Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Rugby Will Be Televised

The Rugby World Cup did not start very auspiciously for us.

My son and I tried to catch the local train to Party Central. The first one was full but we were told the next one was a mere five minutes behind it. It was, but it too was packed. So we went home and watched the opening ceremony on TV.

Then we rushed to a hill overlooking the city to watch the fireworks. The owner of the closest house had put a speaker out on his car roof so that we could all hear the commentary. There was a rather charming, old fashioned community feeling about the whole thing. My daughter was in her pyjamas.

When the commentator said the fireworks were an “orgy of colour” everyone burst out laughing. Kiwis, as a South African-born work coach told us, can hear the grass growing. Then we rushed home to watch the opening match, which was a crashing bore.

The next day I had to work in the city and thought I’d better take the train, since town would be jammed. I went an hour early, just in case, but the train was dead on time. "Town" was relatively quiet.

The government had stepped in and used its special powers to go over Auckland supercity mayor Len Brown’s bald head to ensure there wouldn’t be a transport problem again. If this were South Africa they would be accused of being unilateral racists, since they’re mostly white and he’s half Maori. Town was relatively quiet. So was Party Central. The long white cloud looked more like a mutant caterpillar.

Two weeks later my wife and I decided to take the train to town on our way to the big match between N’Zealand and France. If you had a match ticket you got free bus and train rides.

The train was punctual and the announcement matched what was happening. Auckland was bending over backwards to be efficient, and it was working

There was a good vibe on the train. The French fans were relaxed, but then they would be. We took the Fan Trail, which is a good 4.5km walk through the city.

Every restaurant, cafĂ© and bar had a giant screen showing the match between England and someone else. The fine art and architectural faculties had installations in a park. They had drama students interacting with those installations in a way that Drama 101 students always seem required to do. They writhed.

People were sitting out in their front yards, having barbeques (bahbies, or braais) and drinks, exchanging pleasantries with the passers-by. Most houses were draped in flags, mostly of mixed loyalties. First the homeland, then the new land, New Zealand.

Quite a few French fans wore blue, white and red cocks on their heads. Others dressed up like musketeers or Vikings. They sang. They joked and flirted with the neon stewards, who were all over the place. They were incredibly friendly for people who were being paid nothing.

It was cold but a bunch of Frenchman wore grass skirts, skimpy bras, wigs and nothing else. They were carrying a banner that said Tahiti. Most of the All Blacks supporters wore black. Kiwis do this most of the time anyway.

Always one for the big occasion, I had a stomach bug. I drank water and Coke and couldn’t touch the tasty-looking sandwiches my wife had made, nor the dry wors (sausage) I had bought.

The feeling inside the newly refurbished Eden Park was amazing. The French were singing lustily and we had a seat behind one of the trylines. The seats were very narrow. My wife perved Dan Carter warming up on the field through the binoculars and I perved a French girl in the next row.

I offered the two Kiwis sitting next to us a stick of dry wors each. They politely said they’d share one. They ate it. A bit later they offered me the only beer we were allowed to drink, Heineken, which I had to decline.

“This [sausage] goes well with the beer,” the one said. “That's why it’s our national diet,” I replied.

The game was about to begin. After the anthems there was an electronic countdown on the big screen and the ref blew his whistle. The French attacked well for a while, but their backs ran at half speed. Unsurprisingly, they were smeared.

The first All Blacks try was scored right under our noses. After each score there was an electronic trumpet signal. “Ole!” everyone shouted. But then a lot of black cars with their multi-national flags look like bulls that have been pierced by banderillas.

During boring patches there were Mexican waves. This happened twice. After each referral to the video ref, electronic drums would beat dramatically, as if this were a Roman arena, care of Hollywood, awaiting Caesar’s thumbs up or down.

“All hail king Richard,” a wag said behind us, referring to Richie McCaw, also known as God, playing his 100th test match. The joker sounded like a local drunk.

Soon the French were trailing and every time their fans chanted “allez bleu” he responded, “nineteen-nil”. I looked around and saw a young, red-haired yuppie with his partner. He was probably a very quiet person in the week. Amazing how a bit of beer and crowd anonymity can bring out the joker in one.

Sitting directly behind my right ear was an older woman who clearly knew the rules of the game and kept on coming up with such quiet gems as: “Kill him. Kill him.”

The rest of the match happened so far away that I guiltily watched it on the big screen, trying not to think how much I’d spent on being at this game. Then it was over. We got out easily, passing rows upon rows of buses there to ferry fans wherever. We stepped on to the train and it pulled away. In town we did the same thing, all the while being guided by almost over-friendly officials. It was a relief to be home but I had to do this all over the next day.

