Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 16: Adam Ruins the Future): this episode should have gone out on a high note

Tim Wilkime, “Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 16: Adam Ruins the Future)” (2017)

As the last episode of its season, “Adam Ruins the Future” should go out on a high note but after having seen most of the season, I must admit that before seeing it my expectations were on the low side.  The episode turned out quite predictably: based around the theme of the future but with very little relationship to one another, three topics are treated at a quick zip in rather superficial fashion. Pressed by girlfriend Melinda to consider their future together, Adam changes the subject to explain why use-by dates on food labels are misleading and how 401K funds (the US equivalent of superannuation funds in Australia) won’t support most people in retirement. Melinda answers back by showing Adam how all the research in the world can’t predict the future generally, let alone the future of their relationship, and that people’s assumptions about the future are really an extension of present trends (which can always be disrupted and overthrown). Adam and Melinda finally agree that they don’t really have a future together and Adam acknowledges that breaking up says nothing about his worth as a human being.

The legislation governing use-by dates and the information about 401K funds are quite specific to an American audience so the discussion will be of limited value to overseas viewers. Probably the most audiences outside the US can gain from these segments is to investigate the legislation in their own countries that govern food labelling and expiry dates, and to know what their countries’ pension and super funds can and can’t do for them,  and what the alternatives if any are. The one thing 401K funds may have in common with super funds in Australia and possibly elsewhere is that they operate in a context where mostly ill-informed individuals are expected to accept the risks and responsibility in investing in such funds without much help from the government or independent agencies that do not have a vested interest in marketing these financial products. Everyone who works is expected to invest in his/her future retirement by contributing towards superannuation but the superannuation industry is dominated by a bewildering range of products whose features and characteristics may be difficult to understand (unless buyers have a background knowledge of how finance works) and which are sold by companies and institutions that purport to be trustworthy and reliable but whose past histories might suggest otherwise.

The episode almost ends on a somewhat despairing note – viewers may not be satisfied being urged to pressure the US government to reform legislation governing 401K funds when everyone knows that business lobby groups and their money shout louder than the public interest – and Adam and Melinda separate rather abruptly without so much as saying “We can still be friends even if we can’t be lovers”. Emily makes a brief appearance to counsel Adam on being comfortable with one’s own company and at least he is happy with her advice, even if only temporarily, as the episode concludes.

While the series has been good on the whole, and has presented a lot of valuable information, the formula it follows has become tiresome and the slapstick is tedious and somewhat forced. A future series will need to include a bit more wit and some actual situation comedy along with information that doesn’t throw around statistics so much but flows a bit more naturally and shows evidence of digging deeper past the surface.

Murder on the Orient Express (dir. Kenneth Branagh): a lavish and brisk remake turns out to be an ego trip

Kenneth Branagh, “Murder on the Orient Express ” (2017)

At least superficially this film is quite enjoyable to see Agatha Christie’s famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (played here by Kenneth Branagh who also directed the film) solve the whodunnit mystery in brisk and no-nonsense style amid lavish surroundings and a dramatic (if computer-enhanced) Alpine mountain landscape. Branagh preens his way through nearly every shot and scene as the famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot at the expense of his co-stars, many of whom are equally as illustrious as he if not more so. Viewers keen on solving the mystery before Poirot does are given plenty of clues and a back-story to the shenanigans on board the famous Orient Express train.

Summoned by London to return from the Middle East, Poirot meets Xavier Bouc, the son of an old friend, who is the director of the Orient Express and who promptly offers him a place on board. After meeting a number of passengers – who, oddly, total no more than thirteen – Poirot is approached by an American art dealer, Ratchett (Johnny Depp), who wants Poirot to be his bodyguard: Ratchett has received some threatening letters and fears someone on the train is out to kill him. Poirot senses that Ratchett is an unpleasant fellow and refuses to protect him. During the night strange noises emanate from Ratchett’s compartment and in the morning he is found dead from twelve stab wounds. Poirot and Bouc set about solving the mystery of Ratchett’s death and Poirot discovers from a clue left at the crime scene that Ratchett is in fact John Cassetti, a criminal who years ago had kidnapped and murdered a child, Daisy Armstrong. The kidnapping and murder led to the death of Daisy’s mother and the eventual suicide of her father, John. The family’s housemaid Susanne was wrongly arrested and charged with the murder and the trial judge was under pressure to convict her. Susanne later committed suicide in prison.

