• David Parkinson

Parky At the Pictures (7/5/2021)

(Reviews of Charlatan; I Blame Society; Laddie: The Man Behind the Movies; and Henry Glassie: Field Work)


In an ideal world (whatever that is), UK cinemas will be reopening in 10 days. For the moment, however, the only place to see the new titles and catch up with some of the recent releases you missed is online. 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.


CHARLATAN.


Agnieszka Holland's artistic and political consciousness was largely shaped while she was studying at the famous FAMU film school in the 1960s. Not only did her course coincide with the Czech Film Miracle, but she also experienced the Prague Spring and its aftermath. Indeed, she spent time in prison for supporting the pro-reform faction and there decided that she would rather be an artist than an agitator.


In 2013, Holland was invited to the Czech Republic to relive this period in Burning Bush, a three-part HBO series about Jan Palach, whose self-immolation in protest at the way his compatriots had knuckled under after the Soviet-led invasion was hushed up by the Kremlin to prevent him from becoming a martyr. Now, Holland returns to Czechoslovakian history for Charlatan, which examines the legacy of the celebrated herbalist and healer, Jan Mikolášek.


Following the death of President Antonín Zápotocký (Ladislav Kolár) in 1957, the Czechoslovakian secret police place herbalist Jan Mikolášek (Ivan Trojan) under surveillance at the Jenštyn clinic where he diagnoses ailments by inspecting urine and cures them with homeopathic remedies. Despite the entreaties of his loyal assistant, František Palko (Juraj Loj), Mikolášek refuses to flee the country because he feels a duty towards his patients that dates back to his youth (Josef Trojan), when - still feeling the guilt of having participated in a firing squad during the Great War - he used a herbal poultice to cure the leg that his younger sister Johanna (Melika Yildiz) had been told must be amputated.


On his arrest, Mikolášek has Zlatohlávek (Jirí Cerný) appointed as his lawyer after the chief investigator (Miroslav Hanuš) delights in informing him that he has been abandoned by all of his friends in high places. He gets Mikolášek to recall how he was taught to read samples by Mühlbacherová (Jaroslava Pokorná), a country woman who never forgave him for killing some kittens by dashing a sack into some rocks.


Between sessions with the investigator and the lawyer, it becomes clear that Mikolášek hired Palko because of a physical attraction and that they remained inseparable, even though both men were married. Business tailed off during the war and Zlatohlávek is shocked to hear that Mikolášek treated Martin Bormann and that this connection led to the patronage of Zápotocký. He is equally dismayed by the rumours that Mikolášek and Palko were lovers and considers this as much a threat as the charge that two Party officials had died of strychnine poisoning after drinking prescribed tea (a concoction that is contrasted with the one that Mikolášek gave to Palko to cause his wife's miscarriage).


During the Nazi occupation, Mikolášek had survived a beating from an officer whose daughter he had failed to save and a spot diagnosis test intended to discredit him. But, while he has emerged from these ordeals, Zlatohlávek makes it clear that he has been so cynically framed that he will not escape the death penalty after his show trial. However, Mikolášek is not prepared to go meekly and he uses his closing summation to state that Polka was solely responsible for mixing the medicines and, despite the vitriol being hurled from the gallery by his lover's mother (Jana Olhová), he gives Mikolášek's hand a reassuring squeeze as they are led away.


By opting not to reveal that Mikolášek lived until 1973, Holland compounds the evasiveness that frequently makes this biopic as frustrating as it is fascinating. As Bohdan Sláma recently demonstrated in Shadow Country (2020), few emerged unscathed from Czechoslovakia's frequent regime changes and Marek Epstein's screenplay avoids showing precisely how Mikolášek managed to navigate his way through a socio-political minefield that he made more difficult for himself by the nature of his business and his relationship with his assistant (which is made much more explicit here than the historical evidence would seem to suggest).


Despite the definitive truth about Mikolášek remaining shrouded, he is played with intriguing intensity by Ivan Trojan and his 18 year-old son, Josef, who solemnly convey the constant sense of obligation that the enigmatic healer (who never acquired a medical qualification) felt towards his patients, regardless of their class rank or political affiliation. The diagnosis sequences certainly suggest that everyone is treated equally and that there is no hint of chicanery in Mikolášek's methods. But Holland makes no attempt to disguise the fact that he's a resolutely uncharismatic character, whether he's defying his father in leaving home to study with Mühlbacherová, bludgeoning her discarded kittens or sacrificing his friend to save his own skin.


