Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Hitting the High C

Story of my life, really. I met Tom McCarthy at a party in Dublin just after his first novel, Remainder, was published by an obscure Parisian art imprint. At that stage, of course, nobody knew that Remainder would go on to become a huge cult success, or that Zadie Smith would claim it as "one of the great English novels of the past ten years" for its stern rejection of the conventions of traditional realism.

Perhaps I would have gleaned all this, presciently - and found myself with a world literary scoop on my hands - had I only lingered in the kitchen a little longer than the time it took to say "congratulations". But no. Slinging back a tequila shot, I spent the night stumbling drunkenly about the dance floor, dispensing with my brain cells rather than stimulating them.

Never mind. At least hedonism is something the hero of C, McCarthy's latest, Booker-longlisted novel, seems to relate to. C is the strange story of Serge Carrefax, scion of a late-Victorian family grown rich from manufacturing silk. His father, who manages a school for the deaf in the English countryside, is a pioneering wireless buff; under his influence Serge becomes obsessed with wireless technology, haunting the airwaves at night via his homemade set. When World War One breaks out he joins the School of Military Aeronautics and is soon flying sorties above the Western Front, calling down artillery strikes on the Germans. He also takes to snorting cocaine before each take-off, bringing on an autoerotic climax:

Higher up, the vapour trails of the SE5s form straight white lines against the blue, as though the sky's surface were a mirror too. Scorch-marks and crater contours on the ground look powdery; it seems that if he swooped above them low enough, then he could breathe them up as well, snort the whole landscape into his head. The three hours pass in minutes. As they dip low to strafe the trenches on the way back, he feels the blood rush to his groin. He whips his belt off, leaps bolt upright and has barely got his trousers down before the seed shoots from him, arcs over the machine's tail and falls in a fine thread towards the silt earth below.

"From all the Cs!" he shouts. "The bird of Heaven!"

After the war, Serge tries to study architecture, but decadent London during the Roaring Twenties (heroin parties, lesbian showgirls) distracts him. After a car crash, he is packed off to revolutionary Egypt on a complex mission relating to the Empire Wireless Chain, a radio system designed to broadcast the embryonic BBC round the world. During a sex scene in a pharaonic burial chamber a deadly insect bites him, and the book ends with a series of feverish hallucinations.

In one sense, then, C is a good old ripping yarn. But the real action runs parallel to the plot, in the crackling zone of words. Images and associations are constantly bumping up against one another here, breeding strange new meanings that seem to go nowhere. The text effectively becomes a kind of drug-riddled fever dream, operating at a strange, subliminal frequency, which may or may not contain an urgent message for the reader.

Take the opening scenes. A doctor arrives at an estate called Versoie to deliver a baby. This estate houses a silk factory managed by the baby's mother, as well as a school for deaf children, which is run by the father. Apart from the echo of Versailles in the manor's name (which turns out to be significant later on), the name also conjures vers a soie, which is "silkworm" in French. Oh, and Vers is French for "towards", while ouier is "to hear" - meaning both parents, and their day jobs, are effectively represented by the name of the estate.

Also, the baby is christened Serge Carrefax - a play both on "surge" in the electrical sense (conductivity, transmission and the emergent broadcasting technology of the period are key ideas in the book), and the fabric "serge". The surname Carrefax encrypts the idea of "carrying" compounded with "fax" in terms of transmittal. Or is it "fax" in the sense of a facsimile or copy? Both meanings turns out to be significant.

Phew. It's exhilarating, but relentless. And that's just the first few pages.

It all adds up to an ambitious assault on what McCarthy has called the "certainties of middlebrow aesthetics" - that is, rounded characters, generic plots and big, earnest "themes". Serge, for example, remains little more than a cipher, because McCarthy wants to point up his artificiality - he's a construct transmitting enmeshed messages, like the wireless technology with which the book is so obsessed. In an obvious debt to Robbe-Grillet, he is laying out his arguments for the novel as a complex form of communication, a kind of code. Every reading is different; the recipient is the key.

You'll know already, I should think, whether this is a book for you - in the kitchen with the frisky, finger-popping experimentalists, furiously channelling the spirit of the 20th century avant-garde, or chugging away on the dance floor with the champions of realism.

If it's the latter, don't dismiss C out of hand. It's ruthlessly intelligent, rich with meaning and metaphor that are meshed together not just at the narrative level, but linguistically too. It's elegantly written and full of black humour. Hell, it might even win the Booker. Now that would surely make even the most retiring novelist put on his red shoes and dance.

Melissa de Villiers

Harry's Browned Off

There were only about a dozen people in the cinema, and most of them were aged pensioners. They were probably coming to see Michael Caine reprise his Get Carter role from 1971, which is really what Harry Brown is about.

The four-letter f and c words flew as our pensioners were reminded just how awful and lonely it is too be aged. The colours were muted browns, greens and greys, and there was that other affliction of old age, silence. But then they were there of their own free will.

Harry lives in one of those depressing English flatland estates. His wife is dying and his mate is terrified of drug-dealing thugs terrorising the estate. Harry used to be a Marine (served in Northern Ireland) but he put that behind him when he met Kath. Then she dies and his mate and chess partner, Len, dies too. But he doesn't just die; he's murdered, like my octogenarian father (above) was.

