National Arts Festival Grahamstown: A Perspective

On the first day of the festival, A Feast of Tales watched Breaking the Wall, a show which set the scene for our day ahead. In this two-man theatre piece the actors did a good job of making the audience feel uncomfortable by presenting issues of race in a humorous yet confronting way by periodically addressing us directly, thus ‘breaking the fourth wall’. By contrast, Whistle Stop was a flawless, tense, well-elocuted show in which the two actors expressed their thoughts in soliloquies. Those thoughts revolved around their attraction for one another, thoughts laden with emotion, conflict and sexual tension, displayed through movement and the use of one stage prop: a bench. Our lighthearted entertainment of the day was Brothers Streep: Stand up Musicians Plugged, a musical in which a band sang originals like the Steri Stumpi song, Intermission and the Day after Christmas, poking gentle fun at a variety of things. Not so lighthearted was Comedy Masterclass by Durban-based Aaron McIllroy. This seasoned actor-singer ‘taught’ his audience the do’s and don’ts of what appeared to be his autobiographical journey with comedy and music. The ‘comedy’, while reflecting the actor’s great versatility, ended with the sombre Charlie Chaplin piece, Just Smile.

The Finest Hours is the making of two captains

All I could remember about the film I was about to preview was that it was about a boat. As we switched our cell phones to silent another reviewer reminded me that it was based on a true story. I was surprised, therefore, to see the Disney logo come up on screen as I adjusted the 3D glasses I had, for once, remembered to bring. My expectations were primed: a story that would doubtless have a happy ending and one with great cinematic effects. I was right. And the journey there was a fine one indeed.

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Suffragette comes highly recommended

Suffragette, as the title implies, is a film about the Suffragette Movement in Britain. It is set in 1912, almost a decade after Emmeline Pankhurst founded the organisation in 1903. Importantly, this story focuses on the working women’s struggles to obtain suffrage (the right to vote).

The working class aspect is crucial to the plot as it shows the layers of oppression suffered by women at this end of the social spectrum. The main character, Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan sporting a cockney accent), is the person who best represents the effects of these injustices. Maud’s journey into and with the Suffragette Movement and the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), forms the basic outline of the film. She is therefore the “representative” of others like her and her experiences give us a good idea of what it took for women to eventually be granted the vote in Britain in 1918 (for women over 30) and 1928 (for women over 21).

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The Lady in the Van is sweet, but a little unrealistic

lady in the van

Maggie Smith as Miss Shepherd and Alex Jennings as Alan Bennett. Photo: Cinema Nouveau.

An elderly woman, Miss Shepherd (Maggie Smith), turns up in a suburb of London and parks her old van in the neighbourhood street. Obviously a tramp, and obviously on the run for a crime, Miss Shepherd lives in her van and becomes the talking point among the neighbours. She forms a fairly close attachment to one Alan Bennett (Alex Jennings) and eventually moves her van into his driveway. Alan is a writer and appears in the film as two persons: one who lives his life and the other who writes about his life. Whilst the kindest towards Miss Shepherd of all his neighbours, Alan nevertheless has his limits and his two selves argue about how to handle the old lady.

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Birdman is an experience for the audience in the real and fake world

Oscar Buzz – Birdman

A review by Brenda Daniels

In line with Cinema Nouveau’s build-up to the Oscars on 22 February, A Feast of Tales is reviewing six Oscar-nominated films. So far we have featured The Imitation Game and Boyhood. In this post we review Birdman. (Some of the films release in South Africa only after the Oscars so coverage for those will be in retrospect.)

Birdman. Wow. What an experience this film is. The storyline centres around Riggan Thomson (a very aged Michael Keaton) and his staging of a Broadway play. In his younger years Riggan was famous for his role as film action hero Birdman.

In this theatre debut Riggan tries to gain credibility instead for his directing/acting part in a serious play. In doing so he struggles with his former self, with personal relationships, and with his search for significance.

But more than a simple plot Birdman is an experience for the audience. It is almost exclusively filmed inside the theatre building.

Apart from one scene in which Riggan is trapped outside the theatre wearing only his underwear. He is forced to walk through crowds of people and make his entry on cue from the front of the theatre. This, and other elements of the film, is symbolic, and highlights the film’s constant interaction between what is real and what is not.

As Riggan struggles with the voices inside his head and walks the corridors of the building from one crisis to the next, viewers are bombarded with the sound of discordant drums. As the film builds to a climax the drumming is interspersed with harmonious classical music as the character finally begins to resolve his inner conflicts.

