Knives Out: superficial examination of class and privilege in crime comedy whodunnit

Rian Johnson, “Knives Out” (2019)

At times playing like a spoof of the classic whodunnit murder mystery that takes place in a palatial mansion and the entire family, their domestic staff and guests from the highest echelons of politics, industry and society are under forced lockdown while the determined private detective pursues the murderer, “Knives Out” manages to insert a rather shallow stab into the heart of the class system in the US and various political and social issues, like illegal immigration from Mexico and other parts of Latin America, in its complicated plot. A famous mystery novelist, Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), living in reclusive wealth in a ramshackle mansion, has been found stabbed to death by his housekeeper Fran (Edi Patterson). Private detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) is hired by an anonymous figure to investigate the circumstances of the death. In his investigations which include questioning the Thrombey relatives, Blanc learns that several of them could have had motives for killing Thrombey: son-in-law Richard (Don Johnson) is cheating on Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) and Harlan has threatened to expose him; Harlan has cut off daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette)’s allowances for stealing her daughter’s tuition fees; the old fella has just sacked his youngest son Walt (Michael Shannon) from his publishing company; and disinherited grandson Ransom (Chris Evans). Indeed, later in the film, the whole family discover during the reading of the will that Harlan has left nothing to them at all, and all the wealth, control of the publishing company and the Thrombey properties have been left to the caregiver nurse Marta (Ana de Armas).

It transpires that the night before Harlan’s death, Marta had accidentally given Harlan a fatal overdose of morphine but Harlan tells her how to avoid suspicion by giving her some rather elaborate and risky instructions. Having followed the instructions, Marta later confesses all to Ransom and Ransom offers to help her if she will offer him his original part of the inheritance. The entire family pressure her to renounce her inheritance and intend to apply the slayer rule (a murderer cannot inherit from his/her victim) but Blanc insists on further investigation. Marta receives a blackmail note together with Harlan’s toxicology report. She and Ransom drive to the medical examiner’s office which they discover has been destroyed in a fire. The police and Blanc chase the couple and arrest Ransom. Blanc and Marta travel to a location where the blackmailer has told Marta to go and Marta discovers Fran drugged and dying from a morphine overdose.

Marta later prepares to confess all to the Thrombey family and give up her inheritance but is stopped by Blanc who takes her, Ransom and police detectives to a separate room in the Thrombey mansion where Blanc reveals the identity of the true villain behind various recent events of which Harlan’s death is but one incident linked to the others.

The acting varies from average to very good with Craig giving an intense performance and de Armas portraying Marta as an innocent and saintly immigrant girl caught in the machinations of various disgusting modern-day American stereotypes: the virago businesswoman who believes everything she has achieved is all her own work; her hen-pecked husband who helped her climb to success while having an affair on the sly; the pretentious Facebook social influencer and her “progressive” and “liberal” activist daughter; and the teenager who holds “alt-right” views and spends too much time on his smartphone. Therein lies a problem: the talented cast is wasted in roles that are little more than currently fashionable stereotypes of figures in 21st-century American society as viewed from a limited Hollywood viewpoint. Even Marta appears as a stereotype of the downtrodden underdog whose family arrived in the US as undocumented immigrants. Harlan’s revised will then represents an apology on his part for the devastation that the US has historically wrought on Latin American people over the past 150 years and on First Nations people in North America for twice as long. The problem though is that de Armas’ portrayal of Marta, on whom much of the film’s plot depends, is rather flat and one-dimensional compared to the scenery-chewing performances of such actors as Curtis and Collette. Perhaps the only actor who achieves a good balance between the extremes of de Armas on the one hand and Curtis and Collette on the other is Don Johnson, who does not get much to do but is outstanding when he does it.

Perhaps the film’s plot is too long and a bit too convoluted, and its framework as a parody of the whodunnit crime genre is not quite suited to the investigation of white privilege in a hierarchical class society where race and ethnicity are used to order sort out individuals as superior or inferior. All too often various issues about illegal immigration, the question of Marta’s original country and the Thrombey family’s assumptions that despite their parasitical natures they should still inherit their patriarch’s wealth are played more for laughs when they should be treated more seriously and in depth.

Birds of Passage: a generic fable of easy wealth and crime leading to doom given fresh life by an indigenous Colombian setting

Cristina Gallego, Ciro Guerra, “Birds of Passage / Pájaros de Verano” (2018)

In many ways, this film tells a classic tale of individuals from poor backgrounds becoming rich and their families and communities benefiting from the wealth they bring from engaging in crime – in this case, trafficking in marijuana. The unexpected angle in this film is that the individuals and families involved are indigenous Wayuu in northern Colombia, incidentally not far from where the famous author Gabriel Garcia Marquez grew up and set many of his novels. Aspects of the film do parallel those of the novel and the novel may have been one of many inspirations for the film.

