The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie: mocking the middle classes for their hypocrisy, sense of entitlement and shallow values

Luis Buñuel, “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie / Le Charme Discret de la Bourgeoisie” (1972)

This comedy-of-manners film about six people who constantly make arrangements to have dinner together but never really succeed in doing so thanks to random coincidences, misunderstandings and their own faults and misdeeds is a vehicle for director Buñuel to mock the French middle class for its hypocrisies, empty rituals and shallow values in which style and surface sheen triumph over seedy and sterile substance. The narrative relies on a repeating social ritual – three couples from the upper middle class trying to meet for dinner several times and failing every time in different ways – so that the film becomes no more than a series of absurdist Pythonesque comedy sketches. Initially the film is bright and straightforward as the dinner guests meet but as the movie continues, it becomes increasingly darker, unsettling, paranoiac, and ends up being trapped in banality and trivia, reflecting the sordid nature of its main characters and the society they move in.

The ensemble cast (Stéphane Audran, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Paul Frankeur, Bulle Ogier, Fernando Rey, Delphine Seyrig) acquits itself speedily and efficiently if blandly; they represent particular aspects of the French bourgeoisie that Buñuel found especially irksome or ripe for satire. Audran and Cassel’s married couple snub a man dressed as a working-class gardener and turn him away, but when he returns dressed in his bishop’s garb, they fawn and grovel before him. Seyrig and Frankeur may look like the perfect married couple but Seyrig’s character is secretly having an affair with Rey’s ambassador of the Republic of Miranda. The ambassador is highly regarded in French polite society but on the side he is running a cocaine ring with Frankeur and Cassel’s characters, and he deals with a would-be student Marxist rebel assassin by arranging for her to be kidnapped and “disappeared”. We learn much more about the kind of corrupt Third World hell-hole that the Republic of Miranda is in someone’s nightmare in which a cocktail party given by an army colonel goes disastrously wrong.

Buñuel can’t resist taking pot-shots at the Roman Catholic Church by including a sub-plot (which might not sit easily with viewers) in which a kindly priest hears a confession from a dying man. The aged man confesses that, decades ago, he murdered a couple and left their child an orphan. The priest then reveals to the man that he was that orphan. Nevertheless he forgives the man his sins on the authority of God and Christ Jesus … then calmly walks over to where a loaded rifle is resting against a wall. While this sub-plot is an amusing comment on the hypocrisy of the RCC and shows that the priest is human after all, it adds very little to the overall narrative.

There are other gags in the film that have no bearing on the narrative other than to poke fun at authority generally and authority figures in particular. Two soldiers talk about their childhood or their dream of death, and two police officers chat about how their superior tortured a student prisoner and ended up assassinated. Frequently the gags take the form of dreams and dreams within dreams, to the extent that the second half of the film all but groans with them and the thin line between fantasy and reality disappears. From this point on, the film becomes very repetitive and turns on trivia and banality, for good reason: the dreams that the dinner guests and various others have reveal their fears and neuroses, their selfishness and lack of care and consideration for others, and ultimately their thuggishness, all hidden under a veneer of discretion and politeness.

There are many highlights in the film but probably the best ones are the cocktail party scene during which the ambassador tries in vain to fend off uncomfortable questions about his country’s corruption, high crime rate and harbouring of Nazi war criminals, and an earlier scene in which a bunch of soldiers talk about smoking marijuana and our drug-running dinner guests then express disgust at the prevalence of marijuana use in the army. The scene in which the dinner guests sit down at a table, only to be exposed to an opera audience who boo at them, is a surreal high point that suggests these characters cannot withstand open scrutiny and crumple up easily if their crimes and peccadilloes were to be exposed publicly.

The film’s technical qualities are highly commended; the presentation is bright and realist, hiding the fact that this is an absurdist film in which dreams seem more real than reality. The soundtrack is important too, with background white noise coming to the fore at critical moments when characters are talking to one another. Randomness as a long-running motif plays a significant role in advancing the narrative and its repetitions.

At the end of the film, the dinner guests are still wandering about in their quest for the perfect dinner party and it’s at this point that one questions whether, for all their wealth, power and influence over elites, that they can get out of jail with impunity, these unhappy people have much free will when their desires are constantly frustrated due to their own indulgent flaws and stupidity, their obsession with a false social propriety, and things happening out of the blue as a consequence of past decisions they made or of their thoughtlessness and belief that they are special and deserving of aristocratic privilege. One almost feels pity for these people who seem to be permanently trapped in an invisible hell of their own making. The ambassador’s dream about himself and his friends being mown down by a bunch of terrorists and someone else’s earlier dream about the six being imprisoned for drug-running offences suggest that there are forces gradually and relentlessly closing in on the dinner guests and their world, and that they will get their comeuppance. Only then might they discover freedom.

