Wolfwalkers

Wolfwalker Mebh with wolves

 

Kings of Irish animation Cartoon Saloon bring their Irish Folklore Trilogy to a close with Wolfwalkers, a rousing big finish after The Secret of Kells (2009) and Song of the Sea (2014).

It’s closer in spirit to Song of the Sea, which was about a shapeshifting sea creature known as a selkie, than Kells, which was set in an Irish monastery where enthusiasm, bizarrely, was shown to trump actual craft and learning when it came to illuminating ancient manuscripts.

This time, co-writer/director duo Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart have repurposed an old legend about “wolf men” from Kilkenny, where their studio is based, to tell the story of human beings who release their inner wolf to walk at night while they sleep. And lying under that dual relationship is another, of the tortured past of the Irish and the English: colonisers, settlers, disrupters, oppressors. Ireland was the country where England learned how to become an imperial power.

Oliver Cromwell – scourge of Ireland – is never named but is clearly referenced in the character of the Lord Protector (voiced by Simon McBurney, a master at playing the snide bully), whose underling Bill Goodfellowe (Sean Bean) has been brought over from England to wipe out the wolf population. His daughter, Robyn (Honor Kneafsey), like many a heroine before her in the recent animationsphere, bridles at being ordered to stay indoors and do household chores rather than run free. She wants to do boy stuff.

And so Robyn disobeys, which throws her into the realm of the wolves, just as her father is setting traps and organising their mass extinction. But Bill has not reckoned on the power of the supernatural. Nor has Robyn, who accidentally strikes up a friendship with a wolfwalker called Mebh (the Irish spelling of Maeve).

Though the Irish are the oppressed in this story, it’s the wolves who are on the receiving end of the violence. In the classic “divide and rule” tactic the English would deploy throughout their eventual empire, suddenly it’s the wolves who are the problem for the local folk, rather than the massive system of oppression put in place by the Lord Protector.

Moore and Stewart tread carefully here, not wishing to open old wounds. There is nothing now to be gained in any case.

 

Mebh and Robyn in the woods
Mebh and Robyn

 

Most eyes, in any case will be drawn to the glories of the hand-drawn animation, which is really what all this Irish Folklore series is about. Again, what’s on offer is an eclectic mix of styles, with Richard Williams’s The Thief and the Cobbler the most immediate source of inspiration, though Disney’s Snow White, any number of Studio Ghibli’s stories about imperilled youngsters and the blocky characters of Halas and Bachelor’s Animal Farm are also sources of inspiration, while Moore and Stewart’s experiments in flattened perspective recall pre-Renaissance painting (an influence on Richard Williams also).

The style is deceptively simple but the technique is not. That’s what makes the Cartoon Saloon’s output so distinctive. While characters in the foreground, people and animals mostly, are bold and simple, the backgrounds are almost insanely detailed – the further back you go, the busier it gets. It makes for a viewing experience that will withstand, and reward, repeated watching.

My personal favourite of this trio is Song of Sea, which shared Wolfwalkers’ enthusiasm for shapes reminiscent of an Irish harp, then this, and trailing quite a way behind The Secret of Kells, whose animation was glorious but its story about young women bucking the system (also echoed in Wolfwalkers) would have been more exhilarating if it hadn’t been the go-to narrative for too many animations. Brave, Mulan, Pocahontas, and so on.

 

 

 

 

Wolfwalkers: the Graphic Novel (by Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart – Buy it at Amazon

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

 

 

Possessor

Andrea Riseborough

 

Stab a human being in a vital area of the body and what happens? In most movies, after one clean thrust a modicum of blood seeps decorously into an item of clothing and the victim promptly drops dead. But this is a Brandon Cronenberg movie and Brandon is the heir to David Cronenberg, king of the body horrror.

So when someone is stabbed in the neck in the pre-credits sequence to Possessor, the blood-letting is spumungous, nasty, frenzied and inconclusive – this victim isn’t going down without a fight. Even as he dies he’s summoning all his forces to keep the only show he has on the road. That’s what happens.

Remarkably, this is Brandon Cronenberg’s first feature – there have been a handful of shorts – since Antiviral, his 2012 feature debut, a cerebral incursion into dad David’s body-horror territory but with a critique of celebrity culture whose subtext made Antiviral all Brandon’s own.

Possessor is a touch of same/same and borrows not just a bit of dad’s 1999 wild ride eXistenZ, but also one of its stars, Jennifer Jason Leigh, who plays the control sending assassin Tasya (Andrea Riseborough) on missions into other people bodies, using “them” to perform some murderous deed before Tasya is ported back into her own world, where her body has been waiting Matrix-style, plugged into life support while her mind was gambolling murderously.

eXistenZ, quick recap, is about Jude Law and Jennifer Jason Leigh lost inside a computer game. Possessor sends Riseborough Tasya off on “one last job” – to assassinate a tech squillionaire (Sean Bean), and his heir-presumptive daughter (Tuppence Middleton), in the guise of her wrong-side-of-the-tracks boyfriend (Christopher Abbott), leaving him to take the rap so the client, a mysterious stepson, can instead inherit.

 

Christopher Abbott
Taking over from the halfway mark, Christopher Abbott

In Tasya goes, at which point Andrea Riseborough more or less exits the movie (boo) and the acting torch is handed to Abbott, who struggles to match Riseborough for sheer magnetic oomph – but then who doesn’t?

In “one last job” movies, the assassin rarely has an easy time of it, and so it proves here – Tasya gets stuck inside her host’s body and he starts fighting back to establish who has the upper hand.

There’s no point going into the rest of the plot except to say that there is an awful lot more blood, gore and splatter before the end credits. People do not die easily in Possessor. Eyes are levered from sockets, teeth are bent out of reluctant jaws. Tons of fun.

