Exposing and satirising British news media propaganda idiocy in “The Hooligans: Joining the Kremlin’s Football Army”

Pavel Serezhkin, “The Hooligans: Joining the Kremlin’s Football Army” (2018)

Here’s a very funny mockumentary that pokes fun at Western (and in particular British) news media propaganda hysteria about the Russian government supposedly preparing an army of “hooligans” to attack foreign football fans arriving in Russia to watch the 2018 FIFA World Cup tournament and follow their national teams. Australian sports fanatic Alex (Alex Apollonov), having failed at just about every sport and, influenced by BBC news reports about Russian soccer hooligan violence, racism and homophobia in Russia, and the Russian “new man”, whose role model is supposed strong-man Russian President Vladimir Putin, travels to Russia to find real Russian hooligans with whom he can bond. One fellow Alex especially wants to meet is Vasily the Killer, who apparently masterminded the riots at Marseilles during the UEFA European football championships in 2016. Accompanied by his friend and mockumentary narrator Aleksa (Aleksa Vulovic), plus a film crew, Alex flies to Russia to find his hero and the group known as the Orel Butchers, made notorious by the BBC as instigators of the violence in Marseilles.

The reality the two friends experience is nothing like what they expected: the Orel Butchers are just a bunch of football-crazy friends and Vasily the Killer turns out to be a family man with a large brood of children who was not even in Marseilles at the time the riots occurred. Denis, alleged by Western news reports to have led the Orel Butchers in the Marseille riots, is revealed as … non-existent. The Orel Butchers add that they were asked by Western news reporters to put on balaclavas “for fun”. Alex and Aleksa meet Alexei Smertin, a retired football player and the anti-discrimination / racism inspector for the 2018 World Cup, and stadium security to ask what they know of Russian hooligans and what barriers are in place against hooliganism. Stadium security turns out to be very good. In their search for the “new Russian man” at a gym, Alex and Aleksa discover that the gym owner firmly discourages violence and hooliganism. The duo attend a football game and sit among a group of raucous but well-behaved fans.

Vulovic and Apollonov are well known for having travelled to North Korea in 2017 in search of a haircut supposedly not approved by the North Korean government (and which Vulovic got, along with a snazzy moustache). They bravely brazen their way into most situations with a mix of apprehension and awkwardness, and their deliberate misunderstanding of their hosts’ explanations is often more embarrassing than funny. In the gym scene where the two are looking for the “new Russian man”, they misinterpret and mistranslate what the gym owner is saying, and in that reveal a common disinformation method (allowing someone to rattle on in his or her own language and deliberately twisting that person’s words in the English language translation or subtitles) used by mainstream news media outlets to paint a completely different story.

Alex eventually returns to Australia much sadder (though not necessarily wiser) at not having found any Russian football hooligans in spite of what he was led to believe from following BBC news reports. Viewers hope that he will find a sport that accommodates his limited physical abilities and which is popular with Australians. At least, having visited Russia, he and Aleksa have found a country with warm welcoming and very polite people living comfortable if not lavish lifestyles, far from the old Soviet-era stereotypes that Western news media outlets still insist on applying with the aim of demonising Russia and Russian people for having a leader and a government that will not kowtow to elite American hegemony.

 

Batman vs. Two-Face: two icons of 1960s television series facing off in a film reconciling the Bright Knight and Dark Knight sides of Batman

Rick Morales, “Batman vs. Two-Face” (2017)

Adam West’s final outing as Batman before his death in June 2017 brings him face to face (or face to faces) with a criminal he never met on the 1960s television series: Harvey Dent aka Two-Face. Apparently the crooked district attorney who relies on tossing a coin to make his decisions had been set to appear on the old comedy series (with Clint Eastwood in the role) but studio executives deemed the character too dark and Two-Face was sidelined. Finally with William Shatner (yes, that William Shatner!) giving voice and his familiar look from the classic 1960s TV series “Star Trek” to the character, Two-Face takes his rightful place among other villainous favourites like Catwoman (Julie Newmar), the Joker, the Penguin, the Riddler, Mr Freeze, Bookworm, King Tut, the Clock King and Egghead, all of whom appear in this sequel to “Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders”.

The sequel is not so much a homage to the original TV series and carries fewer of the jokes and other gags that burdened its predecessor, with one exception where Catwoman exchanges costume with lawyer Lucilee Diamond (voiced by Lee Meriwether, who played Catwoman in the 1966 Batman feature film when Newmar was unavailable for the role) in order to break out of jail. This episode in the Dynamic Duo’s adventures is tighter with a faster pace and not so many twists in the plot, although the Joker, Pengy and Riddles are now very minor characters.

