EIFF 2019 – McLaren Animation

The annual McLaren Animation award screenings at the world’s oldest continually-running film festival have always been a personal favourite part of the festival for me. Named for famed Scottish pioneer Norman McLaren, who would later found the National Film Board of Canada, this 2019 edition was particularly special – this marked the thirtieth anniversary of the McLarens at the EIFF, and the tenth, and as it happens, final year in the tenure of Iain Gardner, who has been in charge of the McLarens. I’ve really enjoyed Iain’s run taking care of the McLarens – it isn’t just the selecting and screening of interesting and diverse material, it’s the sense of encouraging and supporting and fostering new and emerging and existing talent. During the post-screening Q&As with all of the animators there is a real sense of support and encouragement, and that’s a good thing in any artistic medium if you want to have new blood and new ideas.

This year as part of the thirtieth anniversary we were treated to three rather than the usual two McLaren Animation segments, each with ten films, so thirty short works in all, covering all sorts of subjects (autobiography, documentary, politic, humour) and approaches (traditional hand-drawn, CG animation, stop-motion, puppetry and some films mixing methods). In a very welcome touch this year there was parity, a fifty-fifty split between female and male directors. At normal McLaren years there are too many films for me to go into each one individually, and that is more the case this year with the additional screening, so I’ll be sticking to my usual approach of picking out some of the films which I personally enjoyed the most.

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(some of the animators at the post McLaren screening Q&As – pics from my Flickr)
Edinburgh International Film Festival - McLaren Animation 020

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Ainslie Henderson – by now a well-kent face in animation circles and at McLaren – had a very beautiful, very emotional piece with Archie. A lovely stop-motion work, we follow an anthropomorphised dog-man (with his own actual pet dog!), the eponymous Archie, in a largely wordless film. Archie receives bad news and a key in the post – the key to this mother’s wee crofting house on one of the Scottish isles; she’s passed away, the old home is now his. Using only the movement of the figures rather than dialogue Henderson deftly conjures up that sudden, shattering blow of learning a loved one is gone, of the bottom falling out of your world, the sad journey back home to a house that is now empty, except not really, because it is filled with memories. It’s warm and sadly beautiful, with some nice little touches – Archie’s wee dog snuggling up to his master, sensing his pain – and I found myself thinking on loved ones I’ve lost and having to blink away years (I’m sure I wasn’t the only one).


(a scene from Ainslie Henderson’s Archie)

Chris and Victoria Watson’s Ladder to You also dealt with grief, in a very different way, with an elderly man, at home, now all alone and missing his wife terribly. He ponders parts of his life and the world, but nothing really works any more, not without her; without her it is meaningless, empty. When his wife’s photograph is blown out the window he follows it with a ladder to try and retrieve this last memento of her, and it takes him somewhere special. Josephine Lohoar Self’s also had that beautifully sad quality to it, a stop-motion piece about a shy young tailor, about a world where everyone wants to conform and be the same while he yearns for difference and encounters love.

Music & Clowns – trailer from Alex Widdowson on Vimeo.

JoAnne Salmon and and Alex Widdowson both impressed me with their biographical films, which were very emotionally warm and honest. Widdowson brought us Music & Clowns, an exploration of caring for a a family member with Down’s Syndrome. The parents talk honestly about the shock and surprise when their boy was born “different”, with his father commenting how as he held his newborn the moment of shock passed and he knew that he loved his boy anyway; he even, as they discuss him, reproaches his other son gently, commenting on how he may not understand everything but he is very empathic to the feelings of others, perhaps more than his brother. They talk about what life has been like, and the concerns of his parents as they get older, wondering how he will cope once they are too old, or passed on, a concern anyone with special needs family members must entertain.

Salmon gave us Chin Up, an autobiographical piece, the title riffing on one of the symptoms of Treacher Collins syndrome, where the bone structure of the face doesn’t form in the regular way, giving her a very unusual appearance (including not having a prominent chin). Again emotional honesty was key here as Salmon used differing artistic style to explore moments of her life – her birth, not being the “normal” little girl they were expecting, of not feeling particularly different until she went to school and having to deal with the unthinking comments of children, of how this affected her sense of self, how art and drawing became an escape for her, which eventually lead her to find animation and encouraged her to apply to study and then eventually create her own works.

Chin Up – Trailer – Animated Documentary from LoveLove Films on Vimeo.

Lauren Orme’s Creepy Pasta Salad was a fun piece, about a werewolf lady with low self-esteem, a man who may (or at least thinks he may be) dead and a ghost (and wondering if he is a ghost does he have to worry about that final electricity bill?), a Goth and the End of the World, and left me with a big smile. Ainslie Henderson, with Will Anderson, had more work in the form of three very brief pieces, My Best Friend (then each segment had a subtitle, such as “explodes”), nice, clean, simple graphics, two friends talking, but they are aware of being in a film, and they ponder the meaning of each title as it appears above them (you can imagine their alarm when it says “explodes”). Matthew Lee’s One Liner used claymation and drawn animation and touches on what used to be a cornerstone of British entertainment culture – the comedy double act, and more specifically who was “the funny one” (that oft-asked question that totally misses the point that these duos really only worked playing off one another).

mad dog trailer from steve boot on Vimeo.

Unsurprisingly given the last couple of years, politics hove into view during some of the films: Steve Boot had Mad Dogs, set in a pub of the same name, the classic British pub, a perfect place for examining what it means to be British in the modern era, using a collection of regulars in the pub who are all dogs, English, Scottish and Welsh (although oddly no Northern Irish), and uses a sprinkling of dialogue from the speeches of famous people among the lines as they all talk about about their sense of identity. Marta Lemos gave us Dear England, which used photo collage and drawn art among other styles, to explore the way British society has been changing, especially since the Brexit referendum, the way some elements now feel they can voice bigotry and hatred openly, the fact that some who came to make a home here, no matter how they fit in, will never be “British enough” for certain types.

