Parky at the Pictures (In Cinemas 22/11/2019)
Reviews of Ophelia; Judy & Punch; Permission; Cattle Hill; The Gangster, the Cop, the Devil; The Amber Light; and The Amazing Johnathan Documentary
This week sees a couple of revisionist features from Down Under seek to upend our preconceptions about two familiar scenarios. We shall come to actor-turned-director Mirrah Foulkes's Judy & Punch presently. First, we need to check on the events on the west bank of the Øresund that made Fortinbras so bellicose.
It's 53 years since Tom Stoppard premiered his play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, at the Edinburgh Fringe. He has since directed a 1990 film version, with Tim Roth and Gary Oldman as the minor characters watching from the wings as William Shakespeare's Hamlet takes its tragic course. Moreover, Disney scribes Irene Mecchi, Jonathan Roberts and Linda Woolverton have also borrowed the Elsinore Revisited conceit to create Timon the meerkat and Pumba the warthog in Roger Alles and Rob Minkoff's masterly 1994 animation, The Lion King, which was remade by Jon Favreau in photorealistic form earlier this year. All of which makes Ophelia, Australian director Claire McCarthy's adaptation of a Young Adult novel by Lisa Klein, all the more puzzlingly redundant.
From her watery grave, Ophelia (Daisy Ridley) vows to present her side of an oft-told story and we flashback to the court at Elsinore, as a young redhaired girl (Mia Quiney) sneaks into the banqueting hall with her brother, Laertes (Calum O'Rourke) to watch the Claudius (Clive Owen), the brother of King Hamlet (Nathaniel Parker), toast his 15 year-old nephew, Hamlet (Jack Cunningham-Nuttall) on the eve of his departure for Wittenberg University. Widowed courtier Polonius (Dominic Mafham) is embarrassed by the sight of his mud-spattered daughter, but Queen Gertrude (Naomi Watts), takes a shine to her and promises to raise Ophelia as one of her ladies in waiting.
In accusing her of dancing like a goat, Cristiana (Daisy Head) and the other girls of nobler birth have no time for Ophelia, but Gertrude is impressed by her learning and has her read erotica in her boudoir. On returning from his studies with his friend, Horatio (Devon Terrell), Hamlet (George MacKay) is also taken with his former playmate after seeing her bathing in the lake. He upsets his mother by failing to recognise her image in a tapestry of Diana and Gertrude allows herself to be seduced by Claudius, who has designs on the Danish throne.
After Hamlet returns to Germany after kissing Ophelia during a masked ball, she is summoned by Gertrude to go on a mission to collect a rejuvenating potion from her older sister, Mechtild (also Naomi Watts), who had cared for her during an unhappy time at a French convent school. Having witnessed the tryst between the queen and her brother-in-law, Ophelia becomes suspicious when the king perishes soon afterwards. Having seen a spectre on the battlements and noted Gertrude's excessive grief, Ophelia suspects foul play and consults Laertes (Tom Felton). But she is confused when Polonius supports the move to give the throne to Claudius rather than Hamlet and he is dismayed to return to court on the day his mother marries his uncle.
As Laertes leaves for in France with a warning for his sister to remain on her guard, Polonius asks Ophelia about her feelings for Hamlet, as his own position would improve as a consequence of any match. But, despite Horatio cautioning her that there is method in his madness, she is puzzled by the prince's wild-eyed earnestness when they meet on the ramparts after he hears rumours of his father's ghost walking abroad. She is also taken aback by Mechtild's account of her mistreatment after she conceived out of wedlock at 19 and used a potion that induces the appearance of death to fool the townsfolk into thinking she had committed suicide after the stillbirth of her son.
Mechtild's warning that the courtiers will abuse her in the same manner if she allows Hamlet to seduce her puts Ophelia on her guard. Yet, the moment he proposes marriage in a ruined chapel in the palace grounds, she accepts and they spend a blissful night together. On attending Gertrude the next morning, however, she finds a poison bottle in Claudius's cape and she realises that he must have been the shadowy figure who passed her on the way to Mechtild's lair. She tries to play innocent, but Claudius considers her dangerous and orders Polonius to find her a husband after he stage-manages a meeting with Hamlet in a bid to discover the reason for his increasingly erratic behaviour. In hissed whispers, Ophelis informs Hamlet of his father's murder and he promises to get her to a nunnery for her own protection until he has wrested the crown from his uncle's grasp.
His plan lies in having some travelling players enact a silhouetted scene of usurpation that causes Claudius to storm out of the hall in high dudgeon. However, by drawing his sword on the king, Hamlet commits and act of treason that prompts Gertrude to dismiss Ophelia from her service for corrupting her son's mind. While seeking to persuade the queen to give his daughter another chance, Polonius is murdered by Hamlet in mistake for Claudius and Gertrude has to plead with Laertes not to seek revenge. But Ophelia is the one who needs reining in after she learns from Cristiana that Hamlet has been sent to England with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who have orders from Claudius to pitch him overboard.
The king also has plans to marry Ophelia to Edmund (Sebastian De Souza), but he is distracted by Horatio so that Ophelia can dash to the harbour and warn Hamlet about the plot to kill him. But Claudius bars the gates and has Ophelia tossed into a cell when she accuses him of being the feckless lover who betrayed Mechtild. She manages to escape by kneeing Edmund in groin when he tries to force himself upon her and she steels herself to wander into the banqueting hall with a garland of herbs and flowers to prick the queen's conscience and accuse her husband of infamy.
Laertes is appalled to see his sister in such a distressed state, but she knows exactly what she's doing when she leads Gertrude and the palace guard to the lake after taking three drops of Mechtild's slumbering potion. Thus, she is mistaken for dead when she falls into the water. But Horatio liberates her from her coffin and Mechtild gives her the antidote to ensure a full recovery. However, Norwegian troops have landed in Denmark and are heading towards Elsinore and Mechtild goes out to meet them, as Gertrude comes to her sister's hideaway, discovers Ophelia's secret and helps smuggle her inside the castle before Laertes can challenge Hamlet to a duel for stabbing his father.
