• David Parkinson

Parky at the Pictures - In Cinemas (1/11/2019)

Updated: Nov 18, 2019

Reviews of Chained For Life; A Good Woman Is Hard to Find; Beach Bum; What You Gonna Do When the World's on Fire; and Campo


CHAINED FOR LIFE.


Any film that borrows its title from a 1952 exploitation saga starring conjoined twins is going to raise eyebrows and, possibly, hackles. Indeed, sophomore director Aaron Schimberg has admitted that there is nothing to recommend Harry L. Fraser's collaboration with Daisy and Violet Hilton. But, while it will discomfit many, Schimberg's Chained For Life is a picture of endlessly teasing fascination that knowingly pays its dues to such studies of difference as Tod Browning's Freaks (1932) and Peter Bogdanovich's Mask (1985), while also mischievously alluding to such satires on the cinematic creative process as Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Beware of a Holy Whore (1971) and François Truffaut's Day For Night (1973).


Following a lengthy quotation from critic Pauline Kael's review of William Wyler's Funny Girl (1968), in which she declares that screen actors are invariably more beautiful than mere mortals, we find ourselves in a 1940s medical institution in the company of Freda, a blind woman who stumbles into an operating theatre and interrupts a surgical procedure being performed by a doctor and his devoted nurse, Olga. It quickly transpires, however, that the trio of Mabel (Jess Weixler), Max (Stephen Plunkett) and Sarah (Sari Lennick) are actors working on Marked For Life (aka The Undesirables) an American movie by a German auteur known only as Herr Director (Charlie Korsmo).


During an interview with reporter Joan Beckett (Sayra Player), it emerges that the 30 year-old Mabel Fairchild is a bit of an airhead who doesn't think deeply about acting or the ethical issues that her projects throw up. She has no problem, for example, with Herr Director casting circus performers as characters with a range of physical conditions and gushes ignorantly about blindness being an acting choice that everyone can associate with on a metaphorical level. Despite slumming it on this production, Mabel has something of a profile and Max tries desperately to impress her with his thespian affectations.


He also exudes chumminess when the circus crew arrives and claims to have seen one of them in an exploitation flick called God's Mistakes. Max also introduces Mabel to Rosenthal (Adam Pearson), who has neurofibromatosis and confides that babies, cats and dogs are terrified of him. Mabel strikes up an immediate rapport, as they discuss the difficulty of learning lines. But Rosenthal has problems following Herr Director's instructions about stepping out of the shadow to make his grand entrance. Max insists that Rosenthal has a natural talent, however, and asks him to pose for a couple of snapshots, while lamenting that his own face leaves a lot to be desired and that he would happily play Richard III beneath a wodge of latex in order to avoid being seen for who he is.


Much to the annoyance of the administrator of the upstate New York hospital hosting the shoot (Joanna Arnow), the cast and crew party noisily in the grounds. Make-up artist Michelle (Joaquina Kalukango) debates with Mabel whether the hermaphrodite (Gina Murdock) or Phroas the bearded lady (Tiffany Manning) are genuine. They also ponder why Siamese twins Miriam and Eva (Miranda and Rebecca Gruss) have not been separated and notice how easily Rosenthal seems to be mixing with everyone, as he dances with a pretty girl (Sarah Grace Lee) whom Michelle suspects is his wife. But Mabel has her doubts about Herr Director's German accent and whether he really grew up in a circus, as he claims.


Mabel is dismayed that Rosenthal has to stay at the clinic because the hotel can't cater for his special needs and channels her newfound inclusivity by dancing with the waiter (Will Blomker), as the cast and crew continue to socialise into the night. The next day, however, she begins to feel uneasy while sitting next to Rosenthal while watching the rushes of the footage filmed so far, as she begins to see how exploitative the entire project might actually be. Among the scenes, we see Olga staring into a cracked mirror as she is surprised by the surgeon's lurking brother, Brutto (Sammy Mena). Later, Freda recovers her sight, only to be appalled by Rosenthal and his fellow `freaks' and her intrusion into the operating theatre prompts the death of the mad doctor and her own disfigurement with acid.


