The Banquet: a much loved cartoon with wry gallows humour

Zofia Oraczewska, “The Banquet / Bankiet” (1976)

Its style seems outdated for a short animation of its vintage but I believe this is still a much loved cartoon in Poland for its inversion of roles and what that might have said about Polish society at the time (and might still say generally about Western society today). Waiters and cooks working at a swanky hotel or palace prepare a lavish banquet for guests (one of whom looks suspiciously like Liza Minnelli) who arrive dressed in luxurious furs and glittering jewellery in chauffeured limousines. The guests eagerly race for the food – but unpleasant surprises await them and never was the saying “eat the rich” more appropriately applied as here.

The short piece is rich in gallows humour fantasy at a level that would delight and scare the very young and the old alike for different reasons: among others, the weak and powerless rise up against those who would literally consume them, heart and soul; Gothic horror meets the every-day; and the amount of mayhem and mess left behind when the waiters come to clear away the dishes might be a comment on the devastation we unthinking humans leave behind whenever we stop at or pass through a place or country.

The animation is reminiscent of Jan Svankmajer’s collages of cut-up figures set against painted backgrounds. Only the waiters and cooks are fully animated characters done in conventional children’s-cartoon style, and only they seem fully alive and alert to their surroundings. Everything else from the food to the guests either looks realistic in parts or is grotesque and crudely drawn, which suggests the food and the guests have much more in common with each other than either has to the general human collective. Thus the eater and eaten are cannibals of a sort.

The music is excellent accompaniment to the proceedings, giving away little hint of the carnage and bloodshed that will occur when the guests charge towards the groaning tables of food.

As long as there is short, succinct and intelligent animation and an audience exists for it, “The Banquet” will always have its fans.

House of Wax: realism versus art and artifice in horror cult film

Andre de Toth, “House of Wax” (1953)

“House of Wax” was the movie that established Vincent Price as a horror film icon and in itself is a larger-than-life cult classic. “Professor” Henry Jarrod (Price) is a wax sculptor who pursues art, beauty and perfection in a series of life-sized wax models based on historical characters and events; his particular pride and joy is a model of Marie Antoinette in her resplendent Ancien Regime finery. Jarrod regards his sculptures as his children, more human than the real humans around him, and talks to them frequently. His partner Mathew Burke (Roy Roberts), keener on making profit out of the wax figures, proposes burning down the lot to collect insurance money but Jarrod rejects the idea. Burke goes ahead anyway, the two men fight and soon a conflagration is raging through the building where the wax works are housed. Burke escapes, the building burns down in spite of fire-fighters’ best efforts at the time (the film is set in the early 1900s) and Jarrod is presumed dead.

Cut several months later, Burke is enjoying the gains of his ill-acquired wealth with a pretty socialite Cathy Gray (Carolyn Jones) who happens to be a room-mate of a working-class girl Sue (Phyllis Kirk). Burke soon dies in mysterious circumstances and Gray follows him shortly after. Sue happens to see Gray’s murderer who pursues her through the streets of New York City. She manages to escape him. While police investigate the deaths of Burke and Gray and the disappearance of their corpses from the morgue, a new wax museum, containing figures derived from horrific crimes and scenes of murder, opens to much fanfare. Jarrod has survived the fire and with two assistants (one of whom is played by Charles Bronson, credited as Charles Buchinski, in an early role) has restored most of his figures. Phyllis, visiting the museum with her sculptor boyfriend Scott (Paul Picerni), is drawn to and freaked out by the figure of Joan of Arc who resembles Gray. For his part, Jarrod is drawn to Sue who reminds him of his beloved Marie Antoinette figure which he intends to restore with Sue’s likeness …

The original film was made in 3D which explains several rather pointless scenes in which women dance the can-can on stage and a man advertising the wax museum’s opening bangs ping-pong balls on bats at viewers and people attending the opening. There is quite a long chase sequence early in the film with Sue and Cathy’s murderer through shadowy streets that might have come straight out of an early Hitchcock film which milks suspense and terror for all these are worth. Generally the first half of the film is quite slow with very little horror but a lot of talk and character establishment; the second half of the film when very minor characters are introduced and the plot is well under way moves quickly to tie up all loose ends and resolve underlying issues.

Price delivers no less than 100% and then some in his role as Jarrod, evoking both sympathy and revulsion from viewers. His idealistic pursuit of beauty for its own sake, spurning greed and profit, is noble although creepy at the same time. There is an underlying theme of realism-versus-artifice throughout the film; the plot deliberately confuses the two in Jarrod’s pursuit of art and Sue, and in a number of characters who, though live, might as well be puppets for Jarrod to manipulate. Viewers will see the contradiction in Jarrod’s need for actual humans – and very dead ones at that – on which to base his creations and realise his ambitions of creating art. Even live humans, whether deaf-mute ones like Bronson’s Igor or live ones like Sue’s beau, end up as putty in Jarrod’s hands regardless of whether they have feeling or not. The other actors present competent performances as required by the plot and Hollywood narrative conventions imposed on it.

