Three Identical Strangers: a compelling documentary on a chilling psychological experiment

Tim Wardle, “Three Identical Strangers” (2018)

That a set of triplets should be separated at birth and farmed out to three different families, each representing a different socioeconomic level (upper middle class, middle class, working class), by the same adoption agency without telling the families that the children they were adopting belonged to a set of identical triplets, seems unbelievably callous and stupid; but the fact that the children were deliberately separated and given to the families as part of an ongoing secret scientific study, funded by powerful political interests with a secret agenda and conducted by a scientist who had survived the Shoah during World War II, is truly disturbing. “Three Identical Strangers” tells the story of three identical triplet brothers, Edward Galland, Robert Shafran and David Kellman, born to a Jewish teenage girl who put them up for adoption with an adoption agency in New York that specialised in placing babies of Jewish background with adoptive Jewish families. The brothers discover one another by accident when one of them, Robert, enrolls in a community college and is surprised to be greeted familiarly by other students there who call him Eddie. The two are quickly acquainted with each other by a student and the story of their meeting is written up in a local New York newspaper. The third brother David reads the story and sees the photograph of the pair and contacts the newspaper. The three reunited young men are feted by the news media and appear on talk shows; they are even offered cameo roles on the film “Desperately Seeking Susan”. Ed, Bobby and David discover they have many quirks, habits, likes and dislikes in common, which they and everyone else find very weird; this would seem to suggest that genetics plays a huge part in determining a person’s personality, identity and character.

Having found one another, the boys locate their birth mother but their reunion with her does not go off very well and the birth mother soon disappears from their lives. While the boys set up home together and embark on a partying lifestyle,  their adoptive parents descend upon the adoptive agency to demand answers as to why they were never advised that the babies they adopted were part of a triplet set. The agency fobs them off but not before one of the parents finds its senior officers toasting one another with champagne after their meeting, a scene that strikes him as peculiar.

In the 1990s, an investigative reporter, Lawrence Wright, uncovers evidence that from the 1950s on, child psychiatrist / psychoanalyst Peter B Neubauer began a long-term project that involved separating sets of identical twins and the set of identical triplets, and placing each and every child with a different family. None of the families was told that the children they were adopting had identical siblings or that they were all being studied. The families that adopted the triplet boys were not told that they had been specifically selected by Neubauer’s research group and the adoption agency to take the boys as they all already had adopted older girls of similar age.

The film develops its theme and the story of the triplets through interviews with two of the triplets – viewers are left to guess as to what happened to the absent triplet – and their family members, wives and friends. Old family photographs and archival film footage are also used to trace the direction of the triplets’ lives as they mature. Lawrence Wright discusses his research into the science study and two people who briefly worked on the study are tracked down by the documentary makers and interviewed. These two admit that the study was unethical but defend it by saying that when the study first began, the cultural climate was very different and the study was informed by the famous “nature versus nurture” debate of whether human behaviour is mostly determined by environment or by genetic inheritance. The documentary makers also interview a set of identical twin sisters, Elyse Schein and Paula Bernstein, also adopted out to different families by the same adoption agency and who discovered each other by accident, who then set out to find Dr Neubauer themselves.

The “show, don’t tell” approach draws viewers deeply into the film and manages to keep viewers on side and attentive the whole way through, despite the rapid pace established in its first ten minutes when all three triplets are reunited. After the boys are back together, the pace seems to slow down a little and the film coasts along, retelling parts of the threesome’s lives and revealing that all three had troubled childhoods and experienced mental health issues; one of the three eventually is diagnosed as manic depressive. However the film becomes truly upsetting when the triplets and their families discover that other sets of identical siblings also experienced mental health problems to the extent that a couple of people committed suicide.

The film tends to be uneven and is rushed in its last few minutes. It does not make a very good case for stating that nurture trumps nature in determining human behaviour; if anything, the experiences of the triplets, and in particular the different father-son experiences they had, suggest that innate genetic tendencies will or will not manifest and become part of a person’s usual behaviour and make-up depending on the environment in which that person grows up. The film does a good job of showing the connection between having a supportive father and a close relationship with him on the one hand, and how this relationship affects the child’s future mental well-being when he becomes an adult.

One is really curious as to what Neubauer had hoped to achieve or demonstrate with the long-term study – he decided to shelve it and never published the results, instead placing the papers with the Yale University Library and sealing them with an expiry date of 2066 – or what the unnamed interests also hoped to learn from them. One possibility that the study was to serve an agenda beyond child development is that the triplets were placed with families of very different socioeconomic levels. If the boys had turned out much the same, would that not suggest that people’s behaviour and intelligence are unaffected by different environments, and that therefore attempts to enrich children’s environments, provide youngsters and their families with social and financial support, and invest in their education and healthcare are all unnecessary and should be abandoned? The answer to this questions enters the realm of political ideology, in particular the ideological battle between those advocating for socialism and those preferring a society dominated by small elites who also command most of that society’s wealth and natural resources for their own self-interests. Also unanswered is the question of how and why a survivor of the Shoah, who must have been well aware of the Nazis’ own experimentation on sets of twins, should have set up his own long-term (and ultimately flawed) study of groups of identical siblings without the consent of the families who adopted the children .

Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 2: Adam Ruins Weight Loss): tackling the symptoms, not the problem behind losing weight

Matthew Pollock, “Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 2: Adam Ruins Weight Loss)” (2017)

A very timely episode in the second season of the educational comedy documentary series “Adam Ruins Everything”, this one applies the hatchet quite severely (even if in a light-hearted way) to popular misconceptions about the best way to lose weight and to keep it off, and how governments, media and corporations collude to profit from people’s concerns and anguish about losing weight, dieting and exercise, and maintaining low body weight. Tackling three major myths, host Adam Conover reveals that low-fat diets can make people fatter, that counting calories is a waste of time and reveals misunderstanding about what calories measure, and that reality TV shows like “The Biggest Loser”, in which contestants undergo gruelling exercise regimes in boot-camp environments, actually don’t help the people who participate in them.

Perhaps the most informative segment is the first segment in which Conover reveals that beliefs that eating fat will lead to your being fat are based on bad and deceitful science, and that the consumption of low-fat foods and beverages is the culprit because these are usually laden with sugar. Removing fat from food results in it becoming bland in taste so companies compensate by adding large amounts of sugar. A scientist in the 1960s – 70s who tried to alert governments and their agencies, the news media and the public to his findings that sugar was to blame for increasing weight gain in Americans ended up being persecuted by the food industry and being ultimately shunned. What happened to him after his virtual ostracism is unknown. His work languished in obscurity until it was revived decades later after researchers began to discover links between sugar consumption and health conditions such as heart disease and obesity.

Counting calories gets a shellacking as individual people vary greatly in their daily calories requirements and there is no one generic ideal figure that people can adhere to as the level below which they can feel safe and keep their weight down. Even individual pieces of the same food and in the same or similar sizes can contain different levels of calories. Reality TV shows come in for criticism for preying on people’s insecurities about their weight and making spurious promises about helping people to lose huge amounts of weight quickly and to keep it all off.

While the slapstick is very silly and childish, the episode does a good job of presenting its three cases. To counter the silliness, an expert on weight loss and obesity, Dr Kevin Hall, comes on board to explain that, of 14 “The Biggest Loser” contestants he studied, 80% regained their lost weight. Of even more concern is that many of them will have difficulty losing weight again and may even gain more weight since rapid weight loss disrupts their metabolism to the extent that excess weight can only be kept off on a regimen of intense, strenuous exercise and an equally abstemious diet for the rest of their lives: a life-style they are unlikely or unable to maintain if they have to work and raise families as well.

The episode might have done more to demonstrate how corporations and governments collude in misleading people to believe myths about dieting, exercising and losing weight that result more in their wallets and purses losing money than in their actually losing weight. These misconceptions can be harmful to people’s long-term health, causing chronic health problems such as obesity and diabetes, and imposing heavy costs on people, their families and society generally in the treatment of these conditions. It’s really not enough for Conover and the show’s makers to try to reassure viewers that making small changes can lead in the long run to better health and happiness if they ignore the power of the media and advertising to manipulate people’s insecurities about their bodies and their weight.

Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 1: Adam Ruins Pregnancy): why so much pressure on new parents and mothers in particular?

Matthew Pollock, “Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 1: Adam Ruins Pregnancy)” (2017)

Appropriately for a first episode of a new season, the topic covered is having a baby and the popular myths and misconceptions that surround women’s fertility, the issue of whether to breast-feed or feed a child formula, and maternal bonding. Emily and her partner are worried that her biological clock is ticking away and before long, she’ll hit the 35th-birthday mark which means her ability to conceive will start vanishing. Enter our chatty host Adam Conover who reassures Emily and partner by advising that a woman’s ability to fall pregnant after the age of 35 years will actually only fall a few percentage points and that even women in their prime years of fertility (late teens to late 20s) only have a successful pregnancy rate of less than 90%. Conover explains that the notion that reaching 35 years of age means that a woman’s ability to fall pregnant will plummet drastically is based on French census data collected from 1670 to 1830!

In a hypothetical scene, when Emily attends a garden party with her newborn child, two women guests start arguing over the breast-feeding versus infant formula issue. Conover brings in an expert who chastises both brawling biddies for their blinkered points of view. Later in the episode, Emily and her partner feel rather depressed that they’re not bonding with their baby as much as they believe they should and that caring for a baby turns out to be tedious, often boring and not much fun at all. Again, Conover tells them that maternal bonding is a very recent and uniquely Western concept and that in the past, when infant mortality rates were high, people were actually advised not to become attached to babies.

