Monday, February 25, 2013

TBFF Review- Slavery by Another Name

Slavery in the United Sates of America did not end until 1942 is the declaration of the documentary Slavery by Another Name. The contention of the documentary is that officially slavery was abolished  with the 13th amendment to the U.S. constitution but the actual experience of former slaves was no better and even in some cases worse under systems of sharecropping, debt servitude and especially under conscript leasing.

Narrated by Laurence Fishburne  director Sam Pollards film explores first person accounts through recollections of descendants, letters and actor portrayals of the historical events. The feature tracks events that are well known in historical circles but not tough in school or mentioned in regular community circles.

Based on the book of the same name by Douglas A Blackmon the piece shows that much of the economic post Civil War boom success was built on cheap black labour in the South. The South was also the engine of the factories, farming and mines that lead the Unites Sates out of it's internal struggles and on the path that would make it the  dominate power in the world. A reality that even northerners who were opposed to the the ways of the Southern states philosophically did not want to do anything that could jeopardize the every growing posterity of the country especially when Norther interest began to buy up the southern factories other commercial businesses.

The driving post Civil war industry was steel and the centre of the industry was in Birmingham Alabama. The labour working the mines to produced the product was made up largely of conscript labour. A practice by with the State could lease out prisoners to work in the mines for a fee.  In order to have the workforce one needed prisoners.  This was achieved by giving out long sentences to former slaves for minor offences, such as walking along side a rail road track , being caught paying a dice game, loitering, stealing a pig with the value of 1 dollar or more or stealing a wooden plank from a fence. In Alabama and other southern states the charges for these minor crimes could bring  a 5-10 year sentence.  The working conditions for these conscript labourers were so taxing that 33% of the labour force died each year. Charges that were in the past misdemeanours were suddenly turned into felonies and the South had their labour force.

The fact that they were prisoners meant you could work them longer hours, more on the weekends and more or less did not have to feed them. Their fate was worse than that of a slave as under slavery the owner had an interest in their labour force over the long haul. Under the conscript labour system you could replace one worker with the next just about whenever you wanted at a cost of as little as $9.00 per month.

Pollard's presentation does not offer any frills or sweeping innovations to the documentary world.  The story is presented plainly and may eventually end up more as an educational tool than an artistic piece of work. The accounts and stories  are presented in chronological order starting in the 1870's and working slowly and meticulously up to the start of world war two era.

A key device is the use of letters written by the conscript workers or heir family members.  Many of these letters were written to government officials or directly to Washington addressed to the political figures such as President Theodore Roosevelt or later to Eleanor Roosevelt.  Many have the same theme. A family member went to a factory or went out they did not come back home and were basically held against their will and forced to work.  These letters are in the writers own hand and were from the archives in Washington or other state houses. Some of the most powerful moments in the  picture occur when great great nieces or nephews of the author read the account the plight and living conditions of their for bearers.

The other main way to maintain the cheap labour foes was through peonage. A practice by were a debtor were forced into labour until what they owed was paid off.  The debt often did not have to be legitimate a mere accusation supported by the local judge would suffice and the major landowners had many of the local judges on their payroll. The debater was tied to the land by the courts and could not leave or face further action. The Federal government did take an interest in some of the peonage cases in the late 1890's but again the driving profits of the South outweighed any real action against the perpetrators.

The only part of the piece that does not work for the most part are the re enactments or actor portrayals of historical events.  These interludes do not ring true. The actors put on accents and dialogue from the time that does not measure up to the historical pictures, written documents and especially the hand written letters from the period.  The presentation of these vignettes look to polished and modern. They are in colour and simply ill fitted to the overall piece.

The  strongest part of the story are the accounts of the descendants many of whom are now leaders and lawmakers in the South. To see that only two or three generations back their relatives were treated worse than property and often sentenced to a certain death for minor offences such as selling cotton after dark or changing employers without the blessing of their former employer is remarkable.  In one scene a descendant now a top engineer in Alabama checks by a river for a tombstone of a relative who died in the conscript leasing system.   Often when the conscript prisoners died if they were outside of a mine and often by a riverbed if they were buried at all.  The flip side is the interviews with the descendants of the former leading business family members and overseers of the system.   They tell accounts of how their descendants were described to them as self made men who worked very hard for what they achieved.  Then when faced with the evidence from the research behind the film are soon overwhelmed and distraught.

