The Dictator: comedy savages Western self-righteousness, ignorance and hypocrisy

Larry Charles, “The Dictator” (2012)

I confess I saw this latest Sacha Baron Cohen film to see how offensive and tasteless it is. Truly dictatorial “The Dictator” is, in dredging up every known Western stereotype about Middle Eastern / North African countries and peoples, and tin-pot dictators around the world, and throwing it all hard and brutally back in our faces. At once LOL idiotic, puerile and revolting, SBC’s latest comedy vehicle hides a subversive and biting satire on Western ignorance of other peoples, cultures and religions, the West’s cynical support for freedom and democracy in Third World countries which masks corporate greed for those countries’ natural resources, and how easily so-called progressive and idealistic causes can be corrupted by contact with rapacious capitalism and political oppression.

The movie is at once a romantic comedy and a “fish out of water” adventure. Admiral Shabaz Aladeen (SBC) of the oil-rich desert nation Wadiya, located where Eritrea would normally sit (and thereby potentially antagonising real Eritrean people), is compelled to visit New York City to address the United Nations Security Council when that august body threatens to invade his country for stubbornly forging ahead with  a nuclear weapons production program. Little does the feckless Aladeen know that his wicked uncle Tamir (Ben Kingsley) plans to usurp him and take his place as Supreme Leader so he can “democratise” Wadiya and open up the country’s resources to Western oil companies. Soon enough, Tamir’s hired hitman kidnaps Aladeen but the dictator escapes and finds refuge with Zoe (Anna Faris), an eco-activist who manages a food co-op with the help of Third World refugees. It so happens that the co-op supplies food to the Lancaster Hotel where Aladeen’s entourage is staying so with the help of Nadal (Jason Mantzoukas), the exiled former head of the Wadiya nuclear weapons development program, Aladeen attempts to infiltrate the hotel and get rid of his simple-minded double who is being manipulated by Tamir.

Along the way, Aladeen learns about co-operating with people of different origins and cultures, running a business based on lofty idealistic principles, falls in love with Zoe, discovers the extent to which Muslims and Arabs are detested in the West and finally recognises the worth of democracy – or maybe not in all cases.

The film is chaotic and messy (though not as meandering as SBC’s earlier “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation Kazakhstan”) with skits raggedly put together and then wrung and squeezed to their utmost for bad-taste comedy. A scene in which a woman gives birth in Zoe’s store can be excruciating to watch for layering several tasteless vulgarities to the nth degree and the punch-line Aladeen utters when the baby (inevitably) is a girl can be predicted ten parsecs away. The funniest bits are quite subtle and easy to miss, and not for the first time (nor for the last) did I find myself the only person in the cinema – I admit that there were not very many people watching the film with me and we could all be counted on the fingers of two hands – laughing out too loudly at idiotic jokes like the Fallujah Firebomb during the torture scene, the equation of Dick Cheney with Saddam Hussein and Colonel Muammar Gadhafi during the would-be suicide scene and the UN Assembly scene in which Tamir requests Exxon not to use BP oil-rigs in its share of Wadiya’s territorial waters.

Director Charles and SBC pay attention to visual details that lampoon the media and the profligacy of wealthy political elites: two talking heads for a TV news program dissect the performance of Aladeen’s double at a conference and wildly misinterpret his bumbling behaviour as having momentous import for viewers, some of whom might be policy-makers and other government lackeys; and it’s not only Aladeen who is misogynist and has flamboyantly bad taste in furnishings, recreational pursuits and clothing – diplomats from other, better-behaved countries are also portrayed as vulgar twats. The music, chosen by SBC, loudly and merrily runs the gamut from lovey-dovey schmaltzy to trash disco and faux Middle Eastern techno.

The film makes its biggest Laugh-Out Loud impact in the climax in which Aladeen tears up Tamir’s “democratic” constitution and expounds at length on how tyrannies should exercise social and political control over populations: his speech ends up a condemnation of the US (and by implication the entire First World), the global financial industry, the global media (News Corporation and the Murdoch family being singled out in particular) and the way in which a tiny elite – the “one percent” – controls everyone else through debt / global finance and culture.

Just as hilarious and creepy is Aladeen’s management of Zoe’s food co-op, using the violent and unorthodox methods he used as the Wadiya kahuna in turning around the fortunes of the store and winning back the contract to supply food to the Lancaster Hotel. This suggests that progressive causes more often than not end up in bed with the very politically and socially reactionary forces they claim to be fighting, especially when the issue involves identity politics, as in Western feminists supporting NATO intervention in Afghanistan or Jewish activists supporting the elimination of racial discrimination and forms of apartheid in all countries except Israel.  

Another outstanding skit finds Aladeen in the emigre district of Little Wadiya where everyone he meets turns out to be someone he condemned to death years ago but who was spirited away to the US by the Wadiya state executioner; this scene is a commentary on the travails of refugees when they reach what they imagine are countries offering friendship and security but which spurn and consign them to lowly neighbourhoods where they eke out an existence running restaurants catering to their own community. A fourth very funny skit is the helicopter scene in which Nadal and Aladeen chat excitedly in Wadiyan about visiting the New York City sights while two American passengers opposite them grow alarmed at what they think is a discussion of plans to bomb the Statue of Liberty and Yankee Stadium.

The film narrowly escapes charges of being racist and discriminating against Muslims and Arabs by taking on a range of targets and skewering each and every one of them in crude and savage ways: the laugh is on us Western audiences and our smug self-righteousness, hypocrisy and ignorance about peoples and cultures we continue to care less about. Still, I have a niggling feeling that SBC does pull punches when issues of his identity as a Jew and his support for Israel and Zionism come under the spotlight.

Antichrist: inquiry into misogyny and battle between rationality and Nature

Lars von Trier, “Antichrist” (2009)

Highly controversial for its depiction of sexual violence and mutilation, “Antichrist” was made when von Trier was suffering depression and the lack of hope and the despair that follow that condition clearly show in the film. Symbolism is rife throughout and can be interpreted on several levels: at a very basic level, it’s about a couple grieving the loss of a child and the strain their grief places on their marriage and sanity; on another level, it’s about the arrogance of humans in believing that reason and human ingenuity alone can solve all problems afflicting humankind; and on yet another, it posits Nature as a sinister force against humanity and how the natural world plays people off against one another through gender warfare.

