An Ordinary Life – Ethel & Ernest

14 12 2016

ethel-and-ernest (Cloth Cat Animation - 2016)

What do you dream of? Do you dream of riding a Unicorn and battling the Troll King in the city of Colossus on the furthest edge of Saturn? If so, then you have misunderstood my question. When I ask what you dream of, I ask that in the meaning of, what do you foresee for yourself. Do you dream of a big mansion, lots of money, a gold-plated Rolls Royce and a pet Jaguar? That sounds like a pretty good dream for yourself and I wish you luck in your endeavors to achieve that, but is there anything wrong with a simpler life: a life that involves having your own house, a nice job, maybe a husband or wife, a nice little car and a kid to call your own? Well, given a recent example I recently discovered, I can see a lot of pleasantry in just living a nice long-lived ordinary life, seems quite nice.

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Released in 2016 by Cloth Cat Animation and Directed by Roger Mainwood; Ethel and Ernest is an animated adaptation of the Raymond Briggs graphic novel of the same name. Raymond Briggs is of course best known for his graphic novels including The Snowman, Father Christmas, Fungus the Bogeyman and When the Wind Blows, many of which have since been adapted further into films and TV shows. Ethel and Ernest follows the story of Briggs’s parents from when they began their courtship in the early 1920’s right up to their deaths in the 1970’s, along the way showing their incredible life through an ever-changing world, delivering their own experiences in some of history’s most notable moments.

ethel-and-ernest-book (Jonathan Cape - 1998)

The story begins with Ethel (Brenda Blethyn) working as a lady’s maid who over the period of a couple of days is spotted by a young man on a bike. After a few days the young man all nicely dressed arrives at Ethel’s work place and introduces himself as Ernest (Jim Broadbent). He invites her out on a date and after a few more dates, Ethel requests that she leaves her employ as a maid so that she may Marry Ernest. Her request is given, and the two marry, followed by getting a house together, and Ernest getting a job as a milkman. As time passes by, the two of them sit down into a normal living routine, with Ethel becoming a housewife and Ernest fascinated by the ever passing technological world, installs a radio and a cooker plus a few more home improvements to make it theirs. Outside of their lives, things are changing, Britain is on the brink of war with Germany, and people are out of work. While all this is going on, Ethel and Ernest conflict with one another due to their respective beliefs, with Ernest acknowledging his working class life, while Ethel believes that she is more middle class and up. Eventually Ethel is treated with the birth of a son they name Raymond (Luke Treadaway), but giving birth was a real strain on her and is told that it’s best that they don’t have another.

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Britain engages with Germany as World War 2 starts, and Raymond is sent to live with Aunty Flo (Gillian Hanna) and Aunty Betty (Pam Ferris) in the countryside as he is evacuated with thousands of other children. Broken hearted at home without Raymond in their lives, Ethel and Ernest plod on with Raymond taking another job as a fireman during the Blitz Bombings. The two of them erect both a Morrison and an Anderson bomb shelter, and are privileged with seeing Raymond in the countryside and have him home one weekend, although he and Ernest narrowly miss an attack from a Doodlebug. With the war over, the family returns to normal, with Raymond going to grammar school and Ernest seeing improvement in his work load, although the two cannot stop bickering with the election of a Labour government and Churchill being kicked out of office. As Raymond grows up, he begins to do things very different to his parents that they just don’t understand, such as his desire to go to Arts School, while his parents can’t see much of a job coming out of it. Raymond grows his hair out, although Ethel continues to press a comb onto him. Eventually Raymond meets a girl called Jean (Karyn Claydon), who unfortunately is not able to provide grandparents to Raymond’s parents. The two of them get a house in the countryside that Ethel considers to be a dump.

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As time passes by and the world steadily advances further, life for Ethel and Ernest begins to slow down. Ernest retires from his job as a milkman and Raymond gets a job as a teacher. Ethel and Ernest take in a more quiet life, but Ethel’s health begins to deteriorate, and as time passes by begins to forget things, even those closest to her. Eventually Ethel dies in hospital, leaving Ernest to fend for himself. After some time goes by, Ernest too dies. Back at his parents’ home; Raymond makes note of a tree in their garden, one he planted when he was just a boy.

