Masha and the Bear (Season 1, Episode 17: Recipe for Disaster): Masha and kasha aren’t a good mix

Oleg Uzhinov, “Masha and the Bear (Season 1, Episode 17: Recipe for Disaster)” (2009)

Despite its title, this charming little short turned out to be the animated children’s series’ recipe for success, its Russian-language version gaining more than 3.4 billion views on Youtube and as a result becoming the most viewed non-music video on that platform. The story is simple and straightforward but contains a little lesson about how one should accept responsibility for one’s actions and the consequences that accrue from them.

Bear is trying to teach himself how to play checkers using a guidebook but gets stuck over a game in which he plays both sides and now White is out-pointing Black by 5 to 1 literally. Bear doesn’t quite get the hang of checkers being a strictly competitive game where the object is to win, and not a game where the competition is in striving to be the best you can be and everyone gets to win. His little human charge Masha doesn’t help by stealing the black piece and trying to play hockey with it. Bear pops her outside the cottage with a real hockey puck and forces Hare, caught stealing carrots from the garden (again!), to play goalie. After a while of hitting goals, Masha and Hare demand lunch so Bear puts Masha in charge of cooking kasha (buckwheat porridge) and goes off into the woods to concentrate on his checkers game. Masha ends up raiding all the cupboards for kasha and pouring it all into the pot, mixing water and milk into it; the resulting boiling mix threatens to over-pour everywhere so she dumps as much as she can into as many pots and pans as she can, and takes them all out to the forest animals to feed them all. Even the wolves resident in the abandoned ambulance van up on the hill get overfed on kasha.

Meanwhile, Bear finally reconciles himself to the fact that Black has lost the game so he packs up and returns to the cottage just in time for the inevitable explosion …

The CGI animation emphasises bright colours and sharp lighting contrasts which give a sunny mood to the cartoon. The action is quick and zippy which allows a lot of story to be packed into a 7-minute cartoon. All the animals featured in the story are mute which make Bear’s patiently stoic and forbearing attitude and the other animals’ surprise all the more funny. The story brings out Masha’s mischievous yet lovable character as she is forced to face up to the mess she creates.

One hopes that Bear has learned not to leave Masha by herself in the kitchen again, but given that this episode has been the most popular of the entire series, perhaps the creators can’t resist having Bear forget what happened when he left Masha at home alone … maybe that’ll be another lesson to be reinforced.

Feelings of Mountain and Water: shanshui animation meditates on nature, change and continuity

Te Wei, “Feelings of Mountain and Water” (1988)

Inspired by the traditional Chinese shanshui genre of landscape painting – “shanshui” means “mountain – water” – in which scenes or landscapes where mountains, rivers and waterfalls feature prominently are painted with brush and ink on a white background in a way that conforms to certain formal conventions and rules governing this genre, “Feeling from Mountain and Water” is a graceful and meditative animation short with an apparently simple story. A travelling elderly scholar is rowed across a lake by a boy from a fishing village but is too sick to continue his journey so the boy takes him to his own home and nurses him back to health. In gratitude, the scholar teaches the boy how to play his zither. The lessons continue for quite a while – a whole season seems to pass – until eventually the scholar has to resume his journey. The boy takes him in his boat and they sail along a river into very mountainous territory. The two bid each other sorrowful farewells and the scholar bequeaths the zither to the boy. As the scholar walks off into the distance, one gets the feeling that he crosses a boundary into another world, another dimension, and he and the boy will never see each other again.

The film contains no dialogue (so it can be seen by non-Chinese speakers) and the soundtrack consists of flowing, sometimes bubbling water, birdsong and the mellifluous tones of the zither as first the scholar and then the boy play it. The painted scenes range from delicate light-grey brush-strokes of swirling waves and tiny dots of birds as they fly into the far distance, to huge blocks of paint suggesting large boulders swiped across the paper, to watery stains of cloud or rock bleeding into the background. The humans are portrayed quite delicately and appear insubstantial against the solid, forbidding mountains and rushing rivers. Implied here is the notion that humans are a very minor element in the natural world where the solid impervious nature of mountains contrasts with and complements the liquid, changeable and adaptable nature of water (which over geological time can overcome mountains by eroding them).