Mabel is replaced in this shot by Nora (Diana Tenney) and the camera remains with her when the hotel crowd disappear at dusk. In their absence, the others begin creating their own scenarios. Brutto scripts a row in the front seat of his car between Rosenthal and a medical student named Lisa (Kati Skelton) playing his girlfriend, while he has to have a choking fit while sitting around a campfire in a scene concocted by Phrosa. Nora's story has real acid used on the movie set so that Mabel has to go through the same facial torment that she has had to endure. What's more, she bumps into the `freak' members of the cast, who have all undergone miraculous surgery, including Rosenthal, and he implores her to visit the doctor so they can be together and she can resume her career in television (because she's now too old for movies).


Back on the set, Herr Director shoots the final scene, which is the sexual encounter between Freda and Rosenthal. The continuity girl (Vanessa McDonnell) notices that Mabel forget to use a Teutonic accent, but he doesn't have the heart to ask her to go again. As the company disbands, Mabel says goodbye to Sarah and Max, but can only watch as Rosenthal boards a coach. During the limo ride to the airport, Mabel is amazed to discover that her unseen Nigerian chauffeur (Kossim Osseni) has written a book about his escape from Africa and that he is not only a mathematical genius, but that he also films his passengers for a TV show he is planning. She has misgivings about giving permission to record her, but we cut away to the inside of the minibus, as the credits roll.


There's a telling contrast between these final shots. Mabel's puzzled expression is shown in static close-up, as she is confronted with yet another remarkable person from outside of her narcissistic bubble, while Schimberg opts for a slightly elevated shot of the circus acts returning to a quotidian existence that has not been examined in the slightest that returns Rosenthal to the ranks after his moment in the spotlight. He doesn't seen particularly perturbed and the deftness of the juxtaposition encapsulates the picture's entire `them and us' subtext, which echoes the famous `one of us' chant from Tod Browning's infamous 1932 horror.


It would be intriguing to see Schimberg's debut, Go Down Death (2013), to make a stylistic comparison, but it's not available in any format in this country. Perhaps it should be, as the Brookyln-based writer-director is clearly one to watch. Amidst the miasma of meta-allusions (which testify to Schimberg's profitable use of his stint as a film programmer), there are echoes of Robert Altman's The Player (1992) in the use of overlapping dialogue, although the profusion of throwaway gags delivered by secondary characters from the periphery of the frame (or even from outside it) recalls such indies du jour as Noah Baumbach. Yet, for all the buffish nods towards film-related pictures like Tom DiCillo's Living in Oblivion (1995) and Peter Strickland's Berberian Sound Studio (2012), there's even a joke about Orson Welles's appearance in James Frawley's The Muppet Movie (1979).


But this study of self-image and the perception of others is clearly a personal project, as Schimberg was born with a bilateral cleft lip and palate - as he revealed in the short Late Spring/Regrets For Our Youth (2009) - and he has striven to counter cinema's tendency to present disfigurement in a negative light by making Rosenthal such an appealing character. Having already made a strong impression in Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin (2013), Adam Pearson gives the film its heart in hitting it off with Jess Weixler, as the vacuously self-absorbed star who never quite manages to seize the epiphanal moments that keep being offered to her. Mention should also be made of Stephen Plunkett, whose actorly affections are as amusing as Charlie Korsmo's Werner Herzog impression, while Adam J. Minnick's Super-16 imagery, Sia Balabanova's production design and Sofi Marshall's editing enable Schimberg to slip between plot planes with mischievous deconstructionist assurance.


As regular viewers of the excellent Talking Pictures channel will know, villains in the bad old postwar days of the quota quickie crime flick were societal outcasts, who lured decent folks into their orbit to be used as expendable pawns in their nefarious schemes. The role models for these B-movie hoods were such unregenerate monsters as Harry Lime and Pinkie Brown, who caught the imagination of audiences through the respective brilliance of Orson Welles and Richard Attenborough. However, the crime capers of the 1960s introduced the concept of the loveable rogue that has continued to dominate the genre throughout the BritCrime era.


A GOOD WOMAN IS HARD TO FIND.


Having made a solid feature bow with Road Games (2015), Abner Pastoll decides to revive the cold-hearted, calculating crook in A Good Woman Is Hard to Find, a Northern Irish noir that took a couple of prizes at the recent FrightFest horror jamboree. Given the gritty authenticity of the action, it may surprise some to learn that this has been written by Ronan Blaney, who landed an Oscar nomination and a BAFTA win for Michael Lennox's touching short, Boogaloo and Graham (2014), which centred on two young boys in the early days of the Troubles being entrusted by their father with a pair of chicks.


