Appreciate Birds: Protect their Habitats

White-browed sparrow weaver nest

Pretoria/Tshwane is a big, busy city. On a recent visit there I stayed in a little apartment near TUKS (The University of Pretoria) and was delighted by the number of birds I saw. Right there in the heart of this bustling, lively place I saw white-browed sparrow weavers flitting busily in and out of a nest they shared with other sparrow weavers. The small commune they had built was perched right at the tip of a Leopard Tree which grew in the apartment gardens. On the same day I saw numerous other birds about their business. Bulbuls eyed out the resident cat, parakeets shrieked in the trees next door, sacred ibises hunched dourly by a water feature across the way, and red-knobbed coots pecked about on the bristly grass nearby. According to Sasol Birds of Southern Africa, the region’s bird list ‘currently stands at 962 species, of which 98 are endemic.’ What an astounding number. The reason for this high bird diversity, stated the book ‘is [the region’s] climatic and topographical diversity’.

White-browed sparrow weaver

Green parakeets hidden in the bushy trees, and beyond sacred ibis dotted in the foliage

But, of course, habitats are threatened by global warming, a sad thought when reflecting how privileged we are in Southern Africa to so easily enjoy this avian diversity. Just two days before my visit to Pretoria I had watched Al Gore’s latest film An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power. In it, Gore highlights how global warming is caused largely by man’s use of fossil fuels, and how renewables should be used instead for energy generation. Gore’s method of persuasion is political and moral. Science doesn’t form a major thrust of his rhetoric. This is a pity. Instead of being the story of Gore’s struggle to make the powerful accept the ‘truth’ about global warming, An Inconvenient Sequel could itself be much more powerful had it paired science with morals and politics.

Nevertheless, An Inconvenient Sequel does bring to the fore once again the topic of global warming and its destructive consequences. And this is good. Imperative. As I sat listening to the bird chatter above the traffic noise in Pretoria I hoped to be a part of a world that takes big, urgent steps to ensure that we still have a multiplicity of habitats and creatures to enjoy.

 

 

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American Crime Season III: Makes You Think

I recently came across the series American Crime (season three) on DSTV. The onscreen blurb says ‘Created by John Ridley, producer of 12 Years a Slave’. Associating the series with that film implies that American Crime will make a statement about social injustice and provide food for thought. This is indeed the case.

The message in American Crime is simple and clear. It’s about exploitation in modern-day, Western America. Those exploited include immigrants to the USA (both legal and illegal), homeless American teens and housewives. The crimes committed against these groups include cheap labour, physical and emotional abuse, entrapment and sex trafficking. Groups and individuals who try to intervene and help are social workers, specifically Terri LaCroix (Regina King), one of the housewives Barb Hanlon (Felicity Huffman), and finally the ‘justice’ system. But each of these ‘helpers’ is imbued with their own complex, real-life pressures. The series shows them trying to help and then gradually buckling under their own personal difficulties until the ‘help’ becomes tokenism. It is interesting to see that three of the story lines involve people eventually compromising morally on their interventions for the sake of their own children (or unborn children as the case may be). The final scene of the final episode highlights how the overarching problem is the failure of the justice system against all the victims.

So, yes, you don’t have to think deeply while watching American Crime. But it does make you ponder. Examine situations similar. Wonder how people have got into the situations they have. The characters in American Crime are numerous, complex and very well acted. And the situations are difficult and multi-faceted, just as they are in real life. Without moralising American Crime lays out how injustice happens and how we might all contribute in some way or other.

Daniel Fienberg of The Hollywood Reporter sums up a response to the television series well when he says: ‘Nobody ever turns off an American Crime episode and says, “Sure, that’s what John Ridley was talking about on the surface, but here’s what I think the episode was REALLY about…” But if Ridley has done his job, and he usually has, you turn off an American Crime episode and say, “What do I think about what just happened? How does what just happened make me feel and what can I do about it?”’ http://bit.ly/2wHkrqL

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Big Sick Majors on Relationships

The Big Sick is a partially biographic drama about a relationship across cultural

barriers. Kumail (played by himself, Kumail Nanjiani) is a Pakistani Muslim living in the USA. He is a taxi driver and aspiring comedian whose family expects him to become a lawyer and marry a good Pakistani girl. But Kumail continues to pursue stand-up comedy, and he starts a romantic relationship with Emily (Zoe Kazan), a white American girl from a fairly traditional family. Conflict ensues.

