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.

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.

Pioneer Review: Deep Water, Shallow Story

C+

  • Writtern by Nikolaj Frobenius, Hans Gunnarsson, Cathinka Nicolaysen, Erik Skjoldbjærg, and Kathrine Valen Zeiner
  • Directed by Erik Skjoldbjaerg

Early in this Norwegian thriller, two brothers—both highly-skilled deep-sea divers—have a talk. The one who’s a loving husband and father tells his bachelor brother that this will be his last dive; he wants to spend more time with his family. And so the clichés begin.

Set in the early 1980s, Pioneer’s plot wraps around a competition over which country will control a very lucrative oil pipeline in the North Sea. Will it be virtuous Norway, or the evil United States? The movie doesn’t play coy about who it’s rooting for. All of the Americans are crude, violent, and involved in an evil, murderous conspiracy. Many Norwegians are involved in the conspiracy, as well, but at least they feel guilty about it.

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The surviving brother, Petter (Aksel Hennie, star of wonderful thriller Headhunters), is blamed for the fatal accident. But he knows it’s not his fault. How could it be? He’s the star of the picture!

As Petter begins to look into the matter, people start trying to kill him. He’s even run off the road by one of those evil American divers. Mind you, no one is really taking his claims seriously at this point. Here’s a suggestion for anyone running an evil conspiracy: If someone is publically talking about your murderous work, and everyone else assumes that this person is crazy, his death in a car accident involving one of your employees will do your public image more harm than good.

Call it a thriller by the numbers. The twists and turns of the plot are almost all predictable. Really, did you possibly expect that the friend helping him wouldn’t turn up dead?  What’s more, Petter just isn’t all that interesting a protagonist.

The movie improves considerably in the last act, when the climax I expected didn’t happen. That was nice, but I had to wait for more than an hour to be surprised by a plot turn

Director Erik Skjoldbjaerg and his merry band of four co-writers never bring up the big question: Should this oil be tapped at all? I guess that raising the planet’s temperature and risking disastrous oil spills are acceptable goals if it helps Norway.

Approaching The End: Imagining Apocalypse in American Film

Film noir led to apocalyptic cinema. When human society has no clear moral boundaries, the end of the world is but a plot twist away.

imageAt least that’s the argument that Peter Labuza sets out to prove in his new, very short book, Approaching The End: Imagining Apocalypse in American Film. I can’t say that he really and truly succeeds.

After a first chapter arguing the differences between noir and melodrama, he discusses 10 films in moderate detail, showing their connection both to traditional noir and end-of-world themes. First, he discusses three classics from the golden era of noir that touch on issues of the then new atomic bomb:

  • Kiss Me Deadly
  • The Lady from Shanghai
  • The Big Heat

He follows that by examining three more recent films that display both noir tropes and touch on Christian conceptions of the apocalypse:

  • God Told Me To
  • The Rapture
  • Days of Heaven

Next, Labuza takes on noir-sci-fi crossbreeds that suggest a technological end of days:

  • Strange Days
  • The Terminator
  • They Live

Finally, he covers one film "that deals with a number of apocalyptic narratives through media saturation and the post-9/11 social environment."

  • Southland Tales

I’ve bulleted all of these films for a reason. The more of these films you’ve seen, and the better you know them, the more you’ll enjoy this book. Reading Labuza’s discussion of a film you haven’t seen is a laborious task; you’ll get little out of it except boredom and spoilers.

Things get more interesting (I wouldn’t go so far as to call them entertaining) when he discusses a film you know. Consider Days of Heaven, which I wrote about in 2011. Labuza notes (as I and others have) that the film places a B noir plot into a self-consciously artistic and beautiful mise en scene, and slows it down to an atmospheric pace.

The physical land thus acts as a temporal space of the past, a time of innocence made into a physical space. However, this supposed spatial heaven, which seems like the promise of an afterlife, has been plagued with the same troubles as human society.

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He also discusses the religious themes promised by the film’s title.

Malick juxtaposes the human conflict with the conflict of nature through biblical, apocalyptic imagery—the swarms of locusts, but especially the repeated depictions of fire. There are fires in the opening shots at the factory; in an early moment of the harvest, as the camera gazes into one of the tractors; in a brief mention by Linda during the voiceover recalling Ding-Dong’s story of an apocalyptic fie; and then, finally, during the fire that destroys the crops.

This book opened my eyes to new ways of interpreting Malick’s film. For instance, I had never caught on to the story’s relationship to the Genesis tale of Abraham and Sarah in Egypt. On the other hand, he failed to convince me that there’s anything apocalyptic about Days of Heaven.

But as you might guess from the above quotes, Labuza writes in the word-heavy, over-intellectualized style of an insecure academic. The whole book reads like a thesis. Even when what he had to say was interesting, his writing style made reading it feel like a chore.

If you’ve seen enough of these films, and you have patience with this type of writing, you might find Approaching the End interesting. You can skip the sections on film you haven’t seen or haven’t seen recently. You might even want to take the time to see them first.

The book’s publisher, The Critical Press, sells its e-books directly, without copy protection. When you buy the book, even without a physical form, you’ve really bought it.

