Rocketman: the rise and fall and rise again of a beloved British rock / pop icon, with no reference to social and music trends

Dexter Fletcher, “Rocketman” (2019)

Rather than playing as a straight biopic – a template that felled “Bohemian Rhapsody” – this comedy drama portraying the life and career of British rock / pop-star Elton John from his childhood in the 1950s as a piano prodigy to the 1980s when he crashes into rehabilitation to seek treatment for various addictions opts for a surreal musical fantasy approach in which various of Elton John’s best-known songs illustrate the artist’s trajectory from shy young boy Reginald Dwight whose parents hate each other, quarrel and neglect Reggie’s emotional needs, to aspiring rocker teaming with lyricist Bernie Taupin to write songs, to glam rock performer whose personal life eventually spirals out of control with abusive relationships (including one with his manager John Reid), cocaine and other drug addictions, and bulimia. The result is an energetic, flamboyant and highly entertaining, if not exactly informative, account of Elton John’s rise and fall and rise again as a star and human being who gains some sort of redemption and finds some peace in accepting himself as he is, warts and all.

For all its zing and colour and outrageousness, the narrative turns out to be conventional and its message is nothing out of the ordinary: it’s the story of an ordinary boy with a musical gift who wants nothing more than to be loved and accepted, and who tries to find that special love and to be accepted, at the same time taking career risks that open doors and propel him onto a path of fame and fortune. His journey steers him into episodes of doubt, self-loathing and self-destructive behaviour: at one point in the film, he attempts suicide in spectacular manner by throwing himself into a swimming pool in the middle of a party. True to form, at the bottom of the pool he finds his childhood self tinkling on a toy piano singing one of his famous songs. Welsh singer / actor Taron Egerton does a sterling job playing Elton John in a fairly demanding role that requires him to be as much comic as dramatic actor wearing a full range of outlandish stage clothes and glasses along with a terrible haircut, and enduring psychological abuse from both his parents (played by Bryce Dallas Howard and Steven Mackintosh) and his lover / manager (Richard Madden).

It is to Fletcher’s credit as a director that the movie moves swiftly and easily through familiar musical numbers that take leaps and jumps through the decades, focusing on just a few significant events in John’s life. Strangely the film does not detail John’s obsession with his receding hairline and battle against baldness; neither does it note any friendships or rivalries he might have had with other British rock and pop stars. Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) is not much more than walking and talking wallpaper. The film’s sets – the settings include John’s mansion in Los Angeles as well as the middle class Fifties home where he grows up along with the many venues he performs in – merit special attention as do the many costumes the performer donned over the years.

Apart from detailing how a beloved British music icon managed to navigate the perils of fame, wealth and celebrity to accept and learn to forgive himself, and to let go of the abusive people in his life, the film actually tells viewers very little about how Elton John came to be such a megastar and how he managed to stay on top for so long. Too much of his life is crammed into a couple of hours and the film tends to dwell a lot on his costumes and theatricality without suggesting why such flamboyance was a necessary part of his act. Significantly the film has very little to say about the social and musical trends of the decades in which Elton John’s career developed and catapulted him to worldwide fame and great material fortune.

The Chaperone: preferring a character stereotype over portraying the life of a real revolutionary cultural icon

Michael Engler, “The Chaperone” (2018)

A film of self-discovery and self-transformation leading to personal freedom, “The Chaperone” is a fictional account of real-life silent movie icon Louise Brooks’ journey as a young teenager from Wichita, Kansas, to New York City to audition for and join the Denishawn School of Dancing and Related Arts in the early 1920s. The young Louise (Haley Lu Richardson) is accompanied by Norma Carlisle (Elizabeth McGovern) who offered herself to Louise’s mother as the girl’s chaperone after overhearing the mother in conversation with friends. It turns out that Norma has her own reasons for fleeing Wichita and travelling with Louise: Norma’s marriage to Alan (Campbell Scott) is on the rocks after she catches him in bed with a man; and she wants to know the identity of her biological mother who placed her in a Roman Catholic orphanage in NYC when she was a baby.

After Louise and Norma arrive in NYC, the film follows Norma’s travails in getting past the unyielding nuns and finding her details, in the process winning the admiration and then the heart of caretaker Joseph (Geza Rohrig), and then contacting someone who might know her birth mother. Norma’s further adventures in finding her biological family end in heartbreak however. In the meantime, Louise trains for and finally wins a place in the prestigious dance school run by Ted Shawn and Ruth St Denis (Robert Fairchild and Miranda Otto) though the film insinuates that she really only makes the grade more by sheer talent than by hard work and dedication: the girl spends her free time chatting up young men in cafes and nightclubs, mingling with Afro-Americans (at a time when black and white people were expected to lead separate lives) and generally being unconventional in ways that shock Norma. Through Louise’s example and the unexpected ways in which her own life unravels and develops, Norma learns to become a more tolerant person, and her inner evolution opens up new ways of thinking and feeling that enable her to take control of her own life.

The film excels mainly as a character study of a typical middle-class woman of its period who changes in ways that would have been rare or even impossible for most women of her social layer in Midwest America in the early 1920s. Elizabeth McGovern does excellent work in this respect though the eye-rolling seems excessive. Richardson as Brooks is a great foil who constantly prods and challenges Norma. The supporting cast also does good work and the film’s period details are meticulously done.