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Ethel and Ernest is a rather pleasant film which at first does not really present itself as a film, more a sequence of short films spanning the life of two very ordinary people. At first it’s like an animated slide show, and one I felt presented the story of these two-bit by bit, maybe frame by frame or chapter by chapter. The film however is at this point just starting its engine, as when life settles down, the Drama begins. At first these are two gentle lovers just enjoying life as it can be, but now they face the prospect of actually having to live together, and what we discover is that they are two polar opposites. They share dreams and desires for the future but like many of the time cannot see how much life will change ahead of them, or how quickly it is enacted. While it is very pleasant though, the film is somewhat tragic, as it ends the only way life can, in the Death of these two people, and how their life affects those around them at that time. But in that though we are presented with a cold hard fact of the knowledge that life must come to an end and how important it is that we don’t waste it, it’s one chance in only one chance. The film though while ending like this however reminds us that even when these two people passed on, that in life, although maybe not absolutely perfect, they still lived an extraordinary life, one that was filled right to the brim. Maybe not the most glamorous or exciting, but definitely a positive life, and shows that no matter your standing, class or background, a good life can still be had.

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The film’s story I find is very similar to The Wind Rises, as though while in essence it’s just a story of the parents of Raymond Briggs, it also tells a very broad story of the growth of England from post World War One right through the tumultuous years of World War Two and the progression of life luxuries beyond that. It does this in a very unique way to. I have seen lots of documentaries in the past regarding what happened in World War 2, but most of these have taken the form of talking about the front line, the enemy, the Battle of Britain, the blitz, other countries and the evacuation of children; however I have not ever (I think) seen a documentary or presentation of the life lived by those in London during this time. I am not saying that said things have not been done before, but they do seem pretty rare. Here, this film really shows that with mentions of the Anderson Bomb Shelters and the like, to mentions of life for those working to keep London built and even the raids of Doodlebugs. It is a very nice way to tell a story but also presents information of what England was like that at that time.

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While all this is going on of course, we get a real glimpse of the lives of Ethel and Ernest. The film does have some great cast members and features some cameos from people at the time presented in their original format, but this film really does work to show us what these two were like by making them the front-runner of every scene. But while it may be an idyllic life for those of a similar situation, there is a minor level of conflict between the two. Ernest for example is very much a working class man. He works hard because he knows he has to and is good at his job. He loves Ethel a lot, and even uses his manual labour skills to good use in improving their lives in any way he can; he is very much a working class hero. Ethel meanwhile comes from a more upper class background, although this is only shown in what she used to do for a living. This background though very much impacts her way of thinking, and though while their lives appear very much in similar vain to that of the average working class family, she genuinely believes she is not Working Class. This conflict between the two remains throughout, and while although this causes tension between the two-way of thoughts, they are less hostile, more just ways of thinking. In reality they are two very different people and share no real commonality in belief. This continues further when Raymond grows up, starts acting more like a teenager, a rebel against the old-fashioned views and respects. This causes Ethel to look at her son differently as he changes like a changed world, growing his hair out, not looking for a normal ‘job’, going down a different route, not buying a ‘house’ and of course not being able to provide her with a grandchild. It really shows the change in respects over time as though back when they were young; Raymond’s choices would not have stood up to anyone, but now the world is more free it goes against those older respects and really delivers home in a very presentable and obvious way the difference between the old and young generations.

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Being based on the works of Raymond Briggs, the film strives to present its artwork and look in the same style as his book and his personal drawing style. The film looks very traditional in its animation, although shows some points where it nearly leaps off the page. It is 3D shaded but not flat 2D either. The animation is very fluid and very detailed, and within a few seconds really draws your attention in as it’s nice and clear but also very fun in presenting its information as well as world and characters. One thing thought that really stood out for me though was how it used 2 different styles of artwork to portray life and death. You see, when the film is playing, all the images are nice and colourful, nice and bright, as if to show their life and how easily they just jump off from the page. But then as the film continues, when it presents a moment of death, the style changes; while it still carries all other forms of life in the same style, death is a more static, 2D image, that is very detailed still, but the life is completely withdrawn, like they who they once were is gone and the body; like the drawing, has no life.

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Ethel and Ernest has an interesting use of music, as for the most part there is pretty much no soundtrack, but that is in to say that one has not really been provided, but not there is no music either. No, instead the film uses a lot of old-fashioned and well known pieces from respected composers of the time using popular music of the current time the story is in. One piece though that has sort of been used as a standing point of at least some form of a soundtrack is that of a piece by Paul McCartney called In the Blink of an Eye. I am not really all that a fan of McCartney, but this piece of music is a nicely fitting piece. It sounds very progressive in its tune and presents other animations to mind as they pop into your brain. It sounds very British and really helps to create a vision of the passage of time in British lands and fits nicely with the images of this film. It’s progressive but also retrospective and just nicely fits in there as when the credits roll on they show how beautiful a life it was for Ethel and Ernest and really how well it was lived.

