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.

Batman: The Movie – a cult bad-movie masterpiece with a daring and subversive edge

Leslie H Martinson, “Batman: The Movie” (1966)

In an age when comic book superheroes were treated with the respect and dignity they deserved, this film – spun off from the television series of Batman and Robin’s crusades against crime in Gotham City to cash in on its cult popularity – is not only a comic bad-movie masterpiece but brilliantly captures the mood and style of 1960s pop culture. The film and TV series together also reflect the mood and style of the Batman comics of the time, with no little exaggeration and parody (and in their parody, criticise US censorship laws of the period that forced comics to didactically uphold traditional middle-class American values). The acting is exaggerated and hammy, the dialogue oozes cheese throughout and the plot is basically a string of comedy skits that only really make sense after the film finishes.

Batman (Adam West) and Robin (Burt Ward) are tipped off that Commodore Schmidlapp is in trouble aboard his yacht and attempt to rescue him when they sight it. The yacht suddenly vanishes and the dynamic duo discover they have been led into a trap. They later deduce that the trap was laid for them by the United Underworld, a new organisation formed by their most deadly enemies: Catwoman (Lee Meriwether), the Joker (Cesar Romero), the Penguin (Burgess Meredith) and the Riddler (Frank Gorshin). The fearsome foursome have kidnapped Schmidlapp to seize his invention: a dehydrator gun that turns humans into coloured powder. The criminals use various means to try to destroy Batman and Robin, including a plot using Catwoman disguised as Soviet journalist Miss Kitka to lure and kidnap millionaire Bruce Wayne (Batman’s alter ego) so as to draw the superheroes into rescuing him and thus falling into another trap. All the various schemes hatched by the supervillains – most of the brilliant ideas coming from the Penguin – ultimately fail to affect the dynamic duo though in some scenarios the superheroes’ survival is due to pure and improbable “deus ex machina” luck such as a porpoise hurling itself in front of a torpedo to save the humans.

Our heroes are unable to prevent the kidnapping of the diplomats representing the member nations of the United World Organisation Security Council by the supervillains who use the dehydrator gun on them. Batman and Robin hop into the Batboat and chase the crooks who are trying to leave town in the Penguin’s submarine. Robin uses a sonic charge gun to force the submarine to surface and from there the dynamic duo must fight the supervillains and their minions to recover the phials of coloured powder that the diplomats have become.

The film’s first half is a colourful riot of sight gags, in-jokes, silly acting and the most deadpan silly dialogue ever to pass between two individuals in the history of superhero films, which West and Ward dutifully carry out with the straightest of straight faces. Batman and Robin are essentially incorruptible figures of goodness that fight for justice and radiate the innocence, even naivety of such virginal symbols. While the cast enjoy themselves, their roles are very uneven: Meredith and Meriwether as the Penguin and Catwoman respectively have more work to do than Romero’s Joker and Gorshin’s Riddler who do little more than go along for a ride in the Penguin’s submarine and behave clownishly. The criminals ham up their evil tendencies and just barely manage to get along to get their plot to hold the world to ransom off the ground. West is called upon to demonstrate a more romantic side of his character and passes muster with a surprising mix of earnest po-faced style and aggressive intensity.

After the halfway mark, the film becomes a more formulaic piece as the superheroes race to rescue the diplomats and unexpectedly deliver a possible gift to the world in their attempts to rehydrate the politicians. The novelty value of the individual characters, the colourful sets, and the comedy episodes in which Batman and Robin stumble into ingenious traps and must escape death quickly wears off. The film delivers its own comment about the Cold War and the ability or inability of world leaders and diplomats to bring about world peace. (That a comedy parody featuring hammy acting, silly dialogue and a laughable plot would introduce comment on global politics and its worth and carry it off is sheer genius.) At the same time, Batman experiences wrenching heartbreak when he discovers that Miss Kitka and Catwoman are one and the same; his reaction is genuinely tragic to watch but he continues to carry himself with dignity.