Dr Hugo Strange (based on the Peter Sellers character Dr Strangelove in the famous Stanley Kubrick film) has invented a machine that will extract evil from Gotham City’s most criminal masterminds and invites the Dynamic Duo, District Attorney Harvey Dent, Commissioner Gordon and police chief O’Hara to a secret demonstration. While Dr Strange’s assistant Dr Harleen Quinzel operates the levers, Batman and Robin voice misgivings that the experiment extracting evil from the brains of the Joker, the Penguin, the Riddler, Egghead and Mr Freeze will not go as planned. Sure enough, the machine malfunctions and explodes, and Harvey Dent receives the full force of the noxious fumes enveloping him.

Several months later, after racking up a not-so-respectable resume in crime, Harvey Dent is captured by the caped crusaders and receives plastic surgery to restore him to his previous whole self. But the surgery literally proves to be only skin-deep and Dent’s Jekyll is soon overcome by his Two-Face’s Hyde. He uses King Tut and Bookworm to commit false-flag crimes to distract our masked heroes but they quickly deduce that the various characteristics of the crimes, all exhibiting doubled-up or dual natures, point to Two-Face as their mastermind. Batman and Robin disagree on Harvey Dent’s likely role in these crimes, with Batman willing to defend Dent’s good character, and the two briefly separate. The crime-fighters eventually reconcile but not before Robin is captured and given a whiff of the same noxious substance that Dent received months ago. The Dynamic Duo follow Dent / Two-Face to a casino where he manages to outwit them.

Duality and double identities are the major theme of this episode, and fittingly Dent / Two-Face deduces Batman and Robin’s real identities while he has them strapped to a giant silver dollar which, if they move, will roll down to a giant bed of nails that will impale them. Since Batman has already been a bad Batman in “… Return of the Caped Crusaders”, Robin gets a turn in playing a bad Robin, and even his alter ego Dick Grayson is jealous of Bruce Wayne’s friendship with Harvey Dent. Catwoman also finds herself playing both villain and Batman’s ally. The plot ends up in a pedestrian battle of good versus evil as Dent / Two-Face literally struggles with himself amid explosions in an oil refinery.

The animation is adequate for the plot though at least Dent / Two-Face does look like Shatner and the main characters also resemble the actors playing them to some extent. One wishes again that Gotham City could have looked less generic and more like a city of light (where everyone and everything wears a prim and proper face, save perhaps public institutions like the Sisters of Perpetual Irony Hospital) during the day and a city of darkness in the night when masked avengers sally forth to fight and vanquish evil, in keeping with the theme of duality. The actors voicing the various characters do excellent work in making the cheesy dialogue work and seem plausible although West’s voice is quite frail. Viewers do not need to be as familiar with jokes, gags and other references to the original television series and the various Batman / Dark Knight films.

This sequel is an improvement on “… Return of the Caped Crusaders” which also brings the television series closer to the official DC Comics Batman universe with the introduction of characters like Harvey Dent / Two-Face and Harleen Quinzel aka Harley Quinn in a very minor role. It is a fitting way for West to bow out and end his acting career.

 

Carrying a heavy legacy of numerous interpretations of Batman in “Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders”

Rick Morales, “Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders” (2016)

The series of Batman films by Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher in the 1990s and by Christopher Nolan in the early 2000s, along with the various animated television series featuring the character and the astonishing array of criminals  he fights in not-so-fair Gotham City, revived interest in the goofy late 1960s live-action television comedy series starring Adam West and Burt Ward as the Dynamic Duo. The two reunite (well, at least their voices do) together with Julie Newmar, reprising her role as Catwoman in the TV series, in a new animated adventure that parodies the old television show and throws a sly dig or two at the more recent Dark Knight movie trilogy. This film is intended as a fun nostalgia trip back to the 1960s television show for fans who perhaps find Christian Bale’s portrayal of the Dark Knight in Nolan’s trilogy disturbing with the character using almost any means at his disposal, whether ethical or not, to nab his enemies whether they deserve the brutal punishments he deals out or not.

The first half-hour of this film is rather slow and hews closely to the original TV series’ formula in which the criminals are introduced early on and their dastardly plan of dominating the world (with a stolen ray-gun that replicates its victims) is sketched out in some detail. With the criminals being none other than Catwoman, the Joker, the Penguin and the Riddler colluding to rule the Earth, the film harks back to the 1966 movie in which the foursome were also plotting a takeover of Planet Earth. Batman and Robin are soon hot on the quartet’s trail but the villains have a surprise for them both. After the obligatory fight scene at a derelict factory (that used to make TV dinners!) in which title cards of POW! BAM! and SPLAT! have to pass by, Catwoman knocks out the heroes with her feminine wiles and hair-spray and the two end up as a possible main course in a giant TV dinner on a moving conveyor belt taking them into a microwave oven going full blast. Catwoman administers Bat-nip to Batman, expecting that its intended effect of turning him into something crooked with none of his usual cheesy Boy-Scout wholesomeness will take effect straight away. Instead Batman suffers a delayed reaction to the Bat-nip; but when it does begin its malign influence, the results can be very drastic. Batman’s alter-ego Bruce Wayne fires faithful butler Alfred Pennyworth and insults Aunt Harriet. The super-hero deposes Commissioner Gordon and Chief O’Hara with clones of himself created with the replication ray-gun seized from the super-villains. Before long, Gotham City is over-run with Batman clones dishing out their own warped forms of justice and faithful side-kick Robin is forced to team with Catwoman to get hold of the antidote to the Bat-nip and cure Batman of the drug that has unleashed his dark, unethical side.

