The Shooting Party: stodgy, genteel film detailing decay of British nobility

Alan Bridges, “The Shooting Party” (1985)

Mainly notable for being the last movie to feature James Mason before his death in 1984, this film about a group of British aristocrats gathering at a country mansion is a study in microcosm of the downfall of the British upper class and its values, and how their culture might have decayed over time. The film is set in the autumn of 1913, the last year before the outbreak of the Great War (World War 1) that engulfed much of Europe and destroyed monarchies in Germany and Russia.

A rich landowner, Sir Randolph Nettleby (Mason), invites several friends and their wives to his home to shoot grouse over a weekend. Other pastimes the host family and its guests enjoy include horse-riding, dancing, discussions, playing card games, going for walks through scenic country which includes a large pond for ducks and a fancy dress party. For much of the film, the audience is treated to investigations of the various foibles of Nettleby’s wealthy guests and his servants in a manner similar to Robert Altman’s “Gosford Park” which also featured members of the British upper class gathering at an aristocrat’s home. Nettleby’s guests include Lord Gilbert Hartlip and his wife (Edward Fox and Cheryl Campbell) who more or less conduct an open marriage, as long as their liaisons remain secret: Lady Hartlip carries on an affair with a businessman (Aharon Ipale) who pays her gambling losses. Hartlip is jealous of another guest, barrister Lionel Stephens (Rupert Frazer), for his shooting skills; Stephens himself is besotted with yet another guest, Lady Olivia Lilburn (Judi Bowker) who is married to Lord Lilburn (Robert Hardy).

The film’s focus is mainly on Nettleby and his party of guests but covers, superficially at least, the life of the local rural working-men hired to drive the grouse towards the aristocrats, in particular Tom Harker (Gordon Jackson) who is also a poacher. Harker declares his support for the British politician David Lloyd George, a liberal-minded leader who initiated reforms that led to the development of the welfare state in the UK; he also happens to be friendly with Nettleby who sees him as having the simple country life he dreams of for himself. An outsider, Cornelius Cardew (John Gielgud), intrudes into the life of these men which revolves around the pub, waving slogans and pamphlets advocating animal rights and decrying blood sports and hunting. The upper and lower classes usually keep to themselves – a scene in which they have a break after a shooting session illustrates the social separation well: the aristocrats retire to a marquee for tea and champagne while Nettleby’s tenants gather around a table in the open air for beer – until a tragic hunting accident brings everybody together.

As the characters represent types, they bear most of the film’s investigation into the values and behaviour of the British aristocracy and so the movie appears plotless and lacking in direction, shifting from one set of characters and their interactions to another set. The pace is steady with the focus on people’s dialogue and there’s very little action until near the end. The symbolism can be over-obvious and clumsy – it doesn’t seem likely that a group of upper class men smoking cigars after dinner would be talking about the descent of Western civilisation and of their class at a time when British power was at its peak and controlled half the planet – and limits character development, no matter how well individual actors play their roles. Nettleby as portrayed by Mason is a warm if world-weary gentleman, dignified and gracious, troubled about the legacy he and his kind might be leaving to his country. Nettleby presides over his world as a benevolent but firm patriarch; his meeting with Cardew who disrupts a shooting session appears self-deprecatory and humorous but is actually a subtle put-down that asserts the aristocracy’s right of control over the birds and other animals that dwell on his properties. Cardew either takes the hint or allows himself to be led into a conversation about his pamphlets and the men soon part on good terms.

Nettleby represents a generation of leaders who made the British Empire what it was in 1913 but is concerned that the next generation of aristocrats, represented by the Hartlips, is self-indulgent and hedonistic now that the nobility has given up its role of ruling the country. The Hartlips represent the impotence of the new generation of upper class people: Lord Hartlip is obsessed about his shooting skills and his wife is addicted to gambling; her dependence on her lover for money in exchange for sex demonstrates the aristocracy’s dependence on self-made wealthy men to survive. (Lady Hartlip’s addiction might hint at the emptiness of her life as an aristocrat’s wife, forbidden by convention to do any meaningful work.) The implication is the Hartlips and their generation will sell themselves into a bondage they don’t understand to maintain their reputations. The secret liaison between Stephens and Lady Lilburn shows both the contrast and complementarity between the new world of commerce, brash and competitive, as represented by Stephens, and a more socially conscientious, well-meaning layer of the upper class, represented by Lady Lilburn. The lady rebuffs the barrister in spite of her attraction to him. Lady Lilburn’s husband appears typical of many upper class people in lacking the imagination, creativity and enterprise his class needs to survive in the new world to come.

The Hartlips’ obsession to keep up appearances and past (but fading) reputations and Stephens’s own competitve behaviour to please Lady Lilburn collide in a shooting incident in which Lord Hartlip, goaded by his wife, breaks an unspoken gentleman’s code by firing his rifle after the shooting session is declared finished. He ends up wounding Harker. Harker’s death represents the fate of soldiers from across the British Empire who were to die in the killing fields of Verdun and elsewhere during the War. Mason as Nettleby, watching over Harker, delivers a moving performance as he prays with the dying man  and sees this icon of simple country life slip away. Surely at this moment Nettleby realises the real incompetence and powerlessness of his class; he has had control over Harker’s life as the poacher’s landlord but cannot control the manner and moment of Harker’s death. Hartlip, standing by, is paralysed by the consequences of his senseless action and can only offer financial compensation – putting himself into his cuckold’s pockets.

The film overall is stodgy due to the burdensome symbolism, the earnest tone, the slow pace and apparent lack of purpose but there are some fine acting performances from Mason, Bowker, Fox, Jackson and Gielgud in very restricted roles. A small subplot in which Nettleby’s grandson is always looking for his lost pet duck with the help of a maid provides amusement and lightens the movie’s serious tone but even this diversion has its dark side as there’s the possibility that the duck might get shot. The movie is worth watching twice at least: the first time to see the entire story and the second time to absorb important details about the various characters, minor as well as major ones, and what these details tell us about the British aristocracy and its customs in the early 20th century. “The Shooting Party” is very genteel and oblique in its approach, and this isn’t likely to appeal to a wide audience who perhaps need to learn the film’s lesson about upper class arrogance and incompetence.

(This film is available as part of a 3-DVD set that includes “Orlando” by Sally Potter and “The Draughtsman’s Contract” by Peter Greenaway from Umbrella Entertainment at www.umbrellaent.com.au.)

Orlando: lavish and lovely lightweight film with nothing to say

Sally Potter, “Orlando” (1992)

Based on British writer Virginia Woolfe’s novel “Orlando: a Biography”, this film by Sally Potter is a flimsy work that fails to say anything meaningful about the status of men and women in English and British society over a number of centuries, though I presume that must have been Potter’s intention. The events in the title character’s life take place over a period spanning nearly 400 years, beginning with the twilight days of Queen Elizabeth I (Quentin Crisp), in whose employ Orlando (Tilda Swinton) is a courtier. His youthful alabaster beauty attracts the aged queen’s attention and he briefly becomes her lover. On her deathbed, she endows him and his heirs with considerable wealth – money, a large property with a castle – on the condition that he remain ever young in appearance and spirit. Orlando makes the promise and moreover keeps it: but this promise is to be both his pride and agony.

The film is cut into discrete chapters which structure and simplify Orlando’s presumably complicated life along the themes of death, love, poetry, politics, society, sex and birth (in that order) for the audience’s understanding but which have the effect of distancing and alienating viewers from the character’s experiences and his (later her) responses to them. You’d assume Orlando matures over time and becomes wise and understanding of human foibles but the character remains the same empty person throughout the film; if anything, incidents such as being jilted in love, seeing someone shot dead, undergoing a spontaneous sex change and losing her inheritance (and the adjustments Orlando must have had to make as a result) seem to distance Orlando from humanity rather than encourage her to appreciate the joys, tragedies and niggly irritations that come with being ageless and immortal.

