This animated film, based on the manga by Fumiyo Kōno, has been huge in Japan, and I’ve been eager to see it, so when it appeared on the programme for this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival I booked myself a ticket right away (for those not lucky enough to get to the festival, it is getting a limited UK release over the next couple of weeks, so check your local listings). I was not disappointed; this is a beautiful piece of animation, and quite emotionally satisfying too.
The story is set in 1930s and 1940s Japan, and although the Second World War will be an important part, this is not a war movie. At least, not in the usual sense of a war movie – this is a slice of life, following a young woman, Suzu, from childhood through to early adulthood and marriage, and the wartime years give us a view of the conflict from the perspective of the home front, of civilians who don’t really know what it is all about (only what strictly controlled propaganda the Japanese government give out) and are, basically, increasingly caught in the middle of this titanic struggle, some of them paying the price for events they never instigated or had any real say in, just like untold legions of ordinary civilians through every war in history.
But the war, while important and having lasting ramifications for Suzu and her family, is only one part of the tale here – this is Suzu’s story of her life, not of the war, we concentrate on her and her family, and that gives the whole film a huge amount of emotional resonance. We see her as a little girl, helping her family to collect and dry seaweed, the story littered with loving little details of a bygone era, such as their family, on one special day of the year when the tides are exceptionally low, able to walk right across the now waterless bay to visit their relatives on the other shore (and rush back before the tide returns), a reminder of a time when most ordinary people rarely moved much further than their own small town (trains are pricey and cars very rare). This is a time not really that long ago – we’re talking about the sort of world many of our own grandparents would remember.
We see Suzu as a girl, a bit of a daydreamer, and an artist – a good one, at that. And she has an affinity to often see the art in many situations, although this often means she loses focus on the here and now (in one scene during an air raid the puffs of smoke from the anti-aircraft fire become a beautiful Impressionist painting to her eyes – gorgeous but it also means she is too mesmerised to take cover…). Her family lives in Hiroshima, but when she turns eighteen Suzu is offered marriage to a young man she doesn’t know. It’s not an arranged marriage, as such, the families discuss it, and it is clear she can say no, but although allowed, it’s not really the done thing. And so she goes to live with her new husband and his family in Kure, some distance from Hiroshima (again, like her family across the bay it isn’t that far, not to us with cars and fast trains, but back then it’s a big wrench).
Kure is a major naval base, and as Suzu settles into her new life the ships of the Imperial navy are a backdrop – her husband is a civilian navy worker, and her adorable little niece Harumi loves looking at the ships and telling her new aunt which ones are which, while she sketches (this leads to an ugly scene where the military police almost arrest her as a spy for sketching the ships in the bay – this was a time where Japanese citizens could be arrested and disappeared for anything that might hint at questioning the wartime government). And of course as the years roll on the war draws closer – and a naval base like Kure is, inevitably, going to become a target. And such are the horrible fortunes of war that we know it won’t just be the military or industrial targets which end up in the bomber’s crosshairs, it will be the town, the people, including women and children.
In This Corner of the World powerfully illustrates the indiscriminate horror of mass bombing – this is Japan (at this time “the enemy”, as if that makes it any better), but it could have been Clydebank, Coventry, London, Dresden, Guernica or the cities of modern Syria, or anywhere else where civilians are seen as “collateral” damage, and the film shows this both on the personal scale for her family and friends, and on the wider scale (those classical wooden Japanese buildings razed to the foundations by fire-bombing, street after street gone). The atomic bombing of her hometown is, understandably, a major moment, and one we, with the benefit of historical hindsight, know is coming closer and closer, until the day we see that huge flash in the sky, and the awful blastwave that follows.
But while the film shows the hideous aftermath of this first use of nuclear weapons, it doesn’t just show Horishima as the city that the Bomb was dropped on, it shows us the city in the years before, a real, living place and people, and brings it to life, based on the memories of some older survivors and on period photographs, the now iconic Genbaku Dome – the Atomic Dome, one of the few structures close to the blast which survived, and is now a symbol of both the horrors of warfare and the need for peace – clearly visible as tram cars and people pass in the streets, then again in the irradiated ruins afterwards, but then there it still is, after all this passes and the city is reborn.
