Apr 152014
 

Lars von Trier, “Manderlay” (2005)

The sequel to “Dogville” is an interesting philosophical if rather slower and less action-packed inquiry on the nature of freedom and democracy and on the insidious effects of imperialism and slavery on societies. In particular, the role of those individuals or countries that free people from oppression and then try to teach or demonstrate democracy to the newly freed, and the hypocrisies often inherent in such actions, comes under scrutiny. Lars von Trier’s pessimism about humanity and its potential to overcome its flaws becomes an asset here: no matter that an angel comes to free people from their shackles and to teach them a new way of life that will help them achieve their full potential as individuals, people end up backsliding into habits and destructive ways of thinking and behaving because these have been ingrained in them by custom and social pressure.

After leaving Dogville in flames, Grace and her entourage of gangsters travel through Depression-era America and enter Louisiana where they come across a cotton plantation that’s so remote that the Civil War has never touched the place and it’s still being run as a slave plantation. Grace insists on staying on at the plantation with her father’s lawyer and a small group of hitmen so she can free the slaves and educate them for their new roles as free people. The white family is reduced to chattel and the former slaves become joint owners of the plantation and its output under contracts drawn up by the lawyer. Grace finds a code of conduct called Mam’s Law which places all the adult slaves in a hierarchy that allocates each slave his/her particular role and set of expected behaviours; this code disgusts her and she does away with it.

As the film progresses, various problems beset the utopian community. Some of these issues are of Grace’s doing: she orders trees around the plantation to be felled for timber, leaving crops vulnerable to the severe dust storm that devastates everything and leaves everyone starving. The community is forced to kill their only donkey to feed a sick child while all the women including Grace are reduced to eating dirt. The child dies from hunger and malnutrition and one woman confesses she had secretly stolen and eaten the child’s meals. The community then hold a trial and sentence the guilty woman to death.

Manderlay’s affairs steadily improve and the cotton harvest is brought in and sold. However one ex-slave, Timothy, steals the money earned from the cotton sale and wastes it in drink. Grace not only learns of Timothy’s misdeed but also discovers who wrote Mam’s Law and the reason this was done: it was done to maintain the slave hierarchy set up by Mam to help the ex-slaves survive together in a white-dominated world hostile to them. Thus do the ex-slaves turn the tables upon Grace who does not find the truth about Manderlay and her own conduct at Manderlay at all palatable.

The minimal stage settings help to distance the audience from the characters and the plot (as does also John Hurt’s narration) and throws the emphasis onto the plot and its nuances. The acting performances are surprisingly good and the young Bryce Dallas Howard, the daughter of director Ron Howard, not only inhabits and fleshes out Grace fully as a well-meaning liberal innocent but even shows her Dogville predecessor Nicole Kidman a lesson or two about injecting warmth and life into the character. The cast which includes Danny Glover, Willem Dafoe and (in a very small role) Lauren Bacall gives good support to Howard who appears in nearly every scene as the film’s narrative is so focused on her character.

The plot does seem quite predictable: once Grace gets the socialist community up and running, and given that Lars von Trier is God in this little universe, one can expect various disasters to afflict this little utopia and break it apart. Von Trier deftly shows how one mishap leads to another as a result of a decision Grace makes: this serves to show how one crucial choice, made wrongly if innocently, can have severe consequences later down the track and lead to profound ethical dilemmas beyond Grace’s ability to solve. In an effort to mould her followers into a model democracy, she makes one mistake after another (in effect becoming another slave-master after Lauren Bacall’s Mam) and becomes mired in her own hypocrisy as the people apply her lessons a little too diligently and eventually catch her out.

The film appears to be critical of both the oppressor and the oppressed: the oppressor for enslaving people in the first place, then “freeing” them but expecting them to conform to a new set of rules and over-riding or punishing the freed people when they follow the lessons too literally or don’t perform as expected; and the oppressed for retaining the habits and attitudes learned during their enslavement, not really wanting freedom and democracy, or using those institutions and ideals to satisfy their immediate physical needs and doing no more to enrich themselves or contribute to the advance of democracy. Grace’s utopia ends up more or less back at square one and one can’t help but think that Mam before her tried something similar to what Grace has attempted with the people on the plantation before. To a point Lars von Trier is right in condemning the two sides but what is missing is a critique of the economic and social system that made the institution of slavery and the mindsets it fostered in slave-owners and the enslaved alike possible. Grace makes the mistakes she does because she has no understanding of the economic and social context in which Manderlay was operating before she took over the place. She does not listen to the ex-slaves and they for their part are reluctant to criticise her or warn her of what she’s doing wrong as their leader. She forges ahead with grand plans about how to run the plantation without consulting with the slaves and the former slave-owning family about how things were done and how they might be improved rather than tossed away.

A superficial parallel can be drawn between Grace and American attempts to impose democracy and freedom across the world over the past century: the reality is that the US has always been cynical in bringing abstract ideals to other countries as a cover for controlling other people’s land and resources and divesting them of their wealth to benefit a few individuals in the American political and economic elite. At this point in time, the US is aiding a so-called government reliant on gangs of fascist thugs and imported mercenaries to impose harsh control and economic austerity on an unwilling public in Ukraine. The end result of the EuroMaidan putsch against a legitimate if corrupt government with violence is far from bringing democracy, prosperity and freedom to the Ukrainians – it is to sack Ukraine of its wealth and to install NATO missiles right up against the border with Russia, Russia itself ultimately being the target for daring to follow its own political and economic path and to support Syria against Saudi and Qatari-funded “rebels”. There is quite a lot in “Manderlay” that echoes current events and will continue to do so as long as the US remains arrogant and regards itself as a superpower not bound by the lessons and warnings of history.

