Best of the Year 2019

Time once more for my annual round-up of my favourite books, graphic novels and films I enjoyed over the preceding year. Sometimes wonder if it is still worth posting this after the demise of the Forbidden Planet Blog, given it won’t have the same reach or impact, but I’ve been doing them for years, and I still do a lot of reviewing each year, so what the heck, I’ll continue the tradition for now.

Books

Fleet of Knives, Gareth Powell (Titan)

I had been meaning to read Gareth for a while, when one of my chums at our long-running SF book group chose Embers of War for one of our monthly reads. I loved it – great Space Opera with a nice moral dimension and characters I really loved, not least the ship herself, Trouble Dog. So I was eager for this sequel, and then even more enthused when I was put down to chair a talk with Gareth, along with Adrian Tchaikovsky and Ken MacLeod, at the first Cymera festival of literary SF in Edinburgh in 2019.

Children of Ruin, Adrian Tchaikovsky (Macmillan)

Children of Time was a huge, well-paced, absorbing Space Opera set across millennia of artificially-boosted evolution and terraforming gone off on a direction the colonists never planned. Adrian’s creation of a very convincing intelligent species that has evolved from humble, small spiders is a terrific slice of The Other, something to be craved in good SF. This sequel is similarly large and despite the size zooms past at a cracking pace (reminding me a little of Peter F Hamilton in that respect, the ability to write a doorstop sized book that never feels that large as you read it because it is so well paced). Set much further in the future evolution of the spider species this sees them co-operating with descendants of the human colonists who terraformed their world before returning to cryosleep and their voyages, and introduces another world and species touched by the hand of human science.

Rosewater: Insurrection and Rosewater: Redemption, Tade Thompson (Orbit)

Tade’s Roeswater made my best of the year list for 2018, and I have been waiting on the following two books. I was delighted to see that rather than straight-forward sequels each of the other two books took different angles and characters viewpoints on the events that had lead to this point, while progressing the overall story, often in ways I didn’t expect, which is no mean feat – I read a lot, watch a lot of films, so quite often I pick up on story beats and can guess where a narrative is going, so I am always happy to have a clever writer who blindsides me on story development. As with the first book I found the Nigerian setting and the richly described life in the city and the local culture a refreshing departure from much Western SF. Insurrection reviewed here, and Redemption reviewed here.

Underland, Robert Macfarlane, (Hamish Hamilton)

Macfarlane has rightly been hailed as one of our most intriguing writers on the natural world – his works are part nature writing, part travel literature, part local culture and folklore, all wrapped in a beautifully poetic writing style which immerses you into the prose. In this Wainright-winning book the theme is exploring the underworlds, each chapter a different aspect of the subterranean, from underground, hidden rivers below the Dolomites to old mines which run out from the east coast of the UK under the sea (and which are now also being used to house high-tech science experiments in the depths, far below land and sea), to a great glacier in Greenland and a man-made underground sarcophogus for nuclear waste. Absorbing, fascinating, and often reminding us that there is still magic to be seen in our world, if we remember how to look.

On the Shoulders of Giants, Umberto Eco, (Harvil)

I’ve loved Eco for many decades – I enjoyed his fiction such as Name of the Rose, and his academic work which I came across later at college. He passed away three years back, but this final, just-translated collection delivers a final set of essays, collected from a series of lectures he gave at an Italian festival each year, all on different themes, from the nature of beauty to truth. As always with Eco the sheer range of his intelligence and his curiosity about multiple subjects is clear, as his enthusiasm to discuss them in a manner anyone can understand. Most of all though, there is that playfullness there, a feeling of sheer delight at having an interesting subject to explore and discuss and share.

Islamic Empires, Justin Marozzi, (Allen Lane)

I picked up an advance proof of this on a whim, to boost my non-fiction reading diet, an area of history I didn’t know a huge amount about. Marozzi, who has been a reporter in the Middle East for many years, has chosen a city and a century for each of the 1500 years since the birth of Islam, and used them to explore a different view on the rise and spread of Islamic culture. The book takes in glories such as the golden age Baghdad, which really does come across like the wonderful fantasies set in that magical city and time, or Damascus, the “perfumed paradise”, the historical description standing in stark, horrific contrast to contemporary Syria and its endless civil war.

The Hod King, Josiah Bancroft, (Orbit)

I described the first in Bancroft’s Babel series as “an engrossing, intoxicating, delightt” (the review ended up on the back cover of the second book, which was nice to see). Former rural headmaster and stick in the mud Tom Senlin has changed a lot as he traverses the ringdoms of each level of the Tower of Babel, searching for his missing young wife. This third volume ups everything in a very satisfying way – the characters develop even more, their trials and tribulations – and their friendhsips – have changed them, the plot cooks to perfection with a real feeling of multiple, slow-burning fuses reaching their kegs of gunpowder. And over all of this Bancroft’s beautiful, lyrical, richly descriptive writing style – Josiah was a poet before he was a novelist, and it shows in the way he can make his words dance and sing to the reader. A fabulous, immersive and very different slice of fantasy. Reviewed here.

Graphic Novels/Comics

Ether #2, Matt Garvey and Dizevez

I loved the first issue of this Indy comic and the long wait for the second issue was well worth it, expanding not just the story and setting but also adding much more personal, emotional depth to the main character. In my review I said “Emotional depth, a story that is developing more complexity with hints of more to come, lovely attention to small details and beautiful artwork that handles the domestic, personal, intimate moments as well as it does the vigilante superhero elements, really, what more can you ask for?” and stand by that. Reviewed here.

