Edinburgh International Film Festival – Raging Grace

Edinburgh International Film Festival – Raging Grace,
Directed by Paris Zarcilla,
Starring Max Eigenmann, Jaden Paige Boadilla, Leanne Best, David Hayman

Joy (Max Eigenmann), is an undocumented Filipino immigrant in the UK, part of the all-but-invisible army of people who often do the most laborious, low-paying, manual work that is so necessary to keep everything in our society running, but with none of the legal safeguards others workers have the right to, ripe for easy exploitation, unable to ask anyone in authority for help. With her young daughter, the eponymous Grace (Jaden Paige Boadilla), she goes from one gig to the next, usually cleaning homes, cooking and tidying for wealthy families.

The pair appear to be living in a storage room in an apartment block, secretly, their domestic life as hidden as their work life, although when some of her rich clients are away on nice trips abroad, they sleep over in their homes, carefully tidying everything before the family returns (leading to some tense “will they get caught” moments early on), while Grace amuses herself by playing practical jokes, like swapping gravy granules for the coffee powder, one of the child’s few outlets for fun.

Behind on her payments to the fixer who arranges for the immigrants to get into the UK for a large fee, she is feeling desperate, when she is offered what seems like the perfect opportunity – housekeeping duties at a large, isolated mansion, while also looking after its terminally ill owner, an elderly gentleman, Mister Garret (the always-excellent David Hayman). Garrett is dying of cancer and is largely comatose – his niece, Katherine (Leanne Best) is taking care of his affairs meantime, and offers Joy not only a large wage, but paid in cash, no questions asked, and free lodgings in the large country house.

Best does an amazing job of showcasing the casual condescension of the very wealthy, upper parts of society towards immigrants like Joy, giving her Katherine that arrogance that clearly thinks “I am a nice, inclusive person” while being anything but (yes, phrases like “you people” will be deployed). Joy, of course, simply has to nod, smile and say “yes, miss” to all of this because Katherine has all the power. Joy is also dismayed to see how Katherine treats her comatose uncle, forcing his daily pills prescription into his mouth, holding his nose to make him swallow while still asleep. This is all further complicated by Katherine not knowing about Grace, who has to hide her presence.

What starts as an interesting drama about vulnerability, exploitation, race, class and privilege starts to morph into more of a thriller and horror, drawing on the Gothic tradition and also the classic Old Dark House, very effectively using both the grand house location, and the small but excellent group of actors. Snooping around secretly, young Grace finds some disturbing, hidden facts about the house and those who have lived in it, and there are hints that perhaps the medicine Katherine is giving to her uncle may not be what she claims. Hayman, when he does waken from his coma, essays an especially fine performance, managing to take us from twinkling-eyed, gentle, loving older uncle figure to radiating menace (a simple scene where he tells Joy not to call him “mister” but “master” is powerful and chilling).

Edinburgh International Film Festival - Raging Grace 04
(Director Paris Zircalla with some of his cast, on stage after the EIFF screening, pic from my Flickr)

This was one of the EIFF screenings I really wanted to catch, and it did not disappoint, with some amazing performances from the small cast (young Jaden stealing many scenes as Grace), and beautifully shot, making the best use of that large, creaking old country home location, mixing horror and drama. The subtexts about past colonialism and echoes in modern day exploitation of immigrants is well done and powerful, and as the director remarked at a Q&A after the screening, much of what was seen on screen is drawn from what many experience in their day to day lives, and it is something that applies not just to the immigrant experience but across society, where those in the poorer-paid jobs are often badly treated and seen as disposable. A brilliant, Gothic-tinged horror-drama with some serious social commentary woven into its structure.

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Edinburgh International Film Festival – Animated Shorts Review

Edinburgh International Film Festival – Animated Shorts

The Edinburgh International Film Festival was much shorter than usual this year – given last autumn we thought we had lost it along with the Edinburgh Filmhouse when the charity running both went into administration (see our report here) though, I was just grateful the world’s longest, continually running film festival was still going. We didn’t have the annual McLaren Animation Awards this year, but I was relieved to see that the EIFF programmers still made space for the animated short films, with a mix of familiar faces and new talent, with a dozen films, taking in a diverse array of subjects and styles, from hand-drawn to using found objects, stop-motion, even fragments of vinyl album sleeves to create their worlds.

I will hold my hand up here and admit my bias – as readers of our previous years of EIFF coverage will have gathered, the short animation strand is pretty much my favourite art of the film festival. In one screening it encapsulates – at least for me – what these festival should do: expose the viewer to a mixture of established and emerging talent, give them that important showcase, and take in a variety of styles and subjects. Isn’t that part of what we want at a film festival? That chance to explore works we might not otherwise see?

Jenny Jokela’s Sweet Like Lemons, a play on the old “if life gives you lemons, make lemonade” phrase, used a colourful, hand-drawn style to explore issues of toxic relationships, and trying to extricate yourself from them. We see hands trying to write an email, constantly starting the message, then deleting it, starting again, and again, because she’s trying to find the determination to break free from a cycle of behaviour and find herself. The artwork veers from colourful and beautiful to the suddenly threatening, mirroring such controlling relationships, and felt very from the heart.

