Family Plot: skilfully made comedy thriller that deconstructs familiar Hitchcock motifs and themes for laughs

Alfred Hitchcock, “Family Plot” (1976)

Considering that the famous British director was in bad health when he made this film, I find “Family Plot” to be a light-hearted and entertaining comedy thriller about two con-artist couples engaged in deception of one form or another – and trying to outwit each other. An elderly lady (Cathleen Nesbitt), remorseful over the way she treated her unmarried sister and the sister’s baby son years ago, consults phony psychic Blanche Tyler (Barbara Harris) to find out what happened to the nephew. Blanche scents that a huge sum of money may be in the balance and she and her cab-driver boyfriend George Lumley (Bruce Dern) try to figure out a way to get it; they find themselves on the trail of one Edward Shoebridge who may or may not be dead. They find out during the course of the film that he certainly is NOT dead; what takes them most of the film’s running time to discover is that Shoebridge is also Arthur Adamson (William Devane), a jeweller who is also a thief, a kidnapper and extortionist, and who with his girlfriend Fran (Karen Black) and partner-in-crime Joe Maloney (Ed Lauter) is trying to shake off Blanche and George who are determined to investigate exactly what happened to Shoebridge. Hilariously, Shoebridge / Adamson turns out to be the nephew of the elderly lady.

The film is very much character-driven though the casting seems rather uneven: Harris and Dern as the amateur detectives totally out of their depth in a danger-filled investigation are hilarious (though Harris looks old-fashioned in her Doris Day get-up and is required to overdo the slapstick) while Black and Devane seem miscast and mismatched as partners in both crime and romance. Black is too nice to be a villainous vixen and Devane, very 1970s clean-cut and all flashing white teeth, looks a caricatured oleaginous and smarmy snake-oil dealer for a role that calls for him to be amoral and brutal (his back-story among other things includes his having locked his parents up in their bedroom and then burning the house down). Everything revolves around these couples so it’s just as well that in spite of their clean-cut looks, the actors acquit themselves adequately to well in a vehicle that combines light comedy and slapstick with quite dark and sinister themes in a highly improbable plot. For all his stereotyped moustachioed look, Devane pulls off a difficult role of appearing suave and sophisticated while being really malevolent without a redeeming bone in his body.

Admittedly the film looks dated – it looks more late 1960s than late 1970s in spite of the fashions the actors wear – due to the filming techniques used and the curious mix of dramatic orchestral music that was typical of 1960s Hollywood flicks and the harpsichord-toned soundtrack of the sort that became popular in the 1970s. (The music is the work of the famous Hollywood music composer John Williams.) The pace is slow to begin with but after the first half-hour, it starts to move more briskly and becomes enjoyable. Hitch is not averse to throwing in scenes that might remind viewers of “Vertigo”, “North by Northwest” and “To Catch a Thief”: for heaven’s sake there’s even a silly and over-long runaway car scene reminiscent of the car chases of “North …” and ” To Catch a Thief”. Indeed, Hitch seems keen on deconstructing beloved motifs of his: the cool blonde lady in the first 20 minutes is really only wearing a wig; Blanche and George emerge from their wrecked car looking clean and tidy; the idea of opposed twins, represented this time by the scheming couples, bumbling amateurs pitted against intelligent professionals, is played for laughs; and the rocky path to romance, usually strewn with danger, death and the odd psycho killer, is more wacky than spine-chilling.

Hitch knew that he’d been left behind by a new generation of film directors, represented by Martin Scorsese and Stephen Spielberg, and that he himself didn’t have much time left in the world so it’s rather fitting that he revisits familiar themes, plot ideas and motifs in a light-hearted deconstructive way that allows him to say goodbye to over fifty years of directing films. “Family Plot” may not rank among his best films but it is competent in execution and for all its aged looks and the miscasting, it has a zest that’s a bit slow to get going … but once it does, it makes the film fun to watch.

 

 

 

 

 

The Dictator: comedy savages Western self-righteousness, ignorance and hypocrisy

Larry Charles, “The Dictator” (2012)

I confess I saw this latest Sacha Baron Cohen film to see how offensive and tasteless it is. Truly dictatorial “The Dictator” is, in dredging up every known Western stereotype about Middle Eastern / North African countries and peoples, and tin-pot dictators around the world, and throwing it all hard and brutally back in our faces. At once LOL idiotic, puerile and revolting, SBC’s latest comedy vehicle hides a subversive and biting satire on Western ignorance of other peoples, cultures and religions, the West’s cynical support for freedom and democracy in Third World countries which masks corporate greed for those countries’ natural resources, and how easily so-called progressive and idealistic causes can be corrupted by contact with rapacious capitalism and political oppression.

The movie is at once a romantic comedy and a “fish out of water” adventure. Admiral Shabaz Aladeen (SBC) of the oil-rich desert nation Wadiya, located where Eritrea would normally sit (and thereby potentially antagonising real Eritrean people), is compelled to visit New York City to address the United Nations Security Council when that august body threatens to invade his country for stubbornly forging ahead with  a nuclear weapons production program. Little does the feckless Aladeen know that his wicked uncle Tamir (Ben Kingsley) plans to usurp him and take his place as Supreme Leader so he can “democratise” Wadiya and open up the country’s resources to Western oil companies. Soon enough, Tamir’s hired hitman kidnaps Aladeen but the dictator escapes and finds refuge with Zoe (Anna Faris), an eco-activist who manages a food co-op with the help of Third World refugees. It so happens that the co-op supplies food to the Lancaster Hotel where Aladeen’s entourage is staying so with the help of Nadal (Jason Mantzoukas), the exiled former head of the Wadiya nuclear weapons development program, Aladeen attempts to infiltrate the hotel and get rid of his simple-minded double who is being manipulated by Tamir.

