Archive for the ‘Retrospective’ Category

The Prince of Gotham

Batman Begins

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Director: Christopher Nolan

Cast: Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Katie Holmes, Gary Oldman, Cillian Murphy, Tom Wilkinson, Ken Watanabe, Liam Neeson, Rutger Hauer, Linus Roache

To create a successful trilogy a director has to start with the mythology, the background of a story and the childhood trauma of what moulds a hero. To appreciate the mythology one should always start at the beginning. The Origins of a Superhero.

Having afforded director Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins a second viewing, and being hugely impressed by the two brilliant sequels The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises, a retrospective review of the film is in order.

Christian Bale (Empire of the Sun) is superb as Bruce Wayne and in Batman Begins, the origins of the superhero Batman are extensively explored from his falling into a bat cave as a young boy, to his maturity as Billionaire playboy who eventually recaptures his own dynastic inheritance and forges a vigilante alter ego to reclaim the city that he initially abandons.

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Batman Begins reignited the mythology of the League of Shadows, with not one but three villains in the form of Liam Neeson as Decard, Cillian Murphy as Scarecrow and the irrepressibly brilliant Tom Wilkinson as Gotham gangster boss Carmine Falcone.

Nolan’s vision of Gotham is heavily influenced by Ridley Scott’s sci-fi classic Blade Runner, even casting Rutger Hauer from Blade Runner in the role of Earle who plans on taking over Wayne Enterprises. What makes Batman Begins so timeless and watchable is the witty repartee between Wayne and his trusted manservant Alfred, wonderfully played by Oscar winner Michael Caine.

The onscreen chemistry between Caine and Bale is the groundwork which makes the two sequels work so wonderfully. The two actors went onto make Nolan’s magical masterpiece The Prestige in 2006 along with Hugh Jackman after the success of Batman Begins.

After all, who is Bruce Wayne, after his parents were brutally murdered?

A Billionaire orphan cared for by his manservant, who transformed into the caped prince of Gotham. A dynamic completely explored in Bruno Heller’s superb TV series Gotham, which evidently was inspired by the Dark Knight Trilogy.

The love interest in Batman Begins is Rachel Dawes played by Katie Holmes although there is no hint of romance more of affection. Holmes holds her own in a male dominated film about the moulding of a superhero. Gay Oldman is reliably good as Detective Gordon, a character also featured in the series Gotham, but it is Liam Neeson who is exceptional as the mysterious Decard who initially encourages the itinerant Bruce Wayne to embrace his fears, little realizing that the instruction comes from his own enemy.

Visually, Batman Begins sets the tone for a gripping and enduring trilogy which only proved more watchable with the release of the stunning Oscar winning sequels. Director Christopher Nolan clearly was the right man for the task of recreating the Gotham mythology judging by the success of this trilogy and also his later films including Inception and Interstellar.

Batman Begins is worth watching again for establishing a mythology and also recreating the origins of a superhero, which although might appear timeless will ultimately be reinvented by DC Comics with the release of the forthcoming Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice in 2016.

Batman Begins, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises are indispensable films to own for any cineaste to understand the progression of a blockbuster trilogy and the birth and rebirth of a seemingly immortal superhero. Batman Begins is guaranteed recommended viewing again and again, destined like its superhero to become a cultural classic.

 

 

Smile and Wave

Madagascar

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Directed by Eric Darnell and Tom McGrath

Starring: Chris Rock, Ben Stiller, David Schwimmer, Jada Pinkett-Smith & Sasha Baron Cohen

In the tradition of Shrek and Shark Tale, Madagascar is a fun filled animated romp about city pampered zoo animals who land up being shipped to the wild. The penguins that are the cause of practically every commotion in the film hatch a plan to leave the New York Central Park zoo in search of Antarctica. Marty, the zebra, with a superb voiceover by Chris Rock, sees the penguins escape route and soon entertains his own ideas of exploring the world outside, namely, the bright lights of Manhattan.

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Despite protests from his friends: Alex the furry but confused lion (Ben Stiller), Gloria, the no-nonsense Hippo (Jada Pinkett-Smith) and Melmon the Hypochondriac giraffe (David Schwimmer), Marty escapes and is soon pounding the New York pavements.