Billionaires, Darryl Cunningham (Myriad Editions)

I have looked forward to each new Darryl Cunningham work since his quite magnificent, quietly, sensitively powerful Psychiatric Tales. Since then Darryl has gone on to establish himself as a leading creator of extremely well-researched non-fiction comics work in the UK. Here he takes three examples of the mega-rich – Rupert Murdoch, the Koch Brothers and Jeff Bezos and explores how they developed into the powerful and influential figures they are today. As he points out himself he could have chosen non-white billionaires, or female billionaires or those on a more left wing political slant, but the general consensus would still be the same: no person should have the level of power and influence these people have over so many individual citizens, politicians, even entire governments and their policies. Essential reading for our modern world, delivered in Darryl’s usual exemplary style which makes even the most complex ideas comprehensible. The full review is here.

Americana, Luke Healy

Like many Irish folk Luke has long had a mixed view of America – a fascination for it, its culture and landscapes, mixed with a less rosy view of it as a place so many family members have left for, rarely to return. He has an obsession with walking the Pacific Crest Trail, which runs from the California-Mexico border all the way up the west coast to the American-Canadian border, thousands of miles taking in everything from vast, burning deserts to snow-capped mountains (even in summer). Unlike many who write such travel works, Luke isn’t a serious outdoorsman, or even particualrly fit, and it is his physical unreadiness for this endurance hike endears the book to me in a way a book by an experienced hiker wouldn’t. The main pleasure here though is the people he meets along the way, the friendships, the way it all slowly changes his outlook on the world. Reviewed here.

The Book of Forks, Rob Davis (SelfMadeHero)

The final part of the trilogy which started with the brilliantly, wonderfully odd (in the best way) Motherless Oven, and Davis delivers an absolute corker, one of the most unusual and intriguing Brit comics I’ve read in ages. While the main story arc has developed through all three volumes, each has also focused one of the young trio of leading characters: Scarper Lee (the schoolboy whose Death Day was imminent in the first book), the irrepressible Vera Pike (the eponymous Can Opener’s Daughter), and here their unusual friend Castro, who is writing the Book of Forks, exploring the bizarre worlds they live in. There is a real sense of everything coming together here, in terms of character development, of the various plot arcs coming together, and also of the strange world Davis created, being more explored and explained in a very satisfying manner.Reviewed here.

Sensible Footwear: a Girl’s Guide, Kate Charlesworth (Myriad Editions)

I have been looking forward to this for a long time – I know it has been a labour of love for Kate for many years. Partly a biography of Kate growing up, tyring to work out who she is – sexuality not being something that was discussed much openly back in the day – mixed with slices of the way gay culture has been suffused throughout British life, even when people didn’t realise it (and in eras when most would have been actively hostile to gay people), often shown through some great montages depicting slices of cultural life from different decades (which invokes a lot of “oh, I remember that!” moments). Mostly though, this is just a wonderfully warm graphic memoir, beautifully drawn, emotionally rich and left me with a huge smile on my face after I’d finished reading it. I’m also delighted how well it’s sold in the graphic novel section in the Portobello Bookshop where I work some of the time. Reviewed here.

Shout outs also go to the delightful and warm Blossoms in Autumn (review), graphic biography Guantanamo Kid (reviewed here), the venerable 2000 AD (still keeping me reading after forty years), a troubling insight into the civil war in Sri Lanka with Vanni (review here) and the homage to growing up with a deep love of cinema in Reel Love (reviewed here).

Films

The Man Who Killed Hitler and then the Bigfoot

Krzykowski’s film is a little gem of a movie – unusually I knew very little about it before I was sent a copy to review, which is rare in this day and age where most films are discussed online or in film mags well before release. Other than the intriguing title I knew almost nothing going in, apart from the fact it starred Sam Elliot, so it boasted one of Hollywood’s finest cinematic moustaches. I had no idea if this was a comedy, a pastiche, a B movie – that title hinted at all of those. In fact it delivered a very unusual and very satisfying film that explored the cost of going to war on those who had to serve, how it changed them. “I never wanted to kill a man, even one who had it coming,” Elliot’s character tells his brother, reflecting on his wartime service many decades gone, and how they changed his life. A beautiful and often quite emotional work. (reviewed here)

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

I must confess I’ve somewhat gone off Tarantino in recent years. I was there at the start, impressed as hell with the vibrant, powerful Reservoir Dogs, and the clever, switching narrative of Pulp Fiction. But his last few films, while all having elements I enjoyed, mostly left me thinking they didn’t quite work for me. Mostly down to what I thought was increasing self-indulgence on his part – the seeds were sown back in Kill Bill, which has some great scenes, but doesn’t require two films to tell that story – from there on I felt he waffled, added in long, pointless scenes just because he wanted to or because he wanted to play a certain song over it, regardless of how it harmed the narrative flow. Once Upon a Time does drift quite a bit, but in a pleasanter way, and felt far more like earlier Tarantino – it even boasts some nice touches film lovers will like, such as the style of shooting, like the handheld, over the shoulder takes in open top cars in LA, are very much in the style of that period, when new film-makers were shaking up the old studio system, shooting films their way.

Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool

I’ve loved Davis since I was in my teens and first discovering jazz music, so I was always going to be drawn to Stanley Nelson’s new documentary. While not without its flaws in its approach, it does a solid job in taking in the long sweep of his musical career, from a precocious young talent getting a break in a big band, through the amazing 60s output and the constant need to re-invent himself as the years and styles around him changed. Mostly though it is the talking heads here with a range of people who knew Miles being interviewed, sharing their memories – friends, family, lovers, fellow musicians (including some who would go on to deserved fame of their own, such as Herbie Hancock) that really makes it interesting, nor does it shy away from his bad side (so focused on his art he neglects time with his wife, his kids, or his later substance abuse and even hitting a spouse during such a period), but the focus here is mostly on the music and how the man and his music evolved over many decades.

1945

Technically this came out late last year, but I only caught up with Ferenc Török’s astonishing film in early January when my beloved Filmhouse (long a second home for me) screened some of their best picks from 2018 that people may have missed. A Holocaust film infused with a 1960s Spaghetti Western vibe (yes, really), shot in crisp, silvery black and white, borrowing heavily from the Sergio Leone playbook, with amazing cinematography, this is one of the more unusual and quite brilliant films I have seen this year. (reviewed here)

Jojo Rabbit

I’m a huge fan of Taika Waititi – I loved the skewed humour and the deadpan playing of it in What We Do in the Shadows and then Hunt for the Wilderpeople (and the way the latter used that humour to examine a serious, emotional subject), then his Big Budget Debut with Thor: Ragnarok, which managed to be a Marvel superhero flick but also still very much a Taika Waitit film as the same time. Jojo Rabbit follows a ten year old boy in the last years of the Nazi regime. Indoctrinated into the Hitler Youth and his head filled with fascist hate propaganda, his imaginary best friend is a cartoonish version of Hitler. When he finds his beloved mother -who worries how much of her original, sweet natured boy is left under all the fascist poison he has been filled with – has secretly hidden a young Jewish girl and is involved in the resistance to the Nazi regime he is, for the first time, forced to see the world differently, with the fantasy and humour elements, while delivering fun and laughs, also serving to contrast against the real historical brutality going on around Jojo. (reviewed here)

The Accountant of Auschwitz

A rather different film about the Nazi era, this documentary follows Oskar Gröning and the changes in German law that took decades to implement, which allowed for more of those who took part in the Holocaust to be tried, finally, for crimes against humanity. Is it worth putting a ninety-something frail, old man on trail? As some make clear in this documentary, yes, because it isn’t just about this one man, it is about laying down precedent, as with the trials in the Hague for those who committed genocide in the Serbian and Bosnian wars, it is to make it clear to such people that sooner or later they will be held accountable under law for their hideous actions, that they cannot hide from what they did forever. Outside some still try to deny the Holocaust happened – some are young, skinhead neo-Nazis, but some are elderly, upright citizens who also try to deny what happened, making this all the more important. Gröning, a former SS man, makes clear his complicit guilt – he didn’t carry out the atrocities, but he watched, and he served in a capacity that helped them to operate the death camps, and he wants those modern day deniers to know that truth, that he was there, he wore that SS uniform, and he saw what they did. (reviewed here)

Apollo 11

Released to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of the first crewed lunar mission, I was eager to see this – I’ve been a space geek my entire life, my childhood room didn’t have posters of footballers, it had posters of Yuri Gagarin and Neil Armstrong. This narration-free documentary managed to include footage even life-long space geeks like me hadn’t seen before, and was a powerful, emotional, tense and wonderful celebration of one of the most remarkable feats in the history of human exploration, following three souls who really did go where no man has gone before.

Avengers Endgame

What can I say about this? Big blockbusters are not always the ones which make my end of the year list, but, dammit, this was the culmination of ten years of movies by Marvel, slowly, carefully building up their universe so that those not familiar with the comics would understand each character and the shared universe they inhabit, so when those linked individual films lead to this gigantic, two-parter which spanned all of those films and characters they groundwork had been laid. It’s an amazing approach to storytelling, and for fans like me it paid off – we’ve invested ten years in the film versions of these characters, so many of the scenes here packed a big, emotional wallop for us (sorry, Martin Scorcese, I love you, but regardless of what you think of these kinds of movies, they do count as films and they matter to a lot of us). I also liked the feeling of that original run of connected films coming to an end, of that generation of heroes passing the torch to newer figures. And, darn it, Steve Rogers almost made me cry…

Stan and Ollie

I grew up watching repeats of classic Laurel and Hardy, Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton films, usually with my dad. We both still enjoy watching them together, so I was always going to be drawn to this biopic about two of cinema’s funniest duos. The film cleverly avoids the usual chronological approach to their career and instead the bulk of it is set after their heyday, on a final live stage tour of Britain after the war. The two bicker and argue over past incidents, there is a feeling their star has long since declined, their fame fading, they are getting older, the world moving on without them, and yet at the same time there is also a huge reservoir of affection for these two men, and under the arguing (almost like an old married couple), the love between them is also very apparent. John C Reilly and Steve Coogan turn in amazing performances, quite obviously this is a labour of love for those actors, determined to do right by the real Laurel and Hardy. I exited the cinema smiling, and humming the Cuckoo Waltz all the way home… (reviewed here)

The Wind

I caught Emma Tammi’s The Wind late night at this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival. Right from the start it established a delightfully creepy atmosphere – you just feel that something here is wrong, the world is out of kilter, and a disturbing opening scene becomes clearer as the film progresses and we learn more of what lead up to that scene and its aftermath. Set in an almost empty, vast landscape of the Plains during the westward expansion, the wind screams constantly over this huge, empty landscape, leading many to talk of demons on the Plains, their shrieks carried in those winds. How much of what we think is happening is real and how much the product of fevered minds slowly cracking under the strain of the environment and the isolation is always open to debate, making it all the more disturbing, while the film boasts some superbly scary, creepy moments. A thoughtful, unusual and atmospheric horror. Reviewed here.