Along the way, Aladeen learns about co-operating with people of different origins and cultures, running a business based on lofty idealistic principles, falls in love with Zoe, discovers the extent to which Muslims and Arabs are detested in the West and finally recognises the worth of democracy – or maybe not in all cases.

The film is chaotic and messy (though not as meandering as SBC’s earlier “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation Kazakhstan”) with skits raggedly put together and then wrung and squeezed to their utmost for bad-taste comedy. A scene in which a woman gives birth in Zoe’s store can be excruciating to watch for layering several tasteless vulgarities to the nth degree and the punch-line Aladeen utters when the baby (inevitably) is a girl can be predicted ten parsecs away. The funniest bits are quite subtle and easy to miss, and not for the first time (nor for the last) did I find myself the only person in the cinema – I admit that there were not very many people watching the film with me and we could all be counted on the fingers of two hands – laughing out too loudly at idiotic jokes like the Fallujah Firebomb during the torture scene, the equation of Dick Cheney with Saddam Hussein and Colonel Muammar Gadhafi during the would-be suicide scene and the UN Assembly scene in which Tamir requests Exxon not to use BP oil-rigs in its share of Wadiya’s territorial waters.

Director Charles and SBC pay attention to visual details that lampoon the media and the profligacy of wealthy political elites: two talking heads for a TV news program dissect the performance of Aladeen’s double at a conference and wildly misinterpret his bumbling behaviour as having momentous import for viewers, some of whom might be policy-makers and other government lackeys; and it’s not only Aladeen who is misogynist and has flamboyantly bad taste in furnishings, recreational pursuits and clothing – diplomats from other, better-behaved countries are also portrayed as vulgar twats. The music, chosen by SBC, loudly and merrily runs the gamut from lovey-dovey schmaltzy to trash disco and faux Middle Eastern techno.

The film makes its biggest Laugh-Out Loud impact in the climax in which Aladeen tears up Tamir’s “democratic” constitution and expounds at length on how tyrannies should exercise social and political control over populations: his speech ends up a condemnation of the US (and by implication the entire First World), the global financial industry, the global media (News Corporation and the Murdoch family being singled out in particular) and the way in which a tiny elite – the “one percent” – controls everyone else through debt / global finance and culture.

Just as hilarious and creepy is Aladeen’s management of Zoe’s food co-op, using the violent and unorthodox methods he used as the Wadiya kahuna in turning around the fortunes of the store and winning back the contract to supply food to the Lancaster Hotel. This suggests that progressive causes more often than not end up in bed with the very politically and socially reactionary forces they claim to be fighting, especially when the issue involves identity politics, as in Western feminists supporting NATO intervention in Afghanistan or Jewish activists supporting the elimination of racial discrimination and forms of apartheid in all countries except Israel.  

Another outstanding skit finds Aladeen in the emigre district of Little Wadiya where everyone he meets turns out to be someone he condemned to death years ago but who was spirited away to the US by the Wadiya state executioner; this scene is a commentary on the travails of refugees when they reach what they imagine are countries offering friendship and security but which spurn and consign them to lowly neighbourhoods where they eke out an existence running restaurants catering to their own community. A fourth very funny skit is the helicopter scene in which Nadal and Aladeen chat excitedly in Wadiyan about visiting the New York City sights while two American passengers opposite them grow alarmed at what they think is a discussion of plans to bomb the Statue of Liberty and Yankee Stadium.

The film narrowly escapes charges of being racist and discriminating against Muslims and Arabs by taking on a range of targets and skewering each and every one of them in crude and savage ways: the laugh is on us Western audiences and our smug self-righteousness, hypocrisy and ignorance about peoples and cultures we continue to care less about. Still, I have a niggling feeling that SBC does pull punches when issues of his identity as a Jew and his support for Israel and Zionism come under the spotlight.

Le Havre: emotionally deep and heartwarming film about the value of community, love and friendships

Aki Kaurismäki, “Le Havre” (2011)

A heartwarming comedy drama that focusses on deception and the plight of illegal migrants, “Le Havre” features characters, a plot and a deadpan style that masks deep emotion and warmth typical of Kaurismäki’s films. Failed bohemian writer Marcel Marx (Andre Wilms) and his wife Arletty (Kati Outinen) live in a tiny house in a down-and-out neighbourhood in the French port of Le Havre; Marcel ekes out a living cleaning customers’ shoes at the town’s main train station together with his friend Chang. One day Arletty falls sick with a stomach tumour and must be rushed to hospital. At the same time, French police intercept a shipping container in which several illegal migrants from Africa are hiding; while the cops and the Red Cross workers are interviewing the migrants, one of them, a young boy called Idrissa (Blondin Miguel), manages to run away. He meets Marcel at the town’s harbour and Marcel, left alone with pet dog Laika, gladly takes the boy in and shields him from the police. From then on, Marcel juggles the task of finding Idrissa’s grandfather and obtaining the London address of the youngster’s mother while keeping him out of trouble and away from Inspector Monet (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) who has been tasked with the job of flushing out Idrissa and taking him into custody.

