Parky At the Pictures (13/11/2020)
(Reviews of African Apocalypse; Ronnie's; Fantastic Fungi: The Magic Beneath Us; and Spree)
The majority of cinemas may be closed during these enduringly dismal days. And who, in all honesty is that big a film fan that they would risk contracting a contagious disease just to see something on the big screen as part of a well-spaced crowd? There are still ways to connect with some of the films on general release during Lockdown 2, however. In addition to Curzon Home Cinema. MUBI and the BFI Player, it should also be possible to access the titles under discussion below via iTunes, Apple TV, Amazon, Sky Store, Virgin, Microsoft, Vimeo, Google Play, Rakuten, BT and Playstation.
A familiar figure in Oxford as a result of his laudable role in the Rhodes Must Fall campaign, Femi Nylander continues his bid to highlight the pernicious evils of colonialism in Rob Lemkin's African Apocalypse, a documentary survey of the Niger-Nigeria border around Lake Chad that seeks to expose the crimes of Paul Voulet, the French army captain whose 1899 expedition has been claimed by some as the source of inspiration for Joseph Conrad's chilling novella. Heart of Darkness.
A bowdlerised quote from this text opens proceedings - `The conquest of the earth is not a pretty thing when you look into it.' - as activist-poet Femi Nylander describes his amazement at discovering as a student that Conrad's monstrous ivory hunter had not entirely been a figment of his imagination. We see some of the lantern slides depicting human mutilation that had piqued Nylander's grim fascination with the story and learn of such potential models for Kurtz as a German soldier, a Belgian ivory trader and Cecil Rhodes. But it's Paul Voulet who fixes his ire rather than Georges Antoine Klein or Léon Rom and Nylander follows in his footsteps to assess the enduring legacy that his reign of terror.
Flying into Niger, Nylander notes how odd it feels to be in a place where everyone else is black, as he joins guides Amina Weira and Assan Ag Midal Boubacar in trying to trace Voulet's progress towards Lake Chad in what was designed to be both a pacification mission and a bid to extend French colonial influence into territories not yer claimed by the British. Yet, the soldiers they have hired to protect them from Boko Haram (which translates as `Western Education Forbidden') warn him that being English means he may as well be white.
Pulling off a road strewn with burnt-out vehicles, they reach Dioundiou and Nylander hears from the residents about the shell attack that Voulet unleashed on the village in February 1899 in direct contravention of his orders not to anger the locals. On 1 March, Voulet had written home that he had embarked upon a conquest and Nylander visits the ruins of the mosque that he had decimated and learns at the burial grounds that French aggression will never be forgiven.
Setting off along the National Highway that follows the route of Voulet's campaign, Nylander is dismayed that the history he is unearthing has been ignored in Europe. When the car gets a puncture, he is told by Techi Marafa about animism and the role the spirits still play in everyday life. He is fascinated by a boabab tree that survived Voulet's cull to build his road and meets Malam Abdou, the high priest of the Bori, the Hausa animists. At the top of a sacred mountain near Dogondoutchi, he learns about the chief spirit, Gournou, who appeared to Voulet on a white horse and challenged him. She made the village invisible by summoning a dust cloud and he moved on. But Matankari was not to be so lucky.
Two elders show Nylander the scene of a massacre and lament the fact white men with guns were too powerful for the spirits. Despite suffering from nightmares and some of his troops beginning to show signs of mental stress, Voulet pressed on and took detour through British territory to avoid having to traverse a desert. Parallels with Kurtz become clear, as he also broke off communications in order to follow his own initiative. In one village, Nylander hears a tape recording made in the 1970s of a 97 year-old woman's account of her kidnap and beating by Voulet's troops. He is struck by her use of the term `son of Europe', as he is one himself and, as a beneficiary of colonialism, he wonders how much guilt he should shoulder for crimes that happened over a century ago.
Uncertain whether a woman is genuine or mocking him in offering her daughter in marriage, Nylander is quizzed by Amina and Assan about why he shows so little outward emotion on hearing about unspeakable atrocities. He assures them he is feeling revulsion, but admits that he feels constrained by British reserve. Amina takes him to meet a couple of uranium miners who had worked with her father and discovers that France felt entitled to tax free uranium from Niger until 2014. Moved by their recollection of dead colleagues, Nylnder is outraged that African lives could be held so cheaply and he adds this blame to Voulet's legacy.