It’s understandable that an early brief affair with a Russian princess, Sasha (Charlotte Valandrey), and harassment from his fiancée make a very young Orlando disillusioned with women and their behaviour. This negative attitude stays with Orlando for the rest of his time as a male, to the extent that he gives his life over to poetry – until his own writing efforts are debunked – and then to politics which enables him to travel to Constantinople as British ambassador to the Ottomans and indulge in the sensual life-style of the Turkish aristocracy. After becoming female himself, Orlando doesn’t appear to reflect on how he has treated women in the past, both as individuals and as a group, even as a group of poets invited to a salon she hosts criticises women and the British courts seize her lands on the legal basis that women don’t have the right to own and manage property. A brief affair with an American idealist and adventurer Shelmerdine (Billy Zane) parallels the affair with Sasha – both lovers are wedded to loyalty to their country or ideals – yet Orlando makes no comparisons between these and with any other liaisons s/he’s had over the years.

Viewers are entitled to know how Orlando copes after being divested of her wealth and lands. Having led a life of luxury and entitlement over two centuries, enjoying travel and literature, how does Orlando survive without servants and having to earn her own living? The film doesn’t say: it simply flips from 1850, when Orlando is informed that she has lost her property, to some time in the 1940’s when she is running across a bomb-scarred landscape. At this point in “Orlando”, Potter could have examined the social and economic status of single women over that period, how it compared to the status of single men then, and what society thought of single women having to work at a time when a woman’s overall social / economic status and reputation were defined by her marital status. It’s likely Orlando had to be governess to children of a wealthy family or a music teacher to survive but viewers unfamiliar with novels like Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre” or other literature written during the Victorian period (1837 – 1901) about upper and middle class women can only guess at how Orlando makes her way into the 20th century. There’s also nothing in “Orlando” about how the status of women varied in Britain over 400 years: women who lived in the 1500s – 1600s might have enjoyed a higher social and cultural status than their daughters in succeeding centuries. Nor is there any reference to efforts made by men and women in the late 19th / early 20th centuries to educate girls and women, and to get equal political and economic rights for both sexes. Yet it’s obvious by the end that Orlando has benefitted in some way from the advances made by other people on women’s behalf: she looks well-fed and happy with her lot and so does her child. Why so much of her life after 1850 and losing her wealth is omitted from the film is not just a puzzle, it’s an outrage. The implication that Potter isn’t interested in covering people’s lives if they aren’t wealthy or upper class comes to mind.

Looking more like a showcase of various historical dioramas of English / British culture and how sophisticated and multi-layered it must have been through the ages, with flamboyant costumes, lavish furnishings and the re-enactment of customs appropriate to each historical period, all of which was carefully researched, the film is a gorgeous visual treat. Some scenes are interesting if pretentious static tableaux in themselves and could be comments on the process and narrative function of making films.

The acting is very secondary to the plot and the historical settings with Swinton playing her part very minimally and her acting restricted to wide eyes, quizzical looks at the viewer and quips and asides that aren’t witty, cutting or illuminating: when Orlando comments on a performance of Shakespeare’s “Othello”, the remark is merely that it’s “a terrific play”. Though Swinton may be a good actor, she seems to have been cast for her particular colouring, red hair and alabaster skin, rather than for her talent and experience. Playing Orlando as a male, she is convincing in conveying male mannerisms – there’s a good scene where her actions are mirrored by a male actor and the likeness between the two in their behaviour is very striking – though perhaps, at the risk of parody, Swinton could have exaggerated her actions more in some scenes to be more masculine; likewise, in playing Orlando the woman, she could also have exaggerated some of her feminine behaviour, maybe even indulged in some “feminine wiles” (pleading, making big eyes) in her scenes with Shelmerdine.

Lovely to look at but under its golden sheen, “Orlando” is an empty vessel. I sense that it goes as far as it can in a narrow orbit and that’s it. Because if it did, it might be “controversial” and lots of people would be upset at some real gender politics, especially if and when expressed for comic effect. As a comedy, “Orlando” could have been a perfect vehicle to express uncomfortable opinions, make some observations about society that cut to the bone and question issues we take for granted with grace, wit and style.

(This film is available as part of a 3-DVD set that includes “The Shooting Party” by Alan Bridges and “The Draughtsman’s Contract” by Peter Greenaway from Umbrella Entertainment at www.umbrellaent.com.au.)

The Dark Knight: a shallow movie with one-note characters beneath the pyrotechnics

Christopher Nolan, “The Dark Knight” (2008)

Second in British-American director Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy that began with “Batman Begins” (2005) and will finish with “The Dark Knight Rises” in 2012, this movie represents Hollywood at its best and worst over the decade 2000 – 2010: blockbuster entertainment with big-name actors, some of whom deliver fine performances, as mostly one-dimensional characters in search of a clear and straightforward plot to justify the rollercoaster ride of tension build-up, peak, ride-down and repeat along with numerous exploding glass windows, transport vehicles, various deserted buildings and a growing body count. The only things missing are the product placements, the busty luscious babes and Shirley Bassey bellowing the theme song. There’s a message about the age-old struggle between good and evil which even Hollywood knows is an old-fashioned idea that needs frequent tweaking to appear fresh and vital so the variation that appears in “The Dark Knight” is one in which, at the level of certain individuals, evil defeats good; and on a collective level, for goodness to prevail over evil, good people often have to bend the rules, engage in unethical practices, even copy what bad people do. Some individuals’ reputations have to be preserved and a network of lies spun to maintain the confidence and faith of the citizens of Gotham City in the law. Everyone in the film, good and bad, comes out looking as grubby as everyone else and no-one learns any valuable lessons after the rollercoaster ride ends other than “the end justifies the means”. This ensures that the cycle of violent crime in Gotham City will continue.

What passes for a plot in “The Dark Knight” is a string of sketches, most of which form a series of “tests” conducted by the criminal mastermind calling himself the Joker (Heath Ledger) on the city residents and in particular on Batman (Christian Bale) to test their moral breaking points and if Batman himself can be corrupted. Entwined with the Joker’s ever more elaborately staged and vicious pranks is the complementary rise and fall of Gotham City District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) from heralded “white knight” hero supposedly busting organised crime networks to vengeful twisted nutcase intent on taking various people down with him. Although Dent’s transformation from good guy to bad guy is sudden, the film makes clear from the start his moral fallibility: he flippantly tosses coins to make important decisions, punches a guy in fury in court and relies on Batman risking his own life to make him look good so his sudden downfall, pushed along by the Joker, is plausible. Police lieutenant James Gordon (Gary Oldfield) who becomes Police Commissioner during the film, confirms Dent’s true nature beneath the squeaky-clean facade by remembering the attorney’s nickname Two-Face from an earlier encounter that took place long before the movie’s events.

Dent could have been the movie’s focus as an essentially well-meaning but flawed character who descends into the pit of evil, egged on by the Joker, and a set-up that enables him to redeem himself by recognising that he, not his coin, is solely responsible for “[making] his own luck” and to flummox the Joker into acknowledging that however hard mortals fall, they still have the potential to rise again, morally if not materially, would have made “The Dark Knight” a grander and more interesting, more thoughtful work. Batman and the Joker would play their good angel / bad angel routine and their battle for Dent’s “soul” might at least lead Batman to learn something about himself and his quest to rid Gotham City of crime and evil. The Joker might learn something too if only to make himself a more formidable enemy for Batman. They are indeed complementary if weird and polarised soul-mates.

The actors are all capable in their roles most of which are one-note anyway. Maggie Gyllenhaal as lawyer Rachel Dawes, over whom Dent and Batman as Bruce Wayne are love rivals, has nothing to do and the movie disposes of her halfway through without resolving the love triangle, Dent not even realising he has competition. Bale, recognising Batman’s essential straight-man role to counter the florid villains, plays his dual role in a minimal and blank way. That’s some achievement: playing a character with two highly opposed personalities with next-to-no acting. Eckhart as Dent has the hardest task turning a flawed would-be hero into a dangerous killer and he pulls it off well though the coin-flipping habit is excessive and tiresome. Of the minor roles, Morgan Freeman makes the deepest impression as Lucius Fox, the quietly authoritative chief executive of Wayne Enterprises and the film’s supposedly moral voice. (Though if Fox is willing to help Batman nab a crook accountant in Hong Kong, breaking various laws there, he can hardly complain about Batman wire-tapping people’s cellphones to locate the Joker.) Ledger is a mannered Joker, affecting a hunch-back walk and facial tics when it suits and having a grand time in his role, getting the film’s best lines and toying with Batman and the police like so many guinea pigs; even his role hardly calls for much depth of character and it’s arguable that any other serious drama actor in the role would have done just as well as Ledger.