The plot is highly improbable and Marcel manages to bluff his way through situations that ordinary mortals would simply fail at: he convinces a detective that he is a lawyer; he reconciles an estranged couple so that his charity concert, intended to raise money for Idrissa’s journey across the English Channel, can go ahead; he and Idrissa have several close escapes from the police. The characters’ dialogue is deadpan comic and doesn’t express any emotion at all; the actors themselves express feeling through eye contact and body language. Obviously the more experienced and older actors do a better job of conveying feeling through gestures and looks than Miguel does as Idrissa but since the young actor is portraying a shy and quiet boy, the one-dimensional character of Idrissa can be overlooked; the emotional centre of the film is Marcel and Arletty, stoic and resigned at the hand life has dealt them both but faithful and loving to each other and able to appreciate small gestures of love and care from each other and their neighbours. Everyone in Marcel’s neighbourhood has suffered hardship but bears up with good-humoured resilience and looks out for one another when the heavy hand of authority invades the street with brutality and bureaucratic indifference.

The comedy addresses in small ways some serious issues in modern French society: the fear and paranoia people feel towards illegal African and specifically Muslim migrants who are imagined to be linked to terrorist groups; the plight of these migrants and poor people like the Marxes, forced to survive in an underground economy disowned by the larger society, itself beset by financial crisis and uncertainty; the thuggishness of the police of whom only Monet proves to possess any humanity in spite of his avowed dislike for people (his character simply underlines the indifference and brutish nature of the police – and by extension, the French government authorities – towards ordinary people; the need for people to dissemble or fake their identities or life stories in order to survive or to maintain relationships. In the end, faith in themselves and hope that life can allow miracles to happen in an otherwise uncaring world are all that Marcel, Idrissa and those who help them rely on to remain and feel alive.

The film’s eccentric style and characters are reinforced by the eclectic choice of music and an enjoyable diversion into a rock’n’roll performance by an ageing Elvis wannabe rock star Little Bob (Robert Piazza aka Little Bob) at Marcel’s charity gig. No-one can say that French people can’t rock after this movie!

Very similar to a previous film “The Man with no Past” which also starred Kati Outinen and with many of the same plot devices, “Le Havre” is a warm and compassionate film about the value of community, love and friendships that cross social barriers and bureaucracy.

 

 

Carnage: comedy of no-manners patronises Americans and diminishes its audiences

Roman Polanski, “Carnage” (2011)

Not one of his better efforts due to the nature of the original play but then again, a comedy from Polanski is almost as rare as teeth in a chicken, especially one as entirely dialogue and character-driven as this. Two school-age boys have scuffled and one has whacked the other in the face with a switch, breaking two of his teeth, so the culprit’s parents agree to meet the victim’s at his home. Nancy and Alan Cowan (Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz), the parents of the miscreant, have jobs as investment banker and corporate lawyer respectively; the victim’s folks, Penelope and Michael Longstreet (Jodie Foster and John C Reilly), are somewhat lower class where income is concerned but are more cultured, or at least Penelope is (or pretends to be). In attempting to call a truce and assign financial responsibility for the victim’s dental expenses, the two couples allow their personal lives to take over the conversation via their cellphone calls and their respective civilised veneers, loosened by too many glasses of scotch, fall away; before long, their hang-ups about their marriages, class differences, social consciences, general outlook on life, obligations to their families and a pet hamster explode into the open in the confines of the Longstreets’ apartment.

Polanski is wise to keep all the action based in one room (the Longstreets’ lounge-room) so as to allow the actors to fly freely with their characters. Foster and Winslet excel with their particular characters: Foster the socially conscious and caring writer-cum-artist activist is revealed as an ambitious, narrow-minded and controlling shrew who always has to be top dog; Winslet the high-maintenance trophy wife loses control of herself from drinking too much and vomiting. Reilly and Waltz have rather more limited roles with Reilly playing a mediator and failing dismally and Waltz a workaholic more interested in winning lawsuits on behalf of crooked corporate clients in order to avoid dealing with a failing marriage and a child affected by his parents’ fights and faults. We start to see why the children of these parents might have behaved the way they did: the Cowans’ son wants the attention his parents are not giving him and the Longstreets’ son may be a passive child vulnerable to bullying because his mother coddles him and his father is too laidback to show him how to stand up for himself.

There are incongruities in the characters: what Penelope, who more or less conforms to the popular “champagne socialist” type (socially conscientious, skimming the surface of art and culture so as to appear sophisticated), found attractive in Michael with his non-PC prejudices and cavalier attitude towards small animals is never explained though their differences provide plenty of laughs; and Nancy and Michael are equally mismatched (she a brittle upper class princess, he a dull one-dimensional corporate robot whose life revolves around work) and contemptuous of each other. It’s likely though that the common bonds between them are love of money and status and who married whom for the money is perhaps not too difficult to work out. Initially the conflict is between morally upright do-gooding Penelope and cynical Alan with Michael trying to calm down and jolly people along and Nancy performing her simpering debutante act. The action clearly takes place in a claustrophobic and labyrinthine hot-house apartment though the Longstreets refer to their home as a “house”; usually in Polanski’s films, such a setting reflects characters’ inner states of mind but in this movie the setting merely looks picturesque.