Where the film really could have excelled is in contrasting more strongly the trajectories of Norma and Louise’s personal journeys after the two separate: Norma eventually carves out an unconventional family life in which she amicably resolves her marriage issues with Alan and lives with a new lover at the same time; and Louise finds stardom as a dancer and then as a silent movie icon before her career hits the skids while she is still in her 20s. Viewers learn nothing about how and why Louise is all washed up by the age of 35 years when she and Norma meet again, perhaps for the last time, after an interval of 20 years. The battle that Louise Brooks waged to be her own woman and her refusal to be bullied by movie studios is completely erased from the film. The most the film allows viewers to see of Louise Brooks’ defiance of the social conventions of her day is when she tells Norma that she had been molested as a child but since then had refused to act a victim role and instead decided to flaunt her sexuality once she became a teenager. After Norma advises Louise to leave Wichita again, she saunters back to her own family, content to live how she wants while maintaining a facade of a happy marriage on her own terms. (This does not sound exactly revolutionary and for all we know, many families of all social levels could have lived in similar unconventional ways.)

While it’s a pleasant and visually attractive film to watch, “The Chaperone” in fact steers clear of portraying the life of a real revolutionary cultural icon and instead goes for a stereotyped treatment of a fictional upper middle class woman’s transformation. The real Louise Brooks and her battle against social and cultural expectations and attitudes would have been far more interesting to know.

The Curse of La Llorona: cursed by cheap thrills and Hollywood horror film cliches

Michael Chaves , “The Curse of La Llorona” (2019)

As his full-length movie directorial debut, this horror flick perhaps shows all the faults as well as the potential that Michael Chaves has for a career in Hollywood. Chaves does a good job with the cinematography to create a sinister and dark atmosphere and instill a strong sense of dread in viewers as the film rockets along to an inevitable showdown between the protagonist mother Anna Garcia (Linda Cardellini) and her nemesis who would claim her children as her own … forever. Chaves laps up all the familiar Hollywood horror film cliches, devices and stereotypes – the ones from “The Exorcist” stand out especially – and sprays them liberally throughout the film. At the same time, a weak and unoriginal script, full of plot holes, ensures that the film remains in hokey haunted-house territory with interesting ideas that stay frustratingly undeveloped.

We have the obligatory header which gives a quick potted history of how the Mexican folklore demon La Llorona came to be: way back, 300 years ago, a noble woman in colonial Mexico discovers her husband has a mistress and she takes her revenge on him by drowning the two young sons she and hubby had together. Overcome with remorse at her sin, she kills herself … Now let’s run 300 years later to Los Angeles in 1973, the year that “The Exorcist” was unleashed upon an unsuspecting public, and Anna Garcia is trying to run her two pre-teen kids Chris (Roman Christou) and Sam (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen) to school, go to work at the welfare agency where she is a social worker, and keep her household together in the aftermath of her police officer husband’s death. Anna is a case officer for a woman, Patricia (Patricia Velasquez), who fails to send her two small boys to school. Anna forces Patricia to yield her two sons, hidden in a cupboard, to welfare authorities. Not long after, the two children are found drowned in a river and Patricia is arrested on suspicion of murder. Patricia knows Anna has two children of her own (that’s why Anna is her case officer) and curses the family. Still traumatised after the death of a husband and father, Anna’s family is soon plagued by the demon La Llorona and Anna herself comes under suspicion by her employers of abusing Chris and Sam.

From then on, viewers are subjected to typical haunted-house scenarios where La Llorona creeps up on and scares the bejesus out of Anna and the children repeatedly, until they consult a former Roman Catholic priest (Raymond Cruz) who now works as a curandero. Scares and chases abound, Patricia turns up for no reason other than to cause more trouble, and one character cops a bullet in the chest.

Somewhere along the way, interesting subplots about how innocent families can fall afoul of over-zealous social welfare workers and end up being torn apart, with dire consequences for everyone, or how people can learn to balance skepticism and rationality with faith and courage as opposed to fear and superstition arise but are thrown over for cheap thrills. Mexican beliefs about the dead and how to protect the living from chaos and evil are nothing more than a commodity to be mined for more profit and made to look laughable and cartoonish. Though the actors work hard to make their roles credible, their efforts, and Cardellini’s work in particular, can come across as over-acting. At least Cruz has the right idea about how to play his character … not too seriously.

If Chaves can get hold of an original script that does not lean on past horror films or horror film franchises for inspiration, he might become a director of note specialising in moodily atmospheric films with arresting visuals.

Vice: satirical biopic is as empty as the man it lampoons

Adam McKay, “Vice” (2018)

A rather patchy satirical study of the life of former US Vice-President Dick Cheney, “Vice” shows how an unscrupulous individual can attain and abuse power, and in so doing change the lives of millions for the worse, in ways unimaginable and unforeseen – not only in countries that bore the brunt of American viciousness and brutality, but also at home through policies that enriched a small, already wealthy political elite at the expense of the middle classes, the working classes, and the marginal and impoverished underclasses alike – by achieving a position once thought irrelevant and exploiting its apparent insignificance. The film jumps back and forth between various episodes of Cheney’s life, beginning in 1963 when Cheney (Christian Bale) is charged for the second time in less than twelve months for driving under the influence of drink and is forced by his girlfriend Lynne (Amy Adams) to take stock of his life. From there, the young Cheney buckles down to study: he leaves Yale University, attends a university in Wyoming and manages to obtain five draft deferments when he becomes eligible for the military draft.