For a self-proclaimed canine car-chaser, the Joker in some ways is surprisingly generous and moral in a way: a true agent of chaos wouldn’t allow innocent people to choose their mode of death or give Batman and the police just enough time to rescue people before bombs go off. Most of those killed directly by the Joker are crooks or police in the line of duty and the city authorities are allowed to evacuate hospitals before he blows one up (and it was probably overdue for demolition anyway). The Joker appears to be testing his resolve and abilities as much as he tests Batman, and his own actions nearly always disprove everything he says about himself. Viewers either accept him as a confused mass of contradictions or assume he’s deliberately lying about himself to throw people off guard and see how they react when they discover the truth.

The Joker’s duel with Batman could have been a true battle of wits, self-struggle, self-examination and who has the brain and guts to call the other guy’s bluff. Batman is supposed to be a master detective using his intelligence and cunning where other comic heroes rely on super-powers; here, he runs about like a rat on a wheel, chasing the Joker and never coming to understand his foe or his methods, much less anticipate and predict where the fiend might strike next. The Joker could be preening himself, imagining that he is conducting a giant science experiment and egging Batman on to ever greater efforts of heroism, at least until Batman has a light-bulb moment (unlikely with Nolan and Bale’s interpretation of the character) and figures out a way to turn the experiment back onto the Joker.

We get a film where gadgetry and technology are fetishised, and explosions mark the various climaxes that appear with boring regularity, signalling the end of one acting routine that features a cat-and-mouse game and the beginning of another similar routine. The special effects, fiery blow-outs and whizz-bang computer work that simulates Batman’s sonar become tiresome and the film, stripped of its pyrotechnics, ends up looking like an ordinary and over-long CSI-type episode. The film does the original comic little credit in spirit: Batman should be something above the usual forces of law and order, and compensate for what it lacks, placing him in a position of conflict against it. For him to be co-operating with a corruptible and incompetent police force when he’s an incorruptible vigilante is a contradictory and compromising position.

The duality of the Batman / Joker conflict isn’t explored much beyond Batman as moral agent and the Joker as supposedly amoral agent. Even this aspect is conflicted in the film: Batman, by jettisoning his principles to capture the Joker at any cost, becomes a corrupted individual. The Joker, in refusing to kill Batman but simply wanting to bring him down through carefully staged pranks that Batman nearly always overcomes (suggesting that the Joker incorporates sporting chances in his schemes), is more “moral” than he realises. The irony is that the Joker didn’t need to do anything stagey or strenuous at all – Batman brought himself down low.

Metropia: dystopian science fiction animated film offers little that’s fresh

Tarik Saleh, “Metropia” (2009)

Set in a future post-apocalyptic Europe in 2024, where all underground train networks in the different countries have been unified in one giant Metro system, “Metropia” is a dark dystopian animated spy / noir film that explores paranoia, mind control through an ingenious nanotechnology and secret corporation conspiracies to dominate society and profit from exploiting its citizens through consumer products and entertainment. The type of animation used is a computerised photomontage technique that exaggerates characters’ heads and faces over their bodies. Faces have minimal expressions, eyes barely blink and even lips barely move when speaking. One such affected character is typical worker bee Roger Olsson (voiced by Vince Gallo) who works in a call centre: he’s a frail, skinny guy with a young, smooth face whose main emotion is worry, indicated by slight creases in his forehead and eyebrows. He certainly has reason to frown as he believes society is somehow against him, to the extent that he’d rather cycle every day between his dreary, grey workplace and his equally dreary, rundown apartment that he shares with his girlfriend, than catch the trains. His paranoia increases when he starts hearing strange voices in his head and he struggles between dismissing them as delusions and wondering if they are in fact real. One day his bike is stolen so he has to use the metro and while travelling down the escalator to the platforms, he spies a beautiful blonde woman (voice: Juliette Lewis) who he recognises as the actor spruiking a brand of shampoo made and marketed by the giant Trexx Corporation which rules all of Europe. He decides to follow the woman on the trains, the woman becomes aware of his presence but allows him to follow her …

So begins an odyssey through a huge, grimy underground labyrinth of tunnels and corporation secrets, the result of which Roger realises the voices in his head are not only real but have been placed there to govern his thoughts and actions. The conspiracy is for real and the film spends its leisurely time detailing it: the plot appears to be complicated but by the end of the film, it’s not so convoluted after all and even has a little ingenious twist that absolves Roger of any crime he might have committed. Due perhaps to the limitations of the animation technique, there isn’t a lot of physical action: characters walk when perhaps they should run or jump and much of the darkness and shadowy quality of the film exists to cover over the animation problems, especially where a character might look unrealistic doing something. The focus is on close-ups of characters’ faces, eyes and expressions so viewers are likely to be disappointed that people’s facial and mouth movements turn out to be so minimal. I wonder why the particular animation method, in which photos of real people were taken and then manipulated by computer, is used here: with the emphasis thrown onto characters’ faces, together with the unrelenting bleakness of their environment, dialogue becomes important in pushing the plot but because it is about a conspiracy, characters must speak obliquely, dish out information in dollops and maintain poker-faces throughout. Viewers have to work out what is actually being said, if it’s a clue to the mystery, if it gives any background to Roger and Nina the blonde woman. The effect is to distance viewers from feeling any sympathy for these two characters who remain resolutely one-dimensional as they descend deeper into the conspiracy and get closer to its core.

The environment in which they move in is strange and not something viewers can relate to: Europe has always been distinctive for its man-made environments which imply large bustling, vibrant crowds, a deep history and distinctive cultures. The Europe of “Metropia”, even its Paris, seems mostly abandoned by people and bare of any culture except the very kitsch. Admittedly most activity takes place at night or in underground places where few people go anyway but viewers would expect that even there, Roger would meet various beggars living in and around the metro networks who in themselves would be a comment and a criticism of the society that produced them.

Aside from the animation which can be awe-inspiring, especially in scenes where the “camera” pulls back to show scenes of the devastated urban environment or the explosions that occur at the Trexx Corporation offices, the film sticks to a spy / noir story type. There’s the mysterious blonde woman with hidden secrets who befriends Roger; Roger is attacked by security guard thugs at the start of his investigations; a minor character (Alexander Skarsgård) who passes on some useful information to Roger and warns him of danger ends up dying violently; and there are two, maybe even three, climaxes in the film coming fairly close together. What could have been the film’s real strength if director Tarik Saleh had thought to emphasise it, is that Roger turns out to be a pawn in a banal family dispute, the nature of which is never clear but is sure to have major political and social consequences. The Corporation is a virtual monarchy and, like all monarchies, subject to family intrigues and disloyalties: the CEO Ivan Bahn (Udo Kier) and his right-hand man Parker (Stellan Skarsgård), both at the centre of the conspiracy, realise too late their most dangerous enemy is Bahn’s child and heir. While Roger might be lucky to pick up his old life again, the Corporation continues on, perhaps initiating new forms of mind control and mass entertainment under the new CEO and not learning any lessons from the power struggle until a new generation of Bahn heirs wants to take over. All that might be needed would be a brief voice-over narration from Roger at the end, wondering at what will happen after Bahn’s gone, whether the Corporation will continue selling its mind control products or allow the people in the united Europe more freedom in their daily lives and some say in their government.

