Sunday, May 31, 2015

French movie, Israeli movie

Some spoilers here...

Having a bit of a run on movies worth mentioning at the moment. In the last few days we've seen the Israeli film, The Lemon Tree and the French movie, The Big Picture (L'homme qui voulait vivre sa vie, which translates roughly as 'the man who wanted to live his life').

The French movie was well made, but left you with a rather flat feeling: it comes to a sudden halt at a point which could be said to be showing something of an epiphany in the main character's life, but it's very understated. Paul (Romain Duris) is a youngish man with a wife and two children, and a good job in a legal firm which it's likely he can take sole charge of soon: the co-owner (Catherine Deneuve) has learnt that she hasn't long to live. Somehow Paul manages to throw all this away, partly because of misunderstandings, partly because of not being able to talk sensibly to his wife, and partly because she's having an affair and he accidentally kills her lover. But no one else finds out about this. He makes it look as though the lover has gone away. And then he fakes his own death.

There are lots of plot-holes, as my friend calls them, lots of improbabilities. Paul is supposed to be a somewhat impetuous character, but he somehow meticulously plans not only how to get rid of the lover's body, but how to make himself vanish. Other unexplained matters irritate, such as how he manages to live without work by using only cash for several months after the events described above. The piece is slow in its first half-hour, and then after the lover's death it picks up, but there are still too many shots of Duris brooding. After a while you just wish he'd get on with things...

The Lemon Tree moves along quietly, but it has an intense performance at its centre: Hiam Abbass (an Israeli actress) plays a Palestinian widow, Salma, whose sole income is from a lemon tree orchard that is situated inconveniently on the border, right next to a house just taken over by the Israeli Defence Minister, his wife, and entourage. The security people advise cutting down the trees so that there's a clear view across the land; Salma, of course, is appalled at their arrogance, and fights for her rights.

The Defence Minister is a jerk, of course, but his wife sees through the situation a little more clearly, and after a lot of internal debate manages to do the right thing. Unfortunately it's rather too late, and the film has a bittersweet ending.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about this movie is that it's been made by Israelis, and yet the Israelis are the baddies/villains/whatever. Only the Defence Minister is really bad news, in the sense that he's juggling every ball possible at the same time; most of them come crashing down before the movie ends. His wife becomes increasingly sympathetic to the widow's situation as the movie goes on, but between her hands being tied, and her lack of will to do something to change things, she fails the widow, effectively. There are some unpleasant people on the Palestinian side, of course, most notably the 'elders' who, instead of aiding the widow, want to push her down even further. There are a lot of Biblical parallels in the movie: those who are supposedly acting righteously but not caring for the widows, for instance, and Ahab taking over his neighbour's vineyard. Salma, however, is a tough woman, and she doesn't let things knock her down completely, though there are plenty of knocks along the way.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Mt Zion

Some spoilers here.

We watched Mt Zion last night, a NZ movie focused on Maori growing potatoes in Pukekohe. It’s set in the late seventies. These aren’t Maori who are struggling to make ends meet, particularly, though there is some underhand stuff going on with the pakeha owner (?) it seems; this wasn’t ever very clear. 

The main character, played by singer Stan Walker, is the musical/artistic type, a bit of a misfit in this community, where grind is the word. His father, Temuera Morrison, has a perpetual scowl on his face, and likes to work himself and his staff into the ground. His wife is a sour-faced woman who’s only warm when she’s nurturing her husband; anyone else, it seems, is out of her sightline, especially the boy, who can’t seem to do anything right for her. The older brother (or maybe he was one of the innumerable cuzzies) and his wife live in the same house. This brother is a bit more responsible, and has a very pregnant wife...who complains in one short scene about something, but it’s a bit obscure. Pretty much everyone complains in this movie. It’s as though the lifestyle is in charge; don’t try and break out of it.

Of course, the boy wants to. He’s doing some Maori carving in the tea-breaks, and has ambitions to be a singer. With his cuzzies he sings at a local bar where amateurs feature, and does very well. The owner (?), another miserable woman (what’s with the women in this movie?), says she’ll help him audition for the opening act of the Bob Marley concert that’s due to happen in Auckland in a few weeks. And she does; she’s supportive, even if she never looks happy about it. The little band does well, but of course there's a kerfuffle, and the older brother loses his job. They’re still in the running, but at the showdown between them and one other band, they’re stymied by some fuss over money that’s owed to the player who’s joined in with them for the gig ˗ remarkably he makes an enormous fuss about this just as they’re about to play, in front of the audience!

The money he gets was actually raised by an old man in the whanau to help Morrison, who’s had a bit of an accident while loading potatoes by himself. Why he’s doing this when the rest of the whanau is celebrating it’s not clear. Even more oddly, his wife throws the money straight out the window on receiving it, disgusted at being given charity. I presume. Anyway, Walker had somehow acquired it, intending to use it to pay the other musician. 

