Dark Horse: a bleak and surreal comedy satire on dysfunctional middle class suburban families

Todd Solondz, “Dark Horse” (2011)

A bleak comedy expressing despair over the human condition, “Dark Horse” revolves around life’s losers, those who for various reasons are unable to achieve their dreams, fulfill their potential and live up to their own (and others’) expectations, and end up alienated, frustrated and forgotten. Abe (Jordan Gelber) is in his mid-30s, living at home with his parents (Christopher Walken and Mia Farrow) and working for his father’s real estate company; his main joys in life are the obsessions of his teenage years, namely sci-fi toys he buys at the toy store in the shopping mall. He meets a young woman, Miranda (Selma Blair), at a wedding and becomes besotted with her. From this moment on, Abe pursues Miranda, and they come close to marrying, but Abe’s own insecurities and feelings of inadequacy, combined with resentment at his parents and older brother’s treatment of him, threaten to derail the two’s future happiness.

The film is notable for its character study of a no-hoper pampered adult-child character with many unlikeable qualities and a feeling of self-entitlement, and of the dysfunctional family in which he grew up and which either indulges him or treats him dismissively. Jordan Gelber actually succeeds in making the unpleasant and self-centred Abe strangely sympathetic and touching. Blair’s character Miranda doesn’t appear all that convincing as an apathetic and depressed young woman, over-medicated and despairing that she will never achieve the literary career she had hoped for; her irrational behaviour in accepting Abe’s marriage proposal (and thus sending him onto a trajectory that means his days are fast running out) in spite of her inability to truly love him may bewilder viewers. Walken and Farrow offer solid if restrained support as the disappointed father and indulgent mother and Justin Bartha’s contribution as the successful older brother whose good fortune sends Abe into constant rages is equally matter-of-fact and all the more devastating. Probably the outstanding performance though comes from Donna Murphy as the real estate company secretary who of all the characters may genuinely care for Abe … though the film offers many alternative suggestions about the nature of her feelings towards him and becomes distinctly surreal and open-ended at its conclusion.

As a satire on American family life in a society where success and conformity to social mores count for more than individual eccentricity and striving for one’s hopes and dreams, the film never quite succeeds, perhaps because Abe, his parents and the people around them are too self-absorbed and self-pitying to realise that their lives are collapsing around them as a result of their considerable character flaws. The tragedy is that Abe never gets the opportunity to get to grips with his situation due to Miranda’s odd and selfish behaviour. The plot is very disjointed and becomes more fragmented as it continues, and one is not too sure from whose point of view the story is being told.

Mash-up of all previous Alien franchise flicks delivers an uneven story in “Alien: Covenant”

Ridley Scott, “Alien: Covenant” (2017)

British director Ridley Scott must have taken all the criticisms of “Prometheus” to heart as he has delivered a new chapter in the pre-Ripley sub-set of the Alien franchise that at least boasts a half-decent story, even if it looks like a mash-up of all the other Alien films ever made plus parts of Scott’s own “Blade Runner” and “Gladiator” to boot. This second installment in the complicated meta-narrative now poses questions about the purpose of one’s existence, what it means to be human as opposed to being a robot, and the presumption of humans in playing God to the extent of colonising and terraforming far distant exoplanets for the benefit of humans (and at the expense of the native life-forms) and of creating sentient beings to be used as slaves and machines. These questions partly compensate for flaws in the film’s plot and characterisation, and enable the film to be treated with a bit more respect than its predecessor.

The spaceship Covenant is on a mission to find a new Earth-like exoplanet to settle, its colonists (most of whom exist in embryonic form in cryogenic tubes) fleeing a planet ruined by warfare and environmental catastrophe caused by human greed and selfishness. A cosmic storm damages part of the ship and causes some colonists (the adult ones) to awake from hyper-sleep. They repair the damage but lose their captain when his pod is engulfed in flames. The crew aren’t too enthusiastic about going back into deep sleep and start looking for something to do. On cue, their craft alerts them to a signal coming from a planet in the galaxy they are heading towards – and this signal is apparently human. New leader Captain Oram (Billy Crudup) decides over the objections of second-in-charge Daniels (Katherine Waterston) to go down to the planet to investigate the source of the signal. The two take a group of colonists – including the Covenant‘s resident android Walter (Michael Fassbender) down to the planet which initially presents as a paradise of high mountains, beautiful lakes, fields of wheat … but no birdsong or insect chatter.

