Hillary (Episode 4: Be Our Champion, Go Away): concluding episode delving into outright fantasy and falsehood

Nanette Burstein, “Hillary (Episode 4: Be Our Champion, Go Away)” (2020)

If the first three episodes of this series on Hillary Rodham Clinton are essentially worshipful hagiography, the fourth and concluding episode descends into outright fantasy. Viewers learn very little new about HRC and especially about her years as Senator for New York and then as Secretary of State during Barack Obama’s first term as US President (2009 – 2013). The episode brushes aside HRC’s voting record as Senator on the wars initiated by President George W Bush (2001 – 2009) in Afghanistan in late 2001, soon after the World Trade Center attacks, and then in Iraq in 2003. The not so little incident of US Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens being ambushed and killed along with three other Americans in the consulate in Benghazi, eastern Libya, by terrorists is also treated quite cavalierly. Nothing is said about HRC’s role in allowing a context to exist in which four American citizens end up being killed in a small building in a city where one of them, a US Ambassador, is not expected to be. What was Stevens doing in Benghazi anyway – surely not running guns and jihadi fighters to Syria? Similarly nothing is made of the overthrow of a legitimately elected government in Honduras in 2010 or in Libya in 2011, the latter to which HRC, while being interviewed, cackled and said, “We came, we saw, he [Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddhafi] died!” On top of this inattention to the issues that Americans are most concerned about – issues about public servants being accountable for their decisions and behaviours, and upholding the law – is the breezy dismissal of HRC’s use of a private email server with poor cyber-security to transact government business, of which much was in the public interest.

The episode brings viewers up to date with HRC’s decision to campaign for the US Presidency in 2016 and her campaign’s emphasis on gender politics, portraying HRC as a champion for feminism and a victim of institutional misogyny, and especially of her Republican rival Donald Trump (with whom the Clintons had previously been friendly), while saying nothing about what her campaign actually stood for in the eyes of the voting public. This narrative is pounded again and again in each of the episodes in this series. As might be expected, nothing is said about the women harmed by Bill Clinton while he was Governor of Arkansas and then US President by his actions toward them, or about his frequent trips to notorious financier Jeffrey Epstein’s private island for trysts with underage teenage women.

The breathless format of the series, in which viewers are forced to sit through constant swinging from HRC’s 2016 Presidential campaign to particular episodes of her earlier life and back again, might be designed deliberately to sweep viewers off their feet into a rollercoaster ride through HRC’s life, not allowing them to step back and have the distance to view HRC’s life, decisions and actions more dispassionately and critically. HRC is constantly portrayed as a fighter and battler to get where she is when in fact it would seem much has actually been handed to her through her husband’s associations and past career. Significantly the series ignores much of her career as New York state senator or US Secretary of State – because the truth is, she achieved nothing worth celebrating that fits in with a paradigm that sees her as a feminist champion and achiever. Her major achievements have actually brought ruin, chaos, violence and death to many millions of people around the world.

The attempts to smear Donald Trump with accusations of Russian collusion to gain the US Presidency and Russian President Vladimir Putin as a soulless character who will always be nothing more than a KGB man, with no evidence to back up such insults, demonstrate the shallowness of Burstein’s subject. That Burstein simply agrees with HRC and follows along, instead of probing these issues and challenging HRC, reveals the series as essentially propaganda of a very mediocre standard. HRC herself is an uninteresting subject for a documentary: smug, self-serving and expecting the world to revolve around her.

Men in Black II: some good ideas go to waste in a cheap sequel

Barry Sonnenfeld, “Men in Black II” (2002)

Five years after the events of the original “Men in Black”, at the end of which Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) retired from the Men in Black agency – the secret intelligence unit that monitors the activities of exterrestrial beings living and working on Planet Earth – his former MiB protege Agent J (Will Smith) is called upon to investigate the mysterious death of an alien at his (the alien’s, that is) pizza restaurant. There, Agent J interviews Laura (Rosario Dawson) who tells him her employer was killed by two aliens, Serleena (Lara Flynn Boyle), a shape-shifting monster in the form of a lingerie model, and Charlie and Scrad, Serleena’s two-headed assistant (Johnny Knoxville), who are hunting for the Light of Zartha which Serleena needs for her own nefarious purposes. Agent J is attracted to Laura and decides not to neuralyse her.

As he investigates the crime, Agent J discovers nearly all leads go back to his mentor so he brings the former Agent K back to MiB headquarters for re-neuralysation. Before Agent K’s neuralysation is completed, Serleena and her minions attack the building and seriously trash it so Agent K’s memories must be restored clandestinely. Having regained his identity and memories, Agent K remembers that he partially neuralysed himself to erase what he knows of the Light of Zartha but left some clues to follow in case he needed to find out again.

Putting Laura under protection with various aliens, Agents J and K recover a video containing a fictional dramatisation of how, long ago, Queen Lauranna of Zartha entrusted the MiB agency to guard the Light from her enemy Serleena. Agent K could not save the Queen from the murderous Serleena so he neuralysed himself in order to forget his grief and at the same time forget what the Light of Zartha was and where it was held. The agents return to the place where they placed Laura but discover she has been abducted by Serleena.