Like the water featured so prominently, the film has a soft flowing quality in which everything that happens does so in a natural and organic way, as if the meeting between the old scholar and the young boy had always been preordained so that the knowledge and wisdom of the older character can be passed on to the younger, and the history, culture and values embodied in the zither, and the beauty with which all those values can be expressed, are maintained and passed onto future generations. In spite of the passing of the scholar, something of him continues with the boy.

The Mirror: a loose autobiographical work on memory, history, nostalgia and regret

Andrei Tarkovsky, “Zerkalo / The Mirror” (1975)

For most viewers, Tarkovsky’s “The Mirror” won’t be the easiest film to follow: the narrative follows a stream-of-consciousness structure and dives at will (and going back and forth between them) into three time periods representing its main character’s childhood, adolescence and current situation in which he, a poet, is in his 40s and dying from an unknown respiratory illness. In all of these time periods, he has unresolved issues in his relationships with both his parents (and his mother also has unresolved issues and conflicts with others), his ex-wife and his son. The ex-wife and the son have difficulties in their relationship as well, and a big part of that problem may stem from the difficulties each is having with the husband / father. Now on the verge of death, the poet (unnamed and not shown to viewers) looks back over his life and regrets the decisions he made and actions taken or not taken, and wants to make amends – but time and his failing health do not permit such atonement.

The plot relies heavily on aspects of Tarkovsky’s own life and that of his parents – as in the film, Tarkovsky’s father was a poet (and some of his poetry is quoted in the film) and his mother was a proof-reader. Scenes of the poet’s childhood take place in a beautiful bucolic countryside that could be close to Moscow – but already there are forebodings of dark events to come. A strange man claiming to be a doctor visits the poet’s mother and she seems to fall in love with him. The family barn bursts into flames and people stand by watching slack-jawed when fire destroys it – during a rain shower. Strong winds start up without any warning whatsoever, rippling over overgrown grass and knocking over tea cups and saucers on garden tables.

Scenes set during the poet’s adolescence take place during the Second World War (known as the Great Patriotic War in the Soviet Union and the current Russian Federation) and here the film starts to make connections between the poet’s personal life and the wider historical context in which he lives his life, and how major historical events impinge on people’s lives, taking away loved ones and thus setting off a cycle of actions by the poet and the people he associates with, the repetition of which the poet appears to recognise only when he is dying.

In keeping with the film’s dream-like world, the experiences of the poet’s mother and ex-wife (both roles played by the same actor, Margarita Terekhova) and their son Ignat (Ignat Daniltsev, who also played the poet as a young boy) are also very surrealistic, particularly in a scene where Ignat, left on his own at home in the apartment block, visits a neighbouring apartment and the woman there invites him in for tea, asks him to read from a book and then later disappears mysteriously, crockery and all. The rooms seem to change as well and we do not know if Ignat is back at home or still next door. Real or naturalistic scenes co-exist with scenes from the imagination; it may be that Tarkovsky is attempting to capture as much of the human experience in all its beauty, glory, pain and suffering (there is considerable historical archived film of the Spanish Civil War and the Chinese-Soviet border wars included) into a visual work that reflects back that experience.

Themes of guilt, regret, nostalgia and longing, desire, and the repetition that reinforces these emotions, along with how memory and history can cause or buttress them, are very prominent in this film. The natural world with its mystery and apparent randomness is a significant character to whom humans accommodate themselves. The poet’s mother accepts her place in the universe, having done what she could, and achieves a contentment her son has always sought.

An entertaining introduction to a remote country in “Paraguayans: World’s Weirdest Latinos”

Masaman, “Paraguayans: World’s Weirdest Latinos” (2018)

In an entertaining short film of just under 13 minutes, viewers are treated to a fascinating survey of one of Latin America’s least known yet quirkiest countries. Founded by Jesuit priests who established missions in the country to convert the indigenous Guarani-speaking people to Catholicism and to teach them farming and submission to the Spanish crown, Paraguay has a culture with a definite Hispanic foundation and flavour but its people (mostly of European descent) speak two languages, Guarani and Spanish. Being a country of the sub-tropical savanna interior with no sea-coast, Paraguay initially was part of the Spanish-American empire’s Viceroyalty of Peru with its capital in Lima, before coming under the Viceroyalty of the Rio de la Plata with its capital in Buenos Aires.

