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.

The Seagull (dir. Michael Mayer): a film adaptation of Chekhov’s play lacking good characters and direction

Michael Mayer, “The Seagull” (2018)

Quite why this film adaptation of the famous play by Anton Chekhov couldn’t have been set in the United States in the late 19th or early 20th century, given that the entire cast speaks English with American accents, is strange but the performances are good enough that the notion of Russian characters speaking as they do in English quickly feels normal. As with the play, most of the action takes place in a summer mansion over several days, with the final act occurring two years later, starting off the film and then more or less repeating at the end so that the bulk of the action occurs as a flash-back. Haughty aristocratic actress Irina Arkadina (Annette Bening), a renowned stage performer whose career has seen better and increasingly more distant days, brings her latest lover, the writer Boris Trigorin (Corey Stoll), to her family’s summer house where reside her sickly and aged brother Sorin (Brian Dennehy) and her son Konstantin aka Kostya (Billy Howle), an aspiring playwright whose work is very experimental and highly symbolic. The mansion is managed by a couple, Ilya and Polina (Mare Winningham), whose daughter Masha (Elizabeth Moss) secretly loves Kostya, who is disdainful of her yearnings, as he is more interested in the girl who lives on the estate next door, Nina (Saoirse Ronan) who dreams of becoming a famous actress and who reciprocates Kostya’s affections. If this love triangle were not enough, viewers are treated to young school-teacher Semyon Medvedenko’s love for Masha while her mother Polina is having an affair with Dr Dorn (Jon Tenney).

The film essentially is a character study of a vain and manipulative woman who, for reasons never revealed, forces her son to live an isolated life on her family estate while she revels in fame and celebrity status on the Moscow theatre circuit. The plays she stars in are of a melodramatic kind, popular with the crowds for their superficiality, while Kostya yearns for theatrical renown of a more abstract and perhaps more lasting nature. Perhaps Irina is jealous that she and her world might be usurped by Kostya and the theatrical world he wants to write for, because this futuristic world reminds her of her mortality. As a result, when Kostya tries to stage an experimental play for Irina and her guests, she openly ridicules it and this sets up a tension lasting all the way through the film between mother and son. Torn between his love for his mother, who alternately dotes on him and abuses him, and his mother’s affection for Boris, Kostya weaves dangerously between anger, frustration, depression and suicidal thoughts. This in turn creates problems between him and Nina, while Masha secretly gets drunk to ease the pain of loving someone who will never love her. For her part, Nina becomes enthralled with Boris’ stories about how he copes with fame (which in fact he tells Nina to warn her of the downside of being a celebrity) and becomes infatuated with him. Boris for his part finds himself falling in love with Nina at the same time he still loves Irina.

All these entanglements may be hard for viewers to follow though with the screenplay chopping out large parts of the original play, a number of characters, notably Dr Dorn, become little more than walking wallpaper. Masha becomes a mere pitiable creature taking solace in alcohol and her relationship with Medvedenko becomes taken for granted rather than developed as it should have been as a counterpoint to Irina and Kostya’s own complicated love lives. Kostya and Trigorin come across as rather weak-willed men who don’t seem to learn from their errors or weaknesses, and as a result will always be at the mercy of others more cunning than they; Trigorin is lucky in navigating his affections with Irina and Nina, and one wonders whether he really would have preferred to stay with Nina had not Irina manipulated him into dumping the younger woman. (In Chekhov’s plays, so much of what we’d call action actually takes place away from the stage or between acts.) Kostya is not much more than a whining overgrown brat subject to banging out his temper tantrums on the piano or shooting birds from the sky. The stand-out performances are those of Bening as the wily mother and Ronan as Nina who learns the hard way that acting brings its own pressures and strains, and that fame and glory are fickle and cruel gods to those who do not have outstanding talent or the opportunities to prove their ability. Both Bening and Ronan give of their best but it is not enough to save the film from floundering with mostly one-dimensional characters lacking direction in their lives and who are content or resigned to floating in whichever direction the wind blows.

