Thursday, December 29, 2011

Something Smells Really, Really Funny in Denmark

The worst movie of the year, without a doubt, is Drive. Made for every wannabe Jeremy Clarkson by Danish-born Nicholas Winding Refn, it’s the worst because it’s trying to be the new Charles Bronson and Jason Statham revenge flick, but tries very hard to pose as art as well. In the end it’s nothing but violent, stupid, closeted homoeroticism with a soft porn soundtrack.

Not far behind it is another Danish film, the winner of this year’s Oscar for best foreign film. In a Better World is bristling with good intentions but ends up being as patronising as those images you get in the so-called developed world of starving, big-eyed black children. They need your help because that is all Africa is: a victim. Conversely, it has spectacular scenery. But don’t think ordinary people live there, not on your Nelly Mandela.

Someone had a similar sense of humour to Danish auteur Lars von Trier when s/he let Melancholia open two days before Christmas. Von Trier hates America so much that he uses American actors to say so. Obviously names like Kirsten Dunst and Kiefer Sutherland might attract some existential Yanks to the cinema - ie encourage sales - because the story certainly won’t. Lightened to an extent by some droll humour, like a stretch limo getting stuck on a narrow road on an exclusive golf estate, Von Trier is still on his philosophically shaky thesis that all people are evil, which he doesn’t bother to explain or argue. By the way, that planet heading towards Earth is going to destroy it, and duly does. Followed by the end credits.

If something is clearly rotten in the state of Denmark then Another Year seems to be saying that all is sexless sense and sensibility in the UK. Mike Leigh’s script was nominated for an Oscar and lost to the s-s-s-stuttering one with its closeted Nazi sympathies. But for all its realistic speech it still ends up being a crashing, middle-aged bore.

The first real Facebook movie was Catfish and people either thought it was the movie Hitchcock would have made or a massive con. Manipulating us into believing that we were watching a thriller unfold, it ended up being the story of some lonely soul out in the back of beyond. It was a massive con.

You get children’s movies that are just for children and some that include adults - like Horton Hears a Who! - and some that use an adult sensibility to patronise children. Rango falls into the latter category. Full of its own cleverness, it makes jokes about writing screenplays and probing prostates, as if children really know or give a damn about such things. Great animation, lousy story.

Riddled with every conceivable ballet cliché – narcissism, lesbianism, controlling mothers and teachers - Black Swan will probably end up being a camp classic.

Certified Copy has a married couple talking in Tuscany and then talking some more and, because it was made by an Iranian auteur, it’s supposed to be art but it was actually quite boring.

The Bang Bang Club failed to frame (sorry) three of its four South African photographers and their picture editor and tried too hard to cover too much ground. But at the very least that country's history is being engaged - however skewly.

Australian artist and Jane Campion protégé Julia Leigh's Sleeping Beauty  touched on all kinds of interesting feminist issues in a novel, even memorable way but failed to distil any of them, which a film I failed to mention last week did. Though Emma Stone is miscast in The Help, it is still a powerful and necessary flick with great performances from Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer and Bryce Dallas Howard.

And on that positive note I hope you all have a happy New Year.

Neil Sonnekus

Thursday, December 22, 2011

A Very Good Year

1. The best movie of 2011 is, without a doubt, the Spanish masterpiece Biutiful.

In it, Javier Bardem plays a man who lives in Barcelona with its incomplete cathedral, the Sagrada Familia, and that is what he is and has. Like all of us, he isn’t perfect or complete. Professionally he is an agent for illegal labourers, but he is dying, his ex-wife has mental health issues, so how are their two young children going to cope?

Then he still has African clients who are suffering European racism and, just to crown it all, he helps bring a catastrophe upon his Chinese clients. Woven into this is his part-time calling of helping the dead communicate their last wishes with their loved ones.

Biutiful also wins because Africans are not portrayed as victims or perpetrators but as human beings who are as capable of making moral choices as everybody else. Out of this long, complex, working-class struggle rises a film that ends up deeply deserving of its title.

2. More upbeat and equally as uplifting is The Fighter, which should have got much more than its two Oscars for best supporting actors. If Melissa Leo as the hard-as-nails mother and Christian Bale as her drug-taking former boxing champion son deserved their statuettes, then so did David O. Russell for directing, Mark Wahlberg for acting and producing, as did Amy Adams for playing a passionate young barmaid. The Fighter also wins because it is American cinema at its best. It is direct, pacy and very entertaining.

3. Third on the list is the darkest of this year’s movies and, again, it is rooted in reality. A Lebanese-Canadian woman leaves a simple will for her twin children, which leads them from the cold and damp First World to the sunny but depraved Middle East. Incendies is a harrowing film that doesn’t indulge its horror, nor does it pull its punches. Like a Greek tragedy, it has a cleansing, purging effect, and the only reason why it wouldn’t have beaten Biutiful for best foreign film Oscar – if I’d been a judge - is because it isn’t quite as universal. In the end neither of these two brilliant movies won; instead the honours went to some well-meaning nonsense that will be on next week’s Worst Movies of the Year.

4. A South African acquaintance of mine said this has been a bad year for movies, but I beg to differ. There have been such good films that I’ve got 15 good movies and then I'm going to put quite a few of them into one category for fourth place. Documentaries.

There were the excellent biographies on ex-Beatle George Harrison, racing driver Ayrton Senna, and comedians Joan Rivers and the New Zealander Billy T. Anyone who wants a quick and entertaining introduction to this country could do worse than to see the latter and realise that all is not quite cricket (or rugby) here. Then there was the other local doco Brother Number One, which dealt with a Kiwi confronting what one of Pol Pot’s henchmen did to his brother in Cambodia. It is directed with a steady hand about a very painful subject. And lastly, The Insider showed us how a bunch of Wall Street suits screwed the global economy and fully deserved its Oscar. They, of course, are still fully employed.

5. Still working purely from memory, a tiny film called Cairo Time sat staring at me on the DVD shelf for a long time before the delectable Patricia Clarkson persuaded me to have a look. This minute story, set in the titular city before Tahrir Square leapt into the world’s consciousness, is so beautifully simple that I am as much in awe of it as visitors are to the pyramids. Egyptian-Canadian director Ruba Nadda has done a fine job of showing how West and Middle East don’t just clash but, more importantly, end up falling for each other. Big time.

6. Another uncompromising film was Never Let Me Go, the scary story by Anglo-Japanese writer Kazuo Ishiguro in which children are bred for the sole purpose of becoming organ donors. If its dystopian world is not entirely convincing, then its premise (in a world of seven billion people, and counting) is horribly prophetic. Also, I finally believed Keira Knightley can act. And how.

7. The Debt was marketed as a Nazi-hunting movie but turned out to be as much about Jews' persecution in the past as Israel's very troubled present. It is also a taut, sexy thriller that is rightly caustic about such dangerous creatures as patriotism.

8. Comedies were few and far between and Woody Allen’s latest offering might have won if it didn’t have Owen Wilson whining his way through it, but down in distant New Zealand there was a film called My Wedding and Other Secrets. Featuring a beanpole of a white boy falling for a tiny (but infinitely tough and resourceful) Chinese girl, and vice versa, the film deals with the very topical themes of migration and the meeting of cultures, but it does so with something lacking in most movies these days. That is, charm.

9. Another small movie with a beautifully ageing actress in it was Copacabana, which I saw because I missed something else and because Isabelle Huppert was in it. Turns out to be a funny look at just how hard and shitty the real Europe can be, whether towards migrants or – in this case – its own. It’s one of those tiny films that just won’t leave you alone.

10. Nicole Kidman fought long and hard to make Rabbit Hole, about a couple losing their child, probably because her character doesn’t resort to religion to ease her considerable pain. In fact, she takes a rather strong anti-God stance, and the world is still turning. Also, her husband gets stoned and laughs out loud at someone else's grief. Edgy stuff in seemingly perfect suburbia. But it’s how the story is revealed that is as intriguing as anything else.

11. Two men working at a polar weather station doesn’t sound like much fun, but this slow Russian thriller works a treat as the older and younger men play out their real game of chess against a landscape that is wildly beautiful, and dangerous. How I Ended This Summer is about just that – the endgame.

