- David Parkinson
Parky At the Pictures (26/2/2021)
(Reviews of Slalom; Simple Passion; Blush; White Colour Black; Zappa; and IWOW: I Walk on Water)
Seemingly, we are to remain in Lockdown 3 for a few more weeks. This means that cinemas across the UK will stay still closed and all releases will be online until those drafting roadmaps decide otherwise. In addition to the offerings on Curzon Home Cinema. MUBI, Netflix 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. Good luck, and stay safe!
In many ways, Charlène Favier's debut feature, Slalom, tells the same story as Michael Ritchie's Downhill Racer (1969), in which coach Gene Hackman goads Robert Redford into fulfilling his Winter Olympic potential. However, the fact that Favier had to wait five years to get backing for her story because it centres on the abusive relationship between a 15 year-old girl and her male mentor exposes the reluctance of the cinematic and sporting worlds to tackle the kind of issues since raised by the #MeToo movement. The case of French figure skating champion Sarah Abitol broke in the wake of the film's release and it makes a harrowing fictional companion to Athlete A, Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk's documentary about the breaches of trust involving members of the US gymnastics squad.
Just as mother Catherine (Muriel Combeau) lands a job in Marseille, 15 year-old Lyz Lopez (Noée Abita) is selected for a programme that combines ski training with school work. She quickly pals up with Justine (Maïra Schmitt), who teases her about one of the boys on the scheme, Max (Axel Auriant). But, while Lyz gets on well enough with teacher Lilou (Marie Denarnaud), she finds it hard to please coach Fred (Jérémie Renier), who picks on her in group sessions and curtly orders her to lose weight after ordering her to strip to her underwear in his office.
Justine reassures Lyz that Fred uses the tactic of knocking people down in order to test their character and he is more encouraging after she wins a trial race. Indeed, he is kind to her when she gets her period during a swimming session and reassures her that they can tailor her training around her body cycles. As Catherine has met a new man, Lyz has to spend Christmas with Justine and they smoke a joint in the snow while discussing boys. Moreover, Fred gives her a pair of top quality skis and informs her that she has to start winning on a regular basis because he's got her a sponsor. Lilou is delighted for her and Lyz feels in a good place.
She wins the French championships and Fred carries her across his shoulders to the podium. On the way home, he lets her drive the van on an ice circuit and she squeals with excitement. But she is silenced when he kisses her and forces her to touch him. He apologises, as he wipes her hands, but Lyz is stunned by what has happened. Over dinner, she feels nauseated, but knows Fred is key to achieving her ambitions. So, when her grades slump and Fred and Lilou offer to let her board with them, she readily agrees, even though she suspects that Fred remains obsessed with her.
When Justine tries to kiss her in the changing room, Lyz snaps back that Fred shows an interest in her because she has talent. But she argues with Lilou over her homework and feels uncomfortable when she sees her snuggling with Fred on the sofa. Thus, when he makes a move on her during a weighs session, a confused and isolated Lyz puts up no resistance when he has sex with her. In the locker room, she panics at the sight of blood, but composes herself and puts on a show of nonchalance as they walk home, even asking Fred for a cigarette.
She goes to the chemist for a morning after pill and is pleased when Lilou leaves home because she is sick of Fred's workaholism. However, he rebuffs her advances and reminds her that they have to keep their affair to themselves. Lyz gets defensive when Lilou asks if she is okay with being alone with Fred and insists that everything is above board. But his determination for her to succeed where he failed (after leg injuries put paid to his career) frightens Lyz and she realises she is being watched by a wolf when she sinks to her knees in distress during a run in the woods.
Lyz gets a brief moment of respite when the club chauffeur (Dominque Thomas) plays her some classical music during a ride home. But Fred keeps up the unrelenting pressure and Lyz is relieved when Catherine pays a surprise visit. She sobs, as they huddle on the bed. but remains silent as her mother apologises for not realising how seriously she took her skiing and how proud she is that she has reached for her goal. For once, she is on hand as Lyz takes the slalom event that confirms her European championship title and hugs her daughter, as Fred protects her from the TV cameras. Justine also wraps Lyz in an embrace, as they exchange meaningful looks. When Fred catches up and promises that they will keep on winning together, Lyz turns him down and strides away on her own, as the snow starts to full.
One of the many strengths of this deeply unsettling film is the utter predictability of its storyline. From the moment Lyz joins Fred's programme, it's obvious that he is going to allow his obsession with her success to turn sexual and that she will have to pay the psychological price for his inability to control predatory instincts that he knows are wrong. By presenting events from Lyz's perspective, Favier is able to convey the shattering impact of the emotional violence wrought by the forced complicity on a teenage girl who has been left to her own devices by a mother who has opted to follow her own star while her daughter pursues her dream.
As France doesn't currently have an age of consent and only criminalises sexual acts with those under the age of 15, Fred doesn't actually break the law. However, he breaches the trust between a coach and his athlete and Favier and co-writer Marie Talon give him few excuses for behaviour that he keeps hidden from his girlfriend, despite the fact that Lyz's fellow skiers seem to know all about his grooming tactics. In this regard, Lyz doesn't help herself by standing aloof from Justine and Max, who clumsily tries to kiss her after she gets home late from the street party in the nearby town when she had tried to lose herself in the crowd, the music and the booze. But Lyz has a crush on Fred that he exploits as a way of preventing her from talking and of controlling the way she acts around him in front of others.
