Sunday, April 8, 2012

Cured by the Colonised

Though it could easily have ended up as a tale of English exclusivity, as its trailer hinted, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel thankfully manages to avoid those pratfalls and the result is an intelligent, Best of British piece of entertainment.

If the film had only dealt with a bunch of retired and mostly disappointed old farts being shocked and then charmed by one of their former colonies, it would have been a huge disappointment.

The old farts, of course, are the cream of the crop of Britain’s more senior actors, though John Hurt is missing, and obviously they deliver.

There are minor problems, like Tom Wilkinson’s gayness, which is somewhat laboured. That doesn’t mean its storyline isn’t affecting; it is, very. So, too, Celia Imrie and Ronald Pickup’s characters, who seem a little incomplete, less meaty than Maggie Smith’s old racist governess and Judi Dench’s trusting housewife who got screwed, but these are minor quibbles. Penelope Wilton's very necessary and desperate social climber who clutches on to things British for all she's worth  is a gem, just as Bill Nighy proves Pink Floyd's dictum that "hanging on in quiet desperation, it's the English way".

On the whole this is top-notch ensemble acting, and it doesn’t do us any harm to see the noise and rich colours of a place that is not Los Angeles.

The real comedy, however, is that the tiny, colonizing island with the mighty language is old and exhausted, like our leading actors, whereas the older and larger once-colonised culture is much more complex, inventive and, ultimately, younger.

This is signified by the youthful Sonny (Dev Patel, of Slumdog Millionaire fame), who is struggling against a thousand obstacles to be himself and marry the girl of his (and quite a few of our) dreams, Sunaina (the exquisite Tena Desae).

Without them the film would have fallen flat and felt desperate, though director John Madden hasn’t done his point or producers any favours by making our two youthful lovers kiss each other – somewhat awkwardly - on screen. In India, which has a massive audience, kissing on screen and stage is still strictly verboten.

Just ask Richard Gere.

Neil Sonnekus

* Since this is my 100th posting and I now have a paying job, I think it's time to take a break from publishing weekly. If and when I publish it will because I think I have something to say and feel strongly about, otherwise not. Thank you very much to those who have "followed" me and commented. Cheers.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Darkness Visible

Australian novelist Julia Leigh wrote and directed the strange Sleeping Beauty (reviewed on this blog some months ago) and wrote the titular novel upon which The Hunter is based.

Once again ignoring parts of reality she doesn't like, she bases her ecological or landscape thriller on a what-if notion.

That is, what would happen if there were still one so-called Tasmanian tiger alive, one which had a quality that would make an aspect of its DNA desirable to a multi-national corporation.

Nothing entirely far-fetched about that. There is a case in South Africa where some or other multinational wants to use a Bushman (or San) hunger-suppressant for dieting reasons. The question is, what do the Bushmen (the name they prefer) get out of it?

So it's a matter of ethics and indigenous medicinal rights.

In this film, Willem Dafoe plays the hunter who will get the last "tiger" so that his employee can get a similar advantage from the animal. But the last "tiger" was seen a few decades ago and the film involves a lot of Dafoe traipsing through a breathtaking Tasmanian wilderness.

If he is infinitely more watchable than Ryan Gosling, then it still doesn't prevent this thriller from being boring, especially when compared with the next film on the menu.

I have quoted a Time critic who said the Sundance Film Festival does nothing but promote families-in-crisis movies, but last year there was the very watchable, scary and Oscar-nominated regional drama, Winter's Bone. This year writer/director Sean Durkin won the prize as best director for Martha Marcy May Marlene.

Every now and again we read about some or other cult gone wrong in America. Always there are the basic similarities. They are run by some kind of charismatic man who has more than one sexual partner in a commune-like setup, they are isolated, and they think that the "real", materialistic America stinks.

The ironic beauty of this commune is that it's rather ramshackle, it's right next to a public road and its leader, Patrick (John Hawkes being as terrifying as he was in Winter's Bone), is a sleazebag philosopher who nevertheless manages to coerce the other women into preparing his next sexual initiate with drugs.

He really gives the impression that he's merely a medium for weak people's gullibility, yet never have I seen or heard a more terrifying folk song than the one he plays. It's creepy in a way no tricksy slasher porn can be.

