Reviews: Emotional time travel in Synchronic

Synchronic,
Directed by Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead,
Starring Anthony Mackie, Jamie Dornan, Ally Ioannides, Katie Aselton

The clock just keeps ticking down, and the lower that number gets, you realise how fucking amazing now is. The present is a miracle, bro.”

Steve Denube (Mackie) and Dennis Dannelly (Dornan) are best friends, who also work together as paramedics on the night shift in New Orleans. As with ambulance crews in any city, they’ve seen pretty much everything in their time, but Steve starts to become intrigued by a number of very unusual injuries and deaths they are called to, in which the only link he can see is that a new synthetic street drug called Synchronic was taken by those involved. The NOPD don’t appear to be following this as a lead however, as the drug itself is not the cause of injury or death. At least not directly – we soon learn that Synchronic has an unplanned for side-effect, regarding a person’s place in the space-time continuum…

The two men, despite being lifelong friends, are, in the best traditions of cinematic buddy bromances, quite different in many ways. Dennis has long since settled down, has a wife, a now almost adult daughter and a newly arrived baby. Steve, in contrast, is still single, living the bachelor life with a different woman on different nights but no actual lasting relationships (save with his dog). We see flashbacks to a traumatic scene in his life, terrible rains and flooding, causing the coffins to break loose from the above-ground cemeteries New Orleans is so famous for – it doesn’t take much to guess this is the aftermath of the terrible damage inflicted by Hurricane Katrina on the Big Easy, a wound on both the city and on Steve’s emotional state.

(Minor potential spoiler warnings ahead). Steve starts to re-evaluate his freewheeling lifestyle, not just because he is now approaching forty, but because two major events happen: first Dennis’s daughter Brianna (Ally Ioannides) goes missing (in fact she had been at a party their ambulance was called out to in order to deal with drug overdoses), then shortly after his headaches are diagnosed not as regular hangovers from his lifestyle, but a tumour in his pineal gland. Inoperable. He may have years but more likely only months.

He also discovers that his pineal gland is still in the same state of flux of a teenager, not an adult, and a chance encounter with the chemist who designed Synchronic lets him know that the drug’s time-shifting ability only works on younger brains. Convinced that the missing Brianna took Synchronic and that the reason they cannot find her is because it has taken her into the past, where she has become trapped, Steve decides, without telling anyone, to experiment with the drug. He tries taking it but documents his experiences with a video camera; he does seem to be transported for a few moments to an earlier time in the same location. Is this real or only in his perception as the drug influences him? If it is real, how can he fine-tune it to find where the drug could have transported Brianna? Even if he can do this, can he bring her back?

There is something endlessly fascinating about time-travel stories; our experience of the passing of the years is both objective (we know it is passing, we can measure it, document it) but also simultaneously subjective (was that really ten years ago? How could it be?), and although we can remember the past and imagine the future, we’re forever trapped within the flow of the river of time, unable to change courses. Synchronic offers up something a little different on the time-travel sub-genre, and it is an intriguing notion, that a drug could break us even momentarily from the normal flow.

The film is beautifully shot – many of the scenes are night shots of Steve and Dennis on their paramedic duties through the street of New Orleans, and these look superb on the screen. The film makes good use of flashbacks, which dovetail nicely into the fractured chronology as the Synchronic starts to affect Steve’s perception of time’s flow. The fact it moves him only in time but not place is also interesting, and the movie nods to the fact that some periods in the Deep South are not ones in which it is a nice place to be an African-American, a nice nod to America’s long-running race problems without being too heavy handed.

The relationships between Steve and Dennis are well-handled too – Mackie and Dornan produce terrific performances, these feel like two old buddies who have grown up together through all the years have laid upon them, and yet they stick together, trying to look out for one another. Steve doesn’t want to tell his best friend about his illness while he is searching for his missing daughter, his friend of course is angry because he wants to support him. And Steve’s quest to try to help find Brianna in the only way he can, to do something with the time he has left, something important, feels natural, in that way that life-changing moments such as serious illness or the loss of someone can be, to make you re-evaluate what is important in life (hence his quote at the start of this review).

The time-travel aspect is fascinating, especially the way it meshes with Steve’s personal flashbacks, and some aspects of time travel are well-handled (a wordless encounter with an Ice Age human ancestor showing a human link across millennia, an observation that nostalgia is nonsense and the past was often a cruel place for people to live). Ultimately, however, Synchronic is more about the importance of the people in our lives, about emotions, family and love, the vital beauty of the moments of the here and now we are given. A fascinating, emotionally rewarding slice of Indy Science Fiction film.

Synchronic is released by Signature Entertainment on digital platforms from March 29th, and on DVD and Blu-Ray from April 5th.

This review was originally penned for the Live For Films site.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7kqh4GSFRZU&ab_channel=SignatureEntertainment

Reviews: Brooding, disturing Gothic horror in Reunion

Reunion,
Directed by Jake Mahaffy,
Starring Julia Ormond, Emma Draper, John Bach, Cohen Holloway and Nancy Brunning

I went into this Kiwi film knowing very little about it, other than it had attracted some good word of mouth via the film festival circuit (which is usually a good sign), and that its small cast included Julia Ormond. Sometimes you just get a vibe about a film and know you have to have a look at it, and I had that feeling with Reunion. I’m glad I listened to that instinct, as Jake Mahaffy (he both wrote and directed) has created a superb film which takes in elements of the dysfunctional inter-generational family drama, the horror genre and includes some well-crafted disturbing scenes and imagery that will get under your skin.

Heavily pregnant, Ellie (Emma Draper), reluctantly returns home to the large, brooding, family home and her mother Ivy (Julia Ormond). It’s clear right away that Ellie really doesn’t want to be here, and that she and her mother don’t get along, but we get the impression she’s had little choice in where to go, having broken up with her partner and father of the child she is carrying. The large, old house still also includes her father Jack (John Bach), once an eminent doctor, now confined mostly to his bed or wheelchair and unable to communicate very much, a shadow of the dominant man we see in later flashbacks to Ellie’s childhood, or in the old VHS tapes of family life her mother still has.

Reunion plays with the viewer, only giving us limited information – we have to try to discern what is going on and what the family dynamics are by the impressions we are given, then some flashbacks and old family videos, while later Ellie experiences dreams or visions of moments from her childhood, including a horribly traumatic moment over her deceased half-sister Cara. However, sometimes these visions and flashbacks are distorted, sometimes they play out differently; likewise when she argues with her mother the viewer gets the impression that Ellie is not really a reliable narrator.

We learn she has long-running mental health issues and has been on medication, and we don’t know if we can trust her version of events or if it is all the product of a very troubled mind, and Draper does a remarkable job in conveying a woman in turmoil, worried about impending motherhood, haunted by her past (which may or may not be as she recalls it) and constantly arguing with her mother; it is hard to know if you want to root for Ellie or to dislike her, and I think that’s a deliberate ploy on behalf of both Mahaffy and Draper; it makes the drama and the mystery far more intriguing and draws the viewer in further, I think.

Her mother seems at first to be the practical, put-upon mother who, with a sigh, just gets on with things in that way that mums often do: invalid husband, she looks after him and takes care of what needs done around the family house (it is filled with boxes as Ellie arrives, preparing to clear it out and sell if off, their shared history concealed inside boxes, a metaphor for their actual lives). Her troubled daughter who tried to make a go of it away from the family nest forced to return, yes, mum will sigh and then get on with trying to take her in hand too.