Armed with this information, Poirot eventually discovers through interviewing all the passengers on the train, plus one of the train conductors, that every single person aboard (save himself, Bouc and the train staff) is connected to the Armstrong family in some way. Alert viewers can guess which of these people will have had a hand in Ratchett’s murder before Poirot makes his announcement in an anti-climactic climax in which all the accused are assembled in a tableau resembling Leonardo da Vinci’s painting “The Last Supper”. Poirot subsequently finds himself in a dilemma torn between his excessively neat and tidy rational worldview, in which humans behave in ways that are logically transparent, and the real messy world in which people, governed by emotions and motivations they often cannot understand in themselves, perform criminal acts without regard for the consequences … and yet if they do not perform such acts, they may end up trapped in a depressive limbo or resort to the comfort of addictive painkiller drugs or even suicide.

The film has no easy answer for Poirot’s dilemma and he is forced to back down before a very minor character’s pragmatic decision regarding the fate of the guilty party / parties. At the end of the film he is left angry and discontented by the events on the Orient Express and only a new summons from London directing him back to Egypt and a trip down the Nile River (which means that Branagh may be coming back with his version of “Death on the Nile”!) holds out a promise that his universe will neatly resolve and repair itself back into tidy order.

While Branagh walks a balance between comic silliness and in-your-face seriousness for much of the film, and Depp oozes genuine menace in the few scenes he has, other capable actors have very little to do: the characters played by Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench and Derek Jacobi could have been played by lesser actors and Penelope Cruz has great difficulty playing a guilt-ridden missionary. Michelle Pfeiffer puts on a bravura performance as Mrs Hubbard towards the film’s end but by then viewers will think this is too little, too late.

Various tweaks have been made to the plot and some of the characters for the insertion of unnecessary and annoying identity-politics issues (such as making one character black so that Poirot is forced into solving the murder mystery before police authorities catch up and arrest that black character for the murder) that add nothing to the plot or to the overarching theme of Poirot encountering a chaotic and irrational universe and pushing back with deductive reasoning and logic. An unnecessary opening scene in which Poirot presides, god-like, over an incident involving the three Abrahamic religions in Jerusalem comes across as prejudiced against religion and racist to boot. The film also delights too much in overhead shots, long panning and CGI-generated shots of the Orient Express stranded on a bridge in an artificial-looking montane landscape.

If, as seems likely, a sequel is to be made – Hollywood being intent on cannibalising all its old movies, turning away from contemporary story scenarios that might reveal a United States in cultural as well as political, economic and financial stagnation and decline – please someone stop Branagh from directing the film: on “Murder …”, he just gets too carried away by his character Poirot and the film’s visual and technical aspects to care about the rest of the cast and the story.

Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 15: Adam Ruins Science): making a stand for public funding for science

Laura Murphy, “Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 15: Adam Ruins Science)” (2017)

Television programs about science and scientific studies may abound in many forms (as in documentaries or reports on news and current affairs programs) but a television program about the culture and practice of science, and how political and economic ideologies affect, even hinder science is very rare, and in this respect this episode of “Adam Ruins Everything” is very welcome. It seems much less silly than some earlier episodes but then perhaps the topics covered and what they imply together as well as separately are much more substantial than subjects like Halloween or visiting a health spa, and need lightening up to be palatable to the general public. Adam Conover visits Winnie, a science student about to start her project, and disabuses her of the value of laboratory mice in medical studies that are supposed to be relevant for human health. He also shows her how the practice of science is highly dependent on financial grants from various groups of donors – private companies, the pharmaceutical industry, individual and corporate philanthropists, and the government / public sector – all of whom have reasons and agendas for wanting to support particular areas or strands of scientific endeavour and who expect certain results from the recipients of the money, resources and staff they provide. Finally Adam warns Winnie that science journals are not necessarily repositories of truth with regard to the reporting of experiments and studies, as most such research are often flawed, with the most common flaws being small sample size, variables overlooked by researchers in forming hypotheses and designing experiments, and manipulating, even faking results. Adam advises Winnie of the value of studies being reproducible (that is, if another group of researchers undertake a similar study with the same experiment design and a similar-sized sample as the original, the researchers should be able to achieve similar results) and this encourages Winnie to adopt a more humble, less egocentric attitude in deciding what science project she will do for college class.

While the approach of (metaphorically) using a sledgehammer where a nutcracker might have been called for might be crude fun for kiddie viewers, the show does pound home the fact that much research in some areas (such as psychology) not only cannot be reproduced but could even be worthless; yet such research has often been trumpeted over and over in mainstream news media with the result that the phenomena the research has investigated (but not been able to prove) have passed into pop culture and urban folklore. The show’s middle segment on the funding of science makes for quite dismal viewing and is sure to force people to question how much value Western society really places on scientific pursuit and progress when science is at the mercy of the profit motive and corporate greed.