The clash between the old and the new; between popular if shallow trends in art and art created for its own sake or to interrogate issues that people would rather not discuss; between generations; and between the pursuit of fame and fortune on the one hand and on the other, the grim reality of persisting despite all odds, are all grist for the mill. Characters want to be happy but do not know how to pursue happiness, are afraid of pursuing it or do things that destroy their chances of being happy. A despondent, insular attitude follows the film like a bad smell: Kostya seems incapable of ever leaving the family estate while his mother is still alive and Nina resigns herself to travelling around the Russian empire acting in second-rate troupes for the bemusement of peasants and factory workers. Trigorin is destined to continue churning out fiction pap and acting as Irina’s handbag. Art itself continues to demand much from the various characters psychologically and physically until one person literally can’t take any more.

The isolated lake country setting is a major character in itself in the film but at the same time removes the action almost completely from Moscow, and from significant social, economic and political changes of the period it is set in, that would later sweep away the familiar world of Irina Arkadina and her household and her circle of friends and acquaintances. Indeed, it is this detachment from the real world of an increasingly industrialised Russia, class conflict, a stagnant polity and looming revolution that makes Arkadina and Sorin’s seemingly idyllic little lakeside mansion paradise – populated with flawed, passive characters of mediocre talent and obsessed with unattainable goals – at times stuffy and suffocating.

Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 4: Adam Ruins Dating): everything else except the institution of dating put under the spotlight

Tim Wilkime, “Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 4: Adam Ruins Dating)” (2017)

If ever there were profitable scams preying on people’s insecurities in finding lasting and fulfilling relationships, the ones on offer in this episode of “Adam Ruins Everything” qualify as three of the more outrageous. Our hero Adam Conover turns up to a date with Sarah (Emily Althaus) who’s under the impression that he must be the perfect date for her – even if he strikes her as super-geeky – because the dating website she consulted and which matched her up with Adam used apparently scientific methods and algorithms to do so. As it turns out, dating websites like eHarmony and others are no better than allowing chance to determine whether two strangers matched together will stay together, for the reason that among other things the criteria used (personality characteristics or shared likes and dislikes) are poor, even irrelevant guides to a couple’s compatibility.

Having disabused Sarah of her misconceptions about dating websites, Adam proceeds to demolish the myth of the alpha male – based in part on research done by L David Mech on the social lives of wolves in the 1970s which the scientist later found he could not replicate two decades later and which (to his credit) he disavowed and tried to warn other researchers not to repeat – and the credibility of the Myer-Briggs psychological questionnaire, the related Keirsey Temperament Sorter and other personality tests based on fixed personality stereotypes. Wolves are now known to form family groups consisting of a male-female adult pair accompanied by two sets of offspring, one set older than the younger; the older offspring usually help teach the younger cubs to hunt. Only in very exceptional circumstances (if the animals’ environment has restrictions that don’t permit wolves to roam freely, or the prey species are experiencing a population boom) would wolves form large packs in which the animals observe  strict social hierarchy and bully others. The Myer-Briggs Type Indicator lacks scientific rigour and depends largely on self-reporting questionnaires; in the way it assigns up to 16 personality types to people, it resembles astrology.

The episode is very entertaining with just enough slapstick to hold young viewers’ attention. It can be buffoonish in parts but the breathless pace sweeps scenes out of sight before they become too silly. As in most episodes, Adam’s companion becomes despondent and Adam has to try to cheer her up without becoming too upset himself.

What the episode has no time for, given that it’s only about 25 minutes and has to deal with three more or less unrelated popular myths, is the issue of dating itself and the cultural assumptions and expectations that accompany it. How did dating arise in Western society as an institution and why does Western society regard the notion of two strangers meeting and being swept off their feet emotionally by one another as the best way for love and families to develop? What is implied about the nature of Western society that the institution of dating attracts dodgy schemes and practitioners like dating websites or match-makers of one sort or another to exploit people’s uncertainties and credulity for profit?

