Invaders: a whimsical Christmas SF film provides some sobering food for thought about human social needs

Daniel Prince, “Invaders” (2018)

Playing as a homage and parody of the 1980s film “Batteries Not Included” in which a bunch of tiny extraterrestrial cyborg spaceships save an apartment building from a property development, “Invaders” is a whimsical Christmas short in which three mischievous UFOs explore a house on Christmas Eve and have some amusing adventures and misadventures with various Christmas decorations until one of the UFOs meets Santa Claus. The result of the sudden meeting is rather catastrophic and changes Christmas forever for millions of children around the world – but the naughty cyborgs manage to zip away into space without having to face justice for their misdeeds!

The film proceeds a bit too slowly in its early half and relies on its viewers being familiar with scare stories and conspiracy theories about crop circles and UFO abductions, and 1980s science fiction films dealing with human and alien encounters. Included is a theme about the need for belonging and how that need can be manipulated by others to bully, and lead both bully and victim alike to commit deeds of cruelty, violence and murder. A sobering lesson might be found here about how human societies have treated other human cultures on discovering them for the first time: all too often such contacts result in one attempting to exploit and manipulate the other in order to steal the other’s territory and any wealth that territory contains. Another analogy may be drawn between this film and US drone operators whose targeting and destruction rip apart families, traditions, history and culture in distant lands, at no cost to the operators themselves.

The film is remarkable mainly for its technical achievements in combining animation and computer graphic effects. While it seems slow in getting its plot off the ground, once the story has described its cyber-characters and their relations with one another, the film develops a faster pace and becomes frantic at its climax with quick, sharp shots hinting at a very gory confrontation. For a whimsical short film with a fairly simple plot, “Invaders” does manage to pack in much food for thought.

Sorry We Missed You: a social realist docudrama that feels not a little exploitative itself

Ken Loach, “Sorry We Missed You” (2019)

He may be well into his 80s but Ken Loach continues to make social realist film dramas that document those aspects of modern British society that oppress its most vulnerable segments: the poor, the weak and those who may be only a pay cheque or two away from grinding poverty and the tender mercies of an uncaring and inhumane State bureaucracy. In “Sorry We Missed You”, Loach turns his attention to the latest trends in employment in post-Blair neoliberal capitalist Britain, principally what is called “freelancing” or the so-called “gig economy” and zero-hours contracts. In Newcastle, the major city in the poorest region (the Northeast) in England, the Turners are a family of four who have struggled to make a life since 2008, when they lost their home and work as result of the Global Financial Crash that felled Northern Rock building society. The family has since had to rent a terrace home and Rick (Kris Hitchen) has tried to make do with a series of jobs in the building industry. He is encouraged to become a self-employed delivery driver at a parcel delivery courier company run by tough manager Maloney (Ross Brewster). For this, Rick needs a huge deposit on a new van which he gets by selling the car his wife Abby (Debbie Honeywood) needs to provide home nursing to various elderly patients in her contract job.

The film follows the fortunes of the various Turner family members as the parents struggle with the long hours imposed by their respective jobs and the stress their work places on their relationship with each other and with their children Seb (Rhys Stone) and Liza Jane (Kate Proctor). Seeing no future in continuing school studies and dismayed at the prospect of going to university with no promise of a job at the end and only a hefty student debt to show for the work, Seb cuts school to spend days with a graffiti crew. This gets him in trouble with his parents, the school and the police, and places extra stress on the parents. Liza Jane is traumatised by the fights at home and tries to intervene at one point by stealing Dad’s van keys. One incident after another lands Rick into deep shit with Maloney. Despite Abby and the children’s realisation that Rick’s job is sinking all of them into a hole of ever-burgeoning debt and the stress this will cause, Rick is still determined to keep on working for his company – even to the point of dying for it.