So far so OK. But now it all starts falling to pieces. Enter detective inspector Alice Frampton, played by the divine Emily Mortimer. She's a homicide detective but she almost bursts into tears upon having to give Harry the bad news about Len.

Accompanying her is the thickest detective sergeant you'll ever come across. The only way Hicock (Charlie Creed-Miles) could have made it so far was, well, whatever it could have been we don't know because we aren't told. Maybe it has something to do with that plummy, stats-quoting chief he has. But all we're given is that he's a dumb-as-a-doornail cop and she's a feeling homicide detective. Hmn.

Harry, an ex-Marine cries and, for some reason, directors want to make Caine cry. He did it awfully in Carter and he does it awfully here. Carter should have got angry when he saw his brother's daughter being coerced into pornography. Brown should get angry when he hears about Len. Caine does icy very well, but he does tears awfully. Really awfully.

And surely if Harry left the Marines behind him, he would have put away all the old photos and medals? Then, when the changes come, the wife and mate dead, he brings them out again. Ritually. That's largely what film is all about. Ritual. Pictures. Just ask Mel Gibson when he's playing director. He's a master at it.

But no, Alice revisits this man and asks him about his medals and delivers the following clanger when she sees him replaying Bobby Fischer's unexpected Pirc defence against Boris Spassky in Reykjavik, Iceland. "You have no one to play with you, don't you?" As all students of Screenwriting 101 know, there must be about a hundred ways of implying the blatantly bloody obvious.

But it seems as if debut director Daniel Barber is so intent on out-Finchering David Fincher that he forgets about the details. There is a scene where Harry goes to purchase a gun that is so obscene that it surpasses Fincher, if that's anything to crow about, in that he makes it clear to us that the scariest monster on this planet is something that goes as human. What the old people thought I don't know. They were there of their own free will. Granted, it's not a scene you are likely to forget, if you ever bother to see the film.

And then there are Harry's physical abilities. How he, an emphysema sufferer in his late 70s, manages to suddenly turn a young assailant's knife on him - Marine training or not - has more to do with cinematic licence than "gritty" reality; and, being a chess player, he would surely not have left his fingerprints all over a Land Rover he "borrowed" from abovementioned monster (read: self-starring and -mutilated pornographic drug and gun dealer).

There could have been a slightly twee but mildly probable ending to this film. We are shown that Harry had a daughter who died when she was 13. So what if Harry finds a surrogate daughter in DI Frampton? These things happen, and there is nothing with controlled sentiment. But no, Harry has won his turf back, his right to walk through the re-painted, graffiti-less rail tunnel. And Alice has finally toughened up and walks away from her plummy boss's news briefing.

But it's too late. The middle game's details were overlooked. The match is lost because at least in Get Carter and Edge of Darkness (now on DVD and starring the said Gibson), we are reminded that - even in an unjust world - revenge and vigilantism still have consequences.

Signs of the Times

Local cynics might say that Gibson is merely reprising himself as some sort of Christian martyr in the last-mentioned film, which leads us to another issue of faith. Last week the Advertising Standards Authority decreed that it was alright for atheists to put up billboards saying "there's probably no god". What they should have done is question the atheists' lack of conviction or, perhaps more accurately, commitment. After all, what do they mean with there probably isn't a god? Surely they are absolutely sure? Or are they just covering their backsides "in case" they're wrong? God knows, I'm disappointed. Actually, I'm not sure he knows. Or cares. But it's something Carter had also dwelt upon. In a great little by-the-way, four-word interaction he meets an old Newcastle mate who now happens to work for an adversary. "Good God," the mate says. "Is he?" Carter snaps.

Equally bad, on a sign outside the Greenlane Presbyterian Church there was a sign that said something (mental note to self: make written notes to self) to this effect: Google does not have all the answers, beneath the usual photograph of a white Anglo-Saxon family, which presumably denotes sanctity. Then, on a separate line beneath it: "God!" Now what was that supposed to mean? Was it an exclamation that Yahoo and all the others deserve some credit too? Probably not. It was more likely intended to mean that God has all the answers or, along with Google, at least some of them. But it came out all wrong and maybe that's why it was taken down. Then again, if I had money I wouldn't bet on it. I mean the fact that the billboard was taken down.

But one thing is absolutely certain: both sides need a better PR person.

Neil Sonnekus

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Take With Mountains of...

Last week I made the stupid mistake of working under a self-imposed deadline. The result was that I got all the typos right, but not all the ideas. What I still meant to say about The Concert was that it is one of the few movies in which the featured music, in this case Tchaikovsky's immortal and extremely difficult-to-play Violin Concerto, is completely integral - instead of incidental - to the story.

Then, just to exacerbate matters, I forgot to mention the title of Costa-Gavras's latest film, which is of course Eden is West. And, even though I didn't think the film quite worked, I still think he is one of the most astute social-realist directors around - one who can, in his final frame, convey three very clear ideas while using the latest techniques for his own seemingly pedestrian purposes. Some filmmakers cannot even get one idea out of an entire movie, so that was the context in which I wished to criticize the man who is, after all, a European master.

One film without a single intentional idea going for it, however, is Salt, which doesn't do much for its director's reputation but no doubt plenty for his pocket. Phillip Noyce clearly balances his more "artistic" films like The Quiet American and Rabbit Proof Fence with presidential horrors like Air Force One and this unintentional comedy.

