Inherent Vice: a faithful if meandering and flat adaptation of a Thomas Pynchon neo-noir comedy

Paul Thomas Anderson, “Inherent Vice” (2014)

Director Paul Thomas Anderson must be commended for daring to tackle a Thomas Pynchon novel and managing to be faithful to the book’s convoluted comedy neo-noir plot with its quirky cast of characters and Pynchon’s themes of paranoia, conspiracy theories in sub-plots that are never resolved, and strange sinister groups and individuals operating underground as both criminals and law enforcement. Beneath an apparent surface of late 1960s / early 1970s hippie counter-cultural ideals lurks an evil force – the “inherent vice” – that is infecting US politics and American institutions. Not for nothing “Inherent Vice” is set in a period just after the infamous murders committed by acolytes of Charles Manson at Spahn Ranch in California in 1969 and during Richard Nixon’s first term as US President (and presumably before his meeting with Elvis Presley): this is a period when US soft power (through its youth culture and music) was at its peak, together with US prosperity, before the Vietnam War and its huge expenses, financially and socially, along with Nixon’s own corrupt activity, among other things set the nation on its path to slow decline.

Everything seems to begin simply and innocently enough when down-and-out private investigator Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) receives an unexpected visit from ex-girlfriend Shasta Fay (Katherine Waterston) who tells him that she has been approached by the wife of her current lover, property developer millionaire Michael “Mickey” Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), to help the missus and the missus’ boyfriend to arrange for Mickey to be kidnapped and committed to a mental asylum. At the same time, Sportello gets a call from Tariq Khalil, a black underground activist with a prison-based revolutionary group, to find white supremacist Glen Charlock who owes Khalil money and who happens to be working for Wolfmann. Visiting a massage parlour in one of Wolfmann’s developments, Sportello meets Jade (Hong Chau) while searching for Charlock; unbeknownst to him, Jade and the police have already set him up for murdering Charlock. Facing murder charges, Sportello is interviewed by detective Bigfoot Bjornsen (Josh Brolin) who tells him Wolfmann has disappeared. Sportello’s attorney Sancho (Benicio del Toro) rescues him.

If that sounds complicated enough, another sub-plot develops: Sportello is asked by junkie Hope (Jena Malone) to look for her missing musician husband Coy (Owen Wilson), whom Sportello finds in short order. Coy is in hiding because he is a police informant and he fears for his life. Sportello gets a message from Jade who apologises for setting him up and warns him to “beware of the Golden Fang”. Meeting Jade in an alley, Sportello learns the Golden Fang is an international drug-smuggling ring. Some time later, Sancho gives Sportello information about a suspicious boat called the Golden Fang which apparently sailed away with Shasta Fay on board. Sportello later receives a postcard from Shasta and uses it to search for and enter a recently constructed building shaped like a golden fang. There, he meets eccentric cokehead dentist Dr Blatnoyd (Martin Short), making out with teenage girl Japonica Fenway (Sasha Pieterse), whom Sportello had found as a runaway and returned to her parents some years previously. Sportello explores the building and discovers the Chryskylodon Institute, an asylum run by the Golden Fang organisation (the name “Chryskylodon” itself refers to Golden Fang) where, lo and behold, Coy and (later) Wolfmann happen to be inmates.

Some time later, Bigfoot notifies Sportello that Dr Blatnoyd has been found dead with fang marks in his neck and tells him to look for a guy called Puck Beaverton. While going about his business, Sportello is visited by Shasta who is oblivious to the fuss she has caused. He later gets a file from Deputy District Attorney Penny Kimball (Reese Witherspoon) on contract killer / loan shark Adrian Prussia: the file not only shows that Prussia was hired by Los Angeles Police Department to get rid of people but also that he killed Bigfoot’s former partner Vincent Indelicato. Hey presto, Prussia is also connected to Golden Fang and most likely killed Charlock. Sportello pays a visit to Prussia and Beaverton, and narrowly escapes from their clutches when the visit turns sour. Bigfoot rescues Sportello and plants drugs in his car. Sportello arranges through Japonica Fenway’s wealthy dad (Martin Donovan) to return the drugs to Golden Fang in a deal that also releases Coy from being a police informant and returns him to Hope and their daughter Amethyst.

The fiendish nature of the fragmented plot and inter-linked subplots and the rich cast contrast with the lackadaisical characters, the meandering narrative and the minimal direction and music soundtrack. One expects the film to be quite colourful given its Los Angeles setting and time-period, and it is though not to the zany extreme that might also be expected for a comedy neo-noir film. While the characters are not especially deep, given that most of them occupy a few minutes of film-time and then they’re gone forever, they can make quite an impression through their sheer loopiness or (in the case of Adrian Prussia and Puck Beaverton) hardened brutality. The one character viewers really care for is Sportello, played with all his stoned-out eccentricity by Phoenix who immerses himself in the role fully. As corrupt cop Bigfoot Bjornsen with a fixation for sucking on chocolate bananas in an embarrassingly explicit way, Josh Brolin sends up the stereotype suggested in the character in his distinctive no-nonsense, hard-bitten way.

Some of the coincidences that occur, especially those near the end, seem very forced – Prussia’s connection to Golden Fang and Charlock’s death seems a bit too stretched and convenient – and the film resolves all its plot threads rather too tidily for a conventional Hollywood ending in which Sportello unites a family before he and Shasta sail off into the sunset happily ever after. In the Pynchonesque universe where few things are ever that neat and plots and sub-plots may come and go without resolution, such an ending would never be entertained.