By allowing Jérémie Renier to avoid playing Fred as a monster, Favier makes his abuse all the more invidiously appalling. In living vicariously through Lyz's triumphs, he gets to show her the sense of adult pride that standoffish mother Catherine singularly fails to provide. Moreover, he enables her to enjoy and express herself on the slopes in a way that Lilou (whom Lyz sees as a rival for Fred's affections) never can in the classroom. Playing five years younger than her actual age, Noée Abita expertly conveys Lyz's slaloming emotions, as she tests the effect she has on other people, while also being hobbled by her own insecurities as both an athlete and an adolescent.
It seems odd that the principal didn't step in after Fred and Lyz are left to cohabit unchaperoned, but this is one of the few missteps in an assured piece of storytelling that sometimes feels like a modern fairytale, in which the heroine falls under the sway of a malign enchanter. This spellbinding aura is reinforced by Yann Maritaud's masterly contrasts between the day- and night-time light on the snowy Alpine peaks. The bracing bluish hues are tellingly set against the stifling reds used for some of the interior sequences, although Favier intensifies the oppressive nature of Fred and Lyz's unhealthy relationship by shooting it in tight close-ups that suggest how trapped the teenager is by both her sporting ambition and the sexual curiosity that makes it so much easier for Fred to manipulate her.
Favier captures this intensity and ambiguity with an unmelodramatic finesse that contrasts with the exhilarating bravura of the downhill scenes, which keep the camera hurtlingly close to Lyz, as she exhibits the talent that could take her all the way to the Olympics. As the film ends, however, we are left uncertain whether she will quit while on top or seek to reach new heights without Fred or even with him on her own terms.
Although she has been directing since 1998, Danielle Arbid only has four features to her credit. Since debuting with In the Battlefields (2004), the Lebanon-born director has followed A Lost Man (2007) with the TV-movie Hotel Beirut (2011) and Parisienne (2015). She seems set to reach her widest international audience, however, with Simple Passion, an adaptation of Annie Ernaux's celebrated 1992 autofiction novel that boldly depicts a one-sided romance through the female gaze.
Single mom Hélène Auguste (Laetitia Dosch) lives in Paris with her tweenage son, Paul (Lou-Teymour Thion). However, she has been distracted from him and her research into 17th-century playwright Aphra Behn by Aleksandr Svitsin (Sergei Polunin), a security officer at the Russian embassy that she met at a party. As she tells her psychiatrist (Slimane Dazi), she has spent the last few months learning how to wait patiently for snatched afternoons with her married lover and has become so enraptured that she can barely remember what life was like without him.
After watching Alain Resnais's Hiroshima mon amour (1959) with best friend, Anita (Caroline Ducey), she complains that too many films present passion from the male perspective. She also dismisses Anita's suggestion that she's in love with love itself and goes on a dating website because she's wasting her time with Aleksandr, who only calls when it suits him. As they wait for a taxi, Hélène recalls the comments that he aunt used to draw from gossiping neighbours who disapproved of her amours, but she thinks it's about time that women were allowed to enjoy sex and take their pleasures where they find them without being judged.
In truth, Hélène's at Aleksandr's beck and call and the alacrity with which she drops everything whenever he calls is shown in a montage of her deciding what to wear, fiddling with her hair and touching up her make-up. We also see the tryst in close-up detail, as Hélène surrenders to Aleksandr's domineering desires and puts up with the fact that he disappears before they get a chance to have a chat. Yet she basks so long in the afterglow that she loses sense of time and is still in her dressing-gown when Paul gets home from school. He catches her gazing at a picture of her beau on Google and she fends off his peevish questions. But she can't get Aleksandr out of her mind and she keeps daydreaming about him and even buys an erotic novel to amuse herself between visits.
Aleksandr has a long drive through a tunnel to reach Hélène's home in the suburbs. Yet, while he shows longing and urgency in their first clenches, he can't leave quickly enough and almost looks embarrassed when she gives him a new shirt as he leaves. However, he seems touched by the note confessing to her obsession and tucks it into his jacket pocket. She shops in the supermarket with a faraway look of contentment before returning home to prepare dinner while learning Russian from a disc. He creeps into every aspect of her life and she is happy to let him.
During his next visit, Hélène tells Aleksandr about the rumours that Behn was a spy and asks whether he has an alias. He is amused by her romantic vision of him being a secret agent and explains the meaning of some of his many tattoos. For once, he also opens up about himself and tells her about his father encouraging him to hunt wild birds and his mother's insistence that he was always strong. She admits to being willing to put up with the subterfuge and being subservient in the relationship, as long as she can see him. But he informs her that he's not sure when they can next meet, as he has to return to Russia with his wife.
Struggling to cope with his absence, Hélène persuades Paul to go on a mini-break to Florence. He reluctantly agrees and they go sightseeing, although she gets tearful alone in a church and is comforted by a stranger, while Helen Merrill and Stan Getz's version of Jacques Brel's `If You Go Away' plays on the soundtrack. She also gazes longingly at the buttocks of Michelangelo's David and leaves a prayer on a folded piece of paper in one of the churches that she will see her lover again.
