Minamata: a solid film on the power of image as social activism

Andrew Levitas, “Minamata” (2020)

In these times when fake news and deliberate disinformation are the norm in mainstream news media, here comes a very welcome, solid film on environmental pollution and its lasting effects on two, even three generations of families, and on the power of image to convey this message and call for justice for the families made victims by the pollution. “Minamata” is based on events that took place in the early 1970s to bring the suffering of the victims of what was then known as Minamata disease – actually the effects of environmental mercury poisoning – to world attention. Johnny Depp plays US photojournalist W Eugene Smith, world-weary and with his life in tatters, who is approached by two Japanese fans of his work in 1971. The two fans, of whom one is Aileen (Minami), persuade him to follow them back to their home town of Minamata, a one-company town on Kyushu island, to document the injuries and deformities suffered by Minamata town residents. Smith grudgingly accepts and accompanies the two activists on what is supposedly a three-month assignment. Once there, Smith gradually becomes more involved in the lives of the Minamata families, befriending a teenage boy suffering from Minamata disease and teaching him photography; he himself eventually becomes an activist participating in and visually recording protests against the Chisso company which has been discharging mercury into local waters. The Chisso company discovers the American living in the Minamata community and, after failing to bribe Smith, ramps up the harassment and violence against the community and Smith himself. His studio is burned down and much of his work is destroyed, and the photojournalist realises he must try to persuade the Minamata community to work more closely with him and allow him to photograph affected family members if he is to get their message to the outside world.

While the film revolves around Depp’s performance, excellent as it is for most of the time he is on screen, he allows his fellow cast members including Minami as Aileen, Tadanobu Asano and Hiroyuki Sanada as activist leaders and Jun Kunimura as the Chisso company president their moments in the spotlight. Minami’s character is basically supportive but is upfront when it needs to be. Kunimura puts in a powerful performance as the president who tries to bribe Smith and is then later forced to admit the company’s culpability for the harm caused by his company to Minamata residents. Though Depp himself occasionally lapses into his kookly old Hunter S Thompson character from “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” which he made back in 1998, his portrayal of Smith as initially gruff and cynical (this appearance hiding deep self-loathing, past trauma and lack of purpose in life) and then later turning into social crusader with a cause that consumes his life seems credible. The film does a good job detailing the menace that hired uniformed goons present to Smith and the Minamata residents, less so on how the issue of mercury poisoning divides the community, especially as so many people in Minamata depend on the company for employment.

The film’s cinematography highlights Minamata town’s charms as a rural seaside village, focusing at times on villagers’ activities such as drying fish or on children playing in the town park where Smith first meets the teenage boy. Over the course of the film the background settings become important in advancing the film’s narrative and message as historical film reels are mixed into the live-action scenes and some scenes are recreations of actual photographs taken by the real-life W Eugene Smith.

The action may be slow and the plot doesn’t rev up until quite late in the film but the slow pace allows viewers, like Smith himself, to fully immerse themselves into the life of Minamata as drawn by Levitas and his capable cast. By the end of the film audiences may well find themselves rooting for Smith, Aileen and her fellow activists. However the end title credits present a very sobering conclusion to their efforts: to date, the Minamata community has still not been fully compensated for its suffering by the Chisso company and the Japanese government.

Land: a film of two exiles from society finding friendship and healing

Robin Wright, “Land” (2021)

For her directorial debut, US actor Robin Wright chose to do a challenging character study of a bereaved woman, Edee (played by Wright herself), in shock after losing her husband and son, who isolates herself in a log cabin in the remote Rocky Mountains somewhere in Wyoming state. She intends to start her own vegetable garden and go hunting and fishing if need be. Her plan to go completely off-grid is apparent in the split-second scene where she ditches her cellphone into a rubbish bin, and is reinforced when she tells the man from whom she is buying his father’s log cabin that he can take away her rented car and haulage vehicle. Her attempts at living off the land however meet with failure upon failure and she doesn’t get far coming to terms with new neighbours like a pack of wolves and a huge bear that ransacks her log cabin during a severe winter. In the middle of a terrible blizzard, Edee curls up on the floor of her freezing log cabin, ready to die and be done with life.

