Sunday, January 26, 2014

Mandela didn't throw spears (or: Why I hate Django Unchained)

“For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” 
- Nelson Mandela

This is a sort-of review of Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, a sort-of farewell to the great man, who passed away on December 5th 2013, and sort of a call for the forgiveness and introspection that Madiba stood for.

Let's start with Mandela, the film. No, it's not a Lincoln, and it's not quite a Gandhi either. Story-wise, it reads like a Wikipedia account of Mandela's life (or a CliffsNotes summary of Mandela's memoir, Long Walk to Freedom, minus the critical analysis). Naturally, there are many details and nuances lost in the telling of Mandela's whole journey, from his Abakwetha initiation ceremony at 14 to his inauguration as the first democratically elected President of South Africa at 76. If you take the film for what it is - an overview of a great life, an introduction to a complex struggle and hopefully inspiration enough to read (rather than substitute) Mandela's dense autobiography - it is a perfectly decent film with solid production values (handsome photography, fantastic costumes, effective if too-noticeable score) released just in time for the whole world to simmer together in Mandela's legacy. It's clearly a film that loves Mandela and strives to humanise him but it is not an abundantly thoughtful film. One wonders if viewers unfamiliar with Mandela's story would walk away understanding quite why over 20 000 people queued for days to view Mandela's body at the Union Buildings. Mandela's icon status always had less to do with what he accomplished than who he was and how he treated every single person he met. At the very least, Invictus should be compulsory ancillary viewing to get a glimpse of Mandela's playful leadership genius.

The problem with skimming over much of the detail is losing much of the context. For those who lived through the struggle, wrote about the struggle, analysed the struggle and believed in the struggle, the swift sign-posting of Mandela LWTF may be a very frustrating experience. Director Justin Chadwick explains that there was simply too much ground to cover in just a few hours so he chose, instead, to focus on Mandela the man, the cad, the womaniser, the fighter. Fair enough, but Mandela never really needed much humanising to anyone who who was paying attention -  he never made much effort to hide his flaws, he was always full of mischief and good humour, he seemed more interested in people than in policy and his loud trademark shirts were a gentle, enduring, and endearing, middle finger to convention (that may seem insignificant, but no South African President had ever bothered to be approachable before). That he was a ladies man and knew how to make bombs is fairly self evident from the fact that he was married three times and imprisoned as a terrorist (although it must be clarified that the bombings specifically excluded human targets, which is more than can be said for the ruling party at the time). That he was human was never in doubt. How he managed to be embraced as the Tata of an entire nation - black and white (and everything in between) is the really interesting question. Ultimately Chadwick gives us plenty of What, and too little Why. The Why is what makes this story both interesting and significant.

In the spirit of Madiba the reconiliator, I am inclined to say let's celebrate all that is good and competent about the film, and forgive it's shortcomings. In the spirit of Madiba the pioneering leader of our free nation, I am inclined to say, let's tell our own stories and let's tell them better. We can't keep complaining about foreigners' takes on our most fascinating, powerful, complicated histories, if we don't step up and tell them better ourselves. Challenge accepted.

On that note, We Need to Talk About the Bono song at the end of Mandela: LWTF (which has since become an award winner). Many have complained about the myriad of talented local musicians who were overlooked in favour of Rock n Roll's most obvious go-to humanitarian. In the inclusive spirit of Madiba, I am inclined to be proud that one of the word's most recognisable rock stars was inspired enough to celebrate our Tata's ethos of love in song - and at least Elton John didn't just recycle Candle in the Wind again. But as a movie-goer and a South African local, I can't help but kind of hate this song. Look, Bono was Irish in the 80s, so he should understand something about liberation struggles and his lyrics do indicate a genuine appreciation for Mandela's philosophy of love as the natural human state we should all remember to aspire to. This poppy, upbeat, radio-friendly song, however, feels tonally irreverent to the film and, in if heard in any other context, not really recognisable as a song about Mandela or the Apartheid struggle. It also jarringly concludes the film on a decidedly Westernised note, once again driving home the point that we should be telling our own stories with our own people. 

Songs were one of the primary ways of expressing solidarity during the apartheid struggle, and are actively used to this day to memorialise anti-apartheid leaders - for proof, attend just a single ANC rally. Mandela was also Xhosa, a tribe with a rich culture of music and musical storytelling. Now I am grateful that Bono didn't try to Africanise his song with a black children's choir or tribal chanting, but I can't help feeling that he could have put a bit more thought into it. At the every least he could have closed the film with a raw Rock n Roll liberation anthem, rather than this preppy, sugary tune. But let my ranting be over. I am indulging my inner Winnie Mandela (more on that later). Thank you, Bono, for your efforts, and for caring so much about our beloved Tata.

