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.

Animation and live action make “Doctor Who: Shada” a better story than the original plot would suggest

Pennant Roberts, “Doctor Who: Shada” (2017)

Not often do particular adventures in the long-running “Doctor Who” television series which first ran from 1963 to 1988 and was then resurrected in the early 2000s achieve mythic status of their own through an unusual set of events but the story of “Shada”, originally scripted by the legendary Douglas Adams (he of “The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” fame), is almost as famous as its creator: the 6-episode adventure had to be abandoned after several hours of filming due to industrial action at the BBC in 1978. Over the years the story was reworked in several formats including two audio plays, an animation (or two) and a novelisation. Finally in 2017 the BBC completed the adventure by combining the live-action segments with animation of the missing segments, based on the original script, and using special-effects technology that was available to the original TV crew filming “Shada”.

What the BBC ends up with is a story true to the quirky if low-brow charm of the original TV series, and possessed of all the wackiness one expects of a story penned by Douglas Adams: the central if hilarious conceit of the story is that a lovable if dotty and absent-minded English professor of physics, pottering about in his office and library at Cambridge University, is in fact a hardened intergalactic arch-criminal on the run from an outer-space gulag. But such is the mysterious Professor Chronotis (Dennis Carey), whose name tells viewers that the professor maybe outside the dimension of time as we know cheerfully serving a cup of tea to postgraduate physics student Chris Parsons (Daniel Hill) who drops by to borrow some books for a project. One of the books Parsons takes is a strange book written in mysterious script which Parsons discovers is not made of materials available on Earth; indeed its molecular structure is completely alien to Earthlings and the age of the book suggests that it only exists when time is running backwards!

While Parsons dashes off with the book, in another dimension a scheming megalomaniac villain called Skagra (Christopher Neame) travelling in a spaceship steals the minds of his fellow voyagers in a white sphere and goes to Earth to find Chronotis’ book – the very book Parsons has taken – whose script, once deciphered, gives instructions to travel to Shada, the prison planet created by an advanced alien species called the Time Lords to house their worst criminals; there, Skagra hopes to find and release a prisoner called Salyavin who has the unique ability to project his mind into those of others and rearrange their jumbled thoughts and direct them to more other pursuits of his making. Ultimately Skagra hopes to hoover up a stack of the most advanced minds of the universe with his little crystal ball and with Salyavin’s abilities on his side (or maybe in the sphere) use those minds to rearrange the universe’s affairs to his liking.

Unfortunately as with all such schemes, Skagra’s plans for shuffling the mental deckchairs around are threatened by the intrusion of the Doctor (Tom Baker), the time-travelling Time Lord, his Time Lady friend Romana (Lalla Ward) and their cyber-pooch K9. When the Doctor, Romana and K9 find and team up with Chris Parsons and his female physics tutor pal Clare (Victoria Burgoyne) to find the mystery book and return it to Gallifrey’s Panopticon archives (centuries after Chronotis had stolen it), Skagra has already made off with the item and the adventure settles down to a drawn-out chase that zig-zags from one end of the universe to another, involves Romana being kidnapped by Skagra (but not being tied to train tracks), has Romana and Clare trying desperately to link Chronotis’ stolen TARDIS machine to the Doctor’s TARDIS so the Doctor can traverse the link while the machines are whirling around in the time-space continuum, and (of course) features fearsome hulking monsters of molten lava. The story also includes a few head-scratching anomalies that don’t quite make sense – how could Skagra and his mind-sucking ball not discover Chronotis’ true identity after clearing out his head? – but sssh, we mustn’t let such errors in logic get in the way of a ramshackle adventure oozing plenty of slapstick and occasional wit along with a metal dog, a dumb computer driving Skagra’s ship and part of Cambridge University going missing for a day or two.

The animation style pays respect to the famous shoe-string budget of the original live-action TV show by being minimalist to the point of parsimony in the way characters move and speak. Effects are used if they were already known at the time of the original 1979 filming for “Shada”. The plot places a huge amount of emphasis on dialogue and clever editing techniques over action and viewers need to follow the dialogue quite closely to catch the jokes and in-jokes, and the Doctor’s crazy conversation about how dead men cannot threaten live people with the computer on Skagra’s jet that all but fries the machine’s circuit-boards.