The plot is a throwback to a story in the old 1960s TV show in which Catwoman had scratched Batman (or so she believes) with a drug that turns him into a near sex maniac and Catwoman’s partner in crime. The clever twist in this plot is that the film uses it to reference and comment on the Dark Knight films and other interpretations of the super-hero in the comics and in other movies and TV shows: as bad guy, and free of moral inhibitions, Batman uses excess violence as a first resort in confronting and finally sending the Joker, the Riddler and the Penguin to Arkham Asylum where they are forced to work alongside other known Batman villains. Once the twist comes, the film goes off on a loopy tangent referencing various gags from the TV show (such as Batman and Catwoman’s secret romance and the problem of what to do with Robin) and introducing more improbable twists that all but turn the plot into hierarchical layers of a game. The Bat-nip administered to Batman turns out to have been nobbled by the Joker; Robin and Catwoman’s near-demise in the Bat-cave’s atomic reactor is foiled by Robin’s prior application of the Bat anti-nuclear isotope protection spray (or whatever the darned gadget was called) because he foresaw that the bad Batman would try to use the reactor to despatch him and Catwoman; and Alfred reveals to Robin that his sacking was a signal to him from Bruce Wayne that he (Wayne) was a victim of mind-control.

Silly as it is, the plot races merrily along although once it is foiled and the Batman clones disappear, the fim enters a long denouement in which Batman and Robin still have to fight their enemies on top of the Penguin’s airship. Catwoman opts to risk her life escaping the long arm of the law courtesy of an even longer industrial chimney-stack.

The animation is not too bad but it looks much the same as other animated Batman movies and TV series like “Batman: the Brave and the Bold”. The original 1960s show’s cozy and goofy charm seems to be lost on the animators: Gotham City is shown as a dark, forbidding city with mostly empty streets, and Robin’s tendency to utter his trademark “Holy ___!” expletives reaches the peak of really ridiculous referencing when, on seeing Catwoman’s Catmobile, he exclaims “Holy Faster Pussycat, Kill Kill Kill!” Elsewhere Robin blurts out “Holy unsatisfactory ending!” when Catwoman proposes (in a clear reference to the happy ending of “The Dark Knight Rises”) to Batman that they meet in a restaurant in Europe to take tea together. The TV series’ fondness for alliterative expressions and Batman’s aphorisms of advice to Robin about such things as why we should not jaywalk and why building up one’s upper body strength is so important to crime-fighters can become a bit wearying – as does the constant iteration of the TV series’ theme music – when these appear POW-POW-POW, leaving viewers not much time to marvel at the silly appropriateness of the utterances in their context.

Adam West’s sometimes frail and quavering voice reminds audiences that the actor was in his octogenarian years at the time of filming (and he was not well either) while Burt Ward rattles off the teenage Robin’s lines with the same intense and uptight emotion he mustered half a century earlier. Equally octogenarian Newmar does, well, workman-like (or should that be workwoman-like?) work on Catwoman’s lines. Wally Wingert as the Riddler pins down the original portrayal of Frank Gorshin’s exactly, and the other voice actors playing the Joker and the Penguin are adequate but not outstanding for their jobs.

The film is rather over-long and perhaps it’s too self-referential and plunders the various multiple interpretations of the character over the decades. As an exercise in nostalgia, it’s not too bad and for many viewers it will comes as a breath of fresh air after the grimness of Nolan’s Dark Knight films. It could have been done better and with less of a burden than it was forced to carry.

Blue: the impact of human activities and pollution on marine environments and ecosystems told through individual stories

Karina Holden, “Blue” (2017)

Instead of bashing its audiences over the head with facts ‘n’ figures about the impact of human activities on oceans and marine ecosystems, this documentary chooses a show-don’t-tell approach in which several stories focusing on particular issues are told from the viewpoints of their activist / researcher protagonists. While the initial presentation is relaxed, frequently languid, and the documentary can become quite poetic with beautiful scenes, the film can be also uncompromising and direct in presenting uncomfortable and even gut-wrenching scenes and facts. Children watching this documentary may need adult reassurance in viewing some scenes.

