Monthly Archives: January 2014

Nairobi Half Life (Kenya-Germany 2012)

Mwas (Joseph Waimiru) bewildered when he first arrives in Nairobi.

Mwas (Joseph Wairimu) – bewildered when he first arrives in Nairobi.

Kenya has the largest economy in East Africa and like Nigeria and South Africa it has a legacy of anglophone film culture from the British colonial period. Contemporary Kenya has managed to retain cinemas in Nairobi and Mombasa but unlike the other two countries it has so far not managed to export films for the international market even though a range of films are made locally. In 2013 two Kenyan titles were screened as part of Bristol’s African Film Festival, Afrika Eye in the UK. Nairobi Half-Life and Something Necessary (Kenya 2013) were well-received and have now begun a tour of UK venues. Nairobi Half Life was also an official Kenyan entry for the Best Foreign Language Oscar in 2014, although it failed to make the shortlist.

In the past, Kenya was too often simply the ‘backdrop’ for adventure stories made by British or American producers. A good recentish example would be The Constant Gardener (UK-US-Germany 2005) which featured scenes set in the enormous shanty town of Kibera on the edge of Nairobi. Though this film had elements of ‘authenticity’ in its imagery (as might be expected from Fernando Meirelles,  the co-director of City of God) it was not really an African story. The two films screened at Afrika Eye were both made under the aegis of a partnership between German director Tom Tykwer’s One Fine Day production company and a local Kenyan company, Ginger Ink. What this meant in practice was that a local story and script was produced by a Kenyan creative team and Kenyan actors but aspects of post production were carried out in Germany and Tykwer and cinematographer Christian Almesberger were ‘supervisors’ of direction and camerawork. The music was scored by Xaver Von Treyer who worked closely with musicians in Nairobi (listen to a sample track here).

I should start my comments on the film by saying how much I enjoyed watching (and listening to) it. The performances of the leads are very good, the camerawork and editing, alongside the music, present all the vibrancy of city life and the narrative of what is a familiar genre film works well. The film was directed by David ‘Tosh’ Gitonga (who had been an assistant director on The First Grader (UK-US-Kenya 2010)).

The central character is Mwas (Joseph Wairimu), a young man desperate to leave his village and make it as an actor in the big city. What follows is a familiar story of the country boy landing in the city, suffering setbacks and falling in with a street gang. But Mwas really is a talented performer and he finds himself accepting an acting role in a local theatre group’s production at the same time that his new friends begin to escalate the scale of their criminal activities – partly, and largely unwittingly, because of actions begun by Mwas. It is this ‘double life’ for Mwas that creates his sense of ‘half life’. He can’t properly enjoy the new experience of acting (and meeting educated and sophisticated young people) when he is still committed to the street gang people who ‘rescued’ him.

My initial reaction to the film was that much as I enjoyed and admired it, I did have the feeling that there were two styles/two approaches in evidence that didn’t quite gell. In one sense of course this reflects the ‘half life’ for Mwas but I think that there is a more fundamental issue here about the ‘supervision’/mentoring by Europeans. No matter how well-intentioned (and well-thought through) the project, there is a sense of a hybrid film being produced. I was reminded of Metro Manila which has a similar narrative and genre mix. As in that film, the dialogue in Nairobi Half Life is mostly spoken in a local language, first Kikuyu in the village and the Swahili in the city. English words creep into Swahili much as they do in any modern urban language, but the crucial moment comes when Mwas meets actors who use English regularly (Swahili and English are the two official languages of Kenya). These meetings emphasise the social class differences in a society in which there is a relatively wealthy minority and a significant problem of rural poverty fuelling the drift to the city. I’m really skirting around the issue of ‘authenticity’ here. Nairobi Half Life tells a genuine African story but it does feel like an almost universal crime genre film with a realist style – and a conventional genre resolution to the narrative. It might be worth making a comparison with the gangster picture from the Congo, Viva Riva and the Canadian-directed War Witch (Rebelle) which both share some elements.

African filmmakers are faced with three choices in developing their own approaches. The first, evident from the early 1960s, was to accept training abroad and return to Africa to make films which attempted to offer an alternative to Hollywood/European models. The second is to take the overseas training but to then embrace genre models familiar from Hollywood and other commercial cinemas. The third is to stay home and try something rooted firmly in local culture – the Nigerian video film approach. I suspect that there are Kenyan variations on Nollywood and it would be interesting to see what they look like.

