Pawn Sacrifice – Edward Zwick (2015)

I normally espouse going into a film almost randomly, not knowing what I am getting into – keeps the experience fresh, you know. So it was with Pawn Sacrifice. I knew it was about chess, rather than having to hock your wedding ring to pay off your bookie, and I was right on that count. I did not know that it was about Fischer and Spassky, or that it was, horror of horrors, a biopic. Naive dunderhead I may be, I only knew it had gotten generally positive buzz, had something to do with the Cold War, and was fictional. Were that it were so! How will they (those phantom filmmakers, as I had not yet discovered it was directed by Ed Zwick) make chess interesting on the big screen? Short answer – they won’t. Instead of the cooler, more serene sequel to Pi I was hoping for, we have instead a rehashing of the life of Bobby Fischer, with the narrative edifice built around his legendary series in Iceland against Spassky in 1972. Does anyone not know this story? I feel like I’ve seen it on PBS, on the History Channel, read about it in Games magazine… so this is hardly freshly trodden ground (except that those were small screen exertions). For those who don’t know, and would remotely care (although I don’t know why), Bobby Fischer was a chess prodigy born in Chicago, son of a German biophysicist (although the paternity is controversial) and physician mother Regina (played by Robin Weigert). Mom, although a consummate leftist, must leave Dad in Moscow during the onset of World War II. Our film finds Regina, now a single Mom, rearing older daughter Joan (Lily Rabe) and Bobby (Tobey Maguire) in a Brooklyn brownstone that also serves as a pressure cooker of paranoia. You see, the Feds are interested in Mom due to her politics and foreign service, so they often park out front and take photos, and Bobby is schooled from a young age in the proper etiquette of putting off impolite inquiries from G-Men. Somehow taking an early interest in chess, Bobby is quickly referred to the Brooklyn Chess Club by his psychiatrist, and is taken under the tutelage of Carmine Nigro (Conrad Pla), its president. From there, we are only a series of montage sequences away from Fischer’s early, still relatively sane triumphs, and from there onward again through another series of montage sequences to the heavyweight match against the man most likely to wear sunglasses at the chess board, Mr. Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber). Of course, as anyone who knows the story of Bobby Fischer will understand, the montage sequences are just the skeleton over which the sinews of insanity will be draped. Bobby starts out paranoid (not unjustifiably, thanks to Mom), and gets more so exponentially. Obsessed with Spassky, yet also seemingly afraid to take him on, Fischer continually plays matches, gets to a high level of competition, then explodes, affronted by perceived slights and inequalities which grow more and more absurd and egotistical; he then makes demands, claims that he is the single most important factor in the chess equation, and pushes until, absurdly, his demands are always met. Thus reinforced, he then usually loses the match, but is now confident that he should wash, rinse, and repeat, albeit at an even more fevered and intense pitch. (You can always tell when Fischer is about to snap because Maguire gets a certain set to his jaw, looks up and to the right, into the distance, hands on hips, as if he were about to reveal himself to be Superparanoiaman). Accompanying Fischer in his endeavor to rise to the peak (and then retreat, over and over again) are lawyer Paul Marshall (Michael Stuhlbarg), Fischer’s fixer and personal Iago, who is driven by jingoistic Cold War “patriotism,” and the not cynical Father Bill Lombardy (Peter Sarsgaard), who sticks with Fischer (most of the time) due to a mix of compassion and deep love for the game. Eventually, we reach Reykjavik, and the movie slows to a more sluggish mix of montage sequences and hazily portrayed chess games. Yes, eventually Fischer wins, although we are spared having to see all 21 individual matches. Fischer gets a standing ovation from Spassky, which of course does nothing but arouse his suspicions (he starts going Superparanoiaman, but then realizes he has nothing to bitch about, since he is now World Champ). We then get yet another closing montage sequence detailing Fischer’s slow slide into ignominy and at least partial insanity. T h e  e n d.