The couple known only as He (Willem Dafoe) and She (Charlotte Gainsbourg) are plunged into grief and She becomes depressed and feels guilt after their toddler son falls from a window to his death. He, a therapist, takes his wife in hand and tries to treat her with psychotherapy; all his attempts fail so he takes her to a woodland area where she had spent time writing her thesis on gynocide. The thesis is supposed to be critical of the acts and deaths performed over the centuries by men on often innocent women and girls but over the course of the film He finds to his horror on reading various thesis extracts that She believes in the concepts wholeheartedly to the extent that She regards him (He) as her mortal enemy.

The cinematography must be the outstanding feature in “Antichrist”: often shot like a nature documentary, the film features lush green backgrounds and dark haunted forests through which a cool stream flows. The handling of images and some of the weirdly wacky and wackily weird critters that appear suggest cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle might need to fine-tune his technique a little but generally the work is of a very high standard and has great atmosphere and poetry. Train scenes seem to have an unnatural life and vitality and other scenes set in the woodlands can appear both benign and malevolent. The acting from Dafoe and Chainsbourg is incredible despite their having to go through some very harrowing and emotionally painful scenes!

Von Trier has been accused of misogyny in several of his films including “Antichrist” but I did not find any overt evidence of gratuitous female-bashing other than what’s required in the film. Misogyny where it presents is explored through She’s struggles with He as he tries to treat her illness and the movie makes clear that He’s efforts are doomed to failure against a greater force that he cannot understand. Nature is portrayed as a malevolent beast that mobilises plant life and the weather against the couple and eventually insinuates itself into the couple’s lives by seemingly taking over She’s mind and spirit. The unconscious and irrational self through She bests He’s rational and well-meaning attempts to cure his wife. Thus Nature flummoxes He by causing an oak tree to rain acorns on the couple’s cabin, hitting him with ticks and presenting a deer, a fox and a crow at critical points in the movie to him. One notes that She never sees these animals and doesn’t need to. The message seems to be that women through their connection to Nature (because they can give birth) have access to a terrifying power denied men and which they will never comprehend or overcome. Hope and the wish for a better world are useless in this context. Sex is no longer an expression of mutual love but a weapon with which parties try to dominate each other (and there is plenty of that in “Antichrist”!) and Nature punishes humans for their intellectual pride.

The break-up of the film into four chapters bookended by a prologue and epilogue gives it a symmetry: at the beginning and the end, the major characters, or one of them anyway, have contact with other people; in the middle of the film, the main characters He and She cut themselves off from the world and pay a heavy price for their isolation.

Pace is leisurely and slow and moments here and there throughout the film could have had their fat trimmed off and the action made a little more efficient without jeopardising the main thrust of the film’s message. The Antichrist turns out to be She in full witches’ fury during Chapters 3 and 4, attacking He and crushing his testicles. Although He is able to subdue She, he is forced to do by acknowledging his own irrational side and so makes himself vulnerable to psychological and spiritual attack in the film’s epilogue when hundreds of blank-faced women rise from the ground and walk towards him.

The supposed misogyny turns out to be a warning that humans are possessed of (and by) an irrational nature that is only thinly suppressed by intellect and rationality. Upholding only reason and all that it understands while denying and suppressing our “Antichrist” side will ultimately lead to disaster as our dark side ends up being channelled into a sinister force that explodes sooner or later to our detriment and affect others around us. The universe will not help us because the universe itself is a magnification of that sinister force.

Starship Troopers: a hilarious send-up of US-style fascism and conduct of war

Paul Verhoeven, “Starship Troopers” (1997)

Loosely adapted from the Robert Heinlein novel of the same name, this film can be read as a caricature on several fronts: a send-up of the American cultural obsession with war on whatever US politicians declare war on; a satire on emergent US-styled fascism with its fetish for military technology, media sound-bites, slogans and appeals to patriotism; and a laugh at Hollywood action and war genre movies, Hollywood movie conventions and Hollywood’s own love affair with the military. Cunningly disguised as a brain-dead B-grade sci-fi “Alien” rip-off with a squeaky-clean cast of wooden though handsome actors, heavy slapstick symbolism and a meandering stitched-together plot that wanders through scenes of excessive gore, “Starship Troopers” cleverly combines action, romance and even high school hi-jinx through the eyes of its two main characters Johnny Rico (Caspar van Dien) and Carmen (Denise Richards) as they sally through their cartoon adventures in space and on an alien planet in service to the Federation, dedicating their lives to fighting bloodthirsty hordes of giant Arachnids and their arthropod allies.

The film divides into three parts: the first part is familiar all-American high school romance drama as Rico is torn between Carmen and Dizzy (Dina Meyer), Carmen is torn between Rico and Balcarow (Patrick Muldoon), and Rico is in friendly competition with Carl (Neil Patrick Harris); the second part sees Rico in boot camp training under various sociopathic instructors (Clancy Brown and Michael Ironside knowingly playing their parts straight-faced for laughs) to enter an elite mobile infantry unit while Carmen and Balcarow undertake pilot training and become close; and the third part throws our old high school crowd into the thick of fighting against the Arachnid armies, scathingly referred to as “bugs”. Interspersed into the film at intervals are propaganda shorts and news reels shaped as advertisements appealing for more youth to join the Federation armies and fight the “bugs”. Constant repetition of slogans like “I’m doing my part!” and “Would you like to know more?” – in a context where people don’t have a choice to say “No, I DON’T want to know more!” – cleverly and subtly inveigles both characters and viewers into supporting an ongoing war conducted by a future society that cynically throws hundreds of thousands of young people into a war like so many disposable cheap robots with inadequate gunpower. At one point in the film, a character breaks the fourth wall (that is, knowingly faces viewers) while hyping up soldiers to charge forth into battle against the bugs.

