Friday, February 27, 2009

For Your Eyes Only

1981, UK/US, directed by John Glen

Memory told me that this was going to be one of the more enjoyable Roger Moore-Bond capers, something of a return to basics with fewer giant sets and plenty of enjoyable stunt work. Memory is a cruel thing, however, since the film feels terribly flat at this remove. Given his background as a second unit director, it's no surprise that director John Glen generally does right by the chase scenes, but the pacing is abysmal. Shots end abruptly, there are ugly zooms aplenty, and the actors are mostly at sea (sometimes literally, of course). The most enjoyable sequence, an extended hillside chase involving a Citroën 2CV, comes early in the game, and after that it's a bit of an ordeal to the dénouement.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Hero

2004, Angola/France/Portugal, directed by Zézé Gamboa (Original title: O herói)

Zézé Gamboa's debut feature ultimately seems more effective as a starting point for a discussion of Angolan political and social life than as a fully functional film. While it's well-meaning, trying to trace the effects of Angola's decades of civil strife, the character motivations are often rather poorly thought through, and in many ways the film is far more a creature of Hollywood narrative logic than it would like to believe.

The plot is centered on a soldier who has lost a leg in the civil war but who has no place in the Luanda to which he returns after years of fighting. The soldier, Manu, functions as a means to introduce to all levels of Angolan society - the homeless, those trying to keep households together, and the rich who've either lived abroad or who can leave if they wish. While there are moments of striking insight into life on Luanda's streets, they ultimately become lost in the increasingly melodramatic storyline, which moves spasmodically from one scene to the next, with little sense of organic development. The authenticity is undercut, too, by the use of several non-Angolan actors in key roles, most glaringly in the case of Manu himself, played by a Senegalese actor whose dialogue is then dubbed into Portuguese.

Whispering Smith

1948, US, directed by Leslie Fenton

There's nothing all that surprising in Leslie Fenton's Whispering Smith, but it's a well-made entertainment, the kind of effective, carefully made B-plus film that has essentially disappeared from movie screens (popping up, if anywhere, in the guise of episodic television). As far as the plotting goes, it's straight from Hollywood's old standby pile, but the film has a very decent budget that allows for some beautiful opening scenery and a number of well-staged train wrecks.

Alan Ladd is solid, if unspectacular, as the eponymous Smith, a railroad detective who has to deal with shenanigans that swirl around old pal Murray Sinclair (Robert Preston). Preston manages to upstage the ostensible leading man on several occasions, particularly in his early scenes with Ladd, who is recovering from an injury; there's an affection between the characters that's effectively rendered by the ease with which the two performers interact.

Fenton has a bit of a directorial tic, dollying into his actors to underline a plot development in a kind of visual exclamation point, but other than that he doesn't intrude overly on the performances, perhaps unsurprisingly given he started out as actor. He extracts especially enjoyable turns from William Demarest (whose rat-tat-tat delivery nonetheless seems mildly out of place in a Western setting), Frank Faylen as a strikingly nasty sidekick, and Donald Crisp playing against his more familiar fatherly type as the chief villain of the piece.

(Part of the Watching Movies in Africa project; Whispering Smith played at the King's and Pen-Agege theatres in Lagos in September 1956).

Tuesday, February 17, 2009


2003, Germany, directed by Christian Petzold

Although Christian Petzold works in a very different tonal register, Wolfsburg is sometimes strikingly reminiscent of Tom Tykwer's 1997 film Winterschläfer in its narrative strategies. Indeed, the two films are both centered around car accidents and unexpected new relationships, and both have carefully constructed outcomes with a measure of poetic justice. The similarities end there, however: where Tykwer, more than in his other films, creates a strikingly warm portrait of small-town life, Petzold is a merciless observer of the surfaces of modern life. The small town, near Wolfsburg, where most of the film takes place seems to have no centre, no stabilizing force, a problem mirrored in the main character's lack of moral centre. Petzold's characters work in a car dealership and a supermarket, at opposite ends of the economic spectrum, and all seem trapped in existences over which they feel little control. Their moments of happiness are illusory, supported by the shakiest of foundations if not by outright lies - just as the new life constructed by the characters in Petzold's earlier film Die innere Sicherheit reveals itself to be a house of cards.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Band's Visit