In This Corner of the World brings us happy moments and very sad ones, some utterly beautiful scenes and some steeped in sorrow; despite the intrusion of the huge, global-altering events of the war, it is, at heart, a family story, a story of a life, with the ups and downs, the moments that we all get, the moments where we feel life has broken us beyond repair but then the moments that make our souls sing with joy, and make it all worthwhile. This is an utterly gorgeous work, and one best seen on the big screen.
This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet International Blog
The box office opened for the world’s oldest continually running film festival on Friday, the Edinburgh International Film Festival, which I usually take a week off to enjoy every year. Normally they send me a programme but nothing arrived this year, so on my day off, which coincided with the box office opening, I took myself off to the Filmhouse (long a second home for me in Edinburgh), grabbed the programme, parked myself in the cafe-bar (one of my favourite spots to relax in the city) and worked my way through it, circling the ones I most wanted to see, then checking them against the calendar section to see which ones conflicted with others and then back to the box office to book a whole block.
I’ve got a good mix, as usual, foreign language, animation, drama, documentary. I’ve got both strands of the McLaren Animation Awards, which celebrate the best in new animation talent, with the audience voting for the films showing, so the award goes to the one the actual film fest audiences think best deserves it. I often see some of the McLaren films turn up months later in the BAFTA and Oscars short animation nominations, which is always satisfying. Sadly the festival is about the only place I get to see these shown on the big screen – it’s a pity the tradition of showing a short before the feature film died out long ago, it would be nice if some of these short works got a few screenings in mainstream cinemas, would be a nice way for them to support new talent, even if they only did, say, one month a year where they had them as shorts before the main programme (and since it is all digital now it isn’t like they need expensive prints made and transported to the cinemas). Also on the animation front I’m really looking forward to In This Corner of the World, which the gravepine has been saying is one of the best Japanese animated movies in years.
When I saw Emer Reynolds’ The Farthest in the documentary section, I knew I had to put that one on my slate as well. The Farthest follows one of the greatest journeys of discovery in human history, the magnificent Voyager missions. Rushed into being when astronomers realised that a rare upcoming alignment of many of the planets would give them a unique opportunity, two probes were crafted in quite a short period, incredibly complex courses worked out for something never attempted before, sending a craft on a multi-planet mission. And all of this with early 1970s technology.., Technology which is still working.
After planetary encounters and sending back huge swathes of data on our neighbouring worlds that kept scientists busy for decades, following remarkable courses which used the gravity wells of the planets themselves to alter their routes, Voyager 1 and 2 both then took on a new mission, hurtling outwards to the final frontier, still sending weak signals home, searching for the point where the sun’s influence fades and interstellar space begins. Even then, once all power is gone, they still have on final mission, each carrying a gold disc with multiple-languages and music of the Planet Earth on them, just in case by some astonishing chance they are ever found by another species. A little snapshot of human life and culture that will, most likely, drift forever throughout the universe…
During the Edinburgh International Film Festival last week I saw a film called Cinema, Mon Amour, a documentary about a group trying to save an old cinema in Romania. Afterwards the Filmhouse very kindly gave us a short tour of the main projection booth – we had to be quiet and I couldn’t use the flash as another festival screening was going on below us (we could see it through the wee rectangular window in the booth). The pair of decades old cine projectors are named Kenneth and Sid – even in this bastion of arthouse and international film, the Carry On movies have influence!
Quite nostalgic for me to see these and hear them – the whirring sound of anaologue projectors is part of my childhood memories of cinema, and at home we had a Super 8mm cine camera as well as our 35mm still cameras, and we screened them quite often on long winter’s nights for the family. There’s something satisfying about old analogue tech like this, you can see it moving, see how it works. The Filmhouse must be one of the last cinemas in the city that retains the ability to show actual film prints as well as digital and properly trained projectionists. They were telling us about their skills, from being able to change from one projector to the other seamlessly mid-film, fixing broken celluloid to adjusting focus, ratio and even speed for different formats and eras (early films shot on hand-cranked cameras require a lot of skill to adjust the film speed, since their shooting rate varied as cameramen’s arms got tired. Lovely to see these magic lanterns which paint stories on a screen using nothing more than light…
I’m enjoying a few days off for my annual Edinburgh International Film Festival fun. Last night at the Traverse Theatre as part of the film fest they had an “in conversation” with French actor Dominique Pinon, who has appeared in a number of my favourite films over the years. One of those evening that reminds me one of the reason I love living here so much is that with our festivals everyone comes to Edinburgh at some point, writers, directors, actors, musicians, they all come here. I took a few photos with the new camera – sitting several rows up and back in a theatre so not the best place for taking photos, but out of the batch I shot a handful came out passably.
