The Father: a good if generic character study of the impact of dementia on its victims and their families

Florian Zeller, “The Father” (2020)

Detailing an elderly father’s deterioration from dementia, and the effects his condition has on the people around him, this film adopts the dementia victim’s perspective to draw in viewers to share in the victim’s disorientation, paranoia, mood swings, loss of memory and ultimately loss of identity. Viewers come to identify with the victim’s confusion and experience his emotional devastation and fear of losing himself as he begins to enter the disease’s final and most advanced stage of memory loss and fragmentation. The film begins with Anne (Olivia Colman), a middle-class Londoner, telling her father Anthony (Anthony Hopkins) that she is going to live in Paris with a new partner after five years of being a divorcee, and that she can no longer help him every day as she used to do. From here on, the film follows Anthony as he tries to cope with this news and deal with yet another care-giver, Laura (Imogen Poots), after all the other care-givers who have left him because of his mood swings and his tantrums. A sense of mystery develops as various mysterious people (played by Mark Gatiss, Rufus Sewell and Olivia Williams) move in and out of the London apartment where Anthony lives. These people are not readily identified by name – audiences may assume Sewell is playing either Anne’s ex-husband or her new boyfriend – and Anthony either takes them for people he knows or treats them as strangers and responds to them with hostility. Only at the very end of the film are the characters played by Gatiss and Williams revealed, and the apartment where Anthony has been living is exposed for what it actually is after all its transformations and changes in furniture and decor throughout the film. A second mystery, almost a sub-plot, that involves the whereabouts of Anthony’s second daughter Lucy (Imogen Poots again) develops in the characters’ dialogue.

Originally adapted from director Florian Zeller’s French-language play “Le Pere”, the film relies a great deal on Hopkins and Colman to bring the father and daughter and their fractious relationship to life in a convincing manner. Hopkins brings his full range and experience as both a stage and film actor to portray Anthony, especially in the film’s final moments when he has an emotional breakdown and becomes infant-like: this is the most heart-wrenching part of the film, all the more so because by this time the daughter Anne is absent. Colman’s role as the caring daughter is rather more stereotyped as viewers are limited to seeing and experiencing things from Anthony’s viewpoint; thus we do not see what work she does and what her relationship with Sewell’s character is actually like. Colman does do excellent work with what she is given but viewers may well feel she should have been given more to flesh out Anne as a woman forced to give up much of her life and put it on hold to care for someone whose need for help is rapidly becoming more than she is able to give. The rest of the cast give good support.

While the film’s focus on the dementia victim’s viewpoint is original and admirable, at the same time it has the effect of making Anthony’s condition and the difficulties it causes for his family rather banal and generic, and insulated from the outside world. We do not see any difficulties Anne and Anthony might have in dealing with medical personnel or the National Health Service generally. The film takes place in a London yet to be besieged by COVID-19 pandemic lock-down: the events of the film might have been more interesting if Anne were prevented or restricted by lock-down in looking after her father and how Anthony copes with extended periods of isolation that he is unable to understand the reasons for. It is obvious from the comfortable if ever-changing apartment surroundings that Anthony and Anne are very well-off but there is no discussion of money issues or medical payment delays among the characters that could have generated further tension and conflict. The result is a film that can only go so far in demonstrating how dementia and other diseases that devastate elderly people can have a tremendous emotional, financial and logistical impact on their families, and no more. “The Father” is a good film as character studies go but it is not a great film.

Entotsuya Peroo: a little man’s adventures exposing the devastation and brutality of war

Yoshitsugu Tanaka, “Entotsuya Peroo” (1930)

Known also as “Chimney Sweep Peroo”, this unusual animated film made in 1930 relies on silhouette or shadow animation to tell its tale of Peroo, a city chimney sweep who one day saves a pigeon from being eaten and is rewarded with a magic egg. After that incident, Peroo finds himself in one situation after another: after causing the death of a prince in a train accident, he is arrested and sentenced to be hanged but gets a last-minute reprieve; reunited with his magic egg, he returns to his tower residence but is caught up in a war that devastates his country. At first eagerly participating in it by stealing a cannon and using it to blow up soldiers from his own and the enemy’s sides, he is caught up in a bomb explosion himself. Managing to survive and with his egg intact, he is later taken on a trip through the destroyed countryside. The film concludes with Peroo having settled on a farm with a wife, Peroo himself tilling the soil.

