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 film  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.

Serpico: a character study of how one police officer’s personal crusade against corruption destroys him

Sidney Lumet, “Serpico” (1973)

As character studies go, “Serpico” is very good indeed: based on the biography of former New York City police officer Frank Serpico by Peter Maas, “Serpico” follows the career of its eponymous protagonist over a decade and a bit in the New York state police department as he gradually comes to realise the extent to which the force has compromised its own ideals and ethics and has become nothing more than just another gang of thugs – albeit well armed – susceptible to taking bribes, bending rules to suit itself, and ignoring the needs and safety concerns of the wider community it’s supposed to serve. He determines not to succumb to the blandishments of police force culture, however seductive they are, and to expose the system and indifferent attitudes of senior management to the public. Unfortunately this means that Serpico must isolate himself from his fellow police officers, well-meaning and kind they may be at times, to avoid succumbing to the same temptations they have fallen for, and the consequences for his personal life, his close relationships, his mental and physical health, and the later decisions he makes turn out to be severe. His fight against a corrupt institution and its insular culture is long and hard, and takes a heavy toll on him, and while Serpico’s battle is justified and the New York state police department finally decides to start cleaning up its organisation and culture, the police officer’s own health and career end up being shattered.

Al Pacino is suitably intense and fiery as Serpico, and throws himself right into the character to the extent where he lives and breathes Serpico, and has probably adopted some if not most of Serpico’s eccentricities as his own. For much of the film’s length, Serpico broods or glares at his superiors and other police officers – but the best moments are when his tough façade falls away and the vulnerable man, unsure that the path he has taken is the right one, lonely and afraid for his life and career, is exposed. Whatever his character is required to do, whether he beats up a drug-dealer, chases crooks, buys a lovable puppy or tries to reason with his girlfriends who threaten to walk out on him, Pacino handles all these and more without much strain.

The support cast varies from average to good, giving just enough to allow Pacino to dominate his scenes without overpowering them. The New York City urban landscape is a significant character in its own right: its buildings rundown, the streets and alleyways full of rubbish, and neighbourhoods harbouring drug rings, small-time criminals and others whose lives are affected by hard drugs and the gangs that supply them, the city may be enticing in its apparent promise to shower newcomers with fame and fortune if they work hard, obey the law and stay out of trouble, but it is also a cruel and demanding mistress to those who fail to achieve their versions of the American Dream.

The film’s pace is mostly leisurely and the plot takes its time to reveal itself in all its detail to viewers. At times “Serpico” feels more like a television series than a one-off biopic, so relaxed and low-key it is. Scenes come and go without much apparent resolution: we never do learn how the inquiry into police corruption proceeds and what conclusions it reaches and what recommendations it makes; and we must assume that the two women who love Serpico – not at the same time, mind you – never see him again. There may be something to be said for editing the film so it’s a little faster and more focused as it lurches towards that inevitable climax where he nearly dies. When the ending comes, it is completely unexpected and somewhat of a disappointment, even though if you know something of Serpico’s life or have read the Peter Maas book you know what’s going to happen, that it will be lacking in heroism or grandstanding speeches or a moral lesson. Viewers are forced to question the nature of true heroism and sacrifice, and to ponder whether the rightness of Serpico’s personal crusade more than compensates for nearly losing his life and having to give up the career he loves.

“Serpico” is an excellent example of the type of New Hollywood film, with its emphasis on realism and the focus on less advantaged levels of American society and their issues and problems of discrimination and poverty, post-Martin Luther King, that was being made in the 1970s. What a pity that such films are very rarely made these days, either by Hollywood or by independent film-makers.

