Thursday, 31 December 2009


Roland Joffé, 1986, UK

Ultimately the missionaries of the European Catholic Church have come to eradicate the Guarani Indians of South America just as much as the slave traders and ruthless Portuguese; but rather than with enslavement and massacres, the Jesuits use the passive-aggressive means of faith and conversion to erode the Guarani way of life. There is cognitive dissonance between the apparent ‘faith’ of the film and what we see: it can create martyrs of the missionaries and claim that the spirits of the dead Indians live on, but this is no consolation for a massacre; it is more like denial of religion’s involvement in genocide - both physical and cultural, as much as mercenary slave traders - and the believing in some vague notion of an afterlife to wave away the horror. The film patronises the Guarani, concerned only with their plight through "The White Man’s Burden", through the angst and sacrifices of its white protagonists. Thus, as movies have always approached the most elusive of societies.

"The Mission" does comes close to something credibly ‘divine’ by casting the jungle as Eden and in De Niro’s salvation by penance and reinvention; but these traits are more to do with the natural generosity of the scenery and narrative’s forgiving Indians. There is little evidence of the friction and likely complex reactions that accompanies religious conversion and scripture. The Guarani simply give themselves over to the Jesuits - that this is ultimately their only way of survival is muddily conveyed (so as not to mitigate the Jesuit good works), and how they feel about this is never addressed. The Jesuits come and provide legal protection against the slave traders: the true enemy here is greed and political corruption, a merciless growth of global consumerism and expanding plunder; the mission in contrast creates an idyllic socialist Guarani factory of production where profits and workload are evenly distributed and put back into the mission. Again, though this appears to be good works indeed, one can assume that the Guarani had an active social and bartering system of their own, long before the Jesuits arrived. This lack of any real understanding of the natives upon which the drama is invested in is a truly grievous absence.

The story runs smoothly, but any depth dissipates into pretty visual aesthetic; the drama squanders death as sentimental martyrdom. Where we should feel outrage and horror, we are pushed more to the moral superiority and redemption of our protagonists. Indeed, it is martyrdom that validates faith. De Niro as Rodrigo Menoza, begins as a slave-trader and murderer, and when he murders his own brother in a fit of jealousy over a woman, he becomes a missionary, a transformation that carries some weight as a tale of redemption. There is also the sneaking suspicion that De Niro may well be miscast, which is offset by a number of small moments where he coveys so much with his eyes.

In fact, it is in small moments that the film resonates. Jeremy Irons/Father Gabriel wooing the Indians with music, for example (it’s a nice moment, although the allusions to the story of "The Pied Piper" also helps to infantilise the natives). De Niro being manhandled curiously, being forgiven and accepted by the Guanari. Jeremy Irons shouting "Jesus is Love!" as if he is telling De Niro to go fuck himself. The Indian boy who has adopted De Niro wordlessly asking De Niro to fight for him by resurrecting the man’s sword. Irons’ loss of faith in humanity is also interesting enough. But greater insights are not recognised: the moment where the Guarani reminds His Eminence that he too is a King ought to speak volumes, but it does not because the film has barely identified this itself. The natives are children of Eden, generic and lacking character; we learn nothing of their ways or the conflicts when integrating with the Jesuits.

And in this way, the film condescends and ultimately insults. When his Eminence states, in closing voiceover, that it is he that is truly dead and that the Guarani live on, and when the final words on screen are for the missionaries that risk their lives for the Guanari rather than the Guanari themselves, one sees how myriad the ways of colonialist self-importance and pious self-congratulation; not only in the moments of truth in this particular fiction, but also in the post-colonial self-regard of white-man’s film-making. John Boorman’s "The Emerald Forest" is a scruffier and pulpier film in comparison, but it is more sincerely dedicated to merging white experience into native culture rather than vice versa, and more respectful too. "The Mission" is a pretty film and not without resonance - and the Morricone score helps - but its ugliness is in using its true victims as a mere branch from which to decorate it’s white guilt and self-regard.

Sunday, 20 December 2009


Il grande silenzio, Le grand silence
Sergio corbucci, 1967, Italy/France

In "The Great Silence", Klaus Kinski is Tigrero, the fearful embodiment of unbridled capitalism: he sees people, life and death only in cash value, as opportunities for earnings. And a little sadistic pleasure. He goes through the affectations of charm with his psychopathic politeness and manners, but he is also charmless, fooling no one; both fascinating and totally chilling. A bizarre figure with a light voice, dressed like an old woman with a shawl around the head and a fur coat, topped with a preacher’s hat, it is an unforgettable performance. Kinski is measured and restrained (which he is not necessarily renowned for) that conveys effortlessly Tigrero’s soulless, detached nature, watching with amusement the emotions and mechanics of the supposed civility around him as he goes about his business as a bounty hunter. It is just about as far from his compelling mannerisms in "Nosferatu" and breakdown mania of "Woyzeck" as one can imagine. When we first meet Tigrero, he apologises to the mother of the man he has just helped to murder, saying "Try to understand, madam, it’s our bread and butter." And having orchestrated the final massacre, he says indifferently and yet surely with barely concealed relish, "All according to the law." And he is right.

Spaghetti westerns were always chock full of corruption, torture, amorality, random cruelty and absurdity. Many, of course, came to this through the Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood "dollar" films. Spaghetti westerns were the messy punk reaction to the self-congratulatory stateliness and conservatism of the American westerns. They spit "You lie!" to John Wayne and John Ford. But not even the Leone cynicism and strokes of vulgarity could prepare a viewer for the thorough nihilism and bleakness of "The Great Silence". In this vision by writer-director Sergio Corbucci, the corruption of the privileged and the perversion of the law is so thorough that not even the typical lone mysterious super-gun-slinging hero can beat the odds. The conclusion will devastate anyone so comfortable with western convention and heroics. Also, there is no fair play, no code of conduct between gunslingers: quite simply, the bad guys cheat and get their blood money. It troubles, horrifies and deeply upsets.
The snow-caked carraige is one of the wonderful, not-so-typical and slightly otherworldly visions of this offbeat western.

Our hero is "Silence", also a bounty hunter, but one that preys upon murderers, on other bounty hunters, who will never pull a gun first, who is quicker than all and bears a novelty handgun. But when forced into a fist-fight, he’ll improvise too and grab a log to smack his adversary. No, no code of conduct here at all: just cash and survival. A merciless world, although we wrongly suspect some form of primal righteousness will ultimately prevail. "Silence" comes to the mountains of Utah to the town of Snow Hill, where the local justice of the peace and banker Policutt has driven out almost all the townsfolk and put bounties on their heads. If westerns typically promise hot, dry, sun-drenched sweaty scenarios, again Corbucci subverts this by giving us a world covered in snow, whiteness and bitter winds. The vistas are fantastic and the grubby detail exemplary without drawing attention to itself. It’s frequently beautiful, but there appears little real comfort here. It is both scruffy, as most spaghetti westerns are, and often verges on the ethereal. Out of the white, like an angelic avenger, comes "Silence," evidently on his own mission of vengeance against those that cut out his vocal chords as a boy to silence him as a witness to the murder of his parents.

Into this den of bounty hunters and corruption also comes a sheriff, Burnett. It probably undermines our anticipations when he turns out not to be corruptible but well intentioned, yet he is no match for the forces against him either. If you are not corruptible, malleable to money, then you are expendable, it would seem. There are some strong, beautiful women too, carrying around furious grief and demands to avenge their murdered men. How will it all be resolved? In a showdown, of course. But.

The director Alex Cox loves "The Great Silence" and tells - in his book "10,000 Ways to Die"* - of how Corbucci was inspired by the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Che Guevara. The finale of the film taps into the genuine outrage of people having their idols and heroes stolen from them by overwhelming violence and corruption - but it is not only that: everyone innocent in "The Great Silence" suffers, not only our dubious protagonist, so it achieves far more than a narrow tale of martyrdom. As Cox states, "The message of ‘The Big Silence’ … is that sometimes, even though you know you’ll fail, you still do the right thing." And this, then, is how such a film differs so much from your typical western of any strain. We feel Eastwood’s stranger is too canny and resourceful to truly feel he’ll fail; he’ll take chances, sure, but not failure. It’s the same with the Django films, and there is never any chance of failure with Spaghetti Western cartoons such as "Sabata". We never feel like "Silence" is in total command of events. No, but we do feel that Tigrero is.

