Archive for March, 2011

White Material

March 3, 2011

White Material, a film by the French director, Claire Denis, tells the story of a white family living in an unidentified African country. Maria (Isabelle Huppert) runs a coffee plantation along with her husband, AndrĂ© (Christopher Lambert), her indolent son, Manuel (Nicolas Duvauchelle), and her ailing father-in-law (Michel Subor). A civil war is raging in the country, and the French army has pulled out. The soldiers tell her to leave, but Maria is determined to harvest the coffee beans that are ripening. The workers on the plantation leave, but Maria finds new ones. A wounded man shows up on her farm. Maria gives him shelter. She is apparently unaware that he is actually a rebel leader known as “The Boxer” (Isaach de BankolĂ©).

Denis lived in several different African countries during the time she was growing up. Her films often deal with the relations between Europeans and Africans. White Material is about the futility of European attempts to colonize Africa. Maria and her family have lived in this country all their lives, yet they are basically outsiders. There is clearly a certain amount of self-delusion in the way they see themselves. Maria likes to think of herself as charitable and understanding, yet the workers on her plantation live in squalor. As one watches this film, one has a slowly mounting feeling of dread, because one can clearly sense the looming disaster that Maria desperately tries to deny.

The film never gives much detail about the civil war. We’re never told what the underlying issues are, or who exactly the antagonists are. I suppose this is meant to give us a sense of Maria’s isolation from the society around her. Unfortunately, however, it fits into a pattern in the Western media of depicting African conflicts as incomprehensible. I liked this film, but I thought it would have been stronger if it had given more background information.

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The Academy Awards

March 1, 2011


Thank you, peasants, for this award, which is mine by divine right!

I did not watch the Academy Awards. I find awards shows dull. (Although I would have watched if Ricky Gervais had been the emcee.) By all accounts, I didn’t miss anything. Everyone says that James Franco was boring. (Serves him right for bad-mouthing Gervais.) So instead I used the Internet to keep score.

Just as I feared, The King’s Speech won for Best Picture, even though Winter’s Bone and The Social Network are both better films. It also won for Best Director (Tom Hooper), Best Actor (Colin Firth) and Best Historical Falsification – er, I mean Best Original Screenplay (David Seidler). As I said before, the colonials are still in awe of the monarchy. If you don’t believe me, then how do you explain the fact that the 1998 award for Best Supporting Actress went to Judi Dench, for what was merely a cameo role as Queen Elizabeth in Shakespeare in Love? (Dench herself was astonished that she won.) It seems that one merely needs that aura of royalty to impress the members of the Academy.

I can’t really fault the Academy for giving the Best Actress award to Natalie Portman, even though I thought Black Swan was bombastic and silly. However, I would have given the award to Jennifer Lawrence for Winter’s Bone. (I’m told that Black Swan won the Independent Spirit Award for Best Film. I guess this shows that people who make indie films are just as clueless as the the people who work for the studios.)

I can’t judge Christian Bale (Best Supporting Actor) or Melissa Leo (Best Supporting Actress), because I haven’t yet seen The Fighter. Rotten Tomatoes calls it “predictable, but entertaining”. That hardly makes me want to rush out to see it.

I haven’t yet seen any of the Foreign Language films that were nominated. I will have to wait for them to come to my local art house theatre. Best Live Action Short went to the unfunny comedy, God of Love – unfunny comedies being the only kind that Hollywood recognizes. However, Best Animated Short went to The Lost Thing, so they got that right. And I was glad to see that Inside Job won for Best Documentary.

All in all the Academy didn’t embarrass itself too badly. The King’s Speech may not be a great film, but at least it’s not mind-numbing drivel like Forrest Gump (Best Picture, 1994).