Gaining independence in 1811, Paraguay came under the rule of dictators, starting with Jose Gaspar Rodriguez de Francia who destroyed the power of the old Spanish elites and created a communal society under conditions of political isolation from other countries. Francia forbade the elites from marrying only among themselves, forcing them to marry local people, and the country became self-sufficient in foodstuffs and manufacturing. Carlos Antonio Lopez succeeded Francia as dictator and ran the country as his personal kingdom though also continuing its economic development. Lopez was followed by his son Francisco Solano Lopez whose ambitions brought Paraguay into a war against its neighbours Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay in the 1860s, a war that utterly destroyed the country, killing 70 – 90% of its adult male population and completely ruining its society and economy. The occupying victors carved out choice territories and reduced Paraguay to its current small size. After foreign occupation ended in the late 1870s, Paraguay tried to rebuild its population by inviting migrants across the world to establish settlements: hence, a number of utopian and sometimes experimental socialist settlements were set up by migrants from Australia and migrants from Germany led by Elizabeth Nietzsche (the racist sister of Friedrich Nietzsche) and her husband among others.

The film does a good job tying such quirky facts as a mostly European people speaking a native American language, the extreme shortage of adult men in Paraguay in the late 1800s and Paraguay’s reputation for odd (and slightly sinister) utopian colonies together to the country’s unusual history and how that history was influenced by its geography, its lack of a coast-line and the original peoples of the area watered by the Parana River and its tributaries. After the late 1800s, the film more or less neglects Paraguay’s history and recovery after the devastating wars of the 1860s, and how that recovery impeded its political and economic evolution. Not much is said about how Britain viewed Paraguay as a threat to its economic domination of Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil through its investments in land and railway construction, and furnished those countries with money and armaments. (Can’t Perfidious Albion keep its nose out of other countries’ affairs?!)

The film uses maps, historical materials and photographs of city and farm life to create an attractive tapestry celebrating the country’s people, and their languages, culture, history and diverse origins. There isn’t much information given about the country’s contemporary politics or its current state of development; one would love to know how it compares with its neighbours in economic development and the standard of living enjoyed by its citizens. Needless to say, there’s nothing about what Paraguayans think of their country’s future prospects. The film serves as a good general introduction to a country as existentially isolated from the rest of the world as it is physically.

Bank Mortgage Fraud Explained: how the Australian banking industry preys on small borrowers

Denise Brailey, “Bank Mortgage Fraud Explained” (Citizens Electoral Council, September 2018)

Denise Brailey of the Banking and Finance Consumers Support Association (BFCSA) gave a presentation to the Citizens Electoral Council in Perth in 2018 on the mortgage fraud currently being perpetrated on the Australian general public by the banking and finance industry with the connivance of the Australian government and the supposed industry regulator APRA. Brailey makes a case that this scamming by the industry is systemic and any consumer protection laws covering the mass rort are so inadequate as to be mythical. Her presentation is based on her experience as a consumer advocate on behalf of older and low-income Australians who have been the victims of predatory financial scams by manipulative banks and mortgage brokers, and who have received little or no help at all from unsympathetic lawyers and regulators who should have been working in the victims’ interests.

Brailey’s talk is very dense in terms of the information, backed up by anecdotes from her own experience in dealing with lenders and borrowers, and other examples, and summarising what she says is difficult without omitting important (and often outrageous) information about how bank lenders apply their agenda of asset-stripping their clients, in particular those clients deemed rich in assets but poor in income, such as retirees and pensioners who own their own homes. The banksters’ agenda, as she portrays it, is to seize borrowers’ assets by offering loans of huge amounts of money that are impossible to pay off: examples of such loans include interest-only loans, low doc loans (loans that do not require borrowers to present documentation showing their ability to pay, and which target low-income households), 30-year loans and loans tailored to the Henderson Poverty Index, forcing even middle class Australians into poverty by underestimating their basic consumption expenses.

Brailey’s conversational style, while clear and informative, can be rambling and irritating for viewers who want useful information about how the banking industry acts as a cartel in pushing a particular process onto its employees and sales representatives on how to market and sell loans that maximise the profits and benefits to the banks and pass on all costs to borrowers. Fortunately the PowerPoint slides featuring bullet-point summaries of what Brailey covers are a major part of her presentation.

