Murder on the Orient Express (dir. Sidney Lumet): a pedestrian treatment of a murder mystery

Sidney Lumet, “Murder on the Orient Express” (1974)

Initially beginning as a lavish drama set in an exotic 1930s Istanbul, Sidney Lumet’s “Murder on the Orient Express” turns out to be a pedestrian treatment of the Agatha Christie novel. Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (Albert Finney), urged by his superiors to return to London straight away after having solved a case for the British Army in Transjordan, manages to secure a last-minute place on the famed Orient Express long-distance train with the help of his friend Bianchi (Martin Balsam), a director of the company that owns the railway line on which the train runs. Aside from Poirot, Bianchi and a Greek doctor (George Coulouris), thirteen other passengers have also boarded the train and these include Samuel Ratchett (Richard Widmark), an American businessman who, on hearing that Poirot is aboard, tries to secure the detective’s services as a bodyguard as he, Ratchett, has been receiving death threats. Poirot senses something distasteful about Ratchett and turns down the American’s offer of $15,000 for his services. Later in the day, Poirot and Bianchi exchange compartments and Poirot ends up sleeping not far from Ratchett’s cabin. The train is trapped in a snowdrift while travelling through Yugoslavia and during the night Poirot is awakened a number of times by noises in the corridor. The following morning, Ratchett is found dead in his cabin from numerous stab wounds. Bianchi asks Poirot to solve the case before the train is freed from the snowdrift which might allow the murderer to escape before his/her identity is discovered.

From here on, Poirot interviews the passengers and discovers the connections they all have with one another and the murder victim. Ratchett is really Lanfranco Cassetti, a gangster who, five years ago, kidnapped and murdered the infant daughter Daisy of British Army colonel Hamish Armstrong and his pregnant American wife Sonia. On learning of Daisy’s death despite handing over the ransom money, Sonia miscarried her second child and died giving birth, and her grieving widower husband committed suicide. Their maid Paulette was suspected of working with Cassetti in kidnapping Daisy; to avoid being arrested and charged, Paulette killed herself. The train passengers turn out to be either relatives, personal friends or former domestic employees of the Armstrongs or related to Paulette. Having figured out all the passengers’ connections to the Armstrongs and Paulette, Poirot describes two possible solutions to Ratchett / Cassetti’s murder: the first solution can simply be that an unknown passenger on the train killed the gangster and managed to escape; the second solution is to link all thirteen passengers in the coach to the murder. Bianchi, now knowing how depraved Cassetti was, has to choose which solution the Yugoslavian police would prefer.

The plot runs smoothly and surely to its climax (though there are significant gaps within, forcing viewers to guess what happens during those gaps) with Finney’s strident and shouty Poirot coming close to hammed-up parody with an accent hard to understand and gesticulations conforming to the worst stereotypes about excitable French-speaking people. The cast of actors, all of whom were either film legends or popular actors at the time the film was made, perform barely adequately in the tiny amounts of time they are given to shine. The stand-out performances come from Anthony Perkins as Ratchett / Cassetti’s secretary Hector McQueen and Martin Balsam as Bianchi who is given the unenviable task of playing God in a climax that side-steps away from Poirot’s existential unease at burying the truth in order for vigilante justice to be served on an evil man who ruined so many lives and left others in psychological limbo. Vanessa Redgrave is wasted in a tiny role, Lauren Bacall is all brass as Harriett Hubbard and Ingrid Bergman lays on a thick Swedish accent while camping up as mousy missionary Anna Ohlsson. Sean Connery is perhaps rather too charismatic in his role as Colonel Armstrong’s friend and John Gielgud, for all his reputation as a formidable stage actor, struggles with small details (like holding the murder weapon correctly as he stabs Ratchett / Cassetti) as Edward Beddoes, butler to the odious gangster.

The film finishes up rather too tidily and there is nothing of the unease that Poirot feels at his universe being less than orderly and logical: a universe where people act according to the law and refrain from impulsive acts of retribution no matter how repulsive or evil the target victim is. The result is that viewers may end up not having much sympathy for Poirot at all, given that his character is more likely to irritate and alienate people than to gain their support. When Poirot’s worldview is challenged by Bianchi’s decision, viewers are likely to think Bianchi did the right thing even though in a sense justice has not really been served and the sweet taste of revenge and closure may be all too brief and sour consequences take place.

There is little sense of the film’s action taking place in a confined space, with all the tension and claustrophobia that could have been generated. What we end up with is a peek into what the world might have looked like for a privileged layer of American and European society between World Wars I and II: a world of luxury and decadence that would soon be swept away forever. But this peek reveals nothing of the arrogance and decay that would be responsible for the short-lived nature of this world.

