Reviews: Lovely, Dark and Deep

Lovely, Dark and Deep,
Directed by Teresa Sutherland,
Starring Georgina Campbell, Nick Blood, Wai Ching Ho

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.”
(Stopping by Woods on a Winter Evening, Robert Frost)

The directorial debut of Teresa Sutherland, who, among other things, was the writer on the excellent Western chiller The Wind (which I reviewed after it’s Edinburgh Film Festival screening in 2019 – see here), drawing inspiration from the Robert Frost poem quoted above, this is an intriguing, slow-burning horror which crafts an increasing atmosphere of unease right from the start. We have beautifully filmed landscapes of the vast American wilderness filling the screen, but soon that alluring wonder of nature starts to transform into something else, just with the simple device of changing angles, to something less normal, less natural.

Lennon (Georgina Campbell) is a newly-minted park ranger, on her way to her first posting, something she has fought for a long time to earn. As she drives through the countryside to a national park to take up her duties, she stops the car on the isolated road for a moment, noticing a cut in her fingertip (from a nervous habit of chewing on her nails). When she looks up, she realises a young deer has wandered onto the road. It raises its head curiously, looking through the windscreen at her, its eyes seeming unnaturally dark. Her car radio suddenly lets out a shriek of feedback, static and garbled voices, startling her. When she looks back up, the deer has vanished.

On arriving at the headquarters, she and the other rangers are briefed by their chief, Zhang (Wai Ching Ho), before being helicoptered out to their remote locations, each given a territory of the enormous national park to patrol, with a Spartan hut (without even electricity). She’s soon settled in, and out on her rounds, checking sites, there for any hikers who need help. On one of her walks her radio starts to play up, at one point it makes static noises very much like her car radio did earlier – despite the fact she had just taken the batteries out to check them…

 

She has to put this to the back of her mind, however, when a distraught hiker batters on the door of her hut for help, before fleeing into the dark of the night-time forest; on catching up to him she finds he is in a disturbed sense of mind, seeking his friend who vanished from their camp. She calls in the other rangers and a large-scale search and rescue operation swings into action. Lennon, with a foot injured while pursuing the distraught man earlier, is ordered to stay at her camp in case the lost person comes there, while the others go off, but she disobeys this order, and in the process finds the woman, who is in a strange state, asking Lennon if she is real.

At this point it starts to become even darker and more bizarre – I don’t want to spoil any of that here, the build-up to that point does an excellent job of introducing Lennon (and hinting that she has deeply personal reasons for wanting this job – she lost her younger sister in just such a forest long ago) and setting up her post, as well as casually mentioning that a large number of people go missing in national parks each year (a normal bit of data, but here it gives you a little shiver, because you know it is going to be related to something in the film, eventually).

As with The Wind, there’s a strong element of “is there something supernatural, or is it all in her head?” about Lovely, Dark and Deep, which I liked (I think later it comes down more on one side of that than the other, though), and then there are hints of ancient folklore and that there is some secret here, one the rangers may even be aware of, but how are they connected to it, what role do they play?

While there are small but excellent turns from others such as Ho as her boss, or Blood as a fellow ranger near her territory, the vast bulk of this movie rests on Campbell’s shoulders, and she does a great job, managing to convey someone who can be organised and efficient and confident, as you’d expect a trained ranger to be, but at the same time nervous, eaten by memories of her sister’s disappearance years before and also sensing there is more in the woods than any training can prepare her for. An excellent, moody, atmospheric, psychological flick, with elements of the folk-horror about it too, perhaps even a tiny nod to Parisian-set horror As Above, So Below and even a little touch of some of the wilderness-set X-Files tales .