The reasons for the lack of fauna soon become apparent as the search team is set upon and decimated in often gruesome and gory fashion by various representatives of the protean Alien species. Their space-explorer vehicle is damaged and they are forced to rely on a mysterious hooded figure who turns out to be one of the two survivors from the previous “Prometheus” flick. What the Covenant search team discover about this prophet-like figure and the activities this sinister person has been engaging in is at least intriguing as well as horrifying …

A capable cast gets thrown away not only by the necessities of the plot and overall concept but by sketchy one-dimensional characters. Even Oram and Daniels are not too well delineated themselves: by making gob-smackingly stupid decisions early on, Oram makes himself a marked man and Daniels’ character has to fight against comparison with the tougher, more world-weary Ellen Ripley of past Alien flicks. (Admittedly if the Covenant crew had more than half a brain of intelligence among them to depend on, there would be no plot and no victims for the Alien creatures to play with.) In playing the two characters of David and Walter, Fassbender has no choice but to excel, and excel he does without chewing up too much of the scenery: that’s a job for the monsters who carry it out with enthusiasm and slavering relish. The androids play their good cop / bad cop routine efficiently and through their interactions the issue of the differences between humans and robots is highlighted. For a brief moment, David is confronted with the possibility that to be fully human not only means being able to create but also being less than perfect, and that what he creates has the potential to run away from him.

In the film’s last half hour, replays of “Alien”, “Aliens” and “Alien 3” become rather too obvious to the point of banality and Daniels’ chases of not one but two aliens aboard two ships have the air of being tacked onto the film’s plot at the last minute to satisfy the bean-counters financing the film. Not for the first time (and certainly not for the last time), the critters get blasted through airlocks to join their other siblings into space junk orbit around some unfortunate planet – one wonders what David would make of all this interstellar pollution created by the unthinking and selfish human beings he comes to despise.

As in “Prometheus”, the Covenant crew make a lot of silly mistakes for the purpose of moving the plot forwards and providing meat for the gore and the violence. Silly in-jokes abound as well – was it necessary for an alien to dispose of two people in a pointless shower scene?

Nevertheless the film is beautiful to look at and the technology and special effects can be very stunning. The film ends on a cliff-hanger note that can be foreseen several hundred light-years away. One hopes the next two chapters will improve on “Alien: Covenant” though I am not holding my breath. One major improvement would be to boot Ridley Scott from the whole Alien franchise and let Neil Blomkamp (of “Chappie” and “District 9”) get on with his alternative Alien Version 3.1 in which Hicks and Newt from “Aliens” survive and somehow thrive.

Elvis & Nixon: amusing and light-hearted comedy of the meeting between rock star legend and the most powerful politician in the world

Liza Johnson, “Elvis & Nixon” (2016)

Based on an actual incident in which the famous rock singer Elvis Presley turned up unannounced at the White House some time in 1970, wanting to meet the then US President Richard Nixon to discuss the state of America’s youth and the dire direction the country was supposedly heading in, what with the civil rights movement in full throttle, the ascent of the hippie culture and the associated psychedelic drug scene, and the fear that godless Communists were infiltrating society through the music popular with young people … “Elvis & Nixon” turns out to be a light and fluffy comedy affair, albeit with subterranean currents that provide plenty of food for thought. Through its careful character studies of both Presley and Nixon, the film has a great deal to say about the cult of fame and celebrity and how it affects individuals like Presley, the self-interest and cynicism prevalent in both politics and the entertainment world and the extent to which Presley and Nixon try to use each other for their own benefit, and the pathos behind Presley’s quest to be heard out by the world’s most powerful politician and his attempt to be something of significance and not just an entertainer.

On the surface, one couldn’t imagine two people more unlike each other than a famous rock’n’roll singer and a very conservative politician not at all interested in American youth to have much in common. The film spends a considerable amount of time building up the two men, revealing Presley (Michael Shannon) as a lonely, isolated individual, engrossed in conspiracy theories and sometimes bizarre hobbies, at once knowing and also touchingly naive; and Richard Nixon (Kevin Spacey) as self-centred, grasping and concerned with his own self image. When the two men eventually meet – after their aides have gone to enormous lengths to set up the meeting that involve a fair amount of duplicity and manipulation – the rock star and the politician discover they have had many similar experiences arising from their fame and the isolation it imposes, and the two men readily bond together.

Shannon and Spacey turn in stunning performances though Shannon gets far more screen time and his character becomes both sympathetic and pathetic in his obsession with obtaining a Federal police badge and becoming an undercover agent at large using his rock star fame as cover to spy on other rock music artists. The moment during which Presley rehearses what he will say to Nixon and mentions his long-dead twin brother Jesse reveals a personality starved for real connection and wanting to be loved as a human being, not as a stereotype cultivated by music industry advertising, is very moving and reveals something of Presley’s vulnerability, loneliness and desire for authentic connection beneath the bravado. Nixon is persuaded by his aides, who have an eye on the President’s popularity rating with the public, to meet Presley: initially Nixon refuses but his aides secretly meet with Presley’s bodyguards and the foursome concoct a plan (almost verging on conspiracy and which can be seen as a forerunner to the corruption that became the Watergate scandal) that involves Nixon’s young adult daughters.

