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Turning 100...


This year, two more classics of cinema will be entering that most scantly populated of clubs: Over a century old! And yet, as far as 1921 goes, you'd be hard pressed to find two examples more dissimilar.

The first is the Charlie Chaplin comedy drama, The Kid. Chaplin's first feature length film as director, it's credited with inventing the dramedy genre, and remains one of the most iconic and popular films of the entire silent era.

The Tramp takes in orphaned child, and the two run a scheme: The Kid chucks rocks through windows, and the Tramp offers his services to repair them, getting the both of them into trouble along the way. The bond between these two is beautiful, and the entire film approaches its subject with tenderness, likely due to its semi-autobiographical nature (Chaplin grew up in poverty and lost a son only two years before). If you ask a general movie goer what impression the film had on them, outside of telling you how funny they find it, you'll most commonly hear them talk about their own kids, or fathers. That is an emotional authenticity so palpable, it works just the same today as it did when it was conceived.

Charlie is unsurprisingly great as the doting father figure, but what the 5-year-old Jackie Coogan pulls off is nigh-on-impossible. He never seems out of place, bored, or staged (as one might expect a toddler to be at least once), and when he cries out for his “father”, having been separated, it is absolutely heart-breaking. Never more will you want to enter the screen and let someone know; “It's okay, it's only pretend.”

Uniquely dramatic and comedic for its time (opening with the title card: A picture with a smile, and perhaps, a tear), whilst it isn't Chaplin's absolute best, it and City Lights do hold the distinction of being his most emotionally affecting efforts. It also houses an absolute standout sequence from his work; one of the great chases in film history. A group of manhandling welfare officers have apprehended the Tramp, and are taking the Kid, clutching to his leg and then crying out from the back of a wagon, away from him. The Tramp makes a frantic clamber over the rooftops, pursued by an officer, and follows the wagon down the streets. Of course it isn't necessarily the filmmaking itself that makes this such a great chase in the traditional sense, it is the unbelievable sense of involvement it commands over an audience. You desperately want them to be reunited.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have the early Swedish horror fantasy from prolific director and star Victor Sjöström, The Phantom Carriage, low on sentimentality and full of fantastical effects which allow spirits to phase through walls and walk on waves, and souls to leave their bodies.

The film is a Dickensian allegory, wherein an abusive, monstrous drunkard, who has infected his wife with TB and lead his family to ruin, is taken for a ride by the Grim Reaper in flashback to see how it all went wrong, and what is still at cost. Though it wasn't the only cinematic personification of death to come out of 1921 (Fritz Lang's Destiny), this particular incarnation of the strict master, a deceased friend of the drunkard cursed to reap souls for one year until the drunkard is meant to replace him on New Year's Eve, had a profound impact on Ingmar Bergman. The Swedish filmmaker would go on to have his Death face off against man in a game of chess. As a show of appreciation, he cast Sjöström in Wild Strawberries, with its own phantom carriage.

The film is a spiritual predecessor to The Shining; they both interpret alcoholism and corrosive self-centrism symbolically through horror fantasy, and feature unnerving sequences where men viciously break down doors with axes to get to their cowering families. While it certainly has room to pontificate, the film is first and foremost a moody, dramatic morality play, punctuated by (forgive the pun) haunting imagery. The Phantom Carriage today is amazingly forward thinking, and a marvel for its ingenuity in atmosphere and candid exploration of distressing subject matter.

Two very different films. Different goals, different legacies, different continents, and so on. What they do have in common is a mixing and melding of genre elements, the likes of which the public had never seen up to that point, and which keep them refreshing and invigorating watches to this day. Here's to the next 100.

 
How Do You Like Your Music Biopics?


We’re experiencing something of a renaissance for music biopics. The tropes have been firmly in place since Walk the Line and Ray, but popularity hit its peak only 3 years ago when the Queen (by way of Freddie Mercury) biopic made nearly a billion dollars. We now have about 18 music biopics in the pipeline, and I hope that means we can expect 18 distinct films, but I'm not too sure. The parody Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story played out all of banalities of the genre, extenuating how terribly on the nose these films can get, and in the 14 years since, few have taken the hint.

Even worse than overly familiar stories, at their worst, these films let the music and creativity of the artists down. The saving grace of almost all of them are the stars, who typically knock it out of the park, in likeness, style and persona. Tilda Cobham-Hervey in I Am Woman, Don Cheadle in Miles Ahead, and the spectacular Chadwick Boseman in Get On Up come to mind. But the two most notable modern examples of the genre are undoubtedly Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman. So whose lead would I prefer the upcoming films take?