The film is framed as a parable told by a blind shepherd, with all the limitations such a framework has: characters tend to fall into stereotypes and there is always the sense that no matter what they do, their lives will end disastrously. Fate will always have its way. The parable begins with the ritual coming-of-age ceremony of teenager Zaida (Natalia Reyes) who is now available for marriage and is promptly claimed through a ritual dance by Rapayet (Jose Acosta) who is from a socially inferior family: the film does not say how his family fell on hard times. Prospective mother-in-law Ursula Pushaina (Carmina Martinez) does not trust him, believing he is cursed in some way, and sets him an impossibly high dowry to meet to deter him. With the help of his friend and business partner Moises (Jhon Narvaez), Rapayet turns from operating a coffee and whiskey stall to supplying marijuana, obtained from his relative Anibal’s plantation, to the United States through contacts with hippie Americans working in Colombia as Peace Corps members, so he can raise the money to obtain the goats, donkeys and necklaces to make up the dowry.

From then on, the plot unfolds in a number of chapters spanning nearly fifteen years, in which the Pushaina family, Rapayet and his cousins the Uliana family grow wealthy from trafficking marijuana and are able to afford mansions, cars, planes and even their own landing strips. At the same time, individual greed and ambition, and desire for material comforts and the products of Western civilisation combine with Wayuu traditions, customs and beliefs in ways that end in conflict, violence and tragic deaths. Torn between his family and tribal obligations and his friendship with Moises, Rapayet makes a choice that ends up destroying his soul. Ursula’s worldview, in which spirits are constantly communing with humans through dreams, leads her to make selfish decisions that have long-lasting consequences. Her headstrong son Leonidas is drawn to alcohol and material desires, and his impulsive behaviour leads to all-out war between the Pushainas and Rapayet’s cousins that ends in everyone’s ruin. At the end of the film, both the Pushainas and Ulianas are gone and one survivor finds herself in the same position Rapayet was in at the beginning of the film.

In addition to being a fable about greed, ambition, corruption and family feuding, the film showcases Wayuu culture and traditions, especially in its coming-of-age rituals, the veneration of the dead and beliefs about the spirit world and how ancestral spirits guide the living. Something of the way the Wayuu view life can be seen. The way in which Wayuu traditions, customs and beliefs are gradually subverted by Wayuu contact with the outside world, in particular by American capitalist ideology which emphasises self-interest, material greed and desire, and constant change and reinvention, is apparent in the plot and in characters’ actions.

The acting is minimal, even flat at times, and the plot is pushed along by the dialogue and its story-book structure. Minor characters like Peregrino Pushaina (Jose Vicente Cote) are very significant in advancing the plot and illustrating aspects of Wayuu culture. The cinematography is well done with a huge emphasis on the desert and tropical forest landscapes that the Wayuu call home. The mansion that Rapayet builds becomes a significant character in its own right, mirroring the spiritual emptiness of his family even though they clearly enjoy the luxury it provides.

While perhaps the stereotyped characters are not as deep as they could be, given that most of the cast were not professional actors, and the film provides no larger social and political context in which its fable plays out – the Americans drop out early in the film, when the reality would have been that they, through the CIA and other, perhaps government and private agencies, would have been active in the drug trafficking – “Birds of Passage” is a highly immersive work that holds viewers spellbound with its often stunning and surreal visuals as its tale proceeds inexorably to doom.

Father Brown (Episode 29: The Truth in the Wine): reconciliation and forgiveness win the day

Ian Barber, “Father Brown (Episode 29: The Truth in the Wine)” (2015)

Being laid up with flu recently restricted me to watching re-runs of old TV shows on commercial TV stations; one of the better of these was this old episode “The Truth in the Wine” from the third season of the British mystery series “Father Brown” which is loosely based on G K Chesterton’s short stories about the crime-solving Roman Catholic priest. The television series is located in the Cotswolds area of England, in a fictional village called Kembleford. An itinerant labourer is found shot dead in the study of local vintner / aristocrat Colonel Anthony Forbes-Leith, and money marked for servants’ wages is also missing from the safe in the study. The police quickly deduce that two bullets were fired. The good father (Mark Williams), in his customary humble and unassuming manner, follows what the police find and discovers his own clues and evidence about the victim and the likely suspects. Before long, the police arrest the colonel (Daniel Ryan) on suspicion of murder, since they now know that the victim, Gibbs, had threatened blackmail against the vintner. Can Father Brown uncover the real murderer and the motivation behind the crime and put up a good case before the colonel is sentenced (and perhaps put on death row) or tries to commit suicide a second time?

As you would expect, this particular murder mystery comes with many twists and surprises: the colonel is not at all what he claims to be, but then, neither is any of the household staff of his mother, Lady Edna Forbes-Leith (Sheila Reid), and even she has many secrets hidden beneath that fragile bedridden reclusive facade. Significantly (and spoiler alert here), Father Brown not only uncovers the real murderer but in order to do so, he gets everyone in the Forbes-Leith household to admit his or her secrets, and that way he also finds out who has been taking the money from the safe. With that evidence in hand, the priest races down to the police station where, surprise, surprise, the coppers tell him the fingerprints on the gun include those of someone thought least likely to hold a gun and shoot someone dead. The police then close the book on the case as an act of self-defence and the “colonel” is set free. The real climax of the episode comes when Father Brown effects a reconciliation among all the members of the Forbes-Leith household and the “colonel” is welcomed back.

