Sunday, 15 October 2017

Critic’s-Eye View: “The Whale Caller”

Zola Maseko’s new film The Whale Caller opened this weekend in theatres, after playing at the Durban Film Festival in July, and the Joburg Film Festival last year, where it won the award for Best African Film. It stars Sello Maake Ka-Ncube as the sexually dysfunctional whale crier and Amrain Ismail-Essop as the woman keen for his affection, in a domestic melodrama adapted by Maseko from the novel by Zakes Mda. I’ve collected other critics and reviewers’ pieces on the film here, for you to gain a broader view of the responses the film has elicited. Let me know of any others that could be included.

Click here to read The Back Row’s review of The Whale Caller.

In his review for the City Press for the screenings at Durban in July, Charl Blignaut describes the film as “a grand, silly, audacious and metaphysical tale of love, loss and jealousy,” and declares that “The Whale Caller should be one of the great South African films, but it isn’t, not by a fairly long shot.” In diagnosing its flaws, he writes,

“In my opinion, it was the casting. There was lots of big old stage acting but very little onscreen chemistry between Sello Maake Ka-Ncube’s Whale Caller and Amrain Ismail-Essop’s Saluni. And it tore a hole in the fabric of an often exquisite piece of knocky, romantic magic realism bursting with blooms of African surrealism. …
In its art direction, its visual choices, and its score by Pops Mohamed, The Whale Caller matches the lyricism of Mda’s novel. … The Whale Caller also reinvigorates the tired landscape tropes in African cinema to display a nature that is alive and seething with messages from the other side.”

Saturday, 14 October 2017

The Dysfunction in and of “The Whale Caller”

“The Whale Caller”

Zola Maseko’s new film is an adaptation of the acclaimed writer Zakes Mda’s novel and is set in Hermanus, the small town on the southern coast of the Western Cape, famous for its whale watching during the winter and spring months. Before its theatrical release this weekend, it played at the Durban International Film Festival in July, and last year’s Joburg Film Festival, where it won the award for Best African Film. Mda’s novel, which Maseko adapted for the screen, centres on the town’s whale crier — Hermanus’s uniquely employed whale watcher, who stands on lookout on the cliffs and blows on a kelp horn to announce sightings of whales — who is played by the South African television star Sello Maake Ka-Ncube (of Generations), and the woman who yokes herself to his orbit, Saluni (Amrain Ismail-Essop).

The film has been billed a romantic comedy, which is categorically untrue — it’s a domestic melodrama — and reviewers have described its dimensions with words like “metaphysical” when really they mean “psychological,” but there is an appreciation for the admirable courage of the filmmakers to take on the risks of this production and to contribute work of particular interest to this year’s South African cinematic output. They display a significant visual consciousness and a commendable degree of visual invention, as well as an obviously earnest involvement in and consideration for the making of the film. The evident hard work and personal dedication of just about everyone working in the South African film industry makes it all the more unfortunate when their production demonstrates, as The Whale Caller does, a weakness in cinematic expression and narrative conception. Having not read the novel, I couldn’t say whether it or Maseko’s adaptation has faltered, though I have read other remarkably rich work by Mda, and I’d be surprised if any of the failures are down to his writing.

Click here to read what other reviewers have written about The Whale Caller.

Sunday, 8 October 2017

Critic’s-Eye View: “Vaselinetjie”

Corné van Rooyen’s Afrikaans film about a white girl raised by brown caregivers in the Northern Cape, who is taken away to be schooled in Johannesburg, adapted from Anoeschka von Meck’s novel, was released at the end of last month, and, though I haven’t had a chance to see it yet, I’ve collected a few reviews of it here, for your perusal and for those interested in seeing the film. Let me know of any others I may have missed.

In what looks like a four-star review for the Beeld, Laetitia Pople writes that “the course that this young life takes will warm even a heart of stone.”