Bohemian Rhapsody is a very solid production and it does a good job of getting people swept up in Queen's success story, going through the motions when it comes to painting band frontman Freddie Mercury's personal growth. I would say it trades the lively fantasy of traditional musicals for a realistic take on Freddie's life, but that's not really true. The film plays fast and loose with the facts, mostly to reframe the Live Aid performance as the climactic victory of the band over their squabbles, and Freddie over his problems with the band, drugs and having to come to terms with his AIDS diagnosis.

In reality, at the time of the concert, the band had not broken up, they enjoyed and encouraged each other to do solo work, Freddie continued taking drugs well into his illness; and wouldn't find out about his HIV-status until April 1987. It's all to invest the audience in the, admittedly rapturous, concert finale. It's an engrossing sequence, not the least because it communicates the titanic importance of witnessing that moment in history (either as someone after Queen's time, longing for their missing untouchable Rock God status, or to relive it). The music, the moves, the sense of community is all so palpable that it leaves a sweet taste in your mouth, and disguises an otherwise serviceable movie. Rather watch the real thing.

Other than the concert, the best moment of the film comes when Freddie has to come out to his wife, while his performance of Love of my Life, written earnestly to her, plays on the television. Also undeniable is the draw of Rami Malek's performance, which accomplished the impossible by largely satiating the masses who felt that there is only one Freddie, and no substitute. That remains true, but Malek takes a phenomenal crack at it, imitating Freddie's mannerisms without falling into parody, and capturing his slinking, bouncing, charming theatricality.

Rocketman, Elton John's biopic, is thoroughly entertaining the whole way through, wonderfully original and so propulsive that you never notice the film crescendo-ing to its conclusion (it's just too involving). Freddie is corrupted by fame into hedonism at the cost of his true family; the band. Elton also climbs the dangerous ladder of pop stardom, but his problem is feeling that no-one in his life truly loves him, as he wants to be loved. Having to be whatever everybody else wants you to be, because you think you won't have anyone if you try to be yourself. It's a far more relatable feeling being communicated, and more difficult to solve. Freddie just has to get over himself and value the people who matter in his life. Elton has built so many ways to give the people what they want, so that he won't feel unloved. Stopping, understanding that he needs to work on himself, not being everything to everyone, means abandoning his coping mechanisms for no certain substitute. It makes the significance of self-love clear, and it doesn't make it soppy.

The film marries this improved drive with inventive sequences that beautifully speak to Elton's state of mind, paired seamlessly with his music, and gets to be almost as camp as Elton himself at points. It seems a little by the books in the first 20 minutes, but it hits its stride and only gets better as it goes on.

As for its best scene? I don't think I will ever forget the image of Elton, having downed a cocktail of pills, floating weightlessly above his vulnerable young self, in a space suit, sat at his piano at the bottom of the vast emptiness of what, a moment ago, was his pool, as the echoes of Rocketman begin to play. It's a perfect microcosm of the film; a flash of divine inspiration and beauty, striking at the darkest moment in Elton's life.

I wholeheartedly prefer the Rocketman slant. It distils the life of its subjects into an expression not unlike their music, and I think that makes for a more fulfilling experience for fans of the musician. The next big music biopic slated for release (not that anything keeps its release date these days) is Respect, chronicling Aretha Franklin’s life. I’ve got a feeling that South African born director Liesl Tommy won’t be taking a fantastical approach.

 
The Beatles on Screen


With Peter Jackson's Get Back documentary delayed again, I realized that we've yet to see a real blockbuster tell-all bio-pic about the most influential band of all time, and got to thinking about what we've gotten instead. That is, films about the Beatles, fictionalized or otherwise, not just featuring them as performers, or their music (SPL!NG already covered the romcom Yesterday).

The best Beatles films happen to be the ones they were directly involved in, whether it be the inventively casual comedy of A Hard Day's Night, the broader slapstick of HELP!, or the psychedelic and imaginative animation of Yellow Submarine (where the Beatles are voiced by performers, only to show up for the final scene, because they liked the film too). Of their original run, only Magical Mystery Tour was poorly received, too loose and strange even for their flower power followers. Still, each of these is driven by the strength of the fab four's music, in its original form, and their distinctive sense of humour.

Once John Lennon started dating Yoko Ono, the two began creating experimental films, always under the credit of “by John and Yoko” (which translates roughly to “by Yoko”). John only features in a handful of them; Apotheosis, shot from a hot air balloon ascending into the clouds, Smile, in which he goes from stone faced to a cheeky grin repeatedly in super slow motion (taking about 51 minutes) and most curiously, Self-Portrait. This one is 42 minutes of John's nude waist, as his unassisted member… well, you can guess. Hilariously, Yoko already had a film called Erection, about a building being constructed. I figure these aren't exactly the sorts of films Beatles fans are clambering for.