Angelina Jolie plays the role that Tom Cruise was going to do, apparently, and she does it well in the sense that the camera loves her, to put it mildly. More about that later on. In the meantime, she works for the CIA and they run their covert operation close to the White House as Rink Petroleum. Covert? Bad timing, guys. Petroleum companies couldn't be more visible now that one of BP's many, many wells has messed up the southeastern coastline of the good old US of A. And Rink? As in ice, Russia, Cold War? Must be. 'Tis as deep as an oil well.

Agent Evelyn Salt is married to a German arachnologist, who defines his job as hunting spiders. Wikipedia, on the other hand, defines it more soberly and even Germanically as a scientist who studies the biology of spiders, but then what would they know?

Anyway, a Russian spy walks into the Rink and says he's going to "out" a Russky agent, which is at least quite topical, since some Motherland spies were really outed from their decadent bourgeois lifestyles in the States recently. Who is it? Salt says, lovely long legs crossed. It's you, he says. Cue portentous, corporate thriller double-bass strokes.

Now she has to prove her innocence and goes on the run, using the city as her play pen, swinging from one moving truck, breaking all speed records, to another. The entire country is after her, with all the latest hi-tech detecting technology behind it, but agent Salt books into a smart New York hotel with her credit card. Now, even no-star movies know that that's the first thing the CIA checks and blocks.

But the next day will bring even more adventures, for she will outwit the entire security apparatus of America and assassinate the Russian Vice President! Later he will reappear as the Russian President because - ha! - she shot him with some poison from - da! - one of her missing husband's spiders, the contents of which only gives the illusion of mortal departure. Gosh, it gets so exciting, continuity lapses and all.

And here the plot segues into real life again, because Russia wants to annihilate Mecca with nuculear (thank you George Bush Jnr for that pronunciation) bombs, but make it look as if it was America that pushed the button. That should anger about a billion Muslims even more, whereupon all said fanatics will unleash all hell on Washington. And hasn't Mother Russia just helped Iran make nuclear power possible for allegedly peaceful purposes? Hollywood clearly knows something we don't.

The real spy, of course, was there the day the original agent walked in and, since Noyce had spent some time in South Africa while making the not-so-bad Catch a Fire, he could have opted for making one of his black actors the plant. Surely he would have come across the odd Vladimir Dlamini or Leonid Mofokeng in the Republic, still clinging to their parent's workerist ideals while bulging out of their Guccis and quaffing vast amounts of French champagne. But no, he reduces the hugely talented Chiwetel Ejiofor to a neurotic Chief of Security and the greying Andre Braugher, still trying to reach the heights of his brilliant Pembleton in Homicide: Life on the Streets, to a one-sentence Secretary of Defense.

Interestingly, the film has no swearing in it. So it's obviously meant to reach the widest possible audience, even though Salt hits, kicks, smashes, bashes, slashes, crashes, maims, brains, pains, murders and assassinates quite a few extras with aspirations. Every now and then, however, she's very good at shedding a tear or two. She is still in touch with her feminine side, you know.

And so on and so forth. But here's the thing. If you think back to the days when women called the shots, it wasn't because they were physically strong. It was because they had the power of producing babies, life. Back then, you see, they hadn't made the connection yet that babies come from men and women doing what comes naturally. Women brought forth life and that was magical - in the occult sense of the word. Men and boys had to be sacrificed in these women's names they were so powerful.

And if you look at Jolie beyond this rubbish, it might just be that the phallocratic Hollywood is so terrified of her occult female power, her fertility - both in real life and positively glowing on the screen - that they have to make her do silly action things, men things, with her narrow, boy-like hips, even impersonating a male security guard at one stage. If that's not verging on transferred homoeroticism then I don't know what is.

Put in another way, there is no one with the balls or ovaries to make her a true, realistic femme fatale - she is too big for them. Way too big.

Neil Sonnekus

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Man Who Was and Wasn't There

There is a close-up of Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) writing out an incredibly complicated mathematical equation on a blackboard in the Coen brothers' A Serious Man. "And that," he concludes in his reedy voice, "is the uncertainty principle."

Cut to a wide shot of an enormous university blackboard filled with said equation, dwarfing the diminutive professor of physics, whose trousers end way above his ankles.

It's a very funny visual gag in a film (out on DVD) that is filled with more than just hilarious moments, visually or otherwise. In fact, things are uncertain from the start and, be warned, they don't end very conclusively either. Apparently a lot of people were upset about this. They should rather see a boy-meets-girl-loses-girl-finds-girl-again type movie.

In the prologue, a dirt poor peasant couple back in the Motherland is visited by a man who the wife believes to be a dybbuk, an evil spirit. He proves that he's very much alive by bleeding when she stabs him in the heart to prove her point. But wait a bit. If she stabbed him in the heart he should be dead. He leaves, however, complaining that he knows when he isn't welcome.

How very Jewish, but it's also alluding to Schrodinger's Paradox, which states that a cat that's in a box and activates something that will certainly kill it will, at a certain point, be both dead and alive - until you open the box. At least that's what I think it's about. I'm not sure. It's got something to do with quantum mechanics, which also involved a Jew, Albert Einstein.