While Smith and Jones work very well together – indeed, the movie limps along until Agent K recovers his memories (although the speed at which they come back is unconvincing and much potential fun is lost along the way) – and do what they can to maintain the old zing and energy from the previous film, the plot is flat and the entire film has a cheap and cheesy tone. Gags such as the talking-dog gag quickly wear thin and even scenes featuring Jeff the giant monster living in the NYC subway are not very scary. While Laura plays a significant part in the film, the romance angle between her and Agent J is very brief and superficial, and the heartbreak climax in which Laura discovers her true heritage and must go to Zartha does not give the film the emotional edge it could have had.

The message that once someone becomes an MiB agent, s/he is always an MiB agent, and the corollary that MiB agents can never be normal people with normal lives and normal relationships, but are permanently wedded to their employer, is present but unfortunately the script does not make more of it than it does. Similar could be said for characters like Laura, Serleena and Charlie and Scrad: what are their motivations, why exactly is Serleena interested in the Light of Zartha, and what do Charlie and Scrad hope to get out of working with Serleena? There are many interesting ideas in this film that could have made it much more entertaining, a little bit on the scary side, and perhaps even a bit thoughtful. What a pity that these ideas were not allowed to help write what could have been a good script.

Batman & Robin: so one-dimensional, it should be called “Flatman & Ribbon”

Joel Schumacher, “Batman & Robin” (1997)

Some folks probably call this film “Flatman & Ribbon” for the fact that the Dynamic Duo (played respectively by George Clooney and Chris O’Donnell) get well and truly steamrolled by a lousy stereotypical script in which two villains become a megalomaniacal tag-team with no motive other than to literally remake the world to their desires and hog screen time with their over-acting, silly puns and outlandish costumes. A big part of the blame must go to director Schumacher for steering the Good Ship Gotham Universe too close to the camp live-action television show that starred Adam West as the Dark Knight. The cast of actors which include Arnold Schwarzenegger as chief villain Mr Freeze, Uma Thurman as Poison Ivy and Alicia Silverstone as Barbara Wilson / Batgirl does what it can but the movie is far too crowded with them all and most of their characters end up so one-dimensional they may as well be paper cut-outs. “Flatman and Ribbon” indeed.

At least the script tries to inject an emotional element in a sub-plot about the importance of family and family loyalties by having Bruce Wayne’s faithful butler Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Gough) fall ill with the same mysterious ailment that befell the wife of Mr Freeze who desperately needs money for research on a cure for the illness which puts her in a permanent coma. Mr Freeze embarks on a life of crime stealing diamonds that power his suit to keep his metabolism at subzero temperatures due to a laboratory accident. With Schwarzenegger as Mr Freeze, the villain’s desperate quest to revive his wife takes centre stage but Alfred’s illness is always in the background to remind Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson of the importance of being partners and working together, and to rope in Alfred’s niece Barbara Wilson who comes to Wayne Manor to look after her uncle. The scenes with Alfred are very touching and feature some good acting from Clooney who otherwise provides a sunny and not so tortured interpretation of Bruce Wayne / Batman throughout the film.

While on his mission to steal more diamonds including one from an observatory that Wayne Enterprises sponsors, Mr Freeze meets Poison Ivy, herself created from a chemical laboratory mash-up, who gets him out of jail and tries to wangle her way into his cold-hearted affections by pulling the plug on his wife. Together the two plot to freeze Gotham City and then the entire world with the assistance of Poison Ivy’s subordinate Bane, a huge monstrosity created with a drug called Venom. Fortunately the Dynamic Duo and Batgirl foil the Dastardly Duo’s plans and put them back into prison, but not before an endless and tiresome series of explosions, enough car crashes to turn all of Gotham City’s scrapyard merchants into millionaires, lots of dead bodies and other collateral damage, and too many implausible dramatic situations that would be impossible for even the most well-prepared superheroes to survive – or at least not risk shoulder dislocations or arms ripping off – all culminating in very sudden climatic change in negative Centigrade temperatures for Gotham City.

Little touches such as a conversation between Bruce Wayne and Alfred about being able to control the chaos around oneself – always an ongoing issue with Batman and those like him who view the world as essentially needing constant repair lest it fall back into even more evil and corruption – and Batman himself offering Mr Freeze a chance to redeem himself at least make some parts of an otherwise tired and bloated film franchise in need of new ideas bearable. Little surprise then that this flatlining film did not do so well at the box office and the film franchise ended with it.

