Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Golden Swallow (Jin yan zi, 1968)

A semi-sequel to Come Drink with Me (1966), one of the defining ‘60s successes of the Shaw Brothers studio, Golden Swallow sees Pei-Pei Cheng return to the titular role, the nom-de-guerre of Hsieh Wo Yen, a female warrior of folklore and one of the first true martial arts heroines of wu xia cinema. Like Come Drink with Me, however, it’s weak-kneed about the notion, barely focusing on its official heroine, a gender-bending force of nature, and instead rendering her a supporting character in a drama that plays more like a kung-fu edition of Taxi Driver.

Golden Swallow was directed by Cheh Chang, early in his long career as one of Shaw’s premiere helmsmen. He had made another breakthrough hit, The One-Armed Swordsman, the year before, explaining perhaps his preoccupation with Wang Yu, that film’s dourly charismatic star. He appears here as Hsiao Peng, known as Silver Roc, a roaming vigilante who has dedicated himself to exterminating baddies of all stripes, without much differentiation between significant wrongdoers and hapless assistants and even bystanders. Silver Roc went to the same martial arts school as Golden Swallow, and he’s carrying a torch for her, leaving her signature darts, decorated with a swallow motif, at the scenes of his vigilante rampages to let her know he’s still at large and dispensing justice. Golden Swallow herself is nearly killed in the film’s opening, when she’s hit with poisoned darts by her enemies, but she’s saved by “Iron-Whip” Han Tao (Lo Lieh), a pacifistic but highly skilled warrior-monk who never kills opponents, and she soon finds her problems mounting when a gangster confederacy, the Golden Dragon, that Silver Roc has in his sights, assumes from his calling cards that she is the vigilante terrorising them.

Chang’s direction is fast-paced and bursting with style, and the film is realised in effervescent colours and crystal-clear lighting, showing off the rock-solid, utterly simple techniques of the classic Shaw template at their height, whilst also expanding their palate. The opening, in which Golden Swallow is ambushed, is designed to throw the viewer into a plot in media res, as Chang blocks the screen with darkness except for narrow slits to allow glimpses of the action, reducing it to a series of cryptic shreds. Later, Chang offers a completely mystical moment when the haunted, driven Silver Roc paints a poem he’s composed upon the wall of a brothel, the solid setting giving away to a stylised setting of great white walls and gnarled tree limbs, his poetic mood briefly transforming his world into a formless space of pure emotion.

Golden Swallow suggests the speed with which wu xia was working to catch up with the zeitgeist. Unlike the very innocent Come Drink with Me, with its time-outs for sing-alongs and kiddie comedy, a mix of generic styles that seems almost surreal but is actually an effort to be generally appealing, or even The One-Armed Swordsman, Golden Swallow maintains a weighty mood and offers a sharp-edged gore rare in this period of the genre, as Chang’s approach pushes the Shaw template away from general audience fare. In a cruel sequence, a pair of unscrupulous landowners attempt to blackmail a family into selling up their house by planting evidence to suggest their son has stolen and eaten a chicken. The boy ends up cutting his own stomach open to prove he hasn’t consumed the fowl, and his father soon joins him in death for berating in outrage the sleazy potentates, a tragedy that Silver Roc is quick to thoroughly and brutally avenge. Silver Roc himself, a powerful, superlatively talented warrior, is a darkly psychologised version of the traditional wu xia Robin Hood type of hero, both heroic in skill and intention, sympathetic in motive, but also possessing a nihilistic sense of life and death and disinterest in probity that comes close to villainy.

Chang therefore flirts with an altogether airier, more aggressive, more realistic force of cinema than can be seen in its immediate, largely set-bound precursors. Superb location photography incorporates the kinds of locales that would soon enough become readily familiar cliches of Hong Kong flicks. And yet Chang still maintains a total stylisation, and one could get the impression this brand of film-making had roots in Chinese opera. Golden Swallow doesn’t entirely spurn a mix of flavours, weaving together romance and ripe melodrama with nearly relentless high-kicking action. Whilst this does contribute to a certain diffuseness in the narrative, it’s also one of this film’s true pleasures, as the filmmakers weave variations on an set tune with inventive dexterity. The gorgeous, sing-song-voiced Pei-Pei doesn’t have enough to do as her male counterparts still manage to dominate a film that’s named after her character (and her fencing doesn’t seem that crash-hot either, as opposed to the startlingly athletic Wang), as Silver Roc and Iron-Whip duel each-other in a confrontation fuelled both by their differing ethical and fighting creeds and, more covertly, by their competition for her affections. Those affections run deeper for Silver Roc than she can admit, which pays off in a gentle yet somehow fervently erotic interlude in which she changes out of her habitual male garb into a dress to please him, in a scene that keeps the anxiety over shifting gender roles at a simmer and finds an islet of romance between rebels.

Golden Swallow has a counterpart in Mei Niang (Hsin Yen Chao), Silver Roc’s courtesan lover, who plays the more traditional wifely role that cannot, it seems, be countenanced for a figure like Golden Swallow herself: both she and Silver Roc are defined by their transgressive status. Mei Niang stands by her man, to watch as he defeats an army of gangster enemies but dies in the process, after he’s already been badly wounded by Iron-Whip in their contest. Both women are finally left bereft and vowing never to leave the beautiful valley where they have buried Silver Roc, and Iron-Whip goes on his now melancholy way, cheated of Golden Swallow and self-recriminating for having left Silver Roc mortally injured, to meet his death in a fashion that beats out even James Cagney's most florid demises. The finale is then rather tragic, with all the major figures disillusioned, crucified by loss or dead, but the traditional values each of them represent or threaten have been conserved. But never mind the mixed messages. Golden Swallow manages to be multifaceted and intelligent whilst never succumbing to pretension.

