Galaxy Quest: affectionate homage and spoof maintains the values of altruism, quest for knowledge and defending the underdog

Dean Parisot, “Galaxy Quest” (1999)

Conceived as a homage to and spoof of the famous science fiction TV series “Star Trek” and of the obsessive fan following it collected, this comedy movie has gained cult status in its own right and won the affection of “Star Trek” fans themselves thanks to a clever plot that packs in most of the cliches and eccentricities of the television show and spoofs a great many movie stereotypes with wit and warmth. The ensemble cast rises to the challenge and most actors, minor as well as major, are outstanding in their roles, narrow though some of these are. Above all, the values that inform the original “Star Trek” series as conceived by its creator Gene Roddenberry are even more on display than in the TV series: sympathy for the underdog and the downtrodden, altruism and bravery in the face of severe danger, and different groups working together to bring about peace and an end to violence and terror.

The film begins and ends with the actors of a former TV sci-fi show “Galaxy Quest” attending a fan convention dedicated to the show even though more than a decade has passed since the series was axed. At the beginning the actors are so closely identified with the series by their fans and others that since the show’s axing, they have all had problems getting other acting work and they have become embittered. Except for Jason Nesmith (Tim Allen) who has come to identify with his GQ character Commander Peter Taggart (a spoof of William Shatner’s James Kirk character on “Star Trek”) and who acts accordingly: as a sometimes zoned-out fat-head twat. The ex-cast quarrel among themselves and come to blows, nearly ruining their appearance at the fan convention.

However their fortunes change when a group of aliens, who have received radio transmissions of the old GQ episodes and believe them to be actual historical events, arrive on Earth and implore the cast to help save their race and planet from annihilation by their enemies. The actors have little choice but to go along with the illusion: this involves driving the GQ spaceship that the aliens have faithfully recreated from what they have seen from the episodes, retrieving a beryllium rock from a desert planet to replace one damaged in the ship’s power drive during an enemy attack, and thwarting the plans of the evil Sarris (Robin Sachs) to conquer the universe.

What is powerful in this film is the way the out-of-work actors rediscover the wonder of the show they all worked on, grow into their old roles and discover their own depths and potential they had not known before. Nesmith really does find he makes a good leader and a brave one as well. The actors playing the GQ cast all give their best with spot-on timing and make these characters their own. Sigourney Weaver sends up her Ellen Ripley character from the “Alien” films by playing ditzy blonde sex bomb Tawny Madison and Alan Rickman, playing a Shakespearean actor who is best remembered by most people for playing an alien advisor on GQ (a nod to Leonard Nimoy’s Spock character on “Star Trek”) with all the frustrations, disillusionment and hang-ups that go with actors in that situation, conveys his character’s mixed feelings and growth into the role of Dr Lazarus beautifully. Daryl Mitchell (playing a former child pilot), Tony Shalhoub (as the stoned engineer) and Sam Rockwell (as an extra who believes he’ll always be killed off) steal the show whenever they appear. For many viewers though, Tim Allen may well steal the spotlight in impersonating William Shat … er, playing the role of Nesmith playing Taggart in what may well be the defining role of his career: at once playing a comic actor, and a hero as well.

The film moves at a very brisk pace with the laughs coming thick and fast. The funniest moments of the film come when Nesmith calls on a teenage GQ fan on Earth to help him and Madison navigate the labyrinth duct systems on the GQ ship so they can reach the power core and stop the ship from self-destructing; the kid successfully directs them through his PC, even guiding them through a treacherous passage where the ship’s pistons could pound them into schnitzels! An enjoyable sub-plot that takes place during the search for the new beryllium core is notable for its cute Teletubby aliens who turn out to have a savage brutal nature.

You don’t have to know “Star Trek” to enjoy the film and its many gags, and to appreciate the ultimate gag of a group of aliens sophisticated enough to build spaceships that travel light years from one end of the universe to the other yet are unable to tell the difference between reality and pretence. The difference can be a fine one as the GQ cast members really do become a genuine spaceship crew by the end of the film. Knowing the difference certainly does not help Sarris either. This probably says something quite profound, maybe even creepy and troubling, about the nature of fandom and how fiction and reality bleed into one another and become confused to the point where fiction dominates, with perhaps dire consequences in post-truth world.

Queen of the Desert: a boring and flat movie that mocks a remarkable woman and the people and region she came to love

Werner Herzog, “Queen of the Desert” (2013)

Renowned German film director Werner Herzog, maker of classics like “Aguirre: Wrath of God” and “Fitzcarraldo” could have done something just as eerie and awe-inspiring with the subject of the life of early 20th-century British adventurer-archaeologist-explorer-spy Gertrude Bell, who travelled across the Middle East several times over a period of 12 years before 1914 documenting and publishing her observations and photographs of life in the cities there and among the Bedouin and Druze peoples in the region. Bell would later become a policy advisor to the British government in dealing with the tribal peoples of Arabia and in obtaining the loyalty of those peoples’ leaders, and would play a significant role in the creation of Iraq and its early political institutions, and in the country’s administration. Here is enough meaty and challenging material for a director such as Herzog, whose films reveal a fascination with the motivations of singular individuals, and what inspires them to great achievements and equally noble failures.

