Goodbye Christopher Robin: a surprisingly substantial film with some disturbing themes

Simon Curtis, “Goodbye Christopher Robin” (2017)

A film about English playwright / author A A Milne and the circumstances in which he was inspired to write the “Winnie the Pooh” series of books based on his son Christopher Robin and the child’s toys could have been a very tedious nostalgia-filled flick with more saccharine sickliness than substance and style. Parts of the film are too sugary and it does come out at a time when the British movie industry delves ever more into a mythical early 20th-century past for want of original stories. (Maybe if the British government put more money into tertiary education and encouraged more working-class and lower middle-class students to take up writing and scripting for films, there would be good original films with meaty stories and British actors would not need to compete with other non-American actors for work in Hollywood.) Surprisingly, “Goodbye Christopher Robin” turns out to be more substantial than it would at first appear, given its biopic subject matter: the film tackles quite a few disturbing themes – the impact of war and shellshock on a family and the relationships within that family; the disturbing treatment of children by their parents in upper class English families; the effect of sudden fame and celebrity on people ill-equipped to deal with being famous, and the resulting loss of childhood innocence replaced by pain that can last life-times – which leave viewers with much food for thought about whether Milne should or should not have mentioned his son in the books at all and whether the books would have achieved as much fame as they did if the son had indeed been left out.

The film is cleverly framed by two major wars that in their own way led to the decline of the British empire and British influence on a global scale. We meet Milne (Domhnall Gleeson),  just returned from fighting from the Western front in the Great War, tormented by severe flash-back experiences that affect his social life and ability to write, even function normally. His wife Daphne (Margot Robbie) experiences her own trauma in giving birth to their son, whom they name Christopher Robin: Daphne had wanted a girl and was unprepared for the extreme pain of childbirth. Right from the outset Daphne rejects the baby, nicknamed “Billy”, and the couple hire Scottish nanny Olive (Kelly Macdonald) to care for the child.

Determined to write a book decrying war but experiencing writer’s block and continual flash-back episodes, Milne takes his family down to a country house in southern England which becomes their primary residence. When Billy reaches primary school age, Daphne flees back to London to catch up with the social set and Olive must return to her sick mother: this leaves Milne and Billy alone together and father and son start to forge a friendship. This has the effect of inspiring Milne to write and publish a series of poems and stories based on Billy and his toys, with illustrations provided by Milne’s friend Ernest Shepard (Stephen Campbell Moore). The poems and stories prove to be immensely popular in Britain and overseas, and suddenly the Milnes are inundated with fan mail, demands for interviews and public appearances, and intrusive press and fans. Billy is quicker than both his starry-eyed parents to realise that his life and toys are not his own anymore.

The scripting is smooth and very flowing, jumping across gaps in time to suggest Billy’s angst, pain and eventually anger as he is thrown into boarding school at a tender age where he faces constant bullying from other kids for his fame in a children’s story series and comes to believe that his father exploited him. Will Tilston gives a good performance as the child Billy in conveying a full range of emotions and feelings about fame and the pressures it places on him. Alex Lawther takes up the baton as the teenage Billy, eager to serve as a private in the British Army so he can forge his own identity, and makes the most of his limited role. Gleeson plays a traumatised, emotionally restricted and (at times) conflicted Milne very well. Macdonald provides the warm-hearted balance to the dysfunctional parenting of Milne, often at sea in the events swirling around him, and his shallow, hedonistic and ultimately mercenary wife Daphne.

Perhaps the best part of the film is its beautiful cinematography which captures the soft light and magic of the English countryside and of Ashdown Forest in particular where a child’s imagination can open up and perceive a fairy-tale world of snow and snowflakes that float upwards. The middle part of the film where Milne begins to create the world of Winnie the Pooh is perhaps the best and most beautiful and uplifting part.

For a film juggling a number of themes, inevitably some get short shrift and viewers never find out whether Milne was able to deal with his wartime experiences and shellshock. What Milne himself thought of the way in which his “Winnie the Pooh” creation overshadowed the rest of his writing career (including the anti-war book “Peace With Honour” that he did eventually write) and subtly implied that his other writing might be mediocre is also not known. Near the end (spoiler alert) of the film, a reconciliation between Milne and his son appears unnatural, mawkish and emotionally manipulative, as though despite all the unresolved problems the Milne family has – one notes all the way through that Daphne is extremely distant from her son and he has no time for her either – the film has to end on an upbeat note with all loose ends tidied and tied and all characters determined to forge ahead on one bright and shining path as one.

While the film might be inadequate in resolving its themes, at least it has been brave enough to approach and suggest them. The issue of war and the cost of keeping the peace is one that continues to bedevil human beings, as does also the issue of how much young children should be exposed to constant publicity before it threatens their right to privacy and sense of identity, and brings unexpected and painful consequences to them (such as stalking and bullying, as Billy was to discover). The Milne couple’s frightful parenting is part of another larger and more grave problem revolving around Britain’s class hierarchy and how its reliance on boarding schools for upper class and middle class children stunt their development and help reinforce mediocrity, incompetence, indifference and lack of compassion among its elites. That’s probably a subject for another film or a TV mini-series.

