The Destruction of Libya in 2011: a good general survey of events surrounding the downfall of Colonel Ghaddafi

Carlton Meyer, “The Destruction of Libya in 2011” (Tales of the American Empire, May 2020)

A very good general survey of how the US overthrew Colonel Muammar Ghaddafi’s government in 2011 after 42 years of rule and turned what had been Africa’s most prosperous and stable nation into one of the continent’s poorest and most volatile flash-points, this short film does rely on other sources to flesh out its narrative but it is straightforward, unflinching and easy to follow. After pushing for a no-fly zone at the United Nations and getting it, the US and its allies invaded Libya, bombed its major cities and infrastructure (including the Great Man-made River Project, the world’s largest irrigation scheme, bringing water from beneath the Sahara to Libya’s coastal cities) and allowed Islamic jihadists, many of them foreign, to brutalise, sodomise and kill Ghaddafi. The country’s gold wealth was stolen by Western banks and thousands of Libyan refugees, along with hundreds of thousands of refugees from other parts of Africa, wracked by wars stemming in part from foreign (especially US) meddling, fled Libya by attempting dangerous sea voyages across the Mediterranean Sea to Malta and Italy, and then beyond. Thousands drowned in the Mediterranean and even those who made landfall in the EU faced uncertain and often dangerous futures.

Through maps, archived newsreels and John Pilger’s interview of Julian Assange on the then US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s role in pushing an invasion of Libya, narrator Meyer lays out how the US has plotted to bring down Ghaddafi’s government since he deposed the country’s former king in 1969 and set about reconstructing Libyan society along socialistic lines. Ghaddafi introduced free education and healthcare to Libyans and many other services were subsidised by the government. The Great Man-Made River Project was financed entirely by Libyan banks operating on what Westerners would regard as unorthodox financial and banking principles. Throughout Ghaddafi’s long reign as the country’s figurehead – he relinquished the role of Prime Minister in the late 1970s – the US consistently painted him as a quixotic dictator and blamed him or his country’s agents for various terrorist incidents including the Pan Am passenger jet bombing at Lockerbie in December 1988. The no-fly zone declared in late 2011 allowed a US-led coalition that included France and Italy to initiate a bombing campaign of Libya in which thousands were killed or injured. Since then, Islamic jihadist groups such as ISIS and al Qa’eda, financed or supported by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the US and EU nations, have been fighting the Libyan National Army commanded by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, formerly on the CIA payroll.

The most jaw-dropping part of the video is John Pilger’s interview of Julian Assange in which Assange states that Hillary Rodham Clinton (hereafter HRC) pressured US President Barack Obama to attack Libya and depose Ghaddafi, with the intention of using a successful attack and overthrow of the Libyan government as a core feature of her Presidential election campaign in 2016. The evil cynicism behind this behaviour on HRC’s part is mind-boggling: thousands of people had to die, and floods of people had to pour out of Libya (which had hitherto provided them with jobs on the GMMR Project) and into Europe, destabilising that continent, just so this wretched woman could use the invasion to flaunt herself as a Presidential candidate in 2016. With Donald Trump’s success in the US Presidential elections in 2016, HRC’s ambitions came to naught.

At every step along the way to Ghaddafi and Libya’s downfall, the US government or its agencies (particularly the CIA and maybe the National Endowment for Democracy) are in the thick of the plotting and grooming of alternative leaders who nearly always have been educated in the US from childhood on and who know very little of their original countries’ histories, in part because their families left and joined the global diaspora of migrants, refugees and other displaced individuals and family groups.

The film does have an abrupt open-ended conclusion though the message is very clear that US political / economic / military interference in another nation’s affairs nearly always leads to impoverishment, instability and degeneration manifested as political corruption. Neoliberal economic policies and programs are pursued that enrich a very small elite and force the rest of the population to live close to the breadline. Punishment can’t come soon enough for HRC, Barack Obama and others (in France, Italy and the UK at least) who stood to benefit from the US destruction of Libya in 2011.

The Conquest of the Republic of Georgia in 2003: how Georgia gave up independence and became a US vassal state

Carlton Meyer, “The Conquest of the Republic of Georgia in 2003” (Tales of the American Empire, May 2020)

One of a series of films by former US Marine Corps member Carlton Meyer on US political and military interference and intervention in various nations around the world over the past 100 years or so, this short piece is a timely survey of the history of the Republic of Georgia in the Caucasus region between Europe and Asia since the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991. Georgia had been part of the Soviet Union since the early 1920s at least – Soviet leader Josef Stalin had been part-Georgian, part-Ossetian, a fact that will become important later – and even before then, had been part of the Russian empire from 1801 to 1917. After the Soviet Union dissolved, Georgia became an independent republic and at this point the United States became interested in drawing the country away from the Russian orbit into its sphere of influence, mainly through the use of soft power in the form of non-government organisations (NGOs) masquerading as charities and humanitarian groups. The US State Department groomed one Mikheil Saakashvili as a future leader, enrolling him at Columbia Law School and then at The George Washington University, later sending him back to Georgia with a huge pot of money. Saakashvili later entered parliament in the late 1990s. After serving as Justice Minister under President Eduard Shevardnadze, Saakashvili quit the government and Shevardnadze’s party, formed his own party and campaigned in the country’s parliamentary elections in November 2003. Saakashvili claimed his party had won the elections and led mass protests and demonstrations that culminated in the resignation of Shevardnadze as President. The coup came to be known as the Rose Revolution, and is the US conquest of Georgia as described in the title of the video.