Throughout her career, Holland has proved adept at depicting the past, but this feels less like Europa, Europa (1990) than the similarly themed films in the István Szabó trilogy comprised of Mephisto (1981), Colonel Redl (1985) and Hanussen (1988). Milan Býcek's production design is exemplary and Martin Strba's camera is suitably attentive to the tonal shifts that guide the audience through the regime changes. Pavel Hrdlicka's editing is equally astute, while Antoni Komasa-Lazarkiewicz's score largely resists the temptation to over-embellish the moments of higher drama.


As with Mr Jones (2019), Holland helps bring a lesser-known personality to light and her direction is typically accomplished. But she struggles to offset Mikolášek's imperfections against his achievements and, consequently, he remains distant and resistible, even as he is being buffeted around by the much crueller forces of history.


I BLAME SOCIETY.


Three years after alienating best friend Chase (Chase Wilkinson) by proposing a movie in which she kills the girlfriend she has nicknamed Stalin (Alexia Rasmussen), aspiring director Gillian (Gillian Wallace Horvat) is still schlepping putative projects around Los Angeles. When her manager dumps her after a script about Israel proves too contentious, Gillian sounds out boyfriend Keith (Keith Poulson) about an idea sparked by a friend's suggestion that she would make a good murderer.


Unconvinced that she's being taken seriously by a couple of producer siblings (Lucas Kavner and Morgan Krantz), Gillian tests her mettle by breaking into the home of starlet Teresa Nam (Jennifer Kim) and filming herself in her bedroom. But she commits to the snuff picture after accidentally allowing Chase to succumb to an allergic fit when he calls to announce his imminent nuptials. Annoyed by Teresa at a coffee shop during a row with Keith after he criticises her drastic makeover, Gillian murders the actress and leaves a suicide note citing the sordid side of Tinseltown.


Abandoned by a disapproving Keith, Gillian picks up the homeless Phil (Garrett Coffey) and slashes his wrists in the bath after drugging his pre-coital drink. She next offs health insurance salesman Taylor (Devon Gaye) and tells therapist Hank (Bobby Naderi) about some of her other victims before dispatching him while boasting about how easy it is to manipulate the media while getting away with murder. Angry with Keith for consoling Stalin, Gillian takes on Dan (Johnny Mars) as her obedient accomplice before harvesting Stalin's organs. When she shows I, Murderer to the broducers, however, they dismiss it as inauthentic tripe and pay the ultimate penalty for their opinion.


Ending with the title appearing on a blood-streaked screen, Gillian Wallace Horvat's feature debut seems set to divide opinion between those who consider her meta satire to be innovatively subversive and those who feel the joke wears thinner with each unfunny convolution. Writing in conjunction with co-star Chase Williamson, Horvat has cleverly justified every shot captured by the diegetic DV cameras, jerky phonecams and the amusingly intrusive GoPro headset. She even gets away with using a handcranked tracking device. Yet, for all its technical canniness and the slyness of the humour, this always feels like a logistical exercise rather than a rip-roaring comedy.


Horvat is ably abetted by a decent ensemble, while cinematographer Olivia Kuan, production designer Liz Toonkel, editor Sarah Beth Shapiro and composer Phil Beaudreau make solid contributions. She also gets full marks for the fearlessness of her self-deprecation, as she commits wholly to the role of the sociopath who has been driven to extremes because her genius is not appreciated by the idiots running Hollywood. With scenes like Gillian's squirmingly acute pitch meeting with the hipster indies whose buzzwords have an ominously hollow ring, Horvat also succeeds in skewering a male-dominated industry that seems to have learned little or nothing from the #MeToo backlash. But the smarmy ininess of the gags take their enervating toll in much the same way that they did in Eugene Kotlyarenko's similarly themed and equally implausible, Spree (2020).


LADDIE: THE MAN BEHIND THE MOVIES.


Hollywood studio executive Alan Ladd, Jr. and documentarist Amanda Ladd-Jones have something in common, beside being father and daughter. Each has suffered from paternal neglect and the impact that this has had on their lives is examined with frankness and tact in Laddie: The Man Behind the Movies.


