Spotlight: a rare quality Hollywood film that celebrates good investigative journalism and examines the nature of evil and its spread

Tom McCarthy, “Spotlight” (2015)

On rare occasions Hollywood can still demonstrate an ability to make good films about muck-raking journalism and Tom McCarthy’s “Spotlight”, based on actual events, is one of these infrequent gems. The movie traces how an investigative journalism unit called Spotlight within The Boston Globe newspaper uncovered and exposed a huge scandal of child molestation and deliberate and systematic cover-up within the Roman Catholic Church in the Boston metropolitan area. The reporters quickly came up against a wall of denial, threats and (most of all) complicity and indifference that ran deep throughout Boston society and its political elite. For all its sophistication as a metropolis of a fair few million people, and offering a high standard of living and education, Boston is revealed to be insular and in some ways still possessed of a small-town mentality that grovels before rich and powerful institutions and bullies the vulnerable and the weak.l

Pedestrian in style and approach, “Spotlight” looks as if it had been made for TV viewing and its narrative employs a fly-on-the-wall viewpoint that fits the film’s matter-of-fact tone. At times the film feels a little like a documentary being made on the fly. It starts with the appointment of Marty Barron (Liev Schreiber) as The Boston Globe’s new editor, fresh from Florida and tasked with the thankless job of promoting the newspaper and jazzying it up against the onslaught of Internet-based news media, staff sackings and tighter budgets. At the same time, the Spotlight unit, led by Walter Robinson aka Robbie (Michael Keaton), is casting around for a project to do. Barron sees his opportunity and suggests that Spotlight should revisit an old story about a pedophile Roman Catholic priest. A bit reluctantly, the Spotlight unit agree to take up the story again, start researching the issue again, make inquiries and gradually uncover a much larger story of how a senior Cardinal, Bernard Law, in the Roman Catholic Church hushed up abuse cases, bought off lawyers and families with money, reassigned priests to other parishes where they committed new offences and pressured families and others not to talk about the abuse or to speak to the press.

The reporters not only have to overcome denial and duplicity within the Church and among its faithful and charity organisations, but also their employer’s inertia and the prickliness and suspicion of activist Paul Saviano (Neil Huff) and the rather cranky lawyer Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci) who are fighting for the victims’ rights for compensation and to be heard and acknowledged. Robbie himself wrestles with his own conscience that he failed to chase up the issue years earlier (and perhaps prevented new cases of sexual abuse) when it first arose. All the Spotlight team members also wrestle with loss of faith and disillusionment about the Catholic Church: they had been brought up as Catholics, some of their relations still are devout Catholics and they realise they may be shunned and ostracised by their families and communities once they expose the scandal.

The way in which the Spotlight reporters research the story and uncover more shocking and deeper aspects to the issue, to the point where they discover the scandal isn’t about just a few “bad apple” priests but about the Church’s own culture and how it is deeply situated in Boston society such that it can pull favours and literally make and break politicians’ careers, and ruin The Boston Globe if it wanted to, drives the film and gives it its energy and force. Director McCarthy co-wrote the script and it is very tight and focussed. All the actors are fully committed to their roles and all give of their best – in particular, Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams as two of the Spotlight reporters, and Tucci as cantankerous Garabedian. Although the actors all worked as an ensemble, Ruffalo probably edges out everyone else in his role as Mike Rezendes who is energised by the story and throws himself heart and soul into the investigation.

The film celebrates investigative journalism as it should be done and the nature of the work as well: it covers the research, the teamwork, the inquiries, visits to libraries and city council records departments, the value of support staff like librarians at The Boston Globe, and the crazy hours journalists often work to get interviews and meet deadlines. A plea for traditional journalism as opposed to the sloppy journalism of notorious online “citizen journalists” like Bellingcat is being made. The film can also be seen as an examination of evil and how evil can spread and maintain itself when otherwise good people fail to stand up and defend the weak and defenceless against injustice and oppression, but look the other way. Garabedian may note that it takes a village to raise a child, it also takes a village to abuse a child – but the film stresses that the village can also stop the abuse, if individuals within the village are courageous enough to see the abuse, call it for what it is and raise attention and awareness.

Charlie’s Country: a portrait of a man and his community in search of belonging and identity

Rolf de Heer, “Charlie’s Country” (2013)

A sad and compassionate film of a man’s search for identity and belonging, “Charlie’s Country” originated as a vehicle around lead actor David Gulpilil’s talents and experiences as an Aboriginal man living and passing between indigenous Australian society and Anglo-Australian society. In its minimalist presentation, the film is layered in its depiction of how Aboriginal people at the Top End (Darwin and surrounding areas) often live and the ways in which Anglo-Australian society through its representatives and institutions unthinkingly and insensitively creates problems for these people in their attempts to live either traditionally, in white society or in some combination of the two. The film’s style, reliant on long takes of Gulpilil close up and with sparse dialogue, is very poignant and does a far better job of expressing emotion and deep feeling than one with more talk and fewer striking visual scenes.

Charlie (Gulpilil) is an elder in his Yolngu community who is becoming increasingly disenchanted with life in his tribal community. The period is during the time of the Northern Territory Emergency Response Act aka the Intervention of the early 2000s. Young people are estranged from their traditions and express little interest in living the way their ancestors did. There is no work to be had in their community and everyone lives on government handouts and unhealthy junk food. Few people express dissatisfaction with their dreary lives. Charlie goes off with a pal to hunt and shoot a buffalo (so they can provide their people with fresh meat) but their prize is confiscated by police when the coppers discover the two men do not have licences for their gun and rifle. The two protest but the laws concerning gun ownership have changed to become harsher and more punitive.

