TBT – The Borrowers (1997)

anniversary, British, film, films, fucking creepy, Jim Broadbent, John Goodman, review

There is something so wonderfully British about The Borrowers by Mary Norton. A small family who survive by, let’s be honest, stealing bits and bobs from the humans whose house they inhabit. Norton wrote a beloved series of books about thieves and managed to make it seem perfectly reasonable. It might have something to do with the fact that she finally answers the question regarding all of those random objects that go missing without a trace in your house. Ever put down a paperclip or something and gone back to find it not there anymore? It’s alright, a Borrower probably just used it to make some sort of climbing device. I don’t remember reading the books as a child but I do remember the BBC television series starring Ian Holm and Penelope Wilton. That was definitely a British classic and something I was reminded of in my third year of university whilst studying a children’s literature course. That series was the second of two television adaptions of Mary Norton’s works but it wasn’t until 1997 that these tiny people made their way onto the big screen. Whilst writing my review of The Sense of an Ending I was trying to think back to the first time I would probably have seen Jim Broadbent acting in anything. I can’t remember for sure but I’d bet The Borrowers would definitely be one of them.

In December this year, The Borrowers will celebrate it’s 20th anniversary. This makes me feel old. I’m not sure that I remember going to the cinema to see it but I do know that I watched it when I was young. It’s also the kind of film that is shown regularly during holidays on the BBC so children would have something to distract themselves with. I tend to look back on it with the same fondness that I nostalgically have for anything from my youth but, really, I don’t know how much I really liked this film. I mean, there was never anything wrong with it but it was certainly a stark contrast to the calm and gentle television series I remembered from 1992. The Borrowers took the characters from Mary Norton’s popular series of books and gave them the Hollywood treatment. Well, kind of. We don’t actually have to sit through a film where the Clock family speak with American accents and everything has been transported to an apartment in New York or anything. But, this is a big, brash and action-packed adventure.

It follows a similar enough structure to the novel but places the Clock family in far more perilous situations. In Mr and Mrs Lenders’ minds, things going missing is an everyday occurrence but their son, Peter, believes there is something in their house taking their stuff. We know he’s right, of course, because there is a family of Borrowers living under his floorboards. Head of the family, Pod (Jim Broadbent) is keen to teach his young children Arriety (Flora Newbigin) and Peagreen (Tom Felton) about the ways of borrowing and how to avoid being seen by humans; the dreaded Borrower squishing Beans. Their mother, Homily (Celia Imrie) has doubts about whether they are ready, which seem to be well-founded after Arriety manages to get herself locked in a freezer. Unwilling to live a life hiding under the floorboard, Arriety yearns for adventure and, on a nighttime stroll, manages to be spotted by Peter. Instead of squishing the tiny being, Peter befriends Arriety against her father’s wishes. When an evil lawyer (John Goodman) attempts to steal their home, Peter and the Clock family must work together to see the rightful owners get their property back.

The Borrowers is your basic good vs evil plot where both sides are trying to get their hands on something: in this case a will. There isn’t a great deal going on in terms of narrative but there is certainly enough action squeezed in to make it feel worthwhile. Whilst searching for the document, evil lawyer, Ocious Potter, discovers Arriety and Peagreen and swiftly calls in an exterminator. This leads to a frantic cat and mouse chase where the two humans seek to destroy the tiny children. There’s a lot of children’s movie violence on display here where nobody really gets hurt but the threat is clear. There’s potential gassing, electrocution, drowning, burning, falling and much more besides. Watching it now, it seems quite vicious for a kid’s movie but, I guess, 90s children like myself must have been made of sturdier stuff. The film keeps quite a good pace and is always moving from one big set piece to another. It is constantly entertaining.