Based on actual interviews with gig-economy delivery drivers and care workers, the film packs in so much to make its point that its plot does appear very contrived and manipulative. The daughter’s ruse of stealing the keys seems out of character for the child. Most characters are played by non-professional actors and sometimes these actors seem a little awkward, particularly at the beginning of the film. They do warm towards their characters and as the film progresses they produce some stunning virtuoso performances – in this respect, Honeywood and Stone are outstanding. Hitchen and Proctor put in good work as well but they are stymied by the nature of their characters.

While the film does deliver a very hard-hitting message about the effects of new temporary working arrangements in new industries such as delivering goods ordered via the Internet and home-based health care on the people who provide these services and on their families in a society where trade unions were smashed in the 1980s by the Thatcher Conservative government and political parties of all stripes have been captured by neoliberal capitalism, the film also captures the alienation and anguish of people caught in a never-ending cosmic hamster-wheel, in which everything they do to improve their lives only makes it worse, and what is promised to them as “freedom” and “independence” is only slavery and oppression in a new guise. In the end, all that the Turners really have, in a neo-Dickensian world fragmenting and falling apart around them, is one another. Abby does derive a little consolation from the people who depend on her to care for them – but at the same time, Abby and her patients are also exploited by her invisible employer who treats her just as badly as Rick’s company does him. What society exists around the Turners is just as bleak: the over-worked and under-funded NHS comes in for quite a hammering and a well-meaning police officer can only utter the same old platitudes that countless past generations of rebellious teenagers like Seb have heard over and over.

Unfortunately the bare-bones docudrama framework of the film delivers an open-ended conclusion in which viewers can only imagine the Turners on a continual downward spiral that must end in tragedy for one of them. There is no suggestion in the film that Rick and his fellow delivery drivers come to a joint realisation that they are being exploited and that they should band together, even use their employer’s scanners, apps and other technology, to form a union to resist further exploitation. In the same year Loach was making his film, thousands of Uber and Lyft gig-economy drivers around the world were on strike for better pay and working conditions, and similar industrial agitation was developing among other gig-economy workers in other industries.

For a film depicting a such a bleak society, with all the social and economic burdens the society has had to bear for the past 40 years, it seems odd that Loach depicts the Turners and others like them as passive and helpless, at the mercy of predatory companies and the governments they curry favour with, and the technology that is supposed to help them but instead chains them into slavery.

Regulation: character study of how a police state controls citizens through small decisions and actions

Ryan Patch, “Regulation” (2019)

Set in the not-too distant future, in perhaps a post-industrial / hyper-cybernetic age, this short film character study is an intimate and perhaps horrifying snapshot of a controlling police state as manifested in the mundane actions of a low-level functionary. A social worker, Mia (Sunita Mani) drives out into the country with the task of ensuring that all children in the district have received their scheduled medication, dispensed through a skin patch, that controls their emotions and moods. She stops at a farm where she knows (through information on her iPad) that a child, Kayleigh (Audrey Bennett), lives there; moreover, the girl is behind in her medical schedule and does not have this patch. The girl’s mother (Tessa Drake) tells Mia that Kayleigh refuses to wear the patch and she herself is in no mind to force the child into wearing what they both refer to as “the happy patch”.

Mia seeks out Kayleigh who turns out to be highly precocious and imaginative, drawing the social worker into her game featuring an invisible leopard and fighting a fleet of space pirates. Mia attempts to convince Kayleigh into agreeing to accept the happy patch but the child is not persuaded even when Mia tells her about her own younger brother who committed suicide from depression. Finally fobbed off by the girl, Mia has to decide what to do next.

Good cinematography featuring close-ups of plants and caterpillars, and of the social worker and the girl’s faces as they play the game and then talk afterwards, establishes an intimacy between the two and emphasises the dilemma Mia faces in whether she should leave the girl and allow her through her play activities to regulate her own emotions (and risk punishment) or report the girl and her mother. What Mia decides next will either push back the encroachment of the State on people’s personal lives or allow it, through one child at a time, to dominate people’s physical and mental states completely – at the cost of their individuality. The acting and the rapport between the actors playing Mia and Kayleigh are well done, and one can see the strain of the decision Mia has to make at the end of the film.