Overall, the acting is adequate for the job when all that the job requires is chasing an evil master-mind from one end of the cosmos to the other in giant spaceships or pint-sized TARDIS machines. Carey’s professor is reduced to making endless cups of tea and Romana is often forced to play a damsel-in-distress role and spends huge amounts of time standing about in Skagra’s spaceship listening to his speeches about how he’ll run the universe more efficiently. Chris and Clare have even less to do than Romana does apart from getting themselves into trouble.

While silly eccentricity is to be expected in a script by Douglas Adams and with an actor like Tom Baker, the underlying theme of “Shada” is very serious: how do societies that pride themselves on their humanity towards less fortunate others deal with individuals who have committed dangerous crimes harmful to individuals and communities and who in many countries would have been subjected to capital punishment. Is it ethical for the Time Lords to freeze their most notorious criminals, and the criminals of other planets, and put them in cold storage on a barren prison planet and then pretend that such people never existed? Is there not a better way to treat criminals, even the most brutalised and hardened ones, in a decent way while still keeping them away from the public as much for their own sake as for the public’s sake? What exactly has Salyavin done that warranted deep-freezing him on Shada in the first place and was the punishment justified? (And how did he manage to escape?) Unfortunately the treatment of this issue is beyond Adams’ ability to work with and so the theme is very undeveloped. Far too much racing after Skagra and the stolen book dominates the story’s running time and at times certain scenes or characters can remind viewers of similar scenes and characters from previous Doctor Who adventures.

For all that, “Shada” is a decent enough story that actually works better than the plot would suggest as a result of combining live action and animation.

Ghost in the Shell (dir. Rupert Sanders): generic origin story makes anime adaptation tired and formulaic

Rupert Sanders, “Ghost in the Shell” (2017)

In adapting a major Japanese anime series into a potentially lucrative movie franchise, Hollywood opted for a standard origin story in which a main character, turned into a cyborg for a counter-terrorism unit, has recurrent memories of her past and tries to trace these memories in order to understand where she has come from and what she was originally. In the process she discovers she has been lied to by the very people who remade her and who employ her as a counter-terrorism operator. For some reason the knowledge and awareness the cyborg gains as a result of knowing her ancestry and where she comes from make her dangerous to her employers so they set out to destroy her.

That’s the live-action film “Ghost in the Shell” in a, er, nutshell and a very boring and generically Bladerunner-esque nutshell it is too. The actors do what they can with the material and the cyborg Mira Killian (played by Scarlett Johansson in sleepwalking mode) is far more robot than human but the plot narrative they have to grapple with shows signs of having been worked over so many times in other films that what should have been an exciting first film of many to come ends up looking rusty and in need of panel-beater treatment instead. The usual devices of gunfights, a buddy relationship with another cyborg Batou, a plot twist in which a supposed villain reveals his true nature and Killian’s true nature to the astonished Killian herself, and ham-fisted attempts to use a generic Japanese megalopolis as a major character in the film pad out the story but ultimately the film comes across as very tired, formulaic and – horror of horrors – outdated.

While the plot brings up themes deemed to be relevant to American mainstream movie audiences – the notion of memories being part of one’s identity and individuality, Killian’s eventual determination not to be defined by her memories but by her actions, the idea that self-awareness, self-knowledge and knowing one’s origins can be dangerous in a society where people can be owned and lied to by corporations – it doesn’t leave much room for an investigation of how humans augmented with cybernetic attachments endowing them with superhuman abilities might cope and even change and adapt to their attachments and abilities psychologically so that the boundaries between what is human and what is artificial disappear and a true cyber-human fusion is born. This is probably one of the things that fans of the original anime series were hoping for. Even so, Mira Killian / Motoko Kusanagi’s origin story deserves a much better treatment by being combined with the philosophical speculations that the anime series is known for and following the implications and consequences of such a combination.

Extraordinary revelations about foreign involvement in Maidan 2013-2014 events in “Ukraine: the Hidden Truth”

Gian Micalessin, “Ukraine: the Hidden Truth” (2017)

A short but very pithy Italian documentary, “Ukraine …” focuses on the notorious episode in Kiev in mid-February 2014 when mysterious snipers in a building overlooking the Maidan shot at both civilians and police. This incident led to then President Viktor Yanukovych fleeing Ukraine for Russia and the takeover of the country by politicians associated with the political opposition and far right extremist groups. The incident has been blamed on the Berkut police (and by extension on Yanukovych’s government and its supposed backers in the Russian government). Therefore any information that can reveal the identities of the killers or lead police to them would be valuable in helping to establish a lawsuit against them that would bring some justice to victims’ families. However Western governments and the Western mainstream media seem uninterested in pursuing such a case.

