Film 2020: Boule et Bill

I don’t really expect anyone else to share my enjoyment of the modest little film, the only one among the half dozen or so foreign language films in this half-season I have already watched.

Those who don’t read the posts I make here about comics will be wondering if I’ve gone off my head. For them, let me explain that, last year, whilst going through the British boys comic Valiant, I discovered they had reprinted a clearly French or Belgian series about a family and their cocker spaniel under the title ‘It’s a Dog’s Life’. It was brilliant and I loved it. Research quickly told me it was the very long-lasting ‘Boule et Bill’, written and drawn by Jean Roba, a Belgian cartonist working for the French cartoon magazine Spirou.

There seems to be a distinct children’s market in France in turning popular children’s characters into film and, six years after Roba’s death in 2006, Boule et Bill was turned into a film. Critically, it was panned, but commercially it was popular enough to spawn a sequel in 2017. After seeing a clip on YouTube, I was interested enough to chance the DVD. After watch it, I line up with the audience.

The film version is a period piece, set in 1976, and serves as a prequel to the comics series. Franck Dubois and Marina Fois play the parents of eight-year-old, red-headed Boule (Charles Comperz) and the cast is completed by Funky, a red-furred cocker spaniel as Bill (voiced by Manu Payet) and an unnamed tortoise as the family’s other pet, Caroline (voiced by Sara Giradeau). There’s only one major supporting role, that of the unnamed depressive downstairs neighbour, but unfortunately I can’t work out from the cast list, in French, who plays him. He’s very good in a stlised manner, whoever he is.

The story is simple. On a Sunday afternoon, the family drives put into the country to pick berries. Mama diverts them surreptitiously to an animal sanctuary (over the credits Boule has asked for a dog). Inside the sanctuary, an anxious, lonely red cocker spaniel assures himself unconvincingly that today’s the day he’ll be chosen, not that any of those who cross the bars of his kennel are suitable. By the time Boule arrives, Bill has given up, doesn’t want to know. But it’s love at first sight…

Papa doesn’t want a dog. He puts his foot down firmly, no dogs. They take Bill home, very slowly – Bill has joyfully rolled in poop, smells to high heaven and is a bit bemused over how his new family takes him for walks, running alongside the car on a lead held from inside. Then there’s the bath…

Papa doesn’t take to Bill at all at first. He’s concerned with his career as an appliances designer. He’s applied for a transfer to Head Office in Paris (Boule overhears the argument about his not telling Mama until he’s got it and misinterprets it as a divorce, a running gag in the film) and plans to leave Bill behind but the dog follows, spending most of the journey perched on the bumper of the van, worryng that the family just don’t knw how to do walks properly.

Their new home in Paris… well, within sight of Le Tour D’Eifell, is an elenenth floor apartment in Wisteria House, a single apartment block in an outsized builder’s yard. This is where the depressed neighbour comes in. He can’t tolerate noise, which puts the lid on Mama’s job as a Piano teacher, and as for the confined, bored, anxious Bill…

Papa’s move is not going well, his ideas being taken over by a ‘brownnoser’ at work. He can’t think or talk about anything else. Boule and Bill’s escapoades cause trouble everywhere. To try to occupy Bill’s mind whilst she gives lessons at little kid’s homes, Mama gives him Caroline for company – the tortoise is already in love with the cocker – leading to insanely silly games, as a result of which Caroline goes down the trash shute. Looking for her in the bin-store, Boule sets the rubbish alight…

Though Papa is starting to get fond of Bill, the impossibility of the situation has Mama insisting they give the dog away. The moment he overhears this, Boule runs away with Bill, though only to the bin room. Both parents are frantic with worry. Papa, to distract himself, starts drawing cartoon sketched of his son and his dog – yes, the Boule et Bill of the comic – which he screws up, drops down the trash chute, where Boule excitedly collects them. One such is not a cartoon but a draft of Papa’s resignation…

Boule has won. But before he can celebrate, the janitor wheels out the dumpster, with Bill in it, before locking the bn room to keep Boule out. Unfortunately, he’s still in…

This leads to a madcap chase following the garbage truck to the dump to save Bill from ending up in the incinerator. All’s well that ends well, and the family moves away to a house in a small town. There’s a boy with hair covering his eyes called Pouf, who becomes Boule’s other best friend, an elderly woman with a Charles de Gaulle fixation and a cat named Caporal next door… in short, the set up of the comic is set up.

And, in a nice touch, Papa whilst vacuuming under Boule’s bed, discovers the rescued sketches. Inspired, he comes up with more, asks Mama if she thinks these might be published by Spirou, to which she agrees they very well might, and goes on to suggested that Monsieur Roba is a very talented person…

In short, the film turns at the last minute into a massive metafiction and we all live happily ever after.