As it is, “Metropia” is an interesting warning at what Europe might become and look like as a poverty-stricken unified state. It offers little that’s new and fresh in plot and genre exploration. The political message is undeveloped at the film’s end but there is always the possibility of a sequel that will pick up where “Metropia” ends and explore the politics of the Corporation. People with experience of living in Communist states are sure to have feelings of deja-vu when they see the buildings where people live and work and the cramped, crumbling apartment where Roger lives. The animation technique does have definite limitations in telling this particular kind of spy / noir story where characters’ expressions and minimal dialogue become more important than the actual plot and could have been augmented with voice-over narration and various visual and audio special effects at particular points in the story to add drama and tension.

Persepolis: coming-of-age film could be more honest about life under police state regime

Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi, “Persepolis” (2007)

Adapted from the graphic novel, originally published in two volumes, of the same name, this is a coming-of-age fictional autobiography of Marjane Satrapi, done in mostly black-and-white animation that mimicks the style of the novel. Satrapi, known in the film as simply Marjane (voiced by Chiara Mastroianni), grows up during a momentous period in Iran’s recent history which encompasses the last days and the overthrow of Mohammed Reza Pahlavi as Shah, the brief democracy that followed under Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan and the first 12 years of Islamic theocratic rule during which time the ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini is Supreme Leader (1980 – 1989) and Iraq under President Saddam Hussein invades Iran and the two countries are bogged down in a war that lasts 8 years. Although “Persepolis” primarily surveys Marjane’s early life and how she came to be the person she is, currently living in self-exile in France where she works as a graphic designer, the film also conveys something of how individuals manage to live and cope, though not very well, under the chronic stress of ongoing war and a highly repressive and brutal police state where grassroots political activity is outlawed.

The animation aims to humanise Iranians for a Western audience and show how easily we all can fall under repressive political rule; it also moves the narrative swiftly and efficiently, diving into little pieces of early 20th century Iranian history to make a particular point about how Western powers meddled in Iranian politics or how various members of Marjane’s family got into trouble with the authorities before moving back to Marjane’s life. This establishes the family and social background that made Marjane’s upbringing distinctive and perhaps unusual for a girl of her social class in Iran. Early on, the animation has a light-hearted comic-strip quality and the scenes are bright and happy: Marjane’s parents, called Ebi and Maman (voiced by Simon Akbarian and Catherine Deneuve) rejoice at the hated Shah’s removal which means that Uncle Anoosh is released from jail after a long period. Little Marjane quickly becomes close to Uncle Anoosh who tells her stories of his early life as a Communist supporter and his self-exile in the Soviet Union to evade the Shah’s agents. Unfortunately the brief democracy is hijacked by Khomeini in a March 1979 referendum when voters are given the choice between the monarchy continuing and an Islamic government (no other alternatives being considered) and 99% of the people opt for an Islamic government. Khomeini and his followers impose a narrow and literal interpretation of an ideal Islamic society on Iran. Soon Uncle Anoosh is arrested again and later executed. Not long after, President Hussein of Iraq sees an opportunity to steal the oil-rich Iranian province of Khuzestan and invades the country, beginning the long protracted war that resulted in nearly a million Iranian casualties. The animation follows the events in mood, becoming darker with entire scenes filling up with black as images of death appear and the film assumes a strong, depressive expressionist flavour.

Marjane’s relations with Ebi and Maman are clear-cut: Ebi is supportive and easy-going while Maman is the strict disciplinarian feminist who tries to raise Marjane to be an independent-minded girl. As war drags on and a bomb lands in their neighbourhood, killing a Jewish family Marjane knows, Ebi and Maman, fearing for the girl’s safety, send her to a French school in Vienna in Austria. Marjane’s time in Vienna is eventful: she goes from one boarding-house to another, falls in with a group of punks at school and has crushes on two boys who fail or betray her in some way. Her last months in Vienna are spent as a homeless vagrant after she angrily leaves a boarding-house and she ends up in hospital. This gives her an opportunity to escape Austria and return to Iran in the waning days of the Iran-Iraq war. After the death of Khomeini in 1989, the rest of the film details how Marjane tries to cope with everyday life in Iran and the pettiness of the morality police which force her into an early and failed marriage. Eventually, Marjane and her family conclude that she can no longer stay in the country and Marjane leaves Iran for good.

Persepolis” is not too bad as a stand-alone work though there are major flaws: there are details in the movie that seem irrelevant to the coming-of-age story and the movie’s pace can be so rapid that its treatment of what must have been significant episodes in Marjane’s life comes across as superficial and sketchy. The movie works best as a companion piece or introduction to the graphic novel, of which about 70% is present in the film. What the film does best is create a particular mood or atmosphere that can resonate powerfully with the audience; the scenes of war, death and of Marjane’s abject homelessness in the later months of her stay in Vienna are illustrated with large blocs of black that encroach on individual figures that might be illuminated with small spots of light. Fantasy scenes, history and dreams scenes come to the fore in ways they can’t in the graphic novel: characters fly in skies that look three-dimensional among fixed glowing stars; and Uncle Anoosh, as a youth, climbs through mountainous country in scenes that deliberately look like two-dimensional stand-up cut-outs, giving the impression of some kind of puppet show where the puppets have a life of their own.

Many details eliminated from the film are ones that might upset the general public: the film doesn’t mention among other things that while at school in Vienna, Marjane becomes a small-time drug dealer and then works as a waitress in a cafe where she is subjected to sexual harassment. There are other aspects in the film that need an explanation beyond what both the film and the novel can provide: why the Iranian government promotes a cult of martyrdom and sends teenage boys to “clear” minefields during the Iran-Iraq war, and why the regime continues as a police state long after the war has ended and Khomeini has died. Later scenes of “Persepolis” in which Marjane sinks into a rut of constant partying, fighting with her husband Reza (whom she married young, to escape the morality police’s attention) and generally living a life lacking in direction, all of which collide in a tragic death of a party-goer after a party gets sprung by the police, and force Marjane to sever her ties with Iran and go into self-exile, seem rushed because certain details have been edited out and thus lack focus. Some voice-over narration by Marjane could have explained to Western audiences why young Iranians at the time engaged in an apparently mindless and potentially destructive hedonistic life-style (because of the risk of being arrested and imprisoned, possibly tortured, by the morality police) as a form of political protest. The episode in which Marjane becomes badly depressed, attempts suicide and recovers from her illness by becoming a gym instructor is treated in a patchy way and her fine arts education also gets rough treatment. The result is a film that becomes blander and less interesting in its second half and falls into stereotypical chick-lit territory in which one generation of women, represented by Marjane’s grandmother (Danielle Darrieux), dispenses banal wisdom about being true to yourself and about marriage and divorce being part of normal life to the next generation.

“Persepolis” could have been a more forceful film; the animation lends itself readily to tackling topics like war, the waste of young lives, suicide and living in a police state in a no-nonsense way through one person’s point of view that a live-action film might not be able to do. The simple cartoon style enables the events portrayed to be scaled to both the personal level and a more political global level; the animation format has a flexibility that the live-action format lacks. Satrapi might not have been politically active or aware in her young adult days but could have tackled this aspect of her life with honesty; audiences would surely understand if the reason was that she found everyday life too stressful and intolerable due to the conditions created by the Islamic Republican regime.  This could have been the film’s most powerful message: while repressive governments may damage people physically through torture or exile, their worst effects are psychological through depression and mental illness, and social because they deform and corrupt important social and cultural institutions as evidenced in Marjane and Reza’s hasty short-lived marriage.

Chinatown: film noir addresses serious issues of political and moral corruption

Roman Polanski, “Chinatown” (1974)

Chinatown” was Roman Polanski’s foray into the private eye / film noir genre and his last major film for Hollywood. A few years after making this movie, Polanski was arrested and charged with having unlawful sex with an underage teenage girl; though what he did cannot be condoned, his situation was complicated by the excessive media attention at the time which put pressure on the presiding judge, anxious for his reputation as a “hanging”-type judge, to ignore the recommendations of both Polanski’s legal defence team and his victim’s lawyers that Polanski serve a short time in jail, submit to a psychiatric test and evaluation (both conditions which he fulfilled) and then do a year’s worth of community service. The judge determined to put Polanski away for a long time which would have wrecked the film-maker’s career and tarnished the reputation of the law in California where the offence took place – in short, the judge would have acted corruptly. No wonder then, at the first opportunity, Polanski fled back to Europe where he continued to direct movies but always with his reputation under a cloud.

