Thursday, June 30, 2011

You Talking to Me?

Enough of all this arty-fartsy, namby-pamby, hoity-toity, Marxy-parksy kind of stuff. Let’s get down to some low down and dirty Joe Bob Briggs territory for a change.

You know, how many explosions, decapitations, bullets, litres of fake blood, real breasts, fake breasts, hotpants, sex scenes - the whole drill - can we see.

Well, B-grade specialist Robert Rodriguez (El Mariachi) doesn’t disappoint, but then I’ve always thought he’s much more of an artist than his better-known pal, Quentin Tarantino.

Anyway, you just want to get into the aesthetics of the first New Mexico shot when a rundown car with our hero and a fellow Fed drives into frame and within seconds loyalties are affirmed and heads lose theirs to various thugs’ bodies.

Our hero,who is the closest thing we've got to Charles Bronson these days, doesn’t believe in guns when he can use the old slice,stab and twist technique – and he likes talking about his own myth in the third person. Danny Trejo as Machete Cortez performs the bad acting of the exploitation movies this one’s based upon down to a T, if you know what I mean and I think you do.

So does Robert de Niro, though whether Lindsay Lohan and Steven Seagal are actually trying to act badly is moot. The only thing one can say about him is that he’s very big, and she only comes to life once she’s in a nun’s garb and packing some pouting blonde heat. Being naked and stoned on screen is too much like real life, so that doesn’t count.

But the interesting thing is that there is, in fact, quite a serious theme underlying all of this. Mexicans want to get into America for a better life, God help them, and the Feds want to stop them. The drug lords want to help the Feds by erecting a huge wall, but for their own perverse reasons. They know that as much as the desperadoes want to get in, so does much of the American population want its drugs from down south to filter through.

Put up a wall and it chases up the price of narcotics and the lords sit pretty - which is exactly what the war on them seems to be doing anyway.

Moreover, anyone vaguely interested in how a movie is made could do worse than to marvel at how this one is put together. It’s got a good grungy soundtrack, fresh Mojave-Catholic visuals, a tongue firmly in its cheek - “and introducing Don Johnson” - and has such a good rhythm that it breathes like some heaving, sweating organism.

Like its long-haired, middle-aged peasant hero, in fact.

Moreover, it was made for $10-million and earned $14-million on its opening weekend. This could be because there’s plenty of blood, guns, crucifixes, hot rods, motorbikes and female flesh to be seen – though not much for the women, as it should be.

At first I was puzzled that Rodriguez prissily faded to black every time he got to a sex scene, but then it dawned on me that the whole film is legit porn anyway. I therefore have no hesitation in pronouncing Machete* a masterpiece.

Neil Sonnekus

* Out on DVD now.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Manor Maketh the Man

Kahukura by Robyn Kahukiwa
Ever since he won the screenplay Oscar for his somewhat populous Gosford Park in 2001, it seems like screenwriter Julian Fellowes has been making to-the-manner-born TV series and films. Truth is, he also co-writes stuff like the dire The Tourist, but never mind.

His supreme achievement, in my humble opinion, is a series that has just ended. The first season of Downton Abbey has left me somewhat breathless. Another eight episodes have been commissioned and I can’t wait, partially because I can watch it at home and shout at my children if they eat sweets as noisily as people do here in cinemas.

But why is it so good? Partially because it at least acknowledges that British society did not (it is set just before the Great War) and does not merely consists of the rich, royal, famous and boring. 

Robert Crawley, the Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), runs the manor and seems to spend most of his time being humane to his many servants, who have lives and secrets of their own. The rest of his time is spent being run by his three daughters.

Oddly, in Fellowes’ current feature film, From Time to Time, Bonneville appears as a humane captain at sea who brings a friend home for his blind daughter. That friend is black and his wife, a Dutch woman (Carice van Houten), is outraged. She rather likes gambling, which is rather un-Dutch, but never mind again.

But the big glue in both instances is Maggie Smith. In Abbey she can turn the most innocuous line into a comic feast of irony, ambiguity and manipulation. In the final episode the manor gets a telephone and electricity and Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham, says she feels like she’s living in an HG Wells novel as if nothing could possibly be worse.

In the feature film (as people crinkle their lolly papers), a young boy visits his granny (Smith) and awaits his father’s return from World War Two. But he can see ghosts from the past and it turns out to be a good old fashioned spook mystery. It’s also shot a bit like a dusty novel from before the war, but one constantly has to remind oneself that Smith is playing a nice old lady here, not Violet.

In the series she is simply magnificent.