12. This year’s Oscar entry from New Zealand is set in Samoa. Its hero is a dwarf who took in a woman who became pregnant and, instead of aborting her daughter, fled her village and family. Full of sensual imagery, The Orator is not Hollywood’s idea of the South Pacific being peopled by friendly, dancing natives. Life is as hard here as anywhere else but it has its own rules, one of which is that debates (in Samoan) can be waged in the village square, as I’ve seen in films from places as far away as Senegal.

When the kind but surly Saili’s wife’s corpse is effectively abducted to be buried in her home village for purely superstitious reasons, he has to speak his mind and show his true feelings. In this showdown it is not about who can draw their pistols the fastest, it’s who can present the most morally persuasive argument.

13. Robert Duvall is another independent-minded actor/producer who brought us a backwoods tale about an old curmudgeon who sticks to a principle that is way out of date, but we cannot but help admire him for sticking to it. Get Low is a gem.

14. It may be a B-grade movie, but Machete is not just about breast, blood and bullet counts. It’s also dealing with the issue of drug running across the US/Mexico border, and it’s so well put together that any student of film would do well to study it.

15. Finally, the last movie of the year is not a movie but a TV series with at least one big-name movie star in it. If Downton Abbey started out promisingly, then it was starting to resemble Dallas in a Castle half way through the second season. But it’s impossible to believe that if The Borgias has a second season it’ll go that way. Firstly, it’s written and executive produced by master storyteller/filmmaker Neil Jordan; secondly, one suspects the subject matter lends itself to many more real and very bloody intrigues. All of which would be nought if the whole thing wasn’t being commandeered by Jeremy Irons, magnificently depraved as Pope Alexander Vl.

Bad year at the movies (and on the box)? I think not.

Neil Sonnekus

* Next week, the worst movies of the year, three of them by Danes!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Drive(l) and Divinity

The theme of this week’s two movies is racing cars.

Let’s first get the rubbish out of the way. A whole lot of boys, who really should know better, are getting a hard-on about Drive.

It has been called brilliant, which has become a meaningless word, and intelligent, which is laughable. Actually, it’s the biggest load of homoerotic hooey I’ve seen in a long time.

Danish-born director Nicholas Winding Refn is on record for saying that “the thing with Ryan [Gosling], you can look at him for hours.”

I beg to differ. After about the third searching shot of Gosling’s sculpted and toothpicked visage sitting in a car, moving or not, it was quite clear that Refn, apart from his self-delusion that we all like looking endlessly at Gosling as he clearly does, was trying to make up screen time.

Someone should have reminded him that the man can actually act, as in Blue Valentine, not just pose. But Refn is clearly trying to create The Man With No Name for the 21st century, and he fails. Dismally.

Then there is the love interest. Carey Mulligan is the woman who has a child and lives next door. Her husband is in jail, like all Latinos clearly should be, and her and Gosling’s White Anglo-Saxon Paths will cross.

Here’s an example of an exchange between them. He is sitting on a windowsill with the city behind him and the light lovingly caressing his sculpted features: He: “I’m not doing anything this weekend.”

A long pause ensues in which more screen time is filled to the accompaniment of what can only be described as soft porn music. “If you want to do something,” he finally continues.

Mulligan, who has become somewhat typecast as playing the straight who either goes over to the other side but mostly yearns for it, stares at him. And smiles. For a long time.

The funniest scene is where they’re in a lift with another man, a seriously dangerous looking individual. He’s packing heat, as they say. But this is the moment where Gosling decides he’s going to give Mulligan that kiss that’s been brewing between them for a very, very long screen time.

They have their kiss, which is admittedly quite a good snog - even if it’s in the wrong context - and then he beats the man to a bloody pulp.

But wait. This is supposed to be a film about driving. I am not a big car and racing fan, but there isn’t all that much of it here anyway. Hell, the Bourne chases are, in my limited opinion, way superior. Or is it about the precious male drive to protect women and children at all costs? Ho-hum.

Somehow it doesn’t surprise me that Refn has failed his driver’s licence eight times and doesn’t drive himself. This is clearly his rather infantile way of expressing his frustration.

But there is one good thing he did in this film: Albert Brooks makes a truly scary thug, which renders Gosling’s reaction to this razor fiend all the more puzzling. Why turn your back on the man who’s handiwork you’ve just witnessed?

Intelligent? My arse.


To reiterate, I am not much of a car or racing fan, but I do like a good drama and that is what Senna is, documentary or not.

In fact, it has its own special brilliance that doesn’t require you to be a fan of either at all.

Why is this? Assembled entirely of found footage and a few voice-over interviews, the makers of this film have put together a universal drama of clashing types.

On the one hand you have the French rationalist, the political player, the survivor, Alain Prost. On the other you have the divine genius, the religious national hero of Brazil, Ayrton Senna.

Towards the end of the movie I felt on edge every time a race and a date came up, knowing the man was going to die, but not knowing when.

In fact, the film is so cleverly put together that it manages to “capture” Senna’s unease in the cockpit just before he’s about to have that fatal, almost Christ-like crash.

What glues it all together, of course, is that seriously neglected aspect of film, its music. The score by Antonio Pinto does a great job filling in all the blank spaces in that very special Brazilian way.

Strangely, in last week’s documentary on George Harrison there was a description of racing by Jackie Stewart which really gives an insight into the sport. He said racing would heighten his senses to such an extent that once he approached a corner, smelled grass and knew there’d been an accident and that he had to be careful - at about 250km/h!

After seeing Senna I drove to see that other piece of junk in the genius's winning weather, the rain, and felt the sensual thrill of driving a car again. It really is a great movie.

Neil Sonnekus

* Next week, the best movies of the year.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Within You & Without You

The woman in the DVD store reckoned that the reason why the George Harrison doco by Martin Scorsese was out so quickly was that it wouldn’t be such a popular film; it must have gone directly to the shelf.

She, for example, wasn’t a Beatles fan. I was gobsmacked. She wasn’t much younger than me and my children weren’t the only ones who liked the Beatles: quite a few of my friends’ children had also taken to those tunes like proverbial ducks.

I felt like asking her whether she hated music or speaking English – so integral I’d mistakenly thought the Beatles were to both - but kept my mouth shut for the sake of each to her own and all that.

The only other small problem I foresaw was that I hadn’t liked Scorsese’s film on Bob Dylan, which I’d found static and dry, or the Rolling Stones, which was just a recording of a live concert or two.

But none of that is evident here. The youngest and quietest Beatle gets a proper treatment which, at over 200 minutes, doesn’t feel long at all. Using previously unused footage and photographs, and cobbling them together with existing interviews and some of his own, including one with the weird and now imprisoned Phil Spector, Scorsese persuades at least this reviewer that Harrison wasn’t just a wishy-washy “spiritualist” but was genuinely grounded in his beliefs.

And that’s only one aspect of a man who produced some great films like Time Bandits, loved gardening, motor racing (world champion Jacky Stewart’s testimony to his friend is very touching), and wrote some of the most memorable and sung songs, like Something, ever. Among others.

One reviewer called Harrison the third-most talented after Lennon and McCartney, which is like saying Beethoven was the third-most talented after Mozart and Bach.

If a song like Got My Mind Set On You is a glaring omission, probably because it wasn't written by Harrison, Living in the Material World is still a great film and slice of history. It had me walking around in a daze and liking people I was convinced I never would. It also left me grateful that I could grow up - and younger - with the likes of George Harrison.

Neil Sonnekus

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Laughter and Bleakness

Teenagers, according to the October edition of National Geographic, will do almost anything to impress their peers, including risk their lives.

This we know, but the reason proffered is that they’re investing in their future. After all, they’re going to spend more time with their friends as time goes by than with their parents.

Come to think of it, they already do. Home is where they eat, sleep, facebook (v.) and get their washing done.

So when Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts) wants to keep his parents’ little nuclear family unit intact in a small Welsh town, it’s not so much out of love as self-interest.

Hell, home does have its uses. You can, for example, lose your virginity there while mum is giving her New Age ex a handjob on the beach.

Dad (Noah Taylor) is a marine scientist who is as excitable as those squids in which he takes such a keen interest. Ma is all submerged Eighties passion and played by Sally Hawkins, who could act a soup can and make it interesting.

If the plot of Submarine is predictable (boy meets girl, loses girl, gets girl back) then it is done with typically quirky Anglo understatement that is, initially anyway, very funny. But after a while I started sensing an older (sensitive, self-deprecating) writer behind this teenage wannabe intellectual.

