Monday, 9 April 2018

South Africa’s Prestigious “Five Fingers for Marseilles”


Michael Matthews’s first feature film, the Sesotho-language Five Fingers for Marseilles, written by Sean Drummond, has been marketed everywhere with maximum ostentation as South Africa’s very first western, and, reflecting on the experience of watching it, that fact bodes well for the future of South African cinema: Other attempts at the genre have nowhere to go from here but up. The film is a hefty haul of all-too-familiar features that have come to characterise what I think of as our country’s prestige cinema: the movies meant to show off and advance our slowly developing film industry, but that, to me, throw its limits and shortcomings into sharp relief. These features include an ostensibly detailed attention to quality photography, a plot thrown together from local television and international blockbuster clichés, an elision of personal and idiosyncratic style for the sake of specious substance, dialogue of the most hackneyed and unimaginative variety (in whatever language is chosen), a conspicuous absence of directorial presence or artistic personae, a dismayingly narrowed and uniformly professional attitude to performance, a totally conventional notion of drama, a view of character and method of drawing characters that is both blunt and shallow, and the lack of detailed attention to milieu or specific setting.

Read others’ reviews of Five Fingers for Marseilles here.

The weak drama unfolds the plot doggedly, without accumulating details or views of anything on show, whether the setting, the characters, the broad contexts of the story, or the ideas meant to be introduced to it. Does it matter which small town was chosen as the location of the fictitious Marseilles? Would it have been any different if it had been filmed at any one of the many dozens of other small towns surrounded by dry landscapes across the country? Is there anything at all that this specific location offered to the filmmakers’ vision? If so, it isn’t to be seen in their film. If not, should it not then be used to springboard more general ideas about the country at large? I didn’t come across these, either. The script introduces elements without developing them any further than the first subordinating conjunction of a basic character sketch or plot synopsis, without tightening the emotional tensions of the film, and without mapping out a perspective or context for it. Avoiding spoilers, the resolution of the drama renders pretty much all of what came before inconsequential and insignificant. It wastes the resources of a hard-working cast of dedicated actors, who fixed their grim facial expressions in place for the entirety of the shoot, as well as the location scouts who went to great lengths to find the appropriately harsh and windswept natural settings.

Friday, 6 April 2018

Critic’s-Eye View: “Five Fingers for Marseilles”

A new Sesotho-language South Africa film, Five Fingers for Marseilles, opens today in local theatres. Much has been made on social media about the fact that it’s a western, updated and translated to a contemporary South African context, and it’s been sufficiently hyped by pundits and publicists to draw the attention of South African moviegoers. Here’s hoping for significant commercial successes.

Read The Back Row’s review of Five Fingers for Marseilles here.

Nikita Coetzee reviewed Five Fingers for Marseilles for the entertainment site Channel24, awarding it four stars out of five, and writing that she

struggled to imagine what a South African western would look like — in my mind picturing clichés like tumbleweeds, cowboy boots, and a sheriff who makes it known that he is in charger around these parts. Thankfully, I found none of that. The creators of this film did a fantastic job taking what many expect a western to be, and flipping it on its head. While there were still many elements of the classic western film, Five Fingers for Marseilles is so uniquely South African that midway through I stopped looking for the things that made it a western, and started looking out for the things that made it a good film.
That being said, if breathtaking cinematography is what you’re after, then this movie is definitely for you. Filmed in the Eastern Cape, it boasts beautiful visuals that are enough to keep the eyes of someone with a short attention span like myself entertained. In fact, had it not been for the amazing imagery, I may have found myself staring at my watch a few times as the slow pace of the film caused my mind to wander every now and again.

Wednesday, 21 March 2018

The Excessive Beauty of “Phantom Thread”


Among Paul Thomas Anderson’s previous films, I have only seen There Will Be Blood, which I found turgid and tendentious. It’s the kind of arthouse epic that the word “grandiloquent” is reserved for. Phantom Thread comprises such a vast leap in artistic creation that I struggle to recall the earlier work; it’s totally eclipsed.

Those interested in arthouse releases or the Oscars will already know the context of the story, and the cultural reverberations of Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance at its centre. He plays a fictitious renowned couturier, named Reynolds Woodcock, in London in the 1950s. His milieu is the highest society of Europe: his fashion is wrought for the aristocracy and royalty who admire the beauty of his work, or, rather, the great light in which it casts them. He is obsessive and controlling by nature, which brings about the exquisite creations of his art, a demanding work environment for those employed by House of Woodcock, and fraught tensions in any personal relationships. The work environment is efficiently run (and his personal relationships coldly smoothed over) by his sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville), who is unmarried and who systematically manages Reynolds’s fashion house and his life.