A marine biologist who enjoys free diving notices over time that fish populations in the areas where he swims are dwindling rapidly. A young activist visits a fishing village in Indonesia where she observes fishermen bringing in sharks and cutting off their fins for the shark-fin trade, the remaining carcasses either being thrown back into the sea or mashed up into feed for pigs. A journalist at a Filipino fish market notes how bluefin tuna populations are rapidly becoming depleted because of over-fishing for the sushi trade in Japan and the US. In the meantime huge commercial fishing trawlers fling huge nets into the oceans to catch huge schools of fish. Many of these nets either become lost or are dumped into the ocean and some wash up onto beaches in Australia’s Gulf of Carpentaria region to be picked up by local indigenous rangers. They find the remains of long-drowned turtles caught up in the nets. If that’s not confronting enough for viewers, a later story in which researchers checking the health of young albatross chicks by pumping their stomachs and finding plastic bits and pieces (some large enough to cause obstruction and possibly even agonising death) will have some viewers racing for the barf-bags.

Through these stories – I must admit to becoming very cynical about the current trend in film documentaries and other non-fiction media in general to tell “stories” above other methods of relaying important information – particular environmental issues relating to sea life and marine ecosystems are explored to varying degrees of depth. The broader contexts of several issues are not made clear, though: the over-fishing of sharks for their fins is not linked to the rising prosperity of the middle classes in China and other parts of Asia, and likewise the depletion of bluefin tuna stocks does not mean much when the huge global market for bluefin tuna sushi (which becomes ever more prestigious among sushi fanatics as the fish itself becomes more endangered) is unmentioned. Where all the plastic bits and bobs floating in the oceans to be swallowed up by seabirds (which then feed them to their chicks) come from in the first place remains unsaid. (Are they blown out to sea by wins or are they flushed out untreated into rivers and coastal marine environments through storm-water drains?) The emphasis on telling multiple personal stories means statistics that would drive home the scale of each issue, and the urgency that each such issue requires to be remedied, are ignored.

The film ends on a hopeful note, urging viewers to take action, however insignificant viewers themselves may feel about whatever it is they can do, to help save marine species, combat over-fishing and control plastic pollution in the oceans. The underlying problem of the capitalist structures and values that we have, urging more growth and exploitation of natural resources while ignoring the consequences and effects of more economic exploitation at sea and on land on marine ecosystems, remains untouched.

Origins: The Journey of Humankind (Season 1, Episode 3: The Power of Money) – a shallow and confusing enquiry into the historical importance of money

Celso R Garcia, “Origins: The Journey of Humankind (Season 1, Episode 3: The Power of Money)” (2017)

One viewing of this episode of the National Geographic series was enough to put me off watching the rest of the series. Host Jason Silva is an earnest and enthusiastic commentator but his vocal delivery seems to have a hard grinding quality and his voice sounds as if he is being strangled by too many rocks far down his throat. His movements are often jerky and for some odd reason the camera crew insists on holding the camera at angles so that at times Silva appears to be looking and talking away from the camera, and this approach tends to emphasise his stiff body movements even more. With his voice and his body language, Silva comes across as a sales representative trying (and not too successfully at that) to pressure his customer into buying something – an approach that might be apt for this particular episode in the “Origins …” series which is about the hold that money has over humans.

For a series intended for family viewing, if this episode is typical, then the whole project should be re-thought. The structure of the episode is hard to understand and follow: we jump backwards and forwards in time as the narrative pursues detours into the history of the Atlantic slave trade that robbed the African continent of human talent and energy and put millions (plus their children born into slavery in the Americas) into bondage to European political, social and economic elites, then into the Opium Wars between the British and Chinese empires in the 1840s which delivered Hong Kong to the British, and the use of paper money in China during the reign of Mongol emperor Kublai Khan in the 1200s. Very little is said about why money is such an important invention that it spread all over the ancient civilised world like wildfire (as a means of exchange and as a measure and store of value) and how it is superior to bartering and other non-money forms of exchange. Practically no attention is given to other inventions and technologies that were spawned by the widespread acceptance and use of money: the rise of banks for example and the concepts of debt, loans and interest, that would in their turn enable and encourage the rise of social and political hierarchies based on material wealth as measured by money as well as accidents of birth; the invention of the stock market and the concepts of investment, risk and hedging against uncertainty; various other institutions and concepts such as insurance or the idea of a central bank to approve issues of money and to develop and conduct monetary policy; and the birth of book-keeping and accountancy. Not to mention of course digital technologies and the phenomenon that is the global financial economy.

Historical re-enactments are downright cheesy and take liberty with historical accuracy. They run for far too long and upset the documentary’s momentum. Some re-enactments, such as one early scene in which two desert African tribes exchange food and weapons, or a later scene set in Mesopotamia in which a sinister-looking Middle Eastern man wearing a turban encourages a youth to gamble away money needed to buy medicine for a sick woman strike this viewer as racially prejudiced. I cannot believe that such racial stereotypes can still be considered acceptable for a documentary TV series aimed at the general public.