Although the program doesn’t go that far, the connection between who funds science and the faking of results in experiments and studies that could well end up in prestigious science journals can be made by astute viewers. This surely makes a case for public funding of science more important yet this is likely to be seen as anti-capitalist, even socialistic, by Western governments and therefore more public funding with less private funding would be considered as beyond the pale.

As is usual in most episodes, Adam’s companion descends into the pits of despair after one devastating revelation after another made by Adam or his expert helpers, only within a split second to zoom back into boundless optimism when Adam gives a pep talk about how s/he can still contribute something of benefit now that s/he understands the reality of the topic in question. Must Adam always pick on the most emotionally extreme characters to demonstrate how so much of what we believe and take for granted isn’t necessarily the truth?

Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 14: Adam Ruins Halloween): beneath the silly slapstick and cheap thrills, a sobering message about manipulating people’s emotions and weaknesses for profit

Tim Wilkime, “Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 14: Adam Ruins Halloween)” (2017)

Beneath the silliness is a sobering message that the scariest thing about life is the extent to which people and the news media will deliberately lie and manipulate information and people’s emotions, weaknesses and vulnerabilities for profit. Adam Conover visits schoolboy Stuart (Elisha Henig) on Halloween night to tell him the truth behind the persistent urban myth of strangers offering children poisoned lollies when they go trick-or-treating; what really happened during that night in 1938 when Orson Welles read “The War of the Worlds” on radio; and why mediums and séances are scams. All three phenomena are or have been very heavily dependent on the power of the news media to repeat and remind readers or viewers constantly to the extent that by sheer repetition the deception appears more real than the actual truth.

That the myth of strangers giving children poisoned candy persists, even though US police statistics and studies have only ever turned up one case of a child poisoned and killed by a cyanide-laced sweet (and the scumbag who did this turned out to be the boy’s father), speaks more about the news media’s repetitions of this tall tale stereotype which takes advantage of people’s fears about the welfare of children as they wander off on their own on Halloween evening around the streets knocking on people’s doors for treats year after year. Why news media outlets continue to exploit people’s concerns by perpetrating a falsehood that has long been debunked by research  to increase sales revenue, without regard for possible long-term effects of this exploitation (such as decreasing trust and weakening community ties, and encouraging people to rely more on government or corporate institutions for security and protection – institutions that may well be advertising through those same media outlets), is worthy of a documentary in its own right: we might find that the media’s exploitation of people’s fears may be tied to an agenda on the part of government and corporations (and those who control those bodies) to keep people fearful and distrustful of a world supposedly hostile to them. In this way, individuals are less likely to come and band together and fight for their common rights.

Similarly the perception that Orson Welles’ radio broadcast of “The War of the Worlds” back in 1938 generated mass panic turns out to be an urban myth that began almost as soon as Welles’ broadcast became known and is attributed to print news media’s jealousy of radio broadcasting and the desire to suggest that the immediacy of radio broadcasts could lead to irresponsible reporting: a rather ironic thing to say since the episode tends rather to suggest that print news media is irresponsible in stooping so low to rubbish a potential competitor. Nothing is said about the social and political context of the period: the Western world was on the verge of war at the time. Again, the fact that this belief has lasted so long and how and why repetition keeps sustaining it is worthy of its own independent investigation: perhaps the myth says something about our fear of being controlled by those who have the power to withhold truth from us.

Finally the episode pooh-poohs self-proclaimed psychics and the methods they use to ensnare people into trusting them and parting with their hard-earned money without asking why desperate and vulnerable people are most likely to believe mediums.

This Halloween episode is one of the more entertaining episodes in the series of “Adam Ruins Everything” even if it does go in for slapstick, cheap scares and thrills. The segment on “The War of the Worlds” scare is lavish and well done, and pays tribute to the creativity of sound effects technicians working in radio broadcasting at the time.

Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 13: Adam Ruins Wellness): too much slapstick and not enough depth may ruin the show

Laura Murphy, “Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 13: Adam Ruins Wellness)” (2017)

Once again gatecrashing the most unlikely places – like right in the middle of a steaming sauna session – comes Adam Conover in his latest crusade to dispel popular misconceptions about everyday issues. Here he tackles health fads such as detoxification methods and colonic irrigation, the truth about monosodium glutamate, and the power of the placebo effect on human health. His latest victim is cute blonde bunny Julia who has to write a magazine article investigating these and other trendy health crazes. Not surprisingly Adam demolishes the whole detoxification trend by demonstrating that many techniques and methods that claim to draw “toxins” out of the body through the skin only draw out perspiration or dirt already on the skin’s surface. Colonic irrigation in particular gets quite a bucketing from a guest gastroenterologist who warns that the technique can actually be harmful to the gut. Adam concludes this segment by showing that the body already gets rid of unwanted substances through the lungs, liver (and into the colon) and kidneys.

