The Pianist: a potentially great film let down by shallow characterisation and a bland and thin plot

Roman Polanski, “The Pianist” (2002)

Polanski has been a very significant director capable of making very moving and epic films with a strong message about the survival of vulnerable individuals in situations that threaten to overwhelm them psychologically and spiritually as well as physically. In “The Pianist” though, the objective of translating the memoirs of Polish pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman (1911 – 2000), who survived Nazi German occupation of his homeland in spite of the dangers that faced him as a Jew, seems to have defeated the Polish director. While the film appears on the surface to be faithful in recounting the events that Szpilman observed and sometimes participated in, and is restrained in the way it portrays violence and brutality, it makes little attempt to study its protagonist’s psychology and his reactions to the brutality that robs him of his family and everything he has ever known, in addition to chronicling what happened in Warsaw from the time Poland was invaded by Nazi Germany in September 1939 to its liberation by the Soviet Army in 1945. The result is a film that can feel very arduous and bland with a thin story stretched even thinner by the film’s 140-minute length.

The film follows Szpilman (Adrien Brody) from the time he and his family are rounded up in Warsaw and forced into a crowded ghetto with other Jewish families where they all try to keep up the appearance of a normal society – Szpilman finds work playing piano in a cafe for upper class Jews – while food supplies gradually dwindle and the overcrowding that occurs as more Jews are pushed into the ghetto leads to unsanitary conditions resulting in poor health and disease. Eventually everyone is forced to walk to the train station where they will be transported in cattle trucks to the Treblinka concentration camp. Szpilman is pulled away in time by a Jewish Sonderkommando police officer while the rest of his family is sent to the camp; Szpilman will never see his parents or his siblings again.

From then on, Szpilman struggles to survive inside and outside the Warsaw Ghetto with the help of others, including former fellow Polish Radio employees Andrej Bogucki (Ronan Vibert) and his wife Janina (Ruth Platt). Szpilman helps supply ammunition to ghetto inmates planning a revolt against the Nazi oppressors (this is the famous Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of April 1943) and later witnesses the Warsaw Uprising, undertaken by the Polish underground resistance movement, in mid-1944. Like the Jewish revolt, this uprising fails, and in their anger the Germans systematically destroy the whole of Warsaw. Szpilman flees the apartment where he is hiding and find shelter in an attic of a house which turns out to be the headquarters of a Nazi German army unit. A German officer, Wilm Hosenfeld, discovers Szpilman in hiding and learns that he is a pianist. Hosenfeld allows Szpilman to stay in the attic, if Szpilman will play the piano for him when he visits with food and clothing.

Watching Brody as Szpilman, good as he is and thoroughly deserving of the Academy Award for Best Actor won in 2003, I could not but feel that the character is essentially passive and helpless, and survives mainly through luck and the beneficence of others including the Wehrmacht officer. There are not enough moments in the film where Szpilman is inspired by thoughts of once again performing for Polish Radio or in concerts to continue living. His scenes with significant others such as Hosenfeld, the Boguckis and a radical activist in the Warsaw Ghetto are rather perfunctory and the audience has no real sense of these people making a deep impression on Szpilman. (For that matter, the characters of these people are also woefully under-developed.) At the end of the film, Szpilman seems little different from his youthful self back in September 1939. His effort to find Hosenfeld after the war is treated too sparingly and seems like an afterthought tacked inserted into the film’s coda. What might have helped the film develop some psychological depth is occasional moments where Brody’s voice narrates from the English translation of Szpilman’s memoirs passages of conversations he has with the people who save his life, what they talk about, what he thinks of them and they of him. The unlikely friendship between a starving, sickly Jew and the Nazi officer could have been invested with curiosity on the part of both about each other, what each thinks the other will do after the war and if he will have any regrets about the war and his participation in it.

With a flat matter-of-fact story culled from the memoirs, lacking in much insight, combined with a minimal style of direction and cinematography, the film seems much too long, especially in its middle part where Szpilman scurries from one hiding-place to another and major events happen around him as a helpless observer, and viewers not familiar with the history of Warsaw and Poland during the Second World War will become bored very quickly.

The film does work very well as a fictional chronicle of the tragedies that befell the Jewish community in Warsaw and of the failed revolts against the Nazis that resulted in the petulant actions the German occupiers took against the city itself by razing the majority of its buildings to the ground and destroying its culture. In its own minimalist way, “The Pianist” can be very moving and quite emotional as Szpilman manages – but only just – to survive the war and rejoin Polish Radio. Unfortunately though the plot is too paper-thin and the characters not defined enough for the movie to be more than just good.

The Queen of Versailles: portrait of a billionaire family living the American Dream and exploiting it to excess

Lauren Greenfield, “The Queen of Versailles” (2012)

Originally intended as a documentary on the construction of one of the largest single-family detached houses in the United States, this film ended up being a character study investigation of the house’s owners, David and Jackie Siegel, after David Siegel’s timeshare resort company Westgate Resorts crashed in a mountain of debt during the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 and the Great Recession that came soon after. Following the Siegels as they try to cope with the fall in their fortunes to the extent of having to fire thousands of employees and most of their domestic servants, and putting their unfinished home up for sale at a time when others are dumping their houses on the market as well, the film becomes a fly-on-the-wall observer of this particular American Dream gone badly sour and the effect it has on one family’s relationships and the family members’ characters. Not commenting on the Siegels’ behaviour and excesses, and the sometimes abominable ways in which they treat their employees and household staff, the film forces viewers to make up their own minds about the character and morality of David and Jackie.

