Lab Rat: an investigation into what it means to be human

Nour Wazzi, “Lab Rat” (2019)

Initially the plot seems familiar to the point of banality: three scientists working for a robotics firm are suddenly trapped in the office, all entry and exit points locked by remote control, and forced to figure out by the firm’s CEO which one of them is actually an android. One of these scientists, Johnny (Matt Harris), has reason to feel irate at the CEO since she, Dr Edwards (Abeo Jackson), happens to be the mother of his girlfriend Alika (Kirsty Sturgess) with whom he’s passionately in love. Wanting desperately to go home, stuck in the dark and just having heard news about rioting in the street over the introduction of AI in offices and factories, with people fearing the loss of their jobs to robots and AI generally, the three scientists turn on one another like cats while in Dr Edwards’ office, the CEO gloats at how quickly educated and supposedly rational people turn bestial and murderous while Alika, distressed, watches the other two scientists Ellie (Sian Hill) and Marvin (Max Williams) pile on and beat Johnny and start strangling him. The daughter can bear Johnny’s treatment no more and rushes out to save him – but the mystery of which of the characters in the film is the android remains.

As it turns out, the fight between Johnny and the other two scientists is not really the test. When Johnny finds out who really is the AI cat among the human pigeons, he is absolutely gutted. Dr Edwards is full of smug satisfaction that her creation has performed as she had hoped – if the AI is to pass as a human, then the AI must exhibit the full range of human emotions, including anger and love, and be as fallible and prone to making mistakes and bad decisions as humans – and her final words are chilling as she orders more replicas of the prototype model to be made, with each model retailing for several million each. The fate of all those poor replica models is to be bought and sold like so many slaves or trafficked prostitutes.

All the actors – even those playing Ellie and Marvin, though those are minor characters – put in good performances and Jackson and Sturgess turn in excellent performances as sociopathic mother and innocent daughter respectively. Once again, a sci-fi film presents androids as being capable of more humanity than humans themselves: the twist here is that the human is the mother of the android, and in most societies who is usually tasked by custom and tradition to teach young humans how to behave and to become “human”?

Aside from addressing (in a rather superficial way) the issue of robotics making humans redundant, the film considers the possibility of giving robots not only human intelligence but also human emotions and the ability to feel empathy and compassion – with what that implies for how humans should treat robots ethically and whether robots are entitled to the same human rights, privileges and responsibilities as humans – and through this strategy, investigates the nature of what it means to be human. The result is that the most human of all the characters in the film, the most compassionate and least brutal and violent of them all, turns out to be the robot.

A strong character-driven short, “Lab Rat” shows that science fiction films need not rely on special effects at all, with all the science contained within the plot and the characters’ dialogue. Good acting is called for to make such a film successful and it is to director Wazzi’s credit that she found excellent actors to fill all the roles in this film.

The Atlas of False Desires: cynically saying that if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em

Nathan Su, “The Atlas of False Desires” (2016)

By turns inspiring yet depressing, this 8-minute film puts forward a proposition that to save Planet Earth from destruction caused in part by mass consumerism encouraged by social media in the form of social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram promoting (or not) so-called social media influencers – often young women paid (or not) to flaunt particular fashion trends of life-styles – activists must resort to using the same tactics of manipulation, astro-turfing, even trolling and fake news generation to appeal to emotion and subconscious desire and to shape opinion and behaviour. The film revolves around an Indian click farm called Desire Atlas that runs a devious IT operation to seed fake content and create a fake grassroots following about a new global fashion trend – undyed garments – through a collaborating vlogger (Bethany Edgoose, who also co-wrote the script with director Nathan Su) in order to save rivers in India from toxic chemical pollution caused by the use of industrial coloured dyes in fabric and to encourage Indian weavers in using and maintaining their traditional knowledge and skills to weave plain-coloured fabrics. The vlogger uses her Manic Monday vlog to promote the hashtag #undyed, a teenage influencer sees the pictures of models wearing clothing made of undyed fabric, believes they are for real and passes the message of a new fashion trend to her friends. Before long, major corporate clothing and fabric labels are up in arms about an apparent new global trend of fashion in undyed fabrics that has suddenly boomed out of nowhere; cyber-marketers and corporate IT employees are nonplussed as to how a trend they had no warning of could suddenly have so many followers in the millions around the world. The global clothing-dye industry collapses and rivers in India no longer carry dangerous toxins.