Significant events covered by the documentary are attributed in their causes to the hold that money has over the participants. The problem with this simplistic idea is to deliver more power over human decision-making to money – it’s one way of holding people down, by denying them free will and responsibility for their actions as masters and slaves in a social system where hierarchy reigns and inequality is rife. The differing attitudes of Roman Catholicism and Protestantism towards work and the acquisition of material wealth count for little in the European drive to collect colonies from the 1500s on, as do the desire for territory and natural resources, and souls to forcibly convert to Christianity. The Opium Wars in China may very well have had their cause in the British use of opium as a means of exchange to acquire tea and other desired Chinese goods – but the opium was also handy as a weapon to weaken China by creating widespread drug addiction on a massive scale that was bound to affect the Middle Kingdom economically and for which the Chinese had no remedy.

Viewers may pick up some interesting facts and pieces of knowledge but the episode lacks a clear narrative structure that would encompass those facts and demonstrate how they are all related. At its worst, the episode appears to cherry-pick facts and ignore other related and significant facts. In particular, there is little said about who is ultimately responsible for creating money and regulating its creation and supply at any one time. Dare I say that the episode takes for granted that money should be allowed to flow freely through society without regulation that would distribute it more evenly so that everyone has a share in the society’s wealth and none has far too much or far too little?

The Final Journey: a formulaic road movie about hope and reconciliation in the Ukrainian civil war

Nick Baker-Monteys, “The Final Journey / Leanders Letzte Reise” (2017)

The plot may be a familiar one – aged pensioner Eduard Leander (Jurgen Prochnow), recently widowed, resolves to return to a distant land he fought a war in over 70 years ago, to find a woman he once knew, and his estranged slacker grand-daughter Adele (Petra Schmidt-Schaller) is forced to follow him to keep an eye on him – but the historical and political context in which their odyssey takes place is a contemporary and highly controversial one, one that takes them to uncomfortable and dark places, psychologically as well as physically, that test their character, their beliefs and ultimately their relationship and feelings for and about each other.

In early 2014, after the death of his wife, whom he has never really loved, Leander suddenly decides to go on a train trip to Kiev in Ukraine. Adele’s mother Uli (Susanne von Borsody) persuades her to try to talk to him to stay home – the older woman has never got on well with her dad – but Leander resolutely stays on the train and Adele is compelled to stay with him. On the train they meet Lew (Tambet Tuisk), a Russian-Ukrainian man who helps them evade train guards because Adele does not have her passport with her. Once in Kiev, Lew takes the two under his wing as they are unable to get hotel accommodation without Adele’s passport and they stay with his family. During the midday meal, Lew’s relatives come to blows over the troubled situation in eastern Ukraine: Lew has a grandmother and a brother living in Lugansk, and the brother (to the approval of the older relatives but not Lew’s) is fighting with the Donbass side against the new (and illegal) Kiev government.

Through contact with a historian specialising in World War II history, Leander determines that the woman he wants to meet, Svetlana Agafonova, lives in Lugansk so he, Adele and Lew travel by car there. There, they come in contact with the Donbass fighters and Lew’s brother and babushka. On further enquiry, the three discover they must cross the river border under cover of night to Russia to the village where Svetlana was resettled after the war. Bit by bit, Adele learns of the history of her father’s participation in the war as the leader of a Cossack regiment fighting under Nazi command against Soviet forces and Russian partisans, and realises that he may have committed atrocities grave enough to make him a war criminal.

In the meantime, Adele tries to stay in contact with her mother and relays some of what Leander and she get up to. As the pair go farther into eastern Ukraine and Russia, and war breaks out in Lugansk province, Uli decides to travel to Kiev and then to eastern Ukraine to find the two.

Schmidt-Schaller and Tuisk give very good performances as the two young party-goers who develop a genuine friendship and romance under unusual and trying circumstances. Prochnow maintains a surly old git outlook, at least until he arrives in the Russian village and discovers a few surprises. Through their journey together, Leander and his grand-daughter discover things about one another they had not known or suspected before: somewhat to her surprise, Adele develops a real warmth and affection for old Opa as she sees that he is truly capable of love and care for others, that he would risk his health and life to reconnect with a woman he knew 70+ years ago and whose current whereabouts he has no idea of; and Leander, to his regret, realises that his true family had always cared about him and for him. The tragedy is that he is unable to last long enough to truly reconcile with the people who care for him.

The cinematography is quite good (in a minimal way) at portraying the countryside in eastern Europe and the poverty of rural areas in Ukraine and Russia.

The script gingerly tiptoes around the current politics of Ukraine and the civil war in eastern Ukraine, and attempts to treat the two sides evenly as though the civil war were just like any other civil war with one brother disagreeing with another brother and families being split over the conflict. The nationalists marching through the streets of Kiev are shorn of their Nazi regalia and Western audiences are likely to be lulled into thinking these people are no more harmful than nationalist thug gangs in other countries and have no place in the Ukrainian government. (Perhaps the Leanders and Lew should have detoured a while in Lvov in western Ukraine, to watch torchlight parades carrying swastika banners and portraits of notorious Nazi collaborator Stepan Bandera, and chanting anti-Jewish slogans through the city streets.) A scene in which the Leanders and Lew are being driven through the Russian countryside at night and pass by a strange convoy of tanks and army trucks going towards the Ukrainian border, at which Lew exclaims, “This is not normal!”, gives a clue as to whose propaganda the film-makers prefer to follow.