Batman Forever: combining colourful camp and brooding darkness with duality as its theme

Joel Schumacher, “Batman Forever” (1995)

After Tim Burton’s “Batman Returns” scooped millions at the box office, there was the general feeling that his films of the Dark Knight were too dark for young viewers, and that the hero did not have a place in a Gothic noir universe where everyone is compromised in a corrupt society. For the next film in this particular Batman series, Burton stepped down as director (though he still producer) and Joel Schumacher directed instead. Scumacher’s approach to the Batman / Gotham City ethos was to draw on the live-action 1960s television series and Batman comics of the 1950s in which the hero is a square-jawed muscular bulldog hero who always defeats his enemies, no matter what dangers they put him and his sidekick Robin in. The result is a mix of shadow darkness and garish fluorescent circus colours: a film that wants to be two very different things – a noirish flick that wants to be serious yet still colourful and fun for young viewers – and this notion of mirror opposites combined in the one person is a motif that pervades the film in its characters and plotting.

Gotham City district attorney Harvey Dent (Tommy Lee Jones) swears revenge on Batman (Val Kilmer) after the latter fails to save him from a vicious acid attack that leaves half of Dent’s face severely burnt and disfigured and turns him into a man obsessed with polar opposites, one of which can dominate the other through a sheer random occurrence, exemplified in the toss of a coin. Dent disrupts a circus performance in which a family of acrobats manages to divert his bomb into Gotham City Harbour instead of destroying the cirucs, but the acrobats’ heroic gesture leaves them dead save for the youngest member, Dick Grayson (Chris O’Donnell). Batman’s alter ego Bruce Wayne, struggling with recurring dreams of his childhood, invites Grayson to live with him at Wayne Manor.

In the meantime, a worker at Wayne Enterprises, Edward Nygma (Jim Carrey) demonstrates an invention to Wayne but Wayne rejects it and refuses to continue funding it. After murdering his supervisor, Nygma leaves the company and, adopting the persona of The Riddler, teams up with Dent to continue raising the money (legally and illegally) to perfect the machine, copies of which are expected to be in every home in Gotham City: the catch is that this machine will draw in every viewer’s thoughts, feelings and knowledge, and transfer all these into Nygma’s own mind, thereby giving Nygma power over people’s hidden secrets and vulnerabilities. Nygma seeks out Wayne to destroy him for refusing to finance his project and discovers his secret Batman identity.

As if dealing with two major loopy criminals partnering to destroy him were not enough, Batman / Bruce Wayne also has to try to rein in Grayson who not only discovers his secret identity but also thirsts for revenge against Dent for killing his family. At the same time, after discovering his father’s journal, Wayne starts to doubt his purpose in life as a crusader for justice and yearns for a normal life. For help with his recurrent dreams, he seeks out a psychiatrist, Dr Chase Meridian (Nicole Kidman), who turns out to have the hots for Batman but considers him rather ordinary. Over the course of the film, the doctor develops feelings for Wayne but still holds a torch for Batman.

The plot is actually very straightforward though and while the scenes with Wayne and the doctor can drag, the film proceeds at a brisk pace to its conclusion. Thanks to The Riddler’s predilection for blowing things up, the film is full of explosions and noise. The sets are very good, maintaining a Gothic Art Deco look but with lots of bright garish colours and outlandish villain costumes. While Kilmer delivers a fairly straightforward dual character with just enough brooding darkness to pass muster with audiences, and O’Donnell plays a hot-headed Grayson / Robin without much nuance, Carrey and Jones ham up their respective characters. While Jones’ Dent actually doesn’t do much other than be a one-dimensional cartoon villain, Carrey goes to town painting Edward Nygma / The Riddler as a seriously disturbed and overbearing individual. While over-acting is perhaps to be expected of The Riddler and Harvey Dent – and at the time of filming, Carrey did have a reputation for playing crazed and crazy characters – over the course of the film this over-the-top style becomes very irritating and tiresome.

At the end of the film, we really do not know much more about Batman / Bruce Wayne, apart from observing that after revealing his secret identity to Dr Meridian and accepting that he needs a partner to share in his crime-fighting life – and Robin / Dick Grayson eagerly joining him in that respect – he finally accepts his dual nature and the nightmares presumably cease. It seems that by sharing something of himself with others, most of all with Robin / Dick Grayson, Batman / Bruce Wayne relieves himself of the burden of carrying his secret duality alone. It turns out that just about every significant character in the film, save for Dr Chase Meridian and Wayne’s faithful butler Alfred (Michael Gough), has either a secret alter ego or a dual nature. Interestingly, once Dr Meridian discovers that Batman / Bruce Wayne are one and the same, her interest in both of them seems to cool right off and at the end of the film, the couple go their separate ways with Bruce Wayne choosing to continue his career as Batman … forever.

In all of the fun and cheesiness and Jim Carrey’s zany antics and rubber acting that make him the real star of the film, what saves “Batman Forever” from being a camp re-run of the live-action TV show from the 1960s is Kilmer’s comparative restraint and nuanced acting as the hero wrestling with a troubling secret and a connected theme of duality and partnership. The Riddler’s quest to steal everyone’s thoughts, feelings and hidden secrets might be considered typical campy mad-scientist stuff but in the current world in which corporations spend huge amounts on social psychology and mass psychology in an effort to discover what people really are thinking and feeling, how they think and feel the way they do, and how to use this knowledge to manipulate people into certain moods and modes of thinking – and then sell all this knowledge to governments and intelligence agencies – the film takes on an eerie relevance and significance.