"The Great Silence" is somewhat a lost treasure. Obviously but not crushingly politicised, alive with genre nuance and subversion, black humour and relentlessly, shockingly bleak. There is also a wonderful soundtrack by Ennio Morricone and a rather fine love scene. Due to studio indifference and undoubted horror at the tone and endgame of the film, it sunk into obscurity and it can only be hoped that it will claim its rightful place as a remarkable cult item with a new lease of life on DVD.
* Alex Cox, "10,000 Ways To Die: a director’s take on the spaghetti western", (Kamera Books, Herts, 2009), pages185-193

Friday, 18 December 2009


SPEED RACER: Andy & Lana Wachowski, USA, 2008

Live-action adaptation of Japanese TV anime series "Mahha GoGoGo" (1967).

The anti-corporate corruption message is both a little dense for such a virtual whimsy and is inevitably simplistic and hollow. This is, however, totally in keeping with its Japanese cartoon origins and it is no more or less hollow and simplistic than Romero’s odd anti-YouTube tirade "Diary of the Dead".

Of course, the anti-corporation plot is all to boost the virtues of genuine talent and incorruptibility of the common man and little heroes. The Wachowskis provide the film with no real personable charm, but a full-on cartoonish and family-friendly sensibility pardons all manner of traits that would otherwise be insufferable: a comedy monkey; every scene subject to special effects within every pixel (as it were); broad characterisations where everyone suddenly becomes, if not martial arts experts, then definitely unlikely master brawlers, etc. Again, all this is in keeping with the source material and family-fun adventure. And the dialogue and myth-making, although slight, are better than anything in the Matrix sequels, and the aesthetic is as consummate and otherworldly as anything in "Sin City" or "Watchmen". Why shouldn’t a family/kid’s film look this amazing? No need for darkness all the time, although there is some downbeat substance to the vision of companies squashing individuals with duplicity and thuggery.

The main point: these are the brightest yellows, pinks, reds… the most vibrant colours you are ever likely to see on film. You may feel your retina being ever-so-slightly burnt away by the vitality and florescence of the spectrum radiating from the screen. It may put you off candy for a while. But it is totally immersive and often gorgeous and dazzling during fly-by vistas. Occasionally, there are moments of inspiration - for example, the opening visit to Speed’s childhood where his question paper runs into blahblahblah and he amuses himself by daydreaming himself into a race, one rendered in hand-drawn animation. Elsewhere, there is plenty of cross-cutting in chronology to keep the pacing spikey, sometimes so speedy that you almost lose your footing on the narrative and (again, typical of anime) verging on the incomprehensible. Also, the Wachowskis do know how to shoot an action scene, and the races are often and thrilling enough to stop things from dragging. Speed’s brilliance is never in doubt, so there is little suspense, but the whole enterprise is set upon those tried and tested memes that have carried from the Japanese to the American dream: fulfilling your own brilliance and overcoming all odds and villainy. Both successfully.

Pretty much mauled by critics upon release, time will surely salvage "Speed Racer" as a guilty visual pleasure and an above-average family film. The converse of, say, "The Dark Knight", but that’s not automatically a bad thing. You might have to wear shades to watch it, but if you are in the mood for light entertainment and visual wonder, it is worth indulging.


Written and Directed by Philip Spink, 1995, Canada
Peter Piper is a poor kid, oblivious to having one of the worst hairstyles since the kid in "Elvis! Elvis!" He also doesn’t care about wearing his sister’s cast-offs. And after all, it’s the Sixties and the moon landing is just ahead. But when his family adopt a Native American boy, Sam, the two kids plan a trip to the moon of their own. Subjected to bad fashion, terrible dental retainers and bullying, Peter lives in the shadow of an older brother who died in service, his mother’s Socialism and liberal outlook - which seem to spring as much from desperation and necessity as philosophy - and his father’s silent grief and his various sisters.

A highly endearing, modest little Canadian children’s film that might perhaps baffle younger kids with its social context - which will win over many adults for its knowing observations and hints - but provides much to enjoy for those kids that get it, if only for its smooth jumps into empathy and magic realism. If the sudden leap into fantasy undermined much of Martha Coolidge’s "Three Wishes" domestic build-up, "Once in a Blue Moon" moves with seamless movements from childhood poverty to imaginative interpretation: a power station becomes a base for martians to complete building earth and neatly embodies the detached presence of Peter’s father (the martians and dad wear the same outfits!); an monstrous hand casually supplies tools for Peter to build with; a trip to the dentist becomes a hilarious daydream in which doctors and the military praise robot-boy Peter’s superiority. Peter’s wild imagination is not one that turns in upon itself with destructive consequences, as with Seth Dove in "The Reflecting Skin"; it does not propose mental disturbance as in "Afraid of the Dark". Rather, it is something pure and far more aligned with the American Dream; the moon missions of both the USA and Peter and Sam are paralleled to obvious meaning, most of all the search for wonder and transcendence. But that it incorporates ethnic minorities ~ the adopted kids and the neighbours, most obviously ~ without ever raising the issue of racism offers a generous, optimistic vision of The American Dream. Sam the Indian kid even tells Peter that his father is Elvis at one point. It is concerned with unfairness, but not ugliness.

The film possesses a strong feminine streak, in that it is Peter and Sam that bear the greatest imaginations and the most feminine hairstyles. Peter eventually succumbs to depression when his hairstyle brings him one too many accusations of being a girl ~ and his masculinity eventually becomes Sam’s greatest challenge. Yet men are largely absent under the wealth of strong female figures of all ages, most prominently Peter’s mother and wonderful deaf but resourceful sister. Although benign, Peter’s father is a silent, slightly ominous figure, wrapped in his own grief for a lost son and hiding behind work and a wielder’s mask. Although the feminine is a strong presence, it is up to Peter to fill the blank space that is masculinity.

Cody Serpa as Peter Piper carries the whole story of one boy’s search for identity with a winning, smart performance. Underneath Peter's long-term, pretty clever and amusing plan of humiliation for those that bully him, there’s a wealth of themes. The film has plenty to say about gender, poverty, disability, the growth of feminism, grief and patriotism, as well as the portrait of the artist as a young boy. The turning point is the trip to the cinema, in which displaced Sam talks about his past, and then Sam is humiliated before the whole audience of peers, mistaken for a girl, watched by a giant Hitchcockian eye on the screen. There are also nods to "The Wizard of Oz" and "2001 a space odyssey" which will surely pass over the heads of a young audience. With a brand new conventional hairstyle, signalling a maturity or choice of individuality, the lapses into magic-realism slow down. It is up to Sam to carry on the torch of unashamed childish imagination whilst Peter battles to assert himself. Loaded with little surprises and excellent performances all round, "Once in a Blue Moon" is an intelligent and rewarding entry into the genre, pushing at its boundaries yet still maintaining an engaging modesty. As it has to, it all ends bittersweetly, with the magic realism of life and cinema re-established for the adult world.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

LOST IN SPACE: the launch and landing

"Lost In Space"

episodes 1-3
"The reluctant Stowaway"
"The Derelict"
"Island in the Sky"

The opening episodes of "Lost In Space" - one of the famous/infamous brainchilds of producer Irwin Allen - are a real treat for those of us who have idealised false-memories of growing up in that era when pulp science-fiction really emerged out of television sets and drive-ins and into the mainstream. I’m English and far too young to have enjoyed seeing the drive-in era first time around; I only wish I had those early memories of Joe Dante, Ray Harryhausen and Ray Bradbury. On the other hand, thanks to early evening monster-movie and science-fiction seasons when I was just about to hit my teens, I too experienced black-and-white B-movie gems and derivatives before I abruptly found myself coming of age in my teens with such as "An American Werewolf in London" and "Eraserhead", so I feel like I experienced my own version of that idealised era. I can only imagine how much I would have relished the weekly broadcasts of adventures of the family Robinson, had my childhood coincided with those first screenings. The first three episodes were originally screened in September 1965.

