The Man with the Golden Gun: surface glamour obscuring an interesting plot and themes

Guy Hamilton, “The Man with the Golden Gun” (1974)

Mainly memorable for the scene in which the stunt people managed to get a red coupe sports car perform a gymnastic full layout twist flying through the air from one end of a bridge to the other end – because the middle part was missing, and yes, I know cars can’t do piked or tucked twists – “… Gun” has a few things in its favour (and quite a few bad things against it) that make it easy on the eye and good for leisurely television watching in an age of COVID-19 corona virus lock-down when one needs light-hearted reassurance. The stunning scenes of island mountains hiding sun-kissed beaches (and evil villains’ multi-million-dollar hide-outs!) in Thailand’s Gulf region; a decent villain in the form of Christopher Lee playing assassin-for-hire Francisco Scaramanga; a plot that refers to the global energy crisis of the period (mid-1970s) and ingeniously matches Scaramanga and the cynical Bond (Roger Moore) as mirror twins of one another – what is not to like here? On the other hand, the film features minor cast members who drag out the plot and film-time much longer than they should have done, and Bond is paired with a ditzy agent, Mary Goodnight (Britt Ekland), who should have been thrown over by the script-writers and substituted with Scaramanga’s girlfriend Andrea Anders (Maud Adams, who was to return in a later Bond film) as a serious love interest.

The only elements in the film brought over from the eponymous Ian Fleming novel are the names of the main characters. The action is transferred from Jamaica to Beirut, Macau, Hong Kong and Thailand, and includes hefty doses of kung fu and kick boxing, sports which were becoming popular in Western pop culture in the 1970s. The plot divides into two main strands: Bond is being hunted by Scaramanga; and Bond needs to retrieve a solex generator device that harnesses the sun’s energy before it falls into Scaramanga’s hands and he tries to sell it to the highest bidder, which may be one of the West’s ideological enemies in the Soviet Union or China at the time, or an international crime syndicate like SPECTRE. Bond decides to hunt Scarmanga instead and this decision leads him to Beirut to collect a used golden bullet, and then to Hong Kong and Macau to find the manufacturer, where he also comes across Andrea Anders. From then on, Bond has to work to find the solex generator, which he does, but not before having to outwit an entire academy of martial arts students ordered to kill him, being chased in a sampan in crowded canals and failing to save Anders from Scaramanga’s wrath when the assassin finds his mistress has betrayed him. Bond passes the solex generator to a Chinese aide who then passes it to Mary Goodnight but Goodnight foolishly has ideas of her own and ends up being whisked away by Scaramanga and his assistant Nick Nack (Herve Villechaize) in a car that converts to a mini-plane to the Scaramanga hide-out.

The plot can seem confusing and overly drawn out with sampan and car chases, and an irritating American tourist (Clifton James, playing Sheriff J W Pepper), but it cleverly poses Scaramanga and Bond together as brothers of a kind: professional assassins in the loneliest profession in the world, yet both well-known among intelligence agencies and the global criminal underworld alike. One kills for money and a good life, yet seems alienated from the rest of humanity with just his assistant, a girlfriend and one maintenance engineer on his remote island for company; the other kills in service to his country, yet always has to be at MI6’s beck and call to perform dangerous work for which the benefits can be many but are very temporary. The downside of such work is always having to put one’s personal life a distant second priority, and attracting people like Scaramanga on your tail. A bit of pruning here and there in the film to get rid of Pepper, less grovelling to popular Western cultural trends of the period, and perhaps a bit more to say about how the lives of people who put themselves on the frontline to save society and of those criminals they chase, and how they often end up having much in common, and the plot would have been better and darker.

The acting varies from good (on the villains’ side) to woeful (on the heroes’ side) and Moore had yet to settle into his preferred Bond persona (bored playboy type), playing the character as still a tough and sardonic spy with rare flashes of wit. His acting is sometimes wooden but he manages to scrape through adequately enough. Lee combines menace and friendly pleasantry in a split second and is easily the best actor in the film. Shame that Scaramanga comes to a seemingly ignominious end with no bangs or flashy explosions but it seems appropriate that he is brought down by an ordinary proletarian bullet, the cheapest on the MI6 budget. The richest assassin in the world brought down low in a common shotgun killing.

The film might not make compelling viewing and it has not dated very well, but in its own way it is a document of the period in which it was filmed.

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service: a surprising sleeper film that packs a punch

Peter R Hunt, “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” (1969)

Fifty years after its cinematic release, this James Bond film may look dated but its plot and themes may still be relevant to modern audiences. Apart from its apocalyptic sub-plot of an evil mastermind threatening to unleash worldwide chaos using innocent and unwilling brainwashed agents to scatter bacteriological weapons among their nations, the film also has something to say about how one cannot escape one’s fate and the consequences of one’s actions, and how those consequences affect others’ lives, especially if one works as an undercover intelligence agent.

