Se7en: well-made if not great film about good and evil in an indifferent universe

David Fincher, “Se7en” (1995)

“Se7en” is a well-made film with some excellent acting performances and an ingenious if implausible premise of a literate serial killer who plans and executes murders of undeserving people, or at least those he considers undeserving. What prevents “Se7en” from being a really great movie is a script that takes its leisurely time building up significant characters and the relationships among them only to try to come to a quick resolution in the last 30 minutes by bringing in the murderer who then has to rattle off on how the series of murders will be completed. The slow build-up is appreciated but perhaps it could have been cut back a bit to allow for a fuller development of the serial killer John Doe (Kevin Spacey) in his character and motivations, and his relationship to the detectives on his trail, William Somerset (Morgan Freeman) and David Mills (Brad Pitt).

The action takes place in a generic city of grimy derelict buildings and social problems of poverty, crime, prostitution and drug-dealing networks. Rain falls constantly on this city and occasionally the weather brightens up to reveal a bit of sunshine but the sleaze and filth remain after repeated clean-up attempts. Here, Somerset has been investigating and solving crime but after many years he is planning to retire and move to a less crime-ridden place. In its infinite wisdom worthy of a cosmic joker or Hollywood TV crime show writers, the police department pairs him with rookie cop Mills, a recent transfer from out of town, who proves to be the complete opposite of Somerset in personality, character and approach to the job: where Somerset is level-headed, keeps his cool and does meticulous research at libraries as well as in police files, Mills is hot-headed, acts before he thinks and rarely delves into a world beyond pop culture. While sorting out their good cop / bad cop routine, the two have to grimace their way through and make sense of three crimes, two of which involve murders, each illustrating one of the Seven Deadly Sins referenced in Dante Alighieri’s “The Divine Comedy”. A montage sequence in the movie that flits back and forth between Somerset and Mills doing their separate investigations establishes the two men’s differences nicely.

The detectives track down a man called John Doe to his apartment; he starts shooting at them and flees. Mills gives chase through the building and outside but is outwitted by Doe who holds him at gunpoint. Inexplicably Doe spares his life and leaves the scene. The detectives later determine from examining books and papers in Doe’s apartment that he is planning a fourth murder but they are too late to prevent it. They then discover a fifth murder which doesn’t tell them anything new about the killer.

Between investigating the crimes, Somerset becomes acquainted with Mills’ wife Tracey (Gwyneth Paltrow) who warms to him as a father figure and confidante. She tells him she is unhappy with Mills’ recent transfer and reveals that she had thought of leaving him but is pregnant. Learning that Mills hasn’t been told of the pregnancy, Somerset offers his opinion that the city isn’t a good place to raise a child and tells Tracey he once convinced an ex-girlfriend to abort her pregnancy. The diner scene in which Paltrow and Somerset talk together is very moving with Paltrow’s acting demonstrating considerable if restrained emotional depth in the short film space she is given. This scene is a pivotal one in the film as Tracey herself becomes involved in the series of seven crimes.

Freeman brings substance to a role that admittedly makes few demands on his experience and skill as an actor. Perhaps if he had played the role less straight-faced and enjoyed investigating the crimes – and perhaps the film could have shown him receiving the odd cryptic note or two from Doe about the crimes or future crimes so that there’s an indication that the two might be knowingly sparring together – Freeman’s performance might have had more depth as Somerset becomes a more morally ambiguous and questionable character and that in itself would have pushed the actor to give more to the role. Pitt plays Mills in a straightforward manner, to the point where the character becomes stereotyped, until the film’s climax where, wrestling with his emotions and Somerset’s warnings, he gives way to his impulses and literally becomes a broken man. Pitt’s performance here is at once emotional yet restrained as his character struggles with giving in to his anger and controlling himself. The scene is artfully set up: Mills ends up behaving as his nature dictates and becomes Doe’s unwilling accomplice and executioner, yet finds hollowness as his reward. The setting in which the climax takes place is significant: for some reason never revealed to the detectives or the audience, Doe has arranged for the detectives to pick up a box at a site in the open countryside far from the city near some towers. The sky is blue and the sun shines strongly. Yet the most shocking manipulation and crimes, involving the killing of innocents and Mills’s “forced” participation, occur on a bright and beautiful day just dawning.

Of the minor roles, Paltrow provides the movie’s heart and soul as a woman trapped in marriage to a selfish child-man with anger management issues and Spacey is chilling and excellent as the cold-blooded yet ordinary-looking sociopath who frees her from her particular hell. I’d have liked to see Doe’s relationships to Somerset, Mills and his wife more clearly established throughout the film: Somerset as Doe’s intellectual equal and sparring partner who understands Doe’s literary and cultural references and where he is coming from; Mills as Doe’s unwilling plaything; and Tracey as an idealisation of what Doe desires and envies. There is irony in that Doe believes Mills and Tracey have the perfect married life when in fact one of the two feels imprisoned and wants out.

There are plot details that aren’t entirely consistent and Doe must have moved around at lightning speed in the early hours of the final morning of the 7-day period over which the movie takes place. Some of the police procedural and forensic collection details may be dicey in their accuracy too. The theme of the movie – that good people can’t just walk away from the evil that exists in the world but must do what they can to resist and fight it – is strong yet the characters and events that occur constantly subvert it. Doe sees himself as a crusader who must sweep away the filth he sees: his early victims are people who have exploited others or encouraged others to sin; his choice of later victims suggests he wants the police to see that they too are corruptible and can commit sin as well. As a mentally disturbed sociopath, Doe is as self-serving as Mills is self-centred and Somerset is removed from ordinary human affairs; in a twisted way, Doe forces both Mills and Somerset to get more involved with the world as it is with all its imperfections and messiness, and perhaps to see their place in it. Mills ends up broken and Somerset reconsiders his decision to leave the police force. The world is awash in filth and grime, and what is good and what is evil may not be clear-cut and might even mimic each other, but people whose motives are uncorrupted must do what they can to make the world a better place.

Worth seeing at least once for those of strong stomach as the murders, though they occur off-screen, are gruesome and the detectives’ reactions on seeing the bodies are as upsetting as the scenes themselves. The film’s emphasis is on following Mills and Somerset’s investigations into the murders, the choices and decisions they make, and how these reflect their different personalities and characters; the result is a movie that can be slow in building up to the climax and then rushing it once Doe approaches the detectives. This could have been a great film about how well-intentioned but fallible people must try to combat complex and protean forms of evil in an indifferent universe but as it is, it’s quite a good effort when I consider that this was Fincher’s second movie after the debacle that was “Alien 3”.

Strangers on a Train (dir. Alfred Hitchcock): film labours under director’s favourite themes and obsessions

Alfred Hitchcock, “Strangers on a Train” (1951)

As with many other films made by English-American director Alfred Hitchcock, “Strangers on a Train” plumbs the theme of two men twinned together by unusual circumstances, each man the other’s doppelgänger, and with one man blamed and pursued for the crimes of his dark twin. In “Strangers …”, the presumed hero Guy Haines (Farley Granger) is an all-American good guy: born into the working-class, through talent and hard work he becomes a successful and famous amateur tennis player who through his friendship with a senator’s family is destined for a career in politics; the villain Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker) is a spoilt high society playboy who stalks Guy and tries to blackmail him through his murder of Guy’s wife Miriam (Kasey Rogers aka Laura Elliott). Had the film been directed by anyone else in the 1950’s, the roles of Guy and Bruno would be clear-cut: the naive Guy might make mistakes of judgement that would compromise him and draw him into Bruno’s web of blackmail and threats, but would learn from his errors and be a better, stronger person at the end, and Bruno might be a one-dimensional sinister criminal from the underworld. Under the Hitchcock blowtorch, these two men, their backgrounds and their relationship become a running commentary on American politics, culture and society of the time and turn conventional Hollywood movie notions of love, sexual attraction, good guys and bad guys on their head.

