AND THE LOSERS ARE…


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EVERYONE LOVES A list; and as we head into Oscar season, I too would like to throw in my top ten movie faves that I’d love to see short listed for 2016 movie accolades. Alas. Compared with those movie-mad capitols of the world, London remains resolutely parochial. Two of the year’s best: the brilliant, “I, Daniel Blake” and “Julieta”, which were only recently launched in New York, were aired here as far back as August. But we’re yet to get “La La Land” and “Manchester by the Sea”(mid January); “Jacky” isn’t due out until the end of the month; and “Fences” doesn’t show up until mid February (a tinge of racial invisibility here?). So it makes no sense to offer up a Top Ten list with these glaring omissions.

Instead I’ll suggest those movies which made me regret I’d lost two or more hours, when I could have been doing so many more interesting things…like sleeping or sharing a dry Martini.

Here’s my 2016 Low Water Mark

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CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR

This one promised well, with respected critic, Peter Bradshaw of the Guardian giving it four stars. And the premise was interesting: after an Avengers’ assault on some bad guys, the World has had enough of all the destruction that accompanies the battles of these super heroes. Is collateral damage just a small price to pay in the battle against terrorism? Or is collateral damage a manifestation of uncaring recklessness? What a premise! What thought-provoking questions! What a story waiting to be told!
It was all a sucker punch.
Having gotten the heavy philosophical lifting out of the way in the first fifteen minutes, the next six hours (what it felt like) mashed up multiple silly plot lines about Tony Stark’s murdered parents etc as an excuse for what was essentially a slug-fest between an invincible Iron Man and an unstoppable Captain America. They bash, smash, crash and make an unsightly hash of each other as they destroy an entire airport and fleets of aircraft. Pretty much the same plot actually as that other super-hero dud, “Batman v Superman”

Exhausting. Give me back my time!

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NICE GUYS

This had all the fingerprints of a movie shaped by focus group research and a squadron of script-writers. In it, two separate and not very interesting or funny characters (Russell Crowe hoping to redeem his reputation through the appearance of humor and Ryan Gosling showing that he can take a joke) happen to share a story. Said story’s no more than a series of brain-storm vignettes in search of an idea and patched together by an accountant. Bad guys arrive and shoot people from time to time; we trail through a boobs-dense Playboy type pool party (this replaces the usual boobs-dense stripper joint); bodies turn up in unexpected places and Kim Bassinger steps in as a crooked Head of the Department of Justice.

Sigh. Time was not on my side.

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GHOSTBUSTERS

Another comedy without a funny bone!
The cast certainly tried hard enough. They ground away with exaggerated enthusiasm through all the set-piece scenes as they battled against both an uprising of the dead and the refusal of a terrified government (hammily personified by Amy Garcia as the Mayor) to acknowledge the existence of whispy, malignant, slime-vomiting ghouls. SNL’s Leslie Jones, the token Black Person, exuding Black Folksiness seemed to be the only one who felt comfortable in her role. But the inventiveness of four women taking on the living and the dead (not to mention all that SNL talent) was never unleashed. The exuberant Melissa McCarthy remained strait-jacketed and unsure whether to go for the big gesture or contain herself; Kristen Wiig (SNL) was the mousy scientist with a lust for more than science who was transformed into… a mousy scientist with a lust for more than science (funny?). And fellow SNL alumni, Kate McKinnon, tried to channel the eye-popping zaniness of Christopher Lloyd from Back to The Future. Poorly.

I’d have the original again. Please

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JASON BOURNE

Not a trace of humour here in this flavorless (money-grubbing?) reboot of a leaden-scripted version of the Bourne franchise. Director Paul Greengrass’ decision to go for a revisited Bourne that was bigger, louder and more effects laden than past Bourne’s resulted in something fast and furious without a trace of finesse.
Gone was Jason’s simpático angst and the movies’ clever plot lines. This new Bourne was simply a blunt instrument, a mere action hero; one who you never felt was ever in danger.

