Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Beauties and Beasts


Watching Barry Jenkins’s new feature film Moonlight is like being present at the very creation of the film – not just watching the scenes and performances being captured on camera, but witnessing the conception of it inside the director’s mind. He has filmed and presented it with such spontaneity, and with so thorough a transference of deep subjectivity, that, as François Truffaut once wrote of the films of Renoir, I had to watch it in a theatre a second time just to see if it would turn out the same way. Each shot we see is not merely the canny illustration of burning experiences being depicted and fierce emotions being expressed, but is itself the very expression of them, wrenched from the director’s mind, and arising naturally and spontaneously out of the situation of it being filmed and edited.

Take, for example, the scene playing about halfway through the middle of the film’s three chapters, in which the mother of the main character, Chiron, played by the remarkable British actor Naomie Harris, anxiously greets her son when he gets home one afternoon, and asks him for money (the implication is clear that it’s for more drugs, to feed her addiction). Jenkins has made clear in a large number of interviews and press statements that Harris’s character, Paula, as written by him and his co-writer Tarell Alvin McCraney and as filmed by him, is based in large part on his own mother. Her scenes in the film play with an especial and tremulous immediacy, and this particular one stands out for a peculiar visual invention as well – Jenkins, in the moment of filming the actor’s performance, got her to play it looking straight into the lens, and shot it at the higher rate of 48 frames per second. (Almost all video you see is shot at 24 frames a second; the heightened speed is a new industrial technological advance, notably used to shoot Peter Jackson’s recent Hobbit trilogy.) The result has the effect of an unnerving and rare proximity to the figure onscreen, intensifying her essence while simultaneously rendering it more opaque. Indeed, throughout the film, Harris’s performance is perhaps the most intricate (while Janelle Monáe takes the crown for distinctiveness, Trevante Rhodes for tender sensitivity, and Mahershala Ali for grandeur).

Thursday, 23 March 2017

Money matters

I was shocked to read that Kalushi: The Story of Solomon Mahlangu, Mandla Dube’s directorial debut, cost more than R20 million to make. This was reported in an article from January by Gali Mbele in the Sunday Times. The figure is particularly dismaying because I know that no narrative South African film has ever grossed that much money at the box office; Kalushi, which is by no means a record-breaking film, couldn’t hope to gross that much, and, since many deductions have to be made for expenses and other agreed costs, as well as the distributor’s and theatres’ portions of the income, will never make back that huge budget. (So far, Kalushi has grossed about R1.2 million in theatres.)

It drew my attention to the financial matters of film-making in South Africa. How easy is it for a first-time director, such as Dube, to secure the resources he needs to make his film? Does it differ between different kinds of films? How much easier is it for experienced directors with careers and reputations behind them? Perhaps even more importantly, how does this supposed struggle for funding and whatever sources for funding as may be found affect what ends up on the screen? Mbele reports that the main institutions that film-makers can apply to for financial support are the National Film and Video Foundation, the Department of Trade and Industry, the National Lottery Commission, the Industrial Development Corporation, and the Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal film commissions. So far as I can tell, each of these entities is owned and operated by the state; to what extent is the state being allowed – by grim financial necessity – to intervene in the works of local film-makers?

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

A Band Apart

“Kalushi: The Story of Solomon Mahlangu”

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

Kalushi: The Story of Solomon Mahlangu is the directorial début of Mandla Dube, who has previously worked as a cinematographer on short films and documentaries. It tracks the life of Mahlangu from his time as an ordinary resident of Mamelodi, beginning just before the protests of 16 June 1976, when he was nearly 20 years old, through his exile in Mozambique and Angola, his military training in the uMkhonto weSizwe camps, his return to South Africa to carry out MK guerilla operations, and his subsequent capture and trial, ending with his death by execution in 1979.

The story of Mahlangu’s life and death is an important piece in the history of the antiapartheid struggle, and, therefore, important in the history of South Africa in general. It’d be a valuable thing for all South Africans to know it, to understand the circumstances of it and how they contributed to the events, and to appreciate the full implications of it. Every individual I’ve heard from — and I agree entirely — has remarked on how urgent it is for us to learn and spread the stories of people like Mahlangu, stories which are at risk of being erased and forgotten, and stories that enlighten us by revealing the past and its people.

But a good and important story are by no means sufficient for a good and important film. The venerability of a work’s subject does not necessarily render the work venerable. It’s regrettable that we don’t learn more about South African history at school, and in much greater detail. I aver that schoolchildren will benefit from learning about MK martyrs and just what conditions and manoeuvres led to their deaths, as well as how strongly the legacy of those deaths still impact South African life. I also aver that we should not have to rely on feature films to educate us in these vital matters; I myself only learned the life story of Mahlangu when I heard there was to be a film on it and I looked it up online, and I’m sure most viewers will only learn of it when they see the film. This is woefully unfortunate, and it seems to me to beg the question: If we had all learned about Mahlangu and others like him while growing up and were better educated on the history of the antiapartheid struggle, would Dube’s film still be so widely accepted by audiences?

