Film 2020: Volver

Once, a long time ago, I watch a Pedro Almodovar firm on television, Women on the Edge of a Nervous Breakdown I think it was. I remember Barry Norman enthusing over that on his BBC Film show, the one I’ve stolen the title from. Since thern, I’ve seen nothing by him.

With the exception of one Mexican film, the superb Y Tu Mama, Tambien, the only foreign films I have in my collection are French. But something about the cover of this DVD, Penelope Cruz’s face, Almodovar’s reputation and the high regard in which Volver is held, came together to inspire me to take a punt on a cheap copy, and it’s been a good guess once more.

Though I’ve enjoyed what I’ve seen, I’m not really sure what I’ve seen this morning. Volver (To Go Back, or Coming Back) is no one thing, nor is its story clearly-defined at any one moment. Usually, films that don’t settle on one strong theme tend to meander (which is not always a bad thing), and have trouble ending. This film however avoids settling upon any single element to emphasise, and gives weight to each one, taking themes such as sexual abuse, insanity, murder, ghosts and adultery and stuffing them into a wellspring of life. It’s a film with six stars, all of them women, of three different generations, coming out with a buoyancy that contradicts the seemingly negative atmosphere you would otherwise expect.

The film begins with a classically Spanish scene: woman, mostly widows, are sweeping, polishing, cleaning, tending to headstones in a graveyard in the village of Alcanfor de les Infantas, a village in the La Mancha region of Spain. Here are Raimunda (Penelope Cruz), her fourteen year old daughter Paula (Yohana Cobo) and her sister Sole (Soledad, Lola Duenas), tending the grave of Raimunda and Sole’s mother Irene (Carmen Maura), killed along with their father in a fire three years ago. They go on to the women’s Aunt Paula (Chus Lampreave), elderly, near-blind, senile, who is being looked after by her neighbour opposite, Augustina (Blanca Portillo), who believes Aunt Paula is visited by the ghost of her sister, Irene.

That’s a complicated set-up to begin with, but it’s soon to get more involved. Raimunda is married to Paco, a mainly good-for-nothing slob, perennially unemployed, semi-drunk. Home from Alcanfor, concerned about her Aunt (to whom she has always been closer than to her late mother), Raimunda refuses Paco’s advances in bed. Horny, he glances up Paula’s skirt, spies on her in the bathroom, topless, and then tries to rape her in the kitchen, claiming he’s not her father so it’s ok. Raimunda comes home from work to find Paco dead, stabbed.

Raimunda takes responsibility. She cleans the kitchen, hides the body in a freezer in the nearby restaurant when she’s left the keys by its absentee owner, indeed opens the restaurant ad hoc to feed a film crew, improvising madly with the aid of her neighbours (both female, one a prostitute). Whilst this is developing wildly, Aunt Paula dies. Sole has to go to the Funeral alone – despite being terrified of the dead – although everything is organised beautifully by Augustina.

in Aunt Paula’s house, Sole sees her mother. When she returns to Madrid, her mother is in the trunk of her car. Influenced by village superstitions, Sole believes her mother has returned, to fill one last, undone thing from life, and is ready to do this for her. However, Irene can only do herself what she needs to know, which is to speak to Raimunda and put right the reason he daughter hates her

Irene moves in to Sole’s apartment. She assists her in her illegal hairdressing business, pretending to be a Russian who speaks no Spanish.

Augustina contracts cancer, a virulent form, terminal. She has one wish left, to know whether her mother is alive or dead. Her mother disappeared years ago, the same day Raimunda and Sole’s parents were killed. Augustina believes in Irene’s ghost and, if she should appear to Rimunda, she wants her to ask that question. Raimunda, who is full of an unexpressed anger that Cruz incarnates in her every look, dismisses this as ridiculous only to learn, long after her daughter, that her mother is still there.

Irene’s not a ghost. Raimunda’s earthiness won’t allow a ghost to exist. in fact, the truth was that Augustina’s mother had been having an affair with Raimunda’s father, and it was Augusta’s mother who died in the fire, set by Irene.

And there is more. Paco wasn’t lying when he claimed Paula wasn’t his daughter. Raimunda was abused by her father: Paula is not merely her daughter but also her sister.

Slowly, everything comes out. The picture is painted. Raimunda and Sole bring Irene back to Alfancor. Augustina is on medication to keep her free from pain as she dies. Irene moves into her house, as a ghost, to care for her until the end.

All of this seems morbid, and yet the film’s gift, in Almodovar’s writing and directing, and in everybody’s acting, with no distinction to be drawn between any of the players (though Cruz is as good as anyone ever has been, not to mention looking fabulous throughout in a very non-film star fashion: I also loved Duenas, who I’d never seen her before, and she possesses a very attractive bottom) is to fill you with great enjoyment.

The film’s lack of a clear definition makes it difficult for me to respond to it with any clarity of my own. It’s a wide window into a culture with which I have only the most minimal insight but to which I have always responded positively and with great enjoyment and comfort. Two hours in such a place is worth the experience itself, and I will be watching this several times more.

Film 2020: Inside Out

It’s been a gruelling experience watching this Sunday’s film on a corrupted DVD that played all the way through but kept stopping, and running dialogue over static images, on a reguar basis. In between times, when the movie played normally, but not for more than about ten minutes at a time, I could relax and fall into Inside Out the way it deserves. It is, for me, one of the very best things Pixar has ever done.

