Film 2018: Hear My Song

When I was sorting out the DVDs for Film 2018, I automatically included the 1991 feelgood film, Hear My Song, about the famed Irish tenor, Joseph Locke, starring Ned Beatty in the Locke role, with Adrian Dunbar (who co-wrote the script), Tara Fitzgerald, James Nesbitt, David McCallum and Shirley Anne Field.

Watching it though, I have my doubts as to whether it should have been included. It’s a FilmFour production, and whilst they were also behind The Madness of King George, which was released theatrically, I’m not sure if Hear My Song was ever released in the cinema in the UK, though it certainly was overseas. One look at a single scene clearly confirms that it’s shot on TV stock, and the profusion of tight, close-up shots of characters with their heads together, gives the film the feel of something whose natural setting is a TV set, not a cinema screen.

The story is very simple. Dunbar plays Mickey O’Neill, an Irish club manager struggling to make a go of Hartley’s, a Liverpool club owned by the Ryan family. Mickey’s an easy-going, free-wheeling kind of guy, a talker, a dreamer. in short, a bullshitter. When he books Mr X, who may or may not be the fabled Josef Locke, he comes a cropper. Locke, a very popular tenor of the Forties and Fifties, made headlines in the late Fifties by fleeing to Ireland to avoid tax demands in Britain, and is a wanted man still, especially by Chief Constable Jim Abbott (McCallum), the officer who failed to prevent Locke escaping twenty-five years earlier.

Mr X is indeed a fake. The problem is that Mickey’s girlfriend, Nancy Doyle (Fitzgerald) is the daughter of Cathleen (Field), who was Locke’s beauty queen girlfriend in 1958 when he fled. She’s still in love with Locke, and she exposes Mr X as a fake, to Mickey’s complete ruination.

So Mickey skips to Ireland where, with the aid of his old buddy, theatrical agent Fintan O’Donnell (Nesbitt), he tracks down the reclusive Locke and eventually persuades him to return and sing at Hartley’s. This gets him back with Nancy, secures Cathleen’s favour, and gives Abbott another shot, only to be foiled by an elaborate deception involving Mr X…

Jut above half the film is shot in the Emerald Isle, though during a spell of bad weather, where the colours are depressed and hazy, and the lovely scenery is far from looking its best. This is where the televisual roots of the film really sting.

For all that I enjoy the film, and enjoyed it again today, its shortcomings are many. For a start, and to use the favourite word of not just Mickey or Fintan but the entire Irish community, it’s bollocks. I’ve always accepted it at some kind of face value, at least to the point of its premise that once Locke had fled, he was forever exiled from the UK, at least in the 1983 or thereabouts of the film’s setting. Bollocks. A quick bit of research reveals that Locke settled his differences with the tax authorities and was singing in Britain again as early as 1969.

Remove that plank, and everything else falls into the hole. Fitzgerald is her usual lovely self, and a pleasure to see each time her sweet face appears onscreen (nor is her then-characteristic nude scene hard to bear, though it’s completely out of keeping with the rest of the film), but she’s a plot device and nothing more. Field, whose role is much more pivotal, is also absolutely lovely (aged 55 at the time, but looking at least a decade younger without seeming in any way artificial). She’s much more defined as a character, even though ultimately she’s no more than an appendage to her man, as Nancy is to Mickey.

And whilst I’ve never been to Ireland, and not rural Ireland, and not lived amongst its people, the Irishness of that length of the film is laid on with the trowel of eccentricity, to the point where it’s a fine question as to whether it is Irish or Oirish.

As for the ending, it doesn’t hold up to any kind of logical scrutiny, but then neither does the film. It’s a feelgood fantasy, resolutely retrograde in its intent, and unsurprisingly sparked a revival of interest in Josef Locke’s singing, duplicated in the film by Vernon Midgeley, though Beatty is himself an accomplished star of the musical stage. The story might be set in or about 1983, but it’s never left the Fifties and The Beatles have never happened.

I still like it, and I will put it on again, and not just for Mesdames Fitzgerald and Field. It deserves its place, although to be honest it’s one of the weakest films of the series. Sunday lightweightedness.


Film 2018: WALL-E

On a cold and grey November morning, as the world celebrates the centenary of the ending of a War that some suggest has never really ended, and I celebrate another birthday leading me ever onwards into the darkness of the future, a film such as WALL-E, unashamedly optimistic, unashamedly romantic, unashamedly sentimental, is the perfect escape from the realities that threaten to drown us.

Oh yes, WALL-E is sentimental, and one could call it manipulative if one was immune to the necessity of hope, belief and love, portrayed not in human form but in the contrasting shaped of two robots, eight hundred years into our future.

The setting is Earth, the year 2805. From space the continents look unchanged but the reality is different, as we break through the sphere of space debris surrounding our world to arrive at a scene of utter devastation. Not war, though the designers studied Chernobyl and war-blasted Sofia to create a scene of horrible realism, a city whose surviving tower blocks have been overshadowed and outnumbered by skyscrapers of compacted rubbish.

Earth has been choked to death and left to the ministrations of a fleet of Waste Allocation Load Lifters: Earth-Class, resilient mobile trash compactors, who are clearing up the mess. Except that the mess is still overwhelming after 700 years and there’s only one functioning one left, our WALL-E (Wally: a name associated with clownish naivete and limited intelligence), who has developed a wierd form of sentience and a personality.