It was raining cats and dogs, but my daughter and I caught the train anyway. It was packed with Samoan and Fiji fans. This was going to be the great inter-island war, I had reasoned. My daughter didn’t stop talking and giggling, but then fathers will forgive much, much more than that.

The train stopped at a distant outside platform, which meant we had to walk for about 15 minutes to catch the next train to Eden Park. But the supercity had laid on buses to take us that short distance. We decided to walk and I started thinking there was no way the city was going to make a profit like this.

The train took us to Eden Park and a Fijian brass band was plying Macarena on the street. The men wore sandals, white skirts, stiff blue military tops and white caps. They had a certain swagger to them that got heaps of applause. The rain kept on coming down.

We’d be sitting on the highest stand, held up by a complex of aluminum pipes. We had lunch under the stand, spoke to some South Africans. Amazing how little we had in common. I sat next to a Brazilian who only wore a short-sleeved shirt. He rumbled his feet and slapped his arms for the rest of the game to stay warm. Five young Fijian fans slid past us ten minutes into the game. They ranged from white to Indian to black. One of them had a deeply moronic laugh.

They would scarcely be sitting down before they’d leave again to buy a Heineken or snort a line in the toilets. Sitting this high up we could see better than sitting so low the night before. Pity the game was so boring. There were endless handling mistakes, so there were endless Mexican waves. Every time they approached us people rumbled their feet and I thought about the aluminum pipes.

The sun finally came out, the Brazilian thanked God, my daughter looked happy to have been there and we took a bus and then train back to our station.

Tonight my son and I are going to surprise our two Samoan relatives and take them to the Springboks-Samoa match. My family will be able to say we all attended the Rugby World Cup 2011 tournament.

After that I’m going to watch sport on the people’s medium: Maori TV.

Since most of its viewers are indigent they're showing all the games, free. I’ll be able to stretch my legs, drink the beer of my choice, save a lot of money, mute the commercials, laugh at my son's send-up of local accents and at least see the tries - in countless replays. 

Neil Sonnekus

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Somewhat Limited

What would you do if you were a down and out writer and were suddenly given a miracle drug that would unleash the other 80% of your brain you don’t use?

This is not a question Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper) loses much sleep about in Limitless (out on DVD).

When he gets the miracle drug, NZT, he does what most writers apparently would do. He starts trading with stocks and, like Faustus, seeks and gets power - in the form of money, cash, moola.

He doesn’t decide to become a Nobel-winning author or a philosopher, for example. He doesn’t try to solve the world’s moral or material problems. No, he becomes a trader. But then writers are such fickle creatures. Oh, he does also learn the piano and a couple of languages in a matter of days, so he’s not completely uncultured.

But if his girlfriend (Abbie Cornish) drops him because he is all blocked up, then she’s quick to take him back once he’s gone straight again. That is, rich. And what’s the next logical step for a man of wealth in the United States of America? Why, the White House of course.

If this broad summary sounds cynical then I’d like to add hastily that this is a very entertaining film too. Made by the highly imaginative writer/director Neil Burger (The Illusionist), the story has amazing visuals and effects to match Inception – and it’s less indulgent: it clips along at a good, thriller-like pace.

Burger also very cleverly changes the lighting when Morra is “on” as opposed to when he’s just a struggling hack, and there’s a great soundtrack to be heard.

Obviously drugs like NZT don’t come without snags and where there’s money to be made the worms will come out of the woodwork. This is what gives the film its tension and urgency, but it could have been a little more satirical about that handful of people on Wall Street who are, after all, screwing us so royally.


Across the Atlantic there is the “explosive thriller” Incendiary (also on DVD), starring Michelle Williams and Ewan McGregor.

Interestingly, Williams’ character doesn’t have a name, though the backside of her jeans tells us she’s a Sexy Mama. If this is chauvinistic then it’s of a very special kind, because the director is a woman.

Sharon Maguire spends much too much time establishing that there’s a special relationship between what the IMDB calls a Young Mother and The Boy. The first visuals of the two of them trying to outstare each other without blinking at bedtime is tender and more than enough. But other scenes carry on, though admittedly they also illustrate how lonely and isolated this woman is. But it all eats up time.

In her voice-over, Williams tells us she’s a typical chav, watches Top Gear and her and her family’s religion is Arsenal Football Club. Fair enough. Her husband does have a name for some reason. Lenny (Nicholas Gleaves) is a bomb disposal officer and “tense and remote” doesn’t even begin to describe what he’s like.

