Saturday, February 28, 2015

Review: Maps to the Stars

Image courtesy of Focus World.
David Cronenberg's "Maps to the Stars" has the same feeling of icy remove as his previous film, "Cosmopolis," which sort of makes sense, considering that both pictures follow cretinous persons in positions of power and wealth with little in the way of conscience. And much like "Cosmopolis," the filmmaker's latest is a movie I can admire, even if I don't connect to it in the way I did to the other films he made during the past decade.

In the case of "A History of Violence" and "Eastern Promises," Cronenberg portrayed characters whose existences were surrounded by - and often involved perpetrating - violence. But the characters in those films - and also in "A Dangerous Method," his third great picture from the past 10 years - the protagonists, despite their flaws and often unsettling behavior, had a sense of honor or, at least, likability. In "Cosmopolis" and "Maps to the Stars," I had a difficult time feeling pity for the characters when horrible things happened to them - and this being a Cronenberg film, one can rest assured that something horrible will happen to someone.

I should point out that "Maps to the Stars" is actually a good movie. It's beautifully lensed and the cast portrays the mostly awful characters with a sense of commitment that one can't help but admire. Julianne Moore is especially good as a washed up actress, whose mother was a big star who apparently abused her daughter. Moore's Havana Segrand believes the chance to play a role her now-deceased mother (Sarah Gadon) once portrayed in a remake could be her chance to once again become relevant. Havana is, much like the rest of the characters, a pretty awful person, but her humanity occasionally shines through - and this is, I'd be willing to bet, due to Moore's incapacity to ever completely play unlikable.

Havana's story collides with the tale of a truly demented Hollywood family, whose patriarch (John Cusack) is a seemingly joyless self-help guru and massage therapist, while his wife (Olivia Williams) is solely dedicated to furthering the career of their nasty little twit of a son (Evan Bird), a child actor with a drug problem and a loathsome personality. Arriving on the scene seemingly out of nowhere is Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), the family's estranged daughter who was sent to a loony bin after attempting to burn down the clan's home, leaving her with scars on her face and arms, which she mostly keeps covered with long black gloves.

Agatha enlists the help of a driver (Robert Pattinson, who played a man being chauffeured around in "Cosmopolis"), who also doubles as an actor and screenwriter. Of course he does, this being Los Angeles. Through a strange plot thread involving an online friendship with Carrie Fisher, who briefly plays herself here, Agatha manages to score an assistant gig with Havana, who at first connects with the mysterious girl, but eventually tires of her.

Meanwhile, Cusack's near sociopathic father finds out that Agatha is back in town and attempts to force her to leave Los Angeles. Also, Benjie (Bird) tries staging a comeback in a sequel to a film in which he previously starred, but his terrible habits and nasty behavior puts that job at risk. Needless to say, things don't get well for nearly all involved.

"Maps to the Stars" is an often fascinating look at a culture - Hollywood and celebrity life - devouring itself and the film is the most scabrous look at Tinseltown since "Mulholland Drive." The thing is, Lynch's film, not to mention Robert Altman's "The Player" and Billy Wilder's "Sunset Boulevard," pretty much said all that needed to be said on this subject. In other words, I'm not completely sure why Cronenberg wanted to make a film about these people. That being said, he's made a good one. It's not among my favorites from his impressive body of work - which includes a number of great films and a handful of very good ones - but it works.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Review: Wild Tales

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics. 
Now, here's a film that lives up to its title. Damian Szifron's funny, disturbing and raucous Cannes Film Festival hit and Best Foreign Film nominee is a loopy, fast paced omnibus film that primarily centers on the theme of revenge.

None of the six films - all of which are directed by Szifron - are related in terms of the characters or plots, but each of them involves at least one character seeking payback and the results of frequently very funny, but more often than not pretty unsettling as well.

The story that opens the credits involves a group of strangers on a plane who find they all have something in common, while the second - which is good, but also likely the weakest - finds a waitress serving a man who ruined her life years ago.

The third entry is a violent and nearly unhinged story about an upper class man who lands himself in a mess after flipping off a bad driver on a desolate road. The story that follows is my favorite. It features Argentine star Ricardo Darin as a man on the way to his daughter's birthday party, whose life unravels after his car is unfairly towed and he is plunged into a bureaucratic nightmare that begins with the towing company, but eventually involves the DMV, divorce lawyers and the police. The finale is priceless.

