A sense of Cold War paranoia and self-righteous American exceptionalism in “Espionage Target – You!”

“Espionage Target – You!” (1964)

Commissioned by the United States Department of Defense for training US military and civilian personnel sent abroad, this film is an example of how closely Hollywood, collectively and individually, worked with the US government in producing propaganda … er, training and educational movies. This film purports to show how agents working for the enemies of the US attempt to recruit American military and civilian employees to obtain information by searching and exploiting weaknesses in the individual Americans. Three re-enactment scenarios, based on actual cases, in different parts of the world – in West Germany, Japan and Poland – are shown: in each, a friendly stranger approaches an individual or group of individuals and strikes up a conversation in which s/he probes the chosen victim/s for vulnerabilities such as loneliness, money problems, sexual issues, alcohol and gambling. Once the stranger identifies a person’s weakness, that issue will be manipulated to the extent that the victim comes under continuous pressure and harassment to deliver, and will feel stressed and conflicted: a state that the agent can control and exploit even more.

Invariably the agents are described as working for the “Sino-Soviet” or Communist espionage system and can appear as quite personable and charming people. One such agent, Nick Macrados, is played by Anthony Eisley,  who appeared in a number of well-known television series spanning 30 years from the late 1950s on. Macrados recruits two US Army servicemen into a scheme to obtain secret information by plying them with money and drink; one of these Army guys, Karras (Pete Duel) later realises that he has been tricked and informs his superiors. The scheme is rumbled by Army authorities who arrest Macrados and Karras’ buddy Templeton (Michael Pataki). This re-enactment is the longest of the three and takes up at least half of the film’s half-hour running time; consequently the other two re-enactments are more sketchy and generic in their details. In all three examples, the victims realise they have been targeted and report to the appropriate authorities who take charge of the respective situations and apprehend the enemy agents.

The scenarios proceed briskly and in a fairly straightforward and low-key way that some viewers might find surprising, seeing as the film is a Hollywood production. The acting is efficient and consistent, and seems realistic enough. Refreshingly for the period (mid-1960s), the Asian actors who appear as a Chinese spy and his Japanese honey-pot accomplices act in a natural way and speak English without faked stereotyped Asian accents. (Although one actress could have toned down her alarmingly fairy-floss black coiffure.) The film is easy to follow and at its end the narrator sums up the foreign agents’ modus operandi and the actions American citizens abroad should follow if approached by people they suspect of being part of that insidious Sino-Soviet espionage network. Of course, the problem is that now the way in which the enemy agents work has been revealed, their employers are sure to change their methods and the film will no longer be relevant.

Both Hollywood and the US Department of Defense seem unaware that at the time, the Soviet Union and the Chinese had fallen out and were not much on speaking terms, much less able to co-operate. On the other hand, maybe the US government did know that the Communist world was divided but preferred not to divulge such information to the American public, all the more to maintain the fear and the level of American suspicion towards foreigners. The seemingly friendly and paternal tone of the film does little to hide a wariness and no small amount of paranoia, along with a sense of American superiority and belief in manifest destiny in which Americans are the natural police force of the world and pull others into line. For a film made in the 1960s, this training short features quite a number of stereotyped Hollywood film elements (in dialogue, aspects of plotting, characterisations) associated with films made in the 1940s – 1950s.

The film is notable for its cast of actors like Eisley, Duel and Pataki, who found themselves in demand for movies and TV shows, several of which became classics in their own right; and as an example of how closely Hollywood works with US government agencies to push an agenda.

The Seagull (dir. Michael Mayer): a film adaptation of Chekhov’s play lacking good characters and direction

Michael Mayer, “The Seagull” (2018)

Quite why this film adaptation of the famous play by Anton Chekhov couldn’t have been set in the United States in the late 19th or early 20th century, given that the entire cast speaks English with American accents, is strange but the performances are good enough that the notion of Russian characters speaking as they do in English quickly feels normal. As with the play, most of the action takes place in a summer mansion over several days, with the final act occurring two years later, starting off the film and then more or less repeating at the end so that the bulk of the action occurs as a flash-back. Haughty aristocratic actress Irina Arkadina (Annette Bening), a renowned stage performer whose career has seen better and increasingly more distant days, brings her latest lover, the writer Boris Trigorin (Corey Stoll), to her family’s summer house where reside her sickly and aged brother Sorin (Brian Dennehy) and her son Konstantin aka Kostya (Billy Howle), an aspiring playwright whose work is very experimental and highly symbolic. The mansion is managed by a couple, Ilya and Polina (Mare Winningham), whose daughter Masha (Elizabeth Moss) secretly loves Kostya, who is disdainful of her yearnings, as he is more interested in the girl who lives on the estate next door, Nina (Saoirse Ronan) who dreams of becoming a famous actress and who reciprocates Kostya’s affections. If this love triangle were not enough, viewers are treated to young school-teacher Semyon Medvedenko’s love for Masha while her mother Polina is having an affair with Dr Dorn (Jon Tenney).

