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.