I can’t necessarily say the film has aged well over 20 years but, for the most part, the special effects hold up. It’s one of those films that has a lot in there but it never really dominates. It is the overly CGI’d stuff that ages the worst and, thankfully, most of this is worked around using camera trickery. What is really wonderful about this film, though, is how charming it is. It may have been amped up for cinema but there is still a great sense of Britishness here. The films location is, when you really look into it, kind of confusing but, thanks to the set design, it doesn’t matter. This all just exists in a weird reality where Americans and English people live without any question as to where or when they are. This is just a storybook town where logic doesn’t matter at all. It also boasts an incredible, if truly 90s, cast. Broadbent and Imrie are wonderful as the Clock parents and, I must say, it never gets old seeing a very young Draco Malfoy get trapped in a milk bottle. Then you have cameos from the likes of Mark Williams, Hugh Laurie and Ruby Wax. There’s just something so lovely about this film that stays true to the original source whilst also giving a new generation of children the loud noises and danger they expected.

Tuesday’s Reviews – The Sense of an Ending (2017)

books, British, film, films, fucking sweet, fucking tragic, Jim Broadbent, Man Booker, meh, reviews

Despite all of my best efforts I am still without a computer of my own. Not, I would like to point out, because of my limited skills but because of the postal service. I am awaiting an important component to arrive before I attempt to revive my busted laptop. So, I’m once again writing today’s post fairly quickly during an interval in which I have access to the internet outside of my phone. Which is a shame because I’ve wanted to see this film for ages. The Julian Barnes novel it was adapted from sat on my bookshelf, unread, for years. As winners of the Man Booker Prize go, it’s a pretty small book but I just couldn’t bring myself to read it. Until a few years ago when I did and promptly realised that I probably should have waited for a bit longer. It was a great book, don’t get me wrong, but I think it deserved a better reader. It was one of those books that really takes you to the heart of a character and explore’s the idea that our individual history’s will always be, in some respects, unreliable. I definitely want to read it again because Barnes is a great writer and it’s such a complex but readable story. So, when I discovered it was being turned into a film starring the fabulous Jim Broadbent I knew it was going to be a must see for this year.

The other week, as I was going to sleep, it suddenly crossed my mind that, one day, Judi Dench is going to die. I mean it’s an inevitability but it was an incredibly sad thought that kept me up a good few hours. I never really thought of myself as being terribly attached to Judi Dench but this nighttime realisation really hit me. She’s both a brilliant actor and, from what I can tell, an incredibly lovely human being. I try not to get too caught up in the social media frenzy of melodrama when news hits of a the death of a famous person but I would be genuinely saddened by this. I only mention this because, upon watching The Sense of an Ending, I felt the very same thing about Jim Broadbent. He’s the kind of actor that turns up in things that you wouldn’t really expect and, as such, has probably been a big part of my cultural upbringing. Having the ability to turn his hand to anything has meant he has been seen in some of my favourite films and television series. Without wishing to sound like an absolute dickhead, a world without Jim Broadbent would be a sadder one.

It is Broadbent, after all, that makes the film adaptation of The Sense of an Ending so compelling to watch. As is often the case with book to film manoeuvres, there is a lot that has been lost in translation. The film really only scrapes the surface of the novel and neatens everything off into a pleasant Hollywood ending. It never quite reaches the dizzying heights that Barnes managed to. Yet, thanks to Broadbent’s turn as Tony Webster, the film is perfectly watchable and quite enjoyable. The role is ideal for the actor and he gets to play every old man stereotype perfectly whilst also exploring the deeper history that is hidden away. This isn’t the jolly old gent that has become the Broadbent staple of the past few years. Tony is a curmudgeonly man who tends to put his own interests first. He’s a little pompous and rude but has a deep love for his daughter (Michelle Dockery) and ex-wife (Harriet Walter). He is content to live his life as he always has until a blast from his past forces him to review his version of history.

When the mother of his first love dies she leaves him something in her will. Whilst this is confusing enough, matters are further complicated when his ex-girlfriend (Charlotte Rampling) refuses to hand over the diary. It was written by Tony’s best friend from school Adrian (Joe Alwyn) who committed suicide whilst he was at university. Adrian, Tony and Veronica had been part of a love triangle of sorts after Tony introduced his friend to his lover. Instead of reacting in the understanding way that he’d always allowed himself to remember, Veronica reintroduces Tony to the awful truth regarding the end of their friendship. A venomous letter, written in the heat of the moment, not only destroyed the relationship of the young men but set about a series of events that had a monumental affect on many people’s lives. Tony must come face-to-face with this truth and, as a result, come to terms with the man he really is.