For all its limitations, the film is a cult classic of its time: its highlights include its high production values, including the sets; the science fiction elements and gadgetry; the glee with which scriptwriters invent traps and dilemmas for the superheroes; the subversive undercurrent running beneath Batman and Robin’s strait-laced relationship; and the suggestion that our political leaders do not serve us well but greedily pursue power and influence over us.

 

Pride + Prejudice + Zombies: affectionate spoof historical comedy drama / horror film mash-up could have promised more

Burr Steers, “Pride + Prejudice + Zombies” (2016)

At long last, instead of yet another BBC TV series adaptation or British / Hollywood movie version of the famous Jane Austen novel of marriage and manners, we have an affectionate spoof in which the Bennet sisters – or just two of them, Elizabeth (Lily James) and Jane (Bella Heathcote) – not only sing, dance, play piano and chat wittily at parties and afternoon tea but also fight and kill zombies with knives, swords, guns and Shaolin kung fu. Yes, this is the movie adaptation of the mash-up novel by Seth Grahame Smith which credits Austen as co-author. Although it’s been a long time since I read the original Austen novel – I had to read it for school – and I have never read the mash-up, the film is surprisingly faithful in spirit if not in the details of the original plot and preserves most of its characters.

In early 19th-century England, the moderately wealthy Mr Bennet has trained his five daughters to fight the zombies that have recently overrun that green and sceptred land after a mysterious Black Plague has swept through the country and laid waste to much of it. His frivolous wife is keen to see her daughters hitched to wealthy gentlemen suitors. The family attends a ball hosted by the rich Bingley family and young heir Charles Bingley is attracted to Jane Bingley. Zombies then gate-crash the ball and the Bennet girls help in dispatching them to Purgatory. Elizabeth Bennet catches the attention of Fitzwilliam Darcy (Sam Riley), an even more wealthy gentleman than Charles Bingley and a noted zombie killer to boot. While both Elizabeth and Darcy are attracted to each other, a misunderstanding between them soon arises concerning why Darcy advises Charles Bingley to keep his distance from Jane.

Parson Collins (Matt Smith) pays a visit to the Bennets and proposes marriage to Elizabeth if she will give up her warrior ways but the lass refuses to do so, to the fury of her mother and the relief of her father. About the same time, Elizabeth becomes acquainted with George Wickham (Jack Huston), a soldier who tells her a sob-story about how badly Darcy has treated him and denied him his inheritance. Wickham takes Elizabeth to visit St Lazarus Church in a no-go zone in London where zombies fed on pigs’ brains to calm them down worship. Wickham hopes that these zombies can eventually co-exist peacefully with humans. Failing to persuade Elizabeth of the worth of his plan, he tries to convince her to elope with him but she refuses. At a later time, Darcy also tries to propose marriage to Elizabeth and the attempt ends in a hilarious sword-fight and battle of wits between the two.

Darcy writes a letter of apology to Elizabeth, telling her why he advised Bingley to stay away from Jane – Darcy having believed she was merely after Bingley’s fortune due to Mrs Bennet’s loud-mouthed behaviour at the Bingley ball – and the truth behind Wickham’s lack of money: the soldier squandered his inheritance, tried to hit up Darcy for more money and might have even infected Darcy’s father with the plague germ that zombified old Mr Darcy, forcing the younger Darcy to kill him. Darcy and Elizabeth later discover that her younger sister Lydia has run off with Wickham and that Wickham is preparing a zombie army to invade and take over the whole of London.

The plot just about manages to stay the course of the film – though it does become formulaic towards the end with a climactic fight  between Darcy and Wickham – with no collapse while incorporating key sub-plots and incidents and remaining faithful in the portrayal of the main characters of Elizabeth and Darcy, and even minor characters like the Bennet parents. Wickham is upgraded into the major villain and Huston looks as if he’s having great fun playing an aristocratic wannabe liberator of zombies from their presumed state of savagery so they can share in the wealth of England. Indeed, all the actors seem to be enjoying themselves and the result of their enthusiasm is excellent acting and fairly well defined characters in a film where there’s hardly much pause in the action. Of minor characters, Matt Smith dominates all his scenes as the pompous and obsequious parson, turning Mr Collins into a comic figure to be pitied rather than scorned, and his performance is the best in the film. Lena Headey’s Lady Catherine de Bourgh turns out a surprisingly layered, even sinister character in the few scenes she has; the pity is that she is not a more useful character in the film other than being an obstacle in Darcy and Elizabeth’s paths to happiness together.