Slavery by Another name is an important piece of work. It carefully reviewed data and antidotal evidence to provide a different account or hidden view of the events of the past. It showed how profit and national progress were put ahead of peoples rights and dignity. The material is presented directly a gives a message that should be considered and absorbed.

*** out of 4

Slavery by Another Name | Sam Pollard | U.S.A. | 2011| 90 Minutes.

Inaugural Toronto Black Film Festival.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

TBFF Film Review- Otelo Burning

Set at the height of the fight against apartheid along side the battle between Inkatha and ANC in 1989 South Africa is Otelo Burning. The story follows three township kids who take up surfing inhabiting beaches with signs posted Whites Only during off peak times.

Sixteen year old Otelo ( Jafta Mamabolo) spends most of his time hanging out with his best friend New Year (Thomas Gumede).  New Year's mom has a licence to run a bar in her home where a lot of the neighbourhood spend their off hours.

Another popular spot in Lamontville is the local pool. One of the locals Mandla (Sihle Xaba) looses out to Otelo for the attention of New Year's sister Dezi (Nolwazi Shange) but still invites the boys to a beach house where his mother works as a maid to try surfing.  Otelo and New Year take to the sport right away and the three begin to spend most of their time together at the beach.

A local experienced surfer sees the trio and quickly notices that they have lots of natural talent. He begins to work with and encourages them to enter Regionals and feels that they have the talent to make Nationals perhaps even becoming professional surfers with all the benefits of world travel including room service. They are fascinated by the concept of room service as they don't really know what it is exactly.

Otelo is very close to his younger brother Ntwe. He is 11 and very curious which often gets him in trouble. Otelo father is a hard working labourer raising two boys on his own and has a regular dream that Nwte will die near water before his 13th birthday.  Therefore he does not want Nwte to go in the water as he is convinced that there is a large snake in the sea. Nor does not want Nwte to take any chances or do anything remotely dangerous until he turns 13. Thus whenever Otelo and New Year are out with Nwte and come home late Otelo has to always explain the situation to his father.

Director Sara Blecher tells a tale about two best friends. Their relationship with a new found friend who introduced them to a sporting obsession plus a relationship between brothers and their father. Another main storyline is the ever growing jealousy of Mandla over Dezi and as he comes to realize that Otelo is also a better surfer.

The cinematography by Lance Gower is wonderful featuring the rich water blues during the surfing scenes, blue green half pipes and white to almost clear droplets of the spray of the waves.  The bright blue of the sky contrasts the sharp brown of beach vibrantly on the screen. The surf scenes are also backed by a bright yellow orange glowing sun surrounded by a darker orange background that fills out the frame to where the sea hits the horizon.  One of the brilliant shot sequences shows Otelo and New Year returning from a surfing outing along the site of a recent battle between Inkata and the ANC.  The fires are still burning on either side of the roadway smoke bellowing upward as the boys march down the street followed by a government patrol tank.

Otelo sees surfing as freedom from his small town which is agonizingly close to the Durban beaches.  It's escape from the battles between the waring factions enveloping him and the huge responsibility placed on him by his father fuelled by fear. Otelo sees the birds flying just above the waves and believes he can do the same on his surfboard.

Casting Director Meshack Mavuso achieved varying degrees of success with his choices for the film. Thomas Gumede is good as New Year the observer of the action and photographer of the groups surfing exploits. Nolwazi Shange is solid as his sister Desi. Kurt Struely is perfectly cast as the seasoned surf bum that guides and cultivates the troops talent.  On the other hand Jafta Mamabolo as the film's title character lacked emotion in key moments of the film and Sihle  Xaba as Mandela telegraphed the nature of his character from the outset thus robbing the viewer of some peaks in the story as the film progressed.

Belcher presents an alluring film set in a volatile period in South Africa's history. The story has some very good elements but is not without it's flaws. It is beautifully shot and the surfing scenes are superbly done but as a narrative it falls a bit short.

** 1/2 out of 4

Otelo Burning | Sara Belcher | South Africa | 2011| 96 Minutes.