Back in Paris, she keeps checking her phone until Aleksandr eventually calls. As they drive back to her house, she films him talking about a trip to Lake Baikal and can't stop herself from smiling when he reaches over to fondle her. After sex, however, he criticises her for wearing a short skirt and she pushes him away when he orders her not to be slutty. She pines when he stays away and throws herself into their next encounter as if nothing had been said.
Seeking small details about his everyday life Hélène discovers that he lives on Tverskaya in Moscow and only has coffee for breakfast. Yet, having taken so much trouble over choosing a new dress, she is disappointed that he barely notices in their haste to undress. Succumbing to her passion, she whispers that she loves him. But he is cross that she has locked the front door and she is left wondering if this is how it will all end.
When they meet for dinner, Anita lectures Hélène about allowing Aleksandr to take over her life and reminds her of the sacrifices feminists have made to free women from their dependence upon men. But she can only think of the next time they're together and almost backs over Paul after dropping him at football practice. Feeling guilty, she puts the chain on the door to stop Aleksandr coming in and backs away when he tries to reach out to her. She can't resist him, however, and he rushes towards her to confess that he is incapable of staying away from her.
Despite his protestations, she doesn't hear from him for a while. Desperate for Aleksandr to call, Hélène phone the embassy and he arranges to meet her at a hotel in Paris. But he fails to turn up and, when she calls his office, she is dismayed to learn that he has returned to Russia. On the street, she becomes disorientated and can't remember where she has parked her car and turns down a less than selfless offer from an older motorist (Vincent Courcelle-Labrousse) to help her find it.
Fed up with being neglected, Paul calls his father (Grégoire Colin), who comes to collect him and give Hélène a stern reminder of her responsibilities as a mother. She curses his smugness, but realises that she has allowed things to get out of control when she keeps thinking she sees Aleksandr on the street. During a session with her therapist, she even admits to having flown to Moscow for the day simply to breathe the same air as the man who has captivated her. Mooching around Tverskaya in the snow, she seems content, although she asks the doctor for some sleeping pills and a sick note, as she is struggling to cope.
Eventually, however, she gets back into a sort of routine. She even watches Paul play football. But, when Aleksandr calls out of the blue, Hélène packs him off to stay with a friend. They sense that this will be the last time and there is an urgency in their embrace that gives way to an intimate post-coital stillness. She offers to drive him back to his hotel, as he has been drinking, and asks if this is goodbye. He calls her `my love' before kissing her and hurrying inside and Hélène follows him through the window before he vanishes from sight, as `Only You' by The Flying Pickets plays pointedly on the soundtrack.
Gilbert Bécauad's `C'est merveilleux l'amour', Suicide's `Cheree', Linda Vogel's version of Bob Dylan's `I Want You' and Leonard Cohen's `The Stranger Song' are used with equal acuity during the picture, as Arbid seeks to show how Hélène dreamily comes to associate sentimental ditties with the moments stored up in her memory. The dialogue is also sprinkled with insouciant questions, as she strives to discover anything she can about the man who has hijacked her life, while Pascale Granal's camera is forever picking up details about Aleksandr's body, gestures and expressions. Yet, as Hélène is painfully aware, they remain strangers, albeit ones with genuine feelings and desires, because he has so successfully compartmentalised her in a way she cannot contemplate.
As she was in Léonor Serraille's Jeune femme (2017), Laetitia Dosch is almost recklessly courageous in laying bare her character's mind, body and soul. Often seen in close-up, she acts with her eyes, as they convey her passion for Aleksandr and reflect the torrent of emotions that overtake her when he is in her bed or in her thoughts. By contrast, Ukrainian ballet star Sergei Polunin is markedly less expressive, as he manifests the Russian aversion to weakness and his own determination not to let this affair derail either his marriage or his career. This comes across in the sequences in which he seeks to pin Hélène down on the bed or up against a wall, so that she can't wrap her arms around him. He even seems to use kisses as a way to stop her speaking, so that she can't express any of the emotions he has determined must be kept at bay (possibly for their mutual benefit).
Comparisons have been made with the relationship dynamic between Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey, but Arbid is a much subtler and wittier writer than E.L. James. However, she isn't (yet) as good a film-maker as Catherine Breillat, with the result that the dark humour doesn't have a cutting edge, while the sex scenes lack spontaneity and lust. They are tastefully filmed and committedly performed, but they still feel choreographed, while the camera placement often feels self-conscious. Nevertheless, Arbid successfully reclaims eroticism from the male gaze, while also showing how differently the genders react to the debilitating/exhilarating power of passion.
As an actress, Debra Eisenstadt will always be remembered for her debut performance as the student questioning professor William H. Macy's assessment of her work in David Mamet's Oleanna (1994). However, she has since established a reputation as a writer-director with Daydream Believer (2001), The Limbo Room (2006) and Before the Sun Explodes (2016) and she reaches UK audiences for the first time with Blush, a disconcerting downwardly spiralling study of bourgeois suburban housewifery that was originally known as Imaginary Order.
