The Farewell: thin plot, poor characterisation should have farewelled this film

Lulu Wang, “The Farewell” (2019)

As a character study of an individual torn between her parents’ Chinese culture and the Western culture she has grown up in, yet not fitting into either culture all that well, “The Farewell” just passes muster though not as well as it could have done given its running time of 100 minutes. Apart from this, which gives actor / musician Awkwafina an opportunity to prove her acting ability as that individual Billi, the film is very thin and uninteresting in its plot and most of its characterisation, with lots of irrelevant filler scenes, poor cinematography and humour that relies on so many cultural stereotypes that, had it been made by a non-Asian director, would have damned “The Farewell” as racist.

“The Farewell” is set during a crisis period in main character Billi’s life as an aspiring 30-year-old writer: unable to pay her rent, needing money and receiving news that her application for a Guggenheim Fellowship grant has been rejected, Billi has to move back in with her parents, Haiyan (Tzi Ma) and Jian (Diana Lin). The parents receive news from family in Changchun that Haiyan’s mother (Zhao Shuzhen), called Nai Nai / Grandma, has been diagnosed by hospital doctors as having terminal lung cancer and with only a few months left to live. Through an elaborate series of deceptions which involve manipulating the hospital test results, Nai Nai’s relatives have avoided telling her the bad news and instead have assured her that the “benign shadows” on her scans are nothing to worry about. The relatives have also arranged for Haiyan’s brother and his family, living in Japan, to come to Changchun and bring their son Haohao and his fiancee Aiko to marry in China: this subterfuge enables the entire extended family to see Nai Nai one last time before she dies. Fearing that Billi – who has always been close to Nai Nai – won’t be able to keep the grandmother’s illness secret, Haiyan and Jian fly to Changchun and leave Billi back home in New York. Furious, Billi flies out to Changchun herself not long after the parents leave.

The rest of the film follows Billi in her clashes with the relatives and even the hospital staff over their constant lying to Nai Nai about the real nature of her condition. During one fight, Billi’s uncle tells her that the lie is necessary to enable a dying person’s family to bear the emotional burden of the disease diagnosis, and that this is an example of the collectivist values of Chinese society that differentiates it from Western society with its emphasis on the individual: a rather pat and superficial explanation that at least tones down some of the conflict. In amongst the fighting, the melodrama and close-ups of family members in tears or biting back their anger, the film lingers over scenes of the family visiting a cemetery and paying its respects to dead relatives, and over Haohao and Aiko’s wedding celebrations. These scenes are mined rather excessively for slapstick kitsch humour that add very little to the film’s plot. The only time the film has any spirit at all is during scenes featuring Nai Nai: Zhao plays the spritely and mischievous nanna with such depth, feeling and humour that anyone with a heart would feel compelled also to lie to her about her illness, whether Chinese or not.

At the end of the film, viewers are left clueless about the family’s history and what Billi has learned from this final trip to see Nai Nai before returning to the US. (The end credits suggest that the woman on whom Nai Nai is based was still alive six years after her cancer diagnosis.) Whatever legacy Nai Nai leaves with Billi is also unclear. Even the city in which Billi’s relatives live remains unidentified until about halfway through the film; though Billi and her relatives from Japan stay in Changchun for about a week, they don’t appear to go sightseeing much and an opportunity for viewers to vicariously experience the sights of Changchun is lost.

Yours truly believes that a potentially good film about connection between generations separated by time, culture, language and distance, and the existential plight of individuals who are of two cultures yet can fit into neither comfortably, is buried beneath a very superficial film milking cultural differences and traditions for cheap laughs. Were it not for Awkwafina, Zhao Shuzhen and the rapport these two actors have, “The Farewell” deserves to be farewelled rather than welcomed by movie critics.

Hail Satan? – fun film about a Satanic movement with a serious message about social justice and religious hypocrisy and oppression

Penny Lane, “Hail Satan?” (2019)

Funny and serious at the same time, tight and well made with plenty of information on the history of religious freedom and how it has been abused by evangelical Christians and government working together (and also plenty of popular culture references), this documentary explores the agenda and development of an organisation claiming to be “religious” and to worship Satan but is actually trying to enforce religious freedom and plurality, promote social justice and highlight in a public way through staging amusing stunts the hypocrisy of government, Protestant Christianity and their allies in paying lip service to political freedoms and the separation of religion and the state. Viewers should not worry that the film shows any strange or perverted rituals as there is very little in it that can be called Satanic; what perversion or cult-like behaviour that exists in the film actually arises in the reactions of conservative evangelical Christians to the satirical stunts of self-proclaimed Satanists, and in the film’s rundown of past public scares focused on supposed Satanic ritual abuse of children which actually led to innocent people being tried, found guilty of non-existent crimes and imprisoned.