The message may be too simplistic but it does highlight the interconnected nature of the global fashion industry, how companies use and harvest social media platforms for trends that they can manipulate for profit, and how gullible people, influencers and influenced alike, with little knowledge of the outside world beyond their own immediate experience, can be exploited emotionally by marketing campaigns going for their jugulars. Fashion trends then spread through cyber-space like viruses – emphasises in the film with beautiful computer-generated imagery of clouds of coloured pixels exploding through space above city or country scenes – and create huge shifts in production and distribution in faraway lands, with enormous consequences in the way raw materials may or may not be chosen, where they are transported to and transformed through stages into the end product, and the impact that manufacturing generated by fashion trends can have on employment, people’s lives and cultures, and the natural environment.

In a mix of documentary and fictional drama, “The Atlas of False Desires” proposes that the same tactics that corporations use to entice people to make choices by appealing to their irrational instincts and desires can also be used to influence people to do good. The problem with this idea is that it does not challenge the underlying systems, values and ideologies on which global fashion and clothing manufacture are based. People are still being treated as passive consumers who can be pushed around and mentally brainwashed with ease. Consumerism as a way of life – and a destructive one at that – remains unquestioned. Major environmental issues are not always amenable to simplistic solutions: the health of rivers in India may depend on many factors as well as on whatever industry spews into them. And what will happen when consumers around the world tire of wearing plain clothing with no dyes? Is another trend, perhaps based on the use of natural dyes, ready to sell with the same tactics of manipulation? Suppose the target audience realises it is being manipulated – what do the well-meaning activists at Desire Atlas do then?

Skyfall: revisiting the past for new inspiration and direction

Sam Mendes, “Skyfall” (2012)

Released in 2012, the year being the 50th anniversary of the first EON Productions’ James Bond film release “Dr No”, “Skyfall” carries the theme of a return to one’s past, either to resolve outstanding conflicts and problems before one can move on, or to draw inspiration from past history in order to forge a new, refreshed direction. Issues such as the contrasts between youth and middle-aged maturity, and whether attitudes, ideas and institutions that were relevant in a past age have outlived their usefulness in modern times, are referred to briefly and superficially. Aspects of past James Bond films and even the original novels by Ian Fleming appear in “Skyfall”. The film though is mainly remarkable in deviating somewhat from the franchise formula in fleshing out the characters of Bond (Daniel Craig) and his superior M (Judi Dench), giving them a motivation for doing what they do, in addition to flushing out and battling a rogue ex-MI6 agent in the form of Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem).

In the film’s opening scene, Bond and fellow MI6 field agent Eve Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) chase mercenary Patrice (Ola Rapace) who has stolen a hard drive containing the names of various MI6 and NATO agents through the streets of Istanbul and later the railway line leading out of Istanbul into Bulgaria or Greece. As Bond and Patrice fight on top of a speeding train, Moneypenny is ordered by M in London to shoot Patrice, even though she does not have a clear shot. Under sufferance, Moneypenny follows orders and Bond, shot in the chest, falls 30 metres into a river and disappears, seemingly forever, down a waterfall while Patrice rides to freedom. For this bungle, a public enquiry is held into M’s conduct and she is pressured by Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), a former SAS officer, to retire. Naturally M refuses, preferring to stick out her job until she judges the time is right for her to leave.

In the meantime, MI6’s computers are hacked and MI6’s bizarre ziggurat London headquarters at Vauxhall Cross are blown up. (Good riddance, I say.) MI6 is forced to move to underground digs. Bond, who used his “death” to retire to a little island in Indonesia where he spends his days drinking alone in a bar, hears of the attack and returns to London to the consternation of M. She packs him through a series of physical and mental tests (which he fails) and despatches him on a mission to find Patrice and his employer, kill Patrice and get the hard drive back.

Through a series of adventures in Shanghai and Macau, Bond locates Patrice but loses the him when Patrice falls to his death from a skyscraper. Bond however receives unexpected help from Patrice’s colleague Severine (Berenice Marlohe) who takes him to an island near Macau where they are captured and taken to the employer, Raoul Silva, who turns out to be a renegade former MI6 agent with a grudge against M.

