What makes a good fairy story? Archetypes aside, I’d say darkness, loss, and death. These elements also lurk at the core of the best children’s stories – or at least the kinds of children’s stories that continue to hover in the mind once most such things have been put away.
A great many such stories involve that threadbare theme, the “loss of innocence”. But I have a particular fondness for those in which the supposed innocence is replaced by nothing at all – the kind of terrifying amorality that parents may find themselves catching glimpses of, but elect not to talk about. This is occasionally harnessed by lesser film-makers for the purposes of a hokey thriller, such as The Bad Seed or The Good Son, but to see it done well we need someone like Alexander Mackendrick.
Mackendrick made his name directing the best-loved of the Ealing comedies: Whiskey Galore, The Ladykillers, and The Man In The White Suit. His cynicism is particular keen in that one – Alec Guinness plays a perky scientist who invents a self-cleaning fabric, and is for his troubles crushed by a union of big capital and big labour, both fearful of the disruption it would bring. He also made Mandy, a real button-pusher of a movie about the struggle of a troubled family to raise a little deaf girl. Mandy is one of the few films that can make me cry. Honestly, it gets me every time. Anyway.
He then left for Hollywood, where he made what many regard as his masterpiece: The Sweet Smell of Success. His cynicism is back here, and in full force, in a tale of moral corruption and the corrosive effect of desperation in the world of New York gossip journalism. Ironically, Success turned out to be the peak of Mackendrick’s own box office fortunes. Falling out with the producers, he was almost immediately kicked off his next project for them. He managed to make three more films before difficulties in obtaining further financing caused him to abandon directing completely, and instead take tenure at the University of Southern California. Unlike the happy cocoon of Ealing, freelancing in Hollywood had depended on being a great “deal-maker,” he complained, and “I have no talent for that … I realised I was in the wrong business and got out.”
Fortunately, the second of those final three movies was A High Wind In Jamaica; it’s here that Mackendrick was able to to take Mandy’s touching sensitivity to the emotional world of children and crash it into the brutal darkness of Success. For, aside from children, who else is known for living outside of the moral conventions of mainstream society? The answer, of course, is pirates.
A High Wind In Jamaica is based on the book of the same name, and follows the adventures of a family of children who are believed dead, but in fact have stowed away with a pirate crew (lead by their captain Anthony Quinn and second in command James Coburn). In one type of story this would be a jaunty romp with lots of yo-ho-ho and a cheeky parrot. In another type, it would be a much grimmer, traumatic voyage. The film’s skill is in playing one possibility off against the other, never quite closing off the possibilities that it will resolve one way or the other. When the pirates make their first stop the kids roam around the port in a fun, high-spirited sort of way. Then the eldest boy sneaks upstairs in a brothel. Can you guess what happens next? If you guessed “he freaks out, jumps out of a third floor window, smashes his head in and dies,” then you are correct. This is only made more disorienting by the fact that he’s played by Martin Amis.
Without the relative maturity of their brother to anchor them, life for the remaining children takes on an increasingly unreal air. But it’s when Gert Frobe (aka Goldfinger) turns up as a Dutch Captain that things really take a turn for the savage. Suffice to say, the original novel is regarded as the primary inspiration for The Lord of The Flies.
The trailer tries to sell it as a salty Technicolor yarn, perfect perhaps for a Sunday matinee… but the menace oozes through the screen.
This is a story where the children learn the hard way the difference between right and wrong – and then learn that maybe they just don’t care. If children start their lives beyond good and evil then this is one story where, after a journey of growth and discovery, at least one decides to stay there.
“Hidden Treasure” is the W&P series on films we think are under-seen or under-appreciated…
We didn’t want to add to the echo chamber about the cause and tragedy of his death, but given that quite a few of our favorite movies included one Philip Seymour Hoffman, it seemed fitting to each of us to say a few simple words about him.
John Le Carre’s based-on-true-events novel about morally ambiguous diplomacy during the modern War on Terror gets the big-streen treatment with an interesting ensemble cast (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rachel McAdams, Willem Defoe, Daniel Bruhl). People call Carre’s work “the thinking man’s thriller,” which is a way of calling something a critical darling that doesn’t do as well as movies where Tom Cruise rides motorcycles in the desert and does not-so-undercover spy work with sexy team members and explosions.
The film is directed by Anton Corbijn, who correctly surmised the appeal of George Clooney as a be-suited assassin in The American (which, in turn, was inspired by a Martin Booth’s espio-novel A Very Private Gentleman–do I sense the pattern of A Very Thoughtful Spy Movie brewing?)
I plan on seeing this, not only for the cast and story, but also to esoterically humblebrag about this at my local beer garden while drinking a microbrew you’ve never heard of. –GW
In an icy post-apocalyptic world, the only survivors live on a train powered by snow that it funnels in through its front, or something. In fact, I hear it runs on “a perpetual motion engine.” Perhaps, like the shark in Annie Hall, it needs to keep moving forward or it dies.
We love high-concept sci-fi here at W&P… but WAIT, the high concept gets even higher, and conceptier. There’s some kind of carriage-based class system, and when a sooty Chris Evans – stuck at the back of the train – becomes unhappy with his lot he decides to battle through to first class. So: snowy Marxist allegory fun, starring Tilda Swinton, Chris Evans and Octavia Spencer and directed by Bong Joon-Ho (the guy who did The Host – the Korean monster movie, not the Twilight alien movie thing).
Could this work? Ask the audiences in Korea and France, where it’s been out for a while. Elsewhere it’s being cut from 120 minutes to 100 because Harvey Weinstein isn’t just content with chopping up The Grandmaster–he won’t rest until he’s hacked apart every crossover Asian movie he can get his scissors to. HE WILL NOT REST. –AJP
Here’s my arbitrary list of American/international market movies that really bit the big one, for being anticipatedly horrible or for failing to live up to expectations. If you disagree with any of these, that’s fine—but you’re wrong. Just saying.
Before we get to my reviews, though, here are…
Crappy movies in 2013 that I didn’t watch because I knew they’d be crappy: A Good Day to Die Hard, Grown Ups 2, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, The Host, Jobs, White House Down, and That Other Movie That Is Basically The Same as White House Down.
And now, in no particular order:
I paid $14.50 to watch a Will Smith action movie in which Will Smith is not involved in any action at all (not even so much as an alien throat punch), and in which the dubious talents of The Smith That Squints were unnecessarily forced upon the world. M. Night Shyamalan has truly perfected the meta-twist, in that he keeps tricking people into seeing his films.