Comics on cinema: Filmish

Filmish : A Graphic Journey Through Film,

Edward Ross,



Cinema. Comics. Two media which have, essentially grown up together through the 20th century, both still evolving today. And both have been intertwined for the best part of a century; today comics characters dominate the top end of the mega box office with films like The Avengers, while the vibrant Indy comics scene feeds into the equally vibrant Indy movie scene (think the wonderful Crumb biopic or Ghost World). It’s not a new relationship – in the earliest days as both comics and film were finding their way as mass media, still inventing what they could do, early comics genius Winsor McCay was dabbling in some of the first animated films. By the 30s and 40s Hollywood would already be mining comics for ideas: Flash Gordon, Batman, Dick Tracey. Cinema and comics have evolved a lot over the last century and a bit, and I find it deeply satisfying that one strongly visual medium, comics, is here being used to discuss another visually rich medium, film.

I first encountered Edward Ross and his Filmish series as a wee A5 self-published mini comic in the Edinburgh Filmhouse, and I loved it straight away. Each issue over the next few years would pick a theme to explore, using clever visuals and some very well-done research to explore various ideas and theories about cinema, some technical, some artistic, some ideological and sociological, taking in a wide variety of topics, from the power of the image and how much we can trust it (or manipulate it for effect) to the technology (both the tech used to make film and also the movie stories often explore our relationship with technology) to sociological and psychological implications, such as social hegemony, celebrating or vilifying the Outsider, the representations of class, gender, religion, race, and, something cinema is remarkable at, discussing what John Berger called our “ways of seeing”.


Appropriately enough the first themed chapter is The Eye, looking at not just the human eye, but that wonderful mechanical (now digital) eye invented by human ingenuity: the camera. We’re surrounded by visual imagery today; pretty much anyone can shoot a video clip on their phone and upload it within minutes to share online. But in the first few pages here Ed capture brilliantly the sheer magic of early cinema and the astonishing notion of being able to see moving pictures. Think about it for a moment; through all the long millennia of human civilisations we’ve had art – from cave paintings 30, 000 years ago to the seemingly eternal carvings of the Egyptians to the glories of the Renaissance. And yet in all those thousands of years it was only in the closing years of the 19th century that human beings could see the world around them – animals, the sea, trains, other people – in moving images, recorded for posterity, images they could return to and re-watch. How astounding must that have been to those first audiences? Even today there is a magic in this, from that moment when the house darkens and the first images start to appear on a cinema screen, the feeling of going on a journey, or the simple pleasure of home movies, from the old 8MM to modern hi-def videos, moments of time preserved, which we can go back to again and again. Decades on we can go back and see loved ones long gone, but on film they are still moving, walking, smiling, living. Magic.

But there is much more to the act of seeing than just observing, and Ed touches on this topic numerous times, not just in the chapter on The Eye but in later chapters – there is how we see, and how the camera sees. How early on there was more trust, the adage of the “camera never lies”, a naïve assumption of course, every image ever shot will contain some deliberate elements from the photographer. Sometimes it is as simple as what they chose to show in the frame and what they omitted. At other times, as Ed discusses in later chapters on Power and Ideology, it is more sinister, more thought-out, a planned use of imagery, edits, cross-cuts and other techniques carefully used to create a specific message, be it blatant propaganda films beloved by Goebbels or the more insidious messages which many mainstream movies carry, some in an obvious, heavy-handed way (think of the ‘anti-red’ messages blatant in some McCarthy era movies in the US) or mainstream movies which celebrate military achievements and actively collaborate with the armed forces to make the film (giving the authorities direct influence over the making of the film and its message), or more subtle messages, such as supposed societal norms being reinforced (marriage, family, heterosexuality, gender roles) and how some films transgress these notions, often to powerful effect.


Time and space are essential qualities in cinema – the imagery can show us an endless variety of spaces, from galaxies far away to the sweeping, iconic landscapes of a John Ford Western, while also recording specific moments, thoughts and actions in time, held forever in the camera’s eye. And of course cinema can manipulate those aspects of reality in a way we poor humans cannot – we’re forever stuck in a linear timeline, able to look in one direction at a time. The film can show us multiple viewpoints, long panoramas or intimate close-ups and do so rapidly, or even merge scenes in a way the human eye cannot. And it can play with time; early film genius Georges Melies discovering the edit through a glitch, a camera jam, a technique now everyday but a century ago revolutionary. You could pause the camera, cut to other scenes, use it for effects (like making a person seemingly disappear), you could have slow-motion, you could reverse the flow of images, you could show events happening at the same time or different times within a few moments of filmic sequence, powers of time and space manipulation we don’t have in the real world but which film frees us to explore.

These are not just cinematic and storytelling techniques, they also suggest to the human eye and mind different notions about how we perceive the world around us and why we do – as if the invention of the film camera had added an extra sensory layer to those given to our bodies by natural selection. And that is another strength of Filmish – Ed doesn’t just examine some aspects of film-making and how we view cinema, he goes into how these processes have affected our thinking. Filmish is replete with references and quotes to numerous academic theorists throughout. This is a book which celebrates movies but also questions the medium and it offers up some of the academic tools to help with that process of thinking and questioning not just what we se,e but why we see it, why the film-makers decided to show something in a specific manner and more, to develop that critical faculty while still retaining a simple love for the moving image as well, and in this I think Filmish succeeds spectacularly.


Having read many of the same theorists cited here back in my college days I can say I am impressed not just with the depth of research Ed has put in here, but how wonderfully accessible he makes it using the comics medium, and the book comes complete with an extensive bibliography and filmography for those wishing to explore some of those topics further. And given we live in such a media-rich environment, a media which is hugely influential, it is no bad thing to have more of us thinking critically about what that media is being used for and how it is made and consumed. And the filmography will leave you with a list of movies you really want to seek out, or perhaps old favourites you will feel compelled to revisit again. And this time perhaps you will look at those films a little differently.

