Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Great Outdoors Snore

If anything indicates that Hollywood is running out of ideas, if it ever had any to begin with, then it’s the fact that so many films these days are based on or inspired by “real events” or “true stories”.

Maybe it’s easier to sell such an idea to a potential investor than it is to convince him or her about your creative genius. And, even though I’d like one such story to win the Oscar for best film, director, supporting actor and actress, namely The Fighter, most of them are instantly forgettable.

Our theme this week is survival and, like revenge, it is something we can all relate to on a very basic level. Both our films this week are set in the great outdoors.

Sanctum, whose only claim to fame is that it was executive produced by James “I Am the King of the World” Cameron, involves a bunch of cavers who want to find a route to the sea via a veritable underground labyrinth in Papua New Guinea (shot on Australia’s Gold Coast).

When a cyclone threatens their expedition it’s time to get out but, lo, a rock shuts off their escape route. Now they have to find a way to the sea – or die.

Richard Roxburgh plays tough-as-nails chief caver Frank McGuire well, but then all he has to do is reduce everything to its basic Darwinian components, like drown a fellow caver who is injured beyond repair, which is what his character loves.

That is what his financier alleges anyway, a suit played by Ioan Gruffud who typically wants all the fame if the expedition succeeds. He constantly breathes down Frank’s neck, like an insecure executive producer.

Frank’s son is played by Rhys Wakefield, a wuss who will predictably start off by hating his Kubla Khan-quoting father and eventually take over his mantel and become a “man”.

Unfortunately, Wakefield is better at playing tearful than manly, his impressive muscles notwithstanding; and the only reason why Coleridge’s opium-inspired poem is being used is because Frank’s wife used to quote it.

If this is the last link between the two of them, then the only link between the poem and the film is that the latter is swimming in its own “sunless sea” as opposed to towards the real, sun-shiny one.

I’m sure the visuals in 3-D were most impressive.

A rock is the culprit in the Oscar-nominated 127 Hours too, but this time it lands on an idiot who goes canyoning on his own. He slips and the rock pins his arm under it. Big oops. The first rule is: never dive, cave or climb alone.

We all know the story of Aaron Ralston who had to choose between dying or cutting off his one arm. There was no choice. We all know what he did. So why make a movie about it?

Well, it’s an interesting point, because we all know what happened to the two English climbers in Touching the Void, yet that documentary, with its dramatic reconstructions - which often don’t work - had me sitting all over my seat, laughing, crying, even though I knew the outcome.

But, apart from survivalist impulses, the latter touches on ethical issues – do you cut your friend and climbing partner to fall to his probable death or do you both possibly go down? – and maybe that’s the difference.

Maybe it’s also because there’s a tension between the reconstructed and the reflective: the two (real) climbers talking straight to the camera after the event. Maybe it’s even about the triumph of professionalism, let alone friendship.

But 127 Hours doesn’t have any conflict in it; it’s just James Franco stuck beneath a rock and talking to his video camera, flashing back to what a jerk he was and (on that note) trying to masturbate to footage he took of two fellow hikers earlier.

That doesn’t work, nor – for all the hype - does this beautifully shot movie.

And nooooooow, for the Oscars

Here’s my wishlist, for what it’s worth.

Best Film – The Fighter.

Best Actor – Colin Firth (The King’s Speech, among others).

Best Actress – Natalie Portman (Black Swan).

Best Supporting Actor – Christian Bale (The Fighter).

Best Supporting Actress – Melissa Leo and Amy Adams (The Fighter).

Best Director – David O Russell (The Fighter).

Best Cinematography – Danny Cohen (The King’s Speech).

Best Adapted Script – Aaron Sorkin, for excellent dialogue in The Social Network but not for being really economical with the truth.

Best Original Script – Mike Leigh, for Another Year, which I haven’t seen, but he deserves to win it just because he’s so anti-Hollywood; that ought to show him.

Best Soundtrack – Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross for great funk in The Social Network.

Best Art Direction – Robert Stromberg for the rather sombre Alice in Wonderland.

Best Costume – Colleen Atwood for Alice in Wonderland.

Best Special Effects – Various for Inception.

Best Foreign Film – Don’t know, haven’t seen any of them yet.

Best Documentary – * Exit Through the Gift Shop (by Banksy)

*I saw this for pleasure because my son’s into graffiti and so didn't review it, but it turned out to be as delightfully subversive as the artist, and as elusive. It’s a great con.