No small irony then that “Chinatown” deals with political corruption: in particular, with the selfish monied interests of a wealthy elite versus the public interest over the allocation of a necessary resource (water) and how politicians and public servants can be bought by rich individuals while honest hard-working poor people and communities (farmers in a valley north-west of Los Angeles where the movie is set) face the loss of livelihood and an uncertain economic future. Though “Chinatown” takes place during the Depression years of the 1930’s, its central message about political corruption and the misallocation and mismanagement of land, water and other resources is still relevant to us, especially in an age where in many countries water and electricity are being privatised and their control is no longer subject to public scrutiny, and in which cities continue to grow, putting pressure on their surrounding hinterlands and the communities there to share or supply more water from diminishing sources.

Initially the plot is straightforward and spare: private detective J J Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is hired by a woman (Diane Ladd) claiming to be Evelyn Mulwray to spy on Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling), an engineer working in the Los Angeles city water department, and ascertain if he is having an affair. Gittes quickly discovers that Mulwray is indeed seeing a teenage girl and that he is opposed to the construction of a new dam. Gittes follows Mulwray and finds that Mulwray has unearthed a scam which involves the dumping of fresh water into the ocean even though Los Angeles is suffering drought conditions. After Mulwray’s “infidelity” is exposed in the newspapers, the real Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) brings a lawsuit against Gittes and Gittes realises he has been set up. He convinces Mrs Mulwray that he is an innocent party and she reveals that her husband and her father Noah Cross (John Huston) were former business partners who privately owned the city’s water department.

Hollis is later found murdered and Evelyn Mulwray hires Gittes to investigate her husband’s death. He does so and finds it connected to a land grab attempt by the LA city water department to force farmers to sell their land cheaply to the investors who bought land bonds. The “investors” are revealed to be residents of a nursing home who know nothing of what was done in their name – by none other than Noah Cross who owns the home through his Albacore Club. Gittes’s continuing investigations bring him into conflict with Cross who wants him to find Hollis Mulwray’s supposed teenage lover, put his life and career at risk, and culminate in a tragic climax in the Chinatown district of Los Angeles.

The narrow focus of the screenplay on Gittes’s investigations and Polanski’s smooth and sure direction give Nicholson plenty of space and freedom (and there is a lot of space in the movie, in the homes of the wealthy and their playgrounds, in the countryside, along the roads and the coasts of southern California) to develop his character as a louche and likeable private eye who, beneath the rakish and sometimes violent exterior, is actually a thorough, dedicated and morally principled man who observes the spirit of the law and justice if not their letter and who fights on the side of the weak against the powerful. Viewers quickly appreciate how Gittes has come to work for himself rather than continue working for the police. His relationship with Evelyn Mulwray becomes personal and complicated and partly because of this, by the end of the film he becomes a broken man. Nicholson’s performance as the multi-faceted Gittes is brilliant and convincing, flavoured with the actor’s own slightly raffish style. The rest of the cast provides excellent support, in particular Dunaway as the rich and sophisticated yet vulnerable wife hiding a terrible family secret, and Huston as her father, jovial and gracious, sinister and greedy. Polanski himself, perhaps in homage to the English director Alfred Hitchcock who sometimes played small cameo roles in his movies, plays a small role as a vicious thug who disfigures Gittes’s face.

The film might not look very film noir – it has a slightly soft yet clear look, there is plenty of blue sky and the surroundings look beautiful and clean (even the Chinatown district looks bright and not at all seedy in spite of rubbish in its streets) – but its surface appearance hides a rotten core and the film adheres to a number of noir genre conventions and subverts them as well. The hero is a disillusioned outsider with moral flaws often working on the wrong side of the law which is corrupt and which he comes into conflict with; he tries to save a victim, usually a beautiful woman who is both innocent and morally compromised somehow; and in pursuing justice, he gets roughed up by representatives of evil and corruption so that his further investigations become a test of his moral character and principles. His work may uncover yet more corruption. The world he moves in is morally dark and unsavoury. The hero might not succeed in beating back the forces of darkness, and so it is with “Chinatown”: the forces of corruption win and the hero realises his efforts were all for nothing. The victim turns out to be the teenage “mistress” of Hollis Mulwray and Gittes fails to save her from Noah Cross’s clutches. Cross is an interesting if repulsive character whose sexual abuse of his daughter Evelyn and what we can presume he’ll do to the young girl symbolise his utter disregard for what we might call “natural law” in pursuit of self-interest and immediate gratification, and parallels his greed for land and money and disregard of human-made laws.

The use of film noir and its conventions to address and investigate an issue of continuing contemporary political and social importance as well as Polanski’s other concerns about social justice and the place of outsiders in society, makes “Chinatown” a very powerful film that still packs a lot of punch. The surprising thing is that the plot is easy to follow, with no sub-plots, and includes a soap opera element. Polanski is faithful to historical detail in people’s dress, the cars and technology they use, the architecture and interiors of buildings, homes and offices, and the social and ethnic segregation almost to a fault; even his small role recalls the fact that many people in the underworld at the time were Eastern European Jewish migrants. His direction is plain, almost blank, and forces viewers to judge for themselves what the film’s events say about the world they live in. Some viewers may be unhappy that, by film’s end, nothing has been done to expose the water supply scam and that it’s a sideshow to the Cross family soap opera but Gittes’s failure is in keeping with the film noir genre and the film’s own logic. If an experienced and knowledgeable expert like Hollis Mulwray knew what was happening but was powerless to stop it and ended up being killed for his trouble, how could an outsider private eye with few resources other than his own intelligence and investigative skills succeed?

Shinobi – Heart under Blade: film could have been cut above other live-action films based on manga / anime

Ten Shimoyama, “Shinobi – Heart under Blade” (2005)

Based on a novel “The Kouga Ninja Scrolls” written by Futaro Yamada in the late 1950’s, this movie will appeal mainly to fans of the manga and anime, both called “Basilisk”, that are also based on the novel. Watch the movie closely though and you’ll find themes that will set you thinking: the age-old opposition between free will and predestination; the determinism that states that what you are and what you do are the products of your background and social history and you can never break away or overcome your past; the question of how people bred, born and trained for war can cope with peace; what is the point of war anyway; and how misfits and outsiders can be accepted in normal society.

The film is set in the early years of the Tokugawa Shogunate that brought 260 years of peace to Japan. Ieyasu Tokugawa (Kazuo Kitamura) is wary of any threats to the country’s recent unification after 150 years of warfare (a period mined by Akira Kurosawa for insipiration for his films) and in particular is concerned about two clans, the Iga and Koga clans, based in two hidden mountain villages that have waged a vendetta against each other for centuries and are currently co-existing under an enforced 400-year peace. Tokugawa’s advisor cunningly sees a way of obliterating these two clans and wiping out any potential resistance to his master and suggests the clans demonstrate their prowess and powers at a ceremony by sending one representative warrior each. After this demonstration, Tokugawa announces that the enforced peace between the two clans is to be lifted and invites the clans to choose their five best ninja warriors to fight to the death. The one warrior to survive this all-in cat-fight will determine which of Tokugawa’s sons will succeed him as Shogun.

Unbeknownst to all, including their own people, it happens that Gennosuke (Joe Odagiri) of the Kogas and Oboro (Yukie Nakama) of the Igas fell in love some time ago and married secretly. As a result of Tokugawa’s invitation, both Gennosuke and Oboro find themselves nominated as members of their respective clans’ lists of the five best warriors and moreover, after the aged heads of the two clans foolishly whack each other into oblivion – illustrating that even in those days, when you were supposed to respect aged people for their wisdom, the reality was that being older didn’t necessarily mean being wiser – must lead their teams in this battle to end all battles. Gennosuke determines to find out from a senior noble Hattori Honzo (Yutaka Matsushige) what actual purpose this fight might serve as he suspects there is a hidden motive and he takes his warriors on a long trek on foot to Sumpu to meet this guy. He invites Oboro and her warriors to follow him and his team.