Or, as Larry says: "Everything I thought was one way turns out the other."

So that is the framework for A Serious Man. Our physicist's life may seem determined by work, marriage, suburbia and faith, but that's not how it pans out. His aggressive wife leaves him for one of those touchy-feely schmucks who thinks that a warm hug can cure everything, he's being threatened by one of his students, his neighbour is a military nut, his daughter's just like his wife, his son is as foul-mouthed as his friends, his brother (Richard Kind of Spin City fame) is a freakish genius, the chief rabbi is too busy to see him and the substitute rabbi is far more interested in explaining why an ordinary car park is filled with the wonder of God than anything else.

The beauty of this film is that it cuts out the Coen brothers' more irritating, indulgent side (I thought Burn After Reading fell into that category). But they don't put a foot wrong here and it might just be because the film is autobiographical. Did not the Coens grow up in the flat Midwest, and is the essentially good professor's son, listening to Jefferson Airplane during Hebrew lessons and getting stoned for his bar mitzvah, not just the kind of thing the brothers would have got up to, judging by their sense of humour in other goofy, grassy flicks like The Big Lebowski?

If I had a bottom dollar I wouldn't bet on it, however, for how does one prove autobiography in this uncertain world?

If Music Be the Food of Love

Out on circuit now, The Concert is one of those films that sweeps you along with its conceit and its passion and then, the next day, you realise that it does have some problems. For example, it really labours the idea that certain Jews are incurable traders. Also, its send-up of the Russian nouveau riche lapses into cheap burlesque, undermining its otherwise comic elegance.

But then it also sends up the preciousness of French culture, which it nevertheless admits works, as well as the pathos of those who still cling to the old communist ideal - so much so that one of their old apparatchiks will hire film extras to make up the numbers at ever-dwindling rallies.

The plot is well known. Andrei Filipov (Aleksei Guskov) used to be the conductor of the Bolshoi orchestra. But when he refused to fire his Jewish musicians during the Brezhnev era he was fired midway through conducting Tchaikovsky's immortal Violin Concerto. Now he works at the Bolshoi as a cleaner and intercepts a fax invitation for the orchestra to play at the Theatre du Chatelet in Paris, France.

Andrei decides to get all his old musicians together again and go as if they are the official Bolshoi orchestra. Also, he has an ulterior motive for wanting the French violinist, Anne-Marie Jacquet (Melanie Laurent), as his soloist. In this regard, at least, Romanian director Radu Mihaileanu avoids a terrible cliche and sweeps one along to a finale that is deeply, joyfully affecting.

See it, love it, and take a hanky.

Go West, Young Man

Costa-Gavras has often managed to make films that are as politically challenging as they are dramatically engaging and therefore acceptable to a wider audience. Think of his debut feature, Z, which won an Oscar for best foreign film in 1969. Then there were Missing and Music Box, both of which earned their leading (American) actors a nomination.

Less acceptable for the refined stomach are films like Stage of Siege, which deals explicitly with political torture. Showing a bound, naked prisoner on a stage having a pair of electrical wires attached to his testicles and then cranking up the power for the benefit of a bunch of military men does not exactly go down well with your popcorn. Set in a fictitious South American country, it's a scary film and I only saw it because the diminutive auteur showed it to us at a seminar in post-apartheid Johannesburg, South Africa.

But lately he's been turning to comedy, which some might say is a sign of maturity (he's 77).

Elias is a young Greek who is going west to find work, since there is none in his own country - thanks, apparently, to Wall Street bankers making dubious deals with his government. He is on a ship for economic refugees and, when the French coast guard sights them, they "lose" their identity documents. So that's the first thing you get rid of, after which your dignity is sure to follow.

But Elias decides to take his chances and swims for the mainland, where he ends up exhausted after a night-long swim at a luxury spa full of beautiful, European nudists!

It's reminiscent of that famous photograph of an African crawling exhausted on to an Ibiza beach while in the background two white youngsters catch a suntan in their bikinis, as well as JG Ballard's masterful Cocaine Nights, because behind the facade of this Romanesque spa are predatory owners, rich, lonely wives, security police and razor wire hidden inside the evergreen hedges.

From here Elias will try to make it to Paris with nothing but a smattering of French. He will meet people who will help him, lust after him, exploit him, rip him off and a wealthy Greek couple who give him a lift but are so obscene that he knows he cannot, like Odysseus, go back home. Paris will have to be his Ithaca.

But is it, and does the film work? The problem is that Gavras is tackling a very serious issue with a light comic touch, which doesn't entirely work. On the one hand the theme is one of economic deprivation and civic discomfort - Elias is constantly on the run from the police, as in a nightmare. As one mournful African worker, playing his marimba, says: "We are fighting a war without a battle." Nothing funny about that little truth.

On the other hand the Greek-born exile, Gavras, is celebrating (perhaps half autobiographically) the tenacity of ancient Greek culture and of a working man, played by Riccardo Scamarcio, who just so happens to have the most gorgeous grey eyes and could probably make a living as a male prostitute, should all else fail.

These two contradictions sit very uncomfortably next to each other.

So if you want to know what it's like for the real refugees - those who have the added disadvantage of another colour, another culture - you could get a very short, sharp insight into that by seeing Oliver Schmitz's Place des Fetes in Paris, Je T'aime.

