My French Film Festival has often included an animated feature in its programme and this year it is Calamity which offers something slightly different to Josep (France 2020) and The Swallows of Kabul (France-Luxembourg 2019) in previous years. First it has a different drawn style with bold colours and strong lines but little detail in the background or characters, though it has plenty of energy. Second it is arguably a film for all ages with a mythical storyline rather than the political context of the earlier films. The film has had a theatrical release in France and Japan as well as some other European countries but in the UK it has gone straight to digital download and is widely available on streamers – more on this later.
It took me a while to make the direct connection between Martha, the hero of the story, and the real ‘Calamity Jane’, mainly because I didn’t know about the historical Martha Jane Cannary. The film, directed by Rémi Chayé and co-written by Chayé with Fabrice de Costil and Sandra Tosello, does not set out to be an accurate partial biopic but the broad idea of the story fits the mythologising of her life that Cannary herself embellished. We meet a young teenage Martha on a wagon train in 1863 with her father and siblings. They are a relatively poor family compared to some of the other travellers. The wagon train is led by a rather strict ‘elder’ of the community, whose teenage son Ethan becomes something of a tormentor of Martha. I recognised some of the conventions in representing the wagon train crossing the plains and the mountain ranges from classic Hollywood films such as John Ford’s Wagon Master from 1950. Martha’s train doesn’t have a professional guide or ‘wagon master’ and that means that the narrative develops partly because of the mistakes the leader makes and accidents that befall the wagons. Several scenes reminded me of Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff (US 2010) – but that film framed the Western landscape in Academy ratio. Calamity offers us a CinemaScope view of the landscape which references Westerns from 1954 onwards.
The plot sees Martha leaving the wagon train in an attempt to clear her name after an incident which also sees her changing into trousers rather than a skirt and eventually cutting her hair. After learning to ride and lasso horses and cattle, her adventures see her being taken to be a boy. (This reminded me of Maggie Greenwald’s 1993 Western, The Ballad of Little Jo.) Many wagon trains suffered disasters and lives were lost, especially on the Oregon trail but this narrative has a happy ending, making it suitable family entertainment. There was a moment (in a mine) when I thought it was going to become frightening but the danger was quickly overcome. One of the main features of the film is its fast pacing with frequent actions. It’s a relatively short feature of around 80 minutes plus end credits. In addition there is a lively mountain music/bluegrass score by the Argentinian composer Florencia Di Concilio and the soundtrack can be sampled on YouTube. Martha meets various characters on her travels including another renegade character, a young man not that much older than herself. At one point Martha meets a trio of trappers who I think are Native Americans but otherwise the use of colour and the drawing techniques do not necessarily attempt to denote ethnicity. It is worth remembering that the date is given as 1863, before the end of the Civil War and the beginning of the migration of freed slaves across the Missouri.
I enjoyed the film which I think demonstrates strong story-telling. The film seems to have gone down well with audiences and has won prizes, including at the Annecy International Animation Festival. I’m not an expert on animation and I’m not sure I appreciate the visual style as much as some of the animation experts. I’m also not sure that I find the rebellion of a young girl fighting against gender norms to be such a novel experience as some reviewers – in some ways Martha seems like a Miyazaki hero (and what I presume Disney has been trying to achieve more recently). But if the film works to inspire young women that’s great. I think the version of the film released in Japan has a Japanese dub but one of the few English language reviewers of this film bemoans the fact that there is no English dub – and that this will restrict and possibly exclude entirely the young audiences it might otherwise find. In industry terms I think that is a fair comment. In most European countries that regularly subtitle foreign language films, provision is usually made to dub animated films with children as a target audience into the local language. On the other hand this is not a dialogue heavy film and I think young audiences will probably be able to follow the English subtitles. I discovered that the film has been available for some time on BFI Player (subscribers only) and that it is now also available on Google and YouTube to stream. The Amazon and Apple streams may be linked to BFI Player subscription offer which ends soon. The trailer below has English subs. If you have a MUBI subscription, I’ve discovered that Rémi Chayé’s previous film Long Way North (France-Denmark 2015) is available to stream currently.
