1997, Guinea, directed by Mohamed Camara
Best known as the first film from sub-Saharan Africa to confront the theme of homosexuality, Dakan is also a radical departure from the norms of African cinema on an aesthetic level. Where many directors from the continent eschew the use of close-ups - a choice often linked to the oral tradition, though the academic critic Josephine Woll has also traced this to the influence of Soviet cinema on several key African filmmakers, including particularly Ousmane Sembène - Mohamed Camara uses tightly focused shots, with, on occasion, fragments of a face filling the screen, to create an intense emotional drama, with a rich sense of the dilemmas, and dangers, faced by his lead characters.
Beyond the notable use of close-ups, Camara makes consistently interesting shot decisions - there's a particularly striking sequence of six shots contrasting Manga, one of the lead characters, with his mother, as the two begin a conversation - that underline the sense of claustrophobia (a number of the locations have the air of a huis clos), as well as the stark yet untidy choices that face young gay men (and, presumably, women) in a society like that of Guinea.
Monday, April 30, 2007
1997, Guinea, directed by Mohamed Camara
Sunday, April 29, 2007
1969, UK, directed by Ronald Neame
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie takes the pleasant glow of the Mr. Chips schooldays template - a template updated with some regularity - and subverts it at every turn: the inspirational teacher here is inspiring in all the wrong ways, while her male colleague is busy seducing the pupils of the all-girls' school in 1930s Edinburgh (when they aren't actively being thrown at him by Miss Brodie, eager to remove herself from his radar). The comprehensive dismantling of well-worn clichés is, for the most part, quite bracing, though Miss Brodie's admiration of Mussolini and, later, Franco, is a little overdone; it's an overly knowing wink in the direction of the audience, armed with the benefit of hindsight.
Despite the use of Edinburgh locations, the film occasionally feels rather stagy - and the action, which spans several years, often seems to advance in fits and starts - but it is redeemed by its impeccable cast, particularly Maggie Smith in the lead, who manages the difficult task of humanising a thoroughly dislikeable character without softening her rough, imperious and ultimately tragic edges. Celia Johnson - in a radical turnabout from her most famous role in Brief Encounter - is also excellent as the headmistress, Ms. McKay.
Saturday, April 28, 2007
1997, Senegal, directed by Moussa Sene Absa
Moussa Sene Absa's second feature builds on the promise of Ça twiste à Poponguine, with a tighter structure and a sharp critical intelligence at work in this examination of Senegal's development, using polygamy as a metaphor to present two alternative futures for the country. Absa uses a flashback structure to examine the rapid rise - and apparently equally rapid fall - of an ambitious but charming young politician, Daam (played by Ismael Lo, who also provides a memorable soundtrack). As with Djibril Diop Mambéty's La Petite vendeuse de Soleil, Absa's film is concerned with ways in which Senegal can ensure its own true independence in the modern world; escaping from French (and, as often, American) influence implies an uncertain future, but perhaps, ultimately, a more dignified one.
The film does not prioritize politics entirely at the expense of the personal, though; polygamy is examined as an issue of continuing contemporary relevance in Senegal, and Absa is careful to note both the tensions and solidarity that can emerge from the arrangement, though the film tends to sympathize far more with one of Daam's wives than with the other, with the audience invited to identify with the more "African" woman who is mistreated by other women when she does not bear children.
Friday, April 27, 2007
2004, Australia, directed by Andrew Kotatko
Andrew Kotatko's work as a music director on a variety of (mostly) Australian films seems to have allowed him excellent networking opportunities that pay off with a fine cast for his first short, including most obviously Hugo Weaving and Abbie Cornish.
The film is an adaptation of the Raymond Carver story Why Don't You Dance?, and while Kotatko changes a few details, including particularly the time of day when the story begins, much of the dialogue is lifted word-for-word from Carver. Hugo Weaving is wonderfully rumpled as a man whose wife has just left, and who decides to put the entire contents of his home up for sale on the front lawn. Kotatko takes the idea of the house reconstituted outside and has much fun with it - more fun than Carver, in truth - while he also makes clever, understated use of computer effects in several shots (including the title shot, pictured here).