The Phantom of Liberty: a snapshot of modern life where social conventions and hypocrisy limit personal freedom and responsibility

Luis Buñuel, “The Phantom of Liberty / Le Fantôme de la Liberté” (1974)

This film might be seen as a snapshot in the life of modern France as it appeared to  Luis Buñuel, with all its bourgeois hypocrisies and contradictions. “The Phantom of Liberty” is a string of loosely linked episodes and sight-gags that celebrate chance and randomness while mocking social institutions, conventional behaviours and etiquette, and taboos such as necrophilia, sadomasochism, incest and paedophilia. For this film, Bunuel assembled an ensemble cast in which no one actor stands out – though I did recognise Michel Lonsdale from an old James Bond movie of years past – and everyone plays his or her part perfectly with completely straight faces.

The film’s loose narrative wends its way smoothly from one tableau to the next. A stranger offers photographs to two young girls in a public playground and the kiddies promptly hand them over to their parents who are shocked at the pictures – which turn out to be scenes of famous architecture around the world. The children’s father then visits his doctor about strange dreams he’s had and offers a letter given him in one dream as proof. The doctor’s nurse excuses herself to drive into the countryside to visit a sick father; on the way she stops at an inn where some Carmelite monks offer prayers for the elderly man and then hang around in her room playing cards, drinking alcohol and smoking excessively as though they were Mafia gangsters. Next day the nurse gives a lift to a police academy lecturer who later has to deal with a class of unruly gendarmes behaving like bored high school students. The lecturer drones on about the relativity of laws and customs, and recounts the time he went to a dinner party where all the guests sat on toilets around the dinner table and hungry people retire to private rooms to eat meals. Later on in the film, a sniper kills various people around Paris, is arrested and tried for murder, and sentenced to death; he leaves the courtroom by himself and signs autographs for eager women. A couple report the disappearance of their daughter to the police and the police treat the couple’s statements seriously – all while the child is in plain sight of everyone at the police station.

The film forces people to think very deeply about how much influence social conventions and expectations, coincidence and chance have on our minds and behaviour, and thus how they and their interactions limit our ability to think and act freely, and in some situations to act morally (even though our minds might rebel at having to act immorally). Particular scenes show how the things we take for granted can be bizarre if they are reversed, as in the scene where the dinner guests sit on the toilets while talking crap at the table yet have to eat in private. A very humorous and quite creepy scene in which a police commissioner is caught desecrating his family burial vault to find an apparently revenant sister and brought before another man in his job, and the two of them then discussing and carrying out an attack on political activists noisily campaigning against democracy, has the power to chill. This scene suggests that the functions of a job (in this case, that of a police commissioner), its status within a hierarchy and the attendant reputation and traditions reduce complex individuals to mere cogs in a machine. All the comedy sketches, no matter how far-fetched they are, are plausible in some way: the police can be just as disorderly and unruly as the crooks they apprehend (largely because police and crooks are members of the same society after all, and were it not for some chance occurrence, a police officer could have ended up on the wrong side of the law) and the sketch with the girl trying to convince her parents and the police that she has not disappeared may tell us something profound about how children are often ignored by adults. Social taboos like incest and young men falling in love with elderly women may be played for laughs yet at the same time force people to question the nature of these taboos, why they exist and how they are perpetuated.

The movie moves at a fast pace and the characters are drawn in such a way that they clearly represent social or occupational stereotypes. The cinematography is beautifully done in a way that makes the various sub-plots look like moving tableaux. The direction is deft and flows very smoothly: this is important for a film where there’s no clear traditional story-telling narrative and chance incidents linking two sub-plots must not look contrived.

Charlie’s Country: a portrait of a man and his community in search of belonging and identity

Rolf de Heer, “Charlie’s Country” (2013)

A sad and compassionate film of a man’s search for identity and belonging, “Charlie’s Country” originated as a vehicle around lead actor David Gulpilil’s talents and experiences as an Aboriginal man living and passing between indigenous Australian society and Anglo-Australian society. In its minimalist presentation, the film is layered in its depiction of how Aboriginal people at the Top End (Darwin and surrounding areas) often live and the ways in which Anglo-Australian society through its representatives and institutions unthinkingly and insensitively creates problems for these people in their attempts to live either traditionally, in white society or in some combination of the two. The film’s style, reliant on long takes of Gulpilil close up and with sparse dialogue, is very poignant and does a far better job of expressing emotion and deep feeling than one with more talk and fewer striking visual scenes.

Charlie (Gulpilil) is an elder in his Yolngu community who is becoming increasingly disenchanted with life in his tribal community. The period is during the time of the Northern Territory Emergency Response Act aka the Intervention of the early 2000s. Young people are estranged from their traditions and express little interest in living the way their ancestors did. There is no work to be had in their community and everyone lives on government handouts and unhealthy junk food. Few people express dissatisfaction with their dreary lives. Charlie goes off with a pal to hunt and shoot a buffalo (so they can provide their people with fresh meat) but their prize is confiscated by police when the coppers discover the two men do not have licences for their gun and rifle. The two protest but the laws concerning gun ownership have changed to become harsher and more punitive.