The Transformers: The Movie (1986)

This was supposed to be a piece for the site Natsukashi, but a number of distractions got in the road of that auspicious event ever working out. Nonetheless, I present it here, at long last.

I am forced to face the fact that I am getting old. Not, like, Supreme Court judge old, but in the sense that I’m slipping beyond 30 with the velocity of a powerless spaceship plunging into the atmosphere. Born in the neutral zone between Gens X and Y – depending on what smart-ass article you read – I get on better with the latter, but have to acknowledge, on occasions, my loyalties to the former, when the grimy chic of Pulp Fiction or Veruca Salt’s “Seether” cuts into my brain much like Unicron’s signals to Galvatron in this film, forcing me to bow down to my true masters. It only bothers me in the sense that one is confronted by slowly but inevitably shifting cultural references.

Back when Megan Fox was a mere glint in the eye of her mother’s yoga instructor, The Transformers was a venerable ‘80s toy marketing scheme provided through some sixty-odd half-hour episodes. I often wrestle with the questions that thinkers have posed for some time, about the colonisation of the imagination by Hollywood, advertisers, and the like. I always suffer from a split of reactions to such questions. As often as such musings seem pertinent, they just as often they seem to be to include an element of chauvinism, be it cultural, intellectual, nationalistic, or even merely generational. Is an attachment to Transformers really so more stunting than an attachment to, oh, I don’t know, Biggles, or the Thunderbirds, or all the other tawdry touchstones of past youth cultures? I do wonder, however, to what degree was my mental landscape polluted by growing up in the ‘80s and ‘90s, the most media-glutted decades in human history. Was my imagination colonised? Yes. And in the end I think that was a good thing.

I would never pretend that Transformers was a towering work of sci-fi fantasy, but it did belong to the rich, oddly ambitious first wave of Manga to arrive outside of Japan, works that first implanted the dreaded Geek chip into my brain. As a boy then, everything interesting seemed to come out of Japan. Godzilla. Monkey. Astroboy. The Macross Saga. Battle of the Planets. Voltron. Space Battleship Yamato. Ulysses 31. They were often crude and mercenary in purpose, but they also had a depth and interest in the outlandish that occasionally breached the outer edges of real mythic narrative and genre poetry. They had an honest eagerness. The recurring images were fascinating and delightful – the monstrous science-derived beasts smashing cities, the concept of smaller entities forming together to make larger ones, often to take on said monstrous beasts. Using old or humdrum technology as the shell for futuristic wizardry. The use of long plot-arcs and a firm grounding in group dynamics. These weren’t just corny, illogical power fantasies like the American superhero comics. They were inspiring because they approached adventure tropes through a high-tech lens, involving genetic engineering, space travel, robotics, the fusion of human and machine (in a rather less icky fashion than David Cronenberg was portraying it, but part of the same zeitgeist). After the monumental success of Star Wars, something was confirmed in English-speaking countries that the Japanese had known for some time, which can be expressed as a formula:

Sci-fi + action + young audience = money3.

And so, Transformers. Watching Michael Bay’s stratospherically noisy, blissfully incomprehensible film revival of put the original movie into my mind again, and I knew that at some point I’d be driven to it again. I was once glued to the screen, watching the goody Autobots combating the evil Decepticons (Dickens would have been proud of those names). When The Transformers: The Movie came along, the franchise, and its grip on the youthful imaginations of me and my friends, began to wane. The movie made a bold move to sever us from the past and make us look forward to the future. And buy the new toys. It was devastating when, twenty minutes in, Optimus Prime, Autobot leader and paternal warrior symbol for us all, died. Other deaths were barely less affecting, like those of familiar baddies like Megatron and Starscream, whose battle of egos had been one of the major pleasures of the series, in their contrasting malignancy: Megatron, tyrannical and grim; Starscream, pitiless but clownish and faintly queeny. All we had known did fairly pass away, replaced by garishly designed new characters. And yet we’d also had our sense of drama expanded out of the familiarities of kiddie fare, into the world of life-and-death struggle. This was the world of grown-ups.

Well, not that serious. The plot: Gigantic robotic intelligence Unicron (voice of Orson Welles) scours the galaxies looking for civilisations he can eat, presumably keeping out of the way of Galactus to avoid a lawsuit. Meanwhile, the ongoing war of the Autobots and the Decepticons has entered a new, deadly phase – in 2005, young lad Spike (Corey Burton), every boy’s surrogate in the show, has grown up, and is aiding Prime (Peter Cullen) and the Autobots from their bases on the moons of Cybertron, the Transformers’ home planet. They’re planning to take back their home world. But Megatron (Frank Welker) has his own plan. He captures an Autobot shuttle, eliminates the crew, and pilots it to Earth, to make a surprise raid on the Autobots’ fortress-city there. On Earth, things are peachy – there are those glittering mountains and meadows nobody can quite do like a Japanese animator. So peachy that indolent Autobot Hot Rod (Judd Nelson) likes to go fishing with Spike’s son Daniel (David Mendenhall). Hot Rod leaps into action when the Decepticons arrive, joining fellow Autobots like Arcee (Susan Blu), the sexiest non-biological being this side of a Gossip Girl cast member, the Dinobots, like by dim stalwart Grimlock (Gregg Berger), and old-timer Griff (Lionel Stander). The Decepticons nearly batter their way into the city, but Prime arrives and proves his mettle, totalling hordes of Decepticons before getting down to a to-the-death rumble with Megatron. Which proves to be the end of both of them – Megatron shoots Optimus only because of Hot Rod’s hamfisted intervention, and Optimus delivers Megatron a crushing blow. The Decepticons make their escape, and Starscream takes the opportunity to eject Megatron and other wounded warriors. Prime expires after handing over the “Matrix of Power”, a mysterious energy source that, it is prophesised, will “light our darkest hour”, to Ultra Magnus (Robert Stack), a “simple warrior” who may or may not be up to the job.