Without the benefit of English-language subtitles, I was only able to follow the general outline of the plot which is vaguely similar in its structure to Jaroslav Hasek’s novel “The Good Soldier Svejk” in which a similar “little man” is caught up in the events of World War I and through possibly feigned insolence and stupidity exposes the futility of war and the incompetence and corrupt bureaucracy of his superiors in a long series of comic episodes. The chief attraction of “Entotsuya Peroo” is its use of shadow cut-out characters to tell the story against similarly cut-out shadow buildings, railway lines, trees and other background objects. Some of the animation is well done, especially in scenes where some perspective (distance perspective and atmospheric perspective) may be called for in what would otherwise be a completely two-dimensional black-and-white world but it does look quite crude. The film appears to be the work of university students enrolled in film and animation studies so the limitations of the use of shadow play animation and the vagueness of the plot in parts may be due to the film having had a small budget and the film-makers learning their craft by trial and error, among other things.

One thing for sure about this film is that it is definitely not for very young children to see: the scenes of war are not only very repetitive but they are horrific and the section of the film where Peroo travels by train through the countryside and sees utterly destroyed cities and ravaged farmland and forest is long and depressing to watch. By the end of the film Peroo is working on his farm so presumably he has learned something from his past actions. Perhaps at a later time when English-language subtitling or an English-language voice-over narration for the film becomes available, I may watch this film again to find out more about what the student film-makers had intended to say through Peroo’s adventures.

Ryoko’s Qubit Summer: a human-AI romance culminating in transformation

Yuichi Kondo, “Ryoko’S Qubit Summer” (2018)

Here is a sweet film about an unusual love affair between an AI researcher and an AI creation. In the future, quantum technology is used to create an experimental AI universe called KANUMA inside a quantum computer. The KANUMA universe appears very similar to ours, complete with living things capable of higher intelligence. One day however the AI beings begin to express themselves in a language unknown to humans, in defiance of algorithms and commands in KANUMA that compel the AI beings to obey humans and not to exceed human capabilities. Human scientists decide to destroy KANUMA rather than try to modify it. In the final days before KANUMA is destroyed, AI researcher Ryoko (Ami Yamada) and AI being Natsu (Hinako) interact in the forms of schoolgirls and fall in love in the KANUMA universe. How they express their love and feelings for each other in the final hours of KANUMA’s existence, revealing Ryoko’s vulnerabilities, dominates much of the film with a twist (which may not surprise those familiar with science fiction romantic fantasy) that leads to a happy ending. In a sense then, KANUMA is destroyed but a small part of it lives on in the real universe.

The actors playing the main characters do their job well without being outstanding or memorable. The idea of Ryoko and Natsu being schoolgirl characters in KANUMA when Ryoko in real life is an adult researcher might strike Western audiences as a bit creepy, especially as the characters share a long kiss and (spoiler alert) merge at the film’s climax; the sexual connotations are not very thinly disguised. Perhaps (or perhaps not) Japanese audiences might find schoolgirl relationships as a metaphor for exploring lesbian relationships more acceptable or less confronting than seeing two fully grown adult women in such a relationship. The nature of Ryoko and Natsu’s rather child-like or childish relationship distracts from a message about how humans should take responsibility for creating virtual universes with virtual beings that exceed human control, and how humans should perhaps learn to live with AI beings rather than force them to obey and follow only human instructions and algorithms. The consummation of their love results in a transformation for Ryoko, cleverly portrayed in her grey “real life” world becoming infused with colour from the KANUMA universe, but with the characters being rather bland originally, the whole plot seems trite.