Sunday, 18 March 2018

Angling for Ideas in “Catching Feelings”


Comparisons to older Woody Allen classics are rife in the reviews of Catching Feelings. The parallels only struck me afterwards, in reflection, and not while I was watching it. The first of the two ways in which it resembles a Woody Allen film is in that Kagiso Lediga stars in it as well as having written and directed it, setting it within a cultural context in which we can safely believe Lediga himself lives in real life; and the other is that one of the most prevalent and repetitive motifs is men and women who cheat on their spouses. The ways in which the two filmmakers are different is far more numerous, and, as always, more interesting to consider.

Read others’ reviews of Catching Feelings here.

Lediga demonstratively and immediately establishes the location of his film — the City of Johannesburg — as an important feature in the story; unlike Allen’s encomium of New York City in the prologue to Manhattan, Lediga’s attitude towards Johannesburg and its people is far sourer, and his emotional responses far more tempered. The scene is set after an animated prologue, in which a soldier grows horns out of jealousy and possessiveness over his wife, whom he catches engaging in the rut with a “Moor”. It’s styled as a faux-medieval comic book fantasy, and indicates that the central problem to be faced in the unfolding film is cuckoldry, in all its archaic and patriarchal tensions.


Friday, 16 March 2018

“Loving Vincent” and Admiring Art


I’m no art aficionado — my conversation on the impressionists extends only so far as I can compare them to my beloved musical impressionists, like Satie, Debussy, and Ravel — but I have immense admiration for the work of Vincent van Gogh. His paintings may be impressionist in style, but feel as though they approach the painfully intimate in scope and the cosmic in spirit. It’s a cliché to say that the style appears senseless or jejune when viewed in close detail, but accumulates to an engaging rendering of a scene when viewed as a whole, yet it’s that exact fact and quality of reality — both the reality of the soul and of the cosmos — that van Gogh’s art reflects. An emotion or an observed corner of the universe are not likely to make sense when considered in isolation, but can form the part of a revelation of a greater truth when an artist interknits and interworks them into a comprehensive and beautiful creation. And that sense of both exquisite elevation and baffled despair are all too present and immediately apparent in the story of van Gogh’s life.

Loving Vincent presents only pieces of the story of that life, and only in flashbacks. The main action takes place a year after his death, when Joseph Roulin (Chris O’Dowd), the postman who befriended Vincent van Gogh, comes by a letter that the painter posted to his brother, Theo, and tasks his son, Armand Roulin (Douglas Booth), with delivering it to its intended recipient. Mingled with Armand’s task, and presented to him by Joseph together with the letter, is the mystery of how Vincent could swerve from what he himself had described as a “calm and normal” mood to suicide in a matter of a few weeks. Vincent’s apparent suicide has cast a gloomy pall over the people to whom and places to which he was once familiar, just as he had lit them up during his life. Armand’s journey to deliver the letter shifts its focus into finding the answer to Vincent’s death, which transforms his route into one of discovery of Vincent’s life, who he was and what he contributed to the world. It brings him into contact with a host of characters, all taken from actual accounts in van Gogh’s letters and diaries, or depictions in his paintings, and played by a roster of prestigious arthouse favourites: Saoirse Ronan, John Sessions, Helen McCrory, Jerome Flynn, and Eleanor Tomlinson round out the cast.


Thursday, 15 March 2018

“Wonderboy for President” and Inoffensive Satire


Available on Showmax.

In conjunction with the release of Kagiso Lediga’s new romantic comedy Catching Feelings, which was released last Friday, I watched the 2016 comedy Wonderboy for President, directed by John Barker and also starring Lediga, which is now streaming on Showmax.

Wonderboy for President is set up as a mockumentary in a political context. Shakes (Ntosh Madlingozi, who also appears in Catching Feelings) and Brutus (Tony Miyambo), two ostensible high-ups in the ANC back office, are remonstrated by leadership for the weakening public image of the party and its growing disconnect with its base, particularly among the youth and particularly in Johannesburg. They are tasked with travelling to the Eastern Cape to meet with a rumoured charismatic young leader named Wonderboy (Lediga), whom leadership believes will bring sufficient credibility and appeal as the face of the party to lure back voters.

Wonderboy is quickly brought up to Johannesburg, introduced to the big city and its ways, rapidly flung into the party leadership, and just as rapidly brought into the party’s disfavour when he falls for an attractive young leader (Thishiwe Ziqubu) in the DA, the main opposition party, which brings along a selection of predictable conflicts.