There may be a second theme, not fully explored in the film, of women as things to be moulded by men and then gazed upon for their beauty and art (or artifice); the characters of Cathy Gray and Sue may be compared and contrasted in this respect as well, Cathy delighting in being a plaything of rich men and shaping her body to fit into tight-waisted clothes to satisfy the fashion diktat while Sue presents a more natural and even at times feisty would-be heroine who does her own detective work and brings it to the attention of the police.

The look of the film is colourful and near-Gothic with a strong carnivalesque atmosphere. Actors wear rich and sometimes luxurious costumes and the sets are often gaudy. Sly humour and puns are incorporated into the dialogue and sometimes performances verge on camp. The character of Igor is a stock figure in horror films but Bronson manages to carry it off in a way that makes Igor genuinely sinister.

The Sweet Hereafter: a fragmented film labouring under too many issues about loss and betrayal of children

Atom Egoyan, “The Sweet Hereafter” (1997)

It won quite a few Best Film and Director awards and was nominated for Best Director and Screenplay Oscars but I found Atom Egoyan’s “The Sweet Hereafter” overly long and laboured for what it is and what it seeks to do. An ambulance-chasing lawyer, Mitchell Stephens (Ian Holm), lobs into a small rural community grieving over the loss of several children in a school-bus accident; Stephens aims to round up enough willing applicants to launch a class action litigation suit alleging negligence against the bus company and the school insurance board. He manages to rope in a few people but the lawsuit threatens to open raw emotions and other wounds afresh among the townsfolk and set them against one another. Two significant eye-witnesses, Billy (Bruce Greenwood) and Nicole (Sarah Polley), are unwilling to testify; Nicole in particular, despite her singer-songwriter career having been derailed by the accident, suffers from survivor guilt, resents her parents’ interest in a huge cash payout to compensate for her no longer being a money-pot, and refuses to have anything to do with the suit. While rounding up potential litigants, Stephens must also deal with his personal problems, most of which revolve around his guilt over the upbringing of his young daughter Zoe who as an adult has become a drug addict and who fears she has contracted an HIV infection after she is rejected as a blood donor.

The lonely and melancholy beauty of the harsh mountain landscape in winter, where the action takes place, provides an ideal setting for the tragedy that unfolds leisurely through flashback scenes interspersed among Stephens’ visits to the locals and his own narrative of loss, tragedy, despair and guilt. At the heart of the film is the issue of responsibility and blame, how people cope with loss, and how it has the potential to rend a community apart or bring people closer. One underlying theme is how people as individuals and as a collective and through their institutions have failed their children and themselves time and again; there is also a related theme of child sexual abuse that raises its ugly head at the film’s climax. Human institutions such as an adversarial legal system or organised religion can be dangers in this respect. Stephens, running away from his own guilt over Zoe, pours his anger at himself into posing as a crusader for social justice on behalf of the town but is ultimately thwarted by the young girl Nicole when she is called to give a witness statement.

The acting is good and restrained but I wonder if Egoyan errs on featuring too many close-ups of people about to break down and cry, as if seeing one or two almost weepy people isn’t enough to turn on viewers’ own lachrymal spigots. The blues-rock music soundtrack can be too intrusive at times, trying to stress the intense emotional aspects of the plot and the issues it raises. At one point the film appears to aspire to soap opera status by featuring two people having an affair that goes nowhere. For an otherwise low-key film, there is too much emotion and not enough questing as to how people should cope when a tragic accident that could be no-one and everyone’s fault occurs and whether it is right to apportion blame and responsibility arbitrarily and to pursue justice in a way that exploits and manipulates people’s emotions with the potential to create conflicts, grievances and problems that need never exist.

In the figure of Stephens himself, Egoyan could have raised issues about how running away from guilt and not confronting it directly but channelling it into other people’s affairs may cause friction and serious on-going conflict that escalates further. The structure of the film in which various narratives are interwoven and end up open-ended is problematic in that it offers very feeble hope with most characters left to fumble through personal demons. At the very least, we could have had some closure in which Stephens resolves (perhaps yet again after so many other failures of courage) to meet his daughter and get help and counselling for her. The climax of the film in which the lawsuit collapses due to an underlying incest issue that two family members keep hushed up jars horribly with the film’s ending in which one of the two appears as an angel of forgiveness and redemption … in a period before the bus accident!

Disappointingly the mountain landscape is a passive bystander in the film: its stunning vistas and the soft light of sun that glints on ice and snow could be the very thing that inspires hope in the community to do better by its children.

