- David Parkinson
Parky At the Pictures (14/2/2020)
(Reviews of Mr Jones; A Paris Education; Spycies; When Lambs Become Lions; and Eminent Monsters)
From the moment that Oxford University Press published SJ Taylor's Stalin's Apologist: Walter Duranty, The New York Times's Man in Moscow (1990), it only seemed a matter of time before somebody made a film about the man who had invented fake news. The only surprise is that it has taken so long and that Polish director Agnieszka Holland and first-time screenwriter Andrea Chalupa have opted to make Walter Duranty a secondary character to an intrepid Welsh adviser-turned-journalist in Mr Jones. Granted, Gareth Jones was the first to draw the wider world's attention to the Holodomor, the state-sponsored famine that killed around 10 million Soviet citizens between 1932-33. But, in an age in which we need to understand how the media can be manipulated, it might have been more intriguing and instructional to view the atrocity from the perspective of a trusted Kremlin outsider.
As George Orwell (Joseph Mawle) types his introduction to Animal Farm, the image of a cat is superimposed over the pigeons it is watching out of a window. It's not the subtlest of images, but it serves a purpose, as the scene shifts to a smoky room in Westminster, where 27 year-old Gareth Jones (James Norton) is delivering a political briefing about the significance of the Reichstag Fire to German politics. However, the distinguished cabal gathered around former Liberal Prime Minister, David Lloyd George (Kenneth Cranham), laugh off his claims about the threat posed by Adolf Hitler and his National Socialists. Moreover, despite the best efforts of Miss Stevenson (Fenella Woolgar), Jones is unable to raise funding for a trip to Moscow to ask the new leader of the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin, how he is able to afford the Five Year Plan when the rest of the world is deeply entrenched in the Great Depression.
Undaunted, Jones applies for travel documents as a freelance journalist and uses his friend, Paul Kleb (Marcin Czarnik), at the Hotel Metropol to establish contact with the New York Times's man in Moscow, Walter Duranty (Peter Sarsgaard). Limping on a cane, he informs Jones that Kleb was killed in a robbery. But he also introduces him to his assistant, Ada Brooks (Vanessa Kirby), as well as compatriot reporter Eugene Lyons (Edward Wolstenholme), who is impressed by the fact that Jones had managed to interview Hitler. By contrast, Jones is rather dismayed by the decadence he witnesses at a party at Duranty's lodgings and is curious why no one is kicking against the Kremlin's travel restrictions or seeking to find out how Stalin is paying for his economic leap forward.
His naked host warns him against prying where he is not welcome. But, when Ada lets slip that Kleb was working on a lead in Ukraine at the time he was murdered, Jones becomes convinced that there is a story in the republic's grain output (which is known as `Stalin's gold'). So, he exploits his connection with Lloyd George to wangle a travel pass out of the People's Commissar for Foreign Affairs, Maxim Litvinov (Krzysztof Pieczynski).
He tries to persuade Ada to accompany him on the pretext of seeing the places where his mother had taught the children of a Welsh industrialist who had helped found modern-day Donetsk. But they argue over the nature of truth and the journalist's duty to remain impartial in pursuing a story that might go against their political ideals. Jones also scolds her for her naiveté in believing that Stalin is entirely benevolent while Hitler is evil and they concur that these are dangerous times in which freedoms that people have taken for granted can be snatched away from them overnight.
On the train (whose journey is punctuated by Eisensteinian montages), Jones gets chatting to his secret police minder, who knows all about his mother's time in Hughesovka and his struggles to make it in the diplomatic service since leaving Cambridge. When the NKVD agent falls asleep after a vodka-flavoured lunch, Jones slips into a cattle car and trades a piece of bread for a warm coat so he can disembark at Stalino and see Ukraine for himself without being tailed.
Having been shot at as a spy for asking about the destination of a grain consignment, Jones races through a snowy forest until he comes to a remote hamlet. Venturing into one of the cottages, he finds the occupants dead in bed from starvation, In the next settlement, some children sing him anti-Stalinist songs and he is too busy scribbling down the lyrics to be able to prevent them from stealing the last piece of sausage in his knapsack. On the road outside the village, he sees a horse sledge stacked high with corpses and a crying baby being tossed on to the pile by two peasants who have long since ceased caring about the niceties of life.
Sheltering in a barn that resembles one in a photograph taken by his mother, Jones reflects on attempting to eat raw tree bark and coming across a fox on the prowl that was as hungry as himself. A couple of young children come to collect firewood and he helps them carry the bundle back to their cottage, where their older sister is cooking meat. However, he vomits when he discovers that they have taken to eating their dead brother in order to survive.
In the nearby town, Jones sees people queuing for meagre bread rations and a woman explains that the government has been systematically murdering millions in order to reduce the burden on the land. Before he can hear more, Jones is arrested and returned to Moscow, where Litvinov informs him that he will be allowed to return to London and be given the opportunity to secure the release of six Vickers engineers on espionage charges if he tells the British authorities that the collective farms are working perfectly and that the reported famine is merely a rumour.