In exploring how two characters find redemption and connection through learning about their place in history (and at last finding some direction instead of drifting aimlessly through memory or pleasure), the film brings a message of hope and reconciliation with the past. Unfortunately (and ironically) its attempt to make sense of the civil war in Ukraine is shallow, because the film-makers are ignorant of the West’s involvement in overthrowing the legitimate if ineffective and corrupt Yanukovych government and that government’s replacement with a more criminal and vicious regime.

 

Diary of a Chambermaid: a bleak and realist comedy offering

Luis Bunuel, “Diary of a Chambermaid” (1964)

Of the Spanish director’s late-autumn career in which he directed classics like “Belle de Jour”, “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” and “That Obscure Object of Desire”, this comedy is the one of the more realist and bleak offerings. Bunuel has yet another crack poking fun at and criticising the hypocrisies and hang-ups of smug middle-class culture and the Roman Catholic Church, and portrays the ease with which French society sleep-walked its way into fascism and violence in the 1930s and may still repeat that somnambulist episode.

Sometime in the late 1930s – a sleepy and dreary time in French modern history, as portrayed in the film – Celestine (Jeanne Moreau) leaves the bright lights of Paris to work as a chambermaid in a Normandy estate that has seen better days. As she settles into the quotidian routine there, she becomes familiar with the eccentricities of the family who employs her: Madame Monteil (Francoise Lugagne) is a cleaning fanatic who nurses a bitter, even self-loathing sexual repression; her satyromaniac husband (Michel Piccoli) who apparently got Celestine’s predecessor pregnant; and Madame’s aged father Monsieur Rabour who has a foot and shoe fetish. Celestine also becomes familiar with the household staff: the cook, another maid, a young girl called Claire and the Monteils’ driver and labourer Joseph (Georges Geret) who spouts racist and fascist opinions. The neighbours – a retired army captain and his mistress Rose – are just as odd and maintain a running dispute with the Monteils in which both sides constantly throw garden rubbish across their common wall.

The film moves quite slowly, at least until Rabour ends up dead in bed and little Claire is found raped and murdered in the woods near the estate. Celestine is convinced that Joseph is responsible for the child’s rape and death, and she determines to find the evidence that will incriminate him. She somehow manages to juggle Mr Monteil’s desire to get his paws on her, Joseph’s leering attentions and the captain’s sudden interest in her after he dumps Rose, all while searching for the evidence that will help avenge Claire’s tragic fate. Celestine almost succeeds but the evidence is too flimsy and Joseph is released from police custody; he then travels to Cherbourg to set up a cafe business while Celestine ends up stuck in a boring marriage to the captain.

The film can be very amusing during scenes in which Monteil kills a butterfly with a shotgun in an artful sequence of close-up scenes culminating in an explosion, and in which the pathetic Rabour strokes Celestine’s foot and lower leg while she reads novels to him. The rural scenery has a distinct look and provincial style and would look even more picturesque if the entire film had been made in colour. But the choice of black-and-white film fits in with the general tone of the movie in which the middle class’s apparent respectability and the lower class’s homely loyalty are revealed either as much more sinister and ultimately dangerous, or as emotional repression with an attendant lack of growth and maturation. The acting is very good if a little arty at times, with Joseph behaving almost vampirically towards Celestine in a night-fire scene, and Piccoli playing the hapless Monteil as he pursues Celestine in a way that invites sympathy rather than disgust.

While the events in the film don’t turn out the way viewers might hope for, they do say something about the moral lethargy that infects the characters. If the Monteils really detest one another and Madame doesn’t want to have anything to do with her hubby, why do they not separate and pursue their pleasures instead? Why does a fashionable Parisienne accept lowly work as a chambermaid in a provincial French village? Why does Celestine play off her suitors one against the other? Bunuel may be commenting on the power relationships between individuals, between different groups in society, and ultimately between one woman who would seem to have few tools (psychological and emotional as well as physical) and three men of different social levels from hers.

With a realist look, a straightforward plot and a setting in a quiet rural area in northwest France, this film is easy on the eye and the brain, and serves as a good introduction to the work of Luis Bunuel.