From this point on, the film traces a more familiar formulaic path as Bond does battle against the campy Silva, culminating in Bond taking M to his childhood home Skyfall in remote Scotland with Silva and his men in hot pursuit. Most of the plot features Bond in feats of near-foolish bravado that in real life no-one would ever survive; only an actor like Craig who is able to work gravitas and grit into ever more silly and ridiculous acts that Bond is required to do can make such crazy stunts look plausible. Craig’s Bond brims with the sort of complicated and dark psychology usually associated with DC Comics figure Batman; it surely is no coincidence that Bond turns out to have been an orphan during his childhood. With no family to call his own, anyone can see from a mile away that MI6 is Bond’s substitute family and M his substitute mother. Sigmund Freud would drop his cigar watching this film.

Very little in the film makes much sense: why on earth would Bond take M back to his childhood home (which he never liked much anyway) knowing that the crazed Silva’s arrival means it will be blown up sky high? Silva is so hilariously comic with his clown wig and his attempt to straighten out his dentures (a pity they don’t turn out to be shark’s teeth or made of venom-tipped steel, and they never get used at all in the film) that one wonders if Bardem had been told he was going to play the Joker in a Batman film. He sort of does anyway, playing the rogue MI6 foil to Bond, in yet another iteration of the motif in most films in which mega-criminals flaunt their wealth, underworld status and influence to Bond and jeer at his meagre pay and MI6’s cavalier treatment of its field agents if they are ever captured or killed. Bond is forced yet again to ponder why he keeps taking on dangerous assignments for a capricious employer – and none is more capricious and tetchy than Dench’s M – in a universe where Britain’s influence and status have long since gone into the garbage tip of history, where spy agencies have become corrupt and incompetent (as evidenced by M’s actions) and, in the age of the Internet, seemingly antiquated and irrelevant.

The only good thing about this film is Daniel Craig as Bond, the actor infusing his style of grit and balance of humour and seriousness into a fantasy character in a bizarre fantasy universe, and making the whole shebang look fairly convincing. The real world may be grubbier and not at all exciting, the ethics of MI6 and its employees may be more corrupt and expedient than the ethics of those MI6 pursues, and the competence of the people who would claim to save humanity from criminality and terrorism is questionable. MI6’s field agents may end up suffering from PTSD or survivor’s guilt after having seen so many of their comrades become incapacitated or dead from even just one mission. But in the Hollywood fantasy machine world, Bond is basically the same man as he was in the beginning: a blank slate on whom viewers can project their fantasies about a world they will never experience – because that world does not exist and has never existed.

GoldenEye: betrayal, duplicity and loyalty to one’s brother spy

Martin Campbell, “GoldenEye” (1995)

Named after original James Bond creator / novelist Ian Fleming’s estate in Jamaica, itself named after an Allied WWII operation spying on Spain’s possible connections with Nazi Germany, this film first featured Irish actor Pierce Brosnan as the MI6 wonder spy in an adventure that takes Bond to post-Soviet Russia and Cuba. The film begins back in the 1980s when Bond and fellow MI6 spy Alec Trevelyan (Sean Bean) infiltrate a chemical weapons facility but are sprung by Colonel Ourumov (Gottfried John) who apparently kills Trevelyan while the Brits try to escape. Years later, Bond tries to stop the outlandishly named psychopathic pilot Xenia Onatopp (Famke Janssen) from stealing a Eurocopter in Monaco but is held back by others. MI6 traces the stolen ‘copter to a military radar base in Severnaya in northern Siberia. An electromagnetic pulse suddenly destroys the base and knocks out all satellites orbiting above. MI6 determines that the pulse came from a Soviet-era satellite codenamed “GoldenEye” and Bond suspects the involvement of the now General Ourumov who has high-level military access to the satellite’s codes.