Many serious issues are addressed in the film in a light-hearted way: the preparation of young people through contact sports like football for military life; the glorification of violence through televised executions and the deliberate gore pornography; a culture brainwashing its young people to choose a military career and forcing them to die if they wish to enjoy the full benefits of citizenship; the incredulity of armchair experts and commentators that the bugs might have feelings and emotions and deserve to be treated with respect; and the government’s exploitation of fear, both human and bug, for military purposes and to control citizens and civilians (those who eschew the military life and so can’t be citizens but must be treated as hoi polloi consumers) alike. The futility of war and the cynicism of a society that uses war to control people are expressed in scenes in which soldiers are thrown straight into action after a few months of brutal boot-camp training armed with rifles that waste kah-zillions of bullets to no effect against the bugs even though better weapons like shoulder-held nuclear-powered rocket-launchers are available. After all, if you really want to get rid of the bugs rather than waste the humans which I suspect is the fascist society’s way of coping with over-population on Earth, why not just use a fleet of combat fighter jets to spray entire valleys and cave systems with chemicals that ignite on contact with living things and fry-y-y everything? It’s not as if the Federation cares about the bug planet’s environment and ecosystems.

The film itself is made in a style reminiscent of classic Hollywood action or drama films with lovingly filmed open spaces and swelling heroic orchestral music. The main characters are young, beautiful and buff with square jaws and clear eyes, and they’re clean-cut all-American Aryans though they play characters from Buenos Aires in Argentina (where Adolf Hitler is rumoured to have found sanctuary after WW2 instead of committing suicide): obviously this is a future BA that’s long succumbed to the seductions of whatever passes for future American or British culture – any differences between two sets of lowest common cultural denominators being hardly moot – and the English language. Jorge Luis Borges, Adolfo Bioy Casares and Carlos Gardel are spinning in their graves. Hollywood conventions are sent up in hilarious fashion: the film lovingly feasts viewers’ eyes on scenes of gore and gratuitous bloodshed but coyly blacks out scenes that might suggest sexual intercourse. The film apparently borrows many elements from Leni Riefenstahl’s famous Nazi propaganda documentary “Triumph of the Will”, a film I have yet to see in full. The grey uniforms and black leather coats worn in “Starship Troopers” look as though they were borrowed straight from a war museum housing Nazi German memorabilia. Special effects and scenes of space flight are often astonishingly well-done and even beautiful for a purported B-grade sci-fi flick; there are also of course schlocky scenes in which soldiers revel in pounding the bugs and getting sprayed with lime-green or day-glo orange bug blood as though they were merely playing paintball.

The film does drag during the long third section of the movie set on the bug planet as the plot bounces from one comedy skit to another. Viewers are cleverly set up for the climactic moment when the bugs obtain information about humans by drinking someone’s brain through a proboscis straw – at least some characters here know their manners! A refreshing change from most schmaltzy endings typical of Hollywood films is that once the dust has settled and the humans begin the job of obtaining information from a captured smart bug through torture, Rico and Carmen grimly continue their chosen vocations rather than sink into each other’s arms and this conclusion in itself is a comment on how fascist societies that constantly mine fear, suspicion and war to control people end up dehumanising them.

Surprisingly the film has become more relevant since the plane attacks on the World Trade Centers in 2001, with the bugs standing in for Iraqis, Afghans and Libyans. As long as the United States and its allies rampage all over the planet trying to kill more “bugs”, leaving destruction, pollution and DU radiation in their wake, we will need more eye candy satire like “Starship Troopers”.

 

Tabloid: entertaining portrait of an eccentric obsessive doesn’t delve deeply into media culture and social values

Errol Morris, “Tabloid” (2010)

Errol Morris’s documentaries fall into two camps: a serious one (“Fog of War”) and one of portraits of eccentric individuals dominated by their obsessions who often don’t realise they’ve transgressed the invisible boundaries of what constitutes acceptable behaviour. The focus of Morris’s scrutiny is Joyce McKinney, a former beauty queen who in 1977 became obsessed with a young man she met in Utah; the man, Kirk Anderson, began training as a missionary with the Church of Latter-Day Saints of Jesus Christ aka Mormons to escape her attentions and the Church sent him to England. McKinney pursued and kidnapped Anderson with the help of two men and imprisoned him in a cottage in southwestern England. The incident aroused (ahem) much interest throughout the UK with its combination of conservative religion and its strict morality as regards sexual relations, kidnapping and sexual bondage. McKinney was arrested and charged but managed to jump bail and escape back to the US. Although she and one of her accomplices were later arrested by the FBI, the English courts did not request her extradition and sentenced her in absentia to jail for a year. Two tabloid UK newspapers competed for sales with opposed views of McKinney’s antics and background based on information and material obtained in often shady ways.

McKinney is an entertaining and garrulous interviewee, bright and open to a fault. Her apparently guileless manner may well hide a calculating and shrewd mind intent on getting what she wants no matter what it takes or what obstacles are in her way. Morris’ Interrotron technique of interviewing subjects, in which McKinney looks into the camera which projects her face’s image onto a two-way mirror positioned in front of the lens of the camera facing Morris, and vice versa for Morris (he looks into his camera that projects his image to the mirror positioned in front of McKinney’s camera), ensures that viewers are hit with the full force of McKinney’s bubbling and sometimes overpowering personality but it also means that Morris himself ends up too close to his subject to be able to show a more objective view of her personality and character and the wider meaning of the 1977 kidnapping and the UK tabloid press’s involvement. At times Morris appears willing to be swept along by McKinney’s version of what happened and her insistence that Anderson was being brainwashed by a cult but the veteran interviewer never presses or challenges her opinion and prejudices.

Morris also interviews a former Mormon missionary who perhaps is the most objective and sane person in the whole film, and two journalists from the rival tabloids that salivated over McKinney and Anderson, each recounting the newspapers’ wildly differing versions of the incident and of McKinney’s character and defending their stories and research. Viewers see some of the conflicting opinions and views of two people in the British media towards the story: one is amused and nonplussed, the other is cynical and predatory. Unfortunately the two most significant male characters in the whole saga, Kirk Anderson and Keith Joseph May, are absent from the documentary: Anderson refused to be interviewed and May had already died, so any pretence at “balance” is precluded.

