Round-up of Films seen in 2017

Dear Under Southern Eyes Readers and Followers,

Another year has come and gone and 2018 has dawned!

I feel I’ve probably seen a lot more films in 2017 than I did in 2016 – I certainly saw twice as many in the second half of 2017 than I did in the first half. Of course not all the films I saw in 2017 were great or even good – quite a considerable number were disappointing. On the other hand there were films that, while falling far short of what they could have been, nevertheless served up some interesting ideas and lots of food for thought.

The best recent films (as in films that had their first release in 2017 or the year before) that I saw were Rosie Jones’ “The Family”, Sinan Saeed and Tom Duggan’s “Aleppo Renaissance”, John Pilger’s “The Coming War on China”, Alex Apollonov and Aleksa Vukovic’s “The Haircut”, Erik Poppe’s “Kongens Nei {The King’s Choice)”, Dome Karukoski’s “Tom of Finland”, Jan Hrebejk’s “The Teacher” and Alexander Payne’s “Downsizing”.  Note that most of the films listed are either documentaries or films from northern and central Europe. The TV series “Adam Ruins Everything” was entertaining if not always as informative and educational as it could have been; the half-hour format is much too short for the series and at least 45 minutes per episode would have been adequate for a series aimed at adults down to young teenagers. 

Disappointments were various and most of these were Hollywood films or British / American fictional historical drama collaborations. Denis Villeneuve’s “Blade Runner 2049” had a thin plot and one-dimensional characters, in spite of its themes and contradictory attitude towards women.  The current Hollywood trend of giving women roles that in the past would have been given to men, adding to a new stereotype that whatever men are or do in real life, in film fantasy land women can do even better – whether as underground guerrilla rebel leader or as chief sadistic enforcer to a money-hungry billionaire – is becoming ever more silly and unrealistic. This isn’t what I believe feminism was supposed to achieve. Likewise, David Leitch’s film “Atomic Blonde”, boasting a female James Bond character, came across as more cartoon comic than Cold War bleakness and its plundering of 1980s German punk culture and music was shallow and manipulative. The less said about Ridley Scott’s “Alien: Covenant”, the better.

Of other films outside Hollywood that could have been better, D Kobiela and H Welchman’s “Loving Vincent” said very little that couldn’t have been done in a live-action film. Tadashi Miike’s “Blade of the Immortal” probably should have gone back to story-board stage to get more of the original manga in and more of the sword fights out.

So I found myself relying on films of the past to remind me that, yes, there can be such a thing as movies with more substance than style and which make you think even if the questions they ask and the issues they raise are treated quite cursorily. Peter Weir’s “The Truman Show”, Sidney Lumet’s “Dog Day Afternoon” and Phil Noyce’s “The Quiet American” were three such films that interrogated and criticised aspects of Western (and in particular American) culture of their time.

What 2018 is likely to bring, and whether the films to come will be any better than what they were in 2017, we cannot predict but one thing that seems obvious is that as the English-speaking world continues to decline politically, economically and culturally, its cinematic products will also be worse. Two films I saw – “Blade Runner 2049” and Kenneth Branagh’s ego trip “Murder on the Orient Express” – had endings suggesting that sequels were in the works; it seems that no film concept or idea is too sacred, that Hollywood can’t resist flogging it to death through endless sequels. Another Hollywood trend likely to continue is the industry’s plundering of other countries’ acting and directing talent to make up for its own shortfall in producing the successors to the Scorseses and Coppolas, the de Niros, Pacinos and Hoffmans of today.

Whatever transpires in 2018, I wish everyone a great year in 2018 and happy film viewing!

Regards, Nausika.

“Doctor Who: The Power of the Daleks” – a futuristic setting for a police-state society beset by political rivalries

Charles Norton, “Doctor Who: The Power of the Daleks” (animated version, 2016)

Originally filmed in live action in 1966, this Doctor Who adventure was the first to feature Patrick Troughton as the newly regenerated Time Lord forced to face his most deadly enemies the Daleks not long after he staggers to his feet and strains to recognise his faithful Earthling companions Ben and Polly. The trio lands on the planet Vulcan where already a colony has been established by Ben and Polly’s fellow Earthlings in a future hundreds of years after the duo’s time. Almost as soon as they land and start investigating their surroundings, the Doctor finds a dead man, murdered by another. Not long after, the Doctor and his companions are found by the colonists and herded into their settlement where they meet the Governor and his subordinates, all of whom assume that the Doctor is the examiner come to check and audit their work.

The Doctor takes an interest in chief scientist Lesterson’s work but is horrified to discover that Lesterson and his team are attempting to revive three Daleks found in a capsule that crash-landed on Vulcan a couple of centuries ago. Sure enough, as soon as the Daleks are resurrected against the Doctor’s protests, they set about in their cunning and manipulative way to direct the colony’s resources into maintaining themselves and producing new Daleks. The Daleks quickly realise that the colony is divided among the rulers and a group of rebels who plan to overthrow the Governor and his regime, and aim to exploit the political divisions in the colony.