Tom of Finland: a film of hope, sympathy for underdogs and inspiration to others suffering hardship and oppression

Dome Karukoski, “Tom of Finland” (2017)

As a general introduction to the life of gay icon Tom of Finland, real name Touko Laaksonen, for a general viewing audience, this film is adequate enough. Spanning roughly four decades, it follows Laaksonen (Pekka Strang) from his youth when he was conscripted into the Finnish army to fight the Russian enemy in the late 1930s / early 1940s, to his eventual fame as an artist specialising in drawing hyper-sexualised erotic gay pornography. Early on, Laaksonen kills a Russian pilot and this incident haunts him on and off throughout the rest of his life. After being decorated for heroism during World War II, Laaksonen finds himself isolated and marginalised socially because of his homosexuality, in a period when homosexuality was illegal and couples engaging in furtive sexual activity in parks and public toilets at night were hunted down and beaten up by police. Frustrated, Laaksonen pours his troubles out into homoerotic drawings of hyper-masculine beefcake fellows in skin-tight leather biker outfits and lumberjack clothing. In the meantime, Laaksonen’s sister Kaija (Jessica Grabowsky) helps him get a job at her advertising agency employer and also invites a young male dancer Nipa (Lauri Tilkanen) to be their tenant to help pay the rent: Laaksonen realises he has met Nipa before and that Nipa is also gay.

Kaija had hoped Nipa would be the love of her life and for a while the two do act like a couple. Eventually though – the film does not make this too clear – Nipa and Touko become the couple and Kaija accepts and tolerates the relationship. The two men conduct their relationship clandestinely at secret underground clubs and a diplomat’s home until one evening when police raid the diplomat’s mansion and make arrests. The diplomat himself is exposed as gay, loses his job and is forced to undergo treatment to “cure” him of his homosexual tendencies.

After seeing Touko’s drawings, Nipa convinces him to send the drawings to a publisher in the United States. After publication, Touko’s work (under the Tom of Finland name) becomes popular with the gay community in California whose members use the sketches as part of their code to signal to other gay men who they are and if they are sexually available. In due time, Touko earns enough money from the drawings that he and Nipa can buy their own apartment, furnish it how they want (with yellow curtains that Touko calls “sissy”) and live fairly openly as a gay couple. Touko no longer needs to work at the advertising agency and can devote his time to drawing homoerotic pictures. He is brought to the US by two fans where he is introduced to the gay biker sub-culture which his pictures helped to inspire. By this time though, Nipa has been diagnosed with terminal throat cancer and his ailment is the precursor to the HIV – AIDS crisis that hits gay communities around the world hard. Touko is anguished that his drawings may have encouraged the promiscuity associated with the disease and with the help of his American friends resolves to help fight the disease and the politically conservative backlash against gay people.

As a film espousing hope and sympathy for the hardships that gay people have had to suffer, “Tom of Finland” probably has few equals. Unfortunately though the film gives little information about how society in Finland changes over the decades from one hostile and repressive towards homosexuality and homosexual people into one more tolerant and relaxed enough to make a film celebrating Laaksonen as a significant cultural icon. We do not learn when homosexuality was decriminalised in Finland (the year was 1971 when the law was changed) and when it was declassified as an illness (1981). The film’s narrow focus on Touko’s personal life and relationships to the exclusion of the changing social context around him robs it of a definite linear structure that would have given it more direction and made the film more relevant to a non-Finnish audience.

For a film with not much plot to work with, “Tom of Finland” is surprisingly absorbing, perhaps because its central characters are stoic yet sensitive, and need to be pushed by other people to get what is due to them. Touko needs Kaija to get him out of his post-war depression and needs Nipa to prod him to send his artwork to a publisher, setting in train the distribution of the drawings that will make his reputation. Kaija herself needs pushing but tragically rejects opinions that her own artwork is good and worthy of exhibiting. Seeing Kaija being left behind as an artist whose potential remains unrealised, and as a lonely spinster figure heavily dependent on mainstream approval and scornful of her brother’s “dick drawings”, I could not help but feel pity for her.

The film’s style for the most part is low-key and subtle: Touko’s liaisons are treated over-cautiously and even the scenes of gay life in California tend towards the tasteful side. The only exposed male genitalia are those of Touko’s drawings: even the fantasy figure Kake who sometimes appears in Touko’s dreams is always covered up. On the whole, the film is enjoyable to watch as a work of historical drama fiction portraying an individual and a subculture navigating their way through mainstream society’s limitations and testing its boundaries over the years.

The film provides no explanation as to why Touko was drawn to sketching and illustrating pictures of gay male beefcake types in working class fashions, or how and why motorcycles and the biker leather fashions that grew up around them after World War II should have become associated with gay subcultures.

Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 7: Adam Ruins College): how financially naive young adults end up in the grip of neoliberal economic ideology

Paul Briganti, “Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 7: Adam Ruins College)” (2017)

Aiming squarely at its target audience of US high school students and undergrads, this episode is nevertheless of interest to foreigners who coasted through undergraduate university and college courtesy of government-funded grants or scholarships, or even enjoyed free tuition, and might be mystified as to how and why Americans these days land themselves in life-long debt because of … student loans! Adam Conover takes prospective college student Cole (Lukas Gage) and the audience through what almost amounts to a labyrinth of why going to college these days is so necessary – because most jobs in the future will demand a college degree – yet how going to college can become an unnecessary financial millstone around young people’s necks.