Fed up with the white police and his own people’s apathy, Charlie decides to leave his community and hunt, fish and live as his ancestors did. For a few days he is happy but then the tropical rains come and, no longer in good health thanks to years of smoking ganja, he falls ill with pneumonia. In the nick of time, his friends find him and the police arrange for him to be hospitalised in Darwin. In the hospital, he is reacquainted with an old buddy who eventually passes away from kidney failure. Grief-stricken and fearing for his own life, Charlie escapes from hospital into the streets of Darwin and promptly falls in with a group of alcohol-addicted Aboriginal people. He shares his money (earned from helping police track escaped criminals in the bush) and buys alcohol for the group but the police chase him down and he is tried, convicted and sent to jail for buying and giving grog to people banned from drinking, and for resisting police arrest. Jail is a disheartening and dreary experience but a young counsellor finds Charlie a dry community to serve out his time.

The first half of the film is basically expository, establishing Charlie’s complex relationship to the police – it is sometimes joking, sometimes a little hostile – and does a good job of fleshing out Charlie’s character. Charlie is sometimes dignified, outspoken, not a little rebellious and often quite funny in a sad way. He manages to be knowledgeable about many things yet remains something of a naif. Audiences see the conditions in which Charlie’s community ekes out an existence; the extent to which white people control Aboriginal people’s lives (to the point of feeding them deep-fried garbage that makes them sick over the long term) is alarming. The whitefella rules under which Aboriginal people must live are often contradictory and force them into a culture of apathy and unhealthy passivity.

The second half of the film deals with Charlie’s odyssey in Darwin and is filled with stereotypes about Aboriginal people in urban settings. It’s as if whatever Charlie can do wrong or go wrong, the incident then happens (with or without Charlie’s participation). The plot is forced: how does the Aboriginal woman in Darwin know where to find Charlie and take him to her fellow drunks? How do two elders find Charlie among the drunks and warn him of the dangers of alcohol? The film deals with Charlie’s dilemmas gracefully and without judgement, and Charlie is eventually reunited with his people. A new creative opportunity arises that uses Charlie’s skills as a dancer and which finally allows him to find his own niche within his community that is creative, and the film ends on a happy note. Yet this part of the film seems much weaker than the earlier half and the resolution of Charlie’s earlier unhappiness a bit too pat. He may be happy teaching dancing and painting to younger people and warning them against the demon drink, but artistic activities and avoiding alcohol and imprisonment will not solve the community’s problems of unemployment and being controlled by Federal and Territorian governments through handouts, policing and punitive laws.

Apart from Charlie who completely dominates the film, other characters are little more than stereotypes. Most actors in the film had no training as actors yet their performances are sincere. The film does a good job though showing that the white people who interact with Charlie themselves are also struggling with a system (which they don’t necessarily understand) that treats them as cyphers and cogs at the same time that it is unsympathetic towards Charlie’s community.

With the powerful themes and messages about belonging and how people cope with an inhumane capitalist system that oppresses and separates white and black people alike, “Charlie’s Country” inevitably comes to a resolution that seems quite thin and insubstantial. Charlie may have found a creative outlet that gives him opportunities to let off steam and help the children in his community, but how long that will pass, and whether whitefella laws will let it continue or nip it in the bud, is hard to predict. Nevertheless this is a very moving if at times quite biting and comic film.

The Big Short: a crash course into the causes and toxic culture of the 2008 Global Financial Crisis

Adam McKay, “The Big Short” (2015)

How do you tell the story behind the sub-prime mortgage crisis and the massive housing bubble that led to the Global Financial Crisis of 2008, with the attendant collapse of giant global investment banks Lehmann Brothers and Bear Stearns, in a way that the general public can understand? Adam McKay shows one way how this can be done with a fictionalised comedy-drama with documentary-genre elements based on finance journalist Michael Lewis’ non-fiction book “The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine”. Following the fortunes of various characters (all based on real-life people) who believe that the US national housing market is unstable and heading for a massive collapse, and who try to profit from that instability, the film cleverly combines a fast-paced narrative from the viewpoint of several hedge fund traders who represent different character stereotypes with brief excursions into financial education for bemused viewers and a sometimes critical view of American contemporary culture and how it is driven by greed and a desire for instant gratification, cynicism and the kinds of social, political and economic institutions that enable a few individuals and corporations to exploit the American public and the basic need for housing.

The film’s narrative presents through three parallel sub-plots. In 2004, doctor-turned-fund manager Michael Burry (Christian Bale) realises from his analyses of US financial markets that hundreds, possibly thousands, of housing loans sold to people with dubious credit records by banks have been packaged into investment vehicles and then sold to investors such as pension and superannuation funds. He predicts that the sub-prime housing loan market will collapse in 2007 and realises he can make huge profits by creating a credit swaps default market. He persuades various large banks to back him on his proposal and they do so, thinking what a deluded fool he is. His investors are alarmed but go along with his idea nevertheless. As time goes by, Burry’s investment looks more and more foolish and his investors nearly threaten to rebel (so he clamps a moratorium on their withdrawals) but eventually his prediction turns out to be right and he and his investors walk away with 489% profits!