At the end of her talk, Brailey provides a list of what prospective borrowers need to be aware of and what they should insist on. Unfortunately she and the BFCSA pin their hopes on a full Royal Commission that will expose the full extent of the corruption in the Australian banking and finance industry and the egregrious lengths they knowingly go to, to deceive borrowers, target vulnerable demographic groups with misleading information and deceptive practices, and blame borrowers when they get into trouble. Not enough is done in excoriating the Federal and state regulators who more often than not support the banks and other lenders, and do not enforce the legislation regulating lending or the punishments that apply when the law is violated. Above all, the very system of banking and the free market ideology and principles underlying it, the regulatory regime that supposedly polices the system and the lenders within it, and the politics behind the industry and the regulatory regime, all of which allow the banks to prey on and rip off people with dubious loan types, are not criticised.

Loro: a portrayal of political corruption and debauchery seduced by its own excess

Paolo Sorrentino, “Loro / Them” (2018)

Originally made in two parts totalling three hours, this fictional drama about Italian media magnate and former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, and his circle of business pals, sycophants and hangers-on, was condensed into a 145-minute flick for foreign audiences, which would explain the strange narrative jumps and the shaky narrative itself which initially focuses on young businessman Sergio Morra (Riccardo Scamarcio) eager to ingratiate himself with Berlusconi (Toni Servillo) to gain favours for his clients and ultimately a nice comfortable job with much money and power and little responsibility for himself, and then switches over to Berlusconi and follows him all the way to the end, discarding the young follower and his friends with no explanation as to whether they all achieved what they wanted. A bewildering parade of people, fictional and real, and many of them lasting only a few minutes, pass through Morra and Berlusconi’s lives on screen.

While Servillo is excellent in the role, with his clown-like face masking over a character entirely lacking in integrity and ethics, concerned only with gaining more power and wealth (and to hell with the consequences for Italian politics and democracy, and Italy itself), and is the centre-piece around whom the film revolves, viewers unfortunately will learn very little about how Berlusconi came to be a wealthy media tycoon and how his wealth and connections helped to vault him into the nation’s leadership. What viewers will see is the brash and tawdry life-style Berlusconi led during his reign as top-dog and the people that life-style attracts: the parade of young escort women who will do anything and everything (and more besides) to get close to heady power; the gangster-like bodyguards and minders who surround him; young pimps like Morra who regard Berlusconi as a role model; and the various politicians Berlusconi buys. Berlusconi’s mansions are luxurious if not particularly tasteful and the parties he and Morra throw initially look like a lot of fun but become repetitive and banal. It’s as if, in attempting to detail how debauched and empty Berlusconi’s world is, the film itself ended up being seduced by the debauchery and its gaudy superficiality.

While the film’s focus was on Morra and Berlusconi, at least there was some tension and direction (will Morra get what he desires? will Berlusconi deliver?) but once Morra is literally out of the picture and the focus turns to Berlusconi to the exclusion of everyone else, the film limps through a series of sketches. Only the earthquake in L’Aquila, leaving working-class survivors homeless and destitute, provides the moral backbone that tests Berlusconi’s character and that of Italy itself. While Berlusconi manages to cough up money to rehouse the homeless, the real job of salvaging Italian society and its soul falls to the ordinary people as represented by the firefighters who retrieve a statue of Jesus from the rubble of a destroyed church.

The film does a very good job of portraying the empty and corrupt world of those who have more money than they have the mental faculty to deal with it all but says nothing about how Berlusconi bought and cheated his way into it and corrupted Italian politics and state institutions in the process – nor about the people and organisations, legal and illegal, that helped him along the way.

Perhaps the funniest part of the film is the sketch where Berlusconi, believing himself to have lost his persuasive abilities, thumbs through a phone book and phones an unnamed woman and tries to sell her an expensive piece of real estate: the disgruntled recipient doesn’t fall for the sales pitch. After this sketch, we don’t see this woman any more. Apart from this and other occasional gems, the film’s moral heart looks as shaky and shallow as the world Berlusconi created around himself.

