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.