Bond travels to St Petersburg to connect with CIA agent Jack Wade (Joe Don Baker) who tells him to meet Valentin Zukovsky (Robbie Coltrane) who in turn can organise a meeting with Janus, a crime syndicate. When Bond does meet Janus, he is astonished to discover that Trevelyan is not only still alive but is the head of Janus. Bond is sedated and wakes up to find himself trapped in the stolen Eurocopter with a Severnaya survivor, computer analyst Natalia Simonova (Izabela Scorupco). The two narrowly escape being blown up and after a number of chase sequences during which Simonova is abducted by Ouromov and rescued by Bond, and several priceless historic buildings in St Petersburg are demolished, Bond and Simonova travel to Cuba when Simonova discovers that a work colleague of hers, Boris Grishenko, has also survived the Severnaya destruction and his location is discovered to be somewhere in that Caribbean nation. Bond and Simonova are due for a surprise when they reach Cuba and search for the Janus syndicate base and its satellite dish, flying their light plane over a lake which looks innocent enough to them.

The plot is a bit complicated to follow at first but after Bond and Simonova meet, it becomes fairly straightforward with plenty of action sequences – maybe too many and too irrelevant to the plot – to keep mainstream audiences entertained. The St Petersburg scenes look dirty and gritty and the film-makers don’t treat the city’s buildings and monuments with much respect at all. Brosnan plays a good Bond, tough and intelligent, with enough sensitivity to make his romance scenes with Scorupco’s feisty Natalia credible. Other characters range from the sinister (Ouromov) to the oddball (Grishenko) and the comic and unbelievable (Onatopp). Onatopp in particular must have been a left-over from the Roger Moore period of fantasy villainous hench-men: she is a jarring presence in what is otherwise a fairly realistic adventure thriller. On the other hand Bean puts life into a character stereotype (a Bond doppelganger) though the character’s motivation seems implausible: would MI6 really employ as a spy someone whose background might suggest he could easily turn double agent during his employment? The film might have built up the friendship between Trevelyan and Bond a little more at its beginning so that Bond feels the betrayal and duplicity of Trevelyan more sharply than he does, and his inevitable cruel despatch of Trevelyan becomes more understandable.

Themes of loyalty to one’s country and friends, betrayal, vengeance and the very thin line between good and bad in a morally indifferent universe – with perhaps a related issue of whether blood ties and self-interest count for more than friendship, loyalty and patriotism – are paramount in this film about two brother spies in arms who become enemies. Not for the first time is Bond challenged by a villain who chides him for being loyal to a bureaucratic organisation that belittles him by not paying him terribly well and expecting him to carry out dangerous life-threatening assignments and rescue damsels in distress, not all of whom he manages to save, for no better reason other than defending Britain and its interests. That Bond remains resolutely loyal to his crotchety employers in spite of the lack of gratitude MI6 often displays is always a given in the Bond films but is not explored in any of them in much detail. Apart from these observations, “GoldenEye” is a good straightforward introduction to Brosnan who fills the character of James Bond very well indeed.

The Living Daylights: bringing James Bond back into the real world of grubby self-interest

John Glen, “The Living Daylights” (1987)

With a new actor playing the role of British spy James Bond, this 15th film in the James Bond movie franchise adapts to its new lead actor Timothy Dalton’s gritty, down-to-earth interpretation of the character and presents as a more conventional and grounded spy action thriller. The plot is still as convoluted as previous James Bond film plots have been, starting from one incident and developing new twists from there that take the character to different parts of the world and coming up against new antagonists, and the action is as prolonged and ridiculous as can be to keep a mainstream audience entertained and attentive. At the same time there is a bit more emphasis on character development, to ease audiences into accepting Dalton as Bond and to make his developing romance with the requisite Bond girl, in this film the cellist Kara Milovy (Maryam d’Abo) more plausible.

Initially Bond helps a senior KGB officer, General Georgi Koskov (Jeroen Krabbe) defect from the Soviet Union by shooting a sniper’s rifle from Milovy’s hands during a concert performance in Bratislava, rather than killing Milovy as he is supposed to do, and then popping the general into a gas pipeline and sending him through to Vienna and later Britain. Just as soon as the general enters a safe-house, he is abducted by presumed KGB agents and whisked away. Bond is then assigned by MI6 to hunt down new KGB head General Pushkin (John Rhys Davies) in Tangier and kill him, the general apparently having revived an old KGB directive to all its agents to kill foreign spies. Visiting Milovy in Bratislava, Bond discovers Koskov’s defection was a set-up. The couple go to Vienna for Bond to meet his MI6 contact Saunders who tells Bond of contacts between Koskov and a rogue US arms dealer Brad Whitaker (Joe Don Baker) who fancies himself an army man. After Saunders is killed by Koskov’s henchman Necros (Andreas Wisniewski), Bond and Milovy continue on to Tangier and Bond meets Pushkin who tells the spy that he did not revive the directive and that Koskov is wanted for embezzling Soviet state funds.