As for the comedy side, you just need to see Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times to get the picture.

Neil Sonnekus

* Next week I'll be looking at the mainstream Salt, with Angelina Jolie, and Harry Brown, starring Michael Caine.

** The photograph was taken with my Nokia 6500 of the synagogue in Manukau Road, Auckland

Stickfighting Man

In July, Sierra Leonean writer Olufemi Terry (right) was awarded the 2010 Caine Prize for African Writing for his short story, Stickfighting Days.

The prize is touted by its promoters as "the African Booker" and, while this grandiose title oversells itself somewhat, it is undoubtedly a good place to spot emerging talent and trends.

Books editor Melissa de Villiers spoke to Terry:

MdV: How do you think winning the Caine will change your life as a writer?

OT: I've almost finished writing my first novel, and I hope the award is going to help me get it published. And, of course, the 10 000 pound prize money will also come in handy in giving me the space and time to write.

MdV: Your story focuses on the short, violent lives of glue-sniffing street boys on a city rubbish dump. In it, you describe one boy as "sandy-haired", while others go by English and French names. The effect is unsettling - it makes the reader almost doubt that we're in Africa at all. Was this a deliberate destabilising tactic?

OT: Very deliberate. I wanted to locate the story in a timeless fictional space that would not be recognisable as an African setting. I can't say why - it just felt right.

MdV: You were born in Sierra Leone, but you've lived all over the world...

OT: Yes, I left Sierra Leone when I was a year old. I grew up in Nigeria, the UK and the Cote d'Ivoire; went to university in New York, then worked as a journalist in Kenya, Somalia and Uganda before settling in Cape Town.

MdV: How do you feel about being labelled an "African writer"?

OT: It's not a particularly helpful label. Often, whether it's journalism or fiction, there is too much emphasis put on issues such as poverty or disease, and I feel the label "African writing" exacerbates that particular tendency. I would like to see more of a shift away from writing about Africa set on the continent, and more exploration of the issues of the diaspora.

MdV: Is this why you became involved in Chimurenga magazine's "Pilgrimages project"?

OT: Yes, I'm very excited about "Pilgrimages", the brainchild of Chimurenga and the Kenyan writer, Binyavanga Wainana, who himself won the Caine in 2002. He sent 13 African writers - many currently living in the diaspora - to 13 African cities for two weeks during the World Cup, and each will now produce a book of non-fiction prose based on their experiences. I think these sorts of projects are taking African writers and African writing in exciting new directions.

MdV: Do you feel supported as a writer in Cape Town?

OT: Cape Town has a fairly large writing community, but it's quite insular and quite South African-focused. I'm not sure I have a natural place within it. However, I do find the city a good place to write. It's easy to be social there, but it's also easy to vanish. And Cape Town also has a kind of loneliness, which I find quite conducive to writing.

MdV: What's next for you?

OT: For the last year I have been carrying the idea for a new novel around in my head. It's a Cape Town story, one I myself would like to read, and having been unable to find it anywhere in print, I feel I must take it upon myself to write it!

Monday, August 16, 2010

Attack of the Moneyed Mutants

The second Hong Kong Film Festival opened auspiciously with a lavish cocktail party at the Rialto cinema in Newmarket, Auckland. There was food I'd never seen or tasted before and, to put it bluntly, I want more.

This was followed by a dragon dance (see badly shot video below) leading us to the theatre, where speeches were made thanking everyone down to the attendants, who did a splendid job. They were friendly, helpful and well dressed.

Something was said about New Zealand-Hong Kong economic co-operation, hands were clapped and then City Under Siege started. If only one could be as complimentary about it as the food.

The film starts off in World War Two where Evil Military Scientists are devising some kind of drug that will give a human being superhuman powers. Said human instantly grows long nails and thick, subcutaneous veins. A whole pile of POWs are flung around an underground cave, but then an attack from outside starts. Cue explosions and more flying bodies.

Cut to a clown. Aaron Kwok plays Sunny, looking a little like a Western Bruce Lee. He will follow a gang of good-for-nothings and they will end up in said cave, where there is plenty of gold. There is also that drug, of which they all get a generous whiff.

The bad guys get badder and Sunny, being good, becomes superhuman - but only when it's required. Talk about a discerning narcotic. But first he gets incredibly fat and meets a beautiful newsreader, Angel, who gets fired for being almost 30. Qi Shu looks like an Orientla Monica Bellucci (or vice versa, who cares, they're both exquisite) and she needs a story to revive her journalistc fortunes. Guess who's going to provide that story?

Hong Kong is under attack from the mutants, who throw heavy armoured trucks (filled with tons of moolah, you understand) as if they're made of balsa wood. Enter Sunny, fighting them all the way, whether it's flying impossibly between moving vehicles at high speed or countering very sharp blades being flung at him. Fair enough; that's part of the genre.

Sunny and the main Bad Guy will finally face off and Angel will...well, you can work it out. It's been done thousands of times before.

The question is, why was this film chosen as the flagship for the festival? There are seven other, perfectly interesting-looking films, but none seems to have this one's budget. Are the festival organisers possibly saying money spent equates cultural wealth?

Nor is the film very funny when it tries to be, since it's competing with the master exponent of that aspect of the Hong Kong school, Jackie Chan.

