Thursday, July 28, 2011

Stealing Beauty

One of the horrible truths the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa produced was the knowledge that many of the perpetrators and victims of atrocities were never punished or compensated appropriately, if at all.

If an apartheid-era assassin still languishes in jail after more or less full disclosure, then the man he represented, ex-Chief of the Defence Force General Magnus Malan, was acquitted for lack of evidence in 1996 and died peacefully in his sleep on Nelson Mandela’s birthday this year.

Still, the perpetrators and the victims got their chance to disclose their deeds or express their pain, respectively, and that is better than nothing. Just. So, too, the War Crimes Tribunal in Cambodia concerning the Khmer Rouge regime of Pol Pot, many of whose cronies still serve in the present government.

The New Zealand connection is the horror story of Kerry Hamill (pictured), whose boat was blown into Kampuchean waters in 1978. He and Englishman John Dewhirst were captured, tortured for two months into making absurd confessions about being CIA spies and “crushed”, meaning executed.

When Kerry’s brother, transatlantic rowing champion Rob, was offered the chance to give a victim statement in Phnom Penh, he jumped at the chance to do something for his "beautiful brother" and director Annie Goldson documented that journey, and more.

This would obviously be an emotional trip and how she treated that arc would to a large extent determine the power of the film. There is nothing more embarrassing than a camera relentlessly waiting for someone to cry, but Goldson clearly built up such a good rapport with Hamill that it feels perfectly natural and non-intrusive when he does.

Another plus of Brother Number One is that it is not just about Hamill but also his Cambodian translator and a handful of survivors. The former, for example, is very clear about what should be done to Comrade Duch. He should be crushed, like most of her family was.

On a purely formal level, the film is attractively shot, well structured and effectively scored by ex-South African and Bright Blue guitarist Tom Fox and his musical partner, Marshall Smith.

But has any good come out of this depressingly familiar tale, in which Duch only got 19 years instead of life? Well, yes. If he might still one day leave jail alive, then at least four more killers have been brought out of the woodwork, including a woman, as a result of this trial: the work of some very dedicated human rights lawyers. Some truth, at least, will out.

Secondly, as long as trials like these exist and persist, political killers will know that there is a possibility that they might be indicted and live out their last days in confined shame, however comfortably.

And, on a personal level, it brought into perspective a friendly young barista who asked me about my accent. When I grumbled about how I was struggling to find work, Michael chun Long Yip told me about how his pregnant mother fled the killing fields of Cambodia and how he was born in a refugee camp in Mairuth, Thailand, in 1980.

Today their family runs the Espresso Workshop in Epsom, Auckland.


The Bobby Fischer Versus the World doco more or less tells us what we already know in the “troubled genius” vein. Granted, it does explain what makes the game so addictive to chess nuts (guilty, your honour), but it never attempts to defend the man. Some of his early comments are deeply astute, and if fellow world champion Mikhail Tal called him a perfect chess gentleman, then I’m more inclined to believe him than this film's maker, who doesn't seem prepared to explore that observation.


Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams also doesn’t quite work for me, mainly because his philosophical musings are somewhat dull and the amazing 30 000-year-old images of the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc caves are repeated once too often. But he does come into his own in the postscript, showing a nuclear power station not far from the caves producing albino crocodiles in an artificial jungle powered by steam from the plant. Maybe if he’d played the two off against each other throughout we’d be on more solid, Herzogian ground.


Lastly, there is the problematic Australian feature film Sleeping Beauty.

In it a student goes to strange lengths to make money. Starting arrestingly with Lucy (Emily Browning) putting a thin medical pipe down her throat in a lab and almost choking, she "graduates" to being drugged so that rich old men can do anything with her except penetrate her naked, sleeping figure, hence the title. These lurid and often violent fantasies are then shown.

(It didn’t help that some prick next to me insisted on squeakily rubbing his bus ticket and ignoring me when I asked him to stop it. No one supported me either. Tolerance is one thing, slavish good manners another).

But how this non-penetration is monitored is never explained, since we never see these acts being observed by a third-party or their camera. Trust hardly seems to hold much currency here. Maybe that makes us, the viewers, the “guardian” or even “censor”, certainly the voyeur, which opens up a multitude of questions.

Place is not particularly important either. The Italian-style house Lucy goes to could be anywhere in the world, though the accents are obviously Australian. 

After these sessions she goes home to her very passive boyfriend. When he takes an overdose she does not try to help him but holds him and weeps until he’s “gone”. She gets upset, too, when an old man decides to commit suicide next to her sleeping body, but otherwise nothing fazes her. 

