Thursday, July 29, 2010
Sunday, July 25, 2010
This is the Africa in which the wind of change blows literally through the trees and over the blood-red earth, constantly. Her protagonist, Maria Vial, played by an ever-lean Isabelle Huppert, runs her father's coffee plantation in some unspecified part of French Africa and clearly doesn't see what's coming. Or rather, she does but knows there's nothing for her back in France and acts accordingly.
All the signs of impending doom are there. Her workers are fleeing in droves; her husband, played by a faded Christophe Lambert of Highlander fame, is doing land deals with the local warlord-in-waiting; the child soldiers are coming with their machetes and machine guns; the local Rasta DJ is preaching an uprising; Maria's even harbouring a renegade rebel; and her son's going stark raving bonkers. But she is not interested; what needs to be done is the harvest.
The film, with a fine soundtrack by Tindersticks, has frightening parallels with Zimbabwe and accurately reflects the casual - but very real - terror which stalks that country and South Africa's white farmers.
But what exactly is Denis saying? That whites are deluded about their stay in Africa, since Maria doesn't even ask the wounded Boxer (Isaach De Bankole) what he's up to; or that this is just a bit of French eccentricity in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary? Africans could simply argue that the film portrays them as bloodthirsty killers and therefore reinforces the usual stereotype, and they'd have a very good point.
Denis finally declares her hand with a violently shocking authorial intervention and we end up with another European - albeit feminist - fantasy about Africa.
Not Such Nobel Intentions
Tenaciously standing its ground on the main shelves at my local DVD store in Auckland, the film adaptation of JM Coetzee's Disgrace is still doing business long after it's probably been shoved aside in the country it's about: South Africa.
The novel deservedly won the prestigious Booker prize - Coetzee was the first writer to win it twice - but the ruling African National Congress said it was a racist book. Then, when he equally deservedly won the Nobel prize in 2003, they said it was still a racist book, but that they were very proud of him as a South African.
By then, of course, Coetzee had emigrated to Australia.
Naturally no one in South Africa was going to put a cent into a film that might be branded racist by their new master and sponsor, even though it had won the Booker, which was an English institution and they were a bunch of imperialists anyway.
But the book is not about racism - it's about, among others, the abuse of power by means of rape, whether it's a white man abusing his intellectual power or black peasants abusing theirs physically. It was this latter fact that stuck in the craw of the ruling party, who seem to think that democracy means you can differ with each other but only when it's on their terms.
Disgrace is not exactly a bit of light entertainment, so it took an Australian actor and his partner quite a while to get the money together to make the film. Not even the fact that they got a big "name" actor like John Malkovich on board would sway the new South African elite's lickspittles to put any money into it.
So how does Steve Jacobs's film measure up to this novel that another writer described as having been written with a scalpel? All things considered, rather well, even though there is much to do what most South Africans love doing, which is complain.
For example, Jacobs lets a golden opportunity slip by to subvert the touristic nature of the iconic Table Mountain in Cape Town. Had we seen that mountain while hearing a bed creak and then discovering Professor Lurie with a Muslim prostitute, it would have added a little more oomph to the story. It would also have helped clarify a key scene later on.
In fact, Jacobs's sense of place is appalling. As a South African I know that his Grahamstown and George are neither of those and that a Cape Town suburb is doubling up as the latter. As non-South Africans we'd at least like to know that we're in some or other small town via a signpost or establishing shot rather than just through dialogue.
Jacobs was obviously trying to be subtle, but it comes across as cost-cutting. He might as well have given the real names of the places he used, which were closer to the Mother City for perfectly practical reasons - that is, budgetary restrictions - and the story would not have suffered in the least.
Furthermore, when Malkovich's Lurie does his weird apology to the mother and sister of the student he seduced/raped by kneeling and bowing his head to the floor like a Muslim at prayer in their suburban home, there is nothing that has prepared us for this gesture. He is, in fact, also apologising to the prostitute of the opening scene: another opportunity missed.
But then Lurie's seduction/rape of the student is as unconvincing as the book's is twee. Young, impressionable students are in awe of their lecturers, who have the patriarchal power of knowledge. It is deeply sexy and, in the literary sense, terribly romantic. Colin Firth would have got it down to a T. The author, the director and the actor, alas, don't.