The film can be seen online here.
Tuesday, April 24, 2007
1998, France/Germany/Belgium, directed by Abderrahmane Sissako
While all of his work to date has an autobiographical resonance - one which has moved toward the background more recently - Abderrahmane Sissako's documentary feature Rostov-Luanda embraces this theme most explicitly, recounting Sissako's search for a friend from the time he spent in the Soviet Union, a man who has apparently returned to Angola, and whom he has not seen for many years. It's an idea similar to that explored in Henri-François Imbert's 2000 documentary Doulaye, une saison des pluies, about a friend of the filmmaker's father, but Sissako's film also becomes a rich meditation on contemporary Angola, a country still embedded, at the time, in a lengthy civil war, as the idea of finding a long-lost friend in such circumstances begins to seem ever-more improbable.
The film also establishes the template for Sissako's subsequent fiction features, with its deep interest in the minutiae of the everyday, as well as the manner in which it gives voice to people who rarely find themselves able to articulate their views. The stories - from Angolans, longtime Portuguese settlers, or those who find themselves somewhere between the two - create an absorbing, unsentimental tapestry of a country whose people have remained remarkably resilient despite decades of conflict, and whose senses of hospitality and humour have endured the most trying of circumstances.
Monday, April 23, 2007
1999, Senegal/Switzerland/France, directed by Djibril Diop Mambéty
Despite its ostensibly simple storyline, Djibril Diop Mambéty's final film is in many ways his most far-reaching. Whereas his earlier feature films - Touki-Bouki and Hyènes - are formally daring, with splintered narratives and jarring imagery, here Mambéty adopts a more straightforward narrative structure in order to then posit a radically different vision of Senegal's development and future, independent of the country's ties with the West (and particularly with France), and based on a new kind of social contract. Mambéty is not interested, though, in a dry political argument. His points are made in the context of the warm, humanist tale of a young girl's daily struggles to overcome the multiplicity of obstacles that stand in her way as she attempts to care for herself and her sightless grandmother.
His heroine, Sili, is one of the most engaging characters in any film from Africa, a young girl who simply refuses to be defeated, and whose energy serves an inspiration to those around her, of every social class. In addition to her defiant attitude to her literal and metaphorical handicaps, Sili has a direct honesty that demands to be listened to, and a wisdom that belies her years (a scene where she challenges the authority of a much older policeman, and demands justice for both herself and another unjustly-accused person, upsets hierarchies common in African and Western life). The director isn't simply indulging in late-life romanticism, however: he's deeply aware of the kinds of challenges that lie ahead, but resolute in insisting on an alternative to what the Western world presents as the only way forward for Africa.
1971, UK, directed by Guy Hamilton
Though the Roger Moore era is generally regarded as the bottom of the James Bond arc, the later Connery films are just as hit or miss: the star himself is clearly only there for the ample paydays, while the script recycle ideas -- not all of them that good in the first place -- with abandon. Though Diamonds are Forever starts out with a plotline based on a more recognisable reality than some of the preceding films, alluding to Howard Hughes's reclusive years in Las Vegas, the film ultimately chooses to go in a more conventional direction for the finale.
There are, of course, intermittent pleasures to be had, notably some entertaining stunt work, particularly in two extended chase sequences, and a close-up of Vegas in all its circa-1970 glory (in comparison to the in-your-face modern city, it does seem like something of a quaint golden age); the one-liners are also spread around more liberally than usual, with Putter Smith and Bruce Glover, as the stereotypically effete Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd, getting some of the better examples.
Sunday, April 22, 2007
2005, UK/France, directed by Joe Wright
A wonderfully lively adaptation of the Jane Austen novel, this 2005 version can't compete with the expansive running time of the 1995 BBC television serial, but it nonetheless squeezes most of Austen's plot into just over two hours without being excessively breathless. The novel's heroine is filmed with a camera that seems to be constantly on the move, enhancing the energy exuded by Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Bennet (though there is the occasional unattractive zoom, a trick, like the snatches of overlapping dialogue, picked up, no doubt, from Robert Altman). That energy is especially apparent in the ballroom scenes, beautifully filmed, the action creating a rich backdrop for the verbal duels that are culled from the pages of the novel.