While well acted and looking distinctly day-glo bleached-out, and with a casual style all its own, “Inherent Vice” does meander at a slow pace and probably should have been made as a two-part mini-series. The various characters may be too kooky and stoned-out for present-day Western audiences to accept. Why Sportello and several characters should be this way, and whether being high on drugs is actually a way for people to cope with repression, brutality and a fear that society is becoming more dysfunctional and not less, are never explained. A better Pynchon novel to adapt into a film might have been “The Crying of Lot 49” and some of Pynchon’s longer works may lend themselves to mini-series adaptations. The possibility that Anderson made “Inherent Vice” as a vanity project just to prove that a Thomas Pynchon novel can be made into a film is too strong to ignore; the film does reek of self-indulgence on Anderson’s part.

Batman and Harley Quinn: oddball tag team of superheroes and quirky villain flounders in a thin story

Sam Liu, “Batman and Harley Quinn” (2017)

Teaming Batman and Nightwing together with The Joker’s on-off girlfriend Harley Quinn might have seemed a good idea at the time it was first proposed but the result is just dreadful. A thin story is stretched even thinner with an unnecessary middle section referencing the old campy 1960s television series, too much biffo, inadequate plotting and superficial characterisation that would justify having the quirky and talkative super-villain join the Dynamic Duo in their search for the equally Terrifying Twosome of Poison Ivy and Jason Woodrue. Throw in deliberately crude animation, an unsatisfactory resolution featuring a deus ex machina device, and a very shallow environmentally based theme about how best to preserve Earth’s flora and fauna against human greed and destruction, and what emerges is a mess that doesn’t quite know which audience to target so it targets everyone – teens, pre-teens, adults – alike.

Arch-villains Poison Ivy and Jason Woodrue, sometimes also known as Floronic Man, band together to kidnap botanist Dr Harold Goldbloom and force him to recreate the formula (stolen from a lab) that turned a scientist into a giant human-plant hybrid known as Swamp Thing. On hearing of Poison Ivy teaming with Woodrue, Batman and Nightwing search for Harley Quinn, recently released from prison, to persuade her to lead them both to Poison Ivy’s whereabouts. After agreeing rather reluctantly – and not without putting up a fight – Harley Quinn piles into the Batmobile with the superheroes and what then follows is an excruciating trip out of Gotham City into the countryside with Quinn blabbing and bleating and pulling off toilet gags while Batman tries to drive and Nightwing tries to navigate. At one point the three pile into a club and stay there too long (wasting viewers’ patience) before the crooks who run the joint finally recognise them and try to stop Batman and Nightwing from leaving without paying – in blood. After trashing the place, the trio continue their way. An encounter with Poison Ivy and Woodrue results in similar mayhem with Dr Goldbloom caught in the crossfire, and the chase starts up again with the Dynamic Duo and Quinn hot on the heels of the super-villains as the latter try to rendezvous with Swamp Thing down in the backwater ways of Louisiana.

Voiced by Melissa Rauch, Harley Quinn is more screechy and ragged than bratty and brilliant as the former psychiatrist turned criminal. Kevin Conroy maintains a stoic and taciturn Batman who remains the same cardboard cut-out enigma at the end as he was at the beginning. The potential of Nightwing and Harley Quinn actually being chums trading smart witticisms exists but remains dormant. Poison Ivy and Jason Woodrue are little more than eco-terrorist extremists; in any case the film spends little time delineating their characters and why they should want to work together in the first place.

The film adds very little to the Batman universe and only the most diehard fans who live and breathe everything Gothamesque and who cannot imagine a world without the Dark Knight should see it. Pruned of its unnecessary baggage, the film would have been a manageable 30-minute cartoon.

The Phantom Thread: best viewed as a comedy romance that turns into a tedious and repetitive ordeal

Paul Thomas Anderson, “The Phantom Thread” (2017)

If viewed as a comedy romance about a successful narcissist couturier who aspires to be part of the upper class, along with his sister (who is outwardly submissive but just as ambitious and domineering in managing his business), and who falls in lust with a working-class waitress who ends up extracting as much as she can out of him and the sister for herself, in the confining social culture that is mid-1950s London high society, this film is quite clever satire. There is an insinuation that for all its preening, its careful attention to detail and outward appearance, the social layer which dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day Lewis) believes he’s part of is as empty of human feeling and warmth, and as self-obsessed as he is. For all that though, the film itself falls into the same trap of worshipping nuance and the result is an overly long work that wastes its actors’ talent in a thin and hollow plot that ends up repeating itself.

Woodcock (jeez, what a name!) is a fussy and snooty middle-aged dressmaker of fixed habits and routines who, as usual, is overwhelmed by overwork (not unexpected, given his need for obsessive control over his creations) and must take a short holiday in the countryside for some nooky. He meets a young waitress, Alma (Vicky Krieps), at a cafe and decides to seduce her. He sweeps her up in a round of wining and dining and compulsively takes her dress measurements. Before long, she becomes his latest plaything. Woodcock’s sister Cyril (Lesley Manville), a mother-replacement figure who just as obsessively manages his business and household, is initially miffed at Alma’s manners and tries to lecture the younger woman on how to conduct herself. Alma, though genuinely in love with the much older man, has ambitions of becoming his equal in love and business, and resorts to taking extreme measures, at the risk of killing Woodcock and getting into trouble for murder, to force Woodcock to see and appreciate her as a person with her own mind.

While the cinematography is beautiful and crisp, the piano music soundtrack (perhaps the best feature of the film) is flowing and transports viewers into a very different time and place, and the acting is very good, all these elements cannot make up for a thinly stretched plot about three people, at least two of whom are control freaks and potentially sociopathic, and the other using subterfuge and possibly fatal means to exert her own form of control, stuck in a dysfunctional relationship out of which there appears no means of escape. All three are dependent on one another in some way and all three distort and are distorted by the power and control they exercise. Alma becomes as much of a bitch as Woodcock is a brute but whether she is a cunning woman by nature or becomes so because of the weird circumstances she has been thrust into is not clear.

