• David Parkinson

Parky At the Pictures (8/1/2021)

(Reviews of The Riflemen; La Llorona; Song Without a Name; Cocoon; The Elfkins; and One Man and His Shoes)


So, here we are in Lockdown 3. This means that cinemas across the UK are closed until mid-February and all releases will be online. In addition to Curzon Home Cinema. MUBI, Netflix and the BFI Player, it should also be possible to access the titles under discussion below via iTunes, Apple TV, Amazon, Sky Store, Virgin, Microsoft, Vimeo, Google Play, Rakuten, BT and Playstation. Good luck and stay safe!


THE RIFLEMEN.


Having witnessed the murder of his mother by a German patrol, 16 year-old Arturs Vanags (Oto Brantevics) volunteers for the Imperial Russian Army in 1914. Although he's too young to sign up, his ageing father (Martinš Vilsons) sways the recruiting officer with his own achievements as a military marksman. Arturs is joined in basic training (with wooden weapons) by his best friend, Spilva (Renars Zeltinš), and the pair are shown no favouritism by Vanags Sr., who has been drafted as a sergeant-major. On their first excursion from a trench, Spilva is killed and Arturs is frozen by fear when confronted by his first foe before bayoneting him in the belly.


Recovering from a blow to the head. Arturs celebrates his birthday with his older brother, Edgars (Raimonds Celms), who introduces him to a couple of country girls. Shortly afterwards, Arturs is badly wounded when he hesitates when detailed to take out a sniper and his father carries him back to the trench. He receives word his son has died, but the bullet was removed from his neck at the field hospital where Arturs develops a crush on a nurse named

Marta (Greta Trušina).


On being sent to the Island of Death, Arturs is relieved to be reunited with his father and Edgars and the they embrace when they see Vanags, Sr. tending to a horse while everyone else is panicking during a gas attack. However, he is killed in single combat at his post and the commanding officer waives a charge against Arturs for having the old man buried with the rifle he had used to kill 56 Germans.


Marching onwards, the Latvians join up with a Siberian regiment on Christmas Day in 1916. Arturs volunteers for a night raid in the snow and they capture a goose behind enemy lines and treat one of the officers to soup. Mail arrives while they are eating and someone reads out a letter from the mother of a fallen comrade before they are ordered into action to support a Siberian offensive. When they refuse to attack, however, the Latvians are exposed and Arturs is left distraught when a shell buries Edgars in mud and he has to leave him behind when the retreat is sounded.


Arturs bumps into Marta searching for loved ones among the frozen corpses stacked along the roadside, where Konrads (Gatis Gaga) and Mikelsons (Jekabs Reinis) are handed leaflets urging them to support the Bolshevik leader Vladimir Ilych Lenin in his uprising against the Tsar. In a letter to Marta, Arturs describes how he was wounded in the leg during a push towards Moscow and was able to spend some time in the city with his pals. However, when they next meet, he and Konrads are part of the firing squad chosen to execute Mikelsons and others for preaching Latvian nationalism.


When he refuses to fire, Arturs is arrested and placed aboard a prison train. However, his officer, Sala (Vilis Daudzinš), conspires with Konrads to have him released and the pair head towards the farm where Marta is working. Having seen his companion shot in the woods, Arturs insists on burying him and giving Marta his mother's wedding ring before volunteering for the Latvian forces resisting the Red Army.


In the nearby town, a young boy grabs Konrads's rifle, as his mother weeps while signing his papers, and Arturs is given stripes to command this unit of novices at Cesis. They fight bravely against overwhelming odds and Arturs is wounded in the abdomen. As he crawls over the snowy ground, he hears his whispered prayer for those who have fallen in his Baltic country's cause echoing back from the lips of the dead.


Closing captions reveal that Latvia's population was halved by more than 1.2 million during the Great War, although thousands volunteered for the National Armed Forces following the Battle of Cesis and declared independence. We also learn that Aleksandrs Grins based his novel, Blizzard of Souls, on his experiences during the conflict. In 1940, when Latvia was overrun by the Red Army, however, Grins was arrested and shot. His tome was promptly banned throughout the USSR and remained so until the collapse of Soviet-style Communism.