Inside Out tells a story that is, at once, brilliantly simply and astonishingly complex. Riley Anderson is an eleven year old girl who has lived a very happy life in Minnesota, with friends, her parents, hockey. It’s an idyllic life as seen through her eyes, and her eyes are directed by five core aspects of personailty: Joy (amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and Anger (Lewis Black). Joy is the first, created within the mind of a very tiny baby: her seniority and her ever-persistent personality dominate Riley’s life and she presses all the others into minor roles, especially Sadness, her opposite, whom she doesn’t understand the need for. Joy is represented as a Tinkerbellesque figure, ballet-slim, wearing a green dress, Sadness as an overweight, small blue girl in a heavy roll-neck sweater.

All’s been well so far. Riley is a happy girl and Joy is set on keeping her that way, forever. But her parents move to San Francisco, to an old, cramped, smelly house in a confined back street, in total contrast to Minnesota’s rural spaciousness. Her Dad’s new business is already facing financial fears, the moving truck with all their possessions is lost, Riley’s sleeping in a sleeping bag on the floor of an attic bedroom that could be but isn’t yet brilliant.

It’s clearly a time for Sadness to dominate, as things work themselves out. But Joy is determined to confine Sadness, to keep her from ‘contaminating’ not just the present but also the past. When Sadness influences Riley’s first day at her new school, causing her to cry with homesickness in front of her new class, it creates a new core memory, the first that isn’t joyful. Joy tries to prevent Sadness adding this to the existing five cores – each of which are the root of Personality Islands in the architecture of Riley’s mind, Family, Friendship, Hockey, Honesty and Goofball – the struggle unmoors all the cores and sucks them, Joy and Sadness out to the memory banks, leaving Anger, Disgust and Fear alone in Headquarters.

Riley has lost two fundamental aspects of her personality, emotions she can no longer feel unless Joy and Sadness can return to Headquarters with the core memories and reinsert them. Her circumstances go from bad to worse. Her Personality Islands have turned grey and inert once the core memories were removed: now, as Riley grows to hate her new life even more, these Islands crumble, one by one, as events overwhelm her.

Each further collapse in what she was makes harder and harder Joy and Sadness’s attempt to return. Joy is all forceful, but increasingly strained, determination, Sadness a useless, hapless lump. They discover, or rather re-discover, Bing Bong (Richard Kind), Riley’s long forgotten imaginary friend, who helps lead them on Joy’s promise to restore him to Riley’s mind.

The journey is fraught with obstacles as it tours a psychological landscape of stunning complexity, gliding through and around all manner of mental aspects, lightly yet tellingly. Meanwhile, the incapability of the three remaining aspects leads to Anger deciding, with flawed but cohererent logic, that since there are no core memories, and since all the good memories come from Minnesota, the answer is to run away back to Minnesota and make more core memories of them.

Things go desperate. Not only is Riley puting herself at naive risk, but mentally she is shutting down, going into an apathetic fugue. Joy ends up in Memory Dump, from which nothing returns, but escapes via the willing sacrifice of Bing Bong. Sadness, whose sensibility has been growing the longer the journey goes on, has been left untempered by Joy (an unstated pointer to the need of emotional balance), is crying on a cloud. As the final Island, Family, starts to crumble, severing the last physical link to Headquarters in this mental landscape, Joy blows Sadness’s cloud towards the tower and constructs a tower of imaginary boyfrends (who would die for Riley) to bounce her off a trampoline and gain the momentum to fling both of them across the gulf.

By now, the control console has all but shut down. Everyone looks to Joy to restore order but she, having realised that Sadness has a purpose, that Riley’s memories can be and are composed of mixed emotions, sends the chubby blue girl to set things right, to remove the runaway idea and return Riley to her parents, openly able to admit her unhappiness, to cry over a lost past that they too have lost (we have already been introduced to the exact same five emotions driving Mom (Diane Lane) and Dad (Kyle MacLachlan)) and the utter sharing of this tiny family creates another core memory, one composed of both Joy and Sadness.

Joy’s failing is that she has tried to keep Riley a little girl forever, with herself as the only necessary emotion. Sadness is needed to make sense of the world, to build the empathy between people that helps us all sustain ourselves when we are threatened with more than we can face. The Islands are restored, but now there are six of them: the new one is for San Francisco.

Then we jump a year. Riley is happy, settled, in tune. There are many sub-Islands, growing all the time. There’s a new, expanded console with room for all five to work at once, instead of one at a time. And a big red button no-one understands yet, marked Puberty. Riley is twelve now: what more could go wrong?

As I said, a beautifully simple story of a girl who moves home to a strange place where she is alone and can’t adjust, and a wonderfully complex psychological exploration of the cores of personailty. There was some concern pre-release, about whether the young kids would get it, and the film is very much more an adults film that anything else Pixar have released, even Up.

But the fascinating architecture of the inside of a person’s mind, the mind of a still young girl with great development only just glimpsed on the horizon, the madcap cartoon capers on the journey Joy, Sadness and Bing Bong take, the wonderfully precise exaggeration of the five emotions, and the film’s willingness to universalise its message by taking us into the heads of  both Dad and Mom (not to mention a panicked twelve year old boy in the coda) makes the film a visually inventive experience that kept the kids delighted.

