Parky at the Pictures (In Cinemas 6/12/2019)
Reviews of So Long, My Son; Don't Stop Me Now; Invasion Planet Earth; StarDog and Turbo Cat; The Biggest Little Farm; The Cave. Shooting the Mafia; and Solidarity
SO LONG, MY SON.
Although there was something magisterial about the films of Fifth Generation directors like Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige that helped introduce Chinese cinema to Western audiences, there is much greater socio-political potency in the work of the Sixth Generation and independent film-makers who followed in their wake. Yet, while British audiences have become familiar with the films of Jia Zhang-ke, only those with ready access to festivals have been able to keep up with the progress of such contemporaries as Zhang Yuan, Lou Ye, Diao Yinan and Wang Xiaoshuai.
Despite an early brush with the authorities after his first two features, The Days (1993) and The Great Game (1994), which prompted him to release Frozen (1997) under the pseudonym Wu Ming, Wang has proved more prolific than the majority of his peers. However, while Beijing Bicycle (2001) secured a general release in the UK, only the most fortunate will have been able to see So Close to Paradise (1998), The House (1999), Drifters (2003), Shanghai Dreams (2005), In Love We Trust (2007), Chongqing Blues (2010), 11 Flowers (2011) and Red Amnesia (2014). Perhaps this will change following the warm reception accorded So Long, My Son, whose cause was greatly aided by the fact that co-stars Wang Jingchun and Yong Mei took the Best Actor and Actress prizes at the Berlin Film Festival.
Some time in the 1980s, 12 year-old Shen Hao (Zhang Xinyuan) coaxes his friend Liu Xing (aka Xingxing; Wu Jiachen) into playing in the local reservoi, even though he can't swim. Parents Liu Yaojun (Wang Jingchun) and Wang Liyun (Yong Mei) are devastated by the loss of their child and move away to a coastal town in the south. However, they have problems with their adopted teenage son, Xingxing (Wang Yuan), who is sullen and ungrateful at home because he is picked on in school. When he is caught stealing from one of his classmates, Yaojun tries to discipline him, but he runs away and Liyun blames her husband for driving the boy away, as they return from searching for him to find their new home flooded after a rainstorm.
Born on the same day, Xing and Hao are inseparable and their parents are also close friends. Yaojun and Shen Yingming (Xu Cheng) are employed at the same workshop, while Liyun and Li Haiyan (Ai Liya) work at the nearby factory, where the latter is the family planning officer in charge of implementing the new One Child policy imposed by Beijing. When Liyun discovered she was pregnant, Yaojun had been in favour of paying the fine and having a second child. But Haiyan had used her position to pressure Liyun into having an abortion and they had started to drift apart before Xing's death.
At the workshop, Yaojun had been supervisor to Shen Moli (Qi Xi), whose brother, Zhang Xinjian (Zhao Yanguozhang), likes to think of himself as a trend-setting rebel. He jokes that he dresses like a Hong Kong film star and holds secretive `lights out' parties, at which he plays forbidden music like Boney M's `Rivers of Babylon'. He has a crush on Gao Meiyu (Li Jingjing), but Haiyan disapproves of her in-laws and is ashamed when Xinjian is arrested for `debauchery', even though she is also afraid that he might be executed. But Yaojun and Yingming are fond of Meiyu because she has a tape of `Auld Lang Syne', which they remember someone playing before they were taken away from their village for re-education during the Cultural Revolution.
Yaojun is also very protective of Moli and he sneaks away to the nearby town when she tracks him down after years of silence. She is staying in a hotel on business and thanks him for the help he gave her in getting her to university, as she has been able to broaden her horizons. Since her divorce, she is also able to travel abroad and he is pleased with her progress. He hasn't told Liyun that he was meeting Moli, however, and she is surprised to hear him giving her a fibbed fob-off when she calls to ask when he will be home. When he returns after dark, Yaojun feels guilty because Liyun has waited up for him, but he hides his feelings.
He had been more demonstrative, however, when Haiyan had arranged Liyun's abortion behind his back and his wife had haemorrhaged during the procedure. Haiyan had attempted to atone by arranging for them to win the factory's family planning award and had hissed at them to smile on the stage during the presentation ceremony. Liyun is more forgiving, but Yaojun resents the fact that Haiyan had put her position ahead of her friend's well-being and the after-effects of the botched abortion hit them all the harder when they lose their son.
Life goes on, however, and they all dance together at a works' party. Yaojun is pleased to see Moli has flourished since going to college and he teases Xinjian about his new look when they accompany Meiyu on a prison visit. She is about to move south to try her luck, as the economic tide is turning, but she still promises to wait for Xinjian on his release. The impact of the Party's fiscal reforms has filtered through to the provinces and Yingming has started his own business and Yaojun is envious of his success, as the factory is facing a downturn. When the manager makes a speech about patriotic duty and accepting redundancy with pride, the workers storm the stage. But Yaojun remains in his seat as his name is read out and Liyun wonders how much more misfortune they can stand.
Shortly after Moli visits Yaojun in his new town, she returns to inform him that she is carrying his child. She offers to let him keep the baby, but he says he couldn't subject Liyun to more heartache, as they have clung to each other since Xing's death. Moli accepts his decision and is nervous that Liyun spotted her in the harbour when their ferry boats crossed. When she mentions to Yaojun about seeing someone from her past she couldn't quite recollect, she offers him a divorce. But he tells her to stop being so foolish, as they are destined to grow old together.
We hark back to 1986, when Hao became frustrated with Xing's timidity and coerced him into swimming with the rest of their group. Haiyan is furious with her son for going near the reservoir after repeatedly being warned about the dangers and Yingming takes the blame upon himself for having been an over-indulgent father. Knowing she can't have another child, Liyun is doubly inconsolable and she finds it difficult to accept any apologies. But Hao also suffers from guilt and is sent to stay with his grandparents to give him a chance to recover.
Having waved Moli off at the bus stop, Yaojun returns to work, where he is very much an outsider, as he is older than his colleagues and doesn't speak their Fujian dialect. He is also aware that they know all about Xingxing's disappearance and that the police have started an investigation. However, they know that he has gone of his own volition, as they had promised to give him his freedom once his adult ID card arrived. He had left with some biker friends and Liyun had been hurt by his eagerness to leave. But Yaojun lets the boy know that he had borne being a surrogate son with good grace and that they were grateful to him for putting up with their well-intentioned mistakes.
His kindness echoes that of Moli when she returns from college for the first time after Xing's accident. She brings dumplings from Haiyan that Liyun accepts with a grimace, as she cannot bring herself to forget the abortion that is also tormenting Haiyan. When Xinjian and Meiyu move back home after getting married, Yingming confides that Haiyan has been crushed by the guilt of causing her friend to lose two children and he fears for her sanity, as she has become paranoid about people whispering behind her back at the factory. He wishes she would resign, as they don't need her salary now that his company is thriving. But, despite what has happened, Haiyan still feels it is her duty to implement the One Child policy and be a good citizen.
Unable to bear the painful memories around them, Yaojun and Liyun had moved away, with Moli alone waving them off in a taxi before dawn. They had continued to struggle for a time, with Yaojun hitting the bottle and Liyun attempting suicide. However, her husband had found her in time and carried her through the streets to the nearest hospital. A cross-cut over the decades takes us back to the present, where Hao (Du Jiang) is now a doctor and has just learned that his mother is suffering from an inoperable brain tumour. He breaks the news to his father, who agrees to keep it from Haiyan. But she already suspects the truth and, while she hopes to live long enough to see her grandchild, she is more concerned with patching things up with Liyun and Yaojun and she pays for them to travel home for her last birthday.
They hold hands on the plane when it runs into turbulence and Liyun is amused that they are still scared of dying. Yaojun's sister (Wang Yajun) meets them at the airport and Liyun is taken aback when she asks after Xingxing. She takes them to their old apartment, which has remained in the family, but is currently unoccupied. Much of the neighbourhood has changed and a massage parlour has opened on their corridor. But they are deeply moved to return to their old home and Yaojun takes Xing's photograph out of his coat pocket and props it up on the bureau, while Liyun sits in silence at the kitchen table.
