Friday, March 31 through Sunday, April 2, Washington University's African Film Festival offers four programs, including three feature films each preceded by short fiction works. From Nigeria to South Africa, Niger to Ghana, the selections testify to thematic diversity in contemporary African film and to technical expertise, including terrific music and superb compositions. 

Friday at 7:00 p.m. the festival begins with Maman(s), that is, Mothers. Told entirely from eight-year-old Aida's point of view, her father returns to Paris from Senegal with an unwelcome second wife causing a stir. This short is followed by 76, set in southwest Nigeria. Told in flashback, inspired by true events, the story dramatizes the impact of the aborted military coup and assassination of Nigeria's Head of State. Dire consequences result from misunderstandings in the interlocking relationships of soldiers, their wives and lovers. All the women actors' performances strike exactly the right note communicating the complexity of this community and the importance of women in it, bringing this historical event to vivid life.

Saturday afternoon's program at 3:00, "Eye on Youth," includes three short films, two of them animated. The program includes a Q&A with animator Abdul Nadi and a workshop on cartooning and animation. 

Saturday's 7:00 p.m. program begins with the amusing short Destino. Cinematographer Mehdi and his Speed Movie business partner Loïc contract to film Arab weddings. Nothing goes as planned when they arrive at Leila's, Medhi's ex-girlfriend, in what turns out to be a farcical family ritual catapulted into turmoil. Details enhance the humor, from Speed Movie's audiovisual laboratory van to the bride's and groom's reaction shots. 

Next, the feature Children of the Mountain is an emotional, poignant tale focusing on Essuman who gives birth to Nuku, a boy with a cleft palate. Being blamed for Nuku's physical deformity and blaming herself, Essuman seeks useless solutions through criminals and unlicensed healers before realizing she is not at fault in this initially heartbreaking and then heartwarming personal story. Rukiyat Masud, who plays Essuman, gives a mesmerizing performance anchoring a story that moves skillfully from distress to acceptance. Writer/director Priscilla Anany will introduce the film and lead a discussion after the screening.

Sunday Le Retour/The Return watches as Willy is jolted by his brother Théo's revelation of unexpected homosexual preference. And the festival concludes on a joyous musical note with Akounak Tedalat Tah Tazoughai/Rain the Color Blue with a Little Red in It. Real life, expert guitarist Mdou Moctar enters a guitar competition in this first Niger narrative feature in the Tuareg language. Peppered with entertaining musical interludes and a clear homage to Prince, the story also includes subplots involving father-son conflict, stealing music and songs, and debate about the negative reputation of musicians. It offers a fitting, upbeat end to the festival.

All films have English subtitles as needed and screen Friday, March 31 through Sunday, April 2 at WashU's Brown Hall, Room 100. You may visit africanfilm.wustl.edu for more information or call 314-935-7879. 

 

In Paris, Maureen is a "Personal Shopper," as the film's title announces. She works for a disagreeable, wealthy celebrity client, but in fact she's waiting for some unknown sign from Lewis, her twin brother, known as a medium. Lewis died three months ago from a heart malformation that, quite symbolically, Maureen also exhibits.

Without revealing any essential information, as events develop Maureen will both look for, puzzle over, and distrust possible contact from Lewis. During her exploration, Maureen receives strings of text messages from a mysterious and potentially threatening source, clashes with her employer and deliberately breaks some of their agreements. At the home they shared, Maureen will show sympathy to Lara, Lewis' former girlfriend, as inexplicable incidents intensify.

As Kristen Stewart, who plays Maureen, states in press notes, "The film also asks what, in my opinion, is the most terrifying question in life; 'Am I completely alone, or can I truly enter into contact with someone else?'" This extends to other people in the room for Maureen, not just the other world. Maureen is alone in many scenes and feels isolated even when she's in the company of others. She is assuredly a personal shopper who is trying on others' clothes in a search for herself, adrift since Lewis' death. Her world has been fractured, and the narrative reflects this disjointed and unsettling theme. In today's world, it's easy to identify with a fragmented life, and the film makes no effort to unify events. As Maureen rushes about Paris on her motor scooter, travels to London on a fast train, or even wanders through large homes or apartments, she hurries but seems never to arrive.    

Writer/director Olivier Assayas demonstrated his ability to elicit a nuanced performance from Kristen Stewart in Clouds of Sils Maria. He again teases out her range of emotions, though she remains occasionally too emotionally and physically stiff when it does and doesn't fit the character. Nevertheless, Personal Shopper makes a powerful statement that, as Stewart says about Maureen, "We're all in our own world, completely absorbed . . . without ever experiencing even the slightest pleasure." It's a film capturing our time. Assayas won the Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival for Personal Shopper. Primarily in English with some French with English subtitles. At Landmark's Plaza Frontenac Theatre.

 

 A legal letter arrives for Tony Webster with an irresistible enticement to reexamine his past relationship with teenage schoolmate Adrian and Veronica, first his and then Adrian's girlfriend. Adrian's diary has been left to Tony, though subsequently withheld from him by Veronica's mother Sarah, now deceased and the diary back in play. It holds details connected with a suicide. 

A self-absorbed, vaguely content Englishman in his 70s, Tony manages his small, vintage Leica camera shop. A Lecia was his first gift from Veronica and serves as a poignant metaphor for his imperfect snapshot of their past about which Adrian's newly surfaced diary reveals painful truths. 