The idea of going inside someone’s head and representing physical aspects anthopomorphically isn’t a new idea. It was used in a mostly amusing sitcom called Herman’s Head, an early Nineties three-season affair, and I’ll swear there was a comics series in the Sixties that used the same idea (was it The Nutts? No, that was in Valiant. In something like Buster? I dunno. Some comic I never got and only saw occasionally. Oh yes.). But Inside Out is definitely the most mature, thoughtul and moving exploration of the idea, and I’m going to have to get a DVD that plays properly to enjoy it in full.

Film 2020: Lost in Translation

A week ago, I would have been suggesting that the Film 2020 season would just about get us through April, but the availability of cheap box sets on eBay and charity shops offering three for a pound means we’re likely going to be here until midyear. And that’s just on what’s stacked up in a corner now: I’ve six months in which to expand my collection.

To begin with I’ve chosen a very recent addition, one I bought less than twenty-four hurs ago, Sofia Coppola’s justly acclaimed Lost in Translation, starring Bill Murray and Scarlett Johanson, in her first major role.

For some reason, this film sticks out amongst the ones we went to see when I was married, perhaps because of seeing it in a cinema we only visited once, perhaps because the film’s awkwardness in its early stages mirrored things we both recognised. But we enjoyed the film, and this is the first time I’ve seen it again since.

Lost in Translation is set in Tokyo over a period of a week. Murray is Bob Harris, a former movie star (in the Seventies) who, like many other actors and actresses, is famous in Japan for advertising their products, in this case Suntory whisky. He’s being paid $2,000,000 to record commercials and advertising, and is being put up at the Park Hyatt Tokyo hotel. Also staying there is Charlotte (no last name given), played by Johannson, who has travelled with her professional photographer husband John. She’s a philosophy grad who’s been married two years.

The story is about their relationship. Both are outsiders in the culture of Japan, which Coppola records carefully and without overt comment, both are undergoing stresses in their marriages, both are stuck in the hotel, in rooms in the sky from which each (but Charlotte in particular) can look out over the vastness of Tokyo and feel completely separated from everything, and both are plagued by an inability to adjust their circadian rhythms, spending their nights awake. There’s a gulf of experience between them, Bob, married twenty-five years with threekids, a has-been, rumpled face and retreating hairline, Charlotte, married two years, an appendage to her husband but not needed by him, unsure of what her purpose is in life, red-haired, beautiful, frequentlly depicted hanging around her hotel room in t-shirt and panties, the film making sure of capturing her bare legs.

The arc of their relationship is simple. They keep bumping into each other each day, around the hotel. They have a brief conversation at the bar one night. Another night, excluded from conversation by Kelly (Anna Faris), an attractive blonde who has been photographed by John, and who is monopolising their chat, Charlotte wanders over for another chat

The two are outcasts, and outcasts bond. A whole relationship is encoded within the rest of that week. There’s romance to it but not sex: indeed, Bob does get a one night stand but it’s with the red-headed jazz singer (Katherine Lambert) from the cocktail lounge, who’s still there when Charlotte calls for Bob in the morning. Her hurt and betrayal is as plain as if she were Bob’s wife Lydia (who’s only appearance is via faxes and a voice on a telephone).

But the physical connection is so much less than the intimate conversation the two have already shared, on a bed, fully-dressed, in the dark of another sleepless early morning. Both characters are lost, without translation, suffering estrangement in their marriages as they question themselves and their roles. Children, if she and john survive, are scary to Charlotte. Bob agrees that the most terrifying day of your life is the day the first one is born, when your old life – the fuin life, the doing-things life – vanishes utterly, never to return. Lydia has come to care for the kids first and foremost, but to Bob his children are the most delightful persons on Earth. His love for them is deep, but understated.

In fact, almost everything in this film is understated, and in Murray, Coppola has the advantage of the best deadpan of our age. The film slides thrugh on subtleties, at least between Bob and Charlotte. The film has been much criticised, especially in Japan, for its portrayal of contemporary culture are alien, soulless, impossible to understand and fundamentally crazy. I’ve never been to Japan so I can’t comment, but the film was shot entirely in Tokyo, with a minimum of sets (if any) so all of this is real.

In the end, it doesn’t last. The film’s great honesty is that it lets you come to your own, inevitable conclusion that, outside this foreign land where a shared culture becomes so much more important, it wouldn’t work. The difference in ages alone (subtly underlined by the pair’s different song choices at karaoke) would condemn any attempt to continue things on a more permanent footing.

Indeed Johannson gets the film’s classic line: ‘let’s never come here ever again, because it will never be as much fun’. The week of the story is lightning in a bottle.

Nevertheless, when Bob leaves and Charlotte stays, her husband due back that night, the parting is as painful as lovers, brief and awkward. But Coppola is sentimental enough to allow the traditional proper farewell: driving to the airport, Bob spots Charlotte in the crowded street, follows her, surprises her. Alone in the crowd, they have the anonimity in which to say goodbye – and goodbye it will be, not auf weidersehen – and let their feelings into their voices.

There was a lot of improvisation in this film, and in directing this scene, Coppola had authorised Murray too kiss Johannson, but not told her. The reactions are so much more real, and in the eend the pair hug. Bob whispers something in Charlotte’s ear that was also improvised, but which the camera did not pick up. In a moment of great skill, Coppola rejected an overdub. What he said is forever a secret, and it’s fitting at the last that there should be something entirely private to them that we the audience don’t share.