Sweet Like Lemons (2023) – Trailer from Jenny Jokela on Vimeo.

Some of the other works were also clearly drawing (sometimes literally) on personal experiences, using the animation medium to explore their own emotional history and experiences, articulate them, perhaps learn and grow beyond them, or at least have some closure and ownership over those issues, instead of letting those issues own them (not to mention sharing with others, some of whom may have experienced similar, and may gain recognition and strength from the sharing, never a bad thing).

On that score, I thought Holly Summerson’s Living With It, and The Perpetrators by Richard Squires both used animation as a way to explore their own lives and struggles. In Living With It, another traditionally, hand-drawn animated work, Summerson takes the reality TV show idea of the home makeover, except in her case her home and world are run down and in need of an uplift because she lives with a chronic illness, manifested as the character Bug. It’s a brief but emotionally effective glimpse into a life too many have to cope with.

Living With It – Trailer [CC] from Holly Summerson on Vimeo.

Perpetrators mixed live action footage with animation, exploring how it was to grow up as a gay man in the hostile environment of the 1980s. The framing device is using changing medical and psychological definitions of homosexuality (still on the books as a mental illness until just a few decades ago). The pain and shame of having to be hidden, not to be able to declare who you are to friends or even close family, is palpable, the institutional nature of the bigotry shameful to modern eyes (consider how similar tropes are deployed today in the debate around trans rights). But Squires also deploys a lot of humour here, using tropes from the much-loved Scooby Doo cartoons to inform his animation. I suspect that streak of humour was, for him, as for many of us, part of how he coped (what would we do without that sense of humour? How much darker would our lives be?).

Tanya J Scott’s The Wolf of Custer was a beautiful piece, exploring the power of folklore and myth, as a hunter, reminiscent of Quint in Jaws, listens to the people of a small town tell tales of a giant wolf that can devour entire bisons (the smoke and flame of a fire and the shadows in the room all morph into flowing, dream-like images of the magical wolf as they tell their tales). Arrogantly he declares where would we be if we believed such native folklore nonsense, and that he will set out to kill their wolf. As you may imagine, as his journey through the vast wilderness progresses, and he catches glimpses of the wolf, then images of it carved and painted into the rocks of the very land, he slowly comes to realise and respect why we have such creatures in our stories, why they are important to us.

Jordan Antonowicz-Behnan’s A Taste For Music dealt with living with a seriously ill loved one, in this case his father. It captures that frustration at seeing them being weakened and unable to do things they want, and is also quite honest about the anger and resentment that comes along with this as it grinds on (many of us will have been there, with the best will in the world there’s a moment where you just become so angry at the situation, the disease, even the person). Through it though is a shared love of music, drawing – quite literally here, the animator drew on record sleeves – on his father’s extensive vinyl collection as a way of connecting, something the illness could still allow him to do, while the use of record sleeves gives the visuals a distinctive flair.

A Taste For Music (Trailer) from Jordan Antonowicz-Behnan on Vimeo.

I was also delighted to see BAFTA-winning Ainslie Henderson return. I’ve seen Henderson several times at the McLaren Animation strand at the EIFF over the years – his film A Cat Named Dom won last year’s McLaren gong at the festival (see our report from the 2022 EIFF here on LFF), and am always looking forward to any new work. Shackle is a stop-motion piece (I love all animation, but have an especially soft spot for stop-motion work), with a couple of small woodland creatures, taking everyday forest objects such as apples and pine cones, then making art and music with them, while a more frightening version of these endearing creatures lurks in the dark version of the forest, looking on greedily and coveting what they have.

I don’t really have time to dive into every film screened during the Animated Shorts, but these are some of the ones that especially caught my eye. Again I am grateful the animators get a chance to show these in a cinema setting, with an audience, and talk about their works – we used to have the excellent Four Mations on Channel 4, and BBC2 used to do late night animation strands, years ago, something that seems to have vanished from media schedules these days, despite the phttps://www.liveforfilm.com/roliferation of more channels and the fact we’re still seeing new and established talents creating new, interesting works, but the main broadcasters seem to ignore them, which, I think, makes the film festivals all the more important as a chance to wave the flag for this time-consuming and inventive form of film-making.

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Edinburgh International Film Festival – Art College 1994

Edinburgh International Film Festival 2023 – Art School 1994
Directed by Liu Jian,
Starring the voices of Jia Zhangke, Zheng Dasheng, Xu Lei, Wang Hongwei, Peng Lei, Ren Ke, Xu Zhiyuan, Shen Lihui

This animated film from China took around five years to complete, so one of the film festival programmers told us before the screening, drawn in the more traditional 2D animation style, which is, of course, very labour-intensive, yet often worth it for the distinctive aesthetic and feel it can give. In the case of this Chinese, animated slacker film (there’s a phrase I have never used before!), it also suits the tone of the film and the characters very well.

