Reviews: Absolute Denial at the Edinburgh International Film Festival

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Reviews: Buddy Guy at the Edinburgh International Film Festival

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Reviews: Mad God at the Edinburgh Film Festival

Mad God,
Directed by Phil Tippett

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

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

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

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

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

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Reviews: The Green Sea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This review was originally penned for Live For Films.

Reviews: Jojo Rabbit

Jojo Rabbit,
Directed by Taika Waititi,
Starring Roman Griffin Davis, Thomasin McKenzie, Taika Waititi, Rebel Wilson, Stephen Merchant, Alfie Allen, Sam Rockwell, Scarlett Johansson, Archie Yates

The latest from one of my favourite creators, the Kiwi director and actor Taika Waititi (What We Do In the Shadows, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Thor: Ragnarök), Jojo Rabbit, based on Christine Leunens’ book Caging Skies, brings with it some controversy for using humour and fantasy elements to depict the Nazi regimes, from Hitler Youth teams to the Gestapo (a fun turn from Stephen Merchant with just a touch of the old Herr Flick about it) to a cartoonish version of the Fuhrer, and even opening credits that conflate Beatlemania screaming crowds with the crowds adoring Hitler. Some seem to think this detracts from the horror of that regime or the historical events it is based on. After catching a preview screening

I have to disagree – first off, it is Taika Waititi, so surely you expect some delightfully skewed (and often dark) humour, even in the face of awful events? Criticising a Waititi movie for those elements is like saying Gene Kelly danced too much in Singing in the Rain. Secondly, I think the humour and fantasy elements were well-used – some for outright comedic effect, but many to counterpoint the barbarity of the Nazi regime, of the brainwashing of children to hate others as different and sub-human, of a state which doesn’t serve its people but consumes them in a hate and fear-filled spiral. Debuting at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival, these criticisms by some didn’t stop the film doing well and winning the festival’s Grolsch People’s Choice Award.

As you can probably gather from this, I enjoyed the film, but I am an admirer of Waititi’s approach – if his style and humour isn’t your thing then this isn’t for you, but for those who do there is a lot to enjoy here – the humour and the more fantastical elements (not least Hitler – played by Waititi – being Jojo’s childhood imaginary friend) are grounded by the events of the dying days of World War Two, from the indoctrination of children through propaganda, misinformation, lies and the spread of hatred, the ever-present fear of being suspected of not being Germanic enough and getting a call from the Gestapo, of seeing your own country go so insane with a hate-driven regime that it trains eleven year old children to use as cannon-fodder.

As we watch young Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) and his best pal Yorki (Archie Yates, who reminded me – in a good way – of a very young Nick Frost) trying to come to terms with the reality of the Nazi regime as he sees supposed traitors strung up from a gallows in the town square (his mother Rosie, played by Scarlett Johansson, forces him to look at it, to see what the Nazi regime really does) to finding his mother has secretly hidden a young Jewish girl Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) in their home to save her. Jojo is ten – he has been raised in a Germany controlled by the Nazis, indoctrinated since he was a tiny boy to believe in the Aryan supremacy, of the conspiracy of others (especially Jews), conditioned to think as the state wants him to.

Scarlett Johansson is superb as his life-affirming mother Rosie, clearly loving her son more than anything in the world and yet wondering where did the little boy who ran to her because he was scared of thunder go, when did he turn into this small, blue-eyed, blonde-haired Nazi in a miniature uniform, spouting party propaganda. While you could take much of Jojo Rabbit as an odd, slightly surreal take on the brutalities of that regime, it seemed to me you could also read the film in a number of other ways, from a comment on toxic masculinity (boys being told how to be men mostly through hiding emotions, being “strong”, brutal, pitiless), or the way such propaganda spreads hate through our society, especially to the younger, more impressionable – in Rosie’s anguished musings over how her beloved wee boy became this fervent Nazi I was reminded of an article by a mother in the US whose previously well-behaved, loving teen son absorbed right-wing hate-group material online and changed drastically in much the same way.

Johansson steals many scenes, a mother in the worst of circumstances, trying to salvage her wee boy from the hateful poison put into his young head, to protect a young girl who reminds her of her own lost daughter, of her husband supposedly lost on the Italian front somewhere, of her country gone mad, and yet she does so many happy little things to make life more bearable, to make Jojo smile. It reminded me in some ways of Roberto Benigni in the remarkable Life is Beautiful. The relationship that develops between Jojo and Elsa is also nicely handled – it doesn’t feel too forced and it did feel to me like the way a child would see the world, not an adult trying to speak as a child. The always brilliant Sam Rockwell, playing wounded army captain Klenzendorf may have a supporting role, but it is Rockwell, so it is beautifully underplayed, his damaged soldier moving from caricature of the war-crazy retired warrior to something more human, almost a father figure for Jojo.

Yes, this is an unusual beast, and I do understand when some criticise the cartoonish and humorous elements depicting the Nazis, but I don’t think those do reduce the reality of what happened. As I said at the start I think if anything the humour and fantastical elements contrast against the brutality and make it stand out more. And we do have a long tradition of using film to lampoon Nazis, after all – Bugs Bunny did it for the war effort in the 40s, the great Mel Brooks has lampooned them many times and even the Blues Brothers had their inept Illinois Nazis to ridicule. In an era where it feels like far-right hatred is expanding in so many countries, I think Jojo Rabbit may be portraying a historical period, but there is an awful lot of contemporary issues which we can see woven in there.