Friday, 21 July 2017

What to See This Weekend: Pain and Prejudices

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.

“Metropolitan” (Whit Stillman, 1990)




Available on iTunes.

This week, we passed the bicentennial of the death of the matchless Jane Austen, responsible for no less than six of the language’s favourite novels of all time and over thirty direct adaptations of those works for film and television, not to mention the host of other movies based on or inspired by stories and characters of her creation. I myself have seen very few of those adaptations (Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice, from 2005, is the only one not featured in this blog post), but their number and popularity are enough to set them aside as a genre unto themselves. A far broader and more pliable genre is that of the loose adaptation, into which Whit Stillman’s remarkable indie comedy Metropolitan falls, as inspired by Austen’s Mansfield Park, along with better known films like Bridget Jones’s Diary (Pride and Prejudice) and its sequel (Persuasion), Clueless (Emma), and Material Girls (Sense and Sensibility).

I’ve never read Mansfield Park, but the characters themselves of Metropolitan make a pretty strong case for the novel when they debate its value, and the one championing it is revealed to be an Austen fanatic (which is hardly to put a foot wrong for Carolyn Farina’s level-headed and sensitive debutante Audrey) while the one against it — Edward Clements’s young socialist Tom, whose class-consciousness and self-consciousness are closely linked — has not only neglected to read it, but eschews the reading of novels altogether in favour of literary criticism: “That way, you get both the novelist’s ideas as well as the critic’s thinking.” It’s particularly shrewd of Stillman, who wrote and produced the movie in addition to directing it, to reference Austen in this way, and by it he shows how Austen has become an entrenched part of elitist culture, even (really, especially) when her name and work are thrown about in conversations that discuss the hubris and decline of that same American elite. (A peculiar delight of Stillman’s script is the bandying about of one character’s coined abbreviation for the class under discussion: U.H.B., which the others shorten to an acronym, “uhb,” standing for “urban haute bourgeois,” because none of the other terms like “preppy” or “Wasp” seem quite accurate.)

Friday, 14 July 2017

What to See This Weekend: Breaking Free

“I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry” (Dennis Dugan, 2007)




Available on iTunes; on Amazon Video; on Microsoft; on DVD.

There is a tendency among nominal liberal and progressive moviegoers to attend the explicit art-house political saga, and evade the ribald comedies obviously aimed at much broader, less discerning sectors of the population. It’s exactly the constituency that the Weinstein Company often depends on, as well as the one that had, until recently, provided the bulk of outside support to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles. The misguided refinement and unconsciousness prejudices of this interest group explain why one sees enthusiastic acclaim go to such disobligingly cautious works as The Imitation Game and Dallas Buyers Club, and little worthy recognition be afforded the sharper, more revealing, more personal, more daring — and, yes, more popular and entertaining — works of Judd Apatow and Eddie Murphy. The predominant disagreeable factor of the bulk of these recent outright liberal movies is that they reflect the views and verities of the liberal media establishment back upon itself with little of the insight or tension that leads to true art; the comforting platitudes and affirmations of these movies are generally yoked to a similarly complacent and unchallenging aesthetic. They expand the echo chamber shared by their well-meaning filmmakers and audiences, and do little to advance the political causes they’ve ostensibly taken up, or to influence the culture into which they’re released.

Into this palliative division of the cinema, the drop of something effervescent like Dennis Dugan’s 2007 bawdy entertainment I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, which this week crossed the 10th anniversary of its theatrical release, is most welcome. No doubt a number of readers groaned at the sight of Adam Sandler in a movie recommendation by this blog, and the rest were disconcerted by the raucous bulk of his frequent comedy partner Kevin James. The film is popular enough to have been seen by most of this blog’s readers already, but those who haven’t, despite what you may have heard or previously experienced by way of Sandler’s Brooklyn-bro vulgarity, are heartily encouraged to indulge its frank sentimentality and ultimate moral message of homophilia, which it couples with a warm and heartfelt tone of sincerity and political activism. It’s not in quite the same aesthetic class as the films of Judd Apatow (though, frankly, few films of this century are) but it brings a forthright approach to satirising and transforming mainstream perceptions of the homosexual community it depicts. In that it delves into the personal lives of its characters and portrays private impulses and desires that don’t conform neatly to a conventional political cause — thus illustrating how politics are necessarily driven by the chaotic, multivalent individual lives they affect — it’s superior to the abovementioned issue-oriented films of overtly liberal politics. What’s more, at the time of its release, it was deliberately aimed at precisely the moviegoing market that generally had little interest in or exposure to LGBTQ causes, and did considerable more work in reaching out to a broader, more intersected group for support and empathy.