Then the performances. Mandela is a gift to any black actor. Many have tried, mainly only Morgan Freeman has really succeeded. He's still my Mandela for the ages, but Idris Elba does a commendable job. He is not given the same focus and nuance as Freeman, having to jog through about six decades of Mandela's busy life in a mere two hours and nineteen minutes (given the subject matter, you feel like they could have tacked on another 40 minutes and gotten a few more of the details right, stewed in a few more nuances). He lacks any physical resemblance to Mandela, other than being black, but quickly makes up for it with a pitch perfect accent and a comfortable understanding of Mandela's mannerisms. His appearance only becomes a problem in Mandela's prison years and beyond, when distracting aging makeup - the film's biggest technical fail - turns Elba into a weirdly morphed version of Madiba (yes, even Madiba thought he was watching himself walking through a field with children... but did they show him the shots of his creepily greying hair?). Elba is a great actor, and he does Madiba justice with the material he is given. There is great authority in everything that comes out of his mouth and a conviction that feels real rather than another awkward Braveheart impression. From his vibrant fighting spirit as young Mandela to his stirring, restrained SAUK address, Elba maintains a strong sense of who Madiba was throughout. I could have done with more time dedicated to what catalysed Mandela's great change of heart in prison - something more substantial than the passing of time and the trimming of tomatoes. Somewhere in the patience, introspection and broad thinking that prison required of him, Mandela touched the divine and become a leader of extraordinary vision and insight. 

Trying to sort through all the details and complexities, the film finds its back bone in the contrast between Nelson and Winnie Mandela as their lives become inextricably caught up in the freedom struggle. Both are passionate, educated, highly intelligent and trail blazing individuals who love their country and are willing to sacrifice their personal lives for the greater good of their people. Both are persecuted by the white government, but their lives and struggles turn out very differently (Winnie's life took a particular turn for the bizarre in the new South Africa, but that will be covered in the Winnie biopic starring Jennifer Hudson - for which I can only skeptically reserve judgment). In this regard, at least, Chadwick and British Actress Naomie Harris do quite some justice to the complex, contradictory Winnie. Sure, we only see her development in fleeting glances, and in juxtaposition to Mandela's, but Harris plays her with so much fire and conviction, you can't help but sympathise with her cause, while feeling the impending doom of the lines she keeps threatening to cross - and ultimately does. Like Elba, Harris nails the accent without inviting ridicule (we're looking at you, Leo DiCaprio & Terrence Howard) and rings true in every scene. She also wears some sensational outfits - one of the highlights of the film. And she wears them just the way Winnie would have - with a particularity and fierce confidence that let you know she made her own rules and meant business.

“Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.” 
- Nelson Mandela

Which brings me to what I think I want to talk about - Nelson vs Winnie. It's quite a tragic relationship - a meeting of minds separated by the weight of the Apartheid struggle. They spent their best years apart, they suffered their persecutions apart, they emerged at the other end of Robben Island with irreconcilably divided ideologies. You can't blame Winnie for wanting revenge, for wanting to to unleash the beast - her response to white oppression was reasonable, justified, fair. And you can't blame her for being disappointed in Nelson for turning the other cheek, for insisting on forgiveness to those who had long-since passed the point of deserving it. But ultimately, he was right, wasn't he? He chose an unreasonable higher road; one of forgiveness but, more importantly, of intrinsic human respect. He believed absolutely that the way Africans had been treated in their own country was inexcusable, but refused to treat anyone else the same way. Arguably, whites never belonged in Africa in the first place, and that is a tension that is still playing itself out in our new South Africa, but Nelson would rather embrace those that had come to share his country with him than treat anyone as a second-rate citizen. His forgiveness was controversial - then and now - but it united a nation, astonished the world, paved the way for a free, democratic society and avoided civil war. Winnie's anger, hatred and bloodlust led her down a path of blinded arrogance that almost ruined her and her legacy. It is to the African peoples' credit that they would rather honour her for her contributions to the struggle than persecute her for her bizarre mistakes.