The film doesn’t say anything about the status of upper class women and their treatment in Regency England that hasn’t already been said by Jane Austen herself or the various film adaptations of “Pride and Prejudice”. For all their skills as zombie fighters and killers, the Bennet sisters are still reduced to whatever economic value they are worth as the daughters of a minor aristocrat. That humans would waste precious time and energy preoccupied with who’s who in their social hierarchy, how much money a prospective suitor makes and constant match-making while all around them the zombies not only don’t make class distinctions among themselves but don’t discriminate among the humans either is an irony the film fails to capitalise on. The zombies tend very much to stay in the background and viewers see nothing of how the calm zombies might conduct their lives when they are not set upon by humans. Perhaps Wickham’s suggestion that humans and zombies could learn to live together is more pertinent than it first appears: the zombies could certainly represent the disenfranchised proletariat classes of Regency society. A scene in the middle of the end credits suggests as much, as the zombie masses, led by a zombified Wickham, march towards the horrified upper classes in their gilded-cage mansions.

Apart from this, the film is mainly to be enjoyed as a distinctive adaptation of the famous novel but no more. The main problem with “Pride + Prejudice + Zombies” is that the feature film format is too short to deal with the original novel and the zombie invasion to do both justice and needs a mini-series format that could treat Regency-era zombies as a metaphor for the poor and oppressed. The savage zombies could represent the prejudices of the aristocrats and their biased views about zombie behaviour. The upper classes may be proud of their wit, their culture and fighting skills, but their pride is a desperate one rooted in the knowledge that one day they and their culture and values will all be swept away by the zombie hordes.

The mash-up literary genre that produced “Pride + Prejudice + Zombies” and other odd combinations like “Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters” and “Android Karenina” ultimately became a temporary publishing fad but it could have promised more.

Animation and live action make “Doctor Who: Shada” a better story than the original plot would suggest

Pennant Roberts, “Doctor Who: Shada” (2017)

Not often do particular adventures in the long-running “Doctor Who” television series which first ran from 1963 to 1988 and was then resurrected in the early 2000s achieve mythic status of their own through an unusual set of events but the story of “Shada”, originally scripted by the legendary Douglas Adams (he of “The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” fame), is almost as famous as its creator: the 6-episode adventure had to be abandoned after several hours of filming due to industrial action at the BBC in 1978. Over the years the story was reworked in several formats including two audio plays, an animation (or two) and a novelisation. Finally in 2017 the BBC completed the adventure by combining the live-action segments with animation of the missing segments, based on the original script, and using special-effects technology that was available to the original TV crew filming “Shada”.

What the BBC ends up with is a story true to the quirky if low-brow charm of the original TV series, and possessed of all the wackiness one expects of a story penned by Douglas Adams: the central if hilarious conceit of the story is that a lovable if dotty and absent-minded English professor of physics, pottering about in his office and library at Cambridge University, is in fact a hardened intergalactic arch-criminal on the run from an outer-space gulag. But such is the mysterious Professor Chronotis (Dennis Carey), whose name tells viewers that the professor maybe outside the dimension of time as we know cheerfully serving a cup of tea to postgraduate physics student Chris Parsons (Daniel Hill) who drops by to borrow some books for a project. One of the books Parsons takes is a strange book written in mysterious script which Parsons discovers is not made of materials available on Earth; indeed its molecular structure is completely alien to Earthlings and the age of the book suggests that it only exists when time is running backwards!

While Parsons dashes off with the book, in another dimension a scheming megalomaniac villain called Skagra (Christopher Neame) travelling in a spaceship steals the minds of his fellow voyagers in a white sphere and goes to Earth to find Chronotis’ book – the very book Parsons has taken – whose script, once deciphered, gives instructions to travel to Shada, the prison planet created by an advanced alien species called the Time Lords to house their worst criminals; there, Skagra hopes to find and release a prisoner called Salyavin who has the unique ability to project his mind into those of others and rearrange their jumbled thoughts and direct them to more other pursuits of his making. Ultimately Skagra hopes to hoover up a stack of the most advanced minds of the universe with his little crystal ball and with Salyavin’s abilities on his side (or maybe in the sphere) use those minds to rearrange the universe’s affairs to his liking.