Although the actors are very capable and the comedy is fast-paced and well-timed, the plot itself ends up in a rut: the characters simply keep on finding new scabs to pick at and make bleed and the bickering becomes tiresome. Script-writers Yasmina Reza (who wrote the original play) and Polanski pile on one unpleasantry after another on the characters until they become caricatures of themselves and the action is forced to stop rather suddenly when Nancy petulantly flings flowers about. One presumes the film-makers discovered at the last minute that there were no custard pies in the Longstreets’ fridge.

What themes exist in the film – how the rapacity of Wall Street and corporate culture has found its way into the lives of people like the Cowans and reduced them to mean-spirited, hollowed-out shells who can’t connect with their son; the snootiness of self-styled “liberal” and “progressive” types like Penelope loudly proclaiming their new versions of the 19th-century “white man’s burden” by writing books about wars and poverty in Africa while perhaps ignoring the poverty in their own neighbourhoods; the redneck vulgarity of Michael – are treated in a patronising way. The audience is expected to laugh at these foolish Americans for their self-obsession and identity politics. Yet in laughing at them, we ourselves are diminished; aren’t we just as obsessed with our social identities, how we want people to view us and admire us, and aren’t we also just as unconcerned about the poor people in our midst while we express horror and concern for poor people in distant countries whom we hope we never have to see?

Interestingly the most important part of the film occurs right at the end where we see the couples’ sons being friendly as if nothing had happened between them earlier. This suggests the world in a microcosm: while the parents, self-important and materially wealthy but spiritually lacking, quarrel and treat their children like objects or trophies, the children themselves overcome any social differences and conflicts between them and become pals. If only our elites, obsessed with ideology, destructive economic growth and controlling the public, would just disappear and let the common people sort out the mess the world is in through working together and finding common ground, the planet will regenerate and humanity’s future would be bright indeed. Dream on.

Simon of the Desert: film of a saint dehumanised by his own self-righteous hypocrisy and pride

Luis Buñuel, “Simon of the Desert / Simón del Desierto” (1965)

Buñuel skewers again institutional religion and sanctimonious belief, this time in a satire based on the life of the 4th-century ascetic Simon Stylites who spent 25 years praying and meditating atop a pillar in a desert. Outwardly the saint (Claudio Brook) appears a genuinely humble and devout man but as the film progresses, his pride and self-righteousness prove to be his greatest downfall rather than any temptations offered by Satan (Silvia Pinal) who appears at least three times in different guises. Ostensibly Simon undertook his quest to be closer to God and find peace but subtle hints throughout the film, beginning with his transfer from one pillar to another paid for by a wealthy man, demonstrate a lack of genuine faith and a “holier than thou” self-pride: he neglects to acknowledge his mother and her willingness to suffer in the desert with him, he berates a novice monk for being clean and beardless and he complains about running out of insects and other creatures to bless. Satan comes to him as a sexy schoolgirl, God himself and finally as a guide to a different world which turns out to be our modern Western age. The film drops Simon and Satan, now a modish young woman, in the middle of a discotheque filled with teenagers jiving to a rock’n’roll band: Simon, now smoking and drinking alcohol, and looking like an ivory-tower intellectual who got blackmailed by a beautiful student into a date with her, gets bored and wants to leave but Satan tells him to wait right to the end when she and the others have finished dancing.

As the budget for the film ran out before its completion, Buñuel was forced to finish it quickly and abruptly, hence the completely unexpected climax and denouement in which Simon is transported 1,700 years into the future. I’m not sure though whether, if Buñuel had had more money, the intended ending would have been any better: the aim was to show how Simon’s determination to make himself suffer before God and his pride in undergoing more rigour than anyone else can stand undermine his humanity and resistance to Satan. I imagine the film would simply have piled on more examples of Simon undoing himself by his own actions, losing more of his humanity and purpose in life before he is reduced enough to succumb to Satan’s temptations. At the end of the film as it is, Simon finds he no longer has much in common with humanity and is farther away from God than what he thought himself to be, and that’s as it should be. Whether the final fall from grace should have taken place in a disco jumping with kids doing the latest dance while sax and guitars play around them is another thing: this scene reveals more about Buñuel’s prejudices towards teenage fads of his time than of Hell itself, and I rather feel Buñuel was unfair towards young kids in this respect when other, more genuinely trashy aspects of Western culture, including anything to do with religion and the Roman Catholic Church in particular, could have portrayed Hell in all its sordidness.

Other characters in the film, major and minor, illustrate Buñuel’s opinion of religious ritual, unthinking conformity and the sheer meanness that human nature can descend to. A thief without hands and his wife implore Simon for a miracle, Simon prays to God and the man suddenly finds his hands restored; instead of praising God and thanking Simon for the miracle, the man cuffs his son while the missus starts planning all the work hubby can now do around the house. Two nearby pilgrims refer to the miracle as a “trick” and various monks also treat this miracle and others Simon performs very lightly, even going so far as to suggest that Satan is responsible for putting food in Simon’s bag than Simon himself or somebody else. The only people in the film Buñuel has any pity or feeling for are Simon’s long-suffering mother, waiting patiently for some attention from her son, and a shepherd dwarf who has more good sense than everyone else in the movie combined.

While the plot and the style of the movie are uneven, at least Brook distinguishes himself by underacting and playing his character po-faced straight to the point where Simon becomes a figure of pity or ridicule while Pinal, clearly relishing her devilish role, slightly overdoes the sexiness and eats up the scenery whenever she appears. Buñuel hit on a real comedy duo in Brook and Pinal. Gabriel Figueroa’s cinematography is beautiful and the plot allows him to show off his skill in filming from different angles, emphasising spatial (and maybe psychological) distance between Simon and the people he interacts with. Surreal influences – a coffin sliding over the grass, for example – intrude into the film and the plot twist near the end doesn’t seem all that out of place.

