Back to Burgundy: a family melodrama beset by cliches and stereotypes blessed by a celebration of viticulture

Cedric Klapisch, “Back to Burgundy / Ce qui nous lie” (2017)

An otherwise rather ho-hum family melodrama of sibling jealousies featuring some rather obvious narrative cliches – the black sheep / prodigal son returning home in response to a family emergency after many years away, his sister having difficulty accepting being her father’s true heir in a family tradition where women were all but invisible, their young brother burdened with overpowering in-laws, and all of them forced to make decisions about their family vineyard business and their own personal issues that will affect their individual and collective futures – is made more appealing (and a bit too long) by a celebration of wine-making and the culture and traditions associated with it in a part of France. The cast of actors do an excellent job in turning this film into a character study; even minor characters are very memorable. The cinematography and rural settings are gorgeous as well.

The film’s narrative framework revolves around eldest son Jean (Pio Marmai) coming back home from Australia (and a shaky relationship with his partner Alicia)  and several years of travel after hearing that his father is ailing. Voice-over narrative by Jean explains why he left home originally: he fell out with dear old dad who pressured him as the eldest son and presumed successor to take over the running of the vineyard, even though over the years Dad should have seen that Juliette was the natural successor. Indeed, on his return, Jean sees that Juliette is running the business, though she suffers from self-doubt. Youngest sibling Jeremie (Francois Civil) turns up early on to berate Jean for being out of the loop for many years and reveal that he’s already a married man with a child. After the father’s death, the siblings learn from the family lawyer that they have to pay a huge inheritance tax  on the estate and they may have to sell various vineyard properties to do so. Jean is grappling with his own tax burden back in Australia where he runs a vineyard with Alicia, his estranged partner and mother of his son. In the meantime, Jeremie’s father-in-law has his own plans for the siblings’ property which amount to buying them out and employing Juliette to run the vineyards his way.

The film keeps busy (and viewers busy also) with the various parallel sub-plots in which the siblings must confront their personal fears and demons, transcend them somehow, and also work out how best to maintain the family wine-making tradition without having to sell their properties but still be able to pay the inheritance tax. The changing seasons and the cycle of the vineyards in which grape seeds are planted, nourished and protected from pests, grow into grapes and are harvested, crushed, fermented and turned into wine (though we don’t actually see the wine being sold) provide the background against which the trio try to overcome their problems and differences, resolve their conflicts, reconcile with one another and other people, and with the legacy their parents have left behind, warts and all.

Marmai, Girardot and Civil turn in excellent performances as the siblings though perhaps Civil as the put-upon Jeremie trying to please his difficult in-laws stands out just a bit more than main character Marmai does. The support cast does well too, especially in very minor sub-plots that promise to develop in some very interesting directions – for a short while, it seems that Jean is a little too interested in a young harvester employee called Lina – but which end up fizzling out early.

The film perhaps suffers from trying to hold together too many sub-plots and not concentrating enough on the siblings’ fight to keep their family property and fend off the vultures. Resolution when it comes seems a bit too pat. The pace and tone are perhaps a bit too calm and even, and minor sub-plots could have been edited out. At the end of the film, there should have been a suggestion that the siblings’ problems have not been entirely resolved to everyone’s satisfaction, that Jean and Alicia still have much work cut out to save and strengthen their relationship, and that Juliette will continue to need support and reassurance that, yes, she’s the right person to take charge of the family’s wine-making business. Jeremie’s father-in-law may be thwarted but he’ll find another way of getting what he wants. This does not necessarily mean that a sequel to the film should be in the works.

