• David Parkinson

Parky At the Pictures (8/7/2022)

(Reviews of Pompo: The Cinephile; Ithaca; and Futura)


It's safe(ish) to presume that cinema-going is a thing again. However, the UK's various streaming platforms are still doing sterling work. 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 are all ready to keep you entertained.


POMPO: THE CINEPHILE.


Adapted from a manga by Shogu Sugitani, Takayuki Hirao's Pompo: The Cinephile is a eye-popping Valentine to the movie business that will delight those who still think that screen entertainment is produced in dream factories. Those of a more pragmatic persuasion. however, will find themselves pining for less frivolous fare like Satoshi Kon's Millennium Actress (2001).


The Peterzen Studio in Nyallywood is run by the diminutive Joelle Davidovich 'Pompo' Pomponett (Konomi Kohara), whose grandfather, J.D. Peterzen (Mitsuru Ogata), had launched the company with the founding principles that no picture should last longer than 90 minutes. She has added the mantra, `As long as the lead actress looks attractive, it's a good movie.'


Production assistant Gene Fini (Hiroya Shimizu) is amazed by Pompo's record as a producer and her unfailing eye when it comes to talent. He is stunned, therefore, when she asks him to create a 15-second trailer for her new adventure, Marine, headlined by her biggest star, Mystia Lyons (Ai Kakuma). After a tortured night, in which he sees himself slashing celluloid with a pseudo-samurai sword (even though he's using a computerised editing programme), he produces a promo that pleases the director, Corbett (Manabu Sakamaki), and delights Pompo.


She informs him that she chose him as her assistant because his eyes lacked sparkle and she equates ocular dullness with the suffering she believes is essential for creativity. When he asks to use the screening room to watch Giuseppe Tornatore's Cinema Paradiso (1988), she scoffs at him for watching long films and recalls how she used to doze off when her grandfather screened anything over 90 minutes.


Much to Gene's surprise, Pompo comes into the darkened room halfway through the film. He suddenly has a feeling of déjà vu and he sees himself entering Pompo's office to find a script entitled Meister. As he reads, he realises that the trashy story and cornball characters are coming alive and he is thrilled when Pompo enters and announces that she has cast Martin Braddock (Akio Ôtsuka) in the comeback lead after a decade in retirement. She also reveals that she wrote the screenplay for Natalie Woodward (Rinka Ôtani), who is the dream girl Gene had spotted splashing in puddles on a zebra crossing on his way to work.


Natalie has always been rejected before and is taken aback when Pompo breaks the good news. But she is nowhere near as shocked as Gene, when he is informed that he will direct the story of the Swiss mountain girl who helps an ageing composer rediscover his genius.


Natalie moves into Mystia's penthouse apartment and cooks to thank her for her hospitality. She undergoes a rigorous training programme and has her long hair bobbed. Braddock is disappointed that Mystia is not his co-star, but Corbett tells Gene not to allow him to throw his weight around on the set and advises him to make the film for the one person he hopes will like it.


At a party at Pompo's mansion, Natalie tells Gene that she is terrified, as she hails from the country village where she had been raised by her grandmother. He also admits to being apprehensive, but assures her that Pompo never makes mistakes when it comes to pretty actresses. They agree to help each other out during the shoot in Switzerland.


Arriving in the Alps, Braddock switches into thespian mode to play Dalbert, while Natalie becomes Lily the moment the camera rolls. Gene impresses Pompo when a wolf attacks the goat herd and he uses cutouts and smoke to make their couple's first meeting more atmospheric. When rain sets in, the whole crew suggest ideas for a mud fight and Pompo is ecstatic when Gene films a rainbow to give the scene some visual magic.


Convinced Gene is making a masterpiece, Pompo heads home. He bumps into old school friend, Alan Gardner (Ryûichi Kijima), who has just bungled a big deal for his bank. Over coffee, he recalls mocking Gene at school for being a film nerd, but he now realises he was pursuing his passion and he can see a twinkle in his eyes.


This is bad news for Gene, who recalls Pompo's theory about sparkling eyes. He has to edit down 72 hours of footage to 90 minutes and we see him enduring the difficulty of selecting shots while ensuring that scenes avoid getting bogged down in exposition. The pressure begins to tell and he frets that he is blowing his big chance. As Pompo is location scouting, he asks her grandfather for advice, as he splices some old reels in the storage room. He tells Gene to find his own aria within the material and he returns inspired to cut down the pre-Lily sequences showing how Dalbert lost his mojo.