This leaves Williams on her own much of the time and she will start having an affair with the man, Jasper Black (McGregor), who lives across the road. He’s a journalist and drives an Aston Martin or something equally ostentatious, and he isn’t even an economics reporter or editor.

Anyway, in the middle of coitus the unthinkable happens: there’s a bomb explosion at an Arsenal vs Chelsea match her husband and child are attending.

That’s the explosive part of the film, and there’s no Russian connection, but there’s no thriller part either because director Maguire constantly dwells on the maddening pain of loss Williams is going through. That makes it a drama.

She now befriends the Muslim child of a suspected terrorist and, to cut a very long story short, she ends up in hospital for a second time, which becomes unintentionally funny.

Moreover, her shrink has told her to write letters to Osama bin Laden and we hear those in voiceover too. The final nail in the coffin of this film is when she tells the now late Bin Laden that if he could see her and Black’s newborn infidel his heart would soften.

Neil Sonnekus

* The photographs on this page were taken at the brilliantly refurbished Auckland Art Gallery and feature the works of South Korean artist Choi Jeong Hwa, among others. The installation on the right,  Flower Chandelier, “breathes”. Furthermore, there is a promised gift from American philanthropists Julian and Josie Robinson and features works by the likes of Picasso, Dali and Cezanne, among many others. But then it can’t be that important because, unlike the Rugby World Cup, entry is free.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Come back, Oliver Stone

Isn’t it strange how so many films about South Africa are made by non-indigenes or, failing that, South Africans who live abroad?

Why would this be? There’s a very simple reason for it. It’s because the National Film and Video Foundation is so busy playing politics and signing co-production agreements in five-star hotels at far-flung festivals overseas that, at the end of the day, very little of that money makes it on to the screen.

And if it does, the final product is usually a pile of politically correct crap.

Anything critical of the present order, like the uneven but powerful Jerusalema, is not going to get a blue farthing because, well, some fellow filmmakers and apparatchiks thought that, “objectively”, it didn’t warrant funding.

I have some personal experience of this. I submitted a script and was told that as a thriller it was “ridiculous”. The gatekeeper, apparently an Iranian-American, was right of course. It didn’t work as a thriller because it was actually a romantic comedy.

So the next best thing for a filmmaker to do is go and live abroad, which most of those who have any talent and money have done, where it’s difficult enough to raise funding for a film as it is.

Then, once they have achieved that and got some big names attached to product Struggle South Africa, they might get some local funding via the Department of Trade and Industry, which will then hasten to stipulate that it doesn’t necessarily agree with the contents of the product.

And so you get a film like The Bang Bang Club, based on the eponymous book by photographers Greg Marinovich and Joao Silva.

I have worked with two of the people depicted in this film and they’re not like they're shown at all, which needn’t be a problem but in this case it is. After all, this film is only “based” on a true story. The end credits assure us that all the characters in this film are fictitious, no doubt for legal reasons.

Marinovich, played by Ryan Philippe, in real life talks fast and walks fast. Maybe it has to do with the fact that if you stand still for too long in a war zone you might get killed, as he almost did – a few times.

But Philippe, who is not a bad actor at all, is directed to talk like what New Zealanders call a “Yarpie” (Japie). Obviously the accent is all over the place, which still needn’t be a problem, though Marinovich ends up looking and sounding more like another local photographer, who isn’t featured in the film anyway.

The next person to get a mauling is Robyn Comley, played by Malin Akerman, who is clearly in the film to provide a bit of female “colour”. As integral as she is to the boys in the “club”, she doesn’t get a postscript (she still works as a picture editor, at The Times in Johannesburg) and has more little devils running around in that blonde head of hers than Silver clearly can begin to imagine.

The point is, he is treading on hallowed territory and I’m not talking about South Africa or its townships. I’m talking about Oliver Stone turf. Say what you like about him, but a film like Salvador “captured” all the fear and madness of war and reporting on it that Bang Bang tries and generally fails to do.

But Silver does succeed in making the romantic depictions between Marinovich and Comley as cringe-worthy of Stone, who nevertheless was/is an expert at depicting contradictory male characters and could have had a field day here.

Silver has four mad glory boys here and fails 75% to delineate them and their private and professional lives. Two of the men are played by local actors, Frank Rautenbach and Neels van Jaarsveld, who still don’t work and I don’t think it’s their fault.

So this is not a let-South-Africans-be-played-by-South-Africans-and-death-to-all-foreigners argument, which is still very prevalent in certain circles there. Ken Oosterbroek (Rautenbach) is supposed to be the main victim of the club, yet he is not given enough background or build-up for us to pity him.

In fact, his fatal shooting is treated as secondary to Marinovich’s wound, which is crazy.