Many viewers may see in this film an argument against compulsory vaccination and other forms of State compulsion upon families. “Regulation” is also very much a film about how even individual bottom-dwelling inhabitants of a large and oppressive system can either advance it or resist it (perhaps at the cost of their own lives) through seemingly insignificant decisions and actions they may take.

The Good Liar: a story of identity, reinvention and revenge shafted by a superficial script

Bill Condon, “The Good Liar” (2019)

Getting two giants of British stage and film proved to be the least of director Bill Condon’s problems; the biggest turned out to be finding a script that was worthy of Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren’s talents. Although the two actors put in very good performances, “The Good Liar” turns out to be a pedestrian work. Serial grifter Roy Courtnay (McKellen) manipulates people into handing over their finances through various deceptive schemes, usually by employing false identities. One ruse is to go on dating websites to find and scam vulnerable widows: his latest victim is one Betty McLeish (Mirren), a sweet old lady who recently lost her husband Adrian and has inherited a cool three million pounds. Thereupon the two embark on the usual round of meeting for lunch or dinner at smart restaurants, going to the cinema to see third-rate Hollywood war films or walking in the park hand in hand. When not occupied with McLeish – and to his surprise, the widow insists that he stay in her house to recuperate from a gammy knee – Courtnay teams with fellow con-man Vincent (Jim Carter) to fleece another victim, Bryn (Mark Lewis Jones), of his money in an elaborate fake offshore financial scam. When Bryn realises he has been robbed, he secretly follows Courtnay but Courtnay tricks him into following him (Courtnay) into Charing Cross tube station where the experienced grifter brutally attacks his victim and sends him into the path of an oncoming train.

From then on, Betty McLeish and Roy Courtnay become ever closer to the extent of agreeing to combine their bank accounts with Vincent’s help, to the chagrin of Betty’s grandson Steven (Russell Tovey). Betty insists on taking Roy to visit Berlin where Steven is doing research on World War II history. There, Roy is unexpectedly confronted with his past as a soldier working with a German-English translator Hans Taub, seeking a Nazi war criminal …

At this point the film becomes less credible, as not only Roy but other people he thought he knew turn out to have false identities; and on learning those people’s true identities, he is forced to accept the consequences of past heinous actions which impact on his life and transform it forever. He is literally left a broken man. We do not learn however if he learns a lesson from his past crimes, and this is one aspect of the film that detracts from it overall. We also do not learn whether Betty regrets what she believes she has had to do – or even whether she had any legal authority to do what she does – to avenge the suffering that was done to her parents and siblings more than 60 years ago (at the time the film is set) in a distant country and period. Is she afraid that what was done to her then might happen to her grandchildren? Does she even consider that what she has done in the film might come back to bite her, just as what Roy did in the past came back to bite him? Again, the film is silent on this question, and this silence diminishes the film further: there is no suggestion that Betty’s vengeance, even in the context of a society that no longer cares about the suffering of victims of past wars (unless they are favoured victims of a particular historical narrative), might not be the moral thing to do.

Details of the plot, such as the ages of the protagonist and antagonist – if they were teenagers during World War II, then they’d have to be well over 80 years of age when they meet in the film’s present – and the way in which the revenge plot is resolved, with two characters from earlier in the film unexpectedly turning up at the climax, are simply not plausible. The punishment meted out to Roy is excessive, even for someone (spoiler alert) as psychopathic as he turns out to be.

The film could have delivered a profound message on identity and reinvention of oneself, to escape a troubled past (which ends up intruding on one’s present in unexpected and unpleasant ways), and on the nature of revenge, and how it might or might not resolve suffering, but the opportunity was frittered on a simple and superficial story. As former Shakespearean actors, McKellen and Mirren are far better than this and deserve better scripts.