In the nick of time arrive local hunter Miguel (Demian Bichir) and nurse Alawa (Sarah Dawn Pledge) who find Edee only days away from starving and freezing to death, and who bring her back to life with medicines, soups and warm clothing. Alawa wants to get Edee down to town and into hospital straight away but Edee refuses. Miguel offers to care for Edee and, surprisingly, teach her how to survive on her own since she is adamant about staying in her log cabin. From then on, Miguel visits Edee frequently to show her how to chop wood, how to hunt, shoot and prepare deer, and cook venison. Hunting her own food and eating meat help to strengthen Edee so she can concentrate on teaching herself from books how to create her vegetable garden. Before long, Edee is doing well for herself and becomes close friends with Miguel. At this point in the film though, Miguel tells her he is going away and leaves his dog with her. Time passes and Edee soon realises something may have happened to Miguel, that he has been away from his own home for too long.

On the surface a film of survivalist self-exile and isolation, “Land” turns out to be a meditation on reconciliation, healing and being able to connect with other people. In his own way Miguel is a damaged human being who has suffered loss because of past irresponsible behaviour; by helping Edee and teaching her how to survive, he finds purpose in living and ultimately grace and redemption. From Miguel, Edee learns to reconnect with people and to reach out to others when she needs help. Eventually she is able to come to terms with her loss and to contact her sister-in-law as equals.

While Wright and Bichir give excellent performances as Edee and Miguel, the script does leave much to be desired: the sudden jump from Edee on her own being hopeless to Edee being capable and self-reliant under Miguel’s tutelage strains credibility, especially in before-Miguel and after-Miguel scenes of Edee chopping wood. While the landscape and the ever-changing seasons are significant to the film’s visual impact and as an important aspect of the plot, even the physical environment seems subordinated to the whims of the plot with the bad weather, the wolves and the bear bothering Edee before she meets Miguel and everything brightening up and the bad animals staying away after she meets Miguel. There is much in the script that seems forced and not a little hokey, especially when Edee meets Miguel for (spoiler alert) the final time and they both reveal to each other the reasons why they did what they believed they had to do, that brought them together in the first place.

Of course the physical environment of the Rockies is essential to making this very minimally styled and structured film work and to give the impression of the passage of time. The dialogue is very sparse which I consider detracts from the realism the film attempts to show: in real life, Edee would have been talking to herself a lot as she encounters one trial after another. Voice-over narration by Wright would have added another, perhaps deeper and thoughtful dimension to the film: Edee would be wondering why Miguel goes out of his way to help her and what he hopes to get out of helping and teaching her. A mystery and not a little frisson of tension could develop as to his intentions toward her. As it is, the film seems very circumscribed by its minimalist scope and the landscapes and cinematography are made to do the work of carrying the film.

The Courier: a film of personal growth and suffering and of friendship transcending politics and ideology

Dominic Cooke, “The Courier” (2020)

The story of Greville Wynne, a most unlikely character ever to become a spy for MI6 during the Cold War in the early 1960s, shuttling between London and Moscow and ferrying classified Soviet information given him by a military official in the Kremlin that reveals nuclear warfare capabilities to MI6 and the CIA, is given widescreen movie treatment that explores the nature of friendship and loyalty in extreme circumstances. Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch) comes to the attention of MI6 and the CIA, represented respectively by handlers Dickie Franks (Angus Wright) and Emily Donovan (Rachel Brosnahan) as he travels frequently to eastern Europe as a sales representative for an engineering company. Wynne is asked to go to Moscow and contact Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze), a Soviet military intel official, who will give him papers to bring back to London, in his usual role as sales representative. After initially resisting the offer, Wynne goes ahead to Moscow and meets Penkovsky. A routine is quickly established: Wynne starts making trips to Moscow to catch up with Penkovsky who takes him to the opera and the ballet, and introduces the British man to his family, all the while feeding Wynne with information and photographs that eventually prove valuable to US intelligence and the White House in defusing the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. However the Soviets themselves have a mole working in MI6 – there were a number of double agents in British intelligence working for the USSR – and the mole helps the GRU to work out who is passing valuable Soviet secrets to the British. Penkovsky and then Wynne are arrested by the GRU, tried and charged with espionage, and both men are thrown into gaol. Wynne winds up in the then notorious Lubyanka prison where he suffers many privations and beatings over a period of nearly two years before he returns to Britain in 1964 as part of a spy swap.

