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.

 

Round-up of Films seen in 2017

Dear Under Southern Eyes Readers and Followers,

Another year has come and gone and 2018 has dawned!

I feel I’ve probably seen a lot more films in 2017 than I did in 2016 – I certainly saw twice as many in the second half of 2017 than I did in the first half. Of course not all the films I saw in 2017 were great or even good – quite a considerable number were disappointing. On the other hand there were films that, while falling far short of what they could have been, nevertheless served up some interesting ideas and lots of food for thought.

The best recent films (as in films that had their first release in 2017 or the year before) that I saw were Rosie Jones’ “The Family”, Sinan Saeed and Tom Duggan’s “Aleppo Renaissance”, John Pilger’s “The Coming War on China”, Alex Apollonov and Aleksa Vukovic’s “The Haircut”, Erik Poppe’s “Kongens Nei {The King’s Choice)”, Dome Karukoski’s “Tom of Finland”, Jan Hrebejk’s “The Teacher” and Alexander Payne’s “Downsizing”.  Note that most of the films listed are either documentaries or films from northern and central Europe. The TV series “Adam Ruins Everything” was entertaining if not always as informative and educational as it could have been; the half-hour format is much too short for the series and at least 45 minutes per episode would have been adequate for a series aimed at adults down to young teenagers. 

Disappointments were various and most of these were Hollywood films or British / American fictional historical drama collaborations. Denis Villeneuve’s “Blade Runner 2049” had a thin plot and one-dimensional characters, in spite of its themes and contradictory attitude towards women.  The current Hollywood trend of giving women roles that in the past would have been given to men, adding to a new stereotype that whatever men are or do in real life, in film fantasy land women can do even better – whether as underground guerrilla rebel leader or as chief sadistic enforcer to a money-hungry billionaire – is becoming ever more silly and unrealistic. This isn’t what I believe feminism was supposed to achieve. Likewise, David Leitch’s film “Atomic Blonde”, boasting a female James Bond character, came across as more cartoon comic than Cold War bleakness and its plundering of 1980s German punk culture and music was shallow and manipulative. The less said about Ridley Scott’s “Alien: Covenant”, the better.

Of other films outside Hollywood that could have been better, D Kobiela and H Welchman’s “Loving Vincent” said very little that couldn’t have been done in a live-action film. Tadashi Miike’s “Blade of the Immortal” probably should have gone back to story-board stage to get more of the original manga in and more of the sword fights out.

So I found myself relying on films of the past to remind me that, yes, there can be such a thing as movies with more substance than style and which make you think even if the questions they ask and the issues they raise are treated quite cursorily. Peter Weir’s “The Truman Show”, Sidney Lumet’s “Dog Day Afternoon” and Phil Noyce’s “The Quiet American” were three such films that interrogated and criticised aspects of Western (and in particular American) culture of their time.

What 2018 is likely to bring, and whether the films to come will be any better than what they were in 2017, we cannot predict but one thing that seems obvious is that as the English-speaking world continues to decline politically, economically and culturally, its cinematic products will also be worse. Two films I saw – “Blade Runner 2049” and Kenneth Branagh’s ego trip “Murder on the Orient Express” – had endings suggesting that sequels were in the works; it seems that no film concept or idea is too sacred, that Hollywood can’t resist flogging it to death through endless sequels. Another Hollywood trend likely to continue is the industry’s plundering of other countries’ acting and directing talent to make up for its own shortfall in producing the successors to the Scorseses and Coppolas, the de Niros, Pacinos and Hoffmans of today.

Whatever transpires in 2018, I wish everyone a great year in 2018 and happy film viewing!

Regards, Nausika.

“Doctor Who: The Power of the Daleks” – a futuristic setting for a police-state society beset by political rivalries

Charles Norton, “Doctor Who: The Power of the Daleks” (animated version, 2016)

Originally filmed in live action in 1966, this Doctor Who adventure was the first to feature Patrick Troughton as the newly regenerated Time Lord forced to face his most deadly enemies the Daleks not long after he staggers to his feet and strains to recognise his faithful Earthling companions Ben and Polly. The trio lands on the planet Vulcan where already a colony has been established by Ben and Polly’s fellow Earthlings in a future hundreds of years after the duo’s time. Almost as soon as they land and start investigating their surroundings, the Doctor finds a dead man, murdered by another. Not long after, the Doctor and his companions are found by the colonists and herded into their settlement where they meet the Governor and his subordinates, all of whom assume that the Doctor is the examiner come to check and audit their work.