Inspired by the example of Anton Szandor LaVey who founded the Church of Satan in the late 1960s as an expression of individualism and free will, The Satanic Temple (hereafter referred to as TST) was founded by Lucien Greaves and Malcolm Jarry, though only Lucine Greaves actually appears in the film. TST first came to public attention in 2013 with its support for a bill signed into law in Florida by Governor Rick Scott allowing students to lead prayer in school; because the law does not specify which religion the students must belong to, it logically allows Satan-worshipping students the freedom to lead prayer in school. Other activities TST chapters across the United States have engaged in include rubbish collection on beaches and highways; performing a Pink Mass over the grave of the mother of the founder of Westboro Baptist Church who planned to picket the funerals of the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing; setting up an after-school program called After School Satan to ensure religious freedom and diversiy are respected, and all religions get the same rights and privileges in establishing after-school clubs; and, most memorably, setting up statues of Baphomet alongside public installations of statues of the Ten Commandments outside state capitol buildings in Oklahoma and Arkansas.

In amongst all this activity, Greaves struggles with running an organisation and movement that has grown very quickly, perhaps too fast for one or two persons to handle, and inevitably there are disagreements and conflicts over how TST followers should challenge hypocrisy, discrimination and injustice wherever they find it, with some people believing working within systems can change them, and others believing systems should be challenged and confronted, with the result that one early member, Jex Blackmore, ends up being excommunicated for supposedly threatening violence against President Trump. While TST imposes no more than seven tenets of belief on its followers (all of which are presented in the film), the interpretation of these proves to vary quite wildly among TST members.

Director Lane keeps the pace going briskly with smooth segues from one scenario to another, and adding snippets of an eclectic selection of horror movies, old newsreels, cartoons and rock music videos where appropriate into her narrative to illustrate a point or mock a particular point of view. One particular theme that stands out is how so much of Americans take for granted about their culture or the place of Christianity in US culture turns out to have been influenced by or even originated by Hollywood; another is that the US was founded as a secular nation and society by the so-called Founding Fathers (signatories of the US Declaration of Independence), a fact denied by evangelical Christianity.

There is not much in-depth examination of TST’s structure – indeed, the organisation comes across as spontaneous and organic, not at all hierarchical, in its network – and most of the in-fighting and conflicts of TST were left out of the film. Neither is there any information on the history of Satanism in Western society, how it originally arose and what the motivations behind it were. The organisation is presented as a fun bunch of witty and creative social activist trolls parodying and satirising the pomposity, stupidity – and often the plain viciousness and criminality – of mainstream Christian denominations. Criticisms of TST’s activities from other Satanic organisations or even from TST members themselves are non-existent. (Significantly the film’s director herself joined TST after editing the film.)

Beneath the entertainment, the stunts and TST members’ sometimes outrageous appearances – Lane makes a point of interviewing several TST members who come from all walks of life – there is a very serious message about how some mainstream forms of Christianity have suppressed freedom of religion and equality in worship, and have extended their malign beliefs and influences into everyday life to deny people control over their lives and bodies, and how people who put themselves on the front-line to fight oppression do so with very little money and support from others against insurmountable odds – yet achieve victories with courage, creativity and chutzpah.

Parasite: tale of two families is a stinging attack on capitalism and social hierarchy

Bong Joonho, “Parasite / Gisaengchung” (2019)

A stinging attack on capitalism in South Korean society and its effects on people’s thinking and actions, “Parasite” pits two families, both of which have common Korean surnames, from two polar opposite sides of the socioeconomic spectrum in a bleak black comedy full of twists and extreme surprises. The film’s tone is not always even, and slapstick comedy easily and quickly slips into a dark and depressive meditation on the effects of poverty and preying on others’ naivety and gullibility. Kim Kitaek (Song Kangho, a regular in Bong’s films), an ex-driver, heads a family of grifters living like rats in a basement unit at the tail-end of Skid Row in a slum neighbourhood somewhere in Seoul or Busan and trying to make ends meet by folding and recycling pizza boxes for a delivery business. One day, Kitaek’s son Kiwoo (Choi Wooshik) meets up with an old college friend who is currently employed as an English-language tutor by a rich family for their teenage daughter; the friend is about to go overseas and wants to recommend Kiwoo to replace him. Armed with documents forged by his sister Kijeong (Park Sodam), Kiwoo goes to the family’s mansion where he is interviewed by Mrs Park (Yo Yeojeong) and meets the daughter Dahye; he gets the job after giving Dahye a lesson while Mrs Park watches. Noticing that Mrs Park’s son has artwork pinned up on the lounge-room wall, Kiwoo recommends that a “friend” of his, Jessica, might be available to teach the son, Dasong, art. Mrs Park is amenable to the suggestion and soon Jessica – in reality, Kijeong herself – is giving art therapy to Dasong.