At the very least viewers will come to appreciate the work, knowledge and experience necessary to run a wine-making business and the culture and traditions that have built up around wine-making in a particular part of France. The film makes the point that traditions and progress go hand in hand, that change is needed as much as stability if a family culture of wine-making is to remain dynamic. The individual battles that the siblings have to fight to prove themselves and not simply follow in others’ foot-steps reflect this theme.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Diary of a Chambermaid: a bleak and realist comedy offering

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Batman (Season 2, Episodes 51 / 52: A Piece of the Action / Batman’s Satisfaction)”: two sets of heroes wasted in a mundane plot with a mundane villain

Oscar Rudolph, “Batman (Season 2, Episodes 51 / 52: A Piece of the Action / Batman’s Satisfaction)” (1967)

Even for the lightweight situation comedy / family show that was “Batman” in the 1960s, these two episodes could have been beefed up a little more with a better villain and a more malevolent support team of murderous myrmidons that would justify having special guest crime-fighters The Green Hornet and his trusty sidekick Kato. In these episodes, The Green Hornet (Van Williams) and Kato (Bruce Lee) come to Gotham City to bust a stamp-counterfeiting scheme run by the cunning Colonel Gumm (Roger C Carmel), a man of many disguises from Argentine to Russian. Local Gotham City masked heroes Batman (Adam West) and Robin (Burt Ward) are also aware of this scheme but believe that The Green Hornet and Kato are part of it. Gumm also happens to be the foreman of the Pink Chip Stamp Factory owned by Pinky Pinkston (Diane McBain) who inherited it and a valuable stamp collection from her late grandfather Pincus Pinkston. Pinky herself also has two prospective suitors for her hand: billionaire Bruce Wayne and rich newspaper publisher Britt Reid, both of whom are none other than Batman and The Green Hornet themselves!

Dual identities (and responsibilities!), duplicity, deception and mirror-image rivalry (of a friendly sort) constitute the underlying theme of these episodes as Bruce Wayne and Britt Reid both admit to having been rivals since boyhood in many ways. In the second episode they also have a very brief discussion together about whether they would trade their mundane everyday lives for the more exciting life of fighting crime with masked identities and Reid – a little too quickly perhaps! – exclaims he’d like to stay just as he is! To Wayne, that means he’d rather stay a humdrum publisher – but viewers know exactly what Reid is referring to! The theme of polarised duality is carried over into the show’s sets of deep over-the-top pink hues in the factory, the workers’ uniforms and Pinky’s wardrobe and accessories (including her dog Apricot!), contrasting with more sober greens and greys in other scenes.

The tone of the episode ranges from light-hearted and comic to the frankly silly, especially in scenes where McBain appears with her bouffant pink wig and her Maltese terrier; and where Wayne must disappear every time Commissioner Gordon (Alan Hamilton) or Pinky needs to phone Batman. Yet no-one ever asks Wayne why he can’t be in the same room as Batman (even if the latter is just on the phone). Needless to say, no-one ever realises that Wayne and Batman speak in similar voices and use similar vocabulary and aphorisms.

The mundane plot in which Gumm abuses his employer’s trust and reputation by making fake stamps runs through the usual formulaic structure that  always features a death-trap cliff-hanger in which the Dynamic Duo’s lives are threatened in the most improbable way: on this occasion, they face being turned into Flat-man and Ribbon on life-sized stamps. As usual, Batman and Robin save themselves in the nick of time but in trying to accost The Green Hornet and Kato, allow the real crooks to get away. In the second episode, Batman and Robin must scale a building to reach a stamp exhibition and this part of the plot sets up yet another mini-episode in an ongoing gag in which the two converse with a resident (usually played by a famous actor) in the building who opens a window to see who is outside. The resident is played by then well-known Hollywood actor Edward G Robinson who talks about his (real-life) passion for art and his dislike of “pop art” artist celebrity Andy Warhol.

The acting may not be great but at least it’s adequate enough for the plot to sail through smoothly. Williams does not impress much as The Green Hornet / Britt Reid and his character seems very one-dimensional. The fight sequence – there’s always a fight sequence! – looks better than fight sequences usually do in “Batman” episodes, thanks to well choreographed scenes, collapsing tables and Bruce Lee’s restrained kung fu sparring with Robin and a few of Colonel Gumm’s henchmen. Young viewers will probably wish Lee had been allowed to clean up Gumm’s minions by himself while Robin goes after Gumm and Batman and The Green Hornet argue over who will free Pinky from Gumm.