Disguised as the short-haired Osric, Ophelia beseeches Hamlet not to fight. But he places honour before love and falls victim to Claudius's treachery, as he has coated Laertes's sword with swift-acting venom. This also claims its user before Gertrude drives the blade through the king and his throne prior to drinking poison and dying in Mechtild's arms, as the invaders take the castle. As for Ophelia, she finds her way to the nunnery, where she gives birth to the daughter for whom she has been relating her true tale rather than the one that has passed into history.
What few positives there are in this tiresome travesty lie in the production values, which draw their inspiration from Pre-Raphaelite John Everett Millais's painting, `Ophelia' (1851-52). As this is pastiched in the opening shot, however, it's downhill all the way, despite the best efforts of production designer Dave Warren and costumier Massimo Cantini Parrini, whose vivid recreation of 14th-century Denmark couldn't be bettered. Denson Baker's photography is also admirable.
But screenwriter Semi Chellas flounders in her efforts to prevent Lisa Klein's fanciful ending from seeming utterly ridiculous. Moreover, she saddles the valiant Daisy Ridley and her committed castmates with sub-Games of Thrones-sounding dialogue that makes The Lion King feel positively Shakespearean. Dotted with Enyaesque inflections, Steven Price's score is equally ponderous and seems to spur McCarthy on to greater earnestness and miscalculation.
Making her first feature in a decade after Cross Life (2007) and The Waiting City (2009), McCarthy clearly has a strong visual sense. But this radical, de-Oedipalised re-imagining buckles under the weight of the clumsy ruminations on class snobbery and the status of women, as well as the tarradiddle associated with the Mechtild subplot. Perhaps Tucson drama teacher Steve Coogan's sequel featuring time travel and a super cool Jesus Christ in Andrew Fleming's Hamlet 2 (2008) wasn't so preposterous after all.
JUDY & PUNCH.
If McCarthy runs with the liberties taken by Klein's text, the debuting Mirrah Foulkes positively breaks into a gallop in Judy & Punch, which seeks to put a contemporary satirical spin on the conventions of a shockingly anarchic form of entertainment that wasn't always aimed primarily at children. Rooted in the commedia dell'arte, Punch and Judy shows became common in Restoration England, as they commented upon the machinations of a dictatorial Lord of Misrule.
Marionettes were replaced by glove puppets towards the end of the 18th century, when the mayhem also started being confined to the brightly coloured booths that became an essential feature of piers and esplanades during the summer season. Foulkes and fellow scribes Tom and Lucy Punch, Eddy Moretti and Danny Gabai appear fully conversant with the form's history. But they delight in giving tradition a forceful tweak in this bold, brash and occasionally unhinged evisceration of toxic masculinity.
In an unspecified time, Judy (Mia Wasikowska) and Professor Punch (Damon Herriman) stage a marionette show for the rowdy patrons of the tavern in the landlocked town of Seaside. He is convinced that it's only a matter of time before a talent scout sweeps him off to the Big Smoke, but she is concerned that the act has become too violent and worries that Punch will drink himself to death. However, his sense that fame is beckoning is reinforced the next day when Mr Frankly (Tom Budge) asks him to cast the first stone at three local women who have been accused of witchcraft (the latter of whom had been reported for gazing at the moon for a suspiciously long time). Punch revels in the honour, but Judy drops her stone before taking her newborn baby to the home they share with Maid Maude (Brenda Palmer) and the ageing Scaramouche (Terry Norris).
Having been warned by Constable Derrick Fairbrother (Benedict Hardie) about not letting the growing Puritan element of the town see her magic tricks, Judy discovers Punch in the tavern with Polly (Lucy Velik), the prostitute who keeps leading him off the straight and narrow. When he wakes hungover the next morning, Punch gives Judy his oath that he will try harder to remain sober. But, having been entrusted with the baby while Judy is out doing her chores, he manages to toss the infant out of the attic window after tripping while chasing Toby the dog, who has stolen a string of sausages.
When Judy returns and berates her spouse for the calamity, he beats her senseless (`that's the way to do it') and, having buried her body under some straw in the woods, he summons Constable Derrick to accuse Maude and Scaramouche of having murdered his wife and roasted his daughter in the stove. In fact, the unconscious Judy has been found by Scotty (Daisy Axon) and some other children from the heretic camp, where she is nursed back to health by Dr Goodtime (Gillian Jones).
Back in Seaside, Frankly believes Punch's version of events and presses for Maude and Scaramouche to be executed after the trio of ruffians assisting Derrick beat a confession out of them. Meanwhile, as Ma (Virginia Gay) tells his fellow outcasts about how Punch and Judy had been forced to return to town after she became pregnant, the latter has a dream about wading into a lake after a crocodile. Waking with a start, she wanders through the camp and tells Goodtime that she wants revenge on her brute of a husband.
She wanders into town on the night that Punch premieres his latest show, using Polly's sons, Pancake and Flea (Charlie and Logan Nettleton), as lifesize puppets. However, it soon descends into chaos when the boys begin fighting and a fracas breaks out after Punch hits an audience member who urges Polly to undress. He wanders home to drown his sorrows, only to be visited by Judy posing as a hanged ghost to prick his conscience into signing a confession of his crime. She returns to the camp, where a party is underway because the heretics plan to move on the next morning, despite Scotty wishing they could stay in one place.
As Maude and Scaramouche are led on to the gallows, Frankly invites Punch to pull the lever to hang them. Still afraid after his spectral encounter, he mumbles something about the innocence of his former servants. But, when the crowd call out in support, he regains his arrogance and, to the baying of the onlookers, he denounces the elderly duo as tools of the Devil. When the trapdoors open, however, the condemned fall straight through because the ropes have been cut.
A hushed silence descends, as Judy leads the heretics out of the woods and she somersaults from her horse on to the planking to accuse her husband of killing their child. She has him strung up by the wrists and, having harangued the townsfolk by being so quick to judge that they had brought terror upon themselves, she hacks off Punch's hands with a single blow of an axe. While Judy moves her benefactors into the manor house, Punch winds up in a padded cell in an asylum, where he entertains the children passing his barred window with glove puppets tied to his stumps.
