Lady Macbeth: a disturbing character study told in a minimalist, understated style

William Oldroyd, “Lady Macbeth” (2016)

Adapted from Nikolai Leskov’s 1865 novel “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District”, this character study investigates how an apparently demure young woman becomes a psychopath in a context where differences of class and race, rigid social expectations of women, and repressed emotions and desires intersect. Katherine (Florence Pugh) is sold by her family into a loveless and barren marriage to Alexander (Paul Hilton), a man far older than herself. She and Alexander go to live at his father Boris’s country estate in Scotland where the old crotchety fellow forces Katherine to wait up for her husband at all hours regardless of her own needs and forbids her from leaving the house. Boris (Christopher Fairbank) condemns Katherine for being childless even though her husband is so sexually repressed that all he can do is masturbate while looking at the back of her naked body. Katherine is forced to spend her days being bored and sleeping long days which leaves her tired.

Unexpectedly an accident occurs on the estate, forcing Boris and Alexander to leave the house (never fully seen from the outside) which means for the first time Katherine is in charge. She discovers the maid Anna (Naomi Ackie) being beaten by the farmhands and is attracted to the new groom Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis). Before long, Katherine and Sebastian have begun an affair and Katherine’s new-found lust and longing for Sebastian leads her onto a dark and disturbing path of lies and murder: first, Boris is despatched with poison and then Alexander is bludgeoned to death. Later, a woman and a child claiming to be Alexander’s legitimate heirs – the child supposedly being a result of an affair the woman had with Alexander – arrive and settle in the house. The child’s presence unsettles Sebastian and he forces Katherine to choose between him and the boy. Katherine’s decision and subsequent actions, and Sebastian’s remorse at the role he plays bring the pair into conflict with each other and with the wider society, with tragic consequences for both.

Nearly all the action takes place in the country estate house, the bare furnishings of which emphasise the bleak and oppressive isolation that surrounds Katherine, Sebastian and Anna. Boris and Alexander may go early on but their baleful influence survives in Katherine’s misuse of her freedom and power as one murder leads to another and another. The lies and subterfuges pile up as well until an innocent person is taken away along with a murderer, both presumably to be hanged by police. Katherine finally obtains absolute freedom and power but at the cost of cutting herself from human society forever; how she will survive on her own is anyone’s guess.

For all her youth, Pugh delivers an unexpectedly powerful performance as the put-upon victim who becomes cruel and ruthless in order to free herself from the control of the men who rule her. The message one might take away from Katherine’s actions is a depressing one: to survive in a bleak and pitiless world where violence is always simmering under a placid surface, one needs to be equally selfish, brutal and amoral. Viewers are confronted with the choice of either cheering Pugh on as she upends a hierarchy based on oppressing women and the peasant classes, or condemning her for her crimes and blatant lies that will send an innocent woman to her death. The rest of the cast basically revolves around Pugh and their performances are average to good though Ackie deserves mention as the unfortunate maid who loses her voice after Boris and Alexander are killed.

Oldroyd’s direction emphasises ambience, mood and plot with many scenes lacking dialogue: the result is an almost Gothic film of people forced to make choices and confront the consequences of these choices in a harsh and unforgiving environment. Despite its short length, the film does seem rather long perhaps due to the plot’s predictable nature and the film’s minimalist style which extends to the plot itself in its second half. At this point also the plot changes significantly from the novel’s original plot (in which Katherine was convicted and imprisoned) to stress Katherine’s growing freedom and power, even as she is increasingly ostracised by the wider community. The cinematography is very good with scenes framed as though they are paintings.

The film is interesting as a study of how people are forced to cope under pressure from unenviable forces of bullying and isolation, but may not bear up under even a few repeat views.