There are several interesting resources which give background on the production of Nairobi Half Life. This article from John Bailey and the American Academy’s outreach programme on cinematography visits Kenya and looks at classes of aspiring cinematographers linked to the Nairobi Half Life project. The film has its own Facebook page and One Fine Day Productions has details of its African workshops. Reviews of Nairobi Half Life have generally been very good, like this one. There are some others more critical, like this one.

Here is a One Fine Day Workshop documentary showing how the Kenyan project works in practice:

The Awakening (UK 2011)

Rebecca Hall (Florence) and Dominic West (Robert) on the moors above the school.

Rebecca Hall (Florence) and Dominic West (Robert) on the moors above the school.

I missed this film in cinemas and I was grateful for a TV screening that fitted into the ‘Christmas ghost story’ slot. The production was part-financed by BBC Films so it may be repeated in future Christmas schedules. The title refers to something repressed by the central character, Florence Cathcart (Rebecca Hall), a war widow and an educated and independent young woman (with plenty of money) in London in 1921. After the successful publication of her book about ‘ghost-hunting’ she is employed as a freelance investigator and the film opens with a set piece exposé of a fraudulent medium. But then Florence receives a visit from Robert Mallory (Dominic West), a teacher from a boarding prep school in Cumbria where a young boy has died in mysterious circumstances in what is believed to be a haunted building. Reluctantly, she agrees to travel north. What then transpires is an interesting drama involving mystery, romance and something which the rationalist Ms Cathcart is forced to come to terms with.

On the whole I enjoyed this first feature by director Nick Murphy who also co-wrote the film with the more experienced Stephen Volk. The weakest section for me was the opening up until the arrival at the school. The séance scene worked well but once outside the house I suddenly felt plunged into ‘BBC costume drama London’. Realist aesthetics in British film are so problematic. Recreations of 1920s/30s London always tend to use the same few ‘preserved’ streets which are so carefully ‘dressed’ and so clean that they look unreal. This was aggravated by the overall colour palette of the film with its almost bleached and subdued range. The squares (around Regent’s Park, I think) of white-painted houses positively gleamed in the sunlight – much as they have in countless TV series and several other films. This was then followed by the most picturesque train journey, actually through Scotland (Creative Scotland was another funder) – looking like an outtake from Harry Potter. Fortunately, once the narrative deposited the audience at the school (an amalgam of Scottish stately homes) the genre tropes kicked into gear and Eduard Grau’s cinematography and David Pemberton’s score became much more acceptable. All of this might be put in perspective by comparing the film with Hammer’s The Woman in Black (2012), which faced with a similar narrative set just a few years earlier, goes for broke with Gothic expressionism.

The Awakening is perhaps trying to distance itself from the heavily Gothic trappings and, unconsciously or not, links itself to the post World War I dramas about loss, trauma, grieving etc. (I was reminded Regeneration, the 1997 adaptation of Pat Barker’s novel.) Nevertheless, The Awakening mixes elements easily identifiable from three classic films: The Innocents (UK 1961), The Others (Spain/US 2001) and El orfanato (The Orphanage, Spain 2007). Thus we have an emotionally stressed young woman, a child/children and mysterious servants in a remote house. Murphy and Volk juggle these elements quite well and deliver an enigmatic but satisfying ending. Rebecca Hall has to carry the narrative drive and she does so magnificently. Again I was a little unsure at first about her character who seemed just too ‘modern’ in speech and behaviour, but as the narrative moved more towards melodrama she grew into the part very well. Dominic West is very good as well (though disconcertingly he looks exactly as he does in the 2011-2 TV series The Hour, set in the 1950s – whereas Hall I saw in Parade’s End (2012) set in roughly the same period). The other leading players include Imelda Staunton as the school’s matron, Shawn Dooley as another (damaged) teacher and Isaac William Hempstead as one of the boys (he’s since appeared in Game of Thrones).

awakening_indexThe Awakening isn’t a masterpiece like each of the three titles listed above, but it is an interesting attempt to re-work the same elements and to draw on a different notion of national trauma – something perhaps worth researching further and comparing to the importance of the ‘disappeared’ in Francoist Spain which informs El orfanato. The Lumière Database entry on the film reveals that although business was weak in the UK, it was much better in several other European markets – Spain matching the UK and Italy recording double the number of admissions. Russia and Poland also chipped in. Unfortunately, DVD figures are harder to find but there was a release in the  US and in Japan (see the poster which emphasises the Gothic heroine).