BlacKkKlansman: use of race politics demeans the achievement of a black police officer in exposing the Ku Klux Klan’s evil

Spike Lee, “BlacKkKlansman” (2018)

Filmed as a blaxsploitation-styled comedy drama, this work revolves around a real scenario in which a black American police officer in Colorado state actually infiltrates a local branch of the notorious racist organisation the Ku Klux Klan by pretending to be a white man interested in joining the KKK. The characters and much of the plot are based on the memoir written by that police officer, Ron Stallworth (played by John David Washington, son of Denzel Washington). The period during which Stallworth infiltrated the KKK spans the late 1970s and the early 1980s but director Spike Lee places the action in the mid-1970s. Stallworth joins the Colorado Springs police force as a rookie cop and initially works in boring records administration work. He is soon transferred to undercover work and his first job is to attend a student rally where a former Black Panther activist Kwame Ture, formerly Stokely Carmichael (Corey Hawkins) gives an address urging race war. At this rally Stallworth meets Patrice (Laura Harrier), the president of the Black Student Union at Colorado College, and is attracted to her. Their developing romance, in which he hesitates to tell her what he does for a living after she criticises the police as “pigs”, forms a sub-plot to the film.

At work, Stallworth spies a KKK recruitment advertisement in the local newspaper and phones the number . He pretends to be a white man wanting to join the organisation but foolishly gives his real name. Stallworth and a team of other police officers then arrange for a colleague, Phillip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), to act in his stead, meeting members of the local KKK branch and socialising with them under Stallworth’s name. Zimmerman eventually enrolls in the KKK after Stallworth, handling the application to join over the phone, phones KKK Grand Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace) to speed up the admin work, which Duke happily obliges. All seems to be going well except that long-time KKK member Felix (Jasper Pääkkönen) senses that Zimmerman isn’t what he appears to be and starts doing some research on Zimmerman and Ron Stallworth, even visiting Stallworth at home. When not investigating Zimmerman’s “bona fides”, Felix and two other KKK members, chafing at their president’s moderate style of leadership, stalk Patrice after her complaint at being sexually harassed by a racist police officer goes public, find out where she lives and plot to silence her by using Felix’s wife to place a bomb outside a civic rally or her house.

Eventually David Duke comes to Colorado Springs to preside over Zimmerman’s joining ceremony which takes place on the same day the civic rally is scheduled. The police assign Stallworth to protect Duke and soon enough, the action quickens and starts going pow-pow-pow.

Because Lee uses race politics as the all-encompassing prism through which viewers see what happens, reinforced by Lee’s attempts to situate the film within current political / racial tropes portraying US President Donald Trump as racist, “BlacKkKlansman” falls into a stereotypical black-versus-white paradigm that admits no other viewpoints that might complicate the message Lee wants to tell. This means that all characters, especially the KKK members, end up as crude one-dimensional stereotypes that actually demean the work that the real Stallworth did in busting the KKK Colorado chapter. After all, if your enemy is portrayed as a bunch of ignorant hick idiots, the danger it poses seems less than what it would be if the enemy were highly intelligent and sophisticated. The KKK members are obsessed with race purity and recreating their ideal of a prosperous America. There is nothing in the film about the poverty, lack of education and lack of opportunities that these people and their families might have suffered over decades as a result of political corruption and the lack of Federal and State government expenditure on social welfare, health and education in those regions of the US where poverty among both white, black and other communities had been entrenched since the end of the US Civil War and the KKK flourished.

On the other side, the black people among whom Stallworth moves are mostly naive middle class, college-educated youngsters who zealously follow every faddish fashion and idea that smacks of “black power” in the way they dress and do their hair, and generally act as one big mass. The weakest parts of the film are in fact those parts where the black middle class people huddle around leaders and role models (one of them played by Harry Belafonte) and seem to act as one many-headed mass. Is Lee sending up the black middle class, and the culture and the music associated with “black pride” of the early 1970s? Just as troublesome is the film’s emphasis on Zimmerman being Jewish and his being forced to acknowledge his Jewish heritage as a result of having to confront anti-black and anti-Jewish racism in his contacts with the KKK; as if somehow being a lapsed Jewish believer, attending synagogue only during the high holy days perhaps and being indifferent to Jewish rituals the rest of the year, is something to be ashamed of.

