Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears: cliched Hollywood treatment of an Australian heroine

Tony Tilse, “Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears” (2020)

Filmed as an addition to the television series about the 1920s flapper / private detective Phryne Fisher (played by Essie Davis), this action adventure takes the unflappable flapper heroine into exotic Indiana Jones territory in the Middle East – Palestine under the British Mandate, to be exact – with much dash, if not depth. For all that Davis invests in her character – and it must be said she just barely pulls off Phryne Fisher’s many and varied contradictions as a wealthy socialite aristocrat, a detective with a steel-trap mind and a caring, compassionate human being – the film’s plot barely does her and her merry band of hangers-on, including Detective Inspector Jack Robinson (Nathan Page), much justice: it relies a great deal on movie cliches and complicated twists that wear the plot thinner than it already is. At times it threatens to become another crime mystery thriller and then an action adventure, only to change its mind again and end up in an uncomfortable messy middle.

After rescuing a young Bedouin girl Shirin Abbass (Izabella Yena) from being unjustly imprisoned in Jerusalem by the British military police, Phryne Fisher begins to learn about Abbass’s background as the sole survivor of a sandstorm that engulfed her community – but not before her mother disappeared when three British soldiers turned up and massacred everyone while Abbass was away collecting honey from wild beehives – and the connection between Abbass’s mother and precious emeralds missing from a crypt dating back to the time of Alexander the Great. If that were not enough, a curse has been activated with the disappearance of the emeralds from the crypt: after the passage of six solar eclipses, on the day of the seventh solar eclipse, the planet will be destroyed by storms. Our heroine studies an almanac and, what do you know, figures that she and Abbass have only days to spare to return the emeralds (which they have managed to recover early on in the film) to the crypt in the Negev Desert. Together with Robinson and a British aristocrat, Jonathan Lofthouse (Rupert Penry-Jones), Fisher and Abbass fly out to Palestine and the Negev in a race against time.

With so many unexpected twists in the plot, making for a story that whizzes back and forth between Britain and Palestine, racking up unnecessary carbon emissions, originality starts to wear thin and groan-worthy cliches, such as one character barely managing to utter a clue before succumbing to an untimely and violent death, abound. The Indiana Jones action adventure angle is milked for all it is worth, with the scenes in Palestine adding Oriental exotica and contrasting with British scenes of foppish yet secretly sinister and selfish English aristocrats who think nothing of shooting up innocent women and children to steal cheap-looking icky-green gems or of squabbling over land through which they intend to build a railway, presumably without the interests of the local people in mind. Somewhere in all the derring-do and numerous implausible scenes in which Fisher and Company barely escape with their lives, a very Australian story in which a wealthy and privileged woman actually cares enough for an underdog Palestinian girl that she risks life and limb to get her out of jail and to freedom, for no reason other than she believes the girl has a right to protest against British imperialism and British theft of Palestinian lands, is buried very deeply. Unfortunately that aspect of the Phryne Fisher universe, which makes it particularly Australian and which could have lifted the film from its generic and confused mystery thriller / action adventure fusion, remains underdeveloped. The romantic angle of Fisher and Robinson takes precedence over Fisher’s concern for Abbass and her community.

Needless to say, character development is at a standstill, with even Jack Robinson being nothing more than Phryne Fisher’s stoic and oddly working-class handbag and other characters not much more than moving wallpaper stereotypes. The dialogue which should have been clever, witty and original instead is strained and rather lumpen. Too many minor characters appear for just a few minutes, never to be seen again. The colonial relationship between the British and the Australian characters in the film remains at a crude, superficial level.

As a light-hearted fluffy film that doesn’t take itself very seriously, this installment in the Phryne Fisher universe is colourful and easy on the eye, but I wonder if even the most ardent fans of the unflappable flapper Australian detective will be satisfied with the Hollywood-style treatment of the character, and all the cliches that such treatment has mobilised to Phryne Fisher’s detriment.

Nano: hard-boiled pulp fiction ho-hum plot with an unusual premise

Mike Manning, “Nano” (2017)

This short film has the look and feel of a proof-of-concept work itching to be made into a full-length feature film or a television series: it has a very Hollywood look and sheen and it is clearly plot-driven. The plot revolves around a hard-bitten detective living on his own who hires a hooker to come to his apartment for some rough sex: how much more pulp-fiction hard-bitten can that plot be? The difference between “Nano” and other conventional hardboiled detective stories is its underlying science fiction premise: in the near future, the human genome will be augmented with nano-technologies that will link all humans from the time they are born with various government databases and networks. In the short, a new database version of the Nano technology is released and this Nano 2.0 version will become mandatory for all humans to have in their DNA. Among other things, this new version will enable police departments in the US to mediate potential criminal violence by accessing protagonists’ DNA through the database and inducing sudden paralysis in them; this will not only prevent violent crime but also gives governments the ability to direct people’s actions. As a result, people have less personal control and autonomy in their lives.