But then I haven’t seen all the doccos, like Gasland, or even all the features, like Blue Valentine.

Some Notes:

If anyone was hard done by it is Julianne Moore. She should at least have got a nomination for best supporting actress, playing against type in The Kids Are All Right as well as A Single Man.

The Australian film Animal Kingdom showed at the New Zealand International Film Festival last year and was quite a hit. Running a gang of thugs in faded golf shirts was Jacki Weaver, playing a kind of black widow mom. This is very good news for her, film Down Under as well as debut director David Michôd.

Animal Kingdom was, of course, reviewed on your favourite blog.

If any film should get a special mention or prize or something then it’s Winter’ Bone, for excellent scripting and directing by Debra Granik, acting by Jennifer Lawrence and support from John Hawkes. But this is Hollywood’s way, perhaps, of saying we’ve got our eyes on you.

The big loser should (but will not necessarily) be True Grit. But then it might also be a red earring, as a French producer once sent to me, meaning, of course, red herring.

Neil Sonnekus

* Next week, an all-Kiwi affair, including Love Birds with Rhys Darby.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Running on Remakes

I’m afraid I don’t see the point of this remake of a vaguely remembered John Wayne movie, and it doesn’t help much that one can’t really make out half of what Jeff Bridges is saying because he’s keeping much of what he's muttering on the insideofhisdurnmouthifyoutakemahmeaning.

The opening of this True Grit is slow and wordy and takes forever to establish that Rooster Cogburn (Bridges) is a sly old devil and young Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) is a tough and canny negotiator. All good and well.

Add to the mix the overly officious Texas Ranger LeBoeuf, pronounced LeBeef by all and played well - as ever - by a heavily mustachioed Matt Damon, and you start getting the feeling that someone’s yanking your chain.

But it starts unravelling towards the end when, for example, Mattie is attacked not by one rattler down a dark hole, but at least three, and ole Rooster sure is going to get there in time to shoot ‘em to smithereens. Then he’s still got to get Mattie to a doctor and drive a horse to death and so on, all in the name of gruff chivalry.

Maybe this film was nominated for 10 Oscars as a red herring for much better works like The Fighter, or Hollywood thinks the Coen brothers should be rewarded for celebrating good old homespun Western values, like revenge.

But there is something deeply unsatisfying about the latter act when Mattie finally gets to shoot Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin in the cameo part). In fact, the only scene that really moved me, apart from the beautiful scenery, was when Rooster falls off his horse, pissed.

Wayne wouldn’t have been able to do that in a thousand years.

Which brings us to a black comedy. Or rather, an attempt at a black comedy, the first mission of which is to make the unacceptable palatable to us.

Think four Muslim fundamentalists bungling their explosive mission in Four Lions. We laugh ourselves silly despite knowing that any kind of fanatical fundamentalism like this isn’t really funny.

Wild Target is, like True Grit, a remake. In this case it’s a retelling of the 1993 French film Cible Emouvante by Pierre Salvadori. I haven’t seen that film, which also features a middle-aged man and a much younger woman, but it hardly works here.

If Emily Blunt blooms as a sexy, devious thief, then Bill Nighy does not sway as the French-learning, incredibly uptight, mother-dominated assassin. Yes, it is rather funny that his mother, played by the formidable Eileen Atkins, is worried that he’s starting to lose his touch as a cold-blooded killer, but sexy he is not.

Add to this uncomfortable mix Rupert Grint, whose character seems to be there solely as a device to connect plot dots rather than add any sexual or comic tension, and you have a rather slowly paced comedy that at least made a sextet of Auckland pensioners, no doubt yearning for the old country, chortle.

Oh, and Rupert Everett might just have found a middle-aged vocation: he makes a pleasantly sexy villain.

Neil Sonnekus

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Caveat Emptor

Unintended self-portrait with a cellphone.

I recently saw a film (out on DVD) about a bunch of Australian TV journalists - there was also a Kiwi cameraman amongst them - who went to East Timor to report on what was happening there at the height of that country’s problems.

After centuries of Portuguese occupation the country wanted independence, but Indonesia was about to invade it and claim it for itself - and it had the full support and knowledge of the likes of the US under President Gerald Ford and his Foreign Secretary, Henry Kissinger.

Australia was one of the few other countries that recognized the new East Timor.

Balibo, starring Anthoy LaPaglia and Oscar Isaac as eventual Nobel peace prize winner Jose Ramos-Horta, expects us to feel sorry for the journos who were out to prove that Indonesia had warships hovering around the country, and they were.

