Monday, 18 December 2017

Critic’s-Eye View: “Vuil Wasgoed”

Following up his hit Nul is nie niks nie from earlier this year, Morné du Toit has a new film in theatrical release right now: the Afrikaans crime-caper-comedy Vuil Wasgoed. I have not had a chance to see it myself, but can report on what other reviewers and commentators have been saying about it.

Herman Eloff awarded the film three stars in his review for Channel24, stating that, considering the risks of adapting a short film into a feature-length comedy, “it worked out just fine.”

The big screen version is far more polished than the original short. It’s slicker, smoother, and faster. Even the cinematography is sexier with an expensive, international feel to it. The characters have also grown and are a lot more developed and interesting to watch. … Vuil Wasgoed really is a breath of fresh air in the local cinematic offering. It’s well-made and beautifully put together. But it also has its problems.
Although a stellar cast, some characters really dropped the ball a few times. When a strategically placed joke falls flat it results in an uncomfortable silence from the audience. … The constant jabs at [the film’s two disabled characters, a blind man and deaf woman] were insensitive and completely unnecessary. Instead of using this opportunity to include disabled characters into the narrative, they were rather used as an easy target to make fun of. This kind of ableism should never by okay and should not be encouraged in any way. The crude treatment of the disabled left a dirty stain on an otherwise pristine effort.”

Saturday, 25 November 2017

What to See This Weekend: The Struggle

“Malcolm X” (Spike Lee, 1992)

Available on iTunes; on DVD.

Spike Lee’s biopic of the civil rights activist and Muslim minister Malcolm X is based in large part on his autobiography. I noted on this blog that James Baldwin had written an earlier treatment of Malcolm X’s life for film, which was developed into the screenplay for Lee’s film. Having never read the autobiography nor Baldwin’s treatment (nor the versions in between that and the final script), I couldn’t say how much of the film comes from either source. Nor could I say, now having seen the film, how much of the stuff of the film itself comes from Spike Lee and his actual thoughts, feelings, and artistic impulses, and how much comes from what Spike Lee thought ought to be one’s thoughts, feelings, and heavily wrought artistic representations of these. Malcolm X displays an undeniable cinematic artistry, but only in flashes; although the film may seem like it’s set out like a textbook, or pseudo-testimony, and made not out of a drive for artistic creation but an assertive, unambiguous, even peremptory account of Malcolm X’s life and work, Lee’s distinctive style works to keep his film falling into the deadening craters of other Oscarisable biopics (think of Gandhi, Shine, Out of Africa, A Beautiful Mind, The Imitation Game, and the rest).

Lee seems determined to include as much of Malcolm X’s life as his distributors would allow in the film; many episodes are enacted in what feels like their real-time full length. The comparison between this and another, far greater recent biopic is striking: in his movie about Emily Dickinson, A Quiet Passion, Terence Davies keeps his telling elliptical, choosing a few distinctive moments — some of them even partly or mostly fictional — in Dickinson’s life in the foreground to suggest a rich and multiplicitous background. Of course, Lee couldn’t have done the same here, because of the very real cultural and political risks in leaving too much of Malcolm X’s story to interpretation, or even of refracting it too sharply through one’s own interpretation. Unfortunately, however, this ostensibly faithful account occludes a probing, questioning, curious, ambivalent, ambiguous, or polysemous attitude to the content, and so precludes a highly nuanced or inflected filming of it. And, in an oblique way, it works against Lee’s intentions: when an artist resorts to hard assertions, especially in an apparent effort to set the record straight, and especially in a form derived from and assimilating to fiction, it’s particularly difficult to trust in its veracity, even (or, perhaps, especially) when it’s demonstrated that the narrative is mostly fact-based. The facts don’t speak for themselves, and an artist is in store for deep pitfalls when he presumes that they might.