Ethel and Ernest really is such a pleasant film. It tells a nice story of an average family, not an average family who happened to be spies or anything spectacular on an action like scale, just an ordinary family living a pretty ordinary life. It tells a story of the inner conflicts and opinions of married life, plus also tells a story of Britain and the changing of attitudes and respects with the passing of time. It is nicely animated showing stark contrasts between life and death, creating some really humorous moments and at the same time bringing to life and telling the real life biography of two amazing people. Ethel and Ernest is a real family drama and a really pleasant film to watch, easily a future classic, one that families can (and probably will) continue to enjoy watching with one another in years to come.

GENEPOOL





The Entire World Is Waiting For The Power Of Steam – Steamboy

16 11 2016

Steamboy (Sunrise - 2004)

In 2013, animation Director and co-founder of Studio Ghibli; Hayao Miyazaki created a film which he announced was going to be the last before he retired. The film was called The Wind Rises, and it was a film that followed a young man who dreamt of designing the ultimate aircraft, and so the story took us on a history of his young life, career, romantic relation, and a retrospective history of his country, eventually leading the young man to his pivotal moment designing the aircraft of his dreams. There is one slight issue however with the company he works for, being the ones to foot the bills; the only option is to design it to the benefit of a company contract, and at that time in Japan’s history the only contract work for airplane manufacturers (or at least those shown in the film) is to build them for the sake of war. So while the young man does get to design his dream plane, he has to come to the eventual realization of what the plane’s purpose is to be. It is a very interesting idea for a story, looking at great inventors, the things they do; but also what they have to do in order for them to be allowed to build such things!

The Wind Rises (Studio Ghibli - 2013)

Released in 2004 by Toho, produced by Sunrise and Directed by Katsuhiro Otomo; Steamboy is a Steampunk animated action film set in the UK and follows the adventure of a young inventor who has to come to terms with the realities of the world of inventions and of course save the day from threats very close to home. Touted at the time of release as being the most expensive Japanese animated film of all time, Steamboy took 10 years to produce, and is only the second major animated release for Otomo following his milestone film Akira in 1988.

Akira (Toho 1988)

In 1863 in Russian Alaska, inventor Lloyd Steam (Patrick Stewart) and his son Eddie (Alfred Molina) have discovered a pure mineral water, which they believe they can turn into a powerful steam based energy source. During an experiment however, everything goes wrong with Eddie being engulfed in freezing gases, but leaves a strange spherical object being created. Three years later, in Manchester England, great-grandson of Lloyd: Ray Steam (Anna Paquin), a young inventing prodigy receives a strange parcel containing the spherical object plus some designs relating to it. Two men then show up called Alfred (Mark Bramhall) and Jason (David S. Lee) claiming to be from something called the Foundation and who want the ball. Ray refuses to give it to them, and is surprised to see the arrival of his grandfather. Ray makes a run for it, and is eventually chased by a strange steam automotive vehicle, making his escape on his own Monocycle. The chase leads them onto the railway tracks, with the automotive being pushed into a river, and Ray being rescued by Robert Stephenson (Oliver Cotton) and his assistant David (Robin Atkin Downes). Things don’t last long however, as while the train is en route to London, Ray is kidnapped by the Foundation thanks to their Zeppelin.

Ray finds himself in a dining hall, and being introduced to members of the O’Hara Foundation which includes Scarlett O’Hara (Kari Wahlgren), the spoiled granddaughter of the foundation’s chairman, and Archibald Simon (Rick Zieff), a company executive. Ray then meets his father Eddie whose head has been greatly altered by the accident, now with only a few strands of hair and a helmet covering one half of his head, as well as other metal components all along his body. Ray and Scarlett are taken on a tour of the facility dubbed The Steam Castle by Eddie who says he wants to use it to enlighten mankind’s vision of science. Ray is recruited by his father to help finish it off, but when asked to help in assisting to turn off a valve, Ray finds his Grandfather trying to sabotage the whole thing. He tells Ray that the purpose of the castle and the O’Hara’s foundation is to sell weapons to Britain’s enemies at the Great Exhibition the following day and shows Ray evidence of this. The two eventually reach the core of the castle, and pry away a steam ball, one of three used to power the castle, but they are then surrounded. Ray makes an escape but Lloyd is recaptured. Ray manages to run into Robert Stephenson telling him about his father and the steam castle, and hands him the Ball thinking Stephenson can be trusted, but discovers that Stephenson’s motives are near the same; to build an army for the purpose of keeping Britain Great.