The film essentially is a character study of a vain and manipulative woman who, for reasons never revealed, forces her son to live an isolated life on her family estate while she revels in fame and celebrity status on the Moscow theatre circuit. The plays she stars in are of a melodramatic kind, popular with the crowds for their superficiality, while Kostya yearns for theatrical renown of a more abstract and perhaps more lasting nature. Perhaps Irina is jealous that she and her world might be usurped by Kostya and the theatrical world he wants to write for, because this futuristic world reminds her of her mortality. As a result, when Kostya tries to stage an experimental play for Irina and her guests, she openly ridicules it and this sets up a tension lasting all the way through the film between mother and son. Torn between his love for his mother, who alternately dotes on him and abuses him, and his mother’s affection for Boris, Kostya weaves dangerously between anger, frustration, depression and suicidal thoughts. This in turn creates problems between him and Nina, while Masha secretly gets drunk to ease the pain of loving someone who will never love her. For her part, Nina becomes enthralled with Boris’ stories about how he copes with fame (which in fact he tells Nina to warn her of the downside of being a celebrity) and becomes infatuated with him. Boris for his part finds himself falling in love with Nina at the same time he still loves Irina.

All these entanglements may be hard for viewers to follow though with the screenplay chopping out large parts of the original play, a number of characters, notably Dr Dorn, become little more than walking wallpaper. Masha becomes a mere pitiable creature taking solace in alcohol and her relationship with Medvedenko becomes taken for granted rather than developed as it should have been as a counterpoint to Irina and Kostya’s own complicated love lives. Kostya and Trigorin come across as rather weak-willed men who don’t seem to learn from their errors or weaknesses, and as a result will always be at the mercy of others more cunning than they; Trigorin is lucky in navigating his affections with Irina and Nina, and one wonders whether he really would have preferred to stay with Nina had not Irina manipulated him into dumping the younger woman. (In Chekhov’s plays, so much of what we’d call action actually takes place away from the stage or between acts.) Kostya is not much more than a whining overgrown brat subject to banging out his temper tantrums on the piano or shooting birds from the sky. The stand-out performances are those of Bening as the wily mother and Ronan as Nina who learns the hard way that acting brings its own pressures and strains, and that fame and glory are fickle and cruel gods to those who do not have outstanding talent or the opportunities to prove their ability. Both Bening and Ronan give of their best but it is not enough to save the film from floundering with mostly one-dimensional characters lacking direction in their lives and who are content or resigned to floating in whichever direction the wind blows.

The clash between the old and the new; between popular if shallow trends in art and art created for its own sake or to interrogate issues that people would rather not discuss; between generations; and between the pursuit of fame and fortune on the one hand and on the other, the grim reality of persisting despite all odds, are all grist for the mill. Characters want to be happy but do not know how to pursue happiness, are afraid of pursuing it or do things that destroy their chances of being happy. A despondent, insular attitude follows the film like a bad smell: Kostya seems incapable of ever leaving the family estate while his mother is still alive and Nina resigns herself to travelling around the Russian empire acting in second-rate troupes for the bemusement of peasants and factory workers. Trigorin is destined to continue churning out fiction pap and acting as Irina’s handbag. Art itself continues to demand much from the various characters psychologically and physically until one person literally can’t take any more.

The isolated lake country setting is a major character in itself in the film but at the same time removes the action almost completely from Moscow, and from significant social, economic and political changes of the period it is set in, that would later sweep away the familiar world of Irina Arkadina and her household and her circle of friends and acquaintances. Indeed, it is this detachment from the real world of an increasingly industrialised Russia, class conflict, a stagnant polity and looming revolution that makes Arkadina and Sorin’s seemingly idyllic little lakeside mansion paradise – populated with flawed, passive characters of mediocre talent and obsessed with unattainable goals – at times stuffy and suffocating.

Equus: a psychodrama of outstanding performances and troubling philosophical questions about individuality and creativity

Sidney Lumet, “Equus” (1977)

He never won an individual Academy Award for Best Movie or Best Director but surely Sidney Lumet is one of the greatest film directors – in particular of films focusing on anti-hero characters battling with obsessions or guilt, or finding themselves at odds with social expectations and the pressure to conform, with the result that they end up cut off from their true aspirations and become hollow robots – ever to grace this undeserving planet. Unafraid to tackle issues of social justice, and using a classic realistic style of telling his story, Lumet attracted fine actors and drew strong, complex performances from them. His film adaptation of Peter Schaffer’s play “Equus”, for which Schaffer himself modified his play, is an excellent example of Lumet’s oeuvre: an excellent cast featuring Richard Burton, Peter Firth and Joan Plowright among others; themes of religious obsession and of a man wrestling with his conscience over remolding young mentally disturbed and troubled people into robots like himself acceptable to society; and a straightforward realist approach that forces audiences to confront the issues raised by the original play about psychoanalysis and its uses.

