The Promise: a slurpy romantic melodrama overshadows significant historic events

Terry George, “The Promise” (2016)

A film about the Ottoman Turkish genocide of Armenians and other Christian minorities (1915 – 1918) is probably never going to succeed with a wider audience than the communities involved – and especially as the genocide is still denied by the Republic of Turkey – so one resigns oneself to a retelling of that horrific period in 20th-century history through a melodramatic plot revolving around a complicated love triangle. In 1914, young Mikael Boghosian (Oscar Isaac) aspires to become a doctor in his backwater community of Sirun in southeast Turkey but needs money to travel to Constantinople and pay his way through medical studies there. He is betrothed to local girl Marta and her dowry money helps get him to Constantinople and enrol at university. He boards with Uncle Mesrob and his family and almost immediately falls for his young cousins’ dance tutor Ana (Charlotte le Bon). If you think young Mikael will have problems juggling his affections for Marta and Ana, there’s more to come: Ana herself has been in a long-term relationship with American news reporter Chris (Christian Bale) so, er , the two young people have their hands and heads preoccupied with conflicting emotions and guilt. Unfortunately for them – and maybe fortunately for us having to sit through 133 minutes of film – events in southeast Europe drag Germany and Ottoman Turkey into war against Britain, France and Russia, and almost straight away (as if on cue) the dastardly Turks start rounding up Armenians and throw them into prison camps (to be forced into hard labour, dying of malnutrition and maltreatment), forced marches into the mountains and deserts, and cattle trains going into the wilderness. As the war drags on – and the Ottomans are failing badly, though the film makes no references to how the Turks are faring in the war – the government resorts to mass slaughter of the Armenian people.

Through the tumultuous events, Mikael, Ana and Chris endure personal and shared hardships and sufferings: after escaping a prison camp, Mikael is briefly reunited with his family and marries his betrothed in Sirun while Ana and Chris manage to rescue a group of orphans and take them to safety with an American Protestant missionary. The three main characters reunite again and try to save Mikael’s parents, wife and nieces. They are too late and only manage to rescue his badly injured mother and young cousin Yeva. Chris is captured by Turkish soldiers and incarcerated in a prison where he is sentenced to death as a spy. He is rescued by the US ambassador to Turkey Henry Morgenthau and a mutual playboy friend (Marwan Kenzari) of his and Mikael’s (whose life was also saved by the friend) but the friend pays for his generosity by being executed by a firing squad.

Mikael and Ana take the orphans to a refugee camp and the camp moves to Musa Dagh mountain where the men vow to fight the Turkish army following them. Chris boards a French war cruiser which arrives at the bay beneath Musa Dagh. While the refugees try to fight off Turkish bombardment and board the life-boats that will take them to the cruiser, the tension that naturally arises from the scenario gets an artificial lift from the tension surrounding the love triangle: out of the three – Ana, Chris, Mikael – someone will meet his/her kismet in a most tragic way.

The slurpy melodrama just manages to stay mildly annoying thanks to good acting performances from the leads, though there’s hardly any chemistry between le Bon and Isaac. The plot piles cliché upon cliché with stock characters like the token good Turk who starts out dissolute spoilt playboy son but redeems himself by saving Chris and Mikael’s lives, and with often unnecessary action thriller scenes that add nothing to the plot save one miraculous escape after another. The Musa Dagh stand-off and subsequent rescue of refugees by the French cruiser are worth a film in themselves and should not have been overshadowed by the love triangle’s resolution.

The film’s concentration on the romance leaves no room for a wider investigation into why and how the Ottoman Turkish genocide against Christian minorities in the empire started: no context is provided as to why all of a sudden ordinary Turkish people who had previously been friendly with Armenians should turn on them. Nothing is said of European powers’ intentions to dismember the failing Ottoman empire which would have been enough to give any tottering, unstable empire paranoid thoughts as to whether its minorities were being encouraged from outside to revolt against it. The Turks and their German allies are tarred with a black villain’s brush while the Americans and the French at least are treated as saviours. Audiences are basically brow-beaten to accept the genocide as given, and not to question why it should have happened late in the history of the Ottoman empire, decades after it embarked on Westernisation / modernisation, and not earlier in its 460+ years of existence.

