Monday, May 30, 2011

Brighton the Surface

The main problem a director faces in making Graham Greene’s eminently cinematic Brighton Rock, of course, is that its lead character is 17 years old.

Even if a young Gary Oldman or Leonardo diCaprio were around, they’d still be a hard sell to the money folk. So director Rowan Joffe settled for the untrained Sam Riley, 29 at the time, who had nevertheless garnered a lot of critical praise for his rather romantic portrayal, in retrospect, of punk rocker Ian Curtis of Joy Division in Control.

It was probably the best choice there was, even though Riley looks more like a young and well-fed TS Eliot than having the “starved intensity” of Pinkie, who accurately reflects Hitler’s rise (the book was published in 1938) and pre-dates punk rock by a good 40 years.

If Riley doesn’t quite fit the bill, he has to and does sort of carry the film, and that’s important too. (The only 1947 version of the film in Auckland is in a box on video in an upstairs storeroom at Videon and might take a week to find, I was told, so I can’t compare Riley’s performance with the young Richard Attenborough’s).

What Riley certainly “captures” is Pinkie’s misogynistic revulsion of Rose, even if he isn’t allowed to communicate to us what it is about her that he hates so much. In the film’s most telling scene, as far as Pinkie and Rose (Andrea Riseborough) are concerned, he has to stand in a booth on the pier and record a message of love to her on an instant record-maker. She is standing outside the glass box, freshly married, looking at him with devoted adoration. Her love is not only blind, it’s deaf.

Inside he is spewing his repugnance of her, and all the writer or director needed to add was that he hated her because she reminded him of where he came from. That is, clumsy, tasteless, near-sighted, faithful, common. In short, everything he is and doesn’t want to be.

The other reason why he hates her, of course, is that she intuitively embodies the grace part of being a “Roman” (Catholic). Riseborough looks like any number of infinitely gentle, caring and forgiving Madonnas, eyes modestly lowered, celebrated by countless Italian artists over the ages and is absolutely perfect for the part, visually and otherwise. It is, simply, the most archetypal of the roles, hence its power.

Pinkie, as far as Green is concerned, comes from and is going to an "annihilating eternity".

The next problem is Ida Arnold, the antithesis to Pinkie and Rose. Helen Mirren is hardly in her 30s or 40 and, attractive as she still is in her 60s, you would hardly think of “sucking babies when you looked at her”, though she certainly conveys “an immense store of masculine experiences”.

But then the filmmakers once again had to think about the market, which is mainly American, and Dame Helen had won an Oscar and that counts for a lot in a country that recoiled from the film’s outright misogyny anyway – perhaps they prefer saccharine romance, which could be the same thing - if the 5.9 rating is anything to go by.

But her authoritative Prime Suspect residue, along with John Hurt’s salted Sam, do represent an England of common sense, above all, and in that sense they work a treat. But then, as JM Coetzee writes in his introduction to the Vintage Classics edition, “it is one of Greene’s subtler achievements to put [Ida’s triumph] in doubt as perhaps blinkered and tyrannical”.

The film’s way of echoing that is making her world seem jaded, the cracks in her face too covered over, too white and powdered, just as it manages to show that “the story belongs not to Ida but to Rose and Pinkie”.

They love and hate completely, respectively, and that contrast is evident in the way Brighton is portrayed too. On the surface all seems fun and festivities by the seaside, but under the boardwalk the flick knives are flashing. Blood is flowing. There is a battle for turf, power.

Director Joffe cleverly intercuts one of those vicious battles with the above-board festivities, which works a treat, never forgetting to show the primal power of the icy, night-time Atlantic rolling in too.

Pinkie is what Harold Pinter called “the weasel beneath the cocktail cabinet”. He may be vicious, but he is fighting a hopeless battle. He is punching way above his weight. He resides in places where Eliot’s “smells of steaks in [dank brown] passageways” are nauseating. We sit and watch his demise with fascination and something else: hope. We hope he’ll change, convert, whatever, knowing it will not be so.

Or rather, we ought to. But if this film is as handsome as its look and its lead, then it is not as sharp as his razor, nor as hard as the titular candy. A doomed 17-year-old has our sympathy, a doomed 30-year-old has choices.

All we can wonder at, finally, is how the director is going to portray the final “horror” of the book. How is he going to show Rose, pregnant with Pinkie’s probably malevolent seed, hearing what he recorded for her on the pier that day they got married?

Well, if it takes a little long to get there after the climax, then Joffe gives that bit of vitriol such a clever and ironic twist that a grave Green himself might be smiling with approval.

Neil Sonnekus

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Mixed Messages

Catfish is being hailed as the first film about what could happen if you're too free and easy on Facebook. It’s also supposed to be a documentary.

Nev (Yaniv Schulman) is a New York photographer who shoots stills of dancers and his brother, Rel (Ariel Schulman) and friend, Henry Joost (as Himself), are making a documentary about him.

Why they would want to make a doco about him, apart from this cute smile, beggars belief. But an 8-year-old girl contacts him and asks whether she can make paintings of his photographs. Of course she can, the easy-going if somewhat narcissistic Nev says, and thus begins a relationship that is obviously not what it seems - by the sheer inanity of it.

