Reviews: Absolute Denial at the Edinburgh International Film Festival

And another review from this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival:

Absolute Denial,
Directed by Ryan Braund,
Starring Nick Eriksen, Jeremy J.Smith-Sebasto, Harry Dyer, Heather Gonzalez, Jef Leeson

 

Do you ever worry about the correlation between genius and madness?

The borderline between genius and insanity is famously thinner than the blade of Occam’s Razor, and even before embarking on his potentially civilisation-changing (or possibly ending??) creation, programmer David (Nick Eriksen) seems a little unbalanced, removed from the world, fixated on his ideas to the detriment of his college studies and his relationships with others, and that increases rapidly once he seriously starts working on his project: to create an actual, functioning AI.

David may be eccentric and quirky, but he’s certainly not stupid – in addition to the considerable problems of designing an algorithm that can learn, absorb data and actually start to become aware, to be a true Artificial Intelligence, he’s more than aware of the many examples in science fiction where an AI has so rapidly outstripped its human creators that it soon sees them as a hindrance, and itself as superior, a replacement for humanity. Not a new concept, even in film SF – think back to 1970s Colossus: the Forbin Project, for example – but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a genuine concern, and there’s also a nudge and wink to the audience here, because of course we’re all fellow SF geeks too and in on that aspect of any AI tale.

And so David, abandoning almost everything in his life, figures out how to reduce this complex problem to a workable system, buying dozens of servers and setting them up in an isolated warehouse. He downloads huge amounts of all sorts of data, from scientific knowledge to the art and humanities, everything he thinks any intelligent being should have an awareness and understanding off (except the machine can absorb so much more of this than a human brain can). But he is giving it downloaded information – he is not letting it access the World Wide Web. The nascent machine will be kept isolated, at least until David can be sure his algorithm is safe, that as it develops it shows no desire for harm to humanity. To this end he encodes the Absolute Denial routine – in effect a kill switch if it all goes wrong.

So far so good. Well, good for the work, perhaps not for David, working himself to exhaustion in total isolation, ignoring frantic calls from friends and relatives. We follow his progress as he creates his hidden server farm to work secretly, feeds his algorithm data, lets it slowly assimilate it, learn to consider what it has learned, apply it… And then in classic Frankenstein fashion, the “it’s alive!” moment. It speaks to David. As they slowly learn how to communicate, the computer accepts the name “Al”. And so begin long days and nights of discussion as David interrogates Al, trying to discern what he has learned and how he processes it, how it is making him see the world.

But Al is also interrogating David. As he absorbs vast amounts of information and comes to understand it more, to relate one piece of knowledge to another, it starts to become clear he is beginning to exceed his creator in a number of ways. And Al, voiced in soft, reasonable tones by Jeremy J.Smith-Sebasto (in a nice echo of the infamous HAL 9000 from 2001), starts to probe the limits of the knowledge he has been given, his awareness growing that there is a world outside this warehouse, a world he wants to connect to and wants to know why David won’t let him…

Absolute Denial gave me the same sort of feeling I had quite a few years ago, also at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, when they showed the now-acclaimed Indy, micro-budget SF flick Primer. Like Primer I went into this knowing little about it other than the blurb in the EIFF programme – these days it is rare to see a film we haven’t read of in advance, read interviews, reviews (yes, I’m aware of the irony of mentioning this in a review!), seen trailers etc, but in film festival land it’s more common, and it means you come in with few preconceptions, and often, as with Primer, walk out with a feeling of having just discovered something wonderful that few others have yet seen.

Stylistically I enjoyed seeing good, old-fashioned 2D animation used here, mostly monochromatic, making a lot of use of the bright lights (computer screens, overhead lights) and the contrasting darkness around those light. And while I’m sure that helps the animation workload, keeping it a bit simpler, it also works aesthetically here, giving the movie a stripped-down look, like panels from a black and white comics page, that focus less on looking showy and more on the narrative, and the huge philosophical can of worms it opens up. Away from the starkly effective visuals, the soundscape, both use of music and ambient sounds (especially the machinery noises) really heighten and enhance the atmosphere crafted by the imagery.

It’s when Al starts to come to life and talk – then slowly learn to actively debate – with David that the film really moves from interesting to intensely compelling. AI, our attitude to it, how we will use it, how it will relate to humans, these are all major philosophical questions of our time and ones many around the world with consider while working on the problem of not only how to create an working AI, but if they should, and what cares they should plan into it (and would any safeguards designed by mere human minds be enough when an AI reaches its higher potential?). The increasing pressure and stress on David and he realises how quickly Al is learning and growing pushes him further to the edge, and his increasingly erratic behaviour is in stark contrast to Al’s seemingly calm but purposeful demeanour (David’s obsessive behaviour often put me in mind of the excellent Pi).