In this movie episode of the series of James Bond films that began in 1961 with “Dr No” and still continues, the spy is played by the then inexperienced Australian actor George Lazenby who might lack the suave confident charisma of his predecessor Sean Connery and the wit and humour of the actors who followed him but presents a more human, vulnerable and even sometimes thuggish Bond. Bond has been on the trail of sinister villain Ernst Stavro Blofeld (played by Telly Savalas) for some time when he stumbles across the beautiful but wilful and possibly disturbed Contessa Teresa “Tracy” di Vicenzo (Diana Rigg) on a beach and then driving her red coupe. He is intrigued by this woman who seems not to care whether she lives or dies, or wins or loses at the casino. He later discovers that she is the daughter of underworld crime boss Marc-Ange Draco (Gabriele Ferzetti) who implores Bond to strike up a relationship with her to keep her sane and stable after a series of personal disasters including marriage to an unsuitable Italian count and the loss of an infant child. Bond will only do so if Draco can reveal what he knows of Blofeld. Draco later directs Bond to the offices of a law firm in Bern in Switzerland, where Bond discovers that Blofeld has been corresponding with famed genealogist Sir Hillary Bray in order to claim the title and inheritance of one Count Balthazar de Bleuchamp. Somewhere along the way, Bond argues with his superior M (Bernard Lee) and resigns from MI6.

Posing as Bray, Bond insinuates himself into Blofeld’s mountain-top resort Piz Gloria to discover that he and assistant Irma Bunt run a health resort for a bevy of beauteous demoiselles from all over the planet who suffer from various food allergies and need therapy. Through a secret bedroom liaison with one of the girls, Bond discovers what that therapy is: hypnosis that impresses instructions into the girls’ unconscious minds that will be later turned on through stimuli to direct the girls to release dangerous bacteria embedded in toiletries given them at Blofeld’s whim. Blofeld and Bunt quickly uncover Bond’s identity and Bond himself barely manages to escape Blofeld and Bunt’s goons in a series of hair-raising incidents in which he nearly loses his fingers to a cable car lift and his life racing down a mountainous ski slope. Bumping into Tracy in a village, Bond further evades his pursuers with Tracy’s help. After spending the night together in a hayloft, the couple race for their lives again down a ski slope but Blofeld sets off an avalanche which overwhelms the couple. The villain captures Tracy and leaves Bond for dead. Bond anyway makes his way back to London where he learns of Blofeld’s intent to blackmail governments into declaring an amnesty for his crimes and allowing him to inherit the title and fortune he wants, or risk the destruction of the world through his brainwashed agents. MI6 intends to pay the ransom to Blofeld but Bond has another idea that not only will destroy Blofeld’s plans but rescue Tracy.

The film follows the original novel’s plot closely up to just over the halfway mark where Tracy rescues Bond from Blofeld and Bunt’s fury. This first half of the film can be quite slow for most audiences expecting fast and furious action but it establishes the film’s plot and sub-plots, and more importantly describes the motivations and personalities of the film’s most significant characters – Bond, Tracy, Blofeld and to some extent Draco – even if those motivations might seem bizarre and sexist to modern audiences. One might see Tracy’s past behaviour as typical of an intelligent, headstrong and resourceful woman whose only fault is to have been born female to a crime boss who wanted a son to take over his business. Draco’s solution to his problem is to ship his daughter off to a finishing school to take care of her emotional needs – which of course it fails to do. In Bond, Draco sees another solution to his succession problem and which will also provide Tracy with the stability she needs. Interestingly, in the second shorter half of the film, where the screenplay becomes original if rather more stereotyped, what with another ski chase and an operation to destroy Piz Gloria and Blofeld’s scheme, Blofeld becomes smitten with Tracy and offers her riches and status if she will marry him – which she refuses. From then on, Blofeld nurses vengeance against Tracy when he discovers that she and Bond, who defeats Blofeld in a fight on a racing bobsled, become engaged and marry.

The film’s style is plain and straightforward, with few quips and puns, and runs at a brisk pace. Blofeld’s numerous henchmen fall afoul of various disasters during the film’s two ski chases including one man’s unfortunate encounter with a snow plough. The film’s winter setting gives it a particular ambience, in contrast to other James Bond films where the action takes place in tropical environments or glamorous cities around the planet. The quality of acting varies throughout the film – Lazenby’s inexperience is obvious though he acquits himself very well in the tough fight scenes (and performed most of his stunts as well) – while Rigg and Savalas, who had previously worked together on another film “The Assassination Bureau”, do good work as their respective characters, Savalas in particular playing a vicious and vindictive Blofeld.