Kijeong soon contrives to get dad Kitaek a job as the Parks’ chauffeur. No sooner does Kitaek get the job driving Mr Park (Lee Sunkyun) than he and his adult children manage to throw out the Parks’ housekeeper Moongwang (Lee Jeungeun) to be replaced by Kitaek’s wife Choongsook (Jang Hyejin). Thus the entire Kim family is comfortably ensconced in the Parks’ luxurious Modernist mansion and the four celebrate with a loud drunken party at the Parks’ expense while the Parks go on a weekend camping trip – at least until Moongwang turns up unexpectedly to attend to a secret she has kept hidden in the mansion’s basement for a number of years and discovers the truth about the Kims and their ruse to get rid of her and the chauffeur.

After that surprise twist in the film’s plot, the narrative lurches from comedy to horror, back and forth, as the Kims fight Moongwang and the unexpected house-guest husband Moongwang has kept in the basement who is on the run from loan-shark creditors. The threat that Moongwang and her husband pose to the Kims’ secret culminates spectacularly and bloodily during an extravagant birthday party the Parks throw for Dasong. The body count is high, the lives of three families are torn asunder and the film closes on a sad, wistful and very bleak note.

An otherwise silly story is made grave as well as comic by ambiguous characterisation: the Kim family, though very much needy and in desperate economic straits, is also portrayed as greedy and cruel in its own way (though Kitaek does also have some compassion for Moongwang and her husband, whose lives are not all that different from the Kim family’s own difficulties); and the Park family, while privileged and spoilt, is generous in its own way. The children appear more intelligent than their ditzy mother. Mr Park comes across as an overgrown selfish adolescent, concerned more about Kitaek being able to take corners at speed in a way that doesn’t spill his (Park’s, that is) coffee.

The true villain of the piece is the capitalist society in which the Kims and Moongwang and her husband are forced to scrabble for existence like rats literally living underground while families like the Parks, whose fortunes are made off the backs of people like the Kims, splash their money on expensive (but cold and empty) luxury homes and frivolous pursuits. Who are the real parasites here? As in many of Bong’s films – “Mother” comes to mind here – characters are frequently driven by their situations and the social environment they are born into and grow up in to commit acts that are irreversible and have dramatic life-changing consequences and which they come to regret.

Once again Song Kangho is in a class of his own playing a comic character who is not always too bright but is capable of deep insight into his and his family’s condition; the rest of the cast do capable work but are always in his shadow. The Parks’ mansion is a significant character in its own right and mirrors the two-faced condition of capitalist society: it shows off plenty of beautiful (and superficial) surface gleam and glamour but hides a sinister subterranean secret as any self-respecting house of horror should.

For all its bonkers plotting and characterisation, all working out perfectly and logically plot-wise, the film becomes despairing when Kiwoo capitulates to the demands of South Korean society and Korean tradition in order to save what remains of his family after they have struggled through their storm and stress. Viewers are likely to feel short-changed by this treatment of the Kims. What happens to the Parks after they flee the mansion remains unknown.

Rocketman: the rise and fall and rise again of a beloved British rock / pop icon, with no reference to social and music trends

Dexter Fletcher, “Rocketman” (2019)

Rather than playing as a straight biopic – a template that felled “Bohemian Rhapsody” – this comedy drama portraying the life and career of British rock / pop-star Elton John from his childhood in the 1950s as a piano prodigy to the 1980s when he crashes into rehabilitation to seek treatment for various addictions opts for a surreal musical fantasy approach in which various of Elton John’s best-known songs illustrate the artist’s trajectory from shy young boy Reginald Dwight whose parents hate each other, quarrel and neglect Reggie’s emotional needs, to aspiring rocker teaming with lyricist Bernie Taupin to write songs, to glam rock performer whose personal life eventually spirals out of control with abusive relationships (including one with his manager John Reid), cocaine and other drug addictions, and bulimia. The result is an energetic, flamboyant and highly entertaining, if not exactly informative, account of Elton John’s rise and fall and rise again as a star and human being who gains some sort of redemption and finds some peace in accepting himself as he is, warts and all.