Life has not been easy for Sarah Collins (Sarah Bolger) since her husband was murdered. Believing him to be just another petty thug, the Ulster police are reluctant to investigate a crime that has so traumatised Sarah's son, Ben (Rudy Doherty), that he hasn't spoken a word since losing his father and even sister Lucy (Macie McAuley) can't coax him into communicating. Snooty grandma Alice (Jane Brennan) despairs of Sarah and criticises her at every turn, even though she is doing her best to care for the kids on an estate that has become something of a no go area because of its crime rate.


With job prospects non-existent, Tito (Andrew Simpson) decides that the quickest way to make some quick cash is to ram a car carrying a couple of drug dealers and steal their stash. Unfortunately, he is pursued and has to barge his way into Sarah's ground-floor flat and hide the contraband in her bathroom. She is appalled that Tito has taken liberties with local gang boss Leo (Edward Hogg). But, when Tito comes to collect his ill-gotten gains, Sarah cuts a deal to take a percentage of his profits in return for a hiding place.


Despite having a bit of extra housekeeping, Sarah's life gets no easier. She's accused of being a prostitute by a supermarket worker, while social services blame her for a broken window at the flat. With Alice questioning her parenting and her neighbours complaining about the noise, Sarah is forced to remove the batteries from her children's toys in order to power her vibrator. But, when Tito tries to force herself on him. Sarah's patience snaps and she not only stabs him, but also dismembers his corpse.


Tito's sudden disappearance arouses Leo's suspicions and he comes to the flat to demand the return of his merchandise. When Sarah pleads ignorance, Leo threatens Ben and Lucy, only for the young boy to recognise the man who has killed his father. Realising that she can't go to the police without revealing her own drug-dealing misdemeanours, Sarah decides to take the law into her own hands. Carrying Tito's head in a plastic bag dripping blood, she calmly walks into Leo's favourite boozer and guns him down. Relieved to have such a major player off their patch, the cops describe the incident as a gangland execution and leave Sarah to face her uncertain future.


Marbled with bleak humour that seeps through the cracks at the most unexpected places, this is a darkly dispiriting thriller that works better when focusing on the everyday problems facing a single mum on a rundown estate. Seemingly drawing inspiration from South Korean vengeance cinema, Pastoll handles the gruesome elements well enough. But they feel contrived and drag proceedings out of the otherwise authentic milieu into the kind of Mockney netherworld that has made the majority of mainland gangster movies so tiresome.


It's also frustrating that Blaney opts for so many Loachian situations to limn Sarah's dead-end existence, when he might have made things a bit more Ulster-specific by referring to the province's current state of political limbo. The mother-daughter relationship also borders on the soap operatic, as Alice looks down from her bourgeois perch while doing nothing tangible to help. That said, Jane Brennan contributes a committed performance, alongside the dependable Edward Hogg and Andrew Simpson, who had played the hitcher who gets trapped in a serial killer's lair in Road Games.


But this is very much Dubliner Sarah Bolger's picture, as she tackles the kitchen sink staples and the gory genericism with equal aplomb. Pastoll often keeps Richard Bell's camera fixed on her face and lets her reaction convey the despair of her plight and the grimness of her solution. The sense of colour and energy having been sucked out of Bolger's existence is also ably reinforced by Gillian Devenney's interiors, which strip any ennobling qualities from the poverty that drives those devoid of hope to do anything to survive.


BEACH BUM.


It's safe to say that Harmony Korine has had a colourful career. In addition to scripting the highly controversial Larry Clark duo of Kids (1995) and Ken Park (2002), he has also directed such offbeat features as Gummo (1997), Julien Donkey-Boy (1999), Above the Below (2003), Mister Lonely (2007) and Trash Humpers (2009). He seemed to have slipped off the scene, as six years had passed since Korine scored an unexpected hit with the slacker satire, Spring Breakers (2012). But he has finally returned with The Beach Bum, which rather confirms the old maxim about lightning rarely striking twice.


With his straggly blonde locks and eccentric dress sense, tramp poet Moondog (Matthew McConaughey) is a throwback to the hippy era. Despite being married to the wealthy Minnie (Isla Fisher), he prefers drifting through the Florida Keys while seeking inspiration for his latest slim volume of verses in the sex, drugs and R&B that help him pass the time between drinks. His agent, Lewis (Jonah Hill), has long lost faith in Moondog keeping to a deadline, as he would rather fritter away time with fluffy white kittens than get down to some serious work.