The astonishing aspect of the film is not the way in which the various characters, in particular David and Jackie Siegel, react and behave in the wake of their misfortune, nor the devastation they leave behind, nor even their children’s maturity in coping with their straitened circumstances compared to the parents’ own immaturity, but in how completely open the Siegels are in allowing the film-makers to track them and the ways in which they deal with the changes in their circumstances. Jackie copes by going on compulsive shopping splurges which result in a lot of waste and a considerable number of pet animals (bought for her children, who number eight in total plus a niece) dying unnecessarily because no-one knows how to look after them – the hired staff did all that but they’ve been let go – but she is clearly devoted to her husband and children, and is prepared to downsize her lifestyle. Her obsession with plastic surgery stems from a background of having been abused by her first husband and her desire to please her second husband David who – perhaps unsurprisingly – turns out to be the more contemptible figure. A Scrooge-like figure, David Siegel is uninterested in his younger children’s welfare – he has not even set aside money for their future education – and regards Jackie as a tiresome trophy wife cum compulsive shopper. Siegel’s idea of fun is to surround himself with 50 Miss America contestants in his home during a reception to promote the pageant: is this creepy or not for a man in his 70s?

One important part of the documentary is its description of the parasitic business model Westgate Resorts used that was the foundation of the Siegels’ excessive wealth: the company sold timeshare mortgages to people who dreamed of owning vacation homes for two weeks each year: homes that they would have to share with 26 other starry-eyed owners who were also sold timeshare mortgages, regardless of their ability to pay. Siegel then bundled these mortgages together in packages and used them as collateral to borrow even more money from banks to build more resorts which were then sold to more ordinary working folks who had to buy timeshare mortgages … and so the cycle continued. This particular house of cards was bound to collapse along with the banks that pursued similar lending policies once their respective vacation home and property bubbles burst. Once the money dries up and Westgate Resorts’ business model falls apart, Siegel becomes obsessed with holding onto a lavish hotel in Las Vegas. This means 7,000 Westgate Resorts employees are suddenly thrown into unemployment queues (presumably with no advice as to how to find work and no employment references) and the household staff are cut down with no thought as to how the Siegel children will be affected. Two nannies from the Philippines speak of how working for the Siegels has impacted on their families back home: one woman has not seen her children, siblings and parents for years on end.

As the weeks, months and eventually years drag on, the family’s financial situation becomes even more dire and relationships among the Siegels become very estranged. David Siegel retreats into his office amid a tower of papers and bills he refuses to pay, and doomsday in the form of a letter from the ban informing the couple of impending foreclosure encroaches upon them. While initially Jackie Siegel continues to stack up mounds of shopping, few of which she or her children need, the blonde bombshell turns out to be more realistic than her husband: she begins donating unwanted toys, clothes and other items to charity, she teaches her daughters how to prepare family meals and she anticipates having to move into a four-bedroom home that will be physically squeezy for a family of ten but plenty of room for steadfast and unconditional love (mostly coming from her).

At the end of the film, the family’s manifold problems remain unresolved but Jackie holds her head high as she surveys the crumbling ruins of her Versailles home and gardens. Whatever her faults and weaknesses, one has to admire Jackie for her lack of guile, her pluck and her loyalty to her family and friends. She tries to help an old school-friend keep her home by giving her $5,000 but unfortunately once the friend’s bank starts foreclosure proceedings, it insists on going through to the bitter end and the friend loses her home. On the other hand, David Siegel elicits little sympathy from viewers for his greed, his lack of reflection and his pathological need to hang onto that hotel in Las Vegas against all advice. Incredibly he boasts about having put George W Bush in power as US President before having second thoughts about admitting to doing something illegal and undemocratic to strangers who might report him.

Most viewers outside the US will wonder at the kind of psychopathic society that enables people like David Siegel and his company, and financial institutions to prey on and exploit the dreams and hopes of ordinary Americans for a better life, if not a luxurious one given to excess, and through their own short-sighted stupidity, avarice and incompetence bring a whole society crashing down in a succession of debt bubbles, in the process wiping out the middle class and sending huge numbers into poverty and destitution.

Since the documentary was made, David Siegel attempted to sue the film-makers but failed. Jackie Siegel appeared on Celebrity Wife Swap. In mid-2015, the couple’s 18-year-old daughter Victoria died from an accidental overdose of methadone. Westgate Resorts has recovered to become a lucrative timeshare business once again, employing some 4,700 people and earning billions in sales revenues. The Siegels may one day be able to complete the construction of their Versailles mansion and move in.

The Shape of Water: a magic realist mash-up of several genres lays on identity politics and self-indulgence too thickly

Guillermo del Toro, “The Shape of Water” (2017)

Inspired by the famous Hollywood classic “The Creature from the Black Lagoon”, Mexican director Guillermo del Toro delivers his homage to that film and Hollywood’s Golden Age in this magic realist mash-up of horror, science fiction, romance, spy thriller, musical and political / social commentary.  The main plot – a “Beauty and the Beast” recreation – is straightforward and quite thin, and the Beast is very much under-utilised to this viewer’s disappointment. What makes the film work is the various little sub-plots, several of them admittedly very undeveloped little hints to the point of being stereotypes, that flesh out minor characters and make them interesting in their own right, with a subtle message about how people live and cope in a highly restrictive and conformist society. The film is set in the early 1960s during the Cold War at its most paranoid and thus becomes a criticism of the current world political climate in which Russia is being constantly demonised by an American empire whose politics, economy, culture and influence are in severe decline.