The film serves mainly as a character study of an ordinary Englishman, initially unremarkable in personality and very apolitical, suddenly thrust into a situation where he eventually is forced to take sides and finds himself capable of heroism to try to save a man he comes to regard as a friend when that man’s life is in danger. In doing so, he is captured and is forced to suffer brutal violence, near-starvation and ill health in prison, subjected to psychological manipulation and not knowing if he has been abandoned by MI6. Cumberbatch does excellent work as Wynne who grows in moral stature through the film even though what he does as a courier is a thankless task – there is no suggestion that MI6 and the CIA reward him for the risks he is exposed to. Indeed MI6 is quite willing to discard Penkovsky and his desire to defect to th West once the GRU (Soviet military intelligence) is onto his trail and only Donovan rallies to Wynne’s side to try to save Penkovsky from arrest and certain death. The suffering Wynne undergoes is matched in the physical rigours Cumberbatch had to undergo including near-starvation to get the haggard look. Unfortunately the film ends at the point where Wynne is released from prison and reunited with wife Sheila (Jessie Buckley) and son Andrew (Keir Hill) and we do not see the psychological traumas and other effects – including separation and divorce from Sheila – Wynne suffered, and this perhaps is a grave oversight on the part of the script.

The other actors in the film, and Ninidze in particular, also give very good performances. Buckley does what she can with a very limited role as Wynne’s long-suffering wife. As a sop to current Western identity politics, the character of Donovan is a composite character of several actual CIA and MI6 agents who include a British woman, Janet Chisholm, who also was a conduit for Penkovsky. The cinematography is well done, emphasising the greys of a world of 60 years ago in which black and white were actually not so clear-cut as we think they were, without being remarkable. The scenes set in Moscow or which involve Russians appear very stereotyped and viewers get no real sense of how Russians might have viewed Penkovsky and Wynne after they have been caught and their espionage made public.

The film is well made and fairly faithful to its source material, extracting from it a story about one man’s personal growth and a friendship that transcends politics and the grubby and frequently unethical world of espionage. Still I can’t help but feel that “The Courier” was made largely in the service of current British government propaganda and deliberate disinformation and lies demonising Russia for no reason other than that Russia has been a long-standing rival to British global imperialist and predatory ambitions, and that this context in which the film was made must surely have had some influence on the way the script was written and what may have had to be omitted. While the Americans get what they want to outfox the Soviets on the latter’s deployment of missile bases in Cuba, and the Soviets shut down Penkovsky as a traitor, the British must still be seen to “win” in some way, hence perhaps stopping an interesting story of how espionage was usually done and how unsuspecting ordinary people got roped into spying and ended up paying a price for it, just to achieve that “happy ending”. Intel agencies carry on duelling against each other in spite of the alarming collateral damage they create along the way.

How is This the World: finding authenticity in virtual reality versus real world addiction and escapism

Sadie Rogers, “How is This the World” (2019)

Starting out almost as a gritty film noir crime thriller, this short film transforms into a music video of science fiction romantic fantasy – but not without some hard questions about how much the real world has degraded to the extent that young generations of people find virtual reality a better place to be true to themselves and to find real values and authenticity, as opposed to a real world full of disillusionment, fake news and history, and manipulation. A worried mother, Elise (Hanna Dworkin), searches for her son Raj (Hunter Bryant) in cyberspace by enlisting an aged worn-out hacker, Bernie (Matt DeCaro) in her search. Bernie sends Elise into the part of cyberspace he originally designed with Chloe (director Sadie Rogers herself) as her guide and companion. There Elise finds Raj secure with his new friends and a girl (Raven Whitley) and finds herself torn between taking him back to the real world of loneliness, isolation and drug addiction, and leaving him in a safe world with happy, healthy youngsters – albeit a world composed entirely of algorithms.

On one level the film can be read as a criticism of the world we have created in which young people have no hope and few spaces now exist in which young people can find one another and experience love and connection in a context free of violence and exploitation. The world Bernie created may look an odd mish-mash of 1980s-era New Romance / indie grunge / Goth punk set in an American high school but for Raj – and eventually perhaps for Elise – it appears more real than the world they have left behind. Of course the irony remains that Raj’s newfound home is not only an imagined simulacrum but it happens to be the creation of someone who himself is jaded and lives in his own dream-world even in the real world. On another level the film might be seen as a lesson in which parents must learn to let go of their offspring and allow them to grow up by making their own decisions and learning from their mistakes. The virtual world that Raj enters is a safe environment in which he can do all this without having to fear that his decisions and errors will follow him into the real world and blight his life forever.