We fans deserved a lot better. I intend to return to a time before this farrago was made and fondly keep to my memories of the first three

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THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN

Director Antoine Fuqua managed to transform the joyful excitement of the original The Magnificent Seven into a dull, leaden, sourpuss movie. Unlike the exciting original, with its glittering cast of characters, Fuqua’s … Magnificent Seven offered up a mainly charm-free bunch of heroes (less characters in their own right, more symbols of American history) that go through the motions, energized only by the studio’s payroll and by no discernible sparks of motivation. Only Chris Platt managed to add much needed swagger and roguish dynamism into this shoot ‘em up by numbers (and there are thousands of them) gang.
Fuqua’s one level The Magnificent Seven was all dehumanized metaphor without insight, fun or freshness, energized by an idea of leaden triteness.

Like Ghostbusters, or Jason Bourne, or Captain America, it was just another dud remake

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JACK REACHER: NEVER GO BACK

Tom Cruise at his most robotic. Now that’s saying a lot. The plot centered around Jack’s attempt to date someone he’d never met but whose voice he liked (aural sex?). But said voice turned out to be someone who “knew too much” and needed Jack’s lean, mean fighting machine skills; all running, jumping, shooting and kicking. Once Jack’s neurons had been activated, there was no turning them off until all perceived threat has been terminated.

Someone should terminate Cruise’s legal hold on future Jack Reacher stories

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THE ACCOUNTANT

The premise of the movie centered around an autistic Maths genius (Ben Affleck); a CPA working for the underworld, and also a lethal weapon thanks to his dad’s vigilance against childhood bullies. He was your typical autistic Maths genius hit man (who only killed bad guys, because he was a softie at heart). Very little made any sense in this tedious tale. He may have been a brilliant accountant, but in “The Accountant”, nothing really added up

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THE NEON DEMON

I saved the worst for last.
The highly stylized movie (every scene precisely and numbingly art directed) about our obsession over appearances, over the ideal of perfection and the predatory lusts they engender followed the life of Jesse (Elle Fanning) newly arrived in LA in search of a job as a model.

We met her initially as a corpse, blood gushing from her throat…all in the duty of art or photography or something. The story progressed via cannibalism, an eye being vomited up, Sapphic necrophilia, a snarling mountain lion trapped in a motel room, and as if that weren’t bad enough, Keanu Reeves.

Neon Demon had more symbols in the movie than a Robert Langdon symbology hunt…but without the silliness.

 

That’s my walk of shame. And there are sooo many I avoided, like Will Smith’s latest (I am told) schmaltz-fest, “Collateral Beauty”. At least I managed to hang on to my two hours there.

Happy New Year

 

 

 

 

La La LAND**** Worth all the song and dance


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AT YET ANOTHER one of her many auditions (where she’s usually ignored, interrupted or just dismissed), aspiring actor and playwright Mia (Emma Stone) is asked to “tell us a story”. So, because it’s that type of movie, she sings. She sings a story of her aunt, her inspiration, who dared to jump into the Seine, because she just wanted to. “Here’s to the ones who dream”, she sings. “…foolish as they may seem. Here’s to two hearts that ache. Here’s to the mess we make”

The song neatly summarizes the idea that drives this compellingly charming movie. La la land, or LA, or the city of stars, is where the action takes place. But la la land refers not to the silly escapism of people who dare to follow their dream, but to the cynical put down by people too scared to follow theirs. Perhaps at a meta dimension, it also refers to the fantasy of a director who dared produce a movie – a musical of all things – that contained both the romantic joy of singing dancing Hollywood, but also the realism that followed dreams don’t necessarily lead where you’d planned.

The story itself follows the fortunes of Mia and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling). She’s the wannabe actor waiting, like her friends to be discovered; he’s a brilliant, if undiscovered, Jazz pianist. In the grand tradition of Hollywood musicals, they keep bumping into each other. “This could never be” he sings, “You’re not the type for me”. “What a waste of a lovely night”, she concludes. But with each serendipitous bump, antipathy turns into friendship and friendship turns into love. They each provide the motivation the other lacks (so it goes with love), until, one day, motivation is needed no more.