Through maps and archival news reels, a hilarious FOX television news interview with two Ossetian-American citizens, and with voice-over narration by Meyer himself, the video covers not only Saakashvili’s rise to power (in the process exposing him as a US-groomed stooge) but also US military infiltration of Georgia’s armed forces and police, paving the way for Saakashvili’s invasion of South Ossetia in August 2008. Russian forces assisted South Ossetian forces in throwing back the invading Georgians in a 5-day war but not before about 350 people were killed and over 1,500 injured. Civilians in the contested territory clearly knew who was to blame, as demonstrated in the FOX television news interview with a teenage girl and her aunt, in which both blamed President Saakashvili for starting the war and praised Russia’s role in ending it, causing their host to hastily end the interview and cut to an ad break. The war and a number of political scandals, including the mysterious death of Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania in 2005 and a prison scandal in which prisoners were beaten and sodomised in 2012, dented Saakashvili’s reputation and the President left Georgia in 2013. Criminal charges were filed against him by the Georgian Prosecutor in 2014.

Despite Saakashvili having left Georgia (to resurface in Ukraine in 2014, taking up, then losing, then regaining Ukrainian citizenship in the years following), the video states the country is still very much under the thumb of its US masters. Georgia continues to supply cannon fodder to assist the US in invading foreign countries and subjugating local populations in countries as far apart as Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan. The US and Israel continue to supply training to Georgia’s military and security forces. A biological warfare research facility operates in the Georgian capital Tbilisi, often to the detriment of the health of communities in the facility’s immediate vicinity. The US continues to dangle the prospect of NATO membership in front of Georgians even though the country does not fulfill the requirements of NATO membership or those for EU membership. Significant border issues exist between Georgia and its neighbours including Russia.

Far from gaining true independence and security in its neighbourhood, Georgia has given away both to pursue dreams and promises that the US and the EU have no intention of fulfilling.

The American Empire Invades Africa: an overview of US military influence and domination over an entire continent

Carlton Meyer, “The American Empire Invades Africa” (Tales of the American Empire, 11 June 2020)

Former US Marine Corps member Carlton Meyer recently created a series of several short videos, uploaded to Youtube.com, telling the history of US political, economic and military interference in the affairs of nations and continents around the world. In this 11-minute video, Meyer as narrator introduces viewers to a brief and occasionally quite detailed survey of US military activity in the African continent since the end of the Cold War in 1989 through US Africa Command (usually abbreviated to US Africom or just Africom), one of several regional command organisations of the US military. Starting with US general Wesley Clark’s list of seven countries whose governments had to be overthrown in the space of five years (after the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City in 2001) as home base, Meyer traces the downfall of governments in Somalia, Libya and Sudan (three nations on the list) over a 20-year period. During the 1990s, US activity in Somalia (with Ethiopian assistance) removed a legitimate government in the form of the Union of Islamic Courts and prolonged an ongoing civil war among various clan-based groups in that country, with the result that Somalia became impoverished, huge numbers of refugees fled the country over the years, and political and economic instability still plague that part of Africa to this day. In 2011, NATO overthrew Colonel Muammar Ghaddafi’s government in Libya and likewise that nation, once Africa’s wealthiest country and formerly one of its most stable, is now poor and unstable, with the western and eastern parts of the country opposed to each other and fighting an ongoing civil war. Sudan was subjected to a forced separation of South Sudan from its territory in 2011 in order to weaken the Sudanese President Omar al Bashir; the President was finally ousted after nearly 30 years of rule in 2019. Since its creation from Sudan in 2011, South Sudan has endured several years of civil war, human rights violations, political instability, poverty and the degradation of the cultures of the various Nilotic peoples living within its borders as people flee overseas from continuous war.

Photographs, maps, news reels and even archived news reels, combined with Meyer’s even-toned voiceover, create a straightforward factual narrative detailing overwhelming American imperialism and violence in destabilising African nations. The influence of Africom throughout the continent and the extent of its activities, involving the US National Guard from all 50 states in the Union, are demonstrated in the video’s ultimate centrepiece: a visual advertisement created by Africom itself detailing its activities and the colossal scale of these activities, employing at least a thousand US troops and others, in nearly all African countries except Egypt (part of US Centcom, centred in the Middle East). There is no need for Meyer to say anything about Africom at this point: the marketing is blunt and says all that is needed to say.