Initially Cole thinks he can be like Bill Gates and become a drop-out tech billionaire. Not so fast, Adam points out – most people who have only a high school diploma will eventually end up, at every stage of their career, earning less than someone with a college degree. Quickly convinced by Adam’s argument, Cole decides to read the US News & World Report’s college rankings guide on what college to choose – only for Adam to explain how the guide is manipulated by college administrators and ultimately can’t advise on the best colleges to attend with respect to the quality of education offered. Moving into a noisy student party, Adam and Cole shout their way through a quick history of lending to college students: initially government funded and regulated, the institution known as Sallie Mae was privatised in the 1990s and almost immediately began to exploit naive 18-year-olds for profit in much the same way that banks began pushing subprime mortgages onto people with suspect credit histories who could not pay off their housing loans.

In spite of the happy atmosphere and Cole’s kooky, gullible nature, the episode does deliver a very grim message: to get ahead in life, people need college degrees but may risk acquiring a huge debt that only could take a life-time to pay off but which could also affect their eligibility for future social welfare, not to mention limiting their choices as to work, having shelter and even planning a family. Happily Adam suggests to Cole that he should see a financial advisor about the kind of loan that would suit him and that community college or a publicly funded college may be a better option than going to an expensive Ivy League university.

The action seems a lot more histrionic and the whackiness has a forced quality about it due to over-acting on Conover and Gage’s part. Oddly there’s none of the animation that enlivens other episodes in the “Adam Ruins Everything” series. As with other episodes I’ve seen of this series, there are no really great revelations that most members of the public, particularly college students and their families, wouldn’t already be familiar with. Still this is a very entertaining show that moves briskly and which ends on an upbeat note.

Ultimately though the show can only go so far as to demonstrate that privatising institutions that offer student loans can open the door to predatory profiteering on financially naive people, and cannot draw parallels between the nation-wide student loan manipulation rort and similar bubbles such as the subprime mortgage bubble that killed off Lehmann Brothers in 2008 and ushered in the Great Recession. Once again, neoliberal capitalism rears its ugly head to prey on the vulnerable. Is there an alternative? “Adam Ruins Everything” unfortunately cannot offer one: for one thing, suggesting that university tuition should be free might not go down well with a TV-viewing public brainwashed to believe that a social welfare state is too, er … socialist.

 

Oh Boy: a young man without purpose and focus comes to accept responsibility and care for the world

Jan Ole Gerster, “Oh Boy” (2012)

Debut film for German director Jan Ole Gerster, “Oh Boy” is a tragicomedy detailing 24 hours in the life of a young man, Niko Fischer (Tom Schilling), who lives without purpose and seems cut off from others in a gritty and bustling Berlin of the early 21st century. As soon as Niko wakes up one day, nearly anything and everything that can go wrong does. His girlfriend walks out on him, his psychologist won’t give him back his driver’s licence after his drink driving incident, his dad cuts off his monthly allowance after discovering Niko dropped out of law school two years ago, he gets busted for not having a valid train ticket by two inspectors … and he just can’t get a decent cup of regular coffee anywhere in a city supposedly famous for coffee and cakes.

As the hapless Niko, Schilling puts in a remarkable performance in portraying a young man out of sorts with the world and himself. Nearly everyone he meets resembles him in some way, above all in their inability to come to terms with reality and accept responsibility for their actions and those actions’ consequences, and for the welfare of others. Niko blunders from one scenario to another where an actor’s obsession with perfection is a cover for his fear of embarrassing himself in parts for films and plays, where a young woman’s struggle with a past childhood of obesity also involves her own personal confrontation with low self-esteem and need for love and acceptance, and where a married couple live at opposite ends of a building (top and basement) because they cannot communicate with each other. Niko’s encounter with a drunken aged gentleman who rants about the events of Kristallnacht back in 1938 finally galvanises the young man into taking appropriate action to try to save the elderly man’s life later on … with mixed results ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous.

Berlin is a significant character with shots of the city punctuating the plot at various critical points along the way and acting as links between scenes, leading into a new plot development. An intimately moody, jazzy soundtrack helps reinforce key elements in the film, whether these are to emphasise the city’s dark, alienating nature or Niko’s alienation in the world around him. The film’s black-and’white look renders people’s facial features fairly sharply and the cinematograhy, often employing a wide panoramic approach, showcases Berlin in all its confusing, often contradictory and chaotic glory with incredible precision.

Through characters like Niko, the hapless actor Matze and the young woman Julika who still thinks herself fat in spite of her svelte figure, “Oh Boy” makes the point that Germany as a whole still hasn’t completely accepted its responsibility for its Nazi past and the sufferings that Germans inflicted on others throughout Europe. Beneath the bohemian pretensions, the fascination with experimental and avant-garde art forms, the hippie lifestyles and the punk haircuts, society is still as class-ridden and obsessed with material greed and self-interest as ever. Niko learns the hard way that if he wants connection with others, that if he doesn’t want to be lonely and alienated, he must offer connection first. Only then, the next day, Niko might be able to have that cup of coffee he spent the last 24 hours crawling for.