Next, Adam explains the history of the discovery of monosodium glutamate and how one letter written by a doctor to the New England Journal of Medicine in 1968 set off a train of events and hysteria that all but damned MSG as a suspect ingredient that caused headaches. Julia protests that she does get headaches from eating Chinese food (which often has added MSG for taste) – this is more likely due to the food having been cooked with too much salt and oil making it heavy and greasy. Unfortunately any physical reactions will be attributed to MSG which may or may not be present: this phenomenon (of attributing an effect to a wrong cause when there is only a correlation between consuming food with MSG and suffering headaches afterwards) is known as confirmation bias. Adam states that MSG is a naturally occurring substance found in many foods like tomatoes and that the body itself makes it.

The rest of the episode is taken up with an explanation of the placebo effect and how it can affect results of medical experiments as well as people’s overall health.

Each topic tackled in this episode is worthy of a deeper and longer investigation and the segment about MSG could be extended into an inquiry into how all too often a mildly positive correlation between two items or events is mistaken for cause-and-effect. Indeed the whole narrative of how MSG was demonised on the basis of one report, how that demonisation birthed an industry profiting from people’s fears, and what the unproved connection with Chinese restaurant food implies about the news media’s agenda in stoking racial prejudice (especially prejudice towards a country regarded with suspicion by the US government, as was the case with China back in the 1960s when the MSG demonisation began), is worthy documentary material in its own right as an illustration of the role Western media plays in creating and fomenting propaganda.

As in other episodes of “Adam Ruins Everything”, the companion chosen for Adam is too thick-headed to be plausible. The show’s format and its slapstick comedy presentation are becoming more annoying and trite than funny and make the show ripe for parody. This would be a sad state of affairs as much of the information the show presents is worthwhile and can rarely be found on other, more serious television programs.

The Quiet American: a slow and unassuming film with parallel plots of a love triangle mirroring post-colonial Cold War struggle

Phillip Noyce, “The Quiet American” (2002)

A beautifully made film with much atmosphere, even if it is slow and unassuming in style, and its acting uneven, “The Quiet American” nevertheless makes quite an impression with its parallel plots that reflect and comment on each other. The people in the love triangle can be taken as metaphors for the geopolitical context in which they find themselves. Thomas Fowler (Michael Caine) is a jaded and world-weary British journalist working for The Times newspaper in 1950s-era Saigon (Vietnam) who submits little work on the French war on Vietnamese resistance to French rule while enjoying a hedonistic life-style with his young mistress Phuong (Do Thi Hai Yen). Phuong’s older sister disapproves of the liaison because Fowler is already married – his estranged wife back in London refuses to give him a divorce because of her Catholic faith – and on top of that, Fowler does not have the money or connections that could get Phuong, her sister and the rest of their family out of Vietnam and into a Western country, preferably a rich one.

One day Fowler gets a message from his newspaper recalling him back to London over the little work he has done. Unwilling to return to a loveless marriage and at the prospect of losing Phuong, Fowler is in something of a quandary until he meets Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser), an idealistic young American doctor working with a humanitarian US mission. Pyle is an enthusiastic follower of a scholar who expounds that colonial Vietnam cannot be saved by either the French or the Communists under Ho Chi Minh, but rather by a Third Force which Pyle earnestly hopes to be part of. By his words and deeds, Pyle challenges Fowler to re-examine his detached relationship to his job as a reporter, stop sitting on the fence with regard to his attitude on Vietnam’s war against France and start seeing Vietnam less as an exotic escapist playground and more as a real country of real people struggling and fighting for self-determination and independence between an old colonial force (France) and a new one (the United States).

Eventually Pyle meets Phuong and quickly falls head over heels in love with her. Unlike Fowler, Pyle comes from a wealthy East Coast background, has good career prospects and a clean marital slate, and Phuong’s mercenary sister starts pressuring the younger sibling to leave Fowler and hitch herself with Pyle. The love triangle that forms with Fowler, Pyle and Phuong becomes a metaphor for Vietnam’s struggle to break away from its old European past and determine its own future. What further complicates the love triangle – apart from Fowler’s anguish at losing Phuong and his rage at Pyle for taking her away – is Fowler’s discovery that Pyle is actually a CIA agent working secretly with Vietnamese army officer General Thé, backed by rich businessman Muoi, to wrest power away from France and Vietnamese Communists using violence and mass murder that can conveniently be blamed on the Vietminh.