The Making of a Modern British Soldier: how ordinary people are trained to become killing machines

Ben Griffin, “The Making of a Modern British Soldier” (Veterans for Peace UK, October 2015)

All you see in this video uploaded to Youtube is a man in mufti standing before a white blank wall, telling the story of his life from the time he was old enough to walk and ask questions of his grandfather about his experiences as a military man and his medals – but what a story he tells, about the propaganda and indoctrination he was subjected to as a teenage army cadet on into his training to be an SAS marine, to the physical and psychological methods used in the British armed forces to mould ordinary people into elitist psychopathic killers, to his experiences as a soldier in the Iraq war after the US-led invasion in 2003 that toppled Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, to his realisation that Western forces in Iraq had merely replaced Hussein’s government in terrorising people and moreover were protecting Western corporate interests in Iraq (all intent on making money and profits from grabbing and selling the oil and other natural resources that rightfully belonged to the Iraqi people) instead of bringing “freedom” and “democracy” to a long-suffering nation. Former British SAS marine and co-founder of Veterans For Peace (UK) Ben Griffin tells the fascinating true story of his old life as a killing machine and how he, like many other people in the British armed forces, had been seduced by highly romanticised military histories and tales of derring-do to join an army cadet group and army camps for teenaged kids who were not academic. As an army cadet, Griffin was allowed to smoke, drink and do all sorts of things that youngsters in civilian institutions were discouraged from doing, and from this beginning, the notion that he and other teenage army cadets were special, a higher grade of human who could look down on everyone else, took hold.

Griffin speaks in great detail about the military values instilled into him and they make for frightening listening: following orders from above instantly and without hesitation for fear of punishment; Spartan-like loyalty to one’s own unit and hatred of everyone else; the enforcement of discipline by punishing an entire unit for one individual member’s mistake; and the removal of one’s natural aversion to killing people with methods including sleep deprivation and repetitive drills. The end result of such intense inculcation must surely be an emotionally and spiritually hollow shell of a human, into which shell fanatical beliefs and behaviours, a hatred of anyone and anything different, even on the flimsiest criteria, replace empathy and compassion. Punishments for mistakes are severe and brutal.

Griffin’s turning-point in his old military career comes during his deployment to Basra in southern Iraq where, after witnessing or being party to grave injustices committed by the British on Basra civilians, he realises that he can no longer stomach the lies that have been shovelled into his head over the years and which he starts to doubt. He is uneasy at the presence of Western corporations with their private security in major cities in Iraq, and what that presence and the security details might say about US-led allied forces and their actions and behaviour.

The film cuts out abruptly while Griffin is still describing how he became involved with the Veterans For Peace organisation in the US and decided together with fellow former soldiers to set up their own British chapter. By this stage, he has said more than enough about how military recruits are effectively manipulated and broken down into dehumanised sociopaths and how British forces, mingling with US and other allied forces, engaged in torturing prisoners (usually culled from the civilian population by raiding their homes and taking male residents) at “black sites”. For this reason, reports of “US forces” in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and other parts of the Middle East / North Africa, and maybe other parts of the world, can be assumed to include forces (plus mercenaries from private corporations – and, depending on the region involved, freelancers, militias and naive people recruited via social media or personal / community networks, often portrayed in the media as “freedom fighters” or “terrorists” when the situation permits) from other Western nations.

Griffin’s talk, peppered with anecdotes and very surprisingly detailed information about aspects of British military culture, is highly informative and lively. Griffin’s description of how he as a child fell for the relentless ear-bashing propaganda and how he signed up for army boot camp for wannabe teenage soldiers like himself is especially chilling. This talk is recommended listening for Griffin’s animated style and the information he offers.

Round-up of Films seen in 2018

Dear Under Southern Eyes Readers and Followers,

So 2019 is already upon us – which means a Round-up of the films that I believe are significant for viewers is in order!