This little adventure could have been much improved had it been extended to three episodes and featured either a more outrageous villain – Burgess Meredith’s Penguin would have been ideal – or two villains, in a plot with twists and turns that would have given Williams and Lee more to do. Another fight scene featuring Lee taking on an entire army of bad guys would have been welcome! As it is, this crime caper remains more notable for its cast and crossover of two heroes from another TV series than for its story. While there is occasional with, there is also much less of the satire and black humour that were hallmarks of the television series.

The Death of Stalin: an unfunny and insulting comedy satire lacking in imagination and original ideas

Armando Iannucci, “The Death of Stalin” (2017)

A British-made comedy satire about the death of Joseph Stalin and the struggle among his senior officials in the Politburo to seize power and become the new leader of the Soviet Union? I find that hard to believe and even harder to believe that such treatment of a significant historical figure – moreover, one who led his nation to victory over Nazi Germany at tremendous cost of millions of lives – from the British, that most Russophobic of nations, would be at all sympathetic to the Russians generally, let alone the victims of Stalin’s government over 20+ years of rule. Even so, I was curious to see what director Armando Iannucci has made of his subject, given that he has carved a reputation in creating funny political satires that emphasise the stupidity and self-serving nature of politicians. Perhaps he would dispel my preconceptions and prejudices and deliver something original and thoughtful as well as sharp and witty without resorting to stereotyping.

Unfortunately though I didn’t need to see the film for very long to realise that Iannucci has not bonded, either intellectually or emotionally, with the subject matter, and is lacking in the maturity and imagination needed to deal with the characters of Stalin himself (Adrian McLoughlin) and the most senior Politburo members: the sinister, self-serving NKVD chief Lavrenty Beria (Simon Russell Beale); the equally ambitious Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi); Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), Stalin’s official replacement played as ineffectual and rather spineless; Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin), very much a secondary character who follows the others and bends with the prevailing ideological wind; and the superfluous Nikolai Bulganin (Paul Chahidi) who has hardly anything to do at all in a crowded film. The result is a film that comes across as detached and divorced from the historical context surrounding Stalin’s last days and the years of political instability that followed his death, culminating in Nikita Khrushchev’s seizure of power from Malenkov and Beria’s downfall and execution. The major characters are little more than stereotypes of politicians corrupted by greed, stupidity and lust for blood. The actors do what they can with their flimsy characters but I did not get a sense of the real men they were portraying. Beale’s Beria in particular gives little indication of the vicious and predatory menace of the real Beria while Tambor’s Malenkov is a buffoon far away from the real Malenkov who, after being overthrown by Khrushchev in 1955, later mounted a failed attempt to depose Khrushchev in 1957: a buffoon certainly would not have had the confidence and the support of others to try to regain the Soviet leadership.

Most of the comedy in the film turns out to be slapstick or farce that sits ill with the particular situation that the comedy is supposed to criticise. Due to the stereotyping of the characters and of Soviet society generally as some post-World War II country that seems to have forgotten that the war ended nearly a decade before 1953, the comedy that arises is tired and not at all funny.

Needless to say the film plays hard and fast with historical accuracy and one senses this was done not to advance any significant messages or themes, other than the trite theme of the nature of absolute power and its effects on human beings and society (you know, the one that says when absolute power corrupts, it corrupts absolutely), but rather to push an ideological stereotype that damns Russians as a servile people doomed never to understand democracy but always to be in thrall to absolute dictators and to live in impoverished conditions marked by frequent casual violence and brutal killings. No wonder the film has been banned in Russia and some other post-Soviet countries: it is insulting to Russian people and Russian history.

