Sunday, January 28, 2018

Paddington 2

Paddington 2 is a stand-alone sequel to Paddington Bear, a successful live-action film featuring an endearing CGI bear produced in 2014.  The 2017 version is an ingenious adventure film, broadly comic, and featuring a star-turn by Hugh Grant.  Grant plays the villain, always the juiciest role in a movie like this and he gets to vamp like Peter Sellers in various baroque disguises.  The movie has a deep bench of venerable and picturesque British character actors and there's nothing not to like in the picture.  I am constitutionally disinclined to enjoy films of this sort and Paddington 2 didn't entirely win me over -- but it's a heart-warming spectacle filled with elaborate set pieces and moves along at a bracing clip.

In essence, the movie is a riff on themes time-honored in British cinema and is particularly indebted to Alfred Hitchcock -- although, of course, the tone is quite different (with this correlation -- Hitchcock liked to pair British gentility with crime and, all of his films, are full of visual gags).  As in Hitchcock, the film's plot is the venerable mechanism of the double chase with an innocent character (in this case, Paddington Bear) accused of a crime that he didn't commit; the innocent character must retrieve the MacGuffin (that is, the object of the chase) from the bad guy to clear his name while being pursued by the law.  In Paddington 2, the little bear wants to give his grandmother an antique pop-up book showing the famous sites of London.  the pop-up book is the MacGuffin - it actually contains the key-code to a fabulous treasure.  A washed-up actor knows about the code in the book, steals it from the antique store, and frames Paddington Bear.  The Bear who has offended the Judge (it's a gag about a haircut) finds himself before a hostile Bench and is sent to prison.  In prison, Paddington Bear's basic decency and his naïve, reflexive good manners wins him friends.  Ultimately, he escapes and, after an elaborate train chase, wrests the MacGuffin from the villain who is, then, captured and sent to prison himself.  This allows the film to end with a lavish production number set in the prison in which Hugh Grant shows himself to be a consummate song-and-dance man. (Grant is fantastic and whenever he is on-screen the film soars).  The film's themes are that unfailing courtesy always wins the day and that people should be kind to one another -- there is an implicit pro-immigrant moral (Paddington, a Peruvian bear is, after all, the ultimate stranger in London.)   The film sets up a number of exciting and funny visual gags and, sometimes, seems to harken back to old silent film routines -- there's a complicated sequence involving a heavy bucket, ladder, and pulley that reminds me of scenes in Laurel and Hardy and Buster Keaton films.  About every ten minutes, the plot will pause for some kind of spectacular set piece and, from time to time, the merry calypso music accompanying the character's antics will be actually embodied in a Trinidadian combo that shows up in the oddest places.  All of the human actors are excellent -- other than Hugh Grant, Sarah Hawkins (who is in The Shape of Water) stands out and, in fact, has a thrilling aquatic scene.  In every respect, this is a good movie -- morally, with respect to production values, on the basis of acting, and with a sound, if somewhat hyper-active, narrative.  I must admit I was slightly bored by the proceedings, however, because ultimately everything in the movie is familiar to the viewer -- there are no real surprises and the film's tone is predictably light-weight, jolly, and sentimental.  I suppose the film approaches being the ideal movie for children -- and, therefore, an ideal movie for adults.  But, in the end the picture struck me as a bit too much, as trying too hard -- all the Victorian burnished gears and screws, the steam trains, the vertical shots of Dickensian prisons:  it reminded me inevitable of Scorsese's Hugo (2011), a film that you can immensely admire without really liking. 

Abandon Ship!

Abandon Ship! is a peculiar British disaster film featuring a crazed performance by Tyrone Power and excellent ensemble acting by a crowd of fine actors, none of whom I recognized.  Made in 1957, the film is very much an artifact of its era -- the miasma of nuclear annihilation hovers over the movie and it has a distinctly post-apocalyptic tenor:  one of the castaways in the film is a nuclear scientist.  Ultimately, the film is too grim to be entertaining and the moral problems that it poses are unpleasantly insoluble. Richard  Sales a pulp fiction writer, hack scenarist, and sometimes director is at the helm of this off film.

The film's relentlessly dire tone is established in the opening five minutes.  An unexploded mine is bobbing in the waves.  There is a huge explosion and we hear a prolonged chorus of screaming.  The narrator then tells us that luxury cruise liner has hit an unexploded mine in the south Atlantic and that the vessel has sunk in seven minutes carrying off over a thousand souls.  We see flotsam in the water and a man swimming.  This is Tyrone Power who plays the acting captain of the small group of castaways who survive the blast.  Power's character clambers onto a floating raft on which there are a four or five bedraggled and, possibly, wounded survivors.  He talks to them -- some of them are obsessed with finding missing loved ones.  He is hailed from small life-boat about a hundred yards away and swims to it. (We never learn what happens to the disheveled survivors on the raft -- a harbinger for what will follow.)  The life boat is full of people to the point that it is half-submerged.  A dozen or so survivors are clinging to its sides.  The boat is ridiculously over-laden -- designed for 9 survivors, there are 37 people crowded into the vessel and clinging to it.  Several of the survivors are badly wounded -- the luxury liner's actual captain is dying, apparently eviscerated by the explosion.  Before he perishes, a suicide in the ocean, the mangled captain tells Power's character that he will need to lighten the load on the lifeboat by casting off, at least, 12 of the survivors.  From this point on, the film becomes unbearably black:  the tone of the picture can be gauged by the fact that, at one point, a dog swims up to the lifeboat and is loaded onto the already vastly overloaded vessel.  "Why are you letting the dog on board?" someone asks incredulously.  "Because we can eat the dog," Powers says.  The film is 97 minutes long and relentlessly cruel.  Dying people with festering wounds are thrown into the sea.  Sharks attack.  The survivors begin to fight among themselves. A man is killed by being shot in the belly with a flare -- we see his body sinking in the sea with the flare in his guts still burning underwater.  A storm is approaching and the Captain begins to force people from the boat -- in the end, he jettisons about a dozen based upon his assessment of their ability to survive the rigors of what will undoubtedly be a nightmarish sea journey to the coast of Africa 1500 miles away.  The nuclear scientist, an opera singer, several injured women, are all tossed into the sea, draped in life preservers and left behind on the limitless expanse of waters.  A famous playwright is cast away and his dog leaps into the water to drown with him.  A tremendous storm strikes the little vessel but somehow, it survives the gale.  The people remaining on the life-boat praise the captain for having taken action to save their lives.  A cynical debutante in a ballroom gown flirts with Powers always addressing him as "brave captain" and she states the film's Darwinian moral -- only the fittest will survive and the "brave captain" has had the courage to recognize this.  A big vessel approaches and rescues the castaways.  Before they are rescued, the people in the lifeboat engage in recriminations with the captain and say that they were forced to expel the others from the little skiff -- "we were only following orders", they say.  Except for his loyal girlfriend, a nurse, all the others on board blame him for slaughtering the castaways who were thrown overboard.  As he climbs onto the rescue vessel, a voice-over tells us that this is a true story and that the captain was later tried for murder and, indeed, convicted.  A title invites the audience to debate whether he was "Guilty or Innocent?" 

The film resembles Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat (1944) in many respects, except that Hitchcock's movie is funny, gallant, and well-scripted.  (John Steinbeck was involved in writing the source material for the movie.)  Lifeboat is also not convincing pictorially -- the actors are obviously huddling on a lifeboat that is mechanically jiggled in front of rear-projected sea.  As is often the case with Hitchcock, this is not a detriment -- the poor quality rear-projection seems almost like a Brechtian distancing effect and it keeps the horror of the situation at bay.  There's no such respite in Abandon Ship! -- the little boat seems to be lost in an immense and very real ocean; the characters are convincingly wet, cold, and wounded.  I didn't detect a single scene that felt like it was staged in a studio.  But this renders the enterprise so dank and morbid that the film is almost impossible to watch. 