The news that turning 35 won’t hinder conceiving a child will be a relief for many women. Pity though that Conover does not consider why this particular myth is still so widespread in television, print and other media. The agenda behind pushing the idea that having a baby after the age of 35 years is close to impossible may well be sinister: it may be insinuating that young women should set aside their career aspirations and devote their time and energies to having children now rather than later. Likewise, other issues covered in the episode tend to be those on which parents are often harshly judged by their families, friends and peers. Unfortunately the show’s format and short running time don’t permit Conover to explore why new parents are often subjected to so much subjective criticism from others (plus subtle criticism from popular women’s magazines, news media and parents’ blogs) on their child-rearing skills to the extent that their relationship with each other and with their child could be strained.

The episode does have its silly moments but on the whole it’s easy on the eye and the ear and has a lot of energy thanks to Conover’s enthusiasm and clowning antics.

A stale and confusing plot and dreary characters in “Starship Troopers: Traitor of Mars”

Shinji Aramaki, “Starship Troopers: Traitor of Mars” (2017)

Multiplying not quite as fast as the enemy Arachnids did in the original Paul Verhoeven “Starship Troopers” film are the sequels, of which “Starship Troopers: Traitor of Mars” is the fifth in the series and the second to be mostly computer-animated. Two actors who appeared in the Paul Verhoeven original, Caspar van Dien and Dina Meyer, return to take up their parts voicing Johnny Rico and his high school friend Dizzy Flores. In this fifth installment, Rico has been demoted to the rank of colonel and ordered to train a unit of rookie troopers on a Martian satellite. The human citizens of Mars are tired of the never-ending war Earth wages against the “bugs” (hereafter known as Bugs) and want out of it. Sky Marshal Amy Snapp, desiring political support to destroy Mars, concocts a plan to use an underground Bug nest on Mars as an excuse to destroy Mars and lay the blame on General Carl Jenkins, whom she arrests and holds prisoner.

A confused narrative follows during which the Bugs launch attacks on the trainee unit (who fail two missions), Rico is lost on Mars (where he meets a hologram of Dizzy broadcast to him telepathically by Jenkins) and is later rescued by the trainee troopers, and together Rico and his squad defuse Snapp’s Q-Bomb and publicly reveal Snapp’s scheme to destroy Mars. In defusing the Q-Bomb, the troopers overload a weather control tower and turn it into a huge bomb that explodes and wipes out the entire Bug infestation on Mars. Meanwhile Jenkins escapes from his captors with the help of pilot Carmen Ibanez and has Snapp arrested and imprisoned. For his efforts, Rico is promoted to general and he and his young team are tasked with the unenviable job of keeping Mars free of Bugs.

As might be expected of a sequel following other sequels in a series of which the original satire and political commentary have either evaporated or been overwhelmed by an emphasis on action, violence and explosions, the plot with its two parallel strands dominates, and everything else such as character development, dialogue and even (to some extent) design and computer-animated performance is treated superficially. Of course the dialogue and the characters are expected to be stereotyped in nature, given that the “Starship Troopers” films are set in a futuristic society dominated by rigid and highly conformist militaristic values that permits no individuality. Indeed, the reason Amy Snapp wants to get rid of Mars is that its human settlers prize their freedom and democratic values, and desire their independence from Earth. The Bugs are drained of any redeeming qualities and act like a vast unthinking horde of scuttling giant insects.

Aside from the intriguing politics, in which a character attempts to seize power as if she was starring in a game show and news reports are treated as advertisements (with that hoary line from the first “Starship Troopers” film: “Would you like to know more?”), this sequel adds nothing new to the series or to space-opera science fiction generally. The fun, zest and glee that should be present are missing and what we have instead are boring one-dimensional characters and a tired and confusing plot. The animation may be technically advanced but characters, especially female characters, lack distinctive facial features and resemble Barbie-styled dolls.

It would seem that in this film, and in Japanese anime films generally, an invisible wall has been hit and found difficult to scale and breach: current Japanese-made films seem to feature quite limited and stereotyped characters, and their plots and themes repeat one another to the extent where they become banal and superficial. Joy and energy are in very short supply and story-lines rarely do justice to technically brilliant work.