Dworkin holds the film together as it smoothly transitions from dreary, seedy real life, filled with disappointment and alienation, into a colourful fantasy where everyone’s dreams can and will be fulfilled. The rest of the cast does good work but they tend to revolve around Dworkin. The film retains its suspense at least until Chloe begins to sing and the film improbably becomes an extended music clip. Details of costuming and setting are done very well to ensure a seamless change from one film genre to another. Tension is regained when the film cuts off just before the moment Elise makes up her mind about whether to let go of Raj or not.

My Salinger Year: a small-scaled film that never leaves its comfort zone

Philippe Falardeau, “My Salinger Year” (2020)

A film about finding your own voice and creative outlet, and being able to express that creativity, “My Salinger Year” is a likeable and charming piece if a little dull and at times giving the impression of playing safe. The film is based on poet / journalist Joanna Rakoff’s memoir of working for the literary agent whose main client was the famously reclusive novelist J D Salinger, author of high school coming-of-age / teenage angst staple “The Catcher in the Rye”, back in the mid-1990s.

Rakoff (Margaret Qualley) impulsively leaves postgraduate school in California and jets off to New York to take up a position as assistant to literary agent Margaret (Sigourney Weaver) who turns out to be a tetchy technophobic boss. Rakoff is given the job of replying to Salinger’s massive fanbase who send letters addressed to the famous writer; Salinger himself does not want to read these letters so Margaret’s agency sends generic form letters to his fans informing them that he will not reply. Rakoff has to read these letters nevertheless and choose the correct reply form letters; she begins to develop some empathy with some of the fan mail, as the writers see themselves in the character of Holden Caulfield, the anti-hero of “The Catcher in the Rye”, and pour their heart and soul into their correspondence. Rakoff starts to veer from the script, literally as well as figuratively speaking, and writes directly to some of the fans. This is risky for her as Margaret and her other employees treat Salinger and his demands with kid gloves and do not look upon even slight deviations from his instructions favourably.

Aside from the main plot, which is quite insubstantial and in itself not very entertaining for viewers who know little of the world of publishing and how writers were marketed in the pre-Internet age, there are various sub-plots which are equally shallow and under-developed. Rakoff forms a friendship with Salinger over the phone at work; Salinger becomes interested in Rakoff when he discovers she writes poetry in her spare time and urges her to keep writing every day. The people at work gently encourage Rakoff to develop and use her initiative and trust in her own intuition and decision-making, and this support helps her become a valuable employee in Margaret’s agency. Rakoff is in a relationship with a socialist bookshop worker / aspiring writer (Douglas Booth) who initially introduces her to his underground literary scene, which she finds stimulating at first, but who turns out self-centred and whose writing is mediocre and crude. At the same time Rakoff has never concluded her previous romance decisively and her old boyfriend (Hamza Haq) continues to write to her.

The acting overall is good though individual actors themselves, Weaver in particular, are not challenged by the script. Weaver has done the boss-from-hell routine in past films like Neil Blomkamp’s “Chappie” and very little in “My Salinger Year” deviates from that stereotype, even when her character suffers a life-changing blow. Qualley does well as Rakoff in her first lead role and just manages to hold her own in scenes with Weaver who dominates in every scene she appears in. Other actors provide good support though the script never allows them to be more than walking wallpaper.

Whimsical fantasy sequences in which some of Salinger’s earnest letter-writing fans appear – in deference to the prevailing Identity Politics / Diversity culture that has a stranglehold on Hollywood, these fans span a range of different ethnic groups, age demographics and life-styles, though how a black Vietnam vet and a migrant Vietnamese labourer can see something of themselves in a middle-class teenaged rebel with no cause is never explained – are worked into the film smoothly and discreetly, and are never allowed to overpower the narrative. Had Hollywood not been so enamoured of appealing to Diversity “values”, and simply allowed these fans to just be what they were in real life – people looking for connection and purpose to life, in their own immediate environments where the anomie born of capitalist society and its values which have destroyed community alternatives – the Rakoff character would have found real empathy with these lost people, they would have provided her with real material for her writing, her voice and creativity would have been truly inspired, and her path in life would have been clear. She would have been the poet and voice of a new lost generation searching for meaning and authentic values in a world becoming increasingly reliant on and captured by technology to the extent of surrendering itself to its dictates and the ruthless predatory capitalist values of its creators.

