One whale and a whole school of red herrings

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I am calling you. The Whale Caller (Sello Maake ka-Ncube). Photograph courtesy Ster Kinekor.

IT WAS TOO easy: Just one quick glance at the poster and title of this movie got you booking your tickets: The Whale Caller? A South African director? Ah, it must be a celebration of the surreal poetry of Hermanus, you declared to yourself, a grin on your lips as you handed your money over. Hermanus, a 90-minute drive from Cape Town is one of those quaintly beautiful places in South Africa that is resplendent with landscapes and burgeoning tourist culture; in its suburbs, it is very rich and very poor, simultaneously. And it has old colonial churches who baptise their congregants on the beach. And it also boasts whales who visit the shore seasonally.

But the truth is, this film should have been called something like “Saluni: the woman with a penchant for the bottle”, but that wouldn’t have made you buy tickets, would it? The character in question, portrayed by Amrain Ismail-Essop is jarringly and crudely over-acted. She’s a mess: she drinks too much, she loses herself too easily, and she embarrasses herself in public all the time. She’s also a paper cut out in terms of her character development, but she is made to dominate the whole story in such a way that her presence destroys any potential for poetry.

Amongst other things, she chases and catches the Whale Caller, played by Sello Maake ka Ncube. He’s a quiet bloke who lives in a rustic little blue wooden cabin with a startling orange deckchair on the outside, an image which is easily the film’s visual pinnacle. And this Whale Caller, while he does have a tendency to stare into the blue yonder often, enjoys a passionate obsession with the whales of the district. He even has a very special horn that he blows and a uniform to go with it.

In a sense, this yarn gives you to understand why quiet men shrink from shrill loud women – or why they should. The relationship, utterly devoid of electricity is forced and doomed before it begins and it unfolds, characterised by lice and wine, fear of darkness, and blindness, and above all, manipulation. In short, it’s grubby all the way through. And empathy is never developed on the side of Saluni.

While the original idea of Zakes Mda’s which sees a man’s love tossed between that of a woman and that of a whale, is rather majestic and beautiful in the values of magic realism it offers, it really doesn’t work here. The tale is wound around the Coloured community of the district and it is punctured with a whole rash of red herrings that go nowhere – an issue of homophobia is mentioned but dropped. Saluni goes blind and then is healed miraculously and we don’t understand why. They’re characters with pasts that are never alluded to. There’s a graphic section which is embarrassing amateur and oh, the list goes on…

And then there’s the children. In a whole development of this tale, twin girls are discovered by Saluni. They live in a disused building with their parents. And they can sing. There follows a very uncomfortable friendship between these children and Saluni which rapidly finds the girls in the bath and Saluni being offered red wine by way of payment if she looks after them. Weirder things can happen, in this day and age. Or can they?

The main reason you should see this film, however, transpires toward the end of a very turgid series of horrid events, and brings the whale itself into the frame. She – the Whale Caller calls her Sharisha – is simply magnificent and the struggle she faces in getting back into deeper waters is epic. As you sit there watching this unfold, the tears running down your face, you almost forgive the shrillness of Saluni; you can almost look away from her moth-eaten fur coat and her foolish dreams of ‘becoming a star’.

There’s a moment of victory when you might cast your mind back to 1990 and a magnificent moment of abstract play of choreography and photography in Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves, but alas, it is another opportunity lost and ka-Ncube’s whoops of gladness are embarrassing and juvenile and do not do on his apparent life long love justice.

There’s an ingot of possibility in this story, fuelled as it is with a lovely soundtrack composed by Pops Mohamed, but this possibility is whipped away from you, before you have a chance to grasp it. And yes, there’s the landscapes, but the cinematography too is stripped of nuance and is so harsh and bright, sometimes you can’t bear to look.