The film bears comparison with del Toro’s earlier “Pan’s Labyrinth”: both begin and end as Gothic realist fantasies about fairy princesses born as fragile humans who undergo trials that test their mettle to prove they are worthy of their royal heritage. Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) begins life as an orphan baby found beside a river with neck injuries that prevent her from being able to speak. She grows up mute and finds work as a cleaner at a secret government science laboratory in Baltimore. Fellow worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer), an African-American, befriends her and learns how to interpret Elisa’s sign language for the other staff and their employers. Outside work, Elisa lives alone in an old, dilapidated apartment above a movie theatre next door to unemployed graphic artist Giles (Richard Jenkins) with whom she shares a love of old musicals and romantic comedies.

Not much happens for a long time until the laboratory receives a strange creature captured in South American by US Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon). Curious, Elisa discovers the creature is an amphibious humanoid (Doug Jones) and feels pity for it, especially as Strickland treats it cruelly by administering electric shocks with a cattle-prod. She secretly visits the creature and though neither can speak, they form a fast bond.

On discovering that Strickland has been ordered to kill and dissect the creature for any anatomical features that might benefit the US in its race against the Soviet Union to put humans into space, Elisa determines to rescue and eventually free the creature. She enlists Giles in an elaborate scheme to get the creature out of the facility. Zelda is quickly co-opted into helping Elisa and Giles as is also Dr Hofstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), a scientist who happens to be a Soviet spy and who has been ordered by his handlers to kill the creature against his beliefs that it deserves to live for further study.

Elisa keeps the creature in her bath-tub at home and plans to release it into the city canal when the rains come and the canal opens into the sea. Meanwhile Strickland searches for the creature and interrogates the two cleaners without much success. An incident involving the creature, Giles and the artist’s two cats reveals the creature’s ability to heal wounds and delay some symptoms of advancing age. Over time, Elisa and the creature become romantically and sexually involved but as the days pass, the creature’s health deteriorates and Strickland begins to close in on this very odd couple in his search, especially once he discovers Hofstetler’s Russian identity after the scientist is shot by his handlers and tortures him for information about who is holding the creature and where.

The acting is very good with the stand-out performance being Michael Shannon’s tortured Strickland who, although a villain through and through, manages to elicit sympathy as a man who desperately desires approval and acceptance in a culture and a hierarchy that demand a great deal of him and more. He lives what del Toro imagines a typical social-climbing upper middle-class life-style in a stylish house with a submissive wife and two rambunctious children, and gives in to a salesman’s smooth pitch to buy the latest model Cadillac. What happens to the car later on helps emphasise Strickland’s existential torment as a human hamster who has willingly chained himself permanently to a never-ending capitalist wheel of constant material consumption and the need to prove himself to his superiors, his family and society at large. At some point in the film, after the grilling he gets from his superior, Strickland seems to realise that his situation is hopeless, that no matter how hard he tries he will never gain the approval he has sought all his life and this realisation throws him into a blind rage against Elisa, Zelda, Dr Hofstetler and the creature that endangers them all.

Elisa, Zelda and Giles are essentially marginal characters who through no fault of their own will never be accepted by a highly racist, prejudiced and judgemental society and who are more or less resigned to living on its edges. Elisa and Giles find relief from life’s daily grind through their friendship and their love of old Hollywood flicks. The actors playing these characters invest them with quirky spirit, with the result that viewers come away feeling that Zelda especially is a much under-used character. Dr Hofstetler comes across as a man of conscience despite his duplicity.

The cinematography is often very imaginative with ingenious segues from one scene to another suggestive of dreaming or seeing something through water. Dark colours emphasising the paranoid Cold War atmosphere and the characters’ isolation prevail throughout the film. In spite of all this, del Toro inserts comedy and a fantastical sequence in which Elisa gives vent to her dream of starring in her own B&W musical playing a Ginger Rogers to Fred Astaire … and guess who plays the Astaire role!

True, parts of the plot are forced – how does the creature manage to learn sign language so quickly? and Elisa’s scheme to rescue the creature and the help she gets from Zelda and Hofstetler strains credibility – and the identity politics aspect is painted very thickly. There’s no reason to assume that gays, handicapped people, non-white people and others who don’t conform to the heterosexual white alpha male archetype will readily help one another against a common foe in a highly stratified society as early 1960s, pre-Civil Rights America. Male characters tend to have some weakness or character flaw while female characters are steadfast with inner strength despite outward vulnerability. For some viewers, the film packs in far too much in the way of different genres, that some sub-plots appear stereotyped, and Elisa’s fantasy musical dream sequence may stretch patience too far.

Above all, as social and political commentary and criticism, the film is shallow and offers no new insights or perspective on US capitalism as a system that divides and then slowly grinds and destroys people, and through its hostility towards other social and political systems (such as Communism) and nature generally, distorts those other systems and draws them into a downward spiral of mutual paranoia, suspicion and further hostility. Compared to “Pan’s Labyrinth”, this particular fairy tale is lacking in punch.

The obsession with past Hollywood glories is becoming a feature of many Hollywood films now and draws this viewer’s attention to the general decline in the movie industry, in its ability to create or find new stories to tell and new or revitalised ways of telling them. Poaching movie directors as well as actors from foreign countries to the detriment of their film industries is another indicator of decline.

Rethinking Putin: stripping away Western criticism and fantasy, and painting a picture of pragmatic and steady leadership

Stephen F Cohen, “Rethinking Putin”, Annual Nation Cruise (2 December 2017)

Professor Stephen Cohen is a scholar and professor emeritus of Russian studies at Princeton University and New York University, and the spouse of Katrina vanden Heuvel who edits The Nation magazine, so perhaps it’s no surprise that he was invited to give a speech to the magazine’s subscribers on its annual cruise. He chose as his subject current Russian President Vladimir Putin who, if you believe Western mainstream news media, is Planet Earth’s equivalent of Star Wars villain Darth Vader, and in his speech sets out to show Putin as a major national leader of importance and a politician born of historic circumstances and political and economic trends in post-Soviet Russia.