Child psychiatrist / psychoanalyst Martin Dysart (Burton) has reached a crisis of burnout, disillusionment and uncertainty after a long career treating adolescent and young adult patients with mental health issues and disturbances. A new patient, Alan Strang (Firth), is referred to him, Strang having entered the mental health facility where Dysart works after committing a bizarre crime. Initially Alan resists Dysart’s probing questioning but after the two agree on a bartering system where Dysart must respond to a question from Alan when Alan answers his question, Alan begins to open up about his family background: his mother Dora (Plowright), a fanatical fundamentalist Christian believer, and his father (Colin Blakely), a determined atheist, have improbably combined to impose a highly restrictive and repressive family life, complete with a rigid religious tradition heavy on ritual, upon their only son. Imagination, fun and laughter, and genuine love, freely and unconditionally given, are absent from the boy’s life and in their place are religious obsession bordering on the fanatical and a fear of sexuality combined with hypocrisy and furtive voyeurism on the father’s part.

A childhood incident directs Alan’s focus of worship of the divine and channels the creative and sexual urges he is forced by his parents to suppress into idealising horses. A young woman Jill (Jenny Agutter) helps him get a job as a stable-hand caring for six horses but the constant physical contact with the animals brings out Alan’s obsessions which he acts upon. Jill is attracted to Alan and attempts to have sexual intercourse with him but Alan’s failure brings intense anguish which results in extreme violence to his beloved animals.

Alan’s opening up unexpectedly forces Dysart to admit to his own sterile personal life and confront the paradox in his own life, in which to deal with young people’s mental health issues and return them to normal (dysfunctional) society he must destroy their natural creative urge and zest for living. After hearing Alan’s admission of his crime, Dysart once again faces what he most dreads doing: to “heal” Alan and return him to his dysfunctional family, he must rob the boy of that which gives him his individuality, creative being and reason for living and turn the boy into an emotionally hollow robot … just like himself.

Both Burton and Firth give impassioned and intense performances as the doctor who envies Alan for his vitality and the troubled boy himself, beset by obsessions he barely understands. Through these two actors and their dialogue, the issues of how an individual must suppress his/her creative being, to the point of suffocating it altogether, in order to fit into and function within a rigid, repressive society come to the fore. Plowright and Blakely acquit themselves well as the parents who confuse their son and set him on the path of idealising and worshipping the Dionysian (chaotic) elements within and without him. Agutter has very little to do but makes her character real enough.

While Lumet is a straight-out realist director, and a number of scenes in the film may be over-dramatised and horrific for most audiences, his direction allows the narrative to flow fairly easily and Burton’s monologues, in which he envies Alan as the personification of that which is dead within him and agonises over the treatment that he must give to Alan that will kill the boy inwardly and turn him into an “adult”, sit easily with the action in the film. The dream-like scenes in which Alan rides naked on his favourite horse can be confrontational and intense but they are done fairly tastefully; less so the scenes in which Alan mutilates the horses in his care, which (to me) show far too much and don’t seem very realistic.

The film raises important questions about human freedom and individuality, and how the individual yearning for freedom, creative being and fulfilling one’s potential can be accommodated in a society that prizes conformity and fears the passion and intensity required to achieve full freedom and creativity. Religious obsession, and how it combines with sexual suppression and directs it into channels that fling both religiosity and sexuality into people’s faces in the most confronting ways – Plowright as the fanatical mother fails to make the connection between the way she has brought up her son and his obsession with horses – is dealt with less successfully and Alan’s self-flagellation may come across to audiences as rather bizarre and theatrical, rather than as something to be pitied. While perhaps Lumet’s realist approach does not suit “Equus” very well – it originated as a stylised play after all – it does a great job delineating its psychological themes and portraying one of the most important philosophical questions about how far individuality and freedom can thrive in society.

BlacKkKlansman: use of race politics demeans the achievement of a black police officer in exposing the Ku Klux Klan’s evil

Spike Lee, “BlacKkKlansman” (2018)

Filmed as a blaxsploitation-styled comedy drama, this work revolves around a real scenario in which a black American police officer in Colorado state actually infiltrates a local branch of the notorious racist organisation the Ku Klux Klan by pretending to be a white man interested in joining the KKK. The characters and much of the plot are based on the memoir written by that police officer, Ron Stallworth (played by John David Washington, son of Denzel Washington). The period during which Stallworth infiltrated the KKK spans the late 1970s and the early 1980s but director Spike Lee places the action in the mid-1970s. Stallworth joins the Colorado Springs police force as a rookie cop and initially works in boring records administration work. He is soon transferred to undercover work and his first job is to attend a student rally where a former Black Panther activist Kwame Ture, formerly Stokely Carmichael (Corey Hawkins) gives an address urging race war. At this rally Stallworth meets Patrice (Laura Harrier), the president of the Black Student Union at Colorado College, and is attracted to her. Their developing romance, in which he hesitates to tell her what he does for a living after she criticises the police as “pigs”, forms a sub-plot to the film.