Profiles in Courage: ENN Middle East reporter Gertrude Bellinger – parodying Western MSM disinformation on Middle East affairs

Pavel Serezhkin, “Profiles in Courage: ENN Middle East reporter Gertrude Bellinger” (2019)

Written and produced by The Grayzone journalist Rania Khalek who plays ENN Middle East correspondent / bureau chief Gertrude Bellinger, this very funny satirical video tears the strips off Western news media outlets and their correspondents in the Middle East for reporting disinformation and conforming, both naively and deliberately, to the Western agenda of invasion and overthrow of legitimate governments in that region. Rania Khalek plays Gertrude Bellinger (the name riffs off Gertrude Bell, the English writer / traveller who explored parts of the Middle East in the early years of the 20th century and later provided foreign policy advice to the British government) who is Middle East foreign correspondent and the head of the Middle East bureau for ENN (parody of the US media company CNN) in Beirut. Accompanied by long-suffering second stringer Alia – who acts as camera crew, secretary, researcher and maker of numerous soy lattes – Bellinger trawls Beirut and finds evidence of Hezbollah operatives and operations everywhere: three guys lazing about on a bench at the beach, a hunky fella doing push-ups and three black sedans driving down the highway in the same direction.

The funniest part of the film features Bellinger interviewing a guy who claims to be a senior Hezbollah commander through his translator Ahmed Ahmed. The “commander” spouts all kinds of guff in Arabic and Ahmed Ahmed deliberately mistranslates what he says in English to Bellinger. Viewers are privy to the guys scamming Bellinger; later the two men will saunter down the road to the local bar where they will regale their friends with stories about how they scammed the American reporter for big bucks. When Bellinger herself visits her local watering hole, a friend there tells her she is being scammed by the two men – the reality is that Hezbollah does not permit foreign press access to its most senior commanders – but of course Bellinger prefers to trust her own instincts (or whatever passes for them).

Along the way, Bellinger lives the high life visiting trendy cafes, people-gazing at the beach (and zeroing in on those hunky Hezbollah fighters sunning themselves on the sand or on the bench) and fixing her nails and hair while Alia runs around making more appointments with “senior Hezbollah commanders” and with the nail salon and hairdresser in some posh part of Beirut.

The production is very slick and professional-looking and Khalek is clearly having a blast at the expense of Western mainstream media outlets who, because of excessive cost-cutting and pressures from political and defence elites, push naive reporters into situations where they can be gypped for money (it’s their employers’ money anyway) and fed deliberate misinformation. Already brainwashed with years of propaganda on TV news and at school and university, the reporters are eager for any information that fits in with whatever they’ve been told to believe. The result is sloppy journalism that feeds an agenda increasingly out of touch with reality. When such an agenda pushes nations into wars that destroy lives and ruin societies, even entire nations, the role played by ignorant reporters such as those Khalek parodies, small as it is, can be seen to be dangerous.

Knives Out: superficial examination of class and privilege in crime comedy whodunnit

Rian Johnson, “Knives Out” (2019)

At times playing like a spoof of the classic whodunnit murder mystery that takes place in a palatial mansion and the entire family, their domestic staff and guests from the highest echelons of politics, industry and society are under forced lockdown while the determined private detective pursues the murderer, “Knives Out” manages to insert a rather shallow stab into the heart of the class system in the US and various political and social issues, like illegal immigration from Mexico and other parts of Latin America, in its complicated plot. A famous mystery novelist, Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), living in reclusive wealth in a ramshackle mansion, has been found stabbed to death by his housekeeper Fran (Edi Patterson). Private detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) is hired by an anonymous figure to investigate the circumstances of the death. In his investigations which include questioning the Thrombey relatives, Blanc learns that several of them could have had motives for killing Thrombey: son-in-law Richard (Don Johnson) is cheating on Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) and Harlan has threatened to expose him; Harlan has cut off daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette)’s allowances for stealing her daughter’s tuition fees; the old fella has just sacked his youngest son Walt (Michael Shannon) from his publishing company; and disinherited grandson Ransom (Chris Evans). Indeed, later in the film, the whole family discover during the reading of the will that Harlan has left nothing to them at all, and all the wealth, control of the publishing company and the Thrombey properties have been left to the caregiver nurse Marta (Ana de Armas).