Blade Runner 2049: an absorbing and leisurely film on future societal trends despite a thin plot and lack-lustre characters

Denis Villeneuve, “Blade Runner 2049” (2017)

In its own leisurely way, “Blade Runner 2049” is a very absorbing, even hypnotic film with stunningly beautiful sets that describe a post-modern Western society on the edge of collapse and obsolescence as it plunders and cannibalises its own past with hyper-technological bombast. Decay abounds whether it is in the breakdown of law and order, the casual mix of peoples from previously different societies reducing so-called “diversity” into a bland and artificial mono-cultural blur, and that false heterogeneity’s parallel in the uneasy blend of humans, replicants and anthropmorphic holograms, none of which has a greater claim than the others to possessing anything equivalent to or symptomatic of a soul. The pace is slow enough that viewers can take in the vast urban and semi-urban vistas of a futuristic society and (with their imaginations) fill in the gaps in the thin plot and make allowance for the superficial characters played by workman-like actors.

Ryan Gosling plays K, a replicant blade runner of a new breed made strictly to obey, who is employed by the Los Angeles Police Department to retire old-model replicants in the Los Angeles of the year 2049. During one such retirement of a farmer, Gosling discovers a box buried beneath a tree. When the box is collected by the LAPD and the skeletal remains within are examined by its forensic investigators, an astonishing secret is revealed: the skeleton is that of a female replicant who apparently gave birth to a child and died during its difficult delivery. Since such a technological achievement has remained secret for decades, K’s superior Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright) orders him to seek out and kill the child that was birthed. K visits Wallace Corporation, the company that has acquired the old Tyrell Corporation and its intellectual rights to manufacture replicants. Wallace Corporation founder Niander Wallace (Jared Leto) discovers in the old Tyrell Corporation archives that the dead female replicant is Rachael, an experimental prototype who disappeared with a former blade runner known as Rick Deckard. Wallace desires to know more about Rachael and the child she had, as such knowledge will benefit his production of replicants, and orders his assistant Luv (Sophia Hoeks) and his minions to secretly follow K wherever he goes.

This sets in train two searches, K’s search for the child which turns out to be linked to his own origin, his purpose in life and another search for Rick Deckard himself, with Wallace Corporation hot on his heels tracking wherever he goes through his hologram companion Joi (Ana de Armas), herself manufactured by Wallace Corporation subsidiary Joi. K’s journey turns out to be a subversive Hollywood comment on how everything that appears in films ends up being linked to the plot: a bit depressing for this viewer, because it means various aspects of the film’s plot become predictable. Suffice to say that K’s discovery of the child (now adult) is mind-blowingly banal and that once he fulfills his mission, he becomes superfluous to the police force, his society and an underground revolutionary movement that had uses for him but which have all now dispensed with him. After all, he is just a replicant whose purpose is to do as he’s told.

While the plot is thin and the characters are not all that memorable, they do serve to highlight the film’s themes and messages which are many and various. Climate change and its effects are significant for part of the film’s plot and its look as is also the futuristic society’s inability to be sustainable as it continually generates waste. Significant also is the society’s two-faced attitude towards women: while Wright may play K’s boss, Hoeks’ character Luv is as menacing and vicious as villains come, and women lead an underground rebel movement, the film also presents women as commodities to be exploited by corporations for profit. Joi (the hologram) exists purely to pleasure men and K’s trip to a dead Las Vegas reveals the city as a bizarre hyper-erotic Babylon pleasure-dome for jaded billionaires before its collapse. The society’s complete control over its citizens has an unexpected result: true originality and innovation in culture are no longer possible, and society is reduced to plundering its past for inspiration. Even Hollywood understands satire as it ransacks its own old movie archives for ideas. The original “Blade Runner” film’s themes about what being human means and the paradox that replicants have more vitality than humans do are still present but are less significant.

The film’s open-ended conclusion suggests another sequel may be in the works as not all loose ends have been tied. Some minor characters in “Blade Runner 2049” are clearly under-utilised and may return in a third film. If a third film is made, and then a fourth, and so on (!!!), at least viewers can enjoy the views and atmospheres of a never-ending franchise past its use-by date if not increasingly thread-bare plots and one-dimensional characters.