It’s a little like Christopher Nolan’s Inception without the budget and relies an awful lot more on imagination rather than tech wows for its effects.

Cronenberg Jr wrote and directs and has the right stuff in spades, particularly the ideas, and an eye for a striking image, which is two pluses more than a lot of directors have.

Even so I couldn’t help feeling that for all its moments of mad excess and cool procedure, BC never quite found a register to fuly meld the “job” movie with the fugitive thriller.

On top of that there’s a lunge at profundity with a discussion about human identity and culpability – who is the author of the act if the person is possessed (or ill, for that matter)? – which is not only a step towards Christopher Nolan too far but also a resurrection of a trope that’s been done to death, revived and done to death again.

I see no upcoming details for BC on the IMDB and hoping it’s not going to be another eight years before his next film. Niggles apart, there’s an awful lot to like, admire even, in Possessor, particularly if severed body parts (still twitching) are your thing.

 

Possessor – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2020

 

 

Black Death

Eddie Redmayne and Sean Bean in Black Death

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

27 May

 

Bubonic plague breaks out in California, 1907

On this day in 1907, bubonic plague broke out in California, USA. The disease had ravaged the known world twice before, first in the 6th century, the so-called Justinian plague. It then reoccurred most famously in the pandemic starting in Mongolia and spreading across Asia into Europe, killing a third of the population between 1340 and 1400, the Black Death. In the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries it had erupted frequently though less devastatingly, and even in the 20th century it was not unknown – Australia had 12 major outbreaks between 1900 and 1925. In 1907, San Francisco was just recovering from the 1900 to 1904 outbreak of plague – the third global plague pandemic had been raging since 1855 – which had been exacerbated by a mayor who wouldn’t admit there was a problem because he feared the impact on business, when a sailor crossing San Francisco Bay on a ferry was diagnosed with the disease. The plague took hold, with the New York Times reporting that “it looked for a time as if the city were to be decimated as was mediaeval Europe.” It was also around this time that the theory started to gain currency that bubonic plague was spread by rats. The city started a massive public health campaign, concentrating from 1908 on exterminating rats. By the following year the plague was gone.

 

 

 

Black Death (2010, dir: Christopher Smith)

Director Christopher Smith’s follow-up to the brain-befuddling Triangle – which ingeniously managed to mix time travel with child welfare – is another exercise in altered mindsets, this time locating us firmly in the Middle Ages, where plague is rampant and people will do the most irrational things to try and stop it. Sean Bean is the film’s star, a solid hunk of matter off which superstition is deflected, playing the leader of a band of trusties who are on a mission to find out why a certain small village has been immune to the depredations of the bubonic disease. Working to some extent in the tradition of Michael Reeves, of Witchfinder General fame, Smith locates us firmly within the ideology of the time and switches allegiances expertly between the Christians (led by the brutal Bean and his ideological warhorse, a monk played by Eddie Redmayne) and the no less brutal pagans (for that is what they are) led by the attractive Carice Van Houten, last seen in Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book. At almost every turn Black Death seems ready to plunge into the coconuts and excess of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, yet it never does. Some of that is down to Bean, playing it dourly straight as the utterly driven, entirely humourless leader of this weird gang of professional cutthroats. But most of it is down to Smith’s control of mood, the way he infuses everything with a feeling of portent and dread. So give the film a chance to get past its shaky start and its feverish rhythms. Once it slows down and stretches out it becomes a much more meditative, much more interesting analysis of life in a time so beset by an external threat – anyone could die, for no apparent reason, at any time – that it undermined all the certainties, gave birth to ugly extremisms. This also entails ignoring Bean’s oddly inappropriate mid-Atlantic accent. Surely his flinty native Sheffield voice would have been a better fit for a film dealing in merciless inevitability. Fans of Lord of the Rings will easily go for the beards on horseback ambience, but this film is really more in keeping with The Wicker Man‘s uneasy examination of the excesses of blind faith.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Another interesting genre movie by Christopher Smith
  • Because it’s more interested in ideology than buboes
  • Old school, and effective, effects
  • Sebastian Edschmid’s appropriately murky cinematography

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Black Death – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Essex Boys

Sean Bean and Alex Kingston in Essex Boys

 

 

Though not a perfect film by any means, this story about violent pill-dealing mafia wannabes has bags of flavour. It’s based on the Rettendon Range Rover murders, which saw two drug barons and their driver murdered in a car in the back of beyond, in December 1995. Four films have been made (as I write) about the events of that night but this is the first and it’s probably the best (though Bonded by Blood is tasty too). Quite why this one event has spawned so many fictional retellings is a mystery, though my personal theory is that a fair bit of smallscale film-making in the UK is more about laundering money than creating deathless art and that the Rettendon Range Rover murder victims were either known to many guys in the business, or possibly they see the whole episode as a “there but for the grace of god” warning. My pet theory aside, Essex Boys is marked out by a stand-up cast – Tom Wilkinson, convincingly hard as John Dyke, a Mr Big in genteel semi-retirement goaded into action by a gang of wannabes who think he’s gone soft. Alex Kingston and Charlie Creed-Miles also put in attention-grabbing turns. It was after this film, in fact, that Creed-Miles was tipped, in almost all corners, for the top. It never happened, though recently he has roared back in Dexter Fletcher’s great debut, Wild Bill. Sean Bean, swapping his Yorkshire accent for Essex, is also believably tough, as ex-lag Jason Locke, a kingpin-in-waiting who thinks he can outsmart Dyke. Think again, Mr Locke, and welcome to a world of pain, as adaptable Tom Wilkinson straps on a bloodcurdling snarl and prepares to hoist the double-barrel.

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

Essex Boys – at Amazon