Set, as you may infer from the title, in the mid-90s, the film follows the lives of a group of students at a small, but well-regarded art college in China,  Zang Xiojun (Dong Zijian) and Rabbit (Chizi) are the main focus of the film, Zang with his floppy hair and the permanently attached earphones for his music (a cassette Walkman) is more the unfocused dreamer of the group, listening to bootleg Nirvana cassettes, stifled by the insistence of his tutors that he adhere to classical styles instead of exploring new ideas (which you’d expect to be encouraged in an art college, but not here, in China of 1994, where modern Western art movements are especially reviled).

Rabbit is more pragmatic – at least when not pondering out loud on second hand philosophy he’s picked up from bits of books and hasn’t actually thought out. A bit lazier, when he does focus he is more likely to be thinking about how his degree will get him a decent paying job, how he’d like to be famous (because then “he wouldn’t have to actually paint much”, thinking about a girlfriend. It’s not that Zang doesn’t consider these things, he even joins the odd philosophic musing over beer and cigarettes, but he is far more into considering what is art, and how he can do something that is new and interesting to him in a world where it feels like so many earlier artists have done all the innovation already (at one point he even burns a pile of his art, which a more pretentious artist takes as an actual artistic piece in itself).

The film moves at a gentle pace, and the remaining cast of friends and classmates, each dealing with their studies, their hopes for the future, dreams of what they could be and want to be, versus what the world of the time will likely actually let them be, is one many of us will find very familiar. Small-town Chinese art college in the 90s, perhaps, but there is so much that is just universal there that, despite the language, it feels very familiar, and had me thinking back to my own college days and blushing to think there would be nights in our student gaffe where I or my friends would be those characters, drinking cheap booze, holding forth on what we thought were well-considered, mature, informed Great Insights, which in retrospect were hopelessly naive, because, despite thinking we were mature, we really hadn’t experienced much life yet, not really, and understood even less of it, but we were still filled with that longing for an imagined future we thought we’d make where others failed.

The 2D animation was worth those years of effort and labour; this just wouldn’t feel the same in CG animation (although there is a small use of CG for some backgrounds). Aside from the longing to shape some perfect life that will fulfil us after graduation, the film also muses on art and the nature of what art actually is, and who decides it is art or not, with one character declaring anything can be art. Jian seems to incorporate this into the animation itself, with frequent small asides that focus on something away from the characters, be it shimmering water below a bridge, a beetle trying to climb a wall, the way paint slowly peels from the wall.

This is a film that, despite being another country and culture, fits in perfectly with the likes of some Western slacker films (such as Linklater), because the youthful fears and dreams are pretty universal to most people, in any country, in any time.

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Edinburgh Film Festival – Superposition

Edinburgh International Film Festival 2023 – Superposition
Directed by Karoline Lyngbye,
Starring Marie Bach Hansen, Mikkel Boe Følsgaard, Mihlo Olsen
(Danish language, with English subtitles)

Stine (Marie Bach Hansen), a frustrated writer, and her partner Teit (Mikkel Boe Følsgaard), a broadcaster and podcaster, have decided to quit the rat race of life in urban Copenhagen, and are moving with their young boy, Nemo (Mihlo Olsen), to try living for a year completely isolated in a designer cabin, near a lake in the Swedish forest, with Stine planning to use the peace and space to get back to her novel, while Teit is recording regular podcasts on their experiences, although since they are too remote for any web access, he has to put his shows on a USB drive then mail them to his radio station and the people bankrolling their lifestyle change. It will not surprise anyone to learn that their plans to not go quite as expected, and they start to learn more about one another than they anticipated – in a rather unusual way.

Right from the beginning there’s a lovely visual style to Superposition by cinematographer Sine Vadstrup Brooker, with a view of the calm lake waters, the line of the opposite shore bisecting the middle of the screen, the water reflecting the trees and the clouds above, but tilted ninety degrees to the side, slowly rotating back to the more normal viewpoint; a beautiful image, but also one that whispers of something not right, something being out of kilter, in this remote location.

At first they settle in quite happily, exploring the very cool, designer cabin and surrounding woods and lake, their wee boy and dog, Tarzan, happily running around while they settle in. As Tein sets up the microphones for his first recording, however, the cracks start to appear, as an at-first genial discussion between him and Stine about why they came here and what they hope to get out of it, produces answers Tein isn’t too happy with. Stine points out that they agreed to be honest in these recorded discussions, something he likes to pride himself on, but we can already see that actually he’s quite sensitive to honesty when it concerns him.

This is all handled in a nice, quiet, intimate manner between the two characters, no histrionics, no shouting. It’s also a nice bit of storytelling economy – we get the gist of their relationship and troubles (he had an affair, cheating on her, she resents giving up her plans to be the Great Young Novelist she was earmarked by the writing establishment to become in favour of raising a family) in one short scene, along with the obvious fact that both are also creatives and seem a bit competitive on that front as well as on their personal relationship. It’s deftly done, no flashbacks or long expositions, we get it all in this quiet, neat way, letting us into the characters and their lives.

