Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 16: Adam Ruins the Future): this episode should have gone out on a high note

Tim Wilkime, “Adam Ruins Everything (Season 2, Episode 16: Adam Ruins the Future)” (2017)

As the last episode of its season, “Adam Ruins the Future” should go out on a high note but after having seen most of the season, I must admit that before seeing it my expectations were on the low side.  The episode turned out quite predictably: based around the theme of the future but with very little relationship to one another, three topics are treated at a quick zip in rather superficial fashion. Pressed by girlfriend Melinda to consider their future together, Adam changes the subject to explain why use-by dates on food labels are misleading and how 401K funds (the US equivalent of superannuation funds in Australia) won’t support most people in retirement. Melinda answers back by showing Adam how all the research in the world can’t predict the future generally, let alone the future of their relationship, and that people’s assumptions about the future are really an extension of present trends (which can always be disrupted and overthrown). Adam and Melinda finally agree that they don’t really have a future together and Adam acknowledges that breaking up says nothing about his worth as a human being.

The legislation governing use-by dates and the information about 401K funds are quite specific to an American audience so the discussion will be of limited value to overseas viewers. Probably the most audiences outside the US can gain from these segments is to investigate the legislation in their own countries that govern food labelling and expiry dates, and to know what their countries’ pension and super funds can and can’t do for them,  and what the alternatives if any are. The one thing 401K funds may have in common with super funds in Australia and possibly elsewhere is that they operate in a context where mostly ill-informed individuals are expected to accept the risks and responsibility in investing in such funds without much help from the government or independent agencies that do not have a vested interest in marketing these financial products. Everyone who works is expected to invest in his/her future retirement by contributing towards superannuation but the superannuation industry is dominated by a bewildering range of products whose features and characteristics may be difficult to understand (unless buyers have a background knowledge of how finance works) and which are sold by companies and institutions that purport to be trustworthy and reliable but whose past histories might suggest otherwise.

The episode almost ends on a somewhat despairing note – viewers may not be satisfied being urged to pressure the US government to reform legislation governing 401K funds when everyone knows that business lobby groups and their money shout louder than the public interest – and Adam and Melinda separate rather abruptly without so much as saying “We can still be friends even if we can’t be lovers”. Emily makes a brief appearance to counsel Adam on being comfortable with one’s own company and at least he is happy with her advice, even if only temporarily, as the episode concludes.

While the series has been good on the whole, and has presented a lot of valuable information, the formula it follows has become tiresome and the slapstick is tedious and somewhat forced. A future series will need to include a bit more wit and some actual situation comedy along with information that doesn’t throw around statistics so much but flows a bit more naturally and shows evidence of digging deeper past the surface.

The King’s Choice: best seen as a character study of people having to make unenviable choices and decisions

Erik Poppe, “Kongens Nei / The King’s Choice” (2016)

As a straight history lesson or even as a conventional war-time drama, this film doesn’t succeed: audiences outside Norway will find the narrative very fragmented and be mystified as to what actually happens between the main body of the plot and its closing scene. One also senses that director Poppe couldn’t resist in indulging in some cheap propaganda pot-shots at Denmark, the former colonial master, in shoring up Norwegian insecurities about having sold out to the Germans through the fascist Vidkun Quisling government during World War II. The action scenes are superfluous to the main body of the film and the two people at the centre of them are no more than heroic feel-good stereotypes. “Kongens Nei” works best as a fictional character study centred on the figure of King Haakon VII who through circumstances not of his making is forced to make an unenviable choice as head of state: willingly agree to surrender to Germany and avoid continuing bloodshed, or refuse and share (however indirectly) the blame for war. If we take this narrow focus, then the film becomes a lesson about moral responsibility and how it shapes one’s legacy to one’s family (and nation), but perhaps at the cost of accepting the film’s initial portrayal of the king as somewhat spineless, giving in to compromise and following the herd when he should have done otherwise. The real king may have been no such figure.

