Hedwig and the Angry Inch: an individual’s search for wholeness and authenticity delivered in a flat musical adaptation

John Cameron Mitchell, “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” (2001)

A feisty little number showcasing John Cameron Mitchell as a director, actor, scriptwriter and singer, “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” is the film adaptation of the musical of the same name in which Mitchell also starred. The film follows the quest of Hansel (Mitchell) growing up in East Berlin in the 1960s – 70s: a product of a dysfunctional family, he finds refuge in Western rock music. Dissatisfied with his life, he seeks escape with an American soldier who suggests that he (Hansel) change his sex from male to female and marry him (the soldier). Taking his mother’s name (Hedwig), Hansel does what the soldier suggests – although the sex change operation is botched – and marries the fellow who then takes her to Kansas and abandons her there. At the same time, Hedwig sees on the TV news that the Berlin Wall has fallen so all her sacrifice has been for nought. Nevertheless, Hedwig picks herself up by forming a band, writing and performing songs, and babysitting for US army families. She meets and befriends Tommy Speck (Michael Pitt), teaching him all she knows about rock music and helping him with personal problems. They write and record songs together, and eventually fall in love. When Speck discovers that Hedwig is transgender, he flees with the songs they have written together and establishes his own career as teen pop idol Tommy Gnosis. In this, he becomes wildly successful and Hedwig launches a copyright lawsuit against him. She tries to raise money for the lawsuit by forming a new band The Angry Inch, composed of eastern European migrants including her “husband” Yitzhak (played by actress Miriam Shor), and touring franchises of a seafood restaurant chain and various other small venues.

Hedwig’s history is told in various ways including song, animation and traditional live action plot narrative mixed together. Most of the plot is told in flashbacks that follow a chronological sequence and this sequence is sometimes interrupted by some incident relevant to the plot in the present day. Throughout this narrative of rise and fall, defeat and rise again, followed by betrayal and another defeat, is threaded a journey in which Hedwig searches for wholeness, renewal and authenticity, indicated by her constant reference via the song “The Origin of Love” to a story in Plato’s “Symposium” in which humans were originally two people stuck together and forcibly separated by the gods, and the purpose of life is for humans to rediscover their lost halves.

While Mitchell excels in his multi-tasking as director and actor, and portrays Hedwig in all her bitchiness and questing, the songs in themselves are not all that interesting – performed in various conventional pop / rock styles, they are clearly aimed at the general public – and would be flat without Mitchell’s flamboyant presence; and the plot itself builds up to a weak and inconclusive climax. Does Hedwig win her lawsuit? We don’t really know, though later she gains much public sympathy after an incident with Speck later in the film. The final scenes in which Hedwig appears to reconcile with Speck could be pure fantasy – indeed, everything that happens after Hedwig’s encounter with Speck in his luxury limousine could be fantasy.

Apart from Mitchell himself, the cast is rather mediocre, and without the songs and Mitchell’s stage performances, the film tends to be flat. There isn’t much to recommend the music and I’m not surprised that most of what is memorable about the film is Mitchell’s acting and his character Hedwig in all her primping and glam finery.

Torn Curtain: an unremarkable spy thriller film let down by poor casting and a laboured script

Alfred Hitchcock, “Torn Curtain” (1966)

To properly appreciate how good a director Alfred Hitchcock was over a career of 50+ years, one needs to see the lesser films he made as well as the better or more notorious ones (like “Psycho” or “The Birds”) that everyone remembers. Any other director trying to make “Torn Curtain” with the constraints Hitchcock suffered would have ended up making a very mediocre film; it’s to Hitch’s credit that in spite of an over-long and laboured script, an undistinguished music score, having no say in the choice of lead actors,  and working in a genre that ill-suited him, he was able to make a competent spy thriller film that is sometimes visually gorgeous and which emphasises the dangerous nature of espionage for ordinary people who choose to participate in it for motives other than greed, and the cynicism of those who use and exploit the public’s idealism and loyalty to achieve murky ends.

US nuclear physicist Michael Armstrong (Paul Newman) agrees to carry out a dangerous mission in which he pretends to defect to East Germany to obtain a formula from an eccentric professor at the University of Leipzig. His mission is nearly derailed by his assistant / fiancée Sarah Sherman (Julie Andrews) who follows him, determined to find out what he’s up to after seeing a telegram message meant for him only while on board a ship taking them both to a science conference in Copenhagen. While Sarah takes some convincing by Armstrong’s East German security to defect with him, Armstrong himself needs clues and directions to make his way across East Germany to Leipzig to find the professor and trick the older man into giving up the necessary secret formula. In his quest, Armstrong nearly comes undone when East German security agent Gromek (Wolfgang Kieling) follows him and threatens him. Armstrong and a farmer’s wife (Carolyn Colwell) dispose of Gromek in an excruciating fight scene – but this has unfortunate consequences for both Armstrong and Sherman when government authorities realise that Gromek is missing and trace his last movements to the farm that Armstrong has had to visit.