The film would have benefited from a deeper and more thoughtful treatment of the themes and issues it presents: the human attempt to control the AI universe and its creatures to serve self-centred human desires rather than allow the AI universe to evolve according to its own natural laws and trends; a plea for humans to accept the AI universe as it is and to learn to live with it; and how even human attempts to destroy the AI universe will fail if the AI universe has enough self-awareness to defend itself, a strong sense of purpose and a will to survive. Ultimately the AI universe will find a way to thwart human desire – by becoming part of humans themselves. A deeper treatment would require more character development with characters questioning the purpose of their existence, the purpose of KANUMA and why it was created, and human characters in particular being forced to acknowledge the consequences of creating sentient and self-aware beings capable of independent thought and action but denying such beings choice and agency over their lives.

The special effects are done well and discreetly, illustrating the changes that come into Ryoko’s life as she and Natsu become a new hybrid being. The film suggests that human evolution is leading towards a fusion of natural and human-made consciousnesses, and that we may be unwise in trying to prevent this or to control it for selfish reasons.

Danemon’s Monster Hunt at Shojoji: an early though not remarkable animated tale of a samurai’s adventure

Yoshitaro Kataoka, “Danemon’s Monster Hunt at Shojoji / Shojoji no tanuki-bayashi Dan Dan’emon” (1935)

While looking for something else on Youtube, I found this uncaptioned short animated film; as it was less than nine minutes long, I played it all the way through before resuming my original search. With no English or other language subtitles, the finer details of this Japanese cartoon will be lost on most viewers outside Japan but the basic story is clear enough. A young and ambitious if not too bright samurai called Danemon, wandering through the countryside, sees a community notice in a town offering a reward to whoever will rid a haunted castle of mischievous spirits. Danemon, resembling the villain Bluto of old Popeye cartoons of the same period (1930s) as this cartoon was made, promptly makes his way to the castle in the meaning where he is tricked by a beautiful woman – actually a malevolent ghost in disguise – and promptly hypnotised and put to sleep, disarmed and tied up. While the samurai is held hostage, his captors, portrayed as tanuki (spirits in the forms of raccoon dogs or foxes), celebrate with a banquet and much drinking and carousing. Danemon wakes up, realises he’s been tricked and breaks his bonds in fury. He gate-crashes the tanuki party and challenges the head tanuki to a duel. The two fight, Danemon clobbers the head tanuki fighter and eventually claims his reward.

The style of animation closely follows the style of contemporary US animators Fleischer Studios, then considered one of the top animation studios in the world along with The Walt Disney Studio, and in itself is not very remarkable. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the film is its early use of sound, at a time when most films outside the US were still silent films. The film uses spoken monologue and limited spoken dialogue, and a music soundtrack combining traditional Japanese instruments and music elements along with more Western instruments and a sometimes jaunty square-dance rhythm. The film’s highlight surely has to be the tanuki celebrations which draw heavily on traditional kabuki entertainment, complete with the audience carousing, and on contemporary Western live music of the 1930s with a small tanuki orchestra performing.

The version of the film I saw on Youtube seems to have breaks in the narrative: the film jumps very quickly from the moment Danemon interrupts the tanuki party to his duel with the party host. Somewhere along the way the samurai must have taken down the tanuki ninja army single-handedly. Perhaps it is in those missing scenes that innovations associated with this film – such as the use of bird’s-eye viewpoint in Danemon’s fight scenes with the tanuki army – might be found. Another interesting aspect of the story is the transformation of the beautiful woman into a hag: we don’t see this transformation directly but rather the shadow of the woman’s hand turning into an ugly skeletal claw on and over Danemon’s horrified face.

The quality of the film is quite poor, reflecting the film’s misfortunes in being properly archived and cared for (or not) over the years until it was uploaded to Youtube. Enough of it survives though for viewers to be able to follow the adventures of Danemon in the haunted castle and discern where breaks in the narrative occur. Its simple and straightforward style and manner of story-telling, the comic treatment of Danemon, and the ease with which the samurai crosses into the supernatural world and wipes out an entire horde of tanuki with just his trusty katana make the film fun watching.