In spite of the fragmented narrative, the film does a decent job detailing the immense pressure Norway and its government are under from the attacking Nazi German forces who are hell-bent on seizing the country’s iron ore resources to feed their eventual war against the Soviet union. Holding the story together are the central characters of the King himself (Jesper Christensen), the Crown Prince Olav (Anders Baasmo Christiansen) who acts as the King’s conscience and the ill-fated German diplomat Curt Bräuer (Karl Markovics) who arranges to meet with the King to persuade him to sign an act of surrender even as Berlin manoeuvres and pushes the envoy aside. The three actors are excellent in their roles: Christensen all but absorbs the viewer’s attention as a morally and physically frail and ageing monarch who might not have been a great father or even a very good leader in the past. How he rises – or maybe does not rise – to his nation’s greatest crisis is the crux of the film. Bräuer’s own personal journey to this point in the film parallels the King’s moral dilemma. Both men try to do the right thing by their own standards even as dark forces surround and encroach on them and their families: Bräuer insists on carrying out his duty as an envoy and the King tries to do what he believes is the right thing by the Norwegian people, to the extent of walking into what might be a potential trap. The irony is that what he and Bräuer end up doing actually makes very little difference to Norway’s eventual fate.

I feel that where the film really falls down is its failure to show how Norway’s resistance to German invasion and aggression was ultimately hopeless, and how the Norwegian royal family was forced to leave the country altogether in spite of the decisions the King and Crown Prince had made, however heroic or not these were.

Red Sorghum: a celebration of life, its vitality and rebirth, and of the resilience and courage needed to bring back hope

Zhang Yimou, “Hong gao liang / Red Sorghum” (1987)

“Red Sorghum” marks the debut of Zhang Yimou as an important director in Chinese film and of actor Gong Li who would go on to make several films with Zhang (and become his lover as well). Set in northern China in the late 1930s, just ahead of and during the Japanese invasion of the country, the film has a fairy-tale quality while it also revels in the lusty and earthy Chinese peasant culture. Gong Li plays teenage bride Jiu’er sent by her poor parents to an elderly man suffering from leprosy who owns a winery. The girl is taken in a sedan, carried by several men, to the winery. The men sing bawdy songs to discomfit the girl but as they cross a field of sorghum, the wedding party is accosted by a bandit. One of the men (Jiang Wen) saves Jiu’er from being assaulted by killing the bandit and the wedding party manages to reach the winery with no more trouble. Later when Jiu’er returns to her parents temporarily and then takes leave of them permanently to go back to her husband, her rescuer jumps out of the sorghum field and drags her deep into the forest of sorghum where he apparently rapes her.

Jiu’er’s elderly husband is found dead with no heir so Jiu’er takes ownership of the winery. She inspires the workers to help her build up the winery into a successful enterprise. Jiu’er’s rescuer (he is never named) tries to claim her as his wife but she throws him out of her bedroom and the workers dump him into an empty vat. Later when the workers are celebrating the making of the first batch of sorghum wine since Jiu’er took over the running of the winery, the rescuer tries to spoil the party by urinating into the wine … but his action actually improves the taste of the wine. The improved wine becomes a major factor in the winery’s success over the next nine years.

The Imperial Japanese army invades the area and forces everyone living there to clear and destroy the sorghum fields so a road can be built. After the Japanese torture and kill a former winery worker Luohan (Teng Rujun), Jiu’er encourages her workers to avenge his death. They set up booby traps for the Japanese military convoy but not everything goes according to plan and Jiu’er and a woman servant end up being killed by the Japanese. The traps go off but end up killing nearly everyone and only Jiu’er’s rescuer and their young son survive.

The film is most notable for its cinematography and the lavish use of the colour red to symbolise vitality (whether in the peasants themselves or the hooch they brew), bloodshed and ultimately hope and defiance. The actual story-telling seems fragmented, skips over an entire period in which Jiu’er makes her business prosper, and gives no motivation or reason for Luohan leaving Jiu’er’s employ when he does or why he suddenly turns up near the winery nine years later, only to disappear again until he is caught by the Japanese. The relationship between Jiu’er and her rescuer may not be sufficiently defined enough for Western viewers who have to deduce from the looks she gives the rescuer that she is both attracted to and repelled by him.

Probably the weakest part of the film is at its end when all seems hopeless and lost, and nothing is said, yet we know from the voiceover narration in previous sections of the film that the survivors did carry on. Why at this point in the film does the unseen narrator remain silent? Why does he not take the opportunity to praise and commend Jiu’er for holding together and inspiring a small desert community after her elderly husband’s death?

While the brutal violence may come as a shock to many viewers, the film ultimately is a celebration of life in all its aspects and its rebirth, and of the patience, determination and resilience needed to turn desperation and despair into optimism and hope.