On another level, the fact that Manderlay despite Grace’s best attempts at reform winds up as impoverished as before, with the “slaves” as enslaved as ever – and insinuating that Manderlay for all its apparent pre-Grace innocence is the way it is simply because the slaves prefer to be be slaves – probably tells us much more about von Trier’s narrow and rather pig-headed view of humanity and its potential for change, and his failure to research very deeply into the institution of slavery and how it degraded both the slave-owners and the enslaved alike, than it does about people. (Perhaps it is a coincidence after all that von Trier’s film was released a couple of years after the US-led coalition forces invaded Iraq; in the time after the invasion and before the film, news of atrocities inflicted by US and UK troops on Iraqi civilians filtered out to the West.) Passivity and acting according to the letter of the law may not necessarily indicate lazy, pleasure-seeking, unredeemable natures; they may be forms of rebellion and resistance, and Manderlay’s people have every right to suspect Grace of having ulterior motives in trying to force freedom and democracy on them if she is not honest with them about why she is doing what she does. There is little in the film to suggest that she shares her previous experiences with them as a way of being open. To return to the point I’m making, even Steve McQueen’s recent “12 Years a Slave”, limited as it was by its director’s vision and his tendency to make mountains out of certain mole-hills, did a better job of exploring the psychology of the master-slave relationship. One might have expected von Trier with his greater experience as a director and the opportunity offered by the script to explore the institution of slavery and its effect on human psychology and culture in some depth.

Apr 122014
 

Biyi Bandele, “Half of a Yellow Sun” (2013)

Adapted from the eponymous novel, written by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, by playwright / director Biyi Bandele, this film is a melodrama against the backdrop of the first decade of Nigeria’s independence from 1960 to 1970. The film centres around twin sisters Olanna (Thandie Newton) and Kainene (Anika Noni Rose) who at the beginning of the film are bubbly 20-somethings fresh from postgraduate studies and eager to break away from their parents who are members of Nigeria’s political / economic elite. Olanna shocks her parents by moving in with her university professor boyfriend Odenigbo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) in Nsukka and Kainene goes to Port Harcourt in southeast Nigeria to oversee Dad’s business interests.

Much of the first half of the film busies itself with Olanna’s tempestuous relationship with Odenigbo due in part to his mother’s interference which results in Odenigbo fathering a child with a servant. Olanna then sleeps with Richard (Joseph Mawle), Kainene’s fiancé, an act that is later to cause a rift between the sisters. In the meantime, Nigeria lurches from one political crisis to another, one military government after another, until the southeast province of Biafra declares its independence in 1967. Nigerian forces invade Biafra where the sisters are based and Olanna, Odenigbo, his daughter and faithful man-servant Ugwu (John Boyega) are forced to flee Nsukka. The four temporarily stay with Odenigbo’s mother but are forced to move again after Olanna and Odenigbo’s wedding is cut short by an air raid that kills one of their wedding guests. The four then go on to a refugee camp. Ugwu is called up to serve with Biafran forces and for a time is feared to be dead. Eventually Kainene and Richard, now her husband, rescue the four but further tragedy awaits them all.

The film tries to condense ten tumultuous years into just under 120 minutes and the result is a very patchy plot in which a few episodes of how the sisters and their men cope with ongoing war and the disruption it causes to them all. It’s best seen as a sort of Upstairs / Downstairs character study: the acting performances of the main characters are strong but the surprise performance is that of Boyega, whose character Ugwu has very little to say but proves to be the rock of stability for the sisters and their husbands. The couples tend to faff about and achieve little; if a message is to be taken away from the film, it might well be one about how the middle class and the intelligentsia as represented by the two couples were helpless during the civil war as they were targeted for killing by the military. For all his “revolutionary” (read: Marxist-socialist) ideas and debates, Odenigbo has no idea as to how to resist the military (much less his mum) and loses himself in drink. Richard is an ineffectual man who is dominated by Kainene but who finds deep reserves of love and courage when she goes missing.

The history lesson is very superficial and is portrayed mainly through insertions of actual newsreels of significant events in Nigeria. One has the feeling that the main characters are somehow disconnected from what’s happening around them during the early 1960s and as a result are caught like wide-eyed frightened rabbits looking into a car’s headlights as it bears down on them when war arrives in Biafra. Viewers need to have a good knowledge of the Nigerian civil war and its causes to make sense of the film. There is a chilling newsreel scene in which young boys are recruited as soldiers by the Biafran government and Ugwu himself is called to bear arms. A few scenes hint at the extreme level of violence and atrocities that occurred during the war: army officers cold-bloodedly shoot airport passengers for being of the wrong ethnicity and a gang of men with machetes menace Olanna as she tries to find her aunt.

The film might have worked better if it had been more loosely based on the novel and taken the viewpoint of Ugwu who initially arrives as a naif country-lad with hardly any education to serve Odenigbo and emerges from the film as a quietly loyal, brave and studious man who observes and remembers all. Unfortunately Ugwu is very sketchily developed and it is to Boyega’s credit that Ugwu comes out of the film as a real human being and not moving wall-paper. We would have seen through Ugwu’s eyes how ordinary working people were affected by the war and how they helped to rebuild the country after hostilities ended in 1970. The film’s end titles go on to say that Ugwu became a writer: well, there was just one tiny scene in the movie that intimated that Ugwu was continuing his education! Through Ugwu’s experiences, we might have seen a real character development through which current issues such as the use of child soldiers and the psychological effects of war on children and society generally are explored. We might also have seen how the civil war benefited the British ex-rulers and British companies extracting oil from Nigeria’s coastal regions and how the conflict and its consequences still affect the nation today.

I did feel that there was some stereotyping in the film – Olanna’s aunt is a fount of worldly wisdom and Odenigbo’s mother (Onyeka Onwenu) is bossy and manipulative but humorous all the same – and a trope of strong women / ineffective all-talk-little-action men was evident throughout.

A very moving story lurks in the film but unfortunately it goes to waste beneath the soap opera antics and the feather-light plot.

Apr 102014
 

Ivan McKee / Business for Scotland,Economic Case for an Independent Scotland (Part 2)” (The Glad Cafe, Shawlands, Glasgow, 26th Nov 2013)

In the run-up to the September 2014 independence referendum, Scottish Independence Live Events has organised a number of talks, presentations and other live events to present the case for an independent Scotland. Some of these events have been co-ordinated with Business for Scotland and Ivan McKee of that latter organisation has been giving a series of talks on why and how Scotland can benefit from splitting from the United Kingdom. The presentations take the form of PowerPoint show-and-tell presentations with McKee talking about the information flashed up on a large screen.