While I was off enjoying a week at the Edinburgh International Film Festival naturally I sought out some of the SF&F and horror flicks in my feast of festival screenings. I was a bit busy going from movie to movie to do full write-ups, so thought instead I’d do a brief round-up of a handful that really made an impression on me. They’re still doing the international film festival circuit, so I have no idea when (or indeed if) they may get a general release, but do keep an eye out of them if they get a screening near you, especially Therapy For a Vampire and Liza the Fox Fairy, which are films I think anyone who loves fantasy will enjoy and which I think deserve some support (distributors, if you’re reading, these films all got big rounds of applause with the festival audiences, always a good sign, and well worth considering picking up for distribution):
Director: Corin Hardy,
Starring: Joseph Mawle, Bojana Novakovic, Michael McElhatton, Michael Smiley
Corin Hardy’s debut Irish Indy horror arrived with impressive credentials – it did well at the Sundance Festival, and Edinburgh’s own hugely respected horror flick fest Dead By Dawn (the UK’s longest running horror film festival) had selected it for the Edinburgh Film Festival (London peeps, I hear it is also getting a screening at Fright Fest this August). The central notion of a young, successful couple moving into the middle or rural nowhere and finding the surly locals to be less than welcoming is not a new one in horror, of course – film academics have filled many essays on the urban-rural horror tropes. But Hardy delivers some menacing, creepy rural locals here largely as a bit of a red herring. As Adam Hitchens (Joseph Mawle) and his wife (Bojana Novakovic) and infant move into a creaky old dwelling in the middle of an ancient bit of Irish forest, it isn’t long before things start happening. Things go bump in the night, strange leaks appears, stones are thrown and the nearest neighbour has made his loathing for them quite clear. But quite why the locals wish them gone and Adam’s forestry job to be axed (pardon the pun) isn’t terribly clear. It feels a little Straw Dogs – the isolated rural home, the disgruntled, hostile locals surrounding the incomers. But this changes quite quickly…
(Corin Hardy in a post-film Q&A at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, pic from my Flickr) After several incidents the police make a half-hearted investigation, although it is clear they really care little. But the local sergeant does let slip that some of the locals do – silly superstition, you understand – believe that these very old woods are home to very old beings, a form of the fair folk, pushed back millennia ago by the spread of the towns and cities of man to these few isolated woodland refuges. And they do not care for anyone trespassing on what is left of their territory, and if you cross into their borders then they have carte blanche to cross into your own space too. Naturally the Hitchens don’t believe this talk of of fairy belief at all (despite learning their unfriendly neighbour lost his young girl in the woods decades before, he maintains spirited away by odd beings – perhaps he’s not just unfriendly but worried their presence will disturb the area once more). Hardy slowly ratchets up the sense of unease and we, along with the Hitchens, start to realise perhaps it’s not badly behaved locals reacting to incomers but that there may well be something else in those woods. A something that’s now targetting their home, and most especially their baby… Despite the low budget Hardy and his team use their scant resources well, making maximum use of the locations and a tight script to generate ever increasing levels of suspense and tension. What elevates it above that classic rural horror though is weaving in multiple elements from Celtic myth and folklore into the tapestry, which gives it a nice Hellboy-ish vibe in places, using some nice, creepy, disturbing effects. And in an era where so many horror films seem to rely far too much on jump-shocks, “torture-porn” or over-gore for the sake of it (I have no problem with a bit of gore, but some weak film-makers rely on it to overcome poor storytelling) it’s always good to see someone putting the effort in to build atmosphere and let it permeate out into the audience – and also to trust their audience to go along with that slow-burn, rewarding approach. I saw this at a late night screening, with a packed festival audience, which is probably the best way to enjoy a good horror movie.