This story was certainly not written with children in mind as the target audience: the animation is minimal and sparse and the story is driven by character and dialogue. Most of the story is carried by the colonist characters and their interactions with the Daleks: the colonists assume they have full control of the Daleks and the Daleks pretend to be subservient while always on the lookout for an opportunity to usurp those in charge of the colony and enslave the humans. This relationship might be read as a metaphor for the decline of British imperialism in its Asian and African colonies in the period in which this Doctor Who adventure was originally made (1966): the British had always assumed they could maintain their empire but through their arrogant exploitation and impoverishment of their subject peoples, and their attempts to expand their global empire to maintain their political and economic edge against rival powers the US and Germany (leading them to fight two disastrous world wars), ended up losing this empire. In most of their colonies, subject peoples fought hard for self-government and the right to make decisions concerning the use of their lands and natural resources, and then for independence when they discovered the British had no intention of sharing power with them. The difference though in the Doctor Who adventure is that the Daleks are united in their apparent subservience while plotting their own rebellion, and remain united when they seize control of the colony. One unfortunate result though of the story being driven by the colony’s unstable and seething politics is that the Doctor’s companions Ben and Polly are reduced to helpless onlookers unable to do much to help the Doctor or the colonists combat the real danger.

The story is outstanding in delineating the characters of several colonists – the sinister and power-hungry Bragen, his equally conniving No 2 Janley, chief scientist Lesterson who possibly feigns madness when his experiment unravels badly and threatens the colony, the crusty Governor and his hapless deputy Quinn who is constantly being shoved aside in spite of his protests – to the extent that viewers come to identify with them, even though these colonists are mostly greedy people engaged in a grubby power struggle. This establishes a tension – viewers know that some of these characters will be killed by the Daleks, that is a given – so when the Daleks do go on their rampage, the shock of seeing so many colonists being massacred can be overwhelming. The one thing lacking in the story is motivation: why are the colonists so keen in the first place to resurrect the Daleks and use them as robot servants? For that matter, we do not learn much about the human colony on Vulcan and why it was founded there: we have to assume that Vulcan contains minerals and other resources needed for the future human civilisation that set up the colony.

One thing that helps to lighten the seriousness of this adventure and distance viewers a little from the characters is the Doctor’s own wavering character which has yet to establish itself properly. Absent-minded, liable to wander off without warning and whip out a recorder to play during times of stress, the Doctor nevertheless retains a sharp mind and the ability to improvise a strategy to defeat the Daleks. Because the adventure under review is an animated reconstruction of the original live-action story, I cannot really comment much on Troughton’s acting against the rest of the cast; the audio recording suggests Troughton and the actors playing the colonists (Lesterson, Bragen and Janley in particular) do a good job in the parts they play, given that the plot is quite complicated but must fit within the structural parameters of a six-episode adventure where each episode lasts 20 to 25 minutes.

This story is definitely one of the better Doctor Who adventures, even if it seems a bit overcrowded with many good characters: it’s a story that inquires into the nature of politics and finds it cynical, petty and small-minded, and what that small-mindedness might say about the values of the society where such politics exist. While the Daleks use their own cunning and exploit the greed and the rivalries of the humans they seek to conquer, they still end up puzzled by the humans whose psychology they manipulate. Why indeed do humans kill other humans for no other reason than sheer greed for power and influence over their fellow humans?

Downsizing: an uneven satirical science fiction comedy commenting on various social, economic and political issues

Alexander Payne, “Downsizing” (2017)

For most viewers, perhaps the more interesting part of this long meandering film will be the first half in which main character Paul Sofranek (Matt Damon) decides to undergo miniaturisation for various reasons reflecting his status as a lower middle-class technocrat worker bee and the pressures that attach to that, and the actual miniaturisation process itself. The rest of the film is likely to leave audiences behind as Sofranek embarks on a journey of self-discovery and fulfillment among similarly downsized humans and is brought to the depths of existential despair and the equally dangerous highs of spiritual exhilaration in his adventures. If viewers were to tune out after the halfway point though, they will miss a great deal of satirical social commentary on the current state of the American middle class, the class system generally, climate change, the plight of refugees and outsiders in American society and cult behaviour among even supposedly enlightened communities.

Sofranek and wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) aspire to the typically American dream of material success – good jobs with incomes that accommodate a fair-sized house in a socially upward community, good schools and colleges for any children they may have – but due to past circumstances not wholly theirs to control, Sofranek’s dream of becoming a surgeon is downgraded to his being an occupational therapist for a meat-packing plant in Omaha, and the couple’s application for a loan to buy a cheap-looking over-sized McMansion house is dashed because they don’t have the income to support repayments. Through friends, the Sofraneks hear of a community called Leisureland where they can live the life they desire: the catch is they must consent to be downsized to 15 centimetres in height to live in this tiny community – the assumption being that tiny people can exist on a fraction of the resources that normal-sized people require. This assumption has grown from experiments done in years past by Norwegian scientists searching for alternate solutions for human survival in the event of climate change and/or reduced global resources due to overpopulation and overcrowding.