The film divides into two very uneven halves: the first half contains most of the suspense, thrills and tensions; the second half unfortunately tends to drag due to the nature of the plot in which most of the action takes place early on and then the fall-out from that action takes up the rest of the story. (In this, “Torn Curtain” follows the structure of “Psycho”.) This means that whatever tension arises in the rest of the film depends greatly on the two lead actors being seen to care for one another and having a strong connection as they try to escape from East Germany; in this, both Newman and Andrews’ performance falls flat. The two actors do what they can in their own way but there is little on-screen chemistry between them and their acting conforms to rule. Hitchcock and Newman were known not to have worked well together: Hitchcock was unimpressed with Method acting which Newman and other actors of his generation relied upon. Possibly the tension between the director and his lead actor actually improved Newman’s performance in the film (especially in the fight scene with Kieling) but on the whole the acting from the leads is very ordinary. Andrews should have been a sparkling and assertive presence but her role turns out to be a passive and subdued one that makes little use of her talent and potential to be a more feisty and active heroine – in a film where the male lead finds himself in situations where he needs help from women!

The plot is not always credible and some of its twists and turns are too light-hearted and implausible especially when put up against the brutal violence of Newman’s fight scene. The juxtaposition of the brutality and some of the sillier scenes certainly highlights the riskiness and uncertainty involved in espionage and the danger it poses to ordinary people who agree to do it. While Hitchcock could certainly manage both vicious violence and comedy, both need a solid plot and a good cast to carry off both genres and their elements, and the tensions that arise from that combination. For a good example of such a film, viewers should refer to “North by Northwest”; by contrast, “Torn Curtain” is its lesser sibling. Fortunately “Torn Curtain” is saved by its underlying themes of deception and commitment (be it commitment to a relationship or political ideals) as opposed to self-interest, and distrust of and contempt for government authorities that would cynically rely on untrained individuals to carry its work for them yet force them to make their own way back to safety when plans backfire.

The film’s best moments are in an early wordless scene where Gromek pursues Armstrong through a museum, their fight scene and some of the later chase scenes through rural countryside. In some of these scenes, Hitchcock is an undoubted master of wide-scene filming and direction, and the cinematography is very beautiful. The suspense is taut and spellbinding.

The Founder: a fictional character study calling into question the American Dream and how it enables control and exploitation

John Lee Hancock, “The Founder” (2016)

How do you make an engrossing film about a character who is essentially unlikeable, a predator who steals others’ ideas and innovations and rewrites history to claim those innovations as his own, an anti-hero / near-villain who rides roughshod over friends, business associates and loved ones alike in pursuit of his own selfish interests and greed – and who lives happily ever after, sleeping well at nights? In “The Founder”, director Hancock has found inspiration in the rise and rise of Ray Kroc who joined the McDonald’s hamburger and fast food business, owned and operated by Dick and Mac McDonald, in 1954 and set it on the path to becoming the world’s largest fast food corporation: he (Hancock) contrasts Kroc’s astonishing ascent to fame and glory against the McDonald brothers’ determined but ultimately doomed attempts to protect the company’s reputation for delivering quality fast food and prompt service. In juxtaposing the stories of Kroc and the McDonald brothers as the men collide and their paths shoot off in opposed directions, Hancock finds plenty to say about the so-called American Dream and calls into question the exploitation of American cultural values, what it means to be American and the issue of control, whether it be over a business franchise or the land it sits upon, or over one’s relationships, in a society dominated by capitalist values and ideology.

When first we meet Kroc (Michael Keaton), he is rehearsing a speech he is about to make before an audience that includes the then President Ronald Reagan, a fellow Illinois boy-made-good like himself. From there the film jumps back some 30 years to 1954 when Kroc is a travelling salesman trying to hawk milkshake mixers to various fast food joints in the US Midwest and finding no takers. He takes a call from his secretary back in Arlington who informs him that a hamburger place in San Bernardino, California, has placed an order for 6, then 8, mixers. Intrigued, Kroc drives all the way to San Bernardino where he sees queues of customers waiting patiently to order hamburgers at the McDonald brothers’ stand. He makes his acquaintance with Dick (Nick Offerman) and Mac (John Carroll Lynch) who tell him of their experiences trying to crack Hollywood back in the 1920s, having to operate a hot dog stand during the Depression years and finally being able to own and run their hamburger fast food restaurant in their own unique way, utilising scientific management methods in designing their kitchen and streamlining work processes, custom-making their kitchen equipment, concentrating on a small and standardised menu and motivating their employees to deliver food and service at a consistent and high level. Kroc proposes that he and they join forces and franchise the business. The brothers demur and explain that they have tried franchising before but were unable to maintain control over the menu and standards. Kroc mulls over their objections and finally convinces Dick and Mac to work together with him by proposing that McDonald’s could become an essential institution in American life, in much the same way that Christian religion and belief in American democracy have become.

