Review

DVD Review: 'Rabid Dogs'

DVD Review: 'Rabid Dogs'

Mario Bava (1914-1980) was an influential  yet incredibly underrated Italian director (or, as he would have put it, a 'humble artisan of cinema'). During his long and prolific career, he experimented with a number of different genres (horror, sci-fi, peplum, western) with mixed results. He is mostly well-known for his supernatural horror films Black Sunday (1960), Black Sabbath (1963) and Kill, Baby Kill (1966), and for consolidating the 'classic' formula of what is known as the Italian Giallo with The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1962) and with his lush, spellbinding Technicolor masterpiece, Blood and Black Lace (1964). 

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'Simply Thrilled: The Preposterous Story of Postcard Records' - Simon Goddard

Simon Goddard’s whimsical account of Postcard is prefaced by Maxwell Scott’s oft paraphrased “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” It’s a quote that is key to understanding and enjoying the book. It does not ‘set the record straight’, it is not a reference manual of endless gigographies and timelines – if that’s what you’re after, that book is yet to be written. Simply Thrilled: The Preposterous Story of Postcard Records is not a hagiography per se – the presence of myriad acts of self-defeat (and, every now and then, incompetence) and acid-tongued put-downs run rather contrary to most accounts of sainthood – but it does indulge the mythmaking, as well as further romanticising that which has already been significantly romanticised. It’s an engaging read, for all that the line between fact and fiction is often knowingly blurred (quite where is far from apparent much of the time, although Goddard does occasionally illuminate the reader with footnotes on particularly contentious matters).

Following a prologue explaining the life Victorian cat illustrator and inadvertent Postcard logo designer Louis Wain, Goddard introduces us to the Mitty-ish, Saltcoats-dwelling teenage Alan Horne, perennially setback by “fate’s cruel ministers” (a fate used recurrently to great comic effect); most readers will know how integral he is to the Postcard story – in some ways, Goddard renders it all the more incredible that he could be. From there, Goddard recounts his absurd tale of the (still) influential phenomenon that was Postcard Records (slogan ‘The Sound of Young Scotland’): short-lived, a haphazard lurch from genius to disaster and back again, full of youthful bravado and naivety, all the while producing some of the most jaw-droppingly vivacious music ever recorded (although none of it could ever measure up to Pale Blue Eyes for Horne, of course). Horne, Edwyn Collins and co. believed they could take the charts and were outward-looking, without ever losing their very Scottish sense of humour (and periodic self-destruction). Orange Juice were from Bearsden, Josef K Edinburgh, Aztec Camera East Kilbride – all pretty close to each other – but the Go-Betweens were from Brisbane; nonetheless, they weren’t afraid to play with a particular image of Scotland as well (see the label 7” sleeves from 1981).

' Funky Glasgow Then' map - a Record Store Day exclusive

'Funky Glasgow Then' map - a Record Store Day exclusive

The book presents the Postcard story as just that: a tale, a fable, a ripping yarn. Its is a compelling narrative and often laugh-out-loud funny; the overly florid language can be a tad overpowering, even a bit grating (particularly at first), but the eccentric subjects lend themselves to it (how many debut singles – how many songs, for that matter - have used the word ‘consequently’?). There is also the risk of the humour overwhelming an inspiring story and rendering its protagonists parochial bumpkins – it narrowly avoids doing so by the obvious affection Goddard has for his subjects (as well as the fact that these stories have come from the participants themselves). There is an obsessive fanboy in this writer that is perhaps a bit disappointed by a lack of endless hard facts and figures, trivial minutiae, but that same anorak-bearing, social incompetent was also enthralled to read the myth recorded in black-and-white. Finally. Postcard (the records, the idea of it) is held close to the hearts of many – Goddard’s book will certainly not detract from this, he may well serve to enhance it. There’s certainly a lot more to be said about the journeys that the talents of Postcard took, but this book gets things off to a flying start. Ye Gods.

 

 

Andrew R. Hill


Review: 'That Sinking Feeling'

That Sinking Feeling (1979) was a ground-breaking debut: shot on a minuscule budget (according to its director it was the "cheapest feature film ever made"), it signalled the birth of a truly indigenous Scottish film industry. Made by the Whiteinch born-and-bred Bill Forsyth with funds entirely raised in Scotland, it was shot in Glasgow with local talent - largely amateur actors from the art project Glasgow Youth Theatre.