Inherent Vice: a faithful if meandering and flat adaptation of a Thomas Pynchon neo-noir comedy

Paul Thomas Anderson, “Inherent Vice” (2014)

Director Paul Thomas Anderson must be commended for daring to tackle a Thomas Pynchon novel and managing to be faithful to the book’s convoluted comedy neo-noir plot with its quirky cast of characters and Pynchon’s themes of paranoia, conspiracy theories in sub-plots that are never resolved, and strange sinister groups and individuals operating underground as both criminals and law enforcement. Beneath an apparent surface of late 1960s / early 1970s hippie counter-cultural ideals lurks an evil force – the “inherent vice” – that is infecting US politics and American institutions. Not for nothing “Inherent Vice” is set in a period just after the infamous murders committed by acolytes of Charles Manson at Spahn Ranch in California in 1969 and during Richard Nixon’s first term as US President (and presumably before his meeting with Elvis Presley): this is a period when US soft power (through its youth culture and music) was at its peak, together with US prosperity, before the Vietnam War and its huge expenses, financially and socially, along with Nixon’s own corrupt activity, among other things set the nation on its path to slow decline.

Everything seems to begin simply and innocently enough when down-and-out private investigator Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) receives an unexpected visit from ex-girlfriend Shasta Fay (Katherine Waterston) who tells him that she has been approached by the wife of her current lover, property developer millionaire Michael “Mickey” Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), to help the missus and the missus’ boyfriend to arrange for Mickey to be kidnapped and committed to a mental asylum. At the same time, Sportello gets a call from Tariq Khalil, a black underground activist with a prison-based revolutionary group, to find white supremacist Glen Charlock who owes Khalil money and who happens to be working for Wolfmann. Visiting a massage parlour in one of Wolfmann’s developments, Sportello meets Jade (Hong Chau) while searching for Charlock; unbeknownst to him, Jade and the police have already set him up for murdering Charlock. Facing murder charges, Sportello is interviewed by detective Bigfoot Bjornsen (Josh Brolin) who tells him Wolfmann has disappeared. Sportello’s attorney Sancho (Benicio del Toro) rescues him.

If that sounds complicated enough, another sub-plot develops: Sportello is asked by junkie Hope (Jena Malone) to look for her missing musician husband Coy (Owen Wilson), whom Sportello finds in short order. Coy is in hiding because he is a police informant and he fears for his life. Sportello gets a message from Jade who apologises for setting him up and warns him to “beware of the Golden Fang”. Meeting Jade in an alley, Sportello learns the Golden Fang is an international drug-smuggling ring. Some time later, Sancho gives Sportello information about a suspicious boat called the Golden Fang which apparently sailed away with Shasta Fay on board. Sportello later receives a postcard from Shasta and uses it to search for and enter a recently constructed building shaped like a golden fang. There, he meets eccentric cokehead dentist Dr Blatnoyd (Martin Short), making out with teenage girl Japonica Fenway (Sasha Pieterse), whom Sportello had found as a runaway and returned to her parents some years previously. Sportello explores the building and discovers the Chryskylodon Institute, an asylum run by the Golden Fang organisation (the name “Chryskylodon” itself refers to Golden Fang) where, lo and behold, Coy and (later) Wolfmann happen to be inmates.

Some time later, Bigfoot notifies Sportello that Dr Blatnoyd has been found dead with fang marks in his neck and tells him to look for a guy called Puck Beaverton. While going about his business, Sportello is visited by Shasta who is oblivious to the fuss she has caused. He later gets a file from Deputy District Attorney Penny Kimball (Reese Witherspoon) on contract killer / loan shark Adrian Prussia: the file not only shows that Prussia was hired by Los Angeles Police Department to get rid of people but also that he killed Bigfoot’s former partner Vincent Indelicato. Hey presto, Prussia is also connected to Golden Fang and most likely killed Charlock. Sportello pays a visit to Prussia and Beaverton, and narrowly escapes from their clutches when the visit turns sour. Bigfoot rescues Sportello and plants drugs in his car. Sportello arranges through Japonica Fenway’s wealthy dad (Martin Donovan) to return the drugs to Golden Fang in a deal that also releases Coy from being a police informant and returns him to Hope and their daughter Amethyst.

