Timbuktu: Tyranny works slowly

A political drama

  • Written by Abderrahmane Sissako and Kessen Tall
  • Directed by Abderrahmane Sissako

At first glance, life in the fabled city and the surrounding prairie seem to have changed little over the centuries. But there are changes far more unsettling than the ubiquity of cellphones. An armed group of Muslim fundamentalists have taken over the area. Music, smoking, soccer and women with bare hands are now forbidden.

Abderrahmane Sissako’s remarkable film sometimes feels like one of those Altman movies about intertwining lives. We meet the gentle and forgiving imam who tries to tame the fanatics, the fishmonger who refuses to wear gloves while selling her fish, the young people unwilling to give up music, and the Islamist official who secretly smokes.

But mostly, we get to know the cow herder Kidane and his family. They live in a tent outside of town, they don’t have much money, but their lives are rich in love. Not that they’re living in the past. A prized cow is affectionately named GPS (I suspect that the 12-year-old daughter had something to do about that). Kidane will face horrible consequences before the film is over.

Timbuktu

At least his tragedy is, to a large extent, self-inflicted. Everyone else is inflicted by the new, fanatical rulers of Timbuktu. And yet, at least at the beginning, even they don’t come off the way we westerners imagine such people. Yes, they’re walking around with big guns and creating ever-more restrictive rules. But they act calm and friendly, and they seem reluctant to enforce the new rules. In other words, their fanaticism hasn’t completely destroyed their humanity.

Sissako and film editor Nadia Ben Rachid give Timbuktu a slow and stately pace. People think before they act. Much of the dialog is through interpreters (not everyone speaks the same language), so much of the dialog has to be said twice. The camera often lingers on an image. And yet, not for second did the film bore me.

The slow pace also enhances the strange, off-beat humor. In one remarkable scene, a group of teenage boys in a field play soccer with an imaginary ball. When some Islamists drive into and around the field, the boys quickly switch the calisthenics. Once the men with guns disappear, the imaginary game restarts.

As the film progresses, the fanatics become less of a joke and more of a mortal threat. People get whipped for infractions. An Islamist takes an unwilling bride over the objections of the young woman’s mother. A couple are buried up to their necks and stoned to death.

Timbuktu’s overall sense of tragedy and helplessness sneaks upon you slowly. I suspect that’s how it happens in real life.

Godard and Wilder: Friday Night at the Pacific Film Archive

What do Jean-Luc Godard and Billy Wilder have in common–aside from the obvious? The Pacific Film Archive is currently running series on both of them: Jean-Luc Godard: Expect Everything from Cinema and Ready for His Close-Up: The Films of Billy Wilder. Friday night, the PFA screened one film from each series. This was not a double bill; each movie required a separate ticket, and the films didn’t really go together. As far as I know, I may have been the only audience member to attend both screenings.

The night started with Godard, and ended with Wilder.

Germany Year 90 Nine Zero

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To be honest, I wouldn’t have bothered to see this film if I wasn’t also going to the Wilder one. I rarely enjoy–or get anything out of–a Godard film. But the last time I saw a Godard film at the PFA, I was pleasantly surprised. I thought maybe I’d be surprised again.

No surprise this time. Made for French television in 1991 (he was asked to make a film about solitude), Germany Year 90 Nine Zero is a dull meditation on all things German, made just after the wall was torn down. As Eddie Constantine wanders around the former East Germany, playing an out-of-work spy, multiple narrators talk about German artists, Communism, Nazis, the Holocaust, and whatever. News clips and shots of monuments fill the visuals. Much of what the narrators say, at least judging from the subtitles, sounds like an adolescent’s idea of profundity. A few juxtaposing images were clever, but that was about it.

The 35mm print was okay, but had seen better days.

Ace in the Hole

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Billy Wilder at his most misanthropic.

A once-great, now washed-up newspaper reporter–a man with a lot of talent and no scruples  –stumbles upon a big story: A man is trapped deep inside a cave, his legs pinned beneath rocks. The reporter (Kirk Douglas) makes the personal possible tragedy a national sensation. Huge crowds gather to camp out and watch the rescue. Politicians turn up. The whole thing becomes a county fair (the film was alternately titled The Big Carnival). The reporter, hoping to milk the story for as long as possible, pulls strings to delay the rescue.

I first saw Ace in the Hole on broadcast TV. That would have been in the late 1960s. It was broken up by commercials, and I was about 12. Friday night was my second experience.

It’s a pretty good melodrama, heavy its message–which feels very timely these days–and extremely bleak. The characters are all types, not people. The last act stretched my credibility. I enjoyed it, but it’s not one of Wilder’s best.

But it is one of his biggest. I don’t think I’ve seen a Billy Wilder film with so many crowd scenes. Of course, since it was set in the present (1951), Paramount didn’t have to spend much on costumes.