The most revealing moment comes when the Black Students Union members, after listening to a talk given by Harry Belafonte’s character about a lynching that occurred in 1916 and an early silent film, “The Birth of A Nation” by D W Griffith, start yelling “Black Power!” and pump their fists in the air, at the same time that the KKK members, having witnessed Zimmerman’s induction into their ranks, watch the same film and start shouting “White Power!”, also pumping their fists in the air. At this point, the film appears to be advocating racial separatism which completely ignores the issue of class as a factor in encouraging race hatred and division. Such racial separatism diverts attention away from forming a united front that can successfully confront and overthrow those political elements that benefit from fragmentation of the body politic on ethnic, religious and other identity-based criteria and keeping it impoverished and oppressed – just as political elites in the southern states of the US and elsewhere used race-based politics to keep white and black people apart, poor and weak when they should have been together and strong. It is significant that David Duke is now on public record as saying that he likes Spike Lee’s work and respects it, which may suggest that Duke himself has not only seen this film but has recognised the unintended parallels in the portrayal of the BSU and the KKK, and seen the naivety of the students as comparable to the stupidity of the KKK members in the film.

The film ends up doing Ron Stallworth and his achievement in penetrating the KKK and exposing its terrorism a grave disservice. The whole story might have been better served filmed as a documentary.

One oddity about “BlacKkKlansman” is that it portrays the Colorado Springs police force as basically benevolent in spite of the odd bad apple or two – even though police forces across the US in recent years have been prominent in several racist incidents and attacks in which people have died. Significantly scenes at the end of the film, focusing on recent incidents in which neo-Nazis and white supremacists / separatists are prominent, fail to include police attacks on anti-racism activists. Might Spike Lee be pulling his punches here and directing people’s anger against racism into channels that divert that anger away from the institutions that most perpetuate racism – like Hollywood?

Tokyo Godfathers: a heart-warming if fussy Christmas movie on the importance of family in assuring survival and resilience

Satoshi Kon, “Tokyo Godfathers” (2003)

No, this ain’t no cult yakuza film – though yakuza types do appear for a short while – but instead this is a heart-warming Christmas anime flick about the importance of family, however unconventionally it’s constituted, in assuring survival and helping to bond people and maintaining hope in that bonding no matter what misfortune life throws at us. Three homeless people – middle-aged alcoholic Gin (Toru Emori), former drag queen performer Hana (Yoshiaki Umegaki) and young teenage runaway Miyuki (Aya Okamoto) are rummaging through garbage bins on Christmas Eve in Tokyo when they spot an abandoned newborn girl. They determine to return the baby, whom they call Kiyoko, to her parents after finding a photograph of her parents and crumpled papers with addresses attached to the little one’s blankets. This idea drives the trio through the streets, often late in the evening when the snow is falling heavily, and into the Tokyo metropolitan subway system. They will nearly come a-cropper at a wedding reception attended by gangsters, Gin will almost lose his life after being beaten by teenage thugs, Hana will briefly be reunited with the transvestites at the club where she used to sing and perform, and Miyuki will reconsider the argument with her father that led to her leaving home; whatever trials the threesome experience individually and collectively in trying to return the baby to her family will strengthen their bonds with one another and, paradoxically, lead them back to their own families. Gin is reunited with own his long-lost daughter and Miyuki unexpectedly meets her police inspector father again after two years while visiting Gin and Hana in hospital at the end of the film. Each of the three characters confronts his or her past demons and by doing so gains new purpose in life and has new respect for his or her travelling companions.

The background animation is beautifully rendered; the snowy cityscapes suggest isolation and alienation yet can be surprisingly calming and not at all threatening. Tokyo is at once a gritty, cold city in which the most surprising things can happen, most of all, a tiny baby who appears in a garbage bin on Christmas Eve and through whom three individuals learn to face their fears and gain redemption. While the city has its narrow lanes, noisty traffic and slums filled with immigrants and homeless who try to survive the best they can, Tokyo is also possessed of a quiet serenity.

The film can be viewed as a character study of three people who through their trials come to appreciate one another deeply and form a real family of people who look out for one another. Gin’s stoic, gruff nature hides a guilt-ridden conscience at having abandoned a wife and small baby girl. Hana deeply yearns to be a mum and to hold his own baby, though he’s somewhat at a loss when his turn to change Kiyoko’s nappy comes all too quickly. Miyuki is haunted by the argument with her father, during which she seized a knife and inflicted damage with it.