As it is, the opening episodes are a lot of fun. We can enjoy the show’s datedness for sure, for the retro-future is a delight, and I am certain that the whole thing becomes camper and bittier as the episodes and seasons progress, but the first three episodes at least tell a continuous tale. The Robinsons are the first pioneering family into space, a test exploration in a programme to resolve Earth’s population problems. This is the dilemma of the space-age future of 1997 (!). The first episode covers the launch and the instantaneous ruination of the flight by "the nefarious" Dr. Zachary Smith, a mercenary saboteur who accidentally finds himself launched along with the Robinsons and their pilot, Major Don West (Mark Goddard). Wait… only one pilot?? Anyway… The pacing is occasionally a little staid - the tempo of another era - and aside from Smith and the fiesty Will Robinson (Bill Mumy), the rest of the crew are a pretty un-charismatic lot. This will ultimately prove to be the case in general, and in this the Robinsons are the ultimate Cold War era family: the kind that have achieved the idealised ‘dullness’ and conservatism that James Mason in "Bigger Than Life" mentions.

"Not so nefarious now, huh, Dr. Smith??"

There is innocent joy in seeing that the Robinson’s spaceship, Jupiter 2, is a flying saucer, and to find that they all dress in silver spacesuits. And then there is the Robot, who is part daft novelty and part imposing menace; somewhere between Robbie the Robot and Gort. He gets to run amok, be Will’s pet and play straight man to Dr. Smith’s sliminess. And so all the requirements are in place for a fun space yarn: by the end of the first episode we get a space walk and meteors; in the second we get an alien vessel; by the third we get a crash landing on an unknown planet. At 50 minutes each episode, the action is often stretched, but mostly composed of two halves: Jupiter 2 launch/sabotage and space-walk; space-walk resolution/alien vessel; crash landing on alien planet/rescue mission for John Robinson (space-age mannequin Guy Williams). This means that something new is always turning up and the perils are constant. Come episode 3, this also means we get a cute big-eared space-monkey which, on top of the half-cute, half-frightening robot, is probably a little too much (and promptly the writers have little idea what to do with space-monkeys, except to make it a baby-like pet-toy for Penny Robinson (Angela Cartwright)). But the erratic loyalties of the robot - the embodiment of devotion, technology and perverted in the Robinson’s universe - provides some threat and suspense on top of the murderous plots of Dr. Smith.

To which "You Only Live Twice" (1967) surely owes a debt.

As Smith, Jonathan Harris lays on the ham, smarm, weasley charm, entertainment and all out creepiness, but the unremarkable performances of the other adults do little to liven up shallow types. Pretty early on in the show, it is Smith, the Robot and plucky Will Robinson that energise the drama amidst the roster of hazards. There is great irony in the bad guy (who even denigrates the worth of voting! Democracy itself!! Commie slimeball!) upstaging such an iconic nuclear family, but the show doesn’t necessarily get this and just assumes the Robinsons’ earnest goodness is enough. But to offset this, there is plenty of danger, a rather decent sequence where we watch the Jupiter 2 crash-land, followed by a funky explorer buggy (or "chariot", as they call it… and from where in the ship did that come from?) and electrified tumbleweed (!).

Perhaps the most sublime sequence of the opening episodes is the near-"2001" moment when the Jupiter 2 is pulled into the alien vessel, which opens up its maw to swallow the smaller craft up. You can rarely go wrong with the exploring-an-alien-craft moment, and there is a genuine eeriness here. The most is made of a low budget: the crystal-web-like interior proves both evocative and economical, creating a cost-effective set design of invariability that creates the idea that it will be very easy to get lost. We even get a wonderfully absurd alien to encounter. With the silver suits to top it all off, what more could a fan of Space Age pulp want?

...Tune in next week…

Sunday, 1 November 2009


Andrew Marton, 1965, USA

Old-fashioned disaster flick with aging, cancer-ridden, over-ambitious scientist Dana Andrew’s plans to tap the Earth’s core for power resulting in the movie’s title. Desperate and deluded scientist Andrews foolishly still competes for his wife Janette Scotte with a younger, equally ambitious ex-student Kieron Moore. The global crack runs parallel not only with his disease, but with these domestic troubles: personal and external frictions and frissures finally meet head-on so that the old man’s suppressed rage and cancer explode, sending his soul/life/delusions/guilt etc. spiralling into orbit as a serene second moon.

Talky but lively, the cast try to give this some emotional gravitas while dealing with science and disaster that, even to a layman, are self-evidently unconvincing. Namely, the end of the world as we know it surely would have arrived half-way through the running time, but then the entire episode is only a vague acquaintance of science and geology. But the second-moon born in a new burning red world is a fair act of bravado - audacious barely covers it - and, finally, the implausibility of it all doesn’t quite hinder the decent number of dramatic floruishes and special effects.

Thursday, 29 October 2009


Oxide & Dnny Pang, 2007, USA

Diverting but ultimately mediocre haunted farmhouse blending of American and Japanese horror by the Pang brothers. Like their former supernatural scarer "The Eye", the Pang execute some decent atmosphere and spooky moments, all with visual panache, but similarly it progresses into a car crash of logic and dramatics. White-faced, jittery digital effects ghosts and sunflowers make for an odd combination, but you can’t completely fail with the scary sound of someone running around upstairs when you know you’re alone, or something ominous in the basement. There is a nicely staged bird attack, but this too ultimately is all show and no point. Perhaps the creepiest and subtlest detail are the claw marks leading to the cellar door… which strangely nobody notices.

Not knowing what to do with the end, it falls back on the demonic murderous father-figure rampage. A flip is switched and there he goes, just to trigger some ending of some kind. Which immediately makes the prologue a cheat: in the showdown, our rampager spouts the usual psycho-on-the-loose platitudes about women being bad girls and not doing what they’re told, and so on - but in order for the prologue to achieve ambiguity, he did not behave that way at all when we first experienced him going berserk. Not one psychotic word. Trying to make sense of this final revelation makes the ghosts that particularly confused brand who seem to be trying to send a warning to the new house owners by attacking them and scaring them to death. Japanese ghosts in particular are vengeful and confused manifestations - they often behave this way - but sending such a mixed message doesn’t help with internal logic here. As with "The Eye", it is this somewhat disastrous last act that sabotages any goodwill earned in the set-up.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009


Ruben Fleischer, 2009, USA

Although it encourages a lot of goodwill - and it generally gets it - "Zombieland" is disappointing in its narrowness. This is obscured by lots of post-modern and would-be zappy humour and effects (which both distinguish and aggravate the opening credits zombie slaughter marathon), a handful of genuine funny moments, a woeful voiceover and Woody Harrelson. In fact, it is Harrelson who saves the show, as does a quite bonkers and good-stupid cameo appearance (which I won’t spoil here, just in case you don’t know).

I dislike gratuitous voiceovers. A lot. Voiceovers, and especially American voiceovers, are ordinarily unnecessary and gratuitous by nature, and "Zombieland" bears a prime example of the annoying, distracting kind; it thinks itself smart and, heh, amusing, but it is really just intrusive and evident. It distracts like a finger being poked in your side every time the film is settling down, going "Eh? Eh?". It does not generate enough genuine wit, gags or interesting spin to feel warranted. Everything would be just as obvious without it.

Where the voiceover is over-written - script by Rhett Reece and Paul Wernick - the core of the zombieland concept is generally undernourished, both in the horror and the romance departments (some ornamental gore alone makes for a weak understanding of horror). It is more zany in its logic than properly grounded. The zombies aren’t really present, only there to give our humorous road-movie adventure gang something to flee from and be to look cool when killing. It is wholly appropriate that the title sounds like an arcade game and ends up in a theme park. "Zombieland" is more a rom-com and odd-couple comedy that has heard horror films are in vogue. Let’s go to the obvious precedent: if there is anything any zombie comedy should learn from "Shaun of the Dead" it is that the real good stuff is in the details. Details like logic and plausibility do not have be relinquished for wackiness. This has more in common with the latter, cartoonish Chucky films ("Bride of Chucky" and "Seed of Chucky") than the black humour of "Dawn of the Dead". In "Zombieland", no one runs out or worries about ammunition; in fact they often use weapons once against a single zombie and then toss that weapon aside. There is no real sense of threat. If our nerd hero (Jesse Eisenberg, who does come across as a cut-price Micheal Sera) is meant to be as cowardly as we're told, then how come we see him from the get-go dealing with zombies so efficiently and dispatching them without any hesitance? Is it that killing zombies must always look cool, regardless of proposed character traits? And, upon consideration, a prank based upon trying to scare a couple of zombie hunters by pretending to be a zombie… seems pretty dumb, actually. Funny, at the time, but it all feels sloppy. Yes yes, it’s a zombie film, and a comedy, but all absurdity still relishes internal logic rather than just flip film mannerisms. We could blame a post-"Reservoir Dogs", post "Friends" post-modern self-reflexism I guess. Hipness over substance.

