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.

 

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The Lost City of Z Meanders

The Lost City of Z opens at cinemas in South Africa on 11 August 2017. This true-life drama details the life of British adventurer Percy Fawcett. Fawcett who worked for the British military and was a member of the Royal Geographic Society. He was sent to South America to draw up maps of the area and in the process became obsessed with finding out more about the region.

Fawcett did several trips to the Amazon (although the film shows only three) between 1906 and 1925, travelling each time with what appeared to be a very small crew, the last with his own son, Jack. Fawcett found evidence of what he believed to be an ancient civilization and its city (the City of Z). He exerted much energy trying to find it and in convincing the British of its existence. There was resistance from the latter, partly because it would mean them reassessing their belief in their own superiority.

The credits at the end of the film state that archaeological remains an unknown civilization have recently been found, seeming to back up the Fawcett story.

Fawcett is played by Charlie Hunnam (a less hunky version of the part he played in King Arthur) and his wife Nina by Sienna Miller. Miller’s character is developed and realistic and contrasts to some extent with those of Fawcett’s team mates and colleagues. The latter remain undeveloped and distant so that the viewer will find it hard to care about them. The film attempts to condense several decades into two hours and 20 minutes and doesn’t feature much of a climax. The result is a far too long, meandering story with little character advancement.

Fawcett is shown as a man ahead of his time, one who goes against the established view of women and ‘the other’ as less than the British White male. I felt this was added on for a modern audience. The website www.historyvshollywood.com has a similar view.

The Lost City of Z opens at cinemas in South Africa on 11 August 2017.

Baby Driver: A Film with Surprising Combinations

Keen to watch a movie this weekend? Then Baby Driver is a pretty good option.

The baby-faced hero of Baby Driver is a young man (Ansel Elgort) with consummate driving skills and a tortured past. Because of one youthful mistake Baby (that’s his name) has to work off a debt for crime boss Doc (Kevin Spacey) as a getaway driver on bank heists. Baby meets and falls in love with waitress, Debora (Lily James), and thereafter becomes keenly conflicted about where his loyalties and values lie.

Ansel Elgort, the titular character in Baby Driver. Picture source: Den of Geek

On the face of it this plotline looks like a fairly typical crime drama but the film offers some surprising combinations. Doc is quite funny and the criminal teams he hires are oafs. Baby lives with his deaf, wheelchair-bound stepfather, of whom he takes tender care. Music features strongly; our hero suffers from a constant ringing in his ears and has to listen to music all the time. Many scenes show Baby, a man of few words, seemingly zoned in only to his own inner world, only to reveal that he has observed and memorised everything around him in the minutest detail. And then of course there’s Baby’s past which slowly becomes clear, engendering viewer sympathy in the process.

The driving scenes are really, really good to watch.

Baby Driver opens at cinemas in South Africa on 4 August 2017.

War Films Make You Think

I started and ended my DIFF 2017 viewing with two war documentaries/films.

The first one was Troupes of War – Diturupa. This documentary features the journey of South African journalist Lucas Ledwaba as he examines the experience of black South African soldiers in World War I. A fascinating aspect to the tale is that of the modern-day ‘Diturupa’ festival in which villagers in Makapanstad dress up in Scottish and military regalia. How incongruous it is to see these villagers participating in a seemingly European custom. This peculiarity is further emphasised by an observation in the film that black South Africans participated in WWI to ostensibly free the world of tyrants, only to return to their homeland and not participate in those benefits.

The second war film I saw was Viceroy’s House which was directed by Gurinder Chadha. The movie tells the story of how Lord Mountbatten of England oversaw the independence of India from Great Britain in 1947. Mountbatten was the ‘last viceroy’ in India and his ‘plan’ involved splitting India into India and Pakistan. The split was prefaced and followed by enormous violence and led to a massive migration of people. The film opens with the subtitle ‘history is written by the victors’. Viceroy’s House is an attempt, I think, to tell the real story behind the independence and split and rewrite that history. An absurdity in this film was seeing the servants in Viceroy’s House splitting the contents of the house between ‘India’ and ‘Pakistan’.

Both films challenged my thinking but both had serious flaws. Troupes of War – Diturupa had all the elements of an interesting story but failed to make the connections for the viewer clearly enough. Viceroy’s House, according to The Guardian, http://bit.ly/2nDq8BV, ‘is unlikely to do very well at the box office’ because of the liberties it takes with the facts. ‘Even so,’ the article goes on to say, ‘it will attract a far larger audience than any book on partition, and for many people it will be their only understanding of the subject. As with “fake news”, so with “fake history”. Detecting it needs curiosity – critical rather than passive consumption – otherwise it never gets found out.’

I don’t know. Go and see Viceroy’s House and see what you think. It opens at cinemas in South Africa on 27 July 2017.

 

German Films Undo Stereotypes at DIFF 2017

There was a ‘German Focus’ at this year’s Durban International Film Festival. Ten German films were screened as part of this focus. Lien Heidenreich-Seleme of the Goethe-Institut explained that the institute’s goal was to ‘undo stereotypes through visual storytelling’. There remained a general impression, said Heidenreich-Seleme, that German cinema was highly political and serious. The new filmmakers wanted to break that stereotype.