And really, how many more of these do we have to endure? Could we stop having so much of this parochial me stuff (the film is executive produced by Ben Stiller) and a little more teen spirit? A little more revolution?


If you hadn’t heard of the German choreographer Pina Bausch (I hadn't) then you’ve probably heard of Wim Wenders (if you’re over a certain age and/or of a certain disposition). Wenders, of course, is the maker of the masterful Buena Vista Social Club.

Bausch, who died in 2009 at 68, tried to find new ways of expressing oneself through dance, much as Wenders et al tried to find new ways of telling stories that didn’t reflect the above, very Americanised, plot.

Her work is quite obsessive, quite grim, occasionally joyous, but never predictable. Nor is it fashionably anti-male, though the one dance in which a group of men grope a woman on every part of her body except her privates makes the metaphor of rape perfectly clear. If she loved men deeply it doesn’t mean she was blind to their faults.

Wenders has taken the dances public: they are no longer confined to the Wuppertal Tanztheater, which Bausch ran, though she might have taken the dances on to the streets as well. So you can see a beautiful dance take place at a quarry, beneath a monorail or in a glass hall in a forest to some very interesting music.

When the dancers talk about Bausch we hear what they say and see them reacting to what they’re saying, which has a rather interesting effect.

Pina is a slightly long documentary, but it is never boring. If it lacks humour then it is still a celebration of that thing which happens between men and women, and it shows us that Bausch did so with a constantly questing, unflinching honesty.

Neil Sonnekus

Friday, November 18, 2011

Replaying Old Debts

The Debt has been marketed as a Nazi-hunting thriller, which has been done quite a few times before, sometimes good, often bad.

But it’s got the likes of Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkinson and Ciaran Hinds in it, the latter once again playing a doomed Mossad agent as he did in Munich.

Furthermore, the film is a remake and even the trailer for the remake of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo looked pretty pointless, the titular “girl” looking completely wrong compared with the real “thing”.

But this is a remake of an Israeli film, Ha-Hov, which is unusual, and it’s directed by John Madden, who is not exactly a lightweight, whatever one might think of films like Shakespeare in Love and Mrs Brown.

Moreover, it has three very interesting (and attractive) new actors in it, Californian Jessica Chastain, Kiwi Martin Csokas and Australian Sam Worthington as the younger versions of the more senior actors above.

What’s it all about? Back in the mid-Sixties three Mossad agents tried to abduct a Nazi from East Berlin and take him to Israel to stand trial. In the present the one agent’s daughter has published a book on that heroic episode and is very proud of her mother, Rachel (Mirren).

But it’s not quite as cut and dried as that. Switching back and forth between two eras, one of the things the film effectively shows is how passion, beauty and ideals can fade into bitter, recriminatory middle age, as symbolized - among others - by the angry scar on Rachel’s face.

The three younger actors do a brilliant job of playing agents holed up in an apartment in communist East Germany, looking after their Nazi captive. The paranoia and sexual tension is palpable and the horrible truth is that they have become their captive’s captives, which he milks to its violent extreme.

The beauty of the story is that its marketing will have attracted many of those who might want to see a very watchable, sensual but safe historical thriller. They might be in for a surprise, for with Biblical simplicity and ingenuity The Debt is not so much about redressing past injustices perpetrated against Jews as it is a sobering allegory on Israel’s very troubled present.

Neil Sonnekus

Friday, November 11, 2011

Do Not Touch

Steven Soderbergh is a producer’s dream: he brings his movies in on time and budget.

He makes films like the commercially successful Ocean’s franchise and in turn makes more arty film like Kafka, which I haven’t seen, and The Limey, which I did. It sank like a stone, but that’s probably because it’s a very intelligent meditation on revenge, using some intriguing editing techniques.

The man is clearly no fool. Hell, some of his movies even manage to combine commerce and message, as in the “iconic” Erin Brockovich, which had a nice feminist and topical public health angle to it.

And now there is Contagion, which tries to combine the latter two films, and some. Marketed as a thriller, it is also an industrial flick, which shows us just how a disease spreads. And it's a music video - to keep the beat going for that long, initial section where people all over the globe are attacked by this invisible thing and not much dialogue is required.

Borrowing heavily from Hitchcock, le directeur also quickly dispatches of a heavyweight leading lady or two, in one case showing us just how pretty - Cronenburg-like - the inner flap of her skull might be. One woman in the cinema almost choked on the popcorn she was so loudly munching, which kind of made up for the loss of an actress who has a very sexy voice and is married to a singer from a terrible band.

Anyway, if Matt Damon plays the new Mr Reliable after the semi-retirement of Harrison Ford, then he isn’t really given much with which to work and the hero of the story is, refreshingly, an unassuming scientist. Jennifer Ehle plays her quiet character to perfection – and she doesn’t have much to work with either.

This is the second time Soderbergh has worked with Damon and writer Scott Z. Burns; their previous outing was The Informant! a slow, droll corporate comedy that involved a lot of cellphone calls and meetings in boardrooms. So too this film, which becomes a little boring after a while, even if it is only a very considerate 106 minutes long.

But we persevere because Oscar Wilde said the next war would be fought with test tubes, even though the film’s premise is paradoxical. On the one hand it’s saying we must be very, very afraid of who and what we touch, on the other it doesn’t want to freak us out too much, so it shows us how clever and brave one scientist (working in America, of course) is.

If the virus were to continue its trajectory it would wipe out about 70 million people, which is a lot, but nothing if you think that we’ve just reached the 7 billion mark. And who’s the antagonist here anyway? The virus? The somewhat nutty blogger (Jude Law doing a kind of crytpo-Julian Assange number), saying it’s a conspiracy, it’s just the pharmaceutical companies trying to make more money? The companies themselves?

No, dear friends. We in the West must get rid of all bugs, for they serve no purpose, and we really mustn’t touch those darned Chinese, whence all diseases come.

Neil Sonnekus

* Next week there will be a review of the exceptional The Debt, starring Helen Mirren, a passionately intelligent meditation on the nature of revenge and lies in the troubled land of Israel.

** The photograph above is not from Contagion but from the TV series Downton Abbey. Early-20th century England suddenly became postmodern New Zealand. The photograph was taken with my cellphone off the TV set. Series three has already been commissioned.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Whining and Dining

Film, by its very plastic nature, lends itself to playing with the space/time continuum.

It can jump from one era or reality to another just like we can believe that someone closing their front door at home and then walking into their office across town is continuous because all the stuff in between is superfluous, boring and implicit anyway

There have been some very good and many abominable films playing with these elements. One that truly milks the medium intelligently is David Cronenburg’s eXistenZ, in which one soon has no idea what is “real” and what is video game anymore – and that’s only one of the reasons why it’s good.

On the other hand, you have something like the horrendous Déjà Vu in which Denzel Washington as an FBI agent travels back in time to save a woman and, of course, falls in love with her - without the slightest hint of irony.

Someone had to send all of this up and who else but Woody Allen, who might well have found his alter ego in the pouting Owen Wilson. If the two don’t exactly look like each other (across the space/time continuum), they do have about the same pitch when they whine - and does Wilson's Gil whine in Midnight in Paris.

Then again, he does have plenty to whinge about. First of all, he’s a successful Hollywood scriptwriter, which is enough to depress anyone. Secondly, he’s got a bad novel with which he’s stuck. But he has a beautiful fiancée, Inez (Rachel McAdam). On the other hand, her parents, who they’re accompanying to Paris, are rabid Republicans.

Then, just to crown everything, they bump into Inez’s professor friend Paul (Michael Sheen) and his virtually mute wife. Like so many academics, the man’s not only in love with his own voice, he also thinks all the world’s a lecture hall.

So you can’t exactly blame Gil for being bored, irritated and restless. He wants, not quite as convincingly as his writer/director perhaps, to stop being an American. He wants to experience Paris for itself, not through the brash, daytime eyes of an American.

The main character here, of course, is the city itself. This is not a Paris with any social problems, though the American ones are rattled off by Paul, lest Allen be accused of having no social conscience whatsoever. But it is a perfectly convincing ode to a city, a love song whose premise is that the city is more durable and magical than its problems.

It is, as Gil says, quoting Ernest Hemingway, a moveable feast - and this is where most critics stop discussing the plot because Gil’s discontent with the present is so profound that he ends up, seamlessly, in the Paris of the 1920s!