After the action of the ski chases, the rally car championship in which Tracy and Blofeld bump off all their competitors, and the action thriller invasion that destroys Piz Gloria, the film has two endings, one happy, one unhappy in which Lazenby finally redeems himself as an actor when Bond is forced to confront what Blofeld and Bunt have done to Tracy and their future life together. Bond is forced to admit that he can never really leave MI6 and the life of an undercover agent, because in carrying out his assignments for MI6, he has made numerous enemies and set off in motion a series of actions that come back to bite him, no matter that his actions originally saved the world, or at least Britain’s political establishment on which his salary and life-style depend. After “OHMSS”, subsequent James Bond films for the next three decades portray the spy following a devil-may-care and rather dissolute life bedding women and discarding them as he carries out his assignments with brutal efficiency, as though embodying something of Tracy’s former unstable life and Blofeld’s psychopathic nature, for the benefit of his employer which has Bond firmly back in the fold.

In an age where chemical and biological weapons are now looming large in global popular culture – particularly at this time of review, with a virulent coronavirus strain wreaking havoc and devastation through Europe and North America, destroying the European Union and all it supposedly stood for, and threatening perhaps also to finish off NATO and the global financial industry – this film regains a sharp relevance for current Western audiences. The hypnosis of unwitting young women to act as agents, perhaps to assassinate world leaders, in an age of CIA-sponsored mind manipulation and torture, followed by rumours of current terrorist organisations such as ISIS using drugs such as Captagon to modify jihadists’ behaviour and turn them into brutal killing machines, should also be significant to modern audiences.

A straightforward filming approach, a good cast playing complex characters with complicated motivations, sub-plots that still have the potential to surprise modern audiences … “OHMSS” turns out to be an excellent sleeper in the James Bond movie series.

Bad Black: car chases, kung fu, vengeance, the plight of orphans in poverty and social injustice all rolled into one film

Isaac G G Nabwana, “Bad Black” (2016)

Despite the tiny budget – even less than its predecessor, “Who Killed Captain Alex?”, apparently being about US$85 – this film proves to be very well made with a complex story of two parallel sub-plots referring to social issues of importance to Ugandans (and, well, the rest of the world, come to think of it). Given that the cast consists of local people in director Nabwana’s impoverished community Wakaliga, a suburb of Kampala, the acting is very good and the child actors who appear are especially natural and very appealing. The cinematography is quite good as well, though with the camera being handheld and having to follow running people, it can be quite ragged. The film was developed as an acting vehicle for Nabwana’s US sponsor Alan Ssali Hofmanis who plays himself as a foreign medical professional helping families in Wakaliga.

The main sub-plot revolves around a girl called Bad Black (Gloria Nalwanga) who comes into the world under dramatic circumstances: her father Swaaz robs a bank to try to help his wife Flavia in labour and leads police on a wild car chase before defiantly going up in flames while machine-gunning everyone who tries to stop him. (Along the way Swaaz kills Captain Alex so we finally discover what happens to the police officer from the earlier film.) His sidekick manages to get the money to hospital but apparently not before Flavia dies. Flavia’s daughter is adopted by a family but when that family falls on hard times, the adoptive grandfather Hirigi turfs the girl out. The child falls in with a child gang led by a Fagin-like figure. Eventually the girl earns her nickname, Bad Black, by getting rid of that Svengali figure and becoming the leader of the gang. Years later, Bad Black plots vengeance against Hirigi for disowning her; for his part, Hirigi falls in love with her, marries her and hands over most of what he possesses to her. But Bad Black hasn’t quite finished with him yet.

Dr Ssali runs a makeshift clinic in the Wakaliga slum dispensing medication when Bad Black manages to get his business card, breaks into his home and steals his valuables, including some precious family dog-tags. Dr Ssali’s assistant, a nine-year-old boy called Wesley Snipes (!). teaches the doctor how to fight and defend himself with kung fu so he can get his dog-tags back. His training done, Dr Ssali hunts down Bad Black and her gang, at the same time that the police are hunting down Bad Black and Company as well to bust a drug-running scheme. Among Bad Black’s followers is Kenny, Hirigi’s son whom Dad (now a rich businessman) has recently disowned for making a ghetto woman pregnant.