Echoes of Elem Klimov's Come and See (1985) and Václav Marhoul's The Painted Bird (2019) reverberate around Dzintars Dreibergs's defiantly patriotic epic, which is not only one of the most expensive pictures ever made in Latvia, but also the most commercially successful. In terms of period, however, it's closer to Sam Mendes's 1917 and Alexander Zolotukhin's A Russian Youth (both 2019), which also chronicled a callow innocent's route to manhood while fighting for Nicholas II. The narrative, co-scripted by Boris Frumin is reasonably faithful to the text, but it never quite avoids the fact that Arturs single-handedly endures enough trauma to bring a battalion to its knees.


He is played with courage and charisma by Oto Brantevics, who keeps a lid on the exuberance that leads Arturs into danger while seeking to avenge the deaths of his parents and sibling. Martinš Vilsons also impresses as the proud father who treats his sons like any other trooper, while the support playing is all the more commendable given the sketchiness of the characterisation. To an extent, of course, the point is that these brave lads are little more than cannon fodder and Dreibergs stages the set-pieces to emphasise the futility of operations in the face of overwhelming odds and the heroism of those who took up arms in the name of one cause and wound up defending a very different one.


Often shooting missions taking place in fog, darkness or freezing snow, Valdis Celmins conveys the terrors facing those walking trustingly towards their doom. Gatis Belogrudovs is suitably muscular, while Lolita Ritmanis's score eschews bombast and sentiment. Considering his previous outings - Padoties Aizliegts (2009), VEF 54th Season (2014) and The Sixth Player (2016) - were all sports documentaries, this represents an imposing debut for Dreibergs, who shows without resorting to melodramatics how notions of glory at the start of a campaign transmute into loyalty to one's comrades and a desperate desire to survive by journey's end.


LA LLORONA.


Despite being acquitted of genocide by a Guatemalan court, former general Enrique Monteverde (Julio Diaz) has his house surrounded by angry protestors. Wife Carmen (Margarita Kenefic) prays for protection, but daughter Natalia (Sabrina De La Hoz) is concerned for the safety of her own child, Sara (Ayla-Elea Hurtado). Bodyguard Letona (Juan Pablo Olyslager) remains loyal, as does housekeeper, Valeriana (María Telón). But strange things start to occur after the rest of the servants leave and Alma (María Mercedes Coroy) is hired to hold the fort.


While Sara wonders why children at school are saying awful things about her grandfather, he begins to hear voices in the night. Having fired a gun in the kitchen during one nocturnal prowl, Monteverde is caught in Alma's room in a state of arousal and Carmen laments that he always had a thing for Mayan girls. When Monteverde requires hospital treatment, Letona organises an armed escort for the brief walk from the ambulance to the general's home. But the flooding of a basement room and an infestation of frogs convinces the occupants that Monteverde is being stalked by the victims of his brutal past, who will not let them rest until justice is done.


According to Latin American folklore, `La Llorona' or `the Weeping Woman' is the grief-stricken spirit of a mother who is doomed to walk the earth for eternity as punishment for drowning her children. Writing in conjunction with Lisandro Sanchez, Jayro Bustamante draws on the legend to comment on the crimes of General Efrain Ríos Montt, the dictator whose reign of terror between March 1982 and August 1983 led to a 2013 conviction for genocide that was overturned on appeal. However, rather than following the conventional route of exploring such tyranny from the perspective of the victims, Bustamante centres his unsettling chamber drama on supernatural occurrences that make the general's nearest and dearest aware of the hideous nature of his murderous activities.


Allowing Nicolás Wong's camera to prowl in bluish light around the Sebastián Muñoz interiors that deftly contrast the differences in the upstairs/downstairs living conditions, Bustamante makes disconcerting use of Eduardo Cáceres's insinuating sound design to cast a horror pall over proceedings. He is also ably served by Julio Diaz as the dictator slipping into dementia, Margarita Kenéfic as the wife slowly emerging from a lifetime's denial and María Mercedes Coroy, as the maid who accusatory passivity helps force her employer into confronting the atrocities he committed against the indigenous population.


It's never made clear whether Alma is a ghost or a survivor, but the ambiguity only adds to the clawing sense of unease. Kudos to Shudder for showcasing this fine film and it's to be hoped that someone picks up Bustamante's earlier outings, Ixcanul (2015) and Tremors (2019), as he is clearly a notable talent.


SONG WITHOUT A NAME.