2007, Israel/France/US, directed by Eran Kolirin

There's a gentle plea for tolerance at the heart of Eran Kolirin's film, which narrates the accidental visit of an Egyptian police orchestra to an isolated Israeli settlement, which might have come across as naive and sentimental were it not for Kolirin's dry humour and his ability to find genuine cross-cultural common ground. Just as the Egyptian cops realize that they will escape with their lives despite their wrong turn, Kolirin subtly but insistently portrays his Arab characters as citizens of the world who, like most of the rest of us, look for nothing more complicated than the pleasures of a night out with friends.

The cross-cultural theme is exemplified in Kolirin's filmmaking style, which evokes early Jim Jarmusch - a scene where three characters sit debating the merits of Chet Baker in an apartment kitchen might have been lifted from Stranger Than Paradise - or Aki Kaurismäki, with whom Kolirin shares an ability to conjure brilliantly funny set-ups out of a well-placed camera and a healthy sense of the absurd. He's also blessed with a phenomenal set of actors; Ronit Elkabetz deploys the full measure of her charm, but the other performances are equally beguiling.

The film is also refreshing for the way in which it adds an alternative image of Israel to our collective consciousness, underlining the fact that the boondocks are the boondocks wherever you are: a sequence shot in a desultory roller disco could have been lifted from a French or American film, as the few dancers roll their way around the room hoping for a connection. That this connection comes by way of a visiting Egyptian policeman, in a hilariously funny reworking of the Cyrano mythology, is the icing on the cake.

La Vie des morts

1991, France, directed by Arnaud Desplechin

Arnaud Desplechin's debut film is an astonishingly assured bit of work, establishing many of his later preoccupations in concentrated form: provincial roots, a soundtrack that veers from rap to opera, and family dynamics brought to life by a large and varied cast. Just as the film brought Desplechin to immediate critical attention, it revealed actors like Emmanuelle Devos, Marianne Denicourt and Thibault de Montalambert, all of whom have worked with Desplechin again. De Montalambert plays a character who feels like a version of the characters played in more recent Desplechin by Mathieu Amalric: the two actors even look quite similar.

The film centers on a strange family gathering, with parents and almost-grown-up children coming together in a vigil for an unseen cousin who lies in a hospital bed following a suicide attempt. There's little mourning in Desplechin's gathering, however. While the stricken cousin is a constant topic of conversation, the director is more interested in the moments of connection between his characters: a girlfriend (Devos) who is thrown into the deep end of a family meeting, two generations bonding over a snatch of music, the warm banter between a father and his children.

What elevates the film from simple observation, though, is Desplechin's sense of pacing, of when to move his camera to another actor or another moment, and his ability to weave a series of vignettes into something that evokes the fabric of this particular extended family and its social milieu. His characters are rough around the edges, which is exactly what renders them beguiling, and their happiness and grief feel absolutely genuine; Desplechin manages the delicate trick of allowing us to feel part of the gathering without simply spying on the participants.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

King Solomon's Mines

1950, US, directed by Compton Bennett and Andrew Marton

King Solomon's Mines is one of those films that's very difficult to watch without being permanently distracted by the fact that the film belongs to another world. Or rather two other worlds, the late Victorian period when H. Rider Haggard wrote the original book and the period just before African independence when the film was made.