Drifting through space, Megatron and the other wrecked Decepticons are rescued and upgraded into super-bots by Unicron, who needs the Matrix of Power to be destroyed, being the one object in the universe that threatens his supremacy. Megatron’s planet-scale ego is ruffled in being enslaved by this planet-scale entity, but he is happy enough with his new design and designation as Galvatron, and his new voice provided by Leonard Nimoy. He storms Starscream’s coronation on Cybertron and shoots his traitorous minion, who memorably disintegrates into a pile of carbon shards. Galvatron leads a new attack on the Autobot city, forcing them to flee into the depths of space. Hot Rod, Griff, and the Dinobots are separated from Magnus, Arcee, and the rest. They fight their way across a strange planet ruled by weird four-faced alien dictators who rule a race of robotic “Sharkticons” and like to feed prisoners to them after superfluous trials. They escape in a ship thanks to diminutive helpful bot Wheelie, and after Grimlock impresses the Sharkticons sufficiently to make them rebel. Meanwhile, having crashed on a junkyard planet, Ultra Magnus is killed by Galvatron, having been unable to open the Matrix, and Galvatron steals away this totem, planning to blackmail Unicron with it. The inhabitants of the junk planet, cavalier robots who all speak in the voice of Eric Idle and in a language derived from Earth advertising (a self-referential touch if ever there was one) capture the rest of the Autobots, but soon prove friendly allies.

Unicron devours the Cybertronian moons and all the Autobots – and Spike – upon them, before heading to Cyberton. Galvatron tries to make him back down with the Matrix, but is only eaten for his pains – the Matrix won’t work for him either. Unicron proves to be a transformer himself, changing into a gigantic demon-bot (based on Fantasia’s Chernigov), and lays waste to Cyberton. Hot Rod’s ship crashes into Unicron’s eye, and he and the rest of the Autobots try to survive Unicron’s deadly innards. Daniel manages to save his father and other Autobots from being melted, and Hot Rod battles Galvatron, at first hopelessly outmatched. When he wrestles away the Matrix, he is transformed into the chosen leader, Rodimus Prime, and tosses Galvatron head first into space. He then opens the Matrix, which burns Unicron out from within, his head spinning away into the void as his body explodes. Rodimus declares a new age of peace and cooperation to the surviving Transformers.

It’s easy to get a laugh out of singing “The Touch”, the Stan Bush song heard first when Optimus rolls into action, and again when Hot Rod opens the Matrix. Part of that’s due to Paul Thomas Anderson’s cruel use of it in Boogie Nights, as the quintessential ‘80s pulp power-pop. One thing I had forgotten about this film is that the soundtrack is an almost ceaseless cavalcade of such music, the synthesiser beats and tenor yowls that define a window in pop-culture history. The score of Transformers: The Movie outdoes anything else for revealing how hilariously crappy that musical epoch was, and might in fact have been the first blow that started us on the path to “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. No-one could pretend it was cool again. The lyrics are peppered with ludicrous bon mots like “If it’s against the law you bet I’ll break it!” and “Look for Mr Goodbar!” Say wha? Yet it’s hard not to get a little goosepimply when Hot Rod grasps the Matrix and turns the tables on Galvatron, to Bush’s wailing strains – “The Touch” does rock in its corny fashion.

And so does the film. The Arthurian tale of callow knight rising to greatness, grasping Excalibur, and turning the tide, works some classical magic, especially through the film’s relentless pace, which has real dramatic integrity and narrative energy. It’s also the rare film spin-off from a TV show that understands the difference in each medium’s narrative demands. If TV series are built around constant refrains of familiarity, films require vigorous assaults on familiar situations. The Autobots spend the bulk of the film clinging to existence, constantly assailed by superior enemies and a hostile universe. The death of Optimus leaves them anchorless, lacking a true central authority. Even Ultra Magnus proves all too vulnerable. Presuming the fan base’s familiarity with the situation, the film leaps into new territory. It steals from the first Star Wars trilogy egregiously. The flight-and-fight move out of security into the unknown comes from The Empire Strikes Back, and the finale uses Unicron as Death Star. Who Unicron is, where he comes from, and what relationship he has with the Transformers, is never dwelt on. In fact, absolutely nothing is dwelt on. The Transformers: The Movie is eighty-three minutes of hyped-up noise and colour.