The PFA projected Ace in the Hole off a DCP. But it was a poor transfer that often looked more like video than film. Oddly, the opening credits were windowboxed (black bars on all four sides). This is common for transfers intended for TV, but I’d never seen it before for a theater-bound DCP.

And now, I’d like to discuss what bothered me about the final act. If you haven’t seen the movie, and object to spoilers, please stop reading now.

I mean it.

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Okay, everyone here willing to read about the ending?

As the story nears its end, the reporter grows a conscience, and tries to force the trapped man’s cold and bitter wife to wear a fur her husband bought her. The argument turns into a fight, and she stabs the reporter with scissors. As he bleeds to death, he drives to a church, picks up a priest, drives back, takes the priest down into the cave to give the trapped man last rites, returns from the cave, hops a makeshift elevator (a moderately impressive stunt done by Douglas himself)  to the top of the mountain, gives a speech, lets his sidekick drive him to town (which we’ve been told is a three-hour drive), goes back into the newspaper office, and manages to deliver a clever line before dropping dead.

As I said, the last act stretched my credibility.

Bisexual Iranian Immigrant Comedy Not Great–But Appropriate

C Comedy

  • Written and directed by Desiree Akhavan

There’s nothing really wrong with Desiree Akhavan’s autobiographical tale about a twenty-something woman trying to find her place–professionally but mostly romantically and sexually–in Brooklyn. But there’s nothing really right about it, either. The concept is very much like Girls, but the execution lacks the HBO series’ humor and incisive  characterizations.

The lead character, Shirin, is an Iranian immigrant who grew up in America and is culturally far more a New Yorker than a Persian. She’s bisexual–more gay than straight–but she can’t bring herself to come out to her completely secular, obviously liberal parents. Akhavan plays the part herself.

When we first meet Shirin, she’s just lost her job and broken up with her girlfriend. She gets a new job soon enough, although it’s one for which she’s woefully unqualified. She also finds a new girlfriend, Maxine (Rebecca Henderson). Actually, I’m not entirely sure that Maxine is the new girlfriend, or the old girlfriend seen in flashback. Most of the movie’s thankfully short runtime is committed to the ways Shirin drives Maxine away. I occasionally suspected that the narrative jumped back and forth in time, but it wasn’t clear.

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Whatever time she’s in, Shirin comes off as a self-centered, alcoholic brat. She complains. She mopes. She doesn’t give anyone a straight answer. She goes to bars, drinks heavily, and sleeps around. Then she blows her top when she catches Maxine kissing a man.

But she’s not quite a complete jerk. There’s a slight sense that her problem is really immaturity; that someday she’ll grow up and become a decent human being. Occasionally, I even found myself rooting for her.

The film’s other characters appear to exist only for Shirin’s benefit; so she can have someone to talk to…or to have sex with. Even Maxine, who initially comes off as an intelligent and principled human being, soon turns into nothing but an object for Shirin’s frustrations.

The marketing material I received touted the film as a realistic, character-driven comedy in the tradition of Annie Hall. I think I chuckled mildly a few times.

Just Appropriate is just okay.

My Thoughts on The Imitation Game

The Imitation Game takes considerable liberties in dramatizing the life of Alan Turing. But the result is an effective, entertaining, and sympathetic tragedy about a man who played important roles in both winning World War II and in laying the groundwork for computer technology, and who was hounded to suicide by an intolerant society.

The basic story is reasonably accurage. A brilliant mathematician, Turing played an important role–possibly the most important role–in cracking the Nazi’s enigma code, allowing the British military to read secret messages. He was one of the first people to conceive of the idea of a digital machine that could do whatever job it was given instructions to do–what we now call a computer. He hypothesized the concept of artificial intelligence, and developed the Turing Test as a way to find out if a computer could think. He was arrested and convicted for homosexual acts, and forced to take hormone injections to control his libido. He killed himself.

Screenwriter Graham Moore and director Morten Tyldum rightfully concentrate on his war experience. It allows us to follow him as part of a team–almost always more interesting than one person–and it gives us higher stakes. Civilization is in the balance. Besides, It’s fun to watch intelligent people break a code while they slowly turn into a team.

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Turing leads this top-secret team of code breakers–despite his utter lack of leadership ability. As played by Benedict Cumberbatch, he seems far along on the Asperger scale–the film’s most serious departure from truth. He throws himself relentlessly into his work, barely socializes with his compatriots, and misses almost every social cue. His pathetic attempt to tell a joke is funnier than the joke itself. The real Turing, while not a social butterfly, could get along with people without problems.

Every so often, the story flashes forward to Turing’s persecution in the early 1950s. At first, I was put off by these scenes–I wanted to stay with the main story. But as the film progressed, this story became urgent in its own right. Rory Kinnear’s performance as a dogged but ultimately sympathetic Scotland Yard detective helped.

