The Least of These: A Story of Enduring Love

The Least of These: The Graham Staines Story is based on the true story of the murder of Australian Christian missionary Graham Staines and his two young sons in 1999. The film is set in India and is directed by Aneesh Daniel. South African, Bruce Retief, was responsible for the stirring soundtrack.

Decades before his death Graham Staines and his wife Gladys started and ran a leprosy mission in India. They imbued the patients with dignity, defying conventional wisdom that treated lepers as outcasts. In the 1990s religious tensions rose, when, in Hindu areas, accusations of ‘illegal conversions’ were levelled at Christians.

The action in The Least of These starts at this point and centres on journalist Manav Banerjee (Sharman Joshi) who has a wife and a new baby. Banerjee is an ambitious writer with desperate living conditions and he tries to make it big by covering the sensationalist rumours of the aforementioned illegal Christian conversions. Urged on by his editor, Kedar Mishra (Prakash Belawardi), Banerjee searches for evidence linking Staines (Stephen Baldwin) to these accusations. Along the way Banerjee unwittingly speaks inflammatory words to a listening crowd, and influences a serious outcome.

Banerjee’s own journey in the story takes him from scepticism and suspicion, through regret, to realisation and putting things right. The journalist’s journey also acts as a vehicle for highlighting the role of the media in political and religious tensions.

Ultimately, though, The Least of These is a gently told story of relationships, of faithfulness, of genuine, selfless love, and of forgiveness.

Some of the acting in The Least of These is stilted – particularly from Stephen Baldwin and Shari Rigby (who plays Gladys Staines). The focus on a White ‘saviour-type’ missionary in an Indian environment is racially uncomfortable. But the setting in the suburbs of Odisha, India, is authentic and the storyline well-rounded. The Least of These is worthwhile viewing and is currently on at cinemas in South Africa countrywide.

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Beautiful Ugly Women

It was really strange to see Nicole Kidman ‘dressed down’ in the film Destroyer. It reminded me of Charlize Theron in the 2003 Monster for which Theron won an Oscar. Kidman and Theron are both beautiful women who have to be made up to look ugly. (Most of us I think need to be made up to look beautiful!) There is the notion that playing gritty roles like those in Monster and Destroyer shows how serious these actresses are. That they be judged on the merit of their acting and not just the appeal of their faces. Much like Harry Potter author J K Rowling writing under the nom de plume Robert Galbraith, with the idea that she be praised for her writing rather than her former fame.

Kidman’s character in Destroyer wore manly clothes that hung on her thin frame. Her short, brown shaggy hair was annoying. And her skin was full of pigmentation. The only thing the make-up artists didn’t do was cover up Kidman’s bright blue eyes.

Kidman does a good job of portraying sad, desperate, hardened cop Erin Bell who has a past. Bell is by no means a one-dimensional character, something that comes to light as the woman’s history is slowly revealed in the movie through flashbacks. There is a good twist right at the end that makes the plot believable. Despite her hard exterior Bell is actually motivated by love – both romantic and filial. Unfortunately, this incentive, undermines the plausibility of the story.

Destroyer is currently showing at cinemas in South Africa.

Captain Marvel Makes a Human (Not a Feminist) Statement

Captain Marvel is a superhero also known as Carol Danvers. Before she became Captain Marvel, Carol Danvers was a fighter pilot. A human with quirks, vulnerabilities and friendships. As a superhero Captain Marvel has a streaming light source that courses through her body and makes her a powerful fighter. In Captain Marvel the film, Captain Marvel learns to understand and appreciate these two parts of herself.

Marvel is a woman, and her former sidekick and boss were also women. Marvel has little problem beating up men and male aliens. This setting and characterisation is a great platform for a feminist statement. And yet Captain Marvel is not that. The film makes more of a comment about ordinary people who become heroes. It’s just that the main character in this story happens to be a woman.

I liked that. It’s not a film about women proving who they are. Or about women being better than men. Or women being just as good as men in male-dominated roles. It’s as if Captain Marvel has leapfrogged over aggressive feminist debates to a future world where women, and men, are just humans (or in this case superheroes).

There are problems with the film. From the jarring over-the-top, future-world, Star-Trek like sequences in the beginning it’s a relief when Marvel, followed by warring Skrulls and Krees, arrives on Earth (planet C53). And yet this change in scenery is also a plot weakness. It’s as if the superhero stuff in the beginning couldn’t be believably sustained and so the story switches to something audiences can easily identify with.