A subprime mortgage bond manager, Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) hears about Burry’s gamble and realises he too can benefit so he gains the backing of hedge fund manager Mark Baum (Steve Carell) who, though sceptical of Vennett’s scheme for its cynical moral duplicity, goes along with the idea. To assuage his conscience, Baum sends his employees to check out the homes of some of the people who have bought the dodgy housing loans that have been repackaged; the employees discover large empty kitsch mansions, left behind to rot by people who cannot pay back their loans, and talk to one man whose landlord is someone’s pet dog. Baum then talks to two young brokers who boast that they have made millions selling bad loans to migrants and poor people who have no hope of ever paying back their loans. In one memorable scene, he visits a representative of Standard and Poors rating agency who tells him that her boss issues triple A ratings to large banks because if S&P doesn’t, then they’ll just mosey down the road to rival agency Moody’s who will.

The third sub-plot focuses on two young money managers Charlie (John Magaro) and Jamie (Finn Wittrock) who built up their own hedge fund as student working out of a garage and who also tack their sails into the wind behind Burry and Baum. They enlist the help of retired banker Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) to make the deals they hope to profit from but Rickert reminds them that thousands of families across America and perhaps beyond will be devastated by their actions. Chastened, the two young men attempt to tip off a financial newspaper about the coming housing collapse but the paper is not interested.

For its two-hour running time the film is engrossing despite the unevenness of its plot. The sub-plot featuring Charlie and Jamie is not quite plausible and the about-face they experience is hard to take seriously. At the very least these two hot-heads come over as shallow and one has to question whether they seriously understand that the industry they are working in is corrupt. Pitt’s detached portrayal as Rickert is troubling and there’s no sense that the character genuinely cares that his two proteges are careening towards the edge of a cliff leading into a gigantic abyss.

The stand-out performances of the film belong to Bale and Carell out of a cast whose overall acting is above average. All actors involved were clearly committed to this film even if individual performances are sometimes uneven. Significantly Brad Pitt helped to produce the film. Bale does a great job playing the eccentric Burry and Carell dominates all his scenes as the morally conflicted Baum who, against his better instincts, follows Vennett into his particular vale of darkness. At no point during his hedge fund’s various shenanigans does Baum consider pulling the plug on the deal-making and marching to the Feds to report the investment banks’ fraudulent activities when he realises the extent to which Federal law and regulations are being broken on a regular basis.

Hilarious cameo performances by Margot Robbie, celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain in an inspired Masterchef-style class and Selena Gomez help break up the tension in the film and provide good laughs along with a crash-course in financial education by explaining how investor herd mentality can lead to unstable financial markets and why banks initially thought bundling bad mortgages with good mortgages and flogging the packages to pension funds was a great idea. At the same time, these little mini-documentaries are satirical jabs mocking people’s obsessions with sex, food and money, and the short attention spans encouraged by modern consumer culture.

The film does a fairly good job of emphasising the moral rottenness of American society at its most cynical and self-interested, and shows something of the impact of the sub-prime mortgage blow-out crisis on ordinary people as the man paying rent to someone’s pet dog is forced with his wife and children to live in a van by the film’s end. What it also does well is show how people within the financial industry realised what was going to happen but were either resigned to it or, worse, decided to profit from the looming apocalypse. All the various characters we follow through their respective sub-plots are intelligent and become aware at some point in the film that the industry they work in is corrupt to the bone, yet either they are unable to help themselves out of the morass or try to extract whatever they can or run off before everything blows over and takes them down.

The film ends on a bleak note: the finance industry may have taken a heavy blow, and thousands of its worker bees may have ended up in long dole queues, but thanks to an $800 million bail-out by the US government it continues its merry way towards another, even bigger financial crash. While the film-makers criticise the culture that led to the 2008 GFC, they basically do not question neoliberal capitalist ideology or suggest an alternative to the dysfunctional financial industry and its toxic culture and values.

The Great Dictator: using comedy and drama, silent film and talking picture to confront fascism

Charles Chaplin, “The Great Dictator” (1940)

It’s over-long and the slapstick comedy is laid on very thickly but film legend Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator” is daring political satire for its period, especially when one considers that at the time as now Hollywood generally shied away from taking a stand for ordinary people against those who would oppress them. Chaplin takes pot shots at war film propaganda, dictatorships (and Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini in particular), revolutionaries and political authority in turns, and is clearly on the side of ordinary people against those who would oppress them. The actor / director / screenwriter plays two roles in the film reflecting the divide between repressive authority and humble worker bee.

An everyday man, unnamed but conventionally known as the Jewish barber (Chaplin), recovers from a 20-year amnesia brought on by injuries incurred during his time as a soldier with the Tomanian army in the Great War (1914 – 1918). While he has been in hospital, Tomania has suffered economic and political instability resulting in a putsch that brings Adenoid Hynkel (Chaplin again) to power. The barber tries to return to his former job in the Jewish ghetto he calls home but the community is under constant harassment from storm-troopers. With the help of local girl Hannah (Paulette Goddard), the barber evades the storm-troopers and re-establishes his business but due to the past amnesia, he’s not easily intimidated by the security forces and he keeps getting into trouble with them. At one point in the film, he falls in with a bunch of revolutionaries planning to get rid of Hynkel but their plot to assassinate the leader fails before it even has a chance to go into action.