WALL-E collects souvenirs, things that are intact, pillages his broken equivalents for spares, has adopted a cockroach that is the only other form of life on Earth outside of a video-cassette of Hello, Dolly with which he’s obsessed, and which provides the only ‘dialogue’ in the form of songs: in a very courageous move, the film is silent for its first twenty minutes and when WALL-E’s solitude is ended, the ‘dialogue’ between robots is strictly limited to the use of each other’s name, with multiple and very human inflexions.

Yes, another robot: this is a love story. ‘She’ is EVE (Extra-terrestrial Vegetation Evaluator), a sleeker, clearly much more advanced robot, landed on Earth to sane for living plant growth, which WALL-E has just discovered. EVE is a semi-autonomous probe, sent from the spaceship Axiom, the luxury evacuee ship that provides a comfort-intensive home for all of humanity, to determine if it’s safe to return to Earth yet.

Once EVE scans the plant, her prime Directive takes over. She stores it within, sends a signal and shuts down until the ship retrieves her. To all external appearances, EVE is dead and WALLP-E mourns and tries to keep ‘her’ safe’. When the ship collects her, the misunderstanding garbage robot panics and manages to get onto the ship, to be carried to where the Axiom orbits, somewhere beyond Saturn.

Here we discover the tragedy of humanity, which has spent 700 years in the lap of luxury, wanting and needing nothing, as a high class Corporate created, ultra-automated life is provided for them. Humanity doesn’t need to do anything, and has nothing to do because it’s all done for them by robots, so they have degenerated into helpless fat lumps, grossly bloated physically, tied to auto-screens that blot them out from seeing what’s around them. Physically, they’re disgusting and incapable.

The arrival of EVE and the plant fires the imagination of the Captain, especially when it comes to the idea of a return to home. Unfortunately, there are multiple obstacles in the way of this course, created by the Axiom’s auto-pilot, Auto (pronounced Otto), which is obeying a secret directive sent 695 years ago by the CEO of BnL (Buy’n’Large, the fictional corporation that effectively owns Earth and built the Axiom), that the clear-up has failed and the Axiom is not to return.

Thanks to the efforts of WALL-E and EVE, aided by a chaotic band of defective robots, the plant is preserved, the automatic signal for the hyperjump back too Earth is triggered and Auto is shut down. Humanity’s coming home. But there has been a price to pay: WALL-E has been ‘killed’ in the fight to keep Auto from blocking the return. EVE takes him home, to his private sanctuary, where she finds the parts to rebuild ‘him’, but he has had to be re-programmed in the process, eliminating his sentience, his personality and his love…

All of this is an accurate summary of the story in WALL-E, from which you may be wondering how I could have described it as optimistic, romantic and sentimental. But that’s the beauty of the film and its clowning glory, because I deals with very serious matters involving the environment, corporate dominance and the degenerative effects of the most serious mollycoddling the human race has ever had, yet it’s a tremendously funny film, and an optimistic one: the corporate dominated machines are overcome, humanity wakes up and wants to do things for itself, and the credits sequence, which uses traditional 2D animation that progresses in style from Egyptian to late-Eighties video game digital, suggesting that we will rebuild the planet again, and turn it green, however long it takes.

And shot through it, it’s spine and it’s soul, is the absurd love story between its visually, mechanically and stylishly mis-matched robot pair, WALL-E and EVE. True to his name, WALL-E is the idiot suitor, shy, inexperienced, ridiculous, obsessed but utterly faithful. he goes through the entire film without any idea of what is going on around him, blindly following EVE, doing anything he can think of the serve and preserve her, whilst she, lightyears more artificially intelligent, somehow is infected with a personality by osmosis as much as anything else, brought into being by WALL-E’s devotion.

Though neither resemble humanity except in our determination to anthropomorphise anything we can see, WALL-E and EVE are the lovers whose relationship enthralls us. Hell’s bells, I recognise so much of my teenage self in him, and his awkwardness. He’s out of his depth throughout, but his persistence pays off, and his sacrifice moves everyone, including all the flat blobs that currently represent humanity. His resurrection into his exact personality makes no more robotic sense than EVE’s contracting feelings from him, unless you want to call it defect by contamination, but who really cares? WALL-E and EVE sitting in a tree, K.I.S.S.I.N.G.

So this is my Film 2018 birthday present to myself. It’s taken me from a grey morning to a sunny afternoon. This film can not only make you feel happier, it can change the weather…

Film 2018: Harvey

Of course, you couldn’t make this film now. All sorts of people, up to and including Stephen Spielberg, have tried to do so since the start of the Twenty-First Century but Harvey is clearly under the wise protection of a pooka because every single one has failed and may they continue to do so, because it would be an utter disaster, and we wouldn’t want to see that now, would we?

Harvey was a 1950 film adaptation of a very successful Broadway play that had run for four years. The play was written by Mary Chase, who co-adapted it for the screen with Oscar Brodney. It stars James Stewart in one of his most popular roles as Elwood P Dowd, for which he was nominated for an Oscar, and Josephine Hull (who was also in Arsenic and Old Lace), who did win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, and it’s an old Sunday afternoon staple film, from the days when gentle, old-fashioned films were showcased.

You couldn’t make it now because beneath the gentle comedy, the wry and whimsical wit, and Stewart’s laidback playing, this is a film about alcoholism and mental illness, and we are no longer allowed to take such things lightly for that would be to deny the reality of such things. In a way, that’s a good thing, but the gentleness of this film represents something we have lost and which we would all be better off for allowing it to keep a place in this world.