But plenty of lighthearted humour in the explosive outer-world scenes and in the down-to-earth ones, do make Captain Marvel fun to watch. Marvel (Brie Larson) herself is quite funny, and Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson), a cop that Marvel teams up with, is very amusing. As is a sweet ginger cat who is not quite as he would seem, and who travels into space with Marvel and her cohorts.

I enjoyed Captain Marvel. The film opens at cinemas in South Africa on 8 March 2019.

Oscars 2019: Focusing on those in ‘Second’ Place

Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody

The 2019 Oscars have come and gone. Number ones for best picture, best actor and actress, best animation feature and so on will be remembered. They are, respectively, Green Book, Rami Malek, Olivia Colman, and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (see my review here). But what of those who came ‘second’? Are they just as memorable, if not more so?

Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz in The Favourite

Christian Bale as Dick Cheney in Vice

Two of the films nominated for best picture for this year’s awards were Vice and The Favourite. Neither of them won Best Picture. Interestingly, though, both films were about the people behind the main political leaders of the time, those in second place. In Vice, the story concerns Dick Cheney who became Vice President of the USA in the G W Bush era. In The Favourite, the main focus is on the two women in 18th Century England who get closest to Queen Anne. The women are Sarah Churchill and Abigail Masham.

Not only do the films focus on these ‘vice-leaders’, they also show how exceptionally powerful the vices were. Political machinations go on behind the scenes that make George W Bush and Queen Anne, respectively, look like weak, easily manipulated puppets. The films were an excellent depiction of how leaders of countries/institutions can be merely figureheads, with the real power devolving from influential people who work cunningly to get their own objectives met.

Other similarities between the movies were how they were filmed. Vice breaks the fourth wall constantly with a quirky narrator whose identity is revealed in shocking fashion three quarters of the way through. There is also an amusing section when credits begin to roll as if the film had ended, when in fact it hadn’t. The Favourite uses wide-angle lens shots, gloomy lighting, and lurid details often hidden from the camera to depict reality and confront the viewer.

Olivia Colman – who played Queen Anne in The Favourite – won 2019 Best Actress (read about her acceptance speech). She was excellent as the ill, dithering, batty, very sad Queen Anne. In addition to her performance it’s the stories of the aspirations of those in ‘second place’ that make The Favourite and Vice riveting viewing.

 

Book Club Benefits

My book and movie entertainment this week was local, down to the town in which I live. More than the pleasurable local aspect, my enjoyment of the book in question was greatly increased by the book club discussion around it; I should think of joining a movie club to, similarly, enhance my appreciation of the films I watch.

The film I saw, 3 Days to Go, by producer Bianca Isaac, showed familiar backdrops of the Durban beachfront and shoreline. Summer sunshine filtering through in the indoor shots was, likewise, wonderfully recognizable. As with the setting, I thought the filming itself was well done and made for good viewing.

The story of 3 Days to Go revolves around the death of the patriarch of a South African Indian family. Upon his death, for the first time in many years, the man’s four adult children return to the family home and to their widowed mother. Tensions ensue as each comes with a load of baggage. Abusive or wayward husbands, difficult teenage children, gambling brothers, schemes, betrayal, extended family issues and more are what emerge during the three short days before the man’s final ocean memorial.

I’m not a fan of all romantic comedy, and some of the acting in 3 Days to Go is a bit stilted. But the actors themselves are beautiful to behold, and the film will find a following amongst audiences.

Family concerns and more also feature in the book The Blessed Girl by South African author, Angela Makholwa. More seriously, The Blessed Girl raises the thorny (horny?) subject of blessers – people ‘(usually male and married) – who sponsor younger women with luxury gifts or a luxurious lifestyle in exchange for short- to medium-term sexual relationships’ (The Blessed Girl).  During a lively discussion of the book at the book club I attend we discussed the author’s treatment of the role of social media, the mockery of government corruption, male irresponsibility, shocking family handling of young girls, drugs, and of course the prevalence of blessers and blessees. The Blessed Girl is written in a flow-of-consciousness, conversational style, and is laced with humour and colloquialisms that I especially enjoyed.

Disagreements as to the merits of The Blessed Girl, and grappling with the issues raised in this book made for fruitful discussion.

Here’s to South African flavour and to discussion forums!

The Blessed Girl is available on Kindle. 3 Days to Go opens at South African cinemas on 25 January 2019.

Festive Season Viewing

Two festive season films releasing today in South Africa are: Ben is Back and Mary Poppins Returns. The former is for adults, the latter suitable for the whole family.