Fresh from busting expectations in the Old West with Robert Pattinson in David and Nathan Zellner's Damsel (2018), Mia Wasikowska turns the patriarchal tables again in this grimly effective, if rarely gripping saga. Even though the picture was made in Victoria, there's a hint of Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam's Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) about Josephine Ford's production design and Stefan Duscio's earthily scuffed digital photography. But there's nothing like the surreal wit or caustic wisdom in a screenplay that trundles along predictable lines in its earnest effort to ensure that no one misses the fact that this is an allegorical dig at the kind of populism and religious zealotry that is currently fuelling the democratic world's lurch to the right.
The same sense of self-congratulation informs such anachronistic moments as a bunch of c.17th-century peasants doing tai-chi in the forest to Leonard Cohen's `Who By Fire'. That said, such playful insertions work better here than they did in Chanya Button's Vita and Virginia, with François Tetaz's score switching amusingly from orchestral gravitas to prog rocky renditions of Bach's `Air on a G String'. Edie Kurzer's costumes are equally astute and credit has to be given to the supporting ensemble, from whom Terry Norris and Benedict Hardie are the standouts as the genially bumbling Scaramouche and the ineffectually enlightened copper.
As one has come to expect, Wasikowska acquits herself well as Judy. However, her last reel transformation into a low-flying Wonder Woman is no more convincing than that of Daisy Ridley's Ophelia. Faced with the thankless task of unearthing a single redeeming feature in a brutish Irish drunk, fellow Aussie Damon Herriman hurls himself into the role of swazzleless pantomime villain. But his hissability takes the edge and the subtlety off the satire, while also diminishing the impact of Punch's grotesque acts of infanticide and domestic abuse and making Judy's climactic homily on accepting difference feel inadequately trite.
Last month, Iran ended the ban on female attendance at men's football matches by allowing 3500 women to watch a World Cup qualifier against Cambodia. As anyone who has seen Jafar Panahi's Offside (2006) will know, this represents a huge step forward. However, as Naziha Arebi revealed in Freedom Fields, a documentary about how three football fanatics strove to make their mark with the Libyan women's team, it's still a struggle to play the Beautiful Game in the Muslim world. Now, Soheil Beiraghi provides further evidence in Permission (aka Cold Sweat), a study of women's rights in modern Iran that draws on the case of goal-scoring midfielder Niloufar Ardalan, who was prevented from representing her country at a prestigious tournament in Malaysia in 2015 when her husband refused to sign the chit she needed to renew her passport.
In the changing room before a vital Asian Nations Cup qualifier against Thailand, Mehraneh Noori (Sahar Dowlatshahi), the supervisor of the Iranian women's Futsal team, reminds her players to keep their hair and tattoos covered at all times. She also chides star player Afrooz Ardestani (Baran Kosaris) for posting a bonding video before the team goes out on court in front of a packed and vociferous crowd. Despite going one down, Iran fight back after Afrooz follows a crucial goal-line clearance with a timely equaliser. But the arena goes wild when she slots in the winner and she leads her teammates in a joyous lap of honour.
On arriving at the airport to head to Kuala Lumpur, however, Afrooz discovers that her estranged husband, Yaser Shahoseini (Amir Jadidi), has withdrawn permission for her to travel abroad. Housemate Masi (Hoda Zeinolabedin) agrees to stay behind to help smooth things over. But Yaser's phone is switched off and Afrooz is despairing of tracking him down when he rams their car and they have to duck into an alleyway and call a cab in order to home in one piece. Once inside, Masi is appalled to learn that Yaser owns the property and that Afrooz hasn't told him that she's got a tenant.
Mehraneh has also stayed behind to address the issue, but she informs Afrooz that the Federation has no right to intervene in a domestic matter and suggests that she butters Yaser up so he will change his mind. With only four days until the finals, Lawyer Pantea Aledavood (Leili Rashidi) comes up with the same advice after confirming that a husband doesn't need a reason for preventing his wife from travelling abroad. As he presents the popular TV show, The Good Old Days, he has such a public profile that he couldn't afford a scandal. However, he also knows that any judge will take his side and make him look like the wronged party.
When Afrooz sneaks into the studio, Yaser is furious and warns her not to make a scene. They argue in the car, but Afrooz persuades him to let her cook dinner so that they can talk. She feels nauseated at having to be polite to him and resist snapping back at his unctuous insistence that they should patch things up. But she steels herself to spend the night so that he will sign her permission slip the next morning. As they leave the civic offices, however, Yaser demands that she hands over her marriage portion in return for the document and rips it up when she refuses. A scuffle breaks out and they have to be separated by strangers.
While Yaser presents his show as if nothing has happened, Afrooz records an Instagram message for her fans, in which she accuses her spouse of having a vendetta against her. This infuriates Mehraneh and the head of the Federation (Abbas Moosavi), who state bluntly that Afrooz is her own worst enemy because she always reacts in such an over-the-top manner. Moreover, after Pantea appears on Voice of America to declare that Afrooz is having her civil rights violated, Mehraneh tries to coax Masi into abandoning her friend and going to Malaysia alone, as the team needs her.
Keen to remain loyal, as they have plans to play for a professional team in Spain, Masi stands by Afrooz. When they arrive home to find Yaser in the process of evicting them and loading their possessions on to a truck, Masi feels more conflicted, especially when Afrooz refuses to join her in accommodation laid on by the Federation. Thus, when Mehraneh reveals that they have intercepted communications with the Spanish agent and will ruin her career unless she co-operates. Masi has no option but to protect her own interests.
Meanwhile, Afrooz and Yaser go to court, with Pantea arguing her client's case to an unseen judge. He tries to keep order, as Yaser states simply that he has the law on his side and needs to provide no reasons for restricting his wife's movements and it quite within his rights to deny her a divorce, even though they have lived apart for over a year. When Pantea attempts to intercede, Yaser tells the judge that she is using the case to make her name and dismisses her claims that he is being unpatriotic by stopping his wife from bringing potential glory to the nation.