That “really” is the young Hemingway, played very convincingly by Corey Stoll, drinking wine and talking about death without adjectives. They’re all there. Scott and the insecure, talented and suicidal Zelda (Fitzgerald). Cole (Porter). Gertrude (Stein). Pablo (Picasso). Among others.

And Gil, dressed in the usual writer’s uniform of ill-fitting trousers, a dull tie and check jacket in 2010, fits perfectly into the era!

Allen is clearly tired of everything that America or American film stands for, and if his Christina Vicky Barcelona was laced with Hispano clichés, then his praise song to Paris is laced with much better ones.

Carla Bruni does a perfectly natural tour guide and Lea Seydoux as a young shop assistant oozes unassuming charm. So, not only can the old guy still make a gently funny film with not a drop of overt violence or invective in it, but having removed himself from the equation he finally makes his women – and their city of light - glow.

Neil Sonnekus

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Not Just Anybody's Help

If racism is a male invention, then one of the strengths of The Help lies in showing how that construct suits certain sections of the so-called opposite sex too.

White madams like Bryce Dallas Howard’s Hilly might allow maids like Octavia Spencer’s Minny to effectively rear their precious white babies, but the latter still have to use “separate but equal” toilets. In fact, the former has one specially built for her maid, typically expecting gratitude into the bargain.

Their performances, too, are nothing short of spot-on. This goes for 99% of the cast.

As a South African, of course, this is strikingly familiar. All the shades are there in this film which doesn’t feel long, though it is well over two hours; or for women only, though it mainly concerns women and most of the men are either ineffectual or insignificant.

The vastly under-utilised Sissy Spacek gives a wonderfully comic performance to lighten things up occasionally, while Viola Davis gives a seering performance as Abilene who, like most African domestic workers, can’t help loving the spoilt white brats she helps through their most important years. That her son was killed in a racist attack when he was 24 haunts every pore of her performance.

Some may say that this is American history and there are other issues that need addressing, but it’s a problem that is as alive today in South Africa as it is for, say, Philippinas in Saudi Arabia.

My only reservation is with the very watchable Emma Stone’s Skeeter and her back story, in which her mother (Charlotte Phelan) fired a loyal maid (Cicely Tyson) who had effectively been Skeeter's real mother. Skeeter's mother had done so to save face in front of some women’s association friends, and she did it in front of the old maid’s daughter.

When Skeeter finally confronts her mother about this painful incident and wants to make amends to the woman, she discovers that old Constantine Jefferson has died in the very meantime. It’s all very contrite and made up among the white mother and daughter, but no repairs are made to the maid’s daughter, who witnessed that humiliation. A single sentence would have repaired that damage.

Lastly, if Stone took to her role of schoolyard "hussy" in Easy A like a fish to water, then she seems a little out of her depth here. She looks a little too Seventies Romance Illustrated with her shaggy red curls as opposed to a Sixties young woman who is slowly becoming aware of - and doing something about - a social injustice.

She does all the right things by starting to record these women’s painful experiences and sharing her royalties with them, but she seems emotionally quite removed from the whole business. She seems much clearer about what she thinks of Southern men than just how committed she is to the women she has anonymously immortalised.

Even at the end she doesn’t seem terribly convinced that she will stay with them and is easily persuaded to not do so. She is given an oblique camera angle and she doesn’t even hug these women who have, at great risk, bared their souls to her.

If the film was trying to make a point about certain kinds of ambitious writers or liberals, whose concern is directly proportional to their distance from the problem, then it would have been fine. But one would have somehow expected more warmth here, more fire.


New Zealand has won the Rugby World Cup for a second time, at home, and everyone’s in a bit of a daze. People and the media seem reluctant to let it go, the former by still flying their tired flags on their cars and porches, the latter by squeezing every bit of mileage out of it that they can.

It’s all deserved, of course, what with most visitors having had a wonderful time. But the curious thing about the media is that every time they so desperately zoomed in on a potential hero, the poor bugger got injured.

First it was Dan Carter (aka Jesus), then his replacement, Colin Slade, then his replacement, cancer survivor Aaron Cruden, until last choice Stephen Donald had to come on in the final and – much to his surprise - kick the winning penalty.

Thank God (aka Richie McCaw) the captain's foot and gouged eye held out. Had he and the boys failed, who knows how many Pacific women would have had bruised eyes too?


Also on our screens at the moment are two addictive series. Season two of Downton Abbey has arrived with Dame Maggie Smith saying everything everybody else thinks, as has The Borgias, starring a magnificently depraved Jeremy Irons as Pope Alexander, the head of “the original crime family”.

The tagline says it all: Sex. Power. Murder. Amen. And it feels so much more authentic than The Tudors, dripping as it does with the blood and ideas of 15th century Italy, which gave birth to the likes of the fiery Savonarola (Steven Berkoff) and astute Niccolo Machiavelli (Julian Bleach).

But then it’s written and executive produced by that master Irish-Catholic storyteller, Neil Jordan, and you can't get much better than that, can you?

Neil Sonnekus

Friday, October 21, 2011

Cussing Comedy

Two offbeat DVD movies this week.

The first, I Love You Phillip Morris, involves a straight American cop who is everything but straight. Not only is he gay but he’s also crooked, which certain quarters would say is the same thing.

I do not know the ideological arguments of two straight men playing gays, portrayed by Jim Carrey and Ewan McGregor, but from where I stand they seem to do an excellent job.

In fact, if there was ever an argument to remake Some Like It Hot, producers need look no further than these two fine actors.

Carrey’s cop is just camp enough when he’s straight to indicate that he might be closeted, while McGregor gives his Phillip a recognizable kind of steely delicacy someone like Carrey’s Steven might fall for.

Directed by John Requa and Glenn Ficarra, who wrote another subversive delight, Bad Santa, the film takes its digs at everything that gets in its exuberant protagonist’s way. Christians, lawyers, criminals (the lines blur), you name it. Nothing is spared, not even dying of Aids.

So, a love story of a very special kind. Steven’s love may be blind but at least it’s passionate and inventive - and there’s always a price to pay for that. 

Not quite as slick but still as tongue in cheek and entertaining is Paul, starring an established comic duo, English actors Simon Pegg and Nick Frost.

They will do such very unEnglish things as attend a sci-fi convention in America and then travel to the country’s UFO heartland. The last thing they really expect is to run into a real alien, especially one that is sassy, has a paunch, smokes pot and has superpowers.

Christians get a much rougher treatment by way of convert to cussing Kristen Wiig, which is another thing these two films have in common: an almost depressing amount of swearing.

Neil Sonnekus

Thursday, October 13, 2011

From Miserable to Magical

This week I watched two DVDs about that one thing Hollywood generally avoids like the plague: middle-aged life.

Such people, of course, also have lives and loves. Hell, sometimes they even have sex.

The one film is much lauded and really bad. The other is much less awarded but quietly brilliant. Let’s get the former out of the way as soon as possible.

The script for Mike Leigh’s Another Year was nominated for an Oscar and the film got a special mention at Cannes. It should have got the Dorothy Parker treatment. That is, it shouldn’t have been tossed aside lightly. It should have been hurled across the room with great force.

Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen) are quietly happy and content. Their names are probably a gentle dig at Hollywood cartoons, but that’s the least of the film’s irritations.

He’s a geological engineer and she’s a therapist. Their son is a lawyer for the under-privileged. Oh, and they have a black friend too. She’s a doctor. All very cozy, very correct, very middle class.

Tom and Gerri are all cuddles, quiet contentment and endless patience as they work on their allotment in London in their spare time, but they seem to be living in a bubble. There is no news of the outside world in their lives - not regional, national or international. They do not discuss that outside world whatsoever, and they either have perfect sex or, perhaps being British, are happy not to have it all.

Whatever the case, there is not even the slightest smidgen of tension between them, whether sexual, social or familial. Perhaps this is Leigh’s attempt at celebrating the great and alleged sense and sensibility of being English.  

But Tom and Gerri are surrounded by human miseries. One of their best friends and certainly the most frequent one is a woman who works with Ruth. Mary, the deservedly lauded Lesley Mandeville, is one of those neurotics who is so self-obsessed that she undermines her own natural beauty.

