Film 2021: Jumanji – Welcome to the Jungle


Jumanji

This is something of a cheat, really, since I’ve already written about this film as part of Film 2019, but since then I’ve acquired a double-pack DVD comprising both this and the next film, making it a legitimate performance for easy Sundays, as well as being the perfect film for how I’ve been feeling the past few days.

I’ve still never seen the original Jumanji film, which a work colleague of mine fervently described as being the only Jumanji film, the other(s) didn’t exist as far as she was concerned. Maybe one day, but the wedge her words drove in suggests sufficient difference to make me have reservations. Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is so not my kind of film, it’s a video game movie and I grew out of video games a long time ago. In fact, from what’s on the tin, the only things it’s got to appeal to me are superb, expansive mountain scenery and Karen Gillan in bare midriff, leather shorts and boots.

Yet it’s fun. It’s practically lightweight – ok, so self-centred pretty girl Bethany turns into Jack Black and learns a life-lesson about caring for others – and it’s got that slick, CGI-clever sheen of a Marvel superhero movie, and it couples its action sequences with the kind of bantering wit both by and between its quartet of high school kids in detention turned game show characters. And on that level it’s a clear case of highly professional audience manipulation: make ’em gasp, make ’em scream, make ’em laugh.

But what the film has going for it, and what does make it genuinely funny so many times over is the perfection in which it handles its play-against-type set-up, how it quickly and clearly establishes the essential characteristics of nerd Spencer (Alex Wolff), jock ‘Fridge’ (Ser’Darius Blaine), valley girl Bethany (Madison Iseman) and emo Martha (Morgan Turner) and then, when they are translated into adult avatars when they’re sucked into the game, how those personalities are mismatched to the players and maintained throughout the film.

You’ve got Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, wrestler turned actor, showing some nifty chops as a scared little nerd, and sending his outer self up pretty beautifully. You’ve got Kevin Hart, short and squeaky, the powerful guy reduced to being the sidekick and spear-carrier to the nerdy guy he’s been trying to drop since seventh grade. You’ve got Jack Black, bearded, be-spectacled, pot-bellied channeling the shallow, vain, unheeding valley girl for whom life is unbearable if she isn’t Instagramming it. And you’ve got Karen Gillan, a knockout dressed in stereotypical knock-out’s skimpy outfit as the enclosed, difficult, disregarding girl who pushes everybody away before they push her and who covers every inch of skin.

It’s their’s and the script’s attention to the clash between their outer and inner selves that makes Welcome to the Jungle such fun. It could so easily have been a mess, with less careful writing, with clumsier, more obvious performances, but everybody sends themselves up with a refreshing lack of ego and a perfect conviction. It’s the same old thing: you have to understand why people love the fantasy of video games in order to get inside them and spoof them to the best effect.

And the film throws in a massive dollop of sentimentality that it gets away with brilliantly, It sets things up early: Spencer and Co. select one each of four game characters but the fifth is already taken. Midway through the quartet meets that fifth character, Alex Vreeke (Nick Jonas), who was sucked into the game in 1996, who is down to one life and who has been in there for twenty years.

Suddenly, the game acquires a much greater purpose than restoring the Eye to the Jaguar, lifting the curse and getting everyone home. It becomes about getting Alex home, to a home that outside is badly dilapidated, occupied by a father whose life has been destroyed by his son’s disappearance. It becomes about something that even Bethany – especially Bethany – recognises as being more important.

The gang win. They get out of there. Four of them return to the school basement and their detention. But there’s no Alex. However, the film is ready to deliver its pay-off without further ado. Walking home, the quartet pass the ‘Freak’ (i.e., Vreeke) House, but it’s no longer grey and offputting. It’s white, it’s festooned with garlands and a car’s just pulling up to visit Grandad. An exciteable little girl, a baby in a carrycot and a son who never disappeared, who went back to when he came from and changed the last twenty years, for the better. Who recognised the four stranger teenagers he’d never seen before in his (real) life, and was stoked to meet them.

Ah yes, a lump rises to the throat. And it did. I can be as sentimental as the next guy, unless the next guy is Bozo Johnson that is, and when I am immersed in the unreal reality of a film, I don’t care if I’m being manipulated, I take the moment and run.

At the very end, the game itself was smashed, by the bowling ball in the First Act (one for you Chekhovians, there). But we knew that it could somehow be repaired, if the film was a big hit. Which it was. As we shall see over the summer.

Film 2021: The Others


others

Once again I’m indebted to my younger former stepson, J, for introducing me to this film, which I’ve only just realised, from its credits, was another Spanish production, like his other enthusiasm, Pan’s Labyrinth, although this film is nothing like so exotic or so gothic, and not a word of Spanish is spoken in it. Instead, director Alejandro Amenabar concentrates on atmosphere, and the slow, careful building of apprehension as to what is going on in this remote, enclosed, dark and shuttered house occupied by a near-hysterical woman and her two secluded children, visited by three stramge servants.

At heart, The Others is a traditional, almost classic ghost story, awakening memories of noirish Forties ghost stories in black and white, but leading to a final twist, a reversal stolen blatantly from The Sixth Sense. Though we can’t have black and white in 2001, Amanabar goes for a restricted colour palate, blacks and greys and dull browns, shot with a muted range that echoes the effect of its source material.

Nicole Kidman plays the leading role of Grace Stewart, which calls for her to be onscreen for practically 90% of the film. Opposite her is Fionnula Flanagan as Bertha Mills, the housekeeper, and the She-Who-Knows, whilst surprisingly the next most substantial role goes to Alakina Mann as Grace’s nine-year-old daughter Anne (who doesn’t appear to have progressed into an acting career, but who certainly looked as if she had the talent for it).

