Squawk, the pair make good time and discuss the legend of buried treasure on the island and the fact that Jack had gone in search of it so that the family wouldn't have to sell up and move to the mainland following the closure of the local fish factory. However, they crash the boat in a storm and wash up on the island, where Tom reveals that his girlfriend, Madeleine, disappeared here years ago while they were looking for the treasure.
Thinking that Felix is in Montreal with his pal, Max (Wyatt Bowen), Annie reassures Mylène that everything is okay when she calls from the liner. But she bumps into Max on the street and learns that Felix has gone AWOL. At that moment, he is trying to stop Rover from chasing a squirrel on the island and is blissfully unaware that hidden below them is Forever City, a haven dedicated to rejuvenation that is run by Morgäa (Karine Vanasse), who has cooked up a scheme with sidekick Klaus (Arthur Holden) to fund a move to a bigger island by agreeing to help billionaire Bruce Bagwell (Terrence Scammell) live forever.
Passing through a secret tunnel, Max and Tom find Jack (Marcel Jeannin), who is being held against his will because he doesn't approve of Morgäa's Shangri-la. Tom is amazed to discover that the head of the commune is none other than Madeleine and she tells him how she stumbled across the treasure and was bitten by a silver spider whose venom has the power to reverse ageing. Decades later, she is rich and powerful and rather enjoys it.
Tom despairs of Morgäa when she take 40 years off him in his sleep. But she also reduces Bruce to infancy when she discovers he has paid her with forged banknotes. Deriving strength from Felix's pluck, Jack vows to escape the island. But Tom decides to stay in the hope he can turn Morgäa back into Madeleine.
However, with Bagwell's henchmen about to launch a helicopter attack, she shows her true colours and Tom winds up sabotaging her defences and freeing the spider, which she crushes with her hand as she ages in a trice. For everyone else, it's a case of happy ever after, especially as rich hipster (Richard M. Dumont) - who had tried to buy the family home - is planning to re-open the fish plant with an aquarium tacked on.
Having wisely decided that this Magdalen Islands saga would work better as an animated film than a graphic novel, director Nicola Lemay achieves a pleasing blend of adventure, intrigue and social satire, even though many of the jokes will mean more to accompanying grown-ups than any children enjoying a return to the movies after months of making do with DVDs and streaming.
It seems unlikely that a caring mother whose spouse had been lost at sea would blithely traumatise her kids by going on a pleasure cruise. Moreover, the business about the eternal life cult may prove taxing to smaller tinies. But they will enjoy the knockabout antics of Squawk and Rover and the gurglings and bawlings of baby Mia, a single-toothed terror with an irresistible chuckle.
The voiceover work is solid throughout and no one is required to sing. That said, Giles Leveillé's score drives the action along, as does René Caron's brisk editing. Lemay packs plenty of personality into his characters and just about avoids stereotyping the women. He also takes a well-aimed pop at those with more money than sense in reminding viewers than vanity is a unisex vice.