The film more or less starts where most Hollywood movies on the subject would end: Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) leaves the commune to go and live with her sister, Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and her husband, Ted (Hugh Dancy). From there on director Durkin manages to keep us in a state of uncertainty and building suspense as he switches back and forth from rundown commune to upper-crust lacustria.

If the former is shown as scary, the latter is not portrayed as all that normal or desirable either. In fact, Lucy's concerns with household cleanliness by the lake, trying for a baby and placating her burnt-out engineer husband come across as patently sterile and absurd.

The uncertainty is achieved by way of claustrophobic close-ups so that we're never quite sure where we are and, occasionally, who is whom. This is the whole idea. Like many aspects of religion, the idea is that personality is subjugated to doctrine, hence the title. Identity is variable, ultimately meaningless.

Finally, you just wait for the cult members (nice, normal-looking folk) to catch up with Martha and her stressed-out pregnant sister and do unspeakable things to them. That it is left up to our imaginations makes it all the more terrifying.

Robert Redford's attempt at creating a more truthful form of American cinema via his Sundance Institute is finally paying off, handsomely.

Neil Sonnekus 

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Skins of the Mother

Almadovar’s latest melodrama – or gender thriller - covers just about everything.

Firstly, he revisits the notion of abduction as he did in Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! Apart from the collapse of the euro and the alleged failure of multiculturalism, human trafficking is one of the big social issues in Europe at the moment.

This time the abductor is a clinically cool, almost Frankenstein-like surgeon, Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas), who is obsessed with replicating human skin. He says it’s to develop a thick enough hide to resist fire and malaria-infested mosquitoes – a sexy subject for philanthropists like Bill Gates.

But doctor Ledgard has a tragic past and darker purposes, which a fellow scientist points out cross the ethical line by a country mile, which is where our not so good doctor lives – in the country. There in his medieval castle he has his surgery, which he drives to and from in his ultra-expensive white BMW sport coupe.

That’s also where he keeps his captive, Vera, played by Elena Anaya – who looks like an impossibly beautiful brunette model who can also act. The modelling metaphor is not gratuitous: the film was made avec Jean Paul Gaultier’s participation.

Ledgard looks at his exquisite captive lying in the same way as the Venus d’Urbino, a copy of which, of course, adorns his walls. But this is Almadovar, so she is not only his captive, she is also…well, to tell more would be giving away the putative secret of the movie, which takes almost two hours to arrive.

Inevitably there will be the mother-son relationship – two variables – in this film about the auteur’s obsessions with cross-gender identity, youth, neurosis and high fashion.

Men are either dazzlingly handsome, but cold, like Ledgard, or  hot, macho rapists, like his lunatic half-brother. Fathers don't feature, and the mother (Marisa Paredes) takes responsibility for producing two lunatics.

There is only one comic moment in a Bunuel-like detour when a fat man (played by the director’s brother and producer) sells his wife’s old clothes to a dress shop lady to ensure that if his wife does come back to him, as she usually does after she's left him, she won’t have anything to wear.

Otherwise it’s all beautiful people to look at, beautifully scripted, shot, acted, scored (by Alberto Iglesias), dressed - the works. In fact, it’s probably European cinema at its peak, but as only half a European I found it difficult to buy into it as a cautionary tale of how revenge corrupts - or how sexual appearances should be treated as merely skin deep.

For all its fascinating twists and turns, the tale, if not its auteur, seems to suffer from vagina envy. Dig a bit deeper and you could even read it as being self-hating of the same notion. This isn't helped much by the fact that, for all its supposed anti-superficiality, it resembles the epitome of narcissism: a glossy fashion magazine.

Neil Sonnekus

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Let's Talk About Parenting

The first thing I did after seeing We Need to Talk About Kevin is to find out whether the screenwriter and director have children.

As it happens, Rory Kinnear and Lynne Ramsay are married and, not surprisingly, they don’t. This can only be a good thing because they might just produce the kind of spineless darling that good old liberal mollycoddling does.

But it rarely produces a Kevin. That is, a mass murderer of the Columbine variety. What causes that generally is parental neglect of one sort or another; parents who are so involved with the TV programmes of  their own miserable lives that they have no clue what their offspring are up to.