 

Treasures Decoded (Season 4, Episode 1:The Real Tower of Babel): breathless rush admits no disbelief about inspiration for Bible story

Elliott Kew “Treasures Decoded (Season 4, Episode 1:The Real Tower of Babel)” (2017)

The Bible story of the construction of the Tower of Babel as a metaphor for humanity’s arrogance in presuming itself the equal of God was once well-known to generations of children in Western society and still resonates among people in Western countries even today. This “Treasures Decoded” episode breathlessly takes viewers into Iraq, to the archaeological site of an enormous temple building known as Etemenanki built during the sixth century BCE by the King Nebuchadnezzar II, ruler of the Babylonian Empire. To that end, he apparently conquered the Jewish states of Israel and Judah, and carted off those states’ best and brightest craftspeople and workers to work on the building.

The episode goes into some detail as to what Nebuchadnezzar II’s grand construction was made of, what it would have had to look like given that it must have been 90 metres tall and made of mud bricks, and the stresses it might have suffered due to its height and construction materials. It should be no surprise that such a tall mud-brick construction had to be a pyramid-like ziggurat with steps going up its sides in addition to the long staircase the Tower of Babel was reputed to have had. Contrary to the Biblical story, this particular construction lasted a very long time, in fact  well into the fourth century BCE, though by the time Alexander the Great conquered the Achaemenid Empire (which replaced the Babylonian Empire in 550 BCE) the temple was in a very sorry state. Alexander had the temple pulled down, planning to rebuild it. Unfortunately he did not reign for very long, dying of malaria and over-exertion in his early 30s, and the temple was never rebuilt. The mud bricks used in its construction were instead recycled into other buildings and all that remains of the temple building is its foundation and some mud bricks.

The brisk, almost frantic pace of the episode leaves no space for viewers to doubt that Nebuchadnezzar II’s grandiose project was anything other than the inspiration for the Tower of Babel. I did have the impression that much of the evidence presented in the episode was too good and too slick to be accurate. Consulting Wikipedia and some other sources, I discovered that Etemenanki had been rebuilt by Nebuchadnezzar II and a previous ruler before him.

While learning about Etemenanki and why it was constructed the way it was, was interesting enough, I would have thought its place in Babylonian society, its role and function in projecting Babylonian power, and the awe it inspired in Nebuchadnezzar II’s Jewish captives would have been even more intriguing to know. The episode relied a bit too much on comparing the building with the Tower of Babel story, and not enough on its own compelling features and the possible megalomania that inspired it. So many documentaries these days make increasing references to stories in the Bible as touchstones for investigating archaeological sites that are impressive in their own right, and I fear this trend may have the effect of overwriting real Middle Eastern history with a fictional narrative working against the interests of the real people who live in the real Middle East.

The Promise: a slurpy romantic melodrama overshadows significant historic events

Terry George, “The Promise” (2016)

A film about the Ottoman Turkish genocide of Armenians and other Christian minorities (1915 – 1918) is probably never going to succeed with a wider audience than the communities involved – and especially as the genocide is still denied by the Republic of Turkey – so one resigns oneself to a retelling of that horrific period in 20th-century history through a melodramatic plot revolving around a complicated love triangle. In 1914, young Mikael Boghosian (Oscar Isaac) aspires to become a doctor in his backwater community of Sirun in southeast Turkey but needs money to travel to Constantinople and pay his way through medical studies there. He is betrothed to local girl Marta and her dowry money helps get him to Constantinople and enrol at university. He boards with Uncle Mesrob and his family and almost immediately falls for his young cousins’ dance tutor Ana (Charlotte le Bon). If you think young Mikael will have problems juggling his affections for Marta and Ana, there’s more to come: Ana herself has been in a long-term relationship with American news reporter Chris (Christian Bale) so, er , the two young people have their hands and heads preoccupied with conflicting emotions and guilt. Unfortunately for them – and maybe fortunately for us having to sit through 133 minutes of film – events in southeast Europe drag Germany and Ottoman Turkey into war against Britain, France and Russia, and almost straight away (as if on cue) the dastardly Turks start rounding up Armenians and throw them into prison camps (to be forced into hard labour, dying of malnutrition and maltreatment), forced marches into the mountains and deserts, and cattle trains going into the wilderness. As the war drags on – and the Ottomans are failing badly, though the film makes no references to how the Turks are faring in the war – the government resorts to mass slaughter of the Armenian people.