The Doctor takes an interest in chief scientist Lesterson’s work but is horrified to discover that Lesterson and his team are attempting to revive three Daleks found in a capsule that crash-landed on Vulcan a couple of centuries ago. Sure enough, as soon as the Daleks are resurrected against the Doctor’s protests, they set about in their cunning and manipulative way to direct the colony’s resources into maintaining themselves and producing new Daleks. The Daleks quickly realise that the colony is divided among the rulers and a group of rebels who plan to overthrow the Governor and his regime, and aim to exploit the political divisions in the colony.

This story was certainly not written with children in mind as the target audience: the animation is minimal and sparse and the story is driven by character and dialogue. Most of the story is carried by the colonist characters and their interactions with the Daleks: the colonists assume they have full control of the Daleks and the Daleks pretend to be subservient while always on the lookout for an opportunity to usurp those in charge of the colony and enslave the humans. This relationship might be read as a metaphor for the decline of British imperialism in its Asian and African colonies in the period in which this Doctor Who adventure was originally made (1966): the British had always assumed they could maintain their empire but through their arrogant exploitation and impoverishment of their subject peoples, and their attempts to expand their global empire to maintain their political and economic edge against rival powers the US and Germany (leading them to fight two disastrous world wars), ended up losing this empire. In most of their colonies, subject peoples fought hard for self-government and the right to make decisions concerning the use of their lands and natural resources, and then for independence when they discovered the British had no intention of sharing power with them. The difference though in the Doctor Who adventure is that the Daleks are united in their apparent subservience while plotting their own rebellion, and remain united when they seize control of the colony. One unfortunate result though of the story being driven by the colony’s unstable and seething politics is that the Doctor’s companions Ben and Polly are reduced to helpless onlookers unable to do much to help the Doctor or the colonists combat the real danger.

The story is outstanding in delineating the characters of several colonists – the sinister and power-hungry Bragen, his equally conniving No 2 Janley, chief scientist Lesterson who possibly feigns madness when his experiment unravels badly and threatens the colony, the crusty Governor and his hapless deputy Quinn who is constantly being shoved aside in spite of his protests – to the extent that viewers come to identify with them, even though these colonists are mostly greedy people engaged in a grubby power struggle. This establishes a tension – viewers know that some of these characters will be killed by the Daleks, that is a given – so when the Daleks do go on their rampage, the shock of seeing so many colonists being massacred can be overwhelming. The one thing lacking in the story is motivation: why are the colonists so keen in the first place to resurrect the Daleks and use them as robot servants? For that matter, we do not learn much about the human colony on Vulcan and why it was founded there: we have to assume that Vulcan contains minerals and other resources needed for the future human civilisation that set up the colony.

One thing that helps to lighten the seriousness of this adventure and distance viewers a little from the characters is the Doctor’s own wavering character which has yet to establish itself properly. Absent-minded, liable to wander off without warning and whip out a recorder to play during times of stress, the Doctor nevertheless retains a sharp mind and the ability to improvise a strategy to defeat the Daleks. Because the adventure under review is an animated reconstruction of the original live-action story, I cannot really comment much on Troughton’s acting against the rest of the cast; the audio recording suggests Troughton and the actors playing the colonists (Lesterson, Bragen and Janley in particular) do a good job in the parts they play, given that the plot is quite complicated but must fit within the structural parameters of a six-episode adventure where each episode lasts 20 to 25 minutes.

This story is definitely one of the better Doctor Who adventures, even if it seems a bit overcrowded with many good characters: it’s a story that inquires into the nature of politics and finds it cynical, petty and small-minded, and what that small-mindedness might say about the values of the society where such politics exist. While the Daleks use their own cunning and exploit the greed and the rivalries of the humans they seek to conquer, they still end up puzzled by the humans whose psychology they manipulate. Why indeed do humans kill other humans for no other reason than sheer greed for power and influence over their fellow humans?