Saturday, January 27, 2018


Hostiles (2017) is a bitter, lugubrious Western that is, I'm afraid, fundamentally pointless.  The film is beautifully produced and features exquisite Western landscapes -- I recognized the "shining rocks" around Abiquiu, New Mexico, Perdenal Mountain made famous by Georgia O'Keefe and the Rio Chama valley near Ghost Ranch.  The movie consists of whispered interludes, most of them of them similar to Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" -- "the horror! the horror!" -- interspersed with increasingly futile gun battles.  It's an impressive movie but dreary -- for some reason, the film maker, Scott Cooper, wanted to make a Western that is, more or less, realistic but that denies to its viewers most of the pleasures of the genre.  The film's oddly ascetic aspect directly contrasts with its robust use of Western conventions -- the plot is derivative of a hundred cowboy pictures:  a ferocious gunman and killer is assigned the task of delivering non-combatants to a place on the other side of 500 miles of mountains and desert, all of which are infested by bad guys.  One of the non-combatants is a woman half-crazed as an Indian attack that has resulted in the murder of her family.  The other non-combatants are a group of hapless Cheyenne Indians being repatriated to their homeland somewhere in Montana.  (This repatriation is at the behest of the President and this plot point seems a bit problematic.)  As will be familiar to fans of the Western genre, one of the non-combatants (for half the movie) is a bad man who once rode with the hero and to whom the hero owes his life -- this outlaw has to be taken to face trial for some sort of atrocity (killings of the kind that the hero himself has committed) and will almost certainly be hanged.  This situation, of course, creates a conflict of loyalty in the hero.  All of this is good stuff and should result in an entertaining and exciting mixture of lovely landscapes, cowboy and Indian heroics, with a moral ultimately emerging -- White and Red men share more than separates them and they must be reconciled.  The people who made Hostiles earnestly desire to fit the picture into this classic mold and the first half-hour or so makes the viewer optimistic that this will be a great film.  Unfortunately, the movie bogs down in pointless violence and all the savagery ends up entrapping the director and his characters -- after all of this vicious killing a happy ending seems impossible.  (The film is utterly humorless:  no one so much as cracks a smile.)  So the director and screenwriter, Scott Cooper, doesn't really know how to end the picture and its last 20 minutes are pretty much unacceptable.  Christian Bale is excellent as the dead-eyed Indian-hater assigned the task of escorting his old enemies back to Montana.  Much of the exposition in the film seems to have been lost on the cutting room floor -- for instance, it is hinted that Cooper was with Reno at the Little Big Horn ( a place where the dignified Cheyenne chief also fought).  But nothing is really made of this coincidence -- an oddity since the film ostensibly ends in Montana near where the Little Big Horn battle was fought.  Rosamund Pike plays the sole survivor of the massacre committed by Comanche Indians in the film's first five minutes -- this is horrific stuff and, after the slaughter, we expect Pike's character to be so traumatized that she will be unable to recover.  But, in accord with good B-movie Western tradition, she seems to get better fairly quickly -- notwithstanding being raped in the middle of the film by some evil fur trappers -- and, by the end of the movie, grabs a Winchester and joins in the gun battle with the men.  Some of the final scenes in the movie have an impressive dignity -- there's a sequence involving the burial of the old chief that looks like it could have been staged by Eisenstein; the framing and compositions are both monumental and spectacularly beautiful.  But the film peters out in a gun-battle that comes out of nowhere.  In a classic Western, the film builds to a climactic shoot-out in which the audience knows all of the combatants and, therefore, is invested in them and feels some concern when the antagonists are killed or wounded.  In Hostiles, a bunch of heavily armed bad guys rides up out of nowhere just as the movie is about to end, make some absurd demands, and, then, everyone kills everyone else.  But we don't know who these bad guys are -- they seem to be nothing more than a plot device to end the movie with a gun battle.  Furthermore, the gun battle, which kills off almost all surviving characters, has nothing at stake.  The bad guys insensitively don't want a dead Indian buried on their property -- obviously, they are evil but is this really worth fighting over to the extent that, at least, seven or eight people die as a result of the quarrel?  One would  think that the world-weary Christian Bale would walk away from this fight. But to the contrary, Bale's character, more or less, provokes the confrontation.  This is a Western that proposes that the frontier was largely a place where murder was condoned and where everyone suffered from severe post-traumatic stress disorder -- it's a grim analysis of the situation and really not entirely believable; the film traffics in the nightmare theodicy of a much greater film Ulzana's Raid (and the TV show Godless):  the West is violent because God has abandoned the place to his demons..  (The film is set in 1892 and commences with a brutal Comanche raid on settlers -- but, of course, the last fighting with the Comanches ended with surrender of Chief Quanah Parker at Fort Sill in Oklahoma in 1875. By 1892, it would seem to me that much of the trip required by the story could have been accomplished by railroad.)  There's lots of good stuff in Hostiles but it doesn't add up to a successful picture. 

Ohayo (Good Morning)

Yasujiro Ozu's family comedy Ohayo ("Good Morning") is probably the most intricate and profound film ever to be structured around fart jokes.  The 1962 movie explores relationships between four families living in what appears to be, more or less, identical government housing beneath a high grassy sea-wall.  The movie is shot in Technicolor but retains all of Ozu's stylistic traits -- the camera doesn't move and is, generally, positioned quite low as if at eye-level for a person seated on a tatami mat.  Ozu's mise-en-scene is fantastically precise, involving fairly quick edits between shots that alternate between rigorously symmetrical and off-balance asymmetrical images.  Characters frequently appear framed by one or two or three thresholds -- the effect is essentially cubist:  the frame is conceived as a series of box-shaped openings occupied by people at various distances from the camera.  Characters generally occupy the middle of the image and talk directly to the camera.  Eye-lines often don't match and people frequently aim their words in an unexpected direction.  Subsequent shots show us that the interlocutor is in that place -- a location that we didn't expect.  In some ways, Ozu's way of constructing space in his movies is similar to the way that Wes Anderson designs his movies -- the curious difference is that Wes Anderson movies always give me the impression of whimsy, childish tableaux, and miniaturization; by contrast, Ozu's movies, although very strictly confined, give an impression of freedom, space, and distance -- this is achieved, I think, by Ozu's "empty frames", that is images that don't show people but merely their environment:  many of  these empty frames are exceedingly prosaic -- in Ohayo, we see wastelands criss-crossed with power-lines and, in fact, an important love scene (it is highly reticent) happens on a railroad platform against a backdrop of high tension wires. 

Ohayo is about two hours long, but doesn't have any discernible plot until about 35 minutes have passed.  The film leisurely surveys the four families and their environs and, only very gradually, does a sort of plot emerge from the documentary-like study of the characters.  The Hayashi family consists of husband (Chishu Ryu), wife, the wife's unmarried sister, and two boys, Minoru (who is about 11) and Isamu (about 7).  Mrs. Hayashi has paid money to the plump and nosy Mrs. Okubo.  (The Okubo's have a son named Kozo who has what is euphemistically called "loose tummy" -- this is diarrhea and one of the jokes in the film is that he continuously soils his underpants when he engages in the farting competitions that entertain the other boys.  An old woman called "grandma" who is very pious and manipulative lives with the Okobu's -- she is the plump Mrs. Okubo's mother and she wears one of the most beautiful garments that I have seen in any film, a sort of house-coat of many subtle colors, checked and tinted as if by Paul Klee.)  The money paid to the Okubo's is some kind of rent or dues owed to the landlord with respect to the housing.  The money seems not to have been ultimately handed to the landlord -- this has led the neighbors to suspect one another of perfidy and there is even an allegation that Mrs. Okubo or Mrs. Hayashi has misappropriated the money to buy a dryer. (It turns out that Granny Okubo has simply forgotten to hand the envelope to Mrs. Hayashi.)  An older couple , the Tomizawa's, lives nearby, troubled by the fact that the husband has retired and now has insufficient funds to support his wife.  The old man is a drunk and sometimes sits in the train station bar drinking sake with Mr. Hayashi.  (He's also a great farter, albeit in a lower baritone register -- his wife mistakes his farts for words summoning her.)  The quartet of families is completed by a brother and sister (at first, we think they're a  young married couple) -- they are conspicuously modern in their tastes:  the girl smokes cigarettes and sings in a cabaret; the boy plays guitar and ekes out a living translating from English into Japanese.  This couple have a TV set and the neighborhood children, a group of four kids (Minoru, Zen, Kozo, and Isamu), often come over to their house to watch TV with them -- everyone likes to watch TV sumo wrestling.  (At the brother and sister's house, we hear in the background opera singing and, sometimes, jazz -- one of their neighbors is either a musician or has a radio loudly tuned to classical and jazz stations.)  At about the 40 minute mark, the film begins to take shape under a very loose, seemingly improvised narrative:  Minoru and Isamu throw a temper tantrum to coerce their parents into buying them a TV set.  The conservative Mr. Hayashi not only refuses, but barks at them angrily using his best, and phoniest, samurai-authority voice.  (The man is otherwise too mild-mannered to be credible as a disciplinarian.)  The boys are angered by their father's reproach -- they resolve that they will communicate only by farting; no words are allowed.  (The boys chew on pumice stones to build up gas in their stomachs or joke about eating "sweet potatoes.")  The boys go way too far with their vow of silence and end up in trouble at school where they also refuse to speak.  In the end, they steal some rice from a neighbor and run away from home.  The young man with the TV set hunts them down and brings them home.  At home, Mr. Hayashi relents and buys a TV set.  The TV sits in its box in a doorway during the last five or ten minutes of the film.  The curious aspect of the film is that the boy's bad behavior pays off -- Ozu is surprisingly non-didactic and seems to suggest that disobedient children are best managed by simply complying with their wishes.  The film also develops an odd, and, even, profound theory about language -- the boys claim that they have been forbidden from speaking because they talk too much.  (This doesn't seem exactly accurate to what we see.)  They extrapolate this idea into the notion that in general people talk way too much and that most of what they say is absolutely meaningless -- indeed, no more meaningful than the dozens of high-pitched farts that Ozu uses on his soundtrack.  In a late scene, we see the beatnik boy approach the unmarried sister who lives the Hayashi family -- the boy and girl speak in absolute banalities about the sky and the weather and, yet, the subtext is clear:  they are romancing one another.  Ozu's subversive point is that they might as well be farting for one another's benefit since the communication between them is not at all based on words or meaning.  The film is very complex with many tiny subplots -- for instance, the retired Mr. Tomizawa, who is a drunk (he cheerfully goes home to the wrong house after one night in the bar) decides to become a traveling catalog salesman to supplement his income.  His first customer is the Hayashi's who buy the TV from him.  The film is childish but, I suppose, one would have to say "profoundly childish" -- it inhabits the world of the children from inside and complies with their logic.  At the film's end, the boy's are back to speaking.  (Little Isamu ends every conversation with the English words:  "I love you.") The kids engage in a farting competition and, of course, poor Kozu soils his pants.  We see him sitting ashamed at home while his mother reproaches him.  The last image in the film is three pair of underpants blowing on a clothesline -- a classic Ozu "empty frame" but one that here has both a comic and narrative meaning:  the shot alludes to Kozu's "loose tummy" but also to the way in which the whole complicated narrative began -- the allegation that someone misappropriated rental funds to buy a dryer.  There's even the faintest hint of menace in this sunny plot -- one of the women wonders whether mice chew pumice and she thinks that it might be appropriate to smear the pumice stone with rat poison.  For some reason, the film, a very brilliant entertainment, reminded me of the old Dick Van Dyk show -- it's a kind of early 60's idyll.  It also suggests the loose and shaggy way that Murakami novels often begin -- lots of things are happening but it takes a long time for them to coalesce into any kind of a plot.  The pleasure that the audience experiences is seeing how the different apparently unrelated and trivial incidents add up to a story.