Every morning, Cathy (Wendi McLendon-Covey) goes through the same bathroom routine before sending husband Matthew (Steve Little) off to work and dropping teenage daughter Tara (Kate Alberts) at school. Having given up her pre-marriage career, she fills the day powerwalking in the hills (picking up litter en route) and chairing an `Angel' committee that runs special events at Abraham Lincoln High. When recently widowed sister Gail (Catherine Curtin) goes away, Cathy volunteers to mind her ginger tom, Floyd. While tidying the house, however, she quickly becomes obsessed with Gail's new neighbour, Gemma Jean (Christine Woods), who lounges in the front garden when not arguing with husband Paul (Graham Sibley) over their teenage son, Xander (Max Burkholder).
Much to her surprise, Cathy starts to bond with Gemma Jean after a phantom pregnancy incident and takes a couple of the painkillers she offers at the cat scratches her hand. Unfortunately, Gemma Jean crashes her car while fleeing from a party thrown by her lesbian friend, Len (Anna Lamadrid), and Cathy winds up smooching Paul after he helps her put up posters for the missing cat. Typically, Xander sees them together and, on returning the dead cat, demands a bribe for keeping silent. However, Cathy tells Paul and he thumps Xander for taking liberties before asking her to keep an eye on him while he and Gemma Jean go to couples rehab.
While they are away, Cathy trims Xander's hair and buys him a new shirt. She also takes him on a hike and has to push him away when he tries to kiss her. Meanwhile, Tara comes home having had her first period on grandma's white sofa and she needles Cathy when asking why she doesn't visit her own mother, who lives nearby. Gail also blows up when she returns from her retreat to find Floyd buried in the garden and all her late husband's possessions neatly packed into boxes so she can start getting on with her life.
Having discovered Gemma Jean was forced to give away the daughter she had at 15, Cathy learns that Xander has made a move on Tara and they ban him from the house. She also suspects that Matthew is having an affair during his extended lunchtimes. But he bluffs it out during a blazing row while searching for Tara when she bunks off school and Cathy has to endure a humiliating nocturnal meeting in her car when Xander promises to leave Tara alone if Cathy takes his virginity. She rejects his proposal, but has an even more awkward encounter with his mother when she reveals that she knows Cathy and Paul slept together and suggests that she allows Xander and Tara to keep seeing each other if she is to remain discreet.
In a bid to get closer to Tara, Cathy suggest a day playing hooky. But they get no further than dropping a note through her estranged mother's door and this comes back to bite her when she brings Gail a grey kitten. She rejects it because she's still in mourning and tearfully hugs her sister for being so difficult. On arriving home, Cathy finds Xander, Gemma Jean and Paul in the front room because Matthew has decided to kill the romance with kindness and Cathy is too relieved that the visitors kept her confidences to protest. Tara going gooey over the kitten also helps relieve the tension.
She meets Xander on a country road to plead with him to end things with Tara. He insists his crush on Cathy is over and that he's into her daughter, but he agrees to break up with Tara after a prank to scare Cathy on a winding bend goes wrong and she gets knocked over by a carful of students going the other way. Tara takes being dumped badly and scoffs at her mother's idea that she should spend her youth discovering herself rather than hankering after boys.
But Cathy finally catches a break, when she discovers that Matthew has been going to a gym to boost his confidence and the woman named in his phone is his trainer. Moreover, when he finds a cigarette packet in Cathy's dressing-gown pocket, they share it as reformed smokers between kisses in bed. A short time later, mother and father look on proudly, as Tara stars in a dance routine at the school talent show.
Despite the best efforts of Wendi McLendon-Covey, this mid-life crisis comedy never really coalesces. Eisenstadt piles the problems on Cathy with a disregard for credibility that makes her issues with Gemma Jean and her family feel more contrived with each fresh development. It's evident from the outset that Cathy is a prim suburban mom who has shelved her professional ambitions to become a homemaker. Therefore, it seems unlikely that she would start popping a stranger's pills or make out with her husband. Moreover, while the Mrs Robinson nature of Cathy's relationship with the neglected Xander is just about feasible, it becomes increasingly strained after he realises he can use Tara against her.
As her travails escalate, McLendon-Covey comes to rely on a quizzical expression that pays diminishing dividends as she is left exposed by a script that is frustratingly short on comic quips. She gets decent support from Christine Woods and youngsters Kate Alberts and Max Burkholder, but the menfolk are drips and the overall sketchiness of the characterisation means that the principal purpose of the secondaries is to press the buttons that set off the next convolution, as Cathy searches desperately for her lost sense of self. Indeed, more attention seems to have been paid to Adele Caine's production design, which serves to use the three houses to provide shorthand clues into Cathy, Gemma Jean and Gail.
Frank Tymezuk's photography is perfectly functional, as is Eisenstadt nd Clark Harris's editing. But this always feels like an extended sitcom, with the subplot involving Cathy being supplanted as head of the Angel committee feeling tacked on when it might have given rise to some amusement, as she strives to save face in front of her snooty neighbours. Ultimately, McLendon-Covey's rite of passage is too relentlessly random to keep viewers onside and they would be well advised to seek out her infinitely superior work as Beverly in The Goldbergs (2013-).