Instead what Herzog delivers is a very boring and flat two-hour snoozefest of Hollywood-style banalities in which Bell’s life is shaped by two romantic relationships and two meetings with Thomas E Lawrence (of Lawrence of Arabia fame). Between these episodes her travels to the Levant and Arabia and the bonds that develop between her and the peoples there are treated very superficially. Viewers learn very little about how the young Gertrude Bell refused to follow the expected path of early marriage and motherhood or what motivates her to leave the comforts and safety of Western civilisation and travel among little-known peoples in the Middle East. We do not learn how women travellers of her time might have been regarded by the peoples she visited, whether they treated her differently from European male travellers because of her sex or her personality or because she demanded nothing more than their hospitality. The most Herzog offers about Bell’s determination and motivation is a small scene in which she tells a British military officer that she admires the “freedom” and “dignity” that the Bedouin supposedly possess. What does Bell mean by saying that?

The acting by Nicole Kidman (miscast as Bell) and the cast surrounding her is competent enough but there is no chemistry between her and her lovers (played by James Franco and Damien Lewis). Ultimately though the nebulous nature of the project, the lack of a definite theme behind it, the flat script and its emphasis on technical details like nice cinematography, the fashions of the day and Kidman’s looks over Bell’s contacts with one set of exotic people after another, and what they might mean for the future of the Middle East, defeat the actors.

What I find most annoying is that when the plot comes close to an incident in Bell’s personal life or a significant political event that she participates in, it immediately ducks away to something irrelevant. The film reduces Bell and her life to a series of romantic encounters (and very lazily sketched ones at that) that may or may not be based on her actual life to satisfy a narrow agenda which views women as incomplete or not quite human unless they’re attached to a man.

The Truman Show: comedy drama satire encapsulating the search for authenticity for self and community under conditions of control and manipulation

Peter Weir, “The Truman Show” (1998)

Once in a while Hollywood releases a film that encapsulates philosophical ideas about the purpose of life and the human desire for freedom and autonomy under conditions of control and manipulation. That the film was made as a comedy drama featuring a bizarre science fiction plot in which ideals about American family life and culture are satirised in a virtual reality framework is an added bonus and such a film, if made well, has the potential to become a classic. Peter Weir’s “The Truman Show” nearly hits all the right notes in this respect. The film’s presentation is spotless and its titular main character, played by Jim Carrey, is endearing – but the film is not perfect and is probably a bit too low-key for its mainstream audience.

Truman Burbank (Carrey) lives on Seahaven Island, a bright seaside community where he was brought up. He sells insurance and is married to Meryl (Laura Linney), a nurse. Unbeknownst to Truman, his whole life has been lived in a continuous TV reality show “The Truman Show” masterminded by director Christof (Ed Harris). The film’s plot basically demonstrates how Truman comes to realise that his whole life has been on display to global TV audiences through incidents such as a spotlight falling out of the sky, point rain falling on him and an out-of-town police officer he does not know calling him by his first name. Truman’s efforts to find out the truth of his life and discover the lie he has led make for very funny comedy. At the heart of his odyssey lies his attraction to and love for Sylvia (Natascha McElhone) played by an actress who tried to warn Truman that he was being exploited but ended up being thrown off the show. Eventually after many mishaps and incidents that involve Truman overcoming his fear of water, and a sailing ordeal during which he nearly drowns in storms sent by Christof’s technical crew, Truman discovers that he has indeed been living in a bubble and finally meets Christof who tries to persuade him to return to Seahaven Island.

Carrey plays Truman very well as cartoon character and as someone struggling to find the truth about his existence and the community in which he has grown up. Probably the major fault with Carrey’s portrayal is that he does not display much emotion but the narrow range of emotions that do appear agrees with the nature of the character that he plays: Truman is basically a fake character and Seahaven Island represents an artificial and unrealistic ideal. The confrontation with Christof is restrained and short, and while audiences might have expected much Sturm und Angst, the breakthrough is that Truman wrestles control of his character and destiny away from Christof. Truman finally becomes a real person with a real future ahead of him; it may be messy and uncertain, and he will most certainly find that truth and reality are even more elusive in a world living through simulated reality, but his journey now becomes his own to make.

The plot tends to be repetitive with Truman going from one scrape to another as he tries to discover the truth but the direction is tight and brisk. Truman’s jump from being aquaphobic to confidently piloting a boat out in the middle of Seahaven Island harbour is rather forced but it does break with the previous monotony of the script. Perhaps the film could have been a bit longer with a slower pace and more opportunity for character development and depth in Christof and minor characters.

The themes that “The Truman Show” raises about manipulating and controlling people for profit, and about manipulating a social ideal and recent American social and cultural history to shape audience desires in the service of profit are highly provocative. Add to this mix a classic narrative about an individual’s search for meaning and purpose to his life and self-discovery in an original plot, and the continuing relevance of the film to audiences even today can be clearly seen.