We are subjected to the endless minutiae of her dull, uptight existence. She’s in her forties and life is rapidly slipping by. It’s a very astute portrait of such a type but by emphasizing it at the end Leigh is either condemning her or saying we should all try to be like Tom and Gerri, who mysteriously don’t spend any time on screen with people of their own social and professional standing.

If that is the case then they are not merely tolerant of all the struggling miscreants around them, they’re just unbelievably good – or intensely patronising - souls.

Another Year makes the occasional attempt at comedy but it isn’t funny and Chekhov was much, much better at this kind of existential farce. Nor is it the realism Leigh is supposed to be a master at – it’s Britain with its head right up its own deluded, white, liberal arse.


By contrast, Cairo Time stars one of the sexiest women on the planet, Patricia Clarkson. At the “ripe old” age of 51 this American actress isn’t sexy because she looks so much younger than her age but because she’s so confident and strong in her age.

Her wide mouth, corn-coloured hair and calm confidence express an American generosity that certainly echoes a more golden age of that country, let alone its film industry. But if the likes of Marilyn Monroe represented a tragic glamour, Clarkson represents a real, up-to-the-minute one.

Here she plays Juliette, the wife of a United Nations official, who is going to meet her husband for a holiday in Cairo. But he gets stuck in Gaza and asks his assistant, Tareq (Sudanese-born Alexander Siddig), to keep her company and, well, blonde West meets swarthy Middle East.

There are all kinds of tensions in the air. She finds it difficult to comprehend the fact that men openly leer at her on the streets, though she is not entirely disgusted by the fact. So too the fact that there are men-only restaurants, that women wear burkas in that heat, that underage girls work on the kinds of carpets she nevertheless has at home.

In one very telling scene Tareq asks her how many hours a day she works on her women’s magazine. After admitting that she can work up to twelve hours a day in that work-obsessed country, he replies in that understated Afro-Arabic accent of his: “This does not sound like a good life.”

If she is represented by a slightly sentimental French piano soundtrack, he’s represented by that mesmerising Middle Eastern music that is shot through with sensuality and danger.

The big question, of course, is: are they going to have an affair or not? There is no hint that she and her husband are unhappy. If she and Tareq do have a sexual affair there are those who will call her liberated and others who will say if her husband did the same he’d be an adulterous bastard.

Like life in the Middle East, it’s all very tenuous, tense - and deeply erotic.

Though it has some negligible continuity mistakes and even less seems to happen in this film than in the aforementioned mess, Canadian director Ruba Nadda comes up with such a quiet, elegant solution to the “problem” of these two individuals that it might well leave you gasping at its powerful simplicity. 

It certainly made my week after the Springboks and their comical coach, Peter de Villiers, seen below right before the Samoa match and with rising star Pat Lambie practising in the background, were beaten by Australia and a New Zealand referee.

Neil Sonnekus

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Unsuitable Fellows

Since everything is so macho in New Zealand at the moment, I thought I’d take a look at two DVD thrillers.

The Lincoln Lawyer stars Matthew McConaughey as L.A. defence attorney Mick Haller who keeps people out of jail, mostly the innocent (his personalised number-plate is NTGUILTY) but not entirely.

In one case he’s actually got an innocent man into prison. That the man is Hispanic might say quite a lot about justice in that neck of the woods.

Coming into his galaxy is trouble in the guise of baby-faced millionaire estate agent Louis Roulet (Ryan Philippe). It’s the man’s profession that should have got Haller’s alarm bells ringing, but then he can’t turn down a client either.

Based on the eponymous Michael Connolly thriller, this is not a study on why the killer does what he (or she) does, it’s more about how slick Haller is at getting himself out of a tight situation.

Supported by the ever watchable Marisa Tomei as his ex-wife – she’s a prosecutor – and mother of their child, and the wonderfully craggy William H Macey, McConaughey doesn’t quite pull off the role.

This is because he looks a lot like Paul Newman but without the determined lower jaw and the wardrobe lady insists on dressing him in a suit that emphasises his shortness.

That is debut director Brad Furman’s fault in allowing bad angles and full-length shots to undermine his star, who is a very attractive man - from the waist up.

But at least this ex-music video director gets the retro opening sequence right with Ain’t No Love in the Heart of the City by Bobby Bland. It‘s the kind of song and sequence that promises much, like the beginning of To Live and Die in L.A., which does deliver.

But if your film is only memorable for its title sequence you’re in trouble.


The Hit List, starring Cuba Gooding Jr, also has a retro opening sequence, but it looks like - and is as dated as – an old James Bond flick's. Its accompanying song, 47 Ways to Die, is also pretty forgettable.

In fact, the only cliché the entire movie avoids – and it’s also at the beginning of the film - is the one of someone sitting up directly from a nightmare.

Gooding’s Jonas is obviously a troubled man, but he’s also fighting a wardrobe lady. She too will emphasise his shortness – and the fact that he’s growing a little sideways. This is not good.

But she was obviously trying to echo Tom Cruise’s slick grey number in Collateral, since it’s a similar kind of story and, again, it’s the director’s fault.

William Kaufman blows things further by casting Cole Hauser as the man who’s getting royally screwed by everyone and might therefore want them dead: the man evokes no sympathy whatsoever.

That he can still talk straight after five full glasses of Jack Daniel’s is also his director’s fault, just like spilling coffee on to his groin and ending up with a messy shirt top is.

Gooding does his best to elevate his role of an avenging angel, but there’s too much militating against him, even though he has one or two good lines like "the trigger's like a fast-forward button. I just skip to the end credits of other people's lives."

One wonders, though, having won an Oscar for best supporting actor in Jerry Maguire and effectively playing in B-grade movies ever since, how much subtext there is when he says somewhat bitterly: “Fame doesn’t make you invincible.”

Neil Sonnekus

Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Rugby Will Be Televised

The Rugby World Cup did not start very auspiciously for us.

My son and I tried to catch the local train to Party Central. The first one was full but we were told the next one was a mere five minutes behind it. It was, but it too was packed. So we went home and watched the opening ceremony on TV.

Then we rushed to a hill overlooking the city to watch the fireworks. The owner of the closest house had put a speaker out on his car roof so that we could all hear the commentary. There was a rather charming, old fashioned community feeling about the whole thing. My daughter was in her pyjamas.

When the commentator said the fireworks were an “orgy of colour” everyone burst out laughing. Kiwis, as a South African-born work coach told us, can hear the grass growing. Then we rushed home to watch the opening match, which was a crashing bore.

The next day I had to work in the city and thought I’d better take the train, since town would be jammed. I went an hour early, just in case, but the train was dead on time. "Town" was relatively quiet.

The government had stepped in and used its special powers to go over Auckland supercity mayor Len Brown’s bald head to ensure there wouldn’t be a transport problem again. If this were South Africa they would be accused of being unilateral racists, since they’re mostly white and he’s half Maori. Town was relatively quiet. So was Party Central. The long white cloud looked more like a mutant caterpillar.

Two weeks later my wife and I decided to take the train to town on our way to the big match between N’Zealand and France. If you had a match ticket you got free bus and train rides.

The train was punctual and the announcement matched what was happening. Auckland was bending over backwards to be efficient, and it was working

There was a good vibe on the train. The French fans were relaxed, but then they would be. We took the Fan Trail, which is a good 4.5km walk through the city.

Every restaurant, café and bar had a giant screen showing the match between England and someone else. The fine art and architectural faculties had installations in a park. They had drama students interacting with those installations in a way that Drama 101 students always seem required to do. They writhed.

People were sitting out in their front yards, having barbeques (bahbies, or braais) and drinks, exchanging pleasantries with the passers-by. Most houses were draped in flags, mostly of mixed loyalties. First the homeland, then the new land, New Zealand.

Quite a few French fans wore blue, white and red cocks on their heads. Others dressed up like musketeers or Vikings. They sang. They joked and flirted with the neon stewards, who were all over the place. They were incredibly friendly for people who were being paid nothing.

It was cold but a bunch of Frenchman wore grass skirts, skimpy bras, wigs and nothing else. They were carrying a banner that said Tahiti. Most of the All Blacks supporters wore black. Kiwis do this most of the time anyway.

Always one for the big occasion, I had a stomach bug. I drank water and Coke and couldn’t touch the tasty-looking sandwiches my wife had made, nor the dry wors (sausage) I had bought.