WHITE COLOUR BLACK.
Having graduated from the London Film Academy, Joseph A. Adesunloye directed the shorts Shadowed (2007), Labalaba, He'll Return (2012), Tangle (2013) and Beyond Plain Sight (2014) before making his feature bow with White Colour Black (2016). Almost five years have elapsed since this landmark for British-Nigerian and LGBTQ+ cinema debuted at the London Film Festival, since when Adesunloye has released another short, 46 (2017), and a sophomore feature, Faces (2018), which is available to view on Amazon Prime. There doesn't appear to be a specific reason why this evocative saga has been retrieved in the dwindling days of lockdown, but it's puzzling why no one has backed it before.
Thirtysomething photographer Leke (Dudley O'Shaughnessy) is about to have an exhibition in Shanghai and gallery owner Mae (Lynne Anne Rodgers) predicts great things for him. However, Leke is going through a rough patch and keeps ignoring messages from Senegal about his ailing father. He goes clubbing with roommate Tunji (Guetan Calvin Elito) and has a foursome with blondes Sandra (Jamey May) and Charlotte (Ayvianna Snow). Following a press reception at the gallery, he also sleeps with his model, Anja (Lily Dodsworth-Evans). But his conscience is pricked when Monsieur Dabo (Wale Ojo) to inform him that his father has died and that it's his duty to return for the funeral.
Met in Dakar by Assamane the cabby (Alassane Sy), Leke realises how little he knows of the country's culture, let alone its many languges. He is also taken aback by the flirtatious behaviour of Badewa (Yrsa Daley-Ward), who provides him with an energetic sexual distraction while he looks through the photographs his father had left behind in his studio. Leke donates these to the museum in Dakar, while having flashbacks to the childhood moments he spent with his father. Badewa wishes her sister, Esther (also Yrsa Daley-Ward), had accompanied her, as she regrets the fact they are drifting apart.
Assamane drives him to the village along the coast where his father had lived. Here, he meets Monsieur Dabo, Esther and her brother, Ousmane (Damola Adelaja), who carried Leke's suitcase down to the beach. He mooches around the house and is curious why some of the doors are locked. Moreover, he is puzzled when the women in the marketplace refuse to sell him food. Indeed, when he tries to pay for some eggs, he has them smashed in his hand by the stallholder (Kenzo Ndione).
When he raises this with Dabo, he claims it's because he dishonoured his father by not coming to his sickbed. He tells Leke that his father was a remarkable man and urges him to take up his invitation to dine that evening. Having helped the siblings with the preparations, Leke can't keep his eyes off Esther over the communal platter. They frolic together in the sea and walk along the sand and Esther and Ousmane are amused when Leke helps them bring water from the stream because he spills so much from his bucket on the way home.
Leke has found some plans that his father had left for a well and, inspired by Dabo's story of how his father had walked each morning to fetch water for his own father, he builds a wooden structure in the backyard. However, it's destroyed overnight and he has no idea why the villagers are being so hostile towards him. He notices that Ousmane is friendly with Babuka (Joseph A. Adesunloye), who carries a crucifix with him and they hold hands when Leke poses them for a photograph.
Ousmane puts Leke in touch with some builders from the next village and they start to erect the stone surround for the well. The elders agree to do the passing ceremony again to honour Leke's father and the chanting women place their hands around Leke's face to produce a sun ray effect. He looks up into the lens and we get a close-up of his bright eyes. Shortly afterwards, he goes walking across the parched scrubland in traditional costume with the wind billowing the fabric of his headdress.
He shows Dabo the well and the locals are so pleased with it that the stallholders bring supplies to the beach house in gratitude. When the time comes for him to leave, Leke gives Ousmane his camera and Esther the key to the house. As he passes the school, he hears the children singing a song that had been in his head for years and he realises it had always been linking him to his roots.
Dabo reassures him that his father had never stopped loving in (in spite of their quarrel) and he is proud that he fulfilled the prophecy that he would do something incredible for the village. Before he leaves, Leke visits his father's grave on the headland. He tosses some loose stones into the sea and lies on the mound, as an image of his young self walking hand-in-hand with his father fades into a closing white out.
There's nothing particularly original about Leke's spiritual journey to the land of his father. Indeed, the rediscovery of one's heritage has become a key theme in recent African and diasporic cinema. But Adesunloye handles things delicately, as he shows Leke transform from the soul-dead party animal in Hackney to becoming a photographer who comes to see what's really important in his ancestral village. It's mildly frustrating that the source of Leke's feud with his father is never revealed (perhaps his implied bisexuality or his desire to go his own way?), while it's unclear when Leke actually left home, as he doesn't speak French or Wolof and his accent is pure Lunnon. Such details aren't that important, but it nags that Leke treats Dabo's children as strangers when he must have known them from when he used to stroll along the beach with his father.