There are many messages you could take away from this episode: the distaste of the upper class for those lower class people who would insinuate themselves into more socially elevated layers by dint of hard work and talent; the incompetence of the police; and above all, the power of forgiveness in freeing people from past secrets and horrors, so they can forge new lives for themselves and one another. Father Brown comes face to face with a white lie that helps to preserve the Forbes-Leith property and legacy and fulfills the original colonel’s wishes of building a vineyard.

Jackie Brown: homage to 70s cult film heroine and nostalgia with a subtext about surviving in a brutal world not far beneath the surface

Quentin Tarantino, “Jackie Brown” (1997)

Of the early films directed by Quentin Tarantino that have achieved cult status, perhaps the jewel of them all is this ensemble piece based on Elmore Leonard’s crime thriller “Rum Punch”. “Jackie Brown” was intended as a homage to its star Pam Grier and the early 1970s blaxploitation films in which she played action heroine Foxy Brown. Throughout “Jackie Brown” there are many references to the period of the early to mid-70s, notably in the songs played during the movie, though the film itself is set some time during the mid-1980s. The film did not just resurrect Pam Grier’s career; it also revived Robert Forster’s film and television career, and both actors have enjoyed some success (if not very much publicity) since then.

When we first meet the eponymous Jackie (Grier), she is a 44-year-old flight stewardess working for a low budget Mexican airline pulling in a meagre wage that doesn’t quite pay the rent so to make ends meet she resorts to carrying contraband such as illegally obtained guns and cash for gun-runner Ordell Robbie (Samuel L Jackson) from Mexico to the US on the planes where she works. On one such trip though, Agent Nicolette (Michael Keaton) from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and police detective Dargus (Michael Bowen) have planted a small amount of cocaine in her bag to entrap her with the intent to turn her into an informant to help them arrest Ordell. Faced with jail time over her silence, Brown agrees to work with the feds. Ordell offers to pay her bail using bail money arranged with bail bondsman Max Cherry (Forster) originally to bail out another person who worked for Ordell but whom Ordell shot when that fellow was entrapped and forced to turn informant.

After tricking Ordell with a gun when he tries to kill her, Brown negotiates a deal with Ordell to pretend to work with the feds and smuggle $550,000 of his money from Mexico into the US to give him so he can retire. Brown agrees to work with Nicolette and Dargus in swapping Ordell’s cash in a bag identical to a bag supplied by Ordell’s unreliable accomplices, surfer chick Melanie (Bridget Fonda) and ex-con Louis Cardell (Robert de Niro). But Brown herself is planning to spring a surprise on both Ordell and the authorities by nicking $500,000 and bolting off with it. The only person who’s aware of what Brown aims to do is Cherry who has fallen in love with her.

Although the film is long and much of it is given over to intricate plot detailing, beginning with Ordell’s disposal of Brown’s predecessor Beaumont Livingston (Chris Tucker) which could have been dispensed with altogether or dealt with in flashback sequence, “Jackie Brown” holds well together: the intricate plot with its constant double-crossing forces viewers to pay close attention and generates tension that gradually builds to the climax. The plot strands keep the film focused yet allow subplot fragments to emerge, develop and finish, even if incompletely.

Thanks in part to an excellent cast, there is considerable character exposition for most of the main characters: Jackson gives Ordell surprising depth as a vicious criminal hiding behind a laidback demeanour; de Niro at his most understated gives a good sense of his role Louis as a mediocrity who can’t succeed even in crime; Fonda plays her stoned addict with a surprising snippy nature to perfection; and even Tucker in his tiny scene blows off Jackson with improvised dialogue. The standout performances of course are those of Grier whose character barely wings her way with bluster under immense pressure, and of Forster whose stoicism and caution hide a soul yearning for romance but in the end retreats to the comfort and security of convention. We get a sense of people whose potential is wasted either through no fault of their own or through indolence and thoughtless anger; of people living in difficult circumstances and coping as best as they can, though this means they break the law or engage in unethical activity; of two people who fall in love at a late stage in life but recognise that they can’t live together – even though they dislike their dead-end jobs – because one prefers stability and the other craves excitement and spontaneity. The sense of a rich context underlying most of the main characters, the worlds they move in and the potential clash of subcultures and values that might occur when they meet, is what gives the film its cracking energy.

Had Tarantino explored this context a bit more, and pushed much more the film’s underlying theme of little people doing what they can to survive in a brutal world in which hustling and self-interest become ends in themselves and the overriding social values that trump all others, “Jackie Brown” would be assured of a place among Hollywood crime thriller classics.