From that moment on, Kroc’s rise to become one of America’s richest and most successful businessmen, thanks to doggedness on his part, dominates the film – though he comes across plenty of obstacles in his path. The initial wave of success proves to be too much and quickly Kroc finds his finances and assets over-stretched to the point where he and his wife Ethel (Laura Dern) are in danger of losing their house. His bank manager won’t budge an inch, Dick and Mac refuse to cut corners on their formula and remind Kroc of the complex contract that he agreed to sign. Enter Harry Sonneborn (B J Novak), an ambitious financial consultant, who goes over Kroc’s books and points out that Kroc needs to own the land on which McDonald’s franchises operate by creating a separate real estate company. Kroc realises that Sonneborn’s proposal will enable him to wrestle control of the McDonald’s concept from Dick and Mac and readily accepts it. As McDonald’s becomes more and more Kroc’s baby and he bends and reshapes its core concept to his will, the brothers are edged out more and more, their business relationship with Kroc becomes acrimonious and eventually Mac’s health fails and he is hospitalised. Kroc eventually buys out the brothers who tragically lose all royalty rights and are forced to give up the McDonald’s name.

Concomitant with Kroc’s takeover of the McDonald’s name and concept, his marriage to Ethel, who provides moral support and Kroc’s conscience (passive though it is), fails and ends in divorce. Ethel ends up an even more pathetic victim than the McDonald brothers: she ends up with the house but none of the wealth that should be hers. I guess in the end she never gets to go to Spain for a holiday.

The acting is solid throughout and Michael Keaton dominates every scene as the man who sells his soul and morality (I’m assuming he ever had any in the first place) for money, money and more money. He strikes the right balance in making Kroc a sympathetic character driven to succeed in spite of no talent, no education and no connections, yet slimy and lacking in insight. Laura Dern makes the most of a role in which she has very little to do except ask her husband why he couldn’t just live the rest of his life together with her in comfortable retirement, playing golf with the country club buddies and travelling the world together. The film does a splendid job contrasting Kroc’s slick hollowness against the McDonald brothers’ heartfelt passion and love for their San Bernardino baby and their desire and failure to protect it against its exploitation by a predatory hustler.

The film does not make much of the capitalist ideology that informs and supports Kroc’s ambitions or of the debt-based financial system that forces Kroc on his near-insane quest to grow the McDonald’s business and drives him and Ethel close to bankruptcy. So much of modern corporations’ need to grow and earn higher revenues and profits, at the cost of quality control and ethical considerations for their customers and the environments (physical, cultural, economic, political) in which they live, is driven by the need to pay back corporate debts to banks and to take out new loans if they are to meet their financial obligations and continue trading. Viewers need some knowledge of how monetary systems work to pick up this aspect of the film. The scene in which Kroc first meets Sonneborn is a major turning point in the film’s narrative: Kroc begins to understand that owning the land on which the hamburgers are made is the key to breaking the hold the McDonald brothers have over him.

What is significant about “The Founder” is its timing: it comes at a time when Americans and others around the world are seriously questioning aspects of the capitalist economic system and the ideologies and assumptions that support it and legitimise the often sociopathic behaviours that are attracted to it; and when the McDonald’s corporation itself and its core concept of  industrialised food preparation and production have become battered and are in need of renewal or replacement. At the end of the film, when we return to Kroc finishing off his rehearsal, he appears to stagger through a doorway, as if on his way to the afterlife. (In real life, Kroc died in 1984 so the film ends at a point where he would not have had much longer to live.)

The Shining: a histrionic epic horror film saved by its themes of control and alien manipulation

Stanley Kubrick, “The Shining” (1980)

In most directors’ hands, a Stephen King horror novel of a family disintegrating under the impact of the husband / father’s alcoholism wouldn’t have been more than a small-scale pedestrian flick destined for weekday daytime TV. In the hands of Stanley Kubrick, “The Shining” becomes an epic tale of how a small family is trapped by unseen and vaguely conscious forces that have shaped human history and led to suffering, tragedy and genocide. The film is noteworthy for its widespread use of Steadicam tracking shots, an eerie musical soundtrack, its creepy hotel setting and the performances of Jack Nicholson and Danny Lloyd as father and son set against each other due to external alien powers.

Writer Jack Torrance (Nicholson), seeking somewhere peaceful and isolated for his writing project, accepts a temporary position as an off-season caretaker for the upscale Hotel Overlook in a remote part of Colorado. At his interview, Torrance is told that the hotel is built on a Native American burial site and that a previous caretaker, Charles Grady, developed cabin fever and killed his family. While Torrance is being interviewed, back home in Boulder, his son Danny (Lloyd) has a premonition about the hotel in which rivers of blood swamp the hotel floors and he falls into a trance. Danny’s mother Wendy (Shelley Duvall) takes the boy to a doctor and mentions that he has an imaginary friend called Tony.

Torrance gets the job and soon moves the family into its new quarters at the hotel. They meet the head chef Halloran (Scatman Crothers) who takes Danny aside and tells him that they are both telepathic. Halloran warns Danny that the hotel harbours many memories, not all of which are good, and that the boy must not enter Room 237.