Shout outs to must also go to some of the other films I enjoyed this year but which I can’t fit into the main list. Greta, The Favourite, Ms Marvel, John Wick Chapter 3, Toy Story 4, Karina Holden’s eco-documentary Blue (reviewed here), lo-fi, small budget Indy sci-fi film Prospect (reviewed here), Tehran Taboo (reviewed here), Destroyer (reviewed here), which played with genre expectations and also introduced me to Karyn Kusama, who also wowed me with The Invitation this year, Liberté: A Call to Spy, a female-lead (and scripted and directed) Indy WWII film about the first women to be trained by the SOE and dropped into Occupied France, which I caught at the film festival (review here), and Memory: the Origins of Alien, which I also caught at this years film festival (reviewed here), and documentary Making Waves which explored the fascinating history of sound in the cinema (reviewed here)

Reviews: Jojo Rabbit

Jojo Rabbit,
Directed by Taika Waititi,
Starring Roman Griffin Davis, Thomasin McKenzie, Taika Waititi, Rebel Wilson, Stephen Merchant, Alfie Allen, Sam Rockwell, Scarlett Johansson, Archie Yates

The latest from one of my favourite creators, the Kiwi director and actor Taika Waititi (What We Do In the Shadows, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Thor: Ragnarök), Jojo Rabbit, based on Christine Leunens’ book Caging Skies, brings with it some controversy for using humour and fantasy elements to depict the Nazi regimes, from Hitler Youth teams to the Gestapo (a fun turn from Stephen Merchant with just a touch of the old Herr Flick about it) to a cartoonish version of the Fuhrer, and even opening credits that conflate Beatlemania screaming crowds with the crowds adoring Hitler. Some seem to think this detracts from the horror of that regime or the historical events it is based on. After catching a preview screening

I have to disagree – first off, it is Taika Waititi, so surely you expect some delightfully skewed (and often dark) humour, even in the face of awful events? Criticising a Waititi movie for those elements is like saying Gene Kelly danced too much in Singing in the Rain. Secondly, I think the humour and fantasy elements were well-used – some for outright comedic effect, but many to counterpoint the barbarity of the Nazi regime, of the brainwashing of children to hate others as different and sub-human, of a state which doesn’t serve its people but consumes them in a hate and fear-filled spiral. Debuting at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival, these criticisms by some didn’t stop the film doing well and winning the festival’s Grolsch People’s Choice Award.

As you can probably gather from this, I enjoyed the film, but I am an admirer of Waititi’s approach – if his style and humour isn’t your thing then this isn’t for you, but for those who do there is a lot to enjoy here – the humour and the more fantastical elements (not least Hitler – played by Waititi – being Jojo’s childhood imaginary friend) are grounded by the events of the dying days of World War Two, from the indoctrination of children through propaganda, misinformation, lies and the spread of hatred, the ever-present fear of being suspected of not being Germanic enough and getting a call from the Gestapo, of seeing your own country go so insane with a hate-driven regime that it trains eleven year old children to use as cannon-fodder.

As we watch young Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) and his best pal Yorki (Archie Yates, who reminded me – in a good way – of a very young Nick Frost) trying to come to terms with the reality of the Nazi regime as he sees supposed traitors strung up from a gallows in the town square (his mother Rosie, played by Scarlett Johansson, forces him to look at it, to see what the Nazi regime really does) to finding his mother has secretly hidden a young Jewish girl Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) in their home to save her. Jojo is ten – he has been raised in a Germany controlled by the Nazis, indoctrinated since he was a tiny boy to believe in the Aryan supremacy, of the conspiracy of others (especially Jews), conditioned to think as the state wants him to.

Scarlett Johansson is superb as his life-affirming mother Rosie, clearly loving her son more than anything in the world and yet wondering where did the little boy who ran to her because he was scared of thunder go, when did he turn into this small, blue-eyed, blonde-haired Nazi in a miniature uniform, spouting party propaganda. While you could take much of Jojo Rabbit as an odd, slightly surreal take on the brutalities of that regime, it seemed to me you could also read the film in a number of other ways, from a comment on toxic masculinity (boys being told how to be men mostly through hiding emotions, being “strong”, brutal, pitiless), or the way such propaganda spreads hate through our society, especially to the younger, more impressionable – in Rosie’s anguished musings over how her beloved wee boy became this fervent Nazi I was reminded of an article by a mother in the US whose previously well-behaved, loving teen son absorbed right-wing hate-group material online and changed drastically in much the same way.

Johansson steals many scenes, a mother in the worst of circumstances, trying to salvage her wee boy from the hateful poison put into his young head, to protect a young girl who reminds her of her own lost daughter, of her husband supposedly lost on the Italian front somewhere, of her country gone mad, and yet she does so many happy little things to make life more bearable, to make Jojo smile. It reminded me in some ways of Roberto Benigni in the remarkable Life is Beautiful. The relationship that develops between Jojo and Elsa is also nicely handled – it doesn’t feel too forced and it did feel to me like the way a child would see the world, not an adult trying to speak as a child. The always brilliant Sam Rockwell, playing wounded army captain Klenzendorf may have a supporting role, but it is Rockwell, so it is beautifully underplayed, his damaged soldier moving from caricature of the war-crazy retired warrior to something more human, almost a father figure for Jojo.