The Others starts with a scream. Grace, at first seen from a near vertical angle until the camera rotatres ninety degrees to show her head in bed, screams herself awake frpm a nightmare. It’s 1945, she lives on Jersey in a house abruptly abandoned by servants a week before, and takes on three new servants, who look as if they come from an earlier times, when they arrive at the door. The first is Mrs Mills, who possesses a cool calm, an experienced woman who has worked here before, and who knows what is going on, although she will only drop hints in our presence, comments to her fellow servants, mute housemaid Lydia and gardener MrTuttle (Eric Sykes), who know what she knows and therefore do not need spelling out to them anything that might spoil the forthcoming twist.

This is an odd house and an odd household. We begin off-balance and everything is designed to keep us there. Every room in the house has doors that lock, and no more than one door may be open at any one time. Every window has heavy curtains that must be kept drawn, tight, at all times. There is no electricity, so lighting is by oil lamps, and their light doesn’t spread far. Because light is the enemy. Grace’s two children, Anne and six-year-old Nicholas suffer from photosensitivity. Light will literally kill them. Light will also kill them metaphorically, as the film’s ending will prove.

Inside the house, tension drips from every wall. Anne claims to see ghosts, in particular a little boy, her own age, called Victor, who says the house is theirs. Grace won’t accept this, continually tells Anne not to talk about it, punishes her for days for lying. This is a horror story, we know Grace isn’t lying, though we see nothing unusual ourselves. But Anne is a nasty litle girl, tormenting her younger brother, calling him names, being all kinds of unpleasant to him, just like older siblings have done all our lives. This throws a veil of misdirection across matters, for Anne could just be making all this up to wind up her poor tortured brother.

But there are manifestations, heard but not seen. Boots clumping about upstairs where no-one is, a piano playing at night in an empty room. Grace is convinced there are intruders. After years of invasion and occupation by the Nazis, she is as much if not more outraged than frightened, but a search finds no-one. It does turn up an old photograph album, a book of the dead. There was a tuberculosis outbreak in 1911, and these are photos of household members struck down. After they were all dead.

Kidman holds things together. She spends most of the film with an expression of repression on her face, of horror, of anger, of outrage, the face of someone holding things in, back and together, but at the same time she is a Christian woman of her age, determined not to admit of anything beyond a certain, permissible, reputable manner of event. Ghosts are beyond that pale and she will not have them.

She’s also a healthy woman in her mid-thirties whose husband has gone to War, a War she doesn’t believe really matters to them, who has been alone for an unhealthy amount of time, fearing that she was not enough for him or else why did he put something so unimportant ahead of her? Fearing he’s been killed. But then Charles turns up, out of the blue, or rather the fog. He’s Christopher Ecceleston in a cameo that, after reuniting with his children with more warmth than his wife, requires him before and after to be a zombie. It’s easy to see Post Traumatic Stress depriving him of a will to live, but we know it’s something more and some of us have long since started to suspect.

But he has to leave, to go the the Front, though the War is now over. Only then, as she screams at him over his desertion of her, does he lie down with her, holds her. Impliedly, they make love, because when Grace wakes in the morning she is wearing neither slip nor nightdress, but Charles is gone. And here’s the crisis point: so too are the curtains, all of them, in every room. There is nothing to protect her children from a horrible death. They are all three terrified. If we’ve doubted Grace’s ability to love her children, we are rapidly disabused of that. She throws the servants out, locks everybody up, contrives a black-out in one room. Mrs Mills appears unsympathetic, or is it that, aware of the real situation and is no longer prepared to indulge ignorance.

If you have seen the film already, as I had before, you will have understood the cryptic moments. If you had put the clues together from such things, as I didn’t first time, until almost too late, you will be prepared. Prepared for the children sneaking out at night to look for Daddy, for Anne finding three gravestones bearing names we can’t see but which she recognises, for Grace finding one more photo, slipped out of the album of the dead, of three more figures, arranged with pale skins and slumped heads. three servants.

Because it’s all about knowing and understanding how it was, and Anne hearing voices, as the children open a door they shouldn’t, to find the Intruders, a man and a woman living in a remote house in which their terrified son Victor has been talking to a ghost child, one of two children smothered with a pillow by their mother who had gone mad and who then committed suicide, and who are holding a seance. The Others are Grace and her children, as dead as Mrs Mills and her group. They just have to understand that.

And so the real owners of the house move out, leaving Grace and her ghost children, who now they have seen the light can stand in the light, unaffected, to stay in occupation. The house is theirs, Grace insists, even though there’s a For Sale sign on the gate and Mrs Mills knows that others will come and some of them will be visible. But the house is theirs: Grace went mad, remember? Who knows what will happen in the future?

Apparently, as of 2020, there are plans to remakre this film, in a contemporary setting, god help us. I smells an artistic disaster coming. The Others is delicately atmospheric and worth watching for more than just the pleasure of Nicole Kidman’s performance, or even just her face. Set aside Pan’s Labyrinth I can understand why it appealled to J, and i thank him again.

Film 2021: Justice League – The New Frontier


New F

It’s a very pleasant change to wake up on Sunday morning and once more slide almost immediately into a film, though some would no doubt turn up their noses at an animated superhero adventure that’s never seen the inside of a cinema in its life, and which presents in straightfaced manner a totally OTT, apocalyptian, superscale menace being combatted by more DC superheroes than you can possibly count, and which I’ve actually had all along and never thought to watch. To which the traditional answer is, so what?