Paul Sofranek himself undergoes the downsizing – the process is very clinical, machine-like, even a little industrial, yet the creepiness of it is (depending on the viewer’s point of view) either attenuated or increased by the cheery music one associates with television situation comedies of the 1950s – but his wife chickens out at the last moment. Paul thus finds himself adrift in a sterile cartoon Disneyland gated community where he has the money to afford a huge mansion with cheap reproductions of famous European paintings. He decides to move into an apartment and (after his divorce) acquires a girlfriend who later rejects him when she discovers his neighbour is a noisy Serbian called Dušan (Christoph Waltz) who throws large parties. You know the Hollywood stereotype about Serbians: they’re either outright villains or just not to be trusted. Dušan invites Paul to one such party where Paul becomes intoxicated on an ecstasy tablet, dances all night long and crashes out next morning. He meets Dušan’s cleaner Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), a former environmental activist who was arrested and shrunk down as punishment by the Vietnamese government, and who now hobbles on an ill-fitting prosthetic leg she acquired after defecting to the US in a television carton. Ngoc Lan takes Paul to meet her sick friend and he discovers that the women live in a huge slum barrio, one of several on the outskirts of Leisureland. After trying (and failing miserably) to help both Ngoc Lan and the friend with their health issues, Ngoc Lan co-opts Paul into her cleaning service – at least he gets to visit different people and workplaces, so he gladly leaves the telemarketing job he currently has – and the two run a parallel charity in which, instead of receiving payment for cleaning rich people’s houses and business premises, they take away unwanted food, medicines and other supplies for the barrio.

Later Paul and Ngoc Lan travel with Dušan and his skipper friend Konrad (Udo Kier) to Norway to meet members of the original tiny community in an idyllic fjord forest setting. However the people of this community receive news about methane releases in Antarctica and decide that the global extinction of humans is about to begin so they prepare for a transformative event that appeals to Paul.

The cast puts in excellent performances with Hong Chau and Christoph Waltz being the most outstanding. Ngoc Lan’s broken English skills hide a cunning and manipulative personality who knows exactly what she wants. Dušan is a louche playboy who makes his money in the grey areas between what’s legal and what’s not but he, like Ngoc Lan, turns out to have a heart of gold. Damon’s acting is rather more limited in style and expression but his character represents an everyman stereotype, not too bright, and limited in knowledge and expression, perhaps because he has trained for a narrow occupational specialty and was shunted into a niche where he is expected to stay, though changing circumstances mean he will eventually become redundant. Through his adventures with Dušan, Ngoc Lan and Konrad, Paul comes to appreciate humanity as a whole, to learn compassion and true tolerance (as opposed to tolerating people’s presence), and to realise that his purpose in life is to keep on listening and learning, to put others’ needs above selfish desires, and to help others not so fortunate and privileged as he is. True social change comes not from following fads and movements promising utopia but from working with others to improve society as is.

There are so many social, political and economic issues treated in satirical ways in “Downsizing” that the film can only deal with them in a superficial way. The result is that the plot lurches from one issue to the next: first, we have overpopulation as an issue; then come miniaturisation and one social issue that arises from that (will tiny people have the same rights and freedoms as normal-sized people if they shut themselves away in tiny communities?); the class divisions in Leisureland are another, signifying that even tiny communities are not utopias but merely replicate the economic and political structures of their original source communities; doomsday cults are another issue. Far from being a solution to climate change and overpopulation, miniaturisation is simply another means to social avarice and meaningless consumerism. The point could be made though that overpopulation is not itself a problem: the real problem is that the wealth of the Earth is unevenly distributed among peoples due to the economic and political systems that we have which ensure that a wealthy few not only acquire more than they deserve but are prepared to defend what they have to the point of enslaving or killing others to keep their wealth and acquire more. In this respect, the miniaturisation project goes some way (but only a little) to redistribute some of the wealth to a few lucky have-nots – but even they are seduced by the dream of having more. (And if the film’s science were accurate – which it is not – miniaturisation wouldn’t even be considered as one panacea to the unequal distribution of resources: tiny humans would need to eat more, several times their weight even, and thus by sheer necessity take up more resources for their size, simply to keep warm.) True redistribution comes from caring for others and sharing with others, not from isolating oneself in a luxury retirement-village gated community or in a hippie village anticipating an apocalyptic scenario and acting as a doomsday cult, and this is the difficult lesson Paul must learn.

For all its faults and limitations as a tale of self-discovery and redemption, “Downsizing” may eventually attain lasting cult status: it presents issues of varied social, economic and political import, and at the very least prompts serious thinking on these issues, even if it itself fails to answer them adequately.

Batman: The Movie – a cult bad-movie masterpiece with a daring and subversive edge

Leslie H Martinson, “Batman: The Movie” (1966)

In an age when comic book superheroes were treated with the respect and dignity they deserved, this film – spun off from the television series of Batman and Robin’s crusades against crime in Gotham City to cash in on its cult popularity – is not only a comic bad-movie masterpiece but brilliantly captures the mood and style of 1960s pop culture. The film and TV series together also reflect the mood and style of the Batman comics of the time, with no little exaggeration and parody (and in their parody, criticise US censorship laws of the period that forced comics to didactically uphold traditional middle-class American values). The acting is exaggerated and hammy, the dialogue oozes cheese throughout and the plot is basically a string of comedy skits that only really make sense after the film finishes.