Wisely Meyer does not go into too much detail in this video as the target audience (the US general public) is not likely to know very much about US military activity in Africa generally and needs a general overview of the history of such interference. There are online resources for those viewers who want more information and information in depth on particular topics covered in the video. Being a military man, Meyer passes over other forms of US domination (financial, cultural, political, economic) over African countries. He says nothing about how the US became involved in African affairs, how it might have originally supported French and British colonial ambitions in the continent and then taken over once France and Britain left the continent in the 1960s. The video best serves as an introduction to a topic that rarely gets any mention in mainstream news media outlets.

No Justice, No Peace: no justice done to Black Lives Matter and George Floyd by shallow news program

“No Justice, No Peace” (Foreign Correspondent, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 16 June 2020)

Remarkable for what it fails to say and do, this episode purports to investigate how the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has galvanised people across the United States to protest institutional police violence across the nation in the wake of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin’s murder of George Floyd on 25 May 2020. With voice-over narration by Sally Sara, the program flits across scenes of demonstrations, aided and abetted by a music soundtrack consisting mostly of soul music, and of interviews with black activists of whom only one, Tamika Mallory, is a BLM leader. All scenes make for good viewing, the music is fine (though hiphop and reggae are conspicuously lacking, even though George Floyd himself was once a rapper known as Big Floyd back in the late 1990s), and the interviewees are angry and passionate, but after all is said and done, and the credits start to roll, the viewer realises how very little new information the program relays that the viewer doesn’t already know.

Very little is said about how far BLM has grown and developed since Foreign Correspondent last covered the movement a few years ago, how many followers it now counts, what its current agenda is and what program for social, economic and political reform and for educating people on racism and the history of racism in the US it may have. There is nothing about Mallory herself, what her stance on various issues affecting black people in the US is and what controversies (such as her past association with Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan) she has been embroiled in. One thing Mallory could have told Foreign Correspondent is the extent to which police violence in the US is encouraged by both the US and Israeli governments through police training programs conducted by Israeli security organisations of US police officers in Israel itself and in the US. A recent report by UK online newspaper Morning Star found that back in 2012, 100 police officers from Minnesota state attended a police training workshop in Chicago that was sponsored by the Israeli consulate there. The chokehold that Chauvin used on Floyd (and which suffocated Floyd) is one used by Israeli soldiers and paramilitary on Palestinian people.

That Foreign Correspondent omits to say anything about how police violence might be more than just a reflection of historical racism and a legacy of slavery in the US, and how a culture of police violence has grown and spread throughout the country as (among other things) a result of numerous wars the US has waged against countless other nations over the last one hundred years and more to seize their land and natural wealth, in the process exposing generations of US youth to violence, brutality and trauma, and turning some of those youth into traumatised people or sociopaths who either stress easily and resort to violence too quickly or are so inured to committing brutal and sadistic acts that sadism becomes part of their identity as human beings. The Israeli government and its agencies find profit in offering training on humiliating, torturing and even killing people to US police officers, teaching those officers to view people on the bottom rungs of the socio-economic ladder as sub-human and worthless. All too often, those people on those bottom rungs tend to be black Americans or people from poor Latin American countries – and often those Latin American countries that have suffered instability and high levels of drug-related crime as a result of continuous US interference in their politics and economies.

Neither does Foreign Correspondent ask why the murder of George Floyd should have suddenly inflamed and motivated people across the US and other parts of the world to demonstrate against their governments and to pull down statues of past historical figures known to have benefited from the exploitation of Third World nations and peoples as slave traders or colonial administrators. The impoverishment of people across First World nations, and the speed with which that impoverishment has increased since the First World entered lock-down after the appearance of COVID-19 and the panic and hysteria the disease generated, apparently was missed by the program producers and reporters. For many years since neoliberal economics became the dominant political, social and economic ideology under Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher’s leadership of the Anglosphere in the 1980s, people’s living standards and quality of life have steadily eroded, social inequalities have increased, the forces of law and order have become more militarised and antagonistic towards the general public, news and information have turned into propaganda, and old problems once thought to be dying out, such as bigotry and racism, are rearing their heads again.

Identity politics, dividing people on the basis of what identifies them instead of uniting them, is used by elites to weaken popular movements by setting people against one another. By presenting George Floyd’s murder as yet one more example of police racism and violence, and not considering the wider context in which US police violence against black Americans (and other underprivileged folk) occurs, Foreign Correspondent shows itself as a propaganda mouthpiece for the elites controlling governments in the Anglosphere and beyond.