Silva (Van Jaarsveld) seems to tag along until the end, when he suddenly loses his cool, but again, no proper build-up to that moment. Presumably the film was already done by the time he lost both his legs in Afghanistan, because that is not mentioned in the postscript either.

Now, I didn’t know Kevin Carter, but Taylor Kitsch as the talented and morally confused photographer “captures” a little of the universal lunacy and confusion of the profession – even some dopey, Cape Town-like pretension. It’s far from a perfect role, but it does show some kind of vulnerability, some kind of humanity.

Yes, the film tries to address the ethics of clicking away while people are being killed, dying or dead, and yes it covers the territory of why should we care about four photographers' precious whites hides when black lives appear to be so much cheaper. But that should be actively implicit, not showing a red flag that it's trying to cover all bases.

Anyway, it was good to see Fiona Ramsay on screen and not just as having a voice-coach credit. She and Patrick Shai, Vusi Kunene and Russel Savadier, among others, prove that they don’t have to stand back for any international "stars" whatsoever.

So, a failure that succeeds in bringing a little more of South Africa’s troubled history to the world. Hell, one day that country might even succeed in doing so all by itself, but don’t hold your breath - especially not about the mess it's in at present.

Neil Sonnekus

Thursday, September 8, 2011

A Country - and Game - of Two Halves

New Zealanders are already quietly preparing themselves for their team’s dismal failure at this year’s Rugby World Cup.

Never mind the fact that they have the best team in the world - on paper and on the field - their loyal fans are privately getting ready to be as positive as possible about losing abysmally.

How does one know this? That reliable old crutch of a quiet day at the newsroom, the survey, proves it. About 450 children at one school in admittedly our largest city, Auckland, were asked whether they thought their team would win the William Webb Ellis trophy this time round. In that rather charming way that children have they said no.

They did add, however, that the All Blacks would get to the final, which really is no consolation at all. But because the survey said so it has to be universally true, even though we all know that 7.86 people out of a sample of 10 innately distrust surveys.

But there’s another thing that drives the Kiwis quietly insane. They know that, even if they do win the cup this year - and it’s a big if - they still won’t have proven much. They know that if they win that elusive trophy they will only have won it on home ground - just like the only other time they ever kissed it, back in the mists of 1987.

After all, their three biggest opponents, the Wallabies, the English and the Springboks have taken it on foreign soil. But not the Kiwis, haunted as they are by another fact: the Boks did not play in 1987. It is this “away” factor that torments the outer reaches of Kiwis’ overly decent dreams in a country whose largest export is not mutton, of course, but milk.

So what do New Zealand’s supporters do before they fall into a fitful, feverish sleep every night? Why, they pray, of course. Not on their knees or anything quite so demonstrative, but they pray nevertheless. What do they pray about? They pray that nothing will happen to their two iconic players, captain Richie McCaw and flyhalf Dan Carter.

So much hinges on these two top-notch but injury-prone athletes that a mere bruise to a ligament becomes national news, on all channels, as if they were real icons that have been damaged in a Romanian church by some deranged pornographer.

But there could be a Maori explanation for all of this. Might an absence of those ultra-cool tribal tattoos on these two gentlemen not be the real bad mana, karma, voodoo or spirit for the team? Quite possibly. How do we know that they don’t have any major tattoos? Because they’re always whipping off their clothes to advertise this deodorant or that refreshing sports drink on our TV screens and billboards, that’s why.

Whatever the case, most of the rugby fans here in tiny New Zealand will be waiting to see these giants of the game perform their awesome haka with their team-mates and hopefully not choke against the more brutish, aforementioned opponents - let alone those, no, let us rather not even mention the French and the nightmare of 2007.

That could only open a can of frogs’ legs.

But here they are, the French, and the Romanians. Everybody’s here now, even the Scots, who were the last to arrive. Was it because they really are tightfisted or because they’re being hosted in Invercargill, the town that is the furthest south and therefore the coldest and thus the most like home?

Whatever the case, they were so overwhelmed by the warm reception they got there, what with bagpipes blaring and open-faced children performing a welcoming haka, that they insisted on taking that area’s prize foodstuff – oysters – right off their menu.

Meanwhile, a Maori professor has said that all immigrants from South Africa, the UK and US should be denied entry because they’re racists. She has a point, of course, because there are some racists in Browns Bay, Auckland, but then there are lots of Saffers who get on better with Maoris than Pakehas (whites) for the simple reason that they’re more used to mixing with other races than the local Pakehas.