The film’s presentation milks the whole incident for laughs with insertions of tabloid-style title cards that introduce the interviewees and give something of the flavour of the news coverage of the time. Cartoons and cartoon montages help give a light-hearted and racy feel to the film. Towards the end, after the abduction and its consequences become history, the film slows down with the coverage of an unrelated incident that also attracted news attention: in 2008, when her pet dog died, McKinney had it cloned into a litter of puppies by researchers in South Korea.

Though the film is entertaining and sympathetic towards its subject, it missed an opportunity to examine McKinney’s upbringing in some detail, in particular the expectations and stereotypes she grew up with and absorbed which fed her beliefs about romantic love and marriage and encouraged her obsession with Anderson. In the end, these notions undid McKinney and derailed her life: she resolved never to love another man and became reclusive. That an obviously intelligent and resourceful woman with great drive and energy who lived for romance, marriage and a brood of many children gave up her dream completely is a tragedy that the film glosses over. Morris’s attempt at investigating the media hysteria and celebrity worship surrounding McKinney’s abduction of Anderson amounts to very little and says nothing about the kind of media culture that existed in the UK then and the social values that supported it. Perhaps Morris isn’t the best person to examine and appreciate the kind of society the UK was at the time. The best that “Tabloid” does is to show that the truth about the incident remains elusive and that people’s memories of it can be wildly different for many reasons, of which self-preservation is the primary one.

 

Birds of a feather, let’s flock together: four film shorts about birds illustrate something universal about human behaviour and social life

Pierre Coffin, “Pings” (2 shorts, 1997)
Ralph Eggleston, “For the Birds” (2000)
Dony Permedi, “Kiwi!” (2006)

All four films are about birds obviously but they’re also about some universal aspect of the human condition and can be understood by all except the very young due to their short, simple plots and duration (less than 4 minutes for each). French animator Coffin made two short films under the “Pings” which feature cute baby penguins dying horribly if deservedly for their silly behaviour. In one film, some chicks follow and bounce a green blob about and share their plaything with a polar bear. The polar bear sits on the green blob and squashes it. One of the babies offers itself as a replacement blob. Wooh, instant candidate for an avian Darwin award! In the other, an adult penguin patiently babysits three yelping youngsters who annoy him so much that he pops one chick into the ocean. The other chicks fall silent as a killer whale homes in on the unexpected dinner. Do the chicks learn their lesson about annoying Dad?

These are thin little pieces that make their point quickly and exit just as fast. The plots rely on surprise and black humour and make the most impact the first time you watch them; as a result, they don’t bear repeated viewings. Compared to Coffin’s later work, the CGI animation looks simple and parts look hand-drawn. The interesting thing about the little stories is that in the world of the Pings every chick is on its own and all are equally dumb and dispensable. No need to feel sorry for any of the little buggers as there are probably plenty more where they came from! And we must admit … we did really enjoy those little shorts for their deliciously sly humour.

The next two animation shorts are more sympathetic to their subjects and have deeper messages. “For the Birds”, in which a flock of little tweeters sitting on an overhead telephone line are joined by a gawky critter of a different species who upsets their little party, brings us a moral about discrimination. The goofy gatecrasher has the last laugh when, forced to drop off the line, he sees it zing up catapult-like causing his tormentors deep humiliation. Actions and behaviour are shown to have important consequences for both perpetrators and recipient. Made for Pixar, the animation is typical of the company’s style in featuring highly individual and comic characters and very bright colours.

“Kwi!”, made as a student project by Permedi, is a touching story about a kiwi with ambitions to fly. He spends Herculean effort and time in dragging and hammering large trees to the side of a tall cliff. Our little friend becomes quite adept at roping conifers into place and hammering them hard into the granite with just his two feet grasping the hammers and nails. At the top, he puts on his aviator’s cap and glasses and jumps off to simulate the effect of flying. The film rotates sideways to show him in full flight over the trees, flapping his feeble wings. He passes into the distance and disappears into the mist. Admittedly the story is simple to the point of banality – we all know what happens at the end – but what stands out is the kiwi’s stubborn and determined nature in achieving his lifetime goal. Doubtless his relatives and friends have called him a fool and told him to get a life and be happy staying on the ground, pecking and rooting away like everyone else. Yet the dream is not only near-impossible, but when achieved, it brings only short-lived happiness. As the kiwi flashes past us, a tear falls from his eye and the mix of emotions is obvious: he’s proved the impossible really is possible, he’s having the most exhilarating flight of his life, he never knew flying could be so much fun, he’s lost for words … but sudden, violent death will claim him all too soon.

The CGI animation is nowhere near as detailed as for “For the Birds” but its simplicity is actually a bonus as viewers have their work cut out reading the kiwi’s face and the emotions it might be feeling. Changing perspective by rotating the film’s focus creates an epic feeling during the flying scenes and plunges viewers deeply into the kiwi’s world so that we experience what he feels and experiences; it also deftly takes us out of the kiwi’s world as he flies on ahead to spare us the agony of what awaits him down below. Of the films under review here, this short features no simulated bird vocals; the other films have twittering birds or chicks. In all four films, some human emotion or behaviour is highlighted for comic effect; “Kiwi!” uses emotion to structure and pace the film from puzzlement (on the viewers’ part) to wonder, anticipation, expectation and finally joy and ecstasy edged with sadness.

These are not very profound films though some viewers will become very attached to the hero of “Kiwi!” and wish beyond hope that he has actually passed onto a better plane of existence where he is accepted for wanting to be more than his ratite heritage gave him and can fly freely with his tiny little flappers. It’s likely that as more people watch “Kiwi!”, it will become a beloved little cult classic and acquire more layers of meaning that include the desire for and intangibility of freedom from a restrictive headstart in life.

The Matrix: film trapped in formula Hollywood action-thriller matrix of convoluted plot, trite message and flat characters

Larry and Andy Wachowski, “The Matrix” (1999)

Strip “The Matrix” of its sci-fi trimmings, its computer FX and choreographed martial arts and gunfight scenes and what do we have left? We have a bare film that conforms to the Hollywood matrix of convoluted plot and plot twists, most of which come near the film’s end, a bit of romance here, some philosophical mumbo-jumbo there in parts, undeveloped character stereotypes and a banal message about being your own person, making your own rules, living your own life and having the freedom to do that without restrictions imposed on you by society. Computer programmer / corporate wage slave Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves) who moonlights as hacker Neo has long been puzzled by messages about “The Matrix” appearing on his PC. He visits a club and meets a fellow hacker Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) who can introduce him to Morpheus (Lawrence Fishburne) who in turn can reveal what The Matrix refers to. Sinister agents led by Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) turn up to prevent Neo from meeting Morpheus. After a few upsets caused by these guys, Neo meets Morpheus who encourages him of his own free will to know more about the world he lives in before he, Morpheus, can reveal what The Matrix really is.