Zombies are in season now, totally ubiquitous, and so much so that they can even play decoration to a nerd-gets-hot-bad-girl screwball romp. It does not bear the knowing pathos of "Shaun of the Dead" (which, as Mark Kermode has noted, is aging really well), where the zombies represent the total fear of the outside world barely repressed by its awkward but endearing characters. "Zombieland" really has no use for establishing any subtext or for its walking dead, or interest even giving them any essence. They are just there for a few over-the-top gags. It’s an odd-bunch road flick and a milkshake of a romance with some serious gore stirred in just to keep amorous zombie nerds interested. Okay, so let’s say it’s the "Ghostbusters" of zombie flicks, but not half as smart or knowing as it thinks it is.

This, then, is what a zombie film looks like now that zombies have become part of mainstream entertainment. Not that it won’t make you laugh occasionally and won’t try to charm the hell out of you, and as far as diverting, cartoonish amusements go, it’s a fair deal - but it’s a trifle. Not much meat to it after all.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

TOY STORY: Utopias and Dystopias for Toys of All Ages

"Toy Story"

John Lasseter, 1995, USA


The thing about "Toy Story" is this: surely a part of you is rooting for Sid. Andy, the good kid, is sweet enough, but Sid positively runs on surrealist creativity and black humour. His collection of cannibalised, violently mix-and-matched toys are, well, simply more thrilling than anything Andy has - they're guilty pleasures. Thankfully, the Pixar script (eight people) involved with the story and script) animators and John Lasseter's direction are all wise and, taking the opening play-time credits sequence as example, we can see that Andy - although a good kid and therefore potentially likable but bland - is just as violent and creative with his toys and play as Sid is. The difference goes something like this: Andy loves his toys and Sid does not, Sid being a disfunctional, autocratic and malevolent artist. At base, "Toy Story" is wonderfully benign, albeit with a sly streak of malice, and manages this without lapsing into saccharine Disney agenda or especially dark narrative turns.

It is easy to forget how "Toy Story" came as a fair revelation to the animation business and audiences when it first appeared. The biggest offerings, for a long time, as a generalisation, had been either Disney or cultish Manga, with little in-between. Nickelodeon had been producing high quality, sensible and appealing cartoons for a long time, but had very limited crossover potential. "Toy Story" arrived with the novelty of being the first ever wholly computer generated feature film. But it was so much more than that and its crossover appeal immense because not only did it look great, but also it had a zappy, clever, creative script. Since its release, a steady flow of post-modern, funny, warm-hearted animations have followed, playing as once-half Disney, one half Meta-film and wise-ass gag-fest. "Antz", "A Bug’s Life", "Shrek", "Monster’s Inc.", "Aliens vs. Monsters", and so on. There is no sign of stopping them and little sign of falling standards. Pixar are still busy raising the bar too. "Toy Story" has to be thanked greatly for this particular growth in family-orientated animation. The sign that is a genuine classic is that it still holds its own against the others.


Andy’s bedroom is a Toy Utopia, headed by everycowboy Woody, an old-fashioned kinda toy and Andy’s favourite. That is until Andy’s birthday and the arrival of the new Buzz Lightyear, a flashy, self-appointed hero who wants to save the universe - and oblivious to the fact that he himself is a toy. All round good guy Buzz usurps Woody’s status and, in a bout of irrepressible jealously and revenge, Woody accidentally sends Buzz out of the window and a rescue mission ensues. If Woody does not bring Buzz back, the other toys will never accept him again or forgive him. Meanness is not tolerated. Inevitably, an odd-couple friendship develops from necessity between the playthings as they are pitted against the giant-sized outside world and the nightmare of toy-torturer Sid’s hospitality.

Of course, although Andy’s room is a day-glo, pastel-hued heaven of democracy and privileged opulence, the lacuna is the very technology that creates the world we are watching: not a gamesystem or P.C. to be seen; not even a retro gameboy or "Pong". It is likely that Woody and Buzz would have immense competition against such a formidable opponent as a games consul, but it does give the film an almost winningly old-fashioned basis, when toys were toys that could be thrown around and taken to bed, torn apart and fixed. They were close to pets. The idea that Buzz’s flashing light laser is the height of technological sophistication surely has to be patronised rather than believed. "Toy Story" takes place in a pre-games revolution era; pre-"Tron", pre-"The Last Starfighter". A period drama, then? But that does not feel right either: on the one side there seems to be Andy the baby-boomer kid, and on the other Sid who feels much more '90s proto-punk. An alternate modernity, then. But remarkably, this lack of technologically-originated domestic toys ("Etch-A-Sketch" has a walk-on part!) does not weaken the credibility or interest (it transcends datedness): rather, the very form and visual aesthetics of this computer-generated film satisfies those needs, and somehow makes redundant any call for a gamesystem cameo. And it certainly is a work of "Hyper-realism, glossy textures … dazzling use of perspective and movement" that makes outmoded most of what went before. [Halliwell’s Film & Video Guide, ed. John walker. (HarperCollins, London, 17th edition 2002, pg. 855)]
When the "Toy Story" characters get to the entertainment emporium, because we have been centred on hands-on toys, the arcade games are indeed a bright intrusion on the scenario, and significantly never lingered upon (wait... so we are actually post-"Tron" here?). The Alien-grab machine can surely not be considered the height of mechanised entertainment. Rather, it is Sid’s mad scientist approach to his toys - "Meccanno" legs with baby heads; hand-jack-in-box; mutant-Barbie-dolls, etc. - that signify the onset of technology. It is also up to Sid to give the truth to such play as war and space travel: whereas Buzz Lightyear projects and lives the space-age dream of the "Star Wars" programme of the Cold War and before (and, of course, "Star Wars", "Flash Gordon" and other old fashioned colonialist adventures), it is Sid who is sending missions into space knowing full well they will explode. Every Utopia needs a Dystopia, and Andy and Sid are set as opposites and, not without poignancy, they are neighbours - where Andy’s bedroom is all democratic joshing and light and Sid’s room is all fearful, silenced populace and hints of horror. When this horror is turned on the dictator, it is a wonderful moment that surely strikes at the core of any vengeful, bullied child in its wish-fulfillment.

And anyway, this is a boy thing. Sid’s sister is feisty but beaten-down walk-on part. She is there to propose ‘girl’s play’ as something, well, pink and as tortuous as anything brother Sid has to offer: dolls engaged in a different kind of living death. Child’s games are often exercises in cruelty, of course, and hers is no exception. But this is set predominantly in a male’s domain and the lack of female dolls is simply a matter of fact (Unless "Etch-a-Sketch" is feminine?). Which makes the presence of Bo-peep even more curious. Charlotte O’Sullivan writes of the gender and sexual subtexts of Andy's room, of the "lusty Bo-Peep table lamp to confirm Woody’s red-blooded tastes (a grown male fighting to keep his spot in a boy’s bed? There’s certainly room for discussion.)" [Charlotte O’Sullivan "Immortality and Beyond," The Independent on Sunday: the Sunday Review 20th April 2003, pg. 35] But this is probably a little strong, if not unfair: rather, "Toy Story" is so successfully benevolent, is so filtered through the boy-child’s imaginings of his toys’ independent existence when he is out of the room, of their love for him as he loves them, that sexual subtext is mostly lacking in influence upon the adventures, even if gendered play is not. It is, after all, an odd-couple buddy movie, about making pals, falling out, helping out, and then being buddies all over again. The toys are all child-like - except, significantly, maternal Bo-peep. And this is exactly what a child, boy or girl, uses toys to practice, to examine and come to terms with personal character traits - e.g., good-natured arrogance as expressed by Buzz Lightyear or uncharacteristic envy via Woody’s, for example. Then there is Sid, with his braces and dog t-shirt sub-punk look, his bullying ways - surely there is a tale to tell there, even expressed in the meekness of his sister? Just as all we see of Andy’s mother is a caring, generous, inexplicably economically independent single mom, in Sid’s house there is only a sleeping, monster-ish father figure, slumped asleep in a chair in front of the TV, whom even the brutish dog avoids. It is as if the film has reached a strange conclusion that the feminine house is all positive love, and the masculine house all neglect and cruelty. It’s an uneasy dichotomy, unresolved because the parents and kids are never fully investigated. Does Andy have to move because of the parent’s divorce, or his father’s death? Well, he certainly seems a happy chap... But it would be interesting to see what kind of step-Cain and Abel tale could be told if Andy’s mom had started dating Sid’s dad.