For the first half-hour, the film cruises along briskly but as coincidence starts to build upon coincidence, the plot becomes much less plausible than it already is. It becomes very strained and contrived, and plot twist upon plot twist strings out the film for longer than it should. A couple who have lost their own baby girl and whose lives as a result go askew become involved with the baby Kiyoko in a sinister way, yet the resolution of their troubles – depression, suicidal tendencies – is treated superficially. We never learn if the woman in the couple receives proper counselling and treatment.

For a film that pleads compassion for the marginalised in modern society and in which the main characters find real family with one another, and discover their resilience and compassion, the ending in which two characters are reunited with their original families seems unsatisfactory: it suggests that the only “real” families are the traditional nuclear families consisting of a father, mother and children, as dictated by a society that for one reason or another spurns its homeless and others who do not conform to its dictates.

Evil under the Sun: a minor crime caper classic portraying a self-contained, self-absorbed world of the rich at play

Guy Hamilton, “Evil under the Sun” (1981)

Even when he’s holidaying in an apparently perfect little Mediterranean paradise where the sky is always celestial blue and the sea is turquoise serene, Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (Peter Ustinov) is followed by murder most brutal and intriguing. In this 1981 adaptation of the 1940 Agatha Christie novel, the setting moves from Devon in England to the exotic Adriatic locale of Tyrania where the former mistress of the King of Tyrania, Daphne Castle (Maggie Smith), runs a hotel that accepts English guests on a picturesque little island. Here, Poirot has been invited by millionaire Horace Blatt (Colin Blakely) to stay for a while after the detective examined a diamond returned to Blakely by his former girlfriend, actress / singer Arlena Marshall (Diana Rigg) and declared it a fake; Blakely knows that Arlena is coming to the island with her husband Kenneth (Denis Quilley) and his daughter Linda (Emily Hone) and he wants Poirot close by when he confronts Arlena with the fake. Also arriving on the island is a young couple, Patrick Redfern (Nicolas Clay) and his meek, downtrodden wife Christine (Jane Birkin): they have come at the personal invitation of Arlena. Other guests present who also know Arlena are the Gardeners (James Mason and Sylvia Miles) who were nearly financially ruined when Arlena walked out of a play they were producing; and Rex Brewster (Roddy McDowall) who is writing a tell-all biography of the actress. Once everyone has arrived, Arlena proceeds to annoy them all by flirting outrageously with Patrick, abusing her stepdaughter, arguing with Horace over the diamond and threatening Rex if he continues to write the biography. The rivalry between Arlena and Daphne, dormant since their days together as dancers and actresses in a chorus line, revs up with both women trading spiteful looks and venomous barbs even as they entertain guests in an impromptu performance of the Cole Porter song “You’re the Top”.

It’s no surprise to viewers then that a couple of days after the Marshalls’ arrival at the resort that Arlena turns up very dead on the beach yet all the guests and the hotel staff have water-tight alibis. Daphne appeals to Poirot to solve the murder quickly with the minimum of fuss and inconvenience before news gets out beyond the island. Poirot accepts the challenge and goes about interviewing everyone, noting down the details of what they say, piecing the clues together and coming up with an astonishing explanation that not only solves the mystery of who murdered Arlena but also resolves an earlier unsolved mystery of the murder of a woman killed in Yorkshire.

The film is noted for its light-hearted tone, its ensemble cast who represent some of the finest British actors of their time (and who also appear to have enjoyed working together and over-acting their parts) and the attention given to recreating the pre-Second World War holiday world of rich and privileged British tourists in their costumes, their pastimes and the popular music of the era. Its highlight is the scene in which Maggie Smith and Diana Rigg hoof it up with their rendition of “You’re the Top”, all the while shooting each other evil looks and Smith flinging her scarf “accidentally” all over Rigg in a smooth action that must have been done in one perfect take. Alas, that such encounters between the two actresses are few and far between, and once Rigg is out of the film at its halfway point, some of the early electricity fades away.