The Wife: a solid film notable for its lead performances but little else

Bjorn Runge, “The Wife” (2017)

As films go, “The Wife” is enjoyable mainly for Glenn Close’s understated performance as the title character: for the most part, the plot is predictable and Runge’s direction is solid if lacking in flair. It’s best seen as a character study of a woman who had aspirations to be a writer and who ends up repressing her ambitions to support her husband’s writing career. Literary giant Joseph Castleman (Jonathan Pryce) is awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature so he and his wife Joan (Close) prepare to journey to Stockholm to receive the award. Taking their son David (Max Irons), himself an aspiring writer, with them, the Castlemans are accosted on the plane by Nathaniel Bone (Christian Slater), a creepy freelance writer who plans to pen a tell-all biography about Joseph. Finally in Stockholm, the couple and their son settle down in their hotel rooms, and from here on the Castleman marriage starts to shake as the significance of the prize, her husband’s reaction and his cantankerous behaviour towards Bone and Max, and the general fawning over Joseph (with herself being relegated to the background as the dutiful and supportive wife) gradually begin weigh heavily on Joan.

Two chance utterances between Joseph and Joan in front of David alert viewers to the possibility that perhaps Joseph’s writing over the decades hasn’t entirely been his own. While the Castlemans perform the round of parties and meet-and-greet rituals leading up to the prize-giving ceremonies, Bone gathers enough information (including talking to Joan and Max separately) to come to the same conclusion. Flashbacks to when a young Joan (Annie Starke) first met Joseph (Harry Lloyd) as a student enrolled in his creative writing classes at college in the 1950s, leading to their becoming secret lovers while Joseph is still married to his first wife, and then to early life together struggling to make ends meet (Joseph having divorced his wife and left college to pursue writing full-time), fill in the details of that particular plot strand.

Close gives a master class in minimalist acting with her eyes and expressions that hint at the emotional turmoil and suffering within. Pryce is an excellent foil with his cantankerous and crude behaviour that includes chasing a woman photographer young enough to be his daughter. Slater plays Bone a little too smoothly; he seems comfortable as an oily, sleazy opportunist, and in the role offers little else. The rest of the cast is as wallpaper.

Apart from Close and Pryce’s acting, the film doesn’t offer much beyond demonstrating how a young female writer, shy and unsure of her talent, is deterred from following her dreams by an embittered female author (Elizabeth McGovern), her teacher / lover / husband’s own self-centred immaturity, lack of insight and arrogance, and the prevailing misogynist attitudes of the literary publishing industry in the 1950s. As time passes by, and her husband’s literary star begins its rise, Joan finds herself locked into supporting his career and becomes resigned to her role. The film only really perks up at the very end when Joan tells Bone what he can and can’t do, and one realises that, for all Joan supposedly suffered over the years as The Wife, her relationship with Joseph really was symbiotic and a purely stereotypical feminist explanation of their marriage as one where one party benefited at the expense of a long-suffering other and reaps all the rewards will not do.

The film could have offered some criticism, even light criticism, of the Nobel Prize and how this institution and the awarding of literary prizes can distort writers’ ambitions and affect their reputations. Too much weight can be attached to a writer’s reputation based on what prizes s/he has won without consideration for whether literary writing itself has become nothing more than a mere genre with its own load of stereotypes living in a bubble that is divorced from reality and with nothing valuable to say to most people struggling under political, economic and social systems that have become increasingly repressive, unequal, corrupt and inhuman.

Roman J. Israel, Esq.: character study of a fallible human being trying to live authentically in an inauthentic world

Dan Gilroy, “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” (2017)

Once in a while an intelligent and worthy film comes out of Hollywood that demonstrates someone there still knows how to make meaty movies that provide much food for thought. Dan Gilroy’s “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” is a character study of an idealistic, reform-minded lawyer who for a long time finds living up to his principles fairly easy but through an unfortunate change in circumstances is forced to confront the clash between them and the expedient pragmatism of the society he lives in. The decisions he makes as a result have devastating consequences for him and the people around him.

For many years, Roman J Israel (Denzel Washington) has toiled away in a small law firm, preparing briefs for his fellow partner who takes on cases involving small injustices done to the underprivileged. The partner dies of a heart attack and the law firm is sold to George Pierce (Colin Farrell), a former student of the partner and now a successful if slick criminal defence lawyer in his own right. Initially Israel balks at working for Pierce and tries to find employment with a non-profit organisation run by an activist called Maya (Carmen Ejogo); but after a run-in with stridently ideological feminist friends of hers, Israel is forced to slink back to Pierce and accept employment with his firm. Unable to conform to the new firm’s culture and unwilling to compromise his beliefs and values, Israel ends up antagonising everyone including Pierce in the firm. An encounter with a black man in prison on robbery charges, being assaulted by a beggar and duped by another poor man leave Israel questioning his beliefs. From there he decides he’ll be just like regular folks, working and doing things opportunistically; but because his character is socially inept, he commits one mistake after another and ends up turning in a dangerous criminal to the law to collect reward money which violates his employer firm’s agreement to defend the criminal. Israel repents of this deed but the damage it causes cannot be undone.