I hope that the film doesn’t disappear and that it generates interest from scholars.

Borgen 3

Katrine meets the new TV1 executive who is making life difficult for Torben Friis (left) in Borgen 3

Katrine meets the new TV1 executive who is making life difficult for Torben Friis (left) in Borgen 3

So, it’s all over. No more Saturday nights with Birgitte and Katrine and attention has turned to the second outing of The Bridge which started last Saturday. I’ve enjoyed Borgen immensely and apart from the performances of Sidse Babett Knudsen and Birgitte Hjort Sørensen as the two central characters throughout, what has been most fascinating has been the way in which the writers have manipulated storylines and shifted between different genres/modes. Occasionally this has led to outrageous plotting and truncated stories but overall the narrative flow has been steady and the structure sound.

(There are some spoilers here if you haven’t watched all ten episodes yet.) The biggest surprise in the third part of the serial was the ‘dropping’ of Kasper Juul from the original trio. I’m guessing that this was partly due to the other acting commitments of Pilou Asbaek, including his leading role in Kapringen (Hijacked, Denmark 2012). Asbaek had to fly out to the Indian Ocean whereas Søren Malling, who was in the same film but only in the Danish scenes, was presumably more available. Whatever the logistics, Malling’s character Torben Friis comes to the fore in Borgen 3 in a new storyline. This mirrors the earlier episodes in creating a personal/work-related set of crises. Torben’s affair with studio director Pia and his domestic marital problems are counterpointed by the arrival of a new executive at TV1 who wants to ‘commercialise’ the news and current affairs output at TV1. We had this before of course with the arrival at TV1 of the ousted populist Labour politician Michael Laugesen who then became the editor of a muck-raking tabloid. What is different this time is that we are treated to a whole narrative strand about the  shake-up at TV1 which is given a satirical edge, especially in the finale when the wonderful Hanne is allowed to star, turning on the ‘media studies student’ who is trying to change her presentation style on the flagship Election Night special. This was all very entertaining, although the treatment of poor Pia was very disturbing – being forced to wear those awful 1970s glasses was surely punishment enough without the rest of it.

The other two main stories were Birgitte’s health issues and her rather wet new boyfriend – a liaison that provided a lesson for all of us in the possible pitfalls of global television. I’m not sure how Alastair Mackenzie as ‘Jeremy Welsh’ went down in Denmark but in the UK his main claim to fame was a long stint as the young laird in the popular Sunday night ‘comfort show’ Monarch of the Glen between 2000 and 2003. It is already difficult to cope with Sidse Babett Knudsen’s beautifully enunciated English in their scenes together (it’s perfect, but doesn’t sound ‘right’) without being reminded of the earlier series. They never worked as a couple for me. The other main narrative was, of course, Birgitte’s return to political life with her new party. Setting up the ‘New Democrats’ was fascinating. More problematic was Katrine’s love life and the appearance of Lars Mikkelsen (Troels from The Killing 1) as the economics guru Søren Ravn. Bringing Katrine and Søren together seemed a little desperate – as if the scriptwriters realised how much had been lost by demoting Kasper from his lead role.

Overall, the serial worked for me as an entertainment and I thought it was a skilful production. If I’m slightly unhappy it’s because I wanted more of Katrine and Kasper together and I wanted to see Birgitte back in charge (and what happened to her children, Laura and Magnus – great performances throughout by Freja Riemann and Emil Poulsen). But it’s a wise decision to call a halt at this stage. Over three seasons Borgen has been unmissable and it will stay in the memory for a long time. There are rumours of a BBC/HBO remake. I hope not. Something original please! Meanwhile my attention shifts to Saga and Martin in The Bridge 2.

See earlier posts on Borgen 1 and Borgen 2 for more thoughts on the serial.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (US 2013)

Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen

Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen

Attending this screening with Rona felt a little like a cultural studies day out. There was a big audience for a 4 pm showing in the Hebden Bridge Picture House – young teenagers and some parents and grandparents. I didn’t count them but my impression was that the audience was more female than male. This was a different experience to watching part 1 of the franchise in an early evening show in Cineworld with the usual dozen people in a 200-250 seat cinema. Since then the franchise has really taken off and Jennifer Lawrence has become the star of the moment.