Therapy For a Vampire,
Director: David Ruehm,
Starring: Tobias Moretti, Jeanette Hain, Cornelia Ivancan, Dominic Oley, David Bennent, Lars Rudolph
This Austrian flick was one of the first films I saw at the festival this year, and it pretty much ties with Hungarian fantasy Liza the Fox Fairy as my favourite festival movie this year. It’s Vienna, in the early 1930s, and the Count Geza von Közsnöm is having the vampiric equivalent of a mid-life crisis. He’s lost all his lust for life, the long, endless nights of immortality weighing down upon him till little seems worth it anymore. In fact he doesn’t even bite his victims any longer, he gets his (increasingly bolshie) “Renfield” henchman to bludgeon them on the streets of nocturnal Vienna then use blood donation equipment to siphon off his “claret” into a bottle. His wife – a proper 20s/30s vamp, both in the vampire sense but also in the period use of the word to mean a dark femme fatale – is also adding to his world-weary feeling. She’s also finding their vampiric condition a little restrictive and is tired of not being able to see herself (we see her patting her face with a powder puff in a vain attempt to catch a glimpse of her face in the mirror), and her endless demands to him each night of how is my hair?, how do I look tonight? is driving him to fantasies of staking her in her coffin. In desperation who does the vampire count turn to? Why to Sigmund Freud, of course! And perhaps the famous father of psychoanalysis can also help him with his other problem – Freud is collaborating with an up and coming young Viennese artist who is illustrating his book, just the person to send the countess to for a portrait. Naturally Freud doesn’t know they are vampires, he’s too busy analysing all of their problems as a scientific challenge and assumes her inability to see herself is a mental problem, not that she literally has no reflection. The artist, meanwhile is having problems of his own – his girlfriend is a thoroughly modern Millie (she even wears – gasp! – trousers!), but he has a troubling penchant for always painting her not as she is but as he wants her to appear (rather more “girly”), which understandably is not helping their relationship. And into this come the count and countess, and oh, while the countess is distracted with the artist and her portrait, the count is drawn to his girlfriend who bears a striking resemblance to his long lost love (beheaded by dervishes many years ago, I’m sure we’ve all had relationships end like that). If Woody Allen did a 1930s tale of crossed-wire romantic misunderstandings in Vienna with vampires it may look a little like this…
(Director David Ruehm talking after the Edinburgh International Film Festival screening of Therapy For a Vampire, pic from my Flickr)
The comedy-horror flows brilliantly, the 30s setting used nicely, both for style and also for referencing films (there is some lovely cinematography here) and art of the period, while there’s a fine lacing of various vampire myths through the story (such as the compulsion for counting small objects) and relating that to the emerging field of psychoanalysis (two different ways of understanding the human brain, one ancient, one new), and there’s a nice bit of relationship and gender stuff going on there too. The film is replete with lovely little details and references – the count, lying on the psychiatrist’s couch, a picture of middle-aged-man-misery, until Freud asks him when he was last happy, and as he talks of his lost love he starts to float upwards off the couch (Freud is too busy taking notes to see this), but as soon as they return to the subject of his wife, bang, straight back down on the couch (no prizes for guessing that that symbolised!). For every reference I picked up on though, I am sure there were several I missed – this is one of those films that will happily bear repeat viewings and deserves a wider audience. It also makes for a fine European shelf-mate to the Kiwi genius of What We Do in the Shadows.