For all its zing and colour and outrageousness, the narrative turns out to be conventional and its message is nothing out of the ordinary: it’s the story of an ordinary boy with a musical gift who wants nothing more than to be loved and accepted, and who tries to find that special love and to be accepted, at the same time taking career risks that open doors and propel him onto a path of fame and fortune. His journey steers him into episodes of doubt, self-loathing and self-destructive behaviour: at one point in the film, he attempts suicide in spectacular manner by throwing himself into a swimming pool in the middle of a party. True to form, at the bottom of the pool he finds his childhood self tinkling on a toy piano singing one of his famous songs. Welsh singer / actor Taron Egerton does a sterling job playing Elton John in a fairly demanding role that requires him to be as much comic as dramatic actor wearing a full range of outlandish stage clothes and glasses along with a terrible haircut, and enduring psychological abuse from both his parents (played by Bryce Dallas Howard and Steven Mackintosh) and his lover / manager (Richard Madden).

It is to Fletcher’s credit as a director that the movie moves swiftly and easily through familiar musical numbers that take leaps and jumps through the decades, focusing on just a few significant events in John’s life. Strangely the film does not detail John’s obsession with his receding hairline and battle against baldness; neither does it note any friendships or rivalries he might have had with other British rock and pop stars. Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) is not much more than walking and talking wallpaper. The film’s sets – the settings include John’s mansion in Los Angeles as well as the middle class Fifties home where he grows up along with the many venues he performs in – merit special attention as do the many costumes the performer donned over the years.

Apart from detailing how a beloved British music icon managed to navigate the perils of fame, wealth and celebrity to accept and learn to forgive himself, and to let go of the abusive people in his life, the film actually tells viewers very little about how Elton John came to be such a megastar and how he managed to stay on top for so long. Too much of his life is crammed into a couple of hours and the film tends to dwell a lot on his costumes and theatricality without suggesting why such flamboyance was a necessary part of his act. Significantly the film has very little to say about the social and musical trends of the decades in which Elton John’s career developed and catapulted him to worldwide fame and great material fortune.

The Chaperone: preferring a character stereotype over portraying the life of a real revolutionary cultural icon

Michael Engler, “The Chaperone” (2018)

A film of self-discovery and self-transformation leading to personal freedom, “The Chaperone” is a fictional account of real-life silent movie icon Louise Brooks’ journey as a young teenager from Wichita, Kansas, to New York City to audition for and join the Denishawn School of Dancing and Related Arts in the early 1920s. The young Louise (Haley Lu Richardson) is accompanied by Norma Carlisle (Elizabeth McGovern) who offered herself to Louise’s mother as the girl’s chaperone after overhearing the mother in conversation with friends. It turns out that Norma has her own reasons for fleeing Wichita and travelling with Louise: Norma’s marriage to Alan (Campbell Scott) is on the rocks after she catches him in bed with a man; and she wants to know the identity of her biological mother who placed her in a Roman Catholic orphanage in NYC when she was a baby.

After Louise and Norma arrive in NYC, the film follows Norma’s travails in getting past the unyielding nuns and finding her details, in the process winning the admiration and then the heart of caretaker Joseph (Geza Rohrig), and then contacting someone who might know her birth mother. Norma’s further adventures in finding her biological family end in heartbreak however. In the meantime, Louise trains for and finally wins a place in the prestigious dance school run by Ted Shawn and Ruth St Denis (Robert Fairchild and Miranda Otto) though the film insinuates that she really only makes the grade more by sheer talent than by hard work and dedication: the girl spends her free time chatting up young men in cafes and nightclubs, mingling with Afro-Americans (at a time when black and white people were expected to lead separate lives) and generally being unconventional in ways that shock Norma. Through Louise’s example and the unexpected ways in which her own life unravels and develops, Norma learns to become a more tolerant person, and her inner evolution opens up new ways of thinking and feeling that enable her to take control of her own life.

The film excels mainly as a character study of a typical middle-class woman of its period who changes in ways that would have been rare or even impossible for most women of her social layer in Midwest America in the early 1920s. Elizabeth McGovern does excellent work in this respect though the eye-rolling seems excessive. Richardson as Brooks is a great foil who constantly prods and challenges Norma. The supporting cast also does good work and the film’s period details are meticulously done.

Where the film really could have excelled is in contrasting more strongly the trajectories of Norma and Louise’s personal journeys after the two separate: Norma eventually carves out an unconventional family life in which she amicably resolves her marriage issues with Alan and lives with a new lover at the same time; and Louise finds stardom as a dancer and then as a silent movie icon before her career hits the skids while she is still in her 20s. Viewers learn nothing about how and why Louise is all washed up by the age of 35 years when she and Norma meet again, perhaps for the last time, after an interval of 20 years. The battle that Louise Brooks waged to be her own woman and her refusal to be bullied by movie studios is completely erased from the film. The most the film allows viewers to see of Louise Brooks’ defiance of the social conventions of her day is when she tells Norma that she had been molested as a child but since then had refused to act a victim role and instead decided to flaunt her sexuality once she became a teenager. After Norma advises Louise to leave Wichita again, she saunters back to her own family, content to live how she wants while maintaining a facade of a happy marriage on her own terms. (This does not sound exactly revolutionary and for all we know, many families of all social levels could have lived in similar unconventional ways.)