The Magnet is an unusual film from Ealing Studios. I don’t remember coming across the film properly until I read that it used a great deal of location footage of Merseyside. Thanks to Talking Pictures TV, increasingly the TV channel of choice for the discerning audience in the UK since the lockdown began, I was able to watch it soon after having started a ‘Liverpool films‘ page on this blog. As it turns out, the film is partly set in New Brighton and Wallasey Village (?) but there are Liverpool sequences as well and the photography by Lionel Banes is a very good reason to watch the film.
In genre terms The Magnet is something of a hybrid. It is a story from a child’s perspective that is part adventure, part comedy and part a kind of moral tale. The original story was by one of the best-known Ealing writers, T.E.B. (Tibby) Clarke and it was directed by Charles Frend. The most obvious reference is to Hue and Cry (1947) written by Clarke about boys whose environment is the bombsites of Central London around St. Pauls and who become investigators of a crime because of their love for comic book adventures. In The Magnet the location has shifted to Merseyside and the focus is a single boy, although he does interact with others. As far as director Frend’s background was concerned he’d been responsible for A Run For Your Money in 1949, a comedy about two Welsh miners in London having misadventures. But Frend had earlier been responsible for The Lives of Joanna Godden (1947), a period drama, but one using location photography to capture the unique environment of Romney Marsh. Finally, we might link the film to the serious drama of the Ealing problem picture/family melodrama Mandy (1952) in which a young hearing-impaired girl and her mother respond to a specialist teacher with new ideas played by Jack Hawkins. It may seem likely that with these kinds of possible connections, The Magnet should turn out to be a confused mess. I can only say that I enjoyed the film and that some discerning audiences have also done so – though many of them might have been looking specifically for a ‘Merseyside story’. The scholarly chronicler of Ealing, Charles Barr in his Ealing Studios book dismisses the film in a paragraph and concludes: “The magnet is a toy at the centre of an elaborate whimsical plot which resists economical summary and does not merit a full one”. Not for the first time, I find myself disagreeing with Barr. The film has flaws certainly, but it is too interesting in what it is attempting to do to dismiss it in this way.
Johnny Brent (played by William Fox, later to become well-known as James Fox) is a 10 year-old schoolboy in a middle-class part of Wallasey on the Wirral. His father (Stephen Murray) is a psychiatrist with a practice in Liverpool and his mother (Kay Walsh) is what was then referred to as a ‘housewife’. Johnny’s (private boarding) school has had a scarlet fever scare and the boys are at home in quarantine before they go back to Kirkby for the last three weeks of term. Johnny is a bright and lively boy with a sense of mischief and has no doubt been frustrated by his quarantine experience. He acquires a large magnet by questionable means and though he enjoys using it, he feels guilty about how he got it. He starts seeing police officers everywhere. He ends up ‘donating’ the magnet to a man who is building a mock up of an iron lung for a campaign to raise money to buy such equipment for a local hospital. Harper, the campaigner, (Meredith Edwards) later decides to use the story of Johnny’s ‘donation’ as part of his public appeal, embellishing the story of the poor boy who gives up his magnet without leaving his name. His funding campaign goes very well and Johnny becomes an interesting mysterious figure for the local newspaper. While Johnny feels guilty about what he has done, he can’t tell his parents and becomes anxious about the mystery of his identity. He is further upset when he overhears something that might mean he has caused the death of another boy. His father the psychiatrist diagnoses a condition that is fanciful. His mother is much more sensible. When, by accident, Johnny is spotted by Harper, he runs away and a chase ensues taking Johnny to parts of Liverpool he doesn’t know and where he meets a gang of boys his own age. With this gang he will have a further series of adventures which will end with an act of bravery that will complete the circle and allow Johnny to be ‘redeemed’ in a generally happy ending.