The film occasionally flashes back to Turing’s childhood, when he makes one good friend at school. Fortunately, these scenes are brief, although by the end this story to became part of the emotional arc.

Like so many English period pieces, The Imitation Game acts primarily as a showcase for actors. Cumberbatch does a variation on his Sherlock Holmes, but he digs deeper here. His emotional struggles are more real. Keira Knightley plays the only woman on the team. She falls in love with Turing, of course. Fortunately, the film doesn’t make a big deal about that.

Unfortunately, the film occasionally stretches credibility. The code breakers take forever to figure out some obvious tricks

There’s another problem, and it’s one I’ve seen in a number of recent British period pieces: CGI spectacle. The Imitation Game has shots of bombers, burned out cities, and other high-scale images of war, all clearly created on computers. They look distractingly like beautiful paintings. To be fair, the glass shots, rear projection, and matte paintings of past eras look pretty fake, too, but that doesn’t really help. The film also uses actual war footage, which only serves to make the CGI look all the more fake.

I left the theater wanting to learn more about Turing. I give this film a B+.

Note: I have altered this article, and lowered the film’s grade, after learning more about Turing and reflecting on the film.

Physics Saturday: Interstellar and The Theory of Everything

I saw two very different movies on Saturday, but both were about physics. Well, sort of. Physics and fiction don’t blend together unless you can work in suspense, romance, tragedy, horrible diseases, and special effects.

Although one movie is a big, expensive Hollywood sci-fi blockbuster, and the other a British Indiewood biopic, their titles are almost interchangeable.

C+ Interstellar
Christopher Nolan’s space epic tries hard to be another 2001: A Space Odyssey–plot points, individual shots, and at least one character comes straight from Kubrick’s work. But whereas Kubrick explained very little, Nolan fills his picture with badly-written expository dialog. And despite all that, the movie still confuses audiences. And when it’s not confusing, it’s often dumb.

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Not that Interstellar is a complete loss. It’s visually stunning, and deserves to be seen on the biggest screen available. It’s often exciting and suspenseful. And for most of its runtime, it carries a strong sense of doom for both the main characters and the human race as a whole. It’s set in a near future where the few remaining people are facing eventual starvation (oddly, there’s no violence). NASA sends four humans (you guessed it; two white men, one white woman, and a black man–guess who dies) through a wormhole to find a habitable planet.

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Despite the holes in the science and the plot, and despite a female astronaut (Anne Hathaway) who behaves in an offensively stereotypically female way, I still found the picture reasonably interesting and enjoyable. That is, until the interminable third act. In the last hour, everything slows down to a crawl, the story and scientific logic collapse into a black hole, and the whole thing makes no sense at all. It’s explained, but the explanation doesn’t hold up.

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I saw Interstellar in 70mm at Oakland’s Grand Lake Theater. I’ll write another post about the presentation.

B+ The Theory of Everything
No one in this Stephen Hawking biopic blasts into space and dives into a wormhole, but the theories that suggest such things are possible play an important supporting role. Far more important roles are played by love, romance, and disabilities.

The film concentrates on Hawking’s first marriage, to Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones). She proposes to Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) soon after he’s diagnosed with motor neuron disease, with doctors giving him about two years to live. They broke up 25 years later, and he’s still working 24 years after that.

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Like so many British pictures, Theory provides a showcase for great acting. Jones plays Jane from a young college girl to a middle-aged mother, still in love with her husband but frustrated with the responsibilities thrust upon her as her husband deteriorates. Other respected talents in the cast include David Thewlis and Emily Watson.

But Redmayne has the big, showy role, and I’d be surprised if he doesn’t walk away with an Oscar next year. His Hawking doesn’t just age over the movie, he deteriorates. At first he’s just clumsy. Then his hands and feet don’t quite work properly. Slowly he becomes the Hawking we know, crumpled in his wheelchair, using a mouse-like device in his one good hand to communicate to the world via an electronic voice. Redmayne catches not only Hawking’s brilliance and his disability, but also his impish humor. I’m not quite ready to say this is the best performance of the year, but it’s certainly the most noticeable.

The Theory of Everything pushes no cinematic boundaries. If you’ve ever seen a 21st century British film set in the 20th century, you know exactly what you’re going to get. But that doesn’t make a bad film. In fact, it’s a very good one. It’s just not exceptional.

The Better Angels

B+ Historical drama

  • Written and directed by A.J. Edwards

About half way through A.J. Edwards’ gentle exploration of our 16th president (and my namesake), it occurred to me that a native-born American who hadn’t paid much attention in history class might not realize that the film was about Abraham Lincoln. Names are seldom spoken, and if the very young protagonist was ever called Abe, Abraham, or Lincoln, I missed it.