Yes, this is an unusual beast, and I do understand when some criticise the cartoonish and humorous elements depicting the Nazis, but I don’t think those do reduce the reality of what happened. As I said at the start I think if anything the humour and fantastical elements contrast against the brutality and make it stand out more. And we do have a long tradition of using film to lampoon Nazis, after all – Bugs Bunny did it for the war effort in the 40s, the great Mel Brooks has lampooned them many times and even the Blues Brothers had their inept Illinois Nazis to ridicule. In an era where it feels like far-right hatred is expanding in so many countries, I think Jojo Rabbit may be portraying a historical period, but there is an awful lot of contemporary issues which we can see woven in there.

Reviews: The Invitation

The Invitation,
Directed by Karyn Kusama,
Starring Logan Marshall-Green, Emayatzy Corinealdi, Michiel Huisman, Aiden Lovekamp, Michelle Krusiec, Tammy Blanchard

Other than the fact The Invitation debuted to some acclaim at the London Film Festival, I knew next to nothing about this film in advance (a rare occurrence these days when we hear about most films well in advance), but frankly they had me at Karyn Kusama. Kusama impressed me with her Nicole Kidman-starring Destroyer, which I reviewed on here back in the spring (see here). When I realised it was the same director I was more than happy to have a look at The Invitation, and I am glad I did, as it proved to be a masterclass in tension and discomfort, right from the start.

Will (Logan Marshall-Green) and his partner Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) are driving up into the hills behind LA, invited to a dinner party with old friends, hosted by his ex-wife Eden (Tammy Blanchard) and her new husband David (Michiel Huisman). The sense of something out of joint is present right from the start, when Kira and Will’s car hits a coyote on the isolated, tree-lined road up through the hills. And this isn’t just a sudden accident, Kusama drags the scene out – the animal is mortally wounded but not dead yet, making the whole incident more distressing. Will is already uncomfortable at the thought of returning to the house he once shared with his former wife, without this incident – a portent? – on the way.

I imagine most of us would feel awkward at having dinner with and ex and their new partner, and in this case we learn that it is a gathering of a bunch of old friends, but none of them have heard from Eden in a couple of year, leaving them all wondering, understandably, why now, out of the blue, they send an overly-elaborate invitation insisting they all get together at this time. Will is clearly ill at ease, and we gradually discover through tiny flashbacks of memory, triggered as he goes round the home he once shared with Eden, that this isn’t just because they are ex-partners, it is that something happened to them something very, very bad, something that drove them apart and almost finished both of them. Something that happened around this house…

This makes Will question why she can stand living here again, not to mention the strange serenity she and David seem to now possess – a rather creepy form of serenity, the type you expect from someone sucked into some phoney therapy or cultish type group. And then they mention a group run by a guru in Mexico, and introduce two strangers into this reunion of friends, two people the rest have never seen before but David and Eden know from this Mexican retreat. Again Will wonders why these two, odd strangers have been invited to what is meant to be a gathering of old fiends?

The others, even his girlfriend Kira, think he is over-reacting, that it is his history with this house, Eden and the tragedy that befell them that is causing him to react so badly to the evening, to jump at shadows, suspect for no reason. Perhaps he is still disturbed, discomfited, out of his element, in a place he doesn’t want to be. But why does David lock all the doors once everyone is in? Why are there bars on the windows, why is there no phone service, why are Eden and David so keen nobody leaves early?

Is this all in Will’s abused psyche or is something really wrong here? I don’t want to ruin anything with possible spoilers, so I won’t say anymore on the plot. I must say, though, Kusama, crafts such a sense of ever-increasing unease throughout the film, expertly cranking up the sense of wrongness and disturbing atmosphere, but for much of it leaving us to wonder how much is genuinely out of kilter and how much is the broken psyche of Will reacting badly to this event. The slow reveal of the tragedy that befell him and Eden aids in this and gradually changes the viewer’s perspective, leading to a fascinating and darkly compelling third reel.

The sense of tension, of unease and wrongness lurking below what seems like a lovely home and group in a nice area is beautifully done – think Blue Velvet era Lynch crossed with Get Out, perhaps, and the use of mostly one location – the house – enclosed everything and makes it more tense, more claustrophobic. Highly recommended.

The Invitation is released on Blu-Ray (with a raft of extras, including commentary by Kusama, making of and interview features) by Second Sight on November 4th

Reviews: “lost” 90s horror movie Skinner get the 4k Treatment

Skinner,
Directed by Ivan Nagy,
Starring Ted Raimi, Traci Lords, Richard Schiff, David Warshofsky,
101 Films

Unavailable for years – some thought it was actually lost – the late Ivan Nagy’s 1993 is returning to the horror movie scene with a spiffing 4k resurrection on Blu-Ray by 101’s Black Label. Dennis Skinner (Ted Raimi), wanders from town to town, pursuing his obsession – in a nice bit of normative determinism, our Dennis enjoys not only nice, long walks in the seedier parts of town, but picking up sex workers who he not only kills but then expertly skins, keeping those skins as trophies. And even more disturbingly, to wear, to show his “true self”.

The story has elements of the 80s slasher, with the focus on killing young women in bloody fashion, with elements of the serial killer genre (not least Silence of the Lambs’ Buffalo Bill and his woman “skin suit”, and a couple of scenes that hint to Norman Bates in Psycho). One of the aspects which differentiates between this and other similar horrors of the era though, is the use of Ted Raimi. Of course Raimi is no stranger to horror and the fantastic genres, having been in everything from Dark Man to a recurring role in Xena. Fair to say, in fact, Ted is a much-loved genre regular.