DC may well be an irrecoverably long way behind Marvel when it comes to live action superhero movies, but it has the edge on them when it comes to animation, ever since the rightly acclaimed Batman The Animated Series in the Nineties. It’s a television world, but DC not only consolidated its position with series devoted to Superman, Green Lantern and the Justice League, the latter of which showcasing the extremely wide range of characters the company has produced down the decades, but built on that with a range of direct the DVD movies.

The title of this example is something of a cheat, given that the Justice League only appears as a League in the closing credits, but they were needed up front to catch attention. The New Frontier is actually an adaptation of one of DC’s most acclaimed and best series this century, a story set in and during the Fifties, written and drawn in a beautifully relaxed quasi-cartoonish style by the late Darwyn Cooke. I’d heard about it and, on a fortunate whim, bought the collection, a decision from which I’ve benefitted immensely. As soon as I heard it had been adapted, I had to buy it.

Like I said, it’s all-out world-threatening stuff of the kind that makes people turn up their noses at the sheer improbability and absurdity of it all. But some of us are attuned to that nonsense. We can enjoy it as spectacle, though the sense of danger is never entirely fully-engaged because we know the men and women in the funny costumes will save the day, no chance of failure. Something known only as The Centre, which has been part of Earth since, well, forever, finds mankind to be a threatening irritant and decides to wipe the planet clean. There, I’ve said it, and nothing more need be said, because at the end of the day, riotous fun though these things can be, they’re McGuffins, they’re excuses, a peg on which to hang all the real things that make the difference between a dull retread and a fascinating examination of what is in the human heart and how it plays out between us.

Cooke set out to capture the Fifties. This meant bringing together all the characters created before and during that era, multiple viewpoints building piecemeal towards the climax that requires everybody to work together. This is not just a cliche but is integral to the portrait of the era, whose single note is that of paranoia. The Red Menace, McCarthyism, susoicion and fear of everyone who is different. Cooke drew out all the logical implications of what it would have been like to have superheroes operating in that era, then bringing everyone, superhero and civilian together, under the inspiration of Superman, to work together to fight back and win. He did a brilliant job, and his cartooning was incredibly expressive. There is a panel that demonstrates this to perfection: Superman has been missing, presumed dead, but is brought back alive by Aquaman, after the battle has been won without him, and Cooke uses a single line for Lois Lane’s mouth that breaks your heart.

Obviously you can’t do that in animation, nor can you faithfully adapt a story that would up being published in two graphic novels, but the animators have set themselves to represent Cooke’s designs, his clear and uncluttered art and his sense of the times. There’s not a scrap of CGI, just traditional animation, eschewing the detail and roundedness of classic Disney to convey the flat-plane effect of the comic book page.

The story is, of course, simplified. Much of the graphic novel is omitted to streamline the story, like the excision of Tom Bombadil in all adaptations of The Lord of the Rings. This is especially evident in the set-up, which keeps to essentials, it’s only major difference being to give The Centre a voice in which to threaten at the very start. Some diversionary material, emphasising the sheer range of characters from that period, is collapsed onto other characters. And a considerable amount of beautiful simplification is done by overloading scenes with characters who are never identified, or explained. Green Arrow may be instantly recognisable now, though not necessarily in his initial, plain costume, but Adam Strange, the Challengers of the Unknown, they are just there, and we aficianados recognise them with glee and those without that depth of recognition or interest are not inconvenienced by the failure to stop and stick a label on them. Who is June Robbins? I can tell you but what difference would it make?

And the best beats of the story, the personal moments, the interactions between people in an extraordinary world that show them as still being human underneath it, these are all still there and the film does them justice. Barry Allen’s love for Iris West, and her love in return. Carol Ferris’ fear that Hal Jordon will go and get himself killed without saying goodbye to her. Batman’s underlying paranoia and his own version of cynicism, when he tells the Martian Manhunter that it cost him $70,000 for a sliver of radioactive metal to stop the alien in Metropolis but for him all it needs is one penny for a book of matches…

What I love about this film is that it gives me my favourite DC characters in a story worthy of them in scope and execution, allowing me the fun of enjoying them, without having to undergo the level of humour with which a live/CGI-action superhero film has to have in order not to sunk, and by being in animation, I can believe in it whole-heartedly, because everything and everyone in it is plausible on the same level without me knowing that it came out of a computer. It’s a blast, daddio!

Sunday Watch: Life of a Mountain – Helvellyn


At the time, it seemed propitious. I was in the Lake District yesterday, for the first time in almost two years. I’ve been waiting for the third part of Terry Abrahams’ ‘Life of a Mountain’ series, this time on Lakeland’s third highest and most popular fell, Helvellyn for ages. I knew it was done, I knew it had been put off premiering due to the COVID situation. I didn’t know that BBC4 had broadcast its traditional precised to one hour version as far back as January. I just saw it in a shop window and the lady behind the heavily protected till said it had not long since come out. Perfect for a Sunday morning.

But it was so utterly disappointing.

The full version is a sprawling two hours twenty-nine minutes long, an open invitation to call it bloated and an unavoidable one. Helvellyn sprawls, and yet insofar as its portrait of a year in the life of the mountain is concerned, it’s paradoxically extrememely limited. This is an entirely Patterdale-Ullswater biased portrait, without even the shadow of a pretence that the mountain has a western flank, that it towers about Thirlmere and can be ascended from that side.