The feeling inside the newly refurbished Eden Park was amazing. The French were singing lustily and we had a seat behind one of the trylines. The seats were very narrow. My wife perved Dan Carter warming up on the field through the binoculars and I perved a French girl in the next row.

I offered the two Kiwis sitting next to us a stick of dry wors each. They politely said they’d share one. They ate it. A bit later they offered me the only beer we were allowed to drink, Heineken, which I had to decline.

“This [sausage] goes well with the beer,” the one said. “That's why it’s our national diet,” I replied.

The game was about to begin. After the anthems there was an electronic countdown on the big screen and the ref blew his whistle. The French attacked well for a while, but their backs ran at half speed. Unsurprisingly, they were smeared.

The first All Blacks try was scored right under our noses. After each score there was an electronic trumpet signal. “Ole!” everyone shouted. But then a lot of black cars with their multi-national flags look like bulls that have been pierced by banderillas.

During boring patches there were Mexican waves. This happened twice. After each referral to the video ref, electronic drums would beat dramatically, as if this were a Roman arena, care of Hollywood, awaiting Caesar’s thumbs up or down.

“All hail king Richard,” a wag said behind us, referring to Richie McCaw, also known as God, playing his 100th test match. The joker sounded like a local drunk.

Soon the French were trailing and every time their fans chanted “allez bleu” he responded, “nineteen-nil”. I looked around and saw a young, red-haired yuppie with his partner. He was probably a very quiet person in the week. Amazing how a bit of beer and crowd anonymity can bring out the joker in one.

Sitting directly behind my right ear was an older woman who clearly knew the rules of the game and kept on coming up with such quiet gems as: “Kill him. Kill him.”

The rest of the match happened so far away that I guiltily watched it on the big screen, trying not to think how much I’d spent on being at this game. Then it was over. We got out easily, passing rows upon rows of buses there to ferry fans wherever. We stepped on to the train and it pulled away. In town we did the same thing, all the while being guided by almost over-friendly officials. It was a relief to be home but I had to do this all over the next day.

It was raining cats and dogs, but my daughter and I caught the train anyway. It was packed with Samoan and Fiji fans. This was going to be the great inter-island war, I had reasoned. My daughter didn’t stop talking and giggling, but then fathers will forgive much, much more than that.

The train stopped at a distant outside platform, which meant we had to walk for about 15 minutes to catch the next train to Eden Park. But the supercity had laid on buses to take us that short distance. We decided to walk and I started thinking there was no way the city was going to make a profit like this.

The train took us to Eden Park and a Fijian brass band was plying Macarena on the street. The men wore sandals, white skirts, stiff blue military tops and white caps. They had a certain swagger to them that got heaps of applause. The rain kept on coming down.

We’d be sitting on the highest stand, held up by a complex of aluminum pipes. We had lunch under the stand, spoke to some South Africans. Amazing how little we had in common. I sat next to a Brazilian who only wore a short-sleeved shirt. He rumbled his feet and slapped his arms for the rest of the game to stay warm. Five young Fijian fans slid past us ten minutes into the game. They ranged from white to Indian to black. One of them had a deeply moronic laugh.

They would scarcely be sitting down before they’d leave again to buy a Heineken or snort a line in the toilets. Sitting this high up we could see better than sitting so low the night before. Pity the game was so boring. There were endless handling mistakes, so there were endless Mexican waves. Every time they approached us people rumbled their feet and I thought about the aluminum pipes.

The sun finally came out, the Brazilian thanked God, my daughter looked happy to have been there and we took a bus and then train back to our station.

Tonight my son and I are going to surprise our two Samoan relatives and take them to the Springboks-Samoa match. My family will be able to say we all attended the Rugby World Cup 2011 tournament.

After that I’m going to watch sport on the people’s medium: Maori TV.

Since most of its viewers are indigent they're showing all the games, free. I’ll be able to stretch my legs, drink the beer of my choice, save a lot of money, mute the commercials, laugh at my son's send-up of local accents and at least see the tries - in countless replays. 

Neil Sonnekus

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Somewhat Limited

What would you do if you were a down and out writer and were suddenly given a miracle drug that would unleash the other 80% of your brain you don’t use?

This is not a question Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper) loses much sleep about in Limitless (out on DVD).

When he gets the miracle drug, NZT, he does what most writers apparently would do. He starts trading with stocks and, like Faustus, seeks and gets power - in the form of money, cash, moola.

He doesn’t decide to become a Nobel-winning author or a philosopher, for example. He doesn’t try to solve the world’s moral or material problems. No, he becomes a trader. But then writers are such fickle creatures. Oh, he does also learn the piano and a couple of languages in a matter of days, so he’s not completely uncultured.

But if his girlfriend (Abbie Cornish) drops him because he is all blocked up, then she’s quick to take him back once he’s gone straight again. That is, rich. And what’s the next logical step for a man of wealth in the United States of America? Why, the White House of course.

If this broad summary sounds cynical then I’d like to add hastily that this is a very entertaining film too. Made by the highly imaginative writer/director Neil Burger (The Illusionist), the story has amazing visuals and effects to match Inception – and it’s less indulgent: it clips along at a good, thriller-like pace.

Burger also very cleverly changes the lighting when Morra is “on” as opposed to when he’s just a struggling hack, and there’s a great soundtrack to be heard.

Obviously drugs like NZT don’t come without snags and where there’s money to be made the worms will come out of the woodwork. This is what gives the film its tension and urgency, but it could have been a little more satirical about that handful of people on Wall Street who are, after all, screwing us so royally.


Across the Atlantic there is the “explosive thriller” Incendiary (also on DVD), starring Michelle Williams and Ewan McGregor.

Interestingly, Williams’ character doesn’t have a name, though the backside of her jeans tells us she’s a Sexy Mama. If this is chauvinistic then it’s of a very special kind, because the director is a woman.

Sharon Maguire spends much too much time establishing that there’s a special relationship between what the IMDB calls a Young Mother and The Boy. The first visuals of the two of them trying to outstare each other without blinking at bedtime is tender and more than enough. But other scenes carry on, though admittedly they also illustrate how lonely and isolated this woman is. But it all eats up time.

In her voice-over, Williams tells us she’s a typical chav, watches Top Gear and her and her family’s religion is Arsenal Football Club. Fair enough. Her husband does have a name for some reason. Lenny (Nicholas Gleaves) is a bomb disposal officer and “tense and remote” doesn’t even begin to describe what he’s like.

This leaves Williams on her own much of the time and she will start having an affair with the man, Jasper Black (McGregor), who lives across the road. He’s a journalist and drives an Aston Martin or something equally ostentatious, and he isn’t even an economics reporter or editor.

Anyway, in the middle of coitus the unthinkable happens: there’s a bomb explosion at an Arsenal vs Chelsea match her husband and child are attending.

That’s the explosive part of the film, and there’s no Russian connection, but there’s no thriller part either because director Maguire constantly dwells on the maddening pain of loss Williams is going through. That makes it a drama.

She now befriends the Muslim child of a suspected terrorist and, to cut a very long story short, she ends up in hospital for a second time, which becomes unintentionally funny.

Moreover, her shrink has told her to write letters to Osama bin Laden and we hear those in voiceover too. The final nail in the coffin of this film is when she tells the now late Bin Laden that if he could see her and Black’s newborn infidel his heart would soften.

Neil Sonnekus

* The photographs on this page were taken at the brilliantly refurbished Auckland Art Gallery and feature the works of South Korean artist Choi Jeong Hwa, among others. The installation on the right,  Flower Chandelier, “breathes”. Furthermore, there is a promised gift from American philanthropists Julian and Josie Robinson and features works by the likes of Picasso, Dali and Cezanne, among many others. But then it can’t be that important because, unlike the Rugby World Cup, entry is free.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Come back, Oliver Stone

Isn’t it strange how so many films about South Africa are made by non-indigenes or, failing that, South Africans who live abroad?

Why would this be? There’s a very simple reason for it. It’s because the National Film and Video Foundation is so busy playing politics and signing co-production agreements in five-star hotels at far-flung festivals overseas that, at the end of the day, very little of that money makes it on to the screen.

And if it does, the final product is usually a pile of politically correct crap.

Anything critical of the present order, like the uneven but powerful Jerusalema, is not going to get a blue farthing because, well, some fellow filmmakers and apparatchiks thought that, “objectively”, it didn’t warrant funding.