The Truman Show: comedy drama satire encapsulating the search for authenticity for self and community under conditions of control and manipulation

Peter Weir, “The Truman Show” (1998)

Once in a while Hollywood releases a film that encapsulates philosophical ideas about the purpose of life and the human desire for freedom and autonomy under conditions of control and manipulation. That the film was made as a comedy drama featuring a bizarre science fiction plot in which ideals about American family life and culture are satirised in a virtual reality framework is an added bonus and such a film, if made well, has the potential to become a classic. Peter Weir’s “The Truman Show” nearly hits all the right notes in this respect. The film’s presentation is spotless and its titular main character, played by Jim Carrey, is endearing – but the film is not perfect and is probably a bit too low-key for its mainstream audience.

Truman Burbank (Carrey) lives on Seahaven Island, a bright seaside community where he was brought up. He sells insurance and is married to Meryl (Laura Linney), a nurse. Unbeknownst to Truman, his whole life has been lived in a continuous TV reality show “The Truman Show” masterminded by director Christof (Ed Harris). The film’s plot basically demonstrates how Truman comes to realise that his whole life has been on display to global TV audiences through incidents such as a spotlight falling out of the sky, point rain falling on him and an out-of-town police officer he does not know calling him by his first name. Truman’s efforts to find out the truth of his life and discover the lie he has led make for very funny comedy. At the heart of his odyssey lies his attraction to and love for Sylvia (Natascha McElhone) played by an actress who tried to warn Truman that he was being exploited but ended up being thrown off the show. Eventually after many mishaps and incidents that involve Truman overcoming his fear of water, and a sailing ordeal during which he nearly drowns in storms sent by Christof’s technical crew, Truman discovers that he has indeed been living in a bubble and finally meets Christof who tries to persuade him to return to Seahaven Island.

Carrey plays Truman very well as cartoon character and as someone struggling to find the truth about his existence and the community in which he has grown up. Probably the major fault with Carrey’s portrayal is that he does not display much emotion but the narrow range of emotions that do appear agrees with the nature of the character that he plays: Truman is basically a fake character and Seahaven Island represents an artificial and unrealistic ideal. The confrontation with Christof is restrained and short, and while audiences might have expected much Sturm und Angst, the breakthrough is that Truman wrestles control of his character and destiny away from Christof. Truman finally becomes a real person with a real future ahead of him; it may be messy and uncertain, and he will most certainly find that truth and reality are even more elusive in a world living through simulated reality, but his journey now becomes his own to make.

The plot tends to be repetitive with Truman going from one scrape to another as he tries to discover the truth but the direction is tight and brisk. Truman’s jump from being aquaphobic to confidently piloting a boat out in the middle of Seahaven Island harbour is rather forced but it does break with the previous monotony of the script. Perhaps the film could have been a bit longer with a slower pace and more opportunity for character development and depth in Christof and minor characters.

The themes that “The Truman Show” raises about manipulating and controlling people for profit, and about manipulating a social ideal and recent American social and cultural history to shape audience desires in the service of profit are highly provocative. Add to this mix a classic narrative about an individual’s search for meaning and purpose to his life and self-discovery in an original plot, and the continuing relevance of the film to audiences even today can be clearly seen.

Spirited Away: a lavish film representing the peak of Studio Ghibli’s creativity and the start of its decline

Hayao Miyazaki, “Spirited Away” (2001)

In many ways, “Spirited Away” represents the peak of Studio Ghibli’s creativity and innovation, and the beginning of its decline as a creator of imaginative anime films aimed at children and families. Technically the film cannot be faulted and its production values are very high, colourful and lavish, even overdone. Its narrative is easy to follow and its theme of a young girl who learns responsibility and caring for others, and who matures a great deal during her Alice-in-Wonderland adventures, will be apparent to most people. There is a definite message about caring for the natural environment and a condemnation of capitalist society and the ways in which it corrupts people with easy wealth. At the same time, I feel that the film lacks zest and a carefree quality that was present in earlier Studio Ghibli films like “Kiki’s Delivery Service”, and that the plot’s resolution gives it a suffocating circular hermetic quality and condemns its young heroine Chihiro to living in a world that will deny her further spiritual and moral development.

Chihiro is delivered unexpectedly into the fantasy world by her parents when they lose their way to their new home in a new semi-rural community and stop at the wall of what they believe is a theme park. The three enter the place and the parents come across a sumptuous buffet which they tuck into without hesitation. The adults are turned into pigs and Chihiro is forced to appeal to strangers such as a young boy called Haku within the fortress for help. The fortress is actually a bath-house for spirits and to survive, Chihiro has to apply for a job there. Her employer is the witch Yubaba who steals the girl’s name on the contract and forces her to answer to the name of Sen. Sen is forced to undertake the toughest and dirtiest jobs such as helping a filthy river god to bath and divest itself of accumulated pollution and junk (with hilarious results) but almost comes a cropper when she allows a mysterious spirit called No Face to enter the bath-house and cause havoc and chaos when it tries to buy her affections with gold it conjures up and instead turns into a voracious monster gobbling up food and bath-house staff alike.

By chance and through the kindness of the other bath-house employees, Sen learns that Yubaba has Haku under an evil spell and she breaks the spell by returning a stolen gold seal to Yubaba’s kindly identical twin sister Zeniba. To do this, she has to travel all day and all night by train over a vast sea with No Face who has sobered up from his manic eating and vomiting spree. She helps Yubaba’s spoilt sumo-wrestler baby as well and the baby becomes an ally of hers. Through her ordeals and adventures, Sen learns love and discovers the true nature of Haku, and together they work to break her contract with Yubaba and force Yubaba to restore her true name and release her parents from their porcine forms before they are sent to the abattoir.