While Knightley is the eye-catching centrepiece, the supporting cast is generally strong, too; Donald Sutherland is amusingly wry as Bennet père, while Rosamund Pike is winning, and winsome, as Elizabeth's elder sister, Jane. The younger men, though, don't always come off quite as well; Matthew Macfadyen can't hope to compete with Colin Firth's 1995 Mr. Darcy, particularly where director Wright makes his character rather more dour than necessary (until the final sequences, where his makeover is perhaps a shade too complete), though Simon Woods is amusing as Mr. Bingley.
Saturday, April 21, 2007
Set in an unnamed African country in the aftermath of a brutal civil war, Fanta Régina Nacro's début feature inevitably invites comparison with other films that have emerged since the Rwandan genocide, although Nacro's film is also inspired - in the director's own telling - by the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia and Sierra Leone/Liberia. Like Raoul Peck's television film about Rwanda, Sometimes in April, The Night of Truth is brutally honest - sometimes gruesomely so - about the realities of war, leaving no room for audience complacency, while Nacro is sharply perceptive about the kinds of sacrifices that may be required to effect true peace; she also foregrounds the critical role of women in ensuring that peace, once the men have laid down their arms (here, unlike in some of the conflicts that inspired the film, the warring sides are two armies rather than rag-tag bands of guerrillas).
After the gentler yet probing tone of her short films, The Night of Truth comes as a strikingly different choice of subject matter for the director, but she marries a serious theme with anecdotes of daily life - featuring, for example, women at work in the kitchen, or soldiers conversing - in a manner similar to that of Abderrahmane Sissako's more recent Bamako, an effective strategy that ensures that the conflict and its consequences are seen in vividly human terms, rather than remaining distant abstractions. Nacro extracts solid performances from the many non-professionals in the cast - who include all of the soldiers - but she also benefits from two exceptional female leads, who play the wives of the two men who have come together to hammer out a peace.
Friday, April 20, 2007
1991, Burkina Faso, directed by Fanta Régina Nacro
Fanta Régina Nacro's first short film is, by her own account, an amalgam of two of her major cinematic influences, Chaplin and Hitchcock, a combination of slapstick and tension that is more successful with regard to the former than the latter. The film's central gag is a clever visual joke that plays with our expectations of what a film from Africa will deliver; the punchline is set up with a scene that appears to be from a timeless, pre-colonial Africa, with events quickly going in unexpected directions. Nacro's film is a commentary, among other things, on the influence of filmmakers on African communities, and a plea for communication and understanding - as well as something of a love letter to the idea of cinema.
1953, France/Italy, directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot (original title: Le Salaire de la peur)
It's characteristic of Henri-Georges Clouzot that a film about transporting trucks filled with dynamite over a pock-marked road in South America (shot, remarkably, in the south of France) begins with a lengthy prologue that focuses on the dynamics of the town where the journey begins, for it's here, as much as on board the vehicles, that the director can direct his unsparing gaze on human interactions and motivations. Despite the radically different setting, the claustrophobic, sweaty settlement, where no-one's business remains a secret for long, recalls the intense atmosphere of Clouzot's earlier work, particularly Le Corbeau, set - and shot - during the French Occupation.
Clouzot spends almost an hour carefully establishing the town as a place where outsiders wash up one by one, driven either away from their own pasts or attracted by the settlement's proximity to an American-run oilfield, so that their decisions to participate in an apparently suicidal mission has an explicable context. The relationships set up during the opening then play themselves out in conflicts of loyalty as the men attempt to reconcile their devotion to self with their dependence on one another. Clouzot's grasp of the mechanics of tension is so acute that parts of the film almost appear clichéd, which is simply because they've been copied so many times since, and he extracts exceptional performances from his lead actors; Yves Montand, in his star-making turn, is outstanding, though old pro Charles Vanel lingers long in the memory.