The movie does not belong just to its main characters: considerable time is given over delineating the characters of Jerry Schilling (Alex Pettyfer), Presley’s confidant who wants to be with his girlfriend, and of Nixon’s White House official Krogh (Colin Hanks) who is perhaps a little too good at conniving and manipulating – in real life, Krogh was to be caught up in the Watergate scandal that toppled Nixon from the Presidency and as a result the aide spent several years in prison. Schilling does not do much with his character but Hanks nearly steals the show in most scenes with spot-on timing and hilarious facial expressions.

It’s a pity that the film does not do more with its characters and plot than to have them meet to talk about something that afterwards they will quickly discard: Presley gets his badge but apparently decides not to be an undercover agent (so was the whole idea a ruse just to meet Nixon?) after all and Nixon resumes bombing Vietnam, taking America off the gold standard and plotting with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger as to which unfortunate Third World country is next on the hit list for invasion and having its government overthrown. The irony that the film misses is that Presley was to die seven years after the meeting from being addicted to and ingesting too many pharmaceutical substances. Of all the people needing firm guidance to stay away from addictive drugs, it was Presley himself who needed this message. The film probably could have continued for some time after the meeting, with Tricky Dicky Nixon and his bureaucrats well on the road to personal ruin and Presley retreating into his Graceland cocoon, unable to overcome the layers of fame and convince his audiences that he is more than just a rock singer and bad actor.

As it is, “Elvis & Nixon” is a light-hearted way to spend an hour and twenty-five minutes. The meeting between the two men perhaps deserves to be treated more seriously as a documentary.

The Children of Paradise: a sumptuous melodrama rich in character, the complexities of human nature and the grandeur of life

Marcel Carné, “The Children of Paradise / Les Enfants du Paradis” (1945)

Made under difficult conditions in Vichy France, this sumptuous film is rich in character study and encompasses pantomime, melodrama, comedy, crime-and-passion thriller and tragedy. It purports to be a snapshot of Parisian urban working-class culture set in the mid-nineteenth century, in the days before the industrialisation that transformed Paris into the metropolis of La Belle Epoque, of electricity, department stores and the Eiffel Tower, and ultimately of the birth of the film industry itself. Amazingly this whole cinematic edifice that embraces so much hinges around a deceptively simple plot narrative of a courtesan and the four men who vie for her love, the jealousies that develop among them and the consequences of those jealousies and rivalries.

The narrative is straightforward enough and breaks into two periods that are seven years apart. In the first period we are introduced to the courtesan Garance (Arletty) and the men who are her lovers: the mime artist Baptiste (Jean-Louis Barrault) who is obsessed by her and whose obsession inspires him to write and perform highly passionate pantomimes that become popular with audiences and which turn him into a star; actor Frederick Lemaitre (Pierre Brasseur) whose affair with Garance infuriates Baptiste; the criminal Pierre François Lacenaire (Marcel Herrand) whose pride and violent temper combined with his passion for Garance leads him to commit murder; and the Comte Édouard de Montray who offers Garance protection when she is accused of a crime committed by Lacenaire and his minions. All of these men represent a major theme and an aspect of romantic love in the film: Baptiste in particular embodies the idea that, no matter what your origins in life may have been, be they privileged or paltry, you can always dream large and try to reach where your dreams stretch. His love for Garance is deep and sincere but through passivity and cowardice on his part is frustrated. The two lovers’ paths diverge, they accumulate other attachments and these attachments and the responsibilities they incur end up keeping the lovers apart. In addition, Baptiste is loved by a fellow mime artist Nathalie who symbolises a different aspect of love: love as simple, faithful and pure.

Lemaitre learns that to be a great actor, he must accept sorrow, pain, jealousy and setbacks as necessary parts of human experience. His love for Garance is playful but superficial, and he gains more out of it than does Garance; indeed none of the four lovers loves Garance unconditionally but each imposes his demands, however different they are, on the courtesan. Philanderer Lemaitre may be but he is intelligent and capable, a quick learner and ready to recognise that he can never love Garance as deeply as she loves Baptiste and he (Baptiste) her, so Lemaitre yields graciously. Lacenaire exemplifies love as passion, the human genius when it is turned into criminal directions, and the resentment that the lower classes harbour towards the wealthy. His love for Garance makes him a better man than he would be otherwise and of all Garance’s lovers he turns out to be the most honest about his strengths and failings. The count thinks he can buy the love of Garance with his wealth and privileges, but the tragedy that befalls him is almost Biblical in its lesson that pride goeth before destruction.