Some parts of the plot are a bit wonky – it’s never clear as to why Chihiro’s parents start munching away on food in an apparently abandoned restaurant, and Chihiro’s own transformation from spoilt brat to dependable young woman, and the admiration and respect she gains as a result from the other bath-house workers, is a bit too speedy for my liking – but the plot is clear enough and proceeds leisurely and gracefully from start to finish. Japanese cultural tradition is laid very thickly and the nostalgia that Miyazaki feels for a lost pre-1867 world is very real. Haku’s transformation from boy to dragon and back again hints at a shamanist past in Japan. Quirky Japanese humour is evident in such characters as the giant crybaby sumo-wrestler child and the guide that takes Chihiro and No Face to Zeniba’s cottage.

In spite of, or perhaps because of, the film’s richly layered style, the didactic messages it delivers and its conservative view of the world, “Spirited Away” seems very overwrought for a story that probably needs a more minimalist style. The initial shock of seeing the huge bath-house and the unusual clients it attracts gives way to the mundane realisation that Yubaba’s workers are as much exploited and trapped as Chihiro and Haku are – yet in all the shenanigans the two youngsters are forced to undergo, there’s no indication that they want to or try to help the workers overthrow their tyrannical employer and institute a form of workers’ democracy. Perhaps it’s too much to expect a 10-year-old girl and an equally young water spirit (not to mention all the other nature spirits who patronise the bath-house) to know anything much about socialism and lead a revolution that will throw out Yubaba and force her either to treat the workers fairly or to go into exile. This means that at the end of the film, Chihiro is reunited with two adults who learn nothing from their error and are completely oblivious to their daughter’s new ways, and it would seem that the bath-house will continue to labour under Yubaba’s capricious rule. Chihiro and Haku part in a way that suggests they will never see each other again, though Haku may continue to think about the girl and treasure his memories of her.

The film perhaps would have worked better if Chihiro and Haku had been older, and a real love story allowed to develop between the two. The two by their example would have inspired the bath-house workers to rise up against Yubaba and send her packing. Chihiro’s parents would have been allowed to make amends for their greed and everyone would have learned something about the nature of the capitalist society that encourages selfishness, undermines loyalty and co-operation, and ultimately corrodes traditional Japanese values and customs. The ending could have been … well, open-ended, with Chihiro and her parents on the brink of choosing whether to return to their humdrum suburban lives working for The Man or remain in a vivid world that promises real values and a more authentic way of living and being.

A Samurai Chronicle: an earnest and heavy-going lesson in how to live a good life with grace, compassion and humility

Takashi Koizumi, “A Samurai Chronicle” (2014)

I’m afraid that these days the Japanese just don’t make samurai dramas the way they used to, with devil-may-care flair and an eye for stunningly choreographed sword-fighting action, and a simple story and moral to justify the flashy chang-a-chang violence and high body counts. “A Samurai Chronicle” is an earnest and heavy-going investigation of what real honour should mean to a samurai, and how a samurai should use his fighting skills in helping and defending the weak, the poor and those oppressed and exploited by the rich and powerful. Young samurai Danno Shozaburo (Junichi Okada), in trouble for having picked a fight with another young hot-headed fellow and drawn his sword in his lord’s castle, is dispatched by the head of his clan to assist and spy on Toda Shokaku (Koji Yashudo) who was exiled to his property seven years ago for apparently having insulted Lord Nakane by interfering with his concubine and killing a bunch of retainers. The punishment is seppuku (ritual suicide) but the lord gives Toda ten years’ grace to write a history of their clan’s lineage. Toda retires to his rural villa to do so and the matter that led to his exile is hushed up. It is Danno’s job to make sure that Toda keeps on working on the family history and genealogy, and that when the man’s time is up, he does not try to avoid his punishment.

For three years then Danno lives with Toda’s family and becomes a close friend of Toda and his bold and headstrong adolescent children. At first surprised that Toda engages in farming and treats the local villagers as his equals, Danno gradually takes up agricultural labour himself and follows the family members in their interactions with the villagers, and discovers that he enjoys working around the farm and meeting people unlike himself and learning about their lives and troubles. The villagers are harassed by moneylenders wanting loans repaid and the corrupt commissioner who visits them and makes threats against them. (He is later killed by two of the villagers.) At the same time, Danno decides to learn more about the incident that disgraced Toda and makes a series of discoveries about the incident that suggest Toda is innocent of indiscretion against the concubine (who has now become a nun), and that the cover-up was done to get rid of the concubine’s young son and to protect and keep secret the false genealogy of Lord Nakane’s wife so that her son Yoshiyuki would succeed Lord Nakane as clan head.