In truth, the characterisation is as sketchy as the storyline. This rather suits boxer-turned-model Dudley O'Shaughnessy, as he is able to strike a series of effective poses for a camera that clearly adores him. The shot of him looking up during the passing ceremony and the profile of him wearing his new robes look like they could have come from one of his own fashion shoots (which hardly look distinctive enough to land him a prestigious show in Shanghai). However, O'Shaughnessy undoubtedly has presence and he responds well enough to Adesunloye's direction to convey something of Leke's emotions.
He's more animated in the presence of Yrsa Daley-Ward as the vivacious Badewa. Another model who has come to acting via her lauded literary activities, Daley-Ward is equally impressive as the more conventional and dutiful Esther and it's intriguing to know what she knows (or suspects about her sister's fling with the stranger). Wale Ojo brings a quiet sense of dignity, while Damola Adelaja contributes a melancholy that is bound into his suppressed desire for Bubaka. The moment they hold hands is one of the most poignant in the entire film, as Adesunloye occasionally strains for emotional truth.
Nevertheless, this is a sincere and accomplished feature. Rory Skeoch's visuals capably contrast the hollow glamour and druggy greyness of the London scene with the natural beauty and invigorating serenity of the Senegalese coast. Editor Christopher C.F. Chow also plays his part here, in slowing down the pace of the action as Leke sheds his sham exterior and reconnects with a culture that has always lain dormant within him. This is symbolised by the earworm tune that is explained just before his departure, although Mathieu Karsenti's score is charming throughout.
As an actor, Alex Winter will forever be associated with the role of Bill S. Preston. But, away from his partnership with Keanu Reeves in Stephen Herek's Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure (1989), Pete Hewitt's Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey (1991) and Dean Parisot's Bill & Ted Face the Music (2020), Winter has also developed into a decent documentarist. Since debuting with Downloaded (2011), he has impressed with the depth of his discussion in Deep Web (2015), The Panama Papers and Trust Machine: The Story of Blockchain (both 2018). But he switches from the institutional to the personal with Zappa, a far-reaching profile of rock's most elusively prolific and versatile musician that makes you realise that it would take a six-part series to do him anything like justice as an artist, an activist and as a fascinatingly flawed human being.
The film opens with Frank Zappa being feted by an audience in Czechoslovakia in 1991. As the Communists had described Western rock as `Frank Zappa music', he had acquired a cult cachet behind the Iron Curtain and felt duty-bound to play in Prague after the Velvet Revolution. In fact, he hadn't played guitar on stage for several years and was suffering from prostate cancer. But he couldn't resist a last rock hurrah and urged the assembled to ensure that their country remained `unique' as it embraced its new freedoms. It was the perfect word to describe both Zappa and his career.
Born on 21 December 1940 in Baltimore, Maryland, Zappa spent much of a sickly childhood living near the military facilities at which his father worked as a chemist. After explosions, his first juvenile love was editing and he used to spend hours splicing extraneous frames into the 8mm home movies of his parents' wedding. While attending Antelope Valley High School in Lancaster, California, he started playing drums in a controversially cosmopolitan group called The Blackouts, and became obsessed with the `organised sound' compositions of Edgard Varèse. He also listened to a lot of R&B and doo-wop by the likes of Clarence `Gatemouth' Brown, Elmore James and Johnny `Guitar' Watson and shared his musical passions with Don Glen Vliet, who would go on to find fame as Captain Beefheart. However, Zappa disliked school and remained opposed to formal education. Instead, he preferred to discover things for himself and develop his own expertise.
On relocating to Echo Park in Los Angeles, Zappa married Kay Sherman and divided his time between mastering the guitar and composing scores for such films as Timothy Carey's The World's Greatest Sinner (1962) and Ted Bremner's Run Home Slow (1965). He also wrote songs and composed classical pieces, while also conducting tape experiments at Studio Z in Cucamonga. Sadly, he lost most of the 80 hours of material he had amassed after being framed in a police sting and briefly jailed for producing pornography. Zappa never forgave or forgot this episode and he retained a subversive attitude towards the US establishment for the rest of his life.
Soon after being invited to join The Soul Giants, Zappa found himself fronting the combo, which became better known as The Mother of Invention. He also became responsible for much of its material and ensured that the 1966 debut album, Freak Out!, included some musique concrète, as well as more mainstream numbers. Installed as a hero of the counterculure, Zappa was traced to his new home in Laurel Canyon by The Rolling Stones and a young David Bowiie. However, second wife Gail Sloatman was unnerved when the Manson Family moved into the area and Zappa spent two years in New York, where he used a six-month residency at the Garrick Theatre on Bleecker Street to refine his distinctive and ever-changing style.
The album, We're Only in It for the Money (1968), boasted a parody of the Sgt Pepper cover that started Zappa's collaboration with artist Cal Schenkel that ran alongside his association with Claymation film-maker Bruce Bickford, who had clambered over the fence at Zappa's home with several film cans under his arm. Despite their cult status, however, the ever-changing Mothers line-up struggled to make money and was disbanded in late 1969. However, as musicians Ruth and Ian Underwood, Mike Keneally, Ray White, Bunk Gardner, Scott Thunes and Steve Vai recall, they were often swept back into the fold, as their particular talents suited the strict taskmaster's improvisational style. At one point, Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan from The Turtles were added to strength and Winter includes footage of the band trotting through `Happy Together'. Among the period's other memorable happenings were a jam at the Filmore East with John Lennon and Yoko Ono and 200 Motels (1971), an offbeat feature that was co-directed by Tony Palmer and boasted Ringo Starr impersonating Zappa.
