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Entries in naomie harris (3)

Tuesday
Dec242013

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

“Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” may seem like an odd choice for a Christmas time release, especially when you consider the competition it’s up against. It doesn’t seem like your typical holiday fare, but with Nelson Mandela’s recent passing, the film couldn’t be more timely. Forget about the vehement debate about Mandela’s morals and beliefs that occurred after his death by American extremists with nothing better to do. Regardless of whether or not you agree with them, the man led a fascinating life. While not perfect, “Long Walk to Freedom” is a captivating, rousing film with strong performances that is absolutely worth seeing.

The movie begins in Johannesburg, South Africa in 1942. Mandela (Idris Elba) is a lawyer who is frivolously battling a corrupt system that is oppressing blacks in the country. After a close friend is beaten to death by the police for no justifiable reason, he decides to spark some change. Thus begins his long, amazing journey fighting the white powers that demanded black subjugation, which landed him in jail and eventually led to his becoming the president of South Africa.

As a young man, after seeing that his efforts were being made in vain, his rhetoric turned to one of violence, almost like a Malcolm X of South Africa. War and fighting became themes of his speeches, which caused civil unrest and uprising. While many will disapprove of such tactics, the film makes it clear that this was a last resort for him. It’s not until violence is brought upon his people, most notably during the 1960 Sharpeville massacre, that he decides to take this approach. These moments are well realized in the film and even if you don’t agree with it, you understand it.

The issue is that the weight of his actions aren’t always felt, on neither an individual level nor a global one. Because the film takes place over such a long period of time, many details are passed over, so we don’t get to feel the attachment we probably should. The earliest example comes when Mandela’s wife leaves him and takes their son. This hardly registers as a blip on the radar of his life and in about ten minutes, he has already rebounded with, as far as we can tell, the very next woman he meets. This is a common occurrence for biopics that examine an entire life (or close to it) and this one too succumbs to such rushed faults.

Perhaps the larger issue is that much of the revolution that sparked the change we see today happened while Mandela was incarcerated. By focusing primarily on him, even during his prison stay, we fail to see the outside world changing. We rarely see the attitudes shift and when we do, we don’t see why. Mandela spends 18 years on a prison island and additional time in a Cape Town prison after the transfer that eventually led to his release. That’s a lot of time that passes by without much insight into the country’s unrest.

Luckily, these problems are offset by a cast who is more than capable of making up for the slack, particularly Idris Elba, who is able to show through the slightest subtleties the pain and sadness that tormented Mandela during this time. As Mandela grows older in the picture, Elba’s portrayal grows more distinct and different from his portrayal at the beginning. Mandela’s words, though simple, helped change the status quo of South Africa’s needless violence and white supremacy and Elba delivers those words with grandeur and passion. Although far from perfect, “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” is about as definitive a biopic of this important figure as has been made.

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom receives 3.5/5

Friday
Nov092012

Skyfall

James Bond has graced our movie screens for 50 years. From the moment Dr. No was released in 1962, Bond was a hit, and with good reason. Although his appeal certainly reaches further than such a small demographic, he’s the type of suave, sophisticated, fearless ladies man that all guys want to emulate. Despite some sizable bumps along the way (the series is like a roller coaster ride in terms of quality), Bond has hung around for what is now 23 films and if Skyfall is any indication, he won’t be going away for some time. While it doesn’t quite reach the lofty grandeur that many are claiming it does—this is certainly not the best Bond movie ever made—it’s a step in the right direction.

What Skyfall does is take a franchise that has been known to go off the rails occasionally and grounds it in reality. It’s a darker, grittier and more realistic picture than many of its series brethren and it’s all the better for it. It doesn’t feel so much like a popcorn movie like some of the cheesier Bonds do. It instead feels like a drama driven action film with real meaning because the impending danger is more focused. No longer is there an evil entity ludicrously hell-bent on destroying the world. In Skyfall, the evil villain, Silva, played wonderfully by Javier Bardem, is destroying Bond’s world from the inside out rather than as a whole. A cyber terrorist, Silva is cool and calm and he has no intention to rule the world. His intentions are more personal and the consequences of his actions are felt. He happens to have a list of every MI6 agent and is releasing their identities to the world every five days, resulting in their deaths. For every day that goes by in the film, an agent is lost, so the stakes feel higher, despite the narrative reduction from world domination to personal vendetta.

The film, when inspected closely, reveals that it truly is a Bond film, never really deviating from the tried-and-true formula all that much. If you’ve ever seen a Bond film before, you know what to expect—conspiracy, espionage, double crosses and the like—but what matters is how well these aspects are carried out. Luckily, Skyfall contains some of the best executed and most thrilling action scenes this side of The Dark Knight Rises. It’s opening is outstanding, recalling the Casino Royale on foot chase (but this time on bikes) in all the best ways, failing to live up to its predecessor only due to obvious doubles and occasionally spotty CGI, but it’s stand-out moment comes in a Tokyo high rise where the walls are made of glass. As Bond sneaks up on an assassin readying for the kill, digital images dancing in the background, reflecting off the surfaces around them, a silhouetted fight breaks out in front of those very same images and it’s absolutely beautiful to watch. Framed by famed cinematographer Roger Deakins, the man behind True Grit and nearly every Coen brothers movie, Skyfall is perhaps the best looking Bond movie to date. Unfortunately, the visuals surpass its narrative ambition.

