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.

 

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What do We Communicate to our Children?

I read two books this month aimed at vastly different audiences. One was The Secret Garden, a children’s book by Frances Hodgson Burnett published in 1911. The other was Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, a book for adults written by Gail Honeyman and published in 2017.

Despite being written in different centuries and for different audiences there was one particular theme that ran through both of them. This was: neglectful parents and the effect that neglect can have on what children believe about themselves.

The main characters in The Secret Garden, Mary Lennox and Colin Craven, both have distant parents. Mary’s mother is a socialite who is too busy to bother with her daughter. When Mary’s parents both die, their absence makes little sentimental difference to the already lonely, emotionally stunted girl. Her cousin, Colin, is actually physically stunted because of his father’s neglect. After Colin’s mother dies Mr Craven withdraws from his son. Craven firmly believes that Colin will become a hunchback like himself and die young. Despite having nothing biologically wrong with him Colin appropriates his father’s beliefs and subsequently lives the miserable life of an invalid.

In Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, main character Eleanor is likewise disregarded by a delinquent, powerful mother. Eleanor’s mother is in fact cruel and abusive, the full extent of which is gradually revealed as the book progresses. And into adulthood it is ‘Mummy’s’ voice in her own head that Eleanor simply can’t shake. A voice that constantly tells Eleanor she’s a bad, insipid, useless individual who will never amount to anything. Like Mary and Colin, Eleanor takes on board her parent’s beliefs about herself. And she becomes a friendless, tactless, emotionally immature person.

Happily, there is a positive resolution for all three characters. In each case it is the ministrations of friendship that launches a change. Much else could be said of both books and their tropes and themes. But having read them alongside each other this theme of parental influence on self-belief (or unbelief) is what stood out for me. The books are a sobering example of how parental treatment of, and communication with, our children can have such a powerful and material influence on who they become.

By Brenda Daniels

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.

Reading: An Entry into Other Worlds

I bumped into a friend and his 12-year-old daughter at a market recently. The young girl, whose pen name is Tamika, enthusiastically told me about a book she’d been reading, Cue for Treason by Geoffrey Treese. Words like ‘Shakespeare’ and ‘Queen Elizabeth’, and Tamika’s excited description whet my own appetite for what sounded like an historical fiction book for children.

Using history as a base for children’s fiction is a wonderful idea. After borrowing Cue for Treason from my local library and reading it for myself I read another children’s book in the same genre, The Explorer by Katherine Rundell. The Explorer is a story about four children whose aeroplane crash lands in the Amazon jungle. There they meet an Explorer who – though unnamed throughout – is reminiscent of Percy Fawcett, the real-life adventurer who went missing without trace while searching for the Lost City of Z (see my previous review https://wp.me/p4c1s1-nS). All the children are transformed by the experience and at least two of them grow up to be explorers themselves!

Like my young friend Tamika, Rundell is enthusiastic about her genre and about reading. Copious historical research as well as a visit to the Amazon made up Rundell’s groundwork for The Explorer. But so too did books Rundell read as a child, books that caused her to be ‘in love with the world of a book’. (Read an interview with Katherine Rundell here https://bit.ly/2vVaEAp). As a writer herself Rundell is wonderfully descriptive. And, like the books she read as a child, Rundell has likewise created in The Explorer a book that easily transports the reader to another realm.

Descriptiveness – or lack thereof – was Tamika’s one criticism of Cue for Treason, a book she otherwise loved. Read Tamika’s review of Cue for Treason here:

‘The main characters in this book are Kit, Shakespeare, Sir Joseph and last, but certainly not least… Peter.

‘Pete or Peter is accused of a crime, a crime he did indeed do and all the people in his small town know it. The 14-year-old has to escape from home with a few of his family’s pennies and bread and cheese. He has to survive on the road where he meets Kit and then Shakespeare. Kit and Peter learn that the queen will be killed. When Pete becomes an actor and Kit’s friend, they go on their way to warn the good Queen Bess about her murder. Will Pete be kidnapped with all the things he knows? Will Kit have to travel alone? So many secrets, so many lies. Who is a friend, who is a foe?

‘I think this book could have used more description of the characters but I guess everyone can make up their own characters. I mean I’d like to know what Kit looked like. I did love the vigorous verbs. It was a wonderful book and we read it every night. We couldn’t put it down! 70%’.

Tamika, thank you for sharing your review and for your passionate recommendation!

 

 

 

 

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.

 

Spider-man: Into the Spider-verse

In this rendition of Marvel’s Spiderman the world wakes up to a new Spider-man. A young black boy named Miles Morales who lives in New York City is bitten by the magic spider and he starts walking up the sides of buildings. Miles meets the Spider-man he is taking over from. He’s a jaded, overweight white boy who gallantly fights on saving the city from baddies, despite being out of shape. Then, into Miles’s dimension come various past versions of ‘Spider-man’. A funky Spider-girl (who looks like Scarlett Johansson), an eighties Japanese talking toy Spider-girl, and a hilarious sixties comic book Spider-Ham. And more. Something has gone wrong in the cosmos to cause all these Spider-men/girls to congregate in one dimension and it’s up to Miles to set it right or they’ll get sucked into a vortex and cease to exist as individuals.

This Spider-man movie is an animated one. More than that, the look and feel is intended to be that of a comic book. The characters look like drawings, the colours are washed-out like typical comic-book paper, and text appears over the characters’ heads now and then. I think that’s partly why I enjoyed Spider-man: Into the Spider-verse. It’s not a comic book posing as real life, as the other Marvel films do when they use real people. Because of the comic-book medium presented in this one, the viewer doesn’t have to pretend it’s real; they can just enjoy it for what it is – a comic. Other typical comic-book elements that appear are: humour, and characters falling from dizzying heights and yet surviving.

Spider-man: Into the Spider-verse is a tale about celebrating and preserving differences. The new Spider-man is a black boy, who comes of age in this tale. His difference from the earlier Spider versions race-wise is obvious. But the other Spider-men/girls aren’t thrown out or denigrated in any way. They all have something to contribute for who they are and the presentation is tasteful and unforced.

Spider-man: Into the Spider-verse opens at cinemas in South Africa today 14 December 2018. It’s an enjoyable film for adults and children alike.