Except as the film progresses we start to question Ivy: is she really the selfless mother taking on care for an invalided husband and an adult daughter who can’t cope on her own? Or does she have other, hidden agendas? As she and Ellie argue we slowly start to move from thinking Ellie’s memories are distorted by her mental illness and trauma to wondering if perhaps she is right, or at least partly right, and perhaps Ivy’s matriarchal stance conceals some dark secrets, that perhaps it isn’t all in Ellie’s head and that Ivy is lying to her, even gaslighting her into believing something that isn’t true. It’s hard to know who to trust, who has the correct version, and perhaps neither of them truly do, and it makes the mystery all the darker and more intriguing.

Mixed through this Mahaffy makes great use of the large, old country house, a place which would have once been impressive, bustling and now houses only three broken souls, personal items boxed up to go, many doors locked (Ivy carries a bunch of keys with her everywhere she goes, a symbol of her attempt to control the narrative of their history as much as it is to control the house). Glimpses of things out of the corner of the eye, doors that move by themselves, glimpses of the ghost of Cara, still the child she was when she died (or is this vision also in Ellie’s troubled head?), it all induces a claustrophobic sense of unease, of something trying to pretend to be a normal family home but not really managing. Woven into this are some superbly disturbing moments, which I am not going to ruin here with spoilers, but suffice to say they added greatly to the brooding, disturbing atmosphere which lies over Reunion.

This is a highly effective, slow-burning, atmosphere-building horror-drama, rewarding the viewer with some deliciously disturbing elements that will remain in your mind’s eye; part family drama, part Gothic horror, part ghost story, part mental health tale, it takes all of these and creates an absorbing narrative, beautifully shot, with Ormond and Draper carrying the film. Highly recommended.

Reunion will be released by 101 Films on digital from March 22nd

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

A Year Ago Today – Deserted Streets

On my Twitter feed I often have a look through my huge Flickr archive of photos to see if I took any photos on this day in previous years, and tweet a few of them. Today I noticed the ones I took on 21st March 2020, a year ago today. I was coming home from visiting a friend on the other side of town; we both knew the Lockdown was coming very soon (it was announced just a couple of days later) and this might be our last chance for a visit for a good while (we had no idea then just quite how long, of course, none of us did, we were all still thinking a few weeks, a couple of months perhaps).

Empty Streets 02

It was around ten or eleven on a Saturday night as I crossed Lothian Road near the Filmhouse. This area is full of restaurants, bars, cinemas and theatres, and so you can imagine on a Saturday evening it is extremely loud and busy. And here it was all but deserted, a couple waiting for a bus and that was it. The Lockdown hadn’t quite started, but the bars, restaurants, cinemas and theatres had all already closed; continental Europe was being ravaged by Covid-19 and cases were climbing alarmingly here. People were scared, streets were empty, places closing; the storm was about to break over us.

Empty Streets 04

Empty Streets 03

It was disturbing to see my city so empty of people on a Saturday night; it was just a preview of what was coming over the next few months. Lockdown hit two days later, we left our bookshop wondering when we would be back, when we would see one another again, when we would be able to see our friends and family again now everything was closed and travel not allowed. We were thinking some weeks, perhaps a couple of months, nobody had any idea just how bad it would be and how long it would keep going for. Over the next few months on furlough I walked the streets of my beloved Edinburgh, and as always my camera went where I did, documenting this strangest time in the city.

Light Traffic 02

No Shopping Here Today 01

On a sunny Easter bank holiday weekend, when the city should have been bursting at the seams with tourists I could stand in the middle of the Royal Mile, devoid of people and traffic, to take pictures, I saw perhaps three or four people on the Esplanade in front of the Castle where normally it would be packed with tourists. It was beyond disturbing, unsettling to walk around this magnificent, old city and see hardly a soul, the very occasional bus going by almost empty. Sounds like the footsteps of the postie delivering mail became a source of reassurance, that some normality still existed. I could hear the music from 28 Days later in my head as I walked through utterly empty Old Town streets, my city, like others all round the entire world, was a ghost town. I’ve seen more people around the town at 4am walking home from the film festival than I did on those strange, spring days…

As I write this a year on we’re still in a second Lockdown after another wave of infections, although the vaccine roll out is giving some hope, and restrictions should slowly ease next month. But in Europe many are experiencing a third wave of infection and the worry is that we may too (as spring weather returned last week I saw large groups of students gathering in the Meadows, flagrantly breaking the Covid restrictions on numbers and distancing, which fills me with anxiety as this is the sort of thing that can lead to more spikes in cases).

We’re now in a very strange mix of fear and hope; it must be a cousin to the strange morass of conflicting feelings those who endured the last war felt. I want to do normal things again. I want to hang out with my friends. I want to sit in a cinema, a pub. I want to be able to go home and see my dad. And we’re all in the same boat.

Tourist Free Zone 03

No Passengers Today

Please keep washing your hands and wear a mask and distance. And don’t dare tell me that doing that infringes your “freedom”. It doesn’t, this isn’t about you and your selfish needs if you think that way, this is about trying to protect everyone around us, our friends, families and communities: you wear a mask to help protect everyone around you; do your bit. We will get through it.

Everything Is Going To Be Alright

Reviews: The Final Stand

The Final Stand,
Directed by Vadim Shmelyov,
Starring Artyom Gubin, Lubov Konstantinova, Igor Yudin, Aleksey Bardukov, Yekaterina Rednikova

Russia, 1941: the full weight of Operation Barbarossa, Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union, is upon the Russian people. The Nazis, having already taken Western Europe with their Blitzkrieg tactics, have turned this ferocious might on the vast lands to the east, storming through huge areas so swiftly that defences are overwhelmed before they can make a proper account of themselves. The enemy is trampling almost at will over the Motherland, seemingly unstoppable, with Moscow itself now in imminent danger of being overrun. The Red Army is bringing in more troops and equipment from far afield, but desperately needs time to marshal them for a defence. The cadets of the Podolsk infantry and artillery schools are going to buy that time.

The Final Stand begins with some beautifully shot battle scenes – if that’s not oxymoronic. Crisp, high-definition shots in slow-motion capture pouring rain (you can almost see the droplets hitting the helmets of the troops), the expressions on the soldier’s faces as they yell in alarm, the mud splashing around them, explosions. And as the film goes back to normal speed we realise this is the cadets in training, not in combat. It’s a good opening, on the one hand Shmelyov is setting out his stall – this is not a film which will hold back in depicting the realities of combat, and it will use refined film techniques to capture them in fantastic clarity – on the other hand it brings in a moment of light-heartedness to contrast against the brutality (the film mixes in some welcome little bursts of humour here and there, it isn’t all action and suffering).

The cadets are all young, so very, very young, just as their real-life counterparts would have been. They are aware of the war coming their way, most have not seen battle but feel they must do their duty to protect the Motherland. They’re willing to serve and risk their lives, but it’s also obvious that these young, untried cadets have that invincibility of youth feeling – while they know many are dying, they don’t quite get that, they are young, unstoppable, eager to prove themselves, it is almost an adventure, they are courting some of the equally young military nurses (their officers, older, more seasoned, know what is coming and are trying to prepare their young charges). Despite the advancing Nazi invasion their mood is high, but they are about to be put to the test, and a great many of these eager young cadets will not return to tell the tale.