“Yet van Meck and van Rooyen don’t employ cheap sentiment. They tell, explore, and allow you to experience it as befits true storytellers. They hold up a mirror, without once judging or pointing fingers. … The acclaimed novel (prescribed for a number of years in schools) turned brittle identity politics on its head in 2004 and broaded the debate on colour. … Von Meck’s insider knowledge of the life of a children’s home, where she worked as a caregiver, brought much more to the table. Van Rooyen chimes in perfectly …
Nicole Bond plays the young Vaselinetjie with a primal wisdom and courage. … Indeed, all the young performers impress throughout in portrayals that tug at the heartstrings, but that also leave you rolling with laughter — because, even though their situation is dire, they find adventure and humour in highly unlikely places, exactly as children would. Vaselinetjie will affect you totally if it’s a first meeting; if you already know her, this film offers additional dividends of great value.”

Saturday, 7 October 2017

What to See This Weekend: Mind Games

“Masterminds” (Jared Hess, 2016)

Showing on DStv M-Net Movies Premiere (Channel 104) on Monday, 9 October, at 16:55; Saturday, 14 October, at 13:00; available on Microsoft; on Amazon; on Vudu; on DVD.

Though Jared Hess’s frenzied new comedy is far more conventional in flavour than the earlier two that I’ve seen — Napoleon Dynamite, from 2004, and Nacho Libre, from 2006 — it’s just as much a delightful and distinctive treat. It’s based on the real-life Loomis Fargo robbery in North Carolina that took place in October 1997, in which David Ghantt, a supervisor for the cash handling company Loomis Fargo, stole over $17 million in cash from the regional vault in Charlotte, North Carolina where he worked, collaborating with an ex-employee, Kelly Campbell, her associate, Steve Chambers, and a number of co-conspirators. I don’t know the precise degree to which the film has stuck to fact — from what I can see on the Wikipedia entry on the robbery, the main points of the story were all kep intact for the film, but a high level of invention and imagination is displayed openly by Hess in his telling.

Zach Galifianakis plays David, a decent and naïve security employee, who falls for Kelly (Kristen Wiig) when she starts working as his partner, even though he’s already engaged, to a rancorous store clerk named Jandice (Kate McKinnon). When Kelly leaves the job and moves in with her childhood friend Steve (Owen Wilson), who is now a professional thief and scammer, she keeps contact with earnest and infatuated David, who, through his indulgent affection and eagerness to win Kelly over, is persuaded by Steve to help them rob the cash vault one weekend. They then get David out of the country while keeping the cash to themselves, while Kelly’s continuing contact with David introduces unforeseen complications to their plans. Jason Sudeikis plays an unnervingly avid (and zanily funny) hitman who is roped in as part of Steve’s attempts to simplify matters, and Leslie Jones plays an FBI special agent assigned to the case of the heist, whose hilarious efforts to secure a confession from her suspects reminded me of the task of a director who seeks to extract a meaningful performance from his actors — both have to modify their methods from one individual to the next, the moment they’re looking for may not arrive when and where they had expected or planned it, and both have to adapt quickly to changing circumstances and to capture moments as they arise.

Saturday, 9 September 2017

How Are You Prepared for “Inxeba: The Wound”?

One of the sustained subjects on controversy I’ve observed on South African social media this year is the announcement of and marketing for the new isiXhosa-language film The Wound Inxeba, directed by first-time director John Trengrove and adapted from the novel A Man Who is Not a Man by Thando Mgqolozana. Responses to the trailer, released in the first half of the year, are divided between enthusiasm and outrage, and the topics of discussion on it cover a few different points of interest.