The talk is very dry and consists of McKee running through various comparative statistics that put Scotland in quite a good light compared to the UK as a whole. No wonder the audience seems very quiet: half the people there must have been bamboozled by the figures presented and the other half might have been in the various stages of sleep! The talk seems well organised enough though for a talk that takes slightly over 35 minutes there is no attempt to categorise parts of the talk into sections about Scotland’s economy, its balance of payments and accounts, its exports and imports, and its financial position. Indeed, McKee concentrates mostly on Scotland’s financial position vis-a-vis that of the United Kingdom and the figures invariably look better for Scotland where its contributions to the UK economy are concerned, and worse where its share of the national wealth on various criteria is the focus. McKee paints a picture of statistics showing that Scotland, if its economy were teased apart from that of the UK, is more productive on a per capita basis and contributes more per person to the overall British economy, yet does not receive what it should from London based on its contributions to the national economy. To take one example, the country contributes over £3 billion in defence yet only £1.9 billion is actually spent in Scotland for defence.

I did get the impression that many if not most statistics quoted were cherry-picked to portray a post-independence Scotland in a better position than it would otherwise be in were people to vote “No” in the September referendum. Curiously McKee did not mention what Scotland contributes to the British economy apart from North Sea oil; since the oil makes up 15% of Scottish exports, the Scots would rightly expect McKee to highlight other major and minor exports and say something about the prospects of their future earnings were Scotland to bolt from the union. As oil is a finite resource and North Sea oil production especially surpassed its peak production limit some time ago, one would think McKee would say something about how an independent Scotland would restructure its economy away from dependence on the British economy overall and from finite energy commodities.

Most people in the audience were representative of the general public and one surmises that jobs and employment post-independence would be uppermost in their minds. McKee has nothing to say about how independence will affect companies’ willingness to invest in Scotland and create work that will employ Scottish people. There is nothing mentioned either about how enmeshed Scotland is with the rest of the British economy and whether non-Scottish British firms would be willing to continue investing in Scotland after the country pulls out of the union.

Another significant issue must surely be the currency, whether Scotland would be allowed to continue using the British pound as its currency unit and what consequences the Scots would suffer from London if they did so. Even if the Cameron government promised the Scots that it would not use the pound to wreck the Scottish economy, the financial sector in the UK, based as it is in the City of London whose founding pre-dates the arrival of the Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Frisians in the British Isles 1,500 years ago, tends to act like a law unto itself and could use its power to weaken and ruin the Scottish economy by starving it of funding for necessary infrastructure projects with the connivance of Whitehall.

Nevertheless McKee’s talk certainly provides plenty of food for thought and further discussion.

 

 

 

 

Apr 092014
 

Jonathan Mostow, “Surrogates” (2009)

“Surrogates” has an interesting sci-fi concept with potential for philosophical speculation about the nature of being and reality in the style of “Blade Runner” and “The Matrix”. In he near future, everyone is living a life of virtual reality through surrogate clone robots. A few humans insist on living life for real off the grid in anti-surrogate zones but generally people find it necessary to function in mainstream society through being jacked up to robots that engage in the messy business of interacting with others and transacting everyday urban Western life. As a result, people can indulge in all the sensual vices of life without suffering the consequences like drug addiction and sexually transmitted diseases. No-one dies and violent crime is unheard of because if a surrogate should “die”, its user can sign up for a new surrogate. Until one day when two surrogates die and their human operators die at the same time. One of these human operators happens to be the son of the Dr Lionel Carter who invented surrogates so the FBI dispatches senior agent Tom Greer (Bruce Willis) and his partner Jennifer Peters (Radha Mitchell) to investigate the double murder. The agents determine that one Miles Strickland used a special weapon to kill the surrogates and their operators. Tom tries to arrest Strickland but his helicopter crashes in an anti-surrogate zone called the Dread Zone and his surrogate is killed by its enraged inhabitants.

After Tom recuperates from his injuries, he rejects a new surrogate and tries to solve the mystery of how Strickland obtained the special weapon. Meanwhile Strickland himself is killed by the leader of the Dread Zone, a man who is known as The Prophet (Ving Rhames). The Prophet takes ownership of the special weapon. As Tom is to learn, the special weapon was made by the same company that makes the surrogates under a special government contract. Its physics aren’t fully explained but the weapon not only disables surrogates but disables the brains of their operators, turning the cerebral tissues into mush. While Tom is piecing the mystery together, his partner is killed and an unknown person takes over her surrogate. The Prophet then sends the special weapon to her.

Eventually Tom discovers that Dr Carter (James Cromwell) has been using The Prophet and Jennifer to carry out his plan to destroy all surrogates and with them, their human operators. Can he stop Carter in time from wiping out surrogacy and humanity in revenge for the death of his son? And even if he does, is he willing to allow other humans, including his estranged wife (Rosamund Pike), to continue using surrogates even though he has come to loathe the whole concept of surrogates and their purposes?

There’s a little satire about modern human society and its obsession with beauty, self-indulgence without responsibility and consequences, and the disconnect between humans and the real world, and how it affects their psychology and leads to the ultimate addiction to a false world over the real world. On the whole though, the film is disappointing in its failure to grapple seriously with its subject matter and what it implies for the human condition. Formulaic action and melodrama substitute for proper inquiry, sustained character development and an original plot. Although Willis tries hard, he is hampered by a half-hearted script that aspires to Blade Runner greatness but isn’t quite sure that it deserves to be on the same level and gives up. The film tries to be fun as well but even the fun seems cautious and tentative rather than ballsy.