Vladimir Putin’s Presidential Speech to the Russian Federal Assembly (1 March 2018): a new vision, a new path to greater prosperity and unity

Vladimir Putin’s Presidential Speech to the Russian Federal Assembly (1 March 2018)

Usually the Russian President gives an Annual Speech to the Russian Federal Assembly in the first week of December but on this occasion the speech was delayed and set back to 1 March 2018, some seventeen days before the Presidential elections are set to take place. Current President Vladimir Putin is standing for re-election for the second and last time, and if he regains the presidency (as many expect him to do), then this March 2018 speech will serve as the mid-point of a remarkable period in which Russia transforms from a developing country, having suffered near total economic collapse, political corruption and social decay during the 1990s after some decades of stagnation, into a major global political power with a diversifying economy balanced among manufacturing, a renascent agriculture and mining, and a considerable potential to project soft power and influence in the form of a rich history and culture. Putin himself has overseen much of the country’s reconstruction since becoming President in early 2000 and staying at or close to the helm of the nation for the past 18 years. During this period there have been very many developments for better and for worse that have influenced the path Russia has taken in its reconstruction: on one side, there have been major technological achievements that promise to transform people’s lives (not necessarily always for the better) and communities; on another side, the rise of China as a major political and economic power opens up opportunities for the Russians and Chinese to work together to bring economic, political and social benefits to their peoples; on yet another side, Russia faces the enmity of nations in the West angered that their attempts to usurp Russian natural resources from the control of the Russian people in the 1990s have failed with the ascent of Putin to the Russian Presidency.

Putin recognises the possibilities, opportunities and threats faced by Russia in his March 2018 speech: the first and larger half of his speech deals with domestic issues, and the challenges that these present to the government; the second half of his speech – and the half that has dumbfounded much of the world’s media – concentrates on Russian defence capabilities with an emphasis on new defensive technologies and weapons. Let’s look at the first half of Putin’s speech, that half that is focused on issues of concern to ordinary Russian citizens, as this is essentially dedicated to securing a foundation of stability for Russian families, communities and larger rural and urban settlements, and on which the nation’s future progress depends. Providing meaningful and well-paid work, improving and extending necessary infrastructure (including Internet-related technologies) in cities, towns and villages, building more houses and making them more affordable with the appropriate housing finance, improving healthcare, social services and education, committing to high standards of environmental safety and protection: these are all issues that the President referred to in some depth in his speech, enumerating achievements, pointing out deficiencies that could be worked upon and solved or improved, and setting out tough but attainable goals. In each topic, the President ranges from the very specific, focusing on particular problems and on targets, to the general.

A nation with the ambitions Russia has needs a sound and stable investment environment and Putin spends considerable time detailing the desired economic structures and policies needed to grow the economy to the target levels. Encouraging the growth of small businesses, investing in new or upgraded technologies, increasing wages and offering better and more accessible financial resources are some policies the government will adopt. At the same time, Putin observed that the agricultural industry has undergone a renaissance (thanks partly to economic sanctions against Russia by the US and Europe) to the extent where Russia has brought in bumper wheat harvests two years in a row and is poised to become the leading global exporter of wheat. For agriculture and other industries to continue to develop, appropriate government institutions and networks are needed to supply the proper advice and assistance to small business owners and the self-employed.

Such ambitions, goals and grand plans also need a secure environment to take root and thrive, and for much of the rest of his speech Putin focuses on the most recent advances in systems of Russian strategic defence weaponry, including nuclear-powered energy cells that can be inserted into missiles and unmanned submarine drones. Putin states that these advances and new systems are a response to the US decision to withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2000, which Russia had relied upon to stop the reckless deployment of nuclear weapons. While one suspects Putin very much enjoyed delivering this part of his presentation, like a child revelling in his toys, the President also took care to praise the scientists, engineers, designers and technical people who dedicated their energies and talents in creating, testing and developing these systems and weaponry. Putin concludes his presentation by reiterating that while Russia is ready and prepared to defend itself, the nation has resolved to follow its own path to prosperity and freedom, to respect and observe international law, and to work together with other nations to preserve global peace, stability and wealth.

