Movie Reviews: Day Watch, Mr. Brooks, Paprika 

Also reviews of Bamako, The Devil Came on Horseback, Golden Door and more

Wednesday, May 30 2007

BAMAKO Drawing equally from declamatory African traditions and European modernist procedures, Bamako stages a kind of Third World Epic Theater. Set in a quiet corner of the capital of Mali, events unfold in a hot, hazy, gnat-filled courtyard that serves as a makeshift courtroom. White-wigged African judges preside over the proceedings. Witnesses take the stand and testify. Counsels for the defense and the prosecution (both white men) cross-examine and make statements. The crimes are immense and abstract; the defendant can be tried only in absentia. Bamako puts nothing less than economic injustice on trial, arguing the guilt of the World Bank, the IMF and the entire apparatus of First World economic domination for the crime of African oppression. One by one, witnesses for the prosecution (a writer, a professor, a farmer) eloquently unload woe: the injustice of debt, the consequences of privatization, the crippling effect of structural-adjustment policies. If it sounds like a chore, it plays out with charm, the didacticism enlivened by persuasive detail, the anger leavened by empathy. Bamako brings relief from the latest round of Africa chic in the media, reversing “the flood of information that flows one way.” It colors the Africa Problem from the inside out. (Nuart) (Nathan Lee)

CHEENI KUM The lovely early “meet cute” sequences in writer-director Balakrishnan’s May-December romantic comedy Cheeni Kum (“Less Sugar”) effectively adopt that dry, British style of humor in which laughs are detonated by a single raised eyebrow. Amitabh Bachchan is note-perfect as the 64-year-old Buddhadev “Buddha” Gupta, a maestro chef in a posh London Indian restaurant, who’s still single because he has never met a woman who could pierce the armor of his preening self-regard. Enter 34-year-old Nina Verma (deep-welled Bollywood veteran Tabu, recently seen as the mother in The Namesake), an educated modern woman for whom love and marriage Indian style are all but unthinkable. What we see dawning on these proud people as they gaze at each other is a befuddling sense of a possibility they’ve never imagined for themselves. Precisely because that section of the movie is so well executed, there’s a palpable feeling of disappointment when some extraneous Bollywood heart tugging is introduced in the form of a verbally precocious 9-year-old neighbor girl who is dying of leukemia. When the story later travels to India to depict the conflict between Gupta and Nina’s cricket-loving father (who is six years the chef’s junior), Cheeni Kum cleverly toys with its superficial resemblance to the Non-Resident Indian “yuppie” romances of the 1990s. (Here, assimilation is no longer a threat: As a chef who cooks better Indian food than most people in India, Buddha Gupta is an emblematic expat of the globalization era, able to find a niche in a new country without compromising his cultural identity.) This makes the movie interesting to talk about afterward, but not necessarily any more fun to watch. (Naz 8; Fallbrook 7) (David Chute)

DAY WATCH Part deux of Timur Bekmam­betov’s kinetic Moscow trilogy came with a critics’ goody bag, but it’s going to need a bigger “incentive” than that for me to give you a coherent plot summary for this dizzyingly busy sequel to the equally crowded — and equally adorable — Night Watch. If you’ve spent time in the lively mess that is post-Soviet Moscow, this sci-fi fantasy may strike you as something approaching a realist movie. Once again, the medieval forces of Light and Darkness duke it out on the streets of a Russian capital at once vibrant, alive, and knee-deep in material and symbolic garbage, with an ill-equipped Mod Squad trying to recover an ancient, talismanic stick of chalk, as well as an offspring who’s been repossessed by the enemy. Again, too, the influences are Tarantino, Corman, music video and all number of voluptuaries of early Russian cinema. But for all the vampires and blown-up cars, you’ll see no sadism for the hell of it, only an oddly sweet-tempered mix of hyperbole, understatement and profoundly Slavic philosophizing about guilt, freedom and responsibility. Stay tuned for Dusk Watch, whose Holy Grail will doubtless take the form of a fossilized iPod. (The Landmark; ArcLight) (Ella Taylor)

THE DEVIL CAME ON HORSEBACK When fresh-faced former U.S. Marine Brian Steidle traveled to Sudan in 2004, he expected to serve as an international observer to the recently announced cease fire in the troubled African country’s two-decade civil war. Instead, he found himself a witness (and ultimately a whistle-blower) to a new, even deadlier conflict just then erupting in Sudan’s Darfur region, where militias loyal to the predominately Arab government were engaged in a genocide against Darfur’s black African inhabitants. Armed only with a still camera, Steidle recorded the horrific sights that he saw, all the while the U.S. government — in an all-too-predictable case of Rwanda redux — hemmed and hawed about whether or not to intervene. Composed of grueling footage shot in the Darfur combat zone and Steidle’s plainspoken narration, directors Annie Sundeberg and Ricki Stern’s The Devil Came on Horseback offers a remarkable portrait of one man for whom “Save Darfur” became not just a slogan on a T-shirt, but a mission statement emblazoned on his soul. It is also a sickeningly effective call to action that asks how we in the most powerful nation on the planet can, even in the presence of a smoking gun, remain so loath to effect change. (Music Hall) (Scott Foundas)

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