But I don’t want to give the impression this is all about academic theorists in comics form, stroking their chins and talking about the intertextual nature of the postmodern image (yes, I have had lecturers use sentences like that). While Ed presents the film studies side of things very well and accessibly, he never lets it get in the way of simply revelling in the magic of the medium, of the power of the moving image, how it can inspire us, horrify us, make us sigh, weep, laugh and dream. While this is a more text-heavy work than most comics, the artwork is still important here, and there are multiple delights to be had, from lovely splash pages (Melies mastering his early techniques, the amazing cityscape of Metropolis) to many smaller, intimate panels using scenes from so many films across more than a century, Ed often adding his own comic avatar into some scenes in appropriate stance and costume (I think he enjoyed doing that!). And for those of us forever in love with cinema there’s the simple delight of recognition of films from Ed’s panels, the flash of memory at seeing art depicting a scene from the movies we’ve loved, from the nightmarish twisted angles of Doctor Caligari to Goddard’s oh-so-cool Breathless or Kubrick’s 2001, and the memories they stir in us because those images are powerful, woven into our collective culture but also into our personal thoughts.


It’s a beautifully realised work, both celebrating and questioning cinema, richly illustrated with art that any film lover will recognise right away (and there is a simple film geek “trainspotting” pleasure to noticing the references – go on, admit it, you’re probably already done it just with the cover, haven’t you, how many did you spot right away?), while the structural idea of having themes for each chapter, a device carried over from the original mini-comics (although even the elements which made it from the originals have been extensively expanded and re-worked and re-drawn) gives a flow to the reading here. It’s a rich read, both in imagery and ideas, one medium used to cleverly explore another, and it offers pleasures to both the film-lover, to those of us who’ve waded through film-studies academia and also to those who have never given film studies a thought it is so accessible and friendly a read that they won’t be put off in any way (and indeed they may find themselves thinking a bit more about film and wanting to explore some of the references in the bibliography).

Ultimately Filmish is a book simply in love with cinema – not unquestioningly, it looks, it examines, it encourages the reader to do likewise – but it also remembers to just let ourselves go, to marvel at the magic of the movies and to re-experience that sense of wonder. A film-lover’s delight.

Hollywood Noir, the glamour and the sleaze in The Fade Out

The Fade Out Volume 1,

Ed Brubaker, Sean Phillips,



Like all the best Noirs, The Fade Out is set in that strange, twilight realm between night and day, the everyday, normal life and the shadow world’s intrigues and weird ways, forever in the shadow of the War. It’s 1948, and places don’t come much more in-between reality and perverse fantasy than Hollywood, it’s manufactured dreams, carefully designed and polished stars and the powerful moguls behind the studios.

Charlie Parish is a screenwriter, working away on another new film, one designed to finally make Valeria Sommers the huge star the studio owner Victor Thursby thinks she should be, the “next Veronica Lake”. There are only two real problems for them – aside from the usual power plays, deviancy and gender abuse going on in Hollywood’s old studio system – but they’re fairly major problems. Charlie can’t write anymore. He tries, but the bright spark that marked him out as a rising star scriptwriter a few years ago was crushed out during the war. Fortunately his friend Gil works with him – Gil has already been blacklisted in the start of the reds-under-the-beds scare as the Cold War slowly works its way into American life, so no studio will touch him; now he works covertly with Charlie on the scripts he’s meant to be writing but can’t, a delicate but mutually beneficial arrangement.


And the second problem? That’s slightly harder to fix than Charlie’s writer’s block. Valeria is dead, only a few pages into the story. Strangled and left lying on her living room floor. And what’s worse is a hungover Charlie wakes in her bathtub and finds the body, realising he must have come home with her after an out of control party the night before and that whoever murdered her did it while he was drunkenly asleep in the next room, totally unaware. Knowing he would be the prime suspect if discovered he carefully conceals any evidence of his own presence in her house and leaves furtively, later pretending to be shocked when Dottie, one of the studio’s press team, tells him the news of Valeria’s death.

Sick at her sudden, violent death and even sicker at the thought he’s had to lie about it to protect himself, Charlie’s already war-damaged psyche and moral guilt compass is about to be kicked in the head, when the studio’s head of security lets slip to him while talking to the police about the case that Valeria hung herself. But Charlie knows she didn’t – she was strangled, murdered, but he can’t say without admitting that he was there and covered it up. But if he doesn’t then the murderer walks free…

He looks around and can’t tell whose grief is real and who’s just putting on show in case the press is watching.”


Naturally, in the best Noir tradition there is much more to it than this morally intriguing conundrum for Charlie – as he tries to walk a path around Valeria’s death, trying to keep his increasingly drunken, angry friend Gil on the straight and narrow (and their writing arrangement secret) the seedy, shadowy world of Hollywood draws him deeper into moral turpitude, and his sense of self-loathing and broken innocence, shattered first by his experiences in the war (like so many damaged anti-heroes of Noir fiction) then degraded more by witnessing the sleaze behind the velvet curtain of the movie world, grows, and no amount of parties or drink can still it, and every days seems to simply add more sleaze, more problems, more things he hates himself for being a part of but unable to do anything about or to walk away from, while Valeria’s presence hovers over the story, a ghost with glamour in the way only those great 30s and 40s stars could pull off.

It will surprise no-one who has read Criminal or Fatale to learn that Brubaker and Phillips have fashioned a dark labyrinth peopled by lost, damaged souls, some just slightly damaged, some truly damned, dripping with Noir imagery leavened by that beautiful 40s Hollywood glamour (Phillips creating some truly gorgeous interpretations of the film magazines of the period to show the late Valeria in real period style, pose and lighting, very recognisable to anyone who loves their film history), that beautiful but utterly artificial dream the studios sell to the audiences.

As with Criminal and Fatale, the deeper into the story, the more the moral quagmire deepens, the more the characters become lost in their own late-night labyrinthine maze of the soul, and just like reading Chandler or Hammett we’re pulled in there with them, fascinated and disgusted in equal measure, while, despite the increasing complexity Brubaker maintains a tight, well-paced narrative, perfectly partnered with Phillips’ artwork, which draws heavily on the films of the period, re-creating that perfect Noir atmosphere, be it a late-night city street or a darkened office with feeble light struggling through the slats of the blinds. You feel you ought to be wearing a Fedora while reading it.