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

The Exalted Power of Mozart’s “Die Zauberflöte”

The Metropolitan Opera in New York City broadcasts a few of its performances each season to cinemas around the globe, for those of us interested in the annual productions of one of the largest and greatest houses in the world and for whom the local operatic slate is not nearly sufficient. Ster Kinekor screens these performances in South Africa (in its Cinema Nouveau theatres, in Pretoria, Johannesburg, Durban, and Cape Town). The 2017-2018 season started off with a dramatically dark production of Norma, starring the Canadian soprano Sondra Radvanovsky as a truly great interpreter of the Gaulish priestess and a glowing Joyce DiDonato as her apprentice. The second production on offer is a revival of Julie Taymor’s perennially popular production of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte (“The Magic Flute”). Mozart’s momentous opera soared for over two centuries before Taymor got her hands on it — and I daresay it’ll outlive her brilliant work — but it loses nothing to her outlandish and variegated designs and devices, and I most heartily advise every reader of this blog to go out and see one or more of the final screenings of this production (see the Ster Kinekor website for details).

Mozart’s music has had to weather more overblown yet rhapsodic rhetoric than any other composer’s in the modern era (and the classical and ancient times, for that matter), but it’s difficult to find anything like a hyperbole among its descriptors. Best known as a child prodigy (and now a virtual fertiliser for the ears and minds of today’s children, in the hope that his freakish abilities are infectious), Mozart’s technical mastery and fertile prolificity are incontrovertible, but they’re only the first part of the story of his genius. It’d be true to say of him, as a composer and teacher friend of mine has, that, in all 700 works, in the face of many self-imposed challenges, he never set a single note in the wrong place or at the wrong time; every moment is composed (you’ll forgive the cliché) as if by divine configuration. And that heavenly order is a true and personal aspect of his art: More than mere phenomena of sensation and spectacle, Mozart’s works constitute a noble and exalted philosophy sought sublimely through sound.

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Making Your Way, for Free

A still from the Malian film Yeelen, available for viewing on

My apologies to readers who have come, as I hope you might have, to expect something from this blog’s weekend viewing recommendations that you wouldn’t find on just any old entertainment blog available to you. Last weekend, instead of a selection of films for you to seek out, I posted about a few sites and platforms where you can discover your own viewing paths and make your own selections of films to see and report back on. (I’ve received a few stories and recommendations from some readers on specific series they’ve found and enjoyed, but not heard anything about their feature film — or short film, for that matter — delights.)

The sites I gave were pretty obvious and very broadly mainstream, and no doubt already known in their entirety to most readers: Showmax, BoxOffice, iTunes, Google Play, and Netflix. They are also either subscription or rental/purchase services. The delightful array of South African independent productions on Showmax and foreign independent productions on Netflix aside, what about the works for those viewers who are looking for alternatives to the common feature viewing fare? And what about those viewers whose budget constraints preclude extensive viewing on sites that require you to pay for your pleasures?

I must admit that I myself am nearly as engulfed by the darkness of ignorance as any reader asking those questions. I know of pitifully few places where you can go to watch things for free — but, of course, at least one reason for that is that not many distributors are committed to releasing their films for free — and I know even less about alternative viewing that would interest some of you. All I can do here is point out to you the tiny handful of things I do know, and plead for more of you to let me know about the options that they know of so that I can inform more readers of what’s available to them. (I’ll only let you know about the legally permissible options here; viewers who disregard laws and copyrights do so at their own inconvenience.)

Saturday, 11 November 2017

The Allegories Packed Into “mother!”

Note: I’ve done my best not to spoil the plot or the effects of the film in any way, but readers who wish to retain the full jolt of surprise when they see the film should defer reading this post until after they’ve done so.

There are two literal mothers presented in the story of Darren Aronofsky’s latest film to which the title may refer; however, unsure as you may be of a whole multitude of things after seeing the film, it’s strikingly clear that Aronofsky has not concerned himself with the literal. The tumbling, nightmarish torrent of jump scares, hysterics, and eventual gore congeals, by starkly exploitative means, into even more ironic a horror film than this year’s brilliantly aware satire Get Out. That irony arises from Aronofsky’s strong allegorical purposes in making mother!, but just what he has presented an allegory of is the problem with which many viewers have found themselves burdened. (Or not. Aronofsky’s irony is sometimes so systematically laid into the film’s fabric, held so consistently right before the viewer’s face — just as the steadicam is before Jennifer Lawrence’s for most of the film — that some reviewers missed it entirely.)