While it’s a pleasant and visually attractive film to watch, “The Chaperone” in fact steers clear of portraying the life of a real revolutionary cultural icon and instead goes for a stereotyped treatment of a fictional upper middle class woman’s transformation. The real Louise Brooks and her battle against social and cultural expectations and attitudes would have been far more interesting to know.

Ana by Day: exploring identity and the limits of freedom and pursuing one’s dreams

Andrea Jaurrieta, “Ana by Day / Ana de Dia” (2017)

You feel vaguely dissatisfied with and trapped by your life as a lawyer studying for a doctorate and engaged to a rather colourless though very nice and polite man of your own upper middle class set. You secretly wish you had followed your childhood dream and become a dancer. One day you call home and are shocked to discover that a stranger with a voice exactly like your own and who answers to your name, Ana, picks up the phone. You call home, then the place where you work, and are horrified to find that someone is impersonating you and doing all the work you should be doing. What do you do next? Do you confront the imposter? Do you call the police and tell them someone has stolen your identity?

In this film, the directing debut of Andrea Jaurrieta, you as Ana (played by Ingrid Garcia-Jonsson) seize the unexpected freedom from family, relationship and work ties and demands, and fly away from Barcelona to Madrid where, calling yourself Nina, you board with an eccentric family and find a job as a dancer at a rather seedy cabaret club called the Radio City Music Hall. Your work colleagues are people who have seen better days as entertainers and singers, and who (like you) are running away from past entanglements or even the law. You strike up a relationship with Marcelo (Alvaro Ogalla), a man with a shadowy background who doesn’t want you to know where he’s from, where he’s going to and what sort of work he does that allows him to live in expensive digs and take you out to high-class restaurants and meet socialite friends. (Scars on his back might suggest he’s a gangster or a professional hit-man.) Eventually though, your new family in the boarding-house discover that you had a past life and start pressing you to give up the late nights, the excessive drinking and drug-taking, and the shady boyfriend; your boyfriend discovers you blurted out his secret and now tells you he must leave town; and your newfound reputation as a dancer of note attracts an audience whom you’d rather didn’t follow you.

The film investigates, in quite original ways, issues of alienation, the limits and consequences of freedom, the loss and recovery of identity, the fulfillment of lost dreams, and the tension arising from accepting one’s place and obligations and having security versus striking out on one’s own to discover one’s real self and fulfill personal dreams and ambitions but experiencing loneliness, disillusionment and frustration along the way. Ana / Nina finds she can’t completely escape from her past: the irony is that becoming the lead dancer at the club is bringing into its audience people from Barcelona who know her.

With shots in confined spaces, and an emphasis on night-time scenes or scenes in shadow or under coloured lighting, close-ups and people going in and out of Ana / Nina’s room and rummaging through her belongings, the film highlights the fragility and changeable nature of identity and takes on a distinct look that suggests suspense and danger are never far away and any minute Ana / Nina will be exposed or her life is put at risk. We never completely know who the real woman behind Ana / Nina is. Perhaps the only time when Ana / Nina is truly herself is when she is on stage dancing and miming to an old Hollywood or Broadway number from decades ago.

While the acting is very good – Garcia-Jonsson is the stand-out here in playing two character types who gradually become very different women as a result of the decisions they make, the people they interact with and the environments they live and work in – and the issue Jaurrieta puts to the audience about how much of one’s personality and character comes from one’s inner nature or the social setting is dealt with in a bold and intriguing way, the resolution of this and other philosophical problems about identity and freedom that arise may not be satisfactory to most viewers. Initially bold in taking up a new way of living to live out her dream, Ana / Nina discovers that she ends up living another lie and ends up fleeing her new family and friends. Her romance with Marcelo ultimately goes nowhere. The paradox that arises is that, in following her dream, Ana / Nina ends up as lost as she was when her doppelganger first took over her old life. As a result, as the film progresses, it seems to lose focus and direction and becomes a bit confused about what it really wants. An easy resolution and tying off all loose ends are definitely not what the film wants or needs, because that would defeat the aim of what the film is pursuing: that breaking away from one’s old life to follow a new life also means that certain opportunities and choices that you could have enjoyed if you had stayed as you are, will be lost forever to you.