There are a few (and I mean damn few) bright points. Sarsgaard is likable enough as chess priest. Liev Schreiber speaks passable Russian. Time can be spent pondering if Fischer is insane, or if he is indeed playing the greatest (meta)game of all time. (This is the film’s strongest suit). Otherwise, the film really is the poster child for everything that is horrible about biopics. It is deeply boring, as it tells us a story we already know without anything but the most superficial insights into the psychology of the tale’s actors. Spassky is a Soviet tank, lumbering ever onward, crushing all opposition, while Fischer is that most charming combination, an insecure egomaniac. Having to watch scene after scene where he builds himself up as the most indispensable man in the world, and having to watch Marshall kowtow to him, does begin to achieve some degree of impact at least, as Fischer’s arrogance, no matter what the cause, becomes totally intolerable. The film tries to provide some compassion in the form of Father Lombardy (“he’s not afraid to lose… he’s afraid to win”), but Fischer, as in real life, is bulletproof. Our sympathies cannot penetrate his force field of tooth grinding jerkiness. There are more montage sequences than in an NBC Olympics broadcast, and they are of about the same quality – reductive, and telegraphing exactly which one emotion we are supposed to feel. (Admiration during young Fischer’s speed chess wins, gritty nostalgia during the oh-lord-I-can’t-believe-I-actually-have-to-watch-a-’60s-greatest-social-unrest-hits-set-to-White-Rabbit sequence, patriotism during the canned reactions to Fischer’s defeat of the Soviet menace, etc etc). And the montage sequences are cheaply done. I mean, some are crappy beyond belief. (One features a street interview, supposedly referencing the early ’70s, although looking like an ersatz ’90s music video, with three contemporary looking tween girls stuffed into tie-dyes, a lame After Effects video separation filter slapped on top). We are forced to look at idiots waving flags in slow motion celebration of an egomaniac for far longer than anyone who is not George W. Bush should have to. Having to watch every character in the film – from Mom and Sis to the guy at the front desk of a motel Fischer once stayed at – sit in front of a TV, waiting with baited breath for Fischer’s triumph, and then having to watch their feeble celebrations of that triumph (“yippee, a guy who once paid me to screw him just won a board game!”), will make you yearn for a seven hour analytic viewing of the Zapruder film with Oliver Stone sitting in your lap. But I digress. Even if we put aside the fact that Fischer’s Wikipedia entry is more compelling (and accurate), there is the fact of the portrayal of chess. It is absolutely pitiful. Chess in this film is reduced to a bunch of Rain Man style autistics shooting rapid fire notation at each other, playing games in their heads. If you don’t know how to play chess, you are patronizingly asked to sit in slack-jawed admiration of dem damn smert peeple. If you do know how to play chess, you can only sit there in slack-jawed disgust at the shallowness of the game’s representation. It is reduced to semi-mystical mumbo jumbo, emptied of any content or interest except as a site for vacant veneration. Yes, anyone watching the Spassky-Fischer match live in ’72 might have known little about chess, but at least they would have learned something by the end of the process. This film does not even attempt to achieve the pedagogical level of Wide World of Sports. Too much work, I suppose, or too much imagination required to conceive of a way to portray the abstractions of chess on a screen. What is a pawn sacrifice? You’ll never learn, nitwit. You obviously lack the IQ to drool on Fischer’s Cliff’s Notes. The only sacrifice required of you is the two hours of your life you’ll never get back.

Half a star out of five

Black Mass – Scott Cooper (2015)