Fed up with the white police and his own people’s apathy, Charlie decides to leave his community and hunt, fish and live as his ancestors did. For a few days he is happy but then the tropical rains come and, no longer in good health thanks to years of smoking ganja, he falls ill with pneumonia. In the nick of time, his friends find him and the police arrange for him to be hospitalised in Darwin. In the hospital, he is reacquainted with an old buddy who eventually passes away from kidney failure. Grief-stricken and fearing for his own life, Charlie escapes from hospital into the streets of Darwin and promptly falls in with a group of alcohol-addicted Aboriginal people. He shares his money (earned from helping police track escaped criminals in the bush) and buys alcohol for the group but the police chase him down and he is tried, convicted and sent to jail for buying and giving grog to people banned from drinking, and for resisting police arrest. Jail is a disheartening and dreary experience but a young counsellor finds Charlie a dry community to serve out his time.

The first half of the film is basically expository, establishing Charlie’s complex relationship to the police – it is sometimes joking, sometimes a little hostile – and does a good job of fleshing out Charlie’s character. Charlie is sometimes dignified, outspoken, not a little rebellious and often quite funny in a sad way. He manages to be knowledgeable about many things yet remains something of a naif. Audiences see the conditions in which Charlie’s community ekes out an existence; the extent to which white people control Aboriginal people’s lives (to the point of feeding them deep-fried garbage that makes them sick over the long term) is alarming. The whitefella rules under which Aboriginal people must live are often contradictory and force them into a culture of apathy and unhealthy passivity.

The second half of the film deals with Charlie’s odyssey in Darwin and is filled with stereotypes about Aboriginal people in urban settings. It’s as if whatever Charlie can go or do wrong, the incident then happens (with or without Charlie’s participation). The plot is forced: how does the Aboriginal woman in Darwin know where to find Charlie and take him to her fellow drunks? How do two elders find Charlie among the drunks and warn him of the dangers of alcohol? The film deals with Charlie’s dilemmas gracefully and without judgement, and Charlie is eventually reunited with his people. A new creative opportunity arises that uses Charlie’s skills as a dancer and which finally allows him to find his own niche within his community that is creative, and the film ends on a happy note. Yet this part of the film seems much weaker than the earlier half and the resolution of Charlie’s earlier unhappiness a bit too pat. He may be happy teaching dancing and painting to younger people and warning them against the demon drink, but artistic activities and avoiding alcohol and imprisonment will not solve the community’s problems of unemployment and being controlled by Federal and Territorian governments through handouts, policing and punitive laws.

Apart from Charlie who completely dominates the film, other characters are little more than stereotypes. Most actors in the film had no training as actors yet their performances are sincere. The film does a good job though showing that the white people who interact with Charlie themselves are also struggling with a system (which they don’t necessarily understand) that treats them as cyphers and cogs at the same time that it is unsympathetic towards Charlie’s community.

With the powerful themes and messages about belonging and how people cope with an inhumane capitalist system that oppresses and separates white and black people alike, “Charlie’s Country” inevitably comes to a resolution that seems quite thin and insubstantial. Charlie may have found a creative outlet that gives him opportunities to let off steam and help the children in his community, but how long that will pass, and whether whitefella laws will let it continue or nip it in the bud, is hard to predict. Nevertheless this is a very moving if at times quite biting and comic film.

The Big Short: a crash course into the causes and toxic culture of the 2008 Global Financial Crisis

Adam McKay, “The Big Short” (2015)

How do you tell the story behind the sub-prime mortgage crisis and the massive housing bubble that led to the Global Financial Crisis of 2008, with the attendant collapse of giant global investment banks Lehmann Brothers and Bear Stearns, in a way that the general public can understand? Adam McKay shows one way how this can be done with a fictionalised comedy-drama with documentary-genre elements based on finance journalist Michael Lewis’ non-fiction book “The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine”. Following the fortunes of various characters (all based on real-life people) who believe that the US national housing market is unstable and heading for a massive collapse, and who try to profit from that instability, the film cleverly combines a fast-paced narrative from the viewpoint of several hedge fund traders who represent different character stereotypes with brief excursions into financial education for bemused viewers and a sometimes critical view of American contemporary culture and how it is driven by greed and a desire for instant gratification, cynicism and the kinds of social, political and economic institutions that enable a few individuals and corporations to exploit the American public and the basic need for housing.

The film’s narrative presents through three parallel sub-plots. In 2004, doctor-turned-fund manager Michael Burry (Christian Bale) realises from his analyses of US financial markets that hundreds, possibly thousands, of housing loans sold to people with dubious credit records by banks have been packaged into investment vehicles and then sold to investors such as pension and superannuation funds. He predicts that the sub-prime housing loan market will collapse in 2007 and realises he can make huge profits by creating a credit swaps default market. He persuades various large banks to back him on his proposal and they do so, thinking what a deluded fool he is. His investors are alarmed but go along with his idea nevertheless. As time goes by, Burry’s investment looks more and more foolish and his investors nearly threaten to rebel (so he clamps a moratorium on their withdrawals) but eventually his prediction turns out to be right and he and his investors walk away with 489% profits!

A subprime mortgage bond manager, Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) hears about Burry’s gamble and realises he too can benefit so he gains the backing of hedge fund manager Mark Baum (Steve Carell) who, though sceptical of Vennett’s scheme for its cynical moral duplicity, goes along with the idea. To assuage his conscience, Baum sends his employees to check out the homes of some of the people who have bought the dodgy housing loans that have been repackaged; the employees discover large empty kitsch mansions, left behind to rot by people who cannot pay back their loans, and talk to one man whose landlord is someone’s pet dog. Baum then talks to two young brokers who boast that they have made millions selling bad loans to migrants and poor people who have no hope of ever paying back their loans. In one memorable scene, he visits a representative of Standard and Poors rating agency who tells him that her boss issues triple A ratings to large banks because if S&P doesn’t, then they’ll just mosey down the road to rival agency Moody’s who will.