Firstly, and most prominently, is the topic of the film’s setting and overt subjects. The film is set almost entirely at the rural location of the traditional Xhosa practice of initiation, known as ulwaluko, and depicts certain experiences of the young men who undergo it. Ulwaluko is a sacred rite in its Xhosa heritage and the specific details of the process are meant to be secret to everyone except those who have undergone it (which is supposed to be all AmaXhosa men who have come of age); no AmaXhosa women ever find these details out, and certainly no outsiders are supposed to know them. Secondly, the marketing has revealed that the story of the film is told from the perspective of a homosexual man, and that homosexual experience and desire is incorporated into the film’s narrative. People defending the film against attacks and criticism online have said that commentators should first see the film before presuming its content, but the trailer I saw gives the distinct impression that the emotional and psychological effects of the experience of ulwaluko, same-sex attraction in the context of it, as well as varied reactions to that attraction, will be direct subjects of the film.

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

“The Lost City of Z” and Mozart in the Jungle

A classic, in any art form, is a work that stands out as an authoritative and superior example of its genre, style, production circumstances, or purpose. The quality of being classical is the reliance on and use of well-established principles of composition, traditional forms and techniques, and recognisable approaches to presentation. In a strict and conventional sense, classicism would signify the taking on of the exemplary standards and styles of Greek and Roman architecture, Renaissance paintings, Age of Enlightenment music, either ancient Greek and Roman or Elizabethan poetry (depending on your perspective on literature), or the cinema of the Hollywood studio era that lasted from the 1920s to the early 1960s. James Gray’s new film (and the first that I’ve seen from this eminent director), The Lost City of Z, both epitomises classical cinematic principles and is an instant-classic in its brilliance as a genre film made at a particular time in a particular way — though I would regard it just as highly without the matters of genre, timing, and methods taken into consideration.

Consider first the screenplay Gray wrote, adapted from the non-fiction book The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon by David Grann, a staff writer at The New Yorker. He sets it up in a recognisably conventional way, with a somewhat idiosyncratic officer in the British army, in the bright days of the Empire, who is disdained by his superiors, but recognised for his unique skills and achievements and suitability for a large, risky venture of combined exploration, diplomacy, and arbitration. The most obvious and famous correlate with this set-up is David Lean’s highly regarded queer epic, Lawrence of Arabia. Gray cuts just as abruptly from his officer’s briefing to the far-off wilderness he must confront, and even includes a few cursory, mutedly ostentatious shots of the vast natural wonders at hand, then continues with the exposition of his plot just like the page-turner pulp fiction adventures that so many classic Hollywood films were based on. (Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, which spawned many film adventures, was reportedly based on the reports of Doyle’s good friend Percy Fawcett, who is the hero of Gray’s story.) Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) is tasked with surveying parts of the jungle in Bolivia and Brazil, with the purpose of establishing their boundary to settle a dispute over valuable natural resources. That mission is cancelled not long after he arrives, though as he tries to continue with it, an Amazonian scout tells him of a mysterious city deep in the jungle, covered with gold, and inhabited by a multitude of people. After encountering a number of life-threatening dangers on his trip and, later, returning to England to great acclaim for his accomplishment, Fawcett finds that he is obsessed with finding the city he has heard of. His long-suffering wife, Nina (Sienna Miller), helps him unearth further evidence of it in archived conquistador texts, and Percy sets off to the Amazon again with the express purpose of finding what he calls “the Lost City of Z,” to signify the last realm of discovery in human development.

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Ten Musical Recordings I Love

The eminent composer-conductor Leonard Bernstein, recording his music for “West Side Story,” in 1988.

I’ve been neglecting my blog lately, which I regret, though I am not burdened by so heavy a weight of guilt as this regret may normally imply, because I’ve nevertheless been exulting in the sublimities of aesthetic, moral, and intellectual achievements in the arts that are available to those who seek them out. In the time since my last post, I have seen two excellent movies — one on DVD (Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret) and one in theatres (James Gray’s The Lost City of Z) — and two truly great movies — one on DVD (Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited) and one online (Nicholas Ray’s Bitter Victory) — about which, hopefully, you’ll hear more in a short while.

