Monday, February 27, 2012

Welcome to Nollywood

2007, US, directed by Jamie Meltzer

As with Mascarades, I watched Welcome to Nollywood primarily to conceal my complete ignorance from a fellow conference panelist next month. Jamie Meltzer's documentary is an enjoyable entrée into the Nollywood world, focusing on a couple of polar opposites while giving the broad facts and figures for the industry as it stood in 2007. At one pole, there's Chico Ejiro, king of the quickie, who had churned out around 80 films by the time Meltzer caught up with him, and who boasts of being able to shoot a film in as little as weekend. At the other end of the scale there's the extraordinary ambition of Izu Ojukwu, whose artistic ambitions are on an entirely different scale, and whose film Laviva, which is extensively documented here, turns into a kind of Nigerian Apocalypse Now, both for the subject matter -- the chaos of war -- and the massive cost and time overruns. The Laviva story is fascinating, though it does unbalance the film to some degree: while there are a few more ambitious Nollywood directors out there, it's pretty clear that Chico Ejiro is the more representative director -- making films on the fly, getting them quickly to market, and moving on so fast he can't remember the plots of some of his films.


2008, Algeria/France, directed by Lyès Salem

I know next to nothing about Algerian cinema, but I'm on a conference panel next month with someone who presumably knows a whole lot more given that her paper is on the topic. Mascarades was my attempt to not seem completely clueless: I'd never heard of the film before, but it's a terrific discovery: Lyès Salem is mostly known as an actor, and this was his first feature, but you'd never guess it from his complete assurance with camera and narrative. The film opens with an impressive extended shot around the central square of a small town, just before the arrival of a fast-moving wedding cavalcade that sprays dust over the inhabitants before peeling out of town again.

Weddings are at the heart of the film -- fictional weddings, remembered weddings, potential weddings -- and Salem uses the events as a means to explore both tradition and modernity in the Algerian context, though he never sets the two up in simplistic opposition. Salem himself plays the central character, Mounir, a jumped-up fellow who tries desperately to exercise control over his family. The director-actor takes great delight in puncturing his character's arrogance and while his sensibility is very different from Sasha Baron Cohen's it's hard not to be reminded of the latter's Borat in one of the early scenes, with Mounir's moustache front and center in a close-up shot. Salem has an altogether more subtle set of tools at his disposal, though, bringing Mounir's small town to vivid life in a brisk 90 minutes, and retaining an underlying affection for his character. The remainder of the cast appear to have virtually no screen credits, either before or afterwards: I'd be interested in discovering whether they are experienced Algerian actors or non-professionals, since they're an entirely convincing ensemble here.

Saturday, February 25, 2012


2011, US, directed by Neil Burger

The drug at the centre of Limitless seems ripe for the corporate picking, irrespective of those nasty side-effects: it's a sort of American dream pharmaceutical which allows the consumer to magically work harder, faster. You kind of expect it to transform the economy and consign China to second place with reinvigorated American productivity, when ultimately it just turns unkempt Bradley Cooper back into, well, Bradley Cooper, and conveniently ignores the various side plots. While the central ride is slickly enjoyable -- and it comes up with intriguing new ways to depict the impact of this particular drug on the brain -- the film ultimately poses far more questions than it's either capable of or interested in asking. In that, it's nothing like Burger's most enjoyable film, The Illusionist, which neatly (too neatly?) ties its narrative together. Burger extracts good performances from Cooper, who remains somehow charming despite his character's deep-seated narcissism, and perhaps even more notably from Robert De Niro: there's all manner of scenery-chewing potential in the role of a high-flying financier, but Burger reins De Niro's latter-day instincts in, reminding us that the actor can radiate menace even without a barrage of tics.

Friday, February 24, 2012


2011, US, directed by Bennett Miller

So many mainstream American movies more or less ignore the actual mechanics of working -- much of the time, even the allegedly gainfully employed seem to have unlimited free time and resources -- that it's quite surprising to come across a film that is essentially about watching a man work for two hours, whether it's dealing with superiors, making personnel decisions, or dealing with lingering frustrations long after the working day should be over. More surprising still is that Bennett Miller finds a way to create compelling tension from this material -- while the ostensible narrative centers on the actual 2002 season for the Oakland Athletics as recounted in Michael Lewis's original book, what's really on the line throughout the film is Billy Beane's job.

