Cinema: Half of a Yellow Sun
Reviewed this week:Half of Yellow Sun, Khumba - A Zebra's Tale, The Lunchbox, The Strange Colour of your Body's Tears, Pioneer
A suitably ironic reference to Hegel's quote concerning Africa being "the land of childhood" occurs during the opening of director Biyi Bandele's Nigeria based historical drama, Half of a Yellow Sun. We aren't long into this captivating piece before the appropriateness of those sarcastic undertones reveals itself.
Though ostensibly a love story, this feature is inspired by historical events and a human condition that leans much more towards the title of another Africa- based work by Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness. Featuring a strong cast that includes the always impressive 12 Years a Slave star Chiwetel Ejiofor and Thandie Newton, the action takes place against the backdrop of the turbulent Nigerian Civil War that began in 1960 and lasted a decade.
Unlike the Orange Prize-winning novel from which it's adapted, the story is told through the experience of two brilliant and well connected twin sisters, Olanna (Newton) and Kainene (Anika Noni Rose) and begins as Nigeria is celebrating Independence Day in 1960. As members of the ruling Igbo class, they've enjoyed the trappings of wealth as evidenced by their Oxbridge accents and high-end party lifestyle. The sassy Kainene has been earmarked as heiress to the family's business empire while the more thoughtful Olanna chooses a more egalitarian, less lucrative road by leaving the nation's capital and following her "revolutionary lover", Odenigbo (Ejiorfor), a lecturer in Nsukka. The narrative charts the relocations and vicissitudes visited on this cast of characters as Nigeria descended into chaos, brutality and visually chilling tribal violence.
A certain degree of nuance and depth of characterisation has been compromised in the transfer from page to screen, but quality performances and accomplished production visuals ensure that all the right boxes are ticked in terms of engagement levels. Judicious use of real-life news footage from the period adds to the emotional impact and helps ensure the overall experience succeeds in staying the right side of melodrama.
- Now showing at the IFI
Editor's Choice: Khumba, A Zebra’s Tale
I feel qualified to write a thesis on The Lion King, having watched it approximately seven million times with my once small boy. Despite the aversion therapy, The Lion King remains a classic of animation, a great film on lots of levels, and drawing comparisons to it is either brave or foolhardy. It's not just the African Plains setting that invites comparison between that classic and Khumba, A Zebra's Tale.
Simba was the lion cub who set off on his own, feeling like an outcast, fearing the wrath of a deep voiced large cat with a chip on his shoulder, and had all kinds of demons to vanquish. There was a comedy bird, some comedy hyenas and a pair of unlikely friends. Khumba (Jake T. Austin) is a young zebra born with only half his stripes in a herd not known for its vision. Blamed by the herd for the drought afflicting the land, he sets off to put things right and makes a pair of unlikely friends, Wildebeest Mama V (Loretta Divine) and a comedy bird (Richard E Grant) in search of a mystical waterhole.
All the while they're being pursued by a deep voiced large cat with a chip on his shoulder (Liam Neeson) and a hunger for zebra. There are also some comedy hyenas, one of whom is Steve Buscemi.
Khumba, A Zebra's Tale is fine, it's well intentioned and there are some funny moments – I liked the springboks – but the plot is derivative and the dialogue and songs are on the weak side. It's just not one of the cleverer ones and, admittedly, they can sometimes be too clever and too knowing; this should please younger children. It's bright, easy to follow, not too long at 85 minutes and a lot of the gags are visual.
- Now showing in 2D and 3D
Saajan (Life Of Pi's Irrfan Khan) is a hangdog civil servant living a lonely existence in Mumbai following the death of his wife.
Ila (Nimrat Kaur) is a dutiful young wife and mother who prepares a special lunch for her husband one day in order to find a way back into his heart. Like every morning, one of Mumbai's famous lunchbox deliverymen collects the pouch and couriers it to his office. But the uncannily efficient system is disrupted by fate when Ila's culinary magic instead finds its way to Saajan's desk.
