Horrific, but unfocused The awful, normalised rituals of American fraterities are addressed in 'Goat'. I can't say if the brutality we see see here is commonplace; but it's certainly a documented fact that new recruits are basically tortured, encouraged by social pressures to consent, and college authorities turn a blind eye. But 'Goat' is a peculiar film, because it ties in this story with a secondary tale about an unrelated attack on one of its protagonists, and I don't really understand the intention of linking the two stories. The hazing rituals occupy by the bulk of the film, but at the end, no longer seem to be the point. In consequence, the movie is horrific, but oddly unfocused.
Tied into the franchise, unecessarily In the beginning was 'Alien', a brutally effective thriller about space exploration, killer aliens and treacherous androids. Then there are 'Aliens', a campier but still classy sequel. Then, sadly inevitably, a near-endless series of successively worse follow-ups. But in 'Prometheus', original director Ridley Scott re-takes the helm for a kind of prequel. Scott is good at this sort of thing, and he cleverly leverages the expected thrills in what is nonetheless an original plot. But at times it's confusing, as the story of the killer monsters is coupled with another one about intelligent, and humanoid, life. Or, to put it another way, this movie might work perfectly well on its own without our familiar favourite enemies even making an appearance. It's still a better than average sci-fi tale; but perhaps one that could have stood on its own.
Odd, funny, Danish Gothic horror In Anders Jensen's oddball film, two brother go to investigate their ancestry: they discover they have more (previously unknown) siblings, who live, both literally and figuratively, in a madhouse. What follows is a comedy that might be described as zany, but is also surreal and in places even thoughful, and a send-up of a gothic horror played with a sometimes straight face. The film's ability to make you laugh without breaking cover entirely is quite admirable; on the other hand, it does sometimes seem as if the director is using "make things as odd as possible" as his primary rationale. It's the kind of movie that one can enjoy every so often, perhaps, even if at times it feels almost like a sketch-show in alternative form.
The downfall that wasn't Some assassins (and would-be assasins) are highly politcally motivated. Others are just crazy. Oliver Hirschbiegel's film about Georg Elser, who single-handedly attempted to Kill Adolf Hitler in 1939, suggests he was neither; or at least, that his political antipathy to the Fuehrer was driven by a more generalised disgust at the sheer ugliness and banal brutality of life under the Nazis. Hisrschbiegl previously made the brilliant 'Downfall' about Hitler's final days; this film is somewhat less awesome, in part because it focuses on Elser's arrest and interrogation, and tells the story of his earlier life in flashback, removing some of its sense of immediacy. It's still an interesting story, not about a hero in the classical sense, but about a good man, and a brave one.
Slow, earnest and generic 'Hidden' is a Welsh police drama, but a boring one. It's spread over eight episodes, in spite of an essentially simple plot, and one that focuses on the unlikely scenario of a lone weirdo who captures troubled young girls and imprisons them over several years, supported by his similarly weird family. The series is faily well acted and shot, but it's slow, and all of the side-plots have an essentially earnest but generic feel. I've seen many far worse series, but this one failed to ignite any particular interest in me.
Hiding in plain sight The persecution of gay people in the 20th century had some strange side-effects. Take the career of Liberace, the celebrity pianist, who styled himself according to the most outre social conventions of the gay community, but sued anyone who mentioned his sexuality. Liberace also had a series of semi-contractual relationships with much younger men, which one can see as the sort of thing a certain type of rich person might chose to do, but which surely seemed more natural in a world where a more orthodox relationship was socially prohibited. Steven Sodebergh's film shows us scenes from Liberace's life, but also portrays a very odd person and it doesn't really manage to make us feel sympathetic at a personal level, however much one acknowleges the potentially hostile world he had to navigate. Perhaps a full biopic, showing how he became the man we see in this movie, would have been more revealing.