But my memory did not really mislead me. The film does rocket along enjoyably, and it has a kind of reckless, fervent joie-de-vivre that’s hard to fake. To my aging mind that accommodated itself to such ambling filmmakers as Tarvkovsky, Angelopolous, and Malick, the pacing I took for granted as a kid is, in hindsight, amazing. It doesn’t breathe, or bore. The animated robot characters are better drawn – in every sense of the word – than the humans in many blockbusters these days, if in a one-note fashion. Griff is gruff and full of war stories and shaky wisdom; Hot Rod lippy but gutsy; Arcee maternal and girly-tough; Grimlock thick but lovable. The imaginative background is often unoriginal, but it’s also dynamic. The film’s stand-out feature is the vocal cast – in addition to the series regulars like Cullen and Welker, the presence of Welles, Nimoy, Stack, Stander, and Scatman Crothers, is almost bemusing. Welles barely knew what the hell it was all about. But a sense of fun had never been Welles’ lack. Stander probably loans the film the most character, with his weathered, humorous vocal work, and the dialogue has notable smart-ass snap.

My memory chiefly betrayed me in terms of the quality of animation, which, though superior to the TV show, is still not exactly, well, Fantasia, with jerky action, and a lack of shading and detailing to figures and backgrounds. But there are some impressive visions, like when Hot Rod fights off schools of robotic piranhas, and the fantastical innards of Unicron. Logic isn’t worth bringing into the equation – the lore has breadth, but not depth. Where all these robotic whatsits came from is never explained, or why they all, regardless of planet or environment, ape earthly biological forms, or why, when away from earth, they retain the forms of our technology. And the difference between the Autobots and Decepticons is never defined beyond traits – good guys noble, brave, friendly, etc; bad guys venal, cruel, and speak in huskier voices.

Was my imagination colonised? Did I buy their toys, slurp their Coke, eat their McDonalds? Yes, I did. But eventually that influence faded, and the other meanings took their place. In fact I took to heart the messages of the films I watched then, which often completely contradicted the circumstances they arose from. The Transformers: The Movie doesn’t exactly fill me with nostalgia for a more innocent world. Actually, it’s not at all innocent, either in concept or product, but it does have a kind of driving élan associated with ‘80s culture that’s entirely missing from our current over-produced, joyless blockbusters. Whenever a PT Anderson uses “The Touch”, or a Parker and Stone compose something like the soundtrack for Team America: World Police, or whenever Ben Stiller makes a movie, they are both satirising and eulogising the glorious phoniness of the youth culture anyone under forty recognises with intuitive understanding, that ‘80s world of Bon Jovi, Marty McFly and Optimus Prime. We are forever bowing their heads to another lost Eden, a Paradise from which we were expelled prematurely.

Sunday, 27 December 2009

She-Wolf of London (1946)

In spite of its title, this likeable yet very cheap and underdeveloped film is more a psychological thriller than a proper horror movie. She-Wolf of London is mild gothic nonsense that retains entertainment value thanks to a couple of good performances and a script and production that skirt the edges of sufficiency. She-Wolf represents the era when the genre of Universal Horror, virtually exhausted after fifteen years of increasingly opportunistic and unimaginative productions, seems to taken some cues from Val Lewton’s successful template of a purely atmospheric, psychologically and symbolically aware approach to the genre. She-Wolf transfers the blueprint of Cat People (1941) and The Leopard Man (1943) to a period setting close to that of the studio’s equally tatty cycle of Sherlock Holmes movies: another film amongst Universal’s final handful of dark chillers was The Spider Woman Strikes Back, spun off from an instalment of that series. The similarity is exacerbated by including Dennis Hoey as a Scotland Yard detective, albeit one not quite as thick as his Inspector Lestrade. The Horror genre was beginning a long plunge into unpopularity that would last until the late ‘50s, and She-Wolf, whilst produced with the usual studio polish (the photography by Maury Gertsman is distinguished), signals how that decline manifested in plunging budgets and barely sufficient productions. Like Don Siegel’s The Verdict and Robert Siodmak's The Spiral Staircase from the same period, if not in a league with either, this also could be seen as a bridging point between the homelier charms of pre-war melodrama and the reflexes of film noir.

That perhaps is why the supernatural, once invoked, gives way to a purely human villain and motives. June Lockhart is Phyllis Allenby, a young heiress who believes she’s also the progeny of a line cursed by lycanthropy. Sara Haden is her formidable, quietly deadly housekeeper-cum-guardian, Martha Winthrop, who’s so determined to keep her hands on the estate and see her own daughter Carol (Jan Wiley) married to June’s fiancée, wealthy lawyer Barry Lanfield (Don Porter), that she’s attempting to reinforce June’s delusions. She takes this to the extent of murdering sundry children and policemen in the guise of the she-wolf, lurking in the amusingly wild-looking neighbouring park that’s supposed to be in suburban London, and planting evidence about June’s bedroom, including smearing blood on her fingers when sleeping, to convince her she’s prone to amnesiac night prowling.

Director Jean Yarbrough had worked his way up from making films for the likes of PRC and Monogram with Horror films by this time, beginning his association with the genre with the amusing no-budget wonder The Devil Bat (1941), and the set-bound atmospherics he provides are enjoyable when indulged, which sadly isn't much. Lanfield attempts to track the she-wolf’s prowling, whilst the white-draped femme fatale emerges from the haze for lightning attacks that are slightly jarring for their mixture of implied brutality and dreamy visualisation. One scene, in which Winthrop climbs stairs with a glass of poisoned milk intended for Phyllis, clearly invokes Hitchcock’s Suspicion (1942). But those fleeting pleasures are highly diluted amongst a lot of drawing room talk.