Miller shoehorns plenty of material from the original book -- from relatively abstract concepts about player value to specific players who were the subject of draft and trade decisions in 2002 -- without overloading the film with dry onscreen detail, mostly because he relies on the easygoing charm of his lead actor to hold the attention, and to act as an audience surrogate when Beane's assistant (Jonah Hill, who's excellent) delves beneath the statistical surface (just) a little. Beane, as played by Brad Pitt, is bright and eager to master new concepts, but also, crucially, has just enough of a background as a player to speak to the playing staff with some authority (it reminded me of my own workplace: I work with faculty and the simple fact of "not being faculty" can diminish one's authority in the eyes of some professors). There's something slightly broken in Beane, which the film suggests is deep in his own background: he can no longer enjoy the games themselves. Unlike the fans, whose belief often defies the rational, Beane is aware that even the hottest streak is doomed to end in a game built on failure, so it's always about working to do the best with what he has on hand. It's a melancholy idea, but hardly a new one in baseball, which always seems to have a sense of the elegiac in its seasonal structure.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Midnight in Paris

2011, US/Spain/France, directed by Woody Allen

Anyone who cranks out films as regularly as Woody Allen -- the last year he didn't have a film appear was 1981 -- is unlikely to knock it out of the park every time around, and I've found some of his post-2000 films to be rather a slog even if I keep pulling for him to get back on his game. Midnight in Paris takes him back to his stand-up roots, during which he told amusing anecdotes about Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald and Hemingway, and going back to the original well of inspiration seems to have given him an extra spring. The timing is brisk, Owen Wilson is a fine stand-in Woody Allen -- not to mention a less jarring match for Rachel McAdams, Marion Cotillard and Léa Seydoux-- and Paris is a vision.

Woody's version of the city has about as much realism as Owen Wilson's take on the place -- where Wilson projects back to the 1920s and beyond, Woody carefully sanitizes out every gritty corner and virtually every non-white face (Josephine Baker would be as much of a novelty in Woody's Paris 2011 as she is, very briefly, in his film). The anachronism of the film is even more obvious given that Allen's script, for once, actually makes reference to the contemporary world, with cracks about the Tea Party giving the film a very up-to-the-minute flavour on one level.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

West of Zanzibar

1954, UK, directed by Harry Watt

Ealing Studios made a series of pictures filmed in Australia and the African colonies in the 1950s, and for the most part Harry Watt was the go-to director for these overseas jaunts; The Overlanders, with Chips Rafferty, was a pretty enjoyable Aussie cattle drive affair, but this film is rather less successful, at least in dramatic terms. The script is pretty awful -- the actors sound pained at times, delivering the most obvious of lines, and there's not much they can do with the gaping plot holes either -- while the seams in the mixture of location footage and studio material are painfully obvious.

Watt's background was in documentaries, one of the many filmmakers trained with John Grierson, and the location footage is often rather good: the wildlife sequences are arresting, never more so than in the footage of a crocodile trying to munch on some daredevil storks. Unfortunately, the human drama is much more problematic, and often blatantly idiotic. As with all colonial adventures, the white man has to be seen to be in charge, leading to such absurdities as Anthony Steel pointing to a hippo and helpfully observing to his African companion that they need to be alert to danger; said hippo is so ridiculously fake that it makes Bruce the shark, from Jaws, look a model of special effects genius. It's not clear whether the film has any self-awareness of these absurdities; at another moment Steel insists, despite arguments from African sailors, on leading a boat across a reef. Disaster inevitably ensues but no one observes anything along the lines of "I told you so," however justified such a sentiment might be, nor does the fiasco appear to shake Steel's very English confidence for a moment. It's not all bad, of course: Edric Connor gives a very dignified performance as Ushingo, the chief of an African tribe under threat, while there's so much unsubtitled Swahili that the film could well be used with some success in a language class, as long as you knew the Swahili word for "patronising as all hell" for the subsequent discussion. And, I suspect entirely inadvertently, the film provides a rather excoriating view of the contempt in which whites held most of their colonial subjects in a scene with an untrustworthy lawyer, an unpleasant but incisive man.

Note: This is another entry in the Watching Movies In Africa project. Despite its limited intrinsic interest, West of Zanzibar managed to cause quite a stir in several colonial locations, including Kenya, where Harry Watt did much of the location shooting. Watt filmed parts of his earlier adventure Where No Vultures Fly in Kenya, apparently without incident. For the sequel, the Kenyan administration debated for some time whether or not to grant him a filming permit, eventually giving Watt permission to tour the territory in 1952 with his crew. When the film was scheduled for release two years later there was chaos, however. The Governor was to attend a gala premiere of the film in Nairobi but the censors were dealing with objections from the country's Arab community. In the end the premiere was cancelled and the film banned, although it was eventually shown -- after more debate -- on Zanzibar. While the film was banned in at least some other "settler colonies," like Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), it was shown with some fanfare in Nigeria because of the presence of the Nigerian-born actor Orlando Martins in one of the major African roles.