The fifth story is the darkest and mostly devoid of humor. It involves a rich man whose son strikes and kills a pregnant woman while driving under the influence. The father then attempts to pay off his gardener to take the rap, but soon finds that his lawyer and the district attorney also want a piece.

Ending the film is a delirious tale of a bride and groom who find out some unfortunate details about each other at their wedding reception. Things become awkward, then violent and, finally, awkward in a different kind of way. This final story is the one that best combines the film's violent content with its off-the-wall style of humor.

Although the combined total of these six films do not add up to much more than the sum of their parts, "Wild Tales" is inventive, very well acted, visually stylish and outrageous in the best of ways. Szifron is a talent to watch and his breakthrough film will likely leave you laughing and cringing in equal measure.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Review: Queen and Country

Image courtesy of BBC Worldwide Americas.
John Boorman's "Queen and Country" is a follow-up to the director's 1987 Oscar nominee and masterpiece "Hope and Glory," which told the autobiographical story of a family growing up in England during World War II. One of that film's most memorable scenes is when a German bomber takes out the school of the young boy who acts as the movie's narrator and lead character. He and his pals cheer at the school's destruction and the sequence is briefly replayed at the beginning of Boorman's latest film, almost to set the tone for its characters' gleefully anarchic behavior.

The picture frequently unfolds in somber tones and deals with some pretty heavy material, but the rapport between the film's character often also resembles the black humor of Robert Altman's "M.A.S.H.," another comedy set during the Korean War.

The year is 1952 and Bill Rohan (Callum Turner), the young lad from "Hope and Glory," is drafted into the Army, where he befriends a roguish lad named Percy (Caleb Landry Jones) and butts heads with a nasty sergeant named Bradley (David Thewlis) and a sadistic one known as Digby (Brian F. O'Byrne). The film, which is also autobiographical, also pays a fair amount of attention to a budding romance between Bill and a mysterious young woman whom he calls Ophelia (Tamsin Egerton).

This is the type of film where plot is less important than specific details or moments, especially given the memoir feel of the picture. There are some great scenes between Bill and his sister Dawn (Vanessa Kirby), a single mother of two who has been living in Canada and reunites with her brother while he is on leave. The struggling  romance between Bill and Ophelia is important, but so is a relationship that pops up between him and another young woman. I'm being vague because this might give away a story detail that crops up late in the picture.

And there's a fair amount of humor here, especially during the sequences in which Bill and Percy devise subversive plans to thwart their rigid superiors, including the theft of a prized clock. Joining them in their pursuits is a fellow officer named Redmond (Pat Shortt), who is good for some mischief, but can only be partially trusted.

"Queen and Country" tells the type of story with which most seasoned moviegoers are very familiar, but while it doesn't show us anything we likely haven't seen before, it tells its story very well. Often poignant and more often humorous, it's a very good companion to "Hope and Glory," which remains to this day one of Boorman's finest films. If you haven't seen that movie, I'd suggest you seek it out, watch it and then catch this lovely sequel.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Review: Da Sweet Blood of Jesus

Image courtesy of Gravitas Ventures.
I've got to give Spike Lee some credit - while it's far from his best work, "Da Sweet Blood of Jesus" is easily one of his least commercial and peculiar ventures. The picture is a remake, of sorts, of Bill Gunn's dreamy, surreal and sort of legendary 1973 blaxploitation vampire film "Ganja and Hess." Whereas Gunn's original film was of a philosophical nature and explored concepts of African American identity, Lee's movie is a little all-over-the-place and appears to be primarily concerned with the theme of addiction (the characters are never overtly referred to as vampires and both agree they are "addicted" to drinking blood).

At the film's beginning, Dr. Hess Greene (Stephen Tyrone Williams), a collector of obscure African art who lives at his deceased parents' secluded home in Martha's Vineyard, is given a large dagger of unknown origin by a friend. A new assistant arrives to help him with his work and there's clearly something off about the guy, which is only reinforced when Hess finds the man sitting in a tree with a rope around his neck. Hess talks the man down, but is then attacked by him the next day and stabbed with the dagger. The assistant then commits suicide.

Shortly thereafter, Hess begins craving blood, which he, at first, steals from a lab, but then resorts to obtaining by hooking up with women, killing them and drinking their blood. The wife of the assistant, whom Hess now has frozen in an icebox in his basement, shows up. Her name is Ganja (Zaraah Abrahams) and Hess immediately takes an interest in her. A romance - if you could call it that - sort of blossoms and, without asking her permission, Hess immortalizes Ganja.