The fiendish nature of the fragmented plot and inter-linked subplots and the rich cast contrast with the lackadaisical characters, the meandering narrative and the minimal direction and music soundtrack. One expects the film to be quite colourful given its Los Angeles setting and time-period, and it is though not to the zany extreme that might also be expected for a comedy neo-noir film. While the characters are not especially deep, given that most of them occupy a few minutes of film-time and then they’re gone forever, they can make quite an impression through their sheer loopiness or (in the case of Adrian Prussia and Puck Beaverton) hardened brutality. The one character viewers really care for is Sportello, played with all his stoned-out eccentricity by Phoenix who immerses himself in the role fully. As corrupt cop Bigfoot Bjornsen with a fixation for sucking on chocolate bananas in an embarrassingly explicit way, Josh Brolin sends up the stereotype suggested in the character in his distinctive no-nonsense, hard-bitten way.

Some of the coincidences that occur, especially those near the end, seem very forced – Prussia’s connection to Golden Fang and Charlock’s death seems a bit too stretched and convenient – and the film resolves all its plot threads rather too tidily for a conventional Hollywood ending in which Sportello unites a family before he and Shasta sail off into the sunset happily ever after. In the Pynchonesque universe where few things are ever that neat and plots and sub-plots may come and go without resolution, such an ending would never be entertained.

While well acted and looking distinctly day-glo bleached-out, and with a casual style all its own, “Inherent Vice” does meander at a slow pace and probably should have been made as a two-part mini-series. The various characters may be too kooky and stoned-out for present-day Western audiences to accept. Why Sportello and several characters should be this way, and whether being high on drugs is actually a way for people to cope with repression, brutality and a fear that society is becoming more dysfunctional and not less, are never explained. A better Pynchon novel to adapt into a film might have been “The Crying of Lot 49” and some of Pynchon’s longer works may lend themselves to mini-series adaptations. The possibility that Anderson made “Inherent Vice” as a vanity project just to prove that a Thomas Pynchon novel can be made into a film is too strong to ignore; the film does reek of self-indulgence on Anderson’s part.

The Phantom Thread: best viewed as a comedy romance that turns into a tedious and repetitive ordeal

Paul Thomas Anderson, “The Phantom Thread” (2017)

If viewed as a comedy romance about a successful narcissist couturier who aspires to be part of the upper class, along with his sister (who is outwardly submissive but just as ambitious and domineering in managing his business), and who falls in lust with a working-class waitress who ends up extracting as much as she can out of him and the sister for herself, in the confining social culture that is mid-1950s London high society, this film is quite clever satire. There is an insinuation that for all its preening, its careful attention to detail and outward appearance, the social layer which dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day Lewis) believes he’s part of is as empty of human feeling and warmth, and as self-obsessed as he is. For all that though, the film itself falls into the same trap of worshipping nuance and the result is an overly long work that wastes its actors’ talent in a thin and hollow plot that ends up repeating itself.

Woodcock (jeez, what a name!) is a fussy and snooty middle-aged dressmaker of fixed habits and routines who, as usual, is overwhelmed by overwork (not unexpected, given his need for obsessive control over his creations) and must take a short holiday in the countryside for some nooky. He meets a young waitress, Alma (Vicky Krieps), at a cafe and decides to seduce her. He sweeps her up in a round of wining and dining and compulsively takes her dress measurements. Before long, she becomes his latest plaything. Woodcock’s sister Cyril (Lesley Manville), a mother-replacement figure who just as obsessively manages his business and household, is initially miffed at Alma’s manners and tries to lecture the younger woman on how to conduct herself. Alma, though genuinely in love with the much older man, has ambitions of becoming his equal in love and business, and resorts to taking extreme measures, at the risk of killing Woodcock and getting into trouble for murder, to force Woodcock to see and appreciate her as a person with her own mind.