Lastly, if such a film is meant to go beyond its own borders, then its makers, including director Benny Chan, should as least spend some of their oodles of cash to get proper translators to subtitle their film. It isn't charming. It is just something we weren't to have been impressed with is.

Neil Sonnekus

HK Film Fest Opening

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Par For the Not So Coarse

It is the ex-proofreader and subeditor's ultimate nightmare: a grammatical error or typo in his or her precious text, let alone a headline. Up to last week, alas, there was at least one gremlin in each of my blog posts.

But last week was perfect. Not a single mistake I could see - until I looked at the page a few nights later to see whether I had garnered yet more fans. Imagine my horror when I discovered what my astute friends and learned readers were clearly too polite to point out. A whole paragraph was missing!

I'm talking, of course, about the slight lapse in logic between pars two and three in my The Men Who Stare at Goats review, for which I offer my profound apologies. Here, for those hordes of you just dying to stitch it all together retrospectively, it is:

"Sending up the whole notion of New Age and Hollywood B-grade coincidence, we have Bob going to report on the war in Iraq to mend his broken heart and meeting the very man he's looking for, Lyn Cassady, at a hotel."

There, that feels much better. And I had gained a new reader, whom I suspect is South African. Dabulamanzi had read the review and asked me to take a look at the video Enter the Ninja by Die Antwoord (The Answer in Afrikaans) on YouTube. All I can say, sir, is that your wish is my command and the review follows hereafter in a post that deals with things South African and Oceanic. That is, race and rugby.

Further good news is that the "books" part of landofthelongwhitelight has gone active this week with a guest review by Melissa de Villiers, whom I haven't seen in the flesh for, oh, over two decades. And not only is she not living in London, as I'd thought, but in Singapore. It's a whole new eastern cyber axis we're inhabiting, underlined by a review of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell.

And if that book is set in turn-of-the-19th-century Japan, then the Hong Kong Film Festival opened here in Auckland last night with a lavish cocktail party and a screening of City Under Siege. Expect more on that and more, because service is my middle name, typos and all.

White Trash Burning

The official version of Enter the Ninja has had almost six million hits on YouTube, so it's obviously struck some kind of beat. But is it any good? Well, yes. White working-class frustration usually manifests itself as neo-Nazi and racist, but Die Antwoord is way too smart (or zeph) to take that route.

They know the struggle in South Africa is not about race anymore, if it ever was. It's about class. It's about the haves with their rainbow notions of being funky, like a pair of underpants - to use Die Antwoord's memorable image - that has been worn for days on end.

As for the have-nots, they may not be conventionally pretty or talk fancy, but they have their own fire, their own sharp satire, which is usually the birth of something new. So up yours, like. The class wars have begun.

Skinned Alive

Anthony Fabian's debut feature, Skin, starts off with the almost mandatory foreword explaining apartheid, even though the action and dialogue throughout the film make it implicitly but abundantly clear what that abomination was all about. Another cliche is that you have a woman's anguished voice wailing over the landscape, shot with director of photography Dewald Aukema's usual chiaroscuro perfectionism. But at least this time that voice has a thematic relevance to the story, which is its greatest strength.

Sandra Laing was a genetic "throwback", a "coloured" child born to white parents at a time when the colour of your skin mattered in South Africa (as it still does today - it's just that no one mentions it when they do or don't give you a job, depending). Her parents were staunch but loving Afrikaners who isolated themselves on a farm, away from prying, prejudiced eyes. But Sandra had to go to school, of course, and that's where all the trouble would start. The film portrays the cruelty of - in this case white - school pupils to a T.

Another strength is that it manages to portray Afrikaans men of the time as hard but not unsympathetic (even though someone like the poet Ingrid Jonker's MP father completely disowned her). This is a breakthrough for a movie that is clearly correct enough to obtain some funding from the National Film and Video Foundation. Sam Neill's portrayal of Abraham Laing is almost too textured and Alice Krige's Sannie gets ever better as she becomes a broken old lady towards the end. About halfway through the film she seems almost more loving towards her daughter than at the end, which could be a textual problem, but her visual transformation is remarkable.

Furthermore, by sticking to the story the film manages to portray a black man of the time as someone who can still be sexily human, regardless of the fact that he lives within the milieu of a particular brand of viciousness. Tony Kgoroge, playing Petrus Zwane, manages (and is allowed) to surpass the white, guilt-afflicted liberal projection of victimhood as something which automatically obliterates all signs of character. There's also a nice little irony in the fact that his "Christian" name, of course, is Afrikaans and the Laings' English.

Worse, or better, Kgoroge's Petrus not only shows just how corrupting that viciousness was, but it also gives us a little foretaste of how the arrogant side of his nature could have come to full, self-destructive bloom, as it has with the African National Congress. In fact, if ever there was a time for a film to be made about one of their greatest bugbears, Stephen Bantu Biko as an intellectual in his own right, that time is now. And not only does Kgoroge look the part, he is ready to step into leading-man status. One time.

As for Sandra, around whom the whole story revolves, she is the open, walking wound of this film and Sophie Okonedo manages everything from acute shyness to extreme emotional pain to female certainty with a light, effective touch. Maybe, through no fault of hers, she could have got angry, really angry, just once.