“Nosferatu” at the Brooklyn Theatre


Something that we don’t have anything close to enough of in South Africa is revivals of older movies. (Admittedly, that’s not very high up on the nation’s list of priorities, but we cannot continue to neglect our cultural development on that basis of precedence-by-necessity.) For that reason, the screenings of classic and popular older films at places like the Bioscope in Johannesburg are especially welcome, and are to be taken note of whenever they arise. This post is to draw your attention to just such an occasion, taking place in Menlo Park in Pretoria, at the Brooklyn Theatre. On Sunday, 18 March, at 3 p.m., the Brooklyn Theatre will screen F.W. Murnau’s silent horror classic, Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror, based on Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula. The screening will be accompanied live by three young musicians — Danre Strydom, Cezarre Strydom, and Jana Mathee, each playing a number of different instruments, from woodwind and brass to string and keyboard instruments — who will perform a live musical score to the silent film. (Dialogue is shown in intertitles, translated into English.) The music to be played was reportedly chosen from a number of different sources and style eras, all specifically orchestrated for this performance and to fit with the intended mood of the film.

The reason to hurry along to this screening (and to book your tickets, which can be done here) is not merely for the novelty of attending a live musical performance as the score for a silent film (though it’s certainly reason enough for those who are interested in that sort of thing), but for the sheer artistic power of Murnau’s film, no matter the sounds selected or devised to be played along with it. I attended a similar event last year at the Bioscope, where another Murnau silent classic — Tartuffe,  from 1926, chosen to coincide with the performance at the Joburg Theatre of Molière’s play — was played silently and accompanied live, that time by a jazz pianist who was improvising his score throughout. I don’t remember anything about the music he played (which should say enough as a criticism of his improvisations), but Tartuffe was wondrous enough a cinematic experience for it to have been worthwhile no matter what he played, or even if nothing was played and we had watched the film in total silence.

Monday, 12 March 2018

Greta Gerwig’s Beautiful “Lady Bird”


Simply put, Greta Gerwig’s second feature as a director (and her first as sole director), as well as the sixth feature she’s written, Lady Bird, displays a sharp perception and emanates a warm tenderness to an uncommon degree in contemporary movies. This may not be surprising, and yet is something remarkable, because Gerwig has conceived of and executed a story rooted in her own experiences and linked to her own biography. Filmmakers often find new sides to their artistry when filming something from their own experiences, but many of them — perhaps to protect the parts of themselves they see as most vulnerable — end up coating their vision in hazy nostalgia, easy and stereotypical preconceptions, or rigid and unyielding methods of representation. Gerwig avoids these pitfalls, and arrives at a work of authentic and probing thought as well as exquisite emotional insight. If we’re to count it as a directorial début, it’s certainly one of the great ones of recent years, along with Jordan Peele’s in Get Out, and Yance Ford’s in Strong Island. Her work is more than remarkable: it’s beautiful, and accomplished with the whimsical charm and presence, and practically Mozartian grace that we have come to expect from her as an artist.

Lady Bird follows a student named Christine (Saoirse Ronan) — who has given herself the nickname “Lady Bird” — through her final year of high school at a Catholic girls school in Sacramento, California, from the start of her senior year in the autumn of 2002 through to the start of the next year when she arrives at college in the autumn of 2003. It’s not strictly or literally autobiographical, according to Gerwig — none of the events in the film are taken directly from her life — but the connection to actual experiences is both conspicuous and touching. Like Lady Bird, Gerwig grew up in Sacramento, went to a Catholic girls school, exhibited “a performative streak” as she grew up, and went to college in New York City. (Christine is also Gerwig’s mother’s name.) What’s touching is the deep personal care with which she has crafted each of her characters as well as the atmosphere surrounding them and the events they go through. Lady Bird’s relationship and interactions with her mother (Laurie Metcalf) — a nurse, as Gerwig’s mother was — are central to the plot, though scenes with her classmates, her friends, her romantic interests, her father, her brother, and her teachers are not merely subplots, but integral to the main thrust of the story.

Friday, 9 March 2018

Critic’s-Eye View: “Catching Feelings”

A new South African romantic comedy is opening this weekend, comedian Kagiso Lediga’s Catching Feelings, which he wrote, directed, and stars in. I have not yet seen it, but here are other views on the film that I found in various publications. Let me know of any I may have missed and should add here.

Read The Back Row’s review of Catching Feelings here.