During the 1980s presidency of populist Alan Garcia, Quechua couple Georgina (Pamela Mendoza Arpi) and Leo Condori (Lucio Rojas) eke out a living by selling potatoes in the market of a village outside the Peruvian capital. When the pregnant Georgina hears a radio advertisement about a clinic offering free natal services, she travels to Lima. She acquiesces when the nurse takes her newborn daughter away for tests and is dismayed when she is asked to leave before being reunited with her child.


On returning to the clinic the next day, however, Georgina is crushed to discover the building empty and she agrees to co-operate with journalist Pedro Campos (Tommy Párraga) when the authorities insist they are powerless to help. He is distracted from his investigation by a burgeoning romance with itinerant actor Isa (Maykol Hernández), but still manages to discover that infants are being stolen for adoption by a trafficking gang. While he succeeds in securing some prosections, Georgina is left alone when Leo joins a left-wing militant group.


As her journalist father, Ismael, had exposed a baby farming scandal in Peru in 1981, debuting director Melina León is ideally placed to tell this harrowing story. Writing with Michael J. White, she does so with a blend of social and poetic realism that sometimes sits awkwardly with the solemnity of the narrative. Shooting in a boxy Academy monochrome, cinematographer Inti Briones evocatively contrasts the studied wooden-hutted homeliness of Gisella Ramírez's rural settings and the soul-destroying drabness of the Lima offices where the anguished couple spend hours waiting to be fobbed off with false hopes and bureaucratic indifference.


But the austere imagery sometimes assumes a hazy glossiness that undercuts the despair felt by the affectingly impassive Pamela Mendoza Arpi. The counterpoint between avant-garde composer Pauchi Sasaki's ominous score and the lullabies and folkloric charango tunes played during village rituals also jars on occasion. The gay romance subplot also proves a distraction, even though it serves to establish Pedro as an outsider in a macho society that is quick to oppress and exploit. León sets this stifling atmosphere against the rise of the Shining Path, the revolutionary organisation linked to the Communist Party that entices Leo away from his long-suffering wife. But, even though León doesn't provide much background detail, her elliptical simplification of complex political issues invites comparison with the way in which Alfonso Cuarón's Roma (2018) presented the Los Halcones paramilitary cadre in the Mexico City of the early 1970s.


COCOON.


The summer of 2018 is the hottest on record in Berlin's Kottbusser Tor district, but 14 year-old Nora (Lena Urzendowsky) is forced to miss her class canoeing expedition after breaking her hand during a silly card game at a friend's house. She is forced to join older sister Jule (Anna Lena Klenke) and her best friend Aylin (Elina Vildanova) in their class, where she has the excruciating misfortune to have her first period while teetering along the balance beam during a PE lesson.


Help is at hand in the form of tomboy Romy (Jella Haase), who takes Nora to the washroom. Despite the age difference and the glaring disparity between their personalities, they strike up a friendship, with Nora being at home with the older girl because she has spent so much time with Romy because their alcoholic mother, Vivienne (Anja Schneider), isn't always home or capable. Revelling in the chance to chat instead of confine her thoughts to her video diary, Nora begins to fall in love with Romy. At a party, however, she sees her kissing David (Bill Becker), the boy over whom Jule obsesses, and she is forced to take her sister home when she finds her the worse for wear. Rather than be heartbroken by the betrayal, however, Nora puts it down to experience and is grateful that Romy has helped her discover who she is.


Dotting the largely authentic action with David Bowie songs and liaising with cinematographer Martin Neumayer to give action set two summers ago a hazy nostalgic feel, writer-director Leonie Krippendorff succeeds in turning cosmopolitan Kreuzberg into a romantic wonderland. In the opening scenes - which revisit the notions of loneliness explored in Krippendorff's debut feature, Looping (2016) - Nora is slightly out of step with her 16 year-old sibling, as she smokes dope, gossips and scours the Internet for dieting tips and sexualised dance moves that will impress the boys at parties without over-inflaming them. But, from the moment she meets Romy, Nora starts to pay less attention to the caterpillars she keeps in a box under her bed and devotes her time to marching on a pride parade, lounging in sun-dappled fields and skinny dipping.