Touch of Evil If you made up the story of 'Olympic Dreams of Russian Gold' (a rubbish title by the way - you could just as easily call it 'Russian dreams of Olympic Gold' and not lose any meaning, suggesting it is really just a random collection of vaguely suitable words thrown together at random for aesthetic effect - but I digress), you might not beleive it. A beautiful, talented but apparently tender-hearted youung Russian gynmast is bullied relentlessly by her coaches ahead of the Olympics. What they do is not coaching at all in any sense that I would recognise: rather, it reminds one more of the world of 'Full Metal Jacket': even if they aren't pumping her full of performance enhancing drugs, this is abuse of the highest level. One's ability to enjoy the extraordinary athleticism on display, meanwhile, is offset by the extent to which the competitotrs are sexualised - and forced to perform in what is little more than underwear. The narrative points in one direction - my only spoiler is that the final updates we receive are not what I was expecting, but complete the story arc as a grand tragedy. I found this a harrowing film to watch: in general, I'm not in favour of a punitive legal system, but it made me want to take those responsible, lock them up, and throw away the key, and I don't care how many champions they have produced.
The life and death of an almost human company Remember when Nokia, a previously obscure Finish company, made the world's most desirable phones? If you want to get an overview of how this came to be, and why it isn't the case any longer, this documentary serves as a primer. Basically, the Scandivanians pioneered the mobile sector, and with first mover advantage, a small offshoot of a mid-sized industrial conglomerate grew rapidly into a global corporation. The story is one where rapid change doesn't completely obliterate the culture that was there in the beginning; and as that culture is rather different to that of Silicon Valley, where most new technology is developed, this part of the film is innately interesting. The end of the firm is passed over relatively quickly: Apple launched their iPhone, and as the maker of premium products, Nokia didn't go down the road of using Android, which was adopted as an operating system by most of their competitors. This decision that is not discussed at all in the film. The eventual Nokia smartphone lacked a supporting ecosystem and led to the company's takeover by Microsoft, who ceased manufacturing in Finland but who themselves failed to revitalise the line. The point that is made is that the technology used in the iPhone was not revolutionary, and the product shipped with serious deficiencies compared with an orthodox phone (it was fragile, and bettery life was poor). But Apple could see that there would still be a market for such a product, while Nokia, keeping faith in the old ways, found itself disrupted. The film could be longer, and discuss such things in more detail; instead, it rather gives an overview of the life and death of a company that was - maybe - a little bit more human than most of the corporations that dominate our lives.
Showing and telling It's interesting to compare 'Africa's Great Civilizations' with the recent BBC documentary 'Civilisations'. Apart from the difference in spelling, and the exclusive focus on Africa in Henry Gates' series, the central noun is interpreted in different ways: the BBC programme focused almost entirely on art, while Gates views civilisation more broadly. The program is thus somewhat lower brow, but it is a tremendously informative overview of African history (and cultural acheivements), often overlooked in global histories. Its biggest weakness lies in Gates' keenness to make the point that it should not be so overlooked: in its repeated claims of African greatness, it violates the rule of "show not tell". The concluding elision of the 20th century, dealt with in two sentences of cliche, is also strange. Still, I learnt a great deal watching the series, which essentially justifies the point Gates tries so hard to make.
Class-conditioned The name of the film 'The Second Mother' carries two meanings: when a young woman comes to live with her mother, having been brought up by a relative, she is getting a second parent; that parent, meanwhile, has acted as a second mother to a child in a household where she's worked for many years as a maid. Her long-term relationship with her employers is such that she is treated both as part of the family but also as a servant, a member of a wholly inferior class; in her own mind, she sees only the former, and avoids thinking about how she is "one of them" only when it is convenient for them, not for her. Her daughter, of course, doesn't see the world through such a prism, causing sparks to fly; but the latter's self-righteousness turns out to hide her own secrets. The film is nicely observed, and not over-acted, and mostly follows the axiom of "show don't tell". The ending, however, seems a bit glib: if it was possible to work everything out this way, why has it not happened before?