It transpires that the night before Harlan’s death, Marta had accidentally given Harlan a fatal overdose of morphine but Harlan tells her how to avoid suspicion by giving her some rather elaborate and risky instructions. Having followed the instructions, Marta later confesses all to Ransom and Ransom offers to help her if she will offer him his original part of the inheritance. The entire family pressure her to renounce her inheritance and intend to apply the slayer rule (a murderer cannot inherit from his/her victim) but Blanc insists on further investigation. Marta receives a blackmail note together with Harlan’s toxicology report. She and Ransom drive to the medical examiner’s office which they discover has been destroyed in a fire. The police and Blanc chase the couple and arrest Ransom. Blanc and Marta travel to a location where the blackmailer has told Marta to go and Marta discovers Fran drugged and dying from a morphine overdose.

Marta later prepares to confess all to the Thrombey family and give up her inheritance but is stopped by Blanc who takes her, Ransom and police detectives to a separate room in the Thrombey mansion where Blanc reveals the identity of the true villain behind various recent events of which Harlan’s death is but one incident linked to the others.

The acting varies from average to very good with Craig giving an intense performance and de Armas portraying Marta as an innocent and saintly immigrant girl caught in the machinations of various disgusting modern-day American stereotypes: the virago businesswoman who believes everything she has achieved is all her own work; her hen-pecked husband who helped her climb to success while having an affair on the sly; the pretentious Facebook social influencer and her “progressive” and “liberal” activist daughter; and the teenager who holds “alt-right” views and spends too much time on his smartphone. Therein lies a problem: the talented cast is wasted in roles that are little more than currently fashionable stereotypes of figures in 21st-century American society as viewed from a limited Hollywood viewpoint. Even Marta appears as a stereotype of the downtrodden underdog whose family arrived in the US as undocumented immigrants. Harlan’s revised will then represents an apology on his part for the devastation that the US has historically wrought on Latin American people over the past 150 years and on First Nations people in North America for twice as long. The problem though is that de Armas’ portrayal of Marta, on whom much of the film’s plot depends, is rather flat and one-dimensional compared to the scenery-chewing performances of such actors as Curtis and Collette. Perhaps the only actor who achieves a good balance between the extremes of de Armas on the one hand and Curtis and Collette on the other is Don Johnson, who does not get much to do but is outstanding when he does it.

Perhaps the film’s plot is too long and a bit too convoluted, and its framework as a parody of the whodunnit crime genre is not quite suited to the investigation of white privilege in a hierarchical class society where race and ethnicity are used to order sort out individuals as superior or inferior. All too often various issues about illegal immigration, the question of Marta’s original country and the Thrombey family’s assumptions that despite their parasitical natures they should still inherit their patriarch’s wealth are played more for laughs when they should be treated more seriously and in depth.

Hybrids: a hybrid short film of too many cliches and stereotypes

Patrick Kalyn, “Hybrids” (2013)

This sci-fi live action short seems to have been made as a proof-of-concept film to promote an idea for a television series to film studio executives. In six minutes, a devoted mother (Daniella Evangelista), stunned to discover her daughter Abby (Kaitlyn Bernard) mutilated to death by mysterious strangers only moments after the girl kissed Mum goodbye in their garden, has become a vigilante soldier dedicated to wiping out the horde of insectoid critters responsible for the child’s death in a post-apocalyptic urban environment. Most of the film is taken up by the mother being attacked by and beating the living daylights out of the monsters with a variety of weapons. Using some ingenious hologram technology, the mother tricks a swarm of creatures into attacking her image and blows them up. She knows however that there are far, far more of those monsters where they came from and the next day will be like the previous day: she will continue hunting them and killing them until one day they will all be dead.

