Magic Lanterns

Magic lantern 01

During the Edinburgh International Film Festival last week I saw a film called Cinema, Mon Amour, a documentary about a group trying to save an old cinema in Romania. Afterwards the Filmhouse very kindly gave us a short tour of the main projection booth – we had to be quiet and I couldn’t use the flash as another festival screening was going on below us (we could see it through the wee rectangular window in the booth). The pair of decades old cine projectors are named Kenneth and Sid – even in this bastion of arthouse and international film, the Carry On movies have influence!

Magic lantern 02

Quite nostalgic for me to see these and hear them – the whirring sound of anaologue projectors is part of my childhood memories of cinema, and at home we had a Super 8mm cine camera as well as our 35mm still cameras, and we screened them quite often on long winter’s nights for the family. There’s something satisfying about old analogue tech like this, you can see it moving, see how it works. The Filmhouse must be one of the last cinemas in the city that retains the ability to show actual film prints as well as digital and properly trained projectionists. They were telling us about their skills, from being able to change from one projector to the other seamlessly mid-film, fixing broken celluloid to adjusting focus, ratio and even speed for different formats and eras (early films shot on hand-cranked cameras require a lot of skill to adjust the film speed, since their shooting rate varied as cameramen’s arms got tired. Lovely to see these magic lanterns which paint stories on a screen using nothing more than light…

Magic lantern 03

Magic lantern 04

Film fest time

Dominique Pinon at Edinburgh Film Festival 05

I’m enjoying a few days off for my annual Edinburgh International Film Festival fun. Last night at the Traverse Theatre as part of the film fest they had an “in conversation” with French actor Dominique Pinon, who has appeared in a number of my favourite films over the years. One of those evening that reminds me one of the reason I love living here so much is that with our festivals everyone comes to Edinburgh at some point, writers, directors, actors, musicians, they all come here. I took a few photos with the new camera – sitting several rows up and back in a theatre so not the best place for taking photos, but out of the batch I shot a handful came out passably.

Dominique Pinon at Edinburgh Film Festival 07

Dominique Pinon at Edinburgh Film Festival 08

No film fun…

This week I should be off, taking a break from work for a week to enjoy the Edinburgh International Film Festival. Sadly things have been going from tight to simply untenable on the financial front, several years of a bad situation without any relief, and among the many things I have had to give up on is my annual film fest sojourn. It’s on right now, I haven’t even looked at the programme since I know I can’t afford to go to it. Since I almost never get to go away on a proper break a week off going round the film fest is about as much holiday as I normally get, and now even that’s gone. Depressing. Along with ongoing other stresses and strains in recent years a break would be bloody nice, and I have been going to this since the 1990s, really upsetting to have to give up on it, something I look forward to all year. And after a lot of not very good stuff a nice break and enjoying myself would be rather nice, instead of which the usual break is lost and now becomes another one of those depressing things  to add to the list of why life is often grinding and depressing and stressful. I don’t just mean losing that one break, I mean that it represents yet another thing I am forced to give up and cut out because of years of severe pressures; right now it has been so increasingly tight that even though with dad better I can start thinking about taking in another cat, I find I can’t afford it, which is pretty pathetic, not to mention disheartening, a year and a half after losing the last of my old furry girls. Meeting the basics is hard enough, nothing else can be added. On a short term we all get times like that, but this has been grinding on for a long time, getting slowly harder and worse. Does make you wonder why you bloody bother sometimes.

Grabbers: top B Movie SF-Horror from Ireland

Edinburgh Film Fest: Edinburgh Film Fest: Grabbers

Dir: Jon Wright

Another late evening science fiction-horror screening at the Edinburgh Film Festival and another absolute gem with this monster movie with a strong comedy undercurrent. A glowing fireball streaks across the night sky off the coast of Ireland, past a solitary nocturnal fishing boat. Mistaking the green glow for a distress flare they set off thinking someone needs helps, but it’s not another vessel they encounter…

Daybreak on a small island off the mainland and young career-girl policewoman Garda Lisa Nolan (Ruth Bradley) is arriving on the ferry, taking what she thinks should be a wee change of pace for a couple of weeks duty, swapping the hustle-bustle of a city centre Dublin copshop to provide temporary cover on the rural island while one Garda officer is on his break. The remaining officer, Ciarán O’Shea (Richard Coyle) – a constant alcoholic – is less than happy to have anyone else drafted in to keep an eye on him, let alone an eager, fresh-faced female officer from the big city, but soon they will have more important issues to deal with. The trawler has been found adrift with no crew off the coast, then a local doctor walking his dog on the beach comes across the horrific sight of an entire pod of pilot whales washed up on the beach.