The Doctor vs the President: sordid Russia-bashing using COVID-19 pandemic crisis

“The Doctor vs the President” (Foreign Correspondent, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 2 June 2020)

Even during the COVID-19 global pandemic, Western mainstream news media outlets can never resist the opportunity to bash countries they are ordered by governments, defence establishments and intel agencies not to like – countries such as Russia, China, Iran, Cuba, Syria and Venezuela – when they should be highlighting, comparing and analysing different approaches adopted by nations around the world to combating the disease and developing ways of eradicating or controlling it. A prime example of the never-ending propaganda is this episode from Australian television current affairs program “Foreign Correspondent” in which home-bound Russia correspondent Eric Campbell follows the adventures through his laptop of supposed renegade ophthalmologist Anastasia Vasilyeva in her stunt to deliver boxes of masks, gloves and other PPE to hospitals battling the SARS-COV-2 virus in the Novgorod oblast (an administrative region between Moscow and St Petersburg). Along the way, Vasilyeva and her convoy of four cars (with three people in each car – what happened to social distancing?) are stopped and questioned by police who then detain her for breaking lock-down rules (she was supposed to stay in Moscow) and for having no registration in Novgorod oblast (the region having closed its borders to outsiders). Since the convoy included a lawyer, a foreign reporters and three camera crew, instead of a full complement of medical staff and nurses from her trade union (Alliance of Doctors), Dr Vasilyeva obviously knew she was going to be arrested. In addition to breaking lock-down rules, the good doctor also disobeyed police instructions so she was further detained – in full view of the camera crew.

It probably does not need to be said that had Dr Vasilyeva been genuinely concerned about the needs of hospitals in Novgorod oblast, she could have organised a fund-raising effort among Muscovites and sent money electronically to the hospitals or the PPE in the post or by courier to the same, at much less cost to herself and her petrol bill – but of course this would not have made for confrontational TV titillation. Incidentally, the two head physicians of the target hospitals in Novgorod oblast expressed surprise at Dr Vasilyeva’s stunt and concern that the equipment had no certification or registrations, and that the stunt was intended to be provocative. All of this went unreported on the “Foreign Correspondent” report.

The program says very little about Dr Vasilyeva’s Alliance of Doctors, how large it is (or not), and does not interview any other members of that trade union. One would think it should be a very large union with branches right across Russia. There is nothing about where it is headquartered or how much influence it has among the medical profession in Russia. Viewers of the program will come away with no idea of where the trade union’s income comes from. Oddly enough, the program emphasises Dr Vasilyeva’s personal connection with the charlatan “opposition figure” Alexei Navalny, who enjoys very little support among the Russian voting public, who is supposed to be under house arrest for his role in embezzling funds from a state timber company in Kirov oblast, and whose lavish life-style is far beyond the amount of money he earns from his activities and fund-raising. Anyone even mildly au fait with Russian politics will know straight away that people with personal associations with Navalny are likely not only to be feted by Western governments and media organisations, they are likely to be shady characters themselves receiving funding from foreign organisations with an interest in deposing the current Russian government and targeting President Putin in particular.

Ah, yes, no program criticising Russia can resist mocking Putin as a would-be Stalinist dictator intent on prolonging his grip on the country to 2036 through a referendum that would give him an extra two terms as President: a referendum inspired by a proposal from none other than State Duma representative Valentina Tereshkova, who in a former life was the world’s first female space traveller. Funnily, “Foreign Correspondent” does not notice that Putin doesn’t straight away sign a decree making himself President for life – no, he actually decides to put the idea to a public referendum. Elsewhere in the program, Putin is portrayed as something of a weakling in retreating from the public at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic lock-down in Moscow (instigated by Mayor Sergei Sobyanin: it was his job after all, not Putin’s) and then somehow re-emerging as the leader in tamping down the infection’s spread and halting its progress. The fact that it is other people’s jobs and the function of health ministries at the national and regional levels to control and if possible eradicate COVID-19 in Russia, with the President watching their progress as any political leader would and should, giving them encouragement and admonishing them for failures, seems to have escaped “Foreign Correspondent”. But when opportunity arises to perpetuate a stereotype of Russia as a tired, clapped-out has-been empire lost in nostalgic fantasy, and its government and leader as despotic and out of touch with reality, “Foreign Correspondent” like every other mainstream Western media outlet seizes it and flogs it at the expense of its credibility with an increasingly sceptical Australian audience.

An opportunity to critically view and report on how successfully or unsuccessfully Russia is dealing with COVID-19 – despite the huge numbers being infected, the actual death toll is very low – and the reason for the huge disparity in the statistics compared to equivalent figures in other countries, adjusted for population size, was missed.

Men in Black II: some good ideas go to waste in a cheap sequel

Barry Sonnenfeld, “Men in Black II” (2002)

Five years after the events of the original “Men in Black”, at the end of which Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) retired from the Men in Black agency – the secret intelligence unit that monitors the activities of exterrestrial beings living and working on Planet Earth – his former MiB protege Agent J (Will Smith) is called upon to investigate the mysterious death of an alien at his (the alien’s, that is) pizza restaurant. There, Agent J interviews Laura (Rosario Dawson) who tells him her employer was killed by two aliens, Serleena (Lara Flynn Boyle), a shape-shifting monster in the form of a lingerie model, and Charlie and Scrad, Serleena’s two-headed assistant (Johnny Knoxville), who are hunting for the Light of Zartha which Serleena needs for her own nefarious purposes. Agent J is attracted to Laura and decides not to neuralyse her.

