Under Capricorn: a psychological romantic melodrama of intense emotion, suspense and redemption

Alfred Hitchcock, “Under Capricorn” (1949)

Set in the early days of the British colony of Sydney in Australia, “Under Capricorn” turns out to be an intense psychological romantic drama of hope, redemption and the possibilities of renewal. A new governor arrives in the Sydney colony in the early 1830s, bringing along his cousin Charles Adare (Michael Wilding) who hopes to make his fortune and return to Ireland a prosperous gentleman. Almost immediately he meets ex-con Sam Flusky (Joseph Cotten) who, after serving his sentence of transportation for having killed his brother-in-law, has become a prosperous land-owner. Sam offers to put up Adare in his mansion where Adare meets Sam’s depressed alcoholic wife Hattie (Ingrid Bergman). After discovering that Adare knows Hattie through his sister Diana, Sam suggests that Adare try to talk and humour Hattie in the hope that she will become the spirited woman she once was. Patiently Adare draws Hattie out of her cocoon and fears, and teaches her how to deal with her recalcitrant servants. Hattie’s new relationship with the convict servants threatens however the position of her housekeeper Milly (Margaret Leighton) who secretly loves Sam, so she plots to get rid of both Adare and Hattie by insinuating to Sam that they are having an affair and by poisoning Hattie.

Milly’s plotting leads to a shooting accident that nearly kills Adare and puts Sam in a difficult position where he faces returning to prison and losing his wealth and property. This leads Hattie to confess publicly that she, not Sam, killed her brother because he had tried to break up her relationship with Sam (as Sam was a lowly stable-boy at the time and she was an aristocrat) and as a result she faces being returned to Ireland to stand trial. Adare is subsequently faced with a choice to clear the Flusky couple’s names and consequently having to return to Ireland promptly without a fortune to his name, or stand aside and see Sam and Hattie separated, their marriage destroyed and Hattie returning alone to Ireland where she faces being condemned to capital punishment.

Plenty of melodrama abounds and Hattie herself faces several threats to her life and sanity. The acting is good if sometimes a bit florid and the dialogue is over-elaborate and too genteel. Hitchcock’s direction is marked by meticulous attention to historical accuracy in visual details and long takes in which the camera sweeps from one scene to the next so that viewers virtually drink in the colour and lavish detail of the historical settings.

Aside from the visual and technical details, what gives this film its attraction is its typically Hitchcockian obsessions: the precarious status of women in society and their dependence, regardless of their social class, on being married and their husbands; the hope for renewal and redemption that can be dashed by past historical ghosts; and the plot that revolves around an irascible, flawed man who is wrongly accused of a crime and is forced to pay for it, and the effects that punishment has on him. Hattie appears an innocent woman controlled by her husband and a sinister housekeeper who wants love and security no less than Hattie does. Class conflict is present as well: the reason the Fluskys are in Australia is that they have upset the social order with their love and a low-born stable groom is presumed to have killed his social superior.

Eventual redemption comes to the characters who have sacrificed a great deal, though it means that secret loves must forever remain secret or die. There is conflict between duty and maintaining social order and stability on the one hand; and on the other, natural longing and desire, and the potential for social disruption inherent within. It is this dilemma that faces Charles Adare, Hattie, Sam and Milly, and one in which each choice and its alternative are irrevocable, and their consequences are heart-break and sorrow. At the same time there is a possibility of renewal and hope for new futures.

New York, New York: a homage to and a subversion of Hollywood / Broadway glamour, fame and artifice

Martin Scorsese, “New York, New York” (1977)

One of Martin Scorsese’s most under-rated films, in my opinion, and in many ways an experimental and even surreal film, “New York, New York” scores in my little red book for subverting Hollywood stereotypes about boy-meets-girl / boy and girl fall in love / boy and girl fall out / boy and girl get back together again and live happily ever after, and the conventions of Hollywood film musicals at their biggest and brassiest. At once it’s Scorsese’s homage to Hollywood and Broadway musicals from the 1930s to the 1960s and his critique of the fantasy world that such musicals encouraged their viewers to hide in rather than face and deal with the humdrum realities of daily life or their personal issues. The film also showcases its lead star Liza Minnelli’s talent as a singer and actor and gives her the opportunity to race through more than her fair share of fantasy Hollywood / Broadway music numbers and mini-dramas that reference aspects of her mother Judy Garland’s career. At the heart of the film though is the romance between two flawed and dysfunctional human beings, their stormy relationship and how it influences their lives and leads them to pursue their own paths and creativity.

Jimmy Doyle (Robert de Niro), a recently returned World War II veteran and saxophonist, is out looking for fun and girls at a victory celebration when he spies Francine Evans (Minnelli) and starts pursuing her. De Niro’s playing of Doyle is electric and not a little reminiscent of his creepy and obsessive character Jake Lamotta in “Taxi Driver”, another Scorsese vehicle for his talent, and Doyle’s relentless stalking of Evans can have viewers on the edge of their seats. Doyle and Evans briefly play a week at a small night-club as a sax and singing duo before Evans high-tails back to her agent and her usual role as singer for a travelling jazz band. Doyle chases her and the band around the country and eventually joins the band as saxophonist, later becoming its leader. The film follows their tempestuous romance as it develops and blossoms into marriage and Evans’ pregnancy, and follows the consequences of Evans’ changed state as she decides to return to New York and take up a career recording albums. Doyle’s time as band-leader is short-lived due to his mercurial temperament and his having to replace Evans with a mediocre singer. From then on, the film sees Evans and Doyle drift further apart, Evans pursuing her recording career in a style of jazz Doyle increasingly finds stale and unchallenging while he is drawn to the more vibrant style of swing and bebop developing in the black neighbourhoods of New York.