But what does "Toy Story" say about child behaviour? Maybe this: You are your toys. This is as old as "Winnie the Pooh", "Calvin and Hobbes" and countless others, and holds substantial psychological, emotional validity. In this way, we know Sid is deeply troubled and introverted though brash; quietly terrorised and self-destructive. And Andy is about as well adjusted as a fatherless kid can be. This also makes Sid’s sister’s family tea party both horrific and heroic: horrific because it is comprised of casualties from male violence and symbolises domestic troubles; heroic because (despite issues of gender stereotypes a girl’s tea party warrants) she is determined to have her happy play no matter what her environment and resources. This bringing to life of toys taps in to the deeply animist world-view children have. Again: the film is a child’s fantasy of what his beloved toys get up to when he isn’t around. Sid’s problem is simply that he cannot imagine his toys with independent life, which allows his cruelty of them and his eventual comeuppance. His empathy is damaged. One cannot imagine Andy being quite so surprised if his toys actually spoke to him. But then, they would probably only tell him how much they loved him. In all aspects, for good and bad, the film seems to adore the child’s state and universe of play. But you won’t find any "Sid’s Room" at the official website.


Although produced by Disney, "Toy Story" was a Pixar creation: and it is hard not to attribute the success of "Toy Story" to the playfulness of Pixar’s animators, for they have taken the Disney’s formula and shown it for the somewhat patronising and vacuous agenda it is, no matter how pretty. From archetypal Disney basics, screenwriters Joss Whedon, Andrew Stanton, Joel Coen and Alec Sokolow conjured a witty mini-tour through genre types and moments: the Western rivalry; the science-fiction dream; horror-film under-the-bed terrors (look for homages to Kubrick‘s "The Shining"); the odd-couple comedy; the great rescue and quest; the kids fantasy; the chase film, etc. The level of invention, both in script and visuals, gags and otherwise, is greatly rewarding and perpetually riveting. Always, the filmmakers seem to have set their sights on all levels, on as much detail as possible, so whereas Buzz’s self-appointed heroism is fun for all, Potato Head’s priceless Picasso impersonation and film homages are for the adults. As O’Sullivan points out, perhaps "Toy Story’s" fascination with military manoeuvres is its most troubling aspect, and yet somehow completely in accord with the gendered play of boys. Anyhow, Sid is always at hand to prove the lie to Andy’s toy Eden: if Andy is the filmmakers’ delight at creating this artificial world with a soft, childish sentiment, then Sid is the glee that they also take in subversion. One could say that if Andy ever grew up to be a film director, he would make "Toy Story" - and Sid would make "Small Soldiers" perhaps. Or even "The Toy Maker" or a legions of Charles Band toy and puppet b-horrors. No matter what, "Toy Story" can largely be credited with reviving the children’s film with wit, invention and mass cross-over appeal. And we can all be grateful for that. [end]

Note: Well okay, I cannot sat that I realised that there were Sid toys out there, but look how cutified Babyface is here! If I have seen any Toy Story merchandise, it has been mainly Andy's toys. For the record, I would have been into Sid's Toys and Buzz Lightyear equally.


William Nigh, 1940, USA

There is nothing I love more than staying up way past midnight and putting on an old black-and-white horror or science-fiction film. I forgive so much in this light. I love it when you doze off a little and then you pop awake and the music - preferably a theremin or choir - is going and the probably-not-very-good-monster is being all threatening.

"The Ape" is a Boris Karloff quickie and, of course, he is the best thing about it. Watch Karloff lay on the gravitas whilst the audience chuckles at everything else. Marvel at the hilarious ape costume! Hear the hokey dialogue! Watch closely as a guinea pig falls off a table as actors leave the scene! Gasp as Karloff pioneers stem cell research! And how is dumping a couple of wandering guinea pigs on a table certifiable evidence that an anti-paralysis serum works anyway? Come on, Dr Adrian-Karloff, we only have your word that the critters were paralysed in the first place. Paralysis, you see, and local ignorance are the real monsters here. And people who tease apes. Certainly they are more unnerving prospects than the ape that breaks out of the circus - and will you see the associated bonkers twist coming?? Dr Adrian is inevitably driven to extreme measures in a Forties' rural town, trying to find a cure for a wheelchair-bound local young woman, Frances. There is nothing forward-thinking here when to be in a wheelchair is seen as making you less than 'normal' and a virtual outcast. Geez, they hardly think she's capable of being wheeled to the circus, and certainly her beau is going to be whole lot happier if she could, you know, actually walk.

My copy of "The Ape" - aka "Gorilla" - skips, pops and crackles like old vinyl. Somehow that seems totally in order. What I do enjoy about these B-flicks is the glimpse of the era, the general location work: I love the insanity of a scientist working away in an apparently fully-functioning, guinea pig equiped laboratory in his back room; I love the all-American, gun-toting (!!) kids shooting an ape and then running like scaredy cats; I love the stupidity of the whole scenario. What were they thinking? I mean, the whole ape outfit is worth the watch alone. Let me warn about a big spoiler first before saying this: how could anyone mistake Dr Adrian wearing ape skin as the genuine article? What complicates this is that the original Gorilla is so obviously a man in a monkey suit anyway - the mind boggles. It doesn't quite top "Robot Monster" for most bizarre maltreatment of gorilla costume, but it's a bizarre variation.

Written but Curt/Kurt Siodmak, who wrote far grander pieces with "The Invisible Man" and "The Wolf Man". Hmm, apparently based on a stage play by Adam Shirk too! "The Ape" is not a good film, but as a novelty from a long-gone era, it's worth the watch if, like me, you like revelling in the daftness and whackiness of old thrillers like this.


John Carpenter, 1976, USA

The story of John Carpenter, as any fan knows, is that he used to deliver stripped down, witty, genre-savvy thrillers and horrors, accompanied by spare and dated but wonderful synth-scores. I believe "Dark Star" (1974) to be one of the best science-fiction comedies ever made. I think "Halloween" (1978) has some the best direction ever, and I can watch it endlessly for composition and suburban mood only. Inbetween, Carpenter made "Assault on Precinct 13" (1976), which is pretty much his zombie homage as re-imagining of "Rio Bravo". It reminds me of Walter Hill before Walter hill kicked in. But that early work especially...

Carpenter starts with a shoot-out that lacks any of the satisfying punch that an opener might rightly want. It's fast brutal and ugly; the parties involved are anonymous, disembodied voices. It starts as it means to go on, in shadows and washed-out hues of blue, with measured pace and menace and the menacing ominous synth riff that frequently falls into white noise. A fresh black cop babysits a station just about to close down; on the streets, silent gangs decide to exact some revenge and kill a little girl, whose father kills the murderer and then takes refuge in the non-functioning station. The gang surrounds the station and stages a kamikaze assault; inside, the cop, the girl and the infamous criminals who just happen to be there find themselves forced to unite to defend themselves.

It's simple and pulpy, peppered with hard-boiled dialogue, humourous asides and offbeat treats - such as the criminals playing "potatoes" to decide who gets to go on an escape mission. The film benefits from excellent performances from its leads, who strike the right balance between the playful and earnest. Darwin Joston as Napoleon Wilson looks like a prototype for "Escape From New York's" Snake Pliskin. Laurie Zimmer excels as the level-headed and capable desk-girl turned soldier, standing up to and alongside the guys without once compromising her femininity. The characterisation and integration of sexual and racial issues is both distinctly Seventies and subverted. As Rumsey Taylor notes:
  • The crime gang excepted (which is anonymous and expendable), no primary character in the film embodies his stereotype. The criminals exhibit trust and selflessness, the new policeman (the survivors’ hierarchal authority) is black, and the women are composed, always clothed, and never scream. It is responsible, dynamic characterization.

In this way, the viewer never feels insulted and never quite knows who will do what. There are shocks - the death of the girl - and small moments that surprise our sense of cultured morality. Should we really root for convicted murderers? We certainly take as much relieved, cathartic pleasure as they do when they start popping off the shotguns. The father exacts revenge, but it leaves him catatonic rather than heroic. And when the other desk girl suggests they throw him outside, since he is what the gang wants, and the others stare at her and she says "Don't give me that civilised look!", the conflict between morality and the sacrifices one might make for survival is kicked right out in the open. Hadn't we already thought of that plot option before she voiced it? And what about the potential and underplayed romatic frission between Napoleon and Leigh? She seems like an otherwise sensible woman...