Wild: Hiking, Health, and Heroin

A drama

  • Written by Nick Hornby, from a memoir by Cheryl Strayed
  • Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée

Judging from this adaptation of her memoirs, Cheryl Strayed led a pretty wild life, until she walked into the real wild and got herself together. I don’t know or care whether the film is accurate to Strayed’s memoirs or experience. But I can tell you with absolute certainty that it’s a powerful story of loss, love, fear, and personal courage.

Cheryl’s three-month hike along the Pacific Crest Trail makes up the film’s spine. (I’m calling the real person Strayed, and the character in the movie Cheryl.) As played by Reese Witherspoon (who also Executive Produced), Cheryl starts the journey woefully unprepared. She’s packed too much to carry. She bought the wrong stove fuel. Her shoes don’t fit properly.

Of course she learns along the way. Other hikers she meets give her help and advice. She becomes physically stronger. She learns through practice. She occasionally dips back into civilization, and especially enjoys a stop in Ashland, OR.

But the hike is largely pictured as difficult and dangerous. She runs out of water. She gets lost in the snow. More than once, she faces the very real possibility of rape.

The film never fully explains why she went on this arduous journey. But the flashbacks, which take up a good portion of the film’s running time, give us a clue. Unlike the main journey, the flashbacks are not told chronologically.

Many of the flashbacks involve her mother (Laura Dern), a woman who embraces life despite the many nasty turns it has given her. Poor and single, she loves her children deeply, and finds great joy in their company and in life itself. Her death by cancer at much too young an age clearly left a deep mark on Cheryl.

And then there’s the matter of her marriage, which Cheryl destroyed with her drug abuse–including a period of heroin addiction–and her habitual promiscuity. Her ex-husband is still her confidant and best friend. This is very much a young woman who needs to make a big change in her life.

One minor technical complaint: Wild was shot with the Arri Alexa XT, one of the best digital cameras around. For most movies, it’s all you need. But for capturing the beauty of the great outdoors, 35mm film still surpasses the best digital camera–even if the image is screened digitally.

And yet, I can understand the choice to use the Alexa. Much of Wild was shot in difficult locations, and carrying multiple thousand-foot-rolls of 35mm film would have made a difficult shoot much more difficult.

Besides, this film really isn’t about the beauty of the great outdoors. Only once does Cheryl stop to admire the view–and that time, the view includes full frontal male nudity.

Wild concentrates on something more basic than visual beauty. It’s really about the difficulties and dangers of those wild outdoors, and how a challenge can change a person for the better.

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.

Birdman, Dear White People, & Citizenfour–new movies I’ve seen recently

Here are three new films I caught in theaters recently.

A- Birdman
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Michael Keaton plays a has-been movie star hoping to gain artistic respectability by writing, directing, and performing in a Broadway play. But as he goes through rehearsals and previews, everything seems to be spinning out of control. What’s more, he either has supernatural powers or believes that he has them. Edward Norton plays an actor who already has the respect of critics, but is only fully himself when he’s on stage. Also in the cast: Zach Galifianakis, Naomi Watts, and Emma Stone. Like Hitchcock’s Rope, it’s not really shot in a single take, but is designed to give that impression. But unlike Rope, the gimmick works this time, perhaps because digital technology made this sort of thing possible. Much of the film is hysterically funny. But the picture is just a bit too long for the story or the idea, and in the end it doesn’t quite satisfy. From Alejandro González Iñárritu, whose Babel was my favorite film of 2006.

B+ Dear White People
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Justin Simien’s first feature is funny, dramatic, and insightful, and successfully avoids preaching. The main characters talk about their philosophies and ideals, but they’re all young college students, and that’s what young college students do. And when they’re African-American students in an overwhelmingly white ivy league school, you should expect some anger in their talk. Samantha (Tessa Thompson), whose campus radio program provides the film’s name, is the most militant and political. Lionel (Tyler James Williams) wears a giant afro, writes for the school paper and is too insecure to come out of the closet. Everything comes together at the climax (this is not a spoiler) where a group of largely white students throw an extremely racist Halloween party.

B Citizenfour
It’s impossible to evaluate this documentary as a work of art. For one thing, it’s subject matter is so important that I’m inclined to ignore it’s narrative flaws. For another, it covers subjects that I write about professionally. I’m actually researching a piece right now on encrypted email, and one of the first images in the film is a PGP public key (don’t worry if you don’t know what that means). But I’ll try.

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Laura Poitras starts the film with her own credentials as an activist filmmaker hated by the US government, but the real protagonist is Edward Snowden. Poitras and her camera were in the Hong Kong hotel room where Snowden told Glenn Greenwald about the NSA’s horrendous destruction of our privacy, and those four days of interviews make up the film’s centerpiece. Snowden–a great American hero in Poitras’ view and in my own–comes off mostly as a self-effacing nerd who understands right from wrong. But the long discussions in the hotel room become visually boring, despite the important and fascinating story at their core. Things get better as the action moves elsewhere, mostly in court hearings and press conferences. It would have been better if Poitras had found a more visually interesting way to show what Snowden was explaining. Being a nerd myself, my favorite moment had Snowden criticizing Greenwald for using a too-short password.

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