Not surprisingly the revelation about Neo’s real world is very disheartening and he agrees to help Morpheus and Trinity change their universe. Of course, being a newcomer, Neo must undergo training and discover what abilities he has before he can be thrown into the deep business end of saving humanity from its oppressors. As the story progresses, the film’s pace quickens and its atmosphere changes from grungy noir to bright and colourful. No wonder the good guys and bad guys alike insist on wearing boring black shades and clothes for most of the film – all that sudden light and colour must hurt their eyes and fashion sense.

While watching Neo beating the crap out of Weaving’s Smith and his myrmidons is fun and the computer animation is slick and smooth, I did find the film very empty of substance in both plotting and characterisation. Of course with an action film featuring a winding plot, character development tends to take secondary priority – there’s too much plot for viewers to follow to pay any attention to how actors interpret and portray their characters – and the demands that Hollywood studios make of films these days to turn over loads of quick bucks don’t favour slow-burn character development. As a result the quality of acting is neither here nor there as all that’s needed from the actors is to go from A to Z and the whole cast does that smoothly. At least Fishburne does passingly well doing nothing in a late scene where he is tied up with electrodes attached to his head. The early oppressive noir atmosphere drops away once Neo re-enters The Matrix as a rebel and the film slips into pow-pow-pow action mode with kung fu fights and shooting sprees breathlessly piling on one after the other with no let-up in pace. As for tension, there’s no tension at all: the Wachowski brothers have no idea how to meld music and editing techniques to the story and action and the film’s characters are so blank that they invite no viewer sympathy for their sufferings and travails.

The premise behind “The Matrix” at least poses some interesting thoughts about the nature of reality and the role of religion and philosophy in everyday life. “Reality” for most humans turns out to be a computer construct created by machines which itself calls into question the nature of the relationship between humans and technology. Neo discovers his role in life is to enlighten his fellow humans about their “reality” and their role in it. Morpheus and Trinity believe without hesitation that Neo may be a messiah prophesied by a mysterious woman called the Oracle (Gloria Forster) and this plot development in itself throws up a paradox: Morpheus and Trinity have fought to get out of The Matrix only to willingly enter into another “matrix” which, like The Matrix, limits their thinking and behaviour. Neo also falls into this new “matrix” and experiences some inner struggle to get out of it in order to save Morpheus’s life. Reeves portrays little of the angst Neo goes through to convince himself and Trinity that they should be thinking for themselves and not simply follow what Morpheus or the Oracle says; Reeves’s blankness throughout the film may be a deliberate decision on the Wachowskis’ part to show how Neo, saviour or not he may be, is still close in psychology to the machine world he grew up and was nurtured in. The film could have delved more into Morpheus and Trinity’s belief about Neo and Neo’s discomfort with the trust they place in him and turned the threesome’s differences into an underlying conflict and investigation about religious faith and how some if not all individuals seem to need religion or belief in an external power to give meaning and motivation to their lives. A minor character, Cypher (Joe Pantoliano), serves as a counter-balance to Neo, Morpheus and Trinity in that though freed from The Matrix, he actually desires to return there, seeing it as more real than the depressive reality that he endures rather than lives, and throws in his lot with Agent Smith to betray the other rebels.

As it is, all “The Matrix” can say is that people shouldn’t allow themselves to be bound up by rules they don’t understand or care much for. Problem is, if you’re traipsing along and a fence appears in front of you and you want to leap over it or tear it down, at least you want to find out why it’s there before you jump over it … and land straight on top of a buried landmine that blows your legs off. With freedom, there come consequences and responsibility to yourself and to others … and the ways that Neo, Morpheus and Trinity deal with their freedom are treated too lightly by the Wachowskis compared to the attention the directors have given to the look of the film, its technical aspects and its adherence to the action thriller formula. Needless to say, Neo and his friends and enemies alike, having escaped one Matrix, are trapped in another Matrix they have no hope of escaping from … the Hollywood Matrix that forces them to slave  in a tired plot stereotype peddling an overdone and trite message for big bucks.

One useful lesson viewers can take away from “The Matrix” is that the world we live in and take for granted itself may be as much of an artificial construct based on lies and propaganda designed to keep a small elite in power while the rest of us slave away and fill our lives with cheap pleasures, as is Neo’s world. As more people question the actions and motivations of politicians, corporations, the global banking and finance industry and other “leaders” in social, cultural, political and economic forums, it becomes clearer that we are indeed living in The Matrix where concepts of democracy, freedom, security and equality among others are exploited to keep us as ignorant and infantile slaves.

Psycho (dir. Gus van Sant): a decent remake with a different message from the original film

Gus van Sant, “Psycho” (1998)

A shot-for-shot remake of the Hitchcock original with much the same dialogue and even reconstructions of the original sets, this film is actually not bad at all. It somehow seems a different movie in parts because van Sant has been able to do some things with the original characters that Hitchcock was never able to do. The remake even improves on aspects of the original and may be seen as a commentary on it. Perhaps the unfortunate thing is that the remake can’t stand as an independent film in its own right but will always refer to the original and never escape comparisons: little details like the opening credits, copying the original’s opening credits in graphics and style, and the use of Bernard Herrmann’s score throughout the remake in almost unchanged form link van Sant’s homage too closely to the original. A small director’s cameo near the start of the film in which van Sant is being lectured to by Hitchcock while Marion (Anne Heche) rushes back to work also ties the two movies together for better and for worse.