Suppose you confront your unwanted twin and discover that your twin has changed your old life in ways you hadn’t anticipated and which mean you can no longer return to it: what are you going to do then?

Masha and the Bear (Season 1, Episode 17: Recipe for Disaster): Masha and kasha aren’t a good mix

Oleg Uzhinov, “Masha and the Bear (Season 1, Episode 17: Recipe for Disaster)” (2009)

Despite its title, this charming little short turned out to be the animated children’s series’ recipe for success, its Russian-language version gaining more than 3.4 billion views on Youtube and as a result becoming the most viewed non-music video on that platform. The story is simple and straightforward but contains a little lesson about how one should accept responsibility for one’s actions and the consequences that accrue from them.

Bear is trying to teach himself how to play checkers using a guidebook but gets stuck over a game in which he plays both sides and now White is out-pointing Black by 5 to 1 literally. Bear doesn’t quite get the hang of checkers being a strictly competitive game where the object is to win, and not a game where the competition is in striving to be the best you can be and everyone gets to win. His little human charge Masha doesn’t help by stealing the black piece and trying to play hockey with it. Bear pops her outside the cottage with a real hockey puck and forces Hare, caught stealing carrots from the garden (again!), to play goalie. After a while of hitting goals, Masha and Hare demand lunch so Bear puts Masha in charge of cooking kasha (buckwheat porridge) and goes off into the woods to concentrate on his checkers game. Masha ends up raiding all the cupboards for kasha and pouring it all into the pot, mixing water and milk into it; the resulting boiling mix threatens to over-pour everywhere so she dumps as much as she can into as many pots and pans as she can, and takes them all out to the forest animals to feed them all. Even the wolves resident in the abandoned ambulance van up on the hill get overfed on kasha.

Meanwhile, Bear finally reconciles himself to the fact that Black has lost the game so he packs up and returns to the cottage just in time for the inevitable explosion …

The CGI animation emphasises bright colours and sharp lighting contrasts which give a sunny mood to the cartoon. The action is quick and zippy which allows a lot of story to be packed into a 7-minute cartoon. All the animals featured in the story are mute which make Bear’s patiently stoic and forbearing attitude and the other animals’ surprise all the more funny. The story brings out Masha’s mischievous yet lovable character as she is forced to face up to the mess she creates.

One hopes that Bear has learned not to leave Masha by herself in the kitchen again, but given that this episode has been the most popular of the entire series, perhaps the creators can’t resist having Bear forget what happened when he left Masha at home alone … maybe that’ll be another lesson to be reinforced.

Loro: a portrayal of political corruption and debauchery seduced by its own excess

Paolo Sorrentino, “Loro / Them” (2018)

Originally made in two parts totalling three hours, this fictional drama about Italian media magnate and former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, and his circle of business pals, sycophants and hangers-on, was condensed into a 145-minute flick for foreign audiences, which would explain the strange narrative jumps and the shaky narrative itself which initially focuses on young businessman Sergio Morra (Riccardo Scamarcio) eager to ingratiate himself with Berlusconi (Toni Servillo) to gain favours for his clients and ultimately a nice comfortable job with much money and power and little responsibility for himself, and then switches over to Berlusconi and follows him all the way to the end, discarding the young follower and his friends with no explanation as to whether they all achieved what they wanted. A bewildering parade of people, fictional and real, and many of them lasting only a few minutes, pass through Morra and Berlusconi’s lives on screen.

While Servillo is excellent in the role, with his clown-like face masking over a character entirely lacking in integrity and ethics, concerned only with gaining more power and wealth (and to hell with the consequences for Italian politics and democracy, and Italy itself), and is the centre-piece around whom the film revolves, viewers unfortunately will learn very little about how Berlusconi came to be a wealthy media tycoon and how his wealth and connections helped to vault him into the nation’s leadership. What viewers will see is the brash and tawdry life-style Berlusconi led during his reign as top-dog and the people that life-style attracts: the parade of young escort women who will do anything and everything (and more besides) to get close to heady power; the gangster-like bodyguards and minders who surround him; young pimps like Morra who regard Berlusconi as a role model; and the various politicians Berlusconi buys. Berlusconi’s mansions are luxurious if not particularly tasteful and the parties he and Morra throw initially look like a lot of fun but become repetitive and banal. It’s as if, in attempting to detail how debauched and empty Berlusconi’s world is, the film itself ended up being seduced by the debauchery and its gaudy superficiality.