Spotting an opportunity to discredit Afrooz, Yaser accuses her of wanting to go to Malaysia so she can seek asylum in Spain and he informs the judge that he wishes to bring an action against her for seeking to leave the country illegally. Afrooz implores the judge to recognise that she has devoted 11 years of her life to Futsal and that the final would be her crowning achievement. She also avers that Yaser is jealous of her success, as he had supported her during much of their eight-year marriage when he didn't feel so threatened by her success and emancipation. But Yaser scoffs at her claim and implies that the Federation has already abandoned her and that the case is a waste of the court's time.
Storming out without bothering to hear the verdict, Afrooz is informed of the Federation's decision to drop her from the team after Yaser makes a personal appeal to the head. Mehraneh, who has always considered Afrooz a troublemaker, offers Yaser her support and he presents his show without a care in the world (and a dripping sense of insincerity). Bitter at being excluded, Afrooz accuses Pantea of exploiting her for her own ends and ignores her contention that she was fighting the case to help women in general.
Forced to sleep in her car after joining in a floodlit Futsal match with some blokes, Afrooz offers to take Masi to the airport. She gives her some tips for the final, but there's a coldness in their embrace at the check-in gate. Driving to the TV studios, Afrooz notices that Yaser's guest is a champion female shooter and she calls the phone-in to denounce her husband as a small-minded chauvinist whose envy prompted him to destroy her dream. Afrooz smiles to herself as the programme shuts down to be replaced by timelapse images of blooming flowers.
A closing caption reveals that eight female Iranian athletes were similarly thwarted in 2017, but no one knows the precise number of ordinary women who are forbidden from travelling abroad by their husbands. Such statistics speak volumes in testifying to the importance of Soheil Beiraghi's sophomore follow-up to Me (2016). Comparisons have been made to Asghar Faradi's Oscar winner, A Separation (2011), but this studied assault on the Iranian legal system also contains echoes of Kim Longinotto's documentary, Divorce Iranian Style (1998), as it discloses just how high the cards are stacked against women seeking justice.
Beiraghi boldly makes Afrooz a prickly character, while also hinting that there is more than companionship to her relationship with Masi and that, for all his callous vengefulness, Yaser has been genuinely affected by the failure of his marriage. Curiously resembling a bespectacled Harry Kane, Amir Jadidi throws his weight around with a chilling self-containment that contrasts with Baran Kosari's hair-trigger combustibility. But Sahar Dolatshahi's team supervisor is every bit as resistible, as her antipathy towards Kosari is rooted in a sense of controlling self-righteousness that the spurned player witnesses during an all-female prayer meeting shortly after receiving the news about the Federation's verdict.
Opting for a rat-a-tat delivery style. Beiraghi ably conveys the hopelessness of Afrooz's entrapment, which he compares to the dominance she shows in the two footballing segments, which are edited with abrasive energy (but, deliberately, little sporting finesse) by Bahram Dehgani and Mohammad Najarian. Farhad Mohammad's camerawork and Karen Homayoonfar's score are more perfunctory. But, like Alireza Alavian's incrementally entombing sound design, they reinforce the aura of pugnacious intelligence and emotional maturity that pervades the entire picture.
THE GANGSTER, THE COP, THE DEVIL.
TV producer-turned-director Lee Won-tae follows his provocative Japan-baiting period debut, Man of Will (2017), with a cookie-cutter police procedural that indulges in the twists and double turns we have come to expect of the South Korean crime film. If slickness was all that mattered, The Gangster, the Cop, the Devil would be a roaring success. But this loosely factual game of cat and mouse is too cumbersomely structured and devoid of character nuance to skate by on looks alone.
In Cheonan in August 2005, a motorist is murdered on a dark road after being pursued through the city by a killer who rams the car before carrying out a frenzied backseat stabbing. Maverick cop Jung Tae-seok (Kim Moo-yeol) and his partner, Bae Soon-Ho (Kim Yoon-Sung), get stuck in traffic answering the call and Jung takes the opportunity to arrest a cashier at an arcade run by mobster, Jang Dong-Soo (Ma Dong-Seok). He is furious because he is bribing the chief detective (Jeon Bae-Su) and breaks off from beating up a rival underling in a punchbag to make his protest.
Jang summons chief adversary Heo Sang-Do (Yoo Jae-Myung) to a restaurant meeting to discuss their turf war and snaps the front teeth of his sidekick when he shows disrespect. So, when Jang survives a vicious attack by the hit-and-run killer, his lieutenant, Kwon Oh-Sung (Choi Min-Chul), blames Heo (aka `Hur') and smash up his premises. However, psycho Kang Kyung-Ho (Kim Sung-Kyu) has also been wounded and does some running repairs in his car with a staple gun before dispatching a kennel owner who catches him trying to steal a dog.
Jung is convinced that he is dealing with a serial killer, but the Chief dismisses his theories as wild speculation, even after he learns of Jang's encounter. But they get a break when Kang slays a trucker and drops his knife out of the stolen vehicle when he discovers he was not travelling alone. Moreover, Jang has given his oppos a sketch of his assailant and he orders them to find him before Jung, who has visited him in hospital and taunted him for letting down his guard and almost being offed by an amateur.
With Jang struggling to save face after Hur demands compensation for the reprisal attack, he cuts a deal with Jung to share the task of tracking Kang down, with the winner getting to decide his fate. Naturally, there is tension between the groups. especially when Jang uses Kang's knife to murder Hur in his bed and Kang takes the risk of going to the funeral to pass a note accusing Jang to one of the rival gang's mourners. Jung takes female forensics chief Cha Seo-Jin (Kim Gyu-Ri) into his confidence and she warns him that there will be hell to pay if the truth comes out, as the Major Crimes unit has taken over the serial killer case.
Having found Kang's car at the truck stop, Jung and Jang are searching for clues when they are attacked by Hur's crew and their leader attempts to murder Jang using Kang's blade. However, he is the one to succumb and Jang doesn't tell Jung that he had recognised the knife. Meanwhile, Kang has kidnapped a venture capitalist and Jung, Bae and Kim Dong-Chul (Oh Hee-Joon) are sent to monitor the ransom drop at a street corner café. But Jung spots Kang lingering on a roof and there is a frantic foot chase through the narrow alleyways before Kang makes his getaway.
