The Marvelous Experience of Senegal and Doctor Strange

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My experience of seeing Doctor Strange in Senegal adequately describes my experience in the country as a whole: visually spectacular but confusing as fuck. One would assume that in English, Doctor Strange is completely coherent but in a language that you do not speak, it becomes this puzzle that you must rely on visual storytelling to carry you through. Navigating Senegal with a minimal understanding of French and none at all of Wolof leads you to places as unusual as this mystical world Steven Strange finds himself. Like Strange, I was lost, inexperienced and depended heavily on the assistance of others. As life imitates art, I found myself navigating the unfamiliar with a mix of hope and fear on Senegalese streets.

 

When we first meet the titular doctor played by a handsome(?) Benedict Cumberbatch, he is on the top of his game, a cocky surgeon who is insanely rich with his high rise New York apartment, drawers filled with Rolexes and a car that when driven looks like a luxury commercial. On his way to a gala, he gets into a horrible accident that destroys his once perfectly steady, money making hands and is sent reeling trying to regain some semblance of normalcy. Vacationing in Senegal was my first experience in a francophone country and the longest amount of time I’ve spent in a non-English speaking area. As an American, I live in a similar life of cushy where I am surrounded by the English language that I take for granted. By residing in California there is a prevalent Latino population but in my day to day life I don’t have to worry about not being able to communicate with someone. Very different from living in Europe where there is a bounty of different countries and languages crammed into a land mass with lots of intersecting cultures. My immersion as I entered Dakar was like the rug being pulled out from under me when suddenly I’m unable to communicate basic needs. Even with the help of some gracious hosts, my housemate Molly, a grad student from Penn State who was my Rachel McAdams, trying to get around the city could be a struggle. In a foreign country, you have to relearn the fundamentals of how to get around, order food and ask for directions, not something I’m used to being an obstacle.

 

Amidst all the minutia of my problems, there’s a great world happening outside of me. The shape-shifting landscapes conceived in the battles of burnt eyes Mads Mickelson and Asian-fied Tilda Swinton are the twisted mirror versions of our reality. It’s breathtaking to watch characters run up buildings, giving a new perspective on our trivial surroundings. That’s often how I pitch traveling to Africa, that it’s a more surreal realm then you know. There’s a semblance of western ways concerning fashion, business and of course foreign built malls but the way daily life is conducted plus the lives you see in the smaller villages is completely new. As exciting as it is to see our heroes construct portals through space and time, I find even more excitement by having that glimpse into the Senegalese culture. It’s an alternate universe of same but different, they have buses but with fewer windows and more colorfully painted, they have fast food but it’s prepared by a woman on a bench. The end result is the same but the journey is different.

 

The most exciting and relieving part of my trip was when I finally found my community. As Strange is cautiously welcomed into the school of mystic arts in the mountains of Nepal, I discovered my home away from home in Saint Louis, an island city five hours north of the capital. In a three-story pink chateau once inhabited by the governor of Mauritania, I met peers that showed me the real life and passion of Senegal. The artists and dancers that spent their time either training on the makeshift stage or chatting on the terrace made me a part of their frat house experience. It was more educational than what that word often connotes even though by literal standards there was lots of fraternizing. As Strange consumes every moment of learning during his time in the commune, I absorbed every moment from a shared lunch of thieboudienne to the mates playfully arguing in Wolof and trips to the market for mellon and cafe Touba. It was an unexpected welcoming that was more personal than the tour guides or pleasantries between expats. While my stay was brief, it was expansive in impact and forever memorable.

 

I guess I’ve done a really terrible job expressing my feelings about the movie but then again it’s quite a difficult task when you can’t follow any of it for long stretches of dialogue. In case you’re worried I’ve continued my life ignorant to the plot, my boyfriend graciously answered all my questions over skype like “what was the point of the time loop sequence?”, “why does Chiwetel turn to the dark side?” and “what was Benjamin Bratt’s deal?” As far as a simplistic origin story, the movie is very enjoyable as a spectacle and with slapstick humor that translates in any language. As a movie I’ll give is 3 1/2 stars and my trip gets 4. It’ll give it an extra star once I learn French.