While the film’s focus was on Morra and Berlusconi, at least there was some tension and direction (will Morra get what he desires? will Berlusconi deliver?) but once Morra is literally out of the picture and the focus turns to Berlusconi to the exclusion of everyone else, the film limps through a series of sketches. Only the earthquake in L’Aquila, leaving working-class survivors homeless and destitute, provides the moral backbone that tests Berlusconi’s character and that of Italy itself. While Berlusconi manages to cough up money to rehouse the homeless, the real job of salvaging Italian society and its soul falls to the ordinary people as represented by the firefighters who retrieve a statue of Jesus from the rubble of a destroyed church.

The film does a very good job of portraying the empty and corrupt world of those who have more money than they have the mental faculty to deal with it all but says nothing about how Berlusconi bought and cheated his way into it and corrupted Italian politics and state institutions in the process – nor about the people and organisations, legal and illegal, that helped him along the way.

Perhaps the funniest part of the film is the sketch where Berlusconi, believing himself to have lost his persuasive abilities, thumbs through a phone book and phones an unnamed woman and tries to sell her an expensive piece of real estate: the disgruntled recipient doesn’t fall for the sales pitch. After this sketch, we don’t see this woman any more. Apart from this and other occasional gems, the film’s moral heart looks as shaky and shallow as the world Berlusconi created around himself.

Vice: satirical biopic is as empty as the man it lampoons

Adam McKay, “Vice” (2018)

A rather patchy satirical study of the life of former US Vice-President Dick Cheney, “Vice” shows how an unscrupulous individual can attain and abuse power, and in so doing change the lives of millions for the worse, in ways unimaginable and unforeseen – not only in countries that bore the brunt of American viciousness and brutality, but also at home through policies that enriched a small, already wealthy political elite at the expense of the middle classes, the working classes, and the marginal and impoverished underclasses alike – by achieving a position once thought irrelevant and exploiting its apparent insignificance. The film jumps back and forth between various episodes of Cheney’s life, beginning in 1963 when Cheney (Christian Bale) is charged for the second time in less than twelve months for driving under the influence of drink and is forced by his girlfriend Lynne (Amy Adams) to take stock of his life. From there, the young Cheney buckles down to study: he leaves Yale University, attends a university in Wyoming and manages to obtain five draft deferments when he becomes eligible for the military draft.

His political career starts in 1969 when he becomes intern to Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell) – in real life, he was actually intern to someone else – and from there, he ascends to becoming White House Chief of Staff under President Gerald Ford. Later, after Jimmy Carter becomes US President in 1976, Cheney campaigns to represent Wyoming in the US House of Representatives and wins the seat; he ends up being re-elected five times. He becomes Secretary of Defense under George H W Bush’s term as US President from 1989 to 1993. During Bill Clinton’s tenure as US President (1993 – 2001), Cheney served as CEO of Halliburton, a company that provides services to petroleum exploration and production companies. In 2000, Cheney is approached by George W Bush (Sam Rockwell) to be his running mate in his campaign for the US Presidency. Along his path to the ultimate power-trip – being the eminence grise that makes the decisions for President Dubya while not having to take the responsibility for them – Cheney maintains a cold, calculating mask that reveals nothing of the stony ambition behind it as he exploits Article 2 of the US Constitution (which puts the executive power of government in the role of the President) to the extent that Dubya becomes a de facto monarch and Cheney his vizier.

The film’s style – it’s a mix of documentary (with narration by an unnamed Everyman character), drama and comedy – can be entertaining as well as educational but fails to probe Cheney’s character deeply enough to reveal the inner reptilian hell that drives him all the way to Washington DC and ultimately to the White House. What past traumas, hostilities, injustices and grudges was Cheney nursing, that he was driven to become a power-mad bastard without true feeling or emotion? While Christian Bale is all but immersed in Cheney and basically impersonates him, his preparation for the role and his acting are not served well by the script which hops from one scenario to deal with another fairly briefly and superficially before zipping to yet another. The overall impression viewers are likely to get is a film that crashes through a virtual CV of infamy, selectively emphasising those incidents that make Cheney the villain he is. So zealously does “Vice” pursue this point that it manages to get one thing wrong: the film portrays both Cheney and his wife as hostile towards the LBGTI community and its demands; in reality, both were sympathetic towards gay marriage.

Bale is surrounded by a competent cast ranging from Steve Carell who is on fire as Donald Rumsfeld and Amy Adams doing her Lady Macbeth best on devoted wife Lynne, to Sam Rockwell who all but impersonates Dubya. Other actors pale by comparison, mainly because their characters get little screen time due to the script. Had the script concentrated on fewer highlights (and lowlights) of Dick Cheney’s career, and investigated these in more detail – in particular Cheney’s control of the White House during the attacks on the World Trade Center buildings and the Pentagon, and the hijacking of United Airlines Flight 93 on 11 September 2001 – the film could have shown how Bush, Cheney and various others continued a culture of lying, secrecy and a penchant for vicious violence, preferably carried out by others upon victims in distant lands, with no thought for the consequences that might arise, that not only survives and thrives in the present day but has spread to other nations around the world.