The bulk of the film is taken up by the Koga and Iga warriors taking one another out in ingenious and gruesome ways, their skills and superhuman powers on display though a number of characters don’t live long enough for the audience to fully appreciate the fighters’ abilities, until only Gennosuke and Oboro are left standing. In the meantime, the Shogun sends his armies to destroy the Koga and Iga villages. Realising their families and homes are doomed, Gennosuke and Oboro face a hard decision: one of them must sacrifice himself/herself and “lose” the battle of the clans.

The cinematography is gorgeous, emphasising nature and landscapes and in particular the passing of seasons, and this is the major highlight of the film, more so than the CGI-enhanced fighting scenes, some of which look surprisingly cheap. The overall idea with the emphasis on nature and its cycle is that all characters in this film are locked into an inescapable cosmic game which must be played out to its bitter end; the ninja warrior followers certainly feel this way and are either resigned to their fate or can’t see that they can be more than what they were bred, born and brought up to be.  They believe that without war, without a leader they can serve, their unique skills and abilities are as nothing and will wither and be forgotten. Only Gennosuke sees that there may be a place for the Igas and Kogas in a new world of peace; he questions the idea of being born for war and of wasting lives in violence, particularly in a scene where he defends himself from a horde of black-clad ninjas and slays them all, only to cry out in frustration at a situation where he is forced to kill for no good reason.

The colours of the film are worth mentioning: blue looks bluer, red looks redder and so on with all other colours, giving an intense look that is slightly unreal, even a bit cartoony, and demonstrating that, yes, we are in a world where real-life people like Ieyasu Tokugawa co-existed with people who are both human in their thoughts, feelings and shortcomings, and beyond human in their skills and abilities.

With the film’s emphasis on plot and pleasing the target audience (“Basilisk” manga / anime fans), acting and character development aren’t a great priority which is a pity; the characters of Oboro and Gennosuke at least could be more developed than they are so those viewers who don’t know the manga and anime film could sympathise with the lovers and feel their pain. The romance develops too quickly and next thing you know they’re married in a very brief ceremony (the groom hands his mother’s keepsake to the bride) and that’s it. From then on the action switches to the clans’ feud and how it will play out. The couple’s cardboard cut-out ninja companions are a mix of people who could be remote kin to the superheroes and supervillains of the DC Comics and Marvel Comics universes: Nenki Iga (Shun Ito) might be cousin to Wolverine of the X-Men team with his retractable iron claws and Kagero Koga (Tomoko Kurotani), the woman with poison for blood, has her analogy in Batman’s enemy Poison Ivy. Pity then that Nenki only has a couple of minutes to showcase his wares before Kagero finishes him off! The only ninja companions who get much to do and say are Koshirou (Mitsuki Koga) and Tenzen (Kippei Shiina): Tenzen especially voices his opinion that they, Kogas and Igas all, exist for war and have no place in a world of peace; significantly he chooses to die by kissing Kagero on the lips rather than rely on his symbiotic relationship with his pet internal tapeworm tenants which oblige him by cleaning and healing his wounds and injuries in super-quick time.

The plot is easy to follow and well-paced, progressing steadily to the surprise climax where the Shogun tells Oboro that her people and the Kogas are not normal people and can never be fully accepted into normal society because of their talents, and Oboro reacts by disabling herself of her unique power. This could be interpreted in different ways, not all of them happy: one interpretation could be that only by suppressing your uniqueness can you be accepted by others; another is that Oboro realises that to end their vendetta, the Igas and Kogas must join the rest of humanity and give up their warring ways by compromising their culture and talents. It’s a sad moment in a sense then when Oboro renounces her old life to spare her clan and Gennosuke’s clan from annihilation. The villagers may be saved and may be allowed to rejoin normal society and be able to resolve their differences with outside help and not have to resort to violence – but at what cost to their unique ways of life, their crafts and their arts?

The Romeo-and-Juliet plot may have been done to death many times already and there’s probably not much here that’s original and fresh but the film is a visually gorgeous and colourful feast for the eyes with lush forests and landscapes (a couple of waterfall scenes do look suspiciously unnatural, as though superimposed on a blank background behind a couple of actors) and the fight scenes and CGI effects are sometimes interesting if not always convincing. If the film had put more emphasis on developing interesting characters and elaborating on its themes, it could have been a cut above other live-action Japanese sword fantasy films based on manga and anime – ah, we’ll never know what could be.

No Country for Old Men: all the right stuff and still not a great movie

Joel Cohen, “No Country for Old Men” (2007)

Is it possible for a movie to have all the “right stuff” – you know, good acting performances, great cinematography that emphasises the desolate mood of the Texan semi-desert landscapes, a tight screenplay, a plot with a steady pace that ratchets the tension up to a tremendous, heart-breaking climax – and still stop short of greatness? In the case of Ethan and Joel Coen’s “No Country for Old Men”, based on the Cormac McCarthy novel of the same name, the answer is actually “Yes”.  The problem relates to the themes and ideas the film focusses on, in particular the nature of the universe where the film is set: a universe where randomness and unpredictability rule. Good and bad people alike have things done to them for no reason other than that there is a vicious cosmic joker at work, and having good moral principles or ethics is the same as having bad ones or none at all.  It becomes difficult for characters in this world, especially a fragmented one with little sense of community, where hyper-individualism and extreme self-reliance are valued, to understand and learn to deal with the problem of evil if it strikes swiftly and unexpectedly with no logic to it at all. A kind of complacency can result with people becoming resigned to the continuing and increasing level of evil and violence in their lives.

Unemployed welder and former Vietnam war veteran Llewelyn Moss (Brolin) is hunting game when he stumbles upon the aftermath of a shoot-out of a drug deal gone wrong, and he finds a suitcase of money. He takes the money (it happens to be bugged) and leaves the scene; later, feeling guilty that he didn’t help a survivor at that scene, he returns there with aid but is caught by various drug gang members and barely escapes with his life but must abandon his ute. Knowing that the drug gang will have checked the ute for ID papers so they can go after him, Moss bundles his wife Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald) off to safety with her mother and himself goes on the run from one motel to the next. Meanwhile two gang leaders hire a professional killer, Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), to get the money back; Chigurh clinches his side of the deal by killing the leaders. The next day, Bell finds the gang leaders’ bodies and identifies Moss’s ute; he contacts Carla Jean later to offer police protection.

The rest of the film involves Chigurh hounding Moss and leaving mayhem in his wake while Bell becomes ever more perplexed at the level and intensity of the violence Chigurh commits. The tension steadily grows as Chigurh gets ever so close to Moss yet remains ever so far away and Moss comes close to danger but escapes in the nick of time by sheer luck (Chigurh picks the wrong room at one motel, Moss finds the electronic bug in the suitcase just in time in another motel). Ultimately both men fail in their objectives as they move in  a capricious world that’s indifferent to the fate of its inhabitants; a world where people must make sense of their circumstances and create their own rules of morality on the hop simply to survive. Innocent people die and even Chigurh himself, the bringer of death, is felled by a random act of very trite and unintended violence – a commonplace car accident! – that he can’t deal with on his own and which makes his future, even his survival, uncertain. If one assumes that he’s managed to get the money but not Moss – and there are clues in the film that that’s what happened – then the gang that the money “belongs to” will certainly be on his trail.

The grim justice of Chigurh’s fate would be more blackly comic if the Coens had identified the people who caused the accident and kept them alive. Chigurh would be faced with this dilemma: follow his inner logic and kill the persons responsible when he gets the chance; or acknowledge the fortuitous nature of the situation and let the people go. This would be the film’s climax and its best moment: Chigurh in a position to exercise free will by breaking out of old habits and ways of thinking.  If he follows the advice that he gave to a shopowner early in the film – the one where the guy followed a rule all his life and the rule put him into a rut so should he still follow that rule? – he might redeem himself in a small way. In spite of living in an uncaring and even malevolent universe, as long as people can exercise free will, they have the potential to be more than what life, experience and knowledge have made them so far, and can create some order in the universe. If Chigurh could do this, an irony comes into play: he finally becomes a human being, no longer the Grim Reaper’s right-hand man or an angel of death. The universe itself doesn’t change – it stays an amoral place – but one inhabitant makes his own peace with it.