  • The Whale Caller is directed by Zola Maseko and features a cast headed by Amrain Ismail-Essop and Sello Maake Ka-Ncube. It is written by Zola Maseko and Zakes Mda based on the eponymous book by Zakes Mda. Produced by Zola Maseka and Dylan Voogt, it features creative input by Pops Mohamed (music), Miles Goodall (cinematography), Nic Goodwin (editing), Charlotte Buys (sound), and Dominique Pellissier, Monique Ray and George Webster (visual effects). Release date: October 13 2017.

 

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How to face the demons in your belly

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THAT’S it? Lori (Sadie Sink), Brian (Charlie Shotwell), Rex (Woody Harrelson), Jeannette (Ella Anderson), Rose Mary (Naomi Watts) and Maureen (Shree Crooks) survey the new house in Welch, West Virginia. Photograph courtesy Lionsgate.

IF YOU READ the blurb put out by Ster Kinekor for Destin Daniel Cretton’s The Glass Castle, you may go into the movie theatre expecting to be uplifted by a kind of clichéd rags to riches yarn about reaching for one’s dreams. It is so much more and so much less than this.

Based on the life story of New York Times journalist, Jeannette Walls, this profoundly tough tale of so-called hillbillies in West Virginia, and utter, grotesque poverty is about the horror of shame and the love of a parent and it is incredibly difficult to watch, but more difficult to take the decision to walk out. From the get go, you are assailed with horrendous scenarios that involve an amateur painter not having the inclination to feed her child, which results in utter catastrophe. And things ricochet in a range of horrifying and deeply disappointing directions – disappointing for the children, that is – after that.

But more than a tale about the child in question – Jeannette Walls – played with a great deal of adult nuance by child performer Ella Anderson, and more than an engagement with what has become something of a blanket term ‘dysfunctionality’, the story opens the net wide to the complicated rough and tumble that comes of raising children in the shadow of abuse without the constraints of formal education. It’s not a story of abuse, in the conventional sense, though there are mysteries and red herrings when it comes to things that go on behind closed doors, and is premised on the way in which young children can recognise and engage with deep moral conflict.

Rex Walls (Woody Harrelson) is a man with instinctive knowledge. We don’t know if he has been educated, but we discover that he comes of a place of abject degradation. The son of an uncompromisingly horrendous woman named Erma (Robin Bartlett), he has glorious extravagant dreams to build a house made of glass. He’s married to an amateur hobbyist of a painter called Rose Mary (Naomi Watts), and together they have four beautiful children. And think dirty mattresses and hand-me-down clothes, think littlies going to bed with dirty feet, snotty noses and empty stomachs; think power shifting between a daddy and his little girl in ways that force the child into the adult’s proverbial shoes, and you have the general, harrowing picture.

But as the foundation of the eponymous Glass Castle, dug by the children with much glee, turn into a repository for domestic rubbish, and as Rex’s propensity to drink fills up his soul and empties the fridge, you realise this is not a tale about fulfilling dreams at all. It’s one that averts cliché in a sophisticated and complex way. And it’s about one that engages with the demons in the belly and celebrates a man who is an unhero. Creating detours through and around Joseph Campbell’s classic structure of the hero myth, the tale is not even a cautionary one – as it reaches closure, you realise the historical depth it embraces, and the sense of a truth without a moral embraced in obviousness that it offers.

And yes, the rags to riches element features, seeing Jeannette (Brie Larson plays her, as an adult) grow into a sophisticated young woman, having constructed a life for herself out of the ruins she’s left with. Journalism becomes her way out of the morass of her childhood, but there are heavy prices she pays along the way. She’s appropriately highly finished in her sense of physical appearance, a sharp tune from the ‘adventurous’ values with which she had been raised.

Beautifully directed, with narrative transitions that segue with wisdom and sensitivity, the work turns in narrative circles and the associations are potent and deeply satisfying to watch. You do, however, emerge from this complicated tale of victory and loss with a troubled heart and a tear-driven face.