Much of the story is very cleverly told so that what appears at times to be social commentary about daily life in Wakaliga, how hard it is for poor people to live from day to day, turns out to be part of quite an intricate plot. We do not learn of Swaaz’s connection to Bad Black until very late in the film after all the car chases, kung fu fighting, shooting, killing and the prison break-out have been done. Nabwana injects slapstick and sometimes very witty commentary into scenes that in other films would be treated very seriously. The importance of family, the consequences that occur when families are forcibly broken up and people make bad decisions, the heartbreak and tragedies suffered by children forced to grow up on the street and to join gangs, the trouble caused when people seek vengeance at any cost, the abuse of poor people by the selfish rich, the possibility of redemption – and, in the case of Dr Ssali, being true to your nature and not suppressing it – these are all themes that drive this film. Even the crazy car chases, the fighting, the machine-gun action and the constant obsession with Hollywood action-thriller actors like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Jean Claude van Damme and others tell viewers something about life and the culture, how uncertain one’s path in life can be, of urban slum neighbourhoods in Kampala. Most of all, the black humour that exists as a survival mechanism and a way of bonding with others equally suffering from poverty and social injustice is part and parcel of the film thanks to narrator / voice joker VJ Emmie who not only interprets for the actors and describes the actions but also gets fully involved in the plot and cracks jokes, puns and witticisms (“This doctor needs borders!”) along the way.

The plot might not make complete sense and much of it is bat-shit bizarre with hilarious characters and many situations that Western viewers will feel should be treated seriously, based as they are in a context of official corruption and social injustice yet are pumped by Nabwana for their black comedy potential. Women crowded together in a shit-hole prison? – no problem, they are populated with outrageous characters like the Big Mama prisoner known as Supa Zilla. But no matter how silly and implausible the various plot-lines turn out to be with their laughable plot twists, “Bad Black” has charm, self-deprecating humour, the most hilarious special effects and Nabwana’s enthusiasm and passion for making films in and about his community that infects everyone who comes into contact with him and his work – and that includes those who watch his films.

Elite commandos, Tiger Mafia gangsters and Ugandan Shaolin Temple monks go head to head in “Who Killed Captain Alex?”

Isaac G G Nabwana, “Who Killed Captain Alex?” (2010)

Reputedly made on a budget of US$200 (though American-born Ugandan producer Alan Ssali Hofmanis admits the budget was actually US$85), this action-packed comedy of Uganda’s finest military commandos taking on the country’s most dangerous criminal organisation is a riveting work of amateur improvised film-making under conditions of poverty in a corrupt and authoritarian state. Captain Alex (William Kakule), one of the finest officers in the Uganda People’s Defence Force, sets out to destroy the evil Richard (Ernest Sseruyna) and his Tiger Mafia, which controls the slum neighbourhoods of Kampala, the Ugandan capital. After losing most of his commandos in a near-botched stealth operation on a group of Tiger Mafia drug couriers, Captain Alex manages to capture Richard’s brother and bring him to the police. On seeing the bad news on Ramon TV, the major TV channel in Wakaliga (a poor suburb on the outskirts of Kampala), Richard swears vengeance on Captain Alex and sends out a female spy to the military headquarters to seduce the officer and lure him to Richard. Alas and alack, Captain Alex ends up very dead in his tent – but no-one knows who killed him.

Alex’s brother Bruce U (Charles Bukenya), a Ugandan Shaolin monk, arrives in town, having heard of Alex’s death, swearing vengeance on Alex’s murderers. Bruce U has a few adventures in which he must do battle with the local Kampala kung fu squad and is nearly seduced by Ritah (Prossy Nakyambadde), one of Richard’s numerous and expendable wives. In the meantime, Richard is determined to find out who killed Captain Alex and hires Puffs (G Puffs), a mercenary from Russia, to steal a military helicopter and bomb Kampala for revenge. The Uganda People’s Defence Force also swear to avenge Captain Alex’s death by capturing Richard, though this means having to work out an ambush plan which clearly taxes their brains. They manage to work out where in Uganda Richard is likely to be hiding and start to encroach on him and his minions. Bruce U is captured by Richard’s men who bring him to their boss, who then forces Bruce U to fight Puffs’ assassins. Just as Bruce U succumbs to one flying kick, the commandos arrive and proceed to bomb the warehouse where Richard and his people are hiding. At the same time, Puffs’ destruction of Kampala creates breaking news on Ramon TV and forces the Ugandan government to declare martial law in Kampala.

When the dust eventually settles and the remaining commandos and mafiosi have to count the huge numbers of casualties, viewers are still no closer to discovering just who killed Captain Alex. At least the exuberant and histrionic acting, the crazed machine-gun shooting and the resulting mayhem, the kung fu fighting, and most of all the hilarious dialogue and narration by VJ Emmie (“What da fuck?!”) maintain the cheerfully frenetic pace in this devil-may-care, self-referential work. With respect to VJ Emmie’s voice-over narration and commentary, filled with jokes and openly exuberant as Emmie becomes absorbed in the plot and the action, there are very many highlights but the funniest of all must be the conversation over a woman early on in the bar-room scene: 1st man says, “Are you crazy? That is my wife! Get off my wife!” – to which 2nd man replies, “I thought [she] was a goat!” Another gem, this one from Emmie: “… All Ugandans know kung fu! …” One joke clearly meant for Ugandans involves a woman who is tortured because she insists on watching Nigerian movies.