But then Wikipedia suggests that author Lionel Shriver doesn’t have children either, though apparently her book is about a woman who has “ambivalent feelings” towards her son. That’s one story, the film is entirely another, and if Shriver thinks the adaptation of her novel is "brilliant" it might have more to do with her contract than her feelings.

Anyway, at first the film gives us an indication that the ironically named Eva (played by the David Bowie of film, Tilda Swinton) is suffering from postpartum depression, a very common occurrence, and that she’s incredibly sensitive to noise. Her baby screams incessantly and pneumatic drills and lawn mowers just add to the audial assault. On that front she has our full sympathy.

Miraculously, the faceless doctor says Kevin’s fine as a toddler and doesn’t prescribe anything in a nation that is gaga on tranquilisers. Throw in a quick scene of two female victims bonding in the waiting room and jump to Kevin being the kind of wilful, manipulative brat that needs a good smack – or some kind of line being drawn - instead of being indulged on his way to becoming a psychopath socially or a full-blown demon theologically.

What happened in between? Has Eva come to hate Kevin? Has her marriage fallen apart? No, on both scores. She persists with Kevin and she’s still married to Franklin (John C Reilly), who does we don’t know what for a living. When she’s down he’s there to offer the boy the kind of time and love most children crave. In fact, he can see no wrong in his darling son.

Yet the older Kevin (Ezra Miller) has become a sneering, 16-year-old authorial vehicle for what’s wrong with society: it watches TV not about goody two-shoes but psychopathic killers. True enough. Only once do we see that he might be a little like his mother. That's when she actually has an opinion about something, saying she thinks most fat people are thus not because they have medical problems but because they’re always eating. He is much more in character when he tells her that the only honest thing she ever did was lose her rag with him and throw him to the floor, breaking his arm.

But the film is not trying to indict the parents, as it should. Instead we sit through a very interestingly directed film (pick up on the theme of red, as in tomatoes, wine, paint: blood), and surely some of us think Swinton should have won the Oscar rather than Merryl Streep, whose (also female) director seemed to work on the laughable premise that for being such a monster Margaret Thatcher was cursed with dementia.

To crown it all, Kevin finally seems if not remorseful then doubtful, and maternal love will nourish his societal reintegration as he waits out the next 25 years or so in prison. This reeks of a creative compromise to give the film the redemptive kind of ending Hollywood seems to insist upon.

If the acting from Swinton and Miller is excellent, then it's undermined by the fact that the story they're telling us has absolutely nothing to do with reality.

Neil Sonnekus

Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Short of It

Unless you’re a chess fanatic and know that the world champion is actually a 22-year-old Norwegian, the only other thing his country is famous for right now – apart from having the highest standard of living in the world - is a lunatic who mowed down a host of innocent children on an island outside Oslo and thinks he deserves a medal for it.

Actually, in other circles Norway is also famous for an artist called Edvard Munch and in yet another, more up-to-date fashion, a writer called Jo Nesbo.

The first thing you notice about him in the flesh is that he’s one of those slight kind of guys who's buffed himself up a bit. He isn't that short, as such, just slight-ish, self-effacing, quirky.

He was in Auckland to promote a film punted as Jo Nesbo's Headhunters (three cheers for writers getting a bit of acclaim!) and tried to give the leading man, Aksel Hennie, a wake-up call from all of us. The iPhone got through to an answering service and the entire auditorium wished Hennie a “good morning!” from the opposite end of the world.

Were there any questions before the movie started? Yes, what did he think of the adaptation of his book? Unlike Lionel Shriver and Paul Theroux he didn’t praise it like they did We Must Talk About Kevin and Mosquito Coast respectively. Instead he said it was like asking a gynaecologist whether he thought the women he’d just treated was sexy.

He also said he’d written the book in two months, told his publisher that it took a year and a half and that he didn’t think he’d plagiarised anyone.

Anyway, the first thing you notice about Hennie’s Roger Brown is that he’s short. In fact, he gives us his exact measurements. Then he shows us how much shorter he is than his partner, Diana (Synnov Macody Lund), one of those unbelievably tall, blonde, blue-eyed Nordic goddesses.

Roger’s got it all: the babe, the job, the hi-tech mansion, and the debt. Brown – there’s no reason given for this very Anglo name - might be a successful corporate headhunter by day, but somehow he’s got to afford that mansion so he does what the more complex collector/thief Ripley from the Patricia Highsmith novels does. He steals art, starting with a Munch etching by way of introduction.