The story of cyclical abuse and dependence could be taken for a number of political narratives of the moment. Exploitation and unwelcome presences are always easy targets for an exegesis on the evils of colonialism; specific incidents in the plot and the overtly sexualised view of the young and delicate woman at the centre resonate against the last few weeks’ resounding headlines of exposed sexual misconduct and the ubiquitous abuses of power they constitute; it could be read as a nerve-shredding depiction of what it’s like to try and lead a calm and sheltered life with someone who craves, and is eventually granted, celebrity in a media-sodden culture; Herman Eloff, in his review for Channel24, sees it as a critique of the unguarded openness and unchecked desires that our electronic and connective lives allow us to indulge; Aronofsky himself reportedly claims a parallel with “the rape and torture of Mother Earth” (in Lawrence’s words), which explains the title, and which is how I initially viewed the allegory, with the house as an analogue for Earth, and the increasingly aggressive characters representing us in our careless exploitation of natural resources. The problem is compounded by explicit allusions to Biblical paradigms and Aronofsky’s characteristically frenziedly subjective depictions.

Saturday, 4 November 2017

What to See This Weekend: Make Your Way

This weekend, instead of giving my recommendations of all the films you could look out for, I’m pointing out the directions in which you can undertake your own viewing expeditions. For all the downsides of technological advancement, the global and transnational connectivity and accessibility it has supplied is one of the greatest of its advantages. There are now more movies available to you than ever before, even after the growth over decades of television screenings and home video distribution; the problem now is to sort through the myriad of newly handy offerings to properly allocate your resources (chiefly, those of your time and your money) to those that you think you could gain the most from. Readers of this blog will know that I believe there is far more than mere entertainment to be gained from a good movie, and I find the hour-and-a-half spent watching The Darjeeling Limited or Good Time plus the two hours afterwards spent discussing it with your companions are well worth the energies and assets you’ll have invested in finding them, getting yourself to the right place to see them, and paying to see the screening.

Obviously, as before, the preferred option of many who wish to see a film at home over the weekend is to watch in on DVD. The range of films available is vast (though not as broad as many of us would like) and the options for where to get it are very widely varied. Nobody needs me to tell them that renting is cheaper nor that owning yields far greater returns (and I aim to own as many of my favourite films on DVD as possible, which offer inordinate value in repeat viewings and social screenings with various groups of friends). Most of you won’t need to be told where to go to get them, either (and may have better knowledge than mine on where to buy cheaper secondhand copies or where to rent), but I’ve found online stores such as Takealot and Loot to be competitively priced and to have the thankfully much wider range of products available (through international third-party sellers) than what you are able to find on shelves. For those conscious of bargains and price disparities, the site Price Check compares the price of a product offered by different sellers, including these online stores.

Saturday, 28 October 2017

What to See This Weekend: Collision Courses

Each weekend, 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.

“The Darjeeling Limited” (Wes Anderson, 2007)

Available on Google Play; on iTunes; on DVD.

The Darjeeling Limited, which reached the tenth anniversary of its theatrical release this week, is perhaps the worst received feature film by Wes Anderson — at 69%, it has the lowest Rotten Tomatoes score, and, when I searched for them, I very quickly found a large number of decidedly negative critical responses to it online — but it’s one of my very favourites, and not only among Anderson’s films. It has in common with the others (Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic of Steve Zissou, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Moonrise Kingdom, and The Grand Budapest Hotel) all the hallmarks of Anderson’s style and thematic interests, and the ways in which it’s different are mostly what brought about such strong reactions to it — strongly negative, in the case of some internet commentators; strongly disappointed, in the case of Anderson fans who prefer his earlier or later works (or both); and strongly ecstatic, in those, like me, who see something of great artistry and unparalleled beauty in it.