This is the story of Abe’s childhood in the backwoods of Kentucky and Indiana; and his relationship with his mother (Brit Marling), his father (Jason Clarke), and the stepmother who came into his life a little more than a year after his mother’s death (Diane Kruger). It was these two women who recognized something special in Abe and made sure he got an education–a rare luxury for that time and place.

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Edwards finds an unusual way to tell the story. There’s little dialog, and almost no exposition. The artful, widescreen, black-and-white cinematography makes heavy use of  a Steadicam and some very short lens. The resulting, heavy atmosphere produces a distancing effect, as if we’re watching an old memory.

And that, in fact, is what the film is meant to be. What little exposition there is comes from narration spoken in the character of Abe’s older cousin, Dennis, as an old man. Cameron Mitchell Williams plays the young Dennis; I don’t know who spoke the narration.

Braydon Denney, a talented child actor who looks remarkably like a young Abraham Lincoln, plays Abe as a boy torn between the backwards life that is all he’s ever known and a larger world that pulls his curiosity. He works hard in the fields, and enjoys roughhouse play with other kids. But he has a thirst that can’t be slaked by what’s in the woods. He reads whenever he can, and that’s limited by the hard, physical work and the few books available.

More than anyone else, his stepmother sees something special in Abe, and helps him get an education. His rough-hewn father doesn’t quite understand. He’s a strict disciplinarian, quick with a switch, without enough reading to understand the value of an education. But he loves Abe and the rest of his family, and he comes to accept what is happening.

At times the aforementioned cinematography (by Matthew J. Lloyd) gets in the way of the story. Several panning and tracking shots made the distortions caused by the short lens just plain annoying. But most of the time, the technique worked, creating the sense of a distant but very personal memory, centering on a poverty-stricken but very intelligent young boy. Who he will become is almost irrelevant.

The film opens Friday.

Thoughts on The Bicycle Thief

If you want to understand Italian neorealism, the desperation of poverty, or simply the power of cinema, you have to see Vittorio De Sica’s masterpiece, The Bicycle Thief (AKA Bicycle Thieves or Ladri di biciclette). You’ll find it deservedly on any short list of great motion pictures.

This film pits the desperately poor against the desperately poor, in a story that you know, deep down in your bones, can’t possibly end well. And yet, there are many touches of beauty, human kindness, and humor. It also has a young Enzo Staiola in what is probably the most adorable little kid role in the history of movies. Staiola’s Bruno, a practical but adoring boy still at the age of father worship, provides most of the humor, as well as the story’s heart. The protagonist, Antonio (Lamberto Maggiorani) sacrifices so much not for his own benefit, but for his family–especially his young son.

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I first saw The Bicycle Thief, in 16mm, in a college class in 1972. I instantly fell in love with it. And yet, I didn’t get around to seeing it again for many years. I next saw it, in 35mm, at the UC Theatre of blessed memory. That was probably in the 1980s, although I’m not sure. I revisited it again last Saturday night, streaming off of Netflix.

Let’s get the multiple versions of the title out of the way. The film was originally released in its native Italy as Ladri di biciclette. According to both Google’s translation tool and Wikipedia, that translates into Bicycle Thieves (or at least bike thieves). But when it opened in America, it was called The Bicycle Thief. Today, Netflix uses the singular title; Criterion the plural one. Both seem appropriate, but I stick with The Bicycle Thief because that’s the title I first knew, and the one on every version I’ve seen..

As the film begins, the unemployed Antonio, desperate to feed his family, finally gets a job–in part because he owns a bike, although his wife has to hock their bed sheets to get it out of hock. Then, on his first day on the job, his bike is stolen. Most of the film follows Antonio and Bruno in a desperate search through Rome, hoping against hope to find the bike.

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(Why would a grown man take his young son on such a quest? Officially, it’s because Bruno did the bike-repair chores, and therefore knows it better than anyone. The real reason, of course, is that Bruno adds to the drama while providing adorableness and  comic relief.)

Neither Maggiorani nor Staiola were professional actors. That was the point of neorealism. As much as possible, the short-lived style used real people in real locations to capture realistic stories of desperate poverty.

De Sica makes sure you know that Antonio’s poverty is the norm, not an exception. Even the thief, when you get to know him, is desperate and did what he had to do.

Despite (or perhaps because of) their lack of experience, both Maggiorani and Staiola display considerable acting talent and star charisma. Both had modest movie careers after this film. Unfortunately, at certain angles, Maggiorani reminded me of a dark-haired Dick Cavett, but since Cavett was a kid when the film was made, I can’t blame that on the actor or the director.

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This is a sad, heart-breaking story, relieved only by the love of family–even if it’s the family that is in crisis. I definitely give it an A+.

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