Instead, every facet of the film, every view of Helvellyn we see, whether this be from the constantly low-motion aerial shots to those from the lake steamer, are of the mountain between Striding Edge and Swirral Edge, or they’te of Red Tarn between these two arms. Over and over again.

But then again such a small part of the film is about Helvellyn itself. This is a primarily polemic film, proclaiming the importance of conservation at every turn. It’s about things like the hill-farmers, the men on the steamers, poets, singers, one self-consciously eccentric writer is ridiculous clothing over-developing his every sentence. With very few exceptions, everyone talks modern day jargon, or bullshit. Environmentalists aren’t improving the landscape in any of the myriad ways they do, they’re upgrading it, the way I upgrade my customer’s ‘experience’ by selling them another package. Conservation, preservation, adaptation in a way in keeping with the natural life of the Lake District fells is very important but linguistically the battle is over and we lost.

Everybody’s out to push a viewpoint, but nobody had anything interesting to say about it. Those that are interested in their own personal fascinations cannot describe it as anything but a personal challenge that has emhanced their lives, which I’m sure it is and has. My own life, my walks in the hills, could be expressed in exactly the same fashion, but I hope that I have never sounded so pretentious when talking about them.

And endlessly we get another shot of Helvellyn’s face, between Striding Edge and Swirral Edge. Or a rolling vista of ridges. The film plods on. It’s about living and working around a particular mountain but it spends most of its time in the valleys. It’s generically about life in the Lakes without any sense that any part of it is specific to Helvellyn, is especially shaped by it. People love Helvellyn, love Patterdale, but they say why. It’s ‘special’ or ‘pretty’ or ‘brilliant’. The crap they spout has robbed them of the ability to actually express themselves.

And whereas Abrahams’ first venture, Scafell Pike, was comprehensive, and briliant, and focussed and properly obsessive, Helvellyn is far m,ore professional and has lost all ability to focus or to engage itself realistically with what Helvellyn is as a mountain, as a destination. The nadir comes in a section on the Ski Club, and their base on Raise, when we get the utterly sterile cliche of the skier sliding to a halt in front of the camera and sending a spray of snow over it.

Which is not to say the film doesn’t have its merit. Some, but not enough, people talk with quiet authority and eloquent simplicity about their specialised subject, feeling no need to over sell it, and there was one poignant sequence with a woman who described her spine as having collapsed five years ago, an active fellwalker who thought all of that lost, for good but who, in a top of the range electric wheelchair, with her husband alongside her, with her walking boots on despite the fact they were never going to touch the ground, had gotten as high on Helvellyn as she physically could. Her eyes said it all, the wonderment, the recognition of things she thought gone for good, the wonderful acceptance of being still able to be who she had been.

And her husband, talking into the camera, explaining that this was five years to the day since the operation, that very serious operation that his wife might well never have survived. The little brush away of something near the corner of his eye, the laconic ‘the longest day of my life’ in the tones that only one who has been through such a day and seen it come out can speak. The camera dropping behind as the pair stood overlooking a view, their arms around each other, her shoulders shaking and him gripping her like he still can’t entirely believe that he still gets to.

Too little, not enough. In the end, the intrusive music, the high-speed photopgraphy of coils boiling across the sky or sweeping up and down valleys, the early hours of indistinguishability from tides rolling in and out, became tedious, were padding. There wasn’t even enough of the fells for me to simply gape at in silent admiration, nothing onto which I could project my own memories of climbing Helvellyn.

Terry Abrahams is a very talented man and I envy him his skills. He’s gone from a life in the throws of despair and destruction to intetnationl recognition doimg something I would love to have been capable of myself. But he’s over-reached himself here, tried to make a statement a big statement and he’s blown it, big-time.

Sunday Watch: The Class of ’92


United

I think it’s safe to say that this is more one for me than most of you. The Class of ’92 is a 2013 documentary focussing on the remarkable – oh, soddit, let’s not go all profesional and neutral here, let’s say incredible – sextet of youth team players who almost simultaneously became first team players for Manchester United in the years 1995/6 and who were the heart of the team that won the unique Treble of League, Cup and Champions League in the same season in 1999. This is another of those DVDs that I bought quite some time ago but which I’ve never found the right time to watch. It’s the extended edition too, running nearly two hours instead of the original ninety minutes, with no inkling whatsoever where the additional material has been interpolated.

It’s about, in alphabetical order, David Beckham, Nicky Butt, Ryan Giggs, Gary Neville, Phil Neville and, my favoiurite player of all time, the Giger Genius, Paul Scholes. It’s about what made them stand out amongst a generation of young footballers that included players as good as and better than them, but who lacked the drive, the determination, the internal discipline to be footballers, to play for the club they all grew up supporting, and for their country. It’s about the common, utterly working class backgrounds of each boy, the East Londoner Beckham a product of Leytonstone and Chingford but no different in his formation from the five Mancunians, who came from working class districts in Manchester: Salford, Bury, Middleton and Gorton.

It’s about their experiences in breaking through and the wonderful, natural, cohesive respect, affection and admiration each of the six has for the others, both their abilities and their personalities. Gary and Phil Neville are brothers, but all six are ‘brothers’ to one another. It’s about male bonding, in a shared, mutually desired enterprise, an easy, non-toxic appreciation for one another.