His political career starts in 1969 when he becomes intern to Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell) – in real life, he was actually intern to someone else – and from there, he ascends to becoming White House Chief of Staff under President Gerald Ford. Later, after Jimmy Carter becomes US President in 1976, Cheney campaigns to represent Wyoming in the US House of Representatives and wins the seat; he ends up being re-elected five times. He becomes Secretary of Defense under George H W Bush’s term as US President from 1989 to 1993. During Bill Clinton’s tenure as US President (1993 – 2001), Cheney served as CEO of Halliburton, a company that provides services to petroleum exploration and production companies. In 2000, Cheney is approached by George W Bush (Sam Rockwell) to be his running mate in his campaign for the US Presidency. Along his path to the ultimate power-trip – being the eminence grise that makes the decisions for President Dubya while not having to take the responsibility for them – Cheney maintains a cold, calculating mask that reveals nothing of the stony ambition behind it as he exploits Article 2 of the US Constitution (which puts the executive power of government in the role of the President) to the extent that Dubya becomes a de facto monarch and Cheney his vizier.

The film’s style – it’s a mix of documentary (with narration by an unnamed Everyman character), drama and comedy – can be entertaining as well as educational but fails to probe Cheney’s character deeply enough to reveal the inner reptilian hell that drives him all the way to Washington DC and ultimately to the White House. What past traumas, hostilities, injustices and grudges was Cheney nursing, that he was driven to become a power-mad bastard without true feeling or emotion? While Christian Bale is all but immersed in Cheney and basically impersonates him, his preparation for the role and his acting are not served well by the script which hops from one scenario to deal with another fairly briefly and superficially before zipping to yet another. The overall impression viewers are likely to get is a film that crashes through a virtual CV of infamy, selectively emphasising those incidents that make Cheney the villain he is. So zealously does “Vice” pursue this point that it manages to get one thing wrong: the film portrays both Cheney and his wife as hostile towards the LBGTI community and its demands; in reality, both were sympathetic towards gay marriage.

Bale is surrounded by a competent cast ranging from Steve Carell who is on fire as Donald Rumsfeld and Amy Adams doing her Lady Macbeth best on devoted wife Lynne, to Sam Rockwell who all but impersonates Dubya. Other actors pale by comparison, mainly because their characters get little screen time due to the script. Had the script concentrated on fewer highlights (and lowlights) of Dick Cheney’s career, and investigated these in more detail – in particular Cheney’s control of the White House during the attacks on the World Trade Center buildings and the Pentagon, and the hijacking of United Airlines Flight 93 on 11 September 2001 – the film could have shown how Bush, Cheney and various others continued a culture of lying, secrecy and a penchant for vicious violence, preferably carried out by others upon victims in distant lands, with no thought for the consequences that might arise, that not only survives and thrives in the present day but has spread to other nations around the world.

At the end of the film, viewers will not know much more about what made Dick Cheney and the stone that passed for his heart – his heart problems being very much an ongoing joke in the film – than they did at the beginning. Ticking over too many of Cheney’s great moments of vice, and not dealing with them with the depth they need, “Vice” ends up playing too much like a propaganda film made for Democrat-voting audiences who like to consider themselves “progressive” in their views and politics. While the film concedes that the abominable Hillary Clinton as New York state senator supported Dubya’s war on Iraq, it treats other Democrat Presidents like Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama with kid gloves. At the same time the film makes no attempt to understand how rural voters were drawn to the Republicans and how the Republicans exploited the gap between voters in the US heartland states and the urban-based Democrats obsessed with their identity politics.


The Invisible Man’s Revenge: a messy plot and flat uninteresting characters underline this cheap film

Ford Beebe, “The Invisible Man’s Revenge” (1944)

It could have been an interesting character study about various individuals’ motivations and greed, and how far they’re prepared to go to get what they want, but this film, done cheaply and cynically to cash in on previous films based on the H G Wells’ novel “The Invisible Man”, turns out to be a mess in terms of its plotting and character development. The criminal Robert Griffin (Jon Hall) escapes from an asylum and pursues a wealthy couple, Sir Jasper and Lady Irene Herrick (played by Lester Matthews and Gale Sondergaard) whom he accuses of having left him for dead in Africa years ago and of whom he demands his share of the wealth they gained from discovering diamond fields during a safari trip. The couple trick him of his rightful inheritance by drugging him, destroying a document they find on his person that proves his claim and then booting him out of their mansion. Griffin finds refuge with a cobbler, Herbert (Leon Errol), who tries to help him with his claim but is unsuccessful. Griffin next comes across crank scientist Drury (John Carradine) who makes him invisible in an experiment. Griffin uses his invisibility to extort money and property out of Sir Jasper Herrick and to claim the hand of Herrick’s daughter Julie (Evelyn Ankers) in marriage; the fellow also helps Herbert win a game of darts at his local pub.

Griffin discovers how he can become visible again and murders Drury to regain his normal appearance. However this visibility is only temporary and Griffin must resort to killing another man to recover his appearance so he can marry Julie. The next man Griffin targets for death is Julie’s fiance Mark Foster (Alan Curtis), thus setting up a showdown between the two men for Julie’s affections.

