While the increased demand for streaming content hasn’t greatly diversified the mainstream—Amazon Prime Video just announced a severe curtailing in its documentary acquisitions, a major calamity for nonfiction filmmakers—it has seemed to improve the range of choices on the commercial margins. More competitors for the Best International Feature Oscar seem to get actual US distribution now, including the Ivory Coast candidate Night of the Kings, below. And a particular gem, the British Days of the Bagnold Summer, is one of the happier instances of an older movie (it premiered in 2019) that’s been taken off the shelf for belated Stateside release no doubt thanks to the COVID-era uptick in home viewing.
Kings is only the third Ivorian feature to be put forward for an Academy Award, despite the fact that the first (French director Jean-Jacques Annaud’s colonial black comedy Black and White in Color) actually won the prize forty-six years ago. The second, 2014’s comparatively little-known Run, was from Philippe Lacote, who also directed the current movie. As this is just his sophomore feature, you needn’t be clairvoyant to guess he’s going to be a significant figure in the future. Packing a great deal into just an hour and a half, Kings is an impressive endeavor that’s expansive not just physically but imaginatively.
Lacote’s screenplay hinges on the arrival of a barely-adult thief (Bakary Kone) at the MACA lockup outside Abidjan, a facility even staff admit is “the only prison in the world run by an inmate.” That inmate is, for the time being, Blackbeard (Steve Tientcheu), who decides on a seeming whim that the newcomer will be “the Roman”—tasked with (and judged for) storytelling on one long night of a blood moon, in a ritual that makes the MACA officials very nervous.
Like Scheherazade, the Roman must spin his tales at length to stave off death. He weaves an ornate biography of folk hero Zama King that stretches from a mythological past (complete with CGI “magic”) to recent political turbulence—some depicted in literal-minded flashbacks, when illustrated by other prisoners in song and pantomime. Meanwhile, the ailing Blackbeard’s rivals are circling to seize his power, their often violent intrigue further colored by peripheral figures like the transgender Sexy (Gbazi Yves Landry) and older, sole white convict Silence (Denis Lavant).
Night of the Kings is oddly reminiscent of 1960s stage landmark Marat/Sade, with a similar mix of rite, satire, fantasy, performance-within-performance, and politics as theater (or vice versa). You might also be reminded of John Greyson’s Canadian Lilies from 20 years ago, another elaborate construct in which prisoners staged a play. But Lacote’s film is very much its own animal, rich in aesthetic as well as thematic and structural complexity. While a cursory knowledge of Ivory Coast history wouldn’t hurt in unpacking its layers, this primarily French-language film (there’s also some Dyula spoken) is nonetheless an engaging and accessible entertainment. It’s currently playing available theaters and virtual cinemas (including the Roxie), reaching On Demand platforms next Fri/5.
Offering a very different take on modern African experience (albeit of the expatriate kind) is The Obituary of Tunde Johnson, a first feature for scenarist Stanley Kalu and veteran TV director/writer Ali LeRoy. Tunde (Steven Silver) is the child of well-off Nigerian emigres in an upscale US suburb, attending high school alongside best friends Marley (Nicola Peltz) and Soren (Spencer Neville). Trouble is, Soren is Tunde’s boyfriend, and Marley doesn’t know. Worse, she’s also sleeping with Soren, who’s too invested in his image as star jock going out with trophy babe to come out. All this boils over during the course of a day that keeps repeating itself—each time ending in Tunde getting killed by trigger-happy police, just cuz.
It’s hard not to encapsulate this as “BLM Groundhog Day,” and the familiar time-loop structure here isn’t ingenious enough to say much more than the obvious about race and police violence, over and over. Yet Obituary ultimately grows more intriguing when the narrative variations start focusing not on our hero’s death, but different scenarios in which he and/or Soren come out. Ambitious and accomplished if uneven, Obituary (which Wolfe Releasing has just put out on VOD and in available theaters) is a mixed bag that is nonetheless well worthwhile.