Appropriating and playing with genre types and expectations, "Assault on Precinct 13" is both entertaining and loaded with social commentary, like all the best b-features and pulp fiction. The gangs are rendered with a near supernatural aura... silent and near-invisible, climbing through windows like vampires, acting en masse like zombies. We are far from the fast-talkin', wise-assin' gangsters from a hundred films and shows. Yet, this never once unbalances the realism, pushing into something more allegorical. It's a rare trick for a crime thriller, and neatly accomplished. Even better, Carpenter totally subverts the idea that quiet, orderly streets mean peace and discipline. This are silent communities where the ice cream man keeps a gun at hand and where the empty streets mean you won't get any help.

Sunday, 9 August 2009

Another House of Wax (World of Remakes #2)

"House of Wax"
Jaume Collect-Serra, Australia/2005, USA

"The House of Wax" seems an ideal example of how a horror remake that simultaneously cashes-in and updates a respected original can reveal the best and worst of contemporary ‘re-imaginings’. The originals ("House of Wax 1953 is a remake of 1933's "Mystery of the Wax Museum") are delightful Gothic chillers with an irresistible promise and, in one example, Vincent Price. Full of theatrical, garish and ghoulish flourishes, earlier versions were never exemplary of Classic with the capitalised "c", but simply possessed of a highly appealing horror premise, Old School charm and a good set-piece or two.

Immediately, in just invoking Price’s name, a key difference in the old and the new flares up: modern horror does not have the same cache of horror stars such as Lugosi, Karloff, The Chaneys, Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing It’s in the casting that we find the conflict in the "House of Wax" remake [1]. It feels like two films competing against one another: one is a contemporised rural Gothic with lashings of Twenty-First Century graphic cruelty plus a glorious topping of surrealism; the other is one of those Teen Horrors (well, twentysomething) that seem dictated by the production company to draw in the demographic they imagine make up the horror audience. The audience who’ll apparently only come to see pretty young things talk dirty and get killed by something monstrous.

And so it is that we begin with an arresting opening that feels more like Tim Burton on a particularly nasty day - a dinnertime in which one of two brothers is strapped savagely into a chair, all to slightly edgy if not jaunty editing - which then gives way to generic soft metal and a bunch of bratty and bitching young Americans. They all fit their stereotype, their dramas are soooo day-time soap and sure enough, the chaste girl is going to be the Final Girl of sorts, the loved-up black guy and the slutty one (some stunt-casting with Paris Hilton) will do some bumping-and-grinding and the delinquent… well, he is not the obnoxious, crass type, but rather the misunderstood type. This means he will be redeemed. Herein lies the most original feature of the drama, for "House of Wax" is about sibling love rather than romance. It is not in any way revelatory - some generalised stuff about there always being a ‘good’ sibling and a ‘bad’ sibling - but it does make a change after the bland amorous pairings at the core of so many standard horrors. Otherwise, it is simply an undistinguished cast borrowed from a long line of tedious slashers and High School flicks and is probably responsible for what makes "House of Wax" so superficially banal.

But when it steers into a mixture of "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" (1974) and waxy surrealism, it quite excels. Jeune Collet-Serra directly fluidly and fluently with fine sense of establishing geography and showing off the wonderful set design details. "House of Wax" throws up a number of far-fetched but gleeful conceits and spikes them with a decidedly modern focus on body horror, all culminating in the unapologetically contrived separation by knife of wax twins. Indeed, you can almost hear someone looking to remake the originals - and actually, they probably did not refer to the originals at all - and saying "Hey, what about if the house is, you know, actually made of wax?" And this paves way for the deliriously surreal denouement of the final chase in a melting building. For this little wonder, it wins over its flaws. In fact, nearly all its weaknesses can be forgiven for the exemplary set design, the lovingly grungy detail, the ending, plus another great otherworldly scene: a cinema of wax dummies watching "Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?" (1962)These unforgettable set-pieces and the full-on joy the film-makers have with wax, both on a grand and small scale, make this a minor surrealist horror treat, and all that tired and humourless teen-slasher stuff is just weak scaffolding.
1 - The only potential crossover star I can think up is Robert England, and he is hardly a household name in quite the same way. Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecktor, possibly, but he has hardly earned his crust by affiliating himself with horror.


"CLOVERFIELD", 2008, USA, Matt Reeves

The problems with the "Cloverfield" hand-held execution are evident from the outset. We’re all accustomed to amateur shaky-cam (we’re all filmmakers now!), but as with any medium, it takes real skill to create something fluid and new from such a volatile familiar technique. Some of the action is carefully orchestrated with the natural motion; at other times it becomes absurd, as our cameraman diligently continues to record whilst being attacked by smaller creatures (Hit it with the camera! Hit it with the camera!!), or climbing from one falling building to another. What is/was new with "Cloverfield" was the concept of viewing a mega-budget monster flick through the eyes of YouTube. It half works. First-person ground zero perspective is a delicate balance, but this is not as successful as ".Rec" (2007) or (yes, of course) "The Blair Witch Project" (1999). You can look to "28 Weeks Later" (2007) as an excellent example of mobile but not hand-held camera, which probably would have reaped a more convincing ground zero perspective for "Cloverfield". And, of course, the camera has an excellent microphone, what with all the stereo and depth of bass.

Nevertheless, this is in no way as crippling as the human drama on offer. Some shallow love-friction provides the impetus for our vanilla Manhattanites to go back into the war zone, to rescue a loved one. Brandon Colvin gives a fine defence of both the digicam aesthetic and the romantic narrative arc, which he argues for most convincingly. Its title "Epically Personal" indicating how he feels the minor-to-major perspective works well (and please do read). But when actually listening to their interaction and love-before-monsters philosophy, these characters really are not the supposedly average people we can empathise with: they are cut-outs taken from a soap opera A-to-B manual. Colvin rightly sees the monster as the embodiment of our hero’s anxieties about his move to Japan and his break-up with a woman he loves. And surely the monster is also her repressed rage at his abandoning her, tearing down the city to prevent his leaving. Pity about the hokey dialogue. More interesting is the cameraman (also requisite comic relief) and his unrequited love for the girl at the party, but this is never allowed to take off, even though they are more intriguing and quirky characters. I am not persuaded by the human commotion element: it is like a particularly smug and asinine TV drama about successful but emotionally cliché New Yorkers is suddenly interrupted by a "Godzilla" rip-off. In itself, this ought to be (if you’ll forgive me) awesome, but you need better dialogue and actual character charisma than Drew Goddard's script offers. Rather, it feels like a tale of how the Cappuccino crowd, having modelled themselves heroically on constant re-runs of "Friends" but without the gags, simply won’t let a little thing like gigantic monsters running amok stand in the way of love, but the kind of love you see in commercials rather than the actual engaging stuff.
But: what a "Godzilla" homage. The famous "Cloverfield" promotional campaign was a brilliant tease. A party of happy Americans is interrupted by a full Dolby-trembling roar from the distance. Chills go up the spine. This might have been a seminal monster movie, as rendered by the little people running around its toes, shaking with its every footstep, fleeing from falling buildings. And there is plenty of that. News broadcasts hint at what’s to come. Then the first brief appearance and the falling head of the Statue of Liberty, followed by a run for cover in a store in a fog of dust and dirt is spectacular and thrilling. This is what we came to see!! The attack on the bridge is perhaps even more spectacular and unique in putting us right there during monster mayhem. The glimpses near and far of the thing are both revealing and teasing enough to get an creature feature fan trembling with joy. If you love monster movies, how can you not celebrate these moments? They come close to a totally new perspective… close. I am reminded of the brilliant alien invasion pictures of Charlie White.

A moment of respite taking refuge in the subway is a smart move, keeping us firmly under but aside from the action, felt only by the trembling earth. This bunker-perspective re-captures the best element of Shyamalan’s "Signs" (2002), where you can think Yes, this is how we would experience this. A tunnel attack, whilst frightening, is perhaps where things start to lose a cast-iron grip and we have to start making allowances - which can be done happily for the most part - to let it get on with what it is doing. Rushing through military camps and battle zones strain credibility, as cleverly as they may be choreographed, and by the time we come to the helicopter, after a wonderful aerial monster-shot, plausibility just gets thrown aside. So, suddenly, the camera looks up and sees the monster, and no one heard it coming? You know, no stomping and trembling earth? Did no one care enough to follow details to the very end? Why have an aesthetic that purports allegiance to first-person credibility and then throw logic and plausibility out the window when it suits?