Through interviews the programme reveals that the killers (or some of them anyway) were Georgian mercenaries brought over from Georgia by a former military advisor associate of ex-Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and trained by an American military instructor. (This instructor would later turn up as a fighter with the Ukrainian military in the Donbass region against rebel fighters there.) The interviewees reveal among other things that they did not know until the very last minute that they were going to shoot at civilians as well as police and that when they did discover what they were going to do, as opposed to what they had initially been told (to shoot to create confusion and incite the police to shoot at Maidan protesters), they realised they had been duped over their mission in Kiev. What’s more, the Georgians were not the only foreigners among the snipers; there were Lithuanian shooters as well.

The bombshell revelation is that the sniper attacks had been organised by the very political opposition that was dead set against the Yanukovych government and which claimed that the government was behind the killings.

The film is fairly brisk but not so fast that viewers would lose the conversation thread. Not much background is given about the snipers apart from their nationality and viewers would be entitled to ask what role Saakashvili and other Georgians are playing in turning Ukraine away from Russia and destabilising the whole eastern European region around that country and the Black Sea. After revealing the foreigners’ role in the shootings, the film ends very quickly leaving viewers to absorb all the information that has been offered and the full implications of what they have just learned: that the current government of Ukraine is a criminal government that used deception and violence to get rid of a legitimate if incompetent leader, and did so with the tacit support of Western governments and news media.

Blade of the Immortal: one wearying bloodbath after another in a film on obsessive vengeance, duty and the hell of immortality

Takashi Miike, “Blade of the Immortal” (2017)

Condensed from 30 volumes of manga into a single work of about 140 minutes, this film was probably always going to be light on the character development and plotting especially under the direction of one Takashi Miike. What he doesn’t condense though is the original story’s gory nature – if watched casually, the film looks like a never-ending series of sword-bashing bloodbaths following in quick succession – and the sense of exhaustion and tedium that comes with being an immortal samurai. The story takes place in Tokugawa-era Japan, as most such samurai films do, and starts with ronin Manji (Takuya Kimura) and his kid sister Machi (Hana Sugiyaki) being ambushed by a 100-strong horde of thuggish sword-fighters. Machi is cut down by their leader and Manji is forced to fight through the lot of them to reach him. Several minutes later, Manji is the last one standing, or staggering with mortal wounds rather, when along comes a female demon who plugs him with a stack of bloodworms that clean up and heal his wounds, turning him into an immortal.

With the opening scene done, dusted and tidied away, we skip 50 years to the story of another young girl, Rin Asano (Sugiyaki again), forced to watch in horror as her sword-fighting instructor father is cut down and her mother violated by another bunch of thugs led by the charismatic Kagehisa Anotsu (Sota Fukushi). Rin manages to escape the butchery and vows vengeance upon Anotsu. Conveniently the female demon appears and directs the girl to seek out Manji. Rin quickly finds him and Manji agrees to help the child – but has he taken on an impossible task, given that Anotsu learned his skills with the sword from his father and grandfather who themselves trained with Manji’s forebears? Is Rin’s desire for vengeance too excessive and likely to bring both Rin and Manji to ruin? And how much does – or can – Rin substitute for Machi whose loss Manji still grieves over?

On top of the possible obstacles Manji and Rin face in exacting vengeance on those who destroyed Rin’s family, the villain Anotsu himself is double-crossed by the Shogun’s representatives who draw him and his gang into a scheme to teach the Shogun’s warriors sword-fighting skills. The government’s treachery leads to the annihilation of Anotsu’s school of thugs so by the time Manji and Anotsu finally meet (after they have both shredded entire armies of fighters into near-mincemeat), the two almost feel some sympathy for each other as outsiders operating on the fringes of an oppressive and corrupt law, and sickened and exhausted by the demands others make on them to keep fighting and killing.

