The uber-civilised business of murder most foul

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VILLAIN in a steam train: Johnny Depp plays the wicked Mr Ratchett. Photograph courtesy http://www.variety.com

THERE’S SOMETHING IRREVOCABLY escapist in an Agatha Christie murder mystery. Not for moral reasons, but for the sleight of hand, the twist in the tale and the characters that populate her stories. This remake of the 1974 classic film, featuring a host of enormous names, from Sean Connery to Ingrid Bergman, with David Suchet in the role of the inimitable Hercules Poirot, the greatest detective in the world, at the right place, at the right time, is delightful. It’s not without its flaws, but it is eye candy in the most lovely of ways.

Put a bunch of prominent and distinctive strangers together on a train en route to Istanbul from Jerusalem, with all its Art Deco detail and wood panelling. Pop off one of them, in a sufficiently violent way. And then derail the train, thus trapping all of them, including the killer, whoever he or she may be, in a context where all must be revealed. And there you have the plot, which grows with abandon in curious directions.

But it’s not for the plot that you watch and are seduced by a yarn of this nature. It’s for the characters. Christie’s writing genius was more about her ability to envelop a character in the round, with all his or her idiosyncrasies and hilarious quirks, with all his or her vulnerabilities and hard core beliefs. And she does this in a couple of sentences, a throwaway line or two.

The filmed version of this pays critical attention to detail, in terms of poise and costume, gesture and mien of each of the characters. And while at times you feel that these are constructed and highly polished simulacra rather than characters, as such, each is completely delicious. The work is replete with an unabashed colonialist fascination with Israel – it’s set in 1934 – and a whole range of racist and sexist barbs which need to be understood in the context of the time, but it’s lively and fine entertainment.

To its disservice, however, several of the cast members, including Michelle Pfeiffer as Mrs Hubbard and Daisy Ridley as Mary Debenham are seemingly far too young for the roles they embrace. Is it a flaw of make-up and directed performance? Are they really too young? This is a moot point, but as the plot unfolds, and all is revealed, there are generational connections between the cast and these two stick out as anomalies.

Other silly events such as a stabbing which is so lacking in credulity, it is laughable, pepper this work, but they’re events in which all can be forgiven. This rip-roaring and fabulous mystery and its resolution, will cast you in beautiful geographies and exciting climes. The work is generously sprinkled with magnificent cameos which make it happen – from Judi Dench to Johnny Depp, with a soupçon of Penélope Cruz and Derek Jacobi, this is a treat. Kenneth Branagh ably balances his role as Poirot, director and one of the producers of this film, but it does make you wonder what kind of a collaborator he may be in a project of this nature.

And finally a word must be added for Poirot’s moustache which is the main character in many stills. It’s so fabulous, it deserves a credit all of its own.

  • Murder on the Orient Express is directed by Kenneth Branagh and performed by a cast headed by Ziad Abaza, David Annen, Andy Apollo, Tom Bateman, Nari Blair-Mangat, Todd Boyce, Lucy Boynton, Luke Brady, Kenneth Branagh, Darryl Clark, Richard Clifford, Olivia Colman, Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Phil Dunster, Paapa Essiedu, Hadley Fraser, Josh Gad, Adam Garcia, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Tom Hanson, Yasmin Harrison, Matthew Hawksley, Gerard Horan, Derek Jacobi, Pip Jordan, Ansu Kabia, Hayat Kamille, Marwan Kenzari, Joshua Lacey, Crispin Letts, Elliot Levey, Joseph Long, Anoushka Lucas, Rami Nasr, Asan N’Jie, Leslie Odom Jr, Michelle Pfeiffer, Sergei Polunin, Chris Porter, Miranda Raison, Jack Riddiford, Daisy Ridley, Michael Rouse, Sid Sagar,  Irfan Shamji, Harry Lister Smith, Kate Tydman, Kathryn Wilder, Miltos Yerolemou and Yassine Zeroual. It is written by Michael Green based on the eponymous book by Agatha Christie. Produced by Kenneth Branagh, Mark Gordon, Judy Hoffland, Simon Kinberg, Michael Schaefer and Ridley Scott, it features creative input by Patrick Doyle (music), Haris Zambarioukos (cinematography), Mick Audsley (editing), Lucy Bevan (casting), Jim Clay (production design), Rebecca Alleway (set) and Alexandra Byrne (costumes). Release date: November 24 2017.