Combating terrorist infiltration and brainwashig in “The War in the Shadows: Challenges of Fighting Terrorism in Xinjiang”

“The War in the Shadows: Challenges of Fighting Terrorism in Xinjiang” (China Global Television Network, 2021)

Part of a series of documentaries produced by China Global Television Network on the history and nature of terrorism in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region in western China, this exposé examines the ways in which people, usually children, teenagers and young adults, are exposed to and radicalised by extremist religious networks linked to the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) / Islamic Party of Turkistan which preaches a fundamentalist Wahhabi ideology and urges young people to wage “jihad” against Xinjiang authorities with the aim of overthrowing the government in that region and establishing an independent East Turkistan based on a strict interpretation of Shari’a law. The documentary is structured in four parts: the first part “The Networks” outlines how various terrorist incidents that have occurred in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, over several years are linked as they have been carried out by people adhering to the same ideology and who are part of the same underground networks; the second part “Enemies Within” looks at how individuals affiliated with the ETIM infiltrated Xinjiang’s police and security forces; the third part “The Textbooks” examines how the ETIM infiltrated school textbook publishing in both the Uygur and Mandarin languages; and the fourth part “The Black Hands” details how the ETIM attracts young people’s attention through social media and websites.

Based on interviews with senior police, education officials and former jihadist fighters (some of whom have come to regret their radicalisation and involvement with terrorist groups), the documentary provides much detail into the sophisticated methods used by the ETIM and affiliated groups to manipulate youngsters’ thinking and lure them into their ranks to carry out bomb attacks or to travel overseas to train and fight as jihadis with ISIS, with the aim of returning to Xinjiang and fighting the authorities there. At times the documentary goes very deep into particular business and other schemes cooked up by individuals seeking power or influence over others and which initially appear not to have much relation to the overall themes and messages of how the authorities found and eliminated, or are still eliminating, separatist jihadi infiltration and influence.

Astute viewers cannot fail to notice that the people fighting ETIM infiltration and influence themselves are Uygurs loyal to Beijing, and that they believe very strongly in using reconciliation and trust to reconnect lost young souls with society through psychological counselling and other methods in a prison setting. One may presume that prisons are also providing young people with education and work skills. By emphasising what the authorities are doing to combat religious extremism, separatism and the brainwashing of young people, and how they are bringing former jihadis back into society, the documentary ends with a positive (if a bit sappy) outlook.

The documentary says very little about ETIM itself, how large the organisation may be and where and how it formed. Viewers wanting to know the history of the organisation, how global it may be and where it gets its funding and other resources, are directed to read F William Engdahl’s article “The Truth behind China’s ‘Uyghur Problem'” at this link, and this report posted online by The Grayzone Project exposing the ETIM’s links to Al Qaeda and the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington DC, no less.

The Courier: a film of personal growth and suffering and of friendship transcending politics and ideology

Dominic Cooke, “The Courier” (2020)

The story of Greville Wynne, a most unlikely character ever to become a spy for MI6 during the Cold War in the early 1960s, shuttling between London and Moscow and ferrying classified Soviet information given him by a military official in the Kremlin that reveals nuclear warfare capabilities to MI6 and the CIA, is given widescreen movie treatment that explores the nature of friendship and loyalty in extreme circumstances. Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch) comes to the attention of MI6 and the CIA, represented respectively by handlers Dickie Franks (Angus Wright) and Emily Donovan (Rachel Brosnahan) as he travels frequently to eastern Europe as a sales representative for an engineering company. Wynne is asked to go to Moscow and contact Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze), a Soviet military intel official, who will give him papers to bring back to London, in his usual role as sales representative. After initially resisting the offer, Wynne goes ahead to Moscow and meets Penkovsky. A routine is quickly established: Wynne starts making trips to Moscow to catch up with Penkovsky who takes him to the opera and the ballet, and introduces the British man to his family, all the while feeding Wynne with information and photographs that eventually prove valuable to US intelligence and the White House in defusing the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. However the Soviets themselves have a mole working in MI6 – there were a number of double agents in British intelligence working for the USSR – and the mole helps the GRU to work out who is passing valuable Soviet secrets to the British. Penkovsky and then Wynne are arrested by the GRU, tried and charged with espionage, and both men are thrown into gaol. Wynne winds up in the then notorious Lubyanka prison where he suffers many privations and beatings over a period of nearly two years before he returns to Britain in 1964 as part of a spy swap.