While the film has its flaws – Shmelyov is a bit too fond of the high-definition slow-motion, or the fast action that suddenly goes to slow-motion then back to fast (which can be an effective technique, but needs to be used sparingly, I think), the characters and main plot are fairly generic (the big, tough lug with a heart of gold, the shy one, the schoolboy one etc) – it has some damned impressive moments, and some interesting details, such as the threat of Russian-speaking Nazi infiltrators in Soviet uniforms going ahead of the main forces, or the small forces of special troops who operate behind the enemy lines to get information back to the main forces.

And the main battle sequences are impressive set-pieces – screaming artillerymen trying to drag and move their cannon and line it up quicker than the turret on a German panzer can turn and target on them is tense and terrifying. The fearsome Stuka dive-bombers screaming out of the sky – the Russian airforce at this point having been largely knocked out of the game by the Luftwaffe – bombing and strafing almost with impunity, and its horrendous. As with the scenes as German aircraft attacked the almost helpless soldiers on the beach in Nolan’s Dunkirk, you can feel the visceral horror and terror of it, and you’re aware that what you feel is only a shadow of what the real historical characters went through.

While it does have some generic elements and sometimes leans too much on certain visual techniques, like the aforementioned slow-motion, it is beautifully shot, clarity and production values matching any Western war or action film. Like many of a certain age I grew up on war movies, The Longest Day to Reach For the Sky, In Which We Serve, Battle of the River Plate and more, and I still have a soft spot for WWII films, which were once such a huge part of cinema but, like the Western, is a genre that has largely faded these days to a few entries, so I’m always intrigued to see a new one appear, and in this case it is also very interesting to see the Russian perspective.

In Russia the Second World War is often referred to as The Great Patriotic War; while the West took its share of the horrendous butcher’s bill of the war in both military and civilian casualties, the sheer scale of the Soviet losses is just unbelievable. Shmelyov knows he cannot depict all the millions lost in the maelstrom of the Eastern Front, but his group of young cadets, answering their country’s call in its darkest hour, allows those few to stand for the many. A solid, beautifully shot war movie.

The Final Stand is released by Signature Entertainment on DVD and Digital from March 8th.

This review was originally penned for Live For Films.

Lockdown Horror in Host

Host,
Directed by Rob Savage,
Starring Haley Bishop, Jemma Moore, Emma Louise Webb, Radina Drandova, Caroline Ward, Teddy Linard, Seylan Baxter

Six friends – Haley, Jemma, Emma, Radina, Caroline and Teddy – get together online for their weekly Zoom catch-up during the first, long months of Pandemic Lockdown, something we’ve all been doing a lot of over the last, grinding year or so, something that has become commonplace and everyday. As they are all separated under the Covid restrictions, these little online get togethers are a lifeline, as they have been to so many in real life, and to spice it up a little for this week, Haley (Haley Bishop), has invited a spirit medium, Seylan (Seylan Baxter) to join them and conduct an online séance.

It’s fair to say the chums are not taking this terrible seriously, and there is a lot of giggling going on, and a drinking game (take a shot everytime Seylan mentions the “astral plane” for instance), while Haley tries to get them to behave a little more respectfully to Seylan. As Seylan instructs them to reach out to try to contact someone they know who has passed over, Jemma decides claims to have felt a touch on her shoulder and a presence, which she thinks is Jack, a boy who was kind to her back in her school days, but who later committed suicide.

After Seylan’s spotty internet connection causes her to drop out, and with Teddy having left the chat because of his girlfriend, Jemma admits that she made up the character of Jack – he never existed, much less visited her from the other side – for a bit of fun, well, that’s when things start to go wrong. One of the friends has herself and her chair pulled violently across the room as the other watch in shock, another’s glass suddenly shatters, while Caroline thinks she saw a body hanging up in her attic.

The initial reaction of shock gives ways to uneasy laughter as they all assume they are trying to prank one another (in fact the story idea was inspired by director Savage pranking friends during an online meet into thinking he had a spirit presence in his house), but the unease grows and the laughter turns to yells and screams as each of them begins to experience unexplained phenomena, which become increasingly violent. Poor Teddy rejoins the chat in the middle of this with no idea of what has been going on, and finds himself right in the middle of it. They manage to briefly get hold of the medium Seylan again, and she warns that by making up a fictitious dead person to call on, Jemma has actually left an open door through which anything may have crossed, and that being is what is now attacking them.

The whole idea of a circle of friends who don’t really believe in spirits holding a séance for a giggle, then it all going horrible wrong and a malevolent spirit manifesting itself against them is, of course, far from new in horror, and using new technology like the internet for horror scares isn’t new either – take Unfriended, for instance, Pulse or early efforts like FearDotCom. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot of horror delight to be had here, and the added element of filming this during the first UK Lockdown adds a new frisson of horror, with that weird combination of being physically isolated, with all the emotional, psychological damage that has had on us all, while still being connected to loved ones, but only through the tenuous ether of Wi-Fi (not hard to compare this to the ethereal connection to the other side where spirits are meant to dwell).

Each actor is in their own home throughout – Savage had to direct them remotely, while the team held workshops to help train the actors not only to film themselves but to set up simple but highly effective physical effects themselves. Connected but simultaneously isolated as this presence they have accidentally invited in manifests in increasingly harmful ways (this spirit does not respect the two metre rule!), the unfolding story makes each of the friends both participants/victims but also at the same time voyeurs as all they can do is watch on their video chat windows (inviting thoughts about the voyeuristic side of our social media in real life, and that connected yet disconnected feeling we often have).

While horror is a broad church, for me it has always been at its most effective when elements of it touch on aspects which any of us could have in our own lives. In the 1890s Stoker brought his Count out of the distant dark and superstitious land and put him right in the heart of the modern city, a world of typewriters and phonographs and everyday items; it made the threat feel more real than the distant lands and castles of earlier Gothic tropes. In Host we’re right into something everyone of us has had to deal with recently, the pandemic, the lockdowns, the isolation, the use of online lifelines, and the confined, trapped feeling that comes with it, and plays with it well; again it makes it more real, more relatable, and that, for me, pushes up the scare-o-meter.

I have to say I was incredibly impressed at the way Savage and his team managed to make a film under lockdown conditions – not just using the lockdown as inspiration for a story, but actually working within those difficult rules to create a whole film (albeit one that clocks in at just under an hour, which to be honest I didn’t find a problem as it meant the pacing was kept going well). Really, I doff my hat to creators who managed to work in such circumstances and still managed to pull together a highly entertaining horror flick, and one which had some really nice horror thrills, from the expected jump-scare of a sudden image appearing or door opening by itself to incredibly creepy moments, such as when a filter graphic appears in mid-air on one friend’s feed, as if the camera thinks there is someone there and it is trying to apply the filter, yet we can’t see anyone, just the filter face.

The tight pacing and relatively short length work well for this story (I think extending it would have weakened it), and again the use of Zoom as the medium helps here, because they are using the free version, and we can see the countdown to the end of the free chat session ticking away, the time running down as the action escalates, and we’re wondering what happens when the timer gets to zero, and if anyone will remain unscathed. And no, I am not going to tell you anything about what happens to who, because I don’t want to spoil it for you! Suffice to say the tension rises as the timer counts down, and there are some inventive and gruesome moments.