Running parallel with the story of the barber is a sub-plot centred around Hynkel in which he luxuriates in megalomania, plotting to take over the world and having to entertain the equally insufferable Mussolini figure Napaloni (Jack Oakie), the dictator of Bacteria. The subplot is basically an excuse for Chaplin to make fun of the real-life Hitler by exaggerating the man’s quirks and tempestuous tirades; the buffoonery is overdone and sometimes tiresome, to say nothing of the way in which the German language suffers undeserved humiliation and Italian-American people suffer stereotyping. A highlight of this subplot is the silent scene in which Hynkel, completely wrapped in fantasy, balances and plays with a globe, only for it to burst like an ordinary balloon. The symbolism and message behind this scene are priceless.

Flitting between being a talking picture and silent movie, the transitions are not always smooth and the film itself is uneven. Audiences of the time expecting straight-out comedy might have been puzzled by the switching from comedy to drama and back again, especially in the film’s later montage sequences where storm-troopers burst into the Jewish ghetto and start beating up people. The plot is thin and consists of linked comedy skits with only the barest connections between them. At times both plot and sub-plot seem to be hunting around for ideas that might refresh them with opportunities for more buffoonery. Major characters like Goddard’s Hannah are not well developed and serve as mouthpieces for Chaplin’s political messages of unity, tolerance and democracy.

The film’s main highlights are Chaplin’s acting which often shows surprising depth and intelligence beneath the slapstick and the character stereotyping; the near-ballet scene with the globe; two separate scenes in barbershops; and the climax in which, mistaken for the dictator Hynkel, the barber delivers a speech that at once pleads for universal love, tolerance, equality and brotherhood, and damns the capitalist structures and institutions that turn people into cogs in a cold-blooded machine system. (Significantly after the film’s release, the US government began to follow and scrutinise Chaplin’s career and political beliefs more closely, and FBI director Herbert Hoover used Chaplin’s beliefs and the various personal scandals that dogged the actor against him in a smear campaign that damaged Chaplin’s career.) Oakie chews the scenery as Napaloni and his scenes with Chaplin poke fun at megalomania and the petty arrogance of dictators and autocrats generally.

The real worth of the film lies in Chaplin’s deft use as actor, writer and director of both comedy and drama, using the techniques of silent and talking-picture film-making, to confront and criticise fascism, at a time when American society’s reaction to fascist governments was to ignore it (or work with it secretly), and to support ordinary people in their resistance against oppressive governments. At the time the film was made, Chaplin did not know of the horrors (because most of them were yet to come) of Nazi Germany’s persecution of Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, physically and mentally handicapped people, Soviet POWs and others in its network of concentration camps in eastern Europe.

Kakekomi: historical soap opera drama labouring under several sub-plots to tackle serious social issues

Masato Harada, “Kakekomi Onna to Kakedashi Otoko” (2015)

A light-hearted historical drama set in Japan during the early 1840s, “Kakekomi …” combines comedy with some social criticism of contemporary Japan’s economic austerity policies and their effects on more vulnerable members of society. Based on a novel “Tokeiji Hanayadori” by Hisashi Inoue, the film’s plot revolves around the plight of women who desire to escape unhappy or dysfunctional marriages to abusive and violent men. Jogo (Erika Toda) is a young working-class woman who flees her slave-driver husband’s iron foundry when she hears of the Buddhist temple at Tokeiji which takes in women wishing to leave their marriages on the condition that they spend two years working on tasks set for them by the monks and nuns there. On her way to Tokeiji, Toda meets O-gin (Hikari Mitsushima), a courtesan who has left a rich merchant and who is also on her way to Tokeiji. They enter the temple together and under the kindly yet watchful supervision of motherly Genbei and the head nun commence their 24-month working stint. Being of the lower social orders, Toda performs the more menial tasks while O-gin, who had offered to pay for Toda to undertake sewing, is shoved into working at less physical and more refined (though no less onerous) tasks. They are soon joined by Yu (Rina Uchiyama), a woman of the samurai classes who has fled her alcoholic and violent husband and who intends to avenge her dead father, killed by hubby. (What a lovely fellow.)

Tokeiji temple relies a great deal on its doctor Shinjiro Nakamura (Yo Oizumi) who nurses a desire to become a published writer and who provides much comedy relief in sticky situations where he bluffs his way through with clever wit and brazen bravado. And sticky situations come, one after the other: O-gin sickens from terminal tuberculosis and another woman suffers from a false pregnancy. Shinjiro must treat both patients without looking at them under temple rules. Yu’s husband threatens to come and kill her. Shinjiro and Jogo become attracted to each other but must conduct their romance clandestinely, since Jogo must not look at men during her 2-year confinement. Shinjiro nearly comes a cropper at the hands of O-gin’s jealous lover and his hired thugs. In the meantime, the local governor Torii, intent on enforcing a severe and authoritarian rule over his territory, shuts down restaurants and entertainment venues, and conspires to find a way of shutting down Tokeiji temple and forcing all the women there to return to their husbands by hiring a woman to pose as another unhappy wife and in that disguise report on any scandals of nuns or inmates falling pregnant, that could be used as pretexts to close the place.