Caine may be too old to play Fowler but his performance is subtle and suggests a character troubled by many past demons that force him and Phuong to live their lives in limbo amid an opium haze. At the same time this character is forced by changing circumstances to re-evaluate his life and his life’s purpose, and he is challenged to give something back to the country and the people who have been generous enough to host him. Caine portrays Fowler with all his troubles and the dilemma facing him brilliantly even if he is not fully absorbed into the character but plays Fowler as an extension of himself. The real surprise of the film is the casting of Brendan Fraser – who is usually better known for his comedy films and “The Mummy” franchise of low-brow films – as Pyle: Fraser smoothly pulls off playing a character who initially seems idealistic and missionary-like, innocent and bumbling at the same time, yet who turns out to be devious and sinister. Pyle is no less complex than Fowler in his motivations and cynicism, and Fraser expresses the more brutal aspects of the character fairly well. The weak point in the love triangle turns out to be Hai Yen’s Phuong who has very little to do except look very pretty in stunning clothes and obey others’ orders. She does not come across as someone whom two mature men would fight over just for her sake.

The supporting cast help pad out the complex plot against a background of picturesque city scenes and beautiful serene tropical landscapes where scenes of violence, mayhem and bloodshed unexpectedly erupt. Vietnam is suddenly no longer a playground where people like Fowler, fleeing complicated past lives, can escape to in order to play out fantasies of hedonistic freedom. Fowler discovers that to survive, and to stay in Vietnam, he must commit himself to a definite path and purpose in life. He will have to trample over someone and disappoint someone else – and he will have to live with the consequences and his conscience for the rest of his life – but the choice is one he is forced to make.

At the time of release, the film was subjected to censorship in the US by its own main producer Miramax and would have languished in a vault were it not for efforts by director Phillip Noyce and Michael Caine, with support from film critics in the US, to get it released. Fifteen years later, one of the film’s messages – that the US will resort to supporting warlords and favour terrorism and violence resulting in mass deaths if such actions are in its interests – is more relevant than ever as US foreign policy in widely separated countries such as Syria, Iraq, North Korea, the Philippines and Venezuela, in which the forces of thuggish violence and chaos are aided and abetted by Washington, becomes more widely known and criticised.

Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 12: Adam Ruins Conspiracy Theories): no, conspiracy theories are not entirely ruined – they’re just not entirely explained well

Jeff Chan, “Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 12: Adam Ruins Conspiracy Theories)” (2017)

An enjoyable if not very substantial episode in this educational comedy series, “Adam Ruins Conspiracy Theories” manages to ruin just one major conspiracy theory – that the lunar landings made by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin in 1969 were actually filmed in a Hollywood studio – and to explain how and why conspiracy theories arise and how they are not as harmless as many might believe. Adam (Adam Conover) is spending time with new gal pal Melinda and all seems to be well until he spots literature on the Apollo 11 moon landings being a hoax strewn over her desk. He desperately explains to Melinda that Armstrong and company did indeed land on the moon and that the studio technologies needed to fake a moon landing and take photographs of the landing were actually far beyond the budgets of Hollywood studios in 1969. Next up, he demonstrates how belief in conspiracy theories can harm people with the example of the 1980s mass panic over daycare centres being hot-beds of child sexual abuse and Satanic indoctrination of children. Finally Adam explains why people are so ready to believe in conspiracy theories: our brains are wired to see patterns and causality in randomness, and this leads among other things to cognitive biases and selective thinking that, with repetition and reinforcement, can solidify into false beliefs that are hard to dislodge.

To be honest, the first part of the episode, focusing on the moon landings, was very rushed and concentrated almost entirely on photographs of the astronauts which many people have claimed are proof that the landings were faked by Hollywood. This part of the episode perhaps deserves an hour-long episode to itself, to show that many hundreds, even thousands of people were involved in designing, constructing and launching the Apollo 11 craft that reached the moon. Neil Armstrong’s historic feat was the culmination of a space exploration program conceived and planned by politicians, bureaucrats and scientists in the US to send spacecraft and then astronauts into space and ultimately to land on and explore the moon and possibly Mars. This was done as much for ideological purposes (to compete with the Soviet Union to demonstrate the superiority of the capitalist system over Communism and socialism to the US public) as it was to advance human knowledge. The episode could have said something about (and paid tribute to) the people who made the moon landing possible.