Batman (Adam West) and Robin (Burt Ward) are tipped off that Commodore Schmidlapp is in trouble aboard his yacht and attempt to rescue him when they sight it. The yacht suddenly vanishes and the dynamic duo discover they have been led into a trap. They later deduce that the trap was laid for them by the United Underworld, a new organisation formed by their most deadly enemies: Catwoman (Lee Meriwether), the Joker (Cesar Romero), the Penguin (Burgess Meredith) and the Riddler (Frank Gorshin). The fearsome foursome have kidnapped Schmidlapp to seize his invention: a dehydrator gun that turns humans into coloured powder. The criminals use various means to try to destroy Batman and Robin, including a plot using Catwoman disguised as Soviet journalist Miss Kitka to lure and kidnap millionaire Bruce Wayne (Batman’s alter ego) so as to draw the superheroes into rescuing him and thus falling into another trap. All the various schemes hatched by the supervillains – most of the brilliant ideas coming from the Penguin – ultimately fail to affect the dynamic duo though in some scenarios the superheroes’ survival is due to pure and improbable “deus ex machina” luck such as a porpoise hurling itself in front of a torpedo to save the humans.

Our heroes are unable to prevent the kidnapping of the diplomats representing the member nations of the United World Organisation Security Council by the supervillains who use the dehydrator gun on them. Batman and Robin hop into the Batboat and chase the crooks who are trying to leave town in the Penguin’s submarine. Robin uses a sonic charge gun to force the submarine to surface and from there the dynamic duo must fight the supervillains and their minions to recover the phials of coloured powder that the diplomats have become.

The film’s first half is a colourful riot of sight gags, in-jokes, silly acting and the most deadpan silly dialogue ever to pass between two individuals in the history of superhero films, which West and Ward dutifully carry out with the straightest of straight faces. Batman and Robin are essentially incorruptible figures of goodness that fight for justice and radiate the innocence, even naivety of such virginal symbols. While the cast enjoy themselves, their roles are very uneven: Meredith and Meriwether as the Penguin and Catwoman respectively have more work to do than Romero’s Joker and Gorshin’s Riddler who do little more than go along for a ride in the Penguin’s submarine and behave clownishly. The criminals ham up their evil tendencies and just barely manage to get along to get their plot to hold the world to ransom off the ground. West is called upon to demonstrate a more romantic side of his character and passes muster with a surprising mix of earnest po-faced style and aggressive intensity.

After the halfway mark, the film becomes a more formulaic piece as the superheroes race to rescue the diplomats and unexpectedly deliver a possible gift to the world in their attempts to rehydrate the politicians. The novelty value of the individual characters, the colourful sets, and the comedy episodes in which Batman and Robin stumble into ingenious traps and must escape death quickly wears off. The film delivers its own comment about the Cold War and the ability or inability of world leaders and diplomats to bring about world peace. (That a comedy parody featuring hammy acting, silly dialogue and a laughable plot would introduce comment on global politics and its worth and carry it off is sheer genius.) At the same time, Batman experiences wrenching heartbreak when he discovers that Miss Kitka and Catwoman are one and the same; his reaction is genuinely tragic to watch but he continues to carry himself with dignity.

For all its limitations, the film is a cult classic of its time: its highlights include its high production values, including the sets; the science fiction elements and gadgetry; the glee with which scriptwriters invent traps and dilemmas for the superheroes; the subversive undercurrent running beneath Batman and Robin’s strait-laced relationship; and the suggestion that our political leaders do not serve us well but greedily pursue power and influence over us.

 

Pride + Prejudice + Zombies: affectionate spoof historical comedy drama / horror film mash-up could have promised more

Burr Steers, “Pride + Prejudice + Zombies” (2016)

At long last, instead of yet another BBC TV series adaptation or British / Hollywood movie version of the famous Jane Austen novel of marriage and manners, we have an affectionate spoof in which the Bennet sisters – or just two of them, Elizabeth (Lily James) and Jane (Bella Heathcote) – not only sing, dance, play piano and chat wittily at parties and afternoon tea but also fight and kill zombies with knives, swords, guns and Shaolin kung fu. Yes, this is the movie adaptation of the mash-up novel by Seth Grahame Smith which credits Austen as co-author. Although it’s been a long time since I read the original Austen novel – I had to read it for school – and I have never read the mash-up, the film is surprisingly faithful in spirit if not in the details of the original plot and preserves most of its characters.

In early 19th-century England, the moderately wealthy Mr Bennet has trained his five daughters to fight the zombies that have recently overrun that green and sceptred land after a mysterious Black Plague has swept through the country and laid waste to much of it. His frivolous wife is keen to see her daughters hitched to wealthy gentlemen suitors. The family attends a ball hosted by the rich Bingley family and young heir Charles Bingley is attracted to Jane Bingley. Zombies then gate-crash the ball and the Bennet girls help in dispatching them to Purgatory. Elizabeth Bennet catches the attention of Fitzwilliam Darcy (Sam Riley), an even more wealthy gentleman than Charles Bingley and a noted zombie killer to boot. While both Elizabeth and Darcy are attracted to each other, a misunderstanding between them soon arises concerning why Darcy advises Charles Bingley to keep his distance from Jane.

Parson Collins (Matt Smith) pays a visit to the Bennets and proposes marriage to Elizabeth if she will give up her warrior ways but the lass refuses to do so, to the fury of her mother and the relief of her father. About the same time, Elizabeth becomes acquainted with George Wickham (Jack Huston), a soldier who tells her a sob-story about how badly Darcy has treated him and denied him his inheritance. Wickham takes Elizabeth to visit St Lazarus Church in a no-go zone in London where zombies fed on pigs’ brains to calm them down worship. Wickham hopes that these zombies can eventually co-exist peacefully with humans. Failing to persuade Elizabeth of the worth of his plan, he tries to convince her to elope with him but she refuses. At a later time, Darcy also tries to propose marriage to Elizabeth and the attempt ends in a hilarious sword-fight and battle of wits between the two.