So far you could be mistaken for thinking this is going to be one of those films where people with troubles escape into nature and find the struggle to live in it helps them put their personal problems in perspective, and overcome them. But this is more “glamping” than really back to nature, whatever the pair of them think (fancy cabin, electricity, computers, music, wine, hardly roughing it). And there is something else going on – they glimpse another family of three, on the far shore of the lake.

This surprises them as the location was sold as being totally remote, with no-one else near them. Stine in particular seems very put out by this (given the vast spaces around them, it’s hard to feel any sympathy for her here, she seems more petulant than anything else). They try to avoid these others, which should be easy as they are away on the other side of the water, but of course, we know sooner or later something will bring them in contact with one another. And when they find these others are, well, them, they are understandably confused. Why are dopplegangers of them here in this remote forest? Where did they come from, what do they do?

Edinburgh International Film Festival - Karoline Lyngbye 02
(Director Karoline Lyngbye, on the right, talking to the film festival audience, pic from my Flickr)

Although you can see little hints of the likes of Peele’s Us, this is a different beast, and uses this encounter to further explore the damaged relationships between the main couple in a rather novel way. Starting as a drama, Superposition mixes in elements of science fiction, thriller and horror into its DNA, and combines it with some lovely cinematography (riffing cleverly on reflections and duos), while scenes with the characters interacting with their duplicates are very well done (the director explained they had some of the visual effects team on hand during the actual filming to make sure it was done right, a laborious task involving multiple takes of scenes).

An intriguing, clever and beautifully shot piece of cinema from Denmark.

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Magic Lanterns

Magic lantern 01

During the Edinburgh International Film Festival last week I saw a film called Cinema, Mon Amour, a documentary about a group trying to save an old cinema in Romania. Afterwards the Filmhouse very kindly gave us a short tour of the main projection booth – we had to be quiet and I couldn’t use the flash as another festival screening was going on below us (we could see it through the wee rectangular window in the booth). The pair of decades old cine projectors are named Kenneth and Sid – even in this bastion of arthouse and international film, the Carry On movies have influence!

Magic lantern 02

Quite nostalgic for me to see these and hear them – the whirring sound of anaologue projectors is part of my childhood memories of cinema, and at home we had a Super 8mm cine camera as well as our 35mm still cameras, and we screened them quite often on long winter’s nights for the family. There’s something satisfying about old analogue tech like this, you can see it moving, see how it works. The Filmhouse must be one of the last cinemas in the city that retains the ability to show actual film prints as well as digital and properly trained projectionists. They were telling us about their skills, from being able to change from one projector to the other seamlessly mid-film, fixing broken celluloid to adjusting focus, ratio and even speed for different formats and eras (early films shot on hand-cranked cameras require a lot of skill to adjust the film speed, since their shooting rate varied as cameramen’s arms got tired. Lovely to see these magic lanterns which paint stories on a screen using nothing more than light…

Magic lantern 03

Magic lantern 04

Film fest time

Dominique Pinon at Edinburgh Film Festival 05

I’m enjoying a few days off for my annual Edinburgh International Film Festival fun. Last night at the Traverse Theatre as part of the film fest they had an “in conversation” with French actor Dominique Pinon, who has appeared in a number of my favourite films over the years. One of those evening that reminds me one of the reason I love living here so much is that with our festivals everyone comes to Edinburgh at some point, writers, directors, actors, musicians, they all come here. I took a few photos with the new camera – sitting several rows up and back in a theatre so not the best place for taking photos, but out of the batch I shot a handful came out passably.

Dominique Pinon at Edinburgh Film Festival 07

Dominique Pinon at Edinburgh Film Festival 08

No film fun…

This week I should be off, taking a break from work for a week to enjoy the Edinburgh International Film Festival. Sadly things have been going from tight to simply untenable on the financial front, several years of a bad situation without any relief, and among the many things I have had to give up on is my annual film fest sojourn. It’s on right now, I haven’t even looked at the programme since I know I can’t afford to go to it. Since I almost never get to go away on a proper break a week off going round the film fest is about as much holiday as I normally get, and now even that’s gone. Depressing. Along with ongoing other stresses and strains in recent years a break would be bloody nice, and I have been going to this since the 1990s, really upsetting to have to give up on it, something I look forward to all year. And after a lot of not very good stuff a nice break and enjoying myself would be rather nice, instead of which the usual break is lost and now becomes another one of those depressing things  to add to the list of why life is often grinding and depressing and stressful. I don’t just mean losing that one break, I mean that it represents yet another thing I am forced to give up and cut out because of years of severe pressures; right now it has been so increasingly tight that even though with dad better I can start thinking about taking in another cat, I find I can’t afford it, which is pretty pathetic, not to mention disheartening, a year and a half after losing the last of my old furry girls. Meeting the basics is hard enough, nothing else can be added. On a short term we all get times like that, but this has been grinding on for a long time, getting slowly harder and worse. Does make you wonder why you bloody bother sometimes.