Inaugural Toronto Black Film Festival.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

TBFF Film Review- Charles Bradley: Soul of America

Charles Bradley: Soul of America is a documentary film that follows the short period leading up to album debut of an energetic rhythm and blues singer. The twist is the artist is 62 years old.  Charles Bradley took 40 years to make it as a singer.  He toiled as a James Brown cover act wearing the trade mark wig and sporting the James Brown cape.  He was known both as Black Velvet and James Brown Jr. Bradley was unwilling to give up his dream collecting small fees for playing to partially filled rooms and taking on small jobs to keep going.

Bradley is a fantastic character with deep life experience. Born in Florida to a mother who left for  New York after a married man only to return later to take Bradley and his brother back to New York under dubious circumstances is one of the accounts from his life that became the basis of his music.

Signed to Daptone records in Brooklyn a small label that boasts other soul music artist lead by Sharon Jones the producers had a unique songwriting process with Charles.  They would have Charles come in to just sit and talk. Eventually they hit on an incredible story which became the basis of a track for the album.

Charles keeps an apartment in the projects where he goes for some alone time. His apartment is where he keeps his large pet Parakeet which he purchased during his stint living in California in the late 70's and into the 80's. But most of his time is spent at his mother's house where he covers the bills, does all of the cooking and takes care of the home.

As the album release date approaches Charles performs as an opening act for other artists in Albany and Poughkeepsie. Since  he used to live and work in Poughkeepsie he takes the time to drop in on a couple he's known since the late 60's  to invite them to show.  The crowds are appreciative of his original music wanting more or wishing that he would have come out and the end of the set with the main act for an encore.

The description of the musical process at Daptone records is fascinating.  Producer Gabriel Roth discusses every aspect of song creation.  They touch on how the lyrics are fleshed out. How they use a piano sequence that Charles always plays and incorporate it into a song. How a song cans start with a single guitar riff and that can build into a song in a mere couple of hours of playing.

An interesting side event is the appearance of Charles' English tutor. Charles would like to be able to write down his thoughts as lyrics but he reads and writes at a grade one level.  His tutor meets with him once a week to help him with his reading and to eventual reach is goal.

Costume design is all based on Bradley's personal style. He creates his own outfits for stage. He shops for the materials and if a designer outfit is two expenses he buys the fabrics and swatches in clothing stores and puts on the screens, cuffs and collars himself.

The film counts down to the album release party. In the final days leading up to the event. Charles is on the streets near the club handing out flyers in an attempt to raise a decent crowd for the event.  The album's producers are hopeful that it will go well but also realize that a rooking 62 year old performer could open to an empty house. The team get a boost as an article about Charles appears in the New York Post right before the show.

Director Poull Brien keeps the action moving and there are no wasted scenes in the 74 minute piece.
The film shows all aspects of Charles Bradley's life including the rough conditions in the projects and the poor neighbourhood and streets around Bradley's mothers Bedford-Stuy neighbourhood.

The soundtrack is full of rhythm and blues standards along with Charles Bradley originals. Bradley's reaction to the completion of the video for his first single.  The World (is going up in flames) is priceless it is a kin to a child reacting to a new found and before unheard of medium. Bradley pours out his heart and soul to the audience every time he hits the stage.  Every member of the audience leaves with the impression that he is singing to them directly. He throws every ounce of his being into the songs veins popping, up down to his knees and then up again on stage, all the while his on the stage voice straining to hit each and every note. When he tells the audience that he loves them and thanks them for coming to  hear him sing they truly believe him.

The main light of the film is Charles Bradley himself.  He tells the stories from his life plainly and honestly. His accounts of his monotonous working days in Poughkeepsie. A throw away story of a police stop that could have lead to serious trouble to a touching story of a pet chicken that he had as a child that suffered a tragic fate. The main characteristic of the man is his fighting spirit never giving up on has dream and finally getting that first record deal at age 62.  Charles Bradley: Soul of America is a film that I highly recommend.

*** 1/2 out of 4

Charles Bradley: Soul of America | Poull Brien | U.S.A. | 2012 | 74 Minutes.

Inaugural Toronto Black Film Festival.

Monday, February 18, 2013

TBFF Film Review - Phone Swap

Akin (Wale Ojo) is a top manager for a leading Lagos corporation. He has an idea that will change his company and easily lead to his appointment as CEO of the company.  He does not care who is effected in his department or if his current boss looses her job as a result.  Therefore his boss will not let him know the location of the retreat whee the company business will take place.  Akin puts his loyal but easily influenced assistant Alex ( Hafiz Oyetoro) on the case and proceeds to the airport to await the call with the details of the destination.