Jimmy Stewart plays Elwood P Dowd, an easygoing middle-aged man, evidently of a family with money, and Josephine Hull his older sister, Vita Louise Simmons. Dowd leads a carefree life, drifting along in his own private world of detachment, a gentle, courteous, happy man who sees only the best in everyone, and who is dedicated, if to anything, to the pleasant things, for everyone he encounters. He is a drinker. He may be mentally ill. One is acknowledged time and again. The other is inbuilt to the structure of the story as Vita Louise, embarrassed beyond bearing by her baby brother, decides to have him committed to a sanitorium.

The symbol of Dowd’s malaise, shall we say, is Harvey. Harvey is a pooka, a creature of Celtic myth, a protectory spirit. He is invisible to everybody else but Dowd. Harvey is a 6′ 31/2″ tall white rabbit.

If we’re going to be technical about it, the story is a low-key, low-speed farce. It turns on mistaken identity, mistaken assumptions and a great deal of characters’ paths criss-crossing one another behind each other’s backs. When Elwood’s return from Charlie’s Bar disturbs Vita Louise’s attempts to launch her slightly gawky daughter Myrtle May (Victoria Horne) socially, so that she can meet eligible young men, it triggers his sister to have him committed to a sanatorium. This is owned by the fussy, pompous Dr Chumley but Elwood is seen by his assistant Dr Lyman Sanderson (Charles Drake) who, when Vita Louise starts describing Elwood’s behaviour and confesses that she occasionally sees Harvey herself, diagnoses her as the psychopath, commits her and sets Elwood free.

The rest of the film is about working out the consequences.

Elwood rises above everything with wonderful ease. He’s the sole unconcerned figure, the sole unhurried person. Where everybody fusses, rushes, misunderstands and is trying to cover tracks, Elwood simply delights in meeting people, in spending time with them, and sipping another martini (not that we actually see him take an actual drink in the whole film). Everyone else is at cross-purposes, even down to Nurse Kelly – Ruth in the play – played by the lovely Peggy Dow, who is in love with Sanderson, heaven knows why, he being continually rude and dismissive towards her until he falls under the spell of Dowd, who spreads a good feeling just by his presence.

What lifts the film above being merely a comedy in slightly cliched tones about subjects we’d now  think in bad taste for such treatment is the character of Harvey himself. Harvey starts off being merely an invisible rabbit, a stereotypical alcoholic delusion. But as I’ve already said, Harvey is a pooka, a benign spirit, and as such he is a presence in the film.

He doesn’t make himself felt as such for a long time. There’s an early twist where Wilson, the blue collar assistant with the Brooklyn attitude to the nutjobs and the whackos, looks pooka up in the dictionary, and is startled to read aloud a definition that turns into a personal greeting to himself, but it’s not until the final scenes, when Chumley himself has begun to see Harvey as well, and he and Elwood discuss his ‘powers’, and Harvey’s invisible presence starts to open doors and gates, even when they’re locked, that the film touches upon a reality in which Dowd may be neither a drunkard nor hallucinating.

We don’t go too deep into this: it is, after all, meant as not much more than window-dressing, enabling the film to have a happy ending. But it sets up a pointed and poignant conclusion in which Down agrees, to make Vita Louise happy, to take a shot of a serum (in this context a magic potion) that will make him miserable and ordinary, like the rest of us, aware of his responsibilities and able to ‘rise’ to his abilities. His fantasy is to be destroyed, but as this is being prepared, the taxi driver who’s brought everyone to the sanatorium wants paying his fare.

Look as she might, Vita Louise cannot find her coin purse and has to call a still-untransformed Elwood out to pay the driver. Elwood is himself, kind, charming, immediately interested in the driver, inviting him to dinner: but the driver knows what he’s going to be going back. Just a normal human being. And you know what stinkers they are (in the play, apparently it’s actually bastards).

And Vita Louise cannot do it. Elwood is Elwood and she cannot bear for him to become what all the rest of them are, unhappy. She rescinds the injection, and Elwood goes home, unchanged, and Harvey goes with him. And Vita Louise’s coin-purse was in her handbag all along, just hidden from her.

To argue with what the story does, to play it with any of the reality that would be necessary in the Twenty-First century would be to destroy its gossamer existence. It’s a bubble, in which Jimmy Stewart’s gentleness, with its echo of an older, slower world that did at least have some reality, for those blessed with the money to be part of it, is the meekness that inherits the Earth, aided and abetted by a pagan creation. We can allow ourselves to be entertained, if we are of the mind for it, though like several other of the black and white films I have rewatched this year, the mind for it only belongs to those of us old enough to have been aware of those days.

Film 2018: The Lovers!