Hidden: a film about guilt, trust, colonial exploitation and manipulation of signs is overburdened by art and cleverness

Michael Haneke, “Caché / Hidden” (2005)

An imaginative if overly layered thriller about a couple threatened by an unseen and unknown stalker, Michael Haneke’s “Hidden” is a film about guilt and how its projection onto others can have the most catastrophic consequences that can last for generations. Georges (Daniel Auteuil) and Anne (Juliette Binoche) are a middle-aged Paris couple with a teenage son, Pierrot (Lester Makedonsky), whose snugly bourgeois life-style – he’s a TV show host, she works for a publisher – is disturbed by a series of sinister videotapes and drawings being left on their door-step that suggest that someone is spying on them. Georges interprets the drawings and cassettes as referencing past childhood memories and deducts that someone called Majid, whom his parents once adopted as a child and then had institutionalised after a chicken decapitation incident, is the culprit behind the parcels. Through one of the videotapes he and his wife view, he tracks down Majid (Maurice Bénichou), now a grown man, and harasses him. The ugly contact between the two men leads to disaster for Majid, a simmering enmity between Georges and Majid’s young adult son and tension in Georges’ marriage and family life that may not have a good resolution.

Through Georges and Anne’s reactions to the videotapes, we see how they become two quite unpleasant and unsympathetic characters and the effect their behaviour has on each other and on their teenage son who soon becomes alienated from them. We see how the marriage has been slowly falling apart over the years, to the extent that when Georges visits his mother and she asks after his wife and son, he admits that he does not know very much about what his wife does. The arrival of the mysterious parcels is the catalyst for the marriage’s disintegration as Georges refuses to share important information with his wife and she starts to doubt his love and loyalty for her. We see the initial stirrings of an affair Anne may have with one of her and her husband’s social circle, a man who happens to be married to another of their friends; thus, the couple’s social circle may eventually break up. Pierrot already suspects his mother is unfaithful.

Georges’ feelings of guilt over the way he and his parents treated Majid as a child, and his mother’s attitude towards Majid’s welfare – she does not remember the episode when he speaks to her about it – is a metaphor for France’s treatment of its colonies in Africa and elsewhere, and how the French pretend not to know or remember how their subject peoples were often dispossessed of their lands and other resources, expected to adopt French culture, and suffered alienation from their own cultures as a result. The metaphor can be extended to other European and Western countries that also founded colonies on other continents and robbed the indigenous peoples there of their lands and destroyed their cultures. Majid’s meeting with Georges and Georges’ subsequent harassment of him and his son lead to personal disaster for Majid, at which we question who is really the victim and who is the bully in the wider post-9/11 context that the film was made in and which it subtly references for Western audiences.

The film is remarkable in the way Haneke stages several shots so as to appear like a stage drama in which the audience is forced to be complicit in the action, in the manner of Alfred Hitchcock’s famous film “Rear Window”. Viewers are invited to speculate on who is sending the videotapes and the drawings, and even to anticipate what will happen next. The low-key and quiet nature of the film itself forces it to be a character-driven piece dependent on the skills of the actors, and in this endeavour, Auteuil, Binoche and Bénichou do not disappoint. A death scene is treated almost as Greek tragedy in its stage-drama shot; the audience is almost expected to act as a Greek chorus. The film’s slow and easy pace and its cool, almost icy style mirror the bourgeois class’s studied indifference to emotions and unresolved inner conflicts that can erupt unexpectedly over innocent things. The events that occur during the film and Georges’ interpretation of them leave him in an infantile state as he withdraws into a cocoon-like bedroom, takes sleeping tablets and curls up in bed.

Comparisons between Haneke’s film and Alfred Hitchcock’s work are apt: the videotapes and drawings themselves serve as MacGuffin devices that in themselves have no meaning except for Georges who imposes a personal narrative based on unresolved guilt on them. The fact that he and wife Anne work in media-related industries, in which truth can be edited and shaped by canny producers and directors to fit narratives that appeal to audience expectations and exploit their desires and fears, is significant: here Georges, initially the exploiter of dreams and desires, ends up being the exploited one. The irony is that having been exploited, Georges is then driven to more acts of lies and exploitation to drive away and repress his fears further to no avail.

The film’s closing scene in which Pierrot meets Majid’s son and has a conversation with him can have many interpretations including a conspiracy and reconciliation; it rather spoils the thriller template that the film hangs from but then that’s my problem to deal with. If anything, the film is overburdened by Haneke’s intellectual gaming with the audience and over-layering of the idea of “hidden”. A little less cleverness on Haneke’s part tooling the plot and its implications and references, and “Hidden” would have been a perfect film.