Image courtesy of BFI

Image courtesy of BFI

The film is ostensibly a comedy heist: a group of unemployed teenagers come up with a plan which involves stealing stainless steel sinks from a local warehouse. As in other Bill Forsyth films though, plot only matters to an extent, with the whimsical aspect is undercut by bitter detail (the boys' hopelessness), and its narrative refusing to stick to a conventional linear structure.

In the opening sequence, Glasgow looks for the most part desolate, a city whose skyline, dominated by high-rises, is repeatedly revealed in the long establishing shots. The desolation of the landscape is soon matched by a story of unemployment and deprivation: when trying to purchase a hamburger and a coffee, Vic (John Hughes) realises that he cannot pay the 45 pence the lady in the van is requesting. The scene in which we first meet the leader of the teenage gang, Ronnie (Robert Buchanan), is of a similarly bleak tone: his speech to the equestrian statue of Lord Roberts situated in Kelvingrove Park starts off in a semi-jovial tone as the teenager ponders "You’ve got to make the most of what life offers you" and tries to reflect on what assets he and the Field Marshall may have in common; the pitch soon shifts when he looks at the statue’s plaque and exclaims, "Oh wait a minute, I don’t see that many O-levels there (…) How did you do it? And why don’t I have a job?" To emphasise his point, he violently kicks the (physical and metaphorical) barrier that separates him from his 'interlocutor'.

This is not to say that That Sinking Feeling is about mere social realism – the continuous interplay between comedy and seriousness constantly downplays any sense of hefty political commentary. Contrasting elements come together in unexpected way – as in the scene when Wal (Billy Greenlees) ends up selling his sinks to the art collector (and Blasted local hero - Ed.) Richard Demarco (played by himself), his goods mistaken for the "Latest development of the New York School".

It is perhaps telling that the only two characters that make a tangible gain out of the plan are Wal and fellow gang member Alan (James Ramsey), who manages to buy an electric guitar with his share of the money. Whilst one can be accused of imposing a meaning that isn't there, it is very tempting to imagine that Bill Forsyth is trying to promote artistic creativity as a way out of post-industrial drabness. In a way, with Postcard Records currently being celebrated with a book, a film, and a reissue of Josef K's The Only Fun in Town (due in May), it is hard not to re-imagine the late 1970s and early 1980s as a time that kick-started the diverse and unprecedented cultural outpouring that has taken place in Scotland in the last 30 years. 

That Sinking Feeling also represents a clear break in the way Scottish men (and specifically Glaswegian men) are represented: instead of the romanticised brutality of the 'hard man', we are faced with a subtler depiction of a masculinity in crisis. Forsyth's teenagers are awkward and confused; when compared with their female counterparts, they clearly appear to lack their wisdom and self-assurance. It is a thematic preoccupation that the director will continue exploring throughout his career - perhaps it is no surprise that the coolest character ever to emerge from his ouvre is the audacious, bobbed-haired Susan (played by Claire Grogan) who, with a little help from her girlfriends, outfoxes John Gordon Sinclair's Gregory with a cunning, if slightly convoluted plan. 

Bill Forsyth went on to direct Gregory's Girl (1981), Local Hero (1983) and Comfort and Joy (1984), perhaps the films he is best known for. Many viewers familiar with these might be unaware of his raw, extremely inventive debut, so we should be very grateful to ever-great BFI Flipside for finally releasing That Sinking Feeling (with the original Glaswegian dialogue track that was bizarrely missing from the 2009 2Entertain DVD version) in a definitive format. This edition is packed with special features: four short films involving Bill Forsyth in either acting, editing, or directing capacity; an audio commentary by the director and Mark Kermode; an interview with lead actor Robert Buchanan; another very entertaining interview where Forsyth discusses the DIY ways in which he funded his film. The booklet comes with a short essay by David Archibald (lecturer at the University of Glasgow), a contribution by Douglas Weir (technical producer at the BFI), and a 1981 article that Bill Forsyth wrote for Sight & Sound. 

That Sinking Feeling  might be one of my favourite films ever; for all its imperfections (if you are after sleek story telling, look elsewhere) it captures a certain spark that comes with being young with vivid, piercing attention to detail. Some of this is certainly be tied to of its late 1970s Glasgow setting, but despite its specificity (or maybe because of it) it also takes on an universal appeal - a fairy tale for underdogs everywhere. 