We are also meant to feel outrage that the Australian government knew about all of this, including the journos’ plight, and did what most countries do when they can profit from or be embarrassed by such a situation. They shut up - for a long time.

This is exactly what happened and the journalists were massacred, which is awful.

But wait a bit. They were given a chance to get out by the rebel forces, including Ramos-Horta, but no, they somehow thought they could fight advancing troops with cameras and mics and then plead journalistic rights.

This is insane. With all respect to the journos and the families involved, what history teaches us is that the truth comes out anyway, eventually, and in this case it didn’t have too much to do with whether our white boys were involved or not.

About a seventh of the East Timorese population was killed, regardless.

All of this is a rather long-winded way of saying that a similar sentiment is at work in Inside Job, the Oscar-nominated documentary by Charles Ferguson about how the current recession came about.

Yes, it was evil what the likes of Goldman Sachs were selling the world a future that did not exist – effectively a Ponzi scheme, as one commentator said - but then the world, meaning about six million gullible Americans, wasn’t forced to buy that dream.

They walked into the trap with their eyes wide open and their minds tightly shut. They wanted that dream house so badly that they never wondered why they wouldn’t have to pay off on it for the first two years.

For believing all the economic bilge the banks and the ratings agencies spoke, they lost their houses and the rest of us tightened our belts considerably, worldwide, and I speak from personal experience.

South Africa was one of the few countries that wasn’t such a willing participant in that global gang bang, but then if the rest of that country’s government had been as astute as its finance minister we’d still be talking about the miracle, not the monsters.

What makes the film important is that it shows how money people talk complete and utter rubbish, from the highest echelons of Wall Street to those in academe but, even more sickening, how those who caused so much pain were not punished but promoted, just as it is politically in South Africa.

And the madness didn’t stop with George W Bush; all those big players are now advisers in Barack Obama’s government, bless their thousand dollar socks.

Should there be more regulation, as the film, narrated by Matt Damon, argues? The likes of Alan Greenspan – who politely declined to be interviewed for this film, just like all the others who have now been appointed by Obama - were vehemently against it.

They argue that market forces should determine the economy, even though they are the ones who are now effectively running it – and therefore the body politic and thus the world, for now – and they are right.

Caveat emptor. The buyer should (always) be aware.

Regulators can be just as corrupt as these greedy bastards and, as long as ordinary folk vote for systems and people that allow CEOs to give themselves half a billion dollar annual bonuses, they get what they deserve.



There has been a series of rather delightful ads on New Zealand TV, featuring a (childless, it seems) married couple. She’s your average Sarah, he’s your hairy, bearded redhead Jim of Scottish extraction and not exactly lean.

In the one ad he’s mowing the lawn and she’s watching him, giving him the sexual come-on. By the time he swaggers into the house, clearly ready to do the caveman thing in just his shorts, the parents-in-laws have arrived, mouths gaping.

In another the couple are playing charades with the folks, at the folks’ house, and Jim, not being a delicate fella, is trying to get them to guess what movie he’s enacting, threatening to tip the precious china vase in the process. But they just don’t get it.

Jim finally grabs a porcelain aeroplane and a model gorilla, which just happens to be at hand, and the old man shouts, desperately, “Kong! King Kong!” Just don’t break the bloody china.

This is clever because it refers to Kiwi uber-director Peter Jackson’s remake of that famous film, thus engendering further pride in the local film culture, and it manages to convey a world of underlying family relationships in a matter of moments – with a great deal of charm.

But then it’s not so clever from the advertiser’s point of view, since I cannot for the life of me remember what the name is of the insurance company being advertised.

Neil Sonnekus

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Corpse de Ballet

Since my daughter has been doing ballet for almost a decade and she’s only 12, I feel I can talk about that demanding art form with some knowledge. Hell, I even did honours in dance myself, but then I preferred the pas de qwerty of writing.

So that’s where I’m coming from and the best I can say about the almost anorexic Natalie Portman in Black Swan is that she’s a very good actress and that she’ll probably get her Oscar, but - no matter what tricks of the cinematic trade director Darren Aronofsky employed, and they are varied and brilliant – she is not a prima ballerina.

This is a perennial problem with dance and sport films. You’re either starring as yourself in a medium that is not yours, or you are a good actor and portray a great dancer or athlete by proxy, though Chi Cao proves the exception in Australian director Bruce Beresford’s latest outing.