 

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Not just another brick in the wall

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ICONIC gestures and handcut stencils. An image from Ilka van Schalkwyk’s Wall of Song.

ART, ARGUABLY, CANNOT – or should not – feasibly exist without a difficult push and pull, on the part of its maker and its audience. Something has to give that forces an image to trip the light fantastic and become more than just a drawing on a piece of paper. It’s got to do with the muscularity of initiative, that momentum which a project running on its own sense of self sets afire all by itself and changes the nature of the world. This is what you get with Ilka van Schalkwyk’s Throwing Stones, her Masters exhibition, but one which is bold and fascinating enough to skip the boundaries of — and transcend the limits of — university rigour.

This body of 28 pieces of work doesn’t offer the grapeshot effect of a classic student’s thinking. There are no half-cocked pieces here, filling space, and there is no disparity in the 14 bold screenprints on canvas, and the 14 political speeches translated into layered sheets with ghostly images and hand cut text. The works are hung and explained with a clarity of thought that is developed and thought through with a compelling sense of detail.

Van Schalkwyk is not only a very interesting visual artist with a fine sense of texture. She also has a condition called synaesthesia which prompts the colouristic decisions she has taken in making these works. Colour takes a very particular level of meaning and interaction in her brain. It’s a physiological reality. And she is not afraid to play with it and discuss it in her work. You will see little oblong shapes of colour on the speeches, and her choice of colour wheel opposites in the screen prints speak to this, too. You may find her choices garish, but that’s not her problem – or the works’.

If you have synaesthesia, too, even if van Schalkwyk’s choice of colours do not speak to you, you may empathise more deeply with this aspect of her project.

But synaesthesia considered, this exhibition is not a medical extrapolation or a text book case study. It’s not an exhibition about a condition. The body of work, in its precision and its sense of focus and decision, is cohesive, beautifully made and articulate in a way that makes what she terms ‘guerilla’ prints – where she has created stencils out of paper and screenprinted through them – seem like woodcuts. The texture of the works, the way in which the cut lines simplify drawings with a breath-taking sense of succinctness, and the correlation of stencil and colour, image and text is remarkable.

There’s a video at the end of the gallery in which van Schalkwyk is filmed explaining the works. You feel compelled to watch this and understand her decisions taken, but ultimately these very carefully and rather woodenly expressed values are not necessary in the broader project of this exhibition, which is about cultural differentness and protests songs as much as it is about heroes and villains. It’s an astonishing and intelligent exhibition which challenges the idea of academia and its many words, as it shuts doors on the capacity of people without synaesthesia to interpret use of colour.

  •  Throwing Stones: Paradoxical Freedoms by Ilka van Schalkwyk is at the UJ Art Gallery, Kingsway Campus, Auckland Park until January 24. Call 011 559 2099.

 

The consul, the child, his conscience, her piano

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WHY I survived. Lina Kantor (Amato), storyteller. Photograph by Johnathan Andrews.

WHAT IS THE worst thing that can happen to a story about an historical atrocity? That it can be shunned? That it can be told too infrequently? That no one wants to experience it? None of these: the worst thing that can happen to a tale of atrocity is that it is told and retold and retold until its fire is dimmed by commonplace. Film maker Johnathan Andrews steps with sensitive wisdom around these pitfalls, to create something timeless and haunting in just 48 minutes.

Using direct personal interviews, with Lina Amato, the woman herself, who as an eight-year-old, knew that her life was being saved by the Turkish consul of the time, The Story of Holocaust Survivor Lina Amato contains no visual clichés of mass destruction or concentration camps. It has no voiceover, explaining the nature of the work, and attempting to frame and curate your response to it. There are no easy cues to weep. Rather, in a similar filmic understanding as that propagated by Claude Lanzmann in his immense and iconic extrapolation of the Holocaust, a over 10-hour-long documentary called Shoah (1985), Andrews offers his viewers insight into the intricacies and the horror of Lina Amato’s true story.