Fortunately, Cha makes an identification from a bloodstain found on the car steering wheel cover and Jung visits Kang's lodgings, where he finds tanks full of medical specimens and lots of books on a sinister range of topics. He also discovers a snapshot that matches Jang's drawing and liaises with the gangster to send out search parties across the district to locate Kang, who had been raised in an orphanage after being abused by his father and continues to call his ageing mother every day.
He makes a fatal slip when he kills the schoolgirl to whom Jang had loaned his umbrella at a bus stop and Kang only just manages to evade capture following a high-speed chase through the back streets. Fleeing on foot after a three-car collision, Kang stabs Kwon on a stairway and Jang is within seconds of dicing Kang with a meat cleaver after cornering him in a karaoke bar when Jung crashes through a wall in his car and arrests the pulped killer bound to a chair.
Under interrogation, however, the smirking Kang proves slippery because he is aware that Jang only has circumstantial evidence against him. Jung loses his temper and lunges at him. But he also lures Jang out of hiding and cuts a deal that enables him to avenge Kwon by turning himself in, testifying against Kang and producing the note he attributing Hur's death to his knife. More importantly, Jung also arranges for Jang and Kang to be placed in the same prison so that the law of the jungle can take its course.
Driven along by a fluctuating score by Cho Young-wuk and edited with pace and precision by Heo Sun-mi and Han Young-kyu, this is brusquely efficient genre fare that has plenty to teach the purveyors of BritCrime. Yet, despite sharing the odd plot strand with Fritz Lang's M (1931), this offers little by way of dramatic suspense or psychological insight. Ma Dong-Seok (aka Don Lee), Kim Moo-Yul and Kim Sung-Kyu play the eponymous parts with knowing proficiency, but none is stretched by either Lee Won-tae's script or his direction.
Cinematographer Park Se-seung's views of the rain-streaked, neon-lit nocturnal streets are glossily evocative, while production designers Cho Hwa-sung and Jeong Yi-jin do a decent job in contrasting the underworld milieux of gaming arcades and cavernous lock-up with the dispiriting bleakness of the police headquarters and the sickening seediness of Kang's bedsit. Notwithstanding such muscular contributions, Lee's reluctance to delve beneath the surface leaves little to challenge the audience between Cho Bong-rok's expertly choreographed stunt sequences. One can only imagine what the remake planned by Sylvester Stallone's production company will look like, even with Don Lee reprising the gangster role.
Having acted as a 15 year-old in Karl E. Rikardsen's Dear Camera (1995), Norwegian Lise I. Osvoll began making short films while training to be a graphic designer. She collaborated with writer Anne Elvedal on the shorts The World Is a Small Cage (2002), One Second (2003) and Newborn Nightmare (2004) before turning to features with a pair of children's animations about a plucky rescue boat: Elias and the Royal Yacht (2007) and Elias and the Treasure of the Sea (2010). Now, she resumes her partnership with Elvedal on Cattle Hill, a bovine rite of passage that will either delight younger viewers or traumatise the heck out of them.
Having failed to impress once more at a big city talent show, Klara the teenage cow (Charlotte Reynard) has another argument with her mother, Karen (Joanna Ruiz), who works in a milkshake bar and doesn't believe in fame. Her attitude owes much to the fact that she was abandoned by her rock star husband, Biff (Corin Silva). But, when Klara finds letters imploring her to stay with her father on Cattle Hill, she hops on a bus and listens to songs about making it huge on her portable cassette player.
On finding the farm deserted, Klara befriends a worm she names Rosa (Oda Osvoll Avatsmark) before being caught in a rope trap that Biff has rigged up in the barn. Disappointed at not capturing the rascal who keeps stealing from him, Biff eventually recognises Klara and urges her to return to the city, as the countryside is full of hidden dangers. Chickolina the hen (Gina Carpenito) takes Klara to one side and explains that Biff hasn't been the same since the night of the big thunderstorm that spun the scarecrow around in his field. She confides that she thinks Biff might be suffering from Mad Cow Disease and also shatters Klara's dreams by revealing that Biff's gift is for baking apple pies rather than making music.
They are interrupted by the arrival on a Segway of Pauline the pig (Julia-Ann Dean), who is Biff's landlady. She brandishes a contract stipulating that he has to bake 100 apple pies by the end of the summer and she gives him a week to fulfil his obligation or she will evict him. Convinced that baking has to be her special talent, Klara sets out to make her father proud. But he is more concerned with nabbing the elusive pest who is making his life a misery, while Chickolina is looking into alternative therapies that could jolt him back to normal.
Undaunted by the prospect of having to pick the apples, churn the butter and grind the grain into flour, Klara receives some unexpected help from Gavin (Daniel Maley), a goat with vertigo who has been ordered to stay away from Cattle Hill by his Uncle Bart (Terence Mann), who used to be Biff's best friend, but is worried that the disease that has addled him is contagious. However, she doesn't take kindly to being told that she doesn't need to chop down the fruit trees and, by filling up a wheelbarrow with apples, she merely invites the attention of the evil scarecrow, who scoffs the crop and causes Biff to pass out in shock. In a bid to revive him, Chickolina uses the tractor battery to give him electroshock therapy and he allows her to lead him away because he now believes he is crazy because he saw the scarecrow singing a song about terrifying the living daylights out of his victims.
With Gavin's help, Klara manages to find some raspberries to make her pies. He also tracks down some milk to churn butter and shows her how to scythe wheat to make flour. No sooner have they stacked the pies in a cupboard, however, the scarecrow steals them all and Biff thinks Klara has started to show the same symptoms as himself. She is distraught that he has called Karen to collect her and wanders into the woods, leaving her father to look through her photo album and wish he had spent more time with his daughter.
Determined the capture the scarecrow, Klara tries to lure him into a trap with pie crusts and apples. However, he eludes her and tips goat droppings over them from Bart's thatched roof. He orders Gavin to stay on the farm, but Klara refuses to quit and goads the rascal into admitting his misdemeanours and revealing that his name is Fobetron (Jonathon Carley). She hopes to deposit him in the wet grain in the silo, but he pushes her and Biff down the chute and they seem doomed to sink until Gavin conquers his fear of heights by scaling the ladder and extricating them with the help of a rope tied to the tractor.