They get to the hospital to be greeted by Xinjian and Meiyu, while Yingming clasps them both in a bear hug. Hao is more circumspect at seeing his godparents and ushers them into his mother's room. She recognises Liyun and assures her that they are now rich enough to pay the fine for the second baby. Tears stream down Liyun's face, as she clasps her friend's hand and admits how much she has missed her.
At the funeral reception, everyone tries to persuade Yaojun and Liyun to let Yingming find them an apartment so that they can all be together again. But Hao's conscience is troubling him and he offers to drive the couple home, as he has something to tell them. Liyun is dismayed by how much of her past has been bulldozed, but her spouse is amused by the presence of a statue of Chairman Mao outside a shopping mall and he mockingly imitates its waving pose. Once indoors, they enjoy fussing over their visitor, but he insists on sitting them down and describing how he had threatened to stop being friends with Xing unless he went into the water. Then, when the other boys started taunting him for being a coward, Hao had pushed him and he had fallen into the water.
Calmly, Liyun tells her godson to unburden himself, as there is no point carrying this guilt any longer. Yaojun asks if his parents had known the truth, but he thinks back to when Yingming had come to the apartment with a cleaver and told Yaojun he was entitled to kill his foolish son. But Yaojun had told him to say nothing to the boy in the hope that he would forget what had happened. However, he had suffered in silence for two decades and the time has come to let bygones be bygones.
While they are visiting Xing's grave on a dusty hillside overlooking the much-changed city, Hao calls to inform them that he is the father of a bouncing baby boy. They are overjoyed to meet Dudu and Liyun is holding him when Hao calls Moli on Skype. She lives in America and Yaojun is stunned when she brings Sunny to the camera and he sets eyes on his son for the first time. Whether she knows the truth or not, Liyun puts on a brave face and shows Sunny his newborn cousin and everyone laughs when he responds in English. Neither has time to dwell on the matter, however, as Yaojun gets a call from Xingxing, who has turned up at the beachside repair shop hoping to find his parents. Liyun is thrilled to hear his voice, as he reveals that he's home to stay with his new girlfriend. Delighted to be called `mum and dad' again, they tell him to make himself comfortable and promise to return as soon as possible.
Bringing tears to the eye, this impeccably judged denouement is the last in a series of quietly devastating moments that are so true to life that you realise just how often even the most austerely realist cinema is over acted. Yong Mei and Wang Jingchun are exceptional, but the entire ensemble shines in a three-hour drama that seems to be over in an instant. What is it about Chinese cinema at this time of the year, as Jia Zhang-ke's Mountains May Depart (2015) and Hu Bo's An Elephant Sitting Still (2018) also arrived in the depths of winter to remind us how closely film can imitate everyday existence?
Scripting with A Mei, Wang Xiaoshuai echoes Nanfu Wang and Lynn Zhang's documentary, One Child Nation, in deftly examining how Party diktats have shaped the fates of those living thousands of miles from the seat of power and questioning the extent to which the Chinese mindset has changed, along with its economic strategies and its landscape. Apparently, this is the first part of a planned `Homeland' trilogy and one can hardly wait for the next two, as Wang shares Jia's ability to root riveting stories about plausible people in authentic settings.
He is indebted to LV Dong's production design and Kim Hyun-seok's nuanced and largely handheld camerawork. But the most important craft contribution is the editing of Lee Chatametikool, who switches between time frames with a fluency that prevents the action from feeling fragmented. Initially, he relies on `Auld Lang Syne' to signal the flashbacks, but allows the transitions to become more organic once the audience is used to the conceit. As a consequence, Wang is able to affirm the John Lennon lyric about life being what happens when you're busy making other plans without lapsing into novelettish contrivance. But this is also an alternative history of China in the miracle years that's as effectively critical of ruling élite as it is empathetic towards the malleable masses.
DON'T STOP ME NOW.
CinemaItaliaUK serves up an early Christmas treat with its screening of Riccardo Milani's Ma cosa ci dice il cervello/Don't Stop Me Now. This is the director's fifth collaboration with wife Paola Cortellesi after The Soul's Place (2002), Piano, solo (2007), Do You See Me? (2014) and Like a Cat on a Highway (2017). In many ways, this double life comedy recalls such Euro Spy spoofs of the James Bond franchise as Umberto Lenzi's 008: Operation Exterminate, Sergio Grieco's Agent 077: Mission Bloody Mary and Agent 077 From the Orient With Fury, Giorgio Simonell's Two Mafiosi Against Goldfinger (all 1965), and Grieco and Alberto De Martino's Special Mission Lady Chaplin (1966). But it's closer in its knowing tone to the couple of capers that Jean Dujardin made with Michel Hazanavicius, OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies (2006) and OSS 117: Lost in Rio (2009).
Having endured another nightmare rush hour, Giovanna Salvatori (Paola Cortellesi) dashes to the nearby school to join daughter Martina (Chiara Luzzi) for a careers talk, Unfortunately, while the other parents are firemen, vets, astronauts and fire-eaters, while Giovanna handles the payroll at a government ministry. She can't even compete with her trendy mother, Agata (Carla Signoris), who is trying to atone for her lost youth, or her estranged husband, Enrico (Giampaolo Morelli), who is an air force pilot.
However, Giovanna deliberately has to keep a low profile because she is a secret agent engaged in the hunt for explosives expert, Eden Bauer (Tomas Arana), and his contact Gerard Colasante (Teco Celio). Hence, she has to make a helicopter dash to Marrakesh to intercept a chemical he requires for an explosive device he is building. During the course of the mission, Giovanna poses as a hotel receptionist, a tour guide and an airport baggage handler. But Colasante gives her the slip and she gets home to be scolded by Martina's dance teacher for being late in collecting her after class.
Hurt by her daughter thinking she's the dullest person in the world, Giovanna accepts Enrico's advice to let her hair down for once and she accepts an invitation from Tamara (Claudia Pandolfi) to a reunion dinner with her other `Fantastic Five' friends from school, Marco (Vinicio Marchioni), Francesca (Lucia Mascino) and Roberto (Stefano Fresi). Giovanna used to have a crush on Roberto, but he has piled on the pounds. Moreover, she feels inadequate because they all think her finance job is deadly dull, while Tamara is an air hostess, Francesca is a paediatrician helping Afghan refugees and Marco runs a Little League football team.
Much to her surprise, Giovanna has a nice evening reminiscing with pals she hasn't seen for 15 years. But they all confide the problems they are having at work, with Francesca being attacked by fiery mother Anita Ruggiero (Paola Minaccioni), looks up symptoms online and demands drugs for her precious daughter; Marco being head-butted by touchline dad Dario (Ricky Memphis), who thinks he knows more about football; Tamara being gashed on the forehead by Claudio (Alessandro Roja), a business passenger who had refused to switch off his phone; and teacher Roberto being kicked in the shins by thug Edoardo (Emanuele Armani), who seeks to bully him into awarding pass grades.
They all envy Giovanna her cushy job at the Ministry, but have no idea of the punishing training regime she has to undergo in order to stay fit. She also despairs of them when Roberto winds up in a neck brace after having his head wedged into a litter bin by Edoardo and the other three urge him to give the tearaway his grade. Deciding to use her mastery of disguise, Giovanna tracks down the pests plaguing her friends and poses as a tattoo artist, a shopping mall security guard, a taxi driver, a theme park Snow White and a bearded saxophonist to keep tabs on them. She even finds some quality time for Martina, as they make meatballs together.
Targeting Anita again, Giovanna impersonates a fast food delivery courier and, knowing her to have allergies. slips a mock shrimp into her sushi. She also turns up at the hospital when Anita complains of debilitating symptoms and teaches her a lesson by looking them up on the Internet before deciding on the best course of treatment. Next on the list is Dario, whom she foists into taking over as coach when Marco fails to show for the next junior football match (because Giovanna has sent him on a wild goose chase to a quarry) and he is humiliated when they lose 8-0.