One of the people he is talking to about a CEO position for a big multinational is an ex-military man (make your own deductions) who just so happens to own a Rubens worth about $100 million. Clas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) is also nice and tall, like Diana, who wants the baby that Roger doesn’t want to talk about.

What follows is not only a very slick thriller, but also an action-laden meditation on modern relationships and being, well, vertically challenged. In fact, one farm-toilet scene says it's really shit to be short, literally. More comedy comes from Roger’s partner in crime, who’s in love with his Russian prostitute, and two identical fat cops - Tweedledum and Tweedledee no doubt.

So there you have it. The kind of thing Hollywood struggles with: clever entertainment.

Neil Sonnekus

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Bad Ideas for March

George Clooney has done and said some interesting things politically. For one, he has seemed to be quite serious about making a difference in Darfur.

As far as Barack Obama is concerned: “I’m a firm believer in sticking by and sticking up for the people you’ve elected,” he told ABC News.

That means he doesn’t thinks Obama is perfect, but he’s the man Clooney voted for - and punted - and he’s standing by him, which is admirable.

Furthermore, he has made it quite clear that he’s aware of the fact that the US media are polarized in terms of which paper or TV channel supports which party, so in The Ides of March “we wanted to talk about how we elect people and the deals we make along the way.”

That certainly happens. Clooney seems almost obsessed with the mechanisms of (American) power, and he knows how to portray them effectively. Ryan Gosling and Philip Seymour Hoffman and their opponent, played by Paul Giamatti, deliver flawless performances as campaign managers of one ethical stripe or another. Note that it’s mainly a boys’ affair.

Seymour Hoffman’s speech on political loyalty is something to savour, as is Alexandre Desplat’s soundtrack, but here lies the rub. Clooney: “I knew that the only way I was going to be allowed to [make the film] - because I’m a Democrat and I’ve been sort of loud about it at times - was that I’d make [my presidential candidate] a Democrat so that the flaws are [those] of a Democrat.”

And boy, his Mike Morris sounds almost too good to be true, even as a Democrat. He’s into the kind of technology that wouldn’t require oil; he isn’t a Christian or a Muslim; the only thing he believes in is upholding the US Constitution. In fact, he seems to believe in everything someone else believes in: George Clooney.

Then, after a real homey scene with his screen wife (Jennifer Ehle as the lovely power-background wife), we discover that he’s as big a shithead as John Edwards, who was getting an intern pregnant and trying to cover it up while his wife was dying of cancer. Good luck, and good night Mr Edwards.

But this is not clever politics, let alone controversial. In fact, it’s effectively an admission of failure on Clooney’s behalf. If he, with all his star power, couldn’t make a film that goes beyond what Noam Chomsky calls “manufactured consent”, then where does that leave him? Or us? Do we care about the American electoral system? Do Americans? Will the majority of them, just because he’s in it? Perhaps.

But then they might just take him literally when he praises the Republicans’ effective (but appalling) strategies and shows us that atheist Democrats are not to be trusted. And again, does the rest of the world really care for this kind of exceptionalist drama, one way or the other?

Neil Sonnekus

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Actor in Search of a Character

Michael Fassbender has a very strange quality. Unlike most famous actors, he looks like several personae in one.

From one angle he resembles the great German actor Maximilian Schell, which is not so far-fetched because he actually has a German mother and was born in her country.

From another angle he looks and acts a bit like Ed Harris, though he isn't blond and grew up Irish. But then Fassbender doesn't  look or sound like a traditional white Irishman either. There are passing resemblances to Daniel Day-Lewis and Anthony Hopkins too.

So the big difference between him and these actors is that he doesn't exactly look like, well, himself. Neither is any of this helped along by the fact that the two films I saw him in this week had such contradictory and indeterminate characters in them.

In Jane Eyre he plays a man who is torn between his pre-industrial sense of decency towards an ex-wife who has clearly gone bonkers and his desire for that great no-no: the governess. This unnatural state of affairs leaves him deeply misanthropic, if not filled with self-loathing, but his real character - through no fault of his own - seems to be somewhere else. Meanwhile, Mia Wasikowska delivers a fine performance of a woman who knows what she is and wants in a time when she was meant to serve and basically shut up.