Guy and Bruno meet accidentally in the dining-room part of a fast train, sitting almost opposite each other casually, as we might do in a crowded food-court at a shopping mall for lunch, and Guy’s foot accidentally brushing against Bruno’s. A subtle homoerotic sub-text is set up immediately and it’s significant that Guy initiates the meeting unconsciously. Bruno already knows much about Guy from reading the newspapers and is aware of the athlete’s unhappy marriage; he proposes that he, Bruno, can get rid of Miriam if Guy can get rid of his (Bruno’s) brutal father. Guy wants no part of the arrangement but his resistance is weak and is interpreted by Bruno as agreement. After this meeting, the movie then explores the nature of Guy and Miriam’s marriage in some detail and viewers learn that Miriam refuses divorce because she wants to live off Guy’s earnings and stop him marrying Anna Morton (Ruth Roman), the daughter of a senator (Leo G Carroll) whose patronage Guy might need. Already we see Guy will benefit from Miriam being out of the way; and a phone conversation between Guy and Anna, interrupted by background train noises, reveals Guy’s unconscious wish of strangling Miriam. Bruno soon carries out his part of the “deal” and starts pressuring Guy to complete his part or to reject it and have Bruno tailing him and reminding him of his “guilt”.

As portrayed by Granger, Guy is a conventional, well-meaning but rather naive bunny lacking in moral fibre and strength: Granger definitely isn’t leading-man material but his style and lack of charisma work for the role. Guy is obsessed with keeping up appearances, keeping his public image squeaky-clean and safeguarding his entry into politics, all of which make him vulnerable to Bruno’s suggestions. Walker all but walks off with the movie: he clearly revels in his role as spoilt, rich mummy’s boy Bruno who lives off his parents and dreams of remaking the world either through half-baked inventions or murder according to his particular pseudo-Nietzschean moral code. His mind works methodically, logically: in conversation with two society matrons at a ball, he deftly steers the talk to committing the perfect murder and demolishes the two crones’ suggestions of the best way to knock off people with persuasive yet obvious counter-arguments. Having killed Miriam, he kindly posts a gun, a key and instructions to Guy to help him murder his own dad; innocent that he is and conscious of his wish for Miriam’s death, Guy keeps the weapon and instructions instead of turning them over to the police. Bruno is both sinister and amusing: his murder of Miriam, viewed indirectly as a mirror image in the victim’s dropped spectacles in the grass, is cold-blooded and vicious enough but from then on, the memory of the killing starts to play on his conscience with darkly hilarious and gruesome results at the aforementioned party. He pops up in Guy’s life at unexpected moments: at the evening ball, at Guy’s home and at his tennis matches – in one memorable if fantastic scene, Bruno sits in the middle of a crowd watching the tennis and is the only person who stares straight ahead at Guy on the sidelines while others around him are following the flying ball with their heads; the scene is suggestive on different levels and on one level, Bruno could be said to be a free-thinking, independent individual in a herd of sheep who follow every political trend.

The film encourages audiences to sympathise with Bruno: who doesn’t feel like popping a child’s balloon when rudely accosted by its owner? if you drop an expensive cigarette lighter down a grate, wouldn’t you also bust an arm to get it out? and on watching someone’s wife flirt shamelessly with two strange men she’s picked up off the street and who expect sexual favours from her, wouldn’t you think you were doing the husband a favour (and maybe the hussy as well – she might get raped) by killing her?

The acting support shines in “Strangers …” by flavouring the backgrounds of Bruno and Guy, enriching their relationship and conflict. Bruno’s mother (Marion Lorne) seems dotty with more than one foot in the land of the fairies but this may be a mask for denying her husband and son’s natures; only the portrait she paints of Bruno’s dad hints at the man’s brutality and explains why Bruno is so keen for Guy to kill him. From Bruno’s viewpoint, both he and Guy are oppressed by the institution of Family and they should help free each other in ways that won’t attract the attention of the incompetent police force in the movie. Miriam and Anna’s characters together are a comment on Guy’s attempt to transit from one world to another: Miriam is a free spirit, uninhibited and independent while Anna, otherwise cluey and smart, is demure and knows her place in the Washington DC social set. Interestingly Barbara (Patricia Hitchcock – yes, Hitchcock gave his daughter a job) seems a lot like Miriam in looks, character and tendency to speak out so there’s a possibility that Guy might end up two-timing Anna with the young sister in a life beyond the movie’s confines. Though Miriam and Anna appear older than Guy – the contrast between their characters and Guy’s indecisive nature might be intentional – their actors achieve a good balance between delineating the women, playing up their contrasts which are as much due to social class differences as in individual outlook and psychology, on the one hand and overshadowing Guy’s passiveness on the other.

Stand-out scenes in “Strangers …” include Bruno’s pursuit and murder of Miriam, filmed as a shadow play; the alternating scenes of Guy’s drawn-out tennis match and Bruno striving to retrieve Guy’s cigarette lighter from under the grate, each man pitted against the other in a cosmic joke duel which drags the tension out and bogs the movie down while it lasts; and the hysterically over-the-top climax in which a merry-go-round is accidentally set on overdrive as Bruno and Guy leap onto it and punch each other over the incriminating lighter. The sexual connotations of the whirring merry-go-round (complete with a little old guy crawling underneath it so he can get to the lever in the middle and turn it off, and all those wooden horses pumping up and down on the poles), who punches whose lights out first and the whole contraption crashing down and mortally crushing one of the two men, sending him off into something resembling a post-orgasmic dream reverie, are screamingly funny! Indeed the whole lead-up to and the carousel climax, starting with Anna’s report to Guy that Bruno has his lighter, plus the death scene, might be seen as an act of homoerotic consummation.

For a movie that initially looks and runs like a mainstream popcorn thriller, there’s a lot happening under the radar that comments on aspects of early 1950’s American society as Hitchcock found it. My impression is he went over the top himself and loaded too many themes and issues that took his fancy onto the film: in common with other Hitchcock movies, the plot comes over as implausible and the movie ends up a bit lightweight because of the heavy layering of symbolism. The merry-go-round climax does look like a jokey, self-indulgent afterthought and its slapstick nature doesn’t really fit in with the low-key suspense and subtle comedy in the rest of the film. In a way it’s a pity that “Strangers …” is a black-and-white film (technically speaking): colour would bring out a lot of the visual puns and the scenes relying on shadow play might even be creepier with layered shades of dark and black rather than just grey. The movie’s worth a look at least for Walker’s riveting performance as Bruno.

Vertigo: a beautiful film with disturbing themes of obsession and control

Alfred Hitchcock, “Vertigo” (1958)

For a mainstream Hollywood drama, this famous film by Alfred Hitchcock, regarded by some as his greatest work, features some very disturbing themes of which some are applicable to the Hollywood film industry and even to the man himself. In an age when romantic love, marriage and family life were held to be worthy ideals for the public and it was usual for film studios and even directors to mould actors, and especially female actors, into particular stereotypes that emphasised physical attractiveness, a healthy heterosexuality and availability for marriage within the limits of a sexually puritanical society, “Vertigo” subtly undercuts these notions and exposes their sinister implications while blandly appearing to uphold them. Revisiting and idealising the past, bringing it into the present to determine the future, converting a real object or person into its ideal, and that notion’s dark twin of fearing something and trying to suppress it yet being drawn to it and allowing it to define your life and dominate your thoughts and behaviour: these two polarisations form the basis of the vertigo that engulfs former police detective turned private investigator John “Scotty” Ferguson (James Stewart) and the women Madeleine and Judy (both played by Kim Novak) whom he loves.