Before heading to Moscow for a rendezvous with Colasante, Giovanna has time to adopt the guise of an Internet engineer to gain access to Edoardo 's computer and change his password to the date of Il Risorgimento, which Roberto has been trying to teach him. Back in Rome, she persuades Enrico to help her spook Claudio by flying an air force jet next to his airliner to remind him of the dangers of using a mobile phone on a plane. Unfortunately, this ruse proves the last straw for Comandante D'Alessandro (Remo Girone), who has been monitoring her antics and orders her to take an enforced leave of absence.
Killing the time on her hands, Giovanna wanders into the shopping mall, where she finds Roberto playing the piano in a plaza and impressing Edoardo when he gives an onlooker who mocks his girth a Cyrano-like volley of erudite abuse. She suggests that the Fantastic Five retrace their steps to Seville and they take selfies at all of the places they had visited in their youth (in contrast to their reunion supper, when Giovanna had hidden her face in every shot). As they wait for Tamara to arrive at the station, however, Giovanna spots Bauer boarding the same train and coaxes Roberto into leaping off a riverboat to help her keep tabs on him.
After he gets suspicious when Giovanna hacks into the platform board at the station, Bauer decides to head to Burgos by road. But Giovanna and Roberto follow in a purloined wedding car and manage to hack into his sat nav to send him to the flamenco bar where Francesca, Tamara and Marco pin him down under the apprehension he's a purse thief. Slipping away to let her friends take the credit (and flee the furious Spanish wedding party wanting its vehicle back), Giovanna delights in the fact that Roberto has agreed to marry her.
She is also pleased when Martina contradicts Agata by praising the have-a-go heroes when she sees the news report her mother is reading on her laptop. But, while life returns to normal for her friends (with a few small improvements), Giovanna still has to put up with Agata looking down her nose at Roberto because he's so pudgily ordinary.
Highly enjoyable, if a tad lightweight in its discourse on friends, family and millennial morality, this lively romp has its roots firmly in commedia all'italiana, as it whips through the hot issues of the day with a blend of cosy sitcom and satire. Scripting with Furio Andreotti and Giulia Calenda. Milani plays fast and loose with the plausibility of the premise and one can almost hear Cortellesi dropping hints about the disguises she fancies wearing, as the mousy mommy from the Ministry turns out to be a canny operative with a nicely warped sense of social justice.
As always, Cortellesi is a joy to watch, although she is ably abetted by supporting players who deftly flesh out the rather thinly sketched secondary characters. Viewers will have to buy into the fact that Giovanna's identity crisis coincides with a major mission, as the long-lost friends conceit is more than a little contrived, while the espionage subplot is merely an excuse to shoot in some exotic locales. But few will care, as the action toddles along with an engaging predictability. Moreover, there's always the pleasure of anticipating where and how Giovanna is going to pop up next and, for this, Cortellesi is indebted to costumier Alberto Moretti and make-up artist, Arianna Contaldo.
INVASION PLANET EARTH.
Given how long Simon Cox has devoted to the making of Invasion Planet Earth, it would be churlish to do anything other than commend him on the ambition of his enterprise and the application required to accomplish it. When he started work on the script back in the 1990s, Cox was a jobbing editor whose credits included the animated TV series, Rod `n' Emu (1991), Frank Falco's thriller, Cold Earth (2008), and Julian Richards's documentary, Charles Dickens's England (2009). However, he had also made his directorial debut with the 1998 horror, Driven, and hoped to produce “the biggest British indie sci-fi movie ever".
Ultimately, he has fallen some way short. But, with the backing of Kickstarter and the input of such talents as concept artist Matt Allsopp (who would go on to work on two Godzilla and three Star Wars movies), the Nuneaton film-maker has been able to realise his vision. Shot in and around Birmingham over six years and requiring a further two years of post-production, this earnest twist on the traditional alien invasion scenario is dotted with fond references to the sci-fi classics of yesteryear. Yet, while this is surely destined for cult status among genre aficionados, it's unlikely to take Britain's multiplexes by storm.
As a boy, Thomas Dunn (Simon Haycock) had watched the sci-fi series, Kaleidoscope Man, on television with his younger brother, Freddy (Paul Lincoln). He used to tell his mechanic father that he would one day save the planet. But, despite becoming a doctor, he couldn't prevent his young daughter from dying and is now facing the closure of the mental health facility he runs with Claire Dove (Toyah Willcox). Wife Mandy (Lucy Drive) seeks to cheer him up with the news that she's pregnant, while parish priest Fr Robert (Ian Brooker) tries to reassure Thomas that he's a good man and that angels are watching over him, when they meet beside Rebecca's grave. With the world teetering on the brink of all-out nuclear war, however, Thomas struggles to look on the bright side, especially as he keeps having peculiar visions of Armageddon.
While Mandy teaches her junior class about Noah's Ark, Tom strives to convince the narcissitically disordered Harriet (Julie Hoult), schizophrenic Floyd (Danny Steele) and manic depressive Samantha (Sophie Anderson) that they have only imagined the fireball that is being discussed on the news channel. However, their trust is shaken when they are swept aboard a wasp-like craft that hovers over the clinic before taking them in large pods towards a gigantic mother ship. Having experienced bizarre dreams in which he is attacked by zombies in a shopping mall, by Floyd with a laser gun and Harriet with a pair of emasculating garden shears. Tom wakes to find himself spinning through space in his pod after the transporter is hit by debris. Luckily, he lands in the sea and is able to swim ashore, where he is reunited with Floyd, Samantha and Harriet.
They realise they have all experienced the same dreams and Floyd is aware of feeling more lucid than he has done in years. Samantha similarly believes herself cured of her addiction after a flashback involving a zombie movie and Claire reassuring her that she is never alone while looking at a picture of a tidal wave in an art gallery. Even Harriet comes to terms with the trauma caused by her abusive father and they wonder why Tom is refusing to deal with his own suppressed emotions. But they have no time to reflect, as they are being pursued by another wasp craft and are only able to make a getaway after Tom causes its destruction with a well-aimed stone from the beach.
When another craft sweeps up his companions, Tom takes a running jump and lands on its back and clings on until he's inside the mother ship. He finds some guns and hands them out to Floyd, Samantha and Harriet, while having a flashback to the Kaleidoscope Man games he used to play with his childhood pals. However, he also remembers the moment in his father's garage when he had failed to save him by summoning the spirit of his TV hero in attempting to lift the fallen vehicle that was crushing him.
Realising that only 20 minutes have passed and that the titanic battle with the invading aliens had taken place solely in their shared imaginations, Tom deduces that they have been healed for a greater purpose than their individual well-being. While he emerges from his pod and gazes down on Earth, astronauts aboard a space station claps eyes on the claw-like tridentine spaceship orbiting the planet and draw the inevitable conclusion that an extraterrestrial attack is about to take place. As Russia, China and the United States are already engaged in superpower stand-off, people are ready to believe that the end of the world is very much nigh.
As Mandy watches news reports about New York being nuked in a London café, the space station crew witnesses a swarm of wasp craft passing in front of the Moon. They are eradicated before they can make a full report and panic erupts on the streets as the aliens open fire on a terrified public. Amidst the mayhem and the reports that nuclear attacks have occurred along the San Andreas Fault, nobody seems to notice that there are no casualties on the ground. Instead, those hit by the alien ray guns are jaunted into pods aboard the wasps and flown back to the mother ship.
Looking on, Samantha hopes she's having another bad dream. But Tom suddenly notices that he has a phone signal and he tries to call Mandy. She's too busy hiding behind some wheelie bins in a side alley to pick up, but he does get through to Freddy. Having realised that the globe is not under attack, but is the subject of a mercy mission to save humanity from itself, Tom urges his brother to let himself be captured, as it's his only chance of survival. As mushroom clouds proliferate, Tom makes an appeal to his fellow earthlings (which he hopes can be translated into other languages) to co-operate with the saviours.