Equally disapproving is Heather (Stefania LaVie Owen), Moondog and Minnie's daughter, who is about to marry Frank (Joshua Ritter). She is reluctant to allow her father to attend the Miami wedding and her misgivings are justified when Moondog turns up late after a tryst in a burger van and fondles the groom during the reception. Biting the bullet, Minnie confides in her daughter that she has long been having an affair with Moondog's best friend, Lingerie (Snoop Dogg), a singer who is still managing to cling to his career, thanks to his association with old-stagers like Jimmy Buffet (who plays himself).


Blissfully unaware of the treachery, Moondog sidles off with Lingerie to sample some of the high-powered Jamaican cannabis to which the musician attributes his creativity. Feeling suitably mellowed, Moondog apologises to Heather and Frank. But, as the night wears on, he catches Minnie and Lingerie in a passionate clench during a firework display and beats a retreat after plunging into a fountain. As she remains fond of Moondog, Minnie rushes after him to explain and they wind up having a fun night of drunken dancing and karaoke in a nearby bar, where the highlight is a slow shuffle to Peggy Lee's `Is That All There Is?'. However, Minnie insists on driving them home and she dies in hospital hours after crashing into oncoming traffic.


Emerging largely unscathed, Moondog feels out of sorts. However, Heather is determined to prevent him from inheriting his share of her mother's inheritance until he has sobered up and started to act his age. She also demands that he finishes his book, although Lewis seems reluctant to help focus Moondog's mind by refusing to book him any personal appearances to raise his profile and sense of self-esteem. Frustrated at being made to jump through hoops, Moondog recruits a bunch of hobos led by Homeless Phil (David Bennett) and invites them to join him in trashing Minnie's villa.


In order to escape a prison sentence, Moondog agrees to spend a year in rehab. However, he falls in with Flicker (Zac Efron), a pyromaniac with a vaping habit and a beard that makes his face look like a toasted sandwich. They do a bunk and gatecrash a wedding reception, where they proceed to push the groom off the dock and steal a boat. During a trippy night of the soul, Flicker draws on his childhood with a pastor father to engage Moondog in a discussion about faith and the fact that God is forever on your shoulder.


Still a fugitive and needing somewhere to lie low, Moondog accepts the offer of old pal Captain Wack (Martin Lawrence) to stay aboard his boat, Success. A self-proclaimed Vietnam veteran with an unusual war wound that causes him to limp, Wack lives with a cocaine-addicted parrot and gives dolphin spotting tours around the Keys. He admits that there have been fatalities during past excursions and his inability to distinguish between a dolphin and a shark cost him a foot. But Moondog is not one to hang around and he leaves his old shipmate to hook up with Lingerie in Miami.


Remorseful at having cuckolded his buddy, Lingerie apologises for his actions and tries to reassure Moondog that Minnie never stopped loving him. As a serial philanderer himself, the poet is less than concerned and is more interested in Jimmy Buffet's disclosure about a cross-dressing dream that gives him an idea about how to evade the police. His disguise doesn't keep the cops away, however, and he is forced to do a midnight flit from Lingerie's mansion with a sizeable stash of his Jamaican pond weed.


Moondog quickly comes to appreciate its inspirational powers and he dashes down his thoughts in a lyrical memoir he calls, The Beach Bum. Much to Lewis's amazement, the tome not only garners enthusiastic reviews, but it also earns its author a Pulitzer Prize. Freshly divorced from the hopeless Frank, Heather accepts that her father has fulfilled her conditions and releases his inheritance. She is slightly perplexed when he asks for the payment to be made in cash and deposited in a sailing boat. But the fool and his money are quickly parted, as Moondog sets light to the banknotes during a firework display and causes an explosion that sends currency cascading into the night sky, while he drifts away on the tide.


By all accounts inspired by the left-field characters Korine met while lodging in Florida after the shooting of Spring Breakers, this substance-fuelled picaresque has a Preston Sturges wackiness to it. Yet Moondog is clearly a kindred spirit to The Dude, who was so memorably played by Jeff Bridges in the Coen classic, The Big Lebowski (1998). Korine can't hold a candle to Sturges or the Coens as either a writer or a director. But he gives his cast plenty of latitude, while investing the madcap episodes with plenty of stoner vim.