Mundane horror, boldly and beautifully shot Congo, abused by first the European colonialists, and then by the multinationals, has been caught in a seemingly endless cycle of brutul civil war for decased now, a scramble for mineral wealth in the absence of legitimate authority. 'This is Congo' offers us a portrait of the country, that shows both its beauty, and the mundane horror of the fighting, the latter filmed from remarkably close to the action. One gets a sense that the grievances on both sides are probably true, yet none of the heroes are worthy of that word. Away from the fighting, we also get a glimpse of how ordinary people live - and I'd have preferred to see more of this, about how people actually manage their everyday lives while war is going on around them. But it's still an informative portrait of what it actually means to live in a country usually prefaced by the adjective "war-torn", although it's one that offers few signs hope.
Dated, but Burton is Leamas as much as Guinness was to be Smiley 'The Spy Who Came in From the Cold', John Le Carre's third novel, is a cynical and jaded account of the espoionage buisness, and made the author's name, in part due to this film adaptation starring Richard Burton. Watching it now, it feels very dated, with its black and white photography and primitive soundtrack, though Burton is very good as Alec Leamas: whatever you think of Le Carre as a novelist, he does seem to have a knack of describing people whom the right actors can bring convincingly to life (the television adaptation of 'Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy' being the primary example). Some problems, however, feel like they could have been avoided: neither the frequently referenced but hardly seen character of Smiley, nor the critical personal emnity of Leamis and Mundt, are properly established; and the final drama at the Berlin Wall feels amateurish and pedestrian. It's interesting how much film-making skills advanced over the next 15 years: the famous BBC TV Le Carre's also feel dated (while still brilliant) in some ways, but closer to contemporary standards than they do to this.
The strange country of the human heart Baghwan Shree Rajneesh was a new age guru who acquired a cult of followers, selling them an ad-hoc mixture of ancient Indian and counter-cultural teachings. When he fell out with the Indian authorities, he bought a ranch in rural Oregan, USA; and soon feel out there with the suspicious and conservative locals. 'Wild Wild Country' tells the story of this confrontation, almost entirely by letting the protagonists speak for themselves. To this day, many of the "Rajneeshis" are highly articulate, and unapologetic, advocates of their prior behaviour; and at the time, they had no qualms about using the American way (i.e. money, media manipulation, legal system and right to bear arms) to help them establish what the locals considered to be highly un-American values. As the conflict between the two sides grew, there were even attempted poisonings and election rigging. Eventually, it was division within the group which led to its break up: Sheela, the Bagwhan's former chief advisor, and the settlement's de facto leader, departed and was denounced. She subsequently served prison time for attempted murder. In her interviews for this programme she comes across as not uncompassionate, and also as someone for whom the right ends would still always justify almost any means.
'Wild Wild Country' is slow, and while it's informative seeing different protagonists give their own sides of the story, sometimes you would like to also see how they would react under direct questioning. The relatively non-judgemental approach means that the truthfulness of the participants is never really tested. But nonetheless it's an amazing story. Perhaps what's most amazing of all is that the Baghwan's junk teachings somehow served as a real catalyst that changed how people felt about their lives, and brought them both a sense of meaning, and a willingness to kill.
Sympathy for the devil Can you feel sympathetic for a thoroughly unpleasant man who orders a murder? Maybe if you despise the would be victim, but the oddity of the Jeremy Thorpe story is that you can somehow end up with a measure of sympathy for both perpetrator and target without being certain that either deserve it. Thorpe, leader of Britain's liberal party, would have suffered no conseqeunces for being a monstrous individial had he not happened to be gay at a time that homosexual acts were first illegal, then later subject to strong social disapproval. Norman Scott was a young man with whom he had a sexual relationship (to be frank, by today's standards, it was initiated with an act of rape), couldn't get his own life together, fell back on Thorpe as his only hope (and used threats when Thorpe grew tired of supporting him), and ended up escaping a hysterically incompetent assasination event though his dog was shot in the process. In the end, Thorpe was acquitted of any crime thanks to his brilliant QC and an awful judge; but no-one was convinced, and his career was over.
Hugh Grant and Ben Wishaw are both quite brilliant in this telling of the story, as Thorpe and Scott respectively. Although the whole escapade is too farcical to be profoundly moving, you do feel sympathy towards two men increasingly locked together in an unsought destiny. Thankfully, society's treatment of alternate sexuality has improved over the last 40 years; the odd, competitve characters of those drawn into politics probably has not.
