Thursday, October 27, 2011

Not Just Anybody's Help

If racism is a male invention, then one of the strengths of The Help lies in showing how that construct suits certain sections of the so-called opposite sex too.

White madams like Bryce Dallas Howard’s Hilly might allow maids like Octavia Spencer’s Minny to effectively rear their precious white babies, but the latter still have to use “separate but equal” toilets. In fact, the former has one specially built for her maid, typically expecting gratitude into the bargain.

Their performances, too, are nothing short of spot-on. This goes for 99% of the cast.

As a South African, of course, this is strikingly familiar. All the shades are there in this film which doesn’t feel long, though it is well over two hours; or for women only, though it mainly concerns women and most of the men are either ineffectual or insignificant.

The vastly under-utilised Sissy Spacek gives a wonderfully comic performance to lighten things up occasionally, while Viola Davis gives a seering performance as Abilene who, like most African domestic workers, can’t help loving the spoilt white brats she helps through their most important years. That her son was killed in a racist attack when he was 24 haunts every pore of her performance.

Some may say that this is American history and there are other issues that need addressing, but it’s a problem that is as alive today in South Africa as it is for, say, Philippinas in Saudi Arabia.

My only reservation is with the very watchable Emma Stone’s Skeeter and her back story, in which her mother (Charlotte Phelan) fired a loyal maid (Cicely Tyson) who had effectively been Skeeter's real mother. Skeeter's mother had done so to save face in front of some women’s association friends, and she did it in front of the old maid’s daughter.

When Skeeter finally confronts her mother about this painful incident and wants to make amends to the woman, she discovers that old Constantine Jefferson has died in the very meantime. It’s all very contrite and made up among the white mother and daughter, but no repairs are made to the maid’s daughter, who witnessed that humiliation. A single sentence would have repaired that damage.

Lastly, if Stone took to her role of schoolyard "hussy" in Easy A like a fish to water, then she seems a little out of her depth here. She looks a little too Seventies Romance Illustrated with her shaggy red curls as opposed to a Sixties young woman who is slowly becoming aware of - and doing something about - a social injustice.

She does all the right things by starting to record these women’s painful experiences and sharing her royalties with them, but she seems emotionally quite removed from the whole business. She seems much clearer about what she thinks of Southern men than just how committed she is to the women she has anonymously immortalised.

Even at the end she doesn’t seem terribly convinced that she will stay with them and is easily persuaded to not do so. She is given an oblique camera angle and she doesn’t even hug these women who have, at great risk, bared their souls to her.

If the film was trying to make a point about certain kinds of ambitious writers or liberals, whose concern is directly proportional to their distance from the problem, then it would have been fine. But one would have somehow expected more warmth here, more fire.


New Zealand has won the Rugby World Cup for a second time, at home, and everyone’s in a bit of a daze. People and the media seem reluctant to let it go, the former by still flying their tired flags on their cars and porches, the latter by squeezing every bit of mileage out of it that they can.

It’s all deserved, of course, what with most visitors having had a wonderful time. But the curious thing about the media is that every time they so desperately zoomed in on a potential hero, the poor bugger got injured.

First it was Dan Carter (aka Jesus), then his replacement, Colin Slade, then his replacement, cancer survivor Aaron Cruden, until last choice Stephen Donald had to come on in the final and – much to his surprise - kick the winning penalty.

Thank God (aka Richie McCaw) the captain's foot and gouged eye held out. Had he and the boys failed, who knows how many Pacific women would have had bruised eyes too?


Also on our screens at the moment are two addictive series. Season two of Downton Abbey has arrived with Dame Maggie Smith saying everything everybody else thinks, as has The Borgias, starring a magnificently depraved Jeremy Irons as Pope Alexander, the head of “the original crime family”.

The tagline says it all: Sex. Power. Murder. Amen. And it feels so much more authentic than The Tudors, dripping as it does with the blood and ideas of 15th century Italy, which gave birth to the likes of the fiery Savonarola (Steven Berkoff) and astute Niccolo Machiavelli (Julian Bleach).

But then it’s written and executive produced by that master Irish-Catholic storyteller, Neil Jordan, and you can't get much better than that, can you?

Neil Sonnekus

Friday, October 21, 2011

Cussing Comedy

Two offbeat DVD movies this week.

The first, I Love You Phillip Morris, involves a straight American cop who is everything but straight. Not only is he gay but he’s also crooked, which certain quarters would say is the same thing.