Seeing this film again 25 years after seeing at the cinema, I am surprised that it has lasted better than I thought it would and that Kilmer’s approach to Batman / Bruce Wayne stands up very well and might actually be the best of all the actors who have played the role in all the films centred around the character.

Batman Returns: a dark Gothic Christmas fantasy turns out tired, kitschy and bombastic

Tim Burton, “Batman Returns” (1992)

A Christmas movie that probably rarely enters most viewers’ lists of Christmas movies to watch is this wintry sequel to Burton’s “Batman” film. In that first film, Batman (underplayed by Michael Keaton) did battle with Jack Nicholson’s Joker, and quite a good, suspenseful and above all atmospheric film that was. In this sequel, Keaton again plays Batman / Bruce Wayne in a very minimal way, with most of the attention on Danny de Vito’s Penguin and Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman aka Selina Kyle. Despite the dark and snowy Christmas setting, where it seems night reigns nearly 24/7, the sequel has little atmosphere from the first film, and in its stead is forgettable explosions courtesy of a fairly involved plot.

The Penguin arrives on the scene fairly quickly with an origin story and childhood history that emphasise his outsider status and inner yearning for acceptance that mutates into contempt and hatred for humanity in general. Over 30 years later, businessman millionaire Max Schreck (Christopher Walken) proposes a plan to build a power plant to supply Gotham City with electricity, a plan opposed by its mayor. Schreck is kidnapped during a speech that is interrupted by a terrorist attack staged by the Red Triangle Gang, and is taken to meet the RTG secret leader Penguin in the latter’s underground sewer lair while Batman fends off the gang members. The Penguin blackmails Schreck into agreeing to help him make his way back to the surface. In the meantime Schreck’s put-upon secretary Selina Kyle discovers the true nature of her boss’s electricity proposal but before she can do anything, Schreck throws her out of a skyscraper window and she plummets to the ground. Miraculously she survives and she swears vengeance on Schreck by adopting the persona of the Catwoman.

Through various ruses and with the help of Schreck, who has his own reasons, the Penguin campaigns for the office of Gotham City mayor but is undone by Batman / Bruce Wayne who is suspicious of the candidate’s motives and discovers his connection to the Red Triangle Gang. The Penguin and Catwoman briefly ally to try to bring down Batman but their alliance comes undone when Catwoman rejects his advances. Bruce Wayne meets Selina Kyle during a meeting with Schreck and the two misfits are attracted to each other. After Batman reveals the Penguin’s attitude towards the people of Gotham City by publicly broadcasting the villain’s remarks about the city, the Penguin’s mayoral campaign falls apart, he retreats to the sewers and plots to kidnap and kill all the first-born sons of Gotham City to avenge himself on his parents. The Penguin starts by gatecrashing a ball thrown by Schreck, threatening to take Schreck’s son, but Schreck offers himself up instead.

The state is set for an almighty pyrotechnical climax which, to be frank, is the least interesting part of a long film with characters who either over-act (in de Vito’s case) or under-act (in the case of Batman and Schreck). Pfeiffer’s Catwoman just manages to strike a balance between her mousy and inhibited Selina Kyle persona and Catwoman’s lustful mirror-image opposite. Though just over two hours long, the film makes little attempt at character development and at the end of it all, all major characters still seem as paper-thin as they were at the beginning of the film. While Keaton passes muster as Bruce Wayne, fairly confident in public but often ill at ease in romantic relationships, his Batman does not come across as being very authoritative (though the character has zero interactions with police – not even Commissioner Gordon has words with him) and seems cardboard-like. With less atmosphere and more emphasis on explosions, bomb attacks and violence, the features associated with films directed by Tim Burton tend to stick out as overdone, kitsch and tired. The music soundtrack is loud and overly dramatic, and has little energy and zest.

While Burton has championed marginalised outlier characters in other films, and in his own way satirises American social conformity and the repression that accompanies this, the Penguin’s portrayal and that character’s interactions with Gotham City folk seem to betray a shallow understanding – nay, ignorance – of how capitalist society works to keep people in thrall by dividing them and using those divisions as threats to enforce and maintain conformity and compliance. The Penguin is never able or given the opportunity to understand where the hatred originates, in the rich family that rejects him because of how his deformities might threaten its wealth and social status; in a way, he is a puppet of Schreck who hopes to use him in his own scheme to claim power and influence over Gotham City. Perhaps the Penguin is more to be pitied than treated as a true villain despite his vicious character; at any rate, one doesn’t take him seriously as a villain but as a pathetic clown instead. What might have made the film work better would be shifting the emphasis from the Penguin as a villain, and Batman’s concentration on him, to Schreck as the true villain – but it seems that Wayne and Schreck have too much in common, as millionaire businessmen and philanthropical types, able to exert influence on Gotham City politics, for Batman and Schreck to have a showdown after somehow sidelining the Penguin and Catwoman. Perhaps this is the problem behind the Batman narrative: that a supposed superhero everyone roots for actually turns out to be representative of the very class that is stealing resources from its rightful owners, the general public. In the real world, Batman would be an enforcer for corporate billionaire Lex Luthor.