Bond agrees to work with Pushkin while Milovy meets up with Koskov (they are former lovers) who convinces her to drug Bond so he can be captured. Bond and Milovy are then flown to Afghanistan and imprisoned by Koskov’s men. They escape prison with the help of another prisoner, Kamran Shah (Art Malik), who turns out to be a local mujahideen leader. Bond discovers that Koskov is using stolen Soviet money to buy huge amounts of opium from the Afghans and to use the profits from opium and heroin trafficking to buy weapons from Whitaker.

The villains may not be of the billionaire stature and eccentricity of past Bondian villains and minions; they tend for the most part to be colourless and grubby men keen on advancing their own financial self-interests and not on subjugating the world to their wills. As henchmen go, the only thing special about Necros is his unfortunate name. Whitaker seems a more pathetic creature than a scheming villain. The team-up between Bond and Kamran Shah’s mujahideen was dubious even in 1987 and in the light of Afghanistan’s post-Soviet period is even more dubious given that the mujahideen then were receiving arms and money from Saudi billionaire and al Qa’ida leader Osama bin Laden. The film does nothing to distinguish Koskov and his rogue set of Soviets from the Soviet soldiers working and fighting in Afghanistan and the part of the film that takes place in that country devolves into anti-Soviet propaganda combined with the usual chase sequence, lots of fighting including an improbable fight between Bond and Necros in a cargo plane, and explosions galore.

While the acting is solid and Dalton is highly credible as Bond, the role of Milovy seems ill-thought out and inconsistent: sometimes the character will do something smart and then at the next moment retreats into a ditzy blonde stereotype. Maryam d’Abo is certainly quite a beauty but is unable to stamp her character with any individuality. The rest of the cast does good work around Dalton and d’Abo.

While far from being the best film in the series of James Bond films, “The Living Daylights” saves the character from the fantasy bombast from previous films and restores some semblance to reality to the character and the world he inhabits: the world of drug-trafficking and the illegal arms trade that stretches across continents, impacts the lives of millions around the globe and influences geopolitics and world and regional alliances. In this world, political and ideological loyalties count for little more than cynicism, greed and self-interest, as Bond has to learn again.

Never Say Never Again: a pedestrian remake with an overstuffed spy action plot

Irvin Kershner, “Never Say Never Again” (1983)

The main attraction of this “unofficial” James Bond flick – “unofficial” because it was not made by EON Productions – is that British actor Sean Connery returned to playing the main character of MI6 agent James Bond after a hiatus of some 12 years. Apart from Connery’s comeback, the film is a pedestrian remake of “Thunderball” which Connery made with EON Productions back in 1965. Like the other James Bond films of its time, ” … Never Again” features an unnecessarily convoluted and padded plot and a cast of mostly forgettable characters and caricatures of character types. The settings in the film can be picturesque and some have a distinct character of their own but the cinematography is not great and some of it looks quite muddy indeed.

Connery breezes through his role as Bond – he might almost be sleepwalking through the role – but he does look too old (even though he is younger than Roger Moore who not only starred in “Octopussy” at the same time but went on to make “View to a Kill” a year or so later) and even a bit weary and nonplussed at what his character has to do. Bond starts off having to attend a health clinic for reconditioning after failing a routine training exercise. While at the health clinic, he witnesses a patient being tormented by his nurse, and then later using an eye-scanning machine. Bond is caught by the nurse eavesdropping on the patient and later a hitman tries to kill Bond. Bond ends up killing the hitman but not before much of the health clinic ends up being demolished.