At work, Stallworth spies a KKK recruitment advertisement in the local newspaper and phones the number . He pretends to be a white man wanting to join the organisation but foolishly gives his real name. Stallworth and a team of other police officers then arrange for a colleague, Phillip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), to act in his stead, meeting members of the local KKK branch and socialising with them under Stallworth’s name. Zimmerman eventually enrolls in the KKK after Stallworth, handling the application to join over the phone, phones KKK Grand Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace) to speed up the admin work, which Duke happily obliges. All seems to be going well except that long-time KKK member Felix (Jasper Pääkkönen) senses that Zimmerman isn’t what he appears to be and starts doing some research on Zimmerman and Ron Stallworth, even visiting Stallworth at home. When not investigating Zimmerman’s “bona fides”, Felix and two other KKK members, chafing at their president’s moderate style of leadership, stalk Patrice after her complaint at being sexually harassed by a racist police officer goes public, find out where she lives and plot to silence her by using Felix’s wife to place a bomb outside a civic rally or her house.

Eventually David Duke comes to Colorado Springs to preside over Zimmerman’s joining ceremony which takes place on the same day the civic rally is scheduled. The police assign Stallworth to protect Duke and soon enough, the action quickens and starts going pow-pow-pow.

Because Lee uses race politics as the all-encompassing prism through which viewers see what happens, reinforced by Lee’s attempts to situate the film within current political / racial tropes portraying US President Donald Trump as racist, “BlacKkKlansman” falls into a stereotypical black-versus-white paradigm that admits no other viewpoints that might complicate the message Lee wants to tell. This means that all characters, especially the KKK members, end up as crude one-dimensional stereotypes that actually demean the work that the real Stallworth did in busting the KKK Colorado chapter. After all, if your enemy is portrayed as a bunch of ignorant hick idiots, the danger it poses seems less than what it would be if the enemy were highly intelligent and sophisticated. The KKK members are obsessed with race purity and recreating their ideal of a prosperous America. There is nothing in the film about the poverty, lack of education and lack of opportunities that these people and their families might have suffered over decades as a result of political corruption and the lack of Federal and State government expenditure on social welfare, health and education in those regions of the US where poverty among both white, black and other communities had been entrenched since the end of the US Civil War and the KKK flourished.

On the other side, the black people among whom Stallworth moves are mostly naive middle class, college-educated youngsters who zealously follow every faddish fashion and idea that smacks of “black power” in the way they dress and do their hair, and generally act as one big mass. The weakest parts of the film are in fact those parts where the black middle class people huddle around leaders and role models (one of them played by Harry Belafonte) and seem to act as one many-headed mass. Is Lee sending up the black middle class, and the culture and the music associated with “black pride” of the early 1970s? Just as troublesome is the film’s emphasis on Zimmerman being Jewish and his being forced to acknowledge his Jewish heritage as a result of having to confront anti-black and anti-Jewish racism in his contacts with the KKK; as if somehow being a lapsed Jewish believer, attending synagogue only during the high holy days perhaps and being indifferent to Jewish rituals the rest of the year, is something to be ashamed of.

The most revealing moment comes when the Black Students Union members, after listening to a talk given by Harry Belafonte’s character about a lynching that occurred in 1916 and an early silent film, “The Birth of A Nation” by D W Griffith, start yelling “Black Power!” and pump their fists in the air, at the same time that the KKK members, having witnessed Zimmerman’s induction into their ranks, watch the same film and start shouting “White Power!”, also pumping their fists in the air. At this point, the film appears to be advocating racial separatism which completely ignores the issue of class as a factor in encouraging race hatred and division. Such racial separatism diverts attention away from forming a united front that can successfully confront and overthrow those political elements that benefit from fragmentation of the body politic on ethnic, religious and other identity-based criteria and keeping it impoverished and oppressed – just as political elites in the southern states of the US and elsewhere used race-based politics to keep white and black people apart, poor and weak when they should have been together and strong. It is significant that David Duke is now on public record as saying that he likes Spike Lee’s work and respects it, which may suggest that Duke himself has not only seen this film but has recognised the unintended parallels in the portrayal of the BSU and the KKK, and seen the naivety of the students as comparable to the stupidity of the KKK members in the film.

The film ends up doing Ron Stallworth and his achievement in penetrating the KKK and exposing its terrorism a grave disservice. The whole story might have been better served filmed as a documentary.

One oddity about “BlacKkKlansman” is that it portrays the Colorado Springs police force as basically benevolent in spite of the odd bad apple or two – even though police forces across the US in recent years have been prominent in several racist incidents and attacks in which people have died. Significantly scenes at the end of the film, focusing on recent incidents in which neo-Nazis and white supremacists / separatists are prominent, fail to include police attacks on anti-racism activists. Might Spike Lee be pulling his punches here and directing people’s anger against racism into channels that divert that anger away from the institutions that most perpetuate racism – like Hollywood?

Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 1: Adam Ruins Pregnancy): why so much pressure on new parents and mothers in particular?

Matthew Pollock, “Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 1: Adam Ruins Pregnancy)” (2017)

Appropriately for a first episode of a new season, the topic covered is having a baby and the popular myths and misconceptions that surround women’s fertility, the issue of whether to breast-feed or feed a child formula, and maternal bonding. Emily and her partner are worried that her biological clock is ticking away and before long, she’ll hit the 35th-birthday mark which means her ability to conceive will start vanishing. Enter our chatty host Adam Conover who reassures Emily and partner by advising that a woman’s ability to fall pregnant after the age of 35 years will actually only fall a few percentage points and that even women in their prime years of fertility (late teens to late 20s) only have a successful pregnancy rate of less than 90%. Conover explains that the notion that reaching 35 years of age means that a woman’s ability to fall pregnant will plummet drastically is based on French census data collected from 1670 to 1830!