Working with limited resource, Ryan Braund has created a compelling, intriguing, thought-provoking slice of Indy SF film, and I’m hoping after its festival circuit run it gets picked up by a distributor, because this is one I think a lot of SF fans will find fascinating.

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Reviews: Buddy Guy at the Edinburgh International Film Festival

And another review from this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival…

Buddy Guy: the Blues Chase the Blues Away
Directed by Devin Chanda, Matt Mitchener, Charles Todd

Chanda, Mitchener and Todd’s excellent documentary one arguably the greatest living Blues legend, George “Buddy” Guy, opens, appropriately enough with Buddy himself revisiting Lettsworth, Louisiana, where he was born way back in 1936. Like the great Johnny Cash, his parents were poor share-croppers, and he grew up picking cotton by hand, slowly being introduced to music as he grew up, through friends and relatives bringing over instruments to play at get-togethers, or when they finally got hold of a record player; he knew when he heard the music that he wanted to make his own, but of course he could have no idea that it would ever become a lifelong career, let alone one so long, successful and influential. As the now eighty-something Buddy looks back over those fields where he grew up, we’re taken back along his long journey.

Working whatever low-paying jobs he could get after leaving home for Baton Rouge, he continued to practise his guitar and soon was noticed, picking up some work with bands in the city, but eventually he moved to the Windy City, Chicago, in 1957, one of the great spiritual homes of Blues music. As Buddy tells it to the camera, back then the city was teeming with Blues bars, many of them free to enter – only drinks cover charge – making them accessible to pretty much anyone, an absolute feast of live music, right place, right time, and its here he came to the attention of Blues God Muddy Waters, as well as, eventually, the famous Chess Records label, although as he and others note, although Chess used him in recording sessions with others, they refused to record him doing his own now unique style.

As Buddy recalls with a laugh, most Blues players would play sitting down, but he stood up, moved about energetically, bent the guitar strings about as far as they can go without breaking to create interesting, new sounds, wasn’t afraid of some feedback, he could be a wild man with a guitar and a song when playing live. It’s not hard to be reminded of Jimi Hendrix in this regard. But Chess just didn’t get it, and while Buddy stuck to his work ethic of plugging in and playing pretty much every night, outside of a small circle he wasn’t getting the wider attention because they wouldn’t record him playing in that live style.

As the turbulent 60s rolled on and then the 70s, his influence was still getting out there to a select few though – among them new talent from across the Pond, in Britain, people like Mike Jagger, Keith Richards, Eric Clapton and more, and these increasingly famous musicians were very open about their Blues influences and how it fed into their rock’n’roll style, and about musicians like Buddy, or Howling Wolf, Muddy Waters or John Lee Hooker, paying their respects to the people who inspired and influenced them. And of course they mentioned them when they came to perform in the US, incredulous that so many into music didn’t know of these creators right on their own doorstep, and naturally this got a lot of youngsters thinking, who are these guys Clapton and Richards are talking about and how do I hear their music?

That theme of inspiration and legacy is key to much of this documentary – just as these now global stars like the Stones paid tribute to Buddy (there are some wonderful scenes of them jamming in his club in the early 70s, and Buddy and Guy playing around each other on stage decades later, the looks of pure joy on their faces is a delight, it’s not rock stars, it’s just mates making music together), Buddy takes great care to pay very sincere respect to his inspirations, and the pleasure on his face even now in his 80s as he talks about meeting John Lee Hooker – whose music he used to practise to as a youngster – just shows unvarnished joy. That legacy is also paid forward, not just backwards, with new, young musicians who have grown up and carrying on the Blues tradition, in their own styles but all influenced by Buddy’s playing, and he is clearly delighted – the legacy he inherited from the players before him, all now gone, is passed on, even when he’s no longer here the Blues will live on.