While the cinematography is beautiful and crisp, the piano music soundtrack (perhaps the best feature of the film) is flowing and transports viewers into a very different time and place, and the acting is very good, all these elements cannot make up for a thinly stretched plot about three people, at least two of whom are control freaks and potentially sociopathic, and the other using subterfuge and possibly fatal means to exert her own form of control, stuck in a dysfunctional relationship out of which there appears no means of escape. All three are dependent on one another in some way and all three distort and are distorted by the power and control they exercise. Alma becomes as much of a bitch as Woodcock is a brute but whether she is a cunning woman by nature or becomes so because of the weird circumstances she has been thrust into is not clear.

The result is a film which at first begins brightly and flows quickly into developing Woodcock and Alma’s relationship and explores Woodcock’s psychology through his work and the daily breakfast-table spats; but which eventually becomes tedious and gruelling through sheer repetition and a loss of focus. Woodcock’s character becomes physically as well as mentally haggard as Alma gradually exploits her control over him and starts to control his body and health through serving him poisonous mushrooms in his meals, just as he has tried to control her body by dressing her in expensive and flattering gowns. There is no hint of character development though Woodcock himself eventually realises what Alma is doing to him.

While the film is set in mid-fifties London, there is (deliberately so) no hint that the outside world makes much impression on the Woodcock household, and the characters seem so removed from reality that Alma appears not to realise that the doctor she confides in could report her to police. The doctor himself seems so stunned by her story – the whole film is built around the framework of Alma confessing her misdeeds to the doctor – that viewers can guess he will not turn the young woman in to authorities. It seems that the rich really do live on another planet after all, making their own rules to suit themselves and indulging in empty material enjoyments, at the cost of their own mental and emotional health.

Downsizing: an uneven satirical science fiction comedy commenting on various social, economic and political issues

Alexander Payne, “Downsizing” (2017)

For most viewers, perhaps the more interesting part of this long meandering film will be the first half in which main character Paul Sofranek (Matt Damon) decides to undergo miniaturisation for various reasons reflecting his status as a lower middle-class technocrat worker bee and the pressures that attach to that, and the actual miniaturisation process itself. The rest of the film is likely to leave audiences behind as Sofranek embarks on a journey of self-discovery and fulfillment among similarly downsized humans and is brought to the depths of existential despair and the equally dangerous highs of spiritual exhilaration in his adventures. If viewers were to tune out after the halfway point though, they will miss a great deal of satirical social commentary on the current state of the American middle class, the class system generally, climate change, the plight of refugees and outsiders in American society and cult behaviour among even supposedly enlightened communities.

Sofranek and wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) aspire to the typically American dream of material success – good jobs with incomes that accommodate a fair-sized house in a socially upward community, good schools and colleges for any children they may have – but due to past circumstances not wholly theirs to control, Sofranek’s dream of becoming a surgeon is downgraded to his being an occupational therapist for a meat-packing plant in Omaha, and the couple’s application for a loan to buy a cheap-looking over-sized McMansion house is dashed because they don’t have the income to support repayments. Through friends, the Sofraneks hear of a community called Leisureland where they can live the life they desire: the catch is they must consent to be downsized to 15 centimetres in height to live in this tiny community – the assumption being that tiny people can exist on a fraction of the resources that normal-sized people require. This assumption has grown from experiments done in years past by Norwegian scientists searching for alternate solutions for human survival in the event of climate change and/or reduced global resources due to overpopulation and overcrowding.