The third sub-plot focuses on two young money managers Charlie (John Magaro) and Jamie (Finn Wittrock) who built up their own hedge fund as student working out of a garage and who also tack their sails into the wind behind Burry and Baum. They enlist the help of retired banker Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) to make the deals they hope to profit from but Rickert reminds them that thousands of families across America and perhaps beyond will be devastated by their actions. Chastened, the two young men attempt to tip off a financial newspaper about the coming housing collapse but the paper is not interested.

For its two-hour running time the film is engrossing despite the unevenness of its plot. The sub-plot featuring Charlie and Jamie is not quite plausible and the about-face they experience is hard to take seriously. At the very least these two hot-heads come over as shallow and one has to question whether they seriously understand that the industry they are working in is corrupt. Pitt’s detached portrayal as Rickert is troubling and there’s no sense that the character genuinely cares that his two proteges are careening towards the edge of a cliff leading into a gigantic abyss.

The stand-out performances of the film belong to Bale and Carell out of a cast whose overall acting is above average. All actors involved were clearly committed to this film even if individual performances are sometimes uneven. Significantly Brad Pitt helped to produce the film. Bale does a great job playing the eccentric Burry and Carell dominates all his scenes as the morally conflicted Baum who, against his better instincts, follows Vennett into his particular vale of darkness. At no point during his hedge fund’s various shenanigans does Baum consider pulling the plug on the deal-making and marching to the Feds to report the investment banks’ fraudulent activities when he realises the extent to which Federal law and regulations are being broken on a regular basis.

Hilarious cameo performances by Margot Robbie, celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain in an inspired Masterchef-style class and Selena Gomez help break up the tension in the film and provide good laughs along with a crash-course in financial education by explaining how investor herd mentality can lead to unstable financial markets and why banks initially thought bundling bad mortgages with good mortgages and flogging the packages to pension funds was a great idea. At the same time, these little mini-documentaries are satirical jabs mocking people’s obsessions with sex, food and money, and the short attention spans encouraged by modern consumer culture.

The film does a fairly good job of emphasising the moral rottenness of American society at its most cynical and self-interested, and shows something of the impact of the sub-prime mortgage blow-out crisis on ordinary people as the man paying rent to someone’s pet dog is forced with his wife and children to live in a van by the film’s end. What it also does well is show how people within the financial industry realised what was going to happen but were either resigned to it or, worse, decided to profit from the looming apocalypse. All the various characters we follow through their respective sub-plots are intelligent and become aware at some point in the film that the industry they work in is corrupt to the bone, yet either they are unable to help themselves out of the morass or try to extract whatever they can or run off before everything blows over and takes them down.

The film ends on a bleak note: the finance industry may have taken a heavy blow, and thousands of its worker bees may have ended up in long dole queues, but thanks to an $800 million bail-out by the US government it continues its merry way towards another, even bigger financial crash. While the film-makers criticise the culture that led to the 2008 GFC, they basically do not question neoliberal capitalist ideology or suggest an alternative to the dysfunctional financial industry and its toxic culture and values.

Review of Films I’ve seen in 2015

Review of Films I’ve seen in 2015

Dear Under Southern Eyes Readers,

Another year, another summary of the films seen over the past 12 calendar months!

I must say that of the films released in 2015 that I saw, most were mediocre. A trend I’ve noticed of late is for recent British historical drama flicks like M Tyldum’s “The Imitation Game”, J Marsh’s “The Theory of Everything” and S Gavron’s “Suffragette” is to take actual historical events and fictionalise them with the intent of inserting a current political agenda not at all relevant to the original events themselves. This may be intended to make the events and their historical context seem more “real” or “authentic” to modern audiences but also has the potential to distort these events and their context in ways that do not do justice to the events themselves and the people involved in them. At worst these events can be used to justify actions or policies that could go against the public interest, serve agendas that are plainly undemocratic and unjust, and/or even backfire against those groups whose interests are supposedly being upheld by the films. This is something that I noticed especially with “Suffragette”, in which a working class character is essentially being exploited by a middle class movement and whose relations with her family, her community and her class are destroyed as a result. The film purports to support women’s rights, particularly their rights to custody of their children during family break-ups but the way in which this is done in “Suffragette” looks deliberately confrontational to the point where it seems stereotyped. 

As usual Hollywood continued on its merry way churning out tired and unoriginal blockbuster dreck based on Marvel and DC Comics characters and I managed to avoid seeing most such new releases. On the other hand, free films at the New South Wales Art Gallery and DVDs borrowed from my local library cheered me up – proof that finding and seeing good quality cinema does not need to burn holes through your hip pocket. One unexpected bonus was finding old Charlie Chaplin films at my local library.

Of the films I saw at the cinema, the best were A Garland’s “Ex Machina”, an intelligent if modestly budgeted sci-fi flick in which a robot proved more human and the humans proved more robot in mind if not physically; J Vanderbilt’s “Truth” which worked fairly well in detailing how governments force the news media to massage their product into propaganda; G Pontecorvo’s “The Battle of Algiers”; and Pasolini’s “The Gospel According to St Matthew”. The most entertaining documentary I saw (either on Youtube or on the big screen) was Zachary Maxwell’s “Yuck! A 4th Grader’s Short Documentary about School Lunch”

At the other extreme, J Oppenheimer’s “The Loss of Silence”, the companion to his earlier “The Act of Killing”, was boring and pointless, and Avi Lewis’ “This Changes Everything” was quite shallow. Kim Kiduk’s “Pieta” was a frustrating waste of my time and all I can say is the less I say about it, the better. Zvyagintsev’s “Leviathan” was another film that mocked ordinary people and their efforts to survive and thrive under circumstances in which everything was pitted against them.