Regrettably Cohen gets off on a wrong footing by stating that Putin has been in power for 18 years since early 2000; in fact, Putin was only Prime Minister from 2008 to 2012, second to President Dmitri Medvedev. During this period, Russia supported the Western call for a no-fly zone over Libya in 2011, such call leading to the NATO invasion of that country and its descent into chaos. Had Putin been President then, Russia most probably would not have supported a no-fly zone over Libya and the country might not have lost its independence and Colonel Muammar Gaddhafi. From then on, listeners are wise to be wary of any prejudices and limitations on Cohen’s part in discussing the extent to which Putin currently wields power in Russia as the current President. Anyway, Cohen observes the extreme and often hysterical demonisation of President Putin in the Western news media, and starts his talk proper by emphasising what Putin is not, rather than what he is. He emphasises that Boris Yeltsin as President from 1991 to 1999 behaved in a way that was highly authoritarian and corrupt, and presided over post-Soviet decline and deindustrialisation, often with the underhanded help of the US government, so any authoritarian tendencies in the current Russian administration or any corruption and concentration of wealth in the hands of an oligarchic elite did not start with Putin. Cohen also states that the killings of Russian journalists and prominent opposition figures did not begin during Putin’s early presidency. From there, Cohen strips further layers of Western criticism and fantasy about Putin.

For Cohen, Putin comes across as a reactive and conservative politician, especially in the realm of foreign policy, in the sense of attempting to preserve the status quo. Putin’s previous work in the KGB has had no bearing on his leadership style or the policies he pursues. In the last few minutes of his speech, Cohen outlines his idea of what Putin is: a young, inexperienced public servant who found a collapsing and unstable Russia, and who restores proper governance, stability and security to the country in a pragmatic system of “managed democracy”. This for Cohen extends to controlling to some extent what history and historical narratives can be passed from one generation to the next, so that young people have a sure idea of what Russia represents and what its values are: this is actually no more and no less what Western countries have done for much of the 20th century. To some extent, Putin represents a conservative, somewhat traditional segment of the Russian population (who might be called the silent majority in most Western countries) who desire to see Russia as a great power with a stable and robust economy, and a society with a clear direction not disturbed and riven by the agendas of competing social and cultural groups.

At this point, the talk breaks off just as Cohen warms up to discussing Russia’s treatment of its Jewish minority but the gist of his view of Putin has been established. Whether Cohen’s view is accurate, I have no idea, not knowing any more about Russia or Putin than most people in the West do but it seems to me that to call Putin reactive and conservative in his foreign policy is doing him and his government an injustice. In an age where governments are expected to spring to action immediately over a major terrorist or other incident with no thought as to the consequences of such action, Russian delay in response, and the kind of considered action that does follow – and which often ends up flummoxing the US and its allies, and puts them in a bad light (which they richly deserve) – is no bad thing at all. One even senses that Putin takes mischievous delight in the considered actions he does take, especially if the West ends up with egg on its collective face.

Cohen paints a picture of a pragmatic and cautious leader who has steadily restored stability, security, economic and cultural progress, and most of all pride to Russia. He does not say anything about how Putin’s leadership has inspired the country to turn around from a failing and despairing post-industrial scrap-heap into a growing economic power in the space of less than 20 years; that could have been a very interesting discussion. At the very least though, Cohen gives us a vision of a country that has rediscovered a path to security and prosperity.

 

The King of Comedy: a dark and cynical work on the cult of fame and its dark twin, in a world where reality and fantasy may be one and the same

Martin Scorsese, “The King of Comedy” (1982)

I suppose most directors worth their salt who have amassed a considerable body of work have a sleeper film in there somewhere that initially bombed at the box office but which over the years has become a cult masterpiece. For US director Martin Scorsese, “The King of Comedy” lays good claim to being that film: in spite of its title and the presence of actors like Jerry Lewis and Tony Randall, this is a dark and often bitter and cynical work on the cult of fame and celebrity, and how notoriety, infamy and ignominy are its dark twin sister. Viewers are invited to sympathise with the film’s lead character Rupert Pupkin (Robert de Niro) who pursues purpose and meaning in his otherwise empty life, and who is unwilling (perhaps justifiably) to join the long queue of wannabe celebrity stand-up comedians doing time in clubs before indifferent audiences, telling the same jokes over and over, in the hope of breaking into showbiz, hobnobbing with other rich and famous actors and directors, earning millions and living a luxurious material (and just as spiritually empty) life, even as his fantasies combined with his lack of self-awareness lead him into carrying out desperate acts that end up pointing in one direction … to a maximum high-security prison for six years on charges of kidnapping.

Appropriately the film opens in an already disturbing way with late-night TV talk-show host Jerry Langford (Lewis in restrained form) being mobbed by autograph hounds and a deranged woman (Sandra Bernhard) who believes herself to be in love with Langford and he with her. Pupkin uses the commotion she creates to ask Langford if he can appear on his show; Langford tells Pupkin to contact his secretary. Pupkin does so the next day and the secretary (Shelley Hack) asks him to produce a tape of his work. Pupkin obliges and after hearing the tape, Langford’s staff advise him to get some work experience and polish his act. All through Pupkin’s encounters with Langford and his staff, viewers see that Pupkin is at once naive and deranged, and detached from the reality around him. The truth is that Pupkin is a mediocre talent with no social life and no connections that could get him a gig in a club.