The Sense of an Ending is, at its most basic, a story about how history is recorded. We are told history is written by the victors to highlight their heroism but, by that same token, it must also be written by the bad guys who wish to diminish their role in proceedings. Once Veronica comes back into his life Tony comes to understand that the good guy he thought he was was merely a whitewashed version he allowed himself to remember. I really enjoyed this film but I was a fan of the book. It isn’t the greatest of adaptations so I can see that some people might not see the appeal. The narrative that takes us back to Tony and Adrian’s youth are wonderful and vivacious scenes that work well with the slower insights into contemporary London. Full of their references to Dylan Thomas and a youthful hunger to learn and impress people with their knowledge. However, as the film plods on the message wears a little thinner and the final reveal doesn’t quite have the same impact as the book. It all feels a little flat by the end.

That’s not to say that it isn’t perfectly enjoyable in its own right. Jim Broadbent and co are all remarkable in their roles and bring the complexity of each relationship to light. The story has its absorbing moments and themes that really resonate through the whole narrative. However, for a film all about first love there is a lack of passion on show. It’s as is the film didn’t really know what ending it was supposed to be showcasing and everything got a bit muddled. There is a sense of a grandeur here that only a film adapted from such a critically acclaimed novel really has. It never allows itself to ease into the story or the characters and is constantly aware of everything it has to do. It’s a shame because, really, the performances are all rather enjoyable and Broadbent carries the whole thing off remarkably.

TBT – Arthur Christmas (2011)

animation, Bill Nighy, Christmas, fucking beautiful, fucking funny, fucking sweet, James McAvoy, Jim Broadbent, TBT

On Tuesday I finally saw Rogue One and I have been obsessed ever since. It’s just put me in such a Star Wars state of mind that I’m getting all impatient for the release of Episode 8 next Christmas. So instead of writing this review I’ve spent the evening watching random videos and reading random articles all about people still trying to guess who Rey’s parents are. I don’t really want to waste too much time on conspiracy theories but, I will say, I think it would be better for the narrative structure of the whole 9 films if she were a Skywalker rather than a Kenobi. I know time wise she could just as easily be Obi Wan’s granddaughter but it would just feel wrong if she was from the bloodline. After all, Star Wars have always been the story of Anakin Skywalker and his children. So it makes sense for the next 3 to be about his grandchildren. Rey is being set up as the main hero of the piece so it would be a weird change to have her come from an unconnected family line. Yes Obi Wan had a huge part to play in Anakin’s story but it was never his story. He merely played a supporting part. Still, if it is revealed that Luke is her father then it would lack a great deal of shock. Nothing compared to the revelation that Darth Vader was Luke’s dad. So, despite what Daisy Ridley and the rest of the internet is saying, nobody is going to know for sure until December 2017 or beyond. Which is why I’m going to get back to the job at hand and review a Christmas film.

I remember quite wanting to see Arthur Christmas when it came out at the cinema because the premise sounded interesting. Santa has accidentally missed a child so it’s up to his clumsy son, Arthur, to deliver the present before Christmas morning. It sounded simple, fun and, ultimately heartwarming. I never got round to seeing it when it was released and, in the years that followed, only managed to see bits of it when it was shown on TV. So I decided, with it’s festive arrival on Netflix, that it was high time I watched the whole damn thing. After all, what could get me more in the mood for Christmas than an animated film about Santa made by Aardman Animations?