'That Sinking Feeling' is released by BFI Flipside on 21st April. There will be a launch screening with special guests at the Glasgow Film Theatre on Tuesday 15th April at 6.30. Tickets can be purchased here.

Review: 'The Great Beauty'


After his patchy US excursion, This Must Be The Place, Neapolitan director Paolo Sorrentino returns with The Great Beauty  (La Grande Bellezza), a portrait of the Roman haute bourgeoisie, a particularly irksome strand of the idle rich often satirised by Italian cinema and television.


Image courtesy of Medusa Film

Image courtesy of Medusa Film

Jep Gambardella (Sorrentino's regular Toni Servillo) is a journalist and one-time writer who is both bemused and somewhat terrified by turn his life has taken in the Italian capital. Early on in the film, we witness an opulent party given for his 65th birthday; he is surrounded by well-preserved and not-so well-preserved Botoxed society types, strippers, pseudo-intellectuals and wannabe 'artists'. Jep glides through life, seemingly untouched by his surroundings, observing reality with a sharp eye that becomes increasingly blearier after he begins realising that he is not getting any younger. His interior struggles are slowly revealed in the strange dichotomy that characterises the film; part lavish widescreen essay on what beauty really means, part criticism of contemporary Italian society. Sorrentino juggles these grand ideas with dexterity for the most part: we laugh as Jep verbally takes self-satisfied artists down a notch or two, and we are left almost breathless by accomplished cinematography as the camera caresses a variety of Roman locations and monuments. It's almost as the director had it in mind to create a perfect art house film for non-Italian audiences, that works both as a satire of the post-bunga bunga Italy and as a sophisticated 'postcard' of the 'Eternal City'. In a way, it is rather satisfying seeing the decline of this writer's home country brought to the big screen – not many directors have attempted this in recent years. As it is rather well-noted, one of the most repulsive aspects of Italian popular culture is the questionable treatment of women on television, film and the press. Sadly, Sorrentino fails to address this issue as all his females characters are borderline idiotic 'objects of desire' (Ramona, the stripper who brings Jep back in touch with reality is hardly a bright spark), vacuous egotists (Stefania is a radical writer who is only successful because she slept with the leader of a political party), or reassuring and desexualised mother figures. Riddles of The Sphinx it ain't.

 

Image courtesy of Medusa Film

Image courtesy of Medusa Film

The Great Beauty  has attracted comparison with a couple of Federico Fellini's masterworks, specifically  La Dolce Vita  and 8 ½:  Whilst these might seem like obvious reference points,  the episodic structure of the film, the male protagonist at a crossroad, and the surreal little touches all inevitably make us think of those milestones. It might be worth remembering that Fellini wasn't one for easy resolutions – unfortunately this is where Sorrentino lets us down. Towards the end of the film, we are introduced to a character, a 104-year-old nun who can apparently speak to animals and perform various miracles - she reminds Jep that 'roots are very important'. We are subsequently led to believe, albeit in a vague and semi-mystical way, that our protagonist can find solace in a return to the past/his home town. After 2-odd hours of philosophical (and admittedly, rather entertaining) meanderings, this almost feels like a betrayal - a rushed ending that leaves us very unsatisfied. Sorrentino has attempted something rather courageous with this film - a love letter to a city, a study on disappointment and death, a witty mockery of a crumbling world - but he doesn't have the discipline to hold it all together to the end. If you are unfamiliar with his work, perhaps you should start with the far superior Il Divo.

Erika Sella

 

EIFF 2013: Avanti Popolo

Avanti o popolo, alla riscossa
Bandiera rossa, bandiera rossa
Avanti o popolo, alla riscossa
Bandiera rossa trionferà.

 

Avanti Popolo didn't need to do much to capture this writer's imagination. From the very first sequence, director Michael Wahrmann defies his audience's expectations – we are inside a car, investigating a run-down neighbourhood of São Paulo, and we get a chance to hear fragments of  1960s and 1970s Latin American music coming from the radio. Suddenly a man appears in the middle of the road; he doesn't seem hear the car honking, he doesn't move. Is he drunk, or maybe just lost?

 

Image courtesy of Organic Marketing

Image courtesy of Organic Marketing

As it turns out, that man is our protagonist, André , a man returning to his paternal home after breaking up with his wife. His father, played by the recently deceased Carlos Reichenbach, is pretty much a recluse living with his curiously named dog Whale. We soon learn the family has suffered a loss in the shape of Andre's older brother, who disappeared in 1974 after returning from the Soviet Union.