Monday, 13 March 2017

Live in Fragments No Longer

DVD Notes: “Howards End”

In brief commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the theatrical release of the film adaptation of one of my favourite novels, I read Anne Thompson’s blog post from last August listing five lessons that contemporary Hollywood can learn from “the classic” Merchant Ivory film Howards End. Thompson posted her piece to coincide with the release of the first of many Merchant Ivory restorations, and characterises the films as “period dramas adapted from literature (often E.M. Forster or Henry James) and graced with top actors and gorgeously detailed sets and costumes.” She comments that their “remarkable collection of low-budget indie dramas … were so instantly recognisable that ‘Merchant Ivory’ became not only a brand but also a description of an art film genre often identified in ads with ivy trellises.”

So far so good. Thompson’s judgements of the film as a “classic” and of the oeuvre as “remarkable” are value judgements, and she’s welcome to them. I’m not particularly fond of any Merchant Ivory film and have written as much on this blog; the two iconic out (they were romantic as well as production partners) filmmakers more or less began the middlebrow tradition of selling nothing more than literary tone and faux-élite literary credentials with their many literary adaptations cobbled together by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, an esteemed novelist in her own right. As with the contemporary work that continues this tradition – perhaps most prominently Downton Abbey – the films invite viewers to relax into the affluence they depict, as well as to look on the setting through a cheap halcyon gauze of crude nostalgia, with virtually no cause for reflection or examination. With carefully considered storylines and meretricious intellectual and cultural value, the work of Ismail Merchant, James Ivory, and Jhabvala can be regarded as important precursors to today’s esteemed television fare.

Where Thompson goes wrong is in prescribing a set of rules – her five lessons – that she skims from the patterns used by Ivory in making Howards End for the movies that Hollywood makes today. She’s decided that Howards End is better than the current industry average, and that that average could well be lifted if more production teams could just start acting like the one that created Howards End.

Saturday, 11 March 2017

Critic’s-Eye View: “Kalushi”

Kalushi: The Story of Solomon Mahlangu, the directorial début of cinematographer Mandla Dube, opened on Friday, 10 March, in theatres across the country. Probably the most anticipated South African release of 2017 so far, it tracks Mahlangu’s progress from hawking on weekends as a Mamelodi adolescent in 1976 through his enlisting and foreign training in uMkhonto weSizwe to his eventual capture and trial, and death in 1979. Dube spent a number of years developing the film, reportedly in response to the indifference he witnessed among students regarding the history of the antiapartheid struggle during his time teaching at the University of the Witwatersrand. For those eager to hear what is being said about the film, I’ve compiled excerpts from the reviews I could find.

Read The Back Rows review of the film here.

Writing for the City Press last June, when the film was being screened at the Durban International Film Festival, Charl Blignaut reports that he “cried at least half a dozen times during the screening … Okay, maybe more like a dozen times.” He goes on:

Kalushi is flawed in many places, but it is a hugely important film. … The very real and hideously brutal violence Mahlangu met is shown without flinching. But the audience sure as hell does flinch. …

Yes, Kalushi is uneven in places, yes it’s very commercial in a Hollywood way, yes Rashid Lanie’s very good score is way sappy at times, yes [Pearl] Thusi is too old for her role and [Thabo] Rametsi a bit Model C, yes the MK camps are a bit romanticised. But, frankly, so what? If a narrative connects the way Kalushi does, if it restores dignity to black life and reversions the narratives of history we are taught, then it negates these petty critical concerns.

The cinematography is brilliant, shot by Tommy Maddox-Shaw, the universe is beautifully realised, the research is thorough, and there are performances that will make you reach for your tissues – including scenes from Thusi. And the fantastical scenes of June 16 transposed to a township backyard are nothing short of genius. Kalushi is the struggle film we have been waiting for even though we thought we had lost our appetite for apartheid atrocities on screen.”

Friday, 10 March 2017

Critic’s-Eye View: “Keeping Up With the Kandasamys”

Once again, I find that I am the only blogger who has posted an external review on the IMDb page of a South African film (click here to read it). For those who’d like to hear what others have to say about Keeping Up With the Kandasamys, Jayan Moodley’s 2017 Chatsworth comedic version of Romeo and Juliet, I’ve extracted excerpts from reviews posted by other South African moviegoers and compiled them here, for your perusal.