Beautifully crafted art by Phillips (with wonderfully moody colouring by Elizabeth Breitweiser) and sharp dialogue and perfectly honed Noir narrative by Brubaker, and that feeling that while one writes and one draws, this is real collaboration, the pair obviously operating on the same wavelength, and oh how it shows to such lovely effect in the finished tale. I could probably just have given you a much shorter review and recommendation: it’s Brubaker and Phillips – you want it.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Night Will Fall

Back in the autumn I went to my second home, Edinburgh’s wonderful Filmhouse, to watch a remarkable documentary, Night Will Fall. Actually it’s more a documentary about a documentary – as World War Two faded into its final days in 1945 and the Allies liberated the concentration camps, camera teams were sent in to record and document the hideous atrocities, partly for evidence for the planned war crime trials, partly because even then they knew some people would say it never happened, or it had been exaggerated. The British team had film reels from British, American and Soviet teams and decided to also make a full length documentary film (appropriately, given British cinema in the 20s and 30s was the birthplace of modern documentary film). Sadly for various reasons, some political, the plug was pulled just after the war and the film, which was two thirds complete, was left in limbo, unseen, for decades, despite a script by Richard Crossman (later the famous politician and diarist) and having involvement by Alfred Hitchcock. Seven decades on and Andre Singer has made Night Will Fall, telling the story of this project.

night will fall film poster

And while I note this as one of the most impressive films I saw in 2014, I must also say it was, quite simply, the hardest film I have ever sat through. I’ve watched every kind of horror film there is over the decades, but this was true horror, the sort it is hard not to turn away from, the sort that makes you spiritually and physically ill. I have never seen an audience leave a cinema in a silence that roared so loud. Obviously given I knew this was about the Holocaust I knew to expect this going in. But you can’t really prepare yourself for it. In one scene we see captured German guards forced to clear up the piles of bodies of the murdered they hadn’t had time to bury or cremate before the Allies reached their camps (the soldiers could smell them long before they saw them, the stench of the dead and of the diseased, weakened survivors, giving lie to German civilians nearby who pretended they didn’t know what was going on). You see them picking the bodies off of piles, hoisting them over their shoulders, the arms and heads loll horribly, like a marionette with the strings cut. This was a person. This obscene thing was once someone’s dad, mum, aunt, sister, brother, son, daughter, reduced to this thing after abject, long suffering… It’s beyond vile. And those are just the remains that can be seen, not including the ones who went up the chimneys from ovens designed for human bodies…

Why the hell did I subject myself to watching something like this, you might ask? A few days before I saw this in the cinema Nigel Farage and his odious Ukip band of bigots made a deal with a far right Polish party. A party whose leader denies the Holocaust (among many other reprehensible beliefs he holds on women and other groups). This was not even for ideological reasons, Farage cosied up to this bastard and his party simply for money-grubbing reasons, to get funding for a group of like-minded parties in the European parliament. I was already considering going to see this, but that decided me – when a British politician is making deals with right wing Holocaust deniers it makes it all the more important more of us see this film, not matter how horribly hard we find it to watch what monsters in a human skin can do to others. Because we need to be reminded where their kind of bigotry leads to – first of all it is treat them different because they are ‘different’ from us, so it becomes acceptable to talk about them like that in public, in the media. Then demand legislation to legally differentiate their rights from other citizens. And then what? Smashed windows? A new crystal nacht? Then it is okay to treat them any way you want, remove them from society, put them in camps… We have been down this road. We know that small starts like that sort of xenophobic bigotry can lead to the most awful acts imaginable.

The documentary makes the point that this happened in a civilised, educated, Western society in the heart of Europe, and given the right manipulation of people’s opinions this could happen anywhere, again. And right now every country sees a rise in these right wing movements attacking immigrants, multi-culturalism, the place of women, gays, anyone who they think is ‘different’. And there is Farage, his “cheeky chappy with pint and ciggie” mask revealed for what it is, an odious little creature who happily makes deals with a party of Holocaust deniers, for which there can be no forgiveness (and why has this not been more widely debated in the media?? How can any UK politician get away with doing that in this day and age??). There is an old adage about dreadful events which we, as individuals are powerless to prevent – but if we cannot stop it (and obviously we cannot stop an even that happened decades ago) we can still bear witness. We bear witness so that it will be remembered and not allowed to happen again. And so I watched Night Will Fall, all the way through, hard as it was. On January 24th, as part of Holocaust Memorial Day, Channel 4 will be screening the film on British television. It is difficult to watch, I know, but please try. And Farage, perhaps you should watch this then explain to the entire British electorate why you are making friends with scum like your Polish Holocaust denying party chums.

Music in film

It’s probably not surprising given I am a huge cinephile that I also really enjoy a lot of film soundtrack music. The other day I was listening to Gershwin when the album reach Rhapsody in Blue and right away I was mentally visualising that wonderful monochrome opening to Woody Allen’s Manhattan “he adored New York… for him it still pulsated to the great music of George Gershwin…”

And it made me think how sometimes certain pieces of music can become eternally associated with a scene from a film. I don’t just mean original soundtrack music – like John Williams’ opening for the original Star Wars, for instance, conjuring up that amazing (for the time, young me had seen nothing like these gigantic ships thundering across the screen after the opening crawl of text) opening of that saga, or Hans Zimmer’s powerful Inception soundtrack. No, I was thinking on music which had existed in its own right before being borrowed for us in a film – sometimes it can be a little known piece of music, or at least little known to the wider public, such as Barber’s Adagio in Platoon or Strauss’ waltz in the famous space docking sequence in 2001. Obviously classical music admirers knew those, but the films brought them to a wider audience and also indelibly linked those pieces forever in most people’s minds with those scenes in the movies.

Of course there is Herman Hupfeld’s “As Time Goes By” which originally dated from the early 1930s, but really became better known – any by better known I mean immortal – in the 1940s when used in Casablanca. If not for that I doubt most of us would ever have heard of the song, whereas now if we hear it we connect it to one of the best films of all time right away.