This was a Shudder Original, but I am glad to see our chums at Second Sight are doing a special, limited edition Blu-Ray release, which boasts the film, plus a slew of extras, including the cast being interviewed; again these extras were created during Lockdown rules and so, like the recently reviewed Nightingale, couldn’t be professionally filmed but had to be done via Zoom, but as with some of the Nightingale’s extras this in no way impacts the enjoyment of the extras (in fact in the case of this film it rather suits it, being a similar format to that used for the narrative).

It’s pretty remarkable listening to how the film-makers and the cast worked and often improvised their way to creating their parts of this film for Savage to then stitch together – again I am just amazed at how well the creative talent here rose to such a challenge. The limited edition also comes with more extras, including Savage’s original prank video that inspired the story, two short and highly effective films by Savage (Salt, and Dawn of the Deaf), a BFI interview and more, plus a case with new artwork by Thomas Walker, a set of collector’s cards and a book with the original story outline and essays. Highly recommended and inventive Lockdown horror.

Host gets a limited edition Blu-Ray release by Second Sight on 22nd February

This review was originally penned for the Live For Films movie site.

 

Reviews: Katriona Chapman’s richly satisfying Breakwater

Breakwater,
Katriona Chapman,
Avery Hill

Katriona Chapman returns after the excellent Follow Me In, with Breakwater, and, oh boy, it’s just wonderful. The eponymous Breakwater is an old cinema by the seafront in Brighton; like many older cinemas in this era of big chain multiplexes (well, back when we could actually go to cinemas, pre-Covid days, sigh) it is a shadow of its former self, a once grand dame with Art Deco delights from a different era when cinemas weren’t just industrial buildings with seats and a screen, but an experience, designed to be dream palaces to transport you, not just with the film but the whole evening in the cinema.

Somehow, like a handful of others around the country, the Breakwater has managed to hold on in this modern environment, still with a small following, still independent, and crewed by a small group of staff who we are gradually introduced to as new arrival Dan, a twenty-something gay Asian man, is shown the ropes by veteran Chris, a forty-something single lady who is comfortable with her own company. Dan is affable and friendly, and soon fits in nicely with the others, even the teenaged lad that others can overlook (he left school with no qualifications, but Dan doesn’t judge him and just talks to him like a friend).

Dan hits it off even more with Chris, despite the fact she rarely mixes much outside of work and mostly spends her time by herself. He’s open and friendly, she’s warm, supportive, very empathic and caring (she spends time by herself but she’s not anti-social, it should be stressed, she just doesn’t go out much). As the two start to become friends outside of work at the cinema they share more time and thoughts with one another.

Dan gets Chris more out of her shell, getting her to go out for fun with him, to consider a long-abandoned dream of going back to finish her college course (like many she had to give up originally to take care of an ill parent), to stand up for herself a bit more. Chris draws the young man out, to share some of his dreams and his worries, from estranged parents to problems with an ex that he can’t quite get over but knows he should. It’s beautifully done, very, very natural feeling and wonderfully warm. But as they become more involved in one another’s lives Chris finds Dan has other, older problems, especially with his mental health, and it will lead to them both having to make difficult decisions.

That summary really, really doesn’t do justice to Breakwater though: this is a comic to savour, that takes its time to reveal the characters and their lives in a way the evokes very real, natural, believable people, all different in their own ways but clicking together at the Breakwater, in a way that many of us will find familiar from our own work experiences. The pacing and the progression is excellent, Chapman is not afraid to simply have scenes where several of the characters are just standing around in the cinema chatting, or conversely to have several scenes where there are no speech bubbles or dialogue boxes, the art carrying the story and atmosphere.

And what art: here Chapman has opted for a beautiful monochromatic style here, mostly smaller panels focusing on the characters, with the odd splash page that celebrates the faded glories of the old cinema (a now unused old auditorium above the modernised screens, a grand “ballroom” space – it reminded me of a bar I once worked in that was in a converted cinema and also had one whole auditorium above the main area, unseen by most, a ghost of the past). Those artistic asides to the faded grandeur hidden away inside the building also served partly as a way of making the cinema itself a sort of character, but also a nice visual metaphor for the lives of the characters, that we all have hidden secrets and stories within us, some shared with only a very few others.

The main body of the work is those smaller panels focusing on the characters, however, and those are an utter delight – Chapman’s art deftly draws (no pun intended) out her character’s inner lives and emotions, so that even in those wordless sequences I mentioned, the expressions and body language of her cast of characters so clearly expresses their thoughts and feelings.

It’s a fabulous piece of comics artwork, beautifully accomplished, never showy, just the right amount of artistic flourish to delight the eyes without intruding into the narrative, it’s some of the finest work I have seen in ages for bringing out the emotional lives of the characters in a comics work, while the narrative itself, while often warm and touching, also doesn’t shy away from the impact mental health issues can have not just on the lives of those with the illness but those who care for them.

I can’t recommend Breakwater enough, this is a beautiful, warm, engaging, gorgeously-drawn and paced piece of Brit comics that many readers will find themselves empathising with.

This review was originally penned for Down the Tubes

Reviews: Clementine

Clementine,
Directed by Lara Jean Gallagher,
Starring Otmara Marrero, Sydney Sweeney, Will Britain, Sonya Wagner

I was drawn to check out Lara Jean Gallagher’s debut feature film Clementine partly on the good word of mouth it has been picking up on the film festival circuit (including at the Tribeca), and partly because she was been likened to a young Jane Campion (which certainly helped get my attention).

Karen (Otmara Marrero) is reeling from a bad break up with her lover, an older, successful woman artist, D; we find her watching her ex’s home until she is sure she is out, then trying to let herself in sneakily to reclaim the dog. But the locks have been changed; this relationship is most certainly over, it would seem, she’s locked out physically as well as emotionally, and she has to leave after only being able to see the dog through the doorway. Driving off, she decides to leave LA and heads on out into the woods, to the huge lakeside home by the edge of a forest that also belongs to D, only to find the spare key normally hidden nearby has been moved and once again she is locked out. Undeterred she simply breaks open a small window to let herself in.

It’s clear Karen really isn’t in a good headspace – who is after a break up, after all? – but the film gives the impression there is more than just losing her lover that is preying on her mind, and that even she isn’t exactly certain why she has retreated to her ex’s luxurious, secluded lakehouse, or what she is looking for here. A bit of clear space and solitude among the trees and the lakes to think things through? Perhaps, but it feels like there is more going on here.

In fact that feeling that there is much more going on that we’re unaware of extends through the film – while the viewer feels natural sympathy for her going through the end of a relationship, we’re also left wondering, why did the relationship actually end? Did her older, more successful lover discard her and she’s now left emotionally hurt and feeling abandoned? Or was it her own behaviour that drove them apart? We don’t know, but we have seen her prepared to dognap from D’s home while she was out, then to break into her country retreat, neither of which are exactly admirable traits.

The thing is Gallagher, who also wrote the film as well as directing, chooses not to give the viewer the semi godlike overview of the characters and their histories that some narratives do, and that continues when Sydney Sweeney’s precocious teen Lana turns up on the scene. We first see her sunbathing on a small dock near the house, in a bikini, peeling fruit, glimpsed by Karen who conceals herself at first before finally making herself visible and approaching the girl. The way Lana is lounging in her bikini by the dock seemed to me to hint at just a tiny nod to the classic Lolita, and that hint felt stronger later as there is some possible romantic tension between the two women, once they start to drop their guard and talk to one another (with Karen reminding herself that she is much older than Lana, but still clearly romantic and sexual thoughts are there).