As he leaves the ministry, Duranty passes him on the staircase and admonishes him for putting courage before discretion. Jones asks how a Pulitzer Prize winner could have sold himself to a tyrant and gives him the last scrap of bark from his pocket as a memento of his ordeal. Duranty reminds Jones that he will have to learn to put the greater good ahead of his lofty ideals and laments that he seems to have blown the chance to make his name as a journalist.
Back in London, Jones is nauseated by the amount of food available and can barely bring himself to eat at a lunch with Orwell and his publisher. He mentions a story he wishes to tell, but can't do so without risking the lives of six innocent countrymen. Orwell urges him to do the right thing and Jones gives a public lecture about his experience. Duranty is furious and tries to force Ada into writing a denunciation of the Welsman and his accusations. But, when he reminds her that it's impossible to make an omelette without breaking a few eggs, she refuses and storms out of his office.
Jones responds similarly when Lloyd George reprimands him for misrepresenting himself as his envoy and for embarrassing the country. Refusing to retract statements that have caused Orwell to lose his blind faith in Stalin, Jones returns home. He lodges with his father and finds a sinecure on the local paper. But he is appalled when he hears that Duranty has helped persuade the new administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt to recognise the USSR and begin trade talks. When American press baron William Randolph Hearst (Matthew Marsh) comes to stay nearby, Jones breaks in to plead with him to counter Duranty's lies in his papers and the chance to trample a rival proves to great to resist.
Ada writes from Berlin, where she is witnessing Nazism exerting a grip on all levels of German society and her courage convinces Jones that he needs to get out into the world and hold it to account. A closing caption reveals, however, that he was abducted by bandits in Inner Mongolia in August 1935 and murdered the day before his 30th birthday. By contrast, Duranty passed away in Florida in 1957 at the age of 73, with his reputation intact.
Essentially, this is a well-meaning warning from history that authoritarian regimes erode liberties without the public realisng what they are losing. It also reminds us about a healthy society's crucial need for a free press dedicated to unearthing truths that power would rather conceal. All of which makes this a timely and relevant reminder about the issues pertaining to a genocide that has too often been overlooked.
Yet, despite the depth of her research and sincerity, Andrea Chalupa (whose grandfather survived the Holodomor, only to be tortured by the secret police during the Stalinist purges) struggles to generate much drama or intensity in a screenplay that seems too willing to be distracted by celebrity figures like Lloyd George and Orwell. as well as the possibility of a romantic frisson between Jones and Ada Brooks. Part of the problem likes in the shallowness of the characterisation that prevents the audience from getting a handle on Jones before he is heading east in search of noble adventure. But the lack of sufficient historical context makes it difficult for those not already familiar with the period and its complexities to gauge the significance of Stalin's economic boasts in the face of global depression and the rise of fascist dictatorships in Western Europe. There's little sense of the mixed emotions that the Bolshevik Revolution had evoked and why intellectuals like Orwell had such high hopes before dark truths began to emerge about famines and show trials.
But the focus on Jones's heroic mission to Ukraine takes the gaze away from Duranty and the service that he provided for the Kremlin in showing his capitalist readers that it was possible to do business with the Communists. Already notorious among his peers for having reported from the Great War trenches without leaving Paris, Duranty is a compellingly corrupt figure. But Chalupa is content to depict him as a hissable weirdo in a leather jockstrap, peddling perversion and propaganda. That said, she does pick up on the point that his cover on was blown solely because it suited a plutocrat like Hearst, who would himself soon be spiked by Orson Welles in Citizen Kane (1941).
Having depicted the Holocaust with such empathy and insight in Europa Europa (1991) and In Darkness (2011), Agnieszka Holland can be trusted to handle the Holodomor with equal tact. In order to contrast the relentless misery of life in Ukraine, she and cinematographer Tomasz Naumiuk drain most of the colour out of the imagery, which reinforces the contrasts evident in Gregorz Piatkowski's production design. She also restricts the use of Antoni Komasa-Lazarkiewicz's already austere score to allow the whistle of the wind, the crunch of the snow and the howl of the orphaned infant to sound more forbidding (although Jones's brief encounter with a hungry fox is played out in harrowing silence).
Despite being upstaged by the typically excellent Peter Sarsgaard, James Norton plays Jones with an air of quiet determination. But he's too thinly drawn to reinvent any notions of heroism, with his scenes with Vanessa Kirby being particularly awkward, although that's because romantic inklings have been imposed on what should have remained a meeting of minds. Kenneth Cranham and Joseph Mawle do what they can with their cameos, but they rather typify a caring, but conventional film that is never quite certain whether it's an historical thriller, a survivalist tragedy or a clarion call to complacent contemporaries. Nevertheless, it would be interesting to view the original 140-minute version to see what editor Michal Czarnecki ultimately decided was expendable.
A PARIS EDUCATION.