The problems Manji and Anotsu encounter on their respective quests – Manji for finally being able to die, and Anotsu for power and influence – give the film some depth (if not much) and something for the actors to play with that enhances their characters. Miike’s flamboyant and excessive approach in retelling the story of Manji ends up interrogating the notion of vengeance: can the pursuit of vengeance become an end and an evil in itself as the mostly useless Rin keeps egging on Manji to pursue Anotsu? Why does Manji readily agree to Rin’s demands? At this point he might well curse the demon for having made him immortal – because his life becomes a relentless grind of one killing spree after another.

Miike paces the fighting sequences well – a huge battle scene may be followed by a smaller scuffle, in turn followed by another bloodbath – and while the major characters are essentially one-dimensional, Kimura at least conveys Manji’s world-weary attitude well. On the other hand, sub-plots that include two female antagonists, one of them a sword-wielding fighter (Erika Toda), are not very well developed and could have been omitted from the film.

The incredible fight scenes are well choreographed if surreal – there ain’t no-one that good who can mow down a hundred swordsmen with a long sword, a short sword and whatever other cutlery he carries with him – but over the course of 2 hours and 20 minutes their extreme and excessive nature can be wearying. Perhaps if Miike had cut out some of the more unnecessary fight scenes and concentrated more on Manji and Rin becoming a tight little family unit, or on Anotsu’s background, making the character a not unsympathetic fellow battling what he sees as government corruption, he could still have his intense and over-the-top film, that opens up a new focus on character and plot in future films.

Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 16: Adam Ruins the Future): this episode should have gone out on a high note

Tim Wilkime, “Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 16: Adam Ruins the Future)” (2017)

As the last episode of its season, “Adam Ruins the Future” should go out on a high note but after having seen most of the season, I must admit that before seeing it my expectations were on the low side.  The episode turned out quite predictably: based around the theme of the future but with very little relationship to one another, three topics are treated at a quick zip in rather superficial fashion. Pressed by girlfriend Melinda to consider their future together, Adam changes the subject to explain why use-by dates on food labels are misleading and how 401K funds (the US equivalent of superannuation funds in Australia) won’t support most people in retirement. Melinda answers back by showing Adam how all the research in the world can’t predict the future generally, let alone the future of their relationship, and that people’s assumptions about the future are really an extension of present trends (which can always be disrupted and overthrown). Adam and Melinda finally agree that they don’t really have a future together and Adam acknowledges that breaking up says nothing about his worth as a human being.

The legislation governing use-by dates and the information about 401K funds are quite specific to an American audience so the discussion will be of limited value to overseas viewers. Probably the most audiences outside the US can gain from these segments is to investigate the legislation in their own countries that govern food labelling and expiry dates, and to know what their countries’ pension and super funds can and can’t do for them,  and what the alternatives if any are. The one thing 401K funds may have in common with super funds in Australia and possibly elsewhere is that they operate in a context where mostly ill-informed individuals are expected to accept the risks and responsibility in investing in such funds without much help from the government or independent agencies that do not have a vested interest in marketing these financial products. Everyone who works is expected to invest in his/her future retirement by contributing towards superannuation but the superannuation industry is dominated by a bewildering range of products whose features and characteristics may be difficult to understand (unless buyers have a background knowledge of how finance works) and which are sold by companies and institutions that purport to be trustworthy and reliable but whose past histories might suggest otherwise.

The episode almost ends on a somewhat despairing note – viewers may not be satisfied being urged to pressure the US government to reform legislation governing 401K funds when everyone knows that business lobby groups and their money shout louder than the public interest – and Adam and Melinda separate rather abruptly without so much as saying “We can still be friends even if we can’t be lovers”. Emily makes a brief appearance to counsel Adam on being comfortable with one’s own company and at least he is happy with her advice, even if only temporarily, as the episode concludes.

While the series has been good on the whole, and has presented a lot of valuable information, the formula it follows has become tiresome and the slapstick is tedious and somewhat forced. A future series will need to include a bit more wit and some actual situation comedy along with information that doesn’t throw around statistics so much but flows a bit more naturally and shows evidence of digging deeper past the surface.