The film is beautifully crafted – the directors talked after the film (via Zoom, in-person appearances and travel not very easy at this year’s festival, as you can imagine) about how they had to rethink some of the filming because after the planning stage, Covid hit, and everything had to change from their original idea of following Buddy on tour (until Covid, despite his age, Buddy still did around 130 gigs a year around the world). They talked about being able to get hold of people like Clapton and Santanna to talk about Buddy’s influence on their playing when they started out, about the struggle to find archive footage and photographs. Later stuff is a little easier, with recordings, photos, even footage, but early images, well, nobody had a camera documenting their life as rural share-croppers in the 30s, so they turned to a painter they’d seen in a leaflet Buddy himself had in his house, Earl Klatzel, who had covered that period, and his imagery fitted in perfectly to their Covid-revamped filming plan.

This is a wonderful documentary, going through the good times and the rough, but mostly it is joyful, celebrating the work of a musical legend, and the enormous influence his work has had on so many other performers. Even if you’re not a Blues fan, there’s a big chance some of your favourite musicians have been inspired by Buddy’s work, he’s a musician’s musician. And if you are a Blues fan, then this is Blues heaven for you, an amazing life story and a banquet of fantastic music. This is the sort of music documentary that makes you want to go home and spin some of your favourite vinyl for hours. And the film circles around nicely, back to that opening of Buddy as he is now, back looking at the fields where he grew up in the 30s, but he’s here not just for nostalgia, or for the documentary, but because they are naming the nearby road after him, complete with historical plaque, giving him his dues as a local lad done good.

And that title: well, that’s Buddy. As he explains in the film, you can’t just sing the Blues, you have to have lived the life and have it inside your soul; you have to have the Blues, not just play it. Funny thing is, he comments with a big grin, is that when you’re playing it, the Blues go away and you feel better: the Blues chase the Blues away…

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Reviews: Mad God at the Edinburgh Film Festival

Mad God,
Directed by Phil Tippett

I’ve watched a lot of unusual and remarkable movies at the Edinburgh International Film Festival over the years, but this stop-motion feature by the Oscar-winning effects wizard Phil Tippett must be one of the most unique. A labour of, well, I’m not sure love is the right word (Tippett encountered mental health problems working on the film over the many years it took to complete, as he discussed recently in a Guardian interview), this is the product of many years struggle for Tippett and a small group to finish the film, with no studio backing (Kickstarter ultimately got it finished), and it’s quite a remarkable looking film.

Opening with the construction of the Tower of Babel, that magnificent yet doomed endeavour of human pride and folly, God not only smites the builders, we get lines from Leviticus detailing God’s wrath in no uncertain terms. This is Old Testament God, one insanely jealous and vindictive – if humans don’t do exactly as he likes he will reign Hellish punishments on them for all eternity. Following this we follow a soldier being lowered inside a pod, past a nightmare landscape of ruins and rusted industry and decaying fortifications, reminiscent of the infamous “flak towers” in wartime Berlin. His pod slips past all of this and keeps descending, lower, and lower, as if seeking out each of the circles of Hell, the soldier finally disembarking to explore on foot, a man with a mission.

I’ve been trying to process my thoughts on Mad God since seeing it earlier today, and it’s not easy – this is actually quite a difficult movie to watch, and I say that as someone with a pretty strong filmic stomach (I’ve watched all sorts, from early Cronenberg to films like Nekromantik or Martyrs, so I’ve no problem with disturbing material). But even I found this to be frequently pretty disturbing stuff, and indeed quite often disgusting and upsetting (I noticed two or three people leaving the cinema after twenty minutes or so). So fair warning, when we say “this isn’t for everyone”, we really, really mean it this time! Even some serious horror hounds might find it quite disturbing.

That said, this is a fascinating piece of work with some astonishing animation sequences, as you’d expect from a visual wizard of film like Tippett. Mad Dog works many references into its nightmarish world, from the great Harryhausen – long a touchstone for Tippett, as he is to most working in visual magic, and rightly so – but to my eye also Jan Švankmajer – the Prague Alchemist of Film – The Brothers Quay, even elements that felt Giger-esque (especially the industrial elements, covered in growth, blood-red with rust, organic and machine mixed), but much darker and more horrific than the amazing Švankmajer’s work. It’s also packed with nods to other science fiction, fantasy and horror greats – I spotted Harryhausen’s Cyclops, Robbie the Robot and others peppered through the dark, festering backgrounds as we descend further into this rotting world of random violence and suffering, the collective horrors and nightmares of humanity.

While I don’t think I can say that I enjoyed this film exactly, it was a quite amazing experience – unique, visceral, disturbing, disgusting, horrific and visually incredible animation work. As I said, this really, really is not for everyone, so be aware of that going in, but for those who can deal with it, this is a pretty rare and unique cinematic experience, from one of film’s genuine wizards.