Grabbers: top B Movie SF-Horror from Ireland

Edinburgh Film Fest: Edinburgh Film Fest: Grabbers

Dir: Jon Wright

Another late evening science fiction-horror screening at the Edinburgh Film Festival and another absolute gem with this monster movie with a strong comedy undercurrent. A glowing fireball streaks across the night sky off the coast of Ireland, past a solitary nocturnal fishing boat. Mistaking the green glow for a distress flare they set off thinking someone needs helps, but it’s not another vessel they encounter…

Daybreak on a small island off the mainland and young career-girl policewoman Garda Lisa Nolan (Ruth Bradley) is arriving on the ferry, taking what she thinks should be a wee change of pace for a couple of weeks duty, swapping the hustle-bustle of a city centre Dublin copshop to provide temporary cover on the rural island while one Garda officer is on his break. The remaining officer, Ciarán O’Shea (Richard Coyle) – a constant alcoholic – is less than happy to have anyone else drafted in to keep an eye on him, let alone an eager, fresh-faced female officer from the big city, but soon they will have more important issues to deal with. The trawler has been found adrift with no crew off the coast, then a local doctor walking his dog on the beach comes across the horrific sight of an entire pod of pilot whales washed up on the beach.

Such sad sights are not unknown to coastal communities, of course but when the local marine scientist Doctor Adam Smith (Being Human’s Russell Tovey) examines them he finds huge wounds and concludes they didn’t beach themselves but died at sea and were washed in by the tide. Quite why a whole pod would be killed at sea like this no-one can say. Meanwhile one of our local drunken fishermen finds some very odd creature caught in his lobster pot. Deciding it might be worth money he hides it in his bath before, this being Ireland, he heads to the pub, gets drunk and tells everyone he has a ‘sea monster’ in the bath. Of course, no-one believes him. Until people start to go missing and there’s a storm coming that will cut off the island from any outside help, even if those on the mainland believe what they tell them…

Okay, so far I imagine for anyone who loves their SF and horror we’re on fairly familiar ground here – small, isolated rural community, an outside menace arrives, stealthily at first, picking off one or two people in the dark before anyone can notice, only being properly revealed when it seems it may be too late to protect themselves. We even have the couple of outsiders who come into the close knit community in so many tales of this kind. The pure joy of Grabbers is that the folks who made it clearly know and love the genre; they take these familiar characters and situations then play them absolutely pitch-perfectly, with a good combination of horror and humour, with the latter deriving less from any puns but evolving naturally from the interaction of the characters.

Grabbers is also proud to wear its Irishness on its sleeve and not try to Americanise itself for the international cinema market. This is a classic monster movie like many an American B flick, sure, but one that could only work in Ireland – where else (excepting perhaps parts of Scotland, perhaps!) could part of the protection against devilish, blood drinking sea monsters involve a lock in inside the village pub and getting drunk? Where else would you get a shout of “aw, shut yer fecking hole!” as a hero wallops the giant monster? A great combination of B-movie SciFi roots, horror and character driven humour, great cast and a lot of heart (plus some nice homages to other genre greats, including a brilliant Aliens pastiche), Grabbers is simply perfect late night movie viewing – in fact I think this is the most enjoyable comedy-horror I have seen since the Nathan Fillion-starring Slither.

 

And if my opinion doesn’t convince you then consider the fact that the late night film festival audience gave the movie a huge round of applause – when a festival crowd does that, it’s the mark of a great film. This time last year I saw a wee horror movie called Troll Hunter at the film fest and told you it was one to watch for. Well, Grabbers is slated for general release later this summer in Ireland (hopefully UK soon thereafter) and I’m telling you that for me it’s this year’s Troll Hunter.

This was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog

Guinea Pigs

Edinburgh Film Fest: Guinea Pigs,
UK, 2012, running time 85 mins
Dir: Ian Clark

Director Ian Clark returns to the Edinburgh International Film Festival, following up his previous short film he showed last time with Guinea Pigs, his debut feature length film, a very fine, tense medical-science fiction-horror hybrid that creates some genuine tension on a very low budget.

A group of strangers head for a very modern, hi-tech yet remote medical testing facility hidden away in the British countryside. All have volunteered to take part in the regular human trials that are part of testing new drugs and treatments to finally have them licensed for human use by the medical professions. Some are studenty types doing it to make money, some are ‘profession’ lab rats who go from test to test, one is a journalist planning an expose on how these massive pharmaceutical companies exploit people in need of money to give up their body as a test bed (and let’s not forget what a massive business such pharmacological research is in the UK and the fact it can’t really function without such tests).