The Case of the Bloody Iris: trashy serial killer entertainment set in a changing Italy during the early 1970s

Giuliano Carnimeo, “The Case of the Bloody Iris” (1971)

Known also as “What are those Strange Drops of Blood on Jennifer’s Body?”, this flick is representative of a unique Italian film genre known as giallo. Giallo films are noted mainly for their combination of psychological thriller and horror, and for featuring much violence and gore, beautiful camera work, a theatrical and often operatic style, and sometimes distinctive and highly expressive musical soundtracks; there will be liberal amounts of female nudity and undercurrents of sexual perversion. The standard plot revolves around a serial killer who preys on beautiful women and butchers them in horrible ways while the victims are in highly vulnerable or compromising situations, and the story will often have a twist ending in which the sociopath killer’s identity is revealed. Themes of isolation, alienation and derangement run through the films.

The plot of “The Case of the Bloody Iris” is as flaky as can be and the film depends on its cast of sometimes bizarre characters, colourful settings, cinematography and various embellishments that actually don’t add anything of value to impress viewers. Two young women are found murdered in a block of apartments. Not long after the second woman is found dead, her apartment is sold to a third young woman, Jennifer (Edwige Fenech), who is escaping her domineering ex-husband. Former hubby runs a strange sex cult that emphasises group sex and he wants her back; Jennifer resists him and he threatens violence. In the meantime, she and bubbly blonde (and equally bubbly-brained) flatmate Marilyn (Paola Quattrini) are being stalked by the serial killer. The police do what they can to track the killer. While the killer remains at large, Jennifer becomes acquainted with her apartment neighbours who include a woman living with her estranged father and an elderly widow with a disfigured son. Jennifer also meets the building’s architect Andrea (George Hilton) who is averse to the sight of blood. Any one of these people could be the killer – and the killer has designs on Jennifer and Marilyn!

There is plenty of suspense in this hokey thriller, aided and abetted by stunning cinematography with the camera often at weird angles and plenty of voyeuristic shots. The jazz-influenced music is distinctive with harpsichord riffs looping over and over. The film’s characters come straight out of soap opera territory with their stereotyped behaviour. Red herrings abound as do gratuitous nudity and a sub-plot revolving around the two investigating police officers and their banter over how well one of them works and the other guy’s stamp collection.

For all the gore and sex that I’d been warned about, there’s not that much violence and when violence does occur, there is considerable and graphic blood-letting done in stylish manner; likewise there are bare breasts but full frontal nudity is non-existent. For a B-grade thriller, the movie is well-made with a good pace and a deft touch in its narrative structure and inclusion of humour to leaven the suspense though the climax is not at all credible and feels derivative and tacked-on.

Hitchcockian influences include bird’s-eye views of spiral staircases, one of which is needed for the climax; a widow and her strange son; and incompetent and possibly corrupt police. General themes of big city alienation and isolation, corruption in society and the notion of women as the source of temptation leading to sin loom large. These may have been underlying concerns in Italian society while the country was undergoing major social, political and economic changes during the second half of the 20th century.

The film turns out to be good-looking and stylish trash entertainment with its lead actress Fenech an incredibly stunning lovely lady with long black hair and flawless features. After forty years, “… Bloody Iris” does not look at all outdated though the misogyny and homophobia that  appear may rankle with audiences. For anyone who has never seen a giallo film before, “… Bloody Iris” is heartily recommended as an introduction to the genre.

The Hunter: a mix of good acting, stunning cinematography and a forced, unrealistic plot loaded with stereotyping

Daniel Nettheim, “The Hunter” (2011)

Based on the novel by Julia Leigh, “The Hunter” is both a mystery thriller and a journey of self-discovery and redemption set against the mountain and forest landscapes of Tasmania. A mercenary, Martin David (Willem Dafoe), is hired by a biotech company to pose as a biologist and hunt down a Tasmanian tiger and obtain some of its material for genetic sampling, perhaps with a view to cloning a complete specimen that may be a springboard to reviving the species (and making a fortune for the company in intellectual copyright). He flies to Tasmania where he meets local man Jack Mindy (Sam Neill) who is supposed to guide him. He takes up lodgings with a local woman, Lucy Armstrong (Frances O’Connor), who is grieving the death of husband Jarrah and is struggling to cope with two young children, Sass (Morgana Davies) and Bike (Finn Woodlock). Initially a loner with very few emotional and relationship ties, David is drawn into the Armstrongs’ lives and is caught up in a simmering conflict in the local community over whether to log the native trees or preserve them. As he tries to search for the elusive Tasmanian tiger, David stumbles across evidence of Jarrah Armstrong’s murder, discovers that Armstrong himself had been hired by his employer (!) also to hunt down the Tasmanian tiger, and realises that his life is in danger.

The film makes much of the brooding and sinister countryside setting which holds many secrets, of which some will only be released to those who acknowledge and respond in appropriate ways to Nature’s primacy. For David, this means acknowledging those aspects of his nature which he had to suppress in order to be a hired contract killer, and plunging himself into the Armstrongs’ lives to heal them. He also becomes involved in the local community’s brewing tensions and spats. This does not sit well with his sinister employers who send an operative after him. David has to choose sides and risk losing his life. His choices though lead to tragedy and personal pain for himself and others.