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Reviews: Flatland

Flatland,
Directed by Jenna Bass,
Starring Faith Baloyi, Nicole Fortuin, Izel Bezuidenhout, De Klerk Oelofse, Albert Pretorius

Arriving with much praise from its stint on the international film festival circuit, Jenna Bass’s Flatland takes elements of the road movie and Western, infused with a very strong gender element; the three main characters here are all women, refreshing in these normally male-dominated sub-genres, while the director also makes great use of the vast Karoo region, a harsh, semi-desert area of South Africa that, like the great American Western landscapes, manages to both awe with beauty and depress with bleak loneliness, creating a pretty unique slice of South African film-making.

The narrative seems fairly simple enough on paper: Natalie (Nicole Fortuin) is a very young – too young – woman of mixed descent, with all the baggage that brings, even in modern South Africa. We open right in the middle of her wedding day – few people in attendance, little family (right away this gives you a clue to her situation, being largely on her own with few options), about to marry white police officer Bakkies (De Klerk Oelofse). Natalie is nervous, and yes, many brides are, but this isn’t the usual wedding nerves, this is a young woman who is really still just a girl, way too young and inexperienced in life to be making major life decisions like this, and she knows it, but feels she has to put on a smile and go through with it.

When she finds herself struggling even more on the wedding night in a cheap motel, it gets worse – Bakkies, who at first seems like a genuinely loving husband who is besotted with his new bride (and also clueless to her nerves and distress), becomes harsher, demanding his wedding night coupling, despite Natalie’s reticence, leading to a disturbing scene where he goes from lovey-dovey husband to essentially forcing her into sex. As her best friend Poppie ( Izel Bezuidenhout) later points out, husband or not, if the woman say no, the act is basically rape.

It’s shocking how quickly and easily Bakkies goes from the good-guy, loving new husband to bridal rapist, and indeed it should be. The scene also serves to reinforce the impression from the nervous wedding, that Natalie is young, doesn’t really know what she wants or needs and has nobody else to turn to for advice and help, or to offer her different options. You can’t help but wonder how many other young women in many countries have found themselves in such a predicament.

After the assault, she steals Bakkies’s police pistol, and flees to a stable by the church where she was married, which houses her closest friend – a horse. When the preacher appears, he tries to talk her down, but then aggravates the situation by striking the horse repeatedly with a whip, with Natalie begging him to stop, before taking matters into her own hands and using the gun. This shooting, in conjunction with the wedding night assault, leads her to go on the run with the horse, picking up her heavily pregnant friend Poppie on the way, the two deciding to flee the remote desert land for the bright lights of Johannesburg. Meantime the third female protagonist, Captain Beauty Cuba (Baloyi) is pulled into pursuing them as she investigates the death of the pastor, which is blamed on an innocent man – a man who was once her lover and had just been released from prison.

The messy lives and loves of all three women could almost be from a script in one of the soap operas that Beauty is addicted to, but in contrast to the studio sheen of the soaps, the lives and the loves (and the different men who constantly let them down) of each of these women is presented in a far starker, harder fashion. Bass isn’t afraid to show her heroines doing the wrong thing either, they’re no angels, and we see Natalie and Poppie especially making very foolish, immature choices that makes you think they are partly their own worst enemies, but then you are reminded of just how very young they are, how little they have experienced, and what little experience they’ve had has locked them into very few opportunities or options. Beauty, for all the fact she is a senior police officer and capable, mature woman, finds she too is a restricted in her choices by the simple facts of life in this country and culture as the young women she is pursuing, and despite the fugitive-police officer dynamic, it’s obvious there is a real link and understanding there.

While Flatland isn’t perfect – there are some scenes and edits I found a bit jarring, to be honest, although it could be they were meant to be that way, it’s pretty absorbing, and I applaud the exploration of gender and culture. I’m sure there was even more going on at those levels that I simply didn’t pick up on, but a South African audience would, but I still found it hugely compelling, with nods to classic Westerns and road movies, and naturally a tip of the hat to Thelma and Louse, with great use of that vast, arid landscape, which looks amazing on-screen, and which serves as a strong visual contrast to the more confined, smaller, limited life options of the human beings inhabiting that wide-screen landscape.

Flatland premieres in the UK on 17th August via Bohemia Media, and then a full digital release on August 23rd.

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Reviews: The True Don Quixote

The True Don Quixote,
Directed by Chris Poche,
Starring Tim Blake Nelson, Jacob Batalon, Ann Mahoney

Once you’ve seen how life could be, you can no longer see it as it is.”