The film lacks spark and feels flat in spite of the padding that the script-writers put into it – there’s a small sub-plot about Tom’s attempts to reconcile with his wife over the past death of their own son and his insistence that she present as her natural self instead of her prettified surrogate self – and even though it’s not a long film, it drags in parts with little action. Sections of the film feel dated with a Seventies-ish party scene in which Mrs Greer and some friends partake of some exotic party drugs and the filmstock used cheapens the film’s look. The politics involving The Prophet and his followers could have come out of an old late-Sixties / early-Seventies film. (There’s a bit of subtle biting humour when The Prophet, a consistent advocate for real life over virtual life, comes to a bad end.)

The best and most surreal part of the film comes right at the climax which happily deviates from what would otherwise have been a pedestrian script, yet is in keeping with Tom’s character yearning for a world in which real humans interact without having to hide behind body masks. At this point, the ending is open-ended (unusual for a B-grade Hollywood flick – for once the script-writers beat back the bean counters) and viewers get a sense of the real work that humans must do in order to rediscover their humanity. Dr Carter may not have achieved everything he set out to do but in a sense he can rest in peace knowing that the damage his invention has done has been ended.

In its own tentative way, the film reaches out for the stars … but fails in its efforts. At least it does raise some questions about the nature of human existence, what is real and what is not real, and leaves us wondering what it could have achieved.

 

 

 

 

Mar 302014
 

George Galloway and Gayatri Pertiwi, “Sputnik: Orbiting the World with George Galloway (Episode 17)” (RT.com, 8 March 2014)

I haven’t been following this weekly series of interviews since December 2013 – I made up my mind to tune in only if someone of interest featured on the show – and Episode 17 piqued my interest as it features RT.com legal commentator Alexander Mercouris giving his opinion and insights on the Western media’s presentation of events in Ukraine since November 2013. As a visitor to and commenter on Russia-related blogs The Kremlin Stooge and Da Russophile, I’ve come across Mercouris’s comments on many topics that the blog authors and their guests post and have occasionally conversed with Mercouris myself. If this background means of course that I’m biased in my assessment of this episode, then so be it: at this point in time, I think it impossible to be impartial on the events in Ukraine and how they are being interpreted in the Western press, if one believes that the role of the media is not only to report accurately on events as they occur but also strive for truth and be an advocate for those whose interests are not served or enhanced by violent seizures of power from legitimately elected governments (no matter how incompetent and corrupt those governments may be) by groups who pretend to be one thing but serve hidden masters and agendas.

Mercouris is a clear-voiced and articulate speaker who is easy to follow, thanks to his careful arguments which are evidence of his ability and legal experience in analysing complex issues. Galloway’s interview of Mercouris focuses largely on the telephone conversation between Baroness Ashton, chief foreign envoy of the European Union, and Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet who at the time of their conversation had just returned from a fact-finding mission about the demonstrations and shootings on the Maidan in Kyiv over February and March in 2014. In their conversation (hacked and made public by Russian hackers), Paet speaks of talking to a woman doctor who is not identified in the conversation but is known to be Dr Olga Bogomolets, a pro-Maidan supporter, about the attacks on the Maidan demonstrators by unknown snipers on 22 February 2014. Bogomolets mentions that she treated both the police and some of the demonstrators for bullet wounds and noted that the bullets that hit the police were similar to those that hit the demonstrators: an indication that the bullets came from the same fire-arms.

Galloway and Mercouris note that the phone conversation is calm in its discussion of the sniper attacks and that Ashton expresses surprise and shock and makes noises about investigating the sniper attacks. Since the attacks though, Ashton appears to have done little to start an investigation. Mercouris  compares the sniper attacks with the ongoing war in Syria, noting that the same people who funded the neo-fascist seizure of power in Kyiv, forcing the legitimate if weak President Yanukovych to flee for his life to Russia, are much the same people funding the Free Syria Army and jihadi forces in Syria against President Bashar al Assad. Both interviewer and interviewee agree that if Ukraine is to avoid falling apart, with eastern Ukraine threatening to break away after the recent Crimean referendum in which Crimeans voted overwhelmingly to secede from Ukraine and rejoin Russia, the West must work together with Russia to help Ukraine financially.

In just under 14 minutes, both interviewer and interviewee can’t hope to cover all aspects of the crisis in Kyiv and Ukraine. They note that the Western media has done a poor job in reporting the situation there: while mainstream news media in the US have completely ignored events in that faraway country, so-called quality news media like the BBC have misrepresented the situation as one in which Russia is the villain threatening Ukrainian integrity and must be stopped with threats of war or actual war. Unfortunately neither Galloway nor Mercouris touch on why the Western media might be doing such a shoddy job, nor why a situation exists in which the quality news media tells more lies than the tabloid news media, for all its obsession with celebrity gossip and sport, does. The time passes very quickly and Galloway is forced to cut off his interview quite abruptly.

Galloway’s second interview is with a former UK Labour Cabinet minister, Brian Wilson, who happens to be a long-time friend of Galloway’s and who plans to tour with Galloway promoting the “No” case against Scottish independence ahead of the September 2014 referendum. Surprisingly, Galloway does not compare the upcoming Scottish referendum on the question of independence with the mid-March referendum in Crimea on whether to accede to Russia or revert to the 1992 Ukrainian Constitution’s position on Crimea’s status in Ukraine (in which the peninsula would enjoy autonomy under Ukrainian sovereignty) though I suppose to have done so would have bogged him and Wilson down in a long discussion comparing the two. 

Wilson makes a point that Scottish people living and working in England apparently will be unable to vote in the referendum; though he does not elaborate further, that fact may well suggest that the organisers of the referendum have chosen to obscure the extent to which the Scottish economy is enmeshed with the economy of the rest of the UK and independence could have quite adverse consequences on Scottish employment levels. Would Scottish people living and working in other parts of the UK be forced to return to Scotland where there may not be any jobs available in the general industry area these people work in? For that matter, would non-Scottish UK citizens have to leave Scotland to try to find work elsewhere in the UK – and end up finding none? Additionally Wilson points out that the obsession with independence and Scottish identity might be obfuscating other more pressing issues that Scots are interested in. If Scottish identity depends on Scotland being independent, then Scottish identity might be very weak to begin with and independence will not solve that problem. The experience of Ukraine as an independent country since 1991, during which time the government made few attempts to establish a Ukrainian identity and a Ukrainian culture to bring together and unite different groups with varying histories, languages, religions and cultures, should serve as a warning.