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At the Great Exhibition, the O’Hara foundation shows off their weapons to generals from around the world, exhibiting their steam-powered soldiers, miniature aircraft and submersible men. At this moment, Stephenson launches an attack on the foundation using his steam battle tanks. With the exhibition now a war zone, Ray steals the ball back from David, and rigs it up to use it as a sort of jet pack. In the foundation’s control room, Eddie, straps himself into the machine and while under powered orders for the castle to launch. The building sheds its skin to show a great behemoth like structure, a big black floating castle, which then engulfs the city of London in a big freeze. The royal navy in vain try to shoot it down, while Stephenson attempts to pull it down with his trains. Ray manages to get on board the castle reuniting with his father and Scarlett, but is too late to stop Lloyd from shooting Eddie. With Eddie having disappeared into the machine, Ray and Scarlett assist Lloyd in getting the castle back over the Thames as the machine is too unstable and likely to explode. At the last-minute, Eddie having deflected the bullet with his metal body decides to lend a hand, revealing Lloyd’s original intention for the Steam Castle: to be used as a giant theme park. Ordered by his family to save Scarlett and leave, Ray makes his way back to the control room, straps on a jet pack and leaves the castle just as it explodes, sparing most of London in the process.

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Can a film justify its release if it does not have much of a plot? Steamboy is an interesting film; on the one side it’s very well researched, and is somewhat surprising to see a Japanese animated film set in 19th century England and feature locations such as Manchester and (‘of course’) London, as well as feature great moments of a country’s history such as the Great Exhibition and famous faces like Railway Engineer Robert Stephenson. I am not saying this can’t be done, I am just saying how well and detailed it all is but you would not exactly expect for a film from Japan to be set in this country during that period. Of course, this film does also have big outstanding and unbelievable moments, interesting characters and great themes; much like you would expect from the man who made Akira: or should you? That’s the point though of seeing it isn’t it, or at least most might think so, that because this man-made an iconic film from the 1980’s, one of cinema’s all-time great animated films, that is why we should see it; no other reason right? This film is of course heavily touted for being from Katsuhiro Otomo, the same director of Akira; but is that the reason why we should see this film, or should it be that it’s a happy coincidence, and that this film should really be its own thing. I think that is where this film sort of collapses. There are some good things about this film: It does feature big moments of disbelief, and it features themes and ideas as well as argues the differences between progress and greed as well as the blessings of science, but only a little bit really, as all that gets entrenched in delivering the Akira experience, with big moments, wonders of awe and nothing else really. It has it’s moments, moments of philosophy that intrigue that inspire, and the story develops this a little bit; but possibly under the belief that he had to deliver a 19th century version of Akira rather than explore these ideas and create something that was its own identity, Otomo just sort of skipped all that. Don’t get me wrong, I really like Akira, I would just rather watch Akira rather than something that is not a near carbon copy of it (Force Awakens).

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The film’s characters are a real odd bunch and (international released version) are played by some top-notch quality actors. Much like what was stated above, some characters are minor-ly developed and are actually going in the right direction but are lost in what is a rather convoluted and unused plot. The issue that this film has with its characters is that it’s hard at any one point to actually know who is good and who is bad. Ray Steam is obviously the hero of the story, but it’s just obvious if somewhat boring. The character is nicely set up and has reason to explore and discover as he is lost without his heritage and is in a world that he would rather be doing something else in, but other than that there is no real reason for him. He tries to be brave and do the right thing, he is just not a decent enough character to really get behind or enjoy. Someone like Scarlett is a lot more interesting. She actually develops over the film’s timeline, going from a toffee nosed brat to a proper hero and someone worth rooting for. Yes she starts off in a situation where she is horrid and someone you have no affection for, but as the film develops she becomes a good character, so why she couldn’t be the protagonist is beyond me. That is the thing though with this film, there are two solid female characters, Scarlett and Emma (Paula J. Newman), but Emma gets 3 minutes of fame and is never seen again, but she was interesting compared to Ray who is just useless. The issues with good guy bad guy just continue throughout. Yes, the henchmen are bad, but that is their point and Archibald Simon on the other hand is just a pleasant annoyance who can’t stop talking. Robert Stephenson is nicely done, but it’s sad that someone who should be a sort of helper, a guide or assistance in times of such peril turns out just to be as horrid and bad as the somewhat…..Supposed to be…..villains. His assistant David pretty much covers this role with ease, and it would have been more interesting if David per say was the villain out of the two and was something of a manipulator, and so Stephenson could then be the helper, with a villain by his side that needed defeating. Lloyd is of course a good guy but the story does the right thing of teasing his intentions and asking if he is bad or good, and then reveals his intentions correctly and stays that way, I just don’t think the mad professor look really does him any favours. Eddie meanwhile is of course the big bad villain and is voiced brilliantly, and much like Lloyd is teased into his role, but he just keeps changing his mind. His intentions and motives are there as to why he is who he is, but why would the villain suddenly change sides like that at the end. He should be a boss to fight, a hindrance to overcome, not someone who is like: “Oh well, let me give you a hand!”