Pompo returns and feigns fury when Gene asks to film a new scene. She writes it and reassembles the cast and crew. However, an investor drops out and Alan offers his help to raise the funding and pulls off such an effective presentation to the board (that includes heartfelt speeches by Pompo and Gene, as well as crowdfunding figures) that the company president overrules underlings who have forgotten that banks exist to help people realise their dreams.


Despite a heavily disguised Mystia appearing in the new scene, Gene still has problems editing down and winds up in hospital after he pulls a bookcase on top of himself. However, he discharges himself and Natalie's encouragement helps him through (with more visions of himself shearing through celluloid). He finishes on time, Pompo loves it, the premiere is a triumph and he wins the golden cat for Best Director at the Nyallywood Academy Awards. When asked backstage what he likes most about the film, Gene declares its 90-minute running time.


As paeans to film-making go, this is more engaging than revealing, as it reworks the backstage format familiar from so many `putting on a show' musicals. It takes time to get used to Pompo the pocket dynamo, with her outsized red ringlets, quirky mannerisms and strident speech patterns, while Gene redefines `pathos', as the neurotic, bag-eyed geek forever scribbling in his notebook.


Things liven up once the production reaches the Alps, although Hirao rather overcooks the cutting room ordeal in his bid to emphasise the significance of each editorial decision. The sword-wielding image is also overdone, while Alan's bank presentation feels strung out. But no one can be left in any doubt that a movie is a labour of love that requires faith, teamwork, financing and luck.


ITHAKA.


There have been numerous films about Julian Assange. In addition to documentaries like Alex Gibney's We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, Johannes Wahlström's Mediastan (both 2013), Laura Poitras's highly critical Risk, and Tarquin Ramsay and Jörg Altekruse's Free Speech Fear Free (both 2016), there have also been biopics like Robert Connolly's Underground: The Julian Assange Story (2012) and Bill Condon's The Fifth Estate (2013). Directed by Australian Ben Lawrence and produced by Assange's brother, Gabriel Shipton, Ithaka seeks to put a new spin on the story by focussing on the efforts to secure a release being made by Assange's wife, Stella Moris, and his 76 year-old father, John Shipton.


Subtitled `A Father, a Family, a Fight For Justice', the film begins with UN special rapporteur Nils Melzer's assertion: `Torture is a tool used to send a warning to others. It is most effective when it is inflicted in public.' On camera, Melzer claims the method is being used to intimidate others. But Shipton (who admits to having spent long periods out of his son's life) refuses to be cowed, as he campaigns to prevent the UK from extraditing Assange to the United States, where the WikiLeaks founder faces becoming the first journalist and publisher ever to be charged with espionage.


Fiancée, legal adviser and mother of sons Max and Gabriel, Stella Moris is seen in CCTV footage of Assange's room at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, where he had sought asylum in June 2012 after being threatened with extradition to Sweden to answer allegations of sexual misconduct. He skateboards in the confined space, as he had no idea at this point that he was being surveilled by the CIA after the release of the Vault 7 cache of documents.


Shipton gets cross as the BBC's Victoria Derbyshire makes Moris cry during an interview. We see him with his young daughter, Severine, at a family gathering to plan steps forward in the legal battle to protect Assange in HMP Belmarsh and to prevent him being delivered to President Donald Trump (who had once expressed his support for WikiLeaks), in spite of the fact that the Obama administration had conceded that no one had been harmed by the publications under review.


With a month to go before the hearing, Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg speaks on Assange's behalf. Then, Covid strikes and lockdown limits the legal team's access to their client before the September 2020 hearings at the Old Bailey. During the session, Shipton and Moris listen to Edward Snowden defending Assange to talk show host, Joe Rogan.


Every morning, Shipton meets the press outside the court and tries to be polite, even though he sometimes finds the questioning to be intrusive or banal. He greets artist and activist Ai Weiwei, who speaks about the importance of free speech and how difficult it is to regain once it's lost. But Shipton is struggling with the strain and even becomes frustrated with Lawrence's questions, especially when he asks about Assange's mental health and whether he had experienced similarly dark days. Shipton recalls being a rebel, as he wrote Voltaire on the class blackboard to wind up the teachers and campaigned against Australian involvement in the Vietnam War. Similarly, Moris had learned the value of liberty while crusading against apartheid when her parents lived in Botswana.