I’d love to pick out more of the entries – the styles, the methods and the subjects were all so diverse we really were treated to a smorgasbord of excellent animation talent, quite a few entries being graduate degree films from students, and many of those now out in the world beyond college all still very young. I must mention Fokion Xenos who won the audience vote to scoop this thirtieth anniversary year McLaren Animation Award with Heatwave, which was a wonderful riot of colours and life in plasticine and other materials and depicted, yes a heatwave, on a tiny Greek island, rather timely given the burst of hot weather across the UK and Europe recently! And I have to give a shout out to Samantha Moore’s Bloomers, which documented the people, mostly women, who had worked in a garment design and manufacturing, and the changing fortunes over the years – the film had a very rich texture to the backgrounds, and, astonishingly Moore produced a sheet of silk (one of the fabrics the factory used) on which some of the art had been drawn then animated to give it that remarkable look and feel.

HEATWAVE – Trailer © NFTS 2019 from Fokion Xenos on Vimeo.

As I said, a real diversity of styles, methods and subjects. I’m confident that – as usually happens – we will see some of the McLaren entries crop up in a few months in the BAFTA and Oscar short animation nominee lists.

EIFF 2019 – The Dead Don’t Die

The Dead Don’t Die,
Directed by Jim Jarmusch,
Starring Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Tilda Swinton, Chloë Sevigny, Steve Buscemi, Iggy Pop, Sara Driver, Carol Kane, Rosie Perez, Selena Gomez, Tom Waits, Danny Glover

Welcome to Centreville, “A Real Nice Place!” After his vampiric outing with Tom Hiddlestone and Tilda Swinton in Only Lovers Left Alive, Jarmusch turns his distinctive style on the all-prevalent zombie genre, with this very enjoyable and self-referential movie. Jarmusch takes many of the great horror tropes – the small, quiet town where nothing ever happen, the local sheriff used to dealing with complaints of farmers having chickens stolen rather than homicides (let alone undead homicides) – and a gleeful barrel full of references to other horror films, his own film works and an increasing amount of fourth wall breaking as it becomes clear that the characters are aware that they are, in fact, in a Jim Jarmusch movie (leading to a brilliantly deadpan dialogue duet between Driver and Murray).

The world has been titled off its axis by “polar fracking”, which naturally energy corporations and the US government insist are entirely safe and create cheap energy and jobs. The first signs of anything wrong in this sleepy little rural town are small-scale – animals start to go missing, both household pets and farm animals. Not stolen, actually disappearing, even the cows flee their usual fields to take cover in the dark forest. And then there’s the little matter of it still being light when it should be evening, or dark when it should be morning, and watches and phones not working properly. “This isn’t going to end well,” opines Adam Driver’s deputy, a statement he returns to several times as events go from curious to threatening to full-on zombie apocalypse, and the various characters we’re introduced to in the first half fight – with varying degrees of success – to survive in the second half.

However to explain the basic plot here is, to be honest, a trifle redundant. And I don’t mean that in the bad way – this is a Jim Jarmusch film, and a synopsis of the main plot really doesn’t give you much of an idea of the film with Jim’s works, his films are experiences of style and attitude, a mixture of the unusual and the mundane, the suddenly gritty and nasty with the whimsically fantastical and humorous and elements of almost dream-like sensations in places. Those of you who, like me, are long confirmed Jarmusch fans, will understand what I mean when I say I can try to describe some of the film, but really, like any Jarmusch movie, it simply has to be experienced to really get it.

The Dead Don’t Die brings together a bunch of Jarmusch’s regular collaborators, and let’s be honest, most of us welcome these actors in anything we watch – Billy Murray (with his remarkable hang-dog expressions and uncanny, almost Gene Wilder-like ability for timing and pauses), Tilda Swinton, one of the great Queens of the World in my book, here clearly having fun with her bizarre, katana-wielding funeral home director, recently arrived in this small community (when pointed out she’s rather peculiar one character simply notes “she’s Scottish”, which got a good laugh from the Edinburgh festival crowd, and no offence taken as Tilda has lived here quite a lot, so we count her as one of us and therefore fine to lampoon us).

Adam Driver’s deputy worked brilliantly alongside Bill Murray’s sheriff – with a quiet character like Murray’s Cliff the temptation could have been to have the opposite for his deputy, someone loud, or panicky. Instead Driver essays a calm, almost laid-back approach to the building horror, much like Murray’s older character, and this worked nicely in my opinion. Tom Waits prowls the woods around the town as Hermit Bob, spotting the early signs (birds migrate early to flee, ant colonies go mad, cows run to hide in the woods, then bigger clues like dead bodies erupting from graves), and providing the occasional bit of narration to the events, all delivered in that gravelly, unmistakable Tom Waits voice. Others like Chloë Sevigny, Selena Gomez and Danny Glover all get some nice character moments too, it’s a well-played ensemble piece.

The references to other films, both in the horror genre and in Jarmusch’s own body of work, are littered throughout the film and prove to be highly enjoyable little gems for fans, the natural world going crazily out of tilt mirrors a couple of scenes from Only Lover, for example, or Adam Driver’s character having a Star Destroyer key-chain in a hint to his Star Wars role. The increasing conceit of the characters starting to talk about being in a Jarmusch film is played well for comic effect as the film builds towards its climax, and the film isn’t shy of giving even more famous names a grisly demise (in fact it seems to relish doing so rather gleefully, and I suspect the actors enjoyed it).

It’s funny, it’s silly, it’s horror, it’s fantasy, it’s comedy. If you aren’t a Jarmusch fan then I doubt this will convert you, but for those of us who look forward to any new work from Jarmusch, this has all the Jim ingredients we love, mixed and baked nicely, while the ensemble cast are obviously enjoying playing together in a Jarmusch film. I left the cinema with a huge smile on my face, among a very busy and very happy-looking film festival audience.