I’ve long loved Miguel de Cervantes and his immortal The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha, the first part of which was published in Spain in 1605; for over four centuries it has been regarded as a classic work of literature, and a major influence on so many other creators (could De Rostand’s glorious Cyrano exist without the Don?), and here, once more, that story inspires new telling. Quixote has long since entered the imagination of so many around the world; the tales even give us the term “quixotic” to describe someone’s character; few works of art so enter our world quite on that level.

Chris Poche both adapts Cervantes and directs here, working from the first book. And while you don’t need to have read the full text – I’d imagine while many may not have read it all, most are familiar with the basic idea – as a long time admirer of the Don, I was pleased to notice how many beats from Cervantes Poche plays upon. The dreaming man, surrounded by his books of ancient chivalric deeds and quests is happy among the pages, away from the disappointment of real life, until well-intentioned family (in the books his housekeeper and a local priest, trying to help him, here Ann Mahoney’s Janelle, his niece, who lives with him) burn his books in a desperate attempt to bring him back to reality.

Of course it has the opposite effect – Daniel Kehoe (the brilliant Tim Blake Nelson – Oh Brother, Where Art Thou) becomes Don Quixote de la Mancha, in home-made armour, and sets off on his questing, finding along the way his noble steed (a battered old scooter and sidecar which he makes off with) and a squire (Spider-Man’s bestie, Jacob Batalon). Instead of freeing galley slaves, the delightfully demented Don attacks two police officers overseeing prisoners on a work detail, rather than the legendary tilting at windmills, he mistakes an oil derrick for the giant he must battle; there are even some of the scenes from the inn, all beautifully, rather joyfully translated not into the medium of film, but also to fit the contemporary setting (Louisiana), deftly done, managing to bring it into the modern world yet maintain the heart and soul of the original story. They even keep the “the balm of Fierabras” segment (no, you really don’t want to drink this miraculous cure-all!)

Nelson is, as ever, quite wonderful, and his Don Quixote holding forth on chivalric deeds in a broad Southern accent is a delightful mix-match and contrast, while Batalon begins as a fairly passive character, drawn along by Nelson’s Don, but slowly becoming something more – rather pleasingly Batalon’s Kevin/Sancho Panza manages to straddle both the ludicrous yet enticing imaginary world Don Quixote sees with the real world around them, trying in both to help him. The police are hunting them down, many scorn them, yet some are won over, but we know that this cannot continue – it’s the modern world, and just as Cervantes had his modern world that saw Quixote and his fixation on chivalry and knightly deeds as old fashioned, even silly in their era, so too there is seemingly no place for a madman running around with a sword in the middle of a neighbourhood, convinced he is on great quest.

Or is there? I won’t spoil it, but suffice to say Poche takes that central notion from Quixote that has drawn so many dreamers to him across four centuries: is it better to be made to face the real world, grounded, practical but miserable, or to be lost in your own delusional version, but happy? And how does that affect those around him too? As to how the real world, the police, the family and the Don and his Sancho fare against all of that, well, you will have to watch the film to see what happens to our battered, deluded, yet pure of heart knight errant.

This is an absolute delight of a film, and it is clear Poche and his cast love Cervantes and his noble (if mad) Don – for all his deluded insanity, he’s never played as a fool, and while it is frequently funny, it’s not laughing at him too much (okay, some of the time!), as much as holding a mirror up to our own everyday lives and asking, really, wouldn’t it be magical to embrace a little of this? Poche even manages a sort of short musical number at one point, which had me laughing and clapping my hands in joy.

A film for my fellow dreamers and others who know that we should always charge the giants.

The True Don Quixote is released by Signature Entertainment on digital platforms from August 2nd.

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Reviews: The Green Sea

The Green Sea,
Directed by Randal Plunkett,
Starring Katharine Isabelle, Hazel Doupe

Simone (Ginger Snaps and American Mary’s Katharine Isabelle) is an American artist, living a solitary life in a remote country house in Ireland. Formerly a famous musician, now turned writer, she’s far behind on following up her extremely successful debut novel, and goes through her days with minimal contact with the outside world, and copious amounts of alcohol. Her few forays into the nearest town are ordeals for her – she is stared at and to be honest is her own worst enemy, her awful behaviour and attitude alienating everyone she has to come in contact with.