The plot is quite complicated and doesn’t leave much room for character development so viewers will find Danno’s character and maturation from willful fighter to thoughtful leader rather flat and subdued. His romance with Toda’s daughter is equally sketchy to the point of being non-existent. Indeed all characters remain much the same throughout and are little more than stereotypes. Toda accepts his fate graciously, even happily, and the impending death obviously has influenced his outlook on life and how he lives it. Danno strives to achieve justice for Toda but eventually has to accept that all his efforts are in vain. Even so, the film ends on quite a happy note as Toda’s son Ikutaro comes of age and accepts leadership of the family in spite of his youth, and Danno marries Toda’s daughter. The villagers’ lot is still heavy but their burden is somewhat lightened thanks to Ikutaro and Danno’s intercession with their clan leader on behalf of young village boy Genkichi who takes the brunt of the punishment meant for his dad Manji for the murder of the commissioner.

The film can be beautiful to watch though scenes of nature indicating the passage of time have become something of a cliche in Japanese historical films. The action tends to be lumbering rather than light and each scene seems bogged down with layers of messages about honour, helping others, being courageous, taking action and how samurai folks ideally should behave. At times the film seems to be a didactic travelogue through traditional Japanese culture, and perhaps it is for young Japanese people ignorant of their history as much as for curious Westerners. There is also a critical attitude towards public pretence for the sake of preserving people’s reputations and not upsetting the social order, even if that means innocent people end up suffering severe punishment. Above all through the character of Toda Shokaku, the film says something about how one should live a life of grace and compassion, and use one’s talents and abilities to the full to help others when one’s time on Earth is finite.

Perhaps the film might have worked better as a two-part or three-part mini-series to enable better character development and allow viewers time to absorb the messages. The romance sub-plot and other sub-plots would have had a better chance to evolve. As it is, “A Samurai Chronicle” comes across as rather strained and a bit dull.

Conflagration: a competent critique of modern Japan and an unreal quest for beauty and purity

Kon Ichikawa, “Conflagration / Enjo” (1958)

Based on the novel “The Temple of the Golden Pavilion” (itself based on an actual incident) by notorious Japanese writer / actor / nationalist Yukio Mishima, this film is a character study of a young and idealistic if very flawed Buddhist acolyte in the throes of a spiritual and psychological crisis, and the behaviours that his crisis leads to, with all their tragic consequences. Goichi Mizoguchi (Raizo Ichikawa) comes from an unfortunate background: his parents have been custodians of a remote country Zen Buddhist temple that received few visitors, and to relieve the stress of poverty and isolation, Goichi’s father spoke frequently to his son of his desire for them both to visit the famous temple of the Golden Pavilion, the most beautiful object in Japan. However the elder Mizoguchi dies from illness and so Goichi journeys alone to become apprenticed as an acolyte to the head priest Dosen Tayama (Ganjiro Nakamura) who is a friend of his father’s. Though shy and suffering from a stutter, Goichi is accepted by Tayama. Tayama recognises that Goichi is diligent and has some good qualities, and hopes that the teenager will eventually succeed him as head priest: to that end, he arranges for Goichi to continue his schooling and then to attend the local university. While settling down at the temple, Goichi visits the Shukaku building, the actual focus of the temple complex, and realises that it indeed is a beautiful creation.

Goichi’s mother insinuates herself as a maid at the temple and starts to pressure her son to put his head down and tail up in the expectation that he will succeed Tayama, though there are other worthy apprentices also working at the temple. Over time, as Japan undergoes American military occupation and becomes Westernised, the temple becomes a tourist attraction, making good money, and the unworldly monks become corrupted by easy wealth and materialist desires. Tayama himself visits geishas (and gets a woman pregnant) and spends money in ways unbecoming of an austere Zen Buddhist monk. Mizoguchi’s only friend, the kindly Tsurukawa, dies in a horrible accident and his place is taken by the cynical Togari (Tatsuya Nakadai), a cripple who eggs on Mizoguchi to commit various misdemeanours that escalate in seriousness so as to offend Tayama enough that he will throw out Mizoguchi. But no matter how much Mizoguchi skips school and university, runs away, borrows money without paying back, spends his tuition fees on prostitutes or lies about accepting cigarettes from an American soldier for pushing his girlfriend and causing her to have a miscarriage, the head priest does nothing.

Eventually Mizoguchi, stressed by his mother’s demands and Togari’s manipulations, infuriated at Tayama’s silences and apparent inaction, and disappointed that the Shukaku building itself means nothing more to the monks and society at large as a money-making machine, vows to take drastic action: on a journey back to his former rural home, he remembers his father’s funeral and cremation, and there he makes the decision that will damn him for the rest of his life: he will destroy the Shukaku temple to preserve its beauty and purity from the defilements of materialism.

The film can be read as a critique of modern Japanese society, its obsession with money and materialism, and how such obsession corrupts Buddhist values. However Toyama still retains a conscience, and is troubled by his new double life: in that, there is the suggestion that no matter how corrupted and sinful one becomes, there is always the possibility of redemption if one repents and makes amends. Nakadai plays a significant role in undermining Mizoguchi with his cynicism and knowledge, but ends up a pathetic character. Mizoguchi himself, for all his idealism and potential, has a rotten core: having been bullied and spurned throughout his childhood for his stutter and background, he grows up with self-loathing and hatred, and fails to see that, in spite of their weaknesses and imperfections, Tayama and the other priests do mean well and want him to succeed.

Mizoguchi’s tragedy is that he is unable to overcome his dysfunctional family background, his resentment at his vulgar and sensuous mother for betraying his father and bullying him, and the flawed idealism, combined with revulsion for the physical senses, that both his parents inspired in him.