As he investigates the crime, Agent J discovers nearly all leads go back to his mentor so he brings the former Agent K back to MiB headquarters for re-neuralysation. Before Agent K’s neuralysation is completed, Serleena and her minions attack the building and seriously trash it so Agent K’s memories must be restored clandestinely. Having regained his identity and memories, Agent K remembers that he partially neuralysed himself to erase what he knows of the Light of Zartha but left some clues to follow in case he needed to find out again.

Putting Laura under protection with various aliens, Agents J and K recover a video containing a fictional dramatisation of how, long ago, Queen Lauranna of Zartha entrusted the MiB agency to guard the Light from her enemy Serleena. Agent K could not save the Queen from the murderous Serleena so he neuralysed himself in order to forget his grief and at the same time forget what the Light of Zartha was and where it was held. The agents return to the place where they placed Laura but discover she has been abducted by Serleena.

While Smith and Jones work very well together – indeed, the movie limps along until Agent K recovers his memories (although the speed at which they come back is unconvincing and much potential fun is lost along the way) – and do what they can to maintain the old zing and energy from the previous film, the plot is flat and the entire film has a cheap and cheesy tone. Gags such as the talking-dog gag quickly wear thin and even scenes featuring Jeff the giant monster living in the NYC subway are not very scary. While Laura plays a significant part in the film, the romance angle between her and Agent J is very brief and superficial, and the heartbreak climax in which Laura discovers her true heritage and must go to Zartha does not give the film the emotional edge it could have had.

The message that once someone becomes an MiB agent, s/he is always an MiB agent, and the corollary that MiB agents can never be normal people with normal lives and normal relationships, but are permanently wedded to their employer, is present but unfortunately the script does not make more of it than it does. Similar could be said for characters like Laura, Serleena and Charlie and Scrad: what are their motivations, why exactly is Serleena interested in the Light of Zartha, and what do Charlie and Scrad hope to get out of working with Serleena? There are many interesting ideas in this film that could have made it much more entertaining, a little bit on the scary side, and perhaps even a bit thoughtful. What a pity that these ideas were not allowed to help write what could have been a good script.

Batman & Robin: so one-dimensional, it should be called “Flatman & Ribbon”

Joel Schumacher, “Batman & Robin” (1997)

Some folks probably call this film “Flatman & Ribbon” for the fact that the Dynamic Duo (played respectively by George Clooney and Chris O’Donnell) get well and truly steamrolled by a lousy stereotypical script in which two villains become a megalomaniacal tag-team with no motive other than to literally remake the world to their desires and hog screen time with their over-acting, silly puns and outlandish costumes. A big part of the blame must go to director Schumacher for steering the Good Ship Gotham Universe too close to the camp live-action television show that starred Adam West as the Dark Knight. The cast of actors which include Arnold Schwarzenegger as chief villain Mr Freeze, Uma Thurman as Poison Ivy and Alicia Silverstone as Barbara Wilson / Batgirl does what it can but the movie is far too crowded with them all and most of their characters end up so one-dimensional they may as well be paper cut-outs. “Flatman and Ribbon” indeed.

At least the script tries to inject an emotional element in a sub-plot about the importance of family and family loyalties by having Bruce Wayne’s faithful butler Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Gough) fall ill with the same mysterious ailment that befell the wife of Mr Freeze who desperately needs money for research on a cure for the illness which puts her in a permanent coma. Mr Freeze embarks on a life of crime stealing diamonds that power his suit to keep his metabolism at subzero temperatures due to a laboratory accident. With Schwarzenegger as Mr Freeze, the villain’s desperate quest to revive his wife takes centre stage but Alfred’s illness is always in the background to remind Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson of the importance of being partners and working together, and to rope in Alfred’s niece Barbara Wilson who comes to Wayne Manor to look after her uncle. The scenes with Alfred are very touching and feature some good acting from Clooney who otherwise provides a sunny and not so tortured interpretation of Bruce Wayne / Batman throughout the film.

While on his mission to steal more diamonds including one from an observatory that Wayne Enterprises sponsors, Mr Freeze meets Poison Ivy, herself created from a chemical laboratory mash-up, who gets him out of jail and tries to wangle her way into his cold-hearted affections by pulling the plug on his wife. Together the two plot to freeze Gotham City and then the entire world with the assistance of Poison Ivy’s subordinate Bane, a huge monstrosity created with a drug called Venom. Fortunately the Dynamic Duo and Batgirl foil the Dastardly Duo’s plans and put them back into prison, but not before an endless and tiresome series of explosions, enough car crashes to turn all of Gotham City’s scrapyard merchants into millionaires, lots of dead bodies and other collateral damage, and too many implausible dramatic situations that would be impossible for even the most well-prepared superheroes to survive – or at least not risk shoulder dislocations or arms ripping off – all culminating in very sudden climatic change in negative Centigrade temperatures for Gotham City.