Perhaps the movie didn’t turn out as Buñuel intended but “Simon of the Desert” is not too bad as it is; any longer and the film might have become repetitive and boring in its latter half. As the saying goes, less is more, and as Shakespeare once said, brevity is the soul of wit, and “Simon of the Desert” proves both right.

The Exterminating Angel: satire on bourgeois hypocrisy and human inability to overcome oppression

Luis Buñuel, “The Exterminating Angel / El ángel exterminador” (1962)

So far everything I have seen of Luis Buñuel has been supremely first class and “The Exterminating Angel” is no exception. The film is a surrealist fantasy that lampoons the behaviour of the upper class and reveals it as a bunch of cowards, idiots and hypocrites. The plot is simple enough: a wealthy man, Nobilé, invites twenty or so of his pals and their wives to dinner after a night at the opera; after an excellent meal, coffee, conversation and some piano entertainment, the host and his guests discover they are unable to leave the dining-room. (In the meantime, all the servants have fled the mansion.) Over several weeks, the dinner-party guests grow hungry, thirsty and tired, and descend into exactly the barbarous behaviour they decry in working-class people.

The filming technique looks conventional but the dialogue is typically Buñuelian: exchanges are loaded with irony and sarcasm and poke fun at Roman Catholicism and what passes for Catholic morality, and at the guests’ own expectations about their place in society and how the world should revolve around them, their needs and wants. As the days pass, and one hapless man falls into a coma and dies, the guests display moral hollowness (no-one shows any compassion towards the dying guest and his companion), fight over water, make bargains with God, try to kill another guest in a bizarre superstitious ritual and fall into childish ways of solving the problem of leaving the dining-room. Intelligence, logic, any semblance of rationality are all left at the front door (literally, as it turns out) as the guests turn on one another. Viewers discover that all they have in common is their wealth and apart from that, the guests actually loathe one another. There is a suggestion that for some of them, the wealth was not obtained legitimately or was inherited at the expense of other, more hard-working people. (In a later complementary film, “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie”, Buñuel follows seven dinner companions in search of a decent meal together; two of these companions are shown to be a corrupt ambassador and his friend involved in a drug-trafficking scheme.)

The film’s structure is perfect and builds up quickly: disquieting omens about what will happen (the servants feel they must leave the mansion as soon as they can; one of the waiters trips while carrying the first course and spills the food all over the floor; the real evening’s entertainment that revolves around a bear and two sheep must be cancelled) occur quickly and efficiently for comic effect without elaboration; once the guests discover their predicament, the film settles into an easy-going pace in which Buñuel repeatedly shoots satirical barbs at the bourgeoisie through the guests’ foibles and prejudices. In the meantime, citizens and police outside the mansion worry about the fate of the people within but apart from that, life goes on as normal, illustrating the uselessness of the trapped upper class twats.

Significantly the bear proves harmless to the sheep though the hapless ovines end up being slaughtered by the guests. One doesn’t need to wonder too much at the sort of crass entertainment the bear and the sheep were supposed to provide before it was called off.

The film’s climax comes at the very end when, after freeing themselves in a hilarious ritual that they don’t understand, the guests attend church to thank God for saving them, only to discover that they can’t leave the church buildings! The climax is shown as a series of visual collages: the fade-out / fade-in of successive scenes shows the passage of time; other scenes send up political repression as mounted police chase away and shoot at crowds who are either trying to help the trapped congregation or celebrating their freedom; and eventually a flock of sheep is released into the church to be ripped apart and eaten (and their blood drunk) in a mock parody of Mass.

Repetition, reiterations, contradictions and unusual juxtapositions are major themes in the film which may help explain why about the halfway mark the film starts to drag with repeating ideas for some viewers. There is a surreal dream sequence in which voices, representing deeply felt concerns for some guests, speak off-screen while the guests sleep. The repetition suggests that people, even when given the chance, prefer to stick to convention, ritual and habit even when these threaten to destroy them or any chance they might have of achieving happiness. We know what the problem is, who’s oppressing and destroying us, how the oppression is occurring and what to do about our destroyers … so what’s stopping us from taking control of our destiny?

 

 

 

Tomorrow I’ll Wake Up and Scald Myself with Tea: exuberant science fiction time-travel comedy with a subversive message about lost opportunities and possibilities

Jindrich Polak, “Tomorrow I’ll Wake Up and Scald Myself with Tea / Zitra vstanu a oparim se cajem” (1977)

One of a number of comic science fiction films made in the old Czechoslovkia in the 1960s – 70s, this film by the maker of “Ikarie XB-1” (a famous but more serious sci-fi film of a space migration) revolves around time travel and a set of identical twins, and what happens when you mix the two together and throw away a time-synchronisation equivalent of a GPS system. Sight gags and sci-fi slapstick make for a light-hearted film about a topic and themes that in the West would either call for a more po-faced, serious drama treatment or just wouldn’t be done at all. Though the plot becomes more bizarre as the film progresses, the pace is not so fast that viewers, even Western viewers with no knowledge of Czech – I saw this film without English sub-titles – can follow the shenanigans of central character Jan (Petr Koska) as he goes back and forth in time to thwart a dastardly plot to give Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany a hydrogen bomb from the future.