Many thanks to DC for tracking down and passing along a copy of the film.

Monday, February 13, 2012

My Super Ex-Girlfriend

2006, US, directed by Ivan Reitman

The central conceit of the film -- a superhero who you really don't want to break up with unless you're interested in much more than a bruised ego -- might make for an amusing short film, but stretched out to feature length it's dreadfully over-extended stuff. I'm not the brightest at anticipating plot developments and even I was sitting there waiting for the inevitable twists to kick in, while wondering what prompted Uma Thurman to accept such a needlessly unpleasant part; even by the standards of Hollywood romances, the character sets gender stereotypes back several steps.

The Three Musketeers

2011, Germany/France/UK/USA, directed by Paul W.S. Anderson

I read Dumas's original novel twenty years ago in college and while the years may not necessarily have been kind to my memory, I had no recollection of the zeppelin-like air war that features in the climax of this version. I imagine that any re-telling of a much-filmed tale has to find something in the way of novelty, but changing the core intrigue so completely and tacking on CGI silliness to compensate for often bland actors, didn't work for me even when trapped on a plane with no other entertainment to hand. It really is a pity because there are very occasional hints of a more interesting film: Anderson makes good use of the sumptuous interior spaces of the palaces where much of the film takes place, and the swordplay sequences are for the most part brisk and clear.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

West of Zanzibar

1928, US, directed by Tod Browning

Remade a few years later, with sound, as Kongo, it's hard not to draw comparisons between Tod Browning's version and the later film, so closely do they hew to the same template. There are a few substantial differences -- the remake cuts out the extended stage-magic prologue that no doubt fascinated Browning, always a fan of unusual theatre folk, and also adds in a significant character -- but for the most part the narrative is almost jarringly similar, entire scenes playing out with near-identical results. The sound version is, if anything, rather more thoroughgoing in its seediness, layering further outrages on the manifold moral excesses already onscreen in 1928.

Ultimately, though, the films come down to something of a comparison between the differing acting styles of Lon Chaney, in one of his final screen appearances, and Walter Huston. There's no doubting the physical commitment of either actor, although Chaney is particularly arresting as he drops, animal-like, down the rope that leads to his sleeping area. He allows his withered legs to drop before him, before slinging the useless limbs one by one into a wheelchair: it's a fascinating bit of physical acting, which Browning repeats a number of times with variations. Chaney achieves an entirely different, subtler effect in the key scene where he realizes just how mis-guided his vengeance has been; the transition on his face from feral outrage to heartbroken sorrow is extraordinarily multi-layered, and no speeches from Huston in the later version can hold a candle to the intensity of the moment.

Note: This is part of the Watching Movies in Africa project. The film was shown in some locations in East Africa in the late 1920s/early 1930s, although white audiences objected to the film on the grounds that it suggested that whites were less than moral paragons, and also implied that white civilized values could not overcome African superstitions.

Saturday, February 11, 2012


1933, France, directed by Louis J. Gasnier

The first of a great many versions of Marcel Pagnol's 1928 play, which also appeared in an American incarnation the very same year, Louis Gasnier's film also marks actor Louis Jouvet's first screen appearance. Jouvet was already a major theatre star who had been in the running for the original stage production of Topaze, and not surprisingly, given both the origins of the material and the star, the film has a certain theatrical feel. That's especially true of Jouvet's character, who accumulates numerous tics, whether it's the pigeon-toed walk or the constant business with his hands. I couldn't help thinking of David Bordwell's recent piece on the use of hand gestures by actors, but as impressive as some of the detailed work is here Jouvet's constant hand movement eventually becomes rather distracting; it probably didn't help that the sound of the film was so poor that I had a hard time making out some of the lines.

Gasnier had a rather fascinating film career, starting off in 1905 with Max Linder's first cinematic appearance -- he directed dozens of early Linder shorts -- before heading off to the US, eventually ending up directing oddball exploitation features in the mid-1930s, the most notorious of which was the ostensible cautionary tale of marijuana use Reefer Madness. There are occasionally interesting flourishes here, even if Gasnier mostly lets the lines and his lead actor draw the attention -- there's a very amusing transition involving a literal horses's ass, and a curious shot in which Jouvet's face shares the screen with Vermeer's Girl with a Pearl Earring, though it's not clear if the director is suggesting any parallel between M. Topaze and the Dutch girl.