In Shame he has even less to work with as a character. Brandon is a sex addict, someone who has an indeterminate corporate job and oozes a kind of cold, robotic sexuality. The fine soundtrack by Harry Escott tells us that he is a tragic character from the start, and this slowly reveals itself to be true. He is indeed an empty shell.

Director Steve McQueen saves us the background story as to why this man and his sister, played by Carey Mulligan, are so messed up. Almost everything happens slowly, which is not a criticism. Far from it. Her  rendition of the rousing New York, New York is painfully slow and slowly brilliant. You can almost hear souls breaking.

If anything, it's Mulligan who is the real find here. Up to now she's played somewhat moon-ish, cardigan-wearing-type characters, but not this time. Her Sissy is nothing short of fucked up, so much so that I didn't recognize her at first, and that's not only because she was stark naked, as Fassbender is full-frontally for much of the  movie.

All we are waiting for is to see how the penny is going to drop for this man whose work and home computer is stuffed with porn, as is his mind. Anything to keep whatever humiliated him in the past at a distance, and that includes his sister, who obviously only reminds him of that trauma. One of the few things that happens fast is a montage of the smut Brandon finally tries to eject from his life. It's almost subliminial cutting, but the image of an anus in big close-up remains. This is Brandon's psyche: the arse end of everything.

But the only clue we get to any interiority is the fact that he listens, somewhat implausibly, to Bach, and when he develops any feelings for a woman he can't get his considerable schlong up. That that women should be black (like the director), warm and have a character might also be forcing things a bit.

If we're meant to feel anything for this man whose lovemaking finally assumes a grimacing, ape-like desperation it's difficult at the time, just as it's difficult to believe that one of Sissy's more serious traumas (not for the first time) is going to be enough to change him. He will need something much more cathartic than that, but for all this there is something mesmerising, brave and finally moving about this film and its two siblings who - in the final analysis - only have each other.

And that's a real shame.

Neil Sonnekus

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Silence Ain't Always Golden

It’s amazing how vicious and self-righteous certain members of the self-appointed Left have been over the death of Whitney Houston last week, as if she never had a smidgen of talent and operated in an industry that is a veritable rose garden.

Another industry that comes up smelling of morning dew, film, would have been as dismissive about its silent era stars with the advent of talkies. Many lives were destroyed, as we know, yet those stars were probably as guilty of vanity and pride as Houston was.

So is George Valentin (the much-nominated Jean Dujardin), who just cannot see the writing on the wall. Yet, as he is riding the last crest of silent stardom, he literally bumps into the young Peppy Miller (Argentinian-born Berenice Bejo), who truly has the effervescence of another era.

As his life falls to pieces, so her star doesn’t just rise, it rockets. And, in true Hollywood style, Bejo just happens to be wife of the director (Lithuanian-born Michel Hazanavicius). So far so predictable. Moreover, a cynic would say that at least they don't have to dub their French accents into American. But what about the story?

Most of us aren’t old enough to remember the real era, apart from the only artist who surpassed it, Charlie Chaplin, so we’re looking at that time not with nostalgia but with a talkie, TV and social media consciousness. Yes, it’s very sweet and helped along by the cutest dog in all creation, Jack, as in Russell, but does it add to that/or and this era?

Taking the route of homage, Hazanavicius goes soft and merely tries to imitate that time, complete with a forced happy ending. It isn’t even an ironic conclusion, it’s a reward for the audience, he says, for sitting through a “difficult film”.

The words, from my point of view, are more like boring and implausible than difficult. Would someone with such a meteoric career have had time to love and care for such a self-pitying egotist? Possibly, but not likely.

Whatever the case, The Artist needn’t have taken this route, though it certainly is earning plenty of nominations and plaudits. But the only anchor through a film that is destined for a dusty shelf like those it emulates, finally, is Bejo's wry, sideways smile. That, for this twitchy viewer at least, is enough to launch a thousand careers.

Neil Sonnekus

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Needle in the Eye

After I’d seen Blind Terror starring Mia Farrow in 1971 I swore I’d never watch a horror movie again. I was about 15 at the time, but I broke that oath quite often and did so again this weekend.