The film revolves around Dafoe who inhabits his character and who beautifully if laconically brings out the hunter’s humanity in many visually gorgeous nature scenes that are silent. The child actors steal nearly all the scenes in which they feature. Their contributions to the plot and the film’s themes are significant . Of the minor cast, Sam Neill does not have much to do as Mindy but his character is a shadow of Dafoe’s hunter as he too struggles with an unrequited affection and care for Lucy, his loyalty to the pro-logging locals who have threatened Lucy and other local tree-huggers, his jealousy towards David, and his guilt in destroying the Armstrong family. The pathetic Mindy is a man to be despised for his actions but his grief is profound and we have to wonder whether we too would not act in the way he has done were we in his situation.

As might be expected, the legendary Tasmanian tiger is McGuffin-peripheral to the often overwrought action. David’s encounter with the animal is very hokey – CGI animation scores an own goal once again! – and the scene plays as a comic mysterious ritual in which David has to undergo a final painful ordeal that exposes his new-found humanity and link to nature.

The pace is slow and the style of the film is low-key, and much of the plot and characterisation are forced and unrealistic in many respects. The community conflict is stereotyped with the tree-huggers presented as good if naive and the tree-chopping advocates appearing as surly and sinister types who’ll stop at nothing – not even murder and arson – to get their way. The biotech company is a malevolent shadow presence for much of the film. For all that David endures and wins in the end, much suffering and damage have occurred, and there a sense by the end of the film that his work as a new human being is only just starting.

While the acting and the cinematography are good, and some characters are very well-drawn, the film still suffers from a plot burdened with stereotypes aiming to pull in audiences. The theme of renewal and redemption through nature is rather simplistic and only works with complex characters delivered by competent actors.

My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? – celebrating absurdity and eccentricity in a bland and indifferent world

Werner Herzog, “My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?” (2009)

In this film, based on an actual incident, director Werner Herzog pursues his life-long fascination with characters who harbour grand obsessions to the point of carrying out acts that endanger people’s lives and cause upheaval, but which ultimately have very little effect in the overall scheme of things in an indifferent universe. Two plainclothes detectives (Willem Dafoe and Michael Peña) are called to the scene of a crime in a neighbourhood in San Diego, in southern California. There, they discover the body of a middle-aged woman with severe stab wounds made by a sword. Very quickly, they realise her murderer is her son Brad (Michael Shannon) who is holed up in a Spanish-style house next door with two “hostages” (actually his pet flamingoes). While Brad taunts the police in a stand-off that stops through-street traffic and attracts curious neighbours and passers-by, the two detectives are regaled by Brad’s fiancée Ingrid (Chloe Sevigny), a play director (Udo Kier) who sacked Brad from his last acting role and an injured woman from the crime scene about the character of Brad and his peculiar obsessions, and how these explain his motives for killing his mother (Grace Zabriskie).

It’s a slow-burner of a film with an oddly detached air for a plot that would normally have been treated Hollywood-style with lots of shoot-outs and shouting, an emphasis on the kind of crime scene investigation that’s been done over and over on too many movies and TV shows on the subject, and a cast of grimly determined and smartly dressed actors posing as attorneys, forensic detectives, pathologists and hard-working SWAT team members who always arrest the right people and do not harm innocents during the course of their duty (in contrast to what too often happens in real life in modern America). All the characters are rather eccentric: Dafoe and Peña’s characters tend to be useless rather than useful and settle for listening to war stories from the murderer’s significant friends; Ingrid seems a passive girl, nothing more than Brad’s trusty shadow; and the play director Meyers who just “happens” to show up reminisces at great length about how Brad is a great actor but had to be thrown out of the play for taking the method style of acting too seriously. The eccentricity of the major cast characters at least is an interesting contrast with the bland generic style of the neighbourhood and culture in which the action proceeds. The SWAT team seems quite intrusive when America’s finest turns up but at least the guys get their man without any Hollywood pyrotechnics.

Most of the major characters are oddly endearing though one occasionally feels the urge to kick them along a bit as the pace of the film is very leisurely, perhaps a little too much so. The acting tends to be adequate and enough for what the characters are required to do and only Shannon as Brad is required to convincingly play a young man who’s a few kangaroos short of a full mob in his inner paddock. Even Brad comes across as likeable and eccentric in a charming sort of way at times in spite of his clear mental instability, inability to relate to others normally and psychopathic tendencies. His relationship with his mother is unusually intense and one might draw parallels between this couple and that other famous couple, Norman Bates and his mum (of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” fame). Brad clearly identifies with his role as the Greek tragic hero Orestes who kills his mother Clytemnestra for having betrayed and killed her husband (and Orestes’s dad) King Agamemnon, in the play Meyers is directing. (The film doesn’t say which Greek play based on the legend of Orestes and his torment by the Furies for having done in Mum is being performed.) At last we understand why Brad had to kill his mother and why he hides in the neighbouring house surrounded by police: he is re-enacting the part of the play where Orestes takes refuge in the goddess Athena’s temple while the Furies bother him with their nagging and flapping. Unfortunately for Brad, the two detectives aren’t playing Athena and Hermes, and the gawping neighbours aren’t fine and upstanding Athenian citizens who can judge on the correctness or not of Brad’s actions in murdering Mum as some sort of revenge for having got rid of Dad.