Such sad sights are not unknown to coastal communities, of course but when the local marine scientist Doctor Adam Smith (Being Human’s Russell Tovey) examines them he finds huge wounds and concludes they didn’t beach themselves but died at sea and were washed in by the tide. Quite why a whole pod would be killed at sea like this no-one can say. Meanwhile one of our local drunken fishermen finds some very odd creature caught in his lobster pot. Deciding it might be worth money he hides it in his bath before, this being Ireland, he heads to the pub, gets drunk and tells everyone he has a ‘sea monster’ in the bath. Of course, no-one believes him. Until people start to go missing and there’s a storm coming that will cut off the island from any outside help, even if those on the mainland believe what they tell them…

Okay, so far I imagine for anyone who loves their SF and horror we’re on fairly familiar ground here – small, isolated rural community, an outside menace arrives, stealthily at first, picking off one or two people in the dark before anyone can notice, only being properly revealed when it seems it may be too late to protect themselves. We even have the couple of outsiders who come into the close knit community in so many tales of this kind. The pure joy of Grabbers is that the folks who made it clearly know and love the genre; they take these familiar characters and situations then play them absolutely pitch-perfectly, with a good combination of horror and humour, with the latter deriving less from any puns but evolving naturally from the interaction of the characters.

Grabbers is also proud to wear its Irishness on its sleeve and not try to Americanise itself for the international cinema market. This is a classic monster movie like many an American B flick, sure, but one that could only work in Ireland – where else (excepting perhaps parts of Scotland, perhaps!) could part of the protection against devilish, blood drinking sea monsters involve a lock in inside the village pub and getting drunk? Where else would you get a shout of “aw, shut yer fecking hole!” as a hero wallops the giant monster? A great combination of B-movie SciFi roots, horror and character driven humour, great cast and a lot of heart (plus some nice homages to other genre greats, including a brilliant Aliens pastiche), Grabbers is simply perfect late night movie viewing – in fact I think this is the most enjoyable comedy-horror I have seen since the Nathan Fillion-starring Slither.

 

And if my opinion doesn’t convince you then consider the fact that the late night film festival audience gave the movie a huge round of applause – when a festival crowd does that, it’s the mark of a great film. This time last year I saw a wee horror movie called Troll Hunter at the film fest and told you it was one to watch for. Well, Grabbers is slated for general release later this summer in Ireland (hopefully UK soon thereafter) and I’m telling you that for me it’s this year’s Troll Hunter.

This was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog

Guinea Pigs

Edinburgh Film Fest: Guinea Pigs,
UK, 2012, running time 85 mins
Dir: Ian Clark

Director Ian Clark returns to the Edinburgh International Film Festival, following up his previous short film he showed last time with Guinea Pigs, his debut feature length film, a very fine, tense medical-science fiction-horror hybrid that creates some genuine tension on a very low budget.

A group of strangers head for a very modern, hi-tech yet remote medical testing facility hidden away in the British countryside. All have volunteered to take part in the regular human trials that are part of testing new drugs and treatments to finally have them licensed for human use by the medical professions. Some are studenty types doing it to make money, some are ‘profession’ lab rats who go from test to test, one is a journalist planning an expose on how these massive pharmaceutical companies exploit people in need of money to give up their body as a test bed (and let’s not forget what a massive business such pharmacological research is in the UK and the fact it can’t really function without such tests).

The test runs for two weeks, during which the mixed group of older and younger, male and female test subject will live in the remote facility where they will constantly be scrutinised and monitored as they are administered a new experimental drug called Pro-9. No nearby village or town to wander to, no internet access, no mobile phone access (the undercover journalist is less than happy – I need the phone for work, she says, this is your paid work for the next two weeks, the Doctor reminds her). Through the first day each of the group is taken in turn and after a blood test administered their dose of Pro-9 then told to relax, enjoy the facilities, eat, sleep. By the end of the day as they all take their turn in the lab our small group are starting to tentatively bond a little in the rec room, sensing out each other. They think they are in for a long, slow, boring two weeks of daily routine. They’re not – many won’t get through the first night. There’s more than a little ‘adverse reaction’ to Pro-9…

Because each member of the group was taken in at various times through the day for their first injection the resulting effects start to appear in sequence with each, and this is part of the strength and dawning horror of Guinea Pigs – when the first to be injected starts to react badly to the drug during the night the other think it is because he broke the rules and did some strenuous exercise and it has accelerated the drug through his system. He is taken away for treatment by the staff and everyone ascribes it to a one-off complication, until the next person to be injected starts to show similar symptoms and they others realise not only is something badly wrong, but that they are really looking at what may happen to them. It’s a very clever touch by Clark and his team – imagine knowing too late that this drug is driving people into an uncontrolled frenzy and that you have taken it, that it is simply a matter of how soon, not if, you develop the same symptoms.

