Black Gold and Scoop
I’m trepidatious about reviewing Nick and Marc Francis’s Black Gold. When it comes to well-meaning docs that shed light on important issues, I don’t really want to harp on things like pacing, structure and writing. But in this case, I have to.
Black Gold is another in a long line of recently released “good for you” docs (All Bran-umentaries if you will). Like its self-righteous brethren (An Inconvenient Truth, Who Killed the Electric Car?, etc.) Black Gold targets moviegoers as consumers and pushes to have them re-evaluate their choices. Unlike those films though, Black Gold tries to be more graceful and artful about it. But the film’s insistence that the audience unravel its mostly implied messages is its ultimate undoing—you leave the theatre confused rather than angry or perturbed.
Black Gold begins in Ethiopia, the birthplace of coffee. Here we meet Tadesse Meskela, who runs a cooperative of over 75,000 struggling coffee farmers. It’s 2002 and the country is looking into the eye of another famine. Since the price of coffee—set on New York’s Coffee, Sugar and Cocoa Exchange—plummeted in the late ’90s, they now earn a pittance for what is universally agreed to be some of the best product in the world. Things are so dire that farmers are, in many cases, replacing their coffee crops with a profitable narcotic called chat. Meskela is on a quest to earn his workers a fair price, to bypass the New York exchange, cut out the middlemen and sell direct to specialty vendors in Europe and the United States.
The Francis brothers juxtapose his story, as well as those of the farmers he represents, with visits to the World Barista Championships, the first Starbucks in Seattle’s Pike Place Market and the Illy head offices in Trieste. The purpose of these side adventures is to imply how odd it was that the widespread commercial fetishization of coffee began just as international prices tanked. In some cases, this implication is clear. It’s tragicomic that we shell out thousands of dollars a year on designer coffees while what trickles back to the bottom of the production line isn’t enough to send someone’s daughter to school. But then, when the cameras take us into the Illy office, it feels, if only momentarily, like we’re watching an ad. Francesco Illy’s story—that is, the story of the company’s birth and the first espresso machines—is an incredibly interesting one. The company, which gave Italian espresso to the world and invested huge amounts of money to ensure and promote quality coffee standards, is depicted in such a favourable light that you want to, well, go and pay $3.50 for an espresso.
So what is the Francis brothers point? Let’s face it: Black Gold is a political movie. In their press kit, the filmmakers state that “ultimately the film was made to urgently remind people that as consumers we are at the very centre of a globalized economy that is undermining the lives of millions of people every day.” If this is really their aim though, they dilute the strength of their message, ironically, through their sheer grace and unobtrusiveness as filmmakers.
Where the Francises should have employed a stern authoritative narrative voice (think Sean Penn or Martin Sheen) to guide us through the connections between Ethiopian farmers, barista champions, the WTO, and my large Banana Coconut Frappuccino, their distinctly non-polemic approach permits viewers to pass their own judgments. Though I can’t deny it was a refreshing change to see them try, Black Gold could have used Al Gore and his Power Point.
Black Gold is now playing at the Bloor Cinema, 506 Bloor St. W., 416-516-2330
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Everyone made such an inexplicable hoo-hah about Woody Allen’s Match Point. Critics were convinced that London somehow revivified the old crusty Brooklynite. Sure, the operatic climax, with its tip of the hat to Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, is thrilling and fun. And sure it was nice to see an Allen film without a jittery-handed protagonist. But that does not a return to form make.
Either way, Allen stayed in London for his next film, the recently released Scoop and it should be proof positive the geek auteur hasn’t got his touch back quite yet.
Scarlett Johansson—Allen’s muse of the moment—plays Sondra Pransky, a smoldering nerdette (she can’t really hide her beauty behind those absurd oval glasses) who’s ditched a career as a dental hygienist to pursue journalism at an American college. It’s the summer holidays and she’s visiting her very posh family friends in London. One day, she and the family go to see a magic show put on by Brooklyn’s favourite illusionist, The Great Splendini (aka Side Waterman, aka Woody Allen). When Splendini puts Sondra in his “dematerialising box,” she’s suddenly chest-to-chest with recently deceased journalist extraordinaire, Joe Strombel (Ian McShane).
Here I need to backtrack a bit. In the film’s early frames, we find Strombel on a Grim Reaper-captained schooner, crossing the River Styx. His keen journalistic nose ultimately leads him to a nice little blonde. It seems she used to be the secretary for a handsome British aristocrat named Peter Lyman. One day, she discovered that her boss was the notorious Tarot Card Killer. The next thing she knew, she was dead. Poison in her soup. When Strombel hears this, he jumps ship, determined to get in touch with an earth-bound journalist who can break the story.
With Strombel’s lead, Sondra sets out to learn a little more about Lyman, bringing Splendini along as a comic Virgil of sorts. And of course, even as the evidence builds up, she falls for the big hunk of insane riches. I won’t spoil the ending, but needless to say, the whole thing is absurd. And class satire? Not a lick of it to be found. Where the male characters in Match Point were at least funny and decently drawn, Hugh Jackman’s Lyman is little more than a plank of wood.
The only thing that redeems the film at all is Allen’s own performance. His Splendini schtick, even as he’s masquerading as rich Floridian oilman, is hilarious. There’s something about Allen doing his best vaudevillian OCD shrink in a private English club that makes you forgive him everything. The man is a phenomenal clown.
Allen should really have pushed Scoop into pure romp territory. There’s absolutely nothing of substance in it, so why not? Instead, he places far too much emphasis on a balsa wood plot. The result is funny but ultimately unsatisfying. No amount of pointing out what he may or may not have been referencing is going to change that.
But it got me thinking: what was the last great film that Woody Allen made? When I say great, I mean just that. Unless you’re one of these people who finds Allen unwatchable, you’ve got to agree that he’s hit at least a few home runs. Some would say that Sweet and Lowdown was a great film. Others would say the last great flick was Mighty Aphrodite. Others still might go back to Husbands and Wives. Or perhaps they’ve all been duds since Annie Hall. I’d like to hear what you guys think on this one.
Scoop is now playing at Canada Square, Kennedy Commons, Varsity and others