This is a very wide-ranging speech with much detail in its different parts with an emphasis on doing things, setting targets and striving to achieve them. Wherever possible the President emphasises collaboration and co-operation at all levels of work and hierarchy, and focuses on the unity of all individuals, groups, communities and institutions in working together. For a political speech, this presentation is visionary yet does not look or sound at all impractical or tries to bedazzle listeners with gee-whiz technical gadgetry that looks great on paper or a digital screen but morphs into a hugely expensive white elephant in reality. The humour – yes, there is humour! – is of the dry drop-dead kind: “… Friends, Russia already has such a [hypersonic] weapon …” to take one example.

While people may wish that the ideological thrust of the President’s speech were more socialist / democratic, and the economic platform concentrating less on economic growth and concerned more with quality of life and environmental sustainability, the fact is that Putin is a pragmatic populist in his own way, who prefers to stick with the tried and true (in insisting on running a real economy as opposed to following the dictates of Wall Street and the demands of the global financial economy) and ends up a leader in much more than the strict political or economic sense – which is much more than can be said for the current generation of Western political leaders.

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

Paul Thomas Anderson, “Inherent Vice” (2014)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Venezuela, the Hidden Agenda: the history and nature of a long-running hybrid war for a nation’s oil resources

Hernando Calvo Ospina, “Venezuela, the Hidden Agenda / Venezuela, la Oscura Causa” (2017)

A very informative documentary, “Venezuela …” reveals the true nature of the war being waged against the South American country, currently one of the richest in accessible oil reserves in the world, by the United States and its allies: this war is a brutal one with roots going as far back as the early 20th century, when the then First Lord of the Admiralty in the British Empire, Winston Churchill (yes, that Winston Churchill), made the decision to convert all British warships from running on coal to oil – enabling the ships to accelerate more rapidly and run faster on fewer boilers – and thus made oil the most valuable, most desired commodity on Earth. The US-led war on Venezuela has been constant: it has not always been a hot war in the form of coups against legitimately elected governments leading to repressive dictatorships but it has been a war waged on several fronts – politically, economically and psychologically.

Wisely Calvo and his film crew allow his interviewees, several of them experts in domestic and international politics, the economy and Venezuelan history, to present the way in which this war has proceeded and continues to proceed on these fronts. Journalist Patricia Villega in particular describes how the political opposition, aided and abetted by the US, not only refuses to accept the results of presidential and parliamentary elections when these do not go in its favour but also stages protests and demonstrations in which they denounce and demand the resignation or overthrow of the legitimate government and resort to violence and arson at the first resort. Parallels between these actions and those of “demonstrators” in countries such as Ukraine (in Kiev in early 2014), in Syria (in Dar’aa in 2011) and Iran (in Mashhad and some other provincial cities in January 2018) are so close as to be eerie and to suggest that such actions emanate from a playbook or set of guidelines the “opposition” is urged or told to follow by unseen instigators. The economic war not only includes US trade sanctions against Venezuela – meaning that no country can trade with Venezuela for fear of US retaliation against it – but also the hoarding of staple foods and medicines by food importers and pharmaceutical companies which drive up the prices of these items out of reach of ordinary citizens, the aim of which is to foment unrest and dissatisfaction with government policies leading to protests which the political opposition can hijack (as was done in Syria in 2011) for its own purposes.

The film begins with a quick survey of Venezuelan-US relations from the early 20th century on, making very clear that US interest in meddling in Venezuela’s politics centres around the country’s oil and other energy resources. This survey segues into Hugo Chavez’s early attempt to enter politics (in a rather abrupt and dramatic manner in the form of a failed coup against President Carlos Andrés Pérez in 1992) and his later presidency which then led (with his untimely death from cancer) to the current government of Nicolas Maduro. From there the film explores various aspects of the hybrid war the US wages on Venezuela: there is the economic war, expressed in trade sanctions and the hoarding actions of firms opposed to the governments of Presidents Chavez and Maduro, aimed at destabilising the economy and discrediting government policies; and there is also the propaganda war being carried out by local media companies, owned by private interests (some of which are allied to the political opposition), through TV, radio and print broadcasting. Foreign mainstream news media have also reported negatively on Chavez and Maduro’s styles of leadership, portraying them as authoritarian and repressive demagogues and damning their socialist policies and programs. From there, the role of Colombia as an ally of the US in destabilising Venezuela is briefly mentioned.