In a hypothetical scene, when Emily attends a garden party with her newborn child, two women guests start arguing over the breast-feeding versus infant formula issue. Conover brings in an expert who chastises both brawling biddies for their blinkered points of view. Later in the episode, Emily and her partner feel rather depressed that they’re not bonding with their baby as much as they believe they should and that caring for a baby turns out to be tedious, often boring and not much fun at all. Again, Conover tells them that maternal bonding is a very recent and uniquely Western concept and that in the past, when infant mortality rates were high, people were actually advised not to become attached to babies.

The news that turning 35 won’t hinder conceiving a child will be a relief for many women. Pity though that Conover does not consider why this particular myth is still so widespread in television, print and other media. The agenda behind pushing the idea that having a baby after the age of 35 years is close to impossible may well be sinister: it may be insinuating that young women should set aside their career aspirations and devote their time and energies to having children now rather than later. Likewise, other issues covered in the episode tend to be those on which parents are often harshly judged by their families, friends and peers. Unfortunately the show’s format and short running time don’t permit Conover to explore why new parents are often subjected to so much subjective criticism from others (plus subtle criticism from popular women’s magazines, news media and parents’ blogs) on their child-rearing skills to the extent that their relationship with each other and with their child could be strained.

The episode does have its silly moments but on the whole it’s easy on the eye and the ear and has a lot of energy thanks to Conover’s enthusiasm and clowning antics.

A stale and confusing plot and dreary characters in “Starship Troopers: Traitor of Mars”

Shinji Aramaki, “Starship Troopers: Traitor of Mars” (2017)

Multiplying not quite as fast as the enemy Arachnids did in the original Paul Verhoeven “Starship Troopers” film are the sequels, of which “Starship Troopers: Traitor of Mars” is the fifth in the series and the second to be mostly computer-animated. Two actors who appeared in the Paul Verhoeven original, Caspar van Dien and Dina Meyer, return to take up their parts voicing Johnny Rico and his high school friend Dizzy Flores. In this fifth installment, Rico has been demoted to the rank of colonel and ordered to train a unit of rookie troopers on a Martian satellite. The human citizens of Mars are tired of the never-ending war Earth wages against the “bugs” (hereafter known as Bugs) and want out of it. Sky Marshal Amy Snapp, desiring political support to destroy Mars, concocts a plan to use an underground Bug nest on Mars as an excuse to destroy Mars and lay the blame on General Carl Jenkins, whom she arrests and holds prisoner.

A confused narrative follows during which the Bugs launch attacks on the trainee unit (who fail two missions), Rico is lost on Mars (where he meets a hologram of Dizzy broadcast to him telepathically by Jenkins) and is later rescued by the trainee troopers, and together Rico and his squad defuse Snapp’s Q-Bomb and publicly reveal Snapp’s scheme to destroy Mars. In defusing the Q-Bomb, the troopers overload a weather control tower and turn it into a huge bomb that explodes and wipes out the entire Bug infestation on Mars. Meanwhile Jenkins escapes from his captors with the help of pilot Carmen Ibanez and has Snapp arrested and imprisoned. For his efforts, Rico is promoted to general and he and his young team are tasked with the unenviable job of keeping Mars free of Bugs.

As might be expected of a sequel following other sequels in a series of which the original satire and political commentary have either evaporated or been overwhelmed by an emphasis on action, violence and explosions, the plot with its two parallel strands dominates, and everything else such as character development, dialogue and even (to some extent) design and computer-animated performance is treated superficially. Of course the dialogue and the characters are expected to be stereotyped in nature, given that the “Starship Troopers” films are set in a futuristic society dominated by rigid and highly conformist militaristic values that permits no individuality. Indeed, the reason Amy Snapp wants to get rid of Mars is that its human settlers prize their freedom and democratic values, and desire their independence from Earth. The Bugs are drained of any redeeming qualities and act like a vast unthinking horde of scuttling giant insects.

Aside from the intriguing politics, in which a character attempts to seize power as if she was starring in a game show and news reports are treated as advertisements (with that hoary line from the first “Starship Troopers” film: “Would you like to know more?”), this sequel adds nothing new to the series or to space-opera science fiction generally. The fun, zest and glee that should be present are missing and what we have instead are boring one-dimensional characters and a tired and confusing plot. The animation may be technically advanced but characters, especially female characters, lack distinctive facial features and resemble Barbie-styled dolls.

It would seem that in this film, and in Japanese anime films generally, an invisible wall has been hit and found difficult to scale and breach: current Japanese-made films seem to feature quite limited and stereotyped characters, and their plots and themes repeat one another to the extent where they become banal and superficial. Joy and energy are in very short supply and story-lines rarely do justice to technically brilliant work.