The bulk of the film is told in flashback form which enables significant events relevant to Mizoguchi’s final actions to be inserted into the narrative smoothly and help to escalate the tension and derangement that the young man suffers.

While the film is not very deep – Ichikawa left out much of the Zen philosophy of the novel so that the movie could appeal to a wide audience, and made his central character less conflicted and somewhat more bland than in the novel – it does a very good job of criticising Japanese society in the 1950s with its grasping nature and the potential loss of ethical values. Redemption though is always possible – but this makes the film’s final scene all the more devastating.

Paris, Texas: a film of isolation and rootlessness that cannot find purchase in a ruthless machine society

Wim Wenders, “Paris, Texas” (1984)

One of American cinema’s finest yet under-appreciated treasures must surely be the unassuming actor Harry Dean Stanton whose acting career reached its diamond anniversary in 2014. Usually cast in supporting roles, here he is employed in the lead role as the amnesiac Travis in Wim Wenders’ road flick “Paris, Texas”, a meditation on isolation, rootlessness, self-discovery and redemption. The thin plot strains credibility and the small cast is sometimes rather workman-like but what it says about the human condition and the particular social environment that has made Travis and his fellow characters what they are is more important.

After four years wandering lost in the desert somewhere in Arizona or New Mexico, Travis stumbles into a petrol station and a doctor there calls for help. The authorities call on Travis’ closest of kin, brother Walt (Dean Stockwell) and Walt’s wife Anne (Aurore Clément), to collect him. Walt brings Travis back in a somewhat roundabout way (involving a detour to a place called Paris, in Texas, consisting of little more than a collection of derelict trucks in the middle of the desert) to his own home in Los Angeles where Travis is reacquainted with his son Hunter (Hunter Carson). Travis and Hunter gradually warm to each other to the point where Travis, determining to find out what happened to his estranged wife Jane (Nastassja Kinski), is able to take the boy with him on a long driving trip from Los Angeles to Houston in Texas. There, Travis makes an unpleasant discovery about Jane and has to decide whether to reconcile with her or not.

The film is long and meandering, and at times it appears not quite focused, as if to mirror its central character’s struggle to understand himself and the most important people in his life, and how his life came off the rails originally. Stanton underplays his part well: his character veers from child-like to adult, gradually opening up and maturing as he re-establishes a relationship with Hunter and then searches for Jane. Stockwell and Clément play their parts well: in their own way, Walt and Anne are as lost in the urban jungle of Los Angeles which in some respects is as much a vast desert as the one where Travis was lost. Carson is appealing as the son caught up in the trappings of modern Western culture, disdaining walking and close physical and emotional contact for the attractions of cars and video-games. But the best (if understated) acting comes in the film’s climax when Travis talks to his wife on the phone at her place of work where she provides phone sex talk to lonely customers: Travis admits to Jane that his love for her became an unhealthy obsession and led to a strong controlling streak on his part that eventually broke up their relationship and which literally sent him into the desert wilderness.

Supported by fine cinematography that emphasises the flat and open expanses of the desert landscapes, the restless society that has put down shallow roots in this environment, and the drawling slide-guitar soundtrack by Ry Cooder that evokes the stark loneliness of the Texan urban and rural worlds, the film follows Travis’ attempts at rediscovering himself, reuniting his family and finding in the reunion of Jane and Hunter the atonement for his earlier misdeeds that will allow him to move forward without guilt.

Admittedly the film can be hokey in parts and the disruption that Travis could have brought to his brother’s family and Jane is reduced to some misgivings on sister-in-law Anne’s part about the possibility of Travis taking Hunter away from her and Walt. The film could have been edited here and there for length without affecting its distinctive atmosphere and low-key style. Stockwell and Clément are not given much to do and their reaction to Travis disappearing from their home, taking Hunter with him, is inexplicably passive. Having reunited Jane and Hunter, Travis purposely leaves them, perhaps forever, to return where he came from or to pursue his dream of finding Paris, Texas.

The lonely life in the dreary Houston suburb where Jane plies her trade is taken for granted; no-one bothers to ask Jane why she had to take up such seedy work, nor why she couldn’t get a better job in LA with the help of her in-laws. The isolation and rootlessness of people; and the culture and its values that encourage people to continually move around, whether to better themselves, earn more money, pursue fame and riches, and which tout individual freedoms in narrow ways that privilege greed and competition, with the resultant loss of connection and intimacy: all are accepted by director Wenders as they are and are never questioned here. Travis might mature enormously during his quest for identity and need for emotional connection but at the end of the film, he is still at a loss of how to cope and deal with a mostly indifferent, ruthless society. He cannot survive in such a world where work and efficiency for their own sake, where people like his ex-wife and his brother’s family are forced to exist as isolated units, and so he voluntarily chooses to return to the desert. How this voluntary return to isolation is going to aid Travis in further self-discovery and maturation – it could also put him in danger of regression into amnesia – Wenders is unable to say and the conclusion seems half-hearted to the point of defeatism.

Shorn of its excess baggage, “Paris, Texas” would still pack considerable emotional punch, though I suppose it would lose its meandering, lackadaiscal pace .