And it’s about the years they shared together in the red and white of Manchester United, their parts in the Double Double on 1996 and the film is structured around the Treble year of 1999 – Ryan Giggs’ incredible goal in the semi-final replay against Arsenal that took ten seconds to make him immortal, Gary Neville’s ‘left-foot-hoick’ that set up the goal that won the League, Paul Scholes’ pass and goal that won the FA Cup, and finally David Beckham’s two corners that won the Champions League in Barcelona, my first visit to a foreign country and my last as an active United fan going to games (how could it get any better?).

It’s about United’s part in the changing times, the culture of the Nineties, the shift of emphasis from Liverpool to our city, not just in football but in our musical culture – Madchester, the Stone Roses, Happy Mondays, Inspiral Carpets, Oasis – the overthrow of the dead hand of Tory Government, the Manchester Bomb and the beginnings of a wholesale regeneration of Manchester, all by our own hand, without the aid of Tory Government, indeed, one suspects, against its wishes.

And it’s about me, though I appear nowhere in the story, except in those big three games at the end of the 1999 season, one in the mass of United fans at, successively, Old Trafford, Wembley and the Nou Camp, but it’s about the time when I was an Old Trafford faithful, a True Red. It’s about seeing all of these six players making their home debuts and watching them turn into a phenomenon, a phenomenon that Gary Neville, sadly, can never happen again. Six working class kids, products of tough areas, brought up by tough but fair parents to understand hardship, coming together at the club all support and dream of playing for, and coming through together. I think he’s right, and if he is we’ve lost something we could do with.

The story is a mass of memory. Choosing it to watch today was, largely subconsciously, a badly-needed corrective to the events of the last seven days. A week ago, the news broke of the proposed and utterly despicable European Super League, with Manchester United one of the leading lights. It collapsed with almost comic speed, though punishment has yet to be visited on the participants, and that should be strong punishment, a righteous kicking. My relationship with the club I’ve supported for 42 years is now fractured, though my instant reaction to the news was that it was broken, completely. Where it goes from here, nobody yet knows, because you can bet your bottom dollar the bastards haven’t given up for one second.

But I needed to be reminded, and on a visceral level, of just what United in the Nineties were and meant, and not just to me only. The Champions League Final is one of the three most intense events of my life (the top two are more personal). The Class of ’92 contains all those memories but, in its intimate and honest discussions among the players brought it back to me at the same level of my near-simultaneous enthusiasm with Droylsden, where the football wasn’t in the same elevated plane, but you could sit and talk with the players in the bar afterwards, and travel to away matches on the team coach, and everyone was much closer for it.

As Steely Dan once put it, those days are gone forever, over a long time ago. Woe, yeah.

Film 2021: Gladiatress


Just because I ran through all my Film DVDs last year doesn’t mean that I shalln’t be buying any others ever, so there will be Films on Sunday mornings, just on an ad hoc basis.

Gladiatress, an unsuccessful 2004 film that obviously sought to capitalise on the successful comedic relationship between Fiona Allen, Doon McKichan and Sally Phillips, appears as part of a continuum with the last two weeks viewing: VictoriaWood to Smack the Pony to a feature-length film, a year after the series ended. It didn’t work. It made so slight a splash that, as someone who loved Smack the Pony, I never even heard of it until I went searching for last week’s video. The poor reviews nearly put me off but a copy for 99p plus minimal postage tipped the balance. All I can say is that, except in one shallow aspect, it wasnt worth the money.

There’s an element of Monty Python and the Holy Grail to this film, in that it’s set in 55BC and isn’t afraid to slap itself all over with mud and mess. On the other hand, it differs in having a cohesive storyline, thus limiting its absurdity to the actions and dialogue of its three stars.

It’s 55BC and Julius Caesar has just conquered Gaul. Noticing Britain twenty miles across the water, and getting excited about hearing that over here the women fight as well, he takes his fleet over to conquer it, but is repelled mainly because he can’t find a decent harbour. by then,he’s captured Dwyfuc (McKichan), a British Princess, a highly-trained warrior and one who’s mainly got her mind on husband trials: she wants a baby.

Someody’s got to rescue her and the unlikely candidate is her youngest sister, Worthaboutapig (Phillips). Pig, as we’ll call her for ease of typing, is the runt of the litter. She’s the unlucky one, the one no-one ever listens to, scorned and discarded by all, and has uninteresting breasts according to the French prisoner who’s swum the Channel to warn the Gauls that Caesar is coming, and with whom she finally gets lucky, losing her gooseberry.

Pig is, obviously, pretty bloody useless at everything (though she can hypnotise bees) and in order to succeed, her protective goddess, Andrasta (Sandra Reinton), sends her to get the assistance of the middle sister, Smirgut the Fierce (Allen), despite the fact the two elder sisters hate each other. Together, they set off to rescue Dwyfuc, who has learned that slavery can involve luxury, superb food and drink, pretty dresses, endless baths and great sex with soldiers with a hot ass, and has no wish to be rescued at all.

So that’s your spine, your washing line onto which the film can hang its bits of comedic business. It’s silliness. All’s well that ends well, despite Pig getting her head cut off in the arena and Dwyfuc and Smirgut, courtesy of Andrasta, having to kidnap her back out of the Other World. Smirgut is reunited with her Mummy, Dwyfuc gets her Roman soldier as a slave, to give sperm and a baby, and Pig goes back to her Gaul, who still can’t understand a word of English, but she came back from her Other World with more interesting – i.e., bigger – boobs.

So why isn’t it funny?