The Wife: a solid film notable for its lead performances but little else

Bjorn Runge, “The Wife” (2017)

As films go, “The Wife” is enjoyable mainly for Glenn Close’s understated performance as the title character: for the most part, the plot is predictable and Runge’s direction is solid if lacking in flair. It’s best seen as a character study of a woman who had aspirations to be a writer and who ends up repressing her ambitions to support her husband’s writing career. Literary giant Joseph Castleman (Jonathan Pryce) is awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature so he and his wife Joan (Close) prepare to journey to Stockholm to receive the award. Taking their son David (Max Irons), himself an aspiring writer, with them, the Castlemans are accosted on the plane by Nathaniel Bone (Christian Slater), a creepy freelance writer who plans to pen a tell-all biography about Joseph. Finally in Stockholm, the couple and their son settle down in their hotel rooms, and from here on the Castleman marriage starts to shake as the significance of the prize, her husband’s reaction and his cantankerous behaviour towards Bone and Max, and the general fawning over Joseph (with herself being relegated to the background as the dutiful and supportive wife) gradually begin weigh heavily on Joan.

Two chance utterances between Joseph and Joan in front of David alert viewers to the possibility that perhaps Joseph’s writing over the decades hasn’t entirely been his own. While the Castlemans perform the round of parties and meet-and-greet rituals leading up to the prize-giving ceremonies, Bone gathers enough information (including talking to Joan and Max separately) to come to the same conclusion. Flashbacks to when a young Joan (Annie Starke) first met Joseph (Harry Lloyd) as a student enrolled in his creative writing classes at college in the 1950s, leading to their becoming secret lovers while Joseph is still married to his first wife, and then to early life together struggling to make ends meet (Joseph having divorced his wife and left college to pursue writing full-time), fill in the details of that particular plot strand.

Close gives a master class in minimalist acting with her eyes and expressions that hint at the emotional turmoil and suffering within. Pryce is an excellent foil with his cantankerous and crude behaviour that includes chasing a woman photographer young enough to be his daughter. Slater plays Bone a little too smoothly; he seems comfortable as an oily, sleazy opportunist, and in the role offers little else. The rest of the cast is as wallpaper.

Apart from Close and Pryce’s acting, the film doesn’t offer much beyond demonstrating how a young female writer, shy and unsure of her talent, is deterred from following her dreams by an embittered female author (Elizabeth McGovern), her teacher / lover / husband’s own self-centred immaturity, lack of insight and arrogance, and the prevailing misogynist attitudes of the literary publishing industry in the 1950s. As time passes by, and her husband’s literary star begins its rise, Joan finds herself locked into supporting his career and becomes resigned to her role. The film only really perks up at the very end when Joan tells Bone what he can and can’t do, and one realises that, for all Joan supposedly suffered over the years as The Wife, her relationship with Joseph really was symbiotic and a purely stereotypical feminist explanation of their marriage as one where one party benefited at the expense of a long-suffering other and reaps all the rewards will not do.

The film could have offered some criticism, even light criticism, of the Nobel Prize and how this institution and the awarding of literary prizes can distort writers’ ambitions and affect their reputations. Too much weight can be attached to a writer’s reputation based on what prizes s/he has won without consideration for whether literary writing itself has become nothing more than a mere genre with its own load of stereotypes living in a bubble that is divorced from reality and with nothing valuable to say to most people struggling under political, economic and social systems that have become increasingly repressive, unequal, corrupt and inhuman.

Roman J. Israel, Esq.: character study of a fallible human being trying to live authentically in an inauthentic world

Dan Gilroy, “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” (2017)

Once in a while an intelligent and worthy film comes out of Hollywood that demonstrates someone there still knows how to make meaty movies that provide much food for thought. Dan Gilroy’s “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” is a character study of an idealistic, reform-minded lawyer who for a long time finds living up to his principles fairly easy but through an unfortunate change in circumstances is forced to confront the clash between them and the expedient pragmatism of the society he lives in. The decisions he makes as a result have devastating consequences for him and the people around him.

For many years, Roman J Israel (Denzel Washington) has toiled away in a small law firm, preparing briefs for his fellow partner who takes on cases involving small injustices done to the underprivileged. The partner dies of a heart attack and the law firm is sold to George Pierce (Colin Farrell), a former student of the partner and now a successful if slick criminal defence lawyer in his own right. Initially Israel balks at working for Pierce and tries to find employment with a non-profit organisation run by an activist called Maya (Carmen Ejogo); but after a run-in with stridently ideological feminist friends of hers, Israel is forced to slink back to Pierce and accept employment with his firm. Unable to conform to the new firm’s culture and unwilling to compromise his beliefs and values, Israel ends up antagonising everyone including Pierce in the firm. An encounter with a black man in prison on robbery charges, being assaulted by a beggar and duped by another poor man leave Israel questioning his beliefs. From there he decides he’ll be just like regular folks, working and doing things opportunistically; but because his character is socially inept, he commits one mistake after another and ends up turning in a dangerous criminal to the law to collect reward money which violates his employer firm’s agreement to defend the criminal. Israel repents of this deed but the damage it causes cannot be undone.