Both vampires now, the two characters lure folks to their home and kill them for their blood - that is, until Hess undergoes some sort of spiritual crisis, leading to the film's most striking moment when Hess attends a church service and attempts to be saved. During the sequence, Lee employs one of his most oft-used techniques - that of the effect in which a character's head in close-up appears to move forward as if floating, while everything on the side or in the background moves backward. Lee lingers on a church band tearing the roof off with a gospel number and the scene has a transfixing power.

So, it's too bad that the rest of the film feels so uneven. "Ganja and Hess" had an almost otherworldly quality to it - hell, who can forget that final bizarre shot? - and Lee's picture often attempts to mimic that aura. Sometimes, it works: there are a handful of eerily haunting sequences during which Ganja and Hess linger on the water off Martha's Vineyard. And there are more than a few scenes that fall flat - particularly one in which Ganja attempts to seduce one of Hess's former flames.

Lee is one of the most idiosyncratic of American filmmakers. Much like Robert Altman or Steven Soderbergh, he's not afraid to experiment or tackle challenging material. This has led to some masterpieces ("Malcolm X" and the seminal "Do the Right Thing"), great films (the underrated "Clockers" and "Summer of Sam" as well as the terrific turn-of-the-century drama "25th Hour"), very good ones ("Crooklyn," for instance) and then some others that have not worked so well ("She Hate Me" or "Red Hook Summer," for example). "Da Sweet Blood of Jesus" is, sadly, not one of Lee's best. I admire it in that it's one groundbreaking director (Lee) tipping his hat to another (Gunn), but it doesn't quite work.

Review: Fifty Shades of Grey

Image courtesy of Focus Features.
It would be a little easier to enjoy "Fifty Shades of Grey" - even if only to rejoice in the obviously campy elements of the enterprise - if it weren't so difficult to wrap one's head around how inconsistent and, at times, nonsensical its two lead characters are. Yes, I've read the book, which has the same problems, and while it's certainly amusing, the numerous folks who have criticized it for various reasons are certainly onto something. This, of course, won't stop the film from likely becoming a box office juggernaut.

For those unfamiliar with the source material, "Fifty Shades" follows the exploits of Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson), a young woman who is allegedly in college - and I say allegedly due to the fact that we never see her do much more than spend time behind the counter at a hardware store where she works or roll around in the sack with the film's male lead, more on him in a minute - and apparently a sexual novice.

As a favor for her roommate, she agrees to interview Christian Grey, a 27-year-old billionaire who has become rich doing, well, something lucrative, although we are never quite told what labors built his empire. Occasionally, he refers to "work," whatever that is.

Anastasia's interview for the school newspaper and is set to run days before Grey will be the commencement speaker at its graduation. Let me start by saying - this interview is probably the most improbable and absurd one ever conducted by two people who inhabit this planet. I worked nearly 10 years as a journalist, but I'd be willing to bet that some random person pulled out of Bellevue could have done a better job of carrying out the interview, while the person being interviewed gives the most cryptic answers this side of the "Book of Soyga."

For some unexplainable reason, Grey finds himself compelled by Anastasia and she by him. The rest of the film follows their tete a tetes as he attempts to convince her to sign a contract to become the submissive to his dominant in a relationship that favors whips and riding crops over flowers and spooning.

So, here's the good news: "Fifty Shades of Grey" looks pretty good. The film has a visually gloomy style - but hell, it's set in Seattle, so that works for it. Also, Johnson manages to breathe some life into her character, despite the prevalent inconsistencies.

One of the biggest problems in the film is that it's difficult to truly read Christian and Anastasia, not because they're mysterious but due to the fact that their motivations are muddled. Christian claims to have previously had 16 women stay at his home and be his submissive and that he never takes them out on dates, sleeps in the same bed, etc. And yet, he spends much of the film doing all these things.

As for Anastasia, her mini-crises (a last minute trip to visit her mother, the back and forth involved in her deciding whether to sign Grey's contract) seem as if they exist to move the plot forward, rather than to give her character any sort of cohesion. After already having been spanked, chained up and flogged, Ana says she wants for Christian to, essentially, inflict on her his worst. He does, which drives her away from him and out of his apartment, setting up the inevitable sequel to come. The thing is, the "punishment" he inflicts appears to be just slightly worse than what he typically does during their sessions.