Throughout this period, Zappa continued to write and record classical music, although he struggled to find orchestras capable of capturing the requisite sound. He also made a couple of jazz albums while recovering from the serious injuries incurred when he was pushed off the stage by an irate audience member at the Rainbow Theatre in London in December 1971. In addition to lasting problems with his legs and back, this assault also resulted in Zappa's voice dropping by a third after he had surgery to repair his crushed larynx. He also became suspicious of those who drifted away while he convalesced in isolation. Yet, Winter rather skirts over this period, which also saw Zappa break up with longtime manager Herb Cohen and endure a lengthy legal battle with Warner Bros over rights to his music that forged his backasswards reputation for being a shrewd businessman.
Indeed, Winter pays little attention to Zappa's ever-shifting musical style and offers next to no analysis of key albums on his own Zappa Records label like Sheik Yerbouti and Joe's Garage (both 1979) or his influence on other artists besides Alice Cooper and Pamela Des Barres from The GTOs, who both appear to express their gratitude. That said, Zappa's work ethic and appreciation of commercial reality made him so ridiculously prolific that it would take the aforementioned mini-series to examine his vinyl output in any depth, let alone film projects like Baby Snakes (1979). We do see Zappa's unhappy experience on Saturday Night Live (1976), when John Belushi, Larraine Newman and Dan Aykroyd played hippies teasing him about his opposition to drugs. Moreover, we're treated to an interview in which he shrugs at the fact that he likes sleeping with groupies and sees nothing wrong with Gail having to medicate if he gets an STD because she's his wife and he calls the shots.
This chauvinism often manifested itself in Zappa's lyrics, but Winter sidesteps this in covering the singer's appearances before a Senate hearing into the efforts of Susan Baker, Tipper Gore and the Parents Music Resource Centre to ensure that albums with explicit lyrics - such as Zappa's Grammy-winning Jazz From Hell (1986) - should carry warning stickers. This campaign coincided with the emergence of MTV, which Zappa detested, as he felt it tipped the musical balance in favour of a band's look over its sound. Ironically, he scored a rare chart success around this period with `Valley Girl', a track from Ship Arriving Too Late to Save a Drowning Witch (1982) that featured satirical lyrics by his daughter, Moon Unit, who often felt as neglected as siblings Dweezil, Ahmet and Diva.
The early 1980s also saw Zappa collaborate with the London Symphony Orchestra on sessions that so frustrated him that he took to recording his own classical pieces using a Synclavier to ensure they sounded as he wished. By the end of the decade, he had ceased to tour and focused on his non-rock pieces after his cancer diagnosis in 1990. He was invited to conduct at the Frankfurt Festival and Winter includes the thrilling `G-Spot Tornado' routine from The Yellow Shark that Louise Lecavalier and Donald Weikert danced to the accompaniment of the Ensemble Modern.
We also hear David Harrington explaining how Zappa came to compose `None of the Above' for The Kronos Quartet. But the sense of sadness that pervades these later achievements is compounded by the way in which Secretary of State James Baker exacted revenge for challenging his wife over the PMRC by coercing Czech president Václav Havel into abandoning all ties with `special ambassador' Zappa in return for US aid and support. No one should ever be surprised by the depths to which a politician will stoop, but this humiliation of a dying man leaves a bitter taste and one only hopes that Baker (who turns 90 this April) gets to see the film and feel suitably ashamed.
Gail Zappa (who died in 2015) has no doubt that her husband was hurt by this rebuff. Yet the once outrageous iconoclast had assumed a taciturn dignity that often took interviewers aback when Zappa appeared on television to champion his causes. However, he was silenced at the age of just 52 on 4 December 1993, although Winter has done much in this compelling profile to restore his voice.
It's unlikely that snippets of tracks like `Oh No', `Apostrophe', `Dancin' Fool' and `Muffin Man' are going to win over legions of new fans (nor is a soundtrack album that devotes almost the entire third disc to John Frizzell's original score). Diehards will probably lament the lack of musical appreciation and wish the concert clips could run a little longer. They may also be curious about the rest of the treasures that Zappa points out during a tantalising tour of his vast archive. But aficionados should be reasonably satisfied with Winter's bid to touch as many bases as possible in presenting Zappa and his myriad contradictions on his own terms.
He clearly agrees with Alice Cooper's contention that Zappa steered cleat of writing hit tunes as they would have compromised his artistic integrity. After all, rock was the day job that bought him the time to devote to the serious task of composing the works that really mattered to him. The need to perform live also posed problems, as while Zappa enjoyed improvising and connecting with his audience, he refused to make it easy for them and almost seemed to challenge them to stay the course when he veered away from catchily surreal ditties to items that showcased his virtuosity.
Given that Zappa released 62 albums during his lifetime and another 53 have appeared posthumously, Winter and Mike J. Nichols couldn't have done more during their six-year Kickstartered labour to squeeze everything into 129 minutes. There are omissions and indulgences, as Winter seeks to allow the Zappa the maestro to share the limelight with the maverick. There was a snobbery about Zappa's attitude to his fellow musicians, while accusations of hypocrisy about his private life are almost indefensible. But he earned the right to go his own way, as this lovingly assembled tribute ably testifies.
