Tales from Earthsea: a fantasy film lacking in sparkle and wonder

Goro Miyazaki, “Tales from Earthsea / Gedo senki” (2006)

Watching this film, gorgeous as it is visually, I couldn’t help but feel that it’s a classic example of “style over substance” – the original Earthsea book series is heavily squeezed and mashed into a hybrid that probably bears very little resemblance to the characters, plots and themes of the books. All the characters in this film seem cut from the same mould as so many other Studio Ghibli movie characters are: the heroes are children, one a feisty young girl on the cusp of puberty, the other a youth with a troubled past or a character flaw; the adults are either villains, of whom some are buffoons and the others genuinely malevolent but not without some degree of sympathy, or they are parental mentors playing second fiddle to the heroes. The plot usually pushes themes enjoining environmental balance and harmony, pointing out the suffering that occurs if the balance is disrupted; the dangers of using power irresponsibly; and young people discovering their purpose in life. Take away the Studio Ghibli visuals and you find a dreary film overburdened by its Studio Ghibli legacy.

The lands of Earthsea are afflicted by disasters brought about by an imbalance in the world: crops are failing, livestock are dying and people are suffering from a mysterious deadly disease. The wizard Sparrowhawk (voiced by Timothy Dalton in the English-language dubbing) determines to find the cause of this imbalance. In his travels he meets young Prince Arren, fleeing the kingdom of Enlad for having killed his royal father and haunted by a mysterious Shadow. Passing through Hort Town, the two separate briefly and Arren saves a young orphan girl, Therru, from slave-traders led by Hare (Cheech Marin). After various adventures, in which Arren is briefly enslaved, he and Sparrowhawk find refuge with a wise woman, Tenar (Mariska Hargitay), who has been raising Therru as her own daughter after finding her abandoned by her parents who mistreated the child.

Sparrowhawk determines (in a way that the film does not make very clear) that his sorcerer rival Cob (Willem Dafoe) is responsible for creating the imbalance in the universe that is ruining Earthsea through his dangerous quest to cheat death and achieve immortality. Cob knows through his raven spy that Sparrowhawk is looking for him so he makes his rival’s job that much easier and faster by kidnapping and imprisoning Tenar. He takes Arren hostage as well and casts a spell over him using his real name Lebannen. Through various plot twists the children Arren and Therru come to save Sparrowhawk and Tenar and to defeat Cob.

For the most part, the plot is slow with a huge middle section where very little happens and most of the action (and revelations) packed into the last half hour of the film. Cob’s motive for wanting to control Arren is not very clear – but then generally the motives of all the characters for doing what they do are very vague. The characters are typical Studio Ghibli stereotypes and lack individuality and substance. Only Therru is likely to make much of an impression on viewers with her surliness, bad temper and (later) her steadfast loyalty. The dragons that should be the film’s highlight appear seldom.

While backgrounds look good, the animation is uneven – some characters look badly drawn – and the music soundtrack is pver-loud kitsch Celtic folk to the extreme. The whole film lacks freshness, spark and a sense of fun. This film is definitely not one to watch unless viewers are diehard Studio Ghibli fans.

 

Formulaic coming-of-age heroic fantasy blends with Thai Buddhist beliefs in “The Legend of Muay Thai: 9 Satra”

Pongsa Kornsri, Gun Phansuwon, Nat Yoswatananont, “The Legend of Muay Thai: 9 Satra” (2018)

Not known for its animation industry, Thailand nevertheless seems to be pinning its hopes on this film, recently released in Australia and New Zealand, to garner some attention (and maybe lots of money!) for the industry’s further development. The plot is standard Hollywood formula: the principality of Ramthep is conquered by a demon race called the Yaksas and an old blind sage prophesies that a hero will save Ramthep and restore its rightful Prince, and destroy Yaksa leader Dehayaksa into the bargain. A general in the Ramthep army escapes the Yaksas carrying the kingdom’s most sacred weapon, the Ninth Satra, and a peasant baby called Ott. The general is gravely paralysed by the Yaksas while escaping but finds refuge on the remote island of Nok Ann. There, Ott grows up and is trained in the Thai martial art of muay thai as part of the general’s mission to return the Ninth Satra to its Prince so Ramthep may be restored. The Yaksas find and destroy Nok Ann village but not before Ott escapes with the Ninth Satra. With his adoptive father the general dead and all of Nok Ann village gone, Ott has to find his way to a homeland he barely knows. With luck, he is picked up by two friends, Red Asura, a yaksa who is friendly towards humans, and Va-ta, a monkey king, and later by a pirate ship captained by Chinese pirate queen Xiaolan. Together the foursome lead the pirate fleet to Ramthep on a journey fraught with several dangers including being harassed by Dehayaksa’s scout Black Jagger and having to navigate the pirate ship through a treacherously narrow passage.