The character development is steady if slow and at times Doyle’s insensitive, self-centred character with hints of instability and violence can be wearying. Evans displays worrying signs of codependency as she puts up with Doyle’s domineering nature and need to control her actions and decisions. Both de Niro and Minnelli are marvellous to watch as their characters bounce off each other and the stormy argument they have while they are driving away from a night-club is a sight to behold. The music is a third character in the film, fascinating to hear as it changes through the decades and splits into two parallel jazz styles that mirror the increasing psychological separation between Doyle and Evans.

Visually the film is a treat, culminating in the surreal Broadway number in which Evans, playing Peggy Smith in a show within a show, almost recapitulates her life through the story of an usherette who chances to meet a rich film producer who appreciates her talent and makes her a star. The film combines a lavish and richly glowing style of presentation, especially in scenes where Doyle and Evans are performing either together or separately, with a documentary-style realist treatment of the two characters’ relationship and the work they must do in writing and rehearsing their music, and travelling from one club gig to the next with their band in early scenes of the movie.

The film’s end which initially did not find favour with most audiences when it was first released, seems absolutely right to me: Doyle’s acceptance of Evans’ decision might demonstrate how much he may have matured over the years, realising that he cannot control Evans or their child forever and that his music and her music may never find common ground again. His music is moving ever forward, and he willingly and impulsively follows where it goes, whereas Evans seems stuck in an increasingly artificial music world where her career continues to be controlled by other men.

Viewers may find the film’s inter-twined themes about following one’s heart and the effect of that on one’s relationships with others, the nature of fame and how it tears people apart, and the clash between artificiality and realism intriguing if confusing and scattershot.

Modern Times: sympathy for the underdog and horror at a machine society enforcing conformity and repression

Charlie Chaplin, “Modern Times” (1936)

In its own way, “Modern Times” is significant as an example of how one actor / director adapted his style from making and acting in silent films to working in sound films. Contrary to what contemporary audiences might imagine, the leap from silent film to sound film was not smooth and quick; many silent film actors’ careers actually ended with the arrival of sound films, and some audiences then still wanted to see silent films and did not favour sound films. Like everyone else working in the film industry then, actor / director Charlie Chaplin had to adjust his style of acting and the scripts he wrote to accommodate sound and the changes that sound film brought, and the rather uneven result can be seen in “Modern Times”. Significantly “Modern Times” is the last film in which Chaplin plays his famous character known as the Little Tramp. The film is also a sympathetic treatment of the common man and how he copes with life in Depression-era America and a rapidly industrialising and increasingly mechanistic society, and for that may be important as a counterweight to other Depression-era films which escaped into fantasy and did not generally deal with the plight of ordinary people thrown out of work and unable to find jobs.

The film is basically a series of comedy skits united by a vague plot in which the Little Tramp tries to find his niche in a mechanical society where everyone must find his or her place as a cog in a vast machine hierarchy and must conform to the demands of industry and government. The Little Tramp starts out working on an assembly line in a factory and is subjected to bullying by his foreman and the boss, and manipulation by an inventor who tries to interest the factory boss in a complicated machine that can feed his employees lunch in 15 minutes. Crazed by the mind-numbing repetitive work and the pressure to work faster and do more in less time, the Little Tramp ends up causing havoc and disrupting the factory routine. Not for the first time in the film do the police turn up and cart the fellow off to jail; the use of police to enforce conformity, create terror and stifle worker grievances and protests is a running theme throughout the movie.

After serving time in jail (during which the Tramp helpfully arrests some criminals for the police), the protagonist is tossed out onto the streets and expected to find work on his own. He meets a young homeless woman known only as the Gamin (Paulette Goddard) and together they try to find work and create a nest of their own. The Tramp goes through jobs such as roller-skating security guard for a department store, an assistant to a mechanic and a singing waiter in a restaurant. Just as it seems that the Tramp and the Gamin have finally found their calling as entertainers, the Gamin’s past catches up with her in the form of two orphanage officials and the two must flee for their lives.

Plenty of laughs are to be had in the slapstick – the most memorable scenes are the early ones in the factory where the Tramp gets caught up in the machinery and the feeding machine, and his roller-skating scene in the department store close to a sheer drop – although some comedy scenes lay on the situational humour very thickly and for too long. Overacting on Chaplin and Goddard’s part is the order of the day. The comedy is both relief to and contrast with the pathos of the Tramp and Gamin’s desperate situation: they need to work to survive and to put a roof over their heads, yet they are too individualistic and rebellious to stay at their various jobs for very long. At the end of the day, they have chewed their way through a variety of unsuitable jobs, and their future prospects look very bleak, yet as long as they have each other, they have hope that times will be better and that maybe one day society will accept them for what they are.

In these two characters, Chaplin expresses his hope that humans will rise up above the technology that threatens to engulf and enslave them with courage, imagination and not a little cheekiness. The irony is that the Tramp and the Gamin desire the same things that most Americans were after – secure jobs, money coming in, a house and maybe family life – yet time after time bad luck, the period in which they were living, advances in technology that put people out of work and the pair’s past peccadilloes come to haunt them. Yet whatever hits them, the Tramp and the Gamin take their problems in their stride.

Yet even in this film, Chaplin only seems to go so far: the Tramp’s fellow work colleagues seem hell-bent on conforming and dehumanising themselves for their bosses, and Chaplin’s treatment of workers engaged in street protest and the Tramp’s involvement in it is superficial. If Chaplin had any sympathy for the trade union movement and the notion of class struggle, he does not show it here. Unemployed workers are reduced to petty crime to survive – they apparently cannot appeal to trade unions or their communities to help them. Ultimately Chaplin’s message to his audiences to keep their chins up and hope for better times, just as the Tramp and the Gamin do as they walk off into the sunset, starts to look like an excuse to avoid the issue of fighting for social justice and calling people’s attention to the exploitation that they suffer from their political, economic and cultural masters.