Washington was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar and the reason is easy to see: he is completely absorbed in the character of Israel with all his quirks and eccentricities. Farrell plays Pierce quite straight and minimally: the character potentially could have been one-dimensional but Farrell’s portrayal of a man who rediscovers his inner voice and conscience from Israel’s example, and who comes to care for Israel and his legacy seems quite convincing. Farrell as corporate legal shark becomes an excellent foil for Washington’s workaholic idealist activist savant: as the latter starts to lose his moral compass and something of his individuality, the former starts to regain his. The rest of the cast provides good if not very outstanding support.

The style of the film illustrates the discomfort that Israel has in adapting to the cut-throat corporate legal world: he is clearly a creature of the 1970s, an age of civil rights activism. He dresses in the clothes of the period, much to others’ amusement, and frequently wears headphones to listen to the soul music of that decade. The music soundtrack, updated in its instrumentation and vocals, gives a distinct smoky flavour to the film and lifts it above other contemporary realist legal dramas.

Concentrating as it does on Israel and his inability to conform to a more superficial and uncaring society in which greed is good and encourages selling out and back-stabbing, the film is overly long and the plot is vague and sketchy. The events that occur as a result of Israel’s mistakes and failure to live up to his high ideals seem to have been inserted into the film as an after-thought though they are clearly driving the film in its second half. Perhaps the film spends too much time on Israel’s inner conflict and his quirks, and not enough on what Pierce and other characters think of him or try to do with him. For all its flaws, this film is worthwhile watching as an example of what Hollywood can do and could be doing more of, if the movie industry in the US were less obsessed with maximising profits and pursuing shallow values, and paid more attention to portraying the lives and misfortunes of the downtrodden, how they are exploited by the government, corporations, greedy individuals and criminal elements alike. Roman J. Israel, Esq. would certainly approve.

 

 

The Faces of North Korea: a soulful visual poem showcasing the humanity and achievements of North Korea

Andre Vltchek, “The Faces of North Korea” (2018)

Visually poetic, even soulful to watch, this documentary is a travelogue of the sights and experiences, along with recent history to establish the context for much of what he saw and heard, of Russian-American journalist and film-maker Andre Vltchek while travelling in North Korea.  “The Faces …” is not just a beautiful travelogue – it’s also a reminder of the humanity of the people of the country and a homage to what they have been able to achieve since the end of the Korean War in 1953, during which conflict all major cities in the country including Pyongyang the capital were completely destroyed and some 20% of the total population were killed by American-led forces.

Vltchek travels around mostly in Pyongyang and to the demilitarised zone so this film isn’t really representative of North Koreans generally and how they live and perhaps flourish. Pyongyang is a clean and modern city with wide boulevards lined with nature strips and trees, and a moderate amount of traffic. There is plenty of astonishing large-scale architecture, much of it either very imaginative or eccentric. Scenes shot from the viewpoint of a front-seat passenger in a car show urban landscapes of quiet pride and matter-of-fact orderliness.

The journalist visits a museum near the demilitarised zone to see photographs and paintings, and to hear talks by the museum lecturer (translated into English by his guide) about the Korean War and its effects on ordinary North Korean people. On hearing of the horrors inflicted on North Koreans – in addition to the carpet-bombing that incinerated entire towns, US-allied soldiers also tortured people – Vltchek better understands the paranoia and fear of another US invasion that North Koreans still carry. To underline his point, Vltchek includes film footage of a US military base in Okinawa from which the Americans launched their invasion of the Korean peninsula in the early 1950s, and of part of an earlier trip he made to South Korea where the militarism and anti-DPRK propaganda propagated and promoted by the government there disgusted him.

What sets Vltchek’s film apart from other documentaries and short films on North Korea that I have seen is his delight in photographing or filming ordinary people going about their lives, in particular children skating about the streets on roller-blades and small girls performing songs and dance routines. A continuous music soundtrack of solo piano melodies enhances the intimacy of these scenes. Of course, as with the other films I have mentioned, Vltchek’s film shows up much of the current Western news propaganda about North Korea for what it is: not only does it deal in worn-out stereotypes about the country and its leadership but the constant repetition is mind-numbing, suggesting that imagination and open-mindedness are in direly short supply among the Western MSM.

The film finishes on an ambiguous note of foreboding and hope that North Korea will continue to progress and follow its own path despite the pressures of economic sanctions and the constant sabre-rattling from its neighbours and beyond, exemplified in the biannual military exercises undertaken during the northern spring and late summer near North Korea’s borders by South Korea and the US. As long as countries like North Korea not only survive but even thrive, there is hope for the rest of the world yet that one day all nations can pursue their own directions towards prosperity and shared wealth among their peoples without the fear that a giant bully will invade them with the aim of taking their land and its resources.