What we want to know in it, of course, and among many others, is who is going to inherit the bloody manor; are Lady Mary Crawley (Michelle Dockery) and her solicitor cousin Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens) going to finally get together; is the enigmatic butler John Bates (Brendan Coyle) going to stop being so bloody honourable and marry the maid Anna (Joanne Froggat); and are the nasty toff, Lady Edith Crawley (Laura Carmichael), wicked (and gay) first footman Thomas (Rob James-Collier) and scheming Irish maid Sarah O’Brien (Siobhan Finneran) going to get their comeuppance?

And those are just some of the plots; there are many more.

But the main reasons why the series works so well is because it is set in a real manor, not a TV studio acting as New York; and it is exceptionally well written, directed and acted, easily accommodating no less than 16 main characters. It will not survive a Marxist reading, even though one of the drivers is a socialist, but it is still class entertainment, pun fully intended.

In the meantime, we’ll have to do with the breathless excitement (not to mention unintended comedy) of David Attenborough’s First Life on Sunday Night Prime. At 85 the man is unstoppable.

The featured screenprint's title is the Maori name for the red admiral butterfly. It's part of a Native New Zealand series artist Kahukiwa has been doing over the last 10 years in various media. Most of the images, she says, feature Maori women with native flora and fauna.
Neil Sonnekus

Thursday, June 16, 2011

And Now, Ladies and Gentlemen...

Even if you haven’t seen or heard Joan Rivers live or recorded, and I hadn’t, if you’re of a certain age you would have heard or read about her. She has a reputation.

You know she’s known for being vulgar and brash: over the top. So when the doco on her life, A Piece of Work, came out on DVD recently, it was time to find out who exactly the woman is.

Made over the course of her 75th year, she often talks directly to the camera and gives us a portrait of herself as much as the industry in which she works. It’s not a pretty picture.

We learn that she was Johnny Carson’s favourite person until she got her own show to rival his, after which he never spoke to her again.


We see her manager and best friend drop her like a ton of bricks for no apparent reason in the course of that year. We’d expect her to take it in her stride, thanks to her reputation, and she does. But she’s also genuinely devastated.

It’s not nice being betrayed, especially not when you’re getting on. But then the old girl has a fighting spirit and almost pathological need to work and be loved. We get to find out how her husband cracked after a bad deal and committed suicide, leaving her and her daughter to carry on by themselves.

But is this pure hagiography by directors Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg? Well, not quite. They don't mind showing us that her show bombs in London and she will therefore not put it on in New York. If they clearly love their subject matter they don’t mind including Ms Rivers ending up in Wisconsin – such is her need to carry on working - to give a show for a bunch of Bible thumpers.

A man in the audience tells her her joke about disability isn’t funny: he has a deaf son. She curses him and tells him about her deaf mother and late husband. “Where the fuck would we be if we couldn’t laugh about 9/11?” she retorts. Applause. Talk about turning the moral majority around.

Deeply insecure, she even endures grating jokes about her many, many plastic surgery ops on live TV shows – as long as she can be seen. Then again, on Thanksgiving Day she dispenses food to the needy and visits a once-famous photographer, Flo Fox, who is now incapacitated by multiple sclerosis.

So it’s a pretty comprehensive, warts-and-all portrait of Joan Rivers, I'd say. She’s a piece of work alright. And she's a mensch.

Neil Sonnekus

Friday, June 10, 2011

Duddy Revisited, Sort of

The dominant memory I think most people have of The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1974) is Richard Dreyfuss’s immense energy, informed by huge doses of chutzpah.

Apparently Dreyfuss thought his debut-feature performance was the end of his career, but he was thankfully wrong.

There was also the famous scene in which avant-garde film-maker Friar, played to drunken, dissolute perfection by the late Denholm Elliott, makes a video for the ambitious Duddy’s company, which specialises in bar mitzvahs.

According to one site he intercuts African dances and circumcision rites in his work of “art”. I seem to remember him using World War ll themes with screaming German Stukas. Maybe that was included, maybe it’s another movie. These are the tricks memory plays on us.

Anyway, Barney’s Version has very much the same feel. Our protagonist is still in the film business, running a company called Totally Unnecessary Productions. He also has an important male figure who my old man would have called a “character”. Dustin Hoffman just gets less mannered and therefore better and his slightly corrupt, retired cop and father Izzy is a pleasure to behold.

But then the whole thing teems with memorable characters, though Africans might be offended that the one person who gets no continuity happens to be black. If he gets Barney’s first wife pregnant and gets a deserved whack for it, then Scott Speedman’s drunken, drugged-up writer shtups Barney’s second wife but our dubious hero remains loyal to him. Just saying…

Barney is a hard-drinking, perpetual cigar-smoking, ice hockey-loving, capitalist, Jewish Canadian. The big secret to his character is his passion, his chutzpah because, let’s face it, the portly and hirsute Paul Giamatti is not exactly leading-man material.