The son of actor Alan Ladd and his high-school sweetheart, Marjorie Harrold, Laddie had to contend with being airbrushed out of his father's life when he had a new family with actress Sue Carol. However, the lure of Hollywood proved irresistible and he insisted on starting in the mailroom to get his bearings. He spent six years as an agent from 1963 before decamping to London to produce such mixed offerings as Eric Till's The Walking Stick (1970) and Brian G. Hutton's X, Y and Zee (1972). Returning Stateside, he kicked his heels for a spell before rising up the ladder at 20th Century-Fox, where he made screen history by persuading the studio to take a chance on George Lucas's Star Wars (1977).


As Ladd-Jones discovers at a franchise convention, few fans have any idea who her father is and why they owe him a huge debt. Lucas is on hand to pay fealty and he is joined by such fascinating anecdotalists as Mel Brooks, Paul Mazursky, Sigourney Weaver, Morgan Freeman, Ron Howard and Ben Affleck. Ridley Scott acknowledges the vision it had required to geenlight Alien (1979), Blade Runner (1982) and Thelma and Louise (1991), as we learn the role that Laddie had played in following his instincts on everything from horrors like Richard Donner's The Omen (1976) to Best Picture winners like Hugh Hudson's Chariots of Fire (1981) and Mel Gibson's Braveheart (1995).


The success of these features meant that Ladd-Jones got to see very little of her father as she grew up and she uses her profile to share that hurt, while also coming to appreciate the sacrifices that Laddie was making in order to make cinema history and bring pleasure to millions. This rapprochement is touching, but laudably restrained, as we hear how things didn't always run smoothly at either The Ladd Company (where he endured a nightmare on Philip Kaufman's The Right Stuff, 1983) or MGM, where his patience was tried by owners Kirk Kerkorian and Giancarlo Paretti.


Eventually, he cut his losses and opened an office at Paramount. But the hits kept coming into the first decade of the 21st century, by which time there was no room for talent-trusting mavericks like Ladd in the new corporate construct, even though they had done more than most to empower women within the industry, as Lili Fini Zanuck, Allyn Stewart and Jenno Topping testify.


Providing a fascinating insight into the changing nature of the film business in the bean-counting phase of the blockbuster era, this is also an intimate face-to-face, in which Laddie's modesty is matched by his genuine regret that he wasn't always there for his children. Half-brother David Ladd adds valuable extenuating remarks, as do former colleagues Jay Kanter and Michael Grusikoff, Sandy Lieberson and Paul Maslansky, while editor Chip Mauro does a neat job of linking the talking heads with the archive stills and clips from some of the pictures that amassed over 50 Academy Awards. Shame about Police Academy (1984), though.


HENRY GLASSIE: FIELD WORK.


Irish documentarist Pat Collins follows Silence (2012) and Song of Granite (2017) with this engaging profile of American folkorist and anthropologist Henry Glassie, whose contention that art reflects the best instincts of humankind is more than borne out by the lengthy observational passages devoted to painstaking creation. Indeed, the first third of the film focuses on a number of Brazilian artists working with clay (Rosalvo Santanna), woodblocks (Nilo dos Santos), metal (Samuel Rodrigues), wood (Edival Rosas) and gold leaf (Izaura Rosas). Each piece is exquisite and each beguiling sequence attests to the value of the lesson that Glassie learned from Lady Gregory that the basis of any ethnographic study should be reverence and patience.


Raised on the battlefields of the Civil War and having started out hunting Appalachian folk songs like Ola Belle Reed's `I've Endured', Glassie developed a unique methodology under mentors Fred Kniffin and Paul Clayton that means he doesn't study people per se, but what they choose to show to him as emblems of their being. He recalls the Anatolian sojourn that enabled him to learn the secrets of Kütahya ceramics and Cankkale rug-making, as well as the decade-long stay in Ballymenone in County Fermanagh, where the genius of flautist John Joe Maguire, fiddler Peter Flanagan and storyteller Hugh Nolan showed him how this border community of 153 souls dealt with the Troubles in Ulster.


Now based in Bloomington, Indiana with wife and fellow folklorist Pravina Shulka, Glassie explains his approach to field work and how it has shaped his understanding of the concept of art and the part it plays in affirming a society's identity. He visits potters Kate and Daniel Johnston in Piedmont, North Carolina, where Colm Hogan's camera records both the intricate skillfulness of the process and the discreet intensity of Glassie's scrutiny. A paean to curiosity, respect, context and creativity, this deft blend of imagery and philosophy is a humbling delight.


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