IWOW: I WALK ON WATER.
New York photographer Khalik Allah made an immediate impression as a film-maker with Field Niggas (2015) and Black Mother (2018). He returns to the scene of the former for IWOW: I Walk on Water, a 200-minute snapshot of life on the streets of Harlem around the corner of 125th Street and Lexington. Shooting in a variety of formats and largely employing non-direct sound, Allah eschews narrative convention to give space and time to the dispossessed and marginalised, while also using musings on aspects of his own life to consider his relationships with his loved ones, the state of the nation and the film-maker's role in society.
This is a difficult film to discuss, as there is both so much and so little to latch on to. In the time-honoured avant-garde fashion, Allah includes lengths of leader and sprocket holes from the 16mm and 8mm footage and even cuts in the odd bit of digital video containing a timecode. Along with the switches between monochrome and colour, this is clearly to remind viewers that what they are watching is the result of a series of ethnological and artistic choices that affirm the director's status as mediator between his subjects and the audience. As his voice can frequently be heard on the soundtrack, Allah is operating in cinéma vérité mode and, therefore, he is shaping his material as a participant, as well as an observer. Consequently, we are able to glean an appreciation of his personality and preoccupations to set aside his compassionate interactions with the people he encounters during his nocturnal recces.
The person who seems to intrigue him most is Frenchie, a paranoid schizophrenic from Haiti, who is first seen holding a flower and posing for the camera. He makes up a little song entitled `Frenchie Is a Good Man' that Allah mentions to several of his rapper friends, including Wu-Tang Clan alumni Killah Priest and 4th Disciple (who is also responsible for the inspired sound mix that accompanies Allah's collage-like images). Allah also introduces Frenchie to his Italian photographer girlfriend, Camilla, who tries to strike up a conversation without much success.
At one point, Allah reveals that the working title for the film is Camilla, but his mother, Reason, questions the logic for this when she isn't the main character. She is worried about her son's tongue-in-cheek claim to be Jesus Christ and blames his erratic ideas on the magic mushrooms he recommends to everyone as a healthy alternative to Class A drugs. Reason reminds Allah of Phil Karlson's Ben (1972), the story of a rat whose theme was performed by Michael Jackson. He crops up again when one of the rappers mistakes the Netherlands for Neverland, as Allah explains how Camilla had taken him to the original Haarlem during a visit to Europe. An earlier conversation with Killah Priest and 4th Disciple riffs on John Coney's Afrofuturist saga, Space is the Place (1974), which was written by its jazz visionary star, Sun Ra. However, Allah reveals that he would be more tempted to remake Michael Curtiz's The Egyptian (1954).
No explanation is given for this and it seems odd that nobody at this juncture mentions William Greaves's Symbiopsychotaxiplasm (1968), which IWOW vaguely recalls. Instead, Allah continues to photography Camilla around Harlem, while also developing his friendship with Frenchie. He takes him for a haircut with Roger at KO Hair Design and even invites him home to meet Reason. But, despite a warning from Fab 5 Freddy, he seems not to notice how dependent Frenchie becomes on having him around and there's a heartbreaking moment when Allah announces that he's finished shooting and won't be around so much while he edits the footage. Frenchie goes quiet on the soundtrack and Allah asks one of his assistants whether it might have been better to have simply stopped showing up.
Camilla also seems to have been a casualty of Allah's project, as she disappears around halfway through the epic running-time. But the camera always manages to alight upon an interesting face, whether it belongs to a pretty girl or a careworn old man. Lots of strapping youths strike poses for the lens, along with the occasional member of the New York Police Department, who seem to be on their best behaviour with a professional film-maker around. At one point, a homeless man named Anthony declares that only a hero can survive in New York. But such penetrating insights are few and far between amidst the audio hubbub. although a late dispute arises over the relative merits of beetroot and sprouts.
Although no one is labelled on screen, voices are identified and rappers Islord, Legacy, 60 Second Assassin, Darkim Be Allah Christ, Hell Razah, Radamiz and Black Girl Magik can be heard at various stages alongside Hazel `Hope' Ca8e, Iva, Gabriel, Supreme, Vikki Tobak, Angelique Mueller, Knowledge Magnetic and Margaret `Mac' Findletar. Two stand out, the white-bearded Mark `Buddy Boy' Wilson and Olivia, a solemn, barefooted woman, who sidles up to the camera with a timid curiosity that make her revelations about her time in hospital all the more affecting. Everyone has a story to tell, but Allah avoids self-pity and sentimentality, as he gives these mostly African American outsiders the chance to be seen and heard.
With pillow shots of nature and the sea giving viewers plentiful room to pause and reflect, this drifts along with a poignancy that counters any hints of self-indulgence. It's nowhere near as pious as Penny Woolcock's equally well-meant On the Streets (2009), but makes its points about `everyday things' with a more pugnacious profundity, a greater artistic idiosyncrasy and a more nuanced sense of social outrage.