Surprisingly for such a cheaply made and shot film with meagre resources, the plot is very involved and quite sophisticated in its own way, even though many details of the plot are full of holes, with a mystery that remains unsolved despite the body count and the destruction, and the ending remains open as the Ugandan government puts Kampala under lock-down while Puffs flies off in his stolen chopper into the sunset. The cinematography can be astonishingly good, especially in Bruce U’s training and fight scenes. The action is brisk and keeps viewers on the edge of their seats, expecting the … well, the unexpectable!

Part of the film’s charm is that the cast is drawn from local people in director IGG Nabwanza’s home community in Wakaliga, and all the props used in the film are local as well. The action takes place in and around Wakaliga. The special effects are really very good when one considers they were done on computers that Nabwanza himself put together out of salvaged scrap. The film is highly self-referential, as VJ Emmie constantly reminds the target Ugandan audience what it is they are watching, and this continual self-referral builds up the notion of an all-embracing universe called Wakaliwood, in which supa-killa elite commandos and supa-crazy Tiger Mafia killers fight as much for the fun of fighting as they do for control and dominance.

Attack on Nyege Nyege Island: mini action thriller short featuring killer King Kong kung-fu kicks

Isaac G G Nabwana, “Attack on Nyege Nyege Island” (2016)

The tiny but already globally famous Ugandan film industry (known as Ugawood, taking after the manner of Bollywood and Nollywood which represent the popular film industries of India and Nigeria respectively) already boasts its very own Quentin Tarantino cult figure in the person of one Isaac Godfrey Geoffrey Nabwana, also known as Nabwana IGG, who since 2009 has been making comedy action thriller flicks on literal shoe-string budgets as low as US$200 (!!!) with cheap special effects which he knocks up on his computer, which he built himself out of scrap material in his impoverished neighbourhood Wakaliga, a suburb in Kampala, and featuring voice-over narration from so-called “voice jokers” who dub or translate the dialogue into English for audiences and who often add their own interpretations and jokes into the narration for hilarious effect. Beginning with his most famous film “Who killed Captain Alex?”, Nabwana’s films take place in a particular universe, of course familiar to us and yet an odd place where it seems blaxploitation and martial arts flicks common in the 1970s never went out of fashion, drug lords commanding mafia gangs and big bosses running worldwide trafficking rackets not only still exist but still wear the most god-awful flamboyant fashions, and fighters are as likely to send one another to overflowing morgues with well-aimed kung fu kicks as with AK-47s that they just can’t seem to control.

In case this all sounds too much for readers, Nabwana kindly provides a taster of his distinctive world with a 12-minute short “Attack on Nyege Nyege Island”, a film he improvised and made in two days during the Nyege Nyege Festival. The musicians and the audience at the festival, and the community who hosted it, make up the film’s entire cast. All you need to know is that the festival is gatecrashed by commandos from the fearsome Tiger Mafia gang – whose big boss wears an odd mask of three CD-ROM discs over his forehead and eyes – who proceed to shoot up everyone in sight in their quest to kidnap somebody called Anna whom their boss seems inordinately fond of. In desperation two girls in the Nyege Nyege community summon the spirit guardian, a human-sized King Kong figure who proceeds to knock out and knock off the Tiger Mafia gangsters with Killer Kung Fu fighting.

The acting is probably better than might be expected in a cheerfully cheap film such as this, and the special effects are actually on par with the famously legendary cheap special effects of the old original Doctor Who television series that ran from 1963 to 1989. Needless to say, the plot is almost non-existent and just when it almost runs out of juice, the film ends on a cliff-hanger that can only be resolved at the next Nyege Nyege Festival. The voice joker is as much an essential part of the action as he introduces characters and does not so much explain or narrate as push the story along with exhortations and hurrahs.

The remarkable thing is that this and other films by Nabwanza’s film production company Ramon Productions (named after his grandmothers) exist at all, with their breezy self-deprecating humour and fearless gung-ho DIY spirit, in the slums of Kampala.

Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears: cliched Hollywood treatment of an Australian heroine

Tony Tilse, “Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears” (2020)

Filmed as an addition to the television series about the 1920s flapper / private detective Phryne Fisher (played by Essie Davis), this action adventure takes the unflappable flapper heroine into exotic Indiana Jones territory in the Middle East – Palestine under the British Mandate, to be exact – with much dash, if not depth. For all that Davis invests in her character – and it must be said she just barely pulls off Phryne Fisher’s many and varied contradictions as a wealthy socialite aristocrat, a detective with a steel-trap mind and a caring, compassionate human being – the film’s plot barely does her and her merry band of hangers-on, including Detective Inspector Jack Robinson (Nathan Page), much justice: it relies a great deal on movie cliches and complicated twists that wear the plot thinner than it already is. At times it threatens to become another crime mystery thriller and then an action adventure, only to change its mind again and end up in an uncomfortable messy middle.

After rescuing a young Bedouin girl Shirin Abbass (Izabella Yena) from being unjustly imprisoned in Jerusalem by the British military police, Phryne Fisher begins to learn about Abbass’s background as the sole survivor of a sandstorm that engulfed her community – but not before her mother disappeared when three British soldiers turned up and massacred everyone while Abbass was away collecting honey from wild beehives – and the connection between Abbass’s mother and precious emeralds missing from a crypt dating back to the time of Alexander the Great. If that were not enough, a curse has been activated with the disappearance of the emeralds from the crypt: after the passage of six solar eclipses, on the day of the seventh solar eclipse, the planet will be destroyed by storms. Our heroine studies an almanac and, what do you know, figures that she and Abbass have only days to spare to return the emeralds (which they have managed to recover early on in the film) to the crypt in the Negev Desert. Together with Robinson and a British aristocrat, Jonathan Lofthouse (Rupert Penry-Jones), Fisher and Abbass fly out to Palestine and the Negev in a race against time.

With so many unexpected twists in the plot, making for a story that whizzes back and forth between Britain and Palestine, racking up unnecessary carbon emissions, originality starts to wear thin and groan-worthy cliches, such as one character barely managing to utter a clue before succumbing to an untimely and violent death, abound. The Indiana Jones action adventure angle is milked for all it is worth, with the scenes in Palestine adding Oriental exotica and contrasting with British scenes of foppish yet secretly sinister and selfish English aristocrats who think nothing of shooting up innocent women and children to steal cheap-looking icky-green gems or of squabbling over land through which they intend to build a railway, presumably without the interests of the local people in mind. Somewhere in all the derring-do and numerous implausible scenes in which Fisher and Company barely escape with their lives, a very Australian story in which a wealthy and privileged woman actually cares enough for an underdog Palestinian girl that she risks life and limb to get her out of jail and to freedom, for no reason other than she believes the girl has a right to protest against British imperialism and British theft of Palestinian lands, is buried very deeply. Unfortunately that aspect of the Phryne Fisher universe, which makes it particularly Australian and which could have lifted the film from its generic and confused mystery thriller / action adventure fusion, remains underdeveloped. The romantic angle of Fisher and Robinson takes precedence over Fisher’s concern for Abbass and her community.

Needless to say, character development is at a standstill, with even Jack Robinson being nothing more than Phryne Fisher’s stoic and oddly working-class handbag and other characters not much more than moving wallpaper stereotypes. The dialogue which should have been clever, witty and original instead is strained and rather lumpen. Too many minor characters appear for just a few minutes, never to be seen again. The colonial relationship between the British and the Australian characters in the film remains at a crude, superficial level.

As a light-hearted fluffy film that doesn’t take itself very seriously, this installment in the Phryne Fisher universe is colourful and easy on the eye, but I wonder if even the most ardent fans of the unflappable flapper Australian detective will be satisfied with the Hollywood-style treatment of the character, and all the cliches that such treatment has mobilised to Phryne Fisher’s detriment.

Control: a character study on isolation, mental breakdown and psychological assault

Carroll Brown, “Control” (2019)

Filmed on a tiny budget, this science fiction horror short is an intense character study detailing the effects of long isolation in space on a scientist suffering perhaps from guilt and survivor guilt in particular. Elizabeth (Jaimi Paige) has just jettisoned the corpse of her colleague into space from her outpost on Callisto, a Jupiterian moon. She has only Mission Control for company – and that operates (supposedly) on a two-hour time delay. Not long after Elizabeth has sent her partner’s body into space through the airlock, she believes she can hear strange thumping sounds near that airlock. For most of the film, viewers believe she is hallucinating and Elizabeth, in her rapidly escalating hysteria, partly believes she is indeed hallucinating – but some of her conversations with Mission Control and a possible twist at the end of the film suggest that Mission Control may be manipulating her emotions and resilience in a sinister psychological experiment.