The result is a film which at first begins brightly and flows quickly into developing Woodcock and Alma’s relationship and explores Woodcock’s psychology through his work and the daily breakfast-table spats; but which eventually becomes tedious and gruelling through sheer repetition and a loss of focus. Woodcock’s character becomes physically as well as mentally haggard as Alma gradually exploits her control over him and starts to control his body and health through serving him poisonous mushrooms in his meals, just as he has tried to control her body by dressing her in expensive and flattering gowns. There is no hint of character development though Woodcock himself eventually realises what Alma is doing to him.

While the film is set in mid-fifties London, there is (deliberately so) no hint that the outside world makes much impression on the Woodcock household, and the characters seem so removed from reality that Alma appears not to realise that the doctor she confides in could report her to police. The doctor himself seems so stunned by her story – the whole film is built around the framework of Alma confessing her misdeeds to the doctor – that viewers can guess he will not turn the young woman in to authorities. It seems that the rich really do live on another planet after all, making their own rules to suit themselves and indulging in empty material enjoyments, at the cost of their own mental and emotional health.

The Andromeda Strain: a lesson in how situations and the clash of characters generate drama and tension

Robert Wise, “The Andromeda Strain” (1971)

Although made over 45 years ago, this science fiction film about a team of scientists battling to identify and contain an extraterrestrial microscopic life-form before it brings death and destruction across Earth can still teach modern movie-makers a lesson or two (or even more) about how to draw out drama, tension and pace from situations and the clash of characters and personalities without resorting to contrived or stereotyped plots, sub-plots, or character types. There are no preachy messages or big-name actors playing themselves in roles tailored to their limitations. While there’s a huge emphasis on special effects and modern technology, these aspects are appropriate and subordinate to the narrative. The minimalist style of the film throws viewer attention onto the plot and its cast of characters. The plot may be mundane but the care given to plot details and how a group of people with particular personality quirks and weaknesses work together in a situation they cannot control and which quickly becomes urgent and life-threatening flesh out the thin plot and manage to make it absorbing. The film’s ultimate message – that humans have less control over nature and the Earth’s systems than they realise – is very humbling indeed.

A satellite crashes to Earth near a small town in Arizona and the town inhabitants promptly drop dead from a mysterious disease that turns their blood into powder. Only a drunken old man and a bawling baby survive the infection. The two are brought to a secret underground laboratory called Wildfire where a team of four scientists drawn from different scientific and medical disciplines study them and the remains of the satellite to learn more about the xeno-organism. The scientists themselves have undergone an elaborate series of decontamination procedures through four floor levels to reach the fifth and lowest level where the actual laboratory is located. This level also contains an automatic nuclear-powered self-destruction mechanism to stop all infectious organisms from escaping. One of the four scientists, Dr Mark Hall (James Olson), is given the key to turn off this mechanism.

The scientists identify the xeno-organism, which they dub the Andromeda strain, and discover its unique properties that enable it to grow and mutate rapidly. The xeno-organism quickly changes into a form that eats through the laboratory’s plastic and rubber seals, setting off the facility’s self-destruction mechanism. Dr Hall has only minutes to turn off the mechanism when the scientists realise that the organism can absorb the energy of a nuclear explosion and turn into a super-colony that might wipe out all life on Earth.

Some of the hard science and medicine can be implausible and if the original novel were to be written now rather than nearly 50 years ago, its writer Michael Crichton (of “Jurassic Park” fame) would incorporate current scientific and medical advances to make the novel more realistic: for example, the baby and the old man’s survival would now be attributed to their having vulnerable or weakened immune systems that did not over-react to the organism. This reasoning would be consistent with the hidden message in the film which is that the elaborate procedures that safeguard the people working in Wildfire from virulent microorganisms turn out to be their potential doom when an alien organism escapes their control. Wherever possible, computer and other technologies in the film are used to their utmost potentials: computers are not just used to crunch out data and statistics, they are also incorporated in scientific analysis and to describe (in text and animations) the nature of the alien organism under study.

The cast of actors is credible in the level of restraint they exercise and in the way they flesh out their characters. All the scientists are ordinary people with easily bruised egos, prejudices and weaknesses which they try to hide. One of the scientists, the cantankerous Dr Ruth Leavitt (Kate Reid), has an epilepsy problem which threatens the safety of the Wildfire laboratory when she experiences an epileptic fit caused by flashing red lights while performing an experiment on the alien organism. Dr Mark Hall displays quiet and unexpected heroism in his quest to shut down the self-destruct mechanism in spite of tremendous obstacles in his path from the fifth level to the third level of Wildfire.

At one point in the film, Leavitt and fellow scientist Dr Charles Dutton (David Wayne) accuse team leader Dr Jeremy Stone (Arthur Hill) of wanting to use the team’s findings about the Andromeda strain to develop bio-weapons. Indeed, the whole Wildfire laboratory itself seems to be under the control of the US military which says something profound about how the United States perceives its role in guarding or protecting Earth from possible alien contact: aliens are to be regarded as potentially threatening rather than as possible partners in exploring and understanding space, and perhaps understanding our place and purpose in the universe.

The film is noteworthy for its restrained use of special effects that emphasise the virulent nature of the alien organism and how colour is used to define the different levels of the Wildfire laboratory. Special mention should be made of the use of an electronic avant-garde music soundtrack to emphasise the film’s technical approach to its plot and themes. Funnily, while much of the film is drawn out and devoted to detailing the elaborate procedures the scientists follow to observe the laboratory’s hermetic nature and in the way they conduct their experiments, the way in which the alien pathogen is brought under control seems hastily written and not very well explained.

