Thursday, December 29, 2011

Something Smells Really, Really Funny in Denmark

The worst movie of the year, without a doubt, is Drive. Made for every wannabe Jeremy Clarkson by Danish-born Nicholas Winding Refn, it’s the worst because it’s trying to be the new Charles Bronson and Jason Statham revenge flick, but tries very hard to pose as art as well. In the end it’s nothing but violent, stupid, closeted homoeroticism with a soft porn soundtrack.

Not far behind it is another Danish film, the winner of this year’s Oscar for best foreign film. In a Better World is bristling with good intentions but ends up being as patronising as those images you get in the so-called developed world of starving, big-eyed black children. They need your help because that is all Africa is: a victim. Conversely, it has spectacular scenery. But don’t think ordinary people live there, not on your Nelly Mandela.

Someone had a similar sense of humour to Danish auteur Lars von Trier when s/he let Melancholia open two days before Christmas. Von Trier hates America so much that he uses American actors to say so. Obviously names like Kirsten Dunst and Kiefer Sutherland might attract some existential Yanks to the cinema - ie encourage sales - because the story certainly won’t. Lightened to an extent by some droll humour, like a stretch limo getting stuck on a narrow road on an exclusive golf estate, Von Trier is still on his philosophically shaky thesis that all people are evil, which he doesn’t bother to explain or argue. By the way, that planet heading towards Earth is going to destroy it, and duly does. Followed by the end credits.

If something is clearly rotten in the state of Denmark then Another Year seems to be saying that all is sexless sense and sensibility in the UK. Mike Leigh’s script was nominated for an Oscar and lost to the s-s-s-stuttering one with its closeted Nazi sympathies. But for all its realistic speech it still ends up being a crashing, middle-aged bore.

The first real Facebook movie was Catfish and people either thought it was the movie Hitchcock would have made or a massive con. Manipulating us into believing that we were watching a thriller unfold, it ended up being the story of some lonely soul out in the back of beyond. It was a massive con.

You get children’s movies that are just for children and some that include adults - like Horton Hears a Who! - and some that use an adult sensibility to patronise children. Rango falls into the latter category. Full of its own cleverness, it makes jokes about writing screenplays and probing prostates, as if children really know or give a damn about such things. Great animation, lousy story.

Riddled with every conceivable ballet cliché – narcissism, lesbianism, controlling mothers and teachers - Black Swan will probably end up being a camp classic.

Certified Copy has a married couple talking in Tuscany and then talking some more and, because it was made by an Iranian auteur, it’s supposed to be art but it was actually quite boring.

The Bang Bang Club failed to frame (sorry) three of its four South African photographers and their picture editor and tried too hard to cover too much ground. But at the very least that country's history is being engaged - however skewly.

Australian artist and Jane Campion protégé Julia Leigh's Sleeping Beauty  touched on all kinds of interesting feminist issues in a novel, even memorable way but failed to distil any of them, which a film I failed to mention last week did. Though Emma Stone is miscast in The Help, it is still a powerful and necessary flick with great performances from Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer and Bryce Dallas Howard.

And on that positive note I hope you all have a happy New Year.

Neil Sonnekus

Thursday, December 22, 2011

A Very Good Year

1. The best movie of 2011 is, without a doubt, the Spanish masterpiece Biutiful.

In it, Javier Bardem plays a man who lives in Barcelona with its incomplete cathedral, the Sagrada Familia, and that is what he is and has. Like all of us, he isn’t perfect or complete. Professionally he is an agent for illegal labourers, but he is dying, his ex-wife has mental health issues, so how are their two young children going to cope?

Then he still has African clients who are suffering European racism and, just to crown it all, he helps bring a catastrophe upon his Chinese clients. Woven into this is his part-time calling of helping the dead communicate their last wishes with their loved ones.

Biutiful also wins because Africans are not portrayed as victims or perpetrators but as human beings who are as capable of making moral choices as everybody else. Out of this long, complex, working-class struggle rises a film that ends up deeply deserving of its title.