Our interest in the film is principally in terms of a social phenomenon. I remember enjoying Part 1 but finding it insubstantial apart from Ms Lawrence and the presence of Donald Sutherland, an old favourite. At the beginning of part 2, I realised that after 18 months I had forgotten most of the other characters (and most of the plot details) and it took me a while to get up to speed. It’s a long film at 146 mins and although never bored I did find myself reflecting on the nature of blockbusters. Half the film is a variation on the first film with more sophisticated games (with much more spent on effects) and the other half deals with the politics of preparing the contestants. This half has moved on and allowed some development of the theme of resistance in the fascist state that created the games. So, on the one hand we have a film that increasingly resembles the experience of playing a game (but I’m not a gamer and I might be reading this incorrectly?) and on the other at least the possibility of some kind of political comment. Critics and audiences have seemingly found this irresistible since the film is one of the biggest box office successes of the year with over $800 million worldwide. Half of that comes from North America suggesting that the international appeal is slightly less (the ‘normal’ split is more like 37:63). I’m not sure how to read that and it may be something worth investigating. Like the Twilight franchise, The Hunger Games is not a major studio release and the international market may be a harder sell for Lionsgate.

There can’t be too much doubt that much of the film’s success is based on the performance and star persona of Jennifer Lawrence. A genuine female action hero is hard to achieve. All the comic book female heroes seem to end up in some kind of  fetish gear outfit like Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman, in leather like Kate Beckinsale in Underworld or in hot pants like Angelina Jolie in Tomb Raider. Ms Lawrence does wear a wet suit in Hunger Games but her appearance is much more like a triathlete in the Olympics with a body for fighting not posing. She looks terrific without make-up but she can still carry off the twirl in a fantastic wedding dress. She’s a young woman with a great mind, a great body and a healthy attitude, no wonder she is a potential role model. She carries the film but I did wonder, sitting amongst a large audience, exactly how they were interacting with her screen presence. I was surprised that I didn’t feel more of the excitement of the audience. Instead there was the stillness of rapt attention.

I would concur with the critics who see this as a highly competent directorial effort by Francis Lawrence (perhaps helped by Simon Beaufoy’s addition to the writing team). The money is on the screen and the addition of Philip Seymour Hoffman is a major plus. The ending of the film is well-handled, setting up the next in the franchise. I think, however, that the ‘political’ theme has been over-hyped and I did find most of the other characters rather bland and unmemorable. I know the film isn’t aimed at me and the target audience won’t have seen many of the earlier films referenced – or have the same bored response to a satire on reality TV. I excuse Jena Malone from the bland tag. I recognised her from Donnie Darko and she injected a bit of extra life. Otherwise Jennifer Lawrence commands the screen.

One one trail for the film I spotted a typo in the director’s name which was listed as ‘Frances’ Lawrence. That did make me wonder why the film doesn’t have a female director – who might have a clearer idea of how to exploit the star power of Jennifer Lawrence in even more productive ways for the benefit of a young female audience?

Biriyani (India 2013)

Sugan (Karthi) and Priyanka (Hansika Motwani). Parasu (Premgi Amaren) is in the background.

Sugan (Karthi) and Priyanka (Hansika Motwani). Parasu (Premgi Amaren) is in the background.

In the last couple of years the UK exhibitor Cineworld has expanded its releases of Tamil films beyond London, showing them in areas like Bradford where the local South Asian languages are more likely to be Urdu, Punjabi or Bangla. Previously I have had to watch major Tamil films in Hindi dubs in local multiplexes but now there are Tamil releases – but usually only showing once nightly and too late for public transport. Biriyani therefore marks a change – a major Tamil release which has matched the screening schedules of Hindi releases, showing several times a day for the first couple of weeks. Since much of my experience of Tamil cinema has been with the acclaimed films of Mani Ratnam/Rajiv Menon or Shankar, I was keen to see something more solidly mainstream.

Biriyani is a major production directed by Venkat Prabhu and starring Karthi. Like blockbuster productions in other industries, the film has been trailed for over a year and then subject to various changes of release date (releases are often timed for religious holidays). Shooting was extended over many weeks in Chennai and elsewhere in Tamil Nadu as well as in Hyderabad. The film was finally released in December 2013 on over 1,000 screens ‘worldwide’ in both Tamil and Telugu versions.