Oh, this is a children’s film alright, and not even a Pixar film, with the things to keep the grown-ups amused cleverly interwoven. No such seriousness is allowed to darken this lightweight and standard story. Dubois and Fois are good as the parents without ever straining themselves, and the latter looks authentically French-attractive without ever being unrealistically beautiful – she spends most of the film in long-sleeved blouses, knelength midi-skirts and knee-length boots, a nostalgic combination I’d sit and watch all morning. Young Comperz is a bundle of energy, and Payet catches the doggy-centric tone of voice of Bill’s thoughts perfectly, though the dog itself is the film’s one weakness: though Funky is well-trained, he’s a real-life cocker spaniel and the only one who can’t capture the look of the comic Bill.

The film employs it’s fair share of slapsticky gags around Bill, and uses the neat trick of going to widescreen for brief moments when we slip into Boule’s fantasies. But what it does is capture the comic’s tone of voice and sense of humour well enough for live action. The comic has been adapted to animation in two separate TV series, one standard cel animation, the other CGI, which are paradoxically weaker for failing to be exactly as Roba drew them.

I found it funny first time I watched it, and I laughed again at all the same points this morning. Unless you’re a French child, or closely in touch with one mentally, you’re unlikely to enjoy this the same way I did, who have 24 Boule et Bill hardback collections in the original French that I can barely read (a 1971 Grade 4 O-level isn’t the best qualification). If not, you may want to skip the Sunday when I get to Boule et Bill 2


Film 2020 – For a Few Dollars More

Though in many respects it’s a better movie than it’s predecessor, For a Few Dollars More wasn’t anything like as much fun to watch this week. A minor part of that was that I inadvertently prejudiced myself before the start by looking at the title and thinking how cheap it was, all the signs of a cheap, cash-in sequel, with no imagination: if it were a Twenty-First Century franchise film, a string of sequels, it could hardly be less surprising.

Cash-in sequel it is: Leone wanted to do it again, though he was unable to get Clint Eastwood to commit until he’d seen an Italian language print of A Fistful of Dollars, specially flown to America for a private viewing. It was filmed in 1965, once again in Spain, though interiors were shot in Rome, once again with an ‘international’ cast and all voices dubbed in the studio afterwards (which shows in places, how it shows), and wasn’t released in America until 1967, coming only four months after the first film.

Cash-in sequel as I say, though not cheap, and with a lot of good things in it. There’s more sign of a budget being spent here. But my main issue for not enjoying it so much was that the good things in it are to a large extent oases in a desert of slowness that, on a good day, ought to be increasing tension but on this day just dragged, arousing the temptation to just mutter ‘Get on with it.”

The opening of the film exemplifies this. It starts with a mostly red stylised backcloth. This dissolves into a widescreen, long-range shot of a horseman, at this distance little more than a dot, riding a winding trail. A shot rings out of nowhere, the rider falls, the horse goes off to graze. Credits flash onto the screen over this static vista, accompanied by gunshots. The only movement is the horse running offscreen. These are very full credits that take a long time. It’s noticeable as this ticks along that there isn’t a female name in the cast (there are only three very minor female roles in the film, of whom only one gets a line of dialogue.)

After a flashcard advising us of bpunty killers we follow one. He is ex-Army Colonel Douglas Mortimer, played by co-star Lee van Cleef: well-dressed, snappy, accurate. We spend five or more minutes following him hunting down and killing a wanted man. First female role: young woman naked in bath in hotel room invaded by the Colonel, hands covering breasts, receives apology for disturbance. end of appearance.

Next, we see a similar bounty-hunting scene, this time featuring Eastwood’s Man with No Name, except that after this he’s called Manco, once. The film’s spent about fifteen minutes giving you nothing but set-up, without a point to it except the anticipation that, if the film ever starts, these two bounty-killers will clash.

That’s finally the case when the Colonel sets out to seek Maxican bandit El Indio, played by the third star, Gian Maria Volente, whom the Stranger will fail to recognise as the late Ramon Rojo in A Fistful of Dollars, calling into question whether, despite their dressing idetically, the Stranger and Manco are really the same character.

The Colonel identifies El Paso, home to the most impenetrable bank and safe in the West, as El Indio’s target: of course, why not? The problem is that Manco (nope, don’t like it, it’s wrong, won’t use it any more) is an hour ahead and doesn’t like having to come up against competition. After an interesting street duel involving nothing but each other’s hats – clever and cool but like everything else dragged out over twice the length that would be most effective – the two make an uneasy truce to take down the gang nd share the reward equally. One on the outside – the Colonel – one on the inside – the Stranger.