JJ Abrams has a real fan boy love for genre, and enough pop culture savvy to play with the conventions to liven things up. But those same pop motifs often have him making do with the obvious and superficially cool; when he is called on for truly innovative dramatics and closure, he can’t quite deliver. This then is why the human drama has all the depth of weak R’n’B love songs. But in closing, when the fears of separation and failure in the "Cloverfield" couple’s relationship finally comes to overwhelm them, there is almost a genuine emotional kick come the end. Almost.
But the monster stuff is great.

Saturday, 4 July 2009


Nicholas Ray, USA, 1956

Nicolas Ray's "Bigger Than Life" is full of wonderful detail: the bright yellows of the taxi cabs; Richie painfully declaring how he hates his father whilst sporting a milk moustache; the way Barbara Rush’s orange dress seems to glow and tint the house interiors as psychosis takes flame at home; the use of light (as Jim Jarmusch notes: from Mason’s first fall with the lamp, the lighting is overhead for his high moods and low for his dark mania); the subtle and not so subtle use of mirrors. It is full of unforgettable scenes: the shopping for dress which at first seems an act of adoration but is more a "Vertigo" act of male control; the PTA meeting evolving into a scathing attack on the apparent intellectual and moral deficiency of children; the slow homework session from hell…

This simultaneously gorgeous and troubling portrait of domestic America always on the verge appears to be a pet project for James Mason, who not excels in the lead role but also produced. He is Ed Avery, a fair but troubled teacher who agrees to be treated by a new "miracle drug" - cortisone - when diagnosed with a fatal illness. The psychological effects on Avery is one of those tales of household despair, anguish and torment that so easily falls into weak soap operatics, but Ray’s direction and the screenplay by Cyril Hume and Richard Maibaum uses this to explore the precarious fabric and stability of American society. Based on Berton Rouche’s case study that appeared in "The New Yorker", the melodrama is the means of this exploration, rather than an end in itself. Aside from Mason, Barbara Rush and Christopher Olsen also give exceptional performances as his wife and son, carrying their own perspective. She represents a woman who could far exceed her status, but seems to have been coerced into her role as an actively ideal Fifties housewife. The son has an Oedipal struggle of his own. It is with these strong side conflicts that the film achieves richness, not simple allowing Avery’s mental breakdown to define the drama. Much of this is accessorised with a wealth of loaded symbolism - the football; the banister; clothing; scissors, etc.

That the composition and cinematography is so exemplary, rich and gorgeous would make this melodrama exceptional alone, but that it turns out to be a scathing attack on any American institution it notices makes "Bigger Than Life" a genuinely resonant and disturbing work. Teachers are borderline psychotics and treated miserably by the establishment; doctors speak like educational films and patronise and prescribe seemingly without fully understanding their true power; the respectable American life is "dull" and founded on repressed discontent and past glories (his football carries a lot of symbolism; she could go back to her career if she wanted rather than homemaking); the Bible fuels delusion and mania… None of this is resolved by the inevitable closing family embrace, which in itself doesn’t quell the overbearing shadow of Death that set all this off in the first place.

Wednesday, 17 June 2009


Tolkien's "The Hobbit"... and political, moral and heroic landscapes.

Tolkien’s classic children’s novel "The Hobbit" (1937) was initially written for his son, who proofread it for pocket money, and eventually paved way for the literary monolith that is "The Lord of the Rings." Although Tolkien himself disliked metaphor and analogy ~ although Jungian interpretation would argue that it matters not whether the author is conscious of symbolism and meaning, that it is there anyhow ~ the political undercurrents and horror of warfare is never far from the story, although never interfering with the elements of adventure and great quest. Simply, in the face of conflict, of apocalypse and devastation of war, Tolkien’s argument is for negotiation, sharing, compromise and democracy. All these features are combined in the famous Hobbit, Bilbo.

Bilbo is a diminutive, hermetic persona, both physically and psychologically, and somewhat subservient to the duties of politeness ~ as when the dwarves arrive for dinner unannounced and he is unable to turn them away ~ and exhibiting a small-town sensibility. As a child reader surrogate Bilbo, as in most fairy tales, develops awareness and adult skills by embarking upon a great odyssey. It is the tale of naïve, home-loving and home-safe character being thrown by force into the trials and terrors of the outside world. Bilbo becomes an anti-hero, in that he himself is less than traditionally heroic ~ like Beorn and Bard. His heroism take two forms: firstly, that he rises to the occasion when needed, whether it be stealing from Smaug the dragon or fighting the giant spiders to save the dwarves; secondly, that he is also the advocate of political diplomacy, which he demonstrates in attempting to undermine Thorin’s stubborn greed by negotiating with the elves over Smaug’s treasure hoard. If Gandalf represents an almost absent but ever-present governance, then Biblo is the active politician and diplomat.

In this way, Tolkien has Biblo act as a moderated symbol of heroism, but heroism built from necessity rather than Classic conventions, and one that point towards a democratic sensibility. Bilbo possesses elements of parody of Classic Heroism whilst simultaneously earning them through deed and compromise. Compare with Smaug or Thorin, who express selfishness, greed and foolhardy excesses of stubborn pride, and who both meet bad ends. With his best intentions being for the greater good rather than just the fortune of one race, Bilbo wins on all fronts.

There is also Smaug, a vain creature of mass destruction, sat atop the hoards of gold and treasure gained from his decimation of towns and peoples: Smaug is a full-blooded metaphor and symbol for the greed of genocide; for wealth, power and mass-slaughter just for the profit. As to the further symbolism that has been foisted upon The Ring ~ widely compared to Atomic and Nuclear power, symbolism which Tolkien actively disapproved of ~ but surely the meaning is wider than that direct comparison. Rather, the One Ring embodies all the terrible burden of life, of trying to do right, of conscience, of the temptation of power and corruption, of selfish gain and thought. It seduces preys on the weaknesses of all, on selfish sensibilities, debasing their good motivations. And it also represents any means or weapon of mass destruction ~ surely no matter what size. The will to do harm, the uncontrolled anger and violence that the Ring represents is what is so terrifying - and only the meekness and innate goodness of (child-like) Hobbit creatures Bilbo and Frodo can wrestle with its allure. Even the mighty Gandalf will not trust himself, it seems…

If we accept that fictional characters operate from a Good and Bad internal dichotomy ~ rather than shades of grey ~ and that this lays not within a religious realm but a "moral" one [1], then morality can be achieved by adhering to Good intentions whilst acknowledging the temptation of the Bad (e.g. The Ring). "The good self is the self which is identified with, and takes pleasure in, the morally good; which is interested in and is bound up with pursuits, activities, in a word, with ends that realise the good will," writes F.H. Bradley [2]. It is an active, conscious process. Comparatively, Bradley states that: "The bad self can not as such be self-conscious; if it were so, it would realise the ideal of a self-conscious collection." [3]. If to be Bad is to lack a self-awareness, it is perhaps then relevant that invisibility, a kind of self-denial, is the initial power of the Ring. Of course all this moral talk must acknowledge the grey realm between the Good and the Bad, and that even the Bad are often self-aware, but bear no adherence to the actions that create the Good. Smaug and Orcs cannot be said to be self-conscious, but Saramon is surely more than aware of his ambitions for power, perhaps derived from some unknown quantity of self-hatred and desire for status.
It is possible to see The Ring as a symbol of the onset of the industrial and technological advances that will challenge of the oral cultures and fairy-tale form that Tolkien develops. But in some senses, he was wrong to be so pessimistic ~ the bedtime fairy tale has not lost entirely to the TV set. "Harry Potter" alone stands as testimony that full-blooded and increasingly complex fantasy can still capture cultural imagination, albeit - that a film adaptation will inevitably follow also. "The Lord of the Rings" prose fans are still happily fanatical, and it is not hard so to find someone that reads it annually. In a sense, "The Hobbit" is still seen as a younger-minded precursor to the major epic. And what does the young reader take from Biblo’s adventure - apart from the spirit of adventure itself? A tale that says the scary outside world can be advanced upon and fought with; one that suggests a complex multi-cultural and therefore politicised (fantasy) landscape; the idea that open-mindedness and positive action, goodwill and negotiation will provide the best way forward and prevent all bloodshed. And that to actively prevent bloodshed, in and of itself, is the goal of the Good. There is no real arguments for pre-emptive action here. Like the best fiction for the young, "The Hobbit" provides adult themes and contexts without the audience barely noticing; he never lets it interfere with the adventure ~ and yet never allows the need for adventure to undermine his more ponderous concerns with responsibility, loneliness, bonding and almost casual heroism.