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As the film caption states, soon there’s a zoo loose, as Marty’s friends leave the zoo to go looking for him. The game is up when all the escaped animals, including the mischievous penguins are caught in a hilarious scene at Grand Central Station. Thinking that they will be restored to their places at the zoo, there is shock when the animals awake in separate containers, sailing on a ship bound for Africa.

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The meddling psychotic penguins, in a military style operation, soon take charge of the ship, causing major disruptions as they change direction for Antarctica. The penguins’ no excuses, but results takeover attempt soon lands the furry foursome overboard. They are washed ashore on the Island paradise of Madagascar.

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Like most of us, city slickers, the thought of being left in a wild, untamed environment, with no modern luxuries is truly terrifying. So these animals are out of their depth, when they have to start fending for themselves. Their salvation comes, when they meet the Lemurs, the party loving, tree-hugging rodents headed by the outrageously camp King Lemur, voiced by Sasha Baron Cohen, alias Ali G. What ensues is an hilarious story of how Marty and his friends adapt to their exotic environment, while befriending the Lemurs, and dealing with Alex’s emerging inner self as a carnivorous lion, who soon sees Lemurs and company turning into juicy steaks.

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The film’s great moments came from the penguins, whose covert actions propel the story line forward at every turn, from the great zoo escape to hijacking the ship to Antarctica. I think we should take a leaf out of their book – for when all else fails, the penguin philosophy is simply to smile and wave boys, smile and wave!

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Madagascar is a highly recommended as a thoroughly entertaining animated film, whose humour and sophisticated story line will appeal to the young, the old and the emerging millennials.

 

Secrets and Seduction

BAD EDUCATION

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Directed by: Pedro Almodovar

Starring: Gael Garcia Bernal, Fele Martinez, Daniel Giminez Cacho, Raul Garcia Forneiro, Nacho Perez

Pedro Almodovar’s Bad Education is a film noir inspired meditation on love, sex, drugs and identities. It is the story of two men in Spain, Enrique( Fele Martinez), a film director, and Ignacio (the gorgeous rising Spanish star Gael Garcia Bernal), an aspiring actor and writer, who meet again in the 1980s, 20 years after they attended a Catholic school together as children in the 1960s. As childhood friends and emerging lovers they were separated by an abusive and jealous priest, and Enrique is sent away to another school.

Twenty years on, Ignacio appears at Enrique’s door, now a successful film director and presents him with a story, entitled the Visit. Ignacio urges Enrique to make this story into a film, with him as the main star. After reading the Visit, Enrique realizes that the story tells of their boyhood romance and subsequent abuse and separation at the hands of the Catholic priest.

However, if there was a straightforward storyline, it would not be an Almodovar film, for nothing is straight forward, not to mention any straight characters. I am not going to reveal more than that the film takes on many interesting twists and turns when Enrique embarks on an investigation into Ignacio, and several secrets are revealed, not to mention drag tendencies, drugs, blackmail and even murder!

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Almodovar’s casual almost indifferent treatment of drugs, gay sex and sexual identities as part of everyday life marks him as a distinctly European and Spanish director, who fortunately has never gone mainstream, falling prey to the prudish restrictions of Hollywood. For all these aspects are naturally part of a storyline which weaves truth and fantasy, reality and desire into a film noir story of hidden identities, literary ambitions and unrequited love, magnetically sustained by Bernal and Martinez ‘s strong central performances.

The most memorable scene in the film is the swimming pool scene, where after a night out clubbing, a suspicious, yet amorous Enrique invites Ignacio back to his opulent Madrid home for an early morning swim, with a view of seduction. The scene is done with such tantalizing style, covering the best parts of both actors undressing and diving into the pool, in which a lot can be said for a pair of white briefs.

Almodovar’s trademark use of primary colours, especially yellows, greens and reds in set and costume design, provides a vibrant backdrop to his zany characters in Bad Education while conveying a wonderful sense of Spain being a liberated country, filled with a bright sexual honesty and freedom.

A clever, well acted, stylish and coquettishly directed film, which will keep any gay audience riveted if not aroused. Highly recommended viewing for all Almodovar fans who are willing to add Bad Education to their retro Spanish film collection.

 

 

 

Sexual Repression in Film

Maurice

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Director: James Ivory

Cast: Hugh Grant, James Wilby, Rupert Graves, Ben Kingsley, Denholm Elliott, Phoebe Nicholls, Helena Bonham Carter, Judy Parfitt, Simon Callow

Cinema Lovers Workshop on Sexual Repression in Film presented as part of the 4th Durban Gay and Lesbian Film Festival 2014 http://www.dglff.org.za/ on Thursday 26th June 2014 at the KZNSA Gallery, Durban.