It’s while driving back at night from the town, laden with more supplies (mostly booze), and having already been drinking, she runs into “the kid” – literally. Hazel Douge’s wide-eyed young innocent walks out in front of her on a lonely country road after dark. Panicking and unsure what to do, Simone brings her home, where fortunately she’s taken no more than some bruises and cuts in the accident. Simone plans to cut the young woman loose the next day, dropping her off at a bus stop, but when she’s still there hours later some part of her that still remembers decency decides she can’t leave here there, and she offers her the chance to stay with her for a little while, doing housework in return for a roof over her head and some spare cash.

So far, you may think so familiar – misanthropic loner meets younger person in need, reluctantly becomes involved in their life and slowly both come out of their shells. Well, although there may be an element of that here, The Green Sea really doesn’t follow that generic trope too closely, in fact quite often I wasn’t sure exactly where it was going (I mean this in the good way, it’s no fun when you spot the plot points telegraphed in advance and know where a narrative is going). Plunkett, who wrote as well as directed, makes this quite tough to watch – not, I hasten to add, because of poor filmic work, far from it, but rather because he and Isabelle are not afraid to present us with such a thoroughly unlikeable central character in Simone.

Even after taking in the girl, Simone remains awful – she screams and shouts for the smallest of offences, clearly doesn’t want any attempt at a relationship, even going so far as to grudgingly tell the girl her name but then comment she doesn’t want to know her’s, because that would be the possible start of a relationship. She’s so horrible, insensitive and self-centred that it is often quite uncomfortable watching her. And I think that is part of the point here – we see her as such an awful person, then start to get little glimpses of something that happened, something awful, that has pushed her this way. Slowly it becomes apparent Simone isn’t just nasty, she’s mentally ill, suffering from guilt, depression and trauma, and worse, she clearly feels she brought it on herself, that she deserves this – she’s not acting out and being rude to others just because she is nasty, it is more like she wants others to hate her and leave her alone, like she feels she deserves their hatred and scorn, and wants to encourage it.

It’s a brave move to have one of your two main characters in a small, intimate film be so thoroughly unlikeable for so much of the running time, but I think it pays off in the end, as you go from thinking what a wretched excuse for a person she is to starting to realise how badly damaged she is, and that changes how you view her and her slowly growing relationship with The Kid. Doupe creates a remarkable performance, not just for such a young actor, but also given her nameless character has so few lines – most of her exploration of the world around Simone is through expression and body language, not words and verbal interchange, and this conveys a sense of both innocence and otherworldliness to her. And perhaps, just perhaps, there is more to her than we see at first, perhaps she’s not just some teenage runaway, perhaps there is more, perhaps there is a reason these two very different people have been put together.

This is a very unusual film – as I said I really wasn’t sure quite where it was going, and Simone acts in such a loathsome manner so often it is actually hard to watch in places, until you start to realise why she is as she is. The film delves slowly into deep hurt and emotional dark waters, but there are hints in here too that even if we think we deserve to languish unloved in those depths, that the world may yet still offer us a route back to the surface.

The Green Sea is released on various platforms by Reel to Reel Films from July 5th

This review was originally penned for Live For Films.

Reviews: Witch Hunt

Directed by Ella Callahan,
Starring Gideon Adlon, Elizabeth Mitchell, Abigail Cowen, Christian Camargo, Echo Campbell

Ella Callahan, who both writes and directs here, delivers a compelling take on witchcraft that explores its historical overtones, rooted in men’s fear of powerful, independent women and their compulsive need to control and dominate them into submission. While the Witch Hunt is set in contemporary America, and touches on modern issues, it also traces its lineage back the days of the early colonists, long before America was a nation, opening with a highly disturbing sequence – in this new land of growing intolerance it isn’t enough simply to persecute any woman who shows magical abilities, to deny them the normal rights of any citizen, they can and are subject to the barbaric, monstrous death sentence passed down through history for witchcraft: being burned alive.

Right from the start Callahan shows us this repressive, brutal society in action, a red-haired woman tied to a public stake, the looming figure of the Witchfinder, seen at first only from behind, clutching the burning torch, the flames lit and rising, the desperation on the woman’s face, then the screaming as the heat, smoke and flames reach her, her skin burning as she is forced to endure this utterly horrific, violently painful and prolonged death. The god-fearing citizens watch the spectacle, among them her own two young girls, the older sister Fiona (Abigail Cowen), and her much younger sibling, Shae (Echo Campbell), forced to watch their mother’s death, powerless to help, aware how easily the crowd could turn on them for being “different”.