On the one hand it is Kumail’s own ‘Americanisation’ that clashes with his family’s traditional demands regarding culture, profession and religion. On the other, when Emily becomes gravely ill and is put into an induced coma, the battle moves to that between Kumail and Emily’s parents. In the latter scenario the white American prejudice against Middle Eastern Muslim is brought to the fore.

The Big Sick is told from an American perspective. It is free choice and self-actualisation that wins out in the end. Score for Westernisation. But, equally, in this film shallow American prejudice against ‘the other’ is subverted. A typical view of fanatic Muslims is undermined, mostly through the use of humour. For example, when Kumail is sent to the basement to do his ritual prayers he watches videos instead. And when Kumail’s mother banishes him from the family for pursuing a forbidden relationship, she struggles to keep up her angry façade, sending him cookies while at the same time refusing to speak to him.

The best part about The Big Sick is the relationships. That between Kumail and his family (which remains loving and gentle despite the differences), between Kumail and Emily (which is a bantering, natural relationship), and between Kumail and Emily’s parents (in which humour breaks down the barriers). The real feel of the Kumail/Emily romance may be because the story is biographical.

The Big Sick is a warm, funny, humanly complex and very watchable film. It opens at cinemas in South Africa on 6 October 2017.

Feast on Universally Themed Stories

Are stories universal? Literature studies will tell you they are. They will tell you there are a finite number of plots that most stories fit into. In fact, Douglas McPherson in Writers’  Forum #190, says that estimates of plot types range from 36 to seven, to as few as two. ZP Dala, a South African writer from KwaZulu-Natal, explains further that the universal nature of stories is what connects people ‘across oceans or across a kitchen table in a commonality that fosters a sense of belonging.’ (The Mercury, 12 September 2017, p. 5).

A fellow movie lover and I watched a foreign language film together a few years ago. It was in Serbian or Croatian or Czechoslovakian, I can’t remember which. The story followed the lives of a poor couple who eked out an existence in a run-down, snowbound village. They lived hand to mouth, so much so that when the wife became sick the husband simply sold his car to pay for her medical expenses. Without this intervention the woman may not have survived. Universal themes here included poverty and love – storylines also found in, for example, Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens, and many others.

Footloose by The Young Performers. Source: Publicity Matters

What really underscored the universal nature of this film was that the disc sent to the cinema house arrived without subtitles. That’s right, my friend and I watched the whole thing without understanding a single word of the dialogue. I’ve never forgotten that film. Even though my friend unhelpfully told me she couldn’t remember the title because there were no subtitles, the story itself, regardless of language, made such an impression on me. A story of commitment regardless of struggle.

Another story which I have long enjoyed is that of Footloose – the tale of a boy who can’t stop dancing and inspires a town of miserable people to enjoy themselves again. I saw the original in 1984, the remake in 2011, and just last week the stage play by The Young Performers. It was lovely. A story with a similar theme is the 2015 Swedish film Heaven on Earth. In this tale (which I watched with subtitles) against all odds a woman revitalises a town and its church minister and tiny congregation by forming a choir to sing Handel’s Messiah.

Although my limited experience is hardly evidence of the universal nature of stories, this small sample certainly seems to support the notion. A feast of tales indeed.

Home Again is a Journey of Self-Discovery

Home Again is a modern story of how one woman comes to terms with the breakup of her marriage, and how she moves from dependence on a husband to dependence on herself.

Source: People.com/movies

After leaving her husband Austen (Michael Sheen), Alice Kinney (Reese Witherspoon) moves back to her father’s old Los Angeles home. Her late father worked in the movie industry and while Alice is in his home she strikes up a relationship with three young men, all of whom are just starting out in the same industry as that of her father. The three men, Teddy, Harry and George, are all around 12 years younger than Alice who celebrates her 40th birthday in the story. They form a composite ‘husband’ for Alice as she gradually begins to disentangle herself from relationship dependence. One of the young men is great with her two daughters. The other is a whizz at computers and helps her set up a system for her business, while the third becomes Alice’s romantic partner.

Alice offers the three a temporary home in her father’s house. And it is here that we see Alice deal with her past, face her own need to assert herself in the working world, and work out what it is she wants from a man – and from herself – in a relationship.

Home Again is lighthearted. The fallouts are mild. The lessons gentle. On one hand it is typically Hollywood, filled with superficial, beautiful, privileged people. On the other, it is a well-rounded story of one woman’s move towards independence, a journey most of us need to undertake.