Darcy writes a letter of apology to Elizabeth, telling her why he advised Bingley to stay away from Jane – Darcy having believed she was merely after Bingley’s fortune due to Mrs Bennet’s loud-mouthed behaviour at the Bingley ball – and the truth behind Wickham’s lack of money: the soldier squandered his inheritance, tried to hit up Darcy for more money and might have even infected Darcy’s father with the plague germ that zombified old Mr Darcy, forcing the younger Darcy to kill him. Darcy and Elizabeth later discover that her younger sister Lydia has run off with Wickham and that Wickham is preparing a zombie army to invade and take over the whole of London.

The plot just about manages to stay the course of the film – though it does become formulaic towards the end with a climactic fight  between Darcy and Wickham – with no collapse while incorporating key sub-plots and incidents and remaining faithful in the portrayal of the main characters of Elizabeth and Darcy, and even minor characters like the Bennet parents. Wickham is upgraded into the major villain and Huston looks as if he’s having great fun playing an aristocratic wannabe liberator of zombies from their presumed state of savagery so they can share in the wealth of England. Indeed, all the actors seem to be enjoying themselves and the result of their enthusiasm is excellent acting and fairly well defined characters in a film where there’s hardly much pause in the action. Of minor characters, Matt Smith dominates all his scenes as the pompous and obsequious parson, turning Mr Collins into a comic figure to be pitied rather than scorned, and his performance is the best in the film. Lena Headey’s Lady Catherine de Bourgh turns out a surprisingly layered, even sinister character in the few scenes she has; the pity is that she is not a more useful character in the film other than being an obstacle in Darcy and Elizabeth’s paths to happiness together.

The film doesn’t say anything about the status of upper class women and their treatment in Regency England that hasn’t already been said by Jane Austen herself or the various film adaptations of “Pride and Prejudice”. For all their skills as zombie fighters and killers, the Bennet sisters are still reduced to whatever economic value they are worth as the daughters of a minor aristocrat. That humans would waste precious time and energy preoccupied with who’s who in their social hierarchy, how much money a prospective suitor makes and constant match-making while all around them the zombies not only don’t make class distinctions among themselves but don’t discriminate among the humans either is an irony the film fails to capitalise on. The zombies tend very much to stay in the background and viewers see nothing of how the calm zombies might conduct their lives when they are not set upon by humans. Perhaps Wickham’s suggestion that humans and zombies could learn to live together is more pertinent than it first appears: the zombies could certainly represent the disenfranchised proletariat classes of Regency society. A scene in the middle of the end credits suggests as much, as the zombie masses, led by a zombified Wickham, march towards the horrified upper classes in their gilded-cage mansions.

Apart from this, the film is mainly to be enjoyed as a distinctive adaptation of the famous novel but no more. The main problem with “Pride + Prejudice + Zombies” is that the feature film format is too short to deal with the original novel and the zombie invasion to do both justice and needs a mini-series format that could treat Regency-era zombies as a metaphor for the poor and oppressed. The savage zombies could represent the prejudices of the aristocrats and their biased views about zombie behaviour. The upper classes may be proud of their wit, their culture and fighting skills, but their pride is a desperate one rooted in the knowledge that one day they and their culture and values will all be swept away by the zombie hordes.

The mash-up literary genre that produced “Pride + Prejudice + Zombies” and other odd combinations like “Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters” and “Android Karenina” ultimately became a temporary publishing fad but it could have promised more.

BBC Panorama: What Facebook Knows About You – a lesson in how news documentaries shouldn’t be done

Maurice May, “BBC Panorama: What Facebook Knows About You” (2017)

Half an hour for a documentary simply doesn’t do justice to the topic of what social media giant Facebook mines from its nearly two billion users who have accounts with this US company. The overall result feels rushed and superficial, and in some parts heavily edited. Reporter and narrator Darragh MacIntyre runs between the UK and the US – and other points outside the two – to interview a number of people including among others UK Facebook policy director Simon Milner, ex-Facebook employee Antonio Garcia Martinez and former Ofcom director of technology Chi Onwurah. The stony-faced Milner puts up a barrier of repetition and indifference when MacIntyre quizzes him on how what percentage of the massive amounts of income Facebook makes comes from fake news or plain outright lies and propaganda. Onwurah worries about the consequences and implications of Facebook having too much data from its users and Garcia Martinez speaks of his experiences with Facebook as though it were a cult and he a defector and whistleblower (well, almost) as he pursues a life chopping wood away from the closed circles of Facebook high-priest management and acolyte employees. The topics covered include the role that fake news might play in Facebook’s pursuit of its audiences, current and potential alike, and how the company would be unlikely to give up fake news completely; the role that Facebook played in the 2016 US Presidential elections as a bridge bringing together the Democrats and Republicans and their respective voter bases plus new voters, and might play in the 2017 UK general election (the program having been made just before the election took place); and the company’s hypocrisy in the way it determines what its users can post to their accounts and what they can’t.