I have some personal experience of this. I submitted a script and was told that as a thriller it was “ridiculous”. The gatekeeper, apparently an Iranian-American, was right of course. It didn’t work as a thriller because it was actually a romantic comedy.

So the next best thing for a filmmaker to do is go and live abroad, which most of those who have any talent and money have done, where it’s difficult enough to raise funding for a film as it is.

Then, once they have achieved that and got some big names attached to product Struggle South Africa, they might get some local funding via the Department of Trade and Industry, which will then hasten to stipulate that it doesn’t necessarily agree with the contents of the product.

And so you get a film like The Bang Bang Club, based on the eponymous book by photographers Greg Marinovich and Joao Silva.

I have worked with two of the people depicted in this film and they’re not like they're shown at all, which needn’t be a problem but in this case it is. After all, this film is only “based” on a true story. The end credits assure us that all the characters in this film are fictitious, no doubt for legal reasons.

Marinovich, played by Ryan Philippe, in real life talks fast and walks fast. Maybe it has to do with the fact that if you stand still for too long in a war zone you might get killed, as he almost did – a few times.

But Philippe, who is not a bad actor at all, is directed to talk like what New Zealanders call a “Yarpie” (Japie). Obviously the accent is all over the place, which still needn’t be a problem, though Marinovich ends up looking and sounding more like another local photographer, who isn’t featured in the film anyway.

The next person to get a mauling is Robyn Comley, played by Malin Akerman, who is clearly in the film to provide a bit of female “colour”. As integral as she is to the boys in the “club”, she doesn’t get a postscript (she still works as a picture editor, at The Times in Johannesburg) and has more little devils running around in that blonde head of hers than Silver clearly can begin to imagine.

The point is, he is treading on hallowed territory and I’m not talking about South Africa or its townships. I’m talking about Oliver Stone turf. Say what you like about him, but a film like Salvador “captured” all the fear and madness of war and reporting on it that Bang Bang tries and generally fails to do.

But Silver does succeed in making the romantic depictions between Marinovich and Comley as cringe-worthy of Stone, who nevertheless was/is an expert at depicting contradictory male characters and could have had a field day here.

Silver has four mad glory boys here and fails 75% to delineate them and their private and professional lives. Two of the men are played by local actors, Frank Rautenbach and Neels van Jaarsveld, who still don’t work and I don’t think it’s their fault.

So this is not a let-South-Africans-be-played-by-South-Africans-and-death-to-all-foreigners argument, which is still very prevalent in certain circles there. Ken Oosterbroek (Rautenbach) is supposed to be the main victim of the club, yet he is not given enough background or build-up for us to pity him.

In fact, his fatal shooting is treated as secondary to Marinovich’s wound, which is crazy.

Silva (Van Jaarsveld) seems to tag along until the end, when he suddenly loses his cool, but again, no proper build-up to that moment. Presumably the film was already done by the time he lost both his legs in Afghanistan, because that is not mentioned in the postscript either.

Now, I didn’t know Kevin Carter, but Taylor Kitsch as the talented and morally confused photographer “captures” a little of the universal lunacy and confusion of the profession – even some dopey, Cape Town-like pretension. It’s far from a perfect role, but it does show some kind of vulnerability, some kind of humanity.

Yes, the film tries to address the ethics of clicking away while people are being killed, dying or dead, and yes it covers the territory of why should we care about four photographers' precious whites hides when black lives appear to be so much cheaper. But that should be actively implicit, not showing a red flag that it's trying to cover all bases.

Anyway, it was good to see Fiona Ramsay on screen and not just as having a voice-coach credit. She and Patrick Shai, Vusi Kunene and Russel Savadier, among others, prove that they don’t have to stand back for any international "stars" whatsoever.

So, a failure that succeeds in bringing a little more of South Africa’s troubled history to the world. Hell, one day that country might even succeed in doing so all by itself, but don’t hold your breath - especially not about the mess it's in at present.

Neil Sonnekus

Thursday, September 8, 2011

A Country - and Game - of Two Halves

New Zealanders are already quietly preparing themselves for their team’s dismal failure at this year’s Rugby World Cup.

Never mind the fact that they have the best team in the world - on paper and on the field - their loyal fans are privately getting ready to be as positive as possible about losing abysmally.

How does one know this? That reliable old crutch of a quiet day at the newsroom, the survey, proves it. About 450 children at one school in admittedly our largest city, Auckland, were asked whether they thought their team would win the William Webb Ellis trophy this time round. In that rather charming way that children have they said no.

They did add, however, that the All Blacks would get to the final, which really is no consolation at all. But because the survey said so it has to be universally true, even though we all know that 7.86 people out of a sample of 10 innately distrust surveys.

But there’s another thing that drives the Kiwis quietly insane. They know that, even if they do win the cup this year - and it’s a big if - they still won’t have proven much. They know that if they win that elusive trophy they will only have won it on home ground - just like the only other time they ever kissed it, back in the mists of 1987.

After all, their three biggest opponents, the Wallabies, the English and the Springboks have taken it on foreign soil. But not the Kiwis, haunted as they are by another fact: the Boks did not play in 1987. It is this “away” factor that torments the outer reaches of Kiwis’ overly decent dreams in a country whose largest export is not mutton, of course, but milk.

So what do New Zealand’s supporters do before they fall into a fitful, feverish sleep every night? Why, they pray, of course. Not on their knees or anything quite so demonstrative, but they pray nevertheless. What do they pray about? They pray that nothing will happen to their two iconic players, captain Richie McCaw and flyhalf Dan Carter.

So much hinges on these two top-notch but injury-prone athletes that a mere bruise to a ligament becomes national news, on all channels, as if they were real icons that have been damaged in a Romanian church by some deranged pornographer.

But there could be a Maori explanation for all of this. Might an absence of those ultra-cool tribal tattoos on these two gentlemen not be the real bad mana, karma, voodoo or spirit for the team? Quite possibly. How do we know that they don’t have any major tattoos? Because they’re always whipping off their clothes to advertise this deodorant or that refreshing sports drink on our TV screens and billboards, that’s why.

Whatever the case, most of the rugby fans here in tiny New Zealand will be waiting to see these giants of the game perform their awesome haka with their team-mates and hopefully not choke against the more brutish, aforementioned opponents - let alone those, no, let us rather not even mention the French and the nightmare of 2007.

That could only open a can of frogs’ legs.

But here they are, the French, and the Romanians. Everybody’s here now, even the Scots, who were the last to arrive. Was it because they really are tightfisted or because they’re being hosted in Invercargill, the town that is the furthest south and therefore the coldest and thus the most like home?

Whatever the case, they were so overwhelmed by the warm reception they got there, what with bagpipes blaring and open-faced children performing a welcoming haka, that they insisted on taking that area’s prize foodstuff – oysters – right off their menu.

Meanwhile, a Maori professor has said that all immigrants from South Africa, the UK and US should be denied entry because they’re racists. She has a point, of course, because there are some racists in Browns Bay, Auckland, but then there are lots of Saffers who get on better with Maoris than Pakehas (whites) for the simple reason that they’re more used to mixing with other races than the local Pakehas.

Professor Mutu also seems oblivious of the fact that plenty of Saffers here are not white: they’re Indian and Coloured. But she does have a point, just like someone would have a point that Maori men should be banned for bashing their babies, wives and partners, especially when their teams lose.

It’s a known fact that medical teams are actually on standby for this eventuality, but then I went up One Tree Hill with Haare Williams last Sunday, and I’ll bet my bottom dollar (if I still had one) that that poet, sage and leader has never touched a woman in anger in his life. 

Anyway, all of this just so happens to coincide with the Pacific Nations Forum, in which the environment and Fiji were top of the agenda. Maybe people are more tolerant of each other here because they have an enemy that is much greater than them. That's not China, but nature. Some of the islands are being threatened by rising oceanic levels and it must be quite hard to discriminate against others when you're drowning.

As for Fiji, sanctions will remain in place against this military-run island until it has democratic elections again. None of its players with military connections were allowed to enter the country and partake, so the last one resigned from his post a week before the finals so that he too could play. Would one be surprised to learn that he resumed his role after the tournament? Hell, yes.

Which brings us to tonight’s opening match between Tonga and N’Zealand, as Prime Minister John Key tends to pronounce it. The former country’s resident and visiting citizens take the prize for the most colourful and enthusiastic supporters so far. We’ve been promised a “physical” match, which comes as a great relief: imagine a psychic game of rugby, with millions just visualising the game.