Even though the technology featured in the film looks very antiquated, the film itself has not dated a great deal and much of it – and the attitudes expressed towards the alien organism – still remain relevant. Microorganisms from outer space are still to be regarded with horror and dread, to be held at bay or wiped out altogether, rather than as life-forms that could enrich Earth’s ecosystems.

The Pianist: a potentially great film let down by shallow characterisation and a bland and thin plot

Roman Polanski, “The Pianist” (2002)

Polanski has been a very significant director capable of making very moving and epic films with a strong message about the survival of vulnerable individuals in situations that threaten to overwhelm them psychologically and spiritually as well as physically. In “The Pianist” though, the objective of translating the memoirs of Polish pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman (1911 – 2000), who survived Nazi German occupation of his homeland in spite of the dangers that faced him as a Jew, seems to have defeated the Polish director. While the film appears on the surface to be faithful in recounting the events that Szpilman observed and sometimes participated in, and is restrained in the way it portrays violence and brutality, it makes little attempt to study its protagonist’s psychology and his reactions to the brutality that robs him of his family and everything he has ever known, in addition to chronicling what happened in Warsaw from the time Poland was invaded by Nazi Germany in September 1939 to its liberation by the Soviet Army in 1945. The result is a film that can feel very arduous and bland with a thin story stretched even thinner by the film’s 140-minute length.

The film follows Szpilman (Adrien Brody) from the time he and his family are rounded up in Warsaw and forced into a crowded ghetto with other Jewish families where they all try to keep up the appearance of a normal society – Szpilman finds work playing piano in a cafe for upper class Jews – while food supplies gradually dwindle and the overcrowding that occurs as more Jews are pushed into the ghetto leads to unsanitary conditions resulting in poor health and disease. Eventually everyone is forced to walk to the train station where they will be transported in cattle trucks to the Treblinka concentration camp. Szpilman is pulled away in time by a Jewish Sonderkommando police officer while the rest of his family is sent to the camp; Szpilman will never see his parents or his siblings again.

From then on, Szpilman struggles to survive inside and outside the Warsaw Ghetto with the help of others, including former fellow Polish Radio employees Andrej Bogucki (Ronan Vibert) and his wife Janina (Ruth Platt). Szpilman helps supply ammunition to ghetto inmates planning a revolt against the Nazi oppressors (this is the famous Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of April 1943) and later witnesses the Warsaw Uprising, undertaken by the Polish underground resistance movement, in mid-1944. Like the Jewish revolt, this uprising fails, and in their anger the Germans systematically destroy the whole of Warsaw. Szpilman flees the apartment where he is hiding and find shelter in an attic of a house which turns out to be the headquarters of a Nazi German army unit. A German officer, Wilm Hosenfeld, discovers Szpilman in hiding and learns that he is a pianist. Hosenfeld allows Szpilman to stay in the attic, if Szpilman will play the piano for him when he visits with food and clothing.

Watching Brody as Szpilman, good as he is and thoroughly deserving of the Academy Award for Best Actor won in 2003, I could not but feel that the character is essentially passive and helpless, and survives mainly through luck and the beneficence of others including the Wehrmacht officer. There are not enough moments in the film where Szpilman is inspired by thoughts of once again performing for Polish Radio or in concerts to continue living. His scenes with significant others such as Hosenfeld, the Boguckis and a radical activist in the Warsaw Ghetto are rather perfunctory and the audience has no real sense of these people making a deep impression on Szpilman. (For that matter, the characters of these people are also woefully under-developed.) At the end of the film, Szpilman seems little different from his youthful self back in September 1939. His effort to find Hosenfeld after the war is treated too sparingly and seems like an afterthought tacked inserted into the film’s coda. What might have helped the film develop some psychological depth is occasional moments where Brody’s voice narrates from the English translation of Szpilman’s memoirs passages of conversations he has with the people who save his life, what they talk about, what he thinks of them and they of him. The unlikely friendship between a starving, sickly Jew and the Nazi officer could have been invested with curiosity on the part of both about each other, what each thinks the other will do after the war and if he will have any regrets about the war and his participation in it.

With a flat matter-of-fact story culled from the memoirs, lacking in much insight, combined with a minimal style of direction and cinematography, the film seems much too long, especially in its middle part where Szpilman scurries from one hiding-place to another and major events happen around him as a helpless observer, and viewers not familiar with the history of Warsaw and Poland during the Second World War will become bored very quickly.

The film does work very well as a fictional chronicle of the tragedies that befell the Jewish community in Warsaw and of the failed revolts against the Nazis that resulted in the petulant actions the German occupiers took against the city itself by razing the majority of its buildings to the ground and destroying its culture. In its own minimalist way, “The Pianist” can be very moving and quite emotional as Szpilman manages – but only just – to survive the war and rejoin Polish Radio. Unfortunately though the plot is too paper-thin and the characters not defined enough for the movie to be more than just good.

The Queen of Versailles: portrait of a billionaire family living the American Dream and exploiting it to excess

Lauren Greenfield, “The Queen of Versailles” (2012)

Originally intended as a documentary on the construction of one of the largest single-family detached houses in the United States, this film ended up being a character study investigation of the house’s owners, David and Jackie Siegel, after David Siegel’s timeshare resort company Westgate Resorts crashed in a mountain of debt during the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 and the Great Recession that came soon after. Following the Siegels as they try to cope with the fall in their fortunes to the extent of having to fire thousands of employees and most of their domestic servants, and putting their unfinished home up for sale at a time when others are dumping their houses on the market as well, the film becomes a fly-on-the-wall observer of this particular American Dream gone badly sour and the effect it has on one family’s relationships and the family members’ characters. Not commenting on the Siegels’ behaviour and excesses, and the sometimes abominable ways in which they treat their employees and household staff, the film forces viewers to make up their own minds about the character and morality of David and Jackie.