To me, it’s obvious. The ladies aren’t in charge. The script is written by Nick Whitby, and not by any of Allen, McKichan and Phillips. Whitby had actually supplied ‘additional material’ to four episodes of Smack the Pony’s second series but in this evidence he’s not up to writing a full-length film. At best, the film offers a weak pastiche of Smack the Pony‘s style, but it also handcuffs its hands behind its back by linking everything to one story. The TV series was fast, it was inventive, it was brief. Sketches got out of the way of each other, leaving you vulnerable to what was coming next. What comes next in Gladiatress is the inertia of the same story.

It’s like the sitcom-into-films period of British films in the Seventies, almost all of which failed because the writers were practiced at delivering thirty minute stories and badly out of their depth and timing when given ninety minutes to fill. Something far stronger was needed to make the best use out of Mesdames Allen, McKichan and Phillips, and they should have had considerable input into the writing, which on this evidence they didn’t.

On the other hand, I have to admit that anything which gives me the chance to look at Sally Phillips for ninety minutes on a Sunday morning is worth 99p (plus minimal postage) of anyone’s time. Heck, I’d even have gone to £1.04…

Film 2020 Revisited: Chroniques Sexuelles D’Une Famille D’Aujourd’hui


A couple of months ago, I used the last of my Sunday morning film-watching slots on Sexual Chronicles of a French Family, a serious 2012 film taking a philosopical look at the sexual mores and practices of a contemporary French family stretching over three generations. At least that was what it was supposed to be, but the film does not have a high reputation, nor did I think much of it myself.

The film was supposed to be one of the most explicit films ever released outside hardcore porn, but it was soon clear that, despite its billing, I had hold of the North American version, with English subtitles, and heavily bowdlerised.

Curiosity will out, however, and I wondered what difference the uncut version made to the story or the experience. I wasn’t interested in buying another DVD, even if I could guarantee getting the original (I wasn’t that curious), but things can be found online if you know where to look and I have now added to the sum total of my human knowledge by watching the French version.

As far as I can tell, the film, in the sense of its minimal story, isn’t changed in any real way. This version was some six minutes longer, the extra made up mostly of two troilism scenes, more implied than depicted in the overseas version. The rest o the scenes are shot more explicitly: no shaded angles to obscure things like penises and vaginas, oral sex and penetration.

First time round, I joked that you could tell the film intended to be serious by what it didn’t show, namely nothing full-frontal, so the first and most obvious change was that penises were in with a vengeance: in hand, in mouth, in vagina. Every bloke in the film gets his out, soft or erect, and often more than once. And the sex is unsimulated.

Does this improve the film in any way? The standard defensive answer would be to say that it makes it more authentic, because nobody’s simulating. The film automatically becomes more open and honest. That’s if you’re then prepared to categorise a hardcore porn film as open and honest. As far as I was concerned, the explicit scenes served only to point up what they always point up, the pretension of the film’s ‘philosophy’.

Without sub-titles, I could not parse what was being said, which made ot much harder to follow the film except in its general course. I was glad I had seen an ‘English’ version first as it would have been very hard to pick up the drift if I had been coming to it new. Then again, I don’t remember much in the dialoguer that I would describe as invaluable: true, Romain didn’t come over as quite so much a whiner when you didn’t know what he was saying so there was at least one step up.

Nor, on the purely prurient level, was it any hardship to see even more of Valeria Maes or Adeline Rebeillard. But the explicit version only serves to satisfy curiosity and, once seen, can be left to be covered with dead leaves in the memory.

Film 2020: Sexual Chronicles of a French Family


It’s alright, I expect many of you to have raised your eyebrows at the title of this week’s film. And I expect many of you to be wondering why I’ve chosen this film, and on the level of curiosity, you might well be right. But Sexual Chronicles of a French Family (whose original title translates literally as ‘Sexual Chronicles of a Family Today’) was at least intended to be a serious film, and not just a sex romp.

Whilst watching, I was planning a line to say that you can tell that the film is meant to be serious by what it doesn’t show: breasts, yes, bums, yes, anything frontal, haddaway and get to the Internet, man. But that was before I read that the French original does include scenes of nudity and explicit sex, for which porn actresses were hired to relieve the actual stars, which would justify the box’s warnings that the film ‘Contains Strong Sex’. The north American version cuts it out and that’s clearly the print I’ve watched today: no wonder the film’s a relatively brief 75 minutes, including lengthy credits.

The story is introduced by Romain (Mathias Melloul), newly turned eighteen and miserable and whiney about not having had sex when the national average is below that (and, I was surprised to learn, the age of consent in France is 15). It’s as instantly difficult to sympathise with Romain as it is easy to understand why he’s a sexual reject at such an advanced age.

Romain’s mood is not helped by the belief that everyone around him is having it off interminably. Everyone around him consists of his parents, Herve (Stephen Hersoen) and Claire (Valeries Maes), his older brother Pierre (Nathan Duval) and his older adopted sister Marie (Leila Denio, an actual porn actress), all of whom are, indeed, having fulfilling sex lives, as we will, during the course of the film, observe. The only one Romain excludes from this file (Claire is an assistant at a law firm, used to putting matters into files, so this becomes a running gag, gag here being a word meaning that you wish someone would in relation to Romain) is Granpa Michel (Yan Brian), Herve’s widowed father, and even he;s scoring twice a month.

So, we’re put off by Romain, who is in all respects a wanker, a literal one too. That’s how things start, when he’s caught masturbating in biology class, and filming it on his mobile phone. Romain is suspended from school but gets to go back sooner than expected when it transpires that it’s a dare: everyone, boy and girl, is expected to do this and film it and send it to Coralie (Adeline Rebeillard) to be rated.