Neruda: an exploration of how stories are created and shaped by those who exercise political power

Pablo Larraín, “Neruda” (2016)

Very loosely based on an episode in Chilean poet-politician Pablo Neruda’s life, when he and his wife Delia were forced to go on the run from police authorities on account of their Chilean Communist Party membership and leftist sympathies, “Neruda” explores the grey boundaries between realism and fiction, and within that zone becomes one man’s quest to find purpose and meaning in his life, in the process becoming a real human and not just a one-dimensional cog in an authoritarian machine society. The film folds in elements of noir, thriller, comedy, tragedy and Borges-style magic realism as the cat-and-mouse chase becomes a duel between what is real and what is unreal, what is imagined and what is outside imagination.

At the film’s opening, Neruda (Luis Gnecco) is already a Senator,  having denounced Chilean President Gabriel González Videla for his brutal anti-Communist attacks against ordinary people over the past couple of years since his election in 1946. (Incidentally Videla was elected President by the Chilean parliament, not in a general election.) Neruda is threatened with arrest and is forced to go into hiding, and then to find refuge in different parts of the country as the police pursue him. Prominent in the pursuit is Chief Inspector of the Investigations Police of Chile Oscar Peluchonneau (Gael García Bernal), a dour figure as blank as blank can be, who has never known his father and therefore is cut off from his origins and history.

Peluchonneau serves as narrator of the film as well as antagonist – or is it protagonist? – and through him, and his determination to be the lead character in this particular story, battling Neruda to be the hero figuratively as well as arresting him and achieving “heroism” (from his point of view) in the more mundane sense, the film explores how history – and Latin American history in particular – is made and shaped by those who have political power and therefore the power to direct the path of a nation’s historical narrative. At one point in the film, when Peluchonneau catches up with Delia, she suggests to him that he is a figment in Neruda’s imagination; Peluchonneau resists Delia’s suggestion and from this point on, his pursuit of Neruda becomes an absolute obsession to the point where the poet is forced to flee over the Andes mountains and the police inspector himself makes one mistake after another in pursuing the poet across snowy country.

While the film provides a good introduction into the poetry of Neruda and how it galvanised Chileans across different layers of society into supporting Neruda and the values he stood for, Larraín does not shrink from portraying the poet with all his contradictions and the ambivalent relationships he often had with his wife and close supporters. Chilean society in the 1940s is shown to quite good effect, as much as can be done in a film under 2 hours in length: the historical details look fairly accurate, and the rural landscapes and natural countryside of Chile, from the fjords to the high country of Araucanian pines, are stunningly filmed. As Neruda flees farther away from Santiago, Peluchonneau’s authority – and by implication, government control – weakens and becomes laughably incompetent.

The acting is not bad but it’s not great either. Bernal does a good job portraying Peluchonneau as a cypher but cannot flesh out the character with the result that Peluchonneau always seems less than human even when his quest and sacrifice endow him with the purpose and humanity he has always sought. The best acting actually comes from two minor characters: the drag queen who tells Peluchonneau of his brief connection to Neruda that the inspector will never experience, and the waitress who challenges Neruda on his political beliefs and whether she will ever be his political and economic equal once Chile is rid of tyranny and dictatorship.

As long as viewers realise that “Neruda” is intended as a fantastic retelling of what might have been in a period of Neruda’s life, the film is an entertaining light thriller; but beyond light entertainment, it can do no more.

Topkapi: an uneven and slight heist film possessed of zest, colour and joy

Jules Dassin, “Topkapi” (1964)

His heist film “Rififi” proved to be such a classic that it ended up being spoofed as well as imitated so US director Jules Dassin hit back with his own “Rififi” spoof … and “Topkapi” is the result. The plot isn’t too complicated, several of its intricacies are very hokey and the characters themselves are a bit questionable in their motivations and reasons for doing things – why on earth would a seasoned professional thief decide to use an amateur bumbler in a heist job? – but “Topkapi” turns out to be a lot of fun to watch, with great locations in Turkey that provide beautiful settings and showcase a rich culture, and a light-hearted attitude.

