The Man with the Golden Gun: surface glamour obscuring an interesting plot and themes

Guy Hamilton, “The Man with the Golden Gun” (1974)

Mainly memorable for the scene in which the stunt people managed to get a red coupe sports car perform a gymnastic full layout twist flying through the air from one end of a bridge to the other end – because the middle part was missing, and yes, I know cars can’t do piked or tucked twists – “… Gun” has a few things in its favour (and quite a few bad things against it) that make it easy on the eye and good for leisurely television watching in an age of COVID-19 corona virus lock-down when one needs light-hearted reassurance. The stunning scenes of island mountains hiding sun-kissed beaches (and evil villains’ multi-million-dollar hide-outs!) in Thailand’s Gulf region; a decent villain in the form of Christopher Lee playing assassin-for-hire Francisco Scaramanga; a plot that refers to the global energy crisis of the period (mid-1970s) and ingeniously matches Scaramanga and the cynical Bond (Roger Moore) as mirror twins of one another – what is not to like here? On the other hand, the film features minor cast members who drag out the plot and film-time much longer than they should have done, and Bond is paired with a ditzy agent, Mary Goodnight (Britt Ekland), who should have been thrown over by the script-writers and substituted with Scaramanga’s girlfriend Andrea Anders (Maud Adams, who was to return in a later Bond film) as a serious love interest.

The only elements in the film brought over from the eponymous Ian Fleming novel are the names of the main characters. The action is transferred from Jamaica to Beirut, Macau, Hong Kong and Thailand, and includes hefty doses of kung fu and kick boxing, sports which were becoming popular in Western pop culture in the 1970s. The plot divides into two main strands: Bond is being hunted by Scaramanga; and Bond needs to retrieve a solex generator device that harnesses the sun’s energy before it falls into Scaramanga’s hands and he tries to sell it to the highest bidder, which may be one of the West’s ideological enemies in the Soviet Union or China at the time, or an international crime syndicate like SPECTRE. Bond decides to hunt Scarmanga instead and this decision leads him to Beirut to collect a used golden bullet, and then to Hong Kong and Macau to find the manufacturer, where he also comes across Andrea Anders. From then on, Bond has to work to find the solex generator, which he does, but not before having to outwit an entire academy of martial arts students ordered to kill him, being chased in a sampan in crowded canals and failing to save Anders from Scaramanga’s wrath when the assassin finds his mistress has betrayed him. Bond passes the solex generator to a Chinese aide who then passes it to Mary Goodnight but Goodnight foolishly has ideas of her own and ends up being whisked away by Scaramanga and his assistant Nick Nack (Herve Villechaize) in a car that converts to a mini-plane to the Scaramanga hide-out.

The plot can seem confusing and overly drawn out with sampan and car chases, and an irritating American tourist (Clifton James, playing Sheriff J W Pepper), but it cleverly poses Scaramanga and Bond together as brothers of a kind: professional assassins in the loneliest profession in the world, yet both well-known among intelligence agencies and the global criminal underworld alike. One kills for money and a good life, yet seems alienated from the rest of humanity with just his assistant, a girlfriend and one maintenance engineer on his remote island for company; the other kills in service to his country, yet always has to be at MI6’s beck and call to perform dangerous work for which the benefits can be many but are very temporary. The downside of such work is always having to put one’s personal life a distant second priority, and attracting people like Scaramanga on your tail. A bit of pruning here and there in the film to get rid of Pepper, less grovelling to popular Western cultural trends of the period, and perhaps a bit more to say about how the lives of people who put themselves on the frontline to save society and of those criminals they chase, and how they often end up having much in common, and the plot would have been better and darker.

The acting varies from good (on the villains’ side) to woeful (on the heroes’ side) and Moore had yet to settle into his preferred Bond persona (bored playboy type), playing the character as still a tough and sardonic spy with rare flashes of wit. His acting is sometimes wooden but he manages to scrape through adequately enough. Lee combines menace and friendly pleasantry in a split second and is easily the best actor in the film. Shame that Scaramanga comes to a seemingly ignominious end with no bangs or flashy explosions but it seems appropriate that he is brought down by an ordinary proletarian bullet, the cheapest on the MI6 budget. The richest assassin in the world brought down low in a common shotgun killing.

The film might not make compelling viewing and it has not dated very well, but in its own way it is a document of the period in which it was filmed.