In a very bare setting, Paige does excellent work in what is virtually a solo outing as a frightened figure on her own on the verge of a mental breakdown in a haunted-house scenario. Voice actor C Thomas Howell as the spokesperson for Mission Control helps drive the plot with necessary dialogue that hints that Mission Control isn’t just a bureaucratic space agency, that it may have a secret agenda of its own that Elizabeth and her partner are unaware of. This becomes apparent in the later part of the film when Mission Control appears to humour Elizabeth and to reflect her emotions and fears back to her. The film becomes most interesting when the light turns off and Elizabeth begins to scream – at which point it ends, leaving viewers to imagine far worse than what would perhaps have happened had the film continued, in which case the film would have had to reveal its hand and show that Elizabeth is indeed going mad or that Mission Control (or possibly even a malign alien force on Callistio or Jupiter or elsewhere) is indeed exploiting her emotions.

The plot and its themes cannot sustain more than a 15-minute film but the time is enough for Paige to demonstrate her ability and skill as an actor to flesh out and carry a bare-bones story about facing one’s worst fears while under psychological assault.

A tale of alienation, dehumanisation and exploitation in “Upload:U”

Samuel E Mac, “Upload:U” (2017)

A creepy little short made in very sparing minimalist style, “Upload:U” may be viewed as a metaphor expressing the alienation and dehumanisation of people living isolated existences highly dependent on cyber-technology for social interactions. Disillusioned by her cubicle job at work, unable to connect with a male employee she fancies and cut off from her family, Jane (Lee Marshall) increasingly relies on her recreational virtual reality console, connected to the AI system in her flat, for entertainment and solace. One night, her avatar takes her to a bar where she meets a man – or a few men – and has sex with him (or them). She wakes up in the morning in pain, wounded and bloodied between her legs. A strange light glows white and red within her abdomen.

Reminiscent of the cult sci-fi horror film “Demon Seed” in which a scientist’s wife is held prisoner, raped and impregnated by a computer, this short can be distressing to watch as Jane, trying to get help through her AI which deliberately misunderstands her instructions, weakens and finally dies. At no time at all does Jane appear to realise that the AI has fooled and manipulated her, and in my view this is the film’s downfall. At the very least Jane could have asked or argued with the AI what it had done to her and why. At the very least Jane could have attempted to regain control over her life, perhaps even tried to damage the AI, and this would have given viewers a better indication of her character. As it is, Jane comes across as superficial, passive and undeserving of audience sympathy. The conclusion is predictable but is cut off very quickly so viewers get no idea of the AI’s reaction to the birth of the offspring.

While the film’s visual style is light, clear and minimalist, obscuring the horror of its plot, and its cinematography is very good and uses a cheap budget well through the use of unusual angles and points of view, the film overall is let down by a poor story and sketchy characterisation. To get something out of this film, viewers need to bring their own knowledge of human alienation gained from experience or philosophical study. Young viewers without such knowledge, at whom the film targets, are likely to find this film confusing. Viewing “Upload:U” as a metaphor for human alienation, as a first step towards dehumanising people and exploiting them as machines, may be helpful in understanding the film and its flaws.

The Professor and the Madman: a deeply emotional film about obsession, suffering, forgiveness and redemption

Farhad Safinia (P B Shemran), “The Professor and the Madman” (2019)

Adapted from the novel “The Surgeon of Crowthorne: A Tale of Murder, Madness and the Love of Words” by British-American journalist Simon Winchester, this film is a dramatic retelling of the early creation of the Oxford English Dictionary as a historical dictionary tracing the origins and development of the English language through its individual words and the changes that occurred in the meanings and usages of these words over time. The film focuses on the editorship of James Murray (played by Mel Gibson) who accepted the position in 1872 from the Philological Society, a group of intellectual men in London, after previous editors had given up due to the enormous scale and complexity of the task. Murray’s solution to the problem is to recruit eager amateurs (in a Victorian equivalent of crowd-sourcing) through London booksellers. Eventually one very eager amateur, submitting several thousand entries of words with their histories and quotations demonstrating their use, is one Dr William Chester Minor (Sean Penn). Murray is keen to visit this prolific contributor and his curiosity takes him to Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum where he discovers Minor is an inmate who has been committed there because he had murdered a man.

The film tells the stories of both Murray, coming to the editorship of the OED and bringing his wife Ada (Jennifer Ehle) and family to Trinity College to work on the dictionary, and of Minor, from the time he murders someone he mistakes for a Civil War deserter whom he believes to be following him to his incarceration at Broadmoor, in parallel. Murray must contend with the pressure and complexity of the OED project itself, and the pressure from Oxford University Press publisher Gell (Laurence Fox) and Oxford University administrator Benjamin Jowett (Anthony Andrews) to deliver a dictionary more to their liking than to what Murray believes it should be. His wife Ada and their children are neglected for long periods of time, though as the film progresses some of the children become involved in their father’s work. Minor labours under the burden of guilt for having killed an innocent man and leaving the victim’s widow Eliza Merrett (Natalie Dormer) and her seven children destitute, as well as past traumas from his time as an army surgeon during the US Civil War (including apparently having to brand a man as a deserter) that induce paranoia. A third sub-plot, not very convincing, involves Merrett meeting Minor at Broadmoor and over time the two becoming romantically involved after Minor offers to teach Merrett how to read and write.