I certainly saw far more films in 2018 than I did in 2017 – perhaps I saw more films last year than the previous two years’ combined total! – so my list will very large indeed. As you already know, the films I consider significant won’t necessarily be films the general public or even those deemed expert film critics will consider good. They may even be films that fall far short of what they intended to say.I

Of the many dramas, comedies and other films falling between these two categories that had their first release in 2018, one of the most impressive of these was the very last film I saw in 2018 and this is Adam McKay’s “Vice”, as a study of evil at its most cynical and hollow, even though it was significantly compromised by its obvious anti-Trump / anti-Republican and pro-Democratic stance and the lack of depth in its study of former US vice-president Dick Cheney’s character. Another excellent film was J van der Welde’s “An Act of Defiance”, though I did note its treatment of black people as rather passive actors or bystanders in their own defence and in supporting the central character of Bram Fischer and how that treatment could be construed (ironically perhaps) as discriminatory and demeaning.

I saw many good documentaries and those I would most recommend include Diljana Gaytandzhieva’s “Diplomatic Viruses” for its focus on US bioweapons research in Georgia as part of the general Western drive towards war against Russia; Clayton Swisher’s four-part series “The Lobby” for its analysis of the Israeli government’s insidious reach into the British political establishment, extending well into both the major political parties and their structures; Michael Oswald’s “The Spider’s Web: Britain’s Second Empire” on the transformation of British imperialism transformed into a financially based global network that continues to dominate the world, impoverish and enslave nations, and threaten the very survival of the planet itself; Jenan Moussa’s “Undercover in Idlib”; Hernando Calvo Ospina’s “Venezuela, the Hidden Agenda”; and Alexander Korobko’s “NYC to Donetsk & back”. (Since the last mentioned documentary was made, Donetsk head of state Alexander Zakharchenko died in a terrorist attack in August; he will be sadly missed by his people and many others around the world.)

Of course there were many disappointing films and films that should never have left Development Hell: those in the latter category include Bryan Singer’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” for its prudish and homophobic treatment of the life of British rock star Freddie Mercury; and Ridley Scott’s “All the Money in the World” for being a typically hack Ridley Scott film. Andrei Zvyagintsev (“Loveless”) continues to plough ever deeper in his circular rut making films portraying Russian society under Vladimir Putin as materialistic, greedy and self-obsessed, and increasingly fascistic, as though such characteristics are unique only to Russia and not to Western societies as well. As for disappointing films, I single out Alfonso Cuaron’s “Roma” (for portraying a passive view of Mexican society in the early 1970s, not explaining or attempting to understand the various incidents that occur in the film); Bjorn Runge’s “The Wife” (just plain over-rated by film critics); and Guillermo del Toro’s “The Shape of Water” (another very over-rated flick).

As for what 2019 will bring, I expect that the quality of Hollywood product will continue to decline, and foreign directors and actors will dominate as film industries in their own countries dwindle under austerity programs or commercial and government pressure to make bland propaganda films, and they are forced to go to wherever the opportunities exist. The British film industry will concentrate more and more on producing historical propaganda mush that idealise a 1930s Britain that never existed, in which a small upper class elite dominates and everyone else knows their place in the hierarchical pecking order, as part of its role in prodding and pushing Western publics towards supporting war against Russia and China that will enrich arms manufacturers and their shareholders (some of which are the very individuals and corporations mentioned in Michael Oswald’s documentary I mentioned above).

Whatever happens in world film in 2019, I wish you all a Happy New Year and Happy Viewing!

Regards, Nausika.

Vice: satirical biopic is as empty as the man it lampoons

Adam McKay, “Vice” (2018)

A rather patchy satirical study of the life of former US Vice-President Dick Cheney, “Vice” shows how an unscrupulous individual can attain and abuse power, and in so doing change the lives of millions for the worse, in ways unimaginable and unforeseen – not only in countries that bore the brunt of American viciousness and brutality, but also at home through policies that enriched a small, already wealthy political elite at the expense of the middle classes, the working classes, and the marginal and impoverished underclasses alike – by achieving a position once thought irrelevant and exploiting its apparent insignificance. The film jumps back and forth between various episodes of Cheney’s life, beginning in 1963 when Cheney (Christian Bale) is charged for the second time in less than twelve months for driving under the influence of drink and is forced by his girlfriend Lynne (Amy Adams) to take stock of his life. From there, the young Cheney buckles down to study: he leaves Yale University, attends a university in Wyoming and manages to obtain five draft deferments when he becomes eligible for the military draft.