As it is, the film never strays at all from the comfort zone it sets for itself and the result is that it remains small in scale with a paper-thin plot and several sub-plots that remain unexplored and unsatisfactory. Rakoff’s character is not too convincing at times as a woman in a process of self-discovery but I suspect most young actors, even very good ones, would be defeated by the script and Falardeau’s direction. Viewers will feel frustrated that this coming-of-stage story turns out to have very little to say about the 1990s-era New York literary world and its values and pretentiousness.

Some Like It Hot: a cheerful screwball satire about the search for love and security

Billy Wilder, “Some Like It Hot” (1959)

Astonishingly this classic Hollywood slapstick comedy still holds up well more than 60 years after its release. The jokes and witty one-liners are still hilarious even though they are dated and modern audiences may have trouble identifying with the context they arise in and the actual history that informs the context. In late 1920s-period America, just before the Great Depression, two musicians Joe and Jerry (Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon) down on their luck witness a gangland mass murder in Chicago and must flee for their lives; they do so by disguising themselves as female musicians Josephine and Daphne in order to join an all-female jazz orchestra about to tour Florida to entertain millionaires in ritzy hotels. On the train taking them from Chicago to Miami, Joe and Jerry meet Sugar Kane (Marilyn Monroe), herself on the run from a complicated romantic past and eager to meet a gentle and bespectacled millionaire who will love her and look after her. After a wild midnight party featuring (forbidden) alcohol with the other members of the jazz orchestra, while the leader / conductor and the manager are fast asleep and unawares, and during which Joe and Sugar start falling for each other, the orchestra reaches its Miami hotel destination and there Joe and Jerry are embroiled in more farcical situations in which Joe pretends to be the very millionaire Sugar has fantasised about in order to get closer to her, and Jerry as Daphne attracts the attention of ageing millionaire Osgood Fielding III (Joe E Brown) who sends him flowers and romances him. In the meantime the Mafia mobsters, led by mob boss Spatz Colombo (George Raft), are still on the trail of Joe and Jerry, and arrive at the Miami hotel to attend a convention of crime syndicates presided over by Colombo’s rival Little Napoleon (Nehemiah Persoff).

The improbable and threadbare plot plays as a series of fast-paced comedy skits during which Joe and Jerry’s lives become more complicated as people insist on intruding in their lives in ways that threaten to blow their disguises. A tension is always present – when will Joe and Jerry’s cover be blown, and how? – that keeps audiences attentive and guessing. How will Sugar find out that her “millionaire” lover is yet another deceptive saxophone player who lusts after her? Will the three protagonists find the money and security they need to finally be free of their past histories and the complicated lives they have created for themselves in search of love and security?

This film relies heavily on its three leads to pull off the cross-dressing musicians and the ditzy child-like singer who seems unaware of the power of her sexuality on the men around her. Both Curtis and Lemmon have fun with their roles and pour everything they have into them: quite a feat, as Marilyn Monroe’s insecurities interfered with her ability to remember her lines and what she was supposed to do, with the result that her scenes with Curtis required numerous takes, yet on film Curtis always manages to sparkle even when he parodies famous Hollywood actor Cary Grant in his deception of Sugar Kane. Lemmon’s character becomes so engrossed in his Daphne alter-ego that he happily joins his female band members in frolicking on the beach and is prepared to marry Osgood Fielding III and then divorce him for the alimony money as so many of the millionaire’s ex-wives have done. However Monroe steals every scene and walks away with the film with her luminous beauty, innocent naif presence, her breathy voice and her performance as the lead singer of the jazz orchestra.

Co-written by director Billy Wilder, the brisk screenplay does wonderful work contrasting the romances between Joe and Sugar, and between Jerry and Osgood, playing up their half-serious / half-comedic angles and highlighting the deceptions Joe and Jerry force themselves into playing in order to get what they want. Interestingly as Joe feels more guilty at deceiving Sugar, Jerry (who initially begins as Joe’s conscience) becomes more and more mercenary and hell-bent on marrying Osgood to the extent that he forgets he is male himself. The complicated plot starts to resemble a Shakespearean play with Joe and Sugar’s romance being slightly more serious and Jerry and Osgood’s date milked for all its clownishness. In the manner of all good Shakespearean comedies, the deceptions are uncovered (after a screwball chase of the musicians by the mobsters), no-one gets hurt and the deceived partners turn out to be very forgiving towards those who duped them.

In spite of its improbable plot, the film has lasted as long as it has due to its cheerfully satirical treatment of the way in which mid 20th-century Western culture treated men and women, and of how men and women often deceived one another to get laid and/or to get financial security. In the end, Joe discovers he wants more than just sex and Sugar realises she wants more than money. Jerry is nonplussed at Osgood Fielding III’s laid-back attitude towards social conventions surrounding marriage. Everyone gets more than what they bargained for, but in a happy way.