Kostka plays identical twins Jan and Karel: Karel is a spaceship pilot who’s also a womaniser and a drunk, Jan is his more sober and straight-laced brother. Karel gets a call to take some tourists on a trip to the past but before he can go to the port, he chokes on breakfast and dies. Jan has enough time to get his brother off to the morgue and into his uniform to impersonate him. Once aboard the ship, three of the tourists – they’re actually ageing Nazi crooks in disguise – hijack the craft and take it back to Berlin in 1941. There they greet Adolf Hitler and present him with the case containing the bomb – but it turns out they picked up the wrong case and it’s full of clothes. The crooks and Jan are bundled off to jail and must figure out a way of escape.

After escaping, the men go back to the present and their paths diverge: they go back to the period just before Karel dies and Jan then sets about changing the path of time so as to prevent Karel’s death and sabotage the crooks’ plan. This involves making another trip back to Nazi Germany but no-one has any proper sense of time so the second trip also slightly overshoots and the time-travellers arrive just before they arrived the first time. Don’t worry, it does sound very confusing – you just need to watch the movie to be able to sort out which Jan is which and how successfully Jan1 manages Jan2 and Jan3 and is able (or not able) to preserve family continuity!

Though made over 30 years ago, the film doesn’t look at all aged: the light is clear and the lines are sharp, men’s suits at least don’t look dated and even interiors and furniture look contemporary. The pace is brisk but the plot is straightforward if increasingly convoluted towards the end. The music soundtrack is a major highlight: light, a little humorous and sprightly with space ambient effects and much use of synthesiser-generated melodies that sound at once a little alien yet familiar and reassuring.

If I’d seen the film with English sub-titles, I’d have been able to appreciate more of its humour and jokes; there are many witty sight gags including creative uses of dishwashing liquid in dissolving dishes (and more besides!), the car with the back hood that flips up of its own accord at inconvenient times and the green spray that neutralises and zombifies people, all of which are important in advancing the plot and resolving it. The back-and-forth time-travel and its non-synchronisation (everyone comes and goes at times that are just ahead of when you think they should arrive or depart) are a running joke that might have a deeper meaning: what if certain important historical events could have been cut off or avoided had someone done something earlier rather than later? There is a subversive message in all the time-travelling that goes on: Jan foils an evil plot thanks to his being in the right spot five minutes (or 50 minutes at least) before the right time and ingeniously manages to cover up Karel’s untimely death as well. Now, if only he had gone back in time to try to stop the Soviets from marching into Prague in the 1940s or 1968 or whenever …

As science fiction movies go, the plot and characters, and especially Kostka’s clever timing as Jan who must be in several places at once, are prominent. There are no special effects at all: all the science fiction is in the plot and in one of the film’s running gags (the dishwashing liquid gag). “Tomorrow I’ll Wake Up …” is the kind of comedy I’d like to see more of and which has been sorely lacking in Western cinema (and still is) – fun, witty, exuberant and inventive with the possibilities offered by a science fiction standard – and with a bonus of a cutting comment on society about lost opportunities and the possibility of change.

L’Age d’Or: cheeky and hilarious attack on religious, social and political repression and corruption

Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali, “L’Âge d’Or” (1930)

On the heels of “Un Chien Andalou”, a short film, comes this proper full-length surrealist feature by Buñuel and Dali in which they cheekily send up everything prim and proper in Spanish society. These days “L’Âge d’Or” gets plenty of laughs and is seen to be the comedy it is but over 80 years ago, it was definitely seen as subversive and dangerous and was banned not only in its native Spain but elsewhere. The film revolves around two lovers who try to get it on but circumstances, society, the Roman Catholic Church and ultimately their own inhibitions, drummed into them by their upbringing, prevent them from consummating their passion.

The gags are hilarious yet stinging at the same time: crippled soldiers hobbling on rifles for crutches rally to the war cause against the Majorcan enemy; an Imperial Roman delegation, dressed in modern clothes, pay their respects to four dead bishops (they died from total uselessness); and the male lover of the doomed pair hates dogs so much he’d rather kick them and send them flying long distances than pat them. The narrative divides into three unequal parts: the first part revolves around the soldiers on crutches; the second encompasses the delegation’s founding of modern Rome and saluting the bishops, and the male lover’s arrest by police whom he eventually outwits by handing them a map then hailing a taxi and kicking a blind man; the third part which is the major part takes place at a fancy high-society party. Strange things take place there: some peasants detour their ox-drawn cart through the dining-room and a maid flies from the kitchen and crashes onto the dining-room floor while a burst of flame rips out from where she’s just come. In scenes highlighting social hypocrisy, all too reminiscent of modern mass-media-directed selective attention-mongering, the guests studiously ignore her and the peasants but when a man in the gardens OUTSIDE the mansion shoots his young son for disobedience, the attendees hurry out onto the balconies to gawp at the scene. In the meantime, the lovers find each other at the party and sneak outside for a kiss, cuddle and maybe a quickie.

The male of the pair turns out to be a diplomat for the humanitarian International Goodwill Society; he shirks his duties in pursuit of the lovely lass and as a result several zillions of innocent children, women and elderly folk in distant parts die violently and his boss has to commit suicide out of shame. While the two men shout each other down the phone, the diplomat’s amour greedily sucks a statue’s toes and the camera hilariously shoots a glance at the statue’s face as if to check for a reaction! Later the diplomat discovers his love is unfaithful and in anger he storms into her bedroom and flings out through the window her pet objects: a priest, a giraffe doll and a giant Christmas fir on fire!