However. Amina is keen for the visitor to see a more positive side of life in Niger and introduces him to Omar Basheer, who is teaching a class of boys and girls about solar power. He recognises that a bright future can only exist if people are free from the past, but sees that some female students are still deeply moved by the horrors endured by their ancestors after they have a lesson about Voulet and his previously unmentioned adjutant, Lieutenant Julien Chanoine. Nylander is touched by their wisdom, but can't share their faith in the power of conscience.
Around the time that Conrad was publishing the final part of his story in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, one of Voulet's subordinates had written to Paris with an accusation that his commander was slaughtering Africans for the sake of it. An expedition was sent to investigate under Colonel Jean-François Klobb, by which time Voulet had conducted his biggest cleansing operation at Birnin Konni. Nylander meets Sultan Mahamane Salifou, whose great-grandfather was a young boy when 15,000 townspeople lost their lives during a six-day onslaught that included cannonades and the slitting of throats. Severed heads were placed on sticks and hands cut off so that Voulet could keep count of his victims.
The French were not alone in committing such offences, as the British under General Herbert Kitchener had machine-gunned 10,000 Sudanese at Omdurman in 1898, while the Germans would commit genocide against the Herero and Nama peoples of Namibia in the early 1900s. Moreover, the Belgians reduced the African population of the Congo by 10 million during the 1890s. Some of the elders recall people being burned alive and aver that the community still feels the shame and pain of being impotent in the face of a brutal enemy whose contempt for and hatred of them was manifest. The sultan wonders why this crime against humanity remains unpunished, but invites Nylander to participate in a carnival of remembrance that brings a smile to his face as he joins the locals in singing a song of defiance about bringing Niger's history to the wider world..
Extracts from Klobb's journal reveal his disgust at the carnage sanctioned by Voulet, who had convinced himself that the general had come to steal his thunder. They faced off at Dankori on 14 July and Nylander uses contemporary diagrams to position villagers in the places the opposing forces had occupied. When discussing the monument erected to the fallen Klobb, they laugh that the authorities were scandalised in a way they hadn't been over the mass murder. A passage from Conrad (read by Toby Stephens) equates with the contention that Voulet had become deranged and Nylander castigates him for the arrogance he had exhibited in proclaiming himself to be no longer a Frenchman, but the `black chief' of his own empire.
Two days later, however, the troops threatened to mutiny and Voulet was found dead in the bush with two bullet holes in his head. He was buried at Mai Jirgui and Nylander learns at his graveside that the villagers blame him for their poverty and hunger and the fact that so many of their children are forced to leave home in order to earn money to send back to their families. The realisation that Voulet's white supremacy is still impacting upon 21st-century Niger to the extent that it is considered one of the world's least developed countries fills him with a justifiable rage that makes him want to rip the Frenchman's evil heart out of his tomb.
Nylander returns to Oxford as coronavirus strikes and the statue of Edward Colston is tipped into Bristol harbour following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. He states that the injustices of the past have to be confronted in order for a better future to be secured and his message is enthusiastically received at a socially distanced Black Lives Matter rally in South Park.
Working from a compelling premise, Rob Lemkin and co-writer Femi Nylander to a fine job of shining a light into the murky recesses of history in order to give viewers a better understanding of what is at stake in the ongoing struggle to expose the enduring legacy of colonialism. The connections between Kurtz and Voulet and Colston and Rhodes is well made, with the BLM coda giving this essential documentary added relevance and power. Let's hope that the fact it has been co-produced by the BBC means that it gets to reach the audience it deserves.
Demonstrating commitment and courage in travelling across such potentially dangerous terrain, Nylander brings a viscerality to that puts him on a par with such articulate academics as David Olusoga, who has already done so much to refocus the British public's attention on how the past impinges upon the present. But, in avoiding the mistakes that Francis Ford Coppola made in filming Apocalypse Now (1979), Lemkin also deserves considerable credit for tailoring the approach employed in Enemies of the People (co-dir. Thet Sambath, 2009 ) of using those living in the shadow of an atrocity - in that case the genocide of the Cambodian killing fields - to provide first-hand testimony about history's lingering legacy.