Downsizing: an uneven satirical science fiction comedy commenting on various social, economic and political issues

Alexander Payne, “Downsizing” (2017)

For most viewers, perhaps the more interesting part of this long meandering film will be the first half in which main character Paul Sofranek (Matt Damon) decides to undergo miniaturisation for various reasons reflecting his status as a lower middle-class technocrat worker bee and the pressures that attach to that, and the actual miniaturisation process itself. The rest of the film is likely to leave audiences behind as Sofranek embarks on a journey of self-discovery and fulfillment among similarly downsized humans and is brought to the depths of existential despair and the equally dangerous highs of spiritual exhilaration in his adventures. If viewers were to tune out after the halfway point though, they will miss a great deal of satirical social commentary on the current state of the American middle class, the class system generally, climate change, the plight of refugees and outsiders in American society and cult behaviour among even supposedly enlightened communities.

Sofranek and wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) aspire to the typically American dream of material success – good jobs with incomes that accommodate a fair-sized house in a socially upward community, good schools and colleges for any children they may have – but due to past circumstances not wholly theirs to control, Sofranek’s dream of becoming a surgeon is downgraded to his being an occupational therapist for a meat-packing plant in Omaha, and the couple’s application for a loan to buy a cheap-looking over-sized McMansion house is dashed because they don’t have the income to support repayments. Through friends, the Sofraneks hear of a community called Leisureland where they can live the life they desire: the catch is they must consent to be downsized to 15 centimetres in height to live in this tiny community – the assumption being that tiny people can exist on a fraction of the resources that normal-sized people require. This assumption has grown from experiments done in years past by Norwegian scientists searching for alternate solutions for human survival in the event of climate change and/or reduced global resources due to overpopulation and overcrowding.

Paul Sofranek himself undergoes the downsizing – the process is very clinical, machine-like, even a little industrial, yet the creepiness of it is (depending on the viewer’s point of view) either attenuated or increased by the cheery music one associates with television situation comedies of the 1950s – but his wife chickens out at the last moment. Paul thus finds himself adrift in a sterile cartoon Disneyland gated community where he has the money to afford a huge mansion with cheap reproductions of famous European paintings. He decides to move into an apartment and (after his divorce) acquires a girlfriend who later rejects him when she discovers his neighbour is a noisy Serbian called Dušan (Christoph Waltz) who throws large parties. You know the Hollywood stereotype about Serbians: they’re either outright villains or just not to be trusted. Dušan invites Paul to one such party where Paul becomes intoxicated on an ecstasy tablet, dances all night long and crashes out next morning. He meets Dušan’s cleaner Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), a former environmental activist who was arrested and shrunk down as punishment by the Vietnamese government, and who now hobbles on an ill-fitting prosthetic leg she acquired after defecting to the US in a television carton. Ngoc Lan takes Paul to meet her sick friend and he discovers that the women live in a huge slum barrio, one of several on the outskirts of Leisureland. After trying (and failing miserably) to help both Ngoc Lan and the friend with their health issues, Ngoc Lan co-opts Paul into her cleaning service – at least he gets to visit different people and workplaces, so he gladly leaves the telemarketing job he currently has – and the two run a parallel charity in which, instead of receiving payment for cleaning rich people’s houses and business premises, they take away unwanted food, medicines and other supplies for the barrio.

Later Paul and Ngoc Lan travel with Dušan and his skipper friend Konrad (Udo Kier) to Norway to meet members of the original tiny community in an idyllic fjord forest setting. However the people of this community receive news about methane releases in Antarctica and decide that the global extinction of humans is about to begin so they prepare for a transformative event that appeals to Paul.