The test runs for two weeks, during which the mixed group of older and younger, male and female test subject will live in the remote facility where they will constantly be scrutinised and monitored as they are administered a new experimental drug called Pro-9. No nearby village or town to wander to, no internet access, no mobile phone access (the undercover journalist is less than happy – I need the phone for work, she says, this is your paid work for the next two weeks, the Doctor reminds her). Through the first day each of the group is taken in turn and after a blood test administered their dose of Pro-9 then told to relax, enjoy the facilities, eat, sleep. By the end of the day as they all take their turn in the lab our small group are starting to tentatively bond a little in the rec room, sensing out each other. They think they are in for a long, slow, boring two weeks of daily routine. They’re not – many won’t get through the first night. There’s more than a little ‘adverse reaction’ to Pro-9…

Because each member of the group was taken in at various times through the day for their first injection the resulting effects start to appear in sequence with each, and this is part of the strength and dawning horror of Guinea Pigs – when the first to be injected starts to react badly to the drug during the night the other think it is because he broke the rules and did some strenuous exercise and it has accelerated the drug through his system. He is taken away for treatment by the staff and everyone ascribes it to a one-off complication, until the next person to be injected starts to show similar symptoms and they others realise not only is something badly wrong, but that they are really looking at what may happen to them. It’s a very clever touch by Clark and his team – imagine knowing too late that this drug is driving people into an uncontrolled frenzy and that you have taken it, that it is simply a matter of how soon, not if, you develop the same symptoms.

The situation soon deteriorates beyond the ability of the small night staff to contend with and we move to a fairly familiar small group under siege by crazies scenario – pretty common in a lot of horror, but I have to say well-handled here. Instead of the sudden emergence of a strong heroic type we have ordinary folks faced with an unthinkable situation and trying desperately to think on how to survive not only the other infected now prowling the grounds but how to deal with their own likely transformation that looms over them. And then there’s the fact that each of them is now looking at their rapidly diminishing group and thinking the people they have befriend could soon turn on them. Natural empathy for someone becoming ill wars with the self-preservation instincts: how can those not yet showing symptoms turn their back on friends who are? But if they follow that human compassion they could pay with their lives…

Although in some ways it strays close to the zombie/28 Days later model (which, whatever Danny Boyle says let’s be honest is another form of the zombie movie) Clark keeps his debut tight and focussed. He doesn’t go for cheap splatter (there is blood, but in context, not just added in to try and add an unnecessary thrill), likewise he avoids using the easy ‘jump’ scare approach too many lazier horror directors opt for, with a sudden jolt cut, loud effect or music piece to make the audience jump. I don’t mind a decent jump shock if used well (say the head out of the boat in Jaws) and I have no problem with gore in horror either, but I do have an increasing problem with untalented creators who use both far too frequently not for good effect but in lieu of being able to generate genuine atmosphere and scares by storytelling and good camera work. So thank you, Ian, for not doing that, for instead being confident enough to believe in the strength of your concept and characters to carry enough horror and chills. I think, debut or not, that is the mark of a talented storyteller and it means I will watch for the next film Clark makes. Highly effective, tense British SF-Horror and a perfect late night movie – it is currently on the festival circuit trying to build some awareness, so if you see it coming to a screening near you give them some support, they deserve it.

Guinea Pigs movie director and crew at edinburgh film fest
(writer/director Ian Clark, second from right, with some of his crew at the late night Edinburgh Film Festival, pic from my Flickr)

Science Fiction and Horror highlights from the Edinburgh Film Festival

Just over a couple of weeks ago I was enjoying my annual week off at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, taking in all sorts of cinema, from hard-hitting documentaries from modern combat reporters to stylish French crime thrillers. And of course I took in several science fiction and horror themed flicks along the way, so here’s a quick round-up of some of the ones that I enjoyed the most:

The Divide

I was told by a friend who had already seen a press screening of Xavier Gens’ The Divide that it was ‘very disturbing’. She meant this as a warning, but to me it was an endorsement! The Divide opens with a moment of sheer, modern, urban terror as a young woman gazes terrified out of her skyscraper window across New York – as a nuclear device is detonated. Screaming, panicking residents flee down the stairwells as the shock front approaches their building, a few manage to rush down to the basement and force their way past a reinforced door as their building superintendent tries to close it. The shockwave reaches them, and in the dark basement of their huge block the ground shakes, pieces fall from the roof and the sound is awful, reminiscent of the fall of the Twin Towers.

Xavier Gens at Edinburgh International Film Festival 02
(Director Xavier Gens talks about The Divide at the Edinburgh Film Fest, pic from my Flickr)

A handful of terrified, disparate survivors pick themselves up to realise they are trapped in a subterranean sarcophagus – will rescue teams come looking for them? Are they safe until they do? When will they come? Why is the super (genre stalwart Michael Biehn) acting so oddly? What secrets does he have in his underground domain that he is now forced to share with the motley survivors that have been forced on him? The tension and claustrophobia builds and when a much hoped for rescue turns out to be something quite different it becomes clear our dwindling band of survivors are on their own, sealed in, and slowly they lose cohesion, breaking into groups, suspicious, violent… The nuclear attack and the bizarre ‘rescue’ are never really explained and they don’t need to be, the film is really an exercise in claustrophobic horror and the resulting breakdown of the people trapped in this situation, until we have a post 9-11 war on terror meets Lord of the Flies scenario. Compelling.