Scotty has recently retired from the police force after his partner’s death from a roof-top fall has left him with a morbid fear of heights. An old college friend, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), commiserates with him and hires him to follow his wife Madeleine who’s been behaving oddly and may be suicidal. Scotty follows the woman closely in his car as she visits a florist, a museum, an art gallery and other landmarks around San Francisco city. He discovers she is obsessed with the life of a young 19th century woman, Carlotta Valdes, Madeleine’s great-grandmother, who suicided when young. After he saves Madeleine from suicide herself, they fall in love but Madeleine continues to be haunted by Valdes and a recurring dream of a Spanish mission church with a bell-tower. Scotty identifies the building as one just on the city outskirts and takes Madeleine there, hoping this encounter will stop the nightmares. The visit ends tragically when Madeleine climbs to the top of the bell-tower and falls to her death while Scotty, crippled by his phobia, watches helplessly.

He is cleared of murder by a court which declares Madeleine’s death to be a suicide. Scotty becomes depressed and his friend Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes) cares for him for a while. After he recovers, he revisits places that Madeleine had frequented and meets a young woman called Judy. Scotty becomes obsessed with recreating Judy in the image of Madeleine despite the girl’s protestations and when he has made her over, takes her to the church to retrace Madeleine’s death scene. In this way, he hopes to cure his acrophobia and to confirm whether Elster has taken advantage of his illness to stage a suicide scenario to mask his murder of the real Madeleine.

The ingenious plot with its surprising twist may be too clever to take seriously and perhaps there should have been a few clues thrown to viewers early on that Madeleine isn’t all she appears to be. Perhaps the clues are in plain view and repeated viewings of the film are needed to find them all. For one thing, Madeleine should have been aware of someone following her by car and on foot and she should have been afraid – but if she’s acting out a prescribed role, then her lack of concern becomes understandable. Scotty’s discovery of Judy’s dual nature seems hurried and forced as well: how, apart from seeing Judy wearing jewels similar to what he saw in a painting of Carlotta Valdes, does he know he’s been duped? One scene where he’s waiting for Judy to come back from the beautician and the hair salon, during which he could have ruffled through her wardrobe and discovered an incriminating grey suit or gone through her wastepaper basket and pieced together scraps of her confession note, is all that’s needed to give the plot more credibility. On the whole though the plot is spare and easy to follow and it allows for considerable character development and investigation of the movie’s themes of obsession, control of women, and the ease with which fantasy and ideal notions of love can interfere with and harm reality.

Both Stewart and Novak readily identified with some of the film’s themes and threw themselves enthusiastically into their roles; their acting which encompasses some of the noblest and worst of human behaviours is among the best audiences will see in Hollywood films of the 1950’s and brings some credibility to what is a far-fetched story. Viewers will sympathise readily with Scotty’s attempts to deal with his phobia and rebuild his life after Madeleine’s death but will find his intense obsession with Madeleine and his control of Judy’s appearance creepy and repellent. Stewart as both romantic hero and monstrous anti-hero brings the polarities of his role together with ease. Is Scotty any better than his manipulative friend who murdered the real Madeleine? For that matter, can Judy still retain Scotty’s love once he realises she has manipulated him emotionally as he has manipulated her physically?

Geddes’s character Midge who secretly loves Scotty but rejected a past marriage proposal and who acts as his confidante is an interesting person and a counterpoint to the remote Madeleine. She disappears after the movie’s halfway point when Judy enters Scotty’s life and while her absence is much missed and gives “Vertigo” a top-heavy feel, it highlights the extent to which Scotty is unhealthily consumed with draping Madeleine’s image over Judy.

The film’s bright colours and the San Francisco cityscape that includes the bay and the city’s surrounding natural environment where the sea meets land and a church is perched on wide lawns provide a beautiful backdrop to the film’s events. A softening filter is often placed over most scenes in a way reminiscent of romance films of the 1950’s and 1960’s and gives the movie a dreamy fantasy look. The musical score by Bernard Herrmann is by turns dramatic, suspenseful, highly emotional and romantic; it heightens tension in long stretches of the movie where there is no talk. The real and the unreal co-exist and bleed into each other, boundaries between reality and fantasy collapse and the imagined becomes more real than reality. This is illustrated in particular in Scotty’s remarkable dream sequence which includes a cartoon animation of a bouquet falling apart and other animated montages in which Scotty falls into an open grave or falls into the centre of the screen. Another very strange scene where the real intersects with fantasy occurs when Scotty follows Madeleine into a deserted alley and into a shabby backroom of a rundown building. He opens a door and sees Madeleine in a surreal, plush world of flowers, polished floors and wealthy shoppers; the door he is holding happens to be a mirror support. It is as if he has opened a portal into Wonderland.

The film’s structure more or less divides into two, with Madeline dominant in the first half and Judy in the second, yet the second half of the film echoes the first half: landmarks and places visited in the first half of the film are revisited in the second, and even Scotty’s viewing of Judy opening a window in her hotel echoes his sighting of Madeleine opening a window in the McKittrick hotel. Even the manipulation and duplicity of the film is duplicated: Scotty is maniulated by Elster and Madeleine in the film’s first half; in the second half, Scotty himself manipulates Judy. The circularity motif echoes also in the hairstyles of Madeleine and Carlotta in her portrait, and in the flower bouquet which Madeleine buys and which appears again and again in the film.

The film’s pace can be glacial, at least until the second bell-tower scene where, as audiences realise the extent of Scotty’s derangement and start to fear for Judy’s life, the tension skyrockets but otherwise “Vertigo” is well-made with excellent performances. On the plus side it’s beautiful and intriguing to watch with many surprising and innovative technical flourishes.  For a movie with a spare plot and small cast, it lends itself to many interpretations and touches on many aspects of human psychology that will continue to intrigue audiences.

Borat movie tells more about film-makers’ biases and prejudices than those of its subjects

Larry Charles, “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan” (2006)

Using the narrative form of a naif travelling in a foreign land, investigating and commenting on its customs, to satirise your own society or another society has been a tradition in English-speaking societies at least since Jonathan Swift published “Gulliver’s Travels” around 1726. The form gets a post-modern workout in Sacha Baron Cohen’s mock-documentary “Borat …” in which one of his alter-egos, Borat Sagdiyev, a Kazakhstani TV news reporter made famous on Cohen’s TV show “Da Ali G Show”, takes a small crew with him across the United States to film a government-sponsored documentary explaining the society and culture of American people to the folks back home in Kazakhstan. Initially landing in New York City and content just to stay there, Borat is watching TV one night when he sees Pamela Anderson as CJ in an episode of “Baywatch” and promptly falls in love with her. Learning from a group of feminists that Anderson lives in California, Borat becomes determined to find and marry her. He persuades his producer Azamat (Ken Davitian) to go to California with him on the pretext that this trip is necessary for the documentary. Azamat’s not keen to go by plane so they buy an ancient ice-cream van and drive across the country instead.