Lana too is similarly something of a mystery to the viewer – as with Karen the director decides not to reveal all of their true story to us via flashbacks or cutaway scenes. Instead we have only what she tells Karen to go on, and fairly early on it looks pretty obvious that Lana may be mixing fantasy in with truth in what she reveals to Karen about herself and why she spends so much time by herself up here by the lakehouse. Adding to this is the arrival of young Beau (Will Brittain), supposedly D’s handyman who keeps an eye on the lakehouse, trims the trees, makes repairs (including to the window Karen broke to gain entry). Once more we don’t know his full story either: is he really D’s handyman, or is he just using that as an excuse to hang out with two attractive young women and flirt? Or maybe he is the handyman but he is also there to report to D, who may suspect that Karen has fled to the lakehouse after leaving town? And if so what is his game?

I’ve seen some reviews criticise this approach as frustrating, but personally I thought it was not just a good move by Gallagher, but quite a ballsy one, to give the audience no more information or insight than any of the characters have. We’re having to watch them, listen to them and try and decide what is truth and what is embellishment, or even outright fabrications about themselves and why they are where they are. It’s a bit of a cliché to say “nobody here is quite what they seem”, but it is appropriate, and frankly I found this a great approach. I often find that I can predict where scenes or entire narratives are headed early on in some films, simply because I’ve watched so many over the years that I pick up cues of where things are going. I’m sure many of you have experienced that too.

But here it was different, Gallagher’s less is more approach really worked for me, as did the styling and cinematography of Clementine. At some points it felt like it was going to go into love on the rebound (with added triangle when Beau appears), but at other times it felt like it may become a thriller and there was something dangerous among those hidden character histories, at some points it even felt like it could go into horror territory, or coming-of-age LGBTQ tale. All of this, and the fact we only have what the characters will reveal about themselves, and we are pretty sure they’re not always truthful about it, combined to make this a compelling film for me, and I commend Gallagher for sticking to her guns with this approach, when the temptation to go down an easier, more conventional route must have been huge, and I appreciate that she felt this was the better way to go and stuck to it. An unusual and intriguing piece, I look forward to seeing what Gallagher directs next.

Clementine is released by Bohemia Media on digital from Monday 8th of February

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Reviews: Jennifer Kent’s powerful The Nightingale

The Nightingale,
Directed by Jennifer Kent
Starring Aisling Franciosi, Sam Claflin, and Baykali Ganambarr

Aussie director Jennifer Kent’s debut, The Babadook, blew me away, and many other audiences around the globe. It didn’t just give us a fascinating, engrossing horror, it had such fabulous emotional complexity to it, matched by some beautiful crafted visuals. It was hard to believe this was the work of a debut director. The Nightingale, Kent’s second feature film, has again left me quite happily astonished at how incredibly confident and assured she is in bringing her vision to the screen and getting the best out of her actors. With great accolades accrued on the international film festival circuit, it is now getting a richly-deserved special edition Blu-Ray release by the good folks at Second Sight, which gives us a great excuse to revisit this powerful and compelling film.

It’s the 1820s in Van Diemen’s Land – what would later be called Tasmania – during the era where the Land Down Under was still being used by the British Empire as a colony built using exported convicts, many of whom would have committed what we would consider tiny infractions (stealing bread to stay alive, for instance), and found themselves sentenced to Transportation to the other side of the world, to a land totally alien to them. It was a cheap and exploitative way for the British authorities to start settling this vast new southern continent (well, new to Europeans who, as usual in history, pretty much ignored the fact that others had lived there for thousands of years already, such was the colonial mindset of the era).

Clare Carroll (Aisling Franciosi) is an Irish convict, in a remote settlement overseen by Lieutenant Hawkins (Sam Claflin). She’s already well past the duration of her sentence, but Hawkins simply won’t sign her release papers. Claflin makes a wonderful job of delivering his Hawkins, a petty man desperate to be The Big Man (he’s clearly relishing the chance to portray such a nasty character). He’s in charge here, but only of a ragged troop of very sorry looking soldiers and a few convicts, taking every opportunity to show his power over them, but painfully aware of his own junior rank by a visiting superior, and that there are others above him who hold power over him as he does over the people below him, and how he hates that.

The Nightingale is not an easy film to watch – its subject matter is fiercely strong, including gender and race issues, violent sexual assaults and brutal torture and murder of Aboriginals, and that content is there from very early in the film, where Clare is forced to sing to entertain the troops before the visiting senior officer (who Hawkins hopes to impress as he tries to gain a promotion), with the drunken rabble leering horribly at her, followed by Hawkins inviting her to sing to him in his quarters, where he forces himself on her.

Franciosi’s acting is utterly remarkable throughout this film – a scene following this rape sees her lying side by side with her baby, telling her stories by the firelight. Franciosi perfectly captures the competing emotions running through Clare; she is smiling for her infant, bonding with her baby, but behind that smile you can see micro-expressions, especially around the eyes, the trauma manifesting itself, that “what just happened to me, how could that happen?” feeling, and you can see her struggling to hold it in check, to be warm and loving and strong for her child while fighting the effects of the brutality visited upon her. It’s a small scene but just one of many where Franciosi’s acting craft is displayed; she clearly cares about her character deeply and wants to convey all the contrasting emotional depths of Clare.

In one of the many extras on this special edition there is an interview with Franciosi, where she reveals how drawn she was to the part. She tells us that Kent had a psychotherapist in the production, and she was free to constantly talk to the therapist about people who had endured traumas and PTSD, how they reacted both physically and mentally, as well as them taking her to visit women in refuges who had been in violent relationships so she could talk to them. She also commented that some of those women found those scenes hard to watch (they are, and they should be), but also pleased that these issues were being raised so viscerally and visibly in a public sphere, because these are not just historical atrocities but sadly a very modern reality for too many (likewise the abuse and murder of Aboriginal people being shown so clearly was also felt deeply by contemporary Aboriginal viewers).

Clare is put through worse, however, driving her into an almost Western-style quest through the outback for vengeance, with Billy – Baykali Ganambarr – as her Aboriginal guide. At first she’s as bad as the English officers and soldiers, seeing “the blacks” as monsters, not human, likely to turn round and cut her throat if she isn’t careful. She even spend the first part of their trek through the forest with her rifle pointed at Billy. As their perilous trip continues they very slowly start to realise how similar they are, how both have been robbed by the brutal, uncaring Powers That Be, with everything taken from them, their lands, their families. Baykali Ganambarr’s performance too is just something else to behold – modern Australia is still coming to terms with the historical abuse of Aboriginal people, and it seems clear this young actor took very seriously the chance to portray some of that history on the screen. A scene where he is treated with some small humanity by an elderly man sees him break down in tears, “this is my land, this is my land…” he weeps as the gentle treatment breaks the emotional dam within him.

These actors are put through the emotional wringer repeatedly, without even so much as a soundtrack to distract from the vicious horrors inflicted upon them, and yes, it is hard to take – it should be hard to take, after all – but ye gods, the acting craft on show here from these young leads is just superb to see, and the way it is constructed and put together so assuredly by Kent I was again constantly reminding myself that this was only her second feature film, and yet here was this immensely powerful subject matter, deftly handled by director and actors, unflinchingly presented with assured hands on the tiller. I’ve got Kent marked down as one of my directors to watch out for in the future. Like Karyn Kusama after watching Destroyer and The Invitation, I now have Kent on my list of film-makers where I will watch any new work they do (and come on, we all love film here, so I am sure many of you also love finding new talent like this too).