The film rockets along at a good pace, neither too fast nor too slow, though the fight scenes are too quick and flashy to show off the style and movements of muay thai at its best.  Still, for a film that cost US$7 million to make, the computer animation is well done with characters that move smoothly and naturally, and background scenes, especially those that showcase Thai Buddhist architecture and the country’s islands, are gorgeous in their colour and detail. The aerial chase and fight scenes are spectacular to watch and are perhaps the major highlight of the film. (Of course there is the overblown Saturday morning children’s cartoon showdown between Ott and Dehayaksa and as may be expected it’s full of fire and fury and not a great deal else.) The animators pay considerable attention to character development, especially the characters of Ott, Red Asura and Xiaolan, with the result that viewers come to care a great deal about these particular figures as they battle their inner demons as well as the greater demon in Dehayaksa and his forces.

What really distinguishes this film though is the way in which the plot blends a formulaic coming-of-age fantasy epic with elements of Thai myth and Thai Buddhism. For Ott to be able to deploy the Ninth Satra weapon effectively, he must demonstrate the nine virtues associated with it, virtues such as courage, steadfastness, moral integrity and faith; he’s actually not tested on these virtues but viewers have to assume he’s in full possession of them all when he meets Dehayaksa. Ultimately the film’s message that a lowly village boy can become a saviour of his people by freeing them from enslavement by the demonic Yaksas, if he is of good moral character and trusts in his religious faith, will make an impression on its target audience of teenagers and primary school-age children and their families.

Movie fans will be able to spot obvious influences from Hollywood and Japanese anime films, and guess that the inclusion of a group of sky-riding pirates and a monkey prince is a sop to Chinese and Indian movie audiences. Still, the stitching together of the various influences and elements from other movies is done smoothly and the quality and energy of the animation are exuberant enough that viewers will readily overlook the derivative quality of the film’s plot, its characters and some visual pieces. While the film could have drawn on Thai culture and artistic media (traditional and modern) more than it does here, it’s still a very good-looking and energetic work.

5 Centimetres per Second: an insubstantial trilogy on the fleeting nature of youthful love, hope and desire

Makoto Shinkai, “5 Centimetres per Second” (2007)

As with his “Your Name”, Makoto Shinkai’s earlier “5 Centimetres per Second” is a teenage romance based around desire, hope and loss. The film takes the form of a trilogy of short story pieces revolving around young hero Tataki as he progresses through childhood and adolescence and becomes a young adult taking on the burdens and pressures of adulthood. The first and longest short story riffs on his childhood friendship with the girl Araki, how they meet in primary school and bond together, and their separation when, on the verge of transitioning to junior high school, she and her family relocate away from Tokyo to a more distant rural part of Japan. The second story focuses on another girl, Kanae, who is in Tataki’s class at high school and who has a crush on him which he fails to notice and she fails to admit to him. In the third and shortest installment, Tataki has already graduated from high school and college and with a job and a girlfriend seems well on the way to middle class career and family contentment. However the young man still pines for Araki so he chucks in his job and breaks up with his current love to travel to that part of Japan where Araki lives in the hope of meeting her and reigniting their relationship.

In themselves the characters are not all that remarkable and seem very one-dimensional in their melancholy and constant preoccupation with their thoughts; likewise the threadbare plot proceeds to a conclusion many viewers may find unsatisfactory if predictable. Kanae’s unrequited crush on Tataki – and his attitude towards the girl – may come across as rather callous on Shinkai’s part, and point to an insensitive and immature self-absorption on Tataki’s part that explains his inability to hold down a job and maintain a relationship with any female other than Araki. Perhaps it’s just as well that the original relationship between him and Araki peters out from the pressure of distance and time because if they were ever to meet again, he would find her literally another person.

The use of first-person voice-over story-telling is an original touch and coaxes the thin narrative forward steadily. The fragmented and not altogether reliable monologues have to be pieced together by viewers to form a clear narrative that holds all three stories together. The film proceeds rather as a series of beautifully detailed tableaux reflecting on the passage of time through the changes of day into night and day again, and of the seasons. The emphasis on trains and train travel serves as much to heighten the sense of separation through time and space between Tataki and Araki.