It feels odd to be writing this review a few hundred yards from the spot where a fellow Lancastrian's boat is moored. The recognition of the responsibility that Nylander has taken upon his shoulders leaves one lost in admiration and it's to be hoped that this isn't the only film he makes to open our eyes to who we once were, are now and still can become.
To many, jazz is a foreign land whose language can often seem impenetrable. Yet the lore around the genre that dominated the first half of the 20th century is irresistible even to non-aficionados, who feel drawn to the tragi-charismatic players and the fabled venues at which they performed long into the night because the music seemingly gave them no option. Ronnie Scott's clubs on Gerrard Street and Frith Street in Soho were the closest that Britain ever came to the smoky joints on New York's 52nd Street that had transformed American music and documentarist Oliver Murray fondly chronicles their heyday in Ronnie's.
Much of the focus falls on Scott himself, who was born in Aldgate and tried various instruments as a boy before settling on the saxophone. Following a stint with Ted Heath's orchestra in the immediate postwar period, he became part of `Geraldo's Navy', the nickname given to the musicians who played on the transatlantic liners and became the first Brits to see icons like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie play live in New York. But there was no London equivalent base for jazz and he joined forces with fellow Jack Parnell band member Pete King to open Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club in the basement of 39 Gerrard Street on 30 October 1959.
Quickly becoming the place to play and be seen, the venue held the jazz fort in the face of the pop surge that followed the rise of beat groups like The Beatles. Indeed, Scott even played the tenor sax solo on the 1968 single, `Lady Madonna', while Jimi Hendrix made his last live appearance just a few hours before his death in 1970 on the stage at 48 Frith Street, which had become the new home in 1965. Union restrictions meant that Scott and King had to wait until 1962 to welcome Zoot Sims as the first American headliner, but they would host many of the legends of jazz over the next three decades and Murray includes mesmerising performances by the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Oscar Peterson, Buddy Rich, Sarah Vaughan, Nina Simone, Sonny Rollins. Miles Davis and Cleo Laine and John Dankworth. He also finds room for Van Morrison's marvellously mellow duet with trumpeter Chet Baker on `Send in the Clowns'.
For the most part, King handled the business side and lawyer Wally Houser tells the amusing story of how they came to an agreement with gangland enforcer `Italian Albert' Dines. But Scott battled depression for much of the time he doubled as a house musician and the club's wisecracking emcee. Widow Mary, daughter Rebecca and partner Françoise Venet also recall the additional agony that Scott endured late in life after his embouchure was affected by some bungled dental work. Denied the chance to perform, he seemingly made several attempts at suicide before dying of an `incautious overdose' on 23 December 1996.
As widow Sylvia King explains, her husband kept the club going through increasingly lean years until 2009, when theatre impresario Sally Greene and entrepreneur Michael Watt took over. They and managing director Simon Cooke gave the place a makeover and expanded its repertoire. But Ronnie Scott's has remained true to its founding spirit and it's to be hoped that it can roar back after the pandemic to maintain the proud tradition of British jazz.
Numbering biographer John Fordham, devotee Michael Parkinson and musical titan Quincy Jones among its off-screen contributors, this is an engaging and informative insight into a musical institution and the people who made it tick. While King gets his due, Murray rightly turns the spotlight on the unknowable Scott, whose talent and personality have left an indelible mark on a club that will forever bear his name. Abetted by editor Paul Trewartha, Murray makes solid use of the archive material and the decision to let the odd number play out in full pays handsome dividends.
The duo also pull off the largely unobtrusive shifts in aspect ratio between the boxier 4:3 of the older footage to the 16:9 used for Benjamin Thomas's evocative views of the refurbished Frith Street interior. But it's the Oxford-born Murray's appreciation of the venue's global status and the stature of the peerless artists who performed there that gives this a sense of authority. Indeed, coming off the back of The Quiet One (2019), the 35 year-old director's refined debut study of Rolling Stone Bill Wyman, it suggests that the British musicdoc has a bright new talent on its hands.
FANTASTIC FUNGI: THE MAGIC BENEATH US.
A century has passed since Percy Smith made pioneering use of time-lapse and micro-cinematography to record the wonders of the natural world. He hit his peak with the Secrets of Nature (1922-33) and the Secrets of Life (1933-45) series. Around the same time, Jean Painlevé started specialising in studies of underwater fauna, with his images of seahorses resulting in a greater understanding of these majestic creatures. Louie Schwartzberg is more obviously on a mission to raise consciousness with Fantastic Fungi: The Magic Beneath Us. But, while he doesn't necessarily make the most of his opportunities, Schwartzberg's fascinating documentary contains some of the most remarkably visuals of 2020.