Lost in Translation is a lovely film and the leading performances are brilliant. Murray was a veteran of many films, but he in no way outshines Johannson who, I was astonished to recall, was only 17 at the time. She plays a woman of around 25 with total authenticity, both physically and mentally, as well as emotionally.

There are a couple of criticisms to be made about the film. I’ve already touched upon the outrage then film caused in Japan, and this is exacerbated by the film’s reliance upon the alienating factor of the Japanese language, almost always spoken fast and with volatility (far, far too much volatility among the young). There’s a very funny scene when Bob is recording his commercial, when the director goes off on a long spiel about his he wants Bob to play the scene (helpfully translated on the film’s Wikipedia page as a thoughtful, atomospheric direction) and the translator repeats it as the much shorter ‘he wants you to turn to the camera.’

It’s all good fun, but it does move the film closer to that indefinite boundary with xenophobia.

And whilst I can enjoy looking at Scarlett Johannson for the longest time, like so many other men, the film’s opening shot, a close-up on her bum, in semi-translucent pink knickers, lying on a bed, is a bad start no matter its supposed derivation from rather esoteric art. That, and the film’s determination to get her legs into as many shots as it physically can (and she has nice legs), becomes disturbing, and inimical to the story. Charlotte is being reduced to her physical appearance as the primary aspect of her. Bob will never be reduced to his appearance, and whilst Charlotte becomes a more determined person thereafter, it’s a serious mistake to spend so much time maetaphorically shouting ‘Wow, hey! Look you guys, she’s in her knickers!’

I like the film and it has a nostalgic appeal for me as to seeing it before. I’m very glad I visited that charity shop yesterday.

Film 2019: Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

Welcome to the last instalment of Film 2019, and the third of three ‘interlude’ films before I commence a shortened season of Film 2020, with a crop of single film DVDs acquired since the last batch ran out. My choice is an unusual one for me, as big, bad adventure films based on books and video games are not exactly my thing. I did see the trailer for this Jumanji sequel a couple of times in 2017, and made the same comment each time, that I would happily sit through a version of the film editted to show only every scene with Karen Gillan.

So it made some kind of backwards logic for me to choose this film and, waddaya know? I pretty much enjoyed it.

It is a video-game film, down to its roots. Four disparate players, nerdy and weird Spencer, football jock ‘Fridge’, self-centred and empty-headed blonde Bethany and cynicial, defensive loner Martha, get into trouble at school and are put into detention. They’re supposed to be cleaning out a school basement but distract themselves with an old Nineties games console and a game called Jumanji, about which they know nothing, until they find themselves sucked into the game and playing their avatars. There is a curse on the land and they have to a) find the Jaguar’s Eye, a massive emerald, and b) restore it to the eye of the sacred Jaguar. It’s a video game, alright.

What makes the film actually enjoyable is its self-awareness, and the willingness of the principal cast to play against their types, most notably the refreshingly ego-free performance of Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson – tall, shaven-headed, has muscles on his muscles – as Spencer, under the name of Dr Smolder Bravestone. ‘Fridge’ becomes the noticably short Mouse Finbar (originally misread as Moose), played by Kevin Hart, becoming Bravestone’s sidekick and bagman. Martha gets to be Karen Gillan, red hair, cropped halter top, tight and short shorts and knee-length boots (you’re starting to see why I said what I did about the editted version, aren’t you?), destroyer of men and expert dance-fighter. Bethany draws the shortest of straws, coming out as cartographer Shelly Oberon. Unfortunately for her, Shelly is short for Sheldon: she’s a middle-aged, bearded, fat little bugger and she’s also Jack Black.

There’s actually nothing that’s particularly original about the film. You know which way its going to go, and I don’t just mean the video-game/CGI fun. There’s only two games to play and these are the playing against type between the avatars and their teenage selves, and the eventual transformation of the flawed teenagers as they progress, learn to work as a team and start to draw aspects of their avatars into themselves.

Spencer has always been into Martha (despite the post-grunge way she dresses herself, it’s easy to see that Morgan Turner is close to being a bit of a babe already, as well as possessing an intelligence second only to Spencer, and an independence of thought), and she’s always been into him. It’s a measure of the film’s intelligent approach to keeping everything offbeat that their kiss as Bravestone and Ruby is horribly awkward and embarrassing whereas their kiss as Spencer and Martha is simple, instinctive and looks like a helluva lot of fun!

Fridge is the only one to resist being his avatar, for understandable reasons given the physical discrepancy between the two, but knuckles down when the game logic – or the need to get out and be restored – demands it. But naturally, the greatest contrast is Bethany as a man. Jack Black, without ever descending to a falsetto, uses a softer, higher register to his voice, reflecting Bethany’s femininity, but hers is the longest and most affecting change throughout the game. From her initial, self-entitled, dismissive mode, which shows her as a monster of ignorance as to the existence of others, without the slightest weepiness or self-loathing, Black brings Bethany through to being a genuine likeable human being, whose togetherness with her game friends carries over into real-life.

There is a strongly sentimental element to the film,. There’s a short  prologue in 1996, in which the game box (from the original film) is found by a jogger on the beach and passed to his son, who disdains it until it turns into the video game that our quartet will discover twenty-one years later. In 2017, the quartet know his home as the Freak House and Alex Vreeke as the boy whio disappeared. A long way into the film, he turns up as the fifth player, with one life left, believing himself to have been trapped for two months.

