One whale and a whole school of red herrings

whalecaller

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.

 

Advertisements

How to face the demons in your belly

the-glass-castle

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

VictoriaAbdul

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

vaselinetjie2-650

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.

Death of a golden boy

johnnyisniedoodnie

WASHING dishes: Lisa (Rolanda Marais), Dirk (Albert Pretorius), Hein (Ludwig Binge), Anya (Ilana Cillier) and Johnny (Roelof Storm) at play.

Sometimes you just know that a film will most likely not break box office records, not in this generation, at least, but that this market-centric prediction has absolutely no bearing whatsoever on its brilliance, its historical merit or its importance as a piece of research. Johnny is nie dood nie is a film of this nature. Featuring impeccable writing, an unforgettably sound understanding of the texture and anguish of the late 1980s in South Africa, and a speculum-like foray into the life of one of young Afrikaans culture’s most important icons, it’s an extraordinary project, but also a brave and essential film.

On one level it’s a loosely historical account of the last 15 years of the life of Afrikaans balladeer Johannes Kerkorrel – born Ralph Rabie in 1960 – bringing in the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll of the era, not to mention the looming terror of mandatory army service for young white males, the PTSD and the sense of utter impotence in the eye of apartheid’s evils. It’s a tale of love and betrayal, of defiance and Alice in Wonderland, and there are moments in which you can almost smell the ether of the period, criss-crossed as it is with the odour of dagga, cigarettes and sweat, in a socio-political nexus laced with ideals and fury.

On another level, it is an essay on the loss of a dear friend. Lise (Rolanda Marais), Anya (Ilana Cillier), Hein (Ludwig Binge) and Dirk (Albert Pretorius) get together to commiserate about the suicide of the one who was central to all of their lives. It’s 2002 and they’re young adults with responsibilities. The flashbacks to the 1980s and their late teens offer clear and troubled insight into the messed up state of South African society at the time, as they present the nub of the Voëlvry movement, a development of politically astute Afrikaans cabaret which set Afrikaans university students afire with a sense of possibility.

When first we meet the eponymous Johnny (Roelof Storm), he’s freshly fired from his job as a journalist, and cocks a snook at the country’s expectations of him with glee. With his platinum blond hairdo and his nimble wit and singing talent, Johnny is like a god. But he’s like a fallen god. He has secrets that will overpower you in their sense of choice, in the Catch-22 that embraced the lives of so many young men of that wretched, double-crossed era.

While the film doesn’t promise to be comprehensive, the light it casts on the era is penetrating, as it is poignant, well-researched and hard-hitting. With everything, from a delicious cameo of the late Barend de Wet, with hookah and existential solutions at hand, to a televised snippet which reflects Evita Bezuidenhout (Pieter-Dirk Uys) chatting to Kerkorrel about life, the universe and music, as well as illustrations by John Tenniel on the walls, and Jan F E Celliers’s poem Dis Al on the window of a student dorm, the work is rich in detail, and unforgettable in texture.

Of the five central characters, it is Albert Pretorius’s nuanced sense of history and sadness that grips the film in an embrace which is haunting, delicate and simply beautiful. You understand implicitly that his Dirk, ultimately is a reflection of Dirk Uys who became the manager of Kerkorrel’s band, Gereformeerde Blues Band.

You have to sit to the very last moment of the film – even after the credits have scrolled up – for the music, however. The work is more focused on the horror and wildness of the times than the poetry of Kerkorrel and his contemporaries, including James Philips (who invented the alter ego Bernoldus Niemand), Koos Kombuis and others, but you must focus carefully. Snatches of Kerkorrel’s songs tie the work together like sinews and connective tissue. There’s a game the friends play in remembering lyrics, and a completely fabulous reconstruction of the iconic and utterly bizarre image that defines his record Eet Kreef  but you can rest assured, his magnificent ballads Hillbrow and In die Tronk are not forgotten.

  • Johnny is nie dood nie (2017) is directed by Christiaan Olwagen and stars Ludwig Binge, Ilana Cillier, Rolanda Marais, Albert Pretorius and Roelof Storm, based on the eponymous stage play by Malan Steyn. It is 106 minutes in length and is in Afrikaans with English subtitles. It opened at Ster Kinekor outlets nationwide on Friday May 5. Visit cinemanouveau.co.za and https://www.facebook.com/Johnnyisniedoodnie/?hc_ref=SEARCH for more details.

Punishing Turner

Timothy Spall plays JMW Turner. Photograph courtesy www.deadline.com

Timothy Spall plays JMW Turner. Photograph courtesy http://www.deadline.com

Victorian painter JMW Turner (1775-1851) may have been a curmudgeonly philanderer in his personal life, but he certainly doesn’t warrant the indignity of this insufferable film, Mr Turner, directed by Mike Leigh and on the art-film circuit in South Africa, at the moment.

While a good part of this 150 minute long production reflects inconsequential snapshots of a life captured under a Venetian yellow filter, with lots of dark shadow, cobble-stone roads and period costume, sprinkled with an inappropriate sense of moment when nothing is happening, there’s a total lack of substance to the manner in which Turner, the man, is reflected. And what we get, instead, is a disrespectful  and specious foray into the life of an iconic art historical hero, who, in real life, in skirting with unpopularity, effectively established the cornerstone of modern art.

Some beautiful photographic moments conjoined with ugly  depictions of emotion, reflections of fiddly bad sex with a servant woman — played by Dorothy Atkinson — covered in a rash which progressively and inexplicably worsens, and a whole river of red herrings in the telling of the tale causes this film to have no redeeming features: the acting is unconvincing – Timothy Spall characterises his interpretation of this character with grunts and snarls that border on the cruel and comical, making Turner at times feel socially backward.

But more that, the performances are disparagingly one-dimensional, leaving no emotional wisdom in any of the characters. John Ruskin, for instance, important critic of his period, is reflected as a foolish prat — played by Joshua McGuire — who exists within his parents’ shadow and makes preposterously stupid remarks. The madam in the brothel looks so much like the mother of Turner’s daughters that more of the plot gets broken and lost because you become confused as to who is who. But all this is mere detail: the film’s narrative is sorely in need of editing and the musical score doesn’t lend anything to the work. There is no flow. You don’t emerge curious about the man, the movement, the period. It leaves you completely uninspired.

If you have a background in the material, you will recognise elements. Your heart will be gladdened to see the cameo appearance of John Constable — played by James Fleet — a contemporary of Turner’s. You will recognise the strictures of the Salon, so endemic to the 18th century’s art world and you will understand the odd novelty of the daguerreotype, an early manifestation of the camera. If you don’t know any of this context in relation to Turner’s work, life and the texture of the world in which he lived, this film will not help you. There are no markers to hold onto, no narrative handrails to make this piece legible or valuable from a knowledge yielding perspective.

It is astonishing to consider the slew of awards and accolades this production has achieved since its UK debut during 2014. Are critics and audiences in awe of the subject matter? Or do they feel that mind-numbing boredom is necessary in a work that engages with the solemnity of Art? Does the period style compromise their critical edge? Is it that Mike Leigh has created so much good work that people have become precious about him? Either way, if you want a spot of intellectually stimulating, beautiful entertainment, you’ve not going to get it here.