Our tale begins with Elizabeth Lipp (Melina Mercouri) who lusts after an emerald-studded dagger kept under heavy security at Topkapi Museum and who persuades former lover Walter Harper (Maximilian Schell) to steal it for her. Harper assembles his team of experts, including a gadget maker (Robert Morley), an acrobat and a strongman. He hires bumbling expat Brit Arthur Simpson (Peter Ustinov) to drive a car – that happens to be packed with explosives and firearms to be used in the burglary – from Greece into Turkey. Border guards discover the ammunition and turn Simpson over to Turkish intelligence. The agents believe Simpson is part of an assassination plot and persuade Simpson to spy on Lipp and Harper.

An incident that leaves the strongman unable to carry out his part in the burglary forces Harper and Lipp to rope in Simpson as replacement and at this point Simpson confesses that he is working for Turkish intelligence. Through an elaborate (and mostly wordless) ruse in which the gang attend a carnival that features Turkish wrestling (and lots of homosexual sub-text), the gang manages to throw the Turkish spies off their trail and winds its way to Topkapi Museum. There, they prepare to steal the dagger … but in an inspired moment that’s almost Hitchcockian, a bird flies into the building through a window unnoticed …

The film starts to sag about the halfway point after the team of crooks comes together and perhaps that whole carnival sequence takes too long and is fussy at times, slowing down the film’s momentum. The two Turkish agents make a good comedy team with their gestures but after several minutes the slapstick loses some of its freshness and sparkle. What really saves the film is Ustinov as a klutz who sometimes is too dumb for words and at other times seems to let on that his dumb-bumbler act is just that … an act that might hide a more savvy and cunning nature. The heist scene itself borrows directly from “Rififi” in its detail and the silence in which it is conducted.

Mercouri seems miscast for a role that probably should have gone to a younger and less knowing actress – at this point, I must mention that Mercouri was married to Jules Dassin so perhaps she needed the work – but she does a decent enough job with her material and gives Lipp a cultured veneer along with a voracious appetite for men and jewels. Schell is clearly overpowered by Mercouri and Ustinov but carries on with a solid if not very nuanced performance. Other actors flesh out their roles in distinctly individual ways: Robert Morley stands out for the pompous style he gives his character. Viewers have to pinch themselves constantly that these people are all basically grubby thieves. Probably the best acting, apart from Ustinov’s, comes from the minor actors who play the Turkish investigators and spies.

As in “Rififi”, the thieves are caught out by their own actions and greed and get their just desserts. Do the thieves learn their lesson? Unfortunately they don’t seem to, as they traipse off to Russia together, which might say something about Dassin’s view of human nature and of people obsessed by material greed.

Having lived through and been hounded into exile by the McCarthyist movement for holding leftist views, Dassin might have been expected to make a more sober picture so the joy of life, the colour, the rich Turkish culture and the cheerfulness that shine through “Topkapi” are a surprise.

A Cat in Paris: a whimsical children’s action thriller film paying homage to Alfred Hitchcock

Alain Gagnol and Jean-Loup Felicioli, “Une Vie de Chat / A Cat in Paris” (2010)

Some kitties are happy to spend their hours traipsing from one household to the next getting free feeds but here’s a pussy that lives two of its nine lives in parallel: by day it’s a little girl’s companion and by night it roams the roof-tops of inner-city Paris with a cat burglar! Yes, in this slim animated family film, the cat Dino leads a double life straddling both sides of the law as accomplice to abseiling thief Nico and beloved pet of Zoe, a lonely child traumatised by the death of her police officer father. Her mother Jeanne, a police superintendent, is on the trail of the killer Costa. Little does Jeanne suspect that the nanny Claudine she hires to care for Zoe is in fact in league with Costa and his team of hapless gangsters who themselves are part of a team of workers moving a priceless museum antique known as the Colossus of Nairobi which Costa wants for his own collection.

The film starts a bit slowly but gets going once Zoe decides to follow Dino on his nocturnal rounds and she falls into the clutches of Costa and his thugs very quickly. Dino and Nico rescue the child but Costa’s determined pursuit of Zoe draws everyone into a continuous action thriller plot that ranges through the streets and across the roofs of Paris, culminating in a stand-off involving Costa, Nico and Jeanne at the Notre Dame Cathedral in sequences that pay homage to Alfred Hitchcock films like “To Catch A Thief” and “Vertigo”.