So onwards into 2016 … while I have no hope for Hollywood and the British film industry, I am hopeful that there’ll be some pleasant surprises from far below (and above) my radar. Let’s hope 2016 is a better year for film than 2015 was!

Cheers to all!

Nausika / Under Southern Eyes

The Gold Rush: a fun and clever film of comedy, drama, romance, horror and thriller elements

Charles Chaplin, “The Gold Rush” (1925, revised 1942)

In reality, the 1898 Klondike Gold Rush must have been a harsh, grim and ultimately disappointing experience for many prospectors who flocked to the goldfields hoping to strike lucky and be endowed with material wealth for the rest of their lives. Most people however would have come away empty-handed and even those who did find gold, did not always keep it but frittered their fortune away in gambling and died in poverty. In British-American actor / director / script-writer Charlie Chaplin’s film “The Gold Rush”, his Lone Prospector (played by Chaplin himself) finds quite a bit more than fortune: he finds adventure, a good friend, fame and perhaps lasting love. The film cleverly combines slapstick comedy, drama, romance and even elements of horror and thriller as the Lone Prospector is tested by trying and dangerous incidents before he achieves what he set out to do.

The film divides into three parts, each milked for their comedy potential. In the first part, the Lone Prospector narrowly escapes predation by a bear, being killed by a wanted murderer and the appetite of a fellow prospector, the gourmand Big Jim (Mack Swain). Notable scenes include one in which Big Jim and the crook fight over a rifle, the rifle butt constantly pointing at the Lone Prospector no matter where he runs to, in their cabin; and the shoe-eating scene where Chaplin turns munching on the tongue of his old tough shoe into a sumptuous make-believe meal fit for a king. In the second part, the Lone Prospector goes into town and falls in love with flighty dancer Georgia (Georgia Hale) at a music hall. The little man is bullied by the music hall patrons and made fun of by Georgia and her friends. The third scene reunites Big Jim and the Lone Prospector as they search for Big Jim’s mining concession where by accident they discover a rich lode of gold that makes them multi-millionaires. The ultimate test though of the Lone Prospector’s character awaits him as he follows Big Jim about on the luxury cruise liner posing for fawning paparazzi.

In spite of all the many scrapes and humiliations heaped upon the Lone Prospector, Chaplin’s character carries himself with quiet pride and humour. A number of scenes in the film, notably the scene in which the Lone Prospector waits in vain for Georgia and her friends to show up for a New Year’s Eve dinner and celebration he has meticulously prepared, draw audiences’ sympathy for his lonely and marginalised condition. If there is anyone in the universe of Hollywood silent film most deserving of love, companionship and sympathetic treatment, it should be this little man who, though small and physically weak, nevertheless shows spirit, pluck and quick thinking (and equally quick foot-work!) in all the predicaments that befall him.

At times the plot seems disorganised: the wanted criminal is disposed of in a deus ex machina avalanche and the Lone Prospector’s rival for the affections of Georgia disappears without his sub-plot being adequately tidied up and resolved. How Georgia ends up on the same ship as the Lone Prospector and Big Jim do has to be put down to the need to end the story quickly; the romance feels forced and when the little fellow and his lady love walk off into the sunset, one feels that one of the two will worship money and the riches it buys more than the s/he loves the other in the pair. Romance will not last long and at least one person will be reduced to poverty again.

It’s a fun and entertaining film, and it’s more absorbing than I imagined it would be due to its clever and seamless inclusion of comedy, pathos, tender emotion and even cynicism. The revised 1942 version with musical soundtrack and Chaplin’s narration do not add anything to the film’s plot or the comedy sketches; indeed, the music can be annoyingly intrusive and shrill. Best then to see it as it was originally done, as a silent film with a piano soundtrack.

Suffragette: catering to narrow interests of identity politics over the real interests of people it claims to defend

Sarah Gavron, “Suffragette” (2015)

Of the recent plethora of British historical drama movies, Gavron’s film “Suffragette” is one flick that tries to be two things to two sets of people but fails at both. On one level, it’s a personal story of a fictional working-class girl, representing an everyday woman with whom the general public is likely to identify readily, who is swept up in a social / political phenomenon far beyond her ability to manage or cope with and which ends up destroying everything near and dear to her. On another level, it’s an attempt to bring to life the British suffragette movement of the late 19th century and early 20th century and its struggle to achieve political, social and economic equality between women and men, for the benefit of 21st-century cinema audiences. In trying to tie the personal fortunes of a young, impoverished laundress to a political movement that was essentially middle class in its orientation, “Suffragette” falters and leaves its heroine’s fate dangling in a harsh uncertainty, in which she has many foes and very few friends, none of whom can be said to be really reliable.

Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan) has been working at the same laundry since she was a young girl, following in her mother’s foot-steps and being subject to her employer’s sexual predations. Watts is married to Sonny who also works at the laundry and they have one young child. One day Watts meets Viola (Anne-Marie Duff), a newly employed laundress who has been late for work a couple of times. Watts discovers that Viola has been attending suffragette meetings organised by a local pharmacist, Edith Ellyn (Helena Bonham Carter). Both Watts, Viola and a few other like-minded women are drawn into militant and increasingly violent actions that Edith and her husband plan, including blowing up letter-boxes and lobbing a bomb at a politician’s unfinished summer house. Each time the suffragettes carry out violent incidents, the London gendarmerie, led by Inspector Steed (Brendon Gleeson), arrest the women and throw them into jail: the first time, the women are jailed for a few days and are harassed by prison warders; the next time, they are jailed for weeks and subjected to more humiliations; the third time, they are imprisoned for months and are force-fed brutally when they go on a hunger strike. Inspector Gleeson is not unsympathetic to the women’s cause but believes in enforcing the law; he tries to give Watts an escape route by encouraging her to inform on her fellow suffragettes.