Wednesday, April 18, 2007
On the surface, Ça twiste à Poponguine appears to be a conventional story of teenage rivalries, a benign Senegalese riff on youthful beach comedies, with a hint of mild gang rivalry (though none of the violence of a West Side Story). Its simple façade is deceptive, however, with a strikingly cogent commentary on post-colonial realities, as well as an amusingly satirical take-down of various authority figures (most obviously the local religious notables).
Set in 1964, the film celebrates a kind of golden age in Senegal's history, a period of great stability and hope in the immediate post-independence era, but that independence, it is clear, is only nominal. The teenagers at the heart of the film are steeped in the French education system and in French popular culture to the complete exclusion of their own culture, and those figures - particularly the imam - who rail against outside influence are, in the end, most complicit in fostering the further entrenchment of that influence. The presence of a French teacher in the village further underlines the former colonial master's continued role in Senegal, though Absa probes at the teacher's own sense of identity in ways that challenge the divide between the West and Africa.
1946, UK, directed by Sidney Gilliat
A sly,witty murder mystery set in wartime Britain, Green for Danger is a thorough send-up of the genre, as well as an affectionate portrait of its home country that doesn't take national mythology, even in difficult times, too seriously. The war is present almost from the opening frames - the film is set in 1944 - and the intrusions of flying bombs - nicknamed 'doodlebugs', as if to minimise their importance - and injured patients to the film's hospital setting lends an edge to what is otherwise a classically claustrophobic Golden Age set-up.
Sunday, April 15, 2007
2005, UK, directed by Niall Johnson
Keeping Mum would like to be thought of in the same breath as august British films like The Ladykillers (before the Coen brothers got their hands on it) and Kind Hearts and Coronets, but it has two fatal weaknesses: a ploddingly obvious script, filled with repetitive double entendres, and soporific pacing in the first hour, which renders the first hour rather a chore. Though there are other high-profile names on the poster - Rowan Atkinson and Kristin Scott-Thomas - the film is rendered bearable only by Maggie Smith, who, even in material like this, is nuanced and witty (Patrick Swayze, by contrast, can't rise above a dreadful part). Though the film fancies itself a black comedy in the Ealing mode, it persistently targets the weak, the innocent, and the defenseless, which ultimately leaves an unpleasant taste in the mouth.
Saturday, April 14, 2007
1999, Hong Kong, directed by Johnnie To
In The Mission, Johnnie To removes everything extraneous to focus almost exclusively on the loyalties - often conflicting - between a group of killers hired to protect a gang boss in the wake of an assassination attempt. Although the set-up is ostensibly simple, To makes the viewer join the dots rather than filling in the details in plodding fashion; there is minimal dialogue as the group of men is brought together, and later in the film To extracts some surprising moments of humour from their wordless interactions (most notably in a scene involving an improvised game of soccer).
As befits the stripped-down style, To shoots the action sequences as though he had to account for each bullet: the shoot-outs are the antithesis of John Woo, with each movement carefully choreographed, each weapon carefully aimed at its target, the actors moving with precise, economic gestures. The almost exaggeratedly disciplined style reaches its zenith with a brilliantly shot scene in a deserted mall, where the motley collection of men becomes a disciplined unit before our eyes. To is always conscious of exactly where each actor appears in his frame, and the compositions with multiple actors have a geometric precision; what's crucial, though, is that these theatrical constructions enhance rather than detract from the storyline, concerned as it is with the exact shades of loyalty that prevail at any given moment in time. To also uses several of his actors in atypical parts, particularly Anthony Wong, who is unusually reserved, barely cracking a smile until his final scene.
Wednesday, April 11, 2007
2006, US, directed by Gil Kenan
It's not hard to see the hand of executive producer Robert Zemeckis in Monster House, what with the film opening with a reference to the floating feather of Forrest Gump (not to mention the inclusion of a character called Jenny), as well as a sequence which recalls the desperate attempts to reconnect a cable in Back to the Future. With all that and a trio of writers in the background, it's all the more admirable, then, that director Gil Kenan fashions an original and often visually arresting piece of work, laced with wit directed more at the adult audience than younger folk (there's an especially amusing bit involving a uvula), as has become common with higher-end animated features.
