Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Woman With the Incredible Lungs

Unfortunately this week something happened off-screen that was far more interesting than what was happening on-screen, so much so that this review's sub-headline is: Crinkle, Crinkle, Big Old Fart.

I was just settling down to watch The Girl Who Played With Fire at midday with 12 pensioners when this geyser of about 65 settled down in the row behind me and opened his pack of lollies. Candy in the States, sweets in South Africa.

Crinkle, crinkle, his papers went as the opening credits started.

"Excuse me," I said, "could you please try to be quiet?" The old fart instantly lost his temper and rather petulantly crinkled his lollies even louder in my direction. Once the pack was finally open he ate at his bloody lollies for the entire first half of the movie and, though the sound was much softer, we had created such a tension about his jolly old lollies that every little sound jarred.

The film, by comparison, was not half as good as its predecessor or as tense as my little situation. For one, it doesn't even look as good as The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, though we do see Lisbeth Salander's beautiful tat properly this time - twice. In fact, the film's quite grainy. Maybe new director Daniel Alfredson's idea was to portray his native Sweden as more gritty, but it just looks cheap.

Noomi Rapace (pictured above) still plays Salander as the chain-smoking researcher/hacker who never - and doesn't really have any reason to - smile. In this regard we are still in the grim world of Ingmar Bergman. Michael Nykvist still plays the sexy, over-40 investigative reporter Mikael Blomkvist.

But the sympathetic connection between the two is lost because they only get to see each other at the end. This means that you have to have seen the first movie to understand their unusual and considerable chemistry.

Halfway through this crinkling movie I also realised that I was going to be late for a meeting with a fellow filmmaker; and I had to phone my daughter to wish her well for her ballet exam after she'd had a tetanus injection at school. More offscreen tension

Another problem with the film is that it's ostensibly about human trafficking, but it doesn't really ever get round to that properly. What it gets around to is Lizbeth's father and half-brother, two really nasty pieces of work. There's a macabre take on the nuclear family when these three engage in a bloody battle that's almost hilarious, though for all the wrong reasons.

But it's when Lisbeth get buried, unconscious, one dark moonlit night, and digs herself out, phoenix-like, the next morning, that this film enters Twilight territory and loses all credibility for me. Roll end credits.

At the exit the old fart was considerately empty his lolly papers into a dustbin and blocking my way. I had to get past him to get to my meeting as quickly as possible. Halfway down the stairs, however, he leaned over and said: "Piss off, you prick." So I stopped and ran back up the stairs. "If you really feel strongly about this," I said, "why don't you give me your name and I'll publish it?" "You're just another South African arsehole," was his response.

The rest of the elderly patrons walked by as if absolutely nothing was happening.

"And you don't have the balls to give me your name," I said. "What's yours?" he said. I gave him my surname. "Afrikaans?" he said. "Half," I shot back. "Piss off back where you came from," he said. "I've got every right to be here," I said. "They probably don't want you back there anyway," he said. "And as I said, if you really feel strongly about this, at least have the courage of your convictions and give me your name." But all he could come up with as a parting shot was: "And you're a racist to boot."

Halfway across town, having comforted my daughter telephonically and warned the fellow filmmaker that I was going to be late, I realised that, unlike Blomkvist, I'd blown it as an investigative reporter. All I should have done was take a shot or 21-second video with my cellphone of that crinkling old fart and I would have had a scoop.

"Girl" With the Shy Tattoo

The original title of the book on which this film is based is Men Who Hate Women, which is not quite as sexily marketable as the present one, even though it is much more to the point. Only once do we get a glimpse of that magnificent tat, and then it really has nothing to do with the story.

But that's a detail in a compulsively watchable film (on DVD) that was made in Sweden and directed by a Dane. What's going on? Where are the days of those excruciatingly long and slow - but ultimately rewarding - Bergman films? Gone, it would seem, and not all for the worse.

Hollywood, of course, can't wait to remake the film in Americanish with David Fincher (Seven, Fight Club) at the helm. At least they got the director right, but all they really have to do is dub the film, it's so Fincher-like anyway.

And why can't Americans enjoy different actors, different landscapes? Maybe Ambrose Bierce was right. Maybe God invented war solely so that Americans can learn geography.

Blomkvist is a perfectly interesting, sexy and watchable male lead, bad skin and all, as is the titular "girl", played by Rapace. They, along with excellent direction, slick cinematography and a pulsating soundtrack, keep this slick thriller cooking all the way.

Of course, any darkness in a European film is quite likely to be traced back to Nazism, as alive today as it was 60 years ago, but never mind. What we get reminded of is that there is still an underbelly to Sweden, often held up as shining example of social democracy and sexual equality, and that can only be good.

But the film does make itself guilty of being voyeuristic about sexual sadism, which is not cool, especially since the rest of the film is so erotically seductive.

Neil Sonnekus

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Wind of Change

French director Claire Denis grew up in Africa and it shows. She avoids most of the cliches about that continent and there are no guilt-ridden white Western males sacrificing themselves here in acts of faux atonement, as in Blood Diamond, The Constant Gardener and Shooting Dogs.