Here however Nagy is playing Raimi against type – there is always something of the charming goofball about his characters, and normally a lot of humour and a fair bit of charm too. And those qualities are here, and feel very Ted Raimi. And then we see the other side come out, the monster within that charming, smiling, considerate, polite, affable guy in glasses, a monster created in his youth by a brutalising father and the murder and dismemberment of his mother by his father in a grotesque parody of an autopsy.

I must admit at first I wasn’t entirely convinced – the initial glimpses of Raimi’s Skinner letting his restrained inner demon out didn’t quite work for me, it was hard to buy cuddly Ted as an evil killer. But the more I watched the more I revised that opinion because I realised that was more than likely the intention here, that we’d find it difficult to believe one of his characters could be this nasty. Like Ted Bundy and some other real-world serial killers, Raimi’s Skinner is the last person you’d expect to be a bloody-minded psychopath, he seems the nicest, gentlest person, always a ready smile, and that’s a major part of Skinner’s draw here, having a monster who, most of the time, doesn’t seem like a monster.

Traci Lords plays Heidi, the only streetwalker to survive Skinner’s murderous thirst for women, terribly disfigured and in constant pain, hiding her multiple scars and wounds as she relentlessly hunts for Skinner. As with many serial killers Skinner has a preferred method of operating, and as Heidi mutters, this makes him “as creature of habit, predictable”, aiding her quest to hunt him and seek revenge. As the film progresses and we see more of her, while sympathising with the suffering inflicted on her and her right to seek her own brand of justice, the film also starts to intimate that her scarring is as much mental as physical, and that, in some ways, her single-minded pursuit, letting no-one stand in her way, has perhaps made Heidi something of a monster, a dark twin of Skinner, the two drawn together in mutual violence and pain.

Some of the film very much shows its 1990s roots – a hidden area in a run-down factory that Skinner uses as a lair is lit with contrasting spots of green, blue and red light that were a style in more than a few productions of the time, but given that’s when it was made that’s fair enough. The early killings are fairly quiet and almost bloodless on-screen – a sex worker lured away, the intimation of Skinner about to strike, then a cutaway to flashes of skin being cut, but only brief flashes rather than the grand guignol bloodbath some may expect. Theses scenes grow longer and more explicit as the film progresses, however, which is more effective in ratcheting up the levels of tension and horror, and while we have to wait for those longer scenes – and the slow reveal of what Skinner does with those pieces of skin he slices from the victims – it works to the film’s advantage.

Skinner is getting the full 4k restoration treatment, and arrives from 101 Films on a dual-format Blu-Ray and DVD, with extras including interviews with Nagy and Raimi, and a limited edition booklet.

Making Waves – the Art of Cinematic Sound

Making Waves: the Art of Cinematic Sound,
Directed by Midge Costin

Last year you may recall I reviewed Score, a documentary on the history and evolution of music in cinema (see here). Making Waves is a perfect partner to Score, with Midge Costin’s new documentary (taking a bow at this month’s London Film Festival) focusing more on the role of sound in the cinema, from the earliest days (basic sound effects, the struggle to find good ways to record decent quality dialogue for the talkies) through to later film-makers who consider the soundscape – dialogue, effects and more – to be an integral part of how they wish their audience to experience their work.

As with Score, Making Waves takes a roughly chronological approach, starting briefly with the silent movie era, and as with Score pointing out that even in the teens and roaring twenties, those early flickering images were never truly silent. Most cinephiles are, I’m sure, well aware that live music usually accompanied silent projections (indeed performers like Buster Keaton sometimes worked visual clues into the film to give the musicians in the cinema a clue to the tempo they should play), but as is explained here, some of the fancier cinemas for some big releases would also employ what we would now consider special effects sound technicians who would make basic effect live to go along with the film, drawing on the theatrical tradition.

With the arrival of the talkies, of course things changed, although not as much as you might assume. Obviously we could now hear the stars of the Silver Screen talk (and as was well satirised in films like Singing in the Rain, those early recording devices and microphones came with all sorts of problems!), and there would be music and effects, from the crack of thunder and lightning (what would Frankenstein and so many other Universal monster movies be without that?) to the simple sound of footsteps, all adding depth and believability to what we are watching, drawing us further into the film’s world.

The film does note, however, that for the most part, for several decades after the arrival of sound, most directors and producers treated the audio as an afterthought- dialogue, some music, some small sound effects like a door hinge squeaking, or a car engine backfiring. There were, of course, notable exceptions to this approach – the iconic King Kong wasn’t just groundbreaking in terms of visual effects, it was clever in creating and mixing sound effects to partner those visuals, thanks to Murray Spivack. The boy wonder Orson Welles had taken his usual methodical and experimental approach to his famous radio productions, giving them a rich soundscape to draw in listeners, and unsurprisingly he took this belief that the soundscape was a vital component of the whole experience to his movies as well.

Much of the most interesting material comes a bit later, unsurprisingly with the new wave of film-makers, who grasped how important the audio elements were, creators who were interested in every aspect of the many components that go into making their films what they are. Hitchcock, of course, Stanley Kubrick, and a raft of hungry new talent like Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, David Lynch and more. There are some fascinating talking heads here from many of these now-iconic talents, Coppola and his sound team discussing working the sound ideas into the script, ideas like those amazing helicopter blade effects swish, swish, swishing, using multi-channel recording and playback to allow the sound to move around the theatre. Lynch discusses the soundscape in the astonishing Eraserhead, how much it added to the visuals he was crafting (think on that deceptively simple slow zoom on the radiator and the increasing hiss of steam, audio and visual working perfectly together).