Paul Sofranek himself undergoes the downsizing – the process is very clinical, machine-like, even a little industrial, yet the creepiness of it is (depending on the viewer’s point of view) either attenuated or increased by the cheery music one associates with television situation comedies of the 1950s – but his wife chickens out at the last moment. Paul thus finds himself adrift in a sterile cartoon Disneyland gated community where he has the money to afford a huge mansion with cheap reproductions of famous European paintings. He decides to move into an apartment and (after his divorce) acquires a girlfriend who later rejects him when she discovers his neighbour is a noisy Serbian called Dušan (Christoph Waltz) who throws large parties. You know the Hollywood stereotype about Serbians: they’re either outright villains or just not to be trusted. Dušan invites Paul to one such party where Paul becomes intoxicated on an ecstasy tablet, dances all night long and crashes out next morning. He meets Dušan’s cleaner Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), a former environmental activist who was arrested and shrunk down as punishment by the Vietnamese government, and who now hobbles on an ill-fitting prosthetic leg she acquired after defecting to the US in a television carton. Ngoc Lan takes Paul to meet her sick friend and he discovers that the women live in a huge slum barrio, one of several on the outskirts of Leisureland. After trying (and failing miserably) to help both Ngoc Lan and the friend with their health issues, Ngoc Lan co-opts Paul into her cleaning service – at least he gets to visit different people and workplaces, so he gladly leaves the telemarketing job he currently has – and the two run a parallel charity in which, instead of receiving payment for cleaning rich people’s houses and business premises, they take away unwanted food, medicines and other supplies for the barrio.

Later Paul and Ngoc Lan travel with Dušan and his skipper friend Konrad (Udo Kier) to Norway to meet members of the original tiny community in an idyllic fjord forest setting. However the people of this community receive news about methane releases in Antarctica and decide that the global extinction of humans is about to begin so they prepare for a transformative event that appeals to Paul.

The cast puts in excellent performances with Hong Chau and Christoph Waltz being the most outstanding. Ngoc Lan’s broken English skills hide a cunning and manipulative personality who knows exactly what she wants. Dušan is a louche playboy who makes his money in the grey areas between what’s legal and what’s not but he, like Ngoc Lan, turns out to have a heart of gold. Damon’s acting is rather more limited in style and expression but his character represents an everyman stereotype, not too bright, and limited in knowledge and expression, perhaps because he has trained for a narrow occupational specialty and was shunted into a niche where he is expected to stay, though changing circumstances mean he will eventually become redundant. Through his adventures with Dušan, Ngoc Lan and Konrad, Paul comes to appreciate humanity as a whole, to learn compassion and true tolerance (as opposed to tolerating people’s presence), and to realise that his purpose in life is to keep on listening and learning, to put others’ needs above selfish desires, and to help others not so fortunate and privileged as he is. True social change comes not from following fads and movements promising utopia but from working with others to improve society as is.

There are so many social, political and economic issues treated in satirical ways in “Downsizing” that the film can only deal with them in a superficial way. The result is that the plot lurches from one issue to the next: first, we have overpopulation as an issue; then come miniaturisation and one social issue that arises from that (will tiny people have the same rights and freedoms as normal-sized people if they shut themselves away in tiny communities?); the class divisions in Leisureland are another, signifying that even tiny communities are not utopias but merely replicate the economic and political structures of their original source communities; doomsday cults are another issue. Far from being a solution to climate change and overpopulation, miniaturisation is simply another means to social avarice and meaningless consumerism. The point could be made though that overpopulation is not itself a problem: the real problem is that the wealth of the Earth is unevenly distributed among peoples due to the economic and political systems that we have which ensure that a wealthy few not only acquire more than they deserve but are prepared to defend what they have to the point of enslaving or killing others to keep their wealth and acquire more. In this respect, the miniaturisation project goes some way (but only a little) to redistribute some of the wealth to a few lucky have-nots – but even they are seduced by the dream of having more. (And if the film’s science were accurate – which it is not – miniaturisation wouldn’t even be considered as one panacea to the unequal distribution of resources: tiny humans would need to eat more, several times their weight even, and thus by sheer necessity take up more resources for their size, simply to keep warm.) True redistribution comes from caring for others and sharing with others, not from isolating oneself in a luxury retirement-village gated community or in a hippie village anticipating an apocalyptic scenario and acting as a doomsday cult, and this is the difficult lesson Paul must learn.

For all its faults and limitations as a tale of self-discovery and redemption, “Downsizing” may eventually attain lasting cult status: it presents issues of varied social, economic and political import, and at the very least prompts serious thinking on these issues, even if it itself fails to answer them adequately.