EIFF 2019 – L’empereur de Paris

L’empereur de Paris / The Emperor of Paris,
Directed by Jean-François Richet,
Starring Vincent Cassel, Olga Kurylenko, Patrick Chesnais, August Diehl, Denis Lavant, Freya Mavor

Another evening at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, and this time it is a French period piece, based on a real-life historical character Eugène François Vidocq, who I must confess I had only vaguely heard of, mostly in relation to him inspiring later fictional works by the like of Poe and Balzac among others. This is classic poacher turned gamekeeper stuff, inspired by the actual Vidocq, a criminal who turned thief-taker, his familiarity with the Parisian underworld of the Napoleonic era and his own native ingenuity allowing him to track and capture the most wanted criminal gangs of the era in a way the regular authorities – mostly just watchmen with clubs and a heavy hand – could possibly manage. Vidocq is rightly famous in his native France as the founder and first director of the Sûreté Nationale and thought to be one of the first – if not the very first – private detectives.

But frankly, they had me at Vincent Cassel…

I’ve loved Vincent Cassel, with his charming bad-boy approach to so many roles, for many years, and the role of Vidocq seems almost tailor-made for his strengths, his ability to project competing, often contradictory qualities of ruthlessness, self-gain, dishonesty but also paradoxically heroism, resourcefulness, of doing the right thing when his back is against the wall. This role seems to suit Cassel especially well at this stage in his life and career, as he portrays the famous criminal, thought to have died in one of his infamous escapes years before, trying to go straight in Paris in 1805, but being drawn back into the underworld and the local law enforcement (the two are not as distinct as you’d expect, not back then). This is Paris in the era of Napoleon, but it has not yet been remade by Haussman as the broad boulevard Paris we know and love today, this is the older Paris, filthy streets, creaky, tilting old houses, tanners, butchers and washers working openly in the festering streets. The middle-aged Cassel’s more grizzled visage and a more world-weary sense about him fit into this scenario perfectly.

Yes, there are beats to this story you will recognise – the criminal trying to turn his life around, to be legitimate only to be dragged back into the murky underworld of crime (I keep trying to get out, they keep dragging me back in approach), the assembling of his own team to perform his task and win his amnesty, the creation of his opponent, just as intelligent and capable, and even more ruthless (his own Moriarty), you can spot all of these now common tropes, but it really doesn’t matter because this is beautifully done. The cinematography is gorgeous – you can almost smell old Paris, fights in crime lairs in the limestone tunnels beneath the city are lit by fire and candlelight to give them eerie aspects, contrasting against the opulence of the Imperial court of Napoleon.

Cassel is, as you’d expect, simply brilliant in this role – as I said, Vidocq could have been custom-made to be a Vincent Cassel character. Leo Carax regular Denis Lavant also essays a stand-out performance, twisting his body language and facial expressions into a cruel, mis-shapen, Fagan like criminal overlord, vile, despicable, ruthless and dangerous, without ever tilting that performance too far into parody (you believe how nasty and dangerous his gang leader is). A classy, stylish, period crime movie that should also introduce the rest of the world to the real, historic Vidoqc and his role as one of the fathers of modern policing and detectives.

EIFF 2019 – Aniara

Aniara,
Directed by Pella Kågerman,
Starring Emelie Jonsson, Bianca Cruzeiro, Arvin Kananian, Anneli Martini

Another day, another Edinburgh International Film Festival outing for me, today’s viewing on this first weekend of the festival kicking off with something even a major SF&F fan like me doesn’t come across too often – a Swedish science fiction film. Aniara is inspired by Nobel Prize-winner Harry Martinson’s 1956 poem, which was inspired by the Cold War era and the rapid proliferation of ever more power nuclear weapons and humanity’s seemingly mindless ability to use its intelligence to create new inventions that threatened our very existence.

The Aniara itself is a vast ship – really more a space city with engines – designed to take thousands of people in each trip, with comfortable cabins, swimming pools, bowling alleys, dance floors, shopping malls, restaurants and more. Think of a combination of hotel, cruise liner, major airport and shopping complex and you get the idea. She transports these thousands to a new home on Mars, swiftly, despite her city-sized bulk, with a voyage lasting only 23 days or so. We never see the full backstory, but the film is littered with references and inferences of the mess humanity has made of our own world, the only one in the whole solar system that we know could create and sustain life. Martinson’s original poem drew on the threat of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) during the nuclear stand-off of the Cold War, but here it is more suggestive of humanity ruining their own biosphere, a topic which obviously resonates with a contemporary audience (although the film was made before the latest Extinction Rebellion wave of environmental campaigning captured media attention).

‘MR’ (Jonsson) is a Mimarobe on the ship, and we see her first on the Space Elevator carrying huge numbers up to board the orbiting ship (for those of you not familiar with the concept, a Space Elevator is pretty much what is sounds like, a tether to the Earth at one end, to a platform in orbit at the other, elevator cars run up and down the cable, eliminating the expense and limited lifting power of rockets. Long an SF concept, they are seriously considered by NASA and others). There’s a beautifully handled combination of the awe of seeing the Earth from space, looking down upon a huge storm gathering below in the atmosphere, and the ingenuity of the Space Elevator itself, mixed with that feeling of the workaday familiarity of those who have done this too many times as work. Imagine how astonishing the sight of a speeding train once was to people, but how nowadays many of us slump against the window pane, half asleep as we commute – that’s MR as she rides the Elevator to her work on the ship.

MR’s role as a Mimarobe is akin to a form of therapy – she operates a semi-sentient computer system which can interact with human minds and memories. Within its space she uses it to calm passengers, with the system gifting each individual their own beautiful image of Earth (before it was ruined), tailored to them, letting them leave their bodies for a few moments, the experience leaving them calmer, content. Normally a way of keeping civilians quiet during the trip to the Mars colony, this becomes vital when a tiny piece of space debris strikes the vessel, damaging the engine core which has to be ejected, leaving the crew unable to steer the Aniara, which is now off course. As the fear of being trapped in space, perhaps for several years, until they can correct their course by sling-shotting another celestial body grows, MR’s function becomes a form of respite care and the demands for her services soar, overloading both her and the sensitive computer.