As a longtime teacher at the famed film school, La Fémis, Jean-Paul Civeyrac is better placed than most to study the artistic aspirations and personal growth of a group of screen-oriented students in A Paris Education. Released in France as Mes Provinciales, the titles allow Civeyrac to allude to Blaise Pascal's The Provincial Letters (1657) and Gustav Flaubert's Sentimental Education (1869), while linking his picture the literary form of the bildungsroman.
The 55 year-old may not be particularly well known in this country, but he forged a domestic reputation for cine-literate dramas with All the Fine Promises (2003), which was adapted from a novel by Jean-Luc Godard's ex-wife, Anne Wiazemsky. Subsequently, he has produced such different works as the bereavement study, Through the Forest (2005); the Goth suicide pact saga, Young Girls in Black (2010), and the inter-racial rite of passage, My Friend Victoria (2014), which was adapted from `Victoria and the Staveneys', a story in the 2003 Doris Lessing collection, The Grandmothers, that also spawned Anne Fontaine's Adore (2013).
Having been seen off on the platform by his parents (Christine Brücher and Grigori Manoukov) and given hometown girlfriend Lucie (Diane Rouxel) a translation of Wuthering Heights to remember him by, mid-2010s Lyon student Étienne Tinan (Andranic Manet) takes the train to Paris to start film school. At the start of Chapter One, `A Little Bohemian Castle', we are introduced to his new flatmate, Valentina (Jenna Thiam), a Beaux Arts student who teases him about being a little lost provincial in the big city. He soon becomes part of her social circle and listens to the earnest conversations about feminism, when he would much rather talk about cinema. When Lucie calls, he is pleased to hear from her, but also a little peeved that she scolds him for enjoying herself while she is home alone.
In his first class, the tutor (Delphine Chuillot) discusses the Second Italian Renaissance and questions whether the likes of Paolo Sorrentino and Mario Martone can hold a candle to the masters who worked across the genres in the 1950s and 60s. When she moves on to giallo and Dario Argento, William Rivière (Laurent Delbecque) complains that he has overshadowed such contemporaries as Umberto Lenzi, Aldo Lado and Sergio Martino. But Étienne is unimpressed and confides in Jean-Noël Beaumont (Gonzague Van Bervesselès) that he finds those who champion such regressive movies are the dictionary definition of mediocrity. Jean-Noël reveals that William has made a number of shorts and seems destined to become a commercial success. But he notes that his work is hated by Mathias Valence (Corentin Fila), the class maverick, who has made a couple of intense shorts that he no longer shows because he has moved on.
Wandering the streets, Étienne self-consciously apes nouvelle vague cool, as he gazes at girls on the Métro and smokes while browsing in secondhand bookshops. When Lucie visits, he shows her the spot on the Seine where Robert Bresson filmed, The Devil, Probably (1977). She frets about the fact they will drift apart and is stung by the fact that Valentina bursts into Étienne's room when they are in bed together. He tries to reassure her by playing their tune (Johann Sebastian Bach). But she complains that he has abandoned her to pursue his own ambitions and he can't think of anything to say when she gets up to dress for her train.
At the start of `The Enlightened', Mathias makes a delayed entrance to rip apart William's latest short. Tutor Paul Rossi (Nicolas Bouchaud) lets them bicker about art and entertainment for a while, as they trade insults about Mathias's faith in old-fashioned techniques and William's desire to please. But their classmates are obviously bored with their spat and Étienne worries that he's made a bad impression when he fails to pick up on Mathias's references to Carl Theodor Dreyer, Jean Vigo and John Ford. Solange (Jeanne Ruff) urges him not to let Mathias intimidate him and they tumble into bed together. After she leaves, however, he tells Valentina that he loves Lucie and didn't meant to cheat on her.
At an achingly hip party, Étienne watches Mathias hold court and listens to the other guests dissing him as a pretentious bore. Arriving home, he tries to work on his film, but Valentina wants to chat. She picks up his copy of The Provincial Letters and learns that he had studied philosophy before switching to film. He explains that Pascal had sought to expose the mental equivocation of the Jesuits and she suggests that he uses similar sophistry in claiming to be faithful to Lucie. Too nettled by having his integrity challenged, Étienne fails to realise that Valentina is flirting with him when she opines that there is nothing wrong with two-timing a partner as long as they don't find out. Shaking her head, she hopes that her successor has more luck when she moves to Berlin in the new year.
Following an appraisal from Rossi, Étienne feels backed into a corner when Mathias asks to see the rough cut of his short film. Jokingly acknowledging his crush, Jean-Noël is full of encouragement, but Mathias rips into the dialogue and the technique and Étienne is so discouraged that he erases the footage from his laptop. Valentina offers solace and they sleep together because she is about to leave and knows he is not happy with Lucie going to so many parties back in Lyon. She calls to dump him shortly after he has started a part-time job in a small hotel and not even Mathias paying a visit to his sickbed can raise Étienne's spirits.