Torn Curtain: an unremarkable spy thriller film let down by poor casting and a laboured script

Alfred Hitchcock, “Torn Curtain” (1966)

To properly appreciate how good a director Alfred Hitchcock was over a career of 50+ years, one needs to see the lesser films he made as well as the better or more notorious ones (like “Psycho” or “The Birds”) that everyone remembers. Any other director trying to make “Torn Curtain” with the constraints Hitchcock suffered would have ended up making a very mediocre film; it’s to Hitch’s credit that in spite of an over-long and laboured script, an undistinguished music score, having no say in the choice of lead actors,  and working in a genre that ill-suited him, he was able to make a competent spy thriller film that is sometimes visually gorgeous and which emphasises the dangerous nature of espionage for ordinary people who choose to participate in it for motives other than greed, and the cynicism of those who use and exploit the public’s idealism and loyalty to achieve murky ends.

US nuclear physicist Michael Armstrong (Paul Newman) agrees to carry out a dangerous mission in which he pretends to defect to East Germany to obtain a formula from an eccentric professor at the University of Leipzig. His mission is nearly derailed by his assistant / fiancée Sarah Sherman (Julie Andrews) who follows him, determined to find out what he’s up to after seeing a telegram message meant for him only while on board a ship taking them both to a science conference in Copenhagen. While Sarah takes some convincing by Armstrong’s East German security to defect with him, Armstrong himself needs clues and directions to make his way across East Germany to Leipzig to find the professor and trick the older man into giving up the necessary secret formula. In his quest, Armstrong nearly comes undone when East German security agent Gromek (Wolfgang Kieling) follows him and threatens him. Armstrong and a farmer’s wife (Carolyn Colwell) dispose of Gromek in an excruciating fight scene – but this has unfortunate consequences for both Armstrong and Sherman when government authorities realise that Gromek is missing and trace his last movements to the farm that Armstrong has had to visit.

The film divides into two very uneven halves: the first half contains most of the suspense, thrills and tensions; the second half unfortunately tends to drag due to the nature of the plot in which most of the action takes place early on and then the fall-out from that action takes up the rest of the story. (In this, “Torn Curtain” follows the structure of “Psycho”.) This means that whatever tension arises in the rest of the film depends greatly on the two lead actors being seen to care for one another and having a strong connection as they try to escape from East Germany; in this, both Newman and Andrews’ performance falls flat. The two actors do what they can in their own way but there is little on-screen chemistry between them and their acting conforms to rule. Hitchcock and Newman were known not to have worked well together: Hitchcock was unimpressed with Method acting which Newman and other actors of his generation relied upon. Possibly the tension between the director and his lead actor actually improved Newman’s performance in the film (especially in the fight scene with Kieling) but on the whole the acting from the leads is very ordinary. Andrews should have been a sparkling and assertive presence but her role turns out to be a passive and subdued one that makes little use of her talent and potential to be a more feisty and active heroine – in a film where the male lead finds himself in situations where he needs help from women!

The plot is not always credible and some of its twists and turns are too light-hearted and implausible especially when put up against the brutal violence of Newman’s fight scene. The juxtaposition of the brutality and some of the sillier scenes certainly highlights the riskiness and uncertainty involved in espionage and the danger it poses to ordinary people who agree to do it. While Hitchcock could certainly manage both vicious violence and comedy, both need a solid plot and a good cast to carry off both genres and their elements, and the tensions that arise from that combination. For a good example of such a film, viewers should refer to “North by Northwest”; by contrast, “Torn Curtain” is its lesser sibling. Fortunately “Torn Curtain” is saved by its underlying themes of deception and commitment (be it commitment to a relationship or political ideals) as opposed to self-interest, and distrust of and contempt for government authorities that would cynically rely on untrained individuals to carry its work for them yet force them to make their own way back to safety when plans backfire.

The film’s best moments are in an early wordless scene where Gromek pursues Armstrong through a museum, their fight scene and some of the later chase scenes through rural countryside. In some of these scenes, Hitchcock is an undoubted master of wide-scene filming and direction, and the cinematography is very beautiful. The suspense is taut and spellbinding.

Women He’s Undressed: a whimsical and shallow treatment of an Australian country boy who hits the big time in Hollywood

Gillian Armstrong, “Women He’s Undressed” (2015)

Hollywood could not have dreamt up a more classic story of the country boy who finds his home town and country too small for his dreams and who takes off for the bright lights of New York and later the silver screen seductions of Hollywood itself, and ends up beating Hollywood at its own game as a costume designer of its Golden Age films. But fact here is much stranger than fiction: in 1897 in the tiny beachside country town of Kiama in the then British colony of New South Wales is born George Orry Kelly, who spends his early years dressing dolls in clothes until his parents frown on such apparent girly behaviour and try to shepherd him into playing football and other pursuits deemed more suitable for growing red-blooded Australian boys. In his late teens / early 20s, Kelly chooffs out of his Sydney banking job and off the US and to the music halls of Tin Pan Alley where he ekes a living designing posters and then costumes for Broadway music shows and silent film screenings, and strikes up a friendship that soon develops into something more serious with English acrobat and aspiring actor Archibald Leach. During the Depression years, the two take off for Los Angeles and Hollywood where Kelly discovers his niche (as Orry-Kelly) designing costumes for the Warner Brothers film studio (where the wife of Jack Warner befriends him) and Archie Leach is transformed into the suave actor Cary Grant. Among the famous actresses Orry-Kelly dresses are Bette Davis for several films, Ingrid Bergman for “Casablanca”, Angela Lansbury, Ava Gardner, Marilyn Monroe (“Some Like It Hot”, for which Orry-Kelly wins an Academy Award for costume design) and Jane Fonda. Orry-Kelly picks up no fewer than three Oscars for costume design and he gains a reputation for designing clothes that hide figure faults and at the same time express a character’s nature as it changes throughout a film.