Check Please: awkward romantic situation comedy with unattractive characters

Daniel Sorochkin, “Check Please” (2015)

A man, Ben (Bryan Manley Davis), takes his girlfriend Laura (Amelia Brain) to evening dinner at a swish restaurant, planning to propose to her … by arranging with waiter Stephan (Matthew Porter) to have his engagement ring planted in the salad that the waiter will take out to their table. Instead what actually happens is that the waiter, accidentally or not, takes the salad out to another couple’s table, and the woman there, Hannah (Emily Dennis), discovers the ring and instantly assumes her boyfriend Mike (Jacob Trussell) is proposing to her. Hannah’s yelps of delight attract Ben and Laura’s attention and Ben almost instantly suspects what has happened.

Viewers might assume this to be the start of a typically American romantic situation comedy in which much arguing back and forth between the two tables takes up most of the film’s 16-minute time, to be resolved in a friendly stalemate where everyone becomes buddiess or the parties end up sharing jail space down at the local police station after throwing punches at each other and smashing a few chairs. Heck, nearly 100 years ago in silent films the two men would have found custard pies and started a huge pie-throwing contest. Under Daniel Sorochkin’s direction, the tale becomes one where Ben must find the courage to confront Mike directly and get the ring back. Mike tries to get Ben to accept the situation as it is, to go along with the charade, and even offers Ben a building – because Hannah’s dad happens to be a rich property developer who hands out buildings to Hannah’s friends like freebies – and money to get him to shut up.

Potential exists for tension to be ratcheted up steadily as Ben tries to placate an increasingly distressed and neurotic Laura – the two have been dating for five years and she is upset that Ben hasn’t proposed to her (because that’s how long he’s been trying to work up the courage to do so) – and to get his ring back from an equally passive man who’s happy to go along with whatever his girlfriend decides or dictates. A potential conflict between two men whose major flaws are much the same should have been interesting but the script and the dialogue make the escalation to that conflict rather awkward, haphazard and even annoying.

The actors do good work but are hamstrung by the characters they play and the dialogue. None of the characters in the film comes away as attractive; viewers may wonder why Ben continues to see Laura if she’s as emotionally fragile and high-maintenance as she appears while frantically tearing her strawberry chocolate dessert into pieces looking for her engagement ring. Mike turns out to be odious and somewhat sleazy and Hannah is plainly a spoilt brat. One does feel sorry for Ben that he lives in such a materialistic world where women expect a great deal like dinner and pricey presents from men and might throw tantrums if the men don’t deliver, and the men themselves play the parts of hen-pecked husbands before they even marry. He’d be better off running away from all these horrid people.

While the film makes good use of its constrained restaurant location, with characters using food and eating and drinking utensils in ways that detail their personalities, and the plot using a change of scenery from the eating area to the men’s toilets and the bar to advance the action and the conflict, the plot itself requires considerable suspension of disbelief to be credible. For some viewers, the film will invite more embarrassed snickering rather than hearty laughter.

Trunk Space: familiar and predictable story and plot elements redeemed by good performances

Max Silver, “Trunk Space” (2016)

As surely as the sun rises in the east, birds fly in the sky and fish swim in the oceans, so also do films that begin with two people driving through a barren desert and stopping to collect a strange hitch-hiker turn out to be terror-filled affairs in which one of the people in the car turns out to be a serial killer. So begins director Max Silver’s short film “Trunk Space”, in which best girl buddies Anna (Jessica Jade Andres) and Priss (Kate Krieger) are fleeing dreary work lives in the eastern US on a road trip holiday to California in their car, and are flying along a lonely highway in the Nevadan desert. They talk about all the guys they’ve seen and picked up along the way. They notice a guy (Jordan Turchin) standing next to a car that’s run out of gas and Anna offers him a lift over Priss’s objections. While Anna and the stranger make eyes at each other while Anna drives, Kate fumes in the back seat and fiddles with the stranger’s bag – she finds women’s bracelets inside. The conversation between the women themselves and between the stranger and the women becomes ever more tense and starts to take a weird and dark turn when the stranger, prompted by Kate’s discovery of an odd tattoo on his neck, tells the women a strange story about wolves. Finally the stranger takes control of the situation by telling Anna that she should have listened to Kate in the first place.