The patient turns out to be Captain Jack Petachi and his nurse is Fatima Blush (Barbara Carrera), both working for the secret criminal organisation SPECTRE headed by Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Max von Sydow). The two work together to steal two nuclear warheads for SPECTRE by circumventing the US Air Force’s security checks using a dummy eye based on the iris and retina patterns of the then US President’s eye. After the successful heist, Blush kills Petachi. MI6 is forced to reactivate the 00 section and press Bond into service again to find the nuclear warheads before SPECTRE can use them to blackmail governments. A hair-raising series of adventures in the Caribbean, France and northern Africa ensues, during which Bond meets and spars with SPECTRE agent and billionaire entrepreneur Maximilian Largo (Klaus Maria Brandauer) and romances and spars with Blush before literally writing her off with a fountain pen that also serves as a dart-gun. Bond also meets Largo’s mistress Domino Petachi (Kim Basinger) who initially is unaware that Largo ordered her brother’s death. Domino decides to leave Largo for Bond and nearly ends up a slave to North African desert tribesmen when a petulant and vengeful Largo discovers she has betrayed him.

The over-padded film features an unnecessary videogame battle between Bond and Largo among other unnecessary pieces that don’t exactly advance the collage plot. Some of the fighting can be overly long. Barbara Carrera quickly becomes a bore with her flouncy portrayal of the psychopathic Blush. Brandauer’s Largo is boyish, at times immature and prone to tantrums: hardly the sort of fellow to be a senior SPECTRE operative or even a billionaire businessman. (Well I suppose there is Elon Musk … ) The rest of the cast tries hard but in the end, perhaps the only actor who really impresses Yours Truly is Max von Sydow as Blofeld.

The filmed underwater scenes can be quite murky in a film whose budget was very stretched to accommodate the locations and Connery’s salary. Overall the cheap-looking film presents a very dated appearance and its plot has not aged gracefully with the times.

Wrong Number: a study of fear and anxiety and their projection into reality

Tiago Teixeira, “Wrong Number” (2018)

An odd little film with just two characters, “Wrong Number” is a study of anxiety and the tension that come from premonition, culminating in psychological, perhaps even spiritual projection. A woman (Ellie Woodruff-Bryant) wakes up early in the morning from a nightmare and is too frightened to go back to sleep. Her husband (Nicholas Anscombe) asks her what the dream was about and she replies that it was foretelling the immediate future in which something very bad has happened to them both. She eventually returns to bed anyway, he wants to know if she is in the mood for love-making but she declines.

Later in the morning he leaves for work and the rest of the day passes uneventfully. She texts him about work – he is working on a late shift – and he confirms he’ll be home when she has gone to bed. Sure enough, when she wakes again at 3 am in the morning, he’s beside her in bed and they have sex. Some time later she wakes up and finds herself covered in blood. Startled, she puts on her housecoat, walks into the lounge-room and sees a shadow in the vague shape of her husband standing in the corner.

Most of the film takes place in the early hours of two mornings so it is very dark and viewers can just barely make out the actors’ faces and forms. The shadowy look of the film, its emphasis on blue and dark blue colouring, emphasises the nearness of death, the dissolution of the boundaries between the living and the dead, and the fear and dread that can be aroused when one has just awakened from a nightmare and is still in a twilight zone between being fully conscious and aware, and being sleepy with your mind and emotions open to external psychological phenomena. Woodruff-Bryant does good work as the woman quite literally caught between two worlds, one of the living and one of the dead, but the limited and narrow nature of the plot does not allow her to do a great deal more than worry or express fright.

While the acting and the atmosphere are good, and the film does give a good sense of the grey zone between the living and the dead, in which the living and the dead may actually meet (with very alarming results), the plot is so vague as to be confusing for viewers. Does a meeting really take place or is the woman projecting her fears about her husband into actual physical form? The film deliberately leaves this question open to viewers. It may be asking too much of them.