If Skin is sometimes awkward, has that irritating habit of English people throwing in seemingly random Afrikaans word and flashes to the subject of a biopic - a la everything from Schindler's List to Catch a Fire - then it still manages to convey all the cruelties and contradictions of that country in a single scene, let alone an entire story:

Neill as Laing is trying to listen to a radio broadcast which states that the government will now accept "coloured" children of white parents as white. But his black maid is trying to tell him something and he shushes her. How much more to the point can one get?

So if you want a clear idea of what apartheid did to ordinary people - from the issue of race to that of forced removals - you need look no further than Skin.

* If you want to know what it was like under Nelson Mandela look at Invictus, reviewed hereafter, and if you want to know what it's like now, see Disgrace and the vibey, cynical Jerusalema. Mysteriously, the latter two got no local funding.

"We Need Inspiration, Francois"

It's difficult to understand why New Zealanders would want to see this film, which didn't do all that well at cinemas but is doing solid business down at the DVD shop. After all, the Kiwis lost the 1995 World Cup final upon which Invictus is (very) loosely based.

So could it be because it features Nelson Mandela, as portrayed by Morgan Freeman? Or maybe that it's made by probably the most solid filmmaker around, Clint Eastwood? Or is it because it stars Matt Damon as a somewhat less camp Springbok captain Francois Pienaar?

Possibly. But maybe it's because Kiwis are just so damned decent, loyal and enthusiastic about film that they will support anything that might smack of intelligent entertainment, a notion I have warned them/us against in the review following this one.

As a sport drama Invictus is almost laughable. "Joel Stransky" kicks the ball like a ballet dancer. In the final "Jonah Lomu" gets the ball and is tackled all the time, when Springbok strategy saw to it that he barely smelled the ball. (I have a Samoan relative who is still mourning the "forward pass" the big winger got with an open field ahead of him).

But as a drama of ideas, and particularly as a lesson in leadership, it's a completely different matter. Freeman finally starts showing some hints of the great man towards the end, and Eastwood's detailed study of Madiba's security politics is deeply endearing, with Tony Kgoroge once again showing he deserves much more than a second lead.

The sad part, of course, is that the inspiration Mandela provided has vanished.

* You might want to take a look at Goodbye Bafana (also known as The Colour of Freedom) by Bille August, in which Dennis Haysbert gives a truly dignified performance as the younger Nelson Mandela.

You Gotta Start Lying

Next year, of course, the Rugby World Cup is coming to New Zealand. The tournament started here in 1987, which is the last time the All Blacks won the cup. My ex-colleague, Sim Xabanisa at The Times in Johannesburg, wrote that the All Blacks are the best team in the world - between world cups. Ouch.

The You Gotta Be There TV commercial is a typical, testosterone-filled sports ad, showing powerful flashes of the previous World Cup in France. But in terms of pure propaganda it shoots itself in the foot. Why? Because it ends with a shot of the Springboks having won the last cup in 2007.

In other words, it's just too damn nice and gracious towards the previous victors. You don't win the World Cup by being nice, New Zealand, even though it's ultimately more important to be good than nasty. But to win you have to be cunning and utterly barbaric, like the South Africans. You have been warned.

Neil Sonnekus

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

More Panache Than Pith

David Mitchell is one of those authors who seems to divide people. Here's a comment from a member of The Guardian's online book club, which recently put the best-selling, twice-Booker-nominated writer's third novel, Cloud Atlas, under its literary microscope: "David Mitchell is a genius at making middlebrow readers feel that they're experiencing the avant-garde."

According to this reader, the work (six interlocked novellas, each completely different from its neighbour) is a flashy-but-empty display of literary pastiche that shrieks "significant", "clever" and "complicated" - and is designed to make readers think that they are clever too, simply for reading it at all.

Of course, the same thing could also be said in admiration of the novel. "[Cloud Atlas's six novellas] are a bit like the best-ever volume of the Reader's Digest Compacted Library - and I don't mean that in a bad way," was another, more typical response from the same website.

Mitchell recently spoke at the UK's Hay Festival of his impatience with the kinds of "meta-fiction" that keep reminding the reader that he or she is reading fiction. So he must be glad to know that so many of his fans think of him as, in the words of yet another book club reader, "a real storyteller in a literary world which abandoned storytelling some time ago".

So - is it Mitchell and his fans on the side of "story" against the horrid Po-Mo literary spoilsports, then? There's no denying that his fictions sings with a compelling vitality, not least because of its multitude of tones and styles - reviewers often mention his "ventriloquism". In his new novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (Sceptre) he harnesses his marvellous talents to a more conventional form - that of the historical novel.

The story's set in Japan at the turn of the 19th century, when the country was almost entirely cut off from the West, except for a tiny, quarantined Dutch outpost. Young, naive Jacob de Zoet arrives on the man-made island of Dejima in Nagasaki harbour as part of a contingent of Dutch East Indies officials charged with cleaning up the trading station's entrenched culture of corruption.

Though engaged to be married back home in Holland, he falls madly in love with Orito Aibagawa, an unusual Japanese woman studying as a midwife with Marinus, the station's resident physician. Their courtship is strained, since foreigners are prohibited from setting foot on the Japanese mainland, and the only relationship permitted between Japanese women and foreign men on Dejima are of the paid variety. Jacob has larger trouble, though; when he refuses to sign off on a bogus shipping manifest, his stint on Dejima is extended and he's demoted, stuck in the service of a vengeful fellow clerk.

