ThePingOfPong

Pieces on Film, Prose and Music by a Nigerian

Month: July, 2012

MAYBE MARRIED. MAYBE SINGLE. DEFINITELY BAD.

A Reel Waste

 

A few of us had hoped that with the fascination Nollywood now has with cinemas, filmmaking in the country will get better.

The now showing, Married But Living Single, is reason to believe that our hopes have been dashed. After the artistic duds that have been Two Brides and a Baby and Maami, the Nollywood rollercoaster has hit a fresh low- at the very least, Two Brides was watchable till just before its last sequence, while the latter film had few scenes of quality. With, the film under review, it is plausible that a viewer’s time is taken up by violent spasms of cringes brought on by the abject entity on display.

Any one of the aspects of the film is cringeworthy- the picture, the ‘words on marble’ script (apparently it is based on a ‘motivational’ book), the bad acting, the clueless soundtrack.

Married But Living Single is the story of Kate, played by a shocked-to-not-be-acting-Jenifa Funke Akindele, a female advertising employee who gives her all to her company at the detriment of her family. She comes home late, stays up working into the night and hasn’t taken a leave in two years- in short she is the consummate pawn in the age of capitalism. Except she is female and that makes all the difference, especially in a film like this with an African Male Manifesto. Her husband (an idle Benjamin Johnson who is becoming a serial underwhelming actor) frowns but loves her too much- the script tells us, there is no chemistry anywhere on display- to be anything but a whiner. (Yes, you guessed it: he is married but living single.) That is, until in Nicholas Sparks style, he is diagnosed with cancer and his wife refuses to accompany him to India for the operation. Not buying it? Join the queue.

To justify the running time of nearly 120 minutes, there are subplots that are needless diversions. There is some corporate espionage and in the worst sequence of a film with several, there is a glaring anti-battery message; apparently a man beating his wife at the slightest provocation is too subtle, so a character says, “The government must put a stop to battery! The society cannot go on like this!” and when the battered wife dies, another ‘gem’ of dialogue is uttered, “I hope all the wife beaters will learn a lesson from this.”

Help! I thought this was cinema- I didn’t realize we were going to picket government offices.

Sadly, even the regularly reliable Funke Akindele, as Kate, cannot save this accident of a film, stripped of the showiness and aggression of her alter ego, Suliat, and laden with extra-long, uber artificial eyelashes, along with others with nothing to lose, she calmly sinks with the pseudo-sophisticated preachy script.

The newfangled fad of placing products on the screen is silly, but it is a boon here: wiser it is, to admire the products on the bottom left than to stomach the mediocrity occupying the rest of the big screen.

Little mercies!

TANGO WITH ME: The Hand may be Hollywood’s but that Voice…

This is an old review- the film Tango With Me was released early 2011.

Where’s the chemistry?

They say the movie, Tango with Me has been in production since 2009. That information is an oddity and cheering news for an industry that considers haste a virtue, so perhaps the time ‘wasted’ would rid the movie of the flaws that bedevil the industry, the idea being the considerable time spent would leave sufficient time for postproduction where flaws are cut leaving a taut picture for the big screen.

They got that right. Technically, the movie is fine, its beauty amplified by the 35mm camera used; the crew evidently proud of their work take a chunk of time in the opening credits seemingly screaming, there’s division of labour! The director is not the producer is not the DoP is not the scriptwriter! The message is loud and clear, only partly for the audience but mainly for the rest of Nollywood, a visual cri de coeur: this is how it is done; this is how it should be done.

Here’s hoping it would meet open ears.

It is in this department that the film itself soars, apparently because the crew pay obeisance to the almighty 35mm, the picture so crisp there is a conceited need to do several close-ups of the pretty actors on display. The actors themselves are airbrushed to visual perfection- no one strand of hair is out of place even in anguish, even in bed. However, like most apparently flawless objects, the camera draws so much attention to itself that one is tempted to lean in and find cracks. And there are cracks.

Right at the beginning, the use of fading as transition device soon turns abrupt so that the effect is jarring, which rather than emphasise the scenes only suggests an inability to successfully close a scene.

So far, there is no mention of the story in this review and that is because the movie too puts the story on the back burner. Quite simply, the camera is the star, then the airbrushed stars, then the story. But then, what is the story?