Alongside newer directors and sound techs interested in working together, the latter half of the twentieth century really ups the level of what sound can do in a film on the technological side too. Dolby and multi-channel recording, mixing and playback offers up so many possibilities, and again the film draws on a roster of top talent to talk about how they have used the new sound technologies, from Barbara Streisand innovating the way music and song was incorporated into the film-making process, to George Lucas on the importance of sounds like the scream of a TIE Fighter or the swoosh of a lightsabre, talking to innovative sound techs like Walter Murch and Ben Burtt as well the directors they’ve worked hand in glove with (and boy this has an impressive array of big names – Spielberg, Nolan, Redford, Lucas, Coppola and more).

Linking the different elements covered- ADR(Additional Dialogue Replacement), the Foley artists, editing, music, sound effects etc – the film uses a “circle of talent” to show each element as it covers it (the graphics pleasantly reminding me of VU meters on a sound deck, very appropriate), and this allows the film to move through the different aspects involved in the soundscape of a film production in a clear manner, showing how they have evolved and how they operate, not to mention how they are drawn together into the completed film. This is a fascinating documentary for any cinephile, and while the big name directorial talent doing vox pops here is impressive, it’s even better to see the normally hidden, behind the scenes talent given their fifteen minutes here. I think the only problem I had with this is that with a century of movies to explore there is so much more I would love to have seen explored, but that would take a mini-series on TV rather than a film, and given the constraints of a ninety or so minute film I think Costin has done a wonderful job.

Making Waves is being show by Dogwoof at this month’s London Film Festival, and will be released in cinemas and on-demand from November 1st

Reviews: new Brit horror-comedy in Double Date

Double Date,
Directed by Benjamin Barfoot,
Starring Danny Morgan, Georgia Groome, Michael Socha, Kelly Wenham

Fresh from a good reception at FrightFest (always a good sign), this new horror-comedy with a strong gender element, Double Date arrives on home screens this month. Jim (Danny Morgan) is quiet, awkward socially, especially with women, and facing his imminent 30th birthday as a virgin. His best mate, Alex (This is England’s Michael Socha) is the polar opposite, cocksure, always on the pull, a jack-the lad and boy around town. For all his teasing of Jim, though, it’s also clear that under the cocky, laddish banter he actually cares about his friend, and in the tradition of many a movie, he’s determined he’s going to get his friend laid before his birthday.

Meanwhile we’ve already had a glimpse of sisters Kitty (Kelly Wenham) and Lulu (Georgina Groome), going home with a pair of men from a nightclub to a huge country home, the men delighted, thinking their luck is in, as they split up, one going with each sister, Kitty taking her partner upstairs. There’s music and a lot of body on body action, but not quite the sort of penetration the young man was hoping for as Kitty goes to work on him with a knife and a mad stabbing frenzy.

The next evening they are back out on the prowl at the nightclub, the same club where Jim and Alex are cruising (well, Alex is cruising, Jim is just ambling along). And they notice Jim, much to his surprise, in fact they seem to be inviting his attentions, more interested in him than self-proclaimed stud Alex. But Alex pitches in gamely, trying to advise Jim on the “perfect” pick up line and techniques (their regular barmaid tries to dissuade him from this awful, corny approach), even going so far as feeding Jim text messages as he talks to the girls, trying to give him prompts, which of course Jim makes a mess of. And yet, somehow the girls are still interested and agree to meet both men again the next evening for a date.

Are they serial killers who get their thrills seducing hapless, hopeless young men like Jim and then leading them to the slaughter? There are signs that there is more than just thrill-killing going on here, there are elements of ritual – however bizarre and deranged – that hint there is a deeper and darker purpose to the murderous crime spree the girls are indulging in., possibly something supernatural…

This is a very enjoyable Brit comedy-horror, right from the start it is clear both director and cast are having some fun with this movie. Sure, the sisters are lethal, seductive killers, but there’s a lot of humour here, much of it as the expense of poor Jim, and there is good use of the difference between both pairs, between Kitty (seen training for the violence to come, seeming to embrace and even enjoy it) and Lulu (who appears more to be going along with her sister’s plans but isn’t really happy with them), and Jim, hopeless yet nice, constantly putting his foot in it, and Alex, the cocky lad who under it all really actually has feelings and cares about his buddy.

It’s a nice combination of elements, creating a fun ride, a nice mixture of horror, some gender-inversions, humour and even some delightfully inept but well-meant romantic moments. A good Friday night slice of viewing.

Double Date will be released on DVD, Blu-Ray and digital platforms by Sparky Pictures from September 9th

Kursk: the Last Mission

Kursk: The Last Mission,
Directed by Thomas Vinterberg,
Starring Matthias Schoenaerts, Léa Seydoux, Peter Simonischek, August Diehl, Colin Firth, Max Von Sydow, Bjarne Henriksen, Magnus Millang

The K-141 nuclear submarine Kursk was laid down in the early 1990s, but by the time she was fully commissioned the former Soviet Union had collapsed. She became part of the Russian navy’s Northern Fleet, a class known to worried NATO observers as the Oscar-II class, larger than her predecessors at some 154 metres, a truly massive beast, stealthy, hard to observe even with NATO’s sophisticated submarine detection equipment, and heavily armed (this class was designed to makes holes in entire enemy battle groups all by herself), with a hull and conning tower reinforced so she could even surface through the Arctic ice. But by the end of the last millennium, with Russia essentially broke, much of this once-huge and impressive fleet is lying at anchor, rusting in the sea air.