Freaks: a sympathetic work that pleads on behalf of its performers and turns normality on its head

Todd Browning, “Freaks” (1932)

A unique cult film of the kind that can be said to be the only film of its genre – outsider film, perhaps – “Freaks” is actually a sympathetic work highlighting the abilities of several of its cast members who had physical or mental disabilities. The title itself is intended to be ironic, forcing viewers to question who the real freaks in the movie are. All the action takes place in a circus, which itself is significant because for Under Southern Eye readers of a certain age, that was the traditional repository where children dreamed of running away to, if conditions at home were bad, and where they knew they would be accepted for what they were, be they beautiful or ugly or deformed, because everyone in the circus was an outsider of some kind or another. The very venue of a circus becomes a place where “normality” is interrogated and turned on its head, and the audience is forced to consider institutions like family and concepts like loyalty, payback and revenge anew.

The plot is related in flashback, and this in itself turns the whole film into a parable about acceptance and discrimination, and what happens if by threatening one individual, an entire community is threatened. Hans (Harry Earle), a circus midget, falls head over heels in love with normal-sized trapeze artist Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova), despite being engaged to Freda (Daisy Earle, Harry’s sister). Cleopatra treats Hans patronisingly until she discovers that he is heir to a massive fortune. She then conspires with fellow performer and secret lover Hercules for her to marry Hans, get rid of him and abscond with the fortune together with Hercules. She goes through with the first part of the plan but Hans discovers the plot to kill him through her and Hercules’ indiscretion and with the help of the circus sideshow freak community foils the two lovers’ evil plot.

Along the way viewers are treated to character vignettes of the various sideshow freak performers which generate sub-plots that unfortunately go nowhere. The film was originally 90 minutes long but cuts forced by the studio that funded it reduced the film’s length to 75 minutes and most of the 15 minutes that were cut well and truly ended up in the Great Garbage Bin in the Sky. Thus we never learn how the conjoined twin sisters Daisy and Violet (Daisy and Violet Hilton) manage to live with Daisy’s husband, a stuttering performer in Hercules’ routine, and the circus owner’s son who woos Violet and asks her to marry him (she accepts), nor whether Venus (Leila Hyams), Hercules’ ex-girlfriend, finally escapes Hercules’ temper and violence and finds happiness with Frozo (Wallace Ford) the clown. We also do not know what really happens to Hercules at the end of the film – apparently in the cuts, there is the suggestion that he was castrated – or, more importantly, whether Hans and Freda find happiness together.

The acting can be very uneven – the Earle siblings are not too convincing as would-be lovers but one doubts that actors who are siblings in real life would be able to play lovers very convincingly – and in parts the plot appears very rushed, particularly in the wedding feast scene where Cleopatra and Hercules reveal a bit too obviously to Hans and the wedding guests their affection for one another.

The film can be read as a plea for viewers to accept people with deformities as humans with all the passions and feelings that the rest of us take for granted, and that they are entitled to the same hopes for happiness, peace and love as all humans should be. The sideshow performers close ranks around Hans when they realise Cleopatra and Hercules are exploiting him. (One might expect that by the same token, had Hans spurned them, the sideshow performers would show him the consequences of his actions – by abandoning him when he most needs them.) All the sideshow cast are given significant roles and perform them to the best of their abilities – even the Human Torso (Prince Randian) gets a close-up scene all his own, if just to demonstrate how he lights up a cigarette.

When first released in pre-Depression America, the film flopped but since 1962, its cult status has grown in parallel with a growing sympathy for people with mental and physical disabilities; at the same time, the increasing rarity of such people in public and the cessation of avenues that highlight their differences might serve to separate them further from the general public so the apparent acceptance of people who look and behave very differently from the rest of us might be superficial.

Moon: using familiar ideas and concepts to generate thinking about the nature of individuality and identity

Duncan Jones, “Moon” (2009)

Like father, like son, no? … decades ago David Bowie sang songs of doomed astronaut Major Tom and in 2009 son Duncan Jones announces his arrival as a film director by making a movie about another doomed astronaut. Anything else that the film “Moon” might have in common with Dad’s songs and career? The film also turns on themes of personal isolation, paranoia, the fragility of identity and its dependence on memory, an individual’s link with humanity and how all these issues can be manipulated by a cynical corporate culture. On their own, these problems are quite weighty to deal with in a single film, let alone a debut film with a conventional plot and a fairly simple one at that. It’s no surprise then that “Moon” sometimes falters under the burden of its themes which more or less parallel aspects of David Bowie’s career as it progressed over nearly 50 years from 1967 to his death in early 2016 and its concerns with alienation and isolation, identity crises and transformations, and compromises with the commercial music industry, often to Bowie’s detriment as an artist.

The plot revolves around one character, Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell), the sole worker on a mining base, Sarang Station, operated by an energy company called Lunar Industries on the moon. The company’s business is to extract helium-3 from the moon’s surface and bring it to Earth for use as fuel. The entire mining facility can be operated by one person; all that Bell needs to do is oversee the harvesting machines and send the fuel to Earth in canisters. He is coming close to the end of his 3-year contract and looking forward to reunion with his wife and young daughter. A communication problem between Sarang and Lunar Industries means Bell only gets occasional drip feeds of messages from his wife Tess. The only other company Bell has is the facility’s HAL-like computer GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey) who attends to his every need with obsequious diligence.