With most of the plot taking place in the car, the tension and mystery arise from the conversation and the conflict between Anna and Kate over the stranger’s presence. A familiar horror story feeding on familiar elements – two friends fleeing the city for unknown reasons for a supposed paradise, the friends falling out over an intruder who then manipulates their strained relationship, the stranger’s mysterious past – is refreshed by good performances from the three actors. The tension is heightened when Kate discovers on her mobile phone news that police have found decapitated bodies along the highway they are travelling.

As a result, when the plot twist comes, it does hit the viewer quite hard even though the viewer can guess what is about to happen. Now we realise what happened to the men Anna and Kate had picked up on their trip earlier and whom they rejected, and we also now know why they are fleeing to California. The plot twist is done very deftly and quickly, and before we know it, the two girls are on their way again and the film ends there and then.

The film is rather repetitive and drags on a bit too long which results in some over-acting from Andres and Krieger. Better dialogue, hinting at dark secrets in all characters’ pasts, perhaps a history of abuse for one character, or some desultory conversation about how the police are hunting for a murderer and Turchin’s character answering to the description of the man being pursued, might have strengthened the plot and made the film even more tense and horrifying. If the film had been made as part of a proposal to movie studios for a longer film, the bean counter executives would have been wise to ask Silver for a stronger and deeper concept

Chappaquiddick: character study deprived of its wider historical background and significance

John Curran, “Chappaquiddick” (2017)

A thoughtful and well-acted film, as the metonym title suggests, this work revolves around the drowning tragedy of Mary Jo Kopechne on Chappaquiddick island, Massachusetts, in July 1969 while participating in a reunion of former political aides to US Senator Robert Fitzgerald Kennedy who had been assassinated a year earlier while campaigning for the US Presidency in Los Angeles. Kopechne had been riding in a car driven by Kennedy’s younger brother Edward, known as Ted, himself a senator for Massachusetts and under consideration (and pressure) from the Democratic Party to run for the Presidency in 1972 against incumbent Richard Nixon, when the car sped off a wooden bridge and plunged into the water that surrounded Chappaquiddick. Edward Kennedy escaped from the car as it sank but Kopechne, apparently asleep in the car’s backseat, drowned.

All the action in the film takes place over a period of roughly seven days from Friday, 17 July 1969, to Friday, 24 July 1969, and the film divides into seven or eight chapters based on the significant events that happen on each day. In its first half-hour, the film deals with the reunion of Kopechne (Kate Mara) and her fellow “Boiler Room Girls”, Robert Kennedy’s 1968 campaign aides, all brought together by Edward Kennedy (Jason Clarke) in the hope of persuading them to work on his 1972 Presidential campaign, running up to the accident and Kopechne’s drowning. The rest of the film deals with the fall-out from the tragedy and how Edward Kennedy, his close aides Joe Gargan (Ed Helms) and Paul Markham (Jim Gaffigan), and the Kennedy family and its immediate supporters and advisors confront that fall-out and work with it – or against it.

Edward Kennedy comes across as the spoilt youngest son of a formerly powerful and not at all pleasant patriarch Joe Kennedy Sr (Bruce Dern) who is regarded as something of a black sheep yet is also expected to carry the legacy of his three older brothers, of whom the eldest died in World War II and the other two died by assassination, and become US President. In awe of his father, crippled by stroke though the old man is, Edward delays reporting the accident to the police in spite of his aides’ advice and spends much of the film trying to save his own skin and escape responsibility for the accident and the legal punishment he must face.

In a significant scene, Edward Kennedy is confronted by a virtual war council of men-in-black spin doctors and advisors led by former US defence secretary Robert McNamara (Clancy Brown) who craft out a strategy aimed at minimising the damage of Kopechne’s drowning and the legal consequences (a possible manslaughter charge and the prison sentence that came with it) to Kennedy and his family. This scene illustrates how far the Kennedy family was prepared to go to shield its youngest son and the one remaining hope for the US Presidency from the consequences of his drink-driving actions. Through this scene, the calculating, manipulative and ruthless nature of US politics and its effects on a leading political family – and by implication, other families closely associated and involved with US national politics – are revealed.