  • The Glass Castle is directed by Destin Daniel Cretton and performed by Brie Larson, Woody Harrelson, Naomi Watts, Ella Anderson, Chandler Head, Max Greenfield, Josh Caras, Charlie Shotwell, Iain Armitage, Sarah Snook, Sadie Sink, Olivia Kate Rice, Brigette Lundy-Paine, Shree Crooks, Eden Grace Redfield, Robin Bartlett, Joe Pingue, A J Henderson, Dominic Bogart, Chris Gillett, Tessa Mossey, Brenda Kamino, Vlasta Vrana, Andrew Shaver, Sandra Flores, Francesca Barcenas, Bianca Bellange, Izabel Kerr, Darrin Baker, Kyper Harper, Sarah Camacho, Alanna Bale, Ray Adams, John Mullins, Sabrina Campilii and Ross Partridge, and a support cast including Brian, Jeannette, Lori, Rex and Rose Mary Walls. It is written by Destin Daniel Cretton and Andrew Lanham based on the book by Jeannette Walls and is designed by Joel P West (music), Brett Pawlak (cinematography), Ronna Kress (casting), Sharon Seymour (production), Joy Cretton and Mirren Gordon-Crozier (costumes). Release date: September 1 2017.

 

Behold, the Queen: unguarded

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ALL that I survey is mine: Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) and Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), her new best friend. Photograph courtesy BBC.com

SHE WAS SO many things. The portraits of her attest to her physical fierceness. An unbeautiful woman, Queen Victoria was pivotal to a stylistic era that was as much about decorum as it was about modesty. Victoria and Abdul, directed by Stephen Frears is a magnificently crafted work about her friendship with a young Muslim man in the years leading up to her death.  Unequivocally, it is everything that an historical drama of this nature should be. And topped with Judi Dench’s immaculate portrayal of Victoria herself, the work is at once deeply evolved with impeccable attention to detail, as it is funny and tragic, historically viable and educational.

Sparing no no punches in reflecting on the queen of the British empire and by default the empress of India as a woman who bears the brunt of her station with complexity and unease, the work is replete with a great sense of textural authority. Queen Victoria is not politically savvy but is subject to the ceremonies and protocol of her context with a mix of boredom and physical discomfort. The work considers her, above all, as a woman, a mother of nine, who was widowed more than 30 years ago, one struggling with obesity and gynaecological issues who is forced by dint of birth to engage in a set of boring imperatives which are about keeping up appearances to the nth degree.

Enter Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal) on the reputation of a beautiful carpet, with the promise of a mango that is a little like an orange and a bit like a peach, and magic knocks audaciously on the door of this dour old woman. It’s the kind of magic she doesn’t want to lose: it makes her laugh. It enables her to rediscover her humanity in a world where everyone adulates her, but no one loves her.

It’s a beautiful if sometimes insanely farcical tale that looks at the foreignness of culture through fresh eyes. We see the barbarism of British cuisine through the perceptions of Abdul’s countryman Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar), and we see the sheer wonder of Abdul’s life as a prison administrator, the poetry he is heir to and the traditions that are central to his existence, through Victoria’s eyes. We’re also confronted with the complex and grim monolith of colonial mentality that runs as a backdrop to the tale.

With a mad little vignette which sees a bewigged Simon Callow in the role of Puccini, so much detail is central to the film’s focus. Eddie Izzard deliciously plays the irascible 57-year-old ‘Bertie’, Victoria’s eldest son who was crowned King Edward VII after her demise in 1901.

The cinematography, exploiting the utter symmetry of the Victorian lifestyle, to say nothing of the dizzying sense of detail which touches everything from British culinary ritual to the Taj Mahal itself is completely breathtaking, and the music, blending bagpipes with sitars, is as diverse and rich. This is the kind of film that will have you laughing and weeping and returning home to learn more about royal ascendancy and histories.