One character likely to appeal to viewers is Carla Jean who, though the ultimate victim through no fault of her own, shows some inner steel. In refusing to stoop to Chigurh’s level by arguing that he has free will and more control over his decisions and fate than he knows (“… the coin don’t have no say …”), she seals her own fate but in a way that diminishes Chigurh. She shows him a way out of his implacable code of “honour” but he fails to seize it.

The other appealing character is Sheriff Bell, invested with warmth and feeling by Jones, who laments at what he believes is the passing of a more civilised world where the good guys and the bad guys alike abided by an unspoken etiquette and a code of honour. I should think a world like that would be a closeted world of bribery, manipulation and corruption if everyone understands the same language and knows one another well, perhaps too well, and it might not be less violent than the one portrayed in the film. Faced with a series of crimes his training, knowledge and experience haven’t prepared him for, Bell feels overwhelmed by their senseless and cruel nature and eventually retires from the police force, admitting defeat. There’s a parallel with Chigurh here: Chigurh sticks to a rigid code of self-reliance and not owing anyone anything, and Bell believes in a different code that implies a certain insularity and insider knowledge. Both men remain diminished as characters by not being able to open up to other possibilities in their world.

The practical viewer might inquire why Bell doesn’t call for police back-up from other parts of Texas or contact the United States Marshals Service for assistance to pursue Chigurh and understand his type of criminality. Even in the period the film is set in (1980), when the FBI hadn’t yet developed methods of serial killer profiling and predicting serial killer behaviour, violent crime of that nature was not common but did occur often enough in the US that law enforcement agencies were devoting resources to studying it so help was available then. It’s significant that the male characters in the film don’t ask for or seek help when they should and this refusal together with extreme self-reliance ends up being the undoing of some characters. In a society like this, it’s possible for people like Chigurh and the people he works for to cut a swathe of destruction without meeting much resistance while those left to pick up the pieces scratch their heads and wonder.

The Coens obviously enjoy creating a world of grim black humour where characters, good, bad and evil ones alike, flail about trying to make sense of everything that happens and to control people and events around them – only for it all to rebound and leave them forlorn, isolated, angry, violent – or stone-cold dead. Unfortunately the Coens’ perspective is likely to leave a lot of viewers, expecting to see Chigurh and Moss confront each other and one of them winning, dumbfounded and feeling cheated. Parts of the narrative are deliberately left opaque at critical points which will infuriate some viewers even more.

Here is a movie that boasts great craftsmanship and good performances but which falls short of saying something unique and significant that would make it a great film. What’s unique about saying that individuals can’t overcome evil when it is vague, lacks sense, logic or intelligence and strikes randomly and without warning, and leaving the message at that? This is a message of hopelessness, one that makes people fearful and likely to hand power over to institutions (government, mercenaries perhaps) that might abuse it. We may not be able to understand evil or combat and defeat it fully but there’s a difference between throwing our hands up in despair and perhaps giving our power over to others, and recognising and resisting evil in ourselves as individuals and as members of groups.

Dark City (dir. Alex Proyas): thought-provoking ideas and issues trapped in a prison

Alex Proyas, “Dark City” (1998)

An attractive film that combines elements of film noir, mystery, science fiction and (regrettably) action thriller, “Dark City” is a quest into the role that memories play in shaping people’s identities and individualities with a darker message about how a person’s memories – and his or her identity as a result – can be changed and moulded by others pursuing a secret agenda. This sinister message can apply to whole communities and societies as well with the result that even a country might exist only on the basis of lies and myths concocted by an elite group and believed by the country’s entire population.

The film is upfront about the nature of its nameless Dark City in the opening voice-over narrative supplied by an important character, Dr Schreber (Kiefer Sutherland): a group of aliens known as the Strangers, whose original world and civilisation are destroyed, and who themselves are on the verge of dying out, nab a whole bunch of people from Earth – how many isn’t said – and pop them into a floating prison space-ship reconstructed in the style of American cities as they might have appeared in mystery or crime thriller movies of the 1940’s. The purpose is to study the humans in order to find out what makes them “individual” and to use that knowledge to save the Strangers from extinction. Quite how the Strangers found out about human civilisation and how they conducted their research – they must have plundered film libraries throughout the world for information on how to build cities – isn’t explained but they end up producing a claustrophobic and grim brutalist metropolis with some Art Deco and German Expressionist flourishes that is a homage to Fritz Lang’s famous dystopian flick “Metropolis”. Into this world is “born” a man (Rufus Sewell) in a bath-tub full of water: he wakes up and realises he has no name, not many childhood memories and certainly no idea as to why the woman in the room outside the bathroom should be a bloodied mess with knife wounds all over and weird spirals painted in red on her naked body. He stumbles into some clothes, out of the hotel and into the streets, working out that he’s called John Murdoch and that he spent some time in an idyllic seaside place called Shell Beach. While he’s busy reconstructing who and what he’s supposed to be, others are hunting for him: the police, led by Detective Bumstead (William Hurt), believe him to be the woman’s murderer; and the Strangers together with Dr Schreber want him so they can fix up their botched experiment in creating a serial killer.

Since the Strangers abhor sunlight and moisture, they keep their prison city in perpetual night and allow no rivers or other bodies of water near it. At “midnight” every day, they put all the human inhabitants to sleep and modify the city’s environment and the people in a process called “tuning”: new buildings sprout from the ground like vegies on Viagra and Schreber, allowed to stay awake, goes around injecting individual folks (using alarming-looking heavy-duty syringes) with new identities and memories that he’s cooked up in his laboratory deep underground where the Strangers live. For some lucky humans, upward social mobility is achieved in the space of 15 minutes or roughly the time it takes for a table to morph three times its length. Murdoch discovers that he too can stay awake during the tuning periods and moreover can tune buildings by mind power; he uses this ability to evade the police and the Strangers on several occasions while trying to make his way to Shell Beach. He discovers though that while people “know” the place, they can’t give him the directions. He locates a relative, Uncle Karl (John Bluthal) who happily tells him about his childhood but Murdoch discerns glaring holes in the reminiscences and exposes the stories and the uncle himself as deliberate artificial constructs.

Later surrendering himself to the police, Murdoch meets Bumstead who himself has been troubled about what’s happening in the city and he convinces the detective that there’s something not right about the place. They both track down Schreber and force him to take them to the farthest outskirts of the city in the direction of Shell Beach. The threesome come up against a brick wall (literally) and what they find behind the illusion of Shell Beach confirms Murdoch’s suspicions about the artificial world they live in …

The speedy and straightforward nature of the plot and the ease with which Murdoch deconstructs the nature of everything around him give the film and its concerns an air of superficiality which is unfortunate. Needed are a few lingering bird’s-eye point-of-view shots of the city sprinkled throughout the film to emphasise its alien atmosphere and artificiality and to let people savour its idiosyncratic appearance while thinking about the events they’ve just seen; such moments can also serve to heighten or reduce tension, depending on what point in the plot they appear. Though early shots of the cityscape look moody and glamorous enough, later the city starts to look generic and more prison-like and becomes less of a character than it should be as the film slips into action-thriller mode. The result is that the movie ends up looking like a budget version of “Metropolis” and there’s very little sense of the city as a multi-layered Gothic creature harbouring secrets and conspiracies in its alley-ways, tunnels, labyrinths and stairwells. If a film is going to use CGI processes to create a city, it should go the whole hog and beyond to create something that looks as if it took decades, even centuries, to develop and mature. Seems it’s not only the Strangers who need to learn that surface style is no substitute for substance.