As Pupkin becomes more demented, convinced that Langford has befriended him and is willing to be his mentor, the aspiring comedian begins to stalk his office and his home, and it is here that viewers see something of Langford’s personal life and the heavy price he has had to pay on the road to fame and fortune. While Pupkin aspires to become famous to escape the hell of poverty, loneliness and anonymity, Langford is a bitter and paranoid character insulated from the outside world by layers of lawyers, advisors and various hangers-on, all of them necessary to protect him from stalkers and fans who regard him as public property; there are occasions in the film where Langford escapes from his various cocoons to mingle with the crowds and feel anonymous. It is appropriate that the two men’s paths should cross repeatedly in the film to the extent that they exchange places and for one brief moment Pupkin achieves the fame he desires and Langford the anonymity he craves; in one scene where Langford sees Pupkin on TV, the grim and knowing expression on his face as he watches Pupkin is priceless.

The supporting cast is good to excellent: Sandra Bernhard as the equally deranged and lovelorn fashion designer Masha nearly steals every scene she shares with de Niro; other actors hold up their own without appearing to be overwhelmed working with Lewis or de Niro.

The blend of reality and Pupkin’s fantasy, to the extent where audiences are not sure whether the film’s denouement is one or the other, is smooth and just as disturbing as Pupkin’s own fragile grip on sanity. This suggests that the society in which Pupkin and others like him and Masha are able, sometimes even encouraged, to indulge their fantasies and resort to desperate actions is itself highly disturbed and also unable to distinguish between reality and fantasy. In a world where Western mainstream news media has become little more than a global public relations outfit for governments, corporations and the people behind them pursuing their own agendas and dreams of grandeur and self-importance, and the public is fed so-called news that bears no connection to real events, “The King of Comedy”, despite its ageing look – it was made over 35 years ago after all – still has something relevant to say to modern audiences.

Serpico: a character study of how one police officer’s personal crusade against corruption destroys him

Sidney Lumet, “Serpico” (1973)

As character studies go, “Serpico” is very good indeed: based on the biography of former New York City police officer Frank Serpico by Peter Maas, “Serpico” follows the career of its eponymous protagonist over a decade and a bit in the New York state police department as he gradually comes to realise the extent to which the force has compromised its own ideals and ethics and has become nothing more than just another gang of thugs – albeit well armed – susceptible to taking bribes, bending rules to suit itself, and ignoring the needs and safety concerns of the wider community it’s supposed to serve. He determines not to succumb to the blandishments of police force culture, however seductive they are, and to expose the system and indifferent attitudes of senior management to the public. Unfortunately this means that Serpico must isolate himself from his fellow police officers, well-meaning and kind they may be at times, to avoid succumbing to the same temptations they have fallen for, and the consequences for his personal life, his close relationships, his mental and physical health, and the later decisions he makes turn out to be severe. His fight against a corrupt institution and its insular culture is long and hard, and takes a heavy toll on him, and while Serpico’s battle is justified and the New York state police department finally decides to start cleaning up its organisation and culture, the police officer’s own health and career end up being shattered.

Al Pacino is suitably intense and fiery as Serpico, and throws himself right into the character to the extent where he lives and breathes Serpico, and has probably adopted some if not most of Serpico’s eccentricities as his own. For much of the film’s length, Serpico broods or glares at his superiors and other police officers – but the best moments are when his tough façade falls away and the vulnerable man, unsure that the path he has taken is the right one, lonely and afraid for his life and career, is exposed. Whatever his character is required to do, whether he beats up a drug-dealer, chases crooks, buys a lovable puppy or tries to reason with his girlfriends who threaten to walk out on him, Pacino handles all these and more without much strain.

The support cast varies from average to good, giving just enough to allow Pacino to dominate his scenes without overpowering them. The New York City urban landscape is a significant character in its own right: its buildings rundown, the streets and alleyways full of rubbish, and neighbourhoods harbouring drug rings, small-time criminals and others whose lives are affected by hard drugs and the gangs that supply them, the city may be enticing in its apparent promise to shower newcomers with fame and fortune if they work hard, obey the law and stay out of trouble, but it is also a cruel and demanding mistress to those who fail to achieve their versions of the American Dream.

The film’s pace is mostly leisurely and the plot takes its time to reveal itself in all its detail to viewers. At times “Serpico” feels more like a television series than a one-off biopic, so relaxed and low-key it is. Scenes come and go without much apparent resolution: we never do learn how the inquiry into police corruption proceeds and what conclusions it reaches and what recommendations it makes; and we must assume that the two women who love Serpico – not at the same time, mind you – never see him again. There may be something to be said for editing the film so it’s a little faster and more focused as it lurches towards that inevitable climax where he nearly dies. When the ending comes, it is completely unexpected and somewhat of a disappointment, even though if you know something of Serpico’s life or have read the Peter Maas book you know what’s going to happen, that it will be lacking in heroism or grandstanding speeches or a moral lesson. Viewers are forced to question the nature of true heroism and sacrifice, and to ponder whether the rightness of Serpico’s personal crusade more than compensates for nearly losing his life and having to give up the career he loves.

“Serpico” is an excellent example of the type of New Hollywood film, with its emphasis on realism and the focus on less advantaged levels of American society and their issues and problems of discrimination and poverty, post-Martin Luther King, that was being made in the 1970s. What a pity that such films are very rarely made these days, either by Hollywood or by independent film-makers.