Friday, January 26, 2018

La Bete Humaine

The interpretative puzzle posed by Renoir's 1938 crime thriller, La Bete Humaine is simple enough:  which of the characters is afflicted by the "beast within", that is, a wild and uncontrollable passion to inflict injury?  Zola's 1890 novel is exponentially more lurid than Renoir's comparatively restrained film version of that book -- nonetheless, both works ultimately suggest that the "bestial" compulsion described by the title inhabitants everyone.  This is despite an effective misdirection in the film's opening:  We see a long title that declares that certain people have tainted blood -- that is, they are subject to hereditary madness, probably induced by alcoholism in earlier generations.  After the title makes this questionable assertion, we see the words signed "Emile Zola" and the film, then, shows us a portrait of the redoubtable writer.  But this turns out to be a narrative ruse -- everyone in the film is tainted with some kind of evil that deforms their instincts. 

Lantier (Jean Gabin) is a railroad engineer afflicted with a compulsion to murder women.  Severine (Simone Simon) is a coquette married to the stationmaster, Roubaud.  Severine was the victim of a child sex-predator, Grandmorin, who is apparently the owner of the railroad line from Paris to Le Havre,  lodgings and stations associated with the locomotives that roar back and forth between the cities. The entire sequence of calamities is devised as a nightmare imposed upon the characters by a vindictive fate -- the role of the Gods in destroying human beings in classical tragedy is here played by hereditary madness and criminal sexual behavior inflicted upon children.  A woman complains to the apparently righteous Roubard about a dog allowed in a first-class compartment on the train, a violation of the rules.  The dog-owner turns out to be a wealthy and powerful magnate, a sugar baron.  This means that Roubard's job is threatened because of his reproach of the sugar baron.  Severine visits train mogul, Grandmorin, to persuade him from retaliating against her husband, Roubard.  The persuasion seems to involve a sexual encounter.  Roubard learns about this encounter and forces his wife to lure Grandmorin into a private car on the train where he stabs him to death.  An innocent man, Cabuchin, is accused of the crime and, probably, convicted.  Roubard and Severine's marriage decays under the pressure of the murder and its paranoiac aftermath.  Ultimately, Severine and Lantier begin a love affair.  Severine tries to persuade Lantier to murder Roubard.  Lantier can't commit the act.  Later, there is a ball for railroad workers, possibly some sort of fund-raiser.  At the ball, Severine tries to make Lantier jealous.  She succeeds and Lantier knifes her death.  (This murder is orchestrated to a light cabaret song -- the scenes of Lantier stabbing Severine intercut with the smarmy singer, a kind of lounge performer, crooning the cabaret song, an ironic effect that we might expect in a similarly bilious Kubrick film.)  The next day, on the Paris -Le Havre run, Lantier jumps off the speeding train and is killed.  A man stands by his body while the rest of the bedraggled-looking railway workers hike up the right-of-way on the tracks to the waiting train. 

It's pretty clear that Lantier, Severine, Grandmorin, and Roubard all are severely flawed characters, driven by inner compulsions.  (Zola's source novel makes the indictment even more expansive:  there are instances of mad jealousy resulting in fatal train wrecks and, in the final episode, Lantier and another engineer, suicidally jump off the speeding train as it carries drunken recruits to the front during the Franco-Prussian war -- no one is driving the runaway train and, it's clear, that Zola thinks the entire core of French society is bestial and irredeemable.)  The film is noteworthy for its documentary-like images of trains and their locomotives screaming like banshees in the darkness -- as the film progresses, its increasingly clear that the huge black machines full of fire in their guts are symbolic, both representations of the wounded and murderous characters and the Furies, iron Eumenides gushing steam as they roar across the countryside on their missions of destruction.  Renoir's style is simple enough; he uses long takes and the film has a sort of neo-realist appearance -- this is particularly true of the scenes at the Ball and the final images in the film.  In point of fact, the picture is not wholly successful and seems a bit disorganized -- it's sufficiently close to the novel to import into the picture the book's bad ideas (inherited blood lust) while too modestly financed and directed to include Zola's big set pieces involving runaway trains and train crashes.  In a curious way, the picture seems to anticipate both Italian neo-realism and American film noir -- aspects of the movie play like The Postman only rings twice.  The picture contains several iconic images that capture brilliantly the romanticism maudit of pre-war French cinema.  Lantier and Severine make love in a shack next to the tracks -- everything in the movie happens within a few hundred yards of the black and steamy switching yards and the train-stations with their huge iron spider-web train-sheds.  A storm hurls rain down around the lovers in their shack, a proletariat Dido and Aeneas.  A bucket outside the shack overflows.  Then, comes the dawn with a splendid shot of Gabin and Simone embracing and looking off-camera to the sun that is ennobling and gilding their weary features.  Later, after he has killed Severine, we see Gabin wandering disconsolate among the visionary dreariness of the railroad yards -- it's dawn and the hero with burning eyes staggers along an industrial riverside on ragged-looking and filthy train-tracks.  When we first see Severine, she is a cat toying with a kitten in a window frame full of light. (Simone Simon would later be cast as the protagonist in Tourneur's famous 1941 horror film, Cat People.)  The film's operatic realism is impressive and the performances are iconic -- the film's failings are largely those of Zola's overly schematic novel.  There's a great scene, very powerfully acted, in which Severine says that the moment when Roubard stabbed Grandmorin was "most intense experience in her life."  This appalls Lantier who had hoped that his love-making with Severine would achieve that distinction.  He looks at her with wounded horror -- kills her shortly thereafter.                                                                                                                                      

Monday, January 22, 2018

The Phantom Thread

Paul Thomas Anderson, the director of The Phantom Thread, burst upon Hollywood in the late 1990's as a maximalist film maker.  His signature movies often encompass lengthy periods of time, involve entire industries and systems of production, and have epic qualities:  Boogie Nights (1997) chronicles the pornography industry in the San  Fernando Valley in the seventies; The Master  (2012) is, among other things, about the rise of Scientology in the fifties and early sixties; There will be Blood (2007) is an account of an entire industrial sector -- the oil business in the late Victorian era.  By contrast, Anderson's most recent film, The Phantom Thread (2017) although set in the world of high fashion exposes nothing to us about that industry and seems to be based on material that is not a story at all, but really nothing more than an anecdote -- the narrative is slight to the vanishing point.  Thus, by contrast with Anderson's earlier films, this lavishly produced movie has almost no content -- it is, in effect, minimalist when compared with most of the director's earlier oeuvre.  (The movie that Phantom Thread most resembles is Anderson's bizarre Adam Sandler picture, Punch Drunk Love ( 2002)

The premise of the film is simple enough:  a monomaniacal and narcissistic fashion designer at the height of his fame, engages in a love affair with beautiful waitress that he has met while on vacation at the sea shore.  The designer, Reynold Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) is wholly devoted to his art --  his private life is managed by his sister, Cyril.  (One of her primary assignments is to dismiss girlfriends in whom the great man has lost interest).  After about a half of hour of happiness, the designer tires of his déclassé girl friend and finds her profoundly irritating.  This is conveyed the device of amplifying the sounds of her eating at breakfast when the great man sketches ideas for dresses -- the girl, Alma's teeth grind thunderously at her muffins and toast and her cutlery screeches across her plate.  Woodcock lets his sister know that he wants Cyril to get rid of the girl.  But the girl fights back -- she goes into the woods, finds a deadly gilled mushroom, grinds it up and puts  it in Woodcock's tea.  He is poisoned and almost dies -- in his delirium, he sees a vision of his mother, with whom he seems to have had a strange, half-incestuous relationship.  (He speaks of her wedding, dress, implies that  he stitched it himself, although the gown is now "ashes" --  the dress stands as synedoche for the woman in this enigmatic episode.)  Woodcock survives his poisoning and, now, finds himself once more dependent on Alma whom he now marries to the horror of his sister.  They immediately quarrel again and Alma punishes him by once again poisoning her husband with the deadly mushroom.  (The relationship continues and, in a flash forward, it is implied that Alma has a baby.)  Woodcock comes to understand that the price of his love for Alma is that she will periodically poison him to revenge herself for the suffering that his arrogance, jealousy and narcissism inflicts inevitably upon her.  (She poisons him the second time in the movie when he refuses to go dancing with her on New Year's Eve, a wild sybaritic spectacle of masked revelers who parade under gas-lit candelabra in a procession involving giraffes and elephants -- it's a wild Bacchic phantasmagoria that seems a sort of fever dream.)  The problem for the viewer is to work out why the picture is set in the world of haute couture in London.  The story could theoretically involve any great man -- Woodcock could be a master builder or a great chef or any kind of artist, for instance a painter like Lucien Freud (in several scenes Woodcock seems to have several of Freud's portraits on his walls).  In many ways, the film's milieu seems to me purely arbitrary and, in fact, the fashion industry is not explored in the film but, rather, merely assumed as a setting for the action.