Instead, Malkovich is directed to be a kind of predatory animal, which Lurie certainly is, but it's not quite the same. The actor gets the slimy part right, but not the sexy one, and Lurie is sexy on paper in the sense that he's got a mind that is positively cooking with ideas.
One of those ideas is that maybe the true story of South Africa - if not all the colonies - can not be told in the language of the colonist. This is only touched on through his dialogue with Petrus (a solid performance from Eric Ebouanney), but very obliquely.
And then there is that accent. Though Malkovich doesn't do too badly, it's highly unlikely that a lecturer in English with an English surname, in that most European of South African cities, would have an Afrikaans accent. Her or she would instead cultivate a desperately neutral mid-Atlantic brew or, in the case of someone like Andre Brink at the University of Cape Town, a very sexy, modulated English.
So after all that, what is good about the film? Well, unlike most South African stories with their plodding plots, mandatory history-lesson forewords and rainbow sentiments, this drama of ideas is deeply original and Malkovich is still professional enough to carry it. In this he is ably supported by a good South African cast, especially newcomer Jessice Haines who plays his daughter, Lucy.
In fact, the strength of Lucy's character and Haines's powerful portrayal of her convinces us that her father - an accomplished academic who could find work anywhere else in the world - would really stay to be with the one person he loves unreservedly, finally, even though there is only more humiliation and darkness ahead.
Saturday, July 24, 2010
Its' not that we care so much about Leonard's mission to avenge his wife in Memento, it's that the intense Guy Pearce plays it with such obsessive persistence that we can't stop watching, mesmerised.
Logically, Leonard's means of reminding himself to remember is flawed, for how can he remember to remember? What if he forgets what all those tattoos are all about?
Then there's the Draculian Will Dormer in Insomnia, obsessively trying to keep the light out of his hotel room so that he can get that one thing we all must have. Sleep. He is also trying, of course, to keep out the truth of his mendacity.
Played by the obsessive Al Pacino, the rest of the film is so well made that we forgive the flawed, though inspired, casting of another obsessive-compulsive, Robin Williams, as the killer. It is also the only Nolan film in which a woman, played by the great Hilary Swank, actually has a memorable character arc.
There are competing magicians - another obsessive pastime - in The Prestige, starring two more obsessives, Edward Norton and Christian Bale.
But there are no flaws in Dark Knight, a comic-based masterpiece starring, yet again, the mild-mannered Bale. Like so many others he comes completely into his own with that paradoxical aid to authenticity: the mask.
This led to Nolan being able to make his latest film, a $160-million mind fuck that Warner Brothers felt warranted another $100-million worth of marketing. Okay, so it stars Leonardo diCaprio as Cobb, another obsessive who never quite cracks the romantic lead, but that's another story.
What exactly, though, is Inception about? Well, Cobb knows how to enter people's subconscious and then extract information from them. Most of that data is corporate, but Cobb has got himself into so much personal trouble that he can't get back to the United States to be with the only real thing that matters to him - his children.
But he has one more chance at redemption and that's by planting an idea - the most dangerous thing you can do short of pulling a trigger - much as he did with his late wife, played by Marion Cotillard. Obsessively driven by guilt, all manner of things happen, ranging from trucks full of men ending up in high-speed chases with all but the driver asleep (this is dreamtime, you understand) to James Bond-like adventures in the snow (ditto).
All very well, but count how many times the word "dream" is used and the concept explained, and wonder why the CEO of the targeted corp is called Robert Fischer Jr. Does it have anything to do with chess (this from an obsessive chess nut) because it should, since Ariadne (the boyishly built Ellen Page) chooses a pawn as her totem (Nolan is big on those too) to remind her when she's back in reality.
Does the chess allusion refer to a game of rigid rules, 32 players and 64 squares, which can lead to infinite possibilities? Perhaps, but if those are the only references they seem a little gratuitous. And we should care about Fischer Jr's hangups about his squillionaire father, why? Because Cillian Murphy happens to look good in a bespoke suit?
Does Ariadne provide the golden thread for Cobb's fallen Theseus to slay the Minotaurean corp and get what he needs and wants, his children? Maybe, but they never fall in love as those two did. Fair enough; they don't necessarily have to. But then she just sort of disappears at the end, which is not exactly satisfactory, either.