As we move into `Daughter of Fire', Étienne is wondering whether his Parisian ordeal is worth the pain and humiliation. His parents pay a reassuring visit, while classmate Héloïse (Charlotte Van Bervesselès) is supportive over his writer's block. But he is spurned by a girl he follows from the Métro and gets off to a shaky start with new roommate Annabelle Lit (Sophie Verbeek), who sits in when Mathias and Jean-Noël call round with a disc of Marlen Khutsiev's I Am Twenty (1962). The boys are blown away by the beauty of the imagery, but Annabelle is an activist and wants her art to have a political punch. When Mathias makes the case for pure poetry, she accuses him of being detached from reality and he leaves in a huff when she says he should be caring about climate change and refugees rather than pretty pictures. Seeking to lighten the mood, Jean-Noël plays Erik Satie's `Sylvie' on the piano. But Annabelle can't be charmed and hopes that she doesn't allow the capital to corrupt her in the way it has Étienne and his friends.
He accompanies her to an action meeting and she agrees to go to a screening of Sergei Paradjanov's The Colour of Pomegranates (1969). Despite dozing off, Annabelle finds the film fascinating and notes how it used its visuals to explore political themes. This prompts Étienne to ask her to read his new synopsis and she admits that she finds his childlike faith in her unnerving. Knowing she is an admirer of Novalis, he quotes a line during a heart-to-heart in a café after a walk along the canal and she buries her head in his shoulder. Reminding her of the good she seeks to do, Étienne kisses her goodnight on the forehead, but is clearly hoping that the burgeoning friendship will lead elsewhere.
Meanwhile, Mathias goes AWOl, while Étienne lands a job with a TV production company as a script reader. He is befriended by Barbara (Valentine Catzéflis), but is too wrapped up in Annabelle to notice her interest in him. When he finally sees her kissing Mathias in the Film 8 foyer, he feels crushed. But Jean-Noël (who has just lost his father) consoles him that opposites often attract and that he shouldn't rely on the good opinion of either Mathias or Annabelle to fulfil his ambitions. However, their combustible union doesn't last long and she announces that she is leaving Paris because she is tired of man-children. Rather than listening to her lament, Étienne tries to kiss Annabelle and is berated for having an immature attitude towards relationships. Stung by the precision of her remark, he accuses her of treating him like a child and stalks off into his room.
She moves out shortly afterwards and Étienne heads home to Lyon in the hope of persuading Lucie to start dating again. However, she has landed a job at a newspaper and has found a new boyfriend and isn't interested in being a surrogate mother. When he protests his love, Lucie avers that he has always put himself and cinema above anyone else and that he needs to grow up if he is to avoid being crushed by his dreams. Heeding her warning in `The Black Sun of Melancholy', Étienne returns to Paris to resume work on his film and asks Jean-Noël to assist him. He hurts his feelings when he compliments the little people that history never remember, but Étienne has never realised that his friend has an enormous crush on him.
Following an uncomfortable supper with Rossi and his envious teenage son, Étienne goes to a party where William is celebrating finding a producer for his first feature. He bumps into Mathias, who claims to have been working on a film and they walk home together along the street on which mutually admired author Gérard de Nerval had committed suicide in 1855. As they gaze on the nocturnal lights dancing on the Seine, Mathias is filled with a sudden surge of optimism. But his mood changes quickly after he almost trips and he makes his excuses to leave.
Étienne emails a copy of his screenplay and is devastated when Mathias fails to respond. When he confides in Jean-Noël, he loses patience because Étienne always sets greater store by Mathias's opinion than his own. He resigns as production manager, even though they are about to start filming, and tells Étienne to stop perpetually casting himself as the underdog. Héloïse informs him that Jean-Noël has gone to work as a casting director on William's film and she insists that he is better off without him. Crippled with self-doubt, Étienne wants to postpone shooting. But Héloïse refuses to let him wallow in self-pity and The Cheater gets made. Moreover, he bumps into Barbara in the park and they wind up in bed together.
Shortly afterwards. Rossi breaks the news that Mathias has jumped to his death from his bedroom window. Étienne is distraught, as he has lost a friend he knew so little about. He pours out his heart to his new roommate (Arash Khodaiari), who barely speaks a word of French. As he talks, Étienne is grateful for this friendship based on listening without understanding and bitterly regrets that he had not done more to get to know Mathias and help him cope with the demons that have driven him to suicide.
Two years later, Étienne is people watching in a café when he bumps into Annabelle. She offers her condolences over Mathias, but nettles him when she reveals that he had left her his books. He explains that he had quit Film 8 after finishing his short and had gone into television after failing to secure a place at La Fémis. Without asking Annabelle about her life, Étienne continues that he is trying to find funding for a feature and she hopes that he achieves his goals, as she has always been fond of him. She remains on his mind after he gets home to Barbara and the film ends with Étienne staring out of the window across the rooftops of Paris.
Anyone who has left home to study will hear bells ringing throughout this monochrome paean to the folly of youthful idealism. Consciously strewn with self-reflexive references that will delight cineastes, the action shambles along, much like the gangling Étienne Tinan, who is forever on the move without quite knowing where he is heading. Yet, for all his faults as a middlebrow, a chauvinist and a self-absorbed petit bourgeois, Étienne remains eminently empathetic because the mistakes he keeps making are so unerringly human.