By Day and By Night

Alejandor Molina’s slice of Mexican science fiction has a real 60s/70s SF feel to it, with a future dystopian society controlled by a mostly unseen group of scientific despots (unseen except for a few delightfully odd looking scenes between one leader and a dissident scientist which recall the 60s Prisoner series with their bizarre styles and angles) and science has been used to divide the population medically into day and night shifts, one half going to sleep as the other wakes to work. Families are banned, children are looked after in a formal manner by guardians rather than loving parents and following the rules is all in this society, questioning is not permitted, the past is largely a blank, sanitised book and the outside of the sealed city is off limits (see what I mean about that 70s SF vibe?).

Of course no amount of scientific tinkering with the human body and mind can eliminate human nature completely and we see one woman from the day shift distraught at the disappearance of her young girl ward, displaying a motherly concern that is not desired in this society, while a night shift doctor takes charge of a mysterious, unidentified body of a young girl, but a body that turns out to be comatose, not dead as his colleagues think, and he secretly takes her in, his formal life rapidly changing as the girl bonds with him and brings out his paternal, caring instincts. As the man, woman and girl converge the question is can their medically programmed nature of night and day rhythms be crossed and can they find somewhere where they can actually learn to express a parental love for the child? The pace of By day and By Night is very, very slow, quite gentle actually, but stick with that slow pace to find a quite charming and, for modern cinema, unusual slice of thoughtful, old-fashioned (in the good way, reminiscent of short tales by Silverberg or Bradbury) piece of science fiction.

Phase 7

Director Nicolas Goldbart’s slice of post-Apocalypse medical horror from Argentina proved to be a hugely enjoyable work. Guillermo Del Toro regular Federico Luppi lends his dignified presence as a quiet, elderly resident in an apartment block, downstairs neighbour to Coco (Daniel Hendler) and his pregnant wife Pipi (Jazmin Stuart). A dull routine of shopping, domestic chores and residents meetings are suddenly derailed when it is suspected someone in their block has a new and highly contagious disease and the authorities seal them in while tests are carried out. What starts as an all in this together for a few days bit of almost-fun soon turns nasty, however: cut off from the outside world they watch TV news reports of more cases of the disease breaking out around the world. As what starts as a swine flu like media panic becomes a pandemic reality. Soon the authorities stop their visits, alarms and gunshots are heard outside their sealed block in the streets of the city and as it becomes clear how large a scale the problem is the neighbours begin to plot in small groups against one another…

Luppi’s distinguished elderly resident seems like a likely first victim as one group of neighbours plot to break into his apartment, supposedly over concerns he is infected, to help him, but really because they think he has a large stash of food. Little do they know he is a former big game hunter… Coco proves pretty hapless throughout but luckily for him his next door neighbour turns out to be a survival nut who has been preparing for something like this (he is sure it is a conspiracy by world governments to reduce the population strain on the planet). In fact his neighbour turns out to be Phase 7’s answer to Tremors’ Burt Gummer (which is a compliment) and he has a soft spot for Coco and his pregnant wife. As events escalate the pair of them are drawn into confrontations with the surviving residents and Luppi’s formerly Nice Old man turned shotgun toting hunter. It isn’t all The End of Society, disease and neighbourly violence though, Phase 7 is well laced with humour throughout giving it a perfect balance of characters, story, action, violence and some decent laughs too. A real find.

Stormhouse

Welcome to Stormhouse, a secret, underground black-ops base for the British Army. It is just a few months before the invasion of Iraq and a covert unit has a very special prisoner deep within this subterranean complex. No, not some black-hooded terror suspect (although there is that too) but something else, something not human – the Entity. The British Army has managed not only to find a ghost but to imprison it. Now they want to find a way to use this supernatural entity as a secret weapon, but other than putting the heebie-jeebies up all the squaddies on the base they’ve had little success in communicating with it, much less getting it to perform to their orders. So the Minister for Defence sends in Hayley Sands, a ‘ghost whisperer’ psychic to help them make contact. She’s talked to the dead before but is amazed to find out that the Army has managed to hold a ghost (through an electro magnetic barrier) and wonders how they brought it over from the other side in the first place. Of course, she is told that is on a need-to-know basis and the commanding officer, clearly unhappy with her presence, is acting very oddly, as are many of his soldiers after prolonged exposure to the entity.