Saturday, February 04, 2012


1963, US, directed by Stanley Donen

Notwithstanding the startling opening, in which a body is flung from a train, and the presence of James Coburn as a particularly nasty customer, the terrifying question at the heart of Charade is really whether Cary Grant could possibly be a Baddie. Donen takes the germ of an idea bequeathed him by Hitchcock and adds several extra layers of audience-confusing intrigue to keep us in is-he-or-isn't-he suspense until the very last moment, with the entire edifice depending on our sense of Grant's terrific screen charm. Despite the occasional moments of menace, there's an essential playfulness to the entire film, foregrounded in the verbal jousting between Grant and the equally appealing, if rather younger, Audrey Hepburn.

Although set in Paris, the film is blessedly free of the usual tourist fantasia -- shots of the Eiffel Tower out every window -- and indeed many of the most memorable moments are on studio sets. The sequence where Hepburn arrives back to her marital home, early on, to find it stripped bare of every possession is both dramatically powerful and visually striking, with Hepburn becoming increasingly frantic as she runs from room to room. The scenes in Hepburn's hotel are equally clever: Donen makes much play with the ways in which the characters move from one room to another within the establishment (it occasionally reminded me of the precise mapping of space in another Hepburn film, Breakfast at Tiffany's).

Thursday, February 02, 2012

The Boy Kumasenu

1952, Gold Coast, directed by Sean Graham

The Boy Kumasenu was the first feature-length project produced by the Gold Coast Film Unit, led by Sean Graham. In comparison with other colonial film units -- the Bantu Educational Kinematograph Experiment (BEKE) or the Central African Film Unit (CAFU), for instance -- Graham's outfit was pretty broad-minded, rejecting the idea that Africans needed a special film language, that is, a film language that the colonial masters thought would be simple enough for "primitive Africans" to understand. Where other film units, over time, adopted an extremely static, slow style, Graham's film is full of traveling shots, quick cuts, atmospheric night-time scenes, and the occasional interesting angle; it's much more technically sophisticated and, by the standards of these things, entertaining than other colonial films. There's also a clever finale shot with two kinds of boats used to make a metaphorical point about change.

All that said, Graham's liberalism -- he strongly advocated locally interesting stories and local involvement in front of and behind the camera, complaining about the contributions of visitors like Montgomery Tully and Louis MacNeice -- had its limits: while there is synchronized sound in much of the film, the overriding voice is that of the British narrator (Russell Napier, though the actor was Australian-born). The narrator not only speaks about the African characters we see but in several scenes he actually speaks for them, as though he's saying their lines.

Note: This is part of the Watching Movies in Africa project. The Boy Kumasenu was released in the Gold Coast in July 1952 and there was considerable interest in the film, at least in the local press, which highlighted numerous screenings and printed several reaction pieces. The film is available online at Colonial Film: Moving Images of the British Empire; that site is an extremely valuable source for films about the Empire.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

13 Assassins

2010, Japan, directed by Takashi Miike

Before I headed off to the screening, my colleague commented, "there are a lot of... assassinations," as indeed you might expect with so many men at work here. At the time it didn't seem like an especially insightful observation but I understood afterwards her loss for suitable words. The entire second half of the film is an extended, extraordinarily energetic action sequence, a virtual barrage of swordplay, blood, and destruction -- the people responsible for making those swishing sword sounds were very, very busy on this project.

I'm not familiar with Takashi Miike's earlier work, except by reputation, but on the strength of this outing I'm kind of glad that he elected to remake The Thirteen Assassins (the original dates from 1963 and I've only been able to find a trailer) rather than The 47 Ronin. The problem with the climactic battle royale is that notwithstanding an hour of measured setup, most of the assassins are barely distinguishable from one another: the crazed, hilarious mountain man who becomes the final addition to the happy few is the most diverting of the good guys, while the villain of the piece is the film's most memorable character. He's a truly evil man, prone to using peasants for target practice, and so twisted that he revels in the film's bloody finale even though the purpose of the attack is to kill him and all who surround him.


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Most of the images here are either studio publicity stills or screen captures I've made myself; if I've taken your image without giving you credit, please let me know.

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Boston, Massachusetts, United States