Home Again opens at cinemas in South Africa on Friday 15 September. It carries an age restriction of PG13.

The Dark Tower Presents Archetypal Battle Between Good & Evil

I’m not a fan of Stephen King. Gasp, shock, horror! No, but I really enjoyed The Dark Tower, a film based on the first of King’s The Dark Tower book series.

In this dystopian story a young boy called Jake (Tom Taylor) discovers that his visions are real connections to another world. He manages to enter this other world and meet both its hero, the Gunslinger, Roland Deschain (Idris Elba), and the antagonist, the Man in Black, Walter O’Dim (Matthew McConaughey). The ‘tower’ is what keeps Earth from capitulating to the dark forces and its demise is therefore the baddies’ focus. To bring down the tower Walter and his cronies capture children from Earth, take them to the other side, put them in space rockets, and send them crashing into the tower. Jake’s unusual abilities, called ‘the shine’, become Walter’s focus, and so the battle between good and evil hots up.

Sound realistic? Well, er, no of course not. But it’s this imaginative storytelling, this excitement surrounding a world that just might exist…. that makes The Dark Tower really fun to watch. Improvements could be made – several of the scene changes need work and perhaps the editing too. And I saw glimpses of other stories mixed in: Harry Potter, for instance, and The Hunger Games. But then, which story is totally unique? According to Carl Jung’s theory of the Concept of the Collective Unconscious, archetypal story themes are passed down by writers and reappear in different settings.

Of interest to South Africans will be the fact that several South African actors appear in the film, and the filming locations were USA and Cape Town, South Africa.

The Dark Tower opened at cinemas in South Africa on Friday 8 September 2017. Enjoy!

Stereotyping ‘Male’ Characteristics: Atomic Blonde & A Family Man

Image source: Ster Kinekor

In the spy action thriller, Atomic Blonde, Charlize Theron acts as a British MI6 agent, Lorraine Broughton, who is sent into cold war Berlin to recover a top secret document. The film opens with Broughton being grilled post-operation by her superior, Eric Gray (Toby Jones), and CIA agent Emmett Kurzfeld (John Goodman). She looks battered and bruised. The story goes into the past from here, flashing forward at intervals to further debriefing scenes in which Broughton seems to be getting a raw deal.

Broughton was chosen for this difficult mission, it transpires, because of her amazing skills at detecting and beating up hordes of fighting men. Warned not to trust anyone Broughton is even suspicious of her MI6 contact in Berlin, David Percival (James McAvoy). A number of important foes with names I found hard to keep a track of come and go, as do groups of others sent to confront Broughton and prevent her succeeding in her mission.

The only person Broughton seems to genuinely connect with is female French agent Delphine Lasalle (Sofia Boutella), a vulnerable,

Image source: Ster Kinekor

inexperienced first-timer. The two women have sex.

In Atomic Blonde there is action, fighting, double crossing and plot twists from beginning to end. I particularly liked a scene in which Broughton slips into a group of people escorting an important contact while snipers aim at them from buildings up above. In a synchronised move everyone in the crowd puts up black umbrellas obscuring the prey from the shooters’ view.

But Broughton’s brilliant fighting skills seemed unrealistic. The film’s feminist stance – the two main female characters are virtually the only goodies – is undermined by the aggrandisement of male-type characteristics of physical aggression. Paired with lingering camera shots of Theron’s beautiful profile, this focus wasn’t enough to carry the shallow plot.

Atomic Blonde opens at cinemas in South Africa on Friday 25 August 2017.  

Image source: flickeringmyth.com

Another film that portrays a stereotypical male role, this time in the form of the undesirable absent father, is A Family Man.

Dane Jensen (Gerard Butler) works for a recruitment agency and will do anything to meet his figures every month. He undercuts other agents, lacks integrity when dealing with job seekers, is constantly robbing his family of time with them, and puts undue pressure on his son Ryan (Max Jenkins).

When Ryan becomes ill Jensen is challenged to shape up and become a better man, husband and father.

A Family Man is a moralistic story of character building. But, like Atomic Blonde, has unrealistic aspects. Recruitment is equated with the tough world of stock trading. Jensen’s wife is too forgiving. And the denouement is much too neatly tied up. I found the plot bitty, Butler’s American accent annoying, and the ‘absent father’ theme a bit tiresome.

A Family Man is currently on circuit in South Africa.