The film’s second half, corresponding to the second period coming seven years after the first, deals with the consequences of actions begun in the first: Garance finds her relationship with the count sterile and unfulfilling and returns to Paris to find Baptiste and Lemaitre succeeding in their respective careers. Garance’s reunion with Baptiste reignites their love which strains his fidelity to Nathalie. Lacenaire intends to rob and kill Lemaitre but the two strike up a friendship instead and later Lacenaire intercedes on Lemaitre’s behalf when the count, believing Lemaitre to be Garance’s secret amour, mocks the actor – by killing the aristocrat. The film ends inconclusively with the respective futures of Garance, Baptiste and his wife and child being uncertain, Lacenaire waiting to be arrested, tried and sent to the gallows, and Lemaitre continuing as an actor enjoying flings with different women.

The film is well structured, juggling a number of sub-plots at the same time and moving inexorably to a melodramatic climax that leaves (or will leave) various characters shell-shocked with their lives in ruin. The action takes place in a rich and immersive universe of mid-19th century France, encompassing all social levels and activities, and is as much theatre as the actual theatres featured in the film. References to Shakespeare are deeply threaded throughout the film in its characters, themes and plot, and not only in Lemaitre’s attempts to play Othello. While much of the acting may seem overly florid to contemporary Western audiences, it is quite typical of epic film dramas of its time and not all of it is excessive – Arletty’s performance as Garance is often very minimal. Brasseur’s Baptiste is the stand-out performance but all the actors do excellent work.

As a highly absorbing visual spectacle on a grand scale and as instruction on the complexities and paradoxes of human nature and love, this is a film that defies expectations and which can’t be reduced to banal romantic melodrama. It is a great example of what cinema can achieve.

 

Get Out: social criticism and philosophical inquiry in amongst a bizarre plot and interracial politics

Jordan Peele, “Get Out” (2017)

Jordan Peele’s comedy horror film, his first as a director, about an interracial relationship that goes awry can be seen as a timely social commentary on present-day racism and the forms it can take. Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), a man, has been in a romance with Rose Armytage (Allison Williams ), a white woman, for several months and she invites him to meet her family on their rural estate. They drive out into the boonies and he is awed by their gracious country mansion and the eccentric warmth of Rose’s parents (Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener) and her brother Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones). One little problem: their black servants seem so passive as to be zombie-like. From the moment Chris enters the family estate, the plot builds steadily to its bizarre revelation: Rose and her folks are a front for a white supremacist cult that kidnaps black people and uses their bodies with their supposed inherent genetic abilities (such as their strength and athleticism) as vessels into which to transplant their own brains while the original owners’ brains are trapped into a permanent comatose prison.

The film’s production values are very good and transition easily from comedy to drama to B-grade horror and back again. The silly premise of brainwashing and brain-harvesting is made plausible by Peele’s targeting of white “liberal” or socially progressive hypocrites who profess empathy for black people and other victims of white or Anglocentric racism, and who immerse themselves in other people’s cultures, all to feed their own egos and self-satisfaction without considering the damage they might be doing to those they patronise. Peele plants little clues in details of the plot and the cast of characters to flesh out the plot: Rose’s dad happens to be a neurosurgeon and her mother is a psychiatrist who practises therapeutic hypnosis – this of course means Chris will be hypnotised into submission and will be subjected to invasive brain surgery, so the thrill of the plot for viewers lies in guessing how close Chris comes to realising what he’s in for and how he can save himself. The Amityville-style country house setting emphasises Chris’s total isolation from any kind of help and the danger he is in.

Plot holes galore do exist, the most obvious being that in a narrative which carefully stacks all the odds against the hero, a miracle is needed if he is to save himself. The film is not too clear on how Chris overcomes the hypnosis without being found out using stuffing from ripped upholstery to block his ears from mesmerising talk and the sound of teaspoons scraping teacups.

The cast is also very good in playing stereotypical roles and it is to Kaluuya and Williams’ credit that their characters seem very real even though at the climax and afterwards, Chris and Rose descend into one-dimensional and crude figures. Chris’s sudden violence and brutality come right out of left field and one supposes that the Armytages’ early treatment of him has ironically given him a savagery that he otherwise would not have been able to express. Rose’s remarkable transformation from indie college girl rebel to a cold-blooded freakazoid fanatic with machine gun is supremely chilling. Special mention should be made of Keener as a warm and gracious if quirky mother figure who ends up a malevolent, even vicious creature.