Sam begins to experience hallucinations and one such hallucination causes him to crash his rover into a harvester. The next thing he knows, he is in an infirmary with no memory of the accident. While recovering, he overhears GERTY ordering a rescue team from Lunar Industries and receiving instructions not to allow him outside the base so he tricks GERTY into allowing him outside by faking an emergency. He retrieves the crashed rover and discovers his likeness lying in the vehicle. Bringing his twin back to base and helping to revive him, Sam now has to contend with which one of them is real and which is the clone, and what Lunar Industries has intended for both of them. GERTY is forced to admit that they are both clones, so the two Sams search the base and discover beneath the base that there is an underground facility stocked with hundreds of hibernating Sam clones.

Initially the film is a bit slow, so as to immerse viewers into the space environment and empathise with Sam’s isolation and its psychological effects (the hallucinations, the strange dreams), and the pace quickens after he discovers his clone in the rover. From this point on, the plot moves more briskly and many initial assumptions that viewers might have made about Sam are turned on their heads: the hallucinations he suffers are not due to his extreme social isolation but to the deterioration and shutdown of his circuits. Viewers gradually realise that the serious, cynical Sam of the film’s pre-crash first half is not the same serious, cynical Sam in the film’s post-crash second half; that’s right, the first serious Sam becomes the secondary, more jokey character (played by Robin Chalk) who sacrifices himself so that the “main” Sam character can fool the incoming rescue team (who will really serve as executioners for both Sams) and escape to Earth with a message about how Lunar Industries has been manufacturing clones to save on hiring proper astronauts and pocketing the wages that would have been paid.

The acting performances are good and the settings are also good, given that the film was made on a small budget in one studio with very few CGI effects. The actual premise of the film doesn’t quite make sense logically: if a society is advanced enough to create an apparently sharing, caring computer like GERTY, surely it is also advanced enough to make Sarang Station completely automated? Oh yeah, check, it is “completely automated” if one treats the clones as mass produced machines. But why would the clones be made to wear out after three years? Wouldn’t there be more sense in creating a clone that can last several years – unless Lunar Industries execs believe that after three years, a clone might have accumulated enough information and experience (as Sam has) to suspect it is being manipulated by its employer, start rummaging around the base and discover the awful secret about itself and its fellow clones?

If one puts aside the more implausible aspects of the plot – do the Sams really believe that people on Earth will believe their message about Lunar Industries’ unethical hiring practices? – then the film actually serves as a generator of ideas about how we think about the nature of individuality; whether it’s possible to regard clones, robots and other non-biological beings like them as more human than humans themselves if clones and robots become more than what their nature is intended to be, and humans less than what their potential is; and whether such creations are deserving of the same rights and freedoms as humans, that is, the rights and freedoms to be autonomous creatures capable of making decisions, and not to be subjected to exploitation and slavery. In this way the film pays tribute to earlier sci-fi influences like Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” and Ridley Scott’s “Bladerunner” which dealt with similar themes.

While not completely original, the film’s creativity is expressed more in the way it uses familiar ideas and concepts from other science fiction films and reinterprets them to suggest something new or overturn viewers’ expectations. The result is that “Moon” appears fresh despite riffing on familiar sci-fi movie motifs. Perhaps this is what makes this film unique even though much of it is derivative.

The one downside is the blaaah music soundtrack … couldn’t Jones have swallowed his pride about refusing help from Dad and asked him to create a half-decent soundtrack appropriate for the movie?

Trumbo: a moving dramatisation of a society’s delusions, paranoia and persecutions

Jay Roach, “Trumbo” (2015)

This biopic of Hollywood screen-writer Dalton Trumbo’s career from the late 1940s to 1970 is a vehicle for a survey of the anti-Communist witch-hunts conducted by US senator Joseph McCarthy and others, and of the effects it had on Hollywood and the lives of people employed by the movie industry. As a snapshot of how one individual’s life and career were nearly destroyed by the paranoia and fear created, maintained and manipulated by the US government, its agencies and people in or connected to Hollywood, “Trumbo” is a good and often very moving portrayal of the effects of repression in a society supposedly founded on Enlightenment values of individual freedoms and rights, and democracy.

Played by Bryan Cranston, Dalton Trumbo is the most well-known of the so-called Hollywood Ten, a group of scriptwriters and directors brought before the House Committee of Un-American Activities of US Congress, interrogated and found guilty of contempt or for promoting Communist propaganda. Trumbo is blacklisted and sent to prison for 11 months. When he is released in 1951, his real problems begin: he is forced to sell his ranch and move to a city neighbourhood where his neighbour spies on him and reports various goings-on at his house (though Trumbo and viewers are not to know this until quite late in the film). As his name is still on the blacklist, the writer is forced to find work cranking out B-grade movie scripts under various pseudonyms to King Productions, run by the formidable Frank King (John Goodman), which affects his marriage to Cleo (Diane Lane) and his relationships with his children, especially his oldest child Nicola (Elle Fanning). Although a few of Trumbo’s scripts win Academy Awards, Trumbo is unable to collect the Oscars he deserves.

Over time, as the hunt for Reds under people’s beds falls in on itself and Senator McCarthy is discredited, the atmosphere of fear begins to thaw out and people start to reach out to Trumbo: Kirk Douglas (Dean O’Gorman) hires him to write the script for “Spartacus” and Otto Preminger contacts him for typing duties on “Exodus”. When both films are released in cinemas in 1960, their credits include Trumbo’s name. In 1961, new US President John F Kennedy goes to see “Spartacus” in a blaze of publicity and this in itself signals that Trumbo is no longer blacklisted.