The situation soon deteriorates beyond the ability of the small night staff to contend with and we move to a fairly familiar small group under siege by crazies scenario – pretty common in a lot of horror, but I have to say well-handled here. Instead of the sudden emergence of a strong heroic type we have ordinary folks faced with an unthinkable situation and trying desperately to think on how to survive not only the other infected now prowling the grounds but how to deal with their own likely transformation that looms over them. And then there’s the fact that each of them is now looking at their rapidly diminishing group and thinking the people they have befriend could soon turn on them. Natural empathy for someone becoming ill wars with the self-preservation instincts: how can those not yet showing symptoms turn their back on friends who are? But if they follow that human compassion they could pay with their lives…

Although in some ways it strays close to the zombie/28 Days later model (which, whatever Danny Boyle says let’s be honest is another form of the zombie movie) Clark keeps his debut tight and focussed. He doesn’t go for cheap splatter (there is blood, but in context, not just added in to try and add an unnecessary thrill), likewise he avoids using the easy ‘jump’ scare approach too many lazier horror directors opt for, with a sudden jolt cut, loud effect or music piece to make the audience jump. I don’t mind a decent jump shock if used well (say the head out of the boat in Jaws) and I have no problem with gore in horror either, but I do have an increasing problem with untalented creators who use both far too frequently not for good effect but in lieu of being able to generate genuine atmosphere and scares by storytelling and good camera work. So thank you, Ian, for not doing that, for instead being confident enough to believe in the strength of your concept and characters to carry enough horror and chills. I think, debut or not, that is the mark of a talented storyteller and it means I will watch for the next film Clark makes. Highly effective, tense British SF-Horror and a perfect late night movie – it is currently on the festival circuit trying to build some awareness, so if you see it coming to a screening near you give them some support, they deserve it.

Guinea Pigs movie director and crew at edinburgh film fest
(writer/director Ian Clark, second from right, with some of his crew at the late night Edinburgh Film Festival, pic from my Flickr)

Science Fiction and Horror highlights from the Edinburgh Film Festival

Just over a couple of weeks ago I was enjoying my annual week off at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, taking in all sorts of cinema, from hard-hitting documentaries from modern combat reporters to stylish French crime thrillers. And of course I took in several science fiction and horror themed flicks along the way, so here’s a quick round-up of some of the ones that I enjoyed the most:

The Divide

I was told by a friend who had already seen a press screening of Xavier Gens’ The Divide that it was ‘very disturbing’. She meant this as a warning, but to me it was an endorsement! The Divide opens with a moment of sheer, modern, urban terror as a young woman gazes terrified out of her skyscraper window across New York – as a nuclear device is detonated. Screaming, panicking residents flee down the stairwells as the shock front approaches their building, a few manage to rush down to the basement and force their way past a reinforced door as their building superintendent tries to close it. The shockwave reaches them, and in the dark basement of their huge block the ground shakes, pieces fall from the roof and the sound is awful, reminiscent of the fall of the Twin Towers.

Xavier Gens at Edinburgh International Film Festival 02
(Director Xavier Gens talks about The Divide at the Edinburgh Film Fest, pic from my Flickr)

A handful of terrified, disparate survivors pick themselves up to realise they are trapped in a subterranean sarcophagus – will rescue teams come looking for them? Are they safe until they do? When will they come? Why is the super (genre stalwart Michael Biehn) acting so oddly? What secrets does he have in his underground domain that he is now forced to share with the motley survivors that have been forced on him? The tension and claustrophobia builds and when a much hoped for rescue turns out to be something quite different it becomes clear our dwindling band of survivors are on their own, sealed in, and slowly they lose cohesion, breaking into groups, suspicious, violent… The nuclear attack and the bizarre ‘rescue’ are never really explained and they don’t need to be, the film is really an exercise in claustrophobic horror and the resulting breakdown of the people trapped in this situation, until we have a post 9-11 war on terror meets Lord of the Flies scenario. Compelling.

By Day and By Night

Alejandor Molina’s slice of Mexican science fiction has a real 60s/70s SF feel to it, with a future dystopian society controlled by a mostly unseen group of scientific despots (unseen except for a few delightfully odd looking scenes between one leader and a dissident scientist which recall the 60s Prisoner series with their bizarre styles and angles) and science has been used to divide the population medically into day and night shifts, one half going to sleep as the other wakes to work. Families are banned, children are looked after in a formal manner by guardians rather than loving parents and following the rules is all in this society, questioning is not permitted, the past is largely a blank, sanitised book and the outside of the sealed city is off limits (see what I mean about that 70s SF vibe?).

Of course no amount of scientific tinkering with the human body and mind can eliminate human nature completely and we see one woman from the day shift distraught at the disappearance of her young girl ward, displaying a motherly concern that is not desired in this society, while a night shift doctor takes charge of a mysterious, unidentified body of a young girl, but a body that turns out to be comatose, not dead as his colleagues think, and he secretly takes her in, his formal life rapidly changing as the girl bonds with him and brings out his paternal, caring instincts. As the man, woman and girl converge the question is can their medically programmed nature of night and day rhythms be crossed and can they find somewhere where they can actually learn to express a parental love for the child? The pace of By day and By Night is very, very slow, quite gentle actually, but stick with that slow pace to find a quite charming and, for modern cinema, unusual slice of thoughtful, old-fashioned (in the good way, reminiscent of short tales by Silverberg or Bradbury) piece of science fiction.