Currently resident in Cape Town, Amato is today a woman in her 80s. She speaks of the cultural wealth of her life in Rhodes Island, off the Turkish coastline where she was born in 1936. It’s a story that features interjections by SA Holocaust and Genocide Foundation director, Richard Freedman, which offers clear facts that give you context: War was approaching with a cloak of hatred that was to envelop even the smallest of little children.

But under that pall of destruction, enormous empathy was allowed to bubble and manifest in ways that a peaceful society could not contain. Lina tells of her parents’ Italian neighbours who adopted her and taught her to ‘be’ Christian in order to save her life. She tells of the decisions taken by the Turkish consol, Selahattin Ülkümen in 1944 to save whichever Jewish lives he could and of how an island “bathed in sunshine” and home to a tiny community of 3 800 Jews turned into a nightmare of uncertainty. Above all, it is the tough silences in her story that speak more deeply.

Further to this, music is threaded through the tale. Lina’s mother was a piano teacher, and her struggle to save her pianos is potent and legendary, making you think of Sophie’s Choice in the unforgettable story by William Styron. And this, together with a beautifully placed spot of Chopin – by way of his Prelude in A — hooks the film to the Mozart Festival’s focus.

It’s an absolutely beautiful piece of film, which, lasting but 48 minutes, offers a rich and deep understanding of the power of hate, but also the power of love in a world that has lost its moral compass. Further to all of this, the intelligent editorial decisions informing this film present understandings of the psychological effects of trauma, abandonment and guilt that are devastatingly potent in their understated handling.

  • The Story of Holocaust Survivor Lina Amato is directed by Johnathan Andrews and features Holocaust survivor Lina Kantor (Amato), SA Holocaust and Genocide Foundation Director Richard Freedman and Turkish Ambassador in South Africa Elif Çomoğlu Ülgen. Produced by (assistant) Angela Kate Jones, it features the sound engineering of Garrick Jones.
  • It will be screened in Johannesburg on January 27 2018 at the Space Frame Theatre, Education Campus, University of the Witwatersrand, in Parktown Johannesburg. Tickets are free of charge, but seating in the space is limited.
  • The DVD will be on sale at the screening, which is part of the Johannesburg International Mozart Festival, and commemorates International Holocaust Remembrance day, January 27.
  • Visit johnathan-andrews.com , www.join-mozart-festival.org and http://ja-inl.com
  • The DVD of this film may be purchased online through: https://unitedworldnation.org/product/the-story-of-lina-amato/ or https://goo.gl/gDoXCV 

Diabetic habits and histrionics for dead strangers

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THE power of prayer in the face of reality: Brenda (Awethu Hleli), Karabo (Chuma Sopotela) and Andiswa (Motlatji Ditodi) mourn; Pumla (Faniswa Yisa) jives. Photograph by Suzy Bernstein.

FOUR FIERCE BLACK women toss caution and values to the wind in this carefully crafted take on hypocrisy, the culture of mourning and too much sugar in the African diet. Laced with political barbs and advocacy ciphers, the work is funny and crass, moving and evolved and little escapes the pen of the inimitable Mike van Graan in presenting a township world where three women get together to form The Substitutes, a professional mourning syndicate.

Darting along similar social fringes presented by films such as Radu Mihăileanu’s 2009 Le Concert which reflects on crowd sourcing as a political hook and a financial saviour, and Hal Ashby’s 1971 Harold and Maude, that presents a cemetery-centred romance, Another One’s Bread takes apart the  idiom about one man’s meat being another man’s poison. Tumbling through the cultural preciousness of loss and sadness, it focuses on the business of death with a capitalistic eye and presents a platform for farce at its most shouty.

Pumla (Faniswa Yisa), Karabo (Chuma Sopotela) and Andiswa (Motlatji Ditodi) live in a household where they need a little more money for jam, proverbially speaking. With a mix of vegetarianism, a spot of poetry, a story of Karabo’s niece Brenda (Awethu Hleli) needing a change of climate after a stint in jail, for crimes of passion involving sweets which were not hers, and a vegetable garden, they develop a repertoire and a funeral resource. Bringing in several references to Brenda Fassie, the work blends feel good social values with a shrieking intensity that forces you to go with the flow.