This first cinematic installment based on E.L. James's novels isn't as terrible as it could have been. In fact, there's a certain amount of workmanship on display here, even if the story and characters left me at a disconnect. Unfortunately, for a movie about kink, "Fifty Shades" eventually becomes a bit rote and the endless repetition of spankings, whippings and R-rated interpretations of the novel's NC-17 material gets to be a bit of a chore.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Notes On This Year's Best Picture Race

This past year was an excellent one for movies and this year's Academy Awards nominees are a pretty decent reflection of the best 2014 had to offer. From a personal standpoint, five of this year's eight nominated films for Best Picture were in my top 10.

Now, most people who watch a lot of movies and write about them do not consider the Oscars a particularly reliable barometer for representing any given year in cinema. My favorite film of the year has only aligned 14 times with the Best Picture winner in the 86 years of the Academy Awards. And my own opinions on what makes a film the best of the year is, of course, only a reliable barometer for myself.

But back to this year's nominees - of the eight films up for the big prize, four are true stories ("Selma," "American Sniper," "The Theory of Everything" and "The Imitation Game," the latter two, although good, being the type of British-centric Oscar bait that the Academy typically eats up), one auteurist entry (Wes Anderson's "The Grand Budapest Hotel"), two movies about the artistic process ("Birdman" and "Whiplash") and "Boyhood," which takes a documentary approach to a fictional story and marks the first nomination for critically lauded filmmaker Richard Linklater.

During the numerous awards shows leading up to the Oscars, a narrative has emerged pitting "Boyhood" and "Birdman" as the two leading contenders. To the surprise of many, the former became the awards season frontrunner early on due to its across-the-board critical praise and the incredible process involved in getting the film made - a 12-year shoot that enables viewers to watch the aging process of its characters/actors. The latter's ascension to the front of the pack has also taken some by surprise, considering that Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's film has not particularly been a huge box office success (nor has "Boyhood," although it is distributor IFC Film's biggest hit to date) and it dabbles in the surreal, which tends to be a surefire way for a film not to garner awards.

But "Birdman" has now taken the lead - at least, if you listen to the numerous Oscar pundits who get paid to write about this stuff in the weeks - scratch that, months - leading up to the Academy Awards. And yet, in many respects, "Birdman" becoming the frontrunner should not come as much of a surprise, especially upon viewing how Academy voters have been casting their ballots during the past few years.

Let me start by saying, I think "Birdman" is a great movie. In fact, it's my number two of the year behind "Boyhood." In any other year, "Birdman" may well have been my favorite and I'd very likely make the argument for it deserving the Best Picture award. Its quality, in my opinion, would not in any way be a deterrent from taking the academy's top prize.

But here's the thing - since the beginning of this decade, the academy has primarily been rewarding films about making movies, ones with characters involved in "the industry," as they like to call it, or pictures that are arguably about the creative process. With the exception of last year's must deserved win for "12 Years a Slave," the other winners in the 2010s have been "The King's Speech," a movie about a famous man who must learn to correct his speech patterns (hence, improving his "performance") to enable him to speak to the public, the silent era Hollywood comedy "The Artist" and "Argo," in which a group of Hollywood producers join forces with a Washington D.C. operative to create a fake movie and sneak American captives out of Iran. This year's expected winner is about a former Hollywood star who specialized in comic book movies and is now attempting to reinvent himself on Broadway.

In other words, the academy's recent consistency in choosing films about their line of work is becoming, to put it mildly, a bit self congratulatory. And it seems especially so when you view this year's two top contenders - one about a movie star looking for a comeback and another about how many of the rest of us live. Ironically, the nominated film that has most struck a chord with the American public is "American Sniper," a very good war drama that has been willfully misunderstood by both sides of the political spectrum and embraced for all the wrong reasons.

There are two reasons why I believe "Boyhood" should win Best Picture (and Best Director too, for that matter). First and foremost, I believe it's a better film, not only due to the laborious process it took to make that spanned more than a decade, but also in how it takes the quotidian parts of everyday life and makes the sum total of these experiences seem extraordinary.

Secondly, "Boyhood" is a movie about recognizable lifestyles and is, therefore, more universal and reflective of shared experiences. If you look at the Best Picture winners since the beginning of the century, you'll find films about hobbits, gladiators, royals, a Hollywood star and a brilliant mathematician - but not too many about the types of lives that most of us experience. Also, it's funny that the one film with "Hollywood" as subject matter that deserved to win Best Picture - David Lynch's "Mulholland Drive," which ranked at the top of numerous critical polls of the Aughts - wasn't even nominated. It bears mentioning that Lynch's film did not take a particularly sunny view of Tinseltown - although, to be fair, "Birdman" includes critiques of Hollywood as well, especially its reliance on comic book blockbusters.