Lockhart’s quivering recollection of dreams of a pagan past, in which she was an unleashed beast, and Haden’s strong performance, retain a vague power suggestive of hothouse emotionalism and animalistic savagery lurking beneath the Victorian civility, with an interesting edge of feminine psychopathy based in social anxiety: Haden's motives are rooted in her experiences at the bottom of the social heap thanks to making an imprudent marriage, and her actions, then, are definable as social climbing run amok. So short and modest as a generic quickie that it barely makes an impression initially, and certainly a long way from truly understanding, never mind living up to, the Lewton aesthetic, it’s still a fun relic from the twilight of the Universal house of ghouls.

Thursday, 24 December 2009

Where the Wild Things Are (2009)

Watching Spike Jones and Dave Eggars’ adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s beloved 1963 children’s book, I had an insight into the way children tend to read, and how great writers of books intended for them operate. Such works are detailed, but also only do just enough so that a young reader projects his or her young thoughts into the work, in essence claiming it for themselves. Sendak’s book dug into the heart of one of the core aspects of childhood, the part of a kid that is uncivilised, ill at ease in a world of laws and adult rigidities. Sendak appealed to the primal soul even whilst giving it two of the supreme gifts of civilisation: the well-written sentence and the artful image, in showing how kids make friends with their demons, cope with fears, and try to embrace their innermost natures. His message essentially inverted centuries of fairytales as cautionary parables. Where the types of campfire folk tale collected by the Brothers Grimm taught children to be scared of the edge of the light, Sendak suggested that deep in the woods with the monsters wasn’t such an awful place to be.

Jones’ and Eggars’ Where the Wild Things Are perhaps doesn’t look much like Sendak’s, or anyone else’s, but that could be adaptation in its purest form: they rebuild Sendak’s tiny story into their own little parable about life. That it’s far more wet than wild only indicates how diverse such individual takes are, and also what different times we live in. Sendak’s work was redolent of the growing counterculture of its era, attempting to psychically redefine young people’s sense of themselves. The fact that Sendak recently came out as gay only helped clarify its essential breadth of relevance: his story was about finding aspects of ourselves which social roles attempt to suppress and deny. Jones and Eggars’ screenplay is the product of an era in which people are disillusioned and half-hearted in their fantasies, for whom wildness is a distant and soggy mystery, and where the lid is always being jammed back on Pandora’s box.

Max (Max Records), in his everyday life, is coping with the loss of his father, through undefined circumstances, probably having left after divorce. His sister Claire (Pepita Emmerichs) has become too old to be his playmate, hanging out with some older kids who, when Max starts a snowball fight with them, crush the igloo he’s made in their overzealous play. Max, furious at his sister’s lack of interest, ascends into her bedroom and destroys a craftwork totem of love he made for her. His overworked single mother (Catherine Keener) is striking up a relationship with a new boyfriend (Mark Ruffalo), something which starts Max first trying to play masculine overlord (“Woman! Bring me my dinner!”) in claiming man-of-the-house status for himself, and then into a convulsive rage at being spurned, biting his mother’s shoulder and dashing out into the night, stumbling through a forest, and boarding a sailboat for a mysterious island populated by strange beasts. After debating whether to eat him, they’re impressed by Max’s claims of magic powers and make him their king instead.

I had no love for Jones’ debut feature, Being John Malkovich (1999) and its follow-up, Adaptation (2002), which were amazingly cumbersome and alienated works for films that wanted to be engagingly nutty and soulful. But both were thoroughly engaged with the concept of role-playing as a constant correlation to the way people experience life, and Wild Things expands the template further, for it becomes clear that the wild things are at first substitute friends for Max and then, finally, mirrors to his own nature. Carol (voice of James Gandolfini) is his closest avatar, a bearish, sullen, needy dreamer who has a crush on KW (Lauren Ambrose) and a desperate urge to smash things that don’t work in asserting his desire for greater communal perfection amongst the populace of wild things.

KW herself keeps abandoning the group to spend time along and visit her two owl friends, Bob and Terry, whose supposedly wise and witty words Max and Carol can only discern as normal owl chirps. Ira (Forest Whitaker) and Judith (Catherine O’Hara) literalise Sendak’s supposed basing of the wild things on his old, ugly Jewish relatives looming over him as a kid, Ira a passive mensch and Allison a sniping, self-pitying boor who accuses Max of playing favourites. Goat-like sook Alexander (Paul Dano) is generally ignored and used as a target, and passive but canny Douglas (Chris Cooper) lets himself be used as a cannonball in Carol’s destructive fits.

The wild things, then, evoke both a mob of other misfit kids, a fractious family, and jostling aspects of Max’s personality and emotional reflexes. They also often sound and act a little like the characters hanging about a group therapy session at a small mental health facility. Max’s fantastical ideas and inspirations for how they can reinvent their world inspire them to build a colossal, geometric fortress (an image which evokes another moment of grandiose solipsism in one of this year’s films, the edifice Dr Manhattan builds in Watchmen, and there are more similarities in the intention then one would think, with all the metaphors of power vacuums and temptations to become god), and coming up with raucous games that more often than not finally reveal the hang-ups and fault-lines in the group. Eggars comes up with some intriguing metaphors, like the hoots of Bob and Terry being unintelligible to Max and Carol, effectively delineating the way that popularity and the ambiguities of friendships are often incomprehensible to kids.