Through the tumultuous events, Mikael, Ana and Chris endure personal and shared hardships and sufferings: after escaping a prison camp, Mikael is briefly reunited with his family and marries his betrothed in Sirun while Ana and Chris manage to rescue a group of orphans and take them to safety with an American Protestant missionary. The three main characters reunite again and try to save Mikael’s parents, wife and nieces. They are too late and only manage to rescue his badly injured mother and young cousin Yeva. Chris is captured by Turkish soldiers and incarcerated in a prison where he is sentenced to death as a spy. He is rescued by the US ambassador to Turkey Henry Morgenthau and a mutual playboy friend (Marwan Kenzari) of his and Mikael’s (whose life was also saved by the friend) but the friend pays for his generosity by being executed by a firing squad.

Mikael and Ana take the orphans to a refugee camp and the camp moves to Musa Dagh mountain where the men vow to fight the Turkish army following them. Chris boards a French war cruiser which arrives at the bay beneath Musa Dagh. While the refugees try to fight off Turkish bombardment and board the life-boats that will take them to the cruiser, the tension that naturally arises from the scenario gets an artificial lift from the tension surrounding the love triangle: out of the three – Ana, Chris, Mikael – someone will meet his/her kismet in a most tragic way.

The slurpy melodrama just manages to stay mildly annoying thanks to good acting performances from the leads, though there’s hardly any chemistry between le Bon and Isaac. The plot piles cliché upon cliché with stock characters like the token good Turk who starts out dissolute spoilt playboy son but redeems himself by saving Chris and Mikael’s lives, and with often unnecessary action thriller scenes that add nothing to the plot save one miraculous escape after another. The Musa Dagh stand-off and subsequent rescue of refugees by the French cruiser are worth a film in themselves and should not have been overshadowed by the love triangle’s resolution.

The film’s concentration on the romance leaves no room for a wider investigation into why and how the Ottoman Turkish genocide against Christian minorities in the empire started: no context is provided as to why all of a sudden ordinary Turkish people who had previously been friendly with Armenians should turn on them. Nothing is said of European powers’ intentions to dismember the failing Ottoman empire which would have been enough to give any tottering, unstable empire paranoid thoughts as to whether its minorities were being encouraged from outside to revolt against it. The Turks and their German allies are tarred with a black villain’s brush while the Americans and the French at least are treated as saviours. Audiences are basically brow-beaten to accept the genocide as given, and not to question why it should have happened late in the history of the Ottoman empire, decades after it embarked on Westernisation / modernisation, and not earlier in its 460+ years of existence.

Memoirs of a Geisha: overblown rags-to-riches soap opera romance with a shallow and conservative message

Rob Marshall, “Memoirs of a Geisha” (2002)

Essentially a variation on the Cinderella story through Western stereotypes about geisha and their role and function in Japanese society, “Memoirs …” is an overblown rags-to-riches rise of a young girl from an impoverished farming family living in Japan in the early 20th century. The child Chiyo (Suzuka Ohgo) is packed off to a geisha house to work as a servant. There she meets the haughty geisha Hatsumomo (Gong Li) who kicks the child around. In spite of the bullying and numerous beatings from Hatsumomo and the mistress of the geisha house, Chiyo dreams of becoming a geisha herself. A chance meeting with a stranger known only as the Chairman (Ken Watanabe) sets Chiyo on the path to becoming a maiko (apprentice geisha) under the tutelage of Mameha (Michelle Yeoh) who teaches her dancing, music and the art of conversation among other skills she needs to be a geisha. Through the years Chiyo grows into a beautiful young woman and is renamed Sayuri. Sayuri becomes a highly accomplished geisha and her beauty becomes legend. Of course this riles Hatsumomo who with another traine maiko called Pumpkin plots against Sayuri.

In its first half the film is slow and laboured in building up Chiyo’s background as a downtrodden servant who holds fast to her dream of becoming a geisha. The movie only starts picking up speed once the Chairman meets Chiyo on a pedestrian bridge and then Mameha appears at the geisha house to offer to train the girl. Events move quickly and the film becomes more interesting and sumptuous. Hatsumomo becomes even more of a threat to Sayuri as she determines to ruin the younger woman’s reputation permanently. Yet as Sayuri triumphs in her chosen career, she discovers numerous career shortcomings: other geisha are jealous of Sayuri’s rocketing to fame and many men vie to become Sayuri’s danna (patron) but her heart yearns for the one man who could take her away from having to entertain male clients for a living and give her true love.