Sometimes it can be a well-known track a lot of folk had in their collection from years back, which suddenly leaps back into the pop-cultural landscape, fresh for a new audience, a nostalgic flashback for older fans. Iggy Pop’s Lust For Life suddenly gained a second lease of life when used in the pounding opening of the film version of Trainspotting:

Or Gary Jules’ cover of Tears for Fears’ “Mad World” for Donnie Darko:

And arguably these days for a lot of folk these days those songs will always be associated with the films. And then there’s the great use of Queen’s mid 1970s hit Bohemian Rhapsody for 90s cult hit Wayne’s World:

And Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock & Roll” with a very young Tom Cruise dancing around in his socks in Risky Business:

And the Pixies’ brilliant “Where is my mind?” for the closing of Fight Club:

And a personal favourite of mine, Goth classic “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” by Bauhaus used in the opening to The Hunger – this one going so far as to actually use Pete Murphy and the boys in the film:

And there are hundreds more – think Steppenwolf’s rock classic “Born to be Wild” in Easy Rider, the Doors and even Wagner in Apocalypse Now and goodness knows how many more, classical, jazz, pop, rock that either existed before but were little known until selected for use in a film scene or else they had enjoyed their moment of success and suddenly found themselves with a second bite at the cherry (Quentin Tarantino has done both numerous times in pretty much every film soundtrack he’s ever made). I’m sure you can think of plenty of other similar examples off the top of your head.

Jarmusch goes vamp: Only Lovers Left Alive

Only Lovers Left Alive,

Dir: Jim Jarmusch,

Starring: Tilda Swinton, Tom Hiddleston, Mia Wasikowska, John Hurt

only lovers left alive movie poster

Adam (Hiddlestone) and Eve are vampires, husband and wife, lovers for centuries, but sometimes spending long periods apart, she currently living in Tangiers, walking the night-time streets of North Africa and paying visits on a very old friend (John Hurt), who happens to be the playwright Marlowe. Adam, a gifted musician, has a touch of the Byronic about him, now living in a decaying mansion on a deserted street of an abandoned neighbourhood of Detroit, surrounded by his instruments and his music, but slipping into a brooding melancholia, withdrawing from the world, refusing to even release any of the new music he’s created, hiding from fans who try to seek out his hiding place. His depression at the world after centuries, of the masses of humanity (who he refers to as “the zombies”) who seem oblivious to the wonders they could create and instead seem hell-bent on poisoning both themselves and their world. His ennui has driven him to consider a possible method of suicide before Eve, sensing his depression and need crosses the world to be with him (no small thing when you can only risk travelling on planes which fly and arrive during the hours of darkness).

only lovers left alive tilda swinton john hurt

But this is a Jim Jarmusch film, and as such the narrative really isn’t the most important element; like the Coens movies Jarmusch creates films where a synopsis of plot (like the first paragraph here) only tell you a tiny bit about the film – as with the Coens these are films to be experienced, not just watched. There’re some beautifully crafted scenes and shots, the cinematography is, as usual for Jarmusch, beautiful, often luscious, some scenes posed almost like an old oil painting, beautifully composed, others employ unusual angles and tracking shots (such as slow, close up following the characters as they drink blood and sink backwards in pleasure, the camera moving with them), the nocturnal streets of Tangiers lit by streetlights are intoxicating, promising exotic wonder but also danger, even the abandoned streets of whole deserted neighbourhoods around Adam’s home in Detroit have a sad crumbling beauty as he drives through them in his vintage Jaguar XJS by night.

only lovers left alive tilda swinton 02

The pace is relaxed, languid even, frequently moving like a slow, hashish-inspired dream (again not unusual for Jarmusch of course). What’s the rush when you have centuries? Art and culture and the importance they play in making life (even long, immortal life) not just bearable but worthwhile play a major part – for Adam it’s his music, Marlowe, unsurprisingly writing (there’s some nice dark humour about his mutterings about Shakespeare), Eve seems to soak up everything around her in the most sensual manner, Swinton evincing almost childlike delight at all manner of things, from the howls of feral dogs in abandoned Detroit streets to Adam’s old instruments (she has an uncanny ability to date them just by their touch) or soaking in literature (a beautiful scene sees her devouring pages of books at rapid speed, hand tracing down the lines rapidly as her vampire senses take in a page in a couple of seconds, the fingers moving left to right, then on to Arabic and Chinese, reading the other way, the expression of pleasure on her face and in her eyes). Her home in Tangiers is littered with books everywhere (reminds me of my own home on that score…).

This could have been a gloomy, brooding piece – something that’s perhaps been done too often in vamp fiction in recent decades, the oh so weary immortal tired of it all – but actually it’s romantic and frequently touching. Adam and Eve’s centuries-long romance is rather lovely; she senses his depression and knows she needs him, as she explores his current home she notices a very early photograph of the pair of them from the 1860s, a wedding photo – their third wedding, she comments with a smile, and the scenes of them wrapped around each other slumbering through the daylight hours is very romantic (both preternaturally slender and pale – good use of Swinton’s ethereal presence and quality). There’s also a seam of gentle, playful humour – he shows her a vintage guitar he purchased, she runs her hands lovingly, slowly, over it – a 1905 LePaul, Eve tells him. Oh, she’s an old one, Adam comments. Darling, your dressing gown is a century older… And there’s a nice scene where Eve, to cheer up Adam, freezes some Type O blood he got from the hospital on sticks to eat like ice lollies.

only lovers left alive film 01

And for all their immortality it’s clear that really they are as vulnerable as mere mortals, rarely sinking their fangs into victims anymore, partly because unlike a few centuries ago you can’t just drain someone and throw the body away in the street or river, it will be investigated, partly because of that poisoning Adam so despises, the contamination also in the blood of many, which makes them ill. They rely on specialised medical sources who can provide pure blood for a price, anything which might reveal them to authorities or threaten their food source and turns out they’re as vulnerable as anyone else… It’s a lovely, soft, slow, languid, sensual piece – if you’re not a Jarmusch fan then it won’t convert you, but you’re missing out on a lovely film from one of our consistently interesting directors, not to mention some luscious visuals and an intriguing soundtrack that stays in your head long after the film finishes.

only lovers left alive swinton hiddleston naked


Directed Alfonso Cuarón
Starring Sandra Bullock, George Clooney

gravity movie poster

I’ve been eager to see Gravity for some time – Alfonso Cuarón’s take on PD James novel The Children of Men was a remarkable and powerful movie. This, originally, was to be his ‘quick’ movie after that long slog, but ended up taking several years instead, not least because they had to invent whole new ways of shooting to create the remarkable visual effects. Creating the effect that a person or a ship is in space is not new, of course, it’s been done with varying degrees of success for decades on the big screen, from the realistic approach of 2001 to the scientifically silly but visually wonderful style of Star Wars. Gravity follows more in the realistic mode of 2001 – no deep bass rumbles of mighty ships in the void (where there isn’t any atmosphere to transmit sound) and no sudden and graceful movements of winged craft that fly like planes (even though that is not how you maneuver in space), instead the only sound is inside your helmet or radio, movement is in line with Newton’s laws and the way a body travels in a gravity free, airless environment.