 

Code of samurai honour and Japan under Tokugawa shoguns under superficial examination in “Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai”

Takashi Miike, “Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai” (2011)

As this is a Takashi Miike film, this flick has the requisite blood-letting shock factor to satisfy Miike’s fans for whom “Ichi the Killer” is his one and only masterpiece, but apart from the excruciating act of seppuku near the beginning of the film and the frenzied fighting that climaxes it, “Hara-Kiri …” is an examination of the concept of honour and its debasement in Japanese culture. The setting is early 17th century Tokugawa Japan, over 30 years after the Battle of Sekigahara which brought Ieyasu Tokugawa to power as the Shogun. Many clans that supported him and which expected handsome reward as a result of their loyalty despite earlier spats now find themselves abandoned and one such family is the Chijiwa family. The patriarch dies and his young son Motome is taken in by a loyal retainer Hanshiro Tsukuno (Ebizo Ichikawa) who brings up the boy together with his own daughter Miho in genteel poverty. Years pass and a now-adult Motome (Eita) takes a job teaching village children how to write. He and Miho (Hikari Mitsushima) marry and have a child but they struggle to make a living. During a hard winter, Miho and the baby fall badly sick and Motome, desperate for money and having sold his swords, decides on a risky request: having heard that the nearby Lord of the House of Ii has been visited by down-and-out samurai requesting to commit suicide in his courtyard and receiving instead money to avoid embarrassment and shame, he will also try the same ruse …

This is the background Dickensian tale-of-woe told in flashback that provides the motivation for the act of seppuku and which forms the film’s moral heart and structure linking the suicide and Tsukuno’s act of vengeance against those who cynically and contemptuously force Motome to kill himself and indirectly cause Miho to suicide as well. The story of Tsukuno’s family and how it falls on hard times due to the whims of the Shogun and the Shogunate’s restrictions on what people may and may not do (which extends to whether they can repair their homes or not, let alone determine how they make a living and earn money) is almost as excruciatingly painful to watch as Motome’s death. Miike sure knows how to draw out maximum pathos by focusing on close-ups of the cute chubby baby when alive early on and later featuring unbearably sad close-ups of the li’l fella dead.

The story ultimately revolves around a moral duel between Tsukuno and the head official, Kageyu (Koji Yakusho), deputising for the Lord of the House of Ii who is absent: Kageyu is shown early in the film as something of a faceless bureaucrat who likes his creature comforts and who lacks a moral backbone. He’s not lacking in compassion and he does have potential to be a wise arbitrator but he allows himself to be used by others like head swordsman Omodaka and his lord, and he slavishly follows convention. Kageyu could have used his authority as deputy to let off Motome and give him money, and also to show mercy to Tsukuno; but by obeying the letter rather than the spirit of the law and custom of the land, he debases the notion of honour. With that, the society of Tokugawa Japan stands indicted as all style, conformist and fetishising military values and codes, but lacking in substance, mercy and compassion for suffering and helpless people, and ignorant of true honour. The retainers of the Lord of the House of Ii are shown up during the climactic fight scene as a bunch of idiots who can’t even cut down one middle-aged samurai wielding a wooden sword.

The film’s narrative structure affords many opportunities for Miike to make a very beautiful film that partakes of the concept of mono no aware (awareness of the transience of life and having a wistful attitude to that knowledge) in its cinematography which sometimes dwells on images of still life and nature to show the passage of time. On the other hand, gorgeous visuals aren’t enough and are sometimes too much also: Miike’s close attention to trivial details and obsessing over particular scenes or a story-line more than is necessary take his attention away from a more probing inquiry into the nature of honour, mercy and compassion, and the film comes across as fussy and superficial with an empty centre. Character development is uneven: Ichikawa does a good job of portraying Tsukuno but other actors playing Motome, Miho, Omodaka and Kageyu either don’t have enough screen-time or aren’t given enough to do to flesh out these characters as other than one-dimensional stereotypes. True tension between Tsukuno and characters like Omodaka and Kageyu is lacking: the film doesn’t even make clear whether the tension should be between Tsukuno and Omodaka, between him and Kageyu, or between him and the higher layers of the aristocracy with whom his real beef is – after all, Kageyu and Omodaka, self-serving as they are, are following orders.

Famous musician Ryuichi Sakamoto is called upon to provide a musical soundtrack and what he supplies is a mix of bland kitsch movie-orchestral melodrama full of heavy emotional swells and stark minimal piano melodies that tug too hard at the heart-strings.

For all the above, Miike is to be commended for trying to break away from his earlier career of genre pieces heavy on shock, gore and commercial values and for remaking classic Japanese historical drama films using technology and methods not available to the directors of the original films, in the process trying perhaps to educate himself on how past masters wove universal themes into their films that resonated deeply with their audiences, and striving to do the same himself.