Cinderella (directed by Kenneth Branagh): a canny live-action Disney reworking carries its own messages amongst the schmaltz

Kenneth Branagh, “Cinderella” (2015)

Being a Disney production, this live-action version of the tale as Disney tells it can only go so far in its reinterpretation for a new audience. Director Kenneth Branagh is canny enough to make a fairy-tale that appeals as much to adults as to children while subtly shifting the focus slightly so that the attention focuses on the rivalry between Cinderella (Lily James) and her wicked stepmother (Cate Blanchett) and the different sets of values they represent. In this way, Branagh tries to say something about how youth, innocence, spontaneity, authenticity and having regard for one’s fellow travellers in life, be they high-born or low-born, will triumph over cynicism, calculation, hierarchy and upholding traditions and customs that may once have been relevant but have now lost their meaning and are observed simply for their own sake. Branagh sets his story in a lavish faux 18th-century wonderland where artifice and nature become one and the same, and Disney magic  is made fresh yet familiar.

Branagh sticks closely to the Disney story but at least he gives his characters motives and he surrounds Lily James and Richard Madden (who places Prince Charming) with seasoned actors – all of them British including James and Madden, save for the Australian Blanchett – who play their roles quite subtly. Blanchett may never single-handedly save the Australian film industry by staying home and sponsoring young directors, script-writers and actors but if she’s going to pursue more Hollywood projects in competition with other ageing actresses (and I for one would advise her against that since work for actresses aged 40+ years in Hollywood tends to be rather scarce), she may as well have a ball: she clearly relishes her role as the sadistic stepmother, flamboyant and elegant in dress, scheming and vindictive in nature. Yet audiences can sympathise with her plight: in an age when women of her socioeconomic status were expected not to work but to depend on their fathers or husbands for money and material wellbeing, Blanchett’s stepmother, twice widowed, is clearly desperate to marry well and to see her daughters, silly and spoiled as they are, married off well too. If love can blossom as well, that’s a bonus; but alas, the stepmother discovers her second husband does not love her much at all. This is about as far as Disney will go to demonstrate how in many ways upper-class women had fewer options and freedoms than their lower-class sisters did in early modern Western society. An irony exists then, when the stepmother banishes Cinderella to the servants’ quarters after the death of the girl’s father forces the family to scrimp and save by letting the hired help go: by having to do hard work, Cinderella becomes a capable young woman, able to empathise with other lowly people, to spend more time with her mouse friends and to have more freedom (to ride a horse into the countryside where she meets Prince Charming on a hunting trip) than her step-sisters who are forced by their mother to learn piano, singing, drawing and other idle pastimes expected of young ladies of their class (and not doing very well at any of these activities).

James and Madden bring freshness and some substance to their respective roles but that’s all that can really be said about them. James’ experience in acting is sorely tested in her last scene with Blanchett and her last line of dialogue to the other woman sounds unconvincing. For a film preaching conservative Christian charity, this part really goes down a clunker. The fate of the stepmother and her daughters afterwards becomes so ambiguous as to suggest (horror of horrors!) that they might have been banished, which goes against the grain of Cinderella’s maturing and her capacity for compassion, but in an original twist, Prince Charming’s chief advisor with whom the stepmother was getting a bit chummy also goes into exile so there’s the suggestion that they have hooked up together and hopefully will live happily ever after. (Branagh might have brought some loose ends over from his Hamlet acting / directing effort from way back in the mid-1990s.) There are moments in the film that hint that Cinderella might not be as kind as she should be, that she might be capable of anger and revenge against those who have wronged her. Madden’s Prince Charming is allowed to develop some character in a small subplot in which he and his father (Derek Jacobi) argue over the sort of woman he should marry: the king is all for an arranged marriage with a princess as custom dictates but the prince desires to marry someone who is innately good and natural. The role of the king is no stretch for Jacobi who only has to remember bits and pieces of past Shakespearean roles but he’s better off slumming his pensioner days in any fluff piece by Branagh than with some other British directors.

The film is packed with CGI flourishes which are to be expected and its landscapes and architecture are deliberately overdone and artificial. There’s no such thing as too much excess, especially excess of the smooth and saccharine kind, and the biggest problem in a film of this kind is for the actors not to compete with this excess but to act in a way that is either minimal or natural without being swallowed up by the tinsel. Happily Branagh knows when to pull back on the lavishness to allow his cast moments to be themselves. Appropriately for a film in which power passes from an older generation (and the values it represents) to a younger, the setting is some time in the 18th century: an age where absolutist monarchy was at its height but would soon be felled by revolutionary activity inspired by the Enlightenment. The narrative is slow to get off the ground, and quite a lot of time could be shaved off the first half of the film, but then starts to move very rapidly once the main characters are established.

I’m sure everyone associated with this film has done better work or will do better work, and I’m certain Branagh didn’t sweat much at all over it, but as it is, “Cinderella” is Disney-perfect in a way that satisfies its core audience of little girls and their big sisters and mums, caters to the public’s desire for pre-9/11 innocence and nostalgia, and reinforces traditional Christian values of kindness, courage and stoicism in adversity, forgiveness and  hope for a better world: values that are sorely needed in an age when political, economic and cultural chaos are becoming more apparent.

The fact that Disney relies on a British director and a British / Australian cast to carry off one of its flagship Disney fairy-tale staples in a live-action film probably does not say very much that is positive for the current state of American directing and acting.