The film intentionally makes all its characters unlikable and not at all heroic. Most characters are greedy and will stop at nothing to get what they think they deserve. Ankers’ character has hardly anything to do at all apart from looking pretty as the love interest. Hall as Griffin lacks charisma and is workman-like in portraying the deranged killer. As Griffin is already a deranged serial murderer, the film does not need to investigate the question of whether a person might remain moral if s/he has numerous opportunities to perform unethical actions without fear of punishment. (It’s possible that as a result, the film suffers from the lack of tension that such an issue would offer.) The Herricks manage to live another day but not without suffering considerable psychological trauma. Foster arrives late in the plot and bravely offers a fight but his character remains flat; he and Julie do not even get a chance to hold hands. Too much in the plot is told, not shown, violating a basic rule of story-telling. Even the sets used in the film look cheap and tired.

The film is not essential viewing for fans of horror unless they are keen to see the entire series of films (all independent of one another in plot and characters) on the Invisible Man.

Bohemian Rhapsody: a boring and forgettable film fails to address its lead character’s complexities

Bryan Singer, “Bohemian Rhapsody” (2018)

Astonishingly, given the rich source material and the fact that so many people are knowledgeable (or fancy themselves to be) about the career of the British rock band Queen and the life of its lead singer Freddie Mercury, this biopic of the buck-toothed bad-boy diva with the golden angel voice manages to make him and his troupe utterly boring and one-dimensional, thanks to a script that squeezes them into a tired narrative stereotype of innocent youngsters wishing to escape humdrum lives, achieving fame and fortune early, and then falling off their pedestal through being tempted by leeches into dubious life-styles that may doom them in the end. Young Farrokh Bulsara (Rami Malek, in a bravura performance that may come to define his career), the son of a Parsi Indian couple, works as a baggage handler at Heathrow airport during the day and frequents pubs at night to watch bands playing. He likes one band, Smile, and follows the musicians, Brian May (Gwilym Lee) and Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy), outside the venue; he offers the guys a couple of songs he’s written and they tell him they’ve just lost their lead singer / bassist. Bulsara then spontaneously bursts into song and leaves the two gobsmacked musicians to consider him as a replacement. They waste no time in doing so and promptly find a bassist, John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello), to complete the set-up. From here on, apart from a few stumbles and glitches on the way, the band, grandly renamed Queen, and led by Bulsara who transforms himself into Freddie Mercury, marches onto a path that includes a string of catchy hit singles and memorable albums that combine epic heavy rock with various unlikely genres of music such as music hall, tours of distant lands and a bewildering array of outlandish costumes and changes of hairstyle, all culminating in the recording of the heavy rock / opera pastiche song “Bohemian Rhapsody” which the band releases as a single against the objections of the boss of EMI Records (Mike Myers). The song and its accompanying album “A Night at the Opera” establish Queen as a major headlining rock music phenomenon across the world.

Alas and alack, fame proves to be no bed of roses or a pleasure cruise as the band comes to rely more on record label managers and employees to help manage their escalating business affairs so they can concentrate on writing, recording and touring their music. Mercury, having realised he is bisexual and breaking up with his girlfriend Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton) of several years, drifts into the gay club subculture, egged on by his personal manager Paul Prenter (Allen Leech) who also blocks Austin and other Queen members’ access to Mercury. The band is on the verge of breaking up until British pop musician Bob Geldof organises the massive Live Aid benefit concert that takes place simultaneously in London and Philadelphia in 1985. Queen manage to squeeze into a 20-minute playing slot in the London Wembley Stadium schedule and this gig, in which the band plays as much for its own survival and reason for carrying on as it does for the stadium audience and the Ethiopian famine victims, becomes the focus for reconciliation among the band members and a redemption for Mercury who finally discovers who his real “family” is: apart from his immediate family, this means his fellow Queen band members and the band’s obsessive fan base.

The film’s emphasis on “family” has as an unfortunate underside a sneering contempt for homosexual men and their subculture; and by implication, scorn for outsiders, marginal cultures and the diversity that current Western society always claims to uphold and celebrate (while crushing it and directing it to serve its aims of war and conquest in former European colonies – and ultimately against Russia and China). The Prenter character is cast into the role of villain to shoulder the blame for encouraging Mercury in indulging in endless sexual affairs and the partying and drug-taking that will eventually be his doom. The narrative’s breathless flow compresses 15 years into about two hours of screen-time which means too many liberties are taken with the timeline of events, something that will irk die-hard Queen fans. Even viewers unfamiliar with Queen’s history can see that too much is being packed into particular scenes to ring true to life. Subplots such as Mercury’s relationships with Mary, his family and the man who will eventually become his most devoted companion, the no-nonsense Jim Hutton (Aaron McCusker), are treated very superficially. The result is that, in spite of Malek’s intense performance in inhabiting his character, viewers are left not knowing any more about Mercury or what inspired and influenced him to become a singer – and a world-famous one at that – at the end of the film than they did at the beginning. One has to know something about the role of Parsi Indians as loyal administrators for the British empire on the Indian subcontinent and their adoption of Victorian British values and customs, such as sending children to boarding school (and unwittingly exposing them to bullying and sexual predation in a closed environment) and imbuing them with genteel British culture as well as their own, and see in this context the foundation for Mercury’s affected style and eclectic tastes in music and culture. One also has to be aware that Zoroastrianism – the religion Mercury was born into – emphasises purity of living and the begetting of children in family environments, and this means it abhors sexual practices such as anal intercourse and homosexuality generally. The religion also has a dualistic, perhaps polarised worldview in which one either sides with Good or with Evil, and there is no other alternative. The inner conflicts this must have set up for Mercury may go some way to explaining his flamboyant style of performance, in particular his emotional style of singing, his song lyrics that often deal with being alone and the accompanying anguish, restlessness and the desire for new experiences that led him into a debauched life-style and becoming infected with AIDS.