Little touches such as a conversation between Bruce Wayne and Alfred about being able to control the chaos around oneself – always an ongoing issue with Batman and those like him who view the world as essentially needing constant repair lest it fall back into even more evil and corruption – and Batman himself offering Mr Freeze a chance to redeem himself at least make some parts of an otherwise tired and bloated film franchise in need of new ideas bearable. Little surprise then that this flatlining film did not do so well at the box office and the film franchise ended with it.

Men in Black: a sci-fi comedy sending up intel agencies and immigration issues

Barry Sonnenfeld, “Men in Black” (1997)

Very loosely based on the original comic series of the same name, in which a secret organisation called The Men In Black polices the activities of extraterrestrial aliens on Earth and keeps these hidden from the rest of humanity, this film turns the original source material into parody and satire poking fun at bureaucracy and secret intelligence agencies, and posits the notion that even underground organisations investigating conspiracy-theory / tinfoil-hat topics need new blood, new ideas and a fresh way of thinking to survive. MIB Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) needs a new partner after his old one retires when a mission proves too sticky for them both. Coincidentally a new potential replacement presents himself when New York City police officer James Edwards (Will Smith) pursues a suspect into a museum. Impressed with the cop, Agent K interviews him and encourages him to apply for a vacancy with the MIB agency. After undergoing various tests, in which he supplies original and wacky solutions, Edwards is accepted into the agency, his old identity and former civilian life are expunged from New York City records, and he becomes Agent J.

While all this is happening, an alien searching for an energy device called the Galaxy, cunningly hidden in a cat’s collar jewel, kills a farmer called Edgar (Vincent d’Onofrio) and takes on Edgar’s form, though it is very ill-fitting. The Edgar alien kills two other aliens disguised as humans and their murders are reported in The National Enquirer (a newspaper specialising in conspiracy theories and UFO sightings). Agents K and J read about the murders and Agent K guesses the Edgar alien is a “bug” (ie cockroach alien). The two agents consult an alien informant disguised as a pug dog and follow other information to find the Edgar alien having kidnapped a morgue coroner (Linda Fiorentino) and in possession of the Galaxy.

The plot is simple and straightforward to follow, though once Edwards becomes J, it no longer becomes interesting and the eccentric zany quality fades out. What the narrative ends up becoming is a standard crime caper with two agents who are mirror opposites in almost every way – Agent K is very much an organisation man while Agent J retains his individuality and quick-thinking, quick-talking flair even after his fingerprints have been burnt off and his old name has been forgotten. Jones and Smith work well together as a comedy team, and their chemistry together and mix of deadpan humour and wit hold the film together. D’Onofrio, Fiorentino and Rip Torn also hold their own well though Fiorentino is underused.

The central theme of the film could be summed up as “Don’t judge a book by its cover”, to use that old cliched proverb, as plenty in the film, including characters, plot twists and various other elements, have the element of surprise. Humans living unremarkable lives turn out to be aliens in disguise, an old car suddenly displays advanced technology, and a tiny gun packs an almighty punch and a huge recoil. The concept of individuality is examined, even if in a simplistic way: a man may lose his name and past but is his individuality, his sense of self, erased as well? Or will it be just a matter of time before Agent J becomes as much an MIB organisation man as Agent K? Will the real conflict be between Agent J in trying to maintain his individual style and way of thinking, and perhaps change the organisation, on the one hand and on the other the MIB agency itself in moulding Agent J into yet another faceless MIB agent and staying the same, at the risk of becoming stale and bureaucratic?

The film also has something pithy to say about the perennial issue faced by Western countries regarding immigration and how law and order institutions deal with illegal migrants. The lesson to be learned is that most migrants, even illegal ones, desire to lead normal lives and keep their heads down.

Batman Forever: combining colourful camp and brooding darkness with duality as its theme

Joel Schumacher, “Batman Forever” (1995)

After Tim Burton’s “Batman Returns” scooped millions at the box office, there was the general feeling that his films of the Dark Knight were too dark for young viewers, and that the hero did not have a place in a Gothic noir universe where everyone is compromised in a corrupt society. For the next film in this particular Batman series, Burton stepped down as director (though he still producer) and Joel Schumacher directed instead. Scumacher’s approach to the Batman / Gotham City ethos was to draw on the live-action 1960s television series and Batman comics of the 1950s in which the hero is a square-jawed muscular bulldog hero who always defeats his enemies, no matter what dangers they put him and his sidekick Robin in. The result is a mix of shadow darkness and garish fluorescent circus colours: a film that wants to be two very different things – a noirish flick that wants to be serious yet still colourful and fun for young viewers – and this notion of mirror opposites combined in the one person is a motif that pervades the film in its characters and plotting.