Briefly: Despite an electric meet-cute a couple, Lola and Uzor (played by Genevieve Nnaji and a stolid Benjamin Johnson,) manages to be celibate till the wedding night when an act of violence pushes the marriage to the brink causing friends, family and a boss to intrude thus complicating a delicate situation. What do they do? They do a decidedly un-Nigerian thing, they go to a shrink a la Hollywood (though to reinforce the Nigerianness the movie calls him a marriage counsellor) who guides the uneasy couple through the tortuous paths of a troubled marriage. That is all that can be said as it is not possible to discuss the movie without a spoiler, a needless concealment as barely halfway through the film the big secret is revealed.

This is problematic, not just for the reviewer but for the movie itself and then the audience. The former’s problem is obvious; for the movie, the decision is disingenuous, since this kind of suspense is for thrillers not for dramas, so that it fails to be entirely suspenseful once the secret is out and then fails acutely to be a portrayal or keen analysis of a troubled marriage; then the viewer is short-changed as hardly has he settled into the movie when the ‘twist’ hid in all synopses and especially the trailer is revealed and he realizes that the denouement is far away. A case of bad marketing… but if it gets the cinema full, then perhaps it worked?

Perhaps. But it is an aggregation of things like this that undermine the artistic efforts of director Mahmoud Balogun. For an attraction as instant as theirs, it is curious how they avoided the bed before marriage, the lame attempt by Lola to explain it away notwithstanding; other than the need for a pretty face to stand beside Nnaji what exactly qualified Benjamin Johnson for this role? While he may have pulled off co-hosting Project Fame on the tube, the man’s qualities do not carry on the big screen and the chemistry between the leads is near nonexistent- probably why they succeeded at celibacy.

When Mark Zuckerberg was asked about The Social Network, he said, perhaps with a smile, “It’s surprising what they got right…” so too with Tango, where they got Cyril Stober to play himself casting news, though the gory pictures accompanying the news would never make it into the real NTA news bulletin. This is certainly a leaf borrowed from Hollywood’s playbook (alongside its relentless Mtn product placement). The effort to get it right is worthy of applause. But the trouble with levelling fierce praise at fares such as this is the tendency to dip into hyperbole as already some are chanting that this is the movie to revolutionize Nollywood.

Maybe technically. But then, it isn’t the first movie to use celluloid, Kelani, Amata, Afolayan have dallied with it. So there is bad news: this is not it.

At best it is a false dawn. Certainly Nollywood can do worse than learn a novel narrative device, some technique, fancy camera handling and its present equipment could do with some updating, still there is not too much to learn in terms of story and plot devices. Why? Well, because a lot of the usual Nollywood suspects are here.

Firstly, like everything in the movie, the song(s) are polished till shine but again it is style over substance as the movie is guilty of turning the soundtrack into little more than the script with some melody. This lyrical over-simplification ruins what is a fine musical production. There is however a delightful use of a Fela song.

Secondly, incredulity: without giving too much away, it is hard to believe that highbrows like the couple would err in not seeking medical help after the events in the pivotal scene. And it becomes silly when Lola takes a decision that would irk all but the most unreasonable of feminists.

Again, the supporting characters are not developed enough to stand up to the leads except for Joke Silva (as Lola’s mother) who overacts initially but manages to settle down to deliver a subtle performance in later scenes; her husband (played by Ahmed Yerima) steals the only scene he had space after catapulting himself into an inappropriate, illogical but strangely winning dance- from where the movie forcibly derives its title. Even in the face of all that is wrong, much like the daughter, the audience might just smile.

Then, in aiming for Hollywood, Balogun decides to rake up issues that are not particularly contentious in Nigeria: the abortion (“It’s my body”, says Lola), adoption debate is not one to provoke passionate argument here- most people know where they stand on these issues and it is highly unlikely that this movie would cause a reassessment. Whatever it is, it is not a movie to stir a debate. Most likely, the audience would leave the cinema same way they came; the issues so couched in the attractive 35mm wrapper that the said issues wouldn’t even come up on the drive home. And if while in the cinema, you feel somewhat alienated from the couple’s plight, don’t blame yourself, the people here are too well-spoken, too rich, too airbrushed and too silly to be everyday people.

Perhaps as overcompensation for the Americanization of the issues, director Balogun renders a stereotypical Nigerian view of a successful career woman: Uzor’s boss (competently portrayed by Tina Mba) is a twice divorcee who speaks longingly about love and companionship, while clearly after forbidden sex. It may seem pro-feminist to have a female supporting character going after what she wants strongly, but it really is veiled chauvinism.

Finally, there is an unmistakable flaw that fingers the movie as standard Nollywood fare. But first, some praise.