Confession of Pain: glossy tale of vengeance long-planned with an implausible plot

Andrew Lau and Alan Mak, “Confession of Pain” (2006)

Ain’t no bad time like Chinese New Year for a police officer to come home one night and find his girlfriend has just topped herself but that’s exactly what happens to Detective Bong (Takeshi Kaneshiro) while on duty arresting a bunch of hoodlums in his apartment. Grief-stricken, he leaves the force and becomes a private detective, indulging his sadness in drink. Former buddy Hei (Tony Leung) and his wife Susan (Xu Jinglei) try to snap Bong out of his sorrows and give him a reason for living by enlisting him to investigate the brutal murder of Hei’s filthy rich father-in-law Chow. Hoping that the work will assuage the loss he feels, Bong agrees to help Hei and quickly finds the murder has the characteristics of a revenge killing that has taken years to plan and execute. During the course of the investigation, strange things happen to Hei and Susan, culminating in a mysterious gas explosion at home that severely injures Susan and sends her into a coma from which she might not recover.

The plot turns out to be ridiculous beyond words and one wonders why Hei would hire Bong to investigate if he knew that Bong is just too good at chasing leads and finding his man. One might think also that there should be various obstacles put in Bong’s way so as to lead him away from the killer/s, several of whom are mysteriously done away with lest Bong arrests them and forces them to confess. The movie pulls off its closed-loop plot through the work Takeshi and Leung do in their good cop / bad cop routine: both actors are restrained in their emotional expression and reveal quite deep feelings and conflicting motivations beneath impassive countenances. Leung especially maintains a poker face throughout the film even when Susan rejects him. Their respective roles don’t give them much to do other than run around a lot but the actors do their job efficiently. The rest of the cast also have very little to do and a sub-plot that revolves around Bong and a new girlfriend (Shu Qi) isn’t substantial enough to counterbalance the main plot other than to suggest that life must be lived if one is to find meaning and a reason to go on living.

The film’s style is low-key minimal and glossy with many moody shots of Hong Kong at night and most parts of the plot taking place in expensive and fashionably furnished interiors. There are a few scenes lasting several minute each in which there is no dialogue, just action, and the camera lovingly focuses on the city’s urban landscapes, revealing the metropolis’s energy and hinting at hidden and desperate secrets beneath the shiny glittering surface. Editing can be sharp and there is quite good use of special effects and black-and-white filming to show flashbacks in time when Hei was a young boy witnessing the murders of his parents and sister. Bong also “relives” the scene in which Hei’s father-in-laws dies in gruesome black-and-white detail. Graphic depictions of violence are par for the course in HK action thriller films.

There is an overall theme of loss (of loved ones, of identity) and how characters cope with that: some come to terms with it and find their way back to living life in full, others must construct new identities to cope, still others dwell on their loss and try to avenge lost loved ones – with disastrous results. The city of Hong Kong is also portrayed as dealing with loss of some kind: loss of a past identity and adjusting to a new one as a part of China; loss of an older, perhaps more human way of life and its replacement by a cold, shiny corporate culture in which gleaming style is a thin veneer for dark secrets.

The packaging may be beautiful to look at and the cast and crew do what they can but the bulk of the film is an implausible soap opera affair and no amount of lacquered sheen can hide that.

The Avengers (Season 5, Episode 15: The Joker): psychological thriller hints of psychological damage done by Cold War

Sidney Hayers, “The Avengers (Season 5, Episode 15: The Joker)” (1967)

Oops! As Steed (Patrick Macnee) excitedly races down the staircase to greet Peel (Diana Rigg) at the door, he trips and falls the rest of the way down, injuring his knee. As a result, he is laid up for the weekend, unable to accompany Peel to her weekend rendezvous with bridge-playing fanatic Sir Cavalierusticana – that should have been a dead give-away – who has read her article on applying mathematics to bridge in a magazine and wants to discuss the game with her. While she is away, an army officer (John Stone) calls at Steed’s home to inform him that the dangerous criminal Max Prendergast (Peter Jeffery), whom Steed and Peel put away in jail, has escaped and is hell-bent on seeking revenge against both of them. Later, on discovering that his staircase was booby-trapped to cause him to fall, Steed realises Peel’s life is in danger and frantically tries to track down her whereabouts before Prendergast can exact his revenge against her.

In the meantime, Peel has arrived at a huge mansion and is being entertained and terrorised in turn by her host’s creepy niece and housekeeper Ola (Sally Nesbitt) and a young man (Ronald Lacey) to soften her up for Prendergast when he comes to deliver the final blow. Can Steed reach her in time before Prendergast does? Can Peel’s nerve hold out against the torments Ola and friend pile upon her? Or will being alone in the mansion with its brooding sinister atmosphere, hallways lined with knights’ armour and bunches of roses, and rooms full of dark shadows, dead people in rocking chairs and things going bump in the night be enough to bring her down?