The trailer is itself worthy of note. It's a tremendously lurid bit of work, with a voiceover that demands to be heard to be believed: "Into the strange and wild interior of darkest Africa, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer sent a motion picture company on safari. Here in its original setting, where no white woman had ever been before, was filmed the story of primitive savagery, of incredible danger." The white woman in question is Deborah Kerr, although there are probably a few long-dead missionary women, and many a colonial official's wife, who would contest her claim to have been the first white woman into the Congo.

The film itself is, inevitably, far less outlandish than its trailer. By the standards of the genre, Stewart Granger's Allan Quatermain is a pretty understanding great-white-hunter type. He's able to communicate effectively with his staff in their own language, although the film overstates the prevalence of Swahili across eastern and southern Africa. Quatermain is genuinely upset when an assistant is killed early in the film, and he has a well-developed sense of propriety in his dealings with various African tribes. Indeed, in the end, it's hard to decide whether the film is actually more patronising toward the African characters, whose customs are represented with at least some gestures towards anthropological accuracy, or towards Deborah Kerr's Elizabeth Curtis, whose primary mistake is to have been born a woman.

Leaving such weightier concerns aside, the film is an effective if lightweight safari adventure, with some striking scenery and animal footage. Structurally, though, it's rather weak: the middle section is an over-extended series of geographical or cultural challenges, and the film comes to an abrupt end almost without warning, as if the filmmakers realized they'd run out of time and had to scramble to tie up at least some of their loose ends.

(Part of the Watching Movies in Africa project. This film was widely shown in Zambia and Zimbabwe from the 1950s onwards, and younger audiences remain familiar with it. One of the more unusual aspects of the film from the perspective of my project is the fact that it was actually filmed in Africa, in what are now Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. In the 1950s, it was a rarity for Africans to be able to see themselves onscreen in any context, and it's likely that audiences valued the film on that basis even if the images of Africa were imperfect, at least viewed from the vantage point of the West in 2009.)

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Man From the Alamo

1953, US, directed by Budd Boetticher

Budd Boetticher's second Western doesn't have quite the same punchy opening as his first, since he needs to spend some time acquainting us with the back story at the Alamo. As a consequence, his protagonist, John Stroud (Glenn Ford) isn't introduced until several scenes into the film, after we've met the key military leaders and grasped the seriousness of the situation in the besieged fort.

Still, he has the same quick way of sketching in the key details, outlining just why Stroud's escape is significant, and then focusing single-mindedly on the consequences. While the film is considered a dry run for Boetticher's later cycle of Westerns with Randolph Scott, it still has much to say about notions of loyalty and duty. Thus, in a brisk 80 minutes we cover loyalty to country, state, family - loyalties that are often split, as Stroud cares for a Mexican farmboy orphaned by a gang of brutal killers using the hostilities as cover their own activities.

As such, it's a surprisingly resonant little film, concerned to show the complexities and moral quandaries that Stroud faces, while also fulfilling genre expectations. There are gunfights, including a spectacular, and surprisingly extended, dramatization of the assault on the Alamo, and there's a thrilling dash across the prairie as covered wagons seek to outrun a band of marauding bandits.

(Part of the Watching Movies in Africa project; The Man From the Alamo played at the King's in Lagos in September 1956).

Monday, February 09, 2009

Watching Movies in Africa

In 2008, I began a research project about moviegoing across West Africa, with a focus on cinema audiences in the period from 1939-1962 -- the Second World War to the independence era. This is a long-term project that will form the bones of a Ph.D. dissertation (in African history).

I am still in the process of assembling and collating large quantities of data about the films that were shown, the locations where they were projected, and their relative popularity. Thus far, I have been concentrating on urban locations in Ghana, Nigeria, Côte d'Ivoire and Senegal, with much more limited information on other parts of West Africa, and some comparative data from East and Southern Africa.

There are many different sources for information on film screenings: I have made use of newspapers, memoirs, novels and short stories, colonial administrative documents, and to a limited extent personal recollections. What is much more difficult to assess is the relative popularity of films, or to move beyond general assertions such as "everyone loved Westerns." From my initial data collection effort, based on a systematic collation of cinema listings from three different newspapers, some titles crop up so frequently that I am assuming they were reliable revenue-generators. That information is already painting a more nuanced picture of audience preferences.