The second part of the episode (about the Satanic indoctrination of preschool-age children by their teachers) verged on crassness as Adam and company teetered on a fine line of balance between slapstick and exploring a real issue that tragically ruined the careers of several teachers and which could have also traumatised the children in their care. Particularly disturbing was the revelation that police grilled young children with leading questions until they gave the interrogators the answers that the police wanted.

Finally the explanation as to how and why conspiracy theories arise and persist was just too pat for this viewer and fails to consider the cultural context in which they arise. The belief that the Apollo 11 moon landing never took place developed at a time when the US became embroiled in the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement calling for an end to racial discrimination against black and other non-white Americans was in full bloom. Americans were shocked at the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F Kennedy in 1968, a few years after Kennedy’s older brother, President John F Kennedy, was shot dead in 1963. Already conspiracy theories about the Kennedy brothers’ deaths abounded and details in those theories were sufficient and plausible enough – and details in the official account of JFK’s assassination were odd enough – that many people refused to believe that one man acting alone off his own bat could have killed JFK. The fact that by the late 1960s, people no longer trusted the US government to tell the truth about many things primed a population to accept conspiracy theories that were based on real events and facts, and which made plausible assumptions about the nature of the US government and its agencies, even if the theories themselves were wrong. And it must be said that some popular “conspiracy theories” about the activities of the CIA, such as Operation Mockingbird (to influence and shape news media), eventually turned out to be correct.

As Conover acknowledges, the panic over Satanic brainwashing of small children occurred at a time when women were entering the workforce in large numbers (whether out of choice of necessity), leading to an increasing demand for daycare centres to care for children. The mass hysteria that developed was in its own way a protest against the potential break-up of what was seen to be the “traditional” nuclear family (in which the husband is sole breadwinner and the wife stays at home to care for their children) as exemplified by wives and mothers going to work and having careers. This example shows how conspiracy theories function to reassure an anxious public, attempt to preserve stability and protest change imposed from above.

While the series “Adam Ruins Everything” is very entertaining and informative, its half-hour format is very restricting and doesn’t encourage a more detailed and nuanced investigation of the topics it covers.

Blade Runner 2049: an absorbing and leisurely film on future societal trends despite a thin plot and lack-lustre characters

Denis Villeneuve, “Blade Runner 2049” (2017)

In its own leisurely way, “Blade Runner 2049” is a very absorbing, even hypnotic film with stunningly beautiful sets that describe a post-modern Western society on the edge of collapse and obsolescence as it plunders and cannibalises its own past with hyper-technological bombast. Decay abounds whether it is in the breakdown of law and order, the casual mix of peoples from previously different societies reducing so-called “diversity” into a bland and artificial mono-cultural blur, and that false heterogeneity’s parallel in the uneasy blend of humans, replicants and anthropmorphic holograms, none of which has a greater claim than the others to possessing anything equivalent to or symptomatic of a soul. The pace is slow enough that viewers can take in the vast urban and semi-urban vistas of a futuristic society and (with their imaginations) fill in the gaps in the thin plot and make allowance for the superficial characters played by workman-like actors.

Ryan Gosling plays K, a replicant blade runner of a new breed made strictly to obey, who is employed by the Los Angeles Police Department to retire old-model replicants in the Los Angeles of the year 2049. During one such retirement of a farmer, Gosling discovers a box buried beneath a tree. When the box is collected by the LAPD and the skeletal remains within are examined by its forensic investigators, an astonishing secret is revealed: the skeleton is that of a female replicant who apparently gave birth to a child and died during its difficult delivery. Since such a technological achievement has remained secret for decades, K’s superior Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright) orders him to seek out and kill the child that was birthed. K visits Wallace Corporation, the company that has acquired the old Tyrell Corporation and its intellectual rights to manufacture replicants. Wallace Corporation founder Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) discovers in the old Tyrell Corporation archives that the dead female replicant is Rachael, an experimental prototype who disappeared with a former blade runner known as Rick Deckard. Wallace desires to know more about Rachael and the child she had, as such knowledge will benefit his production of replicants, and orders his assistant Luv (Sophia Hoeks) and his minions to secretly follow K wherever he goes.

This sets in train two searches, K’s search for the child which turns out to be linked to his own origin, his purpose in life and another search for Rick Deckard himself, with Wallace Corporation hot on his heels tracking wherever he goes through his hologram companion Joi (Ana de Armas), herself manufactured by Wallace Corporation subsidiary Joi. K’s journey turns out to be a subversive Hollywood comment on how everything that appears in films ends up being linked to the plot: a bit depressing for this viewer, because it means various aspects of the film’s plot become predictable. Suffice to say that K’s discovery of the child (now adult) is mind-blowingly banal and that once he fulfills his mission, he becomes superfluous to the police force, his society and an underground revolutionary movement that had uses for him but which have all now dispensed with him. After all, he is just a replicant whose purpose is to do as he’s told.