Time passes, with Jack’s writing going nowhere while Wendy and Danny explore the hotel and its grounds which include a giant maze that Danny becomes expert at traversing. Jack becomes frustrated and angry over his writer’s block and his relationship with Wendy disintegrates. Danny continues to have terrifying visions of ghosts and blood but is drawn to Room 237 and enters the room where he is attacked by an apparently dead woman. He escapes with bruises on his neck which his mother blames on Jack. Jack investigates Room 237 where he also sees the apparition.

While Wendy and Danny continue exploring the hotel, Jack retreats to the Gold Room where he meets a bartender and a butler who reveals himself as Delbert Grady, the hotel’s former caretaker, among a party of phantom wealthy revellers. Delbert Grady tells Jack that his son is telepathically contacting Halloran (who is on his way to the hotel from Miami to find out what is going on) and that he, Jack, must “correct” Wendy and Danny. The stage is thus set for a conflict between two mysterious forces using humans as their unwilling pawns.

While “The Shining” may not be a great Kubrick classic, it has much in common with other films of his, like “2001: A Space Odyssey” and several of his war films. Jack is a typical Kubrick man whose sense of masculinity is weak and superficial, based as it is on dominating and subjugating weaker people like Danny and the submissive Wendy. The ghosts in the film recognise Jack as a weak man reliant on alcohol to prop up his masculinity and they seize on his weakness to compel him to murder. Significantly he kills Halloran, a representative of a traditional victim group (Afro-Americans) in US society. One wonders whether the rivers of blood that terrify Danny in his visions might actually represent the blood of Native Americans butchered and thrown into mass graves – and might not Hotel Overlook be sited on such a grave? – by the US Army as it drove indigenous people into reservations so their lands could be seized by the Federal government.

The acting ranges from overwrought (Duvall) to bravura (Nicholson) and almost understated (Lloyd). While Duvall has to make the best of a role of a passive child-like woman, and Nicholson refines his almost typecast persona of a man going mad, Lloyd probably delivers the best performance in a role where he has to play an imaginary friend with its own voice speaking to Danny Torrance. Significantly the main adult characters in the film regress almost to an infantile state while Danny Torrance adopts adult qualities to save himself, if not his mother. The boy’s talent, the “shining”, is not of very much help to him and Wendy, and only his knowledge of the maze and his persistence save his life. Perhaps this is Kubrick’s way of demonstrating that humans can be more than what they come into the world endowed with, and that perhaps we can overcome our aspects of our past with knowledge and reason.

Thanks to Kubrick’s obsessive attention to detail, the film has a distinct look (as all Kubrick’s films do) and manages even in its most surreal and gory parts to be elegant and beautiful. This refined look doesn’t always work though as in the scene where Jack enters Room 237 and meets a naked young woman who seems more robotic than ghostly. The hotel interiors take on a palatial aspect thanks to the unusual camera angles and the scale on which the settings have been created, dwarfing the humans who inhabit them.

Special mention should be made of the music soundtrack, featuring dissonant pieces from Krzysztof Penderecki, Gyorgy Ligeti and Wendy Carlos, which becomes a character in itself (albeit a rather overbearing and screechy one) along with the hotel. The music could have been quieter in parts and allow for more space than it does to heighten the tension and dread.

Parts of the film can be very histrionic, and Duvall’s character especially is of a screaming-damsel-in-distress stereotype that does her talents a disservice, but it does display an exceptional power. The underlying themes of control, a crisis in Western masculinity, humanity being in the grip of possibly malign forces shaping its evolution and destiny, and a child embodying hope and positive transformation are the film’s saving grace.

Portrait of a major 20th-century literary icon and his impact on Western culture in “William Burroughs: Man Within”

Yony Leyser, “William Burroughs: Man Within” (2010)

An obvious labour of love for Yony Leyser, this documentary on subversive US experimental novelist and artist William S Burroughs and his place in 20th-century Western culture takes viewers on an often bewildering tour of the man’s achievements and private obsessions, fears and loves through interviews with those friends, acquaintances and associates who knew him well. Like the man himself, the film turns out to be very layered, focusing on Burroughs as a writer, role model, friend and above all a human being with all the fears and frailties that human flesh is heir to. For some people, a portrait of a highly contradictory, misanthropic yet often lonely man with a hunger for love and security may emerge; for others, Burroughs’ wicked black humour, often delivered po-faced style in that distinctive dry and gravelly voice of his, may be the most impressive aspect of the man.

The documentary’s structure is generally chronological, beginning with Burroughs’ early years as part of the beatnik movement along with Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac and moving through his junkie period in the 1950s (which gave him the material for early novels like “Junkie” and “The Naked Lunch”) and his friendship with British artist Brion Gysin which was to influence his style of writing profoundly. Fortunately the film also attempts to make sense of the many strands of Burroughs’ artistic work by segmenting his work and the associated connections into broad categories of writing, music, the visual arts and hobbies and other extracurricular activities such as collecting guns and cats; this does mean that the film does go backwards and forward in time against its general chronological structure. There is some voice-over narration by US actor Peter Weller (best known for playing the cyborg in “Robocop”) but the bulk of the documentary is driven by interviews with several well-known artists, musicians and writers as director John Waters, singers Patti Smith and Iggy Pop, members of Sonic Youth, director David Cronenberg and above all performance artist / musician Genesis Breyer P-Orridge who knew Burroughs well during the 1980s and who offers quite deep and interesting insights into Burroughs’ character.