Of course, we could walk around in the world with our "poor, fork'd nakedness" covered with burlap or some other shapeless fabric.  But this is not what human beings do:  rather, we take pains to make ourselves look resplendent in our clothing:  we augment ourselves with our garments and define ourselves in that way.  Similarly, there's nothing in this rather minor story that requires the somber spectacle that Anderson uses for his mise-en-scene -- the film is lavishly, if austerely, beautiful.  His slender subject is cloaked in an densely morose and portentous style.  At one point, Woodcock defines the mood in his home as "an air of quiet death" and this funereal tone pervades the movie.  Every shot has a mortuary aspect -- lavishly composed, mostly static, an atmosphere graced in many images by sfumato effects associated with cigarette smoke.  Anderson uses atmospherics devices to convey his meanings that I have never seen before:  when Woodcock drives his car, we have a sense that he is always just about to crash the vehicle, to steer it ecstatically off the road.  This effect is achieved by mounting the camera a few yards behind the car but not using a steadi-cam -- we feel every bump in the road and every veer and deflection in Woodcock's steering:  it's a simple effect but exceedingly expressive.  In another scene, Woodcock drives in the dark -- we have the same ominous feeling that he is about to loose control.  This drive seems to occur in some sort of spectral Hades:  we can see behind the car that a powerful white light is shining up from the ground and illumining the bare trees from below:  what is the source of that white light?  The scene late in the film in which Alma goes to the woods to find a poison mushroom is similarly lavishly beautiful but austere:  we see her in a static middle distance shot -- the poison mushroom is a speck growing between the root of a big bare tree:  Anderson has confidence that the audience will see the mushroom although it is very tiny -- he doesn't zoom and does nothing to highlight the mushroom:  he simply lets us pick it out on the screen before cutting away -- it's a daring way to stage the sequence (indeed the shot is a sequence shot), but also tremendously expressive.  In general, the lavish imagery in the film resembles a cross between the super-saturated canvases of John Singer Sargent with statuesque women in glowing satin garments that gleam like torches in the darkness and some of the more exquisitely mannerist films by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, particularly the German's sado-masochistic masterpieces, Martha and The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant -- which in fact involves the fashion industry.  Anderson shows fabric for garments being cut and stitched -- this is done in portentous super-close close-ups.  Woodcock has a dozen old women who work for him and, gradually, we see these women as something like the Parcae -- or fates; one of the achievements of the film is to restore the sense of terror and inevitability to the woman's work of weaving and sewing and cutting fabric:  the huge close-ups always suggest that someone is about to get badly cut or that a pin will penetrate flesh:  the cloth seems almost living flesh, strands of soul-stuff that these Fates or Norns can cut and, then, restore at will.  The film's compositions are all intensely mannered and allegorical designed:  in one sequence of shots, toward the film's end, we see the hero and Alma eating breakfast -- the use of a telephoto lens squashes the characters together so that we see Woodcock's fork poised, it seems, to pierce Alma's throat.  In the next scene, we see Alma's face in tight close-up with a lacerating pin pointing outward, the needle held between her lips.  The two lovers seem to be threatening one another, although this is merely implied by the compositions of the shots. 

So what is this all about?  The film remains deliberately enigmatic.  Woodcock tells us that he sews a secret motto into his wedding dresses -- but we don't know what motto he put in the dress he designed for Alma to wear on their wedding day. (The wedding dress he is making when Alma poisons him the first time is stitched with the words "Never cursed").  Alma seems some kind of muse -- she seems to come from nowhere and has a faint indescribable accent (the actress playing the role is from Luxembourg where she is a major star -- before this movie, she has worked in German and French films; her English is so pitch-perfect that she has only a haunting ghost of an accent.  Alma seems to embody literally the hero's problematic relationship with memories of his mother -- when Alma poisons him, he sees her returned to haunt him in her ghostly wedding dress.  Alma also materializes the deadly relationship between the artist and his muse -- Cyril tells Alma that her body type, with a slight belly and no breasts, is perfect for the garments he designs.  His muse and incentive for his genius is also the thing that is destroying him. 

Although Anderson's film is rapturously staged, it is quite tedious -- the movie strikes and holds one pitch only for 130 minutes.  There's not enough story to carry that length and so the picture will fundamentally bore most audiences -- it's fascinating for its film-technique but the allegorical anecdote is insufficient for its length.  You should see this movie and draw  your own conclusions.  I admired the picture intensely but also found it cold and repellent in some respects.  Boredom is not a criticism of a film like this -- many of Fassbinder's films that I always found intensely dull on first viewing have stayed with me in one way or the other all of my life.  I suspect this film will have a similar impact on me. 

Sunday, January 21, 2018

La Casa del Papel (end of first series)

Throughout its 13 episode length, the Spanish heist movie, La Casa del Papel, remains exciting, clever, and surprising.  Although a couple of episodes late in the game flag a wee bit, the show remains compelling.  The film is effective throughout its ten-hour length because it develops characters who can only be described as extremely endearing.  The Professor, the criminal mastermind who engineers the robbery of the Spanish National Mint, earnestly wishes that the robbery will succeed without any one being killed or, even, injured.  Indeed, there's a quality of adolescent fantasy to the Professor, who is, after all, a character purloined it seems, from a comic book, a kind of post-pubescent boy-wonder -- he stages the robbery, in effect, as a homage to his deceased father.  And, everything would probably have developed as he anticipated except for the messy nature of human emotions -- the one thing that the Professor has not factored into his schemes is that the hostages and robbers will fall in love with one another, develop strange allegiances, and, generally, behave irrationally because, after all, the human heart is unpredictable and eros too powerful to be contained by mere reason.  So, the Professor ends up on a date with Raquel, the female police officer assigned the task of capturing him and, while they embrace, the woman cop's subordinate, a heavy-set bearded man who is hopelessly in love with Raquel, drunk and sloppy with his own jealous lust crashes his car -- and, thereby, delays the receipt of important information.  And while this is happening, a secretary at the Mint, who is having an adulterous affair with her boss (he's also a hostage), falls in love with one of the robbers and has sex with him -- this leads to a confrontation between the boss and the robber that is both scary and hilarious.  Meanwhile, a group of hostages, not properly guarded because of the romantic encounters subverting the whole project, escape from the building, triggering one of the most savage and ferocious fire-fights that I have ever seen on TV.  All of these calamities occur because of the propensity of human beings to console themselves (or eliminate boredom) with sex.  The interesting aspect of all this love and sex is that it's not really exploited by the filmmaker, rather the amours are rather sweet, somewhat like the roundelay of lovers in sophisticated European comedies, Bergman's Smiles of a Summer Night for instance -- all these romantic complications are just a natural consequence when you put a bunch of young and attractive Spaniards together in close quarters.

Another key to the show's success, I think, is its steadfast refusal to minimize any of its characters.  The heavy-set lout who enjoyed a one-night stand with Raquel, the lady hostage negotiator (also his boss) isn't villainous, just misguided and tragically, obsessively romantic.  The heroine, in fact, loves him in her own way, something that merely deepens and makes more painful, the poor man's pathetic attempts to win her over to him.   The most sinister of the robbers, a man who has taken the malevolent-sounding name Berlin, acquires a harem of young hostage girls around him -- he treats them cruelly but they same to regard his sadism as a kind of game and, later, when we learn that he is dying slowly of a neurological disease, we have reason to understand, if not excuse, his bombastic harangues and scarcely repressed hysteria.  Most noteworthy are the two women playing Nairobi and Tokyo -- they are woman warriors with tight bonnets of slick black hair and they have glittering eyes and agile athletic bodies:  they are like the bull-jumpers of Knossos and the film gives them some of the best action sequences:  there's a splendid invigorating moment when Tokyo charges a breach in the wall pushing a huge heavy caliber machine gun into a hail of tracer bullets; in one scene, Nairobi leads choruses of hostages in wild wailing ululating cries while the rest of the robbers fire volleys into walls and ceilings, the gunman all wearing identical masks of a bemused, quizzical-looking Salvador  Dali.  Toward the end of the first season, one of wizened print-shop workers at the mint casts in his lot with Nairobi, calling her the "best boss" he ever had.  In fact, as the show ripens, Stockholm syndrome sets in and the motives of hostages and captors become increasingly confused and perplexing.

Viewers should be warned that this show is addictive and that it does not end at the conclusion of the 13 episodes in the first series -- in fact, the program is left radically unresolved:  the police are closing in, the relationship between Berlin and the professor seems to be explained, the Professor continues his romance with Raquel after almost murdering her mother (the woman is saved because the Professor understands that she suffers from Alzheimer's syndrome and can't recall that she has learned that he is one of the bad guys).  In a flashback, the Professor and Berlin sing Bella Ciao, a song with which I was unfamiliar -- it's a partisan anti-fascist song that, apparently, has currency with resistance movements around the world.  (You can hear a wonderful version of the song on You-Tube as performed by the great Argentine folk singer, Mercedes Sosa.)  The song begins with the words:  "as I awoke this morning, the invaders had come."  Although its nominally an anti-fascist song, who are the invaders here?  And who the partisans?  The song brings the show to a stirring but wholly inconclusive ending -- we'll have to wait until to see how this comes out. (Obviously the 2017 series was huge hit in Spain for its station Antena 3; the program was conceived and directed by Alex Pena.)

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri

Mother-love can turn to diabolical mother-rage when a woman's child is hurt or killed.  I knew a mother who lost her son in a stabbing after a bar-fight.  The woman carried in her purse autopsy pictures showing the boy cut apart on a stainless steel table at the hospital.  She would show these pictures to strangers and ask them if they thought it unjust that the killer had not been prosecuted for stabbing her son.  (The killer was acquitted on a plea of self-defense.)  In the end, she confronted local law enforcement authorities who she thought had botched the case:  she threatened the wives and children of those cops with the evisceration pictured in the autopsy pictures, was prosecuted for terrorist threats, and went to prison herself, snarling and proud of her loyalty to the memory of her lost son. 