Lovely, Dark and Deep is available on streaming services from Blue Finch from March 25th

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Reviews: Do Not Expect Too Much From the End of the World

Do Not Expect Too Much From The End Of The World,
Directed by Radu Jude,
Starring Ilinca Manolache, Nina Hoss, Uwe Boll, László Miske, Dorina Lazar

The Golden Bear award-winning Radu Jude returns with an incredibly ambitious – not to mention lengthy, at a hefty two hours and forty three minutes – piece, which happily pays homage and also subverts elements of Goddard and the French New Wave with very modern, of-the-moment elements (not least digital tech, online social media) and filters it all through the appalling, endless grind of trying to make ends meet in the gig economy, cross-cut frequently with vintage film from the early 1980s of a woman taxi driver (a rarity back then), who share both a name – Angela – with our protagonist (played by Ilinca Manolache, who carries so much of this film) and, despite the decades between them, also share many similarities in their life and work demands.

Modern-day Angela is filmed mostly in her car, constantly driving from one task to the next for her wealthy employers (who naturally expect her to work incredibly long hours for a pittance, while they make far more money themselves), and the camera work here lends an almost video-blogging aspect to the film, as if the many scenes of a tired, grumpy Angela endlessly driving from job to job start to look like they should be part of her social media. Meanwhile she uses digital filters to appear as a bald-headed, mono-browed joke of a man, the sort who worships misogynistic hate-mongers like Tate (who she references in this persona), which she intends as a sort of joke, but which obviously also allow the put-upon Angela to indulge in some much-needed angry venting, and perhaps also a way of purging some of that same bigotry she encounters herself in her daily grind. That she’s running from job to job to record interviews with workers for a multi-national company who were injured in the job (for a work safety film!), while she herself is so overworked she falls asleep at the wheel, just adds to a relentless sense of a treadmill and little changing for most people, always at the mercy of the whims of the rich and powerful employers.

Jude employs an incredible array of visual styles and flourishes – from a sharply contrasted, documentary black and white to the washed out colours of older film stock for the 1980s Angela, to the artificial filters of the social media segments, making great use of cuts and jumps, but also unafraid to sometimes lock the camera into one view for a very long scene (one of the injured workers telling his story, then again, then again, multiple takes so the company can then edit his words to suit themselves, not the truth), making it a visual smorgasbord of cinema and modern multimedia.

It’s often in your face, rude and crude in places, and the feeling that between the 1980s and modern-day Angela’s world very little has changed, that if anything life has just become grimmer and harder for many more can be overwhelming (especially given the very long running time), yet it is leavened with a lot of dark humour and satire. In some places it is examining the way a lot of people have to live and work now, holding up a mirror in a way many social-realist directors would recognise, but in other moments it is holding up a dark, twisted, Funhouse distorting mirror, as much satire as it is commentary. It’s clearly not a movie for everyone, but many cinephiles will find this highly unusual and fascinating work.

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Reviews: animation & artistic creation collide in Stopmotion

Stopmotion,
Directed by Robert Morgan,
Starring Aisling Franciosi, Stella Gonet, Tom York, Caoilinn Springall, James Swanton

I have been eager to see this film since Phil posted the trailer here on LFF; a lifelong love of animation (especially stop-motion work), and of horror, this film was calling to me. I’m delighted to report that I was not disappointed – this is one of the more unusual British horrors of recent years, delving into psychology, family ties versus our own urge to create our own path, and the lengths an artist will go to when creating something. Just how much of yourself can you pour into your creation without endangering your sense of self and the real world around you?

Ella (Aisling Franciosi) is a young animation artist, but instead of forging her own path, she’s spinning her wheels, helping her mother Suzanne (Stella Gonet) with her work. Her mother is a revered figure in the world of animated film – one friend comments how her work was required viewing at art college – but age and progressive illness have robbed her hands of their once finely tuned skills, so Ella is effectively now her hands, painstakingly setting up each frame of her mother’s final stop-motion film, millimetre by millimetre.

It’s work which requires a huge investment of time and attention, time she should be spending carving out her own artistic identity and work (as it opens the two women are even dressed alike), so Ella is chafing, and it doesn’t help that her mother is overbearing and seems quite uncaring about the demands she is making on her daughter, which increases her resentment. Interestingly Franciosi and Morgan opted to show this simmering resentment not through explosive anger, but through a far more nuanced and subtle performance. Just like the demanding art she works at,

Ella is good at keeping herself relatively still, emotionally as well as physical, instead allowing only small changes in expression and body language to hint as the growing tempest within her; it’s a damned fine bit of acting craft on her part. When illness puts her mother in the hospital, at first Ella considers finishing her film for her, but she really wants to create her own, and realises this is her chance at last. Her boyfriend arranges for her to borrow an empty apartment in an almost deserted block of flats to use as a nice, quiet studio space, and she sets herself up to… Realise that now she has the time, she’s not sure what story she wants to tell (I’m sure many of us who have created works have experienced that phenomenon, our best ideas seem to come when we don’t have time to work on them!).

It’s at this point she meets the only other person she ever seems to see in the building, Caoilinn Springall’s unnamed young girl, who with a child’s curiosity asks what she is doing and if she can look. And with that lack of filters that kids have she is quite blunt in telling Ella that her ideas aren’t good, and instead proposing some story ideas of her own. Slowly she starts to make a new story, a quite disturbing-looking one, about the figure of a woman in fear, fleeing through a forest, being pursued by a slow but relentless being, the Ash Man.

As the girl encourages her not just to change the story, but to start using, shall we say “unusual” material for creations, including raw meat, or organic items instead of the usual metal armature skeleton inside her figures. And it is at this point that Ella’s imagination and work and the real world start to overlap one another – the stress and resentment of looking after her ailing mother, of carrying out work for an ungrateful person, of feeling her own life has been left behind, finally starts to seep out from this seemingly quiet, centred woman.

This is a beautifully made film, and it is quite clear Morgan and his crew have gone to great lengths to craft each scene to be just so. Even at the opening of the film this is obvious – we see Ella in a nightclub, lit by flickering strobe lights, their periodic bursts making the dancers around her appear to be almost stop-motion figures themselves, while with each flash of the strobes Ella’s facial expressions change. It was a statement of intent made right at the start of the film, and one I felt they adhered to throughout.

It’s delightfully disturbing and unsettling viewing, the psychological elements, the stop-motion moments, the clever cinematography and use of sound and music (the soundscape is superb and compliments the visuals perfectly) all work together, while the creepy nature of inert items being brought to life is mined well, making nods to creators like the great Jan Švankmajer (“Prague’s alchemist of film”) and the Brothers Quay among others. Slowly building horror, disturbing, atmospheric, visually and aurally beautiful, this one is highly recommended.

Stopmotion from IFC is released in cinemas from February 23d, and on streaming from March 15th

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Reviews: seaside terror in Punch

Punch,
Directed by Andy Edwards,
Starring Kierston Wareing, Alina Alison, Daniel Fathers, Jamie Lomas, Faye Campbell, Macaulay Cooper, Sarah Alexander Marks

That’s the way to do it!

The slasher sub-genre, like the found-footage one, is one I rarely visit much these days – not because I don’t like them, but more because for the most part they feel pretty played out these days. Every now and then though, someone does something a bit different, and when I heard about Punch, it got my attention – British slasher, for a starter, and using the iconic Mr Punch character? Oh, and it went down well with the FrightFest crowd? Oh yes, I was totally having a look at that!

Andy Edwards and his cinematographer, Max Williams, deserve kudos straight off for making the most of their location here, shot around Hastings. And yes, of course while Punch and Judy shows have been performed everywhere, including markets and fairs in towns and cities, today most of us associate it with the British seaside, and probably, if honest, the fading British seaside, a generations-old act that somehow kept going into the fairly recent era, but was always fading away (even when I was a kid many years ago, it was already something you saw far less than you used to).

And that fits this film perfectly, because this is the British seaside town out of season, when it is quiet, many of the businesses literally boarded up until the next summer season and the return of the tourists and day-trippers (which seem even less each year as the once popular seaside holiday is swapped for affordable foreign trips). Edwards and Williams really make the most out of this feeling of semi-abandonment, taking in garish, colourful signs for amusements and food places, most of which are closed for the off-season, their bright signage now more like mockery of a small town that, outside the summer, has little left to offer, especially for the local younger folk.

And after dark it all seems worse, not just run-down, but creepy – if you’ve ever walked through a funfair as they are switching off all the lights at the end of the night, you will recognise that feeling, where something that was bright and cheerful becomes creepy and scary. Then add in to that the unsettling figure of Mr Punch, who, despite being sometimes being seen as children’s seaside entertainment, is (and always has been, really) also a downright creepy and potentially scary figure himself…

Frankie (Alina Allison) is reluctantly back home, forced to take time off from her university studies to take care of her mother (Kierston Wareing), a mother who seems less than grateful her daughter came back home to look after her, and downright hostile to the thought she will soon leave again – you can feel the resentment bubbling through. Frankie finds more of that around some of her old friends in the town as she and her best friend Holly (Faye Campbell), and later her ex, Darrell (Macaulay Cooper), reluctantly drawn into their social circle, head out for a good time. While some are happy to see her back, there’s an obvious air of resentment from others – she made it out, made it to somewhere else, somewhere better, away from this dead-end with no prospects.

They’re reminded of an old local story about a killer in a Punch mask who is said to attack wayward youths (in the finest Slasher tradition, our killer especially hates youthful character who are having fun like drink, dancing, and sex). They all pretty much dismiss it as an obvious scare story told by parents to put teens and twentysomethings off of misbehaving at night, but we get glimpses of fading “missing” posters on the closed pier and seafront businesses (a nice nod to the missing posters in Lost Boys), and naturally there is a raving lunatic character around the town who delights in telling the kids how the killer will hunt them down. It’s all a silly, old story… Until the killings start…

As the Punch character appears, starting by picking off side character before slowly moving towards out core group of characters, the tension and creepy levels mount, and again the use of the location and season work well (an extended chase on a now empty pier at night, all the noisy lights of the amusement arcade playing to nobody except the victims and the killer make for an eerie setting). I should probably amend “slasher” to “basher” here, though, as the choice of weapon is a baseball bat! And to be fair, Mr Punch is known for walloping people, so that makes sense!

The mask and that creepy Punch voice add to the unease, and the film even drops in scenes which help explain how the killer (relentless but always slower than the running victims) manages to always catch up to them and find them (which was a nice wee touch, some movies don’t bother with that), and then, on top of the actual slasher (or basher) serial killing, the film also starts to infuse a touch of British Folk Horror into the proceedings – yes, this is a relentless man-in-a-mask killer, stalking youthful victims, but there’s more going on here, drawing on both the mythos of the Punch act and old traditions to add that frisson of folk element to the proceedings, which for me really added to the film.

It’s fun to see someone take the old slasher genre and give it a fresh twist, and for me especially fun to have it be a British location for a change (I know slashers can be set anywhere, but most of the really big ones that spring to mind are mostly US-set), and adding in the possible tradition/folkloric element of this unusual and unique (and often as creepy as he is entertaining) character like Mr Punch just gives more depth to the film, while the good use of those closed-up, out of season seafront locations imparts a distinct style and atmosphere to the whole film. I really wouldn’t be surprised to see another Punch follow this one.

Punch is released by Miracle Media via On Demand services from January 22nd.

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

French film festival: Anatomy of a Fall

French Film Festival 2023: Anatomy of a Fall / Anatomie d’une chute,
Directed by Justine Triet.
Starring Sandra Hüller, Swann Arlaud, Milo Machado-Graner, Antoine Reinartz, Samuel Theis, Jehnny Beth

The first movie I caught at this year’s annual French Film Festival (taking place in multiple cities around the UK this month) was Anatomy of a Fall, which bagged director and co-writer Justine Triet the coveted Palme D’or at Cannes (making her only the third female director to win the award, which is not a good look for Cannes, but that’s another story). At first glance you may assume this to be a fairly standard courtroom thriller / whodunnit: a husband in a rocky marriage dies in mysterious circumstances, his wife was the only other person in their mountainside chalet near Grenoble. Was is accidental, a fall while repairing the house? A deliberate suicide? Or a rage-fuelled murder? The suspicions of the authorities fairly inevitably settle on the author wife, Sandra Voyter (Sandra Hüller), and a courtroom battle looms…

Except this does not go the way I thought it might, instead leading us into a far murkier emotional mess of a relationship, of accusations and regrets and arguments. The couple’s world had been upset when her husband, Samuel Maleski (Samuel Theis), busy with other projects (teaching, repairing the house they intended to rent out for more income, trying to get his own writing career going), neglects to pick up their son from school, asking a babysitter to do it at the last minute. Arriving late, the babysitter and their son Daniel (Milo Machado-Graner) are involved in a bad accident, the effects of which leaves the young boy only partially sighted, which leaves simmering resentments and guilt over blame.

Sandra turns to an old friend, Vincent Renzi (Swann Arlaud), who is now a lawyer, for help, as it is clear the police investigating the death do not believe it is an accident. With a prosecution looming, he starts interrogating her himself, trying to establish what could have happened, the state of the couple’s relationship, and bringing in his own forensics experts to counter those of the prosecution. Along the way this slowly drags every murky element of Sandra and Samuel’s life out into the unforgiving glare of the courtroom and public reporting, revealing aspects which do not paint her in the best light, giving ammunition to the prosecutor, who, lacking a smoking gun (so to speak), has to rely on these more circumstantial matters to convince the court of her guilt.

The courtroom drama, which in other hands may have been heavy-handed, or overly dramatic and over-played, here is handled deftly – despite what is going on, you feel sympathy for these characters, as every formerly private piece of their lives is pulled out and aired in public, being used by the prosecution or defence to pillory or defend them. It’s not hard to empathise at these points – even if we had done nothing, had nothing really bad to hide, which of us would want our most private moments with a partner or family or friends open to the scrutiny of total strangers, who will judge you on it? How easily could a heated argument between two people be taken by others later and used as “evidence” against them for other possible actions? How do you defend against that when it means having to tell of less than savoury moments by the other (now deceased) partner, does that make her look better or even worse?

Add in their young boy being dragged into this (he refuses the judge’s request not to be in the courtroom), having to hear all of these details of his parents and their unravelling life prior to his father’s death, and you have a very heady, emotional trip. And then there’s the matter of the audio recording Samuel made secretly when arguing with his wife…

Anatomy eschews the more usual flashback scenes you often get in these kind of films (save for one main scene, quite effectively handled, fading in as we hear the audio recording, then back out to the courtroom at a critical moment, leaving us only hearing the event with the jury, not seeing it, a powerful moment). Triet and Hüller make the brave decision to craft events and two lead characters who are simultaneously vulnerable, evoking sympathy, but at the same time also often quite unlikeable, clearly selfish, driven more by their own motivations and goals than being a couple or family, and this is sustained throughout. I think both deserve kudos for this – it’s no mean feat to give us characters like that, yet still make us emotionally invested in them, and it makes them dramatically more satisfying than a simpler good partner / bad partner dynamic.

It’s a two and a half hour film, but I never felt the length, it never felt like it was dragging, it remained compelling all the way through. A compelling and engrossing French film, deserving the attention it has rightly been receiving.

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Reviews: Mercy Falls

Mercy Falls,
Directed by Ryan Hendrick,
Starring Lauren Lyle, Nicolette McKeown, James Watterson, Layla Kirk, Joe Rising, Eoin Sweeney, Gilly Gilchrist

Rhona (Lauren Lyle) still deals with flashbacks to a childhood trauma in the Highlands, involving an injured horse and her father. Following his passing, she recruits several of her friends for a road trip north to the Scottish Highlands, with a plan to hike across the moors and glens until they find the old, family cabin, which her estranged father left to her. On the rural roads they pass a solitary female walker, Carla (Nicolette McKeown), trying to hitch a lift, who joins up with them where they have to leave the cars behind and set off on foot for a long hike to the cabin’s remote location.

The early, almost holiday-like feeling at the start of the hike soon starts to dissipate, as the group begin bickering, then some outright feuding with one another, with romantic and sexual tensions in particular rearing their ugly head, not helped by the interloper in their midst, Carla, who appears to be suffering from PTSD from the Afghanistan war. When these increasing tensions lead beyond arguing to a fight, an accident ensues, which becomes the pivot for the rest of the film, which descends into hunt, and a fight for survival.

I have to confess I had some problems with this film. On the positive side, I was pleased to see it didn’t go down the more predictable town folk get hunted by feral locals route, and instead took its own path, which I appreciated (nothing against the revenge of locals type story, but we have had plenty of those). And the cinematography is superb, with John Rhodes using the camera work to bring out the Scottish Highlands location for the best, with some amazing landscape and drone shots.

On the other hand the character’s infighting felt too forced, that it suddenly comes to a head when they are miles from the nearest town, in the middle of the isolated countryside, and it also suffers from that affliction of many such films, namely The Stupid Decisions Horror Characters Make. There are a couple here in particular, including an absolutely pivotal one, where I simply found it hard to believe that all of the characters would agree with a single other person (one they don’t even know well) that they should do something they all know is wrong, and go along with it so easily. It felt very much like they do something purely because the film-makers decided this was how to move to the next phase of the story, and not because it made any sense in terms of characters or logical narrative structure, and it really irked me.

That said, the hunt and evade segment of the story that it leads to is handled very well, even if you can predict how some of the inevitable deaths will come (again that Stupid Decisions Horror Characters Make, which usually leads to me shouting at the screen). Despite those niggles, this main part of the film proved to be good, ratcheting up the tension, and again making the most of the landscape and terrain to stage some significant moments, and I also liked the fact that much of the film is carried by two female leads (Lyle and McKeown). So a bit of a mixed bag, for me at least, but still a decent bit to interest the viewer, and worth a look.

Mercy Falls is out now on digital from Bingo Films

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Edinburgh International Film Festival – Raging Grace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Edinburgh International Film Festival – Animated Shorts Review

Edinburgh International Film Festival – Animated Shorts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Edinburgh International Film Festival – Art College 1994

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Edinburgh International Film Festival – Tokyo Pop

Edinburgh International Film Festival 2023 – Tokyo Pop,
Directed by Fran Rubel Kuzui,
Starring Carrie Hamilton, Diamond Yukai (aka Yutaka Tadokoro), Hiroshi Kobayashi, Hiroshi Sugita, Satoshi Kanai, Rome Kanda

The Edinburgh film fest usually includes some retrospectives of older films, as well as showcasing new work, and even with the very slimmed down festival we’re having this August (after us almost losing the festival last autumn, as we covered, I’m just grateful we have it at all, frankly) there was still room for some older gems, including this 1980s piece, which somehow I had never come across before.

Tokyo Pop, created in 1988, was the first directing gig for Fran Rubel Kuzui, who I am sure many of you will know for her association with Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, and Fran was at the festival, talking with the audience after the screening, explaining at one point how damned hard it was for a woman to become a Hollywood director back in the 80s, even on a small budget, Indy film (the gender ratio is still bad today, but back then, even worse).

It’s a deceptively simple story – an American woman, Wendy Reed (the late Carrie Hamilton) is fed up with being relegated to backing singer duties by useless rock and roll boyfriends in 80s New York. When a postcard from Japan arrives from her friend who is staying there, saying “wish you were here”, and adding that the Japanese youth love American rock culture, she decides to take her friend at her word and go there, with no plan, no skill in Japanese, not even a map of Tokyo, just a vague plan of becoming a music star there.

The cultural fish out of water scenario is compounded when she arrives to find her friend has already moved on and is now in Bangkok, leaving her trying desperately to find somewhere to stay and to get a job so she can get some money. Her “exotic” gaijin (foreigner) looks help her get a job in a hostess bar – it helps pay the bills, but it’s not exactly the rock and roll fame she was seeking. Meanwhile Hiro (actor and rock star Diamond Yukai) and his band is struggling to get noticed by the local big producer or land paying gigs.

Their first encounter with Wendy goes badly when Hiro’s less than expert grasp at English leads him to misunderstand the situation when she tells him she needs a hotel for the night, and he thinks she means one of the city’s many “love hotels”. Such comic misunderstandings are part and parcel of this kind of tale, and we all know that sooner or later they are going to become close, and that she will be the thing that makes their band stand out, especially in an 80s Japan that was always hungry for new fads.

 

In some ways Tokyo Pop is of its time – this was the 1980s, and this would fit nicely into an evening of 80s viewing with some John Hughes flicks, and of course the styles and music mark the era. And yet at the same time it feels very fresh – it’s that cultural misunderstanding Schick which is still funny (and goes both way, not just her ignorance of Japan, but the Japanese characters attempting Western rock without really understanding it). It’s a bit drama, it’s a bit romantic-comedy, it’s a bit musical, but mostly it is just a charming delight of a film, the two main leads radiating that youthful, naïve confidence, lighting the screen up with huge smiles and a tremendous sense of fun and pure charm. A total delight, now restored into 4k.

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Edinburgh International Film Festival - Fran Rubel Kuzui 03
(Co-writer and director Fran Rubel Kuzui talking to the Edinburgh film fest audience – pic from my Flickr)

Edinburgh Film Festival – Superposition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Reviews: 80s style fun in She Came From the Woods

She Came From the Woods,
Directed by Erik Bloomquist,
Starring Cara Buono, Clare Foley, Spencer List, Michael Park and William Sadler

It’s the 1980s, and young camp counsellors in very 80s tight shorts and T-shirts are making the most of the last night of summer camp, when the seasonal frolicking and hi-jinks suddenly take a sinister and bloody turn, leading to multiple mutilations and deaths. If that sounds like a very familiar scenario then yes, it is – quite deliberately. Erik Bloomquist and writing partner Carson Bloomquist clearly loved those now-classic 1980s camp-set slasher movies, of which there seemed to be an endless wave of in the local video stores (although, of course, Friday the 13th remains the standard-bearer).

I grew up with those films, the bastard video sons of Carpenter’s Halloween, and I still have a lot of love for them, but they did run their course until the tank was well-dry (and in some cases beyond), eventually playing themselves out, leaving themselves more as memories and markers in horror film history, and, frequently (and sometimes deservedly) ammunition for parodies and spoofs. And yes, there is a reason that sub-genre became played out and parodied, but by the same token, there’s also a reason why those early films in that genre were fun and made an impact, and I get the impression the Bloomquists are thinking along the same lines, and thus comes She Came From the Woods, which isn’t really a parody, or that dreaded thing, the Reboot, but rather a film made by people who loved those kinds of genre flicks, realised they don’t really get made any longer and thought, surely we can do something in that line that would still work.

The camp counsellors – the usual mix of the Responsible One, the Sexy One, the Dorky One, the Asshat One – have a bit of a tradition of holding a ceremony on the final night of camp, out in the woods, meant to call the spirit of a mad, murdering camp nurse who legend has it went berserk decades before, killing many kids and counsellors. It’s a joke, a bit of fun as their summer working together comes to an end and a return to the regular world calls.

Except this time it looks like the ritual has actually summoned something back, and soon people are being picked off in a variety of gruesome ways.

I’m not going to go deep in the nuts and bolts of it here – anyone interested in this love-letter to the camp slasher film surely knows the standard format of the story by now! But suffice to say, the Bloomquists do this with a lot of love for those iconic 80s slashers – there is a nod and a wink to fans, well-versed in the tropes and norms of those movies and characters, but it is laughing with us and the genre, not at it. We’re really having our cake and eating it here, because we get an 80s style camp Slasherthon, but we also get to enjoy it in a very self-aware manner, so we can enjoy it as a return to that style of decades ago and lose ourselves in that as we munch the popcorn, but we are also aware of all they are doing, and the references they are making.

If you were never a slasher movie fan, it’s unlikely to convert you, but for those of us who grabbed all those films off the local video store shelves at weekends to watch with friends, this is a a hugely enjoyable trip back to that style of horror, made by creators and actors who obviously know those films and have a lot of love for them.

She Came From the Woods is out now on Digital via Blue Finch Film Releasing

This review was originally penned for Live For Films