Gotham City district attorney Harvey Dent (Tommy Lee Jones) swears revenge on Batman (Val Kilmer) after the latter fails to save him from a vicious acid attack that leaves half of Dent’s face severely burnt and disfigured and turns him into a man obsessed with polar opposites, one of which can dominate the other through a sheer random occurrence, exemplified in the toss of a coin. Dent disrupts a circus performance in which a family of acrobats manages to divert his bomb into Gotham City Harbour instead of destroying the cirucs, but the acrobats’ heroic gesture leaves them dead save for the youngest member, Dick Grayson (Chris O’Donnell). Batman’s alter ego Bruce Wayne, struggling with recurring dreams of his childhood, invites Grayson to live with him at Wayne Manor.

In the meantime, a worker at Wayne Enterprises, Edward Nygma (Jim Carrey) demonstrates an invention to Wayne but Wayne rejects it and refuses to continue funding it. After murdering his supervisor, Nygma leaves the company and, adopting the persona of The Riddler, teams up with Dent to continue raising the money (legally and illegally) to perfect the machine, copies of which are expected to be in every home in Gotham City: the catch is that this machine will draw in every viewer’s thoughts, feelings and knowledge, and transfer all these into Nygma’s own mind, thereby giving Nygma power over people’s hidden secrets and vulnerabilities. Nygma seeks out Wayne to destroy him for refusing to finance his project and discovers his secret Batman identity.

As if dealing with two major loopy criminals partnering to destroy him were not enough, Batman / Bruce Wayne also has to try to rein in Grayson who not only discovers his secret identity but also thirsts for revenge against Dent for killing his family. At the same time, after discovering his father’s journal, Wayne starts to doubt his purpose in life as a crusader for justice and yearns for a normal life. For help with his recurrent dreams, he seeks out a psychiatrist, Dr Chase Meridian (Nicole Kidman), who turns out to have the hots for Batman but considers him rather ordinary. Over the course of the film, the doctor develops feelings for Wayne but still holds a torch for Batman.

The plot is actually very straightforward though and while the scenes with Wayne and the doctor can drag, the film proceeds at a brisk pace to its conclusion. Thanks to The Riddler’s predilection for blowing things up, the film is full of explosions and noise. The sets are very good, maintaining a Gothic Art Deco look but with lots of bright garish colours and outlandish villain costumes. While Kilmer delivers a fairly straightforward dual character with just enough brooding darkness to pass muster with audiences, and O’Donnell plays a hot-headed Grayson / Robin without much nuance, Carrey and Jones ham up their respective characters. While Jones’ Dent actually doesn’t do much other than be a one-dimensional cartoon villain, Carrey goes to town painting Edward Nygma / The Riddler as a seriously disturbed and overbearing individual. While over-acting is perhaps to be expected of The Riddler and Harvey Dent – and at the time of filming, Carrey did have a reputation for playing crazed and crazy characters – over the course of the film this over-the-top style becomes very irritating and tiresome.

At the end of the film, we really do not know much more about Batman / Bruce Wayne, apart from observing that after revealing his secret identity to Dr Meridian and accepting that he needs a partner to share in his crime-fighting life – and Robin / Dick Grayson eagerly joining him in that respect – he finally accepts his dual nature and the nightmares presumably cease. It seems that by sharing something of himself with others, most of all with Robin / Dick Grayson, Batman / Bruce Wayne relieves himself of the burden of carrying his secret duality alone. It turns out that just about every significant character in the film, save for Dr Chase Meridian and Wayne’s faithful butler Alfred (Michael Gough), has either a secret alter ego or a dual nature. Interestingly, once Dr Meridian discovers that Batman / Bruce Wayne are one and the same, her interest in both of them seems to cool right off and at the end of the film, the couple go their separate ways with Bruce Wayne choosing to continue his career as Batman … forever.

In all of the fun and cheesiness and Jim Carrey’s zany antics and rubber acting that make him the real star of the film, what saves “Batman Forever” from being a camp re-run of the live-action TV show from the 1960s is Kilmer’s comparative restraint and nuanced acting as the hero wrestling with a troubling secret and a connected theme of duality and partnership. The Riddler’s quest to steal everyone’s thoughts, feelings and hidden secrets might be considered typical campy mad-scientist stuff but in the current world in which corporations spend huge amounts on social psychology and mass psychology in an effort to discover what people really are thinking and feeling, how they think and feel the way they do, and how to use this knowledge to manipulate people into certain moods and modes of thinking – and then sell all this knowledge to governments and intelligence agencies – the film takes on an eerie relevance and significance.

Seeing this film again 25 years after seeing at the cinema, I am surprised that it has lasted better than I thought it would and that Kilmer’s approach to Batman / Bruce Wayne stands up very well and might actually be the best of all the actors who have played the role in all the films centred around the character.