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Neither Here Nor There

“Nul is Nie Niks Nie”





What can a movie do for a person? What can making that movie do for a person? What can making a movie do for the community involved? What are the problems burdening South African society and what can movies do to solve them? These are the subjects of the new film Nul is Nie Niks Nie (“Nil Isn’t Nothing”) by Morné du Toit, who previously directed the Afrikaans comedy Hoofmeisie. His new film follows two pre-pubescent boys through their excursions in and around Waterval Boven, their home town, as each confronts and deals with the issues that face him. The plot and the director’s competent handling of it allow for a genial sentimentality, and anyone who’s been through that part of Mpumalanga knows that the natural surroundings of the town are magnificent — and will seem that way no matter how a film crew may photograph them. Would that those geological and botanical splendours make their way into more movies and — far more importantly — inspire South African artists to aesthetic equivalent heights of richness and nobility.

Nul is Nie Niks Nie was adapted by Lizé Vosloo from Jaco Jacobs’s children’s book Oor ’n motorfiets, ’n zombiefliek, en lang getalle wat deur elf gedeel kan word (“About a motorbike, a zombie movie, and long numbers that can be divided by eleven”). It involves the thirteen-year old Martin (Jaden Van Der Merwe), whom everyone calls Hoender (“Chicken”), both derisively and affectionately, because of the chickens he keeps. He sells the eggs to people in the town for pocket money, while his older sister, Cindy (Reine Swart), cavorts with her shady, older boyfriend, Bruce (Luan Jacobs), and his mother, Trisa (Antoinette Louw), formerly a lauded film actress, hides herself away from the world in their old farmhouse while mourning his father, who died two years before the film’s action begins. One day, Martin comes to meet the son of the new neighbouring family, Drikus (Pieter Louw), who has Hodgkin’s lymphoma and is kept under strict and constant supervision by his anxious parents (Marisa Drummond and Morné Visser). Drikus has an ardent fascination with and attachment to old zombie movies — he’s projecting an old print of Victor Halperin’s White Zombie, from 1932, when Martin first sees his bedroom, and film posters adorn the walls — and he intends to make his own zombie movie while he still can. He is the film’s obvious symbol of hope and catalyst of zeal, and his brisk, forthright manner clashes jarringly with Martin’s clenched unease. In a moment of unleashed anger and grief, Martin punches Drikus and breaks his camera, and, to make amends, he agrees to appear as the zombie in Drikus’s movie. Chris (Daniah de Villiers), a classmate of Martin’s, stumbles upon their production, and is recruited as the lovely damsel whom Drikus’s character, Brad, saves from zombie terrors.


Friday, 7 July 2017

What to See this Weekend: Sucking Up

“Gosford Park” (Robert Altman, 2001)





Available on iTunes; on Amazon Video; on Microsoft; on DVD.

Those who love Downton Abbey will love Gosford Park just as well. Those — like myself — who detest Downton Abbey and all the trends that bring it great success will love Gosford Park much more. I had the advantage of seeing Robert Altman’s superb country house comedy a few years before the lumbering, sodden Julian Fellowes soap arrived on television, and the film shone too brightly in my mind for the series to obscure anything good. But I think that watchers of the series will find great delight and refreshment in the film as well, even if it doesn’t work powerfully enough to supplant all television from their lives.