The intriguing part about “Evil …” is its obsession with maintaining order and an image of the English as an imperturbable, stiff upper-lipped folk: the reality is that emotion, greed, selfishness and desire for vengeance leading to tragedy are never far below the cool and calm surface sheen. Poirot plays his part in shoring up that false image though one has the impression he sees through that mask; it is only his own personal desire for orderliness and holding back the forces of chaos and irrationality that pushes him to uphold that image again and again and again. Thanks to him, wrongs are set right and for a brief time order reigns again – but Poirot well knows that reign will be temporary and he will have to battle evil again. The change in setting from England to a secluded and self-contained holiday resort on a fictional Mediterranean island (the film was made in Majorca, in Spain), cut off from the rest of the world, highlights the contrast between the glamorous surface appearance of rich people at play and the subterranean tensions within them.

For this reason as well as the others mentioned above – in particular, the recreation of a world now lost, and which the British are attempting to restore,  in their culture and through their propaganda, and failing badly – “Evil under the Sun” is to be regarded as a minor crime caper classic.

Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 2: Adam Ruins Weight Loss): tackling the symptoms, not the problem behind losing weight

Matthew Pollock, “Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 2: Adam Ruins Weight Loss)” (2017)

A very timely episode in the second season of the educational comedy documentary series “Adam Ruins Everything”, this one applies the hatchet quite severely (even if in a light-hearted way) to popular misconceptions about the best way to lose weight and to keep it off, and how governments, media and corporations collude to profit from people’s concerns and anguish about losing weight, dieting and exercise, and maintaining low body weight. Tackling three major myths, host Adam Conover reveals that low-fat diets can make people fatter, that counting calories is a waste of time and reveals misunderstanding about what calories measure, and that reality TV shows like “The Biggest Loser”, in which contestants undergo gruelling exercise regimes in boot-camp environments, actually don’t help the people who participate in them.

Perhaps the most informative segment is the first segment in which Conover reveals that beliefs that eating fat will lead to your being fat are based on bad and deceitful science, and that the consumption of low-fat foods and beverages is the culprit because these are usually laden with sugar. Removing fat from food results in it becoming bland in taste so companies compensate by adding large amounts of sugar. A scientist in the 1960s – 70s who tried to alert governments and their agencies, the news media and the public to his findings that sugar was to blame for increasing weight gain in Americans ended up being persecuted by the food industry and being ultimately shunned. What happened to him after his virtual ostracism is unknown. His work languished in obscurity until it was revived decades later after researchers began to discover links between sugar consumption and health conditions such as heart disease and obesity.

Counting calories gets a shellacking as individual people vary greatly in their daily calories requirements and there is no one generic ideal figure that people can adhere to as the level below which they can feel safe and keep their weight down. Even individual pieces of the same food and in the same or similar sizes can contain different levels of calories. Reality TV shows come in for criticism for preying on people’s insecurities about their weight and making spurious promises about helping people to lose huge amounts of weight quickly and to keep it all off.

While the slapstick is very silly and childish, the episode does a good job of presenting its three cases. To counter the silliness, an expert on weight loss and obesity, Dr Kevin Hall, comes on board to explain that, of 14 “The Biggest Loser” contestants he studied, 80% regained their lost weight. Of even more concern is that many of them will have difficulty losing weight again and may even gain more weight since rapid weight loss disrupts their metabolism to the extent that excess weight can only be kept off on a regimen of intense, strenuous exercise and an equally abstemious diet for the rest of their lives: a life-style they are unlikely or unable to maintain if they have to work and raise families as well.

The episode might have done more to demonstrate how corporations and governments collude in misleading people to believe myths about dieting, exercising and losing weight that result more in their wallets and purses losing money than in their actually losing weight. These misconceptions can be harmful to people’s long-term health, causing chronic health problems such as obesity and diabetes, and imposing heavy costs on people, their families and society generally in the treatment of these conditions. It’s really not enough for Conover and the show’s makers to try to reassure viewers that making small changes can lead in the long run to better health and happiness if they ignore the power of the media and advertising to manipulate people’s insecurities about their bodies and their weight.