Beneath the apparent glamour and marvellous celebrity and fortune, Orry-Kelly faces enormous pressure from studio executives, the press and public expectations generally to deny his homosexuality and his relationship with Cary Grant disintegrates as the actor conforms to conservative cultural expectations to be heterosexual and to marry (which he does so about five times in his life – meaning of course that four of his marriages must have deteriorated and dissolved in divorce). Orry-Kelly serves with the US Air Corps during World War II until he is discharged for alcohol abuse. During much of the 1940s he battles a chronic drinking problem and has to go into rehab which affects his costume design career and costs him his job at Warner Bros. Orry-Kelly’s comeback as a costume designer in the 1950s nets him three Oscars and a fourth Oscar nomination.

Orry-Kelly’s seeming rags-2-riches rise is whimsically retold by Armstrong in a breathless, sweeping narrative  that mixes Darren Gilshenan playing Orry-Kelly in monologue scenes in which he addresses viewers and brings to life the man’s wit, humour and energy, with interviews of the actresses Orry-Kelly dressed and historical live action footage. The constant symbolic motif of Gilshenan rowing a boat away from the beach gives the documentary both a light touch and an intimation that there is something deeper beneath the surface glamour sheen of Orry-Kelly’s life which Armstrong unfortunately doesn’t explore. Deborah Kennedy, playing Orry-Kelly’s mother, muses upon her son’s fortunes in a way that, quite frankly, adds nothing to what or how the Australian public might have thought of one of their own making it big in Tinsel-town. It seems that Kiama and Australia generally did not really care that one of their sons was achieving great things in Hollywood; in return, Orry-Kelly seems not to have bothered too much with finding out how Australians might have thought of him. In an age though where Australian culture held that Australian men who designed lavish and beautiful costumes for female actors were less than human, Orry-Kelly’s attitude could well have been similarly scornful. He was friendly with the wife of Warner Bros studio exec Jack Warner which meant plenty of work kept coming his way and Tinsel-town held enormous respect for him, at least until his drinking problem got the better of him.

Armstrong’s documentary does not go into much depth as to why certain genres of film favouring Orry-Kelly’s grand and glamorous costumes were popular among the public, nor does it deal very much with Hollywood’s ambivalence about homosexual people, many of whom were stalwart supporters of and major contributors to the Hollywood ethos. It does spend a lot of time on Orry-Kelly’s relationship with Cary Grant to the extent that viewers get the impression that Grant was the great love of his life and Grant goes to great lengths to avoid him – though the alternate view that Orry-Kelly wasn’t the love of Grant’s life and that the Australian should have tried to find another lover and dismissed Grant as Grant dismissed him (and as Orry-Kelly dismissed his fellow Australians) might have been considered.

Based upon Orry-Kelly’s unpublished manuscript, the documentary makes a case for Orry-Kelly and Grant having had an actual love relationship which the actual manuscript does not mention. This is one major criticism I have as the relationship takes up far too much of the film’s time and focus, when the film could have focused much more on Orry-Kelly’s determination to live openly as a gay man in an environment where his sexuality was an open secret among work colleagues, friends and acquaintances but had to kept secret from the media and public, and the immense pressures that were brought to bear on him.

A more considered and sober documentary treatment of Orry-Kelly’s life, the times he lived in and the complexity of gay men’s relationships in that period that does not pander to current gay politics remains begging.

The Founder: a fictional character study calling into question the American Dream and how it enables control and exploitation

John Lee Hancock, “The Founder” (2016)

How do you make an engrossing film about a character who is essentially unlikeable, a predator who steals others’ ideas and innovations and rewrites history to claim those innovations as his own, an anti-hero / near-villain who rides roughshod over friends, business associates and loved ones alike in pursuit of his own selfish interests and greed – and who lives happily ever after, sleeping well at nights? In “The Founder”, director Hancock has found inspiration in the rise and rise of Ray Kroc who joined the McDonald’s hamburger and fast food business, owned and operated by Dick and Mac McDonald, in 1954 and set it on the path to becoming the world’s largest fast food corporation: he (Hancock) contrasts Kroc’s astonishing ascent to fame and glory against the McDonald brothers’ determined but ultimately doomed attempts to protect the company’s reputation for delivering quality fast food and prompt service. In juxtaposing the stories of Kroc and the McDonald brothers as the men collide and their paths shoot off in opposed directions, Hancock finds plenty to say about the so-called American Dream and calls into question the exploitation of American cultural values, what it means to be American and the issue of control, whether it be over a business franchise or the land it sits upon, or over one’s relationships, in a society dominated by capitalist values and ideology.