I remember the sudden drop in my spirits when watching Downton Abbey, seven whole years ago, in the first ten minutes of the first episode. The earl’s cousin and nephew have tragically perished on the RMS Titanic and the family is consequently thrown into a constitutional crisis, since the next in line for the hereditary position of earl and holder of the estate — i.e., the next closest male relative — is some very distant middle-class cousin, and the eldest daughter of the family no longer has a second cousin to securely marry. The entire situation, from our vantage point of the 21st century, is absurd, and, surely, any contemporary film or television show can only approach this story from the position of recognising its absurdity. But — lo! — not only did Downton Abbey not note and lampoon this idiocy — it positively extolled the old ways, and its six seasons merrily embraced the feudal traditions of living and thinking and oppressing.

I suppose it took an American to go at it the right way. Robert Altman merely begins by acknowledging what contemporary culture often seems eager to forget: that class distinctions exist, that the divisions are often jarringly visible and viscerally unpleasant, and that the system that requires you abide by those distinctions is barbarous. Here, the discrepancies between Gosford Park and Downton Abbey are so vast as to seem astronomical. A reasonable reader may ask why I’d bother mentioning them together in the first place. The reasons are clear and serve a simple purpose: the common ground between the two should prove good enough to lure any ITV-lovers into the cinematic fold. First, both are set before World War II and in an old and sumptuous country house in England, owned by some aristocrat and crawling with well-heeled inhabitants and servants who know their places. Both pay close attention to the minutiae of the social and political order and trappings of high English living. Both were filmed from scripts written by Julian Fellowes. And, most enticing, both star Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess. Gosford Park brought the grand Dame her last Oscar nomination, and, aside from the acerbic remarks given to her by a screenwriter, it gave her a chance to bite at the others on set in her own words as well. Hence, we have one of my favourite and one of the most enduring lines from all of cinema in 2001: “Difficult colour, green.” Not much to look at, but a thunderbolt from her lips when caught by an able-bodied director.

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Their Agonies and The Ecstasy

“Song to Song”




It’s unlikely that I’ll see a better film in theatres this year than Terrence Malick’s newest feature, Song to Song. It’s equally unlikely that a South African reader who looks up a review of the film will find anything like a positive reaction to it. Fans of Malick’s features have become used to this – the last two films he’s made in this most fertile and most far-reaching period of his career that were shown here both achieved Rotten Tomatoes scores of 46% – and a lack of critical support for their enthusiasms has done nothing to abate them. It is my own view that Terrence Malick is the most radical filmmaker working today, and one whose work reaches the highest strata of beauty in contemporary art.

The main contentions brought up in reviews in this country are that Malick’s film – in stark contrast to his earlier hits such as The Tree of Life, The Thin Red Line, and Badlands – contains little more than art-conscious pretension and self-indulgence, and, to the extent to which there is more to it, Malick’s ostentatiously rarefied filmmaking methods are too confusing to allow us to grasp it. Leon van Nierop, in his Silwerskerm column for the Rapport, wrote, “It borders on pretension and takes almost two hours to say very little. If you confuse this movie film with an art movie, you’ll have been deceived.” On his weekly slot on the radio station RSG, he said, “I don’t know what it was about, and I’m also not interested in figuring it out. … For almost two hours, you look only at people who flutter, are in love with pretty places, and walk around endlessly and chill.” In his Channel24 review, Ilan Preskovsky wrote that Malick is “inarguably pretentious” and has “nothing whatsoever of value to say”. On her blog, Gabi Zietsman described it as “a convoluted pretentious piece of work that will kill you with handheld camera work and zero story. … Maybe Malick was focusing too hard on everyone’s butts rather than creating believable people, and no number of ‘but it’s art!’ exclamations is going to make this film any more watchable.”