The notions of memory, loss and family trauma permeate everything in the film: the two main characters' stilted conversations and long silences, the Super 8 films André finds in the house, the old scratched vinyl the absent brother used to own. They are intrinsic to shot composition and mise en scène, to the muted, faded colour of wallpaper and furniture, to the pacing of the action. André tries to connect with a withdrawn father figure who won't (or maybe can't) deal with the past; in his attempt he gets a Super 8 projector mended - all technological devices in the film don't seem to work, perhaps hinting at the impossibility of ever really relating with something that is no longer present.

The positioning of the spectator is also something important and interesting; we unearth the family's history little by little, through glances, comments and small details. The camera is usually static and the direction intentionally undynamic, but we can't help but feeling involved in the quietly unfolding father-and-son conflict.

Image courtesy of Organic Marketing

Image courtesy of Organic Marketing

Like real life, Avanti Popolo also has its moment of light and humour. When André meets the technician who tries  to fix his projector, he indulges in a light-hearted and at times sardonic conversation after he finds out that the latter is the only exponent of the semi-ridiculous Dogma 2002 movement. Indeed, references to recording, representing and cinema abound in the film: even the other Avanti Popolo (a 1986 bitter-sweet  and surreal Israeli comedy) gets discussed.

After the father refuses to watch a film featuring his missing son, we get another Super 8 clip, this time of a theatre in complete ruins. A narrator (the director? the protagonist? his brother?)  tries to play Avanti Popolo (the Italian song) for our benefit, but realises his record is scratched, so starts singing it himself. His voice is somewhat atonal, and soon cracks as the man is overwhelmed with emotion. It is an apt ending for a formally complex yet very moving work that deals with recent Brazilian history and its lost left-wing legacy in a non-didactic and completely personal manner. 

 Erika Sella 

EIFF 2013: FRANCES HA

“This apartment is very aware of itself”. A throwaway comment; a not-so-casual insight into the realm of one of the EIFF's biggest films.

Noah Baumbach's Frances Ha has so far been received with glowing reviews – critics have even invoked the spirit of 'sacred masters' like Woody Allen's Manhattan (it's shot in black and white and deals with the emotional struggles of aimless pseudo-intellectuals), and François Truffaut's Jules et Jim (the plot is episodic, the opening  montage has a light-hearted freshness that recalls the early work of the French director, and we even hear the work of much-loved composer Georges Delerue).

 

Image courtesy of Metrodome   

Image courtesy of Metrodome

 

Greta Gerwig plays Frances, a 27-year-old who lives in New York and works as an apprentice for a modern dance company. She seems reasonably content with her life until her best friend Sophie decides to move on with her life and leave their flat. Frances soon realises that she is not equipped for dealing with the challenges of adulthood (“I am not a proper person yet”): she is clumsy, has a penchant for saying the wrong things at the wrong time, and is constantly defined by her closest male friend as 'undateable'. We follow her journey through five different locations – the film is structured in five chapters, all opening with a title card providing the new address Frances lives at: Baumbach seems obsessed with the concept of personal space and what it says about people. The protagonist's struggles begin when she can no longer afford the flat she shared with her best friend and end when she finally gets her own place and puts a label with her name on to her new post box (she can't quite fit her full name in the provided space – a visual gag that not only gives the film its title, but perhaps also a comment on her skewed attempts at being  a 'proper' adult).

Even if at times she seems a bit like a a stereotypical 'adorkable' lead character, it's hard not to sympathise with Frances, as she is surrounded by self-absorbed and narcissistic rich pseuds. Unfortunately this is when film's lightness of touch becomes a weakness.  Just as we begin to see our protagonist crack under the pressures she faces and we start scratching beyond the bitter-sweet hipster surface, Baumbach goes for the easy way out and opts for a lazy sugar-coated resolution. It's a shame, because the sequences that have real emotional depth could have conjured a much more interesting portrayal of what is like to  grow up and realise that your dreams might be unachievable. The sequence where Frances awkwardly describes her ideal relationship is genuinely moving as her idealised vision of love completely contradicts what we have seen on screen; her meeting with a disillusioned and drunk Sophie in their old college surroundings is also an impressive portrayal of the fragility of relationships.

 

Frances Ha will be distributed in the UK by Metrodome. It is an Audience Award nominee at the EIFF.

