Reviews: Thine Ears Shall Bleed

Thine Ears Shall Bleed,
Directed by Ben Bigelow,
Starring Andrew Hovelson, Hannah Cabell, Lea Zawada, Duke Huston, Lucas Near-Verbrugghe

This debut by director and writer Bigelow follows a family headed by the preacher Ezekiel Thatcher, heading through the vast American landscape in the mid 1800s in a covered wagon He and his family, wife Sarah (Hannah Cabel), daughter Abigail (Lea Zawada) and their blind son Luke (Duke Huston) are travelling across country to pick up, of all things, a pipe organ, to take back to Ezekiel’s church (he’s convinced this addition will bring in more worshippers to his church). As the deeply religious family travel slowly across the forested, hilly landscape, the road comes to a y-shaped fork, which isn’t on Ezekiel’s map; after some debate they decide since Jesus sits at God’s right hand, they will choose the right fork.

Unfortunately, after travelling this path between the trees for some time, they find the road simply peters out. Deciding it is too late to turn back to the fork now, they prepare to make camp there for the evening, planning to backtrack in the morning. Of course, as any self-respecting horror fan will likely suspect, when you take a road that isn’t marked on the map, into some remote, rural place, you can be fairly sure something is going to happen, and it does.

It starts slowly – the family hear strange noises in the night, which they try to shrug off as part of the natural world, but you just know whatever made those sounds is not natural. In the morning they find that both of their horses have somehow gotten loose from their ropes. Ezekiel tracks their hoof-prints through the forest until they just vanish by a swampy pond, with no sign of the animals. Stuck now in the wilderness with limited supplies, the mother, Sarah is concerned, but Ezekiel adopts the “the Lord will provide” approach, seemingly unconcerned.

When he hears the booming noise once more, he tracks it to a large canyon, the sound so loud it makes his ears bleed. He becomes increasingly obsessed with the sounds, believing it is a message from God, that he must transcribe into his journal and pass on, as if he is a prophet of old. Ezekiel is encouraged in this by young Luke, who likens the echoing, booming, roaring sound to the voices of angels from on high.

When Luke wakes one morning to discover his sight has been miraculously restored to him, he and Ezekiel take this as a further sign that this is a blessed place and they have been chosen, while Abigail and Sarah, although delighted at Luke’s miracle of sight, are far more sceptical – what if this isn’t God speaking to Ezekiel? What if it is something else? Finding a seemingly lost traveller (Lucas Near-Verbrugghe’s Woodrow) just adds more uncertainty to the mix – is he what he seems? Why couldn’t he leave this place and are they also stuck?

While far from perfect, I found Bigelow’s debut to be a very atmospheric chiller, with knowing nods both to the religious horror and to the folk horror genres (and I must confess to a particular soft spot for folk horror). Like Brit folk horror To Fire You Come At Last (reviewed here last year), this film knows it doesn’t have a lot of resources in terms of budget or effects, but it deploys atmosphere very well to cover this, and like that other film, it also uses a small cast, with remote location and night sequences to help suggest things rather than show outright, aided hugely by the score and the excellent soundscape.

The darkness of the forest night, with those noises, is wonderfully creepy, then the sudden flare of light from a burning torch, mysteriously planted right outside their wagon at night, casting shadows over the canvas of the wagon (was that a figure moving outside or not?), building that creepy atmosphere, as Ezekiel becomes more and more religiously deranged.

While not without its flaws, I thought this was an impressive debut, and I found the clever use of sound and darkness to slowly build an increasing sense of unease and an atmosphere that somehow, even surrounded by the nature of the great outdoors, there is something simply wrong, something unnatural about this place. A good one to watch late at night, with most of the lights out.

Thine Ears Shall Bleed will be available from Miracle Media on digital platforms from July 15th

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

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: 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 – 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)

Reviews: Hello, Bookstore

Hello, Bookstore,
Directed by A.B. Zax

Here we have a gentle and charming documentary, and on a subject very close to my heart – a local bookshop. Matt Tannenbaum has owned The Bookstore in Lennox, Massachusetts, since the mid-1970s. The Bookstore is a lovely-looking independent bookshop, they type I think many of us who are book-lovers adore – an eclectic mix of titles assembled by the booksellers, piles on tables and corners, unusual books rubbing shoulders with popular, bestselling fiction, the sort of place you can happily spend several hours browsing in.