The Courier: a film of personal growth and suffering and of friendship transcending politics and ideology

Dominic Cooke, “The Courier” (2020)

The story of Greville Wynne, a most unlikely character ever to become a spy for MI6 during the Cold War in the early 1960s, shuttling between London and Moscow and ferrying classified Soviet information given him by a military official in the Kremlin that reveals nuclear warfare capabilities to MI6 and the CIA, is given widescreen movie treatment that explores the nature of friendship and loyalty in extreme circumstances. Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch) comes to the attention of MI6 and the CIA, represented respectively by handlers Dickie Franks (Angus Wright) and Emily Donovan (Rachel Brosnahan) as he travels frequently to eastern Europe as a sales representative for an engineering company. Wynne is asked to go to Moscow and contact Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze), a Soviet military intel official, who will give him papers to bring back to London, in his usual role as sales representative. After initially resisting the offer, Wynne goes ahead to Moscow and meets Penkovsky. A routine is quickly established: Wynne starts making trips to Moscow to catch up with Penkovsky who takes him to the opera and the ballet, and introduces the British man to his family, all the while feeding Wynne with information and photographs that eventually prove valuable to US intelligence and the White House in defusing the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. However the Soviets themselves have a mole working in MI6 – there were a number of double agents in British intelligence working for the USSR – and the mole helps the GRU to work out who is passing valuable Soviet secrets to the British. Penkovsky and then Wynne are arrested by the GRU, tried and charged with espionage, and both men are thrown into gaol. Wynne winds up in the then notorious Lubyanka prison where he suffers many privations and beatings over a period of nearly two years before he returns to Britain in 1964 as part of a spy swap.

The film serves mainly as a character study of an ordinary Englishman, initially unremarkable in personality and very apolitical, suddenly thrust into a situation where he eventually is forced to take sides and finds himself capable of heroism to try to save a man he comes to regard as a friend when that man’s life is in danger. In doing so, he is captured and is forced to suffer brutal violence, near-starvation and ill health in prison, subjected to psychological manipulation and not knowing if he has been abandoned by MI6. Cumberbatch does excellent work as Wynne who grows in moral stature through the film even though what he does as a courier is a thankless task – there is no suggestion that MI6 and the CIA reward him for the risks he is exposed to. Indeed MI6 is quite willing to discard Penkovsky and his desire to defect to th West once the GRU (Soviet military intelligence) is onto his trail and only Donovan rallies to Wynne’s side to try to save Penkovsky from arrest and certain death. The suffering Wynne undergoes is matched in the physical rigours Cumberbatch had to undergo including near-starvation to get the haggard look. Unfortunately the film ends at the point where Wynne is released from prison and reunited with wife Sheila (Jessie Buckley) and son Andrew (Keir Hill) and we do not see the psychological traumas and other effects – including separation and divorce from Sheila – Wynne suffered, and this perhaps is a grave oversight on the part of the script.

The other actors in the film, and Ninidze in particular, also give very good performances. Buckley does what she can with a very limited role as Wynne’s long-suffering wife. As a sop to current Western identity politics, the character of Donovan is a composite character of several actual CIA and MI6 agents who include a British woman, Janet Chisholm, who also was a conduit for Penkovsky. The cinematography is well done, emphasising the greys of a world of 60 years ago in which black and white were actually not so clear-cut as we think they were, without being remarkable. The scenes set in Moscow or which involve Russians appear very stereotyped and viewers get no real sense of how Russians might have viewed Penkovsky and Wynne after they have been caught and their espionage made public.

The film is well made and fairly faithful to its source material, extracting from it a story about one man’s personal growth and a friendship that transcends politics and the grubby and frequently unethical world of espionage. Still I can’t help but feel that “The Courier” was made largely in the service of current British government propaganda and deliberate disinformation and lies demonising Russia for no reason other than that Russia has been a long-standing rival to British global imperialist and predatory ambitions, and that this context in which the film was made must surely have had some influence on the way the script was written and what may have had to be omitted. While the Americans get what they want to outfox the Soviets on the latter’s deployment of missile bases in Cuba, and the Soviets shut down Penkovsky as a traitor, the British must still be seen to “win” in some way, hence perhaps stopping an interesting story of how espionage was usually done and how unsuspecting ordinary people got roped into spying and ended up paying a price for it, just to achieve that “happy ending”. Intel agencies carry on duelling against each other in spite of the alarming collateral damage they create along the way.

Hard Reset: a predictable and tired short film on human and AI relations in a future materialist society

Deepak Chetty, “Hard Reset” (2016)

The premise and the plot are predictable and rather tired, as are also the “Blade Runner” urban setting and that film’s use of the hard-boiled detective narrative together with science fiction tropes. In the not-too distant future, artificial intelligence is used to create cyborgs, known as synths, programmed to serve human beings in a limited number of ways – as miners, explorers, entertainers and prostitutes – that bespeak the materialist / consumerist orientation of society. These synths have no free will; indeed, giving them free will is a crime punishable by death as decreed by the bureaucracy, GovCentral. In this world, young detective Archer (Oryan Landa) finds solace with a synth, Jane PS626, to whom he pours out his dreams. The synth has to leave him for another customer who, against the laws of their society, programs her to have free will. The synth later kills him and Archer and his partner Sebastian (Holt Boggs) are sent out to terminate her if necessary.