El Indio is one of those mad creations, a rip-roaring brute of a man with a black temper who constantly roars with laughter at things that we don’t really see as being funny. It’s entirely in keeping with today’s response to the film that I found Volante’s performance crude, artificial and hammy.

He has an affectation. He carries a gold pocket watch that, when opened, plays a tinkly fragile tune. He uses it to set up executions: listen to the music, when it stops, go for your gun, but Indio is faster. As we progress slowly we see its significance to Indio: he shot and killed a man, raped his wife but she shot herself dead with his gun whilst he was mounting her. Third female role: uncredited appearance by Italian actress Rosemary Dexter.

(Second female role is the wife of the manager of the El Paso hotel where the Stranger stays: Mara Krupp, as Mary – not named in film – a red-headed would be promiscuous grotesque who the Stranger doesn’t even look at.)

Basically, Indio’s gang robs the Bank by stealing the entire safe and taking it somewhere where it can be cracked (the same idea as Donald E Westerlake’s Bank Shot). The Colonel presents himself as a safecracker and gets them in by using acids. He and the Stranger then remove the stolen money and hide it, only to be caught – Indio has known what they were all along – and beaten.

Indio concocts a plan to let them escape and kill the rest of his band leaving only him and an accomplice to share the money. In the end, the Colonel faces off against Indio, who he has claimed as his from the start. Indio gets the drop on him, starts the watch, but when the music stops, it starts again, coming from an identical watch in the Stranger’s hand, stolen from the Colonel’s waistcoat. lending the Colonel his gun, he equalises the duel, which the Colonel wins. Indio dead, he hands all the bounty over to the Stranger.

There’s a photo of the raped woman in Indio’s watch. The Stranger comments on the likeness to the Colonel (there isn’t one). The Colonel comments that there usually is between brother and sister. The Stranger kills one last wounded member of the gang, loads the bodies onto a buckboard and ridesaway. Slowly.

I know this is a very well-liked and respected film and I certainly enjoyed it far more than this the last time I saw it on TV, ages ago. Coming today, when I’m a bit tired from two weeks of a cold and yesterday’s expedition, I felt every one of it’s 126 minutes pass. It would have been sensational at about 96 minues, with a much abbreviated introduction.

I am, nevertheless, expecting much better of the third film, next weekend, even though For a Few Dollars More has been described as ‘more compressed’ that the trilogy’s biggest hit. I, at least, hope to be more receptive.

Film 2020: A Fistful of Dollars

There are no partitions between single movies and boxsets in Film 2020, with a couple of trilogies to fit in as the season progresses. The first of these is the ‘Man with No Name’ trilogy that established Clint Eastwood as one of the most successful actors of the past half century, courtesy of a four DVD set acquired from eBay for 99p plus postage. Can you deny that is a real bargain?

A Fistful of Dollars, appearing in its own credits without the indefinite article, has a more complicated background that I was aware of. some aspects of it are world-famous: Eastwood’s first starring role, Director Sergio Leone’s first staar movie, the founding of the spaghetti-western genre at a time when Hollywood was abandoning the traditionlly American form of the Western.

But I wasn’t previously aware that the film was made in 1964, and was Italy’s top-grossing film despite critical panning, but did not appear world-wide – i.e., in America – for another three years, when it was critically panned in many places. Nor was I aware that the film had an international cast, few of whom spoke each other’s languages, and whose dialogue, in accordance with Leone’s practice, was overdubbed, the film being shot silent. It shows too, in places, with imperfect matching of voice to lip: indeed, the main female role, of Marisol (Marianne Koch) is voiced by a different actress altogether.

And the anglocentric names under which the cast appear in the credits are all pseudonyms, as was the original Director credit to ‘Bob Robertson’. When the film was digitally restored in 2006, Leone was credited under his own name but all the other psueudonyms were retained, including ‘Dan Savio’ for the creator of the soundtrack,  Ennio Morricone.

And lastly, a large part of the reason for the film’s delayed release in America was the fear of legal action from the Japanese Director, Akira Kurosawa, the film bearing, shall we say, a more than passing resemblance to his 1961 film, Yojimbo.

I doubt you need anything like a synopsis for a film of this staure and endurance but here’s a brief one anyway. A stranger, obviously a gunfighter, arrives in the small Mexican town of San Miguel, discovering from the old tavern keeper, Silvanito (Jose Calva) that the town is split between two gangs, the Baxters under Sheriff Baxter (Wolfgang Lukshy) and the Rojo brothers, Benito, Esteban and Ramon (Gian Maria Volente, credited as Johnny Wels). The stranger decides to rid San Miguel of both gangs, by plotting with and double-crossing both. He provokes the Rojos into slaughtering the weaker Baxters but is captured and heavily beaten himself. After escaping and recovering, he engineers a shoot-out on the main street, killing all the Rojos, confronting and killing Ramon, though Silvanito saves him from being ambushed by Esteban. he then rides out of town, never to be seen again.