A pen-pal relationship develops, her notes hiding under the chapatti and his travelling back with the containers each evening. The nosh has given Saajan a spring in his step ahead of the abyss of retirement, while Ila has someone to confide in about her marital unhappiness. Whether this spells temporary respite or wholesale change for the perfect strangers is the big question.
In a year that began with harrowing slavery sagas, prison dramas and Wall St degeneracy, The Lunchbox is just what the doctor ordered – a charming, enriching folktale with a sturdy narrative structure. Writer-director Ritesh Batra took the Grand Rail d'Or at Cannes last year, the viewers obviously relishing his mixture of romance, quiet wit and realist poetry.
Throughout, Batra's feature debut hums with light touches and side characters (Saajan's over-eager apprentice, Ila's nosey aunt upstairs) that flank the two superlative leads. A substratum of the story also looks clearly at modern Mumbai, where population density and desperation to leap classes can isolate individuals. A gentle workout for both heart and mind, The Lunchbox is not to be missed.
- Now showing at IFI and selected cinemas
The Strange Colour of your Body's Tears
To be accused of putting style over substance is not generally considered a compliment, however, auteurs Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani have it as a modus operandi. Giallo, or spaghetti horror, is a vaguely kitsch mix of sex and slash thriller that had its heyday in the 1970s. The Strange Colour of Your Body's tears (L'Etrange couleur des larmes de ton corps) is Cattet and Forzani's homage to that genre.
Dan Kristensen (Klaus Tange) comes home to Brussels from a business trip in Frankfurt, clutching his strip club matches. His wife Edwige (a reference to Edwige Fenech, French actress star of so many Giallo films) is missing and his apartment is locked from within. He gets stupendously drunk, annoys the neighbours, then meets the mysterious lady on the 7th floor. There follows a convoluted, hard to follow and ultimately disappointing plot about the people in the building.
But then this was only intended to be, mostly, style over substance. Visually it is amazing, from the exquisite Belle Epoque building in which it is set to the determinedly Seventies stylings and varied camera work. The soundtrack too is a thing to behold, from the music borrowed directly from Italian cinema of the 1970s to the sound effects which range from gently padding feet to a mind numbingly annoying doorbell.
In these respects it's a film makers' film, a film students' film, but by any standards it remains self-indulgent. They lay out their stall too soon in some respects. The gore and sexuality are stylised but present all throughout, there is no real sense of dramatic ebb and flow. No matter how good the visuals, anything can become repetitive and raising the sensory experience over the plot is fine in a piece of art, but not particularly effective in 105 minutes of something that is essentially a thriller.
- Now playing at the IFI
The effects of emotion and environment on cognition is a device director Erik Skjoldbjærg used to woozy effect in his self-penned 1997 thriller Insomnia (re-made in assured style by Christopher Nolan in 2002).
Perception and reality battle it out once again as Skjoldbjærg tackles the controversy that unfolded concerning contract divers who secured Norway's deep-sea oil wealth in the early Eighties.
Where sleeplessness and guilt were the sensory perpetrators in Insomnia, Pioneer applies a jaundice to the viewpoint of Petter (Aksel Hennie), one of a team of Norwegian divers hired to hook-up an ashore pipeline 500m down on the ocean bed. Do this successfully and the divers (and as it turned out, Norway as a whole) would be hugely wealthy. The problem, however, is that man was not meant to be at that depth, and when Petter's brother dies during a dive, it could be that the corporate scientists prepping them may not have been fully transparent about the risks.
Petter starts rummaging around back on land and sees things that suggest a conspiracy is in place to keep him quiet and the oil flowing. Or is it? Perhaps some of what he sees is a hallucination of the kind he experienced in the decompression chamber.
Pioneer is nearly a great film – there's plenty of Nordic noir and it keeps a tempo befitting of conspiratorial shenanigans – but the red pen hovers over two issues that must be addressed in the mooted US remake by George Clooney's Smokehouse Pictures. Firstly, some of the English dialogue in this bilingual film is decidedly iffy. Secondly, Skjoldbjærg wraps up the story with a somewhat detached shrug.
- Released: April 11, 2014 (selected cinemas)
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