When first we meet Kroc (Michael Keaton), he is rehearsing a speech he is about to make before an audience that includes the then President Ronald Reagan, a fellow Illinois boy-made-good like himself. From there the film jumps back some 30 years to 1954 when Kroc is a travelling salesman trying to hawk milkshake mixers to various fast food joints in the US Midwest and finding no takers. He takes a call from his secretary back in Arlington who informs him that a hamburger place in San Bernardino, California, has placed an order for 6, then 8, mixers. Intrigued, Kroc drives all the way to San Bernardino where he sees queues of customers waiting patiently to order hamburgers at the McDonald brothers’ stand. He makes his acquaintance with Dick (Nick Offerman) and Mac (John Carroll Lynch) who tell him of their experiences trying to crack Hollywood back in the 1920s, having to operate a hot dog stand during the Depression years and finally being able to own and run their hamburger fast food restaurant in their own unique way, utilising scientific management methods in designing their kitchen and streamlining work processes, custom-making their kitchen equipment, concentrating on a small and standardised menu and motivating their employees to deliver food and service at a consistent and high level. Kroc proposes that he and they join forces and franchise the business. The brothers demur and explain that they have tried franchising before but were unable to maintain control over the menu and standards. Kroc mulls over their objections and finally convinces Dick and Mac to work together with him by proposing that McDonald’s could become an essential institution in American life, in much the same way that Christian religion and belief in American democracy have become.

From that moment on, Kroc’s rise to become one of America’s richest and most successful businessmen, thanks to doggedness on his part, dominates the film – though he comes across plenty of obstacles in his path. The initial wave of success proves to be too much and quickly Kroc finds his finances and assets over-stretched to the point where he and his wife Ethel (Laura Dern) are in danger of losing their house. His bank manager won’t budge an inch, Dick and Mac refuse to cut corners on their formula and remind Kroc of the complex contract that he agreed to sign. Enter Harry Sonneborn (B J Novak), an ambitious financial consultant, who goes over Kroc’s books and points out that Kroc needs to own the land on which McDonald’s franchises operate by creating a separate real estate company. Kroc realises that Sonneborn’s proposal will enable him to wrestle control of the McDonald’s concept from Dick and Mac and readily accepts it. As McDonald’s becomes more and more Kroc’s baby and he bends and reshapes its core concept to his will, the brothers are edged out more and more, their business relationship with Kroc becomes acrimonious and eventually Mac’s health fails and he is hospitalised. Kroc eventually buys out the brothers who tragically lose all royalty rights and are forced to give up the McDonald’s name.

Concomitant with Kroc’s takeover of the McDonald’s name and concept, his marriage to Ethel, who provides moral support and Kroc’s conscience (passive though it is), fails and ends in divorce. Ethel ends up an even more pathetic victim than the McDonald brothers: she ends up with the house but none of the wealth that should be hers. I guess in the end she never gets to go to Spain for a holiday.

The acting is solid throughout and Michael Keaton dominates every scene as the man who sells his soul and morality (I’m assuming he ever had any in the first place) for money, money and more money. He strikes the right balance in making Kroc a sympathetic character driven to succeed in spite of no talent, no education and no connections, yet slimy and lacking in insight. Laura Dern makes the most of a role in which she has very little to do except ask her husband why he couldn’t just live the rest of his life together with her in comfortable retirement, playing golf with the country club buddies and travelling the world together. The film does a splendid job contrasting Kroc’s slick hollowness against the McDonald brothers’ heartfelt passion and love for their San Bernardino baby and their desire and failure to protect it against its exploitation by a predatory hustler.

The film does not make much of the capitalist ideology that informs and supports Kroc’s ambitions or of the debt-based financial system that forces Kroc on his near-insane quest to grow the McDonald’s business and drives him and Ethel close to bankruptcy. So much of modern corporations’ need to grow and earn higher revenues and profits, at the cost of quality control and ethical considerations for their customers and the environments (physical, cultural, economic, political) in which they live, is driven by the need to pay back corporate debts to banks and to take out new loans if they are to meet their financial obligations and continue trading. Viewers need some knowledge of how monetary systems work to pick up this aspect of the film. The scene in which Kroc first meets Sonneborn is a major turning point in the film’s narrative: Kroc begins to understand that owning the land on which the hamburgers are made is the key to breaking the hold the McDonald brothers have over him.

What is significant about “The Founder” is its timing: it comes at a time when Americans and others around the world are seriously questioning aspects of the capitalist economic system and the ideologies and assumptions that support it and legitimise the often sociopathic behaviours that are attracted to it; and when the McDonald’s corporation itself and its core concept of  industrialised food preparation and production have become battered and are in need of renewal or replacement. At the end of the film, when we return to Kroc finishing off his rehearsal, he appears to stagger through a doorway, as if on his way to the afterlife. (In real life, Kroc died in 1984 so the film ends at a point where he would not have had much longer to live.)

The Shining: a histrionic epic horror film saved by its themes of control and alien manipulation

Stanley Kubrick, “The Shining” (1980)

In most directors’ hands, a Stephen King horror novel of a family disintegrating under the impact of the husband / father’s alcoholism wouldn’t have been more than a small-scale pedestrian flick destined for weekday daytime TV. In the hands of Stanley Kubrick, “The Shining” becomes an epic tale of how a small family is trapped by unseen and vaguely conscious forces that have shaped human history and led to suffering, tragedy and genocide. The film is noteworthy for its widespread use of Steadicam tracking shots, an eerie musical soundtrack, its creepy hotel setting and the performances of Jack Nicholson and Danny Lloyd as father and son set against each other due to external alien powers.