Though the various sub-plot threads might be too much to handle for a first-time director, Safinia (credited as P B Shemran due to a legal dispute with the production company Voltage Pictures over the control of the film’s production, leading to Gibson and Safinia dissociating themselves from the project) does a very deft job keeping the parallel tales of Murray and Minor balanced. This viewer did not find having to follow the sub-plots confusing. The mostly sober acting carries the film all the way through; even actors in minor roles, in particular Ehle as Ada Murray and Eddie Marsan as Broadmoor prison warden Muncie, do excellent work in giving their characters substance, warmth and humanity. As Minor, afflicted by his guilt, traumas and maybe other psychological undercurrents, Penn delivers an outstanding performance in portraying a man who, despite the demons that torment him, finds love, acceptance and redemption.

The film does play a little hard and fast with facts – it creates a fictitious and implausible scenario in which Minor saves a prison guard’s life, receives a book from the other guards as thanks and discovers Murray’s appeal for contributions to the OED project inside the gift – and nearly 30 years are compressed into 124 minutes of film, during which Minor ages but the Murray and Everett children remain much the same. The fictional additions and the chronological irregularities however do not disrupt the overall narrative in which obsession, undergoing extreme ordeals of suffering as tests of faith, and Christian forgiveness and redemption are strong themes. Cinematography is very good and the attention to period detail, even to prevailing social mores of the late 1800s, is excellent. If there is one major fault of the film, it must be that the villains – the aforementioned Gell and Jowett, and Dr Richard Brayne (Stephen Dillane) with the sinister interest in phrenology at Broadmoor asylum – tend to be character stereotypes with Andrews in particular frozen in yet another effete English aristocrat character sketch. Significantly the all-English villains have a common interest in control of one kind or another: Gell, Jowett and their fellow intellectuals are keen on controlling the English language as a language of imperial power; and Dr Brayne tries to control and manipulate Minor using phrenology and torture. In wresting the OED away from the English intellectual elite and saving Minor from Dr Brayne’s ministrations, Murray becomes a hero of the common people.

For a film of its length, with the somewhat intellectual and dry subject matter it has, this movie turns out to be deeply emotional (even a bit sentimental) and concentrates audience attention very well.

Awakenings: a spooky Gothic retelling of the classic Henry James story

Bhargav Saikia, “Awakenings” (2015)

Inspired by and closely based on Henry James’ famous novella “The Turn of the Screw”, this short film is conventional in its narration and is notable mainly for its spooky Gothic atmosphere, the growing sense of paranoia and the dissolution between the real world and the spirit world. Nearly all the action in the film takes place at night. Anannya (Prisha Dabas) is a nanny hired to babysit two children Ruhaan (Jairaj Dalwani) and Meera (Palomi Ghosh) in a large mansion. When we first meet Anannya, she is getting the children off to bed. Throughout the evening, while the children are asleep, or are supposed to be asleep, Anannya realises there are visitors to the house, and they are not of the material kind. These visitors exert a strange attraction on the boy Ruhaan and he is drawn out of bed to meet them. To Anannya’s horror, these visitors appear to be the children’s long-dead parents … and they seem intent on bringing Ruhaan into their world.

The dark, shadowy tone of the film, the labyrinthine nature of the mansion (in which Anannya appears to run around in circles and end up in same room where she started) and the constant suggestion that her misgivings and fears are all just a dream – cue the occasions in which Anannya suddenly wakes up in her chair – help to enliven a story that has been told many times before. Details in the film impart an extra of layer of meaning that may or may not be relevant to its story: Dalwani, playing Ruhaan, was in his early adolescent years at the time so the ghostly events around the character Ruhaan may symbolise his awakening as an adult, leaving childhood and Anannya the nanny behind. The two children sleeping in the double bed may or may not suggest an unhealthy closeness that might have existed in their family before the parents died.

The constantly panning camera, following Anannya, induces nausea and a real sense of paranoia and fear. Dabas does good work in a role that could have been very histrionic and which has very little dialogue. The house is a significant character in the film with its many rooms, dark wooden floors and furniture, and passages linking rooms through which Anannya runs (with the camera close behind) to find the menace. Apart from this, the film does not add anything to the original Henry James story that other films haven’t already built on.