As it starts to become clear the crew may be unable to create the manoeuvre they promised and their voyage may be far longer than thought, understandably, despite MR’s efforts, morale starts to break, people under extreme stress start to act in odd ways. The ship becomes a floating microcosm of every kind of humanity, from the eternal optimist who keeps trying for the best to the fatalistic (MR’s room-mate, The Astronomer, told her even before they were lost that life and humanity had no real purpose in the infinity of space), to those who crack and start to develop bizarre cults as a coping method. The Aniara, once the gateway to a New World, like the liners of old who took emigrants to the Americas in the last century, has now become its own closed system, adrift, the view from all windows an eternal night of space, the decks within now a pressure cooker for competing behaviours and neuroses as the weeks turn to months turn to years.

There are some obvious plotholes in Aniara which may irk SF fans – quite why a vessel this large and advanced doesn’t have emergency engines in case of the main reactor being damaged or failing is peculiar. As is the fact the highly trained crew cannot conceive of any other method of altering her course – the ship is able to alter gravitational fields but can’t affect its own trajectory? It doesn’t have basic reaction-control thrusters like any other space vehicle? Heck, you could even use some of the atmosphere (the ship produces its own) as a reaction gas for a jury-rigged thruster to push you back on course (think on the repairs the Apollo 13 crew made in space with an old sock and duct tape and then wonder why a huge ship with a whole engineering staff can’t figure out something this basic?).

But that kind of criticism, while perhaps valid in terms of plot flaws, is more nitpicking – this isn’t a film about the hard science of navigating in space, after all. This is a film about people, both at the individual level and at the societal level, and how they react to shock and stress, and the enclosed environs of this drifting ship are a perfect stage for this kinds of emotional and psychological drama, and on that level alone Aniara scores highly in my view. We see everything from depression and suicide to religious fanaticism, authoritarianism, denial and more among the people now trapped on board Aniara, from the blood-soaked cabin of someone who couldn’t take it any longer to the mad partying and drinking and sex of others trying to forget their concerns, from rank despair at a meaningless existence to the hope of shared love and warmth, Aniara offers all of this richly human drama, viewed mostly through the eyes of MR. An unusual and highly compelling addition to world science fiction film.

Aniara will get a UK cinema release from 30th August and will also be on digital platforms via Arrowhead Films

EIFF 2019 – Liberté: A Call to Spy

Liberté: A Call to Spy,
Directed by Lydia Dean Pilcher,
Starring Sarah Megan Thomas, Stana Katic, Radhika Apte, Linus Roache, Rossif Sutherland, Andrew Richardson

This is a rare beast – an Indy WWII spy film, which is, I’m pleased to note, heavily female-centric, both in front of and behind the camera. Liberté had its premiere at the Edinburgh International Film Festival this weekend, including a good Q&A session with some of the film-makers and cast afterwards, and went down very well with the festival audience. While there have been many World War II spy films over the years, it is rare to see the female agents being foregrounded (the classic Carve Her Name With Pride sprang to mind, but not many others).

Pilcher’s movie, working from a script by Thomas (who also stars in the film as Virginia Hall), is inspired by real-life women who answered the call during the desperate days of the Second World War, as F-Section of the British SOE (Special Operations Executive) are attempting to infiltrate agents into Occupied France, despite knowing the far from favourable odds against survival. And they all know that if their cover is blown and they are arrested by the Nazis or Vichy regime, death is possibly the last of their worries, they will almost certainly face torture before any execution as spies. And yet these remarkable women still saw this as vital work that needed to be done and volunteered.

Two of the main agents we follow, Virginia Hall (Thomas) and Noor Inayat Khan (Apte) are among the first wave of women being sent into the field; you may be familiar with their names as both are based on real-life agents who risked all to ensure victory against the Nazis. Even if you have some familiarity with the real history, as I did, it doesn’t remove the excruciating sense of mounting tension that the film builds. Even before they have graduated from training in wartime Britain we’ve glimpsed a little of the mountain they have to climb, from the rampant sexism of the era through to a truly harrowing mock-torture scene designed to prepare the women for the sort of treatment they may face if captured by the Gestapo.

Noor, descended from Indian royalty is a gentle soul, but determined she must help fight the evil of Nazism, Virginia, an American in London (before the entry of the USA into the war) has been trying to become a diplomat but is repeatedly rejected by the State Department, partly on gender lines but also because she has an artificial limb (a leg lost during a hunting accident). Stana Katic’s Vera Atkins, technically a secretary a this point to F Section’s head Maurice Buckmaster (Roache), but really a manager of the department’s affair, pushes for the inclusion of more women agents in the field, and selects these women, among others, for that important first wave.

Katic’s Atkins is a complex character – she and her mother had fled the growing Nazi menace in Europe before the war, and she was not at this point a British citizen, and also concealing her Jewish heritage (anti-Semitism was pretty rampant in the era), mourning a lover posted as “missing in action”, and Katic has to convey all of this, the tightrope Atkins is walking every single day, in addition to the conflicting emotions her work is causing her. She is determined the women can and should be doing field work, and pushes them and supports them and fights their corner for their chance to show what they can do, but she is also racked with worry and guilt, knowing that some of those she is sending into the lion’s den are not going to come home. Noor’s pacifist, gentle upbringing clash with her compulsion to do all she can to fight evil, and also to show what Indians can accomplish (in the paternalistic, racist Imperial era), while Virginia’s determination that her disability will not stop her from fighting the good fight, despite being in constant physical pain, is nothing less than astonishing.

It’s a complex, competing stew of emotions from these three leading actors (the male actors, such as Roache’s Buckmaster or Rissman’s Klaus Barbie – the infamous “Butcher of Lyons” – also given strong performances but the emphasis, clearly, is on these three women). And that’s before factoring in the raw, unrelenting tensions of their work behind enemy lines, the constant looking over their shoulders, moving from safe house to safe house, never being able to be certain who they can trust and who they should be more wary of, aware all the time that anything may give them away, that any person they are dealing with may betray them as the Nazis and collaborating Vichy authorities hunt for them, and this is all happening within an SOE department that is learning the basics of how to operate agents in Occupied Europe, and learning the hardest way.