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service: a surprising sleeper film that packs a punch

Peter R Hunt, “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” (1969)

Fifty years after its cinematic release, this James Bond film may look dated but its plot and themes may still be relevant to modern audiences. Apart from its apocalyptic sub-plot of an evil mastermind threatening to unleash worldwide chaos using innocent and unwilling brainwashed agents to scatter bacteriological weapons among their nations, the film also has something to say about how one cannot escape one’s fate and the consequences of one’s actions, and how those consequences affect others’ lives, especially if one works as an undercover intelligence agent.

In this movie episode of the series of James Bond films that began in 1961 with “Dr No” and still continues, the spy is played by the then inexperienced Australian actor George Lazenby who might lack the suave confident charisma of his predecessor Sean Connery and the wit and humour of the actors who followed him but presents a more human, vulnerable and even sometimes thuggish Bond. Bond has been on the trail of sinister villain Ernst Stavro Blofeld (played by Telly Savalas) for some time when he stumbles across the beautiful but wilful and possibly disturbed Contessa Teresa “Tracy” di Vicenzo (Diana Rigg) on a beach and then driving her red coupe. He is intrigued by this woman who seems not to care whether she lives or dies, or wins or loses at the casino. He later discovers that she is the daughter of underworld crime boss Marc-Ange Draco (Gabriele Ferzetti) who implores Bond to strike up a relationship with her to keep her sane and stable after a series of personal disasters including marriage to an unsuitable Italian count and the loss of an infant child. Bond will only do so if Draco can reveal what he knows of Blofeld. Draco later directs Bond to the offices of a law firm in Bern in Switzerland, where Bond discovers that Blofeld has been corresponding with famed genealogist Sir Hillary Bray in order to claim the title and inheritance of one Count Balthazar de Bleuchamp. Somewhere along the way, Bond argues with his superior M (Bernard Lee) and resigns from MI6.

Posing as Bray, Bond insinuates himself into Blofeld’s mountain-top resort Piz Gloria to discover that he and assistant Irma Bunt run a health resort for a bevy of beauteous demoiselles from all over the planet who suffer from various food allergies and need therapy. Through a secret bedroom liaison with one of the girls, Bond discovers what that therapy is: hypnosis that impresses instructions into the girls’ unconscious minds that will be later turned on through stimuli to direct the girls to release dangerous bacteria embedded in toiletries given them at Blofeld’s whim. Blofeld and Bunt quickly uncover Bond’s identity and Bond himself barely manages to escape Blofeld and Bunt’s goons in a series of hair-raising incidents in which he nearly loses his fingers to a cable car lift and his life racing down a mountainous ski slope. Bumping into Tracy in a village, Bond further evades his pursuers with Tracy’s help. After spending the night together in a hayloft, the couple race for their lives again down a ski slope but Blofeld sets off an avalanche which overwhelms the couple. The villain captures Tracy and leaves Bond for dead. Bond anyway makes his way back to London where he learns of Blofeld’s intent to blackmail governments into declaring an amnesty for his crimes and allowing him to inherit the title and fortune he wants, or risk the destruction of the world through his brainwashed agents. MI6 intends to pay the ransom to Blofeld but Bond has another idea that not only will destroy Blofeld’s plans but rescue Tracy.

The film follows the original novel’s plot closely up to just over the halfway mark where Tracy rescues Bond from Blofeld and Bunt’s fury. This first half of the film can be quite slow for most audiences expecting fast and furious action but it establishes the film’s plot and sub-plots, and more importantly describes the motivations and personalities of the film’s most significant characters – Bond, Tracy, Blofeld and to some extent Draco – even if those motivations might seem bizarre and sexist to modern audiences. One might see Tracy’s past behaviour as typical of an intelligent, headstrong and resourceful woman whose only fault is to have been born female to a crime boss who wanted a son to take over his business. Draco’s solution to his problem is to ship his daughter off to a finishing school to take care of her emotional needs – which of course it fails to do. In Bond, Draco sees another solution to his succession problem and which will also provide Tracy with the stability she needs. Interestingly, in the second shorter half of the film, where the screenplay becomes original if rather more stereotyped, what with another ski chase and an operation to destroy Piz Gloria and Blofeld’s scheme, Blofeld becomes smitten with Tracy and offers her riches and status if she will marry him – which she refuses. From then on, Blofeld nurses vengeance against Tracy when he discovers that she and Bond, who defeats Blofeld in a fight on a racing bobsled, become engaged and marry.