Klara then has a brainwave and tricks Fobetron into eating a goat poop pie that makes him feel sick. While he is reeling, she uses her shadow puppetry skills to pretend to be the world's fiercest monster and the rascal hops away in fear, only to be de-animated (with one last gust of flatulence) by a handy bolt of lightning. Chickolina and Bart are delighted that Biff isn't crazy after all, but he still has some explaining to do when Karen arrives. Moreover, he has to confront Pauline, who is all set to throw him out when Klara gives her a taste of one of Karen's milkshakes and the greedy pig orders 25 gallons in lieu of the pies.
Closing on scenes of industrious contentment and Biff, Bart and Chickolina reforming their band for a hoedown, this enjoyable, if rather peculiar barnyard romp will leave many scratching their heads about who thought it would be amusing to make a kidpic about Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy. Good luck explaining that one to any inquisitive little `uns, although they may have been stunned into silence by the sight of a monstrous scarecrow whose pumpkin head keeps falling off.
They may also have been overwhelmed by the glut of positive messages shoehorned into Elvedal's screenplay. But it can never do any harm to be reminded that anything is possible, friendship is forever and that not only is everybody a star in their own way, but that every star in the heavens is someone's dream. Such cheeriness, in conjunction with the jolly (if instantly forgettable) songs and the colourful (if basic) computer-generated imagery should keep undemanding tots amused. As for the grown-ups, this is probably one to grin and bear, although Gina Carpenito's hayseed hen is good fun.
THE AMBER LIGHT.
Occasionally, a batch of films on a related topic land in cinemas around the same time. Adam Park's The Amber Light is the third documentary on whisky in the last year, after Andrew Peat's Scotch: The Golden Dram and Greg Swartz's The Water of Life (both 2018). Scripted by Dave Broom, who has been writing about `uisge beatha' for over 30 years, this is less an investigation into the distilling process than a celebration of whisky's intrinsic relationship with Scottish culture. Indeed, this turns into such a patriotic paean that Nicola Sturgeon might want to seek out Broom as a speechwriter.
In essence, whisky is boiled beer that mellows in oak casks. But there's much more to it than that, as Glaswegian Dave Broom avers in recalling (with the aid of simple animations) childhood memories of family gatherings lubricated by the odd dram. In seeking to show how is permeates through Scottish society and culture, Broom travels to the Isle of Islay to examine the role of the Irish Beaton clan in the drink's origins with peat cutter Iain McArthur, local historian Niall Colthart and Georgie Crawford from the Port Ellen distillery. Medical herbalist Claire MacKay and forager James Donaldson help Broom find the angelica, wild thyme, hogseed, creeping thistle and meadowsweet needed to make a primitive spirit, which they serve in scallop shells in keeping with the myth of Fairy Hill.
Musician Rachel Newton reveals that every chore in daily life was once accompanied by a song and Colthart and Crawford affirm the importance of storytelling to a remote community with short hours of winter daylight and a deep-rooted tradition of sharing. Broom takes these concepts back to the mainland and puts them to Frank Murphy of The Pot Still in Glasgow, who declares whisky to be a drink of the people. Songwriter Alasdair Roberts compares refining blends with interpreting folk songs in insisting that each is a creative process, while Broom reflects on his first pub dram with his uncle following the death of his father and how a trip to Ullapool sparked the fascination with whisky, landscape and culture that has become his life's work.
Journeying to Edinburgh, Broom meets authors Ian Rankin and Alasdair Gray, who discuss the complexity of the Scottish character and whisky's ability to free clever folks from pesky thoughts by stupefying them. Rankin and Broom read Robert Ferguson's `The King's Birth-Day in Edinburgh' beside the poet's grave, while the Furrow Collective sing `Johnny My Man' to contrast the joys and perils of the drink. This leads Broom to compare the contributions made to the history of whisky by medical practitioners like the Beatons and alchemists like John Damian at the court of James IV. But it was imposition of tariffs that sparked the next major development, as the hooch makers of Speyside profited from their inaccessibility to the excise men.
Alan Winchester, a retired master distiller from The Glenlivet, takes Broom on a guided tour of the verdant hills, while he also hears tales from Andrew Bruce, the Earl of Elgin, and Sarah Burgess, a whisky maker from The Macallan. They discuss the local aromas that help make brands distinctive and suggest that creating new flavours is a form of artistry. At present, there are around 130 working distilleries in Scotland and Broom finds it thrilling that each one produces a unique blend that retains its mystery by defying attempts to understand why place and taste are so intertwined.
In the 1860s, the railway reached Scotland and brought tourists to the whisky heartlands in the wake of Queen Victoria making the Higlands fashionable. Nick Morgan, head of Whisky Outreach at Diageo. commends the entrepreneurs who turned a cottage pastime into a global industry and mentions the associated trades that make it possible. Broom also credits novelist Sir Walter Scott with increasing interest in all things Scotch, even though it led to a sentimentalisation that prompted Scottish Renaissance writers like Hugh MacDiarmid and Neil M. Gunn to rebel against clichéd notions of heather and tartan and use whisky as a metaphor for national identity.
The distillers of Fife also began to go their own way and Broom visits distiller and record label owner Stephen Marshall, who has set up the Bowhouse company in a region he suggests is welcoming to dreamers. Farmer Francis Cuthbert has also branched out with Daftmill, which he makes during downtimes and hopes reflects the gentle undulations of the countryside. Musician James Yorkston credits his locale and the influence of Anne Briggs on his style, while Broom and Marshall laud Whisky David's rock track `Whisky' for introducing the dram to a younger audience and ensuring that the next generation recognises the connection between the drink and their everyday experience. This aim has been helped by bartenders like Ryan Chettywawardana (aka Mr Lyan), who has created new mixes to make whisky hip.
Speaking in a bar, Broom sums up that whisky is crucial to Scotland's identity and the picture plays out to King Creosote's `Cod Liver Oil and the Orange Juice'. Yet, for all its chatty conviviality, this cogitation never quite fires the imagination, especially as star literary names like Rankin and Gray have little of earth-shattering significance to say. Broom is keen to avoid dwelling on the distilling process and the history of the industry, but this is clearly a key part of the story, as uisge beatha lies at the heart of the rivalries between the different regions and the enduring the sense of unity forged in resisting the Sassenachs.