What it does differently from 2001 and other films which tried to portray space exploration as it really is though, is the depiction of being in a zero-gee environment. Cuarón and his team had to really battle to come up with filming systems to allow them to make their actors look like they truly are in a gravity free environment, and ye celluloid gods but it paid off. In fact, and I say this as someone who has been fascinated by space exploration since he was a very small boy, studied it, read about, imagined it, this paid off so well that you could be forgiven for thinking it was actually shot on location in Earth orbit. Yes, it really is that realistic looking. And it is also utterly ravishing, visually, right from an opening shot of a glowing Earth below a team of astronauts from a Shuttle working on the Hubble Space Telescope. Bullock’s specialist, a scientist brought into NASA to work on this particular upgrade because of her technical skills but not really an astronaut (apart from basic training), while Clooney’s veteran astronaut on his final flight is happily trying out a new design of MMU (Maned Maneuvering Unit – a jetpack for space, effectively) and flitting around the team. The glowing Earth below them fills the cinema screen and is simply beautiful, awesome in the proper use of the word.

But while the visual aspect of Gravity is remarkable and stunning (even the 3D, something I generally dislike in live action films, is excellent and worth the usual eye strain and headache) this isn’t just an effect fest, there is a story here and it is one which is incredibly tense and indeed intense, seriously gripping the arms of your chair stuff, right the way through. When Mission Control calls a warning to the team that a satellite has been destroyed and the debris is sweeping around the orbit towards them events rapidly spiral out of control into a desperate, against the odds attempt at survival.

gravity movie 02

And survival in an environment no human – no creature on our planet at all – evolved to survive in. It’s a deadly environment that we’ve somehow pushed ourselves and our technology to allow us to live and work in over the last half decade (and it’s worth remembering that in thousands of years of human history it is only a few dozen people over the last sixty years who have gone into space). And it anything goes wrong it can be fatal so very, horribly quickly. Even tiny pieces of debris, even just a bolt, travelling at twenty thousand miles and hour will have such kinetic force it can tear through a ship or a space station like an anti-tank round. And all of a sudden an intricate ship or station, assembled from so many precise components and painstakingly engineered and constructed to be just right to support human life in this environment is turned into Swiss cheese…

gravity movie 04

I won’t ruin it for you by expanding any further on how it develops from this accident. Suffice to say it is edge of the seat stuff, beautifully depicted, while the interaction between Bullock’s damaged scientist and Clooney’s veteran of the space programme, even in desperate straits, is perfectly handled (Clooney projects that image most of us have of the calm, unflappable NASA old school astronaut who takes the most catastrophic failures in his stride). This may be vast scale, big-screen, effects-laden storytelling, but it does not neglect either story or character and I found it profoundly satisfying on the emotional level as well as the spectacle. There are some nice nods to other iconic moments from space films tucked away in among the tense moments – a scene where Bullock floats in an airlock, shimmying out of her space suit recalls Barbarella, Bullock in vest and shorts in the space station reminds me of Ripley in the shuttle at the end of Alien, Bullock again floating, exhausted, in an airlock, the sunrise from space glowing through the window port as he floats in zero gee, curling up almost foetal after surviving one part of her ordeal, the cords around her like an umbilical coil, making her seem at the same time both childlike, a newborn and at the same time recalls the ‘star child’ from 2001 and the transformational power of such experiences and travel. It’s gripping right to the very last and as I said the visuals are simply breath-taking – this is one you want to see on the big screen, not on DVD later on, watch it on a big cinema screen and let yourself be drawn into it until you feel you’re there, floating above the world. An utterly remarkable piece of film-making.

gravity movie 03

And I have to add, on a personal note, those visuals played right into my life-long fascination with space travel; that screen-filling vista of the Earth revolving made my pulse race, just as it always has since I was a kid, at the thought of going into space. I had the same feeling watching In the Shadow of the Moon a few years ago; those Saturn V rockets lit up and my pulse went with them, the same excitement and longing I’ve had since I was five years old, in my little astronaut playsuit and helmet, sitting in an empty box for a spaceship, with an imagination as big as the universe. And even after watching a film like this showing the dangers I know that if I were offered the chance I would go in a heartbeat, that it’s the trip I have always wanted to make since I was that wee boy in his astronaut suit, playing and dreaming; I’m literally a child of the space age, born at the peak of the Apollo programme, and I’m forever disappointed that I’ll almost certainly never get to experience it first hand…

The Fifth Estate

fifth estate movie poster

I caught The Fifth Estate film this afternoon; I had my reservations that this fictional (based on true facts, as they say) take on Assange and WikiLeaks would not match the excellent We Steal Secrets documentary I saw at the Edinburgh Film Festival earlier this year. Especially as the trailer tried to make it look like a thrilling espionage flick, although I thought wait till I see it, trailers, after all, are often misleading, edited by marketing bods, not the film-makers. Plus, y’know, this film also boasted Benedict Cumberbatch and his cheekbones. So off to the cinema I went.