The plot concerns the eponymous house and the efforts of three youngsters to fend off the building's attempts to swallow them whole, and while there are some fun haunted-house sequences, the film is also concerned to sketch in the three young characters; the animation of their faces is very effective, most especially for the character of Chowder (who is also voiced with some skill by Sam Lerner). As well as crafting surprisingly credible characters, Kenan uses striking and sometimes unsettling angles throughout the film, throwing in entirely unexpected - and sometimes very witty - perspectives on the action, like the sequence shot from "inside" a video-game machine.
Monday, April 09, 2007
The rest of the film doesn't consistently sustain the energy of the opening scenes, with even the attentive viewer likely to find some of the narrative progress confusing (hardly surprising, given that the film partly concerns a young girl who enters the body of a man, while the witch who assists her then assumes male form), but Bekolo cites films from all traditions - from Touki-Bouki to The Terminator - with a verve that marks him as a uniquely idiosyncratic filmmaker. He is also blessed with several extremely funny performances, including the aforementioned Jimmy Biyong and Essindi Mindja as Atango, who claims to be a Sorbonne-educated ladies' man.
Sunday, April 08, 2007
2005, US, directed by Raoul Peck
Made for HBO television, Raoul Peck's examination of the 1994 Rwandan genocide is a powerful piece of work that goes well beyond the rather sanitised version of events presented by Terry George's undoubtedly worthy but finally uneven Hotel Rwanda; Peck's television film has proved controversial enough that releasing the film, in any venue, in France has thus far been problematic, with continuing investigations into the actions of the French military during the genocide. Peck, though, tends to focus more explicitly on the failings of the US, with several sequences depicting the inter-institutional debates between the Pentagon, State Department, and White House that led nowhere (as one character notes, the lack of action proved that the "system worked", a comment also made by a Clinton administration official); the film opens, pointedly, with an apology from President Clinton, an apology that sounds especially hollow when heard in a Rwandan classroom (references to France are much less explicit, though there's a brief shot with a portrait of François Mitterrand that appears at a crucial point in the film).
Unlike Hotel Rwanda, Peck broadens the focus beyond one worthy man, telling multiple stories that frequently leave the main characters - a pair of brothers, one a moderate Hutu, the other a journalist on Radio Mille Collines, one of the main sources of genocidal propaganda - behind for long stretches of time, though the use of the device of the two brothers also proves a useful method of contrasting the two sides in what was ultimately the most vicious of civil conflicts. Peck doesn't shirk from depicting some of the atrocities that were routinised over the course of three terrifyingly brutal months (and makes clear that one of the most dreadful experiences of all was the immense task of cleaning up after the killers had moved on); it's also not hard to see the film as a commentary on lesser episodes of hate in other countries, including his own native Haiti. Peck shows a particular interest in issues of reconciliation, both at the level of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (in Arusha, Tanzania), and especially the Gacaca, the community justice courts developed to deal with the tens of thousands of people accused of "lesser" crimes; the scenes which show the operation of these courts are especially effective, as the country tries to come to terms with the immensity and consequences of events barely a decade in the past.
Friday, April 06, 2007
1996, Cameroon/France/Germany, directed by Jean-Marie Teno
Primarily known as a documentarist - or perhaps more accurately as an essayist - Jean-Marie Teno turned to feature film with Clando, and he shows considerable confidence with the fictional medium, integrating his documentarist's eye with a story inspired by the experiences of too many Cameroonians, both in their home country and in Europe. Sobgui, a young professional, is imprisoned and tortured after being involved with the fringes of political opposition, and subsequently, having lost everything from his old life, takes up work as a 'clando', an illegal cab driver, before leaving for Germany on twin missions from his employer, who asks Sobgui to buy some cars and locate the older man's estranged son.