In many ways, this recalls Bruno Sauvard's Wine Calling in its gently peripatetic meandering style and its determined bid to make centuries of tradition relevant to attention-deficient millennials. But each person Broom encounters reiterates the `spirit of the nation' mantra ad nauseam with an insider's assumption that everyone watching is already a connoisseur versed in the lore and lure of the amber fluid. Moreover, while he commends the independent distillers seeking to take the drink in new directions, Broom gives the big companies a bit of an easy ride when he might have taken them to task for the trivialising of heritage in seeking to market scotch as a global brand.
In noting the rapid increase in the number of the distilleries in recent times, this crowd-funded documentary also runs the risk of presenting an overly rosy view of the future, as there simply aren't the young whisky drinkers coming through to allow so many competing labels to flourish. Maybe IndyRef2 will prompt a nationalistic surge? In the meantime, we can only raise a glass and hope that this genial and well-intentioned treatise finds its audience.
THE AMAZING JOHNATHAN DOCUMENTARY.
It's often said that fact is stranger than fiction. But does actuality cease to be truth when it's being consciously shaped? The father of the documentary, Robert Flaherty, thought nothing of staging scenes in landmark works like Nanook of the North (1922) and Man of Aran (1934). Indeed, in lauding his technique, John Grierson suggested that factual film was essentially the creative treatment of reality. In making The Amazing Johnathan Documentary, director Ben Berman appears to criss-cross the genre's conventions with an almost blithe disregard for their sanctity. But it's impossible to ascertain to what extent he is being manipulated by his own subject.
Billed as The Amazing Johnathan, magician-cum-comedian John Edward Szeles is a tricky customer to get a handle on. Fellow conjurors Penn Jillette, Criss Angel, Max Maven, `Weird Al' Jankovic and comedians Eric André, Judy Gold and Carrot Top sing his praises over an opening montage of his greatest tricks. But is he living an illusion or putting on a brave show, as, in 2014, Szeles had been given a year to live after being diagnosed with cardiomyopathy. Yet, by the time Ben Berman begins to profile him, he is planning a comeback that might also be his swan song.
He seems both frail and hearty when Berman visits him and wife Anastasia Synn at their Las Vegas home. Yet, while he is choking on oversize pills one moment, he's schmoozing with the likes of Marvin Roy (aka Mr Electric) at the annual Vegas magic convention and discussing a new show. However, he's also keen to take a sentimental journey to his childhood home in Detroit and mother Doreen Szeles recalls him being a quiet kid who began performing at parties for his friends. She isn't interested in his wild ways, but Berman is fascinated by how he replaced a 20-year coke habit with an addiction to crystal meth. While he films him smoking, however, Szeles decides it would be better to black out the pipe, as it's not good even for his image.
A few weeks after Berman records Szeles's first performance in several years, he gets a phone call that knocks him back. Six months into his project, he is informed that a second crew has been hired to make a rival documentary. Preparing for a show in Boston, Szeles boasts that the new company was responsible for two Oscar winners, James Marsh's Man on Wire (2008) and Malik Bendjelloul's Searching For Sugar Man (2012), and Berman has to negotiate with the unit (who insist on being pixellated out) to ensure they don't tread on each other's toes in pursuing the identical story. Moreover, he has to contend with Szeles suggesting that his picture is released after the other, because they know what they're doing.
Anastasia is more sympathetic to Berman's plight, but she has enough to worry about, as she fears that her husband will follow Tommy Cooper in literally dying on stage. Yet, she cameos as Death stalking Szeles, as he drinks stem cells from a doll as part of his typically outré act. Family friend Jon Mugar bluntly informs Berman that he's being played and Szeles revels in teasing him during a radio interview about the fact that he is plugging away in spite of being gazumped by a superior outfit. Feeling sorry for himself, Berman watches footage of documentary producer Simon Chinn collecting his Academy Awards. But Maven, Yankovic and Gold wonder whether he is being pranked by Szeles, who has a tendency to turn life into performance art.
Forced to live off scraps at a casino in Connecticut, Berman seems to irritate Szeles when he asks how he feels about no longer having the energy and dexterity to perform to his former standards. Fortunately, the arrival of his father, Doug, and stepmother, Wendy Carraher, gives Berman an another avenue of inquiry and he travels to their home in East Greenwich, Rhode Island. Over lunch, Doug asks Berman if his rivals are any good and wonders how the competing stories will pan out if and when Szeles dies.
But the plot takes another twist when Berman shows up at a comedy club in Ventura, California to discover that Chad Taylor has also been given permission to make a documentary about the Amazing Johnathan. In fact, he has been working on his project for two years and Szeles takes cruel delight in letting Berman know that he is now the meat in the sandwich. Unlike the big guys, Taylor is happy to appear on camera and chat genially chats about his enterprise. However, Berman gets more bad news when he finds an online interview in which Szeles reveals that his deal with Chinn's Red Box company includes a clause that prevents Berman from releasing his study for two years after the supposedly more prestigious picture.
Somewhat dazed and confused, Berman calls on Taylor to apologise for trespassing on his turf, as he now knows how this must feel. But Taylor adopts a `more the merrier' attitude before revealing that his day job is actually juggling chainsaws under the name Mad Chad. During a phone call, Mugar tells Berman he can either quit and be a failure or find a unique angle to explain why he wanted to profile a dying magician in the first place. The answer to this lies in the home movie footage the 11 year-old Berman shot of his ailing mother and his grieving father and he reads a letter from his mom urging him to keep making his videos.
Returning to the fray, Berman chastises Szeles for not informing him that he would be in LA to attend the unveiling of Criss Angel's star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He gets his own back by announcing that a fourth crew is filming him and Berman discovers that Nikki started shooting a documentary in 2014. It transpires that she junked the project after a few months, but she lets Berman use clips from `The Untitled Amazing Johnathan Documentary' and he notices how Szeles has been recycling quotes. This doesn't bother Taylor, but Berman is more conflicted than ever about continuing.