The film’s style is plain and straightforward, with few quips and puns, and runs at a brisk pace. Blofeld’s numerous henchmen fall afoul of various disasters during the film’s two ski chases including one man’s unfortunate encounter with a snow plough. The film’s winter setting gives it a particular ambience, in contrast to other James Bond films where the action takes place in tropical environments or glamorous cities around the planet. The quality of acting varies throughout the film – Lazenby’s inexperience is obvious though he acquits himself very well in the tough fight scenes (and performed most of his stunts as well) – while Rigg and Savalas, who had previously worked together on another film “The Assassination Bureau”, do good work as their respective characters, Savalas in particular playing a vicious and vindictive Blofeld.

After the action of the ski chases, the rally car championship in which Tracy and Blofeld bump off all their competitors, and the action thriller invasion that destroys Piz Gloria, the film has two endings, one happy, one unhappy in which Lazenby finally redeems himself as an actor when Bond is forced to confront what Blofeld and Bunt have done to Tracy and their future life together. Bond is forced to admit that he can never really leave MI6 and the life of an undercover agent, because in carrying out his assignments for MI6, he has made numerous enemies and set off in motion a series of actions that come back to bite him, no matter that his actions originally saved the world, or at least Britain’s political establishment on which his salary and life-style depend. After “OHMSS”, subsequent James Bond films for the next three decades portray the spy following a devil-may-care and rather dissolute life bedding women and discarding them as he carries out his assignments with brutal efficiency, as though embodying something of Tracy’s former unstable life and Blofeld’s psychopathic nature, for the benefit of his employer which has Bond firmly back in the fold.

In an age where chemical and biological weapons are now looming large in global popular culture – particularly at this time of review, with a virulent coronavirus strain wreaking havoc and devastation through Europe and North America, destroying the European Union and all it supposedly stood for, and threatening perhaps also to finish off NATO and the global financial industry – this film regains a sharp relevance for current Western audiences. The hypnosis of unwitting young women to act as agents, perhaps to assassinate world leaders, in an age of CIA-sponsored mind manipulation and torture, followed by rumours of current terrorist organisations such as ISIS using drugs such as Captagon to modify jihadists’ behaviour and turn them into brutal killing machines, should also be significant to modern audiences.

A straightforward filming approach, a good cast playing complex characters with complicated motivations, sub-plots that still have the potential to surprise modern audiences … “OHMSS” turns out to be an excellent sleeper in the James Bond movie series.

The Professor and the Madman: a deeply emotional film about obsession, suffering, forgiveness and redemption

Farhad Safinia (P B Shemran), “The Professor and the Madman” (2019)

Adapted from the novel “The Surgeon of Crowthorne: A Tale of Murder, Madness and the Love of Words” by British-American journalist Simon Winchester, this film is a dramatic retelling of the early creation of the Oxford English Dictionary as a historical dictionary tracing the origins and development of the English language through its individual words and the changes that occurred in the meanings and usages of these words over time. The film focuses on the editorship of James Murray (played by Mel Gibson) who accepted the position in 1872 from the Philological Society, a group of intellectual men in London, after previous editors had given up due to the enormous scale and complexity of the task. Murray’s solution to the problem is to recruit eager amateurs (in a Victorian equivalent of crowd-sourcing) through London booksellers. Eventually one very eager amateur, submitting several thousand entries of words with their histories and quotations demonstrating their use, is one Dr William Chester Minor (Sean Penn). Murray is keen to visit this prolific contributor and his curiosity takes him to Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum where he discovers Minor is an inmate who has been committed there because he had murdered a man.

The film tells the stories of both Murray, coming to the editorship of the OED and bringing his wife Ada (Jennifer Ehle) and family to Trinity College to work on the dictionary, and of Minor, from the time he murders someone he mistakes for a Civil War deserter whom he believes to be following him to his incarceration at Broadmoor, in parallel. Murray must contend with the pressure and complexity of the OED project itself, and the pressure from Oxford University Press publisher Gell (Laurence Fox) and Oxford University administrator Benjamin Jowett (Anthony Andrews) to deliver a dictionary more to their liking than to what Murray believes it should be. His wife Ada and their children are neglected for long periods of time, though as the film progresses some of the children become involved in their father’s work. Minor labours under the burden of guilt for having killed an innocent man and leaving the victim’s widow Eliza Merrett (Natalie Dormer) and her seven children destitute, as well as past traumas from his time as an army surgeon during the US Civil War (including apparently having to brand a man as a deserter) that induce paranoia. A third sub-plot, not very convincing, involves Merrett meeting Minor at Broadmoor and over time the two becoming romantically involved after Minor offers to teach Merrett how to read and write.