Getting Alex home becomes a priority for the group higher than completing the game: the two things are the same but one is completing a game and the other is serious, and the film refuses to point out that in taking their responsibility to Alex to heart, the players have completed their transformation.

And yes, they win, and yes, they’re returned to the basement in 2017, except that Alex doesn’t make it, and we see the group continuing IRL. And then the film hits us with its whammy, which may be obvious but which is still genuinely affecting. The Freak House is no longer neglected, but well-maintained, and clearly both loved and lived-in. A car draws up, two kids get out and jump on their grandfather.  The driver is Alex, an adult. He sees the four teens and understands who they are. He went back to 1996. In gratitude for the ‘girl’ who saved his life, he named his daughter Bethany.

Yet even this sentimental slop is quickly undercut as Fridge, with the onsent of the gang, drops a bowling ball on the console. Nobody gonna get sucked into this sucker again! Until this month’s sequel starring the same cast. I may have to go and watch that.

Seriously though, the film is not unflawed. The prelude, introducing us to spencer, Fridge, Bethany and Martha, is overlong. On the other hand, the game scenery is gorgeous, all mountains and deep valleys, right up my alley. But it attempts and mostly succeeds at keeping a balance betwen the straight context and the comic dislocation, without toppling over into mundane action or complete silliness, and that’s not to be sniffed at. It’s worth watching for more than Karen Gillan, I have to admit.

Film 2019: Early Man

The second film in this end-of-year interlude is another recent film that I intended to watch in the cinema – it’s Aardman, it’s Nick Parks: what more do you want? – as soon as I saw the trailer, but which, when the film got into the cinema, I unaccountably never made the time. Maybe I was prescient?

Early Man starts well, with a series of captions as we zoom in on a very familiar plant. ‘Earth’, it starts out. Then it informs us that this is ‘The Neo-Pleistecene Age’, a gag that flops by sounding too scientifically accurate. The next one bust a gut though: ‘Near Manchester’. Finally, ‘Lunchtime’. I’m giggling happily.

Then an asteroid bursts through the prevailing cloud cover (oh yes, it’s Manchester alright), striking the earth and gouging out a massive valley, whilst blowing cavemen and insects and dinosaurs all over in beautifully realised slow-motion (there’s a brilliant sight-gag as a cockroach, watching the swelling ball of light from afar, whips out a pair of sunglasses).

When the impact is over, the tribe enter the valley cautiously. They find the heart of the asteroid, a more or less sphere made up out of hexagonal panels. It’s still too hot to hold in their hands so they kick it about. Lo and behold! Football is invented. Jump forward a few ages and, thump, the film falls flat.

Not immediately. We meet Dug, our hero, a young hunter in the tribe that occupies the valley, the great crater now an idyllic woodland surrounded by blasted landscapes and volcanoes known as the badlands (that bit must be Liverpool). The tribe, made up of the usual Aardman gang of eccentrics, are hunters, rabbit hunters, actually a rabbit hunters, the same one every day with an annoyingly shrill titter. Dug (voiced by Eddie Redmayne) is ambitious for the tribe, wanting to hunt mammoths, you know, something big enough to feed everyone, but the Chief (Timothy Spall) is stuck in his ways. I mean, dammit, he’s old he’s nearly 32.

Suddenly, the valley is invaded by war-mammoths, kitted out in bronze armour, headed by Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddlestone with a somewhat unconvincing Italian accent that I’m not sure isn’t supposed to be Spanish), sweeping the Stone Age Primitives out of the valley so it can be mined for its ore, and especially its Bronze.

So far, still funny, but not as hilarious as at the start. Dug wants to fight back, is accidentally knocked out and carried back to the Bronze city, which is cearly far more civilised, meets a sarcastic girl pan-maker called Goona (who you can instantly tell is going to be important to the story: she’s voiced by Maisie Williams), and ends up being dragged into the arena in gladiator gear. The Sacred Games are about to begin. The sacred Game is… Football! And the film drops dead in its tracks.

No, it doesn’t quite do that. The set-up is that Dug, on behalf of his tribe, challenges the Champions, Real Bronzio, for the return of the valley. If the Primitives lose they labour in the mines. But the tribe have no idea how to play football and only start to shape up as a team when they end up being coached by, yes, yu guessed it, Goona, a keen and talented footballer who can never tread the Sacred Turf because, again you guessed it, she’s a girl.

What follows is as inevitable as a Boris Johnson lie. Though the animation is continually excellent, and there is a high degree of football expertise in the shaping of the story, including some quite effective allusions that are left to the audience to connect, the film is basically one long boy’s soccer serial from a Sixties comic, no better in that sense than anything I’ve recently re-read in The Hornet.

I’m afraid that from the moment football began to dominate the story, the film fell flat for me. Little of the comedy worked. There was a slight Flintstones veneer to some of the gags but the best of these, a Message-Bird that’s the equivalent of a voicemail, ruined itself by its horrible cliches of having the Queen, from whom its come, go through the sad and tired ‘how does this thing work?’ routine at its start.

It was the same with Terry Pratchett’s Unseen Academicals, although the film lacks the underlying sense that the writers just don’t like football. The game itself is actually extraordinarily hard to spoof without immediately disconnecting from all realistic aspects of it.