While on one level the film is pessimistic in insinuating that there can be no accommodation between black and white people, and black people can never, ever be sure of the attitudes of well-meaning whites towards them, on other issues the film encourages deeper inquiry into cultural appropriation, racial stereotyping and the nature and purpose of one’s existence. Many cultural innovations made by black people, especially in music (as the film’s soundtrack alludes to), have been claimed and commodified by white people. Rose’s family and fellow cult members prey on black people on the presumption that their bodies are better-looking and perform better sexually than white people’s bodies do – and because black people happen to be “cool” (because of their historical role as underdogs and oppressed victims). The cult’s quest for immortality by transplanting cult members’ brains into stolen bodies is part of a deeper quest for the significance and purpose of human existence. The film’s regrettable identification with identity politics and its concerns with other more laudable issues make it a complicated and intriguing beast and ensure its place among those cult horror flicks that are as much social criticism as cheap thriller material.

Aleppo Renaissance: after war, looting and destruction, a city determined to regain its rightful place as a major Middle Eastern industrial hub

Sinan Saeed and Tom Duggan, “Aleppo Renaissance” (2017)

Here’s a very welcome documentary on Aleppo and its significance in Syria’s history, culture and economy, and why the city was targeted by jihadis during the recent war against ISIS, Jabhat al Nusra and other jihadi groups financed from abroad. Through narration by Duggan and Saeed, and interviews with Aleppo politician Fares al Shihaby and businessman Mohammad al Nawai, we learn how the city became one of four designated industrial zones in Syria for local and foreign investment in 2004. Unfortunately for Syrian President Bashar al Assad and his government, this attempt to modernise and industrialise Syria, to turn the country into the workshop of the Middle East, was at variance with Western plans to destabilise the country as part of one stage towards Western neocolonial domination of the Middle East and the seizure of the region’s natural resources; and the war that broke out in Syria in 2011, starting when jihadists in Dar’aa in the south hijacked a protest against food price increases, killing police and setting buildings on fire, quickly spread to Aleppo. We learn how the city’s factories (especially those in Sheikh Najaar industrial zone) were systematically targeted, bombed and looted by Turkish forces, jihadis and their allies. Agricultural products and historical artefacts were also stolen by Turkish gangs. The presence of gangs named after past Ottoman Turkish sultans indicate a clear political agenda: the occupation of Aleppo and surrounding regions in Syria by Turkey, eventually to be incorporated into a new Turkish Islamic empire.

While parts of the documentary, especially al Nawai’s description of how his factories were destroyed and all the machinery stolen, can be heartbreaking, the film’s narrative looks forward to a revival of manufacturing and the rebuilding of Aleppo’s infrastructure and economy now that the city has been liberated by the Syrian Arab Army. Scenes of post-apocalyptic / scorched earth destruction give way to a clean modern textile factory in which workers, men and women, supervise the weaving of thread and the making of cotton materials; to streets filled with shoppers inspecting finished cotton goods in pop-up market stalls and newly renovated shops. Both Saeed and Duggan express hope that the city will regain its pre-eminence in Syrian life. Mohammad al Nawai emphasises the city’s historic role as a trading post and focus of manufacturing for the past 8,000 years.

Made on a small budget, the film is straightforward and minimal in its presentation so it’s easy to follow and understand. It may be light on actual evidence that Turkey was behind the systematic looting and destruction but those interested in more detail of what the jihadis and their foreign backers did can search for articles on the Internet. (See this article from Al Monitor for example, and this article from Syrian Free Press.) Various city scenes in all their beauty (before the war) and their horror (after the war) as well dominate the film, and are the most unforgettable part of it.

For some people, the film’s major weakness is that it ignores the possibility that Turkey might again invade northern Syria and try to retake Aleppo and steal all its industry. The Syrian government and its allies Russia and Iran need to be on the alert that such a catastrophe not only might recur but is already in planning. Whether this means that Russia will have to maintain a military presence in Syria by deploying its S400 missile system and other technologies, and by rotating the forces it has there, along with whatever the Syrians and Iranians must do to maintain a high level of defence, given that Russia and Iran also face other serious challenges from the US and NATO on their borders in Europe and Asia, remains uncertain.

I recommend that people watch this film to learn more about Aleppo and its recent history, its prominence in Syrian life, and to discover the determination and resilience of the Syrian people who intend to rebuild the city and restore it to its rightful place as a major industrial hub of the Middle East.

