Rafiki (Wanuri Kahiu, 2018). This brisk, bright coming-of-age film takes place in Kenya, where its central same-sex romance is technically against the law. Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) is a withdrawn girl who is struck by the lively exuberance of Ziki (Sheila Munyiva). The interest becomes attraction, and the two tumble into a relationship that is further complicated by the competing political interests of their families. Director Wanuri Kahiu is maybe overly reliant on the familiar beats in this reworked Romeo and Juliet story, but her visual sense in impeccable. She shoots Nairobi with the clear intention of capturing the entirety of the environs, in all their spirit, color, and contradiction. The film’s enviable energy is matched by the spirited, casually charming performances of the two leads. Despite the inherent risk of the coupling, Rafiki can feel slight. At the same time, it never feels less than fully alive.
Cash on Demand (Quentin Lawrence, 1961). A tight, tidy thriller from Hammer Film Productions, the British studio far more renowned for the plentiful excursions into horror. Peter Cushing, a regular on their payroll, plays Harry Fordyce, an imperious bank manager who insists on fussbudget protocols, to the weary aggrievement of his staff. What seems a typical day is upended by the appearance of a man claiming to be a insurance investigator (André Morell), but who is actually a bank robber whose accomplices claim to be holding Harry’s wife and child hostage to secure cooperation in emptying the vault. Director Quentin Lawrence keeps the drama clipped and satisfying, emphasizing the low-simmer suspense of the plot. Cushing is terrific in the lead role, bringing expert control to his depiction of a man roiled by inner worry and yet determined to see this dire situation through to preserve the safety of all involved. Cushing shows how the character’s general sense of propriety both informs his reactions and is tested by the extraordinary circumstances.
Westworld (Michael Crichton, 1973). Some fifteen years before John Hammond strode around with a walking stick topped with an amber-preserved skeeter swelled with dino blood, Michael Crichton spun fiction off of a different high-tech theme park gone awry. Crichton’s first film directorial effort (of a surprisingly high number for a creator primarily known for his novel writing) imagines a set of interconnected adult playgrounds where extremely realistic robots allow high rollers to live out the most morally problematic fantasies. There are a few bugs in the system. Crichton shows an impressive visual sense, especially as the script he wrote for himself involves a lot of back and forth between reality and artifice. That script doesn’t always hold together, occasionally introducing subplots only to quickly lose interest in them. Crichton’s touch with actors is a little shaky, too. James Brolin, Richard Benjamin, and Yul Brynner sometimes seem like they’ve collided after jaunting in from three different movies. To be fair, their a peculiar trio to see together on screen. The tonal discord might come bundled with this particular casting package.