Tailored to Western audiences and their knowledge – or lack thereof – of Japanese culture, the film does not strip away very many common stereotypes about the geisha profession. Viewers knowing little about how young girls train to become maiko and then geisha will get no help from whatever information the film proffers. Whatever independence is demonstrated by geisha – the woman running the geisha house where Chiyo meets Hatsumomo is very indomitable – is often undermined by some of the dialogue and the voice-over narration portraying geisha as women whose futures depend entirely on ensnaring a wealthy danna. The reality is that while many geisha do need a rich patron, the world of geisha houses is completely dominated by women: they run the geisha houses, they recruit and train new geisha and they are responsible for their own incomes and the incomes of the geisha houses they run. In short, geisha are more often than not independent and capable businesswomen. Instead the movie focuses on the soap opera situations Sayuri finds herself in but her character and the characters of the rest of the cast are bland and colourless; only Gong Li’s bitchy and cruel Hatsumomo offers something meaty if somewhat overdone. Yeoh is wasted as Sayuri’s okiya Mameha and likewise Watanabe as the Chairman drifts in and out ineffectually for much of the film. The acting overall is capable but not great.

As expected of a film about geisha, based on a best-selling novel, and with a big budget, the cinematography is excellent, the costume design is lavish and the interiors of Japanese geisha houses and tea houses are beautifully designed and constructed.

Ultimately the film is a shallow exploration of a character’s survival through at least three tumultuous decades in Japanese history without providing much detail about how becoming a geisha has made Sayuri the wise elderly narrator looking back over her life. The movie’s plot shoehorns what might have been a story about endurance and patience during a period of dramatic change, crisis, war and foreign occupation into a live-action Disneyland romance. In doing so, it demeans the intelligence of Western viewers by delivering a conservative message that also reinforces stereotypes about Japanese women and society.

Hero: a smug film that twists Chinese history and delivers a deplorable message

Zhang Yimou, “Hero” (2002)

If one needs proof that a visually gorgeous film with a good cast can ultimately be undone and wasted by a demoralising and ugly plot and theme, Chinese director Zhang’s “Hero” is it. That the film was tailor-made for Western audiences featuring a mix of Chinese and Hong Kong actors is even more of an insult to both the Chinese (for distorting the history on which the film is based) and Westerners who might assume that Chinese people passively prefer stability and corruption over change and good government. What’s really puzzling is why someone of Zhang’s stature as a director saw fit to make this film.

The film’s story takes place during a period in China’s history well over 2,000 years ago when the King of the Qin state has been brutally conquering and uniting competing neighbouring kingdoms and is on the verge of becoming China’s first emperor. The King has recently – and only just – survived being assassinated by three sword-fighters known as Long Sky, Broken Sword and Flying Snow. A prefect known as Nameless (Jet Li) arrives at the King’s court and claims to have fought and killed these assassins. His tale is told in flashback. The King (Chen Daoming) counters Nameless’s story by proffering his version in which Nameless had staged his fights with the three assassins who volunteer to die so that Nameless can bring the swords of Broken Sword (Tony Leung) and Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung) to the monarch as “proof” of their deaths. This forces Nameless to admit the truth, that he has a special ability to inflict apparent death without touching vital organs and used this to “kill” Snow in front of the Qin army. Before leaving for the capital for his meeting with the King with the two assassins’ swords, Nameless is shown two characters written by Broken Sword in the sand which together explain why Sword, when he had the opportunity, decided not to kill the King.

The film proceeds at a good clip until it divides into its three sub-plots – each differentiated by a dominant colour (red, blue, green) – whereupon it bogs down in soapie weepiness as the lovers Sword and Snow dispute over which of them should fight Nameless and “die”, and whether vengeance on the King for having despoiled their own country of Zhao is the right thing to do. Sword’s decision not to kill the King on the basis that a peaceful, unified state is better than constantly warring ones and that, for all his brutality, ruthlessness and paranoia, the King of Qin must be the best man to achieve that peace, has an effect on Nameless when his moment comes to attack the King.