The cast puts in excellent performances with Hong Chau and Christoph Waltz being the most outstanding. Ngoc Lan’s broken English skills hide a cunning and manipulative personality who knows exactly what she wants. Dušan is a louche playboy who makes his money in the grey areas between what’s legal and what’s not but he, like Ngoc Lan, turns out to have a heart of gold. Damon’s acting is rather more limited in style and expression but his character represents an everyman stereotype, not too bright, and limited in knowledge and expression, perhaps because he has trained for a narrow occupational specialty and was shunted into a niche where he is expected to stay, though changing circumstances mean he will eventually become redundant. Through his adventures with Dušan, Ngoc Lan and Konrad, Paul comes to appreciate humanity as a whole, to learn compassion and true tolerance (as opposed to tolerating people’s presence), and to realise that his purpose in life is to keep on listening and learning, to put others’ needs above selfish desires, and to help others not so fortunate and privileged as he is. True social change comes not from following fads and movements promising utopia but from working with others to improve society as is.

There are so many social, political and economic issues treated in satirical ways in “Downsizing” that the film can only deal with them in a superficial way. The result is that the plot lurches from one issue to the next: first, we have overpopulation as an issue; then come miniaturisation and one social issue that arises from that (will tiny people have the same rights and freedoms as normal-sized people if they shut themselves away in tiny communities?); the class divisions in Leisureland are another, signifying that even tiny communities are not utopias but merely replicate the economic and political structures of their original source communities; doomsday cults are another issue. Far from being a solution to climate change and overpopulation, miniaturisation is simply another means to social avarice and meaningless consumerism. The point could be made though that overpopulation is not itself a problem: the real problem is that the wealth of the Earth is unevenly distributed among peoples due to the economic and political systems that we have which ensure that a wealthy few not only acquire more than they deserve but are prepared to defend what they have to the point of enslaving or killing others to keep their wealth and acquire more. In this respect, the miniaturisation project goes some way (but only a little) to redistribute some of the wealth to a few lucky have-nots – but even they are seduced by the dream of having more. (And if the film’s science were accurate – which it is not – miniaturisation wouldn’t even be considered as one panacea to the unequal distribution of resources: tiny humans would need to eat more, several times their weight even, and thus by sheer necessity take up more resources for their size, simply to keep warm.) True redistribution comes from caring for others and sharing with others, not from isolating oneself in a luxury retirement-village gated community or in a hippie village anticipating an apocalyptic scenario and acting as a doomsday cult, and this is the difficult lesson Paul must learn.

For all its faults and limitations as a tale of self-discovery and redemption, “Downsizing” may eventually attain lasting cult status: it presents issues of varied social, economic and political import, and at the very least prompts serious thinking on these issues, even if it itself fails to answer them adequately.

Batman: The Movie – a cult bad-movie masterpiece with a daring and subversive edge

Leslie H Martinson, “Batman: The Movie” (1966)

In an age when comic book superheroes were treated with the respect and dignity they deserved, this film – spun off from the television series of Batman and Robin’s crusades against crime in Gotham City to cash in on its cult popularity – is not only a comic bad-movie masterpiece but brilliantly captures the mood and style of 1960s pop culture. The film and TV series together also reflect the mood and style of the Batman comics of the time, with no little exaggeration and parody (and in their parody, criticise US censorship laws of the period that forced comics to didactically uphold traditional middle-class American values). The acting is exaggerated and hammy, the dialogue oozes cheese throughout and the plot is basically a string of comedy skits that only really make sense after the film finishes.

Batman (Adam West) and Robin (Burt Ward) are tipped off that Commodore Schmidlapp is in trouble aboard his yacht and attempt to rescue him when they sight it. The yacht suddenly vanishes and the dynamic duo discover they have been led into a trap. They later deduce that the trap was laid for them by the United Underworld, a new organisation formed by their most deadly enemies: Catwoman (Lee Meriwether), the Joker (Cesar Romero), the Penguin (Burgess Meredith) and the Riddler (Frank Gorshin). The fearsome foursome have kidnapped Schmidlapp to seize his invention: a dehydrator gun that turns humans into coloured powder. The criminals use various means to try to destroy Batman and Robin, including a plot using Catwoman disguised as Soviet journalist Miss Kitka to lure and kidnap millionaire Bruce Wayne (Batman’s alter ego) so as to draw the superheroes into rescuing him and thus falling into another trap. All the various schemes hatched by the supervillains – most of the brilliant ideas coming from the Penguin – ultimately fail to affect the dynamic duo though in some scenarios the superheroes’ survival is due to pure and improbable “deus ex machina” luck such as a porpoise hurling itself in front of a torpedo to save the humans.