Murder on the Orient Express (dir. Kenneth Branagh): a lavish and brisk remake turns out to be an ego trip

Kenneth Branagh, “Murder on the Orient Express ” (2017)

At least superficially this film is quite enjoyable to see Agatha Christie’s famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (played here by Kenneth Branagh who also directed the film) solve the whodunnit mystery in brisk and no-nonsense style amid lavish surroundings and a dramatic (if computer-enhanced) Alpine mountain landscape. Branagh preens his way through nearly every shot and scene as the famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot at the expense of his co-stars, many of whom are equally as illustrious as he if not more so. Viewers keen on solving the mystery before Poirot does are given plenty of clues and a back-story to the shenanigans on board the famous Orient Express train.

Summoned by London to return from the Middle East, Poirot meets Xavier Bouc, the son of an old friend, who is the director of the Orient Express and who promptly offers him a place on board. After meeting a number of passengers – who, oddly, total no more than thirteen – Poirot is approached by an American art dealer, Ratchett (Johnny Depp), who wants Poirot to be his bodyguard: Ratchett has received some threatening letters and fears someone on the train is out to kill him. Poirot senses that Ratchett is an unpleasant fellow and refuses to protect him. During the night strange noises emanate from Ratchett’s compartment and in the morning he is found dead from twelve stab wounds. Poirot and Bouc set about solving the mystery of Ratchett’s death and Poirot discovers from a clue left at the crime scene that Ratchett is in fact John Cassetti, a criminal who years ago had kidnapped and murdered a child, Daisy Armstrong. The kidnapping and murder led to the death of Daisy’s mother and the eventual suicide of her father, John. The family’s housemaid Susanne was wrongly arrested and charged with the murder and the trial judge was under pressure to convict her. Susanne later committed suicide in prison.

Armed with this information, Poirot eventually discovers through interviewing all the passengers on the train, plus one of the train conductors, that every single person aboard (save himself, Bouc and the train staff) is connected to the Armstrong family in some way. Alert viewers can guess which of these people will have had a hand in Ratchett’s murder before Poirot makes his announcement in an anti-climactic climax in which all the accused are assembled in a tableau resembling Leonardo da Vinci’s painting “The Last Supper”. Poirot subsequently finds himself in a dilemma torn between his excessively neat and tidy rational worldview, in which humans behave in ways that are logically transparent, and the real messy world in which people, governed by emotions and motivations they often cannot understand in themselves, perform criminal acts without regard for the consequences … and yet if they do not perform such acts, they may end up trapped in a depressive limbo or resort to the comfort of addictive painkiller drugs or even suicide.

The film has no easy answer for Poirot’s dilemma and he is forced to back down before a very minor character’s pragmatic decision regarding the fate of the guilty party / parties. At the end of the film he is left angry and discontented by the events on the Orient Express and only a new summons from London directing him back to Egypt and a trip down the Nile River (which means that Branagh may be coming back with his version of “Death on the Nile”!) holds out a promise that his universe will neatly resolve and repair itself back into tidy order.

While Branagh walks a balance between comic silliness and in-your-face seriousness for much of the film, and Depp oozes genuine menace in the few scenes he has, other capable actors have very little to do: the characters played by Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench and Derek Jacobi could have been played by lesser actors and Penelope Cruz has great difficulty playing a guilt-ridden missionary. Michelle Pfeiffer puts on a bravura performance as Mrs Hubbard towards the film’s end but by then viewers will think this is too little, too late.

Various tweaks have been made to the plot and some of the characters for the insertion of unnecessary and annoying identity-politics issues (such as making one character black so that Poirot is forced into solving the murder mystery before police authorities catch up and arrest that black character for the murder) that add nothing to the plot or to the overarching theme of Poirot encountering a chaotic and irrational universe and pushing back with deductive reasoning and logic. An unnecessary opening scene in which Poirot presides, god-like, over an incident involving the three Abrahamic religions in Jerusalem comes across as prejudiced against religion and racist to boot. The film also delights too much in overhead shots, long panning and CGI-generated shots of the Orient Express stranded on a bridge in an artificial-looking montane landscape.

If, as seems likely, a sequel is to be made – Hollywood being intent on cannibalising all its old movies, turning away from contemporary story scenarios that might reveal a United States in cultural as well as political, economic and financial stagnation and decline – please someone stop Branagh from directing the film: on “Murder …”, he just gets too carried away by his character Poirot and the film’s visual and technical aspects to care about the rest of the cast and the story.