At the end of the movie there’s a big showdown: the people on the marae basically want to kick Walker out of the whanau; even his father and mother won’t stick up for him. The only person who does is a woman he’s persuaded to come back to the group to look after her little boy. And just when everything’s getting extremely overheated, Bob Marley arrives at the marae with a group, visiting! What? All the whanau hustle themselves into place and get on with the typical greeting.

Something weird is at work in the script. We’re not given enough information about these people, perhaps - or I was particularly clueless while watching in terms of picking up signals; and after having sided with the young man, who seems to be wanting to better himself, we’re expected at the end to join in the naming and shaming process the whanau indulges in. Yes, he’s made one big mistake, but the rest of what happens is mostly not his fault. Very strange.  

The music style seems anachronistic to me, but maybe I'm missing something there too, and the dialogue between the young men is often hard to pick up. They're speaking in a way that's common to young Maori now, but was it like that in the seventies? 

Death and Mr Pickwick

I’ve started reading Death and Mr Pickwick, which I’d heard about from the author himself (Stephen Jarvis) some months ago. It’s 800 pages long or so, and it’s proving to be an absorbing but odd novel; novel may not be its best description. It’s like a bunch of stories, handfuls of them, many of them based on fact and then dramatised. It also delves into the underbelly of the Victorian world, where there are many things that Dickens never wrote about ˗ thankfully ˗ or wasn’t able to be because of the climate of the time. Homosexuality seems to be a bit of a theme, though it’s hard to know quite why this is so important; so far, at least. 

Jarvis has a great skill in being able to evoke the world of the people involved, but by ranging so far and wide it becomes harder to keep track of everyone. It helps if you know more about Dickens than the average person, perhaps, and some of the names are familiar, but quite what their connection is to the main story, and to Dickens and Pickwick, is a bit vague. Grimaldi, the great clown, gets a lot of space early in the book, as does his equally famous but very short-lived son, who, according to this book, never got over having to live in his father’s shadow.

There is a story lurking around in the middle of all the stuff, but at the moment it’s like dozens of strands are being drawn together very slowly; you can see why one critic wasn't sure of it as a novel. It’s more like an immense collage, with a kind of overarching theme (who really created Pickwick?, I suppose). 

However, it has the admirable quality of being very readable. So onward and onward. I'm only 17% of the way through so far, according to Kindle, so I have a ways to go, as they say. (I'm also wading slowly through Christina Lamb's Farewell Kabul - which runs to 600 pages or so. Must be the year for long books.)

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Mozart's Sister

This wonderful French film, (Nannerl, la soeur de Mozart) presents a family making ends meet by travelling from one wealthy 18th century European establishment to another...including the Palace of Versailles. The family are the Mozarts, of course, and the two children, Nannerl and Wolfgang, are both prodigies in an age when such beings were supposedly commonplace. The only problem is that Nannerl is a girl, and while her talents are almost on a par with Mozart the child, her father doesn't take them into account. She's useful as a (very good) accompanist to Wolfgang when he's playing solo violin, and she can sing as well, but her compositions are disregarded by her father, and she always plays a literal second fiddle to the prodigious youth. 

The film is strongly feminist in the most gentle way: thought by the end you want to bang some of the men's heads together (and a few of the women's). 

René Féret is the director, and his daughter Marie plays Nannerl, while another daughter plays the youngest of the three princesses sent by the King into virtual exile in a French Abbey. Marie Féret is excellent in a wonderfully subdued way, constantly moving forward an inch in a society where she's 'just' a woman and then being hauled back out of the way to make room for the men. She brings an extraordinary quiet warmth to the role, and provides some heartbreaking moments. 

The other outstanding performance is from David Moreau who plays Wolfgang. We're never quite sure what his age is because his father insists of promoting him as being younger than he actually is, but he's roughly ten or eleven. Moreau has to play violin in several scenes, and does it superbly. He has a wonderful naivety about him, like a child unaware, almost, of his genius. 

The music throughout is wonderful, some of it genuine to the period, some composed by Marie-Jeanne Serero. Nannerl's compositions were apparently destroyed (in the film she throws her violin concerto in the fire), and consequently we have no idea of her composing ability. The hints found in letters between her and other members of her family, however, imply that she was certainly very capable. 

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Captain Phillips and City of Ghosts

Two movies - Captain Phillips and City of Ghosts - take us to foreign climes where unconventional things happen. In the first movie we know exactly what's going to happen because it's hinted at so strongly from the beginning that we'd have to be stupid not to read the signals. In the second movie, which begins in New York but soon after heads to Cambodia, we have almost no idea what's happening, what's happened, and what will happen. Eventually we get the picture, but it takes quite some time, and if it wasn't so well crafted and full of such eccentric characters, we might not hang around to find out. 