Other characters in the film are as flat as pancakes in their portrayal; even the other Queen musicians, though they have their quirks and Roger Taylor has his temper and obsession with girls and the rock’n’roll life-style, seem rather like cardboard cut-outs. For all its concern about the band’s internal dynamics that drove their creativity and how they wrote their songs, the film gives the sketchiest of details about what inspired individual members to write particular songs (mostly of the bland stadium sing-along sort, not the more interesting fantasy kind found on early Queen albums) and how they recorded them. Even the band’s history is treated in a very cursory way, to serve the narrative and its emphasis on a superficial inclusiveness: the band’s legendary in-fighting and discontent with constant touring that led three members, not just one, to pursue individual side projects and issue their own albums in the early 1980s, are acknowledged but sketched over very quickly.

The music that exists, usually in fragmented form, in the film is not enough to save it from being stereotyped and forgettable. Potential viewers are best advised to watch documentaries and live recordings online and in other digital formats to find out how Queen still continues to fascinate people and maintain its place in British cultural nostalgia. While the British themselves continue to hold Queen and Mercury in awe, and seem spellbound at how an immigrant from a former colonial backwater in Zanzibar could have navigated his way through the British cultural landscape and general Western popular culture of the mid-20th century into becoming a beloved cultural icon, at the same time they are unwilling to acknowledge their past as an empire based on stealing other people’s lands and resources, extracting wealth from them, and forcing the majority of these people into economic slavery while encouraging and privileging their minority groups in handmaiden roles.

A sense of Cold War paranoia and self-righteous American exceptionalism in “Espionage Target – You!”

“Espionage Target – You!” (1964)

Commissioned by the United States Department of Defense for training US military and civilian personnel sent abroad, this film is an example of how closely Hollywood, collectively and individually, worked with the US government in producing propaganda … er, training and educational movies. This film purports to show how agents working for the enemies of the US attempt to recruit American military and civilian employees to obtain information by searching and exploiting weaknesses in the individual Americans. Three re-enactment scenarios, based on actual cases, in different parts of the world – in West Germany, Japan and Poland – are shown: in each, a friendly stranger approaches an individual or group of individuals and strikes up a conversation in which s/he probes the chosen victim/s for vulnerabilities such as loneliness, money problems, sexual issues, alcohol and gambling. Once the stranger identifies a person’s weakness, that issue will be manipulated to the extent that the victim comes under continuous pressure and harassment to deliver, and will feel stressed and conflicted: a state that the agent can control and exploit even more.

Invariably the agents are described as working for the “Sino-Soviet” or Communist espionage system and can appear as quite personable and charming people. One such agent, Nick Macrados, is played by Anthony Eisley,  who appeared in a number of well-known television series spanning 30 years from the late 1950s on. Macrados recruits two US Army servicemen into a scheme to obtain secret information by plying them with money and drink; one of these Army guys, Karras (Pete Duel) later realises that he has been tricked and informs his superiors. The scheme is rumbled by Army authorities who arrest Macrados and Karras’ buddy Templeton (Michael Pataki). This re-enactment is the longest of the three and takes up at least half of the film’s half-hour running time; consequently the other two re-enactments are more sketchy and generic in their details. In all three examples, the victims realise they have been targeted and report to the appropriate authorities who take charge of the respective situations and apprehend the enemy agents.

The scenarios proceed briskly and in a fairly straightforward and low-key way that some viewers might find surprising, seeing as the film is a Hollywood production. The acting is efficient and consistent, and seems realistic enough. Refreshingly for the period (mid-1960s), the Asian actors who appear as a Chinese spy and his Japanese honey-pot accomplices act in a natural way and speak English without faked stereotyped Asian accents. (Although one actress could have toned down her alarmingly fairy-floss black coiffure.) The film is easy to follow and at its end the narrator sums up the foreign agents’ modus operandi and the actions American citizens abroad should follow if approached by people they suspect of being part of that insidious Sino-Soviet espionage network. Of course, the problem is that now the way in which the enemy agents work has been revealed, their employers are sure to change their methods and the film will no longer be relevant.

Both Hollywood and the US Department of Defense seem unaware that at the time, the Soviet Union and the Chinese had fallen out and were not much on speaking terms, much less able to co-operate. On the other hand, maybe the US government did know that the Communist world was divided but preferred not to divulge such information to the American public, all the more to maintain the fear and the level of American suspicion towards foreigners. The seemingly friendly and paternal tone of the film does little to hide a wariness and no small amount of paranoia, along with a sense of American superiority and belief in manifest destiny in which Americans are the natural police force of the world and pull others into line. For a film made in the 1960s, this training short features quite a number of stereotyped Hollywood film elements (in dialogue, aspects of plotting, characterisations) associated with films made in the 1940s – 1950s.

The film is notable for its cast of actors like Eisley, Duel and Pataki, who found themselves in demand for movies and TV shows, several of which became classics in their own right; and as an example of how closely Hollywood works with US government agencies to push an agenda.