The background animation is gorgeous as it always is in Shinkai’s films but the characters and story fall far short of the beautiful and rich settings. Tataki and the girls he is involved with seem far too stereotyped as lovey-dovey young teenagers and the plot is equally generic. The film’s unusual title is a reference to the speed at which cherry blossoms, symbolic of the fleeting and fragile nature of youth, giving way all too soon to age and ultimately death, fall to the ground from the tree. It would be most ironic if this film becomes as minor in Shinkai’s body of work in the years to come as cherry blossoms are transient.

Your Name: teenage romance comedy drama comes with an unexpected twist sending it into disaster sci-fi fantasy

Makoto Shinkai, “Your Name” (2016)

At first this teenage romance drama seems to be just as sappy and sentimental as any other such film – especially if it’s a Japanese anime film – but it turns out to be quite a moving fantasy in which the two young protagonists try to save a community (and its traditions and culture) from sudden catastrophic extinction. How the girl Mitsuha and the boy Taki meet is ingenious: they meet each other in dreams in which they flip out of their own bodies and end up in the other person’s body. This creates a fair amount of havoc for them, their families and their friends, at least until the two become aware of each other and what is happening so they leave notes for each other on their mobile phones, in their diaries and around their bedrooms for whenever they change places again.

The two youngsters then help each other gain confidence in their social circles: Taki works up the courage to ask a co-worker at the restaurant where he works part-time out on a date, and Mitsuha becomes more popular at school. At the same time, Mitsuha participates in old family and community traditions in her village, as instructed by her grandmother, and is taught to leave sake offerings at the shrine of the village guardian deity near a lake. Later on in the film, Taki tries to meet Mitsuha and travels to her village, only to be told on the way there that the village was destroyed by a comet shower three years previously. To make matters worse, Taki later looks up fatality records for the village and discovers Mitsuha’s name is among them.

Thanks to highly detailed background animation, the film is never less than beautiful to watch though most human characters still look typically cartoonish in the way Japanese anime films portray them, with huge shining eyes and tiny button noses and small mouths and ears. Aspects of local village traditions are well researched and depicted. The film tends to be quite slow in its first half – this part of the film is mostly exposition, showing where the main characters live, what they do, how they spend their time, and what they yearn for (Mitsuha yearning to escape the village with its set routines and ways, Taki wondering about the world beyond Tokyo) – but the main characters thus established end up rather one-dimensional and bland. The pace picks up once Taki figures he can warn Mitsuha in the past of the comet strike and save her and her village. Much of the rest of the film then becomes Mitsuha’s quest, along with some of her school-friends, to convince, then force the villagers to evacuate by staging a power strike at the local electricity station that erupts into a wildfire.

The romance between Mitsuha and Taki tends to be shallow and sappy, with the characters obsessed with talking about their feelings, and by the end of the film the strength of this romance is still as vague and half-hearted as it was earlier when the characters became aware of the body-swapping. As though to compensate for the wishy-washy characters, the film brings in the plot twist that throws everything coming afterwards onto a different trajectory, and the romance takes distant second place to the disaster movie that unfolds.

The film’s saving grace is the various themes that it tackles with grace more or less successfully: loss, and how individuals deal with loss, whether it is personal loss, the loss of a relationship, or the loss of culture, history and tradition due to a catastrophe; yearning for connection, to be part of a world greater than one’s own immediate surrounds; and exploring identity through gender, social connections, time and space, and family and cultural background. If it were not for the themes informing the plot and the characters, the film would be no more than a typical teenage romance comedy drama with the unexpected plot twist that sends it off into disaster movie / sci-fi fantasy.

Rams: a minimal but insubstantial film on the fragility of family and community ties and traditions against the outside world

Grimur Hakonarson, “Rams / Hrutar” (2015

Forty years ago, a family rift led to two brothers in an Icelandic sheep-farming family going their separate ways, splitting the family property in half so that each brother tends to his own flock of pedigreed heritage sheep. For forty years the two brothers Gummi (Sigurdur Sigurjonsson) and Kiddi (Theodor Juliusson) don’t speak to each other and Kiddi’s dog Somi takes handwritten messages from one to the other if they have to communicate. And forty years after the family conflict, now long forgotten, the two brothers do have to come together and communicate: in one of the brothers’ flocks, a ram comes down with a disease feared to be scrapie. The entire valley where the brothers live becomes a scrapie disaster zone and the government in Rejkjavik decrees that all sheep farmers in the area must slaughter their animals, clean and disinfect their properties and equipment, and remain sheep-free for two calendar years. Some sheep farmers are devastated by this news and decide to give up their farms; Gummi tries to comply with the regulations but can’t bring himself to kill his beloved ram; and Kiddi refuses point-blank to comply with the law. Faced with the extinction not only of their unique breed of sheep but also of their family legacy and way of life, the sensitive Gummi and stubborn, hard-drinking Kiddi need to come together if they’re to save Gummi’s prize ram and a small set of ewes from the veterinarians and the agricultural authorities.