Religion, the corruption of the Roman Catholic Church, authoritarian modes of bringing up children and the snootiness of high society all get a skewering here: these are themes that Buñuel would revisit throughout his career. The dinner party scene is a motif that repeats in other famous films like “The Exterminating Angel” and “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie”. Dream sequences are important and make more impact against the conventional narrative than they do in “Un Chien Andalou”: in one early unforgettable scene the diplomat day-dreams about his lover, a toilet next to which something slithers up the toilet roll, and huge chunks of liquefied lumpy brown lava rolling and slurping against each other to the sounds of flushing toilets – lovely! Another important aspect of the movie is its use of overly melodramatic music especially during the party scenes in which the lovers scrap at each other without achieving much (the scenes are highly erotic even though no clothing is shed) and the passion and climax are provided by a garden concert: the climax turns out to be an anti-climax though as the conductor gets a headache!

The really blasphemous part of the film comes at the very end after a short retelling of the Marquis de Sade’s “120 Days of Sodom” (more famously represented in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s shocker “Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom”, reviewed elsewhere on this blog):  the figure of Christ is lampooned as a plaything of the depraved rich. This says something about religious hypocrisy among the wealthy and the corruption of religion itself, that its standard-bearers prostitute themselves before representatives of worldly power. There is no connection between this part of the film and what’s gone on for the past 55+ minutes but I say there’s no need to look for connection other than that this section expresses Buñuel’s low opinion of Catholic doctrine.

So many laugh-out-loud moments abound here that to absorb them all, you need to watch “L’Âge d’Or” (the title itself is highly satirical – who would associate a Golden Age with religious, social and political corruption?) at least twice; repeated viewings will also help you get a foothold onto what the narrative might be saying. There is no right way of viewing the film and seeing what its main issues are, so multiple interpretations of what’s really happening and what Buñuel might be saying are possible.

No wonder Alfred Hitchcock once named Buñuel as his favourite director: Buñuel dared to express his obsessions and hang-ups in direct ways that Hitchcock could only envy.

 

 

Where Evil Dwells: superficially slight and crude slasher flick packs a heavyweight wallop

David Wojnarowicz and Tommy Turner, “Where Evil Dwells” (1985)

Loosely based on an actual American court case in which 17 year old youth Ricky Kasso killed another teenage boy during an apparent Satanic ritual, this film is very unusual. There is a very loose and jerky narrative in which a ventriloquist’s dummy acquires a life of its own and either carries out its own murder projects or influences naive teenagers to gang up on lone innocents and rape or torture them in extreme ways. The film is silent save for a constant soundtrack of heavy rock / industrial music / screechy vocal babble (the end credits are accompanied by US singer Diamanda Galas’s distinctive glossolalic singing) that at times is deliberately sped up or slowed down to disorient viewers.

The hair-raising incidents don’t appear to have much in common other than that they’re performed by the same kids but Wojnarowicz and Turner might have had to compromise on the number of wannabe long-haired teenage serial nut-job actors and used some of the youngsters to perform different roles twice. The activities can be repugnant: in one scene, the kids throw a dead companion of theirs off the edge of a bridge onto traffic below them and in another, they are sitting around a camp-fire mutilating animals and beating up and killing a friend of theirs.

Watching the film the first time, I found the narrative jumpy but on second viewing, it started to make much more sense and I could see that beyond the violence and horror there is actually a moral message pointing to the hypocrisy of political, economic and cultural elites, the source of real evil, in our society who divide and rule the citizens and decree who is “evil” and who is not. There is a lot of jumpiness in the camera shots which viewers may not like. Editing looks adequate enough and one quite memorable section in the film’s first half (it can be seen on Youtube.com in two equal parts) is the juxtaposition of shots of a front-row rider’s viewpoint on a rollercoaster ride with shots of a man in a business suit with smoke and explosive flashes suggesting machine-gun fire coming out of his body. Throughout the film the rollercoaster sequences suggest rises and falls in people’s emotional states and scenes with a priest performing a ritual and a laughing business-man suggest that religion and the corporate world have a stake in encouraging and exploiting the youngsters in their debased behaviour.

Although less than half an hour long, the film does run out of puff in its second half, due perhaps to the relentless killing sprees in which the murderer or murderers have a particular taste in obtaining human eyeballs. There is satire in the film with Wojnarowicz perhaps taking the time to add private jokes: the ventriloquist’s dummy, exulting in the mayhem with his hammy raspy voice, is comic and sinister at once – he provides both relief from the violence and a commentary on it.  There’s a hilarious part where a slob in something that might be a Roman-toga outfit gorges himself on rich food and flings it around and this might say something about the corruption and wastefulness of Western political and cultural elites. This impression is reinforced by the Satanic mass sacrifice ritual that follows into which shots of a laughing cigar-smoking corporate type are inserted. If you can grasp the symbolism in “Where Evil Dwells”, then you’ll find this superficially crude-looking effort a worthwhile watch.