For a short film, the special effects and the cinematography are quite good, and what acting does appear looks adequate for the task. The music is the usual cliched Hollywood orchestral schmaltz so the less said about it, the better. Unfortunately the narrative is very stereotyped and derivative: Mum is clearly modelled on the Sarah Connor character made famous by Linda Hamilton in The Terminator series of movies. How the mother came to be such a mighty warrior skilled in handling a variety of firearms, throwing knives and swords, and karate-chopping her enemies isn’t explained very well. The monsters don’t seem very intelligent: they are looking for a “key” that is possessed only by humans and which appears to be part of their genetic make-up so they insist on killing humans to extract what they need. If one assumes the monsters came from outer space, they surely would have the intelligence (or at least the intelligence that enabled them to build the spacecraft to travel to Earth) to try to co-operate with humans to identify the “key” and try to reproduce it themselves.

The final shot of the film presents an ambiguity: some of the monsters are clearly working with humans and at this point, the realisation dawns on this viewer that the monsters already contain some human genetic material combined with other non-human genetic material. Whether the female soldier is allied with these monsters and armed humans or not remains unknown. The whole film though presents an idea that is not at all original, relies too much on physical conflict and violence, and the special effects to make this happen, and uses a plot filled with cliches about family, revenge and survival in a quarantined city. The notion of humans and extraterrestrial creatures working in tandem to eliminate other humans – perhaps because those humans don’t wish to serve as slaves to an elite in a hierarchical society – is also not original. There are too many tired stereotypes and recycled ideas in this film short and the concept it promotes most likely needs retiring.

Pain and Glory: a self-referential film of an artist entering a winter of discontent

Pedro Almodovar, “Pain and Glory” (2019)

A film investigating how creation can be inspired by personal memories and suffering, “Pain and Glory” is a fiction biographical drama, whereby director Almodovar, seemingly on the verge of his twilight years as a director and artist, might be seen as taking stock of his career and the themes that have informed his body of work. In comparison with past work, “Pain and Glory” appears as quite a sombre film though there is still plenty of colour and visual artistic style, and the acting is very restrained.

At the beginning of “Pain and Glory”, famous writer and film director Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas) has been living hermet-like in his Madrid mansion for several years, his depression and various physical health problems preventing him from doing the work he has long loved to do. During this time he has been caring for his aged mother Jacinta (Julieta Serrano) in her final years. Her death, and a film retrospective dedicated to his past work, featuring his break-out film that also gave actor Alberto Crespo (Asier Etxeandia) his best-known role, prompt Mallo to contact Crespo despite the two not having spoken to each other for 32 years after a bad fall-out during that film’s production. The meeting with Crespo introduces Mallo to heroin, to which the film director becomes addicted after smoking the drug helps to relieve his chronic pains and puts him in a reverie during which past childhood memories return to him. Thereafter, throughout the film, Mallo smokes heroin to rediscover aspects of his childhood of 50 years ago, during which he and his mother Jacinta (Penelope Cruz) move into a grotto that his impoverished father has been able to find in a village and which Jacinta spruces up with the help of local youth Eduardo (Cesar Vicente) who, in exchange for lessons from Salvador in learning to read and write, paints and tiles the walls.

During a later visit to Mallo’s tastefully decorated house, Crespo finds a script “Addiction” that Mallo put aside some years ago and wants to perform it on stage. “Addiction” happens to be about a past lover who had been addicted to heroin and suffered greatly for it. Mallo initially refuses but some time afterwards – and especially after a disastrous Q&A session at the film retrospective during which Mallo and Crespo fight – he relents and Crespo performs the work. By sheer coincidence, a former flame of Mallo’s, Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia), the subject of “Addiction” no less, is visiting Madrid from Buenos Aires, has seen a flyer for the performance, and sees the show. Crespo puts Federico in contact with Mallo and the two meet again, perhaps for the last time. Federico tells Mallo that he got off the heroin, married an Argentine girl, had a family with her and is running a successful restaurant business with his two sons.