Meanwhile Jones and Eggars feel out the edges of social metaphor, studying the self-consuming desire for strong leadership and disappointed hopes: Max is “the first king we haven’t eaten,” as Ira confesses. Max’s being crowned king soon leads him, and the wild things, to admit the non-existence of true kings, a definite metaphor for Max’s coming to terms with his father’s absence. The realisation that Max is not a king drives the already fraying Carol to a fit of rage, ripping off Douglas’s arm, then chasing after Max with a mad intention to eat him, forcing Max to hide within KW’s stomach, whilst she delivers to Carol the same accusation his mother hurled at him: “You’re out of control!”

If there’s a disagreeable undertone here, it’s that Jones and Eggars often seem to be more intent on satisfying their own alt-culture conceit, which disbars both highs and lows, passion and mess, to make finally not a film that children can relate to but a film they want children to relate to, not the same thing. Sendak’s book celebrates wildness: Jones’ film encourages its being corralled. Kids (and me!) love being terrified and provoked as well as reassured; Jones offers a conflict resolution session. There are many droll, cute, and intriguing images – the delightful Bob and Terry; the holes in the trees that Douglas makes which Carol tells Max aren’t his: “The trees around them are yours, not the holes!”; the forlorn fake arm made of a twig that Douglas sports after Carol rips his other one off. But any hoped-for unruly energy is sucked out of the film, and what is left is where the wussy things are, a touchy-feely parable about the dangers and necessities of growing up.

In short, it’s both square and safe, which is the opposite of the point. The visual invention and knowing wit that was Jones’ trademark in his beloved music videos seemed to desert him in adapting Charlie Kaufman’s stunt screenplays, and even here he fails to capture anything fervent or dreamlike: his direction, whilst graceful and intimate, is never less than literal. One quality that does remain, providing the film’s texture, is a portrait of longing as a perpetual state, well evoked in Carol’s final howl to a departing Max, which carries a real, if low-key, almost mournful emotional charge. Both Max and the wild things, are creatures longing for things better than they are, and Max’s progress is of learning to value what he has. Which isn’t really particularly exciting or novel; in fact it comes close to restoring the campfire tale moral Sendak was taking time out from. Finally, Where the Wild Things Are is an affecting film, but it sure isn’t wild.

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Revenge of the Creature (1956)

The Gill-Man trilogy, kicked off by Jack Arnold’s Creature from the Black Lagoon, stands as one of the more ambitious attempts to sustain a successful concept in ‘50s sci-fi-monster cinema. The two sequels, Revenge of the Creature and The Creature Walks Among Us, delve with a melodramatic efficiency into matters of evolution and the construction of human identity, pitting human folly and arrogance against the Gill-Man’s unexpected mix of intelligence and utterly basic desire to defend territory and find a mate – less an expression of the id than a kind of walking superego. In all three films, romantic triangles play out amongst the humans, in which the remnant animalistic qualities in the species are reconfirmed, alongside other, baser qualities such as greed and thirst for power masquerading as scientific curiosity and conscientious concern; simultaneously the Gill-Man’s theoretically icky fascination for luscious females gains a light gilding of all too human yearning and nobility. The series is fascinating also for being clear early manifestations of environmentalist concern in mainstream cinema.

Revenge was again directed by Arnold, who makes an admirable attempt to sustain series continuity by having his regular player Nestor Paiva return as Lucas, captain of the “Nelly”, explaining to two naturalists (John Bromfield and Robert B. Williams) how he believes the Gill-Man is driven by something stronger than even evolution. The naturalists soon capture the beast and take it back to the US to become an exhibit in a Sea World-like aquarium, and animal behaviour expert Clete Ferguson (John Agar) and ichthyology student Helen Dobson (Lori Nelson, who, unless movies have been lying to me, confirms the large number of centrefold scientists there were in the ‘50s), begin a regimen to try and teach the ferocious manimal some basic manners. Of course, he wants to break free, just like Freddie Mercury, and shake up those sun-loving gawkers and ice-cream-sticky brats a little before getting down to the real business of trying to swap incompatible (or is it?) DNA with Nelson.

Unfortunately, although sustaining interesting thematic tensions, the second two films lack inspiration, partly because they fell into the trap of repeating the essential plot motifs of the first film: Gill-Man gets caught, escapes, snatches away human female in desperate attempt to mate, gets shot at for his troubles, swims off to an ambiguous fate. It’s especially dull here because Agar and Nelson are utterly cardboard protagonists – Agar’s there-there consoling of Nelson when she’s distraught over witnessing a man’s death at the hands of a giant fish-beast is a masterpiece of wooden acting – and the story develops clumsily, taking constant time-outs for playful chimpanzees and cavorting trained dolphins to pad out what feels like a hurriedly assembled screenplay, and then setting up silly excuses to put Nelson in the Gill-Man’s path after he’s busted loose.

The evocation of the Gill-Man’s ferocious strength and unnerving fixity of purpose is still effective, but he doesn’t get to cut loose as much as hoped, for the limited budget keeps any rampaging carefully checked, and an air of tired retread is never dispelled. The first film’s crucial influence on Jaws is often noted, and probably not coincidentally this one offered an easy template for the wonderfully bad Jaws 3-D. Meanwhile, The Creature Walks Among Us is actually slightly superior for being just a little weirder. In spite of his being better looking than John Agar, the Creature can never get a break.