Mary ( Nse Ikpe-Etim) is a fashion designer. She is the main creative mind in her store but continues to be bullied by the store owner who takes credit for her work.  She is also having issues at her village between her sister and his husband and her father wants her to come home to mediate the dispute between the two. Mary is given the time off of work and its at the airport where she runs into Akin (literally) and the two switch blackberries.

Kembi Adesoye delivers a well written script and manages to mix in Igbo, Yoruba and some Ghanaian into the dialogue. A happy coincidence is that both Mary's friend at work and Akin's assistant are both named Alex so texts coming and going from each go undetected even after they have switched phones.  The devices used to acknowledge the swap is the ring tone of Mary's phone. When Akin first hears it he thinks its someone else's until he discovers the strange tone is coming from his pocket. Both lead characters of Akin and Mary are well written.  Akin initially comes across as the no nonsense business man that is totally out of his element in the country town of Owerri while Mary is the soft meek designer that lacks the confidence to stand up for herself and her work. Both grow during the film and in fact do each others task since they have not only swapped phones but destinations as well.

Costume designer Adesuwa Iyen Agbonifo has a great assignment on this film considering one of the main characters is a dress designer can produced many bright colour outfits and native attire for the characters.  The business characters are all dressed in traditional business fare.  Mary's sister  Cynthia (Ada Ameh) is an interesting contrast in her police / military outfit by day and her traditional Nigerian dress when she is off duty in her village. Akin's mother has a rich wardrobe of a well to do resort town resident accompanied with traditional head dresses.

Director Kunle Afolayan takes a shot at a comedy for the first time. He is the son of a famous Nigerian director who started out in the banking industry. None of his other siblings follow into his fathers profession. Kunle decided to direct and Phone Swap is a departure from his two prior films in the drama and thriller arena.

Editor Yemi Jolaoso does an excellent job with the materials. The film features many cuts between characters in different locations and often goes to the split screen route which can be risky but fits the narrative well here.  It's through the split screen sequences as they talk on the phone that that Mary and Akin's relationship grows and they recount their progress working on each others tasks.

A key well edited sequence is the airport swap incident where Mary and Akin run into each other and  the cut goes to each phone sliding away from the impact area then picked up by passers by and returned to the wrong person is a well edited sequence of the key moment in the film. The scenes between Akin and his mother are also edited well as again in two different locations can refers to known responses to each other over the phone.

One of the high comedic sequences in the film is the reaction of Akin and Mary's recent ex's when they call find a strange voice on the end of the respective phones. Followed by the steps each take to confront the supposed interlopers.

The soundtrack features songs with traditionally Nigerian rhythms, drums are predominate The movie theme Fate has a Plan for Everyone by Truth features drums, chanting, fast paced and uplifting lyrics. With You has more of a dance feel with some traditional beats in the chorus. Life is Beautiful is a very light piece with a slower beat and an island type sound.

The Production design led by Pat Nebo is a main element to show the contracts of the main characters situations.  Akin insists that Mary stays at his mothers while in Abuja.  Akin's mother's place is a lovely resort town gated estate with spacious rooms, a pool and and extensive garden. n enormous amount of space for one resident.   Upon hearing this Cynthia insist that Akin stay with Mary's family. Their dwelling is a two room farmhouse with Mary's dad, children and cousins all residing under the same roof.  The look of the small farming town is authentic and rural.

Mary's family in Owerie are well cast. Her dad (Chikla Okpala) has a strong performace as Mary's farmer dad who has to deal with an overbearing daughter and pending arrival of in laws.  Her sister is great showing a mean tough law enforcer and then as the dutiful wife.  Mary's co workers in the salon especially the actress that plays Alexis and the foil Alexis at Akin's shop is laugh out loud funny every time he hits the screen. Many local actors were used to play Akin's work associates at the company retreat in Abuja.

Kunle Afolayan crafted a highly watchable film with a good story and a cast lead by two talented lead actors The film is a good representation of Nigeria an anti- Nollywood film. Phone Swap is full of laugh out loud moments and shows how the most unlikely people  can adapt to unexpected situations and circumstances. A film I can definitely recommend.