The very idea of “follow your dreams; never give in to the average, the everyday, the easy payday” is of course a tired cliché. But director Damien Chazelle (“Whiplash”) manages the enormously difficult balance between the potential silliness of the idea and the pure magic that makes us believe; that seduces us into a la la land of fantasy, established from the get-go with an over the top dance routine right out of “Fame”…when an entire highway of drivers stuck in traffic sing about “reaching for the heights and chasing all the lights that shine”. But the silly fantasy (is it silly to dream? To reach for the stars?) is all grounded in the same kind of honesty of vision and integrity of storytelling Chazelle delivered in “Whiplash”. This mix of fantasy grounded in the real world is nicely underscored (via Justin Hurwitz’ lovely book and Mandy Moore’s choreography) through the real, and clearly unprofessional, singing and dancing of its two stars. His voice (like his acting) is pretty dull; hers is clear and glorious.

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Indeed, this is Emma Stone’s movie. Chazelle is wise (and trusting) enough to allow his camera to linger on her. Through her eyes, through the subtlest of expressions, Emma, without words, manages to communicate vast depths of complex emotions. Her character morphs from the ditzy Hollywood hopeful in awe of ‘movie stars’ to a knowing sophisticate, well experienced in the ways of love. She it is who, singlehandedly, neutralizes any trace of cliché; and who (unfortunately) diminishes Ryan Gosling’s character to that of a simplistic, if pretty, one-trick pony. Gosling has a nice sense of comic timing, but too often, there’s no “there” there. He seems to spend more time trying to look cool than expressing emotion.

The idea all falls into place near the very end, in an extended sliding doors montage that delivers a resonance way beyond the limitations of its story…as it suggests to its audience the ‘what if’s’ to all their – our – lives. What if, the story concludes by asking, the sliding doors in all of our la la lands led us into alternative lives, alternative sound tracks? Would we be all the better or worse for it? Happier or just different? Are we living the life we chose, or just living in la la land?

 

LA LA LAND. Dir/writer: Damien Chazelle. With Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling, Rosemary DeWitt, J.K.Simmons. Composer: Justin Hurwitz. Choreographer: Mandy Moore. Production designer: David Wasco (“Inglorious Basterds”). Cinematographer: Linus Sandgren (“American Hustle”)

 

 

ROGUE ONE*** Absent, the Force


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ROGUE ONE, ONE of the – no doubt – many new spin offs of the Star Wars saga to come, is a pleasant, often surprising Christmas treat for fans of the saga. The story (developed by John Knoll, known for his work on Episodes IV and VI and “Avatar”) is a clever enough prequel that slots in between episodes III and IV. It’s centered around the development of the Death Star (by an underused Mads Mikkelsen), and sews the seeds of its later destruction by the Rebel forces. And it’s fun to meet some of the old favourites: R2D2 and C3PO, still bickering; an imperious Darth Vader (still James Earl Jones) flicking his enemies away like flies; and a surprise performance by an actor who died in 1994, and was clearly disinterred for the role. There are other familiar faces, but that would be giving away too many nice surprises.

Not unlike its recent predecessor, “Episode VII The Force Awakens”, director Gareth Edwards (“Godzilla”) and his masterful team of designers (Doug Chiang and Neil Lamont) have managed to recreate that special look and feel so unique to the franchise. So, from the very first frame, you know you’re back a long long time ago, in a galaxy far far away. Knoll’s story cleverly re-engages us with the familiar (the ubiquitous canon-fodder Storm Troopers, a flash of light saber, those kite-like space-craft from the Empire etc.), whilst slipping in a few sly newbies: the ‘hero’ droid for instance is, unlike the droids we’ve known, ruthlessly badass.

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The problem with the movie is, apart from a blind Kung fu warrior (Donnie Chen, better known as the Ip Man, as the first Chinese in the saga. Such is the power of that audience!), the lead characters exist in a charisma-free zone. The wonderful relationships that formed the heart of the franchise – Han Solo and Princess Leia, Rey and Finn – are absent from this one. Felicity Jones’ Jyn Erso, and her co-rebel, Cassian Andor (Diego Luna from “Elysium”) run and shoot and exhort fellow rebels throughout the story, but as people, they’re less interesting than the droids. They’re as dull as dishwater.