 

Steppenwolf: a stodgy and soporific adaptation of a cult counter-culture novel

Fred Haines, “Steppenwolf” (1974)

There was a period in the 1960s when this 1927 novel was the darling of the psychedelic counter-culture in the United States, due in part to its depiction of drug use and free sex, and to its themes of introspection and self-examination, a quest for a more authentic way of living as opposed to living like an automaton in a society of frivolity and shallow values, and the possibility of personal transformation and hope. No surprise then, that in spite of the novel’s fantastic plot and its metaphysical themes, a film adaptation was made in the mid-1970s: the major problem with the making of “Steppenwolf” seems to have been its financing and the question of its ownership which ruined the marketing of the film and sent it straight into art-house obscurity.

Having read the novel a long time ago, I don’t remember much of it but I do think the film follows the novel fairly closely. Solitary intellectual Harry Haller (Max von Sydow) despairs of ever fitting into bourgeois society with its shallow people and values, and contemplates suicide. By chance he is given a book called “Treatise on the Steppenwolf” by a man carrying an advertisement for the Magic Theatre. Astonishingly, the book is addressed to Haller personally and describes his state of unease accurately: he is of two natures, one being human and spiritual and the other being that of the Steppenwolf, the lone steppe wolf, essentially animalist. Haller’s problem is that he is unable to recognise his dual nature and thus reconcile both these aspects. He resolves to commit suicide on his 50th birthday but before the big day arrives, he meets a mysterious woman (Dominique Sanda) at a dance hall. The woman sees Haller’s distress and arranges to meet him a second time. On this occasion Haller discovers the woman’s name is Hermine, and Hermine starts to introduce Haller to aspects of what he had previously regarded as frivolous: he learns to dance, to listen and appreciate jazz music, to indulge in drugs and to take a young woman, Maria (Carla Romanelli), as a lover. All of these activities are presented as aspects of a worthy life. Haller later meets jazz saxophonist Pablo (Pierre Clementi) who runs the mysterious Magic Theatre. Once in the Magic Theatre, Haller is confronted by all his fears, anxieties and fantasies of his mind.

While Max von Sydow has no problem playing the angst-ridden Haller – having acted in no fewer than eleven films directed by Ingemar Bergman, von Sydow should have regarded “Steppenwolf” as a walkover – Sanda and Romanelli’s portrayals of their respective characters come close to being soporific. One would think that Hermine would be alternating between acting flirtatiously with Haller and being serious and concerned for him. Clementi does a fine job as the flamboyant and sexually ambiguous Pablo in the few minutes allotted to the character. The real attraction of “Steppenwolf” though is in its surreal animation: it may look very outdated to modern viewers, and is of a piece with films of its time that also relied on surreal / psychedelic animation, but nevertheless it can be quite imaginative. The cartoon that is the “Treatise on the Steppenwolf” is fun to watch with animated cut-outs and collages reminiscent of the animation used on the Monty Python and the Flying Circus comedy series; the later animation used in the Magic Theatre scenes is more psychedelic than surreal but is surprisingly easy to follow and digest. There are scenes in the film which used bleached film stock to emphasise their dream-like, hallucinatory nature.

By contrast the live action parts of the film are stodgy and slow with uneven acting and dialogue that is harder to understand than it should be due to the cast’s different accents. (The entire cast speaks in English, yet English is not the first language of any of the major actors.) Fans of animation must wait until the film is well past its halfway point. At least the plot is not difficult to follow and viewers following Haller right to the end will be relieved to know he does find some peace with himself. On the other hand, viewers may not find much peace in the music soundtrack in the film’s later scenes: there is too much boring blaring synthesiser in the psychedelic prog-rock instrumental sections playing over the Magic Theatre scenes, and not enough dissonant jazz to set the mood in earlier parts of the film.

The film has achieved cult status due to its obscure viewing history but that does not mean it’s a great film. Readers of the original novel are likely to find the film a disappointment and need to set their expectations low.

Batman vs. Two-Face: two icons of 1960s television series facing off in a film reconciling the Bright Knight and Dark Knight sides of Batman

Rick Morales, “Batman vs. Two-Face” (2017)

Adam West’s final outing as Batman before his death in June 2017 brings him face to face (or face to faces) with a criminal he never met on the 1960s television series: Harvey Dent aka Two-Face. Apparently the crooked district attorney who relies on tossing a coin to make his decisions had been set to appear on the old comedy series (with Clint Eastwood in the role) but studio executives deemed the character too dark and Two-Face was sidelined. Finally with William Shatner (yes, that William Shatner!) giving voice and his familiar look from the classic 1960s TV series “Star Trek” to the character, Two-Face takes his rightful place among other villainous favourites like Catwoman (Julie Newmar), the Joker, the Penguin, the Riddler, Mr Freeze, Bookworm, King Tut, the Clock King and Egghead, all of whom appear in this sequel to “Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders”.