So, it bears repeating: I'm arguing in favor of "Boyhood," not against "Birdman." And my issue isn't so much with the latter winning Best Picture, but rather the reason why the academy will pick it over Linklater's film. Inarritu's movie is excellent and, in fact, universal in its own right by depicting a character trying to overcome failure and finding success in doing something he cares about. The movie is a career high for the director and, deservedly, one of the most lauded of 2014. In fact, I'd argue that "Boyhood" and "Birdman" are the two best Oscar frontrunners since 2007's "No Country for Old Men" and "There Will Be Blood."

In other words, whichever film wins - assuming it's either of the two discussed here - on Feb. 22, it will be deserved. I'm hoping that Linklater's film gets the recognition it deserves as a movie unique to film history. Regardless, both films will likely still be watched many years from now - with or without the Oscars - as are the numerous classics that were not recognized in their respective years.

And in case anyone's interested, here are my personal picks (who I'd like to see win) for several categories:

Picture: Boyhood
Director: Richard Linklater, Boyhood
Actor: Michael Keaton, Birdman
Actress: Julianne Moore, Still Alice
Supporting Actor: Edward Norton, Birdman
Supporting Actress: Patricia Arquette, Boyhood
Foreign Film: Ida
Adapted Screenplay: Inherent Vice
Original Screenplay: Birdman
Editing: Boyhood
Cinematography: Birdman

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Review: Jupiter Ascending

Image courtesy of Warner Bros.
The Wachowski Brothers' "Jupiter Ascending" falls into the category of interesting mess. The special effects are occasionally impressive. Some of the (many) chase or fight sequences are done well enough. It has the kind of chutzpah it would take to deliver a sci-fi spectacle such as this one. And yet, it's a little all over the place.

For starters, this film is the type of origin story with which the Wachowskis are a little too familiar. Much like their "Matrix" films, this one follows the story of a character who is sort of the same type of "The One" character that Keanu Reeves played in the popular aforementioned trilogy. That character is Jupiter, who is embodied by Mila Kunis as a sort of likably naive house cleaner who, as it turns out, is destined to be the ruler of Earth, due to some family feud taking place across the galaxy.

I won't go into all the details of why Jupiter is destined for these great things, well, because I can't. Let's just say that she becomes a subject of interest among three squabbling siblings - the nastiest of whom is played by Eddie Redmayne.

There appears to be some rule that following a nomination for their best work, an actor must take a role in which they really ham it up. Take Eddie Murphy ("Dreamgirls" followed by "Norbit") or Halle Berry ("Monster's Ball" followed by "Catwoman") for example. Now Redmayne, who some believe will snatch the Oscar this month for his portrayal of Stephen Hawking, gets his chance by portraying Balem Abrasax, who not only breaks Roger Ebert's law of silly names, but also alternates between speaking in a low whisper or shouting at the top of his lungs, all the while dressed like a foppish character who went missing from the set of "Dune." He also commands a legion of dinosaur/alligator looking heavies who carry out his will. Let's move on.

Channing Tatum plays a (self described) man-dog hybrid, who also happens to be a bounty hunter, and he is tasked with watching over Jupiter, which - no shock here - kindles a bit of romance. That is, however much romance can be kindled between a part-Russian house cleaner/queen of Earth and a man-dog. Sean Bean also gets to tag along as another bounty hunter, who can sometimes be trusted, sometimes not.

Like I said, all over the place. What's at stake here, naturally, is the fate of the Earth because what else could possibly be at stake in a film such as this one?

"Jupiter Ascending" is not a bad movie, but it's a mess in the way many of the Wachowski Brothers films are. Sometimes those messes work pretty well (I liked "Cloud Atlas") and other times, not so much (the final "Matrix," "Speed Racer"). It has some elements worth recommending, but it ultimately doesn't quite work.

Review: The Voices

Image courtesy of Lionsgate.
It's been an interesting couple of months for Ryan Reynolds - first, his impressive dramatic turn in Atom Egoyan's unfairly neglected "The Captive" and, now, his disturbing - yet comedic - performance as the warped individual at the center of Marjane Satrapi's "The Voices." It's too bad the latter ends up falling apart after a pretty decent start.