Director James Ivory’s 1987 film Maurice is a nuanced and delicate study of sexual repression in the Edwardian era based upon the posthumously published novel by the acclaimed British novelist E. M. Forster who also penned Howards End, A Room with A View and his most famous novel, A Passage to India.

At the beginning of Maurice, Maurice Hall’s tutor, played by Simon Callow standing on an English beach instructs the young boy that “Your body is your temple”, a sentiment echoed by the Victorians.

The film moves to 1909 when Maurice Hall played by James Wilby and Clive Durham played by Hugh Grant are at Cambridge together and over a classical tutorial discuss the notion of words versus deeds. The post-Victorian early Edwardian attitude towards sex was prohibitive and repressive.

Whilst reading Classics at Cambridge, there is an early reference to the “Unspeakable Vice of the Greeks” which is seen by the Edwardians as a strong rejection of Western Christian principles in favour of Mediterranean hedonism and unadulterated sexual desires. Maurice also establishes a close link between all male sports such as cricket and boxing and the forbidden homosexual love between men which was naturally more than fraternal.

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Viewers must bear in mind that Maurice is set not even 20 years after the infamous trial of Oscar Wilde in 1895 when he was accused and convicted of sodomy and sentenced to two years hard labour so beautifully documented in the 1997 Brian Gilbert film Wilde starring Stephen Fry, which forced the majority of repressed homosexuals in late Victorian London to flee to the continent.

Under the shadow of the Oscar Wilde affair, homosexuality was considered the worst crime in the calendar, making the environment of Edwardian England sexually repressive for the lead characters in Maurice. Ultimately Maurice charts the doomed love affair which starts at Cambridge of Maurice Hall who was suburban middle class and Clive Durham which came from Landed Gentry and was a symbol of inherited wealth being the only son in the family who would inherit the country estate Pendersleigh Park.

Interestingly, many Edwardian homosexuals to avoid scandal married each other’s sisters to continue an illicit gay love affair post marriage. Many suspected homosexuals in England prior to the outbreak of World War 1 were arrested on charges of soliciting and immorality. This is exemplified in the film by the scandalous arrest of Lord Risley, who was arrested while trying to pick up a soldier in an alleyway and publicly named and shamed in the press, suffering a similar fate to Oscar Wilde without the associated sensational publicity. Lord Risley was sentenced to six months hard labour.

In this repressive society, the fearful and closeted Clive Durham rebukes Maurice’s affections for fear of scandal and being charged with immorality especially as he is due to inherit the family’s gorgeous country estate. By 1912 and after a brief visit to Greece, Durham returns and breaks off all romance with Maurice and promptly marries the naïve Anne Woods played by Phoebe Nicholls recently seen in Downton Abbey leaving Maurice angry, jilted and heartbroken.

Maurice turns his sexual frustration to boxing in Bermondsey and considers that he is suffering from an unspeakable disease consults a doctor and a hypnotist Lasker-Jones wonderfully played by Ben Kingsley who aptly suggests that Maurice flee England and live abroad in a country more accepting like France or Italy.

The third part of the film takes place around Pendersleigh in 1913, the country estate owned by Clive Durham who is approaching his nuptials with Anne. At this estate works an unconventional and almost pastoral figure Scudder beautifully played by Rupert Graves, who is an underkeeper and not afraid to wear his sexuality on his sleeve. The character development of Maurice is evident in the film and soon he succumbs to the opportune sexual advances of Scudder who enters into Maurice’s bedroom at Penderleigh through an open window and promptly seduces him. The central character’s development goes from emotional innocence to sexual experience and is expertly played by Wilby who along with Hugh Grant both won Best Actor awards at the 1987 Venice International Film Festival.

In a series of interesting hypnosis scenes between Kingsley and Wilby, it is suggested that a cure for his characters sexual urges to those of the same sex should be to play sport and carry a gun. As Maurice and Scudders sexual relationship blossoms within the confines of a Country Estate, the scenes with Maurice by the window become symbolic of his character being trapped in a sexually repressive environment with Scudder being the one who ultimately releases Maurice from this sexual and moral dilemma. Scudder plans on fleeing the strict rules of Pendersleigh and emigrating to the Argentine and whose only crime is bring guilty of sensuality.