[1] My definition: "moral" being the creation and agreement of behaviour that is positive and enlightened. I am reading Tolkien as trying for something greater than Good and Evil, sidestepping religious allegory and motivation (the kind he disliked in C.S. Lewis' "Narnia" series), hence my preferred use of Good and Bad.
[2] F.H. Bradley, "Ethical Studies," Oxford University Press, 1876, 2nd edition [1962] pg. 305
[3] F.H. Bradley, ibid.


Peter Berg & Josh Plate - 2004 - USA

"Friday Night Lights" is a good lesson in how to take and use all those narrative clichés and package them so that the audience isn't insulted. It's a sports film, and even before I venture more you know how that goes, and there isn't anything in Peter Berg's film that will convince you otherwise. The bragging, wiseass, cocky star player that everyone counts on... well, he's going to have the wind taken out of him. The team that keeps losing, just about scrapes through to battle a truly formidable opposition - on a toss of coin, no less. The father whose reaction to his son's imperfect performance verges on all-out abuse. And so on. Incidentally, we are talking Texan College Football here. The biggest surprise is that most of this is based on truth, which only makes you wonder if life likes to imitate big screen convention. Berg mitigates the given predictability and stereotypes by giving the film a washed-out, shaky-cam quasi-documentary flush and an Altman-esque wandering eye and camera over the ensemble characters. Certainly Berg's previous "Very Bad Things" revealed little of this canny respect and tackling of narrative and visual chestnuts, for these techniques near enough turn the given corniness into something moving.

The film scores big thematically by focusing not upon the imminent success of the underdog - indeed, this team is an underdog only in that it has to beat the top team in the league - but by concentrating on the experience of having and losing the best time of your life, on your greatest achievement flashing by before you even realise. You don't have to be a sports fan to get that. The young men that make up the team know that their moment as glorified football players is probably going to be over by the time they're eighteen, and then there will be no more. The film burdens the youths with the knowledge not only that they carry the weight of a whole team and town's reputation, but also that this moment of glory will be over come one Friday soon, and that nothing afterwards in life will match that. The abusive drunk father is, we surmise, a wreck because he peaked in football at that early age and couldn't find any joy or glory afterwards. Inevitably, he tries to relive it through his imperfect son's football career.

The initiative is that the idea of needing to win is forced upon us, with very little leeway for error. An unattainable perfection is demanded. The community heap praise, criticism, celebration and scorn upon the team and the coach with the terrifying irrationality and lack of perspective of devout fans. One of the best small moments is when two men stop the coach in a car park to wish him good luck but also to demand he enforce a win or else with all the veiled menace and threats of Mafioso. The coach is under the cruel thumb of public scrutiny, but in turn stills employs the training tactics of simply shouting and insulting his players into improvement and success. Is this, I wondered as neither a sports fan or an aficionado of American Football, truly the way all seriously competitive sports are taught, and how its great players fostered? Even creepier is the other quiet scene where the coach sits in Lucas Black's bedroom and convinces him that he has to choose between the responsibility to his ailing mother and his responsibility to the team, and by proxy the community. Lucas fondles a toy car and we are given to believe this is the moment where he must put aside childish things, but in truth it is the adults' demands placed upon the boy that are immature and unrealistic. Lucas has already proven his maturity by forsaking his youth to tend to his mother. Thankfully, the scene retains the ambiguity and the coach doesn't come out as some all-knowing tough-love mentor, but as also mercenary and as much of product of peer and public pressure as the youths. There is a casual realism to the characters, enforced by equally casual and assured performances.

As a quiet criticism of the pressure and expectations placed upon American youth when it comes to succeeding, as a criticism of adults living vicariously through their offspring, "Friday Night Lights" succeeds well. It does so both broadly and in the smaller details: for example, Booby Smith's lack of academic education is relayed through a telling moment when he is reading a wealth of potential Universities but has to be told what "prestigious" means. Again, real life makes this apparent cliché real: Booby Smith himself (in the DVD extras) laments his lack of academic learning and reliance upon football to provide him with a secure future.

This quite sly criticism counters the excitement and glory of the football scenes, which rush and crunch and reek of desperation. But it's not a happy portrait of the sporting life: the team all go around bewildered at the roles of responsibility placed upon them. In the film's other brief but best quiet moment, three of the team talk about how they don't even feel seventeen. And in the DVD extras again, another sad but true convention becomes manifest when it turns out that the three players we see sadly saying goodbye to it all at the end of the film never hung out the same way afterwards.

Although it misses out on the joy of sport and plays it as the camaraderie of desperate footsoldiers under fire of constant pressure and scrutiny, "Friday Night Lights" does come as a celebration of sport with heavy reservations. It plays out like one of those typically smart but conventional biopics.

Perhaps sport is the one art form where axioms and conventions are endorsed and excused. Wrestling, for example, is the broadest form of pantomime drama and no one is complaining at its artifice: the wrestlers are athletes, but the platform is theatre. Soccer, baseball, snooker, et cetera, are less flagrant, but also driven by conventional dramatics: icons; losers; underdogs; accidents and tragedies; scandals, and so on. You put these onto film, and they quickly fall into cliché, even if coloured by social or political context. But perhaps with "Friday Night Lights", the clichés become the point. That is, the players are drafted into sporting stereotypes and formula and - in the film at least - this predicament leaves them a little bewildered. Again, there is a pleasing ambiguity, a glint of wrongness around those standard scenes of the coach’s pep talk to his most promising player, or the players sobbing after losing on the field. The sobbing isn’t sentimental here: it is the devastated crack of a personality unable to live up to the demand for sporting perfection and of typecasting. In this way, "Friday Night Lights" gives its team a genuine humanityand vulnerability missing from many such tales.


Om jag vänder mig om

Björn Runge - 2003 - Sweden

Swedish melodrama by Bjorn Runge based around three couples and a night of secrets, shouting, sharing, absolution, etc. You know the score. Comparisons with Bergman’s family dramas are obvious, but the roaming camera pursuing and swinging between characters looking for cracks and blame seem more akin to Haneke. If anything, despite a quality cast, Runge’s allowing everything to be resolved by histrionics only shows how carefully calibrated Bergman pitched his melodrama. Despite its chilly, despondent disposition, "Daybreak" has more in common with soap operas.

Also like Hanake, Runge ultimately comes out as hectoring and exhibiting moral superiority. There is evidence of casual humanity, but in the end the blame is - as in Hanake - with a middle-class bourgeois who Won’t Face Things and earnestly live their lives in denial. The oddness here is that Runge throws culpability mostly all on the men. A builder who works so hard to earn money for his family, he never spends time with them. A man so embedded in his own loss of his daughter and disgust at the outside world, especially people of colour, that he wants the house bricked up so no one can trouble him and his wife. A philandering doctor about to lose his job and family who, when confronted with painful truths over a dinner of revelations, simply keeps saying he is going to make dinner or coffee to comical proportions. And, oddest of all, a man who left his clearly disturbed and demanding wife for a younger woman years ago. He is obviously happy with his new life, and his ex-wife clearly needs psychiatric treatment and a restraining order; and yet perversely we are apparently to empathise with her agony, with her inflicting what can only be termed torture upon her ex and his wife, for this is the only way he can be made to face the grief he has caused so that she can achieve closure. The ex-wife is left to wander into the dawn, presumably cleansed and less sociopathic, but I wouldn’t bet on it. It’s a fine line between addressing the flaws of average people for a humane outlook and criticising those mistakes into something more judgmental.

The overt symbolism is occasionally cloying too. The bricking-up-the-house is a decent conceit, for it generates a little quirk and mystery besides representing willful alienation. But we start with the graphic removal of the heart; a car chase that ends with them going in circles; a moment where the different narratives briefly pass one another at a crossroads; and then, when revelations have been made and absorbed… daybreak. Like firearms, hysterical characters are often cheap dramatics in search of meaningful drama. More reliance upon the fine cast and greater restraint might have given the show more elegance.