Cycle of revenge continues in an amoral world of cartoon sadism and violence in “Kill Bill: Volume 2”

Quentin Tarantino, “Kill Bill: Volume 2” (2004)

The revenge odyssey of The Bride, whom we met in the first chapter of the “Kill Bill” movie series, concludes in this second film in which she seeks out the remaining members of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad and kills them. Initially the film recapitulates the massacre at the El Paso chapel in which The Bride (Uma Thurman) and her wedding party are rehearsing her wedding when they are rudely interrupted by The Bride’s former compadres in a blaze of gunfire. Four years later, having come out of a coma and sent two members of the Squad to a violent end, The Bride, now identified as Beatrix Kiddo, scouts out the trailer of third member Bud (Michael Madsen) who has fallen on hard times and spends his days in a delirious alcoholic haze. Bud has already been warned by Bill (David Carradine) of Kiddo’s approach and he shoots her point blank in the chest with rock salt. He phones the fourth squad member Elle Driver (Darryl Hannah) and offers to sell to her Kiddo’s priceless Hattori Honzo sword for $1 million; Elle Driver demands that Kiddo be made to suffer an agonising death. After clinching the deal, Bud proceeds to bury Kiddo alive.

In an aside, years ago, Bill tells a young Kiddo of the legendary Shaolin monk / kung fu master Pai Mei (Gordon Liu) and his specialty death blow known as the Five Point Palm Exploding Heart technique which he has never taught. Bill then sends Kiddo to Pai Mei to receive further martial arts training. Pai Mei treats Kiddo harshly and torments her relentlessly but eventually they gain one another’s respect. Remembering her training, Kiddo is able to break out of her prison and claw her way out of her grave.

In the morning she treks to Bud’s trailer where Elle Driver has already tricked Bud by burying a black mamba in the money for Kiddo’s sword. Bud dies an agonising death but before Driver can get away with the money and the sword, Kiddo ambushes her and they both fight aggressively hard. When Driver reveals that she poisoned Pai Mei in retribution for plucking out her eye, Kiddo exacts her vengeance against the other woman. Kiddo then continues on her quest to find Bill and retrieve her four-year-old daughter.

More leisurely paced than Volume 1, this sequel gives viewers a little more insight (but not very much so) into the characters of Kiddo and Bill, their relationship to each other, and their motivations for doing what they did in the past and what they are doing in the present. That Kiddo decided to give up a life of killing when she discovered her pregnancy is rational enough but viewers do not learn why she may have wanted to become pregnant in the first place: perhaps she was already disenchanted with her old life of fighting and killing. Bill’s own motives for wanting to kill Kiddo in the first place seem odd and implausible, in light of the fact that he later decided to raise her daughter. We never learn why Elle Driver dislikes Kiddo so vehemently in the first place and her behaviour in the second film seems at odds with her actions in the first film: why does she think Bud’s disposal of Kiddo is grubby when her own poisoning attempt was just as low?

The acting is good if not particularly outstanding though Carradine does good work as the world-weary Bill who knows his time on Planet Earth is quickly coming to an end, and Thurman does well as a character who still loves Bill as much as she hates him for what he has done to her. Hannah revels in her bad-girl character but for all her theatrics she gets much less air time than she deserves. The cast moves in a porno-cartoon world inspired very much by Sergio Leone’s spaghetti / paella Western films of lone avenger characters: an amoral world of outlandish violence and hyper-sadism in which a pathetic down-at-heel male characters who tortures a woman, threatens to blind her and then bury her eventually gets his comeuppance from another woman, and a psychopathic one at that, but in a way that leaves a sour taste in the mouth. The movie soundtrack adds another layer of desert Western flavour but is not very remarkable.

The most interesting part of the film is the dialogue between Bill and Kiddo in which they are discussing superheroes and Bill voices his opinion that just as Superman always remains Superman and Clark Kent is simply his disguise, so people’s essential natures remain the same no matter that they may change roles. This is to suggest that Kiddo will always remain a killer even if she becomes something else. The worldview expressed here may be fatalistic and determinist, implying that whenever crunch-time comes, Kiddo will always revert to being a cold-blooded assassin and murderer.

While vengeance may taste quite sweet, the overriding theme is that actions always have consequences, and those consequences not only will be excessive in proportion to the original actions but themselves will generate further consequences that are even more excessive to the point where the cycle of vengeance becomes banal and diminishes the humanity of the people caught up in it. Kiddo may have her moment of triumph but one day the daughter of Vernita Green will seek her out to avenge her mother’s death. How and where this cycle of revenge and retribution will end, and what chaos and destruction it eventually leads to, is something Tarantino has yet to consider.