I found this to be a remarkable film – despite an Indy budget, clever use of locations and a lot of help means that you would never think that while watching the Liberté (Pilcher and Thomas both talked after the film about the generous assistance they had in obtaining some excellent locations and other necessary pieces thanks to a variety of helpers, there was a very warm sense of collaboration by so many to get this film made). That evocative 1940s wartime setting is beautifully shot, the narrative is tight and tense, the emphasis on the women’s roles is handled with power and also a huge sense of respect (the actors spoke to the audience afterwards about their compulsion to do right by the real historical women their characters are based on).

Liberté, while of course a period piece, like many period pieces also has parallels to our own troubled times, from the way women are treated and portrayed in our #MeToo era to the notion of “resistance” to the advance of the black-shirted forces of intolerant darkness, the need for us all to make a stand, to swallow our fear and still carry on. It’s an engrossing, tense spy thriller, a heavy emotional experience, and comes with some exceptional performances from the three women leads, the story having added force knowing that it is based on real events (can any of us imagine what we would have done under those desperate conditions? Would we have volunteered? Would we have been as brave as these women?). Liberté is a powerful piece of Indy cinema, and highly recommended.

Edinburgh International Film Festival 2019 - Cast & Crew of Liberte 03
(some of the cast and crew of the film talking after the premiere at the Edinburgh International Film Festival)

EIFF 2019 – Memory: the Origins of Alien

Memory: the Origins of Alien,
Directed by Alexandre O. Phillippe,
Exhibit A Pictures

Hard to believe, but here we are in the last third of June and that means Edinburgh International Film Festival time. My first screening out of the bunch I have booked was Memory: the Origins of Alien. You may know director Alexandre O. Phillippe for some of his very interesting previous documentaries, The People Vs George Lucas and Doc of the Dead (both highly recommended), and here he and his team have created another fascinating set of insights – this is not a standard making-of approach, rather this is an exploration of the myriad of people involved in the gestation of this now-iconic film, their thoughts, their inspirations, their dreams, their nightmares, the ingredients which would coalesce into the film Alien.

As anyone who has ever had to study Alien for an essay will know, it is one of those films that is replete with elements that can be endlessly debated and discussed, and some of those you are likely familiar with already, not least the surreal, dream-nightmare imagery of H.R. Giger, with its biomechanical, highly sexual motifs, which dovetails with other sexual aspects of the narrative (the “baby” alien chestbuster looking like a penis with teeth, as actor Veronica Cartwright put it, the “male rape” and insemination and the abomination of a birth), or the real-world parasitic insects which lay their eggs within other insects to feed from within then burst forth at birth inspiring what is now one of the most fabled scenes in cinema.


(above, the Furies, below, paintings by Francis Bacon, which fed into the idea for the chestbuster version of the Alien)

But Memory, while exploring these qualities, dives deeper, into the stories and myths that influenced Alien’s various creators, taking us from the Furies of Classical Greek culture (a beautifully shot scene takes us from Delphi, the “navel of the world” into a cave which becomes like an Alien set, right down to the laser beam from the egg cavern, except here the Furies wait below that glittering beam) to the paintings of Francis Bacon. Various talking heads comment, from academics to some of those personally involved, such as editor Terry Rawlings and art director Roger Christian, or co-writer Ron Shusett, with some clever use of archive interview material to allow some who have passed on, such a Giger or co-writer Dan O’Bannon, to be a part of the process, while others who worked with them also give us more insights into how those creators shaped their work, from early drafts, O’Bannon;s work with Carpenter on Dark Star and even his time with Giger on the Jodorowsky attempt to film Dune, all filtering into the eventual ideas in conjunction with the other film-makers.

As you may expect O’Bannon gets a lot of the running time here, as the original story creator, and we hear from his widow and from Shusett about “Star Beast” and how he knew he had something but he just couldn’t get past page 29 on the script, so Shusett pitched in, and the now-famous chestbuster scene was born. This scene, understandably, also takes a fair amount of the running time here – everyone involved, from the early drafts of the script (studio execs not being overly impressed until hitting that scene and experiencing their WTF moment) through to setting up of the actual scene, the puppet, the effects and filming it, they all knew this was where the film would live or die. It may now be one of the most well-known and important scenes in film history, but they had no way of knowing that when crafting that moment, and it is truly fascinating just how much went into its creation, from so many people.


(above, the now iconic chestbuster scene from Alien, below some early concept sketches for the scene, bottom: writer Dan O’Bannon on the Nostromo set)

And as for that iconic scene, so too for the whole film – Memory rather deftly tugs on the many different strands that went into the making of what we saw on the big screen, from childhood reading habits to art influences, to friendships or arguments that opened some doors or pointed people towards others. Of course all films are a gestalt entity – too often the director and the stars are the only ones focused on by the media, but those of us who love cinema are very aware of the huge amount of talents that go into the making of any film, and Memory beautifully, warmly. and with great respect for the creative process, shows how all those individuals, with all of their own histories and ideas and influences, work together to craft a feature film, in this case one that is now forty years old and assured of its place in cinematic history.

The EIFF screening also boasted a short post-show Q&A with producer Annick Mahnert who has worked with Phillippe before (he often uses a lot of the same team), and it was interesting to hear one of the team talk about how they brought together so many different strands of influences and people’s recollections to put together Memory, and she also let us know that their next film, which is mostly shot already but is now going into editing, will be about William Friedkin and the Exorcist, so I shall look forward to that.

Oh, and in case you are wondering, the “Memory” title comes from a very early version of the story by O’Bannon.