First of all, Nev never picks up that Abby is an incredibly literate little girl, even though she comes from the back of beyond in Michigan and about 21% of Americans are functionally illiterate. Never mind. We’re still in the realm of the possible.

Abby, of course, has a mother, Angela, and an older sister, Megan. In fact, Nev and Megan start getting the hots for each other – online. But fairly soon Nev and his two directors work out that Megan is lying to him.

Then he has to go shoot at a dance festival, which just happens to be close to where Abby and Co live on the other side of America. Again, it’s one hell of a coincidence, but funny things start happening when you make a film – or someone dies.

The way the film is constructed and scored we are led to believe that there is going to be a massive – possibly violent – conclusion or revelation, playing on our sense of other films and the ambiguity of whether it is in fact a documentary or not.

I am not supposed to give away the ending because everything hinges on it, but the best point the film makes, especially as a documentary, is that it’s good to move from ignorance to facts. In another era that knowledge would mean death, but here it means most people’s reality – and it isn’t pretty.

The build-up to the meeting with Abby’s mother, Angela (Melody C Roscher), is creepy in the extreme and continues to be for a while before the film literally segues into another genre. This is very ably done and the directors will be making Paranormal Activity 3 next for their pains.

Catfish’s title isn’t very satisfactorily explained at the end by Angela’s husband, who is creepy, pitiable and admirable, but many will feel cheated by this “documentary” which is as manipulative as its antagonist, if that's the word, and its medium. 

Neil Sonnekus

Wednesday, May 11, 2011


Ray Winstone playing an Afrikaner? I had serious doubts, if not political prejudices, about that one.

But I was hooked from the moment this embittered Boer steps on to Kiwi soil, complete with hat, beard, rifle, coat and expression as grim as one could only be after the English have destroyed your farm and let your wife and three daughters die eating ground glass in a concentration camp, circa 1901.

There is a contemporary subtext to this as well, because the new wave of Afrikaner immigrants in New Zealand are often considered arrogant, though admittedly hard-working. Jokes fly about how ironic it is that they hang out in Auckland’s Browns Bay, minus the apostrophe, the implication being that they’re anti-“brown”. But then that reflects a mild resentment that the only South Africans here are Afrikaans, white and racist - whereas there are plenty of so-called Coloureds and Indians (and racist English) here too. And counting.

But Winstone plays his gruff, overweight Boer with all the slow cunning typical of what the BBC called the white tribe of Africa. Dutch writer Nicolas van Pallandt did most of his research so well that he even managed to cover a present-day polemic. If the Anglo- Boer War was predominantly a white man’s war, where does that leave Winstone’s Arjan van Diemen politically today?

Simple. Van Diemen’s bitterness extends to the fact that he was fighting for the freedom of himself and his Hottentot tracker, however paternalistic that may sound, but then Van Diemen’s white neighbour “hung” (he wouldn’t know it should be “hanged”) the tracker outside his house to show exactly where he stood on such future matters.

Without that little story Van Diemen is just another self-centred, bigoted Afrikaner. With it he and his quarry, Kereama (Temuera Morrison), are staunch anti-colonialists and have more in common than the minor difference of their skin colours. This becomes apparent as Van Diemen chases and then escorts, with variations, Kereama across the alpine beauty of the South Island.

Morrison plays his fugitive well, heading towards a confrontation with everything – most importantly himself via his ancestors - even though the make-up lady and director Ian Sharp thought it okay to always keep his hair well brushed.

It’s also a pity Winstone’s fairly open-minded character is called Van Diemen, causing confusion about whether he might be related to the man who established Van Diemen’s Land, the penal colony that was later renamed Tasmania. Why couldn’t he be a Botha, Van der Merwe or De Klerk or any of the many other common Afrikaans names? It’s confusing and unnecessary.

There are also a few technical glitches, of which the primary one is pace. This is a film in the same genre as The Fugitive and the excellent Seraphim Falls, but it starts slowly and sometimes continues thus – often clumsily. Also, one can often see the light changing in some of the shots, but then that’s the blink-of-an-eyelid weather in Aotearoa - and gratuitous aerial shots about a time when aircraft didn’t exist always niggle somewhat.

Lastly, there is Major Pritchard Carlysle (Gareth Reeves), who is portrayed as sharp enough to suspect that one of his troops is framing Kereama, but still goes to a hell of a lot of trouble to capture the latter. So no internal conflict of conscience versus king there, though it constantly seems to be on the verge of breaking out.

For all that, Tracker is a much more intelligent film than so much rubbish doing the rounds these days. It should be applauded for that as much as the fact that New Zealand has now been involved in two films about Afrikaners as characters instead of types - the other, of course, being District 9 - while in the new South Africa more than 3 000 of their kin have already been murdered on farms. But it has to be seen in the context of more blacks being murdered than whites, we’re told, as if one atrocity validates the other. And counting.

In the very meantime, ladies and gentlemen, hats off to Mr Winstone.

Neil Sonnekus

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Until Lack of Clarity Us Do Part

The prospect of seeing a film about the dissolution of a marriage is not exactly an enticing one, but Michelle Williams did get an Oscar nod for Blue Valentine and, more importantly, it’s still going strong at the arts box office.