Mao’s Last Dancer (out on DVD for a while now) is a much finer film than the critics will have you believe, whether in its depiction of Li Cunxin’s journey from hinterland Chinese peasantry to Sydney, Australia, via Houston, Texas, or in its even-handed take on Zedong’s Great Leap Forward.

Perhaps the critics wanted Chi to play a Westerner, not Chinese.

Anyway, the latter is a tale of survival, using the notion of beauty to guide its protagonist; Black Swan is a tale of being destroyed, almost willingly, by the notion to render that beauty perfect.

The idea of dying for, or being killed by, one’s art is a massive cliché, of course, and Aronofsky’s way of getting there is typically obsessive, repetitive and melodramatic.

There is once again the problematic mother, but this time she’s not high on speed and financial hope, as in the masterful Requiem for a Dream; this time she’s high on that bitter cul-de-sac of parental achievement by proxy.

Barbara Hershey plays the woman who gave up her career so that she could have her Nina, who could then succeed where she failed. That mama did so when her career was almost over is irrelevant to her; she made the sacrifice and now it’s payback time.

She is the true baby-boom witch in her black dress with her hair pulled back severely, showing us the Websterian skull beneath the ageing, pock-marked skin. Loosen her hair and she’s ever the gentle but strong, attractive woman again.

There is also the obsession with physical changes. If in Requiem it was the dilating pupils after ingesting narcotics and literally losing half an arm as a result of abusing them, then here it’s the bleeding feet of a ballerina, the loose skin around the fingernails chewed and ripped off to a bloody mess, not to mention the wings threatening to burst out of her scapulae – and then not together but alternately.

To say this film captures something would be to use completely the wrong cliché; it mirrors everything. There are mirrors all over the place because that is what ballerinas do endlessly: look at themselves - even the smudged, Perspex-like reflection of a subway train window will do.

If that look is critical, it does always run the risk of the kind of obsessive trait Aronofsky would pounce upon: narcissism.

One of the Swan Lake productions he alludes to is English choreographer Matthew Bourne’s version, which deals with male love, where the corps is all male and which is referenced at the end of Billy Elliot. But here Aronofsky turns it around and deals with that great male fantasy, lesbian desire, confirming every grunt’s perception that that is what all those girls, along with most female sportswomen, are.

Vincent Cassel plays the maestro who has been in the States long enough to have almost lost his accent Francaise and forces Nina to explore and confront her dark side, her Odile, without ever sleeping with her. He is straight and probably the most cliché-free character in the movie - and the dullest.

(Incidentally, it was heartening seeing Bruce Greenwood in a similar role finally getting a top credit as a character in Mao’s Last Dancer, instead of the Kennedy-handsome Washington bureaucrat he usually plays).

Nina, of course, loses her marbles for reasons that are not entirely clear. Maybe the thesis is that, in order to play Odette and Odile perfectly, as required, you have to become a schizophrenic. Maybe it’s because her nutty mother drove her that way.

But don’t expect Nina to look for a father figure in her maestro or anyone else – Aronofsky clearly has no experience of or faith in that line of enquiry. Maybe it threatens him to such an extent that by omitting it he thinks it strengthens his argument.

But what he manages to elicit from his leading lady is one of those shy, repressed people who will, if pushed, go beyond a happy ending, and his oddly grainy film perfectly "captures" the fraught, underlying hysteria that goes with an aesthetic that paradoxically transcends the normal female bodily functions.

Black Swan is an overly ambitious film that will mainly attract women - especially those who faithfully take their daughters to their ballet classes (the cinema I was in consisted mainly of women) - but then it does allow its director to executive-produce another Oscar-nominated film, one that deals with a much cruder art form: The Fighter.

Neil Sonnekus

The Lost Measure of Khartoum

Leila Aboulela

Snowflakes fall outside, the grey December day unfolding in a series of sirens and car horns. In her publisher’s offices high above London’s Covent Garden, the Sudanese writer Leila Aboulela is telling me about her uncle Hassan Awad, a celebrated poet whose verse was turned into popular song.

He’s the inspiration behind her latest novel, Lyrics Alley, a family saga set in 1950s Sudan. Tipped to take over his father’s business empire, Hassan was paralysed in a swimming accident while studying in Egypt, his dreams of a golden future dashed.

In the novel he is Nur, the brilliant son of Mahmoud Bey, patriarch of the powerful Abuzeid dynasty. As British rule nears its end in Sudan, the clash between traditional Islamic culture and the West takes centre stage.