Clarke does convincing work as the troubled Edward Kennedy, forced to carry a burden he should never have had to carry and at a loss as to his place and purpose in the world (let alone US national politics), and wavering between conflicting advice from his aides, of whom Gargan also happens to be his cousin, and his frightful father. Dern is excellent as Joe Kennedy Sr, conveying the old man’s terrifying presence in just a few words of dialogue while stuck in a wheelchair. Helms and Gaffigan are also good as Edward Kennedy’s conscience, fallible though they are. Mara portrays Kopechne as an intelligent young woman, with the result that Kopechne’s death becomes all the more tragic, that such a person with the brains, talent and experience she has should have been thoughtlessly abandoned to die, and then after death treated as an inconvenience to be brushed aside.

The film’s low-key and sober style may be very underwhelming for a mainstream audience and its subject matter may not mean anything for American viewers for whom even Bill Clinton (US President from 1992 to 2000) is just another historical figure. Strangely the wider social and political context in which the Chappaquiddick incident and its repercussions for Edward Kennedy, and the Kennedys generally, take place is completely removed from the film; viewers will get no sense of the rivalry existing between President Nixon and the Kennedys, or of the ongoing Vietnam War at the time, and be able to relate those events to the current rivalry between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, and the ongoing wars in their various forms (actual physical war, cyber wars, propaganda wars among others) being prosecuted by the US in Afghanistan, Syria and other parts of the world.

The fact that the Chappaquiddick incident and its aftermath seem to take place in a world divorced from the real world of the US in the late 1960s, and that such a separation effectively alienates the incident from those who most need to know it and learn from it, and to understand something of the nature of US politics in the way it shields certain people and throws away others like Kopechne as if they were no more than used paper napkins, is a major fault on the director’s part. Without this wider context, the film loses historical value and is likely to be used to demonise Edward Kennedy’s character now that he is dead and his legacy as a US Senator for Massachusetts for nearly 50 years recedes into faded memory.

Eve: choosing between freedom, compassion and responsibility makes an android more human than humans

Josh Bowman, “Eve” (2019)

A character-driven sci-fi story with good acting and a strong visual look with a desert setting doesn’t need a fancy budget or whizz-bang special effects as this 14-minute piece demonstrates. Android A6609 (played by Sianad Gregory) is on the run from unknown authorities, racing for her very existence in the Californian desert. Her companion is shot down by lone human hermit Jackson (Matt Russell). When Android A6609 collapses in the desert, Jackson revives her using jump cables attached to his utility van. Coming back to life, the machine resists Jackson and his explanations about why he has been cast adrift in the desert but when he offers to remove the tracking device in her spine so she can continue on her way to freedom, she relents. While he removes the tracker, she tells him that her name is Eve – and that she named herself, presumably after the Biblical character. She spots a photograph of Jackson’s son and asks after the boy; Jackson replies that his son is being held hostage by the authorities and he does not know if he will ever see him again.

Eve wants to flee to a place she has heard of but Jackson attempts to dissuade her – because, as he is later forced to admit, he has implanted the idea into her neurological networks. The brief friendship between Eve and Jackson quickly disappears when Eve discovers that Jackson is negotiating with the authorities for the return of his son if he finds and surrenders Eve. She leaves him in a huff, taking his van, but after driving some distance and seeing the photograph of Jackson’s son, she pauses to decide what to do next. At that point, the film ends.

This character study is an intriguing investigation into the nature of freedom and into how much free choice we humans have and whether what we might call free choice is really a result of deterministic forces in our lives. Are we really free or are we really slaves to our instincts and our cultural conditioning? Connected to the issue of freedom and free choice in the film is acceptance of responsibility – Eve has to choose between pursuing physical freedom and striving to reach a place that might not exist, and giving up that freedom so that Jackson might be reunited with his son. At the point where she stops the van to ponder that choice, she is freer than Jackson will ever be: she can choose flight or she can choose surrendering flight so that a father can be reunited with his child. There is no suggestion though that Jackson will become a free man once he is reunited with his son.

The plot is sketchy enough that it lends itself to quite subversive interpretations about what is at stake for Eve. How do we know that Eve’s “escape” was not originally planned by Jackson and the authorities? What are they actually testing in allowing Eve to run away and to present her with a choice between continuing to run to freedom and surrendering it so that Jackson and his son can be together again? Is Eve’s desire for freedom also something that has been implanted into her neural networks? Is Jackson really telling the truth when he says his son is a hostage? What if the boy in the photograph is not really Jackson’s son?

The film can be considered to be complete in itself, even with its vague plot and its halt right at the point when Eve has to decide whether to give up her freedom or to continue on, or as a pilot for a full-length movie.