Surprisingly the shot-for-shot remake has significant changes from the original. The characters of Marion and Lila are swapped over in essence: in the first film, Marion is the lovable bad girl the audience warms to, and Lila is the one-dimensional and unappealing  good girl; in the second film, Marion becomes a good girl who feels trapped in a romance going nowhere and who yearns for a bit of freedom from her routine and passivity while Lila (Julianne Moore) is a headstrong, independent woman who needs neither man nor romance to define her. As a result Janet Leigh’s Marian is punished for wanting to determine her destiny and Anne Heche’s Marian is punished for failing to take charge of her destiny. The remake shows up how much attitudes toward women’s freedom to decide their own fates and make right or wrong choices have changed in over 40 years. At the same time, Heche’s Marian is a less memorable and sympathetic character than Leigh’s was: her facial expressions and body language suggest a self-centred woman who conforms for the sake of appearances and who might be jealous of free-wheeling tough-girl Lila.

Because Lila is a strong character in van Sant’s remake, the plot becomes a more balanced creature instead of the top-heavy structure it was in 1960. Lila wants to solve the mystery of Marion’s disappearance for personal reasons: she’s a woman who wants to get to the bottom of things, whereas her earlier incarnation felt obliged to Marion’s employer to retrieve and return the money Marion had stolen. Moore’s Lila drags Marion’s flame Sam (Viggo Mortensen) along for the ride; Sam is a passive comic foil for Moore – a constant running joke through the film’s second half is Lila’s rejection of Sam as boyfriend material.

The film’s ending is less jarring than it was in the original, not least because it pays more attention to Lila’s reaction and near-breakdown when she finally hears that Marion and private detective Arbogast (William H Macy) are both dead. The psychologist (Robert Forster) is less didactic in his delivery and the atmosphere in the police station where he gives his report is soft and less intimidating than in the original film. Van Sant’s portrayal of the police is more positive than Hitchcock’s depiction: in the Hitchcock world, police and other authority figures were corrupt, unhelpful and inefficient; in van Sant’s interpretation, the police are at least diligent in enforcing the law and are generally benevolent if human after all. Even the creepy officer who rattles Marion early on is only doing his job. Significantly van Sant cuts out a church scene in which Lila and Sam appeal to the town sheriff for help a second time and the sheriff simply tells them to get on with their own lives.

The major weakness of the remake is in Vince Vaughan’s casting as hotel proprietor Norman Bates: Vaughan looks wrong for the role and is unable to convey the nervy bird-like behaviour tics that Anthony Perkins mustered so well. The role calls for someone tall, skinny and angular who can look nervous and insecure and who can change facial expressions and emotions from one extreme to the other in a matter of seconds. Vaughan tries hard in the role but looks too much like a man in control of himself and appears too self-assured. Van Sant gives his Bates a lot of back-story: the association with birds is much stronger with a live aviary and Bates is revealed as a gun-nut obsessed with fighting, war and pornography in late scenes. A masturbation scene which says very little about Bates’s inhibited sexuality appears elsewhere in the movie.

As Hitchcock used black-and-white film, van Sant goes to town with the use of colour with particular shades like green, orange and yellow used to symbolise evil and danger. An interesting use of colour comes in the setting of Mrs Bates’s bedroom: like everything associated with her son, the room is decked out in green and orange yet the windows are framed in curtains of red (signifying sexuality and passion) and when Lila opens the closet door, clothes in shades of pink, white and other colours except Norman’s signature tones appear. The wardrobe contents, the drapes and little statues around the room tell viewers that Mrs Bates probably won’t resemble the psychologist’s description of her. The green-orange-yellow motif extends to the landscape at the end of the film when Marion’s car is towed away from the swamp: it suggests that there may be many more people like Bates at large in its part of the world.

The central theme about the place of women in the world and how they are defined by themselves and their society remains strong. Van Sant’s “Psycho” suggests it is only by taking control of their destiny and defining themselves that women can survive with integrity. Marion’s brief fling with freedom and self-determination, shaken by her encounters with the police officer, the car dealer and Bates himself, ends because she retreats back into her normal routine of letting others define and control her. (As in the first movie though, her employer and his client are prepared to overlook her embezzlement.)  If only van Sant had heeded his film’s advice and made it a film independent of its Hitchcock parent: details such as the music soundtrack and the dialogue, some of which has dated as it was based on social expectations of women in the late 1950s, should have been adapted for a 1990s audience.

Taxi Driver: good study of an alienated and traumatised individual groping for purpose in a lost society

Martin Scorsese, “Taxi Driver” (1976)

As a character study of a lonely and alienated man whose mind collapses under the strain of the life he leads and the corruption he sees combined with a history of trauma and violence, this film has few peers. What makes it a great film is its portrayal of a society that has lost its way and of  characters other than Robert de Niro’s lead character Trvis Bickle who like him are searching for direction and purpose. The movie boasts excellent cinematography which captures the dreary and desperate life that Bickle leads as a taxi driver on night shift in the New York City of the mid-1970’s and which features a stunning mise-en-scène shot near the film’s end: this is a survey of a crime scene with two police officers standing frozen as if in shock, their hands still gripping their guns tightly. The sometimes florid music score by Bernard Herrmann (who scored several films for Alfred Hitchcock including “Vertigo” and “Psycho”) may sound a dated for the period but its languorous, repetitive swank and tight drumbeat percussion passages mirror Bickle’s obsessive, repeating fantasies and suit the film’s moods and tensions as they arise. The use of voice-over narration fits in with Bickle’s documentation of his activities in a notebook. The parallel plots of Senator Charles Palantine’s rise to nomination for the US Presidency and Bickle’s crusade to save a child prostitute Iris (Jodie Foster) from a life of exploitation under her pimp Sport (Harvey Keitel) merge into each other smoothly.

Bickle is a disaffected Vietnam War veteran who takes up a job driving taxis at night to overcome his insomnia whose cause is never explained but can be guessed as a symptom of an undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder which could explain his honourable discharge from the US army. He is attracted to a political aide Betsi (Cybill Shepherd) who is working for the nomination and election of Senator Palantine (Leonard Harris) but after a couple of  dates, he takes her to see a mild porno film that offends her and she walks out of the cinema. After several unsuccessful attempts to contact Betsi, Bickle gives up and concludes she is no better than all the other people he sees in the streets. He comes across Iris looking for clients and decides she needs saving so he prepares himself for the deed by changing his life: he starts exercising and building up muscle, eating healthily, practising shooting and buying guns from a seedy dealer. He finally meets the girl through Sport and tries to convince her to leave her pimp but she hesitates. Finally Bickle takes it upon himself to rid Iris of Sport, his associates and some of her clients.