The astonishing aspect of the film is not the way in which the various characters, in particular David and Jackie Siegel, react and behave in the wake of their misfortune, nor the devastation they leave behind, nor even their children’s maturity in coping with their straitened circumstances compared to the parents’ own immaturity, but in how completely open the Siegels are in allowing the film-makers to track them and the ways in which they deal with the changes in their circumstances. Jackie copes by going on compulsive shopping splurges which result in a lot of waste and a considerable number of pet animals (bought for her children, who number eight in total plus a niece) dying unnecessarily because no-one knows how to look after them – the hired staff did all that but they’ve been let go – but she is clearly devoted to her husband and children, and is prepared to downsize her lifestyle. Her obsession with plastic surgery stems from a background of having been abused by her first husband and her desire to please her second husband David who – perhaps unsurprisingly – turns out to be the more contemptible figure. A Scrooge-like figure, David Siegel is uninterested in his younger children’s welfare – he has not even set aside money for their future education – and regards Jackie as a tiresome trophy wife cum compulsive shopper. Siegel’s idea of fun is to surround himself with 50 Miss America contestants in his home during a reception to promote the pageant: is this creepy or not for a man in his 70s?

One important part of the documentary is its description of the parasitic business model Westgate Resorts used that was the foundation of the Siegels’ excessive wealth: the company sold timeshare mortgages to people who dreamed of owning vacation homes for two weeks each year: homes that they would have to share with 26 other starry-eyed owners who were also sold timeshare mortgages, regardless of their ability to pay. Siegel then bundled these mortgages together in packages and used them as collateral to borrow even more money from banks to build more resorts which were then sold to more ordinary working folks who had to buy timeshare mortgages … and so the cycle continued. This particular house of cards was bound to collapse along with the banks that pursued similar lending policies once their respective vacation home and property bubbles burst. Once the money dries up and Westgate Resorts’ business model falls apart, Siegel becomes obsessed with holding onto a lavish hotel in Las Vegas. This means 7,000 Westgate Resorts employees are suddenly thrown into unemployment queues (presumably with no advice as to how to find work and no employment references) and the household staff are cut down with no thought as to how the Siegel children will be affected. Two nannies from the Philippines speak of how working for the Siegels has impacted on their families back home: one woman has not seen her children, siblings and parents for years on end.

As the weeks, months and eventually years drag on, the family’s financial situation becomes even more dire and relationships among the Siegels become very estranged. David Siegel retreats into his office amid a tower of papers and bills he refuses to pay, and doomsday in the form of a letter from the ban informing the couple of impending foreclosure encroaches upon them. While initially Jackie Siegel continues to stack up mounds of shopping, few of which she or her children need, the blonde bombshell turns out to be more realistic than her husband: she begins donating unwanted toys, clothes and other items to charity, she teaches her daughters how to prepare family meals and she anticipates having to move into a four-bedroom home that will be physically squeezy for a family of ten but plenty of room for steadfast and unconditional love (mostly coming from her).

At the end of the film, the family’s manifold problems remain unresolved but Jackie holds her head high as she surveys the crumbling ruins of her Versailles home and gardens. Whatever her faults and weaknesses, one has to admire Jackie for her lack of guile, her pluck and her loyalty to her family and friends. She tries to help an old school-friend keep her home by giving her $5,000 but unfortunately once the friend’s bank starts foreclosure proceedings, it insists on going through to the bitter end and the friend loses her home. On the other hand, David Siegel elicits little sympathy from viewers for his greed, his lack of reflection and his pathological need to hang onto that hotel in Las Vegas against all advice. Incredibly he boasts about having put George W Bush in power as US President before having second thoughts about admitting to doing something illegal and undemocratic to strangers who might report him.

Most viewers outside the US will wonder at the kind of psychopathic society that enables people like David Siegel and his company, and financial institutions to prey on and exploit the dreams and hopes of ordinary Americans for a better life, if not a luxurious one given to excess, and through their own short-sighted stupidity, avarice and incompetence bring a whole society crashing down in a succession of debt bubbles, in the process wiping out the middle class and sending huge numbers into poverty and destitution. While the film does not say anything about the context in which Westgate Resorts thrived by exploiting people’s dreams and desires, let alone pass judgement on it, nevertheless overseas audiences are likely to notice the apparent lack of proper government or other institutional oversight of an industry that allowed such corporate parasites to prey on the vulnerable and the unsuspecting.

Since the documentary was made, David Siegel attempted to sue the film-makers but failed. Jackie Siegel appeared on Celebrity Wife Swap. In mid-2015, the couple’s 18-year-old daughter Victoria died from an accidental overdose of methadone. Westgate Resorts has recovered to become a lucrative timeshare business once again, employing some 4,700 people and earning billions in sales revenues. The Siegels may one day be able to complete the construction of their Versailles mansion and move in. One wonders though what sort of “Happily Ever After” world will greet them if and when they do.

The Shape of Water: a magic realist mash-up of several genres lays on identity politics and self-indulgence too thickly

Guillermo del Toro, “The Shape of Water” (2017)

Inspired by the famous Hollywood classic “The Creature from the Black Lagoon”, Mexican director Guillermo del Toro delivers his homage to that film and Hollywood’s Golden Age in this magic realist mash-up of horror, science fiction, romance, spy thriller, musical and political / social commentary.  The main plot – a “Beauty and the Beast” recreation – is straightforward and quite thin, and the Beast is very much under-utilised to this viewer’s disappointment. What makes the film work is the various little sub-plots, several of them admittedly very undeveloped little hints to the point of being stereotypes, that flesh out minor characters and make them interesting in their own right, with a subtle message about how people live and cope in a highly restrictive and conformist society. The film is set in the early 1960s during the Cold War at its most paranoid and thus becomes a criticism of the current world political climate in which Russia is being constantly demonised by an American empire whose politics, economy, culture and influence are in severe decline.