The script has some clever dialogue, even when it feels intended for stage rather than screen and the screenplay squeezes in a double entendre. There is also a remarkable scene where Uzor washes his hands, ostensibly as a postprandial ritual but the accompanying dialogue tells of a deeper implication.

That flaw referred to earlier, is its preachiness, that feature of lazy scriptwriting that makes employs God as a deus ex machina and has seen dozens of Nollywood movies end in a church. In latter scenes in Tango, every bit character contributes their bit, nearly turning the movie into a near two hour sermon, the type where the congregation has to stifle a yawn out of politeness; thankfully the cinema hall does not thrive on political correctness. It gets to a head when a lecherous character mouths her brand of holiness because it is okay to be Mouth Zion Film Ministries, but when one pays for a ticket to a movie directed by a director with a name as ambiguous Mahmoud Balogun, chances are, one expects an artistic experience rather than a homily; not that they are mutually exclusive but historically both seldom jell.

So the film’s fairytale denouement and its need to put in a Message sees it bogged down in Nollywood mire. In fact, when the end credits roll and you see to whom the movie is dedicated, you may sigh: “No wonder.”

P-square: A Familiar Invasion

Haven’t I heard all of this before?


How do you improve a working formula? According to Peter and Paul you don’t.

The twin brothers are back for the fifth time in 10 years and if you missed any of the previous instalments, relax, nothing has changed. Just slot in the cd and you are transported back into their history, one replete with weak lyrics, weak singing, weak imitation of popular songs, average beats, and strong packaging. Yes the brothers might not be wildly imaginative but they do know a lot of packaging- more thought was put into the cd cover and costume than the entire album lyrics.

That is not to say some things have not been added. They are still not hitting anything near high notes but, perhaps to show they are song writers they have decided to add the lyric sheet to the package. But not to worry, your favourite group has not turned into overnight intellectuals, the group who once sang, “I’m standing all alone, on my own” has not changed. This from the published lyrics of Asa Mkpokoto: “You pretending you love me de hurt me, while you de job me? Suddenly you’re using my head.”

See? Yours forever, P-square.

At least they have solved the conundrum about who writes their lyrics. Over to you, Tuface…

There is also some diversity on who to imitate. In the past the Craig David, Keith Sweat. Almost distinctly, Savage Garden is here on the hook on the first song, Beautiful Onyinye, a song that is a follow up to the success of Ifunanya and No One Be like You both that are used in weddings. If the matrimonial use of the earlier versions was inadvertent, trust the boys, there would be no ambiguity this time- they let this one goes all out, ”Nne meh na the girl I wan marry/the girl I wan carry” later the song implores the in laws to wombolo wombolo eh– whatever that means. The boys just don’t stop.

The album is not only a throwback to where music has been, it is also a face of what is. The present techno beat craze finds a spot too, actually several spots: Jeje and Anything.

There are no musical or lyrical achievements here, if you like a song here it is because you have liked an earlier T-Pain or Plantashun Boiz or Faze or even P-Square song. The real achievement is how they have survived this long on the same formula.

But really, what do they care? They pretty much summarised their ‘mission statement’ on the title track from their last album: “Them say, who say? Na dem go tire eh. We still dey hammer eh…

ABUJA, THEIR ABUJA

 

Er….actually, you are not welcome

Start spreading the news
I’m leaving today
I want to be a part of it
New York, New York
These vagabond shoes are longing to stray
Right through the very heart of it
New York…

I have recently moved to Abuja in somewhat funny circumstances. It has to be about money right? Perhaps, but the truth is more fantastic, there’s the money but I could point you in the right direction.

It is from the Nicolas Cage movie Family Man. Really. There’s this scene where he tells his love interest: “If I leave in France, it has to be in Paris, if in Italy it has to be Rome…”

I don’t remember much from the movie- I don’t even think the quote is accurate- but the idea has remained with me, ever since. I think I saw the movie as a teenager. Anyway, there it is. My reality grounded in the shaky foundations of fiction.

Recently I was asked by a writer friend about the switch and I told him: “You know how those American writers were moving to France in the 20s, 30s claiming to be in search of culture…?” Yes, that is the way I feel about this place.

Cage’s character realizes his life is in the country eventually because of a woman, what else? This kind of disillusionment is the staple of art. But then they say art imitates life.

So I live in Asokoro in miraculous circumstance. And no, I don’t have a senator in my family or a relation that is a member of another money-grubbing class. The truth is much less glamorous.