Glenn Murcutt – Spirit of Place: a documentary as graceful as the man and the career that it describes

Catherine Hunter, “Glenn Murcutt – Spirit of Place” (2017)

A beautiful and graceful documentary as elegant as the architecture of the man whose work it documents, “Glenn Murcutt – Spirit of Place” is a good introduction not just to Murcutt’s career and the buildings he has produced but also to the way in which a particular architect goes about designing a building and collaborates with others (particularly builders) to complete a project. We see how and why Murcutt insists on overseeing every aspect and stage of a building’s design and construction, why his practice has remained a one-man practice and consequently why his body of work includes very few large-scale buildings, at least until he accepted a commission to design and build a mosque for the Newport Muslim community in Melbourne.

Through interviews with Murcutt, his past clients, other architects and members of the Newport Muslim community, film-maker Catherine Hunter demonstrates how Murcutt’s work responds to its environment and interacts with it in ways that produce a sense of serenity and being at one with that environment. The film traces Murcutt’s career from its early days and influences – including the influence of his parents’ house in Clontarf where he and his brother grew up – and showcases three houses (the Marie Short house in Kempsey, the Magney house on the NSW South Coast and the Simpson-Lee house in the Blue Mountains) that not only are the highlights of his long career but also show a distinctive style that adapts to the qualities of the building materials used and uses them to produce a feeling of lightness and quiet strength. This history is intertwined with Murcutt’s collaboration with the Newport Muslim community to design and build a mosque that embodies the community’s desire to proclaim its Australian and Muslim identity and to share its values of tolerance, compassion and grace with others, Muslim and non-Muslim.

The narrative traced by the film isn’t all punctuated by one success after another: the mosque construction is stalled by a shortage of funds and planning issues, and Murcutt suffers a personal tragedy through the untimely death of his son Nick from cancer, cutting short a promising career in following his father’s foot-steps. Some members of the Muslim community are unhappy with Murcutt’s radical design for the mosque. (Strangely, the film says nothing about local council reactions to the mosque or the reactions of other residents in Newport to the building.) These setbacks are overcome when the Newport Muslim community rally to support Murcutt in his time of grieving after his son dies.

Murcutt’s buildings are photographed in such ways as to emphasise their unassuming grace and beauty. The mosque, when completed, turns out to be something else altogether different: it’s still a marvel of design but it uses glass panes of different colours to lighten and allow light into a concrete building, and the geometrical forms of the extensions holding the glass panes in their own way follow past Islamic architectural design tradition in inviting onlookers to contemplate them and reflect on the structures of the universe and its cosmic maker.

The documentary is easy to follow and viewers quickly come to appreciate the unconventional path Murcutt has followed in his career, that enables him to maintain his style and uphold the values and beliefs about what architecture should do for people that style expresses. Not for him the major commercial commissions that might compromise his vision and values while enriching him and making him better known than he already is; his attitude is to hold fast in what he believes and desires for his clients and for Australian architecture generally.

The Post: a plea for freedom of speech and of the press, and for women’s progress in a film driven by dialogue and character study performances

Stephen Spielberg, “The Post” (2017)

A taut and minimalist political drama, “The Post” is driven by good dialogue and equally good if not outstanding character study performances by its three leading actors: Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks and Bob Odenkirk. The film is set in the early 1970s and is based on the struggle by whistle-blower military analyst Daniel Ellsberg and the newspapers The New York Times and The Washington Post (hereafter referred to as NYT and WaPo respectively) to publish the famous Pentagon Papers – classified government documents depicting the extent of covert US government involvement in the Vietnam War which included elevating Ngo Dinh Diem to the South Vietnamese Presidency and later assassinating him in a coup, and bombing Cambodia and Laos, and demonstrating that the US had no hope of winning the war against a determined Vietnamese population fighting for its independence – and the extraordinary measures the Nixon administration took to suppress their publication. The film focuses more narrowly on the efforts of WaPo owner Katherine Graham (Streep), WaPo executive editor Ben Bradlee (Hanks) and journalist Ben Bagdikian (Odenkirk) to publish the documents in spite of serious threats made against them including Bradlee losing his job and Kay Graham losing face among her Washington social set.

Initially the film is a bit all over the place, dashing from a Vietnamese jungle scene in which American soldiers are shot at and open fire in return, and the incident recorded by a war correspondent on the ground, emphasising the importance of good journalism in conveying accurate news about events to the public at home so people can decide whether the US should continue fighting a war where no-one seems to be winning and too many are dying; to Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) taking the documents and secretly copying them with the help of friends; to Graham and Bradlee going about their daily routines in running the newspaper. The film seems to take some time to settle into a clear linear narrative structure (or maybe I’m the one who needs time to see that structure) but once the plot emerges, it proceeds briskly, powered by lots of conversation and passionate performances, and the zigzagging from one plot strand to another and back becomes less distracting and is more easily understood. Spielberg applies some very deft editing to the ends and beginnings of scenes to maintain pace and tension, and bring some humour to relieve some tension when things seem a bit too hairy. His style is very restrained, allowing the actors to inhabit their characters. Background shots are very significant in establishing the look and style of the film.

Perhaps the film focuses too much on Kay Graham as a feminist icon and moulds her into a stereotypical socialite who inherits her father’s company and has to learn the hard way – being thrown into the deep end of the proverbial swimming pool and having to swim – of how to be an effective CEO among swarms of men more or less hostile to women in positions of power. In real life, by 1971 Graham had been running the WaPo for seven or eight years, having hired Bradlee in 1965, and was already as tough as nails in dealing with a sexist business world (though perhaps inwardly she was still shit-scared at times). The film’s message that Kay Graham was a lone feminist pioneer in being the first woman to head a major newspaper – and moreover, one that became famous for its investigative reporting under her reign – is underlined in heavy-handed fashion in scenes involving Bradlee’s wife Toni (Sarah Paulson) who initially is nothing more than a housewife but is later revealed as a talented amateur painter, and one particularly tacky scene in which Graham walks past a throng of fawning women in a crowd. These scenes do little to advance the plot.