While Cranston’s performance as Trumbo is the most outstanding feature of the film, the film does shoehorn his character into a heroic figure fighting for his and others’ First Amendment rights, enduring prison life and then struggling to make a living and eventually regaining his rightful place in the public limelight. By necessity perhaps, the film takes some liberties in depicting certain events and incidents that occur during the period of Trumbo’s blacklisting and ignoring others to reinforce this heroic view of Trumbo. The character of gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren) is played up into a vicious and nasty witch in fancy clothes. Trumbo’s brief arguments with the fictional character Arlen Hird (Louis CK) on issues of an individual’s place in society, whether people should challenge and change the system, or if working with the system when one is down and out is morally acceptable, don’t amount to very much even though they deal with aspects of the themes that drive the film’s narrative. In this narrative, Lane’s role as Trumbo’s long-suffering faithful wife is very limited and stereotyped and Fanning equally has little to do as Nicola whose transformation into a teenage activist should have merited sub-plot treatment.

Where the film does excel is in painting through scenes featuring minor characters a society drunk on and deluded by its own propaganda about the dangers of Communism and whipping itself into endless vicious circles of fear, paranoia and more propaganda. Priceless scenes include Hedda Hopper threatening a movie studio mogul by revealing his Russian Jewish origins and background in her gossip columns if he does not sack Trumbo; and Frank King throwing out a movie executive who tries to pressure him into sacking Trumbo when his employment of the struggling writer becomes the worst kept secret in Hollywood. True, in the 1950s Communism in the Soviet Union, eastern Europe, China and other parts of the world could be brutal and repressive but what Trumbo and his fellow Hollywood Ten comrades argued and fought for was Americans’ right to exercise their First Amendment rights, this is no more and no less than what we would expect in a normal functioning Western liberal democracy. There is a real sense of a society brainwashed by fears more imagined than real, and of individuals made to suffer for crimes they did not commit. The most tragic scenes are those that involve Hollywood actor Edward G Robinson (Michael Stahlberg) who is under pressure to denounce Trumbo to save his career and who eventually caves in to the authorities but feels tremendous guilt afterwards in betraying his friend.

For all that the film does well, there is one major problem which is a consequence of its being a fictional drama of one particular real-life character, and that is that viewers get no sense of how US society changes through the 1950s to the extent where Douglas and Preminger feel brave enough to reach out and rescue Trumbo, and help revive his career. There is nothing to say about how Senator McCarthy was eventually discredited by his own actions and the suspicions of his fellow politicians about the anti-Communist hysteria he helped to stir. If there are real heroes in “Trumbo”, they are Douglas and Preminger who surely risked their own careers by hiring him but we know nothing of any risks they took or any sacrifices they made on his behalf.

Films like “Trumbo” and “Spotlight” might represent a small and incipient trend by relatively unknown or second-tier directors in Hollywood in criticising aspects of modern US politics and society via dramatisations of significant historical events that turn on issues of individuals’ freedom and rights, and the abuses of power by governments or major institutions. What comes of this trend, whether it proves to be the renaissance of Hollywood or not, should be worth following.

Anomalisa: an incompletely developed film on alienation and the struggle to live in an oppressive conformist society

Charlie Kaufmann and Duke Johnson, “Anomalisa” (2015)

Not often does a film come along that encapsulates in its appearance and format its themes of human alienation, rootlessness, loss of identity and individuality and fear of the same, and the lack of authenticity in modern Western civilisation. By telling its story through animation and the use of three voice actors, two to voice individual characters and the third actor (Tom Noonan) to voice all other characters, “Anomalisa” says something about how modern society has robbed people of their uniqueness and crushes them with a banal, insincere culture through a particular if rather biased and narrow point of view, that being of its main character Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis) who himself embodies much of what is trite and troubling about the society he lives in.

British expat Stone is a motivational speaker and author based in Los Angeles whose recent book on customer service has become a best-seller and who has been invited to speak at a conference in Cincinnati, a city in the industrial rust-bucket Midwest region of the US. On the plane there, he re-reads a 10-year-old letter sent him by his old girlfriend Bella who happens to live in his destination city. After landing at the airport in the evening, he endures vapid chatter from the taxi driver who takes him from the airport to the four-star Hotel Fregoli (the name is taken from a mental disorder in which the sufferer imagines everyone to look and sound the same) whose stodgy interiors and furnishings resemble those of a prison, albeit a comfortable one. He calls his wife and son and engages in dull stereotyped conversation with them. He contacts Bella and they meet in the hotel bar – for the first time in over 10 years – but she is still upset over their break-up and she carries considerable psychological baggage from her recent relationship which has also broken up and the two former lovers separate in anger and distress. Michael then saunters off to find the toy-shop the taxi driver had told him about – and which turns out to be a toy-shop for adults – to buy a present for his son.

Back at the hotel and feeling depressed – it’s late at night by now – Michael meets two young women who have travelled all the way by car from their small-town call-centre jobs to see and hear him speak at the conference. Emily is just like everyone else he meets but her companion Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is another thing altogether: her face a bit disfigured and hidden under a thick irregularly shaped mop of hair, having had a limited education and suffering from low self-esteem, Lisa is not at all what Michael has come to expect of Americans in all their commonplace conformity. She speaks what’s on her mind (out of nervousness perhaps), admits that she likes Cyndi Lauper and, after some persuasion from Michael, sings Lauper’s biggest hit “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” right off the bat. The older man is smitten with Lisa’s charm and after drinks with the two girls, manages to persuade her to come back to his room with him. One thing leads to another and next thing you know – after a brief detour into a dream scene that might riff on current American fears about pervasive surveillance and the possibility of being blackmailed or arrested for associating with people different from yourself – Michael and Lisa are having breakfast together. At this point, Michael looks at Lisa anew … and the day ahead (the conference, the return home, family reunion) starts to unravel.

The film moves at a fair clip covering what is basically mundane material – a jaded and depressed middle-aged man goes on a business trip, preys on a young woman and has a one-night stand with her – which it uses to explore its themes of alienation and trying to survive as an authentic being in a society of stifling conformity. The audience comes to realise that Michael’s depression and alienation are as much a result of past refusal to take personal responsibility and an unwillingness to listen to and connect with others, as demonstrated early on in his failed reunion with the fragile Bella, as it is of the machine-like soulless corporate nature of American society. A couple of scenes in the film in which his identity appears to be fragmenting and falling apart to reveal the robot beneath highlight the depth of his depression and the fragility of the identity that he has. The fact that Michael is not American-born might give a hint of his rootlessness which might lie at the bottom of his feelings of alienation; one would like to know something of his childhood and youth that led him to flee Britain and go to Los Angeles, that citadel of reinvention and manufactured identity.

For all his search for authenticity, as represented by Lisa, Michael’s reaction to it turns out to be depressingly selfish and banal: he tries to possess it and Lisa through sex and fantasises about leaving his wife and son and shacking up with Lisa. The breakfast scene is significant in that signs of incompatibility between Michael and Lisa appear as Michael starts picking on Lisa’s eating habits and Lisa’s voice increasingly changes to those of everyone else around Michael. The scene breaks off midway through and the audience does not see what happens next, which some viewers may consider a major weakness of the film, but it should not be hard to guess that Michael and Lisa start arguing and break up in almost the same way that he broke up with Bella all those years ago. Fortunately, for all her hang-ups about her appearance and her lack of confidence, Lisa is not as fragile as Bella and treasures the evening she spent with Michael. For his part, Michael returns to the existential hell that he in part has made for himself.

The film dwells very little on why US society has become so oppressively conformist although Kaufmann and Johnson do include one remarkable moment in which a confused and disoriented Michael, giving his address to the conference, goes off script and starts railing against the US government and its foreign policy, and declares that the world “is falling apart”, at which point his audience begins booing. This can only further alienate Michael from the people and country that he calls home, and this is as daring as Kaufmann and Johnson come in suggesting that the entire US nation is living in an alternative universe far removed from authenticity and reality. Michael later dutifully returns to his wife who has put on a home-warming celebration but to him everybody there is a robot looking exactly the same as all the other robots he knows.

The film’s narrative does appear incomplete at times and the action can appear forced. It is odd that Emily allows her sexually inexperienced friend to go off with a much older man and the brief affair is rather creepy. The breakfast and conference address sequences are woefully incomplete and we do not know whether Michael’s woozy performance of a speech (which he has probably delivered hundreds of times before) has ruined his career as a motivational speaker and writer. The film gives no sense of closure as the characters return to their everyday lives and routines, perhaps never to meet again. Given the themes though, the incomplete nature of the plot and underdeveloped ideas might be considered part and parcel of what the film aims to achieve: how to cope and survive in a society whose true horrific nature we have only a fragmented knowledge of, with not much in our arsenal save force of habit, our self-centredness, desire for immediate gratification, and the need to please and to conform as our weapons against evil.

Rendition: straining to present an honest and critical view of US foreign policy

Gavin Hood, “Rendition” (2007)

Rarely does Hollywood release a film that attempts to address and deal with issues critical of US government foreign and domestic policy in an honest way: “Rendition” is one such film that criticises the use of renditioning (arresting suspected terrorists and sending them to foreign countries to force them to give up information under torture, all under the supervision of US intelligence agencies), in a context that makes renditioning personal and puts it into a wider context that audiences can understand. The film is also to be commended for trying to show how terrorism might arise, how easily people might become terrorists and commit acts of terrorism, and how US policy itself influences people to resort to violence when everything else they do is either spurned or met with violence. If that weren’t enough, the film describes how individuals can be plunged into a Kafkaesque world of secrecy, violence and trauma through bureaucratic incompetence and indifference.

The film manages all of these things by running three linked subplots in parallel. The main plot concerns Egyptian-born US resident Anwar el Ibrahim (Omar Metwally) who is arrested at Washington airport after his return from a business trip to South Africa en route to his family in Chicago; he is questioned by a CIA officer who doubts his answers and who then sends the confused man to Egypt where he falls into the hands of the interior minister Abasi (Yigal Naor) and CIA agent Douglas Freeman (Jake Gyllenhaal). Both Abasi and Freeman are after information about a recent suicide bomb attack in a street market that killed Freeman’s boss; the man’s death puts Freeman into his boss’s place and Freeman, somewhat a novice, finds himself responsible for Ibrahim’s welfare. Abasi tries to force information out of Ibrahim by various tortures (stripping him naked, keeping him in isolation, waterboarding, electrocution) while Freeman feeds the official questions and observes the questioning. Freeman increasingly feels conflicted over the increasing levels of torture Abasi metes out to Ibrahim and Ibrahim’s distress, and while the agent tries to cope with the demands of his job in the usual ways – drinking to excess, visiting strip clubs – he finds he is only delaying his own mental breaking point if he does not do something for his victim.

Meanwhile Ibrahim’s wife Isabella (Witherspoon) is frantic with worry at her husband’s disappearance and contacts an old flame Adam Smith (Peter Sarsgard), who is an aide to a powerful senator (Alan Arkin) in Washington, in the hope that he can find out what has happened to Ibrahim. Smith does what he can but comes up against two thick brick walls in the form of his senator boss and CIA head Corinne Whitman (Meryl Streep) who deny any knowledge of the CIA renditioning programme or of Ibrahim’s whereabouts. Smith’s inability to find out anything more about Ibrahim and his unwillingness to upset his boss and jeopardise his own job prospects strains his friendship with Isabella. Isabella’s distress threatens her pregnancy and she goes into early labour.

The third subplot deals with Abasi’s wayward and headstrong teenage daughter Fatima (Zineb Oukach) who, unwilling to marry a boy chosen for her by her father, runs away and shacks up with a sensitive and artistic teenage boy of working-class background. The boy tells Fatima about his family and his older brother in particular. The film gradually reveals that the older brother had been recruited by a secret jihadi group to carry out acts of violence, and that the last such act led to the brother’s arrest, torture and death at the hands of Abasi’s police. The younger boy, keen to avenge his brother’s death, joins the same jihadi group whose leaders cynically plan to use him as a suicide bomber to stage an attack on Abasi’s life. Abasi himself races against time to find Fatima before she puts herself in danger as a result of her relationship with the would-be jihadi martyr.

Because the film’s message unites these stories, they are under-developed and the characters serve more as stereotypes than as real individuals. Even so, all the actors do what they can with the skimpy material they are given and they achieve quite a lot in an understated way. Gyllenhaal, Sarsgard and Witherspoon are to be commended with fleshing out their characters caught in moral dilemmas not of their own making but of the making of the system and ideology they work for or live under. Metwally has the least to do for a major role which involves being kicked around a lot and not being able to do much about that – but his character maintains some dignity even when Freeman has lost his. Streep’s Whitman is an all too obvious villain with a fake Deep South accent. Naor’s portrayal of Abasi as chief torturer and loving if patriarchal and traditional father is not especially nuanced but the character’s attempts to control fate and individuals that fail disastrously for him and his family are understandable and might elicit some sympathy. Fatima, her boyfriend and his dead brother become as much innocent victims as they are perpetrators of violence. The jihadi leaders capitalise on legitimate Egyptian working-class concerns about being exploited and harassed by government authorities (working together with the Americans) to insert and promote their own self-serving agenda based on their narrow interpretations of the Qu’ran and sharia law.

The film’s resolution of its plot strands isn’t entirely convincing and much of it is contrived to appease a mainstream audience for whom the sanctity of family is a given. One wonders though how the surviving characters will be able to pick up the pieces of broken relationships and careers, or relationships sorely tested by loss. The way in which the film handles its subplots so they run concurrently rather than in sequential order throws the character of Abasi into something of a moral minefield: has he learned anything from the tragedy he suffers? To this viewer, he seems not to have. Can Freeman and the Ibrahims do any better?

Even with its flaws, “Rendition” is still a valuable film for the way it deals with important issues in an age of increasing Cold War Version 2.0 propaganda and the demonising of Arab and Muslim peoples.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street – Hollywood Goth drama undone by misanthropy and poor source material

Tim Burton, “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” (2007)

US film director Tim Burton has long been fascinated with non-conformists and outsiders, especially those outsiders who become so because they live in oppressive environments, and he has also been keen on revealing the darker aspects of human nature and society. He has obviously experienced being marginalised himself and past film work of his argues strongly on behalf of those persecuted by mainstream society because of their differences and their struggles with having to conform to unrealistic standards. The Victorian melodrama of London barber Sweeney Todd who is unjustly banished by a corrupt judge to Australia for a crime not of his own doing and who later returns seeking bloody vengeance against the judge who destroyed his family and the society that condemned him was bound to appeal to Burton.

His adaptation of the Stephen Sondheim musical of the tale though seems ill-advised for someone who cares about the plight of oppressed individuals; even with all the changes Burton had to make to the musical to bring the tale to the screen, the plot turns out to be superficial and focuses on spectacle, shock and sensationalist violence, and the music and lyrics are very boring and repetitive. The original melodrama itself and the musical material are mostly to blame – there really is not much substantial for Burton to work with – but the director himself does not bring much new to the film. Even the cast he assembles for the film depends heavily on two actors, Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, who have worked with the director on several other films (and HBC was Burton’s de facto wife at the time as well) and who both knew what was expected of them for this movie.

Benjamin Barker (Depp) returns to Victorian London by ship accompanied by sailor Anthony Hope (Jamie Campbell Bower), having previously been imprisoned and sent away for 15 years on trumped-up charges imposed by Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) because Turpin had lusted after Barker’s wife. With Barker gone, Turpin and his valet Beadle Bamford (Timothy Spall) lure Barker’s wife and daughter into their clutches; Turpin rapes Mrs Barker who then tries to kill herself and later goes mad. She is cast out into the streets and Turpin then brings up the daughter Johanna as his ward, planning later on to marry her. When Barker returns to London, he contacts his old landlady Mrs Lovett (HBC) who helps him re-establish his barbershop.

After despatching rival barber Pirelli (Sacha Baron Cohen) who tried to blackmail Barker, and missing a chance to kill Turpin, Barker and Lovett hit upon a scheme that benefits them both: Barker, now known as Sweeney Todd, starts killing a considerable proportion of his clients and sends their bodies down a ramp to Lovett in her dungeon where she processes the corpses through a mincing machine into meat for her pie-shop business. The couple do a roaring trade, the authorities initially suspect nothing, and Barker/Todd and Lovett start planning a future away from London with Lovett’s assistant Toby (Ed Sanders), inherited from Pirelli, in tow.

In the meantime, Hope meets Johanna (Jane Wisener) and falls in love with her; the young couple try to elope but Turpin intervenes and sends the defiant Johanna to a madhouse for women. This subplot is thinly developed, with Hope rescuing Johanna without too much trouble from a supposed prison and bringing her to Todd’s barbershop as refuge. By the time he does so, Todd and Lovett have become deranged serial murderers in their quest and Johanna is in as much mortal danger from Todd as she ever was from Judge Turpin.

The thinness of the plot and the lacklustre music, not helped much by the actors’ thin voices (but at least they try valiantly and Depp is not too bad as a singer), have to be padded out by Burton’s familiar Hollywood Gothic visual style of painting his lead actors’ faces to look haunted and ghost-like, and the depiction of London as faux-Dickensian. The violence and bloodletting are dealt with in forced comic Monty-Python style and the only real moment of horror which Burton actually does very effectively comes at the end when Toby, suspecting that Todd isn’t all that he seems to be, is led into the dungeon by Lovett who traps him there to face the full horror of what she and Todd have been up to.

The film veers between Burton’s sympathy for underdogs and the misanthropy of the lyrics, as his characters try to lift themselves out of poverty into Victorian middle-class comfort by preying on rich and poor alike. Eventually Todd’s desire for revenge and Lovett’s love for Todd and her attempts to create a family with him and Toby become their undoing. Burton obviously has fun picking up themes of longing for security and connection, desire for retribution against individual and social injustice, and the need for individuals to find a place in society that helps them fulfill other needs, throwing them all together and seeing what comes out. How the conflict that arises from the intersection of these individual needs results in tragedy. At the end of the film, the survivors of the carnage are no better off than its victims. Todd and Lovett end up being cannibalised by their own desires and scheming. What happens to Hope, Johanna and Toby remains unknown.

If there’s a message to be taken away, it seems to be that human nature is nasty and unredeemable, and even those individuals and layers of society badly treated by others are as bad and corrupt as those who mistreat them. Nothing in the movie – and I suspect in Burton’s source material, to judge from the lyrics – attempts to investigate the nature of a society that allows the rich and powerful like Judge Turpin and their hangers-on like Bamford to prey on the poor and to escape proper social justice while the poor tear themselves apart with personal hatreds and desires, as Todd and Lovett end up doing.

The bleakness of the film’s narrative, the underlying misanthropy and the sensational violence have to be covered up with a cartoonish presentation and an approach that goes for cheap laughs. None of the characters is very convincing and only the beggar woman persecuted by Lovett, along with Johanna, Toby and Hope elicit any audience sympathy.

Spotlight: a rare quality Hollywood film that celebrates good investigative journalism and examines the nature of evil and its spread

Tom McCarthy, “Spotlight” (2015)

On rare occasions Hollywood can still demonstrate an ability to make good films about muck-raking journalism and Tom McCarthy’s “Spotlight”, based on actual events, is one of these infrequent gems. The movie traces how an investigative journalism unit called Spotlight within The Boston Globe newspaper uncovered and exposed a huge scandal of child molestation and deliberate and systematic cover-up within the Roman Catholic Church in the Boston metropolitan area. The reporters quickly came up against a wall of denial, threats and (most of all) complicity and indifference that ran deep throughout Boston society and its political elite. For all its sophistication as a metropolis of a fair few million people, and offering a high standard of living and education, Boston is revealed to be insular and in some ways still possessed of a small-town mentality that grovels before rich and powerful institutions and bullies the vulnerable and the weak.l

Pedestrian in style and approach, “Spotlight” looks as if it had been made for TV viewing and its narrative employs a fly-on-the-wall viewpoint that fits the film’s matter-of-fact tone. At times the film feels a little like a documentary being made on the fly. It starts with the appointment of Marty Barron (Liev Schreiber) as The Boston Globe’s new editor, fresh from Florida and tasked with the thankless job of promoting the newspaper and jazzying it up against the onslaught of Internet-based news media, staff sackings and tighter budgets. At the same time, the Spotlight unit, led by Walter Robinson aka Robbie (Michael Keaton), is casting around for a project to do. Barron sees his opportunity and suggests that Spotlight should revisit an old story about a pedophile Roman Catholic priest. A bit reluctantly, the Spotlight unit agree to take up the story again, start researching the issue again, make inquiries and gradually uncover a much larger story of how a senior Cardinal, Bernard Law, in the Roman Catholic Church hushed up abuse cases, bought off lawyers and families with money, reassigned priests to other parishes where they committed new offences and pressured families and others not to talk about the abuse or to speak to the press.

The reporters not only have to overcome denial and duplicity within the Church and among its faithful and charity organisations, but also their employer’s inertia and the prickliness and suspicion of activist Paul Saviano (Neil Huff) and the rather cranky lawyer Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci) who are fighting for the victims’ rights for compensation and to be heard and acknowledged. Robbie himself wrestles with his own conscience that he failed to chase up the issue years earlier (and perhaps prevented new cases of sexual abuse) when it first arose. All the Spotlight team members also wrestle with loss of faith and disillusionment about the Catholic Church: they had been brought up as Catholics, some of their relations still are devout Catholics and they realise they may be shunned and ostracised by their families and communities once they expose the scandal.

The way in which the Spotlight reporters research the story and uncover more shocking and deeper aspects to the issue, to the point where they discover the scandal isn’t about just a few “bad apple” priests but about the Church’s own culture and how it is deeply situated in Boston society such that it can pull favours and literally make and break politicians’ careers, and ruin The Boston Globe if it wanted to, drives the film and gives it its energy and force. Director McCarthy co-wrote the script and it is very tight and focussed. All the actors are fully committed to their roles and all give of their best – in particular, Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams as two of the Spotlight reporters, and Tucci as cantankerous Garabedian. Although the actors all worked as an ensemble, Ruffalo probably edges out everyone else in his role as Mike Rezendes who is energised by the story and throws himself heart and soul into the investigation.

The film celebrates investigative journalism as it should be done and the nature of the work as well: it covers the research, the teamwork, the inquiries, visits to libraries and city council records departments, the value of support staff like librarians at The Boston Globe, and the crazy hours journalists often work to get interviews and meet deadlines. A plea for traditional journalism as opposed to the sloppy journalism of notorious online “citizen journalists” like Bellingcat is being made. The film can also be seen as an examination of evil and how evil can spread and maintain itself when otherwise good people fail to stand up and defend the weak and defenceless against injustice and oppression, but look the other way. Garabedian may note that it takes a village to raise a child, it also takes a village to abuse a child – but the film stresses that the village can also stop the abuse, if individuals within the village are courageous enough to see the abuse, call it for what it is and raise attention and awareness.