The film strains under its several sub-plots but manages to tie them and resolve them all in its last half-hour. The plot is sometimes confusing and fragmented, with some sub-plots very weakly developed and settled in quite implausible ways. The sub-plot with the mole barely lasts a few minutes and the mole quickly disappears from the rest of the film. The slapstick comedy does become tiresome but at the same time it provides relief from tensions that build up in the plot’s attempts to tackle serious issues such as mental illness, death, corruption, domestic violence and survival in a repressive society that treats its women badly. The temple is a microcosm of the wider society and Jogo finds she is not completely free of abuse from other women who look down on her.

In spite of the considerable obstacles placed before them, Shinjiro and Jogo do eventually walk off to a happy future together, and their efforts make manifest the film’s message that with the passage of time, social change can and does bring freedom and hope for a better life, if people work, learn and study together.

What character development exists is limited to Jogo’s growth from a frightened and much put-upon girl into a self-confident and mature young woman; the other characters, even Shinjiro, remain static. The acting ranges from excellent to utilitarian. The cinematography pays much attention to nature and the passage of time as reflected in the passing seasons, and to the lavish settings of the film. The film works well as a historical soap opera dealing with a particular institution that helped one downtrodden section of society, one largely forgotten by most Japanese after the Meiji restoration in 1867.

Nine Queens: clever film about two con artists with a message about how societies built on greed and mutual distrust crash

Fabian Bielinsky, “Nine Queens / Nuevas Reinas” (2000)

Talented Argentine director Fabian Bielinsky made just two films before his untimely death in 2006 and his first, “Nine Queens”, is now considered a classic in his native country. A naive young wannabe grifter, Juan (Gaston Pauls), attaches himself to the older and more experienced con artist Marcos (Ricardo Dario) for 24 hours to learn the tricks of the trade after a botched scam at a convenience store. Marcos shows him how to improvise and create scenes at newsagents and restaurants in order to get what he wants while paying as little as possible.

Next thing you know, an old associate of Marcos, Sandler, calls Marcos to say he needs help in selling counterfeit copies of a stamp collection known as the Nine Queens. Sandler, Marcos and Juan target a rich Spanish businessman, Gandolfo, who is being deported to Venezuela and needs to smuggle his wealth out of Argentina. They take the fake stamps to Gandolfo at the hotel where he is staying – coincidentally the same hotel where Marcos’ sister Valeria and younger brother Federico work – and after Gandolfo’s hired expert has checked them and declared them authentic, the parties agree to the 450,000 peso exchange. As luck would have it though, the hired expert later demands a cut of the money (he knew the stamps were fakes) and a motorcycle gang steals the briefcase with the fake stamps and throws it into the river.

Marcos and Juan return to the owner of the stamps and persuade her to sell them for 250,000 pesos. The two men find the money to buy the stamps off her and return to Gandolfo, who then insists that he will only buy the stamps at the agreed price on condition that he gets to sleep with Valeria. Valeria for her part agrees to sleep with Gandolfo on condition that Marcos must confess to Federico that he, Marcos, scammed his siblings out of the family’s Italian property inheritance. Amazingly, everyone adheres to the various conditions of the deal and Marcos and Juan get paid – in a bank cheque. Marcos tries to cash the cheque but as luck would have it, the bank suffers a crash, all its customers try to pull their money out and the cheque is worthless.

The film is blessed with well-drawn character roles and fine acting along with a plot that’s just barely plausible. All attention is focused on dialogue and plot, and the actors (especially Dario) play their parts tersely and well. The pace is fast with brisk conversations, a minimal style of presentation and single-minded focus. By the film’s climax, viewers will feel everyone in the film is out to deceive and con someone out of money: Gandolfo’s hired expert is on the take and even Valeria, who despises Marcos for his character and seedy ways, seems prepared to prostitute herself for money. Soon it becomes apparent that the entire society in which Marcos and Juan live is full of con artists, as even banks – incidentally the film is set in Argentina at a time when the country was defaulting on its debts due to past corrupt governance and asset-stripping of the country’s resources under the façade of privatisation – go belly-up and leave their customers in the lurch while their executives are marched off to prison on charges of stealing and operating pyramid schemes.

Viewers who enjoy guessing how the plot unfolds may be surprised (pleasantly!) at the film’s denouement, in which supreme con-man Marcos is revealed to be the victim of an even bigger con carried out by all the people he has met during the course of the film. There is the suggestion that the giant con had been planned and executed to restore the moral fabric of the cosmos, put out of order and harmony by Marcos’ past scams and double-dealing. Marcos ends up thoroughly alone with not even the prospect of jail-time to add some meaning and purpose to his future. There is no outlet for him to do penance and perhaps turn over a new leaf, and that way gain some forgiveness and another chance at being a better person.

There is another lesson that the film conveys and that is a society built on self-interest, mutual mistrust of others and the belief that morality is only for suckers is a shaky one and when hard times come, that society will collapse and its future will be very bleak.