A devious history of chemical and biological weapons on “Secret Science: Chemical and Biological Weapons” that stops short of serious criticism

Tim Usborne, “Secret Science: Chemical and Biological Weapons” (2016)

In 2016, the year of its centenary, Britain’s major defence science and technology park, popularly known as Porton Down, received a visit from BBC TV science and medical commentator Dr Michael Mosley and film crew. Mosley and Company prowl around a small part of the facilities – which look just how viewers might imagine they would look, if they’d been told that the area contained a mixture of office buildings dating as far back as 1916 and open-space test sites – and are suitably awed by the labs with all their equipment and machines, the secret chambers, the furnaces where old and outlawed substances are destroyed, and the labyrinths of corridors connecting the various rooms. Much of the documentary is structured around the history of Porton Down, the reasons for its establishment during World War I, the substances its scientists researched or developed (including mustard gas, sarin and VX nerve gas) and the controversial experiments performed on animals and humans alike. The story of Ronald Maddison, a young RAF serviceman who died in 1953 during a sarin liquid experiment (for which he had volunteered after being told the experiment was a test for flu vaccine), followed by 50 years of British government secrecy until a second inquest into his death in 2004 brought it into the public domain, is mentioned as an example of such notorious experimentation and the efforts expended by the government to quash public knowledge of it.

As might be expected of the BBC, the documentary treats Porton Down as a beneficent institution whose staff can be regarded as heroes and heroines working for the defence of the British nation against sinister chemical and biological warfare weapons that enemies around the world might unleash. The program acknowledges that animals were experimented upon, and many of these creatures died painful deaths, but their suffering and deaths are to be seen as necessary in the context of major conflicts such as the two World Wars and the Cold War, and subsequent new wars in which various parties including terrorist groups do not care about the Geneva Convention on the prohibition of the use of chemical and biological warfare weapons. So nothing is said about the notorious 2-year experiment over 2012 – 2014 in which over 220 guinea pigs died after exposure to chemical warfare weapons. The program descends into outright propaganda and lies when it asserts that in 1988, the Iraqi government under Saddam Hussein gassed Kurdish villagers in Halabja with sarin gas (and not a mixture of mustard gas and various unidentified nerve gas agents as should have seen stated); and that in 2013, the Syrian government (called “regime”, as if the Syrian public had never accepted it) under President Bashar al Assad also unleashed sarin gas in east Ghouta, a suburban / exurban area to the east of Damascus.

While peering around some of the laboratories – Mosley and the film crew were not allowed to roam freely for security reasons – and seeing elaborate testing, including the testing of sarin on spider-web gossamer wound around an implement, can be fun and exciting, we are reminded of Porton Down’s role as a front-line crusading against dastardly secret new weapons technologies exploiting the strengths of chemical and biological agents. For obvious reasons, the possibility that Porton Down might willingly and knowingly supply such dangerous agents to terrorist organisations to wage war on governments that the US and the UK desire to overthrow is lost on Mosley and the BBC.

A more informative documentary on the history of Porton Down and its current role and value to UK military defence and UK science generally, and which does not skirt around the laboratory complex’s willingness to use animal and non-consenting human subjects (including communities secretly sprayed with chemical aerosols) or Porton Down’s links to regime change, war and terrorism, would be welcome.

 

The Bookshop: one-dimensional characters and a pedestrian plot in a kitsch provincial English setting

Isabel Coixet, “The Bookshop” (2017)

Directed by a Catalan-Spanish director, this film exudes provincial English kitsch in its setting, its stereotyped and sometimes frosty characters, and its plot which often jumps ahead of itself and features some unexpected twists and turns. The film appears to be quite faithful to the source novel by Penelope Fitzgerald.

Florence Green (Emily Mortimer) fulfills a long-held dream to open her own bookshop in the seaside village of Hardborough in Suffolk. The bookshop is located in a historic building known as The Old House (after which the bookshop is named) which had previously been idle for several years due to apparent problems with damp and a supposed ghost infestation. After overcoming various obstacles – one of which is local wealthy socialite Violet Gamart (Patricia Clarkson) who desires to open an arts centre in The Old House – Green finally starts her business. Employing 13-year-old schoolgirl Christine (Honor Kneafsey) in the weekday afternoons and Saturdays, Green makes quite a splash among the villagers, especially as she stocks eyebrow raisers like Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451” and the recently released “Lolita” by Vladimir Nabokov. Reclusive Edward Brundish (Bill Nighy), living at the top of a hill, becomes Green’s best customer and friend who starts inviting her for afternoon tea on a regular basis.

After some months, a rival bookshop opens in a former fish-and-chips shop and school inspectors pull Christine away Green’s employ for being under-age. From this point on, Green’s business starts to suffer, especially after Green takes on local louche layabout Milo North (James Lance) as assistant. The film hints that North may be colluding with Mrs Gamart to evict Green and seize The Old House building. Meanwhile Mrs Gamart’s nephew, a politician, sponsors a bill that enables local councils to buy historical buildings that have not been inhabited for more than five years. The bill passes and the council that governs Hardborough buys out Green and she is forced to leave the village.