Winkingly referencing some of his own past antics, Matthew McConaughey holds things together with a baked charm that comes more naturally to him than the edgy kookiness required of Zac Efron, who looks decidedly uncomfortable when required to steal from a man in a wheelchair. But Isla Fisher, Snoop Dogg and Martin Lawrence play to the hilt to allow Korine to celebrate and satirise the bohemian lifestyle that is captured in lurid colours by cinematographer Benoit Debie. How often you laugh will depend on how you sit with such calculatingly conceived oddballs (a little of Jonah Hill's Capotesque cameo goes a long way, for example). But Korine does seem to have his finger on the pulse of a sub-section of American society that other reputable film-makers seem content to overlook.


WHAT YOU GONNA DO WHEN THE WORLD'S ON FIRE.


Italian documentarist Roberto Minervini has quietly been making a name for himself with features like The Passage (2011) and Low Tide (2012). Indeed, he won the prestigious Donatello Award for Stop the Pounding Heart (2013), which profiled a community of devout goat farmers in rural Texas. This completed a trilogy of films set in the Lone Star State and Minervini turned his attention to Louisiana in The Other Side (2015), which examined the flipside of the American Dream by exploring the plight of the destitute. He heads to New Orleans for What You Gonna Do When the World's On Fire. But this monochrome insight into what it's like to be black in Donald Trump's South lacks the journalistic snap to do its subject justice.


As African-American Kevin Goodman and his Flaming Arrows group make preparations to participate in the New Orleans Mardi Gras in Native American costumes, dyed-blonde fortysomething Judy Hill tidies up the Ooh Poo Pah Doo bar she has opened as a community refuge. Meanwhile, single mother Ashlei King warns sons Ronaldo King (14) and Titus Turner (9) that she wants them home before the streetlights come on, because they live in a dangerous neighbourhood. We have already seen the boys negotiating a funhouse attraction and Ashlei's concern is confirmed by the presence on a nearby street corner of a New Black Panther Party for Self-Defense protest on the spot where a black youth was murdered. Members of the group come to Judy's bar for an impassioned discussion about how the slave mentality persists on either side of the racial divide and all agree that strength lies in unity.


While Ronaldo and Titus go for a bike ride to the banks of the Mississippi, Judy plans the 4 July menu with her mother, Dorothy, and has a fraught phone call, in which she reveals how much of a financial risk she has taken in opening the bar and how her enemies are hoping she will fail. The Panthers take food parcels to the homeless sleeping rough beneath an underpass and wonder why race, class and gender are still pressing issues in what is supposed to be the greatest nation on earth. Ronaldo is exercised by the same question, as he tries to teach Titus about race and why he needs to be proud of who he is. He reveals that his father and three of their cousins are currently in prison, in trying to show how tough it can be to be black in 21st-century America.


Wearing a Stars and Stripes t-shirt, Ronaldo tapes some rags around Titus's fists and teaches him to box. He explains the importance of self-defence, but reminds him that, as he gets older, kids will try to settle any disputes with guns. They sit beside the railway line and wait for a train that never comes. Michael Wilson, a cousin who helps Judy at the bar, knows all about violence and tells her that he has no idea where his mother is buried because he was in prison when she died. Judy shows him the grave and, as he struggles to compose himself, she gives him a stern lecture about getting his life in order and setting a good example. She recalls how problems at school held her back before she taught herself to read and write in order to make something of herself. He shrugs because he keeps being deflected off the narrow path, but he knows she's right and that he has to commit to turn things around.


As the Mardi Gras preparations continue (always to the accompaniment of a song), Ashlei has a quiet chat with Ronaldo about spending time with his father and reminds him that he needs to be wary of his bad influence. She surprises him by revealing that his father started to go astray at 14 and Ronaldo assures her that he is scared of the police after he was detained after some friends broke into a school. He is keen to get a tattoo, however, but Ashlei lays down the law.


Following a gruesome decapitation murder, Black Panther leader Krystal Muhammad knocks on doors in Mississippi to gather information on the crime and the activities of the local Ku Klux Klan chapter. Some people are reluctant to speak on camera, but others show her the graffiti daubed on their walls and cars and she promises them all that their Black Power brethren will always stand beside them. While demanding justice for Jeremy Jackson and Phillip Carroll, Krystal points out the government buildings that were constructed using slave labour and she seethes on the steps of the assembly that black lives don't seem to matter in the South.