A tale of vengeance and consequences in “Kill Bill: Volume 1”

Quentin Tarantino, “Kill Bill: Volume 1” (2003)

Inspired by and paying homage to grindhouse cinema and the film genres that dominate it – cheap ‘n’ cheerful Asian martial arts movies, samurai flicks, blaxploitation and spaghetti / paella Westerns – the two “Kill Bill” films revolve around a lone avenger, known as The Bride, who seeks retribution against those who tried to destroy her and her future as a wife and mother. Implicit in this theme is the notion that past and present actions have future consequences, even years down the track when people’s attitudes and lives change and they may no longer believe in what they used to do.

The original “Kill Bill” film turned out to be about four hours long so it was split into two parts for cinematic release and the two parts have now become independent films in their own right. The otherwise straightforward revenge plot is chopped up into chapters that jump backwards then forwards and back in time but they are not difficult to follow and provide viewers with background information at the appropriate time so that later developments can make sense without viewers having to remember what happened earlier that is significant to the future action. In “… Volume 1”, The Bride (Uma Thurman), at this stage not named, despatches in brutal fashion Vernita Green (Vivica A Fox) after a knife fight in Green’s own home. Green’s daughter witnesses her mother’s death and The Bride acknowledges that the child may seek her own revenge against her years later. The film then jumps back to a point in time when The Bride is about to marry her groom at a chapel in El Paso. The wedding party is attacked by her former colleagues in the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad. After telling the Squad leader Bill (David Carradine) that she is pregnant with his baby, The Bride is shot in the head and left for dead. She miraculously survives but lies unconscious for four years in hospital, during which time a hospital orderly has been selling her body to his buddies. One of her colleagues, Elle Driver (Darryl Hannah) tries to kill her but is stopped by Bill who considers Driver’s action to get rid of The Bride while she is unconscious and defenceless unworthy of the squad.

The Bride revives and kills the hospital orderly and one of his pals mercilessly. Escaping from the hospital with the orderly’s car keys, she commandeers his van and while she teaches herself to walk and fight again, and makes plans to eliminate the people who tried to kill her earlier, viewers are treated to a partly animated interlude about one of those people, O-Ren Ishii (Lucy Liu), her background as an orphan losing her parents to Japanese yakuza, her later training to be an elite assassin and her current position as head of the yakuza underworld. The rest of the film follows The Bride to Okinawa where she commissions a sword to be made by Hattori Honzo (Sonny Chiba), a former master swordsmith now working as a sushi chef, and then seeks out O-Ren Ishii at a restaurant, The House of Blue Leaves, where she fights off Ishii’s squad of fighters, the Crazy 88, and Ishii’s improbably schoolgirl bodyguard Gogo Yubari (Chiaki Kuriyama). The two women later face off against each other in a snow-covered garden.

The thin plot is well structured though perhaps some sequences are a little too long and could have been edited for length. The animated interlude enables the violence and an act of paedophilia to be viewed from a distance, and probably helped the film gain a rating that allowed it to be viewed by a mainstream adult audience (as did filming the scenes where The Bride fights the Crazy 88 in black-and-white). Cinematography and the use of split screens – I actually think the split-screen filming technique to tell part of the story could have been used more – are very effective and help to give the film a distinct appearance and style. The sadism, while intended as cartoonish, can appear brutal and excessive to audiences unfamiliar with low budget slasher and porn films. Aliens from outer space viewing films like this might conclude that Western civilisation is brutal, exploitative, seedy and sordid, not realising that such a world is part of the grindhouse movie phenomenon.

The acting may not be great and fight sequences are ridiculous but those are expected in a grindhouse homage of the nature of the “Kill Bill” films. Ultimately the two Tarantino films are no more than what Tarantino set out to do. Perhaps the most significant part of “Kill Bill: Volume 1” is the fight between Vernita Green and The Bride, and what the characters themselves could have represented in that scene. Green actually manages to get what she and the rest of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad denied to The Bride: marriage, a daughter and a nice suburban life in a Californian city. The fight might have had more poignancy if The Bride had expressed some jealousy in a voice-over at what Green enjoys, and if the conversation the two have before The Bride knifes her had included something from Green about her life in the suburbs, how good it is or isn’t, and how she might be missing (or not) her former life.

Elite commandos, Tiger Mafia gangsters and Ugandan Shaolin Temple monks go head to head in “Who Killed Captain Alex?”