While the plot is thin and the characters are not all that memorable, they do serve to highlight the film’s themes and messages which are many and various. Climate change and its effects are significant for part of the film’s plot and its look as is also the futuristic society’s inability to be sustainable as it continually generates waste. Significant also is the society’s two-faced attitude towards women: while Wright may play K’s boss, Hoeks’ character Luv is as menacing and vicious as villains come, and women lead an underground rebel movement, the film also presents women as commodities to be exploited by corporations for profit. Joi (the hologram) exists purely to pleasure men and K’s trip to a dead Las Vegas reveals the city as a bizarre hyper-erotic Babylon pleasure-dome for jaded billionaires before its collapse. The society’s complete control over its citizens has an unexpected result: true originality and innovation in culture are no longer possible, and society is reduced to plundering its past for inspiration. Even Hollywood understands satire as it ransacks its own old movie archives for ideas. The original “Blade Runner” film’s themes about what being human means and the paradox that replicants have more vitality than humans do are still present but are less significant.

The film’s open-ended conclusion suggests another sequel may be in the works as not all loose ends have been tied. Some minor characters in “Blade Runner 2049” are clearly under-utilised and may return in a third film. If a third film is made, and then a fourth, and so on (!!!), at least viewers can enjoy the views and atmospheres of a never-ending franchise past its use-by date if not increasingly thread-bare plots and one-dimensional characters.

Final Portrait: a character study that doesn’t delve deeply into the nature of friendship and artistic endeavour

Stanley Tucci, “Final Portrait” (2017)

Best seen as a character study and a superficial investigation into an artist’s creativity and what motivates him, “Final Portrait” is noteworthy for its lead actors Geoffrey Rush and Armie Hammer and the zest they both bring to their performances. For those looking for a plot with some excitement, an exhilarating climax and a satisfying resolution, they should look elsewhere: what passes for a plot in “Final Portrait” is Swiss-born Paris resident sculptor / painter Alberto Giacometti (Rush) inviting a friend, ex-spy and writer James Lord (Hammer) to his studio to sit for a portrait which Giacometti claims will just take up two to three hours of Lord’s time. Those two to three hours end up taking over two weeks of Lord’s time as Giacometti fusses over the portrait and keeps erasing, re-doing and re-erasing it. The old fella continually beats himself up over his apparent failure to capture Lord’s inner soul even though he spends a lot of time gazing into the American’s eyes and studying his features. (Someone probably could have told Giacometti that American spies don’t have much in the way of an inner soul.) He also spends a lot of time flirting with prostitute Caroline (Clémence Poésy) which puts him and Lord in danger from her violent pimps. While Giacometti battles with his perfectionism that prevents him from finishing the portrait properly and his chaotic personal life with his long-suffering wife (Sylvie Testud) and Caroline, Lord also spends his time with the painter observing his erratic ways and habits, trying to understand what makes Giacometti tick, and having to keep cancelling his return flight to New York just so he can see how his portrait turns out when Giacometti finishes it – if the old guy can finish it.

Rush’s performance as Giacometti is sharp and energetic if very repetitive as the film trudges on. Hammer’s clean-cut and rather conservative character acts as a perfect foil for the artist’s unconventional and messy ways. Unfortunately the way the film jumps from one day to the next, and then from one collection of days to the next, means that the evolution of the two men’s friendship and respect for each other ends up fragmented and audiences have to assume a great deal about how it progresses. Somehow all the early fighting about how Lord can’t afford to spend extra time sitting for the painting ended up on the cutting-room floor. Giacometti’s relationships with his missus and the mistress don’t make for very substantial sub-plots either; the entry of the pimps late in the film seems like an after-thought to give it much-needed frisson. All the same, the minor characters do a very good job in filling out Giacometti’s support while he agonises over his work and leaves a mess in his wake.

The Paris of the mid-1960s looks very picturesque as does the messy and dusty atelier where Giacometti paints his pictures and reworks his sculptures endlessly (and stashes all his money because he, a Swiss, doesn’t trust banks). The Hollywood stereotyping looks quite thick in parts and some of the music soundtrack is also very twee.