Mandy sees her husband projected above the city skyline. But, rather than heed his message, she wanders into the parish church, where Fr Robert is delivering a sermon about how we have brought the apocalypse upon ourselves by allowing greed, prejudice and paranoia to corrupt us. He implores his small congregation to seize the second chance being offered by this Day of Reckoning and abjure our petty failings. Tom manages to call Mandy, as she kneels beside Rebecca's grave. She shrugs that they gave it their all and can't be alone if she's with their daughter. As the signal cuts out, Tom is convinced that his wife has perished in the fallout spreading from the conflagration. But, guess what?
As Toyah sings the truly execrable power ballad, `Step into the New World', over the end credits, many will be left in a state of utter bewilderment while trying to fathom what they have just been watching. Apart from the obvious question, `who the blooming heck is General Lucien and how did he manage to cause such carnage?', the overriding impression is that Cox has pulled out all of the stops on the technical side and settled for cliché and platitude in concocting his storyline and characters.
He can apportion some of this blame to co-writers Simon Bovey and Gil Brailey, but the personal nature of the project means that Cox has to accept principal culpability for the tin-eared dialogue and the muddled narrative, which fails to address the issue of why the sentient beings that have come to rescue the population of a dying planet would adopt such a bellicose attitude. Have they not seen Robert Wise's The Day the Earth Stood Still (1950)?
The allusions to TV shows like Doctor Who and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century are more successfully integrated, as are the nods towards pictures like William Cameron Menzies's Invaders From Mars (1953), Roland Emmerich's Independence Day and Tim Burton's Mars Attacks! (both 1996). Yet, this often feels closer in tone and execution to Montgomery Tully's The Terrornauts (1967), which also centres on humans working out that not all aliens are a menace to civilisation. Moreover, Cox should be able to take comfort from the fact that this is not appreciably worse than Craig Viveiros's much-panned BBC adaptation of HG Wells's The War of the Worlds.
That said, he has to shoulder responsibility for the stiffness of the performances. Shooting over such an extended period must have made it incredibly difficult for the cast to remain in character and retain any sense of focus. But Simon Haycock lacks charisma and dynamism as the resourceful hero, while Lucy Drive (billed as `Roxi') is allowed to indulge in a lot of what Joey Tribbiani on Friends described as `smell the fart' acting. None of the other characters are developed beyond ciphers, even Tom's travelling companions, whose instant restoration to full health is one of the picture's more dubiously insensitive aspects.
On the plus side, Gordon Hickie's photography and Benjamin Symons's wittily genre-savvy score are admirable, while Cox's editing and DIY SFX work belie the modesty of the budget. What matters here, though, is that the film (which should have kept its original title of Kaleidoscope Man) was made and found a distributor. That is a triumph in itself and it doesn't matter what smug critics think. Everyone involved should be proud that they saw it through.
STARDOG AND TURBOCAT.
Remove Aardman from the equation and the recent history of British animation begins to look a little threadbare. Sadly, Ben Smith's StarDog and TurboCat only reinforces the impression that animations made in this country are aimed as much at overseas as domestic audiences, with the settings and storylines bearing a cookie-cutter genericism rooted in comic-books and video games that suggests the makers know more about computer programming than they do the mindset of a tweenage child.
In 1969, Buddy the dog (Nick Frost) is blasted into space by a scientist named David (Ben Smith), who assures him that everything will be all right. Things don't go smoothly, however, and a short circuit sends Buddy into a 50-year cryo- hibernation, from which he wakes in a dumpster in the small town of Glenfield after crashing out of orbit. He quickly realises that humans no longer love animals and that Officer Peck (Cory English) likes nothing more than catching strays and disappearing them into the pound.
Fortunately, Buddy is rescued by Felix (Luke Evans), a vigilante cat who operates under the name TurboCat. He lives in a secret bunker in the town museum, where he is waited on by a robotic valet called Sinclair (Bill Nighy). Felix doesn't believe that Buddy has spent the last half-century in space and is even more sceptical that a human could be loyal to an animal. However, when he discovers that Cassidy the rabbit (Gemma Arterton) has taken an interest in Buddy's case, Felix changes his tune, as he has a crush on her. He is also impressed by the speed that Buddy can achieve while running away from Peck.
While searching for Cassidy in the local supermarket, the pair meet Bullion the goldfish (Ben Bailey Smith) and his mouse assistant, Tinker (Rachel Louise Miller), who are agents of the Glenfield Underground Animal Rights Division (GUARD). This is run by Cassidy, who introduces them to Todd (Robert G. Slade), an elderly cat inventor who hopes to build a robot guardian to overthrow Peck's tyranny. However, they need to get hold of the hyperlithium crystal that had powered Buddy's capsule and hatch a plan to recover it from inside the police pound. This backfires and Felix and Buddy find themselves in the back of Peck's truck being taken to a secret location. But the cop has brought his daughter, Alex (Morgan Cambs), to work with him and she takes a shine to Felix, who reciprocates and risks his life to save her when the truck crashes.
Buddy also does his bit on discovering that he also super-canine strength and lifts both the truck and the capsule over his head to protect Felix. A CCTV camera records the heroics and the TV news is a-buzz with reports that Peck might be wrong in his assertion that animals are worthless vermin. It transpires that he turned against pets when Todd scratched Alex on the hand and left two claw scars. We also learn that Cassidy was once the white rabbit in a magic show and now uses the wand as a cudgel. She trusts Felix to watch over the capsule while she goes on a recce. But he dozes off in a sunbeam and crashes his catmobile in trying to chase Peck's truck.
Feeling foolish on discovering that the capsule on the vehicle was just a parasol under a tarpaulin, Felix and Buddy get back to the museum to find that Peck has decoyed them and recovered the real capsule, while also capturing Todd and a bulldog named Victor (Dan Russell). Cassidy despairs of her fellow GUARDians and tosses away her wand because she fears it's only a matter of time before Peck arrests them all. When Buddy and Felix venture into the pound, however, they learn that Todd is the real villain of the piece, as he has never forgiven Buddy for stealing his place on the rocket back in 1969 and has used a small piece of hyperlithium to keep himself alive until he could wreak his revenge.
Victor turns out to be his sidekick and they use the capsule crystal to create a ray gun that turns Peck into a droolingly obedient man-dog. Sinclair arrives to rescue Felix, but is damaged in the process and Buddy is distraught to learn that David had been quite prepared to sacrifice him in the name of science. Both crushed, they realise that their squabbling has undermined their efforts and they are busy feeling sorry for themselves when they decide to team up and Felix presents Buddy with a red cape and dubs him StarDog.
By the time they reach this point, however, Todd has zapped Victor and turned him into the hound from Hell and it takes Tinker to come up with a plan to confound them. However, Bullion's Fish Tank malfunctions and he has to jump down Victor's throat to overpower him. He gets wedged inside the museum when Buddy blocks the door with a giant globe. Todd then turns up in the cockpit of a gigantic robot, with the aim of making all humans subservient to animals. But he crashes when he can't resist chasing the light beam generated by his laser gun and he is disarmed.
Aware that the crystal is going to detonate, Felix launches the robot into space in an effort to prove to Alex that pets can be good. It's then that Buddy discovers he can fly and he zooms into the stratosphere to rescue his new friend and return him to Earth for a hug from Cassidy. Peck is so impressed with the heroic critters that he cancels his ban on pets and Alex is overjoyed. But the happiest is Buddy, who discovers that her blind grandpa on the mobility scooter is David, who is overjoyed to see his pooch again and returns the dog collar tag he had been keeping safe until they were reunited.
Ending with Felix describing how they all now work at the museum and that Cassidy has turned GUARD into an animal protection organisation, the film tries to set up a sequel by mentioning a robot hamster being programmed to seize the presidency and take over the world. It's an intriguing premise, but one suspects that this will be StarDog and Turbo Cat's sole mission. There's nothing wrong with the CGI animation, while the voiceovers by Luke Evans and Nick Frost are admirably eager. But Ben Smith's dialogue leaves a lot to be desired, as it veers from expositional to cornball without exhibiting a shred of satirical wit or subtextural whimsicality.