The film starts as a quirky eccentric comedy centred around the brothers’ personality quirks and their feud, and gradually develops into a bleak tale in which the two are driven to desperate measures and risk their lives to maintain a family / cultural tradition. The isolation of these elderly sheep-farmers in a remote part of Iceland, and the self-reliant, taciturn nature such isolation engenders (even if its flip-side is eccentric and silent stubbornness) becomes apparent; even the government inspectors and the family lawyer from the south are puzzled by the brothers’ behaviour, and talk too much (and they’re Icelanders!) for the viewers’ comfort. Audiences become very aware of the attachment farmers like Gummi and Kiddi have for their animals and for the harsh physical environment where they have lived all their lives, and of the intrusive inspectors and veterinarians from Rejkjavik who look out of place in the windswept (and, in winter, snow-laden) open landscapes.

The plot is perhaps too simple and the characters of Gummi and Kiddi a little too stereotyped to carry the film’s themes of community and family ties, and how fragile these can be, successfully. The film spends more time with Gummi (whose daily routines are on the dull side) and not much at all on Kiddi so we know little about Kiddi other than that he drinks too much and is prone to anger and even violence. At times the film does drag with long silences – but that’s probably a problem for us city people with our short attention spans and dislike of long pauses in conversation – and the family conflict that split apart the brothers is never explained so viewers remain in the dark about how it came to have such a deep effect on the two men.

The film might have been more successful had the characters of the two men been more developed, and perhaps a sub-plot included as well. Something about how the outside world increasingly encroaches on the isolated sheep-farming community in a remote part of Iceland, and the changes it brings – changes that threaten a traditional way of life and the physical environment – would have added an extra layer of interest and conflict. The two brothers’ reaction to the threat that the authorities pose to their beloved ram and ewes may seem pathetic to some viewers and heroic (in a tragic sort of way) to others.

For a movie that is not long – it’s not quite 90 minutes – “Rams” does wear out its welcome quickly.

Downsizing: an uneven satirical science fiction comedy commenting on various social, economic and political issues

Alexander Payne, “Downsizing” (2017)

For most viewers, perhaps the more interesting part of this long meandering film will be the first half in which main character Paul Sofranek (Matt Damon) decides to undergo miniaturisation for various reasons reflecting his status as a lower middle-class technocrat worker bee and the pressures that attach to that, and the actual miniaturisation process itself. The rest of the film is likely to leave audiences behind as Sofranek embarks on a journey of self-discovery and fulfillment among similarly downsized humans and is brought to the depths of existential despair and the equally dangerous highs of spiritual exhilaration in his adventures. If viewers were to tune out after the halfway point though, they will miss a great deal of satirical social commentary on the current state of the American middle class, the class system generally, climate change, the plight of refugees and outsiders in American society and cult behaviour among even supposedly enlightened communities.

Sofranek and wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) aspire to the typically American dream of material success – good jobs with incomes that accommodate a fair-sized house in a socially upward community, good schools and colleges for any children they may have – but due to past circumstances not wholly theirs to control, Sofranek’s dream of becoming a surgeon is downgraded to his being an occupational therapist for a meat-packing plant in Omaha, and the couple’s application for a loan to buy a cheap-looking over-sized McMansion house is dashed because they don’t have the income to support repayments. Through friends, the Sofraneks hear of a community called Leisureland where they can live the life they desire: the catch is they must consent to be downsized to 15 centimetres in height to live in this tiny community – the assumption being that tiny people can exist on a fraction of the resources that normal-sized people require. This assumption has grown from experiments done in years past by Norwegian scientists searching for alternate solutions for human survival in the event of climate change and/or reduced global resources due to overpopulation and overcrowding.