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The voice acting works in some of the film’s favour, and boasts acting talent like Patrick Stewart, Anna Paquin and Alfred Molina, but it’s not fully utilised I feel. Scarlett is voiced nicely and actually sounds and feels real, compared to Anna Paquin whom does a good job in a male voice role, but in the form of the voice that most people believe how British people speak. Speaking as a British person, I do not speak like that, I have actually yet to meet someone who does. Both Alfred Molina and Patrick Stewart are British; and they don’t speak like that; and they’re in this film! It becomes near offensive the more it gets touted. Maybe instead of hiring people to create a generic voice that does not actually exist, maybe they should hire British actors to do the job, because then it would be a lot more realistic (and less offensive). When it comes to the voice overs in this film the only ones that really do anything I feel are those of Patrick Stewart and Alfred Molina. Patrick Stewart’s character is not seen much of to truly enjoy, but it’s still good when he is on-screen, although possibly a bit loopy and mad. Alfred Molina though I feel really carries this film. It’s a voice of reason and passion, and although the character struggles to really find his place in this film, the voice over does the character tremendous and enjoyable levels of entertainment and justice. It’s just a shame about everyone else really.

The film does have its recovery sections, it’s not all collapsing. The animation is nicely done and works well to really capture the beauty and spectacle of 19th century England, especially London. The fleet of vessels on the Thames, the beauty of the city’s iconic buildings and structures, to the animated engineering of its own infrastructure. Add to this the machines and contraptions of the story’s fictional contents like the steam-powered soldiers, the monocycle, and of course the mighty Steam Castle in all its forms and you have this well-made world which has added benefits. I do think the animation style and colouring loses a bit in comparison to the film’s contemporise like the recent works of Studio Ghibli for example, but when close up the details are superb. The film’s soundtrack Composed by Steve Jablonsky) is an additional benefit too as it creates mostly sounds and ambiance rather than pieces of music. The music does have its moments of grandeur like the launch of the steam castle or the chase within, to moments of peace too like Ray’s theme, Scarlett’s theme, and of course the music behind the blessings of science monologue. Now while not insinuated within the soundtrack itself, there is one piece of music though that does come out in relation to the film: That of its theme from the trailer: Full Force; the adventure and steam-driven music that creates and encapsulates moments of awe and wonder, but creates a level of seriousness and tension to shine out loudly.  Although the film does tout some of that wonderful adventure but still steam punk driven piece of music here or there, it’s this piece of music which shines out for the film’s soundtrack, even though it is really non-existent, but it’s iconic and memorable enough for you to remember it in conjunction with this film.

Generally it feels like something of a shame altogether, because I was expecting more. Steamboy has its likable moments and bits to enjoy, but the story is so convoluted and makes more room for big moments rather than a properly developed plot. It’s one of those occasions where the trailer delivers more than the film. Steamboy is something of a quick storyteller; it just dashes from one thing to another, not developing nor explaining, creating interesting moments but not diving into them sacrificing its potential in the process for something else, but no reveal as to what. It comes with great voice talent but does not really use it effectively, it has interesting characters in the wrong roles and it has spectacular ideas that are just ignored. On the plus side the animation is delightfully detailed, and has music that has its occasions which are used well. Yes it has its big moments which are nicely done and very creative, but a film like this should be more than that. It should not be living in the shadow of its legendary predecessor and working hard to live up to be like its bigger brother. It should be blossoming like a flower, being independent and making its own path, then and only then can it have a chance to be on an equal footing and be appreciated the same way, rather than just being a clone in a different setting.

GENEPOOL








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