Vladivostok 2020: portrait of a very Russian city on the edge of the Pacific Ocean

Graham Phillips, “Vladivostok 2020” (2020)

In this 20-minute showcase of the glories of Vladivostok, the famed Pacific Ocean gateway to Russia, investigative British journalist lists what he calls his Magnificent Seven features of the city, the Magnificent Seven part being a reference to Vladivostok’s most famous export, Yul Brynner, who was one of the stars of the Hollywood Western classic based on the Japanese film “The Seven Samurai”. And these seven features are indeed amazing, not just magnificent: the two major bridges alone spanning the bay on which the city straddles, Russian Bridge and Golden Bridge, are breathtaking in their scale and architectural beauty; the city’s port is still a working port through which Russia exports and imports goods to and from nations around the Pacific Rim; the city’s emblem, the Siberian tiger, adorns Vladivostok in sculptures and in the city’s popular culture; and most amazing of all, Vladivostok is the only major Russian city in which most people drive right-handed cars, an anomaly from the chaotic years in the 1990s when manufacturing in Russia nearly all but ceased and Russians in the nation’s Far East regions imported cars from Japan to drive and sell.

Initially Phillips sets out to counter and debunk a BBC documentary featuring narrator Simon Reeve who travelled through the city. Apparently Reeve made much of Vladivostok’s geographic proximity to the Chinese border with the insinuation that Chinese investors and migrants would soon overtake the city and turn it into a Chinese city. Although Phillips does an excellent job of refuting Reeve and the BBC to the extent of grinding the Britons into fine powder beneath his feet, the camera lets the city do most of the talking: statues and memorials to famous figures and events of Russian and Soviet history dot public spaces, Orthodox cathedrals vie for tourists’ attention with their onion domes, distinctive crosses and flamboyant colour schemes, and ordinary citizens uphold quaint and eccentric Russian customs and traditions such as going commando in cold water in the middle of winter. Astonishingly Phillips also comments on the rise in shark attacks (!) along the Pacific coast near Vladivostok and accordingly the city authorities have set up shark nets along the coast so residents can indulge in another distinctive Russian custom: going to the beach, swimming and sunning themselves even when the day temperature is barely into the early 20s Centigrade.

Without doubt the best parts of the film are those parts where the camera pans around the cityscape as Phillips walks around or drives across the two bridges. Special mention must be made of a lighthouse whose keeper Phillips visits for tea and sugar, and of a famous submarine whose crews participated in major feats of heroism against the Japanese navy during the Second World War. While Phillips strolls about, one can’t help but notice how clean and tidy the streets are, how wealthy it and its citizens look, and the confidence they have. City panoramas show a gleaming, prosperous urban landscape dominated by cars, cars and more cars, many of them actually being right-hand drive cars imported from Japan. Phillips’ film is sure to have many viewers putting Vladivostok on their bucket lists of cities to visit.

Zero: teenage survivalist making a critical decision about her future

Keith and David Lynch, “Zero” (2019)

In a post-apocalyptic world, when robots and humans have fought each other almost to the death in a long drawn-out world and there are few survivors, a father (Nigel O’Neill) teaches his daughter Alice (Bella Ramsey) how to survive on her own in a derelict house with enough food stockpiled to last five years. One day a mystery electro-magnetic pulse cuts off technology and kills the father who is wearing an internal pacemaker. For the next several years, Alice, having been drilled to stay in the house and never to leave it, never to trust anyone and never to allow anyone inside the house, bears up through sheer grit and determination. One day as the fifth year nears its end, Alice comes to a decision about her future and what she will have to do to achieve it.

The film appears to be a proof-of-concept short created to attract attention and garner support for a television series or a full-length movie treatment. Due to a strict budget, the film relies on main actor Ramsey to deliver a convincing performance about a young teenage girl left alone and to find some purpose in living. Ramsey puts in an excellent effort as Alice in a dark and near-monochrome environment. The film has the look (if rather clean) of post-apocalyptic survivalist films like Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Stalker” and Konstantin Lopushansky’s “Dead Man’s Letters”. Daily life with nothing to do comes across as harrowing as if Alice had to work at a dead-end job full-time with no time off.

The pace can be a bit slow and leisurely and it only picks up right near the end when Alice has made her decision. At this point the film draws back to show the context into which Alice is walking: she is wading into a world that has become a tabula rasa on which there will be many opportunities for a youngster like her to make a significant mark.