Far from sentimental, Ben is Back explores some of the difficulties that this time of year can bring. Ben (Lucas Hedges), a drug addict,

unexpectedly turns up on his family doorstep on Christmas Eve. While his mother, Holly Burns (Julia Roberts), is very happy to see him, it is obvious that Ben’s sister (Ivy – Holly & Ivy …) and stepfather are far from happy to see him. Ben has caused problems for his family on previous Christmases. After a heated debate the family agree that Ben can stay for just 24 hours – but only if he remains under his mother’s watchful eye for every minute. Thereafter he must return to rehab.

What could go wrong? Predictably, everything does go wrong after Ben goes out in public and has a run-in with former druggy friends. During the fraught 24-hour period that follows viewers get to see the really grim aspects that go with drug addiction: guilt, desperation, crime, lying, remorse, weakness, drug dealing, family love and pain, and even death. The final scene of the film gives a double meaning to the film’s title ‘Ben is Back’. The acting is good. Julia Roberts is especially believable as the loving, tough mother, prepared at once to distrust and to believe in her son. A very good, if sobering ‘Christmas’ film.

Mary Poppins Returns – although not specifically about Christmas – is nevertheless a lovely film that families will enjoy watching during the Christmas holidays. Emily Blunt plays Mary Poppins.

In the original tale based on the book by P L Travers, Mary Poppins arrives unannounced to help the Banks family. In this sequel, Michael and Jane – who were children in the first story – are now grown up, and their parents are dead. Michael is a struggling artist who works in a bank, and is a widower with three children. Jane has followed in her mum’s footsteps and spends her time attending workers’ rights rallies. More than that Michael and Jane seem to have inherited their parents’ absentmindedness and ineptitude. It is the children who are pragmatic and mature. Nevertheless, they are just children and the imminent repossession of their family home is a big problem. It is at this crucial time that Mary Poppins floats down from a gloomy London sky and sings her way into the family. With each song she teaches the children life-empowering lessons and once they have learnt and grown she quietly leaves again.

There is lots of bouncing, flying, floating, adventure, and entry into other worlds. The characters encountered, and the songs Mary Poppins sings, teach the children how to look at things differently, how to use their imaginations, and how not to take things at face value. These life lessons are a little different to the typical Disney message ‘believe in yourself’. They’re more realistic.

Mary Poppins Returns follows very much the same formula as the first Mary Poppins story and may be a little boring in parts to modern viewers. Emily Blunt is just perfect as Mary, though: prim, very self-assured, poised, beautiful and melodious. Mary Poppins Returns is a lovely film with which to end 2018. And the lessons learnt are worth taking into 2019.

Happy viewing this festive season.

A Christmas Carol & The Man Who Invented Christmas

I recently read A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. It was elected as a ‘short read’ by the bookclub I belong to and fitted well with the time of year. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Its arresting beginning – ‘Marley was dead: to begin with’ is a great start.

Scrooge, who is completely bad and miserable is at first ‘a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner’ who hates Christmas. But he ends up in the last lines of the book knowing ‘how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.’

What exactly does ‘keeping’ Christmas mean? In A Christmas Carol it seems to be about caring for others, especially for the poor. Giving, receiving, enjoying.

The film The Man Who Invented Christmas backs this up. During the film’s telling of how Dickens came to write A Christmas Carol, the housemaid protests when Dickens initially kills off Tiny Tim at the end of the story. ‘But you can’t let Tiny Tim die’ she wails. And so Tiny Tim lives to see another day and in fact to speak the last words of the book, ‘God bless us everyone’.

Ensuring a happy ending gives A Christmas Carol a Disney feel. In today’s context ‘giving and receiving at Christmas time’ are gushy, feel-good sentiments. Both can be viewed as rather superficial. However, Dickens makes strong comment in many of his other books about the unfair treatment of the poor. Equally, A Christmas Carol may be making a more serious point about poverty and inequality. The rich Scrooge, with all his self-made money, can help to raise the unfortunate circumstances of poor, sick Tiny Tim.

Again, what exactly does ‘keeping’ Christmas mean? If we take the Christian origins of Christmas into account, keeping Christmas would be to remember and rejoice in the birth of Christ who was born to die for the sins of mankind. Although A Christmas Carol does make Christian references, I think Dickens does not explicitly endorse the Christian message. In some of his other works he is in fact quite disparaging of the hypocrisy of the church. In this sense, then, A Christmas Carol may in fact be Dickens showing the church to ‘put its mouth where its money is’ and help to lighten the load of others.