The film bears comparison with del Toro’s earlier “Pan’s Labyrinth”: both begin and end as Gothic realist fantasies about fairy princesses born as fragile humans who undergo trials that test their mettle to prove they are worthy of their royal heritage. Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) begins life as an orphan baby found beside a river with neck injuries that prevent her from being able to speak. She grows up mute and finds work as a cleaner at a secret government science laboratory in Baltimore. Fellow worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer), an African-American, befriends her and learns how to interpret Elisa’s sign language for the other staff and their employers. Outside work, Elisa lives alone in an old, dilapidated apartment above a movie theatre next door to unemployed graphic artist Giles (Richard Jenkins) with whom she shares a love of old musicals and romantic comedies.

Not much happens for a long time until the laboratory receives a strange creature captured in South American by US Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon). Curious, Elisa discovers the creature is an amphibious humanoid (Doug Jones) and feels pity for it, especially as Strickland treats it cruelly by administering electric shocks with a cattle-prod. She secretly visits the creature and though neither can speak, they form a fast bond.

On discovering that Strickland has been ordered to kill and dissect the creature for any anatomical features that might benefit the US in its race against the Soviet Union to put humans into space, Elisa determines to rescue and eventually free the creature. She enlists Giles in an elaborate scheme to get the creature out of the facility. Zelda is quickly co-opted into helping Elisa and Giles as is also Dr Hofstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), a scientist who happens to be a Soviet spy and who has been ordered by his handlers to kill the creature against his beliefs that it deserves to live for further study.

Elisa keeps the creature in her bath-tub at home and plans to release it into the city canal when the rains come and the canal opens into the sea. Meanwhile Strickland searches for the creature and interrogates the two cleaners without much success. An incident involving the creature, Giles and the artist’s two cats reveals the creature’s ability to heal wounds and delay some symptoms of advancing age. Over time, Elisa and the creature become romantically and sexually involved but as the days pass, the creature’s health deteriorates and Strickland begins to close in on this very odd couple in his search, especially once he discovers Hofstetler’s Russian identity after the scientist is shot by his handlers and tortures him for information about who is holding the creature and where.

The acting is very good with the stand-out performance being Michael Shannon’s tortured Strickland who, although a villain through and through, manages to elicit sympathy as a man who desperately desires approval and acceptance in a culture and a hierarchy that demand a great deal of him and more. He lives what del Toro imagines a typical social-climbing upper middle-class life-style in a stylish house with a submissive wife and two rambunctious children, and gives in to a salesman’s smooth pitch to buy the latest model Cadillac. What happens to the car later on helps emphasise Strickland’s existential torment as a human hamster who has willingly chained himself permanently to a never-ending capitalist wheel of constant material consumption and the need to prove himself to his superiors, his family and society at large. At some point in the film, after the grilling he gets from his superior, Strickland seems to realise that his situation is hopeless, that no matter how hard he tries he will never gain the approval he has sought all his life and this realisation throws him into a blind rage against Elisa, Zelda, Dr Hofstetler and the creature that endangers them all.

Elisa, Zelda and Giles are essentially marginal characters who through no fault of their own will never be accepted by a highly racist, prejudiced and judgemental society and who are more or less resigned to living on its edges. Elisa and Giles find relief from life’s daily grind through their friendship and their love of old Hollywood flicks. The actors playing these characters invest them with quirky spirit, with the result that viewers come away feeling that Zelda especially is a much under-used character. Dr Hofstetler comes across as a man of conscience despite his duplicity.

The cinematography is often very imaginative with ingenious segues from one scene to another suggestive of dreaming or seeing something through water. Dark colours emphasising the paranoid Cold War atmosphere and the characters’ isolation prevail throughout the film. In spite of all this, del Toro inserts comedy and a fantastical sequence in which Elisa gives vent to her dream of starring in her own B&W musical playing a Ginger Rogers to Fred Astaire … and guess who plays the Astaire role!

True, parts of the plot are forced – how does the creature manage to learn sign language so quickly? and Elisa’s scheme to rescue the creature and the help she gets from Zelda and Hofstetler strains credibility – and the identity politics aspect is painted very thickly. There’s no reason to assume that gays, handicapped people, non-white people and others who don’t conform to the heterosexual white alpha male archetype will readily help one another against a common foe in a highly stratified society as early 1960s, pre-Civil Rights America. Male characters tend to have some weakness or character flaw while female characters are steadfast with inner strength despite outward vulnerability. For some viewers, the film packs in far too much in the way of different genres, that some sub-plots appear stereotyped, and Elisa’s fantasy musical dream sequence may stretch patience too far.

Above all, as social and political commentary and criticism, the film is shallow and offers no new insights or perspective on US capitalism as a system that divides and then slowly grinds and destroys people, and through its hostility towards other social and political systems (such as Communism) and nature generally, distorts those other systems and draws them into a downward spiral of mutual paranoia, suspicion and further hostility. Compared to “Pan’s Labyrinth”, this particular fairy tale is lacking in punch.

The obsession with past Hollywood glories is becoming a feature of many Hollywood films now and draws this viewer’s attention to the general decline in the movie industry, in its ability to create or find new stories to tell and new or revitalised ways of telling them. Poaching movie directors as well as actors from foreign countries to the detriment of their film industries is another indicator of decline.