It's just about possible to accept that the action takes place within an oddly hermitically sealed berg and that humans don't find it at all unusual that quadrupeds walk upright and wear clothes. But why make the setting so obviously small-town America and then mix and match the human and animal accents? Moreover, why do so many gags seem secondhand, such as Felix making lolcat memes to fund his crimefighting, à la Shank's creation of the BuzzzTube viral in Rich Moore and Phil Johnston's Ralph Breaks the Internet (2018)? It's equally hard to shrug off the influence of Moore and Byron Howard's Zootropolis (2016).
Much has been made of production company Red Star 3D's Sheffield origins. So why not exploit Yorkshire locale and hang any accusations that the characters all sound a bit like Wallace? Undemanding tinies might find this passes the time nicely, but anyone older will lament the whoppingness of the missed opportunity.
THE BIGGEST LITTLE FARM.
A number of documentaries on farming have appeared over the last decade, with the likes of Lucien Castaing-Taylor's Sweetgrass (2009), Peter Gerdehag's Women With Cows (2012). Andy Heathcote's The Moo Man (2013), James Moll's Farmland (2014) and Stefano Liberti and Enrico Parenti's Soyalism (2018) seeking to show how tradition and progress are jockeying with each other bring sustainable productivity to a globally warmed world. John Chester's The Biggest Little Farm is essentially a glorified video diary that charts his eight-year bid with wife Molly to create a biodiverse homestead. However, Chester's experience as an award-winning television director and cinematographer give this folksy record a polish and an approachability that sets it apart from so many earnest, but arduous eco-docs.
Over a shot of a recumbent sheep seeming unconcerned about a snake slithering past, John Chester explains that everyone told him and Molly that their dream to farm in accordance with Nature was a disaster waiting to happen. But they were committed to the concept from the moment that they promised Todd, the foundling dog whose barking got them evicted from their Santa Monica apartment, that they would find him somewhere he could call home.
Back in 2010, Molly was working as a chef and food blogger, while John was shooting wildlife documentaries around the world. A cosy cartoon shows the kind of children's book farm Molly wanted to run, but the 200 acres of Apricot Lane Farms in Moonpark, California was far from idyllic when they persuaded friends and benefactors to fund their project. Despite its name, the property had once specialised in lemons and avocados. But much of the land was parched and it abutted what had once been the world's largest indoor egg battery. The nearby poly tunnel raspberry farm was also on a large scale and the Chesters soon realised the size of their task.
However, Molly learned about biodynamics pioneer Alan York and he agreed to help them plan and plant their crops. For starters, a lot of scrub had to be cleared away, while irrigation pipes had to be repaired and the soil rejuvenated in the depths of a drought. But, despite the first year's budget disappearing after six months, things began to move forward with the construction of a worm palace to improve the compost and the hiring of Flavio and Raul, A cabal of eager youngsters was recruited online with the promise of learning traditional farming methods from a master and York ensured that everyone was pulling in the same direction, as they planted new trees, dug culverts and sowed cover crops to keep the soil nourished while also providing food for livestock.
In addition to dozens of sheep, they also bought hundreds of chicks and ducklings, as well as cows, a bull and two Pyrenees Mountain dogs called Kaiya and Rosie to guard them. Suddenly, they had a ready supply of manure to bolster the compost, while the eggs they sold at the local farmer market brought in the first (and much-needed) revenue. Another new arrival was Ugly Betty, a heavily pregnant sow who was swiftly renamed Emma and she produced 17 piglets in one exhausting day.
As the second year begins, Alan and Molly started planting trees in the 20-acre `fruit basket', whose 76 varieties are going to be key to the success of the business. John is amazed by the amount of wildlife that turns the farm into their habitat. But they also have to ward off predators, as coyotes begin killing off chickens and ducks. Emma goes off her food and they fear she is going to die, while they have to find a new mother for an orphaned lamb. With snail slithering up the fruit trees, the Chesters learn that Alan has succumbed to an aggressive form of cancer and they are suddenly on their own.
Emma's piglets give her renewed reason to live, while John restocks the beehives that they had found empty and broken on their arrival. But new problems consistently arise, as a drought grips this part of Southern California and the algae that forms on the surface of the pond kills the catfish. The very diversity they have been promoting seems to be causing a chain reaction of issues that the Chesters don't know how to solve without Alan's guidance.
However, John takes a tip from Todd's relaxed approach to life and begins finding solutions through a blend of observation and creativity. He discovers that ducks love snails and they devour 90,000 during a single fruit tree season, while the chickens take a liking to the maggots breeding on the manure. The orphaned lamb finds a mother and even Emma proves adaptable, as she allows a rooster named Greasy to share her pen. But move inventive ways have to be found to stop the starlings from pecking the stone fruit and gophers from undermining the trees while scoffing the cover crop. Yet, when a coyote launches a daylight raid on the henhouse, John has to rely on a double-barreled solution that feels like a betrayal of their principles.
Winds gust across the farm, as California experiences its driest period in 1200 years. But, when the rain does come in Year Five, the downpour is spectacular and 18 inches falls in a matter of days. Other farms see top soil get washed away, but the cover crops mean that the Apricot soil was too rich to shift and the Chesters managed to store over 100 million gallons in their aquifer. Life seems good, as Emma has another litter and Greasy struts around the pen like a proud father. However, coyotes continue to cause havoc and John sets up night vision cameras around the farm to monitor the perimeters. Much to his horror, however, when Greasy is found dead, the killer turns out to be Kaiya and Rosie is given the new duty of chicken protector and the coyotes turn their attention to hunting gophers.
As they enter Year Seven, the farm looks resplendent from above and John explains in voiceover how barn owls and hawks have started doing their bit to keep down the pest populations. Yet, as Alan had predicted it would, everything plays its part in the flywheel of life and, as Molly expects their first child, they learn that nine billion micro-organisms have returned to their soil to feed on death to generate new life. Having got to meet the son and heir, Todd also shuffled off to perform a new role on the farm and was spared the panic of an approaching wildfire that promoted Molly to evacuate. However, the danger was averted by a change in the wind direction and the film ends with the farm thriving and receiving visitors to see planet's eco-system working in microcosm, with all its `comfortable' disharmonies.
Despite opening rather disingenuously with a cry of wolf over a bushfire alert, this is a wonderful and laudably objective account of a courageous experiment that had yielded the most astonishing results. It helps enormously that John Chester is such an accomplished film-maker (the macro-and time-lapse photography are a real standout), as he and editor Amy Overbeck shape the footage into compelling sequences of crises and solutions that not only confirm that a simple way of life can often be anything but easy, but also keep the audience invested in both the human and the animal occupants.
With his big eyes looking up in trustful expectation, Todd earns his central role in the Edenic drama. But Emma is an ornery porcine scene-stealer and her friendship with Greasy is almost Beatrix Potterly charming. But, despite the rustic homeyness of Jeff Beal's score, there's no room for sentiment at Apricot Lane, as the rhythms of Nature drive the perpetual cycle of life that is being so recklessly impeded by the idiotic climate change deniers who keep hindering the implementation of vital green initiatives.
Surely no one can view this motivational, but never hectoring or doom-laden film without being touched and inspired. Unquestionably, schoolchildren across the country should be given the chance to see it, as should industrialists and policy makers. It might change enough minds to make a difference, no matter how small.
Having received an Oscar nomination with Steen Johannessen for Last Men in Aleppo (2017), Feras Fayyad should be in the running again for The Cave, a return to the frontline of the Syrian Civil War that reveals how the 400,000 people trapped inside the besieged Damascene suburb of Al-Ghouta survived incessant bombardment by the Russian jets assigned to the tyrannical regime of Bashar al-Assad. In focusing on the travails of a 29 year-old female paediatrician, this has much in common with Waad Al-Kateab and Edward Watts's For Sama. But this is more than just another study of courage under fire. It also exposes the extent to which ingrained patriarchal prejudice against women remains intact, even when they represent the last shred of hope in the midst of a war zone.