I can’t think of a less fair assessment of Malick’s work – here or elsewhere – as pretentious; what is it they find him to be pretending and not delivering on? No moviegoer is promised a film that will meet their expectations of how a movie should be made and presented, and I find that no moviegoer in this country will witness a more sincere, devoted, intensely heartfelt, and wondrously inventive form of filmmaking in the present day than in Malick’s films. He doesn’t pretend to have loftier, nobler notions of life nor of art than he has; he doesn’t pretend his work is of more value than anyone else’s; he doesn’t pretend to be making films that follow an esoteric and inaccessibly intellectual model of elitist contemporary (or classical, for that matter) art. It’s equally unfair – and so badly mistaken as to seem willful – to accuse Malick of adding nothing of substance to a distinctive photographic style, or of making a film out of little more than picturesque images that amounts to little more than that. To say that it has “zero story” or that nothing happens is to say that very little story was observed, which means that either the reviewers weren’t paying due attention to a film it was their professional duty to watch and consider and contemplate for the purpose of a critical report on it, or that they were unprepared for the singular conceptions of and approaches to storytelling that Malick bears out in his remarkably inventive films. The group of ordinary viewers that I attended a screening of the film with – none of whom is trained in film analysis, media studies, narrative decryption, or artistic demystification – grasped the contours of the film’s story easily enough, and additionally observed the vast wealth of life and wisdom that Malick adorns and fills in those contours with.

Friday, 30 June 2017

What to See This Weekend: Battle Scars

“Transformers” (Michael Bay, 2007)




Available on M-Net Movies Action+ (DStv channel 106) on Sunday, 2 July, Thursday, 6 July, and Monday, 10 July; on ShowMax; on Google Play; on Microsoft; on Amazon Video; on iTunes; on DVD and as part of a DVD boxset.

As the fifth entry in Michael Bay’s Transformers film series holds consumers in thrall, readers of this blog are invited to revisit its earliest predecessor, simply Transformers, which recently enjoyed the 10th anniversary of its theatrical release. Many other bloggers I read delight in taking cheap swipes at the blockbuster frenzy of Bay’s vulgar excesses, but I, like many other expectant moviegoers I know, never received the memorandum to deride the traditional forms of studio formula-tested tentpoles, nor the technological innovations of computer generated imagery, nor the primal thrill of blowing shit up. If you’ve seen a Transformers film, you’ll already know whether or not you can take what it’s giving, and, if not, this blog encourages you to try it out.

Bay links an intergalactic struggle, and our complacent obliviousness to it, to a far realer conflict that rages in the Middle East while a high school teenager tries to secure the affections of a girl. He glosses his traditionalist values (of family, civil liberties, and the troops) with a dazzling attention to detail, obsession with quality, and quick-witted tone of smooth dynamism. The cast he has gathered fills out his extravaganza with shining cinematic qualities and charisma (Shia LeBeouf, Tyrese Gibson, Josh Duhamel, Megan Fox, John Turturro, Jon Voight, and Bernie Mac all carry remarkable presence) and blend their moments with the special effects with an effortless fluidity that brings the fantasy to life. Leon van Nierop, in his somewhat positive review of the new film, describes the images as “assaulting every one of your senses”; I contend that they charm and engage your senses with an alluring swagger, as does the personality of their creator, which is illuminated clearly in every moment of the film’s 143 minutes.

Monday, 26 June 2017

Mqombothi and the Masses



Personal and professional priorities have kept me from updating this blog regularly, and I hope I can be excused for posting so late on an interview I read with a prominent young South African artist on the website of the national paper I subscribe to, the Mail & Guardian. Three months ago, it published an interview The Daily Vox had had with Lidudumalingani Mqombothi, a writer, filmmaker, and photographer from the Transkei who won the 2016 Caine Prize for African Writing. (The short story for which he was awarded the prize, Memories We Lost, can be read here.)

He gives an insight that closely echoes what I’ve written here before on adapting literature for the screen:

The problem is to take all these pages and squeeze them into 90 minutes. We would tell better stories taking a page out of a book and making a film out of it.

Mqombothi doubtless understands that much of a literary work is lost in adaptation, especially when done so literally as filming an enactment of its actions and dialogue, or when it must be compressed to fit a standard of running time, or when it needs to be pared down to meet his concerns of accessibility.