Sadly I have to say despite an (as usual) excellent performance from Cumberbatch (playing Julian Assange and bringing out his mix of both prophet and svengali like user and narcissist), my fears were confirmed – this was a dreadful, utterly cliche-ridden film. Within the first half hour I was tired of it and the hackneyed, poorly thought out and executed attempts to ‘sex up the dossier’ – retrieving information, posting it online, hacking, they don’t make for very exciting visuals. And how many times since the 80s have we seen Hollywood coming up with all sorts of stupid-looking attempts to make them look fast-paced, exciting, thrilling even? From Hackers to Swordfish Hollywood has an abysmal record on how to portray this kind of work on a screen. Don’t get me wrong, I do sympathise a bit, the film-makers want to make it look a bit sexier for the viewers but if they depict it realistically it won’t look that way. This is the same reason why almost every car shot in the petrol tank or driven off the road into a crash in Hollywood movies then explodes. They don’t in real life, but boy it looks more fun on the screen. But I would submit the sort of people who are interested in the WikiLeaks story do not need it to be Hollywoodized and are capable of accepting a reasonable depiction of information gathering and dissemination, so why the urge to make it look like this? It’s not a popcorn movie, for goodness sake.

So within the first thirty minutes lots of rapid cuts back and forth to try and create tension, the old rotate around the hacker quickly as they type away, have screens that have multiple windows streaming gobbledegook that is just nonsense, the old screen reflected in the lens of someone’s glasses and more shots anyone who has seen more than a few movies will recognise. There’s very little in the editing and cinematography that is interesting or unusual here, instead it lazily lifts already stereotypical ideas of how to show IT and hacking and recycles it, albeit with many more quick cuts. Although that said, the use of a large, dark office space repeatedly to symbolise how the organisation works (or doesn’t!) was not half bad.

So that style had me wanting to walk out after half an hour, but I stuck to it to see how the narrative would go. Sadly this fared no better – again to be fair this is a complex series of events and issues over years that had to be condensed down into a couple of hours running time, no simple task. So I accept streamlining of events and characters to try and fit into a film narrative, but sadly this is just to simplified. There is some attempt to show the moral quagmire of some of the events – yay, the good guys get inside secrets from a whistleblower and put it out there for all to read! But oops, they also put out documents naming people and their personal addresses, families, numbers, information that in the wrong hands could easily lead to them being hurt or worse. But again this is handled so ineptly it is clear the makers didn’t really know quite how to handle this film and also failed to have confidence in their audience, that the sort of cinema-goers who want to see a film based on this tale would be a bit better read and informed and would not need the events glammed up to keep them excited – as I said, this is not a spy thriller, for goodness sake.

The film also skips by the entire sexual assault matter Assange still has hanging over him (it gets a brief line in post-film credits) and poor Bradley Manning’s series of leaks which gave WikiLeaks its greatest coup and brought it to true world prominence via an alliance with the Guardian, Der Spiegel and New York Times is simply a device to push plot forward here, Manning is barely mentioned, his reasons for doing what he did and the huge personal cost is also lightly skipped over, which is unforgivable, in my opinion, with many others involved in WikiLeaks similarly given short-shrift. And yes, I know, simplifying for a narrative film, but the documentary managed to cover these people and aspects of the WikiLeaks stories, so why could the screenwriters here not manage it better?

My advice – forget this misfire of a film and instead check out the excellent documentary We Steal Secrets film, which, with a fraction of the budget, conveys far more details and information on these important events in a sensible, non-glamorous, manner where the events and presentation make it engrossing and exciting, not silly cuts and cliched scenes,and we see much more of the people and what they did, why they did it and the effects those events have had on them.

The Last Thing You See

The Last Thing You See: A Final Shot Montage from Plot Point Productions on Vimeo.

A very cool montage of final scenes from the movies, themed around several segments from ‘awakening/creation’ through ‘natural world’, ‘youth’, ‘love’, ‘journey’, ‘triumph’, ‘celebration’, and ‘transcendence’. And no, even I haven’t see all the films these comes from!

The Complex

Another quick review of one of the genre movies I caught recently as part of my annual Edinburgh Film Festival week, this one by the great J-Horror director Hideo Nakata. This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog:

The Complex

Director: Hideo Nakata

Starring: Atsuko Maeda, Hiroki Narimiya, Masanobu Katsumura, Naomi Nishida, Kanau Tanaka

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Hideo Nakata is a name well known to fans of horror films, especially that rich seams of J-Horror, with very influential entries in the genre such as Dark Water and Ring. When I went to see The Complex I wasn’t sure quite what to expect – much as I love horror film and have enjoyed the works which Japan (and them more parts of Asian cinema) have been adding to the genre, I have to admit that there has been a bit too much in terms of generic tropes and repetitive imitations – too many close ups of rolling eyeballs over loud soundtrack noise and very long haired girls crawling in unnatural poses have diluted this part of the genre through inferior copying and imitation. Refreshingly with The Complex Nakata treads a different but highly effective path, here opting for more of a straight ghost story, proper hauntings with real reasons for the ghosts’ existence and mostly avoiding the jump-shock or gore approach for creepy atmosphere, something a well told ghost tale can do so well and to such phantasmagorical effect.

Asuka is a young student, moving into a slightly run down looking 60s style concrete apartment complex with her family, in order to be nearer to her college, where she is studying to work in healthcare. The opening scenes of unpacking in the new home seem very tranquil and domestic and fairly cheery, with her little brother and loving parents around her, but for those of us who have a lot of horror flicks under our belts there are signs even then that there are dark clouds in the horizon. A solitary, rather tatty box of possessions, oh, these are mum’s thinks Asuka as she unpacks in her room, and takes it through to her parent’s room. Somehow you just know that box is foreshadowing something later in the film. Other warning signs that not all is right with the apparent domestic bliss of a new family home come when over breakfast on different mornings her mother and father have exactly the same conversation… It Nakata’s world it isn’t just the dark, spooky places that can harbour something odd or frightening, as with Lynch so too can the cheerfully suburban dometic.

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And then there are the neighbours – Asuka is sent with little homemade cakes to introduce the family to their new neighbours and starts with the apartment opposite them on their landing. She rings the bell and knocks the door; she thinks she hears someone inside, but no-one actually answers the door. And then in best creepy horror tradition the door opens itself, just a few inches, but with no-one visible. And then it closes again. Creepy things going on or just an elderly neighbour who doesn’t care for company? And why are there no kids in the playground, save for one single wee boy? As night falls on those first evenings in the new apartment the noises start, some awful, drawn out noise from the apartment right through from her bedroom…

I’m not going to expand any further into what the source of that noise is in the neighbouring apartment, or indeed why the apparent domesticity of the new family home feels so off despite the apparently happy surface, because that would take us into the realm of spoilers. Suffice to say Nakata takes his time in slowly building up the setting and introducing characters, the slow burn, ratchetting gradually up with the tension and creepiness that a good ghost tale requires. My only complaint about the Complex is that a couple of the twists I saw coming very early on in the film; perhaps Nakata telegraphed them a little less subtly than he should, but then again it is equally possible there’s no real fault in the narrative and it is simply having seen so many genre flicks the regular viewer picks up on some foreshadowing quicker than other viewers. It certainly didn’t spoil my viewing and Nakata being the master of horror that he is there were other revelations I didn’t see coming. Besides, J-Horror or horror from anywhere else, the key to a good ghost story is atmosphere, and that Nakata has in spades here. Good late night horror viewing.