Despite the spectacular compression shots of growths bulging out of the forest floor, things don't get off to a particularly promising start, as Oscar winner Brie Larson delivers a wretchedly quaint fung-eye perspective on the role that mushrooms and their kin play in the grand scheme of things. But what fungi know that we humans don't is that they have the potential to do even greater good if we just paid attention to them and the health-giving properties they possess. Mercifully, this execrable screed is sidelined for much of the rest of the film, but its anodyne anthropomorphism leaves one wondering who on earth thought it was a good idea and what prompted Mark Monroe to produce it after having previously scripted the Academy Award-winning duo of Louie Psihoyos's The Cove (2009) and Bryan Fogel's Icarus (2017).
The focus shifts instead to Paul Stamets, a self-taught mycologist whose 2009 TED talk, `Six Ways Mushrooms Can Save the World', seems to have been Schwartzberg's inspiration. His David Bellamyesque enthusiasm for his subject is hard to resist, as he yomps through woodland in search of rare strains to show the camera. He's not alone in his enthusiasm, however, as author-activist Michael Pollan, doctor Andrew Weil and food journalist Eugenia Bone can't help but gush about the gifts that fungi can bestow outside the kitchen.
Since Alexander Fleming won the Nobel Prize for the discovery of penicillin, scientists have been seeking the next big cure without realising that it is growing beneath their feet. We learn how psilocybin mushrooms not only cured Stamets of his childhood stammer, but have also been used to help laboratory rats overcome conditioned fears by opening new neurological pathways in their brains. Many have dismissed the hallucinogenic boon offered by such `stoned ape' theories, but Stamets is convinced that humankind can only benefit from fungi's consciousness-altering properties.
Schwartzberg clearly concurs and introduces us to two patients diagnosed with terminal illnesses who were able to find peace after being treated with psilocybin. Researchers show how lion's mane mushrooms have stimulated nerve regrowth and could be used in the combating diseases like Alzheimer's. Most remarkably, Stamets's own mother, Patty, fought off Stage 4 breast cancer with the help of turkey tail mushrooms. No wonder Pope Francis beamed images of fungi on the façade of St Peter's during a light show supporting the Paris Agreement on climate change. Surprisingly, even George W. Bush comes across well in warning of a global pandemic. It's just a shame that Republican predecessor Richard Nixon closed down numerous research programmes on launching the criminally misguided War on Drugs that was waged with such enthusiasm by Ronald Reagan.
In addition to his investigations, Stamets also runs Fungi Perfecti, a company that dispatches mushroom products worldwide. His commitment to establishing a kind of human mycelium, in which ideas can be disseminated is highly appealing and it's all too easy to be swept along by the film's boundless optimism. Yet something nags away at the back of the mind to urge caution, especially when the same excitement is shown for the mushroom-inspired destruction of termites as for the salvation of bees.
With films like Wings of Life (2011) and Unseen World (2013) already to his credit, along with the TV series, Moving Art (2014-19), Schwartzberg has little left to prove as a cinematographer or director. On the technical side alone, this remarkable expedition can only enhance his reputation. But sceptics may well question the scientific rigour of some of the claims made, especially as editors Kevin Klauber and Annie Wilkes seem to have been under instruction to dazzle the audience at all times so that it's difficult to concentrate on what's being said. Adam Peters's score has been similarly designed to inspire awe (rather than inspore ire).
Such gambits would be acceptable in the case of an IMAX presentation, in which the experience is often considered as important as the message. But serious assertions deserve more than a son et lumière approach and, so, while this thought-provoking and sometimes joyous treatise enthrals as much as it entertains, it's strictly an introduction on the Fungi 101 level. Perhaps Schwartzberg might have been better advised to take his time and explore his compelling topic in more depth across a TV series.
For weeks now, Eugene Kotlyarenko's Spree has been on the `to do' list. Granted the London, Korean and Czech film festivals have taken up time that would ordinarily be devoted to the weekly releases. But the prospect of reviewing a film that induced such knee-jerk dismay has prompted its repeated slippage to the back of the queue.