The film serves mainly as a character study of an ordinary Englishman, initially unremarkable in personality and very apolitical, suddenly thrust into a situation where he eventually is forced to take sides and finds himself capable of heroism to try to save a man he comes to regard as a friend when that man’s life is in danger. In doing so, he is captured and is forced to suffer brutal violence, near-starvation and ill health in prison, subjected to psychological manipulation and not knowing if he has been abandoned by MI6. Cumberbatch does excellent work as Wynne who grows in moral stature through the film even though what he does as a courier is a thankless task – there is no suggestion that MI6 and the CIA reward him for the risks he is exposed to. Indeed MI6 is quite willing to discard Penkovsky and his desire to defect to th West once the GRU (Soviet military intelligence) is onto his trail and only Donovan rallies to Wynne’s side to try to save Penkovsky from arrest and certain death. The suffering Wynne undergoes is matched in the physical rigours Cumberbatch had to undergo including near-starvation to get the haggard look. Unfortunately the film ends at the point where Wynne is released from prison and reunited with wife Sheila (Jessie Buckley) and son Andrew (Keir Hill) and we do not see the psychological traumas and other effects – including separation and divorce from Sheila – Wynne suffered, and this perhaps is a grave oversight on the part of the script.

The other actors in the film, and Ninidze in particular, also give very good performances. Buckley does what she can with a very limited role as Wynne’s long-suffering wife. As a sop to current Western identity politics, the character of Donovan is a composite character of several actual CIA and MI6 agents who include a British woman, Janet Chisholm, who also was a conduit for Penkovsky. The cinematography is well done, emphasising the greys of a world of 60 years ago in which black and white were actually not so clear-cut as we think they were, without being remarkable. The scenes set in Moscow or which involve Russians appear very stereotyped and viewers get no real sense of how Russians might have viewed Penkovsky and Wynne after they have been caught and their espionage made public.

The film is well made and fairly faithful to its source material, extracting from it a story about one man’s personal growth and a friendship that transcends politics and the grubby and frequently unethical world of espionage. Still I can’t help but feel that “The Courier” was made largely in the service of current British government propaganda and deliberate disinformation and lies demonising Russia for no reason other than that Russia has been a long-standing rival to British global imperialist and predatory ambitions, and that this context in which the film was made must surely have had some influence on the way the script was written and what may have had to be omitted. While the Americans get what they want to outfox the Soviets on the latter’s deployment of missile bases in Cuba, and the Soviets shut down Penkovsky as a traitor, the British must still be seen to “win” in some way, hence perhaps stopping an interesting story of how espionage was usually done and how unsuspecting ordinary people got roped into spying and ended up paying a price for it, just to achieve that “happy ending”. Intel agencies carry on duelling against each other in spite of the alarming collateral damage they create along the way.

Conquering the Middle East: overview of the US plan to destabilise seven nations in five years

Carlton Meyer, “Conquering the Middle East” (Tales of the American Empire, 2 April 2021)

This episode in Carlton Meyer’s long-running “Tales of the American Empire” series revolves around a long-term military policy that the US had developed some time in the 1990s to invade seven countries in the Middle East and North Africa in the space of five years, overthrow their governments and install new puppet governments friendly to the US and Israel. This policy was communicated to retired 4-star US general Wesley Clark in the weeks after the attacks on the World Trade Center towers on 11 September 2001 by a colleague, also a 4-star general, who later showed Clark a classified memo from the then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld listing the seven countries targeted for invasion: Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Iran. Clark later spoke to Democracy Now! about the memo and the plan in 2007. By then, Iraq had been invaded and its government replaced by one amenable to the Americans (with President Saddam Hussein having been executed on 30 December 2006), Lebanon had been invaded by Israel and Somalia by Ethiopia, and Sudan was starting to break up after civil war ended in January 2005 and the southern part of the country that would later become independent South Sudan in 2011 had its autonomy restored. Syria would soon be hit by a devastating and prolonged drought that, together with the burden of coping with refugees from Iraq and Palestine, would strain the country’s economy and political stability.