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Review: Frankenstein’s Army

Frankenstein’s Army

Director: Richard Raaphorst

Starring: Karel Roden, Joshua Sasse, Robert Gwilym, Alexander Mercury, Luke Newberry, Hon Ping Tang

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I’ve just enjoyed my annual week off going round an enjoyably diverse series of movies at the Edinburgh International Film Festival; of course some of those films I caught just happen to fall into the genres we cover on here, so I thought following last week’s review of the very unusual Iranian SF flick Taboor I’d share another interesting genre flick I saw, one I couldn’t resist, not with a title like this: Frankenstein’s Army.

World War Two rages, and a forward scout unit of weary, wary Russian soldiers is advancing cautiously, searching out German positions. Unusually this advance unit has had a film unit attached to them (so yes, you guessed it, we’re in ‘found footage’ territory, although don’t despair, this is actually pretty damned good fun), for recording and propaganda purposes allegedly (they may not be mad on the idea, but the grizzled combat veterans of the Soviet Army know better than to question orders from above in Stalin’s Russia). Their commander is growing concerned at their lack of radio contact with any other Soviet units in some days as they push forward. When they do finally receive a signal it is short, a desperate plea from another Soviet unit in dire trouble, and their coordinates, before the lose the radio signals again. They are wary – this doesn’t sound like a unit that should be as far forward as their scouting group, and why is it that again they cannot pick up any signals? None the less, comrades may be in trouble so they have to investigate, and soon come across a deserted village and semi ruined buildings – and fresh graves. Open fresh graves with emptied coffins…

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Exploring the buildings they are surprised to find the interiors are less like any farm or village buildings and more reminiscent of factories. Still puzzling over where everyone went to and why these rural buildings seem to have been refitted as some sort of industrial units they are attacked and take their first casualties. Their vicious enemy attacks suddenly, the familiar Nazi swastika is visible, but these are no ordinary Wermacht troops. In fact they don’t even seem entirely human

We soon discover our cameraman is not working for the propaganda unit, he is actually under top secret orders from the very top, and the unit must help him with it (and they are none too subtly reminded these orders come from Comrade Stalin himself and they know where all of the soldier’s families live… It’s not just the Nazis Russian soldiers have to worry about in this time, it’s also their own leaders). Soviet intelligence has become aware of an unusual advance weapons project the Nazis have, but this isn’t some engineering wonder like the V2 Rocket, this is all the work of one man, a certain Baron Frankenstein. And while he uses machinery just like Von Braun does for his ‘wonder weapons’, the Baron, of course, also uses human body parts. The reason for the desecrated, emptied graves nearby becomes clear, and soon the men are plunged into a hideous struggle with inhuman creatures, part human, party machine and the chances of them surviving, let alone capturing or killing the elusive Baron, seem to be diminishing rapidly in a series of nightmarish skirmishes.

I’m not going to say anything more of the story here for fear of spoiling it, but it is a very satisfying slice of sci-fi/horror, going from the open fields of war (open but eternally dangerous) to the closed, claustrophobic underground chambers of the Baron’s lair, enclosed and full of danger and grotesque horrors. The dark corridors and first person perspective of the cameraman’s footage (he keeps recording even after his real mission is revealed) combine to give an almost video game, first person shooter kind of feel to some scenes as the soldiers are pursued by the Baron’s monstrous creations through the decaying, dark, underground halls and corridors. The creatures themselves are a marvelous addition to the history of imaginative creatures in the genre, literally stitched together from pieces of Nazi corpses and then united with pieces of machinery, which gives a sort of steampunk/dieselpunk feel to them and which also reminded me (in the good way) of running around the remarkable sets and encountering the bizarre part human, part machine beings in Bioshock.

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(director Richard Raaphorst – in the loud shirt – on stage introducing Frankenstein’s Army at the UK premiere in the Filmhouse, during the Edinburgh International Film Festival, pic from my Flickr)

The Film Festival had the good sense to schedule this UK premiere of Frankenstein’s Army as a late night movie and that suits it perfectly – it is an ideal slice of late night genre movie, best viewed after a couple of drinks, by turns scary and horrific (some scenes in the Baron’s house of horrors are like an explosion in a charnel house) and yet also delightfully over the top in places, knowingly so, tipping a nod and a wink to the hardcore fans in a way that makes it clear the makers are fans of the genre themselves. It really is an ideal late night genre flick, the combination of action, horror and dark comedy, and the inventive creature designs seem destined to become cult faves. Sadly in the UK you’ll need to keep an eye out for screenings at film festivals as there’s no word on a UK general release yet, although the makers tell me that they are concentrating on an American release for now, with screenings in select cities and also video on demand at the end of July in the US market. Hopefully it won’t be too long before it gets a proper UK release too. Meantime keep up with the film’s release progress via Twitter and Facebook.

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Review: Taboor

It’s that time of year when I take a few much needed days off to relax and spend even more time than usual concealed away in dark cinema auditoriums for the Edinburgh Film Festival. I’ve not had a proper holiday in far too long – this time last year, on the very first day off for the film festival I got a call to say dad had been rushed into hospital, so I spent a good chunk of that week off going back and forth to hospital in Glasgow, most of the remaining holiday days I had for the rest of the year were saved to use up later as I knew when dad finally went for his surgery and in his recovery afterwards I’d need days off. So to say a whole week off just to relax and enjoy a variety of world cinema is a welcome relief is an understatement. This afternoon was my first FF screening.