The thing about Farrow is that she probably brought out the protective instinct in older men with her fragile voice and porcelain-doll looks, but if memory serves (and it doesn’t very well, as we all know), there weren’t any point-of-view shots. That would have meant the screen had to go black because she was as blind as a bat from the start.

Things are slightly different in Julia’s Eyes, a film the marketeers go to great lengths to say was produced by Mexican master Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth).

For one the titular Julia (Belen Rueda) has fading sight, a POV we often see, but when she goes completely blind we still have black POV shots – to great effect. This is all enhanced by the excellent cinematography of Oscar Faura, who also shot Del Toro’s haunting The Orphanage.

Secondly, there is nothing doll-like about Rueda. She is a blonde, full-blown Spanish woman and she is infinitely desirable. Yes, she’s a little overwrought, like the film itself, but who cares? We will do anything to, well, see that she finds her twin sister’s killer, if indeed he or she exists. Sometimes these Latinos can imagine all kinds of morbid things, you know, especially if they have a Catalunian disposition like director Guillem Morales.

So, a film that's also about seeing. There are even references to that iconic image of an eyeball being slit in Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali’s Un Chien Andalou. This time, however, it’s a syringe that enters said orb, though it might have been more effective if we didn’t see the needle actually piercing what looks like material. Morales should have studied his Cronenburg. Suggestion might have been more effective. A slight popping sound perhaps? 

But imagine having to act blind while your killer has a very sharp knife millimetres away from your pupil, testing you. Rueda does a great job and has us on her side from start to finish.

But is it a good story? Well, it’s full of twists and turns that certainly kept me on the edge of my seat, but the plot did start getting implausible towards the end. Julia was starting to do quite a lot for a blind and blindfolded person and, frankly, if my killer offered me a mug of boiling water filled with poison and I knew it, locked up in his (or her) house, I would simply chuck it in their eyes and brain them with anything at hand.

Another Dali-esque reference pertains to Julia’s husband (Lluis Homar) seeing the universe in her eyes, literally. That, and the conceit that the more emotional Julia gets the more her eyesight will deteriorate, is much more acceptable than Lars von Trier’s twaddle about planet Melancholia heading our way to destroy our Danish angst.

Neil Sonnekus

Friday, February 3, 2012

Not All Men Have Islands

A radio critic recently said director Alexander Payne (born Papadopoulos) tends to make male buddy movies, like Sideways, which is obviously true. But his masterpiece, in my humble opinion, is about a woman, a very simple but determined postwoman from San Diego who has always had this thing about France.

Speaking the most cringeworthy, American-accented but nevertheless accurate French, 14e Arrondissement in Paris, Je’Taime might only be about 10 minutes long, but it says everything about loneliness and bravery that needs to be said.

Anyway, here Payne gets back to a male protagonist and this time he’s no ageing star like Jack Nicholson or anti-star like Paul Giamatti, he’s George Clooney. The cinema was packed with wine-drinking women and they were there to see their man with his matinee idol good looks, no matter what he did.

When his Matt King hears that his wife had an affair prior to her water-skiing accident you can almost hear him (and his fans) thinking: but who could be better or more handsome than me/him? Which is probably the whole point Payne was trying to make, for King is no angel. He’s a land baron on Hawaii.

Just to rub it in, the man she had an affair with is not exactly an oil painting - and he’s an estate agent. This is all very sly and gently ironic. The only difference is that Clooney gets a lot of screen time to let us warm to him while his reportedly adventurous wife, played statuesquely by Patricia Hastie, gets a non-talking opening shot of about 10 seconds, after which she spends the rest of the movie as a vegetable. Even her teenage daughter, Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), hates her for what she did.

The only person who can and does come to her defence is her father, since her mother has Alzheimer’s and thinks everything’s wonderful. Robert Forster’s small but important role is deeply affecting and somehow feels more real than a film that is pleasant enough to watch and makes all the right noises about indigenous land ownership, but swings a little uncomfortably between family tragedy and comedy. 

Also, Alexandra’s rather lovable jerk of a friend Sid (Nick Krause) suddenly disappears towards the end of the movie, almost as if he might spoil any possibility of a sad-but-united tableau. Clooney, of course, is never going to entirely lose his rag or spill his guts at his loss, but then there are hordes who will forgive him for much, much more than that.