Phase 7

Director Nicolas Goldbart’s slice of post-Apocalypse medical horror from Argentina proved to be a hugely enjoyable work. Guillermo Del Toro regular Federico Luppi lends his dignified presence as a quiet, elderly resident in an apartment block, downstairs neighbour to Coco (Daniel Hendler) and his pregnant wife Pipi (Jazmin Stuart). A dull routine of shopping, domestic chores and residents meetings are suddenly derailed when it is suspected someone in their block has a new and highly contagious disease and the authorities seal them in while tests are carried out. What starts as an all in this together for a few days bit of almost-fun soon turns nasty, however: cut off from the outside world they watch TV news reports of more cases of the disease breaking out around the world. As what starts as a swine flu like media panic becomes a pandemic reality. Soon the authorities stop their visits, alarms and gunshots are heard outside their sealed block in the streets of the city and as it becomes clear how large a scale the problem is the neighbours begin to plot in small groups against one another…

Luppi’s distinguished elderly resident seems like a likely first victim as one group of neighbours plot to break into his apartment, supposedly over concerns he is infected, to help him, but really because they think he has a large stash of food. Little do they know he is a former big game hunter… Coco proves pretty hapless throughout but luckily for him his next door neighbour turns out to be a survival nut who has been preparing for something like this (he is sure it is a conspiracy by world governments to reduce the population strain on the planet). In fact his neighbour turns out to be Phase 7’s answer to Tremors’ Burt Gummer (which is a compliment) and he has a soft spot for Coco and his pregnant wife. As events escalate the pair of them are drawn into confrontations with the surviving residents and Luppi’s formerly Nice Old man turned shotgun toting hunter. It isn’t all The End of Society, disease and neighbourly violence though, Phase 7 is well laced with humour throughout giving it a perfect balance of characters, story, action, violence and some decent laughs too. A real find.

Stormhouse

Welcome to Stormhouse, a secret, underground black-ops base for the British Army. It is just a few months before the invasion of Iraq and a covert unit has a very special prisoner deep within this subterranean complex. No, not some black-hooded terror suspect (although there is that too) but something else, something not human – the Entity. The British Army has managed not only to find a ghost but to imprison it. Now they want to find a way to use this supernatural entity as a secret weapon, but other than putting the heebie-jeebies up all the squaddies on the base they’ve had little success in communicating with it, much less getting it to perform to their orders. So the Minister for Defence sends in Hayley Sands, a ‘ghost whisperer’ psychic to help them make contact. She’s talked to the dead before but is amazed to find out that the Army has managed to hold a ghost (through an electro magnetic barrier) and wonders how they brought it over from the other side in the first place. Of course, she is told that is on a need-to-know basis and the commanding officer, clearly unhappy with her presence, is acting very oddly, as are many of his soldiers after prolonged exposure to the entity.

Stormhouse is one of those horror films where you have a fair idea of where it is going to go, but that isn’t really a handicap as it gets around its small budget by concentrating mostly on atmosphere and in this it is highly effective. The underground bunker setting generates a seriously tense sense of claustrophobia, the soldiers inside effectively as trapped as the mysterious ghostly entity is and despite the electromagnetic field containing it, it becomes clear some of its influence is seeping out into that dark, dank, underground lair to effect them all and the arrival of a single, young, attractive female presence into this all-male environment doesn’t help either. Stormhouse plays its small budget cleverly – the ghostly effects are few but effective; in fact the director in a post screening Q&A said they could have stretched to some more ghost effects but decided to tone it way down so we get tiny but terrifying sudden glimpses on a monitor. And as things unravel, as you know they will, Hayley may find out just how the army got themselves a ghost – and wish she hadn’t… An interesting, atmospheric piece of low-budget Brit horror, playing cleverly on both the fear of the supernatural and creeping, unseen but always present feeling of unease in society post 9-11 and 7/7.

Stormhouse at Edinburgh International Film Festival 04
(director/writer Dan Turner and some of the cast of Stormhouse on stage at the Filmhouse after their Edinburgh Film Festival debut, pic from my Flickr)

Troll Hunter

This Indy slice of fantasy from Norway from director/writer André Øvredal was, without a doubt, my highlight from this year’s Edinburgh Film Fest (with the exception of the new Studio Ghibli film, which I reviewed here). A group of media students are making a video news article for their college, following a group of bear hunters in the Norwegian countryside when their attention is drawn to an odd man who follows the hunters but stays apart from them, coming and going late at night on his own. Is he a poacher? Following him into the deep, dark woods they soon find out he is after a very different game when roars echo frighteningly through the dark trees and the man runs out of the forest yelling “Ttttroooooolllllllllll!!!!!!”