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It’s the great characters that gave George Lucas’ star-gazing mumbo jumbo, the rich thrill and excitement that seduced the world: Han Solo’s rogue-ish charm, Darth Vader’s menace, Luke Skywalker’s innocence. And in its reinvention, Daisy Ridley and John Boyega wowed the world with their over the top charm. But in “Rogue One”: nothing. Nada. Zip. Jyn and Cassian are bland, video game action figures, for whom one can really feel very little. They neither bleed nor breathe; and tiny Felicity’s exhortation of bulky rebel fighters just comes across as fairly ludicrous.

The fault probably isn’t theirs. It’s the writing. Episode VII had the writing talents of Lawrence Kasdan (various Star Wars versions as well as “Raiders of the Lost Arc”), Michael Arndt (“The Hunger Games”, “Toy Story 3”, “Little Miss Sunshine”) and of course J.J. Abrams (creator of “Lost” and “Alias”). This informed the characters and gave the whole enterprise the feel of “real-ness”. But the “Rogue One” combination of director Gareth Edwards (“Godzilla” really?) and writers Chris Weitz (“Cinderella” and “The Golden Compass”) and Tony Gilroy (the Bourne franchise) was just not up to the task. The dialogue is functional and leaden. Not real words voiced by not real people.

What’s also missing (and is so much a part of the soul of this franchise) is John Williams’ stirring score. There are traces of it here and there, but Michael Giacchino’s version of the Star Wars’ anthems is as flat as the dialogue.

Apparently there was a massive amount of reshoots after the first rough cut was shown. So somebody must have realized – too late – that there was a problem in the Empire.

It was not a problem that they managed to solve

SNOWDEN**** Quick Unplug. Hide. They’re watching you


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Oliver Stone’s Snowden (his best in years) is a movie with a mission: to remove the stock-villain obscurantism that the US Government has wrapped around whistleblower Edward Snowden and humanize him. His Snowden is really a combination of a coming of age and a love story. We follow the life of his protagonist (played earnestly and carefully by Joseph Gordon-Levitt ) as it evolves and metastasizes from the easy patriotism of gung-ho, unquestioning all-American innocence to the difficult patriotism of the questioning  and informed citizen.

Stone has structured the movie into two narrative time frames: in one of them we’re with Snowden, now a fugitive, hidden away in a hotel room in Hong Kong with documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo of The Big Short), Glen Greenwald (a bristling performance of restrained anger from Zachary Quinto) and Ewan MacAskill from The Guardian (Tom Wilkinson). There, racing against the immanence of capture, they craft the public revelations of his pilfered security documents. But the main body of the narrative follows Snowden’s life from his earliest days with the CIA, as it seeks to answer the dual questions: what happened to turn this hand-on-heart believer of American exceptionalism into a ‘traitor’? How did it come to this? And, the bigger question: what is the meaning of patriotism?

To answer this, Snowden unfolds along the criss-crossing paths of Edward’s private and professional life. In his private life, he falls in love with Lindsay Mills, a pretty, liberal, photographer, (Shailene Woodley of  The Fault in Our Stars and  Allegiant in a role that finally matches her talent) even as, in his professional life, as a highly valued intelligence analyst, he’s falling in love with his other ‘lover’, Corbin O-Brian (a menacing performance from Rhys Ifans), his boss and mentor at the CIA. It is this boss who explains the big picture of the job to him: it’s not about uncovering jihadi plots and, as he notes, “Standard Oil plans for stealing the oil supplies” but about the Russians and the Chinese.

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But as Snowden rises in the ranks, privy to more and more of the dark web of professional secrets and deceits (and as a result more and more disturbed by what he knows), the toll on his private life becomes acute. The innocent joire de vivre of his love is slowly transformed into a life of bickering, and distrust. It is as though his increasing experience as a spy, a professional liar, poisons the relationship.