Washington was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar and the reason is easy to see: he is completely absorbed in the character of Israel with all his quirks and eccentricities. Farrell plays Pierce quite straight and minimally: the character potentially could have been one-dimensional but Farrell’s portrayal of a man who rediscovers his inner voice and conscience from Israel’s example, and who comes to care for Israel and his legacy seems quite convincing. Farrell as corporate legal shark becomes an excellent foil for Washington’s workaholic idealist activist savant: as the latter starts to lose his moral compass and something of his individuality, the former starts to regain his. The rest of the cast provides good if not very outstanding support.

The style of the film illustrates the discomfort that Israel has in adapting to the cut-throat corporate legal world: he is clearly a creature of the 1970s, an age of civil rights activism. He dresses in the clothes of the period, much to others’ amusement, and frequently wears headphones to listen to the soul music of that decade. The music soundtrack, updated in its instrumentation and vocals, gives a distinct smoky flavour to the film and lifts it above other contemporary realist legal dramas.

Concentrating as it does on Israel and his inability to conform to a more superficial and uncaring society in which greed is good and encourages selling out and back-stabbing, the film is overly long and the plot is vague and sketchy. The events that occur as a result of Israel’s mistakes and failure to live up to his high ideals seem to have been inserted into the film as an after-thought though they are clearly driving the film in its second half. Perhaps the film spends too much time on Israel’s inner conflict and his quirks, and not enough on what Pierce and other characters think of him or try to do with him. For all its flaws, this film is worthwhile watching as an example of what Hollywood can do and could be doing more of, if the movie industry in the US were less obsessed with maximising profits and pursuing shallow values, and paid more attention to portraying the lives and misfortunes of the downtrodden, how they are exploited by the government, corporations, greedy individuals and criminal elements alike. Roman J. Israel, Esq. would certainly approve.

 

 

Steppenwolf: a stodgy and soporific adaptation of a cult counter-culture novel

Fred Haines, “Steppenwolf” (1974)

There was a period in the 1960s when this 1927 novel was the darling of the psychedelic counter-culture in the United States, due in part to its depiction of drug use and free sex, and to its themes of introspection and self-examination, a quest for a more authentic way of living as opposed to living like an automaton in a society of frivolity and shallow values, and the possibility of personal transformation and hope. No surprise then, that in spite of the novel’s fantastic plot and its metaphysical themes, a film adaptation was made in the mid-1970s: the major problem with the making of “Steppenwolf” seems to have been its financing and the question of its ownership which ruined the marketing of the film and sent it straight into art-house obscurity.

Having read the novel a long time ago, I don’t remember much of it but I do think the film follows the novel fairly closely. Solitary intellectual Harry Haller (Max von Sydow) despairs of ever fitting into bourgeois society with its shallow people and values, and contemplates suicide. By chance he is given a book called “Treatise on the Steppenwolf” by a man carrying an advertisement for the Magic Theatre. Astonishingly, the book is addressed to Haller personally and describes his state of unease accurately: he is of two natures, one being human and spiritual and the other being that of the Steppenwolf, the lone steppe wolf, essentially animalist. Haller’s problem is that he is unable to recognise his dual nature and thus reconcile both these aspects. He resolves to commit suicide on his 50th birthday but before the big day arrives, he meets a mysterious woman (Dominique Sanda) at a dance hall. The woman sees Haller’s distress and arranges to meet him a second time. On this occasion Haller discovers the woman’s name is Hermine, and Hermine starts to introduce Haller to aspects of what he had previously regarded as frivolous: he learns to dance, to listen and appreciate jazz music, to indulge in drugs and to take a young woman, Maria (Carla Romanelli), as a lover. All of these activities are presented as aspects of a worthy life. Haller later meets jazz saxophonist Pablo (Pierre Clementi) who runs the mysterious Magic Theatre. Once in the Magic Theatre, Haller is confronted by all his fears, anxieties and fantasies of his mind.

While Max von Sydow has no problem playing the angst-ridden Haller – having acted in no fewer than eleven films directed by Ingemar Bergman, von Sydow should have regarded “Steppenwolf” as a walkover – Sanda and Romanelli’s portrayals of their respective characters come close to being soporific. One would think that Hermine would be alternating between acting flirtatiously with Haller and being serious and concerned for him. Clementi does a fine job as the flamboyant and sexually ambiguous Pablo in the few minutes allotted to the character. The real attraction of “Steppenwolf” though is in its surreal animation: it may look very outdated to modern viewers, and is of a piece with films of its time that also relied on surreal / psychedelic animation, but nevertheless it can be quite imaginative. The cartoon that is the “Treatise on the Steppenwolf” is fun to watch with animated cut-outs and collages reminiscent of the animation used on the Monty Python and the Flying Circus comedy series; the later animation used in the Magic Theatre scenes is more psychedelic than surreal but is surprisingly easy to follow and digest. There are scenes in the film which used bleached film stock to emphasise their dream-like, hallucinatory nature.