And this is the set up, our mystery man is an operative for a secret branch of the Norwegian government which looks after any rogue trolls which threaten human areas of habitation. Sick of years of working unappreciated in a covert role (and with no hazard pay!) he agrees to let the students follow him as he deals with all sorts of trolls, forest trolls, cave trolls, even gigantic trolls which stride across the frozen northern landscape. The format is ‘found footage’, as with Cloverfield or the Blair Witch, but much more knowing and more tongue in cheek about it than either of those films and the effects are excellent, the film looking far more than the 3 million Euro budget it was made on. It has a terrifically enjoyable mix of action, scares, cool effects, characters and humour (a moment on a bridge with three billy goats gruff had everyone in the audience laughing) in just the right proportions, pretty much a perfect Saturday night movie. Chris Columbus has already bought the rights to an English language remake, so Hollywood has already taken as much note as festival audiences have of this cracker of a fantasy flick. You could almost imagine some of Troll Hunter as a story from a Hellboy comic, and I mean that as a huge compliment. Troll Hunter is getting a general UK release in September – trust me, you want to go and see it!

André Øvredal at Edinburgh Film Festival 01
(director/writer André Øvredal in a post screening Q&A in the Cameo Cinema at the Edinburgh Film Fest, pic from my Flickr)

Film Fest ticket sales down

The Edinburgh International Film Festival apparently suffered a 10% drop in tickets sales for 2010 (not my fault, I went to a pile of shows!). One of the factors being blamed is the very late launch this year, which I know really pissed off regular Film Fest goers like myself and others I know who go each year. The programme came out so close to the actual festival it didn’t leave much planning time – annoying for those of us who live in and around the city, a real problem for visitors who have to make their way here from much further afield. And when the programme did launch (with a website crash – again) we had barely a couple of days to go through it before the box office opened. Everyone I know was really annoyed at this, it simply didn’t give us enough time to plot out which films we most wanted to see then check times and dates to see if they clashed and work out alternates if they did and so on (plus the now traditional web box office crash again when tickets went on sale, bah). Pretty poor planning.

Sylvain Chomet and Hannah McGill, the Illusionist gala opening
(Sylvain Chomet with now former EIFF director Hannah McGill at the gala opening night screening of Sylvain’s wonderful The Illusionist at the 2010 Film Fest)

The Film Fest is blaming some of this on being late in securing some of the films because of the Cannes Film Festival being held in May, meaning they didn’t want to launch until they had everything confirmed. Which is fine except this is the same Film Fest who decided to move out of their decades long home of August, when the Edinburgh Festival is on, to be a standalone festival in June. Which you might recall me being quite put out about, I was totally opposed to that move, thought it was foolish and their reasoning flawed. One of their reasons was allegedly so it wouldn’t be too close to other major international film festivals and therefore competing too much for screenings of certain movies. Now they are blaming proximity to one of the most famous film festivals in the world for this year’s problems? Oh come on, make up your bloody minds, Film Fest, which is it? maybe you should just admit you got it wrong and move back to August again, then you can can also pick up on the extra visitors who are in the city for the Festival? And it would give the Film Fest some of its buzz back – while I enjoyed the movies the atmosphere is lacking the magic present during the main Festival in August, it’s jsut not the same. Oh and while we’re at it, please keep screenings restricted to CINEMAS! No more dubious vanity projects like gala screenings held in an old (and uncomfortable) theatre which was totally unsuited for film screenings.

You can find some of my reviews from this year’s Film Fest offerings here and here on the blog. (link via the BBC)

Monsters on the Mexican border, comics vigilantes in York, lonesome cowboys in the West and George Lucas

After reporting on Sylvain Chomet’s The Illusionist earlier this week, here’s a round-up of some of the other genre-related, geek-friendly footage I managed to cram into my annual bash at the Edinburgh International Film Festival (it wasn’t all poncing around in a beret watching black and white films about human tragedy from Hungary, you know), with Indy flicks from North America, the UK (taking in alien monsters on the rampage, comics style vigilantes in York and an exploration of Star Wars fandom) and the live action version of the classic Lucky Luke comics from France

Crimefighters is a cracking wee comics-inspired black and white movie set in York, from Miles Watt (who is also involved in Zomblogalypse online), made on a shoestring budget and shot in a really nice, crisp, luminous black and white which makes the most of the small resources available to the film-makers. A trio of friends are attempting one of the most difficult endeavours of modern life – trying to avoid drinking for a month. Sipping soft drinks in the pub they start to notice that things in the fair city of York are getting worse – is anti-social behaviour (that great bugbear of modern Brit society that politicians so love to rant on about) really on the rise in the city or is it just because they’ve stopped drinking they’re getting a little paranoid?

An increase in fights and muggings does seem to be occurring and when the town’s CCTV cameras are deliberately targeted too it seems that it isn’t just random violent outbursts after closing time but part of someone’s diabolical plan. But why would someone want to cause more trouble in town? And with the authorities seemingly helpless isn’t it time to don the (home-made) masks and take the law into their own hands? Some of the dialogue and acting is a tad clunky; I’m not sure if that’s deliberate or not, but to be honest I got the impression that it was mostly by design, a nod to the often clichéd superhero comics which were part of the inspiration for the film and the foundation of the masked Crimefighters vigilantes. It may not be about to challenge Iron Man at the box office, but Crimefighters makes up for its minuscule budget with a good sense of fun, a knowing nod to its comics and movies inspirations and, more important than big budgets or sparkling dialogue re-writes, it’s got a lot of heart and I think that makes it a great Friday night movie for comics geeks. Crimefighters is getting a limited release this month and will be going around the UK via the Picturehouse chain of cinemas (starting in York today), so check their site for venue and screening date details and give them a bit of support if you can.