In the time I would have spent writing about these wonders, however, I’ve been focusing on a few instances of musical greatness instead. My levels of enthusiasm had been stoked somewhat by the announcement of the relaunch of the local band, the Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra, and I spent much time going over different recordings of the pieces they would present in their special relaunch concert (the March from Act II of Verdi’s Aïda, Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto, and Tchaikovsky’s fourth symphony), which led me to revisit a few other favourites. I was further excited by last week’s commemorations of Leonard Bernstein’s 99th birthday (including my own, on Facebook) and the kick-off of the Bernstein centenary. In the hope it would encourage discussion on the opportunities of musical appreciation and wonderment to avid listeners in South Africa, as well as on various composers, works, and recordings in particular, I present to readers here a list of some of the recordings I’ve been listening to keenly, obsessively, passionately, rapturously, and defencelessly.

Sunday, 20 August 2017

Band of Insiders

Reading Paul Boekkooi’s review of the local movie Finders Keepers that appeared in Friday’s Beeld, in which he bemoans the decline of South African comedy films, I was reminded of a number of complaints I invariably have about the local film industry and the work it produces; but Boekkooi provides some interesting points of discussion, indicating the vast difference in taste and ideas that he and I have regarding cinema, not only that of South Africa, but of the art form at large.

He suggests that the reason South African comedy movies are becoming less and less funny is that “all the things we could once laugh at have dried up”. Yet I find that the greatest humour arises from the breaking of rules — defying logic, surprising twists, the irony or campness of artifice, subverting (or perverting) mores and conventions have led to sublime works of comedic genius and great artistic insight from filmmaking proponents as diverse as Woody Allen, Wes Anderson, Judd Apatow, Charlie Chaplin, the Coen brothers, Paul Feig, Howard Hawks, Peyton Reed, Nicholas Stoller, Billy Wilder, or as evidenced in a multitude of humourous moments or scenes from any number of the other, less comedic directors mentioned in this blog’s posts. It isn’t possible for the things we laugh at to dry up, as long as we have a capacity for laughter. It may be true that a large number of socially and politically aware South African citizens are not, generally, in a laughing mood at this moment, but, when attention is given to an occasional diversion, any sufficiently imaginative, inventive, and energetic filmmaker could find any number of things for a South African moviegoer to laugh at.

Saturday, 12 August 2017

“Krotoa”’s Middling Middle Ground

Having finally seen Roberta Durrant’s hyped biopic Krotoa, about the Khoi woman who lived among the Dutch settlers of Jan Van Riebeeck’s Cape Colony as a mediator and translator, it’s difficult for me to believe that the film was made by a morally and artistically serious person — even less so by a woman who purports to be serious about discussing the historical treatment of women. It’d be boorish for me to use such words as “atrocious” or “abominable,” the staples for describing films one finds particularly distasteful, in the face of a story of actual historical atrocities and moral abominations, but I find that Durrant may well care less than I do about treating the subject with respect and good sense. The failures of her film are manifold, and arise from critical malfunctions on a range of levels of the film’s development.

(To read what other critics had to say about the film, click here.)

Most superficial are the many failures of execution: Durrant and her director of photography, Greg Heimann, insist on eliminating any sense of personal or critical perspective on the shots they film, offering the blandest, most clichéd establishing shots of a beach, a fort, and the waves breaking on the west coast, and focusing squarely on actors’ faces during conversation, to the exclusion of all setting, context, and visual nuance, and with no consideration for meaningful framing, compositions, lighting, movement, or depth (except, perhaps, in what Durrant must consider the evocation of a painting, in the vulgar love scene between Krotoa and the Danish doctor Pieter Van Meerhof, and in the stunningly indelicate allusion to the famous painting of Van Riebeeck’s arrival in the Cape); Durrant and her cast refuse to step out of the woefully constrained soap-opera style of acting they learned on South African television and from pedestrian South African film productions, emphasising their exasperatingly simplistic emotions with a dreadful dependence on hackneyed expressions, and suffocating any hope for spontaneity and freedom in their performances; Durrant urges her composer, Murray Anderson, to churn the most prosaic emotional reactions with a despairingly vapid and overbearing score that treads all the wrong steps at all the wrong moments; Durrant and her costumers and makeup artists devise to present all the actors as awkwardly and obviously out of place as possible in what were probably the thoroughly-researched but ill-refashioned looks of the day.