The film is most notable for its animation style that harks back to surrealist and minimalist modern art styles used in the 1950s when animation cels were painted. Characters look a bit crude but there are moments in the film where the surrealism is effective, especially in those scenes where lights are blacked out and one character puts on night goggles. The plot is a Hitchcockian story that features a McGuffin object (the Colossus) and two characters who may be in search of love and who are brought together in the most unexpected way. I’m not sure that the plot is all that suitable for children to watch: it is quite violent in parts (the running gag with the barking dog is funny but unnecessary) and for all his bluster Costa is a very sinister and malevolent figure. His henchmen on the other hand are clowns and buffoons, and one gets the impression that the film is trying to satisfy too many expectations and audiences and is failing at achieving any of its ambitions. Few of the characters are at all convincing and they are very one-dimensional.

In all, this is a very pleasant film which could have been a major children’s animation classic but falls far short. The film could have done with another half hour to flesh out its characters and develop the plot into something a bit more realistic while still remaining whimsical.

The Tracker: a desert Western study of European colonialism and exploitation and its effects

Rolf de Heer, “The Tracker” (2002)

On the surface, a simple story of four men hunting a fugitive who has committed a crime, “The Tracker” is a study of European colonialism and exploitation of Australia’s original people, and the pain and violence these people have had to suffer as a result. The story is set in an unnamed remote part of the country in 1922: an aboriginal man (Noel Wilton) has apparently killed a white woman and is on the run. The police send out four men: the expedition is led by a man known only as the Fanatic (Gary Sweet) with young rookie policeman the Follower (Damon Gameau) and an older policeman the Veteran (Grant Page) in tow. They rely on an aboriginal man known as the Tracker (David Gulpilil) to interpret the trail left behind by the Fugitive to follow and apprehend him.

As might be expected, the plot is simple enough for plenty of psychological inquiry into the Australian character and how it has been (and continues to be) affected by colonialism and the attitudes and beliefs that upheld it: beliefs such as white supremacy over non-white peoples, the so-called white man’s burden in bringing cultural, moral and spiritual enlightenment to others, and the notion that hunter-gatherer peoples are doomed for extinction. The white characters are basically crude stereotypes that express these beliefs but in different ways according to their generation: the Veteran represents an older passive generation that may know better but prefers not to challenge colonial authority, and suffers for that; the Fanatic represents a bureaucratic, hierarchical layer of colonial society obsessed with control to the extent that he is willing to kill others if they obstruct his mission; and the Follower symbolises a young generation that, while having grown up with racist beliefs, is more open-minded, able to change and prepared to acknowledge Aboriginal laws and spirituality.

Thanks to David Gulpilil’s subtle acting, expressive face and mischievous nature and sense of humour, the Tracker is the most developed and complex character. In his ability to use and exploit both Aboriginal and European religion and law to his advantage, assist the Follower, gain justice for the Veteran, and later protect the Fugitive and the Fugitive’s community from the full force of European vengeance, the Tracker combines compassion and cunning in a way that looks completely plausible and natural. It is a pity that the other actors were not allowed the same range of expression in their characters: the Veteran in particular has only one or two lines of dialogue and is essentially a robot. Gameau makes the most of a naive character who comes to respect the Tracker, if not necessarily the cultural tradition he represents. While Sweet does a decent job as the Fanatic, the character is essentially a crude cartoon that would strain the ability of even the finest actors to make human and realistic.

The countryside is a significant character in its own right, to the extent of influencing characters’ decisions and part of the action. The Tracker is at home with the land while the white characters express various levels of discomfort with it: the Fanatic obviously is the most uncomfortable as demonstrated by a remark he makes about dead animals which is cut down by the Veteran, who has made his own pragmatic accommodation with the land. The Follower suffers various reactions ranging from culture shock to wide-eyed wonder and an acceptance that he may never fully understand the spiritual relationship that the Tracker has with the land.

