Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Tightfisted

Ah, school holidays. The arrangements, the moods, the dramas…

I wanted my children to see some classic entertainment and there was a new Sylvain Chomet film in town, showing at the immaculately renovated Capitol on Dominion Road.

Who could forget Chomet’s mesmerizing The Triplets of Bellville? Do you still remember Grandmama with the built-up shoe who first tries to interest her ward in becoming a concert pianist? No? Well, perhaps it’s because she fails.

Then she notices that he keeps a signed picture of his father and mother lounging on the former’s bicycle. Further inspection leads her to discover an album filled with news clippings of the Tour de France.

Little Champion of the dark-ringed Gallic eyes is as delighted with his trike as he was with his dog, Bruno, who grows up into a slobbering mass that struggles up the stairs to bark at each passing train – without fail.

Do you remember that marvelous montage where Grandmama’s high peasant house is out in the country, with a distance view of the Eiffel Tower? Then an old Shackleton flies overhead in the autumnal air, followed by encroaching building cranes and two Boeings in the snowy winter, followed by a cut to the house having had to do a Pisa-like accommodation for the flyover railway track, giving Bruno his raison d’être?

Champion and Grandmama are no longer country folk. They have been swallowed by the city and she and Bruno assiduously assist Champion in becoming a star cyclist, bulging thighs, calves and all.

But Champion is abducted during the uphill stage of the Tour de France and taken to Bellville, where everybody eats hamburgers and is hugely, massively overweight. No prizes for guessing where that might be. He will now cycle on the spot, for money, and he will not try to escape. He will endure.

Grandmama and Bruno impossibly follow and end up with the very politically incorrect Triplets of yore, who are now three cheerful old crones, with a nod to the three uglies in that Scottish play. Un-PC? They drop hand grenades in water to catch frogs, which they eat. Macbethian witches? They lick their amphibians to hallucinate for kicks.

Grandmaternal and canine love – with a dose of triplesque élan - will triumph over all Mafia-like odds.

Now, it’s been well publicized that Chomet was so taken with Edinburgh that he decided to settle in Scotland, and The Illusionist was supposed to be a love story for and about that country.

Using the template of a script by the late Jacques Tati – he of the long legs, odd walk and good manners – our magician’s looks are clearly based on his original creator. In fact, somewhere in the film he happens into a cinema and there’s the “real” Tati on the screen.

The magician’s name is Tatischeff, no doubt a reference to Russian émigrés in Paris, but his breed of old fashioned magician is dying out and he’s saved by a perpetually drunk and cheerful Scot. Tatischeff heads to the land of the thistle, shown with all Chomet’s satisfying attention to detail and breathtaking watercolours.

In Scotland he will meet a young cleaner who will accompany him to Edinburgh, he will do everything and anything to buy her good clothes, and she will fall in love with a handsome Scot in the Sean Connery mould. Around them other artists will go to pieces. And Tatischeff becomes as tightfisted as a, well, Scot?

As with the Triplets, Tati and even Mr Bean, dialogue is paired down to a virtually redundant minimum, but my children and their friends were getting bored. So was I. In fact, I was so disappointed that I took out The Triplets of Bellville just to cheer us all up again.

Every expectation created in Chomet's second film was unfulfilled. There wasn’t a goal, as in training Champion up or him saving him from the clutches of capitalist greed. Having a “down” ending is all good and well, even for a film that is supposed to include children, but a bitter ending - like a happy one - still has to be deserved.

Neil Sonnekus


Last week I failed to mention the lead actress’s name in Never Let Me Go, even though it was on the accompanying publicity poster. Carey Mulligan’s performance was every bit as good as Keira Knightley’s.

I also failed to mention that the film was adapted from the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro. Though I haven’t read the book, I thought the film was brilliant – Immaculate Incompletion might have been a better headline - and probably truer to the original than the adaptation of another Ishiguro novel The Remains of the Day, whose makers Alan Parker called the Laura Ashley school of filmmaking.

Lastly, there is also something special in a department that is usually male-dominated. Rachel Portman’s score, especially at the beginning and end of the film, is exquisite.


Lacking publicity material I hereby post an earlier photograph of the honourable critic in the days when he still had property, some dark hair and money to afford a haircut. These days he is an emigre, like Monsieur Tatischeff.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Brilliant Incompletion

It’s difficult to create an alternative universe and depict how it works without having to explain or signpost it. Some sort of isolation usually comes into play, as is the case with this profoundly disturbing film. 

A bunch of children attend a rural English school and all is seemingly normal. There’s even a date to tell us we’re in the “real” world: 1978. Sure, there aren’t any male teachers, but that generally doesn’t apply to schools for young children anymore. Non-paedophile males generally don’t want to work with those ages, especially not at those salaries.

Director Mark Romanek makes a point of dwelling on the exquisite innocence of these children as they sing a hymn. It’s all so very English. Their principal is the still-divine Charlotte Rampling, but many of us cannot help remember her playing a woman who becomes turned on by her Nazi torturer conducting various “scientific” experiments on her in The Night Porter.