After meeting Federico, Mallo resolves to give up the heroin and sort out his medical issues. While waiting for surgery, he and his assistant Mercedes (Nora Navas) visit an art gallery and discover a picture of himself as a child hanging in the gallery. He buys the picture and reads a message on the back of the canvas – written by none other than Eduardo, all those 50 years ago. This remarkable coincidence helps him to resolve to take up film-making once again.

Banderas puts in a remarkable virtuoso performance as Mallo in all his suffering and his petty, self-obsessed behaviour, and the rest of the cast does good work. The flashbacks to Mallo’s past are well done, though an element of mischievous surprise comes at the very end which puts those flashbacks in another light and explains why Jacinta’s eyes seem to change colour as she ages! Apart from the performances and the arresting visual style of the film (which of course indicates good cinematography among other things), there really isn’t much in the film’s narrative that would elevate it to the status of a great film: viewers are no better informed at the end of the film than at the beginning what made Mallo a great film director or his break-out film with Crespo the remarkable work that it was. How Crespo faded out as an actor is not explored; indeed the character disappears from “Pain and Glory” around the halfway point of the film. The episode with Federico is brief and after that character leaves, the film’s narrative marches on to another topic with no more reference to Crespo, Federico and whatever they inspire Mallo to do next.

One gets the impression that “Pain and Glory” is no more than an ordinary and banal story about an artist having a creative mid-life crisis and making a huge fuss out of it. As one character, Dr Galindo (Pedro Casablanc) says, “there are people worse off than you [Mallo]” and that could be advice someone already gave to Almodovar.

Farming: fictional biographical drama ignores its wider social context

Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, “Farming” (2018)

“Farming” is a fictional biographical drama based on actor / director Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s childhood growing up in Britain as a foster child parked with a working-class white family by his Nigerian parents in the 1960s / 70s. The practice in which Nigerian parents fostered out their children with white families in Britain grew out of traditional practices in parts of sub-Saharan Africa in which families sent their children to other families in other communities, often to pay off debts or to fulfill family or clan obligations, which would bring up those children as if they were their own or educate them in skills and knowledge that the birth families hoped would give the children social or other advantages when they became adults. Nigerian families in the mid-20th century, living in a country newly independent from British colonial status, neither saw nor anticipated the consequences that might come when they fostered their children with white families in Britain. In the case of Enitan (played by Zephan Hanson Amissah and then Damson Idris), the boy is fostered out by parents Femi and Tolu (director Akinnuoye-Agbaje himself and Genevieve Nnaji respectively) to a white couple Ingrid and Jack Carpenter (Kate Beckinsale and Lee Ross) living in Tilbury, a post-industrial working-class district in London. The Carpenters end up fostering Enitan’s two younger sisters and several other Nigerian children to get social security money, but this means the couple cannot give Enitan the love and sense of stability and belonging he needs. As the other fostered children are girls, they behave perfectly but Enitan is a dreamy boy given to playing with imaginary friends, living in a community where being a boy and being artistic and dreamy do not mix.

As he grows up, Enitan experiences a continual loss of identity and culture shocks due to constant racist bullying at school and subtle bullying at home, combined with his birth parents’ sudden appearance from nowhere to take him back home to Nigeria where he is beaten by a teacher for speaking only English at school and subjected to cultural practices he does not understand and which would be considered severe physical abuse in Western societies. His embarrassed parents dump him back with Ingrid and Jack and so the racism and bullying start again and escalate into his adolescent years. At the age of 16 years Enitan is suspended from school and through a series of harrowing incidents ends up joining a racist skinhead gang known as the Tilbury Skins, led by Levi (John Dalgleish). By this time Enitan has truly embraced his self-hatred and hatred of anyone and everyone who is not white.