Sunday, 20 December 2009

The Monster That Challenged the World (1957)

A late entry in the ‘50s creature-feature stakes features a villainous species that reveals how exhausted the repertory of potential monsters had become: are you ready for the soul-warping, intestine-wrangling terror of...giant prehistoric caterpillar-like molluscs? Yes, plural, not singular, and they really don't challenge the world so much as a few random Californians and bewildered military personnel. These blood-sucking slugs are awakened from their long sleep in the earth underneath the Salton Sea by an earthquake and let loose to eat sundry military personnel and swim-suited bathers. A reasonably good screenplay by Pat Fielder emphasises interplay between the characters and sports some deliberate humour, including a neat Hitchcockian eccentric in the shape of Milton Parsons’ ultra-nerdy local history buff. Director Arnold Laven’s effective location filming in an interesting locale, makes this initially more engaging than a lot of the cheap cash-ins that followed the decade’s earlier, hallowed monster movies, like Them! and Tarantula. Some of its imagery might have had a ripple effect on Jaws (1975) and aspects of the plot also anticipate Piranha (1978), which likewise hinges around trying to halt the beasts’ progress along a waterway to the sea.

A middle-aged Tim Holt, looking rather pudgy and awkward (it was his first film in five years), leads an unusually competent cast, as a Naval Intelligence officer who romances widowed mother and secretary Audrey Dalton, and Hans Conried plays the oddly fey but energetic scientist who explains the plot to his amusingly unperturbed colleagues, as if in the movie’s universe such outbreaks were a familiar occurrence. There’s the compulsory teenaged female victim who’s obviously going to be a victim because she wears one of those neck-scarves used in such films to signal a tendency to trampiness, and an ill-fated sailor named, of course, Johnson. Otherwise Monster constantly emphasises the kind of communal effort and understanding that’s so often a theme of these flicks. Everyone’s exceptionally nice to one another whilst battling man-eating molluscs, once they get to know each-other, and there’s an effective moment in which the dead girl’s mother weeps for her misunderstood child. But the film is unfortunately also cheap and terribly limited in terms of giant bug action, failing to generate any tension thanks to some diffuse story development, so that, even at 83 minutes, it proves to be the movie that challenges one’s patience.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Werewolf of London (1935)

The first, rather ill-fated effort by Universal Studios to create a werewolf film was obviously obscured by the subsequent Lon Chaney Jnr franchise. It’s not too hard to discern why. George Waggner’s seminal The Wolf Man (1941) had style and substance, and created in Larry Talbot a likable everyman victim-villain to embody the classical monstrous metaphor for an irrepressible capacity for destruction and erotic threat remnant in the human character. Werewolf of London's director Stuart Walker, who chiefly helmed romantic melodramas in his career, failed to provide Werewolf of London with a similarly concise sense of form and personality, whilst indulging the script's constant sidesteps, which often  stop the narrative dead. The project is notably indebted to the Rouben Mamoulian version of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, to the point where it filches the famed transformation broken into stages by passing behind pillars. The mystique Waggner’s film conjured was irresistible, to the point where the ideas it injected into the werewolf myth went right into common folklore. Werewolf of London's tilt at creating lycanthrope law was perhaps more interesting, with a plot revolving around a flower harvested from a cursed valley high in the Himalayas that holds the power of keeping werewolf transformations at bay, a concept laced with fascinating qualities of fragile beauty and arcane mystery to counterbalance the savagery of the man-as-beast metaphor; but it's hard not to admit that nonetheless the talismanic value of silver introduced in Waggner's film is punchier. Also, the central protagonist, Henry Hull’s tragic botanist Dr. Glendon, never gains the anguished pathos Talbot possessed.

But Werewolf of London isn’t entirely negligible, for its own ideas for the lycanthropic mythos were as potentially fascinating, particularly in presenting its werewolf as a less utterly animalistic beast, not as hirsute as Chaney’s, retaining elements of human will whilst still becoming utterly vicious, stalking the night in cap and coat, and therefore somehow more insidiously threatening in suggesting single-minded violence. The marifasa lupina lumino is the exotic blossom which Glendon tries to procure in a terrific opening sequence, in which he and a friend, Renwick (Clark Williams), venture into the hidden Tibetan valley, against the advice of a priest (Egon Brecher) who hasn’t spoken to a fellow white man in forty years.

Anticipating Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), Glendon and Renwick fight against invisible barriers and unseen guardians to penetrate the forbidden abode, and Glendon is attacked whilst taking cuttings of the sacred flower by a lurking werewolf. This other beast proves to be Dr Yogami (Warner Oland), a Japanese lycanthrope after the flower to alleviate his condition, and he follows Glendon back to his London home hoping that Glendon’s efforts to cultivate the plant might offer a perpetual source of blossoms to keep the curse at bay, and also to alert Glendon to his coming, inevitable transformation.

The film's story development was reputedly worked on at one point by Guy Endore, the famed scribe of the novel The Werewolf of Paris, which repopularised the werewolf myth. But the result, whilst suggesting some Endor's innate understanding of the werewolf's symbolic power, has little of his narrative muscle and narrative complexity. The actual screenplay, by John Colton, sets up a domestic triangle as the impetus for Glendon's lycanthropic rages, as a clear metaphor for an innate male sexual possessiveness warring with his civilised decency. Glendon’s wife Lisa (Valerie Hobson) is increasingly alienated first by his fixation with his work and then by his efforts to keep his distance from her, when he realises at Yogami’s prodding that she will inevitably become his victim, and draws ever closer to her former fiancée, Paul Ames (Lester Matthews).