The idea of kitting out the Primitives in red shirts is an obvious nod to 1966 and the World Cup, made explicit by their being handed a trophy afterwards that resembles the original Jules Rimet trophy. There’s also a gag from the commentators, calling them ‘Early Man United’ which is less successful, especially on a day following the announcement of the death of the fifth of that team, Martin Peters, giving an unanticipated and unwanted poignancy to the moment.

There’s another factor that, for me at least, worked against the credibility of the film. Aardman is at its core backwards-looking. Whether you choose to call its nostalgia or retrogressive, it can’t be denied that the companies art derives from the recreation of an earlier time, and it’s presentation as some kind of idyllic age. In Wallace and Gromit it’s the Fifties, depicted as a cozy, dressing-gown and slippers are, of plain, downhome ordinariness that is, instinctively better than now. Chicken Run built itself upon a glorious spoof of WW2 Prison Camp movies, but outside the camp, the Tweedies and the world were still irrevocably Fifties.

The same ethos is at work here. The Stone Age is standing up to the Bronze Age and demanding to be left alone, to be allowed to live forever: it’s a prehistoric Fifties, charming, slightly daft, but comfortable as a warm blanket. and for me the effect doesn’t work. Aardman is flying in the face of history. Bronze replaced stone, wiped it out completely. The film takes the wrong side. In the film, someone like Lord Nooth is a very contemporary bad guy, out for power and riches, but his society is so clearly superior to that of Dug’s tribe (despite the writers’ attempt to denigrate Bronze by having Nooth rant about loving its coldness and slipperiness). Only a tiny handful of the audience will not instinctively look at the difference between the two periods and not go immediately for the Bronze, an effect not helped by having the Primitives be, well, so eccentric.

In the end, not much surprised me, which was where the film fell down. If you know not only how it will end but how it will get there in advance, the film is otiose. A shame, really. Hopefully, Aardman and Park will find a more sympathetic subject for their style of humour next time, and I can happily to to see it in the cunema.

Film 2019: Tolkien

This film is the first of a three-week intermission, between the box-sets I’ve been exploring for so long this year and the dozen or nore single-film DVDs that will form a relatively short Film 2020 season. It’s also by far the most recent film I’ve ever watched on a Sunday morning, straight from sleep, being a 2019 film released in the cinemas only seven months before this writing. I meant to see it then, but Sundays are both the best and the most awkward to visit a cinema, and I never got round to it.

By general consensus, Tolkien, a biopic of the author of The Lord of the Rings, was a failure: certainly commercially and to many artistically. Some thought it superb. My own opinion is somewhere between. Large parts of the film were low-key, as any film dealing with the life of a writer is bound to be (scribbling things in a notebook at a bus stop or on a bus is about as exciting as my writing gets), but on the other hand there were scenes near the film’s end that, to me, were deeply emotional.

The film had no assistance from the Tolkien family, as was evidenced by the fact that it only used a few of Tolkien’s words: Earendel was spoken, as was The Hobbit, but I noted that in the captions that closed things off, the film either didn’t want to, or more likely was prevented from specifying that the shared grave of Tolkien and his wife Edith carry the names Beren and Luthien, stating only that words were taken from Tolkien’s private mythology.

So with the caveat that the film was faithful to the course of Tolkien’s life, the details must be taken on trust, what was it like?

In order to create a physically dramatic opening, the film is framed around the Battle of the Somme in 1916, in Flanders. Lt. John Ronald Reuel Tolkien is suffering from trench fever but refuses to rest, instead insisting on searching the trenches for his friend Lt. Geoffrey Bache Smith. Followed by his batman, Private Hodges (first name Sam, cue gasp of significance) who refuses to leave him, Tolkien’s mind keeps slipping into the past, presenting his life in lengthy flashbacks.

I’m not going to start reciting the details of Tolkien’s life. The flashbacks start from the financially enforced removal of the Tolkien family – mother, Ronald, younger brother Hilary – from the idyllic countryside of Sarehole Mill in Warwickshire to the smoky, black, hideously cramped hellhole of Birmingham (where nobody speaks in a Brummie accent), and continue as far as Tolkien’s enlistment in 1914 before the film’s timeline merges.

Along the way, the story makes a creditable job of depicting Tolkien’s twin fascinations with mythology and language, but it’s at its strongest in the two external passions of his life in this era. One of these is the TCBS, a small society of Tolkien and his three closest friends, the aforementioned Geoffrey, Robert Gilson and Christopher Wiseman. Through awkward beginnings, the quartet become close friends, brothers, an alliance determined on changing the world, through. Smith is a poet, Gilson a painter, Wiseman a composer. Tolkien’s future is by no means so clear. But these four, in their different characters, embody a meeting pf purpose, all so clever, so vital.

The TCBS isn’t just a fact of Tolkien’s life, they are an emblem. The Edwardian period, from the turning of the century to the advent of the Great War, is often spoken as a kind of Golden afternoon, a society going places that was crushed underfoot by War. For the vast majority it was nothing of the sort but they don’t feature in this story. Tolkien, Smith, Gilson and Wiseman are a representative of that world and its potential: you know already that it’s going to be smashed, that the dreams and determinations of these privileged, unrealistic but talented young men are going to be buried in the mud of Flanders Fields, but when it comes it’s no less painful to watch Tolkien’s loss than it is for him. Smith and Gilson died on the Somme, Wiseman was broken by the conflict and lost as both a friend and a composer. The irony, which is never once hinted at let alone spelt out, is that it was Tollers, the least-formed of these overgrown boys, who was the only one to fulfil their promise.