Truth is, we don't get to know much about her or the late Mrs Cobb - or most of Nolan's other women characters.
But maybe the problem in this work of magnificent Escher-like constructions is a very old fashioned one. Maybe we just don't care enough about someone who doesn't seem to have any moral or metaphysical problems with stealing from and killing for faceless corporations. In other words, where's Cobb's real fall, his real redemption?
* Films more elegant and economic in the way that they use the ultra-manipulative medium of film to lead us up the garden path of time and reality are eXistenZ by David Cronenburg and Jacob's Ladder by Adrian Lyne.
** The picture above is not from Inception but a reflection of the Auckland tower, taken with my cellphone with its nifty little Zeiss lens. I don't have permission to use stills from the film.
Wednesday, July 21, 2010
La Republique is represented by a skittish family man, Pierre (Guillaume Canet), complete with nerdish specs and beard. However, there is nothing iffy about his wife, a former East German beauty who has a somewhat better idea of what communism can do to your grey matter.
But the mind is playing a typical game of chess and Sergei is constantly quoting a poem by Alfred de Vigny on the same theme: sacrifice. So what if you have to sacrifice a pawn for the greater good of seeing the game won? So what if the male wolf has to distract and then get savaged by the hunting hounds in order for its litter to get away safely?
How can a Westerner possibly understand that Sergei does not wish to be paid, apart from a few French comforts, for what he believes in? How would they ever understand that he still believes in the basic, humanist tenets of socialism?
Another clever reference concerns Kusturica himself, watching home movies with the silhouette of a film reel against his smoking face; as well as directing other, grimmer matters. No angel, his character is having an affair (how French, even if he Russian) and his teenage son despises him for not just working in a world of lies but living those lies.
Furthermore, Ronald Reagan is portrayed as the vain but not entirely stupid leader he was by Fred Ward, constantly watching his ham acting in one of his old bad films.
Sunday, July 18, 2010
Thursday, July 15, 2010
Wednesday, July 7, 2010
My first review is of the Oscar winner for a foreign film this year, The Secret In Their Eyes, which has plenty of echoes of what happened in my homeland. Also, I happen to be a bit of a Hispanophile (go Barca) and think that the best of Spanish-speaking films, like the one just mentioned, are the best in the world.
I will write mainly, but not exclusively, about films, whether they are new releases, DVDs or oldies. This week, for example, I also look at how Africa has been portrayed on Kiwi TV during the present soccer World Cup. But if a book, writer, artwork or artist grabs my fancy, I’m going to write about them – or get someone else to do so. Further, this blog might even become a diary for a film I make or contain an interview with a filmmaker I like. It might even become a travel journal!
As far as a rating system is concerned, I started with a whole convoluted affair, but each movie has its completely subjective reason for being seen or not seen - now, later or never. Some movies are so bad that they simply have to be seen, albeit for reasons their makers did not intend. Some are mediocre but it’s Sunday night, and some are so good that you want to rave about them ad nauseam.
I’ll have at least one new review posted every Friday. Here goes.
Ghosts of the Past
Rotting in a South African prison right now is a man they used to call Prime Evil. He was the apartheid government’s chief assassin, but none of the men who gave Eugene de Kock his orders are sitting. Not in prison anyway. They’re languishing on state pensions or they’re dead of natural causes.
So there he sits like a ghost, and that is what The Secret In Their Eyes is about, except it’s in an Argentinean context. What do you do with such ghosts and the even more difficult ones that are embedded in our memory, whether we want to admit their presence or – as most people do – deny them? Why does one feel more pity for the Prime Evils of this world than those who gave them their orders?
And, to dwell on South Africa for just a little while longer, why do most films about that country’s sordid past not work, yet one like Secret works a treat? Probably because in the case of the former the story is being told in the language of the perpetrator, not the victim. Africans – black Africans - are always seeing and hearing their own stories second-hand, in their second or third language. That is something only they can rectify. For now their great gift to the world is musical, not cinematic.
In The Secret In Their Eyes, to state the glaringly obvious, both perpetrator and victim speak the third most spoken language in the world, Spanish. If they are divided politically - in the time of Isabella Peron’s seemingly glittering democracy - then they are united linguistically. The characters are all universally recognisable. There is plenty of political and romantic tension, as well as some welcome comedy. My only minor criticism is that the murder scenes are somewhat overly art directed.