Meanwhile, Orito's father dies deeply in debt, and her stepmother sells her into service at a mountain-top shrine where her skills in midwifery are in high demand, she soon learns, because of the deeply sinister rituals going on in the secretive shrine. This is where the slow-to start plot finally lifts off, as Mitchell turns up the heat with a rescue attempt by Orito's first love, Uzaemon, Jacob's translator and confidant.

Throughout, Mitchell's ventriloquism is as sharp as ever; he conjures men of Eastern and Western erudition as convincingly as he does Dutch sailors belowdecks. There are some quite riveting set-pieces (any would-be readers who happen to be pregnant with their first child might wish to avoid the gruesome opening chapter until well after the birth).

Yet ultimately there is something contrived about this novel's brilliant depiction of a faraway world. At the end of this clever and ambitious book I was none the wiser as to why Mitchell had felt so compelled to examine and dramatise in such detail the complications of politics and trade in the Far East at the turn of the 19th century.

Perhaps it's because his abundant abilities are above all mimetic. His authorial presence lacks a moral point of view - some input or pressure from him that is uniquely Mitchellian, in the sense of being fiercely held. In the end, this book has only its own stylistic panache on which to fall back.

Melissa de Villiers

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Separating the Sheep from the Goats

One good satire is usually a truer reflection of a troubled culture than all its sentimental dramas put together, and it certainly seems to be the case with The Men Who Stare At Goats, now on DVD.

Bob (Ewan McGregor) plays a handsome reporter whose wife has fallen for her slimy boss, who just so happens to have a metal arm. But then Bob's been on a story to which we've been given a hilarious introduction: some military nut with brass on his shoulders is convinced that he can run through a wall, superhero-like, and gets a massive headache for his pains.

Cassady is played by George Clooney, who is at his best when he's sending himself up - this observation probably applies more to men than women - and he is on a mission to find the missing founder of the New Earth Army, Bill Django, played by a wonderfully overweight Jeff Bridges reprising his Big Lebowski slob.

What Django convinced the US military of - apparently this is based on that oxymoron, a true story - is that they needed a section in which troops with extrasensory gifts could learn to read enemy thoughts, pass through walls and kill beings (like the titular goats) by staring at them with bad intent. Cassady was such a talented individual, whose reincarnation looks disturbingly like Tom Selleck.

Hell, if the US could go to war on pure fiction, why couldn't they believe this kind of hokum? And they did, apparently, until it all blew up, so to speak, in their faces. One of the bad - or good, depending on your politics - apples who could have helped them come to that perception is played by Kevin Spacey, once again playing a cynical manipulator of no particular sexual orientation.

This is the only disappointing aspect of a film that may not be of the laugh-out-loud-and-roll-around-in-the-aisles variety, but it does chug along with a quietly wacky chuckle factor that is rather refreshing.

Just Deserts and More Desert

First of all, there is the title, The Hurt Locker. What exactly would that be?

The director describes it as a place of ultimate pain; others describe it as a bomb itself - or the locker that will hurt you real bad - and others describe it as a place where you go and hide your hurt. Fair enough. They all apply in this nerve-wracking film, also out on DVD.

But is it worthy of its Oscar? If so, then Full Metal Jacket - hereafter FMJ - should have won the Nobel prize for literature. We are told up front that war is a drug. Excuse me, but Michael Herr, who co-wrote FMJ for little pay but with much respect for its director, Stanley Kubrick, said this much more eloquently about the Vietnam war in Dispatches. But then that was a long time ago.

Effectively shot in a hand-held, news-camera style, we share the lives of members of a bomb disposal squad in Baghdad, Iraq. The performances of Jeremy Renner, Andrew Mackie and Brian Geraghty as the core trio are flawless, and it's great seeing some new faces.

Plot Spoiler Follows:

It's also very clever seeing most of the "name" actors getting blown up and shot to smithereens. No comfort there, at least.

Plot Spoiler Ends.

But it's worth noting that the writer, Mark Boal, who covered this war and on whose work the film is based, was an embedded journalist in Iraq. Though one could probably be nothing else and live to tell the tale, it's still a question of how you process your information, as the previous review tries to demonstrate.

There is a lame attempt at satire when the Harvard-trained army shrink tells the death-obsessed Specialist Eldridge (Geraghty) that "going to war is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It could be fun." But this doesn't come half way near the consistent intelligence of the hugely underrated Charlie Wilson's War. Or, of course, FMJ, which is so well made that it actually sells us on war without for one second avoiding its ugliness.

So maybe director Katheryn Bigelow didn't quite understand the nature of her mission, which is to convince us to pity the perpetrators of a great deal of global pain. Maybe she thought that a large portion of the rest of the world still locks away its hurt when it sees an American film, any American film.

Then again, maybe she understood her market only too well.

Neil Sonnekus

*Next week I review the South African racial drama Skin, starring Sam Neill, and Invictus, out on DVD, as well as an analysis on why the World Cup Rugby ad, You Gotta Be There, on TVNZ is, in fact, counterproductive propaganda.