Our heroes are unable to prevent the kidnapping of the diplomats representing the member nations of the United World Organisation Security Council by the supervillains who use the dehydrator gun on them. Batman and Robin hop into the Batboat and chase the crooks who are trying to leave town in the Penguin’s submarine. Robin uses a sonic charge gun to force the submarine to surface and from there the dynamic duo must fight the supervillains and their minions to recover the phials of coloured powder that the diplomats have become.

The film’s first half is a colourful riot of sight gags, in-jokes, silly acting and the most deadpan silly dialogue ever to pass between two individuals in the history of superhero films, which West and Ward dutifully carry out with the straightest of straight faces. Batman and Robin are essentially incorruptible figures of goodness that fight for justice and radiate the innocence, even naivety of such virginal symbols. While the cast enjoy themselves, their roles are very uneven: Meredith and Meriwether as the Penguin and Catwoman respectively have more work to do than Romero’s Joker and Gorshin’s Riddler who do little more than go along for a ride in the Penguin’s submarine and behave clownishly. The criminals ham up their evil tendencies and just barely manage to get along to get their plot to hold the world to ransom off the ground. West is called upon to demonstrate a more romantic side of his character and passes muster with a surprising mix of earnest po-faced style and aggressive intensity.

After the halfway mark, the film becomes a more formulaic piece as the superheroes race to rescue the diplomats and unexpectedly deliver a possible gift to the world in their attempts to rehydrate the politicians. The novelty value of the individual characters, the colourful sets, and the comedy episodes in which Batman and Robin stumble into ingenious traps and must escape death quickly wears off. The film delivers its own comment about the Cold War and the ability or inability of world leaders and diplomats to bring about world peace. (That a comedy parody featuring hammy acting, silly dialogue and a laughable plot would introduce comment on global politics and its worth and carry it off is sheer genius.) At the same time, Batman experiences wrenching heartbreak when he discovers that Miss Kitka and Catwoman are one and the same; his reaction is genuinely tragic to watch but he continues to carry himself with dignity.

For all its limitations, the film is a cult classic of its time: its highlights include its high production values, including the sets; the science fiction elements and gadgetry; the glee with which scriptwriters invent traps and dilemmas for the superheroes; the subversive undercurrent running beneath Batman and Robin’s strait-laced relationship; and the suggestion that our political leaders do not serve us well but greedily pursue power and influence over us.

 

Pride + Prejudice + Zombies: affectionate spoof historical comedy drama / horror film mash-up could have promised more

Burr Steers, “Pride + Prejudice + Zombies” (2016)

At long last, instead of yet another BBC TV series adaptation or British / Hollywood movie version of the famous Jane Austen novel of marriage and manners, we have an affectionate spoof in which the Bennet sisters – or just two of them, Elizabeth (Lily James) and Jane (Bella Heathcote) – not only sing, dance, play piano and chat wittily at parties and afternoon tea but also fight and kill zombies with knives, swords, guns and Shaolin kung fu. Yes, this is the movie adaptation of the mash-up novel by Seth Grahame Smith which credits Austen as co-author. Although it’s been a long time since I read the original Austen novel – I had to read it for school – and I have never read the mash-up, the film is surprisingly faithful in spirit if not in the details of the original plot and preserves most of its characters.

In early 19th-century England, the moderately wealthy Mr Bennet has trained his five daughters to fight the zombies that have recently overrun that green and sceptred land after a mysterious Black Plague has swept through the country and laid waste to much of it. His frivolous wife is keen to see her daughters hitched to wealthy gentlemen suitors. The family attends a ball hosted by the rich Bingley family and young heir Charles Bingley is attracted to Jane Bingley. Zombies then gate-crash the ball and the Bennet girls help in dispatching them to Purgatory. Elizabeth Bennet catches the attention of Fitzwilliam Darcy (Sam Riley), an even more wealthy gentleman than Charles Bingley and a noted zombie killer to boot. While both Elizabeth and Darcy are attracted to each other, a misunderstanding between them soon arises concerning why Darcy advises Charles Bingley to keep his distance from Jane.