The other relationship is, of course, with Miss Edith Bratt. Ronald meets Edith when he and his brother are taken in as foster-children by the wealthy Mrs Faulkner, whose only other foster is Edith, also an orphan, destined for a life of poverty and genteel slavery as Mrs Faulkner’s companion.

Edith is also talented, an excellent piannist but, most importantly, a woman with a mind, independent and passionate. For her, the life ahead is in all senses a prison. She is denied even the freedom to play classical piano, having instead to play ‘cheerful’ sentimental slop.

There are difficulties, both due to inexperience but, most savagely, the decision of Tolkien’s legal guardian to forbid him seeing Edith until he comes of age at 21. Father Francis is concerned about her effect on Tolkien’s studies at Oxford, where he is failing on a number of levels until he finds himself sparked by Professor Wright and transfers to philology.

Tolkien wants their separation to be temporary but Edith sees her hope of escape, her desire for an ordinary life, with hope and happiness, being taken away for good. The TCBS tell Tolkien, with good reason, that it was he who made the choice, not Father Francis, it was not forced on him.

But though Edith becomes engaged to another, Tolkien’s love remains in full force, and on the eve of his embarkation for France, she agrees to meet him and things are righted between them. Stay alive, she tells him, and come back to me (a line from Treebeard’s lament for the Entwives, though I didn’t recognise that until I started writing about the film).

Tolkien survives. Edith has found him in hospital and has never left his bedside until he wakes: Father Francis approves of her. The film, having no more flashbacks to deliver, leaps years, to Oxford, Professorship, marriage, children. Tolkien is still, in one sense, living in the war, though this time his loss is loss of purpose. Edith challenges him to find joy in writing, or else give up completely. This becomes the catalyst for the beginning of a story to be told to the children. We see him write ‘In a hole in the ground lived’ but we only hear him say The Hobbit before we are led out of the story by the captions mentioned above.

All told, Tolkien is a fairly low-key film, respecting the conventions of Tolkien’s generation and its restraint in the portrayal of overt emotion. The film makes a very sensible decision in choosing little-known actors to play its characters, so that we are not distracted by the parts past played by practiced stars. Nicholas Hoult does a decent job of portraying Tolkien, who keeps his feelings in more than we would recognise as good for anyone in our day and age, whilst Lily Collins is a quiet revelation as Edith, across the wider spectrum her femininity allows her to express: in most of their scenes together, it is she not he who is the star.

Anthony Boyle, Patrick Gibson and Tom Glynne-Carney, as Smith, Gilson and Wiseman, all bring different but complementing personalities to the doomed group of friends, and I have to compliment Casting Director Kate Ringsell  for finding actors to play the central cast’s not-all-that younger selves so seamlessly in both looks and performance.

The only two ‘name’ performers are veterans Colm Meaney as Father Francis and Derek Jacobi as Professor Wright, though Lauren Donnelly, who briefly portrays Tolkien’s mother, will count as a name to the followers of the Outlander TV series.

Overall though, how good is this film? It’s about Toliken’s earlier life, formative years, things that influenced him in the kind of writing he produced. I was unfair above in that snarky aside about ‘Sam’ Hodges, because the film deserves credit for not making these things a point for the audience to go ‘Ah-hah!’ except in the privacy of their own minds. Such matters are few. Indeed, apart from the overt displays of Mrs Tolkien acting out Norse myth for her sons, or Tolkien’s own obsessions with the Library, literary foreshadowing is kept to a minimum,  shadows and temporary visions, none of which are either effective, or other than risible, though thankfully brief. Only when Tolkien is witness to the slaughter in No Man’s Land is such a vision alowable, and it’s another mark of the film’s inhibition about using Tolkien’s actual works that his very first entry to the Mythology, ‘The Fall of Gondolin’, was begun in the twenties, in 1916, and we are denied even the inference of this.

Ultimately, I come down on the side of the film, not that I have any plans to add it to my library. Who knows though? Lily Collins is certainly worth a 50p Charoty shop DVD, and maybe I’d even go up to a quid…

Film 2019: Superman II (The Richard Donner Cut)

I’ve saved this film as the last film from the last boxset because it’s a unique example in my collection. Back in July, I reviewed the commercial release of this film, as directed by Richard Lester, giving a fairly negative response to a film I’d loved on release, and always held in high regard for the fun entertainment it was. Forty years on, I found a lot of this wrong with it.

But Superman II appeared under unusual circumstances. It was meant to be directed by Richard Donner, who’d been responsible for Superman – The Movie. Indeed, the two films were to be shot together and footage for about 75% of Superman 2 had been completed before there was a falling out between Donner and Producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind. Donner was replaced by Richard Lester, who’d pioneered the two-at-once technique of The Three Musketeers/The Four Musketeers, who, in order to claim Director status on Superman II, reshot a substantial number of scenes already shot by Donner.

But the two Directors had radically different approaches to superman, with Donner moved by the mythic aspects of the character and his well-established and Lester unable to take the character seriously, betraying, to my eyes, a fear of being thought of as taking comic books seriously. Lester undercut and undermined any serious elements in the film with almost rabid eagerness, along the way mangling the plot so as to remove any plausible explanations.