Kapsapea: an entertaining parody of action adventure / romance films

Riho Unt, “Kapsapea / A Cabbage” (1993)

A stop-animation parody of action adventure films like the Indiana Jones movie series, “Kapsapea” revolves around the travails of a humble farming family that discovers a giant cabbage has grown on their plot. The farmer, who conducts scientific experiments with alcohol on the side, imagines the fame and fortune that will accrue so he takes his giant vegetable down to his local pub where it is photographed by reporter Harrison for The New York Times. News of the giant cabbage spreads far and wide and it’s not long before American gangsters, agents from the KGB and spies from Communist China turn up in the neighbourhood eager to claim the cabbage for themselves. Most of the film is taken up with chases around the Estonian countryside as the farmer is pursued by hoodlums and spooks alike who’ll stop at nothing to grab the cabbage off him. Meanwhile Harrison falls in love with the farmer’s young daughter but their romance is nearly derailed when they fall foul of the Russians.

The action is tight and easily understood by audiences who don’t speak Estonian, although some of the finer points of the film, like any satire, will be lost on outsiders. One has to overlook the racist stereotypes surrounding the Chinese and Russian spies. There is plenty of slapstick comedy, some of it quite crude, and some scenes in the pub put the film out of reach of young children. The animation is well done although some of the action sequences are a bit hard on the eye and I’m not really sure what was chasing Harrison and his lady love while they were barrelling through an underground tunnel, in a recreation of the opening scenes of “Raiders of the Lost Ark”. The characters are stuffed dolls made of cloth and various other soft materials, and look rough-hewn.

It’s definitely very light entertainment with not much of a moral or deeper meaning behind the plot. The farmer and the men who chase him are played for greedy buffoons while the women around them either faff about or strut sluttishly.

Troll Hunter: comedy horror flick works in popular Norwegian stereotypes and fears of a police state

André Øvredal, “Troll Hunter / Trolljegeren” (2010)

Inspired perhaps by the example of “The Blair Witch Project” and “Man Bites Dog” from the 1990s and “Cannibal Holocaust” from the 1970s, this Norwegian comedy horror flick takes the form of a documentary in process by a group of student film-makers Thomas, Johanna and Kalle (Glenn Erland Tosterud, Johanna Morck, Thomas Alf Larsen) who investigate a series of mysterious livestock and tourist killings by bears. They meet a man Hans (Otto Jespersen) who claims to be a troll hunter and that the deaths were caused by trolls. The youngsters spend the rest of the film following him as he hunts the killers. Before long, the three kids are up to their necks in more than troll stench and troll trouble: not only do they discover that trolls really do exist but that the Norwegian government has long denied their existence and has a vested interest in doing so, and will stop at nothing to ensure that the news media – and the students themselves – know their place and not publicise any information about the trolls.

The main glories of the film are in the subtle ways it works traditional Norwegian folk stories about trolls and contemporary Norwegian cultural stereotypes and hang-ups into its threadbare plot. The plot provides a framework to work various jokes and comedy sketches that enliven it. The sketch in which three sheep are placed on a bridge as bait for a giant troll is a reference to the children’s fairy story about the three billy goats. Another sketch in which Hans and the students encounter some Polish immigrants provides an opportunity to send up Norwegian fears and beliefs about immigrants generally and Polish immigrants in particular, the latter being a constant presence across western Europe after Poland joined the EU and its people got visa-free access so they could escape their country’s chronic unemployment problem. A running gag in the film is that every time Hans despatches a troll to troll Valhalla, the government sends in its agent Finn and his helpers to plant false bear tracks in the area and spread lies about mysterious killings of foreign tourists and others. While such issues might suggest the film will find a very limited audience outside Norway, I had no problem picking up some of the issues worked into the film and I daresay most non-Norwegian viewers will spot them as well and enjoy the film for what it is.

There are references also to the conflict between the Norwegian government and farmers whose livestock are attacked by bears and wolves, and the bureaucratic hoops that farmers must jump through to obtain licences to protect their animals without breaking wildlife regulations; and to the problems of setting up power-lines in wilderness areas.

Although the film plays its themes for laughs, one can detect something quite serious in the way the trolls are portrayed as the last, pitiful members of a dying species and how among other things the Norwegian government is using them to expand its power over people’s lives and the country in which they live. Thus we have the paranoid bureaucratic obsession with hiding the reality of trolls from the public, to the extent of arresting and incarcerating the student film-makers, with only a few titles closing off the film by saying that the students have disappeared. (The interesting twist of course is that the trolls are not responsible for the students’ disappearance.) The news media obediently follows the official government line of never admitting the existence of trolls in spite of a short clip featuring the then Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg averring that they could exist.

Otto Jespersen puts in a very convincing performance as the troll hunter fed up with the way he has been treated by the Norwegian government who needs his services to keep the troll population in check and away from the public yet refuses to acknowledge his existence and pay him properly. One of the funniest scenes in the film shows him in close-up as he explains the different kinds of troll that exist in Norway, the trolls’ inability to metabolise Vitamin D (which explains their aversion to sunlight and the fact that they explode when exposed to UV light) and their ability to sniff out and kill anyone who is Christian. The actual trolls themselves are obviously computer-generated and much of the film does look very amateurish, what with the swinging cameras, but its ability to hold viewers in suspense despite the comedy and the outlandish premise is in no doubt.