The film has something to say about allowing survivalist rules to dominate your life rather than using them as guidelines; and by extension allowing past tradition, custom and history to dictate future decisions and actions. While Alice’s father tries in his own way to protect his daughter, he ends up turning her into a prisoner bound not only by the physical prison but also by mental bonds (expressed in reminders around the house) and her loyalty to him. At the end, Alice has to decide on whether she will continue to be bound by invisible fetters or not.

Don’t Look Now: an eerie and profound Gothic horror film of grief, trauma and misperceptions

Nicolas Roeg, “Don’t Look Now” (1973)

Adapted from the short story with the same title by Daphne du Maurier, this famous British cult horror film is ostensibly a study of grief and how it affects a family’s ability to cope with life’s daily routines and informs family members’ perceptions of the world around them. On another level, the family affected by the death of a young child lives in a universe where time appears to be of a different dimension than how we experience it, in the way the past, the present and the future seem to bleed into one another and people may just as readily have premonitions of what will happen as they have memories of past events. After losing Christine in a drowning accident back home in the UK, John (Donald Sutherland) and Laura (Julie Christie) Baxter dump their son in a boarding school and flee to Venice where John has taken up a job helping to restore a Roman Catholic church’s mosaics. The couple meet two elderly sisters, one of whom is blind but has the gift of second sight: she sees the spirit of Christine, still clad in her red raincoat in which she died, hovering around the couple, and tells Laura. After a fainting fit, Laura informs John of what the sister has told her but John remains sceptical.

Over the next several days, while continuing to reside and work in Venice, John and Laura experience flashbacks of the drowning accident and John himself has strange visions in which a small figure in a red raincoat roams the bridges and streets of Venice, and in which (after Laura returns to the UK on being informed by long-distance phone by her son’s school that he has had an accident and is in hospital) his wife is still in Venice but is clad in black mourning clothes and flanked by the mysterious elderly sisters sailing on a vaporetto draped in black. Meanwhile the police in Venice are finding dead human bodies in the canals of the city and realise there may be a serial killer on the loose.

The plot is very clever if not completely plausible: the tragedy is that John has been gifted with second sight, as one of the elderly sisters recognises, but because of his scepticism and belief in rationality, his ability causes him endless trouble and also gets the two sisters detained by the police, which event forces the sighted sister to make arrangements to leave Venice permanently, a move which upsets her blind sibling; and his inability to recognise his gift but to confuse it instead with his memories of his daughter’s drowning leads him on a path to tragedy. In this, the past, present and future intersect in a way that suggests in the universe in which the Baxters live, the events of one’s life really can be predetermined by the decisions and actions one takes.

Various occurring motifs of bright red raincoats, breaking glass, images and their mirror twins, doppelgangers and duplication, and water as the giver of life and bringer of death run throughout the film to reinforce the notion of the Baxters living in a seemingly time-less world where the past could be the future and the future could be the past. Even John’s work in the restoration of the church’s artistic works involves duplicating old glass pieces with new pieces. Misinterpreting incidents and mistaken identities are a major theme in the film. The climax of the film is shocking and viewers quickly realise nothing is what it originally seemed to be: people thought to be innocent turn out not to be so, and those believed to be sinister turn out to be protective.

The film works as it does by drawing inspiration and elements from the work of Alfred Hitchcock and from the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges whose literary concept of the world as a labyrinth is extended to the portrayal of Venice as a city of seemingly endless mazes through its paths, bridges, tunnels and even its canals. Roeg’s use of editing in which shots of two events are spliced so that they appear to be running at the same time, most famously in the scene in which John and Laura have passionate sex and get dressed to go out for dinner, reinforces the idea of a universe in which past, present and future do not follow a linear structure. The actors do excellent work in their roles as the troubled Baxter couple, experiencing the usual ups and downs in their relationship while at the same time recovering (or trying to) from a major trauma. Venice is a significant character in the film: a grittier and darker side of the city is shown, with buildings almost falling into disrepair, streets and tunnels conveying sinister menace, and the city’s bright facade for tourists hiding bureaucratic incompetence and corruption. The film could not have been made anywhere else in the world but Venice.

Roeg’s unusual filming techniques and the way in which he places his motifs at significant points in the film to advance the plot and send the characters on their destinies from which they are unable to deviate give “Don’t Look Now” an eerie and haunting Gothic feel that in its own dark way is very profound and beautiful.