The professional and the private merge in two crisis, ah-ha moments. The first is when he, and a group of his young colleagues (under the leadership of a character played by Scott Eastwood, Clint’s son) realize that the government is spying twice as much on US (and German and ‘friendly allies’) citizens than on the Russians and Chinese. And the second is when he’s reassured by his mentor Corbin that his fears about Lindsay’s fidelity are unfounded. Snowden is just another citizen whose e-mails, and social media conversations and privacy have been hacked and is under the daily remorseless surveillance of Big Brother.

For, to the government, privacy means secrecy; spying is snooping; its surveillance extends to everyone everywhere anytime. And the secret service is only too happy to lie to the government’s elected officials about it all.

It is the totality of this deception, the limitlessness of the snooping and the callous disregard for the individual citizens’ constitutional rights that drive Snowden over the top…and that redefines his own self-harming expression of patriotism.

The journey from innocence to experience finally ends in the hero’s exile, first in a lonely room in an airport and finally somewhere in Russia. Throughout the movie, Stone is at pains to remind us that this is all ‘real’; and the movie ends with a ‘real-life’ interview between the actual Edward Snowden and Alan Rusbridger, the editor of The Guardian (who had the balls to break the story). This Greek tragedy is of course still being played out. But there’s little doubt that the honour, nobility and selfless integrity of this one wandering Odysseus will win out against the patience and implacable amorality of the omniscient State.

Stone’s thesis suggests that once belief in the moral rectitude of said State (the world view of the young Snowden as CIA recruit) disappears, we disabused citizens, become as isolated and exiled as this lonely young man. No more “I am…Spartacus”; to most of the increasingly embattled liberal world, “I am…Snowden”

(Apart from the strong performance of Shailene Woodley, there was another – surprising – strong cameo from Nicolas Cage, as a washed up, embittered operative; a man who’d seen too much for too long.  Snowden  is also a movie whose gripping story-telling was well crafted by its editors, Alex Marquez and Lee Percy)

 

SNOWDEN. Dir: Oliver Stone. With: Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Shailene Woodley. Melissa Leo. Zachary Quinto. Rhys Ifans. Nicolas Cage. Writers: Kieran Fitzgerald and Oliver Stone from the books by Anatoly Kuchera and Luke Harding. Editors: Alex Marquez and Lee Percy

 

 

ALLIED** A Bomb


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This minor league outing is at least entertainingly watchable, in no small part due to the high wattage luminousness of its two glamorous stars, Brand Pitt and Marion Cotillard. Veteran director Robert Zemeckis (“Castaway”, “Forrest Gump”) also does a good job, with production designer, Gary Freeman (“Maleficient”), of summoning up the terror of living in war-time England. And there’s also the couture from Joanna Johnson (“The BFG”) to add some glitz to the Blitz. The Second World War never looked this glam.

It’s a starry list of big-hitter talent in service of a staggeringly dumb story: a poor-man’s combination of “Casablanca” and “True Lies”.

Brad is a decorated Canadian intelligence officer with the unlikely name of Max Vattan, sent by the allies to German occupied Casablanca, where he is to rendezvous with a mysterious French resistance fighter, Marianne Beausejour (Cotillard). They’re to pass themselves off as a happily married Parisienne couple (and who wouldn’t want to be passed off as a married couple with either of these two?), as they plot the assassination of the German ambassador. Her close friends…the snooping neighbors…the German authorities…everyone is to be duped by his appearance (a six week holiday) and their supposed romance. From their very first tete a tete, Steven Knight (“Eastern Promises”) ensures that there’s no ambiguity about the theme of the movie: IT’S ALL ABOUT DECEPTION.

But who’s deceiving who?

After a brief period of professional distance, the imminence of death and the swirling obscurity of a sandstorm removes the “supposed” from the “romance” even as it removes their clothes…faster than you can say Brangelina. Love and London and marriage (and divorce) follow, as does the shadow of doubt. Is she all that she claims to be, or is she, as the British Secret Service suspect, a German double agent?
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As if unsure where to go with that nifty conceit, Knight doubles down on the silliness in the hope that the theme of deception would carry all the way through to the audience…like a sort of meta fiction. Alas it doesn’t, and the story grows as desperate for salvation as Brad’s character; until in the end, even Alan Silvestri’s soaring romantic music (IT’S NOT JUST ABOUT DECEPTION, IT’S REALLY ABOUT LOVE!) cannot perfume the stench.