With Archer having feelings for Jane PS626, and those feelings being reciprocated, bringing the synth to justice or just bringing her down becomes a complicated business for Sebastian and the three synth enforcers he brings along. Sebastian just wants to do his job, get his money and maybe a promotion, and be pals with Archer. Archer finds connection with Jane PS626 and the two escape to a derelict lot (shades of “Blade Runner”!) on the edge of the city. Sebastian and his enforcers track them down and the scene is set for an almighty confrontation.

As in “Blade Runner”, humans are portrayed as either existentially lonely, alienated beings who rediscover their humanity through a synthetic humanoid, or as dehumanised robot creatures. One wonders how Archer and Sebastian became friends as well as partners in the first place, the two men being so different. Jane PS626 learns to love and care for Archer in the brief time they have together. Just when viewers think they have seen the climax, as in most films featured on the DUST science fiction channel, “Hard Reset” introduces a twist into the plot – that’s why it’s called “Hard Reset” after all. We realise we have seen an alternative plot in which Archer reclaims his humanity, though briefly. The “real” plot is the one where Archer fails to seize the opportunity to escape his humdrum existence and as a result loses Jane PS626 – forever. He may never know what it’s really like to be human and is doomed to dream forever with no-one to share his dreams with.

Landa is appealing as Archer though he plays the character in the way I imagine Ethan Hawke would have done: the brooding, troubled Archer is drawn and fleshed out in a way that would have suited Hawke. McAdam is beautifully luminous as Jane PS626 but is not given a great deal to do; even Joanna Cassidy’s Zhora and Daryl Hannah’s Pris in their brief moments in “Blade Runner” had definite identities and despite having been made for very specific roles (Pris being a pleasure replicant) they both displayed abilities far beyond what they were required to be. As Landa and McAdam carry the film, viewers are entitled to think they’d be more than stereotypes. The rest of the cast do what they can in their constrained roles. The special effects are good for a short 40-minute film with a limited budget.

At least the film asks viewers to consider the morality of treating humanoid artificial beings in ways we would consider treating real humans as immoral. Synths may not have free will or the ability to know right from wrong, but just as exploiting animals because their cognition appears limited compared to humans is wrong, why then would exploiting machines with some limited cognition or self-awareness be moral? One might also consider that humans out of touch with their morality or humanity are no more deserving of compassion or empathy than those they treat grievously. This is a theme also of “Blade Runner”.

Bad Tales: voyeuristic survey of dysfunctional families in alienation

Damiano and Fabio d’Innocenzo, “Bad Tales / Favolacce” (2020)

A survey of three families living in a dull suburban estate on the outskirts of Rome, “Bad Tales” could have been a critical indictment of the lure of the Italian version of the middle-class American Dream and the consequences people and families suffer when their efforts to achieve that dream fall far short of their ambitions and aspirations. Busting your guts out and endangering your health to earn the money to afford the material goods and the lifestyle you believe you and your family deserve, neglecting your loved ones, your family bonds under strain, your children suffering from alienation or bullying and turning to drugs, gangs or other dangerous forms of solace … all these scenarios could form a universal if tragic narrative that exposes the reality of the capitalist scam that far too many generations of families have fallen victim to, with casualties in the form of domestic violence, addictions and suicides. Instead “Bad Tales” turns out to be a voyeuristic peek at three families that are either dysfunctional or broken in their own way, with an underlying suggestion that the parents alone are largely responsible for the ruin they bring to their domestic environments. The children don’t get off very lightly either: on the verge of adolescence, alienated and emotionally repressed, the kids are presented as both knowing and naive, and ultimately out of their depth or helpless in situations where they most need a steady anchor and support.

The Gothic tale with its black humour unfolds in three sub-plots, the main one of which revolves around the Placido family. Bruno (Elio Germano) has recently become unemployed and his frustration and resentment at having to be a house husband while his wife Dalila (Barbara Chichiarelli) must be the breadwinner drive the conflict among him, Dalila and their two children Dennis and Alessia. Both parents are astonishingly cruel, lax and inconsistent in their treatment of the children. Bruno in particular behaves in a passive-aggressive way guaranteed to confuse the hell out of his kids and keep them, especially Alessia, highly anxious: he forces both of them to recite their grades to dinner guests; he bursts an inflated swimming pool in the middle of the night (because he is fed up with neighbours’ kids inviting themselves over and using the pool) and blames his action on gypsies; and he bullies his son openly in front of the sensitive Alessia. The children have a cousin, Viola, who is treated just as sadistically by her parents; they discover she has head lice after using the Placidos’ pool so they shave off all her hair and she is forced to wear a wig to school. Viola is interested in a boy, Geremia, at school: the boy appears shy and socially inept, and lives with his father Emilio Guerrini (Gabriel Montesi) in rather impoverished conditions, with no other relatives. Also living on the estate is a much older teenage girl Vilma (Ileana d’Ambra) who has a child out of wedlock but some time during the course of the film moves out of home to live with the baby’s father. The couple decide to leave the estate with their baby and head for the city but parenting and looking for work prove exhausting and the young family falls into despair.