Rethinking Putin: stripping away Western criticism and fantasy, and painting a picture of pragmatic and steady leadership

Stephen F Cohen, “Rethinking Putin”, Annual Nation Cruise (2 December 2017)

Professor Stephen Cohen is a scholar and professor emeritus of Russian studies at Princeton University and New York University, and the spouse of Katrina vanden Heuvel who edits The Nation magazine, so perhaps it’s no surprise that he was invited to give a speech to the magazine’s subscribers on its annual cruise. He chose as his subject current Russian President Vladimir Putin who, if you believe Western mainstream news media, is Planet Earth’s equivalent of Star Wars villain Darth Vader, and in his speech sets out to show Putin as a major national leader of importance and a politician born of historic circumstances and political and economic trends in post-Soviet Russia.

Regrettably Cohen gets off on a wrong footing by stating that Putin has been in power for 18 years since early 2000; in fact, Putin was only Prime Minister from 2008 to 2012, second to President Dmitri Medvedev. During this period, Russia supported the Western call for a no-fly zone over Libya in 2011, such call leading to the NATO invasion of that country and its descent into chaos. Had Putin been President then, Russia most probably would not have supported a no-fly zone over Libya and the country might not have lost its independence and Colonel Muammar Gaddhafi. From then on, listeners are wise to be wary of any prejudices and limitations on Cohen’s part in discussing the extent to which Putin currently wields power in Russia as the current President. Anyway, Cohen observes the extreme and often hysterical demonisation of President Putin in the Western news media, and starts his talk proper by emphasising what Putin is not, rather than what he is. He emphasises that Boris Yeltsin as President from 1991 to 1999 behaved in a way that was highly authoritarian and corrupt, and presided over post-Soviet decline and deindustrialisation, often with the underhanded help of the US government, so any authoritarian tendencies in the current Russian administration or any corruption and concentration of wealth in the hands of an oligarchic elite did not start with Putin. Cohen also states that the killings of Russian journalists and prominent opposition figures did not begin during Putin’s early presidency. From there, Cohen strips further layers of Western criticism and fantasy about Putin.

For Cohen, Putin comes across as a reactive and conservative politician, especially in the realm of foreign policy, in the sense of attempting to preserve the status quo. Putin’s previous work in the KGB has had no bearing on his leadership style or the policies he pursues. In the last few minutes of his speech, Cohen outlines his idea of Putin: initially a young, inexperienced public servant who found a collapsing and unstable Russia, and who over the years restores proper governance, stability and security to the country in a pragmatic system of “managed democracy”. This for Cohen extends to controlling to some extent what history and historical narratives can be passed from one generation to the next, so that young people have a sure idea of what Russia represents and what its values are: this is actually no more and no less what Western countries have done for much of the 20th century. To an extent, Putin represents a conservative, somewhat traditional segment of the Russian population (who might be called the silent majority in most Western countries) who desire to see Russia as a great power with a stable and robust economy, and a society with a clear direction not disturbed and riven by the agendas of competing social and cultural groups.

At this point, the talk breaks off just as Cohen warms up to discussing Russia’s treatment of its Jewish minority but the gist of his view of Putin has been established. Whether Cohen’s view is accurate, I have no idea, not knowing any more about Russia or Putin than most people in the West do but it seems to me that to call Putin reactive and conservative in his foreign policy is doing him and his government an injustice. In an age where governments are expected to spring to action immediately over a major terrorist or other incident with no thought as to the consequences of such action, Russian delay in response, and the kind of considered action that does follow – and which often ends up flummoxing the US and its allies, and puts them in a bad light (which they richly deserve) – is no bad thing at all. One even senses that Putin takes mischievous delight in the considered actions he does take, especially if the West ends up with egg on its collective face.

Cohen paints a picture of a pragmatic and cautious leader who has steadily restored stability, security, economic and cultural progress, and most of all pride to Russia. He does not say anything about how Putin’s leadership has inspired the country to turn around from a failing and despairing post-industrial scrap-heap into a growing economic power in the space of less than 20 years; that could have been a very interesting discussion. At the very least though, Cohen gives us a vision of a country that has rediscovered a path to security and prosperity.

 

The King of Comedy: a dark and cynical work on the cult of fame and its dark twin, in a world where reality and fantasy may be one and the same

Martin Scorsese, “The King of Comedy” (1982)

I suppose most directors worth their salt who have amassed a considerable body of work have a sleeper film in there somewhere that initially bombed at the box office but which over the years has become a cult masterpiece. For US director Martin Scorsese, “The King of Comedy” lays good claim to being that film: in spite of its title and the presence of actors like Jerry Lewis and Tony Randall, this is a dark and often bitter and cynical work on the cult of fame and celebrity, and how notoriety, infamy and ignominy are its dark twin sister. Viewers are invited to sympathise with the film’s lead character Rupert Pupkin (Robert de Niro) who pursues purpose and meaning in his otherwise empty life, and who is unwilling (perhaps justifiably) to join the long queue of wannabe celebrity stand-up comedians doing time in clubs before indifferent audiences, telling the same jokes over and over, in the hope of breaking into showbiz, hobnobbing with other rich and famous actors and directors, earning millions and living a luxurious material (and just as spiritually empty) life, even as his fantasies combined with his lack of self-awareness lead him into carrying out desperate acts that end up pointing in one direction … to a maximum high-security prison for six years on charges of kidnapping.

Appropriately the film opens in an already disturbing way with late-night TV talk-show host Jerry Langford (Lewis in restrained form) being mobbed by autograph hounds and a deranged woman (Sandra Bernhard) who believes herself to be in love with Langford and he with her. Pupkin uses the commotion she creates to ask Langford if he can appear on his show; Langford tells Pupkin to contact his secretary. Pupkin does so the next day and the secretary (Shelley Hack) asks him to produce a tape of his work. Pupkin obliges and after hearing the tape, Langford’s staff advise him to get some work experience and polish his act. All through Pupkin’s encounters with Langford and his staff, viewers see that Pupkin is at once naive and deranged, and detached from the reality around him. The truth is that Pupkin is a mediocre talent with no social life and no connections that could get him a gig in a club.