Granted, he has to play Barney from about 25 to 65, and he did get his Golden Globe for that, but whether the beautiful and slim Rosamund Pike’s Miriam would be as attracted to and tolerant of him as she is, level-headed though her radio announcer persona might be, is debatable. And if she is so tolerant of his many vices, why then does she leave him and their children for a single lapse of discretion by Barney?

Lastly, what other version is there? The one in which a detective tries to prove that Barney actually murdered that useless writer friend of his? It's not a really developed version, though it takes a delicious swipe at the media for getting the story all cock-eyed.

If the film is never boring, often hilarious and a rich tapestry of characters and mores, then it's a sometimes uneven echo of  Duddy - and it requires a little suspension of romantic disbelief.

Neil Sonnekus

Thursday, June 2, 2011

A Modin Tragedie

Mexican director Alejandro Inarritu’s first film, Amores Perros Life’s a Bitch), had an urgency and the sweep of destiny about it.

It also had a very memorable line: if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.

His (Inarritu's) next two films tried very hard to be about the interrelatedness of us all and had very big names and exotic locations in them.

21 Grams and Babel were very much butterfly effect movies – what happens outside Casablanca affects what happens in New York via Tokyo - and they were insufferably serious. For all their internationalism, they were also quite forgettable.

Inarritu’s fourth film is even more serious and grim, but that grimness is at least informed by a Catalunian fatalism, which might be another reason why it’s everything but forgettable. In fact, it’s a masterpiece because you don’t come out of the cinema weeping or depressed but renewed, alive. That makes it a modern tragedy.

Javier Bardem plays Uxbal, a man who lives in a city we only later discover is Barcelona. His life is so desperately focused on the lower-class here and now that there is no time for pretty cityscapes. It is not a part of the city the Olympic committee or Fifa would want you to see.

With his big head, recalling countless Picasso-esque minotaurs, Uxbal operates on various levels. First of all, he’s a father. He has a daughter and younger son, who constantly wets his bed. This is not a happy, unified unit.

Mama, it transpires, is not just a ditz. She is bipolar. The one moment she is a beautiful, passionate, caring woman. The next she is a smoking motor mouth who is sleeping with Uxbal’s brother, among others. The poor woman cannot help herself. She is not reliable or consistent. It’s a mesmerising, compassionate performance by Maricel Alvarez.

So a Chinese woman with a baby looks after the kids after school. Her life is not a bed of roses either.

Uxbal is a go-between. He organizes work for unqualified and illegal Chinese immigrants (hence the babysitter) on construction sites and takes his cut. He then pays a sickeningly corrupt cop his cut. That cop is not a fat,greasy Spaniard. He is repulsive in that he is sleek, macho, red-haired, unshaven, sexy. The married Chinese boss, too, is not just a sexless, aloof exploiter. He’s having a rampant affair with another man.

Uxbal also organizes work and accommodation for African migrants. Again, he takes his cut; he has a family to feed. A police raid on the migrants trading illegally in a square brilliantly captures the utter chaos - and racism - of such a venture.

If Uxbal is a businessman, then he tends to care a little about those he’s exploiting. He engages with them, too, passionately. That is more than most can say. When economics drive his basic compassion too much the consequences are horrific.

But he is also a spiritual go-between. People pay him to convey their late, deceased loved ones’ last thoughts and wishes. In turn, he goes to his guide, a clear-eyed, older woman who tells him he knows what he must do. He knows he is dying and he knows he must get his affairs in order. Sane, hard, psychic advice.

If his son is wetting his pants because of his mother, then Uxbal is wetting his pants from prostate cancer. To not mention this fact would be feeding the myth of that particular disease (though Uxbal might be a bit young for it).

After all, did Elizabethans attend Hamlet to see why he’s so upset or did they go to see how he handles his father’s murder? For that matter, does one die “after losing a long battle with cancer”, or do you celebrate a life which, like all things, ended, one way or the other? Hence Biutiful.

However, no amount of spiritual knowledge is enough to console Uxbal that his two children will be alright. His father also died when he was young, running from the dictator, Franco. It’s not pretty but, again, it’s real.

The way Inarritu solves Uxbal’s desperate dilemma is as simple and profound an observation about Africa as the makers In a Better World couldn’t even begin to imagine.

Only about three-quarters of a way through the film do we see the church of the Sagrada Familia, the sacred family, incomplete, a work of art in progress, beautiful. Like Uxbal’s family, like Uxbal, who can’t spell that word, like a man, like all of us.

If Inarritu’s characters were all over the world in his previous two movies, now the world comes to them, to Uxbal, in Barcelona. One individual as the world is less pretentious, more real and somewhat cheaper than trying to out-location James Bond.

If the film could do with a few minor cuts here and there - and a little humour, even for Catalonia - then Bardem’s perfectly directed performance is still one of a lifetime in a truly great work of cinema.

Neil Sonnekus

* Bardem was nominated for an Oscar and won the best actor award at Cannes.