Liza, the Fox-Fairy,
Directed by Károly Ujj Mészáros,
Starring Mónika Balsai, Szabolcs Bede-Fazekas, David Sakurai, Piroska Molnár, Zoltán Schmied
It’s Hungary in the 1970s, but not quite – this is, as director Mészáros explained in a post-film Q&A, a slightly fantasy version – for starters the town looks like Budapest but isn’t (the name is slightly changed) and in his version of the 70s and all its tacky, beige style (or lack thereof) Hungary isn’t oppressed behind the Iron Curtain and a totalitarian Communist state but is enjoying the (sometimes dubious) pleasures of Capitalism. Which includes the Makky Burger chain of Japanese fast food diners, which is one of the few places Liza (Mónika Balsai) treats herself to with her swiftly diminishing pool of money. Liza is a nurse, engaged for several years now to look after the bed-bound wife of the late Japanese ambassador. From her elderly employer she’s picked up the Japanese language and a love for the literature and pop culture too – she endlessly, obsessively re-reads the same Japanese novel, especially a scene detailing a lonely woman who finds true love over the crab-burgers at Makky’s on her thirtieth birthday. And with Liza’s thirtieth imminent this isolated woman is convinced this is a Sign for her to follow for True Happiness. Leading her into a series of attempted liasons with mostly inappropriate suitors. And also to a series of bizarre accidental deaths which soon lead the police to suspect her…
Why the string of deaths? Ah, well, that, you see, will be Tomy Tani, the spectral form of a deceased 1950s/60s Japanese crooner. Her employer and Liza love his music, but only Liza actually sees him, and once her elderly employer is gone, leaving her the apartment as a thank you (cue jealousy from the family, who add their suspicions to the police’s), the ghostly Tomy is her only real companion. But is he just an invisible friend, a figment of her imagination conjured up by an unfilled woman to ease her isolation? Or is he a real supernatural entity? And if he is, is he really her smiling, singing friend? Or does he perhaps have his own motivations? What’s behind that smiley J-pop facade? Could it be he likes Liza to be so isolated, so he receives all her attention? Could it be that poor Liza is like the fox-fairy women of Japanese myth, lonely, craving love, but when they do sometimes find a man on their wanderings that man is usually doomed to die? Is she cursed?
(Károly Ujj Mészáros speaking after the screening of Liza, the Fox-Fairy, pic from my Flickr)
Imagine early-period Jean-Pierre Jeunet (around his Delicatessen era), but if he’d been Hungarian and with a penchant for (deliberately) bad 1970s style and with that delightful fusion of comedy and horror, the touching and the ludicrous, fantasy and real. The film glows with details – it’s clearly a labour of love, with much attention paid to making scenes appear just-so, using real locations, sets and some CG augmentation (which I have to say I didn’t really notice, it was blended in well, and being on a tiny budget took the film-makers months to complete in post-production), giving the film a particular, individual look, feel and even sense of light that’s jsut pitch-perfect. An absolute delight of a film, which deserves a cult following.
I should also give a quick shout out for Simon Pummell’s British-Irish-Dutch co-production Brand New-U, another film working with a small budget and overcoming it by the use of some clever science fiction elements, which despite the five minutes into the future type of setting does what most good SF does, and uses those tropes to address the concerns of today – relationships and identity becoming mere commodities and services we purchase like a new smartphone or holiday thinking they will solve everything. And Takashi Yamakazi’s first in a series adapting the popular Japanese manga horror Parasyte was another late night slice of fun, some bonkers J-Horror, riffing on post-Croneberg body horror (intelligent parasitical creatures taking over humans) and also, by dark reflection, on the nature of human relationships in busy, urban city settings, “pod-people” given a J-Horror twist.
This article was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog
This week I should be off, taking a break from work for a week to enjoy the Edinburgh International Film Festival. Sadly things have been going from tight to simply untenable on the financial front, several years of a bad situation without any relief, and among the many things I have had to give up on is my annual film fest sojourn. It’s on right now, I haven’t even looked at the programme since I know I can’t afford to go to it. Since I almost never get to go away on a proper break a week off going round the film fest is about as much holiday as I normally get, and now even that’s gone. Depressing. Along with ongoing other stresses and strains in recent years a break would be bloody nice, and I have been going to this since the 1990s, really upsetting to have to give up on it, something I look forward to all year. And after a lot of not very good stuff a nice break and enjoying myself would be rather nice, instead of which the usual break is lost and now becomes another one of those depressing things to add to the list of why life is often grinding and depressing and stressful. I don’t just mean losing that one break, I mean that it represents yet another thing I am forced to give up and cut out because of years of severe pressures; right now it has been so increasingly tight that even though with dad better I can start thinking about taking in another cat, I find I can’t afford it, which is pretty pathetic, not to mention disheartening, a year and a half after losing the last of my old furry girls. Meeting the basics is hard enough, nothing else can be added. On a short term we all get times like that, but this has been grinding on for a long time, getting slowly harder and worse. Does make you wonder why you bloody bother sometimes.
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:
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.
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.
Starring: Karel Roden, Joshua Sasse, Robert Gwilym, Alexander Mercury, Luke Newberry, Hon Ping Tang
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…
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.