And this is the thing about Mandela's high road - he touched something divine. In A Tale of Three Kings, Gene Edwards takes a lyrical look at the Kingship of the first three rulers of Israel - Saul, David and Absalom - and asks "What do you do when someone throws spears at you?" It is fitting that David and Mandela, two flawed, publicly vulnerable men, responded the same way to grossly unreasonable persecution - and it made them two of the most celebrated and influential leaders in history - they refused to throw spears back, even when they had the opportunity to, because to do so would have made them just like their oppressors. It would repeat the cycle and trap them in the same fears that made their unjust leaders abandon their own humanity. When you set yourself up as the moral authority, you set yourself up to become a tyrant. Mandela refused for his people to do that.

"It was during those long and lonely years that my hunger for the freedom of my own people became a hunger for the freedom of all people, white and black. I knew as well as I knew anything that the oppressor must be liberated just as surely as the oppressed. A man who takes away another man's freedom is a prisoner of hatred, he is locked behind the bars of prejudice and narrow-mindedness. I am not truly free if I am taking away someone else's freedom, just as surely as I am not free when my freedom is taken from me. The oppressed and the oppressor alike are robbed of their humanity."
- Nelson Mandela

White people in South Africa can be ludicrously petrified of black hatred (see the absurd, white-created myth of the Night of the Long Knives, now finally dispelled a good number of weeks after Madiba's death). It turns out the majority of black South Africans never wanted to slaughter us all after all. They just wanted their kids to have the same opportunity as ours. (I mean, they were here first and all that). Integration is slow, but it is happening.
Black medical staff treat a wounded KKK member

And then, lastly, on to Django Unchained. Yes, it's a ballsy and entertaining, if messy and self-indulgent, piece of film pastiche, but I loathe it for implying that black slaves would / should have been as cruel and bloodthirsty as the inhuman slave owners who oppressed them. Tarantino's revenge fantasy belies and belittles the incredible grace, restraint and intelligence with which great men like Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo and Walter Sisulu fought for freedom but refused to surrender their humanity and their respect towards the notion that all men - their oppressors included - are created equal. 

What the ANC accomplished was nothing short of astonishing. There's no doubt the white minority in South Africa had bloodshed coming to them, but the great leaders of the African National Congress, refused to become the savages they expected them to be. The savages Tarantino still expects them to be. They showed us all that there is a higher way, and it is possible for flawed men to attain it.

“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”
- Nelson Mandela

Rest in peace, Tata. I cannot hope and pray enough that your legacy truly lives on in us.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

2014 Oscar Nominees

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has announced its nominees for the 86th time this morning, and they've had a pretty respectable year.

You can see all the Oscar Nominees here. I couldn't present them more tidily or comprehensively myself.

This was a fantastic year for midstream (ie, not quite art house, but not quite box office mainstream either) movies, with literally all of my favourite currently working directors - Martin Scorsese, The Coen Brothers, Alexander Payne, Spike Jonze - turning in some of their best work yet (plus we had the privilege of a great Sofia Coppolla - I realise I am fairly alone on that one - and a good annual Woody Allen.

The Academy gave a fairly warm reception to all of these, with the exception of Sofia Coppola and - bizarrely - The Coen Brothers.

Scorsese's controversial Wolf of Wall Street scored 5 nominations, including Picture, Director, Actor (Leonardo DiCaprio), Supporting Actor (Jonah Hill) and Adapted Screenplay. Amazingly, the legendary Thelma Schoonmaker got shafted for editing. Bizarre, considering the editing in the trailer alone made me weep and her replacement appears to be the guys behind Dallas Buyers Club. It is a great moment for DiCaprio, though, who has received much rejection at the hands of the Academy since Blood Diamond. He goes all out for Wolf and this is a lovely way to commence his apparent acting hiatus. Also huzzah for Scorsese's nomination - he had us worried there for a moment when Academy members started declaring his film repulsive and viewers fled from cinemas in disgust. Fortunately, the Academy retained its balls this year and remembered that cinema is not Disney Land.

On that note, they all but completely snubbed Saving Mr Banks which, while I haven't seen the film and am willing to believe its perfectly lovely, was a smart move. Pity about Emma Thompson's nomination, but it became inevitable that Amy Adams had to make the cut - and ousting Thompson's performance over Streep's was probably the right thing to do.