Isaac G G Nabwana, “Who Killed Captain Alex?” (2010)

Reputedly made on a budget of US$200 (though American-born Ugandan producer Alan Ssali Hofmanis admits the budget was actually US$85), this action-packed comedy of Uganda’s finest military commandos taking on the country’s most dangerous criminal organisation is a riveting work of amateur improvised film-making under conditions of poverty in a corrupt and authoritarian state. Captain Alex (William Kakule), one of the finest officers in the Uganda People’s Defence Force, sets out to destroy the evil Richard (Ernest Sseruyna) and his Tiger Mafia, which controls the slum neighbourhoods of Kampala, the Ugandan capital. After losing most of his commandos in a near-botched stealth operation on a group of Tiger Mafia drug couriers, Captain Alex manages to capture Richard’s brother and bring him to the police. On seeing the bad news on Ramon TV, the major TV channel in Wakaliga (a poor suburb on the outskirts of Kampala), Richard swears vengeance on Captain Alex and sends out a female spy to the military headquarters to seduce the officer and lure him to Richard. Alas and alack, Captain Alex ends up very dead in his tent – but no-one knows who killed him.

Alex’s brother Bruce U (Charles Bukenya), a Ugandan Shaolin monk, arrives in town, having heard of Alex’s death, swearing vengeance on Alex’s murderers. Bruce U has a few adventures in which he must do battle with the local Kampala kung fu squad and is nearly seduced by Ritah (Prossy Nakyambadde), one of Richard’s numerous and expendable wives. In the meantime, Richard is determined to find out who killed Captain Alex and hires Puffs (G Puffs), a mercenary from Russia, to steal a military helicopter and bomb Kampala for revenge. The Uganda People’s Defence Force also swear to avenge Captain Alex’s death by capturing Richard, though this means having to work out an ambush plan which clearly taxes their brains. They manage to work out where in Uganda Richard is likely to be hiding and start to encroach on him and his minions. Bruce U is captured by Richard’s men who bring him to their boss, who then forces Bruce U to fight Puffs’ assassins. Just as Bruce U succumbs to one flying kick, the commandos arrive and proceed to bomb the warehouse where Richard and his people are hiding. At the same time, Puffs’ destruction of Kampala creates breaking news on Ramon TV and forces the Ugandan government to declare martial law in Kampala.

When the dust eventually settles and the remaining commandos and mafiosi have to count the huge numbers of casualties, viewers are still no closer to discovering just who killed Captain Alex. At least the exuberant and histrionic acting, the crazed machine-gun shooting and the resulting mayhem, the kung fu fighting, and most of all the hilarious dialogue and narration by VJ Emmie (“What da fuck?!”) maintain the cheerfully frenetic pace in this devil-may-care, self-referential work. With respect to VJ Emmie’s voice-over narration and commentary, filled with jokes and openly exuberant as Emmie becomes absorbed in the plot and the action, there are very many highlights but the funniest of all must be the conversation over a woman early on in the bar-room scene: 1st man says, “Are you crazy? That is my wife! Get off my wife!” – to which 2nd man replies, “I thought [she] was a goat!” Another gem, this one from Emmie: “… All Ugandans know kung fu! …” One joke clearly meant for Ugandans involves a woman who is tortured because she insists on watching Nigerian movies.

Surprisingly for such a cheaply made and shot film with meagre resources, the plot is very involved and quite sophisticated in its own way, even though many details of the plot are full of holes, with a mystery that remains unsolved despite the body count and the destruction, and the ending remains open as the Ugandan government puts Kampala under lock-down while Puffs flies off in his stolen chopper into the sunset. The cinematography can be astonishingly good, especially in Bruce U’s training and fight scenes. The action is brisk and keeps viewers on the edge of their seats, expecting the … well, the unexpectable!

Part of the film’s charm is that the cast is drawn from local people in director IGG Nabwanza’s home community in Wakaliga, and all the props used in the film are local as well. The action takes place in and around Wakaliga. The special effects are really very good when one considers they were done on computers that Nabwanza himself put together out of salvaged scrap. The film is highly self-referential, as VJ Emmie constantly reminds the target Ugandan audience what it is they are watching, and this continual self-referral builds up the notion of an all-embracing universe called Wakaliwood, in which supa-killa elite commandos and supa-crazy Tiger Mafia killers fight as much for the fun of fighting as they do for control and dominance.

Attack on Nyege Nyege Island: mini action thriller short featuring killer King Kong kung-fu kicks

Isaac G G Nabwana, “Attack on Nyege Nyege Island” (2016)

The tiny but already globally famous Ugandan film industry (known as Ugawood, taking after the manner of Bollywood and Nollywood which represent the popular film industries of India and Nigeria respectively) already boasts its very own Quentin Tarantino cult figure in the person of one Isaac Godfrey Geoffrey Nabwana, also known as Nabwana IGG, who since 2009 has been making comedy action thriller flicks on literal shoe-string budgets as low as US$200 (!!!) with cheap special effects which he knocks up on his computer, which he built himself out of scrap material in his impoverished neighbourhood Wakaliga, a suburb in Kampala, and featuring voice-over narration from so-called “voice jokers” who dub or translate the dialogue into English for audiences and who often add their own interpretations and jokes into the narration for hilarious effect. Beginning with his most famous film “Who killed Captain Alex?”, Nabwana’s films take place in a particular universe, of course familiar to us and yet an odd place where it seems blaxploitation and martial arts flicks common in the 1970s never went out of fashion, drug lords commanding mafia gangs and big bosses running worldwide trafficking rackets not only still exist but still wear the most god-awful flamboyant fashions, and fighters are as likely to send one another to overflowing morgues with well-aimed kung fu kicks as with AK-47s that they just can’t seem to control.