In a review posted on the Channel24 website last Friday, Gabi Zietsman states:

Keeping Up with the Kandasamys is a lovely stroll through Durban’s famous Indian suburb Chatsworth and the lives of those who live there, even if it might be exaggerated. The two leading ladies, Jailoshini Naidoo and Maeshni Naicker are a dynamite duo and you can’t help but wonder why we haven’t seen them in more movies. …

The disses and clapbacks are pure gold, and these veteran actresses’ comedic timing can make Trevor Noah take notes. Director Jayan Moodley and writer Rory Booth work great as a team and produced an entertaining comedy that will make you scream with laughter. …

Even though the film celebrates Indian culture and identity, the characters remain relatable across all racial and cultural lines, connecting with the audience’s own familial experiences. …

The one thing that failed the movie was the dramatic scenes. When it finally comes out why the two women have been at each other’s throats all these years, the film takes a sudden sombre turn that doesn’t really fit with the first part of the film. The emotions and tears felt like they were being forced through a meat grinder, but luckily it managed to find its way back to the humour for the end, complete with a Bollywood dance number.”

Two Households in Fair Chatsworth

“Keeping Up With the Kandasamys”

Read what other critics have to say about the film here.

Jayan Moodley sets her film Keeping Up With the Kandasamys, which she directed and co-wrote with Rory Booth, squarely in the area of Chatsworth. And, apart from a few brief minutes in the gardens of the University of KwaZulu-Natal, she never leaves Chatsworth, illustrating the self-contained society of the area and the unique cultural compounds that make up life in it.

It’s obvious that Moodley possesses great affection for and knowledge of Chatsworth, and the plot she’s constructed works to give her views of life there along various social, cultural, and economic vectors. It involves two neighbouring families – the Kandasamys and the Naidoos – and the overblown, nearly lifelong feud between the two wives, Jennifer Kandasamy (Jailoshini Naidoo) and Shanti Naidoo (Maeshni Naicker), which is brought to a clash when they discover the burgeoning love affair between their children, Shanti’s son Prinesh (Madhushan Sing) and Jennifer’s daughter Jodi (Mishqah Parthiepal).

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Critic’s-Eye View: “Tess”

When I posted my review of Meg Rickards’s new film Tess, I noticed that mine is the only external review to which a link is provided on the film’s IMDb page. For those who’ve stumbled onto this page from there looking for a range of views on the film, I include here a few notes from other reviews published by South African moviegoers, with links where possible.

Writing for the City Press last June, when Tess was playing at the Durban International Film Festival, Charl Blignaut notes that the “young actress Christia Visser gives one of the bravest, most potent and internalised performances of any of the films at the Durban International Film Festival this year.” Further describing the aesthetic value of the film, he writes:

“Director Meg Rickards has moved from documentary features to narrative ones and brings that journalistic gaze along. Her opening sequence – shot by a drone racing across the ocean until it crashes into Tess’s balcony window – is majestic and her performance direction solid. Almost too solid in that this is a conventional and realistic film with little experimentation. Where it takes risks, though, is in its content.

For once the sex worker is a white woman and it is black women who come to her aid, neatly flipping the script. The violent male gangster is also countered by a kind and confused husband. And, gratefully, Rickards has shot in luminous light colours and delicious blues, contesting her dark story.

Harrowing and important, the film is in competition in Durban and has one last screening tonight. Take your man friends and go and see it. You’ll need a drink afterwards.”

Dancers in the Dark

“La La Land”

La La Land is a ludicrous and a laborious film. It’s the work of Damien Chazelle, who previously gave us the grotesque sadomasochistic psychodrama Whiplash, and plays as ineptly on the subjects of music, musicians, art, and artistry as that earlier film did. Where the two leading figures in Whiplash were each a pile of clichés working tirelessly on performances of mediocre jazz numbers, the two leads in La La Land are empty shapes painted in bright artificial colours and emoting through unexceptional Broadway poperatic ballads. The film is explicitly a tribute to the plastic-coloured musical reveries that sprang up in the 50s and 60s, during the final great blast of energy at the death of the classical Hollywood system; a mixed bag of overt allusions is made to Singin’ in the Rain, Funny Face, Top Hat, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, and other films. But Chazelle – though he works frightfully hard for it, and though that labour shows on the screen – does not have the sensibility of style and of wonder that made each of the works he obviously loves so memorable.

The trouble starts in the very first shot, which turns out to be a long tracking shot that appears to last for at least five minutes, right through the opening number, “Another Day of Sun”. In it, a traffic jam on a Los Angeles freeway turns into a song and dance routine. Drivers dressed in monochrome pastel colours jump out of and leap over their cars, mugging chaotically for the restless camera. A show is made of the tracking shot and how well-timed, well-placed, and well-coordinated are each of the dancers, yet the impression given is not of the geometric precision of sequences in classic musicals such as Gentlemen Prefer Blondes or 42nd Street, but of the strenuous work and rehearsal that went into it. The dancers’ beaming smiles don’t evoke the joy of performance and of artifice, but preen at their technical achievement and conspicuous exertions. The self-satisfied multiculturalism of this opening scene feels contrived and then insulting as it yields to the whites-only love story of the film.