Following the opening images of explosions erupting across an already decimated landscape, we are informed that 400,000 people remain in Al-Ghouta and regularly seek treatment at the hospital known as `The Cave', which is accessed through a network of underground tunnels. In addition to her duties as a doctor, Amani Ballor also acts as the hospital administrator and is, thus, responsible for the dwindling food and medical supplies. Having finished treating a small child who has been choking after being rushed across the town during an air raid, Amani asks, `Is God really watching?', as she despairs of the senseless violence visited upon defenceless civilians who have endured months of shortages and horror.
Another girl was injured fetching water and Amani talks to her with the quiet compassion that makes her such an inspiration to the paramedics and nurses in her charge. However, when a man comes to complain that he can't get the medicine prescribed for his sick wife, he refuses to accept that Amani is the hospital manager, as such important positions shouldn't be given to women, especially during an emergency. She gets cross, as he insists that women should stay home and look after their husband's children instead of getting ideas above their station. Senior surgeon Salim Namour informs the man that Amani has been voted into office by her colleagues and reminds him that women contribute fully to the teamwork that keeps the facility going. Obviously concerned for his wife, but too much of a chauvinist to accept his own vulnerability in a situation he cannot control, the man shrugs and leaves empty handed.
Amani hears echoes of such bluster in a phone message from her father, as he wonders why she is risking her life in a faraway place when she could be home with her family. He confides that they get odd looks from their neighbours because she has landed herself in such a quandary. Salim jokes that Amani always lets people know how vital her role is and wonders if that's the reason why she has a bigger desk than he does. During a telephone interview, Amani explains that she trained to be a doctor so she could be free under a repressive and racist regime. But, while she may be cut off from the rest of the country, she is happy to be able to tend to the children who need her because that is her vocation.
Nurse Samaher manages to keep cheerful no matter what and she questions why Salim likes to listen to classical music on his phone while he is operating. He explains that the music is soothing and helps the patients forget the fact that he is having to work without anaesthetic. While Amani is terrified by the sound of the bombs and walks through the ruins with a sense of trepidation, Samaher goes with the flow and tries to cook rice under fire. Clearly, her culinary skills leave something to be desired and the staff tease her mercilessly. But they are also grateful for anything hot and nourishing and they tuck in regardless.
A small girl with a broken nose and arm arrives at the hospital and Amani tries to take her mind off the pain by chatting to her. She is called away when more seriously wounded patients arrive and assists Salim in theatre. When part of the hospital is damaged in the bombing, Amani goes on a tour of inspection and forces herself to look at the images online as 19 are killed. Cursing the Russians. she monitors the progress of the babies whose parents haven't returned and worries that their resources will be stretched to the limit if people keep billeting children on them to keep them safe.
In addition to her medical and administrative duties, Amani also instructs the workmen making running repairs to the hospital and digging further underground to create extra haven space for her patients. Aware they are labouring in difficult conditions, Amani has no reservations about giving orders and the men respond because they have no doubt who is in charge. As she watches a video of her father showing her how he is looking after her plants, Amani tuts as he complains that she has always been a stubborn girl and opines that things would have been so much easier if she had been born a boy.
After enduring several weeks in the tunnels, Amani claims that the darkness and humidity make it like living in a grave. She puts her hands over her ears as the planes roar overhead and tries not to let her feelings show as missiles explode nearby. When a young girl is rushed in for treatment, Amani confesses that she is hyper-sensitive and cries easily. The child plays with a balloon, as the medic asks about her father's death in a car bombing. Amani refuses to patronise her and implores her she to be something important when she grows up because being ordinary isn't an option. Coyly, the girl reveals she would rather be a teacher than a doctor and Amani agrees it's a tough job and often wonders herself if she has made the right choice.
Happy to be studying with her best friend, Dr Alaa, Amani is reluctant to go on her rounds, especially as a plane is circling the district. But they head out to see a small girl with cancer who needs permission from the ruling regime to be moved out for treatment by the Red Cross. Another women with four children with malnutrition turns down a job at the hospital to earn some money for food because her husband would forbid it. As they drive away, Amani is furious that men pick and choose the aspects of religion that they can exploit in order to keep women in their place.
Back at the hospital, Salim joshes Samaher about fussing over food when she needs to shut up and listen to his music. Amani says the nurse is like their mother and she gets the giggles while trying to appreciate the finer points of classical pieces that are clearly not her thing. Nobody points out the irony, therefore, that Salim admires such Russian composer as Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev, as well as Mozart.
We see children romping happily on some play apparatus and delighting in the presence of a large yellow bear in a Santa hat. But the respite is all too short and more kids are brought in for treatment, along with lots of grown-ups after the latest aerial raid. A little boy named Omar tries to be brave, while Amani leaves him to staunch the bleeding of another patient. The switch from joy to tragedy is dauntingly swift, although Fayyad provides no time frames and it's impossible to know whether the two incidents happened concurrently or have been edited together to stress how quickly things can change.
As food supplies begin to run low, Amani sees lots of malnourished children and she wishes she could be hungry to share their pain. She feels guilty, even though she knows that she has to eat in order to help them. Yet she wonders whether the medical team is doing any tangible good and is frustrated that she can't prescribe medicines for children with infections. Such is her growing sense of futility that she questions why people keep having kids in such an awful situation and a colleague is overheard hoping that God will forgive her for saying such a heartless thing.
On Amani's 30th birthday, they are busier than usual. However, she is cheered up when one little girl declares that Dr Amani can do anything. She is also given a surprise party with popcorn and salad and Salim leads the singing in broken English. He suggests they should imagine that they are eating pizza with extra cheese and Amani is deeply touched that Samaher and Alaa have laid on this spread for her. Feeling unworthy, she laments that her teeth and eyelashes are ugly and Alaa tells her to stop being so silly.
Samaher is content to be cooking, but even she has become jittery about the sound of planes overhead and tells someone chopping vegetable to stop until the raid is over because she can't hear the engines to judge their proximity to the hospital. She joins Amani in the corridor and they are relieved when the plane passes over. But the raid is intense and they are so inundated with casualties that they have to rush cases into the tunnels to keep them safe. Two adorable sisters sit on a table and look around with remarkable calmness, as Salim and Amani rush pell mell in a bid to keep up.
A woman comes looking for her adult son and howls in anguish at his having broken her heart by abandoning her and Amani is so distraught that she has to seek sanctuary in her office. Salim joins her and they sob because they can do so little to help the suffering and dying. They can't feel sorry for themselves for long, however, and Amani returns to the fray. Salim calls home to reassure his wife and kids that he's fine. But morale is low and he sits with Amani and Samaher and wishes that he could sleep instead of waiting for the next batch of casualties that will inevitably come. He accepts he has no option and he is soon plunged back into chaos.
One boy looking for his mother asks Amani to be honest and tell him if he's going to die. However, she reassures him that he only has a few scratches. But she is puzzled by his fear and it's only when Samaher notices that people are dying without injuries that they realise there has been a chemical attack. As everyone dons masks, the smell of chlorine increases and they start getting children out of their clothes, while also washing their faces and using asthma inhalers and oxygen to get them breathing.
There is panic and terror among the smaller kids, but many more sit patiently while waiting to be seen, because this has become normality for them. Amani is everywhere, supervising and treating with selfless energy and one wishes the misogynist who had doubted her ability in the earlier scene could witness her holding a life-and-death situation together. At the end of the emergency, calm descends. Tainted clothing is bundled into bags to be washed and young and old alike grab some sleep. Salim lights a cigarette and tries to compose himself in order to make sense of the madness.
Amani looks at images online with tears in her eyes. Soon afterwards, with the Syrian army approaching, they are evacuated and she feels guilty at having to leave. Salim also goes with some of their patients. She wonders whether she can ever forget what she has witnessed and whether she has the strength to remain a doctor. Moreover, she wishes she could have done more for those she couldn't save and she takes solace in a message from her father commending her courage and humanity. She ponders moving back in with her parents, but knows she can only return after Assad's brutal regime is toppled.