Welcome back to 1972, and not just 1972, but my Manchester of that year, from George Best’s Boutique to a St Ann’s Square that cars still drove through, with the extension of the Arndale Centre to the other side of Corporation Street undergoing construction in the background.
I’ve written about The Lovers! Twice before on this blog, and some of what follows is adapted from what I’ve said before: this is another working Sunday, upon which times are limited, and what I said before is still the larger part of what I see and think whenever I watch this film.
The Lovers (no exclamation mark) was a Granada TV sitcom created and (in the first series, in 1970) written by the great Jack Rosenthal. In my memory, I was sure it ran for ages but the programme actually only lasted two series, a total of 13 episodes.
It starred Richard Beckinsale and Paula Wilcox, both of whom were in their first starring roles, and both would go on next to their most popular parts: Beckinsale as Godber in Ronnie Barker’s classic Porridge and Wilcox as Chrissy in ITV’s successful Man About the House. Sadly, Beckinsale would die young, in 1979, though his daughter Kate become a very popular actress, whilst Wilcox, after a long absence from the screen, resumed her career in the late Nineties to very great effect.
Rosenthal was already a successful television writer when The Lovers debuted. He had cut his teeth on more than 100 episodes of Coronation Street and had developed his comedy play There’s a hole in my Dustbin, Delilah into the crude, ballsy and very funny sitcom The Dustbinmen, leaving the latter after two series to develop The Lovers. He was a very funny, very perceptive writer, often drawing on his Jewish North Manchester background, and his lifelong love of Manchester United.
The Lovers was a complete contrast to The Dustbinmen, being a sweet, gentle comedy, drawing its laughs from the dialogue between its two principals, twentyish bank clerk Geoffrey Scrimgeor and twentyish secretary Beryl Battersby. Its underlying theme was the Permissive Society of the late Sixties, and how far it had – or hadn’t – penetrated working class Manchester. Geoffrey and Beryl were boyfriend and girlfriend and the comedic tension came from their diametrically opposite desires. Beryl, being a bird, wanted what all birds wanted: marriage, and a ring. Geoffrey, being a bloke, wanted what all blokes wanted: sex, and the word ring being stricken from the dictionary. The duo duelled constantly over what would come first: a sparkling (though probably tiny) jewel for the third finger of Beryl’s left hand, or her knickers being sent to Oxfam.
Both actors were perfect and wholly natural in their roles: Geoffrey’s frustration and uncertainty – he was, after all, just as virginal as Beryl as his pretence otherwise revealed at every moment – Beryl’s determination and waspish disdain – Wilcox was an absolute master of the withering put-down, in voice and expression – in the face of her ignorance of any subject that had nothing to do with engagement or marriage.
It was completely of its time, when the matter of saving one’s virginity for marriage was of much greater importance than now. Indeed, in 1970, the subject of pre-marital sex was still a controversial one for family viewing, especially when taken as lightly as this.
The show took a certain risk in basing its humour on so small a cast, though in doing so it did no more than Steptoe and Son, a two-hander from start to finish, over a decade later. There were only two regular supporting players, Geoffrey’s flash and successful workmate Roland (Robin Nedwell) and Beryl’s Mum (Joan Scott), forever making lampshades and sardine sandwiches.
The Lovers was renewed for a second series, but Rosenthal had moved on, gearing himself towards comic plays such as the classic trio of Bar Mitzvah Boy, Ready when you are, Mr McGill and the taxi-driver’s favourite, The Knowledge. Series two was written by stalwart writer Geoffrey Lancashire (father of actress Sarah Lancashire, and creator a few years later of his own popular Granada sitcom, The Cuckoo Waltz, giving Diane Keen her first starring role). Lancashire did not tamper with a winning formula, though the second series was a little less successful, and The Lovers was not renewed.
It was, however, enough of a hit to be granted the dubious honour of being turned into a feature film, for which Rosenthal wrote the screenplay.
Those of you too young to have experienced this era should count yourselves fortunate. Virtually every sitcom to last more than one series seemed to get a film version in the Seventies – apart from a few tail end Carry Ons and the Confessions films, it seemed all the British film industry could do – and the films are, almost universally, crap. Mostly this is because the creators were writers practiced at episodes that ran for 25 – 30 minutes and had no idea how to stretch an idea to 90 minutes: several such films are little more than three ‘episodes’ with some awkward dove-tailing. Several others flopped in realising that, on film, they could go further with the sex stuff than on TV, without understanding that most of the humour lay in the ways they found to suggest what they couldn’t say or do upfront on TV.
Porridge is generally accounted to be the best of the breed, and it’s one of the few to have a cohesive and structured story throughout, but it is still weak in comparison with the small screen version, and when it came to their other hit series, Clement and La Frenais couldn’t make anything halfway decent of The Likely Lads, completely wasting the last time James Bolam was prepared to work with Rodney Bewes. The Dad’s Army film is better than most but, except in its final quarter hour, it’s barely equal to the weakest TV episode.
However, The Lovers! (exclamation mark added) was, and I am biassed here, surprisingly successful, and genuinely funny in places. It was almost completely forgotten when it was released on DVD for the first and only time in 2013, by The British Film.
So much of it is familiar, familiar gags, familiar cringes, familiar faces. It’s extensively shot on location in Manchester, and it’s the Manchester of my late teens, Manchester gone, none more so than the pre-credit scene, shot outside the long-vanished George Best Boutique. That scene depicts Geoffrey and Beryl’s first meeting, as the leftovers when, one Friday lunchtime, three bank clerks pair off with three secretaries (Geoffrey: “I’m Geoffrey, and I don’t happen to be attached.” Beryl: “I’m Beryl, and I don’t happen to be surprised.”)
Rosenthal structures the film around the lovers’ relationship from beginning to end. There are the old familiar lines, and several new ones, and the film structure allows the field of vision to be widened: Beryl’s mate Sandra and Geoffrey’s mate Neville (the film’s equivalent of Roland) also meet outside the boutique and their relationship – first date, lashings of sex, pregnancy, engagement, marriage and going away outfit – for hospital, not honeymoon – is the parallel to Beryl and Geoffrey’s dysfunctional course. There’s also room for several scenes with Geoffrey’s parents, the great John Comer, and Stella Moray, who are convinced that Geoffrey is actually having the life he can only dream of.
Two things are plain over the meandering course of the film: that Geoffrey and Beryl have absolutely nothing in common except the fear of being without someone, and that their genuine relaxation at the thought of having split up will never last in the face of their fear of being without someone. ‘Not really the End’ is the final caption, but it’s easy to recognise that, one day, the pair will end up marrying because they’ve nothing better to do. The gift of Rosenthal’s script, and the naturalness of Wilcox and Beckinsale’s playing is that you can see the two of them eventually being ok with it, once Percy Filth arrives for both, and N-O finally stops meaning No.
I’m also disposed in the film’s favour because I recognise that awkwardness, that uncertainty, the unbridgeable gap between what you want and how to get there, the lack of experience to know that failure now is not final for your whole life. And I don’t just recognise emotions, I recognise me: I will never forget watching the scene when Geoffrey takes Beryl home after their first date, sitting there cringing in redfaced embarrassment and wondering how long they’d been following me – a hideousness made all the worst by the fact that, as Beryl, Paula Wilcox looked so much like my first ‘girlfriend’, even to the slightly ungainly legs under the white box-pleat miniskirt…
As well as the fine and subtle performances of both leads, I also appreciate the playing of Susan Littler as Sandra: a fine actress, who went on to play the lead part in Rosenthal’s famous teleplay, Spend, Spend, Spend, about the pools winner Viv Nicholson, and who had a superb reputation building when she died of cancer, only ten years after this film.
With reference to The Likely Lads, I recall Dick Clement and Ian La Fresnais once saying that they’d have liked to have returned to Bob and Terry down the years, a new series every five years or so, to see what was happening in their lives and their relationship, a course rendered impossible by James Bolam’s refusal to ever work with Rodney Bewes again.
The only other sitcom that I thought could live up to that kind of continuity, to a return to the developing fortunes of its leading lights was indeed The Lovers, but that too was never to be, because of the equally tragic and premature death of Richard Beckinsale in 1979. And, of course, only Jack Rosenthal could have told such a story.
But each time I watch the film, I find myself wanting to see how this silly, naive, misunderstood and misunderstanding pair handled the rest of a life in which, however awkwardly, they were going to be together. I’d like to prove my instinct that they really would, against all likelihood, have made it, and to watch their future stumblings.
And I’d especially have loved to see how Paula Wilcox (who I love as both Beryl and Paula) would have handled her feelings towards Geoffrey, which are so open and revealing in her every look. Forget him, Beryl, I’d be so much better for you. Come with me, back to Manchester forty-six years ago (but let’s not stand on the roof of the Hotel Piccadilly, eh, my vertigo won’t take it…)