It's a fraught journey that quickly disabuses Sobgui of any illusions he may have had concerning Europe as an economic or social paradise, and forces him to confront the dilemmas and difficulties of the outsider, who is often driven as much by expectations back home as by any personal notivations (the meeting with the estranged son is both poignant and distressing, as we discover the reasons for his refusal to return to Cameroon). Teno's criticisms of Western intervention in Africa are couched in different terms here than in his documentary work - and lack the sometimes strident tone that can weaken his arguments - as he implicitly condemns naive European human rights workers who feel comfortable telling Sobgui how he should behave (while they are also unable to move beyond seeing him as a rather exotic representative of suffering). Teno structures the film with a series of flashbacks, peeling back the layers of Sobgui's life after he has already departed for Germany, and it's an effective strategy that allows the director to contrast the character's present and past.
Thursday, April 05, 2007
1995, Mali/Burkina Faso/France, directed by Cheick Oumar Sissoko
Like Souleymane Cissé's Yeelen, Guimba uses a historical setting to comment on contemporary misuses of power in Mali (both films are concerned with the later years of Moussa Traoré's rule; he was ousted in a 1991 coup). Like the earlier film, Guimba is a challenging work that can't simply be approached as a straightforward narrative, although the bookends with a griot strolling along the Niger river imply a simple folk tale; director Cheick Oumar Sissoko blends realism and magic, not to mention high drama and low comedy, and it can occasionally be difficult to keep track of the action (the real and the magical are so thoroughly blended, indeed, that the distinction is almost meaningless).
Like Yeelen - and like Sissoko's subsequent film, La Genèse - this is also a profoundly beautiful film, making wonderful use of the dusty Malian landscapes (and also, at times, consciously evoking imagery of the Western in witty fashion). While the contemporary resonances are clear, it's also an honest attempt to show that the pre-colonial period wasn't simply an idyllic era, and that abuse of power is a universal ill. The depiction of a rotten system is blunt, with a particular insight into the manner in which a régime's worst excesses come at the end, when power is slipping away.
Wednesday, April 04, 2007
1998, France/DR Congo/Belgium, directed by Mweze Ngangura
Mweze Ngangura has carved out his own path as an African filmmaker, moving away from the more consciously 'artistic' work of many of other directors and making use instead of a comic tone and sometimes conventional plots to tell stories of contemporary Congo. This 1998 feature is no exception: the plot has more coincidences than a vaudeville play, and implies that Brussels has only a few dozen inhabitants, so frequently do their paths intersect, but underneath the genial tone, there's a forceful commentary on the realities encountered by African immigrants (and visitors) in Europe, and the difficult search for identity when far from home.
Ngangura is a clear-eyed commentator, though; along with the exposure of the lingering colonial mentality in Belgium, he points out that some Africans, too, are stuck in the past, with a re-examination of traditional attitudes - to women, for example - long overdue. He also presents a more nuanced portrait of the coloniser than is sometimes the case, while there's a great deal of poignancy in the relationship between a Belgian cop (and former colonial official) and a Congolese king, who symbolize the missed opportunity for a meaningful encounter between two cultures.
2006, US, directed by Christopher Nolan
After his intelligent re-working of the Batman mythology in Batman Begins, The Prestige is a more conventional period drama, notwithstanding the narrative fragmentation that occasionally recalls Nolan's Memento. For the most part, Nolan's storytelling skills are strong enough to overcome a plot that hangs, crucially, on one last-minute revelation, although he can't entirely avoid the sense that the film is concerned more with mechanics than it is with emotion, a problem that parallels the kind of complex magic trick at the core of the film.
Although it's simply an accident of timing that the two films were released around the same time - and in some ways the films have quite different concerns - it is illustrative to make the comparison with Neil Burger's The Illusionist, where final act revelations don't detract from the emotional journey we have taken with the characters; Burger's re-creation of a specific time in Viennese history is also more richly atmospheric (perhaps because he shot his film on location in the Czech Republic; the backlot sets of The Prestige, while fun, can't quite compete with authentic architecture).