Abuja, as I had told a girlfriend just as I was leaving Benin, is a place you have to incline your head so you don’t miss anything. It is beautiful as only places housing stolen money can be, check out Switzerland…

However there is this uniformity in beauty that prevents the individual areas from standing out. It is boring, like a long tough marriage with a beautiful woman. It may be laughable but there is character in privation- the width and depth of the potholes, the cavernous gullies, trash-filled gutters, dirt roads etc lend a distinct quality to a place. The frequency of the holes in the Benin-Ore road tells the regular motorist that he/she cannot be any place else.

Here, the bridges are the same, all roads are slick, and the squalour that produces originality is missing. Garki 2, Asokoro, Maitama have the same vegetation, same bridges. Plus there only few signs not obscured by a tree or shrub, like the planners figured everyone here is telepathic.

It would help to walk as nothing gives a personal sense of geography as trekking; the old saw about walking so much ones shoes know the route to a place. But not in Abuja. It is not a land for pedestrians. If shame doesn’t kill you, a driver, high on the slickness of the roads would, especially on the tens of zebra crossings. So, you have to take a cab, there are places you can’t take a bus to. Coming from Benin where everyone is a bike person, this is strange.

The bus drivers and conductors are not quite like the red-eyed ones in Lagos or garrulous like the ones in Benin. They actually have their own seats (I no dey carry overload! is a common refrain). I guess, give a man a seat and watch him transform.

I have actually seen a good looking conductor with skinny jeans and a mohawk! I don’t think that image is possible in Ring road.

As for the people, they live securely in huge houses. Where your only chance of fraternising is in Silverbird Galleria or Ceddi plaza where the fear of a 400 per scoop ice cream ought to prevent an average bloke from saying hi. A friend made a comment the other day about how a thousand bucks in your pocket made u king in Benin and in Abuja 15k means you are rather average.

That statement is only a partial hyperbole.

So what that means is there is this conspiracy to keep the rest of us where we belong- away from the ‘owners’. Hence, I’ve only met fellow immigrants, Benin, Benue, Akwa Ibom etc. The inhabitants I’ve met live in Kubwa, Karu, Mararaba, Nyanya etc, never mind I live in the city. It is one big refugee camp with offices in the city and tents in the camp so by day everyone looks alike from afar but ask them where they are going after 5pm. If you suspect a fib, call two hours after work, if they are stuck in traffic, then you know. For the authorities in the matter of roads, it is a case of quality above quantity or maybe no one really cares about refugees, from Asokoro to Wuse there are several routes but from Nyanya to the city there is a single one. Ditto Kubwa. So there is a horrific jam on these roads every morning and evening. But not to worry, the same authorities enforce 8:00 am resumption time and are unwilling to pay 18,000 as minimum wage.

For some of us, who via miracles live in the city, the guise lent us by our address is one we take seriously: if you don’t have a BlackBerry you can always say you live in Asokoro and watch mouths water. If it were possible, most of us unlikely owners would switch our names, like the Hausa, to the place name: Hello my name is Edwin Maitama, John Asokoro etc… whatever gets you through. That is not assurance that you would ever meet any important personality, it is like two immiscible liquids in the great vessel called Abuja. We might live together but there is no mix. Oil to Water: “You’d never be this dense.”

There are other status symbols; the most common is the accent. It ranges from American to British to Caribbean to a barely discernible concoction. Anything is fine as long as it becomes evident that you have spent time outside the country whether the travel is astral or physical is unimportant.

The other day I attended Infusion, a monthly literary reading which alongside the writers, visual artists and musicians also features a potpourri of accents. It was gratifying to see a particularly accented lady make an elementary grammatical error. I chuckled at the time but after attending with a friend who rose to speak and to my surprise had a different voice from the one I have known for years, I regret that chuckle. It must be something in the water…

A lot of people living elsewhere routinely point fingers at the Abuja inhabitants saying things like, “They are living a fake life.” I might add that they have a fake accent too. But I understand now, I mean I take cabs to places needn’t have to and I guess that is my own equivalent of pseudo-accent synthesis. Of Rome and Romans.

I am hoping I don’t get to the Nicolas Cage realization in Family Man, but I’d be lying if I say I don’t like the place despite the setting disillusionment.

A la Teju Cole, it is my own open city.

When I was preparing to leave Benin, it was Frank Sinatra’s New York, New York (which first verse is quoted above) that kept playing in my head: “I want to wake up in a city that doesn’t sleep/ and find I’m king of the hill, top of the heap/ these little town blues are melting away…

I have loved several songs about New York and it is unfortunate that Abuja has not been given a befitting song in the manner of rock band U2 and their New York- I am talking of City of Blinding Lights, the aptly titled New York with its solemn eponymous chorus (even if it says in New York you “lose your balance, lose your wife…”) and their song on The Gangs of New York soundtrack, The Hands That Built America.