Much of the film is taken up with character exposition and the dynamics of the individual families, and the plot only really starts moving once the four children, having to bear the brunt of their parents’ repressed anger and disappointment, and being surrounded by adults obsessed with their own self-importance, rebel. The rebellion is sparked by a school-teacher who clearly seems unable to comprehend the effect of his teaching on his impressionable students. The homemade bomb plot is thwarted by a visiting relative of Geremia’s and the police. Dennis and Alessia resort to even more desperate measures, again aided by the school-teacher. The tragedy that befalls the apparently perfect nuclear family of the Placidos is contrasted by Geremia and Emilio: the two may be an unconventional family, and Emilio acts more like an older pal rather than as a stereotypically patriarchal figure, but there is warmth in the relationship. For all the rather morally dubious decisions Emilio makes – he encourages Geremia to transmit measles to Viola by giving the boy condoms! – he quickly realises that a toxic atmosphere surrounds Geremia at school and among his class-mates, and the two bunk off from the estate to doss down with a cousin in his Rome apartment.

Apart from Bruno and Emilio, both played well by Germano and Montesi respectively, most characters are sketchily developed and the children’s characters in particular seem rather flat and one-dimensional. Bruno remains a coward at heart while Emilio tries his best in his own limited way to be both Mum and Dad to a son who needs more help in his social and intellectual development than the father can provide. Very few characters evoke much sympathy from the audience, with the result that people will not care when tragedy strikes the Placidos.

With such material as families in crisis and on their own in dealing with frustration, conflict and social alienation, the d’Innocenzo brothers end up floundering with “Bad Tales”. The film has no clear plot until more than halfway through its length and audiences will not warm to the adult and child characters. It really needs a better background context that throws more focus on the school-teacher and his malign influence on Dennis and Geremia: why does the school-teacher encourage the children to do what they do, what is his motivation, and does he share in the frustrations and failed dreams and hopes of the children’s parents? And for that matter, where is the government and those institutions that should be helping the families and showing them how to resolve their conflicts and issues, and how to deal with disappointments and failures in their lives?

Hors Saison: a powerful character study of consequences arising from rash actions and interpersonal tensions

Nicolas Capitaine, Celine Desoutter, Lucas Durkheim, Leni Marotte, “Hors Saison / Out of Season” (2017)

Few films can portray character and tell a story complete in itself in the space of six minutes as does this impressive short effort from a group of 2017-vintage graduate students at the Gobelins school of animation in Paris. The story is set in a national park in the northern United States and revolves around park ranger Jude, aged about 50 years and perhaps suffering from career burnout as she tries to keep up with younger and chirpier work partner Karen. The sun is setting low in the west and Karen decides to hop back to HQ while Jude still needs to clean up a few branches cluttering up the road. With Karen gone, Jude gets a call from HQ to hurry up and something said to her over the radio rattles her enough for her to throw her radio into the thicket. On retrieving it, she discovers a poacher with suspicious booty in the back of his pick-up. While trying to arrest the fellow, he starts shooting at her and she fires back in self-defence. Having disabled the shooter, Jude calls HQ for an ambulance and reinforcement. While waiting for help, she peeks into the shooter’s shed – a decision that nearly costs her her life. Jude just manages to defend herself against the shooter’s partner – and then a third person appears in the doorway of the shed …

Quite a few themes establish themselves very quickly in the course of the film: there’s the obvious one of age, experience and perhaps world-weariness versus youth, energy and naivete in Jude and Karen’s interaction early on in the short which establishes a tension between the two. Jude’s conversation with HQ further reinforces the sense of isolation, psychological as well as physical, that the park ranger feels in the remote environment: an isolation that becomes more troubling and intense as Jude, alone, investigates a possible poaching ring involving at least two men who will stop at nothing to get their way. The consequences of Jude’s alone-ness, her determination to prove that she’s still fit and able, are messy indeed to say the least, and viewers can’t help but feel for her, knowing that she will have to explain her actions that will not only cost her her job but also warrant charges of manslaughter. The open-ended nature of the film’s closing, with Jude confronted by the awfulness of her actions arising in part from her fatigue and her stubbornness, made a powerful impression on this viewer and will certainly do the same for other viewers.