*** out of 4

Phone Swap | Kunle Afolayan | Nigeria | 2012 | 120 Minutes.

Inaugural Toronto Black Film Festival.

TBFF Film Review - Rebelle (War Witch)

A narrator begins a story that she is telling to her yet unborn child. The opening scene is a small village where two rebel canoes full of fighters with AK 47's sack the town round up all of the children with the potential to fight and force them to kill their loved ones or their loved ones will suffer a more brutal fate if the rebels do it themselves.  Among this group is 12 year old Komona (Rachel Mwanza) and we soon learn that she is the narrator telling her story of the time she went to war to her unborn child.

The children are taken by the rebel leaders and taught what it is to be a rebel solider.  Their gun is now both their mother and father and a rebel solider must never loose their gun.  Soon Komona gains the reputation of having a feel for the location of the government forces. She sees ghosts when she is fed the hallucinogenic milk like substance from the trees in the woods. These ghosts warn her when the government troops are present.  The rebel chief  The Great Tiger (Mizinga Mwinga) believes that she is a witch and Komona is protected from any cruelty from other soldiers. The flip side is she is only valuable until the Rebels suffer a setback and her powers are questioned.

Magic spirituality and superstition play a major role in the community and the story. The rebels have a spiritual leader who directs the forces based on the outcome of casting stones. The group has one Albino solider the Magician (Serge Kanyinda)  who has rock like amulets that can protect your spirit from harm in the war. The piece is a mix of real events, fantasy and a glimpse into how forces can and do follow fantastical elements and make tactical decisions based on the spirit world.

Writer/ Director Kim Nguyen displays the brutality of a child soldiers life. Starting with a tear down of the soldiers past life then a rebuild into making your gun and the rebels your new family. The terrible conditions while on patrol. very little to eat hallucinogenics to keep the soldiers moving.  Nguyen divides the film into chapters based on Komona age at the time of the action. Starting from when she is kidnapped at 12 and moving onwards.

After a close call with government forces Komona is convinced to leave the rebels by the magician. He explains that the Great Tiger killed his last three witches once they fell out of favor.  Even after leaving the Rebels Komona continues to have the dreams of ghosts and family members. The Rebels also are not faraway as the Chief wants his witch back. The film does have an extended comedic interlude or a beak from the violence and strife as the Magician attempts to find a white rooster before he can have Komona's hand in marriage.

Cinematographer Nicolas Bolduc presents a dreary landscape to match the sorrow and horror of the child solider existence. The sky's are often grey washed out colours mud, and the ghosts appear with white ashes covering their skin. There is some colour mainly during the interlude in the Magicians village when Komona and the Magician spend time with his uncle the butcher. We see the white of the rooster, the bright colours in the village and the greens of the local vegetation. The other piece of colour is in the rebel camp. The shots in the cam feature a blue sky, colourful plants and foliage and rich colour of the roads in the compound.

The film shot in the Congo has many location choices . The opening village has the look of a typical village in the sub Sahara area. It's a small group of buildings near the water. A variety of materials are used for the buildings from Aluminium to wood to hanging tapestries and tarps.  The buildings are multicoloured to show that each piece patched together is of different material. The base for the rebels has the elements of an old religions temple.  The main building in the compound is a huge structure with a large dome.  It's missing windows and many of the ones that are present are broken. The ground area has sandbags which can be part of the defense if attacked by the government forces. The natural countryside is also used in abundance for the film.  The river by which the rebels first come to Komona's village It's also the river that she goes back along to bury her parents and end the ghosts from visiting her at night.  The forest that the rebels hike through to head to battles with  the government forces. It's also in the forest where the new recruits have their first training and taste the milk which leads to hallucinations. The country roads  are also prominent as travel is a major part of the piece by motorcycle, foot and in the back of trucks and vans.

Costume designer Eric Poirier dresses the cast to suit the surroundings. Most of the child soldiers are dressed in tank tops and shorts.  Some of the commanders are dressed in military green and sport berets. The wardrobe of the characters does not vary significantly during the piece. Komona does wear a bit of Americana with an Abercrombie and Fitch top that barley covers her belly towards the end of her pregnancy. One of the comedic moments involves an attempt by the magician to take clothes from a line in a local village and being chased off by an older local woman wielding her own AK 47.