Critic’s-Eye View: “Krotoa”

The new biopic on the Khoi historical figure Krotoa opened last week. Roberta Durrant’s film brought in mixed reviews, which is probably to be expected for any film dealing with a biter topic in South Africa’s colonial history. Before being released theatrically, it was shown at a number of international film festivals. It won Best Film at the Harlem International Film Festival in New York, and was in the official selection for the Artemis Women in Action Film Festival, the Nashville Film Festival, the International Film Festival for Environment, Health and Culture, and the World Film Awards. I’ve compiled here a number of reviews of the film for readers to get a good idea of the range of reactions to Durrant’s biopic — let me know of any that I’ve missed.

To read this blog’s review of Krotoa, click here.

Writing for Channel24, Leandra Englebrecht, who awarded the film four stars out of five, declares it “deserving of all its awards”:

“Krotoa is not an easy watch but it is a necessary watch — it explores colonialism, race, sexual violence, and identity. … The strength of this film is largely due to the brilliant Crystal-Donna Roberts as Krotoa. She gives a nuanced performance of a woman who is caught between two cultures and her own ambitions. Great care went into the Khoi representation; the cast who played the roles learned the Khoi language for authenticity. … 
Krotoa is a thought-provoking film that will stay with you long after the credits roll. This film is a must-see for all South Africans.”

Friday, 11 August 2017

What to See This Weekend: The Good Fight

Every Friday, The Back Row compiles a short selection of recommendations for readers’ weekend viewing. The links are for the convenience of those who wish to stream the films on the suggested websites (make sure it’s available in your territory before entering your payment details); readers may well prefer other sites with alternative arrangements for the streaming and downloading of films, and can’t be stopped from using those instead.

“Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets”

Now playing in theatres across South Africa.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is the first Luc Besson film I’ve seen, and it’s nowhere near as disappointing as other commentators would have had me expect. The general consensus in critical reaction is summed up in a sentence from Herman Lategan’s review of the film (which awarded it two stars) for the Beeld: “The storyline is weak, but it’s a visual spectacle.” But South African reviewers have been considerably more generous to the film than international ones; for Channel24, Gabi Zietsman, who awarded it four stars, compares it to Besson’s cult favourite The Fifth Element, writing that “it surpasses the scope of that world into something that can only be described as magical.” She goes on to criticise its plot, dialogue, and lead actors (Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne), but affirms that it “deserves its four-star rating just because of the sheer volume and awe of the universe that Besson presents to us.” Leon van Nierop, in another four-star review, for the Rapport, writes, “One seldom sees such strange creatures, futuristic cities, weird beings, and a totally ordinary hero and heroine. … Luc Besson enjoys himself immensely, and, visually, it’s one of the most overwhelming experiences yet.”

I have had even more memorable, more wondrous, and more singularly original visual experiences in the movies myself, but Besson’s film is indeed a treat. It’s understandably often been compared to James Cameron’s Avatar, which also featured an entirely invented CGI-scape of planets, natural wonders, races other than human, and alien animal and plant species, set centuries in the future and far from earth. But, where Cameron toured across a single planet (based on a factual location in our own solar system) and the specific spiritual contours of a single society inhabiting a part of it, Besson bounds through the universe, from one solar system to another, including intriguing interactions with a parallel dimension and the material threats inherent to a movie-maker’s satire of virtual reality experiences. And, where Cameron set out a rather standard — in fact, clichéd — political fable, Besson spins something far more original and daring, which, though related, bears much greater import for the moment.