Unfortunately as the issues brought up are dealt with in a shallow way, the program comes off as rushed and sensationalist, even a bit hysterical. The idea of regulating Facebook is broached but nothing is said about how regulating such a giant corporation might work at a time when most Western governments are disinclined to allocate money, staff and other resources to monitoring and regulating most areas of the economy or of society that people think they should regulate. Nationalising Facebook would be a big taboo when Western societies are committed to privatisation and neoliberal economics. The real pity is that the program never comes near what should have been obvious: that Facebook is a private corporation beholden to its shareholders to deliver profits and may have an agenda that reflects the expectations and values of its shareholders. MacIntyre should have been asking how a privately owned for-profit organisation translates its profit-maximisation objective into its core function as a social media forum. Might one suggest that Facebook uses the social media forum as a marketing forum to bring advertisers (its main source of revenue) and the public together? In this scenario, the product that Facebook sells is the Facebook user and everything about that user that can be mined and turned into commodities. Needless to say, Facebook’s policies as regards how it regulates the content posted by Facebook users to their accounts and the principles those policies are based – and perhaps how it hires the people to police the content, where they are hired, how much they are paid and how well they are treated – remain untouched.

As a documentary, this BBC Panorama program is an object lesson in how TV news documentaries shouldn’t be done.

The Teacher: classroom and parents’ meeting as microcosm of political corruption and social stagnation

Jan Hrebejk, “The Teacher / Ucitel’ka” (2016)

Billed as a comedy drama, Hrebejk’s “The Teacher” is a character study of how an individual uses her political status and links to exert and abuse power, and ends up corrupting the institutions and structures in which she works. The film is set in a generic town in Slovakia during the 1980s, a period when it was part of Communist Czechoslovakia and Communism as a governing political and economic ideology was at its most stagnant there and in other Eastern European countries and the Soviet Union. The local junior high school hires new teacher Maria Drazdechova (Zuzana Mauréry) who also happens to be the chairwoman of the local Communist Party chapter. She takes charge of a class of young teenagers and immediately asks all the students, one by one, to declare what their parents do for a living. She soon starts to demand from the students’ parents various services for free, on which the students’ grades depend: if the parents cannot or will not do what she wants, their children’s grades will suffer. Very quickly two students, Danka Kucera and Filip Binder, are in the teacher’s target sights as their parents recognise the teacher’s manipulative behaviour for what it is and refuse to do what she wants. A sub-plot develops when a third student, Karol, whose mother has gone abroad and whose astro-physicist father, Vaclav Littman (Peter Bebjak), has been demoted to washing windows, enrolls at the school and the teacher latches onto Vaclav in the hope that Karol’s parents will divorce. There is a suggestion in the film, and it is only a suggestion as the film does not elaborate further, that Karol’s mother may have defected from Czechoslovakia in order to find work deserving of her talents, and Vaclav and Karol are being punished as a result.

Fed up with the teacher’s behaviour, Danka and Filip’s parents bring their concerns to the school administrators who themselves also have concerns about her students’ performances in exams. The administrators call the parents of Drazdechova’s students for an evening meeting and this meeting is actually the core of the plot. The parents’ reactions and interactions reveal the extent to which, in the wider society, people are willing to tolerate political corruption and abuse of power because they derive short-term personal benefits along the way. They believe also that their children will benefit in the long-term; the notion that instead society will be led by mediocre bureaucrats promoted through favours, bribes and blackmail instead of through merit and achievement, with the result that the stagnation Czechoslovakia is living through comes about, would be lost on them. Confronted by the stories from Danka and Filip’s parents about the teacher’s treatment of the two children, the other parents resort to denial, suggest that Danka should see a psychiatrist and drag in Mr Binder’s criminal past, his use of physical violence against his son and the Binder family’s working-class background to belittle him and his complaints.

The film works surprisingly well and briskly in structuring the story around the parents’ meeting and bringing in flashback examples of the teacher’s manipulations of the children and their parents to make its point. Maurery excels in the role of the teacher and Bebjak as the sheepish, tongue-tied Vaclav Littman, at a loss as to how to deal with Drazdechova throwing herself all over him, makes a deep hang-dog impression. Cinematography is kept to the minimum necessary to push the plot along or to record characters’ reactions, and scenes in the film have a diorama-like quality. The colours of the film have a grey, drab quality and one notices that interior furnishings in people’s apartments have a retro-sixties look even though the film is set in the early 1980s: this may indicate how society in Communist Slovakia has become stagnant and lacking in dynamism and energy.

Subtle hints of class warfare and snobbery in the treatment of Binder during the parents’ meeting add an intriguing layer that flavours Drazdechova’s predation on the children and their parents. The sub-plot revolving around Karol has rich comedy as well as heart-breaking pathos. The film’s climax contains equal amounts of despair and hope as (spoiler alert) initially the reasons for the meeting come to naught – but then the teacher-administrators who called the meeting find unexpected support that starts small and then grows. This part of the film, more or less soundless, underlines the message that to overcome great obstacles, one needs to start small and over time a movement may gradually develop and grow. However this is followed by an anti-climax that reminds us that the kind of manipulative, predatory behaviour demonstrated by Drazdechova is not limited to Communist totalitarian police-state societies, and we must be ever vigilant against its appearance in our own societies.