In case this all sounds too much for readers, Nabwana kindly provides a taster of his distinctive world with a 12-minute short “Attack on Nyege Nyege Island”, a film he improvised and made in two days during the Nyege Nyege Festival. The musicians and the audience at the festival, and the community who hosted it, make up the film’s entire cast. All you need to know is that the festival is gatecrashed by commandos from the fearsome Tiger Mafia gang – whose big boss wears an odd mask of three CD-ROM discs over his forehead and eyes – who proceed to shoot up everyone in sight in their quest to kidnap somebody called Anna whom their boss seems inordinately fond of. In desperation two girls in the Nyege Nyege community summon the spirit guardian, a human-sized King Kong figure who proceeds to knock out and knock off the Tiger Mafia gangsters with Killer Kung Fu fighting.

The acting is probably better than might be expected in a cheerfully cheap film such as this, and the special effects are actually on par with the famously legendary cheap special effects of the old original Doctor Who television series that ran from 1963 to 1989. Needless to say, the plot is almost non-existent and just when it almost runs out of juice, the film ends on a cliff-hanger that can only be resolved at the next Nyege Nyege Festival. The voice joker is as much an essential part of the action as he introduces characters and does not so much explain or narrate as push the story along with exhortations and hurrahs.

The remarkable thing is that this and other films by Nabwanza’s film production company Ramon Productions (named after his grandmothers) exist at all, with their breezy self-deprecating humour and fearless gung-ho DIY spirit, in the slums of Kampala.

Exploring destiny, reincarnation and transformation in “Uncle Boonmee who can recall his past lives”

Apichatpong Weerasethakul, “Uncle Boonmee who can recall his past lives” (2010)

The last days of a farmer dying from kidney disease on his farm in a rural area in northeast Thailand, where in 1965 as an army soldier he helped kill Communist sympathisers in Nabua village near Laos, form the portal to an exploration of destiny, reincarnation, transformation and extinction, and ultimately an expression of the Buddhist understanding of the transitory nature of the physical forms of life. Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar), being cared for by his sister-in-law Jen (Jenjira Pongpas) and Jaai (Sakda Kaewbuadee) in his last days at his farm, where he employs migrant workers from Laos, is joined by the ghost of his dead wife Huay (Natthakarn Aphaiwong) and his long-lost son Boonsong (Jeerasak Kulhong) who appears as a forest monkey as he contemplates the reasons for his chronic illness and reviews previous lives he has lived, including those of a water buffalo that ran away from its owner but became lost in the forest and allowed itself to be led back home by its owner, and of a catfish who seduces a disfigured princess who rejects the amorous advances of a soldier she secretly desires.

Through Boonmee and the stories he tells, viewers gain a sketchy overview of the history of Thailand from its peasant origins through to the present day with past political and ideological struggles, and its current status in which Thai traditions and beliefs sit more or less uneasily with the trappings of Western culture and technology. Boonmee becomes more than just a farmer: we see he has served his country, but in a way that troubles him despite Jen’s reassurances; we see that he misses Huay; and we see that though he employs possibly illegal migrant workers, he seems to treat them well and they appear loyal to him. What we take to be reality becomes rather less so: our assumptions about the nature of things, of structures and of the world itself become less sure and more unstable, until some force acting on them or even just as the result of the passage of time they dissolve and become something else altogether.

While the film follows a very basic linear structure, past events and reminiscences intrude at intervals so that time becomes a circular dimension. For viewers watching the film after 2018, the scenes that take place in the cave will remind them of the real-life incident in which a soccer team of 12 boys and their coach were trapped in a network of caves in northern Thailand for two weeks – so that incident becomes an unexpected future addendum to the film! At its end, the film appears to divide into two, so that two endings, one in which two characters stay in a room watching television and the other in which they go to a karaoke restaurant, are possible.

The cinematography is well done with many beautiful shots of the countryside. The background soundtrack of ambient nature and insects in particular exercises an immersive effect on viewers. No plot exists as such: rather, the director sets up dioramas in which scenes take place, not necessarily having much connection with one another, and the action not significantly advancing any particular narrative apart from presenting an idea or concept for contemplation and meditation. For this reason, the film is not likely to appeal to Western audiences wanting a linear story-line where an action leads to another action and so on. Character development is weak and at the end of the film we know no more about various characters than we did at the beginning.

If viewers are prepared to give up preconceptions about what films should do for them, and instead watch “Uncle Boonmee …” as an expression of Buddhist philosophy and in particular of the constant transformation of life that extends even to the transformation of cinema, the methods of film-making and the relationship between the viewer and the act of watching a film, they may find plenty to ponder and marvel at.