In her Channel24 review, Gabi Zietsman awards the film three stars out of five and says that Lediga “goes for a more refined style” than the slapstick gags and vulgar jokes used by other comedians entering movies, “that deals intimately with race relations in South Africa and how fragile masculinity can kill love.”

Lediga … has a smooth approach to such touchy subjects and manages to create a safe space where he can explore these issues without really offending the audience. Both sides are shown to have flaws and strengths, and the story actually follows a tasteful debate around the issues without trying to hide away from the harsh truths …
Although these issues [of white privilege and fragile masculinity] are not unique to South Africa (especially in the US context), Lediga places it heavily in a local context that rings true for our audiences without being offensive. It does come packaged in an academic setting … but Lediga still managed to touch on the educational divide … The jokes sometimes fell a bit flat or came too many at once, which may be a result of Lediga’s comedic background.
I also feel like he could have cast a stronger actress than Pearl Thusi, whose main purpose seems to be to look pretty in underwear … It almost feels like Lediga derides his female characters and makes them far less substantial than the supporting male characters (Andrew Buckland and Akin Omotoso were brilliant), despite being very aware of what toxic and fragile masculinity is.

Saturday, 3 March 2018

“Call Me By Your Name”’s Gratifications and Fantasies


As E.L. James arrived at the premise of an extravagant women’s fantasy of romance, sex, luxury, and the accompanying pain, meant to heighten the effects of its pleasures, so Luca Gaudagnino has set up a sumptuous gay fantasy, in the northern Italian countryside, with summer’s sun and ripe fruits replacing handcuffs and riding crops. (In fact, Fifty Shades of Grey director Sam Taylor-Johnson was at one point considered to direct this adaptation of André Aciman’s novel.) But the money is still there, and a lot of it, and even more so the characters’ supposed cultural sophistication. In the place of the self-assured and knowingly desirous Christian Grey, we have Oliver (Armie Hammer), a history scholar who has come to Italy from America to work as the assistant of a distinguished archaeologist named Perlman (Michael Stuhlbarg); the ingénue on whom he sets his sights is Perlman’s son, the precocious twink Elio (Timothée Chalamet). They skirt past each other, and initial romantic prospects are obscured by Oliver’s inscrutable furtiveness and Elio’s self-absorbed self-loathing, but, eventually, a romance buds and blooms, and, for the somewhat isolated and unenlightened 17-year-old Elio, of age becomes just as inevitable a place to come as anywhere else.

Gaudagnino, James Ivory (who wrote the script), and Aciman fill out the fantasy with a huge inherited estate in the northern Italian countryside, a loving family, truly liberal parents, lithe and bare-skinned youths, promiscuous teenagers, constant sunshine, food and drink, old-world architecture, impressionist music, modernist music, Euro pop music, and a freeing period setting of the early 1980s, skirting the arrival in Italy of the AIDS crisis and Thatcher/Reaganite shame. Gaudagnino has meticulously constructed a tone and a mood to serve this fantasy: His carefully selected film stock (just grainy enough to remind you of a sunnier, simpler time), matted colours, attentive and shrewd framing of shots, clever and purposeful cuts, appropriately brooding looks from his actors, and a well-practiced naturalism and simulated playfulness among his young actors are all precisely calibrated to stoke an emotional effect in the audience. The images serve nostalgia and easy desire, and seem almost deliberately devised not to convey ideas. Gaudagnino and Ivory may have had their artistic differences (which is why Ivory ended up not directing, as he had intended to), yet, in Gaudagnino’s canny fabrication of a faux-haute delicacy, Call Me By Your Name seems to have a lot in common with Ivory’s films — Gaudagnino merely deploys a more contemporary (and typically European) art-house consciousness to mitigate any overt romantic indulgences.

Friday, 2 March 2018

My Oscar Ballot – 2018


The Oscars remain the least important thing to happen each year, and not only in the movie calendar. Oscar night is like a depression in significance, except for the cultural and aesthetic value of the fashion exhibited and meme fodder generated on the evening. The results are worthless except in practical ways to the winners: If you win an Oscar, the advancement of your career becomes easier in Hollywood. Okay, maybe there’s another important effect: If a movie wins an Oscar, the industry and its aspirants are likely to try make more just like it. But Academy Awards and actual artistic importance only ever align coincidentally.

My Oscar ballot is the selection of films that I think are most likely to win, not necessarily my favourites — in fact, hardly ever my favourites. I haven’t seen most of the nominated films yet, anyway; the only ones I have seen are Call Me By Your Name, Get Out, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, The Post, The Shape of Water, and Strong Island. Read my own selection of what I found to be the greatest films of 2017.