2. More upbeat and equally as uplifting is The Fighter, which should have got much more than its two Oscars for best supporting actors. If Melissa Leo as the hard-as-nails mother and Christian Bale as her drug-taking former boxing champion son deserved their statuettes, then so did David O. Russell for directing, Mark Wahlberg for acting and producing, as did Amy Adams for playing a passionate young barmaid. The Fighter also wins because it is American cinema at its best. It is direct, pacy and very entertaining.

3. Third on the list is the darkest of this year’s movies and, again, it is rooted in reality. A Lebanese-Canadian woman leaves a simple will for her twin children, which leads them from the cold and damp First World to the sunny but depraved Middle East. Incendies is a harrowing film that doesn’t indulge its horror, nor does it pull its punches. Like a Greek tragedy, it has a cleansing, purging effect, and the only reason why it wouldn’t have beaten Biutiful for best foreign film Oscar – if I’d been a judge - is because it isn’t quite as universal. In the end neither of these two brilliant movies won; instead the honours went to some well-meaning nonsense that will be on next week’s Worst Movies of the Year.

4. A South African acquaintance of mine said this has been a bad year for movies, but I beg to differ. There have been such good films that I’ve got 15 good movies and then I'm going to put quite a few of them into one category for fourth place. Documentaries.

There were the excellent biographies on ex-Beatle George Harrison, racing driver Ayrton Senna, and comedians Joan Rivers and the New Zealander Billy T. Anyone who wants a quick and entertaining introduction to this country could do worse than to see the latter and realise that all is not quite cricket (or rugby) here. Then there was the other local doco Brother Number One, which dealt with a Kiwi confronting what one of Pol Pot’s henchmen did to his brother in Cambodia. It is directed with a steady hand about a very painful subject. And lastly, The Insider showed us how a bunch of Wall Street suits screwed the global economy and fully deserved its Oscar. They, of course, are still fully employed.

5. Still working purely from memory, a tiny film called Cairo Time sat staring at me on the DVD shelf for a long time before the delectable Patricia Clarkson persuaded me to have a look. This minute story, set in the titular city before Tahrir Square leapt into the world’s consciousness, is so beautifully simple that I am as much in awe of it as visitors are to the pyramids. Egyptian-Canadian director Ruba Nadda has done a fine job of showing how West and Middle East don’t just clash but, more importantly, end up falling for each other. Big time.

6. Another uncompromising film was Never Let Me Go, the scary story by Anglo-Japanese writer Kazuo Ishiguro in which children are bred for the sole purpose of becoming organ donors. If its dystopian world is not entirely convincing, then its premise (in a world of seven billion people, and counting) is horribly prophetic. Also, I finally believed Keira Knightley can act. And how.

7. The Debt was marketed as a Nazi-hunting movie but turned out to be as much about Jews' persecution in the past as Israel's very troubled present. It is also a taut, sexy thriller that is rightly caustic about such dangerous creatures as patriotism.

8. Comedies were few and far between and Woody Allen’s latest offering might have won if it didn’t have Owen Wilson whining his way through it, but down in distant New Zealand there was a film called My Wedding and Other Secrets. Featuring a beanpole of a white boy falling for a tiny (but infinitely tough and resourceful) Chinese girl, and vice versa, the film deals with the very topical themes of migration and the meeting of cultures, but it does so with something lacking in most movies these days. That is, charm.

9. Another small movie with a beautifully ageing actress in it was Copacabana, which I saw because I missed something else and because Isabelle Huppert was in it. Turns out to be a funny look at just how hard and shitty the real Europe can be, whether towards migrants or – in this case – its own. It’s one of those tiny films that just won’t leave you alone.

10. Nicole Kidman fought long and hard to make Rabbit Hole, about a couple losing their child, probably because her character doesn’t resort to religion to ease her considerable pain. In fact, she takes a rather strong anti-God stance, and the world is still turning. Also, her husband gets stoned and laughs out loud at someone else's grief. Edgy stuff in seemingly perfect suburbia. But it’s how the story is revealed that is as intriguing as anything else.