Professor Mutu also seems oblivious of the fact that plenty of Saffers here are not white: they’re Indian and Coloured. But she does have a point, just like someone would have a point that Maori men should be banned for bashing their babies, wives and partners, especially when their teams lose.

It’s a known fact that medical teams are actually on standby for this eventuality, but then I went up One Tree Hill with Haare Williams last Sunday, and I’ll bet my bottom dollar (if I still had one) that that poet, sage and leader has never touched a woman in anger in his life. 

Anyway, all of this just so happens to coincide with the Pacific Nations Forum, in which the environment and Fiji were top of the agenda. Maybe people are more tolerant of each other here because they have an enemy that is much greater than them. That's not China, but nature. Some of the islands are being threatened by rising oceanic levels and it must be quite hard to discriminate against others when you're drowning.

As for Fiji, sanctions will remain in place against this military-run island until it has democratic elections again. None of its players with military connections were allowed to enter the country and partake, so the last one resigned from his post a week before the finals so that he too could play. Would one be surprised to learn that he resumed his role after the tournament? Hell, yes.

Which brings us to tonight’s opening match between Tonga and N’Zealand, as Prime Minister John Key tends to pronounce it. The former country’s resident and visiting citizens take the prize for the most colourful and enthusiastic supporters so far. We’ve been promised a “physical” match, which comes as a great relief: imagine a psychic game of rugby, with millions just visualising the game.

Then again, it could become a great hit in, say, India.

Obviously there are split loyalties here, since this is a largely a country of immigrants. First you shout for your homeland, if you’re from elsewhere, then for New Zealand.

Or, if you’re a Kiwi you shout (and pray, and hope, and pray again) for New Zealand, and then for your country or island of origin, like the man whose entrance, with its Kiwi and Irish flags I photographed.

When I asked him if I could take a picture of it so that I could share it with my millions of readers worldwide, he responded with all the grace and generosity of this distant country’s people, even though he could hear I was a South African.

Then he rather tellingly added this proviso: “Just don’t win the Cup.”

Neil Sonnekus

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Funny Bones

Today’s two movies are comedies, but the one is a work of fiction and the other is a documentary.

The Guard has been compared with Martin McDonagh’s brilliant In Bruges because not only is it similar in tone, casting and structure, it’s also made by his brother, John Michael.

But is The Guard really as good as In Bruges, which has attained virtual cult status?

Well, no, which doesn’t mean it’s bad at all, but the latter had a great setting and a relationship between two men that was not only hilarious but also perfectly touching.

The Guard goes the gruff route, yet again starring Brendan Gleeson. This time he’s a provocative Irish cop who has to team up with an American agent, come all the way to Ireland to prevent a drug consignment from the States getting in.

Big white faux bigot and thin black American. For one, I struggled to hear everything that Gleeson was saying, so colloquial was it. Secondly, the sunny Tijuana music had an extremely tenuous connection with what was happening in overcast Eire, nor did it quite work as ironic counterpoint. Three, women once again don’t feature much, except as secondary characters, if that: Gleeson’s mum is dying and he consorts with prostitutes.

On the plus side it's a very cleverly plotted film, the dialogue is sharp - especially when delivered by Mark Strong's watchable, educated thug - and it's good to see Cheadle playing a hard-nosed character for a change. 


Much more complex and moving is the documentary Billy T: Te Movie.

Every country seems to produce its iconic joker and Billy T seems to have been it for New Zealand. When William James Te Wehi Taitoko started making waves it was still unusual to see a Maori on TV. People would talk about a once-off appearance for weeks afterwards. This was as recent as the mid-Seventies.

But the man was so talented he couldn’t be stopped. If a country like, say, South Africa, actively barred people from doing their thing because of their colour, then it was completely different in Aotearoa. It seems Maori were politely included and effectively neutralised.

Billy T’s joke of him being half Maori and half Scottish – “the one half of me wants to get pissed and the other half doesn’t want to pay” - is extremely telling. It takes a swipe at both parties’ ills but does so with what South Africa’s forced icon, Leon Schuster, lacks. That is, charm.

But that joke still sums up the friendly but uneasy relationship between an indigenous minority and a predominantly Scots-based majority, not to mention the yellow danger, at which Billy T's folksy character also takes very funny, un-PC swipes.

If only he could have stepped out of the screen and time and told the macho douche bag sitting next to me that he wasn't at a restaurant where he could talk at will: he was in a cinema.

The docco also explores that quality most highly successful entertainers seem to have. They’ve usually got sad backgrounds and their real family is the audience they feed off. Without that they’re dead, literally.

Director Ian Mune has done an affectionate and entertaining but comprehensive job of summing up an era, a massive talent and a friend.

Neil Sonnekus