There are some hilarious choreographic moments and a richer understanding of loss wrapped up in the over-the-top characters and how they interface, which enables this work to soar, but Brenda’s very shrill antics and her lumpy costume sometimes hurts the work’s integrity.

Either way, the madcap subtleties of Karabo and the vulnerability of Pumla, who is the oldest of the four, lend the piece the kind of balance and charm that gives the notion of a fresh food stokvel, a plan to feed children in the environment, and the harsh and scary predominance of death in society to be presented without coyness, crude advocacy or blandness. And the political barbs fly with abandon, touching everything from Jacob Zuma’s school education to the #MenAreTrash tweet that went viral to Oscar Pistorius and his declarations of innocence.

It’s a lovely work, but the turning of the vocal volume all the way up, throughout does tend to bruise some of its more developed assertions, contexts and story lines.

  • Another one’s bread is written by Mike van Graan and directed by Pamela Nomvete. It features design by Jacqueline Kehilwe Manyaapelo (choreography), Nomvula Molepo (lighting) and Karabo Legoabe-Mtshali and Nthabiseng Makone (set and costumes) and is performed by Motlatji Ditodi, Awethu Hleli, Chuma Sopotela and Faniswa Yisa until February 4 at the Mannie Manim Theatre, Market Theatre Complex in Newtown, Johannesburg. Call 011 832 1641 or visit http://www.markettheatre.co.za

Moral grandstands and how to hold on

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OPENING cans of worms for dinner: Kathy (Connie Britton), Beatriz (Salma Hayek) and Doug (John Lithgow). Photograph courtesy imdb.com

CRUELTY, HUNTING, MAKING money and having fun at anyone’s expense are some of the values central to Beatriz at Dinner. Others take a holistic, meditative line. Told with clarity, it is a film that is grown up in sense of balance and of narrative. Astonishingly fine performances by Salma Hayek opposite John Lithgow are the cherry on top – but be warned: there are no clear answers in this battle of values, and you will be discussing the nuances of the film itself for weeks.

Beatriz (Hayek) is a healer. But she’s a woman who carries with her a history of great suffering. Born in a small village in Mexico, she lives in suburban America. She meditates. She keeps goats. She’s a vegan. She drives a beat up old Volkswagen. And she dispenses alternative healing to people with cancer at a healing centre.

Enter Kathy (Connie Britton). Living in an exclusive, gated suburb with her husband and much wealth, Kathy is the mother of a young woman who conquered Hodgkin’s Disease with the therapeutic and holistic assistance of Beatriz. The women consider themselves friends.

But there’s a glitch. Beatriz is not white. And there’s a missing beat in how much the two women are able to share, given politics, prejudice and everything in between. A flat car battery forces the hand of fate and finds Beatriz at dinner with Kathy and her husband (David Warshofsky) together with two couples. It’s a formal dinner and a “work related” one, in which Beatriz has no real place.

There follows a deeply cringeworthy set of exchanges in which values come clashing at one another from developed perspectives. The three white couples are honed stereotypes, very well moulded on convention. Beatriz stands out like a sore thumb with her jeans and running shoes, her un-made up face and her unapologetic beliefs, which the long-haired, heavily done up women can only relate to with shallow expletives and gentle faux sympathetic titters.

Doug Strutt (Lithgow) is the mogul they all want to impress. He’s big, loud and unambiguously bombastic and egocentric. He gets his thrills from canned hunting. To him, wives are a thing about acquisition – he’s currently on number three (Amy Landecker). In short, by conventional accounts, this is a hideous character. He cares more for the sating of his hedonistic character’s whims than for the sanctity of other people’s lives – let alone the trees and birdlife his very many projects will destroy in the process. It’s all about him.

And thus Beatriz meets Doug. She’s earnest and shocked. He’s patronising and smarmy. But wait: you may think this is a tale of good versus evil. You may think you know which values are represented by which character. You may think this is all cut and dried. To the film-makers’ credit, Beatriz at Dinner presents both sides of the argument with nuance and complexity. Bringing in a touch of magic realism, the work is a parable and features an ending that perplexes you into thinking about the parameters of victory and defeat.