Martin McDonagh's Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri takes this grave, and tragic subject, a mother's obsessive quest for revenge, as its theme.  Frances McDormand plays Mildred Hayes, a woman whose daughter was raped and killed and her body, then, burned on a lonely road in rural Missouri. Hayes is outraged that her daughter's slaughter has not been avenged and she vents her fury on the local police chief, a man named Willoughby (played with surprising restraint by Woody Harrelson).  Everyone in the small town of Ebbing knows that the much-beloved Willoughby is dying of pancreatic cancer and the local people are almost universally outraged when Hayes pays for three billboards denouncing the sheriff near the place where her daughter's body was found.  Pressure is exerted on Mildred to remove the billboards but she is Nemesis herself or, perhaps, the fury Allecto --she will not be dissuaded from her righteous pursuit of justice and this leads to a cascade of violent events including, at last, several terrible beatings and the fire-bombing of the Ebbing police station.  (She is a little like Michael Kohlhass in Heinrich von Kleist's ferocious novella -- Kleist calls Kohlhass "at once the most righteous and most terrifying man in Germany" and the same epithets ("righteous and terrifying") could be applied to Mildred.) Mildred's utter refusal to compromise makes her a profound and great tragic figure and the movie has an excellent beginning, a mournful and beautiful overture as it were, as well as some fairly moving scenes in its last twenty minutes.  But overall the movie is botched.  This is lamentable because there is the kernel of a great film in the subject and McDormand's acting is extraordinary -- she makes no effort to endear herself to the audience and, therefore, achieves a great and austere nobility.  (No mind that she's essayed this kind of role before in the HBO mini-series Olive Kittridge.) Unfortunately, the whole movie is horribly spoiled by Martin McDonagh's childish self-indulgence.  This is the kind of movie that confuses critics -- it's full of tremendous acting and wild harangues and the camera-work is unobtrusively beautiful (a few too many close-ups for my taste but justified by the Oscar-worthy performances in the film.)  The fundamental problem with the film is that it is wholly, and inexcusably implausible and wildly over-written. 

First, everyone in the film speaks in a torrent of obscenities.  This is not the way people talk in the deep south.  (McDonagh, whose geographical understanding of the US seems imprecise, apparently thinks that Missouri is like Mississippi or Alabama; he doesn't grasp that Missouri is a southern-inflected Midwestern state.)  Everyone curses relentlessly and unrealistically -- the whole film is scripted in sub-Tarantino obscenities and, often, the need to make dirty jokes or end a confrontation with a filthy (if clever) epithet drives the action.  Two examples will suffice for about a dozen instances where McDonagh's desire to lard his dialogue with politically incorrect and offensive jokes contorts what we are seeing on the screen.  Mildred's ex-husband is going out with a 19 year old girl.  The girl is said to be a zoo attendant.  This weird vocation is a source of a baker's dozen dirty jokes about monkey shit and how the girl smells of that substance.  But I have news for McDonagh -- there aren't going to be any zoos within hailing distance of the boondocks shown in the film.  It's an example of McDonagh hearing a dirty joke in a pub in Dublin, let's say, and wanting to transpose that jest to the American Midwest -- it just doesn't work.  Similarly, we are treated to a long and picturesque harangue about pedophile priests -- this is also totally incongruous.  The people in the part of the country shown in the film are Assembly of God parishioners, Methodists, or Baptists -- it seems unwarranted and self-indulgent for McDonagh to insert in the film a long speech comparing the Catholic Church to the Bloods and the Crips.  He seems to have got the speech in the wrong movie.  There are inexplicable screw-ups in the plotting.  Woody Harrelson's dying sheriff has a much, much younger wife -- at one point, I was confused with a erotic gesture made by Willoughby to the woman who I took to be his daughter.  Worse, Willoughby's wife sometimes speaks with a southern accent -- other times, she inexplicably seems to have a strong British accent.   She is so young that there is something marginally creepy about the relationship.  And the role for the sheriff's wife is completely underwritten -- in one scene, Willoughby is spitting blood due to the progression of his cancer.  His young wife agrees wholeheartedly that he should check himself out of the hospital notwithstanding his doctor's objections -- this is totally incredible and makes you wonder whether the girl has lost her senses.  Another completely botched element in the movie relates to the cost of the billboards.  The three billboards are on a rural lane that "no one but lost people and morons use" -- but, incredibly, the charge for renting those three billboards is 5000 dollars a month.  (I would think you could get three billboards on the Santa Monica Freeway for 5000 a month.)  The price has to be enormous because one of the plot elements involves Mildred Hayes having trouble raising the money to finance her PR campaign against the hapless sheriff.  Later, Willoughby commits suicide and sends Mildred $5000 in cash so that she can keep on the campaign against him post-mortem -- but this gesture, which seems credible in context, doesn't make any sense if considered rationally:  why would Willoughy deprive his widow and two little girls of the $5000 merely to play a crazy posthumous game with Mildred Hayes?  (The people in the film are poor -- $5000 is regarded as a fortune to the denizens of Ebbing, Missouri).  A little later, the widow confronts Mildred Hayes accusing her of causing her husband's death.  But we have seen, and heard read Willoughby's suicide note in which he adamantly and with absolute accuracy denies that the billboards denouncing him had anything to do with his death.  Did the widow not read the suicide note?  Or is she ignoring it?  Or is McDonagh amping up the volume and the vehemence in the hope that we don't notice the incongruity?

Ultimately, the problem with the film all relates to its mawkish sentimentality.  There's a wide vein of Irish blarney in this film and most often it is expressed in the kind of sentimental gestures that would have embarrassed John Ford at his most expansive.  All of the relentless cursing and blackguard diction is a vain attempt to conceal the film's soft underbelly of rather craven sentimentality.  Willoughby takes his wife on a picnic to the river, goes off to make love with her in the woods, and, so, has to leave his two little girls fishing on the banks of the stream.  He cows the little girls by bellowing at them to not leave the "goddamned blanket for any goddamned purpose" and also orders them to be careful with the rods and reels so that they don't get "hooks in (their) goddamned eye-balls."  First, of course, no one would speak to children in this way (the little girls are about 4 and 6) -- second, all the intemperate cursing is just an attempt to deny the fundamentally sentimental nature of the scene, poor Willoughby's pastoral farewell to his wife and his life.  (He shoots himself that night).  Willoughby's suicide note is similarly flawed -- it's full of tough guy obscenity that is deployed to mask what is really a very sentimental and standard sort of love note.  Once this strategy is detected by the viewer, it's abundantly obvious -- the more vehement and absurdly obscene the language, the more sentimental the gesture or action depicted.  The bad language is just a smoke-screen.  And, in one scene, we see a psychopathic cop (brilliantly played by Sam Rockwell) saying goodbye to his "dear old Mither."  He tenderly strokes her air before departing on his vigilante quest.

McDonagh, undoubtedly believes he's a genius writing profane Mamet-style dialogue -- he uses a diction derived from Mamet, filtered through some Harold Pinter, and, then, cast in terms that derive from Tarantino films.  A lot of his dialogue is fairly clever but it completely misconstrues the way people in Missouri or, for that matter, anywhere in the USA talk.  (The film features high green mountains that don't look like any part of Missouri that I've scene -- in fact, the picture was shot in Appalachian mountains in one of the two Carolinas.)  This film is fascinating, but it's wrecked by the director's conception of himself as a tough-guy truthteller -- he's absolutely tone-deaf with respect to the way Americans talk. 

Monday, January 15, 2018

La Casa de Papel

La Casa de Papel is a Spanish heist movie, broadcast on Netflix in 13 episodes, each about 45 minutes long.  I've seen five episodes at this point and have committed to the show -- if I look forward to streaming the show after work at night, I think I am warranted in recommending the program. 