It’d be unfair to blame Alfred Hitchcock for everything referenced in this and other Avengers episodes: if anything, the portly one should have been demanding more than his fair share of the cut for inspiring this psychological thriller. One might imagine seeing many moments from the Master of Suspense’s past work here: bunches of roses lining the corridors recall the flower shop in “Vertigo”, the haunted house might have come straight out of “Psycho”, the fog from “The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog”.  Even Ola provides the obligatory blonde: the twist is that she is an irritating psychopath rather than the heroine. Rigg holds her own as Peel, her expression and body language slowly revealing the character’s increasing nervousness beneath an apparently cool and tough exterior but the episode belongs to Jeffery in the short amount of screen time he has.

This is an excellent character-study episode that showcases Rigg’s ability in portraying a more steely side of her character. It does become slow and a bit repetitive halfway when Peel is forced to run from one room to the next and back again, and the script should have shown more of Steed’s efforts in trying to reach Peel to save her to increase the tension level.

The episode should have ended without its obligatory coda which was unnecessary: it would have been enough for viewers to see Peel’s relief on seeing Steed come to her rescue and her drained reaction is a fine piece of acting.

A Cold War romance with Peel as a honeypot who betrays him is implied in Prendergast’s speech which gives him the necessary motivation for wanting to destroy Peel and for a brief moment we see something of world politics as it was in the 1960s. There is a hint of faded and forgotten history and maybe of the psychological wreckage that the Cold War brought to people like Prendergast and even Peel: he remembers too much of his brief romance with Peel while she remembers nothing of it. (That may be the most chilling aspect of this episode.) It is all the more jarring when she reminds him of the people he has killed but does she not also think that he and she too are victims of a power play far above even them?

The Prestige: fussy plot with flat characters turns on class and cultural rivalries of its setting

Christopher Nolan, “The Prestige” (2006)

Rather fussy if good-looking film about duplicity and duplications, duelling and an all-consuming devotion to one’s art, “The Prestige” is a crime thriller with science fantasy elements. Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) are two magicians apprenticed to master magician Milton (Ricky Jay) with Cutter (Michael Caine) as his engineer. Much of the film is told in flashbacks and at its beginning Borden is being tried and sentenced for the murder of Angier. The film then ducks to the events that lead to Borden’s trial: Borden complains to Angier and Cutter about Milton always playing safe with the same old magic tricks and Angier and Cutter put up reasons for Milton not wanting to risk his popularity and reputation via new and possibly dangerous tricks. One night a performance goes wrong and Angier’s wife Julia (Piper Perabo) dies; Angier blames Borden for the woman’s death and from then on the two men go all out to ruin one another’s performances, career and personal life, and steal ideas from each other as well. Then Borden surprises everyone with his act The Transported Man which Cutter believes must involve Borden using a double; Angier then tries to go one better with his own doubles but his act never sustains itself due to his own jealousies and Borden trying to wreck it.

Angier then pursues the famous scientist Nikola Tesla (David Bowie) to get him to make a teleportation machine that he believes Borden uses in his version of Angier’s trick. Tesla, needing the money after being financially wiped out by Thomas Edison, makes the machine and Angier takes possession of it before Edison’s myrmidons destroy Tesla’s laboratory.

Angier reappears in London with an updated version of his Transported Man trick: the teleportation machine creates duplicates of Angier who drown in water cells beneath trapdoors. Borden goes below stage during one such performance and, still feeling guilty over Julia’s death, tries to save one such duplicate. He is immediately framed for murdering Angier, is tried and sent to jail. While in jail, he is visited by an agent of Lord Caldlow (the true identity of Angier) who offers to care for his child Jess if he will yield his secrets. Borden is given Angier’s diary and realises he was framed. Unfortunately this news isn’t enough to save him from the gallows and Caldlow/Angier takes custody of the now-orphaned Jess, her mother having committed suicide earlier in the film.

It would seem that at this point Angier has the upper hand over Borden but things don’t quite pan out his way. At least conventional expectations about who’s the hero and who’s the villain are dispensed with: both Angier and Borden are fairly reprehensible men not above using the women who love them – Julia, Olivia (Scarlett Johansson) and Sarah (Rebecca Hall) – as unwilling pawns in their private spat. Both Angier and Borden make enormous sacrifices in their mutual self-destruction pact and both lose the love of two women. In their duel, Angier and Borden reveal themselves as hollow and amoral. The film’s moral centre resides in Cutter who must decide between being loyal to Angier or to Borden: whichever he chooses is important for the sake of Borden’s child Jess who could end up in a poor-house for orphans if he chooses unwisely.

The acting from the two male leads is solid and the supporting cast acquit themselves well. The characters though are so sketchy in a plot with so many complications and twists that perhaps it’s too much to expect the actors to devote time to drawing out some positive traits that could endear their characters to the audience. In this respect, Caine probably comes closest to making a real human being out of his character.