As is Streep’s custom, she nails Graham’s look, gestures and manner of speaking to perfection. Hanks and other actors probably act more themselves though Hanks’ moment to shine comes when he contemplates a photo and wonders (in silence) whether his past friendships with significant American political figures have compromised his journalistic ethics.

The film makes a plea urging viewers to support accurate investigative journalism and whistle-blowing activism as vital elements in maintaining democracy and speaking truth to power, and to support gender equality as one link in enabling talented, committed people of integrity to become journalists or newspaper publishers who can bring governments and politicians to account. The film’s release comes at a time when freedom of speech and the press is under assault from governments, intel agencies, corporations and think-tanks pushing agendas and ideologies in which they have vested interests, as never before; it also comes at a time when identity politics based on gender, ethnic, religious and life-style interests has trumped class-based politics and threatens to divide and weaken the public, driving it into squabbling factions that can be dominated by The Powers That (Should Not) Be, like never before. Criticism of the Nixon government can also be read as implied criticism of the current Trump government, and there is some concession that even the past Democrat administrations of John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Lyndon B Johnson (1961 – 1968) lied to the American people and continued to prosecute a war in which not only did hundreds of US soldiers die but US soldiers also committed war crimes. There is much good that can be said for “The Post” but also much bad that can be said too.

Risk: a supposed character study about Wikileaks founder is a confused mess

Laura Poitras, “Risk” (2016)

Filmed over six years, its focus on the life of Julian Assange since he founded Wikileaks and obtained and released thousands of US government documents of evidence of American war crimes in Iraq since 2003, Laura Poitras’ “Risk” could have been an intriguing character study on what motivates Assange to continue doing what he does in spite of the enormous threats to his life and freedom from the US and its allies. Assange’s freedom of movement has been severely compromised since allegations of rape and subsequent rape charges were made against him by two Swedish women and the Swedish justice system respectively, and the UK prepared to extradite him to Sweden to face those charges; Assange feared such extradition would open the way for Sweden to then extradite him to the US to face espionage charges in a closed court with a grand jury, so he sought asylum (and was granted it) in the Ecuadorian embassy in London. Yet Assange and Wikileaks continue to release documents that expose US government duplicity, corruption and more war crimes.

We certainly get a sense of the paranoia that surrounds Assange holed up in the embassy and in the Norfolk country house where he lived previously, subject to a night curfew, and of the doubts, struggles and in-fighting within the Wikileaks community and its following. Unfortunately the film comes across as something of a mess that seems to gloss over many things or treats them in a desultory way despite the fact that the time-period it covers features some stupendous events: the so-called Arab Spring in 2011; Bradley Manning’s arrest, imprisonment, trial and imprisonment for giving Wikileaks documents on American war crimes in Iraq; Edward Snowden’s leaking of thousands of National Security Agency documents, demonstrating widespread and deep government surveillance of US citizens and others abroad with the co-operation of telecommunication companies and governments, to Poitras and journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewen Macaskill of The Guardian newspaper; and Wikileaks’ own release of US Democratic National Committee emails and emails by Hillary Clinton’s campaign staff showing how Clinton bullied the Democrats into making her their Presidential candidate over Bernie Sanders and various other actions of hers that demonstrate her unfitness for the US Presidency. Viewers not familiar with the topics touched on in the film will be mightily confused and will wonder how they all relate to one another. At times the documentary descends to the level of soap opera melodrama as Poitras admits in her voice-over narrative that she had an affair with Jacob Appelbaum who had been leading the Tor Project, a cyber-partner of Wikileaks. After the affair broke up, Poitras hears that Appelbaum apparently engaged in sexual abuse of another woman yet no charges were made against him.

Assange himself comes across as a complex, conflicted and contradictory figure, at times very remote yet passionate about what he fights for; at times arrogant and egotistical but concerned for Bradley (later Chelsea) Manning as the US private is treated horrifically while in prison and then at trial. Assange appears not to take the rape allegations and charges against him very seriously. Poitras seems to bounce from one viewpoint of Assange to another without ever being able to decide which viewpoint describes him best. The people who surround him are either gushy about him or fall out with him and don’t want anything more to do with him; it seems that Assange excites very extreme reactions in people.

For someone who had so much access to Assange and Wikileaks, Poitras has ended up making a film that says very little about Assange that people don’t know already. How Assange copes with the threats against him, the world closing in on him; how and why he continues on his personal crusade to bring truth about the use and misuse of power by political elites to the public despite the personal cost; what he believes is his future: all these issues that Poitras could have brought up in her film that could have made it great are missing.

All the Money in the World: a solid if dull and heavy-handed lesson on the importance of family ties (and how they’re exploited)

Ridley Scott, “All the Money in the World” (2017)

Intended as a character study on the ways in which people use and abuse power and wealth, “All the Money …” ends up a heavy-handed screed featuring various character stereotypes instead of characters based on actual people. The film revolves around the kidnapping of rich oil heir John Paul Getty III by ‘Ndrangheta mobsters in Rome in 1973. The 16-year-old Paul Getty III (Charlie Plummer) is spirited into the countryside by the Calabrian soldati who try to ransom him for US$17 million. News of the ransom is relayed to his mother, Gail Harris (Michelle Williams) and his grandfather John Paul Getty (Christopher Plummer) who respond in very different ways to the kidnapping: Gail is frantic at the news and desperate to get her son back, while JPG himself is more concerned that paying the ransom will only encourage more potential kidnappers to try to abduct his other grandchildren.