He's played with little outer emotion and a shake-inducing slowness of uptake by Andranic Manet, whose feels like a floppy-haired figure from a Renaissance portrait who has wandered into a Philippe Garrel film. Such is his lack of emotional depth that we actually get to learn little about him. But, notwithstanding the excellence of the supporting cast, he is markedly more fleshed out than the other characters, who are essentially the types that Civeyrac knows the audience would hope to find in this kind of picture. Indeed, the writer-director panders to spectator expectation throughout, although this is less a celebration or a lampoon of cinephilia than a recognition of the fact that life and film are inextricably linked, regardless of level or degree.
At times, this seems more like a middle-aged memoir than a millennial rite of passage, as Civeyrac ponders how much time we waste on best-laid plans that steer us along unanticipated tangents and deposit us into the orbit of people who are nothing more than walk-ons in our life's petty drama. Of course, it's also an outsider's postcard from Paris, although Civeyrac and cinematographer Pierre-Hubert Martin are keen to keep us away from the famous landmarks by rarely straying far from the northern Saint-Denis suburb where the Université Paris 8 is located. Yet, the mood owes more to something like Jacques Rivette's Paris nous appartient (1961) than the City of Light itself, as earnest students lounge around Brigitte Brassart interiors that can usually only be seen through a cloud of Gauloise smoke. The result will infuriate some and intoxicate others and send them off in search of the same films that have enchanted and inspired Civeyrac.
It wouldn't be half-term without a brash computer-generated cartoon elbowing its way on to the multiplex marquee. This week's offering is Spycies, a Franco-Chinese eco romp created by the debuting Zhiyi Zhang and directed by Guillaume Ivernel, who returns to features 11 years after releasing Dragon Hunters (2008). But, while it looks slick and rattles along at a pace to keep even the most attention-deficient kid connected, the narrative lurches between frantic set-pieces and expositionary pauses that may baffle those who aren't paying 110% attention.
In trouble with elephant boss Captain Kotor (Jamieson Price) for using excessive force during a motorbike chase with a criminous cheetah, feline agent Vladimir Willis (Kirk Thornton) is demoted and dispatched to an IT facility on a remote monitoring platform run by a nerdy rat named Hector (Dino Andrade). Soon bored with the pizza diet and the garrulous Hector's obsession with soap star honey bee Mia (Salli Saffioti), Vladimir champs at the bit to prove his worth. However, he's caught off guard when an interloper and two minions break in and steal a top secret radiocite fuel after an epic battle involving some metallic drones.
Fortunately, the thief left behind a hospital logbook and Kotor sends Vladimir and Horace undercover to nab the culprit and retrieve the precious container. Posing as a pair of nurses, they meet Adelaide the octopus receptionist (Lauren Alexandre-Lasseur), Malik the janitor fox (David Lodge) and his snake sidekick Jim (Debi Derryberry). as well as Doc Bear (Jamieson Price) and his white rabbit nurse, Chloe (Karen Strassman). They also learn that Mia has checked in to have her antennae reduced to suit the producer of her next movie. But everything goes haywire when news breaks that the Demon of the Cold has used a zap gun to freeze a rare white rhinoceros and the hospital staff have to work a minor miracle during a power cut to thaw him out, while his young daughter anxiously looks on.
Chloe is impressed by the way in which Vladimir had improvised with an electric eel in the operating theatre and he shows equal sang froid in dealing with Jim when he drinks some coffee from a faulty vending machine, turns into a dragon and goes haywire in the foyer. But he needs the help of Hector and Mia when he discovers that the rhino has gone missing and they find their way on to a hidden floor that contains information relating to an experiment on Mammoth Island. Vladimir is convinced that Doc Bear is the villain and the sight of his bat assistants, Kung and Fu, wheeling the rhino on a gurney seems to confirm his theory. However, as they explore their derelict surroundings, they are attacked by the Demon of the Cold and Vladimir is rescued in the nick of time after a flying sidecar fight by Hector and his sure shooting.
Certain that a clump of hair will incriminate Doc Bear, Vladimir and Hector locate an antique shop run by three sibling pigs (Barbara Goodson) to play a VHS tape that they found in the lair. Much to their surprise, they learn that Doc was running a programme to save endangered species and everything was progressing well until a freak accident two decades ago caused the deaths of the entire mammoth population. When they submit their findings to Kotor, however, he unintentionally reveals that he is the Demon of the Cold and that he is seeking revenge on Doc for making his species extinct.
Chloe takes Vladimir and Hector to a secret Eden where Doc is preserving some species and restoring others in glass spheres. He explains that he had stolen the radiocite to secure an energy source that could power his efforts to arrest the causes and consequences of climate change and he urges them to catch Kotor before he jeopardises the future of the planet. However, he bursts into the hospital and even freezes a coffee-powered Jim in his determination to punish Doc. But Mia summons her bee sisters and their sheer number overwhelm Kotor and allow Doc to introduce him to the only other living mammoth, Melissa (Debi Derryberry). With the threat removed and Hector brought back from the brink by Vladimir's declaration of friendship, all ends happily with the threat of extinction removed.