Compliance: sneering at naive workers exploited by a culture that treats them as robots and brutes

Craig Zobel, “Compliance” (2012)

Based on a series of incidents over a decade from the mid-1990s to 2004, in which a prank caller convinced the staff at various fast-food restaurants in rural areas of the US that he was a police officer and that they had to carry out various demeaning actions on fellow staff, this film demonstrates the extent to which people, especially working-class people without much education, are willing to obey authority and commit the most brutal acts. At the beginning of the film, Sandra (Ann Dowd) is a stressed-out middle-aged manager of a small-town fast-food joint who’s just been harassed by her regional manager for wasting inventory. The busy Friday shift is about to start and already the restaurant is one staff member short. The staff members themselves are a mix of people, young and old, middle class and working class, and Sandra has her hands full ordering them about and attending to the constant demands of customers. The phone rings and Sandra picks it up: the caller (Pat Healy) claims to be police officer Daniels and he is investigating a complaint about one of Sandra’s underlings in the restaurant, an attractive young blonde woman called Becky (Dreama Walker), who is alleged to have stolen a customer’s money. At his order, Sandra drags Becky into a store-room, to be kept under surveillance until the police arrive to make a formal arrest.

What follows is a horrific study in psychological horror as Becky is subjected to a strip search by Sandra and another employee, followed by extreme sexual humiliation and violence. Throughout Becky’s ordeal, Sandra continues to comply with Daniels’ orders even as they become ever more bizarre and perverted. She brings in co-worker Kevin to watch Becky but he quits the room in disgust after being ordered by Daniels to force Becky to undress again. Sandra then calls and brings in her fiancé Van to watch Becky and Daniels orders him to abuse the girl by spanking her.

The film’s story faithfully follows the details of an actual incident that occurred at a McDonald’s franchise in Mount Washington, Kentucky state, right up to the point where the police really do become involved and start tracking down the prank caller and making arrests. The rest of the film then flits through the police investigation and scenes in which Becky considers her legal options and Sandra is interviewed by a journalist about her actions and why she obeyed the prank caller.

While the outward message of the film seems obvious – that people can and do obey authority far too trustingly, even when there are clues that someone claiming to be what he is not, is not at all genuine – the plot itself, by concentrating very closely on the details of the story, fails to make the connection between class and education level on the one hand, and the extent to which people blindly follow authority on the other hand. Sandra and Van are shown to be simple people with limited schooling and equally limited options, and the other people around them are also unsophisticated and no match for the devious middle class prankster preying on them. There is a sub-text suggesting that Sandra is jealous of Becky because she is young and pretty, and that perhaps the prank call gives Sandra an opportunity to subconsciously abuse the girl which might explain why the older woman falls for the scam so readily.

The film does not show the full context in which Sandra, Becky, the rest of the staff and Van feel harassed and compelled to obey the prank caller: the fast-food restaurant staff have an unsympathetic and remote management on their backs, and are driven by work quotas they have to fulfill and a work culture that treats them like robots. In such an environment there is no need to think critically, to exercise one’s imagination, and such attributes would be discouraged anyway. There is no suggestion anywhere in the film that Sandra and her staff have been notified of prank callers in their district by their regional management even when the police discover the person posing as “Daniels” could have been harassing another fast-food establishment prior to the incident in the film.

The film could have been an effective indictment on how working-class and rural people are preyed on and made the butt of cruel pranks by knowing middle-class sociopaths, and an examination of how capitalism exploits people’s loyalty to authority and their willingness to conform and obey orders. Instead it offers a cheap opportunity for audiences to sneer at naive working people exploited by government, corporations and an ideology that regards such workers as expendable work units whose job is to make money and profits. Ultimately as Sandra faces jail time, unemployment and a lonely future, having broken off her engagement to Van, the film can do nothing more than abandon her to her fate.

Raise the Red Lantern: criticising the abuse of power by those tasked with upholding tradition

Zhang Yimou, “Raise the Red Lantern” (1991)

This is a beautiful film of minimal, even severe and classic simplicity, that lets the cruelty and jealous passions of a patriarchal system speak for themselves. Songlian (Gong Li), a beautiful and educated teenage girl must drop out of university after her tea merchant father dies and marry a wealthy landowner in northern China as his fourth wife. She goes to live with him and his other wives in his labyrinthine mansion complex. There, she must conform to the various laborious customs and traditions whose original meaning may have long been forgotten. She must contend with servants who may be well-meaning but surly and jealous of her apparent good fortune, in particular the maid Yan’er (Kong Lin) who is assigned to her as her personal maid. She also has to defer to her husband’s first wife Yuru (Jin Shuyuan), an elderly woman long past child-bearing age; second wife Zhuoyun (Cao Cuifen), seemingly friendly and obliging; and third wife Meishan (He Caifei), a former opera singer, who is upset at being usurped by a younger and more attractive bride and who might scheme at getting rid of Songlian. Over time though Songlian discovers who is the real back-stabber among the wives, and what her maid may be up to. Unfortunately Songlian’s isolation from the outside world, her frustration with the fruitlessness of her new life and the restrictions imposed by the family’s traditions and customs, and her attempts to compete with the other wives lead her to make one mistake after another, and the train of devastating events that follow as a result take their toll on her psychologically so that she is left deranged.