This is a world I know very well – I’ve been a bookseller for over three decades now, and am fortunate enough to work in a small (but mighty, not to mention award-winning) bookshop, which like Matt’s is far more than a business, it’s a special place in the community. Regulars come in as much for a book browse or reading recommendation as they do a wee chat. Parents can have a nice browse for their own books because the kids are happily sitting in a corner of the children’s section, noses stuck in books, the world beyond forgotten, swapped for the land of words and stories.

Indy bookselling, indeed independent small retailing of any kind, is often precarious – you have limited resources, compared to large company chain-run stores, these days there’s the competition from online (especially a certain river-named site), it can be tough going. But one of the critical differences between many Indy bookshops and big company chains or online is that they are often located in local communities. That’s a crucial factor – they are important places for many of the locals. Like the local pub or coffee shop, they are there as a business, yes, but they are also a hub where people meet, a safe space to relax, those who work there know many of the customers by name and can offer up personal recommendations for adults and younger readers alike.

And when times get even tougher, as they did during Covid, that community aspect is vital. We see Matt and his friends doing what many of us did, trying to keep things running in some form during all the restrictions of the Pandemic, taking orders over the phone or email, or serving people in the doorway (when it wasn’t safe for them to come inside and browse). Like many businesses, we went through the same – having to be closed for a while, then allowed to do a “click and collect” service from the doorway. It allowed some sales, although far less than normal, but it also offered a lifeline to locals; with so many places closed, people stuck at home and only able to walk a short distance during restrictions, being able to ring the local wee bookshop and pick up from there was a great thing in a hard time.

And that’s where the community aspect comes in again – because that same community appreciates all the local bookshop gives, and as it struggles increasingly during the Covid restrictions, rallies around to support that bookshop, to ensure its survival. We’ve all seen the decline of high streets in towns and cities around the world, far too many are full of empty units where there used to be numerous independently owned shops. The old adage of “use it or lose it” is true, if we don’t use those locals businesses, we end up with dead high streets and reliant on a few big chains and online. And clearly the readers of Lennox understand this, because they support The Bookshop through its toughest times, because this is a place they want to keep in their community.

The documentary itself is a gentle delight, taking some scenes through the seasons, intercut with Matt chatting with regulars, reading quotes from some of his favourite works, talking about how he first got into bookselling (he talks about a friend after his navy service, turning him onto Kerouac, Mailer and more and how the then “fell in love with writing”). It’s another aspect of the trade I am very familiar with – few people are in the book trade to make big money; booksellers, distributors, writers (unless you are fortunate enough to become a Stephen King or Ian Rankin or J.K. Rowling) rarely make a lot, they are in it because, well, they love books, they love stories. And there is something rather wonderful about that, which Zax showcases beautifully here. This is just a charming, lovely watch, especially for those of us who are forever in love with the written word and those lovely, tome-lined emporiums where we can find them.

Hello, Bookstore is out now in some cinemas and on demand from Bulldog Film Distribution

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

Reviews: The Other Fellow

The Other Fellow,
Directed by Matthew Bauer

The name’s Bond, James Bond...”

Possibly one of the best character introductions in cinema, Connery’s first appearance in Dr No, at a late-night casino table, has become not only memorable, but iconic, and that particular phrasing of the name has informed this long-lived character ever since; even those who don’t care for the films know that line. But what of the other James Bonds? No, despite the title of Bauer’s documentary, we’re not talking about George Lazenby. Rather Bauer looks into regular people in the real world who happen to share that now-famous name, from the respected ornithologist whose name Fleming cheerfully purloined (he had his book on the Birds of The West Indies by James Bond on his shelf in Goldeneye, his home in Jamaica) to people today who have grown up with this name, and all the baggage it brings with it, from an avid superfan to a man wanted by the police in Indiana.