Though the various sub-plot threads might be too much to handle for a first-time director, Safinia (credited as P B Shemran due to a legal dispute with the production company Voltage Pictures over the control of the film’s production, leading to Gibson and Safinia dissociating themselves from the project) does a very deft job keeping the parallel tales of Murray and Minor balanced. This viewer did not find having to follow the sub-plots confusing. The mostly sober acting carries the film all the way through; even actors in minor roles, in particular Ehle as Ada Murray and Eddie Marsan as Broadmoor prison warden Muncie, do excellent work in giving their characters substance, warmth and humanity. As Minor, afflicted by his guilt, traumas and maybe other psychological undercurrents, Penn delivers an outstanding performance in portraying a man who, despite the demons that torment him, finds love, acceptance and redemption.

The film does play a little hard and fast with facts – it creates a fictitious and implausible scenario in which Minor saves a prison guard’s life, receives a book from the other guards as thanks and discovers Murray’s appeal for contributions to the OED project inside the gift – and nearly 30 years are compressed into 124 minutes of film, during which Minor ages but the Murray and Everett children remain much the same. The fictional additions and the chronological irregularities however do not disrupt the overall narrative in which obsession, undergoing extreme ordeals of suffering as tests of faith, and Christian forgiveness and redemption are strong themes. Cinematography is very good and the attention to period detail, even to prevailing social mores of the late 1800s, is excellent. If there is one major fault of the film, it must be that the villains – the aforementioned Gell and Jowett, and Dr Richard Brayne (Stephen Dillane) with the sinister interest in phrenology at Broadmoor asylum – tend to be character stereotypes with Andrews in particular frozen in yet another effete English aristocrat character sketch. Significantly the all-English villains have a common interest in control of one kind or another: Gell, Jowett and their fellow intellectuals are keen on controlling the English language as a language of imperial power; and Dr Brayne tries to control and manipulate Minor using phrenology and torture. In wresting the OED away from the English intellectual elite and saving Minor from Dr Brayne’s ministrations, Murray becomes a hero of the common people.

For a film of its length, with the somewhat intellectual and dry subject matter it has, this movie turns out to be deeply emotional (even a bit sentimental) and concentrates audience attention very well.

Nano: hard-boiled pulp fiction ho-hum plot with an unusual premise

Mike Manning, “Nano” (2017)

This short film has the look and feel of a proof-of-concept work itching to be made into a full-length feature film or a television series: it has a very Hollywood look and sheen and it is clearly plot-driven. The plot revolves around a hard-bitten detective living on his own who hires a hooker to come to his apartment for some rough sex: how much more pulp-fiction hard-bitten can that plot be? The difference between “Nano” and other conventional hardboiled detective stories is its underlying science fiction premise: in the near future, the human genome will be augmented with nano-technologies that will link all humans from the time they are born with various government databases and networks. In the short, a new database version of the Nano technology is released and this Nano 2.0 version will become mandatory for all humans to have in their DNA. Among other things, this new version will enable police departments in the US to mediate potential criminal violence by accessing protagonists’ DNA through the database and inducing sudden paralysis in them; this will not only prevent violent crime but also gives governments the ability to direct people’s actions. As a result, people have less personal control and autonomy in their lives.

While the hologram TV news program pits a young, presumably “liberal” female reporter in favour of Nano 2.0 against a middle-aged male commentator with “conservative” values arguing against the loss of personal freedom and free will, the detective and the hooker eye each other suspiciously and have a terse and tense conversation before they get down to business. Unbeknownst to the detective, the prostitute is actually part of a hacker activist group opposed to Nano 2.0 and the potential loss of human freedoms: before arriving at his apartment, she has knocked over the real hooker going there and robbed her of her DNA profile and incorporated it into her own through a portable nano-technological hook-up gadget with the result that the hacktivist’s hair turns blonde from the real prostitute’s phenotype expression.

Once in the detective’s apartment, the hacktivist plays out the prostitute’s role until such time as she paralyzes the fellow temporarily so she can hack into the Nano 2.0 database and download his genome into a card before he wakes up. The downloading isn’t fast enough, he wakes up, there’s a fight, she manages to get away – but not before he is able to access and download her genome from a government database and send that information to his superiors. Thus, while she escapes with her accomplice, the police are able to induce paralysis in her and the accomplice is forced to abandon her and take off with the detective’s information.