The sequel is not so much a homage to the original TV series and carries fewer of the jokes and other gags that burdened its predecessor, with one exception where Catwoman exchanges costume with lawyer Lucilee Diamond (voiced by Lee Meriwether, who played Catwoman in the 1966 Batman feature film when Newmar was unavailable for the role) in order to break out of jail. This episode in the Dynamic Duo’s adventures is tighter with a faster pace and not so many twists in the plot, although the Joker, Pengy and Riddles are now very minor characters.

Dr Hugo Strange (based on the Peter Sellers character Dr Strangelove in the famous Stanley Kubrick film) has invented a machine that will extract evil from Gotham City’s most criminal masterminds and invites the Dynamic Duo, District Attorney Harvey Dent, Commissioner Gordon and police chief O’Hara to a secret demonstration. While Dr Strange’s assistant Dr Harleen Quinzel operates the levers, Batman and Robin voice misgivings that the experiment extracting evil from the brains of the Joker, the Penguin, the Riddler, Egghead and Mr Freeze will not go as planned. Sure enough, the machine malfunctions and explodes, and Harvey Dent receives the full force of the noxious fumes enveloping him.

Several months later, after racking up a not-so-respectable resume in crime, Harvey Dent is captured by the caped crusaders and receives plastic surgery to restore him to his previous whole self. But the surgery literally proves to be only skin-deep and Dent’s Jekyll is soon overcome by his Two-Face’s Hyde. He uses King Tut and Bookworm to commit false-flag crimes to distract our masked heroes but they quickly deduce that the various characteristics of the crimes, all exhibiting doubled-up or dual natures, point to Two-Face as their mastermind. Batman and Robin disagree on Harvey Dent’s likely role in these crimes, with Batman willing to defend Dent’s good character, and the two briefly separate. The crime-fighters eventually reconcile but not before Robin is captured and given a whiff of the same noxious substance that Dent received months ago. The Dynamic Duo follow Dent / Two-Face to a casino where he manages to outwit them.

Duality and double identities are the major theme of this episode, and fittingly Dent / Two-Face deduces Batman and Robin’s real identities while he has them strapped to a giant silver dollar which, if they move, will roll down to a giant bed of nails that will impale them. Since Batman has already been a bad Batman in “… Return of the Caped Crusaders”, Robin gets a turn in playing a bad Robin, and even his alter ego Dick Grayson is jealous of Bruce Wayne’s friendship with Harvey Dent. Catwoman also finds herself playing both villain and Batman’s ally. The plot ends up in a pedestrian battle of good versus evil as Dent / Two-Face literally struggles with himself amid explosions in an oil refinery.

The animation is adequate for the plot though at least Dent / Two-Face does look like Shatner and the main characters also resemble the actors playing them to some extent. One wishes again that Gotham City could have looked less generic and more like a city of light (where everyone and everything wears a prim and proper face, save perhaps public institutions like the Sisters of Perpetual Irony Hospital) during the day and a city of darkness in the night when masked avengers sally forth to fight and vanquish evil, in keeping with the theme of duality. The actors voicing the various characters do excellent work in making the cheesy dialogue work and seem plausible although West’s voice is quite frail. Viewers do not need to be as familiar with jokes, gags and other references to the original television series and the various Batman / Dark Knight films.

This sequel is an improvement on “… Return of the Caped Crusaders” which also brings the television series closer to the official DC Comics Batman universe with the introduction of characters like Harvey Dent / Two-Face and Harleen Quinzel aka Harley Quinn in a very minor role. It is a fitting way for West to bow out and end his acting career.

 

Carrying a heavy legacy of numerous interpretations of Batman in “Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders”

Rick Morales, “Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders” (2016)

The series of Batman films by Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher in the 1990s and by Christopher Nolan in the early 2000s, along with the various animated television series featuring the character and the astonishing array of criminals  he fights in not-so-fair Gotham City, revived interest in the goofy late 1960s live-action television comedy series starring Adam West and Burt Ward as the Dynamic Duo. The two reunite (well, at least their voices do) together with Julie Newmar, reprising her role as Catwoman in the TV series, in a new animated adventure that parodies the old television show and throws a sly dig or two at the more recent Dark Knight movie trilogy. This film is intended as a fun nostalgia trip back to the 1960s television show for fans who perhaps find Christian Bale’s portrayal of the Dark Knight in Nolan’s trilogy disturbing with the character using almost any means at his disposal, whether ethical or not, to nab his enemies whether they deserve the brutal punishments he deals out or not.