Captain Phillips is earnest, and super realistic. City of Ghosts takes place in a world where apparently only peculiar people live - with the exception of the main character (played by Matt Dillon, who also directed and co-wrote the film). Even his love interest is a strange woman who seems to have no life beyond the moment. 

Captain Phillips was intensely exciting, although much too long: we know from the beginning that Phillips, the captain of a container ship heading through pirate waters will be boarded by a most ambitious but tiny group of Somali pirates; there are only four of them and they argue with and scream at each other - and everyone else - a good deal. And we know that once he's taken prisoner by them - he's allowed to escape with some money onto a lifeboat - that he'll eventually get rescued. This is a film based on a true story, and Phillips survived. 

Yet somehow in the midst of all the tension the films' often quite dull; the crew of the container ship are played in a way that allows none of them to be individuals, and Tom Hanks is left to carry most of the movie on his own. Of course he can do this, but he has no one to play against before the Somalis arrive, and once they do it's all shouting and screaming and scrambling to get out of the way of bullets. It's perhaps indicative of the script that the opening scene, in which Hanks and his wife head to the airport for the umpteenth time so he can fly to the place where he'll board his ship, consists of a dialogue that is not only intentionally banal but oddly uninteresting. Hanks and Catherine Keener (who plays his wife) seem to be wondering what the heck they've got themselves into, script-wise.

City of Ghosts holds our attention as it wends its way through a very murky and surprisingly long opening stretch by providing us with a bunch of quality actors (including those playing very small parts) who bring individuality not just by having quirky roles to play but by being individuals themselves. (Of course the actors in Captain Phillips are different people; but they're not given anything to get their teeth into.) The cast of this film are such a varied bunch that you begin to wonder if Cambodia doesn't attract strange Europeans. They're like the actors who used to play in the old noir movies: such a movie might not be up to much itself but once you add in the likes of Peter Lorre and co, even in small roles, you have interest and intensity on the screen: those actors never failed to bring life to their parts, however well or badly written they were. 

The roles here aren't badly written at all: the actors might not always say much but we know that there's plenty of subtext, and we wait expectantly to find out what the heck they're on about. Matt Dillon plays a man with some considerable angst; it's an angst he can hide from the FBI, but once he gets to Cambodia, he starts to unravel in some degree. Nevertheless, unravelling isn't where he intends going, and he spends more of the movie ravelling up again than unravelling.

Stellan Skarsgård is a world-weary character, one of the henchmen of the elusive Marvin (played by James Caan with an awful confidence and suave evil), and he remains ambiguous from whoa to go. Whose side is he really on, and is he going to get his comeuppance or not? Should he get it, even? We sympathise with him; he's trapped in his own corrupt behaviour and can't find a moral way out again.

Gérard Depardieu is a fat, barkeeper-cum-hotelier who lies through his teeth with almost every sentence he utters, who keeps control of the crazies who come into his bar, and who carries a bambino of mixed parentage around with him much of the time. Depardieu is obviously enjoying himself in the role, though he's not as consistently at home in it as the other members of the cast are in theirs. 

At first it seems as though Dillon is merely filling up his screen with oddballs to make things quirky. But the oddballs are in part caused by the strange country that Cambodia is, and Dillon is intent on making us realise that Cambodia isn't the place for unwary tourists to go. One of the apparently drug-addicted archaeologists (I think that's what the group were) soon succumbs to the evil that's just under the surface because of his naivety and because of his assumption that Europeans/Americans can behave as they like. 

When the plot finally kicks in, about halfway through the movie, things both tighten up and also become a bit more conventional. But Dillon has a way of putting scenes together that eschews the usual. There's an element of Fellini in the way he peoples the film with the curious and misshapen, and perhaps another director would have concentrated on different kinds of theatrics. Nevertheless, the risks he takes in filming the story this way pays off. 

Dillon takes another risk, that of casting a real-life taxi-driver, Sereyvuth Kem, as the man who takes him everywhere in one of those pedicart taxis. Kem provides a wonderful gentleness and wisdom, a cleanliness and honesty in the midst of the city's widespread corruption. You can believe that this man would very likely do the good things he does in the movie. He's virtually the heart of the film.


Thursday, May 14, 2015

Birthday update

I turned 70 yesterday (for some reason I invariably type 708 when I go to write that; not sure what that's saying about me). Facebook came to the party in a big way, by giving umpteen friends from all over the place the chance to wish me Happy Birthday. If FB provided no other service than the ability for dozens of people to give someone birthday greetings it would be  worthwhile. 

So a big thanks (again) to all those who wished me well. 