The soundtrack is filled with local African songs and orchestral pieces. The music is mainly subtle and does not overwhelm or dominate the action on the screen. The orchestral choices are heavy in strings, violins, violas which are foreboding and set the sorrowful mood of the main character for most of the film.

The film was cast both in Canada and the Congo.  Rachel Mwanza is excellent as the central character  Komona. Alain Lindo Mic Eli Bastein is very strong in a small role as the terrifying Rebel Commander. Serge Kanyinda also puts in a memorable performance as the Magician.  The local casting in the Congo were all good choices. Especially the villagers that laugh opening at the Magician despite that fact that he is armed with Kalashnikov rife as he enquiries forcefully during his search for a white rooster.

Rebelle (War Witch) places a romantic story in between the ongoing violence of a civil war. The two main protagonists attempt to escape the warrior life and manage to do so for a short period before violence and war finds them again.  Nguyen tells a tense, gripping story of the horrors of war fought by child soldiers in Africa. The film is not specific to a particular struggle thus it could easily apply to many different battles throughout the continent. Nguyen brings out the human element within the child solider and shows how they can be resilient in the face of horrific acts and actions that they have seen and performed themselves.  This is a film that I can definitely recommend.

*** 1/2  out of 4

Rebelle (War Witch) | Kim Nguyen | Canada | 2012 | 90 Minutes.

Inaugural Toronto Black Film Festival. 

Thursday, February 14, 2013

TBFF Film Review - Nairobi Half Life

Mwas (Joseph Wirimu) is a small town dreamer. He lives in rual Kenya and sells counterfeit movies for 50 a piece. He often acts out scenes from the films such as the five point exploding heart technique from Kill Bill Vol. 2 to sinch the sale.  Mwas wants to be an actor himself and decides to go to Nairobi to make his acting dream come true.  As part of his plan Mwas makes a deal with a member of a travelling acting crew that comes through his small town to represent him as an agent.

After gathering his affairs and different levels of reaction from his father brother and mother, plus accepting a package from a relative and local gangster Mwas heads out to the big city.

The first day in Nairobi does not go well. Mwas is rolled almost the minute he gets off the bus and ends up spending his first night in the city jail. There he meets Oti (Olwenya Maina) who becomes one of is pals when they both are out of jail.

Eventually Mwas does make it to the local acting house The Phoenix where he auditions and lands a role in a play. He also spends time with Oti and his friends taking for themselves anything that Nairobi puts in their paths.

Director David Tosh Gitonga presents an entertaining film filled with many comedic moments. The film captures small town Kenya and the big city of Nairobi equally well. Gitonga gives you the sense of the haves and have nots in Nairobi. On the one hand you have people that have next to nothing. The men steal anything they can and the women only option for money appears to be the sex industry.  On the other side the rich in their suits and designer dresses work in the downtown office towers and drive their SUV's home to their gated residences outside of town. Even Mwas' play has as it's central theme the gulf between the rich and the poor in the city. Somewhere in the middle are the corrupt cops looking for their cut from crime then turning on their criminal partners when they have out served their usefulness. The viewer gets the impression that what Gitonga is portraying on film is not far off every day life in Nairobi

Cinematograph Christian Almesberger presents a rich visual of the Kenian countryside.  The bright vibrant colours of the dirt roads, the browns in the setting sky and shadows engulfing the actors on screen. A dark back lit foreground dominate Mwas' last night at home before he leaves for Nairobi. The presentation really sets the mood for night-time in a village where light is scarce.  The visuals give the audience the strong impression that they are under a Kenyan moonless sky.

Costume Designer Abul Mhammmed takes a minimalist approach for the film. Mwas is in the same clothes the first two days he is in Nairobi. A change in outfit is the device used in the script to show that he has been in town for a while and established. The other characters are outfitted in standard young people wares.  The young prostitute females are dressed rather normally in shorts and halter tops.

Xaver von Tryer's soundtrack is understated and does not overwhelm the action or dialogue. The musical choices back the action sequences and slowly build to match the events on screen. Selections supporting Mwas criminal life are more gritty then the pieces underpinning his acting related scenes.  The backing music for Mwas first appearance at the National Film Board is light, airy, woodwind driven and almost Asian in its feel.  The haunting main theme Half Life mixes drums, bells and guitars in rich mixture of native beats, rhythm and sound.