As is to be expected with Herzog’s films, “My Son …” features some very beautiful cinematography, particularly of flashback scenes in which Brad goes travelling down the Amazon river or visits Central Asia or other foreign places. The film sometimes has a documentary feel in scenes where Brad and Ingrid go travelling together to Mexico and are serenaded by a mariachi band.

As a celebration of individuality, eccentricity and absurdity in an otherwise dreary and conformist world, “My Son …” succeeds well for a small-scale Lynchian film that manages to be a microcosm of sorts of a much greater world. Shannon can be overly dramatic but this might the consequence of decisions made by Herzog; certainly Shannon’s acting makes a greater impression than the overall minimalist style offered by his fellow cast members. The outburst of individuality does not last long though: once Brad has been hustled into the police car with his wrists handcuffed and driven away, life returns to boring and uneventful normality, the universe yawns and continues on its way, and the neighbours drift back to their homes to watch Hollywood-style CSI crime shows and movies. Brad’s desire to become Something Significant is continually undercut throughout the film by his inadequacies: he is frightened of nature when he confronts it, he shrinks from pursuing spirituality, he is unable to function as an adult in the world around so he lives with his mother as an unemployed and unemployable actor and musician. The film manages to evoke some sympathy from viewers for people with grand ideas about their place in the world but unable to achieve them due to personality flaws and consequently forced to live lives of frustration that might end in tragedy.

 

Hidden: a film about guilt, trust, colonial exploitation and manipulation of signs is overburdened by art and cleverness

Michael Haneke, “Caché / Hidden” (2005)

An imaginative if overly layered thriller about a couple threatened by an unseen and unknown stalker, Michael Haneke’s “Hidden” is a film about guilt and how its projection onto others can have the most catastrophic consequences that can last for generations. Georges (Daniel Auteuil) and Anne (Juliette Binoche) are a middle-aged Paris couple with a teenage son, Pierrot (Lester Makedonsky), whose snugly bourgeois life-style – he’s a TV show host, she works for a publisher – is disturbed by a series of sinister videotapes and drawings being left on their door-step that suggest that someone is spying on them. Georges interprets the drawings and cassettes as referencing past childhood memories and deducts that someone called Majid, whom his parents once adopted as a child and then had institutionalised after a chicken decapitation incident, is the culprit behind the parcels. Through one of the videotapes he and his wife view, he tracks down Majid (Maurice Bénichou), now a grown man, and harasses him. The ugly contact between the two men leads to disaster for Majid, a simmering enmity between Georges and Majid’s young adult son and tension in Georges’ marriage and family life that may not have a good resolution.

Through Georges and Anne’s reactions to the videotapes, we see how they become two quite unpleasant and unsympathetic characters and the effect their behaviour has on each other and on their teenage son who soon becomes alienated from them. We see how the marriage has been slowly falling apart over the years, to the extent that when Georges visits his mother and she asks after his wife and son, he admits that he does not know very much about what his wife does. The arrival of the mysterious parcels is the catalyst for the marriage’s disintegration as Georges refuses to share important information with his wife and she starts to doubt his love and loyalty for her. We see the initial stirrings of an affair Anne may have with one of her and her husband’s social circle, a man who happens to be married to another of their friends; thus, the couple’s social circle may eventually break up. Pierrot already suspects his mother is unfaithful.

Georges’ feelings of guilt over the way he and his parents treated Majid as a child, and his mother’s attitude towards Majid’s welfare – she does not remember the episode when he speaks to her about it – is a metaphor for France’s treatment of its colonies in Africa and elsewhere, and how the French pretend not to know or remember how their subject peoples were often dispossessed of their lands and other resources, expected to adopt French culture, and suffered alienation from their own cultures as a result. The metaphor can be extended to other European and Western countries that also founded colonies on other continents and robbed the indigenous peoples there of their lands and destroyed their cultures. Majid’s meeting with Georges and Georges’ subsequent harassment of him and his son lead to personal disaster for Majid, at which we question who is really the victim and who is the bully in the wider post-9/11 context that the film was made in and which it subtly references for Western audiences.

The film is remarkable in the way Haneke stages several shots so as to appear like a stage drama in which the audience is forced to be complicit in the action, in the manner of Alfred Hitchcock’s famous film “Rear Window”. Viewers are invited to speculate on who is sending the videotapes and the drawings, and even to anticipate what will happen next. The low-key and quiet nature of the film itself forces it to be a character-driven piece dependent on the skills of the actors, and in this endeavour, Auteuil, Binoche and Bénichou do not disappoint. A death scene is treated almost as Greek tragedy in its stage-drama shot; the audience is almost expected to act as a Greek chorus. The film’s slow and easy pace and its cool, almost icy style mirror the bourgeois class’s studied indifference to emotions and unresolved inner conflicts that can erupt unexpectedly over innocent things. The events that occur during the film and Georges’ interpretation of them leave him in an infantile state as he withdraws into a cocoon-like bedroom, takes sleeping tablets and curls up in bed.