Cymera

From 7th to 9th of June I was at the very first Cymera festival of literary science fiction, fantasy and horror at the Pleasance in Edinburgh. I was chairing a triple-header with Ken MacLeod, Adrian Tchaikovsky and Gareth Powell, which turned into a very enjoyable event with the guys discussing their own work and space opera in general, as well as how they approach creating their works, from plot to characters to world building.

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On the first evening I saw Richard Morgan, who I haven’t seen in person for years. Some chums and I were early supporters of his work when his first book, Altered Carbon (now adapted by Netflix, with a second series on the way) came out back in the day (I still have my signed first edition).

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I caught a great discussion by Samantha Shannon – I liked her Bone Season, and several of us in the bookshop have been eager to have a look at her new standalone book (it may eventually be joined by other books, she said at the event) The Priory of the Orange Tree, the only problem being it is a huge tome and if I start on that (and I do want to!) it means several others books waiting on my pile.

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Obviously I couldn’t take any of the event I was chairing, but here are Gareth Powell, Ken MacLeod and Adrian Tchaikovsky about to sign for readers after our panel:

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This is Mike Cobley, Gavin Smith, and SJ Morden being interviewed by Andrew Lindsay at Cymera:

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Charlie Stross and Jonathan Whitelaw being interviewed by Andrew J Wilson:

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I hadn’t read Helen Grant, Clare McFall or Rachel Burge’s books (yet), but their panel on supernatural fiction sounded pretty interesting and I had a gap in my schedule, so I decided to check it out (trying new creators is part of going to festivals, surely?), and it proved to be very intersting (and a little spooky!)

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James Oswald (and his trademark pink jacket) is best known for his bestselling crime fiction (with a supernatural element), but his first love was fantasy and he began writing with his Sir Benfro series, which he discussed here with writer, tutor and former 2000 AD editor David Bishop:

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I really liked this element of Cymera – Brave New Words. Before the events in the main theatre new writers were given a few moments to do a reading from their work, a nice way to support new talent. Here’s Justin Lee Anderson –

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Den Patrick, Leo Carew and Rebecca Kuang discussing their fantasy worlds:

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I really enjoyed Tade Thompson and Aliette de Bodard’s talk, which took a different angle from more common Western cultural tropes. Tade’s debut novel Rosewater made my Best of the Year list for 2018 and the sequel Insurrection, out just a couple of months ago, is even better (reviewed here). I have Aliette’s books on order…

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Organiser Ann got a suprise ceremony and gift at the very end of the weekend as thank you for the whole festival. It was pretty damned amazing, especially for a first outing – I talked to a lot of writers and readers, and they all enjoyed themselves. Hats off to everyone who took part and organised it, fingers crossed it becomes an annual event.

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The Kid

The Kid,
Directed by Vincent D’Onofrio
Starring Dane DeHaan, Ethan Hawke, Chris Pratt, Jake Schur, Leila George

A boy with a gun ain’t a boy…

The story of Henry McCarty, better known as William H. Bonney, aka Billy the Kid, has long-since entered legend – really the young outlaw’s life was already half myth and legend even in his short lifetime (he was shot dead at the age of only 21), and he remains one of the most famous figures to come out of that short (but hugely influential in movies, TV and other media ever since) history of the Old West, and his relationship with Pat Garrett, the lawman who hunted him down, and it has been told and retold in many ways over the decades. The Kid takes a more unusual approach, however – you could take the title as a reference to DeHaan’s Billy, but equally it could apply to young Rio (Jake Schur), a teenage boy who, along with his older sister Sara (Leila George), finds himself in the orbit of Billy and Pat (Ethan Hawke).

The film begins with violence, a man beating his wife – Rio and Sara’s mother. Rio begs his brutal father to stop, but he keeps hitting his mother, until the teenage boy picks up his pistol and shoots him dead with it. He’s too late, his monster of a father had already beaten his mother to death. His father’s outlaw friends, headed by their uncle, Grant Cutler (his father’s brother) – a heavily-bearded Chris Pratt, playing against his regular type – are outside the simple homestead, hear the gun go off and try to break in, but the children escape, trying to flee through the night to Santa Fe where they know a friend of their mother lives. It is on this journey that they encounter Billy and his gang, shortly before they are captured by Pat Garrett and his lawmen.

As the story unfolds we see young Rio (named for the river, which Billy once lived near too) struggling with events – he feels he has to be the man of the family, protect his sister even though she is the older, and he is wrestling with his conscience; his father was a brutal abuser, he may well have deserved to be shot, but it’s still no small thing to take a life. This becomes a central issue for Rio, Pat and Billy. Both like the kid (although Garrett doesn’t know what he has done yet, but he suspects), and each of them will, at different points, talk to the boy about their lives, about how early circumstances in a hard life, even younger than he is now, shaped the existence they’ve lead, one outlaw, one lawman.

This is an era and place where men rarely talked about feelings, and the Western in general often sticks to that approach, stories where Real Men suck it in and just carry on without dwelling on what they have had to do. Not so here as both Hawke’s Garrett and DeHaan’s Billy both at different points round a night-time camp fire tell Rio about their youthful hardships and, crucially, about the first time they had to take a life. In both cases they start in a matter of fact way, but as the stories go on, the emotion wells up in their voices. I was reminded of William Munny in the brilliant Unforgiven, “it’s a hell of a thing to kill a man. Take away everything he ever was, everything he ever will be.” Yes, these are tough cowboys of the West, but they are still people and these events that marked them, made them, have had a deep psychological impact that they mostly hide within, but can share with Rio.

This emotional guilt and honesty touches young Rio as he worries about his own culpability in shooting his father. Both men, in their own ways, have reached out to him, bared their own emotional scars that are much like his (the loss of family in early life, the violence, the killing). Rio is, effectively, being given two alternative father figures in Billy and Pat, as he stands at a crossroads of his own life – which kind of path will he follow, one like Billy, or one like Pat? In fact will he get to choose, or will trying to rescue his sister from the monstrous Grant Cutler force him down a path regardless?