Maurice and Alec Scudder’s eventual reunification at the boat house is a way for Maurice to decisively escape the repressive environment he find himself in, ultimately leaving the pompous Clive Durham, repressed and stuck in a loveless marriage to Anne Woods. The closing shot of the film is one of Clive Durham closing the window and himself into a stifled existence, symbolic of a generation of Edwardian young men who have yielded to social conventions like marriage and sexual repression. A repression which was ultimately was to be broken by the outbreak of World War II in 1914.

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After the success of A Room with a View, Maurice was a continuation in a long line of lucrative and Oscar winning Merchant Ivory Productions and securing James Ivory a Best Director prize at the 1987 Venice Film Festival and can be seen as a prelude to his more successful films like Howards End and the adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel The Remains of the Day.

In terms of the history of queer cinema, director James Ivory’s Maurice is a superb cinematic starting point to examining what it was like to be gay in a sexually repressive environment over a century ago. Thankfully society and the film industry has developed significantly since then, flinging open the glass closet doors of Hollywood.

Suggested Reading:

Maurice by written E. M. Forster

Morgan, A Biography of E. M. Forster written by Nicola Beauman

 

Activism and Martyrdom

Milk

directed by

Gus van Sant

The article below was prepared for a film workshop and discussion of Milk held at the inaugural Durban Gay and Lesbian Film Festival November 2011.

“My name is Harvey Milk and I want to recruit you”.

 

Political Activist, Martyr and lover of Opera

These words were used at a speech Milk made on the San Francisco City Hall steps as an elected city supervisor at the Gay Freedom Day Parade on the 25th June 1978 four months before being assassinated. This scene in Gus Van Sant’s film is critical to the viewing of Milk as not just as a film about the Gay rights movement in America, but a film about civil rights and the fight for protection against bigotry and the preservation of individual freedoms which should be enshrined in any democracy.
Milk was an activist for Gay rights and for human rights and he galvanized the communities of Castro Street in the Eureka Valley and also the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco for the protection of civil liberties. Milk was also the first openly gay man to be elected to an official position in a major metropolitan American city. He was a south-African equivalent of an Executive councillor and not merely a ward councillor.

Historically any political movement with a strong base of supporters, martyrdom works. There are examples of martyrs in a range of socio-political movements worldwide from Gandhi to Martin Luther King, to Ruth First. Milk knew of the risks he was taking as an openly gay supervisor who was ready to engage in public debate at a time when the gay rights movement was blossoming along the American West Coast.

Milk was ready to die for his beliefs and was already casting himself in the role of a martyr – he persevered in the face of constant death threats. He challenged opposing viewpoints which were mostly grounded in the form of religious bigotry and parochial conservatism crystallized in the form of Florida religion fanatic Anita Bryant and Californian Republican Senator John Briggs.

Milk stood up for what was right at a particular moment in a historical context which reflected the aftermath of the sexual revolution of the 1960s, and followed on from similar social political movements in America most notably the civil rights movement of the 1960s and the anti-war demonstrations of the late 60s and early 70s (notably about the Vietnam war). Harvey Milk was a skilled political activist and knew how to mobilise his supporters effectively.
Milk’s challenge to gay and lesbian people in America was this – We have to let them know who we are. You have to be open about your sexuality. He was the political version of the current crop of Hollywood stars and singers who are breaking through the glass closet Zachary Quinto and Ricky Martin, David Hyde Pearce, Neil Patrick Harris.

As a film, Milk was hugely successful for 3 reasons –
1) Director Gus van Sant is an openly gay director and has touched on homosexuality in his previous films, My Own Private Idaho and his award winning film Elephant.
2)  The screenwriter Dustin Lance Black who won an Oscar for best adapted screenplay was openly gay.
3) Milk as a film was researched and had the input of surviving members of the Gay rights movement of the 1970s notably the influential Cleve Jones, played by Emile Hirsch in the film, Milk was shot in all the actual locations in and around San Francisco, notably the City Hall and Castro Street neighbourhood. Van Sant encouraged all the actors to improvise in their characters in the authentic locations they were shooting in. Seasoned actor, Sean Penn’s performance of Harvey Milk is exceptionally brilliant, notably winning him a 2nd Best Actor Award.