Film 2018: Coraline

There’s an imbalance of animation in the steadily dwindling pile of Film 2018 DVDs and the first of these is Henry Selick’s adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s short horror novel for children, Coraline, made in 2008. In a much more angular fashion than the Aardman studio films, this was made in stop-go animation, using puppetry and individually crafted objects, many of which were produced by 3D printing.

Like Stardust, this isn’t a pure representation of the original novel, in which the titla character, eleven year old Coraline Jones, acts independently. To give Coraline someone to talk to, Selick introduced a boy character, Wybie, who shares some of the limelight with her and who, in a much-criticised move, saves the day at the last.

The film is set in and around Pink Palace Apartments, an old and dilapidated wooden-frame building in Oregon. Coraline and her parents are newly-arrived from Michigan. She’s a bright, mentally-energetic girl, with an abundance of curiosity, and they are both writers, jointly producing a Garden catalogue, meaning that they have no time for Coraline or keeping up with her need for attention.

This isn’t any kind of over-developed or narcissistic need, just the average, healthy child’s need to be secure in their place. Coraline explores the building thoroughly but uninspiredly – everything is boring and that’s not because she’s an eleven year old but because it is – and meets its eccentric other boarders, the acrobatic Russian the Amazing Bobinsky (Ian McShane) and the ex-burlesque dancers Miriam Forcible and April Spink (French and Saunders). They, like Wybie, assume her name is Caroline, instead of listening to her properly. That’s Coraline’s problem; no-one listens to her.

But there’s a door in a wall that’s been wallpapered over and locked which, when Coraline’s mother finally unlocks it, turns out to be bricked up too. Except in Coraline’s dreams, when it leads to a tunnel to another world. This world is identical to Pink Palace and its gardens except that everything’s brighter, fresher, newer, cleaner, happier, more vivid. It’s more exciting, more fantastic, it’s everything an eleven year old girl could want.

It’s even got a Mother and Father in it, who are more traditional, more fun, more devoted to Coraline. These are her Other Mother and her Other Father. They love her, they’d do anything for her. It’s an ideal world. Except for the fact that everybody has sewn-in buttons instead of eyes. There’s even another Wybie, and this one’s mute because the real world one talks too much.

Coraline revels in it, and is frustrated to keep waking up in her own bed, in her own Pink Palace. Her eccentric neighbours offer cryptic warnings that she’s in danger, whilst her Other neighbours put on wonderful shows: Bobinsky’s Jumping Mice Circus is a hoot and a magical display. Everything’s wonderful. Even the cat, who is the same creature in both worlds, passing by his own means, talks in the Other World, though he warns Coraline.

Because it’s all a construct. Coraline can stay forever, she just has to agree to have buttons sewn over her eyes, which, she being far too smart and level-headed to ever be taken in permanently, immediately treats as a deal-breaker. But the Beldam, the witch-like, spider-like being at the centre of this, the love-craving Other Mother, won’t let her go. Coraline is not the first child, summoned by dolls sewn to look exactly like them, brought into an idyllic world to love and be loved and when not loved any more, have their life eaten out of them.

