Today's films were a bit of a mixed bag. The best of the bunch was LA PIROGUE (6), the first Senegalese film I've had a chance to watch. It is named for a type of long, brightly painted wooden fishing canoe that Senagalese use to make the seven-day trip across the Atlantic to Spain. The journey is so perilous that apparently about 5,000 people died making it out of the 30,000 who attempted it from 2005 to 2010, so that gives you an idea of the stakes that drive people to make the trip. Immigrant stories are cropping up more and more in European cinema, as well as in the U.S., and this one certainly has its good points, including a straightorward approach to its dramatic story and competent filming of the high seas challenges. Its story lacks the complexity of other immigrant stories that I have liked better, but nonetheless is an interesting window into a culture to which we get little exposure.
OLD DOG (3.5), set in a mountainous region of China that covers part of what used to be Tibet, offers a window into another little-seen culture. The Tibetan filmmaker uses the story of an old mastiff to illustrate how Tibetan culture is disappearing due to encroaching urbanization. Mastiffs apparently are so in demand among urban Chinese that they will fetch quite a high price, and the story here involves a father and son in a tug of war over whether to sell the mastiff that the father raised as a pup. The filmmaker uses a very straightforward style with long shots and no close-ups to give a flavor of the simple and plain life of these Tibetan folks, but it is awfully slow-going to watch and the action changes very little.
MEN AT LUNCH (4) apparently started out as a 45-minute PBS documentary--and doubling its running time in order to reach feature length has stretched the premise a little thin. Its jumping-off point, so to speak, is the famous photograph featuring steelworkers on a lunch break high above Central Park during construction of Rockefeller Center, and the film does contain some interesting tidbits about the photo and the risks taken by iron workers back in the 1930s, as well as by the photographers who captured them (mostly without attribution). But the film lays on the sentimentality pretty thickly, including the assertion that the photograph represents "the city's greatest legend" and constant references to the dreams of the immigrants who came over on Ellis Island, particularly the Irish ones (who get special attention given that the film is the work of an Irish director and was produced with support from the Irish Film Board). All and all, it's mildly entertaining but seems to assume it will provoke more adoration than it really deserves.
Of those I missed reviewing from the first week, here is one I particularly recommend.
In GINGER AND ROSA (7), Elle Fanning gives an astonishing performance as a teenager coming of age in England in 1962. Although the scope of the story is small, the film's depth of insight and good performances make up for it. The mother of Fanning's Ginger had her as a teenager and her father, a handsome philandering college professor, wears his liberal credentials on his sleeve. Now a teenager herself, Ginger predictably finds her unhappy mother irritating and her father inspiring. She also is joined at the hip to her lifelong friend Rosa, whose dreams of romance pair nicely with Ginger's romantic notions of idealism. But when Ginger's parents separate and she begs to live with her dad, Ginger increasingly feels herself to be carrying the weight of the world in more ways than one as she sublimates her growing dread at a budding affair between Rosa and her father into a deepening concern about the prospect of nuclear annihilation. All of these characters are very well-drawn, especially Ginger's dad, who Alessandro Nivola plays quite insightfully as the worst kind of narcissist, and Annette Bening, Oliver Platt and Timothy Spall have very good turns as godparents who notice and care about Ginger's suffering long before her parents do. The film really belongs to Fanning, though; just 13 when this was filmed, she is clearly one to watch. Hopefully its star-laden cast and esteemed director Sally Potter will assure it a wider release.