The Mummy (directed by Alex Kurtzman): action thriller / horror film with no horror, few thrills and silly action

Alex Kurtzman, “The Mummy” (2017)

Somewhere in this hokey action blockbuster film is a story about flawed humans acting for purely selfish reasons and the consequences that result from the idiot decisions they make: destruction, loss of human life and ultimately the loss of their own immortal souls. The plot has more holes than Swiss cheese, not that you’d notice very much because the material is so paper-thin as to be transparent. Whatever character development exists is very superficial because the characters are secondary to the digital special effects, the action and violence, and the need to pack in as much of those as possible so viewers don’t notice the film’s other flaws. Tom Cruise is very miscast as adventurer Nick Morton – he’s meant to be a dodgy thieving treasure hunter of dubious morality but ends up being another variation of action hero with a heart of gold – and his character generates no chemistry with archaeologist side-kick Jennifer Halsey (Annabelle Wallis). Really the only decent acting performances are those of Russell Crowe as the dualistic Dr Jekyll / Mr Hyde head of mystery organisation Prodigium and of Sofia Boutella as the eponymous monster.

Five thousand years ago, evil scheming Ancient Egyptian princess Ahmanet, miffed at being displaced as heir to her father’s throne after a half-brother is born, summons the help of Egyptian death god Set and with his special knife slaughters Dad, Step-Mum and Baby Brother. Her crime is so heinous and her union with Set so blasphemous that the high priests banish her to an underground prison deep down in … Mesopotamia of all places. (Could they not have buried her beneath the Valley of the Kings in the Sahara?) Centuries later, the special knife with the glowing red gemstone falls into the hands of Christian Crusaders who take it back to England where the gemstone is buried with one Crusader and the knife hidden in a statue in a cathedral. More centuries pass, the US invades Iraq and treasure hunters like Nick Morton and pal Vail (Jake Johnson) flood into the country seeking archaeological artefacts to sell on the black market. Under fire from terrorists, Morton calls for help, the US air force responds with a bomb drop and uncovers the tomb of Ahmanet. At the same time, the Crusader’s tomb with the red gemstone is uncovered under London during excavations for a new underground train tunnel.

“Coincidence” builds on “coincidence” and Morton discovers, with the help of Halsey and Henry Jekyll, that he is possessed by Ahmanet who seeks him so they may enter into union and through that Ahmanet can sacrifice Morton to Set and give Set a human form. Evil would then be incarnate upon Earth and the future of humanity and life itself would be in danger. From here on in, the plot focuses on Morton’s attempts to escape the influence of Ahmanet and at the same time save Halsey from the mummy’s clutches and save himself from Jekyll and Prodigium’s plans for his dissection. Ahmanet herself seeks out the knife of Set by manipulating Morton and various English folks whom she turns into zombies.

For a supposed horror film, the first in a “Dark Universe” series of films by Universal Studios resurrecting famous monsters of Hollywood legend, “The Mummy” has very little horror, and for an action thriller, “The Mummy” is as thrilling as paint drying on walls. There’s not much fun to be had, even in scenes sending up Tom Cruise’s past films in which he escapes car crashes and explosions with naught but a scratch on his handsome visage or in scenes featuring Vail as Morton’s comic foil. One doesn’t hold too much hope for what’s next in the Dark Universe.

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.