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A Post Election Dick

Michelle Williams And Dan Hedaya In 'Dick'

A peek behind the curtain: for my usual Thursday blog posts, I watch the decided movie the weekend before and do my writing on Wednesday. This past Sunday, Cinefamily did a very feminist and patriotic screening of the 1999 teen comedy Dick This seemed like the perfect film today write about post-election; girl power, bad ass blondes etc. I hadn’t ever entertained the idea that I’d be writing this piece under very different circumstances. I live in the bubble of Los Angeles with like-minded millennials so the reality of Donald Trump being elected president sounded like a farce. The past 24 hours I’ve been at a loss for words, feeling as if I’m in an alternate timeline from Back to the Future Part II. To my fault, I’m not a very political person. I get most of my news from BBC Africa so I’d describe myself as someone who looks at things from a global scale. I leave for Senegal on Saturday (a trip I planned before the election results) and I’m going to have to explain my country’s decision to every taxi driver, tour guide and shop owner I meet. When I visited Ghana last year and people found out I’m American, they’d smile and start cheering “Obama!” I don’t want to imagine what they’ll say to me now. Something much worse and in French.

So how do I tie this in with the movie Dick? I wasn’t alive in 1972 and I’m no historian but at that time, America had the smell of doom, similarly falling apart. Most notably, we were stuck in an unwinnable war that was killing men faster than we could send them and with the Watergate scandal, the country was betrayed by those in the highest entrusted power. Those issues and the general climate of sexism is at the center of this movie about two 15-year-old Betsy (Kirsten Dunst) and Arlene (Michelle Williams) who find themselves in the wilds of the corrupt administration after witnessing the Watergate bugging. The film’s tone is able to look back with a more upbeat perspective rather than the bleak nihilism one might have felt while it was happening. This is a movie packed with loud, colorful costumes by Deborah Everton, a best-of disco soundtrack and satirical performances by premier sketch comedy actors including Will Ferrell, Dave Foley and Harry Shearer. Writer/Director Andrew Fleming turns the turmoil of the 1970’s into a hilarious spectacle as these two girls unbeknownst to the public and even themselves, change the course of history. It’s an escapist, popcorn flick but with this poignant, educational undertone. And there’s Ryan Reynolds to boot!

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It’s quite bizarre that this movie was made and not surprisingly a flop because it’s an unlikely intersection of genres with politics and teen comedy. The more successful films of that year would be She’s All That, American Pie and 10 Things I Hate About You, none which you would imagine prime for an All The President’s Men mash up. Yet that’s why this movie is so great, partially because it’s combining the unlikely but that it’s not underestimating its audience. This is a movie about underestimation, especially towards women. Betsy and Arlene are seen by men as giddy empty-headed girls and the opening presents just that. As Nixon’s men break into the Watergate complex where Arlene lives, the two girls are up late writing into a contest to win a date with pop idol Bobby Sherman. Arlene dictates her puppy love to Betsy who is inept with the typewriter. While they sneak out to mail the letter, they run into G. Gordon Libby (Shearer) which provokes the administration to “deal” with the teens, making sure they don’t comprehend or tell anyone what they saw. The men in power quickly assume they have nothing to worry about with the ditzy youths who are more interested in walking Checkers and baking cookies that Nixon (played by Dan Hedaya) and his cabinet speak freely about their criminal acts in their presence. The plot is all leading up to the administration’s incorrect perceptions biting them in the ass as Betsy and Arlene become the notorious “Deep Throat” informants that break the Washington Post story and force Nixon’s resignation. Even with knowing the outcome of the narrative, you’re excited for these girls to deliver the ultimate fuck you to the men in suits who rule their lives. What I like is yes, they are ditzy but they’re not dumb. Dunst and Williams light up the screen with their bubbly presence and are such believable teens with their naivete of the world but they mature in the course of the film and for sure Arlene grew up to be a boss politicians. Just like many of the youths of that decade, the older generation looked at them as stupid potheads who would amount to nothing but they protested and fought back. In this movie those sentiments are compacted into high spirited, roller skating young women.

Watching a comedy like Dick that has the 20/20 hindsight and sense of humor to make light of what was an equally scary moment in America’s history makes me hope we will be able to do the same in thirty years. That’s hard to envision because the state of affairs right now already is larger than life. Dick is an obvious exaggeration but life as it is November 9th, 2016 feels impossible to heighten. Betsy and Arlene’s emotional arc is very similar to mine yesterday. It began with blissful ignorance that the world was fine then the harsh realization that there’s a lot of hate and lies that were right in front of me. I want the grand finale elation of a giant banner that exclaims “You Suck” which is how a lot of us feel right now. I try to look at everything in an African standpoint but the world is so surreal right now listening to Zimbabwe’s massive inflation and failing economy, the human rights violations in Somalia and the continued political protests in Burundi, it doesn’t sound too farfetched for similar ripples to occur here. If I can recommend a movie during this trying time, Dick is not a bad way to go. Revel in bell bottoms, flower power and ABBA for an hour and a half. It will help to take the edge off.