Acting excellence and character development aren’t very important in a film like “Dark City” where everyone bar Schreber is supposed to be one-dimensional and if people show any signs of personality, the Strangers will subject them to a cerebral clean-out. Sewell and Hurt play their parts straight and acquit themselves well though Proyas could have included more close-ups of Sewell’s face; this actor has wide soulful eyes with a clear colour that could reflect the progress his character makes in reconstructing his identity. Jennifer Connelly as Murdoch’s wife Emma has little to do and her part could have been dispensed with entirely. Sutherland plays Schreber as a campy mad scientist: his role as collaborator who switches sides is admittedly a difficult one and perhaps his obsequious little creep is the only way to play a duplicitous character bouncing off Sewell’s straight-man role.

Where the film really slumps is in its last fifteen minutes where Murdoch faces off against the Strangers’ leader (Ian Richardson), again literally, and rocks and bodies get thrown around in a boring pyrotechnics display. A film with some aspirations to being cerebral and concerned with investigating artificiality-versus-reality could do much better and more, and include a scenario where the Strangers and humans agree that truth ultimately trumps lies and they should live together as equals: the strangers would then discover that it’s only by allowing humans the freedom to construct their own identities over time that individuality is achieved. In this way the Strangers discover the remedy to their past mistakes and save themselves from extinction. Instead we end up with a scenario where the dark city could end up living another lie, only this time a lie created by a human with the potential to rule as tyrant. Individuality and memory would be used to prop up the new lie and enforce a new kind of conformity.

It’s a real pity when a movie with its heart in the right place and an ingenious concept investigating memory, identity and the nature and role of artifice gets stuck at a level simply to please what commercial interests perceive to be the lowest common denominator in movie-going audiences and a potentially good, thought-provoking story ends up marooned within.

Or (My Treasure): film treads gingerly around prostitution issue

Keren Yedaya, “Or (My Treasure)” (2004)
 Source: www.allmovie.com
Debut feature from director Keren Yedaya, this Israeli film is a study of a dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship dominated by the mother’s career “choice”: street prostitution. For lack of a better word, I chose “choice” and put it in inverted commas as the movie is unclear as to whether the mother Ruthie (Ronit Elkabetz) made the choice to be a hooker or just drifted, or was forced, into prostitution under circumstances she had no control over. The film takes the point of view of Or (Dana Ivgy), Ruthie’s teenage daughter, and can be seen as a coming-of-age film of a despairing kind. We follow Or as she goes through her daily routine in her working-class neighbourhood, trying to juggle schoolwork with working at a restaurant at nights, collecting bottles for recycling and keeping her mother out of trouble. Mum has just left hospital and already Or has lined up a cleaning job to keep the woman occupied and bring in some money to pay the rent which is already in arrears. Over the course of the movie though, it’s apparent Ruthie has little appetite for cleaning work, however easy it looks, and soon drifts back into prostitution out of habit. This drives Or to desperation as the bills mount up and she breaks up with her boyfriend Ido and joins an escort agency.
The effects of prostitution on Ruthie and Or are devastating and dehumanising: Ruthie must have worked the streets for so long that she is incapable of interacting with men in ways that don’t involve trading sexual favours for something needed, like repairs to the apartment where she and Or live or getting more time from the landlord to pay the rent. She seems desensitised by both her work and its brutal and dangerous consequences: in one scene, she comes home from a tryst with blood streaming down her legs yet seems not to care enough to see a doctor. In a mental fug during her waking hours, Ruthie is a child who must be told what to do and Or is the mother who keeps dragging her back from the front door to stop her from walking the streets in her skimpy outfits that scream “hooker”. When Ruthie is at home, she either sleeps or watches TV listlessly and whines to her daughter when she is there. Or in her interactions with Ido (Meshar Cohen) and other boys is falling into the same trap as Ruthie did: she sleeps with Ido, causing friction between Ido’s mother and Ruthie, in order to be close to him and can’t say no to an old boyfriend on leave from the Israeli Army when he demands a kiss and a blow-job. As Ruthie continues her downward slide back into prostitution, she becomes increasingly robotic and casually brushes off Or’s pleas not to return to her old ways. Or herself shows signs of emotional withdrawal and desensitisation when she pushes Ido away, seduces the landlord and, after joining the escort agency, services an elderly client who demands anal sex of her.
I’ve seen Elkabetz in “The Band’s Visit” and “La Fille du RER”, and it’s hard to believe that the child-like zombie padding around the apartment in underwear or dressed pathetically in boob-tube and hot pants with gaudy make-up painted all over her face wandering the city streets at night is the same actor who plays the elegant lawyer (“La Fille …”) or the helpful shop-owner who aids the stranded Egyptian musicians (“The Band’s Visit”): proof if any is needed that Elkabetz is a versatile character actor whose own personality quirks, if she has any, disappear completely in the character she plays. Ivgy who appears in nearly every scene holds up her side of acting very well, particularly near the end where she is fighting to hold back tears as she watches her mother paint her face. Together these two actors anchor the entire film, no small challenge even for someone as experienced as Elkabetz, and so it’s all the more amazing for me to discover that this is Ivgy’s first film where she plays a main character forced into a harrowing situation.
There are three significant moments in the film where Or laughs, and laughs abundantly: when she is with Ruthie at home watching TV, enjoying each other’s company and free of all cares; when she is with Ido in his room before she gives herself to him freely; and when she describes to the girls at school her sexual encounter with the ageing landlord. These moments can be interpreted as transition points in Or’s transformation from innocent, sensitive girl to world-weary, cynical adult; in the first moment, the laughter is genuine and spontaneous, in the second moment a little less so, and in the third moment, the laughter seems forced and a bit cynical.
The people around Or seem sympathetic to her problems but no-one suggests she contact a social welfare officer or an Israeli government or private equivalent to seek help for herself and Ruthie. Ido’s mother, confronting Ruthie and Or in their home, doesn’t suggest Or and Ido should seek sex education counselling; she simply wants them apart. Perhaps the people in Or’s neighbourhood distrust the government for some reason or are unaware of what’s available to help people in need. Perhaps the Israeli government has cut back on funding social services in neighbourhoods such as where Ruthie and Or live. The hospital where Ruthie is simply dumps her outside its doors and offers no further support. Whatever the reason, Or is on her own struggling to save her mother from herself and the girl is neglecting her own needs and education. (Though it could be said that Or is her own worst enemy in a way as she rejects Ido’s offer of help and refuses to see the school careers advisor.) Society as portrayed in the film seems self-absorbed and atomistic: the opening scene in the film shows pedestrians and commuters going about their business in a busy city street, all of them appearing oblivious to one another’s existence or condition and absorbed in their own mental worlds. Apart from Ido who genuinely cares about Or’s well-being, the men in the film are either predatory, taking advantage of Ruthie or Or in some way, or just plain ineffective.
Certainly the film is critical of the effects of prostitution on prostitutes themselves and their families – Or and Ruthie are not condemned for their actions and Ruthie appears driven by forces and urges she can’t understand and control – but its teenage-based scope and minimal fly-on-the-wall fixed-frame exposition of the problem of women’s sexual exploitation in Israel and what that might suggest about the position of women generally in that country limit its effectiveness as a plea for social and political change and reform. The issue is too personalised and the focus is very much on whether Or can wrench herself away from Ruthie and get out of the prostitution rut before it consumes her spirit and youth as it did her mother’s. The ambiguous ending suggests she might still have a chance while she’s young but the choice that faces Or is too cruel: dump her mother and save herself, risking censure and self-guilt along the way for abandoning Ruthie, or sink into her mother’s abyss. The solution for Or has to be a win-win situation for herself and for Ruthie but the events of the film are set up in a way that prevents such an outcome.
It’s hard not to escape the feeling that as social criticism, “Or (My Treasure)” treads very gingerly around prostitution and how it traps women and girls. The film risks being seen as having a conservative and narrow agenda about what can be done (it’s up to the individual to save herself, society has no responsibility to help people like Ruthie and Or break their particular vicious cycle) or exploiting the issue for titillation purposes.