This really is a January/February type of movie, seemingly shoehorned by its high cost names into a November (Oscar month) time slot (and, financially humbled by Dwayne Johnson/Disney’s “Moana”). So…if you must go, lower your expectations to a big budget TV event type standard, leave your common sense in the foyer…and enjoy

 

ALLIED. Dir: Robert Zemeckis. With: Brad Pitt, Marion Cotillard, Jared Harris (“The Crown”), Simon McBurney (“The Theory of Everything”). Cinematography: Don Burgess (“Flight”). Writer: Steven Knight (“Burnt”)

Magnificent William Kentridge at the Whitechapel


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The first exhibit in William Kentridge’s extraordinary exhibition now on at Whitechapel Gallery is, in formal terms, a sculpture; in informal terms, it’s a contraption. It’s a movie camera tripod, on which is mounted various sprockets and levers, connected to a bicycle wheel, on which is mounted two large megaphones.

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The object sets the tone and the themes of what are to follow in the six experiences that comprise the exhibition. The contraption appears whimsical…the sort of thing you’d find in the studio of a mad inventor. As it should: for every artist probably harbors the soul of a mad inventor (an image that recurs throughout). But there’s a darker side that threads the pieces: the idea that there can be a fine dividing line between the joyfulness of art and the darkness of propaganda (the megaphones), where the tools of the artist become the mere levers and cogs in the manufacture of sentiment and political perspective.

Kentridge is a South African (and you can feel this in his angst about censorship and propaganda) whose work mixes video, sculpture, animation, drawings, song, performance and audio collages, often mounted on the packing cases they were shipped in (as if the underline the ‘real-ness’ of the art). His pieces immerse the viewer into the action… which is -inescapably, like the State – all around you…on multiple screens, on canvases that seem to dance and make love with each other, through snippets of scratchy recordings reminiscent of Weimar Germany…all tenuously linked together through, often jokey, narratives.

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In the first experience (entitled The Refusal of Time), at the center of a large dark room sits a vast opening/closing wooden bellows, like lungs, attached to, and moved by a series of wooden cranes…wooden oil derricks, slowly, rhythmically pumping life into the room… indifferent to the passage of time shown in the assemblage of videos that make up the content of the piece. In them, black squares form themselves into various animals (from nothing comes something…willed into being by the deus maximus of the artist-creator). It may be his lungs in the middle, but there’s no doubt that we’re in his head now. And in his head, where time present and time past exist in an ontology separate and apart from the linear time of the room, we become privy to the mix of memory, dream, thought and emotion that profile the artist. The vignettes of storylines build toward a series of silhouetted figures that dance, trudge, walk, carrying their lives with them (one figure is scrubbing away in a bath born on by others; others are playing instruments; while some are simply lumbering along burdened by the baggage of their lives). They seem to move all around the room as if there were no corners. It’s an image of the refugees that now encompass our own lives and which oppress the artist. And then in a flash, a stroke of the brush, they’re gone…replaced by a comical image of a dancing man…the safe image the artist must show, perhaps to elude (maybe now, certainly in the past) the opprobrium of the State.

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In one environment (O Sentimental Machine, which is his most overtly critical of the corrupting influence of propaganda), he again plays with multiple ontologies. The central ‘event’ is of a woman walking past a vast mirror. But her image doesn’t quite reflect the ‘reality’. And so the real tries to accommodate the image…leading us to wonder to what extent who we are is a reflection of how we’re seen…and to what extent do we alter who we are to better reflect how we wish to be seen? It’s a kind of personal propaganda played out on the larger scene by the State.

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Kentridge is of course the genius behind it all. But these grand complex pieces are such masterpieces of computer wizardry, clever engineering and superb, old-fashioned musical compositions, that what shines through is the power of collaboration. Like a master conductor, Kentridge has harnessed and integrated a kaleidoscope of talent in service of thought provoking ideas.