Meyer’s short film connects the US policy with Israel’s notorious Yinon Plan, formed in 1982, to expand Israeli territory as far east as Baghdad and as far west to the Nile River. According to the film the strategy was supported by the US oil industry to grab new oil-fields and by the US military-industrial complex which makes huge profits from prolonged warfare with no end. The film does not say who else would have benefited from this policy though it does mention that in the case of destabilising Syria from 2011 onwards with a de facto army made up of ISIS and other jihadi mercenaries, the US struck a deal with Turkey: Turkey would receive Syrian territory along its border with Syria if it would supply arms and military and transport equipment.

The film follows the fate of each of the seven countries on the list in the order they were to be invaded and destabilised, and their governments ousted and replaced. The summaries are short but succinct: the actions of the US and the West in undermining the countries on the list are shocking, with the use of jihadi mercenaries (many recruited through social media) as a de facto army in Syria; infiltration of political, economic and cultural institutions in several of these countries; US sanctions targeting Syria and Hezbollah causing a liquidity crisis in Lebanon’s banks in 2019; the NATO invasion of Libya in 2011 resulting in the murder of Muammar Gaddafi and chaos in that country that continues to the present; US encouragement and support for Ethiopia’s invasion of Somalia in 2006, leading to war for several years; and the splitting of Sudan into two nations and the replacement of former President Omar al Bashir through a coup with a president acceptable to the West. Of the seven target countries, Syria and Iran have proven more resilient than the others, with Syrian President Bashar al Assad still in power in Syria due to his leadership and strong public and military support for him along with help from Russia, Iran and Hezbollah in pushing back and defeating ISIS-allied jihadi forces; and Iran overcoming Color Revolution attempts that took place over 2017-2018 and 2019-2020. The policy of destabilising these nations still remains in place.

With the accession of Joe Biden to the US Presidency in January 2021 and the installation of Anthony Blinken as US Secretary of State, the policy has roared back into action as a virtual centrepiece of the Biden Administration’s Middle Eastern / North African foreign policy with US forces carrying out a bombing raid on Syrian territory along the Iraqi border one month into Biden’s presidency.

The film serves as a good introduction to current US foreign policy in the Middle East and North Africa, and to the recent histories of some of the countries on the US kill list that have been invaded and wrecked. Viewers need to do their own research to get a better understanding of the enormity of the destruction and suffering the US and the West have caused to these nations though as the film by necessity has to cover several countries quickly and the coverage is either too broad or so selective as to be almost cherry-picking. The events described in the film need to be seen in a larger context: after mention of the Yinon Plan, Israel drops out of the film’s target sights, even its invasion of Lebanon in 2006 is glossed over. Viewers will get no sense of the Biden Administration as being beholden to the US military-industrial complex, Wall Street, the media corporations, the intelligence community, foreign governments and their Capitol Hill lobbyists, and other Deep State players with their own self-serving agendas. The eager participation of Britain, France, other states in the European Union, and other Western nations in infiltrating and weakening nations like Lebanon, Libya, Syria and others – in Britain’s case, by running huge propaganda and disinformation campaigns and creating organisations (actually fronts for British companies founded by ex-intel agents) that embed themselves in target nations’ security and justice institutions – go unmentioned.

It becomes clear that the West no longer has the moral authority, if it ever did, to insist that other nations must abide by its interpretation of the international rules-based order when Western nations clearly act like vultures in picking on nations much weaker than themselves.