While the hologram TV news program pits a young, presumably “liberal” female reporter in favour of Nano 2.0 against a middle-aged male commentator with “conservative” values arguing against the loss of personal freedom and free will, the detective and the hooker eye each other suspiciously and have a terse and tense conversation before they get down to business. Unbeknownst to the detective, the prostitute is actually part of a hacker activist group opposed to Nano 2.0 and the potential loss of human freedoms: before arriving at his apartment, she has knocked over the real hooker going there and robbed her of her DNA profile and incorporated it into her own through a portable nano-technological hook-up gadget with the result that the hacktivist’s hair turns blonde from the real prostitute’s phenotype expression.

Once in the detective’s apartment, the hacktivist plays out the prostitute’s role until such time as she paralyzes the fellow temporarily so she can hack into the Nano 2.0 database and download his genome into a card before he wakes up. The downloading isn’t fast enough, he wakes up, there’s a fight, she manages to get away – but not before he is able to access and download her genome from a government database and send that information to his superiors. Thus, while she escapes with her accomplice, the police are able to induce paralysis in her and the accomplice is forced to abandon her and take off with the detective’s information.

For me, the most interesting part of the film (apart from the premise which it depends on) is the TV news conversation that runs in the background in the detective’s apartment: the argument between the young female reporter and the middle-aged interviewee satirises the current US culture wars involving identity politics, and perceived political allegiances and their associated ideologies and belief systems. Those protesting increased government surveillance and invasion of human minds, bodies and even genetics for the purpose of control are made out not only to be narrow-minded and bigoted, but even (in an ironic and twisted way) authoritarian. The reporter also constantly interrupts the interviewee in an exchange that remarks bitingly on the state of news media, that they assume a role in which they represent and interpret for government and the elite agendas that government now represents – in short, the news media have become the propaganda and public relations arm of government – and everyone must genuflect before a virtual secular priesthood of the police state.

Aside from this development which is part of the film’s context, the plot is fairly ordinary with its emphasis on physical seduction and violence, and little in the way of decent dialogue. The acting is adequate enough to demonstrate that in the future, the most valuable possession is a person’s genetic identity. The film ends on an open note, by which time few viewers are likely to care much about the paralysed hacktivist or the unlikable detective out for revenge.

Carnivore: American Psycho meets Agatha Christie in an elegant and minimalist thriller

Constance Tsang, “Carnivore” (2018)

Elegant in style and minimalist and understated in its narrative, this is a very wry satire on the culture of the cut-throat financial industry where to get ahead, one has to shoot down so many live bodies and crawl over the corpses, sacrificing one’s principles along the way until one becomes as hollowed out and spiritually destitute as all the others who have gone before and who will come after. Young hedge fund managers Ahana (Annapurna Sriram) and Michael (Chris Perfetti), newly promoted, are invited to meet the senior partners and managers at the country home of one of the firm’s owners, a lady called Christine (Leslie Hendrix). As soon as they arrive, Ahana and Michael are required to surrender their mobile phones and keys – a sign that makes viewers go, uh-oh. Sure enough, while Michael seems to slot into the company of mostly middle-aged Caucasian Anglo-Saxon Protestant types born into old money and landed North American gentry, Ahana – a young woman of Indian ancestry whose religion requires her to be vegetarian and to refrain from alcohol – has more trouble fitting in. Initially she is surprised, then despondent and dejected – but then Ahana makes up her mind to make and break her way through the invisible glass barrier and make the owners, partners and senior execs notice her.

On the second day of the corporate retreat, Ahana and Michael are invited to go hunting with the firm’s owners and the senior people. The two young managers get a quick training in the use of highly sophisticated hunting rifles, complete with optical scopes. The hunting party then walks out into the grounds … but what exactly is the quarry? While they spread out through the forest, Ahana and Michael are separated from the others, at which point Michael blags to Ahana that she’s too nice a person to be working at such a firm where the law of the concrete jungle rules and she’d probably be better off running a charity foundation …

Well sure enough – BLAM! – and the hunting party soon gathers around the shooting victim with Christine congratulating the shooter and exclaiming that dinner is going to served early. Guess who will be the guest of honour and who will be served the biggest and juiciest piece of … steak?