The film ends on a defiant note while treading a delicate line between trying to be optimistic and facing up to the likelihood that Venezuela will once again be steamrolled into submission by its more powerful and vicious neighbour to its north. That’s perhaps the most appropriate way to end its presentation, to rouse viewers to support Venezuela or at least believe that whatever happens to the country, its people will not give up hope of finally becoming free of all foreign interference.

Viewers who do not know much about Venezuela and who want to find more about why Chavez and Maduro have been demonised so much by the Western mainstream news media, and what they have been able to achieve in following a socialist path, need to do their own research as the film says very little about the Bolivarian revolutionary agenda and programs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Imperialism on Trial – Eva Bartlett: an impassioned and informative talk on the Syrian war and Western news media distortions of that war

“Imperialism on Trial – Eva Bartlett” (London, 31 January 2018)

Canadian journalist Eva Bartlett was invited to speak at an anti-war protest meeting in London about her experiences in Syria in investigating and documenting events of the Syrian war, interviewing people there about their experiences and what they had witnessed, and demonstrating through her own first-hand experiences and the experiences of Syrians the extent of the disinformation and propaganda propagated by Western news media outlets. This meeting was part of a tour she undertook across Britain and Ireland focusing on media propaganda and lies about the war, and the deliberate falsification of reports on the war’s duration according to a framework and agenda portraying the war as a civil war between the Syrian government and domestic rebel opposition. The ultimate aim of such media propaganda and falsehoods is to foment public support across the globe for Western invasion and intervention in Syria including the overthrow of the Syrian government and its replacement by a government or foreign occupation. In turn, Western occupation of Syria aims to steal the country’s natural resources, in particular its energy resources, and to use Syrian territory as a base for terrorists to penetrate and destabilise other countries in the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia.

A large part of Bartlett’s talk consisted of first-hand anecdotes of her experiences in Syria and the stories of the people she met in various cities and towns in Syria, including Aleppo and Homs: cities and towns that had been held or partly held by jihadists and bombed by them as well. She described her experiences of applying for and obtaining a visa to visit Syria and how freely she was able to move around the country (though usually with an escort for her safety) and interview individuals and groups of people. Contrary to Western news media perceptions, Bartlett has never been funded by the Russian government but is entirely self-supporting. Bartlett did not say a great deal about the type of society that exists in Syria or existed in the country before 2011 when the war broke out, apart from mentioning that people of different Islamic denominations did marry and that there was much less religious sectarianism in Syria than the Western mainstream news media made out. Free healthcare and education existed, as in Libya before 2011, and there was enthusiasm for political change. However the thirst for political revolution was absent across the country.

Bartlett described how the war initially began with small protests in Dar’aa in the south of the country that escalated into violence with the arrival of jihadists in groups such as Jabhat al Nusra and ISIS.

A theme constantly running through Bartlett’s talk is Western news media distortion of events in Syria and of the stories Syrian people themselves tell of their experiences. Massacres committed by jihadis were attributed to the Syrian government. Where the Syrian Arab Army was driving out jihadis from Aleppo or other parts of Syria, the SAA’s actions were described as brutal war crimes against civilians. Where jihadis were deliberately withholding food aid from civilians in eastern Aleppo, causing them to become malnourished and starving, Western news media instead claimed that the Syrian government was starving the people. In addition, Western news media concentrated on the fate of people in areas held by jihadis and portrayed them as being harassed and bombed constantly by Syrian and Russian fighter jets, to the exclusion of people in government-held areas harassed by jihadi actions. The fictional humanitarian aid group the White Helmets – whose members are drawn from various jihadi groups – is portrayed by Western media as heroes risking their lives to pull children out of bombed buildings. Bartlett concluded this part of her talk by praising the Syrian people’s resilience and steadfast determination in resisting the jihadis.

The last 15 minutes of Bartlett’s talk focused on Bartlett’s week-long visit to North Korea and that country’s quest for security to the extent of being secretive and paranoid, particularly during the periods (which occur twice every year) when the US and South Korea conduct war exercises in which they practise invading North Korea.