It's hard to see how this brash blend of 007 and Zootropolis could have any better intentions. Young children need to get up to speed with such crucial issues as climate change and the depletion of species and this rousing adventure should provide a suitable introduction that will prompt lots of post-screening questions and discussion. That said, notwithstanding the harmonious message proposed by screenwriters Stéphane Carraz, Michel Pagès and Zhiyi Zhang, most grown-ups are going to struggle to explain the climactic romantic clench between a moggie and a bunny.
Despite these thematic brownie points and the buoyancy of the vocal work, the execution often leaves much to be desired. Part of the problem lies with the stop-starty nature of the script, which leaves little room for the generation of suspense between chase and fight sequences that have clearly been inspired by video games. But the dizzying camera movement and Benjamin Massoubre's editing often reduce images to passing blurs, whose significance is frequently conveyed solely by Li We's boomingly propulsive score.
When Ivernel does slow things down, however, viewers get the chance to admire the respective acuity of Valerie Hadida and Audrey-Anne Bazard's character and production design. Moreover, Ivernel also draws them into the storyline, most notably during the standout sequence in which Vladimir, Hector and Mia progress tentatively from her hospital room to Doc Bear's decimated laboratory. Even in a holiday stakes with few options, this looks set to be an also ran. But, with a bit more trust in the audience's imagination, a lot less socko violence and a complete eradication of the long-outdated gender stereotyping in the depiction and deportment of the female characters, it could have been something more.
WHEN LAMBS BECOME LIONS.
Emmy winner Jon Kasbe spent three years embedded with poachers and game rangers alike to make When Lambs Become Lions, a documentary about elephant hunting in Kenya that would make a fine companion piece to Kief Davidson and Richard Ladkani's The Ivory Game (2016). Yet, while Kasbe has a conservationist agenda, he is primarily concerned with the human aspect of a sordid trade that brings poverty and misery to those on either side of the law.
In Northern Kenya. X runs a lucrative poaching business with his partner, Lukas, to whom he leaves all the killing. He claims to be fearless because he was given a sweet tongue by God and his ability to charm people and cut deals has served him well. Out in the bush, he shows Kasbe the riverside spot where rangers feed poachers to the crocodiles. Among those patrolling the area is X's cousin, Asan, who is seen lashing out at three men he captures carrying machetes. He would rather shoot a poacher than see an elephant die and his awe at finding a male alone in a scrub patch testifies to his passion for and devotion to the cause of conservation.
By contrast, X is addicted to the easy lifestyle funded by his crimes. We see him nightclubbing with Lukas and bringing home a new bicycle for his son, Abdi. He admits that poaching is cursed, as the younger generation see the rewards and get sucked into it. But he can't blame them because being able to put food on the table and afford a few luxuries is more satisfying than scraping a living herding goats or recycling tyres. While he lives it up, however, Asan has to live on excuses after his wages are delayed for two months. A visiting boss warns those complaining that they can easily be replaced and Asan has to balance the pleasure of helping an orphaned zebra with getting grief from his wife about how hard it is to raise their son on scraps.
Bored by the speeches being made by activists at a rally in the nearby town, X and Lukas head into the bush to captures the toads from which they make the poison to tip their arrows. Lukas reveals he has killed almost 60 elephants alone or in groups and makes no apology, as there is a demand for ivory and someone else would do it if he didn't. They are unlucky in their search, as the animals scent them and beat a retreat, but X informs his contact that this is merely a blip and that normal service will be resumed as soon as possible. While they plan their next excursion, Asan attends the funeral of a colleague, whose family take little solace from the fine words about their loved one doing his duty like a hero.
With another child on the way, Asan's wife questions the wisdom of sticking with a job that makes so many demands for such meagre rewards. But, as a reformed poacher, his resolve is unswerving, even though he confides in X that it's tough making ends meet. He has threatened to kill his cousin if he ever catches him in possession of any ivory, but X is sure he is bluffing because they have been close since childhood. Indeed, he drives his wife to the hospital when she goes into labour.
The patrols are having an effect, as Lukas is finding it harder to make kills to order and X has to field calls from impatient clients. They are watched carefully as they inspect a mother elephant on a remote road and X confides that he has no intention of dying young and being forgotten like his poacher father. He sounds out Asan about helping meet his expenses, as he is under tremendous pressure from his wife, and responds with alacrity when he gets a call about a large herd moving through the area after the rains come. We see Lukas preparing his arrows and firing at an isolated male on a clump of high ground. But the rangers close in and X's crew has to flee in the knowledge that they may lose the ivory, as the poison hadn't worked in time.
Mercifully, the winged elephant survives after falling in the river and, when he meets up with X the next day, Asan berates him for botching the job. Moreover, he warns him that the rangers are on high alert and will catch them if they make another attempt. But the failure also impacts on his home life, as his wife curses him for being such a poor provider and he comes close to buckling when she threatens to walk out on him after he takes a cane to his son for striking the baby.