I do not know the ideological arguments of two straight men playing gays, portrayed by Jim Carrey and Ewan McGregor, but from where I stand they seem to do an excellent job.

In fact, if there was ever an argument to remake Some Like It Hot, producers need look no further than these two fine actors.

Carrey’s cop is just camp enough when he’s straight to indicate that he might be closeted, while McGregor gives his Phillip a recognizable kind of steely delicacy someone like Carrey’s Steven might fall for.

Directed by John Requa and Glenn Ficarra, who wrote another subversive delight, Bad Santa, the film takes its digs at everything that gets in its exuberant protagonist’s way. Christians, lawyers, criminals (the lines blur), you name it. Nothing is spared, not even dying of Aids.

So, a love story of a very special kind. Steven’s love may be blind but at least it’s passionate and inventive - and there’s always a price to pay for that. 

Not quite as slick but still as tongue in cheek and entertaining is Paul, starring an established comic duo, English actors Simon Pegg and Nick Frost.

They will do such very unEnglish things as attend a sci-fi convention in America and then travel to the country’s UFO heartland. The last thing they really expect is to run into a real alien, especially one that is sassy, has a paunch, smokes pot and has superpowers.

Christians get a much rougher treatment by way of convert to cussing Kristen Wiig, which is another thing these two films have in common: an almost depressing amount of swearing.

Neil Sonnekus

Thursday, October 13, 2011

From Miserable to Magical

This week I watched two DVDs about that one thing Hollywood generally avoids like the plague: middle-aged life.

Such people, of course, also have lives and loves. Hell, sometimes they even have sex.

The one film is much lauded and really bad. The other is much less awarded but quietly brilliant. Let’s get the former out of the way as soon as possible.

The script for Mike Leigh’s Another Year was nominated for an Oscar and the film got a special mention at Cannes. It should have got the Dorothy Parker treatment. That is, it shouldn’t have been tossed aside lightly. It should have been hurled across the room with great force.

Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen) are quietly happy and content. Their names are probably a gentle dig at Hollywood cartoons, but that’s the least of the film’s irritations.

He’s a geological engineer and she’s a therapist. Their son is a lawyer for the under-privileged. Oh, and they have a black friend too. She’s a doctor. All very cozy, very correct, very middle class.

Tom and Gerri are all cuddles, quiet contentment and endless patience as they work on their allotment in London in their spare time, but they seem to be living in a bubble. There is no news of the outside world in their lives - not regional, national or international. They do not discuss that outside world whatsoever, and they either have perfect sex or, perhaps being British, are happy not to have it all.

Whatever the case, there is not even the slightest smidgen of tension between them, whether sexual, social or familial. Perhaps this is Leigh’s attempt at celebrating the great and alleged sense and sensibility of being English.  

But Tom and Gerri are surrounded by human miseries. One of their best friends and certainly the most frequent one is a woman who works with Ruth. Mary, the deservedly lauded Lesley Mandeville, is one of those neurotics who is so self-obsessed that she undermines her own natural beauty.

We are subjected to the endless minutiae of her dull, uptight existence. She’s in her forties and life is rapidly slipping by. It’s a very astute portrait of such a type but by emphasizing it at the end Leigh is either condemning her or saying we should all try to be like Tom and Gerri, who mysteriously don’t spend any time on screen with people of their own social and professional standing.

If that is the case then they are not merely tolerant of all the struggling miscreants around them, they’re just unbelievably good – or intensely patronising - souls.

Another Year makes the occasional attempt at comedy but it isn’t funny and Chekhov was much, much better at this kind of existential farce. Nor is it the realism Leigh is supposed to be a master at – it’s Britain with its head right up its own deluded, white, liberal arse.


By contrast, Cairo Time stars one of the sexiest women on the planet, Patricia Clarkson. At the “ripe old” age of 51 this American actress isn’t sexy because she looks so much younger than her age but because she’s so confident and strong in her age.

Her wide mouth, corn-coloured hair and calm confidence express an American generosity that certainly echoes a more golden age of that country, let alone its film industry. But if the likes of Marilyn Monroe represented a tragic glamour, Clarkson represents a real, up-to-the-minute one.

Here she plays Juliette, the wife of a United Nations official, who is going to meet her husband for a holiday in Cairo. But he gets stuck in Gaza and asks his assistant, Tareq (Sudanese-born Alexander Siddig), to keep her company and, well, blonde West meets swarthy Middle East.