Mash-up of all previous Alien franchise flicks delivers an uneven story in “Alien: Covenant”

Ridley Scott, “Alien: Covenant” (2017)

British director Ridley Scott must have taken all the criticisms of “Prometheus” to heart as he has delivered a new chapter in the pre-Ripley sub-set of the Alien franchise that at least boasts a half-decent story, even if it looks like a mash-up of all the other Alien films ever made plus parts of Scott’s own “Blade Runner” and “Gladiator” to boot. This second installment in the complicated meta-narrative now poses questions about the purpose of one’s existence, what it means to be human as opposed to being a robot, and the presumption of humans in playing God to the extent of colonising and terraforming far distant exoplanets for the benefit of humans (and at the expense of the native life-forms) and of creating sentient beings to be used as slaves and machines. These questions partly compensate for flaws in the film’s plot and characterisation, and enable the film to be treated with a bit more respect than its predecessor.

The spaceship Covenant is on a mission to find a new Earth-like exoplanet to settle, its colonists (most of whom exist in embryonic form in cryogenic tubes) fleeing a planet ruined by warfare and environmental catastrophe caused by human greed and selfishness. A cosmic storm damages part of the ship and causes some colonists (the adult ones) to awake from hyper-sleep. They repair the damage but lose their captain when his pod is engulfed in flames. The crew aren’t too enthusiastic about going back into deep sleep and start looking for something to do. On cue, their craft alerts them to a signal coming from a planet in the galaxy they are heading towards – and this signal is apparently human. New leader Captain Oram (Billy Crudup) decides over the objections of second-in-charge Daniels (Katherine Waterston) to go down to the planet to investigate the source of the signal. The two take a group of colonists – including the Covenant‘s resident android Walter (Michael Fassbender) down to the planet which initially presents as a paradise of high mountains, beautiful lakes, fields of wheat … but no birdsong or insect chatter.

The reasons for the lack of fauna soon become apparent as the search team is set upon and decimated in often gruesome and gory fashion by various representatives of the protean Alien species. Their space-explorer vehicle is damaged and they are forced to rely on a mysterious hooded figure who turns out to be one of the two survivors from the previous “Prometheus” flick. What the Covenant search team discover about this prophet-like figure and the activities this sinister person has been engaging in is at least intriguing as well as horrifying …

A capable cast gets thrown away not only by the necessities of the plot and overall concept but by sketchy one-dimensional characters. Even Oram and Daniels are not too well delineated themselves: by making gob-smackingly stupid decisions early on, Oram makes himself a marked man and Daniels’ character has to fight against comparison with the tougher, more world-weary Ellen Ripley of past Alien flicks. (Admittedly if the Covenant crew had more than half a brain of intelligence among them to depend on, there would be no plot and no victims for the Alien creatures to play with.) In playing the two characters of David and Walter, Fassbender has no choice but to excel, and excel he does without chewing up too much of the scenery: that’s a job for the monsters who carry it out with enthusiasm and slavering relish. The androids play their good cop / bad cop routine efficiently and through their interactions the issue of the differences between humans and robots is highlighted. For a brief moment, David is confronted with the possibility that to be fully human not only means being able to create but also being less than perfect, and that what he creates has the potential to run away from him.

In the film’s last half hour, replays of “Alien”, “Aliens” and “Alien 3” become rather too obvious to the point of banality and Daniels’ chases of not one but two aliens aboard two ships have the air of being tacked onto the film’s plot at the last minute to satisfy the bean-counters financing the film. Not for the first time (and certainly not for the last time), the critters get blasted through airlocks to join their other siblings into space junk orbit around some unfortunate planet – one wonders what David would make of all this interstellar pollution created by the unthinking and selfish human beings he comes to despise.

As in “Prometheus”, the Covenant crew make a lot of silly mistakes for the purpose of moving the plot forwards and providing meat for the gore and the violence. Silly in-jokes abound as well – was it necessary for an alien to dispose of two people in a pointless shower scene?

Nevertheless the film is beautiful to look at and the technology and special effects can be very stunning. The film ends on a cliff-hanger note that can be foreseen several hundred light-years away. One hopes the next two chapters will improve on “Alien: Covenant” though I am not holding my breath. One major improvement would be to boot Ridley Scott from the whole Alien franchise and let Neil Blomkamp (of “Chappie” and “District 9”) get on with his alternative Alien Version 3.1 in which Hicks and Newt from “Aliens” survive and somehow thrive.