Black Mass should have been titled Grey Slab – the movie descends like a winter migraine and sits on you until, final credits rolling, you escape from the theater into (hopefully) a brighter reality. Nominally the story of how Whitey Bulger made use of FBI chumps to further his criminal career, the film is, aside from the Boston accents, about as generic and bland a mobster film as you could imagine. Yes, we are in sub, sub, sub Goodfellas territory here (I am not stuttering, unlike our dearly departed Spider). There are plenty of slow motion wiseguys walking sequences. There’s the requisite attempt, also anemic as can be, to marry period pop to the scenes of wiseguys walking. There are the wiseguys themselves, so bloated and misshapen they look like beefsteaks shot full of Botox, their cheeks stuffed so full of cotton balls that even Don Corleone would, embarrassed, shoo them away, refusing to extend his hand in friendship. And the proceedings themselves are rote, predictable, and downright tedious. Like the Brutalist architecture of lovely downtown ’70s Boston that plays such a large part in the scenery of the film, this script was not written, I do believe, but simply marked up on a page in large chunks of brown, gunmetal, and worn, pockmarked slate. “Honor,” “loyalty,” and other such terms are dropped almost as frequently, and meaninglessly, as the f-bombs, and the more coherent exchanges reach high points like “Remember the old neighborhood Jimmy?” “Yeah.” “Those were the days when loyalty meant something.” “Fucking right.” How such a deeply dull derivative attracted the talents of Misters Depp, Cumberbatch, et al. remains a mystery. For Depp, I can see the appeal, I suppose, in that it allows him to play against type, or, at least, to try out big screen psychopathy for the first time. Looking like Gollum who has been sampling too much Spice (not the bodega variety, but the finer Arrakeen stuff), but unfortunately unable to fold time, he contents himself with folding his hands around the throats of hookers and housewives, all while enfolding pathetic FBI dupe John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) into his tasteless souffle of prurience. Overall, he does a credible job of disappearing into the part, such as it is. Cumberbatch, as Whitey’s younger brother, the “most powerful politician in the state” (eat that, Gov), does a good job with the accent, and with acting smug and powerful, although why we care is a mystery. Really, though, the best acting resides with the supporting players, often strutting their moment on the stage simply so we can revel in the snuffing out. Peter Sarsgaard, as pitiful jai-alai hanger on and sometime psycho Brian Halloran, and Juno Temple, as a young prostie done in by her association with step-dad meatwad Steve (Rory Cochrane – yuck), all but steal the show. (Which is, admittedly, not hard given the competition). And Kevin Bacon, looking, unlike the rest of the cast, lean and free of lumps, at least seems to have eaten his Wheaties and has some energy about him. What else? Well, there is the cinematography, again derivative and dull. Autumn and winter in Boston, awash in hideous ’70s fashions (that is, drapes and flares of brown, black, and, you guessed it, grey non-breathable fibers) and more Chevy Novas than you can shake a pimp cane at need not be uninterestingly shot, need it? Sadly, though, Black Mass follows many similar generic crap-outs in using very shallow depth of field for all but the widest shots, meaning that we are often looking at close-ups of hideous men with a thousand (or, rather, three or four) points of light floating behind them. Perhaps the cinematographer is in hiding, if not from the Mob, then from his guild, and so shot everything with a telephoto from across the street? The score, by the recently ubiquitous Junkie XL, who did a fine job for Mad Max: Fury Road, in keeping with the aesthetic, delivers more lead, the music a lulling, lugubrious nonentity. Okay, let’s get this wrapped up. Is there not any point of light here, you ask (aside from the unfocused floating variety already discussed)? Well, not really. What little interest exists in the film lies in the relationship of Whitey to the FBI, and the desire to see Connolly, who is very weaselly indeed, get his (which he does). Otherwise, this is one of those movies that, within five minutes of the (also lackluster) opening credits, you wish were already over. Take two Excedrin, spend the rest of the day lying in curtained, twilight repose, and sleep off the hangover.

One star out of five

The Diary of a Teenage Girl – Marielle Heller (2015)

The Diary of a Teenage Girl is without doubt one of the most honest and nuanced portraits of unabashed feminine sexuality in the history of (mainstream) American film; it is probably the best, and most sex positive, portrayal of specifically adolescent female desire we have had in this country. There have, of course, been other films that treat this subject matter, such as Larry Clark’s Kids or Catherine Hardwicke’s Thirteen, but most of those films have been perceived, often unfairly, as chronicles of threat, gritty warnings of the perils about to befall our children. In a recent positive review of The Diary of a Teenage Girl, Amy Taubin compares the film to the work of Catherine Breillat in which the sexuality of girls is treated with all due honesty and without pulled punches or a fear of giving offense (that is, Taubin sees Diary as an American counterpart to such work). While I take her point, it is also the case that Breillat is a provocateur, and that films such as A Real Young Girl, 36 Fillette, and Fat Girl are transgressive avant la lettre. (Those films, devoid of such niceties as Diary‘s animated flowers and winsome heroine, are interested in serving as aggressive critiques of larger chunks of social terrain than the film before us, which functions more as a mostly gentle corrective). Which is to say, although its success with audiences is hardly assured, The Diary of a Teenage Girl is an appropriately American film, in which its strengths are also, to my taste, its limitations.