(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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Another late night horror gem unearthed during my week at one of the world’s oldest movie fests, the Edinburgh International Film Festival. Right now I will raise my hand and happily admit that I circled this film in the programme as one I wanted to see the instant I saw the title; seriously, folks, how could I pass by a film with a title like that? It called to the horror and humour geek parts of my cine-soul and, as I was to find out, my instinct to jump straight into booking that film was a good call.
Eddie: the Sleepwalking Cannibal (not to be confused with Eddie the Sleepwalking Campbell, comics peeps) is a Danish-Canadian co-production (now there’s something you don’t often say in a film review). Lars Olafssen (Thure Lindhart) is a Danish artist who achieved some level of celebrity in the arts world a few years before, but now seems to be a bit burnt out, unable to inspire himself to paint anything new in years, with his agent having arranged a change of scene for him, teaching in a remote, rural art school at Koda Lake in wintry Canada. The move doesn’t start well for Lars when, too busy checking his map while driving, he hits a deer on a country road. Worse the creature isn’t dead but is dying in agony; he hesitates for a moment then realises he has to put it out of its misery. He’s repeatedly striking the unfortunate animal on the head with a rock when a police cruiser pulls up behind him…
Not his best introduction to his new community, and at the art school he quickly gets the impression that some want him there thinking he will produce new work and so put their art school on the map while others are simply jealous that he has had success as an artist while they never have (including his colleague and neighbour, a philandering artist with a constantly barking dog he leaves out all night keeping Lars awake). In his class we meet Eddie (Dylan Smith), a largely mute, developmentally challenged man. His elderly relative has looked after him since his parents were killed in nasty circumstances in front of him as a child, something he has never recovered from. The same old lady generously endows the school so as a thank you they let Eddie paint away in the back of the classes, producing work like a small child, but happy. When his relative dies Lars is persuaded to look after Eddie – if he goes to a care home the school loses the endowment and no-one else seems to want him. But on the first night with his silent man-child charge Lars is rather startled to find Eddie has left the house in the middle of the night. He’s even more alarmed when following him reveals a recently killed and partly devoured animals in the woods nearby and Eddie, almost naked, blood caked around his mouth, and quite asleep…
And so begins a series of blackly comical horror scenes. He finds out that Eddie has done this sort of thing before, but as a child years ago after the death of his parents – perhaps he is just emotionally upset again and it has come back, he will settle down soon once he feels secure with Lars. Deciding on preventative medicine Lars is going to nail Eddie’s bedroom window closed so he can’t open it in his sleep and go outside. Until the constantly barking dog of his unfriendly neighbour catches his attention and slowly Lars puts down the nails. I wish I could get some sleep, if only we could do something about that dog, he remarks, seemingly casually, before wishing Eddie goodnight. And a little while later, just as he hoped, sleepwalking Eddie drifts out into the night and the dog barks no more. But when he follows to make sure Eddie is okay he finds out somnambulistic Eddie has sunk his fangs and terrifying physical strength into more than the dog…
Lars is horrified but at the same time exhilarated – returning to his studio with images of blood and dismemberment flashing in his brain he stares at that damned blank canvas on his easel that has been teasing him with it’s untouched whiteness. And suddenly he is painting, with manic energy, creating his best work in years. When his agent comments that his last big creative burst came after he was in a bad accident, perhaps he needs pain and blood and suffering to gain inspiration, Lars laughs at him, but we can see his discomfort. Perhaps his agent is correct – is the violence stimulating his desire to create art? And if so dare he indulge in more?
(director Boris Rodriguez (on right) in a Q&A after the Edinburgh Film Festival screening of Eddie the Sleepwalking Cannibal, pic from my Flickr, click for larger image)
Boris Rodriguez delivers a pretty much pitch-perfect dark comedy-horror – yes, the humour is as dark as tar in a barrel, but it’s the sort of bloody (literally sometimes) humour many horror fans will love, and the relationship between Lars and Eddie is well handled. Dylan Smith is a stand-out as the simple, backwards innocent (except in his sleepwalking excursions) Eddie, a really superb piece of acting, and the dynamic between the lead pair is rewarding: yes, it seems like Lars may manipulate and use poor Eddie for his own ends, but at the same time he clearly comes to care for the big lug and looks after him. There are evil acts of violence on here, slowly escalating, but there is no true villain, just a simple man-child who really doesn’t know what he’s been doing and an artist who is increasingly prepared to take suffering for artistic creation to an entirely new level… It’s funny, bloody and frequently touching, the scenes between Lars and Eddie giving it a nice emotional context that keeps it from becoming a slice of mere exploitation movie, the bitching and jealousy between the artistic community is amusing and the entire film has something of the Coen Brothers to it (which is a huge compliment, Ethan and Joel are cinematic gods as far as I am concerned) with a mixture of comedy, horror, drama and absurd farce. It’s still on the festival circuit and I don’t know when it will get a UK general release, but trust me, this is one to keep an eye out for, it is destined to become a cult classic.