The film splices together a road movie and a series of scenarios for the documentary in which Borat investigates various customs, rituals and issues in American society and elicits a range of reactions from mildly embarrassed to openly hostile and aggressive, depending on the topic being satirised. This is usually American attitudes on social and cultural issues such as homosexuality, religion and the status of minority groups. The road movie adds pranks and incidents in which Borat either makes assumptions, behaves in certain ways or reacts to what he sees and hears around him based on his Kazakhstani values and prejudices which are nearly always socially backwards from a modern Western cultural point of view. All the reactions Borat gets suggest that Americans are nowhere near as tolerant, egalitarian or culturally, socially or politically aware as they might think they are; some people he meets even glory in their ignorance and extreme prejudices. The two interwoven strands of the plot take place within a third narrative which describes Borat’s family and village background and the conditions in which he grew up and still lives in. This information primes viewers for the culture shock Borat and Azamat are certain to get, not to mention the culture shock his interviewees and hosts get from meeting him!

The satire works best and is at its funniest when Borat throws people’s pomposity or stupidity back at them as in the scene where he “converts” to Christianity by speaking in tongues or invites an under-dressed prostitute to a genteel dinner party. It does not work so well where the film-makers take for granted that certain groups of people are prejudiced against Jews, Muslims, gays or other minorities and by baiting such groups, Cohen and company simply have their assumptions confirmed, as in the rodeo scene where Borat sings the Kazakhstani national anthem to the tune of the US national anthem. There are pranks done seemingly for cheap and cruel laughs at their victims, as in the scenes that take place in Borat’s home village. The village scenes are meant to mock viewers’ own prejudices about people living in remote and impoverished post-Communist countries but may have the unintended opposite effect of reinforcing such views. Audiences may have the impression that some gags were deliberately stage-managed, with participants like Pamela Anderson in her autograph-signing session and the actor playing the prostitute Luenell knowing ahead what’s going to happen. Most of Borat’s trek across the US takes place through the so-called Deep South, an area often stereotyped in mainstream US culture and elsewhere as culturally backward, racist, homophobic and hostile to all who are not Protestant Christians. The film’s bias is obvious: people in Los Angeles and southern California should be just as ripe for ridicule as are the Southerners, Washington DC politicians and New Yorkers yet curiously there are no interviews or incidents set up with the Angelenos once Borat arrives at his destination.

Perhaps the film tells us more about its creators’ biases and attitudes than it does about American people’s prejudices: as a university student, Baron Cohen did research on Jewish involvement in the civil rights movement in the US in the 1960’s and wrote a thesis on the murders of three civil rights activists, two of whom were Jewish, in Mississippi state in that period. Perhaps in the guise of Borat he was curious to see if people’s attitudes toward race and religion had changed. However, mocking attitudes does have a flaw as a form of “reserach”: it tends to over-inflate their importance and gives the impression such views are widespread and deeply entrenched when perhaps only a very small minority of people still hold them. So the picture the film-makers and the audience get of racial and anti-Jewish prejudice may be the complete opposite of what actually exists. There is also the possibility that when Borat expresses extreme views, his victims politely try to ignore him or just go along with him, hoping that he’ll drop the topic if they say nothing. Their silence or apparent acquiescence tends to encourage him more and, when filmed in certain ways so viewers can’t see because of editing whether they can defend themselves or not, makes the victims look foolish.

The genuinely funny moments include spoofs of various movies like “The Blair Witch Project” and scenes where Borat’s innocence and prejudices get the better of him as in his first encounter with a tortoise and his purchase of a bear. The scene where Borat and Azamat stop at a bed-and-breakfast place for rest and discover that the couple who run it is Jewish is hilarious because the joke is on the guests themselves with their fears and beliefs about the supposed malevolent powers of Jews. Two scenes where Borat meets some gay activists and a group of black teenage boys are funny for the same reason. Though if Borat had asked the gay men or the teenagers the same questions about women that he posed to the white college boys in their holiday van later in the movie, their answers and opinions might have been just as depressing. Borat’s friendship with Luenell the prostitute is very touching and underlines the film’s message that, beneath surface appearances and differences in social class, everyone is human and deserves to be treated fairly. Though Baron Cohen’s choice of targets – overwhelmingly white Anglo-American and politically conservative – might suggest that he still views American society as it was in the 1960’s when Jews, blacks and other disadvantaged minorities more or less worked together to combat the prejudices white Anglo-Americans had against them and were prepared to overlook their political, social and cultural differences. This situation may not exist now.

This is the kind of movie you see once as it relies heavily on surprising and confronting viewers with their own prejudices, and much of the comedy arises from people not knowing what Borat will do in the situations presented. After that, the appeal fades and the genuinely funny comedy moments are few and far between in contrast to the comedy that sticks in your craw because it exploits people’s ignorance.

Blade Runner: movie remarkable chiefly for visual impact and theme

Ridley Scott, “Blade Runner” (1982)

The curious thing with this movie is that as it recedes back in time – 2012 will be its 30th anniversary! – it appears less science fiction and more film noir in spite of its subject matter: a specialist police officer known as a blade runner comes out of retirement and is given a mission to hunt down and execute four half-human / half-machine beings or “replicants” that have hijacked a space-ship in and returned to Earth. Certainly the emphasis on atmosphere and a dark, downbeat mood throughout the film has always been very strong but now even little details like ceiling fans in rooms, derelict buildings in crowded cities and people puffing away on cigarettes, which to some viewers might seem quaint or contradictory, add an extra touch to the pessimistic mood. As the science fiction appears less incredible and more possible, “Blade Runner” now emerges as a futuristic film noir piece with a distinctive visual style. Once viewers become accustomed to the movie’s look and the backgrounds, the movie’s plot appears as threadbare with dialogue so spare the storyline nearly collapses. The characters are not nearly as fleshed out as they should be as a result. All that is left is a long movie with a pace so slow that any sense of tension drags away. The pivotal confrontation between the blade runner cop Deckard (Harrison Ford) and the rogue replicant leader Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) seems very drawn out and its climax is too brief by comparison.

The movie does look beautiful with its vision of a futuristic Los Angeles as a chaotic, crowded city where different and often contradictory, even retrogressive ways of life co-exist with sophisticated technology. Scenes often appear in a hazy blue light and there is plenty of interplay between intense light and dark shadowy interiors in various parts of the movie which encourages a sense of paranoia and dread. Society as it appears in “Blade Runner” is highly stratified: the wealthy have moved to colonies in outer space where their needs are attended to by replicant slaves, the poor eke out a living as best as they can on Earth but mind their own business and aren’t bothered much by the authorities who carry out regular aerial patrols. The suggestion is of an all-seeing police state, confident in its stability to the extent that it feels no need to regiment and order the little people who scurry about like rats. The rebel replicants are able to insinuate themselves among the population as circus performers or beggars, all the while trying to gain entry into the massive Tyrell Corporation building and to beg their creator to give them more life before their 4-year guarantee wears out.

And why do the replicants only have a lifespan of four years? As police supervisor Bryant (M Emmett Walsh) explains to Deckard, this is to prevent the replicants from acquiring emotions and a desire for independence. What is implied is that if beings that are half-human and half-machine can rebel, then full human beings might be inspired to rebel as well. Bryant’s threat to Deckard if he refuses his mission suggests Deckard is as much a slave of his society as the replicants are. When viewers first meet Deckard, he seems lethargic and burnt-out in his retirement, with no enthusiasm for life; we presume his work as a blade runner has disgusted him and dehumanised him in some way. Indeed, later in the film when he flushes out replicant Zhora (Joanna Cassidy) and kills her, the experience exhausts him as Bryant comments when he comes to see the corpse. The point made here, which many fans of “Blade Runner” may have missed, is that the police state has made humans like Deckard less than human and reduced them to the level of replicants; the irony is that the replicants, in seeking more life, are seeking to be more human than humans themselves are allowed to be.