Elsewhere in a neighbourhood that is increasingly being subjected to gentrification, the owner of a bicycle repair shop organises a nocturnal ride on illuminated bikes to demonstrate that decent black folks won't be intimidated off the streets. Ronaldo and Titus join in, while Judy belts out a song at her bar with a live band during what appears to be her last hurrah. She clears up on the morning after and regales an addict with an account about her own wayward and exploited past and the desperate things that she used to do for a fix. But she stresses that she came through because she's a fighter.


Ronaldo and Titus go clambering around a tyre yard and the latter throws a tantrum when his half-brother admonishes him for refusing to come when he is called. When Ronaldo hops on and off the ladder of a passing freight train, however, Titus is lost in admiration for his derring-do. Dorothy confides that she is nervous that the landlord's grasping niece is planning to turf her out of her home to lease it to interlopers. But Judy reassures her that she will do everything to resist, with a devotion that suggests she has long forgiven any failure to protect her from the sexual abuse she suffered during her childhood. However, when Krystal leads a noisy protest outside the State Capitol in Jackson that turns into a standoff with the cops, several Black Panthers are taken away in cuffs and her deputy tells the rump that this is discrimination in action and that they shall continue to campaign for their rights until they get equality.


As the film ends with Goodman looking resplendent in a magnificent feathered headdress, we are left with a sense that we have seen a version of life being lived rather than the real thing. There's no doubting the authenticity of the locales in which Minervini operates, but the fact that he lists the participants as `the woman', `older brother' and `younger brother' suggests that these are real people re-enacting aspects of an existence that will be all too familiar to those in similar neighbourhoods across the United States. Consequently, there are moments when this feels like it has strayed into scripted reality territory, most notably during the sequence in which Judy delivers a speech about how love works to the grieving Michael at the cemetery.


But who knows, as so many recent documentaries seek to blur the line to create what we might call fictuality? What's not in doubt is the pugnacious spirit of Judy Hill and Krystal Muhammad and the poignant vulnerability of Ronaldo King and Titus Turner, who might have stepped out of a true-life remake of David Gordon Green's George Washington (2000). Similarly, it's hard to doubt Minervini's good intentions in highlighting the fear in which these people live or the reportagic lyricism of Diego Romero Suarez-Llanos's high-contrast monochrome photography.


Yet this never quite hangs together, with the New Black Panther segments generating more questions than answers. The membership is clearly committed and vocal, but it also seems small and, without any contextual clarification, it's impossible to discern either their connection to the 1960s organisation, their views on contentious topics like Zionism or how much support they command within the local community. Moreover, by narrowing the focus and toning down the fury. Minervini and editor Marie-Hélène Dozo preclude any opportunity for the audience to gauge the bigger picture, in a way that Spike Lee did in When the Levees Broke (2006) and its sequel, If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don't Rise (2010).


CAMPO.


Having studied architecture before turning to cinema, it's not surprising that Portuguese documentarist Tiago Hespanha has a keen sense of place. In 2014, he teamed with Frederico Lobo to make Industrial Revolution, which recorded the landmarks, ambience and personalities of Santo Tirso, a once-thriving textile town on the Ave River in northern Portugal. He now makes his solo debut with Campo, which takes him to the south of Lisbon to survey the sights and sounds across the 7539 hectares of the Alcochete shooting range, which is one of the largest military facilities of its kind in Western Europe. Given that around 8500 service personnel and their families live in Oxfordshire, this is a film that should intrigue local audiences.


Over shots of sheep and parachutists going about their business at a misty Alcochete, a male voice notes that the Latin word `campo' means a grazing space for animals and a base for the training of soldiers. It also recalls the Greek creation myth and how Prometheus and Epimetheus were entrusted with giving good characteristics to the humans and animals that had been placed on the Earth because the gods had become bored by eternity. As a beekeeper monitors some hives in a quiet part of the base, a tank turret wheels round as part of a training exercise and the speaker reveals that Prometheus gave fire to mankind to atone for his sibling dishing out all of the other qualities to the beasts. An explosion erupts in a patch of wasteground and trees are felled in the woods, as soldier on a night exercise screams with pain after accidentally injuring himself and laments that his father will shoot himself because he has shamed the family name.


Radio static crackles over shots of the warning signs on the perimeter fences, as a birdwatcher stands by a lake with a clipboard and a pair of binoculars. He explains how birds chatter at first light to discern who made it through the night and establish locations before going in search of food. Such contact calls die down once each species has laid down its markers and fought any territorial battles with interlopers. Such frantic activity contrasts with the branch-hopping and gentle chirruping of some aviary birds on the base, whose wings are not as active as those of the jets roaring overhead or the model aeroplanes being flown by some enthusiasts on the periphery.