The film is sure to appeal to Burroughs fans and people unfamiliar with his life. Unfortunately there’s not much detail about the novels that made Burroughs famous apart from the observation that novels like “The Naked Lunch” were really a warning about the dangers of heroin addiction and not an encouragement to embark on the Tao of Narcotics. Disappointingly there’s nothing about later novels like “The Soft Machine” and “The Ticket That Exploded” which explored drug and sexual addiction as a form of control restricting human freedom and development, or “The Western Lands” which confronts death by investigating dream states and hallucinations, magic and the occult. The documentary is also not much interested in exploring Burroughs’ politics, inasmuch as they influenced his writing and the themes of psychological and social control that appear in his novels.

Inevitably the film surveys the influence that Burroughs has had on popular culture, notably rock and pop music, name-checking musicians across three generations and of various genres, in particular punk and new wave. The hit parade of Burroughs acolytes does take on a cult-like aspect and one sometimes wonders just how deep an impact Burroughs really has made on people like Sting and U2.

The film is no less inventive and complex than Burroughs’ style in its use of animation, historical film, Burroughs’ own spoken-word performances and excerpts of his writings. It ends on an unexpected revelation that casts the man in a new light. Yony Leyser is to be much commended for the way in which he has shaped the film’s narrative which mirrors the way in which Burroughs wrote much of his work.

My Winnipeg: an intriguing blend of memoir, documentary and surreal dark fantasy in a paean to a little city on the prairie

Guy Maddin, “My Winnipeg” (2007)

An unusual blend of memoir, documentary and dark fantasy, Guy Maddin’s “My Winnipeg” probably does more to promote his home city, out on the prairies in the middle of Canada and the entire North American continent, than a hundred thousand travel agency brochures could do. Instead of presenting an overgrown railway transportation hub town that freezes over five months a year (although the city is also surprisingly one of Canada’s sunniest places), Maddin gives us a Winnipeg as an unlikely chthonic deity with a darkly magnetic sexual energy and an occult, even sinister personality. At the same time, Winnipeg is a universal city, suffering from the same problems that large cities the world over are blighted with: underhand and corrupt city politics, the demolition of beloved landmarks like the ice hockey stadium or an old elm tree, and conflicts between the city’s political and economic elites and the factory workers they exploit. This presentation runs in parallel with Maddin’s exploration of his past, in particular his complicated relationship with his mother (played by Ann Savage) and his equally complicated sexuality, as a way of coming to terms with the environment that made him what he is.

The film’s plot structure is ingenious: it takes the form of Guy Maddin (played by Darcy Fehr, with Maddin providing voice-over narration) on a train leaving Winnipeg to where he possibly knows not, lying on a bed in his compartment and wrestling with the problem of what he needs to do to be able to escape Winnipeg, where he has lived all his life. He decides to film a fantasy documentary recounting events from his life in Winnipeg and from the city’s own history as a way of coming to terms with Winnipeg and his own family history so he can leave. Hence the reason for the film already scrolling before our very eyes. From here on in, the road-movie theme encompasses a series of episodes that leap from the personal and family experiences to the greater experiences of the city and back again. ot

To be honest I found Guy Maddin’s recollections of past incidents involving family members not all that interesting, not to mention suspect in their veracity in case readers are wondering; these “remembered” incidents only appear to underline the sexual links, real or imagined, between family members (especially Mom) and Winnipeg, and the hold they have over Maddin. The incidents in Winnipeg’s history, real or not, are far more intriguing, bizarre or eccentric: a fire at a racetrack panics horses in nearby stables and they rush out into the cold wintry night and plunge into a river, only to freeze to death, their frozen heads above the icy surface of the waters the only evidence of their deaths when they are found the following morning. (The incident is relayed with animation and still shots in such a way as to suggest there was something predetermined about this tragedy, that the horses – themselves often symbolic of sexuality and sexual control in dreams – were following a script laid out for them even before their births.) A determined attempt by elderly matriarchs to save an elm tree from being destroyed to make way for a city development ends when the tree is attacked by a gang of thugs during the night. In the 1930s a spiritualist craze spreads like fever to the highest echelons of Winnipeg city council. Such a quirky selection of events in the city’s history makes Winnipeg seem more alive and vibrant than a coach tour of its museums, art galleries, restaurants and cafes does.

For the most part the film is shot in black-and-white which helps give the blurry cinematography a mysteriously shadowy Gothic style. Historical film of actual events (whether relayed accurately or not), acted scenes of past family dramas and animated sections are united by Maddin’s voice-over narration which lends the movie a faux-documentary sheen. In lesser hands the film could have been laughably bombastic but Canadian self-deprecating humour ensures that Winnipeg, whether representative of all cities, an overgrown set of houses on the prairie or a network of layers of narratives of different cultures that combine to give this cow-town a richer tapestry than it could have hoped for, has a charm all its own. Even the fact that Winnipeg gets covered in snow for several months a year is treated in a way that induces a sense of wonder – and frequent still shots of black criss-crossed by white noise slash add to the mystery – rather than fright in potential tourists.