Most TV shows of this sort contain lots of dead time -- the plot doesn't sustain the running time required for a 10 or 13 episode program.  This seems pretty clearly the case with La Casa de Papel, but oddly enough this series makes a virtue of its length by developing a number of extremely interesting and, even, moving subplots.  The characters are so interesting and their development so belated in terms of the narrative that we find the show compelling even though, at least some of it, feels like a long and complex delaying action.  La Casa de Papel works this trick in an obvious way but one that I haven't seen implemented too often in series TV shows.  The show charges into the narrative without any real plot or character development.  Almost all "heist" shows begin with establishing the team of criminals who will work together, or against one another, to engineer the theft -- this is the paradigm that we see in movies as disparate as The Asphalt Jungle and Riffi.  The script presents us with the characters, identifies their idiosyncrasies, and, then, lays out in detail the plan for the crime that will be committed -- again, Kubrick's The Killing is a good example of this style of film-making.  La Casa de Papel inverts this order of narrative -- with only a very bare sketch of the show's premises, the program advances into the complex heist.  By the middle of the first episode, the protagonists are engaged in their daring scheme to rob (or do something to) Spain's National Mint.  We aren't told the objective of the heist.  Similarly, we aren't afforded any clear understanding of the criminals involved in the plot.  The show moves forward in a kind of backhanded homage to Reservoir Dogs -- the eight criminals, acting under the direction of a genius mastermind, the Professor, are forbidden use of their real names.  Instead, they are told that they must select the names of cities and will be known by those appellations -- hence, we have characters called Moscow, Berlin, Boston, Denver, and Helsinki.  There's no plot development before the heist is inaugurated -- rather, the show makes the clever decision of using flashbacks to develop character as the narrative proceeds.  Similarly, there are 67 employees at the National Mint who are taken prisoner and, then, held hostage as the criminal scheme is developed -- we aren't shown much, if anything, about these characters as well; rather, the hostages are also developed as characters in the course of the siege of the National Mint which seems to last for the entire 13 episodes.  But, as the program proceeds, the plot takes all sorts of very interesting twists and turns and we become intensely enmeshed in the relationships between the criminals, the hostages, and the law enforcement detectives and negotiators involved in the siege.  The show seems to be very well written and is a combination of extremely ferocious and disturbing confrontations and a sort of queasy comedy.  There's nothing here, so far, that you haven't seen in other films -- in fact, one of the film's plot points, dressing both hostages and criminals in identical red jumpers (and masking their faces with bizarre  and identical Salvador Dali masks) comes directly out of an earlier movie, Spike Lee's The Inside Man (2006).  But La Casa del Papel ("The house of Paper" -- referring to the printing presses in the Mint) simply executes these motifs better and with sharper writing and more interesting characters.  By the fifth episode, all sorts of fascinating things have occurred:  the chief hostage negotiator, a weary female cop, is contending with her own history of domestic abuse and involved in a nasty divorce; her mother seems to have Alzheimer's although she is still vigorous and attractive, a kind of force of nature.  The Professor is boyishly attractive and tempted into a relationship with the hostage negotiator (a subplot that is a bit like Gillian Anderson's relationship with the serial killer in The Fall).  Told to execute one of the hostages, a young man hides the girl and seems to be falling in love with her.  She, in turn, is involved in a doomed relationship with the married Arturo, the director of the mint.  Arturo gets shot by accident and the father of the boy who has fallen in love with the blonde hostage -- Arturo's girlfriend, Monica -- tries to protect his son from the increasingly violent stand-off.  Spanish police are boring into the Mint through ventilation tunnels while the hostages are forced to drill a hole in the floor of the factory.  Berlin, one of the leaders of the criminals, seems to be degenerating into brutality -- the criminals were originally told that no one would be hurt during the heist, but Berlin seems to be some kind of sadist. Many of these elements in the show are presented in very sharp, effectively written, and, even, didactic dialogue -- there are debates about abortion, for instance, and use of violence, even terrorist violence, to make political points.  All the while, the criminals, who have become the de facto heroes of the show, are printing vast amounts of unmarked money in 50 Euro denominations.  Perhaps, the show will flag in the next few hours -- but, at this point, everything is moving along very effectively and the show is sufficiently exciting that I look forward to streaming an episode or two every night.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Duck and Cover

It seemed strangely auspicious to me to watch on Turner Classic Movies, the old civil defense film Duck and Cover on the same day that people in Hawaii, apparently thought that they were about to be incinerated by Kim "Little Rocket Man" Jim Un's ICBM missiles.  (It turned out to be a false alarm.)  Duck and Cover is a nasty bit of Cold War kitsch that can still send chills up your spine.  Bert is an animated turtle wearing a sort of World War II helmet -- when he is threatened with aerial bombardment, he retreats into his shell, thus, giving an example of how a victim of a nuclear bomb attack should shield himself from injury.  The film features interracial class rooms in which the kids duck and cover under their desks to avoid the blast of a nuclear missile detonating nearby.  We see various iterations of the primal scene -- an air-raid siren sounds and the kids "duck and cover".  In one sequence, in a playground, the children abandon their bats, balls, and jumping rope to run inside the building and "duck and cover" -- the camera takes still-lives of the bat, ball, and jumping rope eerily abandoned in desolate empty frames worthy of a film by Ozu.   In one scene, a family's supper is interrupted by the wail of sirens -- everyone ducks and covers under the table, leaving us with a good view of a 50's style meal complete with a bottle of Guelden's mustard on the table.  We see kids alone in corridors and walking along sidewalks surprised by the scream of the sirens and "ducking and covering."  "The attack may come," the narrator says reassuringly, "when there are no grown-ups around."  The kids crumple against walls or cower in door openings.  The eerie thing about the maneuver is that we don't really see the kids getting up after the exercise -- instead, we see people going about their daily activities, then, the shriek of an air-raid siren, and the actors crouching, putting knees to head in a fetal gesture, and, then, locking their hands over their necks.  But I don't really recall anyone coming up out of that position -- in other words, in a flash everyone is "changed", terribly changed, but the kids who have gone into the "duck and cover" position don't ever get up; they seem to have become motionless corpses.  This may not be literally true but it's the impression that the film gives -- once, you go into the "duck and cover" posture, there is simply no return from the dead.  The phrase "duck and cover" comes with a little radio-TV ditty, a little rhyming jingle or theme song intoned by Bert the Turtle who seems to have wandering into this very American film from a PSA made in England.  I can't see a picture like this objectively because it is part of my childhood.  I recall doing "duck and cover" exercises when I was in kindergarten and through the fourth or fifth grade of elementary school.  So what's on screen is entangled in lots of contractures, scar tissue and ligatures linking the images to other memories in my life. 


Inferno is a 1953 thriller starring Robert Ryan and directed Roy Ward Baker.  The film is an excellent example of a low-budget B movie crime picture that succeeds on all levels.  Hollywood once produced these kinds of films in great numbers -- TV hasn't quite figured-out the trick.  

Inferno starts with a kick.  We see a desolate landscape and a sign warning that people should not travel in this country without adequate water and gas -- notably, the sign has been shot to pieces.  The camera pans and we see an elaborately dressed movie star, a big armful of early 50's pulchritude (the villainess Geraldine played by Rhonda Fleming).  The woman looks horrified, angry, and menacing all at one time and this nasty, ambiguous expression is the subject of the film and its central enigma, a riddle the movie tries to solve during its modest 85 minute running time.  Geraldine is involved in a love affair with a stiff, Joseph Duncan -- he's a good-natured, murderous clod who thinks he's smart enough to manage the murder of his boss and girlfriend's husband, Carson.  Carson has been left to die with a broken leg on a sun-blasted cliff-top sixty miles away from where Geraldine and Duncan are planting fake evidence and intend to leave Carson's vehicle.  (We see Duncan walking backward on the sandy road to leave tracks facing in the wrong direction and seeding the site with whiskey bottles -- Carson, who is said to be an irascible brute, has been known to go on two or three day benders.)  While Geraldine and dull-witted Duncan drink champagne and enjoy elaborate meals in her home in Los Angeles, we see poor Carson tortured by his shattered leg and desperately marshaling all his power of hatred to survive in the terrible, arid heat of the desert.  Ryan, of course, is the best thing in the movie and his torments in the desert are both frightening and weirdly inspiring -- Carson admits that he's not much of a boy scout and doesn't know anything about wilderness survival but he's rational, courageous, and exceedingly patient and, of course, ultimately he escapes his solitary ordeal to wreak vengeance on his cheating wife and her lover.  (The film is similar in some respects to the excellent picture written by David Mamet and directed by Lee Tamahori, The Edge -- in that man-in-the-wilderness picture, an industrialist like Carson finds himself leading a small group of survivors through lethal Alaskan mountains; Anthony Hopkins, who plays the hero in The Edge, says that most people who are lost in the wilderness panic and "die of embarrassment" and he's not about to let that happen to him -- his mantra is "what one man has done another man can do"; this is similar to Ryan, talking to himself in the boiling sunlight, about the fact that "if someone has done this, I can do it too.")  The film traffics in obvious imagery -- we see Ryan chowing down on moist sawdust-like cactus flesh while the two lovers, dressed in evening clothes (Rhonda Fleming sports an almost surrealistically beautiful emerald-colored gown) enjoy roast duckling and steak.  But it's successful and film barrels along at a breakneck pace.  As Robert Ryan hallucinates from thirst, the villain dives into a Santa Monica swimming pool -- it's the opposite of subtle, but effective nonetheless.  At times, the film is even grimly humorous -- in his running monologue with himself, Ryan says:  "I sure wish I'd kept in better shape", as he lowers himself down a twenty foot cliff toward a rattlesnake waiting on a ledge for him below.  The director said that he wanted to make a "silent film" and he nearly accomplishes this feat -- the film is all texture, image, and editing; it's entirely visual with not much in the way of dialogue at all.  Rhonda Fleming is convincingly vicious -- at one point, in the film, she even abandons her boyfriend in the unforgiving desert.  Shot in 3D, the film features a climax in which various detritus is hurled at the camera -- this is, perhaps, the weakest part of the picture, although it's certain fierce.  The movie is also very good in showing how the desert can seem to be a nightmarish inferno to one man while offering another a generous living.  An old desert rat tells one of the characters "the desert's got everything a man needs if a man just knows how to get it."  This picture is tough and realistic, boldly acted by Ryan and Fleming and highly recommended.  (A master of Southwestern desert photography, Lucien Ballard, shot the picture in glistening Technicolor.)

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Black Mirror: Metalhead and The Black Museum

Black Mirror's two final episodes are "Metalhead" and "The Black Museum".  Both are fascinating and frightening, although not completely satisfactory.