Before this happens, Claire is summoned to school. Romain’s misdemeanour becomes the stone thrown into a pool, the ripples of which are the story. Instead of dragging him home by the ear and sticking her youngest son under a cold shower for 24 hours, Claire is a liberally minded mother with an open, honest and non-prurient belief that everyone is entitled to a happy and fulfilling sex-life, as of right (newsflash: no-one gets a sex-life as of right without paying for it: as always, it takes two to make a choice of each other).

So, since no-one ever talks about sex, Claire decides to talk about sex.

Her first port of call is Michel. It’s five years since Mireille passed (this is definitely North American sub-titling) and she was the love of his life but he still needs sex, so every fortnight he visits Nathalie (Laetitia Favart), a local prostitute. It’s ideal: he doesn’t need to chitchat (as we will see when Granpa’s turn comes round and neither of them says a word to each other in an almost comic fashion).

Pierre makes it plain to his mother that he is happy with his sex-life, and that’s all she’s going to get out of him, but we know he’s into bisexual threesomes. Maria doesn’t get asked anything but we see her at it in several instances. As for Claire and Herve, the one thing I will praise the film for is that when it shows an intense scene between them, immediately followed by Maria and her bartender boyfriend, without a word being said the two scenes convey the difference between a longstanding, loving relationship lit by all the experiences of two people together, when sex is making love, and an enthusiastic shag.

Ultimately, Romain breaks his duck with the gorgeous and unconventional Coralie (her bag is filming things). This is achieved by the pair openly walking out of Michel’s birthday party to go to Romain’s room with the uimplied approval of everyone. This is the longest scene of all, mainly because it’s meant to depict Romain’s inexperience and uncertainty, and contrast it with her self-confidence, but the scene has the misfortune to come at that exact point in the ‘story’ where all this softest-core stuff is starting to get boring, besides, beautiful as Adeline Rebeillard is, I still prefer Valerie Maes.

So, will entering into sexual maturity transform Romain? You must be joking: apart from the fact he smiles now, he’s still the same little shit he’s been all along. The film jumps a year at this point. Earlier, Michel had welcomes his daughter-in-law’s enquiries about his sex-life because he was embarrassed about the possibility of conking out on the job with Nathalie and is happy now she’s prepared for the possibility.

And guess what? It’s Michel’s funeral party, family, bedfellows and Nathalie only, absorbed into the family, welcomed open-armed by Claire, and proving to be a nice, happy lady, who just likes sex (Claire approves enthusiastically).

As for Romain, it’s off to the bedroom with Coralie and her camera for some unedifying chat meant to typify teenagers d’aujordhui, though for their sakes I hope it doesn’t. And we finish on some risible guff from the little shit about Coralie not being The One (ah, romance!) but always being The First One, which, short of any major temporal displacement, is an unarguable but decidedly trite fact.

The truth is, I cannot remember what brought the film to my attention and what made me think it would be worth a Sunday morning lie-in. It’s a loose assemblage of encounters that, in its uncut original, is apparently the most explicit film ever released outside form, but even with all that stuff restored would not disguise the fact that it has no real point of view, no actual story and, as a psychological portrait of any of its cast, it’s a load of bollocks. Neither Maes nor Rebeillard can raise the film’s head above water.

Which is a shame. What began with a French film on a January Sunday morning nearly three years ago ends with a French film. There are none left, neither on DVD or download. There are, of course, films out there but none I can think of that I want to watch and blog.

So I want to thank the audience that’s checked in to this ritual. I’ve enjoyed the routine of starting the day with a film and will definitely miss it but I always knew that one day I’d reach the finish and have to find something else to do. Thank you for listening, one and all.

Film 2020: Yesterday


Firstly, I would like to make it known that I would not have gone anywhere near this film if I had realised that Richard Curtis had anything to do with it. Secondly, for this and next weekend I am watching films downloaded rather than purchased on DVD as this long run of Sunday morning cinema is almost over and I am going to have to think of something else to do very shortly. And thirdly, I only downloaded the film on the advice of a work colleague, who praised it as very funny in that other world before the pandemic, and who I haven’t seen in over seven months.

That said, let me deal with the film. It’s premise is simple: what if, one day, a struggling musician woke up to discover he was (practically) the only person in the world who remembered The Beatles? The idea originated with a writer named Jack Barth, who developed a screenplay based around the notion – indisputable – that ideas come from their own place and, most crucially, time. His struggling musician pretends the songs are his. This is one of the greatest pantheons of music ever recorded, the most widely influential pop music whose DNA is woven indelibly into the sounds that surround us.

And they flop.

Richard Curtis bought the rights and, in a completely uncharacteristic move, turned the story into a romantic comedy. Himesh Patel plays Jack Malik, who’s quit his job as a teacher to build a music career. He has a small but devoted following, of about 6 people, all, like him, from that rock’n’roll hotbed, Lowestoft in Suffolk.

First, literally, and foremost among them is his manager/roadie/driver Ellie Appleton (Lily James, playing ‘Elle’ as a slightly restrained manic pixie dream girl, and who I should emphasise immediately is a delight throughout). Obviously, to everyone except Jack, Ellie has been in love with him since time immemorial, and there is a poignantly painful scene where she asks him how she got into the wrong column? Into the Friend column, not the ‘And I Love Her’ column. Public demand keeps Jack from answering a question he has never expected to hear.

Jack’s getting nowhere. It’s not that he’s bad, he’s just… undistinguished. Then, one night, cycling home having sworn off his failed musical career, there is a 12 second global blackout, at the end of which he is hit by a bus. Once recovered, he is given a new guitar by Ellie. His friends ask him to play it, so he plays ‘Yesterday’. They think it’s beautiful. They’ve never heard it before.