The morality of the decisions Sword and Nameless make is very dubious to say the least. Is the unification of China, and with it the achievement of peace and stability, really worth the severe suppression of difference and dissent? Should genocide of an entire nation and its culture, language and history be the necessary sacrifice to achieve unity and peace? Is there no other alternative to passive resignation and allowing a brutal ruler to run roughshod over vassal states as he sees fit? If the film is serious about its theme, then it leaves a very sour taste in this viewer’s mouth. The political implications of such a theme for Chinese and Westerners alike are immense: can a utilitarian approach to politics, achieving what most people desire only at the cost of the lives of a minority, be acceptable?

The film’s insinuation that the King of Qin is pressured by his court and army to execute Nameless is even worse propaganda, suggesting that Chinese people essentially are bloodthirsty thugs who do not know mercy and compassion, and that the King wouldn’t have been the tyrant and despot he was if he’d not been subjected to so much pressure by vengeful mobs.

Apart from the smug and inhumane message, the film suffers from weak character development and an over-emphasis on computer-enhanced martial arts ballet. An excellent acting cast is wasted as are also the cinematography and slick special effects.

The Coming War on China: a hard-hitting documentary drawing on the history of US relations with the western Pacific

John Pilger, “The Coming War on China” (2016)

Two years in the making with literally a cast of thousands involved in crowd-funding it, Pilger’s “The Coming War on China” might have lost some of its edge due to the passage of time and the ascent of US businessman celebrity Donald Trump to the United States Presidency but it’s still a timely warning of the possibility of war between the US and China and what it means for the countries of the western Pacific Ocean region from Japan and the Koreas in the north down to Australia in the south. The entire documentary is planned like a 2-hour news bulletin / current affairs program complete with four different yet related sections that make up the context to a possible war: the relationship of the US over the decades to the peoples of eastern Asia/ Micronesia, as exercised through American military power, the rise of China from a dirt-poor country to near-superpower status over the last 100 years, and the efforts of peoples in the western Pacific to resist American arrogance, bullying and destruction and to reclaim their lands, dignity and futures.

Pilger’s presentation pulls no punches and is hard-hitting and gritty. The first section of the documentary deals with the American takeover of the Marshall Islands in the western Pacific and the US military use of the islands for nuclear testing. Although the islanders were evacuated before the testing, they were encouraged to return to their homes some years later in spite of the US government’s knowledge that the islands were still radioactive. Through interviews with surviving islanders, Pilger details the horrific health effects such as leukaemia and thyroid cancers that they have had to suffer. Children were born with deformities and mental disabilities, creating an even greater burden on island parents. On those islands with US military bases, the islanders are kept in virtual concentration camps where they dwell in poverty and squalor, and each day are shipped out to the bases in the mornings to perform menial work and in the evenings shipped back home by the authorities.

The second section of the film deals with China’s relations with the West since the 1800s and focuses on the opium wars between China and the British Empire. China’s loss meant that the country was forced to continue buying opium from Britain to feed a growing number of addicts who would constitute a veritable lost generation. A startling revelation is that later US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s grandfather was a prime mover and shaker in the opium trade. Pilger glosses quickly over the fall of the Manchu empire, the later warlord period and the rivalry between Nationalist leader Jiang Jieshi and Communist leader Mao Zedong. After Mao’s death in 1976, Communist party leadership passed to Deng Xiaoping who initiated the economic policies that led China to prosperity but which also brought greater social inequalities, urban poverty, mass migrations and cemented China’s role in the global economic network as Workshop of the World to the detriment of working peoples in other lands as Western corporations outsourced manufacturing work from their countries of origin to China to take advantage of cheap labour and a relaxing of industrial regulations.

The last sections see Pilger travelling to Okinawa, Jeju island in South Korea and other places to interview people engaged in various forms of resistance to US military bases and continued abuse of the local people through crimes committed by soldiers and contractors (who end up being whisked back home and are never brought to justice) and through scientific experiments misrepresented to locals as beneficial and harmless.

Each section is worthy of a documentary in its own right – indeed, a documentary “Nuclear Savage” was made of the Marshall Islanders’ plight by Adam Horowitz in 2012 – and the links among them and how they form the background to US aggression against China over the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea will look tenuous to most viewers. The detail can be mind-boggling and viewers are sure to feel knackered when the end credits begin.