It’s unusual these days for us to see a Western – the genre that once dominated early cinema is now a rarity. Thankfully in The Kid we have a beautifully-shot Western that explores hard lives and hard decisions, they way they can shape us, dominate what we will become.

This is a slow-burn tale, with moments of sudden violence, with a rich emotional undercurrent, and some quite gorgeous cinematography. cinematographer Matthew J Lloyd deserves special praise on that score; film is, after all, a visual medium, and the Western requires strong, iconic visuals more than most genres. Here Lloyd’s lighting and camera moves and angles craft some beautiful cinematic scenes, making even some scenes set around the town gallows look striking, or Rio practising with a pistol, framed by a golden-leafed tree, many of the scenes drenched in that marvellous light quality of the American Southwest. That richness of the visuals and the emotional honesty of Rio, Garrett and Billy combine to make this an utterly absorbing take on an Old West legend.

The Kid is released by Lionsgate on DVD, Blu-Ray and Digital from June 3rd

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

We Read Comics podcast

Radio Summerhall, which operates a small studio for podcasting from Edinburgh’s very splendid Summerhall arts hub, boasts We Read Comics among its show, a new monthly series of podcasts discussing comics and graphic novels. Jenny Mayhew, Martin Zeller-Jacques, John McShane and myself follow a book group style format, where we take it in turns to choose a graphic novel to read then discuss.

Jenny, Marty and myself (sadly John couldn’t make it this month) recorded the May show this week, discussing Archer Coe: the Thousand Natural Shocks, by Jamie S Rich and Dan Christensen, published by American Indy outfit Oni Press. It’s a very Noir-style tale of a masked stage hypnotist who also takes on extra work for rich clients. When a wealthy banker asks him to use his mental powers to help cure his wife of her sexual problems, it seems straightforward, but in true Noir fashion of course it is anything but, and our man soon finds himself lost in a conspiracy and potentially framed for murder. Everyone has a secret and he can trust no-one – including himself and his own memories.

Is he being set up or has he been acting like a split personality and committing acts he has no conscious awareness of? Why does Hope, the business man’s wife, seem to know him when he has never seen her before? And what’s with the talking cats (who warn him not to get involved, smart kitties!)? Warning, there are some possible slight spoilers during the discussion, although given the twisting nature of the narrative I doubt they will spoil anyone’s rading of the book. You can find the previous three episodes on Mixcloud and on the Radio Summerhall site here.

Destroyer

Destroyer,
Directed by Karyn Kusama,
Starring Nicole Kidman, Sebastian Stan, Toby Kebell, Tatiana Maslany, Scott McNairy, Jade Pettyjohn

The detective haunted by past mistakes is such a regular part of the crime movie, that it can be tempting to shrug your shoulders when you see another, but that would be a mistake in the case of Destroyer. Yes, it does mine that oft-excavated vein of mistakes and regrets, but there are several aspects to it that I found made it stand out from so many others. First of all it’s relatively rare to see a woman in the haunted, broken detective role (let alone a woman who carries much of the film), secondly the film takes a very realistic, almost dirty approach to its world and its characters (there is no glamour here, no stylised Noir look to soften the brutality and the regrets, Julie Kirkwood’s outstanding cinematography alternates lonely highways, bleached sunlight or miserable rain, or decrepit, filthy apartments), and thirdly, there is an absolute stand-out (and indeed Golden Globe-nominated) performance from an almost unrecognisable Nicole Kidman (hats off to Bill Corso, Tamil Lane and the rest of the make-up team).

Kidman’s Erin Bell is a burned-out LAPD detective, fallen from her heights as a hot-shot, undercover FBI agent. The special make-up and her performance combine to give us a woman who isn’t just haunted by past mistakes, she’s all but broken under their weight, everything from her blotchy skin and dishevelled hair and clothes to her limping walk and body posture indicates someone not just burdened with a heavy past, but someone who is deep in self-loathing and guilt from it. This isn’t just the mistakes made, this is a person who hates themselves. As the film progresses we flashback between the case Bell is investigating now and the one which went so wrong during her FBI days, the two less colliding together, more being woven into one narrative separated by the years.

The film takes a much more realistic approach than many other crime films – when people fight here there is none of the usual tropes of a grunt when hit then our hero gets right back up, when Bell gets punched, she falls like a real person in pain, throwing up, bleeding. That lack of glamour extends well beyond Kidman’s disfiguring make-up and shabby appearance, even to a sex scene which is possibly one of the least erotic I’ve seen in cinema (a grudging, miserable sex act performed as the price for information, another part of her eroded self-respect worn away). Her self-loathing has alienated all around her, from her partner in the force to her estranged husband and an out of control daughter, everything she is involved in seems toxic, and yet there are hints here of a desperation for some sort of redemption, to help her daughter, to stop her partner being dragged into her mess.

Toby Kebell’s Silas (the criminal behind the incident which ruined her career and toxified her life), and her former FBI partner and lover Chris (Avengers’ Sebastian Stan) both offer excellent support, while the structure of the film toys a little with our expectations of just what mistakes younger Bell made, revealing pieces, tying in to the present-day case and narrative in a very satisfying way, aided by that atmospheric cinematography, the sight of the younger Bell contrasting strongly with the older, ruined version.

But really this is Kidman’s film, she buries herself into the role of Bell, emotionally, physically and mentally, you can feel the damaged edges of Bell’s life, the raw guilt that leaves her feeling that she doesn’t deserve any better, yet still clutches at a chance for some tiny redemption. I’m not going to risk spoilers by going into the plot too much, besides a lot of what works here is the atmosphere, the visuals and the raw, damaged, emotionally-scarred performance by Kidman. A powerful, unusual and haunting addition to the cop with a dark past oeuvre.

Destroyer is released on Digital Download from May 20th, and on DVD and Blu-Ray by Lionsgate from May 27th

New life

Out walking along the nearby Union Canal, and at last managed to get some decent photos of the swans with this year’s cygnets. I’ve managed to bag pics of them in previous years (I wonder if it is the same swan couple who return to this area each year?), and had heard from friends that they and their babies were in the area, but each time I walked along that way I didn’t encounter them, until a few days ago.