Then again, it could become a great hit in, say, India.

Obviously there are split loyalties here, since this is a largely a country of immigrants. First you shout for your homeland, if you’re from elsewhere, then for New Zealand.

Or, if you’re a Kiwi you shout (and pray, and hope, and pray again) for New Zealand, and then for your country or island of origin, like the man whose entrance, with its Kiwi and Irish flags I photographed.

When I asked him if I could take a picture of it so that I could share it with my millions of readers worldwide, he responded with all the grace and generosity of this distant country’s people, even though he could hear I was a South African.

Then he rather tellingly added this proviso: “Just don’t win the Cup.”

Neil Sonnekus

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Funny Bones

Today’s two movies are comedies, but the one is a work of fiction and the other is a documentary.

The Guard has been compared with Martin McDonagh’s brilliant In Bruges because not only is it similar in tone, casting and structure, it’s also made by his brother, John Michael.

But is The Guard really as good as In Bruges, which has attained virtual cult status?

Well, no, which doesn’t mean it’s bad at all, but the latter had a great setting and a relationship between two men that was not only hilarious but also perfectly touching.

The Guard goes the gruff route, yet again starring Brendan Gleeson. This time he’s a provocative Irish cop who has to team up with an American agent, come all the way to Ireland to prevent a drug consignment from the States getting in.

Big white faux bigot and thin black American. For one, I struggled to hear everything that Gleeson was saying, so colloquial was it. Secondly, the sunny Tijuana music had an extremely tenuous connection with what was happening in overcast Eire, nor did it quite work as ironic counterpoint. Three, women once again don’t feature much, except as secondary characters, if that: Gleeson’s mum is dying and he consorts with prostitutes.

On the plus side it's a very cleverly plotted film, the dialogue is sharp - especially when delivered by Mark Strong's watchable, educated thug - and it's good to see Cheadle playing a hard-nosed character for a change. 


Much more complex and moving is the documentary Billy T: Te Movie.

Every country seems to produce its iconic joker and Billy T seems to have been it for New Zealand. When William James Te Wehi Taitoko started making waves it was still unusual to see a Maori on TV. People would talk about a once-off appearance for weeks afterwards. This was as recent as the mid-Seventies.

But the man was so talented he couldn’t be stopped. If a country like, say, South Africa, actively barred people from doing their thing because of their colour, then it was completely different in Aotearoa. It seems Maori were politely included and effectively neutralised.

Billy T’s joke of him being half Maori and half Scottish – “the one half of me wants to get pissed and the other half doesn’t want to pay” - is extremely telling. It takes a swipe at both parties’ ills but does so with what South Africa’s forced icon, Leon Schuster, lacks. That is, charm.

But that joke still sums up the friendly but uneasy relationship between an indigenous minority and a predominantly Scots-based majority, not to mention the yellow danger, at which Billy T's folksy character also takes very funny, un-PC swipes.

If only he could have stepped out of the screen and time and told the macho douche bag sitting next to me that he wasn't at a restaurant where he could talk at will: he was in a cinema.

The docco also explores that quality most highly successful entertainers seem to have. They’ve usually got sad backgrounds and their real family is the audience they feed off. Without that they’re dead, literally.

Director Ian Mune has done an affectionate and entertaining but comprehensive job of summing up an era, a massive talent and a friend.

Neil Sonnekus

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Fierce Hearts in Icy Climes

One of the similarities between today’s two movies is that they take place in isolated places.

The first, How I Ended This Summer, takes place on an island in the Arctic circle; the second, Ondine (out on DVD now), takes place in a remote Irish village.

Summer features two meteorologists, a senior and his junior, Gulybin (Sergei Puskepalis) and Davilov (Grigory Dobrygin), respectively. Their only connection to the outside world is a radio.

To say they are isolated and dwarfed by this hard, icy landscape doesn’t begin to explain it. Think of your index finger on your local cinema’s screen and you more or less have the scale.

Gulybin is a bear of a man, a boor and a bully. Davilov makes mistakes, he retreats behind his earphones and earring, and gets the odd smack when he makes wrong readings. So when he hears a bit of bad news about his boss, via the radio, he keeps it to himself. It’s the only power he’s got, and this simple omission gives the film its freezing tension.

The key to all of this is the pace. Nothing happens quickly in the Arctic wastes. The first third of the movie is all about their dull routine, but it’s fraught with expectation. Why, for example, doesn’t Davilov take a rifle with him when he goes outside? Does he not think there are real bears out there too? Or is he so bored, if not unhinged, already that he doesn’t care anymore?

Of course, a slow movie has to deliver the goods as much as a fast one has to. If the former has to reward our patience the latter has to convince us that it’s not just trying to bedazzle us.

How I Ended This Summer, directed by Aleksei Popugrebsky, delivers in a way that becomes a masterful display of deliberate, chess-like patience. There are no quick moves, nor are there any wasted ones. Every cliché is avoided as the film slowly becomes a metaphor for the old and the new Russia, with an endgame and conclusion that is startling in its simplicity.


Still on the theme of that country, Colin Farrell starred as a Russian recently, in Peter Weir’s The Way Back (also out on DVD now). If the others are political prisoners in the wastes of Siberia, circa 1941, he’s a lowdown Moscow gangster with comrades Stalin and Lenin tattooed on his chest. At least they care about his circumstances, Valka says.

When these escapees reach the border he cannot conceive of a life beyond Mother Russia and stays behind. The movie dies a kind of death at that point, because he is without a doubt the most interesting character in it.

In Ondine he plays Syracuse, a simple Irish fisherman who is divorced and has a daughter who has to have kidney dialysis. One fine day, however, he catches a woman in his nets and his daughter thinks she’s a mermaid.

The key here is that Neil Jordan (The Crying Game, Interview With the Vampire), is the director: he who can make a woman getting dressed look as sexy as a woman getting undressed is cliched.

If his smart young protagonist, Annie (Alison Barry), looks a little like a fish in the most beautiful possible way, then he adorns his gorgeous leading lady, Ondine (Alicja Bachleda), in a dress that not only accentuates her considerable curves but also her "mermaid-ness".

After all, when she sings her strange songs, out-of-season fish seem to magically appear in Syracuse’s nets. So who says his daughter’s belief is so far-fetched? And there are many who say that when the Atlantians left the ocean, the first land they stepped on to was that of Eire.

That may be one truth, but it’s not the only one. The “real” truth is as much in the headlines (Eastern Europeans flocking to Ireland during that short-lived boom) as it is in How I Ended This Summer (nuclear radiation, poisoning the food of “traitors”).

If Ondine is a bit too long, though Summer is longer, then they have another similarity: they both beat with a fierce, original heart.

More Notes on Rabbit Hole and Chess

Last week I mentioned that Nicole Kidman had to fight to get Rabbit Hole made. Due to the pressure of a ridiculously self-imposed deadline, it only occurred to me afterwards that producers probably objected to her character’s opinion about God in a country obsessed with creationism.

During a group session of bereavement a woman says God wanted her little angel. Becca says if he wanted an angel he could just have made another one – he’s God, after all. Later on, in a conversation with her mother, she calls him “a sadistic prick”. Talk about a woman scorned.

Nor would the PC brigade have liked the fact that Becca’s husband, Howie (Aaron Eckhart), and another woman, played by Sandra Oh, smoke a joint before a session and burst out laughing as someone talks about losing a child to leukemia!

So more power to Ms Kidman for making a very brave, quietly subversive movie.


Moaning about a doccy during the recent New Zealand Film Festival, I forgot to mention that there is an excellent film that captures the independent spirit of something mentioned in Bobby Fischer Versus the World. That is, after the sixth game his opponent, Boris Spassky, joined the audience in applauding the American genius’s victory, Cold War or not.

That spirit is perfectly captured in The Luzhin Defence (2000) as a whole and in a moment when an Italian GM is offered a bribe in order to win. Fabio Sartor’s look of withering contempt is a cinematic moment to savour for life.

Directed by Marleen Gorris and starring John Turturro and Emily Watson, the film is based on the novel by that lepidopterist Vladimir Nabokov, who was also clearly obsessed with chess. Like the man who made the bribe, of course, he was Russian.

Neil Sonnekus