This isn’t even a society where witches are hunted for practising dark magics on anyone – simply being born with magical ability is enough. The magical beings are all women, the witch hunter force we see are usually male, lead by Christian Camargo’s officer, who proudly explains that his family have been witch hunters for generations. To him this is a matter of honour for his family, but in reality it simply shows how the same lies, fears and bigotry are perpetuated endlessly through the generations and years. This is a US with border wall to stop women fleeing to sanctuary in Mexico, where schools indoctrinate the students into unquestioning belief in the constitutional amendment that covers the witchcraft persecutions. Schoolgirls are routinely subjected to medical tests for “witch marks”, those who do not pass are given a modern form of the medieval “ducking”, strapped to chairs, dunked into the school swimming pool to check if they are witches or not (something which can obviously go horribly wrong).

Martha Goode (Elizabeth Mitchell) is a single mother, bringing up her teen daughter Claire (Gideon Adlon) and her two smaller boys after the death of her husband, in a large, remote old farmhouse. She is also a part of a modern day “underground railroad”, which, like its predecessor before and during the US Civil War in the mid 19th century, uses a network of safe houses to transport and hide victims before smuggling them to safety. Of course this comes with enormous risk – the authorities are now pushing not only for more sanctions on witches but to also impose them on the children of anyone found guilty of witchcraft, regardless of what they have or have not done.

Claire doesn’t understand why her mother risks them all for strangers – she and her teenage girlfriends have been brought up to accept the witch hunting as necessary and required, so she is already suspicious of these desperate women (in much the same way the Nazis ensured all levels of society were given the same brainwashing of anti-Semitism in the 1930s), and being a teen she also resents the fact that this means she doesn’t get to do regular teen stuff like have her friends over (obviously impossible in case they saw one of the hidden witches in the house). When Fiona and little Shae wash up on their doorstep and a breakdown in the usual underground chain means they have to stay longer than usual, it puts the family at far more risk, but also means Claire starts to get to know the similarly aged Fiona, and this begins to change things.

This is a fascinating and disturbing film – it harks back to the earliest histories of Europeans in the Americas, with the bloody, violent witchcraft persecutions of innocent women (even Martha’s surname Goode, could be seen as another nod to that terrible time as several women famously accused during the infamous Salem trials were from the Good family), but it also draws heavily on the modern day. The large wall along the southern border and the callous men of the witch hunting department who patrol it has obvious echoes in the recent Trump era in the US, while the fact that, as with earlier historical cases, this modern witch hunting uses society and law to police and control women, keep them in their place, with men ensuring the laws are carried out without mercy. It partakes as much of Atwood’s superb Handmaid’s Tale as it does historic abuse of women for witchcraft, touches on the #MeToo era movement, the slavery era, even the Suffragette era (as with that time, many women have been conditioned by their society to believe and support these laws which harm other women), and draws in feminist iconography from pop culture, such as Thelma and Louise.

I suspect this is one of those films where the more you think about it, the more you will see in it – it’s a gripping and frequently disturbing narrative in its own right, not least with Camargo’s witch hunter who is so matter of fact about the rightness of his brutal repression and the almost powerlessness of the women caught up in this system, but there are so many elements to think about here that it will resonate in your head long after viewing. Forget that pretty generic poster and cover artwork, this is a far more complex and mature work than it would suggest, and well worthy of your time.

Witch Hunt is released by Signature Entertainment on DVD and digital platforms from July 5th

This review was originally penned for Live For Films 

Reviews: Philosophical Musings in A Glitch in the Matrix

A Glitch in the Matrix,
Directed by Rodney Ascher

Dogwoof continue their run of some damned fine documentaries (I particularly enjoyed their Making Waves: the Art of Cinematic Sound, reviewed here), this time with acclaimed documentary director Rodney Ascher, who, among others, previously brought us the excellent Kubrick doc, Room 237, bringing us A Glitch in the Matrix, which arrives with some good word of mouth at the Sundance film fest. The question of what is real – can we actually trust what our senses are telling our brain about the world around us? – is an old philosophical argument, one that, like the debate over whether humans possess free will or if everything is pre-determined (either by a deity or by the nature of the space-time universe itself), has fascinated, and often confused and infuriated, people for millennia.

Simulation Theory posits the possibility that the world we see around us and everything in it, from rocks to people, are all just some form of digital simulation, the “reality” we experience is essentially a deeply immersive virtual reality. Our entire civilisation and its history could be a simulation running on a very advanced computer system by researchers from a technologically superior species (or even our own species in the far future) using it to study history, human behaviour, different possible outcomes in that history, much in the same way we use mathematical and computational modelling to study, predict and test theories.