Mwas develops a close friendship with Oti's girlfriend Amina (Nancy Wanjiku Karanja) and feels that he can only trust her with his dream of becoming an screen actor as he continues to be part of Oti's crew in his down time.

Nairobi Half Life is a well written piece. The dialogue is direct and is full of local flare. The characters switch easily back and forth between Swahili, Kikuyu and English sometimes even in mid sentence. The story moves at a fast pace that keeps the viewer engaged.  The main characters are multi dimensional and the audience quickly becomes invested in their fates. The writing team create a bathroom scene in the first act that makes the toilet from Trainspotting look like the finest the Ritz Carlton has to offer.

Joseph Wairimu is well cast as the central figure Mwas. His first impression is that of the town jester but shows himself to be very loyal, witty and extremely protective of his friends.  Oti is equally good as the crew leader and Mwas best friend in Nairobi.  The aforementioned Karanja is very strong as Oti's girlfriend and Mwas friend and confidant Amina.

David Tosh Gitonga has crafted a film that shows the good and bad parts of every day life in Niarobi and has a theme running throughout of the separation between the rich and poor.  Nairobi Half Life is a film that I can recommend.

*** out of 4

Nairobi Half Life | David Tosh Gitonga | Kenya / Germany | 2012 | 96 Minutes.

Opening Night Gala Inaugural Toronto Black Film Festival.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Film Review - Side Effects

Director Steven Soderbergh ends his 14 year film making career with Side Effects that takes a hard look at the pharmaceutical industry and psychiatry in general.  The film tackles the subjects of pills, medication, research projects and the role of pharmaceutical reps.

Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) has everything anyone could want. Her Husband Martin (Channing Tatum) is a leading Stockbroker on Wall Street. They have a large home in Connecticut and are surrounded by well to do friends. The couple own a sailboat that they take out on a regular basis to relax at sea. Their estate is the scene of many parties where their gusts arrive and valet park their high end vehicles. Emily's life changes abruptly when her husband is arrested for insider trading and is sentenced to four years in prison.

Desperate, sad and anxious she turns to a local psychologist (Catherine Zeta- Jones) for a short period of treatment.

Jump ahead 4 years where Martin is set to be released from prison. Emily seems happy about the home coming but after driving her car into an underground parking lot wall is back in counselling this time seeing Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law).

Soderbergh and writer Scott Burns lay out their opinions on the pharmaceutical industry. The pair reunite on Side Effects after working together on Contagion and The Informant!  They touch on the need to treat through pills, how they are marketed, positioned and targeted at specific segments of the public. The way that the popularity of a new pill can be spread by both word of mouth and advertising. The film gives an account of  a clinical trial from the approach by a pharmaceutical rep to the fee paid to the doctor for participating to the reaction of a patient when they learn their drugs will be free if they participate in the study.

Burn's script highlights the trips and perks given to doctors by the drug companies. From World Series trips to signed memorabilia and vacations to exotic locations.  Doctors meeting at conferences and exchanging samples of new medications to try on their patients. Then ultimately if something tragic occurs to a patient under their care they take no responsibility at all for the event.

Soderbergh presents a well paced thinking piece that starts with the aftermath of a tragic incident then falls back three months in the past to tell the majority of the story. All the scenes in this film have meaning and importance. There are no throw away moments or filler.

The soundtrack is eerie and very staccato building suspense as the action builds and progresses.

Soderbergh handles the Cinematography himself once again under a pseudonym. The film has that normal yellowish hue of a Soderbergh film.  Added to the visuals is a dull and a touch out of focus lens which fits well with Emily's blunted reactions and actions due to the medication she is taking.

The characters are fully fleshed out and all go through a series of ebbs and flows as the plot turns at  right angels then flips 180 degrees one way and back 180 degrees in the other direction. Rooney Mara is excellent as the focus of the film who undergoes a plethora of emotions that switch with just about every scene. Jude Law is also strong as the psychiatrist who happens to be on shift at the Hospital  the night that Emily crashes her car and is called in for a consult which turns into a full on patient doctor relationship.

Retirement film or not Side Effects is very good and a film that I can definitely recommend. If Soderbergh is in fact done making films at age 50 he has left on a high note.

*** 1/2  out of 4

Side Effects | Steven Soderbergh | U.S.A. | 2013 | 115 Minutes.