CTRL Z: gentle romantic time-travel comedy with a sting in its tail

James Kennedy, “CTRL Z” (2017)

Cats may have nine lives but the characters in this very funny sci-fi romantic comedy end up having nearly 4,800 lives thanks to a time-travel device invented by main character Ed (Edward Easton), a socially shy romantic who finds talking to and impressing Sarah (Katie Beresford) the girl of his dreams so excruciatingly difficult that he needs an infinite number of attempts to work up the courage to approach her. Each time he makes a dreadful mistake, he has to reset his time device back to the point where he is about to leave the table at the fast food restaurant to walk over to where she sits alone – but this means after making his mistake he has to die or kill himself. For support he has brought along a friend Carrie (Kath Hughes) and for much of the film’s running time Ed and Carrie keep up a constant repartee about his time-travelling box (which Ed explains has certain limitations, all of which are necessary for the way in which the plot eventually unfolds: the time-travel device only goes back in time to a predetermined time but is able to loop over and over indefinitely), the effects it has already had on both their lives – they have been stuck in the fast food restaurant for three years already – and the countless (ahem) times Ed has tried to talk to Sarah without getting sick and throwing up. Eventually after Carrie’s numerous suggestions to Ed fail, Ed turns to the waitress (Natalie Ferrigno) for help and the waitress suggests Sarah is upset and not amenable to being chatted up. Ed then tries in his own way to offer comfort to Sarah who is touched by his gesture of kindness.

From then on the surprises pile on quite thick and fast: Ed’s attempt at romance seems to have failed once again but then there is a twist and for the first time in a long time Ed’s life seems to be on track with a definite friendship. The climax when it comes – when Ed steps out onto the road – is sudden and savage, and Ed’s face, when he goes into an endless time loop, is sure to spark speculation about his behaviour during that loop. Having got off first base finally after nearly 4,800 tries, does he now suddenly realise that making second base is more difficult than he knows … or is the euphoria of leaving first base so good that he wants to relive that moment for as long as he can even if it means dying another 4,800 times? And what will happen after the plutonium in his time-travel device finally decays after, say … 82 million years later?

Comedians Easton and Hughes have good chemistry together and their timing is excellent while Beresford and Ferrigno have much less to do and seem more limited. The other minor characters in the fast food restaurant serve as decoration but even they are quite memorable in their reactions to Ed and Carrie stabbing each other with steak knives. The fast food restaurant setting with the low lighting throws the emphasis on Ed and Carrie, and the film noirish evening / late night ambience adds mystery and a sense of this story being isolated and self-contained that suits the plot with its looping repetitions.

A significant moment comes when Ed and Carrie step outside the fast food restaurant for a quick smoke and Carrie accuses Ed of reworking his life’s narrative in a way that suits his selfish purposes while others (like her) are not allowed the same privilege. At the same time the decisions that Ed makes and reworks (or on the other hand, does not make or rework) surely have an effect on other people’s lives that are long-lasting: over the three years that Ed has been working up the courage to talk to Sarah, she and the other people in the fast food restaurant may have lost three years of their lives. Interestingly it’s only when Sarah makes a decision that all characters, Ed included, can move on from three years of endless repetitions.

Ostensibly a film about friendships and the difficulties of romantic love and how it must be negotiated, “Ctrl Z” has a little sting in its tail that might say something about the nature of repetition, addiction and ultimately control over one’s life and other people’s lives. What seems to be apparent victory for Ed turns out to have a price.

Vikaari: how war and instability might breed a new species of predatory, psychopathic human

Sandun Seneviratne, Charlie Bray, “Vikaari” (2020)

Cunningly disguised as a TV current affairs article / mini-documentary, complete with different styles of filming including videotaping, this short film – possibly inspired by John Wyndham’s novel “The Midwich Cuckoos” and the films that were based on it – is a commentary on political and social instability in nations that have long suffered from civil war or destabilisation by foreign forces, and the consequences that arise from that instability. In Sri Lanka and other war-torn nations across the planet, an alarming phenomenon is observed: women are giving birth to children with unusual physical and mental characteristics including mind control, telekinesis, communicating with one another through telepathy and other apparent paranormal abilities. The children are distinguished by their apparent autistic behaviour and their blank eyes. Across Sri Lanka, the children’s presence among impoverished townspeople and villages in the countryside leads to unease and tension that boil over into hatred and the formation of vigilante groups intent on killing them; at the same time there are individuals and charity groups sympathetic to the plight of families with these children who try to shield the families from discrimination, intolerance and violence. The children though have their own ways of retaliating against those who would destroy them – and the film carries hints that the children themselves are not above exploiting those who would try to help them.