Adapted from a graphic novel of the same name by Phoebe Gloeckner (who also illustrated the RE/Search edition of J.G. Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition, which I was obsessed with while in college), The Diary of a Teenage Girl chronicles the coming of age (or, more bluntly, the quest for sexual experience) of Minnie Goetze (Bel Powley), a budding 15 year old artist living in San Francisco with her divorced Mom (Kristen Wiig) and younger sister (Abby Wait) during the swinging ’70s. Mom is a semi-wreck, having recently parted ways with her (second?) husband, and Minnie’s surrogate father, Pascal (Christopher Meloni, always a treat), who now lives in New York. Mom parties too much, does drugs unabashedly in front of her kids, and is dating a semi-layabout dreamer named Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard). Monroe is the object of Minnie’s sexual fascination, so when Mom suggests that he take her out drinking with him one night, as she is too tired to attend, Minnie takes advantage of the opportunity to plant the not so subtle seeds of her desire within his mind. Pretty soon, Minnie and Monroe are having an affair behind Mom’s back, which sends Minnie not into a tailspin, but on to further sexual adventuring as she satisfies curiosity while at the same time exploring the reach of her powers. She does this by, for instance, hitting on and then sexually dominating one of the boys at her school, dropping her drab nerdy wardrobe to dress up for a Rocky Horror midnight screening, and, in what she and her girlfriend both concede is a bridge too far, giving random guys in a bar blowjobs for $5 each (holding hands with each other while kneeling on the bathroom floor). Eventually Monroe starts to lose his luster (in proportion to how quickly he reveals himself to be a real person, and possibly in love with her) and Minnie, empowered by a correspondence with cartoonist, and riot grrrl touchstone, Aline Kominsky, seeks to move on – but not before Pascal gets the drift of what is happening, and the whole house of cards comes crashing down as Mom takes a listen to Minnie’s audio diaries. Minnie skirts dangerously close to leaving home for good as Mom tries to work through this revelation, but eventually things smooth over (if not for Mom, then for Minnie) and the film ends with Minnie vowing that, unlike her mother, she will never need a man to be happy.

I fully admit that I am not doing the film justice with my synopsis. It is very funny in many parts (perhaps unintentionally so at times), coming close to a non-juvenile sex comedy, and also transgressive in its own way. Indeed, the opening, which features Minnie sauntering in slow motion through a park laden with big breasted joggers and topless sunbathers, who she ogles, happily exclaiming (internally) “Wow! I just had sex!,” obviously elated at that fact, skirts close to the tropes of pornography. It would not be surprising if this libidinous teenager, comfortable in her wielding of phallic power, made male viewers equally and oppositely uncomfortable. According to Taubin’s report, one male audience member at the Sundance festival screening asked the filmmaker to address the fact that the film was “obviously about pedophilia.” (He was met with laughter from many female members of the audience). There should be little doubt that the film is not about pedophilia, as we are quite clearly inside Minnie’s head and point of view for the entirety. The film communicates this not only through the narrative structure, but by the use of Minnie’s voice-over and by bringing Minnie’s art to life on the screen, animating moments of her affective response. This is part of what sets the film apart from the work of Breillat; here, we are with Minnie all the way, and rooting for her, as we are inside her head. There is none of the distance, and irony, that Breillat often employs to question the points of view of her protagonists, even as she is sympathetic to them. (Her protagonists tend to be “unsympathetic” to begin with anyway). For instance, Diary ends with Minnie, in voice-over, rejecting her mother’s apparent need for a man, and basically saying, “This is for all the girls out there like me.” While perhaps an important political move on the part of a filmmaker trying to communicate to a particular audience, it also has the impact, and tone, of pat after-school-special messaging. A director like Breillat, even if she deployed such a device, would not allow us to forget that this “you go girl” wisdom comes from the mouth of a 15 year old; we would be left with the bitter understanding that time proves most of us, no matter how spunky, wrong. Another “problem” which could be considered a feature for an American audience is the setting. Although it adheres to the reality of the graphic novel, setting the film in the 1970s allows the director a certain license for honesty and, hence, the audience a certain distance, that setting such events in a contemporary setting would not. Yes, Minnie is a 15 year old who does drugs with her Mom and has an affair with her boyfriend, but after all, it is the 1970s, and San Francisco. The setting helps naturalize what should, rightfully, cause question, regardless of Minnie’s maturity and empowerment. The director has stated that she’d really like teenage girls to be the audience for the film, and I don’t disagree – girls need images that show their desires as normal, powerful, and their sexuality as fully their own. At the same time, where is the film that addresses these same issues for today’s teenage girl, in her own milieu? (That is, post Reagan-era sexual repression and paranoia, and post-Internet double standard of valorized exhibitionism coupled with To Catch a Predator prurience). While these issues niggle at me, they mostly do so on the level of aesthetics – I happen to dislike the rampant use of voice-over in contemporary film, and feel that directors of serious (American) films often take refuge from our present era these days. I fully recognize that on some level it sounds like I’m complaining that an apple is not an orange (or that the United States is not France… although I might plead guilty on that count). It is hard to make a work that is serious, addresses a (sadly) taboo subject like this, contains nuance, and is still a feel good, funny, and happy film that sends a message of empowerment to a population that gets far too little along those lines. On that count, Marielle Heller has done a superb job, and her film deserves to be widely seen.