There’s much to be said for Wilson and Galloway’s case against independence for Scotland but 13 minutes just aren’t enough time for a deeper discussion and the “No” case seems a bit superficial. I’ll have to find out more myself about what independence might mean for Scotland and whether there’s a real case for the “No” cause.

Though Galloway and his missus Gayatri Pertiwi might not have realised at the time, Scotland could learn something from Ukraine’s experience of independence and proceed a bit more cautiously down the road towards breaking away from the United Kingdom. The case for independence may not be as clear-cut as Scottish voters might be led into thinking it is.

Mar 242014
 

Bety Reis and Luigi Acquisto, “A Guerra da Beatriz / Beatriz’s War” (2013)

A major first in the post-independence culture of Timor-Leste, “Beatriz’s War” is a moving testament to the triumph of hope, determination and perseverance in the face of unrelenting despair, suffering, heartbreak and sacrifice. The movie is expansive in its temporal scope, beginning with the Timorese’s bolt for independence from Portugal followed by the Indonesian invasion and colonial occupation in 1975 and continuing (rather patchily) all the way to the independence referendum in 1999 that led to a vicious reprisal by the occupation forces.

In 1975 Beatriz is an 11-year-old child bride to equally young groom Tomas: the union cements an agreement between two noble Tetum families to unite to pool their wealth together. As soon as the marriage takes place, the youngsters and the wedding party witness the Indonesian army’s takeover of their village. The villagers submit sullenly to the capricious rule of Captain Sumitro but quietly plot their revenge. Several years later, when Tomas is fully grown, the male villagers revolt and kill their occupiers but Sumitro manages to escape. He brings back more soldiers who separate the male and female villagers and who then proceed to massacre all the men. Tomas is not among those killed. Beatriz (Irim Tolentino), her son by Tomas, and her sister-in-law Teresa (Augusta Soares) are bundled off by Sumitro’s troops along with all the other women and children into a gulag.

Years pass, the women manage in very difficult conditions to grow crops and raise pigs, and rear children fathered by guerrilla fighters. Teresa is forced to become Sumitro’s mistress and bears him a daughter. After the 1999 referendum, Sumitro and his troops burn down the crops, kill the animals and depart abruptly, taking Teresa’s daughter with them after Teresa is forced to give her up. While the women take stock of their misfortune, a strange man enters the village: he claims to be Tomas, Beatriz’s long-lost husband. Teresa, having suffered too much over the years, welcomes him with open arms but Beatriz is not so sure. The stranger befriends Beatriz’s son and worms his way into Beatriz’s affections – but is he as genuine as he claims to be, and what is his connection to a massacre of Christian nuns and priests that occurred just before his arrival in the village?

The film falls into two distinct parts: the first part is basically expositional, laying out the background, the history and developing the main characters of Beatriz, Teresa and Tomas, and their relationships to one another. Captain Sumitro is the major villain in this section and a significant character though his appearances are few. Characters who appear in this part are both fictional and real: Teresa and Tomas’s father Celestino was an actual East Timorese freedom fighter who assisted Australian soldiers during World War II and who was killed by the Indonesian army in 1983. The second part which focuses on Beatriz and the stranger, and how his presence strains her friendship with Teresa, is based on the plot of a French film and in microcosm portrays conflicts and issues arising from the Indonesian occupation that Timorese society must now deal with: questions of forgiveness, reconciliation, social justice and reciprocal vengeance, whether it is right to avenge other people’s murders with more blood-letting, are broached in a way that is unflinching, forthright and yet subtle and graceful.

Acting is well-done though characters are more stoic than emotional. They betray their feelings through changes of facial expression and subtle body language. Local Tetum customs and traditions are showcased with good effect in the scripting and drama and this viewer had the impression that Beatriz uses the cult of ancestor worship and respect for the dead to stave off the stranger’s advances and to justify her suspicions that he is not what he seems.

Inevitably there are loose ends but on the whole the film moves steadily and quietly, skilfully weaving in an old soap opera plot into the script to develop a complex and moving story that tests Beatriz’s capacity for forgiveness and desire for justice. Hope, rebirth, reconciliation and the need to go forward in spite of all that has happened and all the old ghosts that will haunt you forever – if only because continuing to strive for freedom and hope is what keeps us alive – are a strong subtext in the film.

Irim Tolentino wrote the script as well as playing the part of Beatriz and many of the actors and extras in the film actually lived through several of the events the film refers to.

Mar 192014
 

Fabián Bielinsky, “El Aura / The Aura” (2005)

While promoting this film, Fabián Bielinsky died from a heart attack so “El Aura” and “Nueve Reinas / Nine Queens”, a clever heist classic, are all the full-length movies he has left to Argentine cinema. And a very excellent legacy Bielinsky has left behind too: cleverly made with complicated if not entirely serious plots and featuring considerable suspense and tension. “El Aura” is notable for its sweeping Patagonian desert and forest landscapes and the eerie atmosphere they possess, promising spooky mystery and potential for change and renewal. Spooky mystery and change leading to renewal are a-plenty in this suspenseful, almost existential psychological noir piece about the role fantasy and memory play in forging a new identity and changing people’s lives.

The action takes place over a week and the beginning and the ending of the film are almost much the same. Taxidermist Espinosa (Ricardo Darin) has a fantasy about committing the perfect crime and relates his fantasy to a friend who invites him on a hunting trip. Since Espinosa’s wife has just walked out on him, Espinosa agrees to accompany his friend. They drive to a remote bed-n-breakfast place run by Diana Dietrich (Dolores Fonzi) and her teenage brother Julio (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart). The two men go hunting and have a disagreement so they separate. Espinosa has one of his epileptic attacks in which his past, present and future all meld together; just after this attack, he sees what he thinks is a deer and ends up shooting … Diana’s husband (Manuel Rodal). This unfortunate incident leads Espinosa to investigate Dietrich’s affairs and uncover the man’s secret: Dietrich is a career criminal specialising in holding up armoured vehicles and stealing all their money. Suddenly Espinosa has the opportunity to take over Dietrich’s work and carry out another heist with Dietrich’s partners and Julio.