Soraya, Nur’s sweetheart, is desperate to go to university but her father insists she marries instead; Waheeba, his mother, forces the genital mutilation of her stepdaughter, Ferial, despite the fact that female circumcision has been outlawed under the British.

Nur’s accident traumatises the family further. It’s only when Nur begins to assert himself as a poet that both his own spirit and the frayed bonds of his family begin to mend.

“The character of Nur was triggered by hearing my aunt Rahma, Hassan’s sister, reciting his first poem, Travel is the Cause”, Aboulela says. “It contains the line ‘In you, Egypt, are the causes of my injury. And in Sudan my burden and solace.’ I was captivated. Here was one writer addressing another across the passage of time. It was strong, it was good. I completely believed in him.”

The poem also resonated with Aboulela because of her double heritage. “I’m the daughter of a Sudanese man and an Egyptian woman. At one point in my youth my mum departed for Egypt because she was trying to draw the family back there. So the poem’s Egypt/Sudan dichotomy – something of that found its way into the Lyrics Alley storyline, too.”

Aboulela has always been attuned to cultural nuances. Born in Cairo in 1964, she grew up in Khartoum in a Westernised, middle-class family of businessmen and traders. She studied economics at Khartoum University, then statistics at the London School of Economics. She took a job teaching statistics but soon decided it wasn’t the career for her.

She started to write after a move to Aberdeen as a young married woman left her with an acute sense of geographical and cultural displacement.

“I needed to express myself. I was 24 years old and stuck in a strange place with two boisterous little boys and a husband working offshore as an engineer on the oil rigs. It was a life for which I wasn’t prepared.”

She speaks of a “shattering of confidence” on arriving in Britain. “There was the Gulf war and a lot in the papers criticising Islam and it used to hurt me. Now I’m hardened to these things.”

Aboulela’s fiction quickly won acclaim. An early story, The Museum (from the collection Coloured Lights), won the first Caine Prize for African Writing in 2000. The Translator, which draws on her disorientating experiences as a Muslim woman living in Scotland, was praised by JM Coetzee and longlisted for the Orange Prize.

Her 2005 novel, Minaret, which centres on a Western-oriented Muslim girl from Khartoum who moves to London and takes up the veil, was also longlisted for the Orange and the IMPAC Dublin Award.

These works provide a unique perspective on the life of a Muslim woman in Britain, while deftly evoking very different locations: icy, bleak Aberdeen; the teeming multiculturalism of London; the heat and conviviality of Khartoum. They allow readers to imagine something of what it must be like to live in the diaspora as an African – a dislocating experience where, despite having access to different identities, migrants can end up feeling they’re unable to lay full claim to any.

They have also been read by some critics and academics as being assertive of a certain kind of Muslim cultural identity in the West. Aboulelah is philosophical about this interpretation but says she’s always been more interested in writing about faith.

“Focusing on the politicised aspects of Islam is a distraction from the real thing. In my fiction, I want rather to try to show the state of mind and emotions of a person who has faith. I’m interested in going deep.”

Perhaps because of its non-Western setting, Lyrics Alley – of all her writing – makes this point most clearly. Aboulela writes with a tenderness and sensitivity to the fragility of life, and the unbearable randomness of fate. Her characters are not ideals or role models; they do not necessarily behave as ‘good’ Muslims.

As she puts it: “They are flawed, trying to practise their faith or make sense of God’s will in difficult circumstances.”

As our conversation draws to a close, she adjusts her headscarf, which is patterned with a global map – a nod, perhaps, towards the numerous places where she has spent her life, from Sudan, Egypt, London and Aberdeen to Indonesia and Dubai.

Although she went back to Sudan while writing Lyrics Alley, her affiliation to the country is conflicted.

“I feel very sad, looking back – in the 1950s, Sudan was just about to be independent, it had huge potential: mineral resources; the fertile land; the Nile. Men like my father, who studied abroad at Dublin’s Trinity College, were going to come back and modernise this new young country, but that dream was shattered. You think: ‘We’ve been given all this and, thanks to politics and bad government, we’ve made a mess of it’.”

Now she lives in Qatar, a migrant long-displaced from the continent in which she grew up.

“It still moves me,” she says. “I used to measure everything against the Khartoum I knew, wherever I was in the world – why is the day so short out here, why is the sun so small and weak? And those early years of my life in Sudan are still my bearing and measure. But I went in a different direction; that was my fate.”

Melissa de Villiers

Lyrics Alley is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson