The King of Comedy: a dark and cynical work on the cult of fame and its dark twin, in a world where reality and fantasy may be one and the same

Martin Scorsese, “The King of Comedy” (1982)

I suppose most directors worth their salt who have amassed a considerable body of work have a sleeper film in there somewhere that initially bombed at the box office but which over the years has become a cult masterpiece. For US director Martin Scorsese, “The King of Comedy” lays good claim to being that film: in spite of its title and the presence of actors like Jerry Lewis and Tony Randall, this is a dark and often bitter and cynical work on the cult of fame and celebrity, and how notoriety, infamy and ignominy are its dark twin sister. Viewers are invited to sympathise with the film’s lead character Rupert Pupkin (Robert de Niro) who pursues purpose and meaning in his otherwise empty life, and who is unwilling (perhaps justifiably) to join the long queue of wannabe celebrity stand-up comedians doing time in clubs before indifferent audiences, telling the same jokes over and over, in the hope of breaking into showbiz, hobnobbing with other rich and famous actors and directors, earning millions and living a luxurious material (and just as spiritually empty) life, even as his fantasies combined with his lack of self-awareness lead him into carrying out desperate acts that end up pointing in one direction … to a maximum high-security prison for six years on charges of kidnapping.

Appropriately the film opens in an already disturbing way with late-night TV talk-show host Jerry Langford (Lewis in restrained form) being mobbed by autograph hounds and a deranged woman (Sandra Bernhard) who believes herself to be in love with Langford and he with her. Pupkin uses the commotion she creates to ask Langford if he can appear on his show; Langford tells Pupkin to contact his secretary. Pupkin does so the next day and the secretary (Shelley Hack) asks him to produce a tape of his work. Pupkin obliges and after hearing the tape, Langford’s staff advise him to get some work experience and polish his act. All through Pupkin’s encounters with Langford and his staff, viewers see that Pupkin is at once naive and deranged, and detached from the reality around him. The truth is that Pupkin is a mediocre talent with no social life and no connections that could get him a gig in a club.

As Pupkin becomes more demented, convinced that Langford has befriended him and is willing to be his mentor, the aspiring comedian begins to stalk his office and his home, and it is here that viewers see something of Langford’s personal life and the heavy price he has had to pay on the road to fame and fortune. While Pupkin aspires to become famous to escape the hell of poverty, loneliness and anonymity, Langford is a bitter and paranoid character insulated from the outside world by layers of lawyers, advisors and various hangers-on, all of them necessary to protect him from stalkers and fans who regard him as public property; there are occasions in the film where Langford escapes from his various cocoons to mingle with the crowds and feel anonymous. It is appropriate that the two men’s paths should cross repeatedly in the film to the extent that they exchange places and for one brief moment Pupkin achieves the fame he desires and Langford the anonymity he craves; in one scene where Langford sees Pupkin on TV, the grim and knowing expression on his face as he watches Pupkin is priceless.

The supporting cast is good to excellent: Sandra Bernhard as the equally deranged and lovelorn fashion designer Masha nearly steals every scene she shares with de Niro; other actors hold up their own without appearing to be overwhelmed working with Lewis or de Niro.

The blend of reality and Pupkin’s fantasy, to the extent where audiences are not sure whether the film’s denouement is one or the other, is smooth and just as disturbing as Pupkin’s own fragile grip on sanity. This suggests that the society in which Pupkin and others like him and Masha are able, sometimes even encouraged, to indulge their fantasies and resort to desperate actions is itself highly disturbed and also unable to distinguish between reality and fantasy. In a world where Western mainstream news media has become little more than a global public relations outfit for governments, corporations and the people behind them pursuing their own agendas and dreams of grandeur and self-importance, and the public is fed so-called news that bears no connection to real events, “The King of Comedy”, despite its ageing look – it was made over 35 years ago after all – still has something relevant to say to modern audiences.

Serpico: a character study of how one police officer’s personal crusade against corruption destroys him

Sidney Lumet, “Serpico” (1973)

As character studies go, “Serpico” is very good indeed: based on the biography of former New York City police officer Frank Serpico by Peter Maas, “Serpico” follows the career of its eponymous protagonist over a decade and a bit in the New York state police department as he gradually comes to realise the extent to which the force has compromised its own ideals and ethics and has become nothing more than just another gang of thugs – albeit well armed – susceptible to taking bribes, bending rules to suit itself, and ignoring the needs and safety concerns of the wider community it’s supposed to serve. He determines not to succumb to the blandishments of police force culture, however seductive they are, and to expose the system and indifferent attitudes of senior management to the public. Unfortunately this means that Serpico must isolate himself from his fellow police officers, well-meaning and kind they may be at times, to avoid succumbing to the same temptations they have fallen for, and the consequences for his personal life, his close relationships, his mental and physical health, and the later decisions he makes turn out to be severe. His fight against a corrupt institution and its insular culture is long and hard, and takes a heavy toll on him, and while Serpico’s battle is justified and the New York state police department finally decides to start cleaning up its organisation and culture, the police officer’s own health and career end up being shattered.

Al Pacino is suitably intense and fiery as Serpico, and throws himself right into the character to the extent where he lives and breathes Serpico, and has probably adopted some if not most of Serpico’s eccentricities as his own. For much of the film’s length, Serpico broods or glares at his superiors and other police officers – but the best moments are when his tough façade falls away and the vulnerable man, unsure that the path he has taken is the right one, lonely and afraid for his life and career, is exposed. Whatever his character is required to do, whether he beats up a drug-dealer, chases crooks, buys a lovable puppy or tries to reason with his girlfriends who threaten to walk out on him, Pacino handles all these and more without much strain.

The support cast varies from average to good, giving just enough to allow Pacino to dominate his scenes without overpowering them. The New York City urban landscape is a significant character in its own right: its buildings rundown, the streets and alleyways full of rubbish, and neighbourhoods harbouring drug rings, small-time criminals and others whose lives are affected by hard drugs and the gangs that supply them, the city may be enticing in its apparent promise to shower newcomers with fame and fortune if they work hard, obey the law and stay out of trouble, but it is also a cruel and demanding mistress to those who fail to achieve their versions of the American Dream.

The film’s pace is mostly leisurely and the plot takes its time to reveal itself in all its detail to viewers. At times “Serpico” feels more like a television series than a one-off biopic, so relaxed and low-key it is. Scenes come and go without much apparent resolution: we never do learn how the inquiry into police corruption proceeds and what conclusions it reaches and what recommendations it makes; and we must assume that the two women who love Serpico – not at the same time, mind you – never see him again. There may be something to be said for editing the film so it’s a little faster and more focused as it lurches towards that inevitable climax where he nearly dies. When the ending comes, it is completely unexpected and somewhat of a disappointment, even though if you know something of Serpico’s life or have read the Peter Maas book you know what’s going to happen, that it will be lacking in heroism or grandstanding speeches or a moral lesson. Viewers are forced to question the nature of true heroism and sacrifice, and to ponder whether the rightness of Serpico’s personal crusade more than compensates for nearly losing his life and having to give up the career he loves.

“Serpico” is an excellent example of the type of New Hollywood film, with its emphasis on realism and the focus on less advantaged levels of American society and their issues and problems of discrimination and poverty, post-Martin Luther King, that was being made in the 1970s. What a pity that such films are very rarely made these days, either by Hollywood or by independent film-makers.

The Post: a plea for freedom of speech and of the press, and for women’s progress in a film driven by dialogue and character study performances

Stephen Spielberg, “The Post” (2017)

A taut and minimalist political drama, “The Post” is driven by good dialogue and equally good if not outstanding character study performances by its three leading actors: Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks and Bob Odenkirk. The film is set in the early 1970s and is based on the struggle by whistle-blower military analyst Daniel Ellsberg and the newspapers The New York Times and The Washington Post (hereafter referred to as NYT and WaPo respectively) to publish the famous Pentagon Papers – classified government documents depicting the extent of covert US government involvement in the Vietnam War which included elevating Ngo Dinh Diem to the South Vietnamese Presidency and later assassinating him in a coup, and bombing Cambodia and Laos, and demonstrating that the US had no hope of winning the war against a determined Vietnamese population fighting for its independence – and the extraordinary measures the Nixon administration took to suppress their publication. The film focuses more narrowly on the efforts of WaPo owner Katherine Graham (Streep), WaPo executive editor Ben Bradlee (Hanks) and journalist Ben Bagdikian (Odenkirk) to publish the documents in spite of serious threats made against them including Bradlee losing his job and Kay Graham losing face among her Washington social set.

Initially the film is a bit all over the place, dashing from a Vietnamese jungle scene in which American soldiers are shot at and open fire in return, and the incident recorded by a war correspondent on the ground, emphasising the importance of good journalism in conveying accurate news about events to the public at home so people can decide whether the US should continue fighting a war where no-one seems to be winning and too many are dying; to Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) taking the documents and secretly copying them with the help of friends; to Graham and Bradlee going about their daily routines in running the newspaper. The film seems to take some time to settle into a clear linear narrative structure (or maybe I’m the one who needs time to see that structure) but once the plot emerges, it proceeds briskly, powered by lots of conversation and passionate performances, and the zigzagging from one plot strand to another and back becomes less distracting and is more easily understood. Spielberg applies some very deft editing to the ends and beginnings of scenes to maintain pace and tension, and bring some humour to relieve some tension when things seem a bit too hairy. His style is very restrained, allowing the actors to inhabit their characters. Background shots are very significant in establishing the look and style of the film.

Perhaps the film focuses too much on Kay Graham as a feminist icon and moulds her into a stereotypical socialite who inherits her father’s company and has to learn the hard way – being thrown into the deep end of the proverbial swimming pool and having to swim – of how to be an effective CEO among swarms of men more or less hostile to women in positions of power. In real life, by 1971 Graham had been running the WaPo for seven or eight years, having hired Bradlee in 1965, and was already as tough as nails in dealing with a sexist business world (though perhaps inwardly she was still shit-scared at times). The film’s message that Kay Graham was a lone feminist pioneer in being the first woman to head a major newspaper – and moreover, one that became famous for its investigative reporting under her reign – is underlined in heavy-handed fashion in scenes involving Bradlee’s wife Toni (Sarah Paulson) who initially is nothing more than a housewife but is later revealed as a talented amateur painter, and one particularly tacky scene in which Graham walks past a throng of fawning women in a crowd. These scenes do little to advance the plot.

As is Streep’s custom, she nails Graham’s look, gestures and manner of speaking to perfection. Hanks and other actors probably act more themselves though Hanks’ moment to shine comes when he contemplates a photo and wonders (in silence) whether his past friendships with significant American political figures have compromised his journalistic ethics.

The film makes a plea urging viewers to support accurate investigative journalism and whistle-blowing activism as vital elements in maintaining democracy and speaking truth to power, and to support gender equality as one link in enabling talented, committed people of integrity to become journalists or newspaper publishers who can bring governments and politicians to account. The film’s release comes at a time when freedom of speech and the press is under assault from governments, intelligence agencies, corporations and think-tanks pushing agendas and ideologies in which they have vested interests, as never before; it also comes at a time when identity politics based on gender, ethnic, religious and life-style interests has trumped class-based politics and threatens to divide and weaken the public, driving it into squabbling factions that can be dominated by The Powers That (Should Not) Be, like never before. (It should be said also that freedom of the press is also threatened by increasing ownership of news media outlets by billionaire individuals – like current Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos – who may hew to agendas and ideologies inimical to the public interest and press freedom.) The film’s criticism of the Nixon government can also be read as implied criticism of the current Trump government, and there is some concession that even the past Democrat administrations of John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Lyndon B Johnson (1961 – 1968) lied to the American people and continued to prosecute a war in which not only did hundreds of US soldiers die but US soldiers also committed war crimes.

There is much good that can be said for “The Post” but also much bad that can be said too.

 

All the Money in the World: a solid if dull and heavy-handed lesson on the importance of family ties (and how they’re exploited)

Ridley Scott, “All the Money in the World” (2017)

Intended as a character study on the ways in which people use and abuse power and wealth, “All the Money …” ends up a heavy-handed screed featuring various character stereotypes instead of characters based on actual people. The film revolves around the kidnapping of rich oil heir John Paul Getty III by ‘Ndrangheta mobsters in Rome in 1973. The 16-year-old Paul Getty III (Charlie Plummer) is spirited into the countryside by the Calabrian soldati who try to ransom him for US$17 million. News of the ransom is relayed to his mother, Gail Harris (Michelle Williams) and his grandfather John Paul Getty (Christopher Plummer) who respond in very different ways to the kidnapping: Gail is frantic at the news and desperate to get her son back, while JPG himself is more concerned that paying the ransom will only encourage more potential kidnappers to try to abduct his other grandchildren.

From there the movie dives into brief and hurried flashbacks to bring viewers up to speed on why Harris constantly implores old JPG for the money while the Calabrians wonder what the hold-up is and are becoming desperate with holding the boy and having to feed him. We learn that JPG was frugal and stingy with both his wealth and his love in his relationship with his son Paul (Andrew Buchan) who grows into a rather feckless husband and father while Harris tries to keep her family together and to pay the rent and other bills on time. Suddenly Paul Junior gets a job from JPG but it leads into too much easy wealth and pleasure, and before you know it, Paul Junior and Harris’ marriage ends in divorce. Harris gets custody of their four children but no alimony (courtesy of a vengeful father-in-law) so that when her eldest child is kidnapped, she is virtually penniless.

Flung back into the present day (of 1973), we viewers then follow two plot strands: Harris’ attempts to plead with and wheedle money out of a stubborn and miserly JPG and the kidnappers’ growing impatience with Harris, wondering why such a supposedly rich woman is taking so long to pay the ransom. In the meantime, JPG hires ex-CIA operative and current Getty Oil negotiator Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg in an underwhelming role) to investigate the kidnapping and rescue the boy … with as little expense, financial that is, as possible. The kidnappers, led by Cinquanta (Romain Duris), horse-trade Paul Getty III to their ‘Ndrangheta bosses – one of whom is Saverio Mammoliti (Marco Leonardi) – and the Calabrians scale up the intensity of their negotiations and their brutal treatment of their captive, culminating in the removal of his right ear and mailing it off to an Italian news media outlet to demonstrate that they mean business.

The acting is uneven: Plummer revels in his role as the scrooge oil billionaire, given that he stepped into the role at short notice after director Ridley Scott decided to replace Kevin Spacey as JPG and scrapped all that actor’s scenes after Spacey was hit with  allegations (as yet unproven at this time of review) of sexual harassment and assault. Plummer easily holds centre stage in all his scenes, pulling off JPG’s miserly, mean and manipulative behaviour in a way that cannot be resisted by those who come within his radioactive orbit. (I wonder if Spacey’s scrapped scenes are as good as Plummer’s and I suspect they are or possibly even better, and my suspicion that Spacey is the better actor might help explain why Scott rushed to replace all his scenes: a sterling acting performance would garner much audience sympathy for Spacey and none for his accusers.) On the other hand, Wahlberg has very little to do as the ineffectual Chase. Charlie Plummer’s Paul Getty III shows enough feistiness and bravado to combat the bumbling peasant gangsters and escape from them briefly; if he’d been given more to do, he might have become a character viewers could care about – but how much can a young teenage captive in the hands of a powerful criminal organisation do? Williams as the worried mother gives a good performance but again one has the impression that she could have given a lot more had her character been allowed more development. Minor cast members – in particular those playing JPG’s lawyers – put in serviceable performances as everyday people all looking out for number one. Indeed, the only character audiences are likely to have any sympathy for as a developed character is Cinquanta, the leader of the small-time crooks who kidnap the boy: his is the only character who appears to care for the boy as he is and who, in another universe, might have had a deep friendship with him in spite of their cultural and class differences.

Overall the film is solid if a bit slow for most modern audiences, and near the end of the film liberties are taken in the way Paul Getty III is eventually recovered, to maintain audience interest in a film of little action and mostly dull talk. Direction is competent without being outstanding – for Ridley Scott, his career high came early with “Alien” and “Blade Runner” and since then the career direction has been downhill, roller-coaster style – and the cinematography is good without being remarkable.

While the lesson about the importance of family vis-a-vis money is very sledgehammer earnest, it seems that everyone involved – even Gail Harris to some extent – is obsessed with wielding power and influence over others. For all the cultural differences between so-called money-hungry Americans and the supposedly family-loving and communal Italians, and how the rich and the poor live parallel lives and only rarely mix except in extraordinary events such as a kidnapping, there are moments in the film where the two opposed sides have more in common than perhaps even Scott and his script-writers realise: the Calabrian mobsters are prepared to press-gang their mothers and grandmothers into the drudgery of factory work making fake designer hand-bags, and have such a hold over their communities that even the police and ordinary citizens have to co-operate with them; Gail Harris finds the only way to extract anything from JPG is to think and act like him; and Chase uses the power he has in providing security detail for JPG’s family to berate and shame the old fellow. The times when an alternative and perhaps happier universe, free of the class antagonisms and obsession with material things and values, opens up are when Cinquanta and Paul Getty III have brief conversations but the script has no time or space to explore these short-lived possibilities.

Although the film has a happy ending, and the end credits suggest that JPG’s wealth was put to good use for the benefit of the American public, what transpired after Paul Getty III was reunited with his family is even more tragic than the kidnapping which came to define the oil heir’s life: suffering from trauma, much of it avoidable, from his abduction, the prolonged haggling over his ransom and the mutilation of his ear, Paul Getty III went off the rails with drink and drug addictions that climaxed in liver failure and a stroke at the age of 25 years. He lived as a partly blind and paralysed quadriplegic for the rest of his life until his death in 2011. At the same time, there were comic aspects to his abduction: many delays that occurred during his captivity were the result of postal strikes in Italy which meant that sometimes correspondence between his captors and his family and Italian police was slow; and the negotiations over the ransom money to the extent that the value of the teenager’s life went from a respectable US$17 million to a measly $4 million were at once petty and pathetic. A great director would have appreciated and tried to emphasise the tragicomic aspects of the defining event of Paul Getty III’s life and what they imply about how the pursuit of the capitalist dream deadens and ultimately kills the pursuer’s soul and sense of values. Unfortunately Ridley Scott is not that director – his approach and vision are too pedestrian.

 

Downsizing: an uneven satirical science fiction comedy commenting on various social, economic and political issues

Alexander Payne, “Downsizing” (2017)

For most viewers, perhaps the more interesting part of this long meandering film will be the first half in which main character Paul Sofranek (Matt Damon) decides to undergo miniaturisation for various reasons reflecting his status as a lower middle-class technocrat worker bee and the pressures that attach to that, and the actual miniaturisation process itself. The rest of the film is likely to leave audiences behind as Sofranek embarks on a journey of self-discovery and fulfillment among similarly downsized humans and is brought to the depths of existential despair and the equally dangerous highs of spiritual exhilaration in his adventures. If viewers were to tune out after the halfway point though, they will miss a great deal of satirical social commentary on the current state of the American middle class, the class system generally, climate change, the plight of refugees and outsiders in American society and cult behaviour among even supposedly enlightened communities.

Sofranek and wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) aspire to the typically American dream of material success – good jobs with incomes that accommodate a fair-sized house in a socially upward community, good schools and colleges for any children they may have – but due to past circumstances not wholly theirs to control, Sofranek’s dream of becoming a surgeon is downgraded to his being an occupational therapist for a meat-packing plant in Omaha, and the couple’s application for a loan to buy a cheap-looking over-sized McMansion house is dashed because they don’t have the income to support repayments. Through friends, the Sofraneks hear of a community called Leisureland where they can live the life they desire: the catch is they must consent to be downsized to 15 centimetres in height to live in this tiny community – the assumption being that tiny people can exist on a fraction of the resources that normal-sized people require. This assumption has grown from experiments done in years past by Norwegian scientists searching for alternate solutions for human survival in the event of climate change and/or reduced global resources due to overpopulation and overcrowding.

Paul Sofranek himself undergoes the downsizing – the process is very clinical, machine-like, even a little industrial, yet the creepiness of it is (depending on the viewer’s point of view) either attenuated or increased by the cheery music one associates with television situation comedies of the 1950s – but his wife chickens out at the last moment. Paul thus finds himself adrift in a sterile cartoon Disneyland gated community where he has the money to afford a huge mansion with cheap reproductions of famous European paintings. He decides to move into an apartment and (after his divorce) acquires a girlfriend who later rejects him when she discovers his neighbour is a noisy Serbian called Dušan (Christoph Waltz) who throws large parties. You know the Hollywood stereotype about Serbians: they’re either outright villains or just not to be trusted. Dušan invites Paul to one such party where Paul becomes intoxicated on an ecstasy tablet, dances all night long and crashes out next morning. He meets Dušan’s cleaner Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), a former environmental activist who was arrested and shrunk down as punishment by the Vietnamese government, and who now hobbles on an ill-fitting prosthetic leg she acquired after defecting to the US in a television carton. Ngoc Lan takes Paul to meet her sick friend and he discovers that the women live in a huge slum barrio, one of several on the outskirts of Leisureland. After trying (and failing miserably) to help both Ngoc Lan and the friend with their health issues, Ngoc Lan co-opts Paul into her cleaning service – at least he gets to visit different people and workplaces, so he gladly leaves the telemarketing job he currently has – and the two run a parallel charity in which, instead of receiving payment for cleaning rich people’s houses and business premises, they take away unwanted food, medicines and other supplies for the barrio.

Later Paul and Ngoc Lan travel with Dušan and his skipper friend Konrad (Udo Kier) to Norway to meet members of the original tiny community in an idyllic fjord forest setting. However the people of this community receive news about methane releases in Antarctica and decide that the global extinction of humans is about to begin so they prepare for a transformative event that appeals to Paul.

The cast puts in excellent performances with Hong Chau and Christoph Waltz being the most outstanding. Ngoc Lan’s broken English skills hide a cunning and manipulative personality who knows exactly what she wants. Dušan is a louche playboy who makes his money in the grey areas between what’s legal and what’s not but he, like Ngoc Lan, turns out to have a heart of gold. Damon’s acting is rather more limited in style and expression but his character represents an everyman stereotype, not too bright, and limited in knowledge and expression, perhaps because he has trained for a narrow occupational specialty and was shunted into a niche where he is expected to stay, though changing circumstances mean he will eventually become redundant. Through his adventures with Dušan, Ngoc Lan and Konrad, Paul comes to appreciate humanity as a whole, to learn compassion and true tolerance (as opposed to tolerating people’s presence), and to realise that his purpose in life is to keep on listening and learning, to put others’ needs above selfish desires, and to help others not so fortunate and privileged as he is. True social change comes not from following fads and movements promising utopia but from working with others to improve society as is.

There are so many social, political and economic issues treated in satirical ways in “Downsizing” that the film can only deal with them in a superficial way. The result is that the plot lurches from one issue to the next: first, we have overpopulation as an issue; then come miniaturisation and one social issue that arises from that (will tiny people have the same rights and freedoms as normal-sized people if they shut themselves away in tiny communities?); the class divisions in Leisureland are another, signifying that even tiny communities are not utopias but merely replicate the economic and political structures of their original source communities; doomsday cults are another issue. Far from being a solution to climate change and overpopulation, miniaturisation is simply another means to social avarice and meaningless consumerism. The point could be made though that overpopulation is not itself a problem: the real problem is that the wealth of the Earth is unevenly distributed among peoples due to the economic and political systems that we have which ensure that a wealthy few not only acquire more than they deserve but are prepared to defend what they have to the point of enslaving or killing others to keep their wealth and acquire more. In this respect, the miniaturisation project goes some way (but only a little) to redistribute some of the wealth to a few lucky have-nots – but even they are seduced by the dream of having more. (And if the film’s science were accurate – which it is not – miniaturisation wouldn’t even be considered as one panacea to the unequal distribution of resources: tiny humans would need to eat more, several times their weight even, and thus by sheer necessity take up more resources for their size, simply to keep warm.) True redistribution comes from caring for others and sharing with others, not from isolating oneself in a luxury retirement-village gated community or in a hippie village anticipating an apocalyptic scenario and acting as a doomsday cult, and this is the difficult lesson Paul must learn.

For all its faults and limitations as a tale of self-discovery and redemption, “Downsizing” may eventually attain lasting cult status: it presents issues of varied social, economic and political import, and at the very least prompts serious thinking on these issues, even if it itself fails to answer them adequately.

Batman: The Movie – a cult bad-movie masterpiece with a daring and subversive edge

Leslie H Martinson, “Batman: The Movie” (1966)

In an age when comic book superheroes were treated with the respect and dignity they deserved, this film – spun off from the television series of Batman and Robin’s crusades against crime in Gotham City to cash in on its cult popularity – is not only a comic bad-movie masterpiece but brilliantly captures the mood and style of 1960s pop culture. The film and TV series together also reflect the mood and style of the Batman comics of the time, with no little exaggeration and parody (and in their parody, criticise US censorship laws of the period that forced comics to didactically uphold traditional middle-class American values). The acting is exaggerated and hammy, the dialogue oozes cheese throughout and the plot is basically a string of comedy skits that only really make sense after the film finishes.

Batman (Adam West) and Robin (Burt Ward) are tipped off that Commodore Schmidlapp is in trouble aboard his yacht and attempt to rescue him when they sight it. The yacht suddenly vanishes and the dynamic duo discover they have been led into a trap. They later deduce that the trap was laid for them by the United Underworld, a new organisation formed by their most deadly enemies: Catwoman (Lee Meriwether), the Joker (Cesar Romero), the Penguin (Burgess Meredith) and the Riddler (Frank Gorshin). The fearsome foursome have kidnapped Schmidlapp to seize his invention: a dehydrator gun that turns humans into coloured powder. The criminals use various means to try to destroy Batman and Robin, including a plot using Catwoman disguised as Soviet journalist Miss Kitka to lure and kidnap millionaire Bruce Wayne (Batman’s alter ego) so as to draw the superheroes into rescuing him and thus falling into another trap. All the various schemes hatched by the supervillains – most of the brilliant ideas coming from the Penguin – ultimately fail to affect the dynamic duo though in some scenarios the superheroes’ survival is due to pure and improbable “deus ex machina” luck such as a porpoise hurling itself in front of a torpedo to save the humans.

Our heroes are unable to prevent the kidnapping of the diplomats representing the member nations of the United World Organisation Security Council by the supervillains who use the dehydrator gun on them. Batman and Robin hop into the Batboat and chase the crooks who are trying to leave town in the Penguin’s submarine. Robin uses a sonic charge gun to force the submarine to surface and from there the dynamic duo must fight the supervillains and their minions to recover the phials of coloured powder that the diplomats have become.

The film’s first half is a colourful riot of sight gags, in-jokes, silly acting and the most deadpan silly dialogue ever to pass between two individuals in the history of superhero films, which West and Ward dutifully carry out with the straightest of straight faces. Batman and Robin are essentially incorruptible figures of goodness that fight for justice and radiate the innocence, even naivety of such virginal symbols. While the cast enjoy themselves, their roles are very uneven: Meredith and Meriwether as the Penguin and Catwoman respectively have more work to do than Romero’s Joker and Gorshin’s Riddler who do little more than go along for a ride in the Penguin’s submarine and behave clownishly. The criminals ham up their evil tendencies and just barely manage to get along to get their plot to hold the world to ransom off the ground. West is called upon to demonstrate a more romantic side of his character and passes muster with a surprising mix of earnest po-faced style and aggressive intensity.

After the halfway mark, the film becomes a more formulaic piece as the superheroes race to rescue the diplomats and unexpectedly deliver a possible gift to the world in their attempts to rehydrate the politicians. The novelty value of the individual characters, the colourful sets, and the comedy episodes in which Batman and Robin stumble into ingenious traps and must escape death quickly wears off. The film delivers its own comment about the Cold War and the ability or inability of world leaders and diplomats to bring about world peace. (That a comedy parody featuring hammy acting, silly dialogue and a laughable plot would introduce comment on global politics and its worth and carry it off is sheer genius.) At the same time, Batman experiences wrenching heartbreak when he discovers that Miss Kitka and Catwoman are one and the same; his reaction is genuinely tragic to watch but he continues to carry himself with dignity.

For all its limitations, the film is a cult classic of its time: its highlights include its high production values, including the sets; the science fiction elements and gadgetry; the glee with which scriptwriters invent traps and dilemmas for the superheroes; the subversive undercurrent running beneath Batman and Robin’s strait-laced relationship; and the suggestion that our political leaders do not serve us well but greedily pursue power and influence over us.

 

Pride + Prejudice + Zombies: affectionate spoof historical comedy drama / horror film mash-up could have promised more

Burr Steers, “Pride + Prejudice + Zombies” (2016)

At long last, instead of yet another BBC TV series adaptation or British / Hollywood movie version of the famous Jane Austen novel of marriage and manners, we have an affectionate spoof in which the Bennet sisters – or just two of them, Elizabeth (Lily James) and Jane (Bella Heathcote) – not only sing, dance, play piano and chat wittily at parties and afternoon tea but also fight and kill zombies with knives, swords, guns and Shaolin kung fu. Yes, this is the movie adaptation of the mash-up novel by Seth Grahame Smith which credits Austen as co-author. Although it’s been a long time since I read the original Austen novel – I had to read it for school – and I have never read the mash-up, the film is surprisingly faithful in spirit if not in the details of the original plot and preserves most of its characters.

In early 19th-century England, the moderately wealthy Mr Bennet has trained his five daughters to fight the zombies that have recently overrun that green and sceptred land after a mysterious Black Plague has swept through the country and laid waste to much of it. His frivolous wife is keen to see her daughters hitched to wealthy gentlemen suitors. The family attends a ball hosted by the rich Bingley family and young heir Charles Bingley is attracted to Jane Bingley. Zombies then gate-crash the ball and the Bennet girls help in dispatching them to Purgatory. Elizabeth Bennet catches the attention of Fitzwilliam Darcy (Sam Riley), an even more wealthy gentleman than Charles Bingley and a noted zombie killer to boot. While both Elizabeth and Darcy are attracted to each other, a misunderstanding between them soon arises concerning why Darcy advises Charles Bingley to keep his distance from Jane.

Parson Collins (Matt Smith) pays a visit to the Bennets and proposes marriage to Elizabeth if she will give up her warrior ways but the lass refuses to do so, to the fury of her mother and the relief of her father. About the same time, Elizabeth becomes acquainted with George Wickham (Jack Huston), a soldier who tells her a sob-story about how badly Darcy has treated him and denied him his inheritance. Wickham takes Elizabeth to visit St Lazarus Church in a no-go zone in London where zombies fed on pigs’ brains to calm them down worship. Wickham hopes that these zombies can eventually co-exist peacefully with humans. Failing to persuade Elizabeth of the worth of his plan, he tries to convince her to elope with him but she refuses. At a later time, Darcy also tries to propose marriage to Elizabeth and the attempt ends in a hilarious sword-fight and battle of wits between the two.

Darcy writes a letter of apology to Elizabeth, telling her why he advised Bingley to stay away from Jane – Darcy having believed she was merely after Bingley’s fortune due to Mrs Bennet’s loud-mouthed behaviour at the Bingley ball – and the truth behind Wickham’s lack of money: the soldier squandered his inheritance, tried to hit up Darcy for more money and might have even infected Darcy’s father with the plague germ that zombified old Mr Darcy, forcing the younger Darcy to kill him. Darcy and Elizabeth later discover that her younger sister Lydia has run off with Wickham and that Wickham is preparing a zombie army to invade and take over the whole of London.

The plot just about manages to stay the course of the film – though it does become formulaic towards the end with a climactic fight  between Darcy and Wickham – with no collapse while incorporating key sub-plots and incidents and remaining faithful in the portrayal of the main characters of Elizabeth and Darcy, and even minor characters like the Bennet parents. Wickham is upgraded into the major villain and Huston looks as if he’s having great fun playing an aristocratic wannabe liberator of zombies from their presumed state of savagery so they can share in the wealth of England. Indeed, all the actors seem to be enjoying themselves and the result of their enthusiasm is excellent acting and fairly well defined characters in a film where there’s hardly much pause in the action. Of minor characters, Matt Smith dominates all his scenes as the pompous and obsequious parson, turning Mr Collins into a comic figure to be pitied rather than scorned, and his performance is the best in the film. Lena Headey’s Lady Catherine de Bourgh turns out a surprisingly layered, even sinister character in the few scenes she has; the pity is that she is not a more useful character in the film other than being an obstacle in Darcy and Elizabeth’s paths to happiness together.

The film doesn’t say anything about the status of upper class women and their treatment in Regency England that hasn’t already been said by Jane Austen herself or the various film adaptations of “Pride and Prejudice”. For all their skills as zombie fighters and killers, the Bennet sisters are still reduced to whatever economic value they are worth as the daughters of a minor aristocrat. That humans would waste precious time and energy preoccupied with who’s who in their social hierarchy, how much money a prospective suitor makes and constant match-making while all around them the zombies not only don’t make class distinctions among themselves but don’t discriminate among the humans either is an irony the film fails to capitalise on. The zombies tend very much to stay in the background and viewers see nothing of how the calm zombies might conduct their lives when they are not set upon by humans. Perhaps Wickham’s suggestion that humans and zombies could learn to live together is more pertinent than it first appears: the zombies could certainly represent the disenfranchised proletariat classes of Regency society. A scene in the middle of the end credits suggests as much, as the zombie masses, led by a zombified Wickham, march towards the horrified upper classes in their gilded-cage mansions.

Apart from this, the film is mainly to be enjoyed as a distinctive adaptation of the famous novel but no more. The main problem with “Pride + Prejudice + Zombies” is that the feature film format is too short to deal with the original novel and the zombie invasion to do both justice and needs a mini-series format that could treat Regency-era zombies as a metaphor for the poor and oppressed. The savage zombies could represent the prejudices of the aristocrats and their biased views about zombie behaviour. The upper classes may be proud of their wit, their culture and fighting skills, but their pride is a desperate one rooted in the knowledge that one day they and their culture and values will all be swept away by the zombie hordes.

The mash-up literary genre that produced “Pride + Prejudice + Zombies” and other odd combinations like “Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters” and “Android Karenina” ultimately became a temporary publishing fad but it could have promised more.

Dog Day Afternoon: character study centred around a failed heist in a morally adrift America

Sidney Lumet, “Dog Day Afternoon” (1975)

A character study featuring stunning acting from lead actor Al Pacino, this film captures the jaded atmosphere of a post-hippie / post-Vietnam War America that has lost its ideals and sense of moral direction, and which is just as likely to cheer as its heroes two inept bank robbers as it would more conventional role model types. The film is based on an actual bank robbery that occurred in New York City in 1972. First-time crook Sonny Wortzik (Pacino) and two accomplices, Sal (John Cazale) and Stevie (Gary Springer) attempt to rob a small savings bank but their plan goes awry when Stevie, in charge of the getaway car, loses his nerve and bails out. The would-be heist hits another snag when the bank’s mostly female employees admit that most of the day’s takings have already gone to head office and only enough for next day’s business has been left in the safe. Sonny then seizes the bank’s holdings of travellers’ cheques and tries to burn the register listing them. Smoke emanates from the building’s exhaust, alerting the shop-owner across the road, who then telephones the police. Within minutes, New York’s boys in blue surround the bank completely – even snipers suddenly appear atop neighbouring buildings – and the bank robbers are forced to hunker down for the night with their hostages. The security guard has an asthma attack and goes free when the police call for the release of a hostage early on; the bank manager goes into diabetic shock and the robbers call for a doctor.

During the stand-off between the robbers and the police, crowds gather around the bank and show their support for Sonny who takes advantage of the situation when he appears outside and parades as an outsider, a little man resisting the full might of sinister government authorities. The media attention turns the stand-off into a circus which becomes even more so when police discover that Wortzik is married to a pre-operative transgender woman, Leon (Chris Sarandon), who reveals to them and to the crowds that Sonny’s motive for trying to rob the bank is to get money to pay for Leon’s sex reassignment surgery so he can live as a woman.

Pacino’s excellent acting reaches its peak in the film’s closing scenes when he is overcome by despair and grief at how the day’s events have transpired, resulting in unnecessary tragedy and a young family having to depend on social welfare. The scenes are entirely wordless with only the shrieky noise of aeroplane engines as the audio soundtrack at once promising freedom yet blocking Sonny’s ham-fisted attempts at escaping drab reality and making a better life for himself and Leon. The rest of the cast revolves around Pacino and a number of them have to endure soap-opera scenes and conversations that bog down the action and reduce the film’s tension as the plot approaches its devastating climax.

Aside from the uneven nature of the acting overall and the over-long plot, the most interesting aspect of the film is its deliberate blurring and subversion of movie stereotypes and conventions, and how this subversion questions who is a hero and what are heroic actions, and who is a villain and what is the nature of a villain. The bank manager unexpectedly becomes a hero of a sort for opting to remain with his bank teller staff at the cost of his own health. Sonny and his fellow robbers are revealed as naifs at a loss in how to deal with a complex and cynical world that takes advantage of their innocence and manipulates them. The trio are way in over their heads at trying to rob the bank; even the employees seem to know more about what the robbers should do. The police are revealed as untrustworthy and deceptive, and more ready to shoot and kill than to ask questions first. Much rich comedy is derived from the nature of the characters and how they deal with the situation as it develops; Sonny especially is quite funny as he tries to please Sal, the police, Leon, his mother and his ex-wife all at once while trying to keep his hostages in line and working out an escape plan.

Lumet’s direction brings out the claustrophobic nature of the failed heist and the stand-off and does a fairly good job of maintaining tension and suspense even through the stretched-out second-half of the film with its soapy conversations. Lumet shows a fascination with how ordinary, fallible human beings fight an often oppressive system and culture with whatever weapons – mental, psychological, physical – they have at hand, and how their actions lead them into extreme and intense situations that end in tragedy.

Goodbye Christopher Robin: a surprisingly substantial film with some disturbing themes

Simon Curtis, “Goodbye Christopher Robin” (2017)

A film about English playwright / author A A Milne and the circumstances in which he was inspired to write the “Winnie the Pooh” series of books based on his son Christopher Robin and the child’s toys could have been a very tedious nostalgia-filled flick with more saccharine sickliness than substance and style. Parts of the film are too sugary and it does come out at a time when the British movie industry delves ever more into a mythical early 20th-century past for want of original stories. (Maybe if the British government put more money into tertiary education and encouraged more working-class and lower middle-class students to take up writing and scripting for films, there would be good original films with meaty stories and British actors would not need to compete with other non-American actors for work in Hollywood.) Surprisingly, “Goodbye Christopher Robin” turns out to be more substantial than it would at first appear, given its biopic subject matter: the film tackles quite a few disturbing themes – the impact of war and shellshock on a family and the relationships within that family; the disturbing treatment of children by their parents in upper class English families; the effect of sudden fame and celebrity on people ill-equipped to deal with being famous, and the resulting loss of childhood innocence replaced by pain that can last life-times – which leave viewers with much food for thought about whether Milne should or should not have mentioned his son in the books at all and whether the books would have achieved as much fame as they did if the son had indeed been left out.