Obviously to people today, the name James Bond comes with weighted with a lot of baggage, but of course this was not always the case. In the mid-twentieth century it was just another name – unless you had a keen interest in nature and had read the books and essays of the highly-regarded ornithologist, James Bond. In some archive interview footage, we see Ian Fleming being asked about the creation of his Bond novels, and how he selects a name for a character, whereupon he reveals he had Bond’s book on birds on his shelves and thought oh, that’s a good solid but not too flashy name, perfect.

Anyone who has ever tried penning a story will know that naming characters is often quite difficult, and inspiration for names – be it from strolling an old graveyard and noting the names on tombs to picking names from older books or journal articles. And in the normal run of things this is rarely a big problem for others further down the line – unless you have that rare thing, lightning in a bottle, a work that just grows and grows, crosses various mass media and becomes a global phenomenon. Bond – the nature-writing Bond, that is – and his wife are blissfully unaware of the existence of the superspy for the first few years of his existence. It’s only as the books become much more popular and are reprinted in America, and then along comes that first film, Dr No, that they really become aware of it. Uncomfortably aware of it.

Suddenly this respected scientist who has had this name for decades, find that people attach new meaning to it, especially those meeting him for the first time, or attending a public lecture by “James Bond”. I’m reminded of the Scottish lawyer and history writer who has the name Harry Potter, and also would have had no problem with that moniker for most of his life, then suddenly find that his name, through no action of his own, has suddenly become associated with far more. Bond and his wife, on a trip to Jamaica, decide to make an unannounced call at Goldeneye; when asked who is calling for Mr Fleming, they reply “Mr and Mrs James Bond”. After some discussion, and realising there was no malice here, they become friendly, Fleming telling Bond if he ever finds an especially silly looking new species, he is free to use his name for it as it would be only fair, before inscribing a copy of one of his Bond books “to the original James Bond” (it sold many decades later for tens of thousands of dollars).

What, however of all the James Bonds since then? Bauer selects quite a few, of different ages, from an elderly man who, like the ornithologist, predates the existence of the fictional spy, and has little care for or interest in the films, to much younger men who have had to deal with the fact that every single time they introduce themselves to someone new, they get that look and almost always some sort of joke (all of which they have heard many, many, many times before, as you can imagine).

One young African American man finds it even more troublesome when the police take an interest in him – being black in America and pulled over by the police is, as we’ve seen all too often in the news, a dangerous moment. Throw in that name when asked to identify yourself, and the officers deciding you are being cheeky to them, making them angrier… In a later moment the African-American Bond is wanted by the police, and the cache of that name means his case is spread all over the media. Astonishingly there is another man with the same name in the same area, and it’s not long before he gets people asking if it is him, and he has to explain no, it just happens to be another James Bond in their part of the world! (later the two get to meet and share stories about living with that name).

Bauer also introduces us to a number of other Bonds, including a theatre director in the US, who makes it clear how much he hates being stuck with this name, and all the expectation and connotations that come with it – and yet he accepts offers to appear in advertisements to trade on that name (we see him introducing himself as James Bond then endorsing a betting service for TV ads). Bauer asks him if this is a little hypocritical that he says how much he hates the name and yet here he is trading on it for advertising money, but he comments that unlike the name and what comes with it, doing the ads is his free choice. Another chap in Sweden, whose ex-Nazi father had vanished decades before, has become a Bond superfan, with his own Bond museum, trying to live the lifestyle, and perhaps partially substituting Fleming as a sort of spiritual step-father figure.

I have to admit, while I was intrigued when I was first offered a chance to see this film, I really wasn’t sure what to expect with this documentary, but I have to tip my hat to Bauer and his crew – they have crafted a fascinating, human-interest story here, which ties together everyday life (in all its complexities and variations) with mass pop culture.

The Other Fellow is released in theatres and on demand from February 17th

This review was originally penned for Live For Films

Film remembered

Nice, short video from TCM, remembering many of the film people we lost in 2022 (so sad that I have to add my beloved Filmhouse and Edinburgh International Film Festival to that list – see here):