The People Versus George Lucas is Alexandre Philippe’s labour of love documentary, over two years in the making and involving a humongous amount of footage and then editing it down (apparently there are acres of scenes which didn’t make the final cut, including some famous contributors). Despite the adversarial title, this isn’t a Lucas-bashing movie; actually if anything it is a celebration of Star Wars and the huge part it’s played in the lives of legions of fans over the years. The film draws on archive footage, animations, photos, fan videos (and oh boy, has our Star Wars inspired a multitude of fan films!) and a slew of talking heads, from ordinary fans to some very famous ones, including David Brin, Francis Ford Coppola, Dave Prowse and Neil Gaiman among others (apparently Ray Harryhausen was also interviewed but didn’t make the final cut, which gives you an idea of the sheer amount of footage the film-makers had to try and edit in to the final cut).

The film dives into just why Star Wars, right from the start in ’77 (nostalgic sigh) became such a subject of passion for so many of us and how some aspects of the saga have had the opposite effect, infuriating fans – re-jigging the first trilogy years later and then not allowing the original cuts to be re-released for the many who want them (this was contrasted against a much younger Lucas who argues against the hideous 80s vogue for tinkering with classic movies), the still ongoing rumble over the ‘Han shot first’ in the reworked Episode IV and the contrast between the original trilogy and the later prequels. And oh yes, the Jar Jar thing (with due homage to Simon Pegg’s Spaced scene). Even when fans are venting their spleens about aspects of the series which annoy the hell out of them, though, it’s never mean – it’s the sort of emotion that can only be generated by people who really love the series. You can’t get that worked up if you don’t care, so even the criticism is a form of fan love. And before anyone outside of geekdom thinks typical geek behaviour to obsess over niggling points in something, it’s no different from the obsessive behaviour shown in any area where people have a passionate interest (take football for instance, where fans have memorised results from decades ago and still endlessly debate the minutiae of a play from 10 years back. It no different. Except we have cool lightsabres. And Slave Leias at conventions). Taking a balanced approach the film also discusses the creator’s right to make changes to their own works, whether it is what some fans want or not – Gaiman’s particularly good on this point, understanding both from the fan point of view but also from the successful creator perspective, where some fans really want you to continue doing what you did before.

The film also talks about how the enormous, unexpected success of Star Wars also, in a way, boxed in Lucas as a film-maker – as his friend and mentor Coppola put it, while he’s had huge success it also means he’s spent the rest of his life making Star Wars for the most part and we never got to see the other films that the man who made THX-1138 and American Graffiti might have made. I must confess I hadn’t considered that point before and I suppose it is the flipside of the cosmic level of success Star Wars enjoyed – it’s given Lucas fame, wealth and the love of millions, but did it also mean he never got to work on some of the other film projects the Lucas of the early 70s seemed eager to make? Overall though it’s a positive film about a series of amazing films that may drive us nuts sometimes but at the end of the day we still love deeply, laced with much affection (even when criticising) and often very, very funny. A great flick for Star Wars fans and indeed for any sort of fans – there’s a lot of ourselves to be recognised in the people in this film, because they’re us.

Gareth Edwards’ Monsters is another Indy movie and one where I didn’t know much more about it other than the blurb in the Film Fest programme – reporter is told by his boss to get his daughter back over the Mexican-US border. Problem being several years before a space probe sent to retrieve proof of organic life samples beyond Earth crash landed in northern Mexico and the lifeforms got free, mutated rapidly and spread, leaving the Zone, a quarantined area of alien monsters between most of Mexico and its border with America. Starting with some shaky night vision footage of an enormous monster attacking a city and being repelled by troops (in a scene that looks like CNN footage of combat from Baghdad, but with giant, tentacled aliens) Monsters straight away establishes an atmosphere of unease – talking to their taxi driver our protagonists ask how he can stay here when an attack like that can happen so randomly out of the Zone. Where else would I go, he asks. His life, his job, his family are all there. It’s another obvious echo of the problems faced by ordinary folks who happen to live in a city that’s become a trouble hotspot, be it insurgents in Iraq or Kabul or aliens in Mexico.