The Vintage Revisits: 40 Days and 40 Nights

The premise of 40 Days and 40 Nights is pretty arrogant on its part which is where some of the hate towards it stems from. Having not seen it since high school, my touchstone of knowledge came from the Flophouse Podcast whose three white male hosts are steadfast in their opinion that it’s one of the worst films ever made and have gone on record stating “if you see it in a video store, you should rent it and then throw it away.” I understand their frustration when at a glance this is a movie about a guy who is having so much sex that he feels compelled to give up all types of sexual pleasure for lent. Pretty infuriating if your twenties weren’t as fruitful in love. As a woman, I don’t harbor that resentment regarding the “lothario” Josh Hartnett’s dilemma or attraction to him for that matter as Harnett has always come off as the blankest slate of a human being. I find the film appealing as a sweet sex comedy and I enjoy watching the brief but sexy career of Shannyn Sossamon. Not that the movie deserves much credit, it’s not the waste that certain podcasters may lead you to believe.

 
It’s actually a movie about a guy dealing with a break which is something I respect. Maybe because I want to see men hit as hard by a break up as women, I like the perspective of a dumped Matt (Hartnett) whose friendships, sexual encounters, and productivity at work are all stunted by a crushing end to a relationship. The straw that breaks the camel’s back is his inability to orgasm during a one night stand due to visions of his ceiling crumbling and he seeks solace in his priest-in-training brother which is where he gets the idea of cleansing himself of sex for the 40 day long lent season. Yes, it’s ridiculous but the movie is aware of it as his quest is far from saintly. It’s not smart or bold enough for a critique on religion but tongue and cheek with the Christ illusions. The crux of the story is that during Matt’s symbolic absolution he meets the irresistible Erica (Sossamon) and finds himself at a crossroads of wanting to sleep with this stunning woman who he develops feelings for and following through on this commitment that becomes a bigger deal than anticipated. The plot gets dumber as I explain it as it relies on the stereotype that men are ravenous, sex crazed beings who can’t go a month without getting some. While that’s more far fetched, I buy Matt’s need to follow through on his word when it becomes this sprawling bet and friends, coworkers and complete strangers will benefit financially if he breaks the purge.

 
The sensual romance that blooms from the celibate relationship is what charms me and that courtship is what I’m a sucker for in rom-coms. At the same time, 40 Days contains the most aggravating trope which is that most of the conflict that arises is from simple miscommunications. They fight because he didn’t tell her he was undertaking an abstinence pledge, they fight because she thinks he had sex with his ex, the opening incident of him not orgasming is embarrassing because he inexplicably lies about. The film is adamant that all men are liars and pigs. The workplace which is an upstart tech company (ahead of the curve in 2002) is prime for a sexual harassment case as it’s the most uncomfortable business environment I’ve seen since Secretary yet the film presents it very casually. This is tangential but a convenient moment to appreciate Maggie Gyllenhaal in the best friend role who straight up kills it as “roommate who rolls her eyes.” A movie could always use more Gyllenhaal but the film works in spite of the grating plot devices and limitations of the actors. Where Hartnett falters, he makes up for it by having the perfect look of handsome enough that he can get laid consistently but boy scout-ish enough that you grasp the moral compass that leads him to this undertaking. And Sossamon who is not strong in other roles creates convincing chemistry that compels the balance of laundromat meet-cutes and board room boner jokes that are done exemplarily here.

 
If you can sit through the stupidity or at least suspend your disbelief that not having sex is such a brutal challenge that a man would turn to model plane building, then there’s fun to be had. This was released during the height of R-rated sex comedies like American Pie and Van Wilder which have questionable gender politics. There is a female-initiated rape scene that goes wildly unaddressed in the narrative which would have spun into a million think pieces if released today. I’d be harsher on this film’s reduction of women to sex objects if it wasn’t that the whole movie’s focus being about sex and that the men are portrayed equally poorly. I didn’t care for the trite scene of parents talking about sex which is awkward and unnecessary for the characters in the sequence and the audience or the sea of bare breasts Matt envisions as his abstinence drives him insane. There is the childish humor and male gaze that isn’t my taste but the love story gets me. As I said, I’m in it for the Sossamon and for some reason I can forgive most of this movie to arrive at the satisfying moments with her. It beats watching her being date raped in Rules of Attraction but I’ll save that review for another day.