Most perplexingly, after a six year love affair with the incomparable, incorrigible Coen Brothers (which included an inspired Best Picture nomination for the surreal A Serious Man), the Academy has completely overlooked Inside Llewyn Davis, one of the most critically acclaimed films of the year. Sure, they don't care, but in terms of preserving the year in cinema for future generations, that seems like a pretty big oversight. Sure, Please Mr Kennedy didn't qualify for Song, Director was crowded and Actor was way crowded, but no room in the Best Picture race for a Coen masterpiece? More embarassingly, no Screenplay nod? With Cinematography and Sound Mixing we shall be satisfied. Perhaps they can go back to being underdogs rather than Oscar darlings now, which suits them better anyhow.

Alexander Payne has always felt like more of a writer than a director, although he balances dark comedy and poignant drama like no one's business and never fails to extract quiet brilliance from his actors. It seems fitting then that he surplants both Spike Jonze and expected nominee Paul Greengrass as Best Director nominee for Nebraska, his first film from a screenplay he didn't also write. His low key, monochrome drama about family, money and mortality contends across the board, including Cinematography; a first for a Payne film.

Spike Jonze's glorious-looking Her (releasing soon where I live) did smashingly, despite missing out on that Best Director nod. Oh well. Jonze's postmodern digital age love story contends for Best Picture, Best Screenplay, Art Directing / Set Decoration and, perhaps most excitingly, Original Song and Original Score by Arcade Fire (credited as William Butler and Owen Pallett). The Academy has a tendency to sideline rock stars and inventive scores in this category (with the sole exception of The Social Network and perhaps Thomas Newman's work), so this is a solid nod. Don't fret though - the rest of their Original Score nominees - other than Gravity - are predictably pallid. It's a pity Her doesn't contend for Editing and, especially, Cinematography, but let's take small winnings where we can get them.

Even Woody Allen gets a pretty respectable showing for Blue Jasmine, with Cate Blanchett obviously setting the stage for a brilliant acceptance speech on Oscar night, but the delightful Sally Hawkins (she of the dastardly Happy-Go-Lucky snub) and Woody's screenplay come along for the ride. Woody's screenplay almost always comes along for the ride.

Beyond my favourite directors, the three films leading the nominations - and likely battling it out for the top prize - are the life affirming Box Office Special Effects extravaganza Gravity; the gut-wrenching, devastating, gorgeous slavery drama 12 Years a Slave and David O'Russell's crowd-pleasing critical darling ABSCAM con movie American Hustle. It's really no contest. With four acting nods (one for each category) for the second consecutive year, O'Russell is the one to beat for Director and Picture, while Slave missed out on nominations for Cinematography and Score, which does not bode well for its popularity with voters. Gravity will, of course, clean out the technical awards, but if it couldn't even win at the Golden Globes (who anointed Avatar Best Drama), we can stop pretending the Academy is taking it that seriously.

On that note, though, Steve McQueen just became only the third black man ever nominated for Best Director. It would be monumental if he won, especially since his film is just so damn good, but the Academy rarely splits Picture and Director - and never on purpose. For some reason, everyone is besotted with David O'Russell and he seems to have this in the bag. I'm not complaining - unlike Silver Linings Playbook, Hustle looks legitimately good.

On the outskirts of the Best Picture race, float one of the year's best films; Captain Phillips - a thrilling real-life survival story that also takes the trouble to be a thoughtful, and thought-provoking, meditation on terrorism and the perceived value of a life. Greengrass's craft is exceptional, and he turns a rah rah Hero's story into the year's great tragedy, without any emotional sleight of hand. It's a huge bummer that Tom Hanks and Paul Greengrass missed out on nominations for their brilliant, tightly wound work. Actor and Director were exceptionally crowded this year, and each ends up with a worthy set of nominees - but I'd gladly boot Payne for Greengrass.

Rounding out Best Picture is gritty AIDS drama Dallas Buyers Club - bolstered by two of the most talked-about performances of the year - and Stephen Frears' lovely seeming (nothing's been released here, okay?!) Philomena, floating in from the land of Downton Abbey with Harvey Weinstein's seal of approval, and another pitch-perfect performance from Judi Dench.