The Seagull (dir. Michael Mayer): a film adaptation of Chekhov’s play lacking good characters and direction

Michael Mayer, “The Seagull” (2018)

Quite why this film adaptation of the famous play by Anton Chekhov couldn’t have been set in the United States in the late 19th or early 20th century, given that the entire cast speaks English with American accents, is strange but the performances are good enough that the notion of Russian characters speaking as they do in English quickly feels normal. As with the play, most of the action takes place in a summer mansion over several days, with the final act occurring two years later, starting off the film and then more or less repeating at the end so that the bulk of the action occurs as a flash-back. Haughty aristocratic actress Irina Arkadina (Annette Bening), a renowned stage performer whose career has seen better and increasingly more distant days, brings her latest lover, the writer Boris Trigorin (Corey Stoll), to her family’s summer house where reside her sickly and aged brother Sorin (Brian Dennehy) and her son Konstantin aka Kostya (Billy Howle), an aspiring playwright whose work is very experimental and highly symbolic. The mansion is managed by a couple, Ilya and Polina (Mare Winningham), whose daughter Masha (Elizabeth Moss) secretly loves Kostya, who is disdainful of her yearnings, as he is more interested in the girl who lives on the estate next door, Nina (Saoirse Ronan) who dreams of becoming a famous actress and who reciprocates Kostya’s affections. If this love triangle were not enough, viewers are treated to young school-teacher Semyon Medvedenko’s love for Masha while her mother Polina is having an affair with Dr Dorn (Jon Tenney).

The film essentially is a character study of a vain and manipulative woman who, for reasons never revealed, forces her son to live an isolated life on her family estate while she revels in fame and celebrity status on the Moscow theatre circuit. The plays she stars in are of a melodramatic kind, popular with the crowds for their superficiality, while Kostya yearns for theatrical renown of a more abstract and perhaps more lasting nature. Perhaps Irina is jealous that she and her world might be usurped by Kostya and the theatrical world he wants to write for, because this futuristic world reminds her of her mortality. As a result, when Kostya tries to stage an experimental play for Irina and her guests, she openly ridicules it and this sets up a tension lasting all the way through the film between mother and son. Torn between his love for his mother, who alternately dotes on him and abuses him, and his mother’s affection for Boris, Kostya weaves dangerously between anger, frustration, depression and suicidal thoughts. This in turn creates problems between him and Nina, while Masha secretly gets drunk to ease the pain of loving someone who will never love her. For her part, Nina becomes enthralled with Boris’ stories about how he copes with fame (which in fact he tells Nina to warn her of the downside of being a celebrity) and becomes infatuated with him. Boris for his part finds himself falling in love with Nina at the same time he still loves Irina.

All these entanglements may be hard for viewers to follow though with the screenplay chopping out large parts of the original play, a number of characters, notably Dr Dorn, become little more than walking wallpaper. Masha becomes a mere pitiable creature taking solace in alcohol and her relationship with Medvedenko becomes taken for granted rather than developed as it should have been as a counterpoint to Irina and Kostya’s own complicated love lives. Kostya and Trigorin come across as rather weak-willed men who don’t seem to learn from their errors or weaknesses, and as a result will always be at the mercy of others more cunning than they; Trigorin is lucky in navigating his affections with Irina and Nina, and one wonders whether he really would have preferred to stay with Nina had not Irina manipulated him into dumping the younger woman. (In Chekhov’s plays, so much of what we’d call action actually takes place away from the stage or between acts.) Kostya is not much more than a whining overgrown brat subject to banging out his temper tantrums on the piano or shooting birds from the sky. The stand-out performances are those of Bening as the wily mother and Ronan as Nina who learns the hard way that acting brings its own pressures and strains, and that fame and glory are fickle and cruel gods to those who do not have outstanding talent or the opportunities to prove their ability. Both Bening and Ronan give of their best but it is not enough to save the film from floundering with mostly one-dimensional characters lacking direction in their lives and who are content or resigned to floating in whichever direction the wind blows.

The clash between the old and the new; between popular if shallow trends in art and art created for its own sake or to interrogate issues that people would rather not discuss; between generations; and between the pursuit of fame and fortune on the one hand and on the other, the grim reality of persisting despite all odds, are all grist for the mill. Characters want to be happy but do not know how to pursue happiness, are afraid of pursuing it or do things that destroy their chances of being happy. A despondent, insular attitude follows the film like a bad smell: Kostya seems incapable of ever leaving the family estate while his mother is still alive and Nina resigns herself to travelling around the Russian empire acting in second-rate troupes for the bemusement of peasants and factory workers. Trigorin is destined to continue churning out fiction pap and acting as Irina’s handbag. Art itself continues to demand much from the various characters psychologically and physically until one person literally can’t take any more.

The isolated lake country setting is a major character in itself in the film but at the same time removes the action almost completely from Moscow, and from significant social, economic and political changes of the period it is set in, that would later sweep away the familiar world of Irina Arkadina and her household and her circle of friends and acquaintances. Indeed, it is this detachment from the real world of an increasingly industrialised Russia, class conflict, a stagnant polity and looming revolution that makes Arkadina and Sorin’s seemingly idyllic little lakeside mansion paradise – populated with flawed, passive characters of mediocre talent and obsessed with unattainable goals – at times stuffy and suffocating.