And in these days where the gestalt of life seems to lie in political divisiveness and disintegration, it seems only the grand art of people like Kentridge can lead us back away from fragmentation to some sense of wholeness.

 

A United Kingdom**** Uplifting


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Amma Asante’s brilliant new movie, “A United Kingdom” is part tender love story, part virulent attack on (one of the many) ugly side(s) of the British Empire. She pulls off the delicate balancing act of engaging us in the very human, intimate story of a love, powerful enough to take on the anger of the empire (and the contempt of its citizens), while at the same time, telling the bigger story about leadership, nation building and freedom. To Asante, these two parallel stories embody the tensions of love/togetherness/nobility on the one hand, versus empire/division/dishonesty on the other.

The story is set in the period just after the war, in a perennially grey, foggy, cold London…where Ruth Williams (a compellingly strong Rosalind Pike) meets and falls in love with Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo, from “Selma”). The problem is, she’s White and he’s Black. And to the White society in which they lived at the time, this interracial cohabiting is an abomination. Because of her choice of a mate, Ruth slips from dutiful daughter and trusted worker to someone contemptible; someone to be expunged- from family (her father is the first person to reject her) and from society.

The more complex problem is that Seretsy is no ‘mere’ Black man: he is Prince Seretse Khama, the King in waiting to the British Protectorate, then called Bechuanaland (now Botswana). There, a parallel rejection occurs: Seretse’s uncle (Vusi Kunene), his de facto father, and the present ruler, will not tolerate a White daughter in law. As he puts it, just as there would be no tolerance for a British Royal to marry a Black person, so too there can be no tolerance for the Royal family of Botswana to accept a White outsider as the country’s queen.

Call it political pragmatism, call it tradition, bigotry begets bigotry.

What neither the uncle nor the British establishment counted on was the rock steadiness of Ruth and Seretse’s love, and of their mutually reinforcing determination to defy injustice, no matter the personal sacrifice.

Asante’s last movie, “Belle”, also dealt with the issue of bi-racial love, and sought to link its demands for equality with the move toward the abolition of slavery. As “A United Kingdom” suggests, one hundred plus years after its abolition, White disgust at Blackness (in those early post war years) remained unchanged.

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In the movie, the Empire, whether led by an amoral Clement Attlee or a bigoted Winston Churchill – both of whom would have no truck with this Black King and his White wife – is presented as generally mendacious, deceitful and lying. And its sneering, supercilious embodiment is Sir Alastair Canning (Jack Davenport better known as Norrington from”The Pirates of the Caribbean”). Canning is a minor historical footnote that, at Her Majesty’s pleasure, sought to divide Khama from his country and wife through any means at hand; all so as not to offend apartheid South Africa.

In the end, Asante suggests that the glue of love and unity (plus a hearty mixture of luck and Seretse’s cunning counter-moves) was a more powerful force than the cynicism of the British strategy of divide and conquer.

Love as guerilla warfare.

(Though Botswana was fortunate: the Tswana represents over 80% of the population…so the possibility of a united kingdom was perhaps easier than most of British Africa whose tribes were arbitrarily reshuffled by the ignorant dividing pen of colonial cartography)

Guy Hibbert, the writer, who wrote the superb “Eye in the Sky”, allows us to be both wooed by the romance and outraged by the history. In “A United Kingdom” he manages to personalize Westminster politicking -whose smug haughtiness was the spark that fired up the Khama’s even as it lit the bonfires of independence around the Empire

And Streatham born Amma Asante offers us a view of Bechuanaland – honest; matter of fact – without the exoticism that so many other directors, either gob-smacked by the beauty of Africa or ostentatiously saddened by its poverty, tend to succumb to (Sydney Pollack in “Out of Africa”).

Though, in those few scene-setting flashes we saw of the magnificent Okavango delta, I wish she’d have been a little bit less restrained and offered us more. No matter, what was on offer in “A United Kingdom” was a full bounty of magnificent movie making

 

A United Kingdom. Dir: Amma Asante. With: David Oyelowo, Rosamund Pike, Jack Davenport, Tom Felton. Writer: David Hibbert. Cinematographer: Sam McCurdy