East Indian director Ritesh Batra clearly appreciates older characters, as demonstrated in his 2013 feature debut The Lunchbox, starring Irrfan Khan as an accountant on the verge of retirement. In The Sense of an Ending Batra allows Jim Broadbent, the elder Tony, the time to register awareness and calmly, even slowly react. It's in these emotional junctures that subdued but monumental jolts occur. As the mature Veronica, Tony's first love, Charlotte Rampling is, as always, the most captivating sphinx who says very little verbally and communicates volumes nonverbally. 

Based on Julian Barnes' novel that won the prestigious 2011 Man Booker Prize, The Sense of an Ending has altered the novel's heavy reliance on an internalized recollection. For its cinematic adaptation, Nick Payne juxtaposes and intertwines Tony Webster's young and older selves, sometimes surprisingly as when he places the adult Tony in the car with teenage Tony's friends. In addition, Tony's ex-wife Margaret (Harriet Walter) and his pregnant daughter Susie (Michelle Dockery) figure more prominently in the film. The changes work well, layering the narrative and suggesting with imagery how easily we alter events to fill in partial information or to fit subjective projections, especially those flattering to ourselves. 

A film intriguing in its own right, the most provocative element is the story's invitation to question our own certainties about past events. Knowing how faulty convictions can be, The Sense of an Ending opens up Tony's and, by extension, all certitude, thereby enriching its theoretical as well as its emotional appeal. At Landmark's Plaza Frontenac Theatre.

 

The Disney live-action adaptation of the Disney animation depends on computer-generated imagery. Most viewers do not know Jean Cocteau's 1946 version or Gabrielle-Suzanne de Villeneuve's original story, but they surely know Disney's animated version or the recent stage play.

For fans of sparkles and reveals, the other versions may not matter. Fans of Alan Menken's music may not care about the source material either. In being its own version, this one tries very hard by adding a bit of new music and by casting stars recognizable by voice or bearing.

Emma Watson, Hermione in the Harry Potter franchise, plays Belle, the Beauty, rather woodenly. St. Louisan Kevin Kline ploddingly plays the watch-maker, Belle's protective father. Emma Thompson plays and voices the tea pot with Ian McKellan's voice as the clock and Ewan McGregor's as the candelabrum. Playing the unbelievable Beast is Dan Stevens, familiar from his two years on Downtown Abbey.

And playing the arrogant, evil, narcissistic Gaston, terribly reminiscent of D.J. Trump, is Luke Evans. Gaston's dog's body is Josh Gad, and of all the actors, it is Gad who finds nuance in his role. 

The story includes a castle, thrust into darkness by a curse, and a beastly prince, who must be loved by a beautiful woman in order to have the curse lifted. Belle is that woman, but Gaston, confidence man, insists she is his. Also cursed are the tea pot, the wardrobe, whose songs are resounded by Audra McDonald, and the candelabrum. 

Tobias A. Schliessler's cinematography, aided by drones, shines forth from on high whether over dances or the land. Jacqueline Durran's fairy-dusted costumes are fabulous. But, most of all for the fairy tale, the moral holds true that love transcends looks.  

 

The film The Last Word invites each viewer to attempt, as much as possible, to look at one's own life from a more objective perspective. On the whole, it succeeds nicely, using abrasive, outspoken businesswoman Harriet Lauler as the catalyst. She's 81 when, jolted by a newspaper's striking obituary, she decides hers should be written now, before her passing.   

Hiring the paper's obit writer Anne, Harriet's first run at gathering praiseworthy recollections by her friends doesn't yield her desired results. In fact, it's thoroughly disappointing. So Harriet sets out to reshape details of her life. She gets wise-beyond-her-years young black girl Brenda as her "intern" (a patronizing plot point), talks her way into a DJ job, and reaches out to her ex-husband and her alienated daughter. Before long, Harriet's direct, no-nonsense style becomes appealing, refreshing, and even admirable. She often says what we'd all sometimes like to say though politeness dictates against it.

How the viewer feels about The Last Word really depends on embracing this brusque, blunt woman. Few actors besides Shirley MacLaine could sell this combination of hard hearted and yet not mean spirited. A consummate performer, MacLaine knows when to hold still, when to play for nonverbal impact and how to modulate her voice from outraged to surprised. As a woman previously running her advertising company, it's easy to understand her need for strength that segued into aggression. As the obituary writer, Amanda Seyfried does a magnificent job, holding her own in humorous and somber scenes with Harriet, and Ann'Jewel Lee as Brenda all but steals the film. Anne Heche also does a good job as her estranged daughter Elizabeth while Philip Baker Hall brings his mature sweetness to the husband. 

Director Mark Pellington knows how to pace a scene, to trust his actors, and let character unfold. Writer Stuart Ross Fink writes interaction that captures the personality without overdoing the point. The magic of a three-dimensional person emerges, one with experience, defenses, and the ability to still learn. Moreover, it's encouraging to see interesting women make pointed observations about values and the need to fail spectacularly to learn and live, to have not a "nice day," but, as Harriet encourages, an honest, direct, true day. At Landmark's Plaza Frontenac Theatre.

 

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