Comparisons between Haneke’s film and Alfred Hitchcock’s work are apt: the videotapes and drawings themselves serve as MacGuffin devices that in themselves have no meaning except for Georges who imposes a personal narrative based on unresolved guilt on them. The fact that he and wife Anne work in media-related industries, in which truth can be edited and shaped by canny producers and directors to fit narratives that appeal to audience expectations and exploit their desires and fears, is significant: here Georges, initially the exploiter of dreams and desires, ends up being the exploited one. The irony is that having been exploited, Georges is then driven to more acts of lies and exploitation to drive away and repress his fears further to no avail.

The film’s closing scene in which Pierrot meets Majid’s son and has a conversation with him can have many interpretations including a conspiracy and reconciliation; it rather spoils the thriller template that the film hangs from but then that’s my problem to deal with. If anything, the film is overburdened by Haneke’s intellectual gaming with the audience and over-layering of the idea of “hidden”. A little less cleverness on Haneke’s part tooling the plot and its implications and references, and “Hidden” would have been a perfect film.

 

Everybody has a Plan: slow-burn character study burdened by hokey plot twists and themes of identity, choice and responsibility

Ana Piterbarg, “Todos tenemos un Plan / Everybody has a Plan” (2012)

Ah, don’t we love films about identical twin brothers turning on themes of identity, choice and responsibility and giving actors a one-in-a-lifetime chance of giving two character studies for the price of one! And certainly Viggo Mortensen does a fine job of portraying two such fellows: one, Agustin, a squeaky-clean paediatrician on call in Buenos Aires, a man who scrupulously obeys the law and does as he’s told; and his identical twin Pedro, the polar opposite in every way – ostensibly a beekeeper but also running a kidnapping / ransoming racket with his childhood buddy Adriano (Daniel Fanego). The film also boasts some beautiful nature scenes from northern Argentina, courtesy of fine cinematography work by Lucio Bonelli, and promises an investigation into the nature of identity, the choices people make in life, reinventing oneself and accepting responsibility for those choices. What’s not to like?

Agustin lives a comfortable and secure life as a paediatrician with his wife Claudia (Soledad Villamil) in the Big Smoke but feels something lacking in his existence and yearns to escape his stress-filled life of the demands of administering to middle class parents’ brats and of his own high-maintenance spouse. Initially the couple had thought that children would help to fill the void in their lives and are in the process of adopting a baby but Agustin quickly realises that being childless isn’t the problem and backs out of the adoption process. This creates a rift between him and Claudia, and Agustin falls into a depression. Claudia leaves their apartment and while she’s gone, Pedro visits him. Pedro reveals he is dying of lung cancer and asks Agustin to help kill him. Pedro’s arrival gives Agustin an escape route and in no time at all, Agustin has fled BA and assumed Pedro’s identity and life-style as beekeeper in the Tigre river delta region in north-central Argentina. Life in a relaxed, down-at-heel rural area would seem to be idyllic but unfortunately Pedro’s past actions have unpleasant consequences for Agustin: local people treat him with suspicion and ostracise him, the police harass him and throw him into jail, and Pedro’s partner Adriano turns up to force his co-operation in a kidnap attempt that Pedro had earlier planned.

The film’s premise is ingenious if not executed very smoothly: there are a few loose ends and director Piterbarg would probably prefer that we not ask too many detailed questions about how well Agustin blends into the local Delta culture or that local girl Rosa (Sofia Gala Castaglione) doesn’t seem to notice the personality changes. The film’s rather glacial and cold pace gives audiences plenty of opportunity to ponder the stereotype of the city as a crime-ridden hell-hole of murders, arson and predatory gangs and the country as a paradise of simplicity and honest, decent folk. Everything we had assumed in popular culture about the city / country divide and the kinds of people produced on either side is turned on its head. Agustin is the naive bumpkin and Pedro is up to his neck in murder plots and robbery schemes. As he descends deeper into trouble, Agustin would appear to have opportunities to reconsider his decision to flee his old life but for reasons that have their roots in his and Pedro’s early upbringing, he passes them all up.

Mortensen’s acting is excellent while the support cast ranges from average to good. Fanego’s villain never seems quite convincing and merely comes across as creepy instead of menacing. Villamil is quite good in the few scenes she has and Castaglione is touching as the innocent Rosa caught among three men, all of them old enough to be her father. The countryside plays a significant role as a peaceful, placid setting for the dark activities the men conduct in secret that spread fear throughout the poor community.