Unfortunately, the height of the band's fame and creative output tends to be the realm of documentaries; most movies opt to explore the nebulous early period, spanning from before the Cavern Club to performing on the Ed Sullivan show. There's the fairly dated Birth of the Beatles, which at least manages not to play favourites with members, and the much better Backbeat, about the band's early connection to Stu Sutcliffe. Backbeat can rub fans the wrong way, since the mop tops are depicted performing modernised, punk covers of the songs they were performing at the time. Both films opt to only suggest the vast heights to come, and this might be for the better. Some biopics try to condense so much that they fall a little flat (this could be especially true of the Beatles, none of whom had a particularly clear life story, and who experienced more intermittently amazing and horrible things in individual weeks then some musicians do in their lifetimes).

Most biopics covering the members as individuals focus on John Lennon, who's untimely death mythologized him and inspired something of a consensus that he was the world's most beloved Beatle, which is only being challenged more recently. The best Lennon centric biopic is Nowhere Boy, which explores John's early life and his relationship with Paul as they first became writing partners, but of particular note is how the film investigates John's feelings towards his absent mother, who re-enters his life. Listening to the music he wrote about her, sometimes sounding romantic and weaving in verses about Yoko, it isn't difficult to feel that John had a strange view of his mother, and the film occasionally pushes this to appear downright oedipal. Plenty of these movies don't shy away from criticizing Lennon, but Nowhere Boy is the only one to bring this forward, and perhaps not coincidentally, the only film co-written by a family member. My favourite exclusively Lennon film, or rather short film, remains I Met the Walrus, animated musings from John, recorded by a 14-year-old Jerry Levitan, who snuck into a hotel room to interview him in 1969.

The next most popular Beatle over is Paul, whose wife got a movie before he did (The Linda McCartney Story). For my money though, George Harrison needs more attention on this front. Specifically, January 1969, the start of the Let It Be sessions, during which George's wife left him, and he quit the group. It seems to me that this time in his life is a good confluence of George's personal problems with infidelity, the band's falling out, and his emerging artistry during an infamous moment in the Beatle's history, and would make for an interesting movie.

P.S. Ringo has no biopic, despite ironically having been in the most films of any of the four, being a decent actor. The closest we have is a bizarre TV special featuring Ringo Starr in a dual role as himself, and his fictional brother Ognir Rrats, who trade places in a Prince and the Pauper scenario. It's on YouTube for free (creatively titled: Ringo), and it is just as goofy as it sounds.

 
Ster-Kinekor Enters into Business Rescue


Ster-Kinekor holds the largest market share of any exhibitor in South Africa and has been in operation for over 50 years. Having survived the introduction of television to our country in 1976, they've been able to stave off changes in media consumption made possible through the Internet. Using their big screens and advances in cinema technology to stay a step ahead of the convenience of home entertainment theatres, they've managed to stay relevant to audiences. While streaming services have undercut them by way of cost and convenience, they've converted their offering to include VIP and technology-driven experiences at a higher ticket price.

Part of their success has been the cinema chain's clinical business approach to screening movies for the public. Slick, exciting and checking all the boxes for a typical movie night, their audiences have simply been numbers. While this may be good for business, it doesn't demonstrate an on-the-ground approach to customer service. The concept of movie-going is now seen as occasional rather than regular, downplaying its focus across media outlets. While escapist blockbuster franchises have spurred box office takings, attendance has been steadily dropping due to high prices and in-theatre niggles.

The Covid-19 pandemic has devastated many industries, including movie theatres, and it's amazing they've managed to survive almost a year given the drastic limitations of the new health and safety protocols. Major new releases have been delayed to the point that they're even at risk of a tepid response when they eventually land after months of ongoing coverage. The climate is uncertain and studios are holding back, making it incredibly challenging to anticipate what lies over the horizon.

For Ster-Kinekor going into business rescue is sensible if not a last resort. It's a chance to weather the next few months while still operating, giving them some breathing room to take stock and tackle the next few months ahead. Their strategy has basically been wait-and-see, which probably made sense in the first few weeks of the global response, considering previous viral fall out. Possibly taking cues from the roll out of forthcoming attractions, the capacity restrictions and hesitation from audiences has made them financially distressed and in need of business rescue mediation.

The cinema chain has tried some diversification by backing a drive-in format and introducing a subscription club but inaction, global trends and government regulation have left them in a stalemate. Not having a strong emotional connection with audiences, rolling with entertainment trends, attending to in-theatre disturbances or acknowledging the threat of disruptors could cost them dearly. It's not just Ster-Kinekor, one of the more successful commercial enterprises, it's the story of old school cinemas across the planet. Let's hope that enough loyal patrons can step up to help save the iconic Ster-Kinekor brand and other movie theatres, who are also struggling to keep their doors open. Perhaps this much-needed shake up will enable them to deconstruct their business and re-engineer it to last for the next 50 years.

 
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