At first, Jack doesn’t believe them. We have to go through an unfunny this-is-all-a-complex-practical-joke-on-me sequence before Jack realises, thanks to the Internet, that this is now a world in which The Beatles never existed, that John and Paul and George and Ringo are unknowns, and that Oasis don’t exist (obvious but only marginally funny joke, easily of Curtis’s standards).

And for some reason that has no bearing on the story, Cocal Cola and the Harry Potter books don’t exist either.

How has this happened? Why has it happened? Barth’s original screenplay was entirely about this but Curtis couldn’t give a toss. There is no explanation, which some will say is sensible, not clogging up the story with unnecessary implausibility (because, let’s face it, whatever explanation there might be will be completely implausible in a supposedly grounded, realistic film), and some will say renders the whole film a total nonsense. I’m one of them.

The premise isn’t a premise. It’s a gimmick. After some early and token demonstrations of Jack being a flop even with the greatest songs of all time, he becomes a rising star of unearthly magnitude when Ed Sheeran (playing himself with a great deal of charitable humility) sees him on local TV, invites him to open for him on tour in Moscow, and hooks him up with Ed’s manager, Debra Hammer (Kate McKinnon, playing a ruthless role that’s supposed to be funny, a satire on the modern music business, but which doesn’t raise any laughs because Debra acts like we expect the music business to operate anyway: you cannot satirise the exceedingly ludicrous).

So Jack, busy recalling every Beatles song he can – he’s struggling with ‘Eleanor Rigby’ – is being shaped in LA to be the biggest star the world has ever known. Ellie’s still teaching in Lowestoft and all he has to connect him to normality is his buddy Rocky (Joel Fry, played as an inoffensive but useless stoner stumbler, nothing like a cliche at all, no, really).

He visits Liverpool for inspiration. Ellie joins him for a brilliant evening that almost ends in bed, but she can’t do it. She doesn’t want a one-night stand with Jack. And his inability to choose between her and stardom is the end. He’s had half her lifetime to make a move and she’s waited, and now she needs to find a life.

Frankly, I want to pass over the next sequence. It’s unimportant to any point the story has to make, a sideshow to the romance bit. It’s taken as a given that Jack’s songs are the greatest thing since bread came sliced, that they will dominate the music scene of 2019, that they will blow Ed Sheeran away as a nobody (I told you his performance was generous), and they will change the face of music forever. There’s not a second of thought given to the fact that these songs range between 50 and 60 years old, that ‘I wanna hold your hand’ is being presented in 2019, that this music is being released into a music scene that is identical to 2019, which has long since been influenced by the very music that’s supposedly being heard for the first time ever.

Some have accused Yesterday of under-developing its premise. That would be to imply that it develops it at all.

The closest we get is Jack getting incresingly disturbed by the insanity of what he is being put through, and disturbed at the praise he’s getting for somehing he had no part in creating, that he has stolen wholesale.

Along the way, there have been hints that some other people remember. There are two, Leo, a Russian (Justin Edwards) and Liz, a Liverpudlian (Sarah Lancaster). They remember The Beatles, heaven knows why. And they’re not here to challenge Jack, but to thank him. Thank him for the chance to hear the music again, to give it life once more after it’s been torn out of history. Liz – not a stereotypical Liverpool name, no, not at all – spoils the scene by saying she thinks a world with the Beatles’ music is inferior (oh, FFS, Curtis!). She hands Jack a piece of paper.

And the film throws a sucker gut-punch at you that’s totally alien to everything that has gone on. Because the paper has an address on, a lonely, isolated cottage by the sea, the home of a man who’s had a long and contented life, living simply with the woman he loves, a man who paints. An uncredited Robery Carlyle plays John Lennon, and those of us old bastards, who sat at their breakfast tables that December of 1981, and heard the news, get a punch to the heart. John Lennon, alive, 78 years old. Oh God, to see him again, for it not to have happened. These are things that only happen on parallel worlds. is that it? Is that what happened? Curtis doesn’t care.

It’s a kicker that came at a time in the film when I was, not so much bored as wondering what the point of it was.

So Lennon is the catalyst. Jack blags a favour off Ed, interrupts his show at the new Wembley Stadium, gets Ellie backstage and on the screen, to confess his theft, his creative absence, to her and everyone at once, as Rocky uploads the entire songbook to the Internet, for free.

Oh, and he tells Ellie that he loves her, and they run off, back to Lowestoft, to the inevitable ripping-each-others-clothes-off-on-the-way-to-the-bedroom scene, followed by a montage that includes marriage, children and Jack as a music teacher getting an assembley of kids to sing ‘Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da’ but not the line about Desmond doing his pretty face.

So. But for the bit with Lennon, which made me cry again, dammit, and Lily James’ actually quite delightful perfomance, the film was a nothing, an intriguing idea given a teaspoonful’s worth of thought, having a mountain irrelevance erected on top of it. It’s a ‘juke-box’ movie too, one of those excuses for all the great hits to be layed to an unconvincing story-line. And whilst I enjoyed the songs, firstly they were just thrown at us like a wodge, with ‘Let it Be’ and ‘Yesterday’ and ‘I saw her standing there’ and ‘The Long and Winding Way’ turfed out as one, as if the Beatles’ career wasn’t one of musical development and expansion, and secondly, with all due respect to Himesh Patel, I would rather have heard them from the Beatles, ok, right? Fab.