Outline

The two central characters are Sugan (Karthi) and Parasu, two bright graduates in Chennai. One is very successful with women, the other is not. Their actual employment details are unclear but the plot sees them helping to launch a new motor dealership (lots of product placement for Mahindra).  This involves Sugan upstaging his on-off girlfriend, a local TV reporter and impressing a local business tycoon with the help of Parasu’s IT skills. Later, the two men, who are fond of a drink, find themselves at a biriyani food outlet on the highway where they meet a femme fatale, Maya. They awake the next morning to find a corpse in their car. How did it get there? What have they done? Why are they being chased by the police?

Commentary

The film actually starts with a flashback from the point where the central pair are being chased by the police. This takes us to the Intermission (in a film lasting 149 mins) and the second half provides the climax and an explanation of the mystery. This is a mainstream masala movie structured as a ‘buddy movie’ involving a murder mystery, film noir, action, romance and comedy. ‘Romance’ is perhaps the weakest element and more emphasis is placed on action and (black) comedy – the film has had some censorship difficulties because of the violence levels. I was surprised by the extent of the drinking and this was first Indian feature I’ve seen with the frequent on-screen warnings about excessive alcohol use (rather like the warnings on cigarette packets). I was also a little surprised by the more ‘open’ acknowledgement of sexual activity between some of the characters – i.e. in this kind of mainstream blockbuster. Overall, I felt that while the film shared the same ingredients as mainstream Hindi blockbusters, there was a real difference in how these ingredients were used by the filmmakers.

In my limited experience, Tamil films are sometimes more adventurous in their camerawork and use of effects – and, at the same time, somehow more ‘realist’, more ‘connected’ to local culture than their Hindi counterparts. Biriyani demonstrates this with a startling array of devices including motion capture, animation, references to social media technologies etc. The central characters are seemingly more wealthy than most of their audience given their lifestyle, but even so they don’t seem so divorced from mainstream Tamil culture. I was struck in the second half of the film how the plot developed so that a whole network of friends came to the aid of the central character played by Karthi – rather in the way of the group in a ‘new Bollywood’ film like Rang De Basanti.

One scene in particular highlighted the overall difference between Biriyani and many Hindi films. This was a song and dance sequence which appeared in the middle of a chase and involved a flash mob dancing on the platform of a Chennai railway station. I need to see the sequence again but as I understand it, it provided a new clue in unravelling the mystery, a different pleasure in enjoying the song and dance performance and a tribute to a local star (the object of the flash mob). All this gave the impression of being seamlessly shot in a public place with passengers looking on.

Overall, I found the film entertaining even if I didn’t enjoy most of the drinking and sexist jokes. I can see that some audiences would find the film too ‘tricksy’ in the way the plot is handled re the mystery (which also involves a supposed corruption investigation). The script cleverly uses references to the Hollywood hit comedy Hangover and also seeds clues and ‘pre-echoes’ of what might happen later, almost like a Hitchcock thriller.

Karthi and Hansika Motawi in one of the dance sequences which seems to refer to the stage sets of MGM musicals such as 'An American in Paris'

Karthi and Hansika Motwani in one of the dance sequences which seems to refer to the stage sets of MGM musicals such as ‘An American in Paris’

The film has a soundtrack composed by the prolific Yuvan Shankar Raja, youngest son of the legendary Ilaiyaraaja. I’m not in a good position to judge but it seemed good to me.

I’m pleased that Tamil cinema is getting a bigger profile in the UK but because the industry does not yet publish data on budgets, box office etc. in the same way as Hindi cinema, the industry does not have the profile it deserves in the international market. My own calculations suggest that in terms of films produced and audience numbers, Tamil cinema definitely figures in the international Top 10. There are something like 80 million Tamil speakers worldwide and in India the Tamil industry is well supported. Chennai rivals Mumbai as a production centre.

Mandy Takhar as Maya, the femme fatale

Mandy Takhar as Maya, the femme fatale

Actors and filmmakers move frequently between the various South Indian cinemas and also into Hindi and other Northern industries. In Biriyani, the two female leads are both from outside Tamil Nadu. Hansika Motwani is a Sindhi speaker born in Mumbai and Mandy Takhar who plays the femme fatale is ‘Punjabi-British’ and from Wolverhampton. If you haven’t seen a Tamil film, now is your chance to experience a different popular Indian film. I could have gone to see Dhoom 3, but I think I made the right choice.

Official studio trailer: