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

EIFF 2019 – McLaren Animation

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

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

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

Edinburgh International Film Festival - McLaren Animation 029

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


(a scene from Ainslie Henderson’s Archie)

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

Music & Clowns – trailer from Alex Widdowson on Vimeo.

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

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

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

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

mad dog trailer from steve boot on Vimeo.

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

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

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

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

EIFF 2019 – The Dead Don’t Die

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

EIFF 2019 – L’empereur de Paris

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

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

But frankly, they had me at Vincent Cassel…

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

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

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

EIFF 2019 – Aniara

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

EIFF 2019 – Liberté: A Call to Spy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

EIFF 2019 – Memory: the Origins of Alien

Memory: the Origins of Alien,
Directed by Alexandre O. Phillippe,
Exhibit A Pictures

Hard to believe, but here we are in the last third of June and that means Edinburgh International Film Festival time. My first screening out of the bunch I have booked was Memory: the Origins of Alien. You may know director Alexandre O. Phillippe for some of his very interesting previous documentaries, The People Vs George Lucas and Doc of the Dead (both highly recommended), and here he and his team have created another fascinating set of insights – this is not a standard making-of approach, rather this is an exploration of the myriad of people involved in the gestation of this now-iconic film, their thoughts, their inspirations, their dreams, their nightmares, the ingredients which would coalesce into the film Alien.

As anyone who has ever had to study Alien for an essay will know, it is one of those films that is replete with elements that can be endlessly debated and discussed, and some of those you are likely familiar with already, not least the surreal, dream-nightmare imagery of H.R. Giger, with its biomechanical, highly sexual motifs, which dovetails with other sexual aspects of the narrative (the “baby” alien chestbuster looking like a penis with teeth, as actor Veronica Cartwright put it, the “male rape” and insemination and the abomination of a birth), or the real-world parasitic insects which lay their eggs within other insects to feed from within then burst forth at birth inspiring what is now one of the most fabled scenes in cinema.


(above, the Furies, below, paintings by Francis Bacon, which fed into the idea for the chestbuster version of the Alien)

But Memory, while exploring these qualities, dives deeper, into the stories and myths that influenced Alien’s various creators, taking us from the Furies of Classical Greek culture (a beautifully shot scene takes us from Delphi, the “navel of the world” into a cave which becomes like an Alien set, right down to the laser beam from the egg cavern, except here the Furies wait below that glittering beam) to the paintings of Francis Bacon. Various talking heads comment, from academics to some of those personally involved, such as editor Terry Rawlings and art director Roger Christian, or co-writer Ron Shusett, with some clever use of archive interview material to allow some who have passed on, such a Giger or co-writer Dan O’Bannon, to be a part of the process, while others who worked with them also give us more insights into how those creators shaped their work, from early drafts, O’Bannon;s work with Carpenter on Dark Star and even his time with Giger on the Jodorowsky attempt to film Dune, all filtering into the eventual ideas in conjunction with the other film-makers.

As you may expect O’Bannon gets a lot of the running time here, as the original story creator, and we hear from his widow and from Shusett about “Star Beast” and how he knew he had something but he just couldn’t get past page 29 on the script, so Shusett pitched in, and the now-famous chestbuster scene was born. This scene, understandably, also takes a fair amount of the running time here – everyone involved, from the early drafts of the script (studio execs not being overly impressed until hitting that scene and experiencing their WTF moment) through to setting up of the actual scene, the puppet, the effects and filming it, they all knew this was where the film would live or die. It may now be one of the most well-known and important scenes in film history, but they had no way of knowing that when crafting that moment, and it is truly fascinating just how much went into its creation, from so many people.


(above, the now iconic chestbuster scene from Alien, below some early concept sketches for the scene, bottom: writer Dan O’Bannon on the Nostromo set)

And as for that iconic scene, so too for the whole film – Memory rather deftly tugs on the many different strands that went into the making of what we saw on the big screen, from childhood reading habits to art influences, to friendships or arguments that opened some doors or pointed people towards others. Of course all films are a gestalt entity – too often the director and the stars are the only ones focused on by the media, but those of us who love cinema are very aware of the huge amount of talents that go into the making of any film, and Memory beautifully, warmly. and with great respect for the creative process, shows how all those individuals, with all of their own histories and ideas and influences, work together to craft a feature film, in this case one that is now forty years old and assured of its place in cinematic history.

The EIFF screening also boasted a short post-show Q&A with producer Annick Mahnert who has worked with Phillippe before (he often uses a lot of the same team), and it was interesting to hear one of the team talk about how they brought together so many different strands of influences and people’s recollections to put together Memory, and she also let us know that their next film, which is mostly shot already but is now going into editing, will be about William Friedkin and the Exorcist, so I shall look forward to that.

Oh, and in case you are wondering, the “Memory” title comes from a very early version of the story by O’Bannon.

Picturing the Year

As another year ends time to have a look back through my now enormous Flickr photo stream (now well north of 17, 000 pictures) and pick out some of the favourite shots I managed to take during 2018:

Misty evening in Edinburgh – handheld shot walking home one night, amazed it came out:

Misty Evening 06

This poor chap was a rough sleeper, he had set up a small camp bed in Greyfriars kirkyard, his belongings in bags under a nearby tombstone, just a few feet away from the groups of passing tourists exploring the historic church and graveyard:

sleeping among the dead 01

Autumn but still some bursts of bright natural colours – this close-up was snapped in September in Greyfriars kirkyard, a bloom among the tombstones…

last colours of summer blooms among the tombstones

Another macro shot, playing with the close up facility on the camera, these autumnal berries and leaves came out quite nicely, I thought:

Autumn in the Colzium 09

Taken the same day in the Colzium at Kilsyth, these gorgeously coloured autumn leaves:

Autumn in the Colzium 03

Lady enjoying a burst of warm sunshine on an autumn day:

Calton Hill on an autumn day 06

The Church of Scotland Assembly Building on the Mound, at Blue Hour:

Church of Scotland Assembly Building, autumn evening 01

National Gallery of Scotland at dusk:

The Mound, autumn evening 05

Union Canal at Blue Hour:

Union Canal, autumn evening 01

The recently refurbished McEwan Hall at night:

Bristo Square at night 04

The brightly painted Victoria Street on a damp evening:

Victoria Street on a wet winter night 01

The photographer photographed:

The Photographer

Lovely young Fringe performer kindly posing for me on the Royal Mile during the festival:

Fringe on the Mile 2018 0121

Really pleased with how this came out for a quick street portrait, taken of a Fringe performer on the Royal Mile. It went onto Flickr’s Explore page, so the views for it went crazy, several thousand views in just a few hours:

Fringe on the Mile 2018 036

My chum Darryl Cunningham paid a return visit to the Edinburgh International Book Festival:

Edinburgh International Book Festival 2018 - Darryl Cunningham 02

Relaxing in Charlotte Square during the Book Festival:

Edinburgh International Book Festival 2018 - Charlotte Square 02

Selfies on the Mile:

Sunny Smiling Selfie Stick Shot

One of the young animators at the McLaren Animation awards during the Edinburgh International Film Festival:

Edinburgh International Film Festival 2018 - McLaren Animation 015

Mike Zahs (with the beard) talking after the film festival screening of Saving Brinton, which is one of my favourite movies of the year:

Edinburgh International Film Festival 2018 - Saving Brinton 02

Russell Jones reading some of his poetry at the regular Event Horizon evening held most months by the Shoreline of Infinity journal in Edinburgh:

Event Horizon June 2018 018

Some shots from the Processions parade which marked a century since parliament gave (some) women the vote. I took a bunch of photos that day, lovely atmosphere, but these two were my favourites, came out quite well for improvised street portraits taken as they parade walked by:

Processions Edinburgh 2018 051

Processions Edinburgh 2018 019

Found a nest of fluffy wonders: I’d seen a couple of swans with their new baby cygnets on the Union Canal, then a few days later found their nest among reeds by the canal side, the babies sleeping inside while the parent swans kept a watchful eye nearby. The little wonders you can find just walking home from work…

Nest of wonderfulness 03

On a warm spring day, down by Musselburgh harbour, these two little scamps had climbed along the wall – they were pretty high up, and I think their parents would have a fit when they noticed how high they had gone!

Wall scaling monkeys

Same hot spring day, some kids enjoying themselves in the sea just off Portobello Beach, caught the moment just as one jumped from his boat:

fun on the water 012

Woman enjoying the spring weather, changing the music on her phone as she sits in the outdoor cafe in Princes Street Gardens, the sun dappled by the trees creating a nice mix of light and shade that drew me to frame it like this:

changing her tunes

Spring blossoms:

spring petals 02

Enjoying some fine spring weather by the floating cafe on the Union Canal, climbed up on the nearby old Leamington Lift Bridge to get this overhead angle:

cafe on the canal 02

Avengers Assemble!! Cosplayers at the comic con at Easter, these guys were friends of my chum, they had been out earlier in their costumes having their photos taken in some of the Edinburgh locations used in the Avengers: Infinity War movie:

Edinburgh Comic Con 2018 036

Family of cosplayers at the comic con!

Edinburgh Comic Con 2018 014

2000 AD veteran artist Colin MacNeil with Indy comics publisher and creator Colin Mathieson at the Edinburgh comic con:

Edinburgh Comic Con 2018 05

Winter’s night in Saint Andrew Square:

Saint Andrew Square, winter night 04

coffee after dark 01

Crossing North Bridge on an icy, snowy, windy winter’s day:

winter's night 01

Browsing for vinyl at the music stall in the street market:

street market, spring day 06

We were hit by seriously heavy snow storms in March, for only the second time in the decades I’ve lived here the buses stopped running even in the city centre. I ventured out to take a few photos, this was a nearby cemetery – my coat was white by this point from the heavy snowflakes being blown by strong wind, so I snapped a couple of pics then retreated home to the fireside!

Boneyard in the snow 07

More snow, this time on the Royal Mile:

Snowy Edinburgh 08

This was part of the Lumen light art installations, several different pieces that came on between dusk and dawn during the winter nights, brightening up the darkness. This was my favourite of the installation, the strings of light hanging down as ambient music played, you walked through them and let the lights sway around you, it was delightful and magical on a dark, winter’s night:

Edinburgh Lumen 03

This year was the Muriel Spark centenary, and it started with these projections onto the National Library of Scotland:

Muriel Spark Centenary 04

Princess Leia cosplayer and Wonder Woman at the Capital Sci-Fi Con:

Capital Sci-Fi Con 2018 022

Capital Sci-Fi Con 2018 018

Blue Hour on the Royal Mile back in January, sun set but this last smidgen of blue in the western sky, my favourite time of day:

Royal Mile at Blue Hour, winter's night 01

View over Edinburgh from North Bridge on Burns Night:

Edinburgh on Burns Night

The low winter sun bathing the lighthouse on the mighty Bass Rock last January:

Bass Rock at the end of a winter's day 02

Each January the National Gallery of Scotland shows their Turner collection (a gift to the nation years ago on the condition they be shown in winter when the light suits them best), I try to go along each year to see them again. As I came out the early winter night had fallen and the Mound by the galleries was icy:

The Mound on a wintry evening

New Year’s Resurrection – this short story by acclaimed Scots writer Val McDermid was projected onto buildings like the Signet Library at the very start of the year:

New Year's Resurrection 01

High school, zombies & musicals: Anna and the Apocalypse

Anna and the Apocalypse,
Directed by John McPhail,
Starring Ella Hunt, Malcolm Cumming, Sarah Swire, Christopher Leveaux, Ben Wiggins, Marli Siu

High school. Zombies. Hard to tell sometimes which is more horrific. Add Christmas concert, overbearingly strict new headmaster, boyfriend troubles, arguments with parents, worrying about what you’ll do with your future plus a zombie apocalypse and set much of it to music and you have Anna and the Apocalypse.

I’m sure I’m not alone in loving Once More, With Feeling, the musical episode of Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer; it was one of those episodes that, on paper, sounded like a terrible idea that would fall flat, but actually it was enormous fun and also moved on the story arc and character developments. There’s a lot of Once More, With Feeling in Anna’s DNA, and a touch of those wickedly satirical musical episodes of South Park too, I think (indeed the opening credits are animated and have a slight similarity to South Park’s style). Here, while the young cast (sensibly) play it all straight, it’s also clear the film-makers are having a huge amount of fun taking the American style high school musical, populated by teens with whiter than white teeth who love in sunny, Californian towns and royally taking the mickey out of them.

The sight of a bunch of Scottish school kids and staff in a wee town near Glasgow bursting into this very US style (complete with teachers and even the dinner ladies dancing) is side-splitting, while lyrics like “not a Hollywood ending” further satirise the American musicals and teen comedies Anna riffs on (although not in a nasty way, you get the impression they like laughing at them but still like them). And as one character comments when the action starts, this sort of thing happens in other countries, not in a wee town in Scotland, and that is part of the fun here.

We have the Usual Suspects – Anna (Ella Hunt) is a gifted, smart, intelligent girl, approaching the end of school and scared to tell her father she’s going travelling before she applies to university (he is over protective after losing his wife), her friends John (Malcolm Canning), Steph (Sarah Swire), Chris (Christopher Leveaux), Nick (Ben Wiggins) and Lisa (Marli Siu). The kooky, daft but loveable one, the “best friend” who is so obviously totally in love with her, the geeky one, the obsessive, intense one, the trying to be a hard-man jock but masking inner feelings one, and naturally a nasty headmaster (Paul Kaye) who would probably have enjoyed teaching at Sunnydale High, the sort of headmaster who clearly hates kids and resents that they may grow up to have a happier life than he has had.

Anna and the Apocalypse takes all of these generic elements but filters them through a small, west-coast Scottish town sensibility, and that’s funny in itself seeing such very American stylings done in a wee Scots school as they prepare for the annual Christmas concert (especially slightly ditzy but delightful Lisa, who plans a somewhat more risque number than she told the headmaster she’d perform). And then, wouldn’t you know it, the zombie apocalypse happens. And at first Anna, John and the others don’t quite notice. Heading out of her house, walking down the rainy winter street Anna is singing and dancing, earphones plugged in, while behind her neighbours flee from their homes pursued by the undead, fires burn, cars lie crashed and she’s oblivious with her phone, singing and dancing away, until she bumps into John dancing and singing his way to school, they duet and, of course, that is the moment a zombie in a snowman costume attacks them (hey, we’ve all been there).

After that it is the quest for survival, Anna and John finding some other friends along the way, trying to sneak across their town to school to find their other friends and families, and because authorities have issued emergency alerts saying the school will be the evacuation point for the town. And as with all such films, it’s a guessing game as to which characters are going to make it, which are going to end up becoming finger food for the ravenous undead who are rapidly over-running their town. And again while this takes the well-known generic tropes, it does so with such a knowing nod and wink – these people are fans and they are in on the joke, they know we are in on the joke and, to be honest, the young cast are so damned likeable that you buy into it happily. Of course the flipside of that is that you know not all the characters you come to love are going to make it. But they may go out with a song!

Edinburgh International Film Festival 2018 - Anna and the Apocalypse 02
(a very happy director: John McPhail talking to the late night film festival audience before Anna and the Apocalypse screened in the Edinburgh Filmhouse)
Edinburgh International Film Festival 2018 - Anna and the Apocalypse 03

This was my final movie of the 2018 Edinburgh International Film Festival, part of the late night strand the EIFF does each year (and don’t horrors suit the late night slot?). Director John McPhail and many of the cast and crew were at the screening, and clearly extremely excited and buzzed to bring their Indy Scottish film to the country’s most famous film festival. As a very delighted John McPhail told the audience, this is their home-town showing, screening to a Scottish audience, and the pleasure and excitement he and the others showed in being allowed to make this film then get to screen it at a packed festival showing was infectious. The festival audience didn’t just laugh at the humour or wince at the (deliberately) OTT violence (very cartoony), the whooped and hollered and clapped along to the musical numbers, it was almost like being at a Rocky Horror screening, and that made it ten times more fun (the festival crowd was also treated to a special sing-a-long segment after the screening).

This is gleeful film-making, loving but also happy to play with the generic tropes of horror, teen drama and musicals, and has future cult film written all over it. Best seen with a group of friends.

McLaren Animation at the Edinburgh Film Festival

I always make a special point of attending the two McLaren short animation strands at the Edinburgh International Film Festival each year. BBC2 and Channel 4 used to have animation seasons, but that’s something that seems to have fallen mostly by the wayside these days (despite each now having multiple digital channels) and the days of a wee short before the feature film in cinemas is long gone, which, for me anyway, makes it more important to support and celebrate when we get to see short animation being highlighted, especially when it is being shown on a cinema screen. We have some remarkable young animation talent in the UK, and this and other festivals are a chance for them to shine, to effectively show their portfolio in order to try and secure more work (be it with an animation house on a film or the bread and butter of music videos, ads etc which help pay the bills) or compete for scarce funding.

Each year the McLarens always impress me with the range of material on offer, both in terms of method (from slick CG animation to traditional hand-drawn or stop-motion work and all sorts in-between), and subject matter (some are funny, some are political, some are biographical, some bring a lump to the throat). This year was no exception. Given the two screenings took in over twenty short works I am not going to go into each and everyone that was shown, but I will pick out some of those that made an impact on me, personally.

Sam Gainsborough’s Facing It was a pretty unusual-looking piece, mixing live action actors with claymation faces overlayed on their heads, producing a strong visual style for the piece. A young man waits for others at a table in a busy pub; he clearly wishes to reach out and be a part of the buzz of vibrant, lively conversation and life goign on all around him, some even invite him to join them, but his crippling shyness halts him, his claymation face morphing, a hand literally growing out of it to clamp around his mouth as he tries to speak to a stranger, while flashbacks show childhood events with his parents which shaped this isolation and nervousness. While most of us don’t suffer from such an extreme I think we have all had moments where we need to interact with strangers or a group and have that anxiety moment before we do. The plasticine animated faces over the live actors works very well, allowing for a range of emotional expression way beyond what even the most facially gifted actor could give; it’s a lovely example of one of those things animation can do so well, using a few simple visual signifiers to show the internal emotions of a character so clearly.

FACING IT – TEASER TRAILER from Sam Gainsborough on Vimeo.

Ian Bruce’s Double Portrait splits the screen into two hand-painted images, changing and coming to life before our eyes, telling the story of a woman, Geraldine, and her first love, of how it all seems so straightforward to them when younger, but how life changed them, parted them, brought them together again. It’s beautifully illustrated with Bruce’s painting, giving a warm feel as we move through their lives across the decades. Jonathan Hodgson’s Roughhouse, a traditionally-drawn animation, tells of a group of pals, friends since childhood, marked by a moment of rough play with a pet that ended badly, later growing up, going away to college, meeting a new flat-mate and settling into student life (complete with messy flat). It’s actually quite a brave film, I think – Hodgson gives us characters who are often not very likeable, and the roughest of them all, the one who never pitches in for the rent but can always pay for drink, seems the least likeable of the group, but Hodgson carefully shows us that under laddish, unthinking jokes and “banter” and bravado there are feelings and even the seemingly strongest and toughest can suddenly crack. It’s a good reminder that under it all everyone is human.

Roughhouse Trailer from Jonathan Hodgson on Vimeo.

Maryam Mohajer’s Red Dress, No Straps draws on some of her Iranian background, with a very young girl living during the era of the Iranian revolution and the awful Iran-Iraq war which lead to scenes reminiscent of the First World War. At home with her grandparents, grandma indulging her beloved grand-daughter by making her a dress like her favourite US pop star seen in a magazine (that has to be hidden from the religious authorities who are busy teaching her and other kids to shout “death to America” each day at school). A red dress, strapless. Meanwhile they have to worry about bombing raids on civilian targets during the war, but she tells us Saddam is not very good at this and they are all okay. It’s a lovely, warm piece evoking a strong feeling of family that any of us can identify with, but despite what she says, everything is not okay, and this is a film that left me with a lump in my throat.

Red dress. No straps. trailer from maryam mohajer on Vimeo.

Lucia Bulgheroni’s Inanimate proved to be my favourite from all the films shown in both McLaren screenings. I love all form of animation, but I have a special soft spot for traditional stop-motion animation. There’s something for me that is truly magical about knowing that everything you see on the screen there has been built by hand, from the characters and their clothes to the tiny sets, furniture, right down to coffee cups, then, through a painstaking alchemy, enchanted into life, one frame at a time, hours, sometimes days to capture a few brief seconds of movement. In Inanimate Katrine is leading her normal life – work, home, shopping, boyfriend. And then things seem to go wrong, to be disconnected, she is doing one thing and suddenly, woosh, she’s rushed from home and finds herself at work with no in-between, then somewhere else and somewhere else. She panics, is she losing her mind, having blackouts?

And then see starts to see the world around her differently, it starts to seem unreal to her, and soon so do the people and then, most terrifyingly, her own body. Her skin looks fake, it peels back and she sees the metal armature of a stop-motion puppet below. She isn’t real. Around her she is suddenly aware of huge figure, flickering at a speed that leaves them almost invisible, changing things around her world and other little worlds nearby. She’s a puppet who has somehow become aware, seen behind the scenes of her little reality, seen the strings and the puppet master. It’s both a story about how we all invent our own little realities to cope, to understand, to get through life, but are often aware there is more, just beyond the edge of our vision, and at the same time it is an ode to the laborious art of stop-motion, those long, long hours to create tiny moments of life in inanimate objects are, from her point of view, fleetingly fast.

It reminded me of Tom Moody at the McLarens a couple of years back, talking about working with found objects which he turns into characters, then brings to life with stop-motion. Tom he talked about the sadness which went with the joy of animation, joy at making something, but the sadness that after all the care to bring these creations to life they only had those few, brief moments of that life, then they would go on the shelves with older creations, never to move again, a rapid, Mayfly experience of the world. I suppose there’s probably a lesson about life in there, somewhere.

Space doesn’t really permit me to go into all the other works, but I must mention Sinem Vardarli and Luca Schenato’s (very long-titled!) The Brave Heart or (The Day we Enabled the Sleepwalking Protocol), which, like the old Numbskulls Brit comic or Pixar’s Inside Out it took us inside the body, with various organs such as the Heart and Brain, carrying out their tasks (or not), in the face of a booze, smoking and fast food blow out (very clever, very funny and rather dirty, especially when this all leads to an emergency “blockage” which I shall not describe here!). Stephanie Hunt’s Marfa took us around an odd wee Texas town, from local bands to local characters and gave a lovely flavour of life in a remote small town.

“The brave Heart” or ( The day we enabled the sleepwalking protocol ) Trailer from Luca&Sinem on Vimeo.

Ben Steer’s Mamoon had a mother and child, shadow figures projected onto polystyrene buildings, pursued by dark shadows – as the light fades so too do the shadows which it projects, which means doom, and the shadow figure mother desperately tries to save her child, while Daniel Prince’s Invaders uses very polished CG animation to bring to life three tiny flying saucers, exploring a human home on Christmas Eve, the smaller one unsure of his place with the larger two, trying to prove himself. There was a strong 80s vibe to Invaders, I thought, and Prince confirmed this in the subsequent Q&A, noting 80s Spielberg and most notably Batteries Not Included as influences. Simon P Biggs’ Widdershins was a delightful tale of a Steampunk, quasi-Victorian future of clockwork and steam automata making everything so perfect our character can’t stand it anymore, and falls for a daring young woman who challenges the system. I also loved it because “widdershins” is such a lovely word and we rarely get to use it…

Mamoon Teaser from Blue Zoo on Vimeo.

In the post-screening Q&As with a number of the animators one of the subjects raised was trying to get funding for short film work, and how much harder it had become. Adding to that, as to many other projects, was the looming spectre of Brexit. The animation director for the festival spoke about manning the British stall at the famous Annecy animation festival and remarked it was “tumbleweed” for them. With so much uncertainty nobody wanted to invest in UK productions or take on distribution. In fact he commented that those from outside Europe were being more actively courted by European partners than the UK team. Jonathan Hodgson told us how he could not get any funding from any UK company or arts organisation, but eventually a French one did agree to help, and he, like others, wondered if that avenue was now being closed to them, a question many in various arts disciplines (and science and business) are asking? This is not the place for a political discussion, of course, but equally it would be remiss not to note the worry of film-makers and others about how opportunities for co-operation, distribution and funding for their future work will be affected, and at the moment none of them have any real answers as to how they will be affected, and I’m sure that is a worry being discussed across the UK film industry.

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(some of the animators doing Q&A sessions in the Filmhouse, post screening of this year’s McLaren Animation strands at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, pics from my Flickr)
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It was another great crop of inventive, often emotional, sometimes funny, sometimes touching short film-making by all sorts of different women and men working in different methods and styles to bring still objects and art into flickering life. Often I will see some of the McLaren animators figure months later in the short animation categories for BAFTA and Oscar, and fingers crossed some from this year’s crop will have that success too. Props again to the film festival for continuing to support the McLarens (named for iconic Scots-Canadian animator Norman McLaren, an alumni of the famous Glasgow School of Art which was in the news for the saddest of reasons recently), because it is a chance for these film-makers to have their work seen by an audience (and it is the audience who comes along to support them who get to vote on the award) and by the wider industry, a chance for them to be noticed by possible future employers and collaborators, and we need that kind of encouragement and celebration of creative work in all levels of our film-making if we still want to have such creators in years to come.