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.
On satire and monsters Armando Iannucci's political British and U.S.-set comedies have shown how systems encourage the worst people and incentivise the most perverse of behaviours. In 'The Death of Stalin', he takes his sharp eye to Russia, and tells the story of the power struggle between Beria and Khrushchev that followed Stalin's death. As usual with Iannucci, the comedy comes through everyone acting always in character, only worse. There's certainly no whitewashing here, although Beria, who was purged, is shown as more competent and maybe even more human than his rivals. But the film doesn't feature Russian actors or dialogue, and Iannucci's best work speaks specifically of the delusions of the countries in which it is set; aside from Jeffrey Tambor's Malenkov, the other characters feel more drawn from the traditions of countries from which their actors hail. And only in 'The Thick of It' has Iannucci ever made me love his awful creations. Perhaps the limitation here is that few people today have any remaining illusions about Stalin and his cronies; it might have been more subversive (although not more accurate) to show them in a warmer light.
No shame for the shameless Roger Stone in one of America's worst people. He started out doing dirty tricks for Nixon; he made his money as a lobbyist for some terrible governments; now he's a confidant of Donald Trump. In a healthy society, Stone (and any politican who worked with him) would be shunned. This account of his story is consistently fascianting, and a tale of much of what has gone wrong with American politics.
And yet, although the documentary is critical in tone, I suspect Stone loves it. A man who revels in his own notoriety, he is given plenty of screen time to speak for himself; while numerous others, friend and foe alike, take turns to testify to his evil genius. For anyone who dislikes the man, there's plenty of grist to the mill here. But how do you shame the shameless? Not, perhaps, by allowing them to star what is essentially a 90 minute promo vehicle. The real tragedy is less that people like Stone exist; but that we allow them to polllute the public space.
The horrors of war In the late 1980s, three members of the IRA travelled to Gibralter to kill some British servicemen. The SAS intercepted them, and shot to kill. At the funeral of the first two dead, the government decided to try an atypically hands-off approach to policing, which made sense given that the intrusion of the army into the lives of Northern Ireland's Catholic community was a major driver of popular support for the terrorists. This allowed a loyalist terrorist to attack the funeral. At the remaining funeral, two off-duty British soldiers incomprehensibly drove into the crowd. They were hauled out of their vehicle, and lynched.
Everything in war is brutal. Personally, I would not endorse the IRA; but there were reasons why they came into existence, and carried a considerable measure of popular suppor. This documentary, reviewing these events, is horrific at every turn. The protagonists speak calmly, and without obvious hate, but mostly also without remorse for their own actions. Some point to conspriacy theories. These do not seem necessary to explain what happened, although the general sympathy of the army and (especially) the local police for the Protestant side may have had some bearing on events. It's hard to know what lessons to draw, beyond the importance of building a society that treats all equally. Once the social contract fails, what follows is inevitably awful.
One part of the story Michael Jackson was a rare thing, a child star who actually made it as an adult. He was also a complicated icon of black America, an individual whose sanity was sometimes questioned, and a businessman, very definitely promoting a product. Spike Lee's documentary focuses mainly on the first of these, charting his rise to fame. It's definietly an interesting story, but the overall tone is hagiographic, and the contrast between the young Jackson's astonishingly shy public persona and the confident performer is never completely explained: there are a lot of talking heads here, but none tell us anything that personal. Still, it left me wanting to know about the next phases of his life as well, the rise to megastardom and madness, and his unfortunately early death; and with a sense of recognition of his phenomenal talent, even though his music wasn't my personal taste.
Contrived but well-worked Swedish crime drama 'Before We Die' starts from a faintly ridiculous premise: a female policeman runs her own son as an informer on a criminal family. But as the plot unfolds, it gets more interesting: the criminals also have an informer, it's increasingly unclear who knows what, and in trying to keep their activities secret (and thereby safe), the heroes are soon playing a high-stakes game in which nothing short of total victory will suffice. The climactic plot twists are mostly nicely handled, except perhaps for the last of all, which relies on the old trope of the perfectly reliable bullet-proof vest. It's by no means a perfect series, but by the end, I was gripped.