Bartlett’s talk was not very structured though she stuck to the topics, on which she had plenty of anecdotes and facts at hand. Over fifty minutes her monologue was interesting and riveting, and at no time during her talk did I ever get bored. While she was happy to take questions during her talk, only one or two people actually interrupted her, and only to confirm what she was saying or to get more clarification.

While Bartlett is highly informative, her talk included very few visual aids and viewers who want a timeline of events in Syria’s war against Western-aided jihadis and extremists need to go elsewhere in alternative news media to get the information that puts Bartlett’s talk into a proper global historical and geopolitical context, in which Syria is one of a number of countries targeted by the West for regime change and exploitation.

The Quatermass Xperiment: an outdated science fiction / horror film that still has the power to terrify

Val Guest, “The Quatermass Xperiment” (1955)

Filmed well over 60 years ago (at this time of writing), this film of alien-human possession remains a timeless inspiration in its not unsympathetic portrayal of a helpless astronaut overcome  by an extraterrestrial infection that turns him into a monster. While we modern Western audiences might laugh at the crude special effects and the naif plot, “The Quatermass Xperiment” was something of a revolution in fusing together genuine Gothic horror and science fiction, and demonstrated that the film-going public had an appetite for science horror films with often morbid themes and plots. Apart from its more dated and hokey sections, the film rockets along at a brisk pace with a tight plot and a brusque set of scientist and police characters working against time to determine the nature of the danger they have to tackle and how to get rid of it.

Professor Quatermass (Brian Donlevy), an irascible and obsessively driven rocket scientist, is conducting an experiment that involved sending three men into outer space some months ago. The rocket crashes back on Earth and Quatermass and his team discover that two of the crew have either died or disappeared, and the third man, Victor Caroon (Richard Wordsworth), is seriously ill. Caroon is whisked into the care of Quatermass’s colleague Dr Gordon Briscoe (David King-Wood) who is puzzled by the various changes in Caroon’s biochemistry from the blood samples he takes. Caroon’s wife Judith (Margia Dean) decides to sneak her husband out of Briscoe’s office and sets off a chain of horrifying incidents culminating in the wipe-out of all animals in a city zoo overnight. Reports of strange sightings in inner London convince Quatermass and the police, led by Inspector Lomax (Jack Warner), that Caroon is rapidly changing into a more monstrous life-form.

The science is very dodgy indeed – if the film were to be remade, Caroon would be subjected to very strict quarantine procedures undertaken by the military, and enormous secrecy would surround the quarantine, such that it would be done either in an underground laboratory or a facility located on a remote island – and the monster’s nature is deliberately so protean, taking on characteristics of all its victims as it changes and matures, that its transformation (while highly inspirational for later films like John Carpenter’s notorious 1982 flick “The Thing”) stretches plausibility. A monster that feeds on familiar Earth life-forms must not be all that alien after all and the creature conceivably could have hitch-hiked a ride on Caroon’s rocket from Earth before being blasted by bursts of radiation that allowed it to enter the rocket and destroy the crew. The film shows very little of the monster until the very end, using suggestion and artful cinematography, such as portraying night-time scenes from the monster’s point of view, to suggest a horror far beyond what one’s own nightmares can conjure.

While most of the acting, including Donlevy’s performance as Professor Quatermass, is workman-like, Richard Wordsworth’s performance as the doomed Caroon, wracked with physical and mental pain at the transformation he surely knows he is undergoing, is heart-wrenching and elicits much sympathy from this viewer. London in the 1950s – a poor city, post-industrial in parts, with a very socially conservative culture not much changed from Victorian times – is a significant character in its own right in giving the monster plenty of hiding places to fool Quatermass and the police while it grows and changes form. The showdown between Quatermass and the monster at Westminster Abbey is less spectacular than it should be in such a venue, though perhaps having the monster shimmy up Big Ben to bat off RAF planes was considered too derivative of Hollywood sci-fi stereotypes.