While the acting is very good if restrained, few characters have much to do and the plot is very pedestrian. Characters are one-dimensional and viewers are hard put to decide why Green should have chosen a place like Hardborough to set up her shop as there is little distinctive about the postcard-pretty village or its inhabitants. An opportunity for Coixet to show how parochial or hostile the villagers might have been towards Green initially, then perhaps slowly to defend her against Mrs Gamart’s machinations as they realise that Green’s bookshop is the only business that makes their village stand out from all the other seaside villages in Suffolk, that could have given the film and its characters more spine, is missed. A later twist in which Green discovers that the later admiration from the villagers for her courage and stubborn resistance and then support, then collapses when Mrs Gamart persuades some, maybe most, of the villagers to betray her, could have been the film’s climax after which (spoiler alert) Green finally admits defeat and leaves Hardborough.

After nearly a year of running her bookshop, Green appears not to understand Hardborough and its people no more than she first did when she came to the place, and while viewers get plenty of clues throughout the film that, for all her kindness, honesty and braveness, Green is ignorant of events occurring around her, still audiences will wonder how such a capable woman couldn’t have seen what was going on and tried to sound out people for news of Mrs Gamart’s machinations.

Ultimately what the film suggests is that courage, early success and the support of a few well-meaning people of integrity like Brundish are not enough against the combination of money, higher social standing, political connections and the indifference of a community, many of whose members may be jealous of Green. That a village might need a bookshop unfortunately is not the same as wanting a bookshop if its inhabitants are suspicious of reading and what it may represent: new ideas, change, a threat to their settled and predictable lives, the possibility that their world may be invaded and eventually absorbed into a bigger, more impersonal universe.

The English class system and the social hierarchy and attitudes it breeds in upper and lower classes alike could have had a bollocking here but Coixet chooses to ignore and avoid this particular proverbial elephant in the room. As a result the film feels small and not a little stale – in short, it feels much like the village it subtly criticises.

 

I Am Not Your Negro: stepping back in the wrong direction with a narrow focus on black-white relations

Raoul Peck, “I Am Not Your Negro” (2017)

Initially an expose of the modern history of the United States as seen from the viewpoint of black US author and activist James Baldwin (1924 – 1987) and serving as a personal memoir of his early experiences and meetings with black activist leaders Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Medgar Evers, this film becomes an exploration and critique of American culture and values generally. Director Raoul Peck based the film on Baldwin’s unfinished work “Remember This House” and extends the work to the present day to demonstrate that the pervasive racial discrimination of white people against black people back in Baldwin’s time continues – as does also black people’s resistance against that discrimination, as exemplified by (in Peck’s view) the Black Lives Matter movement.

With voiceover narration from actor Samuel L Jackson, who reads from Baldwin’s work, the film moves back and forth in time, which can make following it hard, but there is a general chronological order and structure shaped around Evers, Malcolm X and King. Baldwin remembers early childhood experiences of watching Hollywood Western films and identifying with the “good guy” cowboys, not realising that the Injuns being shot could just as easily have been replaced by upstart black people. He later comes to see how much Hollywood brainwashes people to see the world in terms of, well, black and white, and how Hollywood films serve to inculcate a particular paradigm of how the world supposedly operates. There is nothing in the film though how that paradigm influences not just black people like himself to accept their place in US society but also brainwashes white people to believe they are special and to believe in violence as the only acceptable tool to confront and solve problems.

With archival film footage, the film shows Baldwin advocating on behalf of black people in talk shows, arguing why racism continues in spite of the apparent social and economic progress black people were making in the 1960s. Malcolm X and Martin Luther King loom large as two leaders whose opinions and leadership styles were as polarised as could be, to the extent of Malcolm X accusing King of being an Uncle Tom for adopting a non-violent approach emphasising love and compassion.

Where the film really could have taken off and become something very special is in moments where Baldwin criticises American society generally for its materialism and consumerism which cover over its soullessness and an unwillingness to confront and own up to the brutality and psychological violence meted out to black people over 200 years of its history. There could have been an exploration of how the US controls its people through a mix of both hard power (such as genocide, the use of police and discriminatory laws to keep minority groups in positions of inferiority) and soft power (through culture and education) which also serve to divide and rule people on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion and other categories; but perhaps this was going too far for Peck who keeps the discussion within a narrow framework of whites-versus-blacks.

Unfortunately from this film, excellent in parts though it might be for showing rare archived film footage about the black American struggle for social, political and economic equality, and for detailing how Hollywood reflected and upheld racial inequality, I get no indication that either Baldwin or Peck sees beyond the white-black racial divide to realise that both white and black people – and plenty of other groups in US society – are being crushed alike by capitalist ideology and the systems and institutions that support it. Discrimination on the basis of race among other artificial categories is just one method of keeping people weak and divided – and set against each other – so that the elites who control them can continue to exploit them.

At a time when both white and black people, and others as well, most need to unite and recognise their common oppressors, “I Am Not Your Negro”, by allying itself to the Black Lives Matter movement – known to be infiltrated by US billionaire George Soros’s Open Society Foundation – is actually a step backwards in the wrong direction.