If you can't get even, get mad... Revenge is normally presented as heroic in the movies, but in truth, more often than not it's a dish better not served at all, as is made clear in this delightful collection of comic tales from Argentinian director Damion Szifron. Each one has it's own distinguishing characteristics; but the funniest is the final one, a story of the ultimate wedding from hell. There's nothing too weighty here, but the acting, direction and timing are impeccable throughout, and the stories seem well-grounded in Argentinian society, yet universal at the same time. Great fun!
Terrorism, and terror The war in Syria has been an appalling tragedy; but what can be done when a ruler is determined to stay in power at all costs? Lyse Doucet's documentary tells the story of peaceful protests supressed until dispute became war, and of the truly terrible consequences. The Syrian government and their Russian allies come across very badly: the government officials respond to every charge from misjudgement to war-crimes by repeating the word "terrorism" as if the existence of that phenomenon justifies every response. In the end, Pax Assad will be better than fighting for most of the remaining population. It's hard to believe that the West could have made a difference in a positive sense; but that's little compensation for those who have lost their lives, homes and freedom.
Cleverly stupid Diane Morgan's hilarious Charlie Brooker-scripted alter ego gets a series all to herself, as she narrates her own very personal history of Britain. 'Cunk on Britain' follows in the traditions of 'Brass Eye' is skewering television conventions, and of 'Ali G.' in positing the existence of a most unlikely presenter and interviewer (though in this case, one strongly suspects the interviewees are in on the joke). What makes this unique, however, is the degree of Cunk's stupidity, anchored in the silliest of wordplay but all uttered with a stright face. Does it really merit five episodes? Possibly the appeal palls a little by the end, but there are few other comedies that make have made me smile with the same frequency.
Intriguing but underdeveloped The analogy to our world from the fictional universe of China Mieville's 'The City and the City' is both obviousand exquisite: two cities, one gleaming and prosperous, the other more resembling Geroge Orwell's 1984, occupy the same place; the people survive by of the act of will of seeing only one world. Perhaps disappointingly (and especially given Mieville's own Marxist politics), the political dimension is rather under-developed in this BBC adaptation; and David Morrissey's mumbling monontone hero is a hard character to like. As in the best science fiction, there are many interesting ideas here (especially around the concept of "breaching" the two worlds), but they feel somewhat underdeveloped, and too much of the story comes in flashback form. It made me want to read the book to see if the original made more of its foundation.
Civilisation, in spite of YouTube I've often imagined I'd like the chance of offering up my personal version of history on television; what a history of art? Art is not so simply to reduce to a straightforward narrative, so this is a bold project for co-presenters Simon Schama, Mary Beard and David Olusoga. And it's very heartening to see that the BBC hasn't tried to dumb down their commentary. In other BBC programmes I've seen Beard idiotically reciting Caesar's speaches in modern day Rome, and Schama presenting a fairly convetional wisdom; but here we get their true intellectual insights, and if in places the series is pretentious it's also hard to watch without genuinely learning something. 'Civilisations' has been contrasted to Kenneth Clark's famous series with almost the same title from 60 years previously, but without the latter's Euro-centric bias: to it's credit, though, it never feels to be taking cheap pot-shots at Europe, but rather puts Europe's acheivements (and failures) quite properly in their global context. This is the sort of programme that almost no-one but the BBC could make, and that even the BBC barely makes any more. In the age of YouTube, watch it while you can.
Diplomacy, as related by the diplomats If you want to know how Russia's international relations played out during Vladimir Putin's first decade or so in power, 'Putin, Russia and the West' is the place to find out: interviews with senior people from all sides (not Putin personally, but almost everybody else who matters) give what seem to be basically honest accounts. What you don't get is a sense of broader context - the real meaning of the west's "pro-democracy" agenda is not really questioned, and we learn of Putin essentially ordering the murder of his enemies without really getting much insight into whatever passes for his soul. In short, what we see is diplomacy as related by the diplomats: intriguing, but you need to form your moral worldview elsewhere. A follow-up, covering the last six years, would seem overdue.