Equus: a psychodrama of outstanding performances and troubling philosophical questions about individuality and creativity

Sidney Lumet, “Equus” (1977)

He never won an individual Academy Award for Best Movie or Best Director but surely Sidney Lumet is one of the greatest film directors – in particular of films focusing on anti-hero characters battling with obsessions or guilt, or finding themselves at odds with social expectations and the pressure to conform, with the result that they end up cut off from their true aspirations and become hollow robots – ever to grace this undeserving planet. Unafraid to tackle issues of social justice, and using a classic realistic style of telling his story, Lumet attracted fine actors and drew strong, complex performances from them. His film adaptation of Peter Schaffer’s play “Equus”, for which Schaffer himself modified his play, is an excellent example of Lumet’s oeuvre: an excellent cast featuring Richard Burton, Peter Firth and Joan Plowright among others; themes of religious obsession and of a man wrestling with his conscience over remolding young mentally disturbed and troubled people into robots like himself acceptable to society; and a straightforward realist approach that forces audiences to confront the issues raised by the original play about psychoanalysis and its uses.

Child psychiatrist / psychoanalyst Martin Dysart (Burton) has reached a crisis of burnout, disillusionment and uncertainty after a long career treating adolescent and young adult patients with mental health issues and disturbances. A new patient, Alan Strang (Firth), is referred to him, Strang having entered the mental health facility where Dysart works after committing a bizarre crime. Initially Alan resists Dysart’s probing questioning but after the two agree on a bartering system where Dysart must respond to a question from Alan when Alan answers his question, Alan begins to open up about his family background: his mother Dora (Plowright), a fanatical fundamentalist Christian believer, and his father (Colin Blakely), a determined atheist, have improbably combined to impose a highly restrictive and repressive family life, complete with a rigid religious tradition heavy on ritual, upon their only son. Imagination, fun and laughter, and genuine love, freely and unconditionally given, are absent from the boy’s life and in their place are religious obsession bordering on the fanatical and a fear of sexuality combined with hypocrisy and furtive voyeurism on the father’s part.

A childhood incident directs Alan’s focus of worship of the divine and channels the creative and sexual urges he is forced by his parents to suppress into idealising horses. A young woman Jill (Jenny Agutter) helps him get a job as a stable-hand caring for six horses but the constant physical contact with the animals brings out Alan’s obsessions which he acts upon. Jill is attracted to Alan and attempts to have sexual intercourse with him but Alan’s failure brings intense anguish which results in extreme violence to his beloved animals.

Alan’s opening up unexpectedly forces Dysart to admit to his own sterile personal life and confront the paradox in his own life, in which to deal with young people’s mental health issues and return them to normal (dysfunctional) society he must destroy their natural creative urge and zest for living. After hearing Alan’s admission of his crime, Dysart once again faces what he most dreads doing: to “heal” Alan and return him to his dysfunctional family, he must rob the boy of that which gives him his individuality, creative being and reason for living and turn the boy into an emotionally hollow robot … just like himself.

Both Burton and Firth give impassioned and intense performances as the doctor who envies Alan for his vitality and the troubled boy himself, beset by obsessions he barely understands. Through these two actors and their dialogue, the issues of how an individual must suppress his/her creative being, to the point of suffocating it altogether, in order to fit into and function within a rigid, repressive society. Plowright and Blakely acquit themselves well as the parents who confuse their son and set him on the path of idealising and worshipping the Dionysian (chaotic) elements within and without him. Agutter has very little to do but makes her character real enough.

While Lumet is a straight-out realist director, and a number of scenes in the film may be over-dramatised and horrific for most audiences, his direction allows the narrative to flow fairly easily and Burton’s monologues, in which he envies Alan as the personification of that which is dead within him and agonises over the treatment that he must give to Alan that will kill the boy inwardly and turn him into an “adult”, sit easily with the action in the film. The dream-like scenes in which Alan rides naked on his favourite horse can be confrontational and intense but they are done fairly tastefully; less so the scenes in which Alan mutilates the horses in his care, which (to me) show far too much and don’t seem very realistic.

The film raises important questions about human freedom and individuality, and how the individual yearning for freedom, creative being and fulfilling one’s potential can be accommodated in a society that prizes conformity and fears the passion and intensity required to achieve full freedom and creativity. Religious obsession, and how it combines with sexual suppression and directs it into channels that fling both religiosity and sexuality into people’s faces in the most confronting ways – Plowright as the fanatical mother fails to make the connection between the way she has brought up her son and his obsession with horses – is dealt with less successfully and Alan’s self-flagellation may come across to audiences as rather bizarre and theatrical, rather than as something to be pitied. While perhaps Lumet’s realist approach does not suit “Equus” very well – it originated as a stylised play after all – it does a great job delineating its psychological themes and portraying one of the most important philosophical questions about how far individuality and freedom can thrive in society.

BlacKkKlansman: use of race politics demeans the achievement of a black police officer in exposing the Ku Klux Klan’s evil

Spike Lee, “BlacKkKlansman” (2018)

Filmed as a blaxsploitation-styled comedy drama, this work revolves around a real scenario in which a black American police officer in Colorado state actually infiltrates a local branch of the notorious racist organisation the Ku Klux Klan by pretending to be a white man interested in joining the KKK. The characters and much of the plot are based on the memoir written by that police officer, Ron Stallworth (played by John David Washington, son of Denzel Washington). The period during which Stallworth infiltrated the KKK spans the late 1970s and the early 1980s but director Spike Lee places the action in the mid-1970s. Stallworth joins the Colorado Springs police force as a rookie cop and initially works in boring records administration work. He is soon transferred to undercover work and his first job is to attend a student rally where a former Black Panther activist Kwame Ture, formerly Stokely Carmichael (Corey Hawkins) gives an address urging race war. At this rally Stallworth meets Patrice (Laura Harrier), the president of the Black Student Union at Colorado College, and is attracted to her. Their developing romance, in which he hesitates to tell her what he does for a living after she criticises the police as “pigs”, forms a sub-plot to the film.