Writer Jack Torrance (Nicholson), seeking somewhere peaceful and isolated for his writing project, accepts a temporary position as an off-season caretaker for the upscale Hotel Overlook in a remote part of Colorado. At his interview, Torrance is told that the hotel is built on a Native American burial site and that a previous caretaker, Charles Grady, developed cabin fever and killed his family. While Torrance is being interviewed, back home in Boulder, his son Danny (Lloyd) has a premonition about the hotel in which rivers of blood swamp the hotel floors and he falls into a trance. Danny’s mother Wendy (Shelley Duvall) takes the boy to a doctor and mentions that he has an imaginary friend called Tony.

Torrance gets the job and soon moves the family into its new quarters at the hotel. They meet the head chef Halloran (Scatman Crothers) who takes Danny aside and tells him that they are both telepathic. Halloran warns Danny that the hotel harbours many memories, not all of which are good, and that the boy must not enter Room 237.

Time passes, with Jack’s writing going nowhere while Wendy and Danny explore the hotel and its grounds which include a giant maze that Danny becomes expert at traversing. Jack becomes frustrated and angry over his writer’s block and his relationship with Wendy disintegrates. Danny continues to have terrifying visions of ghosts and blood but is drawn to Room 237 and enters the room where he is attacked by an apparently dead woman. He escapes with bruises on his neck which his mother blames on Jack. Jack investigates Room 237 where he also sees the apparition.

While Wendy and Danny continue exploring the hotel, Jack retreats to the Gold Room where he meets a bartender and a butler who reveals himself as Delbert Grady, the hotel’s former caretaker, among a party of phantom wealthy revellers. Delbert Grady tells Jack that his son is telepathically contacting Halloran (who is on his way to the hotel from Miami to find out what is going on) and that he, Jack, must “correct” Wendy and Danny. The stage is thus set for a conflict between two mysterious forces using humans as their unwilling pawns.

While “The Shining” may not be a great Kubrick classic, it has much in common with other films of his, like “2001: A Space Odyssey” and several of his war films. Jack is a typical Kubrick man whose sense of masculinity is weak and superficial, based as it is on dominating and subjugating weaker people like Danny and the submissive Wendy. The ghosts in the film recognise Jack as a weak man reliant on alcohol to prop up his masculinity and they seize on his weakness to compel him to murder. Significantly he kills Halloran, a representative of a traditional victim group (Afro-Americans) in US society. One wonders whether the rivers of blood that terrify Danny in his visions might actually represent the blood of Native Americans butchered and thrown into mass graves – and might not Hotel Overlook be sited on such a grave? – by the US Army as it drove indigenous people into reservations so their lands could be seized by the Federal government.

The acting ranges from overwrought (Duvall) to bravura (Nicholson) and almost understated (Lloyd). While Duvall has to make the best of a role of a passive child-like woman, and Nicholson refines his almost typecast persona of a man going mad, Lloyd probably delivers the best performance in a role where he has to play an imaginary friend with its own voice speaking to Danny Torrance. Significantly the main adult characters in the film regress almost to an infantile state while Danny Torrance adopts adult qualities to save himself, if not his mother. The boy’s talent, the “shining”, is not of very much help to him and Wendy, and only his knowledge of the maze and his persistence save his life. Perhaps this is Kubrick’s way of demonstrating that humans can be more than what they come into the world endowed with, and that perhaps we can overcome our aspects of our past with knowledge and reason.

Thanks to Kubrick’s obsessive attention to detail, the film has a distinct look (as all Kubrick’s films do) and manages even in its most surreal and gory parts to be elegant and beautiful. This refined look doesn’t always work though as in the scene where Jack enters Room 237 and meets a naked young woman who seems more robotic than ghostly. The hotel interiors take on a palatial aspect thanks to the unusual camera angles and the scale on which the settings have been created, dwarfing the humans who inhabit them.

Special mention should be made of the music soundtrack, featuring dissonant pieces from Krzysztof Penderecki, Gyorgy Ligeti and Wendy Carlos, which becomes a character in itself (albeit a rather overbearing and screechy one) along with the hotel. The music could have been quieter in parts and allow for more space than it does to heighten the tension and dread.

Parts of the film can be very histrionic, and Duvall’s character especially is of a screaming-damsel-in-distress stereotype that does her talents a disservice, but it does display an exceptional power. The underlying themes of control, a crisis in Western masculinity, humanity being in the grip of possibly malign forces shaping its evolution and destiny, and a child embodying hope and positive transformation are the film’s saving grace.

Snowden: a riveting character study of personal transformation and commitment to personal ideals

Oliver Stone, “Snowden” (2016)

Surprisingly even though I’m familiar with the story of National Security Agency whistle-blower Edward Snowden through Laura Poitras’ documentary “Citizenfour”, Oliver Stone’s biopic of Snowden’s life from 2004 to 2013, documenting his transformation from all-American patriot believing in his nation’s “exceptionalism” to political activist / whistle-blower aghast at the Big Brother surveillance being carried out by his government, turns out to be riveting in its own low-key way. That may be due to Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s precise if minimalist portrayal of Snowden throughout the film, so much so that he rivals Meryl Streep as an impersonator rather than an actor. Gordon-Levitt is ably supported by a committed cast that includes Nicolas Cage, Tom Wilkinson and Zachary Quinto.