Photojournalist Kaulder is not happy at effectively being ordered to escort rich kid Samantha Wyden back over the border after her dad decides the attacks are getting too close. He’s there to cover them and looking for the one great shot that will make his name, seemingly less concerned with the human cost of what is happening than with how it will look in a news photo. But since Sam’s father owns his newspaper he doesn’t have much choice and as the infection leads to increasing disruption of transport links they have to take an increasingly off the beaten track route back home to the US, imbuing the monster flick with some of the road movie genre along the way. There are elements of other movies, from District 9 to Apocalypse Now in this belting, lo-fi movie (much of which was semi improvised along the way as they shot, for instance some of the armed troops you see aren’t all actors, some were the bodyguards provided for the crew by Mexican authorities, so they used them in their shots to work that small budget even further). Of course as they travel together Sam and Kaulder start to get to know one another more and the audience gets to know them right alongside. The effects are used sparingly – the budget would doubtless not stretch to too much of the monsters anyway but, like the much larger budgeted Cloverfield, Edwards knows that it is more about atmosphere and he deploys his monster shots sparsely but very effectively throughout (the director picked up the Moët New Directors Award at the Festival, in fact). Like District 9 this is a bit of a left field science fiction flick with a nice, Indy feel to it; one to watch for when it snags a general release.

(left to right: actors Scoot McNairy and Whitney Able with director Gareth Edwards and one of the Film Fest organisers on stage in the Filmhouse at the Edinburgh International Film Festival Q&A after Monsters, pic from my Flickr)

One of the last films I saw during my Festival break was the French live action movie of the classic European comic Lucky Luke, by Goscinny and Morris, which Wim talked about a few months back when it was released on the Continent. I remember a wee bit of the comics cowboy from my childhood reading, although he was never as big here as he was in France (although I am glad to say Cinebook are doing their best to make his books available again here in English), so I wasn’t sure what to expect, especially since live action movies based on other European all-ages comics like Asterix have been less than stellar. Boy, was I in for a very pleasant surprise – it wasn’t just okay, it wasn’t just good, it was bloody brilliant. Seriously. The style is somewhere between the comics (the sets are fabulous – the town is all weirdly shaped buildings, as if they were made from plans drawn without a ruler), Sergio Leone’s Westerns and a less adult version of Mel Brook’s Blazing Saddles (still one of the funniest movies ever in my book). And it’s funny. Oh god, but it’s funny. Three of us went to see it and we laughed pretty much throughout the entire film (and indeed on into the credits, which had some jokes – in French – peppered throughout the credits and an extra little scene that makes a nod to the fact that in this day and age the child-friendly cowboy hero can’t be seen to smoke, but does so with some panache).

There are some great touches – the live action leans towards the real world but retains enough of a cartoons sensibility to make it recognisably Lucky Luke (the cowboy takes a bath but of course he keeps his cowboy boots on; the terrified locals of the town hide from the bad guys who run it by always hiding in barrels). A lot of the humour is visual and slapstick in nature, with plenty to make the younger audience members laugh, but there are plenty of lines there just for the adults too (after all, many who will watch this are adults who grew up reading the comics many years ago and they want – and get – a film that pleases the kid in them and the adult). For example Luke no longer smokes, as we know, so now he has a blade of grass in his mouth, which leads to Jesse James trying to smoke it and exclaiming that this grass is too strong to be smoking, a joke going past they kids in the audience but hitting the adults (and along the way paying homage to the scene in Blazing Saddles where our heroes get high); a scene in the president’s carriage if so full of powerful men smoking cigars that there is a cloud inside the train. I’m not going to go on too much about it – trying to explain how funny some scenes are to someone who hasn’t seen them yet rarely works and besides I don’t want to spoil it. I will say it is creative, incredibly funny and it is stuffed full of wonderful little details – when it gets its DVD release it’s a film that you can easily re-watch and spot even more that you missed first time around. No details on a UK release yet, but I’d imagine now it has subtitles added prints will make their way onto the arthouse circuit in due course, and if you want a great laugh you should saddle up when Lucky Luke comes to town.

An animated Edinburgh: Sylvain Chomet at the Edinburgh Film Festival

I’ve spent the last week and a bit attending to one of my annual traditions: enjoying the Edinburgh International Film Festival. Among the many movies I managed to fit in there were, unsurprisingly a number from the comics and SF influenced end of films – mostly from the independent end of the pool – and, of course, some great animation. And since Wim’s been talking about The Illusionist, which has just opened in Europe and since it was the opening night gala movie let’s start with that.

Regular readers will know that I’m a huge admirer of Sylvain Chomet, who brought us the brilliant Bellevile Rendezvous, with its Scarfe-influenced characters and that I’ve been following the progress of his new animated feature as it came together in an Edinburgh studio. Rather appropriately, since much of the film is set in the Scottish capital. Adapted from an unused script by the great Jacques Tati (truly one of world’s cinema’s greats, easily up there in my book with Keaton), we follow Tatichef (another Tati reference), a tall, ungainly stage magician, struggling in 1950s Paris, so he takes himself off to London, only to find even less success there – old theatrical acts are out of fashion, the hip, young crowds of the post-war world want screaming rock’n’roll (cue some brilliant pastiche of 50s rock acts). Looking around for another gig to pay the rent an encounter with a (naturally drunk) Scotsman at a party leads to a booking in a wee village out on the islands off the west coast of Scotland, where he meets a young lass who, convinced he is a real magician, follows him to Edinburgh, where again Tatichef goes through a variety of gigs to try and get past in a world where his kind of act is now old-fashioned and no longer in demand.