This limited edition Blu-Ray release from Second Sight comes with a pile of extras, including numerous interviews (some had to be recorded during the ongoing pandemic and so aren’t shot in quite the way they would be normally, but that’s to be expected in current conditions, and in fact I think kudos go to the Second Sight team for being able to arrange them during these wretched Covid days). I found Franciosi’s interview in the extras to be the most compelling; I said earlier how deep her acting felt to me, and in this extra she revealed a lot of what went into that performance, and also how much it took out of her (I was unsurprised that at the end of filming, emotionally and physically exhausted, she told her agent to hold offers for a while because she needed the rest). All of that performance, that authenticity, that depth of expression and emotion, is all up there on the screen, a testament to the cast and the crew,

The Nightingale is released on a special limited edition Blu-Ray by Second Sight on February 8th. This review was originally penned for Live For Films.

Reviews: the Sea Shepherd

Sea Shepherd,
Sean Azzopardi

The most powerful weapons in the world for shaping public opinion and changing the world are cameras, pens, pencils, paint brushes and the ability to speak passionately in defence of the planet.”
Captain Paul Watson, from his foreword.

Documenting the Sea Shepherd organisation for protecting marine wildlife and the biosphere of the seas, founded in 1977 by activists no longer prepared to simply bear witness and document atrocities with existing groups like Greenpeace, but to take direct action, Sean Azzopardi brings the motivations that inspired this ongoing struggle to vivid and disturbing life. Right from the opening pages we are spared no punches – this is a violent, bloody, gory business that sees the worst and best of human activity in the natural world, and it is not for the faint of heart. In the first few pages we have the working of an explosive harpoon explained, and how it is used to kill a whale in a violent, painful death, before it is hauled onto floating death factories to be ripped apart.

The following pages – and we are only a handful of pages into the book at this point – explores the disgusting spectacle of the Grindadràp, the hunt and mass slaughter of whales and dolphins that takes place in the Faroe Islands. To the Faroese this is an ancient ritual enacted since the days of the Norseman. While it may once have been an important supplement to the local diet in these remote islands, that’s not the case today (in fact, as reports and the book point out, the whale and dolphin meat harvested is considered unsafe for human consumption by EU scientists, due to marine pollution absorbed by the animals), and it is now basically a part of the cultural identity of the islands. And while I am sympathetic to protecting cultural heritage, when it is this brutal, bloody and not necessary, it seems horrible to continue to practise it.

We’re shown how entire pods are driven into bays – every single member dispatched, young, old, even pregnant whales and dolphins, blunt gaffes thrust into their blowholes to drag them onto the beach so a large knife can be shoved through to try and cut the spinal cord. As you can imagine, despite what the local government claims, this is not exactly a swift, humane form of killing an animal, and any slaughterhouse in Europe taking this long to kill an animal would be prosecuted. Here it is not only tolerated but celebrated, a total clash between locals who love their tradition and see no wrong in it and others attempting to protect the sea-going mammals.

Yes, it is a very strong opening few pages – brutal and bloody and shocking. And so it should be.

From here we flash back a bit, with Paul Watson talking about what drove him to leave Greenpeace and set up the Sea Shepherd, and his obvious good-humoured appropriation of the term “pirates” that has been applied to them (which they gleefully allude to in their flag). Have they committed almost piratical acts on the high seas? Yes, he agrees, they have, several times now, not just blocked hunting vessels, they have quite deliberately rammed them. Yes, that is a powerful action to take, he agrees, but the ships they rammed were all acting illegally, with their flagged countries most often turning a blind eye to what was going on, pretending not to be aware of their actions, until the Sea Shepherd crews forced their hands, not to mention bringing the glare of public and media scrutiny to bear.

It’s not all horror and piracy though, there is a strong sense of humour here too – while they have rammed illegal whalers, for the most part Watson describes how they have responded to attacks by hunter’s vessels with a wonderful, almost schoolboy level of fun, such as launching stink bombs onto decks of the offending, illegal hunting vessels. It sounds almost slapstick, and while it is funny, it is also deadly serious and quite effective, and has saved the lives of many whales. Members have been arrested and beaten, but it doesn’t stop them continuing their work.

The artwork throughout is in full colour, and Sean uses this strategically, especially the colour red used judiciously for maximum impact, such as the seas going red with the blood of helpless, slaughtered animals, or an effective repeating sequence of talking heads, the same close up image of Watson but each with a different colour wash in each panel (a little Warholesque) as he talks directly to camera. The style is in a strong, mostly clear-line approach, especially when showing the people, moving the panel frequency and size to suit the subject nicely, and with some very nice larger splash panels dropped in (a sea turtle spread across two pages is just gorgeous and makes you stop for a moment to drink it in, as well as reminding you that these remarkable creatures are part of why the activists do what they do).

If you want to be an effective conservation organisation then you have to say the things that people don’t want to hear. You have to do the things that people don’t want to be seen to be done. You have to rock the boat and piss people off…. We cannot live on this planet with dead oceans. If the oceans die, we die.”

Watson makes no bones about the often controversial nature of their work and campaigns – hunters, local communities, even national governments are often furious with the Sea Shepherd crews for their work (not least because it often shames them in public for ignoring or even condoning not just immoral but often internationally illegal practises by their vessels). Yes, he acknowledges, as can be seen in the quote above, that they do get in other people’s faces, even other conservation groups, while they share their aims, are not pleased with their methods. Similarly Watson and his cremates are dissatisfied with the quieter approach of other groups, stating that sometimes you just have to get your hands dirty to protect the animals and the seas.

In an ideal world this sort of direct action wouldn’t be required, but the sad fact is that there aren’t enough protections in place for both marine animals and the aquatic environment, and those that have been painstakingly hammered out in international law are all too often subverted, either by illegal criminal action or equally illegal but secretly condoned by national government action, so I think it’s quite easy to understand that, up against this mindset, some have decided to take a serious stand and shout it out to the world while they do so. Hopefully this adds another voice to that chorus.

