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.

Sunday, 8 October 2017

Critic’s-Eye View: “Vaselinetjie”

Corné van Rooyen’s Afrikaans film about a white girl raised by brown caregivers in the Northern Cape, who is taken away to be schooled in Johannesburg, adapted from Anoeschka von Meck’s novel, was released at the end of last month, and, though I haven’t had a chance to see it yet, I’ve collected a few reviews of it here, for your perusal and for those interested in seeing the film. Let me know of any others I may have missed.

In what looks like a four-star review for the Beeld, Laetitia Pople writes that “the course that this young life takes will warm even a heart of stone.”

“Yet van Meck and van Rooyen don’t employ cheap sentiment. They tell, explore, and allow you to experience it as befits true storytellers. They hold up a mirror, without once judging or pointing fingers. … The acclaimed novel (prescribed for a number of years in schools) turned brittle identity politics on its head in 2004 and broaded the debate on colour. … Von Meck’s insider knowledge of the life of a children’s home, where she worked as a caregiver, brought much more to the table. Van Rooyen chimes in perfectly …
Nicole Bond plays the young Vaselinetjie with a primal wisdom and courage. … Indeed, all the young performers impress throughout in portrayals that tug at the heartstrings, but that also leave you rolling with laughter — because, even though their situation is dire, they find adventure and humour in highly unlikely places, exactly as children would. Vaselinetjie will affect you totally if it’s a first meeting; if you already know her, this film offers additional dividends of great value.”

Saturday, 7 October 2017

What to See This Weekend: Mind Games

“Masterminds” (Jared Hess, 2016)

Showing on DStv M-Net Movies Premiere (Channel 104) on Monday, 9 October, at 16:55; Saturday, 14 October, at 13:00; available on Microsoft; on Amazon; on Vudu; on DVD.

Though Jared Hess’s frenzied new comedy is far more conventional in flavour than the earlier two that I’ve seen — Napoleon Dynamite, from 2004, and Nacho Libre, from 2006 — it’s just as much a delightful and distinctive treat. It’s based on the real-life Loomis Fargo robbery in North Carolina that took place in October 1997, in which David Ghantt, a supervisor for the cash handling company Loomis Fargo, stole over $17 million in cash from the regional vault in Charlotte, North Carolina where he worked, collaborating with an ex-employee, Kelly Campbell, her associate, Steve Chambers, and a number of co-conspirators. I don’t know the precise degree to which the film has stuck to fact — from what I can see on the Wikipedia entry on the robbery, the main points of the story were all kep intact for the film, but a high level of invention and imagination is displayed openly by Hess in his telling.

Zach Galifianakis plays David, a decent and naïve security employee, who falls for Kelly (Kristen Wiig) when she starts working as his partner, even though he’s already engaged, to a rancorous store clerk named Jandice (Kate McKinnon). When Kelly leaves the job and moves in with her childhood friend Steve (Owen Wilson), who is now a professional thief and scammer, she keeps contact with earnest and infatuated David, who, through his indulgent affection and eagerness to win Kelly over, is persuaded by Steve to help them rob the cash vault one weekend. They then get David out of the country while keeping the cash to themselves, while Kelly’s continuing contact with David introduces unforeseen complications to their plans. Jason Sudeikis plays an unnervingly avid (and zanily funny) hitman who is roped in as part of Steve’s attempts to simplify matters, and Leslie Jones plays an FBI special agent assigned to the case of the heist, whose hilarious efforts to secure a confession from her suspects reminded me of the task of a director who seeks to extract a meaningful performance from his actors — both have to modify their methods from one individual to the next, the moment they’re looking for may not arrive when and where they had expected or planned it, and both have to adapt quickly to changing circumstances and to capture moments as they arise.