The first half-hour of this film is rather slow and hews closely to the original TV series’ formula in which the criminals are introduced early on and their dastardly plan of dominating the world (with a stolen ray-gun that replicates its victims) is sketched out in some detail. With the criminals being none other than Catwoman, the Joker, the Penguin and the Riddler colluding to rule the Earth, the film harks back to the 1966 movie in which the foursome were also plotting a takeover of Planet Earth. Batman and Robin are soon hot on the quartet’s trail but the villains have a surprise for them both. After the obligatory fight scene at a derelict factory (that used to make TV dinners!) in which title cards of POW! BAM! and SPLAT! have to pass by, Catwoman knocks out the heroes with her feminine wiles and hair-spray and the two end up as a possible main course in a giant TV dinner on a moving conveyor belt taking them into a microwave oven going full blast. Catwoman administers Bat-nip to Batman, expecting that its intended effect of turning him into something crooked with none of his usual cheesy Boy-Scout wholesomeness will take effect straight away. Instead Batman suffers a delayed reaction to the Bat-nip; but when it does begin its malign influence, the results can be very drastic. Batman’s alter-ego Bruce Wayne fires faithful butler Alfred Pennyworth and insults Aunt Harriet. The super-hero deposes Commissioner Gordon and Chief O’Hara with clones of himself created with the replication ray-gun seized from the super-villains. Before long, Gotham City is over-run with Batman clones dishing out their own warped forms of justice and faithful side-kick Robin is forced to team with Catwoman to get hold of the antidote to the Bat-nip and cure Batman of the drug that has unleashed his dark, unethical side.

The plot is a throwback to a story in the old 1960s TV show in which Catwoman had scratched Batman (or so she believes) with a drug that turns him into a near sex maniac and Catwoman’s partner in crime. The clever twist in this plot is that the film uses it to reference and comment on the Dark Knight films and other interpretations of the super-hero in the comics and in other movies and TV shows: as bad guy, and free of moral inhibitions, Batman uses excess violence as a first resort in confronting and finally sending the Joker, the Riddler and the Penguin to Arkham Asylum where they are forced to work alongside other known Batman villains. Once the twist comes, the film goes off on a loopy tangent referencing various gags from the TV show (such as Batman and Catwoman’s secret romance and the problem of what to do with Robin) and introducing more improbable twists that all but turn the plot into hierarchical layers of a game. The Bat-nip administered to Batman turns out to have been nobbled by the Joker; Robin and Catwoman’s near-demise in the Bat-cave’s atomic reactor is foiled by Robin’s prior application of the Bat anti-nuclear isotope protection spray (or whatever the darned gadget was called) because he foresaw that the bad Batman would try to use the reactor to despatch him and Catwoman; and Alfred reveals to Robin that his sacking was a signal to him from Bruce Wayne that he (Wayne) was a victim of mind-control.

Silly as it is, the plot races merrily along although once it is foiled and the Batman clones disappear, the fim enters a long denouement in which Batman and Robin still have to fight their enemies on top of the Penguin’s airship. Catwoman opts to risk her life escaping the long arm of the law courtesy of an even longer industrial chimney-stack.

The animation is not too bad but it looks much the same as other animated Batman movies and TV series like “Batman: the Brave and the Bold”. The original 1960s show’s cozy and goofy charm seems to be lost on the animators: Gotham City is shown as a dark, forbidding city with mostly empty streets, and Robin’s tendency to utter his trademark “Holy ___!” expletives reaches the peak of really ridiculous referencing when, on seeing Catwoman’s Catmobile, he exclaims “Holy Faster Pussycat, Kill Kill Kill!” Elsewhere Robin blurts out “Holy unsatisfactory ending!” when Catwoman proposes (in a clear reference to the happy ending of “The Dark Knight Rises”) to Batman that they meet in a restaurant in Europe to take tea together. The TV series’ fondness for alliterative expressions and Batman’s aphorisms of advice to Robin about such things as why we should not jaywalk and why building up one’s upper body strength is so important to crime-fighters can become a bit wearying – as does the constant iteration of the TV series’ theme music – when these appear POW-POW-POW, leaving viewers not much time to marvel at the silly appropriateness of the utterances in their context.

Adam West’s sometimes frail and quavering voice reminds audiences that the actor was in his octogenarian years at the time of filming (and he was not well either) while Burt Ward rattles off the teenage Robin’s lines with the same intense and uptight emotion he mustered half a century earlier. Equally octogenarian Newmar does, well, workman-like (or should that be workwoman-like?) work on Catwoman’s lines. Wally Wingert as the Riddler pins down the original portrayal of Frank Gorshin’s exactly, and the other voice actors playing the Joker and the Penguin are adequate but not outstanding for their jobs.

The film is rather over-long and perhaps it’s too self-referential and plunders the various multiple interpretations of the character over the decades. As an exercise in nostalgia, it’s not too bad and for many viewers it will comes as a breath of fresh air after the grimness of Nolan’s Dark Knight films. It could have been done better and with less of a burden than it was forced to carry.