On paper, the character of Beatriz seems a naive bleeding heart liberal, a crackpot with values that have no place in the real world. Strutt seems a cardboard cut-out, beating the proverbial drum for jobs, wealth and a western sense of nakedly acquisitive progress, where blood can be found beneath anything beautiful. On screen, Hayek and Lithgow lend these roles an unequivocal three-dimensionality, allowing the work to sizzle and haunt.

  • Beatriz at Dinner is directed by Miguel Arteta and is performed by Natalia Abelleyra, Amanda Borella, Connie Britton, Enrique Castillo, Jay Duplass, John Early, Salma Hayek, Amy Landecker, John Lithgow, Sean O’Bryan, Chloë Sevigny, Soledad St Hilaire and David Warshofsky. It is written by Mike White. Produced by Aaron L. Gilbert, David Hinojosa, Pamela Koffler and Christine Vachon, it features creative input by Mark Mothersbaugh (music), Wyatt Garfield (cinematography), Jay Deuby (editing), Joanna Colbert and Meredith Tucker (casting), Ashley Fenton (production design), Madelaine Frezza (set) and Christina Blackaller (costumes). Release date: November 29 2017.

Decency in a time of hateful chaos

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IT IS SELDOM that you read a chunk of autobiographical writing by someone and come away not only with a deeper understanding of the historical context of the period under scrutiny, but also with a genuine warmth toward the writer himself. This is patently apparent in this text by Lionel (Rusty) Bernstein (1920-2002), one of the heroes of South Africa’s struggle against apartheid, which is beautifully honed, curated and articulated.

The downside of this eminently meaty read which is at times surprising, exciting and witty, as it takes you through the detail and history of South Africa and pulls you through the bristly heart of the anti-apartheid struggle, is the handling of the publication: there are some typographical errors in this iconic South African text. Not many. But enough. There is also a blatant lack of engagement with the material itself and Bernstein’s biography, which is disappointing. Both authors of the forewords, in this, the second edition of this publication – Lord Joel Joffe and Thabo Mbeki – basically write about what a jolly good text Bernstein’s is. And it is – they do not exaggerate, but both forewords read like press releases marketing the book rather than engagements with the text itself.

You might want to know what happened to Bernstein between 1994 and his death in 2002. You might want to know a little more about Bernstein, the man – though the basic decency of the writing and the way in which Bernstein describes his own position and challenges does a pretty good job of it. You might want to understand what prompted the writing of this important text or when it was published, or even why it was published again in 2017. You might want to know if the drawings on the book’s frontispiece and cover, presumably made by Bernstein himself, were from the Rivonia Trial or the Treason Trial. None of these mysteries are uncovered here.

However, once you get your teeth into the body of the text, all is forgiven. Taking you from 1938 through the challenges he faced in becoming the architect, the political activist, the communist, the husband and father and the mensch that he was, the text is fulsome and detailed. It’s crafted with a sense of openness – it’s written in the first person and the present tense throughout, but there’s a delicate balance that Bernstein achieves from beginning to end – it’s never self-congratulatory or egotistical, grand-standing or foolishly moralistic in its articulation. You’ll weep at the crude and cruel injustices of not only the apartheid regime, but also of the way in which men such as Bernstein were treated in prison.

This work sits with great comfort and dignity on the shelf alongside Raymond Suttner’s Inside Apartheid’s Prison and Jonathan Ancer’s Spy: Uncovering Craig Williamson, not only for its historical iconicity but also for its readability and value as a publication, presenting an understanding of the monster of apartheid as something a lot more nuanced, dangerous and complicated than a litany of white legislation imposed on black civilians. It’s about vindictiveness and loyalty, paying the highest price for one’s values, and above all, it’s about the basic value of human decency. This is a must read for any reader of South African politics, young or old.

  • Memory Against Forgetting: Memoir of a Time in South African Politics 1928-1964 is by Rusty Bernstein and features forewords by Lord Joel Joffe and Thabo Mbeki. It is published by Wits University Press, Johannesburg 2017.