De Niro was born to play Bickle – he embodies the character’s contradictions: inarticulate and well-spoken; idealistic yet creepy and out of touch with the complex world he lives in and can’t understand; striving to be of worth and to have a good, moral purpose in life but frequenting seedy cinemas to watch porn films and implicitly approving when a passenger (Martin Scorsese in a cameo appearance) says he will murder his adulterous wife. Bickle has a narrow view of the world in which good and evil exist and there are no shades of grey between the two.  His ruminations and conversations with fellow cabbies, plus a scene where he is watching TV and another where he eyeballs a black man flaunting his wealth, suggest he is racist though one of the cabbies he hangs out with happens to be black. Bickle starts to see his purpose in life as cleaning his adopted home-town of the scum he sees on his nightly patrols. De Niro’s acting strikes a good balance between playing Bickle straight and over-acting: at one point in the film, in an inspired piece of scripting or directing (or both), he looks at the camera while rehearsing his fantasies and what he will say in them when he plays them for real, and any misgivings viewers might have about what he’s going to do are made to melt away.

The support cast is good without being remarkable but then it’s de Niro’s film all the way. Scorsese’s cameo as the jealous passenger brimming with rage at his wife’s infidelity and Keitel as the manipulative pimp make more impression on this viewer than Foster does. Foster seems a little too self-assured to play a runaway girl hesitant about leaving her pimp even though she wants to. Shepherd appears bland as Betsi but that’s the point: her wholesome blandness is mistaken by Bickle as angelic when he first sees her. Support characters including a co-worker of Betsi’s who’s keen on her but isn’t all that essential to the plot flesh out the world of “Taxi Driver”, giving the film a richer social tapestry than the plot requires.

The film probably could have been improved if Bickle had seen something in Palantine or in what the senator does that suggests he may be corrupt to justify Bickle’s assassination attempt. The film deliberately excludes any reference to Palantine’s political platform apart from the slogan “WE are the people …” which may be a weakness because there is nothing to pin him down on and demonstrate his  potential for venality. The happy ending plays as a parody of other happy endings in Hollywood dramas but some viewers will miss Bickle’s furtive look into his rearview mirror. This glance tells us that Bickle is still obsessed with his personal crusade of cleaning the “scum” out of the city and will strike hard again. Innocent people may die next time. The music could have been more ominous and repetitive than it is as the end credits start to scroll.

Would that Hollywood might once again make films about lonely people wanting to connect with society and the world but unable to do so because of their flawed, traumatised or disturbed pasts. Such folk end up being driven by forces they can’t understand and explain to themselves or to others, and by a society just as traumatised and lacking in hope and purpose as they, to commit deeds that by sheer chance turn them either into heroes or villains.

 

5 Days of War: as the movie admits, truth is the first casualty

Renny Harlin, “5 Days of War” aka “5 Days of August” (2011)

Directed by Renny Harlin and financed by the Georgian government, this drama is a Russian-bashing screed about the 2008 South Ossetia war and the events leading to it. The movie revolves around the experiences of two news reporters Thomas Anders (Rupert Friend) and Sebastian Ganz (Richard Coyle) who accept an assignment in Tbilisi, Georgia, a year after their previous assignment together in Iraq ended badly: the two men were rescued by a Georgian military unit in that country after their car was ambushed  by militants. In that ambush, Anders’s girlfriend (Heather Graham), also a reporter, is badly wounded and dies. Anders and Ganz’s noses for news (and trouble) get them fired upon while watching a wedding at a rural Georgian inn, avoiding capture while witnessing and filming atrocities by Russian troops who have invaded the country, and ending up as prisoners of a Russian general (Rade Serbedzija). While simultaneously escaping, yet being drawn to, trouble and danger, the reporters pick up a Georgian woman, Tatia (Emmanuelle Chriqui), a guest at the wedding at the inn. Through Tatia and a collective effort to broadcast Ganz’s images to the rest of the world while keeping them away from the Russians, Anders finds a new purpose in life and a reason to go on living.

The romance between Anders and Tatia doesn’t make sense: why should the two fall in love simply because chance threw them together and put them in danger both together and individually? Any “chemistry” that might exist isn’t present and the pair’s kiss looks like an after-thought. More believable is Anders’s loyalty to Ganz when Ganz is injured in a bomb attack and apparently dying: the two have been in many intense life-and-death situations which few other people can understand and sympathise with. Both men are devoted to seeking the truth behind layers of propagandistic fog though paradoxically this search can make them vulnerable to manipulation by politicians and the military. The plot’s emphasis on safeguarding the memory stick that holds Ganz’s images and the Russians’ attempt to destroy it leaves no room for character development with the result that Anders, Ganz and their fellow journalists are cardboard cut-out beings not worth caring about.  The actors playing Russians end up perpetuating old World War II stereotypes about Soviet soldiers massacring civilians, raping women and torching farms and crops with flame-throwers. Admittedly the stereotypes are based on fact – the Soviet Red Army behaved abominably wherever it went – partly because of the debased culture that developed in the army as a result of purges of high-ranking officers ordered in the 1930s by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, a native Georgian. What irony. As the movie carries on, hackneyed plot twists appear: Tatia’s family is riven apart by internal betrayal, Ganz is threatened with torture by the Russian general’s sadistic enforcer (Nikko Mousiainen), an attempt to broadcast Ganz’s images fails when the reporters are targeted by a Russian helicopter, and Ganz is hurt in the helicopter attack. The enforcer kidnaps Tatia and forces Anders to choose between saving her life and keeping Ganz’s film.

The film could have focussed on the dilemmas that journalists in war zones face: for one thing, whether the search for truth justifies putting their own lives and the lives of innocents in danger. There are various political and ethical decisions they have to make: how closely should they work with the government or the military? how would such work interfere with their journalist code of ethics? There is a female journalist featured who is embedded with a Georgian army unit and viewers may well wonder what compromises she made to get the story and pictures she wants; it’s likely also the opinions she expresses and the images she shows will reflect her hosts’ political agenda.