Closing captions inform us that the area's population fled to camps in the north, where they continue to struggle to survive. Underwater footage shows wreckage on the sea bed, as a caption reveals that the depths of the Mediterranean haunt our world, as two million refugees have tried to flee since 2014, with 20,000 having drowned while striving to reach Europe. We also learn that the siege lasted five years and that the UN considered it a War Crime Against Humanity. Amani and Salim have fled Syria. But, while Alaa remains working as a doctor, four staff members lost their lives during the making of the documentary, which stands as a fitting tribute to managing director Abdul Rahman Alrihani, ambulance driver Wassam Albas and nurses Ezzeddine Enaya and Hasan Ajaj.
This is not the first film to focus on medics battling the odds to make a difference in a Middle Eastern conflict. In 2013, the Panorama episode, `Saving Syria's Children', prompted Russia Today to accuse the BBC of having faked a chemical attack to besmirch the Kremlin's blameless reputation. But Fayyad provides further proof in this hard-hitting account, which would make for a harrowing double bill with Zaradasht Ahmed's Nowhere to Hide (2016), which profiled Nori Sharif, a male nurse in the Eastern Iraqi town of Jalawa during the five-year period in which ISIS threatened to overrun Diyala Province.
Despite switching his attention from white helmets to white coats, Fayyad remains committed to alerting the wider world to the atrocities that have become part of daily life in Syria, while also extolling the courage of those who risk everything to help their fellow citizens. What makes Amani, Alaa and Samaher's efforts all the more commendable, however, is the fact that they are strong women operating in a male-dominated environment. Dr Salim is proud to regard them as equals, but the patriarchal curse permeates scene after scene,
Given that they draw on Amani's diaries, it's slightly frustrating that Fayyad and co-writer Alisar Hasan don't date the sequences, as there is no knowing when events occur in relation to each other. The subterranean coda is also misjudged. But such quibbles can't diminish the power of the imagery or detract from the intrepidity of cameramen Muhammed Khair Al Shami, Ammar Sulaiman and Mohammad Eyad, who often responded to long-distance direction when Fayyad was unable to get to Ghouta between 2016-18.
Editors Per K. Kirkegaard and Denniz Göl also do a steady job, along with sound designer Peter Albrechtsen and composer Matthew Herbert. By all accounts, Fayyad took visual inspiration from the paintings of Jacques Louis David and Georges de la Tour. But any conscious artistry plays second fiddle to the gripping immediacy of the often graphic observational reportage and the affecting frankness and fortitude of Dr Amani.
SHOOTING THE MAFIA.
Throughout her career, documentarist Kim Longinotto has focused on strong women battling the odds. Among her most notable subjects are Vera Ngassa and Beatrice Ntuba in Sisters in Law (2005). Thuli, Mildred, Sdudla, Eureka and Jackie in Rough Aunties (2008), Sampat Pal Devi in Pink Saris (2010), the eponymous Chennai writer and activist in Salma (2013) and Brenda Myers-Powell in Dreamcatcher (2015). She now adds Letizia Battaglia to this impressive list, as she reveals in Shooting the Mafia how an unhappily married fortysomething Sicilian housewife bought a camera and became Italy's first female photojournalist.
Despite raising a family, Battaglia didn't feel like a real person until she discovered freedom of expression through a lens. As the Cosa Nostra had fingers in every pie in her home city of Palermo, she had sensational material all around her. But she was interested in the poverty endured by the families of Mafia underlings and recalls a baby in one picture having its finger gnawed off by rats while its mother slept, while another image had been removed from a gallery because a woman had recognised her mother as the prostitute who had been murdered for selling drugs.
Battaglia's assistant, Mariachiara di Trapani, is in awe of her boss's courage and her empathy with the citizens of a besieged city. Longinotto uses archive footage and clips from monochrome melodramas to illustrate Battaglia's account of her strict upbringing under a father who refused to allow her to be seen by other men. She hoped eloping at 16 with a man eight years her senior would broaden her horizons. But, he refused to let her finish her education and, while she loved her children, she found being a wife and mother limiting and suffered a breakdown that led to her spending two years in a Swiss sanatorium.
While there, she began spending time with other men and photographer and ex-lover, Santi Caleca, remembers her being a strikingly beautiful 32 year-old woman when he fell for her as a 19 year-old. They meet up again for the first time in decades and he reflects on their clandestine trysts while she was still married and the risks they took for some snatched moments together (her husband would later shoot and wound a man who had cuckolded him).
With her daughters grown up, Battaglia looked for a fresh challenge and was surprised when L'Ora took her on as a photographer, as her early pictures weren't particularly good. However, she soon developed a distinctive style and had reporters like Eduardo Rebulla devoted to her for her refusal to be pushed around by macho men on either side of the law. Despite photographing a murder victim on only her third day, Battaglia had wanted to focus on everyday existence. But the Mafia cast a pall across the entire island and she embarked upon a 19-year mission to expose their crimes and the caporegimes who pulled the strings.
She tells Santi that love is a swindle, as it never lasts. But she is glad they still feel an attraction for each other. Another shutterbug lover, Franco Zecchin (who is 18 years her junior), pays her a visit and home movies of their romance are intercut with news footage of the ongoing violence on the streets that once accounted for 1000 Palermitani being killed in a single year. Battaglia admits she received anonymous letters and death threats over the phone, while she was often spat at and had her cameras broken. But she made it through unscathed and became something of a local treasure for the honesty with which she recorded daily life.
Mariachiara listens as Battaglia reminisces about photographing Corleone boss Luciano Liggio after he was captured after 14 years in hiding and trembling so much that all but one picture was blurred. She remembers his arrogance and laments the fact that inter-clan violence spread into the community, with judges like Pietro Scaglione and Gaetano Costa becoming legitimate targets. Battaglia notes that funerals were particularly perilous, as the bosses were aware they were being photographed and she used to cough to cover the sound of a snap being taken. On one occasion, she and Franco took a street exhibition of pictures to Corleone and she remembers the tension, as the Code of Silence descended around them.
When they broke up, Battaglia quit L'Ora and went into politics. However, she doesn't have fond memories of her time as a Green Party councillor, as she felt she was paid too much for doing too little. She also regrets drifting apart from her two daughters, one of whom was a recovering addict. But she grieves most openly for Judge Giovanni Falcone, whose bold bid to root out the Mafia from Sicilian society saw hundreds jailed during the notorious Maxi Trial (1986-92). Battaglia confesses that she couldn't bring herself to attend, as Tomasso Buscetta (the so-called `Boss of Two Worlds') co-operated with the court and informed on the gangs.
Over footage of fish being slaughtered as they are landed in small boats, Battaglia reports how Salvatore Riina vowed vengeance for the Maxi sentences and Falcone was killed by a car bomb on the motorway near Capaci in 1992. Huge crowds gathered outside the cathedral to denounce the Corleone clan and Battaglia regrets that she didn't photograph Falcone's corpse. But she couldn't bring herself to do so and still finds it hard to discuss the murder on camera. We see her portrait of Rosaria Schifano, the widow of one of his bodyguards, who had appealed during his funeral for the Mafia to change their ways and get down on their knees and beg Sicilians for forgiveness.
Falcone's close ally, Judge Paolo Borsellino, was killed in a car bomb outside his mother's apartment a few weeks later. Such was the state of his remains that Battaglia kept her lens covered and confides that the pictures she didn't take are the ones that pain her the most. But she joined the protests when President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro came to Palermo for the funeral and was left in little doubt by the vast crowd of the fury of ordinary people who wanted to reclaim their homeland. Yet, when Riina was finally arrested, it was discovered that he had long been living under establishment protection in the heart of Palermo.
Looking through her files, Battaglia finds a colour image of a small boy who had been shot for witnessing the murder of his father. This was the first dead child she had ever seen and the angry red of the blood on the pavement remains startling a quarter of a century later. She derides these `Men of Honour' who commit cowardly acts, as we learn about the `pizzini' notes that Bernardo Provenzanoo used to give orders without the risk of interception. But he was caught in 2006 and Battaglia reflects on the cruel smile of a frail old man, who lived for power rather than wealth and comfort.