Other notable nominees:

  • Before Midnight, thankfully nominated for its sensational screenplay
  • The Great Beauty, nominated for Foreign Language Film and Cinematography
  • Prisoners, remembered for Cinematography, giving Roger Deakins yet another chance to lose
  • Frozen, nominated for Animated Feature and Song, and sealing the deal to be the first Disney film to win Animated Feature (and directed by a woman at that)
  • August: Osage County, contending for Actress (close call Meryl) and Supporting Actress
  • The much-maligned Lone Ranger, nominated for Make Up and Special Effects
  • The much-buzzed Lone Survivor, nominated for Sound Mixing and Sound Editing
The big losers:
  • Sarah Polley's much-celebrated, highly inventive docu-drama Stories We Tell missing out on Best Documentary 
  • Emma Thompson snubbed for Best Actress. Someone had to take the fall. Pity it had to be her. She's so delightful, whatever she does.
  • Robert Redford. Crowded category, but still an ouch. 
  • Tom Hanks downgrading from potential double nominee to zero nominee
  • Pixar's Monster's University snubbed in favour of Despicable Me 2 
  • Inside Llewyn Davis sidelined to Sound Mixing and Cinematography
  • Saving Mr Banks' sole nomination for Original Score - just to let them know they did see it, they just really didn't like it
  • Lana Del Rey. It's possible voters recalled her SNL performance and recoiled in fear. 

Friday, January 10, 2014

Us and Them: To Have and Have Not in 2013

Us and Them 
And in the end, we're only ordinary men
Me and you
- Pink Floyd, Us and Them

Human beings have long fostered the unfortunate, and incorrect, idea that in order for one of us to win, another has to lose. We seem to believe that success is a limited resource that can only be attained at the expense of another. And we justify it with the idea that aggressive capitalism and ambition is the main catalyst to economic progress.

Filmmakers of all genres in 2013 are calling for a rethink, for us to challenge our notion of the “other” – the people we exclude to make sure we are included. The haves that enjoy their privilege at the expense of the have-nots; the haves that have lost their soul in the progress, and the have-nots that inexplicably idolise them (of course, having-not depends very much on what you figure you should be having - as Betty Sue Cox reminds us, it doesn't take much to be so very rich). 

Elysium & Hunger Games: Catching Fire take the idea of the 1% elite to sci fi extremes – the lesson? You can’t keep the masses down. They will destroy your bubble. The system will equalise itself. Just ask Marie Antoinette. And take heed, Jacob Zuma. In Elysium, the masses settle for access to health care and seem disinterested in vengeance. In Hunger Games, well we shall have to see (unless you've read the books, in which case you already know), but the point, at least so far, is that the masses possess more humanity than their oppressors.

The Wolf of Wall Street, The Bling Ring and Spring Breakers exposed the sick heart of consumerism and excess, while Woody Allen called the heartless 1% to account for the damage they have done in Blue Jasmine, and created a sort-of 21st century Blanche Du Bois for Cate Blanchett in the process (only, no one is trying to destroy her but herself). A change of heart for a man who’s spent so much time idolising Manhattan’s intellectual elite.

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, The Butler and 12 Years a Slave all look at struggles for social equality and liberty by political have-notes, the victims of unjust laws. While 12 Years casts a scathing eye on the racial horrors of America's past, The Butler shows just how slow change can be. The oppression in Mandela is all the more disturbing because it is perpetrated by the white minority (how they ever thought it was going to last is beyond comprehension - that it ended with minimal bloodshed is miraculous), while Bono's closing credits song is a synecdoche of a bigger problem - we still need white people to tell black stories.

Perhaps most heartbreakingly, both Fruitvale StationCaptain Phillips examine the very sad truth that the perceived value of a life is still connected to the colour of your skin and the affluence of your origin. Like Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant was profiled, judged and treated according to the colour of his skin - and it was acceptable for him to end up dead. In Captain Phillips, Muse seals his own fate by going up against the US Navy with his puny resources, but it is a testament to his devastating lack of opportunities that he sees no other option. Muse's own country seems regards him as expendable - when everyone is too busy surviving, no one has time to risk their own lives for yours. What the US Navy pulled off to save Captain Phillips was commendable, beautifully executed and a picture of America's tenacity in fighting for the humanity of those they consider to be their own. It's a human shame that only certain lives, matching certain criteria, warrant that kind of effort.

Art reflects our reality, and hopefully we use it to reflect back on our own lives and the future we want to create. Some of our best filmmakers have taken the time to talk. Are we listening? Will we try to change the way we see and understand each other, or will we keep repeating an endless loop of reflections? (disclosure: that last phrase was just an excuse to link to a great music videos).

Final thoughts from Boyd Varty, a white man who learnt something invaluable from two great black men as a kid on his father's game farm: TED Talk - What I Learned from Nelson Mandela

There is room at the mountaintop
for everyone in God’s plan
The Rapture, It Takes Time to Be a Man