At the same time Watts is drawn deeper into suffragette activity, she incurs the hostility of Sonny and her working-class community: Sonny rejects her, their marriage breaks up and their child is put up for adoption; and Watts is ostracised by both the neighbours and her fellow workers. She loses her job and home, and is forced to take refuge in a local church. Having lost everything that gives her life meaning and purpose, Watts becomes a loose cannon, easily manipulable, going deeper and deeper into violent action, and as the film draws to a climax in which she presumably plays a major role, the question of whether she will sacrifice herself to militancy over principle arises.

In separating Maud from her working-class roots and community, and pushing her into a middle class set, “Suffragette” gives up any semblance of plausibility and thus fails as a history lesson on the suffragette movement for 21st-century audiences. In real life, Maud and Viola would have been drawn to socialism and socialist activity, and one doubts that they would have been forced to give up their husbands and families to prove themselves as committed socialists. Most likely they would have been drawn into activities to improve working conditions and pay levels in the laundry industry, and they would have helped set up trade unions for laundry workers, and child care and schooling provision for laundry workers’ children so that youngsters would never need to follow their parents into work (and be exposed to sexual abuse) at an early age. The women would enroll at night school to learn to read and write, and eventually to learn how to negotiate for better pay and working conditions. The scenes of hard labour in the laundry and the sexual exploitation of women like Maud and Viola’s teenage daughter by their employer could have been dealt with more deeply in a completely different movie. “Suffragette” treats those working-class people who happen to disagree with Watts and Viola in a contemptuous way, and in doing so, privileges the interests of a subset of middle class women over the real needs and concerns of working-class people. The idea that ALL people, regardless of sex, class or background, should enjoy equal political, legal and economic rights, without one group being singled out for privileges or special treatment, is completely ignored.

There is a possibility that Watts’ radicalisation from an otherwise ordinary and passive onlooker into committed militant may strike a chord with those viewers who have experienced similar ideological radicalisation in their youth or who have children who are undergoing parallel transformations, and that one purpose of the film is to trace how ordinary people can be drawn deeper into violent actions through a series of misunderstandings that destroy their lives and leave them with no alternatives other than to give up their lives to social phenomena that engulf them and spit them out with no mercy. There is no shortage though of recent social, political and religious movements which have chewed up young people and spat them out when they have fulfilled their function as cannon fodder, and one would wonder why the suffragette movement would be singled out to drive this point home.

There are a few sub-plots and motifs in the film that get short shrift: the conflict between Inspector Steed and Watts is treated in a superficial way, ending almost as soon as it starts, and the film gives no reason, however unbelievable it might be, as to why Steed continues to follow Watts after she rejects his offer. Perhaps he really does see a fighter in her, and wants to persuade her away from middle class feminists who find her a useful foot-soldier but who might dump her as soon as their objectives are met. However the plot’s trajectory allows for very little character development in its major roles so we never find out if Steed becomes sympathetic to the suffragette cause. A sub-plot involving Viola’s daughter and the issues of rape and sexual exploitation that arise is extremely sketchy and its resolution is unconvincing: the girl is made to exchange her laundry employment for one of domestic service which still exposes her to a male employer who might abuse her. The film espouses the idea that actions are more important than words, which in its narrow context leads Watts deeper into morally questionable activity that not only endangers her life but estranges her from family and community. How does such a banal and ideologically empty notion of “deeds, not words” differentiate the suffragettes’ cause from, say, that of the Nazis in Germany in the 1930s – 40s, or of the neo-Nazis in Ukraine and the ISIS-affiliated takfiris in Syria and Iraq?

Ultimately the film suffers in hanging Watts out to dry in an ambiguous future, in which she essentially recognises her alienation in the path she has chosen to walk, and no hope of reconciliation with Sonny or Inspector Steed. This is the cruellest blow dealt to an honest and innocent character that mocks her sincerity and her transformation from passive victim of circumstances to a passionate activist working for a cause she believes in. “Suffragette” left this viewer angry at its superficial treatment of its major characters and the way in which it uses one working-class individual as cannon fodder for middle class interests. The film treats everyone who happens to disagree with the suffragettes as either dangerous enemies or ignorant hoi polloi. I can’t help but feel that this film, like so many other recent British historical films that treat their subject matter in similar shallow ways, is catering to an agenda that upholds the interests of minority groups like radical feminists or radical LGBTI activists, over the real interests of the people they claim to represent.

On a more purely technical level, the actors in the film have their work cut out in trying to turn one-dimensional character stereotypes into real human beings in a story that falls apart in trying to sell a particular narrow middle class agenda posing as feminism to the general public through an everyday working-class heroine. The logical conclusion to such a story-line is too terrible for the script-writers to follow through so the heroine’s fate ultimately fades out behind the death and funeral of another suffragette. One questions why Watts, being a purely fictional character, should be made to deny her working-class roots and give up everything dear to her to toil for an essentially bourgeois movement that does not have her interests or the interests of her class in mind when there is plenty of injustice surrounding her at the laundry needing her energy. This comes back to the question of what agenda “Suffragette” serves.