The other characters serve to confront weaknesses in Riggan. These include his daughter Sam (Emma Stone) whose doodling on toilet paper raises the issue of humanity’s insignificance; the brilliant but unlikeable actor Mike (Edward Norton) who succeeds only in the world of make-believe; and Lesley (Naomi Watts) whose views of Broadway have not yet been tainted by cynicism.

Birdman is an intense, clever and intricately wrought story that sucks the viewer in. It forced me to concentrate in order to grasp its meaning. When I left the cinema complex I felt the tension dissipating as I stepped from the fake world of the theatre into the real world. Or was it the other way round?

Birdman is on screen at Cinema Nouveau in South Africa, it has been nominated for 9 Oscars. The Oscar Award Ceremony takes place on 22 February 2015.

birdman

The Snowpiercer moves along strangely

A review by Brenda Daniels

I’m always attracted to futuristic films, especially if they’re about a world changed by drastic weather conditions. Snowpiercer is one such example. But this film is more about man’s meddling in both the natural and the social worlds, than it is about earth’s imagined future.

The result is a strange, unsettling film, with surprising violence and oddly paced action.

To counteract the effects of global warming, in Snowpiercer, humans attempt to cool the atmosphere. Their efforts fail, however, and an ice age ensues. The only human survivors live on a high-speed, constantly moving train called the Snowpiercer. Just as the frozen landscape it travels through is a by-product of human engineering, so the social conditions on the train are carefully controlled by humans. Their product is an unequal class system.

The action begins when the low lifes at one end of the train rebel against their squalid living conditions and fight their way to the front. Each coach they move through features a surrealistically different “landscape”.

The fighting is violent and moves through the coaches in a staccato manner that echoes the breaks in the carriages, pausing too long in each one rather than flowing at an even pace.

Most intriguing is the story’s underlying reference to, and questioning of, an ostensibly Judeo-Christian perspective on life. The train, which circumnavigates the earth once a year, is called an ark. Its leader, Wilford, is referred to in mysterious, divine terms. And Wilford determines the destiny of the train’s passengers in a pre-ordained manner that unjustly benefits some while sacrificing others.

At the film’s conclusion we are left wondering if, just as the train moves inexorably round the earth, the cycle of man’s unsavoury influence on earth will simply continue.

Snowpiercer opens at Ster Kinekor theatres in South Africa on 17 October.

Tilda Swinton stars in Snowpiercer. Photo: Creative Commons (Flickr.com)

Tilda Swinton stars in Snowpiercer. Photo: Creative Commons (Flickr.com)

Gone Girl stayed for too long

A review by Brenda Daniels

In Gone Girl, the wife of Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck), Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike), goes missing on the morning of the couple’s fifth wedding anniversary. Nick seems vague and somewhat helpless in his subsequent dealings with the police and viewers begin to suspect him of possible involvement in her mysterious disappearance.

Flashbacks to the couple’s increasingly difficult relationship certainly support this view. Easy to overlook, however, is a brief, fairly innocuous scene that hints at Amy’s dysfunctional childhood. This past has important ramifications on the plot as events in Gone Girl become increasingly sinister.

A series of clues in an anniversary game are placed by Amy in strategic places for Nick to find. Each clue reveals more of the characters’ motives and actions. These include infidelity, revenge and a desperate grasping for control.

Character development in this film is good and the filial relationship between Nick and his twin sister Margo is well portrayed. Gradual, intricate plot revelations keep Gone Girl from sinking into a typical revenge offering.

Nevertheless I found the film far too long (two and a half hours) with an unrealistic ending that trailed off unsatisfactorily.

According to IMDB, people who liked this film also liked The Equaliser.

Gone Girl opens at NuMetro theatres countrywide in South Africa on 10 October. It carries an age restriction of 16LVS.

Ben Affleck stars in Gone Girl as Nick Dunne who is searching for his missing wife. Photo: Creative Commons.

Ben Affleck stars in Gone Girl as Nick Dunne who is searching for his missing wife. Photo: Creative Commons.

Rosamund Pike stars in Gone Girl as the missing wife of Dunne. Photo: Creative Commons.

Rosamund Pike stars in Gone Girl as the missing wife of Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) Photo: Creative Commons.

The Hunt is excellently hard-hitting

A review by Brenda Daniels

The Hunt is a 2013 Danish film that was initially screened in South Africa in May 2014 as part of the European Film Festival at Cinema Nouveau. It won a number of awards at the Cannes Film Festival and others, including best actor for Mads Mikkelsen who stars as Lucas in this hard-hitting movie.

Lucas is a kindergarten teacher in a small town in Denmark. He is loved by the little ones and is seen having lots of fun with them. In his private life Lucas enjoys fun of a more raucous kind with a group of men, all of whom have clearly been friends for a long time. Swimming naked in Denmark’s freezing climate and hunting deer are among the group’s activities.