  • Victoria and Abdul is directed by Stephen Frears and performed by Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Tim Pigott-Smith, Eddie Izzard, Adeel Akhtar, Michael Gambon, Paul Higgins, Olivia Williams, Fenella Woolgar, Julian Wadham, Robin Soans, Ruth McCabe, Simon Callow, Sukh Ojla, Kemaal Deen-Ellis, Simon Paisley Day, Amani Zardoe, Sophie Trott, Penny Ryder, Trevor Fox, Joe Caffrey, John Stahl, Tim McMullan, Jonathan Harden, John Rowe, Benjamin Haigh, Sandy Grierson, Alaistair Pether, Sally Jokhan, Charlie Stewart, Willie Cochrane, Jonathan Mayer, Mitel Purohit, Sam Kenyon, Samuel Stefan and a supporting cast. It is produced by Tim Bevan and written by Lee Hall based on the book by Shrabani Basu. It was designed by Thomas Newman (music), Danny Cohen (cinematography), Consolata Boyle (costumes) and Alan MacDonald (production). Release date in South Africa: September 29 2017.

Veld foundling

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GOD doesn’t make mistakes: Grandma Kitta (Shaleen Surtie-Richards) and Grandpa Simon (Royston Stoffels), with their child, Vaselinetjie (Nicole Bond). Photograph courtesy kyknet.

WHAT ARE YOU, effectively, if you do not fit the basic identifiers of the people all around you? This question comes under the sensitive but probing and compelling loupe of newly released Afrikaans (with English subtitles) film, Vaselinetjie.

Like British director Alan Bleasdale’s mini-series that interpreted Dickens’s Oliver Twist (1999), the work begins with a deeply distressed, heavily pregnant young woman on a clear mission of self-destruction, in a veld hostile to her, under an unsympathetic moon . By daybreak, we hear the cries of the baby, who clearly understood the urgency of the situation and snatched at life, while it could.

Thus begins a simply magnificently crafted piece of South African narrative, which places a white child in a Coloured context: the amorphous mixed race community which is historically too black to be considered white, and too white to be considered black, but has a cultural identity which is potent with its sense of self.

And it is here where you meet the skinny and frightened and somewhat fierce 11-year-old Vaselinetjie (Nicole Bond). It’s 1995. She’s being raised by Grandma Kitta (Shaleen Surtie-Richards) and Grandpa Simon (Royston Stoffels) in a district of South Africa, distinguished by its dusty streets and basic poverty. She’s also being teased within a millimetre of her sense of belonging by the other children. She’s everything they are, in terms of her accent and context. She’s also everything they’re not. And they are merciless.

Enter social welfare. And a new chapter in Vaselinetjie’s life, where she gets to experience other children. White children. It is here, in an orphanage – explained to her 11-year-old self as a boarding school – in Johannesburg, where she cuts her teeth as a person with convictions, albeit one with devils. She’s not alone. It’s an orphanage, after all, and her peers have their own demons, some more explicit than hers. It is here where she learns the rules of many games, both inside and outside of the school’s environment, whether it be in learning to slip under the radar of the avuncular house mother Tannie Snorre (Karin van der Laag), or smoking with the boys in the school’s interstices. It is also here where she grows into a young woman (Marguerite van Eeden), and discovers love and heartbreak.

This is no soppy love story though, and while it ends with a satisfying denouement, the characters are put through the proverbial wringer in terms of their need to grapple with the conflict of where they fit in. Themes dovetail and resonate in circles and cycles, and conjoined with breathtakingly fine cinematography, make you feel able to smell the atmosphere in the red brick orphanage with its peeling paintwork and high ceilings, a decaying testament to an earlier era, as you’re able to taste the dust of the Coloured township and feel the unrelenting heat of its climate.