His political career starts in 1969 when he becomes intern to Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell) – in real life, he was actually intern to someone else – and from there, he ascends to becoming White House Chief of Staff under President Gerald Ford. Later, after Jimmy Carter becomes US President in 1976, Cheney campaigns to represent Wyoming in the US House of Representatives and wins the seat; he ends up being re-elected five times. He becomes Secretary of Defense under George H W Bush’s term as US President from 1989 to 1993. During Bill Clinton’s tenure as US President (1993 – 2001), Cheney served as CEO of Halliburton, a company that provides services to petroleum exploration and production companies. In 2000, Cheney is approached by George W Bush (Sam Rockwell) to be his running mate in his campaign for the US Presidency. Along his path to the ultimate power-trip – being the eminence grise that makes the decisions for President Dubya while not having to take the responsibility for them – Cheney maintains a cold, calculating mask that reveals nothing of the stony ambition behind it as he exploits Article 2 of the US Constitution (which puts the executive power of government in the role of the President) to the extent that Dubya becomes a de facto monarch and Cheney his vizier.

The film’s style – it’s a mix of documentary (with narration by an unnamed Everyman character), drama and comedy – can be entertaining as well as educational but fails to probe Cheney’s character deeply enough to reveal the inner reptilian hell that drives him all the way to Washington DC and ultimately to the White House. What past traumas, hostilities, injustices and grudges was Cheney nursing, that he was driven to become a power-mad bastard without true feeling or emotion? While Christian Bale is all but immersed in Cheney and basically impersonates him, his preparation for the role and his acting are not served well by the script which hops from one scenario to deal with another fairly briefly and superficially before zipping to yet another. The overall impression viewers are likely to get is a film that crashes through a virtual CV of infamy, selectively emphasising those incidents that make Cheney the villain he is. So zealously does “Vice” pursue this point that it manages to get one thing wrong: the film portrays both Cheney and his wife as hostile towards the LBGTI community and its demands; in reality, both were sympathetic towards gay marriage.

Bale is surrounded by a competent cast ranging from Steve Carell who is on fire as Donald Rumsfeld and Amy Adams doing her Lady Macbeth best on devoted wife Lynne, to Sam Rockwell who all but impersonates Dubya. Other actors pale by comparison, mainly because their characters get little screen time due to the script. Had the script concentrated on fewer highlights (and lowlights) of Dick Cheney’s career, and investigated these in more detail – in particular Cheney’s control of the White House during the attacks on the World Trade Center buildings and the Pentagon, and the hijacking of United Airlines Flight 93 on 11 September 2001 – the film could have shown how Bush, Cheney and various others continued a culture of lying, secrecy and a penchant for vicious violence, preferably carried out by others upon victims in distant lands, with no thought for the consequences that might arise, that not only survives and thrives in the present day but has spread to other nations around the world.

At the end of the film, viewers will not know much more about what made Dick Cheney and the stone that passed for his heart – his heart problems being very much an ongoing joke in the film – than they did at the beginning. Ticking over too many of Cheney’s great moments of vice, and not dealing with them with the depth they need, “Vice” ends up playing too much like a propaganda film made for Democrat-voting audiences who like to consider themselves “progressive” in their views and politics. While the film concedes that the abominable Hillary Clinton as New York state senator supported Dubya’s war on Iraq, it treats other Democrat Presidents like Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama with kid gloves. At the same time the film makes no attempt to understand how rural voters were drawn to the Republicans and how the Republicans exploited the gap between voters in the US heartland states and the urban-based Democrats obsessed with their identity politics.


Roma: a passive film where characters react to major events with blankness

Alfonso Cuaron, “Roma” (2018)

Conceived as a homage and dedicated to his birth family’s housemaid and nanny Libo, Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron’s “Roma” brings together a soap opera chronicle centred around a year in the life of a teenage housemaid working for a privileged middle class family in the Roma neighbourhood of Mexico City with elements of situation comedy, drama and social documentary. The film is slow and laid-back, its plot unfurling its secrets at a leisurely and straightforward pace, immersing the viewer in its sub-plots and the lovingly detailed if chaotic environment of Mexico City in 1971; yet with the use of black-and-white film, “Roma” does keep an arm’s-length distance away from the viewer, and focuses on celebrating human strength and endurance in the face of often overwhelming tragedy, pain, violence and above all indifference from forces larger than the individual and the community in which she lives.