The film opens with Snowden bailed up in a Hong Kong hotel being met by then-Guardian newspaper columnist Glenn Greenwald (Quinto) and documentary film-maker Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo), later to be joined by Greenwald’s fellow Guardian scribbler Ewan MacAskill (Wilkinson). In his room, Snowden explains to the trio the extent of NSA spying on the American public through Internet, mobile phone and social media conversations and interactions. Not only does the NSA spy on the US public but also on the conversations that take place in other countries, in Germany, Japan, Brazil and, well, the rest of the world. At this point, the film zips over to Snowden’s early days training for the US Army reserve during which time the young man is a strong “my country, right or wrong” believer, convinced that the US is and has always been a force for democracy and freedom. After injuries cut short his military career, Snowden applies to join the US Central Intelligence Agency where he meets his instructor and mentor Corbyn O’Brian (Rhys Ifans) who posts him to Geneva, Tokyo and Hawaii.

In the course of his work, Snowden discovers how cynical the CIA and later the NSA are (through O’Brien and various work colleagues) in their regard for the rule of law where it conflicts with the US government’s desire to know what everyone is thinking and doing, so as to pinpoint vulnerabilities in people’s lives that could be used to manipulate and blackmail them for its own advantage, and to influence and direct people’s conversations towards positions it favours. Information and knowledge are commodities to be used for commercial and military gain, and secrecy is the security wrapped around the commodities. Confronted by what he experiences as a CIA employee and later as a contractor working for the NSA and Booz Allen Hamilton, Snowden makes plans to reveal what he knows of NSA surveillance.

Threaded through the narrative of how Snowden changes and matures over the years is his romance with Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley) which perhaps gets too much screen time for a plot device aiming to humanise Snowden and show how much he gives up or loses in his quest to be true to himself and his ideals. Even so, the romance is interesting in how it highlights Snowden’s growing paranoia at his own life being the topic of NSA scrutiny and issues of privacy invasion, where the limit between revealing one’s own life on social media ends and where others’ invasion of that life begins. As a photographer and acrobatic performer posting intimate images (including semi-nude images) of herself on Facebook and other social media, Mills is an example of this dilemma surrounding privacy.

The film is done very well with excellent cinematography, smooth transitions and steady pacing, and the cast shows commitment, with Gordon-Levitt giving the performance of his life. Where the film is limited is in its narrow focus on Snowden’s life and point of view, to the extent that viewers may get an incorrect impression that all the CIA and NSA surveillance began with the events of 11 September 2001, when the World Trade Center twin towers and a US Department of Defense building were hit by three hijacked passenger jets and a fourth passenger jet crashed in Pennsylvania after passengers on that plane apparently fought with hijackers. The reality is that the US has always jealously tried to preserve its status as the world’s leading political, economic and military power since 1945. The nation’s “exceptionalism” stems from propaganda it has spread through its corporate media and entertainment industries and Edward Snowden is not the only victim who fell for that propaganda hook, line and sinker. How and why the surveillance state began and developed into the all-encompassing Panopticon it is, is far beyond the film’s grasp. Another problem is the relative upbeat ending in which Snowden’s revelations about NSA surveillance are made public without any apparent hindrance; the reality is that after the events portrayed in the film, Greenwald left The Guardian and The Guardian itself under a new chief editor deteriorated into stenographer journalism.

Nevertheless, if “Snowden” can encourage viewers to think about the extent of government surveillance in their own lives, how it influences their thinking and behaviour, and the direction of society, and to investigate how it began (so that they can begin to fight it), it will have fulfilled its aim of raising social awareness.

Cold Souls: a dull, flat and unsatisfying comedy about materialism and the nature of identity and existence

Sophie Barthes, “Cold Souls” (2009)

In the vein of Charlie Kaufman’s “Being John Malkovich” but without that film’s sprightly tone, “Cold Souls” is a metaphysical comedy intended as a commentary on Western materialist society in which souls can be traded for money just like any other commodity. Playing himself, Paul Giamatti is a typically angst-ridden New Yorker who becomes so absorbed in the characters and roles he plays that they follow him home even after the play or film has finished and end up tormenting him and playing havoc with his relationships. He discovers a clinic that can remove his soul and put it into deep storage. After undergoing the necessary procedure (and finding to his great consternation that his soul looks just like a chickpea), Giamatti is tremendously relieved. Not long afterwards though, his new soulless condition starts causing him problems with his wife (Emily Watson) and his acting career so he returns to the clinic to retrieve his soul. He and his doctor (David Strathairn) open the storage unit and discover the soul is missing. For a while, Giamatti is content to use the soul of a Russian poet called Olga, and this enables him to play Uncle Vanya in Anton Chekhov’s famous play of the same name successfully but unfortunately the Russian soul isn’t a good fit for Giamatti and he yearns for his old soul back.