He is even more perplexed when Szeles makes Berman smoking meth on camera a condition of his being able to use footage of him doing likewise. After much soul searching, Berman decides to take a toke, as he wants his documentary to be more gonzo than anyone else's. But, as attorney Lisa Callif has advised him not to expose himself in this way, he freeze frames the moment, switches to monochrome and puts a black patch over the pipe to hedge his bets. The next morning, Berman regrets his actions, as he sits beside the pool at a windswept Vegas hotel. But he has the consolation that his brother (?) calls to inform him that he had told their grandmother what he was doing and she claimed that his mother would be proud.
Producer Jacob Perlin now makes an entrance (albeit over the phone) to reveal that he has been in touch with Simon Chinn and he has no knowledge of a documentary on the Amazing Johnathan. Stunned by the news, Berman hits the skids for two months and appears heavily bearded in his kitchen with the sink filled with washing up. His lawn is also covered with dog poop. An unidentified voice reminds Berman that he has been filming a professional magician and that he should begin to question whether anything connected to Szeles is real, including his death sentence.
At a party at Szeles's house, Berman is approached by Bruce Block who agrees to be interviewed. He claims that some of the Amazing Johnathan's friends thought the diagnosis was a scam and reveals that he had been looking into the legal ramifications of faking his own death. Bruce also cautions Berman to get the footage he needs to complete his picture in case Szeles suddenly withdraws access. Surprise, surprise, this is exactly what happens and Berman films himself leaving messages on Szeles's answering machine.
He also discovers that Steve Byrne's Always Amazing: The True Story of the Life, Death, and Return of Amazing Johnathan is screening at the Just For Laughs Film Festival in Vancouver. For some reason, Berman redacts any reference to Byrne and pixillates the faces of those involved in a Q&A at the premiere. But he does smuggle professional actor Keith Dallas into the screening to ask a question about the film's links to Man on Wire and Searching For Sugar Man. Doubtless, Berman is (un)surprised to hear that the director is a first-timer who had no connection with either Oscar winner. Yet, when he approaches him after the show to ask whether Szeles's illness is a kind of Andy Kaufman-like stunt, he reckons he's not a good enough actor to sustain such a deceit.
Finally getting through to Szeles, Berman reminds him of their first e-mail exchange, in which the magician claims that the project could be cool if they `just stick to the truth'. However, Szeles is outraged when Berman asks whether his illness is genuine or some sort of prank. Aware of the value of every second, Szeles storms out and leaves Berman looking like an insensitive heel. As he leaves, he also gets in a dig about already having one good documentary about his life and work. With Anastasia and Doreen both commending Szeles for his courage in the face of adversity, Berman asks his father to view a rough cut and gauge his opinion on how best to proceed. Doug concludes that Berman has got himself into a pickle, but appreciates that he doesn't want to come across as having exploited Szeles and his plight.
Seeking a credible ending that will satisfy all parties, Berman flies to London to meet Simon Chinn. He outlines his journey and admits that he now believes that Szeles is dying before asking Chinn if he will board his picture as an executive producer so that the claim about a dual Oscar winner handling a documentary about the Amazing Johnathan becomes a fact. It's not made clear if he's doing this as a gesture of friendship towards Szeles or whether he is striving to out-punk him. Either way, Berman breaks the news at a birthday party at Doreen's assisted living shelter. He also takes the opportunity to apologise for slanting the angle of his profile towards death because he is still haunted by his mother's loss. Getting about in a motorised wheelchair, Szeles seems genuinely delighted at having an Academy Award winner in his corner and he zips off to tell Doreen.
Of course, there's a final twist. As Berman wheels Szeles through a rundown part of Detroit (in a chair that seems too small for his, as Szeles has to stretch his legs out in front), we hear Chinn calling to reveal that he had a connection to one of the competing film-makers after all, as his producing partner in Los Angeles had loaned them some filming equipment. All Berman can manage is a baffled, `Huh?' before the credits roll (with Chinn taking top billing).
Such is the current vogue for scripted reality that it's often impossible to see the joins and there are moments when Berman seeks refuge behind the opening claim that `Everything in this film is strictly based on the available facts.' The choice of the Chinn documentaries may be coincidental, but Berman certainly casts himself as a man on a wire who is searching for an elusive artist. But how much of his odyssey is pre-planned and how much genuinely knocks him for a loop out of a clear blue sky?
Given that Berman's background is in TV comedy, there appear to be sufficient giveaways to make the viewer sceptical about the authenticity of the unfolding scenario, but they could easily have been planted. Did Berman really see a TV clip of Marc Maron bemoaning the surfeit of documentaries or did he call in a favour? It also seems highly unlikely that Maven, Gold, Yankovic, André and Carrot Top would all be wearing exactly the same clothes and be sitting in precisely the same settings when Berman supposedly drops the bombshell of the meth smoking development. Such continuity suggests that the clips were filmed at the same time and that the talking heads were in on the `gag'.
Does the same apply to the Amazing Johnathan himself, as the timing and the insouciance of his disclosures about the rival crews seem so meta-calculated. Moreover, the audience is also suspiciously thin at the Vancouver premiere, which suggests that the Q&A has been staged for Berman's benefit, especially as the planted audience member gets a considered response to his question about shared techniques when none of the producers of Always Amazing listed on IMDB are credited with having worked on either Man on Wire or Searching for Sugar Man. But, with this kind of film, who can tell when one is being played? Amidst the confusion, however, one thing is clear. The inclusion of the footage of the great Tommy Cooper collapsing on stage and the audience laughing because they thought it was part of the act is in very dubious taste.
The majority of critics have concluded that Berman is an inexperienced film-maker who navel gazes to excess after losing control of his project. They may well be right, but his mounting problems (feigned or otherwise) cast interesting light on the motivation, methodology and ethics of the actuality process and the extent to which the documentarist is entitled to expect a smooth ride in the face of unpredictable reality. It also examines the duties a subject has to make themselves accessible and the rights they have to shape the shoot to their own advantage. So, even if Berman is a gaffe-prone newbie, his efforts - consciously or otherwise - force us to question whether we can trust the documentary format ever again in the Post-Truth era.