An even greater irony is that it is the replicants themselves, in particular Batty and Rachel (Sean Young), modelled on the niece of the head (Joe Turkel) of Tyrell Corporation, who restore humanity to Deckard. The subplot in which Deckard falls in love with Rachel and teaches her to love him (an idea likely borrowed from Jean-Luc Godard’s “Alphaville”, also a dystopian sci-fi / noir film) is important to Deckard’s reawakening as a human as it is for Rachel in learning how to be human. The division between replicant and human becomes irrelevant but in teaching love and trust to Rachel, Deckard puts her life in danger and so in the film’s coda, they flee his apartment. (In the original cinema release in the United States and Australia, the coda was a happy one that provided definite closure to the film’s events and was ironically closer to the “Alphaville” ending.) Deckard’s love for Rachel is paralleled by the open affection and love the replicants Batty and Pris (Daryl Hannah) express in their brief time together on screen.

Ford underplays his role as Deckard, as is appropriate for a character long out of touch with his emotions and what it means to be human; he rediscovers his humanity gradually through his encounters with Rachel and Batty. Rachel reawakens his capacity for love and Batty teaches him how to feel physical pain again and how to fear for his life. By film’s end, with his humanity restored, Deckard is finally able to crack a smile when he finds the origami unicorn left behind at his apartment by his police minder Gaff (Edward James Olmos) to indicate that the police know that Rachel is hiding inside and that they know that when he dreams, his mental processes are being monitored by the authorities. The conventional interpretation of the origami unicorn scene and its relation to the unicorn dream that Deckard has had earlier in the film – and this is supported by director Ridley Scott himself – has been that Deckard himself must be a replicant and the dream was implanted into his brain just as Rachel’s childhood memories are implants. If that’s so, then Gaff himself might also be a replicant – how else would he know of Deckard’s dream? – and by implication, so must Bryant. The whole rationale for “Blade Runner” falls over: if replicants aren’t allowed to be on Earth, then why is Deckard working there as a blade runner in the first place if he’s a replicant too? An alternative explanation is that the all-pervasive surveillance technology is sophisticated enough that the regular aerial patrols are “reading” people’s mental processes when they are asleep and able to capture any images generated and relay them to the police. This explanation reinforces the view of “Blade Runner” that society in the future will be ruled by a police state highly dependent on technology that not only spies on people but moulds them physically and mentally; it also continues the paranoid ambience of the film right to the end.

Of the other actors, Hauer plays his role as Batty subtly, sometimes child-like and sometimes authoritative and menacing, in the manner of a fallen angel, a motif used frequently with variations in connection with the character throughout the film. Emotions flit across his face and sometimes he inclines his head shyly as if playing at being an innocent, which in some respects he is. His final soliloquy at the film’s climax is very moving though viewers do have to pinch themselves to remember that the speech might be an implant. Young perhaps seems one-dimensional as a femme fatale stereotype who is also an innocent victim of the corporate police state created and sustained by her uncle in part and who needs to be saved and freed from that state to become “human”.

The background texture of the movie, against which the anti-hero Deckard chases the replicants, is the most outstanding feature: the society seems more fully realised here than in most other science fiction movies set in a future dystopia and the theme of what it means to be human and when does someone become human or non-human plays out well. The flimsy plot does allow the background to protrude into viewers’ awareness more than a complicated story with many twists  would. The dialogue could have been bulked a bit more to make Deckard and Rachel’s romance more credible. “Blade Runner” remains a standard by which science fiction film and television should be judged for visual impact and the way it portrays a police state in operation; it’s a pity that the plot doesn’t quite meet the standard of its background context.

L.A. Confidential: well-made with convoluted plot about deception and illusion

Curtis Hanson, “L.A. Confidential” (1997)

Based on the novel by James Ellroy and named after an actual 1950’s magazine which focussed on celebrity scandal, “L.A. Confidential” is a well-made retro noir movie set in early 1950’s Los Angeles about three police officers investigating a horrific mass murder shooting at the Nite Owl coffee shop which draws them into a bigger scandal of police and political corruption, drug-trafficking, pornography and prostitution, racial prejudice and chequebook journalism. The three officers who are the focus of the movie deal with the case in particular ways that reflect their personalities and values, and which bring them into conflict with one another and then with their real enemy with tragic consequences. The plot is convoluted and layered, and viewed from different angles can say different things about the world these men live and work in.

Sergeant Ed Exley (Guy Pearce) is an ambitious stickler for rules who is conscious of his father’s legacy as a police officer and is determined to prove that he is better. The other officers in the force dislike him for having testified in a case of police brutality against a group of Mexican prisoners and forcing the dismissal of officer Stensland as a result. Stensland was the partner of Bud White (Russell Crowe), a hard-man plainclothes officer with a penchant for violence against wife-beaters, who vows revenge against Exley. White accepts a job from the police head Dudley Smith (James Cromwell) to intimidate criminals wanting to set up shop in Los Angeles. Sergeant Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) is an easy-going detective who gives technical advice to a TV crime show and feeds information to the editor Sid Hudgens (Danny de Vito) of Hush-Hush magazine. The magazine gives kickbacks to Vincennes for staging arrests of famous people caught with drugs or in flagrante delicto. All three men are drawn into the Nite Owl coffee shop incident in different ways: Exley is the first to receive the call of the shooting and goes out to investigate; White discovers the murder victims include his old partner Stensland and a woman, Susan Lefferts, whom he has met before; and Vincennes investigates a pornography racket linked to the Fleur-de-Lis prostitution service that supplies girls altered by plastic surgery to resemble famous Hollywood movie stars. The officers’ independent investigations bring them in contact with call-girl Lynn Bracken (Kim Basinger) and her employer Pierce Patchett (David Strathairn) who runs Fleur-de-Lis. Eventually Exley and White realise their investigations have brought them together in a set-up manipulated by powerful forces to get Exley out of the way and in spite of their differences the two officers agree to co-operate to rid the police department and city government of the true corruption they realise exists.

The film recreates and captures the colourful glamour of Los Angeles and Hollywood during their Golden Age, enhanced by the smoky jazz music soundtrack and Hudgens’s voice-over narration which presents the city as a paradise where little crime occurs and the police are always clean. The exotic atmosphere fades about halfway through the movie as the plot becomes more complicated with the officers often doubling up on one another’s investigations to the exasperation of some suspects and the body count begins to pile up quickly. Hudgens dies so there is no more voice-over and the music starts sounding like generic soundtrack music. Los Angeles is not such an unspoiled, gleaming “Garden of Eden” after all where people can reinvent themselves and start with a clean slate.

What character development exists is restricted to the three officers Exley, White and Vincennes. The fact that viewers see them changing their views about one another and the world around them is testament to the actors’ abilities as well as the screenplay. Crowe is believable as a thug with a soft spot in his heart for vulnerable women threatened by violence and it’s possible that the character of White is close to the actor’s own personality. Exley undergoes the biggest transformation of all three characters, starting as a rookie detective who sees the world in black and white, prepared to play politics and disdainful of White’s violence but later realising that surface appearances don’t necessarily reflect the true nature of people and events. He comes to appreciate White as a loyal friend who responds in like manner. Pearce pulls off a career-defining performance going from bookish and cold to a warmer, more fully rounded character. Spacey has limited time on screen as Vincennes who undergoes a mini-transformation from corrupt cop to determined crusader after a minor character dies; he pays the price for his change of conscience when he comes too close too quickly to the real centre of corruption. Of the support cast, Basinger stands out for playing a stock stereotype blonde babe of blemished background who needs saving; Basinger invests a basically passive character with more emotional substance than it needs.