I think access is very important. Adapting a book into a movie doesn’t mean everyone can access that story. It’s important to tell the story and I know stories will always find their people, but work needs to be done to make that access possible. I know people in Cape Town and Khayelitsha who have had film screenings, so I think they need to be screened in these areas to take the films to the people and make them accessible. I don’t want my films screened in a festival that my people can’t come to. The problem with film is that it is visual media, it’s different to take text and turn it into visual media.

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Free as a Flightless Bird

“Johnny Is Nie Dood Nie”



As I noted a few weeks ago on this blog, South African films seem rarely to earn back their budgets in commercial theatrical releases (what happens when films reach their DVD release is, as yet, unknown to me); connected to this is the observation that – here, as in every other country – the box office returns for a film are hardly ever correlated with the critical response to them by reviewers and other pundits. Many South African critics have praised Johnny Is Nie Dood Nie (“Johnny Isn’t Dead”), the debut feature film of director Christiaan Olwagen, in the highest terms, yet its box office earnings are among the lowest of any South African features this year. Rankings on Box Office Mojo indicate that the only South African commercial release that made less money was The Tribe (which I have not yet seen), and that Johnny Is Nie Dood Nie grossed a little less than half a million rand.

As told in its script, the story of Johnny Is Nie Dood Nie is more or less a synecdoche for the story of the Afrikaans youth of the late 1980s: those who were brought up in conventional middle-class Afrikaans households and came of age during the most uncertain and unstable period of the apartheid regime, as the National Party was writhing in its final death agonies. Any reader can guess that the prevailing drive among these youths, and, therefore, the characters in the film, was largely one of resistance to the ruling party, its leader, State President PW Botha, its extreme political conservatism, its war in Angola and Namibia, its totalitarian affinities, and its infamously nationalistic and cruel policies of racial apartheid. The basis for this resistance was the broader rebellion against the constricting, socially and politically conservative Afrikaans society of the time. That this rebellion only really took hold in the late 80s, while the youth of other developed nations around the world had already brought about massive and radical upheaval in their societies in the 60s, shows just how inhibiting and controlling a regime the National Party’s was. My impression, both of the party and many of its constituents, has long been that, throughout their history, they pined for their European homelands that they had been forced to leave, and worked their hardest to bring about an idealised replica of those homelands here, at the bottom of Africa, complete with a strong and secure mother nation (headed by the state, in conjunction with the dominant Dutch Reformed church) resourced through exploitation of its colonies and their inhabitants (the South African land and its indigenous peoples); the necessary difference in this case was that the motherland and the colonies were in the same country, and had to be separated by a strong force of permanent division in every regard imaginable – spatial, economic, political, cultural, intellectual (through education), even emotional and (to the best of the state’s ability) psychological. Against this grisly backdrop, like the children of a domineering deacon-father, young Afrikaners began turning the rumbling wheels of their defiance.

To see what other critics had to say about the film, click here.

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Critic’s-Eye View: “Johnny Is Nie Dood Nie”

The new Afrikaans film Johnny Is Nie Dood Nie (“Johnny Isn’t Dead”), the debut directorial feature by theatre director Christiaan Olwagen about the life and death of queer Afrikaans rock singer and popular cult figure Johannes Kerkorrel, was released on the 5th of May. In the two-and-a-half weeks since then it’s been hailed as a landmark feature in South African cinema, and has garnered much media attention for both its subject – it follows a small group of rebellious Afrikaner youths in the late 80s and their brief reunion on a single evening in 2002, and the discussion roves among such topics as the National Party, PW Botha, apartheid, communism, sexual experimentation, the Border War, the characters’ place in the new South Africa, and the rejection of the social and political strictures of Afrikaans conservatism – and the acclaim it’s garnered. I’ve collected here excerpts from the South African reviews of the film that I could find.

Click here to read The Back Rows review of the film.

Reviewing the film for the Beeld, Laetitia Pople – who awarded it five stars – writes that “you’re drawn in” from the first shots, and that “at times it feels as though you yourself are in a drug-induced hallucination.”