The film pays much attention to historical detail and captures something of the spirit of the late 1800s with its atmosphere of rivalry on several levels: during this period, the US, Germany and other nations were competing with the British Empire for colonies, trade opportunities, building railways and developing industries; and Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla were locked in a professional rivalry, though it wasn’t as violent as the film suggests. At the time the film is set – it must have been some time about 1899 or after as Angier visits Tesla in Colorado Springs where Tesla moved in 1899 – there were several inventors around the world engaged in building aeroplanes and trying to make the first controlled flight in a heavier-than-air vehicle. There is another rivalry alluded to in the film, and that is one of class: Borden represents the working class, willing to get his hands dirty, adventurous and on the look-out for new ideas; Angier represents the upper class who sees no reason to change and adapt to a new world. It is inevitable that these men, originally friends, should clash; their duel is that of the old established order with a particular set of values being challenged by a new order and new set of values. Both the old and new orders have their attractions but also their faults and at the centre of both, ethics can be lacking. The job for the audience is to decide which side they’re on and what values they should bring to whatever claims their loyalty.

There is yet another rivalry at work and that is the rivalry between magic, deception and secrecy on the one hand, and science, technology and openness on the other, and the film makes much of the fact that science and technology to people untutored in their principles, logic and workings can appear as magic; at the same time, magic is explained throughout the movie with logic.

As with other Christopher Nolan films I’ve seen, “The Prestige” substitutes a convoluted plot with many themes and plays and variations on the themes for rather flat characters lacking in feeling. Although the film is good-looking and reflects its setting quite faithfully, it tends to be of a piece with other Nolan films like “Inception” and the Dark Knight trilogy, and might even be seen as a test run for Bale and Caine for their roles in the Dark Knight films.

The Proposition: film essay and character study of British imperialism and colonialism, and the brutalisation that results

John Hillcoat, “The Proposition” (2005)

A gritty and visually stunning film essay on the combined effect of nineteenth-century British imperialism and Victorian mores, colonialism and a harsh, unforgiving environment on the individuals residing within, “The Proposition” is singer / writer Nick Cave’s meditation on the Western movie genre in an Australian colonial context.

Police captain Stanley (Ray Winstone), recently assigned from England to take charge of a lonely desert town somewhere in the Queensland colony, has just captured two brothers of a rebellious Irish family the Burns after a crazed shoot-out that leaves nearly everyone either dead or deranged. Knowing that both brothers have an older brother on the lam wanted for heinous crimes of rape and murder, and desiring to civilise his little patch of Australian territory with his wife Martha (Emily Watson), Stanley presents one brother Charlie (Guy Pearce) with a stark choice: go after big brother Arthur (Danny Huston) and kill him within 9 days before Christmas Day or the police will hang baby brother Mikey (Richard Wilson), a bit of a simpleton, on that day. Charlie accepts the proposition and goes out to apprehend Arthur but not before he nearly loses his life and is saved by Arthur and his gang: an unexpected twist that severely tests Charlie’s loyalty to both his brothers, his moral principles and his desire and determination to lead a life free from the history of past British-versus-Irish conflict and violence and how this has brutalised his family through the generations.

While Charlie hunts Arthur, Stanley has problems of his own to contend with: he tries to use reason to get rid of a greater evil (Arthur) and give Charlie and Mikey a chance of redeeming themselves but opposition from his own police troopers, police superintendent Eden Fletcher (David Wenham), his own wife Martha (Emily Watson) – who demands justice for her dead friends killed by the Burns brothers – and the townspeople force him to flog Mikey. Interestingly the flogging turns the townspeople against Stanley, causes Watson to faint and encourages insubordination among Stanley’s troopers.

In the meantime police sergeant Lawrence and his men, sent out by Stanley to find some Aborigines who have killed a white man, slaughter a group of natives and in turn are killed by Arthur and his side-kick Samuel, but not before Lawrence tells Arthur of Stanley’s proposition to Charlie. The Burns gang later breaks Mikey out of jail but, weakened by the flogging, the boy dies and Arthur swears vengeance on the Stanleys.

The actual plot with its proposition centre-piece and the unforeseen karmic consequences that result is an interesting intellectual exercise on paper and for those who understand Nick Cave’s inner universe; for the general public, it’s perhaps a little abstract and doesn’t generate much excitement. There’s a conventional climax of violence but the true climax is quiet and shattering as Charlie and Arthur share one last moment of family togetherness – in the sense that members of a family mafia can experience it – before Charlie faces existential emptiness in a vast and bleak though beautiful landscape that reflects his pain and his past bad luck, born of history, back at him. The movie is best appreciated as a character study bringing together the British imperial project and its presumptuous attitude to tame and subjugate a land and its people, the effect of that project on its subject peoples, and the effect of isolation and coping with a harsh desert environment on that project and the people as well.