At this point, Gabriel Shipton flies in from Melbourne, in time for the last day of the hearing. During the three-month deliberation, Joe Biden is elected president. The verdict is delivered on 4 January 2021 and the Shiptons look on from New York, as the judge refuses the US request because Assange is too great a suicide risk. As an appeal is lodged, however, the media dissects a ruling that suggests that mental health issues prevented the extradition rather than any upholding of free speech or the freedom of the press.


Denied bail as a flight risk, Assange remains behind bars and his fate is sealed after a failed bid to secure a pardon from Trump (that had divided Shipton and Moris) is followed by Biden greenlighting an appeal against District Judge Vanessa Baraitser's ruling on 9 February. The battle goes on, with Moris bolstering Assange's spirits through phone calls and Shipton being torn by losing time with his five year-old in order to lobby for his son. Sitting in a Gloucestershire garden, he marvels at the sound of hooves, just as Assange had done when a horse had passed during a Christmas Day call to the Moris home in Barcelona.


It's a poignant connection that emphasises the preciousness and precariousness of freedom. But there are too few of these in a documentary that often feels like an intrusion on the time of people with better things to do and more important matters to think about.


Lawrence clearly wants to show the pressure that Shipton, Moris and Assange had to endure during the extradition process and he tries to be discreet on the pavements outside the courthouse and in the back of taxis taking the in-laws to and fro. Yet neither gives much away and one is left to wonder what purpose this record edited by Karen Johnson and scored by Brian Eno actually has in advocating Assange's case.


One thing's for sure, however. Assange remains a hugely divisive figure. But he is fortunate to have such committed and dauntless people in his corner facing off the cowards who persist in persecuting him while stealthily striving to steal our liberties.


FUTURA.


In 2016, music video specialist Olivier Babinet created his own brand of hybrid documentary in Swagger, which centred on a housing project in the Parisian suburb of Aulnay-sous-Bois to assess the hopes, fears and dreams of 11 youths living on the margins of society. Sébastien Lifshitz adopted much the same approach in narrowing the field to two in Adolescents (2019). Now, the Italian triumvirate of Pietro Marcello, Francesco Munzi and Alice Rohrwacher have followed suit by joining forces in Futura to continue the trend started in the 1950s and 60s by compatriots Mario Soldati and Luigi Comencini, whose monochrome tele-surveys are mined for contrasting extracts.


Made during a lengthy nationwide journey in 2020 that was interrupted by Coronavirus, this 16mm experiment in `collective reportage' seeks to capture the spirit of the time rather than uncover any home truths or startling revelations. Aged between 15-20, the interviewees come from all backgrounds and locales and many will be surprised by the conservatism of their attitudes and the modesty of their ambitions.


After a gigglingly reticent start, a group of trainee beauticians from Mariglianella, a commune north-east of Naples, decide that Italy has no future, while debating whether happiness is raising children with a husband who's a good provider. They all agree that people have to be kinder in the future, with one girl lamenting how hard it was to come out as a lesbian.


In Milan, students sift through some photographs and explain why their choices, while, in Cagliari, aspiring boxers complain about the millions that footballers earn and the fact that going abroad is the only way to get ahead because Italy has nothing to offer. When they are asked whether they should stay and change things, they shrug and admit to a fear of failure.


A gang of friends from Castelgiorgio in the Umbrian province of Terni worry they'll lose touch when they have to move away for work. The staff of a Rome-based magazine for young people also believe that travel is the best way to develop, with one even claiming that sending a child abroad to study is a patriotic act. They are despondent about a future that filled with individualism, fake news and broken promises unless change happens now.


Outside Turin, some Romani kids from Nichelino hope to have more freedom than their parents. However, they are wary of losing their identity and joke that most young Italians expect la dolce vita to be served up on a platter. In the Tuscan farming village of Pratolongo, a sense of tradition is also key, although the old rural ways are fast disappearing. One lad sets store by education and we see a black-and-white clip of boys gaggled together at the side of the road discussing books with the off-camera interviewer. As one enthuses about The Odyssey, another quotes from a poem by Giosue Carducci.