With her latest film, Satrapi ("Persepolis" and "Chicken with Plums") has kept the quirky nature of her previous movies, but branched out a bit to try her hand at genre work, although it's difficult to decide whether "The Voices" should be branded a horror movie or a comedy. It's occasionally funny and has an overall loopy tone, but when it gets serious, the picture is pretty unsettling.

In the film, Reynolds plays Jerry, a likable schlub who works for a loading company. He tries to get himself involved with his office's event planning as a means to impress an attractive woman named Fiona (Gemma Arterton) with whom he works. When he's not at work, he pays visits to his shrink (Jacki Weaver), who warns him not to forget to take his meds.

At first, we wonder exactly what is wrong with Jerry. Some vague references are made to his parents, who are seen in flashbacks. And we get the picture that his mother was some sort of schizophrenic. Perhaps, Jerry has inherited her affliction. We soon realize he has when he starts hearing his pet cat (who speaks in a Scottish brogue) and dog (a laconic Southern drawl) speak to him.

The feline represents Jerry's darker impulses, which eventually turn murderous, whereas the pup is meant to be his conscious. The scenes in which he speaks to the pets are among the funniest in the film, which soon takes a very dark turn following an accident, of sorts, during which Jerry kills someone.

As time passes on, the cat begins telling Jerry that he should kill for pleasure and, soon enough, his refrigerator is stocked with young women's heads, who also occasionally talk to our protagonist. These scenes are played mostly for comedic effect - that is, until Jerry decides to get back on his meds, which makes for some disturbing moments.

The material could have resulted in a better film. "The Voices" starts out well enough, but around the midway point, it loses some steam. The murders and scenes in which Jerry converses with his victim's heads become repetitive and the finale is more of a whimper than a bang.

Satrapi is a talent - for those who haven't seen "Persepolis," I urge you to do so now - and it's nice to see her branch out. But "The Voices" ultimately didn't work for me. Reynolds continues to prove he has some range and the funny bits do their part, at first, while the darker scenes, well, disturb. Yet the film doesn't ultimately add up to much more than the sum of its parts. It's not a bad movie, but one that could have used a little more focus.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Review: Timbuktu

Image courtesy of Cohen Media Group.
Abderrahmane Sissako's "Timbuktu" is a powerful and often disturbing view of modern day Mali under the rule of extremism and how the presence of jihadists affects the daily lives and, ultimately, well-being of a number of citizens living in the dunes outside the titular city.

There are several stories going on at once in Sissako's film, including one in which a cattle herder's wife staves off the flirtations of a religious fundamentalist's subtle advances, another in which the fundamentalists attempt to seek out and punish whoever is responsible for playing music at night that can be heard on the streets and, most importantly, a fight between the aforementioned cattle herder and his neighbor over the killing of a cow.

One of the most interesting elements of the film, which is very good indeed, is how Sissako humanizes the jihadists, a move that is very clearly not meant to make you sympathize with them. Often, moviegoers want their historical villains - whether it's the Nazis or terrorists - to be painted with broad strokes and represented as pure evil.

Instead, Sissako paints these characters in his film as fanatical and unyielding, but also with distinct human touches. It's when we fail to regard that those who perpetrate cruelties against others are, in fact, human and not literally monsters that we give humanity's darker instincts a pass. The leader of the film's fundamentalists is indeed human - and a bit of a hypocrite, which can be observed as his men announce on the streets via megaphone each day that music, smoking, soccer and many other things are illegal under the "new law." However, this doesn't prevent him from sneaking off and stealing a smoke behind a dune.

At the center of the action is Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed), a sensitive cattle herder with a wife and daughter. When being told that a neighboring fisherman callously killed one of his cattle because it stepped on his net, Kidane confronts the man, a struggle ensues and the fisherman accidentally ends up dead.

Kidane is imprisoned by the jihadists and taken to trial, where he tells those keeping him captive that he does not fear death, but is horrified at the prospect of his daughter growing up without his protection. And protection a child would need in the village in which Kidane and his family resides. A woman is given 40 lashes for singing from her apartment and she is bold enough to sing out as the lash strikes her back. A couple caught having an affair are stoned to death. And a young girl is stolen away from her family by one of the jihadists and her mother is then told that the "new law" favors the needs of the man who stole the girl over the young woman's rights.