Elvis & Nixon: amusing and light-hearted comedy of the meeting between rock star legend and the most powerful politician in the world

Liza Johnson, “Elvis & Nixon” (2016)

Based on an actual incident in which the famous rock singer Elvis Presley turned up unannounced at the White House some time in 1970, wanting to meet the then US President Richard Nixon to discuss the state of America’s youth and the dire direction the country was supposedly heading in, what with the civil rights movement in full throttle, the ascent of the hippie culture and the associated psychedelic drug scene, and the fear that godless Communists were infiltrating society through the music popular with young people … “Elvis & Nixon” turns out to be a light and fluffy comedy affair, albeit with subterranean currents that provide plenty of food for thought. Through its careful character studies of both Presley and Nixon, the film has a great deal to say about the cult of fame and celebrity and how it affects individuals like Presley, the self-interest and cynicism prevalent in both politics and the entertainment world and the extent to which Presley and Nixon try to use each other for their own benefit, and the pathos behind Presley’s quest to be heard out by the world’s most powerful politician and his attempt to be something of significance and not just an entertainer.

On the surface, one couldn’t imagine two people more unlike each other than a famous rock’n’roll singer and a very conservative politician not at all interested in American youth to have much in common. The film spends a considerable amount of time building up the two men, revealing Presley (Michael Shannon) as a lonely, isolated individual, engrossed in conspiracy theories and sometimes bizarre hobbies, at once knowing and also touchingly naive; and Richard Nixon (Kevin Spacey) as self-centred, grasping and concerned with his own self image. When the two men eventually meet – after their aides have gone to enormous lengths to set up the meeting that involve a fair amount of duplicity and manipulation – the rock star and the politician discover they have had many similar experiences arising from their fame and the isolation it imposes, and the two men readily bond together.

Shannon and Spacey turn in stunning performances though Shannon gets far more screen time and his character becomes both sympathetic and pathetic in his obsession with obtaining a Federal police badge and becoming an undercover agent at large using his rock star fame as cover to spy on other rock music artists. The moment during which Presley rehearses what he will say to Nixon and mentions his long-dead twin brother Jesse reveals a personality starved for real connection and wanting to be loved as a human being, not as a stereotype cultivated by music industry advertising, is very moving and reveals something of Presley’s vulnerability, loneliness and desire for authentic connection beneath the bravado. Nixon is persuaded by his aides, who have an eye on the President’s popularity rating with the public, to meet Presley: initially Nixon refuses but his aides secretly meet with Presley’s bodyguards and the foursome concoct a plan (almost verging on conspiracy and which can be seen as a forerunner to the corruption that became the Watergate scandal) that involves Nixon’s young adult daughters.

The movie does not belong just to its main characters: considerable time is given over delineating the characters of Jerry Schilling (Alex Pettyfer), Presley’s confidant who wants to be with his girlfriend, and of Nixon’s White House official Krogh (Colin Hanks) who is perhaps a little too good at conniving and manipulating – in real life, Krogh was to be caught up in the Watergate scandal that toppled Nixon from the Presidency and as a result the aide spent several years in prison. Schilling does not do much with his character but Hanks nearly steals the show in most scenes with spot-on timing and hilarious facial expressions.

It’s a pity that the film does not do more with its characters and plot than to have them meet to talk about something that afterwards they will quickly discard: Presley gets his badge but apparently decides not to be an undercover agent (so was the whole idea a ruse just to meet Nixon?) after all and Nixon resumes bombing Vietnam, taking America off the gold standard and plotting with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger as to which unfortunate Third World country is next on the hit list for invasion and having its government overthrown. The irony that the film misses is that Presley was to die seven years after the meeting from being addicted to and ingesting too many pharmaceutical substances. Of all the people needing firm guidance to stay away from addictive drugs, it was Presley himself who needed this message. The film probably could have continued for some time after the meeting, with Tricky Dicky Nixon and his bureaucrats well on the road to personal ruin and Presley retreating into his Graceland cocoon, unable to overcome the layers of fame and convince his audiences that he is more than just a rock singer and bad actor.