Batman Returns: a dark Gothic Christmas fantasy turns out tired, kitschy and bombastic

Tim Burton, “Batman Returns” (1992)

A Christmas movie that probably rarely enters most viewers’ lists of Christmas movies to watch is this wintry sequel to Burton’s “Batman” film. In that first film, Batman (underplayed by Michael Keaton) did battle with Jack Nicholson’s Joker, and quite a good, suspenseful and above all atmospheric film that was. In this sequel, Keaton again plays Batman / Bruce Wayne in a very minimal way, with most of the attention on Danny de Vito’s Penguin and Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman aka Selina Kyle. Despite the dark and snowy Christmas setting, where it seems night reigns nearly 24/7, the sequel has little atmosphere from the first film, and in its stead is forgettable explosions courtesy of a fairly involved plot.

The Penguin arrives on the scene fairly quickly with an origin story and childhood history that emphasise his outsider status and inner yearning for acceptance that mutates into contempt and hatred for humanity in general. Over 30 years later, businessman millionaire Max Schreck (Christopher Walken) proposes a plan to build a power plant to supply Gotham City with electricity, a plan opposed by its mayor. Schreck is kidnapped during a speech that is interrupted by a terrorist attack staged by the Red Triangle Gang, and is taken to meet the RTG secret leader Penguin in the latter’s underground sewer lair while Batman fends off the gang members. The Penguin blackmails Schreck into agreeing to help him make his way back to the surface. In the meantime Schreck’s put-upon secretary Selina Kyle discovers the true nature of her boss’s electricity proposal but before she can do anything, Schreck throws her out of a skyscraper window and she plummets to the ground. Miraculously she survives and she swears vengeance on Schreck by adopting the persona of the Catwoman.

Through various ruses and with the help of Schreck, who has his own reasons, the Penguin campaigns for the office of Gotham City mayor but is undone by Batman / Bruce Wayne who is suspicious of the candidate’s motives and discovers his connection to the Red Triangle Gang. The Penguin and Catwoman briefly ally to try to bring down Batman but their alliance comes undone when Catwoman rejects his advances. Bruce Wayne meets Selina Kyle during a meeting with Schreck and the two misfits are attracted to each other. After Batman reveals the Penguin’s attitude towards the people of Gotham City by publicly broadcasting the villain’s remarks about the city, the Penguin’s mayoral campaign falls apart, he retreats to the sewers and plots to kidnap and kill all the first-born sons of Gotham City to avenge himself on his parents. The Penguin starts by gatecrashing a ball thrown by Schreck, threatening to take Schreck’s son, but Schreck offers himself up instead.

The state is set for an almighty pyrotechnical climax which, to be frank, is the least interesting part of a long film with characters who either over-act (in de Vito’s case) or under-act (in the case of Batman and Schreck). Pfeiffer’s Catwoman just manages to strike a balance between her mousy and inhibited Selina Kyle persona and Catwoman’s lustful mirror-image opposite. Though just over two hours long, the film makes little attempt at character development and at the end of it all, all major characters still seem as paper-thin as they were at the beginning of the film. While Keaton passes muster as Bruce Wayne, fairly confident in public but often ill at ease in romantic relationships, his Batman does not come across as being very authoritative (though the character has zero interactions with police – not even Commissioner Gordon has words with him) and seems cardboard-like. With less atmosphere and more emphasis on explosions, bomb attacks and violence, the features associated with films directed by Tim Burton tend to stick out as overdone, kitsch and tired. The music soundtrack is loud and overly dramatic, and has little energy and zest.

While Burton has championed marginalised outlier characters in other films, and in his own way satirises American social conformity and the repression that accompanies this, the Penguin’s portrayal and that character’s interactions with Gotham City folk seem to betray a shallow understanding – nay, ignorance – of how capitalist society works to keep people in thrall by dividing them and using those divisions as threats to enforce and maintain conformity and compliance. The Penguin is never able or given the opportunity to understand where the hatred originates, in the rich family that rejects him because of how his deformities might threaten its wealth and social status; in a way, he is a puppet of Schreck who hopes to use him in his own scheme to claim power and influence over Gotham City. Perhaps the Penguin is more to be pitied than treated as a true villain despite his vicious character; at any rate, one doesn’t take him seriously as a villain but as a pathetic clown instead. What might have made the film work better would be shifting the emphasis from the Penguin as a villain, and Batman’s concentration on him, to Schreck as the true villain – but it seems that Wayne and Schreck have too much in common, as millionaire businessmen and philanthropical types, able to exert influence on Gotham City politics, for Batman and Schreck to have a showdown after somehow sidelining the Penguin and Catwoman. Perhaps this is the problem behind the Batman narrative: that a supposed superhero everyone roots for actually turns out to be representative of the very class that is stealing resources from its rightful owners, the general public. In the real world, Batman would be an enforcer for corporate billionaire Lex Luthor.