There’s perhaps too much plot for audiences to digest in one sitting and repeated viewings are needed though Exley does provide a quick potted explanation of events starting with the Nite Owl cafe shoot-out all the way to the bullet-ballet climax at a deserted motel near the end. It’s clear that deception and illusion are at the heart of the plot of “L.A. Confidential”: the city as paradise where dreams come true; the police as always moral, clean and fair; Bud White as thuggish and thick; Jack Vincennes as easy to buy off and corrupt but coming round to fulfilling his duty as police officer. Black people and organised crime gangs are implicated in the Nite Owl massacre case but the three investigating officers discover their findings lead to their own force. Exley, White and Vincennes learn something about themselves and one another and rise beyond their differences, dislike of one another and their separate police jurisdictions to combat the real evil.

The ending is Hollywood-style happy which is a major let-down in an otherwise credible noir film: some of the city’s corruption has been cleaned up but nowhere near enough. The city officials’ reaction to the death of a crooked police officer is to portray him as a hero in his newspaper obituary. The final scene could be changed slightly to two characters fleeing Los Angeles forever (in the manner of the science fiction movie “Blade Runner”) instead of going on a holiday. Even so, “L.A. Confidential” is a good film in the style of retro noir.

Alien: Resurrection (dir. Jean-Pierre Jeunet): more a lame rehash than a revival

Jean-Pierre Jeunet, “Alien: Resurrection” (1997)

The idea behind this movie was to give new life to the Alien movie franchise but despite some interesting ideas about breeding alien / human hybrids as bioweapons and space pirate mercenaries working in secret and illegal tandem with a private or public military corporation among others, and replacing the psychological horror and action adventure aspects with black comedy, the movie suffers terribly from poor character development, a formulaic plot and poor writing. Two hundred years after “Alien 3” in which she dies in a vat of fiery molten lead, Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) wakes up and realises it was all another bad dream … except this dream is very real and she’s not Ellen Ripley but her clone, cultivated and brought to life by military scientists on the spaceship USM Auriga from cells collected from the original woman during her stay on the prison planet. The scientists are actually interested in the DNA of the alien queen found in those cells which is why they have created the clone. By the time the new Ripley is fully conscious, the alien queen has been removed from her surgically and allowed to mature in a special holding bay. Ripley should have been discarded but the scientists remain interested in her as she has inherited various characteristics from the aliens.

A group of space pirates that includes a robot, Call (Winona Ryder), delivers human cargo kidnapped from another spacecraft to the USM Auriga. The cargo is to be used in the scientists’ experiments on the aliens bred from Ripley’s alien queen. The group receives its pay in cash from the USM Auriga captain in a way that demonstrates the transaction is clearly underhanded and corrupt. Call attempts on her own to kill Ripley as part of her mission, kept secret from her fellow pirates, to abort the alien breeding programme but discovers she is too late. She is caught by the Auriga’s soldiers and the entire group of pirates is arrested and held prisoner. In the meantime, the aliens that have already been born and are under study break loose and rampage through the ship. Surprise, surprise, Ripley finds herself following the pirates plus one of the human cargo and a couple of the Auriga’s regular crew as they try to make their way through the ship to the pirate craft Betty and escape before the aliens get them too.

From then on the story falls into the familiar refrain of run, hide, escape, kill if necessary, blow up more ships if necessary and send more aliens into outer space as space junk. A conservationist, environmentalist agenda has never been the Alien movie franchise’s strong point. Though Jeunet introduces elements to spice up the plot such as an underwater chase sequence ending in a cruel twist, aliens possessed of human intelligence and Ripley stumbling across previous aborted results of the cloning experiment that produced her, the plot formula proceeds stronger than ever, perhaps because of the sometimes ingenious deviations from it.

There is hardly any character development in the movie: the actors playing the space pirates, in particular Dominique Pinon and Gary Dourdan, do their best at giving their characters Vriess and Christie some individuality and Ron Perlman as the macho, sex-crazed pirate Johner provides tension relief after some heavy action scenes with lame comic one-liners and an encounter with a spider. Other actors of note include Brad Dourif as a scientist who’s a little too fond of the aliens for his own good. Weaver as the Ripley clone brings sardonic humour and camp to the role but doesn’t have much interaction with the pirates individually, Purvis the cargo or Wren the scientist in charge of the cloning experiment: Ripley’s relations with the Auriga and Betty survivors could have been a good source of tension and conflict and a sub-plot in itself. Ryder as Call is simply not believable as a spy and terrorist among the pirates: she’s too small and delicate in looks, and her role which is significant to the movie’s plot demands more screen presence which waif-like Ryder lacks. The very idea of a robot programmed to be sympathetic and at the same time carrying out a mercenary task is not credible.

Opportunities for exploring the nature of being alien and “alien”, and what being human means, are missed: Purvis, carrying an alien embryo, might at least have been given a chance to beg for death before the alien hatches, putting the pirates in some quandary about killing him in cold blood and forcing them to question how much they value other people’s lives; the Ripley clone might have wondered how much she owes in the way of loyalty at least to the humans who tried to exploit her or to the aliens, some of whom accept her as their own, let alone pondered on her uniqueness and “alienness”. The closest the movie comes to tackling this idea is in the Newborn, a weird alien / human hybrid which recognises Ripley as its “mother” and tries to bond with her. The moment when Ripley disposes of it before the Betty lands on Earth is a poignant one and possibly at the risk of “chick thing” melodrama, as Johner might have put it, director Jeunet could have extended this moment to have Ripley sobbing a bit and Call comforting her before they realise they’ve arrived.

The movie does have some big plot holes: what does mad boffin Wren get up to after trying to kill the pirates and Ripley and before boarding the Betty? why does the Auriga automatically set course for Earth whenever there’s an emergency, no matter how many zillions of miles away it is? how does Purvis manage to escape his prison and why is he the only one to do so? why don’t the characters care much about what happens when one of their number goes missing in the underwater swimming scene or on the Betty? (Doing head counts obviously isn’t important in the Alien movies.) Viewers expecting the movie to follow its own logic will be disappointed here.

Motifs from the previous Alien films – motherhood and the idea of a recurring link between Ripley and the aliens – appear in “Alien: Resurrection” but the movie otherwise doesn’t extend these motifs much (apart from giving the aliens no further excuse to bother humans or any other species) or introduce new ideas and themes that could be taken up in a fifth movie / fourth sequel. Yours truly has known for some years that Joss Whedon, the script-writer for “Alien: Resurrection”, had penned a script for a fifth movie tentatively called “Alien: Revelation” which was rejected; this movie likely would have taken up where the fourth movie leaves off and mostly likely developed the Ripley clone’s character, abilities and destiny further. “Alien: Resurrection” has the appearance of a film treading water in search of a clear direction that could take the franchise into new subject and thematic territory rather than simply rehashing old themes.

American Psycho (dir. Mary Harron): compelling satire on Wall Street society

Mary Harron, “American Psycho” (2000)

Based on the Brett Easton Ellis novel of the same name, “American Psycho” is a satirical survey of the people working at the top end of the financial industry in New York and their life-styles on the eve of the World Trade Center terrorist attacks in September, 2001. The title of the book and movie and their protagonist’s name Patrick Bateman refer deliberately to the famous Hitchcock movie “Psycho”: this in itself suggests that the society they depict is hollow and unoriginal and depends on plundering other cultures and its own social and cultural networks through media, fads and social competition to sustain itself. Death is an ever-present motif in “American Psycho” in many different forms and in Bateman himself: lacking a moral and spiritual base, he fills the vacuum he feels inside his head and heart with thoughts, images and fantasies  of violent death and killing, all acquired second-hand through and from the products of his society.