While Idris, Beckinsale and Dalgleish give excellent performances – Dalgleish just about chews up every scene in which he is in, and only a python really threatens to steal his scenes from him – the film’s plot itself is something of a let-down. Enitan’s adventures with the skinheads are a dreary string of violent incidents in which the Tilbury Skins torment anyone and everyone who they don’t like the look of, including other skinheads. In this part of the film, one stereotype after another regarding the skinheads and their culture is paraded; why Enitan continues to stay with these people in spite of the continual dumping he experiences is hard to understand. Levi and the other guys in the gang surely see something in Enitan that they respect and admire, otherwise they would not allow him to tag along for fear of being attacked by other racist skinhead gangs. One paradox present at this point in the film is that when the skinheads visit their favourite pubs, also patronised by other skinheads, the music playing in the background is usually reggae, dub or ska – all music originating among Jamaican black people!

Eventually Enitan is rescued from skinhead culture by Ingrid and a saintly school-teacher (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) but the scenes in which Enitan is deprogrammed, learns that people do care for him and comes to accept himself as he is, and makes his peace with Ingrid and Jack, race by very quickly. The unfortunate result is that Enitan’s re-entry into society as a normal person seems very superficial and just as stereotyped as his acceptance into the Tilbury Skins. For that matter, the film’s portrayal of skinheads and skinhead culture as racist, degraded and brutish is just as one-dimensional: the reality is that during the 1970s / 80s, skinheads embraced all political, social and cultural points of view (thus explaining their liking for Jamaican immigrant and Jamaican British culture and music) and the stereotype of skinheads as white supremacist neo-Nazi thugs is a creation of British mainstream media at the time catering to middle class dislike and distrust of working-class people.

By concentrating on one character’s loss of and search for his identity and a community he can call his own, “Farming” ignores other related issues. Ingrid herself is a Gypsy and the discrimination and violence that Gypsies have traditionally suffered in Britain (and still do) are hinted at very faintly in the film. How and why Levi and his fellow skins are outsiders in the Tilbury community – they are shown living in a rubbish dump – is not explained in the film. Most disturbing of all, the film shows working-class people in the worst possible light as racist, ignorant and violent, and ignores the political, economic and social changes in post-Thatcherite Britain that have marginalised and impoverished working-class people, to be mocked by the middle classes, in the process turning the working class into the nightmare the middle classes fear so much.

The Kid: minimalist proof-of-concept short that raises intriguing questions about its themes and issues

Nicholas Wenger, “The Kid” (2018)

“The Kid” is a six-minute proof-of-concept film made to demonstrate the potential of certain themes and issues that a longer and more specific screenplay, currently being written at the time of this review, will address. The main characters, Shelby (Ellen Wroe) and Asa (Evan Alex), are on the run from the authorities in downtown Los Angeles. They turn down an alley in a slum neighbourhood and discover they have hit a dead end. The men chasing them look like a gang of thugs but could also be plainclothes police officers or security officers working for a private company in disguise. The men all on Shelby but the woman bravely fights back with a strength far beyond what her slim slight figure is capable of and with martial arts skills that would require several lifetimes to achieve. After flooring two men, she is shot in the forehead at point blank range by the group’s leader and she slumps dead to the ground. The men beckon Asa to come with them; he will do but only after he pays his respects to Shelby first by holding her hand. One of the surviving men holds Asa’s other hand to take him but then discovers that a strange force is taking over him and sucking the life out of him …

The action is fast paced with very minimal dialogue and viewers can have a lot of fun guessing at how and why Shelby and Asa came to be together and why they are being pursued. Is the superhuman power Asa demonstrates in the short film the only one he has or does he have other strange and incredible powers as well? Can his power/s be used for committing evil acts as well as good ones? Are there others like Asa who literally have the power of transferring and bestowing life on some people by denying it to others? What might some of the consequences of such a power be? It seems that Shelby has been a fortunate recipient of others’ life-force: how might receiving others’ life energy affect her in the long run? Will she suffer any life-threatening side effects? And who are the people who want what Asa has?

Wroe and Alex do good work in establishing their characters’ loyalty to one another and the interdependence that exists between them. He relies on her to protect him and she relies on him as well. Apart from this, the film looks very workman-like with the level of cinematography and minimal characterisation expected for an action thriller sci-fi short.