Turns out the plot of Arthur Christmas is slightly more complicated than I’d first anticipated. Alongside the story of Arthur trying to save a child’s Christmas, we have to contend with an added storyline of the line of concession and an argument concerning modernisation vs tradition and mythology. Santa (Jim Broadbent) delivers his presents on Christmas Eve thanks to his son, Steve’s, (Hugh Laurie) technological overhaul of the old system. Instead of an old man in a red suit with a sleigh, Santa is helped by a huge team of ninja elves with GPS tracking and gadgets that would make James Bond jealous. The Christmas Eve delivery runs with militaristic efficiency except for the fact that one present is missed.  Both Santa and Steve are willing to let this little indiscretion slide but the youngest member of the Claus clan, Arthur (James McAvoy), won’t stop until the young girl gets her bike. He set off with his grandfather (Bill Nighy) who is desperate to prove that the old way is the best.

It’s not the simplistic affair that I’d originally thought and, whilst not exactly complex, suits a slightly older audience. There’s a lot of stuff about nostalgia and identity that would go above the heads of very young audiences. Still, there is enough goofy and silly stunts for all ages to be amused. Arthur Christmas manages to do what most recent Christmas films haven’t and that’s feel fresh. It takes the tired image of Santa Claus and places him into a modern world. It answers the question “how does Santa make it to every child in one night” without simply relying on “magic”. There is a lot to be exited about in this film and, as you’d expect from Aardman, there are plenty of visual gags alongside the jokes in the script.

It’s just what you want at Christmas: it’s light entertainment who’s ultimate goal is to fill you with festive cheer. It gives us the message that, even in this modern world, we should still just take the time to view Christmas with the same joy and wonderment that we did as a child. It could have ended up being nothing but a forgettable tale but is actually well-crafted and well made. The animation is wonderful, as always, and the narrative has plenty to offer. My only criticism is the lack of any real substance within the main story but the film is packed so full of subplots and gags that it doesn’t really matter. It may seem unfair but you tend to judge Christmas films differently to other films. The main payoff being the amount of Christmas cheer you feel as the credits role. Arthur Christmas was brimming with good tidings and joy that I’d say it was a major success and I wish I’d seen the whole thing sooner.

Cloud Atlas (2012)

Ben Wishaw, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, meh, review, Tom Hanks

Writing this blog only makes me realise just how little I’ve read of contemporary writers and I end up feeling like the biggest failure of a Literature graduate. Whilst I’m sat here with an insane amount of knowledge about novels of sensibility, I can’t even remember the last Man Booker Prize shortlisted novel I read. Thanks to some quick Wikipedia-ing I’ve discovered that it was the 2007 shortlisted On Chesil Beach(which is only because I adore Ian McEwan). I own a lot of the novels but just haven’t got round to reading them yet (not even The Sense of An Ending which is fucking tiny). I’m so ashamed. Given this fact, it will come as no shock to you that I have yet to read David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. However, I have enough of an awareness of the basic details surrounding its structure and content to understand why it was referred to as one the many, so-called, “unfilmable” novels. So it was always going to be a massive undertaking for Tom Tykwer and the Wachowski’s to create something worthy of the Richard and Judy Award winning novel.