The one thing lacking that could have really pulled this entire documentary together more tightly is an examination of the political, economic and financial systems that bind the Wall Street financial industry, arms corporations, the US Department of Defense, the White House, Congress and the various lobby groups on Capitol Hill that fund Federal politicians’ election war chests. Pilger does not go into much detail as to where all the billions of greenbacks spent on the military actually go: he notes that some military equipment is increasingly faulty, causing danger for local people living near military bases on Okinawa and other parts of Japan, but does not link this to the corruption in US defense spending in which hundreds of millions spent seem to go down a black hole drainpipe and the Pentagon is unable to account for the lost money. Pilger needs no farther to look than the trouble-plagued F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jet program with its notorious cost blow-outs, various defects and the possibility that the whole concept of a generalist stealth fighter jet reliant on electronics is impractical and outdated.

In spite of the emphasis on US government arrogance, racism and stupidity, Pilger’s underlying message is that people armed with knowledge of past US crimes can resist and push back against US power. If audiences knew the truth of what has and continues to be done in their name, they would reject the lies and propaganda that the corporate media establishment surrounds them with. How people can fight back, Pilger does not say: he cannot offer a general program of how people can and should resist US global tyranny, as resistance needs to be localised and diverse in its tactics.

The Tracker: a desert Western study of European colonialism and exploitation and its effects

Rolf de Heer, “The Tracker” (2002)

On the surface, a simple story of four men hunting a fugitive who has committed a crime, “The Tracker” is a study of European colonialism and exploitation of Australia’s original people, and the pain and violence these people have had to suffer as a result. The story is set in an unnamed remote part of the country in 1922: an aboriginal man (Noel Wilton) has apparently killed a white woman and is on the run. The police send out four men: the expedition is led by a man known only as the Fanatic (Gary Sweet) with young rookie policeman the Follower (Damon Gameau) and an older policeman the Veteran (Grant Page) in tow. They rely on an aboriginal man known as the Tracker (David Gulpilil) to interpret the trail left behind by the Fugitive to follow and apprehend him.

As might be expected, the plot is simple enough for plenty of psychological inquiry into the Australian character and how it has been (and continues to be) affected by colonialism and the attitudes and beliefs that upheld it: beliefs such as white supremacy over non-white peoples, the so-called white man’s burden in bringing cultural, moral and spiritual enlightenment to others, and the notion that hunter-gatherer peoples are doomed for extinction. The white characters are basically crude stereotypes that express these beliefs but in different ways according to their generation: the Veteran represents an older passive generation that may know better but prefers not to challenge colonial authority, and suffers for that; the Fanatic represents a bureaucratic, hierarchical layer of colonial society obsessed with control to the extent that he is willing to kill others if they obstruct his mission; and the Follower symbolises a young generation that, while having grown up with racist beliefs, is more open-minded, able to change and prepared to acknowledge Aboriginal laws and spirituality.

Thanks to David Gulpilil’s subtle acting, expressive face and mischievous nature and sense of humour, the Tracker is the most developed and complex character. In his ability to use and exploit both Aboriginal and European religion and law to his advantage, assist the Follower, gain justice for the Veteran, and later protect the Fugitive and the Fugitive’s community from the full force of European vengeance, the Tracker combines compassion and cunning in a way that looks completely plausible and natural. It is a pity that the other actors were not allowed the same range of expression in their characters: the Veteran in particular has only one or two lines of dialogue and is essentially a robot. Gameau makes the most of a naive character who comes to respect the Tracker, if not necessarily the cultural tradition he represents. While Sweet does a decent job as the Fanatic, the character is essentially a crude cartoon that would strain the ability of even the finest actors to make human and realistic.

The countryside is a significant character in its own right, to the extent of influencing characters’ decisions and part of the action. The Tracker is at home with the land while the white characters express various levels of discomfort with it: the Fanatic obviously is the most uncomfortable as demonstrated by a remark he makes about dead animals which is cut down by the Veteran, who has made his own pragmatic accommodation with the land. The Follower suffers various reactions ranging from culture shock to wide-eyed wonder and an acceptance that he may never fully understand the spiritual relationship that the Tracker has with the land.

Viewers may have qualms about aspects of de Heer’s direction and his use of composer / musician Archie Roach’s songs about Aboriginal suffering in scenes where the four men travel long stretches of country. De Heer’s use of paintings mainly to express the violence done to individual characters may puzzle viewers also, as this device distances audiences from the brutal nature of colonialism to Aboriginal and white people alike.