Parson Collins (Matt Smith) pays a visit to the Bennets and proposes marriage to Elizabeth if she will give up her warrior ways but the lass refuses to do so, to the fury of her mother and the relief of her father. About the same time, Elizabeth becomes acquainted with George Wickham (Jack Huston), a soldier who tells her a sob-story about how badly Darcy has treated him and denied him his inheritance. Wickham takes Elizabeth to visit St Lazarus Church in a no-go zone in London where zombies fed on pigs’ brains to calm them down worship. Wickham hopes that these zombies can eventually co-exist peacefully with humans. Failing to persuade Elizabeth of the worth of his plan, he tries to convince her to elope with him but she refuses. At a later time, Darcy also tries to propose marriage to Elizabeth and the attempt ends in a hilarious sword-fight and battle of wits between the two.

Darcy writes a letter of apology to Elizabeth, telling her why he advised Bingley to stay away from Jane – Darcy having believed she was merely after Bingley’s fortune due to Mrs Bennet’s loud-mouthed behaviour at the Bingley ball – and the truth behind Wickham’s lack of money: the soldier squandered his inheritance, tried to hit up Darcy for more money and might have even infected Darcy’s father with the plague germ that zombified old Mr Darcy, forcing the younger Darcy to kill him. Darcy and Elizabeth later discover that her younger sister Lydia has run off with Wickham and that Wickham is preparing a zombie army to invade and take over the whole of London.

The plot just about manages to stay the course of the film – though it does become formulaic towards the end with a climactic fight  between Darcy and Wickham – with no collapse while incorporating key sub-plots and incidents and remaining faithful in the portrayal of the main characters of Elizabeth and Darcy, and even minor characters like the Bennet parents. Wickham is upgraded into the major villain and Huston looks as if he’s having great fun playing an aristocratic wannabe liberator of zombies from their presumed state of savagery so they can share in the wealth of England. Indeed, all the actors seem to be enjoying themselves and the result of their enthusiasm is excellent acting and fairly well defined characters in a film where there’s hardly much pause in the action. Of minor characters, Matt Smith dominates all his scenes as the pompous and obsequious parson, turning Mr Collins into a comic figure to be pitied rather than scorned, and his performance is the best in the film. Lena Headey’s Lady Catherine de Bourgh turns out a surprisingly layered, even sinister character in the few scenes she has; the pity is that she is not a more useful character in the film other than being an obstacle in Darcy and Elizabeth’s paths to happiness together.

The film doesn’t say anything about the status of upper class women and their treatment in Regency England that hasn’t already been said by Jane Austen herself or the various film adaptations of “Pride and Prejudice”. For all their skills as zombie fighters and killers, the Bennet sisters are still reduced to whatever economic value they are worth as the daughters of a minor aristocrat. That humans would waste precious time and energy preoccupied with who’s who in their social hierarchy, how much money a prospective suitor makes and constant match-making while all around them the zombies not only don’t make class distinctions among themselves but don’t discriminate among the humans either is an irony the film fails to capitalise on. The zombies tend very much to stay in the background and viewers see nothing of how the calm zombies might conduct their lives when they are not set upon by humans. Perhaps Wickham’s suggestion that humans and zombies could learn to live together is more pertinent than it first appears: the zombies could certainly represent the disenfranchised proletariat classes of Regency society. A scene in the middle of the end credits suggests as much, as the zombie masses, led by a zombified Wickham, march towards the horrified upper classes in their gilded-cage mansions.

Apart from this, the film is mainly to be enjoyed as a distinctive adaptation of the famous novel but no more. The main problem with “Pride + Prejudice + Zombies” is that the feature film format is too short to deal with the original novel and the zombie invasion to do both justice and needs a mini-series format that could treat Regency-era zombies as a metaphor for the poor and oppressed. The savage zombies could represent the prejudices of the aristocrats and their biased views about zombie behaviour. The upper classes may be proud of their wit, their culture and fighting skills, but their pride is a desperate one rooted in the knowledge that one day they and their culture and values will all be swept away by the zombie hordes.

The mash-up literary genre that produced “Pride + Prejudice + Zombies” and other odd combinations like “Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters” and “Android Karenina” ultimately became a temporary publishing fad but it could have promised more.