"Metalhead" is a stripped-down chase picture, a sheer jolt of adrenalin.  In a post-apocalyptic future, two men and a woman drive across a barren landscape to a warehouse.  They are looking for something, a "replacement" that is never named, although it is shown in the final image.  In the warehouse, the trio encounter a metallic watchdog.  The watchdog is fleet and fires swarms of glowing darts that embed themselves in the flesh of its victims so that the automaton can track them.  The robot is also equipped with a high-powered and lethal weapon that simulates a shotgun blast.  When the drone catches you, it blows you to pieces.  In the first ten minutes, the robot-dog kills the two men comprising the trio.  The survivor, a tough-as-nails woman warrior, finds herself relentlessly pursued by the mechanical dog.  The last 35 minutes of the episode detail the woman's increasingly gory battle with automaton.  "Metalhead" looks great -- it is shot in high-definition black and white; the images are so detailed that they have a sort of cartographic, military beauty:  we seem to see every pebble and every leaf on the trees.  From time to time, the point-of-view switches to that of the mechanical device pursuing the woman -- we see the animal scanning the rugged and barren landscape for its prey.  The show is essentially silent -- after a couple exchanges of dialogue in the car, the two men with the woman are blown apart and she is alone.  (As with the Icelandic episode, "Crocodile", the characters speak in some kind of northern Scottish dialect that is literally incomprehensible -- I couldn't understand a word that they said.  Thus, the purpose for the raid on the warehouse was completely unclear to me.  As it turns out, viewers who could understand the dialect note that it's not necessary to hear what is said -- the show is essentially a tour-de-force of violent action deployed across an unforgiving terrain and the duel is conducted in entirely visual terms.  There is absolutely no back-story as to what has happened, why people have been reduced to this state, or why human beings are relentlessly hunted and killed by the mechanical hounds.)  The show is a naked example of "what you see is what you get" film making -- it's totally pure, a graphic marvel of motion, space, and the most austere of all motives:  simple survival.  It's as if one of Jack London's most desperate narratives -- for instance, "To light a Fire" -- were made into a short film.  The film's ending is a variant on Citizen Kane's  big reveal -- the camera glides away from the site of the movie's climax, roving over the terrain over which the chase has been conducted, and coming at rest at last to the warehouse to reveal what the characters were trying to steal when the mechanical dog began its relentless pursuit.  The "reveal" is underwhelming, I think, but the overhead shots of other mechanical hounds loping after the first dog and sniffing around places where the woman rested or hid during the chase is spine-chilling.  There never was any hope at all, a fact that we don't appreciate until we see the sheer number of automatons unleashed to track the woman. 

"The Black Museum" is more ambitious and, so, I think less successful.  The story splices together two ideas:  the first is that sensations of pleasure and pain can be transferred by electrical impulse from one person to another.  This part of the story is told in flashback -- a woman driving across a hideously arid and remote-looking desert stops to recharge her electrical car.  Near the abandoned gas station where she is parked for three hours to recharge the vehicle, she finds a motel building converted into something called "The  Black Museum", ostensibly a museum of crime.  The creepy and, clearly, half-crazed proprietor of the museum meets her and, while giving a zany tour of the exhibits, tells her the story that comprises the first part of the show.  The story, involving transfer of pleasure and pain through a receptor in the temple and a transmitter that is glowing electronic helmet, is gruesome and disturbing.  A feckless doctor discovers that he can diagnose ailments better if he actually suffers what the patient is feeling.  And so, he puts the transmitter helmet on the patient, feels their symptoms, and, then, successfully makes his diagnosis.  One time, however, the patient dies and he experiences the exuberant release of endorphins that accompanies physical death.  He becomes an addict for this sort of experience and, ends up mutilating himself horribly -- he is now a pain addict.  He ends up stalking victims, putting the transmitter helmet on them, and, then, torturing them to death so that he can experience all the pleasure of being both a vicious sadist and a hopeless masochist. 

The second story in "The Black Museum" is also narrated in flashback.  This involves a device that allows the consciousness of one person to be transplanted into the mind of another.  A young husband's wife is injured in an accident and becomes comatose. The husband consents to transplanting her consciousness into his mind.  This is initially a blessing for both of them, but, predictably, enough turns into a nightmare.  The wife is censorious, angry, bitter and she relentlessly nags at the husband from within.  First, the husband is given a way to put her on "pause" and simply "shuts her off" for months at a time.  Ultimately, he develops a relationship with a woman who is, justifiably, jealous of his former wife living in her lover's brain.  The new wife orders her husband to transplant the consciousness of the former wife into a teddy bear toy that is capable of only two responses:  "Give me a hug" for sadness and "I love you" for happiness.  The disembodied woman's child plays excitedly with the bear for a while but, then, simply discards the toy -- and his mother who is trapped inside the stuffed animal.  This tale morphs into a third story about a convict who is executed in the electric chair -- in this story, the bad guy, a mad med-tech expert (who runs the Black Museum), records the consciousness of the convict at the moment he is dying in agony in the electric chair.  He, then, creates hologram of the convict that people can continuously re-execute in his museum by flipping a switch.  The convict's spirit, accordingly, is trapped in a repetitive, endless hell of being continuously electrocuted -- this is the same general idea behind the first episode called "U.S.S. Callister" as well as other earlier programs in preceding seasons of Black Mirror.  The girl touring the museum turns out to be an avenger and she wreaks a horrible vengeance on the smarmy med-tech guy managing the Black Museum.  The show is rife with inconsistencies and logical problems and doesn't really work at all.  It's scary enough and there is a foreboding sense of queasy doom about the show, but it's disappointing in the end.  (At the denouement, for instance, we see that the girl who has avenged the bad guy's crimes against humanity driving home -- she has her mother's consciousness embodied in her brain.  That's how she had sufficient evidence and moxie to implement her revenge scheme against the villain -- her mother aided her.  The ending is supposed to be happy but we know that having someone else's mind inside your head turns out to be a nightmarish plight -- thus the "happy end" of the show is happy only if we forget what we were shown a half-hour earlier.)  There is an interesting question of the origin of "Black Museum"; the show's credits name Penn Jillette, the magician, as the source for, at least, part of the hybrid show -- Jillette wrote something called "The Pain Addict" that would describe the first of the three parts in the "Black Museum".  However, in Great Britain, the BBC TV presenter Karl Pilkington, is said to have originated the idea for the part of the show involving two separate consciousnesses embodied in one brain.  Describing that phenomenon, the husband in the second flashback says:  "I can't even masturbate.  It's like having a cop in my brain who is also my mother."  In fact, years ago a Harvard neurologist posited something called the "bicameral brain" to explain that the gods in the Greek myths were merely other parts of heros' brains communicated to them directives toward action:  The name of the book was The Origin of Consciousness in the Bicameral Brain by Julian Jaynes.)

Europa 51

Extremely earnest and strangely abstract, Roberto Rosellini's Europa 51 is defeated I think by its own seriousness and Ingrid Bergman's obvious discomfort with the part that she is required to play.  The film is important, I think, and very interesting but unsuccessful.  (The picture is also hard to evaluate because it is dubbed into English so very poorly -- the different accents make no sense at all.  For instance, Bergman's character is the daughter of a refined American woman with spectacularly undulating hair -- but Bergman seems to be speaking her part in heavily accented English while her mother talks with a British accent.) 

Rossellini's story, which the director wrote, is a parable that has the flavor of late Tolstoy.  A society woman living in Rome is grief-stricken when her 12-year old son attempts suicide and, then, dies, later, in the hospital.  The woman, Irene (Bergman), takes to her bed for several months and, then, associates with a Communist who preaches to her the need for revolution.  Irene works with the poor, buying medicine for slum children, and tends to a dying prostitute.  When her Communist friend, probably previously a lover, suggests the need for violent revolution, she abandons political solutions to human suffering.  Alarmed at her asceticism and generosity to the poor, Irene's husband, George, has her committed to an insane asylum.  There she devotes herself to helping the mentally ill.  At a hearing, representatives of the church, society, and the doctor in charge of the mental hospital, all urge that Irene be permanently committed -- she is regarded as irredeemably insane and some sort of danger to herself and others, although, of course, there is nothing wrong with her at all.  The Court orders her permanently committed.  Irene is locked away and, in the final scene, looks down smiling at a crowd of poor people who have come to visit her -- she smiles slightly and the final shot shows a group of children gazing up at her intently. 

Rossellini's approach to this material is austere and lucid.  I don't recall any camera movement and there is no expressionistic play of light and shadow -- with a couple exceptions (night scene filmed in Roman piazzas), the movie takes place in clear, clinical light.  There are some notable images of desolation but they are documentary in character -- some scenes take place on the edges of the city in the wastelands around gruesome-looking high-rises where the poor live; there is a river and industrial desolation and, at one point, a group of children play around a dead body fished out of the water.  An episode in which Irene works in a factory has something of the quality of Metropolis, there are vast atriums with sinister-looking figures engaged in surveillance of the workers and enormous spinning rotors.  (When Irene is asked about the factory, she is speechless; she simply bursts into tears recalling its dehumanizing nature.)  Rossellini has a habit of filming characters, particularly Irene, against bare white walls, creating an effect of sanctity -- the faces appear against a white void.

A film of enormous emotional integrity, Rossellini doesn't cheat -- his characters are mostly unpleasant and his heroine, also, seems deeply flawed.  Although Irene acts like a saint, I assume, that most saints were, in fact, deeply problematic people and there is no effort made to glamorize the heroine's conversion -- she is demanding and nasty as a society woman and negligent, self-centered, and irritating as a saint.  Her son, who's suicide attempt precipitates the crisis, is a spoiled brat -- like little Marcel Proust, he lies in bed during his parent's dinner party, repeatedly demanding that his mother come from the gathering to comfort him.  When his mother suggests that he needs to grow-up and "be a man", he impulsively flings himself down a stairwell to punish her.  There are hints, some of them none too subtle, that the relationship between mother and son is potentially incestuous.  The poor people that Irene helps are similarly demanding, loud, and aggressive in exploiting her.  Irene's  husband is selfish and suspects his wife of an affair with the brash and aggressive Communist -- in fact, there is a suggestion that Irene and the Communist have been lovers at some point before the story begins.  However, the husband misses the point -- Irene's affair with the Communist precedes her emotional crisis and she turns out to be as much a pain-in-the-ass and burden to the Communist as she is to her husband when she rejects his arguments that a social utopia, a paradise on earth, can arise from violent revolution.  The dying prostitute for whom Irene cares is similarly realistically conceived -- the rest of the poor people in the tenement despise her and she's a tough cookie:  some of her last words are to denounce her neighbors as being a pack of thieves.  (There's a good moment when a smarmy young pharmacist, who seems to have enjoyed the prostitute's favors, delivers some medication to her squalid apartment.  Irene tries to pay him, but he says:  "Around here, we do things on credit.")    Bergman herself is shot to look gaunt and exudes a sort of thin-lipped, taut reproach -- she is filmed to appear like a harridan.  Rossellini's larger point is that the spiritual crisis that Irene embodies is endemic to post-war Europe, hence the film's title.  Irene and her son have been traumatized by aerial bombardments -- indeed, the boy's clinging to his mother is a result of sleeping together in bomb shelters.  Europe is post-Christian and teetering between Communism and aggressive US-style capitalism; at a dinner party, Irene seats the "Marshall Plan," an American, across from the Communist. 