This review was originally penned for Down the Tubes

Winter Scenes

Monumental Sunset 02
The Scott Monument, lower half already in shadow even in the mid afternoon as the sun is so low in the winter sky, the upper half basking the golden honey glowof the winter light.
Fortress of Winter 01
Across the end of December and the start of January the ice and snow came to Edinburgh. Walking in the frigid, sharp air, the winter sun so low in the sky it casts as much in the way of shadows as it does light, and that light is stretched out, golden-amber. This is the sort of thing you see just going for a stroll in this magnificent city in winter…. (as ever click the pics to see the full sized versions of my Flickr)
Princes Street Gardens, Winter's Day 014
The charming head gardner’s cottage in a wintry Princes Street Gardens, but these days better known as Great Aunt Lizzie’s, after being used as the location in a popular kid’s storytelling show.
Winter Walk 04
“I got you”. Friend comforting a chum as they walk along the snowy towpath of the Union Canal
Princes Street Gardens, Winter's Day 013
Warming coffee on a freezing day
Princes Street Gardens, Winter's Day 02
Winter promenading in Princes Street Gardens during the snowy weather
Wintry Meadows 09
A splash of colour against the white snow – normally I like to shoot in B&W for my people watching pics, but with so much monochrome caused by the snow I felt like switching to colour (especially with such vibrant colours contrasting against all the white)
Wintry Meadows 06
Some enjoy a stroll, the crisp snow making that satisfying crunch-crunch-crunch noise underfoot, others decide to sit, chat and warm up with hot cuppas in the Meadows
Wintry Meadows 02
In Edinburgh we have a vast extinct volcano, Arthur’s Seat, rearing up right in the middle of our city – you can go hill-walking here without even leaving the centre of town! And what a backdrop it makes….
Winter Walk 03
Who cares about the cold, we’re happy!! Smiling couple walking along by the Union Canal
Winter Walk 011
Reading as the snow begins to fall once more
Winter Walk 010
Hot drinks on a cold day, from the floating cafe-barge, The Watershed, a regular haunt of mine on my walks, here serving up hot coffees and hot chocolate as the snow falls afresh
Ice Swan 01
One of the mute swans on the Union Canal, on the only small stretch of remaining free water, bordering the ice that covers most of the rest of the canal. The setting sun’s burnished colours can be seen reflected in the dusk waters
Ice Swan 02
And there she goes, raising herself out of the water and back onto the ice, as dusk falls along the canal
Sunset Along the Canal 01
Winter sunset along the Union Canal (frozen in the frigid temperatures), glimpsed between two tenement blocks on opposite sides of the Walker Bridge over the canal at Polwarth. My view on my walk home yesterday afternoon, breath misting in the cold air, crunch of ice underfoot, sounds of people enjoying a walk nearby, the soft calls of the mute swans, and these colours firing the skies. Glorious.
Sunset Along the Canal 02
Skeletal winter trees and chimneys silhoutted against a fiery sunset sky on a winter’s day.

My Photo Year, 2020

Looking back through my ever-expanding Flickr uploads (now approaching 22, 000 photos), as usual around this time of year I am picking out some of my favourite photos I snapped this year. Of course I didn’t realise that I would spend so many long, long months in Lockdown, walking alone through almost empty streets of my city. I’ve always enjoyed trying to document life and events through the lens, but in this year of Covid and enforced isolation the camera became part of my coping mechanism for the tedious days after days of Lockdown and Furlough, allowed out the house just once a day, everywhere closed, so few people to see and when you did you all tried to keep your distance (and the even longer months of not being able to see family and friends).

Of course I still documented it – from empty streets in Edinburgh’s Old Town (so disturbing – in a city suffering an overload of tourism, suddenly we were deserted, the Castle Esplanade, Grassmarket, Royal Mile on a sunny Easter holiday weekend, barely a soul to be seen), to exhausted cycle couriers (often the main part of the now limited road traffic during the Lockdown months) to masked and socially distancing people. It was all upsetting, disturbing, depressing, stressful, frightening, and the fact we were all so isolated made it harder to deal with, so again the photography helped me process it.