The film could have been very good but in its later half falls into hokey plot twists: there’s an unnecessary romance involving Rosa that sat ill with me and that sub-plot comes with a soured aspect of Rosa’s complicated love-life as well; and Agustin finds himself torn between running farther north and resolving the mess that Pedro helped to create and left in a mess. That old Hollywood chestnut of facing your fears and not being a coward rears its ugly head here; there’s also a lesson about being decent, doing good for people and minimising evil actions. Perhaps the film took on too much in its own planning: the plot and even the setting of Buenos Aires / Tigre delta with their urban / rural opposition, the stereotypes and values associated with both sides of that opposition, and how those opposites play out against one another and come to a compromise (or not), might be too much for a 2-hour film to cope with.

The film’s conclusion in which Agustin is taken up-river in a boat is redolent with cultural associations of the river as a metaphor for the passage of time or the legend of King Arthur being taken away to Avalon to be healed of his mortal wounds; not everything has been resolved here and one fears for the future of some characters but at least Agustin has supposedly found some purpose in life and done, uh, some “good” for the community that he has come home to.

The bee-related theme that appears in the film is a metaphor for the notion of humans as essentially fixed in their natures, unable to change easily, and on this metaphor the film’s themes turn.

 

The Name of the Rose: quite good if underrated adaptation of a literary novel with some extra features

Jean-Jacques Annaud, “The Name of the Rose” (1986)

Based on Umberto Eco’s novel of the same name, this film is a very good if underrated adaptation of a highly literary novel. The novel’s appeal is in the way it turns the traditional murder mystery on its head: clues found by its hero, William of Baskerville, lead him to solve the mystery but once he does so, he realises that the clues in themselves and the pattern they created were entirely unrelated to the actual mystery itself, and that it was sheer accident that he managed to solve the mystery. Thus the quest for closure, finality and meaning is revealed to be something we humans impose on otherwise random and meaningless events and incidents. Of course such a premise a popular crime mystery flick won’t make, so director Annaud chose only those elements of the novel that were most adaptable to the format and demands of a popular murder mystery and with the help of three script-writers and a talented cast fashioned a movie. “The Name of the Rose” is not a bad result at all and perhaps with the passage of time might be seen as a classic.

William of Baskerville (Sean Connery) and his assistant Adso (Christian Slater) arrive at a monastery in northern Italy to attend a conference that will determine the future of their Franciscan order. While there, William is called upon to investigate a series of mysterious suicides and murders of several monks in the monastery’s cloisters. He and Adso quickly find that a small group of monks has been reading a particular book written by the Greek philosopher Aristotle on the use of laughter and comedy to teach and illuminate certain important truths. Further investigations lead to the discovery of a vast, secret, labyrinthine library filled with books William has only ever heard of, and the discovery fills him with delight. Of course, several villains and a few sub-plots derail William and Adso’s quest, and most notable of the villains in particular is the inquisitor Bernardo Gui (F Murray Abraham) who has crossed swords with William in the past and who, on meeting him again, is eager to trip up William and his inquiring, analytical mind once and for all with the power and influence of the Roman Catholic Church behind him. William faces the very real possibility of being declared a heretic and ending up on a pyre along with a number of other characters, most notably a hunch-backed monk Salvatore (Ron Perlman) and a feral peasant girl (Valentina Vargas) with whom Adso falls in love.

In two hours the film captures something of the oppressive and paranoid atmosphere of the period during which the Church was the final arbiter and keeper of all knowledge and people were prevented from learning, discovering and interpreting information and knowledge for themselves. The monastery is remote in culture as well as in physical location and there is an all-pervasive atmosphere of grinding poverty and self-censorship. The library, when found, owes a great deal to the influence of Argentine short-story writer and poet Jorge Luis Borges. The film presents quite starkly the contrast between what William represents – reason, intellectual inquiry (and not a little pride), a scientific, logical approach to solving problems and giving people access to learning and education – and what Gui and several other monks in the film represent: the claim by an earthly institution to control all knowledge, even knowledge coming directly from God or other higher forces and to ensure its power over all humans by deliberately keeping them ignorant, unhappy and poor.

Connery does excellent work as the Sherlock Holmes character who thinks before he acts and revels in brain power over brawn; the William character is a huge contrast from other characters Connery has played in his career. Slater in his debut acting role is not bad but Adso is essentially a passive role and the young actor spends most of his time looking just plain puzzled. Perlman steals most of the scenes he’s in with a superb performance as the wretched and often quite demented Salvatore and upstages Abraham whose role is actually quite small and rather stereotypically villainous, given that he appears in the film’s second half. Most of the actors have distinctive, rugged features that fit them perfectly for their roles and for the sinister Gothic world in which the film’s events roll out.

The film isn’t completely faithful to the complex novel whose body count at the end has a rather different mix of characters than the film’s lot. A few issues and sub-plots that are an important part of the novel had to be jettisoned but the film’s plot is quite faithful to the book’s plot. The film adds its own concerns about religious bigotry and intolerance and the control of information by an elite, all of which create a world in which even a highly intelligent, sensitive and learned person may find impossible to survive in without running afoul of the self-styled guardians of order and gate-keepers of knowledge and being forced to pay dearly for being authentic. Both the film and the novel are best viewed as companion pieces that have their own commentaries on the nature of oppression and control of information and knowledge.