In 1950, Rossellini explored the themes in Europa 51 in a more felicitous film, Francis, Jester of God, a bio-pic about St. Frances of Assisi -- that movie, I think, addresses the post-war crisis of faith in Europe more obliquely and, therefore, more effectively.  The ambition motivating Europa 51 can not be gainsaid.  But the film is not wholly successful.  Nonetheless, it is an important picture -- a critic has noted that alone among the major European film makers, Rossellini emerged from the war with the idea that, although the conflict had been horrific, it should not be nihilistically dismissed as utterly futile:   until the end of his life, Rossellini hoped that a better world would come about as a result of the War and died in that faith. 

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Black Mirror: Crocodile and Hang the DJ

The real star of Crocodile is the landscape in which it is set -- apparently, Iceland at its most ferocious.  Similarly, the aspect of Hang the DJ that is most notable is the setting, a sort of High-Tech Isle of Cythera with posh, hushed restaurants, self-driving vehicles gliding soundlessly along sylvan lanes, carefully groomed water-features with follies set into manicured hillsides, and, of course, a vast wall as high as the sky sealing this pastoral realm of love and erotic delight from the rest of the cosmos.  Both episodes of the dystopian Sci-Fi anthology Black Mirror are intriguing, but not as exciting or horrifying as some of the best shows in the series.  And, in fact, neither show is intrinsically science fiction -- technology hovers around the edges of both shows but the dilemmas actually presented could be dramatized without recourse to science fiction at all.

In Crocodile, a glacially icy female architect finds herself threatened as a result of a crime in which she was complicit fifteen years earlier -- a hit and run accident on a lonely road in Arctic mountains.  The protagonist kills the man driving the car when the hit-and-run accident happened when he resurfaces and wishes to confess and, then, finds herself trapped in a situation in which she has to slaughter other people to keep them from learning her secret.  All of this takes place in a surreal landscape of formidable barren mountains and icy fjords -- the architect has an ultra-modernist house that sits perched on a hillside among absolutely barren peaks and glaciers.  The story feels ancient and, in fact, when the wraithlike, pale murderess is stalking her victims, carrying a claw  hammer with which to beat them to death, the show achieves a kind of stark, uncanny horror.  The only science fiction element in the plot is an electronic device that can be used to extract and screen memories on a computer.  The use of the device is subject to various legal restrictions since, after all, retrieving memories is the ultimate search and seizure and these rules seem pretty elastic -- they bend according to the plot requirements.  The show is naïve about how memories are constructed -- it shows them as simple fragments of film, but I think science has shown us (as well as personal experience) that memory has nothing like that character, that it is really a collage that is manufactured by the brain.  (If we could screen other people's memories, I think they would be largely unintelligible.)  The notion that memory is basically a camera poised to record the work drives the climax and denouement which is silly (it involves recovering the memories of rodent).  The episode takes a Psycho-type turn when the unassuming protagonist, an ethnic Indian young woman who is a claims adjuster, is beaten to death with a piece of firewood -- she is the character who runs the device used for screening memories and, accidentally, uncovers evidence of the architect's crime while investigating a personal injury claim.   (The nature of the personal injury claim and how it will be adjusted has not been thoroughly imagined -- we don't know for whom the claims adjuster is working or why she has to gather all the detailed facts that lead her to discover the crime committed by the architect.)  On reflection, the show is pretty stupid and its denouement irremediably silly but... the show is gripping while you're watching.  (Incidentally, the program features various iterations of a song performed in the first season in one of the most memorable and horrific episodes -- this song seems to haunt later programs and surfaces from time to time, half-heard, but very evocative.)  You may want to watch this show with subtitles engaged -- the characters speak in a dense Scottish brogue that I had trouble understanding.  The only words that I could decipher were obscene.

Perhaps, you wonder how computerized dating services work.  You identify your personal characteristics and, then, a match is provided -- some services, apparently, even specify the percentage of characteristics matched.  (In Hang the DJ, the young lovers enjoy something like a 99.8 % match).  So how is this feat accomplished?  The show suggests that these computer match programs create a simulation of the lovers, put them in a dating pool in an idealized garden-like environment.  Each lover agrees to tap a button on their control console simultaneously with his or her partner -- the console will display the length of the relationship, that is, it's expiry date.  This date may be as short as a couple of hours to many years.  The concept is to cycle the lovers through various couplings and uncouplings until a nearly perfect match is achieved.  Hang the DJ relies on various staples of Black Mirror narrative -- the lovers emerge from darkness and, ultimately, discover that the idealized environment of gardens and luxury restaurants and cottages for sex is unreal and that they themselves are simulations, phantasms created by a computer program.  The other aspect of the program that is characteristic of Black Mirror is distortion in time, that is, a disconnect between experienced time and computer time -- the lovers in the computer program cycle through a number of partners in what seems to be 14 or 15 months.  However, at the end of the program, when the episode finally reveals the real flesh-and-blood counterparts to the idealized characters in the computer program it seems as if the match has been made in a matter of seconds.  There are holes in the whimsical plot big enough to drive a truck through but the show is engaging and the eerie, vaguely unreal environment in which the lovers meet and interact has a strangely allegorical power.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Black Mirror: Arkangel

Arkangel, the second show in the fourth season of Black Mirror is plenty disturbing until it goes off-track.  Most TV shows are ruined by the absence of any thought at all.  When Black Mirror fails it is due to an excess of thought, too many good ideas clogging the esthetic pipeline.  The opening 15 minutes of the episode is the most frightening because clinging most closely to ordinary experience.  A single mother, living with her elderly father in the house, I assume, in which she grew up, becomes intensely protective of  her daughter.  The neighborhood in which the family lives looks tough -- it's a crumbling blue-collar enclave in what appears to be a crumbling industrial city, possibly a place like Allenstown, Pa.  The mother delivered her daughter by C-section and the child may have been distressed and, even, in danger of dying immediately after the procedure -- this is all effectively shown through the mother's eyes and we never really know what  happened.  (It's the phenomenon that most of us may have experienced in intensive care when a patient endures a crisis and is swarmed by doctors and nurses who quickly and efficiently screen the medical emergency from witnesses.)  Her daughter wanders off while playing in a tiny playground adjacent to a frightening railroad track and there's a menacing black German shepherd behind a cyclone fence a few houses away.  In order to protect her daughter, the mother participates in a test of surveillance technology made by a company named Arkangel -- her daughter has a chip injected into her brain which not only locates the girl on a map but, also, has two other dangerously invasive features:  the mother can access a mode that actually lets her see through her daughter's eyes and, further, when there is a excess of cortisol, (a hormonal sign of "fight or flight syndrome") detected in the young girl's system, the mother can press a button that "filters" out the scary stimulus -- a threatening dog becomes a mere blur of motion and the sound of the beast's barking becomes a faint whisper.  With her laptop, the mother can effectively hear and see what her daughter hears and sees and, further, modify her responses to frightening or dangerous stimuli.  There's too much here for an hour program and the show, after a frightening half hour, slides gently off the tracks.  When the girl becomes a teenager and starts dating -- of course, a boy of which the mother disapproves -- the mother begins intense and voyeuristic surveillance.  This ultimately leads to awful misunderstandings and calamity.  (One path not taken is the mother's possible voyeuristic involvement in her daughter's sex life -- this thematic element, too disturbing I think even for Black Mirror is carefully eschewed:  the mother is given a handsome boyfriend as well so that she is not tempted to live vicariously through her daughter.)  Various aspects of the show are not integrated:  the idea that the mother can limit her daughter's fear reaction to dangerous stimuli is not explored in a convincing way.  First, the concept is flawed:  it would seem that filtering natural reactions to fearsome events would make a person more, and not less, vulnerable to danger.  Second, it is suggested that the mother's hypervigilance has, somehow, induced a counter-reaction -- that is, the daughter is more interested in horrible and gory things than she would be if these had not been filtered.  At the climax of the film, the daughter violently assaults her mother but can't really see what is going on because of the filter -- but we haven't seen anyone turn the filter on.  And why wouldn't the mother quash her daughter's nascent sex life by simply "filtering it" to make sensations less intense.  There's a whole serpent's nest of nasty ways this show could develop but which are not explored -- of course, this is due to the brevity of the episode.  Most of what is on screen is brilliant but doesn't fit together -- a good example is the virgin daughter's first experience of sex which she enlivens with an enthusiastic filthy commentary.  This seems implausible and disconcerts the poor boy.  But he understands what is going on -- the daughter is a consumer of porn on the internet and her obscene "play-by-play" is merely her attempt to imitate what she has seen on her phone or laptop.  (The boyfriend tells her that she doesn't have to vocalize in that manner and she seems relieved.)  Ultimately, the film proposes this moral:  those who are hyper-vigilant about their children's safety, merely end up encouraging more risky and dangerous behavior.  Whether this is true is left to the viewer.  Jodie Foster directed this episode skillfully -- the film has a pseudo-documentary, neo-realist feel about it.