At the end of the film, viewers will not know much more about what made Dick Cheney and the stone that passed for his heart – his heart problems being very much an ongoing joke in the film – than they did at the beginning. Ticking over too many of Cheney’s great moments of vice, and not dealing with them with the depth they need, “Vice” ends up playing too much like a propaganda film made for Democrat-voting audiences who like to consider themselves “progressive” in their views and politics. While the film concedes that the abominable Hillary Clinton as New York state senator supported Dubya’s war on Iraq, it treats other Democrat Presidents like Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama with kid gloves. At the same time the film makes no attempt to understand how rural voters were drawn to the Republicans and how the Republicans exploited the gap between voters in the US heartland states and the urban-based Democrats obsessed with their identity politics.


Normandy Nude: a light-hearted if flat comedy with a message about exploiting people and land for profit

Philippe le Guay, “Normandy Nude / Normandy Nue” (2018)

One of a distinctly French genre of comedy films – Cedric Klapisch’s “Back to Burgundy” is another – in which particular regions of France are highlighted for their rural landscapes, their industries and the cultures and histories associated with them, “Normandy Nude” is a light-hearted comedy that rolls out smoothly and comfortably if a wee bit too slickly. The particular social issues connected to these regions may be highlighted as well, even if in a fairly superficial way. In this film, set in rural Normandy, a village dependent on the dairying and beef production industries is struggling to survive: banks have foreclosed on farmers’ properties, some farmers have committed suicide and the train service to Paris has been cut. The village folk and the farming community have been blockading roads in the hope of gaining local and national media attention but the news media briefly flits over their plight. And then something unexpected happens.

Dairy farmer and long-term mayor Georges Balbuzard, nicknamed Balbu (Francois Cluzet), is approached by a famous American photographer-artist, Newman (Toby Jones) – a character clearly based on US photographer Spencer Tunick, famous for his large-scale photographs of crowds posing naked – and his assistant Bradley (Vincent Regan) who propose to use a local field, Chollet Field, as the backdrop to his next project. Newman wants 200 villagers to feature in the photo: the catch is, they all have to pose nude. Balbu sees Newman’s offer as an ingenious way to gain national publicity for his village so he spends much of the rest of the film trying to persuade the more conservative villagers to participate in the project.

The film is padded out by various sub-plots involving individual villagers and farmers and their various conflicts and secrets that come out into the open by Newman’s proposal: local butcher Roger, married to the curvaceous former Miss Calvados winner Gisele, frets that if his wife participates in the proposal, she will become the cynosure of all lustful men’s eyes and tries to stop her participation; two farmers with claims to Chollet Field nearly end up derailing Newman’s project; a young man returns to the village to close down his father’s photography studio and camera shop and ends up falling in love with local lass Charlotte; a family of Parisian city-slickers who have moved to the area struggle to come to terms with the isolation, the social and religious conservatism, and the allergies caused by local pollen. The local pharmacist disapproves of Newman’s project and complains to regional bureaucrats. With these and other sub-plots, the wonder is that the villagers come to life at all, and indeed most characters remain flat stereotypes. Cluzet at least holds his own as the mostly jovial mayor who bounces from one part of his realm trying to get support for Newman and at least hold back simmering frustrations and enmities enough for the project to succeed.

The film addresses too many topical political and social issues at once in a series of vignettes and skits to be convincing, and its general presentation of these topics, ranging from the destruction of France’s rural industries by a remote European Union bureaucracy and regulations to climate change and the presence of carcinogenic chemical preservatives in beef, is so superficial as to verge on cheap exploitation for laughs. It attempts satire in the treatment of the Parisians who try to ape country traditions. Probably the only issue the film succeeds in delineating to any great extent is whether French assets – the land, the people who populate it, their own bodies even, not to mention their culture and history – can and should be exploited as commodities for profit, and forced to compete with one another for money in the form of government subsidies. The film’s continued treatment of Newman’s project, the village’s response to it and how the villagers deal with their underlying conflicts that the project inadvertently exposes, tells where director Philippe le Guay’s opinion falls. While the film’s conclusion is left open and might dissatisfy most viewers, the message is clear that the villagers have resolved to deal with their most pressing problems in an open-minded way that invites compromise, reconciliation and creativity.