The actors do what they can with the story and give at least a three-dimensional look to their characters. Andy Garcia as Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili gives the best performance, endowing his character with a dignity the real person doesn’t deserve: before the 2008 war, Saakashvili had been criticised for the use of brutal police force against protesters in an anti-government demonstration, and for declaring a state of emergency and suppressing press freedoms as a result of the protests, in November 2007. Well-known US actors Val Kilmer and Dean Cain parrot their lines and strut their respective reporter and diplomat role stereotypes, and fellow US actor Jonathan Schaek as Georgian military officer Captain Avaliani spends his screen time saving Anders and Ganz’s hides.

If the film has any saving graces, they’re in the Georgian settings: the cinematography features lovely shots of a town perched on cliffs overlooking a winding river and of the countryside with its mountains and deep gorges. A church used as a refuge gives the film crew opportunities to photograph pictures of religious icons and the wedding scene featured early in the movie gives a little insight into Georgian customs, traditional dress styles and folk dances. Curiously though native Georgians serve as extras, they are absent from the film’s lead and supporting acting roles.

By lapsing into an action-movie rut the film fails to give a near-accurate portrayal of the work news journalists do and the problems they face in unusual and intense situations where disinformation, propaganda and fear replace speech and press freedoms. The film fails to do what it purports to do: the source of the film’s financing alone puts paid to any pretence of impartiality and regard for truth. The Georgian armed forces are portrayed as decent and heroic, the Russians as cruel, barbarous and criminal: in truth, both sides were guilty of over-reaction to provocation with Georgia attacking South Ossetia first with heavy firepower and both Georgians and Russians alike committing grave war crimes. The United States doesn’t come out looking good either: since 2003, the Americans have been sending arms and military advisors to Georgia and encouraging Saakashvili to adopt a very aggressive attitude towards Russia as part of an encirclement strategy that includes ex-Soviet states like Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan (where the US has a military base) in Central Asia, Ukraine and some former Soviet satellite nations in eastern Europe.

 

 

 

Characters and plot are as flat and blank as snowscapes in “Fargo”

Joel Coen, “Fargo” (1996)

A kidnap plot cooked up to save a car salesman’s hide going awry through sheer bad luck, incompetence and stupidity is the excuse for satirising rural Midwestern life, speech and culture in Joel and Ethan Coen’s mid-1990s film “Fargo”. John Lundergard (William Macy) is in deep financial shit and needs money fast so when he meets a couple of hoodlums (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare), he sees an opportunity to fleece his father-in-law, a co-owner of the car dealership where he’s employed, for loads of money: he arranges for the crooks to kidnap his wife Jean and demand a hefty ransom. The idea is the crooks will demand a huge amount from John and John will ask dad-in-law for more than what the crooks ask for so he can cover his debts. Once the deal is agreed on, the crooks carry out their side of the bargain promptly but Jean turns out to be harder to kidnap than they first thought. Jean’s struggles come to be the first and least of their problems: while carrying her back to their hide-out, the men are forced to kill a police officer and two travellers. From here on, the crooks make more errors, demand more money from John and kill more people to cover their hides.

Enter police chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand), tasked with solving the various homicides and tracing the thugs’ stolen car and licence numbers to John’s dealership. Gunderson sweetly if doggedly pursues various leads which come up short: the people she interviews are too nice and polite to describe one crook, Carl (Buscemi), as more than “funny-looking” and John refuses to co-operate. Luck and chance give her the opportunity to track down the crooks to their hide-out and put police on John’s trail as a suspect in the various homicides.

Why John is so desperate that he’d stoop to dealing with lowlife types to get more money out of his wife’s dad isn’t explained. Perhaps the fact that he’s a car salesman suffices: we all know car sales reps aren’t to be trusted, right? And we also know rich fathers-in-law who own the company where their daughters’ husbands work are tight-fisted arseholes who quibble over how much they might have to fork over to save their children’s lives, right? Needless to say, the father-in-law regards John as an incompetent: another necessary part of the stereotype to get the old fella into a spot of bother when he ends up facing the business end of a gun. These and other stereotypes afflicting the crooks and various other characters – small-town and rural Midwestern folk being polite, minding their own business, being considerate of others and not being very intelligent either – help to inflate “Fargo” into a caricature of regional life in a small part of North America. What else inflates the movie into caricature is the over-use of Midwestern regional dialect and jargon: all those “yaaahs” and “naaws” that folks drop into their conversations, meant to add local flavour and help round out character development, become patronising and insulting to the Swedish heritage of the people who live in the area where the film is set (North Dakota and Minnesota).  The “niceness” with which Gunderson conducts her inquiries and fends off romantic advances from an old friend becomes very twee and there is no sense that behind her “nice” face lies a cool and calculating personality that she must surely possess to have become police chief.

It’s a pity that what’s meant to pass as an affectionate send-up of local quirkiness and eccentricity ends up looking blunt and ham-fisted and creates blank characters in a plot that is bereft of interest. There are worthy messages about how a small lie and banal personal problems end up escalating into a grand tragedy that draws in several innocent victims through chance meetings compounded by stupidity, incompetence and a mercenary mind-set embraced by several characters that puts a money value on everything including a woman’s life. The acting is very good – no one actor actually stands out head and shoulders above the rest – although the acting effort has gone into creating quaint character stereotypes rather than into developing realistic, troubled people who don’t fully understand their own motives or other factors, internal and external, that drive them to do what they do.  One would like to know whether John’s debts are partly the result of trying to give his wife and son a life-style they demand which goes far beyond what he can afford, and of trying to please his father-in-law as well, in which case the shenanigans that occur in “Fargo” might be considered a kind of dark cosmic justice and a damning commentary on how far people are prepared to go to maintain a façade.

On the plus side the snowy landscapes have an eerie beauty and give the impression of hiding many secrets in addition to the million dollars that Carl buries but is never able to tell anyone about. The natural world, looking pristine and white, serves as a metaphor for the society: apparently clean, wholesome and honest but hiding an underbelly of greed, slippery ethics and expedience.