Paul Sofranek himself undergoes the downsizing – the process is very clinical, machine-like, even a little industrial, yet the creepiness of it is (depending on the viewer’s point of view) either attenuated or increased by the cheery music one associates with television situation comedies of the 1950s – but his wife chickens out at the last moment. Paul thus finds himself adrift in a sterile cartoon Disneyland gated community where he has the money to afford a huge mansion with cheap reproductions of famous European paintings. He decides to move into an apartment and (after his divorce) acquires a girlfriend who later rejects him when she discovers his neighbour is a noisy Serbian called Dušan (Christoph Waltz) who throws large parties. You know the Hollywood stereotype about Serbians: they’re either outright villains or just not to be trusted. Dušan invites Paul to one such party where Paul becomes intoxicated on an ecstasy tablet, dances all night long and crashes out next morning. He meets Dušan’s cleaner Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), a former environmental activist who was arrested and shrunk down as punishment by the Vietnamese government, and who now hobbles on an ill-fitting prosthetic leg she acquired after defecting to the US in a television carton. Ngoc Lan takes Paul to meet her sick friend and he discovers that the women live in a huge slum barrio, one of several on the outskirts of Leisureland. After trying (and failing miserably) to help both Ngoc Lan and the friend with their health issues, Ngoc Lan co-opts Paul into her cleaning service – at least he gets to visit different people and workplaces, so he gladly leaves the telemarketing job he currently has – and the two run a parallel charity in which, instead of receiving payment for cleaning rich people’s houses and business premises, they take away unwanted food, medicines and other supplies for the barrio.

Later Paul and Ngoc Lan travel with Dušan and his skipper friend Konrad (Udo Kier) to Norway to meet members of the original tiny community in an idyllic fjord forest setting. However the people of this community receive news about methane releases in Antarctica and decide that the global extinction of humans is about to begin so they prepare for a transformative event that appeals to Paul.

The cast puts in excellent performances with Hong Chau and Christoph Waltz being the most outstanding. Ngoc Lan’s broken English skills hide a cunning and manipulative personality who knows exactly what she wants. Dušan is a louche playboy who makes his money in the grey areas between what’s legal and what’s not but he, like Ngoc Lan, turns out to have a heart of gold. Damon’s acting is rather more limited in style and expression but his character represents an everyman stereotype, not too bright, and limited in knowledge and expression, perhaps because he has trained for a narrow occupational specialty and was shunted into a niche where he is expected to stay, though changing circumstances mean he will eventually become redundant. Through his adventures with Dušan, Ngoc Lan and Konrad, Paul comes to appreciate humanity as a whole, to learn compassion and true tolerance (as opposed to tolerating people’s presence), and to realise that his purpose in life is to keep on listening and learning, to put others’ needs above selfish desires, and to help others not so fortunate and privileged as he is. True social change comes not from following fads and movements promising utopia but from working with others to improve society as is.

There are so many social, political and economic issues treated in satirical ways in “Downsizing” that the film can only deal with them in a superficial way. The result is that the plot lurches from one issue to the next: first, we have overpopulation as an issue; then come miniaturisation and one social issue that arises from that (will tiny people have the same rights and freedoms as normal-sized people if they shut themselves away in tiny communities?); the class divisions in Leisureland are another, signifying that even tiny communities are not utopias but merely replicate the economic and political structures of their original source communities; doomsday cults are another issue. Far from being a solution to climate change and overpopulation, miniaturisation is simply another means to social avarice and meaningless consumerism. The point could be made though that overpopulation is not itself a problem: the real problem is that the wealth of the Earth is unevenly distributed among peoples due to the economic and political systems that we have which ensure that a wealthy few not only acquire more than they deserve but are prepared to defend what they have to the point of enslaving or killing others to keep their wealth and acquire more. In this respect, the miniaturisation project goes some way (but only a little) to redistribute some of the wealth to a few lucky have-nots – but even they are seduced by the dream of having more. (And if the film’s science were accurate – which it is not – miniaturisation wouldn’t even be considered as one panacea to the unequal distribution of resources: tiny humans would need to eat more, several times their weight even, and thus by sheer necessity take up more resources for their size, simply to keep warm.) True redistribution comes from caring for others and sharing with others, not from isolating oneself in a luxury retirement-village gated community or in a hippie village anticipating an apocalyptic scenario and acting as a doomsday cult, and this is the difficult lesson Paul must learn.

For all its faults and limitations as a tale of self-discovery and redemption, “Downsizing” may eventually attain lasting cult status: it presents issues of varied social, economic and political import, and at the very least prompts serious thinking on these issues, even if it itself fails to answer them adequately.

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.