Unfortunately as with all such schemes, Skagra’s plans for shuffling the mental deckchairs around are threatened by the intrusion of the Doctor (Tom Baker), the time-travelling Time Lord, his Time Lady friend Romana (Lalla Ward) and their cyber-pooch K9. When the Doctor, Romana and K9 find and team up with Chris Parsons and his female physics tutor pal Clare (Victoria Burgoyne) to find the mystery book and return it to Gallifrey’s Panopticon archives (centuries after Chronotis had stolen it), Skagra has already made off with the item and the adventure settles down to a drawn-out chase that zig-zags from one end of the universe to another, involves Romana being kidnapped by Skagra (but not being tied to train tracks), has Romana and Clare trying desperately to link Chronotis’ stolen TARDIS machine to the Doctor’s TARDIS so the Doctor can traverse the link while the machines are whirling around in the time-space continuum, and (of course) features fearsome hulking monsters of molten lava. The story also includes a few head-scratching anomalies that don’t quite make sense – how could Skagra and his mind-sucking ball not discover Chronotis’ true identity after clearing out his head? – but sssh, we mustn’t let such errors in logic get in the way of a ramshackle adventure oozing plenty of slapstick and occasional wit along with a metal dog, a dumb computer driving Skagra’s ship and part of Cambridge University going missing for a day or two.

The animation style pays respect to the famous shoe-string budget of the original live-action TV show by being minimalist to the point of parsimony in the way characters move and speak. Effects are used if they were already known at the time of the original 1979 filming for “Shada”. The plot places a huge amount of emphasis on dialogue and clever editing techniques over action and viewers need to follow the dialogue quite closely to catch the jokes and in-jokes, and the Doctor’s crazy conversation about how dead men cannot threaten live people with the computer on Skagra’s jet that all but fries the machine’s circuit-boards.

Overall, the acting is adequate for the job when all that the job requires is chasing an evil master-mind from one end of the cosmos to the other in giant spaceships or pint-sized TARDIS machines. Carey’s professor is reduced to making endless cups of tea and Romana is often forced to play a damsel-in-distress role and spends huge amounts of time standing about in Skagra’s spaceship listening to his speeches about how he’ll run the universe more efficiently. Chris and Clare have even less to do than Romana does apart from getting themselves into trouble.

While silly eccentricity is to be expected in a script by Douglas Adams and with an actor like Tom Baker, the underlying theme of “Shada” is very serious: how do societies that pride themselves on their humanity towards less fortunate others deal with individuals who have committed dangerous crimes harmful to individuals and communities and who in many countries would have been subjected to capital punishment. Is it ethical for the Time Lords to freeze their most notorious criminals, and the criminals of other planets, and put them in cold storage on a barren prison planet and then pretend that such people never existed? Is there not a better way to treat criminals, even the most brutalised and hardened ones, in a decent way while still keeping them away from the public as much for their own sake as for the public’s sake? What exactly has Salyavin done that warranted deep-freezing him on Shada in the first place and was the punishment justified? (And how did he manage to escape?) Unfortunately the treatment of this issue is beyond Adams’ ability to work with and so the theme is very undeveloped. Far too much racing after Skagra and the stolen book dominates the story’s running time and at times certain scenes or characters can remind viewers of similar scenes and characters from previous Doctor Who adventures.

For all that, “Shada” is a decent enough story that actually works better than the plot would suggest as a result of combining live action and animation.

Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 16: Adam Ruins the Future): this episode should have gone out on a high note

Tim Wilkime, “Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 16: Adam Ruins the Future)” (2017)

As the last episode of its season, “Adam Ruins the Future” should go out on a high note but after having seen most of the season, I must admit that before seeing it my expectations were on the low side.  The episode turned out quite predictably: based around the theme of the future but with very little relationship to one another, three topics are treated at a quick zip in rather superficial fashion. Pressed by girlfriend Melinda to consider their future together, Adam changes the subject to explain why use-by dates on food labels are misleading and how 401K funds (the US equivalent of superannuation funds in Australia) won’t support most people in retirement. Melinda answers back by showing Adam how all the research in the world can’t predict the future generally, let alone the future of their relationship, and that people’s assumptions about the future are really an extension of present trends (which can always be disrupted and overthrown). Adam and Melinda finally agree that they don’t really have a future together and Adam acknowledges that breaking up says nothing about his worth as a human being.

The legislation governing use-by dates and the information about 401K funds are quite specific to an American audience so the discussion will be of limited value to overseas viewers. Probably the most audiences outside the US can gain from these segments is to investigate the legislation in their own countries that govern food labelling and expiry dates, and to know what their countries’ pension and super funds can and can’t do for them,  and what the alternatives if any are. The one thing 401K funds may have in common with super funds in Australia and possibly elsewhere is that they operate in a context where mostly ill-informed individuals are expected to accept the risks and responsibility in investing in such funds without much help from the government or independent agencies that do not have a vested interest in marketing these financial products. Everyone who works is expected to invest in his/her future retirement by contributing towards superannuation but the superannuation industry is dominated by a bewildering range of products whose features and characteristics may be difficult to understand (unless buyers have a background knowledge of how finance works) and which are sold by companies and institutions that purport to be trustworthy and reliable but whose past histories might suggest otherwise.

The episode almost ends on a somewhat despairing note – viewers may not be satisfied being urged to pressure the US government to reform legislation governing 401K funds when everyone knows that business lobby groups and their money shout louder than the public interest – and Adam and Melinda separate rather abruptly without so much as saying “We can still be friends even if we can’t be lovers”. Emily makes a brief appearance to counsel Adam on being comfortable with one’s own company and at least he is happy with her advice, even if only temporarily, as the episode concludes.

While the series has been good on the whole, and has presented a lot of valuable information, the formula it follows has become tiresome and the slapstick is tedious and somewhat forced. A future series will need to include a bit more wit and some actual situation comedy along with information that doesn’t throw around statistics so much but flows a bit more naturally and shows evidence of digging deeper past the surface.

Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 15: Adam Ruins Science): making a stand for public funding for science

Laura Murphy, “Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 15: Adam Ruins Science)” (2017)

Television programs about science and scientific studies may abound in many forms (as in documentaries or reports on news and current affairs programs) but a television program about the culture and practice of science, and how political and economic ideologies affect, even hinder science is very rare, and in this respect this episode of “Adam Ruins Everything” is very welcome. It seems much less silly than some earlier episodes but then perhaps the topics covered and what they imply together as well as separately are much more substantial than subjects like Halloween or visiting a health spa, and need lightening up to be palatable to the general public. Adam Conover visits Winnie, a science student about to start her project, and disabuses her of the value of laboratory mice in medical studies that are supposed to be relevant for human health. He also shows her how the practice of science is highly dependent on financial grants from various groups of donors – private companies, the pharmaceutical industry, individual and corporate philanthropists, and the government / public sector – all of whom have reasons and agendas for wanting to support particular areas or strands of scientific endeavour and who expect certain results from the recipients of the money, resources and staff they provide. Finally Adam warns Winnie that science journals are not necessarily repositories of truth with regard to the reporting of experiments and studies, as most such research are often flawed, with the most common flaws being small sample size, variables overlooked by researchers in forming hypotheses and designing experiments, and manipulating, even faking results. Adam advises Winnie of the value of studies being reproducible (that is, if another group of researchers undertake a similar study with the same experiment design and a similar-sized sample as the original, the researchers should be able to achieve similar results) and this encourages Winnie to adopt a more humble, less egocentric attitude in deciding what science project she will do for college class.