From there the movie dives into brief and hurried flashbacks to bring viewers up to speed on why Harris constantly implores old JPG for the money while the Calabrians wonder what the hold-up is and are becoming desperate with holding the boy and having to feed him. We learn that JPG was frugal and stingy with both his wealth and his love in his relationship with his son Paul (Andrew Buchan) who grows into a rather feckless husband and father while Harris tries to keep her family together and to pay the rent and other bills on time. Suddenly Paul Junior gets a job from JPG but it leads into too much easy wealth and pleasure, and before you know it, Paul Junior and Harris’ marriage ends in divorce. Harris gets custody of their four children but no alimony (courtesy of a vengeful father-in-law) so that when her eldest child is kidnapped, she is virtually penniless.

Flung back into the present day (of 1973), we viewers then follow two plot strands: Harris’ attempts to plead with and wheedle money out of a stubborn and miserly JPG and the kidnappers’ growing impatience with Harris, wondering why such a supposedly rich woman is taking so long to pay the ransom. In the meantime, JPG hires ex-CIA operative and current Getty Oil negotiator Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg in an underwhelming role) to investigate the kidnapping and rescue the boy … with as little expense, financial that is, as possible. The kidnappers, led by Cinquanta (Romain Duris), horse-trade Paul Getty III to their ‘Ndrangheta bosses – one of whom is Saverio Mammoliti (Marco Leonardi) – and the Calabrians scale up the intensity of their negotiations and their brutal treatment of their captive, culminating in the removal of his right ear and mailing it off to an Italian news media outlet to demonstrate that they mean business.

The acting is uneven: Plummer revels in his role as the scrooge oil billionaire, given that he stepped into the role at short notice after director Ridley Scott decided to replace Kevin Spacey as JPG and scrapped all that actor’s scenes after Spacey was hit with  allegations (as yet unproven at this time of review) of sexual harassment and assault. Plummer easily holds centre stage in all his scenes, pulling off JPG’s miserly, mean and manipulative behaviour in a way that cannot be resisted by those who come within his radioactive orbit. (I wonder if Spacey’s scrapped scenes are as good as Plummer’s and I suspect they are or possibly even better, and my suspicion that Spacey is the better actor might help explain why Scott rushed to replace all his scenes: a sterling acting performance would garner much audience sympathy for Spacey and none for his accusers.) On the other hand, Wahlberg has very little to do as the ineffectual Chase. Charlie Plummer’s Paul Getty III shows enough feistiness and bravado to combat the bumbling peasant gangsters and escape from them briefly; if he’d been given more to do, he might have become a character viewers could care about – but how much can a young teenage captive in the hands of a powerful criminal organisation do? Williams as the worried mother gives a good performance but again one has the impression that she could have given a lot more had her character been allowed more development. Minor cast members – in particular those playing JPG’s lawyers – put in serviceable performances as everyday people all looking out for number one. Indeed, the only character audiences are likely to have any sympathy for as a developed character is Cinquanta, the leader of the small-time crooks who kidnap the boy: his is the only character who appears to care for the boy as he is and who, in another universe, might have had a deep friendship with him in spite of their cultural and class differences.

Overall the film is solid if a bit slow for most modern audiences, and near the end of the film liberties are taken in the way Paul Getty III is eventually recovered, to maintain audience interest in a film of little action and mostly dull talk. Direction is competent without being outstanding – for Ridley Scott, his career high came early with “Alien” and “Blade Runner” and since then the career direction has been downhill, roller-coaster style – and the cinematography is good without being remarkable.

While the lesson about the importance of family vis-a-vis money is very sledgehammer earnest, it seems that everyone involved – even Gail Harris to some extent – is obsessed with wielding power and influence over others. For all the cultural differences between so-called money-hungry Americans and the supposedly family-loving and communal Italians, and how the rich and the poor live parallel lives and only rarely mix except in extraordinary events such as a kidnapping, there are moments in the film where the two opposed sides have more in common than perhaps even Scott and his script-writers realise: the Calabrian mobsters are prepared to press-gang their mothers and grandmothers into the drudgery of factory work making fake designer hand-bags, and have such a hold over their communities that even the police and ordinary citizens have to co-operate with them; Gail Harris finds the only way to extract anything from JPG is to think and act like him; and Chase uses the power he has in providing security detail for JPG’s family to berate and shame the old fellow. The times when an alternative and perhaps happier universe, free of the class antagonisms and obsession with material things and values, opens up are when Cinquanta and Paul Getty III have brief conversations but the script has no time or space to explore these short-lived possibilities.

Although the film has a happy ending, and the end credits suggest that JPG’s wealth was put to good use for the benefit of the American public, what transpired after Paul Getty III was reunited with his family is even more tragic than the kidnapping which came to define the oil heir’s life: suffering from trauma, much of it avoidable, from his abduction, the prolonged haggling over his ransom and the mutilation of his ear, Paul Getty III went off the rails with drink and drug addictions that climaxed in liver failure and a stroke at the age of 25 years. He lived as a partly blind and paralysed quadriplegic for the rest of his life until his death in 2011. At the same time, there were comic aspects to his abduction: many delays that occurred during his captivity were the result of postal strikes in Italy which meant that sometimes correspondence between his captors and his family and Italian police was slow; and the negotiations over the ransom money to the extent that the value of the teenager’s life went from a respectable US$17 million to a measly $4 million were at once petty and pathetic. A great director would have appreciated and tried to emphasise the tragicomic aspects of the defining event of Paul Getty III’s life and what they imply about how the pursuit of the capitalist dream deadens and ultimately kills the pursuer’s soul and sense of values. Unfortunately Ridley Scott is not that director – his approach and vision are too pedestrian.