Self-improvement and the extinction of others 'The Assasination of Gianni Versace' doesn't in fact tell us very much about the murdered designer; everything it does say is flattering, although his family gets a rougher treatment. But really, this is the story of his murderer, serial killer Andrew Cunanan. Serial killers are thankfully rare and arguably over-attended to in the media, but Cunanan turns out to be pretty interesting: someone who convinced themselves that if they could only self-improve enough they would, and be entitled to, be able to be anything they wanted. The style of the series is glossy and somewhat wooden, and a shorter, more naturalistic (and chronological) telling of Cunanan's tale would arguably have been better, though it would have lacked the hook of his almost accidental connection to his last, and most famous, victim. As it is, it's still compelling, although a little heavy-handed in places.
More a mess than a mystery Agatha Christie's country house murders are always hokum, but they can make for easy and entertaining Sunday-evening television. But this adaptation of 'Ordeal By Innocence' doesn't seem to work at all. One problem such adaptations always have is fitting in the huge quantity of exposition needed to explain the convoluted plotting; another is the typical absence of sympathtic characters, given the normal premise that just about everyone is a potential murderer. Often, these problems are solved via the use of a (usaully amateur) detective as the focal point; in this story, there is none, and the reveal occurs via a complex (and sometimes baffling) sequence of flashbacks that are shown to the viewer apropos of nothing. You really can't deal with this sort of material by trying to pretend that it's something less contrived than it is; attempting to do so produces less a mystery, than a mess.
Not plausible 'Below the Surface' is a Danish drama based on the premise that a group of terrorists sieze a group of hostages on the underground. That premise is interesting (and sadly all too plausible), but its development is not. We're introduced to the (basically irrelevent) backstory of each of the hostages; there's a depressingly unimaginative portrayal of a rogue journalist; while the hero is the master negotiator who (rather ridiculously) turns out to be the terrorists' primary target. His main action as negotiator is to persuade the hostages not to try and free themselves, supposedly in their own interests, but there's something absurd that when the hostages finally break free, the man charged with negotiating their freedom pleads with them to return to their cage! Overall, there's not much to see here, aside from some by-the-numbers drama; and there are certainly better examples of Scandi-noir.
Entertaining but lazy The story of Tonya Harding is an amazing one. A figure-skater whose face and image didn't fit her chosen sport's, she nonetheless had a pretty decent career; but one which ended in extreme controversy when she was implicated in a plot to injure one of her leading rivals. It's a story of someone doubly disadvantaged by their background: Tonya faced prejudice, but that's not to say she wasn't carrying real baggage as well, in the form of the various unsuitable acquaintances of hers involved in the assault. Unfortunately, 'I, Tonya' is a rather lazy film, with a clumsy and unsubtle description of American "white trash", an unimaginative soundtrack comprising a semi-random assemblage of pop hits, and a treatment of the story as essentially comic. It ends with a ludicrous court scene in which Tonya is banned from competition as part of her criminal sentence. It's a shame, because you're left with the feeling that there's certainly a story worth telling in here; but this feels no more sophisticated than a cartoon.
How not to make a movie 'The Room' is a movie famous for being so bad it's good; and 'The Disaster Artist' is a fictional telling of how it was made. In places it's hilarious, and there are obvious echoes of 'Ed Wood' (and its eponymous lead character), or of the documentary film 'American Movie'. Those two films were both stories of everyday losers, living on the edge and clinging to a dream, in spite of their lack of any evident talent. 'The Disaster Artist' is slightly different, and less interesting, because 'The Room' was made not by a deluded auteur willing to starve for his art, but by a (mysteriously) wealthy man whose decision to blow six million dollars appears to have been made essentially on a whim. While he clearly has his own delusions, there's also a sense of life-as-play which is absent in those other stories; and the decision to end the film on a best-friends-forever-live happily-ever theme seems to fit less will than a suicide would have done, even if (happily) this is how things turned out in real life. Which is not to say 'The Disaster Artist' isn't funny; but is a peculiar tale, one of those stories you couldn't make up.