Neil Sonnekus

Friday, January 27, 2012

Tinker, Tamper, Dawdle, Sigh

From the few John le Carre novels I’ve read – and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is not one of them – I’d say his books are as much about spying as they are about being British.

So I found it interesting that a Scandinavian director will try, and be allowed, to “capture” this quintessentially English writer’s work. Le Carre is one of the executive producers (and features in the party scene, according to the credits), so he obviously gave the director his blessing.

It didn’t take long before I was bored, though. Not having read the book, like most viewers, I only had the film in front of me and a lot of it didn’t make much sense.

For starters, there were a lot of pointless scenes at the beginning that supposedly served to show the endless routine of a civil servant’s life. But they went on in a manner that had more to do with making Magritte-like compositions than reflecting the very ritualistic nature of such a life.

British restraint is one thing, but without what Harold Pinter called the weasel under the cocktail cabinet it falls flat. So here we have a European film, then, and it’s somewhat indulgent. No wonder the English don’t want to join the eurozone.

Gary Oldman, of course, does an excellent job as an ex-spy who comes out of semi-retirement to find the mole in MI6. Most of the time he just has to be pointedly blank, but his George Smiley does eventually reveal himself to an extent and it’s a fine study in minimalism.

However, there are four characters under suspicion at the “Circus”, according to Control (John Hurt, who cunningly looks like an older version of Oldman), and he has stuck small photographs of them on chess pieces.

Now, I have played more chess games than read Le Carre novels and the former have certainly been tenser than the film, no matter how many people appear uninvited in Smiley’s house. After a while you can start discerning your online opponent’s personality through his or her style, but we get to know absolutely zip about our four suspects.

There are no concrete clues, just long visual teases. When the mole is finally outed and we think, well, obviously it had to be him, it’s got more to do with the actor than what the script gave him and therefore us.

Moreover, Swedish director Thomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In) sees no point in giving Smiley’s wife a face, let alone a personality, even though she is a source of great – but virtually unseen – pain to Smiley.

The result is a film that looks good but feels like someone rather loosely moving a bunch of chess pieces around on a board. I don’t think Le Carre intended to draw Smiley - playing black - in quite that way.

Neil Sonnekus

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Heart of Darkness, and Light

The ending of every story is its full stop and its value indicator. The way you conclude your story is loaded with what you want it to mean, even if you want it to mean nothing.

Most stories end happily because most of us are optimists (or deluded) or, as Joseph Campbell might have it, by telling a story and ending it happily we are reaffirming our triumph over the innate tragedy of existence.

So if Viva Riva! were to end in quite a few other ways it wouldn’t have half the impact it does, but its protagonist (this is a definite plot spoiler) dies. Yes, it’s a very defiant, Iago-like death, but this swaggering penis, full of African machismo, ends up being not much better than his porn-watching rival.

Remember, we are watching a film set in a place Joseph Conrad called the heart of darkness – a view the news doesn’t do much to dispel over a century later. Think of soldiers raping and pillaging at random in the eastern parts of the country and you get the picture.

But then you just have to look at what the Democratic Republic of Congo’s capital, Kinshasa, looks like in this film. Most of the city is in darkness at night, most of the roads are rutted and littered with refuse, most of the buildings seem on the brink of collapse. It’s a vibrancy only the most well-meaning humanitarian would appreciate. Corruption is rife. The film’s tagline, Kinshasa is Calling, veritably drips with irony.

Director Djo Munga might revel in this darkness and even mock Conrad’s dictum in a scene where Riva (Patsha Bay) fornicates with two prostitutes, bodies painted white with clay, wearing masks and clearly in a trance, but then there’s the ending. There’s also plenty of other, varied sex reminiscent of a rap video.

The lack of petrol and the domination of the US dollar permeate the film, as does Manie Malone’s beautiful moll and Hoji Fortuna’s Angolan dealer and vicious gangster, Cesar, surely one of the oddest and most chilling thugs seen on screen lately.

Contrary to what a lot of critics say, the film is not well made. In fact, it is decidedly clumsy. The editing is sometimes jarring, the music is occasionally downright weird, people are shot without us seeing what happens to them so that they can later virtually resurrect themselves – and a killing in a church might get a more vociferous response in other parts of the continent, like Rwanda, than elsewhere. It doesn’t have a patch on other gangster-going-down films like, say, Brian da Palma’s Scarface.