As to be expected with films by Guy Maddin, “My Winnipeg” defies convention and becomes a surreal dream-like paean to home, family, community and city, and the stories (real, depressing or fantastical) that they carry or threaten to carry.

Snowden: a riveting character study of personal transformation and commitment to personal ideals

Oliver Stone, “Snowden” (2016)

Surprisingly even though I’m familiar with the story of National Security Agency whistle-blower Edward Snowden through Laura Poitras’ documentary “Citizenfour”, Oliver Stone’s biopic of Snowden’s life from 2004 to 2013, documenting his transformation from all-American patriot believing in his nation’s “exceptionalism” to political activist / whistle-blower aghast at the Big Brother surveillance being carried out by his government, turns out to be riveting in its own low-key way. That may be due to Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s precise if minimalist portrayal of Snowden throughout the film, so much so that he rivals Meryl Streep as an impersonator rather than an actor. Gordon-Levitt is ably supported by a committed cast that includes Nicolas Cage, Tom Wilkinson and Zachary Quinto.

The film opens with Snowden bailed up in a Hong Kong hotel being met by then-Guardian newspaper columnist Glenn Greenwald (Quinto) and documentary film-maker Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo), later to be joined by Greenwald’s fellow Guardian scribbler Ewan MacAskill (Wilkinson). In his room, Snowden explains to the trio the extent of NSA spying on the American public through Internet, mobile phone and social media conversations and interactions. Not only does the NSA spy on the US public but also on the conversations that take place in other countries, in Germany, Japan, Brazil and, well, the rest of the world. At this point, the film zips over to Snowden’s early days training for the US Army reserve during which time the young man is a strong “my country, right or wrong” believer, convinced that the US is and has always been a force for democracy and freedom. After injuries cut short his military career, Snowden applies to join the US Central Intelligence Agency where he meets his instructor and mentor Corbyn O’Brian (Rhys Ifans) who posts him to Geneva, Tokyo and Hawaii.

In the course of his work, Snowden discovers how cynical the CIA and later the NSA are (through O’Brien and various work colleagues) in their regard for the rule of law where it conflicts with the US government’s desire to know what everyone is thinking and doing, so as to pinpoint vulnerabilities in people’s lives that could be used to manipulate and blackmail them for its own advantage, and to influence and direct people’s conversations towards positions it favours. Information and knowledge are commodities to be used for commercial and military gain, and secrecy is the security wrapped around the commodities. Confronted by what he experiences as a CIA employee and later as a contractor working for the NSA and Booz Allen Hamilton, Snowden makes plans to reveal what he knows of NSA surveillance.

Threaded through the narrative of how Snowden changes and matures over the years is his romance with Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley) which perhaps gets too much screen time for a plot device aiming to humanise Snowden and show how much he gives up or loses in his quest to be true to himself and his ideals. Even so, the romance is interesting in how it highlights Snowden’s growing paranoia at his own life being the topic of NSA scrutiny and issues of privacy invasion, where the limit between revealing one’s own life on social media ends and where others’ invasion of that life begins. As a photographer and acrobatic performer posting intimate images (including semi-nude images) of herself on Facebook and other social media, Mills is an example of this dilemma surrounding privacy.

The film is done very well with excellent cinematography, smooth transitions and steady pacing, and the cast shows commitment, with Gordon-Levitt giving the performance of his life. Where the film is limited is in its narrow focus on Snowden’s life and point of view, to the extent that viewers may get an incorrect impression that all the CIA and NSA surveillance began with the events of 11 September 2001, when the World Trade Center twin towers and a US Department of Defense building were hit by three hijacked passenger jets and a fourth passenger jet crashed in Pennsylvania after passengers on that plane apparently fought with hijackers. The reality is that the US has always jealously tried to preserve its status as the world’s leading political, economic and military power since 1945. The nation’s “exceptionalism” stems from propaganda it has spread through its corporate media and entertainment industries and Edward Snowden is not the only victim who fell for that propaganda hook, line and sinker. How and why the surveillance state began and developed into the all-encompassing Panopticon it is, is far beyond the film’s grasp. Another problem is the relative upbeat ending in which Snowden’s revelations about NSA surveillance are made public without any apparent hindrance; the reality is that after the events portrayed in the film, Greenwald left The Guardian and The Guardian itself under a new chief editor deteriorated into stenographer journalism.

Nevertheless, if “Snowden” can encourage viewers to think about the extent of government surveillance in their own lives, how it influences their thinking and behaviour, and the direction of society, and to investigate how it began (so that they can begin to fight it), it will have fulfilled its aim of raising social awareness.