The animation, especially the background animation (with one breathtaking scene of a snow-capped mountain in the background behind a forest of fir trees), is well done: the backgrounds look three-dimensional though the characters are clearly two-dimensional and a little cartoony and exaggerated in some of their features. The villains especially appear rather stereotyped as surly sociopathic types. The most noteworthy feature is the voice acting with the actor playing Jude conveying the character’s tiredness, work fatigue and feelings of inadequacy when speaking to Karen.

This animated short deserves repeated viewings (in spite of scenes of violence and implied past violence) for its powerful story-telling and deep character study of a woman who makes one mistake after another.

Parfum Fraise: a short and terse film on the impossibility of escaping violence

Alix Arrault, Martin Hermane, Samuel Klughertz, Jules Rigolle, “Parfum Fraise” (2017)

You can renounce a lifetime of crime and violence, and try to live a quiet life away from trouble, but eventually your past creeps up on you, you lash out unthinkingly, and you end up having to live with long-lasting consequences of your impulsive actions. Moreover your descendants have to live with the consequences too. This is the premise of this surprisingly powerful little film noir “Parfum Fraise”. Former yakuza hit-man Makoto tries to turn over a new leaf after losing his wife in a gangland shoot-out, devoting his attention to bringing up their young son. Kazuki loves his superhero toy and the movie featuring it in action, and strawberry ice-creams. A visit to an ice-cream vendor late at night in a secluded neighbourhood (what?!) leads to an unexpected encounter with two strange men who appear to be menacing Kazuki by drawing out two suspicious objects from inside their jackets …

Habit overtakes Makoto and before you know it, the ice-cream vendor is calling the police straight away and Kazuki comes to realise that his father is not all that he seems. Father and son seem destined to be separated forever as the police siren in the distance increases in volume. As is often the case with Gobelins shorts, the film has an open ending and viewers are left to muse on what might happen to Kazuki.

The animation is well done, with three-dimensional urban backgrounds and lots of contrasts between electric light and city shadows, and the voice-acting establishes Makoto and Kazuki as having a close though sometimes fraught relationship. Kazuki learns there are some limits he cannot cross though he does not yet understand why (until the confrontation with the men). The plot is terse and moves quickly, with the result that the film seems longer (it features two distinct time periods with Kazuki as a baby and then as a kindergarten-age child) than its six minutes’ run.

The city is a major character in this film: during the day, it seems pleasant and fun enough; at night, it is brooding and not a little sinister. Its character mirrors Makoto’s character and the realisation that things are not always what they seem to be on the surface is the start of Kazuki’s growing-up and loss of childhood innocence.

Roman J. Israel, Esq.: character study of a fallible human being trying to live authentically in an inauthentic world

Dan Gilroy, “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” (2017)

Once in a while an intelligent and worthy film comes out of Hollywood that demonstrates someone there still knows how to make meaty movies that provide much food for thought. Dan Gilroy’s “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” is a character study of an idealistic, reform-minded lawyer who for a long time finds living up to his principles fairly easy but through an unfortunate change in circumstances is forced to confront the clash between them and the expedient pragmatism of the society he lives in. The decisions he makes as a result have devastating consequences for him and the people around him.

For many years, Roman J Israel (Denzel Washington) has toiled away in a small law firm, preparing briefs for his fellow partner who takes on cases involving small injustices done to the underprivileged. The partner dies of a heart attack and the law firm is sold to George Pierce (Colin Farrell), a former student of the partner and now a successful if slick criminal defence lawyer in his own right. Initially Israel balks at working for Pierce and tries to find employment with a non-profit organisation run by an activist called Maya (Carmen Ejogo); but after a run-in with stridently ideological feminist friends of hers, Israel is forced to slink back to Pierce and accept employment with his firm. Unable to conform to the new firm’s culture and unwilling to compromise his beliefs and values, Israel ends up antagonising everyone including Pierce in the firm. An encounter with a black man in prison on robbery charges, being assaulted by a beggar and duped by another poor man leave Israel questioning his beliefs. From there he decides he’ll be just like regular folks, working and doing things opportunistically; but because his character is socially inept, he commits one mistake after another and ends up turning in a dangerous criminal to the law to collect reward money which violates his employer firm’s agreement to defend the criminal. Israel repents of this deed but the damage it causes cannot be undone.

Washington was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar and the reason is easy to see: he is completely absorbed in the character of Israel with all his quirks and eccentricities. Farrell plays Pierce quite straight and minimally: the character potentially could have been one-dimensional but Farrell’s portrayal of a man who rediscovers his inner voice and conscience from Israel’s example, and who comes to care for Israel and his legacy seems quite convincing. Farrell as corporate legal shark becomes an excellent foil for Washington’s workaholic idealist activist savant: as the latter starts to lose his moral compass and something of his individuality, the former starts to regain his. The rest of the cast provides good if not very outstanding support.