The Stoker


The Filmhouse adds another string to its bow with a foray into distribution. Its debut releaseThe Stoker, takes a cold hard look at the ashes of post-Soviet Russia. Erika Sella rakes through the soot and the dust.


It’s small wonder that the Filmhouse is a highly regarded institution is Scotland (and the UK): home to the Edinburgh International Film Festival and the world’s oldest film society, the Edinburgh Film Guild, it has recently expanded its remit to film distribution.

At a terribly competitive time, when ‘10 out of 127’ distributors hold ‘the monopoly on the theatrical marketplace’ [1], The Filmhouse have decided to step up to the challenge of picking up and releasing little-known films that quite often get left behind by the traditional commercial model. The choice for their first release is indicative of a relaxed yet highly selective attitude to the industry.

Image courtesy of Filmhouse

Image courtesy of Filmhouse

 

Aleksey Balabanov’s The Stoker was never going to be an easy on the eye art-house favourite. The film was made in 2010 and first premiered outside its native Russia at the Rotterdam Film Festival in 2011, before quietly disappearing off the radar. At first glance, it doesn’t appear to be something that was made with an international audience in mind: even though the film deals with universal themes such as isolation and bereavement, its director is relatively unknown outside his native land, and the plot presupposes that its audience will have at least a basic knowledge of Russia’s post-Soviet history, as well as a passing familiarity with the country’s culture.

At its core, The Stoker has got quite literally a burning heart - an oven, something that in Russian folklore represents life, vitality, the family milieu. Balabanov turns this symbol on its head: his protagonist, an ex-military Soviet hero of Yakut extraction (Major Skryabin), works all day and night by a furnace, often turning a blind eye to some local gangsters who use the facilities to incinerate their dead enemies.

Much of the film’s humour stems from the deadpan attitudes that accompany brutal acts - ironically, this is  a double -edge sword, as it is also one of the film’s most tragic aspects.

The Stoker is set in the early 1990s, right after the fall of Communism – a time when Russia was essentially run by oligarchs and the Mafia. In a way, it’s no wonder that the film rejects any sort of aesthetic pleasantry: there is something almost lurid about what we see on screen. St Petersburg looks like an anonymous industrial town; flats and houses look inhospitable; men and women (even the objectively attractive ones) seem repulsive; every shot has a grubby, almost ghastly quality to it.

On top of all that, we are also subjected to an extremely repetitive instrumental guitar score that almost drowns out key conversations. While it’s hard not to be irritated by this seemingly incongruous jaunty, folk-infused theme, one has to recognise that its cheapness ends up complementing what we see on screen. Some reviewers called the Balabanov’ s choice of music ‘suicidal’; it’s clearly something that will test an audience’s patience, but it’s also a very brave directorial move.

Actors behave like malfunctioning androids, hardly displaying any emotions at all; the main hitman, ‘Bison’, only utters one sentence throughout the whole film. There is a general sense of malevolence, as relationships and interactions are clearly based on nothing more than reciprocal exploitation. The only exception to this rule is Skryabin: a powerless observer, honest and clearly selfless (he gives all his earnings to his daughter even though this means he has to live by ‘his’ furnace day and night), he puts his head down and carries on in a world that has gone topsy-turvy. At one point, though, things really get too much, even for him.

It’s obvious that even the most basic rules human society is built on are out of the window. Balabanov disposes of most of his characters (the body count is rather high) with little remorse and occasionally in a tragicomic manner. Skryabin’s last lines in the film finally sum up the disarray we have been subjected to: “ This isn’t war. Was is different. There you have us versus them. But here, it is us against us”.  Skryabin is referring to his experiences in Afghanistan, but he could easily be talking about post-Communism Russia: gone are the old antagonists of Soviet propaganda, now it’s the time for an inner, and in some ways much more uncomfortable, battle.

For all its (admittedly quite dark) humour, The Stoker is a demanding watch, and it’s easy to see how the film could have disappeared if The Filmhouse hadn’t picked it up. However, its underlying savagery and ugliness feel necessary - the late Balabanov clearly wanted to provoke a reaction in the viewer. And ultimately, this is what elevates The Stoker from a mere gangster film to a striking and thought-provoking commentary of what his country looks like today.


[1] Harriet Warman, ‘Picking Up The Stoker, available at: http://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/sight-sound-magazine/interviews/picking-stoker