The story is straightforward and predictable – once Songlian discovers the House of Death and a pair of women’s slippers inside, we know already it will be used as the site of execution: the question is, who will die? – and might be boring for some viewers. None of the characters is at all attractive – all the wives compete for the master’s attention in often petty and immature ways (quite typical of harems) – and the women who seem most intimidating and threatening to Songlian tragically end up dying as a result of Songlian’s thoughtlessness, scheming and childish behaviour crossed with the dead weight of family tradition. The master himself comes across as ineffectual for the most part and one wonders whether the real rulers of this particular roost are the servants themselves, obedient to the letter of tradition rather than its spirit. No wonder the Chinese government did not like this film when it was first released: instead of the master actively throwing his weight around, the servants (analogous to government bureaucrats) apply custom (the law) in a way that is robotic and insensitive to the context it is being used in.

The film gains its power by obeying the classic “show, don’t tell” method of revealing its plot, and through it criticising the abuse of power. Much colourful symbolism is used, often achieving comic effects but also becoming repetitive and deadening. The constant raising and lowering of lanterns become cliched and that in itself reveals how custom and tradition in themselves can have deleterious effects on people’s lives. Through characters like Yan’er and Meishan, the film comments on how dreams of a better life or a former life express how women cope with an oppressive social system through escapism and, through those characters’ experiences, how such hope can be turned on them and ultimately kill them.

The architecture of the mansion and the music of the period in which the film is set (early 1920s) are significant characters in their own right: the mansion turns out to be a prison and the music reveals the yearnings and hidden passions of women wanting a better life than what they are forced to have. It seem ironic that the one woman who is finally set free through her own pride from the patriarchy portrayed in “Raise the Red Lantern” is a poor illiterate woman and not a wealthy educated one.

Galaxy Quest: affectionate homage and spoof maintains the values of altruism, quest for knowledge and defending the underdog

Dean Parisot, “Galaxy Quest” (1999)

Conceived as a homage to and spoof of the famous science fiction TV series “Star Trek” and of the obsessive fan following it collected, this comedy movie has gained cult status in its own right and won the affection of “Star Trek” fans themselves thanks to a clever plot that packs in most of the cliches and eccentricities of the television show and spoofs a great many movie stereotypes with wit and warmth. The ensemble cast rises to the challenge and most actors, minor as well as major, are outstanding in their roles, narrow though some of these are. Above all, the values that inform the original “Star Trek” series as conceived by its creator Gene Roddenberry are even more on display than in the TV series: sympathy for the underdog and the downtrodden, altruism and bravery in the face of severe danger, and different groups working together to bring about peace and an end to violence and terror.

The film begins and ends with the actors of a former TV sci-fi show “Galaxy Quest” attending a fan convention dedicated to the show even though more than a decade has passed since the series was axed. At the beginning the actors are so closely identified with the series by their fans and others that since the show’s axing, they have all had problems getting other acting work and they have become embittered. Except for Jason Nesmith (Tim Allen) who has come to identify with his GQ character Commander Peter Taggart (a spoof of William Shatner’s James Kirk character on “Star Trek”) and who acts accordingly: as a sometimes zoned-out fat-head twat. The ex-cast quarrel among themselves and come to blows, nearly ruining their appearance at the fan convention.

However their fortunes change when a group of aliens, who have received radio transmissions of the old GQ episodes and believe them to be actual historical events, arrive on Earth and implore the cast to help save their race and planet from annihilation by their enemies. The actors have little choice but to go along with the illusion: this involves driving the GQ spaceship that the aliens have faithfully recreated from what they have seen from the episodes, retrieving a beryllium rock from a desert planet to replace one damaged in the ship’s power drive during an enemy attack, and thwarting the plans of the evil Sarris (Robin Sachs) to conquer the universe.