For all the power Kursk and her sister ships had, we see a sadly depleted, run-down force – as the film opens we follow a group of shipmates from her crew, lead by Mikhail Averin (Matthias Schoenaerts), desperately trying to raise money for the champagne for one of their fellow’s wedding reception; none of them has been paid in ages, a common occurrence during this part of Russia’s history, wages not being paid by the state, little money even for fuel for regular sailing patrols. They each barter their prized submariner’s watches with the quartermaster to get supplies for the wedding, a warm act of brotherhood for one of their own, an act which leaves the new bride in tears.

And the next day she sails into the frigid northern oceans – for the first time in years the run-down, post-Soviet Russian navy is holding a major exercise, and Kursk is joining it, tasked with launching sneak mock attacks on several of the surface vessels. Despite the lack of pay and resources this crew was still reckoned to be one of the best in the submarine fleet, and their ship a tremendous achievement of engineering and power. As we see her leave her base, watched by their families, the gargantuan scale of this ship is quite clear, and you understand the pride her crew have in sailing on such a vessel. Sadly, of course, for those of us familiar with recent history we know this will be Kursk’s final voyage. On the 12th of August, 2000, an explosion was detected beneath the waves around the exercise fleet. The worst had happened.

You may ask what mileage there is in a disaster film based on real history, when we all know what the outcome is, and it is a legitimate question. I have to say it entered my mind early on, but Thomas Vinterberg crafts his film in such a way that you get to know the men and their families. We see their strong bonds at the start as they try to find supplies for their crewmate’s wedding, we see their families, we see a group of elite sailors who live and work in close quarters at sea and whose families live next to one another on shore, they are all one extended family, and it is clear they would do anything for one another. As we get to know the men on the ship and their families back home we become enmeshed in their lives – I found myself wanting, against the odds, against real history, for some of them to make it, even though I know that all of her crew perished down there, in the deep, cold northern waters, far from the light. But Vinterberg made me want that to happen, his Kursk really does pull you in emotionally to this desperate struggle for survival.

The explosion destroys the forward compartments of the ship – it is generally believed that a badly-made torpedo leaked the unstable hydrogen peroxide fuel (similar to that used in some rockets), causing an explosion, which in turn lead to a bigger explosion as it set off some of the other torpedoes. You can imagine the devastation this wreaks on the stricken ship. The crewmen we follow survive only because they were in the rear section. They are now stuck on the bottom of the sea in the last few sealed compartments, water leaking in, air thinning, waiting, hoping, praying for rescue. But the cutbacks in the Russian fleet have also affected their search and rescue teams – the British Royal Navy (in the shape of Colin Firth’s Commodore David Russell) and Norwegian navies monitor the situation and offer their own far better technical resources to rescue the men they think may be trapped aft, but a proud and suspicious Russia refuses the offers of help, until it is too late.

We’ll never know for sure now if those twenty three men surviving in the aft compartments could have been rescued if Russia had accepted that help more quickly. One officer there made a list of the surviving men, so we know they were there for some time after the explosion, hoping for a rescue that came far too late (Firth has his British officer down perfectly, the obvious despair and resignation mixed with that classic stoic and professional in public persona we expect of an RN officer). The rescue attempts by the Russians, the help offered by the British and Norwegians, the cutting back and forth from the slowly filling compartments of survivors to their frantic families on land, demanding information and being given little by the authorities, all builds to a tremendous if tragic emotional climax. This is all handled in a very realistic, down-to-earth manner, a million miles from the action of the likes of Hunt For Red October, in many ways it has the feeling of one of those classic WWII submarine films, when all the men can do is wait in their ship, deep below the surface and hope.

Yes, we know the outcome here – this event only happened nineteen years ago, we all saw it on the news, we all heard of the Royal Navy’s offer of help, the standard forgetting of enemies when in trouble at sea, because then all sailors are fellow sailors and the code is always to help, and the wait to find out that it was all too late. And yet Vinterberg’s film draws you into the desperate emotions of these men and their families so effectively you find yourself longing for a Hollywood happy ending that you know never happened and cannot be, but he ensures these men are not just some stereotypes, he gives them depth, families, makes us emote with them until we feel their struggle. And he gives them honour, heroism and professionalism as they face their end together.

Kursk: the Last Mission is released by Signature Entertainment in cinemas and on Digital HD from July 12th

EIFF 2019 – McLaren Animation

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

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

Edinburgh International Film Festival - McLaren Animation 015
(some of the animators at the post McLaren screening Q&As – pics from my Flickr)
Edinburgh International Film Festival - McLaren Animation 020

Edinburgh International Film Festival - McLaren Animation 029

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


(a scene from Ainslie Henderson’s Archie)

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

Music & Clowns – trailer from Alex Widdowson on Vimeo.

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

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

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

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

mad dog trailer from steve boot on Vimeo.

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

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

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

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

EIFF 2019 – The Dead Don’t Die

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

EIFF 2019 – L’empereur de Paris

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

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

But frankly, they had me at Vincent Cassel…

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

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

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

EIFF 2019 – Aniara

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

EIFF 2019 – Liberté: A Call to Spy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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