Three and a half stars out of five

Infinitely Polar Bear – Maya Forbes (2015)

Yes, indeed, another indie film that nobody asked for, on a topic that has some liberal cache, amped further up by the casting choices. This is practically a genre in and of itself anymore: the “social issue” film that is also a family portrait, which takes on a “tough” topic in an insistently upbeat manner, and generally resolves itself in anodyne fashion. We could mistake it for fluff, mere Hollywood fake sunshine, but the salty language of the kids and their “unconventional” interactions with Dad round it out, giving it supposed grit and indie cred. I didn’t expect much more; I arrived hoping simply for some cute kids (which were mostly delivered) and for an interesting performance from Mark Ruffalo (which was less delivered on). The chemistry between Mom and Dad (Zoe Saldana and Mr. Ruffalo) is pretty much non-existent, which, while helping the majority of the film, as Mom and Dad are separating and growing distant, does little to shore up any backstory of how in the hell Mom and Dad got together in the first place. Oh yes, it was the ’60s, and Mom mistook Dad’s bipolar behavior for a lighter unconventionality, which was apparently in bloom during the hippy heyday along with peace, love, and dope. It certainly helps to explain why the film is set in the 1970s. Otherwise, what could the reason be? An aversion to cell phones as plot devices? A desire to watch all the characters chain smoke unabashedly? The inauthentic double gift of a time that was both let it all hang out weird as well as stodgy and conservative, as needed by the dictates of the script? (The narrative makes a lame stab at a framing device, in which we understand that the film is a recollection of the now grown children, but it never follows through on this). As a portrait of someone afflicted with bipolar disorder, it is definitely the Cole Porter version – Auntie Mame seems more unbalanced. As a family portrait, it is not very compelling, as we don’t have enough backstory or conflict to care, and the kids, while cute, are not terribly charming or sympathetic (ditto for Ruffalo. Saldana doesn’t even have a chance). It is also quite static. We start the film with Dad easing back into life after a stint in the hospital, with Mom carrying the burden of working. Dad, even without bipolar, comes from blue blood old money now gone to seed, so is not terribly equipped to work even in ideal circumstances. Mom, having an onerous, no-pay library job, decides to apply to Columbia, get her MBA, and then come back and support the family. Dad and kids, living in Boston, stay put, and the main meat of the film (ham hock though it be) is the portrayal of Dad going from a doddering father with less responsibility to a doddering father with more responsibility. Mom is gone for over a year, visiting on some weekends, and holds out a romantic reunion with Dad as a carrot to keep him motivated. Unsurprisingly, when the MBA arrives, Mom is not interested in Dad anymore, but Dad seems okay with the fact, or at least accepting, after he and Mom hug it out, crying together over a grill in the park. Mom will take a job in New York, Dad will keep the kids in Boston, and the future will grind on as it was, although with more money. The kids, resistant to Dad’s unconventional ways early on, still resist, and still scream obscenities, but now at least acknowledge that they love him while flipping him the bird. Or something like that. (I am making the film sound more dramatic than it is). Yes, this is looking to be my shortest review ever. Nothing happens in this film that you wouldn’t expect, and nothing happens that would be out of place on your average weekly TV drama. The sets look like leftovers from Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl. Ruffalo wears Lacoste polos all film long and smokes like an affected movie Nazi. His father is played, briefly, by Keir Dullea, the whitest man alive. If any of this sounds exciting, or moving, please, do go and light your world on fire with this film’s torpid placidity. If you like cute kids swearing, you might be mildly satisfied. Plenty of crappy, wanna-be upbeat pseudo Polyphonic Spree music can be heard. Also, the title makes close to no sense.

Two stars out of five

’71 – Yann Demange (2015)