At work, Stallworth spies a KKK recruitment advertisement in the local newspaper and phones the number . He pretends to be a white man wanting to join the organisation but foolishly gives his real name. Stallworth and a team of other police officers then arrange for a colleague, Phillip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), to act in his stead, meeting members of the local KKK branch and socialising with them under Stallworth’s name. Zimmerman eventually enrolls in the KKK after Stallworth, handling the application to join over the phone, phones KKK Grand Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace) to speed up the admin work, which Duke happily obliges. All seems to be going well except that long-time KKK member Felix (Jasper Pääkkönen) senses that Zimmerman isn’t what he appears to be and starts doing some research on Zimmerman and Ron Stallworth, even visiting Stallworth at home. When not investigating Zimmerman’s “bona fides”, Felix and two other KKK members, chafing at their president’s moderate style of leadership, stalk Patrice after her complaint at being sexually harassed by a racist police officer goes public, find out where she lives and plot to silence her by using Felix’s wife to place a bomb outside a civic rally or her house.

Eventually David Duke comes to Colorado Springs to preside over Zimmerman’s joining ceremony which takes place on the same day the civic rally is scheduled. The police assign Stallworth to protect Duke and soon enough, the action quickens and starts going pow-pow-pow.

Because Lee uses race politics as the all-encompassing prism through which viewers see what happens, reinforced by Lee’s attempts to situate the film within current political / racial tropes portraying US President Donald Trump as racist, “BlacKkKlansman” falls into a stereotypical black-versus-white paradigm that admits no other viewpoints that might complicate the message Lee wants to tell. This means that all characters, especially the KKK members, end up as crude one-dimensional stereotypes that actually demean the work that the real Stallworth did in busting the KKK Colorado chapter. After all, if your enemy is portrayed as a bunch of ignorant hick idiots, the danger it poses seems less than what it would be if the enemy were highly intelligent and sophisticated. The KKK members are obsessed with race purity and recreating their ideal of a prosperous America. There is nothing in the film about the poverty, lack of education and lack of opportunities that these people and their families might have suffered over decades as a result of political corruption and the lack of Federal and State government expenditure on social welfare, health and education in those regions of the US where poverty among both white, black and other communities had been entrenched since the end of the US Civil War and the KKK flourished.

On the other side, the black people among whom Stallworth moves are mostly naive middle class, college-educated youngsters who zealously follow every faddish fashion and idea that smacks of “black power” in the way they dress and do their hair, and generally act as one big mass. The weakest parts of the film are in fact those parts where the black middle class people huddle around leaders and role models (one of them played by Harry Belafonte) and seem to act as one many-headed mass. Is Lee sending up the black middle class, and the culture and the music associated with “black pride” of the early 1970s? Just as troublesome is the film’s emphasis on Zimmerman being Jewish and his being forced to acknowledge his Jewish heritage as a result of having to confront anti-black and anti-Jewish racism in his contacts with the KKK; as if somehow being a lapsed Jewish believer, attending synagogue only during the high holy days perhaps and being indifferent to Jewish rituals the rest of the year, is something to be ashamed of.

The most revealing moment comes when the Black Students Union members, after listening to a talk given by Harry Belafonte’s character about a lynching that occurred in 1916 and an early silent film, “The Birth of A Nation” by D W Griffith, start yelling “Black Power!” and pump their fists in the air, at the same time that the KKK members, having witnessed Zimmerman’s induction into their ranks, watch the same film and start shouting “White Power!”, also pumping their fists in the air. At this point, the film appears to be advocating racial separatism which completely ignores the issue of class as a factor in encouraging race hatred and division. Such racial separatism diverts attention away from forming a united front that can successfully confront and overthrow those political elements that benefit from fragmentation of the body politic on ethnic, religious and other identity-based criteria and keeping it impoverished and oppressed – just as political elites in the southern states of the US and elsewhere used race-based politics to keep white and black people apart, poor and weak when they should have been together and strong. It is significant that David Duke is now on public record as saying that he likes Spike Lee’s work and respects it, which may suggest that Duke himself has not only seen this film but has recognised the unintended parallels in the portrayal of the BSU and the KKK, and seen the naivety of the students as comparable to the stupidity of the KKK members in the film.

The film ends up doing Ron Stallworth and his achievement in penetrating the KKK and exposing its terrorism a grave disservice. The whole story might have been better served filmed as a documentary.

One oddity about “BlacKkKlansman” is that it portrays the Colorado Springs police force as basically benevolent in spite of the odd bad apple or two – even though police forces across the US in recent years have been prominent in several racist incidents and attacks in which people have died. Significantly scenes at the end of the film, focusing on recent incidents in which neo-Nazis and white supremacists / separatists are prominent, fail to include police attacks on anti-racism activists. Might Spike Lee be pulling his punches here and directing people’s anger against racism into channels that divert that anger away from the institutions that most perpetuate racism – like Hollywood?