While the plot is thin for the film’s length, and the movie is preachy and doesn’t really work well as a psychological study, “The Tracker” is very moving and astonishing to watch, thanks to the landscapes and the actors, in particular David Gulpilil, who surely rates among Australia’s greatest actors.

Torn Curtain: an unremarkable spy thriller film let down by poor casting and a laboured script

Alfred Hitchcock, “Torn Curtain” (1966)

To properly appreciate how good a director Alfred Hitchcock was over a career of 50+ years, one needs to see the lesser films he made as well as the better or more notorious ones (like “Psycho” or “The Birds”) that everyone remembers. Any other director trying to make “Torn Curtain” with the constraints Hitchcock suffered would have ended up making a very mediocre film; it’s to Hitch’s credit that in spite of an over-long and laboured script, an undistinguished music score, having no say in the choice of lead actors,  and working in a genre that ill-suited him, he was able to make a competent spy thriller film that is sometimes visually gorgeous and which emphasises the dangerous nature of espionage for ordinary people who choose to participate in it for motives other than greed, and the cynicism of those who use and exploit the public’s idealism and loyalty to achieve murky ends.

US nuclear physicist Michael Armstrong (Paul Newman) agrees to carry out a dangerous mission in which he pretends to defect to East Germany to obtain a formula from an eccentric professor at the University of Leipzig. His mission is nearly derailed by his assistant / fiancée Sarah Sherman (Julie Andrews) who follows him, determined to find out what he’s up to after seeing a telegram message meant for him only while on board a ship taking them both to a science conference in Copenhagen. While Sarah takes some convincing by Armstrong’s East German security to defect with him, Armstrong himself needs clues and directions to make his way across East Germany to Leipzig to find the professor and trick the older man into giving up the necessary secret formula. In his quest, Armstrong nearly comes undone when East German security agent Gromek (Wolfgang Kieling) follows him and threatens him. Armstrong and a farmer’s wife (Carolyn Colwell) dispose of Gromek in an excruciating fight scene – but this has unfortunate consequences for both Armstrong and Sherman when government authorities realise that Gromek is missing and trace his last movements to the farm that Armstrong has had to visit.

The film divides into two very uneven halves: the first half contains most of the suspense, thrills and tensions; the second half unfortunately tends to drag due to the nature of the plot in which most of the action takes place early on and then the fall-out from that action takes up the rest of the story. (In this, “Torn Curtain” follows the structure of “Psycho”.) This means that whatever tension arises in the rest of the film depends greatly on the two lead actors being seen to care for one another and having a strong connection as they try to escape from East Germany; in this, both Newman and Andrews’ performance falls flat. The two actors do what they can in their own way but there is little on-screen chemistry between them and their acting conforms to rule. Hitchcock and Newman were known not to have worked well together: Hitchcock was unimpressed with Method acting which Newman and other actors of his generation relied upon. Possibly the tension between the director and his lead actor actually improved Newman’s performance in the film (especially in the fight scene with Kieling) but on the whole the acting from the leads is very ordinary. Andrews should have been a sparkling and assertive presence but her role turns out to be a passive and subdued one that makes little use of her talent and potential to be a more feisty and active heroine – in a film where the male lead finds himself in situations where he needs help from women!

The plot is not always credible and some of its twists and turns are too light-hearted and implausible especially when put up against the brutal violence of Newman’s fight scene. The juxtaposition of the brutality and some of the sillier scenes certainly highlights the riskiness and uncertainty involved in espionage and the danger it poses to ordinary people who agree to do it. While Hitchcock could certainly manage both vicious violence and comedy, both need a solid plot and a good cast to carry off both genres and their elements, and the tensions that arise from that combination. For a good example of such a film, viewers should refer to “North by Northwest”; by contrast, “Torn Curtain” is its lesser sibling. Fortunately “Torn Curtain” is saved by its underlying themes of deception and commitment (be it commitment to a relationship or political ideals) as opposed to self-interest, and distrust of and contempt for government authorities that would cynically rely on untrained individuals to carry its work for them yet force them to make their own way back to safety when plans backfire.

The film’s best moments are in an early wordless scene where Gromek pursues Armstrong through a museum, their fight scene and some of the later chase scenes through rural countryside. In some of these scenes, Hitchcock is an undoubted master of wide-scene filming and direction, and the cinematography is very beautiful. The suspense is taut and spellbinding.