But Munga knows what he’s saying and should be applauded for it. He agrees with the white-suited Cesar and Conrad: the DRC is rotten to the core.

The First Grader is marketed as the story of a sweet old African who wants to learn how to read. This is clearly meant to appeal to those who have mushy feelings about Africa – as long as they’re as far away from it as possible.

Based on the latest primary reason for seeing a film, a true story, it’s also about an ex-Mau Mau fighter who lost his wife and child and then, come uhuru, was typically forgotten. Until now. The government has decreed (we learn via a DJ, about whom more later on) that the portals of education will be open to all.

According to the film, Kimani N’gan’ga Maruge (the perfectly cast Oliver Litondo) never remarried after his wife and child were killed by the colonial forces back in the Fifties. According to Wikipedia, he had 30 grandchildren, which sounds about right. So the “based on” part seems to be very, very loose.

All of the above, however, is quibbling. The image of a limping old man determined to practise his new right is unbearably moving, and that’s only the beginning of the movie. By the end you feel like you want to insist on this film being shown to every African and impoverished child across the world, as an inspiration to them and a warning to every stupid little bureaucrat that you cannot mess with eager minds, not even an 84-year-olds’.

Set in the Rift Valley of Kenya and directed by Justin Chadwick (The Other Boleyn Girl), any sense of romance is instantly dispelled by the modern wind turbines on the hills and the plastic bags stuck in those beautiful thorn trees. South African-born writer Ann Peacock’s script is shot through with an absolutely essential and delicious, home-grown sense of humour, and Naomie Harris’s compassionate teacher, Jane Obinchu, is a marvel.

DJ Masha, the ironically named Dan "Churchill" Ndambuki, reminds us that Africa is primarily a vocal culture. Without him and the old farts' club drinking on the liquor store's pavement, The First Grader would be so much the poorer.

See this film. Buy this film. Listen to this film. Watch it once a year to remind yourself that all is not darkness and desperation in Africa. Quite the contrary.

Neil Sonnekus

Monday, January 9, 2012

Stuck in the Provinces

The only famous name in Anton Chekhov’s The Duel is in the title and I’m sure the good doctor/writer would have been quite amused. Whether he would have been entertained by this handsomely shot, set and costumed interpretation of his work is another matter.

Though I haven’t read the novella upon which the film is based, most of the themes of the great plays like The Seagull and Three Sisters are there.

Firstly, there is the provincial boor living out his meaningless life in the Caucasus: broke, idle, full of passion and useless pursuits like drinking and gambling - and ungrateful for the beautiful live-in mistress he has. In fact, he almost despises her as much as he does himself.

Andrew Scott does a fine job as Laevsky, or rather, as good as his screenwriter, Mary Bing, and director Dover Koshashvili allow him. A local critic called his character “a prick” and said it was therefore difficult to identify with him. Not that one has to, but the whole point of Chekhov’s characters is that they and their bursts of suppressed passion are funny. We cannot but help laughing at them for the simple reason that they mirror our own middle class foibles. When this doesn’t happen the work is in big trouble.

A modern equivalent of Laevsky would be Frasier who, along with his utterly pretentious brother, is a cad of note. But do we hate them? Never. They are two of the most lovable douche bags ever created. Their hearts might be in the right place, it’s just that the minds are completely screwed up.

Fiona Glascott as the beautiful Nadia has even less with which to work. The only time she longs for Moscow, like one of the three sisters, is when she’s in a bit of a fever. Surely this should be a much more prominent part of her psychological make-up for being stuck out in the middle of nowhere with a handsome wastrel and an ever-diminishing, small-town reputation?

If the man of reason and science is ably represented by Tobias Mentzies as the equally absurd Von Koren, the background to Chekhov’s era is missing completely. Always lurking in the distance is the possibility of revolutionary change, of peasant revolt, which is why Chekhov worked so well in Afrikaans in the South Africa of the Seventies and Eighties. The laughter was both smug with class identification and nervous with the recognition that apartheid and its attendant bourgeois comforts would end as surely as day precedes night.

Without that double edge the titular duel is not going to work (a bungled suicide in one of the other works springs to mind) and the film, like a stuffed seagull, cannot take off.

Neil Sonnekus