When you think of a film of this nature, you may well consider works such as Irish film maker Peter Mullan’s Magdalene Sisters (2002), or even Jean-Jacques Annaud’s (1986) The Name of the Rose, in which a mass of characters interface to form a social texture. This is achieved with finesse and aplomb in Vaselinetjie: the orphanage is rich with gemstones of stories within stories, character vignettes that are haunting yet tiny, and the creative team behind this film doesn’t stint on this, creating characters such as Killer (Anchen du Plessis and Elzet Nel), who carries her grief with great care; Pizzaface (Daniah de Villiers and Elani Dekker), the daughter of an ‘escort’; and Texan (Ashley Hawla and Arno Greeff), a boy with secrets, shame and fury. Not to forget Albie (Rowan-Raine Pretorius and Marise Loots), a troubled little girl who teeters between her broken plastic doll and chess mastery.

There are moments of woodenness in van Eeden’s portrayal, however, causing the older Vaselinetjie to lose some of that fierce credibility. Your eye is allowed to digress from her more often than it should. This doesn’t, however, hurt the memorable and well honed fabric of the tale.

  • Vaselinetjie is written by Corné van Rooyen and René van Rooyen and directed by Corné van Rooyen. It is designed by Ben Ludik (music), Adam Joshua Bentel (cinematography), Waldemar Coetsee (production), Nerine Pienaar (costumes), Wimari du Plessis, Claudia Hamman, Zeldene Simon and Gina Slingerland (make up) and Quinn Lubbe (visual effects). It is performed by Nicole Bond, Daniah De Villiers, Elani Dekker, Anchen du Plessis, Arno Greeff, Ashley Hawla, Marise Loots, David Mello, Zack Mtombeni, Elzet Nel, Rowan-Raine Pretorius, Melita Steyn, Royston Stoffels, Shaleen Surtie-Richards and Marguerite van Eeden, supported by Izel Bezuidenhout, Anton Dekker, Émil Haarhoff, Henk Hugo, Heidi Mollentze, Bradley Olivier, Jai’prakash Sewram, Dean Smith, Karin van der Laag, Wilbur Jansen van Rensburg and Drikus Volschenk. Release date: September 22, 2017.
  • See a comment on the contemporary relevance of this film by Geoff Sifrin in Taking Issue.

Who’s your daddy?

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IMPOSTOR with appalling teeth: Meet Toni Erdmann (Peter Simonischek).

WHAT DO YOU do when your hot-shot entrepreneurial daughter who is earnestly climbing the corporate ladder in Europe freezes you out of her life? Do you do the social thing and try to wine and dine her and buy her gifts, or do you go all out to worm your way into her confidence, using every trick in the book and inventing some brand new tricks, yourself?

Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek) is a man with an ill-fitting denture. He’s a music teacher and the owner of an extremely elderly dog. And eccentricity is the tune by which he conjures his life. Only it’s such deadpan eccentricity that it takes you a while to get attuned to it. But once you do, the rhythm and resonance of this work will soar with you and haunt you. Further to that, it might well make you wake up in the night laughing and sobbing at some of the work’s nuances, weeks after you’ve seen it.

Winfried’s daughter, Ines (Sandra Hüller) fits into the millennial German stereotype graciously. She’s an A-type personality tightly controlling her frenetic Bucharest-based life, complete as it is with the obsessive pressure of wining and dining important people, juggling technology and time. Her dad’s curious as to where and how she lets her hair down. And with whom. But nay, Ines, with her tight business suit and her every-hair-in-place German precision wants nothing of the presence of her awkward, emotional, curious daddy-o.

Bordering on the kind of manipulative cruelty you see in films such as Joseph Mankiewicz’s (1972) Sleuth, with Michael Caine and Lawrence Olivier, Toni Erdmann reveals really bizarre antics of Winfried to gain his daughter’s attention and win her affection but also a place in her life.

It takes an infected toenail, a spontaneously naked birthday party, an alarming cheese grater, not to mention an unbelievably enormous Bulgarian cultural costume, sex with a green petit four and an invented character called Toni Erdmann, too ugly and socially awkward to believe possible. Almost clocking in at three hours, this is a long film, but it will keep you riveted as it keeps you surprised. Shortlisted for the best foreign film in 2017’s Oscars and with a slew of nominations and awards in its wake, it’s a wild story punctuated with hairpin bends in its plot, but it is its superb craftsmanship, incredibly fine performances and sophisticated storytelling that will grip you the most.