The film is leisurely paced, allowing viewers the time to admire and immerse themselves in the wide desert vistas, the quiet green forests, the rundown factory town Cerro Verde and above all the plot. Darin plays the loner Espinosa to perfection: this taxidermist is very much an outsider, ill at ease in the world around him, who lives in the world of his mind which turns out to be quite vivid and which saves his skin on several occasions in the film despite the epilepsy. The plot and Espinosa’s character develop steadily with room for laughs as well as suspense and sudden violence. The cinematography is beautiful and never more so when Espinosa suffers a fit: the turning camera captures vividly the visions that Espinosa has, his feeling of being apart from everything yet of it and the final black-out he experiences – this might be the closest cinema has come to delineating what an epileptic fit might be like to experience vicariously.

While astute viewers can almost predict how the plot turns out – I got the feeling early on that Espinosa will release Diana from the mental and physical prison her father and Dietrich placed around her and that Dietrich’s two partners will come to a grisly end – the gradual and confident unfolding is a pleasure to follow and keeps the viewer spellbound all the way to the end. If you subsist on a diet of Hollywood cinematic and TV thriller fare though, you may find “El Aura” slow and low-key as thrillers go.

Escape and reinvention are constant themes throughout the film: all characters desire or achieve escape of one sort or another though it may not be the kind of escape they desire. Even Espinosa, for all his wishful thinking, finds that escape through fantasy does not quite translate well into real life; priding himself on his ability to remember detail, there is one detail he fails to remember which becomes relevant to the heist that Dietrich and his friends were planning together and which he, Espinosa, stumbles upon and takes over. He eventually retreats from escape and is left with Dietrich’s sinister wolf-like pet dog. Perhaps the only person who achieves a successful escape and who may be able to achieve a new identity is Diana. Chance plays a major part too: it is by chance that Espinosa kills Dietrich and by chance several times during the film that Espinosa manages to escape death himself. This brings an aura (ha!) of dread and apprehension over the film itself. Espinosa’s alienation from the world and his laconic hang-dog expression add to the morose, insular and paranoiac atmosphere.

The conclusion may or may not come as a surprise though on reflection it should not really be a surprise: Espinosa finds he has bitten off more than he can chew, the world does not conform to his perceptions and expectations and even the experiences he has just before and during his epileptic fits and the visions he sees in those brief unsettling moments when he steps outside temporal reality are of limited help to him. The character may or may not have been changed by his experiences – viewers must decide for themselves if he has. Even when everything seems all wrapped up and no loose ends have been left behind, an uneasy mystery remains. “El Aura” is well-named.

 

Mar 162014
 

Roman Polanski, “Frantic” (1988)

For a film proclaiming itself “Frantic”, this suspense thriller is surprisingly cool, calm and collected as it follows its hapless protagonist doctor with an air of bemusement. This is definitely not one of Polanski’s better films: the plot, stretched out over two hours, is very lightweight and its characters are more representative of various stereotypes than real people. The film works as both homage to Alfred Hitchcock and a comic expression of a theme dear to Polanski’s heart: the outsider, displaced for some reason in a society that treats him/her with indifference and sometimes hostility, having to navigate his/her way through that society and come to grips with it in order to solve a problem.

Dr Walker (Harrison Ford) and his wife (Betty Buckley) have just arrived in Paris to attend a conference. While settling in their hotel room, trying to cope with jet lag, the couple find they have the wrong suitcase. They make some calls to the lobby and the airport and then Walker decides to take a shower. While he cleans himself, the missus answers a call at the door and disappears. Initially Walker thinks his wife has popped out for a while but as the time passes by, he realises something is amiss. His realisation soon turns into alarm and he reports her missing to the police and then the US consulate but the authorities treat his plight with blank-faced unhelpfulness. Walker takes matters into his own hands and searches for his wife despite not knowing how to speak French and brushing up against the local people’s assumptions about Americans being stupid and crude. With the help of a young woman Michelle (Emmanuelle Seigner), whose case was swapped accidentally at the airport with his wife’s case, Walker discovers he and his wife have stumbled into an amoral underworld of spies trading dangerous secrets for money and using innocent and ultimately disposable people. Not only is his wife’s life in danger but Walker finds that he and Michelle are also targets for intimidation and violence.

Several familiar Hitchcockian ploys and devices are at play here: McGuffin elements are plentiful and Dr Walker represents a fairly typical if very middle class everyday man thrust suddenly and unexpectedly into a world (indeed, two worlds) unfamiliar to him. He first has to navigate the world of nightclubbing, easy drugs, prostitution and lax morality to find the first clues that lead him to Michelle and then tread warily through another even more secret corrupt and violent world of espionage. Unfortunately this scenario is treated rather unevenly and superficially, and viewers get no sense of Walker ever having to question the perhaps narrow and conservative morality he was brought up with and takes for granted. There is also no sense of Michelle being forced to question the values and morality of her world; she remains essentially a feral child throughout the film.

A major problem with this film is the one-dimensional characters who are more symbolic than real. Ford does what he can with his role as middle-aged and respectable white Anglo-American tourist of somewhat limited horizons thrust into scenarios both embarrassing and helpful to him. In order to find his wife, he must rely on a young woman of dubious reputation and mix with her social scene. This pairing of unlikely opposites is worked for comic effect in some scenes in which Walker and Michelle come across his medical colleagues who think the two are having an affair. As the film proceeds from Walker’s point of view, we are not treated to scenes where Michelle’s friends think she’s got a rich sugar daddy and try to press her to get money off Walker. Now that would have been amusing to see! Michelle initially presents as a stereotypically defiant goth girl who fell in with a wrong crowd as a teenager and survives by her wits and taking on quite dubious jobs like being a drug mule; she sort of has a heart of gold beneath the cynicism. Her streetwise instincts however become her undoing. Ultimately there’s no sense at all that Walker and Michelle have changed much as a result of meeting each other and having to work together to get what they want. All other characters are essentially props that help the action along and flesh out the scenery.