Fans of the first film, aware of the existence of the Donner scenes, consistently pushed for a Donner Cut, for long enough that when, in the 2000s, a vault of unused footage, long thought destroyed, was discovered, the notion became a physical possibility, and the longstanding enthusiasm demonstrated a commercial interest. So the Donner Cut was assembled, and we got our chance after all.

One crucial scene had never been shot, except as a screen test for Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder, It sticks out  as an intrusion upon style, continuity and film stock, but if this was the only way to put this scene in the film, no true fan will object. A few more minutes of dear departed Chris Reeve, a few more minutes of lovely Margot, sharing with him the intimacy between their characters that is fundamental to this film, we’ll take it any way we can get it.

and this is oh so much better a version. Essentially the story is the same: the three Kryptonian villains are released from the Phantom Zone by the detonation of the nuclear warhead launched into space by Superman in the first film, come to Earth and take it over until defeated by Superman draning their powers. Meanwhile, Lois’s developing conviction that the bumbling Clark is Superman (much much less annoying than in the comics) exposes his secret, leading to a night of passion (lucky sod), Superman abandoning his powers for happiness but being forced by his responsibility to recover them to save the world.

It’s the same story but the details are so different. Lester’s nonsense is junked, and although Gene Hackman is allowed to ham it up as Lex Luthor nearly as much as before, his is the main comic role in the film and his slimy double-dealing performance becomes a more organic element.

Instead of the reveal of Clark’s identity by his tripping up and putting his hand in the fire unburnt, the test footage shows Lois proving her point more directly by shooting Clark at point blank range.

That completely changes the underlying dynamic. The Lester version depicts a potentially subconscious wish on Clark’s part to share his secret with Lois, whom he loves in both halves of himself, whereas in Donner’s cut the secret is forced out of him unwillingly. I’m ambivalent about the change: I like the idea of Superman wanting to admit his dual identity, yet Donner’s version makes the ease with which the pair fall into the relationship they both want all the more sweet and impressive.

There’s a significant, indeed seismic shift along all this thread. Under Lester, Superman agrees to lose his powers forever after a warning from his mother Lara and undergoes the red rays before hoping into the hammock with Lois. Donner’s cut loses Suusannah York completely (always a shame) but substitutes Brando as Jor-El with a much more comprehensive and cohesive, enabling Reeve to put over the importance of Lois to him (Margot Kidder observes all this in silence, dressed in a Superman t-shirt and white socks, demonstrating that she’s got great legs, but this was not a time period when ladies showed them off).  Crucially, in Donner’s cut, Superman has his powers removed after he’s slept with Lois, not before, lending weight to the importance of the emotional relationship and leaning away from the sexual one.

There’s yet more. We still get the slightly embarrassing diner scene with the thuggish truck-driver but this time Donner’s shots and angles focus on Superman’s determination to regain his powers for the protection of the world rather than because he don’t like getting beaten up. And if he can sleep with Lois without having to lose his powers, that removes that cheapjack aspect.

Better yet, when Clark gets back to the Fortress, Donner produces Jor-El one last time, the father anticipating everything, including the need to use the last of his energies to re-spark Kal-El’s powers. Not only is it an effective explanation of  just how Superman comes back, it is also a second and last parting between father and son, this time with the son of an age to fully understand that this is the end. You watch things like this and ask yourself why that clown Lester was allowed to not just chuck the whole thing out but put nothing in its place.

The battle in Metropolis de-emphasises the crowd and Lester’s desperate need to include silliness, emphasising more of the aerial fighting between Superman, Zod and co (and any extra footage of Sarah Douglas strutting her stuff in her slit sleeves and leggings is always welcome, for the same shallow reasons) and making the whole thing more impressive.

Lastly, the bullshit notion of Superman getting Lois to forget everything by kissing her is dropped like the cracked pot it is. We lose Lois’s desperate pain at not being able to acknowledge Clark and substitute a kind of downbeat resignation at having to share the man she loves with the wotrld, any one of whom have to come before her. Then, in either a steal from The Movie or, more likely, the proper use of the trick, stolen by Lester, Superman turns back time, revolving Earth backwards, not to save Lois’s life but to undo all the effects of the film, all the death and destruction and Lois’s discovery. The reset is so complete, Zod, Ursa and Non are restored to the Phantom Zone insread of being presumably buried in the ice.

It’s a more mature use of the device, even as it’s a complete reset to zero (Zod and co are available for future instalments, had there been more). Butthen the Donner Cut is a more mature film on every level, because it treats its audience as mature, isn’t scared of what other people might think, and it can take Superman with the right degree of seriousness.

I know I overuse the Earth-2 schtick, but this is the epitome of it. This was the version released there in 1980, and we didn’t get the same Superman III and IV, and Terence Stamp and Sarah Douglas reprised their roles in V – The Revenge of Zod, and I’m really fantasising now but the continued depiction in the series of just how good Lois and Superman were when she knew his identity led DC to bring it into the comics a lot earlier than they did… And maybe Chris and Margot avoided the fates they experienced on Earth-1, which would be the real magic…


With today’s film, the boxset phase of Film 2019 ends. I’ve continued to collect single film DVDs and I have enough for a shortened season of Film 2020 of three months duration. Being of an orderly frame of mind, I’m going to save these for the New Year rather than start next week. To bridge the gap, I have three downloaded films of very different types, and I’ll play through these over the next three weeks. I have never watched any of these: it’s going to be fun.