We meet Roberto Timperi, who, despite the 38-year age gap, is the pink-haired Battaglia's latest flame. He is a celebrated photographer in his own right and they concede that people find their brand of platonic sex hard to comprehend. But she doesn't give a fig for their opinions and declares that she feels strong in mind and body and rather enjoys being old. She also intends making the most of every last breath.
Such bullishness epitomises the 83 year-old Battaglia, who feels she has nothing to apologise for after a long and active life. Yet, she refuses to discuss key aspects of her domestic situation and is also rather coy about her political career and how it tied into the clean-up campaign of the 1980s. Consequently, Longinotto and editor Ollie Huddleston have to rely on news bulletins to fill in the gaps, in much the same way that extracts from Pietro Germi's In Nome della Legge (1949), Alberto Lattuada's Anna (1951) and Francesco Rosi's Salvatore Giuliano (1962) were utilised to illustrate Battaglia's youthful reminiscences and etch in the atmosphere on Siciliy under Mob rule.
Such evasions might be excused more readily if Longinotto hadn't allowed Battaglia so much space in which to embellish her own mythology. None of her assertions are challenged from behind the camera, even though a follow-up question might have taken us revealed more about the inevitable trauma caused by witnessing so much horror. Instead, Battaglia's more florid phrases find curious echo in such studied protestations as Riina's claim to have been a poor farmer and Leggio's contention that killers suffer more than their victims.
A more joyous inclusion are the reunions with the charismatic bohemian's old flames, who are all still clearly besotted with her. Even here, however, we learn little about the personality that is tantalisingly hinted at in the playful home movie clips. Similarly, while the selected images have a reportagistic lyricism, there aren't a lot of them. Moreover, we learn next to nothing about Battaglia's aesthetic, her impact on the readers of L'Ora or how far her reputation spread outside Sicily.
Given her centrality to so many pivotal events during a key period in the island's history, she often comes across as a peripheral witness and it might have been useful to have included examples of how her pictures were used in the newspaper, if only to bolster the theme that she was one of the few women to speak out against the status quo that all parts of the patriarchal establishment conspired to maintain. Thus, while this is fitfully informative, the over-reliance on Silvana Mangano and clichéd ditties like `O Sole Mio' and `Volare' means it lacks the focus, rigour and grit of Longinotto's best work.
Lucy Parker's Solidarity has been doing the rounds for a few weeks now and it was always the intention to post a review to coincide with its arrival in a certain city that shall remain nameless. There's a nice irony, though, in the fact that this documentary about industrial intimidation is being covered here because of what turned out to be a terminal dispute with the outlet it should have been destined for. Such is la vie, as they say.
In 1919, National Propaganda was set up by a group of industrialists and Reginald Hall, the MP for the Liverpool constituency of West Derby, who had been the head of Naval Intelligence during the Great War. Quickly renamed the Economic League, the body existed to maintain a blacklist of supposed left-wing troublemakers to keep them out of sensitive positions. Discredited following press investigations, the League was disbanded in 1993 and replaced by The Consulting Association (TCA), was based in Droitwich and continued to vet job applications within the construction industry until 2009.
Among TCA's principal officers were founding chairman Callum McAlipine of Sir Robert McAlpine Ltd and CEO Ian Kerr, who had transferred from the Economic League, while the companies who took paid advantage of its services included Balfour Beatty, Costain, Kier, Lang O'Rourke, Sir Robert McAlpine Ltd, Skanska UK and Vinci PLC. In 2009, the Information Commissioner's Office used data protection legislation to seize TCA's database and discovered it contained 3213 files.
Kerr appeared before the Scottish Affairs Committee under MP Ian Davidson in 2012 and revealed that TCA also held around 200 files on environmental activists. Dan Gillman, George Fuller and Jill Fisher read extracts from their (heavily redacted) files, while builder Dave Smith informs a meeting about the information contained in his 36-page dossier. Within the shadow of the City, Christine Edwards, Frank Morris, John Bryan and Stephen Kennedy meet with some students to discuss their experiences, with one noting that his war veteran father was blacklisted because of his own situation, while another recalls how a worker on the London Underground hanged himself because of the stress involved in remaining in work.
Fuller explains how he was blacklisted because of his involvement with a homeless initiative that earned him a commendation from Shelter and a trade union award. Fisher outlines how she was sacked for refusing to wear wet overalls and was accused of aggressive behaviour on the subsequently formed picket line. Further examples of flagrantly unjust citations are put to Kerr by MPs, but he feels unable to comment on individual cases.
A Scottish electrician appears in a lecture theatre to reveal how his blacklisting impacted upon his domestic life and one of the group compares the institutionalised class bias within the Establishment to the racism that hampered the fight for justice in the Stephen Lawrence case. A class of students build a mock trial around Dave Smith's arrest for blocking the road outside an industry awards event at the Grosvenor Hotel,
Some of the blacklistees in attendance suggest that Smith had been singled out by the police because of his role in the exposure of TCA's operating procedures. A caption states that Kerr was fined £5000 for a breach of the Data Protection Act (actually for failing to register TCA as a data controller) and confirms that blacklisted workers fought a five-year legal battle before receiving an apology from TCA's corporate members and financial compensation for their loss of earnings.
Back in the classroom, the students discuss what constitutes fair protest and they sit in on a 2017 Trade Union Victimisation Meeting in which domestic workers, cleaners and those on zero hour contracts air their grievances. It's rather shocking to hear the cinema chain Picturehouse being mentioned, but the segment stands in isolation and isn't really followed up. Instead, Parker uses Scottish Affairs Committee footage of Kerr to move on to the collusion between the Economic League and TCA and the police, including Special Branches and the Security Services.
A caption states that the Blacklist Support Group has joined forces with over 300 activists in participating in the 2015 Public Inquiry into Undercover Policing. Using the name Andrea and shown only from the neck down, a female activist testifies about her whirlwind romance and marriage to a locksmith named Carlo. While he seemed to espouse many of the same causes, he proved evasive about his family in Italy and the relationship eventually ended because he was undergoing an emotional crisis. It was only after a decade had passed that Andrea discovered that Carlo was a police officer who had merely been doing his duty in luring her into a relationship.
Another woman tells the victimisation gathering about her experience with a carpenter from Birkenhead named Mark, who seemed to be a committed supporter of the blacklisted campaign. However, he turned out to be a member of the Special Demonstration Squad. Yet all attempts to make these officers accountable through the courts are being stymied by the difficulty of coercing them into testifying because of claimed rights of anonymity.
As a consequence of the fact that Sir John Mitting's undercover policing investigation has delayed hearing evidence until 2020 (and will take three years to submit a report), a People's Inquiry was launched to broach issues of surveillance and the abuse of women in `ghost' relationships. A list of 135 bodies known to have been under surveillance appears on screen. It includes political parties and pressure groups, trades unions and a range of environmental, human and animal rights bodies. Somebody should print it up as a t-shirt.
This is where the film punches above its weight and its importance can not be overstated, even though it's not the first to tackle this contentious topic, as it follows in the wake of Tom Wood's Blacklisted (2016). It's rather dry in places and has none of the élan that made Daniel Draper's The Big Meeting so engaging. But this is an earnest attempt to address a serious grievance and the tone is probably appropriate.
It's also not entirely clear why Parker chose to examine themes from the perspective of student lawyers. Moreover, she too frequently presumes viewer familiarity with some complex and diverse issues and occasionally provides rather muddled assessment, as in the section on TCA being taken to court over its data handling procedures. She might also have enlisted the help of some historians, trade unionists and politicians to explore the wider implications of the blacklist century and perhaps done more to clarify the specific roles of groups like the Blacklist Support Group, Families Against Blacklisting and Police Spies Out of Lives. But this sends a clear warning about the ongoing threats to liberty posed by surveillance and infiltration, as well as by the pernicious collusion between the business world and our law enforcement agencies.