There is a moment in Milk when Harvey is delivering the recruitment speech at Gay Freedom Parade that this biopic transcends the boundaries of being just a film about gay rights, but a film about justifiable civil rights. Ironically the call for recruitment sounds very similar to Uncle Sam calling for new army recruits to the US military. Gay people came to San Francisco from small towns across America and the gay community swelled after the end of World War 2 when many closeted military men disembarked at San Francisco after returning from the Pacific theatre of War and remained in the city, not obviously keen to return to conservative mid-Western towns.

Viewing Milk in a South African context

South Africa is an intensely political society and as a new democracy which has enshrined the rights of every individual by having one of the most liberal constitutions, gay people are protected by the constitution but is there an adequate justice system to enforce the civil liberties of gay people in SA. This point is made in Milk in the 70s when gay men are beaten up and victimised by SF police officers in the film. Even though gay rights are enshrined in the South African constitution and discrimination based on sexual orientation is forbidden, does the South African police force adequately uphold these rights in contemporary society? In terms of Gay Pride marches worldwide from Sao Paulo to Warsaw – the role of the police as both protector and persecutor is brilliantly explored in the documentary Beyond Gay: the Politics of Pride.

Best line in the film – “I sound like a homosexual with Power” – from being marginalised to being politicized that was the legacy that Harvey Milk gave to the American and the international gay rights movement.
Harvey Milk was a quintessential Gay politician who only served in office for one year but his impact on social change and his symbol as a martyr for the gay rights movement in America and internationally is huge. Milk was 40 years old when he first came out the closet and started living as an openly gay man.
The character of Dan White played by Josh Brolin in Milk represents a complete dichotomy from Harvey Milk. White was also a fellow city supervisor from a strong Irish Catholic neighbourhood who was concerned more with supporting a family on a municipal salary than supporting any of Harvey Milk or Mayor George Moscone’s liberal city ordinances. Dan White viewed Harvey Milk as a threat and he acted upon that threat, whereas Milk underestimated the danger of Dan White as a potential enemy. The last quarter of the film, there is a sense that Milk had almost become cavalier with his political power despite receiving numerous death threats. Milk was willing to become a martyr and for the cause, often remarking that politics was theatre.

Politics is Theatre

Politics is theatre except the scripts are different, but there remain the stars even they become legends as martyrs.

Van Sant skilfully shows not just the extent of the Milk’s activism but also his passion for the gay rights cause at the immense cost of his personal life and safety. The film beautifully reconstructs the fateful events leading up to Milk’s assassination and the truly poignant ending of Harvey Milk being heralded as a martyr by the community he served and adored. Milk is more about Martyrdom and Activism in a socio-political movement in the 1970s and the call for equal civil rights for gays and all other minorities.

Today in San Francisco there are convention centres, streets and public institutions named after slain City Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone. Corner of Castro and Market Street in Eureka Valley is now called Harvey Milk Plaza.
The immortalization of martyrs for a cause is not new in any political movement and is especially significant in the current SA political context with conference centres, highways and streets being renamed after struggle heroes against Apartheid more appropriately in cities such as Durban and Johannesburg.

Proposition 6 as put forward by Californian Senator Briggs was legislation that allowed the California state to discriminate against employees in this case teachers on the basis of sexual orientation. Milk’s biggest triumph was getting the gay communities and the broader society to vote against the implementation of proposition 6.
Irony is that Gay Marriage in America as a federal law is still banned. Only several US states have passed legislation allowing gay marriage to date including Vermont.
Proposition 8 (ballot title: Eliminates Rights of Same-Sex Couples to Marry. Initiative Constitutional Amendment; called California Marriage Protection Act by proponents) was a ballot proposition and constitutional amendment passed in the November 2008 state elections. The measure added a new provision, Section 7.5 of the Declaration of Rights, to the California Constitution, which provides that “only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.” – Wikipedia source.
Innovative film style of Gus Van Sant –Van Sant’s visual style is unique from extreme close-ups highlighting the intimacy of the characters to showcasing the broad political activism that Milk did to galvanize and protect the gay community in San Francisco in the 1970’s. Political activism involved taking over a block then a neighbourhood and gaining support and credence for specific municipal issues.
Suggested Reading and Viewing: ~
Biography: The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life & Times of Harvey Milk by Randy Shilts
Documentary: Beyond Gay: The Politics of Pride by Bob Christie

 

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