This was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog
Edinburgh Film Fest: Edinburgh Film Fest: Grabbers
Dir: Jon Wright
Another late evening science fiction-horror screening at the Edinburgh Film Festival and another absolute gem with this monster movie with a strong comedy undercurrent. A glowing fireball streaks across the night sky off the coast of Ireland, past a solitary nocturnal fishing boat. Mistaking the green glow for a distress flare they set off thinking someone needs helps, but it’s not another vessel they encounter…
Daybreak on a small island off the mainland and young career-girl policewoman Garda Lisa Nolan (Ruth Bradley) is arriving on the ferry, taking what she thinks should be a wee change of pace for a couple of weeks duty, swapping the hustle-bustle of a city centre Dublin copshop to provide temporary cover on the rural island while one Garda officer is on his break. The remaining officer, Ciarán O’Shea (Richard Coyle) – a constant alcoholic – is less than happy to have anyone else drafted in to keep an eye on him, let alone an eager, fresh-faced female officer from the big city, but soon they will have more important issues to deal with. The trawler has been found adrift with no crew off the coast, then a local doctor walking his dog on the beach comes across the horrific sight of an entire pod of pilot whales washed up on the beach.
Such sad sights are not unknown to coastal communities, of course but when the local marine scientist Doctor Adam Smith (Being Human’s Russell Tovey) examines them he finds huge wounds and concludes they didn’t beach themselves but died at sea and were washed in by the tide. Quite why a whole pod would be killed at sea like this no-one can say. Meanwhile one of our local drunken fishermen finds some very odd creature caught in his lobster pot. Deciding it might be worth money he hides it in his bath before, this being Ireland, he heads to the pub, gets drunk and tells everyone he has a ‘sea monster’ in the bath. Of course, no-one believes him. Until people start to go missing and there’s a storm coming that will cut off the island from any outside help, even if those on the mainland believe what they tell them…
Okay, so far I imagine for anyone who loves their SF and horror we’re on fairly familiar ground here – small, isolated rural community, an outside menace arrives, stealthily at first, picking off one or two people in the dark before anyone can notice, only being properly revealed when it seems it may be too late to protect themselves. We even have the couple of outsiders who come into the close knit community in so many tales of this kind. The pure joy of Grabbers is that the folks who made it clearly know and love the genre; they take these familiar characters and situations then play them absolutely pitch-perfectly, with a good combination of horror and humour, with the latter deriving less from any puns but evolving naturally from the interaction of the characters.
Grabbers is also proud to wear its Irishness on its sleeve and not try to Americanise itself for the international cinema market. This is a classic monster movie like many an American B flick, sure, but one that could only work in Ireland – where else (excepting perhaps parts of Scotland, perhaps!) could part of the protection against devilish, blood drinking sea monsters involve a lock in inside the village pub and getting drunk? Where else would you get a shout of “aw, shut yer fecking hole!” as a hero wallops the giant monster? A great combination of B-movie SciFi roots, horror and character driven humour, great cast and a lot of heart (plus some nice homages to other genre greats, including a brilliant Aliens pastiche), Grabbers is simply perfect late night movie viewing – in fact I think this is the most enjoyable comedy-horror I have seen since the Nathan Fillion-starring Slither.
And if my opinion doesn’t convince you then consider the fact that the late night film festival audience gave the movie a huge round of applause – when a festival crowd does that, it’s the mark of a great film. This time last year I saw a wee horror movie called Troll Hunter at the film fest and told you it was one to watch for. Well, Grabbers is slated for general release later this summer in Ireland (hopefully UK soon thereafter) and I’m telling you that for me it’s this year’s Troll Hunter.