For me, the most interesting part of the film (apart from the premise which it depends on) is the TV news conversation that runs in the background in the detective’s apartment: the argument between the young female reporter and the middle-aged interviewee satirises the current US culture wars involving identity politics, and perceived political allegiances and their associated ideologies and belief systems. Those protesting increased government surveillance and invasion of human minds, bodies and even genetics for the purpose of control are made out not only to be narrow-minded and bigoted, but even (in an ironic and twisted way) authoritarian. The reporter also constantly interrupts the interviewee in an exchange that remarks bitingly on the state of news media, that they assume a role in which they represent and interpret for government and the elite agendas that government now represents – in short, the news media have become the propaganda and public relations arm of government – and everyone must genuflect before a virtual secular priesthood of the police state.

Aside from this development which is part of the film’s context, the plot is fairly ordinary with its emphasis on physical seduction and violence, and little in the way of decent dialogue. The acting is adequate enough to demonstrate that in the future, the most valuable possession is a person’s genetic identity. The film ends on an open note, by which time few viewers are likely to care much about the paralysed hacktivist or the unlikable detective out for revenge.

The Replacement: an inquiry into the nature-versus-nurture dilemma

Sean Miller, “The Replacement” (2018)

What starts out as an investigation of the consequences of cloning in this sci-fi comedy short turns out almost to be a philosophical inquiry into the vexed question of how much nature or nurture influences a person’s destiny, the choices he or she is able to make, and how acquiring power and control can also influence personality and future choices, with all the consequences that arise. (The film’s original premise was actually more ordinary: it was intended to show what uncomfortable consequences could accrue if biological and other scientific breakthroughs and advances resulted in actual technological changes faster than society’s ethics and laws can keep up with them.) Despite a rather weak plot, the film leaves viewers pondering how much of a nation’s politics and ultimately its history, culture and society are shaped by the personalities of its past leaders and their backgrounds. In the not-so-distant future, lowly janitor Abe Stagsen (Mike McNamara) subscribes to an organisation that makes clones of his cells in the belief that ultimately his clones can help get him out of his low-paying job; instead his clones pursue their own ambitions and one of them ends up being elected President of the United States. Irate, Abe cancels his subscription and vows to get even with President Abe to demonstrate that the original Abe still matters. In his quest to find President Abe, the real Abe discovers that he’s not the only person angry at his clone; other people are out to hunt down all the Abe clones and his own life is in danger.

Structured as a vehicle for McNamara to show off his acting chops, which he does admirably, the film ends up having a sketchy plot which ends with Abe joining an underground movement. Viewers are left high and dry with this open-ended and uncertain coda. The film glosses over the discrepancies in the time the clones take or need to grow up before one or a few of them actually meet a still youthful orignal Abe as adults. Instead the film shoves poor old Abe into one rushed and not well thought-out scenario after another, with many improbable escapes: in one scene, he narrowly escapes being machine-gunned into Swiss cheese when in the nick of time, a bunch of police centurions leap into the scene and machine-gun his would-be executors willy-nilly while miraculously sparing him even though he is in the thick of it all.

Still, that Miller manages to pack a 12-minute film with so many interesting questions on the ethics and consequences of cloning for society is no mean feat. The film really needs a proper full-length movie treatment or a television series that can investigate the moral and ethical issues in some depth.

Nine Minutes: choosing how to die as your oxygen gives out

Ernie Gilbert, “Nine Minutes” (2017)

What if you suddenly discovered that you only had nine minutes left to live? How would you spend that time? This dilemma is made very real for future astronaut Lillian (Constance Wu), on a mission for United Earth Space Agency exploring a newly discovered planet and collecting soil samples: while her craft attempts take-off back to the mothership, an engine misfires and the astronaut is forced to eject before the craft explodes in mid-air. With her AI guide (voiced by Reggie Watt) keeping her company and warning her that her spacesuit’s oxygen levels are low, Lillian recovers from her sudden ejection and manages to recover the samples and make sure their containers have not been broken. She locates her damaged craft but is unable to obtain more oxygen from the tanks. With her oxygen running low and even her AI guide having to shut down, Lillian reviews her life, how she has always invested her energies and passions into her work while neglecting her significant relationships, and tries to come to terms with the choices she has made so that her last few moments are not lived in vain.