Jane Campion, who mentored author Julia Leigh in the making of this film, seems very much to favour the idea of passive or shackled males and called the film “sensuous”. One critic said it could not be made by a man, though whether that’s because the man would be “unafraid” to make it or be accused of sadism is another matter.

Entering the arena of (male-made) films like Eyes Wide Shut, Never Let Me Go and David Cronenburg’s Crash in tone and surreality, if not consistency, it’s difficult to gauge what the film is saying. Is it art or is it just a well acted, high-class excuse to look at a marble-like beauty?

There are certainly plenty of young naked female and old male bodies in it, but whether this constitutes sensuality free from any ideological biases is moot. Just because a woman shows us her sex as being fascinatingly compliant and men as disgusting pigs doesn’t necessarily make it art, liberated or liberating.

It is an "intriguing" if rather slow film, but the box office might not be quite as forgiving, and beauty without viewers tends to equate what viewers of porn tend to do with themselves, doesn't it? 

Neil Sonnekus

Thursday, July 21, 2011


One shudders to think what was going through the mind of those judges who had to decide which was the best film for the foreign Oscar this year.

Would it be that piece of paternalistic claptrap in which a Danish doctor helps the starving black masses, or would it be a masterpiece like Biutiful or the apparently brilliant Dogtooth from Greece -or Incendies, a Canadian film which stays with you like a dream that is so disturbing and important that it doesn’t have to be written down.

The judges obviously settled for In a Better World with its comfortable, anti-Muslim view of Africa just dying to be helped by a good bwana. But there is nothing comfortable about Incendies, which roughly means scorched, having just finished at the New Zealand International Film Festival and coming to cinemas next month.

It's a devastating metaphor for the Middle East, but the judges probably didn't like the fact that it's finger isn't pointed at Muslims this time, but Christians. As if it matters, for God's sake. Fanaticism is fanaticism.

What starts off as a slightly strange reading of a will in a Canadian notary’s office leads us slowly and surely  into a maze of horror in the Lebanese south that, as one character later on says, it would be better not to know about. But by then we are so far into this journey, so mesmerized, that we can’t let go.

To say what exactly the film is “about” would be doing it a great disservice, not because it would be spoiling the plot but because the subject matter is so delicate and can so easily sound trite – or sensational - that it would cheapen it.

Director Denis Villeneuve steers his actors through this emotional labyrinth with a sober, steady hand, using no fancy lighting, and gets performances that are breathtaking. It would be almost unfair to single anyone out, but Lubna Azabal’s performance as the central character is so good that her haunted look, like that dream, will not go away.

If at the beginning we might think she’s having a slightly over-dramatic moment at a public swimming pool, when we finally know why it seems like an act of superhuman restraint. How can she not burst, let alone live, having been through so much?

One of the great ironies of the film is that “civilized” Canada is shown as dark, cold, rainy and sterile, whereas rural Lebanon is depicted as sunny and passionate – but rotten with religious and moral depravity. As for those who think film cannot convey depth,complexity and catharsis, here's proof to the contrary.

See this film if you want to know what’s happening in the Middle East, from whatever point of view. It’s all the same. But its greatest accomplishment is that if the audience was making audible sounds of disbelief and horror, not one of us left. We couldn’t. It’s too vital, like a Greek tragedy, to walk away from or to avoid.

Incendies has to be seen. Period.

Neil Sonnekus

Friday, July 15, 2011

Knock, Knock, Who's There?

The New Zealand International Film Festival only really starts today, so I had to decide what to review before a host of mainly foreign, not-such-mainstream movies hit Auckland.

It was a toss-up between Robert Redford’s two-hour-long history drama, The Conspirator, or Unknown, another Liam Neeson Euro-thriller, out on DVD now.

Redford’s drama didn’t seem to have much to do with contemporary matters like the trials of the Guantanamo Bay prisoners in a way that Arthur Miller’s The Crucible echoed the McCarthy anti-communist witch-hunts, so I decided to go with Unknown at the shorter “approximately 109 minutes”.

Neeson’s previous outing in Taken had him as a retired American special agent tracking down his teenage daughter, who gets abducted in Paris, and saving her from those throat-slitting damned Ayrabs. It was a really slick thriller and quietly racist too.

Now Dr Martin Harris (Neeson) and his wife, Elizabeth (January Jones), go to Berlin to attend a biotechnology conference, but when they get to a fancy hotel he realizes he’s forgotten his briefcase at the airport and catches a taxi back there without telling his wife. He’ll call her, he thinks, but – ta, da – his phone’s been disconnected. Something’s up. The music tells us thus.