Pieta (dir. Kim Kiduk): a cruel and absurd grotesquery mocking the poor and the marginalised

Kim Kiduk, “Pieta” (2012)

This tale of dark revenge centres around a class of people at the bottom-feeding end of the capitalist social hierarchy pyramid, those people fated to work at essential jobs paying little money, in dangerous life-threatening conditions and little hope of advancement. You know who these folk and what these jobs are: these people are subcontractors who work on projects given them by large industrial firms, or who recycle machines and other objects discarded by companies and consumers. These workers earn very little and borrow heavily simply to sustain themselves and their families but then are often unable to pay their crippling debts.

Enter Kangdo (Lee Jeongjin), a brutal enforcer working for a loan shark moneylender, going about threatening these people with severe injuries if they don’t pay back their debts. When they plead for more time, he breaks their fingers or throws them off ledges onto hard ground where their legs are broken. The money they receive from government agencies to pay their medical costs is instead claimed by Kangdo. Kangdo operates in the concrete underbelly of Seoul, in a labyrinthine maze of dreary garages, machine shops and junkyards. His personal life is as depressing and cold as his working life: Kangdo lives alone in a filthy flat in what appears to be a derelict apartment building, he has no close relationships and his diet consists of meat from animals that he kills himself, and whose innards grace his bathroom floor. A house-proud tenant he certainly ain’t.

Unexpectedly one day he meets a strange middle-aged woman (Cho Minsoo) who pursues him, claiming to be the mother who abandoned him as a tiny baby. Kangdo rejects the woman and warns her to stay away from him but she continues to pester him. He then puts her through some hair-raising tests including an incest rape which she passes with flying colours (of mostly blood-red hue). Over time, Kangdo and the woman accept each other, they start behaving as son and mother, and Kangdo starts to regain some of the humanity that he has always kept deeply buried in order to survive on the streets and to cope with being a brutal and loathsome thug. He starts to feel shame and guilt about the things he has done and he resolves to give up his brutal occupation and to start anew.

Alas, when he starts to open up and rediscover his connection to others that he had to suppress in order to survive on the streets, the woman herself discovers the full extent of his misdeeds as a moneylender’s enforcer and she determines to teach her son a lesson about accepting the consequences of his crimes and understanding how much his victims have suffered …

From then on, the plot becomes shaky and melodramatic as each of Kangdo’s past victims (or the ones we have seen anyway) return to haunt and taunt him in some way. As a result of being reunited with his mother, Kangdo returns to a child-like state and is unable to defend himself. One implausible incident leads to another even wackier one and while the plot descends into farce, earlier themes about how impoverished and marginalised people are bullied and exploited, and how capitalist society creates changes that crush, corrupt and sweep away people, and damages relationships and communities, are swept aside. Minor characters are treated as both pathetic victims, often for comic effect, or as brutal and corrupt themselves: either way, the film hardly shows much compassion and understanding for them in their debased states as they try to survive in the best way they can.

While the cinematography (filming was done with a hand-held camera) is beautifully if minimally done with well-placed shots, and the plot runs on very spare if sometimes brutal dialogue with long stretches of silent film that takes in the griminess of the life led by the urban poor in a derelict neighbourhood of tiny machine shops and scattered junk, “Pieta” frequently has an air of self-satisfaction and parody. As a Korean film, it appears to send up other well-known art-house Korean films on vengeance, redemption and dysfunctional mother-son relationships characterised by smother love, debasement and mutual psychological and physical violence. After the halfway point of the film, when Kangdo finally accepts his mother, the plot goes downhill with Kangdo progressively becoming more infantile in pleading for his mother’s life (while unaware that his mother, driven by her own demons, is playing a cruel trick on him) with unseen kidnappers. When the worst happens, Kangdo is left adrift and helpless, unable to survive on his own. The paradox is that when he was brutal, Kangdo did well enough on his own, but once he comes to know love and human connection, he reverts to the state of an infant and when the connection is broken, the only thing left for him is death. The social circumstances that led his mother to abandon him as a baby continues as heartlessly as it did before. If this paradox is supposed to be a blackly humorous comment on the human condition, I’d hate to know what a deadly serious comment would be.

The cosmic-joke nature of the film, its self-conscious cleverness and the way fate smacks Kangdo about, while leaving out any criticism of the industrial society that brutalises people and makes possible violence, corruption and degradation of individuals and society alike, leaves “Pieta” with a bad smell. Revenge may be pitiless, redemption may come with a heavy price and that price may be death, yes, but the way in which Kangdo is manipulated into debasing himself in a completely abject way is unconvincing. For all the fine acting and an undeveloped sub-plot about the purpose of existence and ordering your life away from the pursuit of material wealth, the film turns out to be an absurd and cruel grotesquery.

Truth: fictional drama has some value in showing how censorship works and propaganda is created

James Vanderbilt, “Truth” (2015)

An ambitious film for James Vanderbilt’s directorial debut, though he is well known in Hollywood as a script-writer, “Truth” is a fictional retelling of the drama behind the decision made by CBS TV network’s news program “60 Minutes” in late 2004 to broadcast an episode investigating the then US President George W Bush’s military record during the early 1970s, and the uproar it created that led to the ruin of long-time CBS TV news anchor Dan Rather’s career and the sacking of “60 Minutes” producer Mary Mapes. The film is well made with solid performances from lead actors Cate Blanchett and Robert Redford and a backing cast that includes Dennis Quaid and Stacy Keach. Based in part on Mary Mapes’ memoir, the film can be expected to put its political biases on full display and lands squarely on Mapes’ side.