Ten Canoes: morality tale, comedy and demonstration of traditional Yolngu values, beliefs and worldview rolled into one

Rolf de Heer and Peter Djigirr, “Ten Canoes” (2006)

An engrossing story of another story, “Ten Canoes” acts as both a morality tale and an ingenious exposition of the values and beliefs of an Aboriginal community in Arnhem Land, in northern Australia. Like good stories, “Ten Canoes” aims to entertain as well as educate on different levels: as a story about a story, it teaches the value of patience, it contains an interesting twist and warning, and it demonstrates something of how the Yolngu people interpret past, present and future time, and how the passage or flow of time is not necessarily linear in the way Westerners experience time. The role of story-telling in an oral culture like the Yolngu culture goes far beyond simply repeating a story one might have heard as a child and passing it on to the next generation: it may be shaped, changed and improvised on to fit the story-teller’s aims; its narration takes time – maybe a lot of time, as in several days, even weeks – and certain things may have to happen first before the next chapter of the story can be told; and while the story appears to be simple to follow, its message/s may be profound and complex.

The story-about-a-story is narrated by David Gulpilil whose son Jamie appears also as two characters, Dayindi and Yeeralparil. Dayindi is one of ten men on a hunting expedition to find geese and their eggs for their community. The leader of the expedition, Minygululu (Peter Minygululu), is Dayindi’s much older brother who has three wives, the third of whom is a beautiful young girl who has caught Dayindi’s eye. Minygululu is aware of Dayindi’s interest in his wife so during the expedition he tells the younger man a story of another young man much like Dayindi and known as Yeeralparil, who lived in Yolngu country thousands of years ago.

Like Dayindi, Yeeralparil has an older brother, Ridjimiraril (Crusoe Kurddal), who also has three wives, of whom the youngest wife has caught Yeeralparil’s eye. Ridjimiraril is a much respected hunter in the community. One day, a stranger comes from the stone country beyond the rainforest where the Yolngu live and his arrival is interpreted by the resident Yolngu sorcerer (for want of a better term) as portending trouble. While the Yolngu people allow visiting rights to the stranger, Ridjimiraril’s second wife mysteriously disappears. Ridjimiraril believes the stranger has abducted her for his own and the angry hunter kills a man from the stranger’s tribe, mistaking him for the stranger. The stranger’s tribe demands payback to avoid war and Ridjimiraril submits. After the necessary ritual is performed, Yeeralparil not only gets what he wished for but extra responsibilities result as well, and he realises that from then on his life is going to be one endless hassle after another.

Enough of the Yolngu’s traditional customs and law are explained where necessary and relevant, and viewers see how law and tradition are used to avoid unnecessary and unwanted conflict, violence leading to more violence, and bitterness and resentment. David Gulpilil plays a significant role as narrator, spicing up his telling with humour and playfulness, and insinuating that, like Minygululu, this story-of-a-story needs to take its own time in unfolding and is dependent on listeners’ own willingness and receptiveness to its lessons. In amongst the story-telling, Minygululu, Dayinde and their eight companions prepare bark canoes to travel out onto the rivers and swamps to find and hunt the geese and look for their eggs.

Various characters engage in idle chit-chat and tell one another earthy jokes about turds and flatulence. One character, the jolly elder Birrinbirrin (Richard Birrinbirrin), is obsessed with finding his next honey hit. Wives scold their husbands, gossip about people who might be having affairs and occasionally squabble over petty matters. Men make plans about where they’ll hunt or when the right moment comes to go on the warpath. All this action takes place within a worldview which regards time as circular, in which humans begin their existence as tadpoles in waterholes and return to the exact same waterholes as tadpoles when they die. Within this paradigm, people must learn to let nature take its course, to be patient and to accept what nature gives to them.

The cinematography is well done, emphasising the nature of the country where the Yolngu people live and how it is a significant character in the film in its own right. Colours fade from colour to black-and-white but not in the way audiences might expect: the fading is done to show how concepts of the past, the present and the future mean little to a people for whom the past is very much alive and from which important lessons can and should be learned and heeded.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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