As Pupkin becomes more demented, convinced that Langford has befriended him and is willing to be his mentor, the aspiring comedian begins to stalk his office and his home, and it is here that viewers see something of Langford’s personal life and the heavy price he has had to pay on the road to fame and fortune. While Pupkin aspires to become famous to escape the hell of poverty, loneliness and anonymity, Langford is a bitter and paranoid character insulated from the outside world by layers of lawyers, advisors and various hangers-on, all of them necessary to protect him from stalkers and fans who regard him as public property; there are occasions in the film where Langford escapes from his various cocoons to mingle with the crowds and feel anonymous. It is appropriate that the two men’s paths should cross repeatedly in the film to the extent that they exchange places and for one brief moment Pupkin achieves the fame he desires and Langford the anonymity he craves; in one scene where Langford sees Pupkin on TV, the grim and knowing expression on his face as he watches Pupkin is priceless.

The supporting cast is good to excellent: Sandra Bernhard as the equally deranged and lovelorn fashion designer Masha nearly steals every scene she shares with de Niro; other actors hold up their own without appearing to be overwhelmed working with Lewis or de Niro.

The blend of reality and Pupkin’s fantasy, to the extent where audiences are not sure whether the film’s denouement is one or the other, is smooth and just as disturbing as Pupkin’s own fragile grip on sanity. This suggests that the society in which Pupkin and others like him and Masha are able, sometimes even encouraged, to indulge their fantasies and resort to desperate actions is itself highly disturbed and also unable to distinguish between reality and fantasy. In a world where Western mainstream news media has become little more than a global public relations outfit for governments, corporations and the people behind them pursuing their own agendas and dreams of grandeur and self-importance, and the public is fed so-called news that bears no connection to real events, “The King of Comedy”, despite its ageing look – it was made over 35 years ago after all – still has something relevant to say to modern audiences.

Serpico: a character study of how one police officer’s personal crusade against corruption destroys him

Sidney Lumet, “Serpico” (1973)

As character studies go, “Serpico” is very good indeed: based on the biography of former New York City police officer Frank Serpico by Peter Maas, “Serpico” follows the career of its eponymous protagonist over a decade and a bit in the New York state police department as he gradually comes to realise the extent to which the force has compromised its own ideals and ethics and has become nothing more than just another gang of thugs – albeit well armed – susceptible to taking bribes, bending rules to suit itself, and ignoring the needs and safety concerns of the wider community it’s supposed to serve. He determines not to succumb to the blandishments of police force culture, however seductive they are, and to expose the system and indifferent attitudes of senior management to the public. Unfortunately this means that Serpico must isolate himself from his fellow police officers, well-meaning and kind they may be at times, to avoid succumbing to the same temptations they have fallen for, and the consequences for his personal life, his close relationships, his mental and physical health, and the later decisions he makes turn out to be severe. His fight against a corrupt institution and its insular culture is long and hard, and takes a heavy toll on him, and while Serpico’s battle is justified and the New York state police department finally decides to start cleaning up its organisation and culture, the police officer’s own health and career end up being shattered.

Al Pacino is suitably intense and fiery as Serpico, and throws himself right into the character to the extent where he lives and breathes Serpico, and has probably adopted some if not most of Serpico’s eccentricities as his own. For much of the film’s length, Serpico broods or glares at his superiors and other police officers – but the best moments are when his tough façade falls away and the vulnerable man, unsure that the path he has taken is the right one, lonely and afraid for his life and career, is exposed. Whatever his character is required to do, whether he beats up a drug-dealer, chases crooks, buys a lovable puppy or tries to reason with his girlfriends who threaten to walk out on him, Pacino handles all these and more without much strain.

The support cast varies from average to good, giving just enough to allow Pacino to dominate his scenes without overpowering them. The New York City urban landscape is a significant character in its own right: its buildings rundown, the streets and alleyways full of rubbish, and neighbourhoods harbouring drug rings, small-time criminals and others whose lives are affected by hard drugs and the gangs that supply them, the city may be enticing in its apparent promise to shower newcomers with fame and fortune if they work hard, obey the law and stay out of trouble, but it is also a cruel and demanding mistress to those who fail to achieve their versions of the American Dream.

The film’s pace is mostly leisurely and the plot takes its time to reveal itself in all its detail to viewers. At times “Serpico” feels more like a television series than a one-off biopic, so relaxed and low-key it is. Scenes come and go without much apparent resolution: we never do learn how the inquiry into police corruption proceeds and what conclusions it reaches and what recommendations it makes; and we must assume that the two women who love Serpico – not at the same time, mind you – never see him again. There may be something to be said for editing the film so it’s a little faster and more focused as it lurches towards that inevitable climax where he nearly dies. When the ending comes, it is completely unexpected and somewhat of a disappointment, even though if you know something of Serpico’s life or have read the Peter Maas book you know what’s going to happen, that it will be lacking in heroism or grandstanding speeches or a moral lesson. Viewers are forced to question the nature of true heroism and sacrifice, and to ponder whether the rightness of Serpico’s personal crusade more than compensates for nearly losing his life and having to give up the career he loves.

“Serpico” is an excellent example of the type of New Hollywood film, with its emphasis on realism and the focus on less advantaged levels of American society and their issues and problems of discrimination and poverty, post-Martin Luther King, that was being made in the 1970s. What a pity that such films are very rarely made these days, either by Hollywood or by independent film-makers.