The narrator informs us that everyone has their duties to perform and only know as much as the need to in order to function efficiently. He compares this to the way early explorers and cartographers built up an outline from scraps of information and only began to contemplate the bigger picture once the perameters had been set. This theme continues following sequences depicting a nocturnal firing range exercise and a frog hunt, as the speaker tells the story of the first balloon flight, which was undertaken by a duck, a turkey and a sheep, who were dubbed `Montauciel' by the brothers who had invented the airship for their king. While floating high above the palace, the animals had detected that there was more to their familiar home than they had realised and that they belonged to something much bigger than they had previously anticipated.


The son of a woman who works in the office of a senior commander plays his own piano composition entitled `Battle in the Stars'. He jokes that he has only seen them in games and movies, but has a sense of what such an event would be like. A sound recordist uses a boom microphone to capture ambient sound in a quiet patch of wetland, while a sniper records the environmental conditions to analyse the effectiveness of a single prone shot. When Hespanha asks off camera what he is doing, the trooper reveals that a marksman's notebook is almost as important as his weapon.


A lamb is born in the night, as a group of astronomers position their telescope after a maroon flare scuds across the sky. Some discuss how arrogant humans are in their ignorance of the galaxies beyond their planet, while others ponder the concept of memory and wonder whether we should envy the rocks because they have been part of Earth's story from the outset and have survived tectonic shifts and volcanic explosions and would have amazing stories to relate if they could communicate. Interjecting, the narrator recalls how cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin blasted off on a secret mission and looked back at Earth and realised that every human being who had ever existed had played their part on a speck of dust suspended in a sunbeam. On re-entry, he has to bale and was dismayed when a couple of farm women ran away from him, as he floats down to the ground in a bright orange suit wearing a glass helmet.


The parachute is contrasted with some giant mushrooms found on the base, as a US-led night-time manoeuvre gets into full swing. Over images of troops shuttling across the dimly lit terrain, the speaker tells us about the golden disc that was placed aboard the Voyager spacecraft to take a message of peace to anyone who might intercept it. Extracts from the greetings can be heard, as the soldiers attack a mock-up village and take prisoners after a fire fight. We hear how scientists have created mechanical bees to pollinate flowers in the face of a mysterious blight decimating hives. However, we are also informed that these tiny machines can be weaponised to spy on or attack enemies.


In a stark demonstration of the cheapness of life, a shepherd is forced to abandon an attempt to deliver a stillborn lamb from a dying ewe. In an even starker instance of shoulder-shrugging indifference, a lumberjack counts the rings on a felled tree and casually remarks that it took two minutes to cut down something that had taken 70 years to grow. The tweenage pianist plays over footage of a low-key military parade and before we hear him making video game shooting noises over night vision stills of the Alcochete wildlife. Returning to Franz Kafka's version of the Prometheus story, we learn how the gods punished him for giving away the secret of fire by chaining him to a hilltop so that his liver could be perpetually pecked away by an eagle.


A closing panning shot surveys the horizon as fireworks strew the distant city skyline and the darkness shrouding the base. It's a visually dramatic way to end a treatise whose deft juxtapositions are consistently more intriguing than a voice track whose ruminations are sparked by the observation that, `In order to ensure their accomplishments were remembered, men invented stories. Then, with time, these stories morphed into memories, until it became difficult to distinguish between fiction and reality,' Nevertheless, Hespanha keeps the audience alert, as he throws down intellectual and ethical gauntlets that provoke thought rather than provide any revelations about the physical and metaphysical realms.


Joining Cláudia Varejão and Rui Xavier in wielding a camera and Francisco Moreira in the editing suite, Hespanha is indebted to the sound design created by Eva Valiño, which gives the enterprise the feel of one of Andrew Kötting's audiovisual collages. Ultimately, the points raised about the pastoral and the pyrotechnic are slightly superficial. But the contemplative tone affords viewers a few moments of bucolic escape from the madness we have allowed to envelope and jeopardise our world.

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(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,

Parky At the Pictures (30/4/2021)

(Reviews of Labyrinth of Cinema; The Last Photograph; The Reckoning; The Banishing; and Truman & Tennessee: An Intimate Conversation) Despite the relaxation of the odd outdoor restriction, we remain i