Dog Day Afternoon: character study centred around a failed heist in a morally adrift America

Sidney Lumet, “Dog Day Afternoon” (1975)

A character study featuring stunning acting from lead actor Al Pacino, this film captures the jaded atmosphere of a post-hippie / post-Vietnam War America that has lost its ideals and sense of moral direction, and which is just as likely to cheer as its heroes two inept bank robbers as it would more conventional role model types. The film is based on an actual bank robbery that occurred in New York City in 1972. First-time crook Sonny Wortzik (Pacino) and two accomplices, Sal (John Cazale) and Stevie (Gary Springer) attempt to rob a small savings bank but their plan goes awry when Stevie, in charge of the getaway car, loses his nerve and bails out. The would-be heist hits another snag when the bank’s mostly female employees admit that most of the day’s takings have already gone to head office and only enough for next day’s business has been left in the safe. Sonny then seizes the bank’s holdings of travellers’ cheques and tries to burn the register listing them. Smoke emanates from the building’s exhaust, alerting the shop-owner across the road, who then telephones the police. Within minutes, New York’s boys in blue surround the bank completely – even snipers suddenly appear atop neighbouring buildings – and the bank robbers are forced to hunker down for the night with their hostages. The security guard has an asthma attack and goes free when the police call for the release of a hostage early on; the bank manager goes into diabetic shock and the robbers call for a doctor.

During the stand-off between the robbers and the police, crowds gather around the bank and show their support for Sonny who takes advantage of the situation when he appears outside and parades as an outsider, a little man resisting the full might of sinister government authorities. The media attention turns the stand-off into a circus which becomes even more so when police discover that Wortzik is married to a pre-operative transgender woman, Leon (Chris Sarandon), who reveals to them and to the crowds that Sonny’s motive for trying to rob the bank is to get money to pay for Leon’s sex reassignment surgery so he can live as a woman.

Pacino’s excellent acting reaches its peak in the film’s closing scenes when he is overcome by despair and grief at how the day’s events have transpired, resulting in unnecessary tragedy and a young family having to depend on social welfare. The scenes are entirely wordless with only the shrieky noise of aeroplane engines as the audio soundtrack at once promising freedom yet blocking Sonny’s ham-fisted attempts at escaping drab reality and making a better life for himself and Leon. The rest of the cast revolves around Pacino and a number of them have to endure soap-opera scenes and conversations that bog down the action and reduce the film’s tension as the plot approaches its devastating climax.

Aside from the uneven nature of the acting overall and the over-long plot, the most interesting aspect of the film is its deliberate blurring and subversion of movie stereotypes and conventions, and how this subversion questions who is a hero and what are heroic actions, and who is a villain and what is the nature of a villain. The bank manager unexpectedly becomes a hero of a sort for opting to remain with his bank teller staff at the cost of his own health. Sonny and his fellow robbers are revealed as naifs at a loss in how to deal with a complex and cynical world that takes advantage of their innocence and manipulates them. The trio are way in over their heads at trying to rob the bank; even the employees seem to know more about what the robbers should do. The police are revealed as untrustworthy and deceptive, and more ready to shoot and kill than to ask questions first. Much rich comedy is derived from the nature of the characters and how they deal with the situation as it develops; Sonny especially is quite funny as he tries to please Sal, the police, Leon, his mother and his ex-wife all at once while trying to keep his hostages in line and working out an escape plan.

Lumet’s direction brings out the claustrophobic nature of the failed heist and the stand-off and does a fairly good job of maintaining tension and suspense even through the stretched-out second-half of the film with its soapy conversations. Lumet shows a fascination with how ordinary, fallible human beings fight an often oppressive system and culture with whatever weapons – mental, psychological, physical – they have at hand, and how their actions lead them into extreme and intense situations that end in tragedy.

The Baby: a snapshot of modern Tehran and young people caught between traditional family values and the temptations of city and university life

Ali Asgari, “The Baby / Bacheh” (2014)

In the space of 16 minutes, we’re drawn into a gritty world of urban bleakness and desperation that is modern Tehran under Shi’ite Islamic theocratic rule. Narges (Sahar Sotoudeh) who may or may not be studying at university is looking for someone to mind her newborn baby (Safoora Kazempour?) for a few days while her parents from out of town are visiting her. She enlists the help of a friend (Faezeh Bakhtiar) and together they traipse through the streets and travel by bus across the city trying to find someone who can look after the little one. The friend phones another friend, Samira, who may be able to help but the arrangement sounds a little too tentative. Narges has to return to her flat quickly to meet her parents so she parks the baby with her friend and goes back alone in the evening.

Through dialogue and silent acting we get a sense of Narges’ dilemma: her parents are likely to reject the child to the extent of disowning Narges and her baby for the shame done to their family, and this means Narges faces a bleak future having to care for her girl born out of wedlock. Viewers need to know something of the conservative society in which Narges, her friend and the baby live: a society where many people, especially working-class people and people outside the main cities in Iran, still disapprove of young people having sex outside marriage and single mothers, yet a society in which large numbers of young people leave home to attend college in large urban centres and for the first time in their lives experience freedom and the company of other young people in large numbers, male and female, away from sheltered family lives. Narges would be one of many young people caught between the temptations of city and university life and the strictures of a provincial, probably conservative religious family background.

While the acting is not bad and the baby is very well behaved, the characters are too sketchy and the story is not well developed enough for viewers to warm to Narges and sympathise with her plight. We never meet her parents so we have no idea whether they would be judgemental towards single mothers or not. Perhaps the most outstanding aspect of the film is its general atmosphere and urban background – viewers get a sense of Tehran as an alienating city where compassion and sympathy for the disadvantaged and the vulnerable are thin and people don’t go out of their way to help those most in need.