When I was an undergrad, an essay, graded C, was returned to me with a one word criticism: vague. This has always haunted me, as it was a horrible piece of critical feedback, but it also brilliantly performed its own criticism. I have always tried to do better, and I will spell out the vagaries of ’71, but if I had to sum it up in one word, it would be vague. This film, which wound up on the ten best list of several critics whose opinion I respect, deals with a green British soldier sent into Belfast with his regiment during the Troubles in the year 1971. I don’t know much about the Troubles, and I came out of the film knowing as much as I did when I went in – so how historically accurate this historical action film is, I cannot say. At the same time, accuracy need only be judged, in this case, by the set decoration and costuming, and not by the dramatics, as this could just as easily be the solo edition of The Warriors, or any other film of that genre (get home alive?), reset in drearier climes. The lack of historical detail, or even of historical overview, would not nettle if I had felt anything during the screening. Tension? Surprise? Excitement? There are some well-staged sequences, without doubt, especially the bombing of a pub and our protagonist’s noise-induced hearing loss, but even in such cases, it is hard to care. The reason for this is that our protagonist, Gary Hook (Private Hook, one supposes), is about as generic as can be, with little to no backstory, who barely opens his mouth for the entirety of the film. Yes, there are magical films with such protagonists; indeed, there are some films that are stronger because of such a setup. I only wish this were one of them. Hook is as bland as boiled, mashed turnips, eaten without butter or salt, and washed down with a draught of milk. He never opines about anything, and is humanized only by being granted an apparently orphaned younger brother to say goodbye to as the film opens, and to rescue from his meanie orphanage at the film’s conclusion. The plot itself makes The Warriors seem complex and high toned in comparison. Hook goes with his regiment to provide support to the police while they extract a suspect from a Catholic neighborhood. His young C.O. stupidly takes away their riot gear, wanting to seem friendlier to the population. A riot promptly breaks out as the extraction proceeds, and Hook and one of his confreres have to plow through the rioters in an attempt to retrieve a military rifle swiped by a young boy. Away from their unit, they get beat up, and then Hook’s pal is shot point blank in the head. The rest of the unit hightails it out of there, not realizing until much later that Hook has been left behind. Now Hook has to avoid the Provisional IRA and try to get out of the neighborhood and back into British hands.

Which is, sadly, not so hard. The main problem with this plot is that, within the genre of “get home alive,” getting home is usually quite difficult. Home is a long ways away, perhaps, across hostile turf populated by vast and divergent quantities of threat. Here, “home” is simply anywhere outside of the Catholic neighborhood which, given some small help in orientation, takes Hook approximately 8 hours or so to exit. So, to make his escape a problem, the filmmakers introduce a variety of plot devices, the main one being the double cross. You see, now that he’s been in Catholic territory, the Brits want him dead for some reason too. Hook’s unit, and his C.O., are subordinate to three scummy “undercover” guys who are also apparently ranking officers, and these guys are hot to “rescue” Hook quickly before he can get back into regular army hands, all the better to execute him. Now, did the filmmakers feel like bothering with some kind of reason, historically rooted or no, for this double cross? Is there, for instance, a good reason for these “undercover” officers to see Hook as a political liability for any of the operations they are already involved in? We wouldn’t know, as their “operations” are seemingly comprised of riding around in cars together, looking seedy, and meeting contacts in the IRA, who they threaten. So, for the first half of the movie, Hook stumbles around, trying to avoid those he knows want to kill him, and in the second half, he stumbles around trying to avoid getting killed by people he knows. The audience never understands why Hook is so important, nor why he needs to be taken care of by the undercovers, so it plays as a rather cynical device. Perhaps the filmmakers thought that this would go unnoticed, as the baddies are themselves cynics. At least, there is no other way to evaluate their actions – they come off as sub-par versions of the cynical sleazoids in Julian Jarrold’s contribution to the Red Riding trilogy, 1974. The difference being, in 1974 we do come to understand the exact nature of the sleaziness, and the cynicism, and some of the reasons why, although perhaps not the full scope of everything until the final film. ’71 is all beady eyes, bad haircuts, and sweaty, rather unconvincing choke holds that take long enough to allow contrivances to blossom and rescues to be had. Given that we know little about Hook, and less about his foes, the action itself, no matter how well staged, becomes trivial – and it doesn’t help that the solution to the climax is very contrived indeed. Thus the ending not only lacks catharsis, it lacks weight – or rather, it lands with a pretentious leaden thud. We are supposed to feel Hook’s repugnance at having to face his would-be assassin in the office of the ultimate military authority on the matter (unnamed, natch). We should take umbrage at this righteous young solider’s trust being trammeled upon, how he is turned into an angry cynic himself by being sold down the river by said military authority. His own catharsis denied, Hook (we are given to understand) is discharged, stopping on the way out of town to pick up the kid brother at the orphanage. Thence, to the sweet hereafter and into the sunset. The whole film is reduced to a massive cliche – although reduced is perhaps too strong a word: naive and honorable lad turned sour through sad personal experience of the political realities of the world. Yes, no one likes being used as a pawn. And no one is pretty much who Hook is. A cynical film about cynics which decries the causes of cynicism! Is there any thrill to be had in such reflexivity? The answer is no.

Two stars out of five