Directed by Vahid Vakilifar

Starring Mohammad Rabbanipour

Taboor Vahid Vakilifar

Taboor is one of those movies that make me go to film festival screenings – I don’t know anything about it apart from the single paragraph description in the festival programme (unusual for most flicks I see as I keep up with film reviews, interviews etc, so rarely see something I don’t know anything about), and what I find is odd, unusual, different – delightfully so. Vakilifar’s Iranian film defies labeling (which is often a good thing) – ostensibly it is a simple tale, following the nocturnal work of a solitary, middle-aged, silver haired and bearded (rather dignified looking) man as he goes around the quiet, night-time streets of Tehran on his motorbike and sidecar, carrying out his work as an exterminator. But to tell you that, while accurate, really doesn’t tell you much, because this is less a film about narrative, or indeed even about character interaction and more about an experience, one of those films you are simply taken into and feel rather than follow. It makes for an engrossing film-watching experience, but it does make it damned difficult to convey in a review just why you enjoyed it so much!

The film is mostly wordless – it is a good half hour before we hear a single human voice, and even then it is a voice-over, for just a few moments (indeed the few other moments of speaking will also be as voice overs, not as dialogue, we never actually see two characters speaking to one another, which adds to the unreal atmosphere pervading this film). That small voice over is one of the very few bits of exposition in the film, as the man is visiting a hospital for a full body scan. Following the scan a doctor takes him (again with no dialogue between them) to an old lift and down to a shabby basement kitchen, where, for no apparent reason, he throws a piece of meat from the fridge onto a skillet. As the cinema stares at the animal flesh shrinking in the heat, curling, smoking, spitting fat, the voice over remarks that he had tried to warn the man that his condition is getting worse, that this is what is happening to him, to his internal organs, which for some never specified reason are being cooked from within by microwave radiation which he seems unusually sensitive too, and the condition is accelerating, despite his elaborate precautions.

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Precautions? Well right at the start we spend several minutes watching the man wake in a single room in a converted trailer; the room is entirely lined in aluminium foil, walls, floor, ceiling, no windows visible. Rising from his bed in the almost monk-cell like silvery chamber the man dons overalls also made of shiny foil, before donning trousers, a large jacket with hood, buttoned right up and then a motorbike helmet with extra material coming off it over his neck and shoulders, reminiscent of some firefighter’s helmets. Obviously thoughts of paranoid obsessives worried about secret CIA projects trying to read or control their mind leap to mind and it is only half an hour later we get this tiny fragment of information to explain why he lives and dresses as he does.

But the reason behind it really isn’t terribly important, this is more an odd night-trip through a largely empty city, the urban world at night, streets, houses, road and rail tunnels, all lit up so we can see clearly but that feeling anyone who lives in a city gets, that the light is somehow false, that those artificial lights let us see our way around our cities after night but that those lights make everything, from buildings to roads to trees to people, look different than the natural light of day does. Vakilifar clearly has a love of perspective – many shots are static, fairly long sequences – the point of view of our man looking down a city highway and tunnel at night, the lines and curves running away into the background, a long hospital corridor, an underground railway tunnel, even the opening shot of his solitary room in his trailer. No cuts and dissolves here from long shot to medium to close up, the bulk of the shots are very static and usually lined up on some interesting perspective (a particularly effective sequence sees the camera stay filming the same shot as our man is lead to a door, the double doors open, he walks through a hall to identical double doors which open to lead to another set, all without the camera’s perspective changing. It creates a kind of detachment, as does the lack of close ups or personal interaction or dialogue, leaving us as observers, also sometimes reminding us of the voyeuristic nature of cinema (an inexplicable scene with the man, naked save for underwear and a metal bin over his head, standing at the end of a long corridor being shot at by a pellet gun underlines this voyeuristic feeling, while the man’s near naked, head covered post is reminiscent of those horrible shots disgraced US troops took of abused prisoners in Abu Ghraib).

The film is full of odd scenes and imagery, with the work of David Lynch, that inference of the odd and weird just hidden below the surface of seemingly normal, everyday places and people, a very strong influence (right down to another unexplained scene which sees our man calling on a client not to exterminate bugs but to stand in a richly decorated room regarding an expensively dressed dwarf in the other corner). The empty, night-time urban cityscapes also hint at influences such as Michael Mann (like Mann some beautifully shot nocturnal cityscapes, occasionally accompanied by very atmospheric, ambient music, which is used sparingly) and also Ridley Scott (in what I presume is an in-joke as the man and doctor silently share an elevator the muzak in the lift is a version of Blade Runner Blues from Vangelis’ soundtrack for that film). It’s a very odd piece of film-making from Iran, hints of Lynch, Mann, Jim Jarmusch and more. The lack of dialogue is replaced with a hyper-realised soundtrack, where the silence is filled with noises from the rustling of the man’s foil suit to footsteps, echoes, clunks and clicks of doors – like Berberian Sound Studio (an offering at last year’s film festival) even when it appears little is happening the soundscape creates a hugely atmospheric feeling, while the lack of explanation and dialogue and the distance the camera keeps from the man (he is never named), rather than alienating the viewer instead draw us in, inviting us to imagine narrative, be a part of the film, while the odd scenes, the static long shots and the mostly empty night time scenes the man travels through create a very dream-like feeling.

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I suspect some will find it tedious or dull, it’s certainly not for everyone, but personally I found it compelling, drawing me into this odd, solitary, isolated night-time, mostly unexplained life and man. This isn’t really the sort of film that you can explain easily to someone why you like it, it just touches some viewers and draws them in. Certainly did for me, one of the sort of films I love to find at film festivals, odd, unusual, compelling and the sort of thing I’d probably never get to see screened outside of a festival setting.

Film: the Deep End

Here’s another very interesting short film starring Daniela Flynn, who was the lead in the excellent short science fiction film Expo I blogged about yesterday. The Deep End, written and directed by Meredith Koch, follows a young woman in a mental institution in 1950s America, who glimpses a beautiful red butterfly emerge from its chrysalis, and the butterfly starts to become a symbol to her, perhaps even a guide to choosing between reality and fantasy:

THE DEEP END (lead, 2012 Official Selection LA Shorts Fest) from Daniela Flynn on Vimeo.