President Uhuru Kenyatta delivers a warning to the ivory traders before setting light to $150 million's worth of tusks in a show of strength. Kasbe films the building of the pyres and follows the flames and thick plumes of black smoke into the Kenyan sky. The gesture causes consternation among X's clients and he takes as kindly to being lectured by them as he does to having a knife brandished at him by a thug in the nearby town. However, he's aware that failure undermines his reputation and he begins planning some new raids. But the rangers are on hand to detain some of his new recruits and, when Lukas ends their partnership, X joins the unit himself and begins his three-month training programme.
Closing captions reveal that Asan has since quit the force to find a more reliable form of work, while Lukas has succumbed to complications from the HIV virus that he never knew he had. It's a sad way to end an already sombre documentary, which bears a passing similarity to Daniel McCabe's This Is Congo (2017) and which takes its title from the Kenyan proverb, `An empty stomach will turn many lambs into lions.' Although several people are seen munching on Miraa leaves (which suppress the appetite while providing energy), nobody actually eats anything in the film to stress the arduous nature of the lifestyle. Similarly, Kasbe avoided showing any animals perish in order to keep the focus on the difficulty of protecting Africa's endangered species in the face of the economic privation that drives so many into a ruinous trade.
Given the access he had to key players on either side of the divide, it's hardly surprising that Kasbe opted for such a balanced approach to his emotive subject. However, he and co-editors Frederick Shanahan and Caitlyn Greene took the decision to ditch a third plot strand involving a female activist, even though they had been following her for two years and she had arranged for them to meet some influential figures on the conservation scene. Overall, the editing stealthily captures the rhythms of everyday existence, while Kasbe's camerawork is exceptional, as he locates the human and animal populations within a vast landscape that is almost impossible to police. There are moments of intimacy, however, particularly involving X and Asan's young sons. although a shot of some small birds bickering over some table scraps also serves as a telling metaphor for the film's wider theme. It would be fascinating to know what extent, if any, Flahertyesque subterfuge was employed to achieve them.
In the week that the reins of power became gripped ever more tightly by the hand of an unelected egomaniac with an opaque agenda, it seems somewhat timely that Stephen Bennett's Eminent Monsters should examine the role that another shadowy figure played in the development of fiendish interrogation techniques that seek as much to break the spirit as elicit information. Yet, while it raises a number of disconcerting issues, this intense documentary frustratingly opts for an Errol Morris-lite aesthetic that tilts it towards a sensationalism that threatens to undermine its important and hard-hitting message.
In order to understand how modern methods of torture have evolved, Bennett and narrator Clara Glynn take us back to the 1950s, when Scottish psychiatrist Dr Ewen Cameron began conducting a series of experiments on his own patients at the Allan Memorial Institute in Montréal to test their tolerance to stress. Psychiatrist and human rights specialist Dr Harvey Weinstein visits the Ravenscraig site where his father, Louis, had shared the ordeal with Val Orlikow, whose daughter, Leslie, and granddaughter Sarah Anne Johnson recall the impact of the treatments on a woman who had essentially been turned into a human guinea pig.
Born in Bridge of Allan in Stirlingshire in 1901, Cameron had become an American citizen and had been hired to assess whether Adolf Hitler's deputy, Rudolf Hess, was fit to stand trial at Nuremberg. Fiercely ambitious, he had designs on winning the Nobel Prize for his research into psychiatry. In 1951, he had attended a secret meeting in the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Montréal with leading British, American and Canadian officials to discuss various aspects of psychological warfare. In addition to the SERE technique of Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape that was taught to service personnel during the Cold War, the focus also fell on the use of mind control as a weapon. This project was known as MKUltra and Cameron's research at Ravenscraig was sponsored by the CIA and the Canadian government.
Using the Sleep Room in the stables, Cameron developed the practice of
`psychic driving' that involved patients in a drug-induced coma being subjected to the repeated sounds or messages being played non-stop on audio loops. Both Weinstein and Orlikow remember the effect the technique had on their parents. Yet Cameron wasn't actively seeking to pioneer interrogation methods. They were seized upon by the CIA as part of the psychological war they were waging against the forces of Communism at a time when many suspected that Americans who had been taken prisoner during the Korean War had been brainwashed and that John Frankenheimer's The Manchurian Candidate (1962) was closer to truth than Washington was letting on.
The techniques were codified in the Kubark manual to counterintelligence interrogation and historian Alfred McCoy reveals that they were shared with the USA's allies. Indeed, Britain employed them in Northern Ireland at the height of The Troubles, following the introduction of internment without trial in 1971. Among those arrested were Francie McQuigan, Brian Turley and Liam Shannon and they describe some of the treatment to which they were subjected at the hands of the Royal Ulster Constabulary.