Cold Souls: a dull, flat and unsatisfying comedy about materialism and the nature of identity and existence

Sophie Barthes, “Cold Souls” (2009)

In the vein of Charlie Kaufman’s “Being John Malkovich” but without that film’s sprightly tone, “Cold Souls” is a metaphysical comedy intended as a commentary on Western materialist society in which souls can be traded for money just like any other commodity. Playing himself, Paul Giamatti is a typically angst-ridden New Yorker who becomes so absorbed in the characters and roles he plays that they follow him home even after the play or film has finished and end up tormenting him and playing havoc with his relationships. He discovers a clinic that can remove his soul and put it into deep storage. After undergoing the necessary procedure (and finding to his great consternation that his soul looks just like a chickpea), Giamatti is tremendously relieved. Not long afterwards though, his new soulless condition starts causing him problems with his wife (Emily Watson) and his acting career so he returns to the clinic to retrieve his soul. He and his doctor (David Strathairn) open the storage unit and discover the soul is missing. For a while, Giamatti is content to use the soul of a Russian poet called Olga, and this enables him to play Uncle Vanya in Anton Chekhov’s famous play of the same name successfully but unfortunately the Russian soul isn’t a good fit for Giamatti and he yearns for his old soul back.

Unbeknownst to both, the chickpea thing has been stolen by a soul mule called Nina (Dina Korzun) who works for a black market operator based in Saint Petersburg trafficking in stolen souls. Feeling a bit guilty, Nina contacts Paul and tells him his soul is now residing in the body of a Russian TV soap opera starlet married to the fellow running the black market soul-stealing scheme. Paul has to try to retrieve his soul back from the starlet – but is his soul agreeable to returning to its original owner? It seems that Paul’s soul is having such a fun time with the starlet that it wants to stay with her permanently.

The film could have been very funny with a serious message about how commodifying souls can encourage greed, increase unhappiness and discontent, and even lead to violence and the kind of trafficking shown. (If the clinic run by Strathairn’s character had been the black market operator or the doctor himself an unscrupulous money-sniffing quack, that would have provided the film with the frisson it needs rather than having to resort to needless stereotypes about Russian-style capitalism that imply that whatever Russians do turns out bad.) Intriguing questions about why we have souls and the difference between American souls and Russian souls could have been asked and left unanswered so that the audience is challenged to come up with its own answers about questions of life and the purpose of existence. By choosing to film the story as drama as well as comedy, director Barthes turns “Cold Souls” into a dreary plod. Giamatti is enthusiastic about sending himself up and provides the main spark of life as long as he is on the screen; but once he disappears, the movie becomes very leaden. Support characters like Nina, the doctor, Giamatti’s wife and the Russian starlet could have been very interesting and entertaining, even in a brief superficial stereotyped way in the case of the starlet, but under Barthes’ control end up flat.

Under a different director, the idea of a society where souls can be bought and sold (and stolen and trafficked) could have given us rich comedy and plenty of food for thought … but in the hands of Barthes, in the guise of “Cold Souls”, it just ends up … soulless.

The Last Man on Earth: still retaining the power to shock and horrify with a message of post-apocalyptic despair and existential angst

Ubaldo B Ragona and Sidney Salkow, “The Last Man on Earth” (1964)

Over 50 years since it was made, this cheaply made horror film has clearly not lost its power to shock, horrify and leave its audiences in stunned silence with its message of despair. “The Last Man on Earth” is the first of three films based Richard Matheson’s sci-fi horror novel “I Am Legend” (the others being “The Omega Man” and “I Am Legend”) and apparently follows the novel’s plot quite closely. Vincent Price plays Dr Robert Morgan, the eponymous star of the story, in which he survives a mysterious plague due apparently to having been bitten by a bat while working in South America. Seemingly the rest of humanity including Dr Morgan’s wife (Emma Danieli) and daughter has succumbed to the disease which turns corpses into zombie-like vampires if they are not immediately burned after death. Morgan himself is forced to survive by playing a Van Helsing vampire hunter role each day, every day: in the day-time he hunts down, impales and burns any vampires he finds and in the evenings he holes up in what remains of his house while a group of zombie fangsters, led by a former work colleague Ben (Giacomo Rossi-Stuart), besiege him and threaten him.

A good two-thirds of the film are taken up with showing the doctor’s dreary daily routine of driving around his abandoned home city and hunting down and impaling vampires. The middle part of the film finds him remembering or dreaming about the last days of his former normal existence as a virologist and happy family man before his daughter and then his wife die suddenly. Price does a good job portraying Morgan with his survivor guilt, his depressed episodes and mixed emotions about his past life. Voice-over narration by Price establishes the narrative of Morgan as lone surviving human forced against his own reasoning and knowledge to acknowledge the existence of the vampires and to hunt them down mercilessly.

The story becomes interesting in its last third when a female non-vampire character Ruth (Franca Bettoia) is introduced and warns Morgan that, because of his exploits as a vampire killer, he is feared by a small community of surviving humans. Almost on cue, these humans arrive in Morgan’s city and despatch all the vampires including Ben before turning their guns on Morgan – because he had taken out quite a few of their number as well as the hunted vampires.