"Timbuktu" is an angry film, but it has its moments of humor and rich satire, including the aforementioned smoking scene as well as several sequences during which the jihadists attempt to justify their actions to the local imam, who isn't having any of it.

There's also a woman, whose character is never particularly explained, who wanders the village in colorful robes, carries around a chicken and manages not to be scolded for her refusal to wear a hijab. Her sole existence appears to be to slyly taunt the jihadists and she is likely left alone due to her appearance of being slightly crazy. This is, perhaps, Sissako's way of telling us that retaining human qualities - such as humor or defiance - are one way of living through horrors. "Timbuktu" is a powerful film that is equally absurd, heartbreaking, angry and humane. I'd highly recommend it.

Review: Black or White

Image courtesy of Relativity Media.
The road to hell, they say, is paved with good intentions. And to give Mike Binder's latest film, "Black or White," some credit - it certainly means well and there are undoubtedly some praiseworthy elements. So, it's unfortunate that the whole enterprise doesn't quite live up to its ambitions - or intentions.

As the film opens, lawyer Elliot Anderson has just lost his wife (Jennifer Ehle, only seen in brief flashbacks), to a car crash. She had been acting as a parent to their mixed-race granddaughter Eloise (Jillian Estell), who gives one of the better child performances as of late. Elliot's daughter - and Eloise's mother - died in childbirth and the young girl's father (Andre Holland), a former junkie and thief, has long been out of the picture.

But Eloise's other grandmother, Rowena (Octavia Spencer), a successful realtor who lives with her large family in South Central, believes that Eloise needs to know both sides of her family, so she tells Elliot that she would be better equipped to raising the girl than he would.

It's a tricky situation - Elliot has taken a leave from work (which he can afford) to raise Eloise and his dedication is obvious. But Elliot is also sort of an alcoholic. He tells Rowena, who could certainly provide the motherly attention Eloise needs, that he wants to keep custody of the child because she attends a school near their home in an affluent neighborhood and is getting a great education. And without question, Elliot hates Eloise's father, whom he blames for his daughter's death, and tells Rowena that he intends to keep Eloise as far away from him as possible.

The debate over the girl's custody quickly turns acrimonious and Rowena - with the help of her brother (Anthony Mackie), a hotshot attorney - she files a custody suit. Mackie's character argues that the best way to prevent Elliot from getting custody of Eloise is to allude to his drinking problem and argue that he has racist tendencies, although that last line of argument does not immediately appear to have any basis in fact.

"Black or White" aims to contribute meaningful thoughts on America's race relations dialogue, which is certainly to be commended. The film has its heart in the right place, but unfortunately makes some missteps that threaten to unravel the whole thing.

For starters, there's a sequence during which Jeremiah (Mackie) chides Reggie (Holland) on his irresponsible behavior toward his child, drug abuse and past criminal record, which includes assault, drug possession and robbery. He tells Reggie that he's a "walking cliche" that will only provide fuel to Elliot's attorney's case and give credence to the stereotype of young black males from rough neighborhoods.

So, it's unfortunate then that the filmmakers decide to resort to cliches when depicting the picture's black characters. Spencer does a fine job in her role as the spunky Rowena, but was it really necessary to make her character shout out her feelings to the judge during the film's courtroom scenes, giving the whole thing the appearance of being on a daytime talk show? Also, Reggie is clearly a troubled person and there's a scene late in the film during which he and Elliot have a confrontation that helps to endorse a stereotype from which a film of this type would seemingly want to steer clear.

And, finally, there's another sequence during which Costner's character uses a racial slur that's a bit shocking, considering all that has come before. It only appears to be included in the film so that his character can actually give one of the more thoughtful speeches late in the movie during which he argues - in court - that the first thought that comes to a person's mind when meeting someone of a different race, creed, what-have-you is not as important as the second or third thought.

There are some other good moments in the film, especially one in which Reggie's drug abuse is rightfully paralleled to Elliot's alcoholism.

Perhaps the best piece of dialogue occurs early on when Elliot goes to Rowena's house to confront her about the lawsuit. She accuses him of not wanting to expose Eloise to "the black people" in the family, to which he replies, "Why must you always go there?" She answers back, "Because you won't admit that there's a there there." Now, that could have been an interesting starting point for a movie on race relations. If only that concept had been explored, rather than being unceremoniously dropped thereafter.

As I said, "Black or White" has good intentions, even though it doesn't exactly fulfill its ambitions.