The film has a clean, cool yet elegiac look and feel, and the desert setting and cinematography concentrate all the viewer’s attention on Lillian as she becomes increasingly disoriented from low levels of oxygen in her suit and her dialogue with her AI guide becomes distracted and fragmented. One senses that she may be regretting choices she has made in the past in her drive to become an astronaut. Who is she apologising to at the moment of her death? The tantalising climax leaves her speech unfinished and it is anyone’s guess who or what the object of her apology is.

The film gives no backstory to Lillian, how she might have fought her way up through the ranks of the UESA to become a leader of an expedition to the new planet, and so viewers may not feel much sympathy for her in her efforts to preserve the samples rather than try to save herself. What is the nature of her expedition and what are the samples being tested and used for? Is the UESA merely the workhorse agency for corporate mining clients or terraforming companies wishing to exploit the resources of the planet for profit? Is Lillian a fool for wanting to preserve the samples, giving up her life as a result? Is she even aware that she will soon become a corporate statistic?

Wu gives a good performance as the doomed astronaut trying to maintain her sanity and a clear head while her oxygen is giving out, her mind is becoming foggy and her speech degenerates into babble. The cinematography is good too in gradually zooming from a focus on scenery onto a focus on Wu’s face, circling around the woman as she sits in the desert looking ahead. There is not much one can say about Watt’s voice-over apart from that it is clear and does not reveal much emotion – which perhaps increases Lillian’s sense of isolation and thus her determination to make her last moments count for something.

It is often paradoxically when humans are stuck in situations where they appear to have no choice at all in determining their destiny that they may choose to rise above those situations and determine to live and die with meaning. The film becomes much more than a film about self-sacrifice for a cause that may not deserve such heroism.

Plurality: a film of techno-dystopia in New York

Dennis Liu, “Plurality” (2012)

A competent little short that looks very much like a proof-of-concept work for a longer feature film, “Plurality” plays like a conventional Hollywood action thriller flick, which is really to its detriment as the film is premised on a very interesting and currently relevant socio-political concern. In 2023, New York City brings in a new database known as The Grid, into which everyone’s identity and personal details have been scanned and which can be accessed by biometric data. This enables people to unlock and open doors, apply for bank accounts and passports, and pay for items using just fingerprint or other personal biometric identifiers. As a result, crime in NYC falls dramatically – it becomes impossible for people to steal things – but a new worry has befallen the security forces who monitor The Grid: a new phenomenon in which two people, looking exactly alike and using the same biometric details, are appearing in the city. Such “twinning” is becoming more prevalent. Two young blonde women, both named Alana Winston (Samantha Strelitz), have been spotted in different parts of the city, and Inspector Jacob Foucault (Jeffrey Nissani) is sent out to apprehend one of them, the other having already been taken into custody.

A major part of the film is taken up with the chase leaving little time to investigate the film’s major concerns with how NYC’s use of The Grid to spy on people as well as provide them with convenience raises issues of how much humans are prepared to sacrifice privacy and to expose themselves to corporate pressure to conform through the kinds of choices presented to them on The Grid, for convenience and ease. Issues such as identity – how can a person presume to have his/her own identity and individuality distinct from what is on The Grid? if a person’s data were to be erased from The Grid, what psychological impact would such erasure have on a person’s sense of self? – receive no coverage “Plurality”. (Perhaps in a feature film this problem would receive a hearing.)

With so much emphasis on chasing people around NYC, the film has no time for character development so viewers have little sympathy for what happens to Alana Winston once she is caught and interrogated. Foucault is just a yes-man officer doing his job efficiently. The film has a very polished and smooth feel with much emphasis on hologram special effects but it does not come across as anything out of the Hollywood action thriller ordinary.

The film definitely could be improved with less emphasis on the chase and more perhaps on exploring the nature of The Grid so that viewers can see for themselves the contradictions of a system that promises security and convenience but ends up delivering neither. Viewers would then ask themselves what kind of government or corporation would force such a system onto NYC; if they were to investigate further, they might be horrified to discover that The Grid might be digital kin to a massive Ponzi scheme.

Zero: teenage survivalist making a critical decision about her future

Keith and David Lynch, “Zero” (2019)

In a post-apocalyptic world, when robots and humans have fought each other almost to the death in a long drawn-out world and there are few survivors, a father (Nigel O’Neill) teaches his daughter Alice (Bella Ramsey) how to survive on her own in a derelict house with enough food stockpiled to last five years. One day a mystery electro-magnetic pulse cuts off technology and kills the father who is wearing an internal pacemaker. For the next several years, Alice, having been drilled to stay in the house and never to leave it, never to trust anyone and never to allow anyone inside the house, bears up through sheer grit and determination. One day as the fifth year nears its end, Alice comes to a decision about her future and what she will have to do to achieve it.