Paisley Streetart 02
Early on in the year, when things were still seemingly normal – we were reading about this dangerous new virus outbreak in China and Asia, but it all seemed so far away at the time – my colleagues and I were setting up a portable bookshop for the first ever Paisley Book Festival, shuttling back and forth to man the stalls, get books signed at author events etc, enjoying ourselves and supporting a new literary event into the bargain. Naturally I also snapped a few pics wandering around Paisley between events, including some photos of the very excellent street murals I noticed.
Paisley Streetart 01
Central Station 01
A bright, winter’s day in February in Glasgow’s Central Station, the famous station clock hanging from the roof above. In the days before mobile phones many would arrange to meet friends and loved ones below the clock when heading into town. Quick snap while heading on to Paisley for the new book festival
Paisley Book Festival - Jackie Kay 03
The wonderful Jackie Kay at the first Paisley Book Festival.
Paisley Book Festival - Chris McQueer and Alan Bissett 01
Chris McQueer (left), talking to Alan Bissett at the first Paisley Book Festival
Busy Buchanan Street 02
Late February, heading towards Central Station in Glasgow – look how busy Buchanan Street is even on a midweek day in winter. Just weeks later this would be deserted, like streets in almost every other city in Europe
Helen Fields & Mark Douglas-Home Crime Cocktail 01
Still in February and we had a great crime fiction evening with Helen Fields and Mark Douglas-Home at our bookshop. Again we didn’t know then this would be the last in-person event we’d do this whole year (thankfully we have had a programme of online author events though, working with two other Indy bookshops under the We Three Indies banner)
Capital SciFi Con 2020 021
At the Capital SciFi Con in February, chatting to Tanya Roberts. Busy con, much fun catching up with chums, chatting to some authors and artists I know, taking pics. Again with no clue that this would be the last con we could attend for the whole of 2020 at that point….
Capital SciFi Con 2020 017
Rain-washed Cinema
Rain-washed entrance to the Cameo Cinema on a winter’s night. A few weeks after snapping this, the cinemas and theatres were all closed.
Beach Life 012
Early March, and although the international news stories on the advance of Covid infections are worrying, it still seems distant. An early spring day full of sunlight at Portobello sees people enjoying the beach and the coast, but the pandemic is closer than we realised.
Beach Life 011
Seaside Selfie By The Sea Shore
Breezy by the Beach 03
Event Horizon March 2020 016
Mid-March – the international situation is increasingly grave, Covid is advancing across Europe, Italy in particular is in a terrible situation. We can all look at the map of the disease’s advance and know that it’s coming out way. We’re enjoying our Event Horizon evening of literary science fiction readings and music, organised by the Shoreline of Infinity journal. We’re all enjoying it, but there is an undercurrent of unease, we all know as we leave that this would probably be the last live event we would all enjoy together for a while. Again, we had no idea just how long, at this point we thought we may soon be locked down for a couple of months, we had no idea entire festivals and the year of shows and events would be swallowed in this pandemic year.
Event Horizon March 2020 019
Event Horizon March 2020 011
Empty Streets 04
March 21st, a Saturday night. Lothian Road, which I’d normally avoid on a Saturday evening as it is heaving with drunks coming out of the many pubs and restaurants. Not this evening. The Lockdown was just days from being announced, but already the pubs and restaurants had closed. I saw only two people as I headed home from a visit to a friend, which I knew was probably the last time I would get to visit them for a long time. I had no idea then just how long, of course… It was eerie to see such a bustling part of the city devoid of life on a weekend night. It was a taste of what was to come.
Empty Streets 02
Thank You NHS
Late March, 2020. We were now in Lockdown, most shops and businesses closed, workers furloughed. I walked daily, the only time I could be out the house. As I walked down an unbearably quiet Princes Street on a misty afternoon, I noticed every single digital billboard on the bus shelters had been changed to read “thank you, NHS” as a show of support and gratitude for frontline medical staff.
Wee Songbird Singing to the City
Nature was another lifeline during the Lockdown months of isolation – with almost no car traffic, few aircraft flying overhead, hardly any trains, little in the way of people in the city centre, the sounds of the wildlife was heard so much more clearly, most especially the singing of birds. It was joyous. And we needed it.
Hello, Birdy 02
Swan Family 017
Another annual wonder of the natural world, that this year during Lockdown became so much more special and needed – watching our resident breeding pair of mute swans with their new brood of cygnets, following them through weeks and months along the Union Canal from tiny fluffballs to adult-sized adolescents taking wing to start their own lives somewhere else (as I write there is still a single cygnet that has remained with Mama and Papa Swan for the moment)
Swan Family 029
Swan Family 042
Moorhen and Chick 03
Moorhen and its baby chick on the Union Canal
Duck Life 07
Heron on the Water of Leith 03
Berry Bird
Springtime in Scotland 05
Still deep in Lockdown with no end in sight, but the spring came, the natural world moved on as it always did, regardless of the woes in the human world, and the cherry blossoms this year were such a blessing, picking up our battered spirits.
A Tunnel of Cherry Blossoms 02
The “tree tunnel” of cherry blossoms blooming in the Meadows, an annual miracle that we needed this year more than ever. As I was lining these shots up a pair of young women had clearly noticed me engrossed in my camera and were posing in the frame! Made me smile
A Tunnel of Cherry Blossoms 01
Autumn on the Water of Leith 05
As with the blossoms of spring, the colours of autumn were even more appreciated this year – the natural world was a huge comfort and morale booster.
All Shows Are Cancelled
Cinemas, theatres and concert venues all closed. This row of illuminated billboard stands on Lothian Road normally proclaim the shows and acts coming up at the nearby Usher Hall, Royal Lyceum Theatre and Traverse Theatre. Not this spring. No shows, no venues, locked doors, empty streets. As summer arrived even the world-famous Edinburgh festivals were all restricted to a few online only events. No schmoozing in the Author’s Yurt at the Edinburgh International Book Festival for me in 2020, for the first time in many years, although thankfully I did still get to chair – albeit via Zom – at our second Cymera SF literary festival, and we kept out book group going by Zoom and chat, another lifeline.
Circus Lane at Dusk 04
Beautiful Circus Lane at dusk, one of the loveliest spots in the historic New Town
Lucky Liquor
Another shot from a night walk – couldn’t resist the glowing neon sign on this bar.
It Ain't Easy
The mask, the tired expression and trudge with the groceries, from the once-a-day permitted trip to the stores. A regular sight in Lockdown, think we all felt like this a lot of the time
Lockdown Grassmarket 03
Spring and the pubs and restaurants in the Grassmarket should be bustling with tourists on short breaks. Not this year. All closed, many boarded up for safe measure. Boarded over windows, closed bars, empty Old Town streets. I kept thinking I could hear the music from 28 Days Later in my head as I walked alone through it.
The Distance Between Us Keeps Us Safe
The new normal: friends doing socially distanced chat in the grounds of the Gallery of Modern Art
We Are Observing Social Distance
More safely distanced chatting in Princes Street Gardens. As time went on during Lockdown and spring arrived this was about the only way we could see friends and family, in an open space, distanced. Handshakes, hugs, all off the menu.
Light Traffic 02
Walking the city during Lockdown – there was so little traffic even in the middle of the city in the middle of the day I could stand in the centre of the normally busy junction of the Mound and Princes Street quite safely to take this shot.
How We Shop Now 03
This rapidly became the new normal – boy, did we get sick of that phrase quickly. Hardware store in Morningside, allowed to remain open during Lockdown but no customers in the shop. Instead now staff masked and behind a plastic safety screen talk at the door to customers who wait in the street, socially distanced in a queue for their turn to ask for what they need.
Sorry, We're Closed 02
“Sorry, we are closed” – what we thought would be a few weeks or perhaps a couple of months of Lockdown and Furlough was going on. And on. And on….
Skater Life 04
The skaters who usually hang around Bristo Square were still active even during Lockdown – a sport and hobby the could share with their chums while all being outside and safely distanced.
Skater Gal
Lockdown Juggling Practise 06
Some used the enforced downtime of Furlough to learn new skills, like practising their juggling skills on Bruntsfield Links
Operatic 02
Spring had arrived, most places were still closed but there were more people out walking as the weather got nicer and warmer. Walking in the Meadows I heard someone singing an aria and found this woman on Middle Meadow Walk. With no street performers and no music venues for months, this was the first time I had heard someone performing since Lockdown started. I sat under a tree with a newly leafy canopy of spring greenery, in th spring sunlight, as her voice soared upwards into the branches. It was so unexpected and so beautiful I was overwhelmed and cried. It reminded me of the scene in The Shawshank Redemption where the central character plays an opera disc over the prison tannoy, and for a moment all the inmates are transported. Little moments like this were life rafts in the despairing sea of isolation that was Lockdown.
Hello, There
Masks quickly became part of our new everyday life….
Masked in the Mist
Trio 05
Receipt
Three Women, Masked 02
Timmy Two Phones
God I miss my local pubs – this is the Diggers in Gorgie, one of my regular watering holes. Sure you can buy booze in the supermarket and drink at home, but it is the social aspect of the pub, especally your regular local haunts, that you miss.
A Hand to Hold is a Wonderful Thing 01
It wasn’t all loneliness and isolation – 2020 was no doubt a little easier to take if you had a hand to hold. Many of us didn’t though…
We All Need a Hug Sometimes
Elegant Lady in a Hat
Elegant lady in summer dress and hat, almost seemed like a normal scene in this abnormal year….
Time For a Quick Break 01
Water Music
Summer weather arrived, more people took advantage of being outdoors but safely distanced, like this chap sitting in the sun by the old Leamington Lift Bridge, playing his guitar
Summertime, and the Living is Easy 02
Books Are Back
July and our lovely wee bookshop could re-open (with masks, visors and safety screens and regular handwipes, but at least we were open and it felt so nice)
Squirrel and Tree 03
Met this bushy tailed wee chap as I was walking through the Meadows
Akva Returns 01
The pubs re-opened in the summer, with social distancing, tracking and other safety protocols. It was a peculiar experience to go back – I had missed them but now felt wary of being in one, so I only went a couple of times, usually to outdoor beer gardens, only able to meet one friend at a time, distanced and only for a certain time slot. Now as the year end the pubs have all been closed once more for weeks…
A Strange Graduation Time 02
Another unreal aspect to this strange year in our world – I was walking in the summer through Bristo Square, and saw several Asian ladies taking photos of each other in their academic robes. Graduation photos to take home, in a year where the graduates never got to have a graduation ceremony. My friends and I had our graduation in this spot many years ago and I felt terribly sorry that so many this year would miss out on that event, what for most will be a once in a lifetime occurence, maybe last time all their college friends are together before going their own ways to start their new lives.
Vinyl Therapy 01
The pop up music stall re-appeared in the late summer and early autumn on Middle Meadow Walk. The first time in over half a year I had been able to indulge in the simple pleasure of browsing for some new vinyl records. What little pleasures we used to take for granted before Covid.
It's So Tiring 02
Exhausted cycle courier during Lockdown, grabbing a short break by the National Museum of Scotland
Window Shopping on a Misty Night
Getting late in the year and the autumnal and winter haars settled over Edinburgh. I love how this city looks in the mist, especially at night. This was Bruntsfield Place, near Holy Corner, as I was leaving our bookshop one night, I took a freehand night shot, as I had no tripod with me, so it is a bit rough, but I liked how it came out.
Fountain and Spires at Night 03
Saint Cuthbert’s church and the Ross Fountain, from a nocturnal stroll through the town
Twilight Fortress 02
Edinburgh Castle at night, viewed from the gathering darkness below in Princes Street Gardens
Hot Food 02
The small open-air cafe in Princes Street Gardens at dusk
Steamed Up
Steamed up windows at night in the Mayfly cafe, Bruntsfield
Evening at Cafe Grande 02
Looking through the window of Cafe Grande after dark, Bruntsfield Place.
Misty Evening in Bruntsfield 02

 

Winter Hills 05
Winter arrives – snow on the great, volcanic bulk of the Campsie Hills over the Christmas holidays (such as they were this year)