Viewers may have qualms about aspects of de Heer’s direction and his use of composer / musician Archie Roach’s songs about Aboriginal suffering in scenes where the four men travel long stretches of country. De Heer’s use of paintings mainly to express the violence done to individual characters may puzzle viewers also, as this device distances audiences from the brutal nature of colonialism to Aboriginal and white people alike.

While the plot is thin for the film’s length, and the movie is preachy and doesn’t really work well as a psychological study, “The Tracker” is very moving and astonishing to watch, thanks to the landscapes and the actors, in particular David Gulpilil, who surely rates among Australia’s greatest actors.

High and Low: a crime thriller of downfall and redemption, and a plea for compassion for material and spiritual suffering

Akira Kurosawa, “High and Low” (1963)

Most movies based on pulp crime / police procedural novels rarely exceed their pulpy inspirations but legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa seems incapable of sticking to the style of the original source material, in this case an Ed McBain novel. No, no matter what sources he uses, be they ordinary crime action scribblings or Shakespearean plays, his films become meditations on human nature and society, and enter the panoply of great classic films. “High and Low” is one such of his works, if perhaps underrated because it’s set in the present day rather than in an exotic mediaeval Japanese past of samurai honour. Kurosawa teams up with equally legendary Toshiro Mifune, playing a ruthless businessman, and a capable no-nonsense supporting cast to bring to the screen a straightforward crime thriller with a timeless plot of downfall and redemption and a plea for humanity to rediscover precious lost values of compassion and consideration for others’ suffering.

Kingo Gondo (Mifune) is planning to buy out his partners in National Shoes and to that end has mortgaged his hill-top mansion to raise the loan that will enable him to take over the company and run it the way he wants. (Admittedly his partners want to convert the shoe-making operations into making cheap shoes for easy profit whereas Gondo believes in making long-lasting quality items that will ensure a regular income stream in the long term.) On the verge of achieving the buy-out though, Gondo receives a mysterious phone call from a stranger claiming to have kidnapped his son. The catch is that the stranger has actually kidnapped his chauffeur’s son Shinichi. The stranger demands a huge ransom that, if paid, would totally ruin Gondo – but if he does not pay, the child will surely be killed. Ever the Machiavellian, Gondo declares he will not pay in spite of his wife and chauffeur’s pleas and the recommendations of the police investigating the case.

The film divides into two unequal halves: the first half takes place almost completely in Gondo’s home, acquiring a tense, claustrophobic atmosphere and focusing on Gondo as he wrestles with other people’s demands and his obsessive desires; the second longer half, taking place in parts of the city beneath the hill where Gondo’s home is located, deals with the police search for the kidnapper and bringing him to justice. In this section, Gondo is no longer the main character though his downfall is made fairly obvious; the film becomes a cat-and-mouse game with the police led by Inspector Tokura (Tatsuya Nakadai) pursuing the kidnapper and closing in on him by setting up a sting operation in which they pretend that two heroin addict accomplices he has killed are still alive and are (irony of ironies) extorting him for more junk.

The film’s minimal presentation throws attention onto the tense plot and the characters themselves as they deal with the emergency at hand and its aftermath. Mifune’s understated acting is commendable and demonstrates clearly the dilemma Gondo is placed in, his obsession with maintaining his status and family’s comfort and how eventually he is transformed by the results of the decision he finally makes. Being portrayed as a hero by newspapers for the decision he does make (under pressure from others, not because of his conscience), Gondo becomes a humbler man (though this transformation is not shown) and on meeting the kidnapper at the end of the film, seeks to understand his motives for Shinichi’s abduction.

The film achieves its epic status in many ways: it highlights the class differences between Gondo and the people he comes to rely on to rescue Shinichi and recover his money; it shows something of what motivates Gondo and the kidnapper, the social and economic gulf that separates them, and how their differing motivations and the resulting behaviour might lead one to redemption and the other to damnation; and then it adds ambiguity and irony to suggest that the one who is redeemed does not really deserve it after all. This is all done with a well-structured plot that moves quickly and generates plenty of tension, in a city where social and economic contrasts are great and each is a comment on the other. Few films are able to combine rich psychological study, a tale of downfall and redemption and an engrossing police investigation all in one.