There are all kinds of tensions in the air. She finds it difficult to comprehend the fact that men openly leer at her on the streets, though she is not entirely disgusted by the fact. So too the fact that there are men-only restaurants, that women wear burkas in that heat, that underage girls work on the kinds of carpets she nevertheless has at home.

In one very telling scene Tareq asks her how many hours a day she works on her women’s magazine. After admitting that she can work up to twelve hours a day in that work-obsessed country, he replies in that understated Afro-Arabic accent of his: “This does not sound like a good life.”

If she is represented by a slightly sentimental French piano soundtrack, he’s represented by that mesmerising Middle Eastern music that is shot through with sensuality and danger.

The big question, of course, is: are they going to have an affair or not? There is no hint that she and her husband are unhappy. If she and Tareq do have a sexual affair there are those who will call her liberated and others who will say if her husband did the same he’d be an adulterous bastard.

Like life in the Middle East, it’s all very tenuous, tense - and deeply erotic.

Though it has some negligible continuity mistakes and even less seems to happen in this film than in the aforementioned mess, Canadian director Ruba Nadda comes up with such a quiet, elegant solution to the “problem” of these two individuals that it might well leave you gasping at its powerful simplicity. 

It certainly made my week after the Springboks and their comical coach, Peter de Villiers, seen below right before the Samoa match and with rising star Pat Lambie practising in the background, were beaten by Australia and a New Zealand referee.

Neil Sonnekus

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Unsuitable Fellows

Since everything is so macho in New Zealand at the moment, I thought I’d take a look at two DVD thrillers.

The Lincoln Lawyer stars Matthew McConaughey as L.A. defence attorney Mick Haller who keeps people out of jail, mostly the innocent (his personalised number-plate is NTGUILTY) but not entirely.

In one case he’s actually got an innocent man into prison. That the man is Hispanic might say quite a lot about justice in that neck of the woods.

Coming into his galaxy is trouble in the guise of baby-faced millionaire estate agent Louis Roulet (Ryan Philippe). It’s the man’s profession that should have got Haller’s alarm bells ringing, but then he can’t turn down a client either.

Based on the eponymous Michael Connolly thriller, this is not a study on why the killer does what he (or she) does, it’s more about how slick Haller is at getting himself out of a tight situation.

Supported by the ever watchable Marisa Tomei as his ex-wife – she’s a prosecutor – and mother of their child, and the wonderfully craggy William H Macey, McConaughey doesn’t quite pull off the role.

This is because he looks a lot like Paul Newman but without the determined lower jaw and the wardrobe lady insists on dressing him in a suit that emphasises his shortness.

That is debut director Brad Furman’s fault in allowing bad angles and full-length shots to undermine his star, who is a very attractive man - from the waist up.

But at least this ex-music video director gets the retro opening sequence right with Ain’t No Love in the Heart of the City by Bobby Bland. It‘s the kind of song and sequence that promises much, like the beginning of To Live and Die in L.A., which does deliver.

But if your film is only memorable for its title sequence you’re in trouble.


The Hit List, starring Cuba Gooding Jr, also has a retro opening sequence, but it looks like - and is as dated as – an old James Bond flick's. Its accompanying song, 47 Ways to Die, is also pretty forgettable.

In fact, the only cliché the entire movie avoids – and it’s also at the beginning of the film - is the one of someone sitting up directly from a nightmare.

Gooding’s Jonas is obviously a troubled man, but he’s also fighting a wardrobe lady. She too will emphasise his shortness – and the fact that he’s growing a little sideways. This is not good.

But she was obviously trying to echo Tom Cruise’s slick grey number in Collateral, since it’s a similar kind of story and, again, it’s the director’s fault.

William Kaufman blows things further by casting Cole Hauser as the man who’s getting royally screwed by everyone and might therefore want them dead: the man evokes no sympathy whatsoever.

That he can still talk straight after five full glasses of Jack Daniel’s is also his director’s fault, just like spilling coffee on to his groin and ending up with a messy shirt top is.

Gooding does his best to elevate his role of an avenging angel, but there’s too much militating against him, even though he has one or two good lines like "the trigger's like a fast-forward button. I just skip to the end credits of other people's lives."

One wonders, though, having won an Oscar for best supporting actor in Jerry Maguire and effectively playing in B-grade movies ever since, how much subtext there is when he says somewhat bitterly: “Fame doesn’t make you invincible.”

Neil Sonnekus