I have a fantasy involving speeding down a slick road in the real New York while Frank Sinatra’s New York, New York plays on the car stereo. I got close to it recently on my way to a reception held in This Day dome as the cab played Jay-Z’s Empire State of Mind and Alicia Keys screamed “New York! Concrete jungle where dreams are made of...”

But reality hits hard. I am as close to the fantasy as I am to Peru. Abuja runs a caste system. The commoners move everywhere working or looking for work, while the privileged live in the centre enjoying the fanciful amenities available.

The more fortunate ones live in the centre hoping to catch a glimpse of the elusive royal families.

It hasn’t happened; there is no indication that it will.

In the end, rock songs are oft for for the privileged; and may capture the fantasies of the rest of us only occasionally.

As we struggle to move up, while praying for that glorious chance encounter, it is a line from a well-worn hymn that captures the reality:

This world is not my own, I am just passing by…

DAY 14: AN ANIMATED END

An Epic love story for Adults

Now that’s how you end a film festival!

Give the audience something to applaud. A sense of witnessing something momentous, an idea of being part of an epic journey, characters to root for: Give them the dandy Chico; give them the beautiful and feisty Rita. Give the audience the sensuous, quasi-erotic animated feature, Chico and Rita. The final film at the European Film Festival, Spain’s Chico and Rita is a love story set in Cuba and America. The film follows the on and off relationship of a couple— the eponymous characters. Their love story is told from 1948 through to present day. Chico, a pianist, meets the beautiful singer, Rita; through the help of his friend, Ramon, he convinces her to enter for a music competition with him which they win. A romance blossoms, but between a rich businessman, Ron who intends to make Rita a solo star and Chico’s cantankerous ex-girlfriend, Juanita they are separated as Rita is taken away to America, while Chico stays back in Cuba, depressed. He finds a way to America and an unlikely second phase of the romance begins, and abruptly ends when he is deported. But Cuba has changed. The little matter of Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution places an embargo on the public performance of jazz— branded as imperialistic. So an older Chico abandons music and spends his days shoe shining, which is the point at which we meet him, as the film proceeds to tell his story in flashbacks. Nominated at the 84th Academy Awards in the Best Animation category, the most arresting quality of Chico and Rita is its unselfconsciousness— an attribute it shares with eventual winner, Gore Verbinski’s Rango. The film handles its unconventional traits with confidence: animated feature length pictures, (probably due to its historical affiliation with children,) do not show material that can be interpreted as erotic but Chico and Rita not only shows the breasts, nipples­ and the pubic hair of a woman during and after sex, but handles it like these are just another detail on a prop.  The manner of the animation is similar to those drawings you find on Calypso drinks evoking the Caribbean, which is at first disconcerting to the eye used to conventional animation but it soon settles, giving the love story at its center attention. The music propels and is a side story- the history of jazz music, its growth, its Cuban music influences and its restriction by politics is a subplot and a beautiful soundtrack that can stand on its own. Jazz enthusiasts will find it a great pleasure. Political history also runs through it: racism in America and Hollywood— Rita is bristled when a woman mentions the risk in featuring a black Latino as lead in a Hollywood feature, her career comes to an end when she speaks about racism in public; Chico is easily deported on drug charges; Chico’s benefactor is shot in an American bar when a drug transaction goes awry. But all of these are glossed over, Chico and Rita is a love story first and most importantly. Chico and Rita recalls that other famous fictional romance— that between Ricky and Ilsa in 1942’s Casablanca and the song Rita/Lily is as pivotal to the former film as As Time Goes By was to the latter; and often the character Ramon has lines that suggest he is a stand-in for Rick’s friend, the pianist Sam. That is perhaps a coincidence and not a drawback. If there is any detraction, it will have to be that the concluding half of the film does live up to the earlier, heady moments of the film. And while, Chico and Rita was definitely not the best of the screened films at this year’s festival, it did have sufficient charm to induce applause at the last kiss, suggesting that as far as cinematic crowd-pleasers go, it sufficed.

PS: This entry concludes the ping’s review cum coverage of the fifth edition of the European Film Festival, held in Abuja from May 10th to 23rd. 
As previously stated, some of the reviews have been carried in the Guardian and Thisday newspapers.
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