Polanski’s mischievous sense of humour is evident in scenes that involve a small statue, a replica of a much larger one familiar to New Yorkers, carrying the detonation codes for a nuclear bomb and Walker’s attempt to negotiate with some American diplomats. However the humour is not much comfort in a film that seems very hollow and which Polanski could have done better had it carried more fire about the duplicity and corruption of the world of espionage, and how it endangers the lives of innocent people who are accidentally caught up in it.

 

Mar 032014
 

Hayao Miyazaki, “The Wind Rises / Kaze tachinu” (2013)

Miyazaki’s swansong film is a fictional biography of  aeroplane designer and engineer Jiro Horikoshi, creator of the Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter plane that bombed Pearl Harbour in 1941 and which was used in other aerial including kamikaze campaigns by Japan in World War II. The film is curiously devoid of the historical context from which it arises and I suspect the director is not fully aware of how much the central character of Horikoshi and his career are a banal reflection of his own. There’s also an underlying theme which has been present throughout Miyazaki’s work since “Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind” and that is a spiritual one: the impermanence of life, the thin line between physical reality and the world of dreams, of transcendence beyond the physical, which also turns out to be the world of death.

Horikoshi might be an odd choice for a subject of a farewell piece. The film though manages to reference a number of other Miyazaki / Studio Ghibli films in several scenes and motifs that are threaded throughout: one can find very subtle reminders of flicks like “Kiki’s Delivery Service”, “Laputa: Island in the Sky” and even more nature-themed films like “Nausicaa …” and “Princess Mononoke”. The Italian plane designer Giovanni Battista Caproni who inspires Horikoshi and is the object of the Japanese man’s hero-worship might have stepped straight out of the Studio Ghibli classic “Porcorosso”. There’s not much here that Miyazaki hasn’t done before in style of animation – if anything, his depiction of human beings is still as cartoonish as it was nearly 30 years ago in “Nausicaa …” – and in some ways he’s even gone backward in the way he has placed female characters in positions of passivity and subservience to men. The film also has some personal resonance for Miyazaki as his father once ran a factory that produced parts for Horikoshi’s planes.

The film starts with Horikoshi as a young boy dreaming of being a pilot; unfortunately he wears glasses, and his dream goes awry. In a second dream, he meets Caproni who is surprised that a young Japanese boy has intruded into his dream but then realises that they both share a love of aeroplanes. Caproni tells Horikoshi that designing and building planes are better than flying them and Horikoshi, waking up, resolves that he will become an aeronautical engineer. To that end, he applies himself zealously to his studies. In the meantime, the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 and the ensuing conflagration that all but consumes Tokyo pass him by but not before he unexpectedly meets a very young girl and her mother whom he helps to safety.

Time flies and Horikoshi, after a rough start with a plane design company that crashes during the Great Depression, ends up working for a company that makes planes for the Japanese military. He designs a military plane for a naval competition but it fails to pass and his employer sends him away on holiday. During this rest, Horikoshi is reunited with Naoko, whom he helped years ago, and they fall in love and become engaged in spite of the fact that she is suffering from terminal tuberculosis. A German tourist warns Horikoshi of the perils of working for an authoritarian and militaristic government.

Horikoshi enjoys renown for designing a fighter plane that surpasses current German technology and is the pride and joy of Japan. However this renown is short-lived as is also his marriage to Naoko. Horikoshi lives to regret the destruction that his invention, with all the work and sacrifice that have gone into it, has brought to the world. That he continues to live is due to the hopes and trust Naoko has invested in him and to the message that Caproni brings to him in a dream: that though he (Horikoshi) has invested and exhausted his creativity in a being that was beautiful but which brought hell to humanity, nonetheless he lived to see his dreams come true.

The historical setting and Horikoshi’s career provide opportunities to question Japan’s militaristic ambitions then (1920s – 1940s) and now but Miyazaki adopts a very peculiarly ahistorical stance in the way he deals with episodes in Horikoshi’s early life and career. The depiction of the Great Kanto earthquake and the fire that destroyed Tokyo in the quake’s immediate aftermath are bloodless and matter-of-fact; there is no sense of the panic that must have swept through the fleeing crowds – in fact everyone treats the catastrophe with calm and leaves the devastation in an orderly fashion! Perhaps this treatment is deliberate to illustrate the all-consuming nature of Horikoshi’s obsession; episodes in the film dealing with his friendships with fellow work colleague Honjo and his superiors suggest that Horikoshi is indeed oblivious to insidious changes in society around him. However there can be no such excuse for the film’s jump from the time of Naoko’s death (which must have been some time during the late 1930s) to the period just after 1945, when Horikoshi walks through a field of destroyed Japanese military planes and gazes down on Tokyo once again destroyed, this time by Allied war planes visiting total destruction as revenge for the Pearl Harbour attacks. An entire war spanning half the world in which tens of millions died in battle, suffered poverty and starvation, and were subjected to torture, rape, mutilation and hideous medical experimentation at the hands of the Japanese, and still undergo anguish because of Japan’s reluctance to apologise for war crimes, has been overlooked.

The character of Jiro is poorly developed and not likely to appeal to a wide audience. This could have been the film’s strength: Jiro’s colourless personality may be taken to represent the everyday worker bee in Japanese society who does as s/he is told, keeps his/her head down and rarely complains or speaks out. His/her life is spent in work and diligent obedience and is curiously detached from society even though his/her concerns revolve around the group and maintaining the correct relations with others. Apathy and lack of involvement in political, social and economic concerns are hallmarks of such worker bees. If anything, such people tend to be political / social / economic conservatives. The relationship with Naoko is a stereotyped one that might have sprung out of a 19th century Italian opera. Even so, when Jiro is forced to see the consequences that his work and creations have brought to Japan, and to know that there is not much he can do to atone for the damage done, his reaction is bloodless; he is unable to bring himself to express contrition. His god Caproni can no longer help or inspire him and the spirit of Naoko, superficially comforting, drifts away to leave Jiro in an existential hole.