Set out very much like an Agatha Christie novel, complete with snooty arrogant upper class folks who take for granted their landed-aristocracy privileges, “Carnivore” is a cool and collected slow-burner, of which its deliberately understated style underlines the tension between Ahana and Michael as each strives to outdo each other in conforming and sucking up to the firm’s senior hierarchy. Sriram does a great job as Ahana in undergoing a considerable transformation from doe-eyed innocent to steely predator; the film is really all hers and everyone else just hovers around her. The one thing that is missing is some little indication in Ahana’s expression, a little tear perhaps, that something in her that was good and moral has died.

Don’t Look Now: an eerie and profound Gothic horror film of grief, trauma and misperceptions

Nicolas Roeg, “Don’t Look Now” (1973)

Adapted from the short story with the same title by Daphne du Maurier, this famous British cult horror film is ostensibly a study of grief and how it affects a family’s ability to cope with life’s daily routines and informs family members’ perceptions of the world around them. On another level, the family affected by the death of a young child lives in a universe where time appears to be of a different dimension than how we experience it, in the way the past, the present and the future seem to bleed into one another and people may just as readily have premonitions of what will happen as they have memories of past events. After losing Christine in a drowning accident back home in the UK, John (Donald Sutherland) and Laura (Julie Christie) Baxter dump their son in a boarding school and flee to Venice where John has taken up a job helping to restore a Roman Catholic church’s mosaics. The couple meet two elderly sisters, one of whom is blind but has the gift of second sight: she sees the spirit of Christine, still clad in her red raincoat in which she died, hovering around the couple, and tells Laura. After a fainting fit, Laura informs John of what the sister has told her but John remains sceptical.

Over the next several days, while continuing to reside and work in Venice, John and Laura experience flashbacks of the drowning accident and John himself has strange visions in which a small figure in a red raincoat roams the bridges and streets of Venice, and in which (after Laura returns to the UK on being informed by long-distance phone by her son’s school that he has had an accident and is in hospital) his wife is still in Venice but is clad in black mourning clothes and flanked by the mysterious elderly sisters sailing on a vaporetto draped in black. Meanwhile the police in Venice are finding dead human bodies in the canals of the city and realise there may be a serial killer on the loose.

The plot is very clever if not completely plausible: the tragedy is that John has been gifted with second sight, as one of the elderly sisters recognises, but because of his scepticism and belief in rationality, his ability causes him endless trouble and also gets the two sisters detained by the police, which event forces the sighted sister to make arrangements to leave Venice permanently, a move which upsets her blind sibling; and his inability to recognise his gift but to confuse it instead with his memories of his daughter’s drowning leads him on a path to tragedy. In this, the past, present and future intersect in a way that suggests in the universe in which the Baxters live, the events of one’s life really can be predetermined by the decisions and actions one takes.

Various occurring motifs of bright red raincoats, breaking glass, images and their mirror twins, doppelgangers and duplication, and water as the giver of life and bringer of death run throughout the film to reinforce the notion of the Baxters living in a seemingly time-less world where the past could be the future and the future could be the past. Even John’s work in the restoration of the church’s artistic works involves duplicating old glass pieces with new pieces. Misinterpreting incidents and mistaken identities are a major theme in the film. The climax of the film is shocking and viewers quickly realise nothing is what it originally seemed to be: people thought to be innocent turn out not to be so, and those believed to be sinister turn out to be protective.

The film works as it does by drawing inspiration and elements from the work of Alfred Hitchcock and from the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges whose literary concept of the world as a labyrinth is extended to the portrayal of Venice as a city of seemingly endless mazes through its paths, bridges, tunnels and even its canals. Roeg’s use of editing in which shots of two events are spliced so that they appear to be running at the same time, most famously in the scene in which John and Laura have passionate sex and get dressed to go out for dinner, reinforces the idea of a universe in which past, present and future do not follow a linear structure. The actors do excellent work in their roles as the troubled Baxter couple, experiencing the usual ups and downs in their relationship while at the same time recovering (or trying to) from a major trauma. Venice is a significant character in the film: a grittier and darker side of the city is shown, with buildings almost falling into disrepair, streets and tunnels conveying sinister menace, and the city’s bright facade for tourists hiding bureaucratic incompetence and corruption. The film could not have been made anywhere else in the world but Venice.

Roeg’s unusual filming techniques and the way in which he places his motifs at significant points in the film to advance the plot and send the characters on their destinies from which they are unable to deviate give “Don’t Look Now” an eerie and haunting Gothic feel that in its own dark way is very profound and beautiful.

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 / P√°jaros 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.