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

Sleeping on the Job

The chief characteristic of Christopher Nolan's films is compulsion.

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?

Neil Sonnekus

* 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

Hit the Road, Serge

There are quite a few things that militate against seeing Mammuth.

For one, at times it is extremely grainy, which might have to do with the fact that the company which made it is rather jokingly called No Money Productions.

Two, it takes a typical American premise - one defining mistake in a man's life renders him virtually useless for the rest of it - and three, in one hilarious scene of absurd comedy it veers completely out of its own style.

Yet, to paraphrase Andre Gide, you would be much the poorer for not seeing it.

Stomping through it like a depressed, working-class Obelix is an obese Gerard Depardieu. Serge has reached the retirement age of 60 after a lifetime of inferiority-inspired menial work; now he has to prove that he did such illustrious jobs as a nightclub bouncer to qualify for his pension.

The unlikely people who might help him are his supermarket-cashier wife, played with just the right note of sour pragmatism by Yolande Moreau; the corpse of his first love, played by a mannequin-like Isabelle Adjani; and his niece, who takes French lunacy to delicious new heights. Played by the poet and visual artist, Miss Ming (yes, that's her name), she looks perfectly ordinary - until she opens her mouth.

Serge will hit the road on his long-unused Mammuth motorbike, the source of his guilt, and he'll travel through a French countryside that has more to do with Christopher Hope's Signs of the Heart than Peter Mayle's A Year in Provence. When Serge passes a vineyard it is not refulgent with light; it has four Muslim workers down on their knees, facing Mecca.

Directed by Gustave de Kervern and Benoit Delepine, like the Coen brothers it is as wacky as any one of their off-the-wall productions, but then it still has that deadpan comedy that puts it in a class of its own Gallic genius.

Neil Sonnekus

The French Defence

There are quite a few sly observations in Farewell, directed by Christian Carion, which deals with France's part in the downfall of the mighty Russian empire.

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 then it is French culture that seduces Sergei Grigoriev and probably convinces him to help bring the empire to its knees. Played by the genius director, Emir Kusturica, who has rightly been called a tender barbarian by a French critic, he lugs his large frame fatalistically through this story.

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.

Yet the film is everything but a comedy. It perfectly captures - and that is the appropriate word here - the icy uncertainty of the Cold War era and the sunny backwardness of life in the glorious Motherland.

Neil Sonnekus

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Sentiments as Deep as the Oceans

New technology has made it possible for us to marvel at the beauty of our deepest oceans and even deeper space. We can see lightning below us and a blue whale's almost endless belly glide by above us - in absolute focus. We can see razor fish perform what seems to be a choreographed ballet and we can see a seal inspecting a supermarket trolley on the seabed as our oceans become increasingly polluted.

These are images we all need to marvel and think about.

What we don't need is a script to get all dreamy on us. Don't blame Pierce Brosnan for his lyrical rendition of a terrible text. He's just the hired hand. Blame producer/scriptwriters Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud who don't seem to understand that the natural world is poetry in itself; the text just needs to arrange the facts.

But then those are organised in such a manner that the evolutionary or conservation lines are neither punted nor ignored; they're just sort of mentioned in passing. In other words, what we have in the French/Spanish/Swiss-produced Oceans is a documentary Europudding.

But see this film for its astonishing visuals and good score by Bruno Coulais, and think of David Attenborough. At least his voice would have given us the facts while his tone would have shared the awe.

Neil Sonnekus

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Smacking of the Jungle

New Zealanders might not know how privileged they are to have the international festival of independent films that they do.

Back in South Africa where I come from "independent" would mean a handful of mainly white people attending and "international" would mean Johannesburg, Cape Town or Durban, but never all three together. As for the other smaller cities and large towns, most of them simply don't have the numbers, interest or wherewithal to feature, individually or collectively.

Yet here you have the same festival being seen by anyone who's interested - in 15 different cities and towns across the country. In other words, almost everyone's on the same page.

So it was really exciting seeing a massive Auckland Civic filled with young people (of all ages) who are so into the film they're watching that, when a particularly nasty piece of work gets his comeuppance in the Australian flick Animal Kingdom, they applauded.

The film won the World Jury Dramatic Prize at the Sundance Film Fest, which was described by a Time critic as one that generally deals with families confronting their hidden issues. In other words, a very Robert Redford kind of film festival.

Animal Kingdom, however, is not about your average screwed up family. It focuses on a Melbourne outfit that is downright vicious, as the title implies, which means that winning in Sundance is a deservedly big deal.

What makes the film so powerful? The centre of the unit is its mother, Janine Cody, played with peroxided understatement by Jacky Weaver. No ordinary mum, her boys all come from different fathers and might look like your everyday, working-class Aussies in their faded golf shirts, but that's where it ends. They're dealing in heroin and with at least one corrupt cop, too. If she doesn't direct operations, then Janine is somehow the centre around which everything turns.