Mapes (Blanchett) and her team of reporters are pressed for time in developing a story on anomalies in Bush’s career with the Texas Air National Guard during the late 1960s / early 1970s. At the time, Bush was of an age where he could expect to be drafted for military duty and be sent to Vietnam to fight there. Instead he was shunted into the Texan institution where he apparently did not fulfill all his service commitments. Mapes relies heavily on former Texas Air National Guard officer Bill Burkett (Keach) to supply copies of documents that incriminate a number of people including the then Texas Governor Ben Barnes (Phil Quast). The story is rushed to air and almost immediately the reaction to the story is vicious: Mapes and her team are forced to prove that the photocopies are not faked and are compelled to break their promise to Burkett and his wife that they would protect them and keep their identities secret. Handwriting experts and document analysts are brought in to verify the documents’ origin. CBS buckles under pressure from its owner Viacom and the White House to back-track on the story and conduct an internal inquiry. As a result, Mapes and the people who worked with her on the story are fired and Dan Rather resigns from CBS the day after Bush’s inauguration in January 2005 for a second 4-year term as President.

The film flies through the plot in political thriller fashion, with the emphasis on personalities and a confrontational approach favouring Mapes and her team. As a result, the theme that truth and fair reporting run a distant second place to ratings and making money and profit is lost behind the more personal story of Mapes who is made out to be a crusader for justice because of past childhood issues with an abusive alcoholic father, and who finds herself beset by numerous enemies within and without CBS after her story goes to air. Also lost is any suggestion that the social and cultural environment within which the CBS TV network operates – one where chasing profits is privileged over finding and analysing information properly to arrive at the “truth”, and moreover an environment in which shooting the messenger over technicalities substitutes for proper debate over any uncomfortable information uncovered and broadcast by that messenger – is itself corrupt and poisonous, and enables bullies and psychopaths, lies and propaganda to steamroll over victims and facts that threaten the comfort zones of political and financial elites.

The possibility also that the documents might have been faked deliberately to set up Mapes and her team, and any other journalist or group of journalists choosing to go down the route of investigating a sitting President’s past, is beyond the film’s scope in the way its narrative, based on a structure of individuals fighting for truth and justice against shadow villains, has been framed.

The cast pull through impressively in Vanderbilt’s debut and the narrative, though fast paced, is easy to follow. The dialogue is often unnatural and there are occasions where Mapes and Rather become little more than mouthpieces for Vanderbilt’s political views. Redford is not given much to do as Rather and tends to be reserved and stoic. Dennis Quaid as the military expert adds a distinctive smoky flavour to the cast while Topher Grace hams up his role as a young eager beaver freelancer. So often with Hollywood flicks the orchestral music soundtrack is overbearing and inappropriate for the subject matter and so it is with “Truth”. Editing and transitions from one scene to the next are sometimes quite clever with some unusual camera angles.

Within its limits, the film is valuable in demonstrating how censorship works and how the media has become a propaganda arm of government in massaging news for profit.

The Great Dictator: using comedy and drama, silent film and talking picture to confront fascism

Charles Chaplin, “The Great Dictator” (1940)

It’s over-long and the slapstick comedy is laid on very thickly but film legend Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator” is daring political satire for its period, especially when one considers that at the time as now Hollywood generally shied away from taking a stand for ordinary people against those who would oppress them. Chaplin takes pot shots at war film propaganda, dictatorships (and Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini in particular), revolutionaries and political authority in turns, and is clearly on the side of ordinary people against those who would oppress them. The actor / director / screenwriter plays two roles in the film reflecting the divide between repressive authority and humble worker bee.

An everyday man, unnamed but conventionally known as the Jewish barber (Chaplin), recovers from a 20-year amnesia brought on by injuries incurred during his time as a soldier with the Tomanian army in the Great War (1914 – 1918). While he has been in hospital, Tomania has suffered economic and political instability resulting in a putsch that brings Adenoid Hynkel (Chaplin again) to power. The barber tries to return to his former job in the Jewish ghetto he calls home but the community is under constant harassment from storm-troopers. With the help of local girl Hannah (Paulette Goddard), the barber evades the storm-troopers and re-establishes his business but due to the past amnesia, he’s not easily intimidated by the security forces and he keeps getting into trouble with them. At one point in the film, he falls in with a bunch of revolutionaries planning to get rid of Hynkel but their plot to assassinate the leader fails before it even has a chance to go into action.

Running parallel with the story of the barber is a sub-plot centred around Hynkel in which he luxuriates in megalomania, plotting to take over the world and having to entertain the equally insufferable Mussolini figure Napaloni (Jack Oakie), the dictator of Bacteria. The subplot is basically an excuse for Chaplin to make fun of the real-life Hitler by exaggerating the man’s quirks and tempestuous tirades; the buffoonery is overdone and sometimes tiresome, to say nothing of the way in which the German language suffers undeserved humiliation and Italian-American people suffer stereotyping. A highlight of this subplot is the silent scene in which Hynkel, completely wrapped in fantasy, balances and plays with a globe, only for it to burst like an ordinary balloon. The symbolism and message behind this scene are priceless.

Flitting between being a talking picture and silent movie, the transitions are not always smooth and the film itself is uneven. Audiences of the time expecting straight-out comedy might have been puzzled by the switching from comedy to drama and back again, especially in the film’s later montage sequences where storm-troopers burst into the Jewish ghetto and start beating up people. The plot is thin and consists of linked comedy skits with only the barest connections between them. At times both plot and sub-plot seem to be hunting around for ideas that might refresh them with opportunities for more buffoonery. Major characters like Goddard’s Hannah are not well developed and serve as mouthpieces for Chaplin’s political messages of unity, tolerance and democracy.