What We Do in the Shadows: gentle satire and commentary on horror films and social problems

Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement. “What We Do in the Shadows” (2014)

Just when you think that everything that can be done in the horror film genre about vampires, zombies and werewolves has been done, along comes a cheerful little comedy flick from the Shaky Isles. “What We Do in the Shadows” is a an eccentric mock documentary following the lives of four to five flatmates who happen to be vampires resident in Wellington. It starts off with Viago (Taika Waititi) waking up at the crack of sunset to call a meeting with fellow fangsters Deacon (Jonathan Brugh), Vladislav (Jemaine Clement) and Petyr (Ben Fransham) about the household chores – apparently Deacon hasn’t been pulling his weight in washing the dishes and as a result they’ve been stinking up the kitchen and each individual piece of crockery and cutlery is stuck hard to its fellows and the kitchen sink thanks to the adhesive properties of dried blood. The film crew, kitted out in protective crucifixes, follow the trio about as they explain how they came to be undead, how they ended up in New Zealand – Viago says he followed a human girl in his coffin but his human servant bungled the postage so the coffin was 18 months late in arriving in Wellington so by the time the vampire arrived, the love of his life was already married and out of his reach – and how they survive on the outer edges of human society in Wellington and Lower Hutt.

Although Deacon has a female human familiar Jackie (Jackie van Beek) who, in the style of shabbos goyim who help ultra-Orthodox Jews get through the Sabbath with chores that Jews are forbidden to perform, cleans up after the threesome’s messes and procures victims for them, viewers quickly see that the centuries-old vampires have problems in adjusting to modern society: they need to be invited into night-clubs by humans (that film “Let the Right One In” has a lot to answer for) and they are a little too fastidious in requiring the blood of virgins even though the blood of non-virgins tastes the same and has no ill effects on them. Jackie brings Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer) to them but he tries to escape and ends up becoming undead when he barges into Petyr’s room. From then on, he has to hang out with the trio who try in their own way to teach him how to be a proper vampire. However there are no manuals or etiquette guides to rely on and Nick, giddy with the knowledge that he can fly and is immortal, goes around telling the humans he meets at night that he’s a vampire. This becomes the undoing of Petyr who meets a gruesome end. On the other hand, Nick brings his human fried Stu (Stuart Rutherford) to the trio and he teaches the vampires how to use mobile phones and laptops and look up things on Google and Ancestry.com. Viago is finally reunited with his old familiar Philip through Skype and is able to find out what happened to the love of his life, Katherine, now resident in a nursing home with dementia.

There is no conventional plot as such: the first half of the film is mainly a character study of the three vampires and serves to familiarise them with the audience. Waititi, Brugh and Clement do a sterling job treading the tightrope between credibility and stereotype and filling their characters with life: Viago as the fussy 18th-century aristocrat dandy, Deacon the 19th-century Serbian peasant vampyr and Clement as a Vlad-Dracul-meets-Gene-Simmons bloodsucker. The mock doco traces the vampires from their lonely outsider niche through their encounters with Nick and Stu to a point where they have become comfortable with using 21st-century technology to get what they need and can now understand modern human relationships; along the way, the film pokes gentle fun at flatmate relationships and addresses (even if in a flimsy way) the plight of newcomers trying to fit into an alien society without attracting the wrong sort of attention, relations among men, existential angst, gang warfare and the generation gap. Gags and jokes a-plenty fill the screen as viewers discover that the vampires are nursing secret hopes, fears and enmities which culminate in the annual Unholy Masquerade where Vlad confronts his age-old nemesis The Beast who turns out to be … his ex-girlfriend Pauline. The trio also has run-ins with the local werewolf pack led by alpha male Anton (Rhys Darby) which itself as a group and as individuals are also dealing with the difficulties of That Time of the Month when the full moon shines at night.

The comedy inherent in a bunch of eccentric undead weirdoes living as unobtrusively as they can in banal suburban Wellington does wear thin and some potential strands of hilarity present in some scenes and scenarios especially in the encounters with the werewolves and their particular existential and masculinity issues are under-developed due to the constraints imposed by the demands of the mockumentary concept. The vampire dilemma of being immortal and seeing particular beloved human friends die from old age or human society jettisoning valuable cultural memorabilia and memes while enthralled with temporary superficial fads is dealt with brilliantly in low-key and matter-of-fact ways. Several famous vampire movies and TV shows and a stack of Hollywood vampire stereotypes are skewered. The film pokes gentle fun at the police as thick-heads. Much of the understated fun of the film lies in the vampires’ house which is kitted out as a seedy gothic mansion that has seen far better days.

As the film was deliberately made as a cheap B-grade doco, technical glitches are to be expected and the shaky handheld camera is used to good effect to ratchet up tension especially in scenes where the human Nick tries to flee the vampires’ house.

The film has potential to become a cult comedy horror classic courtesy of the energy of its cast, many of whom are amateur actors, of its satirical treatment of the horror and documentary film genres, and of its treatment of social issues and pop culture fads in modern Western and New Zealand society.