Coraline escapes, but finds that her real parents have been stolen and imprisoned in the Other World. With the cat for an ally, she returns to challenge the Beldam to a game, in which she must find a ghost eye for each of the three ghost children, and her parents.

As Coraline makes her way through each of the three wonders, she finds an eye, which causes bits and pieces of this Other World to die, turn grey and splinter off into nothingness. She finds her parents trapped in her real Mother’s favourite snow globe. She wins home, but there is still a catch. Tje Beldam’s severed hand, a thing of sewing needles, has followed her. To prevent the Beldam ever returning, the key must be removed beyond reach. Coraline intends to chuck it down the deep, disused well outside the garden.

Here is where the controversy sits. Selick invented Wybie for someone to talk to, a device to keep the film from ending in under fifty minutes. Now it takes an intervention by the real Wybie, deus ex machina, to destroy the hand, and the two of them to weight everything down with a rock to drop down the well.

In a way, it’s an heroic convention, not quite a cliche, but a subtle trope: the hero carries the burden but, at the last, needs the help of the ineffectual sidekick to complete the task: think Frodo and Sam or, more aptly in the last instance, Frodo and Gollum in the Mountain, in the book if not the film.

But think of it a different way, and it’s a chauvinistic ending. The film’s about a girl, an independent, enterprising girl, who acts alone, who fights and defeats a superior enemy. But it takes a boy to pull her fat out of the fire or it would have all gone for nothing. Girls: can’t do anything right.

All it needed was a slight twist: Wybie intervenes, finds himself in danger, Coraline recovers her breath, finishes it off. Maybe thirty seconds extra footage and you don’t revert to cliche.

That caveat aside, I love the film. It’s visually inventive, it takes its time, it’s creepy and wierd. There are angles and parallels to the story that I haven’t mentioned, making the Other Mother more closely aligned with the real one (Teri Hatcher), oodles of visual detail that treat the eye. And the voices are also excellent, with sixteen year old Dakota Fanning playing the lead role.

Though the Wybie rescue is an intrusion, the film has the wit to end on a charming note, suggesting Coraline’s future in the real world will be a bit more balanced. The Garden Catalogue is a success and Coraline organises a planting party, with plentiful lemonade, at which the utilitarian garden is, at her suggestion, planted with colourful tulips, and the guests get her name right.

I doubt we’ll ever get a pure Neil Gaiman adaptation, not one that captures his severe, almost austere tones, but what Coraline brings to the story is a mostly delightful substitute, just like Stardust. Sometimes, a little more light in victory is a necessary thing.

Film 2018: Swimming Pool

The penultimate of my small collection of foreign films, Swimming Pool, a 2003 psychological erotic thriller written and directed by Francois Ozon (who was also responsible for the first Film 2018 film, 8 Women) is another from that time of enthusiasm about French cinema that I have only watched once before.

The film stars Charlotte Rampling (who was in Summer Things) and Ludivine Sagnier (who was one of the 8 Women). Rampling plays an English writer of crime fiction who’s feeling stale, the film takes place mostly in France, but both main characters are bilingual, and more of the film is spoken in English than French. Incidentally, I found it interesting that though Rampling has lived in France since 1978, and appeared in several French films prior to that, she speaks her fluent French with a clear English accent.

Rampling is Sarah Morton, successful author of the popular Inspector Dorwell series of crime fiction. However, she’s suffering from frustration at her work, which her publisher, John Boaswell (Charles Dance), tries to talk her out of. Sarah is pretty unpleasant and nasty about everyone around her, especially anyone who likes the Dorwell books, so John offers her his house in France, to enjoy some peace and quiet (and possibly to stop her getting anyone else’s back up). Sarah clearly fancies John, as she hints about him coming to visit her there, whilst he equally clearly has no intention of doing so but isn’t going to say that.

The next phase is of Sarah travelling to France, being shown the house by Marcel, John’s gardener, settling in, visiting the village, starting writing a new Dorwell book. It’s all low-key, undramatic to say the least, and is stretching the patience when her peace is disturbed by the arrival of Julie (Sagnier), who explains she is John’s daughter by his former French mistress.

It’s a contrast to say the least. Julie will at one point describe Sarah as an uptight old bitch with a broomstick up her ass, and there’s not a word of that with which anyone could argue. Julie is close to being the archetypal ‘wild child’, all brief shorts, bare midriffs, nude swimming and skimpy bikinis, which Sagnier carries off with a golden-skinned brio and a complete naturalness.

She’s also intolerably messy, noisy, over-friendly and has a habit of picking up some real loutish blokes and screwing them noisily.

Sarah hates her, but then Sarah would hate anyone who disturbs her carefully controlled, self-centred existence as a writer, demanding peace and quiet so she can concentrate (there are writers who require that but I couldn’t help but compare my ability to write on trains and buses, surrounded by people: trains are fine but the big bugger about buses is the way they shake about so you have to compress the actual writing down of words into bus stops and red lights if you ever want to be able to read it back). But Sarah also develops a voyeuristic fascination with Julie that we’re supposed to see as envy for her lack of inhibition, but which i see as the beginning of the next phase.