Stormhouse is one of those horror films where you have a fair idea of where it is going to go, but that isn’t really a handicap as it gets around its small budget by concentrating mostly on atmosphere and in this it is highly effective. The underground bunker setting generates a seriously tense sense of claustrophobia, the soldiers inside effectively as trapped as the mysterious ghostly entity is and despite the electromagnetic field containing it, it becomes clear some of its influence is seeping out into that dark, dank, underground lair to effect them all and the arrival of a single, young, attractive female presence into this all-male environment doesn’t help either. Stormhouse plays its small budget cleverly – the ghostly effects are few but effective; in fact the director in a post screening Q&A said they could have stretched to some more ghost effects but decided to tone it way down so we get tiny but terrifying sudden glimpses on a monitor. And as things unravel, as you know they will, Hayley may find out just how the army got themselves a ghost – and wish she hadn’t… An interesting, atmospheric piece of low-budget Brit horror, playing cleverly on both the fear of the supernatural and creeping, unseen but always present feeling of unease in society post 9-11 and 7/7.

Stormhouse at Edinburgh International Film Festival 04
(director/writer Dan Turner and some of the cast of Stormhouse on stage at the Filmhouse after their Edinburgh Film Festival debut, pic from my Flickr)

Troll Hunter

This Indy slice of fantasy from Norway from director/writer André Øvredal was, without a doubt, my highlight from this year’s Edinburgh Film Fest (with the exception of the new Studio Ghibli film, which I reviewed here). A group of media students are making a video news article for their college, following a group of bear hunters in the Norwegian countryside when their attention is drawn to an odd man who follows the hunters but stays apart from them, coming and going late at night on his own. Is he a poacher? Following him into the deep, dark woods they soon find out he is after a very different game when roars echo frighteningly through the dark trees and the man runs out of the forest yelling “Ttttroooooolllllllllll!!!!!!”

And this is the set up, our mystery man is an operative for a secret branch of the Norwegian government which looks after any rogue trolls which threaten human areas of habitation. Sick of years of working unappreciated in a covert role (and with no hazard pay!) he agrees to let the students follow him as he deals with all sorts of trolls, forest trolls, cave trolls, even gigantic trolls which stride across the frozen northern landscape. The format is ‘found footage’, as with Cloverfield or the Blair Witch, but much more knowing and more tongue in cheek about it than either of those films and the effects are excellent, the film looking far more than the 3 million Euro budget it was made on. It has a terrifically enjoyable mix of action, scares, cool effects, characters and humour (a moment on a bridge with three billy goats gruff had everyone in the audience laughing) in just the right proportions, pretty much a perfect Saturday night movie. Chris Columbus has already bought the rights to an English language remake, so Hollywood has already taken as much note as festival audiences have of this cracker of a fantasy flick. You could almost imagine some of Troll Hunter as a story from a Hellboy comic, and I mean that as a huge compliment. Troll Hunter is getting a general UK release in September – trust me, you want to go and see it!

André Øvredal at Edinburgh Film Festival 01
(director/writer André Øvredal in a post screening Q&A in the Cameo Cinema at the Edinburgh Film Fest, pic from my Flickr)

Film Fest ticket sales down

The Edinburgh International Film Festival apparently suffered a 10% drop in tickets sales for 2010 (not my fault, I went to a pile of shows!). One of the factors being blamed is the very late launch this year, which I know really pissed off regular Film Fest goers like myself and others I know who go each year. The programme came out so close to the actual festival it didn’t leave much planning time – annoying for those of us who live in and around the city, a real problem for visitors who have to make their way here from much further afield. And when the programme did launch (with a website crash – again) we had barely a couple of days to go through it before the box office opened. Everyone I know was really annoyed at this, it simply didn’t give us enough time to plot out which films we most wanted to see then check times and dates to see if they clashed and work out alternates if they did and so on (plus the now traditional web box office crash again when tickets went on sale, bah). Pretty poor planning.

Sylvain Chomet and Hannah McGill, the Illusionist gala opening
(Sylvain Chomet with now former EIFF director Hannah McGill at the gala opening night screening of Sylvain’s wonderful The Illusionist at the 2010 Film Fest)

The Film Fest is blaming some of this on being late in securing some of the films because of the Cannes Film Festival being held in May, meaning they didn’t want to launch until they had everything confirmed. Which is fine except this is the same Film Fest who decided to move out of their decades long home of August, when the Edinburgh Festival is on, to be a standalone festival in June. Which you might recall me being quite put out about, I was totally opposed to that move, thought it was foolish and their reasoning flawed. One of their reasons was allegedly so it wouldn’t be too close to other major international film festivals and therefore competing too much for screenings of certain movies. Now they are blaming proximity to one of the most famous film festivals in the world for this year’s problems? Oh come on, make up your bloody minds, Film Fest, which is it? maybe you should just admit you got it wrong and move back to August again, then you can can also pick up on the extra visitors who are in the city for the Festival? And it would give the Film Fest some of its buzz back – while I enjoyed the movies the atmosphere is lacking the magic present during the main Festival in August, it’s jsut not the same. Oh and while we’re at it, please keep screenings restricted to CINEMAS! No more dubious vanity projects like gala screenings held in an old (and uncomfortable) theatre which was totally unsuited for film screenings.

You can find some of my reviews from this year’s Film Fest offerings here and here on the blog. (link via the BBC)