11. Two men working at a polar weather station doesn’t sound like much fun, but this slow Russian thriller works a treat as the older and younger men play out their real game of chess against a landscape that is wildly beautiful, and dangerous. How I Ended This Summer is about just that – the endgame.

12. This year’s Oscar entry from New Zealand is set in Samoa. Its hero is a dwarf who took in a woman who became pregnant and, instead of aborting her daughter, fled her village and family. Full of sensual imagery, The Orator is not Hollywood’s idea of the South Pacific being peopled by friendly, dancing natives. Life is as hard here as anywhere else but it has its own rules, one of which is that debates (in Samoan) can be waged in the village square, as I’ve seen in films from places as far away as Senegal.

When the kind but surly Saili’s wife’s corpse is effectively abducted to be buried in her home village for purely superstitious reasons, he has to speak his mind and show his true feelings. In this showdown it is not about who can draw their pistols the fastest, it’s who can present the most morally persuasive argument.

13. Robert Duvall is another independent-minded actor/producer who brought us a backwoods tale about an old curmudgeon who sticks to a principle that is way out of date, but we cannot but help admire him for sticking to it. Get Low is a gem.

14. It may be a B-grade movie, but Machete is not just about breast, blood and bullet counts. It’s also dealing with the issue of drug running across the US/Mexico border, and it’s so well put together that any student of film would do well to study it.

15. Finally, the last movie of the year is not a movie but a TV series with at least one big-name movie star in it. If Downton Abbey started out promisingly, then it was starting to resemble Dallas in a Castle half way through the second season. But it’s impossible to believe that if The Borgias has a second season it’ll go that way. Firstly, it’s written and executive produced by master storyteller/filmmaker Neil Jordan; secondly, one suspects the subject matter lends itself to many more real and very bloody intrigues. All of which would be nought if the whole thing wasn’t being commandeered by Jeremy Irons, magnificently depraved as Pope Alexander Vl.

Bad year at the movies (and on the box)? I think not.

Neil Sonnekus

* Next week, the worst movies of the year, three of them by Danes!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Drive(l) and Divinity

The theme of this week’s two movies is racing cars.

Let’s first get the rubbish out of the way. A whole lot of boys, who really should know better, are getting a hard-on about Drive.

It has been called brilliant, which has become a meaningless word, and intelligent, which is laughable. Actually, it’s the biggest load of homoerotic hooey I’ve seen in a long time.

Danish-born director Nicholas Winding Refn is on record for saying that “the thing with Ryan [Gosling], you can look at him for hours.”

I beg to differ. After about the third searching shot of Gosling’s sculpted and toothpicked visage sitting in a car, moving or not, it was quite clear that Refn, apart from his self-delusion that we all like looking endlessly at Gosling as he clearly does, was trying to make up screen time.

Someone should have reminded him that the man can actually act, as in Blue Valentine, not just pose. But Refn is clearly trying to create The Man With No Name for the 21st century, and he fails. Dismally.

Then there is the love interest. Carey Mulligan is the woman who has a child and lives next door. Her husband is in jail, like all Latinos clearly should be, and her and Gosling’s White Anglo-Saxon Paths will cross.

Here’s an example of an exchange between them. He is sitting on a windowsill with the city behind him and the light lovingly caressing his sculpted features: He: “I’m not doing anything this weekend.”

A long pause ensues in which more screen time is filled to the accompaniment of what can only be described as soft porn music. “If you want to do something,” he finally continues.

Mulligan, who has become somewhat typecast as playing the straight who either goes over to the other side but mostly yearns for it, stares at him. And smiles. For a long time.

The funniest scene is where they’re in a lift with another man, a seriously dangerous looking individual. He’s packing heat, as they say. But this is the moment where Gosling decides he’s going to give Mulligan that kiss that’s been brewing between them for a very, very long screen time.