The necessary, compelling emotional conflagration never ignites, however, as the normally fine Hull’s awkward performance fails to find a happy balance between pent-up, stiff-upper-lip suffering and feral explosion. Hobson is at her most devastatingly bland, and Matthews isn’t worth mentioning at all. The potential for a more than average genre entry is further diffused by constant diversions for supporting characters and some truly crappy Cockney comic relief, although Spring Byington as a flaky family friend provides some sparkle. Intriguingly, a gay subtext presents itself with surprising, almost inescapable force, especially in the moment in which Yogami suggestively strokes Glendon’s hidden scar, his mark of exception, which drives him to nocturnal prowling amongst the demimonde in a conflicted double life. For this aspect, the great opening, Oland's good performance, Charles Stumar's fine photography, and Jack Pierce's intriguing make-up, the film is still more than worthwhile.

2012 (2009)

Roland Emmerich’s attempts to be the George Pal of modern blockbuster cinema here almost reach a Platonic ideal. Coming off perhaps his flattest and most utterly redundant film, 10,000 BC, Emmerich returns to his favourite framework, the end-of-the-world extravaganza, revolving around the supposed Mayan apocalypse, which is almost completely irrelevant, and thus fittingly exploitative in a Roger Corman-esque fashion, to the actual story, which involves solar flares destabilising the earth’s crust. Après nous, le Déluge. Heroic scientist Chiwetel Ejiofor, after being alerted by an Indian colleague (Jimi Mistry), alerts the world, but then tries with little success to inject a measure of humanism into a hastily contrived worldwide project to build arks to ride out the resulting colossal tsunamis, financed by the cash of rich assholes paying to save their own hides.

Ejiofor spends much of the subsequent movie combating Oliver Platt’s regulation government über-creep over who exactly to save and how, whilst the US President (Danny Glover) waits for the flood with all the other suckers. Meanwhile, underachieving scifi novelist and chauffer Jackson Curtis (played by John Cusack, apparently named after Emmerich’s favourite rap star, but all too easily suggesting Jesus Christ too) tries to speed his ex-wife (Amanda Peet), her plastic surgeon boyfriend (Tom McCarthy), and his kids, to the project’s base in the high Himalayas, having become aware of the project thanks to Woody Harrelson’s batty hick conspiracy theorist.

Emmerich plunges in with such enthusiasm and splashy indulgence the film swiftly becomes a high comedy as it keeps trying to top itself. Emmerich uses the same stunts a few too many times (cars jumping expanding chasms; planes taking off and trying to fly through said chasms), but especially in the first cataclysmic LA-trashing spectacle, and in the breathless we’re-going-to-crash-into-Mt-Everest! finale, 2012 is delightful in its absurd invention. It’s easy to forget in the face of his utter lack of subtlety and piles of corn that Emmerich is actually one of the most skilled visual organisers and directors of mass chaos working Hollywood these days, and, like The Patriot and The Day After Tomorrow, 2012 is very good-looking even at its most utterly shallow. Even if, as clear progenitor Cecil B. DeMille once said of himself, the release of each of his films causes critical appreciation of the public’s intelligence to drop by half, this is a real distinguishing feature of Emmerich’s best films, as well as his ability to keep large casts of characters and converging plotlines in focus.

It helps that the cast is very good (George Segal, Thandie Newton and Stephen McHattie are in there too). Harrelson’s character, and performance, is particularly well-pitched for pure goofball entertainment, and Ejiofor and Cusack commit themselves with bewildering passion in the strangest circumstances. If Emmerich didn’t pay enough attention to the darkness inherent in the War of the Worlds scenario to make Independence Day little more than an expansive video game, his quotations of When Worlds Collide here have some archetypal force. The result, over-long and over-everything, is one of the year’s most satisfying pieces of claptrap, and will inevitably be reduced to inconsequentiality on television.

The Informant! (2009)

The Informant! is another ironically pedantic, deadpan comedy-drama, infused with satire on contemporary American culture, which seems to have become a kind of up-market sub-genre lately, many of which are made by Steven Soderbergh or one of his star acolytes. The Men Who Stare At Goats, for instance, is almost the same film in a different milieu. The Informant! presents a kind of pizzicato variation on the tune of Prince of the City, with Matt Damon having a good time playing Mark Whitacre, a folksy, toupee-clad executive for ADM, an Illinois-based produce company engaged in secretive price fixing with international competitors. Whitacre, at the encouragement of his loyal wife Ginger (the always welcome Melanie Lynskey, although she seems to be turning into Drew Barrymore) approaches FBI agent Mark Sheppard (an effective Scott Bakula) and wavers between glee and squirming anxiety in playing the part of whistle-blower.

But just as it looks like Paul could become the ‘white hat’ hero he so desperately wishes to be, his own fantastical nature, powered by a deceptive, manic-depressive streak a mile-wide, digs a trap for himself that only gets deeper. Damon’s fine comedic performance and a playfully retro Marvin Hamlisch score backs up one of Soderbergh’s most fluent efforts to fuse his arty and popular sides. But the material had far richer potential for clammy psychodrama, as well for making a deeper incision into a half-mad white-collar criminal’s desperate desire to play the good guy, and indeed conviction that he is one, as a vital political parable. The Informant! is, like almost all of Soderbergh’s serious films, something of a missed opportunity.