Unbeknownst to both, the chickpea thing has been stolen by a soul mule called Nina (Dina Korzun) who works for a black market operator based in Saint Petersburg trafficking in stolen souls. Feeling a bit guilty, Nina contacts Paul and tells him his soul is now residing in the body of a Russian TV soap opera starlet married to the fellow running the black market soul-stealing scheme. Paul has to try to retrieve his soul back from the starlet – but is his soul agreeable to returning to its original owner? It seems that Paul’s soul is having such a fun time with the starlet that it wants to stay with her permanently.

The film could have been very funny with a serious message about how commodifying souls can encourage greed, increase unhappiness and discontent, and even lead to violence and the kind of trafficking shown. (If the clinic run by Strathairn’s character had been the black market operator or the doctor himself an unscrupulous money-sniffing quack, that would have provided the film with the frisson it needs rather than having to resort to needless stereotypes about Russian-style capitalism that imply that whatever Russians do turns out bad.) Intriguing questions about why we have souls and the difference between American souls and Russian souls could have been asked and left unanswered so that the audience is challenged to come up with its own answers about questions of life and the purpose of existence. By choosing to film the story as drama as well as comedy, director Barthes turns “Cold Souls” into a dreary plod. Giamatti is enthusiastic about sending himself up and provides the main spark of life as long as he is on the screen; but once he disappears, the movie becomes very leaden. Support characters like Nina, the doctor, Giamatti’s wife and the Russian starlet could have been very interesting and entertaining, even in a brief superficial stereotyped way in the case of the starlet, but under Barthes’ control end up flat.

Under a different director, the idea of a society where souls can be bought and sold (and stolen and trafficked) could have given us rich comedy and plenty of food for thought … but in the hands of Barthes, in the guise of “Cold Souls”, it just ends up … soulless.

The Last Man on Earth: still retaining the power to shock and horrify with a message of post-apocalyptic despair and existential angst

Ubaldo B Ragona and Sidney Salkow, “The Last Man on Earth” (1964)

Over 50 years since it was made, this cheaply made horror film has clearly not lost its power to shock, horrify and leave its audiences in stunned silence with its message of despair. “The Last Man on Earth” is the first of three films based Richard Matheson’s sci-fi horror novel “I Am Legend” (the others being “The Omega Man” and “I Am Legend”) and apparently follows the novel’s plot quite closely. Vincent Price plays Dr Robert Morgan, the eponymous star of the story, in which he survives a mysterious plague due apparently to having been bitten by a bat while working in South America. Seemingly the rest of humanity including Dr Morgan’s wife (Emma Danieli) and daughter has succumbed to the disease which turns corpses into zombie-like vampires if they are not immediately burned after death. Morgan himself is forced to survive by playing a Van Helsing vampire hunter role each day, every day: in the day-time he hunts down, impales and burns any vampires he finds and in the evenings he holes up in what remains of his house while a group of zombie fangsters, led by a former work colleague Ben (Giacomo Rossi-Stuart), besiege him and threaten him.

A good two-thirds of the film are taken up with showing the doctor’s dreary daily routine of driving around his abandoned home city and hunting down and impaling vampires. The middle part of the film finds him remembering or dreaming about the last days of his former normal existence as a virologist and happy family man before his daughter and then his wife die suddenly. Price does a good job portraying Morgan with his survivor guilt, his depressed episodes and mixed emotions about his past life. Voice-over narration by Price establishes the narrative of Morgan as lone surviving human forced against his own reasoning and knowledge to acknowledge the existence of the vampires and to hunt them down mercilessly.

The story becomes interesting in its last third when a female non-vampire character Ruth (Franca Bettoia) is introduced and warns Morgan that, because of his exploits as a vampire killer, he is feared by a small community of surviving humans. Almost on cue, these humans arrive in Morgan’s city and despatch all the vampires including Ben before turning their guns on Morgan – because he had taken out quite a few of their number as well as the hunted vampires.

For a cheap movie which is dated in parts, “The Last Man …” features some astonishing scenes of sheer loneliness and isolation, despair and hopelessness. It is rather wonky with respect to dubbing and other technical aspects linked to the shoestring budget, and maybe there were some bad decisions made with regard to plotting as the last 15 minutes of the film become an action thriller set in an incipient police-state dystopia. The early parts of the film are slow-moving and reveal Morgan in all his desolation and anguish. He probably could have shown more angst about having to kill vampires who were once friends and relatives of his but one significant scene in which Morgan laughs and then cries is well done, showing what a fine actor Price was when given the chance to showcase his talent and experience.

The cinematography turns out to be a major highlight in creating an atmosphere of despair and hopelessness, especially at the beginning of the film with a series of silent stills showing dead bodies in streets of an apparently abandoned city. If it were not for the Italian neo-realist influence on the cinematography, “The Last Man …” would probably look even more B-grade cheap.

The film’s conclusion is tragic and depressing, demonstrating how societies under severe stress can become more dangerous and monstrous than the monsters they pursue. For a slow-moving character study with not a great deal happening until the very last moment, “The Last Man …” turns out to be an intriguing piece on the nature of being, the purpose of one’s existence and how societies might cope with long-term terror and mass psychological stress.