“The Wind Rises” could have been a great film that treats seriously the responsibility of all individuals to question their roles in society, how the work they do may or may not be advancing human society, and how they might be blinded by personal ambition and egotism and be subject to manipulation by others or government into pathways that lead to destruction. Instead Miyazaki has avoided asking hard questions of himself and others in depicting his characters as robots and the way they proceed through their lives as cut off from the currents flowing through Japanese politics, society and economy.

I feel quite bad at having been taken in by the film’s beauty and the pathos of Naoko’s suffering and death; I now believe that this is a dishonest and cowardly film that insults the millions of victims of Japan’s rise to power and crushing defeat in the 1930s and World War II. What makes it worse is that as I write, Japan under Shinzo Abe’s government and with the approval and push of an incompetent US government, itself not content with paying and funding fascists in Ukraine to oust President Yanukovych or arming jihadi fighters in Syria against President Assad, has adopted a more militaristic and aggressive approach and is quietly pursuing more nuclear energy production, with a view perhaps to manufacturing weapons-grade nuclear power, even after the meltdown disaster at Fukushima in 2011. “The Wind Rises” could have served as a warning to Japan not to pursue such militarism ever again.

 

Mar 012014
 

Alfred Hitchcock, “Topaz” (1969)

Coming towards the tail-end of a long and illustrious career in film direction, this Cold War spy thriller is one of two 1960s movies that Alfred Hitchcock made in the then popular secret agent film genre. By then, there was a glut of secret agent films in both cinema and TV and perhaps Hitchcock was ill-advised to join the bandwagon. “Topaz” may not look or play like a typically smooth and suave Hitchcockian film but it still possesses elements and themes typical of the work of the Master of Suspense. In contrast with many spy films of the 1960s, “Topaz” shows intelligence work as risky, dangerous and involving tests of character and one’s ethics as people betray one another and are themselves betrayed, and suffer the consequences of betrayal in torture and death. Relationships come under strain and are broken with perhaps no chance of reconciliation. Deception and self-interest count for more than honour, love and loyalty to others, and even close family can be dispensed with as part of collateral damage if necessary in service to one’s masters.

In 1962, just after the US and the Soviet Union have come close to nuclear war in the Bay of Pigs incident in Cuba, a senior Soviet agent and his family defect to the US and are taken to Washington DC for debriefing. There, the agent reluctantly informs his CIA handlers that the Cubans are hosting Soviet missiles and the Soviet Union has a group of NATO double agents working under the codename Topaz in Paris who have infiltrated the French intelligence service. Senior CIA agent Mike Nordstrom (John Forsythe) recruits French intelligence officer Andre Devereaux (Frederick Stafford) to go to Cuba and obtain information about these missiles as the country is off-limits to Americans and the Cuban government would be suspicious of lone Americans wandering about the Cuban countryside even as tourists or business workers. Over the objections and tears of his wife Nicole, Devereaux embarks on his mission. He obtains some information from an old pal Dubois (Roscoe Lee Browne) who narrowly escapes being shot  by bodyguards of a Cuban government official, Rico Parra (John Vernon) who is visiting New York to appear at the opening of the United Nations headquarters. Devereux then flies off to Cuba and into the arms of Juanita (Karin Dor), his secret Cuban mistress, who helps him with his mission to collect photographic evidence of the missiles. The grunt work is done by Nicole and her household servants in an ingenious scheme but they are undone by their carelessness and a bunch of hungry seagulls (well, birds were never Alfred Hitchcock’s favourite animals) and these traitorous Cubans suffer grievous consequences when they are cornered and arrested by Cuban government and security officials.

Back in Washington DC, Devereaux discovers that his wife has deserted him. He hands the information to Nordstrom who then informs him that the Topaz group exists for real. The rest of the film is given over to Devereaux trying to uncover the identities of the members of Topaz and of its leader in particular.

The film looks good if a little old-fashioned for its period but the colours suit the generally serious and sombre tone of the plot and its concerns. None of the cast was very remarkable at the time the film was made: John Forsythe’s fame would come much later with TV series like “Charlie’s Angels” and “Dynasty”. The acting ranges from merely efficient on Stafford’s part to good or above-average on the part of the actors playing Juanita and Rico Parra, the only characters who show any genuine emotion and who have more redeeming features than most of the cast. Browne as Dubois is the only really appealing character who steals all his scenes.

The interesting aspect of the film, given its historical context, is that the good guys – those supposedly working for democracy and freedom – are often portrayed as self-serving and lacking in moral backbone while the bad guys, serving Communism, are often intelligent and principled people. Rico Parra does not come off badly at all; he kills Juanita himself to prevent her from suffering torture and his love for her appears more heartfelt than what Devereaux has so far expressed towards her. The defecting Soviet agent comes across as a peevish and ungrateful fellow, his wife is shallow and their daughter is spoilt and selfish. The CIA officers only value the defector for as long as he has information that they can pump out of him; after he hands over the information, they will set him up with a new identity and a job, and then he and his family are pretty much out on their own. Devereaux and Nicole are unfaithful to each other and both their liaisons are nearly their undoing. Even their daughter and her husband, minor characters though they are, are a bit grasping and Devereaux himself sees nothing wrong in risking his son-in-law’s life.

The film excels in its design and in the way key scenes are shot: there are several passages of completely silent film in which significant action occurs and Juanita’s death scene is remarkable in the way her purple dress billows out imitating the spread of her blood. Scenes of black humour also appear, notably in the way the seagulls give away the presence of Juanita’s helpers to Cuban guards.

While this is not one of Hitchcock’s best films and the acting and plotting are patchy with the seams showing in the stitching, “Topaz” still manages to intrigue with its cast of non-heroic and morally suspect heroes and heroic, upstanding villains, and its themes of moral duplicity, deception and expedience serving as the means to an end. Espionage is not the glamorous profession most people reared on James Bond films and its spin-offs imagine. “Topaz” might lack the suave style of earlier Hitchcock films but even as a so-so effort, it’s still better than a lot of current spy thrillers coming off the Hollywood assembly line.

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