What is powerful in this film is the way the out-of-work actors rediscover the wonder of the show they all worked on, grow into their old roles and discover their own depths and potential they had not known before. Nesmith really does find he makes a good leader and a brave one as well. The actors playing the GQ cast all give their best with spot-on timing and make these characters their own. Sigourney Weaver sends up her Ellen Ripley character from the “Alien” films by playing ditzy blonde sex bomb Tawny Madison and Alan Rickman, playing a Shakespearean actor who is best remembered by most people for playing an alien advisor on GQ (a nod to Leonard Nimoy’s Spock character on “Star Trek”) with all the frustrations, disillusionment and hang-ups that go with actors in that situation, conveys his character’s mixed feelings and growth into the role of Dr Lazarus beautifully. Daryl Mitchell (playing a former child pilot), Tony Shalhoub (as the stoned engineer) and Sam Rockwell (as an extra who believes he’ll always be killed off) steal the show whenever they appear. For many viewers though, Tim Allen may well steal the spotlight in impersonating William Shat … er, playing the role of Nesmith playing Taggart in what may well be the defining role of his career: at once playing a comic actor, and a hero as well.

The film moves at a very brisk pace with the laughs coming thick and fast. The funniest moments of the film come when Nesmith calls on a teenage GQ fan on Earth to help him and Madison navigate the labyrinth duct systems on the GQ ship so they can reach the power core and stop the ship from self-destructing; the kid successfully directs them through his PC, even guiding them through a treacherous passage where the ship’s pistons could pound them into schnitzels! An enjoyable sub-plot that takes place during the search for the new beryllium core is notable for its cute Teletubby aliens who turn out to have a savage brutal nature.

You don’t have to know “Star Trek” to enjoy the film and its many gags, and to appreciate the ultimate gag of a group of aliens sophisticated enough to build spaceships that travel light years from one end of the universe to the other yet are unable to tell the difference between reality and pretence. The difference can be a fine one as the GQ cast members really do become a genuine spaceship crew by the end of the film. Knowing the difference certainly does not help Sarris either. This probably says something quite profound, maybe even creepy and troubling, about the nature of fandom and how fiction and reality bleed into one another and become confused to the point where fiction dominates, with perhaps dire consequences in post-truth world.

Queen of the Desert: a boring and flat movie that mocks a remarkable woman and the people and region she came to love

Werner Herzog, “Queen of the Desert” (2013)

Renowned German film director Werner Herzog, maker of classics like “Aguirre: Wrath of God” and “Fitzcarraldo” could have done something just as eerie and awe-inspiring with the subject of the life of early 20th-century British adventurer-archaeologist-explorer-spy Gertrude Bell, who travelled across the Middle East several times over a period of 12 years before 1914 documenting and publishing her observations and photographs of life in the cities there and among the Bedouin and Druze peoples in the region. Bell would later become a policy advisor to the British government in dealing with the tribal peoples of Arabia and in obtaining the loyalty of those peoples’ leaders, and would play a significant role in the creation of Iraq and its early political institutions, and in the country’s administration. Here is enough meaty and challenging material for a director such as Herzog, whose films reveal a fascination with the motivations of singular individuals, and what inspires them to great achievements and equally noble failures.

Instead what Herzog delivers is a very boring and flat two-hour snoozefest of Hollywood-style banalities in which Bell’s life is shaped by two romantic relationships and two meetings with Thomas E Lawrence (of Lawrence of Arabia fame). Between these episodes her travels to the Levant and Arabia and the bonds that develop between her and the peoples there are treated very superficially. Viewers learn very little about how the young Gertrude Bell refused to follow the expected path of early marriage and motherhood or what motivates her to leave the comforts and safety of Western civilisation and travel among little-known peoples in the Middle East. We do not learn how women travellers of her time might have been regarded by the peoples she visited, whether they treated her differently from European male travellers because of her sex or her personality or because she demanded nothing more than their hospitality. The most Herzog offers about Bell’s determination and motivation is a small scene in which she tells a British military officer that she admires the “freedom” and “dignity” that the Bedouin supposedly possess. What does Bell mean by saying that?

The acting by Nicole Kidman (miscast as Bell) and the cast surrounding her is competent enough but there is no chemistry between her and her lovers (played by James Franco and Damien Lewis). Ultimately though the nebulous nature of the project, the lack of a definite theme behind it, the flat script and its emphasis on technical details like nice cinematography, the fashions of the day and Kidman’s looks over Bell’s contacts with one set of exotic people after another, and what they might mean for the future of the Middle East, defeat the actors.

What I find most annoying is that when the plot comes close to an incident in Bell’s personal life or a significant political event that she participates in, it immediately ducks away to something irrelevant. The film reduces Bell and her life to a series of romantic encounters (and very lazily sketched ones at that) that may or may not be based on her actual life to satisfy a narrow agenda which views women as incomplete or not quite human unless they’re attached to a man.