Before you can say Sturm und Drang the taxi crashes and he knocks his head badly, but fortunately Diane Kruger is the taxi driver and saves him from the city’s icy river. Now, however, nobody believes that he is who he says and thinks he is. Cool idea. This could be good.

When Harris does finally track down the able taxi driver, Gina (Kruger), she avoids him like the plague because she is a gastarbeiter who doesn’t have her papers in order, but her one colleague, Biko (Clint Dyer), will play the nice black guy who can always be relied upon in these situations. Biko? Look, it’s not unusual to name your children after this or that hero, but a little context might have helped. Anyway, Biko goes the way of all nice, reliable black helpers.

One of the big clues in the movie is that this scientist turns out to be quite able with his fists and driving skills, but the best lines are given to veteran Swiss actor Bruno Ganz playing an ex-Stasi official. “We Germans are very good at forgetting. We forgot the war, we forgot forty years of communism…”

At least he doesn’t have to contend with Harris’s line to him: “I need you to help me prove I’m…me.” You can see Neeson had to do that one quite a few times. He seemed to be grimacing too when he asked Gina whether he could "crash" at her place. You could just imagine a typical Germanic response. "But we've crashed already once, why again?" But then she is Croatian and they know exactly what that old Sixties word stands for.  

Things are not what they seem, of course, and when Frank Langella’s Rodney Cole visits Ganz’s Ernst J├╝rgen it becomes the best scene in the movie, fraught with tension and a clever surprise by cleverly  echoing what Joseph Goebbels and Martin Bormann allegedly did in the same city, circa May 1945.

Don’t read further if you don't want more plot giveaways, because Harris turns out to be an…assassin, whose knock on the head actually had him believing he was really married to Liz, loved her and was a biotechnologist. It’s all been a brilliant set-up, or such are the attractions of the bourgeoisie.

Now Harris, who has killed numerous others, suddenly decides to save a German scientist who is about to give the world free, pesticide-resistant grain - with the generous backing of an Arab prince, almost as if to make up for that other bit of anti-Muslim filmmaking.

So you see what a knock to the head can do for you. You can change your personality, get exonerated for all the people you killed and then hop on to the bullet train with a new identity and great-looking blonde babe as the end credits start rolling. Simple.

Neil Sonnekus

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Fudged French Farce

Francois Ozon’s mystery-thriller Swimming Pool had a lot going for it. It had the incomparably sexy Charlotte Rampling facing off against a much younger woman and winning in ways the latter couldn't even begin to imagine. 

Starting off as a power play it ended up as metaphor for a writer’s reality, which can best be illustrated by another famous French writer on his deathbed, enquiring after the wellbeing of one of his fictional creations.

Another Ozon film, 8 Women, was set in the Fifties and had eight of the top French actresses of the time working out who murdered a man they were all related to in one way or another. Catherine Deneuve, Isabelle Huppert, Fanny Ardant and Emmanuelle Beart were four of those women.

But what made the film unusual was the fact that they would variously burst into song every now and again.

Ozon clearly likes working with women and vice versa, and in Potiche he teams up with Deneuve again. This one is set in the Seventies and starts off with the 67-year-old housewife jogging along a country road in a red tracksuit – and curlers. She is well-off housewife Suzanne Pujol, who also jots down poems, which are excruciatingly bad. We soon learn that she is a compliant trophy wife, une potiche.

Her husband, Robert (Fabrice Luchini), is a typical bourgeois boor. He married her so that he could get his grubby little hands on her father’s umbrella factory and have an affair with his younger, busty secretary. But the workers are giving him such uphill that he has a heart attack and Madame Pujol takes over, agreeing with and to many of the workers’ demands.

Helping her is an old flame, the socialist MP and mayor of the town, Maurice (a very corpulent Gerard Depardieu). Will they restart their old love? Is her son possibly his?

From being a suburban goddess Mrs Pujol becomes a flag bearer for women in the workplace, which is all very well, but she seems to have sentimental leanings towards the way her father did business, which was to give your worker a gold watch and a signed photograph of yourself after years of loyal service as a farewell present. Seriously.

But this is supposed to be a farce. Luchini’s character doesn’t quite crack the modern equivalent of a Molierian miser, which is not his fault. Yes, the ever elegant Deneuve could be a metaphor for, say, a contemporary Christine Lagarde, but Deneuve has never done poker-faced French comedy, let alone maternal warmth, very well.

So there’s very little to laugh out loud about in this rather long attempt to send up the French bourgeoisie. This could be because it’s taking its own, not exactly new or sophisticated political message way too seriously.

Neil Sonnekus

* Next week this time the New Zealand International Film Festival begins.