There were a number of unexpected highlights in the day, which hadn't been planned as being the day on which we celebrated most. (We're having a get-together of friends this coming Sunday, and had a family party last Sunday). Amongst the FB greetings a friend with a great sense of humour sent me the link to this wonderful You Tube video in which a bunch of classical composers provide variations on Happy Birthday. It's very well done. 

I share my birthday with three wider family members as well as at least three old friends. One of these we haven't been in touch with for some time because we'd lost contact. He didn't appear to be on FB, so I put a note on there asking if anyone knew where he was. Didn't get a response, but got home about eight last night to find a message on the phone: he'd decided to ring me to wish me happy birthday. It was completely unrelated to the FB message!

The ladies' singing group I conduct, The Choristers, had a concert at one of Dunedin's rest homes yesterday. We got ourselves all sorted out, ready to sing; I stood up and announced the first song, turned round and started to conduct, and they sang Happy Birthday instead. Took me quite some time to get my brain back into place.

My wife, daughter and grandson had booked to go and see the talk on the Aurora Australis at 5.30. This has been so popular that they'd had to shift the venue from the Museum to a long and large room in the Forsyth Barr stadium. It was the third time they'd presented it, and there was another session following at seven o'clock. When I say 'talk' it was actually several talks: half a dozen guys, including Ian Griffin @iangriffin  and Paul le Comte , enthusing about  the fact that we can see the Aurora Australis fairly regularly right on our Dunedin doorstep. Apparently we're in one of the peak times for seeing it at present: auroras depend on what the sun is doing, and there are peaks and troughs over several years. 

The photography of several auroras was outstandingly beautiful; you can only imagine what it must be like to be on the spot. And the 'spot' is only a few miles away in some cases. 

Anyway, after going to that (for free, too) my wife and I decided we'd eat out rather than going home to cook a meal, and after some sorting out as to where to go - there was an extraordinary number of cars parked in the city last night, so finding a park was difficult  - we finished up going out to South Dunedin, to the Adana Turkish restaurant. Lovely atmosphere, friendly service, and outstanding meal. It made a great ending to a great day. 

Friday, May 01, 2015

Once my Mother

Once my Mother is a kind of two-pronged documentary in which the Australian director, Sophia Turkiewicz, explores the horror journey that her mother, an orphan from a young age, had to endure, as well as her own journey of learning to forgive her mother after she’d ‘abandoned’ her in an orphanage in Australia. 
Helen, the mother, born in Poland in the years before the Second World War, lost both her parents early on. She went to live for a few years with an uncle in Poland, but he suddenly threw her out on the streets when she was 11 or 12. In the first of several intrepid undertakings she walked to the nearest big town, and survived on the streets for four years (!), without ever being forced into prostitution.
The Russians took over half of Poland after Hitler divided the country up between Germany and Russia - without asking the Poles. Thousands of Poles were sent to Siberia by train where they were forced to work in the freezing weather. Their general, Anders, refused to train them for the Russian army. Here’s what Wikipedia says about Anders (he must have been a brave man to stand up to Stalin): Continued friction with the Soviets over political issues as well as shortages of weapons, food and clothing, led to the eventual exodus of Anders' men – known as the Anders Army – together with a sizeable contingent of Polish civilians via the Persian Corridor into Iran, Iraq and Palestine. Here, Anders formed and led the 2nd Polish Corps, fighting alongside the Western Allies, while agitating for the release of Polish nationals still in the Soviet Union. 
In the movie Sophia makes the point that the Polish men wouldn't leave without the women and children, so they all went. 
Helen was part of this huge exodus; it required them to walk 2000 miles to the south of Russia, and later they went on another extraordinary walk 2000 miles east. Finally after these two awful treks she finished up in Africa, in a British refugee camp. She met an Italian prisoner-of-war and he fathered a child with her. However, he was sent back to Italy after the war. Being a solo mother she was castigated yet eventually, when the refugees were sent on, she got to Australia (Perth, initially) and finally to Adelaide. She was forced to leave her daughter in the orphanage for two years so she could get work; again, as a solo mother she was sidelined. 
She managed to find a Polish man amongst the circle of refugees, a man who was willing to marry her, even though he knew she didn’t particularly love him or find him attractive. Thankfully he was a good guy, and Sophia was brought home into the family. The marriage prospered and other children came along. 
It took Sophia a long time to get over her sense of abandonment, but finally in her fifties (!) she managed to see that her mother’s abandonment had been far more severe than her own. How the mother got through all she did when hundreds were dying around her is hard to grasp. 
There's a great deal of archival material, some of it seeminglessly woven in with acted shots, clips from an earlier film Sophia made about her mother, and more recent material filmed when Helen was living in an old people's home. It's an extraordinarily moving film.