Monday, November 21, 2022
Camp de Thiaroye (1988), directed by Ousmane Sembene and Thierno Faty Sow.
My watch-through of the filmography of Senegalese director Oumane Sembene continues with his sixth film, war film Camp de Thiaroye.
World War Two has been taught to us in schools as a simple battle of good and evil. Axis bad, Allies good.
Of course, it is not that simple, as Sembene’s film proves to devastating effect. Camp de Thiaroye tells the story of a massacre of West African troops by the very French forces they had fought alongside after the African troops mutinied for pay. It seems that fighting intolerance abroad did not stop Allied Europe from thinking about its own racism. As the French might say, Quelle surprise.
Over two and a half hours, Sembene shows the poor treatment of the West Afrian soldiers, with the majority of the action claustrophobically taking place at the eponymous camp. The soldiers have returned from combat, and yet are being held in a place that may as well be a prisoner of war camp, what with its bad food and barbed wire.
This prison, of course, is the prison of colonialism. This point is bluntly effective, especially in a section in which the film makes a plea for intersectionality as the African forces compare and contrast their lives with their African American counterparts. Sembene’s agit prop points may drag over two and a half hours of the same beige landscapes, but they should stick in your own mind after the last shell has fallen.
Tuesday, November 22, 2022
Guelwaar (1993), directed by Ousmane Sembene. Watched online.
Film seven of the nine-film Sembene filmography, this feels like a culmination of everything he had done so far. It even contains a line that could be the director’s mission statement for his entire oeuvre: “What a place Africa is.”
Like most of Sembene’s film, Guelwaar has less of a plot and more of a series of incidents around a central dilemma. In this case, the problem is that a dead Christian anti-foreign aid activist has accidentally been buried in a Muslim cemetary, and the Catholic community’s attempts to get the body back anger the Islamic community.
Around this are nearly all of Sembene’s preoccupations from his previous work. The dead man’s son has emigrated to France, offering another side of the director’s fascination with the role French colonialism has had on Africa; Like in Mandabi, the central issue has been caused by the failure of bureaucracy; Like in Ceddo, religions fight it out for the soul of Africa.
Alongside this are some new themes that have emerged since Sembene made Camp de Thiaroye five years previously. The director flashes back to when the activist was still alive, and through him delivers a Great Dictator-style strident speech against foreign aid that might be the most polemical thing in the filmmaker’s career so far. Sembene also shows a surprisingly tolerant attitude to sex work for the early 1990s that still feels radical today.
The result of all of this is an engaging and thematically rich film that should be more widely seen as the ideal summation of the career of a master of African film.
Wednesday, November 23
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (2022), directed by Ryan Coogler. Watched at the Greenwich Odeon
More like Wakanda Sometimes.
The first movie introduced us to Wakanda, the most visually interesting thing in the MCU. So it is puzzling that they literally called the sequel Wakanda Forever and then set most of the movie out of Wakanda in a series of drab and too dark locations.
Friday, November 25
Pearl (2022), directed by Ti West. Screener
Every time a star tells the story of how they ‘always knew they would make it,’ it can make us think they were fated to be famous. But it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy – we just never hear from the people who ‘always knew they would make it’ but didn’t.
Pearl is one of those people. From X, we know that she is set to become a sex-crazed crone with a pitchfork, but here she is a farm girl with a strict mother, a violent streak and a dream of making it in the movies.
Most prequels are undone by over-explaining details that audiences did not want or need to know the history of. Pearl does not fall for that trap. There is no inciting incident that turns Pearl the character (Mia Goth) into a killer – instead, it is an impulse within that builds in force as her dreams of movie stardom are dashed.
Far more than X, Pearl is a star vehicle for lead actor and co-writer Mia Goth. The film works to the extent it does because she is totally committed to exploring the most unpleasant reaches of the character.
The film, however, does not always live up to her performance. Goth’s one-take monologue towards the end of the film is a great piece of acting, but it is not a replacement for an actual third act. The film’s low budget means a lack of the spectacle that you would need to truly pay tribute to the golden age of Hollywood.
However, the film is worth a watch for any creative who has ever been kept up at night wondering whether they’ll ever make it in their field. Things might have felt bleak, but at least that (probably) didn’t cause you to go on a murderous rampage like Pearl.
Sunday, November 27
Honk For Jesus, Save Your Soul (2022), directed by Adamma Ebo.
American mega churches feel emblematic of the country’s flaws; too vulgar, with the strong stench of hypocrisy and the sense that the whole system is built only to make the rich richer.
This is certainly true of Regina Hall and Sterling K Brown’s character in this mockumentary. They play husband and wife mega church owners who are trying to reopen their church after the latter was accused of sexually harassing young male parishioners.
Hall and brown booth give stellar performances as a bulldozer of a man who cannot stop his bluster even as it destroys his life and the woman who is simmering in her resentment of him respectively.
Unfortunately, the film as a whole cannot live up to their performances. Often, it finds itself stuck between modes. The film can’t decide whether it wants to be a comedy or a tragedy, and departs from its mockumentary format so often that you have to wonder why they bothered trying to place it in that genre.
Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery (2022), directed by Rian Johnson. Watched at the Odeon West End.
As if on a mission to prove that a smaller screen doesn’t have to mean smaller scale, the first of the Netflix knives or sequels goes big.
This has its positive and its negatives. The whodunnit is even knottier and more satisfying than the last time, as the southern fried Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) returns as an unexpected guest to a murder mystery party on a tech billionaire’s private island. The scale is bigger, with foreign locations and an explosive finale that wouldn’t be out of place in Daniel Craig’s former franchise. The cast also give high octane performances to match, with Kate Hudson’s problematic model and Janelle Monae’s dual role particular highlights.
With the bigger scale, however, comes a classic case of Netflix bloat. While the first half is necessary to set up all the plot points that make the second half so satisfying, it is a test of patience that might have home viewers reaching for their phones. Plus, the cast could easily be trimmed off a few characters to tighten the piece up.
Still, there is certainly enough in Glass Onion to make me thankful that Netflix has committed to making more of these.
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