The film is cleverly framed by two major wars that in their own way led to the decline of the British empire and British influence on a global scale. We meet Milne (Domhnall Gleeson),  just returned from fighting from the Western front in the Great War, tormented by severe flash-back experiences that affect his social life and ability to write, even function normally. His wife Daphne (Margot Robbie) experiences her own trauma in giving birth to their son, whom they name Christopher Robin: Daphne had wanted a girl and was unprepared for the extreme pain of childbirth. Right from the outset Daphne rejects the baby, nicknamed “Billy”, and the couple hire Scottish nanny Olive (Kelly Macdonald) to care for the child.

Determined to write a book decrying war but experiencing writer’s block and continual flash-back episodes, Milne takes his family down to a country house in southern England which becomes their primary residence. When Billy reaches primary school age, Daphne flees back to London to catch up with the social set and Olive must return to her sick mother: this leaves Milne and Billy alone together and father and son start to forge a friendship. This has the effect of inspiring Milne to write and publish a series of poems and stories based on Billy and his toys, with illustrations provided by Milne’s friend Ernest Shepard (Stephen Campbell Moore). The poems and stories prove to be immensely popular in Britain and overseas, and suddenly the Milnes are inundated with fan mail, demands for interviews and public appearances, and intrusive press and fans. Billy is quicker than both his starry-eyed parents to realise that his life and toys are not his own anymore.

The scripting is smooth and very flowing, jumping across gaps in time to suggest Billy’s angst, pain and eventually anger as he is thrown into boarding school at a tender age where he faces constant bullying from other kids for his fame in a children’s story series and comes to believe that his father exploited him. Will Tilston gives a good performance as the child Billy in conveying a full range of emotions and feelings about fame and the pressures it places on him. Alex Lawther takes up the baton as the teenage Billy, eager to serve as a private in the British Army so he can forge his own identity, and makes the most of his limited role. Gleeson plays a traumatised, emotionally restricted and (at times) conflicted Milne very well. Macdonald provides the warm-hearted balance to the dysfunctional parenting of Milne, often at sea in the events swirling around him, and his shallow, hedonistic and ultimately mercenary wife Daphne.

Perhaps the best part of the film is its beautiful cinematography which captures the soft light and magic of the English countryside and of Ashdown Forest in particular where a child’s imagination can open up and perceive a fairy-tale world of snow and snowflakes that float upwards. The middle part of the film where Milne begins to create the world of Winnie the Pooh is perhaps the best and most beautiful and uplifting part.

For a film juggling a number of themes, inevitably some get short shrift and viewers never find out whether Milne was able to deal with his wartime experiences and shellshock. What Milne himself thought of the way in which his “Winnie the Pooh” creation overshadowed the rest of his writing career (including the anti-war book “Peace With Honour” that he did eventually write) and subtly implied that his other writing might be mediocre is also not known. Near the end (spoiler alert) of the film, a reconciliation between Milne and his son appears unnatural, mawkish and emotionally manipulative, as though despite all the unresolved problems the Milne family has – one notes all the way through that Daphne is extremely distant from her son and he has no time for her either – the film has to end on an upbeat note with all loose ends tidied and tied and all characters determined to forge ahead on one bright and shining path as one.

While the film might be inadequate in resolving its themes, at least it has been brave enough to approach and suggest them. The issue of war and the cost of keeping the peace is one that continues to bedevil human beings, as does also the issue of how much young children should be exposed to constant publicity before it threatens their right to privacy and sense of identity, and brings unexpected and painful consequences to them (such as stalking and bullying, as Billy was to discover). The Milne couple’s frightful parenting is part of another larger and more grave problem revolving around Britain’s class hierarchy and how its reliance on boarding schools for upper class and middle class children stunt their development and help reinforce mediocrity, incompetence, indifference and lack of compassion among its elites. That’s probably a subject for another film or a TV mini-series.

Ghost in the Shell (dir. Rupert Sanders): generic origin story makes anime adaptation tired and formulaic

Rupert Sanders, “Ghost in the Shell” (2017)

In adapting a major Japanese anime series into a potentially lucrative movie franchise, Hollywood opted for a standard origin story in which a main character, turned into a cyborg for a counter-terrorism unit, has recurrent memories of her past and tries to trace these memories in order to understand where she has come from and what she was originally. In the process she discovers she has been lied to by the very people who remade her and who employ her as a counter-terrorism operator. For some reason the knowledge and awareness the cyborg gains as a result of knowing her ancestry and where she comes from make her dangerous to her employers so they set out to destroy her.

That’s the live-action film “Ghost in the Shell” in a, er, nutshell and a very boring and generically Bladerunner-esque nutshell it is too. The actors do what they can with the material and the cyborg Mira Killian (played by Scarlett Johansson in sleepwalking mode) is far more robot than human but the plot narrative they have to grapple with shows signs of having been worked over so many times in other films that what should have been an exciting first film of many to come ends up looking rusty and in need of panel-beater treatment instead. The usual devices of gunfights, a buddy relationship with another cyborg Batou, a plot twist in which a supposed villain reveals his true nature and Killian’s true nature to the astonished Killian herself, and ham-fisted attempts to use a generic Japanese megalopolis as a major character in the film pad out the story but ultimately the film comes across as very tired, formulaic and – horror of horrors – outdated.

While the plot brings up themes deemed to be relevant to American mainstream movie audiences – the notion of memories being part of one’s identity and individuality, Killian’s eventual determination not to be defined by her memories but by her actions, the idea that self-awareness, self-knowledge and knowing one’s origins can be dangerous in a society where people can be owned and lied to by corporations – it doesn’t leave much room for an investigation of how humans augmented with cybernetic attachments endowing them with superhuman abilities might cope and even change and adapt to their attachments and abilities psychologically so that the boundaries between what is human and what is artificial disappear and a true cyber-human fusion is born. This is probably one of the things that fans of the original anime series were hoping for. Even so, Mira Killian / Motoko Kusanagi’s origin story deserves a much better treatment by being combined with the philosophical speculations that the anime series is known for and following the implications and consequences of such a combination.