This is Barr’s ‘whimsical plot’. What is interesting is not so much the mechanics of the plot, though it does allow the viewer to enjoy a many of the local sights. The beach, the pier, the amusement arcade and open air baths in New Brighton, the Mersey ferry, the Pierhead and the overhead railway, the docks and the Anglican cathedral are all in evidence (and many, especially in New Brighton, now no more). It’s not the plot but the way that Clarke’s script attempts to use the concerns of the period that I’m interested in. There are jokes about ration cards and the hospital is not yet part of the new NHS. Scarlet fever and polio were still dangerous diseases and there were outbreaks of both in the 1940s and up to the 1960s. Iron lungs were expensive (though cheaper designs appeared in the 1950s). The first ‘auction’ of the magnet for the campaign takes place at a bathing beauty contest, a particularly popular seaside event in the 1950s (see also The Entertainer in 1960). The narrative is from the child’s point of view and at times it made me think of various children’s films, including possibly those of the Children’s Film Foundation. It’s not that unusual for an imaginative boy to become anxious and to see police officers everywhere and think that they are looking for him (and there were many more ‘bobbies on the beat’ in 1950). On the other hand, some of the visual gags are feeble by modern standards and Stephen Murray seems miscast as Johnny’s father. The script presents him as pompous and generally attacks his ideas about psychiatry. The strongest part of the film is the last section when Johnny finds himself by the cathedral with a group of local lads. These are non-professionals and they have a sense of ‘authenticity’ about them. One has Chinese heritage (the cathedral isn’t too far away from Liverpool’s Chinatown). The boys also have familiar forms of Liverpudlian speech. But there is still a lingering sense of ‘Ealing on location’. Most of Ealing’s films seem to have a London base or they are set in part of the UK where there is a sense of the romantic/fantastical. The location work in The Magnet is as cleverly used as in Pool of London made around the London Docks at roughly the same time. I wonder what made them choose Merseyside for The Magnet? And was there any connection to the production of Waterfront which saw another Rank film, based at Pinewood, also shooting on location in Liverpool around the same time?
Lionel Banes is an Ealing cinematographer I hadn’t noticed before. He is credited as ‘FRPS’ rather than ‘BSC’ and I had to do some digging to find out more. The Magnet was actually his fourth Ealing picture as DoP and earlier he had shot Passport to Pimlico (1949). He had in fact been in the business for a long time by then, originally joining Gainsborough at Islington in 1930 as a ‘photographer’. He worked his way through the apprentice roles and became an expert in special photographic effects. He joined Ealing to work on Next of Kin (1942) and for several years worked as an operator, second unit cinematographer and model work specialist. The link above is to four oral history files about his career. My view is that Ealing employed some of the best creative cinematographers and camera crews anywhere in the world in the late 1940s/early 50s. The Magnet is only 79 minutes and I think it is certainly worth watching for the representation of Merseyside and for its perfectly serviceable narrative about a 10 year-old. (See where the film was shot on Reelstreets.) Contemporary critics thought it was too ‘moralistic’, but it didn’t bother me in that way. My only real gripe is that it would have worked better if Jonny had been lower middle-class rather than middle-class. I think the father’s role could have been written differently too. It struck me that Johnny could have been a young John Lennon living in his Aunt’s house.
Here’s a clip from the scene near the Anglican Cathedral:
If I had such a list I could now tick off Kyrgyzstan as another country from which I’ve seen a film. It’s an affecting coming-of-age drama where Jekshen (Temirlan Asankadyrov) has to deal with an alcoholic dad and a mum who’s found love elsewhere. Co-writer (with Ernest Abdyjaparov) and director Mirlan Abdykalykov marshals his cast of non professionals well though most of the interest derives from the novelty of seeing a place hitherto outside my knowledge.