The style of the film illustrates the discomfort that Israel has in adapting to the cut-throat corporate legal world: he is clearly a creature of the 1970s, an age of civil rights activism. He dresses in the clothes of the period, much to others’ amusement, and frequently wears headphones to listen to the soul music of that decade. The music soundtrack, updated in its instrumentation and vocals, gives a distinct smoky flavour to the film and lifts it above other contemporary realist legal dramas.

Concentrating as it does on Israel and his inability to conform to a more superficial and uncaring society in which greed is good and encourages selling out and back-stabbing, the film is overly long and the plot is vague and sketchy. The events that occur as a result of Israel’s mistakes and failure to live up to his high ideals seem to have been inserted into the film as an after-thought though they are clearly driving the film in its second half. Perhaps the film spends too much time on Israel’s inner conflict and his quirks, and not enough on what Pierce and other characters think of him or try to do with him. For all its flaws, this film is worthwhile watching as an example of what Hollywood can do and could be doing more of, if the movie industry in the US were less obsessed with maximising profits and pursuing shallow values, and paid more attention to portraying the lives and misfortunes of the downtrodden, how they are exploited by the government, corporations, greedy individuals and criminal elements alike. Roman J. Israel, Esq. would certainly approve.

 

 

Loveless: a character study and thriller that criticises Russian society as stagnant, self-absorbed and materialist

Andrei Zvyagintsev, “Loveless” (2017)

As with previous films of Andrei Zvyagintsev that I’ve seen, “Loveless” is as much a criticism of modern Russian society and what it values as it is of the individuals who pursue hedonistic and materialist goals to the exclusion of all else. The film opens with a Moscow couple, Boris (Alexei Rozin) and Zhenya (Maryana Spivak), in the middle of divorce proceedings trying to sell their apartment to interested buyers and ignoring their only son Alexei (Matvey Novikov) who suffers in silence at his parents’ bickering. After the potential buyers leave, wanting more time to think the potential purchase over, Boris and Zhenya get stuck into tearing strips off each other while Alexei hides and cries in distress. Over the next day or so, Boris and Zhenya ignore each other by burying themselves in work during the day – and Boris worrying that his conservative Orthodox Christian bosses will turf him out if they discover that his marriage has broken up – and partying with new lovers in the evening. Eventually the couple notice that Alexei has gone missing and call the police. The police are tied up with various other cases of missing persons and refer Boris and Zhenya to a group of volunteers who help them search for Alexei.

The characters are very one-dimensional – Zhenya is a screechy, self-absorbed harpy while Boris is passive and hardly says anything much to defend himself – and everything in the filmĀ  from the cinematography and the plot to the visual narrative of various buildings (progressing from comfortable and modern to derelict and decrepit) is overloaded with symbolism and meaning, ultimately referring us to the same banal message that Zvyagintsev’s films usually broadcast: that Russia is a stagnant society given to hysteria and emotion, and Russians are a people who never learn from their mistakes. Working class people in particular come in for heavy condemnation but most significant characters in this film are obsessed with being on the make, acquiring wealth and luxury with the least amount of effort, using other people and checking social media constantly. Dysfunctional family relationships and conservative Christianity come in for heavy criticism, as though these exemplify and underline darker aspects of modern Russian culture and society.

The film’s attempt to create a parallel between Boris and Zhenya’s deteriorating relationship on the one hand and on the other hand their later relationships and even the separation of Russia and Ukraine and the resulting war in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine is clumsy and contrived. Sex scenes are far too long and do not add anything significant about the characters who engage in them. While the cinematography can be good, even beautiful (as at the beginning and the end of the film), it dwells a great deal on the bleakness of Moscow winters as a metaphor for the bleakness and apparent apathy of modern Russian life.

Ultimately the film itself takes on a hermetic and self-obsessed bent as it trudges on to a devastating climax, at which (implausibly) Zhenya still rejects Boris as he tries to comfort her. The two later go their separate ways and resume their old habits – and psychological isolation – in new surrounds with new partners. At times the action and plot narrative in the film come across as unrealistic. Zvyagintsev seems intent to keep his characters as undeveloped as can be to bang home his criticism, however deserved or undeserved, of Russia.

I can see that future films of Zvyagintsev are going to be as stagnant and unchanging in the cheap pot-shots they take at ordinary people, as the society he believes Russia to be. Unfortunately those social and other structural problems of Russian society that Zvyagintsev takes to be symptomatic of the worst aspects of Vladimir Putin’s governance and the society that has developed under his leadership – the indifference of the police towards two parents who have lost a child, the alienation of individuals within families, family conflicts that pass from one generation to the next, the insidious influence of conservative religion through elites – are readily recognised by Western audiences as also typical of their societies: these problems are ones produced by capitalist societies.