Well, I think they did a good job. I saw three of the ten and can recommend all of them. Humour, sensitivity, quirkiness, captivating cinematography and unique storytelling featured in various degrees in the films I watched.

Goodbye Berlin is the story of two fourteen-year-old boys (Tshick and Maik) who form an unlikely friendship one summer. Both social outsiders, the boys have absent/no parents and look for belonging and to be special to someone. They take matters into their own hands when they fail to be invited to a popular girl’s party, steal a car and set off across Germany in search of some mythical place. Along the way they forge a friendship that will ostensibly last a lifetime, discuss deep life issues, and develop a confidence that (Maik certainly) didn’t have before.

Another film that centred on friendship was The Most Beautiful Day. In this story two men in their thirties dying from incurable diseases meet at a hospice. Throwing caution out of the window the two go on a stealing spree, trade in the goods for cash and then set off on an African adventure. Apart from death the story touches on other sensitive issues like love, courage, commitment and treasuring what is important. But it never gets sentimental. A little silly in places The Most Beautiful Day is nevertheless very funny and – of interest to South African viewers – features a strong South African element.

Paula is an altogether different film to the two above and tells the story of German painter Paula Becker. Paula was a free-spirited young woman in the early 1900s, determined to do the unacceptable for women, which was to: paint for a living and paint in her own unique style. She did this, eventually. The story of Paula’s art is told in parallel to her personal love life. The sexual tension throughout the film is evident and forms an integral part of why (according to the storytellers in this film) Paula painted what she did. Carla Juri who played Paula was absolutely brilliant and the cinematography throughout its German countryside and Paris setting flowed beautifully.

I thoroughly enjoyed my experience of the German Focus at the 2017 DIFF. I only hope these features make it to the mainstream cinema circuit in South Africa.

Source: IMDB

Book Clubs, Blurbs and the Booker

The book club I belong to works like this: We aim to have 12 members. Each member selects a book they would like the club to read. These books then form a list of 12, one for each month of the year. Everyone buys/borrows their own copies of all the books and when it is your book and your month you host the club, and you conduct the discussion.

Possession by AS Byatt was the book for May – my selection. Good decision, yes? Hmm, I don’t think so. For one thing it was 511 pages long. According to Ten Ways to win the Booker prize (http://bit.ly/2scYmlC) by Mona Chalabi and George Arnett, 374 pages is an average for a Man Booker winner. For another thing, the book was full of poetry. This proved to be a good and a bad thing. One book club member ‘loved’ the poetry, while most of the rest skipped this part in favour of the plot. Gasp, skipped some pages!? Well, since I was conducting the discussion I didn’t skip. I slogged my way through which meant that by the time I’d read the book, prepared the discussion, baked the food and cleaned my house I was exhausted.

But wasn’t Possession an excellent choice because it was a Man Booker winner? Not necessarily. For us anyway. In the ensuing discussion it turned out that most of us (South Africans) didn’t like the works of JM Coetzee, another Man Booker Prize winner. This got me thinking about how books are selected for this prestigious prize (which carries a top winnings of GBP 50,000). Ten Ways to win the Booker prize (http://bit.ly/2scYmlC) says to win: you can’t be too young; you should choose a short title; get a private education; study at Oxford; be a man (if possible); write about death loads and love a fair bit; and get published with Jonathan Cape.

Well there you have it. I must say I hadn’t chosen Possession because I knew its author AS Byatt was a Booker winner. I didn’t (know she was a winner). I chose it because the blurb made it sound so exciting. ‘Possession is an exhilarating novel of wit and romance…. A novel for every taste…. You turn the last page feeling stunned and elated, happy to have had the chance to read it.’ It wasn’t (exciting). For me, at any rate. Which just goes to show that: 1) It wasn’t a novel for every taste. And,  2) Booker prize recommendations and blurbs don’t necessarily equal books that everyone will enjoy.

Onto the next booker prize winning book for next month: The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy (this author writes about death loads…).

Spider-Man: Homecoming

In the latest film version of Spider-Man the superhero is mentored by Iron Man and battles Vulture using a mixture of a specially designed suit and human integrity. This mixture of the ‘super’ and the ‘human’ flows throughout the film. Spider-Man is a geeky teenage boy, Peter Parker (Tom Holland), who has an even more geeky friend, Ned (Jacob Batalon). Iron Man has another life as a businessman called Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr), while Vulture also has an ulterior, human, identity as Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton).

Superman: Homecoming by Bleeding Cool

The relationship between Stark and Parker is handled with humour, and Parker’s efforts as a superhero feature enthusiasm coupled with inexperience. The result is a much lighter handling of the normally dark Spider-Man stories. I welcomed this. Families, too, with children and young teenagers will enjoy the more relatable characters. Modern-day special effects such as cell phones and computer technology are juxtaposed with other-world weaponry and this, too, emphasises the mix of human and super.

But the humour and action does border on the slapstick and I didn’t always enjoy the silliness. Robert Downey Jr and Michael Keaton are pretty good in their roles but Marissa Tomei as Peter’s aunt looks decidedly too sexy for her role and Peter’s flame, Liz (Laura Harrier), is wimpish.

Overall, Peter’s initiation as Spider-Man, and the mix of ordinary, modern-day life with the heroic, make Spider-Man: Homecoming fun to watch. The film opens at cinemas in South Africa on 7 July 2017.