Another genre film with a specific cross-cultural twist is The Vigil, which is duly billed as a “Jewish horror movie”—something we don’t get a lot of, unless you count various iterations of the Golem and Dybbuk legends. Keith Thomas’ indie debut feature is not particularly folkloric in concept, but it does provide an interesting mixture of ambivalence towards religion and straight-up chills. Yakov (Dave Davis) is a somewhat fragile young man who’s broken from the devout Brooklyn Hasidic community he was raised in, partly due to a family tragedy. But he’s in no position financially to turn down an offer to do something he’s done before, spending one night in strangers’ house as a shomer—someone who keeps vigil over a corpse before burial, to protect the deceased soul from evil spirits.
The body in this case is Holocaust survivor Mr. Litvak (Ronald Cohen), a recluse survived by his wife (Lynn Cohen), though Yakov is told she’s vanished into senile dementia. However, she turns out to be more alert than expected—and so, alas, does Mr. L., who it turns out spent much of his life fending off an ancient demon that glommed onto him at Buchenwald. It’s going to be a long night.
The Vigil is simply conceived, pretty much limited to one gloomy interior, and reliant on jump scares. It’s nothing amazing, yet it is indeed very creepy, with an atmosphere of slow-building dread that duly gets under your skin. Davis and Cohen are excellent, making this the rare horror movie with full-blooded leading characters, even if the story itself ultimately has limited depth. It’s now available on digital platforms (and available theaters) from IFC Midnight.
If all the above seems a little heavy for your needs at the moment, two more features hit more lightweight, primarily comedic notes, with additional elements of tasteful musical curation. Greg Naughton’s The Independents, which has finally gotten general distribution three years after its festival premiere, is ostensibly the story of how his real-life folk-pop trio The Sweet Remains came together. But there doesn’t seem to be much resemblance to truth here, as the script is a mildly humorous fiction about three nobodies who run into each other by chance and immediately start making beautiful music together. Whereas Naughton, Rich Price, and Brian Chartrand (all playing themselves) were in fact experienced singer-songwriters who’d already recorded various solo and collaborative projects before they released their first album together in 2008.
The Independents is pleasant and innocuous, making fun of overnight-success conventions while at the same time not straying very far from them. (And that of course includes performers who’ve supposedly just met sounding like they’ve painstakingly rehearsed for a month when jamming.) The close-harmony pop they do, while very nice, is a little vanilla for my taste—like early ’70s Top 40 “soft rock” (i.e. Seals & Crofts, Bread, etc.) updated for NPR listeners. Still, if you ever harbored dreams of someday being “discovered” at an open mic night, this granola bar of a movie (available for streaming from theindependentsfilm.com) may be exactly to your taste.
More to mine was Days of the Bagnold Summer, English actor Simon Bird’s first directorial feature. It’s that rare movie that is “better than the book,” in this case Joff Winterhart’s graphic novel (which was published in the US with a second, unrelated story as “Other People”). In print form, this tale of a misfit 15-year-old and his not-much-more-socialized librarian mother was droll but rather slight, running a pretty narrow tonal gamut with both its drawings and low-key observational humor. Bird brings resourceful cinematic energy without betraying the source material, while his lead actors Monica Dolan and Earl Cave really ramp up the lead characters’ comic dimensions.
Eight years earlier wallflower Sue’s (Dolan) husband went on a trip to the US from which he never came back. Now he’s got a younger second wife whose almost-due pregnancy is cited as reason for canceling Daniel’s (Cave) planned summer visit. It’s unclear whether the longhaired metalhead teen really minds this latest of many disappointments from dad; he seems to enjoy having reasons to mope, with obnoxious sole friend Ky (Elliot Speller-Gillott) not providing a whole lot of reason to be cheerful.
Meanwhile, adult figures played by the estimable likes of Rob Brydon, Alice Lowe and Tamsin Greig fail to greatly brighten tear-prone Sue’s prospects. Days of the Bagnold Summer doesn’t ridicule its central figures’ miserabilism, even as it does eke considerable fun from their situations. It’s a charming movie about everyday depression—maybe a little too charming at times, if like me you find indiepop darlings Belle & Sebastian (who contributed the score) a wee too twee. But this medium-gray comedy is hard to resist entirely. It’s currently playing the Roxie and Rafael’s virtual cinemas.