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The whole family was on the ramp by the towpath, across from the old boathouse at Harrison Park, some preening themselves while out of the water, others sleeping, while the mother and father swans kept guard so nobody got too close. I managed to take several photos, the cygnets still in the utterly adorable “fluffy” stage of down rather than full feathers yet, beautiful wee things. Amazing the magical sights you can find just a few moments from your home…

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I’ve seen the swans and the ducks along this stretch of the canal with their babies a number of times over the years, but each spring it is still something special and quite wonderful to see, and with so much uncertainty and trouble in the world it’s no bad thing to be reminded of the magic and beauty of nature all around us.

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And there goes the whole family, off for a wee paddle down the canal after their rest!

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Blue

Blue,
Directed by Karina Holden,
Sparky Pictures

Wherever you live on our planet, you are connected to the sea.”

This powerful and thoughtful documentary by Karina Holden (Magical Land of Oz) arrives at a very opportune time, as recent reports on the unbelievable amounts of plastic waste in our oceans is highlighted in reports and the media, and the Extinction Rebellion movement is pushing the environment further up the news and political agenda. Blue is a sort of ensemble documentary, taking in different aspects of human-made problems in different parts of our vast world oceans, with several guides, Lucas Handley, Madison Stewart, Philip Mango, Doctor Jennifer Lavers, Tim Silverwood, Mark Dia and veteran diver and campaigner for aquatic life, Valerie Taylor, taking us from bleached corals to the industrial slaughter of sharks to seabirds dying of malnutrition with stomachs full of small pieces of plastic and sea turtles dying a long, slow, lingering death caught in abandoned old fishing nets.

From that you may well infer that Blue is pretty heavy going, and in places you are correct – in fact there are moments here that are not just disturbing but sickening and horrific. Lavers performs an autopsy on a young fledgling, which died while still in the “fluffy” stage, its flight feathers not even fully formed. She strokes the tiny, vulnerable body very gently, her sorrow as yet another animal killed by our throwaway junk culture quite clear from her body language and how she handles the small body. When her autopsy reaches the stomach it crunches when pressed, because inside it is full of pieces of plastic, bits of old buttons, pen tops and more, which the chick’s parents had seen floating in the water, mistaken for food and taken back to feed the chick.

Stewart walks among Indonesian fisherman landing large numbers of sharks. She spots many species she has swum with back home in Australian waters, but these are all relatively small, because the fishermen are catching younger and younger sharks, and since this species is slow to mature and reach sexual reproduction levels, this over-fishing is especially devastating, giving little space for the species to recover, new sharks to mature. As the lifeless corpses are hauled into the sheds with hooks, they are lined up and then assaulted with knives, cutting off the fins – the mutilated remains of the bodies are then dumped back in the oceans, the fins sent off to richer markets, often China. It is to Stewart’s credit that while clearly revolted by this mass slaughter for so little (over seventy million sharks a year), she doesn’t blame the fisherman entirely, she is aware that most of these coastal villages are extremely poor, that they know the sea, they know they cannot continue like this, and yet if they don’t then they and their families will starve, they have nothing else but to harvest these creature’s fins to sell to richer markets.

Each of the experts and campaigners here shines a light on different aspects of how humanity is destroying the oceans, from industrialised fishing that exhausts the seas far beyond their ability to regenerate, to disgusting, huge amounts of plastic pollution (not just floating and looking bad but breaking into smaller pieces that life, from microscopic krill upwards eat, then they are eaten by larger fish, dolphins and whales and birds, moving this pollution up the food-chain – eventually to humans), to the increasing damage to delicate corals (and the great array of life they support around them) to the many old nets cut loose by fishermen around the world, drifting slowly in the currents and all-too often claiming more lives – an especially horrific scene shows a long string of nets, dotted with several bodies of seals, gently bobbing in the underwater current, dead. It’s sickening. And as one expert replies when asked who is responsible for all of this, we all are.

But no, this is not just about the horrors humans have inflicted – often not deliberately, just mindlessly, careless of the consequences of our actions – there is also a huge amount of beauty and even wonder to take in here too. There is some truly beautiful cinematography on offer in Blue, which stands in stark contrast to the vileness of the scenes of pollution or the large-scale slaughter. An early aerial shot shows clear water with moving dark patches – for a moment it looks like oil slicks, but then the dark patches move and it becomes clear these are huge shoals of fish, their movements synchronised, creating what looks from the air like dark moving blobs, then we are below the waves, the silvery, teeming balls of fish zipping and darting around Silverwood as he free-dives among them. In another scene he floats upside down as a whale floats above him, as if man and cetacean are observing one another peacefully. It’s stunningly beautiful, majestic, delivering a real sense of wonder – and reminding us what we’re fighting to save.

Blue is a mixture of the shocking and disturbing and even horrific contrasted with remarkable beauty and wonder, and for all the human-made disasters visited on the oceans – the seat of all life on our blue planet – there is a positive message here: we can slow then stop this brutal assault on the natural world (which is, in the long-term, an assault on ourselves too), we can undo some of the damage, protect others sites (the film highlights how some parts of the seas are now getting the protection national parks enjoy on land), and the film actively encourages the viewers to consider what we can all do as individuals to try and help.

There’s a fight going on here, and despite a depressing toll of awfulness, there is hope, there is still a chance, and Blue, for all the devastation in our oceans that it shows, retains a lot of positive energy and optimism that is infectious. More of us should be watching this and thinking about these issues, no matter how far from our own shores some of these events may be, as the opening quote reminds us, all our shores are connected to those great, globe-spanning tides on our vast world of water, and we all have a responsibility to it.

Blue Trailer from Blue The Film on Vimeo.

Blue is available now on digital on demand, and will be released on DVD on July 1st by Sparky Pictures Ltd.