The film begins with Manita (Yalitza Aparicio) going about her daily chores in the household of a hospital doctor, his biochemistry teacher wife Sofia (Marina de Tavira) and their four boisterous children, with whom Manita establishes very deep emotional bonds. Viewers may notice early on that editing tends to be sparse and scenes are very long, with the camera following characters in long panning actions; this not only has the effect of involving the viewer in a voyeuristic relationship with Manita, which at times can be uncomfortable as well as emotional, but also renders the film as passive and reticent as its main character. In her free time, Manita is seeing new boyfriend Fermin, who lives in a slum neighbourhood and is training in martial arts. Yalitza soon discovers she is pregnant; at the same time, Sofia’s doctor husband leaves his wife and family. From then on, Sofia struggles to keep up appearances, taking her children and Manita on holidays to relatives and friends’ plush mansions in the country, and Manita, assured by Sofia that she won’t be sacked for being pregnant, continues doing the household chores. At one point in the film, Manita seeks out Fermin and finds him at a martial arts training session, but Fermin vehemently rejects her and the unborn child.

The rest of the film follows Manita’s pregnancy as it progresses and the tensions developing within Sofia’s family as the children realise that their father is never coming home. While the characters suffer various and often tragic personal setbacks, a second narrative becomes more and more obvious: the film shows the stark contrasts between the lives of the wealthy in their clean, orderly neighbourhoods and the tastefully designed city districts they frequent, and the lives of the very poor in the slum outskirts of the city. Characters make remarks about government rural clearances and take-overs of peasant farms which are given to rich landowners or private companies. One theme in the film is the insidious influence of the United States in Mexican society in the movies Manita watches in the cinema or on television, and in the presence of the CIA agent overseeing Fermin and other martial arts trainees at the session. The intrusion of politics and other dark forces that neither Manita nor Fermin understands comes quite late in the film when, while shopping for a baby’s cot with Sofia’s mother, Manita is caught up in the Corpus Christi massacre that followed a university student demonstration demanding political freedoms for workers and peasants, and reforms in education that would benefit the poor and the indigenous people especially. The martial arts training that Fermin has been taking is now revealed as paramilitary training under the umbrella of fascistic group Los Halcones directed by Mexican security forces and the CIA.

The film is crammed with various technical, visual and narrative devices and themes which are not drawn out and elaborated on in much detail. The men in this film seem unwilling to accept their responsibilities to their families in a traditionally patriarchal society. Women have to shoulder the burden of caring for children and maintaining the family unit under much political and social pressures. Cycles of birth and death revolve continuously in the film to the extent where the mere presence of water – especially flowing water – instantly signals to the audience to get ready for signs of birth or Christ-like resurrection. Indigenous people lose lands that have been theirs for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years to the government and the local and foreign elites who control it; these people, like Manita, must go to the overcrowded cities to find low-paid and physically arduous work.

Because the characters in the film are either submissive to authority or living their lives in a cossetted world sealed off from the reality and complexity of Mexican society in the early 1970s, they stay flat and undeveloped. Their reaction to the great political and social crises of their time – the ongoing conflict between fascistic Mexican governments, backed by the CIA, and socialist-oriented groups (including student groups); the government persecution of farmers and indigenous peoples, forcing them to flee to the cities which quickly become overcrowded mega-cities – is blank. The unfortunate takeaway message from “Roma” is that humans must continue to endure with resignation the punishments and repressions rained upon them by fascist forces both local and abroad, while trying to live their own lives as best they can, with all the pain and misfortune that Lady Luck might throw at them. No appeal to the audiences for sympathy and compassion for suffering, and to rally viewers into thought, word and action against the forces responsible for keeping Manita and her people in poverty, and for manipulating Fermin into doing thuggish dirty work for the elites so they can continue ruling as despots? No such luck when one works for Hollywood.

The tragedy of “Roma” is that it throws away all opportunities to champion those like Manita who keep the wheels of society functioning and to call for these people to have the same rights, privileges and responsibilities as those they serve. Instead the film treats her, Fermin and their fellow underlings as passive curiosities with no voices of their own.