For a cheap movie which is dated in parts, “The Last Man …” features some astonishing scenes of sheer loneliness and isolation, despair and hopelessness. It is rather wonky with respect to dubbing and other technical aspects linked to the shoestring budget, and maybe there were some bad decisions made with regard to plotting as the last 15 minutes of the film become an action thriller set in an incipient police-state dystopia. The early parts of the film are slow-moving and reveal Morgan in all his desolation and anguish. He probably could have shown more angst about having to kill vampires who were once friends and relatives of his but one significant scene in which Morgan laughs and then cries is well done, showing what a fine actor Price was when given the chance to showcase his talent and experience.

The cinematography turns out to be a major highlight in creating an atmosphere of despair and hopelessness, especially at the beginning of the film with a series of silent stills showing dead bodies in streets of an apparently abandoned city. If it were not for the Italian neo-realist influence on the cinematography, “The Last Man …” would probably look even more B-grade cheap.

The film’s conclusion is tragic and depressing, demonstrating how societies under severe stress can become more dangerous and monstrous than the monsters they pursue. For a slow-moving character study with not a great deal happening until the very last moment, “The Last Man …” turns out to be an intriguing piece on the nature of being, the purpose of one’s existence and how societies might cope with long-term terror and mass psychological stress.

WikiLeaks, Hillary-Gulen Intimate Ties & How Clintons Gave Birth to Mullah Gulen’s Terrorist Network: an astounding report on the links between US politics and extremist Islam

Newsbud Spotlight with Sibel and Spiro (12 August 2016): WikiLeaks, Hillary-Gulen Intimate Ties & How Clintons Gave Birth to Mullah Gulen’s Terrorist Network

In the wake of the aborted military coup in Turkey on 15 July 2016 and the subsequent ongoing purges of suspected followers of charismatic Turkish imam Fethullah Gülen within the Turkish government, armed forces and education system, and against the backdrop of the 2016 US Presidential election circus, with Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump as the nominated presidential candidates for the Democratic and Republican parties respectively, this timely report investigates the financial and other links between Gülen and Clinton, and what these mean for the future security of the world. The report is timely not only because the US Presidential elections are only a few months away but also because Julian Assange’s Wikileaks is preparing to release emails showing the Clinton-Gulen connections and the report devotes some time commenting on the way in which Wikileaks has chosen to release the information.

The report takes the form of part-interview / part-discussion between Newsbud reporter Spiro Skouras and Boiling Frogs Post analyst Sibel Edmonds, the whistle-blower who formerly worked as a translator for the FBI before being sacked in 2002 for accusing a colleague of covering up illegal activity involving Turkish nationals and covering up security breaches. It begins more or less with a brief introduction to Fethullah Gülen, his worldwide network of schools and educational institutes (many of them in the United States), and how he was brought to the US by CIA agent Graham Fuller and given asylum. Edmonds is excited over the Wikileaks news and states that the way in which Wikileaks plans to release the raw material as it is, allowing people to pore over the information and pick over it, is the best way the information can be made public, as compared to the slow way in which The Intercept is releasing NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden’s documents. Edmonds expects that the emails will show the close ties between Hillary and Bill Clinton and their Clinton Foundation on the one hand, and on the other hand Fethullah Gülen, going back to the mid-1990s and involving the transfer of hundreds of millions of dollars. Edmonds links this partnership to the Gladio B operation which covers the training and preparation of extreme Islamic militants in Balkan Europe, the Caucasus and the Middle East to undermine the legitimate governments in those regions and bring never-ending war and chaos. Heroin trafficking was also part of this operation, I presume to help raise money for the recruitment and training of the jihadi fighters.

Edmonds’ argument is easy to follow – she is a very articulate and impassioned interviewee – although listeners not familiar with Fethullah Gülen, Graham Fuller and the Clinton couple’s dark secrets need to do their own research on these people and their histories. (Among other things, Graham Fuller was once the father-in-law of Kazakhstani businessman Ruslan Tsarnaev, uncle of Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the supposed 2013 Boston Marathon bombers.) The discussion shifts away from the Turkish imam to the Clinton couple and the way in which the Clintons have been able to skate their way through two Presidential administrations and are poised for a third, maybe even a fourth administration spanning another eight years, in spite of the criminal activity, the numerous lies and the wars and devastation across south-east Europe, Ukraine and the Middle East they and their associates have left in their wake.

Edmonds does not put up statistics and give sources or evidence for the statements she makes about the Clintons, and this is the main weakness of the Newsbud report. Googling Hillary Clinton and Fethullah Gülen’s names, I did find a number of websites (such as this one) that focused on the ties between the two, that also went into great detail on the emails that passed between them or their respective organisations (the Clinton Foundation and the Gülen-related Alliance for Shared Values). So those sceptical about the claims Edmonds makes need to make their own inquiries and do some research – not only will they be surprised, they will be horrified as well at the scale and wide-reaching range of the links and the corruption.

The Newsbud Report can be viewed at this link.