The most striking aspect is the way children are bullied, by teachers, into bringing money to pay for such things as the school roof. I’m not judging as no doubt the economics of the country necessitate parental contribution; though I suspect, as in most places, there are ‘rich bastards’ who look after themselves. The film, however, doesn’t articulate the inequalities but focuses on Jekshen who, fortunately, is a good runner and a local tradition of combining a naming ceremony for a baby with a race, for which there is a prize, means he has the opportunity to get some cash independently of his pathetic dad.
The finale, inevitably, is a race for a big prize and the ending is nicely ambiguous.
I also saw two films in the ‘Are We There Yet?’ free screenings of dystopian films, Children of Men and District 9. Unfortunately the current crisis caused by the Coronavirus suggests we are there, though the understandable (in most countries except the UK and US) reaction to this does raise the question why governments aren’t treating the climate catastrophe as an emergency as well. Hopefully we won’t end up in a dystopia as portrayed by zombie movies though the supermarket shelves empty (in the UK) of bog rolls and much else does suggest some degree of irrationality amongst the panic buyers. Indeed I heard one woman exclaim, “I’m buying things I don’t need!”
Children of Men remains a great film; the dystopian focus is mainly on the treatment of migrants so its message is even more potent 14 years on. District 9, however, remains a disappointment. The set-up, degenerate aliens marooned in South Africa, is quite brilliant but the articulation of the narrative, with cliche-driven action, still fails to engage me, although the film was a worldwide hit.
My first visit to the Glasgow festival was a hit too. The brief intro given to most films was welcome and the closeness of the venues meant it was easy to get to the screenings on time even if the Cineworld cinema used was the top floor of a skyscraper.
This charming and enjoyable film is difficult to categorise. It is a potential family melodrama that evolves into a story about its central character Hana, a girl of 11 or 12. Hana’s story has elements of comedy and drama and also perhaps a gentle critique of our expectations of family life. With its bright colours and music it also made me think of anime and manga and I think that it offers something distinctively Korean or Japanese.
As the narrative begins, Hana is being elected as the ‘Best Classmate’ at the end of Summer Term. She rushes home full of energy and enthusiasm but is soon deflated by her parents’ squabbles and her older brother’s indifference. Strangely, the ‘Best Classmate’ seems to have no friends in her home district – or perhaps they are away for the summer? But one day she finds a younger girl, 7 year-old Yoo-jin, who appears to be lost in a supermarket. Searching for the girl’s parents, Hana finds instead Yoo-mi, the girl’s 9 year-old sister. Gradually Hana will be drawn into the sister’s world as they are mostly alone in a flat while their parents are working on a summer job several miles away. It’s the perfect opportunity for Hana to practice all the nurturing skills she isn’t allowed to carry out at home. The ‘House of Us’ turns out to be a house made by the three girls out of cardboard waste as just one of several craft-based activities. Hana becomes more like a mother than an older sister, revelling in the chance to cook.
Hana’s solution for her own disjointed family is for the four of them to go on a ‘family trip’. But is this likely to happen? An adventure with the two younger girls sounds more like a possibility. The film is in effect narrated by Hana. It’s a child’s perspective on a world she doesn’t totally understand and isn’t yet able to come to terms with. This means that writer-director Yoon Ga-eun’s film shifts between a child’s adventure and an adult family drama, as we learn more about both Hana and her ‘two families’. The film is the second feature by the director to look at the emotional lives of young girls, the first being The World of Us in 2016. The database of the Korean Film Council reveals that the film was released on 147 screens in South Korea, drawing 52,000 admissions and $353,000 to date at the box office.
There are five Korean films in the festival and I think it’s good that we get to see films like this. South Korea is a developed film culture which enables intelligent and enjoyable films like this to get a wide-ish release. I think a similar film would struggle to get such a release in the UK. But I think quite a few parents would like to share a film like this with their children. The film ultimately stands or falls on the performance of Kim Na-yeon as Hana and I think she does an excellent job. My only concern was the Korean diet on display. Hana has to produce a cookbook as a school holiday project and her only recipes seem to include meat, kimchi and far too many eggs and ketchup!