This was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog
Director Ian Clark returns to the Edinburgh International Film Festival, following up his previous short film he showed last time with Guinea Pigs, his debut feature length film, a very fine, tense medical-science fiction-horror hybrid that creates some genuine tension on a very low budget.
A group of strangers head for a very modern, hi-tech yet remote medical testing facility hidden away in the British countryside. All have volunteered to take part in the regular human trials that are part of testing new drugs and treatments to finally have them licensed for human use by the medical professions. Some are studenty types doing it to make money, some are ‘profession’ lab rats who go from test to test, one is a journalist planning an expose on how these massive pharmaceutical companies exploit people in need of money to give up their body as a test bed (and let’s not forget what a massive business such pharmacological research is in the UK and the fact it can’t really function without such tests).
The test runs for two weeks, during which the mixed group of older and younger, male and female test subject will live in the remote facility where they will constantly be scrutinised and monitored as they are administered a new experimental drug called Pro-9. No nearby village or town to wander to, no internet access, no mobile phone access (the undercover journalist is less than happy – I need the phone for work, she says, this is your paid work for the next two weeks, the Doctor reminds her). Through the first day each of the group is taken in turn and after a blood test administered their dose of Pro-9 then told to relax, enjoy the facilities, eat, sleep. By the end of the day as they all take their turn in the lab our small group are starting to tentatively bond a little in the rec room, sensing out each other. They think they are in for a long, slow, boring two weeks of daily routine. They’re not – many won’t get through the first night. There’s more than a little ‘adverse reaction’ to Pro-9…
Because each member of the group was taken in at various times through the day for their first injection the resulting effects start to appear in sequence with each, and this is part of the strength and dawning horror of Guinea Pigs – when the first to be injected starts to react badly to the drug during the night the other think it is because he broke the rules and did some strenuous exercise and it has accelerated the drug through his system. He is taken away for treatment by the staff and everyone ascribes it to a one-off complication, until the next person to be injected starts to show similar symptoms and they others realise not only is something badly wrong, but that they are really looking at what may happen to them. It’s a very clever touch by Clark and his team – imagine knowing too late that this drug is driving people into an uncontrolled frenzy and that you have taken it, that it is simply a matter of how soon, not if, you develop the same symptoms.
The situation soon deteriorates beyond the ability of the small night staff to contend with and we move to a fairly familiar small group under siege by crazies scenario – pretty common in a lot of horror, but I have to say well-handled here. Instead of the sudden emergence of a strong heroic type we have ordinary folks faced with an unthinkable situation and trying desperately to think on how to survive not only the other infected now prowling the grounds but how to deal with their own likely transformation that looms over them. And then there’s the fact that each of them is now looking at their rapidly diminishing group and thinking the people they have befriend could soon turn on them. Natural empathy for someone becoming ill wars with the self-preservation instincts: how can those not yet showing symptoms turn their back on friends who are? But if they follow that human compassion they could pay with their lives…
Although in some ways it strays close to the zombie/28 Days later model (which, whatever Danny Boyle says let’s be honest is another form of the zombie movie) Clark keeps his debut tight and focussed. He doesn’t go for cheap splatter (there is blood, but in context, not just added in to try and add an unnecessary thrill), likewise he avoids using the easy ‘jump’ scare approach too many lazier horror directors opt for, with a sudden jolt cut, loud effect or music piece to make the audience jump. I don’t mind a decent jump shock if used well (say the head out of the boat in Jaws) and I have no problem with gore in horror either, but I do have an increasing problem with untalented creators who use both far too frequently not for good effect but in lieu of being able to generate genuine atmosphere and scares by storytelling and good camera work. So thank you, Ian, for not doing that, for instead being confident enough to believe in the strength of your concept and characters to carry enough horror and chills. I think, debut or not, that is the mark of a talented storyteller and it means I will watch for the next film Clark makes. Highly effective, tense British SF-Horror and a perfect late night movie – it is currently on the festival circuit trying to build some awareness, so if you see it coming to a screening near you give them some support, they deserve it.
(writer/director Ian Clark, second from right, with some of his crew at the late night Edinburgh Film Festival, pic from my Flickr)