The movie presents a series of sketches, some linked to one another, others not, and many of them very comic and sharp in their social and political comment. All are joined by a narrative in which Bateman (Christian Bale) has literally axed his friend and fellow merchant banker shark Paul Allen (Jared Leto) and is being pursued for murder by a police detective (Willem Dafoe) who seems less interested in investigating Allen’s disappearance than in sampling some of what Bateman and his social set take for granted. This includes lunch and dinner dates at swanky restaurants to see and be seen by others of their kind; showing off their “knowledge” about food, wine, music, books, theatre, designer labels, whatever passes for fashionable in their insular world; and having sex with one another’s gal-pals. The narrative is embellished by Bateman’s sexual dalliances with various prostitutes, most of which result in Bateman mutilating and killing the women with surgical instruments, nail-guns and chainsaws. Bateman’s violent tendencies, having built up from his frustrations with his empty life and the empty people he hangs out with, extend through the movie to bashing a homeless man, tormenting a cat, shooting at police and blowing up their cars. In nearly all these violent acts, there is something unreal yet a little plausible, that may have viewers scratching their heads as to whether these acts are real or not: is it really possible to blow up cars just by shooting at them with a hand-gun? can women be killed loudly and violently with chainsaws and their bodies hidden in an apartment for weeks, months even, without the neighbours noticing anything? can you drag a heavy body-bag through a foyer leaving a trail of blood for the concierge and others to see and nobody raising the alarm? Funny how Bateman manages to leave so much evidence behind, not bothering to cover his tracks, and no-one notices anything. The narrative pans out in a way that leaves viewers wondering how much Bateman lives in reality and in fantasy, how much of his fantasy relies on heavy consumption of media and products (much of it second-hand and deformed by popular belief into something entirely different) to relieve what is a lonely, loveless, mundane real life in an unproductive job in an industry that consumes people and produces nothing of real worth. Viewers learn that Bateman feels disgust and loathing for himself and everyone around him but lacks the imagination he needs to escape the death world he inhabits, so he remains trapped in existential Hell.

As Bateman, Bale gives a remarkable performance that shoots from barely repressed fury and deadpan expressions to neurotic over-the-top histrionics and back again and again with smooth ease and precise timing. He’s at his funniest when most po-faced while intoning solemnly about the minutiae of Bateman’s morning beauty regime or the merits of the latest vacuous stadium rock and pop albums. When he panics, he does so big-time, breaking out into a cold and glassy-faced sweat when he sees that his pals’ business cards are glossier and more embossed than his own, or gabbling and giggling his misdeeds on the phone to his lawyer or secretary when overcome with guilt. The support cast which includes some fine actors like Dafoe and Reese Witherspoon, who plays Bateman’s fiancee Evelyn, doesn’t have much to do but then the characters played are shallow airheads after all. Viewers may feel most sympathy for Bateman’s secretary, the sweet-natured and shy Jean (Chloe Sevigny) and possibly also for Kristy the streetwalking prostitute (Cara Seymour): these women are not quite so shallow as the other people Bateman associates with and significantly they hover on the edges of Bateman’s world, wanting to enter it, so they are not so warped mentally and spirtually as its more permanent inhabitants. Still, for such women from a lower social and economic class, there’s a price to be paid to enter that world: Kristy ends up “dying” and Jean, secretly in love with Bateman, learns about his secret inner life and his opinion of women when she riffles through his work diary.

In a movie about people who worship conspicuous consumption and reconstruct class barriers between themselves and others through their materialism, the details of the background settings become important indicators of personality: Bateman’s all-white minimalist apartment with the stainless steel kitchen (never used for cooking, of course) and the TV set playing porno flicks and “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” says more about the hollow life and mind of its lone inhabitant than Bateman’s voice-overs at the beginning and the end of movie do. Paul Allen’s apartment, overlooking a spectacular view, is plush and luxurious with deep colours, suggesting a personality at least different if not more mature than Bateman’s. The music soundtrack, made up songs by rock and pop acts popular in the 1980’s, is intentionally generic, shiny and vapid for the most part.

With unlikeable and unsympathetic characters, and a plot that goes into an ambiguous ending, “American Psycho” doesn’t have much popular appeal for a movie that, among other things, is about Western popular culture and the deadening effects it can have on people who selectively choose its most vacuous products and aspects to live by. The lesson the movie delivers comes with as much subtlety as the chop Bateman delivers to Allen: people consumed by consumption end up consuming one another and themselves. “American Psycho” turns out to be a bleak film filled with hopelessness about the human condition in a soulless society. It can be hard to watch at times but as a study of a character trapped in a downward spiral it’s weirdly compelling.

Funnily, in the entire movie, Bateman and his associates aren’t seen to be doing any actual work which is where the real “killing” (as in deliberately marketing and selling mortgages and other loans at high interest rates to businesses and individuals desperate for money, flipping real estate or stocks, or buying businesses to strip them of their assets, among other things) occurs. It would have given viewers some insight into the kind of industry Bateman works in and why he comes to feel the way he does about himself.

Alien 3 (dir. David Fincher): potentially interesting psych horror / slasher flick in space is a mess

David Fincher, “Alien 3” (1992)

At least in this third episode in the Alien series, people finally figured out a new original way of killing the monster other than just flushing it out through a space-ship’s airlock into deep space where eventually the thing would join similarly executed critters in the Great Alien Skeleton Garbage Patch circling a distant planetary system. Beyond that, the options for the sequel to two very different movies were limited: the first having been a space horror movie, the second being an action adventure movie, where can the third go? It goes into a film noir / slasher flick scenario set in space in which an emergency forces an escape pod containing Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and her surviving companions from “Aliens” to separate from the spacecraft Sulaco and crash-land onto a remote planet where the only human beings live in a maximum security prison. Ripley is the only survivor of that crash-landing and almost immediately has to contend with a group of condemned men, hostile and uncertain as to how to treat this “alien” in their midst, while they wait for a rescue craft to pick her up. As Ripley tries to negotiate her way through the surly all-male prison society, unusual and violent deaths begin to occur and Ripley realises that an alien of the type she’s only too familiar with must have stowed away on the Sulaco and then on her escape craft. Chaos erupts and everyone starts to panic as the alien picks off the medic and the prison supervisor and as usual Ripley has to take charge and devise a plan to get rid of the creature before the rescue craft arrives.

The only really original element is the concept of an isolated factory prison where not only are all the inmates men with violent criminal pasts, they also are followers of an apocalyptic religious cult. This means the action takes place in a claustrophobic environment of industrial machinery, huge underground tunnels, galley ways, steel catwalks and long chains: dark, moody, full of foreboding. Viewers should feel dread and abandonment throughout this film. The religious flavour adds a superficial Gothic feel with close-up shots of lit candles; nearly all the cast are skinhead monks in drab dark colours and even Ripley falls in line with the hair and clothing fashions. Unfortunately constant studio interference in the making of “Alien 3” has made for a muddled mess in which the potential offered by a prison scenario of mad misogynist monks is never properly realised and the film retreats into a re-run of “Alien” in which people scurry around the labyrinths of the prison alternately flushing out the alien so it can be destroyed and trying to avoid being killed by it. The plot starts to stretch and drag halfway through when an early attempt to trap and kill the creature ends in disaster and everyone collapses in despair and self-doubt before slowly and painfully resuming the job.