Just to be clear, the grandstanding depiction of the schlocky violence has nothing to do with the aversion. It takes a good deal more than some splurging corn syrup to offend these seen-worse sensibilities. No, the antipathy lies elsewhere. Part of the resistance is undoubtedly down to the fact that this slam-bam romp has been made for trash culture geeks and social media obsessives under the age of 25. Yet, not fitting into any of these categories doesn't quite explain the intense antagonism that arises when attempting to formulate a reasoned critical response to what is actually a timely and slickly made satire on celebrity, attention spans and the growing disconnects spawned by the communication revolution.
Twentysomething Kurt Kunkle (Joe Keery) is a driver in the Californian backwater of Azusa for a rideshare app named Spree. Puzzled as to why his live streams fail to command the numbers of influencers like Bobby (Josh Ovalle) - whom he used to babysit - Kurt decides to fit his car with cameras and use poisoned bottles of gratis water to murder his passengers live online. He hopes `The Lesson' will make him a star. But not even offing a white supremacist impresses BobbyBaseCamp, who clams the kills are fakes and urges his followers to ignore Kurt's pathetic bid for fame.
He is growing frustrated when the obnoxious Miles Vandermille (Kyle Mooney) finds himself double booked with Jessie Adams (Sasheer Zamata), an upcoming stand-up whom Kurt regards as click bait. Jessie is so offended by Miles's creepy attempts to chat her up, however, that she bales out and her fellow passenger pays the ultimate price for thwarting Kurt's plans. Three more customers - London Sachs (Mischa Barton), Richard Venti (Frankie Grande) and Kendra Sheraton (Lala Kent) - perish in a joy ride through a junkyard. But the carnage may as well be happening in a viral vacuum, as no one is watching the feed.
Outraged by his inability to gather a following, Kurt pleads with Bobby to let him piggyback on his stream and murders him when he refuses. Assuming the slaying has been staged, Bobby's regulars troll Kurt, who begins to despair of ever making a name for himself. He collects his DJ father Kris (David Arquette), who promises to introduce him to the club's headline act, uNo (Sunny Kim). She agrees to tag Kurt on a photo on her site, but he winds up driving her to a taco truck, where he gets stopped by the police after she takes a sip of water in the backseat. Waking in a panic, uNo guns down one of the cops and Kurt crashes his vehicle in making his escape.
Unaware that he is now being branded `The Rideshare Killer', he goes to Jessie's gig and is humiliated when she mocks him during her routine. Stealing a GoGo cab, Kurt picks up Jessie from the club, only for her to attempt to throttle him with her charger cable. He manages to overpower her and is delighted to see that his newly devoted followers are urging him to kill her. Arriving home, he is confronted by a sloshed Kris, who has discovered his ex-wife's body after Kurt had killed her at the start of his spree. His father proves to be his last victim, however, as Jessie crashes the car through the side of the house and pins him against a wall.
Knowingly, Kotlyarenko and co-scribe Gene McHugh close with Kurt achieving posthumous infamy in the darker recesses of the web. But any social commentary implied by this twist will be lost on those either benumbed or pumped by what they have just witnessed. There's no denying the commitment of Joe Keery, who throws himself into the role of saddest sack cinema has witnessed in a long while. Nor can cinematographer Jeff Leeds Cohn, production designer Carlos Laszlo, editor Benjamin Moss Smith or composer James Ferraro be faulted for their dexterous contributions.
It's just that they get lost amidst the crassness of the wider enterprise, as does Kotlyarenko's astute marshalling of the full panoply of gadget-centric tropes. Social media may well meet a desperate need for visibility and acceptance that has arisen as mainstream society consigns increasingly large numbers to the margins. But they deserve a better clarion call than this demented demonisation, which riffs on Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976) and The King of Comedy (1983) in striving to make Kurt Kunkle a latterday Travis Bickle or Rupert Pupkin.
In seeking so inexpertly to play the DeMillean game of glorying in the very sins it's condemning, Kotlyarenko fails by a wide margin. Give credit him for going out on such a thematic and stylistic limb. It would be fascinating to see how it stacks up alongside his previous features, SkyDiver (2010), Os & Is (2011), Feast of Burden (2012), A Wonderful Cloud (2015) and Wobble Palace (2018). But, even in these days of worldwide webs, it's pretty unlikely audiences in the UK will ever get the chance to see them.