Film Review - Life of Pi

Director Ang Li has adapted to the screen a story that was previously thought to be unadaptable. Yann Martel's Booker prize winning Life of Pi. Li a chameleon of a director brings a fresh taste to the lost at sea motif.

Pi Patel( Suraj Sharma) was named more or less by his uncle. Pi's uncle was sick as a child and part of his treatment he was held upside down by his feet which gave him huge lung capacity. Due to the increased oxygen intake "Uncle"  became a connoisseur of pools all over the world.  The best being in France with water so clear it looked transparent.  Based on that information Pi's father named him Piscine Molitor which was shorted to Pi. The name Piscine is not easy to grow up with Pi was called Pissing Patel and mocked his schoolmates. When he started high school he made the change to Pi but he was still called Pissing.  One day decided to report that Pi was short for the Mathematics symbol pi. It did not stick until he started to write  pi to more and more decimal points each day on the blackboard at school. Finally the whole school was watching as he did Pi on the blackboard to decimal points in the hundreds killing the nickname Pissing Patel.

A local journalist who knows Uncle a friend of Pi is sent to learn of his incredible story. The Journalist meets the Adult Pi ( Irrfan Khan)  in his home in Montreal and they sit down to talk about his life story.

His family had the local Zoo and Pi was fascinated by the Royal Bengal tiger named Richard Parker a result of  a mix up with the name of the person who caught him. Pi's Father taught him a tough lesson to show that the Tiger is not a friend but instead a fierce hunter that would rip of an of his limbs if given a chance.

Religion plays a major role in Pi's life. He was first hindu but as a pre- teen visited a church and then a temple soon after and adopted Christianity and the Muslim faith along with his Hindu principals.

The economy is bad in the local town of Pondicherry. Thus Pi's father decides to move the family to Canada and sell of the Zoo animals.  The book passage on a Japanese commercial vessel  and his family and that's were the adventure begins. Pi's father has a dispute with the ships cook (Gerard Depardieu) who is rude to his wife. Early in the voyage the ship heads into a sever storm.  While his family sleeps Pi' heads up to the deck to check out the events. He is forced to abandon ship as the storm pounds and tosses the vessel about in the sea.

Pi finds himself in a lifeboat with a Lion, Zebra and Oranagatan and jackal  He stakes claim to one end of the vessel and begins to negotiate with the other creatures.

A classic tale of one person against nature.  Pi has a journal of sea survival that he reads religiously. He finds food supplies begins to fish and at a key moment in the film realises that he has to feed the tiger or he will become tiger food itself.

Richard Parker although ferocious is very susceptible  to sea sickness. After surviving one particularly intense storm. The realise that they need each other and Pi nurses the tiger back to strength.

After an interlude on an Island that appears to be paradise but turns evil at night.  They set off again eventually finding land and parting ways.

Pi is questioned by the Insurance company for the Japanese Freighter who are skeptical of his story therefore he tells them a different version of events that they are more likely to believe.  The journalist is left to determine which version of the story is correct the 227 day adventure at sea with multiple animals or  the story with four people that ends up with Pi as the last survivor.

The visuals in this film are spellbinding . Cinematographer Claudio Miranda fills the screen with rich colours.  The ocean is vibrant displaying all shades of blues and greens.  The sea creatures fish, whales, flying fish and dolphins are sharp and crisp. On particular sequence with a school of jellyfish is mesmerizing mastery.  The night shots of the amphibians glow to the point that they seem almost ultraviolet. The daytime sky is a rich blue while Miranda's work relay shines in the depiction of the nigh-time sky in the pacific ocean.

David Magee produced an excellent screenplay. Its a story set mainly in the mind of a 17 year old boy. with no other speaking characters in a lifeboat with a tiger.  The dialogue is a 2 hour soliloquy but keeps you engaged as Pi reads and reviews his survival guide and negotiates for turf in the raft.

Ang Lee created a magical story with excellent song, song and visual effects. It is a film that is definitely one of the top stories of the year. Shot with amazing cinematography and use of colours, Life of Pi is the best use of three D technology since its rebirth.

I would highly recommended this film to anyone who wants to see a great film.  This is a a very good film that I highly recommend.

**** out of 4

Life of PI | Ang Li | U.S.A. / Taiwan| 2012 | 127 Minutes.