As it is, “Elvis & Nixon” is a light-hearted way to spend an hour and twenty-five minutes. The meeting between the two men perhaps deserves to be treated more seriously as a documentary.

Get Out: social criticism and philosophical inquiry in amongst a bizarre plot and interracial politics

Jordan Peele, “Get Out” (2017)

Jordan Peele’s comedy horror film, his first as a director, about an interracial relationship that goes awry can be seen as a timely social commentary on present-day racism and the forms it can take. Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), a man, has been in a romance with Rose Armytage (Allison Williams ), a white woman, for several months and she invites him to meet her family on their rural estate. They drive out into the boonies and he is awed by their gracious country mansion and the eccentric warmth of Rose’s parents (Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener) and her brother Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones). One little problem: their black servants seem so passive as to be zombie-like. From the moment Chris enters the family estate, the plot builds steadily to its bizarre revelation: Rose and her folks are a front for a white supremacist cult that kidnaps black people and uses their bodies with their supposed inherent genetic abilities (such as their strength and athleticism) as vessels into which to transplant their own brains while the original owners’ brains are trapped into a permanent comatose prison.

The film’s production values are very good and transition easily from comedy to drama to B-grade horror and back again. The silly premise of brainwashing and brain-harvesting is made plausible by Peele’s targeting of white “liberal” or socially progressive hypocrites who profess empathy for black people and other victims of white or Anglocentric racism, and who immerse themselves in other people’s cultures, all to feed their own egos and self-satisfaction without considering the damage they might be doing to those they patronise. Peele plants little clues in details of the plot and the cast of characters to flesh out the plot: Rose’s dad happens to be a neurosurgeon and her mother is a psychiatrist who practises therapeutic hypnosis – this of course means Chris will be hypnotised into submission and will be subjected to invasive brain surgery, so the thrill of the plot for viewers lies in guessing how close Chris comes to realising what he’s in for and how he can save himself. The Amityville-style country house setting emphasises Chris’s total isolation from any kind of help and the danger he is in.

Plot holes galore do exist, the most obvious being that in a narrative which carefully stacks all the odds against the hero, a miracle is needed if he is to save himself. The film is not too clear on how Chris overcomes the hypnosis without being found out using stuffing from ripped upholstery to block his ears from mesmerising talk and the sound of teaspoons scraping teacups.

The cast is also very good in playing stereotypical roles and it is to Kaluuya and Williams’ credit that their characters seem very real even though at the climax and afterwards, Chris and Rose descend into one-dimensional and crude figures. Chris’s sudden violence and brutality come right out of left field and one supposes that the Armytages’ early treatment of him has ironically given him a savagery that he otherwise would not have been able to express. Rose’s remarkable transformation from indie college girl rebel to a cold-blooded freakazoid fanatic with machine gun is supremely chilling. Special mention should be made of Keener as a warm and gracious if quirky mother figure who ends up a malevolent, even vicious creature.

While on one level the film is pessimistic in insinuating that there can be no accommodation between black and white people, and black people can never, ever be sure of the attitudes of well-meaning whites towards them, on other issues the film encourages deeper inquiry into cultural appropriation, racial stereotyping and the nature and purpose of one’s existence. Many cultural innovations made by black people, especially in music (as the film’s soundtrack alludes to), have been claimed and commodified by white people. Rose’s family and fellow cult members prey on black people on the presumption that their bodies are better-looking and perform better sexually than white people’s bodies do – and because black people happen to be “cool” (because of their historical role as underdogs and oppressed victims). The cult’s quest for immortality by transplanting cult members’ brains into stolen bodies is part of a deeper quest for the significance and purpose of human existence. The film’s regrettable identification with identity politics and its concerns with other more laudable issues make it a complicated and intriguing beast and ensure its place among those cult horror flicks that are as much social criticism as cheap thriller material.

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.