The film’s main highlights are Chaplin’s acting which often shows surprising depth and intelligence beneath the slapstick and the character stereotyping; the near-ballet scene with the globe; two separate scenes in barbershops; and the climax in which, mistaken for the dictator Hynkel, the barber delivers a speech that at once pleads for universal love, tolerance, equality and brotherhood, and damns the capitalist structures and institutions that turn people into cogs in a cold-blooded machine system. (Significantly after the film’s release, the US government began to follow and scrutinise Chaplin’s career and political beliefs more closely, and FBI director Herbert Hoover used Chaplin’s beliefs and the various personal scandals that dogged the actor against him in a smear campaign that damaged Chaplin’s career.) Oakie chews the scenery as Napaloni and his scenes with Chaplin poke fun at megalomania and the petty arrogance of dictators and autocrats generally.

The real worth of the film lies in Chaplin’s deft use as actor, writer and director of both comedy and drama, using the techniques of silent and talking-picture film-making, to confront and criticise fascism, at a time when American society’s reaction to fascist governments was to ignore it (or work with it secretly), and to support ordinary people in their resistance against oppressive governments. At the time the film was made, Chaplin did not know of the horrors (because most of them were yet to come) of Nazi Germany’s persecution of Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, physically and mentally handicapped people, Soviet POWs and others in its network of concentration camps in eastern Europe.

Let Your Life Be A Friction To Stop The Machine: bare-bones film delivers a devastating alternative history of the United States and the West

“Let Your Life Be A Friction To Stop The Machine” (Class War Films, 2012)

It’s a modestly made film – just a series of linked visual stills of cartoons, film snippets, paintings and other media, all tied together with voice-over narration – but this is a devastating alternative history of the United States since its founding, one that rips up the myths of the country’s founding and the values the US was founded on, and exposes the seedy truth behind the events, ideologies and trends that shaped the nation and made it what it is today. The film begins by saying boldly that Americans have been brainwashed for 240 years at least with a mythology and narrative created and maintained by a financial elite that has profited handsomely from the sweat and labour of the American people and which kept them all weak, divided and enslaved by various means political, economic and cultural. The country was founded upon the invasion of a continent, the genocide of its rightful owners and the enslavement of millions of others from another continent. The country was born out of lies and hypocrisy and survives through lies and hypocrisy. Whew, what a premise!

It’s best to watch the film all the way through while listening to and absorbing the narrative a couple of times at least as what the film says about the America of the past and the America it has become today will stun most people in the West. The myth of American exceptionalism, of American Manifest Destiny, together with the belief Americans had in their society and culture’s innate goodness and progressiveness blinded people to the awful crimes they committed upon the aboriginal peoples, the Africans and others brought to America as slaves or indentured labour and eventually peoples abroad, firstly in Cuba, Hawaii, Puerto Rico and the Philippines, then Latin America and Japan, and currently the whole wide world. These crimes continued through two major world wars, then a period of stand-offs between the US and the Soviet Union known as the Cold War and right through the 1990s to the present, in which the US is now waging wars against supposed Islamic terrorists like al Qa’eda, ISIS and Boko Haram throughout western Asia and much of Africa. Behind the more overt crimes such as illegal invasions and occupations of other countries, overthrowing legitimate governments with so-called colour revolutions and encouraging ongoing violence and chaos, are covert crimes of massive looting of natural resources (especially energy resources), environmental pollution and destruction of local cultures, histories and institutions.

We come to the America of the present: a nation mired in political corruption that stinks to high heaven; a nation where the middle class has collapsed under the combined pressures of a debt-based financial system, an economic ideology whose idolisation of profit has led to job flight and unemployment, and cultural nostrums that fault individuals for catastrophes not of their own making; and a nation that avoids dealing with major problems by resorting to fantasy, violence, conquest or war against its own citizens or other countries. Institutions and values that emphasised cooperative effort to improve people’s lives have been debased and hounded into extinction. Resources that once were owned communally and shared equally have been privatised and commodified, and sold to the highest bidder. If you find all this too much to take in, the narration collapses it into two general trends: the use of police state methods and cultural brainwashing to shore up the mythology, and the resort to overseas military adventures (all of which end in disaster) to spread the mythology and at the same time grab other nations’ territories and resources.

America, whether it is the actual United States or the US plus its satrapies in North America, Europe and other parts of the world, anywhere that has imported American culture lock, stock and barrel since 1945, has become a degraded and impoverished entity whose future is dark, bleak … and dead. The driving forces behind this Great Reversion have been the West’s political / financial / corporate elites who have controlled its major institutions, both government and private alike. (At this point, the only criticism I would make about the film’s narrative is that it identifies the financial elites as the drivers behind the myth of American uniqueness and stops there. The reality may very well be that the financial elites themselves may be as much pawns of another layer of hidden power as governments and corporations themselves are pawns of Wall Street and the City of London.) The tragedy is that for all the deceptions and lies, the myths of America that the elites have promoted have been so seductive and appealing that they have become part of people’s individual identities, so to condemn and spurn them is effectively to condemn and spurn oneself.

The narrative though isn’t without hope though it does not offer any solutions. That is as it should be, because it does not claim to have the definitive answer to defeating the hydra-headed monster that has been the Anglo-American empire. Any solution offered could be subverted by the empire itself, as it has done to past instances of protest, civil disobedience and revolution. Responses to it must be individual and creative: they can involve helping others or alerting people to the ways in which the system is crushing them so they can help themselves. For some people, disengaging from the empire and its seductions, and setting out on their own individual and / or collective paths, may be all that’s needed; other people can help to safeguard them from the empire.

So wherever we all are, whatever we are doing or what stage we are at in our lives, let’s now determine our lives to be a friction to stop the Machine.