They have their kiss, which is admittedly quite a good snog - even if it’s in the wrong context - and then he beats the man to a bloody pulp.

But wait. This is supposed to be a film about driving. I am not a big car and racing fan, but there isn’t all that much of it here anyway. Hell, the Bourne chases are, in my limited opinion, way superior. Or is it about the precious male drive to protect women and children at all costs? Ho-hum.

Somehow it doesn’t surprise me that Refn has failed his driver’s licence eight times and doesn’t drive himself. This is clearly his rather infantile way of expressing his frustration.

But there is one good thing he did in this film: Albert Brooks makes a truly scary thug, which renders Gosling’s reaction to this razor fiend all the more puzzling. Why turn your back on the man who’s handiwork you’ve just witnessed?

Intelligent? My arse.


To reiterate, I am not much of a car or racing fan, but I do like a good drama and that is what Senna is, documentary or not.

In fact, it has its own special brilliance that doesn’t require you to be a fan of either at all.

Why is this? Assembled entirely of found footage and a few voice-over interviews, the makers of this film have put together a universal drama of clashing types.

On the one hand you have the French rationalist, the political player, the survivor, Alain Prost. On the other you have the divine genius, the religious national hero of Brazil, Ayrton Senna.

Towards the end of the movie I felt on edge every time a race and a date came up, knowing the man was going to die, but not knowing when.

In fact, the film is so cleverly put together that it manages to “capture” Senna’s unease in the cockpit just before he’s about to have that fatal, almost Christ-like crash.

What glues it all together, of course, is that seriously neglected aspect of film, its music. The score by Antonio Pinto does a great job filling in all the blank spaces in that very special Brazilian way.

Strangely, in last week’s documentary on George Harrison there was a description of racing by Jackie Stewart which really gives an insight into the sport. He said racing would heighten his senses to such an extent that once he approached a corner, smelled grass and knew there’d been an accident and that he had to be careful - at about 250km/h!

After seeing Senna I drove to see that other piece of junk in the genius's winning weather, the rain, and felt the sensual thrill of driving a car again. It really is a great movie.

Neil Sonnekus

* Next week, the best movies of the year.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Within You & Without You

The woman in the DVD store reckoned that the reason why the George Harrison doco by Martin Scorsese was out so quickly was that it wouldn’t be such a popular film; it must have gone directly to the shelf.

She, for example, wasn’t a Beatles fan. I was gobsmacked. She wasn’t much younger than me and my children weren’t the only ones who liked the Beatles: quite a few of my friends’ children had also taken to those tunes like proverbial ducks.

I felt like asking her whether she hated music or speaking English – so integral I’d mistakenly thought the Beatles were to both - but kept my mouth shut for the sake of each to her own and all that.

The only other small problem I foresaw was that I hadn’t liked Scorsese’s film on Bob Dylan, which I’d found static and dry, or the Rolling Stones, which was just a recording of a live concert or two.

But none of that is evident here. The youngest and quietest Beatle gets a proper treatment which, at over 200 minutes, doesn’t feel long at all. Using previously unused footage and photographs, and cobbling them together with existing interviews and some of his own, including one with the weird and now imprisoned Phil Spector, Scorsese persuades at least this reviewer that Harrison wasn’t just a wishy-washy “spiritualist” but was genuinely grounded in his beliefs.

And that’s only one aspect of a man who produced some great films like Time Bandits, loved gardening, motor racing (world champion Jacky Stewart’s testimony to his friend is very touching), and wrote some of the most memorable and sung songs, like Something, ever. Among others.

One reviewer called Harrison the third-most talented after Lennon and McCartney, which is like saying Beethoven was the third-most talented after Mozart and Bach.

If a song like Got My Mind Set On You is a glaring omission, probably because it wasn't written by Harrison, Living in the Material World is still a great film and slice of history. It had me walking around in a daze and liking people I was convinced I never would. It also left me grateful that I could grow up - and younger - with the likes of George Harrison.

Neil Sonnekus