Olwagen’s use of long shots places you in the middle of the five friends’ experiences, then and now. Everything feels real and in the moment. You experience everything immediately, without a filter, and the tragedy of it wrings your heart. The archival material and a sober voiceover narration ensures a context that is true to life. The music of the Voëlvry-beweging (“Outlaw movement”) on the soundtrack heightens not only the immediacy, but also the nostalgia of the events. Was Voëlvry the stone that brought down Goliath? …

Johnny’s (Roelof Storm) character is an ethereal, lovable being who gets along with everyone, the resin that keeps the circle together, with whom everyone instantly falls in love. His presence is girded in a halcyon faintness, as though he were standing in for the real Kerkorrel. … Johnny Is Nie Dood Nie can steer you to nostalgia if you experienced that period and want to muse on it again. And in that it’s a celebration of friendship, the only counterweight to a life in a country that has been turned on its head.

Thursday, 11 May 2017

Critic’s-Eye View: “Beyond the River”

In continuing my catching up of movie commentary for the last month, I’m compiling more South African reviewers’ views on a new South African release, this one Beyond the River and still showing in theatres. In it, a young unemployed man from Soweto finds a great avocation in canoeing when he teams up with an avid amateur canoeist from the northern suburbs. Together, they train to take on the famous Dusi Canoe Marathon in KwaZulu Natal, while each dealing with his personal demons. It’s true story and adapted from the book Confluence, the memoir of the canoeist Piers Cruickshanks.

In a review for the Tonight supplement to the Independent News & Media Group’s newspapers, Jamal-Dean Grootboom calls Beyond the River “a beautifully shot, heartfelt, true-life South African story that should be supported by everyone.”

The fact that director Craig Freimond, who also co-wrote the screenplay, was brave enough to not shy away from the vast racial inequalities in SA as an underlying issue is commendable. The way the film addresses these issues also never feels preachy and is done in a smart way. The two leads of the film, Lemogang Tsipa and Grant Swanby, have spectacular chemistry and Tsipa’s charisma shines throughout the film. … The cinematography of this film is also spectacular, from the close-ups of the canoeing to the sweeping, wide shots of the rivers and landscapes. This film is absolutely beautiful. It’s been a while since I’ve walked out of a film and had vivid images running around in my mind afterwards.

The screenplay is also something that all South African screenwriters should view as a template of how to deal with exposition properly. There’s never a scene where the characters explain things through tedious monologues. All the characters’ background information is given through smart dialogue and expertly placed visual cues. It really is refreshing to have screenwriters to do not treat their audience like idiots … and who give just enough information to put two and two together. The score is the film’s only weak point. The sound mixing is off on more than one occasion and the music is louder than the dialogue. The choice of music is also very questionable in parts.

Critic’s-Eye View: “Die Rebellie van Lafras Verwey”

I’m currently convulsed in a long stretch of catching up on this blog; commitments arose to which I had to give priority over viewing and writing about movies for a short while, as much as I hated to, but, fortunately, I’m now freely available to post here again. Die Rebellie van Lafras Verwey was a new South African release which, I think, is by now already gone from theatres. I saw it when it was playing, and, hopefully, will get a chance to say something more about it here later, without seeming too self-indulgent; for now, I’m sharing what others had to say in reaction to it. Just because there are many South African films that I would like to read about but missed the chance to in local papers after they finished their theatrical run, and because most of them don’t get the Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic treatment of a long-standing compilation of reviews, I think it’d still be helpful to interested readers if I collected here what I could find on each South African work I see.

In his weekly Silwerskerm (“Silver screen”) column in the Rapport, Leon van Nierop reviewed the movie on its weekend of release (in the issue from the 9th of April). After giving a brief run-down of the history of the film’s source material and a plot description, he praises the lead performance by Tobie Cronjé, who, in his view,

delivers a monumental portrayal of the cast-off person with idle aspirations. He is sometimes funny, but also tragic and nonplussed.