Although careful to keep the sensual sequences chaste, Krippendorff makes it clear that first love is as much about the libido as the heart. But while Lena Urzendowsky's eyes are opened to her body's physical possibilities, she also learns life lessons during the course of an eventful summer, as she gains a greater understanding of both her sister's peer group and the Muslim kids outside their circle. All in their twenties, Urzendowsky, Anna Lena Klenke, Elina Vildanova and Jella Haase are able to lock into the mindset of teenagers fixated with the opposite sex and social media. But the sequence in which Jule brings home a baby simulator to coax her mother into showing some parental concern is more poignant and subtle than some of the other set-pieces and on-the-nose symbols.


THE ELFKINS.


For centuries, the people of Cologne had been helped in their everyday tasks by the Heinzelmännchen. However, these industrious little folk had remained underground since being tricked into revealing themselves by a tailor's wife. Elders Brimur (Matthew Burton) and Vendla (Suzanne Ritter) keep everyone busy by teaching them useful trades like shoemaking, carpentry and embroidery. But aspiring inventor Elfie (Rivka Rothstein) doesn't seem to fit and, when her automated turnip harvester misfires, she escapes into the upper world, She's followed by buddies Buck (Valentin Beinhold) and Kipp (Liam Mockridge), who think they should return home, until they meet Theo (Erik Hansen), a baker whose traditional shop is under threat from his envious brother, Bruno (Steve Jacob). Elfie promises to help Theo stay in business, providing he teaches her how to bake his tempting cream spires.


Although European animations are usually proficient, they tend to lack the artistic burnish and technological sophistication of their Hollywood counterparts. The backdrops in Ute von Münchow-Pohl's fairytale are rather charming, but the character design is overly cutesome, with the result that this looks like it would be more at home on CITV or CBeebies than a cinema screen. Jan Strathmann's screenplay also errs on the sentimental side, although Elfie has plenty of spirit and her determination to help a human teaches a valuable lesson about accepting difference and not being afraid of change.


Watching grown-ups familiar with the Ealing comedies will recognise the storyline of the underdog resisting progress and older kids might spot the liftings from Brad Bird's 2007 Pixar outing, Ratatouille. But, while they might find this a bit stickily sweet for their tastes, tinies are likely to settle happily in front of this colourful and breezily undemanding saga and then ask if they can do a spot of baking afterwards.


ONE MAN AND HIS SHOES.


In the 1980s, US sporting endorsements were done purely on a team basis. Converse had cornered the basketball market, but everything changed when Nike decided to pick a prospect and build a brand around him. The newcomer was Michael Jordan of the Chicago Bulls and the Air Jordan trainer became a must-have item following a series of nine commercials directed by rising talent, Spike Lee, who also appeared as his She's Gotta Have It (1986) character, Mars Blackmon. When the National Basketball Association banned the shoes, every kid in America craved a pair and Nike's projected sale of three million units was exceeded by 122 million. But, there was a downside, as the sneakers became such a status symbol that in 1989 people started killing in order to own them.


The definitive screen statement on the life and times of Michael Jordan seems set to be Jason Hehir's 10-part miniseries, The Last Dance (2020). But British documentarist Yemi Bamiro has latched on to an intriguing corrolary and his study of the Air Jordan brand says much about the way in which the African American community is perceived and perceives itself in both cultural and consumerist terms. Yet, while criticism is levelled at Nike for exploiting its impressionable target audience to the tune of $3.14 billion in 2019, too little is said about the roles played in reinforcing the brand's desirability by Jordan and Lee, neither of whom was willing to participate in the seven-year project or comment on Nike's cynical policy of ensuring that demand for their `anti-gravity machines' always outstrips supply.


There's something dispiriting about the obsessive collectors Bamiro meets in Tokyo, Paris and Detroit (where Jumpman Bostic has 1175 pairs), while there's a resistible smugness about the contributions of famed scout Scott Vaccaro, shoe designer Peter Moore, Nike marketing executive Jim Riswold, Jordan's former agent David Falk, NBA commissioner David Stern and trainer expert Russ Bengtson. This is reinforced to some extent by the flashy digital graphics built into Michael Marden's vigorous edit. But a degree of balance is provided by academic Antonio Williams, sports journalists Scoop Jackson, Rick Telander and Jamele Hill (whose views on Black Cool are fascinating), as well as by Dazie Williams, whose 22 year-old son, Joshua Woods, was murdered for his shoes in Houston, Texas in 2012.


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