Lady Macbeth: a disturbing character study told in a minimalist, understated style

William Oldroyd, “Lady Macbeth” (2016)

Adapted from Nikolai Leskov’s 1865 novel “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District”, this character study investigates how an apparently demure young woman becomes a psychopath in a context where differences of class and race, rigid social expectations of women, and repressed emotions and desires intersect. Katherine (Florence Pugh) is sold by her family into a loveless and barren marriage to Alexander (Paul Hilton), a man far older than herself. She and Alexander go to live at his father Boris’s country estate in Scotland where the old crotchety fellow forces Katherine to wait up for her husband at all hours regardless of her own needs and forbids her from leaving the house. Boris (Christopher Fairbank) condemns Katherine for being childless even though her husband is so sexually repressed that all he can do is masturbate while looking at the back of her naked body. Katherine is forced to spend her days being bored and sleeping long days which leaves her tired.

Unexpectedly an accident occurs on the estate, forcing Boris and Alexander to leave the house (never fully seen from the outside) which means for the first time Katherine is in charge. She discovers the maid Anna (Naomi Ackie) being beaten by the farmhands and is attracted to the new groom Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis). Before long, Katherine and Sebastian have begun an affair and Katherine’s new-found lust and longing for Sebastian leads her onto a dark and disturbing path of lies and murder: first, Boris is despatched with poison and then Alexander is bludgeoned to death. Later, a woman and a child claiming to be Alexander’s legitimate heirs – the child supposedly being a result of an affair the woman had with Alexander – arrive and settle in the house. The child’s presence unsettles Sebastian and he forces Katherine to choose between him and the boy. Katherine’s decision and subsequent actions, and Sebastian’s remorse at the role he plays bring the pair into conflict with each other and with the wider society, with tragic consequences for both.

Nearly all the action takes place in the country estate house, the bare furnishings of which emphasise the bleak and oppressive isolation that surrounds Katherine, Sebastian and Anna. Boris and Alexander may go early on but their baleful influence survives in Katherine’s misuse of her freedom and power as one murder leads to another and another. The lies and subterfuges pile up as well until an innocent person is taken away along with a murderer, both presumably to be hanged by police. Katherine finally obtains absolute freedom and power but at the cost of cutting herself from human society forever; how she will survive on her own is anyone’s guess.

For all her youth, Pugh delivers an unexpectedly powerful performance as the put-upon victim who becomes cruel and ruthless in order to free herself from the control of the men who rule her. The message one might take away from Katherine’s actions is a depressing one: to survive in a bleak and pitiless world where violence is always simmering under a placid surface, one needs to be equally selfish, brutal and amoral. Viewers are confronted with the choice of either cheering Pugh on as she upends a hierarchy based on oppressing women and the peasant classes, or condemning her for her crimes and blatant lies that will send an innocent woman to her death. The rest of the cast basically revolves around Pugh and their performances are average to good though Ackie deserves mention as the unfortunate maid who loses her voice after Boris and Alexander are killed.

Oldroyd’s direction emphasises ambience, mood and plot with many scenes lacking dialogue: the result is an almost Gothic film of people forced to make choices and confront the consequences of these choices in a harsh and unforgiving environment. Despite its short length, the film does seem rather long perhaps due to the plot’s predictable nature and the film’s minimalist style which extends to the plot itself in its second half. At this point also the plot changes significantly from the novel’s original plot (in which Katherine was convicted and imprisoned) to stress Katherine’s growing freedom and power, even as she is increasingly ostracised by the wider community. The cinematography is very good with scenes framed as though they are paintings.

The film is interesting as a study of how people are forced to cope under pressure from unenviable forces of bullying and isolation, but may not bear up under even a few repeat views.

Inherent Vice: a faithful if meandering and flat adaptation of a Thomas Pynchon neo-noir comedy

Paul Thomas Anderson, “Inherent Vice” (2014)

Director Paul Thomas Anderson must be commended for daring to tackle a Thomas Pynchon novel and managing to be faithful to the book’s convoluted comedy neo-noir plot with its quirky cast of characters and Pynchon’s themes of paranoia, conspiracy theories in sub-plots that are never resolved, and strange sinister groups and individuals operating underground as both criminals and law enforcement. Beneath an apparent surface of late 1960s / early 1970s hippie counter-cultural ideals lurks an evil force – the “inherent vice” – that is infecting US politics and American institutions. Not for nothing “Inherent Vice” is set in a period just after the infamous murders committed by acolytes of Charles Manson at Spahn Ranch in California in 1969 and during Richard Nixon’s first term as US President (and presumably before his meeting with Elvis Presley): this is a period when US soft power (through its youth culture and music) was at its peak, together with US prosperity, before the Vietnam War and its huge expenses, financially and socially, along with Nixon’s own corrupt activity, among other things set the nation on its path to slow decline.