Ultimately, it’s a beautiful paean about the complicated relationship between a man and his adult daughter, replete with all its irritating and uncomfortable moments that any grown woman with an elderly father will relate to.

  • Toni Erdmann (2016) is directed by Maren Ade and stars Sandra Hüller, Peter Simonischek and Michael Wittenborn. It is 162 minutes in length and is in German with English subtitles. It is being screened as part of the European Film Festival in Johannesburg on May 7 and 13 at Cinema Nouveau in Rosebank, Pretoria on May 7 and 14 at Cinema Nouveau in Brooklyn, Cape Town on May 7 and 13 at Cinema Nouveau at the V&A and Durban on May 14 at Cinema Nouveau, Gateway. Visit eurofilmfest.co.za and www.cinemanouveau.co.za for more details.

Forever’s flaws in a world fraught by change

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THAT cat: Isabelle Huppert is Nathalie Chazeaux making sense of an inherited cat.

Reviewed By Nomali Minenhle Cele

WHEN YOU ARE introduced to her, Nathalie Chazeaux (Isabelle Huppert) is a happy enough woman. She’s driven at her teaching job and secure in her marriage, her grown children are happy and healthy. She’s respected in her profession as a philosopher. The quiet cogs of her life churn on and she is satisfied.

Quite early into the film, however, the foundations of her life begin to shake. The future of the once-lucrative textbook she wrote is uncertain (she has to pay for that beautiful Paris flat somehow, surely). The world is changing. Her marriage is not as secure as she believes.

Nathalie’s relationship with her mother is troubled. Both women are at the stage of life where questions such as “when are you giving me grandchildren?” are replaced by 3am phone calls because mother is having an anxiety attack. Before she is committed to an old age home, the older woman lives in a flat, which she never leaves, surrounded by photographs of herself in her youth. She was a beauty, however, what time has taken is nothing compared to what a divergent brain takes. Or what death takes.

With a level head, Nathalie has to lament a marriage, and a seaside home. She also has to mourn the loss of her mother. And then there’s the question of making sense of the cat her mother leaves.

Huppert is a joy to watch. Her jokes, even in subtitles, are biting. Her observations on life, love and relationships are interesting, her Nathalie is warm. But she’s far from being every woman. Only women who look like that and have her level of education/social standing — but mostly, LOOK like that — get to have their singular story “Gets divorced, bordering-on-toxic mother dies, inherits cat, has a year of awakening and change” told. The fictional French white woman lives differently.

Nathalie’s relationship with her students, particularly Fabien (Roman Kolinka), is used as one of the primary lenses in this film, which also feeds off the developments in her private life. Fabien is proof that ideas can change. Nathalie knows this because one of the things she says to her husband when he says he’s leaving is: “I thought you would love me forever.” Forever, she discovers, is relative and she, even though she had always thought herself very happy and fulfilled in her marriage, confesses during a drive with Fabien that she welcomes the variety in music.

Broadly considered the darling of French film in 2016, this Things To Come is a rewarding and beautifully made film.

  • Things To Come (2016) is directed by Mia Hansen-Love and stars Isabelle Huppert, André Marcon and Roman Kolinka. It is 102 minutes in length and is in French, German and English, with English subtitles. It is being screened as part of the European Film Festival in Johannesburg on May 5 and 14 at Cinema Nouveau in Rosebank, Pretoria on May 5 and 14 at Cinema Nouveau in Brooklyn, Cape Town on May 5 and 14 at Cinema Nouveau at the V&A and Durban on May 5 at Cinema Nouveau, Gateway. Visit eurofilmfest.co.za and www.cinemanouveau.co.za for more details.
  • Nomali Minenhle Cele is a culture critic and writer from Soweto, and founder of the  zine Uju. Invoke her at her blog Nomali From Soweto.