The film appears to be a proof-of-concept short created to attract attention and garner support for a television series or a full-length movie treatment. Due to a strict budget, the film relies on main actor Ramsey to deliver a convincing performance about a young teenage girl left alone and to find some purpose in living. Ramsey puts in an excellent effort as Alice in a dark and near-monochrome environment. The film has the look (if rather clean) of post-apocalyptic survivalist films like Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Stalker” and Konstantin Lopushansky’s “Dead Man’s Letters”. Daily life with nothing to do comes across as harrowing as if Alice had to work at a dead-end job full-time with no time off.

The pace can be a bit slow and leisurely and it only picks up right near the end when Alice has made her decision. At this point the film draws back to show the context into which Alice is walking: she is wading into a world that has become a tabula rasa on which there will be many opportunities for a youngster like her to make a significant mark.

The film has something to say about allowing survivalist rules to dominate your life rather than using them as guidelines; and by extension allowing past tradition, custom and history to dictate future decisions and actions. While Alice’s father tries in his own way to protect his daughter, he ends up turning her into a prisoner bound not only by the physical prison but also by mental bonds (expressed in reminders around the house) and her loyalty to him. At the end, Alice has to decide on whether she will continue to be bound by invisible fetters or not.

ChromoPHOBIA: a message about how we treat (or don’t treat) mental illness well

Keith Adams, “ChromoPHOBIA” (2019)

Based on a short story by B Evenson, this dark horror fiction short focuses on mental illness and its treatment, and unconscious psychological projection. After a patient in a mental hospital commits suicide for unknown reasons, clinical psychiatrist Jennifer Haver (Marjan Neshat) takes on a new patient called Arthur (Patrick Carroll). Arthur says very little and is extremely withdrawn but comes to life if allowed to draw with charcoal on paper, which he does obsessively: he draws technically complex pictures of the same scene over and over. Dr Haver is drawn to the pictures, which always feature Arthur’s attic-like studio, which has a full-length stand-alone mirror in the background. Discovering that Arthur has a fear of using coloured crayons, Dr Haver tries to investigate the source of his fear by getting the key off him and visiting his studio. She discovers a number of pictures of a room in the hospital that suggest that, through his drawings, Arthur may be acting as a conduit for messages from the past and warnings from the future that reveal some very uncomfortable home truths to Dr Haver.

The actors do a good job with the limited one-dimensional characters they are given with perhaps Carroll as Arthur the best of the cast. The cinematography emphasises greyish colours: even the walls of the mental hospital have greyish-green colour with rust stains here and there, suggesting that the building itself (and by implication the people working there) is inadequate for the needs of the patients. The music soundtrack is overbearing and jarring in its near-hysterical conjuration of fear and foreboding; given the sparse setting of the hospital and the minimal style of filming and acting, the film would have been better off with no music at all.

The plot may be implausible but it does suggest that the culture of mental asylums in the West can be harmful to their patients because they are subjected to biases of the staff treating them, and thus are forced to bear not only the burden of therapies and medication prescribed by their doctors for their supposed conditions (and the side effects of those therapies and medication) but also the burden of their treating doctors’ own hang-ups, especially if the treatment does not work as it is supposed to do according to the textbook and/or if the patient refuses to co-operate. Did the patient who committed suicide do so because in some way he was driven to do so by Dr Haver, even if unconsciously on her part? Is Dr Haver some unwitting Angel of Death who transmits her childhood trauma of having seen her mother commit suicide to her patients like a contagious disease? Is Arthur fearful that what Dr Haver may have done to her previous patient may happen to him too, and he is trying to warn her?

While the film is very suspenseful and has a very Gothic look, it has too many irritating horror-movie stereotypes: the haunted house harbouring dark secrets, the unnecessary and ridiculous music soundtrack, and ultimately the depiction of the mental hospital as an Arkham-asylum institution where the staff are barely able to keep perceived forces of chaos at bay, when in fact the staff themselves may be bringing chaos to their patients. Still, the message that we in the West do not really treat mental illness very well, and dump our prejudiced perceptions and stereotypes onto mentally ill people to their detriment, comes through strongly; it is a message that speaks to us of our own arrogance, cruelty, denial and ignorance.