Relying on the same old Bond tropes we’ve come to expect really wouldn’t be a big deal (he’s been around for 50 years for a reason) were it not for the way the film sets up certain events, but then doesn’t follow through on them. An example of this comes most notably about halfway through the film. Silva has just escaped from MI6 and is on his way to a location holding many high profile targets, one of whom is vital to the Bond series. The film intercuts between the approaching Silva and the high profile target arguing over the safety of the nation and the necessity of MI6. The way this sequence is edited sets up a dramatic ending, one that could have shaken things up a bit and given the film an unexpected emotional weight, but the film seems to chicken out in doing it. Those aware of the way films are constructed will find this sequence baffling.

The ending is a disappointment as well. It builds and builds with scenes of intensity and excitement only to end with a poof rather than a bang. But on the whole, Skyfall is terrific. Daniel Craig has never been better in the famous role and the film’s willingness to bring the series back to a reasonable belief level is more than welcome (when Q, played by Ben Whishaw, hands Bond his new gadgets, they consist of nothing more than a radio tracker and a gun—they don’t “chip out for exploding pen” types of gadgets anymore, Q explains).

Despite some issues, this is the Bond movie Craig will be remembered for, due almost entirely to the fact that it nails who and what Bond is (and even highlights his vulnerability). Its stumbles are still there, however; they just come from elsewhere. Because of those stumbles, this is not the best Bond movie ever (Goldfinger still holds that spot), but when a movie is as stimulating as this, such hyperbole is to be expected.

Skyfall receives 4/5

Friday
May202011

The First Grader

Movies based on true stories are a normalcy. We see so many of them these days that it would be unusual to see them disappear. Most of them, however, do not match the inherent inspiration present in the actual events. They tend to flounder, relying too much on filmic techniques to draw out the emotion rather than simply letting the story do it itself. National Geographic’s latest release, The First Grader, is a prime example of this.

This true story follows an 84 year old Kenyan man by the name of Kimani N’gan’ga Maruge (Oliver Litondo). Just recently, the government declared “free education for all.” Hearing this, Maruge decides to enroll in primary school with the children in his village. Despite her initial reluctance, Jane Obinchu (Naomie Harris) allows him to come in, seemingly inspired by his dedication to learn. All he wants is to know how to read, but the African people are none too happy with his inclusion in the school, which is already underfunded and forcing five children to every one desk. They believe the young ones need all the attention because, after all, they are Kenya’s future.

There’s no doubt in my mind that The First Grader’s intentions were good. It wanted to share the importance of learning. It wanted to show how it’s never too late to start and, as Maruge puts it in the film, you never stop learning until “there’s dirt in your ears.” It’s a wonderful and truthful message, one that is needed in a world that seems to be getting more apathetic and lazy. But the message crumbles under the weight of an overly dramatic and tonally inconsistent screenplay.

As the opening text of the film tells us, Maruge was a part of the Mau Mau Uprising and fought against the British Army in the 1950’s as they came onto their land and took everything he ever loved away from him, including his wife and child who were both killed in front of his eyes. Listening to Maruge detail the tragedy and seeing the sadness on his face is more than enough to convey the turmoil he went, and is still going, through. However, The First Grader constantly relies on unnecessary flashbacks, some literally within minutes of each other, to show the horrific events, which too often take emotional control away from the more than capable actors. The film doesn’t so much tell its story as it does force it down your throat.

This approach presents a lack of focus. It jumps back and forth so much, and at seemingly random times, that you never truly settle into either of the two stories, despite their intrinsic relationship. While much of this is simply due to the written presentation of the story, much of it also comes from the haphazard editing, which presents many continuity problems. An example of this comes from one sequence that begins at school, then cuts to a group of random people talking about Michelle Obama, then to Maruge sitting in a dark room, then to a flashback before finally winding up back at school. Too many of the scenes existing outside of the classroom could have been edited together in any way and the effect would be the same.

As you can tell, The First Grader is a messy movie and its lack of focus pervades its entirety. About halfway through, it switches its focus from Maruge in school to Obinchu dealing with the backlash from teaching him. Because of all these problems, the film feels disjointed, never fully able to connect its pieces together in a satisfying manner. Something that should be inspiring comes off as much less.

Even though you might not personally feel joy for the old man as he learns to read and write, you’ll see it in his face and no doubt think about how truly amazing his story is. It’s just a pity we don’t get to see it.

The First Grader receives 2/5