Acting students from Montesanto in Naples value education, but curse the fact it's too expensive for those outside the elite. Some five-a-side footballers consider the lessons of the past, but conclude you get the life you deserve through the choices you make. One girl hopes she can avoid bad luck and that's when Covid strikes. Suddenly, everyone is wearing masks and the shots of the empty streets become blurred.


At the Olmo Cornaredo Professional Institute, catering students remain focussed on their goals and are grateful that social media allowed them to stay in touch with friends and family. Beside Lago di Bolsena near Viterbo, a group of swimsuited girls (one of whom has a pet duck) discuss whether the pandemic will change society or limit their horizons. They agree on the importance of thinking before you speak and feeling apprehensive about the future because Covid has shown them how unpredictable it can be.


Some young Romans, however, think that social media is taking over people's lives and they advocate doing rather than browsing. In Palermo, some graffiti artists debate the prospects of doing a job they love and a need to broaden horizons. One girl claims people in poor neighbourhoods like Danisinni become insular, but they seem content and level-headed about the future and don't feel at all disadvantaged. As a couple of kids feed caged livestock, we see the area in past times to gauge the speed of progress before a vox pop explores the age-old quandary of what to do when you grow up. Some want to be footballers, others want to doctors. But most want to find something they like so that they can have the money to be free and make some sort of contribution to their community.


In the coastal resort of Santa Severa, friends go for a dip after concurring that love is overrated and that politicians don't care about young people. Following another archive clip (what a shame the co-directors didn't check up on how life turned out for some of the interviewees), we head to the Juvenile Shelter in the Ligurian town of Varazze to meet some migrants who get into a heated argument about whether the world would be better off without money.


As lockdowns returned in the summer, the film-makers realised they were making a journal of a plague year. In Venice, they are worried that the tourists will stay away and jobs will dry up. Trainee engineers in Brescia are concerned that machines will take over and there will be no jobs for life, but a group in Milan are wary of making future-shaping decisions before they've seen something of the world. At Pisa's Scuola Normale Superiore, the students ponder the value of studying the Humanities and how the dwindling role of faith has contributed to the rise of individualism. Yet, as we listen to a choir harmonising, we see young people taking to the streets to demonstrate and call for change.


We meet Milanese students who occupied their school, as they berate the politicians running the country into the ground. They bemoan the fact that social injustice goes unchecked, with one noting that things have got worse since Pier Paolo Pasolini highlighted Italy's problems in the 1964 voxumentary, Love Meetings.


A bunch of basketball-playing rappers from Negrar near Verona dream of making it big so that the parents who have sacrificed much to raise them can retire early. At a riding school in Sedime outside Turin, four girls are equally grateful to parents who deserve sainthood. They blame the older generation for racism and violence against women and trust lawmakers because they want to protect the population.


The Genoese choristers attend Armando Diaz School, which was raided by police during the protests against the G8 meeting in 2001. Only a couple of the students know about the incident and they opt against answering questions. The members of a rock quartet are more forthcoming, but they agree it's never wise to overstep the mark, as we see archive footage of the police tactics during the peaceful demonstration and at the headquarters of the Genoa Social Forum.


In a field in the Lombard village of Cisliano, our last grouping wish that adults would remember their own youth and stop trying to control them. They long for independence so that they can start channelling their energy into ideas that will improve life for everyone. But grown-ups will always get in the way.


On that bombshell, this engaging, if only fitfully revealing documentary draws to a close. There's a preponderance of white faces, while the boys tend to talk more than the girls. Few seem bothered by celebrity, while little is said about heroes or role models. The majority seem content with their lot or are resigned to it, although all want to better themselves and make their families proud. Revolutionaries are scarce, but these are largely thoughtful, sincere and articulate kids who try to give honest answers to questions that rarely discomfort or provoke them.


Ilya Sapeha's scene-setting vistas are evocatively accompanied by Marco Messina and Sacha Ricci's musical cues. But the directorial trio rely heavily on posed groupings and attentive close-ups during the interlocutions, which are characterised by the eagerness to please of the speakers and the polite was which views are received. A British version, one suspects, would be more raucous, contentious and iconoclastic. And, hopefully, more diverse and inclusive.


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