Put so very bluntly, the film can be seen to be composed of characteristic Western tropes of a kind all but played out, and as I’ve already said, Hollywood was already riding the genre out of town. But Leone, who  loved Westerns but was angry at how they’d been allowed to stagnate in the Fifties, brought a new perspective to the film, a directorial style that emphasised the emptiness and cruelty of the near-abandoned town, accompanied by the innovative use of close-ups as beats in the story, drawing the audience’s attention, rather than the reaction shots American film usually confined them to.

And in Eastwood we have a very different version of the Western hero. On the surface, he’s the same, the soft-spoken stranger who drifts in out of nowhere, cleans up the towm, and drifts on again. In that aspect, he’s Shane, come to right what’s not his mess but which his nature compels him to resolve. Indeed, at one point, Eastwood’s stranger mentions a friend who needed help but didn’t get it, implying that he’s repaying a psychic debt or, as we would now put it, ‘paying it forward’.

But the Stranger is no parfit, gentil knight, no man who is not himself mean walking down mean streets. He’s a killer, a fast gun fastest gun in the West, but he’s not a good guy, which is what attracted Eastwood to the part after years of being a good guy on Rawhide (I remember him as Rowdy Yates, or at least I remember watching him). The Stranger sees the opportunity to play both sides off against the middle, he being the middle, looking to profit from both sides.

No, the Stranger is taking money from both sides for information setting up the other, and when he’s caught by the Rojos, it’s when he’s searching for the chest of gold they have stolen by massacring two platoons of Mexican Cavalry expecting to buy arms and ammunition from the US Cavalry.

But in its final third, it’s as if the film starts to lose the courage of its convictions. I’ve mentioned Marianne Koch asMarisol, the film’s main female role and its third credited star. Koch, a German actress already experienced in Italian spaghetti-westerns, only has a minor, and entirely passive role (this is not a female friendly film) as the beautiful wife and mother, stolen from her family to feed Ramon Rojo’s lust, who cannot even see her little son.

When the Stranger frees her, killing five of Rojo’s men and smashing up the place, it’s to provoke the Mexicans into thinking the Baxters are behind it. But when he sends the re-united family off with a wad of cash that looks to be at least a substantial proportion of the money he’s already collected from both sides. And later, wen he learns Silvanito has been captured by the Rojos and is being tortured for the Stranger’s whereabouts, he immediately appears to take them down.

Yes, he was more or less recovered, and he was going to do it anyway, but placing it in the context of Silvanito’s plight borrows back a large part of the classic Western hero’s altruism. If the Stranger is an anti-hero, as Eastwood relished being, the end of A Fistful of Dollars goes some way to re-wrapping him in the trappings of Shane and his kind.

Especially as his departure is empty-handed, the gold forgotten.

It doesn’t stop the film from being a taut thriller, if a frequently slow-moving one. But it’s slowness is a burning one, and Eastwood draws and holds the eye at every moment. Yes, it’s only a waymarker for the more bloody and more realistic westerms to come – over fifty men, and one woman are shot in this film and the only one who bleeds is Esteban Rojo, shot in the head: the only other blood spilled comes from the Stranger and Silvanito, and that’s from being beaten up – and yes, it blurs its severe tone by the end, and yes, it’s made on the cheap and you can tell, but it’s nevertheless a classic, and a game-changer. And, like the prospect of Casablanca with Ronnie Reagan as Rick, the film is unthinkable with Henry Fonda or Charles Bronson in the lead role, both of whom turned it down, as did James Coburn, who would have been good.

According to Wikipedia, Eastwood was tenth choice for the part, and benefitted from a recommendation but ninth choice Richard Harrison, who claims his turning the role down was his greatest contribution to Cinema by passing it on to Eastwood. You look at Eastwood and his career, and the sheer longevity of his time in the spotlight and you imagine that if it hadn’t been this, something else would have happened to break him world-wide, but that isn’t always the case. Some things can only happen under a precise and unforeseeable set of circumstances: Harrison takes the part, or Fonda, Bronson, Coburn or any of the others  and one day there’s a three line obituary mentioning the death of an actor who once played Rowdy Yates, second star in a long-running TV western.

Film 2020: Volver

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Film 2020: Inside Out

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Film 2020: Lost in Translation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Film 2019: Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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