Starship Troopers: a hilarious send-up of US-style fascism and conduct of war

Paul Verhoeven, “Starship Troopers” (1997)

Loosely adapted from the Robert Heinlein novel of the same name, this film can be read as a caricature on several fronts: a send-up of the American cultural obsession with war on whatever US politicians declare war on; a satire on emergent US-styled fascism with its fetish for military technology, media sound-bites, slogans and appeals to patriotism; and a laugh at Hollywood action and war genre movies, Hollywood movie conventions and Hollywood’s own love affair with the military. Cunningly disguised as a brain-dead B-grade sci-fi “Alien” rip-off with a squeaky-clean cast of wooden though handsome actors, heavy slapstick symbolism and a meandering stitched-together plot that wanders through scenes of excessive gore, “Starship Troopers” cleverly combines action, romance and even high school hi-jinx through the eyes of its two main characters Johnny Rico (Caspar van Dien) and Carmen (Denise Richards) as they sally through their cartoon adventures in space and on an alien planet in service to the Federation, dedicating their lives to fighting bloodthirsty hordes of giant Arachnids and their arthropod allies.

The film divides into three parts: the first part is familiar all-American high school romance drama as Rico is torn between Carmen and Dizzy (Dina Meyer), Carmen is torn between Rico and Balcarow (Patrick Muldoon), and Rico is in friendly competition with Carl (Neil Patrick Harris); the second part sees Rico in boot camp training under various sociopathic instructors (Clancy Brown and Michael Ironside knowingly playing their parts straight-faced for laughs) to enter an elite mobile infantry unit while Carmen and Balcarow undertake pilot training and become close; and the third part throws our old high school crowd into the thick of fighting against the Arachnid armies, scathingly referred to as “bugs”. Interspersed into the film at intervals are propaganda shorts and news reels shaped as advertisements appealing for more youth to join the Federation armies and fight the “bugs”. Constant repetition of slogans like “I’m doing my part!” and “Would you like to know more?” – in a context where people don’t have a choice to say “No, I DON’T want to know more!” – cleverly and subtly inveigles both characters and viewers into supporting an ongoing war conducted by a future society that cynically throws hundreds of thousands of young people into a war like so many disposable cheap robots with inadequate gunpower. At one point in the film, a character breaks the fourth wall (that is, knowingly faces viewers) while hyping up soldiers to charge forth into battle against the bugs.

Many serious issues are addressed in the film in a light-hearted way: the preparation of young people through contact sports like football for military life; the glorification of violence through televised executions and the deliberate gore pornography; a culture brainwashing its young people to choose a military career and forcing them to die if they wish to enjoy the full benefits of citizenship; the incredulity of armchair experts and commentators that the bugs might have feelings and emotions and deserve to be treated with respect; and the government’s exploitation of fear, both human and bug, for military purposes and to control citizens and civilians (those who eschew the military life and so can’t be citizens but must be treated as hoi polloi consumers) alike. The futility of war and the cynicism of a society that uses war to control people are expressed in scenes in which soldiers are thrown straight into action after a few months of brutal boot-camp training armed with rifles that waste kah-zillions of bullets to no effect against the bugs even though better weapons like shoulder-held nuclear-powered rocket-launchers are available. After all, if you really want to get rid of the bugs rather than waste the humans which I suspect is the fascist society’s way of coping with over-population on Earth, why not just use a fleet of combat fighter jets to spray entire valleys and cave systems with chemicals that ignite on contact with living things and fry-y-y everything? It’s not as if the Federation cares about the bug planet’s environment and ecosystems.

The film itself is made in a style reminiscent of classic Hollywood action or drama films with lovingly filmed open spaces and swelling heroic orchestral music. The main characters are young, beautiful and buff with square jaws and clear eyes, and they’re clean-cut all-American Aryans though they play characters from Buenos Aires in Argentina (where Adolf Hitler is rumoured to have found sanctuary after WW2 instead of committing suicide): obviously this is a future BA that’s long succumbed to the seductions of whatever passes for future American or British culture – any differences between two sets of lowest common cultural denominators being hardly moot – and the English language. Jorge Luis Borges, Adolfo Bioy Casares and Carlos Gardel are spinning in their graves. Hollywood conventions are sent up in hilarious fashion: the film lovingly feasts viewers’ eyes on scenes of gore and gratuitous bloodshed but coyly blacks out scenes that might suggest sexual intercourse. The film apparently borrows many elements from Leni Riefenstahl’s famous Nazi propaganda documentary “Triumph of the Will”, a film I have yet to see in full. The grey uniforms and black leather coats worn in “Starship Troopers” look as though they were borrowed straight from a war museum housing Nazi German memorabilia. Special effects and scenes of space flight are often astonishingly well-done and even beautiful for a purported B-grade sci-fi flick; there are also of course schlocky scenes in which soldiers revel in pounding the bugs and getting sprayed with lime-green or day-glo orange bug blood as though they were merely playing paintball.

The film does drag during the long third section of the movie set on the bug planet as the plot bounces from one comedy skit to another. Viewers are cleverly set up for the climactic moment when the bugs obtain information about humans by drinking someone’s brain through a proboscis straw – at least some characters here know their manners! A refreshing change from most schmaltzy endings typical of Hollywood films is that once the dust has settled and the humans begin the job of obtaining information from a captured smart bug through torture, Rico and Carmen grimly continue their chosen vocations rather than sink into each other’s arms and this conclusion in itself is a comment on how fascist societies that constantly mine fear, suspicion and war to control people end up dehumanising them.

Surprisingly the film has become more relevant since the plane attacks on the World Trade Centers in 2001, with the bugs standing in for Iraqis, Afghans and Libyans. As long as the United States and its allies rampage all over the planet trying to kill more “bugs”, leaving destruction, pollution and DU radiation in their wake, we will need more eye candy satire like “Starship Troopers”.