Children from Hailsham are special, she says. And we see how special they are by the fact that they wear electronic bracelets on their wrists. They are being monitored. Why? It takes a feeling teacher, played by the ever-impressive Sally Hawkins, to tell them that they will become organ donors. They will not lead normal lives. They will make two or three donations and then they will complete, the most terribly ironic euphemism for dying. They will die young.

The problem is they don’t understand. They see this as normal. But it’s a moot point that they are so brainwashed that they do not rebel against this unnatural order of things, especially later when Tommy (Andrew Garfield) and Ruth (Keira Knightley) start having sex. Surely they would want this to continue? Surely they would look around them and see that others have children. Surely they would want children later on, whether with each other or not? Surely they would want to know where their parents are?

Granted, it transpires later on that they come from the dregs of society. They are the unwanted children of junkies and prostitutes, but that wouldn’t necessarily put them off wanting children of their own. Some people desperately want to create what they did not have. There is no indication that any kind of enforcement takes place.

There are small uprisings. Tommy, for example, has a natural temper. He also happens to be a good artist, one of the few times that someone’s art on screen comes across as uniquely theirs.

Sure, they are kept in the country and in country houses, but they still have access to TV and porn magazines. They see other people getting old. It’s not like the whole world is like this. Surely this should lead at least one of them to want to go into the bigger, wider, outside world? Would their loyalty to each other be so strong that they’ll stick together, regardless? Can social brainwashing be so powerful? Perhaps.

But maybe it doesn’t matter, for if this film is not that successful a description of an alternative universe or dystopia then it is a strikingly original and painfully truthful metaphor for this one, English and beyond.

The three main characters’ innocence as adults is as shattering as seeing your own parent being unable to understand that they’ve just been given a death sentence by a neurologist. Tommy, Kathy and Ruth don’t know, for example, how to order food at a takeaway restaurant. And they are human enough to betray each other, as is so often the case in romantic triangles.

The photography and performances are all extremely fine, and I take back anything I ever said or thought about Knightley as an actress. Her post-operative speech, limping down a hospital corridor with the friend she betrayed, is a masterpiece of physical and existential shame.

It may all sound depressing, but seeing these beautiful young people going wide-eyed to their ends forces us to ask ourselves whether we are complete, now, and whether we will be the day we do just that: “complete”.

Neil Sonnekus

Friday, April 8, 2011

Crossing the Cultural Himalayas

Matt Whelan and Michelle Ang.
Cross-cultural dramas and comedies have probably become increasingly popular because people are increasingly migrating to other places where they can be safer, better off and happier.

In the case of The Names of Love we are in France, where a dry zoological scientist, whose job it is to monitor possible outbreaks of bird flu, tries to hide his Jewish roots, whereas a gamine woman flaunts her Arabic ones - and her body.

This is because she was abused as a child by her French piano teacher and has become so scatty that she forgets to get dressed one fine day and walks naked down the road - she conveniently has shoes on - talking on her cellphone.

She would, of course, end up sitting opposite a strictly covered-up Muslim couple, burqa and all, on the train. After this episode, however, she is never absent-minded again.

Anyway, the film takes a while to get going as the two leads introduce their pasts to us, sometimes talking directly to camera, and the present and younger versions of themselves interacting with each other.

The school pupil Arthur Martin (Jacques Gamblin) makes a very good and possibly very Jewish point - his name is deliberately neutral - that maybe Jews don’t want to be commemorated on plaques for just the most miserable moments of their lives. Why not the happiest times?

Bahia Benmahmoud (Sara Forestier) also makes the point that not all Muslims are exactly the same, but it is her father who comes across as the more convincing character. Zinedine Soualem, who resembles a younger Cat Stevens, plays a man who has heaps of artistic talent but is more obsessed with doing any odd job to pay the rent. It didn’t help much seeing and sketching his grandfather being shot dead by French troops in Algeria.

Equally moving is Arthur in one of those anti-bacterial suits, standing in a dam with a dead white swan in his hands, getting a phone call and being told by his emotionless father that his mother has died.

If the film doesn’t all quite hang together at times, and even becomes a little didactic politically, it is at least a light, intelligent look at a somewhat heavy problem.

More of the same can be found in the ultimately charming local film, My Wedding and Other Secrets.

Here the conflict lies in the highly ambitious Emily Chu (Michelle Ang) falling in love – horror of horrors – with a white New Zealand boy, a Pakeha. This won’t do as far as her strict Chinese father is concerned, or at least so she thinks.

If she marries a whitey she'll be disowned. This leads to all kinds of complications, including never being able to sleep over at James's, even after they have secretly married.

But there’s another big and rather touching visual difference between them. James (Matt Whelan) is a tall, Edmund Hillary-like beanpole and Emily is vertically challenged. In short, short. If she is clearly an alter ego of her writer/director/producer, whose steely and possibly migrant determination shines through in more ways than one, then he is a dreamy computer games designer with two goofy mates one wishes were evident in Love Birds.

In fact, the characters all round are superbly drawn and Liang makes a feast of sending up Chinese kitsch – including kung fu movies - without once being patronising. If also a tad slow initially, it is still a satisfying romcom that is deservedly doing good business at the box office and bodes well for Ms Liang’s cinematic future.

Neil Sonnekus