Whatever character development exists in Ripley in “Alien 3” is limited to a black sense of humour and wry one-liners: “This is a maximum security prison and it has no weapons?!” or words to that effect. The prisoners she has to deal with, played by Ralph Brown, Charles Dance, Charles S Dutton, Brian Glover, Paul McGann, Pete Postlethwaite and Danny Webb among others, are one-dimensional characters or character stereotypes who get very limited screen time: Dance and Glover’s characters exit early and Webb, playing Morse, doesn’t even become prominent until near the end of the film. The one character who shows signs of being more than a one-note role is Dillon (Dutton), the hard man who enforces discipline and leads prayer, and who in his own way has a soft spot for Ripley and sacrifices himself to give her time to kill the alien.

The theme of how institutional religion and a bureaucrat mind-set can restrict people’s viewpoints and limit their capacity for action, especially in a context where they have to deal with an unforeseen and unpredictable threat to their security and existence, and a parallel theme of how people in despair learn to cope and deal with an extreme enemy, using the few resources they have, are strong but help create a plot that can be slow for audiences used to the fast and convoluted pace of “Aliens” and who expect sci-fi movies to fit the kinetic action adventure mould.

Had Fox Studio allowed director David Fincher more freedom to make “Alien 3”, the film most likely would have developed in a way similar to Fincher’s later movies like “Se7en” in which protagonists negotiate their way through a situation, the rules of which aren’t clear, and battle their own character limitations and flaws as much as they fight through their dilemma. In Ripley’s case, she not only must learn the rules of prison society as they apply to her, she must fight against her fears about the alien and her own body which now harbours an alien embryo. (How this happened and how Ripley knows the embryo is a “queen” embryo aren’t clear in the movie.) This might have made “Alien 3” an interesting noirish psychological study of characters in crisis but it wouldn’t have resulted in the kind of box office success the studio expected.

Hitchcock gives plenty of “Rope” in excellent interior murder mystery

Alfred Hitchcock, “Rope” (1948)

Adapted from a play by Patrick Hamilton and based on an actual murder case in which two young men strangled a teenage boy, “Rope” deserves to be a better known Hitchcock film than it is. Shot on one set, the movie is a series of several mobile 10-minute “takes” artfully put together so that the action more or less looks continuous to viewers. This method of filming and structuring the script so that the action took place in real time put a great deal of strain on the cast, especially the lead actors, and on the props people moving furniture during filming so it’s a measure of their ability and composure that most of the seven actors in “Rope” look composed and show tension and strain only when required to by the dialogue-driven plot.

Rich young flatmates Brandon and Phillip (John Dall and Farley Granger) have just killed their friend and former classmate David and stashed his body inside a chest. Their housemaid Mrs Wilson (Edith Evanston) returns from shopping and the three prepare a party for David’s family and friends who include his fiancee Janet (Joan Chandler) and his best friend Kenneth (Douglas Dirk) who happens to be Janet’s ex-boyfriend. The flatmates also invite their old university teacher Rupert Cadell (James Stewart) who taught David as well. The chest is used as the buffet to serve the food. While the party guests wonder why David is taking so long to arrive and if he’s been held up somehow, the hosts steer the small talk to the art of murder and the argument, based on a popular interpretation of Nietzschean philosophy, that it’s not murder for someone of superior quality or character to kill a lesser being. Cadell gradually becomes suspicious and deduces from the mix of talk of strangling chickens, David’s absence, Mrs Wilson’s mention that she had the afternoon off to go shopping and circumstantial visual evidence that his old students have indeed applied his teaching literally.

Dall and Granger as the two gay flatmates are great in their roles: Brandon (who may be slightly sociopathic) valiantly strives to maintain an air of cool smug composure and even delight but as the day passes, cracks appear in his pretence as he becomes nervous and starts to stutter at odd times. Conscience-stricken Phillip becomes more agitated and confused and acts in strange ways that arouse Cadell’s suspicions; Granger perhaps starts too early in the film having qualms about his role in the murder and some of his acting verges on the hammy but his overall performance is good. The other guests don’t notice the hosts’ bizarre behaviour: the older people are worried about David, and Janet and Kenneth stare daggers at each other. Stewart, perhaps miscast for his role, affects a kind of stand-offish avuncular intellectual stance which fades out once he suspects his old students are up to something; but his investigative side is well done. Chandler and Dick as the estranged couple don’t have much dialogue together but still put up a credible if sketchy job sorting out their differences amid mutual suspicion and at least agreeing to be friendly again when they leave the apartment.

The film falls flat at its climax when Cadell berates the two flatmates, back-tracking and arguing against what he originally taught the two in his lectures. The suggestion is that philosophy itself as an intellectual exercise, and Nietzschean philosophy in particular, leads people into dangerous and amoral ways of thinking and behaving. The climax might have been stronger if Cadell had not only emphasised David’s humanity but made his argument against murder using the same philosophy and concepts that Brandon and Phillip had used to justify killing their friend. Cadell could have shown them that it is their narrow egotistic and self-serving interpretation of the Nietzschean idea of the Superman that has led them to murder, and in this way the flatmates learn they must be solely responsible for their actions and accept all the consequences, including a possible death penalty, that arise from them. (True Nietzschean Supermen gladly accept everything that life throws at them, including pain, isolation, shame and humiliation if necessary, as a test of their mettle and as something that guides their evolution to a higher state of being and living.) The scene could still be one full of anguish for Cadell and he could still feel guilty for his part in David’s murder, as he comes to realise that perhaps he’s not as good a teacher as he thought.

The use of one set with a constantly roving camera gives a claustrophobic feel to “Rope” and there are many touches of macabre humour in the dialogue, replete with double entendres that add more tension and make Phillip more nervous, and in the dinner party conceit itself: it is more than a farewell party (Brandon and Phillip are planning to drive to Connecticut after the party finishes), it is David’s wake as well. And what could be more gruesome and funny than to serve the food off David’s coffin?

The homosexual relationship of Brandon and Phillip is a definite subtext – Brandon as the more assured, dominant partner, Phillip as the more submissive partner – and the movie suggests they killed David because, apart from being “ordinary”, he is heading for a married life with Janet and can have what Brandon and Phillip can’t have. On the other hand, Brandon and Phillip might regard themselves as “superior” because as homosexuals they need not bother with finding marriage partners and conforming to social mores but can pursue a hedonistic high-society life-style and be and do what they like. Romance, marriage and family life are an important theme in Hitchcock’s work and here it plays out in converse ways in the form of a gay couple, in David and Janet’s engagement and in Brandon throwing Janet and Kenneth together as if they were puppets (and the film suggests that’s exactly what Brandon enjoys doing: playing people against each other).

“Rope” attempts to criticise Nazism and concepts of elitism that led to the Nazi pursuit of racial hygiene policies in which people were graded into a racial hierarchy and those deemed “inferior” were killed though whether Hitchcock misinterpreted Nietzsche’s idea of the Superman is another question. At the time the film was made (the late 1940’s), most people including the Nazis themselves did misinterpret the concept in a simplistic way (people who are Supermen can do what they like and are not bound by conventional notions of morality) so it’s understandable if Hitchcock did also.

“Rope” features excellent acting performances from its three lead actors (Dall, Granger, Stewart) and from support actor Chandler in a plot that combines suspense, tension and subtlety. The visual flow that comes from the unusual filming technique used in the 1940’s adds to the audience’s sense of being voyeurs, with camera reels changing every time the camera “bumps” into the back of one of the male characters or into the furniture; it also reinforces the tense nature of the setting. The background scenes that show day changing to night and the lighting up of the New York City skyline, thanks to the Cyclorama technique used, are interesting to watch.