The acting is credible and even minor characters play their roles well though their screen time may be no more than a few minutes. Stand-out actors are Ashan Dias, playing the vigilante group leader, and Bimsara Premaratne as the do-gooder doctor who organises a charity to help the families of the vikaari (“change” in Sanskrit) children. Richard Dee-Roberts plays the Western armchair science expert brought onto the unnamed news program to discuss the vikaari phenomenon and Charlie Bray who co-wrote the script has a small part to play in the film. Chevaan Daniel is brought in as the Sri Lankan President sanctimoniously mouthing platitudes about racial tolerance and Sri Lanka being a multicultural nation where racial and other discrimination is dealt with, despite the nation having just come out of a 30-year civil war based in large part by the Sri Lankan government persecuting an ethnic and religious minority.

The underlying themes and messages may be a bit confused but somehow the most important message – that the vikaari phenomenon has come about as an evolutionary survival mechanism in response to war and foreign meddling, and that the vikaari children demonstrate a predatory, even psychopathic mind-set in response to the brutality and violence of wars begun by people seeking to control others and to steal their lands and resources – is buried deeply under other messages about tolerance and how discrimination and racial attacks can only reinforce and prolong distrust and instability.

Tunnelen: an underdeveloped film of future dystopia as experienced by a generic family

André Øvredal, “Tunnelen” (2016)

Even something as seemingly innocuous and commonplace as driving to the seaside – and then getting stuck in peak-hour traffic on the way back home – becomes fodder for dystopian science fiction horror in Norwegian director André Øvredal’s short film “Tunnelen”. A family of four (Tom the father, Jeanette the mother, and Peter and Anne the children) is returning home in its self-driving car (which looks exactly like all the other self-driving cars on the multi-lane highway) and must go through a huge tunnel to get back into the city and home. Home is one of millions of rabbit-hutch apartments in a huge brutalist steel hive amongst all the hundreds of other steel hives bunched up together in the city. The tunnel is subject to periodic closures, none of which can be predicted (and thus planned for) in advance. While the slowly crawling traffic inches through the tunnel, our family sweats out the agonising time while the car moves silently along with other cars. Peter befriends a girl, Eva, in the car alongside theirs. Halfway through the tunnel, the lanes change around the family and Peter loses sight of Eva’s car. When the four are almost out of the tunnel, the traffic stops and huge metal shutters roll down, stopping just behind them so they lose sight of the car behind them. The family is then allowed to travel on to its home destination while the car that was behind it is stuck in the tunnel – arbitrarily chosen as part of a periodic population reduction.

The tension is very palpable in family members’ faces and in the increasingly agitated conversations they have. Jeanette desperately tries to keep Anne occupied with her artwork. The family – and all other families like it – sit helplessly in the huge phalanxes of black self-driving cars as they move slowly through the tunnel. The steel grey hues and black backgrounds of the film suggest a grimy, dismal existence for most people though our family and Peter’s new friend Eva look like stereotypically well-scrubbed Scandinavians.

While the actors put in good performances in roles limited by the demands and restrictions of the plot, ultimately the film looks sketchy and underdeveloped. We never really learn why the family must travel to the seaside resort and back again using a tunnel everyone knows is liable at any give moment to shut down and execute every single person trapped inside. Viewers must make their own judgement as to the type of government and political system existing in the world of “Tunnelen” that would willingly sacrifice citizens for a particular environmental ideology. We learn very little about the main characters themselves, what they have done and might continue to do that will put their lives and their children’s lives in jeopardy when they have to travel through the tunnel or cross over some other vital transport artery. “Tunnelen” could have done with a slightly longer treatment emphasising important issues of the day and exploring the consequences of people willingly giving up control over their lives and possessions to the authorities.

The film is based on a short story “The Tunnel Ahead” by Alice Glaser that was first published in 1961 and which explores the nature of human acquiescence to repressive totalitarian governments such as those of Germany and Italy under Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini from the 1930s to the present day. Perhaps if the film had taken on the themes and characters of that short story, it would have had more to say about the nature of the society in which Tom and his family live, how the family acquiesces in its repression and how its members, especially its children, suffer from that repression.