It’s fairly difficult to summarise the plot of Cloud Atlas as the narrative is made up of several plotlines set across six different time periods. These short tales move us from the South Pacific in 1849, to the UK in the 1930s, followed by a quick stop in San Francisco in the 70s, then modern day England before finishing us off with two glimpses into the near future. The two directing teams divided these six narratives between themselves with the Wachowski’s taking the two futuristic plots and the earliest one; leaving Tykwer to work with the three ‘modern’ storylines. The effect of this split is interesting but a little jarring thanks to the contrast in styles. The Wachowski’s bring their usual focus on visuals and style which often feels in conflict with Tykwer’s championing of character and drama.
Of all the sections, it is the vision of the Korean future that is the most disappointing and that’s even before you consider implications of the awkward feeling you get from seeing make-up required to make British and American actors look more Korean. Taking inspiration from classic science-fiction such as Blade Runner, this CGI backdrop and uninspiring revolution plot have less humanity and emotion than the clone-workers it depicts.  
In fact, both of the later storylines fall short of their potential and the tale of a post-Fall tribe does get fairly tedious; despite seemingly being placed in the role of primary tale. No time is given to introducing the main characters and exploring their motivations. We see Zachry (Tom Hanks) conversing with an invisible-to-everyone-else figure but this is just left undeveloped. Unlike the Neo-Seoul section, where you could comfort yourself that time that could have been spent on character development was put into CGI, the post-Fall tribe has very little going for it expect an underused group of cannibals.
It is the 1936 narrative that is the most engaging: following a young musician (Ben Whishaw) as he attempts to make a name for himself. He does this by taking a job as … to struggling composer (Jim Broadbent). Whishaw and Broadbent are both incredible performers and really sell their roles as tortured artist and desperate wash-up.
Broadbent is next seen in the modern day tale included for a bit of light relief. Taking the tone and look of a classic Ealing comedy, publisher Timothy Cavendish finds himself on the run from a group of angry Irish men. Going to his brother (Tom Hanks) for help, he is double-crossed and shut away in a nursing home. I think Tykwer handles this section well enough but, as with the rest of the vignettes, there is an undeniable sense that everything we are watching is just aimless.
This is not a film to promote developed story or character but a film that celebrates wigs, prosthetics and make-up. In order to project the themes of destiny and soul mates, the fairly small main cast have been placed in multiple roles throughout the film. It is an interesting concept but there are some weak points within the cast that means, no matter how visually different they appear, many performers just don’t convince as their various personas. Tom Hanks, for example, plays a role in all six stories but it is almost impossible to see anyone other than Tom Hanks on screen. Whether he is covered with facial hair; wearing 70s glasses and a turtle neck; sporting a shaved head, goatee and diamond earring; or covered in futuristic tattoos, you can still only see Tom Hanks playing dress-up. Perhaps this is just one of the inevitable problems that would arise in such an ambitious mission.
After all, adapting David Mitchell’s literary masterpiece was never going to be an easy task and certain sacrifices and changes were going to have to be made to make it work on screen. The most obvious these can be seen within the overall structure and the way the different strands flow into one another. From what I can tell with my limited knowledge, one of the reasons that Cloud Atlas worked so well as a novel was down to its structure. The narrative set furthest into the future acted as the central piece and the other stories fell into two halves on either side of it. This means that each narrative leads into the next with the aid of discovered written accounts of the events. This helps to highlight one of Mitchell’s central themes: the interconnectivity that can occur through literature.
The directors chose to have the individual stories cutting back and forth seemingly at random. I have to admit that this works at certain points because it becomes even more obvious where events are mirrored in each story. However, this lack of definition ultimately just has the effect of making the linear structure much more confusing. You don’t stick with one plotline long enough to really get to grips with the events taking place. There is never enough time to get to know the characters and, therefore, connect with them. Any relationship or romantic feeling that develops just feels superficial because there is no time to explore it. Cloud Atlas relies on ambiguity to keep the plots moving and it is difficult to fully connect with a single strand let alone the whole tapestry. The endless cutting back and forth is, in a sense, blinding and the overall impact of each story is lessened. It just seems like a waste.
It was always going to be a fairly epic undertaking in adapting this novel but getting rid of the rigid structure has only made it more difficult. I imagine the decision was made because someone important decided that an audience wouldn’t be able to keep up with what was going on if there was any length of time between the start and conclusion of each tale. It is a ridiculous decision that, rather than making the film more accessible, often makes it harder to take in everything that is happening. Filmmakers need to stop believing that the majority of audiences are slobbering idiots who can’t follow a storyline unless their attention is constantly being grabbed by dramatic events and pretty colours.
I applaud the film-makers for taking on this task and I have to say that Cloud Atlas is certainly not the worst film ever made. It is a solid attempt at making a complicated literary vision work as a live-action adaptation. There just isn’t enough finesse on show here. Having three different directors working on six separate storylines just makes the overall film appear disjointed and unsteady. It is something that would have worked better in a more episodic form instead of trying to cram so many themes, characters and scenarios into one 172 minute long film. Unfortunately, this production was never going to live up to its extremely high expectations or sense of self-importance. What we have is a film that talks about big game but, when it comes down to it, has a great deal less to offer.