As part of this project, I am also attempting to watch a reasonable number of the films that appear regularly in the film listings. I can't hope to project myself back to a movie screening in Abidjan or Kumasi, which would by all accounts have been a raucous affair, but I can begin to appreciate what people watched and, perhaps, why they made the choices they did. Unfortunately, many of the films are not easily available on DVD, which inevitably means my picture will be biased towards films that have been deemed worthy of continued circulation.

All this will of course influence the films that begin to appear in this space: expect an uptick in movies from the 1950s and before, and especially a glut of Westerns over the next couple of years...

2012 update: Since I began this project, I've zeroed in on Gold Coast/Ghana as my primary focus, and expanded the time period so that I cover roughly a 50-year span from 1925 (when early colonial censorship legislation was passed) to the early 1970s. While I continue to be interested in what people watched, and why, I'm also using Gold Coast/Ghana to a degree as an example of how the film industry, and particularly Hollywood, penetrated virtually every corner of the globe, and how they achieved that. In some respects, then, my project has shifted from something that might be easily classified as "African history" to something that is on the border between African history and cinema/business history.

Movies in the WMIA project (updated as often as I remember)

The Boy Kumasenu (1952, Gold Coast, Sean Graham)
Captain Blood (1935, US, Michael Curtiz)
Cobra Woman (1944, US, Robert Siodmak)
King Solomon's Mines (1950, US, Compton Bennett/Andrew Marton)
The Man From the Alamo (1953, US, Budd Boetticher)
Sanders of the River (1935, UK, Zoltan Korda)
Simba (1955, UK, Brian Desmond Hurst)
Something of Value (1957, US, Richard Brooks)
Son of Fury: The Story of Benjamin Blake (1942, US, John Cromwell)
Taken 2 (2012, France, Olivier Megaton)
War Arrow (1953, US, George Sherman)
West of Zanzibar (1928, US, Tod Browning)
West of Zanzibar (1954, UK, Harry Watt)
Where No Vultures Fly (1951, UK, Harry Watt)
Whispering Smith (1948, US, Leslie Fenton)

The Cimarron Kid

1952, US, directed by Budd Boetticher

Budd Boetticher's first Western is an enjoyable, efficient bit of work: the opening scenes sketch in the film's central problem swiftly, introducing us to the titular Cimarron Kid (Audie Murphy) and thrusting him into the situation that will set the action in motion (the Kid is attempting to go clean after a wrongful conviction, but an ugly encounter with a vindictive railroad detective makes him feel as though he has no choice but to join up with the Dalton gang.)

Those Daltons are a strange bunch: outlaws to be sure, but also a family (literally in some cases, since many of the gang members are brothers) that is tight knit, tolerant of at least some idiosyncrasy, and staunch in defence of its members. If anything, indeed, it's a little too idyllic; it's hard to reconcile the easygoing atmosphere of the lawbreakers' home base with their criminal ambitions, while only the Kid appears to have been pushed toward a life of crime (and even he gets a pretty good shake from the local Marshal).

Still, the film isn't designed to bear too much weight: it moves along briskly and cleanly, and Boetticher assembles his action scenes with great skill (a dual robbery, intercut in the early stages, is especially good, while two parallel scenes of bloodless ambush are strikingly shot, with gun barrels emerging menacingly but silently between the slats of a horse stall). Even here, relatively early in his career, Boetticher is making imaginative shot choices: the train robbery near the beginning of the film is shot with the camera moving back down the carriage, more and more passengers entering the frame, while late on he has an arresting shot in which two characters move into the shadows, their silhouettes framing the Kid as they debate his fate.


List of all movies

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.

About Me

Boston, Massachusetts, United States