Bombshell: film on sexual harassment bombs out for its superficiality

Jay Roach, “Bombshell” (2019)

The plot is very basic enough: a female television personality employee at Fox News is sacked by the big boss for questionable reasons – all arising from a toxic and dysfunctional work culture in which women are employed and promoted on the basis of their appearance and willingness to tolerate sexual innuendo and sometimes downright bullying, harassment and even seduction and rape – and decides to pursue a lawsuit against the boss, rather than her former employer, for sexual harassment. On this structure, “Bombshell” attempts to build a narrative of how an individual fights to overcome sexual discrimination in an organisation and the obstacles she must overcome, not least obstacles such as fear among other female employees of the consequences of speaking out. In this, the film does not succeed well, due to a plot structure of three sub-plots, each revolving around a different woman, running in parallel with not much happening in any of them.

Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) is demoted from a prime morning TV show to hosting an afternoon show in a lesser time slot and is eventually fired by Roger Ailes (John Lithgow). She launches her lawsuit against Ailes as advised by her lawyers but needs the support of other women who have been employed at, or are currently working for, Fox News under Ailes. Initially her lawyers question various female employees there and do surveys but discover that the vast majority of women refuse to speak out against Ailes – in part because they fear for their careers and know other TV news networks will not employ them if their CVs show they have worked for Fox News, on the basis of its politics and the general perception that it is a lightweight network. One woman who is found to dither is TV news anchor Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) who has her own history of sexual harassment from Ailes. Kelly spends a fair amount of time making up her mind as to whether her career is more important or speaking out in solidarity with Carlson and other Fox News employees who have also been harassed by Ailes. One of these other women is Kaylah Pospisil (Margot Robbie), a new-ish recruit ambitious to climb high in the organisation but discovering to her horror and anguish that she will have to succumb also to Ailes’ advances towards her if she is to achieve her career goals.

Theron and Robbie do excellent work as their respective characters though their paths cross just twice in the film: once, when they are in a lift together with Kidman’s Carlson, none of the characters speaking to one another; and second when Kelly is sounding out Pospisil as to whether she agrees with Carlson’s lawsuit and would be willing to speak to Carlson’s lawyers. This is a powerful moment in the film: Pospisil responds that if Kelly had spoken out earlier against Ailes, younger women like herself would have been spared Ailes’ harassment. Kelly snarls that her job isn’t to defend Pospisil or any other woman at Fox News. Only when Kelly discovers that a sufficient number of women are prepared to speak out against Ailes does she decide to join them. Carlson tends to be a secondary character and most of what she does to incriminate Ailes is mentioned in passing or off-camera: in other words, Kidman actually does not do a great deal in the film.

The film seems to evade a lot of what Carlson, Kelly and Pospisil do in the way of piling up enough evidence to force Rupert Murdoch and his sons James and Lachlan to dump Ailes. There is also much that “Bombshell” evades about Fox News: how the organisation’s own politics and culture of discrimination against other vulnerable minority groups such as black and other non-white people, and people who are not heterosexual, encourage a toxic environment where women are judged on their appearance; and how companies owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation generally end up espousing similar ideologies and values, and are dominated by work cultures where self-censorship seems to be rife. Megyn Kelly is not an admirable figure, coming over as cowardly and callous, concerned only for herself, but that should not be surprising given the organisation she works for and the shallow and selfish Ayn-Rand materialist values it espouses. The fictional character of Kaylah Pospisil elicits sympathy from viewers – but viewers may wonder why a fictional character had to be introduced into the film in the first place. Were there not any real-life Fox News employees who had a skerrick of decency in them who could have featured in a similar role?

Bizarre narrative techniques such as having Kelly speaking directly to the audience about Fox News and the use of three parallel sub-plots, necessitating lots of choppy editing, leave the film in a fragmented state and its main characters treated in a superficial way. One gets the feeling that the film was made basically to trash Fox News for its politics and its culture – because the network supported Donald Trump for the US Presidency in 2016, when the film was set – but after that, the film takes many liberties with what actually happened at the organisation that led to Carlson’s lawsuit and Kelly’s decision to support Carlson.

Bombshell? The film fizzles more than it delivers explosions. A superficial treatment of the issues at stake, with more effort put into the lead actresses’ make-up, hairstyles and clothing than in the actual plot and investigating the characters and their motivations in depth, makes this a film a bomb.