Everything seems to begin simply and innocently enough when down-and-out private investigator Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) receives an unexpected visit from ex-girlfriend Shasta Fay (Katherine Waterston) who tells him that she has been approached by the wife of her current lover, property developer millionaire Michael “Mickey” Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), to help the missus and the missus’ boyfriend to arrange for Mickey to be kidnapped and committed to a mental asylum. At the same time, Sportello gets a call from Tariq Khalil, a black underground activist with a prison-based revolutionary group, to find white supremacist Glen Charlock who owes Khalil money and who happens to be working for Wolfmann. Visiting a massage parlour in one of Wolfmann’s developments, Sportello meets Jade (Hong Chau) while searching for Charlock; unbeknownst to him, Jade and the police have already set him up for murdering Charlock. Facing murder charges, Sportello is interviewed by detective Bigfoot Bjornsen (Josh Brolin) who tells him Wolfmann has disappeared. Sportello’s attorney Sancho (Benicio del Toro) rescues him.

If that sounds complicated enough, another sub-plot develops: Sportello is asked by junkie Hope (Jena Malone) to look for her missing musician husband Coy (Owen Wilson), whom Sportello finds in short order. Coy is in hiding because he is a police informant and he fears for his life. Sportello gets a message from Jade who apologises for setting him up and warns him to “beware of the Golden Fang”. Meeting Jade in an alley, Sportello learns the Golden Fang is an international drug-smuggling ring. Some time later, Sancho gives Sportello information about a suspicious boat called the Golden Fang which apparently sailed away with Shasta Fay on board. Sportello later receives a postcard from Shasta and uses it to search for and enter a recently constructed building shaped like a golden fang. There, he meets eccentric cokehead dentist Dr Blatnoyd (Martin Short), making out with teenage girl Japonica Fenway (Sasha Pieterse), whom Sportello had found as a runaway and returned to her parents some years previously. Sportello explores the building and discovers the Chryskylodon Institute, an asylum run by the Golden Fang organisation (the name “Chryskylodon” itself refers to Golden Fang) where, lo and behold, Coy and (later) Wolfmann happen to be inmates.

Some time later, Bigfoot notifies Sportello that Dr Blatnoyd has been found dead with fang marks in his neck and tells him to look for a guy called Puck Beaverton. While going about his business, Sportello is visited by Shasta who is oblivious to the fuss she has caused. He later gets a file from Deputy District Attorney Penny Kimball (Reese Witherspoon) on contract killer / loan shark Adrian Prussia: the file not only shows that Prussia was hired by Los Angeles Police Department to get rid of people but also that he killed Bigfoot’s former partner Vincent Indelicato. Hey presto, Prussia is also connected to Golden Fang and most likely killed Charlock. Sportello pays a visit to Prussia and Beaverton, and narrowly escapes from their clutches when the visit turns sour. Bigfoot rescues Sportello and plants drugs in his car. Sportello arranges through Japonica Fenway’s wealthy dad (Martin Donovan) to return the drugs to Golden Fang in a deal that also releases Coy from being a police informant and returns him to Hope and their daughter Amethyst.

The fiendish nature of the fragmented plot and inter-linked subplots and the rich cast contrast with the lackadaisical characters, the meandering narrative and the minimal direction and music soundtrack. One expects the film to be quite colourful given its Los Angeles setting and time-period, and it is though not to the zany extreme that might also be expected for a comedy neo-noir film. While the characters are not especially deep, given that most of them occupy a few minutes of film-time and then they’re gone forever, they can make quite an impression through their sheer loopiness or (in the case of Adrian Prussia and Puck Beaverton) hardened brutality. The one character viewers really care for is Sportello, played with all his stoned-out eccentricity by Phoenix who immerses himself in the role fully. As corrupt cop Bigfoot Bjornsen with a fixation for sucking on chocolate bananas in an embarrassingly explicit way, Josh Brolin sends up the stereotype suggested in the character in his distinctive no-nonsense, hard-bitten way.

Some of the coincidences that occur, especially those near the end, seem very forced – Prussia’s connection to Golden Fang and Charlock’s death seems a bit too stretched and convenient – and the film resolves all its plot threads rather too tidily for a conventional Hollywood ending in which Sportello unites a family before he and Shasta sail off into the sunset happily ever after. In the Pynchonesque universe where few things are ever that neat and plots and sub-plots may come and go without resolution, such an ending would never be entertained.

While well acted and looking distinctly day-glo bleached-out, and with a casual style all its own, “Inherent Vice” does meander at a slow pace and probably should have been made as a two-part mini-series. The various characters may be too kooky and stoned-out for present-day Western audiences to accept. Why Sportello and several characters should be this way, and whether being high on drugs is actually a way for people to cope with repression, brutality and a fear that society is becoming more dysfunctional and not less, are never explained. A better Pynchon novel to adapt into a film might have been “The Crying of Lot 49” and some of Pynchon’s longer works may lend themselves to mini-series adaptations. The possibility that Anderson made “Inherent Vice” as a vanity project just to prove that a Thomas Pynchon novel can be made into a film is too strong to ignore; the film does reek of self-indulgence on Anderson’s part.