What makes the character study effective is both the acting and the ambiguity of the characters themselves and what they represent: Hillcoat assembled an international cast of fine actors, some of whom inevitably are under-utilised. Pearce and Winstone are the stand-outs as protagonist and antagonist who agree to a Faustian deal that will tear them apart physically and psychologically. Pearce plays his character straight and only hints at the internal anguish Charlie is suffering: perhaps he was not the best actor to play this role and Wenham, playing a minor character, might have done a better job. Winstone is the much better actor in his role: representing Enlightenment reason in a limited and flawed way, believing perhaps that people are not born bad but can be encouraged to rise from badness to goodness, he attempts to give Charlie and Mikey a chance in a way that he hopes will advance his career as well as redeem the two; but local prejudice and resentment against him and his wife as naive English snobs, his own self-serving ambitions as a leader and his wife’s own inability to come to terms with her nature and upbringing conspire against him. I probably make Stanley sound too good: he is tender to Martha and tries to protect her but one has to ask why he brought Martha out to Australia in the first place.

John Hurt as bounty hunter Jellon Lamb intent on killing the Burns brothers has a very small role but fills it to the full with deranged malice; Emily Watson plays Martha Stanley intelligently and with substance: the character though represents an aspect of English civility trying to bring order and refinement to an alien environment but doomed to fail because it doesn’t understand its own roots of violence and repression, let alone the unforgiving demands of a new country and the skills required to survive there; so in effect Watson’s effort amounts to very little. The Aboriginal characters are portrayed with some sympathy given that the script is focussed on the white characters; it is interesting that the Burns brothers, murderous renegades thought they are, treat their Aboriginal friend humanely and even use white people’s distrust of black people to their advantage to break Mikey out of jail. The most interesting character is Arthur, a poet and philosopher as well as murderous psychopath, thanks to Huston’s steady and under-played performance: one sees that in another land, another century, Arthur could have been an intelligent, sensitive and capable leader of men. In a brutal country which understands only the language of invasion, violence, subjugation and discrimination based on class, ethnicity and race, Arthur becomes the freest of all men, obeying 0nly his own morality and musing on his place within the Australian landscape and the universe, and in that he is the most dangerous.

The Australian landscape is a significant character in the film and gives it a distinctive ambience and flavour: it is a harsh and unyielding landscape yet a beautiful one that invites people like Arthur to contemplate its mystery and beauty and their relationship to its treasures. In a way perhaps the true protagonist and antagonist in this film are – ahem, Nick Cave couldn’t resist a little joke here! – Arthur and Martha: one understands true beauty, the other is in thrall to an artificial beauty and refinement. They might have made a nice couple but they carry too much cultural baggage and their meeting in the film is very, very brief.

 

 

The Bellies: delightful film about human greed and avarice, and how materialistic societies eat themselves

Philippe Grammaticopoulos, “The Bellies / Les Ventres” (2009)

Delightful short film inspired in part by Rene Laloux’s animated work, “The Bellies” features a simple story about human avarice and arrogance in controlling nature, and how eventually nature and unacknowledged guilt prevail over greed and materialism. An unnamed gentleman, gross and piggy-eyed, gorges on snails for lunch at a restaurant; his fellow diners, all much the same as he is, eat the same meal in a bizarre co-ordinated Mexican-wave mass action. After lunch he goes back to the company laboratory where visitors await him: he explains the process by which small snails are genetically engineered to grow into ginormous gastropods for human consumption and takes his admiring guests on a tour around the facility. After the tour ends and the gentlemen sign a deal, the self-satisfied owner walks around the facility grounds where giant empty snail shells abound. On a whim, he crawls inside one such shell to assure himself he’s not hearing strange ghostly noises …

The animated figures are CGI-created while the backgrounds look as though they’ve been done with pencil and paint. Special effects are computer-generated. The figures don’t appear at all realistic but they are meant to satirise self-satisfied bourgeois conformity. There’s no speech but sprightly and playful acoustic music accompanied by sound effects emphasise mood and create, sustain and build tension. The whole cartoon has a very clean, spare look in keeping with the sanitised and conformist future society portrayed.

The last third of the film is the most surreal and really fits in with a dream-like Laloux-inspired universe: our piggy-eyed company director is forced to suffer as his factory-farmed snails have suffered and must run for his life. The film makes a point about how pursuit of materialist pleasure ends up eating you, how ultimately a culture based on gluttony will cannibalise itself. The giant fork that pursues the man turns into a creepy spider predator with a life of its own.

It’s a little slow and drags out the story in parts, especially during the graveyard scene where the company director starts thinking he’s hearing distant voices … but overall “The Bellies” is an entertaining piece with a surprisingly deep message about a future, materialistic society and how it dooms itself into extinction.