A different approach 'Collateral', a new BBC drama, has been written by distinguisged playwright David Hare. Writing for the theatre, an author has to make great use of dialogue; they lack access to the inner monologue that a writer of fiction can call upon, or the camera and its access to varied surroundings of someone writing for TV or cinema. Hare has his own trademark style of dialogue; and he retains it even when television is his medium. So one thing one doesn't get is naturalistic dialogue. Instead, his characters talk in short, confident sentences, that are non-expository; or at least, the words tell us something about the overall moof of the moment, but can feel almost deliberately obfuscatory in terms of plot. But when it comes to plot, Hare gets one thing right that many authors of detective stories do not: a situation that intially appears bizarrely byzantine to its investigators is in fact less complex than it seemed; the complexity a by-product of what they don't know. There's a relatively simple story at the heart of the mystery, unlike so many stories, where an endless sequence of preposterous developments are required to make sense of it all.
So the writing is good. The underlying theme is thought-provoking too; the responsibility of those of us who live in the relatively comfortable world to those who do not. Hare clearly has strong opinions on this question; but his treatment, though partisan, is fair, and underpins rather than smothering the story. 'Collateral' is unquestionbly highbrow, and won't be for everyone; but I enjoyed its fresh approach one of our most common TV genres.
A bizarre man, a lucky break, and a horrible story Film-maker and amateur cyclist Bryan Fogel had a not-very-interesting idea for a movie. He would show how doping could improve a cyclist's performance - and how anti-doping labs were hopeless at catching the cheats - by using himself as a subject. The first part of 'Icarus' isn't so good, to be honest - Fogel is neither particularly charming nor informative as a character is his own film, and the narrative is spoiled when, in spite of taking all the drugs, he doesn't manage to bring home the bacon when racing. But for the second part of his mission, he had sought the help of the retired head of the U.S. anti-doping laboratories, who had some ideas about how athletes has dodged his testing regimen. When he got cold feet about being involved in the film, he suggested an alternative collaborator: Grigory Rodchenkov, the current head of the offical Russian laboratory.
From the start, Rodchenkov seems to have a strange attitude to the project. You might thing he would be reluctant to show how his day-job is useless; instead, he approaches the project with a strange mixture of enthusiasm and business-as-usual. And then, as the film was being made, a scandal broke over his head. It turned out that, as well as running the lab, he was routinely helping Russian athletes to cheat his own test. The documentary project, as it happened, perfectly mirrored his normal working life. Quite why he was willing to participate, and draw attention to himself, is unclear; perhaps he just considered himself invulnerable. After all, he was usuallly not freelancing, but working at the direction of senior figures in the Russian state. Which made the scandal uniquely dangerous for him.
The ending: Rodchenkov flees to the United States. He aids the authorities, but is separated from his family, and has perhaps good reason to fear for his own life. Russia gets banned from the Olympics, but the decision is at least partially rescinded; power and money trump justice. The film has a decided anti-Russian slant, and with good reason, but my fear is that the athletes from most other countries are little better (after all, Fogel was orginally inspired by the Lance Armstrong story), even if there's less in the way of official backing. In the end, the bizarre and flamboyant character of Rodchenkov makes the film, and a more interesting film surely than the one Fogel was expecting to make. But you couldn't call it a happy story.
The aren't many great gardening fantasies. There may be a reason for that. The late Alan Rickman directed and co-starred in this curiopusly pointless film; it was one of his last projects. At heart, it's a deeply conventional (and conservative) period love story, with Kate Winslett playing a feisty, talented gardener trying to prove herself and find happiness in the perfidious world of the French royal court. Fortunately for her, she wins the mind of the king, and (in spite of some shennanigans) everything turns out beautiful and happy-ever-after. I've rarely seen a less class-conscious movie: I may not like the politics of Jane Austen, but at least she's aware of class as an issue; but this film is a banal tribure to talented women and the glory of Versailles. It's a waste of the cast, who act their parts but have little of interest to show us.
Talking about life, acting about art Olivier Assays makes talky films about affluent people; but typically, they're thoughtful and interesting. 'The Clouds of Sils Maria' is, I believe, his first movie in English; and focuses on an actress, played by Juliette Binoche. She's about to revisit the play that made her name, but in a different, older role: this brings into light her own ambiguous feelings about ageing (and about the way that society views an older woman); there are also parallels between the themes of the play and her own real-life relationship with her assistant. It's very urbane, but one's sympathy for Binoche's character is limited by the fact that she is so damn spoiled - she's not especially diva-esque, but she nonetheless is surrounded at all times by a (small) entourage, though often they have their own motivations for "helping". One can wonder if her state of disquiet isn't just the by-product of being considered unusually important by others, a manufactured crisis in a pedicured life. Overall, I liked the film, though it lacks the emotional connection of Assayas's best.