By contrast the live action parts of the film are stodgy and slow with uneven acting and dialogue that is harder to understand than it should be due to the cast’s different accents. (The entire cast speaks in English, yet English is not the first language of any of the major actors.) Fans of animation must wait until the film is well past its halfway point. At least the plot is not difficult to follow and viewers following Haller right to the end will be relieved to know he does find some peace with himself. On the other hand, viewers may not find much peace in the music soundtrack in the film’s later scenes: there is too much boring blaring synthesiser in the psychedelic prog-rock instrumental sections playing over the Magic Theatre scenes, and not enough dissonant jazz to set the mood in earlier parts of the film.

The film has achieved cult status due to its obscure viewing history but that does not mean it’s a great film. Readers of the original novel are likely to find the film a disappointment and need to set their expectations low.

Batman vs. Two-Face: two icons of 1960s television series facing off in a film reconciling the Bright Knight and Dark Knight sides of Batman

Rick Morales, “Batman vs. Two-Face” (2017)

Adam West’s final outing as Batman before his death in June 2017 brings him face to face (or face to faces) with a criminal he never met on the 1960s television series: Harvey Dent aka Two-Face. Apparently the crooked district attorney who relies on tossing a coin to make his decisions had been set to appear on the old comedy series (with Clint Eastwood in the role) but studio executives deemed the character too dark and Two-Face was sidelined. Finally with William Shatner (yes, that William Shatner!) giving voice and his familiar look from the classic 1960s TV series “Star Trek” to the character, Two-Face takes his rightful place among other villainous favourites like Catwoman (Julie Newmar), the Joker, the Penguin, the Riddler, Mr Freeze, Bookworm, King Tut, the Clock King and Egghead, all of whom appear in this sequel to “Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders”.

The sequel is not so much a homage to the original TV series and carries fewer of the jokes and other gags that burdened its predecessor, with one exception where Catwoman exchanges costume with lawyer Lucilee Diamond (voiced by Lee Meriwether, who played Catwoman in the 1966 Batman feature film when Newmar was unavailable for the role) in order to break out of jail. This episode in the Dynamic Duo’s adventures is tighter with a faster pace and not so many twists in the plot, although the Joker, Pengy and Riddles are now very minor characters.

Dr Hugo Strange (based on the Peter Sellers character Dr Strangelove in the famous Stanley Kubrick film) has invented a machine that will extract evil from Gotham City’s most criminal masterminds and invites the Dynamic Duo, District Attorney Harvey Dent, Commissioner Gordon and police chief O’Hara to a secret demonstration. While Dr Strange’s assistant Dr Harleen Quinzel operates the levers, Batman and Robin voice misgivings that the experiment extracting evil from the brains of the Joker, the Penguin, the Riddler, Egghead and Mr Freeze will not go as planned. Sure enough, the machine malfunctions and explodes, and Harvey Dent receives the full force of the noxious fumes enveloping him.

Several months later, after racking up a not-so-respectable resume in crime, Harvey Dent is captured by the caped crusaders and receives plastic surgery to restore him to his previous whole self. But the surgery literally proves to be only skin-deep and Dent’s Jekyll is soon overcome by his Two-Face’s Hyde. He uses King Tut and Bookworm to commit false-flag crimes to distract our masked heroes but they quickly deduce that the various characteristics of the crimes, all exhibiting doubled-up or dual natures, point to Two-Face as their mastermind. Batman and Robin disagree on Harvey Dent’s likely role in these crimes, with Batman willing to defend Dent’s good character, and the two briefly separate. The crime-fighters eventually reconcile but not before Robin is captured and given a whiff of the same noxious substance that Dent received months ago. The Dynamic Duo follow Dent / Two-Face to a casino where he manages to outwit them.

Duality and double identities are the major theme of this episode, and fittingly Dent / Two-Face deduces Batman and Robin’s real identities while he has them strapped to a giant silver dollar which, if they move, will roll down to a giant bed of nails that will impale them. Since Batman has already been a bad Batman in “… Return of the Caped Crusaders”, Robin gets a turn in playing a bad Robin, and even his alter ego Dick Grayson is jealous of Bruce Wayne’s friendship with Harvey Dent. Catwoman also finds herself playing both villain and Batman’s ally. The plot ends up in a pedestrian battle of good versus evil as Dent / Two-Face literally struggles with himself amid explosions in an oil refinery.

The animation is adequate for the plot though at least Dent / Two-Face does look like Shatner and the main characters also resemble the actors playing them to some extent. One wishes again that Gotham City could have looked less generic and more like a city of light (where everyone and everything wears a prim and proper face, save perhaps public institutions like the Sisters of Perpetual Irony Hospital) during the day and a city of darkness in the night when masked avengers sally forth to fight and vanquish evil, in keeping with the theme of duality. The actors voicing the various characters do excellent work in making the cheesy dialogue work and seem plausible although West’s voice is quite frail. Viewers do not need to be as familiar with jokes, gags and other references to the original television series and the various Batman / Dark Knight films.

This sequel is an improvement on “… Return of the Caped Crusaders” which also brings the television series closer to the official DC Comics Batman universe with the introduction of characters like Harvey Dent / Two-Face and Harleen Quinzel aka Harley Quinn in a very minor role. It is a fitting way for West to bow out and end his acting career.