The story concerns three brothers, convened by the eldest, Francis (Owen Wilson), for a journey across India on a luxurious train known as The Darjeeling Limited. Francis, Peter (Adrien Brody), and Jack (Jason Schwartzman) Whitman have recently lost their father, and Francis has survived a near-fatal motorcycle accident, prompting him to reconnect with his somewhat estranged brothers and mother, on a wishful journey of epiphanies and redemption. The pained and strained family relations are redolent of those in The Royal Tenenbaums, even more so when Anjelica Huston appears to play Patricia, the brothers’ mother. Anderson has once again taken a sharp and deeply empathic view of the unique energies of family life through the prism of bourgeois comfort and privilege, and it’s a marvel, as always, to feel how keenly the emotions represented and conveyed by his film are evoked while he maintains so loftily ironic a position in presenting it. (I find that the most distinctive moments of humour in Anderson’s films arise from the tensions, as well as felicitous alignments, between precisely this emotional force and grand, overarching irony.)

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

The Revelations in the Safdie Brothers’ “Good Time”

Josh and Benny Safdie are two filmmaking brothers whose new film stars Robert Pattinson as a petty criminal who manipulates and exploits those around him for his own purposes, named Constantine Nikas, a.k.a. Connie; so it’s entirely apt that the film begins and ends with the person closest to Connie, his brother, Nick (Benny Safdie), in therapy. Good Time’s story is one of a person who thinks of and sees everything only in terms of his own goals, even while upholding the the commonplaces of familial bonds and duties. Connie may genuinely think that he’s taking care of Nick, who is mentally disabled and has impaired hearing and speech, but his obliviously self-centred concerns don’t let him see that, even when he tries to uplift or protect his brother, the purposes of his actions are only ever to pursue his own agenda.

It’s not only Nick, but everyone he comes into contact with that Connie treats in this way. He uses each of them to achieve his own ends, without sparing a single thought for their perspectives, experiences, or needs. When he encounters a convicted drug dealer named Ray (Buddy Duress) and hears Ray’s story of his first night out after being released on parole and how a series of antics that involved a bottle of an LSD solution worth several thousand dollars landed him back in prison, Connie’s immediate and only reaction is not one of empathy with, interest in, or amusement for the story, but to plan to find the bottle of LSD, which Ray tells him he hid while running from the police, and to sell it for cash.

Saturday, 21 October 2017

What to See This Weekend: Unexpected Journeys

On Fridays, 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.

“I Am Not Your Negro” (Raoul Peck, 2016)

Available on DVD.

When James Baldwin died, at the age of sixty-three, from stomach cancer, he left unfinished a manuscript of the memoir Remember This House, detailing his personal interactions with the civil rights leaders Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X. (Baldwin had also written a treatment of Malcolm X’s life for a screenplay, which he eventually adapted into his book One Day, When I Was Lost; this is what Spike Lee ended up developing into the script for his bio-pic Malcolm X, released five years after Baldwin’s death.) The Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck has now made a documentary to present his view of the story of black people in America, revealing that it’s the core of his idea of the story of America itself, and his text is derived entirely from the writings of Baldwin, with a particular focus on Remember This House and the three slain leaders.

Baldwin is a prominent fixture in the long and illustrious history of American literature, and especially noteworthy as a powerful practitioner of that strong American form, the philosophical-political essay, that developed from the republican revolution in the days of empire and colonies, the abolitionist movement leading up to the American Civil War, and through the various liberalising struggles of the twentieth century. It is now most potently remembered as a part of the civil rights struggle, where the great spiritual epiphanies were imparted in American political movements, and the anti-sectarian moralism and spiritualist aestheticism of Baldwin is closely related to the ecclesiastically awesome deliveries of King on the steps of national monuments. In fact, Baldwin himself spoke with the fervour of a preacher, a sight we’re treated to in the archival footage that Peck includes in I Am Not Your Negro, such as clips from Baldwin’s interview on The Dick Cavett Show, and his debate with William F. Buckley, Jr., at the Oxford Union. These are interspersed throughout the documentary, together with photographs and other footage of episodes in the civil rights struggle of the 1950s and 60s, as well as contemporary material of the protest activities carried out by Black Lives Matter.

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.