Lucas is also a divorcee with a teenage son, Marcus (Lasse Fogelstrom), whom he longs to see. His longings are rewarded by Marcus’ eventual wish to come and live with his dad.

Before this happy reunion can come to pass, however, things change dramatically for Lucas. Through a series of simply portrayed events Lucas finds himself accused of child molestation. And it is here that we see the film’s title “The Hunt” coming sharply into focus. From colleagues, to parents, townsmen to friends, most of the people in this small town turn on Lucas with a violence that is hard to watch. Police and the law appear only as a vague accusatory presence.

It is the personal betrayal, the stumbling, scuffling attacks on this man’s dignity by people he knows that are so deeply hurtful, and harsher than any “action” film I’ve seen. A line spoken by Lucas’ best friend goes something like this: “There’s evil all around us but if we stay together we keep the evil out.” The evil without (us) or the evil within (us), I wonder.

The Hunt is an excellent and deeply disturbing portrayal of cruelty and human nature. As intense as it is to watch I do highly recommend it. It opens at Cinema Nouveau Theatres in South Africa on 3 October.

Mads Mikkelsen plays the lead role in The Hunt

Mads Mikkelsen plays the lead role in The Hunt. Photo: Supplied by Ster Kinekor

Mr. Morgan’s Last Love is just too depressing

I have noticed in recent films a welcome focus on relationships other than the romantic; friendship and filial love have both been highlighted. Mr. Morgan’s Last Love focuses on the latter, although not with enough depth to make it a good movie.

In this story we see retired American philosophy professor Matthew Morgan (Michael Caine) developing a friendship with young, free-spirited dance teacher, Pauline Lauby (Clemence Poesy). Matthew is a lonely widower mourning the death of his wife, Joan. Joan loved France and it is because of her that Matthew continues to live in Paris after her death despite his not being able (or willing) to speak French and despite his adult children Kate (a brusque Gillian Anderson) and Miles (Justin Kirk) living in the USA.

Matthew meets Pauline by chance on the bus one day and this warm-hearted young woman readily welcomes him as a friend. An unusual relationship develops, with both welcoming the other into their very different lives. When a depressed Matthew tries to take his own life Pauline and his children rush to his bedside. Miles especially has a rather tortured relationship with his father while Pauline sees in Matthew the father figure she lost long ago. All three learn lessons about themselves and each other as they make meaningful connections along the way.

Despite these deepening attachments Matthew remains depressed throughout – shown starkly in a pile of unmoved, unread newspapers in his apartment.

I found this relentless gloominess tiresome, a feeling not even the lovely Clemence Poesy or the appealing foreign setting could lift. Michael Caine’s American accent was just horrible and I was rather glad when Mr. Morgan’s Last Love was over.

Mr. Morgan’s Last Love opens at Cinema Nouveau Theatres in South Africa on 12 September 2014.

 

Michael Caine and Pauline Clémence Poésy in Mr Morgan's Last Love. Photo: supplied by Ster Kinekor

Michael Caine and Clémence Poésy in Mr Morgan’s Last Love. Photo: supplied by Ster Kinekor

Dickens’ complicated relationship in The Invisible Woman

The Invisible Woman stars Ralph Fiennes as Charles Dickens and Felicity Jones as his young lover Ellen (Nelly) Ternan. Despite being married with several children, Dickens is attracted to Nelly when she takes up a role in one of his plays.

For her part, Nelly is an avid fan of Dickens, absorbing his books with an emotional intensity that dictates the action of the film. The two develop an uneasy relationship. It flaunts the societal conventions of the time by their choice to live together. But at the same time, their relationship bows to societal dictates in their choice of living, hiding away in a quiet home in the countryside.

Years after Dickens has died, Nelly, now married and with a child of her own, reflects on her past. Unable to come to terms with what transpired, Nelly remains a tortured soul until she chooses to live differently. This she does right at the end of the film. This choice is mirrored in the ending of Dickens’ well-known work Great Expectations, an ending Nelly ultimately rejects.

Bereft of any humour, The Invisible Woman is a serious film that relentlessly shows how difficult it is to truly know and connect with another person. It opens at Ster Kinekor theatres in South Africa on 4 July.

Felicity Jones plays Charles Dickens' lover in The Invisible Woman

Felicity Jones plays Charles Dickens’ lover in The Invisible Woman. Photo: Creative Commons

Ralph Fiennes plays Charles Dickens in The Invisible Woman. Photo: Creative Commons

Ralph Fiennes plays Charles Dickens in The Invisible Woman. Photo: Creative Commons