McCoy has no doubt that the RUC had been trained in the methods pioneered by Cameron and neuropsychologist Professor Tim Shallice (who had exposed so-called `interrogation in depth' techniques in a 1974 television programme) affirms that methods like hooding can cause long-term trauma. As we see reconstructions of the hooded men standing at an angle to a wall and propping themselves up with their fingertips for hours on end, we receive an audiovisual bombardment designed to replicate the nightmare they endured for nine days.
Yet, when the Irish government charged the UK with torture, the European Court of Human Rights ruled in 1978 that the prisoners had merely received inhumane and humiliating treatment. As a consequence, regimes around the world were able to use these methods in the knowledge that they couldn't be prosecuted for torture. In 2011, Jim McIlmurray and Darragh Mackin launched a bid to re-open the case.
Veering back to the Orlikow case, Bennett reveals that the New York Times had broken the story of Cameron's connection to CIA torture techniques in 1977 and lawyers Jim Turner and Ben Rubinstein explain how Canadian MP David Orlikow had seen the article and sued the government for the abuse of his wife Val's human rights. However, the CIA continuously played the National Security card to stall proceedings and, when Weinstein started work on a book about his father's experiences, he came under surveillance and was involved in two motoring incidents that were clearly intended to intimidate him at the very least.
As we see artist Sarah Anne Robinson creating a dance piece showing her grandmother caught in an unending clench with Cameron, we cut away to footage of the 9/11 attacks and Rubinstein's revelation that the Scot's techniques were crucial to the way in which the United States conducted the War on Terror. Among those recalling this epoch-changing incident are psychologist Dr Steven Reisner, Mark Fallon, the Department of Defense's chief investigator into Al-Qaeda, Moazzam Begg and Mohmaedou Ould Slahi.
Begg provocatively told his story in Ashish Ghadiali's The Confession (2016) and he relives the 22 months he spent in solitary confinement at the Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp after having been held for a year at Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan. He was far from alone, however, as George W. Bush had signed off on the Torture Memos, which determined how `enhanced interrogation techniques' could be used on the terror suspects being shuttled on flights across the globe without breaching the European Court's `hooded men' judgement.
The CIA took advice from psychiatrists Bruce Jessen and Jim Mitchell (whom Fallon claims had no experience in the field), who added Arab-specific aversions to nudity and dogs to the tried-and-trusted techniques that could be traced back to Cameron. Hence, the methodologies used in Abu Ghraib to degrade the prisoners and the employment of SERE strategies like `learned helplessness', which had been honed in the 1960s by Martin Seligman giving electric shocks to dogs. Pressure was also placed on the American Psychological Association to override its ethical maxim, `Do No Harm', if it could benefit the military, and, thus, the nation at large. As a practicing psychiatrist, General Stephen Xenakis was appalled by the role that his twin professions were playing in systematic torture.
While Begg and Slahi were being held at Gitmo, the TV show 24 (2001-14) had caught the imagination of the American public. However, McCoy identifies it as torture porn that was designed to convince the audience that the ends always justified the means. Fallon was a lone voice in trying to alert his superiors to the crimes being committed at Guantánamo. But it was branded `a battle lab', where Begg was told the screams coming from the next room were being made by his wife. Slahi was singled out for harsh treatment because Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld was certain that he had recruited three of the 9/11 hijackers. Despite being held for 14 years, it was eventually revealed that his confessions had been obtained through torture and he was released.
In 2017, Jessen and Mitchell were spared trial when the CIA settled out of court without accepting liability. The following year, the European Court upheld its 1978 ruling on the Hooded Men and closing captions confirm that no one has been held to account for any of the human rights abuses cited in the film. Reisner even closes by averring that the United States is one terrorist attack away from restoring torture as a legitimate method of operation. Yet, while a map fills in with the countries who have used techniques rooted in Cameron's experiments, nobody seems able to prevent the inevitable drift towards torture being used as a symbol of national power.
More effective at drawing attention to its component parts than it is at constructing a cohesive argument, this is a fascinating, but flawed thesis that repackages known knowns as startling revelations. Bennett is keen to point the finger at Cameron, but lets his trail go cold once his methods begin to find sinister applications and he says nothing about the Scotsman's later career or the extent to which his ideas were disputed either side of his death in 1967. He also loses sight of the Weinstein and Orlikow families once the higher profile cases kick in, although he rather indulges Sarah Anne Robinson with the amount of time devoted to the artworks inspired by her grandmother's ordeal.
Despite these trails going cold, Bennett keeps pocking proceedings with dramatic reconstructions and shots of Cameron (David Gallacher) peeling off his glasses to fix the lens with a confrontational stare. Some of these directorial choices feel awkwardly self-conscious and not everyone will appreciate the image blizzards created by editor Berny McGurk to give the film a visual urgency that is reinforced by Scott Bilsborough's flashy graphics and Francis Macdonald's insistent score. This is a significant subject and Bennett is right to highlight it. But he too often presumes prior knowledge and sometimes struggles to connect his own dots as he flits back and forth between plot strands. One suspects this might have worked better as a two-part series that put Cameron and his career in a wider context before moving on to the specific cases.