Despite having saved planet Earth from a plague of similar gargantuan slime-mould critters, and presumably having been presented with the bill to clean up the snail trail slime left around London, Quatermass vows to continue with his experiments and sends a second rocket into outer space. This attitude may reflects the view, widespread around the world during the 1950s, of scientists as being rather remote from the concerns of the world and obsessed with pursuing their studies and experiments without thought for the consequences of their work. Quatermass’s determination can also be interpreted as defiance in the face of the fear and possible threat of unknown alien forces; after all, the only way one can deal with such forces is to confront them directly. Apart from this, Donlevy’s Quatermass seems a hard-bitten man, more gangster than scientist, and this unsympathetic portrayal contrasts well with Wordsworth’s Caroon who inspires pity.

The authorities’ reaction to news that a fast-growing and changing monster is on the rampage in the British capital can be quite chilling, with London put into lockdown, all electricity cut off in its metropolitan area and information about the monster deliberately withheld from the public. Britain even then was much closer to becoming a police state than many people supposed.

The film offers plenty of tension and terror in the way it builds up to the confrontation between scientist and giant slime-mould with a plot that plays out like a documentary rather than drama. While it surely needs a remake with more credible science, I fear something of the terror and paranoia of the original film will be lost.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robert Wise, “The Andromeda Strain” (1971)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A message of determination, renewal and searching for justice for Grenfell Tower fire victims in “Failed By The State: The Struggle in the Shadow of Grenfell”

Ish and Daniel Renwick, “Failed By The State: The Struggle in the Shadow of Grenfell” (2017)

How could it be that one of the wealthiest parts of London – the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea – could also allow a public-housing residential apartment block to be refurbished with shoddy substandard materials, such materials enabling that block to go up in flames in mid-2017 with the resultant loss of over 70 lives plus one stillborn baby, over 70 injuries and over 220 people needing to be rehoused (and many of them still awaiting rehousing as of this time of writing) after a fire broke out in one of its units? In this brief documentary, co-writer and narrator Ish – a former resident of Grenfell Tower – sets out with co-director Daniel Renwick to investigate the social, cultural and economic background to the Grenfell Tower fire through interviews with people of the local community, activists, Labour MP Emma Dent Coad and a member of the council governing the royal borough. The documentary is divided into three parts: the first investigating the fire in its wider context; the second part focusing on Grenfell Tower residents who lived through the fire and the council’s response; and the final part following the residents’ determination to learn lessons from the tragedy and to form a unified community to fight corporate and government power and reclaim their neighbourhood and rights to live in the area.

What Ish discovers in his investigation of the underlying context of the fire is a history of systematic discrimination by the council, whose members are either property developers or linked to property developers, against the Grenfell Tower residents and other poor communities in the borough in various forms such as deliberately denying these communities what they need in the way of proper housing, education and social services, and driving them out through various schemes including gentrification programs that destroy people’s homes and force them to move. Through such programs, property prices rise which help turn a tidy profit for developers and prevent poor people from returning.  This part (Part 1) of the documentary does not provide the historical context in which extremes of social inequality came to prevail in Kensington and Chelsea, and the extent to which its council – or even the British government – encouraged or countenanced such inequalities. Still, this section of the documentary reveals much about how remote the council and Westminster are from the needs of the poor people living in the borough.

The most impressive aspect of the documentary is the desire of residents in these poor communities to improve their lives and neighbourhoods by claiming political power back for themselves, and that any regeneration of poor areas like North Kensington (where Grenfell Tower was located) must serve the needs of working-class communities. This comes out especially clearly in Part 3 of the documentary but the whole film brims with passion and appetite for change. The challenge is to maintain the spirit of mutual help and cooperation that emerged immediately after the fire broke out, and use that to rebuild North Kensington.

For a short film made on a tiny budget, “Failed by the State …” is well structured and made, with articulate points of view made by residents and Ish a passionate and well-spoken narrator. The music soundtrack is minimal yet helps to emphasise the film’s message and particular moods suggested by some scenes. The documentary is well worth seeing for its message of hope and a community’s determination to honour victims of the Grenfell Tower fire tragedy by defying corporate rapacity and government indifference and collusion.