When her only daughter overdoses on H she takes in her grandson, Joshua, played with teenage repression to the point of implosion by James Frecheville. Would he really show nothing and continue watching TV while his mother is busy dying of a smack overdose? Possibly. Maybe what went before has inured him to any kind of feeling whatsoever, though he did actually call the ambulance. He certainly doesn't seem upset that his mother has died when he drily tells grandma Janine about it on the phone, but then neither does she. If you're dead you're dead, it seems, but if you're alive and male grandma's going to give you a big fat kiss that verges on the nakedly sexual.

Sometimes the above kind of conversation is very funny, sometimes it masks what needs to be fleshed out to become a little more archetypal, which is not a dirty word.

The film starts with Joshua's voice-over, which then sort of falls away, but we are clearly meant to be on his half mute, half mumbled journey - to start with at any rate. He has a girlfriend from a middle class family and the mother is understandably worried that her daughter is involved with someonewho is related to a bunch of hardcore dealers.

No touristy cityscape shots here, just the drab working-class suburbs of a sprawling, post-colonial city.

But as the net tightens on Joshua, leading him into a world of violent crime he may not have wanted to enter - though he'd already stared stealing cars before the story starts - his path crosses that of detective Leckie. Played dead straight by a moutachio'ed Guy Pearce, he has a curious effect on the rest of the film. In fact, he takes over, whether it's because his character is the only one that turns out to be any good whatsoever or because Pearce can't help having that indefinable thing called star presence.

What he instantly does to a film that has very good performances all round, especially from Ben Mendelsohn who takes the banality of evil to new check-shirted shallows, is make us question who or what exactly is the main focus of the film. He also forces us to start making comparisons with a film that deals very clearly with police corruption, the masterly LA Confidential, in which he also co-starred.

Are we supposed to feel pity for Joshua as with another product of his environment, the titular Tsotsi? Are we supposed to admire Janine just because she's a woman? Clearly, detective Leckie is the only moral character in a film that seems to want to condemn the cops. A loving father of a child with Downs syndrome, his treatment of Joshua at first seems ambiguous, if not expedient, and later touches on the fatherly, possibly because he doesn't have a child that could become "normal". But this avenue is not explored any further.

We will stay with the emotionally blunted Joshua to his inevitable conclusion, bolstered by a soundtrack that is sometimes positively overbearing: the complete antithesis to what's happening on the screen. In that department, the film might have been more effective if it had stuck to that which gives it its considerable power, tension and menace. That is, everyday talk, incidental music, blaring TVs, cellphones ringing, "suburban hum".

But if the film lacks focus - who is really the main character? why are the cops so corrupt? why do the Codys do what they do? how did Joshua find out who killed his girlfriend? why should we see yet another film about the circularity of drug violence? - it certainly announces the arrival of talented writer/director David Michod. He can only get better than what he already is.

Ghosts of the Past ll

It was fascinating to watch The Ghost Writer by Roman Polanski the day after the Swiss refused to have him extradited to the United States - on a technicality. Did it really take them nine months to process the fact that there was a breach in their rules governing extradition?

Had he been forced to go to the US, the Yanks would not have looked very kindly upon his already unsavoury case, judging by what the film has to say about them.

That is, that the US will protect lickspittles like Tony Blair (played with almost satirical exuberance by Pierce Brosnan) at any cost - and destroy those that oppose them by any means fair or foul.

It would also not have helped Polanski's case that one of the film's most nauseating characters, given the nature of the charges against him, is a woman. (To say who it is would be spoiling the plot somewhat).

But now he will not go to the US and his film is still showing that country a very firm, up-yours middle finger. Talk about life imitating art.

Is the film any good? Well, it's pure Polanski fare, meaning no shot or time is wasted. Soon there is a corpse, soon we're in an isolated yet claustrophobic location - the incessant wind, dark clouds and rain merely adding to the generally miserable atmosphere - soon the mordant wit is flying.

And then there's the music. You can literally watch The Ghost Writer with your eyes closed. Cut out the dialogue, which is as good as ever, and listen to the music of the most sublime film composer around. Alexandre Desplat deserves an Oscar for this soundtrack, but then some would say he should be a little more discerning about the company he keeps.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

An African in Oceania

I'm a South African who used to write the DVD reviews for the Sunday Times magazine in Johannesburg. I am also, as the saying goes, an award-winning filmmaker. Now I’m living in New Zealand, I’m unemployed and this is my blog, which will inevitably be informed by my past experiences.

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!

The possibilities are endless, but the media impart messages and values and I’m fascinated by them, much as they often annoy me. This blog allows me the freedom to see and write what I like and for you to agree or disagree or do what I might do to you, which is ignore you. So a lot of fun could be and - why not? - should be had by all.

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.

Neil Sonnekus

Johannesburg, as seen from the Melville Koppies

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.

Rangitoto, Auckland, as seen form Kohimarama

Africa as Victim and Offender in the World Cup

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 clich├ęs, 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?