Goodbye Christopher Robin: a surprisingly substantial film with some disturbing themes

Simon Curtis, “Goodbye Christopher Robin” (2017)

A film about English playwright / author A A Milne and the circumstances in which he was inspired to write the “Winnie the Pooh” series of books based on his son Christopher Robin and the child’s toys could have been a very tedious nostalgia-filled flick with more saccharine sickliness than substance and style. Parts of the film are too sugary and it does come out at a time when the British movie industry delves ever more into a mythical early 20th-century past for want of original stories. (Maybe if the British government put more money into tertiary education and encouraged more working-class and lower middle-class students to take up writing and scripting for films, there would be good original films with meaty stories and British actors would not need to compete with other non-American actors for work in Hollywood.) Surprisingly, “Goodbye Christopher Robin” turns out to be more substantial than it would at first appear, given its biopic subject matter: the film tackles quite a few disturbing themes – the impact of war and shellshock on a family and the relationships within that family; the disturbing treatment of children by their parents in upper class English families; the effect of sudden fame and celebrity on people ill-equipped to deal with being famous, and the resulting loss of childhood innocence replaced by pain that can last life-times – which leave viewers with much food for thought about whether Milne should or should not have mentioned his son in the books at all and whether the books would have achieved as much fame as they did if the son had indeed been left out.

The film is cleverly framed by two major wars that in their own way led to the decline of the British empire and British influence on a global scale. We meet Milne (Domhnall Gleeson),  just returned from fighting from the Western front in the Great War, tormented by severe flash-back experiences that affect his social life and ability to write, even function normally. His wife Daphne (Margot Robbie) experiences her own trauma in giving birth to their son, whom they name Christopher Robin: Daphne had wanted a girl and was unprepared for the extreme pain of childbirth. Right from the outset Daphne rejects the baby, nicknamed “Billy”, and the couple hire Scottish nanny Olive (Kelly Macdonald) to care for the child.

Determined to write a book decrying war but experiencing writer’s block and continual flash-back episodes, Milne takes his family down to a country house in southern England which becomes their primary residence. When Billy reaches primary school age, Daphne flees back to London to catch up with the social set and Olive must return to her sick mother: this leaves Milne and Billy alone together and father and son start to forge a friendship. This has the effect of inspiring Milne to write and publish a series of poems and stories based on Billy and his toys, with illustrations provided by Milne’s friend Ernest Shepard (Stephen Campbell Moore). The poems and stories prove to be immensely popular in Britain and overseas, and suddenly the Milnes are inundated with fan mail, demands for interviews and public appearances, and intrusive press and fans. Billy is quicker than both his starry-eyed parents to realise that his life and toys are not his own anymore.

The scripting is smooth and very flowing, jumping across gaps in time to suggest Billy’s angst, pain and eventually anger as he is thrown into boarding school at a tender age where he faces constant bullying from other kids for his fame in a children’s story series and comes to believe that his father exploited him. Will Tilston gives a good performance as the child Billy in conveying a full range of emotions and feelings about fame and the pressures it places on him. Alex Lawther takes up the baton as the teenage Billy, eager to serve as a private in the British Army so he can forge his own identity, and makes the most of his limited role. Gleeson plays a traumatised, emotionally restricted and (at times) conflicted Milne very well. Macdonald provides the warm-hearted balance to the dysfunctional parenting of Milne, often at sea in the events swirling around him, and his shallow, hedonistic and ultimately mercenary wife Daphne.

Perhaps the best part of the film is its beautiful cinematography which captures the soft light and magic of the English countryside and of Ashdown Forest in particular where a child’s imagination can open up and perceive a fairy-tale world of snow and snowflakes that float upwards. The middle part of the film where Milne begins to create the world of Winnie the Pooh is perhaps the best and most beautiful and uplifting part.

For a film juggling a number of themes, inevitably some get short shrift and viewers never find out whether Milne was able to deal with his wartime experiences and shellshock. What Milne himself thought of the way in which his “Winnie the Pooh” creation overshadowed the rest of his writing career (including the anti-war book “Peace With Honour” that he did eventually write) and subtly implied that his other writing might be mediocre is also not known. Near the end (spoiler alert) of the film, a reconciliation between Milne and his son appears unnatural, mawkish and emotionally manipulative, as though despite all the unresolved problems the Milne family has – one notes all the way through that Daphne is extremely distant from her son and he has no time for her either – the film has to end on an upbeat note with all loose ends tidied and tied and all characters determined to forge ahead on one bright and shining path as one.

While the film might be inadequate in resolving its themes, at least it has been brave enough to approach and suggest them. The issue of war and the cost of keeping the peace is one that continues to bedevil human beings, as does also the issue of how much young children should be exposed to constant publicity before it threatens their right to privacy and sense of identity, and brings unexpected and painful consequences to them (such as stalking and bullying, as Billy was to discover). The Milne couple’s frightful parenting is part of another larger and more grave problem revolving around Britain’s class hierarchy and how its reliance on boarding schools for upper class and middle class children stunt their development and help reinforce mediocrity, incompetence, indifference and lack of compassion among its elites. That’s probably a subject for another film or a TV mini-series.