While the approach of (metaphorically) using a sledgehammer where a nutcracker might have been called for might be crude fun for kiddie viewers, the show does pound home the fact that much research in some areas (such as psychology) not only cannot be reproduced but could even be worthless; yet such research has often been trumpeted over and over in mainstream news media with the result that the phenomena the research has investigated (but not been able to prove) have passed into pop culture and urban folklore. The show’s middle segment on the funding of science makes for quite dismal viewing and is sure to force people to question how much value Western society really places on scientific pursuit and progress when science is at the mercy of the profit motive and corporate greed.

Although the program doesn’t go that far, the connection between who funds science and the faking of results in experiments and studies that could well end up in prestigious science journals can be made by astute viewers. This surely makes a case for public funding of science more important yet this is likely to be seen as anti-capitalist, even socialistic, by Western governments and therefore more public funding with less private funding would be considered as beyond the pale.

As is usual in most episodes, Adam’s companion descends into the pits of despair after one devastating revelation after another made by Adam or his expert helpers, only within a split second to zoom back into boundless optimism when Adam gives a pep talk about how s/he can still contribute something of benefit now that s/he understands the reality of the topic in question. Must Adam always pick on the most emotionally extreme characters to demonstrate how so much of what we believe and take for granted isn’t necessarily the truth?

Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 14: Adam Ruins Halloween): beneath the silly slapstick and cheap thrills, a sobering message about manipulating people’s emotions and weaknesses for profit

Tim Wilkime, “Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 14: Adam Ruins Halloween)” (2017)

Beneath the silliness is a sobering message that the scariest thing about life is the extent to which people and the news media will deliberately lie and manipulate information and people’s emotions, weaknesses and vulnerabilities for profit. Adam Conover visits schoolboy Stuart (Elisha Henig) on Halloween night to tell him the truth behind the persistent urban myth of strangers offering children poisoned lollies when they go trick-or-treating; what really happened during that night in 1938 when Orson Welles read “The War of the Worlds” on radio; and why mediums and séances are scams. All three phenomena are or have been very heavily dependent on the power of the news media to repeat and remind readers or viewers constantly to the extent that by sheer repetition the deception appears more real than the actual truth.

That the myth of strangers giving children poisoned candy persists, even though US police statistics and studies have only ever turned up one case of a child poisoned and killed by a cyanide-laced sweet (and the scumbag who did this turned out to be the boy’s father), speaks more about the news media’s repetitions of this tall tale stereotype which takes advantage of people’s fears about the welfare of children as they wander off on their own on Halloween evening around the streets knocking on people’s doors for treats year after year. Why news media outlets continue to exploit people’s concerns by perpetrating a falsehood that has long been debunked by research  to increase sales revenue, without regard for possible long-term effects of this exploitation (such as decreasing trust and weakening community ties, and encouraging people to rely more on government or corporate institutions for security and protection – institutions that may well be advertising through those same media outlets), is worthy of a documentary in its own right: we might find that the media’s exploitation of people’s fears may be tied to an agenda on the part of government and corporations (and those who control those bodies) to keep people fearful and distrustful of a world supposedly hostile to them. In this way, individuals are less likely to come and band together and fight for their common rights.

Similarly the perception that Orson Welles’ radio broadcast of “The War of the Worlds” back in 1938 generated mass panic turns out to be an urban myth that began almost as soon as Welles’ broadcast became known and is attributed to print news media’s jealousy of radio broadcasting and the desire to suggest that the immediacy of radio broadcasts could lead to irresponsible reporting: a rather ironic thing to say since the episode tends rather to suggest that print news media is irresponsible in stooping so low to rubbish a potential competitor. Nothing is said about the social and political context of the period: the Western world was on the verge of war at the time. Again, the fact that this belief has lasted so long and how and why repetition keeps sustaining it is worthy of its own independent investigation: perhaps the myth says something about our fear of being controlled by those who have the power to withhold truth from us.

Finally the episode pooh-poohs self-proclaimed psychics and the methods they use to ensnare people into trusting them and parting with their hard-earned money without asking why desperate and vulnerable people are most likely to believe mediums.

This Halloween episode is one of the more entertaining episodes in the series of “Adam Ruins Everything” even if it does go in for slapstick, cheap scares and thrills. The segment on “The War of the Worlds” scare is lavish and well done, and pays tribute to the creativity of sound effects technicians working in radio broadcasting at the time.