As with Belleville Rendezvous, however, the story is only part of the enjoyment – the visual aspect is another, from the OTT comedy of the pelvis-swinging rock bands who steal Tatichef’s audience to a wonderfully drawn array of secondary characters (most notably the short ventriloquist). And then there are the landscapes; when the film moves to Scotland the artwork for the scenery is simply gorgeous (as indeed it is in real life), from the steam train thundering northwards to the boat to the islands, where of course it, being Scotland, is raining. And as the boat approaches the island and castle, in a scene paying homage to Tintin’s Scottish visit (although with a bit more visible under the kilt!), the rain stops and sunlight filters through gaps in the clouds creating the shimmering, golden dappled light effect anyone who’s been to Scotland has no doubt seen and it’s beautifully done.

The arrival in 50s Edinburgh is similarly beautiful and romantic, the steam train pulling into Waverley Station in its deep cutting between Old and New Town, landmarks surrounding it. As with Paris and New York in Belleville it isn’t an exact replica of the city but an idealised version, easily recognisable as Edinburgh (the Castle, the Scott Monument, Jenner’s, Balmoral, the rearing bulk of Arthur’s Seat) but a sort of magical, fantasy version of the city and again Chomet recreates the constantly changing quality of light we enjoy in Edinburgh, to quite beautiful effect. Okay, obviously I am totally biased here – being both an admirer of Chomet’s work and since I’m lucky enough to have Edinburgh as a home. If you know the city you will love the depiction of it that Chomet and his artists have created. And if you don’t then you will probably fall in love with it – as he did with the city – and want to see it for yourself; he’s talked about the changing quality of light in Scotland and how it inspired him, how it changes everything (it does, the same scenes are endlessly refreshed and changed a little) and there are some scenic passages which are clearly a love letter to the city.

(Sylvain Chomet on stage at the Festival Theatre with the EIFF’s Hannah McGill at the opening night gala screening of The Illusionist at the Edinburgh Film Fest, pic from my Flickr)

For all that beauty though and for the comedic elements – and they have given the cartoon Tatichef a wonderfully physical, very Jacques Tati feel – there is a strong melancholy running through The Illusionist. The young, naïve girl is lovely and obviously a little bit of company and sunshine in the older Tatichef’s life, but at the same time it serves to show that he is much older and that he has little to show for his lifetime of efforts but an act that no-one wants anymore, no home, no wife, no children. Her childlike belief that he actually is a real magician is touching, but it’s also an impossible image for Tatichef to live up to (and he tries so hard to make her happy) and something will have to give at some point. Throw in the complication of a young girl turning into a young woman and starting to notice boys (including a character who has more than a passing resemblance to a very young Sean Connery) and you begin to suspect that perhaps this won’t be as upbeat as Belleville. But over all that there’s the sheer beauty of the visuals – from the Flying Scotsman steaming in Waverley Station to a dizzying aerial spectacle of Edinburgh’s astonishing landmarks rotating below us. There’s laughter and sadness, often at the same time, some wonderful characters and above all some gorgeous artwork you can lose yourself in. You want to see it.

The Illusionist is out now in France and is expected in the autumn in the UK and winter in the US. Next from the Film Fest: geeking out with The People Versus George Lucas, the lonesome cowboy Lucky Luke delivers with both barrels, comics-style crime fighters in York, zombies in Athens and there are monsters on the Mexican border.

Evelyn Glennie at the Filmhouse

One of my favourite musicians, Scottish virtuoso and solo percussionist Evelyn Glennie, will be at the Edinburgh Filmhouse for a return visit to coincide with a screening of the documentary about her, Touch the Sound. For Evelyn the title is highly approriate – she started to lose her hearing when she was a young girl and yet still continued to learn music, attend music college after leaving school then blaze an internationally successful career as a solo percussionist, a role in music that’s all but unheard of. She feels the music, the vibrations of the instruments, the feel of the material and she creates an astonishingly diverse musical world from this very physical method of listening and playing (she’s very physical on stage, I’ve seen her live several times and she’s a dynamo) from classical to folk to jazz to improv music played right on the street.

I saw this documentary a few years back at the Edinburgh International Film Festival and it was an incredible experience, touching, moving, inspiring, as music (or any real art) should be. Afterwards, in front of a sold out audience Evelyn came on with the director for a Q&A session (always one of the pleasures of Film Fest screenings, that often some of those involved will be there for a talk before or after the movie). Then one of the simplest of instruments was produced, a snare drum. The lights went back down in the cinema except for an uplighter shining up through the clear skin of the snare to Evelyn standing over it and this amazing woman improvised an incredible musical set using just a pair of sticks and a snare drum. Watching and listening to her it strikes you that sometimes some people were just born to do something, regardless of obstacles placed in their way, such as deafness; her music is inside and no lack of hearing can touch that. The screening is on Tuesday at 6 with Evelyn on hand, if you haven’t seen it I encourage you to experience it.