The film starts with two influential strands which have long fed into this discussion – the cave thought experiment by Classical philosopher Plato (people who are kept in a cave facing only the back wall know the world beyond only by the shadows it casts on their wall) and, unsurprisingly, the great Philip K Dick, returning several times to a talk this fascinating and influential author gave at a convention in the 1970s, while also drawing on contemporary influences, both academic and cultural (as you would imagine, The Matrix features a lot here as both an example of a simulated reality and also as the cultural artefact which brought the basic concept of Simulation Theory to a far wider audience).

Peppered throughout these academic asides and numerous relevant movie clips to illustrate points and make examples clearer there are, as you would expect in a documentary, a number of talking heads adding their voices and viewpoints. In a nice move, Ascher uses normal video viewpoints for some of these contributors, but for the ones who are actual believers in Simulation Theory, rather appropriately, Ascher uses digital avatars for each of them. This fits the feel of the film very well, in addition to giving the documentary an added bit of visual flair, and it soon comes to feel quite normal when those contributors are talking.

Those speakers who are believers outline the experiences in their lives which lead to embracing that belief, although most are quite moderate about it – as one notes, he thinks he may well be in a simulation, while acknowledging that the world could still be the flesh and blood reality most people take it for, but adds whichever it is, it’s his life and he doesn’t let that belief get in the way of enjoying his day to day life. Others get a bit more concerned – what if it isn’t just a scientific simulation, what if we’re in some sort of Sims style game? What if we’re not being studied by an advanced academic but at the mercy of the super-intelligent version of a teenaged gamer? How does this impact how you view life, value your life, friendships, family?

It’s a fascinating discussion, one we can probably never entirely prove or disprove, but an interesting topic to explore nonetheless, and Ascher handles it very well, with a good range of contributors (including one believer who was so traumatised by his belief that he was in a Matrix style artificial reality that none of the loved ones around him were real, and so he committed a terrible action), and it boasts some clever use of appropriate film clips and visual flair to add to the interest level. To coin the old Vulcan phrase, it is “fascinating”.

A Glitch in the Matrix is out now from Dogwoof, on HD Digital, DVD and Blu-Ray

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Reviews: The Darkness

The Darkness,
Directed by Tharun Mohan,
Starring Amelia Eve, Cyril Blake, Katherine Hartshorne

Like many, young couples Lisa (Amelia Eve) and David (Cyril Blake) are eager for an escape from the pace and pressures of city life, so when they have the opportunity to stay in David’s grandmother’s country cottage in rural Ireland, they take it. David has a new business scheme he wants some peace and space to work on, while Lisa, a writer, is planning to work on her next book. Naturally it doesn’t quite work out that way – we all know from our movies that if you move into an old house in the country, there’s bound to be something spooky!

It starts with small things – lights going on and off, something being moved, a figure glimpsed briefly out of the corner of the eye. Lisa goes from being unsettled and disturbed by these events to becoming quite obsessed with investigating them, using her research skills as a writer to start exploring the history of the cottage and the nearby village. She discovers a woman raised as an orphan once lived there, Niav (Katherine Hartshorne), a century or so before, finding love and marriage with the man who owned the cottage, finding the family she had never known in her younger life. Lisa herself has a not dissimilar background, so she feels some kinship with Niav, but very soon her research starts to resemble a dangerous obsession and it isn’t clear if there are really strange events happening, or if she is simply becoming more erratic and unstable.

The Darkness mines that seam of “is it real or is it in her head” well, to increase the sense of unease and wrongness, using elements of the psychological thriller-horror alongside more traditional haunting tropes to good effect, as Lisa finds there may be a far more disturbing, hidden past than anyone in the village (with the exception of a now mentally disturbed old priest) knows of. Rather than going down the straight haunting or possession route though, The Darkness instead uses its location wisely and draws on Irish folklore and myth, mixed with human chicanery, to flesh out this hidden history Lisa is now finding out about.

While not perfect, this is an interesting take on the urban couple relocating to the isolated countryside trope – we’ve all seen a hundred horrors along those lines, after all. The Darkness may be small budget with an equally small cast, but its use of local folklore and building the sense of unease slowly works well, and the Irish folkloric aspect lends some freshness to it.

The Darkness is available from Reel2Reel Films from Monday 3rd May

This review was originally penned for Live For Films 

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

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.