But the film is like a good, thick, old-fashioned novel. You so love the lead characters that you don’t want to leave them, but know you must. You don’t want it to end badly yet know it will, so all you’re really doing is waiting to see whether that “bad” ending is going to be dignified, somehow redemptive, human.
Not for nothing did this film win the foreign Oscar. But if a Pedro Almadovar script could win an Oscar for best screenplay, though it was in Spanish, then Secret should have won the statuette for best film in any language. It’s as close to flawless as a political thriller can get, and all that really happens is that a retired state prosecutor starts re-investigating the rape and murder of a young woman 25 years ago. Why was the case never solved, yet closed?
Benjamin Esposito (Ricardo Darin) is, one suspects, a typical Argentinean male. Vulgar, flirtatious, hung up, sexy. The latter two characteristics easily sum up his upper-class colleague and counterpart, Irene Menendez Hastings (Soledad Villamil). Then there is Benjamin’s eccentric and alcoholic assistant Pablo Sandoval, one of cinema’s great comic-tragic creations, played by Guillermo Francella. He, too, should have got an Oscar, along with writer/director Juan Jose Campanella.
Lastly, if the long-but-it-doesn’t-matter Secret In Their Eyes underlines the importance of dialogue in movies, it still uses and delivers on the visual qualities of film to seduce and, disturbingly, deceive us.
For example, towards the end we are given eye-witness evidence to solve at least part of the decades-old mystery, evidence we refuse to accept, mainly and tellingly out of fear for our very fallible protagonist and therefore ourselves.
Yet when the revelation comes it is all perfectly, sickeningly logical. In a single scene we see what the problem was and what its result is. If the film is seductive in the commercial sense then its trade-off is an image that will haunt us and remind us that the most poisonous consequence of all dictatorships, personally and collectively, is silence.
There he is, Chris Clarke, whoever he may be. He of the check shirt, cozy pullover and placid eyes, looking and sounding like that smirking know-all who used to fuss over a kitten while the rest of us played sport, read or pursued our romantic interests behind the school pavilion. A mommy’s boy. Very nice nature and all that.
But now, having grown up, he is imploring us to give money to the starving children of Africa during halftime breaks in the World Cup 2010. Appealing to our humane side. In close-up. Almost steaming up the lens with his niceness. Radiating love for the downtrodden. How can we resist his bleeding-hearted, patronising, obsequious little persona?
But, to an African in Oceania, he represents a particularly sickening aspect of the “outside” world’s perception of Africa, which is seen as either corrupt to the core or the perpetual victim of horrible, horrible white men. Yet, perversely, it seems that only white men like Mr Clarke can help right that terrible wrong. And if we give money to his cause, whatever it might be – I had to check that it was World Vision for journalistic purposes - then life will just be so much easier for all those starving little snot-nosed angels.
Hasn’t he heard of, say, Bono? Whatever you might think of the latter on this front, he at least has some kind of credibility, some oomph, to put it politely. The persona Mr Clarke projects, however, is utterly, nauseatingly condescending. Hell, even he looks mildly embarrassed about what he’s trying to do.
But he probably understands his market as well as any other NGO type who knows how to milk our guilt instead of inspire our generosity, let alone investment. So for this Euro-African anyway, the persona Mr Clarke projects has what we used to call a please-hit-me face.
On the other end of the scale, Martin Devlin has been an informative, witty and delightfully eccentric host whose obvious love for the game is infectious. But here comes the other perception of Africa, and I don’t think it was even meant to be negative. They’ve been disappointing in the World Cup, the African nations, the implication being that for such a large continent it’s a shame that “they” only have one team in the final eight contestants.
Excuse me, how many teams from a somewhat bigger landmass, Asia, are through? Nil. How many from the richest and most powerful continent, North America? Nil. How many teams from the powerhouse of South America are through to the quarters? One, and it isn’t Argentina or Brazil. How many African players take part in the richest and most competitive European leagues as compared with, say, players from Asia and New Zealand? Many more, one suspects.
So be careful with those clichés, Mr Devlin. It reminds me of that upper-class kid, in non-racist New Zealand, who told my son that the only thing positive about Africa is HIV. That kind of comment doesn’t exactly come from thin air, does it?