One day, whilst Julie is out, Sarah goes through her things and finds a diary that she steals and uses as the basis of a new novel, about Julie in one form or other. it goes great guns, and Sarah becomes more overt about creating a friendship with the young girl. Julie, at first suspicious that she is being used as a means for Sarah to get John into bed, nevertheless spills the beans, especially about her mother, who she speaks of as being alive when we will learn she died in a car accident.

Apparently, after he left her, Julie’s mother wrote a novel that she sent to John to publish, only for him to tell her it was terrible and unpublishable, so she burnt it. Julie liked the book, which has helped contribute to her air of disrespect for her father, and her contempt for his enthusiasm for blood, sex and money (hinted at being personal, not merely commercial), and by extension Sarah, for churning it out, for playing at dirt when she has no experience of it.

Curious at Sarah’s curiosity, Julie snoops in her rooms and finds the manuscript about her. This triggers the drama, as the film takes its long-postponed but inevitable turn into murder.

Julie brings home Franck, the day waiter at the village taverna, who’s been serving and talking to Sarah daily. It’s plain as can be that if it weren’t for her essentially English reserve, they’d be making the beast with two backs with great enthusiasm, and it’s a blow to Sarah to see him with Julie and fear the traditional night’s conclusion. But it’s a blow to Julie that, having paraded Franck in front of Sarah half the evening, he’d rather screw Granny than her.

She manages to get him to stay long enough to strip off and go nude swimming in the titular pool with her, and forces him down long enough for her to start a blow job, but when Sarah hurls a rock from her balcony into the pool, it disturbs Franck, who wants to get away. Sarah puts in her earplugs and remains unaware of what happens next.

There’s no sign of Franck the next day, no sign anywhere. Sarah goes rushing around on an absurd moped, trying to find him, only for Julie to confess she’s probably killed him. Drunk and angry at his rejection, she brained him with a rock, four or five times.

In a way, this delights Sarah, who swings into action to use her professional skills, knowledge and experience (as a fiction writer), to conceal the killing and Julie’s involvement. The two women bury the body in the grounds, which leads to the film’s most awkward moment, when Marcel gets curious about the dug-up dirt and Sarah has to distract him by offering her lily-white body to him. I’m not talking about Rampling doing a full-frontal nude scene when I say embarrassing: the lady may have been 57 when the film was shot but she’s still got a decent body. I mean Rampling’s portrayal of the scene, her expressions and her movements demonstrating at every moment a distaste for her actions, bordering on revulsion, that goes beyond the specific circumstance of sex unwilling into a more fundamental discomfort with the very idea of sex at all.

It’s notable though that this phase is where Sarah finally comes really alive and involved. I saw it as the chance to establish control, both of the world as it pertained to her, but also of the unruly Julie, who now has to do as she’s told, and if they ever meet again, will do she’s told then. Julie does make a tentative attempt at getting Sarah to burn her manuscript about Julie, but there’s no chance of that happening, oh no gollum.

Indeed, Julie then goes on to produce out of thin air a copy of her mother’s novel, that she happens to be carrying around with her. Julie’s off to San Tropez, to waitress a bit, but she’s bequeathing Mummy’s book to help Sarah finish her own.

And so she does. Back in London, John’s disapproving of the novel. It’s not Dorwell, it’s not got blood or sex, or at least not enough blatant sex. It’s too abstract, too subtle, it’s not Sarah Morton. She twits him about whether he thinks she should burn it. No, but not publish it now, after another Dorwell (and another. And another. And…)

But in the film’s most unrealistic twist, Sarah has anticipated John’s reaction. She’s sold the book already to another publisher, and she happens to have a handsome paperback copy of it on her (so basically a canny publisher has had a successful author poached by another publisher for a book written edited and printed, and he knows nothing about it, hasn’t even heard a rumour? Yeah, right.) She’s even autographed this copy, for John’s daughter, Julie.

Sarah leaves. As she does, a reasonably attractive but not beautiful English girl, blonde-haired, a bit more solidly built, comes in past her, to be greeted as Julie (English J), John’s daughter. She’s not Ludivine Sagnier. The film leaves Sarah staring through the diamond cut window in the door framed with an indecipherable expression n her face, before cutting back to France. A bikini-clad girl swims in the swimming pool, before hauling herself out. Sarah waves from her balcony, enthusiastically. The English Julie, with braces on her teeth, waves back. Sarah waves again, even more enthusiastically. The French Julie waves back. Sarah waves. One of the girls is seen from behind, but we’re not sure which.

So, what exactly was real? Sarah’s book with her new publisher is entitled ‘Swimming Pool’, and we may guess that it’s the story we’ve just watched as a film. Did French Julie ever exist? Who was she really? Did Sarah spend her whole time in France alone?

The ending’s deliberate ambiguity was controversial, and aroused much debate about how we were to take the film in the light of its last minute revelation. No-one seems to have considered the possibility that it all might have been real, that French Julie could have been the daughter of John’s French mistress, and English Julie the daughter of his English wife, though I suppose that ought to be discounted. Ozon’s comment on the ending was “Charlotte’s character kept mixing fantasy and reality. Although in Swimming Pool, everything related to fantasy is part of the act of creation, so it is more channeled and less likely to end up causing madness. In terms of directing, I’ve treated everything that is imaginary in Swimming Pool in a realistic way so that you see it all – fantasy and reality alike – on the same plane.”

So we have his word that there is fantasy in the film, but that it is treated as rationally as the rest of it, from which the most logical interpretation must be that French Julie and everything to do with her is fiction on every level. In a way, I find that disappointing, diminishing, to reduce the film to only one possibility, without the option of reinterpretation.