Cindy (Williams) and Dean (Ryan Gosling) are middle-class Americans whose divorce is signalled from the opening shot with a horror-film feel when their daughter, Frankie, announces that her brother or sister is missing.

Turns out it’s her dog, but that doomed, creepy feeling persists. It is Frankie, after all, who is going to be the real victim if these two people can’t sort out their differences.

Dean happens to be one of those talented people who does nothing with it. Instead of becoming, say, a lawyer, he’s got a job moving furniture because it allows him to drink beer in the morning and be what he never thought he wanted to be: a husband and father.

And he’s a very good father at that, even if he smokes while he’s holding Frankie in his arms. The girl, of course, is nuts about her daddy.

Cindy, however, is studying to be a doctor and, it transpires, has been having sex since she was thirteen with “about” 20 lovers by the time she falls pregnant. That’s quite a lot of experience and then she’s not all that sure it’s Dean’s.

Why has she had so many sex partners at so young an age? Is it normal? Perhaps. On the other hand, it could be because she has a real dog of a father who talks to her mother like she’s trash and she could, therefore, have self-image problems.

She does have an affair with a fellow medical student, however, who looks a lot like Dean, but not only is he vicious (like her father), he’s not half as clever. Nor is she, letting him make love (to put it kindly) to her without a condom.

Dean can twist anything she says whichever way he likes, lawyer-like, but apart from that he’s a loving, caring guy.

Cleverly cutting back and forth between their affecting affair at the start and the beginning of the end of their marriage, the film builds towards the day they got married with her heavily pregnant, but tearily happy, and the last day of their marriage in the present.

Williams has that uncanny quality of looking common or glamorous, young or old when required, while Gosling should have got his nomination for a realism (he rightly got a Golden Globe nom) that is quite startling.

But if the film impresses with its assured execution, then it failed to convince me to feel any sympathy for Cindy - one could easily read the film as saying she’s an ambitious slut who gets to keep the child in the end, which I don’t think was the idea.

Most marriages break up because of ideological differences – how to handle opposing values about sex, money, religion, politics, living - and the film never quite put its finger on why Cindy is so repulsed, finally, by her husband. This could be because the person she’s really repulsed by is herself, but then that’s a completely different movie.

Neil Sonnekus

* Next week, Tracker with Ray Winstone and Temuera Morrison.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Why Old Men Are Mad

If you really think about it, there are at least four problems with Robert Duvall’s latest film, Get Low.

For one, it is set in the 1920s, as if honour is something of the distant past and no longer applies. But it is a theme that constantly recurs among old men and its power may well have been greater had it been set in the present.

Felix Bush (Duvall) did something four decades prior to the film’s beginning for which he’s been punishing himself ever since. He has become a hermit; he has never married; never had children; and never had the pleasure of holding grandchildren, however clumsily.

What did he do? Well, the whole film rests on that and all he really did was fall in love. What’s so bad about that? Nothing. “Like a newborn baby it just happens every day,” singeth Sir Michael Jagger. The only problem is she was married and her husband found out. So did her sister, played by the beautifully aged Sissy Spacek, forty years on.

This leads us to the second problem. Film is a visual medium and we don’t want to hear about what happened in the past or any other time. We want to see it. Film should not be like bad radio melodramas, which are usually premised on events from the past.

In this case, however, it’s a mystery worth seeing played out in Duvall’s performance rather than seeing the actual event with younger stand-ins and so on.

Then there’s Bill Murray, whose funeral director is all over the place. We’re not sure whether he’s a bad opportunist or a charming one or a good con man or what. His persona is constantly getting in the way of his character. We expect the deadpan double entendre and it doesn’t always come, but he doesn’t quite manage to bury it either.

Lastly, Bush has a soft spot for a young man who is clearly the son or grandson he would have liked to have, but that relationship is more unresolved than necessarily subtle. Lucas Black gives an excellent performance as a good, honest man.

So what’s so good about Get Low after all that? Well, everything – even its minor mistakes. Duvall gives a beautiful performance of a man driven part mad, part saintly by his desperate solitude. His comedy is eccentric and inspired and when he is saintly director Aaron Schneider, an ex-cinematographer, merely helps to accentuate a light which is there anyway.

Ultimately the film's strength doesn't reside in the fact that Bush is an honourable man; it lies in the fact that this dear old curmudgeon has been living by a code that is hopelessly misguided, but he's stuck to it. And that is another reason why, WB Yeats might have agreed, old men are mad.

Spacek and Bill Cobbs as the Rev Charlie Jackson, the infinitely scratchy, grateful and patient friend, just add to the rich tapestry of this backwoods yarn of a carpenter (and let us not forget who else was one of those) who holds a party for his funeral before he dies.

Now, my son and I were going to see another film, but it hadn’t started yet and I told him he might prefer to go night skateboarding. I told him he wouldn’t like the film because it was about old people, for old people. But I was wrong. He would have been amused, entertained and instructed about his late grandfather, who would never forgive himself for one year forgetting his mother’s birthday.

Neil Sonnekus