The film’s repetitive structure and resolution parallel the painting’s ongoing creation and eventual completion (of a sort), and just as the painting itself does not capture the perfection Giacometti seeks, so the film also doesn’t completely explain Giacometti’s fascination with Lord as a subject for a portrait or Lord’s interest in Giacometti’s work to the extent that he would willingly sit for nineteen days, sometimes in pain, when he was told he would only have to sit a few hours. The most we see is a lukewarm meeting – it doesn’t come anywhere near to being a clash – of two opposed Western cultures: the jaded, layered and convoluted culture represented by Giacometti and what it values, and the sleek, shiny capitalist culture represented by Lord. While the two men become fast friends, the film gives no indication of what each man really thinks of the other and of the world that he comes from. What does Lord really think of Giacometti’s two-timing and his chaotic home, and what does Giacometti really see in Lord’s sleek style of dress and presentation? Does each man see in the other man something that he lacks and yearns for?

A theme of mortality and staving off death is present: one gets the impression that Giacometti desperately needed to keep painting and re-painting Lord’s portrait to hold physical deterioration and death at bay. If only Tucci had realised that Giacometti’s quest for perfection was his way of holding his personal demons in check, the result could have been a darker and more interesting film.

 

 

Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 11: Adam Ruins the Economy): commendable attempt to explain economic and market concepts and measures to the general public

“Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 11: Adam Ruins the Economy)” (2017)

Explaining economic concepts and measurements of how well economies are performing to the general public in the space of 20 minutes is a tall order so this episode of “Adam Ruins Everything” deserves praise for trying. Firstly host Adam Conover explains why US taxpayers are forced to fill in their income tax returns in the most time-consuming and agonising ways possible when the US government already knows to a large extent how much most taxpayers are earning and how much tax they are paying (or should be paying) thanks to information sent to the Internal Revenue Service by employers and banking institutions, and to pay-as-you-earn withholding taxes. Conover says the US could adopt a return-free tax filing system that would enable US taxpayers to file income tax returns in a few minutes and send them off but due to lobbying by companies that work out and prepare tax returns for their customers (that is, US taxpayers), Congress ends up rejecting legislation proposing such a system or similar.

Conover then takes his new pal, the recently laid-off factory worker Hank (Marlon Young), on a trip where he explains to the increasingly astonished ex-worker why economic and stock market performance measures such as GDP (Gross Domestic Product) and the Dow Jones Industrial Average are not really accurate guides as to how well the economy or the stock market is performing. GDP only really tells us the market value of the total goods and services produced by an economy in a given period and actually says nothing about the well-being of most people in that economy; a far better measure of people’s well-being is GDP per capita by purchasing power parity (which controls for differences in the cost of living and, when comparing living standards of various countries, in the exchange rates of their currencies). The Dow Jones measures how the stock prices of the 30 largest public owned companies have traded in a given period; in that respect, the index is not an accurate measure of how healthy the US economy is, especially if some of the 30 companies have heavily traded (and thus highly priced) stocks which then influence the index more than they should.

Conover also tackles the US government’s definition of unemployment and finds it doesn’t include unemployed people who have given up looking for work or people who might be underemployed (that is, they are working in jobs that are beneath their qualifications and experience levels, or in part-time jobs when they would prefer to be working full-time). Finally he explains to Hank why he is not likely to find another manufacturing job that is the same as the last job he had or his father had: for one thing, American manufacturing industry experienced a Golden Age from 1945 to the early 1970s, supplying 50% of the world’s manufactured products, due to everyone else around the planet recovering from the ravages of World War II; and secondly, China – the world’s pre-eminent manufacturing economy – enjoys advantages (such as being located on the Eurasian heartland that puts the country at the centre of a supply chain network) that the US can’t gain or create. China also invests far more in educating and training workers than the US does.

While much of what the episode has to say can be contentious – particularly in the segment on how the US has lost out to China in manufacturing and the effect of automation on the demand for workers in manufacturing – it deserves credit for trying to explain clearly in a matter of minutes some complicated and controversial issues. Unfortunately the last couple of minutes in the episode rush by in a patch-up job about retraining schemes to cheer up Hank and those viewers who identify with him.

Much more could have been said on how the US lost out as the world’s major manufacturing nation – spending money on wars and military toys when the US could have spent the same amounts on basic education and on colleges aimed at retraining the unemployed and upgrading their skills goes unremarked – and at times the episode comes perilously close to China-bashing. Nothing is said about how the Chinese provided a low-cost source of labour in the first place and the historical circumstances before 1978 in China that made the country such an attractive place for Western firms to offshore their manufacturing. Anyone want to know about the devastating effect the Cultural Revolution had on China from 1965 to the mid-1970s?