But, like a number of other films in this season,Ii definitely do need to make the time to watch this again. On a wet and gray Sunday morning, a summer on France is very appealing, even without the lovely Ludivine Sagnier to ponder upon.

The Biggest Laugh Ever (Part 2)

So, now I’ve watched the film again, and did I laugh at the same spot as before? Actually, I did. Not as heavily as before, because I knew the gag, and knew it was coming, but at the moment it dropped I was as unprepared as before, and still had a good explosive laugh at it coming, and the sheer straightfacedness with which it was presented. It was one of only two points in the film that made me seriously laugh out loud.

And the name of this film? I told you you wouldn’t get it. It was A Very Brady Sequel.

To set out the background, The Brady Bunch was a very successful American sitcom, running from 1969 to 1974, which was not, to the best of my knowledge, shown in Britain. The set-up was that widower architect Mike Brady, bringing up three sons alone, married Carol (marital status left undefined because the Networks wouldn’t accept a female divorcee) who had three daughters. It was an old-fashioned domestic comedy series which was never a big hit at the time but has turned into a cultural institution in syndication.

In 1995, The Brady Bunch Movie appeared, one of a number of Sixties Sitcom revivals as films, and about the only one with any critical standing. Gary Cole (just before appearing as Sheriff Lucas Buck in American Gothic) starred as Mike Brady, with Shelley Long, ex-of Cheers, as Carol Brady. The film set itself up cleverly by portraying the entire Brady clan as still living in the Seventies whilst the world outside was taking place in the Nineties, and made its comedy out of the clash between the two cultures.

The film was big enough to spawn a nearly-as-successful sequel, which is what Mark and I watched that August Bank Holiday evening.

The peg behind this one is that it had never been made clear whether the former Carol Martin had been widowed or divorced. Now, with her Anniversary with Mike coming up, Carol gets a shock when a man turns up claiming to be her first husband, Roy Martin. The audience are in on the fact that he’s an imposter from the outset: he was actually Roy Martin’s assistant, who left Roy to die at sea after Roy sent Carol an important archeological find, a statue of a horse. ‘Roy’ plans to get his hands on it and sell it to Dr Whitehead, an antiques collector in Hawaii, for $20 million dollars.

So the main part of the film is the clash between ‘Roy’s underhandedness and crookedness and the Bradys’ naive decency. There’s a sub-plot about eldest boy and girl, Greg and Marcia, falling in love, and another about middle girl Jan’s jealousy of her elder sister, which leads her to make up a boyfriend called George Glass.

It’s all quite clever in a superficial way. I don’t have the original to compare with, but the gag is built upon the Bradys all being of their forgotten time. Everybody plays their roles with straight faces without once so much as hinting they’re in on the gag, which is the only way this can work, but that does make large parts of the film very one-note, and given that the note is that of a very bland sitcom, the joke wears thin quickly. Some scenes are just embarrassing, where your suspension of disbelief is put to impossible tests, and the odd dirty line, that is dirty only to the minds of contemporary audiences, tends to fall flat.

Mark and I would have been taking the piss out of this right royally.

But I did laugh out loud twice tonight. Once, and the biggest laugh for me, was when Mike Brady goes to the Police, and the Detective he speaks to is a cameo by Richard Belzer, playing our dear old John Munch from Homicide: Life on the Street.

But that wasn’t the big laugh. Let me set it up. We’re in the closing stages now. ‘Roy’ has stolen the horse statue, dragging Carol along as a hostage, and has got all the way to Dr Whitehead’s estate (John Hillerman, essentially playing Higgins from Magnum PI). But Whitehead won’t buy the statue now he’s heard from Carol what Trevor did to get it, cutting the little ship’s fuel-line, causing it to presumably sink. Whitehead’s son was on that boat, as it’s mate: Whitehead will never see his boy again, his boy Gilligan.

It was like a ton of bricks. The two of us howled, barely hearing Carol bemoan that she’ll never see her husband, the Professor, either. Yes, thanks to Trevor, the Minnow was lost.

I don’t know who came up with that idea but they were a freaking genius to do so. The gag is that Carol’s husband never came back because he was the Professor in Gilligan’s Island, a 1964-67 American sitcom that did get shown over here and that I used to love as a kid, but the idea of linking the two was just so left-field that the two of us were laughing at it for several minutes, and probably completely missed the bit where Carol, in her typically sunny way, speculated that maybe the Minnow crashed into some desert island and everybody survived, an idea that Whitehead dismissed as ridiculous, which is what a lot of people said about Gilligan’s Island, my parents probably included.

Of course, the whole idea was only made possible because Sherwood Schwartz, creator of The Brady Bunch, had also created Gilligan’s Island before it.

And yes, the way it’s dropped in, out of the blue, by Whitehead mentioning Gilligan, had me laughing again tonight. Not so hard, not so long, but just as unexpectedly.

The film did try to duplicate the effect at the very end, incidentally. Mike and Carol renew their vows, and she tosses her bouquet in the traditional manner. However, it goes over the heads of housekeeper Alice and her three daughters and is picked up by a blonde is harem pants, red top and blonde hair piled up above her head, that everyone old enough to recognise Gilligan will instantly recognise as Jeannie, a cameo by Barbara Eden, from I Dream of Jeannie (1965 -70). She’s looking for her husband… Mike Brady.

Whatever the flaws or failings of A Very Brady Sequel, may be, most of them deriving from the original I have to say, that one moment is genius of the highest water and I salute the film for it, from both 2000 and 2018.