A Wander Through A Valley

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Since 2009, I’ve held out hope for Ti West. Well, technically 2011 because that’s when I first encountered the vintage horror throwback The House of the Devil which an amazing slow burn of an occult-centric plot akin to Rosemary’s Baby. His follow up supernatural, haunted house flick Innkeepers while not as innovative, packs some extremely effective scares. In 2013, I saw my first West film in theaters with The Sacrament which as much as I want to defend it, I can’t fully get behind. It culminates in being a let down by going the annoying found-footage route and in this case, the slow burn backfires. The ending is greatly unsatisfying and e-mail me if you want my way more exciting theoretical ending that I’ve been sitting on for three years. After that misstep, I’ve been anxiously waiting for the young director to rebound. His newest feature diverts from the horror genre as he branches out west. Sadly, his efforts feel wasted as In a Valley of Violence is less new and more of a first draft Tarantino knockoff.
There is a genre of indie that could be labeled “Tarantino Adjacent” as films made in a post Pulp Fiction world tend to borrow elements he has made iconic. What hurts Valley of Violence double is that it’s ripping off Tarantino and the movies Tarantino is ripping off. It’s the grindhouse, western setting of Django and The Hateful Eight with the modern, pontificating dialogue of Pulp Fiction. With the animated, opening credits with 70’s font and faux philosophical monologues, it’s deja vu. Set in a nearly deserted town, populated by a few heathens, army deserter Paul (Ethan Hawke) attempts to cross through on his way to Mexico. The cocky deputy Gilly (James Ransone) and his gang of idiots, stir up trouble with the drifter, namely killing his dog, which leads to a (literal) bloodbath and shootout on the sleepy dirt streets. Yes, this furthers the other budding genre of canine revenge films started by John Wick. I have no qualms with this because it’s better than the usual of avenging the raped and murdered wife which I don’t ever need to see again.
The strengths of this movie come from West’s talent as a director and the weaknesses are him as a writer. The way he walks the camera through the town gives life to a set that feels cheap in the way that it was obviously built for the movie and they couldn’t afford extras to populate it. The one flashback in the film is of Paul remembering his traumatic wartime experience, something we’ve seen a million times but he shoots it in pitch black with only a flashlight amount of lighting to sharply illuminate the subject’s face. It’s shot like found footage of his memory and is one of the best scenes in the movie. Maybe it works because it’s silent and because I enjoyed the less people spoke. It’s an instance where Tarantino could make it work but West couldn’t as he gives a modern spin with the vernacular choices and it becomes nails on the chalkboard. Taissa Farmiga and Karen Gillan play sisters and their bickering about men and well, men (the movie doesn’t pass the Bechdel test) sounds right out of 2016. Not that you have to sell the 1800’s time period but the tone is not self-aware enough to balance out that very strong choice. Because the women and especially Ransone are playing it so big, Hawke feels like he’s in the wrong movie. Travolta is more at Hawke’s level which makes me wish that like the poster seemed to promise, the movie had been just them. A cat and mouse game between the two would have made a more believable movie but having to sit through a pompous Ransone and shrill Gillan argue in a room for ten minutes is unintentionally aggravating. The dog performance really comes out on top which is why they had to kill her, she really stole the spotlight.
In a Valley of Violence is a solid “ok” movie. It doesn’t do anything that wrong but doesn’t offer anything extraordinary. The preconceived notions of straight to video (now straight to on-demand) movies were that they must be bad or worse, bland. As much as I can say West did a great job directing, I will promptly forget this film. I’d almost give more credence to Sacrament because that one is on the cusp of doing something great but fails. This movie isn’t even trying. West wanted to try something other than horror but in doing so plays it way too safe. In this new wave of westerns, I like the variety of one that doesn’t take itself as seriously (and isn’t Ridiculous 6) but your time is better spent with the extra 90 minutes watching Django because if you’re gonna see a neo-western, at least see it done right.